"Yeah, it wasn't actually anything impressive... one of my previous sponsors was one of the three Big Pharma companies."
Khance lowered his voice in a conspiratorial tone.
"I still have a couple of fans that help me run searches."
Varya snorted at the cloak and dagger explanation.
"I just put your name into the search bar, and it came up. Nothing too fancy."
Khance gave her a withering look but James couldn't help himself from laughing. The whole afternoon had been an emotional rollercoaster for him. From the moment he stepped out of the rig in DV8, everything became chaotic. Quentin Bell, the CEO of Abidden had personally invited him for lunch with all of his former teammates. When they arrived and were seated, Quentin and Dario excused themselves which left James in the middle of the Paragons. None of which knew what to say. Each time one of them tried asking a question or making small talk, it would fall flat or trail off into silence. Don was the first to properly put his foot in it.
"So, you're looking well! How have you been?"
The comment was met with silence and glares from all of the former Paragons. James just chuckled. He genuinely felt so out of place, that the lighthearted nature of his former teammate managed to cheer him up. The conversation flowed a little better from them when James asked them how they had tracked him down.
"Greaves then verified that the account was still yours, and that it wasn't scalped by someone."
A wry smile crossed James' face, which didn't go unnoticed by Helena.
James looked up and saw that she had noticed his amusement.
Shrugging awkwardly, James spread his hands in a calming gesture.
"Scalping stopped being a thing about six years ago. Authentication got way too good, so it stopped being a lucrative venture."
Silence enveloped the group again and James berated himself internally.
"But thank you! For checking. I appreciate it!"
He attempted to recover, but it was only rewarded with more uneasy and uncomfortable smiles.
"I genuinely am just surprised you didn't get that big fancy Artificial Intelligence to do all the searching. Locke, was it?"
James laughed as he tried to ease the mood.
Greaves paused for a moment as the words sunk in.
Before slamming his hand down on the table in frustration.
Everyone around the table burst into laughter and eventually a guilty smile crossed Greaves' face too.
"Why the hell didn't we use Locke?"
He laughed as he looked around the table.
Helena's laughter got even higher pitched as she tried to speak over the crowd. Each time she tried to speak, her laughter got even louder.
"We did... we used Locke..."
James was smiling, her laugh was infectious, but he couldn't understand what she meant.
"We used her... to call the bus!"
Everyone exploded into renewed laughter and James found himself taking it all in. He felt more at ease around them, they were no longer treating him like a caged animal or an endangered species. They were genuinely having fun. A few more drinks arrived and everyone chastised Don who was sitting closest to the Command console. He constantly looked shocked whenever drinks arrived, his excuses that he didn't know what he was doing fell on deaf ears. James didn't mind, he was getting to experience high quality beverages that were having some incredibly positive effects on his body.
"Whoa, would you look at that! Looks like your face can actually hold a bit of colour!"
Khance laughed as he clapped James on the back.
"Is it the alcohol or is it the healing quality of friendship?"
Don asked in a theatrical tone. He struck a pose that could only be described as pensive.
The gentle teasing went back and forth, and eventually the atmosphere became completely relaxed.
James learned that Don Orso had opened up a chain of oriental tea rooms because he liked the aesthetic. He invested heavily in internet cafes and anything remotely nerdy.
Khance had retired from professional esports and kept to himself after he was killed off in Abidden. He claimed he had a few opportunities open, but was weighing up his options.
Varya invested heavily into her father's business which expanded across multiple districts. The 'Weaver Construct' brand was quickly becoming a household name over the last number of years. Varya confided in the group that her father wanted to expand into property development, which was an exciting prospect.
Greaves went on to become an eSports trainer and ambassador for eGaming. His commanding presence and no-bullshit approach to everything made him a great spokesman for the advancement of Virtual Reality Gaming. He also guest starred in a number of gaming broadcast channels where he was invited to slate the current Heroes of Abidden.
The conversation about all of their lives was really interesting to James, and he could feel their expectant eyes on him.
"Guess it's my turn?"
James leaned back in the chair and took a sip of his drink. He caught his own reflection in the shiny glass the waitress had brought them. He had to agree with Khance, there was a reddish hue to his face which he was attributing to the alcohol.
"Where would you like me to begin?"
Helena leaned forward in the table and rested her chin down on her folded arms, her eyes locked onto James and she spoke clearly.
"The night of the semi-finals. The hospitalisation."
Nodding his head, James took a deep breath before giving them all a reassuring smile.
"This might take a while..."
Nobody said a word, except Don... who tapped the command console guiltily. Ordering another round of drinks.
Varya looked at Don who merely shrugged and gestured at James.
"He said it would take a while!"
Everyone waited for the waitress to leave, each of them glaring at Don who pretended not to notice.
James just laughed as he placed his fresh drink beside his half full one.
"I stayed in-game too long. Forty hours is what I was told."
He focused on the bubbling liquid in the glass, and recalled everything that had happened.
"It was actually forty-three hours, I found that out later. I was C-Class, and came from a modest household. I had a Nexus-Lite Rig, it was one of the earlier versions that had a guideline in-game timer of around eight hours. It thankfully had a failsafe on it that notified medical services if I got hurt."
James took a breath and shook his head, his eyes not leaving the drink in front of him.
"That part doesn't matter. I woke up in the hospital. I don't have any immediate family, as I came through the corporate orphanage system. Since I was some high-level's kid, they paid for my way to an extent. Apparently extensive medical cover wasn't included."
Taking a sip of his drink, James looked up quickly and regretted it immediately. The looks of sympathy were written over each person's face. All of their eyes were locked on his face and he cast his gaze downward once more.
"Anyways. I went into C-Class care and had to take out a loan. I was unconscious for a few months, in a coma. I woke up and I was D-Class. I already had raked up extensive debt and was at risk of transfer again. I was enrolled in Therapy. First guy was great but I had to take a loan to pay for the sessions... It was actually worth it."
James paused, as though a profound thought had just occurred to him.
"Everyone should do therapy, at least once."
With that said, he took another sip before gathering his thoughts.
"Second therapist is where everything went wrong. Due to the incident, I was suspended from all gaming. My social licence had been put on a temporary freeze up until that point, but that woman went out of her way to have me blacklisted. She prescribed me drugs I couldn't afford and pretended it was all for my benefit. Her bills got higher and higher and I had no way to earn, so I fell into a vicious cycle where I was falling deeper and deeper into debt. Which led me to E-Class."
A series of clicks broke the eerie silence and James looked instinctively to where the sound originated from.
Greaves' knuckles were white from where they were clenched in rage. His face was white as a sheet and he was staring at Helena. James followed his gaze and flinched at the sight of the Celestial Archer.
Her eyes were murder. The entire atmosphere around her was that of an indescribable rage.
James stammered before Helena's voice reached his ears.
Staring back at the glass. James attempted to change his tone to make it a little more upbeat.
"I started selling the drugs she was prescribing me, and started gambling on myself in illegal slum arcades. They have the really old-school rigs that use NerveGear."
James lifted his sleeve to show the scars on his arms from the needles over the years. The smile on his face showed a grim pride of sorts.
"I didn't have the best skills, but I was better than the others. I did lots of PvP over the years and I actually stopped getting into worse debt. Milly in DV8 gave me some odd jobs off the books, and my friend in The Neophyte Bar gave me the odd bailout here and there. Overall, it's not nearly as bleak as it used to be. I even paid off one of my loans this morning."
James finished with a smile. The pride in his voice was evident, but his attempts at elevating the mood fell flat.
A bark of laughter from Dario broke the awkward tension in the air and everyone looked over to the Engineers' table.
The Paragons were all looking at each other. Helena and Greaves looked like they were trying to contain their rage.
"Why aren't you angry?"
Varya asked suddenly.
James just stared back at her.
"Because it only makes me miserable."
With that said, Varya nodded. Nobody else was joining in or speaking, so Varya decided to ask another question.
"What would make you happy?"
James smiled at the question. The obvious answer was to simply say that he wanted to go back in time and log-out of the game. Another thought would be to get his C-Class status back again. Multiple thoughts of wealth, grandeur and fame popped into his head. All of them sounded cool in his head, but they weren't what would make him happy. Biting his lip he looked around the table, each person waiting on his answer.
"I genuinely have no idea what would make me happy. I've only been thinking of survival up until now and getting out of E-Class."
Helena's expression had softened slightly and her breathing had returned to normal. She was no longer as terrifying.
"What was the name of the second Therapist, the one who ruined you?"
James quickly connected the dots in his head and knew that Helena was on a warpath. He made the decision instantly.
"Doctor Ruth Meadows, she runs a Holistic Clinic that specialises in VR Cessation."
The smile that widened across Helena's features could only be classified as sinister.
Greaves jutted his chin, and everyone looked to see Dario and Quentin moving toward their table. Both men looked to be a mixture of excited and confused.
The CEO of Abidden looked at James Sylvester with a curious expression on his face.
Before he could say anything to him, Helena interjected.
"Quentin, we've made our decision about the expansion."
James took a sip of his drink, and was surprised to see that all of the faces around him were smiling at him.
"We'll all join, on the condition that James is offered a place in the game."
Quentin looked at Dario with a thoughtful expression.
"Looks like we have another Wildcard."