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Velvet Fist - Act II

Wrightfag Jun 25th, 2016 (edited) 3,335 Never
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  1.     She's falling again, with nothing to grab onto and no one to help her. Paralyzed, she can't even scream or thrash or lash out at whatever — whoever — put her in this situation. She hears the voices calling after her; a man, woman and child. But they don't sound like they intend to save her. No, they're telling her that it's all going to be alright, that she'll feel better when she bottoms out. That they'll all feel better and all be happy again when she comes back.
  2.  
  3.     She wishes they would shut up. That they would just disappear.
  4.  
  5.     She wants them to suffer.
  6.  
  7. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  8.  
  9.     Leni's eyes shot open and she was immediately overwhelmed by the nausea that had plagued her the day before. She whipped her head around, trying to assess her surroundings, and was rewarded with a horrible case of vertigo that nearly liberated the contents of her stomach, and would have sent her to the floor if she hadn't already been half-sprawled on it. After allowing herself a moment to get her bearings, she recognized that she was indeed staring not only at the ceiling, but the edge of her bed as well. Wide awake now, she pulled her legs off the bed before rising unsteadily to her feet, leaning over to support herself on the mattress. Now that she was upright, she realized that it was oppressively hot in the room, and her head was pounding like it had been in class yesterday. Yesterday...
  10.  
  11.     The pills. The confrontation. Her resignation. The revelation. Her resolution.
  12.  
  13.     Her revenge.
  14.  
  15.     She dropped to her knees again as it call came back in vivid detail. 'I can remember...I remember everything.' A little laugh escaped her, though no one else would probably have interpreted it as such. It was a strangled noise, trying to communicate elation, relief, sorrow and hatred at the same time. 'I remember.' She repeated the mantra in her head for a few moments, reveling in her freedom.
  16.  
  17.     She remembered that stupid party the Pingreys held for Carol, the one Lori had dragged her to, the same party where Carol had come to hate both of them. She remembered her parents grounding her and taking her things after she'd broken most of Luan's junk in retaliation for a mean-spirited prank. She remembered Lynn knocking a 'home-run' softball through her and Lori's window, breaking their vanity mirror and destroying their makeup; she hadn't even apologized until Mom and Dad made her. She remembered Lincoln's seventh birthday party, and how his favorite gift was the Bun-bun doll she'd sewn for him. She remembered Lori holding her down as their parents closed in on them-
  18.  
  19.     "LORI," she gasped, panic gripping her heart as she carefully turned her head to acknowledge her sister. The first-born was sound asleep, snoring lightly and occasionally muttering something. Willing herself to calm down, Leni looked to the clock on her nightstand. 5:41 A.M. 'She won't wake up for, like, another hour at least...'
  20.  
  21.     The plan she'd set into motion just hours ago filtered back into her mind, a plan hatched by a Leni that was somewhere between her current state and the braindead thing her brother had saved her from remaining as.
  22.  
  23.     Silently thanking him again, she took one more minute to ensure that she could move without succumbing to the dizziness and sickness she'd experienced before. Satisfied with her performance, she crept to the door and exited into the hallway, the house as relatively silent as it had been when they parted ways. Moving directly to the bathroom, she pushed the door shut and came to stand before her old friend. Flicking on the light, her eyes adjusted to her reflection in the mirror, as they had so many times before. But on this morning, she could see the difference she'd been looking for all this time.
  24.  
  25.     'I'm the me I'm supposed to be.' That giddy feeling warmed her body and mind again. It quickly soured, however, as she realized she would have to fight to keep it that way. 'It won't take them long to notice that I'm, like, completely the opposite of the idiot they've been living with all this time.' They'd be expecting her to say something stupid about toes or blinking or...or...
  26.  
  27.     The migraine surged again, and this time she couldn't help but end up over the toilet. After her bouts yesterday she had nothing left to give, and the dry heaving left her feeling even worse than before. 'Blinking? How stupid could I have been that I messed up blinking?' She racked her brain for some kind of context, but nothing came up. While she was at it, toes? 'I need to stop wearing sandals, like, so 2012.' No, there was something more to this. She thought back to the last time she'd argued with Lori. It was about clothes, it was always about clothes, but what exactly had the fight started over?
  28.  
  29.     Cold realization dawned on her and she couldn't bring herself to stand back up. 'The last few weeks...no, even longer than that. So much of it is...is...!"
  30.  
  31.     Gone. Though she could recall the previous day and the several leading up to it, now that the euphoria of regaining her old memories had faded, she discovered it had come at a cost. "It's got to be, like, a side effect of going off the pills. It has to go away..." she murmured, hardly believing this could happen in the hour of her triumph.
  32.  
  33.     She had traded her short-term memory, from single days to entire months of the past years, in exchange for the memories that preceded her treatment.
  34.  
  35.     "But last night I remembered it all, every last thing! Every single day!" She could hardly keep her voice from raising with each word, cracking in its trademark fashion. This too was likely a symptom of withdrawing from the medication, part of her realized, but a greater part couldn't help but be distraught at tripping just as she'd reached the finish line. "It's not fair! After making it through all of this, they're still fucking with my head!"
  36.  
  37.     That four-year period contained so many things she needed to know, not just for her plans, but for her day-to-day life! Were there people she knew that she wouldn't even recognize? What if someone asked her about a particular event or piece of news and she had no idea what they were talking about? Even on the medication she most likely hadn't been THAT stupid.
  38.  
  39.     She wanted to cry. Wanted to break something, to break her parents' or Lori's faces, but the physical toll of her transition was swiftly catching up with the mental one. 'I need to eat something, take my mind off...like, take it off what, my mind?' A grim grin tugged at her lips as she summoned up the strength to rise from the floor again. It wouldn't help her to get upset over something she had no control over, not when she had so much more control now.
  40.  
  41.     "This is nothing, just a setback. Everything else came back, so that time should too-"
  42.  
  43.     "Who are you talking to?"
  44.  
  45.     A terrified screech escaped Leni as she jumped back from the door, the rim of the bathtub catching the backs of her knees and sending her falling in. Slamming her head against the wall, she barely registered the black and white blur that appeared in front of her against her fear, confusion and now-throbbing pain.
  46.  
  47.     Lucy stood before her probably-concussed sister, unable to come up with much more than a mumbled, "Sorry." When she'd been woken up with the dire need to use the facilities, the last thing she had expected to find was the door cracked and her ditzy sister talking to her reflection. Then Leni had gone down hard in front of the toilet and started making those horrible sounds. She'd almost intruded to check on her then, but even then she was still rambling about something.
  48.  
  49.     "Goddamnit, Lucy..." Leni growled, having regained enough of her wits to recognize who was responsible for her fright, but not enough to filter her words.
  50.  
  51.     The eight-year old visibly flinched at the harsh language and tone, having never heard the airhead speak in such a way. "I'm sorry," she repeated more loudly and much more quickly, "I'll wait." She spun on her heels and prepared to peel out of the room before a hand knotted in the back of her too-big night shirt.
  52.  
  53.     Leni's first instinct was to put her sister's head into the wall, just like hers. No, through the wall. Lucy turned her head as much as her position would allow, betraying no emotion. It made her blood boil. Always scaring them, or boring them to death with her poetry, or just moping around for no good reason. 'You little...no.' No, this wouldn't do. The younger Louds hadn't had the pleasure of getting to know the real her, and she certainly couldn't afford to blow her cover this early. Loosening her grip on the goth's shirt, she let her face relax from a glare to a frustrated smile as she reassured her, "It's alright. I'm sorry too, for saying that."
  54.  
  55.     As the older girl released her, Lucy could sense that something was...off. Soaking in every detail about the blonde and comparing it to everything she already knew, there wasn't anything visibly different. Same hair, same clothes, same smile. As Leni stood, though, it began to click; more confident posture, more alert eyes, and...just a weird aura about her, like she'd fundamentally changed overnight. If she had to put a word to it, she'd call it..."creepy."
  56.  
  57.     "What?"
  58.  
  59.     "Nothing. Are you done in here, or..."
  60.  
  61.     "Uh, yeah. All yours." Leni skirted as far around her little sister as she could, fleeing the bathroom and nursing the new ache in the back of her head. As she made it into the hallway a familiar scene replayed itself as she met her brother's eyes from afar. "Lincoln? How many more of you are awake?" she whispered as loudly as could reasonably be considered a 'whisper' before moving to greet him.
  62.  
  63.     "Oh, morning, Leni!" He answered through a yawn, flicking off his light and closing the door on his way out. "How many more of who?"
  64.  
  65.     "Err, never mind. What are you doing up so early?" This was already shaping up to be an unfortunately lively weekend. With him, at least, she might actually find some good company. Her heart swelled as she recalled the fateful encounter last night; standing before her was the only person in the world who understood her. There would be time for revenge soon enough, for now she'd take the opportunity to bond with her brother.
  66.  
  67.     Lincoln began to answer, but in the wake of last night's events he hesitated. His tired but friendly face morphed to one of concern as he debated whether to tell her the truth. They were in uncharted territory now, and he wanted to get off on the right foot. "Well, since Mom and Dad are leaving for their vacation tonight," he winced as his sister's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, "I wanted to do something special for them. I figured breakfast in bed might do the trick, and then I realized that there's no way I can do that without cooking for everyone." Another reality of living in such a packed house. 'Though, if I ever wanted to become a chef...'
  68.  
  69.     Leni's hands clenched and released several times as she rolled the idea around in her head. Their parents deserved nothing but contempt, but of course Lincoln wouldn't know any better. 'I was, like, your age when I learned.' Her anger was tempered with the determination to ensure he'd never have to find out for himself just what they were capable of. For that matter, only half the family probably deserved any of his consideration in the first place, the younger half at that.
  70.  
  71.     "Uhm, since you're up though..." the beginning of a request she realized she would end up accepting (and regretting), "do you think you could help me?" He scuffed the carpet with his foot and peeked up at her with a slightly downcast head.
  72.  
  73.     She tried to find the words to turn him down, but he had the helpless look down pat. "...like, how can I turn down a face like that?" To drive her point home, she reached down and pinched his cheeks, earning an embarrassed laugh from him. "So cute! Well, lead the way, Iron Chef Loud." She made way for him, and playing along he thrust out his chest and began marching toward the stairs, making it a couple steps before a good-natured laugh passed between them. "You might need to give me, like, a refreshment course." They both paused at that before breaking into laughter once more.
  74.  
  75.     "Nice. Never you worry, Assistant Chef Leni! If there's one thing I know besides everything there is to know about the Ace Savvy series, it's knowing my way around the kitchen!" He declared. The two continued their chat on the way down the stairs, ignorant to the other waking soul observing them from the bathroom door. Reaching the kitchen, Lincoln began pulling the necessities out of the fridge while Leni arranged them on the counter. "Is everything alright, Leni?" The question was so sudden, and the way he asked it — that he could tell — caught her off guard, and she nearly dropped a carton of eggs. "You usually never wake up this early, and I know it was a pretty rough night..."
  76.  
  77.     "Tell me about it." She hadn't meant to say that aloud, another issue she'd have to work on, and quickly amended, "I just had a lot on my mind." She half-heartedly chuckled as she pulled out the hard-to-reach cookware for him. He didn't seem convinced, and she was both peeved and relieved that he could read her so easily. Definitely something she'd need to get used to. "There was, like, a hiccup with my recovery."
  78.  
  79.     "Hiccup?"
  80.  
  81.     Leni wasn't sure how much she should, or even really could, tell him. They were in this together, though, and she owed it to him to try; to be honest. "Remember right after I got rid of the pills? How I said that I remembered everything from these past four years?" Lincoln warily nodded his head. "Well, when I woke up a little bit ago, I found out that I did a complete one-eighty since then."
  82.  
  83.     "You mean...?"
  84.  
  85.     "I remember everything from before I started taking them, but lost a lot of time from when I had been."
  86.  
  87.     'She lost four whole years again? That's, like, over a third of my entire life!' The knowledge shook Lincoln more than he cared to admit. In spite of everything, they'd still had plenty of great times all through the years, and the thought of just completely losing it all in a single night...
  88.  
  89.     "Like, it's alright though, I'm sure it'll come back eventually-" the blonde tried to ease out of the subject, and got her wish in the form of her brother setting aside an armload of utensils to give her a hug. Whether she was a moron or not, regardless of how she felt about what they were doing and the people they were doing it for, hugs were a language that transcended everything, and she wasted no time returning it. He didn't need to know that the sheer determination to exact revenge was the only thing getting her through the sudden shock.
  90.  
  91.     There were no words after they parted, but it wasn't an awkward lull. Far from it, the two of them worked with and around each other with no need to speak, a companionable silence that was all too rare in the Loud House; a respect for each other's thoughts and feelings that was even rarer among the siblings. Leni wondered if she could have ever found this kind of connection with the older half of the family, and whether she might yet with the children. She almost regretted that the fallout from the justice she was going to deliver would affect them as well, but there would always be casualties in war.
  92.  
  93.     While his sister rationalized the inevitability of fracturing the family, Lincoln mulled the prospect of bringing it together like never before. 'I know Leni wanted this to stay secret from Mom, Dad and Lori, but what about the others? If Luna, Luan and Lynn knew about it, they might support her along with me! And of course the younger ones would be excited to have her be able to really interact with them now!' Speaking of which, it sounded like some of them had been awoken by the noise. At least three sets of footsteps were making their way down the stairs.
  94.  
  95.     Luna was the first to appear, drifting into the kitchen on her knees in a power slide as she rocked the air guitar. "Mornin', ladies! Man, I love weekend morning breakfast. Lay summa that coffee on me!"
  96.  
  97.     "I don't smell that home cookin' just yet, I'll put some on." Lynn drawled through a yawn, stretching her arms and heading directly to the pot.
  98.  
  99.     No sooner had the two cooks exchanged pleasantries with them and begun the actual food preparation than Luan appeared, her hair down and looking a mess. The bags under her eyes helped sell the 'middle-aged washed-up housewife' image Luna chose to label her with at that moment. "I'd say good morning, but I couldn't sleep a wink thanks to having to listen to you rock and roll all night."
  100.  
  101.     "You were playing last night, Luna? Wow, I must have really been out, I didn't hear at all!" Lincoln exclaimed, to the consternation of everyone who shared a room with or adjacent to the musician.
  102.  
  103.     "Ah, don't be that way, sis. Gotta get it out of the way then so I can pa-ah-ah-artay every day!" And just like that, Leni felt her relatively good mood evaporate under a barrage of schtick and slipshod one-liners. At least Lynn had the decency to keep quiet when they weren't talking about sports, which was thankfully almost never. It made her sick, the way they just went about their lives, as if nothing was wrong with that they had done. Wait, it actually was making her sick...
  104.  
  105. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  106.  
  107.     A desperate and somewhat excited gasp echoed through the room as Lori bolted up from a rather...intimate dream involving Bobby, that one set of red lingerie and-
  108.  
  109.     'Easy, girl, there'll be time for that tomorrow night.' Giving herself a once over, she realized that she was drenched in sweat, among other things, and glanced over to make sure Leni was asleep before starting to peel her sheets off. Blearily catching the numbers 6:49 A.M. as she did so, she was surprised to see that her sister's bed was unoccupied. Before she could consider that oddity, however, her sleep-and-hormone-addled mind became trained on one thing: the smell of bacon, pancakes and slightly burnt toast.
  110.  
  111.     'Ah, the weekend.' Managing to make herself somewhat presentable, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and began to cross over to Leni's side before remembering what she's just noticed a moment ago. 'Weird, she usually doesn't wake up for literally anything other than a bathroom emergency.' Crossing that off her short to-do list, she returned to her nightstand and fumbled around for her phone, intent on making a few suggestions for her and Bobby's get-together the next day. 'Not near the alarm...did it fall on the floor, maybe?' A quick search around and under her bed yielded nothing, and as memories of just what she'd been doing with that phone before she went to sleep resurfaced, she began to panic.
  112.  
  113.     Tossing about the sheets and pillows, lifting the mattress and moving her bed and nightstand out left her as empty-handed as before, and the exertion began to rouse her to a more alert state as she considered the implications of someone finding it. 'If anyone were to see this, especially one of the kids...but they all know better than to come in here and touch anything of mine. As for Leni...I doubt she'd make heads or tails of the situation.' The aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted into the room and her stomach gurgled a dire warning as she decided to continue the search on a full stomach.
  114.  
  115.     Throwing on her weekend morning essentials, she cracked her door open and looked toward the bathroom, which was indeed occupied. 'I'm surprised she was quiet enough to avoid waking me up, usually she's literally louder than a herd of elephants,' she thought, reflecting on Leni's odd behavior the previous day. She tried not to show it, but over the years she found herself worrying about how Leni was doing in, well, every aspect of her life. Her sister had been so independent and outgoing, so assertive — TOO assertive — before she'd gone on the medication. Now, she was lucky to have the handful of friends she did, the ones who had apparently said something to set her off.
  116.  
  117.     Turning to head for the stairs, she thought, 'I guess she really was just dealing with some drama at school. Still though, she looked like she'd thrown up and...wait, WAIT.'She swung her head back to the door, a chain of thoughts crowding out her normal rationality. 'If she's in there throwing up now...she looked super stressed, and she lost it after her friends were bothering her about Ricardo...there's LITERALLY no way!' Continuing to rail against her better judgement, she spun around and swept over to the door, placing her ear against it as carefully as she could. A few silent moments passed, and she was about to write the whole notion off when finally a dry retching choked out from behind the door. Her heart and mind began to race as she considered the ramifications of her sister in there dealing with...with...!
  118.  
  119.     'Alright, just calm DOWN, Lori! It just isn't possible. Even LENI knows better than that, right? RIGHT?' She fled back into her room, doing an odd sort of dance as she grappled with the prospect of her little sister having been knocked up by that greaseball. "I HAVE to find my phone, Bobby has to know something about this!" she declared, redoubling her efforts and scouring every inch of the room while trying to remember everywhere else she'd been the previous day. Her search yielded nothing, however, and she let out a frustrated howl as she left the room again to start from the ground up.
  120.  
  121.     Descending the staircase, she could hear voices from the dining room already. Luna, Luan and Lynn were the other early risers in the family; their parents liked to sleep in on the weekends, a well-deserved reprieve that Lori did her best to ensure they got. 'Though, if that's the case then I wonder who's cooking this early? Lincoln, maybe?' She doubted Luna would be feeling so generous before a cup of the coffee that had just finished brewing. Entering the dining room, she found the three chatting about Lynn's upcoming soccer playoffs and the apparent need for entertainment.
  122.  
  123. Unfortunately, there were two brands of entertainers in the house and Lori could already sense where this was headed.
  124.  
  125.     "Who wants to listen to some stand-up routine at a sports game, Lu?" Luna demanded, jabbing her mug at the comedienne and nearly spilling its contents everywhere. "Real football games have concerts at halftime, I can't see it bein' any different from Lynn's-"
  126.  
  127.     "Before you say it, my version is real football, scrub!" Lynn cut in over their argument.
  128.  
  129.     Luan wasn't about to back down though. "Football fans need rock and roll to drown out the rocks in their heads! Soccer is a cultured sport, and its fans would probably appreciate a cultured show visa vi yours truly!"
  130.  
  131.     "I don't know if I'd call riots at the major games 'cultured'," the athlete chimed in, "but to each their own, right?"
  132.  
  133.     "What's cultured about your comedy? Also, are you sayin' I'm not cultured?" The gauntlet had been thrown.
  134.  
  135.     "About as cultured as one of Lisa's experiments, maybe." The challenge had been accepted.
  136.  
  137.     As they raised themselves up and leaned over the table, eyes locked and bodies tensing up, Lori cleared her throat. At once the three turned to her and the atmosphere seemed to lighten considerably. "What's the story, morning Lori?" They all actually cringed as Luan chuckled, and the eldest cocked her head to the side to indicate the kitchen.
  138.  
  139.     "Who's fixing breakfast this early on the weekend? I know Mom and Dad aren't up, so literally the only other option is Lincoln, right?"
  140.  
  141.     "Actually," Lynn corrected, "make that Lincoln and Leni. At least it was both of them a few minutes ago."
  142.  
  143.     It took Lori a moment to even picture the scenario before discarding it. "...Leni? COOKING? Cooking what, an egg white smoothie?" Lori cackled, "'A' for effort, Lynn, but leave the jokes to Luan!" The aforementioned jokester lorded a smug grin over the other two. She felt kind of bad, but it was the truth; Leni hadn't really 'cooked' anything for four years, and even Lincoln's guidance probably wouldn't change that. Then again, he HAD taught her to drive... "Anyway, have any of you three seen my phone since last night? I literally tore my room apart looking for it." They all traded glances and shook their heads.
  144.  
  145.     "Well if you DO see it, then let me know-" she instructed, before remembering the reason she needed to find it in the first place, "-but DON'T turn it on or anything." A quizzical expression grew on their faces, and Lori realized she'd begun digging herself a neat little hole. "It's, uhh...running low on batteries, and the charger is missing."
  146.  
  147.     "What do you need it for if you can't even use it then?" Luna asked, seeing right through her.
  148.  
  149.     Lori had the good sense to become indignant at that. "What do I need MY own phone for? What do you need your guitar for?" The tone in her voice suggested the musician didn't want her answer to that question.
  150.  
  151.     Throwing her hands up, Luna surrendered, "Whoa, whoa! Point taken, sis. We'll keep an eye out for it, right guys?" Luan and Lynn nodded, and Lori decided to cut her losses, switching the subject.
  152.  
  153.     "By the way, Lynn, you said Leni was with Lincoln until a few minutes ago. Where did she go?"
  154.  
  155.     Lynn scratched her head as she considered how to answer. "Well, she was helping Lincoln cook, like I SAID," she emphasized, "and then she suddenly grabs her stomach and starts gunning it for the stairs. I've seen that play a hundred times, 10-yard dash to the bathroom."
  156.  
  157.     'So it IS her in there...' Leni's situation returned to the forefront of Lori's mind in all its horror, and she was quickly losing her appetite. Excusing herself to the kitchen, she found Lincoln slaving over the stove top and griddle, plating food as he tried to manage what looked to be work for two. "Morning, Lincoln. What's with the full spread this early?" Best to ease into this one, rather than jump straight in and flounder as with the phone.
  158.  
  159.     "Oh, hey Lori. Just trying to-" a pancake was skillfully flipped in one skillet, "get this all ready-" as several slices of bacon sailed through the air to land neatly on a plate "-while I wait on Leni to get back!" Her eyes followed his movements as he grabbed up one of the finished dishes, presenting her with a few of her favorite hard-boiled eggs with wheat toast and low-sodium bacon. 'High maintenance, much?'
  160.  
  161.     "Awww, aren't you the sweetest thing!" Lori gushed as she took the plate from him, ruffling his hair as she did so. As he shook her off, she continued to watch his admittedly impressive command of the kitchen while she decided just how to broach the topic of their sister's behavior. "This is an awful lot of work for one person, though. Enough for two people, even."
  162.  
  163.     "Well, Leni was helping me a few minutes ago but I think she got sick and ran to the bathroom. Could you watch that skillet for me?"
  164.  
  165.     He didn't seem too concerned, and neither had the others. As she found herself picking at her food while playing helper, she decided to start from the start. "She got sick at school yesterday too, and she seemed really stressed out. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?" The way he seized up might have been cute if this wasn't about to become such a serious discussion. He wasn't old enough yet to hide his tells.
  166.  
  167.     "Uhh...well, she was trying to find something before we left the house yesterday morning, but she seemed alright last night. Why?" Lincoln didn't want to lie to her, but he knew it was only a matter of time before Lori discovered both Leni's new state of mind and his involvement with it.
  168.  
  169.     'Pulling teeth, again.' Her hand came up to her face, dragging down as she prepared to go on the offensive. "You don't find that a little strange, that she's been sick for two days now and hasn't told anyone about it? Unless that was what she was telling you in our room yesterday."
  170.  
  171.     "N-no! She just asked for my help looking for the, uh..." He was fading fast, and they both knew it. "...eyeliner. That's it, she needed some eyeliner!"
  172.  
  173.     'Come on, Lincoln, you can do better than that on a BAD day.' Lori thought, repositioning herself so that he was between her and the counter. "That seemed like a pretty serious talk about eyeliner, then. And the way the room was torn up, she must have literally needed it for whatever she was doing." Through the sounds of breakfast being made and their own thoughts, they didn't hear the trio of whispers issuing back and forth past the doorway.
  174.  
  175.     As Lincoln turned to argue with her, he realized he was trapped and began to panic. "C-come on, Lori, what's with the interrogation? What's a little eyeliner between brothers and sisters?" She began to advance on him, but their encounter was cut short by the subject of their talk and a series of protests from the dining room .
  176.  
  177.     "Sorry for bailing on you, Linc! After the other nigh- oh hey, Lori! You're up early!" Leni greeted as she dashed into the kitchen, taking up her post at Lincoln's side and completely ignoring the charged air between her siblings. By all accounts, she looked like sunshine and rainbows compared to what Lori had heard just minutes ago.
  178.  
  179.     Lori's eye twitched as she cursed the lost opportunity and refocused her attention on Leni. "I could say the same for you. Feeling better? Also, 'after the other night' what?"
  180.  
  181.     The platinum-blonde had begun mixing up the last of the batter and got a few seconds into it before her sister's questions registered. Without missing a beat she answered, "feeling much better, thanks! Like, I was on my way to the bathroom last night when I practically ran into Lincoln. He asked me to help him make breakfast for everyone, including breakfast in bed for Mom and Dad for their honeyversarry! Or would it be animoon? Anyway, how could I say no to that?"
  182.  
  183.     It was actually a plausible story, if she ignored that Leni couldn't cook and everyone knew it. Yet here she was, helping their brother as if she'd been doing it every morning her whole life. "Are you sure you're feeling alright, Leni? You've gotten sick twice in as many days now." Better to keep the more pressing matter on track.
  184.  
  185.     "Oh, it's nothing to worry about! I think I caught one of Lana's bugs that she's always bringing in from the backyard, but I'm sure it'll finds its way home before too long!"
  186.  
  187.     That definitely sounded like something Leni would say. Lori reconsidered her options now that the two of them were together. She could drill them both here and now, see whose stories matched up, but she didn't want to risk any mention of Leni's potential problem spiraling out of control due to nosy siblings. Reluctantly deciding to table the matter for the moment, she tendered one last question as she picked up her cooling breakfast. "If you say so...by the way, you haven't seen my phone around today, have you?"
  188.  
  189.     Leni brought a finger up to her chin, pondering a moment before answering, "I don't think so, but I think Lola was in our room at some point after I woke up..."
  190.  
  191.     That was completely out of left field, Lori thought. 'What reason could Lola possibly have to be in our room, messing with my stuff...oh, NO." That little devil was still focused on getting revenge on Lincoln, and probably trying to blackmail Lori out of her first right to his debt! The stakes regarding Sextgate had just been raised as she considered what Lola might have done with it, or if she could even comprehend what it was she had found. Unfortunately, her Leni predicament would have to wait until she'd thoroughly questioned Lola. With a spring in her step, she sped out of the kitchen, thanking her sister for her help.
  192.  
  193.     In her hurry, she just missed the fiendish sneer on Leni's face before replacing it with a gleaming smile as she helped Lincoln finish his work.
  194.  
  195. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  196.  
  197.     As Leni helped her brother serve his older sisters, her mind had shifted into high gear as she planned out her next critical moves. Of course Lori would notice her missing phone immediately, and she'd struggled for a decent answer to the question she knew she'd be asked before remembering the conversation between her siblings in the van yesterday. Something about Lincoln owing Lori, Lynn, Lola and Lana during his escapades that morning. She vaguely recalled the recent spat over Lincoln's ignoring of them with the earbuds, and how Lola had masterminded their revenge on him. That, and her well-established history of tattling and blackmailing and general obnoxiousness, made her an ideal red herring until everything else fell into place.
  198.  
  199.     More important would be setting up the pivotal moment of Lori's downfall while keeping the rest of them in the dark. 'I could just send those pictures to everyone on her contacts, but it would make for a pretty boring week if she spent the entire time crying about her ruined life. I should know.' She fought down another wave of nausea, apparently a side effect of withdrawing from the medication, as she presented Luna with her breakfast. No, while half her sisters had plenty to answer for, the one most deserving of that suffering was her oldest. It would take a little patience, a day or two to arrange all the pieces, but what was a weekend next to four years?
  200.  
  201.     'Now...if I could just, like, remember exactly what all happened during that time.' The loss of a noticeable portion of that time was going to be a major obstacle in the short term. It might take days, weeks, even longer for everything to straighten itself out; more time than she had to spare. So she would have to work with what she had, and one of the last memories she recalled from those dark days was Luna shielding Luan and Lynn from looking at her as her parents had dragged her kicking and screaming to the van-
  202.  
  203.     ["STOP!!! YOU CAN'T DO THIS TO ME!!!"]
  204.     ["Leni, please! We're just going to see the doctor for a regular checkup, it's noth-"]
  205.     ["You're LYING! Lynn, Luan, LUNA! Please, HELP!"]
  206.     ["Lori, help me hold her!"]
  207.     ["M-mom, this is going too far-"]
  208.     ["NOW, Lori!"]
  209.  
  210.     "This looks great, little bro!" Luna proclaimed, slapping him on the back before digging in. "You're gonna make a great wife one day!" Lynn guffawed as Lincoln's face turned an unhealthy shade of red. His sputtering brought Leni back to the present, but the bitterness from that day so long ago remained.
  211.  
  212.     Luan arranged the food on her plate into a face as she followed up, "I'd say you take the cake on that one, Luna. Pancake, that is!" The girls shared a high-five, their confrontation from earlier seemingly forgotten.
  213.  
  214.     'Not a single 'thank you' or anything, just more jokes.' A simmering anger coiled inside Leni's chest as she listened to them make light of Lincoln's efforts. 'Ungrateful, the same as they were before.' She remembered when Lori and herself used to cook for their younger siblings, clean up after them, help them with their school work and put them to bed. Each and every act of kindness was met with indifference at best, and typical childish criticism at worst. Was it any wonder that she'd gotten fed up with their attitudes and started treating them as poorly as they acted?
  215.  
  216.     The fact that they were carrying on this way now left her without any doubt that they had earned what was coming. She had already been hesitant when Lincoln had caught her that morning and asked for help doing something for their parents, whom she hadn't quite figured out how to punish yet, but when he had extended that request to cook for the others she knew this would be coming. While she considered how best to put them in their place, she had failed to recognize that Lincoln himself was becoming agitated, albeit for a different reason.
  217.  
  218.     "Well, it wasn't just me-"
  219.  
  220.     "How do you get these pancakes just right, Linc?" Lynn cut in, almost unintelligible through said food in her mouth. Leni could easily imagine her choking on it, the animal.
  221.  
  222.     A little perturbed now, the boy responded, "actually, I didn't fix those, it was Le-"
  223.  
  224.     "Say, Lincoln, I can't decide whether my favorite is the pancakes or these eggs. You could say I'm waffling over it! Get it?"
  225.  
  226.     'Ugh, more puns. I have one for you, Luan: we should have fixed you eggs Benedict, but you'd probably turn your back on that too.' Leni chuckled humorlessly to herself, which the subject of her thoughts mistook for actual interest in her joke.
  227.  
  228.     "ENOUGH!" His shout shocked everyone in the dining room, including himself, and shook Leni loose of her increasingly hateful thoughts. "I wouldn't have been able to do all this without Leni's help! If you want to tell someone 'thank you', or let them know how great you think it is, it's her!" A painful silence followed his assertion, and the three seated at the table were quite suddenly aware of their older sister, misinterpreting the daggers she was glaring at them as being related to ignoring her contribution.
  229.  
  230.     "R-right, thanks Leni, this is bangin'!" Luna had already been confronted by the other older sister this morning, and didn't want to get on this one's bad side as well. Luan and Lynn, on the other hand, didn't know how to quit when they were ahead.
  231.  
  232.     "Yeah, thanks! I can't remember the last time you cooked for us and we could eat it, this is incr-EDIBLE! Get it?" Luan was oblivious to the horror etched on Luna and Lincoln's faces as she continued to scarf down her food. Even Lynn was making an obvious cut-throat gesture.
  233.  
  234.     Turning to address Leni, the athlete attempted to salvage the situation. "This really is incredible, Leni! I'm going to have to exercise double-time to make up for going crazy here, I mean, this is really insane-" Luna actually half-vaulted the table at that, slapping a hand over Lynn's mouth and setting her chair wobbling dangerously. Lincoln's eyes widened at the action, while Luan's fork clattered on her plate as she registered what had just been said.
  235.  
  236.     "I-insanely tasty! I just can't stop eating it!" The comedienne nearly shouted, before putting practically all of her remaining food in her mouth. Lincoln watched both this and Luna trying to put Lynn in a headlock from across the table with a kind of morbid fascination, before checking to see how Leni had taken the whole exchange. Expecting to see her angry or sad about having been looked over, he was instead surprised to see her smiling down at him, the same way she'd looked when he stood up for her last night.
  237.  
  238.     She hadn't even considered the fact that they hadn't acknowledged her role in the preparations, having been focused on the past, so there was another point to check off. The things they had said were of far greater concern. 'So they do still think about it.' It was nice to know she'd left such an impression on them, and she thanked her lucky stars that her brother seemed to have missed out on the worst of her. Her anger ebbed at his defense of her, and she sighed, knowing she'd have to play peacemaker for now. The war would be on soon enough. "It's okay, Lincoln. Like, I know how it is around here, no big deal!"
  239.  
  240.     He shook his head at her reassurance. "It is a big deal." Out of habit, he went for his deck of cards and whipped out a handful of nothing. "Dangit." He directed a frustrated look at the other girls before returning to the kitchen, grumbling along the way. It wasn't the first time Leni's contribution to something had been ignored, a fact that unnerved him considering he'd participated in it at times, but everything had changed since last night. 'If only they knew how things were, how they are now...' He wanted to share the discovery he'd made, to have them appreciate their sister for who she really was.
  241.  
  242.     The three offenders shared a worried glance, before turning to face Leni, who offered them a blank expression and a shrug before following after him. The younger children eventually tumbled into the dining room and were each served with their favorites before Lincoln and Leni set to their primary task: cooking for their parents. Sorely tempted to do something to the food, Leni had to settle for wishing ill as Lincoln carefully monitored every component of the full breakfast serving. "Lincoln, you shouldn't be mad at them, they didn't mean it that way." Who would have thought she'd end up defending them one day? For now, though, she had to play the good big sister.
  243.  
  244.     "I know they didn't, and that's even worse!" He broke an egg yoke in his frustration and began salvaging it. "It came so second-nature! Even I've done it before!" She noted that he wouldn't look at her as he admitted it, and any annoyance she might have ever had at it being true was washed out by appreciation that he even cared. "I'm sorry, Leni..."
  245.  
  246.     "Come on, none of that." She rested a hand on his shoulder after he finished his delicate dance with the food and used the other to cup his chin, turning him to face her. "That's, like, all in the past now. If you want to make it up to me, though," she could see the dread in his eyes at being in debt to yet another sister, "then you can do one thing for me."
  247.  
  248.     He visibly and audibly gulped, but kept his composure as he answered, "Anything."
  249.  
  250.     Allowing for a dramatic pause, she finally favored him with a smile as she requested, "Let me help you."
  251.  
  252.     "...Huh?"
  253.  
  254.     "I know you're, like, having some issues with the others." She nodded toward the door to the dining room, where it sounded like a food fight might be about to begin. "If you need help with anything, or even just a place to, like, lay low for a bit, come see me." He began to protest, and she shushed him with a finger on his lips. "You've done something for me that I don't know how to repay, Linc. So let me be the one to owe you, at least for now." She signed off her offer with a wink, and she could feel the relief that settled into his features.
  255.  
  256.     "Wow, I, uh...th-thanks!" He had been satisfied with simply having been able to get her to where she was now, he hadn't even considered getting an ally out of the deal! Finally, an older sister who'd have his back in this crazy house. "And you know I've got your back too! Together, there's nothing we won't be able to do!" His enthusiasm was infectious, and she felt her own spirits lift a little.
  257.  
  258.     Satisfied with his improved mood, she prepared the trays to serve their parents before ushering him toward their destination; she wanted to be done with this as soon as possible. Before they knew it they stood in front of the door to the demesne of the home. Knocking a few times, Lincoln heard something stir within before a muffled "Come in!" welcomed them.
  259.  
  260.     Upon opening the door they were assaulted by the scent of perfume, potpourri and an unmistakable 'something' in the air. 'Like, totally EWW.' Forcing the image of their parents 'together' from her mind, Leni led Lincoln in to greet them. "Good mooorning~!" She sang as as they fully woke up to what they were seeing.
  261.  
  262.     "Good morning, Lincoln, Leni!" Lynn Sr. cracked his neck and back as he sat up, recognizing what they had been up to as well. "Smells like you kids got off to an early start!"
  263.  
  264.     "That we did, Dad. Now, FEAST your eyes on this!" Their son declared, as Leni displayed the spread to much fanfare from her brother. "Bacon, eggs, biscuits, fruit, coffee; all the essentials. And, for the centerpiece: a stack of hotcakes with eighteen neatly arranged blueberries on top, to signify eighteen years of marriage!" A round of applause followed his presentation as his sister ground her teeth.
  265.  
  266.     "Oh, Lincoln, Leni, this is wonderful!" Rita made to go to them, but Lincoln beat her to it as he rushed up and held her at bay.
  267.  
  268.     "No no no, this is your big day...well, week. And you're going to be provided for!" They hardly had an opportunity to argue as Leni placed their breakfast before them, and to top everything off Charles came bowling in with the newspaper. "Yes! I've been training him to do that for weeks!"
  269.  
  270.     "Well, I'll be eleven monkeys' uncle!" Their father slapped his knee at the joke, nearly destroying their masterpiece as the rest of them groaned. Like daughter, like father.
  271.  
  272.     Lincoln was on cloud nine as they commented on how great everything was, and Leni found it in herself to be happy for him, even if it was coming from them. She was caught by surprise, then, when they included her in the accolades. "Leni, I have to say, this is fantastic! It's been so long since you cooked for everyone." Rita beamed, before seemingly catching herself. Her smile wavered almost imperceptibly as Leni zeroed in on her.
  273.  
  274.     Lynn must have caught on, as he moved in to cover her. "It most certainly is, and has been. You've still got a knack for it, though! To think I raised such a pair of chefs, maybe we should have gotten into the restaurant business?" Everyone shared a laugh, though two of them seemed somewhat forced. Time to change the subject. "Aside from gunning for the Best Kids' Award, what have you two got planned for your break? No school, no stuffy parents to get in your way-"
  275.  
  276.     "Now, let's not give them too many ideas, honey." Having somewhat recovered, their mother still seemed eager to hear as well.
  277.  
  278.     Leni nodded for Lincoln to go first. "Well," he sucked in a deep breath as he began, "first I need to figure out how to get out of being in debt to Lori, Lynn, Lana, Lola and possibly Luan. Then, I've got plans to hang out with Clyde tomorrow night and go to this huge comic book emporium in Royal Oaks with the Mcbrides Monday, and THEN I have to stake out the shop here in town for the newest issue of Ace Savvy so I'm probably going to end up owing Lori again anyway, AND THEN we're going biking with Lynn and her crew-" and so it went.
  279.  
  280.     "That's quite the itinerary! I hope our getaway is that packed!" Rita giggled as her son worked himself out of breath, before turning her attention to her second-oldest daughter. "And what about you, hun?" The girl was looking toward her, but it felt as if she were looking through her. "Leni?"
  281.  
  282.     The teen shook her head, eyes coming back into focus as she regarded her mother. 'You never cared before, why start now? Keeping up appearances for your son?' Instead of that, she managed to say, "I'm not sure yet. Like, there might be a party going on, but I don't think I'm going to go..."
  283.  
  284.     The adults exchanged a knowing look before resolving themselves to something. "Hey, pal, would you mind grabbing me another cup of joe? Going to need it to get everything ready by tonight," Lynn asked his son.
  285.  
  286.     "Sir, yes sir!" With a crisp salute, Lincoln made a break for the kitchen, and Leni began to follow him before a call from her mother.
  287.  
  288.     Steeling herself for whatever they had planned, Leni turned to face her betrayers and was met with a pair of deeply worried faces. "Leni," Rita began slowly, "Is there...anything you want to talk to us about?"
  289.  
  290.     Never. "Uhm, not that I know of, why?"
  291.  
  292.     Clearing his throat, her father followed up, "well, we got a call from your English teacher, Mr. Wolfe yesterday." Oh, that. Of course it couldn't just stop there. "He said you were upset, that there was something going on between you and your friends?"
  293.  
  294.     She loosed a sigh that her parents believed to be one of defeat, and decided she might as well cut to the chase. "Like, I had an argument with..." Oh God, what were their names?! "Holly and...Janice." She felt the familiar pounding in her head as she tried to call up memories of these people, or at least one of them. "They wanted me to go to a party, I think Carol Pingry is holding it." She did her best to appear confused as that worried look they shared now bordered on panic. 'My legend lives on.'
  295.  
  296.     "Still, honey, that seems like an awful lot to get so angry over..." Rita ventured, unsure just how far to go down that road. Leni sensed their hesitation, and decided to make a gambit. The best lies always had a grain of truth, after all.
  297.  
  298.     "You're right, it's not just that." It pained her to move closer to the bed and sit on the edge, putting herself at their mercy in a way. It set her heart racing with both a sick thrill and instinctual fear. "Like, I don't know how to describe it, it's just...lately, I don't even know what I'm doing." They waited on bated breath for her to continue, and she obliged them, growing more confident as she went. "My 'friends' hardly know me, like, I hardly understand what's going on with everyone in the house..." She laid back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. "I just...I feel like I don't even know who I am."
  299.  
  300.     She couldn't see their reaction, but she could hear and feel it. A sharp intake of breath, bodies tensing. Were they that afraid of her? 'They should be, and they will be.' "Leni," her father struggled to find the words, "that's something that a lot of kids your age go through. You're not a kid anymore, but not quite an adult yet; there's still a lot to figure out." It sounded reassuring, in theory, but it didn't mean much coming from the man who'd forced his daughter to forget who she was in the first place.
  301.  
  302.     "Your dad is right, Len, I remember when I was your age-" That part Leni was more than willing to tune out. If anyone noticed, she could just chalk it up to being a strung-out mental case; that was what these two knew her as, anyway. She nodded in all the right places as she wished Lincoln would hurry up and get back. Luck was on her side as he walked in at just about the point that their mother reached the 'first prom' spiel. "And, that about covers that! So don't worry too much, Leni, everything will be looking up before you know it."
  303.  
  304.     "Uh, did I miss something?" Lincoln asked, delivering the cup of coffee before scanning all three of them for a clue.
  305.  
  306.     "Nope, just some boring grown-up talk!" Leni jumped up and ignored his indignant protests as she began pushing him toward the door. "And now, I think it's time to let Mom and Dad get back to their morning!" Before they could press further, she had him outside and was about to follow. 'Got to make it count.' Turning back to them, she ground out an artificially sweet "Thank you." before making her escape.
  307.  
  308.     That encounter had come much sooner and under much different circumstances than she was expecting, and she needed to retreat to her lair to plan her next moves. She passed Lori on the way, her older sister still searching desperately for her phone.
  309.  
  310.     With that piece in place, it was time to move on down the line.
  311.  
  312. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  313.  
  314.     The morning carried on into afternoon, and so did three determined sisters as they stood vigil outside Lincoln's door. "Come on out Linc, time to pay what you owe!" Lynn called out, trying the handle again. The lock had long since been broken, but it seemed he had secured the door with something heavy. Lisa had warned them twice now to keep it down, that there was sensitive work going on that she needed (relative) quiet for. They'd just have to make this quick, then.
  315.  
  316.     "He does owe me, and he WILL pay, so you two can just wait your turn!" Lola punctuated her statement with a stamp of her foot, unwilling to go toe to toe with her sporty sister just yet. That unwillingness was put to the test as Lynn didn't even acknowledge her, trying instead to figure out just what was stopping them from entering. "Unless you want to end up on that list too, that is."
  317.  
  318.     "Amateurs, both of you! Step aside and let a professional sort this out." Lana clapped and rubbed her hands together as she stepped between them and began a series of knocks on the door, moving from left to right and top to bottom as far as her hands could reach. Narrowing her eyes, she finally drew back to give her assessment. "Yup, he's got the bed pushed up against there. Probably ten...no, eleven comic books and a football on it. No sheets, though; he's probably going out the window." The argument paused for a moment before Lincoln heard the hydra reform with a savage cry and begin storming toward the stairs and the front door.
  319.  
  320.     "I say again: suckers!" He declared as he drew the bed back from the door just far enough to squeeze through. He'd even tossed a section of blanket-rope out the window for good measure. "Usually, you've got to get up preeeetty early in the morning to get one over on three insane sisters with nothing better to do than torment their innocent brother," he monologued, putting his Ace Savvy comics back in their place, "but when those three sisters are the ones with the least forethought, all you need to do is let them jump to their own conclusions."
  321.  
  322.     Remembering Leni's invitation to seek sanctuary from them in her and Lori's room, he decided to take full advantage of that rare offer and poured himself out the door as fast as he could. "That ought to keep them occupied long enough to be waiting out here for me crud crud CRUD!" He tried to wedge back through the door as the trio charged him from down the hallway, but in his haste he hip-checked the doorknob, cursing in pain and faltering just long enough for Lynn to capture him in a headlock. With Lana now wrapped firmly around his leg and Lola practically scaling Lynn to get atop him, there was no escape.
  323.  
  324.     "Suckers, eh? A good sucker punch ought to fix that opinion right up." Lynn had only meant to scare him with that threat, so when Lincoln's squirming took on a greater sense of urgency, his struggling and their already-awkward position caused the mass of children to topple over and into the door to Lisa and Lily's room. As said door gave way under the weight of the four kids and they crashed to the ground, they had just enough time to look up and see a furious Lisa turn away from a large contraption pointing out the window before a familiar wailing filled the room.
  325.  
  326.     With a long-suffering sigh, Lisa turned her machine off and began marching toward the tangled knot of siblings. "Why do I even bother? All I needed wasth one morning, the condithions were justht perfect for my miniathure radio telesthcope to functhion in an urban sthetting!"
  327.  
  328.     "Looks more like a TV satellite to me, Liz. That thing get pay-per-view sports?" Lynn asked in excitement, momentarily forgetting she was supposed to be restraining her brother.
  329.  
  330.     "NO, it doesthn't get pay-per-view! Or any other channel! It'sth BEYOND televisthion, or anything you would know about!" The four-year old uncharacteristically raged, cutting any further questions off. "And now Lily isth awake and...justht...justht go! Take her and go!" She wheeled about, going to the crib and retrieving their crying sister before depositing the baby in Lincoln's outstretched arms.
  331.  
  332.     For all her seeming apathy and desert-dry wit, Lisa wasn't one to anger quickly, and they knew to give the mad scientist space when she demanded it. All intents of collecting on debts set aside for the moment, everyone filed out of the room, except for Lincoln. He rocked Lily back and forth in his arms before hazarding the question, "is everything alright, Lisa? I'm sorry we ruined your...whatever it was you were doing, it's kind of my fault in the first place."
  333.  
  334.     Rubbing at her temples, Lisa paced for a moment before sighing once more and adjusting her glasses to assess him. "I'm sthorry too, it's justht...there'sth been some sthource of interferencthe within the housthe that's been sthtopping me from taking my readingsth. If I didn't know any better, I'd sthay it's in this room, and I do knowbetter. It finally went away a few minutesth ago, and then thosthe loudmouths wouldn't sthtop shouting outsthide your door. Now the window ith closthed and I have to recalibrate everything." She saw the confusion writ on his face as he looked behind her. "The window of opportunity, that isth."
  335.  
  336.     "I, uhh, don't know what most of that means. Or any of it, really. But I am sorry, Lisa," he knew this was going to come back to bite him, "and if you need my help with that or anything else, just let me know. I wanna make it up to you." At least he chose to owe someone this time, and it cleared his conscience a little.
  337.  
  338.     Narrowing her eyes in consideration, Lisa airily answered, "while I stheriousthly doubt you'll be able to help with this exthperiment, I'll keep your offer in mind. Now pleasthe, take Lily out of here stho I can concthentrate." Before Lincoln could back out of the room completely, she called out to him more quietly, "and...thanksth. For listhening." With their baby sister finally starting to settle down, Lincoln simply smiled knowingly at her, and he gingerly closed the door behind him.
  339.  
  340.     No sooner had he done so than three throats cleared behind him and three feet tapped the floor. "We're not finished yet, Lincoln." Lola groused, cracking her knuckles more daintily than should be possible. "I have a party — a REAL party with REAL people — to host this week, and everything in that room," she jerked a thumb back to motion behind her, "has to be PICTURE. PERFECT."
  341.  
  342.     "Please, Lola, your tea party can wait. I need a body to help me practice my technique for the soccer tournament coming up and no one can take a hit like Linc here!" Lynn made to punctuate her statement with a blow to his chest, before drawing back just in time to avoid decking Lily, much to her brother's annoyance.
  343.  
  344.     Lana rushed in front of them, throwing a possessive arm around his waist and motioning between him and herself with the other. "Are you both forgetting that I'm the reason he's still even alive?" She waggled her eyebrows at Lola, who rolled her eyes in response. "I need a helping hand reinforcing our room against Lisa's experiments, and we're losing daylight as it is!" She declared, pointing at the room they'd just fallen into. Even Lola couldn't come up with a good argument against that.
  345.  
  346.     All four of them were saved from having to come to a decision, as at that moment a force of evil arrived that would require them to unite their power. "Do you realize how much of a racket you're all making? I could literally hear it from the basement, over the dryer." Even several family crises couldn't get in the way of chores. Lori stormed up to them, nearly bowling over the girls and stopping directly before Lincoln. "I'm calling in my favor, twerp." A chorus of angry rebuttals sang forth from behind her, and she turned to loom over Lola in particular. "And it heavily involves you, you little thief."
  347.  
  348.     "W-what? Like I'd want to steal anything of yours! It's all covered in Bobby cooties and gaudy nail polish, yuck!" Simultaneous "Oooooh!"'s came from Lynn and Lana as the two drama queens squared up, and Lincoln began creeping away with his back against the wall. He almost made it without issue when Lily, since calmed down, began giggling and flailing about due to his exaggerated movements.
  349.  
  350.     Peeking from behind Lori, Lynn's finger shot out as she shouted, "We've got a runner!" Both she and Lana made to encircle him and found themselves cut off by the oldest sibling's arms.
  351.  
  352.     "Don't even think about it, or I'll literally make all of you my slaves too." A threat like that would normally have them all crawling back to their rooms, but Lola wasn't having it.
  353.  
  354.     "What did I 'steal' from you, huh? What could you have that the most beautiful, successful and all-around greatest person in this house would want?"
  355.  
  356.     Lori summoned up as condescending a look as she could, stooping down to nearly butt heads with the tiny terror. "Don't play dumb with me, not that you'd need to," she zinged, causing the peanut gallery to turn their attention to them again, "I know you were in my room. What did you do with my phone?"
  357.  
  358.     The beauty queen's face flushed red at the insult, and she opened her mouth to dish it right back when Lynn interrupted, "the phone again? Why are you so obsessed with that? I mean, even more than usual." All eyes were on her as she started putting the pieces together, like Luna had.
  359.  
  360.     Lana, largely content to take in the confrontation from afar until now, was the first to pick up on the sudden tension in their common enemy's posture. "What're you so scared about, Lori? I can practically smell the fear from here!" The way Lori's head jerked to her confirmed their suspicions, and that was all it took for her twin to begin tightening the noose.
  361.  
  362.     "It sounds to me," she began, all present feeling the evil radiating off of her, "like there's something about that phone she doesn't want us to know about."
  363.  
  364.     Completely forgetting their original victim, the pack of rabid sisters surrounded and cornered Lori as Lincoln abandoned all pretenses of stealth and made a dash for her room. He made it to the staircase before a hand reached out and stopped his advance. He turned to find Lucy with a finger held up to her lips and the other hand motioning him to enter.
  365.  
  366.     The door shut behind him almost as soon as he crossed the threshold, and Lily pulled at his hair as he went to stand near Lucy's bed. "Not my hair, Lily! I need it so I can pull it out myself later!" He laughed, and she laughed, and Lucy was staring at him-
  367.  
  368.     "Lincoln." Even though he knew she was there, and right next to him no less, she still managed to have him nearly jumping out of his skin. "We need to talk about what we saw this morning."
  369.  
  370.     Trying to lower his heart rate, he set Lily on the floor and gave her Lynn's basketball to occupy herself with. "What 'we' saw? What did we see, anyway?"
  371.  
  372.     "The way Leni was acting." That heart-calming turned to skipping a beat as Lincoln considered the implications. "All morning I've been trying to figure out what's going on with her. The energy around her is so dark, so brooding. Lincoln," she grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him close, "she's even putting ME to shame." Shaking her off, Lincoln prepared to safeguard his sister's secret again, but she wasn't done yet. "You know something about it, too. The way you two were talking, the same wavelength you were both on earlier."
  373.  
  374.     "Come on, Lucy, if there are two words I would never think of to describe Leni, they're dark and brooding." That wasn't really a lie, and he hadn't gotten a whole lot of that feeling from her. "She and I have just been getting along pretty well lately, nothing to be concerned about, really." Still, what were she and Lori seeing that he wasn't? If anything were wrong, he ought to know; he was one of the only people who'd seen her this way, right?
  375.  
  376.     "I have a bad feeling about it. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
  377.  
  378.     What did that even mean? Taking her warning in stride, Lincoln collected Lily again and made for the door. "Don't worry, Lucy, everything's fine...maybe even better than it was before." He could be cryptic too when he wanted! She didn't do or say anything to keep him, so he stepped out into the hallway and into a Mexican standoff.
  379.  
  380.     "If you three know what's good for you you'll back off. I won't hold back just because you're literally still babies." Lori hissed, trying to keep each of them in her field of vision.
  381.  
  382.     "Rules of nature, sis," Lynn practically purred, as Lana stealthily maneuvered behind Lori. "The old and the weak get taken down by the young and strong." Not wanting to get caught in the coming fight, he made his way to Lori and Leni's room with Lily in tow. He stopped in the doorway though, his curiosity looking to get him killed.
  383.  
  384.     'In a house with eleven kids, it's every man and woman for themself! Everyone's so busy arguing and fighting with each other that the biggest, oldest person always comes out on top. It's not often the others stand up to Lori, especially three of them, this might be interesting!'
  385.  
  386.     "You're on OUR turf now, Lori," Lola snapped as she advanced on her oldest sister in tandem with Lynn.
  387.  
  388.     "After we deal with her, I say we get a hold of that phone and see just what she's hiding." The look on Lori's face almost made Lynn reconsider, but as she saw Lana crouch down behind her, she knew they had the upper hand.
  389.  
  390.     Lori clenched her fists, raising one at Lynn in particular. "I'm WARNING you, step off or I'll literally pound you flat-" She continued backing up, and backed straight into Lana, who knocked her knees in and sent her tumbling backward.
  391.  
  392.     "Not when you're flat on the ground! DOGPILE!"
  393.  
  394.     A seething maelstrom of fists, cutting insults and impromptu weapons erupted as Leni poked her head out to watch the sideshow with Lincoln. "Like, what are they fighting about now?"
  395.  
  396.     "Something about Lori's missing phone, I guess."
  397.  
  398.     'Wow, I didn't expect the phone to be this useful. I haven't even used it for what I intended yet!' Leni felt fairly proud of herself for the dividends her scheme was paying, it would make everything so much easier in the coming days. "Well, if you want to take cover in here, I need to talk to Luna really quick-" their chat was cut short by the rip heard 'round the world.
  399.  
  400.     Everyone froze and all noise ceased in the wake of Lola's dress tearing as Lori held her by the back of it. All eyes were on the pageant princess as she hung limply in the older girl's grasp. "L-Lola?" Lana was the first to speak; she knew she had to act fast. But there was nothing fast enough to head off the feral cry that Lola unleashed before grabbing hold of Lori's hair and pulling as hard as she could.
  401.  
  402.     "Yeah, I think we'll do that..." Lincoln tried to cover his baby sister's ears as he retreated to the armchair in her room.
  403.  
  404. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
  405.  
  406.     As Loud War XXXIII commenced at the far end of the hallway, Leni stalked across the way to her oh-so-favorite younger sisters' room, the sound of drums heavy and steady on the other side. Knocking once, then twice, it was on the third attempt that she narrowly avoided knocking on Luan's forehead as the door opened. "Heya, Leni, What can we do ya for? Other than drumming up some tunes, hehe!" The second-eldest had to actively avoid rolling her eyes as she accepted Luan's outstretched arm as invitation to enter.
  407.  
  408.     She came to stand in front of Luna's drum set, where the musician was currently engrossed in her passion, headbanging hard and fast enough that it gave Leni a migraine just looking at it. Though the brunette had headphones on, they were barely hanging on to her head; she was probably deaf by this point. Still. "Luna, have you, like, got a minute?" No response. "Oh, Luuuna~!"
  409.  
  410.     "Good luck getting through to her like that," clearly Luan hadn't taken the hint, "she's been off her rocker lately about a gig she has coming up. Get it?"
  411.  
  412.     "Yeah, I get it, Luan." Leni didn't even try to hide the exasperation in her voice. 'You're ABOUT to get it. GET IT?' It was too soon to share those feelings, though, so she kept that one back along with the others that were quickly building up. After snapping her fingers in front of Luna's face a few times, and being roughly shaken off when she tried to tap her on the shoulder, she considered clocking her in the mouth before remembering an option the old her would have pursued without even having to think about it.
  413.  
  414.     She left the rocker alone and switched her attention to the purple guitar resting on its stand a few feet away. Making her way over to it as nonchalantly as she could, she grasped the neck just as Luna's head came up.
  415.  
  416.     No sooner had she lifted the instrument up than the drumming ceased and Luna shouted, "DROP IT!"
  417.  
  418.     'Drop it, eh? Like, what would the OLD Leni do?' So she did.
  419.  
  420.     Neither Leni nor Luan would ever question how their sister managed to dive over her rig from a sitting position to catch the guitar. "LENI! What the heeeeeCK were you thinking?!" Luna cried, inspecting the guitar for damage with frantic eyes, as if it were a child or made from solid gold.
  421.  
  422.     "Well, like, you told me to drop it!" The look that they shared told Leni that she'd nailed her former idiot persona, something she'd need to stay on top of for the next couple days. "Now that I've got your attention, though, I need your help with something!" She threw her hands together and put on her best puppy dog eyes. Luna's response was cut off by the sounds of madness and mayhem spilling back into the hallway, piquing Luan's interest immediately.
  423.  
  424.     "I'll just excuse myself while you two talk, there's gold to be mined out there!" Dashing to the closet, she wiggled inside before reappearing with a camcorder in hand. The simple act wrenched Leni's attention away from Luna and toward that closet. She recalled Lincoln's video contest gaffe, but had never stopped to consider just where those embarrassing movies had come from, hadn't had the presence of mind to...she HAD to get in there.
  425.  
  426.     "Yo, dude, you still with me?" Luna snapped her fingers in a repeat of the other girl's actions moments ago. "You said you needed help?"
  427.  
  428.     Oh, right. "Oh, right! So, here's the skinny!" Luna cocked an eyebrow at that. 'Don't overplay it, Leni,' the blonde cautioned herself. "So, like, everyone in the house knows that you're the resident party and all-around good times expert," THAT went straight to her ego, if the somewhat shocked smile on her face was anything to go by, "and that's what I need help with. Some friends invited me to a party hosted by Carol Pingrey — you know, the one Lori absolutely hates? — and it's supposed to be, like, the biggest party of the year! But I have no clue what to expect and I know I'm, like, not the most interesting person by myself..."
  429.  
  430.     Luna clapped her hands on Leni's shoulders and summoned up her best 'cool sister' image, maneuvering her sister to sit on the bed and retaking her perch on her drum stool. "Well, you came to the right place, Len. A lot goes into makin' a party great, from havin' the right crowd, to settin' the right mood, to makin' sure that every single person is havin' a great time. These are the things the host has to worry about, and trust me, I've worried about 'em before."
  431.  
  432.     "What you have to worry about," she continued, making sure she held Leni's attention over the din of battle outside, "is being cool. Now, of course me and the others know how cool you are." Leni might have found it in her to be flattered by the comment, if she didn't already know what a shallow definition of 'cool' Luna had. "But those kids that are gonna be on Carol's short list are probably the furthest thing from cool. No style, all 'class'. Probably couldn't tell a Swagger single from Lucy's Linked-In Park, or whatever it's called. And one way to be cool is to make a hipster party cool. So, let me lay down a few tips on how to up the ante at a party. First, you'll need to find out where the liquor cabinet is..."
  433.  
  434.     Following that was an admittedly thorough list of steps Leni could take to 'crash the bash' and make it a night no one would ever forget, but would probably wish they could. She almost wished she'd begun taking notes at some point; some of these were going to come in handy for making her sisters' lives miserable at various points.
  435.  
  436.     Instead, she put as much effort into looking interested in whatever Luna was spouting as she could stand, a more pressing concern being that closet. It was logically the only place Luan would put her videos, and she was curious how familiar the girl in front of her was with them.
  437.  
  438.     A shriek emitted from the hallway, followed by Lori shouting at Lynn to watch where she's grabbing at and Luan cackling harder than a hyena. "Luna, Leni, c-come out here! Y-you have to see this!" Knowing that she would end up out their sooner or later, Luna decided to 'humor' her and see what all the fuss was about. Leni moved to appear like she would follow, and when the resident Loud had left she diverted toward the closet door.
  439.  
  440.     Opening it slowly yielded a horrible creaking sound, despite having produced no such noise when Luan got into it earlier, so she instead threw it open and narrowly avoided smashing the adjacent wall. Rifling through a few odds and ends, she uncovered her prize: stacks upon heaping stacks of tapes, all neatly labeled for her perusal. As she began to sift through them one thing became clear above all else. 'She has an unhealthy obsession with Lincoln...so many of these are of him getting hurt, too...' What the fuck was wrong with her sister? Did she get some sick thrill out of other people's pain? 'I'll do you one better, Luan. Let's see how funny it is when you're the one getting put through the wringer.'
  441.  
  442.     Finally she came across a few with her name on them. "'Lisa's Laboratory, Vol. II: Leni Edition.'" That would be useful on several different levels. "'Pimple Problems?' Real cute. 'Spider-Len', eh?" Those were just a couple of the highlights, and she began to gather some of them up when she heard the familiar sound of boots headed her way. 'Of course.' Hastily dropping them, she got the door closed just as Luna popped her head back into the room.
  443.  
  444.     "You, uh, havin' fun in here dude?" Luna asked, and Leni hoped she wasn't being too obvious as she nodded her head. "Cool, cool. Watchin' them go at it never gets old, I gotta admit. Anyway, I've told you most of what I know will help out. The biggest thing is, just be your cool self." She punctuated her conclusion with a thumbs-up, and Leni was almost taken in by her sister's sheer earnestness again before remembering what she was dealing with. Luna had always been able to talk a good game, but when it came time to walk it she would walk away instead.
  445.  
  446.     Resigning herself to plundering the trove of tapes later, Leni closed the distance and forced herself to give Luna a hug. "Thanks so much, Luna! I knew I could count on you." Her chin resting on the other girl's shoulder, she allowed her happy visage to crumble into a menacing scowl. Pulling Luna even tighter, she remembered the exchange between her sisters at breakfast. "You know, besides Lori and Lincoln, sometimes I think you're the only one I can really count on, Luna. You're so dependable, so chill. Like, I can't think of a time you ever let us down." That scowl evolved again, to a sinister smirk as another stage of her master plan began to take shape and the musician began to tremble in her bear-trap embrace.
  447.  
  448.     "N-no problem, sis. I, uh, I try, y'know? S-speakin' of which, tryin' to breathe here..." Luna awkwardly patted Leni on the back before finally being released, making a show of gasping for air. She allowed a shaky chuckle to escape as she eyed the blonde warily. She seemed the same as usual, that carefree smile practically lighting up the room...brushing off the weird vibes, she sat down at her drum set and collected her sticks as Luan reentered the room. "You good now, Len?"
  449.  
  450.     "Perfect, Luna. Like, just per-" A tap on her shoulder interrupted her. "Luan, what-"
  451.  
  452.     A spider. A plastic spider, to be precise. The same plastic spider her joke of a sister had been scaring her stupid with for years. White-hot anger exploded through her, but this time she wasn't going to hide it. 'Time to kill one ugly bird with two stones.' "AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHH!" The scream was loud enough to cause Luna to cover her ears, her eyes closing momentarily, and that was all the opportunity Leni needed. She seized the spider along with the stick attached to it, and tore it from Luan's hand, putting her whole body into it to throw it as hard as she possibly could.
  453.  
  454.     Right at Luna's bass drum.
  455.  
  456.     The stick flew true and punctured directly through the thin covering, the spider catching at the end and tearing the hole even further. Luna opened her eyes to first see Leni's heaving form, and Luan behind her with her hands clasped over her mouth. Her gaze fell to what both of them were looking at, and she sat in numb silence for a moment. The calm before the storm
  457.  
  458.     "What...in the HELL...is WRONG with you two?!" She jumped from her stool, flinging one arm at her now-busted drum and the other at her sisters.
  459.  
  460.     Leni was the first to recover, looking for all the world like a penitent saint. "Oh my God, Luna, I-I'm sorry! Like, I just...I just freaked out, I-I had to get it off me!"
  461.  
  462.     "A bit of an overreaction, don't you think? Not only did you break the drum, but probably my prop, too!" Luan shouted. That spider had been one of the first gag items their dad had gotten her, and everyone knew it.
  463.  
  464.     "Maybe if you would grow up and stop scaring people with toys, they wouldn't get broken!" Leni whirled around to loom over her sister, and relished the way Luan shrunk under her withering glare.
  465.  
  466.     The prankster's defiant streak returned with a vengeance, though. "I'M the one who needs to grow up?! You're still scared of spiders, and who else would get fooled by a 'toy' anyway?!"
  467.  
  468.     "That's enough outta bleedin' BOTH of you!" Luna slammed a stick on her cymbal, the sound ringing in all their unprotected ears. "Leni, just...just get outta here. We'll figure somethin' out later." The mentioned sister affected a stricken look before moping out of the room, her heart filled with vindictive glee. She heard the door close behind her, and ducked into the bathroom. She strained to hear the ensuing argument, to reap her dark harvest, and she wasn't disappointed.
  469.  
  470.     "Luan, this is just as much your fault as Leni's. Maybe even more. You know how she is with that freakin' spider gag."
  471.  
  472.     "Oh come on, like I could have expected she'd go that far. Sorry about your drum, but-"
  473.  
  474.     "'But' nothin'! You're out a cheap toy on this; that bass drum cost almost two hundred dollars!"
  475.  
  476.     "Jeez, really? If only it were as cheap as the craftsmanship, eh?" A terrible, lovely silence followed before a clanging sound rang out from under the door.
  477.  
  478.     "Really, Luan? Do you hear me joking about your kids toy? Leni was right, you really do need to grow up."
  479.  
  480.     "Stop calling it a toy! It was more than that! You can just buy another drum, that prop was special to me!"
  481.  
  482.     "I can just buy another, huh? Where's that money gonna come from? Are you gonna pay for it? Is Leni? Dad's definitely not going to, he already warned me to take care of them! Your stuff ain't any more important than mine, Lu!"
  483.  
  484.     The argument only escalated from there, and Leni slunk back to her room, ecstatic at having turned the two on each other so soon. With Luan isolated, she would largely be free to torment the obnoxious girl. Now that her sisters were obliging her, they would be divided and conquered in no time at all. She recalled one of the principle history lessons they'd all been taught in school. 'A house divided cannot stand.' How ironic that it'd been spoken by someone that shared a name with her brother, in many ways the glue that held their own home together.
  485.  
  486.     Therein lay another piece of the puzzle. She had to do something to protect her brother from the fallout of her revenge, while keeping him ignorant to it. However she chose to proceed, though, one thing was certain.
  487.  
  488.     The Loud House would indeed be divided, and nothing would save it from destroying itself.
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