My next project is going to be a romance series about the fast-paced and erotically-charged world of CCGs (collectible card games)–no, really! Think sports romance, but with hotshot card sharks instead of star quarterbacks. The subject is close to my heart as I used to be a fairly competitive player myself, and let me tell you, the sparks can definitely fly in those crowded convention halls! I’m happy to share the first chapter of the introductory novella with you. I’m expecting a release date sometime in January–stay tuned for more details! (Like the title. I’m terrible with titles.)
Going to a new game store for the first time was always a harrowing experience for Neil, and with the added fish-out-of-water element of being in a new city, it was downright terrifying. The local game store was a social hub for the antisocial, a haven for the incurably awkward, and a safe space for anyone whose interests fell outside the mainstream. In a way, it was like a church, but with scratched-up tables and folding chairs instead of pews, and posters of valkyries and space marines instead of stained glass windows. This was the one place where Neil knew he should always fit in, but he couldn’t shake that persistent feeling of being an outsider. When you’re the new guy, you’re still The New Guy.
A bell over the door jangled as he walked in. He felt a few eyes drift his way, but for the most part the other customers were embroiled in their games. The low hum of voices and the flip-flip-flip sound of cards being shuffled rolled through the place like a familiar song.
The interior of the store was clean and sparse, the bright lighting and polished fixtures matching the suburban strip mall it was situated in. It wasn’t the kind of place Neil might have picked back in New York, but it was close to his apartment and their web site had said they held Legendary Pairs tournaments every Monday night. He’d been itching to play for a couple of weeks, and it looked like he would finally get his chance tonight.
He put his name on the signup sheet at the front counter, paid his entry fee, and wandered over to the play area to scope out the competition. A few players were in the middle of warmup or just-for-fun matches, but he was drawn to one in particular. The guy was tall and thin, long legs bouncing with unrestrained energy under the table as he waited for his opponent, a woman with a pink bob and a nose ring, to take her turn. He looked ambiguously ethnic in a faintly Middle Eastern way, with deep olive-tan skin, dark hair and eyes, and a hint of a hook nose that drew the eye naturally along its curve to his delicately arched brows. His focus was on the cards on the table and in his hand, but as Neil approached the table he glanced up. His eyes flicked up and down the length of Neil’s body and he smiled, giving a quick nod as he started his next turn. It had been a casual look—a quick once-over—but it left the back of Neil’s neck feeling hot and prickly as he tried his best not to blush.
The game played quickly, both players dropping cards on the table in quick snapping motions that spoke of long practice and familiarity. The woman seemed to be pulling ahead, but the guy was clearly building up to something, combos and synergies building up on the board as he played. When he made his final move, it was with an air of bored nonchalance. “Demon Soul,” the guy said as he tossed a black-bordered card on top of his layout.
“Fuuuck,” groaned the woman, sweeping her cards up with a sigh. “That’s game. Demon scum,” she said without any real heat, and the guy grinned back at her.
“Come on, you know I’m a mercenary. When demons stop winning tournaments, I’ll stop playing them.”
“Well, I’m bringing my Holy Avenger deck on Friday, just to wipe the floor with your smug face.”
“Bring it,” he replied, gathering his cards into a haphazard pile in front of him. “Good luck tonight, though—you’re gonna need it.”
She gave him a casual middle finger and wandered off to check the signup sheet. The guy looked up at Neil, his smile still in place. Now that it was focused on Neil, he could see that it was absolutely stunning.
“You must be new here,” the guy said, standing up and brushing his hands briskly on his jeans. “I’m Robin.”
Now that he was standing, Neil could see that Robin wore a button-down shirt undone to the third button, exposing a tantalizing sliver of smooth, dark chest. His sleeves were rolled up halfway, and he just oozed casual confidence. Neil struggled for something suave to say, but all that came out was, “Like Batman and Robin?”
Robin laughed. “As long as you’re not talking about the Schumacher movie—I don’t want my name associated with that trash heap. But yes, like Batman and Robin. I was destined to be a nerd from birth. And you are?”
“Oh, sorry—I’m Neil. Nice to meet you,” Neil replied, clasping his hand. It was warm, with long, elegant fingers but a firm grip. The blush that Neil was trying to control was putting up a good fight, and it looked like it was winning.
“You playing in the tournament?”
“Yeah, it’s why I came.”
“Awesome—it’s always great to see a new face around here.”
They both fell silent, and in the awkward space that followed, Neil desperately wished he had any clue how to flirt with a guy, or even how to tell if a guy was flirting with him. He’d been out for all of one year—somehow it had taken him until age 28 to realize that he was into men as much as he was women, if not more so—and sometimes he felt like he’d missed some crucial developmental stage. Like maybe there was some truth to the “gaydar” thing, and he’d failed to develop it because he’d been floundering around being awkward and hopeless with women instead of men during his formative dating years. So far he’d had one almost-boyfriend and a couple of wholly unsatisfying internet hookups, and his impression so far of being bisexual was that the only thing it got him was twice as many opportunities to be disappointed.
Neil utterly failed to come up with anything to say for another several seconds, then he was thankfully saved by the tournament organizer calling out that pairings were ready. Everyone made their way to the counter, and he found his opponent via the tried-and-true method of waiting around looking confused while he looked around for someone else waiting around and looking confused. Eventually a scrawny teenager with a half-grown beard asked him, “Are you Neil Parkinson?” Worked every time.
They sat down to play; the kid turned out to have a slipshod deck that was trying to do way too many things at once. Neil always felt bad about playing against this type of opponent—the casual players who’d never played in a real tournament before. Not that Neil had played in anything bigger than a regional qualifier, but he’d learned to play Legendary Pairs at one of the biggest stores in New York, and the caliber of player it attracted had whipped him into shape pretty quickly. It had been frustrating at first, but he’d learned to appreciate that none of them handled him with kid gloves. If he didn’t challenge himself, he’d never get better.
The kid wasn’t challenging him at all. Neil handily wiped the floor with him, fast enough to be one of the first pairs done. He reported the results and started wandering around to watch the rest of the matches.
Robin’s table drew him in with all the the irresistible gravity of a black hole; he was playing someone equally as unskilled as Neil’s opponent, and Robin’s streamlined deck barely had time to live up to its full potential. His opponent was taking forever to take his turns, inspecting every card for long seconds before putting it down, and Robin looked up while he waited, giving Neil a little lopsided grin that did funny things to his stomach.
Robin twisted his wrist to angle his hand toward Neil so he could see the cards in it. Something about the gesture seemed strangely intimate—not that anything had been stopping Neil from standing behind Robin to look over his shoulder, but having Robin acknowledge his presence and in a way invite him in was starting to tip his opinion to the “this guy is flirting with me” end of the scale. Or maybe he was reading too much into it. Either way, he stuck around until the end of the match, even though the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Neil watched a couple of the other players and discovered that with the exception of him, Robin, and the pink-haired woman from earlier, the rest of the participants in the tournament were…well, a bunch of baby seals, ripe for the clubbing. In the next round he got paired up against the pink-haired woman, whose name turned out to be Laura. She played at a breakneck pace, and it was refreshing to not have to hand over each card to let his opponent read it—he only had to call out the name, and she would nod and do whatever needed to be done on her side of the table. She definitely knew her stuff.
In his next round, Robin came by to watch the end of the game, standing close enough that Neil could smell his cologne, spicy with just a hint of citrus. Turning his hand so Robin could see it, he focused intently on the table in front of him and on willing his dick to behave. Neil wondered what it said about him that he was almost getting hard just from the guy standing a little close to him. It probably said that it had been too long since he’d gotten laid.
He went into the last round undefeated, and unsurprisingly, he was paired up against Robin. “Congrats on getting this far,” Robin said as he shuffled his deck with deft efficiency, “but I’ll warn you, demons pretty much always beat Wind Dancer blitz decks. Even one as good as yours.”
“We’ll see,” Neil said, trying to match Robin’s cocky smirk as he offered his deck to cut. Robin tapped the top; Neil did the same to Robin’s, and they were off and running.
The match turned out to be one of the strangest games of Legendary Pairs Neil had ever played. Both he and Robin got terrible opening hands, both complaining loudly, and headed off to a lumbering, awkward start. Neil’s resources were scarce, and Robin didn’t draw any demons until turn four. They started a back-and-forth dance, one countering the other’s moves and neither making any progress, and it took a ridiculous amount of time for either to build up a noticeable army. Finally they were heading into the final showdown, and Robin dropped his trump card: Demon Soul. He leaned back in his seat with a smug look on his face, arms crossed.
Neil looked at his hand, then at the table, furrowing his brow. He counted the cards he had laid out and slowly slipped a card out of his hand, hesitating for a moment before he set it down. “Brandish Your Sword,“ he said, uncertain.
Robin frowned for a moment, then leaned forward, inspecting the card. Finally, his eyes widened and he broke out into a booming laugh that echoed through the shop. “Fuck me,“ he said, wheezing. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that card played for its secondary effect before.”
“Me either,” Neil said, scratching his head. “I never even considered, but with the…you know,” he said, waving a hand at his other cards, “I think that counters your Demon Soul.”
“It does. That’s game.“ Robin extended his hand, smiling warmly. “Well done; you’re pretty damn good at this.“
“I guess,” Neil said with a self-conscious shrug. “I’ve been playing a long time.”
Robin followed Neil to the counter to report their results, and they collected their prizes: five booster packs for Neil and three for Robin. It wasn’t a huge haul, but it wasn’t bad for the entry fee. Robin opened his packs briskly, pulling out the rare cards and dropping the rest carelessly on the counter. “So,” he said as he tucked them into his deck case, “are you looking to play more regularly? I know another store where the competition is a little more…stiff.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. That had to be flirting. Now if only Neil could figure out how to flirt back.
Neil completely failed to come up with a suitable play on “stiff,” so he simply said, “Sure, where is it?”
“The Ogre’s Den on King Street. Look for the big green sign—you can’t miss it. We play Tuesdays and Thursdays, with tournaments every Saturday.”
“I’ll be there.” Neil wasn’t entirely sure it was a good idea to drive all the way across town just because he’d developed a crush on a guy he’d known all of three hours, but the promise of real competition was too much to pass up. He’d never been that serious a player—never aspired to play in the Pro Tour like so many of the regulars at his old shop did—but he did love a challenge. His competitive streak might be small and half-buried, but it was undeniably there.
When Neil got home that night, he took a few minutes to flip through his card collection to find a better counter for Demon Soul to throw in his deck. A little friendly backstabbing could be flirting, too.