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.

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