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Velvet Fist - Act III

Wrightfag Jul 6th, 2016 (edited) 2,689 Never
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  1.     The three blondes and one brunette languished on the couch as their father and mother considered how best to keep them from killing each other in the wake of one of the more vicious fights that had taken place lately. "Lori," Rita began in a warning tone, "is this situation going to repeat itself while we're away?" The teen, practically an adult, wanted to crawl under a rock and die. When was the last time she had gotten lectured like this?
  2.  
  3.     "No, ma'am. I'll be good with them. Even if they don't deserve it." The last part came as a mumble, but she wasn't quite quiet enough.
  4.  
  5.     "Lori, we're serious. I don't want to hear that you've been antagonizing your sisters for an entire week!" Their father exclaimed, rubbing at his balding patch.
  6.  
  7.     Throwing her hands up, the eldest shrieked, "why am I the one being told this?! They were the ones who jumped me like a literal pack of wild animals! And Lola stole my phone!" She rubbed at her bruises and what she was sure felt like a missing patch of hair.
  8.  
  9.     "I did NOT! I should though, since you ripped my favorite dress!" The 6-year old still looked ready to fight, but between being held back by her twin and the stern gaze leveled at her by her parents she managed to keep herself in check. Lynn and Lana had chosen the path less traveled and simply took the lecture in stride, knowing that the other two would bear the brunt of it.
  10.  
  11.     "You're not off the hook either, Miss Cute and Mean." Lynn Sr. said, catching his daughter off guard; everyone knew Lola was daddy's little girl, so it was especially rare to hear her be chided by him.
  12.  
  13.     The rest of the siblings listened from the top of the stairs, minus Luan, none more interested than Leni at the trouble brewing. 'Lori against Lola, Luna against Luan. With them preoccupied, I might even be able to start by tonight.' She'd have to establish a hold over the house early on in order to maximize the extent of their punishment. While the twins were likely firmly opposed to their oldest sister now, she couldn't count on the others to jump on the bandwagon just yet.
  14.  
  15.     Just because she didn't have any allies didn't mean she couldn't stop Lori from making any, though. Luna was largely an outlier among the sisters, if her most recent and oldest intact memories were anything to go by, and Luan and Lynn would be easy enough to deal with. That would just leave the children, who wouldn't put up much of a fight; the challenge there was stopping anyone from intervening on their behalf. 'Like, I still have to find out how to get Lincoln out of here...he said he would be spending time with Clyde for a couple days, maybe that could become a week-long thing...I wonder who Clyde is?'
  16.  
  17.     Another fifteen minutes of grilling later and the troublemakers were released, Lola bounding to her room ahead of the rest. The eavesdroppers barely had a chance to disperse before she flew past them, followed soon after by Lori, who waited until she'd mounted the last step before stomping the rest of the way to her own room. "Show's over, I guess," Luna was the brave soul to break the silence, "and I'm not interested in starring in an encore." As the group dissolved and everyone went their separate ways, Leni watched curiously as Luna descended the stairs, rather than return to her room.
  18.  
  19.     'This is my chance to get a bead on her.' Giving her sister a head-start, Leni began to follow and caught a glimpse of the girl on her way out the front door. As she made it to the living room, however, she was distracted by hushed voices coming from her parents' room. Luna could wait, she wouldn't miss out on this opportunity. Sidling up to the wall, she shimmied along it until she was as close to the door as possible without poking in.
  20.  
  21.     "Maybe we ought to call Shirley up, Rita." Lynn suggested as they worked on packing the last of their essentials. "The girls are so on edge lately, and I'm worried about Leni. She hasn't talked like that since she went on the medication."
  22.  
  23.     The Loud matriarch sighed as she zipped up another suitcase, followed by the sound of creaking springs. "I know, honey. It's such short notice, though. I thought Lori would have it in hand, but they've been going at each other nonstop lately. That's not even taking Luna and Luan into consideration!"
  24.  
  25.     A slow boil began working its way through Leni's body. 'Like, here we are again. They're not even trying to hide their scheming anymore.' She knew it was a risk to drop her cover even a little bit when she'd spoken to them, and now it seemed it had done more harm than good. 'If they get aunt Shirley or anyone to watch us, it's going to ruin everything.' A few teens and some children she could deal with; anyone from the outside was going to require a less subtle approach. Whatever else happened, she needed to have free reign of the house going forward.
  26.  
  27.     Acting before she could convince herself otherwise, she sucked in a breath and knocked on the door frame, silencing the parental planning session. "Mom, Dad, it's me again."
  28.  
  29.     "Oh, uh, come in, sweetie!" Her mother called, and she shuffled into the room.
  30.  
  31.     "What's on your mind, Leni?" Lynn asked, taking a seat on the bed.
  32.  
  33.     Leaning against the frame, she did her best imitation of Lincoln's wheedling expression from that morning. "I was on my way to, like, check on Luna and I overheard...about the medicine." A heavy silence settled between them for a moment before she pressed on, "I've been taking them, honest. You can even ask Lori! H-have I been doing something wrong?"
  34.  
  35.     Her mother was the first to answer. "No, no, sweetie! We were...well, just worried after earlier. You seemed so down." Was she really so upbeat while drugged that some half-assed whining about not knowing who she was yet counted as being 'down'? 'Like, I hate to think how worried they must be about Lori, then.' Leni herself didn't have a job, friends or even much in the way of any kind of relationships with her siblings because she'd been intentionally prevented from doing so; Lori chose the same situation of her own free will.
  36.  
  37.     "I'm fine, Mom, really. Luna and Luan, though..." Best not to dwell on herself when it seemed they had other worries she could prey upon.
  38.  
  39.     "You said you were going to check on Luna?" Lynn asked, trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. "What happened up there? We could hear shouting, maybe even a few thuds!" Leni explained the talk she'd had with Luna, omitting the parts that would make them both delinquents, Luan's prank and the aftermath. "I swear, those two are going to be the death of us."
  40.  
  41.     "Now honey," Rita assuaged him, "we were beyond lucky that none of them really fought like this up til now. It's bound to blow over before too long, they can't go on like that while sharing a room."
  42.  
  43.     So that episode Leni had been witness to a short while ago wasn't an isolated incident. 'Good thing they think I'm stupid enough that they can just talk about this stuff with me here.' What could put them at odds on a regular basis, though? Aside from the occasional family free-for-all, Luna and Luan were thick as thieves, and just as troublesome. If there really was a rift between them, then it might provide an opportunity that might not otherwise have been possible.
  44.  
  45.     "She went out front, maybe to the garage," Leni said, having learned everything of use to her for the moment.
  46.  
  47.     Bringing a hand up to her chin, her mother lamented, "I hope she didn't leave somewhere. Those friends of hers," she shivered at the thought.
  48.  
  49.     Lynn considered the situation before finally instructing his daughter to carry on as she had been."Go ahead and see what she's up to, Leni. If she'll listen to anyone right now, it's you."
  50.  
  51.     'Like, what is that supposed to mean?' Leni wondered. What would it matter if she was the one to talk to Luna? If she-
  52.  
  53.     ["Oooh, slumber party! Tonight's going to be epic, Len!"]
  54.     ["You know it, Lu! First item on the agenda is makeovers~!"]
  55.     ["Aww, not that! No matter how good it comes out, I'll never look as good as you."]
  56.     ["Psh, I wish I looked as good as you, Luna. I have to work to be this beautiful, but you're all natural, the real deal!"]
  57.     ["C'mon, you're makin' me blush! Alright, alright, maybe just a little bit..."]
  58.     [][][][][][][][][][]
  59.     ["What's wrong, Luna?"]
  60.     ["I didn't have anything for show and tell or any talent to show off! There's nothing special about me, not like your carving..."]
  61.     ["That's not true! You can sing, and play the drums-"]
  62.     ["That's just a game, Len, not the same as real ones-"]
  63.     ["And you're the only one who Lucy will stop crying for-"]
  64.     ["Well, yeah, but I can't take her to school-"]
  65.     ["And you're the nicest, coolest sister in the world! What's not to show off?"]
  66.     ["...You really think all that, Leni?"]
  67.     ["I don't just think it, I know it, Luna."]
  68.     [][][][][][][][][][]
  69.     ["Leni, Mom and Dad are really mad about what happened."]
  70.     ["So? They're, like, always mad at me for something anymore."]
  71.     ["They're worried too, Len, and...and so am I. You're not actin' like yourself-"]
  72.     ["I'm getting tired of people saying that. I know who I am, and if, like, no one else does, that's their problem."]
  73.     ["I...Leni...what's got you so ate up? If it's anything I can help with, just say it."]
  74.     ["You really can't, Luna. But...thanks. You're the only person who even seems to care enough to offer."]
  75.     ["C'mon, Leni-"]
  76.     ["Leni..."}
  77.     {"Leni? Leni!"}
  78.     {"Is she alright? Leni, talk to us, sweetie!"}
  79.  
  80.     Her dad was standing next to her...no, over her. It took Leni a moment to realize she was down on one knee, her right hand cradling her head and nursing a rather large goosegg; had she fallen at some point? "W-what happened?" Even though the old memories weren't locked behind those pills anymore, they still came at her with such force, at such inopportune times. 'A literal blast from the past, eh?'
  81.  
  82.     "You spaced out on us and took a pretty nasty dive," Rita explained, kneeling next to her to get a look at her head. Leni nearly lashed out at her, their proximity to her while in such a weakened state setting her nerves on fire. Her mother seemed to realize it as well, or at least suspected, and cautiously raised her hand to her forehead. "No fever. Are you sure you're going to be alright? I can always call up Dr.-"
  83.  
  84.     "NO!" Leni cried, lurching back before catching herself and willing her heart to stop racing. "I'm fine, I really am." None of them believed that at the moment, not even herself. 'Come ON, get it together!' Using the nightstand near their bed to support her, she rose to her feet. "I'm just, like, really tired. I didn't sleep that great last night. After I see if Luna's okay, I'll go lie down." She about-faced and hurried from the room under the distraught eyes of her parents.
  85.  
  86. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  87.  
  88.     Coasting to the front door, she ignored Lori's combing of the living room for her phone to march out onto the porch and hung a left toward the garage, stepping between bikes and toys littered across the yard and driveway. 'What the hell is wrong with you,' she thought to herself, dwelling on that spectacle she'd just made in front of the people she could least afford to have find her out. 'Like, I've already been through worse than this the past couple days, so why now?' The large door was open, and she could hear clangs and thumps emanating from inside.
  89.  
  90.     Poking her head in, she found Luna sorting through crates, bags and piles of various odds and ends, roughly shoving anything of no use to one side. "Just bleedin' perfect," the brunette muttered, tossing a hubcap to the other side of the room, "of course it had to be the drum. They couldn't just have me rock my axe, they wanted drums. Now it's gonna be neither." Leni remained silent, watching with rapt attention as her sister crouched and made a seat for herself amongst the junk. Flinging herself into it with a heavy sigh, Luna brought her arm up and let it fall over her eyes.
  91.  
  92.     'She always was the dramatic one, like, even more than me and Lori.' The flashback she'd endured came back to the forefront of Leni's mind as she considered this side of the would-be star that they rarely got to see. With her new clarity of mind, Luna's betrayal stung her even more now that she remembered just how close the two of them had been.
  93.  
  94.     In those bygone days, when the rocker's fashion sense was inspired by Leni's budding creativity and their hair had been nearly equally long, they gossiped and played together and supported one another as both sisters and best friends. It was a bond that had eluded them where Lori was concerned, and the others were just too young to share in it.
  95.  
  96.     Luna was the only one there for her first fashion show, despite their siblings and friends promising to attend. Of course, it was everything a 'show' hosted by an eleven-year old could be expected to be, but it was the thought that counted. She, in turn, was there to cheer Luna on for her first cello recital, before the screech of metal strings had corrupted her. Give and take, push and pull, for better and worse, they'd been there for each other.
  97.  
  98.     All for it to come crashing down with the rest of her life that day they'd dragged her out of her home and made her into their plaything.
  99.  
  100.     That ever-present bile stewed in Leni's stomach, but this time it mixed unevenly with something other than hatred; regret? 'Regret what? That I didn't realize how unreliable she was until it was too late?' Now wasn't the time to get sentimental. Knowing now that a wedge existed between Luan and her only frequent ally, she would be remiss if she didn't apply proper pressure to that wedge and separate the two for good. Sucking up her pride, she shuffled into the garage and ventured, "Luna?"
  101.  
  102.     Without moving her arm to even look at the interloper, Luna mumbled, "go away." When she didn't hear the clap of sandals on the pavement heading back to the house, she flopped her other hand in a shooing motion as she said, "go on. Get."
  103.  
  104.     Nearly dropping all pretense at effectively being treated like a dog, Leni forced herself to sound as contrite as possible. "Luna, I know you're still probably, like, totes mad at me. But I just wanted to make sure you know, like, how sorry I am-"
  105.  
  106.     "Sorry's not gonna bring the dumb thing back, or get me past that gig and into something that matters!" Luna bellowed, sitting ramrod straight in her junk throne. Leni wanted to unleash on her, both verbally and physically, about who deserved apologies; who'd been denied opportunities. Instead, she slowly stepped back and began skulking out of the garage, reminding herself that she wasn't actually upset at her sister's frustration with her. She had nearly rounded the corner again when she heard a much more quietly spoken, "wait."
  107.  
  108.     She stopped and considered Luna out of the corner of her eye. Her sister had stood up, and seemed to be searching for the right words as she threaded her fingers behind her head. "Leni," she began at length, "like, I know you didn't break the drum on purpose. It's just, that show might be my chance to break out, y'know? Like, I could finally start makin' a name for myself, finally have somethin' to show for years of practice." So it seemed she hadn't changed much after all. Despite her outward confidence and image, she was still that little girl filled with self-doubt on the inside. It almost made Leni feel bad for what was coming. Almost.
  109.  
  110.     Turning to level with her, Leni asked, "it's that big a deal, huh? Like, I can't even imagine how bad you must feel." If she could play on that insecurity, separate Luna from the rest of the siblings...she might just have an ally of her own, or at least someone who wouldn't stand in her way. "Maybe Luan and I-"
  111.  
  112.     "Don't get me started on her," Luna snapped, managing to catch the blonde by surprise. "I don't expect you to know any better," Leni's lips formed a thin line and her eyebrow raised at that, "but she doesn't even CARE about how the things she does screws with people. I mean, I like to think of myself as pretty chill. I can put up with bad jokes and a few weak pranks here and there, but it just goes on and on, day and night, twenty-four seven! And whenever it goes bad, she just flakes out and doesn't own up to it at all."
  113.  
  114.     'Never mind that you don't care about how your music, like, keeps everyone up at night. Still, good to hear we're on the same wavelength as far as that hack goes,' Leni mused to herself. After all this time, the two of them still shared some of the same sensibilities, and she reckoned that it would make for some interesting developments over the coming week. If she was going to pull this off though, she would need to prop the musician's spirits up a little bit; she wasn't likely to get much help from a downer.
  115.  
  116.     "But it's just, like, one show, right? You've still got your entire life to hit the big time, you're only in high school!" Leni offered, hoping to capture some of that dynamic they used to share. "Besides, if they only want to see the drums and, like, not the whole band's worth of you that you are, then they're the ones missing out."
  117.  
  118.     Luna shrugged, but the redness in her cheeks betrayed her as she idly played with one of her earrings. "You really think so?" Leni nodded as enthusiastically as she thought was appropriate, and a dopey grin founds its way onto the musician's face. "You're right, I know. I probably sound like a real downer right about now, right?" Leni's heart leapt into her throat at the belief that she might have said more than she realized, but her sister continued, "after so long it just feels like...I don't know, like I'm bein' held down, or something."
  119.  
  120.     Leni nearly lost her cool again at the sheer audacity of saying something like that in her presence, and it might have shown in her body language because Luna's eyes widened a moment as she stopped to really look at her. "Leni..." The two of them remained silent and still for a few uncomfortable moments, a heaviness to the air between them. It took her a moment to recognize the look on Luna's face, or rather in her eyes; the same expression she'd caught herself with in the mirror on several occasions, the one she was sure was on her own face just a short while ago.
  121.  
  122.     Only then did it occur to Leni that revisiting that dynamic might imply that she remembered it in the first place. Luna had already revealed that she keenly recalled their history once that day, and once again Leni had overplayed her hand. 'Stupid, stupid, STUPID-'
  123.  
  124.     The younger sister began to close the distance in hesitant strides, and Leni found herself backing away again. And as was becoming an annoyingly common occurrence lately, she backed directly into the tricycle left out on the driveway. Shutting her eyes and bracing herself for another blow to the head, she instead felt an arm around her back straining to hold her up. Cracking one eye open, she saw her savior using her other hand to grasp the trike and keep them upright in an unsteady embrace.
  125.  
  126.     "W-why?" Leni would have slapped herself if she hadn't been in such an awkward position. Had she had this many issues with speaking her thoughts aloud before?
  127.  
  128.     Hefting her sister up, Luna squinted her eyes at her after giving her a once over. "What do you mean? I wasn't just gonna let you fall!"
  129.  
  130.     Leni believed her, and that was a dangerous thing. This person standing before her wasn't just untrustworthy, she was worse than the rest. After all that time going out of their way for each other, Luna had abandoned her in her darkest hour. Her face burned with anger as she shook her head and began the short trip back to the house, ignoring the concerned calls that followed her. She'd already botched her attempt to throw her parents suspicions off, and she wasn't going to do any more damage here than she already had.
  131.  
  132.     Unlike with the others, however, she'd come following after someone who it seemed would follow in turn. A hand grabbed her wrist and she had to concentrate fully on not ripping it from Luna's grasp as she was brought to a halt. "Leni," her sister implored, a sort of huskiness to her voice. Against her better judgement, the older sister turned to face the younger, and was surprised to find her with an apologetic expression. "I'm sorry too. I know you're just lookin' out for me." Releasing her hand, Luna brought her own up to rub at her other arm.
  133.  
  134.     "I don't know if you remember, but we used to have these kinds of talks a lot," Leni was taken aback by how wistful Luna sounded as she reminisced. "Heh, it's been so long now that I almost forgot. But what you said before, about...well, about countin' on me, and me not lettin' you down..." The brunette's face contorted as if she'd eaten an entire lemon, her head sagging as she continued, "I...I shoulda had your back when it really mattered all these years, and I dropped the ball. Hard."
  135.  
  136.     'She can't be...' Leni was struck speechless for the first time since her recovery. Was Luna actually apologizing for the part she'd played in her trauma?
  137.  
  138.     Seeing the confusion on her sister's face, Luna mistook it for ignorance as she rambled on. "And just now, in the garage...like, no one else except maybe Linc would have come and checked up on me, at least not when they knew I was probably still mad." She offered a shaky grin to her older sister as she brought her tangent to an end, "to tell the truth, I missed this. Missed us. I guess what I'm tryin' to say is, thanks, sis." Before Leni could escape, Luna sprang forward and wrapped her in a bear hug much the way Leni had done to her during their earlier conversation.
  139.  
  140.     The blonde couldn't bring herself to fight back as she processed everything she'd just seen and heard. 'Is she, like, that desperate to reach out to someone? So desperate she's grabbing onto four year old memories?' The idea should have pleased her, the knowledge that Luna could be so easily manipulated a boon to her plans. As she returned the hug, though, the hate didn't come to her as easily as it had before.
  141.  
  142.     Luna had never really been able — or truly cared — to hide how she felt. That was how Leni had always known her, as an outgoing and impulsive, yet sensitive girl. Knowing everything she did, she knew that the confession she'd just received, as careful as it was not to specifically reference what had happened to her, was an honest expression of her once-closest sister's feelings.
  143.  
  144.     'How dare you...' Tears burned at the corners of Leni's eyes as she grappled with their shared past and present position. 'How dare you say that after like, four fucking years? Would you have ever said it if I didn't break your damned drum?' Ah, there it was. Anger was something she could work with, it was her fuel. It was right. 'I don't remember much from then, but I remember that you, like, didn't even pretend to be interested in me after I went full retard.'
  145.  
  146.     She'd nearly let her guard down, but she was smarter than that now. Smarter than any of them were prepared to handle. That Luna had the nerve to feel like she was the one being held back was all the proof Leni needed that she hadn't truly learned her lesson. But she would, and soon; they all would. Reining in her emotions, she broke the hug and rested a hand on the other teen's shoulder. "'Missed' what? Like, I'm not sure what I missed, but it must have been totally crazy!" She giggled and took joy in the odd mix of relief and panic that entered Luna's face as she trailed off, "you'll have to fill me in sometime..."
  147.  
  148.     "Y-yeah, we've definitely gotta catch back up." There was that feeling again, the one Luna hadn't been able to shake since that morning. They'd shared a moment just now that really took her back to the good old days. In fact, it was so close to how they used to get along that it was too close for comfort. What had possessed her to say those things, things that she hadn't even given much though to for so long? Her heart did a stage dive right into her stomach as she stopped to consider that fact: she really hadn't given Leni much thought after she'd gone under.
  149.  
  150.     It wasn't that she didn't love her sister anymore, even after everything that had happened; hell, their prior relationship had saved Luna from the worst of Leni's predations back then. But the change the pills had wrought on the blonde was a double-edged sword. 'Yeah, she's as nice as she used to be, maybe even more, but at what cost?' The cost of having virtually no idea what any of her family or friends were talking about. She'd tried, she really had in that first year or so, but she just couldn't relate to Leni anymore where her passions were concerned. 'That doesn't mean hers were any less important, though...'
  151.  
  152.     Now more than ever, with such a poignant reminder of how great they'd had it, did Luna regret not working harder to keep that friendship alive. When she considered the strife that was becoming a part of her everyday life where Luan was concerned, and how she barely had anything in common with anyone in the house besides Lincoln and Lynn (and even that was tentative at best), it left her reflecting on what she'd had. What might still be able to be saved. As they returned to the house, the air seemingly clear between them, the last of her frustration over the broken drum was replaced with the hope that its destruction might be the foundation for a reconnection with her sister that she'd sorely missed.
  153.  
  154.     It was a heartfelt desire that would play a crucial role in the reign of terror that was about to begin.
  155.  
  156. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  157.  
  158.     A measure of calm returned to the house that afternoon, with the small army of women and two men (well, one man and a boy) each finalizing their preparations for the week ahead. Lincoln had earned a temporary reprieve from his three-cats-and-mouse game and put it to use making arrangements with Clyde. "It's even crazier than usual around here, I can't wait to get out of the house for a while."
  159.  
  160.     "Well, here's hoping there's a house to go back to," Clyde responded over the radio. "Lori may be a great leader, the greatest leader even," he swooned, before the snapping of Lincoln's fingers snapped him out of it, "but without you there to keep a lid on things it might boil over pretty quickly."
  161.  
  162.     A satisfied smile wormed its way onto the Loud's face as he assured, "that's one department where there are, like, no worries. In case you've forgotten, there's been a regime change since I had to take over that one night."
  163.  
  164.     "You mean...?"
  165.  
  166.     "That's right, Clyde. The system works."
  167.  
  168.     Lincoln had to hold the walkie at arm's length as a hoot and holler rang out over it. "Yes! I knew logic would prevail over ten girls' emotions!" The other boy cheered, before quickly adding, "uh, don't let them know I said that." The two of them laughed before he continued, "Lincoln, you've got to let me know the next time you're doing it, this could be a landmark case for resolving differences between siblings everywhere! Just think of it, Mr. McBride and Mr. Loud, changing the course of problem solving for families all over the world!"
  169.  
  170.     "Speaking of problem solving, I need your advice, buddy." Lincoln's voice became unusually somber as he considered how best to approach this. He might not be able to talk to anyone in the house about Leni's situation just yet, but surely that didn't extend to anyone on the outside, right? And Clyde was a family friend, so naturally he could be trusted more than anyone else with this information.
  171.  
  172.     "Sure, Lincoln, what's up?"
  173.  
  174.     Deciding at the last moment to conceal names for the sake of peoples' privacy, Lincoln began, "alright, so, say you've known a person for practically your whole life, and they're a pretty great person. You get a long with them, have plenty of fun together, and everything is, like, generally swell. Wouldn't trade it for the world."
  175.  
  176.     "Okaaay..."
  177.  
  178.     "But THEN, something happens, and you find out that that person...isn't the person you think they are. Not just that, but, like, that person is being made to be a different person than they're supposed to be."
  179.  
  180.     "Mhmm..."
  181.  
  182.     "And THEN, that person finds out, like, who they really are, and they tell you and no one else who they really are, and ask you to keep it a secret from everyone else-"
  183.  
  184.     "Lincoln, if this is about me and my dads-"
  185.  
  186.     Recoiling from the radio, Lincoln spluttered, "w-what? No! No, it's not you, Clyde, it's someone here!" Now that he thought about it, he could see how his best friend might get the wrong idea; as vague as he was being, he could just as easily have been talking about their friendship as his and Leni's situation. It didn't come up often, but it was something Clyde had been teased horribly about at school before, and one of the reasons he was so close to Lincoln. Which, of course, led to even more teasing-
  187.  
  188.     "Whew, alright. Sorry man, you had me goin' there for a few seconds. Go ahead."
  189.  
  190.     Getting back on track, Lincoln continued, "no worries, buddy. Anyway, this person is a completely different person than the one you've always known, but in a good way. You can relate to them, and they can relate to you; they're so much more, like, complex than what you ever thought they might be-"
  191.  
  192.     "Are you talking about Leni?"
  193.  
  194.     "Ye-WHAT? I mean, why do you ask?" Lincoln hopped off his bed and ran to the door, listening to make sure no one would respond to his incredulous shout.
  195.  
  196.     There was a moment of silence as Clyde considered his response before finally saying, "well, it was just a guess, really. I just crossed off every sister that you WOULDN'T say that stuff about, then narrowed it down to someone who wasn't 'complex' that suddenly would be." Lincoln was momentarily awed by his friend's deductive skills before he finished off, "plus, you've been saying the word 'like', like, every other word. There's only, like, one other person there who does that, that I know of. Dang, now I'm doing it too!"
  197.  
  198.     Masking his disappointment at having been uncovered so easily, Lincoln sighed and fell back on his bed. "Yeah, it's Leni. I don't know how much I should say about what happened, but she's completely changed. But no one else seems to have noticed, and they're treating her like she's still...stilll..."
  199.  
  200.     "Like she's, uh, not all there?"
  201.  
  202.     "CLYDE!"
  203.  
  204.     "Sorry, sorry!" Lincoln could hear the radio waving around in his friend's grasp before settling as he said, "I know it's not her fault, but, you know what I mean! The driver's license, the crib, the every word she says-"
  205.  
  206.     "Alright, ALRIGHT!" He hated to get angry at Clyde, but it was more accurate to say that Lincoln was being reminded of how angry he was at himself. Just another reminder of how he'd let his sister down. Taking a deep breath, he admitted, "sorry. The stuff you just said, that's how I used to see her too. But now that I know what she's really like, I just feel like a complete jerk. How do you live with someone your entire life and not notice when something's so wrong with them?" Shaking his head, he asked the question he'd intended in the first place. "What should I do? Do I tell someone else about this, like my parents or sisters, or do I just wait?"
  207.  
  208.     Another quiet moment followed before his friend asked, "is she mad at you?"
  209.  
  210.     "What?"
  211.  
  212.     "Is Leni mad at you?"
  213.  
  214.     "Well, no, at least I don't think so."
  215.  
  216.     "Then I don't think you should be mad at yourself." Clyde said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. Lincoln tried a few times to retort, but the words wouldn't come out right. Was it actually that simple? While he considered that, the boy on the other end went on, "if she knows what she's doing, and she wants to keep it quiet, it sounds like that's probably the best thing to do til she's ready, right? Otherwise it's just gonna confuse everyone. I know I'm definitely confused."
  217.  
  218.     Lincoln thought carefully about the outside perspective he'd just gotten. Leni had made it clear she wasn't angry; far from it, she was grateful to him. He had no reason to doubt her judgement, other than how he felt about her situation. When he thought of it that way, it sounded very...selfish of him, to want to share her business with everyone else. It just reinforced what he already knew, that he didn't know anything about his sister, and had almost done more harm than good.
  219.  
  220.     'Maybe I'm thinking too far ahead. She's only been better for a day now, she'll tell everyone when she's comfortable.' As bad as he felt, it also felt like a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. "You're right, Clyde. Leni knows what she's doing, and the best thing I can do for her right now is trust her." A smile finally worked its way back onto his face as he relieved himself of his self-imposed duty. "Thanks, buddy."
  221.  
  222.     "You're welcome, Lincoln. Besides, I can't leave a bro hanging before we head to the most happening place in the state!" As jarring as it was listening to Clyde try to sound 'hip', Lincoln couldn't help but share his enthusiasm as he knew he was referring to their trip to Royal Oaks and the comic emporium. As the two of them moved on to lighter matters, another member of the household had to attempt to broach a much more urgent matter in much the same way he just had.
  223.  
  224. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  225.  
  226.     After catching Leni leaving the house and returning soon after with Luna in tow, Lori was blindsided by the memory of her roommate's potential ordeal. 'No more putting it off. If she was going to do something with the phone today, she would have by now.' Vowing to exact her vengeance on Lola after their parents had left, she seated herself on the armchair facing the fireplace and brooded, wishing it was lit for dramatic effect.
  227.  
  228.     'So Leni might very well be...pregnant.' During her search, she'd tried to think of a single instance in the past weeks or months where her sister had been out of the house, out of class or otherwise unaccounted for. 'Nothing. There's literally not a single moment I can think of where she could have hooked up.' The alternatives were even more bizarre and equally concerning, that something had happened at school or even in the house itself. 'But that still doesn't make sense, no one could have gotten in here without someone noticing!'
  229.  
  230.     It was entirely possible, she conceded, that she was completely off base with this and that her sister was just sick. But that took her back down the path of what she could be sick with, and she was confident that it wasn't a typical illness. 'There's only one other thing...I just...there's no way. No, it has to be something else.' Bringing a hand up to rub at her forehead, she was left with no other option than to confront Leni directly about what had been going on. 'She got a pass this morning, but this time I'm not letting go without some answers.'
  231.  
  232.     Rising from her seat, she heard her parents in their room discussing the last pertinents of their trip. They would be leaving in only an hour, and she realized she had a choice to make. 'Should I talk to them about this? If they leave and I don't say anything, it'll be an entire week of lost time, time we might need for...for something!' Getting them involved now could put Leni under even more stress than she had been, though, and that wasn't going to help them solve anything. No, one thing at a time. She would get her answers, and then decide whether to bring in support.
  233.  
  234.     Having made up her mind, she began mounting the stairs when a flash of color and motion caught her eye. She looked up just in time to see a shock of pink vanish around the corner, and she crested the remaining steps two at a time to see her tormentor flee back into her room and shut the door. 'Little cretin.' She couldn't remember the last time she'd clashed so badly with one of her sisters, much less one of the younger ones. She and Lola often found themselves on the same side when it came to disputes and schemes, and she couldn't wrap her head around why the child would go to such lengths over collecting a favor from their brother.
  235.  
  236.     'If I'd acted like that when I was her age, or literally ever, I wouldn't have gotten away with half as much as she does.' Continuing on to her room, she shelved yet another resentment she held as the oldest sibling. As she reached for the doorknob, she thought she could hear things being tossed about in the room behind her, much like she'd heard yesterday morning. 'I'd really rather not get involved in one of Luna and Luan's arguments, but...' but she didn't want to have to deal with it over the course of the week either. Making one last allowance before settling the score with Leni, she about-faced and knocked a few times on their neighbors' door.
  237.  
  238.     The noises ceased long enough for her to hear footsteps scurrying to and fro beyond the door, before finally it opened and the younger of the room's occupants peeked out. "Oh, Lori. What's up?" Really? Not even one pun?
  239.  
  240.     "That's what I want to know. Can I come in?"
  241.  
  242.     Luan cracked the door open a little wider, scanning the hallway for something before quickly ushering Lori inside. Rolling her eyes, the blonde strolled in to behold an impressive mess. Clothes, props and musical gadgets littered the floor, though there was a bit more organization to this chaos than what she'd witnessed in her own room. "Looks like you'll be getting an early start on spring cleaning, huh?"
  243.  
  244.     Running a hand through her hair and taking her scrunchie with it, Luan absently answered, "you could say that." Her companion's eyes widened at the otherwise simple gesture, the surest sign that the jokester was in no joking mood. As she continued rummaging through the piles spread about the room, Lori took a moment to inspect her surroundings, eyes finally coming to rest on the busted drum cover.
  245.  
  246.     A low whistle pierced the air before she asked, "does Luna know about that?"
  247.  
  248.     Her sister, in the process of lifting up a small trunk, let it fall to the floor as her shoulders tensed. "Yeah, she knows. That's why I'm trying to come up with whatever money's around here to help replace it."
  249.  
  250.     Something about the way she said it didn't sit quite right with Lori. She knew as much as her parents about Luna and Luan's increasingly strained relationship. It was something that had happened to Leni and herself, was beginning to happen to Lynn and Lucy and would eventually happen with Lana and Lola. 'The joys of having a roommate.' They all managed it in different ways, but there'd never been a conflict quite like the one that now lingered between these two. If Lori had to guess, it was really because the two were so similar, rather than because of their differences.
  251.  
  252.     'A musician and a comedienne. An artist and an actor. Older and younger, competing for attention, just now starting to figure everything out...' It was a perfect storm, now that she looked at all the pieces together. She knew they had it in them to weather that storm — 'HA!' — and come out better for it, but as she also noticed the splintered spider prop off to one side, she knew it didn't bode well for the near future. If things important to both of them were getting destroyed..."How exactly did this all happen?"
  253.  
  254.     Ceasing her own search, Luan told her about the encounter they'd had with Leni. "I was just messing, Leni's the only one that I can even get my stupid stuff to work on." She sat down hard on her bed and rested her arms on her knees.
  255.  
  256.     "Hmmm..." While Luan definitely shouldered some of the blame, she wasn't the only one at fault. "It sounds like Leni should be in here helping you. Both of you could stand to learn a little responsibility."
  257.  
  258.     Luan scoffed as she cast a wayward glance at the door. "Luna doesn't see it that way. The two of them came back from somewhere a bit ago, and it looked like everything was peachy between them. Leni, the way she looked at me earlier, yelled at me," her voice hitched in a way Lori hadn't heard in years...four years, to be exact. "Now she hates me again, and Luna hates me even m-more than she already did," she moaned as she tried to cover her face, but Lori saw what she was trying to hide.
  259.  
  260.     Something maternal in her propelled the older sister, practically an adult, to crouch down in front of the brunette and gently take her wrists in her hands. Pulling them to one side, she saw the small but steady tears that Luan must have been holding back for hours now. "Luan," Lori cooed, "Luna doesn't hate you, she never has. If there's anyone in this house who gets you more than anyone else, it's her." After the younger girl stopped resisting, she released her hands and shifted to sit on the bed with her. She'd comforted all of them when they were younger, but as they grew up they relied less on her and more on each other, and she hoped she wasn't rusty.
  261.  
  262.     "And Leni," whose role in this stirred a fleeting sense of dread in Lori, "well...she's literally incapable of hating anyone," a knowing look passed between them before she amended, "at least now she is. You know she'll have forgotten all about this by tomorrow." She raised her right hand to brush some of Luan's hair out of her face, using her thumb to wipe away some stray tears as the waterworks began to slow down. "Just because we don't always laugh, or join in the 'fun'," a wry grin broke at that, "doesn't mean we don't care."
  263.  
  264.     Wiping at her own face, Luan composed her thoughts before answering, "You're right. Agh, look at me, getting all weepy and willowy over a...a toy. Maybe I should have taken up drama instead?" A small smile came free, and Lori could tell she was still upset, that she would be for a bit yet, but she'd move on from it. She was surprised, then, when Lori vehemently shook her head.
  265.  
  266.     "No, not just a toy. If something's important to you, then other people should respect it. Luna's stuff isn't any more imporant than yours," Luan's mouth fell open at Lori's near-perfect paraphrasing of what her roommate had said, "but respect's a two-way street. You've got to show her that you respect her and hers before she'll do the same. Understand?" The brunette nodded her head before Lori tacked on, "and I don't know about drama, but you're definitely the best funnyman around here. Err, woman."
  267.  
  268.     A much bigger smile, a genuine Luan smile, lit said girl's face. It was what Lori was hoping and expecting to achieve, and she'd pat herself on the back later for managing to bring it to light. What she hadn't expected was to get pulled into a hug, a hug that unbalanced both of them and sent them flopping over onto the bed. That got a chuckle out of both of them. "Thanks, Lori. I know we don't say it often enough, but you're the best."
  269.  
  270.     It was an earnest sentiment, but it meant more to Lori than Luan could know. She'd been saddled with taking care of them alongside her mother and father for so long, she'd become jaded to their wants and needs. Being able to make some kind of difference, even as minor as just cheering up the one that tried to keep them cheered up relentlessly, eased some of the stress she'd been accumulating so much of recently.
  271.  
  272.     "Kids, come down to the living room!" Their mother called. Well, then. Lori sighed as she accepted the missed window to speak to them with the consolation that one week wasn't going to be the end of the world. Untangling themselves, Lori gave her host a moment to make herself presentable before the two of them exited the room. Upon opening the door, she was surprised to see her own door opening across from her, admitting both Leni and Luna to the hallway.
  273.  
  274.     An awkward few seconds passed as the two odd pairs simply faced one another. "Luna," Lori finally acknowledged.
  275.  
  276.     "Lori," Luna obliged.
  277.  
  278.     "Luan," Leni offered.
  279.  
  280.     "Leni," Luan replied.
  281.  
  282.     "Luan," Luna mumbled.
  283.  
  284.     "Lori," Leni murmured.
  285.  
  286.     "Leni," Lori huffed.
  287.  
  288.     "Luna," Luan sighed.
  289.  
  290.     Another quiet moment followed before they began moving toward the stairs as a group, two pairs that hadn't shared common ground with each other in a long while. They met their seven younger siblings at the stairs, and Leni swept Lily up into her arms, the baby laughing and flailing her arms as the others tried to figure out just what was going on between the four eldest. They arrived to find their parents flanked on all sides by luggage, a taxi visible through the window.
  291.  
  292.     As they settled on the couch, their father commanded their attention. "Alright, Louds, listen up!" His voice, though not a shout, definitely lived up to their family name. "Your mother and I may have taken the occasional date night or trip for a couple days before, but this is the first time you'll be looking after yourselves for a whole week. I can't stress how important it is for all of you to keep the stress level around here to a minimum." That got a titter out of Luan, before she put her business face back on.
  293.  
  294.     Rita took the chance to add, "now, if there are any problems — ANY problems, at ALL — I want one of you girls or Lincoln to get a hold of us. I have a feeling it won't come to that, but just in case you can't reach us directly, here's the number of the resort we'll be staying at." She handed Lori a pink post-it before making rounds to give each of them an unwanted kiss on the forehead, even the oldest ones; she'd have sworn, though, that she had to pull back just a bit to avoid getting headbutted by Leni during hers. 'Tired, indeed...'
  295.  
  296.     "You can count on us, Mom, Dad," Lori declared, jumping up to stand at attention. She was swiftly followed by the others, even Lily! "I promise you, this will literally be the best vacation any of us has ever had!" That seemed awfully optimistic, but with the kids appearing to have sorted out their quarrels for the time being, it was enough to put their minds at ease.
  297.  
  298.     A group hug followed, and lasted until an impatient honking came from outside. "Could you kids help us get this luggage out to the car?" Lynn Sr. asked, and was soon directing his very own moving company as they formed a line to convey each bag and parcel from one siblings to the next. Before they knew it, the children had assembled on the lawn and were saying their goodbyes. As he and his wife finally entered the vehicle, he beckoned Lori over. "Lori," his voice was low and deadly serious, "I know this is a lot to dump on you right now, but I think we've all noticed," he motioned to her, himself and Rita, "that something's up with Leni."
  299.  
  300.     Lori's chest clenched as regret washed over her for not bringing it up sooner; of course they would see it too. "Y-yeah, for at least a few days now."
  301.  
  302.     "Now, we can't be sure that it's not something going on at school, there's some evidence to that effect. Just...keep a close eye on her, and if she decides to talk about it, about anything, make sure to hear her out." He rubbed at his balding head as he sighed, "we owe her that much, at least." Swallowing hard and ignoring her instincts to spill her fears and doubts, she nodded. "That's my girl. Remember, let us know if you need anything."
  303.  
  304.     "We know you can handle this, Lori," her mother reassured, "I can't think of anyone I trust more with my babies, even if you're one of them." She reached out to pinch one of her oldest daughter's cheeks, earning an embarrassed squawk and smile from her prey. The rest of the brood chose that moment to crowd in around them, and they all exchanged another set of "I love you!"s before finally the taxi departed, leaving the children to their fates.
  305.  
  306.     Turning back to the house, Lori found her fellows making their way back inside, and leading the pack was Lola skulking toward the front door. She lunged forward and through them and fell upon her like a bird of prey. "Just where do you think you're going?"
  307.  
  308.     "Uh, my room? What's it to you?" The six-year old demanded.
  309.  
  310.     "Bad call, sis." Lynn mused; when Lori was on the warpath, it was best to make nice or make way.
  311.  
  312.     "Good, good. Once you get there," Lori ignored the snide attitude to inform her, "I literally don't want to see you out again until you're ready to tell me where my phone is."
  313.  
  314.     Wheeling on her, a hint of panic entered Lola's eyes and voice as she asked, "what are you saying?"
  315.  
  316.     Jabbing a finger against her sister's nose, the oldest replied, "as of this moment, you're grounded."
  317.  
  318.     For once, the little princess seemed at a loss for words. It was a brief respite. "I'm WHAT?" Lori pulled her finger back, justifiably afraid of losing it as her punished sister's face contorted in anger. The rest of them prepared to bear witness to another installment of this new feud, but one of them was thinking further ahead than the rest, and it wasn't Lisa.
  319.  
  320.     "Lola!" Lana cried from the sidelines. "Trial! TRIAL!"
  321.  
  322.     "What?" Lori, caught off guard, soon realized what she meant. "No, WAIT-"
  323.  
  324.     Not soon enough, though. "That's right!" Lola joyfully exclaimed. "I DEMAND A TRIAL!"
  325.  
  326.     A chant began with that awful word, begun by Lola and joined by Lynn and Lana. "Trial, trial, TRIAL-" It followed Lori back into the house along with the rest of them.
  327.  
  328.     They all knew what came next.
  329.  
  330. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  331.  
  332.     Lisa cleared her throat as she prepared to read from the inexplicably worn parchment in her hands. "Lola L. Loud, in accordancthe with Article II, Sthection C.1  of the Loud Family Charter on Non-Parental Administhtration, sthigned and appended by all presthent here, hasth invoked her right to trial by sthibling tribunal." A cheer sounded out at the oddly formal declaration, as the children crammed themselves into the dining room for another extraordinary rendition of their new justice system.
  333.  
  334.     After Lori had been 'literally and viciously mutinied upon' by them the last time she was put in charge, Lincoln — with Clyde's assistance — had put forth an alternate method of making decisions when their parents were out of the house. Rather than Lori calling all the shots and earning the enmity of everyone, a council of three siblings, the oldest three present in particular, would rule on their fates.
  335.  
  336.     At the head of the table, complete with a decorative backdrop crafted by Luan and Lana, sat the trio of arbiters for the evening: Lori at the center, with Leni at her right hand and Luna at the left. "Alright, let's get this over with." Lori grumbled, still uncomfortable with having to share her authority — "My literal birthright!" — in the first place.
  337.  
  338.     "You didn't start it right!" Luan cried before anyone else could get a word in. "If we're gonna go to this much trouble, we might as well get into the mood!"
  339.  
  340.     "She's right. This is a solemn ceremony, and has to be executed in the spirit with which it was intended." Things happened at these trials that would seem extremely out of place anywhere else, and Lucy finding common ground with Luan was one of them.
  341.  
  342.     Groaning, Lori stood and banged her makeshift shoe-gavel against the table. "Fine, all stand. Hear ye, hear ye, I now call this, the tribunal to convict Lola of stealing and hiding my phone to order." The crowd began howling with cheers and jeers in equal measure; so much for solemnity.
  343.  
  344.     "Do you all hear this?! I demand that you recuse yourself, you're biased against me!" Lola raged, already standing on the table. Murmurs sounded out throughout the room, ranging from agreement to wanting to see the brat get her just desserts. Luna abstained from the ensuing vote to remove her, while Leni sided with her roommate. "This is gonna to be a sham trial anyway, Leni always votes with Lori!"
  345.  
  346.     "I do not," the accused older sister shot back, "like, I only voted with her when Luan greased the kitchen floor, and when Lynn clogged the toilet, and when Lana's petting zoo escaped the basement!" She'd had to have Lincoln briefly coach her on the previous cases to maintain the illusion of her previous state.
  347.  
  348.     A deadpan look graced Lynn's face as she piped in, "so, practically all of them."
  349.  
  350.     "Well, to be fair, we WERE all guilty in those cases." Luan conceded, laughing at the memory of her own conviction. "Guess we really greased the gears for them!"
  351.  
  352.     A collective groan followed. "All in favor of putting a gag order on Luan?" Lori asked her peers, to her target's shock. The somewhat smug look as she'd said it, though, left Luan with no doubt that it was a lighthearted jab.
  353.  
  354.     "Gag order?! You can't do that, I'm the one in charge of gags around here!" That one got a more enthusiastic response, with the twins and Lincoln suppressing a laugh to keep up appearances.
  355.  
  356.     With a smirk, Lori doubled down on her idle threat. "Keep it up and I'll upgrade it to a literal gag. Aren't you supposed to be taping this fiasco anyway?" Making a scene of her defeat, Luan slinked away to collect her camcorder, smiling all the way while the rest of the audience took advantage of the wait to talk.
  357.  
  358.     Leni, closely following the interaction between the two of them, grew wary at the sudden familiarity."Like, what was that all about?"
  359.  
  360.     Lori didn't face her, but acknowledged her out of the corner of her eye as she answered ominously, "just one more thing we need to talk about after this. You too, Luna," she appraised the other sister the same way, earning a confused look from her. As the three of them became embroiled in a silent war, they hadn't the attention to spare toward the showcase of the event.
  361.  
  362.     In an advantageous position, Lincoln couldn't help but sidle up to the defendant and ask, "so, Lola, how are you going to collect your debt from behind bars?" The look on his face would have given Ronnie Anne a run for her money. Lana leapt between them on all fours, a low growl momentarily startling Lincoln, before Lola bade her to heel and patted her twin on the head.
  363.  
  364.     "Thank you, Lana, you'll get a treat later." Turning her attention to Lincoln, she adopted a face of pure innocence. "Oh, my poor, naïve little brother," she reached up to pat him on the head as well, "if you wanted help digging yourself even deeper, you should have just asked!" As he shook her off, she brought her hand down to grab him by the collar, pulling his head to her level so she could whisper in his ear, "I know all about you and your little 'girlfriend.'" His smug mug, inspired by that self-same 'girlfriend', shattered into a nervous mess as she assured him, "you might get rid of me for one week, but I'll make sure everyone else meddles in your business for the next seven years."
  365.  
  366.     He jerked back and she released him in concert, causing him to overcompensate and fling himself onto the floor."H-how? How could you know?!" He'd taken every precaution to keep his burgeoning relationship a secret; not even Lori knew all the details, and she was dating Ronnie's brother! Lily must have sensed his discomfort, because she crawled over to him and began babbling and giggling. Despite himself, he grinned uneasily as he mock-exclaimed, "not you too!" He sat up and swept her up in his arms, earning a peal of laughter from her as he sprung up from the floor.
  367.  
  368.     "Lincoln," she crowed as she stood atop her chair and towered over him, every bit the vision of the (evil) queen she believed herself to be, "you ought to know by now what happens when you make Lola MAD." He didn't need to know that she'd just been bluffing, using the thing she most remembered him being bothered about to try and gain leverage. Luan returned, delaying their back and forth as Lori rose once more.
  369.  
  370.     "Order in the court!" The head judge declared, before turning her attention to the rest of the assembly. "Be seated. So, who's going to serve as the defense? I think-"
  371.  
  372.     Referencing the charter again, Lisa quickly reminded her, "It isth the right of the accusthed to sthelect histh or her own defender." The brainiac had been unofficially chosen as the moderator at trial, as Lori had a well-documented history of railroading the proceedings at every opportunity.
  373.  
  374.     "I choose Lincoln!" The defendant announced, drawing his attention from keeping Lily entertained. As he acknowledged her and the devilish toothy smile she was wearing, he'd have sworn he saw the serrated teeth of a shark despite that gap that nearly assured her a pair of his and Luan's buck teeth down the line.
  375.  
  376.     Handing the infant off to Lynn, he inquired, "Why me? Wouldn't Lana know more about what you were doing?" What was her game here?
  377.  
  378.     Lacing her fingers together and resting her elbows on the table, Lori elaborated, "Lana isn't an impartial defense here." Over Lola's protests that she wasn't an impartial judge, she continued, "both she and Lynn were in on a plot to find it and use it aga- err, use it for their own purposes. She could say literally anything about Lola's whereabouts or intents and we'd be hard pressed to argue with her."
  379.  
  380.     "We're not attached at the hip, y'know," Lana groused, "though that would have been pretty cool..." She blissfully ignored the sidelong glare from her thankfully not-conjoined twin.
  381.  
  382.     Determined not to be involved, their brother fought on, "why not Luan or Lucy, then? Heck, Lisa knows more about how this works than I do!" The former, however, was the designated record keeper and was currently maneuvering her camcorder to get numerous angles of the proceedings.
  383.  
  384.     Pointing a damning finger at him, Lola drove the final nail into his coffin. "You were the one who was up at some unholy hour this morning. You KNOW I didn't do it! Assuming, of course, that it wasn't you this whole time." A series of gasps sounded off at the possibility, with Lincoln rolling his eyes at the melodrama.
  385.  
  386.     "So, can any of you dudes think of any reason why our bro isn't a good choice?" Luna tended to be ambivalent to these meetings, but it was clear there was a lot of baggage surrounding this case; after her run-in with Lori that morning, she was curious as well. The boy in question raised his hand, waving it about wildly when he wasn't immediately called upon. "What's good, Linc?"
  387.  
  388.     Standing to begin pacing along one side of the table, he reasoned, "Lola has been hounding me to pay back an unjust debt for days now, so who knows what she's going to do if she doesn't win? This is practically blackmail!" A new argument began between him, Lola and Lana over their exact roles in the events of that Friday morning.
  389.  
  390.     Lori sighed and rubbed at her temples as she looked to each of her fellow judges in turn. "All in favor of appointing Lincoln as the defense?"
  391.  
  392.     "You got this, bro!" Luna threw the horns to emphasize her support, and had to be held back by her fellows from hopping onto the table as well.
  393.  
  394.     "Like, totally! I believe in you, Lincoln!" Despite her support, Leni was worried about the prospect that he would actually uncover what she'd done. For all the grief they gave him about his comic book and superhero hobbies, he was a surprisingly good detective when it came to matters around the house. His insight, combined with Lola's sixth sense for any weakness her siblings revealed, could get her into trouble. To give voice to her concern would only draw even more attention, though...
  395.  
  396.     With the three in agreement, the head of the tribunal banged the gavel before Lincoln could respond. "Ugh, fine." He moved to sit next to Lola, ignoring the scowl that was becoming a permanent fixture on her face. Leaning in next to her, he whispered, "alright, be honest with me. Did you take the phone?"
  397.  
  398.     "Of course not, I even explained why you should know already!" Lola hissed, a fist clenching furiously at her side. "I ought to, though, after all this."
  399.  
  400.     While he privately had his doubts, he'd honor the spirit of the court. "In that case, what were you doing this morning?"
  401.  
  402.     The six-year old turned her nose up, one hand absently patting at her hair as she answered haughtily, "enjoying my beauty sleep after it was so rudely interrupted the day before. Speaking of which, you're the one who should be on trial."
  403.  
  404.     "Be glad I'm a fan of truth and justice, I could tank this case if I wanted to." With that threat lingering over her head, Lincoln sighed and asked, "can you think of anyone else who might have done it?"
  405.  
  406.     "...No, not really. Even I know better than to go into her room. I think the only people who don't are Leni and Lily, and obviously they get a pass."
  407.  
  408.     Lincoln considered everything he knew about the whole thing. 'If it wasn't Lola, there's really only one other person who would've had the opportunity to do something with it...' He didn't want to suspect Leni of being involved, but she might harbor a grudge against Lori for what she'd been through all this time. In fact, Leni had been the one to level the accusation at Lola in the first place. A pit formed in his stomach as he quickly found himself in a position to condemn her after the connection they'd just achieved.
  409.  
  410.     Though really, what harm was a hidden phone going to do?
  411.  
  412.     Maybe there was a way to resolve this while both helping Leni save face and getting Lola off the hook. Putting the case together in his head, he prepared his opening remarks. "Ladies and gentleman," he motioned to himself for the latter, "we're gathered here today to get to the bottom of a case that's threatening to split this family apart." A lot of raised eyebrows followed that dramatic assertion, but he soldiered on. "The Loud House is a house of plenty, as long as we're not talking about money, and its not often that someone gets accused of thievery."
  413.  
  414.     "You mean like you thieving my bike?" Lynn helpfully suggested. She got a roll of the eyes for her trouble.
  415.  
  416.     Coming to stand behind Lola's seat, he gripped the back of it and continued, "Lola has been accused of taking Lori's phone, that we all know. But there are many missing pieces to this puzzle," this time he had his deck with him, and he whipped it out successfully to the mild surprise of his audience, "and I aim to put them together. Assuming, of course, that all the pieces are present." He spread them out on the table with a sweep of his hand, revealing their hastily drawn mugshots on the cards.
  417.  
  418.     Leaning in and making sure he had everyone's full attention, he detailed his argument. "If we were to search the twins' room, top to bottom, and no trace of the phone showed up, I suggest it'd be likely that Lola didn't steal it." All he had to do was prove that Lola was innocent, not necessarily who was guilty!
  419.  
  420.     "If only it were that easy, Lincoln," Lori interjected. "Who's to say she didn't put it somewhere else in the house? Lord knows I've looked everywhere else, in every nook and cranny, and it's like it literally vanished."
  421.  
  422.     "But you haven't, in fact, gone through the bedrooms yet?"
  423.  
  424.     "...Not all of them, no."
  425.  
  426.     Everyone seemed nervous at where this was going, particularly Leni and the twins. 'I already saved, like, everything I need over to my phone,' Leni thought, 'but I didn't want her to be able to get a hold of anyone without me knowing.' This was considering that he would actually find it, though. Even Lisa hadn't noticed yet, and the thing was sure to have been buzzing with a hundred calls and texts from Bobby; she couldn't remember if she'd turned it off that night.
  427.  
  428.     "Lisa, could your metal detector find it?" Lincoln inquired, and the color began to drain from his second-oldest sister's face. She'd tempted fate; he was unraveling her now days-long scheme in a matter of minutes.
  429.  
  430.     Pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, the child declared, "indeed it can. We will, of coursthe, have to go room to room in order to locate it though."
  431.  
  432.     "N-now, let's not get ahead of ourselves here." Luna suggested, to everyone's surprise. "Yeah, you might find a phone, but you've gotta take peoples' privacy into consideration too!" Leni was particularly curious about what their heart-on-her-sleeve sister would want to keep hidden, before quickly reaching a conclusion and averting her gaze.
  433.  
  434.     A devious grin curled Lynn's lips as she asked, "and just what have you got to keep private?" That one earned her a heated look from the rocker. Lily looked back and forth between them, her giggling a stark contrast to her sitter's sultry expression. The infant then began making "Bzz! Bzz!" noises, and the younger kids watched and listened in confusion as first Luan and then Lori and Lynn began cackling, apparently at Luna's misfortune if the angry red tint to her face was any indication.
  435.  
  436.     Looking at Lynn, or in her general direction at least, her roommate involved herself in the debate. "Privacy is the last thing separating everyone in this house from animals," Lucy monotoned, but Lynn knew her well enough to know she was effectively pleading. "The violation, the humiliation, the-"
  437.  
  438.     "Alright already, I get it! Sorry."
  439.  
  440.     "Luna's right, Linc!" All eyes were on Leni as she came to her next-youngest sister's defense. "Like, just imagine if someone went into your bedroom looking for the phone and they found some of those special comics under-"
  441.  
  442.     "Woah, WOAH!" Lincoln shouted before she could continue, frowning as she mouthed a quick 'Sorry!' to him. That predatory hunger entered the eyes of his three recent nemeses, and he moved relocating those comics — not actually his, thank you very much! — near the top of his priorities. "Alright, fair enough. But we still have to come to some kind of agreement!"
  443.  
  444.     Lori commanded their attention with a bang of the gavel. "Listen up, this is how we do this. We'll start in Lisa and Lily's room and work our way up by age; the kids have less to be concerned about as far as privacy goes than us." She swept a hand to refer to herself and her fellow teens.
  445.  
  446.     "Says you!" Lana and Lola said simultaneously, getting stuck in a small "Jinx!" fight before Lana finally won. The younger twin continued, "who are you to decide who does and doesn't have something worth keeping private?" Lana and Lucy nodded in agreement.
  447.  
  448.     Even Lisa joined her cause, "in the interestht of common decthency and consthideration for your well-being, I should warn you that there are a number of top-sthecret projects sthtrategically placed around our room." That made six siblings opposed to the search, including a voting majority of the judges.
  449.  
  450.     It was enough to make Lori crack. "I'm the BOSS, that's who," she seethed as she stood from her seat, "and I'm getting tired of you questioning that!" Ignoring Leni and Luna's insistence that she was trying to hijack their three-person panel, she bowled over them and continued, "unless you're hiding something that's going to get you grounded, like you're going to be ANYWAY, then we're checking your room first then!"
  451.  
  452.     Sensing the impending storm, Lincoln weakly offered, "Lori, we have to be fair to everyone here, remember what you agreed to!"
  453.  
  454.     But the damage was done.
  455.  
  456.     Lola slammed her hands on the table, face red and eyes starting to glisten. "So it's all out in the open now. You're going to punish me whether I did it or not! Why are you treating me like this?!"
  457.  
  458.     "Because you're acting like a spoiled brat, as usual, that's why! And it's about time someone did something about it!"
  459.  
  460.     The other nine siblings watched with growing fascination and concern as a war of words erupted across the table, all sense of tact and decorum thrown to the wind. Leni had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning like a madwoman. 'Like, this couldn't have gone any better even if I'd been trying to do it!' She found herself sympathizing with her little sister, though, who it seemed was getting her lesson on how awful their older sibling was especially early.
  461.  
  462.     "I'M the spoiled one?! You lord your drivers license over us, get to treat us like dirt and spend every waking minute on your phone with your precious Bobby! I feel sorry for him, sorry for how STUPID he is for CHOOSING to put up with you!" Lola's diatribe left the others in terror of what was coming as they backed from the table.
  463.  
  464.     Teeth gnashing, Lori fired back, "If you think he has to put up with something horrible, you have no idea what it's like for me. I have to spend MY spring break watching all of you, ESPECIALLY an ungrateful 6-year old monster who gets literally everything she wants and ruins everyone else's lives when she doesn't! Maybe spending your entire break in your room, with no friends or parties or ANYTHING you take for granted will teach you a lesson!"
  465.  
  466.     'I've got to put an end to this before someone does or says something we all regret!' Dashing out of the room, Lincoln vaulted the stairs and disregarded the privacy they'd just been speaking of to collect two items from his sisters' rooms. On his way back he failed to notice the pets cowering near the top of the stairs, particularly Geo, upon whose ball he tripped. A startled scream escaped him as he rolled down the stairs atop the ball, the hamster squealing all the while, maintaining his balance only through what could have been divine intervention.
  467.  
  468.     Making his way back just as fisticuffs were about to begin, be put Lori's drill whistle to his mouth and blew it as he sounded off Luan's airhorn several times in quick succession.The conflict almost immediately paused, long enough for him to spit out the whistle and shout, "look at yourselves! Listen to the things you're saying! You're both acting like...like a couple of children!" Despite how it sounded, the aggressors quickly picked up on what he meant and had the decency to look ashamed. Everyone began to settle down, and they retook their seats; rather, Lori slumped into hers and Lola brought her knees up as she crouched, looking anywhere but at her oldest sister.
  469.  
  470.     Taking a place at the opposite end of the table from the judges, Lincoln sighed and scratched at the back of his head. Maybe that comment about 'splitting this family apart' was more accurate than he'd realized. "We can save the room inspection for later, as a last resort. I think I can make THIS case without it, though." There was no other option now, he had to put Leni to the test. "Lori, I'll start with you." She motioned with a hand for him to proceed. "Why are you sure it was Lola who took the phone?"
  471.  
  472.     She started to answer his question before snapping her mouth shut. 'Uh oh...if I say that Leni told me, then it'll look like I went after Lola all this time literally just on someone's word. But Leni wouldn't lie to me...would she?' Lori stopped to consider her roommate out of the corner of her eye. It didn't take her long to reach the same conclusion as her brother, that Leni had the most opportunities to have done something with it. 'But why would she? Lola had a reason, the whole debt thing-'
  473.  
  474.     "You're stalling, dude." Luna had things she wanted to do besides sit on a kangaroo court all night, like figure out how to replace her drum. Leni opted to remain silent, though a telltale bead of sweat was beginning to form on her brow.
  475.  
  476.     "I'm getting to it." The blonde was going to have to tread carefully here. "This morning, I received...an anonymous tip. That Lola had been in our room." Just as she expected, Lola's head whipped up, her face a portrait of furious indignation. Lincoln's hand landed on her shoulder soon enough to prevent her from blowing her top, though, and he fixed Lori with a stern look. 'Wait, crap, CRAP. Lincoln was there when Leni told me what happened!'
  477.  
  478.     The instigator of this whole fight realized the trap Lori had just fallen into as well, and she began thinking of a way to save her from it. 'Thinking ahead was never your strong suit, Lori,' Leni grimaced as she plumbed for a way to handle this travesty, 'or thinking at all, really. And people called ME the dumb blonde.'
  479.  
  480.     Their brother wouldn't give them the chance. "An 'anonymous' tip? As long as peoples' privacy is on the line here, I think it's fair that you tell us who could have possibly seen something like that." He offered an apologetic look to Leni, mouthing 'Sorry.' much the same way she had before. As angry as she was becoming at the situation, she couldn't fault him; she'd approved him for this, and allowed it to come this far.
  481.  
  482.     Now that the case was coming together, he was proud to see that everyone was actually getting into the mood, practically on the edge of their seats after that display earlier. Leni, on the other hand, was picking through every word he uttered, and had finally discovered a way to derail the investigation. She would just need Lori and Lincoln to oblige her. And oblige her they would.
  483.  
  484.     Lori kept her mouth shut, knowing that anything more she had to say would implicate Leni, and Lincoln pressed his advantage. "Come on, Lori. I was up this morning, and there was only one other person up at the same time."
  485.  
  486.     Leni's blood surged as the chance to cut a path to victory presented itself. She would have to handle this delicately, as they both knew it was her who had implicated Lola. "Actually, Lincoln," she corrected, "there were, like, three of us up when you came out of your room." His confident stance deflated as she informed him, "Lucy came into the bathroom right after me, and right before you and I came downstairs." Ten pairs of eyes locked in on the now-critical witness.
  487.  
  488.     Lucy met each of their stares in turn, before fixing her unseen gaze on Leni. Lincoln rubbed at his brow at the momentary setback. "That's right, I completely forgot," he admitted. She'd even spoken to him just earlier about it!
  489.  
  490.     "Shocker." Lucy's stoic reply didn't help to alleviate his unease. "I was awake. What of it?"
  491.  
  492.     While Lincoln reconsidered his approach, Luna asked the question on several peoples' minds. "So, Luce, did you see Lola at all before you came down to breakfast?" Leni tried not to look too obvious as her eyes shifted between the two of them. The statements and questions always seemed simple enough, and came so few and far between, but every time the punk opened her mouth it led to a new turn in the case. Was it just dumb luck, or could she really be that perceptive? Either way, perhaps Lincoln wasn't the only one she should have been worried about...
  493.  
  494.     "No, after I met Leni in the bathroom I took my turn and went back to my room. Her and Lincoln were the only two I saw up at the same time."
  495.  
  496.     "So, that proves that I couldn't have taken it!" Lola gloated, only to be shut down by Lori raising her finger to interject.
  497.  
  498.     "Not quite. All that means is that neither of those three was responsible. Assuming that Lily didn't do it, there are six other potential suspects, and only three of them," she lowered her finger to point at Lynn, Lana and Lola in turn, "had any reason to mess with me since yesterday."
  499.  
  500.     Lynn wasn't prepared to accept that, though. "Make that two. Lucy can vouch for me having nothing to do with this." Her roommate nodded in affirmation, and that left the burden of proof on the twins, who realized their predicament and huddled together defensively.
  501.  
  502.     "Maybe Lucy is just covering for you so you can put all the blame on us!" Lana declared.
  503.  
  504.     "Like I have any reason to get involved in something so petty," Lucy fired back, adding, "and Lynn isn't as much of a criminal mastermind as you're giving her credit for."
  505.  
  506.     Lynn nodded in agreement. "Yeah, that's tr- HEY!"
  507.  
  508.     Making notes of the argument and setting aside the cards with the least likely sisters on them, Lincoln narrowed his choices. "The question of why Lola in particular was accused still hasn't been answered." His narrowed eyes lingered on Leni for a moment, but he grudgingly accepted the opening she'd given him to save Lola from a fate worse than death: grounding. "Lori," he implored with a sense of finality, "are you at least willing to admit that there's a shadow of a doubt that Lola is guilty?"
  509.  
  510.     Gritting her teeth, the eldest sister conceded, "I suppose it's...possible. Given the circumstances, though, I personally have literally no reason to doubt it was her." Leni had to turn slightly to hide her smirk at the faith Lori had placed in her.
  511.  
  512.     "Then I'd like to make my closing arguments." When he heard no opposition, he took up his seat next to Lola once more and cleared his throat. "Ahem. Over the course of this late afternoon and early evening, a great many facts have been brought to light, but there are still some unanswered questions. Chief among them, who actually took Lori's phone, and what are we going to do to find it?"
  513.  
  514.     "Naturally the answer to that second question will lead into the first. But before we go trawling through people's rooms and belongings, I'd like to put a motion to the judges." Both Lori and Leni seemed reluctant, but Luna was receptive; none of them disagreed. "Allow the thief to come forward now, and admit what they've done. In exchange, they'll be let off with a day's grounding, rather than an entire week." The spectators expressed general agreement, it certainly sounded like a fair deal.
  515.  
  516.     "As if," Lori spat, unwilling to even consider leniency after coming this far. "This theft has literally caused more trouble than an entire month's worth of drama, much less one week. Whoever did the crime is going to do the time, ALL of it."
  517.  
  518.     Kicking her feet up on the table and kissing her night goodbye, Luna countered, "c'mon, Lori. Your entire deal here was to get your phone back, and here's a golden old- I mean, opportunity! Maybe they'll fess up if you stop puttin' the fear of, well, YOU in 'em." She simply shrugged at the venomous glare directed at her by her peer.
  519.  
  520.     Following Luna's lead, Leni agreed, "it can't, like, do any more harm than it's already done, right?" She had nothing to worry about with this one, as she had no intention of turning herself in.
  521.  
  522.     Nostrils flaring and breaths becoming deeper, Lori seethed as she found herself outvoted again. When Lola had accused her of packing the bench, she honestly hadn't been far off the mark; while not exactly a dark pact of any sort, she counted on Leni to back her up. But whatever understanding her roommate had come to with Luna had apparently jeopardized their alliance. "Alright," she allowed, "the motion carries."
  523.  
  524.     "Thank you," Lincoln said. "Now," he turned to address his audience and defendant, "is there anything anyone would like to tell us?" It had been a last ditch effort to avoid more trouble down the line, but he was still disappointed when no one spoke up. "Anyone? Anything at all? Going once, going twice!" Nothing. "Well, can't blame a guy for trying."
  525.  
  526.     "Is there anything else, Lincoln?" Lori asked, a hint of weariness seeping into her voice.
  527.  
  528.     His overbite catching his bottom lip, he mulled his options for a moment before finally answering, "no. For the time being, I rest my case." He looked over to Lola, her angry visage finally giving way to a mournful, pleading face as she looked to him. It was easy to forget when she was trying to arrange the destruction of his home and social life, but she was still just a child, if oddly mature for her age. Well, that seemed to be a theme in the Loud House at any rate, but it lent itself well to someone who used their gifts for evil, like she did.
  529.  
  530.     "Then it's time we rendered judgement." Lori declared, capturing everyone's attention; even Lily had quieted down and observed with uncanny intent. "On the charges of theft in the first degree and obstruction of justice, how do we, the judges, find?" She paused a customary moment before answering her own question. "Guilty." Lola had been expecting it, so she managed to keep her mouth shut. The other two, however..."Luna?"
  531.  
  532.     Planting her feet on the ground once more, the rocker looked to consider the case pretty hard before coming up with an answer. "I think Linc made a pretty good case that it isn't absolutely her. And a girl's gotta fight for her right to party!" She allowed that buildup to hang in the air for a few seconds before declaring, "not guilty." The defendant and defense counsel offered her a grateful look, but this too was all but assured; whether out of actual consideration of the law or just rebelling against Lori, Luna almost always voted the opposite of her.
  533.  
  534.     And then there was one. Leni considered the possible consequences of letting Lola off the hook, versus the possibility of pressing Lincoln to pursue the case even more aggressively. He knew that she had ulterior motives now, so either way she would have to try and manipulate his investigation to her advantage. Freeing Lola might look like an act of compromise and allow her to influence him long enough to move the phone, but it would definitely set her against Lori, who would wonder why she voted against punishment after accusing her and already looked to be at the end of her rope. 'Which, by the way, is pathetic. You can't go for, like, two days without your precious phone?'
  535.  
  536.     A third option presented itself when she noticed the way Lola was looking at her. The desperation, the spark of hope that Leni had the power to extinguish. 'She totes deserves it, but...' But this could be her opportunity to gain another ally, one she wouldn't even need to convince to work against Lori. She closed her eyes and bit her lip both to give the appearance of deep concentration and to stop that mad grin from appearing again. This whole time she'd been taking risks, she'd be remiss not to do so now.
  537.  
  538.     Opening her eyes once more, she put on as grave and serious a face she could as she stared at the sister whose fate was now in her hands. "Lola, before I decide, I want you to do something for me." She intoned, causing a great deal of commotion on the sidelines.
  539.  
  540.     "OBJECTION!" Lincoln shouted over the din, "there's to be no bribing of defendants by the judges or vice versa! Right, Lisa?"
  541.  
  542.     The moderator checked the charter before answering, "that isth correct."
  543.  
  544.     "Like, it's not a bribe, Lincoln," she attempted to assuage him, "it's about family. In fact, I want Lori to agree to this too." His rebuttal died down at the odd turn of events. Lori seemed just as confused, as did Lola. "I want the two of you," she pointed to the participants in the feud, "to apologize to each other."
  545.  
  546.     Silence reigned for nearly a full minute before two simultaneous, defiant cries of "WHAT?!" rose up.
  547.  
  548.     Setting her face into a stern mask, Leni scolded them, "you two have, like, never said such horrible things about each other like you have today! Whatever happens, whoever took what, whatever took who, we're, like, all family! You two love each other, and we all love you, and I think it'd make everyone feel better if you both let each other know you're sorry!" It was a win-win situation; either forgiveness would ease the shock of her incoming decision, or hatred would keep them occupied long enough for her to act.
  549.  
  550.     After what seemed like an eternity, as everyone had given up hope of any reconciliation that evening, a small noise emitted from Lola. "s...ry..."
  551.  
  552.     "Everyone, pipe down!" Luna ordered. "Lola?"
  553.  
  554.     All eyes were on the six-year old as she muttered, only somewhat louder, "...sorry..."
  555.  
  556.     Lori could hardly believe she'd heard right. Maybe Leni was right. The whole ordeal had taxed them to an unusual degree, and she would prefer to try and maintain some kind of peace over the coming week. With a heavy sigh, she joined in, "I'm sorry too." Lola was significantly worse at hiding her disbelief, but as the two locked eyes, it seemed that there was at least some desire to make things more civil from that point forward.
  557.  
  558.     "Aww, I knew you two could do it!" Leni clasped her hands together before settling them again to issue the verdict. "Lola, while I think there's still a lot we don't know, or at least that I don't know, what I DO know is that I know I think you're telling the truth. And so," Lori snapped her head to Leni in shock as she knew what was coming, "I vote not guilty."
  559.  
  560.     Anarchy erupted at the announcement, as Lynn handed Lily off to Lucy and joined Lana in picking Lola up and tossing her up into the air before catching her, repeating several times. Lincoln collapsed into his chair, mentally exhausted but thankful at having won the hard-fought case. Luna seemed to be as surprised as Lori was at Leni's last-minute reversal, and Luan tried to get every second of it on camera while Lucy, Lisa and Lily tried not to get caught up in the chaos.
  561.  
  562.     Lori remained numb in her chair, shell-shocked at the unprecedented turn of events. 'But Leni...SHE was the one who told me it was Lola...why let her GO?' It all reeked of sabotage; Lincoln failing to question her, her constant agreement with Luna, and everything leading up to this. 'She was involved in this, if not literally responsible for it.' She'd been strung along with nothing to show for it, not her phone or a thief to make an example of. Kicking the seat back, she flew from the table as fast as her legs could carry her and retreated up the stairs to her room, not noticing Luan calling after her. She closed the door and locked it. 'She's so friendly with Luna now, I'm sure they won't mind sharing a room.'
  563.  
  564.     There was no justice. She had given everyone the benefit of the doubt, gone out of her way to worry about them and help where she could. And in return, she received nothing. 'No, less than nothing. They're mocking me.' Casting herself onto her bed, she buried her face into her pillow and willed herself to sleep. Surely something better than this would be waiting for her when she woke up.
  565.  
  566. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  567.  
  568.     As the trial gave way to an impromptu after-party, everyone split into their usual cliques, though a concerned Luan opted to review the footage while Leni and Luna discussed Lori's reaction to the verdict. As Lincoln gathered up his courtroom aides, he felt a tug on his shirt. Turning around, he found Lola a step behind him. Drawing back, she folded her arms behind her as she struggled with something. "What's up, Lola?"
  569.  
  570.     "Go on, sis." Lana pressed, earning a pink-gloved hand waving her away.
  571.  
  572.     "I know, I know! Lincoln," Lola managed after a moment, "...thanks." She grabbed his leg in a quick hug, releasing him again before he could even think of returning it. Brushing herself off, she continued, "I know you didn't have to stand up for me as well as you did, that you probably shouldn't have to begin with." She looked up at him — no, looked up TO him — and extended a rare olive branch. "I guess I could consider this as making us even. A couple tiaras and some torn fabric are pretty easy to deal with next to an entire week being grounded."
  573.  
  574.     The gratitude and offer completely floored her brother, who'd never dared to entertain a fantasy where one of his sisters let him off the hook for some wrong they'd perceived. "W-wow, Lola. Uh, you're welcome! And, even though you're letting it slide, I still plan on making yesterday morning up to you. To everyone." He included Lynn and Lana for good measure. "Things may be kind of tough right now, but your big brother's always gonna look out for you." He cemented that statement by drawing her into a hug of his own, one that she returned more quickly than she'd intended. The two of them were unexpectedly joined one by one as the other sisters moved in to congratulate him on his victory.
  575.  
  576.     "Not bad," Lynn snarked as she made to punch him in the shoulder, causing him to jump. "For a lawyer, that is. Two for flinching."
  577.  
  578.     "Way to roll with the punches, Linc!" Despite her worry, Luan was next, but with everyone in a celebratory mood she actually got a few chuckles. "Let's hear it for our resident devil's advocate!" She cheered, this time garnering actual laughs from both the joke and Lola's red-faced reaction to it.
  579.  
  580.     A somewhat heavy weight landed directly on his back, a pair of legs wrapping around his stomach and arms around his neck as Lana's head poked over his shoulder. "That'll do, pig. That'll do. Guess we've got a truce for now."
  581.  
  582.     "You mean 'pig' in the police sense, right?" Lincoln asked, earning another round of laughs.
  583.  
  584.     "I don't know, do the police squeal when they get the spurs?" Not giving him time to wonder what she meant, she repositioned herself to kick him in waist with her heels. "Giddyup!"
  585.  
  586.     "Ow! Hey, cut it out!" He began hopping about, trying to shake her loose, but the mirth between them was proof enough that they'd simply taken horseplay, or rather pigplay, to a literal level.
  587.  
  588.     With debts and crimes forgotten for the time being, the unruly mob soon disbanded to carry on with their nightly activities. As Lincoln returned to his room to begin crafting a strategy for finding the phone, Leni made to return to her own room, only to find her entrance barred. 'What the...' She tried again. Sure enough, it was locked. "Lori? Did you lock the door?" With no reply, she knocked several times, each time becoming progressively harder until she was hitting it with a clenched fist. "Lori, open up! I need to, like, do my nightly routine!"
  589.  
  590.     She considered picking the lock when Luna ascended the stairs to witness her plight. "Oh man, you're not in the doghouse 'cause you voted with me, are you?"
  591.  
  592.     Leni nearly answered in the negative before a wicked idea flitted through her head. "Seems that way...like, I could probably get in, but who knows what she'll do if I do?" The guilt writ on Luna's face was like a work of art. 'Time to bring it home.' She sluggishly sulked toward the bathroom and lamented, "guess it's the bathtub for me tonight."
  593.  
  594.     Luna chewed on her lower lip as she thought of the spat she, Leni and Luan had had that afternoon. It might be a little awkward if the three of them shared a room for the night, but she couldn't just let Leni squat in the bathroom, could she? "Len, wait," she rushed to lay a hand on the blonde's shoulder, "I can't leave you hangin' like that. C'mon, we'll put you up for the night." She used her other arm to direct Leni toward her room.
  595.  
  596.     "Really?" Upon Luna's confirmation, Leni threw her arms around her sister and hefted her clear off the ground. "Oh, thank you Luna! This is totes gonna be, like, the best slumber party EVER!" The way her voice cracked at the end reminded Luna of the last time they'd had a real slumber party, the bittersweet memory going down somewhat easier now that she had a chance to reconnect with her sister.
  597.  
  598.     The pair entered the room across the hall as Luan was reviewing the case log. While Luna marveled at the mess that had appeared since she'd last been in there, Leni worked to get a look at just what Luan was watching. 'This happened, like, less than an hour ago. What is there to review?' Shuffling ever so slightly around, she managed to reach an angle behind her sister where she could see the view on the recorder. At first it just seemed like what she would have expected, simple footage of the proceedings complete with zoom-ins and panoramas for effect.
  599.  
  600.     As she continued to watch, however, ice filled her veins as she noticed a common element across the shots: many of them had captured her reactions to the various twists and turns of the case. In fact, about halfway through it appeared as though that had become the film specialist's intention. With a slight yelp she realized her nails were digging into her palms, her knuckles white as the topic of her sister's tapes bubbled back into her surface thoughts. Luckily, she was well positioned to act on that issue now. "Hey, Luan?" She would have to make a careful course correction here, from splitting people apart to bringing them together.
  601.  
  602.     The youngest of the occupants started as she heard her name being called, before realizing just who'd asked after her. "Yeah, Leni?" She was put further on edge when the oldest plopped down next to her.
  603.  
  604.     Idly scratching at her cheek, Leni didn't quite meet her eyes as she said, "about earlier..." Luan had been dreading this, and she prepared for the worst. "Like, I don't even know what to say, other than that I'm sorry." The brunette blinked dimly at her, an apology having been the least of what she'd expected; even Luna seemed mildly surprised. "I've been pretty tense these past couple days, but, like, that's no excuse for taking it out on you. Can you forgive me?"
  605.  
  606.     Luan was completely at a loss for how to handle this situation. The way Leni had towered over her earlier, fists clenched and eyes aflame, she'd been a vision of the beast that had preyed on them for an entire year, all that time ago. Now, though, she saw the wide-eyed, well-meaning older sister she wished the blonde had always been, the same one she'd come to accept and love again over the past four years.
  607.  
  608.     "Yeah...y-yeah, of course I forgive you," Luan answered, "and I'm sorry too. From now on I'll keep the pranks to a minimum. Speaking of which," she turned to face her roommate, "I wanna apologize to you too, Luna. I didn't treat you or your stuff the way I wanted myself and mine to be, so I understand if you're still mad at me..."
  609.  
  610.     Luna considered her for a moment before a lopsided grin signaled that things had been patched up for the time being. "Aww, it's alright, Lu. I'm sorry too, I could've handled it better than just blowin' up like I did." With the hatchet buried, she grabbed her guitar and snagged herself a seat, strumming a short tune as she switched gears. "Now, is this a pity party we're havin', or are we gonna make it a house party?" Her companions seemed to lighten up to the idea of a lightened mood, and a night of music, poor jokes and mini-makeovers began as the three of them set aside their differences to bond with each other.
  611.  
  612.     It was a valuable opportunity for Leni, learning just what made them tic, plying for as many secrets as she could without fishing too far, and planning just how she'd get a hold of those tapes she'd had to abandon. The opportunity resented itself when eventually Luan couldn't manage to keep herself awake anymore, sprawling out on her beanbag chair to a lullaby-like song played by Luna. The musician, normally no stranger to late nights, had seen her energy depleted by the whirlwind of drama that day, and she too turned in.
  613.  
  614.     When Leni was sure both of them were fast asleep, she recreated her entry into the closet and collected her ill-gotten gains, employing as much stealth as she could to secret them out of the room. She carefully scanned the hallway before creeping to and down the stairs, turning on the living room lamp just long enough to arrange her trophies on the coffee table. 'Wait, there are a few more I need to see, just to be sure...' Returning upstairs, she entered the room again to find Luan stirring slightly. Her heart threatened to beat its way out of her chest as the girl's eyes flickered once, then twice, before she curled up further into her makeshift bed and drifted back to sleep.
  615.  
  616.     Letting out a breath, she delved back into the closet to pilfer a few more choice selections. 'Lincoln Crying (3 hours)' — 'Lincoln Breaks Tailbone' — 'Lincoln :(' — 'Lincoln Humiliation.' She had to bite down hard on her vitriol, wishing nothing more than to inflict some of the summaries she was seeing on the one who had filmed them. Baring her teeth at Luan as she drifted to the door again, she closed it one more time behind her.
  617.  
  618.     Putting in the tape of Lisa's purported activities, she made herself comfortable on the couch as the video began to play. She was promptly assaulted by scenes of herself having her head inflated and filled to bursting with fluid-filled sacs by one of her sister's concoctions; her skin turning blue, and nearly being blown up again by a duo of vials as they all prepared for school one day; her voice being deepened to the point that a jazz singer might be jealous of her smooth tones. With each viewing her blood worked itself up further and further. By the end of that particular tape she realized her chest was heaving with furious breaths.
  619.  
  620.     Having had enough of that particular topic, she moved on to the tailbone video. It was as bad as it sounded, but it revealed some details she would need to know. It had scarcely happened more than a year go, in an athletics-gone-wrong incident between a twelve-year old Lynn and ten-year old Lincoln. Her sister had thought it was a good idea to turn their brother onto skateboarding, even constructing a crude half-pipe in the backyard.
  621.  
  622.     Egging him on to perform increasingly questionable tricks, it was only a matter of time before he went too high, lost the board and came crashing down hard. Lynn had had the decency to look frightened and ashamed at what she'd let happen, but it was no excuse. 'Lincoln may be a boy, but he's not built for that kind of abuse. Not that it ever stopped you, Lynn, even when we were younger.' She had some research to do to show the jock just the type of pain their brother must feel on a daily basis.
  623.  
  624.     The humiliation video was a standard compilation format, a montage of the various ways in which his sisters had either caught him making a fool of himself or gone out of their way to tease and berate him. That familiar sickness in her stomach reared its ugly head, and she ripped the tape from the player, gathering them back up. As she made to climb the steps once more, she stopped dead in her tracks. 'I know I saw something move up there...' She made her way up carefully, but upon reaching the top there was naught to be found. Giving the dark hallway one last once-over, she spotted a silhouette against the wall between Lynn and the twins' rooms. Crouching low and stalking toward it, she prepared to pounce...only to find Cliff curled up in his typical spot.
  625.  
  626.     Fixing the feline with a deadpan stare, she spun to make for her original destination, and found herself face to floor with a waist-high apparition. Her voice failed her, but the clattering of tapes on the floor more than made up for it. Lucy slowly took a few steps back from her, head drifting down to observe the payload that had just been unleashed. "What are you doing with Luan's tapes?" The goth asked, her voice like a knife against china to Leni as she regained her ability to breathe.
  627.  
  628.     "W-what are you doing out of bed?" The blonde challenged, swearing internally at the stutter in her voice. She recalled seeing the clock read somewhere between 12:30 and 1:00 AM downstairs. 'Looks like some pest control might be in order after all.'
  629.  
  630.     "I always wake up around this time, to write down the horrors that haunt me in my darkest dreams." Leni's lip curled in disgust at the effort her sister put into looking and sounding like a wounded soul. "Now it's your turn. What is this?" Lucy demanded, pointing to the pile of plastic and film.
  631.  
  632.     This was the last thing Leni needed right now, and she considered blowing the eight-year old off completely, before remembering that the child had nearly revealed her role in the phone case before. 'Loose lips sink ships.' Rather than answer outright, she leaned down to sort out the Lincoln videos, and pushed them toward Lucy as an offering. "If you want dark material, take a look at what she's been filming." Picking up the rest of them, she marched past the other girl without waiting for a response. With her last trip to that damned closet complete for now, she considered making herself at home on the bunk bed before thinking better of it.
  633.  
  634.     'Best not to get trapped in enemy territory.' With that in mind, she stepped back into the hallway. Lucy had vanished, and the tapes with her. Her distaste replaced with a somewhat morbid curiosity, she descended the stairs to find the young girl in much the same position she'd occupied, huddled on the couch and taking in the awful treatment their favorite sibling had been subjected to. "It's something else, isn't it?" Though her voice was low, it somehow resounded through the room, and Lucy tuned into it immediately. "Like, just what could Luan get out of seeing Lincoln getting hurt, physically and emotionally?" It occurred to her, somewhere in the back of her mind, that she wasn't even trying to hide her new attitude.
  635.  
  636.     She couldn't bring herself to care.
  637.  
  638.     Lucy didn't speak, but she watched as Leni entered into their parents' bedroom, the door sealing shut with a decisive 'click.' The house had become immeasurably darker in the scant hours that their mother and father had been absent. It troubled the misunderstood girl, then, that it was a kind of darkness she couldn't bring herself to take any pleasure in.
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