When Fang Zhao emerged from his great-grandparents' private room, he was greeted with a host of curious stares that scanned him from head to toe. They wanted to know who the hell had commanded the attention of Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother for more than an hour.
"He doesn't look that impressive," someone whispered.
"I've never seen him before. Never heard of him before."
"He looks quite plain. What's so special about him that the two elders chatted with him for such a long time?"
When Second Uncle saw Fang Zhao emerge, he rushed forward and asked, "How come you were in there for so long? Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother weren't angry, were they?"
Second Aunt glared at him. Second Uncle made it sound like Fang Zhao was bound to upset the two elders.
"What kind of mood were they in?" Second Aunt asked.
"A pretty good mood. They were in good spirits," Fang Zhao responded.
"You had such a long chat. Seems like Great-Grandfather has taken a liking to you," Fang Yu said.
Fang Zhao smiled but didn't speak.
Noticing the probing looks that surrounded them, Second Aunt dragged Fang Zhao to a corner and whispered, "Fang Zhao, did Great-Grandfather give you a red packet?"
"Yes, he gave me 10 years' worth."
When she heard the answer, Second Aunt got a sense of where Fang Zhao stood. She didn't press him for the exact amount. She had just been wondering if her nephew left a good impression. The fact that he remembered Fang Zhao, gave him 10 years' worth of red packets, and chatted with him for such a long time meant Great-Grandfather was in a good mood.
"The two elders were reminiscing about their military service. That's why it took longer than usual," Fang Zhao said.
Fang Zhao didn't raise his voice much, but it was just loud enough for curious bystanders to hear.
Once they heard that Great-Grandfather had been rambling on about this military service, the onlookers exchanged knowing looks. No wonder it had taken so long. Great-Grandfather had gone down memory lane again. That explained everything and dashed their curiosity.
Great-Grandfather didn't have much to say to the relatives that followed Fang Zhao, probably because he had talked too much with Fang Zhao. His wife did all the talking, although she didn't say much either.
Seeing a series of younger Fangs who stuttered through their sentences put Great-Grandfather Fang in a bad mood again. As an elder, he wanted to be generous, but he couldn't fake laughter. All he could do was keep a stern face, which terrified the young ones even more.
Great-Grandfather Fang signaled his wife to keep her comments brief and send them packing with their gift money. It was all about the red packets, wasn't it? Or they needed a favor from the two elders. Just listening to the requests was painful. The couple were happy to lend a helping hand to younger Fangs who were regular visitors. As for those who never showed and stuck their hands out for red packets and favors, not slapping them in the face was courtesy enough. What else could they expect?
Faced with his descendants that fell into the second category, Great-Grandfather Fang regretted not keeping Fang Zhao longer.
Great-Grandfather Fang was a bit more inquisitive when granting Second Uncle and his family their audience. He asked about Fang Yu's upcoming military service. He was surprised to find out the issue had been resolved.
Fang Zhao didn't bring up his role in the matter. Second Uncle was worried about causing Fang Zhao trouble, so he hadn't told anyone about it, but he still brought it up in passing while meeting with Great-Grandfather Fang.
"Fang Zhao took care of it? Who was his connection?" Great-Grandfather was curious now.
Great-Grandfather Fang waited until Second Uncle and his family had left before turning to his wife to ask, "Say, what is that kid Fang Zhao up to? If he can land a preferential posting on his own, why did he ask about our military service? Did he genuinely want some advice?"
"How would I know?" Great-Grandmother Fang was surprised too. She had never expected Fang Zhao to wield such influence at a young age. She had underestimated him.
"Hmm... I still think the kid is up to something." Great-Grandfather Fang started getting suspicious.
"If you're still not convinced, just keep an eye on the news," Great-Grandmother Fang said.
By then, Second Uncle and his family had left the house. They had no idea what Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother were thinking. They headed straight home after the meeting.
During the train ride, Fang Zhao noticed many big-screen displays showing news reports about "Battle of the Century" and the latest trailers.
Gamers were bound to be ecstatic this year. It was just the beginning of the year and "Battle of the Century" had yet to be released, but the buzz had already started simmering.
The online poll for the game's virtual idol endorsers for each continent organized by Rising Dragon was about to kick off. It would start in Huangzhou and continue in other continents. Yanzhou would be up soon.
Fang Yu was browsing headlines on his bracelet. Various news outlets were speculating who Fiery Bird would pick as the game's public face in Yanzhou. Would is be Tongshan True Entertainment's top idol Mi Yu? Or Neon Culture's Andy Leo? Or Silver Wing's Polar Light, the bombshell that debuted at the end of last year?"
"Say, Big Brother Zhao, who do you think will win the endorsement deal?" Fang Yu asked.
"I don't know. That's Fiery Bird's decision," Fang Zhao responded.
"Speaking of Polar Light, Big Brother Zhao, is this you?" Fang Yu showed Fang Yu a screen capture.
It was a screen capture combining the credits at the end of the three music videos from the "100-Year Period of Destruction" series. The name of the producer had been circled.
Fang Zhao glanced at the image and nodded. "Yes, that's me."
Fang Yu took a deep breath. "Big Brother Zhao!"
"Big Brother Zhao, think you could get me a signed photo of Maqiyaduo?" Fang Yu was in his face.
Fang Zhao knew about Maqiyaduo. She was one of Silver Wing's top actresses. She had a sweet face, although Fang Zhao had never worked with her and didn't know how the film department operated.
"I'll look into it. If I can get one, I'll send it over," Fang Zhao said.
"I want one too. I want one too." Fang Qi wanted a piece of the action as well. "Big Brother Zhao! Big Brother Zhao, I want Vicky's signed photo. You gotta hold onto it if you can swing one."
Vicky was another actress signed to Silver Wing. She was a grade A star. Fang Zhao would have never thought a young kid like Fang Qi would be a Vicky fan.
"No problem. I'll hang onto them if I get them." Fang Zhao then smiled at Fang Ling. "Little Bell, are you a fan of any celebrities? If they're signed to Silver Wing, I'll try to get a signed photo for you."
Fang Ling pondered the question briefly and shook her head. Then she took out a card she'd gotten from a young female staffer at the retirement home. Upon inserting it into a card reader, it displayed an animation of song and poetry. It was an early education product.
Fang Ling handed the card to Fang Zhao.
Fang Zhao was confused. "This is for me?"
Fang Ling blinked her eyes and said, "Big Brother Zhao, will you sign it for me?"
Fang Zhao froze then said with a laugh, "I don't have a pen. I'll sign it for you when we get home."
When they got home, Little Bell brought out some 20 similar cards she had collected and had Fang Zhao sign all of them. She was still young and didn't have an idol, but she had heard someone say that if you meet your idol, you should get his or her signature. In Little Bell's eyes, Fang Zhao, who had bought her tons of candy, was her idol.
Fang Yu and Fang Yi joined the party. They found cards of their own and had Fang Zhao sign them.
"Big Brother Zhao, did you compose the first three movements of the '100-Year Period of Destruction' series?" Fang Yu asked.
"What do you think?" Fang Zhao said.
"Haha, I have no idea. But you don't have to explain, Big Brother Zhao. I read online about the confidentiality rules for virtual idol staffers."
Fang Yu thought the mainstream press speculation was right—the credits Silver Wing had revealed were a front. The real composer had yet to be unveiled.
Who was it?
Ming Cang had suggested it was just one person and not an entire team. The answer had to wait until the release of the fourth movement.
Still, not everyone could be a front man. From the perspective of Fang Yu and his siblings, Fang Zhao was already a stud for being able to take credit as a producer, even if he was being used as cover.
After Memorial Day, Fang Zhao spent another three days in Yanbei before returning to Qi'an.
As the launch of the Rising Dragon online poll neared, Yanzhou's Big Three entertainment companies started jockeying for position. They rolled out their respective online ad campaigns. The entertainment media was caught up in a frenzy, as if journalists had been injected with amphetamine.
Rising Dragon headquarters.
"Online voting in the fifth continent has begun. Next up is Yanzhou. They have three candidates this year?"
"Yanzhou is typically a two-way race. That's because the third member of the Big Three, Silver Wing, never produces virtual idols, but they did this year. I think the idol was tailor-made for the race for the endorsement deal."
"Regardless of Silver Wing's actual intentions, in terms of voting, an extra competitor means more news. This is good for us."
The Rising Dragon editor in charge of the online poll called the publication's Yanzhou bureau. "Get ready to launch online voting in Yanzhou on Feb. 8."
Feb. 8 was also the release date for the last movement in the "100-Year Period of Destruction" series.