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Velvet Fist - Act IV

Wrightfag Jul 16th, 2016 (edited) 2,789 Never
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  1.     She walks through the bright red front door, tired after such a long time away. Waiting on the other side are an older woman and seven children. They're holding up a banner that reads 'Welcome Home', followed by a name. But she can't make the name out. The girl in purple — Lula? — is the first to come and meet her, but the others seem reluctant. Scared, even.
  2.  
  3.     The girl who came in with her, the only one bigger than herself, tells them to come see their sister. Did she have this many sisters before? It's so hard to remember, but the adults take each of her hands and lead her into the cramped living room.
  4.  
  5.     She's home now, or so they say, and yet it feels the same way as the bad place — "The hospital, sweetie..." — did. Not safe. Not comforting. She doesn't belong here, and she knows it. Then the boy, the only one aside from the man, dashes up to her and hugs her. It's the first time she feels secure since entering the house.
  6.  
  7.     'Lincoln...'
  8.  
  9.     Is that his name? It sounds pleasing to her, so that's what she's going to call him. She returns the hug as the others look on in fascination.
  10.  
  11.     They're smiling at her, hugging her, talking to her like she'd never been gone. They're starting to warm up now, they seem so happy. Happy for her.
  12.  
  13.     Why can't she feel happy for herself?
  14.  
  15. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  16.  
  17.     Her eyes flicking in the dim light that filtered through the window, Leni awoke from another hazy dream to find herself in unfamiliar surroundings. Propping herself up, she looked from the window directly ahead to the double-wide closet at her right, before coming back to the queen-sized bed she currently occupied. "That's right, I slept in their room," she mumbled. 'I must have been, like, more tired than I've ever been. Coming to a place like this...' Still, she was here now, might as well do some digging.
  18.  
  19.     The soothing noise of rain on the window and roof helped mask her already quiet footsteps as she rolled out of the bed, flicked on the nightstand lamp and padded over to the closet. The slatted doors creaked only slightly as she opened them, and inside was everything one might expect from a middle-aged couple; a small wardrobe, shoeboxes galore, her father's infamous tie collection. Off to one side was a box labelled 'albums', and it was the one that most piqued her curiosity.
  20.  
  21.     Hoping that it didn't contain what was left of his karaoke collection, she was relieved to find books upon books of family photo collections. They would need so many even if it was just the thirteen members of the household to keep track of, but these included the entire extended family as well, a veritable army of Louds spanning the nation and generations. The focus of her search, however, was a little closer to home.
  22.  
  23.     'Let's see just how great things were while I was away...' Flipping through reams of pictures taken over the past few years, she watched herself and her siblings grow up before her eyes. Lincoln's tenth birthday and Lynn's thirteenth, her own first day of high school, both Lisa and Lily's first moments after being born...
  24.  
  25.     Those eyes began to sting with unwelcome tears and bitter hatred flowed freely from her heart as she cursed her elder sister and parents for making her miss it. 'You three took everything from me... it's about time I returned the favor.' As she roughly closed the book, the topic of pictures bred a malevolent idea in her mind. Perhaps her recently acquired collection could be put to yet another use.
  26.  
  27.     Pawing at her eyes and drawing in a calming breath, she set the album back on the floor and decided to face the day. Turning the light off once more, she cautiously opened the door in case someone else happened to be awake. The living room was dark save for the muffled light of what must be dawn, and a quick glance at the clock on the entertainment center confirmed it to be 6:02 A.M. Noticing the television screen to be somewhat off, she discovered that it had been left on after her and Lucy's viewing party. 'Lucy...' She'd made a mistake last night, engaging with the goth girl the way she had. It appeared as though her sister had been prudent enough to put the tapes back though, or at least hadn't left them out in the open.
  28.  
  29.     Resolving to deal with that loose end in a bit, she settled on crossing the room to turn the television off and continued on her way to the kitchen. With company in the way of Charles snoring and kicking under the table, she opened the refrigerator and snagged a carton of milk, popping the top and drinking her fill. Setting it on the counter, she took a moment to appraise her appearance; wrinkled dress, oily skin, and she didn't dare imagine what her hair looked like. 'A shower is in order.' It wouldn't do to take charge without looking the part. "Hopefully no one's up this time." With a great yawn, she reopened the fridge to replace the milk, making a mental note to prepare a smoothie late-
  30.  
  31.     ["What is this, sis?"]
  32.     ["Just one of my famous smoothies! It'll help you, like, grow up big and strong! Like me!"]
  33.     ["I don't know if I'd call you strong... but I guess it couldn't hurt."]
  34.     [...]
  35.     ["Ugh, YUCK! What IS this, even?!"]
  36.     ["It's got milk, almond butter, raspberries and kale in it! Like, all the protein, vitamins and minerals you need!"]
  37.     ["Yeah, uh, thanks. I'll pass on this one, you do you. Can you pass me that Gator-8?"]
  38.     ["Okay..."]
  39.  
  40.     Her vision blurred at the edges, it was like she was there in the kitchen with her sister again. 'Why now, damnit? All I want to do is-'
  41.  
  42.     ["Give it a rest, Leni! All I want to do is grab a quick bite, I've got practice to get to!"]
  43.     ["You need to watch what you're eating, Lynn, you can't just-"]
  44.     ["I CAN just eat what I want. I know what I can handle, I don't want to look like a stick like you!"]
  45.     ["You... I don't... ugh, like, okay. Forget I even said anything."]
  46.     ["Sis, wait, I didn't mean it like that..."]
  47.  
  48.     The carton and several other contents went crashing to the tile floor as she caught herself on one of the shelves, nearly bringing the entire thing down under her weight. Scrambling to right herself, she pushed off from the shelf, only to slip on the spilt milk and fall hard...on her tailbone. Leni's world became pain and her mouth shot open in a silent scream, back arching and recoiling from the movement. Her head throbbed as badly as it had every time before, but she counted herself lucky that she'd managed to avoid landing on it instead.
  49.  
  50.     Falling onto her side, she laid there on the kitchen floor, trying to concentrate on anything other than the mental and physical agony that had engulfed her. A whimper at her foot caught her attention, and she cracked her eyes open to see Charles sitting there, ears drooped and eyes sharp with what she imagined must be worry. Waving him away, she gingerly drew her legs up and got upright enough to rest on her knees before crawling back to the counter and pulling herself up. As she made it far enough to lean her upper body on the counter, the sound of a jar rolling on the floor announced the dog's departure.
  51.  
  52.     "Leni, what happened? Are you alright?!"
  53.  
  54.     Or not. She resisted the urge to intentionally slam her head into the counter as she slowly turned and angled herself to find Lori taking careful steps around the debris on the floor. 'Like, what the hell is she even doing up this early?' She lowered her head to hide a snarl. She should know better than to expect any amount of time to herself in a house like this, but it was becoming tiresome all the same. Looking up once more to reveal a strained smile to her sister, she replied, "I will be."
  55.  
  56.     As soon as she'd cleared the minefield Lori rushed to Leni's side, checking her over for any injuries. "You didn't land on your stomach, did you?"
  57.  
  58.     "Uh, no. Why?" Did it matter how she'd fallen? It was possible that Lori was as conscious about head trauma as she was.
  59.  
  60.     Lori watched with concern as her sister adopted a weird smile, like she was in on some kind of joke. "No reason..." As Leni squirmed in her corner, it became clear where the injury had occurred. "Alright, wait here." She'd have had her sit down, but that likely wouldn't be an option for at least a short while. Picking up what she could and sweeping and scrubbing the rest, it wasn't long before the room looked somewhat presentable. While it wasn't the most ideal of circumstances, she thanked her luck that she'd been awake to hear the crash. That same luck seemed to have kept everyone else asleep, granting her the opportunity she'd been seeking to question her roommate.
  61.  
  62.     Speaking of roommate... "So, where did you sleep last night?" Lori's voice held an edge to it that she couldn't quite keep out. Yesterday had been particularly trying, and her companion had a great deal to do with it.
  63.  
  64.     "Luna and Luan's room... then Mom and Dad's." Leni would have preferred to omit that last part, but there were too many people who could speak to that fact now.
  65.  
  66.     "What were you doing in Mom and Dad's room?"
  67.  
  68.     Glaring at her interrogator, Leni spat, "trying to find a place I felt welcome at." Another dose of irony, that; finding sanctuary in her enemy's domain. "You locked me out of our room and with, like, everything going on with those two it was awkward."
  69.  
  70.     The eldest sister nearly bit back, but she'd had time to cool down after their last encounter. "I know, that was my bad, and I'm sorry. Can you blame me, though? What were you thinking, letting Lola off the hook when YOU told me she was in our room?"
  71.  
  72.     Leni considered the escape routes available to her before quickly dropping the idea; fighting off Lori would already be a challenge, and she was in no condition to force her way out regardless. Resigned to having this discussion, she answered coolly, "like, Lincoln made a pretty good case, didn't he? He even had me convinced by the end-"
  73.  
  74.     Lori was in her face before she knew it, arms on either side of her and hands gripping the counter. "Enough. I'm tired of you guys jerking me around, I want to know what's really going on. NOW."
  75.  
  76.     The move caught Leni off guard, and she very nearly reacted physically until the pain of her injury reminded her why that wasn't an option. 'Lori thinks we're all afraid of her, guess that's the way to go.' Quickening her breaths, she drew back as far against the counter as she could, attempting to look panicked. "Alright, like, I have something I need to explain-"
  77.  
  78.     "I'll say!" For the first time in a long time, Lori found herself getting seriously angry with this particular sister. "This has literally gotten completely out of control, Lola and I were practically about to kill each other!"
  79.  
  80.     'Good, that'd save me the trouble.' "I know, I know! I messed up, but just hear me out!" Leni placed her right hand over her heart. "At breakfast I told you that Lola was the one who went into our room, but..."
  81.  
  82.     "But...?"
  83.  
  84.     She drew her hand back to rub at her head while averting her eyes to one side. "But now I remember, it was just Lucy who was up, not Lola."
  85.  
  86.     The admission staggered Lori, and she was thankful she'd been supporting herself. "You... Lucy... WHAT?! How do you mistake either of them for the other?!" Leni recoiled at the outburst, and she shifted her eyes and focused her ears to make sure it had gone unnoticed.
  87.  
  88.     "W-well, their hairstyles kinda look the same, right?" Lori didn't share in the awkward laugh that followed. "I-I'm sorry, Lori! Lucy came into the bathroom after me yesterday morning. She scared me, and I, like, hit my head...she was the only other one awake up there besides Lincoln and me when we went downstairs, and I remembered the trouble Lola was giving Lincoln, and, and-"
  89.  
  90.     Lori launched herself from the counter, shaking her head in disbelief at everything she had just heard. "All that work, that huge scene, for literally nothing. What am I even supposed to get from that? That LUCY took it? Or that you just blamed Lola to get her back for Lincoln?!" Hands finding purchase in her hair, she gripped at it, the pain in her scalp a welcome distraction from the pain in her mind and heart. "Why would you LIE to me?!"
  91.  
  92.     'You're about to make another huge scene, you idiot.' Leni knew she had to act fast to prevent her sister from going nuclear. If there was one thing Lori loved more than throwing a professional fit, it was an opportunity to seem like the bigger man...err, woman. At the first moment that Lori seemed to have lost focus on her, Leni quickly thrust out her hips and rammed her swelling lower back into the corner as hard and fast as she could. The pain brought forth the tears she would need to pull off her ruse. Biting her lip to avoid crying out, she choked out, "it w-wasn't a lie! I just thought, the two of them, and getting hit, a-and I'm sorry! I've been acting so s-stupid lately, even m-more than usual..."
  93.  
  94.     The double-team effort of Leni's tears and self-consciousness brought Lori's justified attack to a standstill. Just yesterday she'd been trying to decide how to deal with Leni having a pregnancy scare, and now she was tearing her injured sister a new one at six in the morning. 'How does it keep coming to this? How is it that I'm not allowed to stay mad at them?' She stared long and hard at the source of so much of her stress for the past two days...no, the past four years; no, make that six. Six years ago when her little sister's descent into madness began.
  95.  
  96.     "Leni, I want you to be absolutely honest with me." Lori's tone had darkened to the point that Leni actually became nervous that she might act out her anger. "Do you know anything, literally ANYTHING, about where my phone is or what happened to it?"
  97.  
  98.     Gulping and tucking her chin to her chest, with no escape in sight, Leni buckled down and lied, "n-no. Like, I swear, Lori, I really don't."
  99.  
  100.     She wasn't sure what to be ready for after Lori appeared to calm down, and had scarcely decided to begin talking her way out of this mess when the elder sister began closing in on her again. Lori's hand began to rise, roughly on the same level as their faces, and her muscles tensed in anticipation of a blow when the outstretched hand continued past and above her. "Scoot," Lori commanded while using her other arm to gently move Leni, "I need to get to the coffee."
  101.  
  102.     The younger blonde warily observed as the older went about one of the family's time-honored morning rituals, eventually pulling a seat out as the machine began to brew the much-needed beverage. Resting her elbows on the table and rubbing at her temples, Lori finally asked, "Leni, what's been going on with you? You've been so much more... YOU this past week."
  103.  
  104.     "Like, what is that supposed to mean?" Leni couldn't hide the edge in her voice, unwilling to roll over completely.
  105.  
  106.     "I wish I knew," Lori muttered before taking in and releasing an explosive sigh. "How long have you been sick?"
  107.  
  108.     Fully committed to more fighting, the abrupt change in topic threw Leni for a loop. "Sick? I told you, I'm not-"
  109.  
  110.     "Don't lie to me," the seated sister warned, "not again. People who aren't sick don't throw up and fall down literally every morning." Lori's voice grew heavy toward the end of her accusation, the reality of it settling in. She'd kept promising herself to handle the situation, only to keep putting it off in favor of other issues that kept popping up around it. For this, and this only, did she accept a degree of blame for having messed up.
  111.  
  112.     Face screwing in annoyance, Leni turned to look at the countertop. "Just, like, the past two days. That was what Lincoln was checking on Friday morning."
  113.  
  114.     "Just two days? Why don't I believe that?"
  115.  
  116.     Leni jerked back toward her, grimacing as she retorted, "if you don't want to believe me, then I can't make you. I'm not lying, just like I wasn't before." The two of them stared each other, eyes boring into each others heads until the the brewer announced its completion. Leni had no reason to respond to it, and Lori knew it.
  117.  
  118.     Reluctantly breaking the duel, Lori stood to fix herself a cup. 'I'm on a timer now, it won't be long before this wakes Luna and Luan up.' Doctoring her drink with a teaspoon of sugar and creamer, only then did she realize that the kitchen was still dark save for the gradually brightening morning light. Walking to the lightswitch, she glanced back at Leni and nearly dropped her mug. Backlit by the window, her facial features obscured...
  119.  
  120.     Lori knew it sounded childish, but it was as if she was looking at a monster in the dark.
  121.  
  122.     A monster that had haunted her once before; haunted all of them.
  123.  
  124.     Flicking on the overhead light, both of them squinted, and Lori looked at her sister again. Aside from the sudden assault on her eyes, Leni didn't look any different than any other morning aside from her disheveled appearance. "Leni... tell me about Ricardo." If she kept Leni on her toes, the ditz was sure to trip eventually.
  125.  
  126.     Eyes remaining narrowed, Leni scoured her mind for any memory of the person she was referring to. She tried reading Lori's face for any clue on how she should feel, but an unblinking stoic visage rejected her. "Who?"
  127.  
  128.     "Good one, but don't play dumb." Lori's sardonic smirk unsettled the younger sister, who knew there was something here she needed to be picking up on.
  129.  
  130.     "Well... he's, like, alright I guess?"
  131.  
  132.     'So there IS something there.' Lori mentally patted herself on the back. "Just 'alright'? How alright is he?"
  133.  
  134.     Leni frowned at the vague line of questioning. "Like, as alright as Bobby, maybe?" She'd meant it as a subtle jab, but her sister seemed to have taken it a different direction.
  135.  
  136.     Her smirk blowing into a full-blown grin, Lori pounced. "I KNEW it! You've been holding out on me!" Leni tensed in anticipation of another tongue-lashing, but this exchange seemed more enthusiastic than the other. "I've gotta ask, though, why him? Do you know how many guys on the football and soccer teams ask about you on a regular basis?"
  137.  
  138.     'Ugh, pigs. Hopefully I wasn't so stupid I took anyone up on the offer.' Wiping that possibility from her mind, Leni scrambled to latch onto anything that might satisfy the other girl's curiosity. "I don't know, he just seems... nice, once you get to know him."
  139.  
  140.     A discussion with Bobby was definitely in order, Lori decided as she sipped on her coffee. "And just how long have you been getting to know him?"
  141.  
  142.     "Like, a few weeks now. What's with all these questions?"
  143.  
  144.     'A few weeks? That lines up with what I've read up on. Leni...' Lori had had to be careful as her and Bobby's nights out had gotten closer and closet to tonight; THE night. Leni hadn't been so studious, it seemed, and now they had a real problem on their hands. The irritability, the sickness, weakness; it all just fit together too perfectly. "Sis, how long has it been since your last, erm..." She'd never had a problem discussing this before now, but somehow the thought of trying to explain to Leni just what was happening to her left her feeling like a mother talking to her daughter about her first period.
  145.  
  146.     Leni's jaw dropped as she caught on to her sister's mode of thought. 'Are you serious right now? What do you take me for, some kind of slut?' Her face blazed with barely-restrained rage. 'Like, even if I was still an idiot, I doubt I'd start putting out as soon as I'm sure you did.' Resisting the urge to spit on her sister, Leni realized that this too could work to her advantage. 'She knows something is wrong, and this is what she comes up with? She doesn't WANT to believe I'm off my meds!'
  147.  
  148.     Lori took her sister's beet-red blush to mean she'd finally cracked. 'Time to follow through.' Rising from her seat, Lori slowly crossed the room and leaned on the counter next to Leni. "Hey, listen up. LOOK at me." Slowly, Leni turned to her, her face a portrait of misery. Lori allowed herself to smile as her frustration melted away, replaced with understanding for her little sister's plight. "You know what this might mean, right?" Leni jerked her head once to signify she knew, and she continued, "and you know I'm going to stick with you all the way, however it might go, yeah?"
  149.  
  150.     'You are so full of it.' Leni felt sickened by her sister's assurances, by her attempts to relate to her. Lori had never made time for her that didn't relate to her own desires, and that wasn't likely to change now. Not that it mattered, since this was a crisis of her older sister's own imagining. 'I almost pity you, you know? Like, how empty is your existence, how starved are you for something to take care of that you could come up with this in just two days? Anything to feel like you matter, right?' The need to let Lori know how she truly felt was burning a hole in both her heart and stomach, but she only had to be patient for a short while longer.
  151.  
  152.     The welcome noise of a door closing upstairs alerted them to the end of their private moment, and Lori gave her a squeeze on the shoulder before going to the refrigerator and collecting a few items, fixing some of the previous mess at the same time. "We need to continue this later," she said, "but for now, just take it easy, alright? No more falls especially, if you need help with anything, just let me or one of the others know. That's an order, got it?" Leni nodded, and began shuffling out of the room, though she overheard on her way, "jeez, what am I going to do about Lola? If it really wasn't her, then I'm completely screwed."
  153.  
  154.     Looking back over her shoulder, Leni seized the chance she'd been waiting for. "Actually, like, I can take care of that if you want."
  155.  
  156.     "Huh? What could you do to make up for what I did?"
  157.  
  158.     "Well," Leni employed her brother's timid posture again, "it's also my fault for everything that happened. But I've got an idea!" Glad that Lori actually seemed to be interested, she continued, "you ripped her dress, right?"
  159.  
  160.     "On accident, yeah, and in self defense too!" Lori couldn't bring herself to feel bad about that particular offense.
  161.  
  162.     Tapping a finger against her chin, Leni put some effort into looking like she was thinking hard before suggesting, "well, how about I fix the dress? Or better yet, like, make her a new one! I can give it to her as, like, a peace offering on your behalf, and then when she's feeling up to it she can thank you!"
  163.  
  164.     Lori considered a moment before agreeing, "that... actually doesn't sound like a bad idea. The way she holds grudges, she definitely won't want it from me right away. How soon could you do that?"
  165.  
  166.     "Oh, I've got plenty of material, and I could check the attic too for anything else I need. Just leave it to me!" The younger sister flashed a thumbs-up at the older, before wincing slightly at the abrupt motion. "Right after I ice this ouchie. And get a shower." Lori smiled at her as she took her leave, and she nearly collided with Luna, who had just made it down the stairs. She didn't seem all there yet, and probably wouldn't be until she'd had her bitter nectar.
  167.  
  168.     Ducking around the corner, she listened to Lori go full 'disappointed mother' on their next-youngest sister. "Luna, I'm glad you're up. Is Luan up too?"
  169.  
  170.     "Wha...? Nah, dude, she crashed and burned last night. Fell asleep before both me and Len."
  171.  
  172.     "I see. Maybe that had something to do with the day she had? The day all three of you had?"
  173.  
  174.     The sound of porcelain striking the counter a little harder than necessary signaled Luna's intent to put up a fight. She groaned, "c'mon, Lori, do we gotta do this now? We already sorted it all out, everyone's cool." As the two got into details regarding the drum, Leni left them to their devices and journeyed upstairs to secure the shower.
  175.  
  176. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  177.  
  178.     Locking the bathroom door behind her, she ran the water and disrobed before chancing a glance at the mirror. A hideous bruise had already begun to color her backside, adding to the rest of the mess that was her normally fabulous self.
  179.  
  180.     Stepping under the flowing water, she allowed herself to truly relax for the first time since she'd regained her memories. 'So much to do, so little time.' Both Lori and Lincoln would be out of the house tonight, so the pressure would be on to do as much damage as possible in that window. Luan and Lynn would be simple enough to deal with, but she was still undecided on whether to try to turn Luna into an ally. One day's worth of reopened dialogue wasn't a sure enough bet, she needed something concrete to make the risk worthwhile.
  181.  
  182.     'The drum. Maybe if I replace it... but she said it cost almost two-hundred dollars!' Surely she had some money put up somewhere, even if she'd just forgotten where it was, but it was a stretch to assume there as that much on hand. It wasn't as if cash just appeared without some very careful pleading to the parents or some hard work-
  183.  
  184.     ["Alright, Lincoln, just a little... bit... more! Whew, this is hard work!"]
  185.     ["You're telling me! I'm doing most of the lifting!"]
  186.  
  187.     Leni carefully grasped the support bar on the wall. 'Not this time.' It was difficult though, and highly disorienting, to hear herself think during this... whatever THIS was. It was like a lucid dream she couldn't wake up from.
  188.  
  189.     ["It's too bad Lori didn't want to keep this frame, but I can always just, like, make another if I need a ride!"]
  190.     ["Heck, I'd have taken it if it weren't practically the size of my room. This thing is amazing, Leni!"]
  191.     ["Aww, thanks Linc, but this is nothing. You should've seen what I made for her after I heard her talking about Bobby's wood-"]
  192.  
  193.     She actually giggled as she rested her back against the wall and slid down to sit at the base of the tub. When had she had this conversation with him?
  194.  
  195.     ["T.M.I., Leni! Hey, wait, who is that?"]
  196.     ["Excuse me, miss! Young lady, are you two getting rid of this masterpiece?!"]
  197.     ["Well yeah, we've got like, no use for it."]
  198.     ["I see! You know, I could take it off your hands for you, free of charge!"]
  199.     ["Wow, really?! That would totes be-"]
  200.     ["A generous offer, and we'd be willing to part with it... for a price."]
  201.     ["What? B-but your friend said-"]
  202.     ["Sister. My sister forgot that we have to make the money back that went into this beauty."]
  203.     ["I did? Wow, it's a good thing you're so on top of things, Lincoln!"]
  204.  
  205.     'Wow, I REALLY underestimated him. Like, what were we trying to sell, though? I wanted a ride... Lori always makes us do something in return... a picture frame? Window frame? No, BED frame-'
  206.  
  207.     ["Oh... very well, how much would ask for it?"]
  208.     ["Well, considering the wood, and time and labor, I'd say about... four hundred."]
  209.     ["... two hundred."]
  210.     ["Three-hundred fifty."]
  211.     ["TWO hundred-fifty."]
  212.     ["Two-hundred fifty-ONE!"]
  213.     ["LENI!"]
  214.     ["I'll take it! Pleasure doing business with you, kids!"]
  215.     ["Wow, thanks mister! Buh-bye!"]
  216.     ["What a nice old man! So did we, like, do good?"]
  217.     ["Well... something is better than nothing, so I'd say yes. And hey, people want to buy your stuff, Leni!"]
  218.     ["Huh... they do, don't they? But, like, how am I going to design clothes if I'm busy carving wood?"]
  219.     ["Who's to say you couldn't do both? Leni Loud, fashion AND interior designer!"]
  220.     ["Oh, Lincoln, stop! You're just saying that!"]
  221.     ["No, for real, sis. You've got two incredible talents, who knows what you could do with both of them?"]
  222.     ["Lincoln... that's so nice of you to think that. Thanks, my favoritest little brother!"]
  223.  
  224.     The water streaming down her face wasn't just coming from the shower, she realized. Scrubbing at her eyes, she held onto the memory as tightly as she could, another reminder that throughout her entire ordeal, Lincoln had been the only one who truly looked at her for who she was. It occurred to her that the memory she'd just recovered had an added significance. 'That memory came from a time when Lori could drive, which means... it happened within the past four years. Not only that, she'd have had to be at least sixteen.' That meant the memory was no older than two years at most, accounting for her sister's birthday later this year.
  225.  
  226.     "YES! I knew it would only be a matter of time!" Riding a high of vindication, she tried to remember what might have happened to that money they'd made. That memory, unfortunately, didn't blindside her like the others had. "Of course. Well, I know who I'll be seeing next." She proceeded with her shower, and after drying off and freshening up she made it back to her room just in time to avoid the morning rush.
  227.  
  228.     Discarding her towel and clothes, she went to the closet and began assembling her typical outfit when a shock of color caught her eye. Wading in deeper, she discovered what looked to be a long-forgotten ensemble on her side of the wardrobe. Gathering the fabric up in her arms, she nearly dropped it again when she discovered what it was. "My old look..." Drawing them back up, she cradled the articles of clothing almost like she would if it were Lily. A sky blue dress had covered a pair of small boots with fur trimming the tops and a small box with what looked to be a faux pearl necklace inside.
  229.  
  230.     She reflected upon them for a moment, reflected on the last time she'd worn them. 'They were dragging me into that room with those... people...' She let them fall to the ground, backing away from the tainted remnants of her past. As she did, she noticed that there were some similar clothes on display that were more appropriate to her current age and build. Reaching toward them and pulling back slightly, she shook her head and grabbed them, marching back out into the room and over to her bed. Laying them neatly on the mattress, she took a moment to appreciate that her former self's fashion sense had remained intact. "This, I can work with. Hmmm... I wonder what the others would think if I wore this right now?"
  231.  
  232.     No, she'd taken enough risks for one weekend. Deciding to play it safe until Lori and Lincoln were away, she donned another green dress and slipped on her sandals before taking inventory of the dress-making materials in the room. "Seems like plenty to work with. Still, I could check the attic for some inspiration. And while I'm on that topic..." Leni searched the closet, drawers and her bed for a wad of cash, to no avail. "Where's the one place where, like, no one would look in here?" She pivoted in place to eye each feature of the room closely before stopping at Lori's bed. Striding up to it, she lifted the mattress with one hand, the bedskirt with the other, and found her prize. "Heh, maybe I wasn't so stupid after all." Lori would never stoop so low as to make her own bed, so it was the perfect hiding spot.
  233.  
  234.     Freshly clothed and pampered, with a (small) stack of bills to her name, Leni was ready to face the day. An awkward gait still hampered her as she ventured into the hallway, but for better and worse no one seemed to notice as she strolled down the corridor to the twins' room. Knocking twice, she was puzzled to find the door opened by an unnaturally formal Lana, who held it for her and bowed with the other arm extended to invite her in. Cautiously accepting, Leni entered the frightfully pink room and almost tripped over Lana as the young girl swooped around her to pull out a chair from Lola's tea table. "Uh, thanks."
  235.  
  236.     She winced as she bent her back at the perfectly wrong angle to fit into the child-sized chair."You're welcome, Leni." It wasn't her disturbingly attentive handler who answered her, though. "Would you care for a cup of tea?" Lola asked, prim and proper as a princess ought to be.
  237.  
  238.     Leni nearly declined, but something about her sister's gap-toothed smile and the whole atmosphere in the room made her reconsider. "Like, that would be lovely!" Before she'd even finished speaking Lana was pouring her drink, and she averted her gaze to her other side, only to be met with the thousand-yard stare of her host's teddy bear.
  239.  
  240.     "Very good, Lana. You can join us anytime, you know, if you want to." The older twin shook her head, a hint of dread to it as she set the pot back on their play stovetop and absconded to her side of the room. "Well, more for us, then! So, what brings you to our neck of the enchanted woods?" Leni jerked her head back, realizing she was the one being spoken to.
  241.  
  242.     'Wow, she's in full roleplay mode. And what's up with the other one?' Somehow the entire scene she'd walked into was more intimidating than Lori had ever been. "Well, like, I wanted to talk to you about what happened yesterday-"
  243.  
  244.     She was interrupted by Lola's cup slamming down on its saucer with an ear-piercing clink. "About how Lori tried to ruin my entire week just because her precious phone went missing? She's got some nerve, considering all the stuff she takes from us and how she treats us when she's in charge. I didn't do it, but I'm rooting for whoever did." There was fire in the little girl's eyes, a fire that Leni knew only too well. A fire she knew how to stoke.
  245.  
  246.     Leaning over the table, or rather hunching over it, she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper as she shared, "you know, between you and me, I feel the same way." Surprise was evident in Lola's expression and posture, and Leni knew she'd pressed the right buttons. "And that's one of the reasons I knew you were, like, totes innocent."
  247.  
  248.     The six-year old's confidence lapsed somewhat, replaced by a bout of self-consciousness as she confessed, "I really thought you were going to send me up the river. I'm sorry about what I said, you saved me last night along with Lincoln." Drawing in a breath and readopting her haughty attitude, Lola asked, "what do you mean about feeling the same way?"
  249.  
  250.     "Well," Leni paused for effect, "I've been dealing with Lori's attitude problem for 'literally' sixteen years," she did her best impression of her sister and her catchphrase, to the amusement of the twins, "so I know how it goes. And I wanted to do something for you if you'd, like, be willing to do something for me." That definitely piqued her third-youngest sibling's interest.
  251.  
  252.     "I'm not in the habit of owing people, you know. That's what started this in the first place."
  253.  
  254.     Offering her a placating smile, Leni assured her, "it's not about either of us owing the other, what I want will help both of us. If you're alright with it, I want to fix your dress, the one Lori tore while you were fighting."
  255.  
  256.     Lola's teeth and hands clenched at the memory. "I don't think that's something you could manage, but thanks for the offer."
  257.  
  258.     "I wouldn't go that far. Like, not only could I fix it, but maybe make it even better than it was before." The two of them stared at each other in silent contemplation, and Lola stood to pace back and forth at her side of the table. Leni waited, sipping on the admittedly good tea all the while.
  259.  
  260.     "And... if you did that for me, what would you want in return?" As full of herself as she was, Lola knew that she didn't have much to offer her big sisters that they didn't already have.
  261.  
  262.     Folding her hands on her lap, Leni was every bit the image of the schemer Lola was known as. "I would want you to keep an eye on Lori." She let the request sit in the air a moment, her sister's confusion her cue to elaborate. "Like, if you see her doing anything suspicious, especially about the phone, I want you to let me know about it. If she uses another phone to call anyone, or talks to someone in private, anything like that, I need to know."
  263.  
  264.     "Hey, isn't that spy-" Lana shut her trap as Lola zeroed in on her with a venomous glare. Leni had forgotten she was even there with how silent she'd been.
  265.  
  266.     Returning her attention to Leni, Lola said, "she is kind of right, though. Isn't that spying?" Usually there was no need for anything of the sort in the house, everyone was fairly open with their business aside from Lincoln and Lisa.
  267.  
  268.     "Maybe a little bit, but it's for a just cause!" Leni clapped her hands together, a devious grin shaking Lola's composure. "Don't you want to get back at her for what she did?" Her host hesitantly nodded her head as Lana looked on in concern. "Well, I want to help you get the chance I never got. We're going to give her a little taste of what it's like to get picked on." Lola's reluctance began to give way to her desire for revenge, and she drew closer to her big sister.
  269.  
  270.     As the two plotted, the older twin looked on with a sort of primal, animalistic fear urging her to get away. She might not be as smart as Lola, or as old as the others, but she could tell that something had changed in their second-oldest sister since last night. Before she had been kind of a loopy, silly teen who was willing to play with them on the condition that it didn't ruin her makeup or clothes. Now... now she was like some combination of Lola and Lisa; she sounded smarter and was using those smarts for evil.
  271.  
  272.     "You drive a hard bargain, Leni, a lot harder than I gave you credit for." The older sister expressed her appreciation of that blunt honesty with a crooked grin. "Alright, I can watch out for Lori. And in exchange, I've got a list of changes to spruce up that dress for my next pageant!" Leni had been expecting something like this, but that list quickly outran anything her skills would be able to prepare in one day. "No rush, although it'd be just great if I had something to show off to my friends Wednesday!" Lola fluttered her eyes to seal the deal.
  273.  
  274.     Leaning back as far as the tiny chair would allow, Leni drummed her fingers against the table before finally saying, "I think we've got a deal." They shook on it, a dark pact that Lola didn't understand the significance of now sealed. Downing the last of her drink, Leni rose from her seat and gave an exaggerated curtsy to the little princess. "Like, thank you so much for having me, sis! We'll have to get together like this more often!"
  275.  
  276.     Her ego expanding exponentially, Lola crowed, "we certainly will! See how nice this is when everyone actually plays together nicely, Lana?" She shot a smug expression at the silent twin, and Leni briefly wished she knew just what she was missing there before shrugging it off and making for the door.
  277.  
  278. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  279.  
  280.     Back in the hallway, the sound of two doors closing in unison alerted her to the presence of another, and she turned to see Luan rubbing tiredly at her eyes as she finally woke up. The brunette took a moment to realize she wasn't alone, and offered a little wave and a small smile before carefully treading down the steps.
  281.  
  282.     'Good, she still thinks we're on the same page. She's definitely first on the shit list tonight.' A heady anticipation filled her at the thought of finally being able to act out her vengeance. Now that she'd secured Lola's help, she had some research to do on Lynn's behalf, and there was a particular person she'd need to go to for that. Swiveling to the left, Leni was confronted with Lincoln's door. Knocking twice like before, she stood patiently. A minute later, she knocked three times, and waited two minutes. 'I guess I can't blame him, he dealt with all of us yesterday.'
  283.  
  284.     She had just turned to pursue her Luna contingency when her brother's door creaked open behind her and a loud yawn issued forth from it. "Mornin', Leni. What's up?"
  285.  
  286.     Spinning on her heels, she folded her arms behind her back and sang, "good mooorning~! Just wanted to see what my favoritest little brother is up to!" She had a sneaking suspicion he'd be suspicious of HER when he got his wits about him, so she practically barged into his room at the same time as she asked, "mind if I hang out for a bit?"
  287.  
  288.     "Oh, sure! Come on in." He didn't even seem to realize she was already making herself at home as he closed the door again, shuffling back to the bed and plopping down on it. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he observed her observing his room, observing it with judgement no longer clouded by some foreign substance. He was conflicted, though, as last night's spectacle came back in haunting detail. "So, how's it going this morning?" He noticed the odd way she positioned herself as she sat, like her back or rear end were in pain.
  289.  
  290.     "It's been a pretty crazy one, that's for sure. How about you? Looks like you got some well-deserved beauty sleep!"
  291.  
  292.     "No, not beauty sleep, I told you!" He laughed as their conversation that night came back to him, and on that note he frowned as he remembered what she'd had to do with that trial getting out of hand the night before. "Leni, I need to ask you a few questions about what happened with the phone. What happened last night was the real crazy thing."
  293.  
  294.     Frowning, she fell back onto the bed. "I owe you that much. What did you want to know?"
  295.  
  296.     Lincoln stared at her in complete shock. She had been expecting this, expecting him to go after her. That could only mean..."Leni, did you take the phone?"
  297.  
  298.     'Straight to it, huh?' She knew it was inevitable, but she'd hoped to enjoy some more time with her brother before having to mislead him. Still, she could tell a great deal of the truth to him, and she owed him that as well. "I did." She turned to him, and her heart railed against her as she saw the hurt etched onto his face.
  299.  
  300.     "But...but WHY? Why take it, and why blame Lola? Why let things get so out of hand?" He asked desperately, unable to rationalize her actions with the caring young woman he'd become privy to just two nights ago.
  301.  
  302.     Leni looked back to the ceiling, letting her arm cover her eyes as she resolved to tell him as much as possible. "I took it to, like, teach Lori a lesson. You saw how ready she was to tear Lola up, right?" Lincoln nodded, glad to at least be getting what he thought was the full story. "All that over a phone. A phone she uses all day, every day. She spends more time with that phone than she does with her own family, and I wanted to teach her a lesson."
  303.  
  304.     Though he didn't quite agree with her methods, Lincoln COULD agree that Lori was distant from them, and willfully at that. "But that's no different from Luna spending all her time with her instruments, or Lucy with her secret dark places. That's not the only reason you took it, is it?" He'd promised to help her through this, and that meant helping her realize when she was wrong as well.
  305.  
  306.     'Of course he can see through me.' She thought, letting her arm fall away to stare at his ceiling. 'He can't see all the way through, though.' Sitting back up, she wrung her hands as she admitted, "you're right, it's not. Like, I was so mad about what Lori was making me do with the medicine, I just... I just wanted to get back at her somehow. I didn't think it would cause trouble for everyone else, though."
  307.  
  308.     He wasn't quite convinced yet. "Alright, but why did you blame Lola? I hadn't even thought about it until the trial, but there was no way you could have seen whether she dd it or not. We were both downstairs after we woke up."
  309.  
  310.     Lip quivering, Leni conceded, "that was a lie. She was trying so hard to give you a hard time, I wanted to give her something else to focus on. Lincoln, I'm so sorry." The two of them faced each other, a heaviness in the air from both the lie and the truth. "I made a stupid decision, and dragged you and everyone else into my petty grudge. I know I've got, like, no right to ask, but can you forgive me?"
  311.  
  312.     As much as it hurt to know that she'd lied to him, Lincoln couldn't imagine how he'd react if he'd found out the same things she had about herself. 'She at least tried to make things right by letting Lola off the hook. And now she's coming clean to me, so that's a good start'. Sliding over and taking her hand in his, he shushed her, "it's alright Leni, I forgive you." The look of shock, followed quickly by a shaky smile, made him feel as though it was the right thing to do. That didn't mean she was completely off the hook, though. "There's one thing I want you to do, though."
  313.  
  314.     "Anything." She'd meant it when she told him she was in his debt, even if she knew what the request was going to be.
  315.  
  316.     "You need to give the phone back, and apologize to Lori. I know you're mad at her for what she did, and I kind of am too, even if I don't know the whole story." Leni set aside her vitriol long enough to take heart in his wisdom. "But I think she learned her lesson by now, and if it goes on any longer it's just gonna make her think that maybe she was right all this time."
  317.  
  318.     'Never change, Lincoln.' She hoped he'd never have to learn the lessons she had, though if she had her way it would be a nonissue. "Yeah, it's gotten to that point. Buuut... I'm going to wait until tomorrow to do it."
  319.  
  320.     A suspicious look was aimed her way as Lincoln questioned, "why the wait?"
  321.  
  322.     "Well, she's going out tonight, I think. I just want her to realize there's a life beyond that phone, that she needs to be more involved with the people, places and things around her. If you want me to do it now, though, I will." So much for avoiding risks. By placing the choice in his hands, she had to hope she'd made a compelling argument.
  323.  
  324.     'It really would be nice for her to give it a rest for a while...' Her faith turned out to be well-placed. "Well...I agree that she could spend a little more time away from it. But you HAVE to give it back tomorrow, alright? Consider that the favor you said you owe me." He smiled at his clever spin on her promise, and she smiled with him, proud that at least one of them was still able to take the high road.
  325.  
  326.     "I promise, Lincoln." She crossed her heart to make it official, and that hatchet was buried. "So, you're also going to be gone tonight, right?"
  327.  
  328.     "Oh, yeah! Lori's going to take me over to Clyde's on her way to Bobby's. Oh, but are you and Luna gonna be able to keep the others from making this place a pile of rubble?" He hadn't considered that the two typical leaders would be gone at the same time.
  329.  
  330.     Making a show of examining her nails, Leni assured him, "like, I think we've got this under control. Plus, I'm going to talk to Luna, Luan and Lynn about...about everything tonight."
  331.  
  332.     "Really? You're sure it's not too soon?" Lincoln silently thanked Clyde for talking him out of revealing her secret.
  333.  
  334.     "I'm sure. I want to get this out of my system, and now seems like the best time." He didn't have to know exactly what she wanted to get out of her system.
  335.  
  336.     Lincoln grinned at her, releasing her hand and pumping both of his fists. "Alright! It's gonna be completely different in the house now; completely great!" Seething anger took a backseat to bubbly warmth once more as Leni viewed his display of support. Something just beyond him caught her attention, and she found her gaze returned by Bub-bun, whom she hadn't truly looked upon she she gifted the toy to Lincoln all those years ago. He followed her line of sight to the doll, then back again, and his face became rosy as he picked it up. "Oh, this. I, uh, I know that I'm probably too old to keep holding on to him, but..."
  337.  
  338.     "But...?"
  339.  
  340.     "But, he's still my favorite toy, and my favorite birthday present I ever got." Leni was speechless at the admission, and even more so when he handed the doll to her to look at. The stuffed bunny had been worn with time, but looked to have been lovingly cared for all these years. Still as perfect as she'd made him, aside from the seam where his arm had-
  341.  
  342.     ["Happy birthday, Linc!"]
  343.     ["Wow, thanks Leni! What is it?"]
  344.     ["Well, you've got to open it up, silly!"]
  345.  
  346.     She briefly recognized Lincoln uttering her name as she fell onto her side on the bed.
  347.  
  348.     ["Let's...seeee...oh wow, he's so cute!"]
  349.     ["Really, Leni? He's seven years old. And a boy."]
  350.     ["Like, so what? He's not old and bitter yet like you are, Lori."]
  351.     ["EXCUSE ME?!"]
  352.     ["Just kidding! You need to lighten up, or you'll get wrinkles. Well, even more wrinkles!"]
  353.     ["Why you...get BACK here, Leni!"}
  354.     {"Leni! Talk to me! What's wrong?!"}
  355.     {"LENI!"}
  356.  
  357.     Lincoln tried everything, from snapping his fingers to clapping his hands near her ears and hollering at her, but nothing seemed to be breaking her from her trance. "Leni, snap out of it! Oh man, I need to get a glass of water to throw or something!"
  358.  
  359.     ~"L-Lincoln..."~
  360.     {"Lincoln, come on! Let me see him!"]
  361.     ["Lynn, wait-"]
  362.     ["No, you'll just rip him up! Give him to me!"]
  363.     ["Luan, give him back-"]
  364.     ["Youre BOTH going to ruin it. Hand it over!"]
  365.     ["Luna, no!"]
  366.     [...]
  367.     ["See, I told you. You tore his arm off!"]
  368.     ["Me?! You wouldn't stop pulling-"]
  369.     ["You're BOTH to blame! Look, you made Lincoln cry!"]
  370.     ["Lincoln cries all the time, what's new?"]
  371.     ["Girls! Apologize to your brother now!"]
  372.     ["Ugh. We're sorry, Lincoln."]
  373.     ["Lincoln..."}
  374.     {"Lincoln..."}
  375.  
  376.     "Lincoln..." Leni regained her senses to find herself crushed in his embrace, mumbling his name as he rubbed her back and stroked her hair. "Linc?"
  377.  
  378.     The abbreviation of his name shook him out of his own reverie, and he looked at Leni with panicked eyes. "Leni, w-what happened? You fell over and just, just started babbling and saying my name over and over..." She hoisted herself up, setting Bub-bun off to one side as she shook the loose memory into place. "Are you alright? Do you want me to get someone?"
  379.  
  380.     "N-no, no. I'm fine, Lincoln, really." She assuaged him, smiling warmly at his concern. "I'm fine now, thanks to you." She drew him into a hug, one he fiercely returned and loosened up on when she yelped from the pressure on her injury. Another comfortable silence blanketed them in the wake of her episode, the rain outside growing slightly more insistent as if in protest. "I'm sorry you had to see that. It's, like, another side effect of going off the medicine."
  381.  
  382.     "The way you fell over, though...is that what happened to your back?"
  383.  
  384.     She grimaced at the speed with which he put these things together. "Well, yeah. But it's alright. I'm willing to take a couple bruises to get back those lost memories."
  385.  
  386.     Lincoln pondered a moment before asking, "what did you remember just then?" She told him about gifting him the rabbit, and their sisters trying to take it for themselves and ruining it. "Aww, we were all just little kids back then. I know they didn't mean it."
  387.  
  388.     'Them not meaning it isn't the problem.' Leni thought bitterly, that telltale bile souring her good mood. "Doesn't it bother you, though? That they treat you the way they do?"
  389.  
  390.     "Well, with nine-no, make that eight pushy and nosy sisters, you've just gotta roll with it, right? At the end of the day we all still love each other, even if we get on each other's nerves." Saint Loud didn't quite roll off the tongue, but he was definitely gunning for it, she decided.
  391.  
  392.     "Oh, Lincoln...you're too good for us..." Not giving him a chance to question her, she hung a hard left. "So, what exactly are you looking to buy at that comic shop?"
  393.  
  394.     A double-take followed at the abrupt change of topic, but as he'd mentioned Lincoln decided to roll with it and answered, "at the one in Royal Oaks I'm going to pick up Musclefish, Glob Man, and of course I'll be looking for the new Ace Savvy! But I don't expect to see that one until I get back here to town. Plus, I've only got enough money to pick up two of them, so I'll miss out on the third." He sounded discouraged, but it was a level-headed approach that she thought deserved to be rewarded.
  395.  
  396.     "Actually, you could afford all three, and then some." As he looked on in bemusement, she produced from some invisible place on her person a familiar set of paper bills. "This is the money we got from selling that bedframe I made. I need, like, two hundred of it to replace something of Luna's that I broke yesterday. On accident," she quickly saved as his eyes widened. "But," she continued after taking her share, "I think you deserve the rest of it that I've got to give. You were the one who really made the sale, and you ought to have something nice for yourself for once."
  397.  
  398.     As she handed him the remaining fifty-one dollars, she would have sworn that his eyes were replaced by dollar signs. "Leni, this is too much, I can't-"
  399.  
  400.     "You can, and you will. Like, this isn't just a gift, Lincoln; you EARNED this." Thinking of it that way, he reconsidered the princely sum, pride welling within him as he tentatively accepted it. "Now, I don't know if you plan on spending it all on comics, but whatever you do just remember to be careful with it!"
  401.  
  402.     "Y-yeah, totally. Best. Sister. EVER, by the way." They grinned at one another, and spent the rest of the morning discussing their plans and what all they'd be able to plan for the future now that she could be more involved in that process. During the conversation, Leni asked to use his laptop to look up something for her own plans, and he gladly allowed it. As he regaled her with tales of his previous exploits, she hummed a little tune as she researched foods — particularly fruits and vegetables — for a very particular purpose.
  403.  
  404. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  405.  
  406.     Immediately adjacent to them, another Loud was setting a plan into motion, and this time Leni was the target. Lori didn't bother knocking as she entered Lisa and Lily's room, the acrid stench of chemicals and 'poo-poo' spilling into the hallway. Waving a hand in front of her face and closing the door, she focused her vision on the wall as her second-youngest sibling spot welded two objects to one another. Luckily there was a thick visor separating her work area from Lily's crib, and as the blinding arc light died down the child genius lifted her mask to acknowledge the intrusion. "Lori. What can I do for you?"
  407.  
  408.     Lori had the distinction of being the only one besides their parents who could make demands of Lisa and know they would be fulfilled. Opting for a more even approach this time, the eldest Loud requested, "I need your help with something extremely important. It can't wait." Nervous energy drove her to fidget as Lisa sighed and powered down her equipment. Placing her personal protective equipment back in its proper place, the four-year old took a seat near her desk and motioned for her to continue. "I need you to get me all the records you have on Leni's recent activity. Bathroom logs, diet adjustments, literally everything."
  409.  
  410.     "Of coursthe. Might I asthk what the sthensthe of urgencthy is for?" The occuapant hopped up and waddled to her file cabinet, sorting out all the relevant datasheets.
  411.  
  412.     "Well, you're going to find out anyway, so make sure to keep this a secret." With a nodded head in the way of an oath, Lori informed her, "we need to make sure whether Leni is or isn't...pregnant."
  413.  
  414.     Lisa stopped flipping through the folders for a fraction of a second before resuming. "Really? That'sth cthertainly...sthomething."
  415.  
  416.     "Uh, yeah, it certainly is." Lori pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed before traversing the room to the crib. She looked down at her sleeping youngest sister, the baby swaddled in her blanket and oblivious to the world. "I still can't believe this might really be happening."
  417.  
  418.     "I can. Leni isthn't exactly the mostht prudent persthon in this housthe." Lori fixed the toddler with a warning glare, to which Lisa shrugged her shoulders. "Thisth type of thing is more common than you think, justht be careful you don't get into the sthame sthituation tonight."
  419.  
  420.     Lori had begun to turn back to Lily, but whipped back around at the knowing tone in her sister's voice. "Wh- how do you know about that?!" She'd apparently raised her voice too much though, as the youngest Loud began to stir. Lori set aside her confusion and leaned down to pick the baby up, patting her on the back. "Well good morning, little miss sunshine. Did I wake you up?"
  421.  
  422.     "Ma-ma!" Lily implored, trying to escape her comfy prison. Lori shifted her in her arms and lifted a finger up to boop her on the nose, earning a big smile in return.
  423.  
  424.     "Well, I'm not mama, but I think I know what you want and I can do something about it. Let's go get you some formula." Laying her sister back down long enough to unwrap her from her cotton cocoon, she picked Lily back up and slowly spun, eliciting a delighted giggle from her. On her way to the door, she stopped to address the other baby. "I'm counting on you, Lisa. And I'll make sure to get you back for it."
  425.  
  426.     Waving the offer off, Lisa coolly answered, "no worriesth, Lori. I sthupposthe I've got a vesthted interestht in finding out if I'm going to be a four-year old aunt." When she put it in perspective like that, the significance became a little more pronounced. "I'll watch out for her." She said it with a serious tone to match the seriousnes of the issue, and Lori offered her a grateful smile before heading with Lily to get the baby some nourishment.
  427.  
  428.     Left to her devices, Lisa finished collecting all of the meaningful information and took it back to her desk, moving her chemistry set to either side and laying the documents out on the table. Perusing them, she quickly established some of the patterns Lori was after. "Much more frequent bathroom usthe over the previousth week...no sthignificant changesth to diet...highly divergent sthleep cyclesth. Hmmm..." This would require some field observations. With her work in her room mostly finished, she afforded herself the luxury of a break and embarked to begin her fact-finding mission.
  429.  
  430.     Opening her door, she was startled to find her subject staring down at her from their brother's doorway. Leni stared at her for an awkward moment before closing Lincoln's door behind her and strolling down the hallway and stopping halfway. The blonde looked to the ceiling toward the entrance to the attic, and Lisa took the opportunity to move past her and to the bathroom, where Lana appeared to be scavenging for something.
  431.  
  432.     With many of the sisters preoccupied, Leni pulled the drawstring to deploy the stairs to the attic. Carefully scaling the steps, she sneezed as the disturbed dust filled her nose. Waving the cloud away, she began to search for any relics dating to her troubled past. Lots of old junk, from Luan's first dummy to stacks of old books no one would read again. She stumbled upon a box full of misshapen clay sculptures, probably someone's ill-fated attempt at picking up a new hobby, and chanced upon what she'd come in search of; old clothes. Intended as hand-me-downs for the younger children, they too had been lost to time amongst the other minutiae accumulated over the years.
  433.  
  434.     Rifling through the contents of several boxes, she found some material that would suffice for her purposes. If she was going to secure Lola's help, it seemed she would have to create something truly unique for the demanding little runt. As she organized the various dresses and fabrics into piles, her thoughts lingered on the twins, and how little she really knew about them beyond appearances. Lola was the archetypical spoiled princess, and Lana was the down-and-dirty tomboy. Beyond that, she couldn't recall any notable interactions she'd had with them beyond holding and helping take care of them as infants.
  435.  
  436.     If the past two days were anything to go by, then Lola was definitely a manipulator like herself and Lincoln; she was the ringleader of the anti-Lori brigade. Lana, on the other hand, appeared to be down to earth figuratively as well as literally, content to pursue her own interests unless something provoked her to act. 'I can work with both of those, just have to be careful handling Lola. Like, Lori may be stupid, but she's persistent, so for the kid to get under her skin so easily...' Then again, Leni herself had a part in that. Either way, she definitely had some work to do as far as that duo went.
  437.  
  438.     Pulling up an empty box and gathering her selections into it, she could even hear the older of the two all the way from what sounded like the bathroom. "Give it back, Lisa! Finders keepers!" That was weird, she hadn't figured Lisa for the type to outright fight with anyone. Some reply followed, too quiet for Leni to catch, before Lana argued back, "you can't tell what it is just from looking either! It's blue, it's small, it tastes sweet; it has to be candy!" What the hell? Candy in the bathroom?
  439.  
  440.     ...
  441.  
  442.     "SHIT!" Leni cried, rolling around and diving over to the stairs before righting herself and descending as fast as she could. Whirling toward the bathroom door, she found Lana barring Lisa's exit from the room, the younger of the two clutching one of her pills. 'Damnit, I should have made sure there were none that got loose!' There'd be time to beat herself or one of them up over it later.
  443.  
  444.     "Lotsh of thingsth are sthweeet, Lana, and the color has nothing to do with it." The bespectacled sister disagreed, having a familiarity with pharmaceuticals. "Thisth is sthomebody's-"
  445.  
  446.     "Like, hold on, girls!" Leni called before jogging over to them. "Lisa, can I see that for a second?"
  447.  
  448.     That deadpan stare answered her, glancing back and forth between the pill and her older sister as Lisa replied, "that'sth alright, Leni, I have thisth under control. With no container we can't be sthure of what it isth. I'll run thome teststh on it and return it to it'sth PROPER owner." She glared at Lana, who didn't budge as she watched the object with an eagle eye.
  449.  
  450.     "Leni, tell her that since I found it, it's mine," Lana pleaded, "I went to all the trouble of scrounging around here, that oughta count for something!" She either didn't notice or care about the disgusted looks she earned from both of them.
  451.  
  452.     Setting her hands on her hips, Leni declared, "there's, like, only one way to settle this." Stretching out her left hand, she requested, "hand it to me, Lisa." When the four-year old didn't comply, she demanded more forcefully, "come on, give it to me."
  453.  
  454.     "Aww, what?! No way, don't do it, Lisa!" the other child insisted.
  455.  
  456.     Leni wasn't about to let them gang up on her like they had on Lori, however. She marched into the room, hustling Lana along the way, and closed and locked the door behind her. Leering down at them, she thrust her hand directly in front of Lisa. "Last chance." Her voice was acid in their ears, and the two honed in on it instantly. For the first time, Lisa stopped to consider the force and confidence with which Leni was asserting herself, completely uncharacteristic of her normal personality. There was no way she should let her...less equipped older sister have this pill, but she had nothing to gain by fighting for it either.
  457.  
  458.     After weighing the rest of her options, including all of them that accounted for Lana's assistance of or against her, she slowly deposited the medicine in Leni's palm. The blue capsule vanished into the elder blonde's fist, and without another word the teen unlocked the door and opened it, departing immediately for her room and slamming the door shut. Lisa and Lana each looked to each other, then the door, and quietly retreated to their own rooms. While Lana would quickly get over the lost 'candy', the confrontation with Leni had shaken Lisa more than she let on.
  459.  
  460.     "Markedly aggressthive behavioral shift, increasthed environmental awarenessth...sthomething hasth definitely changed, and it doesthn't sthound like a baby." If she hadn't been hooked to the mystery before, she was now. The scientist-turned-investigator returned to her room, intent on drafting a plan to get to the bottom of the case. That pill had triggered something in her sister, and finding out why would be a critical objective.
  461.  
  462. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  463.  
  464.     As she pored over the information available to her, just on the other side of the wall her target was trying to deal with her own crisis. "I can't believe that just happened," Leni lamented as she glared at the fist containing the object of her suffering. "So stupid. Why didn't I make sure? And of course LISA had to find out about it...I've gotta do something about her, and soon." She considered just throwing the pill out the window and hoping it would dissolve in the rain, but knowing her luck, someone would probably find it and recognize it for exactly what it was.
  465.  
  466.     "No...no, I have a better idea." A maniacal grin split her face as she looked at the wretched thing with new inspiration. "If Lisa knows what you are, I'm sure she could appreciate what you're capable of..." She'd have to be careful with this one, as what she now had planned for Lisa would be the most obvious of what was in store for her sisters. Placing the pill amongst her long-forgotten clothes in the closet, Leni spirited from her room and went in search of Lori, whom she found in the kitchen playing with and feeding Lily. "Hey, Lori?"
  467.  
  468.     "Oh, hey Leni. Is your butt feeling any better?" Leni became slightly flustered at the casual use of 'butt' and nodded quickly. "Good. So, what's up? Did you talk to Lola yet?"
  469.  
  470.     Gathering her thoughts, Leni answered, "yeah. Give her a day or two, and I think things'll be, like, right as rain!" The rain outside pelted against the glass with renewed fervor at her phrasing. "Uh, we might need to, like, run to the store at some point today. Between that stuff getting ruined this morning and us having to make dinner tonight we're a little strapped."
  471.  
  472.     It briefly occurred to Lori that Leni was being unusually forward-thinking today. 'No, not just today, ever since Friday.' With her attention divided though, she chalked it up to all the excitement that had been going on. Thinking on the past couple nights, she agreed. "Alright, we can do that. Let me just finish up with Lily." After making sure their littlest sister was well-fed, she took her back up to her room. Leni followed, and waited outside as Lori had a brief conversation with Lisa before returning. "Let's knock it out now, I've got a lot more running to do later on."
  473.  
  474.     As they began to step away, Leni heard a whispered 'psst!' from behind her. Lola beckoned her to lean down, and as she did her co-conspirator informed her, "that's the second time today that Lori talked to her about something." Leni smiled gratefully at the information as Lori came back, having collected the keys and soon the two of them were on their way to the market.
  475.  
  476.     Their shopping trip was a fruitful endeavor, with Leni collecting the items she would need to put Lynn out of commission. Rhubarb and nutmeg would suit her needs, along with some various smoothie staples, and by way of explanation she informed Lori that her intent was to bake a pie with Lincoln's help upon his return to try and expand on the work they'd done yesterday morning. Plus, who didn't like a good smoothie now and then? Unable to find any fault with the idea, her sister offered no objections. Leni was giddy the entire trip back with thoughts of the poetic justice she'd be serving to her sisters in the next twenty-four hours.
  477.  
  478.     Arriving back at the house, they were met by Lana, who was taking full advantage of the rain to build a mud fort in the front yard. As Lori grabbed several bags and called for someone to get the door, Leni approached the older twin. "Hey, Lana, you got a second?"
  479.  
  480.     The mud-caked young girl eyed her warily as she approached, having already had two hostile encounters with Leni in one day. "Uh, yeah."
  481.  
  482.     Putting on a contrite mask, Leni fished around in one of the grocery bags as she explained, "well, I felt bad about how I acted earlier. Like, I should have asked more nicely for that pill, but it was dangerous for you to have it." Hand grasping what she'd been searching for, she pulled out a bag of assorted candies and offered it in apology. "Do you think we can call it squaresies?"
  483.  
  484.     Hands shooting up to her cheeks, Lana squealed, "EEEEEEE! Thanks, Leni! Yeah, we're good, this is totally sweet!" All offenses forgotten, she snatched the bag and darted back to the front door, ignoring Lori's protests to wipe her shoes and everything else off and fleeing up to her room. Satisfied at having secured her good graces with both the twins, Leni helped Lori get the rest of the groceries and put them away, intent of putting the last parts of her plot into place.
  485.  
  486.     After the goods were safely put away, Leni paid a visit to Luna and Luan, who had been spending the rainy day working on their material. "Yo, Len, what's up mama?" Luna greeted as she appeared in the open door. Luan was curiously absent, and she made a note to investigate that soon afterward.
  487.  
  488.     "Oh, not a lot, today's been a total drag." Leni sighed as she entered, plopping down on the beanbag chair. "It's raining, there's no soaps or fashion on t.v., and I've gotta figure out what to do for dinner tonight with Linc and Lori gone."
  489.  
  490.     "Huh? They're both leaving?" Luna hadn't heard of the situation yet, and Leni affirmed with a nod. "Oi, that's just great. I'm not too shabby for a cook, but those little runts are about as picky as they come." She cocked her head to indicate the younger half of the family. She smiled as she considered Leni, though. "If you can fix dinner as good as you did breakfast yesterday, though, I think we're in the clear."
  491.  
  492.     Waving her off, Leni denied, "I don't think I was THAT good, but thanks. And if you could help me out, that'd be, like, double the fun!"
  493.  
  494.     "I think I could get behind that. You got it, sis." Luna agreed.
  495.  
  496.     Leni noted with some satisfaction that Luna still seemed to be moping over the drum, which had been covered with a white shroud at some point. "There was another reason I stopped by, though. I wanted to talk about that," she announced, pointing at the busted instrument.
  497.  
  498.     "That old thing?" Luna tried to put on a brave face, but it was obvious she was still as torn as the cover on it. "Eh, that's history. Like I said, it was an accident, I'm not mad at you guys about it anymore."
  499.  
  500.     "Maybe not, but we're still, like, responsible for it." Producing the rest of her funds, Leni offered the ten twenties to her incredulous sister. "I broke it, so I want to make up for it. This ought to cover it, right?"
  501.  
  502.     Eyeballing the money, Luna's first instinct as to ask where it'd come from, but she thought better of questioning this kind of generosity. "Yeah, that's enough, but...but I can't just take two-hundred bucks from you!"
  503.  
  504.     Rehashing her assertion to Lincoln from before, Leni insisted, "you can, and will. I want you to, like, be able to rock out with your friends, Luna, even IF they don't appreciate just what a great guitarist you also are. Besides, I'd forgotten I had it for this long, so I'm sure you'll totes put it to better use."
  505.  
  506.     Luna's mouth fell open at her words, and she carefully accepted the money, eyes closing and a smile replacing her slack jaw as she stood and pulled her sister up into a hug. "This is the coolest thing anyone's done for me, Len. Thank you." Leni returned the hug, trying all the while to keep Luna's arms from brushing her bruised back. Their embrace was followed up by an awkward cough from the door.
  507.  
  508.     They both looked over to find Luan standing in the hallway, camera conspicuously in hand. "Am I interrupting something?"
  509.  
  510.     The two of them jumped apart, and Luna confirmed with some aggravation, "a little bit, yeah. But it's cool, we were just talking about what we're gonna do for dinner." Her lie of omission immediately caught Leni's attention.
  511.  
  512.     "Wow, that must be one heck of a dinner date you're planning then, eh?" Luan chuckled as their faces lit up red and she moved to her drawers, unaware of their frustrated scowls. She placed the camera on its stand, and turned back to address them. "For real, though, what's going on?" The three of them chatted into the late afternoon, and as early evening rolled in Lori summoned them to the living room. As they exited, Leni hung back and grabbed the camera, tossing it to one side of the room.
  513.  
  514.     With Lincoln at her side, Lori addressed the assembled siblings in her drill sergeant voice. "Alright, Louds, LISTEN UP! Lincoln and I are going to be out of the house tonight, and that means you're to listen to Leni and Luna while we're gone!"
  515.  
  516.     "MA'AM, YES MA'AM!" They sounded off, except for Lana, who'd managed to call her 'Sir' again.
  517.  
  518.     "If anymore disputes come up, Luan will fill the third seat." The comedienne beamed at the unexpected measure of power, and Lori returned her smile. Focusing on the two to be in charge, she asked, "are you up to the task?"
  519.  
  520.     Luna raised her fist, and Leni bumped it as the former answered, "we got this."
  521.  
  522.     Satisfied that the house could handle itself for one night, Lori finally turned to Lincoln. "You ready to head out, twerp?"
  523.  
  524.     "WAIT!" Leni cried, bringing back flashbacks for Lincoln. "It's still kind of early, you two should stick around for dinner!" before they could turn her down, she rushed up to them and whispered to Lori, "I think it would, like, help Luna and Luan feel a little better about what's been going on." She then knelt down to Lincoln's level and implored him, "and I need some help, like, getting the laundry ready. Not completely done, but just started. I figured I could do that so Lori doesn't have to worry about it."
  525.  
  526.     The two of them considered carefully, especially Lori, who'd been planning on dining at Casa Santiago. "Well...I guess it would put me a little more at ease to know there's not going to be literal anarchy as soon as I leave." Looking down to the two of them, she asked her brother, "what do you think?"
  527.  
  528.     Surprised at being given a choice in the first place, he answered, "I've got all night to hang out, so a little longer here wouldn't hurt. I'll help you out as soon as you're ready, sis." Leni showered him with affection in the form of a kiss on top of his head and some ruffling of his hair. "Ah, cut it out!"
  529.  
  530.     It didn't take long for Lori and Lincoln to craft a dinner of leftover liver and onions with some fresher vegetables for themselves and the other teens, while Luna and Leni prepared a balanced meal of fish sticks and fries for the younger kids to enjoy. "A pretty cheap spin on fish and chips, yeah, but it's still pretty dang good!" Luna had assured. Leni finished first and had taken the opportunity to begin preparing dessert while the rest of them ate and talked. In particular, she didn't need Lisa seeing this next part.
  531.  
  532.     Taking the rhubarb she'd purchased that afternoon from the refrigerator, she carefully cut the leaves off and placed the bulk of them into the blender. She chased it with nearly the entire container of ground nutmeg, added a generous amount of sugar and strawberries, and drowned the concoction in milk and ice before setting the machine to go. Normally she wouldn't dream of adding sugar to her drinks, but then, this one wasn't meant for her. 'This ought to show you what you've been putting Lincoln through and what you helped put me through, Lynn.'
  533.  
  534.     She prepared more moderate drinks for the rest of them, although each contained at least a small portion of the debilitating contents aside from Lincoln's, and after they'd finished their meals she invited all of them to enjoy her signature product. "Who's ready for some super-healthy and tasty treats?"
  535.  
  536.     The teens looked somewhat dubious, but the twins were quick to take her up on the offer. "Wow, this is actually really good!" Lola exclaimed, to Leni's pleasure. "Normally they look really grody, with all that green boogery stuff in them!" And there that pleasure went again.
  537.  
  538.     "What's wrong with boogery stuff?" Lana asked as the rest of them gagged. "Still, I really like this too. Thanks!"
  539.  
  540.     Spying an almost-black drink on the counter, Lucy slowly took it in her hands. Leni informed her, "I call that one the 'Black Plague.' Blackberry, mulberry and blueberry with a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg." The goth set aside her suspicion of the blonde to sample the drink, and after a suspenseful moment she indulged in a rare smile. "Just make sure you're quick later on, it'll really clean you out."
  541.  
  542.     Wading into the fray, Luna took the one meant for her, apparently a blend meant to mimic the taste of Irish cream. "Woah, wow, that really packs a punch!" She admitted as it scratched at her throat on the way down. "I didn't know you knew how to fix so many different kinds!"
  543.  
  544.     "I'm a woman of many talents, fashion and cosmetics are, like, just two of them," Leni preened, watching intently as Luan and Lisa finally partook of her bounty. Lily crawled to her after being released from her high chair, and she picked her youngest sister up, blowing a raspberry on her tummy and laughing along with her as she got ready to prepare some more formula. Last up was Lynn, who simply stared at the drink made especially for her. "Is everything alright, Lynn?"
  545.  
  546.     "Yeah, yeah, I was just thinking...I don't really think I'm still hungry. Err, thirsty." She was trying to get out of drinking it, and that just wouldn't do. Leni summoned up the best puppy dog eyes she could, and it was clear that the last time they'd been in this situation still weighed on the athlete's mind as she reconsidered. "I guess just a little bit couldn't hurt."
  547.  
  548.     'You might be right about that, but most or all of it will.' The youngest teen taking a sip of her drink became Leni's entire world, and her heart hammered in her chest in anticipation. "I think you'll really like it, Lynn, I know how you felt about it last time. Plus, it has lots of electric lights in it, which I know you need for your sports!" It had taken her a bit to come up with that one, and she hoped the jock wasn't as stupid as she often acted.
  549.  
  550.     A bewildered look on her face, Lynn repeated, "electric lights?" Comprehension dawned on her, and she reasoned, "oh, you mean electrolytes!" Leni nodded enthusiastically, and she looked at the drink in a new light. Finally deciding to dive in, she took a big gulp, and her world was blown away. "This is completely different from what I had before! It's kind of sour, but also sweet, and also SPICY!" She consumed the beverage in record time, and Leni had to stop herself from letting out a cheer as the girl sealed her fate for the next several days.
  551.  
  552.     Lori and Lincoln looked on from the sidelines, glad that the unease over the past few nights had finally given way to the antics they were all familiar with. Everyone in the room still held onto their own thoughts about what they'd seen during that time, but it seemed decided that it all would be forgiven and forgotten for now.
  553.  
  554.     Grabbing hold of a slip of paper, she used her other arm to welcome them all in. "Like, I'm so glad you all liked them! C'mon, everybody get in here for a hug!" She gathered them all up and squeezed as hard as her back would allow. As everyone returned it, she slipped the paper into the hem of Luan's skirt, moving just enough to be noticed.
  555.  
  556.     As the mob broke up, the fourteen-year old spun around and grabbed at the note, backing up to read it in semi-privacy.
  557.  
  558.     ~Lincoln doing laundry in 30 mins, be there for some comedy gold~
  559.  
  560.     She scanned her sisters for any sign of who'd given her the tip, but no one had a guilty conscience, it seemed. Stashing the note, she worked with Lynn and Lucy to clean the dishes as fast as possible. She broke for her room as soon as they finished, going straight for the camera. "Wait, where is it?" As she fumbled around, downstairs Lincoln was already showing Leni the ropes on the washer. Getting everything ready was simple enough, and he started it on its incredibly loud cycle before they returned to the living room.
  561.  
  562.     "You sure you two have got this, Leni?" Lori asked, willing to order Lincoln to stay if necessary. He might not have held down the fort effectively when they mutinied against her, but Leni and Luna were no safe bet either. Still, she needed this night.
  563.  
  564.     "We can handle it, just you wait and see!" More seriously, Leni insisted, "we can do it. I can do it. Trust me, Lori." There was a great deal of weight and history behind those words, and Lori's pulse quickened at what it would truly mean to place trust in her sister again. She was doing so well, though, had come so far...
  565.  
  566.     Placing a hand on Leni's shoulder, the oldest sibling affirmed, "I trust you, Leni." Lincoln's heart swelled at the exchange, and his worries were also cast to the wayside as he and Lori finally made to leave. As soon as the door had closed, she went directly to her room for a fitting change of clothes. Making her way back to the kitchen, she waited by the basement door until she heard a door slam in haste upstairs.
  567.  
  568.     "Showtime."
  569.  
  570. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  571.  
  572.     The basement door opened and closed with nary a sound, though it wouldn't have mattered; the washer running could overpower Luna's loudest jams any day. Luan listened for one of her brother's trademark monologues, but even she couldn't make anything out over the jet engine cleaning their clothes. "Heck, I might not even get any decent audio," she grumbled. Still, she'd gone to all this trouble, best to make something of it.
  573.  
  574.     Creeping down the stairs, head panning back and forth to catch any sign of movement, she brought the camcorder up to her eye and filmed the stealthy approach on her favorite prey. "This is going to be double the fun, if something happens to that washer or dryer Lori's going to wring him out!" She chuckled to herself, though she felt a little pain on his behalf at the thought of whatever might be about to happen to him. That pain didn't quite measure up to what came next, though.
  575.  
  576.     As she reached the second to last step, the lights abruptly shut off and the washer's current cycle ended, plunging her into darkness and depriving her of a noise to use as reference. Momentarily shocked, she missed the last step and went tumbling to the floor, crying out as her hands and knees absorbed the impact of her fall. The camera tumbled and slid across the floor before coming to rest against something. "Ow, ow, ow!" Luan did her best not to cry as she rubbed at her battered arms and legs, sucking in a harsh breath as her wrist flared with a likely sprain.
  577.  
  578.     In the silence and darkness she realized she wasn't alone, however. Heavy footsteps approached from her side and stopped immediately next to her. "Lincoln, g-get the light! I fell and-" The words, along with all of the air in her lungs, left her as a powerful force struck her directly in her solar plexus. She doubled over in pain and panic, gasping desperately and curling in on herself. The footsteps ventured further into the room before doubling back and continuing to the stairs, and the lights came back on in a brilliant flash as the washer started back to life.
  579.  
  580.     "Like, I didn't give you enough credit. You really are always prepared, huh? 'Lincoln - All Washed Up.'" The label was already on the tape, Leni discovered, as she popped the camcorder open and examined its contents.
  581.  
  582.     Flopping around, Luan choked out, "L-Leni, w-what did...what d-did...no..." What little breath Luan had regained fled her at the sight of her once-feared sister, clad in an ensemble that paid homage to her signature look years ago. Leni stood confidently near the bottom step, a sky-blue blouse tucked into a jean skirt that reached her knees and framed a pair of brown, heeled leather boots.
  583.  
  584.     Ignoring the prankster's disbelieving gaze, Leni strode over to her, planting the toe of her boot directly next to Luan's head. "Aww, did baby fall down the steps again? Like, you really need to work on that, how many times did this happen when we were younger?" Scenes from their childhood crashed like waves through their minds, one of them relishing the memories while the other quaked in terror. "Maybe those falls are why you're, like, so fucked up in the head." The blonde bared her teeth at her helpless quarry, who was just beginning to appreciate her predicament.
  585.  
  586.     "Leni...no, no, NO. You can't!" Recovering somewhat, adrenaline drove Luan to scramble back from her attacker, unable to bring herself to her weak and wounded knees. "W-what are you doing?!" Leni didn't answer, but slowly stalked after her, a delighted and predatory little smile darkening her face. "L-Lincoln! Where are you? LINCOLN!" No one would hear her over the appliance, however, save for her only company at the moment. Her back met with the dryer, and she pressed herself up against it, unconsciously continuing her escape attempt.
  587.  
  588.     "Oh, didn't you know? I decided to take care of the laundry for him!" Taking a moment to savor the bewildered expression that information earned her, Leni knelt down to eye level with the frightened brunette. "Looks like you've been hung out to dry! Get it?" Leni's face nearly collided with Luan's as she thrust forward. "GET IT?" She narrowly avoided her sister's gargantuan forehead as it rushed toward her face.
  589.  
  590.     Having missed her mark, Luan attempted to roll away from her position against the dryer, only for Leni to grip her on either side of her head and slam it into the metal surface. A hoarse cry escaped her, and she yelped, "let GO of me! G-get away from me, you freak!"
  591.  
  592.     "Let go, huh?" Leni's self-satisfied grin mutated into a menacing frown as she pulled the girl up by her ponytail and shirt collar. "Like, if you say so." She hefted Luan up and tossed her back toward the center of the room and onto her already injured knees and elbows. Through it all, her little sister hadn't started bawling yet, and she wondered just what it would take to hear that sweet siren song.
  593.  
  594.     Luan's mind reeled as she tried to comprehend what was happening to her; what Leni was DOING to her. 'Everything was going so swell since last night...I thought she wasn't mad, I thought...' She blinked back the tears, both from the hurt in her limbs and her heart. The person that was doing this to her wasn't their lovable, airheaded Leni. No, she knew exactly who this was, and that knowledge nearly broke her. Leni had been like this once before, and now she'd finally come back. Just like they'd always been afraid she would.
  595.  
  596.     "You thinking about the glory days too?" Leni's sadistic tone derailed her train of thought as the blonde horror loomed over her. "Ah, it does my heart good to see that, like, neither of us has changed after all this time." She lifted her arms over her head and stretched as she put on a bright smile and asked, "did you miss me?"
  597.  
  598.     Still staring at the ground, Luan spoke more to herself than to Leni, "you...you remember..." She was paralyzed, her worst nightmares couldn't compare to what was happening to her right now. "B-but the medicine-"
  599.  
  600.     "Doesn't work anymore," Leni lied, "which must mean that I'm, like, all better now! Hurray!" The blonde did a little twirl that was completely at odds with the abuse she was doling out. Luan's stomach churned, both from the sight and the emotions roiling inside her. She caught the way Leni lost a bit of balance and discretely rubbed at her back, though her attacker recovered quickly enough. "You must be, like, so happy for me! Right?" Leni batted her eyelashes.
  601.  
  602.     The young girl didn't dare speak, didn't trust her voice not to give way to her fear. And though that fear still froze her in place, it was beginning to thaw in the heat of an equally powerful emotion: anger. Anger at being duped, at falling for the same trick Leni had gotten her with all that time ago, at Leni for doing this to her and herself for letting it happen. That anger warred with her fear as her sister crouched down at her side.
  603.  
  604.     "Alright, listen, trapjaw, and listen good; I'm only gonna say this once-"
  605.  
  606.     "Well." A reckless courage compelled Luan to speak before she could think better of it.
  607.  
  608.     Leni's eyes widened at the interruption before narrowing again. Using one hand to grip her victim's chin, she roughly turned Luan's head to face her and used the other to backhand her. "Excuse me?"
  609.  
  610.     Wincing through the sharp sting, the brunette's face contorted into a sort of angry smirk. "It's listen 'well', not listen 'good.' L-looks like your grammar is as well-adjusted as you are-" Luan's snide retort was cut short by a sharp yelp as Leni smacked her again, harder this time. Before she could bring a hand up to rub at her face it was crushed in the vice grip of her more powerful sister's fingers.
  611.  
  612.     "If you talk back to me one more time, you'll be wearing dentures instead of braces. Get it?" Tears began to well up in Luan's eyes, but she wouldn't give Leni the satisfaction of seeing her cry. Nonetheless, she remained silent. "So, she CAN be taught!" Maybe not.
  613.  
  614.     "Well yeah, I wasn't a retard for four years-" The younger sister covered her head and closed her eyes as the blonde's fist drew back. She braced herself for the impact, but it never came. Finally she chanced a look, only to see no one in front of her. A boot connected with the back of her head, sending her falling forward and into the concrete floor. Her front teeth connected with the ground, cracking under the force. She barely had time to wail before her ponytail was seized and her head ruthlessly jerked back up.
  615.  
  616.     Leni was impressed that the baby hadn't turned into a complete mess yet, it would make for a much more entertaining show in the coming week. "Like, I always was more of a slapstick kind of girl, you know? Definitely a lot more funny than fake spiders and candid cameras." The waterworks were beginning now, though, and she might get found out if she had too much fun.
  617.  
  618.     Even through the agony of her breaking teeth Luan caught the emphasis on 'camera', and she began to truly panic. "Y-you were going through my s-stuff-"
  619.  
  620.     "MY stuff. Like, all of your shit belongs to ME now," Leni accentuated each declaration with another tug on the girl's hair, batting her feeble attempts at resistance away. "And so do you." She let that declaration sink in a moment before continuing, "you know, you and I are kind of alike. We both like to see other people suffer." The blonde released her sister's ponytail and marveled as she wordlessly writhed. "The difference, Luan, is that the people I like to watch suffer deserve it."
  621.  
  622.     Circling around the defeated younger girl, Leni clucked her tongue as she listed off her sister's sins. "You've got the nerve to call me a retard, but what does that make you for, like, taking advantage of one for so long? Not to mention all your precious videos you've taken of all of us. Especially Lincoln." Her heart raced with excitement at the look of despair on Luan's face as she mentioned their brother. "That's right, I checked out a couple of your best hits. All those times you could have, like, been there for him, wasted on filming him while he was in pain. Pain just like you're in now. I bet he'd help you right now, even if he knew just how much like shit you've treated him all this time."
  623.  
  624.     She came to a stop, glaring down at the pathetic creature on all fours before her. "But he's not here now, and Lori isn't either. Luna can't hear us, and no one else can help you. No one else even wants to help you."
  625.  
  626.     "That's n-not t-true..." Luan denied, but her resolve was breaking as the reality of her situation bore down on her.
  627.  
  628.     Leni adopted an expression of pity. "Like, you have to have noticed it. The way no one laughs at your crappy one-liners. The way everyone scatters when you enter the room. The way no one goes out of their way to see you, to deal with you." The more she piled on, the more she remembered interactions she'd shared and witnessed with the little imp during her lost years.
  629.  
  630.     "Shut up..." Leni couldn't hear the whispered demand, but she could see the way Luan tensed up, adrenaline and shock edging out her common sense. A wounded animal backed into a corner. They'd done this dance enough times in the past that both of them knew what was coming, and yet neither of them could bring themselves to stop.
  631.  
  632.     "Even when people, like, DO rely on you, you let them down. You can't help yourself, because deep down you're the most selfish person in this house. You'll do anything to be the center of attention, and you're the first one to jump in when someone else takes a dive. Pretty sad that even a retard could recognize that."
  633.  
  634.     "Shut. UP." Luan's hands clenched against the concrete and she grit her teeth, her pain dulling as her emotions overtook her. Leni had always said such horrible things to her in the past. ('You know that Mom and Dad didn't, like, WANT to have a fourth kid, right? Guess the joke was on them!') ('Looks like your comedy's good for the same thing as your looks; clearing out the room. Get it?') ('Just remember, sis, we're not laughing with you. We're not even laughing at all! Like, how bad is THAT?') What made this verbal assault even worse, then, was that there was a hint of truth to it this time.
  635.  
  636.     Leni grabbed her by her shirt collar and the hem of her skirt, powering through the pain in her back to heft Luan up and set her on her wobbly feet. "Or what? You'll pun me to death? Come at me with a toy spider or a whoopie cushion?" There was no verbal response, just balled fists and suppressed sobs. "Now, as I was saying, you're going to listen to-" Luan abruptly spun around, latching onto Leni for balance and catching the older girl completely off guard. She formed her good hand into a fist and drove it as hard as she could into Leni's aching back.
  637.  
  638.     The blonde yelled and her knees buckled, bringing her down on top of the smaller girl. Luan took her chance and wiggled out from under her, striking her again for good measure before willing herself to stand back up. 'I need to get to Lori, she's the only one who can stop her!' Unfortunately, she'd underestimated Leni's stamina, as the elder sister leapt after her and caught her around the knees, bringing Luan down yet again.
  639.  
  640.     Literally kicking and screaming, Luan tried to fight her off, but she was at a disadvantage on the ground. Leni shoved her back down, straddling her and preventing another escape attempt. "Cheap shot, you little bitch," she huffed, pain and adrenaline stripping away the last of her filters and mercy. "Be proud of it, because it's not gonna happen again." Roughly grabbing the struggling girl's sprained wrist, she squeezed as hard as possible and flipped her over so they were facing one another. Luan shrieked, and Leni took the opportunity to crash her knuckles against her victim's hypersensitive chipped teeth, uncaring of the braces cutting them open. Under the barrage Luan finally broke, tears flowing freely from her eyes as she tried in vain to shield herself.
  641.  
  642.     Reason began to return to her abuser, and Leni realized she needed to dial it back before she completely blew it. Taking both of Luan's wrists in her hands, she pressed them to the cold concrete and leaned her head next to the crying girl's to avoid another headbutt attempt. "Listen. To. ME." Luan's shaky breaths hitched, and Leni slightly loosened her grip to reward the concession. "If anyone, like, asks about what happened to you, you fell down the stairs. That's not a lie, and your little recording can prove it." The fight began to leave Luan's body, replaced only with dread and defeat. "You're also not gonna to talk to ANYONE about what happened here, or about me. If I even think you did or will, I'll give you four times worse than what you got just now. Do you understand?"
  643.  
  644.     Luan choked and spluttered on her tears and mucus, managing to croak, "y-yes."
  645.  
  646.     "That's a good girl. Because it won't just be you that gets punished for it, but everyone else too. Starting from the bottom up." Luan's eyes widened at the threat, understanding exactly who it was directed at. She frantically shook her head, and Leni slowly rose back up to a sitting position, looking down at the battered girl. "I'm glad we got to talk like this, Lu," the girl beneath her grimaced at the nickname Luna had always used for her, "like, it's going to take some time, but I think before long we'll all be even for what you did to me."
  647.  
  648.     Patting the beaten girl on the cheek, Leni finally released her and stood to leave, grabbing a towel along the way and throwing it on top of her sister. "Clean up, wait about fifteen minutes, and then go to your room. It's past your bedtime." The toll of the fight began to wear on her as she hobbled up the stairs, pain flaring from her tailbone where Luan had scored her only hit. Entering back into the kitchen, the rain had picked up outside, and the rumble of thunder shook the house.
  649.  
  650.     She quietly returned to her room, the house unusually still despite the severe weather outside. It seemed the kids had all turned in, or were at least getting there. At the moment that she reached her room and touched the doorknob, a terrific crack exploded through the house, followed by the lights dying. "Perfect." Well, at least no one would be phoning out or in. Luna's door opened behind her, as did the twins' down the hall.
  651.  
  652.     A low whistle pierced the night air as Luna glanced around, the only light coming from the lightning outside her window and the one in the living room. "Nice." The two of them were assailed by a pair of panicked six-year olds who came tumbling down the hall over one another.
  653.  
  654.     "L-Leni, Luna! You've gotta turn the lights back on!" Lola wailed, gripping onto Lana for dear life.
  655.  
  656.     "N-not that we're scared, or anything," Lana added.
  657.  
  658.     The two older sisters shared a wry smile as Luna informed them, "sorry, dudes, but this is lights out for real this time, at least til tomorrow." That was most definitely not what they had wanted to hear, as lips began quivering and eyes watering.
  659.  
  660.     "Shh, shh," Leni hushed them before they began, crouching down and rawing them both into a hug. "Here's what we'll do. You two can, like, sleep with me tonight. I've definitely got the space. Luna could join us too, if she wants!" She glanced meaningfully at the musician.
  661.  
  662.     Taking the hint, she answered, "err, yeah, sure! Just let me get Luan-"
  663.  
  664.     "Actually, I was hoping it could just be the two of us. Well, us two and these two," Leni hurriedly said, referring to the young girls in her arms. "Like old times."
  665.  
  666.     Chewing on her lip, Luna decided that Luan could make it on her own for one night. "Yeah, we can do that. Heck, Lu will probably be happy to have a room to herself for a change." The four of them alighted to the oldest girl's room, and before long each of the teens was tucked in bed with one of their sisters. Leni briefly got up to enter the closet, using her phone to light the small space as she changed into her nightclothes. It wouldn't do for Luna to recognize what she was wearing, not just yet.
  667.  
  668.     That night, the thunder drowned out a number of noises in the Loud House. As four girls snored and slept the night away, another quietly wept alone in her room, while a sixth took comfort in the sound of shifting papers and crunching numbers. Another would awaken in a fit later that night, not quite making it to the bathroom as she expelled the contents of that nights meal onto the hallway floor while her roommate tried to help her. The only other one who would have any peace was the youngest member of the family, fortunate to be oblivious to the worlds crashing down around her.
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