Author's Note: Fixed a minor error where I used the wrong card effect last chapter. Alicia's Storm Claw has been replaced by Hurricane Claw, a similar but non identical card.

At some point in time my piece of crap laptop decided to erase a portion of the battle and I couldn't recall what exactly happened so I had to fill it in with a new card. Hope everything still checks out.

I feel I should point out right now that I have a terrible memory and I am trying to avoid continuity errors but I can only do so much.

Writing may slow down a bit after this chapter while I take more time off to relax. I am so far behind on the shows I want to watch, books I want to read, and games, but even when I take time off from writing I am too stressed out to relax. I might throw in an omake/bonus chapter or something maybe, just to tide things over.

Chapter 19

Heartlocked Miscommunication

Another day after school and Fletcher and Erica found themselves back at Moink, getting snacks. The school lunch had actually been great that day, turkey sandwiches on rye, but they both felt like nabbing some dessert. Erica wanted to try the new cinnamon roll parfait being advertised on TV, but they were sold out, so she'd gotten a strawberry parfait instead. Though disappointed, she made the best of it and enjoyed her delicious parfait. Fletcher went with a simple chocolate parfait, he scooped a spoonful into his mouth, and let the sweet taste spread across his mouth as the cream melted on his tongue.

"So what exactly is a parfait?" Erica asked. "Like, obviously it's this whole dessert thing," she gestured, "but I've had them from like, four different places and they all seem like completely different things. Some are more yogurt with bits of fruit, some have this soft cake in it, and some come with ice cream. Although I think I like Moink's the best from what I've tried." She bit into a sweet and juicy strawberry and allowed the juices to run down her tongue.

"Apparently there are two main kinds," said Fletcher. "The original French dessert is more like a custard, whereas American parfait has stuff like yogurt, or granola, or whatever. I've seen places do graham cracker crusts, sort of like a pie. But I like Moink's too. The soft cake is fluffy yet decadent and the ice cream is sweet.

"I still want to try one of those huge ones you see in Japan though. But as far as fast food desserts go, this is amazing." He finished his in a few more bites.

Despite being halfway through October already, Moink had only recently thrown up its Halloween decorations. Fake cobwebs hung in the corners, spiders crawled all over the walls, mobiles hung from the ceilings, showing ghosts, bats, and witches flying in circles. A friendly scarecrow guarded the entrance, wearing a bright smile to avoid frightening the children too much.

Taking a few more bites of her own parfait, Erica smiled. "So what do you want to do today? Hang out at the mall? Go play some video games? See a movie? I've been wanting to rewatch Sunset Hurricane. It was really good."

Fletcher leaned back in his booth, hands behind his head. "I dunno. Why don't you decide? I don't mind trying to do what you want. You got into Card Force because of me. I don't want to take the lead all the time."

"Really, I don't mind. I guess I'm just not that decisive of a person." Erica shrugged her shoulders as she finished her parfait. "Really, I'm fine doing whatever you want." Fletcher didn't say anything and stretched his arms out more as he lost himself in thought. "Well I guess we could visit the mall. We could check out the arcade or do karaoke or something. I just hope we don't run into anybody infected."

Erica tensed up a little.

Fletcher let out a sigh. "It just seems that's been happening a lot lately. I did want to spend some time with you but maybe it's better if we ask someone else to hang out with us, just in case," Fletcher grabbed his phone, but he hesitated. It felt like he'd been having less one on one time with Erica, although admittedly, it wasn't as if he hadn't spent some of that time seeking one on one time with other people. "I'll text Naota, and see if he's busy."

'Hey Naota, Erica and I were about to go hang out at the mall. We were wondering if you'd like to come with us, that way if we run into an infected Enforcer we don't need to wait for someone to come to the rescue.'

Naota replied almost immediately.

'I'll go hang out at Play Heart on standby. If anything happens I'll be close enough to help. That way you can spend some time with Erica! You should totally ask her out to the dance next month!'

Fletcher let out a sigh. "He says he'll be around if we need him but we should just have fun and not be too worried about it." In truth he almost felt a little…disappointed? He chewed the inside of his mouth, figuring he really need to sort some things out with himself later. But for now he figured he'd just enjoy spending time with the cute girl he had a total crush on.

"I just texted Alicia, she said she'd meet us there!" Said Erica. "So you can text Naota back and tell him it's okay."

Fletcher frowned, but he bit his lower lip and smiled. "That sounds great. But hopefully we don't actually run into anybody infected. Having to battle with high stakes all the time is kind of starting to wear me out, and I've only battled two infected Enforcers." He hung his head low. "Being a Peppermint Knight is tough."

'Hey Naota, never mind, Alicia said she'd be our backup."

'Oh well, I already left the house. Guess I might as well just hang out there. Still, text me if you need anything.'

Gathering their trash to toss it, Erica gave Fletcher a quizzical glance. "I know we've talked about it before but, why are you a Peppermint Knight anyway? It feels like everybody has some sort of serious reason, even if we don't know them all just yet. Are you really just in it to help strangers?"

"Well, the other knights are my-" Fletcher paused. "Naota's my friend. I don't know the others very well. Hikaru, Loaño, Alicia, and Nayuta are all strangers. And Maxwell is- well he's Maxwell. At this point I just want to help Naota. I don't really know what I can do, but if I keep practicing and I become a better Enforcer, then maybe I can help save him someday."

"Fletcher, how do you," Erica was stopped when her phone buzzed. "Hi mom," she answered it quickly. "Yeah, just hanging out with Fletcher right now. We were about to head to the mall. Oh, need me to pick up some stuff? Just the chicken? Well, if you change your mind text me a list with anything else I should grab. Yeah, we'll pick it up on the way back." She hung up her phone. "Mom wants me to pick up some chicken for dinner." Erica laughed. "She's making adobo. We can head to the store on our way back, if that's okay with you."

"Sure, I'd love to help," Fletcher perked up a little, eager to help Erica in some way.

He thought back to Naota's confession, something that hadn't been that long ago and yet felt like it had been a different millennium.

"I've had a crush on you ever since that day."

"But- why?"

He still couldn't quite figure out why someone like Naota would have a crush on him. And if he couldn't justify that to his brain, could he really expect someone like Erica to return his feelings? He felt like he needed to do something to get his foot in the door as a potential romantic interest.

'Maybe try telling her how you feel,' he nagged himself.

But of course he couldn't. Not like he hadn't tried before.

.

Once, they were sitting at her home watching a movie with her brother, James. James took the armchair while Fletcher and Erica shared the couch. Though stricter and more conservative families might have had an issue with the whole thing, Fletcher had been invited for a sleepover, meaning he got to stay up late and hang with Erica, though they were still being supervised. They'd set up sleeping bags for later and ordered a pizza that was still on its way. But for now they were in the middle of a Disney movie marathon, with Lilo and Stitch currently on the screen.

It was a somewhat hot day, and they had the fan running at full blast. Fletcher had taken off his red jacket, but left his white T-shirt on. He did wish he'd worn shorts though, but it was too late to go change now, so he was stuck in jeans.

Erica, on the other hand, wore a simple blue top with black cotton shorts and had her hair in a ponytail. It was a simple look, but to Fletcher, she was the cutest girl in the entire world. She laughed at the screen and nearly choked on her popcorn, but Fletcher couldn't care less about the movie right now. It was definitely an amazing movie, one of Disney's best, hands down. But with his heart beating in his ears, he couldn't think of anything other than Erica.

Teenagers and hormones were rarely a good combination.

"I'm going to go get a soda," said James as he stood. "Anybody else want one?" He left for the kitchen, leaving Fletcher and Erica alone.

"I'll take one," said Erica.

"Sure," Fletcher said nervously, gulping down. He folded his hands in his lap and forced a nervous grin. "So, Erica." His voice squeaked. "I've been meaning to tell you-" before he could finish, a crash came from the kitchen as things toppled out of the fridge.

Erica shot up. "Everything okay?" She dashed to go check on James.

"Yeah, it's fine. Mom and dad just need to be more careful when they put stuff away. I can handle it, go enjoy the movie." James grabbed some pots off the floor and quickly went to look for a mop.

Erica let out a sigh as she returned to the living room, plopping down next to Fletcher. "Sorry, you were saying something?"

Fletcher's body went stiff. He stretched out his legs and let out a sigh, hanging his head in defeat. "Oh, just that I started reading a new web comic you might like. It's called Princess of the Flower Fields. It's about a princess who grows magic flowers and hands them out to people."

"Oh yeah, I've been meaning to start that."

This wasn't the first, nor the last time his confession had been interrupted. Once at school, he'd started to tell her, only for a teacher to barge into the conversation and congratulate her about acing her test. Another time at the mall, he was about to ask her out on an actual for real date, but a teenager complimented her on her skirt and asked where he could buy one for himself. Then there was that time they were playing video games together. He'd opened his mouth to tell her how he felt, but she scored a kill on the enemy and cheered loudly enough to drown his words. He'd lost his nerve after that.

.

And as Fletcher reminisced over things, he was not the only one doing so. Naota sat at Play Heart, still on standby, resting his shoulders on the table. He stared at the wall, lost in thought. "Something wrong?" His uncle asked him. But he just shook his head as he thought about something Erica said.

"I've got friends like Fletcher … that I want to keep around for all of time, but obviously they're not people I'm going to date… Fletcher just doesn't like me that way."

"What makes you say that?" Naota asked. His heart thumped against his chest. He badly wanted to tell her how Fletcher felt, or to call Fletcher and tell him how Erica felt, just to help kick start their relationship. He was sure it would make Fletcher happy. But it was against his code of life to spill someone's secret like that. Even if that secret spilling was beneficial for all parties involved.

He'd possibly jumped the gun a little in assuming Erica felt the same way about Fletcher, but she did seem to consider Fletcher a potential romantic partner, ruled out only by Fletcher's own seeming lack of interest. He definitely wanted the two of them to have a chance together. He should have just encouraged Erica. 'Hey, why don't you try asking Fletcher out first? Maybe he'll reciprocate.' Sighing, he got up for a walk.

It was an ordinary afternoon, nobody stood out and everything seemed fine. Hopefully it would stay that way. He wasn't really in the mood to deal with the infected at the moment. Honestly he should have just headed straight home and let someone else take over as backup, but he figured this way he could help ensure Fletcher and Erica got to be alone together.

Two young women held hands as they walked out of the ice cream store, one licking a triple stack of cookie dough ice cream, while the other gobbled off tiny bits of what appeared to be the cotton candy flavor. Naota took one step toward the White Family Creamery, but he froze in his tracks and stepped into Strange Heart instead.

His eyes were sunken and his arms hung at his side. He barely lifted his feet as he walked, trudging across the tile. Tiffany's smile was kind, but muted. "Everything okay Naota?" She asked. "You don't look so well." She was wearing a gorgeous red and black blouse that looked like something you'd see at a fancy ball. She was dressed to sell jewelry, not cardstock, even if the thin pieces of paper could be just as expensive.

"Just boy problems," he brushed a strand of hair behind his ear and looked away, averting Tiffany's gaze. "Nothing serious or life altering, I'll deal."

"If something's bothering you this badly, you shouldn't be dismissive of it just because you think it doesn't meet some arbitrary standard of seriousness. If things are bothering you I'm here to discuss, whether this is about Yuu, Fletcher, or even someone new. Of course, it isn't my policy to pry. So I won't dig much deeper, I just want to let you know I'm here."

"Thanks," said Naota. Looking around, he wasn't sure why he'd come. It was the same as ever, people played with each other, waging all-out war with their cards. Once upon a time it might have seemed strange to see these kinds of things, monsters, knights, ghosts, dragons, wizards, zombies, and other fantasy creatures all engaged in combat wherever you looked. Now it was no different than seeing people playing a video game or watching TV.

A new girl seemed to be staring at the others, too shy to join in. She wore ribbons in her multi colored hair and had a gothic outfit complete with lots of lace, including lacy ribbons on her boots. She looked like she'd stepped out of a manga. "Hey, are you Christina by any chance?" Naota asked. "I'm Alicia's friend, Naota."

The girl smiled at him. "Yep, Christina, that's me. Alicia said I should try coming here to make some friends, but I think I'm taking it slow. It might just be easier that way. I haven't really made any friends yet, but it's only been a day. And I have at least had a chance to talk to people." She twiddled her thumbs as she watched a raging battle between one player's dragon deck and another player's mage deck. The mages seemed to be winning.

"I don't know how much Alicia told you about me, but I was in a really depressed state when she found me. I didn't have any friends and the only person I really enjoyed talking to my aunt. But she's busy. Now that she isn't responding to me so much I'm worried I may have gotten too clingy."

"Yeah, I guess staking all your happiness on one person's attention is a recipe for disaster," said Naota. "Really wish I could learn that lesson. Here I am acting like a hopeless idiot over one boy. But you probably don't want to hear about that."

Christina stood up, pumping a fist into the air. "You're right, there's no point just wallowing over one person when there's lots of people out there. My aunt is busy, so I'll just make new friends." She walked toward a table where some other Enforcers were getting ready for a game. "Mind if I join you?" They smiled at her and she joined them for a battle royale.

Naota chuckled to himself. "I guess that's one person on the path to recovery." He turned to Tiffany, who had a few rare cards in her hand. She sprayed their plastic sleeves with a cleaning solution and polished them. It was all part of the presentation, even if not strictly necessary. (Really, the cards would be fine without plastic sleeves. At least recent advances in recycling meant the plastic wouldn't go to waste.)

"Was there ever a time when it got hard for you? Working with all these cards?" Naota asked suddenly. "If you don't mind me asking that is. It's just, you always seem to ask about us but we don't know much about you."

"As an adult I feel it is my duty to help out children when they are in need. To reciprocate the openness I ask of you would be a double edged sword. To some children, knowing that adults are vulnerable is a comfort and makes it easier to open up to them in return. Yet I wouldn't want to burden a child with my stories. That would be asking too much.

"Still, if it eases your mind any, yes there was a time when looking at these cards reminded me of Daisy. It's ironic, once upon a time I could not look at any trading cards at all, but Daisy is the one who got me back into them. She even inspired me to get a job selling cards. When we broke up, I was devastated and almost closed up shop. But in the end I decided against it. I wasn't going to let my joy be spoiled anymore." She rubbed the cards with a washcloth, leaving them practically sparkling. She really did look like a jeweler polishing gemstones.

"Did you know Daisy designed the card Angel's Blessing? It's considered a very powerful draw card and it's highly sought after but incredibly rare. I often have people coming to me trying to acquire a copy. I have one myself, Daisy gave it to me when we were still together. I almost sold it for the money, but decided to keep it."

Nodding along to Tiffany's story, Naota bit his trembling lip. "I've kind of had both of them on my brain lately. Yuu and Fletcher I mean.

"I saw an advertisement for the new cinnamon roll parfaits at Moink this morning. Yuu was the one who convinced them to start selling parfaits in the first place, so it made me think of him. I still miss him." Naota grabbed his deck. "It's like that Michelle Branch song. When I close my eyes, he's all I can think about half the time."

"They say for many people, their first love never truly dies. But I promise in time it will fade and be more bearable," said Tiffany. "The best advice most people can give is to remove the things in life that remind you of them, but obviously that can't be done. Not unless you learn how to dimension hop." She set the cards down and offered a smile. "I know there isn't much that can be done about the way you feel, but opening up often helps people recover."

Naota smiled sadly and rubbed the back of his head. "Of course, when I'm not angsting over Yuu, my heart's breaking over Fletcher." He absent mindedly drew the top card of his deck, Moonlight Owl. "I know he loves Erica and I want to be supportive of that." He let out a sigh. "I'm trying not to let it get me down, but with the school dance coming up, romance is in the air."

"Any plans to attend the dance? Perhaps you could find someone new to ask?"

"Maybe. But for now I guess I'll just wait and see."

.

As Fletcher and Erica walked, Fletcher couldn't notice how reserved Erica seemed. She kept her head down and seemed jittery. Once, they passed a man who called out loudly to his friend across the street. Erica jumped a little, but insisted it was fine. "It's okay to admit you were startled, you know. Loud noises can do that." Fletcher had insisted. But she just shook her head.

"You've been a bit tense ever since we talked about the infected. Are you nervous, Erica?" Fletcher asked, frowning. "We were attacked by somebody with a knife. If you're scared, it's perfectly reasonable."

Erica just shook her head. "It doesn't feel reasonable when you and Naota are doing so well. Naota's the one who got stabbed and he barely even reacted. Me on the other hand? I'm having nightmares. I'm trembling just thinking about it."

Fletcher took a closer look and saw that Erica was indeed, shaking. He was about to try comforting her when her eyes lit up and she started waving at someone.

Alicia stood by her car, waiting for them in the parking lot, waving back.

Fletcher knew that it was ridiculous to feel jealous, and perhaps even hypocritical, but part of him felt it was unfair that Alicia got to show up when Naota hadn't. Yet he also realized it was unfair to want Naota and Erica both around while pushing away anybody else who might claim their attention. And another part of him still realized that there were far more important things to deal with now. Yet he couldn't help it, and he wanted to kick himself for his jealousy.

She'd somehow managed to find time to change out of her uniform and into a purple vest worn over a white top and slender black pants. That outfit looks great on you!" Said Erica as she circled around Alicia to admire her from all sides and angles. "Where'd you get it?"

"I actually made it myself. I like to sew, so I occasionally make my own clothes. In fact I'm making my own dress for the school dance next month. I offered to make one for Thuy, but she says she wants to wear her mother's dress." Alicia did a little twirl to better show off her work. Fletcher couldn't help but smile a little, it was impressive work, though now he wished he could sew a dress for Erica.

"What about you two? Either of you have plans for the date?" Alicia raised an eyebrow. She angled her face toward Fletcher, as if directing the question mostly at him.

"Oh you know, not really?" He rubbed his head sheepishly.

Erica shrugged her shoulders. "I'm still waiting to see if any guys ask me."

Alicia smiled. "You know," she began, shaking with hints of laughter, "as a lesbian I don't really see the whole point of waiting around for men to make the first move. If there's a guy you like, why not just ask him? You know how some people can be. Too shy and nervous to make the first move." She gave a quick glance at Fletcher, who was now squirming a little and fiddling with his tie. "So do it for them. Just turn to the boy you like and ask him, 'hey, want to be my date?'"

Alicia gave them both a grin. "So where did you two want to go?"

"How about karaoke?" Erica dashed off, but came to a halt after only a few feet. She was staring at a beautiful shimmering pink gown that sparkled like starlight. It was fitted until the waist before flaring out at the thighs. For a second she lost herself in a fantasy- she wore the gown while Fletcher wore a handsome tux and together they danced in the middle of the floor at the center of everyone's attention while all their friends and classmates applauded. "Do you think I'd look good in that dress?" She asked.

"Absolutely!" Said Alicia.

"Obviously! You'd look great in anything!" Fletcher added.

But Erica saw the price tag and shook her head. "I'll probably just borrow something from my mom." She closed her eyes in dismay and failed to notice Fletcher discretely snapping a quick photo. "I'm sure she's got something to wear. And if not, I hear Akimoto Academy usually has a stock of free formal attire for students to borrow to dances and other events."

Fletcher stared at the price tag, cringing. It was over a thousand dollars, no way could he manage that. Unless he asked his father for an advance and promised to work hard to pay him back, maybe promise to bring up his grades. It might take a few months of back breaking work with no more allowance, but he might be able to manage it if he put his heart and soul into it. He quickly snapped a photo for future reference, maybe he could find something similar online.

"Do either of you know how to dance? Alicia asked. I've never been great but I like to practice every now and then. Mostly because I love being able to go to school dances with cute girls." She grabbed at the air, whistling a few notes of Swan Lake as she did a few rudimentary ballet moves. Nothing as refined as the professionals, but still a step better than your average citizen. "It's way more fun to actually dance along, but hanging out with your date or your friends can be nice too. And if nothing else, the food is usually fantastic. Akimoto Academy goes all out when catering events like these."

"I'm not that great a dancer, but I've been practicing," admitted Erica.

"Every time I try to slow dance in front of the computer I end up tripping over my own feet."

"Maybe you two should practice together sometimes. Having a partner for this kind of thing usually helps," suggested Alicia.

Fletcher blushed, but Erica thought it over for a moment. "We used to when we were little but that sort of stopped. I guess once puberty hit and we sort of realized that dances were usually romantic we sort of gave up on it. I remember we used to dance to my grandmother's music box all the time." She hung her head, saddened by the memory. "We should try that again sometime."

Fletcher began to whistle. It was a little off key, but not terrible. Alicia smiled at the gentle melody.

"Ciel Rose?" Alicia asked, recognizing the tune. "It's a beautiful piece. Probably one of my favorite classics. Not that it isn't a long list," she chuckled.

"My grandmother had a music box that played this song," said Erica. "She said it was her favorite song growing up and she danced to it at her first wedding. This music box was the last thing her husband gave to her before he passed away. For a long time she couldn't bear to think of this song anymore and she kept the music box locked away. I found it one day when digging through the closet for an old family photo album.

"Grandma said it made her happy to see the song bringing me as much joy as it once brought her. She took the music box out of the closet and never hid it away again. I'd play it all the time growing up and hum along. Fletcher and I used to love dancing to it. When she passed, she left the music box to me. It reminds me of her."

Erica forced a tiny smile to her face as she looked her friends in the eyes. "But that's enough wallowing, why don't we go head to the karaoke parlor now?" She turned back and took a few more steps, when all three stopped in place. A cold chill running down their spines. "That doesn't feel right," she said, scanning the area.

Two people stood in front of the dress boutique. One was a light skinned girl with dyed purple hair and a black gothic coat covered in numerous belts. The other was a dark skinned black girl wearing a frilly pink dress with loads of ribbons and lace. She struggled to walk in her high heeled boots. They were pretty but apparently not very easy on the feet. She carried with her a pink umbrella that helped block out the sun. She had gorgeous dreadlocks that fell down her shoulders. They laughed and chatted for a bit before stepping inside.

"Wasn't that Zara?" Asked Fletcher. He recognized the purple haired girl, even if she had gotten a haircut and dyed her hair a new color. "And whoever she was with was definitely infected. Guess we better go check on them."

For a second, Fletcher considered asking Naota to be Alicia's backup so he and Erica could enjoy their time together. But that felt wrong. He hung his head in dismay and gave a halfcocked grin. "I guess I should be glad we didn't run into any problems at Moink. Or get attacked on the way to school." He gave Erica a look of concern. "Do you feel comfortable coming with us, or would you rather go wait with Naota?"

Alicia smiled at Erica. "We understand if you're too nervous to come with us. And if you want we can walk you to Naota ourselves, just to make sure you're safe."

Erica shook her head. "No, everything seems fine for now. I can always run later if things get heated. But I don't want to hide just because things might get bad. And I don't want to be the type of person who needs a bodyguard."

"Just remember," said Alicia, "there's no shame in wanting to be safe."

They followed the duo inside.

It was a beautiful place. Mannequins of multiples sizes, shapes, and colors all displayed various dresses. They came in black, pink, white, blue and more. There were ball gowns worthy of princesses, dresses that twisted around the legs, dresses with trails that flowed along the ground. The tiled floor was so polished you could see your own reflection. Designer dresses hung from racks and the soft piano music made the entire place feel like an enchanted fairy land.

It even smelled great, like a pine forest with just a hint of vanilla.

Dazzling lights illuminated various mirrors placed around the store. Dressing rooms in the corner invited potential shoppers to try on their clothing. Erica spun around, her eyes twinkling with delight. "Wow, this all looks amazing. I wish I could afford something like this."

Alicia chuckled, patting her on the back. "So just wanted to check one last time. Do you want to go somewhere safer?"

Erica snapped to attention and remembered what they were here for. "No, I'll come with you two. After all this seems like a pretty safe mission. I doubt anyone will get stabbed."

A black woman in a purple vest and white dress shirt helped Zara and the other girl as they walked down the aisles looking for something to wear. "We're just looking for something fun to wear to a tea party with friends," said Zara. She turned to her friend. "See anything you like, sweetie?" Her tag read 'Elly She/Her.'

Fletcher smiled. Looks like Zara had found someone new in her life.

"This actually looks amazing!" It was an off the shoulder pink dress that flared out at the hips just a little. The main dress stopped at the knees but a layer of blue sheer fabric went down further. The dress also came with a dazzling white cape. "And I just love the colors." As a trans girl, Juri was delighted. She wore many things in the trans pride colors, including her deckbox, which also bore the words "she/her." This dress perfectly suited her tastes.

"Anything's perfect for you, Juri," said Zara with a smile. "Why don't you try it on?" She snapped a few pictures as her girlfriend grabbed the dress and took it to the changing room. Spinning, her eyes lit up when she noticed Fletcher. "Hey Fletch, long time no see. How are things with that girl you were talking about?" She tilted her head and smirked.

Fletcher felt the world's gaze upon him. "This is her, Erica." She gestured to his childhood friend. "And this is our friend Alicia. We saw you outside and I wanted to check in on you. Things seemed kind of heavy when we left off."

"Well, I've got someone new in my life. Her name is Juri, and she's amazing." Zara opened up her Instagram page. It was flooded with pictures of her and Juri. They hung out at the amusement park: visiting the hall or mirrors, eating cotton candy, riding the merry-go-round, winning stuffed dolls, and more.

There were pictures eating out at various restaurants, eating noodles, having sushi, munching on salads. It was hard to imagine they'd dated this much in the time between now and Zara's breakup.

There were pictures at bookstores, at an aquarium, at the park, walking through the woods, and several just lounging around the house. Her Instagram was filled with pages upon pages of their dates.

"Seems like you two have been busy," Fletcher joked.

"And how about you?" Zara leaned in to whisper. "Any luck with your romantic endeavors? Better make your move dude, before you lose them both." She pulled back with a wink. "So did you ever give Erica that gift you got her?"

"Oh yeah, that. I did. Not that it was a big deal," said Fletcher sheepishly.

"It was a big deal," said Erica, beaming brightly. She searched her deck for Doom Lycoris and showed it off proudly. "I use it all the time when playing with people. Well, it's mostly just Fletcher but every now and then I'll play another classmate during recess or lunch. It's one of my best cards, along with the Rose Storm card I got from Alicia and the Lotus Dragon I got from my other friend Naota. I think you met them."

Zara raised an eyebrow. "Naota got you the Lotus Dragon. How interesting." She paused for a moment, working things over in her head. Would it be rude to bring up Naota's original plan? She did want some context, but didn't want to stir up any trouble.

Sensing Zara's curiosity, Fletcher shoved his hands into his and took a deep breath. "I couldn't take credit for Naota's gift. It wouldn't sit right with me." When Erica was the next to give a quizzical look, Fletcher turned to her. "Naota bought the Lotus Dragon card and told me to give it to you as a gift from me. He thought it would make me happy to get you such a nice gift, but it just left me feeling hollow inside, so I decided to tell the truth."

"Oh, I see," said Erica, unsure of how to respond to that.

The curtains swished and out of the dressing room stepped a fabulous looking Juri, her hips swishing as she gave a dramatic walk down the aisle, imagining herself a model on the catwalk. Zara snapped photos from all sorts of angles, already mentally picking which to post online. It was going well until Juri tripped on her boots and let out a yelp. Luckily, Zara caught her in an instant. "You okay, sweetie?"

"Yeah I'm fine." Juri made her way to a raised platform, displaying a black mannequin in a beautiful purple dress, and sat down at the edge to take a break. "My older sister told me that boots like these would be hard to walk in and warned me to not wear them out shopping until I got practice, guess I got a bit overconfident." She stood up one last time and twirled for the audience, examining herself in the many mirrors all around. "I love it." She pulled out a debit card. "I'll take it," she told Elly. As she left for the register, Zara quickly began uploading more photos. Despite having taken dozens, it was easy enough for her to narrow it down to the ones she wanted. She preferred ones where Juri smiled the brightest.

"You seem really happy with her," said Fletcher. "Truth be told I was worried after your break up with Tony. You two didn't exactly part on the most amicable terms, although it certainly could have been worse."

"Yeah, well, things just weren't right for us. He was kind of an asshole and I wasn't exactly handling myself as maturely as possible. But hey, I've got a girlfriend now and I finally came out to my parents as bisexual, so things could not be better." She smiled up at Juri as she and Elly returned. The tag had been removed and Juri held a receipt in her hands, apparently she wanted to wear the dress out.

"And can I help you find anything for your tea party?" Elly asked Zara, who smirked in return.

"Actually I've got a few different ideas I'd like to try out," she grabbed five different dresses from around the store and took them all into the dressing room. "These all look great so I can't really decide which one I want."

The song on the piano changed, playing a gentle version of Ode to Joy. Juri took a deep breath as she checked her phone, her face frowning as she looked over some pictures. She set her phone aside and gazed at the floor, remaining motionless as she waited for Zara.

"Something the matter?" Erica asked.

"Zara keeps taking all these pictures of us and posting them all over Facebook and Instagram. She never did that with any of her exes, definitely not with Tony. I've known them both for a long time and Tony and I are- well we aren't really friends, but we are friends on Facebook. And she constantly posts on my wall to tell me that she's thinking of me or that she can't wait to see me or that I looked great in my dress.

"I've had a huge crush on her for a long time, but I can't help but worry that I'm just a way for her to make Tony jealous. That she just wants him to see how much fun she's having without him.

"What if I'm nothing more than just some sort of pawn to make a guy feel jealous?" She put her face in her palms. "I mean, why else would she even bother with me now? I've known her for years and she hasn't shown the slightest interest in me. Suddenly she breaks up with her boyfriend and she rushes into a relationship with me?"

Fletcher shook his head and smiled. "I can see the way Zara looks at you and the way her eyes lit up when she saw you in that dress. There's no way she was faking that. And besides, just because you don't love someone at first doesn't mean love can't grow later. Love isn't always at first sight, sometimes it just needs a little watering. What happened after you heard she broke up with Tony?"

Juri looked up briefly. "I asked her if she needed anything. She told me some of her things were still at her house and she needed them picked up so I volunteered. When I brought them over I saw she hadn't eaten anything other than junk food and her parents were out of town for a few days, so I invited myself over and made some fajitas for us to eat."

"See!" Said Fletcher. "You were there for her when she was down. I bet that's what made her fall for you! She saw what a kind caring person you were and she loved that. There's no way she's just using you to make Tony jealous. And besides. She's the one who broke it off with him? Why would she want him back?"

"You're really young kid. The heart can be such a huge mess for people. She broke up with him but I don't think she wanted to cut him off this completely. He unfriended her on all social media and now avoids her on the street. I think that just makes her want him back." She hugged her knees and leaned back against the mannequin.

"Okay but like, why would she want to get back with him when you're much prettier?" Fletcher offered.

Alicia rolled her eyes, unsure of how to easily explain the flaws in Fletcher's logic and his attempts to calm her were not the best. That looks weren't everything? That the heart could be ridiculous? That attractive was subjective? That randomly calling a girl you don't know pretty might just put her on edge?

Oh well, at least his words came from a place of kindness.

"Uh, thanks?" Juri responded, unsure.

Fletcher sighed. It seemed words weren't getting through to Juri.

"I challenge you to a Card Force battle," said Fletcher. "Loser gives the winner one rare card and has to grant the winner a wish- within reason of course. And if I win my wish is for you to open up with Zara about how you feel." Fletcher gave a sad smile. "Communication is important. It's the entire reason Zara and Tony's relationship fell apart. Tell her how you feel and I am sure everything will work out just fine."

"Okay fine," said Juri, puzzling things over for a moment. "But if I win, you have to confess to anybody that you like! And not just one person. If there are multiple people you need to confess to them all."

Was she taking a wild stab in the dark or did she somehow magically know? Fletcher wasn't sure. He gulped a little, but was thankful that she hadn't chosen a harsher punishment. He'd heard that sometimes the infected could really hurt anyone who lost to them, and he certainly had seen a few get violent.

Still, better safe than sorry.

"Let's battle. Hajimari da!"

Fletcher drew eight cards. "I discard Lovebirds from my hand to search my deck for a Tier 1 Craft!" With a smirk he grabbed a card from his deck. "Next I'll remove Lovebirds from my discard pile so I can search my deck for a second copy of Lovebirds. I can't activate its skill this turn, but I've actually got other plans."

Fletcher presented his next card. "I activate Preyviary Dive. By sending a Preyviary Unit from my deck to my discard pile, I can inflict damage equal to its Tier times 500! So I pick Preyviary Raptor and inflict 1000 damage!" Green and black wind swirled together in the form of a bird and dove at Juri, dissipating as it struck her.

Juri: 24000

"A little damage like that isn't going to hurt me," boasted Juri.

Fletcher grinned. "Who said anything about wanting to hurt you? The damage is just a fringe benefit. I activate Blue Sky Wings. By discarding a Winged Attachmentfrom my hand I can search my deck for a Tier 1 Winged Unit." He grabbed a card from his deck and smirked. "Next I play Reuse Renewal to add that Attachment straight back to my hand!

"Next is Dimension Flight. I discard a card and this card allows me to select one of my removed Winged Units and add it to my hand. So I'm bringing back my Lovebirds! This allows me to play Lovebird's Gift. By discarding two Birds with the same name I can draw three cards!" He chuckled. "How coincidental, getting to use my Lovebirds for Lovebird's Gift."

It was a lot of work but he'd set up two decent Towers. "Next I'll play Preyviary Eagle and Preyviary Circinae!" (2000/1500/1500) (2000/1500/1500) Two mighty birds of prey let out their screeches as they circled above. "Eagle gets +500 to all stats for every Preyviary in my discard pile, whereas Circinae gets +500 Strength only. But they both also get a +1000 Strength boost thanks to the Preyviary Raptor!" (4000/2500/2500) (4000/1500/1500) "I play two cards face down and end my turn!"

Juri drew a card. "I activate Warrior Spirit! This turn if a Warrior would inflict damage, that damage cannot be negated or reduced. Then I play Pure Water. This turn, if a Water Unit is played in this zone, I recover energy equal to its Tier x 500. Then I useGift of the Sea. This lets me search my deck for any Water card without a Tier! So I choose a Water Attachment- Fisherman's Pike!

"Next I'll call forth Atlantean Warrior! (2400/2000/2000) and attach my aforementioned Fisherman's Pike!" Atlantean Warrior was a muscular warrior in sea battle armor with curves that looked like rippling waves. Seaweed covered hung from its body like a tattered cape. It arrived with a silver pike in its hand, but it quickly dropped it to capture the golden pike falling from the sky.

Sparkling blue water rose up in a spiral, splashing Juri as it replenished her Energy.

Juri: 25500

"My Pike will trigger when the attached Unit destroys another Unit in combat. I'll be allowed to take a Tier 3 or lower Fish from my deck. So Atlantean Warrior, destroy Circinae!" The Warrior aimed its pike and thrust out at the bird.

"I activate my face down Swooping Preyviary. When a Preyviary is selected as an attack target, another Preyviary may swoop in and attack the attacker!" Preyviary Eagle swooped down and snatched the pike in one claw, smashing it to pieces. It carried Atlantean Warrior into the air and clawed through it in one swipe.

Juri: 23500

"When Atlantean Warrior is destroyed, I can select one Unit on the field and return it to the top of its owner's deck, so I pick your Eagle!" A giant wave rolled by and washed away the Eagle. "I was hoping to use my Pike this turn, but I've always got backups!

"I call forth Koi of Courage!" (2000/2000/2000) A large koi fish swam into view. "This triggers the effect of Pure Water once again!" She reminded Fletcher. The tides spiraled around her as they restored her health.

Juri: 25000

"Koi of Courage attacks your Circinae, and when my koi destroys a Unit I can look at my top two cards and keep one!" Koi of Courage swam toward Preyviary Circinae as if caught in a gushing stream.

"I activate my second face down- From the Clear Blue. This allows me to reveal my top card. If it's a Winged Unit I can play, then it is called to the field. If not, it is discarded!" Fletcher dramatically scooped up a card from his deck and revealed it to Juri. "I wonder what this could be." With a smile, he played it back on the field. "All welcome the return of Preyviary Eagle!" (2000/1500/1500) - (4000/2500/2500) His Eagle let out a mighty caw and took off toward the fish, snatching it out of the air.

"When From the Clear Blue successfully calls a Winged Unit to the field, it can immediately attack." Fletcher's Eagle crushed the Koi in its claws.

Juri: 23000

"When Koi of Courage is destroyed I can add a Water Unit from my discard pile back to my hand. So I choose Atlantean Warrior and call it to the field!" (2400/2000/2000) Atlantean Warrior spun its pike around as waters rose up in a helix, regenerating some of the Energy Juri had lost.

Juri: 24500

"Finish off Circinae once and for all!" Juri's command was carried through efficiently as the fierce warrior skewered Fletcher's bird.

Fletcher: 23500

"I end my turn."

Fletcher drew another at his Preyviary Eagle (4500/3000/3000) he tried to plan out his turn. If he used his Eagle to attack Atlantean Soldier, most of his Unit's Strength would go to waste this turn. But if he let another Unit do the deed, Atlantean Soldier would bounce Preyviary Eagle back to his deck for a turn. So clearly the best course of action would be-

Fletcher smirked. "I play Rising Winds. This lets me target a Wind Unit I control and grab a Craft that's 1 Tier higher, so I pick Grand Wing Flight and subsequently activate that so I can add a Grand Wing Garuda to my hand!" He pointed forward. "Eagle, destroy Atlantean Soldier!"

With a swipe of its claws, Preyviary Eagle tore through its target.

Juri: 22500

"Atlantean Soldier's skill activates, sending your Eagle back to the top of your deck!" A high tide rolled in, washing away Fletcher's bird.

"I call forth Grand Wing Garuda!" (3000/3000/3000) A large bird eclipsing all others landed with a mighty caw. It sounded more like a dragon than a bird. "Then I attach Garuda's Crown! Garuda is the king of all birds and as such it commands respect. Garuda attacks directly, thus triggering the Crown's effect.

Grand Wing Garuda dove toward Juri, striking a mighty blow.

Juri: 19500

"My Garuda's Crown card lets me reveal cards from the top of my deck until I get a Winged Bird." Fletcher revealed the Preyviary Eagle Juri had placed at the top of his deck with Atlantean Warrior. "The crown allows me to add this card to my hand. Naturally, it won't stay there long as I'm calling it straight back to the field!" (2000/1500/1500) - (4500/3000/3000) "Preyviary Eagle, attack her!" Preyviary Eagle lashed out with its claws.

Juri: 15000

"I end my turn!"

Juri drew a card and let out a sigh of relief. "I activate Greed's Shadow. I trust you're familiar?"Both players drew, though Juri got three cards and Fletcher only got one. "I activate Soothing Water. This is a healing card a lot like Pure Water, but stronger. When I play a Water Unit in this zone, I place a Tech Marker on this card. Then gain 500 Energy per Tech Marker this card has! Next I play Warrior's Pride on top of it!"

Erica leaned toward Alicia. "Any clue what she's planning?"

"Probably. But if I'm right, this isn't good."

"I call Aqua Magus to the field!"(2500/2000/2000) A bearded mage in flowing blue robes materialized and immediately raised its hands. Water crept up the side of Juri's Tower like a reverse waterfall, and carried away the top story. "When I play Aqua Magus, I can relocate the top Craft of this Tower to another zone. Now I have Warrior's Pride and Soothing Water both active.

"Next I activate Water of Creation,allowing me to search for a Water Arena card." She riffled through her deck and selected a card. "I select Primordial Sea!" A dark feeling washed over the room.

Juri placed it on the field and watched as deep waters rose all around the field. I'll get to its effect in a minute. Next I activate the Craft card Go Fish! Now, whenever a Tier 3 or high Fish Unit destroys a Unit in combat, I can draw a card. Now all that's left to complete my ultimate combo is to evolve my Aqua Magus into the legendary General Sardine."

Waters swirled and out came an armored fish like creature. It walked on two legs and held a trident in one hand, and long flowing black hair fell from its head, but it had gills and black scales that covered its flesh. (3000/3000/5000) "And my General has Defender and Overkill!" Juri announced with a smile.

"Primordial Sea activates its effect, whenever a Water Unit is summoned, that Unit has its Bond dropped to 0 until the turn ends!" (3000/3000/0) Waters began rising around her. "And my Soothing Water Craft card gains a single Tech Marker, giving me 500 Energy!"

Juri: 15500

"Now go, General Sardine, destroy Garuda." General Sardine made a thrusting motion, but rather than release its spear, it send a copy made of water spiraling through the air. It drilled through Garuda with ease.

Fletcher: 20500

"And my Go Fish card allows me to draw a card!" Grabbing a card from her deck, Juri smiled. "I play it face down and end my turn."General Sardine spun its trident as its Bond returned to normal. (3000/3000/5000)

Drawing his next card, Fletcher carefully considered his options. He felt it was better to play it safe than sorry this turn. "Preyviary Eagle attacks your General Sardine!" He silently cheered as his bird tore through Sardine without a problem. Juri grunted as her Unit was blasted into seafoam.

Juri: 10500

"Oh mighty general, show us your undying loyalty. Return to us and shift the tides of battle. I beseech thee, return, General Sardine!"

The seafoam gathered back together, forming into the shape of the mighty Fish Warrior, General Sardine. (3000/3000/5000) "General Sardine revives itself whenever it's destroyed! And this is going to trigger multiple card effects!"

Juri smiled as she raised her pointer finger. "First, Primordial Sea reduces General Sardine's bond to 0 for the time being." (3000/3000/0) She raised two fingers next. "Soothing Water gains a second tech marker and heals me." Waters swirled around her.

Juri: 11500

She raised three fingers next. "And last but not least, Warrior's Pride activates when I play a Warrior Unit outside of my turn. The Unit in question is allowed to immediately launch an attack." A geyser of water launched General Sardine into the air, and with a slash of its mighty trident it cut through Preyviary Eagle.

Fletcher: 17500

"My Go Fish card activates next, allowing me to draw a card."

Fletcher considered his options. There would be no use in attacking and anything he threw out would likely be slaughtered soon after. It was best to leave himself open and tank whatever Juri sent his way. "I end my-"

"Not so fast. I activate my face down Rune card. Rough Waters! It forces the target player to summon as many Units from their deck as possible and attack with them. Then, whenever a Unit attacks this turn, I select one other Unit on the field and reduce one of its Stats to 0."

It was Fletcher's turn to riffle through his deck. "I'll bring out Preyviary Kestrel (2500/2500/2500) and Preyviary Kite!" (2000/2000/2000) The two birds let out mighty caws as they circled above. "Kite's ability allows me to examine cards from the top of my deck equal to the number of Preyviary Units in my discard pile." He grabbed a few cards from the top of his deck. "I can add one to my hand!" He shuffled the rest back, satisfied to have gotten a good card.

Grinning, he added, "Preyviary Kite has Stealth by the way. So it attacks you directly!" On Fletcher's words, Kite flew forward and dove into Juri, slashing at her with fury.

Juri: 9500

"Rough Waters allows me to reduce one of a Unit's stats to 0 until the turn ends, but I can't target the attacker, so I couldn't protect myself from that. I may as well just weaken my Sardine's Defense, as that's what I was planning to do anyway!" (3000/0/0)

"Unfortunately for me I don't have a way out of this next attack. Kestrel is forced to attack Sardine!" Fletcher watched as his bird tore the General into bits of seafoam. Then he watched as that same seafoam drifted about on the surface of the water, gathering once more into General Sardine. (3000/3000/5000) - (3000/3000/0)

"Soothing Water grants me 1500 Energy!"

Juri: 11000

"Warrior's Pride allows my General Sardine to attack, and though this attack isn't the result of Rough Water's effect, I can still weaken a Unit. So I'm turning Kite's Defense into 0!" (2000/0/2000) General Sardine dove under water and leapt out like a dolphin. "Destroy Preyviary Kite!" With a single thrust of its trident, it skewered the bird.

Fletcher: 14500

"And I get to draw a new card."

"I end my turn," said Fletcher.

And Juri drew once more. "I call forth Princess of Shifting Tides!" (2000/2000/2000) - (2000/2000/0) A mermaid with a shimmering green tail and curly black hair jumped out of the water and splashed about. "While she is on the field, you have to attack her with every Unit possible during your turn!

"I'll have my General Sardine attack your Kestrel and follow up with a direct attack from my Princess!' Sardine jumped out of the water once more and easily impaled the bird. "This allows me to draw a card!" Juri announced as she took the top card off her deck. The mermaid princess was next, slapping Fletcher in the face with its tail.

Fletcher: 9500

"When Preyviary Kestrel is destroyed, I can add any Preyviary in my discard pile to my hand. So I choose Preyviary Eagle!"

"I play Lucky Koi!" (500/500/500) - (500/500/0) Juri announced, calling forth a small fish that splashed about in the water. "When played, Lucky Koi allows me to target any Water Card with a skill that generates Tech Markers on itself. I can then add a Tech Marker to that card!" With a dramatic wave of her hand, she pointed at Soothing Water. "Now my card has four Tech Markers!

"And before I end my turn, my new Koi will attack directly!" On command, Lucky Koi jumped at Fletcher.

Fletcher: 9000

Assessing the situation, Fletcher realized he was in trouble. Juri's combo meant that at most, he could only inflict 2500 damage through combat, then she'd counterattack and replenish her hand. And if he didn't do something soon, she'd just wipe him out. She could inflict about 5500 damage right now, he'd lose in two turns if not sooner!

Warmth spread through Fletcher's body as he focused on his deck. He had ways to take care of the problem, but he needed to draw them first. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and drew.I play Adoraborb!" (500/500/500) The happy bird chirped and danced atop the water, hopping around and splashing loudly.

"Next I activate Adorastorm!" Feathers swirled in a hurricane. "I can discard any number of Winged Birds from my hand. This turn, Adoraborb gains 500 Strength for each and gets to copy one skill from the discarded cards!" Fletcher got rid of two of his cards. "I choose to copy the skill of my Preyviary Eagle, so Adoraborb gains 500 to each stat per Preyviary Unit in my discard pile." (5500/3500/3500) Adoraborb stopped hopping for a second so it could glare meanly at Juri. Yet, try as it might, the poor thing could not stop being adorable.

"Adoraborb, attack Princess of the Shifting Tides!"

"General Sardine, defend your princess!"

Fletcher's Adoraborb skipped across the water, tackling General Sardine into seafoam.

Juri: 6000

Juri let out a grunt of dismay as she watched General Sardine reform. (3000/3000/0) "My Soothing Water card will heal me." She closed her eyes and could almost feel the gentle water running up her sides, hugging her like a gently babbling brook.

Juri: 8500

General Sardine naturally launched her counterattack, throwing a trident of water at Adoraborb. Though it sound quickly, drilling at the bird's side, it was unable to damage the poor creature. Adoraborb proudly puffed out its feathers as it withstood the attack.

"Adoraborb then shuffles itself back into my deck," announced Fletcher. Adoraborb waved goodbye as it flew off. "This allows me to temporarily remove your General Sardine from the game!" A storm of feathers carried off General Sardine, exposing its allies to danger. "Next I activate Garuda Cry! By removing the Preyviary Eagle from my discard pile I can revive my Grand Wing Garuda, while copying Eagle's skill for this turn!" (3000/3000/3000) - (5500/5500/5500)

Grand Wing Garuda spread out its mighty wings, casting a grand shadow over the sea. "I activate the Craft card The King of Birds! Once per turn I can declare one ability, and Garuda will gain that ability until I declare another! So Grand Wing Garuda now has Overkill! Now go, destroy Princess of the Shifting Tides!"

Garuda crushed the mermaid in its mighty claws.

Juri: 3000

"I end my turn!"

"Well, with that, my General Sardine returns to the field. Soothing Water gives me 3000 Energy. And Warrior's Pride triggers and- hold up," Seafoam gathered into General Sardine. (3000/3000/5000) - (3000/3000/0) Waters swirled around Juri, healing her.

Juri: 6000

All was as she said, except- "How does the timing work on this. We're doing end of turn clean up. Does Garuda still have the skill it copied that gives it its stat boost? It wears off when the turn ends so if it's deactivated by now, Garuda will be destroyed."

"I- I'm actually not sure. Guess we should just let Sardine attack. The illusions will show us if Garuda tanks the hit or not."

General Sardine steadied its trident and let loose another water copy. It soared through the air and struck Garuda in its side. The bird let out a ferocious cry but it refused to die. Flapping its wings, it stared down at General Sardine. The general merely smirked.

"I draw," announced Juri. "Well seems your bird survived that, but it doesn't matter. Its stats are back down to normal, so my General Sardine can kill it all the same." Juri watched as General Sardine did another dolphin like maneuver, taking to the sky to impale Grand Winged Garuda. "And I can draw a card thanks to my Go Fish Craft!"

Fletcher: 6000

"Next I call forth Baby Kraken!" (2000/2000/2000) - (2000/2000/0) A medium sized kraken rose from the depths, flailing its tentacles about. "My Baby Kraken and Koi both attack directly!" Baby Kraken slammed a tentacle into the water, sending a wave crashing toward Fletcher. Lucky koi rode the wave, jumping off at the last second to tackle Fletcher itself.

Fletcher: 3500

A tentacle appeared from nowhere, whipping Fletcher. "When Baby Kraken injures you, its skill inflicts 500 damage per Water Unit I control, so that's an extra 1500 damage to you."

Fletcher: 2000

"I end my turn."

This was do or die. Fletcher reached for his next card."I activate Emerald Breeze. We both draw two cards!" Smiling, Fletcher proudly declared, "I have just what I need to win this. First I call forth Preyviary Crowned Stephanoaetus!" (1500/3000/3000) A large and fearsome looking bird appeared. Its beak and claws were sharp and it had a frightening glare in its eyes. "When Stephanoaetus attacks another Unit, it gains half that Unit's Strength during combat. Next I attach Storm Claw. Once per turn the attached Unit can immediately attack any Unit that gets played by a card effect. So go, attack General Sardine!"

Stephanoaetus (1500/3000/3000) - (3000/3000/3000) soared through the air, sights set on General Sardine. With a swift diving motion it tore through General Sardine. Seafoam splattered everywhere and drifted on the waves. Preyviary Crowned Stephanoaetus flapped its mighty wings and returned to the sky, circling and waiting. Fletcher tightly gripped the last card in his hand.

Juri: 1000

"Thank you, General Sardine, for your loyal services. May you rest in peace. Sorry, Fletcher, but I know better than to walk straight into a trap. I won't be reviving my General Sardine, so whatever trick you're about to spring won't work!"

"You fell for my bluff. I activate Migratory Flight, allowing me to call a Tier 1 Bird from my deck. So I call forth my Adoraborb once more!" (500/500/500) The green bird orb did another dance as it returned to the field. "And immediately activate its skill to carry off your Kraken!" Adoraborb vanished, leaving behind a storm of feathers that lifted the Baby Kraken into the sky. "I end my turn!"

The feathers dispersed, dropping Baby Kraken toward the ocean. It spiraled and tumbled over itself as it fell, tentacles flailing wildly. But before it could crash, Preyviary Crowned Stephanoaetus swooped down and cut it into pieces. "Storm Claw activates, allowing Stephanoaetus to make calamari out of your Kraken!"

Juri: 0

Juri laughed. "Wow, that was great!" Juri laughed. "I totally fell for that bluff. I thought for sure you were waiting for Sardine to revive so you could activate a Rune when Storm Claw activated. Or maybe something to negate Primordial Sea." Juri leaned back. "So, I guess you've won one of my cards, huh?" She seemed a little sad to part with a card, but Fletcher didn't know a way around this.

"Oh yeah. But don't forget, you also need to tell Zara how you feel."

Fletcher reached for Juri's cards and searched until he found the one that he needed.

"I guess I'll keep this one," he shrugged.

The dressing room door opened and Zara stepped out carrying multiple dresses on her arms. "I like them all," she said as she reached for her debit card. "My dad might be a little upset about this, but he owes me so who cares?"

Elly smiled. She had been waiting patiently throughout the entire card game, a model employee allowing the customers to go about with their antics. Once Zara had paid for everything, she joined the group, frowning when she saw her girlfriend's sad face. "Hey, Juri, is everything okay?"

"Zara, do you really like me?"

"Of course I do!" Zara's mouth dropped. "I'm sorry if I ever made you feel otherwise. What's the matter?"

"All those pictures you keep taking and posting online. It's not something you've ever done with your exes. I know sometimes after a break up, people will start trying to make their ex jealous by posting all sorts of pictures as if they're trying to say 'Hey, look how much fun I'm having without you.'"

"Oh," Zara sat next to Juri, placing a hand on hers. "I'm sorry if I made you feel that way. Truth is, Tony was my longest relationship so breaking up with him has left me a bit shaken. It's a big change being away from him, and I'm having some difficulty adjusting. But it is a change for the better. I'm glad to have broken up with him and I wouldn't want to date him again even if I had the chance. Yes, there was a part of me expecting to still be friends with him, and I- I was a bit hurt when he didn't want that. But I'm not posting those photos to make him jealous. I just want to forget him.

"Every night when I go to bed, I look at all the photos of us and I think about how much I love you. And for a second, I forget how empty Tony made me feel and how strange it is to be without him." Zara smiled. "But if the photos make you uncomfortable I can st-"

"Oh no," Juri said, blushing. "I didn't realize that's what was going on. If it's to help you feel better than of course I understand. I'm sorry I assumed the worst. I guess I have a few self-esteem issues to work though. I guess after all this time it's hard to believe you finally noticed me this way."

"Juri, you are the most wonderful human being I have ever met. I'm really glad I know you." Setting the dresses aside for a moment, she grabbed both of her girlfriend's hands, squeezing them tight. "When I broke up with Tony you were the only one who really checked in on me to make sure I was okay." Smiling, she gave Juri a huge hug. "I'm sorry I couldn't see that you were hurting as well."

"No, I guess I should have tried better to be open about how I felt. There's no way you could have reasonably deduced there was a problem." Rubbing her head, she gave an embarrassed grin.

"I guess maybe I should cut back on the photos a little bit," admitted Zara. "As much as they help, maybe a return to normalcy might be in order. And besides, I've got plenty for now. Not that I plan to give them up completely, because we are going to rock that tea party."

Fletcher smiled at the duo. "Seems like you two have this all worked out. We'll leave you both alone for now but, I really do wish you both the best of luck." He turned to Alicia and Erica, hands in his pockets and said, "So, are we still good for karaoke?" He took a step for the door when he felt a hand tugging at his wrist. Looking down, he saw that Zara had reached for him.

"Hold on," she said with a smirk. "You're not getting away that easily. You can't just keep playing counselor to my relationship issues without me paying back the favor every now and then." Standing up she leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "You really should hurry up and tell you know who how you feel. Even if you think it's not good enough or not what she wants to hear, it's best to get it out in the open. And then maybe once she knows what she means to you, you'll both be able to sort things out, even if they are a bit tricky." She gave him a pat on the shoulder and turned back to her girlfriend.

"Hey Juri, why don't we go get some ice cream?"

As Juri and Zara left together, Erica gave Fletcher a puzzled look. She twirled her hair on a finger. "So what did she say to you exactly? I couldn't make it out."

Fletcher blushed a little and shook his head. "It was nothing," he lied. "Ready for karaoke?'

.

As the trio walked toward the karaoke parlor, Fletcher put his hands on his head. "So I know we've talked about it before and the general consensus is that we simply don't know enough of what's going on to come up with consistent terminology but like- a curse and infection seem like two completely opposite ends of the spectrum. One seems so magical and like, yeah, this whole mess is full of magic. But an infection makes it sound more like an illness. Does anyone ever get weirded out by it?"

Alicia crossed her arms as they passed by one of the numerous jewelry shops in the area. "Well, you sort of learn to roll with it. It's honestly hard to keep track of everything if you keep it separated. I think the Nephilim themselves call the whole thing a curse more often than not, and mostly started calling it an infection after our side did that. Sort of a 'we'll adopt your nomenclature to show we're not completely against you.'

"It is weird though. Nayuta's the one who told us that we were fighting a 'devil.' Not to mention the way we are clearly dealing with something magical, rules and compulsions that no virus or infection could create in a human. Yet she's one of the people who most insisted on using the term infection." Alicia shrugged her shoulders. "But in the grand scheme of things, it's not nearly as important as the rest of what's going on."

Fletcher scratched his chin. "Yeah. I guess you're right."

Erica let out a deep breath of relief. "Honestly, whatever is going on, I'm just happy that everything was so calm today. If everyone was like Theodore when they got- cursefected or whatever, I'd be terrified."

"If everybody was like that, then the whole world would know what's going on, no secrets left. To be honest, I don't know if that would be better or worse. Would the world be able to handle itself better if they knew? Or would we just cause mass panic?" Alicia, unsure, just shook her head. The trio came to a stop in front of the karaoke parlor, and they turned to each other. "You two ready?"

With smiles, they nodded.

Fun Trivia:

Preyviary Eagle

Unit (2) Wind/Winged/Bird/Preyviary

2000/1500/1500

This card gains +500/+500/+500 per Preyviary Unit in your discard pile.

Preyviary Circinae

Unit (2) Wind/Winged/Bird/Preyviary

2000/1500/1500

This card gains +500 Strength per Preyviary Unit in your discard pile.

The reason these two cards both exist is because, during the Tony battle, I wrote Preyviary Eagle as receiving only a Strength boost. I forgot it raised all its stats. It was too late to change so I created a new card and just swapped in the new name.

In hindsight this is kind of powerful for a Tier 2 Unit.

References and Shout Outs

So I love including tons of really silly references and shout outs and such (undying fish warrior anyone?) but Fletcher playing Kite and Kestrel at once was not intended as a shout out to .hack, a series with a character named Kite and a group named Kestrel. But I kind of want to pretend it is. I mean the Infection in the title is a reference to .hack/INFECTION.