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    The pot of Sichuan peppers that Sui Cannong kept growing in his classroom has died.  

    The plant’s lifespan had been a bit longer than what Sui Cannong had predicted. It was already showing signs of wilting earlier at the start of this month. Besides, there wasn’t much sunlight for the plant in this dingy biology classroom anyway. Sui Cannong assumed that it would be able to survive longer than a month. The Sichuan pepper plant was dry, and was rotting at the same time. The plant had indeed died, and yet the soil within the pot was still slightly damp. 

    Two little girls hugged tightly their notebooks. The notebooks had been used to keep record of plant growth. They clutched their notes while they squatted next to the dead plant. For about a half an hour, no one seemed to move. One of the girls had a dismayed expression. She did not speak; despite her displeasure. And another one’s eyes appeared to be tinted with red around the edges. 

    –These two were a pair of bashful little girls. They had not selected Sui Cannong’s biology class. Thus they only dared to peer into his classroom from beyond the door. 

    Sui Cannong sighed to himself. 

    “Look now, I have more seeds right here. On Monday we can plant them together, alright? Simply come to my classroom before lunch and I’ll show you both how to take care of the plant,” he said. One of the girls replied somewhat tentatively, 

    “Would it be possible to do it today instead?” 

    To that Sui Cannong grinned, saying,

    “Oh, but I have other matters to attend to today.” 

    Then after five minutes, the two girls each held bags of tomato seeds in their hands. They said their smiling goodbyes to Sui Cannong before running off; hopping and skipping as they departed.

    Sui Cannong righted his posture and exhaled through his mouth. He observed the flowerpot which contained the dead pepper for one final moment. He did not linger for too long before he turned and returned to his classroom. Once there, he tilted his head up to take note of the time. It was currently 4:30 pm. 

    Strictly speaking, Sui Cannong usually remained at school until 5:30 pm on regular fridays. But today was not a regular friday. He tidied up the papers that he had yet to finish marking, stood up from his chair, and prepared to leave. Now the cause for this may sound quite unreasonable, perhaps even somewhat radically ridiculous, but Sui Cannong was going to go meet his netizen friend today. 

    He worked as a biology teacher for the same international school for nearly three years. These three years had affected him profoundly; as in the way that his formerly luscious hair had receded by what seemed like three whole feet. Life in  general has always been exceptionally stressful. Thus in order to remedy that stress, there existed many different sorts of coping mechanisms. For Sui Cannong, it was the game he started playing back during the end of last year.

    The game was very good, even excellent it could be considered. The open world exploration was nice, with a large map and great art. Characters in the game were also designed by skilled artists. One had no need to concern themselves with anything within the game; as long as they kept their mind as tranquil as that of a still pond. It was not a pay to win game or even a game that demanded the player  to commit to any grinding. There were single player modes and team modes galore. Everything was an option. One’s preferences could be satisfied no matter how niche it may be. 

    Now in this game was a server named “Nearby”. It was a server that included only players that were within an area of fifty kilometre radius of distance from each other. It was not as active as the official public server, but it was, however, a good place for players to get to get to know people nearer to them. They could then meet up to either make friendships, or send blackmail in harmony. 

    Sui Cannong was not very interested in single-player gaming. This was why he spent about two days simply playing idly on this server. There were more than just a handful of folks who have sent him private messages. Sui Cannong knew the face of the internet was similar to a scintillating, glorious paradis, but nonetheless; it did not mean that he was ignorant of what darkness lurked behind like darker corners of the internet communities. All varieties of people existed, including those who had ill intentions.

    He had settled on gauging peoples’ personalities based on their profile stats. Their choice of profile picture, their level in game, and the characters that each user would usually use. The cumulation of these traits gave him a general idea of what the user may be like in real life. Through inference, he filtered out the various elementary school, middle school, and high school students; along with all sorts of other anomalous people that wanted to co-op with him.

    Following the organisation, Sui Cannong noticed a particular message in his dms.


    【antelope】:I can help you organise your in-game world. So could you please help me clear my daily commissions and weekly challenges?

    Sui Cannong opened the user’s profile page. 

    Level 46, which is considered somewhat low; they also didn’t have that many characters. It was a sign that this person wasn’t a whale. Their character builds were also quite mediocre…… however, they had already maxed out the prosperity points in their world. Sui Cannong selected “view details”, and his eyes widened to the extent that his eyeballs seemed to be about to pop out of his head. 

    – There was sea, mountains, and various houses. Nothing was placed randomly in their layout. Unlike many other users who pile furnishings randomly in order to accumulate prosperity points; this world had been designed into a scene of a beautiful seaside villa. With the entire construct having been built piece by piece into the imperious monster it was now. 

    And so without hesitation, Sui Cannong instantly accepted the friend request. 

    Their conversations went successfully, and it was quickly agreed upon that they both would meet online to play at around 8:30 every day. Not only that, their co-op routines were also predetermined. 

    Sui Cannong would first aid Antelope, rapidly complete their combat challenges together, and then in return, Antelope would silently enter the world of Sui Cannong to build him a nice home. He saw Antelope cultivating the land there once. Thus Sui Cannong sometimes went and helped them farm materials. 

    He realised that Antelope wasn’t very talkative. It did not bother Sui Cannong at all though. Because they already were in a perfectly symbiotic dynamic. Antelope’s skills were decent, and not only that, they were insane at digital house construction, and just generally had really good taste when it came to art.

    Finally, at the end of this month, Sui Cannong had helped Antelope to level 50 at last. At the same time, the construction of Sui Cannong’s seaside villa had come to a close as well. There were now only the back gardens that Antelope had yet to finish working on. 

    Using just pebbles and puddle furnishings, Antelope had crafted a grand fountain in the middle of the garden. It was an effect achieved through innovative floating and sinking techniques being done on the building materials. There were even potted daisies that accompanied the fountain. The little flowers would sit sunnily beside the gurling fountain; their digitised images swaying in the wind. 

    Sui Cannong felt like crying for a moment. 

    He teleported to Antelope and found them in the forest; soundlessly farming wood from the oak trees. Their movements were slow, as if they were a seventy-year-old while chopping trees. He was still for a second, then Sui Cannong asked,

    “Why don’t you use “Petit Butterfly” instead when you chop trees?‘ 

    “Petit Butterfly” was a playable character in the game, and due to her character setting being that of a forest elf; she had the passive skill of being able to cut down trees one and a half times faster than any other character. 

    【antelope】: I didn’t manage to get her.

    In the previous patch of the game, “Petit Butterfly” had been released as a character available solely on the limited edition event banners. She could be obtained once the patch was over. They could only wait for her to rerun in the future. 

    Sui Cannong was lost in thought as he clicked on his friends list. The friendliness value between them had nearly been fully maxed out. He had never even noticed how quickly it had advanced to this point. Following that, he went and checked out the stats for his world. Prosperity points were at the highest level, and he saw that his world now earned the achievement of “top level”.

    They were both here in the local channel “Nearby” when they’d initially become friends. That meant that both of them were likely located in the same city. 

    “How about we meet up sometime?” Sui Cannong proposed his idea in a tentative manner. “Well, I was thinking that you might be here in City C as well. I happen to have pulled a Petit Butterfly on her release. So if we met up, then we could connect our Bluetooth, and then I’ll transfer her to you.”

    Antelope was unresponsive for a long time. Later, they replied,

    “I am in City C.” Then they messaged again, “alright.”

    After logging off the game that day, Sui Cannong felt a faint sense of apprehension. They never even added each other on WeChat, and now they were to meet in person. Both of them agreed to convene at a cafe at a certain time. Looking back on it, Sui Cannong realised how rash he’d been with his decision.

    The road had been a bit congested on the way there; Sui Cannong just barely made it there on time. Walking into the quaint little shop, there was no one save for the singular employee who was currently mopping the floor. Looks like he was the first to arrive. He ordered a cup of coffee, logged into the game, and saw that Antelope was currently offline.

    Sui Cannong had tried to speculate the identity of Antelope before. However, information was difficult to infer due to Antelope’s impartiality when it came to using both male and female characters. Although he did notice some clues of his personality from the conversations they’d been having. Sui Cannong had a feeling that Antelope may be something along the lines of a reticent university student, or alternatively they may perhaps be a more reserved blue collar worker. 

    He cleared his daily quests while he was waiting. Once he finished, Sui Cannong looked up to see that the door of the cafe was opening. The first thing he saw was the face of a handsome young man. 

    The slender young man was dressed prim and proper in a simple windbreaker, wore metal-lined glasses, and had barely any emotion on his face- he was a fair young man who seemed equally cold as he was handsome. 

    Sui Cannong took one glance at this familiar face and immediately started panicking internally. Then immediately following those first few seconds, an indistinct, indefinite sort of feeling grew in his mind. Sui Cannong actually did know who this young man was. 

    Never had he truly understood what the internet term “curling from cringe” meant until this very moment. It was as if he had an epiphany on the spot. The temperature of his blood was so warm it bubbled inside his veins, cheeks were burning, scalp crawling and numb, his fingers clenched so tightly they were losing feeling, and he felt an overwhelming urge to collapse into a ball. 

    – Deciding to become friends with a netizen, being friends in game for around two months, then going to meet each other. Then at the meeting, finding out that your netizen friend is actually your co-worker. Such a sequence of events was the epitome of  embarrassing situations. 

    Although his biology classroom was located on the second floor, and the physics classroom was on the third, both classes used separate laboratories, but they could not be considered total strangers based on the brief interactions they had before. – If they’ve nodded and greeted each other while moving in the cafeteria before, or interacted whilst leading their respective teams in science competitions, and if these trivial encounters all counted, then…

    Their relationship would be considered to be of the sort where they technically ‘knew’ of each other, but not of the sort that could be categorised as actually being acquainted. 

    Ji Ling stood in place. His eyes were gazing upon Sui Cannong. It was silent. Sui Cannong felt the tautness in the muscles of his own face.  He realised the expression he had on at the moment may have not been the most suitable for the occasion, and so he coughed in an attempt to conceal his unnaturalness. He stood up saying, 

    “Well then, Mr. Ji…”

    Despite his greeting, Ji Ling made no response. Ji Ling merely stared directly into Sui Cannong eyes for a while. The staring made Sui Cannong feel a bit frightened. Still, his face held no observable expression, but he appeared to be thinking about something. Sui Cannong guessed that his behaviour may have had something to do with being so stunned that he was physically frozen as a result.  

    Following that, Sui Cannong watched as Ji Ling turned his head to the side, and with subtle motion, slightly nodded his head in acknowledgement. 

    “Mr. Sui.” He said toward Sui Cannong. 

    The orange glow of golden hour shone itself deep into the layers of cloud. While tiny bubbly foam on a cup of coffee reflected the light of the sky on its liquid surface, and a sugar bowl made of reflective metal all reflected the faintly unpleasant expression Sui Cannong was inevitably showing. The air between them was so thick it could be cut with a knife. Neither of them said anything to break the silence. Probably because neither one of them wanted to expose their inner feelings for the time being. 

    Perhaps Ji Ling was not Antelope.

    Sui Cannong had begun to console himself by thinking, 

    Alright, perhaps I have been too presumptuous. The real Antelope may simply still be making their way to our meeting on the metro or otherwise; or it may be that his run-in with Ji Ling was a coincidence. Though it was an unusual meeting being here at the same cafe, at the same time, located ten kilometres from the school, and there were no other customers other than the two of them… there was still a chance it was a misunderstanding that happened in his own mind…

    Yet just then, Ji Ling put an end to Sui Cannong’s self-preservative thoughts. 

    “So,” he asked, “you must be “Alluring belle Sui Meili”.”

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