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Velvet Fist - Act I

Wrightfag Jun 4th, 2016 (edited) 7,400 Never
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  1.     The light of dawn was just beginning to break over Royal Woods as the hands of the Muscle Fish clock on Lincoln's wall flicked from 05:59 to 06:00 AM. Without even needing an alarm, the boy's eyes shot open and his body made it a few steps into his Friday morning routine before his mind caught up with it. Fresh underwear and socks? Check. Jeans? Check. Pink polo that Lola forced him to wear to one of her pageants? Nope. Finally getting his wits about him, he flung the gaudy button-up to one side in favor of his trademark orange shirt and psyched himself up for the ordeal in front of him.
  2.  
  3.     "Alright, today's what we've been prepping for, Lincoln. No biggie; it's just the last day before SPRING. BREAK! Oh, and our parents are leaving for the week for their second honeymoon...or is it the eleventh? Anyway, getting ten sisters who are all crazy to take a week off from school and figure out how to cause as much trouble as humanly possible without getting totally busted to take getting ready seriously is even harder than usual! And of course, all of the major assignments are due today, including my presentation on why comics as an entertainment medium need to transcend printed form to reach a wider audience and tackle more diverse subject matter!" Luckily he'd had the foresight to leave the component parts of that project at school the previous day, so he didn't have to focus on protecting it, just getting there to set it up.
  4.  
  5.     With that grade-inappropriate goal in mind, Lincoln drew himself to his full height, sucked in a deep breath, and opened his door to the calm before a storm of activity fueled by ten girls ranging from potty-training to potential prom queen. Speaking of potty-training, it looked like Lily had left a gift for the first unwitting person to venture out of Lucy and Lynn's room, and after a swift pass by the bathroom he had only an instant to deal with it before the door came crashing open and his fifth-oldest sister leapfrogged over him and onto the bannister. "You'd better get a move on if you don't want to miss out on breakfast, Linc!" That was no idle threat, so he checked her off his list. He popped his head into her room to see that the commotion had already stirred Lucy, so he proceeded on to his next target.
  6.  
  7.     Next was an easy two-for getting Luna and Luan going. Rapping a quick five-beat knock on their door, he was answered by two airhorn blasts from the other side, followed by Luna's panicked sputtering and Luan's equally confused replies. "I found out that Luan has a knee-jerk reaction to that kind of thing so strong that she responds even while she's asleep. It wakes Luna up, who wakes Luan up, and the argument that comes after keeps them up!" Proud of his efficiency, he fled the door in time to miss the raised voices die down to conspiratorial murmurs. He didn't need to bother waking Lisa, as he heard the alarm on her atomic clock going off. Wisely choosing not to dwell on just how atomic that clock was, that took care of six sisters. The hardest four were yet to come.
  8.  
  9.     Turning to Lana and Lola's room, Lincoln knocked much more quietly than he had with the others; it wouldn't do to wake the beauty queen up from her beauty sleep the wrong way. Receiving no answer, he steeled himself and opened the door to one of the most horrible noises he'd heard in recent memory. 'How is it that Lola is the one who snores louder than a crowd at Luan's routines?' He'd have to remember that double whammy, he decided, as he made to wake up Lana first. 'Hopefully she can do the second half of this for me.'
  10.  
  11.     With her back turned to him, he had to lean over her slightly to try and speak to her as he lightly shook her shoulder. As he did so, he noticed she seemed to be holding a stuffed animal of some sort. 'Huh, that's usually Lola's schtick. To each their own, I guess.' Finally she began to stir, trying to shake him off, so much so that he didn't notice the stuffed animal move independently of her. "Lana," he hissed, "Lynn's going to get all the bacon if y-"
  12.  
  13.     Three things happened in quick succession before he could finish that sentence. First, Lana had finally had enough and flung around to sleepily kick him in the gut. Second, her now unsecured stuffed animal flung from her grasp and latched itself onto Lincoln's face. And third, the now blinded and shouting Lincoln backpedaled into the wall near Lola's bed, which sent her tiara collection clattering to the floor, which tripped him and caused him to grab out for anything to support him. That support came in the form of the canopy around her bed, and the ripping of the fabric was the last piece of a symphony that celebrated the end of his life.
  14.  
  15.     Lana watched in half-asleep amazement as the scene unfolded, only just beginning to realize the catastrophe that was about to unfold when she noticed that her twin's snoring had stopped. "Lincoln, psst! PSST! Linc, you gotta get outta here, NOW!" Unfortunately, Izzy had just now chosen to release her brother from his clawed clutches and it didn't seem he'd heard the whispered warning. As Lincoln propped himself up on his elbows and tried to regain his wits, however, he could feel an aura of murder looming over him. Warily turning to the bed, he saw a vision of terror: a green, eyeless face with gnashing teeth bared, all framed by a jagged crown of pink curlers.
  16.  
  17.     "You're a dead man, Lincoln Loud! You HEAR ME?! A DEAD MAN!!!"
  18.  
  19.     Narrowly escaping Lola's body slam, Lincoln somersaulted toward the door and rose to make a run for it, only to find himself tripped up by an expertly thrown stuffed unicorn. He felt arms secure themselves around his ankles as he was dragged kicking and screaming back into the room, the only noises coming in the form of his panicked apologies, Lola's hyperventilation and Lana's indecision between taking bets on Lincoln's death and trying to say something to save his life. Turning his head back as far as he dared, his blood ran cold as he saw her eyes were still covered; she was hunting him through superhuman means! As Lincoln tried to claw into the carpet and began reading himself his own last rites, he suddenly launched forward as a howl of indignation erupted from behind him.
  20.  
  21.     "Lana, LET. GO!" Lola shrieked as her sister held her back with arms hooked under her own. "I'll tan his hide and use it to make a NEW TOY!"
  22.  
  23.     "Lincoln, run for your life! I don't know how long I can hold her!" Lana begged, and an eternally grateful Lincoln heeded that advice and escaped around the corner to his room just as he heard Lori shouting from the opposite end of the hallway. The door shut as the gates of Hell opened and all of his sisters sans Lynn spilled into the hallway to witness the spectacle he'd just created.
  24.  
  25.     "Great, now I'll be spending at least part of my allowance on a new canopy, possibly tiaras...ugh, why can't everyone else in this family be morning people?"
  26.  
  27.     Set back an unbearable fifteen whole minutes by the battle royale next door, Lincoln had taken the time to attach Lola's name to the rarely used 'Why ____ is the Best Sister Ever!' letter, also known as the instrument of surrender. Lana may have saved him for the time being, but he knew Lola wouldn't rest until she'd exacted her revenge, or at least her due compensation. After the noise had died down to the average household din, he put his ear to the door. A peculiar noise awaited on the other side, like the strum of Luna's guitar strings but much more...heavy?
  28.  
  29.     'She's either going to trip me with the jump rope, or strangle me with the jump rope, or trip me and then strangle me with the jump rope.' Realizing a heartfelt boilerplate draft wasn't going to be enough for this one, he began considering his options. Glancing at the clock, he knew he had to act fast to get Leni into gear; Lori was clearly accounted for. In fact, he heard the eldest sister call for the predator lurking outside his door, leaving the pageant princess momentarily distracted. He cracked the door slightly as Lola shouted back the rationale for vigilante justice, and beheld a battlefield waiting for him.
  30.  
  31.     Beyond his would-be-murderer, a minefield of banana peels and jumping jacks stood between him and his final destination. It also looked like something had been situated in the doorway of Lynn and Lucy's room, but he couldn't quite make out what it was from his current vantage.The odds weren't all stacked against him, however.
  32.  
  33.     Peeking out from the twins' room, Lana slowly wheeled her skateboard out into the hallway as Lola peered through the railing to the downstairs, presumably still arguing with Lori. "You owe me, Linc. You don't have to live with her. Well, you know what I mean." After narrowing her eyes at him to drive home the point, Lana crept back into her room.
  34.  
  35.     Now in debt to both of them, he decided it was time to get this show back on the road.
  36.  
  37.     He picked up his phone and dialed their own number, listening to its companion in the kitchen ring for a few moments. 'Come on, Lynn, I know you're down there somewhere.' He was about to give up when he finally heard the other line pick up. "Lynn! I need you to do a favor for me in about one minute! Lola is going to be coming after me and I need-"
  38.  
  39.     "To face the music, Lincoln," Lori answered as Lynn looked on with mounting curiosity in the kitchen, "It sounds to me like she has an entirely good reason for wanting to literally string you up."
  40.  
  41.     Well this was an unhelpful development. "Lori! You can't let her kill me! Not until after I've given my presentation!" Lincoln pleaded, quickly running out of options.
  42.  
  43.     "Hmm. You know, I could probably do something about this, but it's going to cost you..." He was going to end up a slave at this point, but at least he would be a living slave.
  44.  
  45.     "Whatever you want, Lori! Just please please PLEASE keep her away from me until I can pay her back!"
  46.  
  47.     "Weeelll...alright."
  48.  
  49.     "Alright! So what's the game plan...? Lori?" She hadn't hung up, but she didn't answer him either. After another few seconds, he heard Lynn on the other end.
  50.  
  51.     "Did somebody say 'game plan'?" She drawled, a cup of coffee in one hand and the phone in the other.
  52.  
  53.     'Wait a minute...LORI! She got me to promise her something and then just handed it off to Lynn like I wanted anyway!' Lincoln had a feeling he was about to get yet another raw deal from his fourth consecutive sister. "Lynn, I need your help getting Lola off my back! She's gone completely postal!"
  54.  
  55.     The athlete swirled the coffee in her mug as she considered the costs and benefits of getting between Lola and whatever made her 'postal'. After a curt description of the morning's events, she had her answer. "Nah, that ain't me. We made up those stories about her before, but I still wouldn't put it past her. Just let her calm down, bro."
  56.  
  57.     "No, no, no! Time is of the essence, woman!"
  58.  
  59.     "Don't you woman me, man!" Lynn had always enjoyed sparring with Lincoln, both physically and verbally, though it had taken listening to some exchanges between him and Lucy to get a hold of the latter. "Besides, what can you offer me that's worth risking Lola's wrath for?" 3, 2, 1...
  60.  
  61.     "Just name it, I don't care anymore!" Hook, line and sinker. If Lincoln wasn't so justifiably afraid of their little devil of a sister, she'd be disappointed that he'd tapped out so quickly.
  62.  
  63.     "I'll hold you to it, Linc. Now listen up, this is how it's going to go down..." After a brief planning session in which he described the playing field to her, Lynn gave him some sound advice on how to get out of the house unscathed. He peeked under the door one last time to confirm that Lola was indeed still standing guard outside, and gathered up all the courage he could for the trial he was about to face.
  64.  
  65. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  66.  
  67.     Bracing himself, he flung the door open and stepped once more unto the breach, jumping over Lola's jump rope assault as he dashed into the hallway and around the unhealthy number of banana peels littered by Luan, and hopped onto Lana's skateboard for the ride to Lori and Leni's room. Time seemed to pass in slow motion as Lola began charging after him — 'Is she galloping on all fours?! Don't look back, don't look back, don't look back-' — right until he passed in front of the stairway, at which point Luna's amp blared her morning warmup from Lynn and Lucy's doorway. Nearly losing his balance, he filed away a reminder to Luna on all the ways that was incredibly dangerous as Lynn bounded up the stairs and tackled his pursuer over the amp and into her room.
  68.  
  69.     The skateboard came to a halt against the bathroom door as Lincoln hopped off, having to perform a jig to avoid stepping on the sea of jacks under him. Just as he'd achieved the balance a yoga instructor would be in awe of, he was sent plummeting forward as an airhorn sounded a few feet behind him. "After all that I didn't think you'd let you guard FALL so easily! Get it?" Luan cackled with recorder in hand, having filmed most of the past half-four. "But I have to say, that's a pretty slippery situation you just got out of. At least you've got the better half on your side!" She continued, kicking Lana's skateboard, his intended method of escape, to send it careening back down the hallway. "By the way, that's for the RUDE awakening!" He turned in time to see her sickeningly sweet smile before she primly closed the door.
  70.  
  71.     Even though nothing of the sort had been said, Lincoln figured he might as well add her to the list of sisters owed favors before cutting his losses and pressing ahead to get the resident prima donna prepared. Lori and Leni always took the longest to get ready, but this time it seemed he would just be dealing with his second-oldest sister. 'I'm NOT going to get put in a position that makes me owe Leni anything. There's no telling what she could want or what I would have to do to do it.'
  72.  
  73.     The sounds of accessories clattering and what might be clothes flying through the air meant she was still in crisis mode looking for that one piece to complete her ensemble. After a rap on the door and lack of response, Lincoln decided to brave the storm and opened the door, prepared to avoid any object — errant or otherwise — that came his way. A sigh of relief escaped as he confirmed he was only up against Leni and the contents of her dresser, though that relief turned to despair at some of the more private garments blasting by.
  74.  
  75.     "Where are they?" Before Lincoln could announce his presence, Leni had already begun giving voice to her concerns, oblivious to his presence. "This can't be happening, I swore I accidentally dropped a few the last time I took one!"
  76.  
  77.     "'Took one' what?" His question went unanswered as she finished flinging the last of the dresser's contents out and began scouring the empty drawers for something, even going so far as to begin pulling them out. "Leni! What's the holdup?" Still nothing. He was about to close the gap and get her attention when she abruptly gave the last drawer a great heave and sent it careening into her bed. Slightly intimidated by the display, he took an unconscious step back as she brought her hands to her head and dropped to her knees.
  78.  
  79.     "Why did it have to run out now? Like, right as Mom and Dad are going to be gone and Lori is going to be in charge! What if she—"
  80.  
  81.     "LENI!" the combination of his shout and hand on her shoulder finally brought her attention to Lincoln, though his followup was muted under the desperation writ on her face. "What are you looking for? Makeup? Earrings? What's got you so freaked out?" She looked unsure about answering him, and her eyes were flitting back and forth between him and the door. Rather than answer him, she hopped up and rushed to the latter, closing it off to the chaos outside for a moment. Her back still turned to him, she rested her head and arms against the door, heaving a sigh as she finally turned to fix him with an abnormally focused expression.
  82.  
  83.     With a swift stride to her vanity, she began combing over it somewhat more calmly as she finally answered him, "I...I need your help, Lincoln. But you can't, like, tell anyone about this!" She motioned for him to join her as she took a seat and turned her gaze somewhere between him and the mirror. "I need you to help me look for some blue pills, even if it's just one it'll be enough." Not sure what his expectations were after the last few moments, they were still exceeded by this development. As far as he could remember she hadn't been sick since coming down with a nasty cold at the beginning of spring, and he was pretty sure their parents had banned her from those diet schemes after her last extreme bout on them.
  84.  
  85.     Beginning to help her sift through the sea of cosmetics and styling implements, his curiosity simply required him to ask, "What are the pills for?" She didn't offer up an immediate response, simply hemming and hawwing to herself as she separated everything she touched into neat little piles. "Are you getting a cold again? If so, there's no medicine that can really do much to stop it." Still nothing. He began to turn and walk toward the door, leaving off with the only suggestion he thought might help, "Look, maybe we should just get Lori and—" This time Lincoln was the one cut off as she about-faced and vaulted from her seat, snatching him by the shirt collar and flipping him around to face her.
  86.  
  87.     "YOU CAN"T!" she shouted, body tense and face aflame with adrenaline. With one hand seized upon his shoulder and the other curling dangerously into a fist, Lincoln began to fear she was actually about to hit him! That fear must have shown on his face, and hopefully only his face, because her intense scowl almost immediately melted into an apologetic frown as she released her vice-grip on his shoulder in favor of resting her hands on both of them, kneeling down to look him in the eye. "Lincoln, Lori can't know about this. If she did she would, like, literally flip out. Mom and Dad, too. Promise me you won't say anything to them about it!"
  88.  
  89.     Leni wasn't in the business of keeping secrets, Lincoln knew that much, and definitely not keeping secrets from other people. If he had to say, she was probably the most open of his sisters about how she was feeling and what was going on in her life. That knowledge, coupled with the subject they were dealing with, sent an uncomfortable chill down his spine. If their parents were involved in this, was it alright not to say anything about it?
  90.  
  91.     For better or worse, he was saved from having to make that decision as the door swung open and Lori charged in and found herself caught off guard by the position they were in. "Uh, what's going on here?" She asked, before taking in her surroundings, "And WHAT did you DO to our ROOM?!" She wasn't sure whether she needed to direct that question at one or both of them, so she settled for both.
  92.  
  93.     "L-Lori, I can explain-" Leni had bolted up to try and calm her roommate, even interposing herself between Lori and Lincoln, but all three siblings' attention was caught by the 7 o'clock alarm going off.
  94.  
  95.     "Ugh, we literally have to go right now! We'll deal with THIS," the eldest declared, sweeping her arms toward the ransacked room, "when we get back." She grabbed both her younger siblings by the arm and hauled them into the hallway, staring down Lola as the 6-year-old tyrant stared down Lincoln, who alternated between staring at Leni and the ground. Luan was busy cleaning up the mess she'd made with the peels while Lana ricocheted a ball off the walls and floor, picked up the jacks via their intended purpose.
  96.  
  97.     As they passed by the stairs where Luna was fiddling with the amp, she trilled off a hangman's cadence for him. "'Face the music' indeed, little bro." After collecting the rocker and marching them out the door and into Vanzilla, where Lisa and Lucy were waiting, Lori wearily entered the driver's seat and set them on a course for school.
  98.  
  99.     Lucy, seated between Lincoln and Leni, studied him a short while before declaring, "You're the vision of inner turmoil and despair right now." Before he could come up with a snarky response, she had leaned in uncomfortably close, and continued, "Please tell me your secrets."
  100.  
  101.     "Secrets? WHAT SECRETS?!" Lincoln panicked at the thought that someone had overheard his conversation with Leni, and over his goth sister's head he could see Leni zero in on them with wide eyes.
  102.  
  103.     "How do you manage to stay so stressed and tense every day? It must be awful."
  104.  
  105.     "If it's supposed to be so awful, why does it sound like you're enjoying it?!" That banter was enough to take his mind off things for a few minutes, like Lola vocally plotting her revenge and Luna using the back of his seat to play the drums. Seemingly satisfied that her personal affairs weren't being discussed, Leni turned her attention elsewhere, allowing Lincoln a sigh of relief. At least until Lori's phone rang.
  106.  
  107.     "Finally, I didn't think he was ever going to call!" Lori squealed as she prepared to share her drive to school with Bobby, to the great concern of everyone else in the vehicle. All of them wanted to say something, but none of them were prepared to face Lori's wrath this early in the morning. Well, one of them was.
  108.  
  109.     Lisa propped her glasses back up as she began rattling off the numbers. "Do you know that the mixshture of vishual, manual and cognitive disthtraction created by rolling your eyes approximately every 5.5 stheconds at sthome inane teen gossthip Bobby shares with you over the phone while driving createsth a-" — several calculations later — "a one in five chancthe that we'll die horribly in sthome accthident?" She concluded her analysis to the heart agreement of everyone else in the van, except of course its driver.
  110.  
  111.     "Please, Lisa, I'm not some old biddy who can't concentrate on-WOAH!" Lori's rebuttal was cut off abruptly as the van she claimed to be on complete control of was cut off abruptly. "GET OFF YOUR CELL PHONE, YOU TOOL!" She shouted out the window, before catching the disbelieving looks of nine other children in the rear view mirror. "Fine then, I'll stay off my phone, but I don't want to hear a single peep out of any of you until we get to school!" A chorus of groans and arguments exploded before she swung her head around to stare daggers at them. More scared of what would happen if she didn't return her focus to the road than anything else she might do, they quickly complied.
  112.  
  113.     As they trucked along, Lincoln couldn't help but focus on Leni and the conversation they'd had. Normally she would be rocking back and forth in a daze at this point in the trip, but as he watched her now, she was quaking in her seat while trying to focus on anyone or anything except Lori. Eventually she caught him observing her, and he averted his gaze to look out the window at the budding trees and crowding streets passing by.
  114.  
  115.     'Pre-vacation Friday mornings are the worst.'
  116.  
  117. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  118.  
  119.     "Just think, Len, in a few months we'll be reading Seventeen Magazine and dissing on all the faux pas sitting around us right now." Leni halfheartedly listened as her fiery-haired friend Jennifer critiqued the fashion sense of their fellow juniors. "Look at Julie's skirt, like Oh-Em-GEE gnarly! Plaid against a solid top?!"
  120.  
  121.     Their brunette companion Holly couldn't help but chime in, "that's nothing compared to Todd's untucked button-up, he doesn't even cut a decent figure to stare at under it..." So it was that the trio whiled away another English class by turning it into their own rendition of 'Fashion Police'. Normally Leni would have been in the thick of it with them, as hip and chic fashion was one of the rare fields in which others might consider her very competent, but this morning her mind was completely occupied by thoughts of impending disaster.
  122.  
  123.     'Those pills come once a month, and the last order was supposed to come in Monday! What am I going to do if they stop coming? What are Mom, Dad and Lori going to do?!'
  124.  
  125.     "Pills?" Jennifer questioned, before a knowing grin split her face, "Len, you dog, I thought your parents put a stop to your mad diet experiments!"
  126.  
  127.     "W-what? What did you say?" Leni spluttered, fear seizing her throat. 'Did I say that out loud?!' This had been happening more and more lately, so lost in her thoughts that she spoke them aloud. It was only a matter of time before she said something she shouldn't...
  128.  
  129.     A cool hand upon her forehead jerked her attention to Holly, who seemed a little perturbed. "You feeling alright? You keep zoning out, and you're burning up a little bit." Leni certainly felt like she was burning up, though whether from embarrassment at getting caught or something else, she couldn't say.
  130.  
  131.     "F-fine, fine, cool as a corsage!" 'Smooth, Loud, smooth.' Waving her friends' concern off, their little get-together was forced to a brief end as their teacher called the class to order.
  132.  
  133.     "If you say so, weirdo." Jennifer's acceptance was accompanied by a stuck-out tongue and a smile, while Holly simply squeezed her shoulder in assurance. She was lucky to have them looking out for her, though their concern could be overbearing at times. Contrary to, like, literally everyone's belief, she could take care of herself...yeah, right. Dropping that depressing train of thought, she tried to set her mind on autopilot as the lesson began.
  134.  
  135.     School had been a lovely experience for Leni for as long as she could remember. In the Loud house, it could be hard to hear oneself think on a GOOD day, but in the quiet of the classroom she was free to focus on the things that mattered, like how fabulous those new outfits on Project Catwalk were or all the clothes she'd like to pick up at Weekend's. Sure, the teachers and her classmates got frustrated sometimes, but could she be blamed? They just needed to make math more visually appealing, or use chemistry to find a perfect weight-loss tonic!
  136.  
  137.     Those matters of import aside, that Friday passed excruciatingly slowly for Leni as she found herself keenly tuned in to the droning of her English teacher. She had tried focusing on the ticking clock, on the whispered conversations taking place around her, anything to find some shelter from proper story formatting. And the strange thing was, it worked. She found herself keeping time in her head as she listened to Jennifer and Holly gossip about Carol Pingrey's spring break bash coming up. Anyone else might have valued the ability to pay such close attention to everything going on around them, but as the class dragged on she found it overbearing. The seconds ticking by were like hammers ringing, and the voices sounded as if they were shouting in her ears.
  138.  
  139.     'This is no good...I'm going to be sick...' A sickness had indeed been welling up since her revelation that morning, an anxiety that was quickly turning into nausea at the thought of what might happen if she went any longer without her medicine. Consumed as she was in her new awareness, she somehow missed her aforementioned friends at her side during a momentary break in the lecture.
  140.  
  141.     "Hello, Earth to Leni? She's beyond space this time." Jennifer stage-whispered to Holly, who giggled at their friend's unusual focus.
  142.  
  143.     "Or maybe she's thinking about Ricardo asking her to Carol's party!" That got a small chorus of 'ooh!'s and 'aah!'s from a couple other girls, and began to draw Leni out of her thoughts. The knowledge that she was being sought after might have pleased her before she had this issue to deal with, but now it was simply another problem to weigh down on her already burdened mind. Plus, she was pretty sure she could do better than the type Lori was fawning over—
  144.  
  145.     ["Oh my gosh, Leni, check out the new kid and his brother!"]
  146.     ["Huh...not much to look at, definitely not homecoming material."]
  147.  
  148.     "Wait, where did that come from?" Once more she unwittingly spoke aloud, earning some curious looks from the others at her non sequitur.
  149.  
  150.     "Now there's the Leni we know and love! Talk to us, girl, are you going to come blow that party up with us or what?" Holly pounced, eager to see their supremely carefree friend flustered for once. Leni didn't have the most dynamic social life, as they understood it, and it was about time to change that.
  151.  
  152.     "W-what? Party? I can't...can't be blowing things up anymore...not like last time..." Leni's thought were muddled again, but not in the normal regard. She was remembering...things...and attaching them to the conversation she was meant to be a part of. The last time she'd been at a party that wasn't a family birthday, something had happened...
  153.  
  154.     ["Leni, what were you thinking?! You could have hurt someone setting those off!"]
  155.     ["So what, Lori?! This is boring and stupid and so are all the people here! I'm just trying to liven things up!"]
  156.  
  157.     The looks Jennifer and Holly were sharing now expressed concern more than amusement. "Len," Jennifer began cautiously, "are you feeling alright? I mean, compared to usual?" The comment was a careless rib between friends with no malice intended, but something about it lit a fire in the normally lax Loud, and suddenly Leni's attention was completely directed toward her 'friends.'
  158.  
  159.     "'Compared to usual'? 'Usual' what? Are you calling me stupid or something?" The volume raised with each word that Leni bit out, drawing the attention of several other classmates and catching Jennifer completely off guard. The look on her face gave Leni a savage thrill, a thrill she needed more of.
  160.  
  161.     "What?! No, Len, I was just saying that, like, you're acting weird!"
  162.     ["What's gotten into you, young lady? Your mother and I were worried sick!"]
  163.  
  164.     "Yeah Leni," Holly interjected to try and defuse the situation, "she was just asking if you wanted to get out a little more! Live a little!"
  165.     ["Leni Loud, your father and I have had enough! What kind of life are you going to live with a delinquent record?"]
  166.  
  167.     "What's wrong with the way I'm living now? Are you saying I'm not good enough the way I am?!" Leni wasn't even sure where this sudden vitriol was coming from, but the things she was saying felt so good. They felt...right. For the first time today her focus was trained on something she had complete control over.
  168.  
  169.     Control.
  170.  
  171.     That was what she had been lacking all this time. Her situation at home, her experience in the classroom and the relationship with her friends all lacked that one common trait. The anxiety she'd been grappling with began to transform into anxious energy as she seized on the unexpected anger within her and built momentum with it.
  172.  
  173.     Holly was trying to signal the teacher for help as she tried to express her concern in a way that wouldn't aggravate the girl any further. "Leni, let's just talk about this-"
  174.  
  175.     "You SHUT YOUR MOUTH when you're talking to me!" That...sounded kind of like something Leni would say, at least?
  176.  
  177.     "Did you stop to think that maybe I don't want to party? That I don't need you constantly looking over my shoulder? That I DON'T CARE about what other people think of me?!" As her tirade continued it occurred to her, somewhere in her subconscious, that she wasn't speaking to Holly and Jennifer anymore. She was speaking to her mother and father; to that insufferably indifferent bitch Lori; to that fucking shrink who dared to tell her that the person she was, the way she felt, were problems that needed fixing.
  178.  
  179.     Her friends, however, were quickly backpedaling as the teacher leapt up to address the disturbance. "Leni, chillax! We just want to have a good time with you! I know
  180. you've been out of it a bit lately, but I know that's not you!" Jennifer attempted to close the distance, but Holly could see something was about to go terribly wrong; Leni had begun clutching a rather heavy book during the exchange, and her posture reminded the teen of an animal with its hackles raised.
  181.  
  182.     ["Leni, we're sorry, but this...this is for your own good. Just to help you be the real you, a...a better you, the you we know and love!"]
  183.  
  184.     "YOU DON'T KNOW ME AT ALL!" The book went crashing back down onto the desk, and luckily not at either of their faces, but the outburst completely shocked the rest of the class. With adrenaline still coursing through her veins, Leni drank in the attention, feeling for all the world as if she'd finally beaten back a demon that had been holding her back all this time. But as she finally stopped to consider that attention, the high seeped out of her and was replaced with ice in her veins as he realized just what she'd done.
  185.  
  186.     "Ms. Loud, are you alright?" Mr. Wolfe cautiously approached her, in case she was wont to heave another object, but it seemed like the fight had left her as quickly as it had come. Leni slowly hunched over as one hand came to rest over her face and the other cradled her stomach, and she harshly choked back a sob that came unbidden after her previous indignant rage.
  187.  
  188.     "M-mr. Wolfe," she stuttered through shock, shame and sickness all at once, "m-may I please be excused t-to the bathroom?"
  189.  
  190.     "Of course, take as much time as you need." While not one of his, err, most talented students, Leni Loud had never caused problems for him, and before today the teacher couldn't even conceive of something that could make such a laid-back girl so furious. As he and the rest of the class watched in concern, she quickly fled the classroom and flew through the hallways as fast as her trembling legs could move her.
  191.  
  192.     Finally arriving, she hobbled over to the sink and ran the water as cold as she could bear, trying to wash the heat, stress and anxiety out of her face. As she finished and raised her head to the mirror, however...bloodshot eyes hooded under a furrowed brow stared back at her. She found herself inexplicably disgusted by what she was seeing.
  193.  
  194.     'What have you become? Nothing but a crying, whiny mess. It's as if nothing changed at all.'
  195.  
  196.     So disgusted was she, that she almost didn't make it into the stall before heaving her breakfast and then some into the toilet. Her stomach, far from feeling relieved, was burnt to the core by a white-hot bile that she immediately associated with the last time she found herself in the position.
  197.  
  198.     'It's just like last time, it's the exact same fucking thing. The last time I spoke up, when they betrayed me. Mom, Dad, Lori. Luna, Luan, and Lynn.'
  199.  
  200.     'Fucking traitors, all of them. They did this to me.'
  201.  
  202.     'And the worst part is, I let it happen. I deserve this, for letting them get one over on me.'
  203.  
  204.     These thoughts came unbidden to Leni nearly simultaneously as she loomed over the toilet, ready to heave again at any moment. But...it made no sense. What had they done to 'betray' her? She loved her sisters and her parents, and they loved her. They all looked out for one another over these past sixteen years, through thick and thin, for better and for worse. What could they have possibly done that left her feeling such utter contempt for them?
  205.  
  206.     The mood swings took their toll on her for the rest of the class period, and by the end of it she simply couldn't bring herself to show her face again. "There's, like, no way I'm not the talk of school right now. 'Gee whiz, did you hear about that spaz Leni Loud blowing a fuse in class today?'" Moving to a different stall and drawing herself up onto her erstwhile perch, she decided it would be smart to lie low for the rest of the day.
  207.  
  208.     'It's not like they'll miss me anyway. None of the others did after they...after they...' Whatever the reason she knew no one would come looking for her, she was certain it was true. This was the way things had always been, and this was the way they would always be. The sheer burden of the day caught up with her, and she managed to drift into a fitful, dreamless sleep, just missing the voice calling out for her in the hallway.
  209.  
  210. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  211.  
  212.     As the last bell rang and a mob of children began to pour out of the school, Lori idly tapped her foot as she counted her wayward siblings. 'Lisa, Lana, Lola, Lucy, Lincoln, Lynn, Luan, and Luna...' A school that integrated all grades had its ups and downs, to be sure. On the one hand, she only had to make one round trip to get them there and back, which left her a great deal of free time when she wasn't shuttling all her siblings to their various obligations. On the other hand, she couldn't help but hear when something happened involving them, and apparently a doozy had occurred today. '...Where are you, Leni?'
  213.  
  214.     After hearing through the grape vine that her sister had gone 'clinically and verifiably insane' in her English class, she had assumed the worst. If Leni had missed even one of her doses...but she'd been paying (admittedly loose) attention to Leni's medication schedule, and everything had been in order this morning. Her thoughts were drawn back to the situation she'd stumbled in on involving Lincoln. She'd have to talk to both of them about it. She had gotten out of Leni's little friends, however, that they'd been egging her sister on about Carol Pingrey's party and Bobby's best friend, two of the literally worst people she had ever encountered in her life.
  215.  
  216.     'Bobby is so sweet,' she inwardly gushed, though her expression betrayed her as her sisters cocked their eyebrows, 'but Ricardo...ugh. Absolutely disgusting.' Her boyfriend's childhood friend thought he was so hot, and she and Leni had long ago agreed that he was, in fact, so NOT. His hair was slick in a different way than Bobby's — the wrong way — and he was constantly using pickup lines taken from literally every 80's cheesy romance flick imaginable. He was all 'style', which was still questionable at best, and no substance. 'And Carol...not even worth my time.'
  217.  
  218.     As Lori finished dwelling on these matters, she finally picked out a pair of sunglasses looming over the sea of students. As Leni trudged up to the van, Lori was about to give the girl a piece of her mind, but stopped short at the sight of her. Her hair was a mess, her makeup was running, and if one looked close enough there was evidence of something near the top of her dress. "Leni, are you alright?" The earnestness in her voice surprised both of them, and the younger of the two unconsciously brought a hand up to rub at her other arm.
  219.  
  220.     "I...yeah, I will be." They shared a look, and Lori decided that that would be enough for now. Nothing good would come of pushing her now, in a crowded van with plenty of nosy siblings. Rechecking her head count, and satisfied that everyone was present, she began the trek home as her even-more-than-usual rambunctious family discussed their plans for the upcoming vacation.
  221.  
  222.     As Lincoln thought of all the comic reading and hanging out with Clyde he was going to do with his free time, he heard a malevolent giggling from behind him. Having blissfully forgotten about that morning, he look up and behind, and into the eyes of the devil herself. "Soooo, Lincoln," Lola attempted to appear nonchalant despite the aura of dread that surrounded her, "we've got to discuss just how you plan to make up for trashing my room this morning." Before he could even begin to respond, he was spoken over, but not by Lola.
  223.  
  224.     "There'll be time for that after he gets me back for saving his life." Lana looked over the seat in front of him, a suspect look on her face as she eyed him up and down. Caught between them, their brother didn't dare to speak as their eyes locked in the never-ending test of wills between them.
  225.  
  226.     "Speaking of which, LANA, I have a bone to pick with you too-"
  227.  
  228.     "You're both wrong, he owes me the most for protecting him AND not eating his breakfast!" Lynn sidled up to him, throwing one arm around his shoulders and digging the other hand into his head, effortlessly fighting off his attempts to stop her noogies. The twins set aside their rivalry long enough to team up against a common foe as they argued the figurative debt owed all three of them by Lincoln, and he tried to wriggle free of them before yet another voice cut in.
  229.  
  230.     "Age and beauty before everyone else, ladies," Lori snidely cut in to the dismay of her younger siblings, "you'll have your fun with him when I'm through."
  231.  
  232.     "Oh come ON, Lori!" All four of them exclaimed. Lincoln continued, "I shouldn't even owe you, you just gave the phone to the person I wanted to talk to in the first place!"
  233.  
  234.     "You should have read the fine print, Lincoln. Err, listened to the...fine...I'll literally pound you flat if you don't listen to me." Another storm of insults and intransigence followed, and with the rest of the family suitably distracted taking sides and making bets, Lori and Lincoln both honed in on another source of tension in the van: Leni.
  235.  
  236.     She had been silent the entire trip other than some weak assurances to her sisters that she was alright, and had spent it staring out the window with a glazed look in her eyes. Lori knew she should be more concerned, but there hadn't been any 'issues' since everything got resolved the first time. It was possible, plausible even, that Leni was simply dealing with some teen drama like the rest of them, and just needed to work through it.
  237.  
  238.     Lincoln, however, wasn't as convinced. The way she had acted this morning was so opposed to her normal personality, and the things she had said reinforced that fact. That she looked and was acting this way now was all he needed to know that something was fundamentally wrong here. Finally escaping Lynn, he leaned over as far as he could while still being somewhat discrete and whispered to her, "Leni, can you hear me? Are you sure you're feeling alright?" She didn't respond, and he wasn't sure she'd actually heard him after all until her eyes flicked his way. "We're just worried about you, is all, with everything going on today."
  239.  
  240.     Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and she glanced back to the window before muttering something.Through the din of the vehicle and its occupants, the one thing he could make out for sure was "...should be."
  241.  
  242.     Any further serious business would have to wait until later, as Vanzilla finally lurched into the driveway and its passengers disembarked in a rolling wave of children eager to escape to their favorite R&R activities. As Lincoln dusted himself off, his path to the door was blocked by Lynn, Lana and Lola, who each pointed two fingers to their eyes and back to his as they menacingly backed toward the porch. The last laugh was his, however, as they all tripped on the first step and fell into a pile of kicking and shouting opportunists.
  243.  
  244.     "So long, suckers!" He leapt over the three-headed, six-armed hydra as it reached up to try and grab him, and escaped up the stairs before it could manage to untangle itself. Before rushing to his room, however, he caught sight of Lori leading Leni to their room with a supportive arm around the younger girl's shoulder. His curiosity almost got the best of him, but he decided to stop while he was ahead. Whatever Leni was going through, if anyone could help her through it, it was Lori. Tabling that matter for the time being, he retreated to his room and began drafting 'Operation: Get Out of Debt to Four Sisters Without Paying Said Debt With My Life' with Clyde over the radio.
  245.  
  246.     Down the hallway and to the left, however, a far different discussion was taking place.
  247.  
  248.     "Do you want to tell me what happened this morning, Leni?" ...the silent treatment, eh? "Or would you rather hear the public version?" That got a reaction out of her at least, as Leni pulled a pillow to where she lay on her bed and covered her face with it. 'Pulling teeth, then.' Lori sighed as she brought her hand up to pinch at the bridge of her nose. "I was especially concerned with Holly and Jennifer's rendition-"
  249.  
  250.     "What did they say?" Leni hadn't moved the pillow to speak, so the words came somewhat muffled, but Lori could tell she was just as upset as she must have been earlier. "I-I mean, like, were they worried, or angry, or...?"
  251.  
  252.     "Or...?"
  253.  
  254.     "Or scared, or what?" the younger of the two finally flung the pillow as hard as she could across the room, where it hit the wall and floor with a small thud. Sitting up and bringing her knees to her chest, she rested her forehead against them as she began to wallow. Lori had wallowed more than her fair share, so she knew what was coming next. "I can't even, like, imagine what they must have been thinking. Like, I don't even know what I as thinking!"
  255.  
  256.     "Maybe they were concerned with you literally saying 'like', like, every other word?" A wry smile curled Lori's lips as she tried to coax Leni out of her pity party, but she got more than she expected when the younger girl's head shot up with a dangerously familiar fire in her eyes.
  257.  
  258.     "Like I need you to tell me that!" The words came harsher than Leni had intended, and she wilted at the look of concern on Lori's face. Her sister had just been trying to lighten the mood, but then again, that seemed to be an effective trigger for whatever it was she was feeling. "I mean, I-" her head suddenly felt like it was on fire, and she pitched forward into Lori's outstretched arms. "I'm sorry. F-for everything..."
  259.  
  260.     And just like that, they'd crossed into uncharted territory. To anyone else that apology may have sounded unrelated to their exchange, even bizarre. But Lori knew there was only one thing, or rather, one period of time Leni could be referring to. The mere possibility raised the hair on the back of her neck and she shoved the thought down with as much composure as she could.
  261.  
  262.     "Shh, come on now, none of that." Lori took a seat beside Leni on the bed and pulled her sister into a one-sided hug, leaving Leni to numbly rest her head on Lori's shoulder. This kind of moment had become rare for them, which was something Lori regretted, but it was clear now that Leni needed the support for whatever she was going through. The thought lingered in the back of her head that there was something deeper here, and there was no doubt as to what it was in that case. But the way things were now...they had come too far, given up too much...done something horrible to reach this point. If she didn't have to dredge the subject back up, she wouldn't.
  263.  
  264.     As Leni's arms slowly closed around her, Lori warred down the questions she knew she needed to ask her sister, but didn't have the courage or conviction to follow through with. It was a decision that would have lifelong ramifications. For her, Leni, and everyone they cared about.
  265.  
  266. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  267.  
  268.     The final chord of Luna's most recent composition heralded the end of the evening, and after having heard most of his sisters make their rounds down the hall Lincoln decided to make his break for the bathroom. As he changed into his sleepwear, he lamented, "Bathroom time would be hard enough to come by with two or three other people, but ten is outrageous! People think we're joking when we tell them there really is a schedule."
  269.  
  270.     Upon reaching the stairs, he knew he was home free...until Lori and Leni's door opened and the latter exited in front of him, her dress and sandals switched out for a robe and slippers. His plea for her to let him be done with his business died on his lips, however, as she met his eyes with a pair that were far more alert than he'd ever seen them. She had also forgone her trademark sunglasses, he noticed; the whole ensemble left her looking very...vulnerable, if Lincoln had to describe it in one word.
  271.  
  272.     Those eyes flicked down for only an instant, but it was enough to draw his attention to the bottle clutched in her hand. Noticing him noticing her, Leni too looked about to speak before reconsidering and turning away toward his original destination. 'Well, that's not conspicuous at all.' Lincoln wisely chose to keep that thought to himself as he decided to catch up to her before she escaped. Coming up alongside her at the bathroom door, he smoothly initiated the conversation, "I take it you found your medicine?"
  273.  
  274.     Her eyes narrowed as they snapped back to him, and he sensed something unwelcoming behind them, frustration maybe? 'Oh right, this is top secret classified info.' She glanced back toward her own door, then to the stairs where Lynn was lugging up what appeared to be lacrosse gear, down the hallway where a tumbleweed of 6-year-olds was whirling about. Deciding that everyone else was sufficiently preoccupied, she bobbed her head toward the bathroom door to motion Lincoln inside. This definitely wasn't how he'd envisioned this trip to the bathroom going, and he had to make a quick decision about whether to follow through with this. Was Leni's illness — condition? problem? — any of his business? He wasn't so sure anymore, and yet she seemed to be willing to share it with him.
  275.  
  276.     'She didn't want anyone else knowing about this, so why me? Maybe she just needs someone to talk to?' Even he knew this was something probably better suited for one of his older siblings to handle, but it was a little late to call in the cavalry now. No, there was something to this whole mystery he was still missing, and the investigator in him couldn't rest now that he'd been strung this far along. Throwing caution to the wind, he scurried inside and not long after heard the door close behind him.
  277.  
  278.     After ensuring their privacy, Leni made to sit on the edge of the bathtub, and patted a spot next to her for Lincoln to occupy. Settling himself in, he looked up in anticipation of whatever she had to say, and was met with that hyper-aware gaze. Well, hyper-aware by Leni's standards. She sat in silence for a few moments, looking as if she was trying to find the right words. It struck Lincoln that, aside from his somewhat selfish and ill-fated attempt to help her get her driver's license, he hadn't spent much time with Leni on a one-on-one basis.
  279.  
  280.     One might wave that away as a result of having to divide his time between himself, twelve fellow household members and his friends, but that didn't quite sit right with him. 'I help Lucy with her poetry, Lynn with her sports, Lisa with her experiments, Luna with her sound checks, Lola with her pageant practice...' the list went on, he had more interaction with LILY, for crying out loud!
  281.  
  282.     "Lincoln," her voice was soft, subdued even, but still loud enough to shake him from his thoughts, "do you remember the time before I started this pill regimen?" For a moment he felt as if she was looking through him, and the severity of her tone caught him completely off guard. He hadn't even realized until this morning that she ever had a regimen to begin with, so he simply shook his head. Something about that response seemed to lift her spirits a little, and that far-away look came back into focus as Leni turned to look at the bottle cradled in her hands. "I thought so. It was, like, four years ago when I started taking them; you were seven, then. I'm kind of surprised though, back then I was pretty...excitable."
  283.  
  284.     "Excitable? Fashionable, scare-able, lovable maybe, but what does 'excitable' mean?" A little titter escaped Leni's lips at Lincoln's compliments, for which he awarded himself several Best Brother™ points. "Excitable sounds more like this entire house!"
  285.  
  286.     "It's been so long, I'm not sure what exactly it means anymore. They're supposed to keep me relaxed...would you describe me as relaxed?" After only a moment's consideration, Lincoln nodded in agreement. "That's good, I guess. But sometimes, it's like I'm just...along for the ride, if that makes any sense," though she could tell that it didn't, so she amended, "sometimes it's, like, so hard to focus on even one thing. And then I say something weird, or do something clumsy...sometimes I don't feel like I'm even in control of myself."
  287.  
  288.     This was taking a turn for the straight-out weird, and Lincoln was starting to regret crawling down this rabbit hole. Another part of his mind, however, told him that he was hearing something incredibly important. He'd never heard Leni speak like this before, both about such a serious subject and with such a serious attitude. What she was talking about was a mental problem. He was suddenly ashamed to realize that it made sense to him — while he respected her as his older sister, Leni wasn't the person you go to for advice on anything more than what's chic this season. Lucy's writing had more thought put into it than a lot of the things that managed to escape her mouth on a daily basis. To hear her now, confiding in him about something critical to her being, seemingly in command of all her faculties, it was as if he was listening to a sister he hadn't known for all eleven of his years.
  289.  
  290.     "The last order of these didn't come when it was supposed to," Leni continued after a few moments with that distant look returning, "I went longer between pills to make up for it. Two days between, then three. It's been, like, four days since the last one; this morning I found out they were completely gone. I don't know what I would have done if these hadn't been here when we got home."
  291.  
  292.     "How do you get them?"
  293.  
  294.     "Mom and Dad got them for me for a long time, then they started coming in the mail." That didn't seem right to Lincoln. Shouldn't she be seeing whatever doctor ordered them if she'd had this problem for this long? As far as that person knew she might not even need them anymore! Leni certainly didn't seem 'excitable' now, after an apparently lengthy period between doses...this stuff could have stopped helping her at some point and started hurting her! She startled him out of that train of thought, though, as she began to speak again.
  295.  
  296.     "Four years, now. That's how I felt for four years, taking these pills, like, every other day." Leni had turned back to the bottle, and seemed to be talking to herself, or it, more than Lincoln now. "Mom and Dad got them for me, and Lori made sure that I took them. I-I can't even remember why." Her composure almost broke at that moment; Lincoln mistook her stutter as being on the verge of tears, and missed the way her hand clenched around the bottle, knuckles whitening. "Things changed this year though. Lori's going to graduate soon, and she's been spending, like, literally all her time talking to or hanging out with Bobby. I kept taking them, to show them I was responsible. Not ditzy, not clueless, not...not s-stupid." This time a harsh sob did manage to break through, and Lincoln's hand was holding hers in an instant.
  297.  
  298.     "You're not!" His voice nearly rang in the bathroom, startling them both, and after they both glanced toward the door he lowered his voice, "you're not stupid! Just because you handle things different than us doesn't mean you're not just as capable!" Lincoln was glad that this, at least, he felt to be true. Despite having to 'speak Leni', his sister was theoretically just as capable of driving as Lori. If he ever did actually need advice on fashion, there wasn't another person he would go to before her. And countless events had shown her, in his eyes, to be close to if not the most compassionate of his sisters, which he wouldn't trade for anything. "Don't ever let anyone make you feel that way. If they do, they'll...they'll have to deal with me!" He puffed out his chest for dramatic effect, and despite herself Leni giggled with new-found happiness. She leaned in for a quick hug, and after he returned it and managed to worm his way out she returned her attention to the bottle, kneading it like a stress ball.
  299.  
  300.     "Lincoln, what made you so curious about this in the first place?" Leni asked at length, though she suspected she already knew the answer to that.
  301.  
  302.     "Well...normally you seem so carefree, and you were so on edge this morning and after school. And now, hearing that you've been feeling so down...you know you can talk to us, right? Me, Lori, anyone!" The look on her face, though, made Lincoln wonder.
  303.  
  304.     Leni, for her part, briefly shook her head as her gaze dropped to the floor. "It's not that simple. Whenever I tried to talk about it with the rest of them, they just, like, avoided the subject. After a while I stopped trying...they don't even seem to notice anything changed in the past few days. I get that they're all busy with their own things, but it still hurts. You've never been too busy though, even if it gets you into trouble sometimes."
  305.  
  306.     He nervously chuckled as she favored him with a sly smile; too sly for the Leni he'd come to know. But then, this wasn't that Leni anymore, it seemed. 'Hopefully this doesn't become more trouble than I bargained for...' All too soon, however, that smile vanished as a wistful sigh escaped her lips.
  307.  
  308.     She rubbed at her eyes and closed them as she held the bottle close to her chest. "These past few days, and today most of all, have been like waking up from some kind of dream. I made a fool of myself at school today, but for the first time in so long, it felt like I did it for a reason. It felt so bad, and so good, and confusing, but also like it was the way I was supposed to feel. It felt...right." The implication hung heavy in the air, and Lincoln found his conscience being crushed under it; that for so long, she had felt wrong. Had been made to feel wrong.
  309.  
  310.     Made to feel wrong by the people who were supposed to be looking out for her.
  311.  
  312.     'I may just be a kid, and I may not know much about this kind of thing, but I do know that this...THIS is wrong.' A whirlwind of emotions began to whip up inside Lincoln as he tried to find any reason at all that the person he was listening to should be shoved aside by those things she was holding. She needed to talk to their parents and Lori, they needed to hear the Leni he was hearing here and now. But as much as he couldn't find fault in this unmedicated Leni, he also knew that he only had part of the story. 'Mom and Dad HAD to have had a good reason for doing this! And Lori and the others wouldn't...wait...' The realization filled him with dread: Lori knew all about this situation, but did the others?
  313.  
  314.     Luna, Luan and Lynn would have all been even more familiar with the pre-medicated Leni than he was; Lucy and the twins would have been toddlers, and Lisa and Lily wouldn't have even been born yet! Leni had said they avoided talking about it, but was that maybe because even they didn't know? Assuming his three next-oldest siblings were in the dark about this, and that Leni couldn't properly recall the time before she began her treatment, that meant that only three people in the house had the full story of what was happening. The same three people that were forcing Leni to be someone she wasn't.
  315.  
  316.     Lincoln felt his stomach turn as his thoughts raced a mile a minute, foremost among them the thought that the three eldest Louds' intentions were less than pure.
  317.  
  318.     'Didn't we just learn a lesson recently about accepting each other for who we are and what we do? What could Leni have done that's so bad she was actually forced to give up who she was?!' Even at her worst, Lincoln couldn't comprehend the idea of Leni doing something so horrible that his parents would go so far as to change her so completely.
  319. This Leni was rational, and thoughtful, and so much more than-
  320.  
  321.     "Hey," a soft voice and a hand on his shoulder interrupted Lincoln's runaway train of thought, "I need you to listen carefully to me, Lincoln." He slowly brought himself to look at her, momentarily peeved at being told to listen by LENI before remembering himself. He wished he hadn't. She was smiling at him still, but it wasn't the same one as before. It was a happy smile, but it was also...sad? There was this knowing look to it, the look someone had when they were about to tell you they were moving away ,or when they were trying to figure out how to explain something awful that had happened.  He knew it was about to tell him something he couldn't stand to hear.
  322.  
  323.     Drawing in a deep breath, Leni summoned up all the composure she could for this. She had to be strong for her little brother. "I want you to know how...how proud I am of you, Lincoln," damnit, she couldn't be losing it right at the start! Promising herself she wouldn't cry, she continued, "You're growing up to be such a good boy, and you're going to keep growing up into a good man. You're someone I can trust, Lincoln." Another implication lay amongst that statement, that there were far fewer people she could trust than either of them had realized. Her resolve started to fail her as it looked like Lincoln was going to cry too, but this was why she wanted to say these things to him now. "I wanted to share this with you because I knew you would appreciate what I was saying, even if it didn't make any sense. The way you always have."
  324.  
  325.     The dam gave way slightly, for both of them. Lincoln knew she was referring to all the times he humored her bizarre language and behavior, to the times he treated his own older sister like a child. That she didn't seem to begrudge him for it just twisted the knife of guilt even deeper, and the tears forming in the corners of his eyes were as full of self-loathing as they were of sympathy.
  326.  
  327.     "You take such good care of us, of me," she continued, no longer trying to hold her own back, "and I just want you to know — NEED you to know — how happy I am that we were able to talk like this, and that you were able to see me this way...that I was able to see the brother I love so much for the incredible person he is."
  328.  
  329.     'I don't deserve to hear this...' He had failed her. As a brother, and as a friend. Nothing else she could say would convince Lincoln otherwise, or so he thought, so much so that he nearly missed the end of her speech.
  330.  
  331.     And then, the killing blow.
  332.  
  333.     "...even if it was just this once."
  334.  
  335.     Lincoln almost lost his balance, as if the words had physically struck him, but he was saved by being pulled into another hug by his now-lucid sister. "Lincoln...even if I'm not...n-not the same person tomorrow, I want you to promise me that you'll never change who YOU are." It came out as a hoarse whisper, but the raw emotion in that request sent him over the edge and he finally let himself go, crying into her shoulder. Fortunately the sound was muffled and didn't draw undue attention, and they sat that way for a time before she finally coaxed a shaky affirmation out of him.
  336.  
  337.     It was enough to give her some measure of peace, and she made sure he was steady in his seat before she stood and padded over to the sink, the sound of the lid popping off the bottle the harshest noise either of them had heard that day. Lincoln watched with so many feelings coursing through him, terror and regret foremost among them, as Leni allowed one of the bright blue pills to fall into her palm.
  338.  
  339.     As she closed her hand around the cursed capsule, she hesitantly acknowledged the 'her' in the mirror again. Just as before, her reflection was the only thing looking back, but she knew it wasn't her. Not yet. 'Not yet...and not anytime soon.' She had the presence of mind now to know that she wouldn't be able to make the distinction after returning to her regimen, and that hateful bile in her rose up again, clawing its way up her throat and through her body and mind. But she choked it down, knowing that she wasn't alone with her disjointed thoughts this time. She couldn't subject Lincoln to another one of her episodes like the one at school.
  340.  
  341.     Swallowing that bile, and the weird pride and passion that came with it, she filled a glass with water as she reminded herself that this was the way things had to be. 'This is, like, the only way...the only way there'll be peace in this house.' That was what Lori had told her all these years, and if anyone knew, it was Lori. She looked at that haunting reflection in the mirror for what she thought would be the last time, so fixated with it that she didn't notice the increasingly fidgety brother next to her.
  342.  
  343.     'This isn't right.' It was the only coherent thought Lincoln could muster as he bore witness to his sister knowingly letting those pills make her...the way she was before today. His heart began racing as she began to bring the hand with the pill in it up to her mouth, and his fight or flight response kicked in. 'Not right, it's not right, it's NOT RIGHT-'
  344.  
  345.     Reason may have returned to Leni, at least fleetingly, but it completely abandoned Lincoln as he shot forward with a night's worth of pent-up energy and smacked her hand, eliciting a loud yelp from his sister and sending the pill flying around the vanity before finally bouncing around the sink and down the drain. Out of pain and instinct she dropped the bottle and clutched her hand, fixing her brother with a glare and preparing a scolding before catching sight of the look on his face.
  346.  
  347.     Desperation. An expression desperate to share feelings that couldn't be properly voiced. It was an expression, a feeling, Leni was becoming disturbingly acquainted with lately, but to see it on Lincoln's face...he seemed as surprised by the act as she was, and the slight annoyance was quickly drowned out by concern for him.
  348.  
  349.     "I-I'm sorry, Leni," he began, trying to organize his thoughts as he went along, "but you can't do this. You can't give this up!" He flung his arms wide and motioned haphazardly to her person, and shared with her the conclusions he'd come to over the course of the night. About her seeming rationality, about how their family dynamic had left her behind, and the possibility that she probably didn't even need medicine anymore for whatever may have been wrong. "What's the worst that could happen if you stayed like this?"
  350.  
  351.     'Don't tempt fate, Lincoln.' She was inwardly terrified of him seeing the side of her that had shown itself at school that day, the side that nearly lashed out at Lori after they had returned home. The one that was agreeing wholeheartedly with everything he was saying right at that moment. 'What IS the worst that could happen...maybe we should find out-' She shook her head violently, and wobbled hard enough that her brother swooped in to steady her. "Lincoln, you don't understand. I have to do this."
  352.  
  353.     "Why?!"
  354.     ["Why are you doing this to me?! Mom, Dad! DON'T!"]
  355.  
  356.     "To keep the peace in the house! To stop myself from doing something, like, all of us will regret!" She couldn't actually believe that, Lincoln thought, and he felt his ire from earlier begin to boil over the top.
  357.  
  358.     "'Keep the peace?' What 'peace' is there to keep?! I doubt Luna's going to stop shaking the foundation with her music or that Luan's going to stop pranking us all to death just because you're acting different! Lynn's going to keep finding a way to turn field hockey into an indoor sport and Lisa is going to eventually blow the house up whether you take those pills or not!" He hoped he wasn't getting too loud, yet at the same time maybe it would be better if someone did hear, maybe it would make them realize how ignorant they'd been; ignorant like he'd been. But not anymore.
  359.  
  360.     Leni wanted desperately to argue with him, but she couldn't find fault in his logic. 'If I go back to this, then nothing will have changed. Everyone will go on with their lives, and I'll just be drifting along again.' The thought made her sick, but she was finally beginning to realize why. As she stopped to put everything into perspective, there was no other conclusion to reach than that Lincoln was absolutely right. Even at her worst that day, she had managed not to go completely off the deep end, and that episode was a far cry from some of the incidents her siblings and friends had gotten themselves into over the years.
  361.  
  362.     What even was the point of the medicine if it wasn't supposed to fix her problems? 'They would just let me stay like this, the bastards...' An unexpected self-righteousness took hold in her chest as she thought back on her discussion with Lincoln. 'They should be proud of me, for finally getting to this point. And proud of him too, for being the only one willing to help me see it.'
  363.  
  364.     Lincoln was beginning to wonder if he had overstepped his bounds and possibly about to get a tongue-lashing when she stopped speaking for so long, but at last she seemed to have gathered her thoughts. When she acknowledged him again, it was with an uncharacteristic and somewhat intimidating fire in her eyes. Glancing between him and the bottle, she came to a fateful decision, and swept past him to the toilet. He watched in stunned silence as she lifted the lid and poured its contents inside, before sending the pills — the fake Leni — to a watery grave with a decisive flush.
  365.  
  366.     Finding his footing, Lincoln moved to stand beside her as they watched the blue mess swirl away. "Uh, I hope we don't end up needing Big Bertha anytime soon." His attempted joke caught him off guard as much as Leni, and before long they're chuckling not necessarily at it, but the melodrama of the past hour. That wasn't the end though, he realized, as she stooped down to look him in the eye once more. Before he could react she had pulled him into another bone-crushing hug, resting her chin on his shoulder and his on her's.
  367.  
  368.     "Thank you, Lincoln." She sounded so relieved, so grateful, that it hurt him to hear it. "Thank you for being to one to see the real me." The tears were back, Lincoln noted as they fell on his shoulder, and he simply opted to hear her out. "Whether I was, like, doped out on those pills or the way I am now, you...you're one of the only ones who treated me like a real person." That cut him to the quick, and he had to swallow hard to avoid joining her. "I remember so much now, but I'm still missing the time before I started this...and I hope you'll be there to help me when I get that back."
  369.  
  370.     "I'll always be here for you, Leni, no matter what else happens." He meant it, and it felt good to mean it. As her old problem disappeared, a new one had taken its place, but he was determined that she wouldn't face it alone this time. As they parted again, she had an air about her that even before he hadn't really noticed. More than ever, the Leni he was looking at now seemed at peace.
  371.  
  372.     "You don't know how much that means to me, Linc. And I'll always be looking out for my favoritest only brother." She ruffled his hair and stuck her tongue out at him when he tried to shake her off. "But I think it might be better for us to be there for each other in the morning, after we've gotten a little beauty sleep." She finished with a yawn, and Lincoln found himself a little drained as well after the whole ordeal.
  373.  
  374.     "'Beauty sleep,' eh? Speak for yourself, a man needs his energy to keep this place in one piece!" She slapped him playfully on the shoulder as she got up to open the door, and he stopped for a moment to consider what he'd experienced here tonight. They'd talked and joked with one another before, of course, but never like this. This rapport that they had now, that he didn't really share with anyone in the family other than Lucy and occasionally Lori and Lynn, was something he hadn't realized he wanted so badly. Leni respected him, she'd made that abundantly clear earlier, and to have that connection with her was worth weathering whatever may come in the following days.
  375.  
  376.     "You coming, Lincoln? Or, did you need a moment?" Remembering that he had actually come here for a purpose before their soul-searching, he motioned for her to go on ahead and took the opportunity to make use of the facilities. Being weirdly careful not to cause any issues that would actually get their secret found out, he finished and whisked out the door. The house had gone completely silent aside from the snoring of several of his sisters, so maybe they didn't need to be as quiet as they'd thought.
  377.  
  378.     Seeing her to her room, despite it only being several feet away, he finally began the trek to his room one her voice stopped him one more time. "G'night, Lincoln," he couldn't quite see her well in the darkness, but he could feel the smile in her voice, "thanks again. For everything."
  379.  
  380.     "Good night, Leni. And you're welcome." His heart swelled with pride and brotherly affection as he drifted to his room, feeling truly accomplished for the first time in a while. Climbing into bed, it wasn't long before some of the best sleep he'd ever had claimed him. There would be time to sort things out in the morning, with a full stomach and hopefully few sisters hoping to collect their debts.
  381.  
  382. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  383.  
  384.     As Leni gingerly closed the door to her shared room, she had to navigate by moonlight and the telltale sound of Lori's snoring to find her own bed. 'What a day...and there's still an entire week ahead to sort it all out.' Despite everything, she felt better now than she could remember feeling these past years. Having rediscovered her sense of self, and with her wise-beyond-his-years brother to help her through it all, she felt as if there was nothing she couldn't do. As she gripped the sheets, she glanced over to her only older sister, her constant companion for the past sixteen years.
  385.  
  386.     'What would you think of me now?' It troubled her to think that if Lori caught on to her that not only might she get in trouble, but Lincoln as well. 'Why should we get in trouble because I'm finally the real me again? Because I'm not the person you think I should be?'
  387.  
  388.     'The person you turned me into. The person you laugh at, that you joke about, that you lie to every single day of your miserable life-'
  389.  
  390.     Before she realized what she was doing, she found herself looming over her sleeping sister. Lori had fallen asleep talking to Bobby on the phone, as usual, and the device now threatened to fall to the floor from her loosened grip.
  391.  
  392.     'Traitor.' It was the only word she could think of to describe Lori at the moment, and like so many other things today, it felt right. Untroubled by this development, she leaned in closer to take in the other girl's features. So calm, without a worry in the world. 'I bet this is how I looked all this time. But not anymore. Not today.'
  393.  
  394.     Lori shifted in her sleep, finally sending the phone plummeting toward the floor. A deft hand caught it, and Leni brought it up to peruse through the most recent exchange. "Oh my~...you've been getting up to some trouble too, haven't you, sis?" Her cheeks reddened a little, both from embarrassment and the thrill of how much use what she was seeing could go to. She flicked through the photographs, already planning how she would use them in the coming days.
  395.  
  396.     'One good turn deserves another, Lor. I got punished for how I acted, and so will you.'
  397.  
  398.     She quietly exited the room, sending copies to her own phone and deleting the record as she ghosted through the hallway. She thought about the others safe and snug in their beds, sleeping all their troubles away. 'There'll be all the time in the world for you. Luna, Luan, Lynn...you weren't there when I needed you, but I'll definitely be there for you. We're sisters, after all.' She continued until she reached the opposite end of the hallway, stopping in front of Lincoln's door.
  399.  
  400.     A pang of guilt coursed through her for a moment, having never intended for him to be caught up in this. But they were bound together in this now, for better or worse. He had promised to look out for her, the way no one else ever had, and she would do her best to see the same done for him.
  401.  
  402.     Turning sharply to the right, she pressed an ear to the door of Lisa and Lily's room, trying to pick up any trace of her second-youngest sister's work. Hearing nothing on the other side, she turned the handle and entered, proceeding as quietly as she could over to Lily's crib. Looking down at the infant, she felt conflicted. "You're not old enough to remember me before all this," she whispered, glancing toward Lisa's bed to make sure the child genius was still asleep, "...I wonder which one of me you'll grow up to know?" Leaving off with that, she turned from the crib and hid Lori's phone away in the one place she was sure no one would look.
  403.  
  404.     Gagging hard, she made to leave, but not before leveling her gaze at the 4-year old again. 'So you like your big sister to help with your experiments, huh?' That bile boiled inside her again, and left her feeling vindicated as she glared at her sister before stalking out of the room. 'I hope you won't mind returning the favor. I have, like, a hundred ideas to experiment with.'
  405.  
  406.     She stopped off at the bathroom one more time after her midnight adventure, thoroughly cleaning her hands and arm as she trained her glare on the toilet. after concluding her business, she returned to her room and settled into bed, only the sheer stress of the day overpowering her racing mind. As she curled up and shifted away from her sister, from her past, she entertained one more thought before succumbing to slumber.
  407.  
  408.     'It's a whole new world now. So much to do, so much to say, now that they're not holding me down anymore. Mom, Dad, Lori...myself.'
  409.  
  410.     'So much to do, and only one week to do it without anyone getting in my way.'
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