They stayed in silence until they got to the bus stop. Everyone's mind was racing too much for idle chitchat. Lily was thinking about her long-lost brother, Lyra had a heavy feeling in her stomach as she wondered if she'd committed an irreversible wrong, and Lemy was trying to figure out what the heck was going on. But there was only so much silence on edge people could bare, and it was Lily that made the first bit of conversation to distract everyone from their thoughts.
"So, how is Lincoln?" Lily asked meekly. "How's he doing?"
"Uhh…good." Lyra answered awkwardly. "He has his own apartment. He's an artist."
"He taught me how to draw." Lily recalled. Lyra made a little noise in her throat and nodded in a minimal display of acknowledgment.
"Do you do anything?" She asked her aunt.
"Oh, not yet." Lily shook her head. "But I'm going to college at the end of August. I'm going to study journalism." That explained the camera. "I guess you're too young to have a job."
"Yes." Lyra confirmed.
The bus was taking its time getting to them.
"Do you go to school here in Royal Woods?" Lily asked.
"We're homeschooled." Lyra explained. "We don't spend a lot of time in this town. Just when we're staying with our aunts…" The last word almost died when she realized the implication of it, but sadly it got out before she could stop it.
"My sisters?" Lily cocked her head slightly. "Which ones?" Now Lyra had let information slip. "None of the ones I keep in touch with still live here." Lyra bit her lip. "Lincoln's not the only one who still lives here, isn't he?"
"I…uh…Lincoln will tell you." Lyra mumbled. Her aunt did a frustrated stomp before turning and pacing around the bus stop for a moment.
"Sorry!" She rushed back over to them. "I'm not mad at you guys, I swear. This whole day just turned…" She waved her hands and made some sound between a grunt and a shriek.
"I understand completely." Lyra assured. "You really miss him, don't you?" And that made her aunt stop and think.
"I mean, he moved away when I was only 7. I shouldn't remember a whole lot about him, but I do. I swear I can even remember him from when I was a baby. Does that make sense?" She asked.
"I can remember when I was 5." Lyra tried to empathize.
"And after he left, even though I was seven, I really missed him. And Lola and Lana-they're my sisters-kept talking about him. And I remember asking my parents but they didn't want to talk about it, but that just made me want to know about it even more!" Her voice had risen so that the last word was a shout, making the other two people at the bus stop look at them curiously. Lily calmed herself down.
"I swear I can remember way back before that. And he was always there. And…" Lily trailed off as the bus came into view. It pulled up, and the three embarked. The back was unoccupied, so they took it for the advantage of privacy. Lily resumed what she'd been saying. "He was my big brother. He helped me with my homework and tucked me in at night. He took me to the park. He was always there. Not just for me, but the whole family. And then he just disappeared without telling any of us. I've never forgotten it. It felt like everything changed."
"And me and some of my older sisters," she started counting off, "Lola, Lana, and Lucy. ALL of us felt it. And we kept wondering about him. I wondered who was going to tuck me in. He helped Lola compete in these beauty pageants, and she couldn't find anyone to help her. I tried, but it wasn't my thing."
"He was important to you." Lyra summarized.
"He was. My sisters, too. He was always there." Lily confirmed. "Our lives just felt so different after he left. Things got really hard. Lola and Lana kept trying to bug our parents about it, but that just led to a lot of fights. I spent my entire childhood thinking about it. No one wanted to tell me anything, and that just made me angry." She paused, looking a little embarrassed. "I talked to a therapist about it for a little while."
Lyra was biting her lip. She remembered her uncle reminiscing about family and seeming really sad about this. She felt the exact same energy here. Lyra already wondered what could a big rift for a family that size that was so close. But for the first time she was wondering how it felt to go through whatever that was. Her mom and uncle went through it with a sad acceptance, but the girl in front of her seemed haunted by it in comparison.
"He missed you and your sisters." Lyra offered, trying to reassure her aunt and defend her uncle from unstated accusations.
"How long has he been here?!" Lily demanded. "He never visited!" Lyra flinched a little at the sudden tone shift. By her cousins' accounts, he'd lived here for a few years.
"He's terrified of your parents." Lyra tried to explain.
"Why?" Her aunt's anger waned for a moment.
"…I don't know." Lyra admitted after a pause. "But I can sense you're angry. We've been staying with him for over a month now. We know him, and he really misses that life with a big family. He has a picture book full of those times. I'm certain he didn't want to leave you or any of your other sisters."
Lily sighed and kicked the empty seat in front of her a few times. "I really hope he can tell me why. I've wondered about it for years." Years. Lyra's obsession was keeping here from sleeping and she'd only had it a month at the most. This was a girl in front of her who'd suffered so much more and for longer. She reached over and put a hand on her aunt's shoulder as a comforting gesture.
"Hey, do you know any of the other kids?" She asked. "Luna wasn't the only one. A lot of my sisters had kids I played with when they were babies: Liena, Liby, Lacy, Lupa. You know any of them?"
"We see them a few times a year." Lyra answered truthfully. She hoped her aunt wasn't going to ask her about her other aunts. She didn't want to feel any more nagging guilt. Lily clearly needed this meeting, but was this the right choice? What would end up happening? "They're all doing great, I promise." Lily nodded, and didn't push the subject or any related ones, fortunately.
The bus had to do a full loop around its route. It'd still be a good 15-20 minutes before they reached the stop closest to the apartment.
"You know, it's funny." Lily remarked. "I don't usually go to that place. I only did it to get some muse for my photography. But it's how I found you guys. Or maybe it's fate." She noticed Lyra's cross.
"Maybe." She picked up the sign of faith and gift from her mother and gazed at it. God had his plan. Surely this was all a part of it. She didn't need to feel so guilty. But she did.
"So, are you a Rockstar like you mom?" Lily leaned over Lyra to talk to Lemy. The boy had stayed quiet the whole time out of disconnect and wariness.
"One day." He mumbled.
"I see Luna on the news a lot." Lily told them. "It must be awesome having a mom like her. When I was little, she never had any rules."
"She's pretty cool." Lemy warmed up slightly.
"You almost look just like I remember her, too." Lily addressed Lyra, looking over her features. Lyra couldn't even manage an 'uh huh'. She just blushed in embarrassment and avoided eye contact. "Do you remember any of when we were little?" She asked.
"Not really." Lyra admitted, embarrassed.
"It's fine." Her aunt dismissed her worry. "You were reeealy little. Can you at least tell me if my sisters are okay? You must've seen some of them." Lyra couldn't lie to her.
"Yeah. All the ones that went missing are fine. I promise." Lily nodded. It wasn't all she wanted, but it was better than the nothing she'd gotten for the last years on end. "What happened the day he left? If that's okay!" Lyra quickly clarified.
"I don't know." Lily shook her head. "He was there when I went to bed, and he was gone the next morning. My sister Lucy said he had a fight with our parents about something. And whatever it was was bad enough for him to leave. I'm not sure why it would make him scared of them though. And I didn't know he didn't leave Royal Woods. But he's the only one who actually left. My other siblings who'd moved out just stopped talking to us, and we just kind of assumed they moved away."
"Do you still talk to her? Aunt Lucy?" Lyra asked. Her aunt shook her head.
"The same thing happened after she moved out. I only talk to two of my sisters now. We promised each other we'd always stay in touch. How many of them do you guys know?" She asked, frowning. Lyra figured there wasn't any point in trying to deny it.
"All of them except for Lola, Lana, and Lisa, but our mom and Lincoln has talked about them a few times." Lily thought about it for a moment.
"So, you have to know where they live." It wasn't a question; it was a statement. "I know it's like we just met and all, but please…be honest. Do you know why none of them want to talk to me anymore? Or our parents?" She looked at Lyra with pleading eyes, but all the younger teen could do was shake her head.
"I don't know. My mom promised to tell me when she comes into town next week. I've been wondering about it too. We've always grown up with just our mom really. But I saw and heard about how close everyone was. I'm kind of jealous of you, to be honest." Her aunt sighed, and turned to stare out the window, some thoughts on her mind. Lyra took some time to collect her own thoughts before she noticed Lemy just staring towards the front of the bus.
"Hey." Lyra put a hand on his shoulder. He look up at her. "How are you holding up?"
"This is weird." He didn't look at her.
"I'm sorry." She pulled him close. "Listen, we're not going home. Lily will just want to talk with our uncle and we should give them privacy. We'll go somewhere again." She felt Lily tapping her on her shoulder and turned back,
"Hey, you have a phone, don't you?" She asked.
"Then let's swap numbers." She pulled a cell phone out of her backpack and handed it to Lyra. Lyra fumbled to get her own out of her skirt pocket and complete the swap. She had a bit of trouble working through all the menus and interfaces. Lily actually finished with hers and guided Lyra through it, as they did, she took notice of Loan's number in the contacts between a bunch of other names, probably friends. Lyra realized she should've gotten her cousin's number before they separated. But Lily was nice enough to help her do it then. Lyra would try and message the girl later.
By then, they were nearly there. Lily became antsy at the knees, and Lyra watched her get her camera out again and start snapping pictures of the street signs. And when Lyra pointed out the apartment after they stepped off the bus, she snapped half a dozen pictures of it too. She wanted to remember this place. Be able to find it again. Before they went in though, Lyra stopped her aunt right there on the street.
"Listen, we don't want to intrude on a personal conversation." She explained. "But… I knew you were angry back there." She didn't look angry now, but that didn't erase the past. "I just want you to know he's a good person. So please, don't get angry with him."
"I'm not!" Lily insisted. "I just want to see him again." She grabbed Lyra's arm. "Please, show me which apartment he's in."
"Okay." Lyra nodded. Things had turned out this way. And even though it nagged her whether or not she was in the right fell to the wayside. It was happening. She didn't want any harm to come to her uncle. Would he be happy for this opportunity? Or not? Lyra didn't know. But it was too late now. She grabbed Lemy's hand and kept him close to her. "Follow me." She motioned to her aunt.
In the Apartment
Upstairs, Lincoln was completely unaware. After the phone calls earlier that day, he was in a really good mood. He was working like always, but his attitude was really upbeat. Maybe he was imagining it, but it felt like drawing was fun again, instead of just a means to an end he happened to be good at.
The front door opened behind him, and he glanced back to see Lyra poke her head in. "Hey…" He said, confused by the unusual behavior. "You guys are back already?"
"Yeah." Lyra answered. She was still only poking her head through the door. Lincoln got a feeling something was wrong and spun his chair around to stand up. "You're alone right now?" She asked.
"Well, yeah." That was a weird question. "Lyra, is everything alright?" He asked. She slipped through the crack in the door and stood in front of it. She looked guilty, unsure, and reluctant. He could tell she needed an effort just to look at him, and his mind darted back to that morning. "Listen, I can understand if you're a little upset about yesterday-"
"While we were out, we came across someone." She interrupted him. "Sorry. We met someone at that arcade who knows you. And they wanted to see you. So…I brought them here." She admitted, like a child admitting to doing wrong rather than the relatively mature teen he knew her as.
"…Who?" Lincoln asked, wracking his brains. Someone who knew him? But he didn't have to think about it long. Lyra stepped to the side and the door, already cracked, got pushed open and someone stumbled in.
"Lincoln?!" They stood up. It was a girl. Or maybe a young woman, since she was slightly taller than Lyra, dressed in a striped blouse and light blue skirt with a backpack on. As Lincoln's eyes trailed up, he registered the blond hair for just a second before all his focus locked on her face. He looked at her youthful face, eyes wide and mouth hanging open, and something clicked in his mind. It reminded him of something. It looked familiar.
"Lincoln." She started stepping towards him. He didn't immediately recognize her, but she seemed to recognize him. He took a step back. "Lincoln, it's me, Lily!" She exclaimed.
"Lily?" That rooted him to the floor, giving her free reign to approach. This was his baby sister? The last time he'd seen her was when he carried her to bed and tucked her in right before he went to talk to Lucy and the truth came out. This was that same girl?
His arms got pinned to his side when the shorter woman came in and hugged him, but he quickly got them free just so he could return it. His baby sister…his baby sister was here!
"How did you get here?" He couldn't believe it. Then he remembered Lyra, and he looked up to see her still standing by the door. Just standing there, arms crossed. She moved her head to look down at the floor when she saw him staring.
He grabbed Lily's shoulders and tried to move her back. He wanted to see her face. But she wasn't letting go. She squeezed him tighter, like she expected him to vanish. He heard sniffing. She was tearing up, too overwhelmed with emotion to speak. And something about it made the own corner of his eyes grow watery.
"Where did you find her?" He asked, looking at Lyra again. She met his eyes again to answer.
"At the arcade. Like I already said." She may have intended for that to sound annoyed, but the effect was lost because of the volume. "I recognized the rabbit." She pointed, and Lincoln craned his neck to look around Lily's backpack to see something that surprised him even more. It was Bun-Bun.
"You still have Bun-Bun." He said in awe.
"It was the only thing I had left." Lily sniffed. "After you disappeared." Her grip on him eased, and she stepped back on her own. He got a better look at her tear-stained face then. Smooth. Youthful. She really had grown up into a beautiful woman. And he'd missed all of it.
His baby sister suddenly balled up her fist, and for a moment he thought she was about to punch him, and he stepped back. But after holding it in the air for a second, she lowered it. Lincoln took a tentative step forward, and she raised it again.
"I'm pissed off at you, Lincoln!" She warned, voice harsh, and he backed up a few more steps. She stood there, fist balled up, shaking a little. "I've thought about what I was going to say if this happened. For years." She clarified, and wiped her face with her sleeve. "You left!" She accused. "You left in the middle of the night, and you left us alone!" He flinched. "And now I found out you were here the whole time? That all my sisters who ran away too are still here? What the fuck?!" She stamped a foot on the floor. Just hearing her swear made Lincoln flinch. But of course, she could-she was an adult now.
Behind her, Lyra stood there awkwardly, trying not to look at either fighting adult.
"Lily…" There was so much he wanted to say. And obviously there was a lot she wanted to hear. "We need to talk about a lot." He grabbed the back of his work chair. "Sit down." She stalked and pulled it from his grasp before sitting down. Lincoln moved over to the couch and sat down.
"Why did you all leave?" She asked, her voice wavering.
"You look nice." Lincoln tried to avoid the question. He wanted to catch up first, obviously. And he hoped she would too.
"That's not what I asked." Lily warned, and he noticed her gripping Bun-Bun. Squeezing it tightly. Even though he'd handed the stuffed animal off, Lincoln grew nervous watching her. She wanted answers, and Lincoln was in no position to refuse her. "Don't act like this isn't a big deal. I want to know why you left, Lincoln. We can catch up after that, but I want an answer. Now." She punctuated.
He broke out in a cold sweat. This wasn't like Lori. Lori had known the truth. Even if he regretted it, he 'knew' Lori, and her grudging acceptance of the issue made it easier to talk about. But Lily knew nothing about the situation. And no matter what the young woman staring at him looked like, he could not mentally differentiate it in his mind from the 7-year-old he'd still carried on his shoulders for fun. Like Lana and Lola, she'd been a kind of mental anchor for him. Something to remind him of the normalcy he'd started to miss. He just couldn't imagine discussing it with her.
But she was going to be insistent. She could walk out that door again and that would be it. Lincoln would never see her again. But he didn't want that. He wanted to know how she was doing, now that she was grown up. But she wasn't going to tell him unless he gave her the truth.
And fear made his stomach start to churn when he realized something: she still lived with mom and dad. She would be seeing them after this interaction. There were so many terrible things that could happen if she did. His only hope was to convince her now not to say anything to them. But could he do that without the truth?
He just sat there, looking like an idiot with his mouth open trying to figure out something to say. Lily was glaring at him from his chair. And Lyra was still standing by the door, just watching. Lincoln had a mini-heart attack and ran over everything he'd just conversed with his baby sister in case any of it was incriminating. None of it was, but most of what he was probably going to have to say would be.
He had to tell Lily. It was the only way he could continue this interaction with his sister. He'd gotten back in touch with Lori, Lola, and Lana. Lisa was a special case, but there was a real chance for him to have all his sisters back in his life again. Right here, right now. All this good luck, it had to be karma. He'd tried to do good for years and now it was paying him back. He just had to stay true and honest and it would continue.
It had to.
"Listen, I'll tell you everything you want to know." He promised Lily, then turned to Lyra. "Lyra, I'm sorry. But-"
"Lemy and me will go somewhere else." She stated, already aware. Lincoln sighed in relief and watched her slip back out through the door and into the hallway. It shut behind her.
It was just Lincoln and Lily now, and the white-haired man felt cornered.
"Listen, Lily. There are a lot of things I want you to know. Please know this first: I didn't want to leave. None of us wanted to leave. Believe me when I say we all missed you, and your other sisters too. Looking at you all grown up now, I regret having to even more." She pressed her lips together, still waiting for him to get to the point.
"I loved all you guys. I loved being a big brother. I wouldn't have changed it for the world."
"Why did you all leave?" She demanded again, losing her patience. "You were right here. Even if you got into a fight with mom and dad, you didn't have to ignore us!" Her voice was getting heavy with emotion instead of anger. "You have no idea what it was like for us, to have half the family just disappear one day. Mom and dad had to work. Lucy had a baby. Lisa never left her lab. It was like we were alone."
"I only came back to Royal Woods a few years ago-" Lincoln tried to explain, but she wasn't having any of it.
"YOU WERE STILL HERE!" He sunk into the back of the couch. "And I didn't make Lyra tell me, but I know the others are here too, aren't they?!" She demanded. "All of you just disappeared on us, but you never really left. You could've come back to us at any time, but you didn't. You say you liked being with us so much, but that's bullshit! What was stopping you from visiting, huh?!"
"I was getting to that." A little bit of aggravation leaked into his voice. If she'd just let him explain, it wasn't his fault. He would've visited them if he could! He would. It was mom and dad's fault not his. "Lily, I know that you don't have a reason to trust me, but can promise me one thing? Just one thing, please?"
"I'm going to tell you why we had to leave and why we couldn't go back anywhere near the house. It's going to make all of us sound really bad. But Lily, I just want you to remember that all of us were your older siblings. We loved you and we never wanted to hurt you, or anyone one else. Can you please just promise me you'll remember that after I tell you?"
He could see the consideration start to emerge in her face. She saw his fear, and his earnestness. But he could also see her confusion. They were all probably perfect in her eyes when she was 7, a perception she would've had no choice but to keep all this time. And he was about to shatter it.
"I promise, Lincoln." She nodded. He sighed and took a deep breath.
"Lyra and Lemy aren't just Luna's kids." He braced himself for what he said next. "They're mine too." Immediately, her expression changed. Her pupils widened slightly, and her mouth began to gape as he kept talking. Frustration and pain, becoming replaced with disbelief and even horror. "Liena, Liby, and Lacy too, they were all my kids too. You have to know what that means for all of us. It was a secret we kept. Even to them today" He paused to take another deep breath.
"Lucy and me were the same. And that night I left, mom and dad found out, and they were angry. We were all scared, Lily. Scared we were going to lose them. We didn't want to leave, believe me. But we thought it was the only way to keep our kids safe."
As he finished, his little sister was shaking like a leaf, a hand clamped over her mouth, eyes darting around the room and looking at everything but him as reality asserted itself in her mind. She'd gotten the truth she searched for. It sounded a lot simpler than it really was, but it all made sense. All the pieces fell into place.
Lincoln gave her time to digest it. It was all he could do. He'd already made his case. She'd either forgive them, or she wouldn't. Their brother-sister relationship would either rekindle, or it would die out for good.
But a response from her never came. The front door flew open hard enough to hit the wall behind it. The sudden noise in what had been a quiet and tense moment made Lincoln jump and Lily scream a little. Fight or flight kicked in and Lincoln jumped up, but he stopped when he realized just what had thrown open his door.