Gaming for Love

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Gaming for Love

I’m back, dear readers! Been writing up a storm over the holiday break; I did manage to churn out a few chapters of the sequel to my King Arthur story, as well as this little number. I’ve cooked up this short romance for the 2018 Valentine’s Day contest over on Literotica. As you can tell by the title, it has a gaming theme, specifically Pokémon, a game that I’m really big into. I did make sure to write it in such a way that even someone with no familiarity with the game can easily follow along with the action. Even if you were to only skim through the gaming portions, I think you’ll still enjoy the story. I’d really appreciate it if y’all could give it a read, and maybe post some honest feedback. Your comments are always helpful in getting my stories ready for the critics. And if you really enjoyed it, I’d appreciate it if you could make a quick visit to Literotica later this month and vote on me for the contest. Thanks for your continued readership!

Gaming for Love

“And Smallwood drains it for three!”

Click.

Michael Goldman scanned the Auburn Basketball Arena, always looking for the perfect shot for the school newspaper, The Plainsman. Allison Smallwood, the star point guard of the women’s basketball team, always made for an excellent target. Not only was she a fantastic athlete, but she was also a pretty blonde with a dazzling smile.

“Foul on Georgia, and Smallwood steps to the free throw line!”

Click. Click.

As he snapped a few more shots, Michael couldn’t help but smile. Even as socially awkward as he was, he seemed to thrive whenever he was on the job. While behind the camera, he was able to see the world around him not as the annoying bunch of people he had to deal with, but as a collection of models waiting for him to capture the perfect moment. Still, it’d be nice to have a sweet girl to go home to after work, but Michael wasn’t holding out much hope. Most girls weren’t attracted to the stereotypical Jewish kid: scrawny with curly black hair, pale skin complexion, and a bit of a large nose. As much as Michael tried to downplay the cliché, there really was no escaping it.

A sudden thud from the court snapped Michael out of his daydream, and he saw one of the other girls down on the floor. A quick glance at his roster sheet told him it was Desiree Bonner, the starting forward. As he went to work with his camera, he was relieved to see that her injuries didn’t look too serious. Soon, she was being tended to by one of the trainers.

“There she is,” Michael breathed.

Michael still had no idea who she was, but the student trainer that worked with the women’s basketball team was nothing short of a knockout. She was maybe 5’5” with light ash blonde hair, and her sharp eyes and wry smile seemed to indicate that she had a keen intellect to go with her stunning good looks. As she worked on Desiree, Michael couldn’t help but snap a few shots of the two of them, making sure that both the trainer and player were in focus. What he would give for a shot with her. Soon, the buzzer interrupted his fantasies, forcing him back to reality.

“Well, back to work…”

So it went for the rest of the game. No further injuries occurred for Auburn, so Michael didn’t get any further glimpses of the little goddess that tended to the players. The Lady Tigers kept the game close, but Georgia was just the better team in the end, and the Bulldogs ended up winning 67-62. This didn’t come as a huge surprise to Michael. Throughout the season, the team had proved to be talented but young, with Smallwood being the only real veteran on the team. Considering that she was only a sophomore, the team had nowhere to go but up in the coming seasons.

After a final series of shots as the teams shook hands, Michael texted his boss up in the press box. The reply thanked Michael for his hard work and instructed him to take the rest of the night off; his boss would handle photography at the postgame press conference. This suited Michael just fine, as he had gotten more than enough of people for the day. After packing up his camera gear, he headed out to his bike to begin the trek back to his apartment.

*****

As he reclined on the sofa in his living room, Michael grabbed his Nintendo 3DS and powered up his copy of Pokémon Sun, intending to waste away the rest of the evening with some online battles. On the other side of the room stood Antonio, Michael’s roommate. He was a tall drink of water by any standard, and his dark chocolate skin and shaved head gave him quite a striking appearance. Still, he was as nerdy as Michael was, perhaps even more so, and tried to communicate this with his black horn-rimmed glasses. Of course, with his height and good looks, that only served to make him even more irresistible to the opposite sex. As was his usual Thursday evening routine, he stood with iron in hand, pressing his shirts for the coming weekend, no doubt for a Valentine’s Day date of some sort.

“Dammit,” Michael muttered.

“What’s wrong, man?” Antonio asked.

“Another rage quitter. That’s three in a row!”

“You gettin’ that good?” Antonio wondered with a laugh.

“No, the level of competition has definitely gone down in the last few months. Not sure what’s happening. Still, I can’t help it that I’m kicking so much ass!”

“Sounds like you need some stronger competition.”

“Yeah, but I know you don’t play Pokémon anymore.”

“True. I ain’t got the time to put in. But maybe you ought to consider joining the local League?”

“League? I thought you said the president of the AU Pokémon League was a total asshole?” Michael replied.

“He is, but it’s gonna be your best bet for some decent people to play against. Besides, none of them will rage quit on you; it’s against their rules. If they do, they get put on probation. Too many times, and they’re kicked out.”

“Hmm… maybe so. When’s the next meeting?”

“Tomorrow, actually. They meet at the GameStop on University Parkway.”

“Thanks, I’ll check it out.” Hearing the steam from Antonio’s iron, Michael remarked, “Dude, you’re fucking obsessed with clothes. It’s a little disturbing.”

“What can I say? The ladies love a man wearing a freshly pressed shirt!”

“Yeah, right. I’d bet you’re in the closet. Great cover, by the way,” Michael snorted.

“Hey, that hurts,” Antonio whined, feigning a heart attack. “I can’t help it if I’m that much better than you with the women, just like you can’t help it you’re so much better than those idiots online!”

“Yeah, but you could share,” Michael shot back with a grin.

“Sorry, but Antonio don’t kiss and tell,” he replied with a toothy grin. After a moment of silence, he continued, “You see that little hottie at the basketball game again?”

“Yeah, she was there.”

“You should talk to her, man! I bet you two would hit it off real good!”

“Are you nuts?! She’s so far out of my league, I bet she doesn’t even know I exist!” Michael laughed.

“Dude, stop sellin’ yourself short. You’re a good guy with some excellent job prospects after you graduate next year. What girl wouldn’t be all over that? And if a girl isn’t all over that, you don’t want her anyway!”

“Easy for you to say, Mr. Ladies’ Geek.”

“Trust me, just chat her up next time you see her. I don’t care when or where it is, introduce yourself and see what happens. You might even be able to get her to go with you to the Valentine’s Day dance in the student union building.”

“No point; I bet she’s got a boyfriend.”

“Don’t hurt to ask, does it?”

“Whatever…”

*****

The next afternoon, Michael arrived at the GameStop on the outskirts of campus. For some odd reason, he felt nervous. He reasoned it was likely just because of a new and unknown situation; once he tried this group out, he had little doubt he’d like it. As he walked in to the shop, he was pleasantly surprised to see at least a dozen people there, all seated at tables. A couple of them were engrossed in discussions or trading card games, but the majority had their 3DS systems out and ready. After a moment, an overweight man with long greasy hair greeted Michael.

“What’s up? You here for the League?”

“Uh, yeah. Thought I’d give it a shot, see what it’s all about,” Michael replied.

“Cool. I’m Eric, the Almighty President of the AU Pokémon League,” the man said with pride. “That’s an official title, by the way.”

“Good to meet you,” Michael answered, hiding his immediate dislike for the man. “Name’s Michael.”

“Lemme show ya around. The rules here are pretty simple,” Eric said, pointing to a poster on the wall.

1.The terms of any battle or trade must be discussed and agreed upon by all parties beforehand.
2.If terms are not discussed, all battles are assumed to take place under standard OU rules in the case of singles or VGC rules for doubles.
3.Any and all disputes will be settled by the Almighty President of the AU Pokémon League.
4.Absolutely no rage quitting; either forfeit or see the battle through to the end. The first offense will result in a warning, second offense will be probation and temporary suspension, and the third offense will result in the player being banned from the League.
5.The Almighty President of the AU Pokémon League may be challenged for leadership at any time by any law-abiding member.
6.These rules may be amended as the Almighty President sees fit, but rules 5 and 6 may not be changed.

“Huh… I like rule four,” Michael remarked. “That’s what brought me here.”

“You’re not alone in that,” Eric replied. “Rage quitting is a huge problem with online gaming, and probably more so with Pokémon than with many other games. In Call of Duty, for instance, a single rage quitter often goes unnoticed. If he’s doing that bad, neither team is likely to miss him. But Pokémon is always one-on-one, so any rage quit ends the match altogether.”

“At least Nintendo is trying to do something about it lately, forcing rage quitters to stay offline for a while before they can play again.”

“Only in ranked battles,” Eric corrected him. “In free battles, there’s nothing stopping them. Anyway, looks like everyone’s paired up for now, but feel free to watch. If anything opens up, you can jump in.”

“What about her?” Michael asked, seeing a girl sitting alone at a table in the far corner of the shop.

“Dude, you don’t want to play her,” Eric said, the disgust apparent in his voice.

“Why not?”

“She cheats. Nobody can figure out how, of course, so we can’t kick her out. But nobody can come close to beating her, and as good as the guys that come here are, she has to be cheating.”

Not believing Eric for one second, Michael replied, “I’ll take my chances.”

“Whatever, dude. Your funeral.”

Despite his promise to “show Michael around,” Eric returned to his seat and began a battle with another member. Michael stared for a moment, watching the pretty brunette with thick glasses seated next to Eric. The way she was hanging on his every move, they had to be an item. Still, Michael could have sworn he saw something in her eyes. It could have been sadness, but it could also have been longing. Either way, Michael decided he wanted as little to do with Eric as possible; a part of him wished he had listened to Antonio. Still, the competition was bound to be better here than online. Turning towards the lone table in the back corner, Michael froze as he realized something.

“Holy shit… it’s her!” he muttered to himself.

Sitting alone at the table was the same girl from the basketball games. Her ash blonde hair was unmistakable, even if it was held up by a hair clip rather than in a ponytail. Now that he had his best look ever at this girl, Michael had to concentrate to keep from embarrassing himself with a public erection. Her face was the cutest thing he had ever seen, impish with a slightly rounded tip to her nose. On one side of her nose, he could see a piercing with a tiny faux diamond stud in it. Her front bangs were quite long and side swept over her right eye for a sultry look, even if that wasn’t what she was going for. She wore a black t-shirt with a picture of a very unhappy Princess Peach saying, “Rescue this.” Michael shook his head in disbelief. All this time he had thought this mystery girl a jock, but now, he couldn’t see her as anything other than what she apparently was: a gamer girl. Collecting his courage, he walked over to the open seat across from her.

“If you think I’m gonna fuck you just ‘cause I’m a gamer girl, fuck off. If you think I suck just ‘cause I’m a gamer girl, fuck off,” she muttered without even looking up.

Though Michael was taken aback by her cold remark, he replied, “Nothing like that, I just wanna play a game with you.”

“Right, but only ‘cause there’s nobody else available,” she snorted.

“Actually, I’d want to play you regardless. I’m told you’re good.”

“Pretty sure you were told I cheat.”

“I was, and I don’t believe that bullshit for one second.”

Shrugging, the girl replied, “Maybe you ought to believe it.”

“Only one way to find out, right?” Michael smirked, adjusting his glasses.

At last, she looked up at him, studying his face. “You seriously just wanna play? Nothing more?”

“Nothing more.”

“Fine. 6 on 6 single battle, standard OU rules.”

“Works for me,” Michael said as he powered up his 3DS.

Studying him again, she asked, “Do I know you from somewhere?”

Michael replied, “I don’t know if you do, but I’ve seen you around. You’re the trainer for the women’s basketball team, right?”

“That’s where I know you from! You’re the photographer I always see on the sidelines!”

“Yep. Michael Goldman, graphics design major and photographer for The Plainsman student newspaper,” he said, extending his hand.

She waited a moment before shaking it, saying, “Ashley Henderson, sports medicine major and your soon-to-be executioner.”

“Damn, little trash talker!” Michael chuckled.

Ashley’s eyebrows shot up at this. “Huh. Sorry, it’s just that… most guys can’t handle my trash talking. You’d think I had cut their balls off or something.”

“I’ve heard worse from twelve year old kids playing Call of Duty,” Michael snorted. “Ok, let me pull my team together…”

For most non-gamers, the first thing they think of when they are asked about Pokémon is the catchphrase, “Gotta catch ‘em all.” From this, it is easy to assume that the games are simple collectors games, catch them all to win the game. But for players like Michael and Ashley, who had both been playing the series since the first games came out in the 1990s, it went far deeper than that. They loved the competitive turn-based battles, finding joy in structuring different teams for different situations and going up against as many skilled opponents as they could. With six Pokémon per team, each with different roles to fill, the possibilities were endless. To them, it was like a massive game of chess in which you could customize your pieces to fit your play style. Don’t have any use for bishops? Trade them in for an extra knight or two. Every decision had advantages and drawbacks, and as in chess, victory often hinged on which player could accurately predict what their opponent was going to do and when.

In Pokémon, every combatant has either one or two elemental types, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Fire types are strong against Grass types, but weak against Water types. Water is strong against Fire and weak against Grass, while Grass is strong against Water and weak against Fire. With eighteen different elemental types to choose from, crafting a team strong and varied enough to handle anything that comes along is essential. Further, each Pokémon could fill different roles on the team. Some are quite fast with powerful attacks, known as “sweepers.” These offensive Pokémon are the basis for most teams, eschewing defensive capabilities for the ability to pressure the opponent with their sheer damage output. Others have little to no offensive presence, known as “supporters.” They possess a variety of moves that can indirectly disrupt the opponent’s strategy. Finally, there are “bulky” combatants with little to no speed but incredible defenses. Such Pokémon are often capable of filling either an offensive role or a defensive support role, depending on the overall team strategy.

At the pregame preparation screen, images of the teams Michael and Ashley had chosen appeared. Michael had gone with his favorite bulky attacking team. Most of his Pokémon weren’t fast, but could take some damage and dish right back, once they had the chance to boost their attacking power. For several seconds, he studied Ashley’s team in an effort to figure out what her overall strategy would be. Her team seemed all over the place, possessing a couple of fast sweepers, but also several members known for their defensive stalling abilities. He didn’t know what to make of it, but the battle was about to start, so he would have to figure it out as he went.

Michael led off with his Ice type Pokémon, Alolan Ninetales. Though frail, this Pokémon was very fast and possessed the ability to summon a hailstorm once it entered the field. Further, its Aurora Veil technique would boost the defenses of his entire team, giving them the edge as Michael got them in position to take Ashley’s team down. Unfortunately, Ashley had predicted this exact strategy, leading off with her Celesteela, a bulky Steel and Flying Pokémon. Michael now was faced with a difficult choice. Ninetales was faster and could easily set up Aurora Veil, but would also be taken out of the game with a single hit from Celesteela. Deciding not to sacrifice his best supporter so early, he pulled Ninetales back onto the bench in favor of his Magnezone.

Magnezone was a staple for most of Michael’s competitive teams. A Steel and Electric type, it possessed the ability to trap other steel types and prevent them from being pulled back onto the bench, as he had done with his Ninetales. Thus, Celesteela was forced to remain in the game, ensuring it would soon fall to Magnezone’s electric attacks, which were twice as effective against it. But once again, Ashley had predicted this exact action and was ready for it. Rather than attack with Celesteela, as Michael had anticipated, she had it use a boosting move to increase its otherwise slow speed. This would ensure that it could attack Magnezone first in the next turn, while Michael had used up his first turn to switch to Magnezone, rendering him unable to retaliate. Still, Magnezone’s attacks were powerful enough that Celesteela shouldn’t survive more than a single hit, Michael reminded himself.

That, of course, was when disaster struck. Celesteela is a Pokémon capable of learning a wide variety of attacks, even if they don’t match up with its own types of Steel and Flying. One sneaky move is to teach it a Fire type attack, and this is precisely what Ashley had done with hers. The Flamethrower attack hit Michael’s Magnezone for twice the damage, due to it being a Steel type, and reduced its HP to 0 with a single strike. Michael was dumbfounded by the surprise attack, but had no time to recover. Upon achieving a knockout, Celesteela’s special ability came into play and boosted its attacking power. Now, Michael knew he was in trouble.

“Oh, shit…”

“Aw, you gonna go crying to your mommy?” Ashley teased him.

“I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve,” Michael shot back.

“Good. You’re gonna need ‘em.”

Michael took a few moments to consider his options. As Magnezone was who he was relying on to defeat Ashley’s Celesteela, he was forced to change tactics and sent out his Tapu Fini, one of his more defensive players. Celesteela immediately fired off a powerful attack, but Michael’s Tapu Fini managed to weather the hit and launch a Water type attack. As Michael had hoped would happen, its Muddy Water attack had the additional effect of lowering Celesteela’s accuracy, and the next attack missed completely as a result. After lowering Celesteela’s accuracy once more, Tapu Fini succumbed the next turn, but Michael could sense the tide turning, in spite of the score being six to four against him. Michael’s next Pokémon was his Alolan Marowak, a Fire and Ghost type with incredible attacking power. Even though Celesteela was faster than Marowak by far, its first two attacks missed, allowing Marowak an easy knockout with its Fire Punch.

“Not over yet,” Michael grinned.

“Eh, Celesteela had done its job; no biggie,” Ashley shrugged.

From then on, the two played an even match for the most part. Ashley brought out one of her only fast sweepers, Garchomp, to force Marowak out, but Michael switched to his most defensive Pokémon, Mandibuzz, who took the hit with little effort. This allowed him to pivot back to Ninetales and set up Aurora Veil to boost his defenses. Garchomp opted not to retreat in spite of the type disadvantage against Ninetales and narrowly managed to defeat the Ice type with a critical hit. But as it had sustained heavy damage, Michael brought out his ace-in-the-hole, Scizor. The Bug and Steel Pokémon was not fast, but bolstered a massive attack stat and a powerful priority move, Bullet Punch. Priority moves allow the user to move before other Pokémon regardless of speed, making them highly valued in competitive battling. A single hit was all it took to remove Garchomp from play.

“Making a comeback,” Michael teased.

“We’ll see about that.”

Ashley next sent out her Clefable, a Fairy type Pokémon. While Michael’s Scizor would normally have the advantage against Clefable, he suspected she had something unexpected ready, based on how the battle had gone so far. After benching Scizor in favor of his Marowak, Michael was pleased to see that he had guessed right; Clefable had used a Flamethrower attack, which would have obliterated Scizor in a single hit. But Marowak, being a Fire type, took the hit with ease and retaliated with a powerful hit of its own on the next turn, forcing Clefable to retreat. Its replacement, Gyarados, was more than capable of handling Marowak, and Michael suspected it was Ashley’s strongest player.

“Time for Mega Gyarados!” Ashley grinned.

In competitive Pokémon battles, each team is allowed one Mega Evolution, which is a supremely powerful Pokémon able to increase its strength far beyond its normal capabilities. Gyarados was Ashley’s Mega, while Scizor was Michael’s. As Marowak was outmatched against the Water and Dark type, Michael pulled it back in favor of his Scizor. Ashley did as he expected and used a boosting move with her Mega Gyarados, but Mega Scizor was still able to tank the next attack and retain about a third of its overall HP. Scizor retaliated with a powerful Bug type attack to severely wound Gyarados, followed by an easy priority attack to take it down before it could do further damage.

“Fuck,” Ashley muttered, seeing he was better than most.

Clefable came off the bench once more, but Michael shifted back to his Marowak as he had done before. At this point, Michael gained a massive advantage when he predicted that Ashley would switch to her Buzzwole, a powerful Bug and Fighting type. Marowak hit Buzzwole with a devastating Fire Punch as soon as it switched in, knocking it out with a single hit. Clefable came back once again and finally managed to take Marowak down. Still, Michael had gained the upper hand in the momentum of the battle, and managed to take down Clefable with his Mandibuzz. Just like that, Ashley had only one Pokémon remaining to face Michael’s two.

“Well, well, well… nobody’s ever gotten me in a corner like this,” Ashley grinned.

“I aim to please,” Michael replied.

“Too bad. I aim to win.”

Ashley’s final Pokémon was Tapu Koko, a very fast Electric and Fairy type. Though Michael’s Mandibuzz had taken a hit or two, it was bulky enough to be able to land a light hit before being taken down by Tapu Koko’s Thunderbolt attack, leaving only Michael’s Mega Scizor. Still, Michael’s ace turned out to be just what he needed, as his priority Bullet Punch negated Tapu Koko’s greatest advantage: its speed. While Tapu Koko was fast enough to always have the first attack, Scizor managed to launch a powerful priority strike that took advantage of its weak defenses, knocking Tapu Koko out and winning the game for Michael.

“And that’s that,” Michael said with a smile.

“Shit,” Ashley grumbled, not at all happy with the result. To her surprise, Michael’s hand appeared in front of her.

“Good game,” he said.

Ashley seemed confused for a moment, but soon regained enough presence of mind to give Michael a light handshake.

“Yeah, you’re good. That Scizor is no pushover,” she admitted.

“He’s been my ace for over a decade,” Michael said with pride. “He’s my best partner in the game.”

“Nice. Um, I guess I’ll be going…”

“Huh? Why? Got somewhere to be?” Michael asked. He had been hoping for a rematch with her.

“No, but… well, I won’t be welcome here anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

Sighing, Ashley leaned close to him and whispered, “Eric’s been looking for an excuse to run me off. Losing to a new member just might do the trick.”

“Yeah, but they don’t know which one of us won, do they?” Michael grinned.

“What do you mean?”

“If that asshole wants you out so bad, I’m not gonna do anything to help. You’re the best I’ve played in months!”

“Uh, thanks,” Ashley replied with a tiny smile.

“So, can I ask why you keep coming? I mean, if these guys treat you so badly, why put up with it?” Michael asked.

Ashley shrugged. “I don’t have much of a social life. No boyfriend, no other clubs, just classes, working as a trainer, and this. Gaming has always been pretty special to me; it’s how I relax my mind. But to be honest, the real reason I keep coming back is her.”

Seeing her point to the girl sitting next to Eric, Michael asked, “What about her?”

“That’s Sophia. Eric would say she’s his girlfriend, but I’d more call her his servant,” Ashley replied with disgust. “She may not look it, but she’s incredibly socially awkward and has a lot of anxiety. She came here in desperation, looking for somewhere to belong. Eric said he’d provide it, if she did exactly as he told her to. They’ve been ‘together’ ever since. He treats her like shit, and is only giving her the most rudimentary information about the game to make sure she doesn’t get too good. In Eric’s mind, Sophia is what a gamer girl should be. Me? I’m a stupid girl who doesn’t know her place.”

“You’re waiting for a chance to try and help her, aren’t you?” Michael realized.

“Yeah, but it’s not easy. She clings to Eric, as if all ability for her to socialize would crumble if she lost him. And if he were to see me trying to befriend her, I doubt it would end well.”

“That’s really big of you, wanting to help her like that,” Michael smiled.

“Well, I have my cousin to thank, I guess,” Ashley remarked.

“How do you mean?”

“I grew up next door to my cousin, Sam. He has mild Asperger’s Syndrome, kind of like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. He’s always been really awkward, but with genius-level intellect. He loved video games growing up and introduced me to them. That was how I bonded with him, and how I got so good at Pokémon. I’m good, but he’s the master.”

“I can imagine,” Michael chuckled.

“Anyway, it was bonding with him that made me realize how gaming can be such an awesome way to connect with other people, especially those with zero social skills. Seeing Eric use gaming to control and stifle Sophia… it disgusts me.”

“I completely agree.”

Ashley was more than Michael could have ever dreamed of. Not just beautiful, but also smart, witty, self-assured, and with a heart of gold deep down. And no boyfriend! That didn’t mean she was a lesbian, did it? He reasoned she was not. Otherwise, why mention it? As they chatted, Antonio’s words kept playing over and over in Michael’s head.

Just see what happens.

Figuring he had nothing to lose, Michael said, “So… can I ask you something?”

“Yeah?” Ashley replied, cocking her eyebrow.

Michael was now beet red with embarrassment and sweating like crazy. “Well… there’s a Valentine’s Day dance at the student union building tomorrow… or at least, that’s what I’ve heard. And… if you’re not busy… I was wondering… w-would you maybe w-want to go? With me?”

Though Ashley was flattered, her subconscious worried that this might be a setup and kicked into defense mode. After all, every guy that had ever shown any interest in her was only after the one thing. She hadn’t exactly had the best taste in men over the years, but even the nicest ones tried to control her with sex, sooner or later. With that fear entering her mind, her face twisted and grimaced.

“So, that’s your game? You beat me once and think I’m obligated to go out with you? That it?” she answered dryly.

“Huh? What?”

“I can’t believe all you guys are the same,” Ashley sighed. “Pretend to respect my gaming skills all so you can get in my pants…”

“N-No, that’s not it at all,” Michael began to protest, but he could see the look in her eyes. He knew he wasn’t winning this one. Resigned to his crash-and-burn, he stood. “I’m very sorry for offending you,” he mumbled turning to leave.

Ashley’s stomach twisted at seeing the look on Michael’s face. All of a sudden, she knew how hurtful her words had been to him. All he had done is ask her out, and she had replied with cold indifference and a terrible accusation. Worst of all, there was no proof that Michael was that sort of guy at all. As he was about to go, she reached across the table and grabbed his wrist.

“Wait. Please, stay. I’m… I’m sorry, Michael. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I don’t want to bug you,” he said quietly.

“You’re not. I just… have a seat. I’ll try to explain.” As Michael sat back down, Ashley continued, “As you can imagine, I deal with a lot of prejudice in my everyday life. To be honest, some of the worst of it comes from the gaming community.”

“Case in point, Eric,” Michael nodded.

“Yeah. I guess dealing with that prejudice has kind of fueled my own prejudices. I assumed you were just like every other guy I’ve gamed with, plus I haven’t exactly made the best choices in boyfriends in the past. Still, that’s no excuse for me assuming you’re exactly the same. I’m sorry, Michael.”

“Apology accepted,” he replied with a grin.

“So… can I ask why you’d want to go to that dance at all? I mean, it’s gonna be flooded with sorostitutes and fratdaddies! You know, all the popular kids that made our lives hell throughout school. Why play into that?”

Michael said, “I think it’s ‘cause I never went to my prom in high school. I didn’t have a date, but I was determined to go no matter what. But then, two weeks beforehand, several of the seniors on the Student Government Association decided to pull the prank of all pranks: they stole the principal’s car. They were only going to deck it out in tin cans and whatnot, but then they got into a bad wreck and totaled it. The principal was so pissed that she cancelled all remaining senior activities, including prom. I guess I just wanted to have that sort of experience for once.”

Ashley smiled. “That’s so cute. An idealistic dreamer.”

Smirking, Michael replied, “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity.”

Recognizing the quote, Ashley continued, “But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

“This, I did,” they both finished in unison.

Giggling a bit, Ashley said, “You’re something else, quoting T. E. Lawrence.”

“Yep, specifically used in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception,” Michael replied.

“Ooh, I love that series!”

“Ditto. Great stories and characters… though I do sometimes need a violent romp through a Call of Duty game to blow off steam.”

“Same here,” Ashley agreed. “You any good?”

“I have a longstanding love affair with Call of Duty,” Michael answered. “That, however, does not make me good at the game.”

“A gamer that admits he’s not the master at something? You are something of a unicorn, Michael.”

“Thanks,” he blushed.

Biting her lower lip, Ashley said, “So… I’ve got a proposition for you.”

“And that would be?”

“Play me once more in Pokémon. If you win, I’ll go to the dance with you.”

Michael’s eyebrows shot up at this, but as much as he wanted to accept then and there, he had the presence of mind to ask, “And if you win?”

“If I win, I get your Scizor.”

Michael almost balked at this offer. It wasn’t that his Scizor was unique or difficult to get in the video games; he could get another one with little problem. Rather, it was due to sentimental reasons. He had been using this particular Scizor for over ten years, all the way back to Pokémon Platinum. It had been his ace on nearly every competitive team he had built over that time, and letting it go would be tough. He was certain she knew this based on his previous statements. Still, he’d have been a damned fool to turn down a chance with a girl like Ashley. After a moment’s consideration, he stuck his hand out.

“Agreed.”

They shook on it, and their rematch began. This time, both had a better feel for what the other was going to do, resulting in a very even bout. Knowing how huge a threat the Celesteela was, Michael planned a brilliant trap to take it out before it could do much damage. Ashley battled back, sweeping Michael’s next two Pokémon with her Buzzwole, which hadn’t had much of a chance to do anything in their previous match. Michael finally brought in his Marowak, taking down Buzzwole and Clefable in quick succession. Her Garchomp finished off Michael’s Marowak and Mandibuzz, leaving only his Scizor to face her final three Pokémon. Garchomp was no problem, weak from battling two Pokémon already, but both Mega Gyarados and Tapu Koko were at full health. Thanks to a couple of well-timed attack boosts, Michael managed to down Mega Gyarados with just over half its HP remaining.

As Tapu Koko came out for the final pairing, Michael knew he was going to win. Scizor’s attack power had more than doubled from the previous boosts, and its opponent had a very weak defense. One shot with a priority Bullet Punch would be plenty to end the match. But as Scizor attacked, Tapu Koko’s health bar stopped depleting just shy of a knockout. Michael slapped his forehead at realizing that Tapu Koko was holding a special item: the Focus Sash. It’s an item used by frail Pokémon with no defenses, guaranteed to let them survive a single hit, provided they are at full health. That hadn’t been revealed in their previous match due to a couple of his Pokémon going up against it. To make matters worse, Tapu Koko now unleashed its Hidden Power attack, a special attack that could be customized to any element, in this case, Fire. It didn’t matter how strong Scizor might be; a single Fire type attack was plenty to bring him down. A moment later, the screen faded to black, showing Ashley’s team as victorious.

“Son of a bitch,” Michael muttered in disbelief.

“That’ll teach you to mess with me,” Ashley grinned, sticking her tongue out at him.

Without a word, Michael initiated a trade request with Ashley, depositing his Scizor into the system. “A deal’s a deal. Just… use him well. He’s been with me a long time.”

Michael stared at the screen, waiting for his ace to disappear onto Ashley’s 3DS, when a message appeared at the bottom of the screen.

Trade request canceled. Please wait…

“Huh?”

Ashley reached across the table, placing her hand on Michael’s. “I didn’t really want your Scizor, but I had to know how serious you were about asking me out,” she explained. “That seemed an easy way to see for sure.”

Michael shook his head. “Ashley, this game is one of my favorite pastimes, but I’d be a certifiable idiot if I let some piece of data in a video game keep me from asking out the most awesome girl I’ve ever met in my life.”

“You… mean that?” she asked as she began to blush.

“Yeah, I do.”

With a sly grin on her face, Ashley packed up her game system and grabbed her backpack. As she walked past Michael, she slipped him a scrap of paper and whispered, “Pick me up at seven tomorrow.”

“Will do,” Michael replied, finding her address and phone number on the paper.

As Ashley approached the door of the GameStop, Eric stood and blocked her path. “You beatin’ up on my new members, bitch?” he growled.

“None of your business, shithead,” Ashley huffed, pushing past him.

“If you know what’s good for you, you won’t come back,” he continued as she left. Turning back towards Michael’s table, Eric approached and asked, “What happened? Did you beat her?”

“No way,” Michael answered.

“You sure? I thought I saw you two making goo-goo eyes.”

“It’s called a distraction, and it didn’t work. She kicked my ass,” Michael reiterated.

“I warned ya not to play her…”

“Eh, it happens.”

“Well, anyway… I’ve got a solution to the problem with her. Next time she comes, she won’t be a problem,” Eric remarked.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Michael wondered.

“Don’t worry about. Just trust in your Almighty President; he’ll take care of you,” Eric replied, grinning and slapping Michael on his back.

Yeah, I’ll bet, Michael thought to himself.

*****

“Dude, you won’t believe what happened today,” Michael called out as he arrived back at his apartment.

“What’s up?” Antonio asked from the sofa.

“You know the girl from the basketball games?”

“That hot little trainer? Yeah?”

“She’s a member of the AU Pokémon League!”

“Are you serious?! Wha… what happened? Did you talk to her?” he asked.

“Yeah, we played a couple of games. She’s good; maybe the best I’ve ever played against,” Michael replied.

“That’s all? You just… played video games?” Antonio wondered, cocking his eyebrow.

“I, uh, might have also gotten her to agree to come to the Valentine’s Day dance with me,” Michael admitted.

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Antonio cheered, fist-bumping Michael. “You got a big day tomorrow. You ready for this?”

“To be honest… no, I’m not.”

“Whatcha mean?”

“Dude, I’ve never been on a real date before, let alone had an actual girlfriend!” Michael replied. “I don’t know the first thing about women!”

Grinning, Antonio said, “Don’t you worry; I got your back.”

“Yeah, says my gay roommate,” Michael teased.

“Not cool, dude. Here I am, trying to help you out, and you gotta go and question my sexuality!” Antonio fired back with a laugh. “But in all seriousness, if you doubt which way I swing… you could always ask Allison Smallwood.”

“You and Allison Smallwood?!”

“You bet your ass! We’ll be at the dance tomorrow.”

“Lucky bastard…” Michael grumbled.

“Hey, I’ve seen that trainer you’ve been pining over. You ain’t got nothin’ to be jealous of! Her name’s Ashley, right?”

“Yeah, but how’d you know?”

“Allison told me,” Antonio said. “I was tryin’ to gather information in case you needed a stronger shove to chat her up.”

“I take it back. You’re not a lucky bastard, you’re a sneaky bastard!”

“Damn straight! Now, let’s get you ready for your big date. Take a seat, my man.” As Michael plopped down in the chair across from him, Antonio continued, “Now, the first rule to remember is that she’s in charge. Anything she says ‘no’ to or isn’t comfortable with, that’s what goes. Understand?”

“Easy enough.”

“Good. But remember, even though she’s in charge, she’ll still want you to take the lead sometimes. The most attractive thing to most women is confidence. Not cockiness, but confidence.”

“Knew there was a catch,” Michael sighed.

“Don’t do that, man. That’s exactly what I’m talkin’ about. The minute you get down on yourself just ‘cause you think you’re not good enough, that’s when the girl will pick up on it. As cliché as it sounds, you have to just be you. You don’t want to go too over the top with your personality, or she’ll think you’re compensating for something, but you don’t wanna stifle your personality either, or she won’t get to know the real you. Worst case, she’ll think you don’t like her. But if you just act like you and be confident in that, everything else will fall into place. Trust me.”

“I’m assuming I need to open doors and everything like that?”

“Definitely start out that way, yeah,” Antonio answered. “Now, it’s entirely possible she may not like that, particularly if she’s strong and independent. If she reacts negatively, don’t panic. Just explain that you were taught to do those things as a sign of respect and good manners. That ought to be enough, but if she’s still not keen on it, don’t force the issue.”

“Ok, but… what if she wants me to hold her hand or… kiss her? How am I supposed to know and not fuck it up?”

“As far as holding her hand, it’s a dance. That means you two will be in close proximity all night; handholding is gonna happen on its own, so don’t stress over it. Now, as for kissing, you have to read the signs.”

“The signs?” Michael asked.

“Damn, ain’t you ever seen Hitch? Will Smith wrote the book on reading signs!”

“Dude, you know I can’t stand romantic comedies!” Michael laughed.

“With your luck, Ashley will feel the same way,” Antonio chuckled. “Anyway, the signs. If she’s smiling and maybe laughing at everything you two do together, that’s a sign she’s into you. If she finds any excuse in the world to touch you or take your arm, that’s a sign she’s into you. If you two find yourselves alone and she’s in no hurry to go back to where there’s more people, that’s a sign she’s into you. If you’re at her door and she fumbling with her keys, in no hurry to let the date end, that’s a sign she’s into you. And finally, if there’s a long silence where she maintains eye contact with you the whole time, that’s a full on signal she probably wants you to kiss her.”

“Probably?”

“Yeah, probably. There’s never any guarantee, especially when it comes to the fairer sex. The first kiss is always built on taking a chance. Keep in mind, the chance may not come tomorrow night, and that’s ok. That doesn’t mean she’s not into you, it may just mean she plays things close to the vest.”

“Fair enough. But what do I do if I get the signal? Just kiss her?”

“Naw, dude. You gotta use the 90/10 rule.”

“90/10 rule?”

Antonio sighed. “Man, this would be so much easier if you had seen Hitch. The 90/10 rule is simple: you have to go 90% of the way towards your first kiss with her, but make her come the last 10%. For example, imagine that long silence where she maintains eye contact the whole time. You maintain eye contact, too. That’s 20%. You smile, maybe laugh. That’s 20%. You put your hand on her arm. That’s 20%. You start to lean in closer. That’s 20%. Your faces are almost touching, and you stop. That’s 10%. She’s got to come the last 10%. The point of all that is to make your intentions clear while still giving her plenty of opportunity to pull back if she wants, and if she does, that’s ok.”

“Easy for you to say…”

“Again, stop that. Some gals play things conservatively to start with on account of being burned in the past. Nothin’ wrong with that, you just have to show that you’re trustworthy before she starts to open up. It certainly doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you if that were to happen.”

“Guess that’s true.”

“Now, for the final piece of the puzzle. Whatcha gonna wear tomorrow?”

Michael’s face twisted in panic. “I have no fucking clue!” he realized.

“No sweat! You’re looking at a master of the threads,” Antonio boasted. “You got a suit?”

“Just a black one I use for interviews and presentations.”

“Lemme see.”

Michael led the way into his closet and pulled out his black suit and white dress shirt. Antonio looked them over for a moment before tossing them on the bed.

“This’ll work. Got a tie?” he asked Michael.

“Yeah,” Michael replied, pulling out a striped red and white tie.

Antonio snorted a bit. “Good enough for a job interview, but not even close for a Valentine’s Day date.”

“Ok, what about a black tie?”

“A black tie with a black suit?! You gonna look like a damn Mormon, man! Put the suit on; I’ll be right back.” Antonio returned a couple minutes later with a few of his own neckties in hand. “The black suit and white shirt is a staple of any man’s wardrobe because of its incredible versatility. The tie is the most crucial aspect of this versatility. It’s the accent that allows the suit to send any message you want it to.”

“You are so obsessed,” Michael chuckled.

“I’ll choose to ignore your continued condescension,” Antonio shot back. Holding up a pale orange tie to Michael’s neck, he shook his head, saying, “Nah, you’re definitely not a pastels kind of guy. Whatcha think of this one?”

Examining the wine colored tie with a starburst pattern, Michael replied, “Too loud for my tastes.”

“No problem. Let’s see… ah ha! This is it!” Antonio held up a solid royal blue tie to Michael’s neck.

“Hmm… not bad,” Michael admitted.

“Not bad? Dude, this one is perfect for you! Goes great with your skin tone and the suit color, plus it sends the right message: confidence. It’s a strong color, but the lack of pattern makes sure it’s not too loud or trendy. It’s classic, just like you, my man. Here, put it on.”

As Michael fumbled a bit in front of his floor mirror, he asked, “What knot do you think I should use? Half Windsor?”

“Nah, a full Windsor is almost always best,” Antonio replied. “Symmetrical and confident, but not too over the top. A half Windsor can come off as sloppy.”

Michael took a few seconds to remember the steps for a full Windsor in his head before tying the knot around his neck. When he was finished, he had to admit he was impressed with the final product.

“Damn… I’d do me.”

“And who knows? Ashley may feel the same way,” Antonio grinned.

*****

Michael took several deep breaths as he ascended the stairs in Ashley’s apartment building. Antonio had done everything he could think of to make sure he was prepared yesterday, but Michael was still a nervous wreck. There was something special about this girl, and he did not want to screw it up. With a trembling hand, he reached forward and knocked on the door to apartment 2B.

“Yes?” came a voice from the other side.

“I’m Michael Goldman, here to pick up Ashley.”

“That’s right! Hold on a sec.”

A moment later, the door swung open, revealing a slim redhead with a pixie haircut. Dressed in a tank top and gym shorts, she had a hint of makeup on that seemed to indicate she was getting ready for Valentine’s Day, too.

“Hey! I’m Liz, Ashley’s roommate,” she said, extending her hand with a bubbly smile.

“Michael. Nice to meet you,” he replied, shaking her hand.

“Make yourself comfortable; Ashley should be ready in a little bit,” Liz said.

“No problem. Take your time.”

Liz adjourned to one of the back bedrooms to check on Ashley, finding her seated in front of the vanity. Her hair had been dried after her shower, but she still wore a towel wrapped around her body. She seemed lost and befuddled as she perused her makeup selection.

“Your guy’s here,” Liz giggled. “He’s cute! I’d totally be all over him… ya know, if I weren’t a lesbian.”

“Hands off, he’s mine!” Ashley laughed.

“You ok? You look lost.”

“Yeah, I just have no idea what to use. I want to make the right impression.”

“May I?” Taking a seat next to Ashley on the bench, Liz continued, “To be honest, you don’t need much. The point of makeup is to accentuate your best features, but much more than that just starts to look clownish. Here, a little bit of eyeliner… there, that’s perfect. Just add a touch of lip gloss and you’re good!”

“That’s it? What if he’s not impressed?” Ashley worried.

“Jesus, I’ve never seen you this worried about a date! He must have really gotten to you yesterday,” Liz giggled. “Don’t worry; if he’s the kind of guy I suspect he is, then he’ll enjoy every moment with you no matter how much makeup you use. Seriously, he gonna be speechless, girl.”

“If you say so. Thanks for letting me borrow your dress, by the way. Lord knows I don’t have anything to wear for something like this.”

“My pleasure! Gay or straight, I’m still a girl who likes wearing pretty things!”

“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were just as bad as all those sorostitutes,” Ashley deadpanned.

Hugging her friend, Liz said, “Oh, I won’t be home ‘til after lunch tomorrow, so you two can have the place to yourselves.”

“Liz! I just met the guy yesterday! I have no intention of sleeping with him!”

“I know, but I don’t want the lack of somewhere private to hamper your date tonight. Should the opportunity present itself, you two have somewhere to come after the dance, that’s all. No pressure.”

Rolling her eyes, Ashley realized her roommate was only trying to be considerate and helpful. “Thanks.”

“Welcome. All right, you finish getting ready. There’s a cutie outside waiting on you!” Liz replied, bouncing up to her feet.

*****

Michael fidgeted on the sofa, nervous as all hell as he waited for Ashley. He had expected to wait like this; Antonio made sure of that. Still, talking about the wait and experiencing it are two completely different things. A moment later, he heard the door open and snapped to attention, seeing Liz enter the living room.

“She’s almost ready, just a minute or two more.”

“No problem.” Remembering a suggestion Antonio had given him, Michael asked, “Hey, Liz… what’s Ashley’s favorite song?”

Eying him, she asked, “Why do you want to know?”

“I, uh, had the idea of surprising her by requesting it at some point tonight,” Michael admitted.

A wide grin soon spread across Liz’s face. “That’s a great idea. She’s got lots of favorites, but the top one is probably Welcome to the Black Parade.”

“My Chemical Romance. She’s got good taste,” Michael remarked.

“In music, at least,” Liz smirked. “We’ll see after tonight how her taste in men is.”

Before Michael could respond, Ashley’s bedroom door creaked open to reveal his date for the evening. She wore a red A-line halter-top dress that extended down to about her knees. Though the dress flared out at the skirt, the top half hugged her form nicely, displaying her flat stomach and the curvature of her breasts. The sleeveless top exposed a tattoo of a shooting star on her left shoulder. His eyes soon drifted up to her face, which was the most adorable thing he had ever seen in his life. To Michael, the fact that she wore so little makeup made her even more attractive. Her ash blonde hair had been straightened and now hung down past her shoulders; a headband with a small flower on top completed the ensemble. Of course, her bangs were still side swept over her right eye, which Michael surmised was part of her signature look.

“Well?” Ashley asked nervously, giving a little twirl.

“You look incredible,” Michael managed through his own nerves.

“Thanks,” Ashley replied, walking over to him. “You clean up nice, yourself.”

“Ok, smile!” Liz said, snapping a few pictures of them.

“Dammit, Liz! You know I hate having my picture taken!” Ashley laughed.

“I’m sorry, I don’t recall giving you a choice in the matter,” Liz replied, sticking her tongue out at her roommate. Handing her a wrap that matched the dress, Liz said, “Oh, you’ll need this. It’s a bit cool out there.

“Thanks, Mom,” Ashley smirked as she rolled her eyes. “Ready to go?”

“Definitely,” Michael grinned.

“You kids have fuuun!” Liz called out, causing Ashley to flip her off before closing the door behind her.

“So, yeah… that’s Liz, my lesbian roommate,” Ashley sighed as they started their walk towards campus.

“I like her,” Michael replied.

“Of course you do! She’s gorgeous!” Ashley teased.

“Not what I meant, but yes, she’s quite the looker. But more than that, she seems like a great friend.”

“Yeah, I guess she kind of is. Just don’t tell her that.”

“So, tell me about Ashley?” Michael asked. “Where you from, where you’re going, and all that?”

“Well, my family lives about thirty minutes south of here. My original plan after high school was to learn the body art business, but Dad pushed me to try and find a path to college. Nobody in our family has ever gone to college, but he knew I had the capability if I would work for it. Since I had helped out with injuries on the sports teams at my high school, I decided to look into the sports medicine program at Auburn. Once I got a scholarship as a student trainer, the rest was history!”

“That’s awesome,” Michael said. “I know college isn’t for everyone, but I’m glad your dad pushed you.”

“I am, too. I’m definitely in a better place than I would have been.”

“Any siblings?”

“Two older sisters. One’s a beautician in my hometown, the other moved down to Mobile with her husband,” Ashley replied.

“Nice. You mentioned your dad. What about your mom?”

Ashley grimaced at this. “Mom ran off with some guy when I was six…”

Michael cursed himself for bringing up the topic. “I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

“It’s fine,” Ashley said, linking her arm in his. “It just helped me learn what family really is. In spite of everything, Dad never got down or blamed us for anything. Hell, he never even said a bad thing about Mom.”

“He sounds like a great guy.”

“The only male I’ve met that I know I can trust,” Ashley agreed. “Now, what about you? What’s your story?”

“Me? I grew up in Dunwoody. It’s a suburb just north of Atlanta. As I’m sure you guessed from my last name and my nose, yes, I’m Jewish!” he laughed.

“I had wondered if that was the case,” Ashley grinned.

“There’s not much way to hide it. Pale complexion, the nose, and dark curly hair… I’m pretty stereotypical.”

“Nothing wrong with that. You are who you are, so own it!”

Huh. Maybe Antonio was on to something?

Shaking his thoughts away, Michael focused back in on his date. “Anyway, I grew up in a pretty normal family, if there is such a thing. Only child, went to synagogue every Saturday, annoying yet loving parents…”

“Sounds better than what I had,” Ashley agreed with a smile.

“Eh, you seem to have turned out just fine. In spite of everything, your dad still wants the best for you.”

“Yeah,” she said wistfully, realizing she actually had a pretty good family in spite of her life circumstances. “So, what brought you to Auburn all the way from Atlanta?”

“Family school. I’m a second generation Tiger. Both parents went and met here, plus my aunt and uncle, then their two daughters…”

“Indoctrinated from birth much?” Ashley teased.

“Wait… we talking college or are we back to Judaism?” Michael replied, eliciting another laugh from Ashley. “But yeah, very much brainwashed in favor of Auburn. When I was little, I used to think that all kids went to Elementary School, then Middle School, then High School, and then Auburn.”

They walked along for a few moments in comfortable silence before Ashley said, “It’s awesome that you can laugh at yourself. I try to do that, but I don’t always succeed.”

Michael shrugged. “I’m a walking talking caricature, so why not admit it? Makes it impossible to get offended, I’ll tell ya that.”

“You don’t get offended by anything?”

“Not really.”

“Not even a topic that hits close to home?” Ashley wondered.

“Depends,” Michael replied. “Take Hitler, for example. Evil man, and I hope there’s never another like him, but I’m glad he existed. If he hadn’t, my grandparents would never have fled Germany and met on the voyage to America, falling in love and eventually having my dad. If not for Hitler, I’m never born, plain and simple. Perspective.”

“That’s a great way to think about it,” Ashley said, becoming more impressed with this guy by the second. “So, are we walking because today is Saturday? No working on the Sabbath?”

“Nah, we’re walking because we’re poor college students who have to beg for gas money,” he remarked. “But that’s only something the more conservative branches of Judaism practice. My family is part of Reformed Judaism. Basically, we aren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, but individuals have to determine on their own what constitutes ‘work’. For example, yard work might be considered a chore for one person, so they refrain from it, but it may be a relaxing means of recreation for someone else, so they do it.”

“That makes sense,” Ashley nodded. “That’s so cool that your faith is such a natural part of your life. Like, you don’t even have to think about it; it’s just like breathing. To be honest, I kinda wish I had something like that…”

“You guys never went to church growing up?”

Ashley shook her head. “Mom was a big Bible thumper for the short time I remember of her, but then she ran off with some CEO type. At least, that’s what my big sisters say. Dad never could bear to bring us to church after that. I think i

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