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Velvet Fist - Act VII

Wrightfag Aug 30th, 2016 (edited) 5,227 Never
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  1.     The gentle pitter-patter of spring rain on the sides and windows of the house sang a soothing cadence as Lincoln emerged from slumber, still wrapped in Leni's arms under the thick quilt of their parents' bed. Disoriented at first by the unusual surroundings, the pinpricks of pain in his shoulders and scalp reminded him of yet another fateful encounter last night; his first glimpse of another side of his sister. 'Leni...what are we going to do?' He unhooked his arms from the pillow he'd latched onto during the night and settled them over his sister's, spurring her to draw him even closer in her sleep. Everything had seemed so epic last night, the climax of a quest that had begun four days hence. He'd felt so righteous as he boldly stepped into the lion's den to confront the fabled monster in whose embrace he was currently ensnared.
  2.  
  3.     Now, with a well-rested mind, he thanked his lucky stars that he wasn't waking up in a heap and bit his lip in agitation at a missed opportunity to question Leni when she was on the ropes. 'She won't give me that kind of chance again.' It wasn't just regret that undermined his previous confidence, for a lingering fear brought the image of her face etched with fury to his mind unbidden.
  4.  
  5.     The stories he'd heard from Luna and Lucy, coupled with what he himself had almost been subjected to, filled his head with vivid images that he tried to shake away. 'She stopped, though. She won't hurt me. She will not hurt me.' As he tried to convince himself of that, he glanced down to where his hands rested near hers. Somehow he had failed to notice the bandages around her knuckles, the cuts on her fingers and the chipped nails she would normally never allow to occur.
  6.  
  7.     As many times as he repeated the mantra in his head, it didn't change the fact that she already had, however briefly. If his other sisters were to be believed, though, then he'd almost literally gotten a slap on the wrist compared to some of them. 'She really took down Lori? I mean, Lucy said that it was because of her, but still...and Lynn, too.' Bar Luna, those two were the heaviest hitters in the house, and he began to understand how things had shifted so radically in just a couple of days. 'She was planning something like this. Ever since Friday, since I...since I...' His eyes clamped shut and he brought a hand up to rest on his head, willing the guilt away and failing quite miserably. 'This all happened because of me. I could have asked Lori, Mom or Dad before I just got rid of her medicine.'
  8.  
  9.     The same thoughts he'd had that night haunted him now that the blanks had been filled in. 'I'm just a kid...what was I thinking? What am I gonna do?' He was a child up against his older sister, a sister who had no reservations about physically and emotionally hurting her siblings. 'There's more to it than that, though, isn't there? She only went after Lori, Luan and Lynn; no one younger than me got hurt. But Lucy said that Leni said that she would...ugh!' Even knowing more now than ever before, he still knew too little. 'I came here to talk to her, and that's just what I'll have to do, even if there's nothing I can do to stop her.' With that somber determination in mind, he decided now perhaps would be the most opportune time to wake her up.
  10.  
  11.     "Lincoln."
  12.  
  13.     "AAAAH!" The boy tried to jump and shook in his sister's grip, which only tightened in response to his escape attempts. 'Oh god, oh god, not like this, not like this!'
  14.  
  15.     Leni settled her chin atop his head and pressed her knees forward into the back of his own, curling up even further and trapping him firmly in her grasp. Eyes still shut, she instead listened and felt as he began to settle down. A cold weight settled in her stomach at the thought that he was afraid of her now; that he had every right to be afraid of her. 'Lincoln...I should have just, like, sent you back last night...' Instead, she'd welcomed him at the worst possible time, the emotions and pains of her recent altercations still raw and ready to send her into another fit. He'd seen right through her, just like before, just like everyone did at one point or another. The look on his face as she'd forced him down...
  16.  
  17.     'He played me for a fool.'
  18.  
  19.     'He deserved it.'
  20.  
  21.     'I shouldn't have sto-'
  22.  
  23.     She breathed as deeply as she could and released the air through her nose, causing his hair to gently sway. "Lincoln," she whispered, unsure of how to begin. He knew now, and she knew it would only be a matter of time before that knowledge turned him on her. 'He promised, though. No matter what.' He remained silent, but she could feel him twitching in her embrace, eager to get away from her. 'He wants to leave. They all do, they all DID.' An ember flickered in her heart, threatening to spark into the anger that gave her the clarity she so desperately needed at the moment. 'If they didn't try to, like, abandon me, I wouldn't have to keep them here.' That was alright, though, because the only ones she needed were her brother and Lily. "Lincoln, please."
  24.  
  25.     Her voice, thick with intent and louder only than the rain outside, brought him down to a more manageable stress level. "Good morning, Leni," he limply offered, the majority of his efforts directed toward masking his anxiety. He was at her mercy now, and he wanted to believe that he was safe, HAD to believe in order to make this right. "Did you sleep alright?"
  26.  
  27.     It was a weak opener, but Leni was thankful nonetheless that he was even trying. "Yeah, thanks to you," she murmured, a small smile ghosting across her face before settling back into a thin line. "How about you?"
  28.  
  29.     "Me too," her brother assured. Playing it cool would help to set the mood and keep one or both of them from doing or saying anything they'd both regret. "Are you feeling a bit better than last night?" Her body tensed from head to toe, and he would have slapped himself if he'd been able. "W-what I mean is, you seemed, uh, a little upset before. And, I know that's my fault, but I-"
  30.  
  31.     "Who told you?" Her tone, sharper now if not higher in volume, cut through his awkward stammering. It was the only way he could have come at her like that last night, each question designed to get into her head. The pilot light of hatred she'd felt before bloomed at the thought that Lori or Luan had defied her, or that that little troublemaker Lucy had wormed out of the woodwork to try to ruin her. She drew him even closer to herself, consumed as she was by the desire to punish them for trying to take him away from her.
  32.  
  33.     Lincoln strained against the added pressure, sweat beading on his brow both from concern regarding his position and fear of incriminating one of his sisters. 'Oh man, why did I say anything?! I can't just NOT say something now, that'll get her even angrier!' This was what he had come here to do, though; no backing out. His throat, dry from a case of nerves and his prior rest, worked against him as he uttered, "Leni, it—it's not like that, I just meant-"
  34.  
  35.     Leni grit her teeth and began to flex her arms inward to show him she meant business. "Don't lie to me, Lincoln, please don't," she implored, finally opening her eyes to look past her brother and into the room. "I'm not mad at you," she assured as she loosened her hold once more, "but I need to know, like, what version of the story you heard." Both of those statements were true, though she had to assure herself of the former as much as him. 'He's just trying to help, it's not his fault that everyone in this house has to ruin everything for me. They're the ones using him.' Deciding to risk using his fear to her advantage, she threatened, "if I've got to find out myself-"
  36.  
  37.     "Luna," her brother surrendered, shame weighing heavily on his heart and mind. 'Luna at least is on her good side, but Lucy...she can't get involved with this.' Swallowing his pride and doubts, he explained, "she felt bad about the fight we had at dinner and about me having to switch rooms, so she told me a little bit about why." It was just vague enough that it could refer to yesterday's events, rather than the story of her life. 'Come on, just take it!'
  38.  
  39.     "A little bit about why that fight happened yesterday, or a little bit about why it had to?" No such luck. Her fears confirmed, the teen grimaced as she fumbled for a way to rationalize the punishments she'd doled out to her little brother. "Lincoln," she quietly began, "there's, like, a lot you don't know. Even past whatever Luna told you." She inwardly seethed at her younger sister's stupidity, but then, that seemed to be her theme now. 'Not even one day in and she's making this harder than it has to be.' Setting that frustration to one side, she finally released the young boy to sit up and draw her knees to her chest, much like she had the previous night. "Will you listen to my side of the story?"
  40.  
  41.     Propping himself up to join her, he positioned himself to sit at her side, the same position he'd taken when this ordeal was just beginning. "Of course I will." He'd helped to make this bed, and now he'd lie in it...well, sit in it, figuratively and literally. He looked on as the tension slowly eased out of his sister's posture, a sullen expression replacing the tightness in her face. 'She's so on edge, even around me...is this another part of how she was before?'
  42.  
  43.     The troubled blonde stared ahead toward the window, the rain outside giving her something to focus on other than the tale she was about to tell. Without knowing what exactly Luna had told him, she'd have to tell her brother as much as she could without jeopardizing their still-fragile bond. 'No lies, not for him. Not anymore.' Resting her eyes again, she reached out with her right hand to gently grasp Lincoln's, sighing in relief as his fingers curled around her own. 'Well, here goes everything...'
  44.  
  45.     Cracking her eyes open, she began, "well, it all started about six years ago. You were even younger than the twins are now, and there were only seven of us besides Mom and Dad. Me and Lori were just getting used to middle school, and Luna, Luan and Lynn were all just starting or finishing elementary. We helped take care of you guys since Dad was working two jobs then and Mom was pregnant with Lana and Lola. Lori was always a natural, you all hardly ever gave her any trouble, but..." She turned to take in the sight of her brother, a boy slowly growing into a man in his on right, just as she'd remarked on that night. "You and Luna were always good for me, but your sisters...they didn't care about anything I had to do or say. I tried to look out for them, and they just..."
  46.  
  47.     Lincoln watched with concern as she brought her free hand up to rub at her forehead, running it through her hair before letting it fall limp again. "I was, like, nothing to them. I was nothing to everyone, here at home, at school. Just Lori's dumb pretty sister or second place to Mom and Dad." Leni's grip on his hand tightened, but not painfully so, and she sucked in and released a heavy breath recalling how inadequate she'd felt; how inadequate she was made to feel. "No matter what I did, or how hard I tried, it was never good enough for anyone. I was never good enough. I got so sad, and then I got mad...I tried to talk to Lori about it, but she just blew me off, said I just needed to grow up and start acting like a big girl."
  48.  
  49.     The boy had to suppress a groan at their oldest sister's tough 'love'. Lori had always been exceedingly kind with them until they were old enough to walk and talk, at which point she expected them to carry themselves as if they were as old as her. 'Maybe it's just because she had to help out with all of us, but still, if someone's talking about the kind of stuff Leni was, IS talking about...' The sister beside him seemed ready to continue though, so he simply squeezed her hand to express his support.
  50.  
  51.     Glancing over and offering him a tired smile, Leni's eyes fell as she arrived to the consequential part of her story. "Since I couldn't count on Lori, I ended up getting close with Luna, kind of like you and I have these past few days. It felt like you two were the only ones who cared about me, and, like, that was enough for a while. Luan and Lynn got older, though, and they started with their jokes and sports. If you think things get crazy around here now, ugh...imagine if they were even less mature than they are now." Lincoln couldn't help but crack a grin at that, before it soured again remembering just what had happened to them in the past two days. "Luan, always with her stupid spider toy and her pranks. Lynn breaking everything in the house and every bone in her body."
  52.  
  53.     Even as her eyes narrowed into a glare, her mouth seemed to want to smile as she lamented, "I wanted to like that stuff with them, to try and join in with Luan's comedy or look out for Lynn with her sports and junk. After they each got their own thing going, though, they wanted even less to do with me. They completely blew me off, and Luan started going after me when she figured out how easy it was to scare me. Mom and Dad didn't care, they were too busy working or having more kids." Her eyes shot open slightly at that last bit, and she quickly amended, "not that more kids was a bad thing!" Seeing the confusion and the specter of hurt in Lincoln's eyes, Leni quietly continued, "you have to have noticed it. They can barely pay any of us any attention, I mean, Mom even forgot there were, like, eleven of us! You heard her!"
  54.  
  55.     Lincoln bit his lip at the memory, both of their perceived abandonment and the great struggle he'd had to put up for even five minutes of their time. "They still love us, though, they always make time for us eventually..."
  56.  
  57.     Leni averted her gaze, mouth forming into a thin line as she ruminated on that sentiment. "Yeah, well, 'eventually' never came for me. They wouldn't make Luan and Lynn behave, so," she licked her chapped lips and winced as her tongue ran over a small cut from her fight with Lori, "so...I did." She chanced another look in her brother's direction, quickly turning away again at the worry on his face, the judgement, judging her- 'no, he isn't like that, he isn't like them.' Shaking her head to rid herself of those thoughts, the teen pressed on, "I just wanted them to behave, like Lori got them to, like she told ME to. Whenever I talked to them, though, they, like, completely blew me off. It got worse at school, too, I was so angry and out of it that no one wanted anything to do with me. Other than you and Luna, I was alone, and it just went downhill."
  58.  
  59.     Her hands fisted in her nightgown as she recalled the humiliation she'd been subjected to. "I got into a couple fights at school with girls who messed with me because I was turning into a loner, and fights with Luan and Lynn at home when they got totally out of control. Lori always took their side, though. I guess Mom and Dad cared enough about it to send ME to a therapist to see what was wrong with me." Bitterness consumed her as she bit, "they never cared before, when I was trying to help, but God forbid I stand up for myself or try to get them not to act like animals..." She wiped at the moisture building in her eyes as she explained, "after that I stopped fighting for a while, instead I tried to, like, teach them a lesson about how they were acting. I got rid of some of Lynn's sports equipment, hid Luan's props. Luna didn't like that I was messing with them, though, and she told on me, which got me into even more trouble."
  60.  
  61.     Lincoln filed that bit of information away for later. 'So there actually was stuff Luna didn't tell me. If it was just tattling, though, I wouldn't think it'd be that big a deal.' Still, both of their stories lined up so far, so it stood to reason that Luna had likely omitted most of her role to get him on her side in helping Leni.
  62.  
  63.     "Finally," Leni's breath hitched, "finally they started talking about medicine, and I just, like, wanted to be done with it." Her face became a passive mask even as the tears flowed from her eyes in complete silence. "They gave me one more chance to 'turn things around' at Carol Pingrey's party. I'd gotten into a fight with her at some point, I can't even remember what over. Lori was going, and they decided I would go so I could apologize to her. Luna wanted to go too, and she asked me if I could convince Lori. I had to beg her to let Luna come, and finally she said yes."
  64.  
  65.     "We got there, and Carol, Lori and her stupid friends watched and ate it all up as I apologized. Meanwhile, some of the others were picking on Luna, and Lori...Lori said that it was what Luna should have expected for coming to a big kids party." Her eyes flew open and she unconsciously crushed Lincoln's hand in her own, unable to hear his cry of pain through her own memories as she railed, "what kind of big sister would blame her little sister for some stupid shit that HER friend's friends pulled?! That was when I realized that she was completely fucked, that's when-"
  66.  
  67.     "Leni," Lincoln yelped, "let go, please!" He tried to yank his hand away, and the motions brought Leni back to reality. She quickly released him, and he cradled his aching hand in the other as he tried to rub the pain away. "Leni, it's alright, it-" he turned to face her as he spoke, only to find her scooting away from him, hands cupped to her mouth and fear in her eyes.
  68.  
  69.     The blonde began to reach toward him, only to jerk her hand away again when he turned fully toward her. "L-Lincoln, I—I didn't mean to, I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Once again she'd set herself up for failure, and now he was going to walk away from her, walk into their arms and turn on her and put her back because it would be fitting for the one who saved her to put her back-
  70.  
  71.     Getting his wits about him once more, Lincoln made a show of flexing his fingers to show that his hand was alright as he began to crawl toward her. "Leni, it's alright, I'm alright! It's okay, just calm down-"
  72.     ["Leni Loud, if you don't calm down this INSTANT-"]
  73.  
  74.     "Stay AWAY from me!" Leni swung in a wide arc in front of her, sending him reeling back and backing away in the opposite direction. Realizing what she'd just done, she threw herself after him, "nonono, wait, don't go! Lincoln, please, don't...don't leave..." Tremors wracked her body as her moods overwhelmed her, her own voice warring against his and those of their sisters in her ears as she watched him lean away from her.
  75.  
  76.     Lincoln would be a liar if he said he wasn't terrified at the emotional switchback he'd just witnessed. 'This is what she's been dealing with this whole time? This is what they were all afraid of...I mean, I didn't know, no one told us...' That fear mixed with shame at what had happened to his sisters because of him. 'I should have found out more, I could have helped her, we all could have...' Should- and could-haves wouldn't fix things now, though. Wrestling down his guilt and ignoring his instincts to run, he focused on making sure no more damage could be done. "Leni, everything is alright, it's okay," the boy whispered, cautiously approaching her again. She reminded him of Lana's pet snake, her whole body tensing and coiling in anticipation of attacking or being attacked.
  77.  
  78.     'She isn't just angry or sad, she's afraid,' he concluded as he came close enough to reach out and touch her. 'Afraid that they're gonna take her away again.' With a head topped with white hair due to stress, he could understand how living in fear like that would cause someone to make some seriously bad decisions. As his sister watched him with trepidation, he reached out with the hand she'd injured to gingerly grasp the one she'd injured it with. She initially tugged away, but not enough to break the connection, and he went on to thread his smaller fingers between her own, resting his palm against hers. "You don't have to be afraid of me, Leni," he spoke in a firm but warm tone, "I'm not gonna hurt you, and I'm not gonna leave either."
  79.  
  80.     Leni could no longer control her emotions even if she'd wanted to, and she gathered him up with her other arm, resting her chin on his shoulder and quietly crying. "H-how do you do it, Lincoln?" The question caught him off guard, and he opted to return the embrace and use his free hand to rub up and down her back as she rambled, "how do you just let everything go? Everything that they do to you, that I do to you, how...how do you not hate us?"
  81.  
  82.     The implicit meaning in her question wasn't lost on Lincoln. 'She included herself in that question, which means...does she hate herself...?' As awful as it made him feel, that meant there was still hope. 'She knows what she did was wrong, she knows she's supposed to feel sorry for it. If she really hated them she wouldn't feel any of that, right? We can still do this, we can actually do it!' Awkwardly holding her in his arms, he allowed her a few moments to get herself back in order before softly answering, "I could never hate you, or any of the others. We all do stuff we wish we could take back, even me, but we all forgive each other because we love each other. No matter what happens, I know you guys will always be there for me, and I'll always be here for you."
  83.  
  84.     There was nothing she could say in the face of her brother's love, so she simply held onto him as if her life depended on it. They were the words she wished she'd heard for so many years, from so many people. For the first time in her life, they drove her hatred back and began to make her reconsider the things she had done four years ago—the things she had done over the past four days. "You wouldn't f-forgive me if you really understood what I did, what I had to do...I had to do it, I really did," she choked out, her better judgement skewed by her roiling thoughts and feelings.
  85.  
  86.     Unsure whether his reassurance would be accepted for what it was, Lincoln simply hugged her closer, letting her lose herself in the embrace again. "Leni," he asked after a short while, "I know it's hard right now, but...if you're alright with it, I want to hear the rest of your story." Her nails tugged slightly at his shirt at the mention of it, but that was the extent of her physical reaction toward him.
  87.  
  88.     The great majority of Leni's focus and energy went into remaining as still as humanly possible, lest she say, do or even think anything that would go even further toward ruining Lincoln's opinion of her. 'This is all wrong, he shouldn't be here, I shouldn't have let him come here.' Taking several calming breaths, she reluctantly pulled away from him, her face a portrait of remorse. "I know you won't leave, Linc, but I...now isn't, like, the best time..."
  89.  
  90.     Panic chased through Lincoln's body as he saw the situation getting away from him. "No, this is a great time! This is the best time to talk-"
  91.  
  92.     "No, Lincoln," she rejected in a warning but maternal tone, the same kind he'd heard Lori and their mother use. "Even if you say you're alright with what just happened, I'm not. I just need some time to...get it together, alright?" He still didn't look satisfied, and she had to admire his determination as she offered, "as soon as I do though, you'll be, like, the first person I go to. Is that okay?"
  93.  
  94.     Her brother deflated as the opportunity to dig deeper into this issue slipped through his fingers. 'I barely figured out anymore than I did with Luna or Lucy, except how she really feels about the others...' Lori, Luan and Lynn weren't always the most sensitive of his siblings, especially when they were younger, but he'd never considered their horseplay and tough talk worthy of retribution. It seemed that his sister as in the perfectly wrong mood to continue, though, and so he relented, "I'll hold you to it, alright?"
  95.  
  96.     She answered him with a sad smile that, together with her tired eyes, made her seem much older than she really was. "Alright." A thick tension began to fill the air, a tension she couldn't stand existing between the two of them. "I-I'm going to, like, get some breakfast going," she decided as they both noticed the room was lit well enough for the sun to be up.
  97.  
  98.     As she took flight from the bed, Lincoln made to join her, similarly bothered by the uncomfortable divide that had formed. "I'll help, let me just-"
  99.  
  100.     "I want you to wait here, Lincoln," she cut in, "in case Lily wakes up." It was a true enough request, and that way she didn't have to explain that she didn't want anyone else who might be up seeing him leaving that particular room.
  101.  
  102.     Earlier he would have argued, but the boy felt exhausted now despite the sleep he'd just enjoyed, and he slumped back onto the bed. "Alright..."
  103.  
  104.     Leni turned the doorknob, pausing just long enough to compromise, "I'll come get you in a few minutes." A small thrill, this time of humor rather than hatred, filled her at the look on his face as she suggested, "I need someone to, like, wake everyone up, after all."
  105.  
  106.     "Great, we know how well that went last time." He rolled his eyes in case the sarcasm in his voice wasn't enough, but he was smiling by the end of it. A flicker of that good-natured banter restored, he rolled over and looked toward the crib and his sleeping youngest sister as he heard the door click shut behind him.
  107.  
  108.     With a defeated sigh he asked, "what am I gonna do now, Lily? It looks like I messed things up again..."
  109.    
  110. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  111.  
  112.     Lori's eyes twitched as she began to stir, unable and unwilling to rise and meet the day...night...morning? If she had thought her arms were in pain before, the heat now lancing from her back and shoulder blades all the way to her elbows ensured she wouldn't be pulling any of the heavy lifting around the house for some time. She'd ended up on her back at some point after falling asleep, and she squinted to stare toward the ceiling in her darkened room as a pair of hands grabbed insistently at her shirt, specifically her bre-
  113.  
  114.     She yelped as she grabbed the offending gropers, sitting ramrod straight to see Lisa pouting next to her. "Lisa? What are...oh. Oh..."
  115.  
  116.     The four-year old struggled against her hold to reach toward her chest. "I-I'm h-hungry, m-m-mommy," she whined, squirming to get closer to Lori.
  117.  
  118.     The teen was creeped out at first, both from the concept of what her sister was asking for and the fact that she was asking for it in the first place. That discomfort quickly shifted to a range of emotions as yesterday's events added to her physical distress. Pity, for Lisa and herself ending up as they were; anger, at Leni and herself for causing this to happen; fear, for her family and herself as it began to sink in that something truly horrible had been done to the girl in bed with her.
  119.  
  120.     "Shh, come here, sweetie," she cooed, putting every bit of her resolve and endurance into lifting her arm just far enough to envelope Lisa in a hug. "I'll get you something, just gotta get," a loud yawn interrupted her, "up and at'em." Shifting around to plant her feet on the ground, she stood, arms nearly giving out with a pained grunt as she turned to set her ward onto the warm bed she'd vacated. "Now, don't you go anywhere, I'll be back with something good." She forced a smile onto her face and booped her sister on the nose, a stuttering giggle her reward. She wrapped the blankets snugly around Lisa and began her trek to the kitchen.
  121.  
  122.     Quietly opening and closing her door, she stopped just outside and rested her back on it, eyes downcast and bitterness welling within her. 'Leni, you went too far this time...the rest of us could fight back, but she's just a baby...' It was so easy to forget when Lisa was speaking or performing her experiments, but she really was almost on the same level as Lily in every other way. Her hands flexed at her sides, and she shook slightly at the thought of how wrong it had all gone. There was nothing she hated more then feeling helpless, unable to control what was going on around her, and now she'd reached rock bottom.
  123.  
  124.     She lifted her gaze to the door in front of her, to Luna and Luan's room...no, Luna and Lincoln's room, now. 'You too. How could you do something like this, Luna?' The rocker had always been Leni's partner in crime before that day four years ago drove them all apart, but Lori had thought that Luna appreciated the severity of what their sister had been doing.
  125.  
  126.     There would be time for brooding and reflection as soon as she'd prepared something for Lisa, though. 'Isn't she a little old to be trying to go for...that?' There was no way of telling what mental state Lisa had regressed to beyond believing Lori was her mother and the more age-appropriate speech. It occurred to her that Lisa hadn't eaten anything since at least breakfast the previous morning, though, so it could just be the sheer need for any kind of sustenance. A new urgency in her stride, she descended the stairs and drifted into the kitchen, where she found that someone had gotten into some leftover pizza and left it on the counter.
  127.  
  128.     Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that not only had she not eaten yesterday, but everything from the day before had ended up in the toilet. Gritting her teeth, she reached up to pull a cupboard door open and grab some plates. "I wonder which one of them cooked this," she hissed as she recalled Lynn's predicament. It didn't look like much of it had been touched...Lori carefully turned on her good foot toward the refrigerator, only for the plate to crash to the floor as she stumbled back from her next-youngest sister.
  129.  
  130.     Standing in the doorway to the dining room, Leni considered her frightened companion with an unimpressed expression. "I thought I told you to, like, stay in your hole." The last thing she needed right now was a confrontation with what was arguably her most idiotic sister, especially now that Lincoln and the rest of the house had likely heard the commotion.
  131.  
  132.     Even with her back against the counter, a complete reversal of their encounter two days ago, Lori managed a defiant glare. "I'm not here for me, not that you care, I need to get something for L-"
  133.  
  134.     "Lori?" Lincoln's voice caused Leni to jump much the same way their older sister had, and she couldn't keep her own heated gaze hidden as she whirled around to face him. Taking an unconscious step back, he sputtered, "I-I'm sorry, I heard the crash and I thought maybe you fell..."
  135.  
  136.     The anger quickly melted from Leni's face. 'Of course he'd worry about that...' Cursing her luck, she offered him an apologetic look before turning back to Lori, who was watching the scene unfold with undisguised concern and disgust. "Get what you came for and leave, you can come back when I send for you." She turned to Lincoln again, halting his rebuttal with a stern expression.
  137.  
  138.     Unwilling to risk Lincoln getting caught up in their tit-for-tat, the oldest sibling answered, "right...sorry." Opening the fridge to collect a pair of pudding cups, Lori snatched some spoons from the utensil drawer and edged her way past the two of them, her eyes lingering on her bother's troubled face as she passed.
  139.  
  140.     Once the footsteps receded up to the second floor, Leni huffed and puffed at yet another complication rearing her ugly head. Proceeding into the kitchen, she snapped her fingers and summoned Lincoln to follow her. He slowly entered the room, and she tucked away yet another flash of anger to address him in a civil manner. "Don't worry about that, she and I just need to, like, have a talk. A long, serious talk."
  141.  
  142.     Lincoln didn't disagree, but he wondered if that talk would include the bruises on Lori's face. 'Lucy didn't tell me she'd gotten it THAT bad!' It looked less like the two had fought and more like Leni had just gone to town on her!
  143.  
  144.     Leni picked up on his wavelength, and she began collecting the necessary tools to fix the simplest thing she could think of. "Well, now that you two are out and about, would you mind getting everyone else?" It looked as if he was about to bolt, and she halted him with an assertive voice, "I want everyone down here, Lincoln, alright?"
  145.  
  146.     "I...yeah, I'll...be right back," he obeyed with a somber tone, a tone that his sister tried to block out. He traced Lori's path through the dining room and up the stairs, thankfully missing the sound of Leni's fist colliding with the counter. Hanging a right at the top, he tried to cheer himself up for the rest of his sisters' sake.
  147.  
  148.     'It's a weird thing when a man has to knock on his own door,' Lincoln mused as he arrived at his bedroom. He rapped that familiar five-knock sequence, and just as he'd hoped two air-horn blasts were only slightly muffled by the door. There was a quiet thud and some grumbling before the door cracked open just enough for an eye to peek through. "Good morning, Luan! I trust the, uh, accommodations were acceptable?"
  149.  
  150.     With a weary sigh, the brunette opened the door, quickly grabbing him by the arm and pulling him in before roughly shutting it again. "Morning, Lincoln," she managed through a long yawn. His small bed creaked under her weight as she released him to sit down on it, grabbing a handful of her hair to start working some of the knots out of it. "Did everything go alright over there?"
  151.  
  152.     He assumed she meant his night with Luna, and decided it would be wiser to let her believe that that's what it was. "Oh, you know how it is, a little hard to sleep with the jams going on but not impossible." He took a moment to examine Luan more closely as she began to relax, and noticed the telltale signs of a sleepless night; circles under her eyes, an irritable twitch in her movements, eyelids resting for longer than necessary. "Are you sure you're alright?"
  153.  
  154.     "I'm sure, Linc," she lied, turning away from him to pretend she had something to focus on near the window. "And how was...she?" The fourteen-year old had barely slept a wink, knowing that Leni and Luna were out there doing lord knows what in the dead of night. Luna's betrayal stung to the core now that it'd had time to sink in, and she couldn't even bring herself to utter her former roommate's name.
  155.  
  156.     Recalling the way their older sister had behaved the previous night, Lincoln searched for a way to make this one feel better without giving up Luna's game. "I think she had a hard time sleeping too, or getting to sleep at least. I don't think she really knew what to do without you there." Luan favored him with a disbelieving look, and he wished he could just tell her everything, much like he had when he'd first discovered Leni's better and worse natures. "Anywaaay," he trailed off, knowing she wouldn't like what she heard next, "...anyway, Leni's, uh, fixing breakfast right now."
  157.  
  158.     The girl clenched her teeth, only to yelp slightly as the lower set pressed against her cracked front pair. She held out a hand to halt Lincoln before he could rush up to her, covering her mouth as she fumed, "thanks for the offer, but I'll have to fast." Despite the joke, there was little joy in her voice.
  159.  
  160.     Her brother rubbed at the back of his head as he reluctantly informed her, "well, the thing is, she 'insisted' that everyone be there."
  161.  
  162.     Luan closed her eyes to open them a moment later with a despondent half-lidded stare. "Fine. Let me get changed." Lincoln retreated from the room, offering one last contrite look before closing the door again. They could talk about the tapes and her 'issues', as Leni described them, later. With her crossed off the list, he turned to Lisa's door, knocking a few times. There was no answer, as was often the case, but it didn't sound like there was anything commanding her attention at the moment. Knocking again, he listened for the grumbling that always preceded her appearance. 'Nothing, really? Is she still asleep?'
  163.  
  164.     Risking a dose of her scientific wrath, he carefully opened the door, only to find the room devoid of any life. Shelving that particular phrasing, he perused the room to confirm that there were, in fact, no toddlers to be found. "Huh...where would she be this early, though? She shouldn't have any lectures to give, right?" Shrugging at the missing link, he about-faced to wake the twins. As soon as he knocked the first time, the door flew open to reveal Lana, a small herd of animals clustered around her legs and wrapped around her head and arms. "Hey, Lana. It's time for breakfast, is Lola up?"
  165.  
  166.     Eyes shifting back and forth in a nervous manner, the six-year old shook her head. "Nah, not just yet...say, you haven't seen Leni around, have you?"
  167.  
  168.     The boy's confusion regarding her attitude became flavored with a sprinkle of concern. "Well, she's the one fixing breakfast. Why?" He hadn't heard anything to suggest that Leni had done anything to the twins, at least not yet.
  169.  
  170.     "No real reason, I guess," his sister evaded, "it's just, these guys have been getting really antsy around her." She looked down to Charles, Cliff and Geo at her feet, as well as Walt perched on her head, Izzy on her shoulder, Hops cradled in one arm and El Diablo wrapped around the other. Nearly all of them looked about with some form of anxiety, and it reminded Lincoln of those stories about animals predicting disasters before they struck. "Plus, everyone's been acting completely crazy since yesterday morning. Well, crazier than usual."
  171.  
  172.     They both chuckled for a moment, before Lincoln carefully maneuvered to pat the girl on a shoulder that wasn't covered in scales or slime. "Hey, it'll be alright. Your big bro's here now, and I won't let a little bit of crazy ruin a good meal." Never mind that it had just last night, but Lana seemed more comfortable with the idea, and that was enough for him. "I'll let you take care of Lola, don't want a repeat of Friday morning." She saluted him with her free hand, and he returned it before moving to the next stop on his list.
  173.  
  174.     Arriving at Lynn and Lucy's door, he gave a courtesy knock before taking hold of the knob. Lynn wouldn't be answering at all, most likely, and he wasn't sure if Lucy was in the room to do so. He met with some familiar resistance, and paused as he tried to judge what was pressed up against the door. Nothing too heavy, if the younger of the roommates was responsible for it. Managing to wedge the door open slightly, he called in, "Lynn? Lucy? Are you guys awake?"
  175.  
  176.     Lynn's awful snoring gave him no doubt about her situation, but some quiet shuffling from within moved closer to the door before he heard the catching of wood on carpet. Unfortunately, he'd still been braced against the door as this was happening, which sent him falling through and onto the younger of the two. Quickly jumping back up, he helped Lucy to her feet before backing up a step as she dusted off her nightshirt. "Sorry about that, Luce, are y-"
  177.  
  178.     His apology was cut off as she pulled him into the room much the same way Luan had, before looking and patting him up and down. He was preparing to speak when her hands ran over his shoulders, earning a small wince from him. "I knew it," she accused with a preternatural edge to her voice, "you shouldn't have gone." She drew her hands away from him as if she'd been burned, and instead pushed the door closed and set the nightstand back up against it.
  179.  
  180.     "Lucy..." Lincoln knew that she felt guilty for what happened to Lori, but he had hoped his assurances last night would be enough to stop her from feeling the same way about him. "It's not that bad, just a scratch! And it was worth it in the end." Her head cocked to one side as she turned to him again, much like Charles's would when he was confused. "I learned a lot last night and this morning, and I think I know how to start making things right around here."
  181.  
  182.     Her lips tightened with doubt, and she trudged back to her bed ahead of the big reveal. Crawling onto it, she sat cross-legged as she informed him, "I learned a lot too, listening to you two. It's not that easy to just change, though, Lincoln." Anyone else might have called her on that statement regarding her goth 'phase', but not her big brother.
  183.  
  184.     "Listening to...you were eavesdropping on us?!" He slapped a hand over his face. 'How could I forget the bathroom vent?! It leads right to the bedroom down there, ANYONE could have heard us...' Dragging it down and away, he focused on the here and now. "Well, I can't really complain about that, I've done it. But that's not the point! Leni knows that what she did is wrong, she just doesn't know what to DO about it."
  185.  
  186.     "Gee, I don't know, maybe not milling through us like a reaper's scythe?" The whole ordeal thus far had gotten the young girl waxing poetic again, something that Lincoln was both grateful and disturbed about. "She even hurt you, Lincoln! She's not going to stop, and if what you said and what I heard is true, she can't stop." Lucy looked to his hand, the same hand that their older sister had crushed during their talk earlier, and she reached out to grasp it before drawing back at the last second. "Don't let her fool you, she got this far by lying to all of us."
  187.  
  188.     Even after their heart to heart last night, Lincoln didn't realize just how much thought she'd put into what was going on. His eyes drifted to Lynn, who had apparently suffered at Leni's hands as well, and it became clear to him that she had been impacted as much as everyone else, albeit indirectly. "Lucy..." He looked down at her again and set his hands on her shoulder in much the same way as she had with him just then. "This is as much my fault as Leni's, but we're going to make it right. I promise."
  189.  
  190.     The goth placed her left hand over his left, the one he had been favoring, as she considered his words. So far as she could remember, Lincoln had never broken a promise to her, but the odds he was up against to keep this one seemed impossible to beat. 'Still, if anyone can do it, it's him.' "I hope you're right, Lincoln...I'll be down for breakfast, but I'm not sure if she'll be feeling up to it," she cocked her head to one side to indicate her roommate.
  191.  
  192.     "How did you know...right, right, you were listening in," Lincoln remembered, narrowing his eyes in an exaggerated manner at her before grinning at her lopsided smile. "I've still gotta get Luna and Lori, so I'll see you down there, 'kay?" She nodded her assent, and he began to squeeze back through the door when a small hand caught his sleeve. He turned back to see a rarely seen pair of eyes looking up at him. "Lucy?"
  193.  
  194.     A look of determination greeted him, and in that monotone way of hers she declared, "Lincoln, whatever you decide to do, I'll be there for you. I remember what you said last night, and...I think it's worth it too."
  195.  
  196.     The two of them shared a knowing smile at the understanding, and she released him without another word as he continued down the hallway to Luna's room. He didn't bother knocking since he was supposed to have been there anyway. Luna was seated on the bottom bunk, restringing her guitar and mumbling to herself, when she noticed him enter.
  197.  
  198.     Setting her axe to one side, she sprung forward before he could even utter a greeting. "DUDE! You can't just leave like that without tellin' me!" He recoiled slightly as her face nearly collided with his. "I told you we've gotta keep this under wraps, bro!"
  199.  
  200.     "I know, I'm sorry," he said as he put his hands up to hold her at bay, "I just...I needed to find some things out for myself."
  201.  
  202.     The teen stepped back and ran a hand through her hair before glancing to the side. "I know, bro. Just keep me in the loop next time, y'hear?" He nodded in affirmation, and she finally sported a smile. "Cool. So, what's the dealio? And what did you get out of her?" He shared the story he'd heard from her perspective, as well as the breakfast plans. "If it weren't for what those pills did to her, she might not even be mad about that stuff anymore, or at least not so mad that she'd-" She managed to catch herself before she got into too many details on yesterday's events.
  203.  
  204.     "She's still mad, and sad too, but the way she was acting...I think she knows that she made a mistake. And that means she might want to fix it, right?"
  205.  
  206.     "Right, bro," Luna confirmed, glad to see that he'd managed to break through where she'd failed so far. "We've got a couple days to get her there, so let's just try to keep things steady."
  207.  
  208.     The two of them shared a nod before she sent him off with word that she'd be down shortly. Only a few seconds later he was facing Lori's door, the earlier confrontation fresh in his mind. There was no doubt the door would be locked, so instead he called, "Lori, it's me. We're making breakfast, you should come down." There was some small commotion inside, and what sounded like...a baby? "Are you watching videos or something?"
  209.  
  210.     A moment later, he heard from within the room, "g-go ahead, I'll be down in a few minutes."
  211.  
  212.     He waited a moment before weakly shrugging his shoulders and trudging back toward the stairs, meeting Luan and the twins along the way. Lana jumped onto his back, nearly sending the two of them tumbling down the stairs and requiring the other two to save them. "I'm tired after playing all day yesterday, you can carry me. That'll make us even."
  213.  
  214.     Despite the near-death experience Lincoln chuckled and asked, "just right now, or the whole day?" Not a second later he slapped his hand over his mouth as as Lola guffawed at his idiocy and Luan even cracked a small smile.
  215.  
  216.     "Well, now that you mention it..."
  217.  
  218.     Their banter carried downstairs and into the dining room, Lana finally dismounting her steed for the moment so Lincoln could join Leni in the kitchen. He found her slaving over the stovetop, a pot of oatmeal and a pan of french toast demanding her attention. "You want help with that?"
  219.  
  220.     "What? Oh, yeah, thanks!" The two of them slipped into a rhythm similar to the one they'd found Saturday morning, though it missed a few beats here and there as they tried to find a comfortable way of working around each other while focusing on what was happening in the adjacent room.
  221.  
  222.     Upstairs, Lori watched with a bemused smile as Lisa enjoyed her treat, being as meticulous as possible to excavate as much of the dessert from her cup as she could. "I guess that much didn't change, at least, you're literally the most thorough person in this house."
  223.  
  224.     Lisa beamed at her, only for her eyes to land on her sister's untouched snack. "Y-you eat t-t-too, m-mommy," she implored, standing and trundling over to her, "g-gotta eat to g-grow up b-big and stht-stht-sthtrong," she struggled with the last word, the combination of the lisp and stutter getting the better of her. She puffed up her cheeks and patted at them with her hands, stammering "s-s-th, sth-th! I-I sth-sthound w-wrong, mommy," she lamented.
  225.  
  226.     Lori's eyes hooded over, and she collected the second pudding cup to hand to the young girl. "You sound perfect, sweetie," she answered with a warm note to her voice, "you have this, I'll be alright."
  227.  
  228.     The four-year old looked unsure at first, but childish glee won out in the end as she accepted the offering. "Th-thank you, m-mommy! C-c-can we p-play after thisth? I w-want to p-p-play sth-sth-sthcientistht!" That glee was watered down by the sudden sadness on her 'mommy's face. "W-what'sth w-wrong, mommy? W-wasth I b-b-bad?"
  229.  
  230.     Shock coursed through the blonde's veins, and she urgently assured Lisa, "no, no! You weren't bad, Lisa, never!" She grabbed a fistful of her hair, giving it a slight tug to get herself focused again as she bitterly remembered, "someone was, though, and I've got to go deal with them." Favoring the toddler with a smile, she asked, "can you be good for just a little bit while mo—w-while I go downstairs?" She'd nearly slipped, and if Lisa was going to get over this she needed to be consistent. "I promise we'll play when I get back, alright?"
  231.  
  232.     A similar smile that almost seemed to big for Lisa's face appeared as she squealed, "y-y-yay! I-I'll b-be good, mommy, p-p-promisthe." She made a shaky cross over her heart, and Lori couldn't help but giggle along with her before she stopped down to give her baby sister a kiss on the forehead.
  233.  
  234.     "That's my good girl," she cooed, resigning herself to her fate as she opened and closed the door behind her before carefully making her way down the steps.
  235.  
  236.     Soon enough, Lincoln and Leni were serving everyone except Lynn and Lisa. Leni disappeared long enough to collect Lily, who was now well awake and babbling in anticipation of her morning meal. As soon as Lori entered the room, everyone other than Leni cringed at the state she was in. The bruises on her face did her no favors in the light, even with the small amount of makeup she'd applied to try and cover it. Her arms rested at her sides, but they were held in an odd sort of rigor to keep them from moving too much. Luan jumped up from her seat to pull Lori's out, and the oldest sister offered her a small but grateful smile as she sat down.
  237.  
  238.     Eying her former tormentor up and down like a tenderized slab of meat, Lola quipped, "looks like someone didn't get their beauty sleep. Right, Leni?" She swung her head to bat her eyelashes at the second-oldest sister, their previous rapport not forgotten. It also helped that she and Leni were the only two in the house who really took the concept of 'beauty sleep' seriously.
  239.  
  240.     The teen answered, "you're, like, totes right, Lola." She didn't take her eyes off of Lori as she spoke. Lori, for her part, did her best to look unfazed, though Luan and Lucy looked angry enough on her behalf.
  241.  
  242.     The seating arrangements were much the same as they had been the previous night, though Lori now occupied the opposite end of the table from Leni, with Luan at her right and Lucy at her left. With the twins in the middle, the table was clearly divided into camps, Lincoln realized; the conquerors, and the conquered. It reminded him of his comics, except he was still trying to piece together the happy ending to this story. "So, how is everyone doing this morning?"
  243.  
  244.     If it were still evening, the crickets would have been having a riot, and luckily for him there was someone at the table who could appreciate that. "This place has been 'positively' electric, but that's not really shocking then, is it?" Luan didn't look up from her food, but it was clear what — who — she was referring to. The rest of the table began to dig in in earnest, Lana and Lola trying to make small talk as everyone ate.
  245.  
  246.     Everyone except for Lori and Lucy.
  247.  
  248.     It didn't escape Leni or Lincoln's attention that the two of them were eying their food with no small amount of trepidation. So far as Lincoln knew, only the four of them and Lisa were aware of any reason to be concerned about the food. Bringing it up was only likely to cause a disaster, so he kept his trap shut, pleading with his eyes for them to budge.
  249.  
  250.     At last he was rewarded, though not in the way he'd hoped. After a short staring contest with her bowl of oatmeal, Lucy pushed it toward the center of the table, almost immediately inciting Leni's ire.
  251.  
  252.     The new matriarch's fork harshly clattered against her plate as she slammed it down. "Eat your breakfast, Lucy. Lincoln and I worked, like, really hard for all of you."
  253.  
  254.     "I'm not hungry," the eight-year old scoffed as she folded her arms. Leni's eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared as her hands gripped the edge of the table. If one of them started disrespecting her, the others would follow, and then there'd be an even worse mess on her hands.
  255.  
  256.     Her anger increased fourfold when Lori pushed her own plate to the side. "I'm kind of with her on this one, honestly, this is just too much," Lori added, putting some extra emphasis on 'too much.'
  257.  
  258.     "Maybe if you didn't ruin your appetite with dessert like a little kid earlier, that wouldn't be an issue," Leni seethed, her lip twitching and threatening to curl into a grin. "Speaking of little kids..." She savored the way Lori's eyes flashed in recognition before juking her, "Lucy. I'm not going to tell you again, eat your food."
  259.  
  260.     With the grownups focused on each other, Lana whispered to Lola, "what's going on? Did I miss something?"
  261.  
  262.     The brattier twin replied, "I don't know, but I kind of like it."
  263.  
  264.     Luna decided to interject, "alright, no need to get worked up over a little morning meal! Right, Linc?" She not-so-inconspicuously winked at him, and it was all he could do not to look the opposite direction.
  265.  
  266.     "Right, Luna! It's really good, Lucy, see?" The boy took a heaping bite of his french toast, making an exaggerated amount of eye contact with his younger sister as he did so. Her lips quivered at the sight, while Lori continued to glare at the pair of teens at the other side of the table.
  267.  
  268.     "I wouldn't try too hard, Linc," Luan droned, "I think everyone here's about as burnt as this toast." She lifted her food for added effect, the only brunt serving among them.
  269.  
  270.     Lana stood on the seat of her chair, motioning toward Lucy as she offered, "I'll take that off your hands if you don't want it!"
  271.  
  272.     "No fair, Lana, you always get seconds! And thirds! What if I wanted some?"
  273.  
  274.     The older twin looked at her companion with an utterly condescending gaze as she countered, "didn't you just go on another diet twenty minutes ago?" As they began to argue, Lucy pulled the bowl of oatmeal back toward her, fearful of either of them ending up like Lynn had.
  275.  
  276.     "Neither of you are getting it," Leni declared, "Lucy, you're not eating anything else until you finish that. At all. Like, however long it takes." That earned a pair of angry looks from Lori and Luan. Even Luna looked a bit put out at the ultimatum.
  277.  
  278.     "ENOUGH!" Lincoln's shout shocked them all into silence, and he took the opportunity to grab Lucy's bowl. Before she could protest, he took a spoonful and practically shoved it down his throat. All the while, he watched Leni's face for any hint of concern or fear, but he saw only confusion and some remaining anger. Swallowing hard, and nearly choking on it, he gasped, "mmm, mmm, mmm! That's good stuff, right there. Really makes you think..."
  279.  
  280.     A number of quirked eyebrows later, he slid the bowl back to Lucy, mouthing the word 'please!' as he did so. After staring it down one more time, she finally began to eat, much to his relief and Luna's as well. Not a moment later, he did the same for Lori, earning an awkward grin from her as she too began to eat. The twins soon wanted in on the action, and soon everyone was sampling each other's food. The moment would have been laughable if not for the pall of darkness cast over most of them by the past several days.
  281.  
  282.     "Blla!" Lily's declaration brought Leni's attention to her, and the infant smiled at her as she insisted, "baba, fud! Goouuah!"
  283.  
  284.     "Is that so?" Leni allowed herself a small bit of mirth as she took a small dollop of oatmeal in her spoon and fed to to her sister, who was greatly pleased with something other than baby food. The scene was so at odds with everything else that had happened so far in the week that it managed to lift that pall just an inch.
  285.  
  286. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  287.  
  288.     As soon as they were finished or close to it, they all retreated back to their rooms. Luan helped Lori get along, and Leni had to remind them about their prior arrangement. Lincoln lingered, unsure where exactly to go since it seemed he wasn't supposed to be interacting with the other sisters. Finally he asked Leni, "do you want me to help with the dishes?"
  289.  
  290.     After pondering the question a moment, she noticed Luna clearing the dining room table and remembered their talk that morning. "Actually, do you think you could, like, take Lily for a trip to the park? Luna can help me with the dishes, and I trust you with her."
  291.  
  292.     It was a clear attempt to get him out of the house, and the urge to argue was stronger than ever. Luna could probably handle herself, but it still put him ill at ease to leave her to her own devices.
  293.  
  294.     Luna herself seemed to catch on, and she gave Lincoln her blessing. "It's cool bro, we'll hold down the fort." With only a little hesitation, Lincoln collected their youngest sister and donned her harness before setting off. Taking her place next to Leni at the sink, the musician began drying dishes while her sister washed them. They worked in silence for a time, both of them waiting for the other to break. Luna had never been particularly patient, and that was what Leni was counting on.
  295.  
  296.     "So..."
  297.  
  298.     "So, I hear you've been telling war stories." The older sister's tone brooked no argument.
  299.  
  300.     "Someone had to." The younger sister offered none.
  301.  
  302.     Leni forced her eyes shut, her nerves already frayed before reaching noon. "There's a time and place for that kind of thing, Luna. Do you know that he came asking me about it last night?"
  303.  
  304.     "Well I do now," Luna griped, a plate nearly slipping out of her hands, "the little bugger bugged out while I was asleep. 'Sides, it sounded like we had the same story to tell-"
  305.  
  306.     "I'd rather we didn't have to tell him anything," she growled, eyes flying open to leer sidelong at the brunette. "It's ancient history, he doesn't need that crap, like, hanging over his head, alright?"
  307.  
  308.     Knowing that this was quickly heading toward a dead end, Luna shifted directions. "He was askin' about it cause he's worried about you, Len. You know how he gets." To drive her point home, she knowingly asked, "would you rather he heard it from Lor or Lu?" That Leni didn't offer up an immediate reply informed her that she'd scored a point, but it was only one of the many she'd need to in this game.
  309.  
  310.     "...point taken," Leni finally allowed, "but how much did you tell him?"
  311.  
  312.     "As much as I could without making you out like a...bad person."
  313.  
  314.     So there it was. "Do you think I'm a bad person, Luna?" The hurt in Leni's voice was unmistakeable, even beneath the coiling anger.
  315.  
  316.     Luna's eyes fell to the sink as she really thought about the answer. "I think you made some bad choices, Len," she finally admitted, "and I know a thing or two about bad choices." They continued their work in silence for a short while after that, and she began to regret sending Lincoln away. 'He's better with her than I could ever be, and she and I used to be thicker'n blood.'
  317.  
  318.     When she had first discovered Leni's recovery, she'd been completely onboard with the idea of helping her make a comeback. That was before she saw the thrashing she'd given Lori and realized what had happened to Luan. 'Len, like you just said, it's ancient history. So why...?' It was the old days again, alright, in the worst possible way. She began to wonder with good reason whether her drum getting broken had just been a ploy to try and drive her and Luan apart.
  319.  
  320.     "How does Lincoln feel about all of this, then?" Leni's voice broke her sister's train of thought enough to cause her to nearly drop a glass, and she added in a taunting voice, "he sure knew, like, just what to say when he came to me last night."
  321.  
  322.     Luna gripped the glass, unsure what exactly the other girl wanted from her. "He feels the same as I do, I guess. He just wants you to be happy-"
  323.  
  324.     "You think you can make me happy?" The rocker kept her eyes fixed on the glass as Leni railed, "you still think you can, like, 'save' me? I've never been happy in this house, Luna, and I never will be." She continued washing the dishes all the while, as if she'd spoken a simple truth that couldn't be fought against.
  325.  
  326.     It made Luna's blood boil. "You were, and you could be," she denied, finally looking at the blonde. "You're happy when Linc's happy, I know that much." She wasn't sure whether Leni letting her hands rest in the water was a good or bad thing, so she quickly followed up, "and you're happy when everyone's getting along, even," she licked her lips as she took the plunge, "even if it's because you made'em."
  327.  
  328.     Leni finally turned fully to face her, an unreadable mask falling over her features. "So what you're saying is, I can only be happy when other people let me." Luna balked at the reversal, and she followed up with a sort of smug bitterness, "so it's not much different than what I went through all these years, is it?"
  329.  
  330.     The younger sister cringed at the point scored by her sister, and she had to find a way to get the ball back into Leni's court. 'Who am I, Lynn?' Shaking her head loose of the joke, she decided to go for the big guns and channel her brother. "Len...all we ever wanted was for you to be happy, even if that meant...goin' as far as we did." All noise in the room died other than the water lightly sloshing in the sink and her sister's eerily steady breathing. "It's not impossible to be happy in this house, sis," she asserted, accepting her failure even as she struggled to finish, "just look at our little bro. He's, like, everything we aren't. That's gotta count for somethin', right? The same house that made the rest of us can make someone like him..."
  331.  
  332.     She meant every word of it, and she didn't dare to face Leni's reaction to it. In so doing, she missed the utter shock on the older girl's face. It was a perspective she had never thought to consider before, one she hadn't thought possible. 'Lincoln...he's the only one here who really cares about everyone and everything, the only one who looks out for everyone, even if it means ignoring himself...'
  333.  
  334.     Ignorant to the new struggle brewing in her sister's mind, Luna quietly asked, "did fighting Lori and Luan make you happy?" Leni turned her head ever so slightly, the questions piling up and threatening to break the small wall she'd built between herself and her sisters. "Are you happy tryin' to keep everyone down? Leni, sooner or later, somethin's gotta give, y'know? It's not too late to start squaring up, though."
  335.  
  336.     Leni sounded off with a 'hmph', but her heart wasn't in it. "Why do you care so much?" She'd meant to sound angry, but it came out flat and tired. 'I'm so tired of fighting...' Was that what her sister had been referring to? "I did all this bad stuff, I tricked you just like everyone else. Why?"
  337.  
  338.     "Because I love you, you idiot. You're my best friend, Len, even if we both forgot for a while." Their eyes met, Luna slightly afraid of how Leni would react and Leni astonished by the similarity between those words and their brother's. "I know I can't make up for not bein' there before, but what I can do is try to make sure it doesn't go that way again."
  339.  
  340.     Just as Leni had recalled before, Luna was many things, but ingenuous wasn't one of them; that much was clear based on the lengths she went to in order to keep the others from ending up on her bad side. 'It's kind of cute when she thinks she has someone fooled, though, like th-'
  341.  
  342.     ["And just what are you getting so gussied up for? Going on a big date~?"]
  343.     ["L-Leni, c'mon! There's no way I'm going on a d-date, not with any gross boys!"]
  344.     ["You don't have to, like, lie to me, Luna! I can keep a secret! Who is it? Is it Bo-"]
  345.     ["Eww, no! It's not Bobby! Besides, he's like two years older than me!"]
  346.     ["Alright, so we figured out it's not him. Who, then?"]
  347.     ["Uhhh...um...well, he is older...he's into music...his voice is so dreamy~!"]
  348.     ["Huh, I never figured you for a Belieber, Luna!"]
  349.     ["WHAT?! No WAY! Ugh, so gnarly!"]
  350.     ["Well there's only, like one OTHER guy with a concert going on around here."]
  351.     ["..."]
  352.     ["Out with it, Luna."]
  353.     ["Alright, alright! I...I am going out, but not on a date! I'm going to the Mick Swagger concert."]
  354.     ["Luna, we talked about this! You're going to, like, totes get lost, or some creep is going to-"]
  355.     ["It's alright, Leni, I know what I'm doing! You don't have to keep babying me!"]
  356.     ["W-what? Well fine then! See if I care! I can't believe this, you're just like them..."]
  357.     ["Aww, c'mon, Len, you know it's not like that! I just...I need to do something on my own for once!"]
  358.     ["That's what you keep saying, right?"]
  359.     ["...you're right. I'm sorry, Lu, I just...I worry about you."]
  360.     ["I know you do. And you know I have been about you too, right?"]
  361.     ["Yeah, just like everyone else."]
  362.     ["No, NOT like everyone else. Because we're besties, right?"]
  363.     ["Weeeelllll...I guess so. Haha! C'mere, bestie."]
  364.  
  365.     By the time Leni recovered, she found she'd been laid out on the couch. Even more curiously, her head was propped up on something, and judging by how much it was fidgeting, it wasn't a pillow. Slowly opening her eyes and embracing the migraine that always followed one of her flashbacks, she looked up to take in Luna's visage. "We've, like, got to stop meeting up like this," she weakly joked, ashamed that yet another bout of weakness had been witnessed.
  366.  
  367.     "I don't know," Luna teasingly replied, "you're a lot more chill like this, usually." Her voice was heavy with emotion, and the two of them fell silent in order to better experience the moment. "Leni," she spoke at last, "you know I've got your back, right? I know that don't mean much comin' from me after all this time, but it won't be like that again. I'm with you, sis."
  368.  
  369.     Just as she had before, Leni dared to hope, and even though she knew it was the wrong decision, it felt...right. Right in a way so few things had felt over the past several days...the same kind of right that Lincoln allowed her to feel .The blonde couldn't bring herself to raise her head from Luna's lap, so instead she closed her eyes and fumbled around with her hand—the one the brunette had bandaged—before eventually finding one of her sister's to hold. "I know."
  370.  
  371.     There were no more words after that, and finally the two of them absconded from the couch to finish their work in the kitchen, the air clearer between them now than it had been for four years.
  372.  
  373.     The dishes were a fine distraction for a while, but the pair eventually finished them and found themselves wanting for something to occupy their time with. While Luna excused herself to get in contact with her bandmates regarding their show in a few days' time, a nagging feeling in the back of Leni's mind warned her that there was something she was supposed to have been doing, but with all the scheming and fighting there was no way she could have been expected to focus on it. 'The chores are getting done, Lily's all set, and I don't think there's any projects to work on...projects...Lola!' She'd promised her sister a dress by tomorrow!
  374.  
  375.     In all likelihood there would be few if any consequences if she were to renege on their deal, but it wouldn't help her at all to lose the support of one of the few people who trusted her. Besides, a dress for a six-year old was well within her capabilities. "It's not like I've got anything better to do," she conceded as she mounted the stairs. Soon enough she stood at the door to her former room, and she considered what awaited inside. 'Lori shouldn't be able to do anything, and neither will Lisa...' She'd prefer not to even look at either of them, but she had to be careful to keep the toddler's condition a secret for as long as possible, and that meant dictating instructions to her sister.
  376.  
  377.     She opened the door to what should have been a heartwarming scene: Lori sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching as Lisa giggled while playing with her abacus. The two of them shifted their attention to her as she slowly entered the room, and the eldest sister's face became a ball of incandescent fury. Lori held her tongue as Lisa returned her focus to her 'toy', sure that she'd be getting a mouthful soon enough, and she wasn't disappointed. "I've got work I need to do in here," Leni announced, pointedly ignoring the four-year old as she crossed the room, "take her to her room and stay there."
  378.  
  379.     'She doesn't even know.' Lori's lip curled in disgust, but speaking her mind would only get Lisa and herself into even more trouble, so she forced that snarl into a smile for her younger sister's sake. "Alright, c'mon, Lisa. We're gonna go play in your room, alright?"
  380.  
  381.     "O-okay, m-m-mommy," Lisa stuttered as she made to stand up, wobbling on unsure legs before Lori managed to steady her.
  382.  
  383.     The oldest sister looked back toward Leni; she couldn't see her face completely due to the angle she was standing at, but she could clearly see the younger blonde's jaw drop at the word 'mommy'. "I hope you're proud of yourself, 'aunt' Leni," she sneered, standing and picking up the abacus as she prepared to leave. "Remember how Mom and Dad made you take those pills?"
  384.  
  385.     Leni's fists clenched at her sides, the words Lincoln and Luna had imparted to her already making way for the tidal ebb and flow of her anger. "Like I could forget. Sounds like you forgot that you were just as responsible for it, though." She silently pleaded with her stupid sister to keep her mouth shut so she wouldn't have to learn another lesson.
  386.  
  387.     Unfortunately, Lori was on a roll now, needing some form of outlet for the anger and frustration building within. "Well, congratulations, you did the same thing to her. You're just like us now." She knew she was tempting fate, but every fiber of her being called out to not just let Leni walk all over her.
  388.  
  389.     Focusing her heated glare on the window, her younger sister ground out through gnashing teeth, "you had better get out of here right now, before I do the same thing to you. Except this time I won't, like, need a pill to screw your brain up. Since you're too stupid to realize it, I'm giving you an out, just take it."
  390.  
  391.     Lori froze up for several seconds before throwing all caution to the wind. "Are you seriously trying to high-road me right now? Maybe those pills did some permanent damage after all-"
  392.  
  393.     Spinning on one heel, Leni lashed out with the other foot to kick at Lori's injured ankle, sending her sister careening to the ground with a pained cry that amplified considerably when she tried to cushion her fall by holding out her arms. "You couldn't just keep your fucking mouth shut, could you?! I tried to let it go, but you asked for it!" She heaved deep, angry breaths as Lisa waddled over to their sister, who was struggling to maintain her composure despite the awful pain in her limbs. "Get out of here, I don't care if you have to crawl all the way there. I don't want to see you again."
  394.  
  395.     Ignoring Leni completely, Lisa gently grasped Lori's shirt and tried to help pull her up. "A-re y-y-you okay, m-mom-my? I-I'll c-c-carry you, i-it'sth okay, u-up and at'em," she cooed, letting her 'mommy' use her for a measure of support as she climbed back to her feet.
  396.  
  397.     Her abuser couldn't tear her eyes from the scene, a volatile cocktail of satisfaction, anger, sadness and fear driving her back and weakening her knees. Squeezing her eyes shut and clamping her hands over her ears, she demanded, "god, get her out of here! Get her away from me!" Rather than risk her sister's wrath extending to the toddler, Lori took Lisa's hand and hobbled out of the room, leaving Leni alone with her increasingly agitated thoughts.
  398.  
  399.     She slammed the door behind them and locked it, gripping her head as she stumbled over to the stool at the sewing machine. Nearly missing her mark as she dropped down to sit, she rested her elbows on the desk, letting her face fall into her cupped hands. Lori's words buzzed in her mind like a swarm of hornets, stinging at the self-righteous pride and convictions that had brought her this far. Even though she'd planned it from the beginning, Lisa's punishment had suffered a sloppy execution due to time constraints. She'd had to be quick, otherwise she was going to tell Lori everything. 'She DESERVED it for what she did to me...' Lori had already been suspicious due to her lies, though, would it have made that much of a difference if Lisa had given up her game just a short while earlier?
  400.  
  401.     Desperate to shift her focus to something else, Leni gathered up the materials she'd collected from the attic and laid them out on Lori's bed. "First I'll need to fix the tear, draw everything in a little bit..." She placed Lola's torn gown under the needle and began her work, the tools filling an old, long-neglected hole in her being. Their aunt Shirley had first shown her how to make alterations and eventually how to fashion clothes of her own, reasoning that in such a large house a skill like that would go a long way toward both cutting their costs and giving Leni a creative talent she could put to use elsewhere. 'Probably one of the only people who was ever looking out for me.'
  402.  
  403.     The minutes turned to hours as she worked her magic on the garment, finding a measure of peace in her old hobby. No matter how peaceful her current work was, however, she couldn't get the confrontation she'd just had out of her thoughts. Now that many of her memories had returned, she couldn't recall a single good one about Lisa. 'All of it is shitty commentary or those goddamned experiments. They should be grateful that I got rid of that, even if it was just for a few...days...' Her hands slammed down on the desk as that critical piece of information nearly floored her. 'It's not going to last forever...when she gets over it, she'll...' She forced herself to continue her work as she considered the conflict she'd be faced with when her sister recovered.
  404.  
  405.     "That'll make Lori, Luan, Lynn, Lucy, and Lisa against me. I can't really rely on the twins, not like that, and I'm still not sure how much I should trust Luna..." That left Lincoln and Lily. She almost burst out laughing at the idea of Lily standing up for her, until she realized that she already had been, in a way. Having Lily at hand guaranteed that the others couldn't come at her physically for fear of hurting their baby sister. "She may be the most reliable, like that." Lincoln, though...if she kept at it with the rest of them, it was only a matter of time before he left her too.
  406.  
  407.     The lack of concentration nearly made her run a stitch through the middle of the dress, and she came close to tearing the damnable thing out of the machine. It was meaningless, Lola would want nothing to do with her soon enough, just like the rest of them. She wasn't going to appreciate this work for long, none of them did. In the end, however, Lincoln and Luna's words stopped her. Where she constantly heard her own voice berating her for the mistakes she had made, that she was continuing to make, now she heard her brother and sister.
  408.  
  409.     'We all are. We love you, Leni.'
  410.  
  411.     'He feels the same as I do, I guess. He just wants you to be happy.'
  412.  
  413.     'You don't have to be afraid.'
  414.  
  415.     'Sooner or later, somethin's gotta give, y'know?'
  416.  
  417.     'We all forgive each other because we all love each other.'
  418.  
  419.     She released a shaky breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She looked at the dress again. The memories it brought back, the memories it must have had for her little sister. This was supposed to be an act of love, and she'd turned it into...what? Another tool of her vengeance? Lola was barely older than Lily when this had all begun, she didn't deserve to get dragged into it. That, more than anything, finally broke one of the last of Leni's barriers as she hunched over the desk. All of that pride and conviction undone by  taking it out on someone who was never guilty of anything more than being a member of the family that had mistreated her.
  420.  
  421.     'Lori and Luan, they, they were right...god, what am I doing? What am I doing?'
  422.  
  423.     'What am I?'
  424.  
  425.     The dress remained in the jig as she stood from the stool and listlessly made her way out of the room, down the stairs and into her parents' bed. The voices were too much, too insistent, and she became fearful that she was going to lose herself in the storm. The walls she'd thrown up continued to fracture under the weight of the burdens she'd been carrying, both of her own design and those forced upon her.
  426.  
  427. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  428.  
  429.     By the time Lincoln returned, Lily had worn herself out and fallen asleep, and he at first went toward her and Lisa's room before remembering the new arrangements. 'That's still weird, where the heck is Lisa?' He descended the stairs again to Leni's new room to return her to her crib. Opening the door, he found his sister sprawled on the bed, and he tip-toed around it in order to set another sister to sleep.
  430.  
  431.     He'd almost made it back out of the room when he heard Leni mumble, "wait."
  432.  
  433.     Knowing the drill by now, Lincoln closed and locked the door before remembering an important detail. Grabbing the cushion from the armchair, he opened the closet door and placed it over the vent leading to the bathroom. Satisfied that it would help at least somewhat, he kicked off his shoes and climbed up to sit on the bed. "Is everything alright?"
  434.  
  435.     The girl propped herself up to sit, and she quickly pulled him into a hug before he could even get a look at her face. "Lincoln..." She melted into his welcoming embrace, straining to keep herself in one piece as another pivotal transition threatened to take place. Slowly pulling away, Leni looked at him with puffy eyes to see a gentle assurance in his own. "L-Lincoln...yeah, it's alright. Are you ready to hear the rest of my story?" He nodded, as she'd hoped and knew he would. Dabbing at her face, she allowed herself to fall over onto the bed, resting on her side. Lincoln soon joined her, and with a heavy heart she picked up where they'd left off.
  436.  
  437.     "S-so, the party happened, and Carol's friends bullied Luna, like, the entire time I was trying to make that apology. She came crying to us, and Lori...never mind. I knew Carol had something to do with it, just to get back at us, probably, I don't think she even actully liked Lori to begin with. She made a big deal about the fireworks they were going to set off, and I asked if I could see them. Of course they agreed, they couldn't help but show off, and...huh?" She noticed he was grinning, even if it was a bit strained. "What's so funny?"
  438.  
  439.     "Sorry, sorry," Lincoln waved her off, "it's just, Luna described it almost the exact same way. You two are more alike than I thought, is all." It helped to put him at ease that he could generally trust Luna, and Leni by association. They'd both told him the same story, even though they both had different motivations for doing it and different things to gain.
  440.  
  441.     'Of course she did.' Luna's intentions were pure, though, that much she had discovered that afternoon; that was how she'd always been. It didn't change the fact that it just put Leni in a position that was liable to get herself or others hurt.
  442.  
  443.     Deciding to finish before she could work herself back into a fit, Leni expelled a long-suffering sigh as she wound down, "I'm sure she already told you what happened next, so I'll spare you the 'gory' details. Honestly, they didn't even really get hurt, just, like, some singed clothes and earaches. Just like I planned." Doubt entered her brother's face, and she quickly moved on, "so Mom and Dad went out of their way to take care of it when they didn't even have to, then they grounded me for, like, two months or something. After I explained what happened to Luna, she finally left me, and that just left you..."
  444.  
  445.     "Of course Luan wasn't just going to let me getting in trouble go, though. She bothered me constantly, and the only way I could keep away from it was to stay locked up in my room, just like everyone wanted..." She brought a hand up to pinch at the bridge of her nose at the penultimate event of the story, which she suspected that Luna had told him as well. "One day, she just would. Not. Stop. We ended up on the stairs together, and I got so mad, I just...I don't even remember actually..." Lincoln rested a hand on her arm, and she found the will to finish, "Luan got hurt, and practically the next day, I was...they...they got rid of me..."
  446.  
  447.     It was as if it had happened yesterday. Thrown away so casually, just another face in a sea of what would become eleven children. "Maybe I didn't do everything as well as I could have, but they barely tried...they didn't want me, no one did. No one except you, Lincoln." She managed to hold onto herself this time, but as she looked directly at him, he could see the emotions swimming in her eyes. "These past few years, it was either Lori treating me like a baby, or Luan screwing with me, or Lisa," she spat out the last name, "Lisa and her freaking experiments...and even you, sometimes..." Guilt flashed across his face, and she would have to hope that it helped him remain with her to the end on this, so much left to do. "But that wasn't your fault, you grew up when it was normal for everyone to treat me like an idiot, or some stupid pet."
  448.  
  449.     She reached out to set her hand on his outstretched arm, whispering, "even through all of that, you still treated me like I was someone who...who deserved to be treated well. Because of that, I could never be mad at you. The others, though..."
  450.  
  451.     Seeing his opening, he seized the chance to begin changing her mind about them. "They just don't understand, Leni. But they can!" It was her turn to look at him with incredulity, but he wouldn't be swayed from this opportunity. "They haven't had to think about you as 'you' for four years now, right? But if we work together, we can change their minds! It doesn't have to be like it was before," he declared with a confidence that nearly convinced him it would be that easy.
  452.  
  453.     That confidence withered in the face of her apathy as she drew away from him just far enough to lie on her back again. "You're right that things don't have to be the way they were, because they'll be, like, even worse than that. As soon as Mom and Dad come back, not only will they put me back on those pills, they'll probably send me somewhere where they never have to see me again..." That had been her greatest fear the first time she was subdued, and she had never been sure whether to be grateful or even angrier that they decided to keep her around as a retard. 'It can't happen like that again, I have to keep them from coming back...there's no way around it then.'
  454.  
  455.     "Leni, they won't do that," Lincoln said with significantly less confidence, "you saw how they acted when we talked to them the other day. They love you too-"
  456.  
  457.     "They love the 'me' that was convenient for them to deal with, just like the rest of you!" Leni was prepared to go further until she saw the way he flinched at her outburst, and she put all of her power into dialing it back for his sake. "Lincoln, like I said, they won't just forgive me," she added more quietly, adding in her mind, 'and they don't need to, they deserved it...'
  458.  
  459.     Somehow, though, her brother had managed to make her question whether they really had.
  460.  
  461.     Her encounter with Luna yesterday forced itself to the forefront of her mind. She'd begun to have the same doubt immediately before outing her restored personality to her sister, but where Lincoln wanted her to try to change, Luna had embraced her with little reservation. The thought that her brother might be trying to use her, just like the others had...
  462.  
  463.     'If he loved you, he wouldn't ask you to change.'
  464.  
  465.     'They all asked you to change before, and when you didn't, they changed you.'
  466.  
  467.     'He's asking you to change again, and when you don't-'
  468.  
  469.     She screwed her eyes shut and tried to force the thoughts away with all of the support and promises he'd showered her with so far. 'If I didn't want to change, he'd still accept me, right?' She opened her right eye to look over at him. In the slowly brightening morning light, her vision was filled with a concerned face, buck teeth lightly chewing on the lip beneath them as Lincoln tried to determine how best to help her. 'He didn't tell me I have to change, he said that we could change them...' It was the complete opposite of that conflict she'd been faced with before, and it allowed another dangerous spark into her heart; a spark of hope.
  470.  
  471.     'They don't care about me like they do Lincoln, but if he and Luna are there to stand up for me, then maybe...' It still didn't change the fact that she wouldn't be forgiven for what she'd done, though, especially to Lisa. That confrontation replayed vividly in her mind, and it was all she could do not to become sick at the memory. 'I've got nothing to be sorry for there,' she tried to convince herself.
  472.  
  473.     There was a greater threat, however, even beyond the very real possibility of being medicated again. The treatment she'd been subjected to over the years still haunted her, it was what had driven her to exact her revenge in the first place. "If I end up like that again, they're not going to hold back anymore. They'll screw with me even more, they, they'll hurt me..."
  474.  
  475.     'That's what you get for not finishing it in the first place.'
  476.  
  477.     'You've only got yourself to blame for holding back.'
  478.  
  479.     'They never did, there's no reason to now.'
  480.  
  481.     "They won't, Leni," Lincoln assured her. Her eyes flew open at the statement, and he realized she hadn't meant to speak aloud. "They won't, because I won't let them. Luna and I won't let them do that to you again." He knew he was talking a big game, which meant he'd have to suck it up and put that much effort into making it a reality.
  482.  
  483.     In a tremendous feat she managed not to lash out at her thoughts escaping her again, and in a bitter voice she rejected, "they will, Lincoln. That's just, like, what they do. They hurt you too, and you don't even realize it. They don't care about anyone but themselves."
  484.  
  485.     His brow furrowed in confusion until he remembered something she had let slip just the previous night. "Are you talking about Luan's videos?" He'd known about them beforehand, but she seemed particularly put off by them.
  486.  
  487.     Leni confirmed his suspicions as her face twisted into a hateful scowl. "Of course it's her, it's always her. Those videos she took of you crying, being humiliated, getting hurt in Lynn's stupid stunts. I got into fights, sure, but she, like, gets off on other people getting hurt. Lynn's just as bad, treating you like her punching bag, and Lori constantly putting you down." She was getting worked up again, but on his behalf, and it heartened her brother despite the circumstances to know how much she actually cared. "They're bad for you, Lincoln, they're bad for both of us. They always have been, and that won't ever change."
  488.  
  489.     He disagreed with her assessment of them, but arguing with her wouldn't help right now. "It won't change unless we make it, Leni, but we can. And the only way we can make that change is if you think we can." He was starting to run out of steam, trying to make it up as he went along. No boy, much less one as young as him, should be trying to convince someone of such a serious thing, but he'd do his best to rise to the occasion.
  490.  
  491.     She disagreed with the faith he was prepared to put in their vindictive family, but that was classic Lincoln, too kind and generous for his own good. "Lincoln, I...I can't just go back now, everything's so wrong, and I don't even know how I'd..." An admission was threatening to work its way out of her mouth, and it gave her a migraine just trying to hold it in. 'I don't have to hold it in, though, not with him. I don't have to be scared of him, like I am with...' Sucking in a harsh breath and releasing it, she conceded in a voice lower than a whisper, "I'm scared, Lincoln..."
  492.  
  493.     That was something he could relate to, and it gave him the last bit of leverage he needed to turn the tide. "I know, Leni. It's okay to be scared, we all get scared sometimes. I get scared all the time because of things I did or made happen! We're kind of alike, that way, right?" A trembling grin answered him, and he went on, "but it never stops me, because I know I've got you guys by my side. Luna and I, we're on your side, Leni, and we'll bring the rest of them around too."
  494.  
  495.     The sheer amount of effort he was pouring in, like no one before ever had, was finally wearing away at the final layer of her resistance. That lack of conviction, the lack of control, only invited even more fear into her heart. 'He's the only one I can trust, though, along with Luna...Lola is still on my side, and Lana's not NOT on my side...' The effort it would take to overcome her actions over the past several days was daunting, but if it meant avoiding an even worse fate..."Lincoln, even if we really tried this, they won't just let me off easy...if they, like, come after me again, I'm not just going to take it."
  496.  
  497.     "That's fine, Leni, there's nothing wrong with making sure you stay alright, but..." This was where Lincoln knew he'd meet the most resistance. "Leni, I want-no, I NEED you to promise me that you won't hurt anyone anymore." She glowered at the request, but he remained steadfast. "It's the only way we're going to convince them to try again, you know that. I know you can do it, I know deep down you love them, just like they love you! But you have to show them, Leni, otherwise nothing's gonna change."
  498.  
  499.     She wanted to argue with him, to explain that it was the only way they would listen to her, but the seeds of doubt he'd sewn finally sprouted forth. 'Even during those years, there were still good times...right?' They'd all pitched in at one point or another to try to teach her how to drive, even Lori; the spider debacle had been a bonding experience for all of them; even Lincoln's own adventures with the camcorder had brought them together in the end. 'All of that happened because of Lincoln...'
  500.  
  501.     Another way out of her bitter existence finally presented itself with that revelation. Lincoln, in many ways, was the lynchpin that brought them together through the best and worst of times. Luna's words came back to her, and with her past laid out before her there was no denying them now. Her brother, her friend — her angel — was a product of the same home, the same environment, that had created her. If that wasn't worth finding hope in, then what was?
  502.  
  503.     They had been right again, it seemed. She was tired, so tired, tired of fighting and being fought and having to hold herself back with all her might or let herself go and deal with the consequences. 'Something's gotta give...I just don't know if I've got anything left...'
  504.  
  505.     "I promise, Lincoln." She forced the words from her mouth before she could take them back, and she had every intention of doing everything in her power to keep it. The smile he graced her with was enough to hold her misgivings at bay; a smile she'd do anything to keep on his face. "I'm sorry you had to be the one to, like, deal with all of this. But I'm also glad...I don't know if anyone else could have."
  506.  
  507.     "I'm glad too, Leni. All I want is for you guys to be happy." The two of them lay together as a beam of afternoon sunlight broke through the drapes. 'She's really doing it...but now...now I have to get the rest of them to go along with it.' Leni had been right about one thing, as much as he hated to admit it; Lori, Luan and Lynn weren't likely to just take a pat on the back. 'Well, Lynn's the more forgiving sort, but the other two, yikes!'
  508.  
  509.     Leni's phone began to ring, and as she sluggishly responded to it he was momentarily left with his thoughts. So much to do, so much damage to repair and wounds to heal. There would be plenty of time for that, though. Together, they were going to come to terms with what had happened, and they were going to go on better than they had been before.
  510.  
  511.     'That's what families do! And we're a family, right?'
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