AN: School and work are still kicking my ass, but I finally managed to squeak out an update. Also, my class ends next week, so hopefully I'll have more time to write after that.
On the outside, Lori stared back at Lincoln, cool and collected in the face of their impromptu reunion. Luminary had faced down alien warlords, eldritch horrors, and on one occasion a sentient, omnipotent burrito who claimed to have created the universe. The scene currently in play, of her, casually cradling a swooning civilian she'd just rescued, was old hat to her, and anyone who captured this particular moment for their social media would see it instantly forgotten amid the numerous, nearly identical instances that had been similarly preserved.
Internally, however, Lori Loud was having a meltdown that had been long in the making. These feelings came from a variety of places. There was, of course, this completely unintended meeting with the sibling that she had willfully torpedoed her relationship with, in a desperate attempt to ensure that he'd grow up happy and safe. There was also the fact that the source of the guilt she'd spent the better part of a decade dutifully enduring was now, literally staring her in the face. But, chief among all these things—
"Come on, Lori!" She urged herself. "Don't get lost in that smoldering, penetrating gaze..."
—Was that in her absence, her baby brother had grown up. And much to her dismay, he looked...really good.
Obviously, it hadn't escaped Lori's notice that Lincoln had aged with the passing of time. The surveillance reports she received on a regular basis kept her in the loop as to the particulars of her little brother's circumstances; medical, financial, social (that one was always mercifully threadbare), but those were just words and numbers on a page. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Lori to drop by whenever the whim struck her, and even easier to do so without Lincoln knowing she was around, but that was precisely why she couldn't allow herself to do so. Allowing herself to indulge in that weakness would just cause history to repeat itself, and that was something that Lori simply could not condone. The Agreement worked. Forcibly excising the Loud girls from their brother's life had been the best thing to happen to Lincoln. Absent their chaotic and destructive presence, Lincoln had grown up safe, stable and...happy? She wasn't actually all too certain about the last one, her reports didn't include a happiness quotient, no matter how many times she'd requested that particular addition, but he was happy and stable. And two out of the three weren't so bad, right? And this arrangement only worked so long as the golden rule was maintained: no contact with Lincoln, under any circumstances.
Which was why it was so distressing for Lori to find herself standing here. On forbidden ground. Holding her prodigal little brother in her arms.
Time had been good to Lincoln, in her absence her fresh-faced little brother had become a not so little man. He was a bit too thin for her liking. His eyes tended to squint, suggesting long hours spent in front of a computer screen, or pouring over textbooks, and there were worry lines already creased deeply into his brow. But, in spite of that, it was still Lincoln. The chipped teeth, the snow-white hair, those adorable sun-kissed cheeks of his, those things were all still there. They had simply been transplanted onto an older individual, more mature of body, and robust of frame. And although it might not be her place to say so, in her opinion Lincoln carried it all quite well. Too well, perhaps, and that was the problem.
In spite of the fact that Lori regularly operated in a professional capacity while wearing little more than a swimsuit, she had never been a particularly self-conscious person. Frankly, it was pretty much impossible to be, at this stage in her life. Awkward Phase Lori was but a distant memory, even before her empowering. Ascending to metahood had only made her more of a bombshell, and learning to tune out the constant, admiring gazes she received while out in public had been among the first hurdles she'd needed to tackle to make it as a hero. And yet it was only here, under the gaze of her long lost brother, that Lori finally felt...well, naked, in multiple senses of the word.
"Does...does he like the outfit?" Lori wondered to herself, resisting the urge to adjust her skin-tight garment. It was another habit she'd had to learn to suppress as part of her job. Her costume, like those of many metahumans, was precariously designed on purpose, so as to allow onlookers to entertain the thought that something, somewhere, might pop free if the circumstances were right, and it would be a very good idea to keep their eyes squarely on the hero in question just in case. In truth, the chance was nearly nonexistent. No matter how much abuse the bearer might take, the worst they could typically expect was a tasteful tear or two in carefully calculated, camera-friendly segments of the costume. Such was the wonder of Span-X, the material that all modern-day meta-human costumes were made from. While it wouldn't actually protect the wearer, the fabric itself was nearly indestructible and guaranteed to ensure that a hero would always look their best, no matter how imperiled they'd become. A design philosophy which, so perfectly matched the mind of its inventor, that it was a wonder Leni hadn't come up with it sooner.
"He's not even looking at it!" Lori realized, horrified and just a little bit miffed at the unintended slight. "He's looking me in the eyes like...like I'm a person or something! What is wrong with you, Lincoln Loud!? It's fine, it's fine, stay calm Lori, you can fix this. Clearly, Lincoln is just too overwhelmed by the situation to be able to appreciate your charms. Just need to shift your weight...a little...there we go, got a nice bounce going. Then we nonchalantly stretch our...wait, is Lincoln a leg man? Are we barking up the wrong tree? Wait, why are his lips moving? Has he been talking all this time?"
"...my wall! Again! This is just like the time Lisa built that stupid death ray—!"
Internally, Lori winced at reference. Yeah, that wasn't something she'd wanted Lincoln to be dwelling upon. But that was fine, all she needed to do was apply some good old fashioned diplomacy. She prepared to give him her most dazzling smile (quite literally, as it involved making her teeth glow). The smile that made men swoon and women...also swoon, but in a slightly different way. She gently peeled back her lips, fluttered her eyelashes just so, and—
"Just...why?" Said Lincoln, sighing in frustration as he went limp in her arms. Strange, had she really been holding onto him this entire time? "Why are you here...now?"
Lori blinked, and the world around her snapped into focus as if she'd awakened from a particularly long nap. There was a young man in her arms. He was visibly upset, frustrated beyond belief, his body language made that clear beyond belief. And in his eyes, fear. Not of the criminal who'd been apprehended by a being far more powerful than them, nor of the villain who has just witnessed their scheme crumble around them, knowing that justice was at hand.
He was afraid that she was going to hurt him again. Not with her fist, but with her indifference. Once bitten, twice shy.
Lori tried to muster words of comfort, but none would come. After all, Lincoln had every right to be afraid. She was going to have to hurt him again, for his own good.
A great weight fell upon Lori's shoulders. She'd assumed this was guilt over what she was going to have to do...but then it started...squeezing. Really, really hard. To the point where it was starting to cause her actual, tangible, physical pain. Casting a glance to the side, Lori saw that in truth, the culprit was a rather large hand placed atop each of her shoulders. She craned her neck upward, and as she'd suspected, found herself meeting the gaze of Lynn, who was now looming over the pair. She was smiling, but the way her lips were trembling suggested that this may not have been entirely genuine.
"Actually..." Lynn interjected, sucking air through her teeth. "I invited her here."
"Wait..." Lincoln said, his emotional turmoil briefly replaced by confusion. "...what?"
"Thaaat's right." Lynn said, laughing softly as she gave Lori a friendly pat. The kind that sent tremors rippling through the floorboards. "I asked her to come over."
Lori's eyes narrowed as she locked gazes with Lynn.
"What are you doing?" She asked, silently.
"Salvaging this situation!"
"There's nothing you can—"
"The hell there isn't! Granted, you're the last person I'd rather do this with, but if dragging you along for the ride keeps you from being stupid again, then that's what I'm going to do!"
Lori seethed as her younger sister's stubbornness. "Listen, Lynn. You think I like doing this? I don't. At all. But Lincoln needs this—"
She was abruptly cut off as the force clamped around her shoulder dramatically increased in pressure, actually starting to hurt just a bit.
"No, you listen!" Contrary to the name, Loud Sister Telepathy was actually accomplished via a complex system of microexpressions used to convey meaning. Tone was quite a bit harder to convey, but Lynn's face made it very clear that she'd be snarling if her words were uttered aloud.
"Lincoln needs this!" She continued, gesturing to herself. "And this. Unfortunately." She punctuated that statement with another squeeze. The temptation to burn that hand off was growing stronger by the moment.
"Just look at him!" Said Lynn, grabbing Lori's face with one hand. "Does he look happy?" Before Lori could respond, Lynn jerked her head forward, forcing Lori to look their brother straight in the eye. He...certainly didn't look happy. He...actually looked pretty...
"Eggplant." Said Lincoln.
The already silent room somehow grew more silent. Slowly, Lori craned her neck upward, once more meeting the gaze of an equally baffled Lynn.
"Did he just..." Began Lynn.
"C-couldn't have." Concluded Lori, emphatically shaking her head. She looked towards their brother once more.
"Eggplant." Lincoln repeated. "Wait, no. I kin understind you? Right?"
Two pairs of sisterly eyes met, both sets wide with alarm.
"He cracked the code!" The duo screamed voicelessly.
"Look, I can understand what you guys are saying," Lincoln interjected. "Or...enough of it anyway. So can we please just use our voices for this conversation?"
The sisters exchanged suspicious glances. "When did you—" Lori began.
"A long time ago." Lincoln interjected. "Sometimes when we had sibling meetings, you guys would all stop talking and just stare at each other for a while. Didn't take long to figure out you guys were communicating, somehow, so I started working on figuring it out. It was less boring than just watching you guys."
"You did that?" Lynn exclaimed. "By yourself?" Lori silently nodded her agreement. It actually was pretty impressive. Granted, Lincoln wasn't exactly fluent, and he'd needed to use his hands to contort his face into some of the more complex expressions, but it was an impressive feat regardless.
"Well, Leni shows me a few phrases to get me started—"
"Figures." Lori deadpanned, only to realize there was an echo to her words. A glance upward revealed a very unhappy Lynn.
"Leni was always the weak link." The former athlete grumbled. "Especially when it came to Lincoln."
"You're not..." Lori began to protest but found herself unable to continue in good faith.
"...wrong," She finally admitted, with a small sigh. "Leni was always soft on Lincoln."
Lori's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Lincoln, you and Leni wouldn't happen to be..."
"What?" Lincoln asked, confused. "Talking?"
"That's...one way of putting it."
"Not really." He shrugged. "She sends me a gift basket twice a year, once on Christmas and once on my birthday. They usually come with a letter too, but nothing too long. You know Leni."
"Yes." Lynn growled. "We definitely know Leni."
"I've tried to call her at her office, but she's always busy." Lincoln continued. "Always...busy. Just like the rest of you guys. Right?"
It was an out, an easy way to explain away their absence. But it was also a plea. Something that made sense in a vaguely logical sort of way. Lincoln wanted there to be a reason why most of his family had abruptly cut off contact with him, and as far as excuses go, it was a pretty good one. Even so...
"That's right," Lynn announced clapping Lori on the back. "We're all so busy. Leni's got her company to run, and Lori spends so much of her time out in space. Getting all...dusty...apparently..."
"Space is dirty!" Lori hissed, rounding on the younger girl. "And you—"
"You gonna put Lincoln down before you lay into me?" Lynn asked with a smirk.
"I didn't want to be the one to bring it up." Lincoln interjected, his face reddening several shades. "But from here I can kind of see your—"
"I will!" Lori protested, deciding that deliberately ignoring Lincoln was the least embarrassing option. Even so, she pulled him closer, holding him tightly against her body, strictly so that he wouldn't be able to observe her conversation with Lynn, of course.
"What are you doing?" She silently asked Lynn, again.
"I'm just explaining to Lincoln why I had to literally drag you away from your very important, world-saving duties," Lynn replied aloud. "That you're selfless dedication to your very important hero work is why you couldn't pop down to visit your favorite brother. So dedicated, that I had to punch you in the face many times to make you reconsider your very dedicated dedication."
"Lynn..." Lori seethed.
"And look!" Lynn ignored her, gesturing grandly. "You've not been a superhero for minutes at a time, and the world is still here!"
Before Lori could respond, Lynn leaned down and put her face right up against Lori's.
"And Lincoln's apparently had two of us looking after him, and nothing bad has happened." She said, softly.
Her lips flattening into a thin line, Lori glanced meaningfully at the rubble which had once been Lincoln's apartment wall.
"That was you." Said Lynn, with a cocky smirk. Lori winced. Touche...
"And what about tomorrow?" Lori asked, surprised at how weak her voice suddenly sounded. "Or the next day? How do you know he'll still be okay then?"
"Because he'll have me." Came Lynn's reply. "And you. If you want him to."
Lori swallowed deeply. "I...I don't..."
"And, speaking of Linc being okay? I know from personal experience that if you keep holding him like that, he's going to pass out."
What did she...
Lori looked down and blanched. In her attempt to temporarily remove Lincoln from the conversation, she'd planted the boy's face squarely in her cleavage. And, save for the occasional twitch of his limbs, he wasn't moving...
"Lincoln!" Lori shrieked, hoisting her brother up into the air. That's what you were supposed to do, right? There's more oxygen up there, right!? Maybe she should take him for a quick flight, just to be on the safe side...
"So...pretty..." Lincoln uttered, his voice strained. Lori gulped loudly as heat blossomed across her cheeks. Oh...wow. Lincoln...
"Pretty lights." Lincoln continued. "So many of them..."
And there went her good cheer. Stupid Lincoln. Take away his precious oxygen for a few minutes and he goes all loopy. Can't appreciate a good thing when it's literally staring him straight in the—
Lori yelped as something wrapped around her and pulled. The next thing she knew, she was being pressed against her siblings, the still delirious Lincoln now sandwiched between her and a very bewildered looking Lynn. Mercifully, the young man's remained exposed to life giving oxygen. Though, given how tightly they were being held together, his lung capacity might still be at issue...
It was at this point that Lori noticed the enormous face looming behind Lynn. Lincoln's friend...Stella? Only considerably larger than she'd been a few moments prior, barely able to squeeze into Lincoln's apartment.
"SORRY!" Said the younger girl, her voice booming in the fairly confined space. "I COULDN'T REALLY FOLLOW WHAT'S GOING ON, BUT IT SOUNDED LIKE THIS WAS THE PART WHERE EVERYONE WAS SUPPOSED TO HUG. JUST THOUGHT I'D HELP THINGS ALONG. DID...DID I READ THE ROOM RIGHT?"
Lynn, finally noticing the way Lincoln was being pressed into her by the giant girl's Brobdingnagian embrace, smiled brightly.
"You did good, Stel!" Lynn called out happily, causing the larger girl to beam with pride.
Lynn met Lori's gaze, her joyful smile gaining just a hint of a smirk to it. "She did do good, right Lori? Wouldn't you agree?"
"I..." Lori hesitated, her willpower dangling by a hair. Then she looked down at her brother. Barely conscious though he was, at this particular moment Lincoln's face was free from fear, or worry, a stark contrast to the Lincoln she'd known for this short period of time. And it occurred to Lori that she would very much like to see more of this Lincoln. Safe, protected, and above all else, happy.
"It's...a start," Lori admitted, nuzzling up against her brother. "Lynn, move your stupid arms."