"-can't hear us, sensei, he's- "
"-oh, god, what have they done to- "
He was seven years old, and he was lost.
He learned at school that he was supposed to stay put if he got lost, so that his mom would know where to find him again, but that wouldn't help. His mommy already knew where he was, she was holding his hand.
He gave a little tug to get her attention, and when she looked down at him he said, "I'm lost."
For a split second, she looked surprised. Then she laughed a little, and replied, "No, you're not. You're right where you belong."
He considered that, and frowned a little bit. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, baby, I'm sure."
Mom was always right, so he didn't worry about it anymore. Besides, the world was big and unfamiliar, and she was the only thing in it that he knew.
He was eight years old, and he dreamed of heroes.
"They were so cool," he told his mom earnestly as she fixed his breakfast. "There were three of them, and they were brothers, and they wore masks and fought bad guys. They said they were trying to find me, 'cause they need me, but I dunno what they need me for."
"What did they look like?" she asked him over her shoulder, smiling. And he opened his mouth to tell her all about them, then paused, and closed it again.
"Um... I... I don't remember."
"That's too bad! ...Oh, honey, don't cry. Sometimes dreams just slip away."
"- no use, this isn't working- "
"- you dare give up on him, Ra- "
He was nine years old, and the doctor said he was perfectly normal.
"It's not uncommon in orphaned children. Superheroes are a pretty reoccurring theme, actually, as far as dreams go. I wouldn't worry. It's just a phase that he'll grow out of, a coping mechanism if you will."
"And the other thing? He wanders away from me in stores or on the sidewalk, and he tells everyone, even complete strangers, that he's lost. I don't know what to do."
"Have you considered therapy?"
He sat in his chair in the hall, overhearing the whole thing. He didn't feel perfectly normal.
He was ten years old, and it was his birthday.
He blew all the candles out in one breath, and his friends cheered. Most of them were from his class, a few others from around the neighborhood. One boy was named Louis, and he was tall and had dark hair and narrow eyes. He was good at sports, and math, and pretty much everything else. He thought Louis was cool, and Louis thought he was funny.
Louis leaned closer and folded his arms on the tabletop, his smile indulgent and kind. "So what did you wish for?"
He shrugged and said, same as every year, "To get found."
"- think he's starting to hear us, Louis must have been- "
"- definitely, had to be, that was Le- "
He was eleven years old, and he met a boy at the park with bright eyes.
The boy was wearing a torn red windbreaker, scuffed jeans and red sneakers, looking angry and unapproachable even from across the playground, standing by himself like it was a challenge.
But he ran over and introduced himself anyway, and the boy's face turned soft and kind when he did. They sat on the merry-go-round and talked for awhile about TV shows and comic books, and it was the easiest thing in the entire world, like they were friends already.
"Rubens is a cool name," he said after awhile, and the boy gave him a quick, sidelong look.
"I was named after an artist," Rubens replied, like it made a difference.
He was twelve years old, and he realized that his dreams were always the same.
Every single one.
"We need you. We'll find you," those indistinct figures would say, their eyes glinting in the darkness, shadows stretching out to him like hands. But he always woke up before they reached him.
"- have to save him, we have to, this is all my- "
"- be okay, brother, I promise- "
He was thirteen years old, and his art teacher put to vote what they'd study next semester.
He voted for the Renaissance, but only three other people voted with him.
It wasn't a big deal, but he couldn't help feeling a little disappointed. Some of those Italian artists sounded pretty cool.
He was fourteen years old, and he met a boy named Denis on the bus.
Denis had round eyes and a purple jacket and a friendly smile. His friends called him Denny. They shared some snacks Denny pulled out of his messenger bag, and talked and laughed about anything and everything, and got off on the same stop. He turned to wave goodbye as Denny took the crosswalk, and froze.
There was a delivery truck barreling down the lane, way too fast for a school zone. Denny had his nose buried in a book, didn't see it coming.
His body moved like a machine, propelling him off the sidewalk and into the street. People behind him shouted and a few horns rang out, and as he got close enough he realized there would be no time to pull his new friend back with him to safety, no time to save himself, too- there was no time to do anything but reach out and push.
And in the next second, crushing impact. Something snapped in his neck, and it felt like he was falling. Faraway voices, someone sobbing, a hand on his face.
It didn't hurt when he died.
"-my god... do something, Donny, do something- "
"- trying! His heart just stopped, this shouldn't be happening! I don't- "
"-ikey! Mikey! Michelangelo!"
He opened his eyes. For a moment he thought he'd find himself laying in the street, as those faraway voices came in closer, as the crying broke off, as the hand on his face was joined by another.
Then his gaze refocused, and he was someplace else. Someplace dark and cool and candlelit, maybe someplace underground. And the hands that held him were alien, large and rough and three-fingered, and nothing felt real.
But he leaned into those hands, on some heart-driven impulse, blinking through tears that burned and blinded him. In the space of the next two seconds, he found himself pulled upright and cradled in strong arms against a warm, armored chest.
Voices swarmed around and above him, and the pads of clawed fingers smoothed gently over his head.
"You are home, Michelangelo," a kind, soothing voice said from close by. "You are found."
"It was Bishop," Raphael said a few days later, as Donatello examined Mikey for what felt like the hundredth time. Leonardo gave him a stern look every time he started to fidget, and Raph had a solid arm around his shoulders, so Mikey didn't have a choice but to sit still and endure. "He got his hands on some chemicals, made up some mind control type stuff, and decided to test it on one of his favorite mutants."
"I wanted the serum," Donatello said abruptly, looking shame-faced. "I wanted to see if I could come up with an antidote, just in case. I stayed behind after Leo gave the order to leave, and I was ambushed. You noticed I was gone and came after me."
"I pushed you," Mikey said slowly, thinking first of Denny, then of Donatello. Real memories were replacing the false ones, it was just taking a little while. Raphael's free hand found his and wrapped it up tightly. Mikey smiled at their hands and felt grounded to his place in the universe, there in the underground with his brothers, right where he belonged.
"Yeah, you pushed him." Raph's voice was gruff, maybe to make up for how soft he was coming off with the hugging and hand holding. "You pushed him out a window. And then you stayed behind, and Bishop took you instead. Knucklehead."
"By the time Raph and I doubled back, you were long gone. It took us hours to find you," Leo added quietly, eyes glued to Mikey's face. "Sensei thinks you fell into meditation instinctively, in an effort to save your mind."
"There's a first for everything," Raph quipped, and grinned when Mikey stuck his tongue out.
"You were stuck in a kind of mental maze," Don murmured, not quite looking at any of them. "I don't know why. Bishop wanted to brainwash you into forgetting your family, so he could mold you into a soldier- but you fell back on your training, like Leo said, and somehow you managed to preserve some small part of us, something abstract and impossible. You were stuck going in circles, looking for something you couldn't find. We tried to reach you through meditation of our own, and at first it didn't seem to be working. Then you finally started hearing us."
That's why his dreams were all the same, Mikey realized. That's why Louis and Rubens were already his friends. That's why he died for Denis, almost a stranger, without even pausing to wonder why.
"You just kept looking for us," Leonardo said, sounding wondering and reverent and a little awed, all at once. "Even when it should have been impossible."
"I was lost," Mikey meant to say matter-of-factly, but his voice came out small, his heart breaking with the remembered sense of nowhere. Raph's grip on him tightened to almost crushing, and Don looked at him with wet eyes. Leo reached out to take Mikey's face in both his hands, the way he'd done when Mikey finally woke up, and guided their foreheads together.
"Not anymore," Leo said, like a promise. "And never again."
"How is he doing, Leonardo?"
"He's okay, master. He just dozed off a moment ago. Raph and Donny are still with him."
"Then it appears we can finally breathe easily. Though I admit... he surprised me. His mental power is impressive, given how little he concentrates during training."
"He's always been a fast learner. He's never needed to concentrate as hard as the rest of us do."
"It appears he has gotten even better at hearing. I can sense him listening even now, as he sleeps."
"Really? I don't- oh. I sense him, too. Mikey, rest. Dream something new. You're home."