"Jiang Ying! Student! Jiang! Ying!"
That voice drifted through Jiang Ying's ears, drawing nearer and nearer from afar. It grated on his nerves, and he muttered a few curses under his breath. Before he even finished complaining to himself, someone nudged his lower leg with their foot and poked his arm with the tip of a pencil.
The sixteen-year-old Jiang Ying tore himself away from his dreams and slapped his desk, shouting directly into the face of the person next to him.
Qi Zhu gave him an innocent look. Every single person in Class 2 of Year 1 stared in their direction.
"What?" the homeroom teacher echoed, holding a big stack of homework. "I've been calling you to come pick up last night's homework. First thing in the morning, and you're already sleeping so soundly?"
Jiang Ying fell silent.
"Class Monitor, why didn't you wake me up?" Jiang Ying rubbed his eyes as he interrogated his deskmate.
"I tried. You didn't wake up." Qi Zhu shot him a disdainful look, then turned his gaze back to his books. Under the table, he kicked Jiang Ying's lower leg again. "Remember?"
Jiang Ying remembered.
This guy had disturbed his sweet, sweet dreams.
"You're all high school students now," the homeroom teacher began, raising his voice from the front of the class and seizing Jiang Ying's attention again. "Isn't it enough that some students only finish half their homework? How are there students who only finish writing half their name on their homework?"
Jiang Ying blinked.
He went up and took his papers back from the teacher, and… oh. That morning, he'd been in too much of a rush while turning in his work. He'd scribbled out his name while arguing with Qi Zhu, and in his distraction he'd left out three strokes, turning Jiang Ying into Jiang Jing.1
Not a problem. He had thick skin. As soon as he took back his papers, he grabbed a pencil and filled in those three strokes right then and there.
The homework was a practice test that they'd received a day ago. They were told to complete it at home and bring it back to review in class the next day.
"Was it a bit difficult?" the teacher asked the students. "You were allowed to take this home, but I feel like the percentage of correct answers was still pretty low."
A wave of sighs rippled through the class.
Jiang Ying had worked on that practice test until late last night. He was just about to join in on the chorus when he heard the neighboring Qi Zhu quietly murmur, "I didn't think it was too hard."
"If you're so bold, gloat a little louder," Jiang Ying grumbled, suppressing his own voice to a whisper. "Make yourself the enemy."
"I'm certainly not as bold as you," Qi Zhu answered calmly. He remained totally unmoved, sitting serenely with that perfect posture of his.
"This time, the only person who got every question right was Qi Zhu," the teacher added as he continued handing back their papers. "But why were there so many cookie crumbs on your test paper?"
The whole class burst out laughing. Qi Zhu approached the front of the classroom to pick up his test paper. On his way back to his desk, he shot Jiang Ying a fierce glare.
Jiang Ying furrowed his brow and shifted his gaze to the window, indicating he had absolutely no idea how that could have happened.
Qi Zhu's mom had brought those cookies back from abroad. As for the crumbs… they'd probably gotten there because Jiang Ying had snacked while copying Qi Zhu's work.
The homeroom teacher saw every little detail of their little exchange, but he couldn't be bothered to scold them. He started the day's lessons.
Jiang Ying had his practice test on his left and his notebook for wrong answers on his right. He half-heartedly listened to the day's lessons while copying the questions he'd missed on the practice test into his notebook.
Halfway through the lesson, he realized that the neighboring Qi Zhu wasn't listening to the teacher at all.
Qi Zhu was holding a thick book, deeply enthralled by the contents.
"Qi Zhu, what are you doing?" Jiang Ying poked Qi Zhu's wrist with his pencil.
Qi Zhu paused in the middle of flipping through his book. He reached out and pressed Jiang Ying's wrist to the desk. "Pay attention to your class."
Every time Jiang Ying laid eyes on Qi Zhu's calm and collected expression, he wanted to pick a fight.
"Disciplinary Committee Member Jiang caught you not paying attention in class, and you won't even obediently admit it."
Qi Zhu was silent.
This clingy imp had turned into a fighty imp, but he was still a clingy fighty imp. He was energetic and troublesome, never giving Qi Zhu a moment of peace.
Qi Zhu turned another page in his book. Jiang Ying peered at the contents of the page and realized Qi Zhu was holding a book on the art of film and TV acting.
"You're interested in debuting, huh?" Jiang Ying showed an immense interest in that book. He forgot all about copying his missed questions and started trying to drag Qi Zhu into a conversation about the grand game of life.
"Just acting." Qi Zhu lowered his head and glanced at Jiang Ying's notebook. He picked up his pencil and, not too lightly or too harshly, poked the center of Jiang Ying's palm. "This auxiliary line you drew…"
"Beautiful, right?" Jiang Ying boasted.
"This auxiliary line belongs to Question 19," Qi Zhu said, furrowing his brow. "You drew it on the diagram of Question 20."
"Huh?" Jiang Ying tensed. The box of cookies sitting in his lap tumbled over to the floor, crashing with a crisp and resounding clang.
The whole class turned to them once more.
The quiet commotion in the back row had been going on since class began. The homeroom teacher finally couldn't ignore it any longer.
"Alright, you—go stand outside." The homeroom teacher pointed at Jiang Ying. Then his gaze fell upon the extracurricular reading in front of Qi Zhu; he instantly felt a headache coming on. "You too. The two of you can chat outside. Everyone else, calm down."
The matter of the two handsome ge of Class 2 being made to stand out in the hallway as punishment quickly became a hot topic on campus.
"Sorry, that was my bad," a certain someone apologized insincerely.
"I'm used to it." Qi Zhu leaned against the hallway wall and closed his eyes to rest them.
"You're really interested in acting, huh?" Jiang Ying asked. "Me, on the other hand… I don't really have any dreams. This is just the path my family has prepared for me."
Jiang Ying's language and English grades were good, and his cultural class scores were perfectly fine. Qi Zhu must had been the same, but Jiang Ying's Qi-gege was the sort of person who would never settle for anything less than the best.
Some people from a class currently having physical education wandered over to spectate.
"Were your parents called in?" a girl asked.
"Nah," Jiang Ying said. "What, for a little thing like this? How petty do you think our teacher is?"
The homeroom teacher, who was still teaching, felt a chill.
"Oh… I thought your ge would come." The girls who'd peered up at them from downstairs started wandering away in disappointment. "Alright."
Jiang Ying's dad had gotten famous early on in life, and he was hugely popular now. When he'd had to come to school for a parent-teacher meeting for Jiang Ying's big brother, he'd scared the crap out of the homeroom teacher. Now, whenever Jiang Ying needed a parent to come to school for him, his big brother Jiang Xun would come instead.
And Jiang Xun would say—
"A huge inter-class brawl?"
"I don't think my little brother did anything wrong."
"My little brother is great at dissing people. I taught him."
"Qi Zhu's a good fighter too."
"So, why have you called me here?"
The debacle was enough to make listeners and spectators cry. Rumors of Jiang Xun's scathing remarks quickly circulated around the school, and after a while, the homeroom teacher didn't ever dare call Jiang Ying's parents again.
"Class is over, Ogre Jiang." Qi Zhu tossed Jiang Ying's backpack to him. "What are you spacing out for?"
Jiang Ying had been curled up next to the window, messing around on his cell phone. He grimaced when his backpack slammed into him. Then he reached into his cubby and pulled out the uniform jacket that he'd crumpled up and stuffed in there.
"Chubby is waiting for me outside, calling me out for barbecue." Jiang Ying looked Qi Zhu over with a bit of envy in his eyes. Qi Zhu had grown quickly. He was half a head taller than Jiang Ying, and he looked beyond good in his school uniform.
Ever since he was little, Qi Zhu had been outstanding. In looks, in personality, in everything.
"Barbecue isn't healthy," a certain someone, who would never deign to dine with commoners, said.
"Ye…" Jiang Ying blinked. "Huh?"
So, Qi Zhu didn't like barbecue. In that case, Jiang Ying would do literally whatever it took to drag Qi Zhu along with him. Come hell or high water, he was going to get Qi Zhu some barbecue.
Qi Jun's family car slowly pulled up to the curb on a street full of restaurants and food stalls. Various passersby cast a glance at it, catching sight of three youths in school uniforms climbing out. The one who took the lead wore a slightly different uniform than the two who followed.
Their families placed a strong emphasis on healthy living, and they normally wouldn't let the kids eat stuff like street food. Qi Zhu was in agreement with their parents on the matter, but Jiang Ying and Qi Jun couldn't do it. The two of them snuck out to eat whenever they could.
While they were in the car, Qi Jun had spent the whole time texting Jiang Ying—
[Qi Jun Isn't Fat]: Why did you bring Class Monitor.
[I Think I Really Like Crabs?]: He says barbecue isn't healthy, so I dragged him along to open his eyes. He needs to experience the beauty of a good barbecue.
[Qi Jun Isn't Fat]: ……
[Qi Jun Isn't Fat]: Won't he snitch?
[I Think I Really Like Crabs?]: Oh, I didn't think about that.
[Qi Jun Isn't Fat]: Qi-zong says he's going to cut off my allowance if I keep sneaking out for junk food.
[I Think I Really Like Crabs?]: What are you afraid of? We'll drag Class Monitor down with us.
[I Think I Really Like Crabs?]: Leave it to Daddy Jiang.
[Qi Jun Isn't Fat]: Word.
Qi Jun slumped in his seat on one side of the table as they waited for their food to be served up. He pulled out his homework for the night and got started on it, complaining, "Why didn't I work a little harder and get into the same school as you two? I can't even find anyone to copy my homework from these days."
Jiang Ying was focused on playing a game on his phone. "I use my brain when I copy homework, you don't. That's probably the main difference between us."
"Help," Qi Zhu said, holding his cell phone.
"Noob," Jiang Ying snarked. He moved his character over to save Qi Zhu, but his efforts were in vain. He died en route.
"Noob," Qi Zhu echoed.
"You made a noob mistake first," Jiang Ying shot back.
"No, it was you." Qi Zhu put his phone down on the table, facedown. "I took a hit for you."
Seeing that these two were about to start fighting again, Qi Jun kept his silence for three seconds before slamming his head down on his homework. These two would really never, not in a million years, change.
"Speaking of which, have you guys gotten your student IDs yet?" Qi Jun fished a green card holder out of his pocket. "Our school's is way too ugly. Just look at this hideous green."
Qi Jun's ID photo wasn't very good. His facial features were actually decent to look at, but in the photo he had his face scrunched up into an unsightly mess. "Daddy Jiang, Daddy Qi, what about yours? I just won't believe that any school has IDs that are uglier than mine."
"Ours? They're fine, I guess." Jiang Ying took his ID out from his pocket, then turned and reached into the left-side pocket of Qi Zhu's jacket. He didn't find anything there, so he put his left hand on Qi Zhu's leg and reached over to rummage through Qi Zhu's right-side pocket. There, he found a firm little card holder.
"They're about the same as yours," Jiang Ying said. "What kind of school ID looks good, anyway? The only difference is that ours is red."
"Your photos are so good," Qi Jun said, without doing anything to cover up his envy.
Jiang Ying modestly corrected, "Mine is just average. This isn't my best angle. But Qi Zhu is good-looking, so he'll look good in any picture."
That shop was pretty densely populated, but they were efficient as well. It wasn't long before Qi Jun's order was served up. Qi Jun had been cooped up at home for several days; it was rare for him to get a chance to eat some delicious street food. He forgot all about chatting and simply gazed longingly at the chicken wings in front of him.
But Jiang Ying's joy no longer came from the sight of chicken wings. When their order was brought over, Qi Zhu furrowed his brow. Jiang Ying noticed right away.
"Qi-gege." Jiang Ying could never hide his mischievous intentions from Qi Zhu, so he didn't even try. He picked up something he liked and placed it on Qi Zhu's plate. "Wanna try this?"
Qi Zhu looked at him, then furrowed his brow again. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, but in the end he didn't say much. He just picked up the piece of toast Jiang Ying had tossed into his plate, and nibbled at the edge.
"Alright, now we're partners in crime," Jiang Ying said. He instantly scooted closer and slung an arm around Qi Zhu's shoulders. With an overly affectionate and friendly tone, he declared, "Qi-gege, you've eaten my toast. Now you can't snitch."
1. The 'ying' in Jiang Ying's name is written '影', but he only wrote the left half of the character, making it '景', which is a different word that's pronounced 'jing'.