Chapter Five

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Tam scowled, a possessive jolt going through him - even though getting Lassiter here had been his idea. An idea that seemed worse by the second, especially when the other boy’s eyes skimmed over him and fixed on Jennet.

There was a cluster of girls behind Lassiter. Tam blinked when he saw that Marny was one of them.

“This is my uncle’s sim-café,” she said, sounding breathless. “Some of the best players in town hang here.”

“So I hear.” Lassiter set his hands on his hips. “Not that Crestview’s best is anything to brag about.”

He smiled, looking totally fake, and started toward the counter. Dislike curled through Tam, and he shifted closer to Jennet. For a second he wished he had his in-game sword strapped to his side. He’d gladly use it on Lassiter.

“Jennet Carter,” the other boy said, his voice dropping into a huskier register. “Nice of you to message me. I’ve been wanting to meet you, too.”

He stared at her a little too long. Tam took a gulp of tea, trying to wash the bitterness from his mouth.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” she said. “Do you sim?”

“Of course I sim. Although I’m used to far better than this.” He waved his hand, encompassing the warm shabbiness of Zeg’s.

Jennet nodded, clearly playing along. “I bet you have some pretty flawless gear at home.”

How could he not? Lassiter’s mother was the freakin’ CEO of the top gaming-tech company in the world. The question was - had he gone into Feyland? Had he actually beaten the Dark Queen in battle?

“Nothing can beat my sim equip. Or me.” He turned, fixing Tam with a look as cold as a snake’s. “Is this the local who thinks he can outplay me?”

Marny stepped up. “This is Tam Linn, Roy. He’s one of the best.”

“Yeah?” The other boy eyed him up and down. “Don’t look so special. Are you sure you can play with the pros?”

Tam slid his stool back and got to his feet. He was an inch taller than Lassiter, and glad of it.

“Yeah,” he said. “I can take you.”

Lassiter let out a snort. “You won’t know what hit you. At least it will be over fast, Exie.”

Jennet stood abruptly, shoulder-to-shoulder with Tam. “I’ve simmed with Tam, and I’ve no doubt he’s as good as you, if not better.”

Her defense took some of the sting out of Lassiter’s words. While it was true the taint of the Exe clung to Tam - in the clothing he could never quite get clean, in the shadow of poverty that haunted everyone in that part of town - he was the best player in the region.

But how good was Lassiter, the boy who grew up in VirtuMax’s pocket?

“Heh.” Lassiter narrowed his eyes and stared at Tam. “We’ll see about that. The equip here isn’t what I’m used to - but it’ll be enough to put you down. Ready for a sim-duel?”

“You’re on.”

 They had Lassiter right where they wanted him. Too bad it didn’t feel very satisfying. Tam hoped he could wipe that arrogant smirk off Lassiter’s face, instead of being the one to eat dirt. The adrenaline of upcoming battle fired his blood, and he curled his fingers into his palms.

Marny looked at him, wide-eyed. “But, Tam. This is Roy Lassiter.” She said Lassiter’s name like he was president of the galaxy. “Do you really think you can beat him?”

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