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Velvet Fist - Act VI

Wrightfag Aug 10th, 2016 (edited) 2,381 Never
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  1.     "Come ON, Luna. What are we doing out here?" Luan had asked several times now, and once more she was answered with a disturbing silence. Her roommate had come downstairs and fetched her not long after Lori had arrived back home, and she'd hoped that Luna was going to share a plan for how to deal with Leni with her. Instead, her sister hadn't uttered a single word as she led her out to the garage, and she eventually found herself sitting on a box of their mother's old clothes. "Are you mad at me again?"
  2.  
  3.     Luna, leaning against the threshold of the garage door, opened her eyes halfway to acknowledge her companion with an ominous scowl. "Not yet. What do you know about what's been going on with Leni these past few days?"
  4.  
  5.     The younger of the two flew to her feet as if the hounds of hell were at her heels. "You KNOW?! She's off her meds, Luna, she, she's back to her old self!" She cleared the distance between them in record time to grasp Luna's shirt, panic clearly writ on her face. "Last night, she attacked me in the basement! She said she was going to hurt everyone else, too, even LILY! We have to go back inside and help Lori, we-" her frantic pleas were cut short as the taller girl roughly shoved her, sending her tumbling back and onto her junk throne she'd create several days past. "W-what are you doing?!" Luna didn't answer her, turning instead to grab the the bottom lip of the door. "L-Luna?"
  6.  
  7.     The elder Loud forcefully brought the door down with an echoing crash, shrouding them in darkness save for the light streaming in through the door's windows. "Lor and Len've got their biz to settle," Luna muttered, "and so do you and me."
  8.  
  9.     Dumbstruck, Luan willed herself to get back up and smack some sense into her sister, but her body wouldn't obey. "What...what are you SAYING? Is this a joke?! If it is, let me tell you, it's not a real knee-slapper!" She pointed to her previously inflicted injuries, only to look up in time to see the rocker directly in front of her.
  10.  
  11.     Luna was upon her before she could react, patting her down and batting away her arms when she tried to resist. "Luna, stop! NO!" The elder girl finally grabbed both of her wrists and pinned them above her head, holding them there with one hand while continuing her frisk. Luan yelped at the pressure on her sprained wrist, but her new adversary didn't let up in the slightest. Finally Luna felt what she was looking for through her skirt, and reached in to withdraw the clip of money Leni had given Luan just an hour or so before.
  12.  
  13.     Already bewildered at the turn of events, Luan became fearful at the fury on her sister's face. "So, Lu," Luna growled, "you must've been doing a lot of parties lately to pick up this kind of dough, yeah?"
  14.  
  15.     Cold reality splashed the comedienne in the face at what was going on. "W-wait, let me explaiiiAAOW!" She cried out as Luna tightened her grip, pocketing the money before curling her now-free hand into a fist.
  16.  
  17.     "I get that you don't really got any respect for me or my thing, and that's fine," Luna spat, unclenching her hand and grabbing her sister by the chin, "because I don't got any for you or yours either. But this...this is pretty fuckin' low, even for you." Luan tried to speak, to defend herself, but found her response cut off by the rocker's hand. "First you get my drum broken, then you steal the money Len gave me to replace it. Are you gonna spend two-hundred dollars on another bleedin' toy?"
  18.  
  19.     Finally shaking her head free, Luan shouted, "NO! It's not like that! Leni, she gave me that money, just before you brought me out here! I TOLD YOU, she's not on her meds anymore, she-"
  20.  
  21.     "I know."
  22.  
  23.     "-she, she's...you...you what?" Luan's voice trailed to a whisper at the end, completely unbelieving of what she'd just heard. 'I didn't hear that, she didn't SAY that-'
  24.  
  25.     "I know, Lu. She and I had a good talk about it earlier." The hatred on Luna's face leveled off to an unreadable expression. "Our sis is back. The real her. The only one who ever gave me any due." Her lip began to tremble once more with barely restrained anger as she gnashed her teeth. "The one you guys took away from me."
  26.  
  27.     If one listened carefully, they might hear a sound like a wire snapping; the last of Luan's rationality and restraint. Struggling mightily against her sister's hold on her, she howled, "what is WRONG WITH YOU?! She hurt me, she probably hurt Lynn, god only KNOWS what she's doing in there right NOW!! I didn't steal your money, you idiot, she GAVE it to me, to turn you against me or something! And you FELL for it!" She tried to kick out at the girl holding her down, but Luna simply interposed herself between her legs.
  28.  
  29.     The elder girl clenched her hand again and delivered a punch to Luan's already-tender stomach, halting her diatribe immediately. She then reached up to grip her sister by the throat, exerting just enough pressure to quiet her down and control her intake of air. "You think I'm an idiot, eh? Even if I wanted to believe you, no one else woulda known where to look for something I hid in there. No one else woulda had the time. Besides," she leaned in close enough for Luan to feel her breath on her face, "she doesn't need to turn me against you. I'm already there, bab. You and Lori both need knocked down a peg."
  30.  
  31.     Luan had stopped struggling halfway through her roommate's villain monologue, having learned her lesson from the previous night. After being treated this way by two sisters in two days, a sort of calm finally came over her. Luna's grip on her neck loosened, as she'd hoped, and when her new tormentor leaned in to continue taunting her she threw her head forward to attempt the headbutt again. This time she connected, sending Luna stumbling back, and she shot up and forward to shove her sister away. Frantically looking for an out, she spotted the other door leading out of the garage and made a break for it. Luna recovered quickly, though, and gave chase.
  32.  
  33.     Reaching the door, Luan tried the handle, but it wouldn't budge in the slightest. 'Someone's about to go to the school of hard knocks in a second, and it's not gonna be me again.' She didn't have time to take heart in her sense of humor kicking back in, instead kicking the door to try and dislodge it. For her efforts she was rewarded with a painful jolt from her foot all the way to her bruised knee. The sounds of boots thudding closer toward her overrode the pain, though, and she dodged to the side to avoid an attempted grab by Luna. Putting as much space and as many obstacles as she could between them, she shouted, "Luna, STOP! Just listen to me!"
  34.  
  35.     The brunette, stamping like a riled bull, nursed her injured nose as she stared her prey down. "Talk's cheap, Lu. Now c'mere." Despite her muffled and nasal tone, the other girl didn't doubt the danger she was still in for a second. Whether or not Luan was going to comply, she began to advance more carefully, and they circled each other around the various objects and implements in the room.
  36.  
  37.     Her nerves momentarily showing through, Luan's eyes began to sting with tears. "Why are you doing this, Luna? You remember what she did to us, what she's doing to us now! Lori's alone in there with her, we need to be there for her!" Of course she wasn't actually alone, but how were Lucy, the twins or Lisa going to help her? Their oldest sister had been their defender in the past, and they'd have to rely on her again.
  38.  
  39.     "Speak for yerself. She never did a thing to me, and she hasn't since she got over'em." Luna leaped over her pile of junk, just missing her sister. "After what you guys did to her all these years, I don't blame her." Fed up with the chase, she began shoving aside everything in her path, carving out a path to her target. "You most of all. You went out of your way to screw with her, it wasn't enough that we made her into a freakin' idiot."
  40.  
  41.     "I keep telling you, it wasn't like that," Luan denied, her options becoming severely limited, "I messed with her because she's the only one who even cared enough to pay any attention to what I was doing!" She found herself backed into a corner, and she began frantically searching the walls and tables for anything to defend herself with.
  42.  
  43.     Closing in on her prey, Luna savored the moment, advancing slowly. "Why do you think that is? Is it maybe cuz no one cared what you were doin'? You coulda stopped anytime, tried somethin' else, but you just kept pushing your schtick on everyone. Don't complain when you get pushed back."
  44.  
  45.     Her hand finding purchase on something smooth and heavy, Luan wrenched her hand up to wield a small shovel. She swung it in an arc in front of her, sending a wide-eyed Luna stumbling back a step. "Stay away from me," she demanded, "just leave me alone."
  46.  
  47.     Adopting a defensive posture, Luna cautiously answered, "no can do, sis. You're not gonna use that thing, and I don't need to make you try. If you wanna get out of this garage, you're gonna have to set it down sooner or later."
  48.  
  49.     Luan considered her words and found them to be true. 'I'm not getting out of here unless I go through her.' She really didn't want to hurt her sister, though, despite what she was doing to her. She quickly glanced toward the door again, and Luna took the opportunity to charge her, pinning her to the wall with the handle. "Ugh, NO! Let me GO!" She tried to throw a haphazard punch at the rocker, but her arms were largely pinned at her sides or directly in front of her.
  50.  
  51.     "Just pack it in, Lu," Luna urged her, holding her steady against the wall, "all we've gotta do now is wait a bit."
  52.  
  53.     With a frustrated cry, Luan resigned herself to her fate, when an act of providence finally threw her a bone. A loud crash rattled the walls and workbenches, and they both looked toward the now-open side door, through which a scattered ray of sunlight beamed. Wagering it all, Luan set one foot against the wall, grabbed the shovel handle and used it as leverage to lift her other leg up. With both legs braced against the wall, she pushed herself forward with all her strength, sending herself flying onto Luna and Luna hurdling toward the floor. Rolling off of her dazed sister, she made a break for the door, not looking back for anything.
  54.  
  55.     Making it outside, she heard footsteps in hot pursuit and rounded the corner toward the driveway. Her legs, already strained, couldn't keep up with her any longer though, and she veered to the side and into the same tricycle Leni had backed into previously. Luna wouldn't reach out to save her this time, instead letting Luan fall hard onto her already-bruised knees before circling around and grabbing her sister.
  56.  
  57.     "Game over."
  58.  
  59. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  60.  
  61.     As the door slammed and locked, Lucy trembled at what she'd just heard and seen. Everyone in the house fought, it was only to be expected between ten children old enough to argue, but Lori and Leni had savaged each other. And by any measure, it didn't seem to be over yet. Forcing herself forward, she returned to the door and pounded on it. "Lori! LENI!" Placing her ear to the door, she could hear the struggle continuing, a few thuds against the floor followed by a pained gasp. "Luan! LUNA!" They were nowhere to be found, and with Lynn as ill as she was, she wouldn't be able to help either.
  62.  
  63.     'Was Leni really going to come after me...?' Leni hadn't sounded as though she was bluffing, and the revelation that she'd been responsible for hurting Lynn shattered any lingering doubt. 'But now Lori's trapped in there with her...where is everyone? Lincoln isn't home yet, he could stop her...maybe.'
  64.  
  65.     With few other options, she briefly considered attempting to enter the room and help Lori herself. 'Two against one's got to be better than nothing. Lori was already down, though...how would I even get in, the vents? Wait...the vents!' Accepting that she would likely be more of a liability to her sister than any help, there was one thing she could do, and that was gather information on what was happening in the first place. Taking a play out of her brother's handbook, she booked it up the stairs and into the bathroom, closing the door as quietly as she could. Hurrying to the vent under the sink, she listened for any words or sounds originating from their parents' bedroom...
  66.  
  67.     A floor below, a thick drop of blood fell onto Lori's shirt from Leni's bleeding nose, the younger sister grinding her knee even further into her opponent's back. The pinned girl tried to cry out, but the pressure on her torso and the stress position her arms had been placed in only allowed her the slightest of shallow, ragged breaths.
  68.  
  69.     Determined to prevent her sister from challenging her again, Leni pulled each of Lori's outstretched arms even more tightly behind her back, forcing them ever further up and opposite their normal orientation. The pain became unbearable within seconds, and tears freely fell from Lori's eyes as her shoulders began to grind and strain under the pressure.
  70.  
  71.     "You're pathetic," Leni sneered, trying to remain steady as Lori's legs thrashed and kicked behind her, "like, what happened to the big bad Lori that we were always afraid of? What happened to the you that used to 'literally' turn us into human pretzels?" Where the eldest sibling had employed a variation of the technique to pick on her siblings in the past, it was a far cry from the version that the sixteen-year old was making use of now. "I could dislocate both your shoulders right now, probably worse. I SHOULD do it."
  72.  
  73.     Pressing her cheek against the floor, Lori tried to look back at her attacker. "L-Leni," she wheezed, "don't...don't..."
  74.  
  75.     With a pout, the victor decided that perhaps some mercy was in order. "Alright, listen up. I'm going to, like, ease up for a second," she leaned forward slightly to whisper in a morbidly soothing tone, "if you try anything, I'll ruin you. And not just your arms, either." Slowly, carefully, she relaxed her grip and allowed the other girl's arms back to a somewhat normal position. She kept her knee in place to maintain control of the counterattack she knew was coming and began fiddling with the belt around her waist.
  76.  
  77.     Right on cue, Lori pulled her wrists free of Leni's hand and tried to wrap her legs around her from behind. She was at a severe disadvantage though from the check on her back, the lack of air and her arms reacting sluggishly to the rigor they'd just been subjected to. Leni seized her by the hair on the back of her head and drove her headfirst into the floor, a weak yelp echoing through the room.
  78.  
  79.     Getting the belt free, the younger sister took Lori's weakly struggling arms once more and bound her wrists behind her back as tightly as she could manage before using the leverage to return them to their former position. She amplified the force considerably, and relished the way Lori's head began swinging wildly from side to side. "Like, what did I JUST tell you? You just do not know how to listen, do you?" She continued pushing her victim's arms up until she could feel them reach their absolute limit, and Lori's entire body began bucking beneath her. "Well, you know what they say about the burnt hand." She forced them that extra bit further, and her sister managed despite her position to howl in agony as her shoulders reached the verge of popping out of place.
  80.  
  81.     Both of them became sick, for very different reasons. The all-consuming pain set Lori to retching for the second time that day, but she had nothing left to give after her revelation earlier. For Leni, the thrill of victory was followed almost immediately by the bile she'd come to know and expect the past several days. This time, however, there was no joy, no vindication in what she'd done.
  82.  
  83.     "You idiot...I didn't want to do that," Leni mumbled, hands clutching at her stomach, "I warned you, you made me do that." She rose from the floor, backing away from Lori's sobbing form. Finally free, her older sister curled in on herself as best she could, before crying out again as she rolled onto one of her ravaged shoulders. "Why couldn't you just listen? Why don't any of you just LISTEN?"
  84.  
  85.     Lori didn't have the wherewithal to answer her, her head consumed with the feeling of raw nerves set aflame radiating from her spine and arms. The desire to fight back all but forgotten, her main drive became to find a comfortable position in which to wallow in defeat. 'Why? why, why, why-' the question looped over and over in her head, too many questions to focus on just one at the moment.
  86.  
  87.     Why did it have to hurt so much? Why did she allow herself to end up in this position? Why had she decided to fight Leni, rather than call their parents or the police or ANYONE better qualified to handle what was going on in this house? There was a convenient answer to all of those questions, an answer Leni had helpfully supplied her with just now. 'Because I'm a fucking idiot', she internally berated herself, trying to focus on anything other than the searing heat in her shoulders. 'I had to be the hero...I just wanted to make up for being a complete screw-up, and look where it got me...'
  88.  
  89.     Leni picked up on the inner turmoil through her sister's writhing, and she finally became confident that Lori presented no further threat to her at the moment. Having achieved the complete victory she was seeking, she let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and sat heavily upon the bed, lifting a hand up to tweak her nose. Confirming that it wasn't broken, she warily eyed Lori as the older girl began to settle into a pained torpor on the ground. "Now that that's done with, we can finally talk. You're going to listen this time, right?" Her vanquished foe turned her head away, but made no other attempt to move. "Good enough."
  90.  
  91.     Placing her hands on her knees, Leni considered how to proceed. Now that the confrontation had come and gone, it occurred to her that she wasn't even sure what to do now that she'd won. With Lori out of the way, her next major enemy would be her parents, but they wouldn't even be returning for five days. 'Unless someone gets a hold of them before then,' she noted. It would dim her prospects considerably if they made it back before she made arrangements to deal with them, meaning it would become crucial to control all contact her siblings had with each other and anyone on the outside from this point forward.
  92.  
  93.     Gathering up the various phones in the house would be a simple enough task, but she'd need help to stop the sisters from conspiring with each other. 'That's where Luna and Lola come in. As long as I can keep that little brat happy, she should keep me up to date. Not sure about the other one, though...' New rooming arrangements would help to control their access to each other. 'I can just keep this room, and Lori should still be find in hers.  Hmmm...I don't want Luna with Luan anymore, maybe she can switch with Lucy, or take Lisa's room. Maybe have Lily stay with Lincoln...Lincoln. LINCOLN.'
  94.  
  95.     Her heart seized in her chest upon imagining his reaction to what he'd be coming home to...coming home that very day. As forgiving as he'd been of her taking Lori's phone, beating down both her and Luan while poisoning Lynn and drugging Lisa might be just a hair past his limits. 'Ugh, I got so wrapped up in keeping them on a leash that I completely forgot he was off of it.' Worse than his feelings about her, however, was the likelihood that he would take their side when they eventually came after her, and there was no doubt that they would. "He wouldn't turn on me, though...he's, like, the only person who understands..."
  96.  
  97.     A flicker of movement in the corner of her eye drew her attention to a wide-eyed Lori staring at her, anxiety writ on her face. Leni shot up from the bed, snarling as her body tensed for another go. "What?" Her bound sister tried to edge away from her, coming up short as the adrenaline and shock from their encounter gave way to fatigue and nerve-wracking pain. "WHAT?"
  98.  
  99.     Throat constricting, tongue suddenly dry, Lori managed to choke out, "stay away from him...you stay away from them." That maternal instinct welled up from within her and overpowered her better judgement. "Lincoln, all of the kids, they didn't do anything to you," Leni's threat against Lucy just a short while ago goaded her to continue, "don't you lay a finger on them."
  100.     ["Get away from them, Leni!"]
  101.     ["Don't you go near them right now, young lady!"]
  102.  
  103.     Face screwing in anger, hands gripping her head, Leni wailed, "get out...get OUT..." Lori began to shake as she advanced on her, settling the tip of her boot next to her prone sister's head much like she had with Luan the night before. "GET OUT OF MY HEAD!" She lifted her foot and slammed it down next to Lori's head, sending the other girl rolling away and whimpering in pain from the exertion. Leni didn't follow her, but her eyes did, eyes filled with fear and hatred. "You and Luna, like, always listening, always watching...well now I'm the one watching all of you. And as soon as I see the chance, I'm going to give the rest of them what's coming." A sick, crooked smile split her face. "And there's 'literally' nothing you can do to stop me."
  104.  
  105.     Lori knew that look, and it was easily the most frightening thing she'd witnessed throughout this ordeal. 'God, no, she's falling apart NOW?' When all the cards were on the table, Leni was fairly predictable if she was in a stable state of mind, relatively speaking; it was possible to reason with her. If she slipped completely over the edge, though, there was no telling how far she would go. "No, LENI! Whatever you're going to do, do it to me! They didn't do this to you, I did!"
  106.  
  107.     What few of them realized was that Lori hadn't so much defended them in the past as make sure they didn't need defending in the first place. If Leni was starting to get agitated, she would egg her on until finally the younger girl would vent her anger at her, rather than the others. It wasn't a foolproof method, but it had helped to conceal just how poorly Leni had been faring before that party...now, she'd have to attempt it once more.
  108.  
  109.     Breathing heavily, Leni's nerves leveled off enough for her to look contemptuously at Lori. "Like, really? You're playing the 'kill me, not them' card? Were you the one who scared me stupid and made fun of me for years like Lucy and Luan did? Were YOU the one who completely threw away everything we had or never bothered to make something in the first place like Luna and Lynn did? Don't worry, you've definitely got the worst coming your way, but you're ALL responsible."
  110.  
  111.     "Those things all happened, yeah," Lori agreed, "but only because I let them. I could have made them treat you better, but I didn't." There was more truth in those words than she'd ever cared to acknowledge before now. "I just didn't think-"
  112.  
  113.     Leni laughed, a harsh barking noise, before looking down her nose at her captive. "You got that right. You don't think, and you never have. That's not the point, though." She ambled over to Lori's side, crouching down next to her older sister. "You shouldn't have had to make them do a thing. What kind of person needs someone to make them treat someone else with some decency?" She roughly grabbed a handful of Lori's hair and shook her head back and forth. "Well, I'll tell you what kind of person it takes to make them decent in the first place. It's me."
  114.  
  115.     Leni was prepared to continue her taunting, but an unexpected noise cut into their quality time: the sound of her phone ringing. Two pairs of eyes drifted to her pocket, where the offending object pierced the heated air between them with a tacky pop song. Leni's eyes slid back to Lori, who met her gaze before averting her own, and the younger sister huffed as she stood up and fished the electronic out. Bringing up the call screen, she recognized the name Holly. 'One of my 'friends', eh?' She quickly tapped the 'Ignore' button and rounded on her sister once more, only for the same music to come blaring a few seconds later.
  116.  
  117.     Grinding her teeth, she answered the call before answering in as sweet a voice as she could muster, "y'ello?"
  118.  
  119.     "LENI! Like, omigosh, I finally got a hold of you! I've been trying to call you since the other night!"
  120.  
  121.     'What am I supposed to say to her?' Glancing side to side as if a sign would be there for her convenience, the Loud coolly responded, "well, the power's been out since last night, but I don't know why that would have stopped-"
  122.  
  123.     "Oh, it's no biggie! Anyway, Jen and I wanted to see how you were doing after...well, you know, what happened on Friday. She feels totally guilty about it, and I do too, y'know?"
  124.  
  125.     Leni had to focus on that day, working her way back from her talk with Lincoln. "Right, at school, I remember. Like, it wasn't your fault, I've just got-" she zeroed in on Lori, who was watching her like a hawk "-a lot to deal with right now. Actually, you think I could call you back later? We could totes plan something for this weekend-"
  126.  
  127.     "The thing is," Holly's voice dripped with eager enthusiasm, "we're in town right now, and wanted to know if you want to come to the mall with us? We could swing by and pick you up in a few minutes!"
  128.  
  129.     The phone nearly fell out of Leni's hand, and she had to juggle it momentarily. "N-no, no, that's alright," she quickly assured, "like, I don't even have any money to spend right now. You remember last time, right?" She desperately hoped there was a 'last time'.
  130.  
  131.     "Pssh, we got your back, babe!" A new voice nearly drowned out the first one — Jennifer. "I just got an advance from my folks for not embarrassing myself on all those tests we had to take right before break. It's my treat!"
  132.  
  133.     As generous as her friends seemed to be, their third wished they would be so generous as to leave her alone. "Really, today's not a good day. Our parents are in, like, Hawaii or something and I have watch everyone while Lori's out with Bobby." She directed a look at her sister that bespoke even worse pain than she'd recently received if she made a scene. "Tomorrow, maybe? Oh wait, Lily, WAIT!" As her voice cracked, she ended the call, hoping they would take a hint. Heaving a long-suffering sigh, she acknowledged Lori with a wry grin. "It's not easy having a social life, not that you'd know."
  134.  
  135.     Lori simply glared at the barb, another throwback to the arguments they got into in middle school. No one had ever accused Lori Loud of being a social butterfly, and in some ways she preferred it that way, Leni had made up for both of them.
  136.  
  137.     "Now, where were we?" Leni began to close the distance again, before slamming a foot onto the ground as her phone rang for a third time. Whipping it to her mouth, she answered and yelled, "what do you WANT?!"
  138.  
  139.     "I...L-Leni? I'm sorry, we can talk later." Her heart may as well have plummeted to the center of the earth at the hurt in her brother's voice.
  140.  
  141.     The phone shaking in her hand again, she lowered her voice several octaves, "no, no, I'm sorry, Lincoln, please don't hang up." Lori's head bolted up from where it had been lying, and Leni took notice, a spiteful scowl overcoming her face as she set the phone to speaker. "Sorry, Lincoln, I didn't mean to yell at you. Is everything alright?"
  142.  
  143.     "Well...everything's great for me, we're just now getting back into town. What about you, though? Is everything alright?"
  144.  
  145.     "Oh, Lincoln...it's been awful," she despaired, "I just, like, don't know what else I should have done..."
  146.  
  147.     "Leni," he began hesitantly, "did you talk to everyone about...about you? About what happened?"
  148.  
  149.     "I-I'm sorry, Lincoln," and she really was, to a certain extent. Sorry he was getting caught up in her mess again. "Everyone knows now that I'm back to being me. Luna was there to help me, but Lori and Luan...they wanted to put me back, and they got Lisa to help them."
  150.  
  151.     Awkwardly hopping to her knees, Lori shouted, "LINCOLN! DON'T LIS-"
  152.  
  153.     That was as far as she got before Leni settled a boot on her chest and rammed her back into the dresser. Covering the phone and her brother's worried inquiries with one hand, she closed the distance with her downed sister and delivered two sound kicks to her gut before Lori could curl up to defend herself.
  154.  
  155.     "Was that Lori? Leni, what's going on?" He was beginning to raise his voice, and it came as nails on chalkboard to Leni's ears.
  156.  
  157.     "They...they hurt me, Lincoln. Just like they did before." She didn't try to hide the emotion in her voice, and in fact channeled it by fixating on her rebellious sister. "Luna and I had to fight them, to try and make them understand. But they don't want to listen, Lincoln, they don't...they don't want ME..."
  158.  
  159.     There was silence save for the sound of breathing on the other end for a few moments before he declared, "I'll be home soon, Leni. We'll set this straight. They just need time to see it, and we'll help them see it together."
  160.  
  161.     Where her heart had fallen like a star before, it began a meteoric rise back into her throat at the affection with which he spoke, the genuine love. "You're right...you're right. We'll do it together, Linc. Thank you," she murmured, feeling content for the first time since he'd left. She spun around, her current situation somewhat lost to her.
  162.  
  163.     "Just hang in there, sis. I've gotta hop off the phone now, but it'll be just a little bit longer," he assured her. Her back turned, Leni didn't notice as Lori began to recover, staring in disbelief at the exchange.
  164.  
  165.     "I will, Lincoln. You don't have to rush for me, though. Luna's looking out for me too." As she prepared to hang up, she felt compelled to add, "I love you, Lincoln."
  166.  
  167.     Taken aback, Lincoln's embarrassment carried clear through the phone . "I love you too, Leni," he warmly replied, "I'll see you guys soon."
  168.  
  169.     The conversation ended, and Leni held the phone to her heart for a moment before being drawn back to the present. She turned again, and drank up the horror on Lori's face. "Nothing like a little talk on the phone to take your mind off a rough day. Speaking of which, it looks like you need punished again for trying to talk over me." Lori wisely chose not to resist as Leni placed her on her stomach once more, assuming their previous position. Rather than apply any more torture to her sister's arms, though, the younger girl simply held them in one hand while her other kept the phone. "The phone can be a good thing, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble, y'know? Bills, overages, nude selfies, that kind of thing."
  170.  
  171.     "So it really was you," Lori conceded, chalking up yet another failure to her overflowing list. 'All that attitude I gave Lola, over a stupid phone...'
  172.  
  173.     Leni took a moment to let one of her several trump cards, a long time in coming, hang in the air. Bringing up the incriminating images on her phone, she shoved them in Lori's face from the side. "Like, just think about it, Lori. Both your lives ruined because you're a slut who couldn't keep herself in check. Those pictures hanging over his and your heads when you apply to college, or look for a job, or eventually break up and have to start all over." Leaning in even closer, she uttered in a conspiratorial whisper, "just think what it's going to look like when I send them to Dad."
  174.  
  175.     Lori struggled to understand the meaning behind that last warning. She'd been worried from day one over the pictures getting out and ruining her and Bobby's reputations, so that came as no surprise, but her parents? At worst they were going to be pissed at her, justifiably so. There had to be something more. 'If she sent them to Dad, the worst that would happen is me getting in trouble, unless...unless she's trying to get Dad in trouble.'
  176.  
  177.     Her eyes widened in understanding, and Leni grinned savagely at the fear in them. "That's right. I can just, like, see the headlines now: 'Father of 11 in Michigan caught with nude photos of his teenage daughter.' That ought to keep him and Mom occupied for, oh, at least a few weeks or months." She giggled as she added, "that's not even thinking about the five or ten years afterward."
  178.  
  179.     The last of Lori's pride in the face of her sister's abuse faded as she realized yet another person had been compromised because of her utter stupidity. Her body went slack as her face rested against the hard floor once again. "Leni, please," she pleaded, "what do you want? I'll do anything, give you literally anything! Whatever it takes to make this right!" Their parents were their best hope, and if there was even the slimmest chance that she could save her father and Bobby from her mistakes, she owed it to them to try.
  180.  
  181.     Positioned as she was, she couldn't see the perverse pleasure on her sister's face transform into unrestrained rage. Eye twitching, chest beginning to heave, Leni grabbed Lori by the hair and jerked her head back. "What do I want? Like, what the fuck do you THINK I want?!" She slammed her sister's forehead into the floor, earning a sharp shriek from her. "I want four years back." She repeated the process, lifting and dropping. "I want my friends, my things, my TIME back!" Another blow. Lori's vision darkened around the edges, and she tried to form words that wouldn't come as she felt her head being brought up yet again.
  182.  
  183.     "I WANT MY LIFE BACK!"
  184.  
  185.     Lori began to black out from the final hit, her head completely consumed with fire as the rest of her body yielded to her younger sister's hold over her. As the last of her resistance gave way, Leni finally released her arms, the limbs falling limply behind her back as the victor stood to tower over her. In her last conscious moment, she heard her speak again, the words echoing oddly in her ears.
  186.  
  187.     "You can't give me what I want, Lori. I'll just have to take what I can get."
  188.  
  189.     Then, blissful darkness and silence.
  190.  
  191. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  192.  
  193.     The front door swung open, and Luna marched her prisoner into the living room to await judgement. As they waited, Luan tried to listen for any indication of shouting or fighting in the house. She heard nothing, and that was worse than the alternative. They weren't kept waiting for very long, as the door to the master bedroom opened to admit Leni. In an uncanny coincidence, the lights and appliances snapped back to life, their precious power back at last.
  194.  
  195.     "Well, how about that?" The new queen of the house cracked her knuckles and stepped to one side. The sight set Luna's teeth on edge, and Luan raised her hands to cover her mouth. The latter bolted forward past Leni and into the room to hover over Lori's bound, beaten form. The middle child of the three made to grab her, but her older sister waved her off, choosing to observe the scene.
  196.  
  197.     "Lori, no, no..." Luan dropped to her knees next to Lori, shaking her by the shoulder. Her action was met by a harsh gasp from her oldest sister, the pain bringing her back to the waking world.
  198.  
  199.     Lingering in the doorway, Leni informed her, "I wouldn't do that if I were you, her arms got a pretty good work out today." As the prankster whirled her head to glare at her, she sneered, "I would do it if I were me, though. Go on, give her a spin. I'll wait."
  200.  
  201.     Pointedly ignoring her, Luan hastily released her grip on Lori's shoulder and placed a soothing hand on her cheek. One of the blonde's eyes cracked open at the gentle touch. "Hey, Luan," Lori whispered, "get the number of that truck?"
  202.  
  203.     The two of them shared a sad smile. "Sorry, sis. Don't have my dashcam on me right now." She glared at Leni out of the corner of her eye. 'Oh, if I had even one recording of any of this...' Luan brushed a tuft of hair out of her sister's eyes, unable to hide the sorrow in her own. "I'm sorry, Lori. I should have been in here with you."
  204.  
  205.     Leni scoffed at their tender exchange as Luna joined her at her side. "Real Hallmark moment right here. Now, for the hundredth time, listen to me." Neither of them jumped to to interrupt her, and she breathed easily with the knowledge that she had finally ground them down. "There's going to be a few changes around here. Neither of you are to talk to Lincoln, like, at all after he gets home. That goes for Lucy and Lynn, too. I don't want him seeing Lisa either. Lori," she directed with a serious look and tone, "you're going to be responsible for taking care of Lisa if...when she gets better. You know, since you've got experience dealing with medicated idiots."
  206.  
  207.     The quick fix wasn't lost on her sisters, and she pressed on more hurriedly, "next, room arrangements. Luan, you're going to switch rooms with Lincoln. Lori, you're going to stay in either your or Lisa's rooms, but I don't want to see you out of whichever one you pick. Of course, Lisa will be staying with you too." She looked to Luna, who nodded in agreement. "I don't want you two talking to each other anymore after tonight, and if I find out anyone tried to, like, talk to someone outside the house, it's gonna come back on all of you."
  208.  
  209.     Luan and Lori did their best to look unimpressed by the threats, but there was no denying that they'd both been served a helping of their sister's punishment. Neither they, nor Lynn, were in any condition to fight back anymore, and their last hope was standing next to their abuser like a guard dog. Luan turned away from Luna in disgust, muttering, "I don't know which one of you is worse..."
  210.  
  211.     "As bad as we might be," Luna countered, "our worst is better than your best any day." Leni raised  fist toward her, and she responded in kind, the two bumping between them.
  212.  
  213.     Getting back on track, Leni informed them, "Lincoln is going to be home soon. After he gets back, no one comes or goes without my say so. Blah blah blah, you'll get yours if you don't listen, you've all heard it by now." Turning to her new lieutenant, she requested, "Luna, could you get something ready for dinner? I'll go round up the kids."
  214.  
  215.     "Aye aye, cap'n," the brunette saluted, her gaze lingering on her oldest and younger sisters just a second longer before she departed to carry out her task.
  216.  
  217.     Leni watched her until she'd disappeared into the kitchen before turning back to the others. "Luan, go ahead and get any of your important crap moved before he gets here, there's not gonna be any explanations in the middle of it. Lori, go check on Lisa, just in case. Meet back up for dinner, or don't, but so help me if either of you breaks, like, any of the rules we just covered." Clapping her hands twice, she left for the stairs, a new sense of purpose helping to keep her concerns at bay.
  218.  
  219.     As soon as they heard her finish climbing the steps, Luan set about freeing Lori's hands, wincing at the pained gasps emitting from her sister. "Sorry! Lori, what happened? How did this happen?" She'd never known her oldest sister to be a slouch in a fight, and all things considered Leni looked like a beauty queen by comparison.
  220.  
  221.     As the belt came free, Lori's arms fell to her sides with a weak thump. "I almost had her," she quietly lamented, "I was about to get out of the room, but Lucy was outside...Lucy!" Nervous energy filled her voice as she asked, "did you see Lucy at all after you came in?"
  222.  
  223.     "No, I just got in a few minutes ago," Luan admitted. "If she doesn't wanna get found, though, I don't think even Linc could find her, much less Leni. She's kinda like a good horror movie that way," she tried, forcing a weak laugh at the joke. To her surprise, Lori chuckled a bit as well. Overcome again, she repeated, "Lori, I'm so sorr-"
  224.  
  225.     "Don't, Luan," the grounded girl cut her off, "if anyone here should apologize, it's me. You got hurt because I wasn't here to look out for you. You, Lynn...Lisa..." She tried to lift herself up, but she simply couldn't support her weight on her arms anymore.
  226.  
  227.     Luan slipped Lori's left arm over her back and put her right over Lori's, and together they managed to get the older sister off the floor with a shrill cry on Lori's part. She looked down at Lori's swollen ankle and the marks on her shirt where she'd been kicked. "God...Lori, are you gonna be alright?" She dreaded the thought of leaving her alone, but Leni had made it clear that they were to remain separate.
  228.  
  229.     A small grin tugging at her lips, the blonde answered, "it takes just a bit more than this to keep Lori Loud down. I'll be okay, just promise me you won't try to be a hero like I did and literally end up the same way."
  230.  
  231.     Against her instincts, Luan tentatively nodded her head. "No heroics, got it. I'll just leave that for Ace Savvy when he gets home."
  232.  
  233.     "Actually, I'm glad you mentioned that," Lori replied, "Lincoln knows about Leni too...it sounds like he might even have had something to do with her getting off the pills. The way he was talking to her, though, it was like he was...I don't know, but something was just off about it."
  234.  
  235.     "He doesn't remember the last time she went full loco, does he?"
  236.  
  237.     Closing her eyes, Lori answered, "apparently not. And if he starts to figure it out, she's going to hurt him too, I just know it." Carefully lifting her arms just enough to rest on Luan's shoulders, she implored, "don't talk to him about any of this yet. We have to wait this out until we can stop her without anyone else getting hurt."
  238.  
  239.     Entrusted with a solemn task by her sister-in-arms, Luan nodded more confidently. "Alright. What should I do until then?"
  240.  
  241.     "Just listen to Leni and Luna...Jesus, what is Luna even doing?"
  242.  
  243.     Shaking her head, the brunette answered, "she's hung up on how things used to be. I think she guilt-tripped herself into helping Leni, I'm not sure though."
  244.  
  245.     Eyes opening once more, Lori let loose a profound sigh. "Whatever. One more thing to deal with when we can. And right now, I need to deal with Lisa...go ahead and find the twins and bring them in, then get your stuff moved over to Lincoln's room." By way of parting, she grabbed Luan's scrunchie and released her sister's brown locks. "I wish you'd keep your hair down more often, I think it looks pretty great." Luan blushed wildly at the praise before a small, shy smile finally won out. She hurried off to find Lana and Lola, and Lori waited just a moment before limping out of the bedroom.
  246.  
  247.     As she began ascending the stairs, Leni was on her way down with Lily in hand. The two of them went to pains not to look at each other, despite the pang in her heart that their youngest sister was in their tormentor's clutches. Soldiering on, she hung a familiar right at the top and went to the end of the hallway.
  248.  
  249.     Lori tried to open the door several times, and each time her hand froze before she could finish turning the knob. What was was waiting for her on the other side? 'Lisa...' Taking a calming breath, she renewed her focus on her number one priority at the moment; making sure her sisters were alright, and looking after the ones who...weren't. If what Leni had said was true, though, then what lay beyond was probably beyond her or anyone else's ability to help.
  250.  
  251.     She rested her forehead against the door as the added significance of this visit came back to weigh on her. 'Luan and Lynn got hurt because I wasn't here to help them, but I was up here when Leni got her. I was one room away...' She'd been one step behind, as she had been from the very beginning, perpetually caught up in whatever happened to first catch her attention in a given moment. Rationalizing Leni's withdrawal as pregnancy; failing to follow up on questioning her and Lincoln in favor of trying to clear the air between Luna and Luan; setting aside all of her concerns at home for one fateful night to take her mind off a problem she had a large role in allowing to spiral out of control. 'I pawned that responsibility off to Lisa. If I hadn't asked her to get involved, this might not have happened to her.'
  252.  
  253.     With tired eyes she looked at the doorknob once more. Dwelling on 'might haves' and 'what ifs' would do her no good now, and that was exactly what Leni was counting on. Before she could convince herself otherwise, she hastily turned the knob and pushed on the door, slow enough that it wouldn't fly out of her control but fast enough that she couldn't choke again. The mess of papers from before was still there, and her eyes scanned the room before coming to rest on her second-youngest sister on her bed. "Lisa?" The four-year old didn't respond, and she quietly made her way through the room. From a distance it seemed like she was simply asleep, at peace even, but closer inspection left no doubt about what she'd been through.
  254.  
  255.     Reaching a hand out to settle on her sister's shoulder, Lori's heart broke all over again. "Oh, Lisa..." Her arms and legs were wrapped around her pillow in an ironclad embrace, her face caked with dried tears and mucus. Her eyes moved rapidly under their lids in her unconscious state, and her breaths came in irregular bursts. As she went to move the sleeping toddler, she felt the damp spot on the sheets where her courage had failed her. Lips quivering, the eldest sister collected a pair of pajamas from the closet and carefully coaxed her to release the pillow before deciding a shower was in order.
  256.  
  257.     Her arms and shoulders fiercely protested as she gathered Lisa up into her arms and departed for the bathroom. The young girl latched on to her much like she had the pillow, shivering uncontrollably in intervals. Reaching her destination, Lori closed and locked the door behind her before moving finding a place to set her charge down. She noticed the panel to the ceiling vent was loose. "Loose...Lucy." She managed to pry herself from her sister's grasp and set the warm water running before disrobing them both. 'I hope she has a good hiding spot.'
  258.  
  259.     Plucking Lisa's glasses from her head and setting them on the sink, she lifted the toddler once more and stepped into the running water. Finding a comfortable place to sit under the stream, Lori propped Lisa between her legs and went about cleaning the girl's hair, face and bottom. 'Now that I think about it, you're the only one I never had to do this kind of thing for,' she mused as she lathered a small dollop of shampoo into her sister's hair. Of course she'd had a hand in raising all of her siblings, and that meant more than just keeping them out of trouble when Mom and Dad were out, but this weekend had forced her to reevaluate the relationships she shared with them.
  260.  
  261.     Lincoln has always been closest to her in a way, his creativity and scheming putting him at odds with her on a regular basis. She suspected many of the others felt the same way, and it troubled her that Leni was about to abuse the bond they shared to her own ends. 'Leni...we were close before, I thought we still were...' As guilty as she'd been for so long after they had put her on the medication, Lori felt even worse for having preferred the new sister. She was so caring toward everyone, so eager to love and be loved, it was so easy to try and forget what she was before. 'What she is now.'
  262.  
  263.     Rubbing her overwrought shoulders and the bruises on her sides and face, she considered the rest of the teens. Somehow she'd grown distant from Luna, Luan and Lynn, their biggest interactions coming in the form of dinner-table discussion or some convoluted plan that required most or all of them. It didn't help that Luna would seize on any chance to get under her skin, usually involving her phone. 'Always the phone,' she rolled her eyes, 'but maybe it did take up too much of my time.' The fact that she was helping Leni now didn't play to sibling rivalry, though. 'She can't be that desperate for someone to accept her that she's relying on Leni, can she?' What other explanation was there, though?
  264.  
  265.     She'd recently gotten an opportunity to reconnect with Luan, and her heart swelled at the concern she'd shown for her earlier. The comedienne had always had a penchant for jokes and pranks, but it had taken on new meaning in the face of Leni's actions four years hence. They came more out of defiance than joy, the younger sister showing the older that she couldn't be kept down. Even now, Luan was the only one still trying to fight back. Lynn most likely would be too, if she hadn't been taken out of the game before it began. 'I have even less in common with Lynn than the other three...Lucy, Lana and Lola...Lisa...'
  266.  
  267.     She looked down at the girl in her embrace, still shaking despite the warm water raining down on them. Lisa was an enigma, smarter than all of them combined but still a child at heart. She had a college degree, some kind of Nobel prize; she could do anything she wanted, and she chose to remain with them. 'I wish I knew why...I wish I knew all of you girls...' Lori pulled her sister close and lightly rested her chin on her head, wistful tears mixing with the stream of the shower.
  268.  
  269.     When the water began to turn cold, she finally turned it off and fetched two towels for them. She dried Lisa first and got her into her pajamas before taking care of herself, retrieving a robe out of the closet afterward. Stepping back into the room proper, her heart leapt into her throat as she witnessed Lisa trying to hold herself on her hands and knees. "Lisa!" She hurried over to kneel down next to her, setting a hand on her back. "Lisa, talk to me. Are you alright?"
  270.  
  271.     The four-year old shakily lifted her head, glancing around the room before looking up to home in on Lori's face. Her mouth moved, an attempt to speak, and she seemed confused that there was no sound.
  272.  
  273.     "Come on, Lisa, talk to me," Lori urged, hooking her hands under Lisa's arms to hoist her up to a standing position. As soon as she let go, the toddler nearly fell over, and Lori had to scramble to catch her. "Lisa?" Her voice took on an edge of fear as it trailed off, "do you...know who I am?"
  274.  
  275.     Finally Lisa looked up to her again, eyes squinting. "Mmm...mmmu..."
  276.  
  277.     Biting her lip and hoping against all hope that she was wrong, her oldest sister encouraged her, "it's me, Lori, your big sis."
  278.  
  279.     "Muuuuh...m-m-uuuhm...m-mommy..."
  280.  
  281.     Hunching over, Lori slowly enveloped her baby sister in her arms, swaying back and forth to keep her sister from seeing or hearing her break down. "L-Lisa...I'm your sister, Lori. The bossy one? The one who never does your gross poop research?"
  282.  
  283.     Lisa did her best to wrap her arms around Lori, head nuzzling against the warmth of her caretaker's robe. "M-m-mommy, I'm t-t-tired." Her teeth chattered as if she'd been out in the freezing cold for hours, despite the sauna-like environment they'd created. "S-s-sthleepy t-time, m-m-mommy, l-let'sth go to b-bed."
  284.  
  285.     Her chest racked with silent grief, Lori agreed, "yeah, y-you're right. Let's go to bed, sweetie." With great effort she picked Lisa up, accepting the horrible pain her her arms as punishment for allowing this, THIS, to happen. Lisa's head lolled against her shoulder, the young girl already out again as Lori quietly got them to her room. She laid Lisa on her bed and collected some nightwear from her dresser. Using a stray shirt to wipe her eyes and face, she quickly changed before returning to bed. Carefully sliding in, she brought the blankets up to cover them, wrapping Lisa in a loose hug and settling down to sleep alongside her.
  286.  
  287. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  288.  
  289.     "You're sure you have everything, Lincoln?" Howard glanced around the back seat just in case a comic or souvenir had gotten loose.
  290.  
  291.     Giving everything a once-over himself, the white-haired boy replied, "I'm sure, Mr. McBride!"
  292.  
  293.     "You've gotta get on the walkie later, Lincoln, I can't wait to finally have a synchronized reading of Muscle Fish!" Clyde pumped a fist in the air, his best friend mimicking him.
  294.  
  295.     "After we get our dailies done, Clyde," Harold reminded him, "there's a washer and dryer with your name on them."
  296.  
  297.     Sighing, his son relented, "yes sir."
  298.  
  299.     "Don't sweat it, Clyde," Lincoln reassured him, "I'm gonna be up all night, one way or the other." The call earlier still weighed heavily on his mind. Leni had said she and Lori had been fighting, but it sounded like Lori was right there with her...'I'm not sure, but it sounded like something else was going on too, a bunch of thuds...Luna's drums?'
  300.  
  301.     "Maybe I ought to pop in for a second and show Lori my new collection," Clyde suggested, wagging his eyebrows at his own comics. "She's a woman of fine taste, I'm sure she can appreciate these first editions!"
  302.  
  303.     Rubbing at the back of his head, Lincoln suggested, "maybe not this time, man. There's a lot of...tension in there right now."
  304.  
  305.     Leaning over the side of the driver's seat, Howard asked one last time, "and you're sure everything is alright here?" He looked to the Loud House just up the walkway from where they'd come to a stop. Lincoln nodded, and he concluded, "just let us know if there's an emergency, we're only a few minutes away."
  306.  
  307.     "Will do. Thanks for bringing me along, you guys, you're the best!" He undid his seatbelt and hopped out the door to stand on the sidewalk.
  308.  
  309.     "Thanks for joining us, Lincoln," Harold replied, "give everyone our love when you get in!"
  310.  
  311.     The McBrides waved as they pulled away, and the sole (present) male Loud steeled himself for what awaited within. "It's already a hassle coming back to a house with ten sisters after being away for any length of time, but even worse when one of them drops a drama bomb like the one Leni had. I can't believe Lori and Luan would try to hurt her, though...Leni said Luna had her back, maybe she knows more than the others about her condition?"
  312.  
  313.     Reaching the bright red door, he entered to an unusually calm house, the smell of dinner cooking the only familiar thing about it. Making his way to the dining room, he found Leni sitting at the head of the table, Lily's highchair at her side. The seats immediately at her hands were empty; further down the line and to her left and right were Lana and Lola, respectively, followed by Luan at the opposite end from Leni. "Hey, guys, I'm home!" Setting his things next to the doorway, he asked, "where's everyone else?" No one passed up in dinner in this house unless they were deathly ill, and that thought put a number of unsavory images into his head.
  314.  
  315.     Beaming at him, Leni greeted, "welcome home, Lincoln. You're just in time, dinner's about ready!" She looked all too happy for the conversation they'd had just a short while ago, and it put him on edge.
  316.  
  317.     "Lynn got super sick last night," Lana announced, "I guess she was barfing all over the place. I wish she'd waited until we were up!"
  318.  
  319.     Grimacing, Lola added, "which someone had better clean off the hallway floor before it sets in. I'm pretty sure that's your job." She pointed at her twin, though there was much less malice in her voice than usual.
  320.  
  321.     Luan waved to him, but otherwise didn't speak. 'Okay, I'm officially in Bizzaro World. No pranks, wisecracks, nothing?' Then again, she was supposedly in on whatever fight had happened while he was away, and now that he stopped to look, it showed. 'Wow, her teeth got messed up even more than usual. Her wrist is all swollen up too...' He looked to Leni, whose nose was still a puffy red from where she'd been struck earlier. 'Did Luan punch her?'
  322.  
  323.     Leni motioned for him to sit at her right, and he hesitantly took the seat, trying to read the air between his sisters. "So, uh, how is everyone?"
  324.  
  325.     The oldest present sister opened her mouth to speak, but Lola reached the finish line first. "Ugh, just awful. The power went out last night and my alarm didn't wake me up. I spent three whole MINUTES past what I needed to in my facial mask, and now my complexion is off by one shade! LOOK at it!" She pointed to her face, and they all did as she commanded, unable to see a single thing different about it.
  326.  
  327.     "I've still got you beat," Lana followed, "I was 'three whole minutes' late letting out Charles, Cliff, Geo, Izzy and Hopps. If you think there's a mess up there now, you're lucky I got to it before anyone else."
  328.  
  329.     The two of them bickered, and both Leni and Luan grinned at the exchange before the former leaned over to whsiper to Lincoln, "we'll talk later, right now I just want the kids to have a good dinner." Before she could pull back, he grabbed her shoulder, his face and body language full of apprehension. "Lincoln?"
  330.  
  331.     "There's only half of us here. Where are Lori, Lucy, Lynn and Lisa?" She tried to pull away, and he increased his grip. "Leni, this is weird, what's going on?" He tried to wrap his mind around her attempted retreat, having encountered no such thing over the weekend.
  332.  
  333.     There was a flash of anger in her eyes, and she shrugged him off completely. It was gone as soon as she regained some distance, though, replaced by concern. Lincoln drew away from her, and that concern bloomed into anxiety. He turned his attention to Luan, who was playing with her hair now that it was curiously let down. She was looking off to the side , discomfort present in her every movement. The motion of her arms revealed the scuffs and scrapes on her forearms and elbows to him. Her eyes flicked toward him- no, to the left of him, toward Leni, whom he turned back to in time to see her glaring at the other girl.
  334.  
  335.     "Alright, who's ready for some grub?" Luna sauntered into the dining room with a tray of pizza, to the joy of everyone present. "Sorry, Len, it's kinda simple, but it was short notice and all."
  336.  
  337.     Grinning at her, Leni replied, "no worries! I'm pretty sure, like, no one in this house is gonna complain." With something to focus on other than the oppressive air in the room, everyone started to loosen up a little bit. Everyone except for their brother, who fidgeted in his seat.
  338.  
  339.     Lana and Lola led most of the discussion, most of it having to do with Lola's party in two days and how her twin was going to crash it, while Luna took a seat at Leni's left and the two indulged in some small talk.
  340.  
  341.     "You've got that gig coming up soon, right, Luna?"
  342.  
  343.     "Yeah, I've gotta run up here in the next day or two and get the new drum. It's gonna be pretty bangin' around here, hope you weren't planning on getting any sleep!"
  344.  
  345.     "Lana, you're banned from our room on Wednesday! Leni, tell her!"
  346.  
  347.     "Yeah right, are YOU gonna take care of all the pets? Or are all your sissy friends gonna help you?"
  348.  
  349.     Lincoln listened to each individual discussion, but he also paid attention to the one that wasn't happening. While they were distracted, he collected his plate and moved down several seats to sit next to Luan. "Hey, Luan, you alright?" Even her anger or sadness was better than silence; silence always meant she was worse off than she wanted anyone to think.
  350.  
  351.     His sister had been playing with her food, arranging the toppings into various shapes and faces when his words caught her attention. "Oh, hey Linc. Yeah, I'm alright, just kind of a quiet night, right?"
  352.  
  353.     "A little alliteration isn't gonna work this time," he fired back. That earned the first real smile from her he'd seen since he got home, and he returned it as he continued, "I know that things got...rough around here since last night. What happened?"
  354.  
  355.     The smile wavered, and she flicked her eyes toward her two older sisters before returning them to her plate. "I'd rather not talk about it here, not now. Maybe l-"
  356.  
  357.     "No, we'll talk about it right NOW!" Lincoln slammed his hands on the table, cutting her off and capturing everyone else's attention. "Leni, Luan, tell me what happened last night!"
  358.  
  359.     Eyes narrowing, Leni rose from her seat to lean on the table. "Lincoln, I said we could talk-"
  360.  
  361.     "Later. 'We can talk later'. It's always 'later' with you guys," he railed, the twins hunkering down in their seats at the argument, "I'm ready to talk now!" He split his admonishment between both sisters he knew to have been part of the confrontation the elder mentioned. 'One of them is going to crack, and I don't care who it is right now!'
  362.  
  363.     So much of this had gone wrong because they wouldn't just talk to each other; for all he knew, that was how the fight had begun. 'I'm tired of being the odd man out, literally, when hey say they rely on me so much!'
  364.  
  365.     The blonde's lip curled, and she rebuked him, "don't do this right now, Lincoln. Everything just got back to normal around here, or, like, as normal as it gets." It was the first time she'd directly confronted him after their talk, and he nearly backed down.
  366.  
  367.     A tug on his sleeve prevented him from deciding either way, and Lincoln turned to fully face Luan once more. "She...she's right, Lincoln. Let's just have a nice family dinner for now, we can get everything figured out in a bit."
  368.  
  369.     His eye twitching, he blasted at them, "'family dinner'? Half the family isn't even here!"
  370.  
  371.     Quickly glancing at the clock, Luna interjected, "woah, is it that late already?" It really was, the sun beginning to set had just become noticeable through the window. "Welp, guess it's time to hit the sack, c'mon Lu-iiincoln!" His furious gaze fixated upon her, and she withered under it.
  372.  
  373.     Confusion mixed with that anger, and he replied, "what are you saying that to me for?"
  374.  
  375.     Leni closed her eyes, and in a stern tone she informed him, "you'll be bunking with Luna for a while. Luan is going to take your room." He opened his mouth to argue, and she cut him off, "and that's the way it's going to be until Mom and Dad get home."
  376.  
  377.     Lincoln's mouth, already open, remained that way. 'What is going on?' Recovering slightly, he demanded once more, "tell me why."
  378.  
  379.     Leni's eyes widened at the challenge, and Luna made a nixing gesture beside her. "No." The denial hung in the air, and Lana and Lola finally abandoned the table, dropping their plates off in the kitchen before making their way around to the living room.
  380.  
  381.     "Why?" Her refusal hurt him for several reasons, not least of which was the desire to make sure she herself was alright. Everyone was behaving too oddly for this to have happened exactly as she explained, though, and the thought that she might be hiding something again cut even deeper.
  382.  
  383.     She drew in a deep breath and released it through her nose, reminding all of them of a bull about to charge. "Because I said so. Finish your dinner and get ready for bed. We'll talk about it later," she ordered, putting particular emphasis on the last word.
  384.  
  385.     Brow furrowing, he shoved himself from the table and spun to head back toward the stairs. "I'm not hungry, maybe I'll eat something LATER."
  386.  
  387.     "Linc, wait!" Luna called after him again, but the sound of him stomping up the steps faded to the upstairs. "Aw, jeez. I'll handle it," she opted, leaving Leni along with Luan and Lily. The infant's eyes began to water, and the blonde looked to the brunette, who offered her a deadpan stare.
  388.  
  389.     "Perfect," they spoke in unison.
  390.  
  391.     On the second floor, Lincoln stopped in to see Lynn. Upon opening the door, he found her trying to make it to a glass of water on the nightstand. "Lynn, you look like you just did a thousand laps!" He rushed over to help her back into bed before collecting the drink and handing it to her.
  392.  
  393.     She gulped the liquid greedily and choked near the end, sputtering all over her shirt and sheets. "Augh...thanks, Linc," she rasped, head falling back onto the pillow. "Feels more like I did a thousand deadlifts."
  394.  
  395.     The two of them chuckled, her more weakly than he, and he asked, "what happened? Bad liver the other night?"
  396.  
  397.     "I guess," she huffed, "either that or I'm just not a smoothie kind of girl. I always knew it...hey, where's Luce?"
  398.  
  399.     Her brother frowned, wondering the same thing. "I haven't seen her since I got home a bit ago, I'm about to go make sure she didn't get stuck in the laundry chute again soon."
  400.  
  401.     Lynn's stomach contributed to the conversation, roiling in disagreement with her having moved at all. "Yeah, yeah, you'll get yours soon, pal. Ten...no, twenty spicy meatball subs." They laughed again, and she began to drift back to sleep, "well, if ya find her, tell her to tell her ghost friends to keep away, cuz I really feel like I'm dyin' over here."
  402.  
  403.     A moment later, she was out again, and after a cursory search of the room turned up no eight-year old goth, he exited into the hallway again.
  404.  
  405.     "There you are, bro," Luna waved him down. "Sorry about back there, things have been kinda dicey since last night."
  406.  
  407.     "So I've heard," he snarked, "I'm not sure why though since no one wants to talk to me now that I'm actually here." Leni's harsh words and attitude still bit at him. 'There's got to be a good reason, right? She doesn't just get angry for no reason!' Glancing around, he added, "and seriously, where is everyone? I haven't seen or heard Lori, Lucy or Lisa since I got home!"
  408.  
  409.     Beginning to sweat, Luna offered, "well, I think Lori and Lisa went to bed kinda early. Liz had her hands full makin' sure Lynn was alright, 'specially with the power out. As for Lucy, well, it's hard tellin'. Uh by the way, Len was serious about the room switcheroo."
  410.  
  411.     Slapping a hand against his face, Lincoln surrendered, "great, that's really nice. If that's the case, I'm gonna pack up some essentials and bring them over." She wiped her brow as soon as he turned toward his room, and she began making her own preparations while the house's archenemies cleaned up downstairs.
  412.  
  413. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  414.  
  415.     As they settled in for the night, Luna tuned her guitar, the nightly ritual doing little to soothe her tattered nerves. Instead she let most of her attention rest on Lincoln carefully arranging his new purchases on the nightstand near the lower bunk before setting his rabbit doll at the head of the bed. The others had given him no shortage of teasing over it over the years, but she understood the importance. To him, it was a gift made and given with unconditional love; to her, it was a reminder of better times. Setting her axe on its stand, she tried to make conversation, anything to break the thick ice that had frozen the air in the house. "So...how about that, uh, Glob Man?" Her brother looked at her with a questioning glance. "Pretty metal, huh?"
  416.  
  417.     Giving his full attention to his new roommate, he answered in a somewhat awkward tone, "uh, not really, he's a shape-changing slime creature. That's the...opposite of metal."
  418.  
  419.     "R-right, right, cool," Luna uttered, rubbing the back of her neck. She looked off to the side, searching for a talking point, and settled on Luan's Groucho glasses. Throwing her head the opposite direction, she noticed her sister's broken spider prop. Running a hand through her hair, she abruptly stood up. "I'm gonna hit the bathroom, bro." She didn't wait for an answer before striding for the door, opening and closing it smoothly before rounding the corner and entering to find...Luan.
  420.  
  421.     The younger girl, examining her damaged teeth in the mirror, spun upon seeing her in its reflection. She retreated slightly, back knocking into the sink. Luna cocked her head toward the other end of the hallway, and Luan slowly complied, skirting the edge of the room to stay as far away from her as possible. The rocker watched her until she made it to her new quarters before closing the door. Shuffling to the sink, she ran a stream of cold water and splashed her face with it, the cool liquid helping to soothe her face where she'd been bopped before. 'Gotta give Lu credit, she may not be a fighter, but that sure as hell doesn't stop her.'
  422.  
  423.     With a sigh, she dared to look in the mirror, wondering if she looked as tired as she felt. She couldn't remember feeling so drained, not even after her first concert. 'My first concert...Len didn't want me to go.  She was worried I'd get hurt, or taken, or anything else she could think of that'd go wrong.' A weary smile worked its way onto her face at the memory. 'What happened to you, sis? Where did that 'you' get off to?' Shaking her head, she brushed her teeth, glad for the rare reprieve from having to share the room with ten other people. If only she could be happy about the reason for that reprieve.
  424.  
  425.     When she made it back to her room, she found the ceiling light out, though her brother was reading by lamplight. "Oh, hey," he greeted, "sorry, I like to read a little bit before I go to sleep. I can turn it off if you want."
  426.  
  427.     "Nah, it's good, little bro." She ducked to the left and stepped into the closet, changing into her sleepwear. "No peeking," she taunted from within.
  428.  
  429.     "As if," Lincoln groused, "I already learned my lesson a few months ago." That was a game of hide and seek he'd never forget. Forced out of all of his usual hiding spots, he'd desperately taken refuge in Lori and Leni's closet. With Lucy searching for them, there was no chance that they wouldn't all be found fairly quickly, and he'd hedged a bet by hiding in the most dangerous territory in the house. A bet made by Lincoln Loud was never a bet in hi favor, though, and Lori had made a pitstop to change into something that she wouldn't mind getting dirty during the game. One thing led to another, and, well...
  430.  
  431.     "Ha! Man, you could hear her all the way from the garage!" They both chuckled at the memory, though Lincoln's laughter was tempered by the additional memory of his oldest sister's nuclear anger. "Good times, man." Luna made to climb up to her bunk, but as she set her foot on the first rung, a niggling thought worked into her head. Looking back down, she noticed that Lincoln's momentary good mood had also faded as he continued to try and read his comic. 'This sucks...I need to tell him why he's here, why Luan isn't.' It would risk putting all the gains she'd made in jeopardy, but she knew it was the right thing to do. Dismounting the ladder, she instead plopped down on the bed next him. "Linc, you alright?"
  432.  
  433.     Setting the comic to one side, he drew his knees up to his chest and considered just how to answer that question. "Well...I'm alright, I guess. But it's pretty clear no one else is. This whole thing with Leni...there's something I don't know, isn't there?" He'd known that since the night he'd spoken to the sister in question, but he needed to hear it from this one.
  434.  
  435.     Setting her elbows on her knees, she folded her hands and let her face rest against them. "There's a lot you don't know, bro. Stuff that you didn't need to know, and stuff it was better no one knew." She lifted her left leg up onto the bed, looking at him with a more serious expression than he had seen her with in a very long time. "You're in as deep as the rest of us now, though, so you deserve to know." He gulped and she nodded. "About Leni, and what she did. And what we did to her."
  436.  
  437.     She stood and traveled to her vinyl record case, flipping through them before withdrawing one. Instead of the disc within, though, she shook it until a small piece of paper drifted out. Replacing the record, she picked up the paper and returned to sit next to Lincoln, holding it out to him for his inspection.
  438.  
  439.     He refocused the lamp light on it, and laid eyes on an old photo of Lori, Leni and Luna. They really looked like him-sized versions of themselves, though there were differences; Lori wore an actual t-shirt and knee-high socks, while Leni's dress somehow appeared even shorter on her smaller frame. As for Luna..."Woah! You were a total girly girl, like, even more than Leni!"
  440.  
  441.     Luna lightly rapped him one on the head. "Not as girly as you are now, bro," she insisted, before giving him a case of pre-bed bed hair. Bringing the picture back to her, she gazed at it with a sort of reverence that wasn't lost on Lincoln. "Things were way different back then, I can't believe you don't remember. Me and Len were hardly ever away from each other, it seemed like, and Lori was busy tryin' to make friends with those snobs like Carol Pedigree, or whatever her name is. This pic got taken right before the party that started everything downhill."
  442.  
  443.     "Leni was already startin' to go off on people by that point, whether it was Lu with her jokes or Lynn makin' a mess with her sports. At first she tried to be like Lori and be another mom to'em, but there were already two, so she never got very far that way." She rubbed her forehead and brought the hand down to cover her eyes. "After that, she started gettin' rough. It seems like it just started out of the blue one day, but she'd smack or push the girls just a little too hard. She didn't have any patience for the twins or Lucy..."
  444.  
  445.     Letting herself fall back on to the bed, she continued, "she started gettin' into arguments at school, then fights. Lori tried to get her to calm down, but all that did was bring the fights back home. She never really got angry with you or me, but Lor and Lu got under her skin like nothin' else. Whenever Mom and Dad would try to sit her down, she'd just freak out until she got sent up to her room."
  446.  
  447.     Listening with bated breath up to that point, Lincoln asked, "how long did that go on for?" Before, Leni had said she couldn't remember most of it, and neither could he. 'She's not making this up, is she?' He'd withhold his judgement until he heard the rest of the story.
  448.  
  449.     "Two years," she answered, holding up the same number of fingers. "It got worse and worse, and none of us knew what to do about it other than try to get her some help. Our folks took her to see a therapist, and that just got her even angrier. They recommended medicine, and that got her to finally start takin' things seriously...at first. She got more creative after that." Pointing to her ears, she asked, "remember when you had those earbuds and we pranked you with all those Lola stories?"
  450.  
  451.     Lincoln nodded, a hint of annoyance in the gesture, and she informed him, "well, those stories were true, but it wasn't Lola. Len did those things, minus the frog, I think. Then, the party happened."
  452.  
  453.     Rubbing his chin, her brother chimed in, "I've heard about this a couple times now. It was Carol's party, right?"
  454.  
  455.     "Yeah, for her thirteenth birthday. It was just supposed to be Lori, but Len had gotten on Carol's bad side at some point and both our and her parents wanted'em to make up. Now, you may or may not believe this," she grinned suggestively, "but I wasn't always the rock-out-loud people person I am now." Lincoln rolled his eyes, though not without a smile, and she added, "I really wanted to go to a big shindig, and I begged Leni to beg Lori to let me come along. So, that's how an eleven-year old me ended up rubbing elbows with all those preps and freshmen."
  456.  
  457.     "That sounds...miserable," Lincoln stressed at length. 'I can barely relate to people my own age, let alone high schoolers!' It might be kind of exciting, though, to see what awaited on the other side of those big doors...
  458.  
  459.     Chuckling, Luna agreed, "yeah, it really was. Like I said, a bunch of snobs. And of course, they couldn't help but pay attention to the little middle-schooler at their party. While Len was off makin' her apology, a few of'em pulled me aside and talked me up. At the same time, I guess they decided to have some old middle school fun, and they put a sign on my back, gum in my hair, the works."
  460.  
  461.     Suddenly his treatment by Ronni Anne seemed positively affectionate in comparison. "Jeez! I take it Leni DIDN'T take it too well?"
  462.  
  463.     The smile slowly fell from her face. "Worse than that, she was out for blood. Literally." Lincoln gulped as that dead-serious look appeared again. "There were some fireworks bein' kept in a shed to one side of the house, y'know, never mind that they're illegal. Anyway, Len got wind of it, and she asked Carol and a few of the girls and guys who messed with me to show her. Being pretentious pricks, they couldn't help but show off."
  464.  
  465.     She paused for a short while, struggling to find a way to describe it to him. "Len...she got a lighter, or a grill lighter maybe — something — and pulled a string of'em out of the shed. She shut the door and jammed it from outside, and lit it."
  466.  
  467.     Lincoln's jaw dropped at the mental image of Leni, his Leni, THEIR Leni, doing something that dangerous. "No...she had to know how bad that was..."
  468.  
  469.     "That was exactly why she did it. Somehow none of those kids got messed up too bad, but they still ended up in the hospital, including Carol." Luna sighed, and sat back up again, cradling her head in her hands. "No one else saw her do it, and no one could prove it, but word got around. Mom and Dad made some kind of agreement with the other families, I think, and it set us back for one or two years; remember when ketchup sandwiches became a thing?"
  470.  
  471.     "Wait," he interrupted, "how did you find out?"
  472.  
  473.     Her mouth pursed as she remembered, "she told me later...she was proud of it. That was about the time we started to drift apart, I guess." He settled back down, and she finished her story.
  474.  
  475.     "Four years ago was the breaking point; Luan did something to really steam Len, and she just snapped. They were on the stairs together, and Leni shoved her down...Lu's arm got broken, and Mom, Dad and Lori finally put Leni under lock and key. They made an appointment with a psychiatrist, got everything in order...then they took her away."
  476.  
  477.     Lincoln looked on in absolute shock as his sister tried to hold it together. "Leni...she's not like that, she wouldn't hurt them or anyone else..." None of this made any sense, how could he have forgotten things like this? 'The Leni I talked to Friday, the one I've been talking to, she's not like that. This has to be some kind of misunderstanding, or a trick, or something!' He had to believe that, otherwise it would mean that he had unleashed the monster that Luna was speaking of right now. 'She...Leni even TOLD me there was a reason she had to take the medicine, and I just didn't think it could be something like this...'
  478.  
  479.     She turned to him, her face a mournful portrait. "She was like that, Linc. And...now she's back." Sensing what he was thinking and setting a hand on his shoulder, she said to him, "this isn't your fault. This was bound to happen sooner or later, they couldn't keep her on the pills forever. In fact, this might be a good thing."
  480.  
  481.     The boy's head shot up, and in a flustered voice he demanded, "how? How could this ever be a 'good thing'?! I-I messed up, Luna, what if something happens to..." The cringe on her face told him everything he needed to know, everything he wished he could forget. "What did I do?!"
  482.  
  483.     Putting a finger to his lips, she urgently shushed him. "Listen to me, Linc! Now we've got the chance to do what we should have done before, what I should have done before. We can get her some real help, we can get through this without some pill that completely screws with her head!"
  484.  
  485.     "What can WE do, Luna? Mom, Dad and Lori already tried, you said so yourself!" His arms flailed at his sides in panic, at a loss for anything he or she could do to remedy the situation. "I got rid of her pills, and there's no telling when more are going to co-"
  486.  
  487.         Luna grabbed him by the shoulders, staring into his soul with a heated glare. "Don't you dare say you want to do that to her again, Lincoln," she seethed, "I'm not going to let anyone make her into that...that thing that she was all these years. I didn't stop it before, but I'll be damned if I let it happen again."
  488.  
  489.     Lincoln  was reminded of the things Leni had said to him that first night. "She sounded so sad, it made ME feel sad just hearing her talk...she was so nice, too, and that made it even worse." Which version of her was that, though? The real her? The medicated her?
  490.  
  491.     Her outrage quickly burned out, and with a voice heavy with remorse she said, "sorry about that, bro. But what you just said...you heard her, right?" He nodded, and she offered a small smile, "that's the real one, Lincoln, the one I knew my whole life before she got lost somewhere in there." She tapped her head with her index finger before setting her hands on his shoulders again and lamenting, "we're the only ones who really know that side of her, and we're the only ones who can get it back."
  492.  
  493.     He wanted to believe there was some light at the end of the tunnel here, but one critical question remained. "Really, though, what can we do? If she was just going to listen to talk, I think she would've done it by now." Luna might be able to talk with her fists, but he wasn't sure he could or even would if it came to that. 'I'm still not even sure Leni could do that. I need to talk to her...'
  494.  
  495.     "It can't be just you and me, bro, it's gotta be all of us. She needs to see that all of us want her to be better, because right now she thinks everyone hates her. Which, they kinda do, but it's not quite...I mean, they love her, but it's a love-hate kind of thing?" A lopsided grin popped onto her face, and she conceded, "to be honest, I think this whole thing's drivin' me batty too."
  496.  
  497.     Slightly overwhelmed by the story and his reaction to it, Lincoln fell back onto the pillow, a foolish idea forming in his head. 'I need to talk to Leni about this.' If all of this was true, though, it was entirely possible that he could end up next on the menu if he pushed too far. One other thing bothered him, though, something he had the chance to ask about right now. "Luna, when Leni said you were 'helping' her..."
  498.  
  499.     She looked like a deer in the headlights before guilt showed through her every feature. "Linc, you've gotta understand...for me to help her, for US to help her, she has to trust us. And the only way she can trust me is if the others...don't." He adopted a grave expression, and she rushed to explain, "I-I'm not tryin' to hurt them, I'm tryin' to keep them from gettin' hurt. I managed to keep Luan clear today, but Lori bit the bullet...if Len think's I'm keeping'em in check, though, she might not come down as hard."
  500.  
  501.     "This could go bad, Luna," he observed, "if they found it, if SHE found out-"
  502.  
  503.     "Which is why you can't say anything about it, bro. I'm telling you this because you and me, we're in this together, dig? We've gotta have each other's backs for this." She looked at him with desperation in her eyes and voice, the first chance in four years to make a difference.
  504.  
  505.     Nodding, he raised his fist toward her, "we'll do this. No matter what." A big grin worked its way onto her face, and she bumped his hand with her own, a new agreement forged; the first one with good intentions in days. Now, he just needed to do some work of his own...Yawning, he quietly said, "well, I love her, and I know you do too. But," he gawped once more, "I think we'd better do it when we're both not acting like a couple of emotional girls."
  506.  
  507.     "Heh, you got that right...hey, wait! I AM a girl!" They shared a good-natured laugh before she finally alighted from the bed and climbed up to her bunk. She stopped once more at the top, though, leaning over a bit to peek at him from above. "Thanks, Linc. You don't know how much this means, little bro, how much it's gonna mean to her."
  508.  
  509.     Resting his head on his pillow, he answered, "I do know, just a little bit. And you're welcome." The gentle tapping of rain, nothing like the thunderstorm the previous night, lulled Luna to rest and nearly did so with Lincoln as well. He was a man on a mission, though, and nothing would stand in his way, that he was aware of.
  510.  
  511. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  512.  
  513.     Lincoln waited until he was sure Luna was asleep before creeping out of the bottom bunk, carefully stepping over the various litter on the floor. He quietly opened and closed the door, and tip-toed all the way to the bottom of the stairs. Scanning the darkened living room, he made it one step toward the master bedroom before a subtle noise sliced through the still night air.
  514.  
  515.     'That sounded like it was coming from the kitchen. Maybe she's looking for a midnight snack?' He pivoted on the spot and snuck through the dining room, freezing in place when a beam of light opened through the doorway before disappearing again. 'The refrigerator...I hope.' Moving forward one more time, he peered around the corner to see a dark figure setting a box on the counter. Stepping fully into the doorway, he squinted to try and get a better look. 'Short, a little shorter than me...blends in with the darkness..looking for food at midnight...' Edging slightly closer, he softly called out, "Lucy?"
  516.  
  517.     His goth sister jumped clear into the air, and she spun around to face him, arms akimbo and hands primed to scratch someone's eyes out before she realized who'd discovered her. "Lincoln?" The tension drained from her posture so quickly that he feared she would deflate, and with a hint of embarrassment, she admitted, "you scared me."
  518.  
  519.     Lincoln grinned for a moment. "Heh, it's not often someone can say they got the drop on Lucy Loud." That grin faded as he realized how anxious she must be to actually express that fear. The day's events caught up with him, and he lowered his voice to ask, "hey, where were you all day? You missed dinner...though I can see you're taking care of that, at least."
  520.  
  521.     She folded her arms, looking past him — at least, he thought so — in the direction he'd come from. "How much do you know about what happened since last night?"
  522.  
  523.     "This again," he sighed, "so you got caught up in it too?"
  524.  
  525.     "More than that," she replied, "you need to hear some things...follow me." She swept toward the door to the basement before he could argue, and he hurried to keep up with her. Flipping the light on, she led him to where the laundry chute emptied from upstairs. She crawled inside and he followed soon after, the two of them ending up in a cozy little hovel she'd made for herself. Half-melted candles sat next to a small collection of poetry books, and the walls had been sprayed black.
  526.  
  527.     With a low whistle, Lincoln took in the view. "Wow, you really put some work into this since that treasure hunt, huh?"
  528.  
  529.     His sister produced a flashlight from among her possessions and closed the chute door. Flicking it on, she lowered her already quiet voice, "yeah. It's a good thing I did, too. Lincoln," her voice hitched, and she shook her head, "you came down here looking for Leni, right?"
  530.  
  531.     Resting on his knees, he wished he could see her eyes to gauge what she was thinking. "Yeah. You're going to tell me not to, right?"
  532.  
  533.     Lucy nodded her head. "She's going to hurt you, Lincoln, like she did to everyone besides me who wasn't at dinner tonight."
  534.  
  535.     He jumped forward, supporting himself with his hands as he asked, "what happened? No one will give me a straight answer!" Luna's story had provided some much-needed background, but he needed to know what he was dealing with in the present. It made sense that Lucy would be the source of information he needed, practically living in the vents as she did.
  536.  
  537.     She informed him of Lynn's poisoning, discovered by Lisa; the fight with Lori, and Leni's plan for their parents; that she herself had been threatened, albeit not in person. As her brother sat in stunned silence, she begged him, "don't go, Lincoln. Everyone who gets near her right now gets hurt, and if something happened to you, I..." She brought her hands up to wipe underneath her bangs. "Lori got hurt because I didn't listen to her, it's my fault. But now you know, and you can avoid her until Mom and Dad get home."
  538.  
  539.     "So it's really true," he uttered, falling back to sit on his rear. "It's true." Lucy began to reach toward him, only to snatch her hand away as he slammed his fists into the ground. "It's my fault..." All of the blood here, literal and figurative, that was on Leni's hands was on his as well. 'She did it because she's sick, though...it wasn't her fault, at least not totally..but it IS mine.'
  540.  
  541.     "Lincoln?" She scooted next to him, sitting shoulder to shoulder. He leaned on her, and she returned the gesture. "You were the one who stopped her from taking the medicine, weren't you?" She asked without accusing, but it did little to improve his state of mind.
  542.  
  543.     Nodding listlessly, he answered with a hollow voice, "yeah...this is my fault, all of it. You can't blame yourself for what happened to Lori, because she wouldn't have had to do that if it weren't for me." All of this had happened in just two days. What was the rest of the week going to be like?
  544.  
  545.     He opened and closed his hands, opened and closed his eyes as he recognized what he needed to do. 'I have to make this right. For Leni, and for everyone else.'
  546.  
  547.     Lincoln made to stand up, and Lucy grabbed his arm. "Don't do it, Lincoln, it's not worth it."
  548.  
  549.     His eyes snapped to her, and in a rare display of anger at her he retorted, "yes it is! All of you are worth it, even Leni." He truly believed that, and it helped allay his concern for what was coming.
  550.  
  551.     Lucy recoiled, her hand falling away from him. "I didn't mean...I know, Lincoln. She's my sister too," she whispered.
  552.  
  553.     The anger went as quickly as it had come, and he knelt next to her again. "I know, Lucy. Just...just try to wait this out, alright? I won't let her do anything to you, I promise." He set a hand on her shoulder for reassurance, and she placed her own over his.
  554.  
  555.     "That's now what I'm worried about now. Promise me YOU won't get hurt," she demanded.
  556.  
  557.     It was a promise he wasn't sure he could keep anymore. So he lied, "I promise." After a quick hug, he departed from the secret dark place to return upstairs, finding himself face to face with the most imposing structure in the house.
  558.      
  559.     He knocked twice on the door, and a tense voice answered from within, "who's there?"
  560.      
  561.     Any other night, he'd have gone for some kind of Luan-esque joke, but not this time. "It's me, Lincoln."
  562.      
  563.     There was silence for a few seconds, before the soft sound of feet padding toward the door ended with that door clicking open slightly. "Lincoln...what are you doing up this late?" Leni seemed tired, he noted, but not from lack of sleep.
  564.      
  565.     "I wanted to say sorry for earlier, and if you still want to, I was hoping we could talk." In the back of his mind, he feared he was going to get a much different talk than what he'd been referring to. Quashing it, he was determined to take her measure for himself. She looked at him with those tired eyes for a moment before closing them and opening the door the rest of the way. He quickly stepped in, and she closed it behind him. He didn't hear the lock click, which was a good start.
  566.      
  567.     The nightstand lamp was on, and in the dim light Lincoln surveyed the damage dealt by a fight he didn't fully appreciate the intensity of. "Sorry for the mess, I've got some cleaning to do tomorrow," she drawled, before addressing him with a more contrite expression and tone, "I'm sorry too. You didn't deserve the attitude I gave you, I just didn't want to talk about this," she motioned with one arm, "in front of Lana and Lola." Looking to one end of the room, she added in a lower voice, "and her."
  568.      
  569.     Lincoln followed her line of sight to see that Lily and her crib had ended up here at some point. That should have concerned him, he felt, but she'd had ample opportunity to hurt Lily if she wanted to, and she hadn't acted on it yet; the infant was sleeping peacefully, her blanket in hand. Nodding in acceptance, he asked, "so what is this?" He indicated the same aftermath that she had.
  570.      
  571.     Climbing fully onto the bed, she drew her knees to her chest. "This is where Lori and I fought today...where I managed to fight her off." She didn't seem happy about it, and Lincoln hoped that perhaps he'd been overreacting to Luna's history lesson earlier. 'It could be an act, though,' he reminded himself.
  572.      
  573.     "What about Luan?"
  574.      
  575.     "That happened in the basement last night. She thought you were doing the laundry, and she came down there with her camera..." She motioned for him to join her on the bed. Ignoring his base instincts, he did as he was bade, and slid over to sit shoulder to shoulder with her. "I saw some of her videos, Lincoln...those horrible videos she keeps in her closet. Like, videos of you, of me, everyone." The tape's she personally viewed came back to haunt her memory, and she hid her eyes behind her drooping bangs. "I went off on her, and let it slip that I remembered. She got mad, and wanted to tell Lori, and I just...I just snapped..."
  576.      
  577.     She began to shiver next to him, and he put a comforting arm around her. It was so easy to fall back into the pattern, trying to maintain the image he had of her as his saintly sister. That image was tainted, though, and he needed to ask some hard questions again to salvage it.
  578.      
  579.     "Leni," he spoke softly, "what did they say? What did you say? I can't believe it came down to a real fight..."
  580.      
  581.     She sniffed, and lifted her head just enough for him to see her glassy eyes. "I told them that I was better, that they didn't have to worry anymore. They just wouldn't listen, though...they don't want to believe I'm better now."
  582.      
  583.     She'd taken the hook. As poorly as he felt about it, it was time to reel her in. "Better than what, Leni? Why were they so scared, so mad?"
  584.      
  585.     Her eyes widened, and she lurched away from him, realizing her mistake. "Better than...better than I was before, before they changed me..." He'd seen through her again. Just like Lori and Luna.
  586.      
  587.     He crawled after her, determined to get a straight answer. "Why did they change you? You remember now, right?" His heart ached at the tremor in her voice, the fact that she felt she needed to run from him. He may have been the only person with that power, though, and he had to try to use it to help her.
  588.      
  589.     Soon she was at the edge of the bed, and she nearly fell backward before catching herself. "Lincoln, why are you doing this?" He was supposed to be her true friend, her protector. "They c-came after me, I was just trying to defend myself!" She began to tense up, the familiar urge to fight her way out welling within her.
  590.  
  591.     'He knows.'
  592.  
  593.     'This is where it all goes wrong.'
  594.      
  595.     'This is where he figures everything out.'
  596.      
  597.     'This is where you lose the only person left in the world who really cares about you.'
  598.      
  599.     'You deserve it, too, for not just finishing the job.'
  600.      
  601.     'The only way to finish it now is to finish everyone. Finish him.'
  602.      
  603.     She gripped her head and shook it, and he halted his advance. "Leni, please, tell me what's going on. We can fix this." He carefully closed the distance and gently placed his hands on hers. Leni's eyes shot open, and that feral anger was there, ready to loose itself on him.
  604.  
  605.     "Lincoln, don't," she choked, every fiber if her being calling out to her to put him down before he could do the same to her first. "You don't know what 'this' is."
  606.  
  607.     "I know enough," he answered firmly, "Leni, I know you want help, and I-"
  608.  
  609.     The bed creaked and jostled as she threw her arms forward to grab him by the shoulders, nearly digging her nails through the fabric of his nightshirt as she shoved him down. His face paled as she leaned over him, eyes wide with anger and something he couldn't quite peg as she bared her teeth.
  610.  
  611.     "You can't give me what I want, Lincoln," she hissed, seeing Lori in her mind's eye, "no one can." She tightened her grip, and he winced as the nails began to cut.
  612.  
  613.     Fear nearly clouded her judgement, but he had come here knowing the risks. "Y-you're right, Leni," he breathed, confusion entering her visage at the admission, "no ONE can." He reached his arms up to wrap around her waist.
  614.  
  615.     Remembering the way her sisters had gone after her injury like a weak point, and knowing that he knew of it too, she released one hand to grab a fistful of his hair, forcing him back down. He grimaced, but he didn't let go, using his more stable position to unbalance her and pull her down into an awkward hug.
  616.  
  617.     "But EVERY one can. They still care, just like I do. I-it's okay to let someone help, Leni," Lincoln assuaged her, putting on a brave face despite becoming her fifth victim, "I told you before, I'm with you on this." He moved his arms up her back to bring her head in close, and he finished, "no matter what."
  618.      
  619.     The throwback to their first encounter drained the breath and fight out of her, edging out the anger and self-pity. She looked down at him, eyes still wide open, but open with fear and regret now. Her shaking hands left his head and shoulder, and she leaned back, bringing him with her as she wrapped her arms around him. "Lincoln," she whispered, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..."
  620.  
  621.     For the first time since she'd recovered, she truly was.
  622.      
  623.     "That's alright," he whispered back, returning the hug, "I'm going to help you find out. We all are. We love you, Leni." He rested his chin on her shoulder and assured her, "I love you."
  624.  
  625.     She increased her hold on him, but it was full of need this time. "I don't know what to do. I don't know what I'm doing anymore, Lincoln...I remember it all, and I still don't know what to do anymore..."
  626.      
  627.     They remained that way for what seemed like the entire night, close enough to feel each other's heartbeats. Leni's hammering in her chest, and Lincoln's steadfast in spite of putting himself on the line. 'I think Luna was right,' he decided, 'she is in there somewhere...we just need to find a way to bring her out and keep her here.' The pain she'd just inflicted on him still lingered, but she had pulled herself back this time. He had to believe that she could do it again.
  628.      
  629.     "Lincoln," she eventually broke the silence, "will you sleep here tonight?"
  630.      
  631.     He didn't even have to think about it. "Yeah, I can do that."
  632.      
  633.     Shortly thereafter he found himself wrapped in her embrace, his back to her chest as she shut off the lamp. The two of them drifted off, both heads filled with plans for the coming days. Lincoln's head was filled with plans to try and save Leni from herself and her family, and Leni's head was filled with retribution yet to be served to the people who deserved it most. Those plans, however, began to lose shape in the face of her only brother's — her one true friend's — unrelenting grace.
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