Sophia knew something was wrong the moment Roquelle slugged through the door. There was no pep to her step, no bop to her hop, no flip to her skip. There was no sweet greeting or excitement or munching on a treat.

Roquelle slumped into Sophia’s bed as if getting here had stolen the last of her strength. She burrowed under the covers. Not even a hint of fluff poked out from under them.

Someone had gutted her heart.

Sophia rushed over to her, abandoning the book they’d been reading.

Roquelle was hiding even her sobs under the covers. It broke Sophia’s heart to hear their dearest friend, one who found joy in everything, in such acute, bone-carving distress.

“What happened?” Sophia asked, lying beside her, ensuring their presence was known without intruding on her blanket sanctuary. Pachirisu and Buneary were prey species. Both were famous for their Run Away ability, and Roquelle was a fusion of both. Sophia didn’t want to scare Roquelle into activating it.

Although, by the looks of it, Roquelle may have already used it that day…

Sophia wanted to hold her paw, but Roquelle was balled up too tightly for that.

Sophia was in agony as Roquelle continued to cry.

“And that’s why all Aipom owe me 50P,” Muddy said to J, who couldn’t decide whether to believe it or not. Normally, Sophia would help him out, but they couldn’t have anyone interfering with such a delicate situation.

“Get. Out,” Sophia snarled at them, claws out.

“Sophia, what’s going on?” J asked. “Where’s Roquelle?”

Muddy asked, “Who needs to be stabbed?!”

“Get out!” Sophia shoved them out the door.

Peace and quiet reestablished; and her own territorial, protective instincts mollified; Sophia rejoined Roquelle at her side.

Several long, agonizing minutes later, Roquelle emerged from the blankets. Just her head. She wore the blankets like armor. Her eyes were rimmed red and deluged from her tears.

Roquelle’s ears flopped forward, crossing over her face stripe, “Dad says if I was a girl, I’d have a short face stripe.”

That motherfucker!

Sophia’s fur stood on end.

“Stripes don’t make you a girl,” Sophia said. “You make yourself a girl. Fuck your dad!”

Sophia knew by the look in Roquelle’s eyes that she was conflicted. She clearly wanted to believe Sophia. If some other Pachirisu girl had been worrying about this instead, she’d support them and affirm their gender, long stripe and all. But because it was herself, and because this attack had come from her own father…

Roquelle and Sophia had only recently started reconnecting. They’d been friends as children, but Sophia and her family moved around too frequently to solidify their friendship. And Roquelle could never be accused of hating her parents. This was a double super effective critical hit, and her father knew that!!!

It felt like there wasn’t anything Sophia could do. It burned, how much she wanted to help yet couldn’t.

When Sophia went outside to talk to their teammates, they spotted J and Muddy scrambling away from the window.

“Operation: Stab Dad is a-go?” Muddy asked.

“No! As much as I want to…” Sophia knew that her father getting hurt would only upset Roquelle further.

She looked at J, who watched them both with wide, worried eyes. J was always on edge when others got into even a joking disagreement. He played the peacekeeper, placating every side until there was nothing left for him.

“J.” Sophia said.

J stood up at attention, his long Eevee ears bolting upwards.

“J, I’m making you the leader while I take care of Roquelle,” said Sophia.

“What!?” Muddy and J asked at the same time.

“Why can’t I be the leader?” Muddy said. “I’m five levels higher!”

“And that’s the problem,” Sophia said. “You get so caught up in fighting, you don’t pay attention to your team. A good leader isn’t necessarily the strongest. A good leader is a good leader first.”

“Besides, Muddy,” J said with a smile. “You’ve seen how much work Sophia does.”

Muddy made a disgusted noise and stuck its tongue out. “You’re right. J, you be the leader!”

“Okay,” Sophia exhaled a deep breath. “Just stick to E rank missions for now. If you know you can handle it, you can try D rank missions; but don’t do C ranks with just the two of you.”

“Got it!” J said, nodding along with Muddy. Muddy had a look on its face that seemed determined to try to prod J into doing a C rank anyway. J was a good fighter as well, but he hesitated too much. Hopefully, this stint as acting leader would give him a much needed confidence boost.

Good leaders were good leaders first, and part of being a good leader meant taking care of all their teammates. Helping them all succeed. Even the stab-happy ones.

“Muddy, stay focused on your training,” Sophia said. “You’ll probably have enough power to evolve soon, and then Pachirisu—just to name an example—” they did so with a smirk, “won’t be able to hit you at all.”

Muddy grinned. For once, Sophia wasn’t worried about what trouble it’d get into.

“I don’t know, Muddy,” J said, trying not to put too much pressure on her front left paw. Neither of them had good moves to fight against a Durant, and a pack of them had unleashed a cascade of Fury Cutters. Her leg still felt like it had a bunch of Poison Stings stuck in it. “Maybe we should’ve stayed and trained in the dojo today instead.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Muddy said, seemingly no worse for wear. “Phil sent this mission to us, that means it’s up to us to complete it. Just eat an oran berry, you’ll be fine. We got this!”

J couldn’t help but think Philip had sent them this mission knowing they were a four-mon team, not two. They hadn’t exactly been advertising that Roquelle was down at the moment.

Still, someone was in danger! And Sophia⁠—and Muddy, to an extent⁠—were counting on J to be a good leader. J wouldn’t stop until Wy-Lopmon was safe! If Muddy could keep going, J could too.

J kept her ears out for more Durants. Thankfully, they were pretty noisy pokémon. Chittering, buzzing, and screeching. They just needed to be careful.

“I think that’s zir!” said Muddy. And before J could protest, it darted away.

“Wait!” J called, trying to catch up, but slowed by her prior injuries. In her rush, she didn’t notice a Heatmor lying in wait in the bushes. J slammed on the breaks yet still ran right into him.

The Heatmor was huge! Easily three times J’s size!

He unleashed an Incinerate attack. J rolled to protect their supplies, but her tails got caught on the flames. J screamed, panicking and darting wildly from Run Away. J’s body had stolen control away from her. She wasn’t in charge of where she was going. She wanted to go back for the abandoned supplies, but Run Away wouldn’t allow it.

Meanwhile, the Heatmor kept Incinerating the ground behind her, beside her. The more surrounded by flames she became, the tighter Run Away clutched her.

Muddy finally arrived, using Water Gun at full blast. J tried to move in to help, but her body wouldn’t budge. Trying to go forward just made her turn around and Run Away even more.

The Heatmor was taking damage, but not enough. J was hiding unwillingly in the bushes. The Heatmor plodded closer to Muddy and started hacking at it with Slash. Muddy kept moving, but it was already slower than most Eevee due to being a Mudkip fusion. The only reason J had gotten away from the Heatmor was due to Run Away, for all the good it was doing her now. All J could do was watch in horror as Muddy succumbed to Heatmor’s onslaught.

J hunkered down, swearing he could hear something else nearby. Multiple somethings. Muddy was struggling to get up. The Heatmor was firing up for another Incinerate.

“Follow Me!” said a high voiced-mon, forcing the Heatmor to direct his attacks at her. It was a Pachirisu wearing a purple rescue band! She started using Bide while her teammates, two more purple-banded Pachirisu, started using Discharge to attack the Heatmor and heal her. Between all their Discharges and her Bide, the Heatmor couldn’t take it anymore. He shuffled off, huffing and growling in defeat.

One of the Pachirisu, a shiny one with a spiky stripe, tried to give J a sitrus berry. J wanted to take it. She knew it’d be good for her to take it, but Run Away was still too strong. J’s body kept moving back against her wishes.

“Put it over here,” said the Bide-using Pachirisu.

“Then she can take it without us reigniting Run Away!” said another one, pattering his feet to a little dance.

“That’s brilliant, Suzy!” said the shiny one.

J moved back even more. All the noise was getting to her. Run Away was interpreting it as aggression.

However, once the shiny Pachirisu put the sitrus berry down, and moved back; J was able to move forward and take it. It worked instantly, refreshing J and dissolving Run Away. In its place was the sitrus berry’s smooth texture and well-rounded flavor.

Muddy got a sitrus berry too! This was a very generous rescue team.

Muddy shook out its fluff and said, “Thanks for the save. We’re a bit over our heads here.”

As much as J wanted to be annoyed that Muddy hadn’t admitted that in the first place, she was mostly in awe of how cool it sounded even after getting defeated so soundly. Nothing broke Muddy’s confidence.

“Of course!” said Suzy. “We were already here gathering silver powder to help out another team. We couldn’t just ignore a cry for help.”

“Silver powder?” J asked. “We have plenty of that!”

“A couple friends from earlier dropped a fucking bucket,” Muddy said. “You can have it!”

“Thank you!” Suzy said. “Are you sure you don’t need it?”

“Nah,” said Muddy, “none of us know Bug-type moves.”

“So other than gathering buckets of silver powder, what are you two doing here?” the shiny Pachirisu asked with a smirk.

“We’re here to Rescue Wy-Lopmon!” J said.

“Wy-Lopmon? Oh no!” said the especially energetic Pachirisu. “Have you seen zir yet?”

“No,” J’s ears flattened with her disappointment. “Ze mentioned ze was pretty far in.”

“Why don’t we go with you?” Suzy said. “The mons only get tougher from here.”

Even Muddy agreed that was a good idea. J didn’t want to think about fighting just by herself and Muddy anymore.

They had to maneuver a bit to not get hit with Team EleSquirrel’s Discharges, but J thought they were so cool! They all had Volt Absorb! And with Discharge attacking everything around them, they could hit hard and heal harder. And if Discharge didn’t work, Pachi, the energetic one, knew Grass Knot; Chi-Chi, the shiny one, knew Sweet Kiss and Toxic; and Suzy knew Swift! The mons of Heatmor Hills didn’t know what hit them!

Wy-Lopmon was up to zir neck in a Durant hill. Muddy worked on Rock Smashing them from zir while J dug zir out. Suzy kept the Durants away from them with Follow Me, then joined the rest of her team in blasting the Durants with Discharge.

“Suzy, it’s ready!” Pachi flung a glowing yellow gem at Suzy.

J was focused on digging out Wy-Lopmon, but she heard Muddy say, “Is that a Z-Crystal?!”

“Heck yeah, it is!” said Chi-Chi.

When J looked over, Suzy was grinning and whipping her arms out wide. She became a white thundercloud, crackling and cackling with electricity.

And all of a sudden, she charged at the biggest group of Durants.

“Gigavolt Havoc!!!”

The Durants who were directly hit went flying! The rest of them scrambled away. J had never seen such a one-sided fight before.

When bad memories started popping up, J distracted herself by digging Wy-Lopmon out. Muddy and Team EleSquirrel could help now as well, so ze was free in no time!

J heard Suzy asking her something, but her words burned to ashes in the flames of her trauma.

J heard Muddy though!

“J? J?? Doin’ okay, lil buddy???”

“Oh! …Yeah! I’ll be fine!” she said. J realized they all must’ve been waiting for her to use Team Fusion’s rescue badge.

“It’s your mission, after all,” Suzy said. “The honor is all yours!”

Suzy using Gigavolt Havoc! Lightning sparks around her as she charges towards a doomed durant.

J had never been gladder to be back in Neomon Town! Once they verified the mission’s completion at the post office, Wy-Lopmon broke down and hugged as many of them as ze could.

“That was so scary!!! Heatmor Hills never used to be like that!” Wy-Lopmon cried. “Sure, rural mons would fight back if you made them upset, any mon would, but they never attacked first! I was just out there gathering apples!”

It wasn’t the first time Muddy and J had heard something along those lines, and J was afraid it wouldn’t be the last.

“You’ve all had a lot of close calls today,” Suzy said to her, Muddy, and Wy-Lopmon. “Make sure you get lots of rest when you get home.”

“And if you can’t sleep at home, come have a sleepover with us!” Pachi said. “Our treehouse is super cozy!”

“Our pride blanket just came in the other day,” said Chi-Chi. “It’s so warm and fuzzy~.”

“And huge!!!” Pachi said, arms out as wide as they could go. “It’s big enough for all of us!”

Wy-Lopmon thanks them all again before heading home.

Muddy sprang over to Suzy, “So you’re a girl with a long face stripe.”

J wanted to scream at Muddy so bad. It was a Normal-Water type talking to an Electric type. It could stand to learn some basic survival skills!

“I am,” Suzy said with total confidence. Pachi and Chi-Chi seemed ready for another fight, though. J didn’t blame them.

“One of our friends is a girl with a long face stripe, and her dad didn’t take it very well,” J explained before Muddy got them blasted with three Discharges all at once. “Would you be willing to talk to her? We’re trying to, but her dad’s—.”

“Her not-dad,” Muddy was quick to say.

J continued, “Her dad’s a Pachirisu. We’re not.”

Team EleSquirrel perked right up again.

“I would love to talk to her!” Suzy said.

“Thank you so much!” said J, hopeful an expert would be able to get through to Roquelle. J didn’t know Roquelle super well, but J had never noticed her be ashamed of her face stripe before. Maybe all she needed was another Pachirisu’s reassurance.

Roquelle was happy to take her rescue band off. It was hot wearing it like that, to cover as much of her face stripe as possible. And it still didn’t cover all of it. It went all the way between her eyes!

There were a lot of apples on the table. A whole pile! Way more than what everyone usually ate.

“We got company coming over,” Muddy said. “They’re just dropping off some silver powder.”

Roquelle didn’t care how hot it was or how sweaty her rescue band was anymore. She put it back on.

“And why didn’t you talk about this with us first?” Sophia ground out, growling around her apple.

“They saved our asses in Heatmor Hills,” Muddy said. “The least we could do is give them dinner.”

Roquelle sunk in her seat.

Sophia said, “Did it have to be today?”

“Today’s the perfect day, trust me!” said Muddy.

Sophia was unamused. “Muddy, what have you ever done to be trustworthy?”

Normally, that kind of thing would be a joke, even if Roquelle didn’t really get that kind of humor. Sophia and Muddy were very different than Sophia and Roquelle. But even Roquelle knew Sophia wasn’t joking this time. They were really upset about this.

Without missing a beat, Muddy said, “Today’s the perfect day, trust J!”

J looked conflicted. She looked like she wanted to say “don’t drag me into this” but also “oh wait, this was my idea”.

As if this whole evening couldn’t get any worse, their guests were Pachirisu! Roquelle couldn’t stop thinking about the part of her stripe she couldn’t hide.

“Hello! I’m Suzy!” said one. “I’m the leader of Team EleSquirrel. These are my teammates Pachi and Chi-Chi.”

“Hiya!” said Pachi. He was happily flapping his paws.

“Hey there,” said Chi-Chi. Shey headed right over to the food and took a huge bite. Sophia, Muddy, and J were surprised it fit in sheir mouth; but Roquelle and the other Pachirisu knew better.

“Thank you for having us over!” Suzy said.

“Thank you for rescuing Muddy and J,” Sophia said while glaring at them over Suzy’s shoulder.

Of all the mons that could’ve rescued them, it had to be a bunch of Pachirisu!

Roquelle finally noticed something as she was tugging her rescue band down again.

“You’re a girl Pachirisu. With a long face stripe. Like me…”

“That’s right!” Suzy said with a smile.

“And I’m a boy Pachirisu with a short stripe!” said Pachi, voice bouncing all the way over from the table.

“And I’m nonbinary! My stripe’s extra handsome just like me!” Chi-Chi grinned around sheir latest bite of apple.

“Are…?” Roquelle hesitated to ask. “Are you trans too?”

“Nope!” Suzy shook her head. “We’re all intersex.”

“Basic biology is just that: basic!” said Chi-Chi.

“We’re advanced biology!” Pachi.

“And so are you!” Suzy said. She handed Roquelle a vial. “This is some dye if you’d like to cover it, but you’re a girl no matter how long your stripe is. My bio family forced me to dye mine for years, but my real family loves me just how I want to be. And your real family will, too.”

Roquelle looked at the vial when Team EleSquirrel left. She thought about how Sophia stayed home to take care of her even though they really wanted to get gold rank. How they’d been the one to teach her that gender was allowed to change, and that Roquelle was allowed to change hers. How they checked out books written by mons of genders Roquelle had never heard of before. None of them had been Pachirisus. The library didn’t have any books by cisn’t Pachirisus.

But there was one book by Lord Luke: a trans butch Luxray who loved his long mane, masculine name, and he/him pronouns. None of these things made him a man.

“I’m in charge of my genders,” he’d written, “and there’s nothing transphobes, including sad little binary gays, can do about it!”

When Roquelle decided she wanted to read all of Lord Luke’s books after that, Sophia ordered them on inter… intra.. whatever one it was! on a library loan!

When Roquelle wasn’t getting out of bed, Sophia made sure she ate. Sophia read the one book they had by Lord Luke over and over again.

Sophia wasn’t always able to stay, but they always came back to her.

And Sophia had never called Roquelle a boy for having a long face stripe. Muddy and J hadn’t either.

Roquelle liked her long face stripe. It added lots of color to her face. It pointed right at her cute little nose. It didn’t make her a boy.

Roquelle took off her rescue band. She padded over to J with the vial.

“Can you draw a heart inside my stripe?” she asked. “I love it a lot. I want it to know that.”

Roquelle knew stripes couldn’t know whether they were loved or not, but Roquelle would know. And other mons would know.

And maybe Lord Luke would know too. Roquelle would love to meet him some day.

“Sure! I can do a heart!” J said. “Why don’t we do it tomorrow so you don’t have to wait for the dye to dry?” She glanced out the window. It’d be dark soon. “And I can see better.”

“Oh, right!” said Roquelle. “Thank you.”

“No problem!” J smiled.

The heart J drew the next morning looked great! Roquelle loved it on her stripe.

When they saw Team EleSquirrel in the market that morning, they all loved it too!

They started sporting stars on their stripes.

Then other Pachirisu started sporting shapes and designs on theirs.

Roquelle started a trend!

Roquelle started wearing her rescue band like a bow tie again.

She was happy again and skipping again.

“I am a girl with a long face stripe,” Roquelle said to the river. Her reflection was bright with love and determination. J had painted a sun on her stripe today. “And there’s nothing my dad can do about it!”

Roquelle smiling excitedly at the viewer. She is wearing a pink bow tie. She also has a white outline of a heart in her stripe.

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