"It's still a very new branch of study in the medical field but... I think you should try it, Peter. I think it could help you."
The apartment is dark and silent. Night has fallen outside, and Peter hasn’t bothered turning on the bedside lamp.
He sits at the edge of his bed (the doctors all agreed he was very lucky that he could sit up at all), his wheelchair within grabbing distance, and phone and water on the nightstand so he doesn't have to get up for either if he needs them in the middle of the night. Because this is his life now: wake up, struggle into his wheelchair, make sure to keep his phone with him in case there's an emergency, take twice as long as it used to to shower and brush his teeth and cook breakfast-- the latter when he can be bothered to.
The rest of the day is spent sitting around in the wheelchair-accessible apartment unit he's had to buy. He hates it - it's just another reminder of his... circumstances. But he hated the hospital more so he got out of there as soon as he could. He's too weak - gets tired too easily - to look for a new job, and who would hire him anyway? He supposes that's the one good thing about having stashed a nest egg in the vault (his trip there was an adventure and a half, that's for sure) and set up a private bank account unconnected to the family accounts. It could be worse.
That's what the doctors kept telling him. It could be worse. He's pulled off a miracle. Almost nine years in a coma, and he was up and about barely a year after waking up. He's so lucky.
Lucky? Peter never says. Lucky would've been dying with the rest of my family. Lucky would've been passing away in my coma. There's nothing lucky about waking up omega and broken and utterly alone, pack long dead, niece and nephew long gone.
Most days, he barely has the energy to get up. Half the time, it's just because he refuses to wet the bed, and afterwards, he just climbs right back under the sheets again once he’s finished. He tried, at the beginning, to do normal things again like buy his own groceries and visit his favourite bookshop. But the whispers and pity and even smothered laughter and open stares that one time he spilled his one measly bag of necessary toiletries and a carton of eggs and milk everywhere because his wheelchair got momentarily stuck in the middle of a sidewalk— it all became too much - the anger, the shame, the humiliation, the exhaustion - and he just... couldn't, anymore. Couldn't tough it out, or whatever it is someone stronger than him might've been able to do.
So he gets his groceries delivered these days, and he only ever leaves the apartment now to see his therapist once a week, and even that's just because the hospital insisted when they released him. The one time he tried to miss it, they actually sent someone from the clinic to ask after him and nag him into going and then threaten to come back every time if he doesn't go on his own. He doesn't remember Beacon Hills' medical circles being that proactive. Then again, he used to be a werewolf with a functioning healing factor. He never needed medical care aside from the occasional fire and wolfsbane ash.
Sometimes, he thinks about not going anyway. He's the one paying. If he stops, they won't make him go.
But maybe he hasn't done that yet for the same reason he hasn't killed himself yet. His existence has reached a level of truly pathetic, and he knows it, but at least the drudging routine that his life's been reduced to is something for him to cling to. Deviating from it takes motivation, and he has none of that left in him these days. He doesn't want anything enough. Not even death. He's just... tired, and numb to the point where he doesn't care much about anything.
(And maybe there's a little bit of spite left in him too. It has never been in his nature to roll over and give up, and he's all out of fight these days, but perhaps there's still something left of that old stubborn instinct of his that refuses to let him take that final step, no matter how little he has left to live for.)
He wonders if that means he somehow hasn't quite hit rock bottom yet, or if he's actually dug himself past even that. Either way, his therapist has been concerned, he could see that much. Although she seems to take it as a good sign that Peter does at least still go to their sessions, still follows a schedule, and Peter doesn't have the heart to tell her that it's mostly just because going through the motions of the routine that's been set for him is easier than summoning the energy to do something that he has to come up with on his own.
Because it's not like she can help anyway. Peter can't even talk to her about everything, even if he was so inclined. Which he isn't. But if he was, he still can't tell her that so many broken pack bonds usually means a drawn-out agonizing death for a werewolf, can't tell her that he's never even heard of a crippled werewolf before, can't tell her that his lack of mobility - and lack of ability to heal - goes against everything he is and in a way hurts more that his legs still do, can't even tell her that his mind feels splintered sometimes, and that it's only a matter of time before he goes feral and someone puts him down like a rabid dog.
He can't tell her why it hasn't happened yet, why he's even still functioning at all.
Nor can he go out to find a new pack. Who would take him? Not just omega, not just a former left hand, but a cripple? There's no guarantee that a pack would help him heal, no guarantee that he'd be able to even form pack bonds with them after having so many of them shattered all at once, and certainly no guarantee that he would be trusted enough to even be given a chance to integrate with a pack in the first place. No pack's moved in to claim Beacon Hills over the past decade, so obviously nobody wants the land. Shifters can be a superstitious, paranoid lot, and an entire pack - old and strong and stable - literally dead overnight? Clearly, something happened. But it means Peter has nothing to offer, nothing to contribute, and just enough pride left to refuse to beg.
He can't even go and kill an Alpha for the power boost. What's he going to do? Stumble on a random Alpha and run them over with his wheelchair? He can barely even manage a partial shift these days.
His therapist knows none of that, so the poor woman keeps trying. Some days, her attempts to get Peter to talk irritates him so much he leaves early. Other days, he musters a few meaningless lines of placating smalltalk before shutting down until it's time for him to go. The one time Emilie directly brought up the topic of the fire and his family, well, the clinic told Peter he didn't have to pay for the coffee table he managed to destroy, especially since it threw him straight into cardiac arrest because his damn heart couldn't take the strain of a fucking temper tantrum.
Peter would laugh at the sheer irony if it didn't also make him want to burst into tears, and he hasn't cried since he was a child. He isn't going to start now.
Emilie's treated him with kid gloves ever since. Sometimes, she still tries to cover tougher questions with him, and sometimes, Peter even answers, so long as it's not too intrusive, but she's wary of pushing him too hard, and Peter hasn't stopped holding her at arm's length anyway, although for a therapist, he supposes she's okay. She doesn't stare at his scars or his withered legs or his hands when they randomly seize with tiny tremors, and she only smells occasionally of pity. It's probably the best Peter can get from anyone.
More often, she's a mix of worry and frustration, even though she doesn't show it. And she must've finally reached the end of her tether last week, for her to suggest this.
Peter stares at the device in his lap, and then at the game Emilie suggested to him. A game.
He's done a little research, after his session last week. Created by GajosTech, the Virtual Reality Dream Console is actually a successor product of the VRGameset that was already on the market several years before the fire. Joseph bought some for the younger kids one Christmas, headsets with clunky-looking visors attached to them like binoculars, each connected to a game controller. There were other brands that sold similar devices but GajosTech was particularly popular in Beacon Hills because some of the family that owned the company lived right in this town.
Still, the few times Cora let him try hers, Peter didn't really understand the hype. The partial-immersion experience was somewhat interesting, but the handful of games you could play in virtual reality were all just shooting games or fighting simulations, and Peter didn't really see a point to them. There was no real variation, and it got very repetitive. But the children liked it, and that was all that mattered.
The VRDC his therapist told him about - and he, having either lost his mind or is just that stupid, went and bought - is different. For one, it looks a lot sleeker, still a headset but with a much thinner visor, more like a wide slightly curved screen than binoculars. It weighs less than its predecessor, and it doesn’t come with multiple wires or a game controller, just a charger and an account card that apparently comes free with it.
Peter’s actually not quite certain how you play without a controller. Emilie said it was full-immersion, which was the main reason she suggested it to him at all, but surely you would still need to hold something to control how you play the game?
Apparently not though, considering the evidence.
And the game itself is new. Esien Frontier. Also by GajosTech, a project headed by some never-before-seen child genius from the Gajos family, it came out almost five and a half years ago along with the VRDC when the boy was just fifteen. The game was an instant hit, and its popularity has only gone up in the following years, remaining the top VR game in the gaming industry even when other companies began releasing games with a similar genre on similar devices. Apparently, they just can't compare to Esien Frontier. It's one of those adventure role-playing games, the kind Laura preferred, with battles but also quests and general exploration and probably other things Peter doesn't know about. At least it seems to have more variation than the old VR games, but he doesn't understand how it's supposed to help him.
"You can walk around in these kinds of games, and Esien Frontier is the best. Just give it a try, Peter. Maybe... Maybe if you could walk again, even if it's just in Esien Frontier, it would help you here too."
Delusional. Utterly delusional. Peter doesn't know how imagining himself walking could possibly help. He already does that, and he doesn't need any game to do it. But damn her because she’s put the idea in his head now. The way Emilie worded it made him wonder if it really would be like walking for real. The VRGameset was nothing like that; he could - sort of - enter the world of the game and stand "inside", but he could also still feel the couch he was sitting on and obviously work the controller in his hands and smell what Talia was cooking for dinner. He could definitely feel his - then perfectly functional - legs.
And yet, no matter how many times he told himself that it can't possibly be true, that this game won't be any different, the hope took root anyway, and it made Peter want to rip his therapist's throat out for being so carelessly cruel.
But. He bought it. The VRDC and Esien Frontier. They came earlier today, and he spent the rest of the evening charging the headset, registering his account card, and then slapping together a quick dinner before struggling through his bedtime routine.
He was exhausted by the time he finished, as he always is. Sometimes, it knocks him right out. Other times, his legs are in too much pain for him to fall asleep, and even if he manages it, he's inevitably woken up several times throughout the night by nightmares and old memories anyway, and by morning, he'd be just as tired as he would be without any rest at all. The doctors offered pain meds when he first left the hospital, but apparently, while his healing factor doesn't give a damn when it comes to his scars and legs, it's still perfectly fine with negating the effects of human drugs. So there's no point, unless he downs maybe three bottles at once, which might kill him but could also just render him unconscious long enough for someone to find him, and then he'll probably be taken right back to the hospital and placed on suicide watch. It's just not worth it. He's used to pain by now, and there are days when he can't even remember living without pain. Whenever he was conscious during his coma, paralyzed but varying stages of aware, it always felt like he was burning. His own personal hell, and some days, he's not sure if he's not still living it.
This VRDC though. From what Emilie said and what he found out when he looked through GajosTech's website, the invention is apparently not only a giant leap ahead for virtual reality technology that - along with Esien Frontier - launched GajosTech into the world spotlight, but it's also become something of a medical device. People are advised to use it overnight because it puts them into instant and continuous REM sleep, curing those with insomnia while simultaneously offering a thus far unmatched full-immersion experience in virtual reality.
It sounds too good to be true, in Peter's opinion. But pretty much every review he's stumbled across has been positive, and there are actually real businesses out there that include an Esien Frontier guild of all things on their Contact pages. Not to mention Emilie did suggest it, and whatever else she is, Peter at least trusts her not to make fun of his... issues. Not intentionally anyway.
And aside from insomnia cures, doctors have apparently been experimenting with how the VRDC and Esien Frontier in particular might be able to aid some long-term trauma victims too. Which is where Emilie's brilliant idea came from.
Peter sighs. He goes over the instructions again in his head, then hesitantly taps the small touchscreen on the side of the headset. It lights up upon contact, and- he checks the clock on his nightstand. Not even ten. Once upon a time, he would've considered it a ridiculously early time to go to bed, but it's not like he has anything else to do these days, and if he's honest, his energy usually starts flagging by late afternoon.
He sets the timer for ten hours. The device doesn't allow more than twenty hours of continuous gameplay, and if a player uses the whole twenty, the device automatically ejects them before locking them out for the next four hours. But ten should wake him at around eight tomorrow morning, so that's what he enters.
Once that's done, he slides his account card into the slot behind the screen, and then the Esien Frontier game chip on the other side of the headset. The screen flashes briefly with his name, then the screen turns green and [START] appears, blinking steadily as it waits for him to begin.
Peter spares one more moment to look from headset to wheelchair to his own legs. Then he sets the empty game case on his nightstand, drags his legs up onto the bed, and makes himself as comfortable as he can under the sheets.
His fingers haven't worked right since he woke up from the coma - no longer as nimble or steady as they used to be - so it takes a few minutes to adjust the size to his liking as he puts the headset on. Against his pillows, it doesn't feel too uncomfortable, and once the dark screen of the visor is squarely over his eyes, he only dithers for another moment before tapping the screen once more.
The black of the visor remains black, but it brightens with some inner light before the GajosTech logo pops up - GajosTech in circuitry lettering, superimposed on a grove of pine trees. And then that disappears, and consecutive lines of text replaces it, a smooth waterfall of words that ripple across Peter's field of vision, one line at a time:
[You are accessing a Virtual Reality Dream Console by GajosTech.]
[Thank you for choosing us, and we hope you will enjoy your experience.]
[ENTERING VIRTUAL DREAM STATE IN 10]
A countdown begins, all the way down to 1, before words replace it again:
Those words disappear too, and in their stead, tiny lights like shooting stars fly by in the dark before the game's logo appears, and more words run underneath:
[Welcome to Esien Frontier.]
[May you find what you are looking for.]
And the world goes black.
"Welcome to Esien Frontier!" A cheerful voice greets him. Peter's eyes snap open - when had they closed? - and he twitches a little as a... pixie? with long dark hair and pale skin swoops out, shimmering dust trailing behind her as she flits around to hover in front of Peter's face, a smile adorning her features. "Hello, new player! Please state your full name and account number, just for verification."
Peter stares for a long moment of disbelief, then haltingly recites both as he takes a stunned look around. He's emerged in a soft blue swirl of what looks to be data that dances around him in a large spherical dome, and beyond it, silver stars dot a vast dark universe.
The pixie though. The pixie looks so real. She's wearing a miniature summer dress that flutters when she moves, and she looks perfectly three-dimensional, down to her tiny delicate fingers. And she was talking to him, like a normal person in real life.
He... didn't expect this. Games on the VRGameset were never interactive, and he knows this is supposed to be a role-playing game but he still didn’t - couldn’t - imagine something so realistic.
He thinks of the bed he was lying on just a minute ago, but he can't even feel it anymore. He feels like he's... sitting up. Like he's somehow been transported somewhere else.
"Great!" The pixie says cheerfully once he's finished, and for something that's just a computer program, she certainly doesn't act like it. Or maybe she does, maybe stuff like this is the norm these days, and Peter's just... behind the times. "Just so you know, your account for Esien Frontier will be saved on your account card. Report it right away if you lose it; so long as you have identification, no data will be lost. You will have to pay for the new card though. Only the first one comes free with the console, so try not to lose it, okay?"
Peter just blinks. He says nothing, still not quite sure how to respond and more preoccupied with sitting very stiffly and holding himself very still. Technically, he thinks he’s actually floating, even though he's in a sitting position, and he's not sure if he's allowed to move. His legs don’t hurt though, for the first time since he woke up from his coma, not even the faintest of aches, and he thinks... he thinks if he tries, he might be able to...
But no, not yet, he shouldn't get ahead of himself, because what if they don't work until he's all the way into the game? Or more likely, what if they don't work at all? He doesn’t want to fall flat on his face in front of someone, even if that someone is a virtual fantasy creature.
(He doesn't want all his doubts to be proven correct.)
Forcibly, he yanks his spiralling thoughts back into the present, and in front of him, the pixie pouts. She has the face of a grown woman, but still young, maybe a few years younger than Peter.
"Tough customer," She grumbles when Peter doesn’t actually answer her. "Well, that's fine. You must be impatient to get into Esien Frontier. So let's get to it!"
She sweeps an arm to her right, and between one blink and the next, an identical copy of Peter pops into existence, blank-faced, naked, and scarred.
The pixie pauses, head cocking, and she's just... pixels and code, not a real person, but another moment passes, and then the scars disappear.
"Right then," She continues as if nothing happened. "Character creation time! What race would you like?"
Helpfully, a list of seven races in white lettering whirl into existence beside the pixie.
There was actually a guide booklet that came with the game, and Peter had flipped listlessly through it earlier while waiting for the kettle to boil, so he has some recollection of what each race looks like and even that they're each designed to be good at certain things. But he's not very familiar with gaming terms, and he had neither patience nor much interest in looking up all the things he was unfamiliar with, so there's not much point now in trying to pick a race based on which would suit him best from a strategic point of view.
Besides, there's one thing he does know. It was actually what caught his eye in the first place, when he was looking up information about the game, and it even almost startled a laugh out of him - the fact that the races that populate Esien Frontier are almost all supernatural creatures.
And of those creatures, he's had only one in mind since he saw it was an option.
"The Werewolf," He says decisively, and immediately, his avatar changes. Its hair thickens and lengthens until it's halfway down his back. Wolf ears rise from the top of its head, and its human ears disappear. A matching wolf tail sways from side to side behind it, tipped white like a brush dipped in paint. More fur extends from its hairline and fuzzes over the sides of its face and cheekbones, a little like sideburns, blending human features with lupine.
It's taller too, Peter realizes after a moment, and it's broadened out a bit, not so much as to be distastefully muscular, but enough for him to see the difference between it and the underweight mess of his own body. Its fingernails have also sharpened to claws, and likewise, its feet are now claw-tipped too.
Peter just has one question: "Why is the hair blue?"
Because it is, hair and the fur on its face and ears and tail. The avatar's skin has darkened to a storm cloud grey, which Peter knew would happen from the sample picture in the booklet, but that picture also had brown hair. This is not brown.
"Because your eyes are blue," The pixie says matter-of-factly even as her mouth quirks with silent laughter. "Werewolves were designed to match hair colour with eye colour."
Well, its eyes are indeed the same blue as his own, although periodically, they glow gold for a few seconds before fading back to the original colour. He’ll be able to control that - it was one of the things he read.
But still. Blue hair. Why.
It's not like it looks bad, per se, it's just a bit jarring. And on the bright side, barely anything of the avatar looks like Peter now, even to Peter who's just watched his avatar being altered. It's different enough that there's no way other people who know him in real life would recognize him in this game, and it's nothing like a real-world werewolf at all. Well, unless someone took a snapshot of one halfway towards a full-shift. Then... actually, it would probably look very much like this, colouring aside, so much so that it makes Peter wonder fleetingly if the creator of this game might know something about the supernatural.
Still, even for most people who know about werewolves in real life or even are werewolves themselves, this game's version is definitely not what they would think of first, which his paranoia appreciates because if there are hunters in this game - which Peter actually has a hard time imagining but the possibility is there - and if he happens to stumble on one that once knew him back in the day and somehow still remembers him, they'd never be able to recognize him through an avatar like this.
So. Blue hair it is.
If he's honest, he could tolerate wandering around with fuchsia pink hair, just for the fact that his virtual self really is standing, on legs that no longer look too brittle and emaciated. Peter has to clench his hands against the near-overwhelming wave of longing that wells up inside him, and he tells himself again that it won't be a big deal if it doesn't really feel like walking around once he's in the game. He would be content with just a pale imitation, content with... some kind of difference, however small, just something that would give him back a piece of his old self, the one that could walk and run, the one that knew freedom and wasn't chained to a wheelchair and locked in a body that could barely function on a good day. Even a pale imitation would certainly be more than he has now.
He turns back to the pixie. "Can I alter anything on the... on it? Appearance?"
"Of course!" The pixie answers readily. "Your physical appearance is the base, but hair and eye colour can become lighter or darker, within five colour variables each way. Hair style can be altered within ten variables. Hair length can be adjusted between neck and lower back. However, height and weight cannot be altered."
Peter nods, then says out loud because that seems to be how this works, "Shortest length for hair."
His hair length shrinks accordingly. It's still a little longer than his own hairstyle, reaching the base of the avatar's neck, strands gone slightly curly. But it doesn't look absurd, he's even getting used to the blue the longer he stares at it, and that's all he cares about. It does make him wonder though - he knows he’ll be able to turn into a wolf at level... 40, was it? Would he turn into a blue wolf?
Well, he can't anymore in real life, his normal black or otherwise. But maybe he'll be able to regain that here too, at least a little. And so long as it's no longer attached to a face carved with the biggest tragedy of his life, he'd take blue fur any day of the week.
"This is fine," He says, nodding again.
The pixie pouts. Peter eyes her warily.
"Don't you want to take a look at the other races?" She demands, crossing her arms. "Most people at least try them. A lot of work was put into each of them, you know."
Peter feels the sudden urge to roll his eyes but he just sighs instead. He supposes he is a bit curious, now that the pixie's brought it up. He knows what the races look like but not what they look like on him. And on one hand, he wants to rush through so he can get into the game as soon as possible, but on the other... on the other, he dreads the exact same thing. A few extra minutes in this place won't make a difference, and it's not like he has to pick any of the other races in the end.
"Alright, show me-" Not Human; the species seems pointless to Peter in a fantasy world, not to mention the last thing he wants is to be stuck in a mirror body of what he's essentially been reduced to in real life. "-the Imp."
In an instant, virtual-Peter shrinks and shrinks until it stands maybe about knee-high of an average adult. The wolf ears and tail disappear, and pointed ears and a thinner, longer tail with a sharp tip - not unlike a devil's horns and tail - take their place. In contrast to the Werewolf, its skin pales to a light metal-grey, tiny bat-like wings unfold from its back, its hair gets shorter but messier, all fur recedes, and blue eyes with slitted pupils and black sclera peer out from the small face.
Peter stares for several incredulous seconds as the imp version of his avatar flaps its wings, lifting off the ground and bobbing up and down in the air instead. "...No."
The pixie has the gall to giggle. "I think its cute!"
"I don't," He says flatly. What can an Imp do anyway? He saw a sample image of it in the booklet but he didn’t think it was actually this small. It's still twice the size of the pixie, but seriously, Peter in his wheelchair could probably kick one across the room. Just as an example of course. "Switch to the Firedrake."
Firedrake-Peter is another flying race like the Imp, except normal-sized. Still smaller than a Werewolf, but at least it doesn't look like a child's stuffed animal. It has dragon wings instead of bat, a shorter tail, sharper claws, bare skin but with dark bronze scales running along various parts of its body, and horns protruding from its head in addition to its pointed ears. It... actually doesn't look that bad, except... well.
The name is... unfortunate. It's just a name, but Peter feels a flash of discomfort anyway, not exactly fear, but an instinctive sort of aversion remains.
He breathes through it because he knows he's being stupid, and flight does sound like it could be fun, depending on how real the game will make it.
"What's the difference between this and the Werewolf?" He asks, belatedly. "Besides the obvious."
"In terms of their initial stats, they're actually fairly similar," The pixie admits. "They're both more proficient in carrying out physical attacks, although Firedrakes do have an affinity for fire spells in particular, while Werewolves gain an affinity for dark and holy spells around the full moon. But in general, neither of them are great with magic when they're just starting out. The Werewolf has high defense stats though, while the Firedrake has decent speed and agility." She studies Peter's blank expression for a second, then adds, "Speed is how fast you move. Agility is how quickly you can deliver a blow or how well you can dodge an attack." She peers inquisitively at him. "You've never played stuff like this before? Not even on the old game devices?"
Peter ignores the question. Of course he's never played, not seriously. They weren't terribly popular when he was a kid, and then Talia bought Michael one of those handheld gaming devices, her other kids too once they were deemed old enough, and Peter had enough difficulties trying to be Uncle Peter and not Talia's child without playing with her children's toys as well.
It helped that Peter never particularly cared either. He'd tried a few games on the family game consoles that had shown up in the house over the years, and of course there were the VRGamesets, but he'd always preferred other activities over video games.
He didn't expect he would play one so many years later. Then again, he didn't expect a lot of things that's happened in his life.
He understands what the pixie is saying though, and the basic gist is, does he want to be sturdy or fast? Or...
"Is there a race with good magic... stats?"
The pixie indicates the Kitsune race - of course - on the list, and Peter's avatar changes once more. "The Kitsune has the highest Intelligence and Mind stats - meaning magic potency and defense against magic attacks, respectively - of any race. They're not much good in a physical battle, but they don't really need to be when they're capable of excelling in multiple branches of magic."
Peter nods absently, eyeing the Kitsune form that his avatar's turned into. It's slimmer than the Werewolf but taller than the Firedrake, and it has a fox's ears and slitted pupils, as well as nine fluffy tails that fan out behind it. In this form, its face blends human with fox, resulting in something sharper than the Werewolf's facial structure, and its hair and fur are a dark orange streaked with burnished gold.
"Kitsune have the ability to hide their ears and tails and blend in with Humans," The pixie adds. "You start out with only one tail though, and you earn one tail every ten levels, so you won't look like this until level 80."
It looks okay, in Peter's opinion. If he wasn't so partial to Werewolf, he might even pick Kitsune. But he doesn't much like the idea of having weak physical stats, no matter how much magic he'll be able to throw around. "Is there a race that's good with weapons and magic?"
The pixie nods. "That would be the Fae."
Fae-Peter is just... weird. It's beautiful actually, which Peter expected, but it's beautiful in a viciously cold sort of way that tells him whoever designed this race didn't exactly base the concept of a fairy on Tinkerbell. Fae-Peter is tall and lithe, clean-shaven with long silvery hair and pointed ears and skin that's such a pale blue it's nearly white. Again, its eyes take after Peter's own blue but several shades paler, and the outer corners slant upward. Its face in general has become more pointed, all angles and delicate lines and high cheekbones, and somehow, the avatar's previously empty expression looks even colder in this form.
He can't say he likes it much, even if it does have a good balance of physical and magical power.
"And the Dwarf?"
Dwarf-Peter gets the stubble back, and then some, with that thick beard and matching long hair. It's well-muscled and broad-shouldered, if not particularly tall compared to the Werewolf or Kitsune or Fae. But it looks as strange as the Fae on Peter's avatar, just in a completely different way.
He glances at the pixie. "I want the Werewolf."
Now that he's seen all the races, or at least most of them, the pixie seems much more agreeable. "Sure, sure!" Werewolf-Peter returns in the blink of an eye. "So what class would you like? Like I said, Werewolves are geared toward physical fights, so most people start out as a knight or a warrior or even a martial artist if you prefer hand-to-hand."
Peter frowns. Right. Classes. That's like... a fighting style that you build on to get stronger, right? Well, martial artist is probably the closest to his own fighting style in real life. Once upon a time anyway, when he was still capable of fighting. If only because nobody in this day and age went around with a sword anymore, especially not a werewolf who has fangs and claws at their disposal.
But that seems a bit boring even for someone like him, who's hardly entering this game to actually seriously play. And he only gets one go at this so... "What are the other classes?"
In response, the pixie gestures to one side, and the list of races is replaced by a much longer list of classes.
Peter sighs and starts scanning the new list of twenty-four. He supposes there are a handful he can strike off right away, but-
"You know, you're not limited to just one class," The pixie interrupts, twirling once in the air before coming to a stop above the list. "I mean right now you are. But at level 30, you can pick a second class, and at level 60, you can pick a third. Once you've mastered an ability, you can use it no matter what class you're set as. For example, if your primary class is a Warrior, but you're also a level 3 Flintlock, you can use all the abilities you've mastered as a level 3 Flintlock alongside your Warrior abilities. Get it?"
Peter nods. That actually makes things more interesting. In essence, he can mix and match instead of being stuck with one skillset that's only good for a certain amount of things.
He pauses at that thought.
For the first time since his therapist brought it up, Peter lets himself really honestly think about it, about why he's playing at all - he bought this game out of desperation, plain and simple. He knows there are people out there who can adjust to the loss of their mobility just fine, but Peter isn't one of them, isn't that... strong, as much as he hates to admit it. He's a werewolf, for moon's sake. He was meant to run through woods and under moon, and every day he can't is another day spent feeling like the walls are closing in on him, like they might suffocate him at any moment.
And yet he can't go outside either because that's arguably worse. Grocery-shopping is out. People whisper and stare if he ventures farther than his front stoop, and he shouldn't care, he's never cared about other people judging him before, but he's also never been the last Hale and the town's best gossip fodder, and smelling their pity and fascinated disgust just makes him want to kill everyone in sight.
It's not even just the people. It's everything, inside his apartment and out. A trip around the block is a struggle, his strength nowhere near what it used to be. His once most frequented coffee shop is even farther and too small to accommodate a wheelchair so he can no longer go, even if wants to brave the outside. He gets cold now, in California, when he doesn't put on enough layers, and it's not really something he's even had to take notice of before. The heat of the stove makes him flinch, and half the time he can't bring himself to look in a mirror anymore. And if he falls out of his wheelchair - which occurred far too many times when he first moved in and tried to do too much too quickly - it takes forever to drag himself back into it. If he happens to be holding something, cleaning up is even harder.
Everything is hard these days. The Hale family came from old money, had everything from good looks to good jobs to good reputations. Super strength and enhanced healing were just icing on the cake, so it wasn't like Peter never knew they were better off than the average citizen, no matter what internal problems their pack had. But he still had no idea just how lucky he was, not until it was all taken away, and he never thought that one of the things he would miss most was the simple ability to function normally.
But his tragedy means nothing in the greater scheme of things, and time hasn't stopped for anyone else even if it has for him. And these days, even just opening his front door and feeling the sun on his face makes him feel too small, too slow, too helpless, in this world he no longer has a place in.
So he bought Esien Frontier out of desperation, for the tiniest chance of being able to walk around again, even if it'll all just be in his head, even if it won't be real. And he bought it with a reckless sort of well what more can I lose, even though he knows full well that this might be what finally breaks him once and for all if this too lets him down.
But if he's already gone to all the trouble of doing that, then he might as well at least attempt a few new things while he's at it.
He surveys the list once more. He doesn't like guns - they remind him too much of hunters - and attacking from a distance was never his style. But he wouldn't mind giving swordsmanship a try. Even just the thought of the pixie's suggestions though - knights and warriors - gives him visions of huge broadswords and bulky armour and loud fanfares, and it's enough to make him shudder.
"What about the Fencer class?" He finally asks, looking up again. "They would use... rapiers, right?"
"Yes," The pixie agrees. "But usually only Fae pick the Fencer class. Sometimes Humans and occasionally Kitsune too, but mostly Fae. The class is practically designed for them - decent strength, high speed, high agility. They make use of more lightweight blades with their more versatile movements. Werewolves are more the frontal assault, heavy-hitter type since they can take more damage. They wouldn't be very good in the Fencer class."
Peter frowns. Looks at the list again. Then, "I'll choose the Fencer class."
The pixie splutters. "Didn't you hear anything I just said? If you want to wave something sharp around, there's always Parivir or even Paladin if you’re not partial to Knight or Warrior-"
"I don't care," Peter cuts her off calmly. "I'm not playing this to become the best fighter or anything anyway, I don't even care about the game, so what does it matter?"
The pixie stares at him, and if she's offended, she doesn't show it. "...Are you sure? There's never been a Werewolf fencer before."
"I'm sure," Peter says, and then tacks on dryly, "Do you disapprove?"
Maybe she's programmed to match each player with at least decent initial stats?
But all the pixie does is blink before taking flight once more, wings flapping rapidly as she spins in the air and smiles widely at him. "No, no, of course not. How interesting! Alright, Mr. Werewolf-fencer-who-doesn't-care-about-this-game, let's move on to Job selection. Your options are-" The list of classes disappear, replaced by seven Jobs. "-Alchemist, Armourer, Artisan, Beast Tamer, Blacksmith, Chef, and Tailor."
Peter's first instinct is to go with either Alchemist or Blacksmith. Both sound like practical trades, and considering the fact that he's going to be waving something sharp around, blacksmith probably makes the most sense.
But then, he's already going with the Fencer class, which apparently isn’t very sensible anyway.
"What does tailor do?" He asks abruptly. "Make clothes?"
"Basically yes," The pixie nods. "Blacksmiths, armourers, and artisans make the standard three - weapons, gear, and accessories. Tailors are capable of making outfits, which - unlike gear - can change an avatar's appearance. Gear - like helmets - change to fit the race and class of that avatar. Outfits retain the same original appearance no matter who wears it. They change to fit the character’s size, but otherwise, it’s pretty much like dressing up in different clothes. Oh, and the higher your level gets, the more elaborate your outfits can be, and you'll even be able to spell buffs into them. And the fancier the outfit, the more money you’ll get if you decide to sell them."
Peter takes a moment to digest that, and then he has to suppress a rather sardonic smile.
As a child, there was never a question of what he would be when he grew up - Talia became a lawyer, it was a useful career for the pack, and as Peter got older, it became clear he would be excellent at it too. But if he'd been able to choose... well. His old sketchbooks burned with the house (with his pack), but apparently, a career in clothing design isn't entirely out of the question after all, even if the clothes in question will be more or less imaginary, and actually making them probably won’t be the same either.
"I'll be a tailor," He decides. Might as well. It's not like anyone's around to judge him for it anymore anyway.
The pixie claps her hands, and the list of Jobs disappear. "Excellent. We're almost done. Now you just need to pick a name for your character."
Peter stalls on that. 'Peter' probably isn't going to cut it. He doesn't much feel like using his actual name in a game anyway, and besides, it's such a common one that it's probably already taken.
"...Fenrir?" He tries.
"Taken, sorry. Try again."
The pixie tips an amused look at him. “You do like your mythology, huh? Sköll is acceptable. And voila!”
A screen pops up before him, with his stats listed on one side:
Sköll | LV. 1
[CLASS] Fencer LV. 1
[JOB] Tailor LV. 1
Beside them on the right, his avatar stands in all its werewolf glory, suddenly no longer naked, wearing a simple tunic, some pants, and sandals instead. Ten empty boxes - five on each side - float around it, and the tiny symbols inside them are enough to tell him they must indicate how much equipment he’ll be able to put on at a time.
“Your character creation is now complete,” The pixie announces more formally, drifting off to one side as blue light begins to swirl around them again and the stars above begin to glow brighter. And then she grins and waves at him. “You’ll be dropped off in Novagrove, one of the beginners' areas. Remember to complete your tutorial quests, okay? Oh, and even if you don’t care about this game,” Through the coalescing light, what little Peter can see of the pixie’s face seems to soften. “We hope you’ll find what you're looking for anyway.”
The stars rush down to meet him.
Peter closes his eyes.
And the world shifts.