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Ouyang saw them. The Shanghai International team. He’d stood across from them before, looked at those faces and glared into those eyes. One year ago. It’d been a year since he stood on a stage like this one, looking at them. On any normal day, his motto was simple. You got a problem? Yo, I’ll solve it! But not on that day. That day was the single worst day of his life. And when he saw them again, standing across from him. Standing across from his team. Looking down on him with the same plastic expressions of ridicule from one year ago, that day started playing in his head again. The moments that haunted his nightmares and always stuck around in the back of his mind. 

“Lol! This is too easy man,” Yan Liang laughed loudly into his microphone and to the crowd around him. He sat behind a computer in a small internet cafe, with two players to his left and two to his right. Together, they were the esports team for Shanghai International. “Let’s have a little fun! Haha!”

It was the first round of the qualifiers for the 2014 edition of the Shanghai 16 School Tournament. Shanghai International was grouped together with High School 13. It was an easy matchup for them. It was a game in which they could play around a little, try different tactics, and maybe just have some fun. And having fun is exactly what they did. The game was about to hit the 20 minute mark, but they were already pushing into High School 13’s base. It was a roflstomp in its truest form. With a little more than a minute before High School 13 could surrender and end this humiliation, the players from Shanghai International reached the Nexus. But instead of destroying the Nexus…

Liu Zhengjie looked towards the players from High School 13, sitting opposite him. He laughed at them and said, loudly enough for everyone in the internet cafe to hear him, “Watch this! HahaHAHAHA!”

If the humiliation of losing a game before 20 minutes wasn’t bad enough, what happened next definitely was. All Ouyang, substitute for High School 13, could do was watch as his team got served the ultimate humiliation. They were Nexus farmed. Shanghai International was so strong, and had enough long range skills, that they had formed a line around the fountain and were killing the players from High School 13, letting their minions finish the game. It was painful, disturbing, and degrading. This was the worst form of sportsmanship. But it didn’t end there. Shanghai International still wasn’t satisfied. High School 13 was below them, and they would let everyone know that.

The game finished. Shanghai International had as good as qualified for the next round, while High School 13 was on the verge of being eliminated from the tournament. But the players from High School 13 were no sore losers. They took a deep breath, pushed past their hatred over what happened in the game, and stood up to shake hands with the players from Shanghai International. It was basic courtesy, a short and simple show of good sportsmanship. That was when it happened.

Liu Zhengjie walked up to them, a bright and wide smile on his lips and derision in his eyes. He made himself big, broadening his shoulders, and said, “I wouldn’t dirty my hand by letting you touch it! If you want to congratulate me, get down on your knees! Hah, fucking pathetic bunch of losers. Go back to your kiddy league. You don’t belong here.”

They were the memories of a year ago. Ouyang’s arms started shaking as they played in his mind again, and then again. He bit down on his teeth, while his brows pointed down towards his nose. The grating sound of his teeth were barely submerged by the low roar coming from the back of his throat. He wanted to go up. He wanted to show them who was boss! He! He… He cracked his knuckles but didn’t move. Ren Rou held her arm out in front of him and Yang Fan, who’d lived through the same humiliation, grabbed him by his shoulder. So he didn’t storm forward, settling for pawing his foot on the ground, menacingly.

Yan Liang read the anger, the hatred, and most importantly the fear. They’re the same as last year. A bunch of kids trying to play with the grown ups. He grinned at his own joke before walking up to Ren Rou. He gave her a one over, checking her whole demeanor out. Then he turned to the others behind her. There were the familiar faces of a year ago, together with a few new faces. He looked back towards Ren Rou and said, “Oh, well look at this! High School 13! What a surprise! What are you guys doing here? Wait… Don’t tell me… Is it true? Did you guys really make it to the semis? Wow! Good job! I have to congratulate you! You did a great job drawing all the easy teams! Are you guys going to celebrate? I can understand. You guys gotta celebrate the small victories since they are all you have, right?”

Su Xue had watched the stare down, thoroughly confused, and now this guy came at them and started insulting them. “Hey. Hey! What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you do this? Are you really this pathetic?” she asked.

Ouyang stared past Yan Liang and towards Liu Zhengjie, his chest rapidly going up and down. He said in such a deep voice that it almost didn’t sound like him, “It’s fine. Ignore them. That’s just how they are. A bunch of arrogant assholes.”

Yan Liang’s smile turned to confusion. It looked so honest, so real as he raised his eyebrows and asked, “Us? Arrogant? Nooo…”

Laughter rang out from behind Yan Liang, his teammates grinning and joking and patting each other on the shoulders. Then the Support said towards Yan Liang, but loud enough that it was meant for everyone, “I remember him. He was that substitute kid! He’s so bad at the game that he couldn’t even make it onto this kiddy team! If you ask me, his mother should’ve just gotten an abortion. That would’ve been better for everyone.”

“Hey! Sod off! That’s enough!” Yang Fan shouted, followed by Chen Ze adding, “Check yourselves! Don’t try to be funny. You’re not.”

Yan Liang shrugged and said, “Enough? What do you mean? It’s the truth, right? He’s terrible, even for your shit team. His mother’s probably pretty disappointed she didn’t abort him…” He trailed off towards the end, looking at the different people making up High School 13’s team. “Hmm? Am I wrong? Please, correct me if I’m wrong.”

“You fucker! I’M GONNA WEAR YOUR FACE!” Ouyang had had enough. So what if Yang Fan held him by the arm? He could just pull himself free! So what if Ren Rou held her arm out in front of him? He could push through that! No problem! He shook his arm free and cracked his knuckles, white hot rage on his face. “You come here, you fucker! Watch me!” He stormed forwards, stamping his feet on the ground and moving his arm back, ready to punch.

“OUYANG! NO!” Ren Rou shouted. She grabbed him by his raised arm, pulling him back with all of her weight. “Please! Don’t lower yourself to their level! Don’t do this! Please!”

Yan Liang chuckled, watching as Ren Rou and Yang Fan pulled Ouyang back and calmed him down. He waited, feasting on the spectacle, then said, “What? Can’t win with words, so you resort to violence? Eh, what am I saying? That sounds about right for people like you. I really can’t believe you made it to the semifinals. Did you bribe someone to get here? Or were you just that lucky? Whatever, it doesn’t matter. We’ll make sure to put on a nice spectacle and give you another taste of our specialty: Fountain Farming!”

The reply came almost instantaneous. A snort full of derision followed by the question, “Oh, really?”

Yan Liang turned to someone at the back of the group, behind the three he knew best. It was a man with messy, curly hair. He looked calm, unconcerned even. Yan Liang narrowed his eyes into two thin slits and asked, “What did you say?”

Lin Feng scratched the back of his head. Is he deaf? He looked Yan Liang in the eyes and replied, “Oh. Really. Question mark.” He then shook his head and grinned. “You really think you’re going to beat us? Let me help you out of that fairytale. We’re not losing. You will. I will personally see to it that we crush you.”

“Crush us?” Yan Liang fell open wide, surprised. Then he started laughing and turned back to his teammates. “Did you hear him? Hah. He thinks he’ll crush us! This is the best joke I’ve heard this whole year! Oh my…” He wiped the tears from his eyes and tried to shake the laughter off, only for a second burst to come out. This time he waited a full minute, trying to compose himself. But when he looked up again, up towards Lin Feng, he started all over again. He just started laughing and kept laughing. “Ow! My stomach. Ah!”

Then the smile disappeared. The laughter stopped. Yan Liang stopped wiping the tears of joy from his eyes and stopped slapping his knees in happiness. He narrowed his eyes and looked at Lin Feng and said in a voice as cold as ice, “Trash. That is what you are. That is what your team is. You belong in a landfill. The fact you want to play us is insult enough. These words you’re saying? Don’t. It’s not funny. It’s pathetic. Concede and go home. Let the big boys play.”

Liu Zhengjie walked up to Yan Liang and put his arm around his shoulder. “You see that kid?” He pointed towards Lin Feng and continued, “He’s that Riven that beat Tonji Affiliated High. It was a good game I’ve heard. But…” He looked at Lin Feng and shook his head. “But it sounds like that was just some excited kids talking big. He didn’t look anything special to me. Seems like Tonji just has a shit lineup this year. Or we got that much better. Probably a combination of the two.”

Lin Feng smiled. He moved his head ever so slightly in ridicule. “Liu Zhengjie, is it? You’re the ad-carry. I watched you play and I have to say, you’re pretty good…” He paused for a moment, his smile turning into a big, foolish grin, then added, “But our ad-carry is better.”

“Huh? What?” Tang Bingyao blurted. The entire situation was a little much for her to follow. There was too much new information and she got lost halfway along the way. She looked up towards Lin Feng, who was smiling at her. He looked his usual self.

“You’re better than he is. Isn’t that right, Tang Tang?” The words struck her so hard that she felt a little woozy. Better than him? She looked from Lin Feng over at Liu Zhengjie, the guy she’d just watched play. An ad-carry who was at the top of his game. It was hard to spot any faults in his game. Hmm. She tilted her head and compared his game to her own. She rocker her head over to the other side, then nodded. “Hmm, I think so. Yeah. I need to practice a bit more, but I’ll be better than him.”

Lin Feng pounded his chest and said, “Don’t worry about practice! You don’t need any practice to beat him. I’m saying you’re better than him right now! And if I say so, it is so!”

Liu Zhengjie stared at the two from High School 13. They were now arguing back and forth, but their words weren’t registering in his ears. His ears were ringing, the same few words resounding in his head over and over again. From shock and surprise to anger. He glowered and shouted, “What kind of bullshit are you spouting! Her? She? That stupid girl, better than me? Just because you say so? Fuck off. Idiot.”

The other players from Shanghai International had heard enough. They all walked up to Yan Liang, leaning over his shoulder and pushing chairs away to get closer. The Support was the first to speak. “Do you even know who you’re talking about? I guess not. Let me tell you. Liu Zhengjie here is so good that a coach from the LSPL came specially to check him out last year. Only Liu Zhengjie and one other person were scouted. You want to tell us that she, a girl, is better than him? Hah. What a joke.”

The Toplaner was  the next to voice his dissatisfaction with Lin Feng. “Right! Have you heard of the Shanghai Esports Association? Sure you have, they’re the organizers of this tournament. Those guys, yeah? They’re keeping an eye on Liu Zhengjie here and even told him he’s going to become a great professional player one day. You still want to tell me you believe she’s better than him?”

“ENOUGH! THAT’S IT!” Ren Rou shouted. Shanghai International had finally done it. They could try and bully Ouyang all they wanted, he probably had some coming anyways. They could say all the trashy things they wanted to say about High School 13. It hurt to hear it, but she wasn’t going to bother fighting them over it. But this. This was one step too far. They would not touch Tang Bingyao. Not under her watch. “You think we’re that easy to bully, huh? Well let m—”

“W-wait! Hey, you kids! Hold up!”

The voice came from behind High School 13, so the guys from Shanghai International saw the newcomer first. Yan Liang took a step back, halting the aggression and surprising Ren Rou into backing off as well. Then he put a large smile on his face and said, “Hello, sir! Are you here for us? We’re happy to help the Vice President of the Shanghai Esports Association with anything he wants! Just say the word!”

Liu Zhengjie didn’t call out to Chu Fang like Yan Liang had. But he did start smiling, and in his mind rightly so. This was his moment to shine. He stood up straight and checked to make sure there were no stains on his clothes. Then he carefully did his hair. This was his moment to show these people from High School 13 just how good he was. Everything had to be perfect. He took a deep breath and on the exhalation took a step forward. This would show the doubters how truly talented he was. So talented that Chu Fang came running for him. That’ll show them. Hmm. I wonder what he wants. Is there another pro team interested in me?

The people from High School 13 turned around to see why the guys from Shanghai International had backed off so suddenly. Lin Feng also turned around and met the gaze of Chu Fang. The very same Chu Fang he’d met back in Season 1. His eyes went wide. CrapCrapCrap. He looked around for a place to hide. Searched for it! But right now of all times he couldn’t find anything to hide behind. CrapCrapCrap. He turned to Tang Bingyao, who was quite a bit shorter than him and jumped behind her. She was the closest to him. He huddled down, making himself as small as he possibly could.

Liu Zhengjie nodded towards Chu Fang and said, “Hello, Vice President. It’s an honour to see you here. Were you looking for m—”

“Sorry. I don’t have time for you right now. Could you please move out of the way,” Chu Fang cut him off.

Liu Zhengjie stood in place, stunned. He didn’t know what to do. The words were still processing in his mind. I don’t have time for you. He understood what the words meant, individually. But that full sentence didn’t make any sense to him. So he just stood there, rooted to the floor, not sure of what to do.

Chu Fang didn’t have time for this. There was something far more pressing on his mind than sparing some random high schooler’s feelings, even if that random high schooler was quite the talent. He looked past Liu Zhengjie towards the group from High School 13. There he saw Lin Feng, hiding behind some girl. It… It… He tried to stay composed. He wanted to keep it together. But his throat parched up and he felt something wet at the corners of his eyes. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, shaking his head in disbelief, smiling. After all these years of searching. After all these years of hoping to find just one person half as talented as Maple. After everything he’d gone through. Right here. Right now. Right in front of him was that familiar face. He let himself fall down in the chair next to him and covered his mouth with his hand. He took a couple of deep breaths, then said, “Lin Feng? Lin Feng. Hey.”

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Guys, Have We Gotten TOO Degen...?

Shanks Thought: I was going to write another one of our DumbfuckTV moments as the thought for today. But then Sietse stopped me because he thought it was too degenerate. And that he’d noticed a worrying trend of us getting more and more degenerate with every passing thought, to the point that we’re only going to appeal to a very specific section of the readership. Honestly, it gave me pause. I had to take a step back and think about all the stupid shit we’ve been doing over these past couple of months, and it made me realize that he was right. Two months ago, you would never get me to agree to do a loli voice for chapter comments. It’s kind of scary, also really concerning, that we fell this far down into the pits of degeneracy without noticing. You just have to keep towing and pushing at the line, little by little every day. I blame Devshard.

Sietse Thought: I was so innocent two and a half months ago. I didn’t even know what degen meant. These two guys were laughing at me about it and I think it even made it into one of the TL thoughts. And now here we are. The day after Shanks Lolivoice. It didn’t seem strange, but rather normal. Just another day. Another day of utter and complete degen. Tonight, Devshard laughed. “It’s not that bad, right?” Right? RIGHT? Please guys. Tell me. Reassure me! It isn’t that bad, right? I want to convince myself, perhaps it’s more of a need, that this is still salvageable. But then I look at the Discord. Another new person joins. They start typing… “I’m just here for Shanks Lolivoice.”

Dev Thought: Alright, alright. Look, this started out with very good intentions. All I wanted to do was help Shanks become a real person. Which is exactly what I told him. “Pinocchio! Become a real boy!” Develop a personality, have opinions on things, care about stuff, stop trying to be so mild and disappear so that no one has anything bad to say about you because they don’t even know you exist. THAT’S ALL! How was I ever supposed to know that every joke and every bit we crafted would eventually go onto become a part of this new personality Shanks was discovering for himself? LoliShanks? PoniShanks? These were all just jokes! But somehow, he made them a part of his core identity. I cannot be held responsible for that!

But real talk here? The whole degen thing is far more wholesome than you realize. It’s not about being insane or demented. It is both simple and profound. We’re giving you permission to say anything and everything that’s on your minds. Telling you that it’s okay. Sometimes, you’ll cross a line or two. But that’s fine, you’ll figure out where the line is when you start saying what’s on your mind without living in fear. Because no one should live in a world where they’re too scared to say what’s on their mind because someone else will think poorly of those thoughts or them. No one should be forced to spend their entire lives locked in their own minds, afraid to have an opinion, afraid to really connect with other people. Because deep down inside, we’re all just a little insane and a little degen. And we should use that to connect with each other.

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