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Two updates in one month? Wack.
For what feels like the thousandth time, Lee raises his hand with his knuckles poised to rap upon the door before him, one leading to meeting room number three in the Mauville pokemon center. Then his nerve flees him and he lowers his hand again. On his shoulder, Vulpix sits quietly, neither encouraging nor discouraging him to move forward.
Earlier that morning, Professor Birch did as he said he would, sending an email with all the details for the meeting. He would meet Mable Lane, the League-sanctioned therapist, in meeting room number three at 10 AM. The meeting would last only an hour and Lee would be free to end it at any point he likes.
But dammit all to hell, why can't he just knock on the door?
'It's not for you, Lee. It's for your friends. It's for Vulpix, Shinx, Grovyle, Corvi, Brendan, and Zinnia. You owe it to all of them to get better, your pokemon especially.' The man sighs to himself and glances at a clock in the center hallway, seeing that he's already two minutes late.
Vulpix presses her muzzle to his cheek in silent support. Her wet nose and hot breath serving as a reminder that he isn't alone.
Mustering his nerve one final time, Lee raises his hand and gives the door two sharp knocks.
"Coming!" The voice of a woman says from inside. There's the muffled sound of chair legs moving across carpet, and after only another second of waiting, the door clicks and swings open.
Standing in the doorway with a kindly smile on her aging face, the woman who has to be Mable greets them. "Ah, Mister Henson and Miss Vulpix. My name is Mable, but you knew that. Come right in and make yourself comfortable! I'm glad to see you today."
"Thank you," Lee inwardly chastises himself with how weak his voice comes out before stepping in after the therapist.
Looking around, the meeting room is just like one that can be found in any corporate office. The walls are a simple eggshell white, the same as the tiles that make up the ceiling. The table and chairs he expected are absent, instead replaced with a single cushioned chair, a soft-looking couch of similar style, and a glass coffee table between them. Was this room set up specifically for them, or is this particular meeting room always arranged like this?
As he seats himself on the couch, Lee takes the time to inspect his new therapist.
Mable is a woman steadily making her way out of middle age and into her elder years. The professional black bun her hair is pulled back into sports threads of gray, and although the wrinkles and laugh lines on her face are somewhat hidden by her dusky skin, they can still be seen with some effort. Her hazel eyes sparkle with a youthful energy, sharply contrasting her aged and somewhat rotund form. On her left hand is a simple gold wedding band, and on the opposite wrist is a bracelet filled with charms. Her appearance is complete by a white blouse overlaid by a purple jacket, one that shares its hue with her skirt and high heels.
Mable settles in the chair and folds her hands in her lap, smile still in place. "So, Lee. Can I call you Lee? How are you doing today?"
The man rubs the back of his head as he shifts on the couch. "Fine. A little nervous, truthfully."
Mable nods like she expected that answer. "And that's just fine. It's plenty okay to be nervous when doing something new, especially when that thing is talking to a stranger. No need to call me ma'am if you don't want to, either. Mable is just as good as any."
Vulpix slides down off of Lee's shoulder and drapes herself across his lap, letting Lee lean back into the couch to try to make himself comfortable. "Sure thing, ma'-Mable." Lee trips over himself for a moment and clears his throat to try and cover it. "If it's okay with you, I have a few questions before we really dig into things."
The therapist smiles. "Of course. Go right ahead and I'll be happy to answer!"
"Have you been told the…" The zoologist struggles to find a word. "Magnitude of the events that led me to you?"
The woman hums knowingly. "You're worried about the consequences if the information gets out?" She raises her hand and taps the side of her head with a single finger. "Well, you don't have to worry about that at all, hun. Old Mable has an XY-grade psychic block in this noggin. That may not mean much to you, but I can't speak a word at all about what we talk about here. My bosses could scream and yell, villains could do some bad things to try and make me talk, or someone really nefarious could have a pokemon try and take it by force. You can't really beat an XY, because they rooted it good and deep." Mable's smile is nothing but confidence despite her next sentence. "They want to get past it? They'll have to break a lot to get there, but then it doesn't matter because a dead woman tells no tales."
The hairs along Lee's neck stand up. In the back of his mind, he can feel Vulpix's uneasy surprise as well. "You're really serious about your profession, huh?"
"Helping people is my passion, Lee. Sometimes, one has to make some sacrifices to pursue a passion." Mable's eyes shine with pride. "But it's all worth it in the end."
Despite himself, Lee actually begins to feel himself relax. "Yeah, I can understand that," he replies, stroking Vulpix across the back and enjoying the warmth seeping into his legs. So far, this isn't the stressful interrogation he envisioned.
"I bet you do," Mable looks at Vulpix with obvious admiration. "I'm no expert in pokemon health, Lee, but Vulpix here is positively glowing! Just look at her! Through her, I see that drive, that passion you have."
Lee smiles back. "I can't take all the credit for that. She works just as hard as I do."
The therapist shakes her head with exaggerated exasperation. "No no, truly! Look at her and take her in! See your own passion reflected through her."
Humoring the woman, Lee looks down at the vixen in his lap, who in turn looks up at him.
Vulpix is just as beautiful as she's always been. With her burnt orange coat, six lustrous tails, and curly head tuft of sunset orange, creme underbelly, and her paws covered in 'socks' of earthy brown fur, she's visually striking. Her fur is as soft as a plush toy's, and the fluffy tuft of fur on her breast is a delight to the hands. Deep, brown eyes that glimmer with intelligence draws one's gaze after her shiny coat and fan of tails get their due admiration. On the back of her ear is the only irregularity, that being a splotch of white fur in the shape of a heart, the same marking he gave her in the game before this whole adventure started. Under the surface is another beauty, the beauty of function. Her body is a bundle of trained muscle, enough to easily overpower a grown man. With a leap, she can bound over a building, and with a breath, she can summon an inferno. With her in his lap, he can feel the fire in her core, so composed and under control. Th-
Lee's thoughts are cut off when Vulpix suddenly turns her head away. From her, he feels a pulse of both pride and embarrassment. At the same time, the insides of her ears darken in a blush.
"Just the look I expected." Mable's face is drawn into a grin. "That expression of awe on your face. Miss Vulpix is a spectacular pokemon, Lee, but she didn't get there alone. Remember that."
Lee schools his expression sheepishly.
"Now," Mable threads her fingers together and crosses one leg over the other. She takes on a more serious air, but the friendly smile remains. "Let's get started, shall we? What can I help you with today?"
A twinge of nervousness returns, but the zoologist pushes it away and clears his thoughts. "I'm not well, Mable. I'm not getting better, either. I… don't really know where to begin."
On his belt, Lee feels Grovyle's ball wiggle. Corvisquire's is still, but Lee has no doubt that the bird is focusing on the conversation. Shinx's ball is absent, left in Brendan's care.
"Begin with what makes sense to you," Mable firmly insists. "You can take as much time as you want, I won't count it against our hour here today."
Lee gulps and looks down to Vulpix. 'Should I?'
The fox's reply is quick as if she expected the question. 'Yes. I don'* fe*l as if s*e's lyi*g.' Vulpix meets his gaze with her soulful eyes. 'I want you to be okay.'
With a shaky sigh, Lee begins. "What if I told you that I'm not native to this world? Or even this dimension?" He asks, bracing for the worst.
Mable's reaction is… nothing. Her face doesn't even twitch. "Not the strangest thing I've ever heard, Lee," she says with a smile. "Not even in the top ten. This world of ours is rife with mysteries, so that's not terribly hard to believe. What was your home like? Can you tell me?"
The sheer lack of disbelief throws the scarred man and even Vulpix for a loop. "Uh. What do you want to know?"
"How about we start with what you want," she says, once more handing the reins over. "Maybe your job? Your hobbies?"
I want you to be okay.
'I see what she's doing.' Lee thinks to himself, wrapping Vulpix in a loose hug. The vixen looks up at him, but doesn't move. 'She wants to take this slow, build trust and all that. Do I have that kind of time, though?'
I want you to be okay.
"I'd… I'd like to jump into the main matters, if that's okay with you." Lee eventually says.
Mable's eyes widen just a smidgen. "That's very brave, but you don't need to if you aren't ready. Don't feel like you're being pressured here, because we do things at the pace best for you, no one else."
"If we don't, I might lose the nerve, so I want to start there." Lee replies, preparing himself for yet another long explanation. He draws in a deep breath and holds Vulpix a little tighter. "That home dimension I talked about? I worked as a zookeeper caring for animals. You know, pokemon but less intelligent, more mundane?"
"Mm-hmm," Mable nods along. "Tell me about it, the zoo."
"The place, the Columbus Zoo, was pretty famous and one of the largest in the nation, about five-hundred acres," Lee recalls many a day trekking across the paved walkways, and how he'd duck into the cool aquarium section on hot summer days. "Seven thousand animals called it home."
Mable lets out a quiet gasp. "That's a lot of creatures. Did you tend to all of them or just a few?"
Lee mulls the question over. "My mentor and I ran the dayshift lion exhibit, but I got called away often to help with others. Usually, it was big cats or other carnivores."
Seemingly picking her words with care, Mable quietly asks; "Did you like the lions?"
"Loved them." Lee feels his chest become tight and dares not think of any names or faces. "I raised several by hand, learned their personalities, and became part of their lives. They became part of mine, too."
"You loved them a lot, didn't you?" The therapist asks, voice still gentle.
The conversation falls into a lull for a minute, letting Lee reminisce on days now long gone. 'It feels like a lifetime ago already.' He turns his eyes to the little white lines on the side of his wrist, the same one the lion cubs made when setting a paw there as he fed them. Now Shinx is the one adding to it, as the crisscrossing lines have a few fresh pink additions from Shinx' tiny claws.
"Do you want to keep going? We can pause here if you like and move on to something else." Mable's voice pulls him from his reverie.
"No. No, let's just get this out of the way… It was a pretty normal day at the Zoo," Lee leans back into the couch, feeling himself return to the day. Only the feeling of warm fur in his hand keeps him tethered to reality. "I had just finished feeding the animals in the exhibit and was on my way to lunch. Funny thing was while pokemon didn't exist back home, they were a popular media franchise that I was a fan of. It probably comes off as a little childish, but I had a pokemon game on my phone that I played during breaks sometimes."
Mable clicks her tongue. "That's not childish at all, hun. If it makes you happy, then why not?"
Lee lets out an amused huff. "Sure. Right. Anyway, I was on my way to lunch and I had just sat down to eat, fiddling with that pokemon game as I did so. Then every electronic thing in the break room went off at once, blaring an EAS alarm."
"Emergency alert system," Lee suppresses a tremble. Just thinking of the noise makes him feel ill, and it still pops up in his dreams. "Someone, I don't know who or why, decided 'to hell with it' and launched a missile barrage on my home. These missiles were carrying nuclear warheads, bombs powerful enough to turn a city into glass and poison the land around for years. They gave us a list of known targets, and we were right in one of them." He feels Vulpix press herself to his stomach, again reminding him that he's here and not there. "No one was sure what to do. There were no bomb-proof locations in a zoo of all places, and the panicking guests clogged the parking lot, so running was a no-go. We just… Had to sit there and wait."
"Lee," Mable tries to cut in. "We can-"
He pushes on. "The pressure was too much. People were cracking. The guard on duty wanted to go out painlessly and shot himself there in front of everyone." The words keep pouring out before he can rein them in. "One of the interns took the dead guard's gun and followed him. That… It shocked everyone so badly that the panicking stopped. Everyone just huddled and waited." In his mind, he can feel Vulpix try to worm her way in and bleed off the memory, but he shuts her out. This pain is his, not hers.
His heart thunders in his own ears, drowning anything else out. "I… I thought about shooting myself too, but I chickened out. I just sat down and tried to distract myself with the pokemon game on my phone. In no time at all, it happened." His scars burn. "The bomb hit. Just the light coming through the blinds burned and disfigured my face, then the shockwave ripped the building apart, throwing glass everywhere, then the fireball reached us and-!"
A hand takes him on the shoulder and shakes him out of the memory.
"Easy now," Mable is sitting next to him, her face isn't shocked or frightened, but soothingly placid as she rubs his shoulder. He didn't even notice her move. "Just take it nice and slow, okay? You had a flashback, so take a deep breath and come back down."
Lee does as she asks, sucking in a breath free of fire and ash. As she stills the shaking in his limbs, he looks down to Vulpix.
Her ears are pinned back and her tails are drawn in. Those chocolate eyes stare back up with such hurt that his chest throbs as if stabbed.
"Are you feeling better?" Mable asks, her concern plain.
Lee nods silently, stroking Vulpix across her neck with the backs of his fingers. 'Sorry, love. I didn't mean to worry you.'
The wave of forgiveness that washes over his brain soothes him.
Mable slowly rises and returns to her seat before sitting heavily. She crosses one leg over the other and steeples her fingers in her lap. "Lee, before we go further, I want to establish one ground rule. Just one."
"And that is?" Lee fights the burnout of his episode to pay attention. His eyelids feel like they're made of lead and a bone-deep weariness grips him despite the early hour.
"We will do things at the pace best for you." She stresses 'the pace best for you'. "You rushed headfirst into your trauma before you were ready, and all that does is hurt you. It's normal to feel a little uncomfortable talking about unpleasant events, and it's normal to want to get better as fast as you can, but you shouldn't rush in."
"My best pace is an expedient one," Lee counters. "The one best for my friends and pokemon."
For the first time, Mable's smile drops. "Lee, we're doing this at the pace best for you. No one else's. Please don't misunderstand that." She leans back in her chair, regarding him intensely. "I've met many a man like yourself; the type who thinks of others first. There are few people in this world better than them, but there comes a day they have to learn a lesson, one that they always view harshly and cringe away from. Do you know what that lesson is?"
Numbly, Lee shakes his head.
"That they matter just as much as everyone else."
"What?" He blinks incredulously, hardly believing what he's hearing. "You think that I see myself like that? I know what I'm worth."
Mable's mouth draws itself into a thin line. "I don't think it, hun. I know it. Your love for your pokemon says a lot of good things about you, but when was the last time you did something for yourself?"
"I…" Lee draws a blank. "Well, I… Like what?"
"Like sitting down and enjoying a movie, or reading a book for fun, maybe taking a walk at sunset, or buying yourself something nice or getting yourself a little extra at dinnertime because you thought to yourself 'I deserve this'. Anything, really." Mable explains. "Something that you did for yourself because you wanted it."
"Erm…" Lee struggles, looking away and at the corner of the room. "I was in Slateport just a week ago."
"Mm-hmm," Mable smiles encouragingly.
"We visited the market there, and I…" Lee hesitates again. Should he say that he adopted Shinx? Was that selfish? "...I picked up some quality grooming supplies for my pokemon."
The purple-clan woman's smile doesn't fall, but it sure seems that way to Lee. "And that was something to make you happy? Not your pokemon?"
He almost lies and says Yes, but remains silent.
"Try another one," Mable waves her hand in a go on gesture. "Dig deep. When did you do something just for yourself?"
'Well, maybe..? No, I would have felt bad not using that Battle Tent ticket that Zinnia spent her own money on.'
'My Eevee hunt? That's sort of work related…'
'I didn't really pay much attention to those movies in Slateport.'
The more and more Lee digs, the less he can find. He gulps as one selfish memory surfaces. "I caught an extraordinarily powerful Treecko in the Petalburg Woods. I knew about him beforehand and wanted him for how strong he was." Even with Grovyle aware of the full story, admitting it still hurts.
On his belt, Grovyle's ball remains static.
Mable hums to herself. "But you feel guilty about it."
"How did-?!" Lee clams up after accidentally outing himself. Wait. Did he out himself? He's not guilty over that! He's over it!
"It's all over your face, hun." Mable gently replies. "Why would a wonderful trainer like you feel guilty for catching a strong pokemon?" She pauses, and when Lee doesn't answer, she continues. "Do you feel guilty because you feel as if you aren't good enough for your pokemon?"
Lee hisses and opens his mouth to refute her. However, the words refuse to leave the tip of his tongue.
Mable leans back, easing off. "The first lesson men who care too much must learn," she begins slowly, "is to value and forgive themselves. You are your own worst critic, Lee. I can see you tear yourself down even as we talk."
"No, I'm not." He shoots back reflexively. "I do criticize myself, and it's a realistic amount, same as anyone else."
In his lap, Vulpix shifts uncomfortably.
The therapist regards Vulpix, then looks to Lee with open doubt. "You're certain?"
The refute makes doubt begin to slowly take root in Lee. "Yes?"
Mable nods. "Let me put this in a perspective a trainer might appreciate, then. Let's say you and another trainer battle. The other trainer's pokemon follows instructions to the letter, and yours decides not to listen. Because of that, you lose the battle. Who is at fault?"
"The obvious answer is the pokemon, but it's not that simple." Lee crosses his arms. "A trainer has to own up to their pokemon's failings, and the pokemon can't be rightly blamed if trained incorrectly or in a manner that fosters resentment. In this hypothetical, the fault is with me, the trainer."
"But that's not a factor in the case here. Who is at fault?" Mable patiently asks.
'Why else would a pokemon just decide to throw a match?' Lee frowns. 'If they're treated well, trained in a correct and engaging way, and like the trainer, then that wouldn't happen. There would have to be-'
"Right there, pause this exercise." Mable points a finger forward, the action making her bracelet jingle. "You're trying to rationalize the situation to come to a conclusion that doesn't exist, one that lets you take the blame." She puts her hand down. "Let's circle back around for a moment. Do you think you matter?"
"I do." He answers without hesitation
"As much as your friends and pokemon?"
"...Yes." He has to think about it for a split second.
Hazel eyes bore into him with their disapproval. "Lee, was that what you believe, or what you think I want to hear? Be honest with me."
"How could I say that and believe it?" Lee sighs and raises his arms in exasperation. He misses Vulpix's spike of shock. "Here I am in what may as well be a wonderland, doing my childhood dream-job after everything I know got turned into nuclear ash. What did I do to deserve that? I'm not some extraordinary person or a genius, I'm not virtuous, I'm not anything! Shit, I didn't even go say goodbye to my animals one last time when I could, I just stayed huddled on the floor moping and waiting to die! Why didn't my teacher Aasir end up here? He would have been a champion pokemon trainer easily! Damn near anyone from the zoo would do better than I, raise Vulpix and the others better than I! Or my parents? Mom would have settled and livened up a community, and I'm sure dad would have gotten his foot in the door at Devon and made them rivals to Silph in no time with his business tricks alone." Lee's voice grows louder and louder, and he feels his face flush and fists clench when everything bottled up for months simply explodes. "Why me?! That's all I want to know! Why?! Why put me here?! Why bring Vulpix to me?! Why did everyone but me die?! I never wanted to be here!" He's sure his voice is penetrating the walls, but he doesn't care in the slightest. "Fuck!"
Spent and panting, Lee falls heavily back to the couch, not realizing that he stood as he vented his vitriol-laced angst. Tears sting his eyes, and to try and hide them, he drops his face into his hands and plants his elbows on his knees.
'Why? That's all I want to know.' The tears don't stop and his breath hitches, but he forces down a sob that tries to break free, determined to keep some dignity.
He feels a small paw slowly, tentatively touching his leg. Then another. Then Vulpix slowly crawls back into his lap, pressing herself to him as much as she can.
'I want you to be okay.'
The dam breaks.
Lee isn't sure how long he embarrassingly bawled like a child, but when the last of his tears run out, he's just left… tired.
Tired of feeling the way he does.
Tired of the dread always lurking under the surface.
Tired of always emotionally leaning on Vulpix.
Just… tired in general.
With his eyes irritated and bloodshot, Lee glances up at Mable.
In her hands is a notebook he didn't see earlier, and on her face is a thin, but triumphant smile. "That was a lot to let out. Are you feeling better?"
The zoologist takes a deep breath and clutches the vixen in his lap, who refuses to meet his gaze. Does he feel better?
After months putting it off and moving forward, months of pretending that it didn't happen broken by moments of weakness, finally speaking his thoughts and bringing them into the light for both himself and someone else feels… His chest feels lighter. He breathes a little easier for the first time in what feels like years.
"Yeah," Lee croaks, realizing that he's utterly parched. "A bit better."
"I'm glad." The therapist's smile is as genuine as it is wide before it returns to something slightly more somber. "What you're feeling about the matter is called survivor's guilt. You're upset that others died when you lived, and you feel like someone else would have done better in your place, right?"
Lee nods slowly, turning his eyes to the floor.
"Here's the fact of the matter, Lee." Mable's bracelet jingles as she laces her fingers again over top her notebook. "It's okay to mourn. I'd be more worried if you weren't upset, but don't play the 'what if' game with yourself. Do you think your friends would be happy that you lived?"
"Yes," he murmurs.
"And your family?"
"Yes," his voice picks up a bit more strength.
"Do you think they would approve of how you've done so far?" Mable looks down at her notebook.
"I hope so…" Lee inhales through his nose and leans his head back to stare at the sterile white ceiling.
"Then turn that 'I hope so' into a 'certainly' by living your life to the fullest." Mable fingers the wedding band on her left hand in a way that looks almost wistful. Lee watches her stare down at the innocent ring, already guessing the story behind it.
…But the woman looks upon it with content, quiet joy. Nothing in her expression is melancholic or even bittersweet.
"You owe it not just to all of your old friends, but to all your new friends as well to look up and face the day with a smile, a real one. The first step to that," her eyes sparkle with a learned wisdom. "Is to realize that Lee Henson's wants and needs matter just like everyone else's. The last thing any friend wants is their friend beating themselves up and thinking they're worthless."
'Is she right?' Lee wonders, still staring at the ceiling, then to one of the buzzing fluorescent lights. 'I don't… I'm not too hard on myself, am I? Do I have some kind of stupid complex? I don't think I do. Am I hurting everyone by not realizing this?'
With a start, Lee looks down at Vulpix, who is still cuddled to his stomach. In the back of his brain, he can feel a slight tingle from her concentration. 'You are my world. Grovyle's world. Corvisquire's world, Shinx' world. You are priceless. Please realize.'She looks up at him, raising a warm paw and pressing it against his chest.
Lee's eyes become scratchy, and he struggles to not choke up once more. From the vixen, a tidal wave of love pours forth from her mind into him, where it seeps into his body, into his mind, then into something deeper. The love touches something primal, something beyond words, and at once he realizes.
'I do owe it to them.'
"Mable," the therapist perks up when Lee near-silently addresses her. "I don't think I fully understand how to learn all of this, but I'll give it everything I have."
Her smile is utterly radiant. "There is the resolve I knew you had. You're a hardy man, Lee. You've endured great change and terrible tragedy, yet here you are bravely facing your problems. That brave, caring attitude will carry you far in life, you just need to make time for your own care and remember that not everything is your fault, most of all things out of your control. Once you have that well-deserved belief in yourself, then you can stand tall and better address the other issues in your life. We'll work on those as we go." Mable looks up at the clock on the wall. "Goodness, that hour went by quickly. I imagine that you're exhausted and in need of a good pick-me-up. Can I recommend the confection shop down on Fifth Avenue? Their red velvet is to die for!"
Lee notices the clock himself and blinks incredulously when he sees it only two minutes until eleven. 'Was that really an hour?' Outwardly, he swallows through the dryness still plaguing his mouth. "I'll take a look at the place. Are we… going to be meeting again?"
"Yes indeed," Mable nods assuringly. "We'll meet once a week as often as your schedule allows. I know the life of a traveling trainer is a busy one, but Mable Lane does not stop until her patients are ready to face every day with confidence. Here," she reaches inside of her jacket and pulls a business card from a hidden pocket before setting it on the glass table between them. "If you ever need to, you can call me or email me. We're getting through all of this together!"
With a weary smile, Lee takes the card and stuffs it into his pocket. "Yeah, that sounds good. Thank you again for today," he says with an incline of his head. After letting Vulpix take her usual spot on his shoulder, Lee begins to rise but pauses halfway. "Mable? Before I go, I have just one thing I want to run by you…"
"Go right ahead!" She smiles as she stands as well and flips her notebook closed.
"When my Corvisquire evolves, he agreed to fly me down to Littleroot so I can make a little grave for everyone. You know, for some closure." Lee stands and envisions it in his mind. It would be a little out-of-the-way spot on Professor Birch's pasture, where he would plant a small slab inlaid with the names of everyone left behind. "Is that... you know? A good idea?"
"A wonderful one," She smiles. "A very thoughtful one, too. It's good to lay those who are mourned to rest, but don't call it a grave." She waggles a finger. "It's a memorial, one where you remember the good times as well, got it?"
Lee smiles as well, finding hers infectious. "Got it." He opens the meeting room door and holds it for her. "Thank you."
"Any time, Lee. Any time. Bye-bye." She gives him a nod and a little wave as she passes, then she turns and heads deeper into the pokemon center, her high-heels making a click-clack-click as she walks and turns a corner.
Lee and Vulpix watch her go. As they stand there, Lee replays the meeting in his mind and feels himself falter when he remembers one line in particular.
I never wanted to be here!
"Love?" He whispers to Vulpix aloud. "Some of the things I said…"
She cuts him off with an exasperated huff and licks the side of his nose. 'I under*tand.'
The man reaches up and pulls her into a short, but tight one-armed hug.
With a newfound resolve, Lee takes Corvi and Grovyle's balls from his belt and trots back to the front of the pokemon center and into the common area. Off to the side of the main greeting room are a few couches arranged in a U shape, and seated on one of them are Brendon, Zinnia, and Marshtomp, the last of whom has several bandages wrapped around his left arm. When Zinnia looks up from a magazine held in her hands, she smiles and waves at Lee and Vulpix.
"So, how was your supersecret meeting?" Brendan asks as Lee seats himself on the couch opposite of him and Zinnia. "I know we said we would be cool with waiting, but some jerk with a Maractus wanted to talk trash on Water-types, so we battled him real quick."
Marshtomp holds up his injured hand with a pleased croak.
"I take it you won?" Lee smiles.
"Good to hear." Lee mirrors Brendan's grin, then sobers himself up slightly. "So, that 'supersecret' meeting is something I actually want to talk to everyone about." He expands Grovyle and Corvi's pokeballs, one in each hand, and pops both open. In twin flashes of white light, the lizard and crow pokemon appear before the group. "I take it both of you were listening in?"
Grovyle nods and places a scaly paw on Lee's knee. Corvisquire merely rolls his eyes, the unspoken 'duh' obvious.
"Seems like something awful serious, Dolittle," Zinnia closes her magazine, some sort of gossip rag with Claire Blackthorne front and center, and tosses it aside. She levels Lee with a serious look twinged with nervousness. "You don't have to tell us if you don't want to."
"For my own sake, I really should," Lee's words seem to surprise both of his friends. "This meeting wasn't anything crazy like secret research or elite cabal nonsense. Today was…" He steels himself and looks to Vulpix, who gives him a small, vulpine smile filled with encouragement. 'Zinnia is sharp enough to suspect what's going on, and Brendan is plenty mature enough to handle the news.' Lee closes his eyes and forces the words out. "Today was a session with a therapist, probably the first of many."
Brendan blinks as if he doesn't understand. "A therapist?"
Beside the boy, Marshtomp looks between Lee, his Pokémon, then back to Lee, focusing on the scars on the man's face. After two cycles, understanding dawns in his beady eyes.
Zinnia says nothing, merely letting her mouth thin into a straight line.
"Yeah," Lee opens his eyes and nods absently. "I won't bore you with the details, but…" He glances around, finding no one within earshot. The chatter of a large group by the reception desk drowns out nearly everything else. "My home? It's gone."
"Gone?" Zinnia asks sharply, her eyes narrowing. "Do you mean..?"
"Gone. Completely burned to the ground. As far as I know, I'm the only survivor. I don't know who did it, or why, but I do know that the superweapons used means going back is pointless." The explanation is short and not so sweet, but he distances himself from the memories and gets it out with a grimace. "It's where the burns on my face came from. When I wandered into Littleroot and met you, Brendan, that was right after I came to in the middle of nowhere and met Vulpix."
The boy leans back, expression slightly dazed. "Oh jeez, Lee…"
Zinnia looks away. In her clenched hand, her cloak is balled up.
"She said I've got PTSD and survivor's guilt." He pushes above the feelings of embarrassment to admit it. "I'm not saying everything, but those details are a conversation for another time." The zoologist pulls at the collar of his shirt, just now realizing how much sweat is soaked into his undershirt with some exasperation. "About what I talked to that therapist about today; do I seem overly critical of myself to you two?"
"I mean, yeah, kinda." Brendan seems uncomfortable, seemingly unsure where to keep his hands, so he fidgets. "Sometimes you seem like you get upset out of nowhere, and after that battle with that guy Tyson…" The Birch heir trails off.
Zinnia, however, is much blunter. "Yes. A hundred-times yes," she crosses her arms. "Do you want my opinion?"
Lee reluctantly nods.
"Kiddo is right on the money. Whenever I see that statue-like mug of yours shift without anything going on, you go from thoughtful, to upset, to resigned. You do it all the time and I know it's because you're criticizing yourself, probably too hard." Zinnia's words form a crude mirror of Mable's observations. "Seriously, you take things too harshly. You're a good trainer and a decent guy, so why bash yourself?"
Lee looks down at Grovyle and Corvisquire, silently asking for their input.
The Grass-type reluctantly nods while Corvi caws out a careless agreement.
"Okay…" Lee bites his lip. 'Is it really so obvious?' He considers his next question. "Does it upset you that I think like that?"
Zinnia's narrow-eyed, dropped jaw expression can easily be summarized as 'are you serious?'.
Brendan is much more explosive "Of course!" The boy almost jumps to his feet in his outrage. "I haven't said anything because after Slateport… I figured…" He deflates. "I didn't want to get yelled at…" He says in a small voice.
"Good fucking god, Lee, way to-" Lee forcefully cuts off his self-deprecative muttering and clears his throat. "Okay! Look, that stops here. I hate to ask you guys for help, but I think I have to. Whenever any of you-" he quickly sweeps his eyes over Brendan, Zinnia, Corvi, Grovyle, and Vulpix – "think that I'm having a pity party, please tell me to suck it up and get over it. I'm going to do my best to do it on my own because that's what the therapist said I need to do as a first step to getting better, but I might need help if I slip. Is that okay?"
Zinnia openly grins. "Wow, you're actually asking for help rather than stubbornly doing it on your own. Well, you weren't going to get rid of me either way, Dolittle, so count me in!" She then quietly adds; "If you feel like it, you can talk to us about whatever you want. You don't have to carry burdens like that by yourself. Right, kiddo?"
"Never!" Brendan grins and stands with renewed vigor. "We've got your back a hundred-and-ten percent! It's what friends do!"
Lee smiles, feeling his chest swell. "That…" He snorts then throws his head back in an open laugh. "That's so corny, but I don't think I could have it any other way. Thank you two."
As the trio of trainers debate where to go for an early lunch, a debate where Lee voices his choice just as much as the other two, Vulpix looks down from her trainer's shoulder to her pair of teammates.
Grovyle smirks and crosses his arms. To any who know him, they would notice how pleased he is.
Corvisquire just harumphs and turns away, but it lacks his usual spiteful bite.
Vulpix herself smiles and breathes out a quiet sigh. With the exhale, a weight seems to lift from her shoulders.
Her human is finally walking the road to recovery.