It's been a real pleasure writing for all of you. Never fear – there will be more TMNT fic from me one of these days, probably not for a while since 2015 is all scheduled for other stuff. But I always cycle back and I've already got 2 different stories begun with our favorite ninja turtles at the front and center. In the meantime, thank you everyone who has supported me and cheered me along for this adventure. This story meant a lot to me, and it means even more that you have been so fond of it.

And who knows? There's a lot more in the world. Maybe there's a sequel in me yet. Only time will tell.

Until then, thank you all for joining me on this journey.

Part 12

A week later things seem almost normal again.

The villagers come back, and when we introduce them to Leatherhead and tell them the story of how he selflessly risked everything to protect us, their fear of him melts. It helps that, even though he's still big and intimidating, his eyes have never been so kind. April takes to him at once, and, just like with us, anybody she likes eventually wins the heart of everybody else.

Of course, everyone is inclined to be pretty cheerful around her anyway – April is radiant with joy because apparently Casey Jones got up the courage to ask her to marry him while they were stuck down in the tunnels. Weird timing, I guess, but hey, it worked!

There is so much damage across the village it is ridiculous, but between my alchemy and Leatherhead's, not to mention his Animal strength, we start the rebuilding. My brothers dive in pretty whole-heartedly, too, but we mostly press them into keeping interested gawkers out of our way. By now, Leatherhead and I can basically forge houses out of the ground without a whole lot of effort, a lot more easily than building a maze, anyway. Good thing, too – there's a lot of houses to rebuild in the middle of winter.

And there's also a new house in the village before we're done. Right now, it's a big single room, just on the other side of our dojo but still within the area I cast that protection on when I first left to give myself up to the Beast. We – my family, Leatherhead, and I – all decided we would want to make sure to give each other space to get used to each other, but we also wanted Leatherhead close. Especially me. So now we're neighbors, and he and I are already making plans to expand his little house so we can have a big lab again.

Every morning feels like a miracle when I wake up in my bed and hear the sounds of my father and brothers. To go to practice in the dojo. To get scolded by Master Splinter for being distracted – or being distracting. To squabble over chores. To laugh at Leo behind his back, to laugh at Mikey for being Mikey, to laugh at Raph for fighting with them both. I watch them and I never, ever get tired of being here.

That's what I'm doing now, watching them. Raph and Mikey have decided to fix April's roof "the old-fashioned way" and are up there now. They swore they didn't need or want my help, but I feel better sitting here with my back to April's barn where I can see them, just in case something goes wrong. Not that I really expect it to. They're mostly chucking shingles at each other, it seems. Oh, and that was a hammer. Good thing Mikey's got such quick reflexes!

"You really scared us there for a minute, you know," Leo says, sitting next to me. Leave it to Fearless to wait a whole week before telling me his thoughts on our big fight.

"When didn't I scare you?" I grimace at him. "The whole thing seemed pretty scary to me! You're going to have to be more specific, bro."

"When you latched onto the Beast and Shredder that way, I thought for sure…" I can hear his throat close against a harshness that wasn't there a moment ago.

Oh, Leo. It's amazing. He can slice through enemies on the battlefield with a calm expression, and he can shoulder the burdens of the world with a wry smile, but he can't talk about one of us getting hurt without falling half apart. He really loves us that much.

Back at you, big brother.

"You thought I was going to take it into myself," I finish for him.


"Nope," I shake my head. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I could have. And it probably would have been better for everybody because then I wouldn't have created the ultimate demonic opponent for us and…" I close my eyes. These what-ifs will be the death of me one day. What if we hadn't survived? What if we hadn't found a way to defeat him? What if someone had been killed because he was just too strong?

But we survived. We beat him. Focus on that, Donnie.

"But I couldn't," I say. "It would have been easier, and there would have been a certain justice to it, after all." Leo's face folds into real annoyance and I rush on before he starts lecturing me. "But that's not what I wanted. By some definition, I've paid for my crime fully now. I did break the curse, after all, and I also saved Leatherhead, which never even entered my thinking as a possibility when I went to him to atone and expected to die instead. If I'd taken the Beast into myself, there would have been a certain poetic balance to it, but I wouldn't…"

I look up at Leo and hold his gaze. "I wouldn't have gotten my family back that way."

"You would," he says, "even if we'd have had to look after you the way you did Leatherhead. We wouldn't have abandoned you, Don."

"That's not what I mean," I reply. "I know you guys would have been there for me. But I wouldn't have been there for you, and that's what I wanted. My time with Leatherhead showed me what his life has been like. Hundreds of years, Leo, hundreds spent alone. And when he did have me, he was afraid of himself, afraid to be a friend or to let me trust him because he knew how it could end. If I had become the Beast, I wouldn't have really been your brother anymore. I couldn't have been."

I suddenly remember a conversation we had back when my shame was new, back before we'd found a village, back before I'd healed from our first encounter with the Shredder. I remember Leo telling me that my being named as an ancestor would have been an honor they'd have willingly given me, but they wanted me as a brother more. And for that, I had to be alive. I had to be here with them.

I can see Leo remembering that conversation, too.

"I have had enough of not being here," I say. "I have had enough of not being a part of this family to last me more than one lifetime. I won't give that up, not ever again."

"Good," Leo nods once and breaks out in one of the brightest, most lighthearted smiles I've ever seen out of my serious older brother. I feel a last worry I didn't even know I was carrying melt inside. I knew I was loved, even in the depths of my despair. It's something else to be wanted as well as loved.

I duck my head and tuck it on Leo's shoulder. He puts an arm around me.

"Welcome home, little brother. Welcome back, Donatello."