Splinter and Raphael turned to face the Foot soldier scampering towards them. In his grip were two familiar Katana blades, somewhat tarnished but still gleaming. He bowed as he presented them to Splinter. "I believe these belong to your student."
Splinter gratefully accepted them. "Thank you, soldier." He tucked the weapons under his arm.
"May we offer you both a ride?"
Splinter glanced over to Raphael, who was still ogling the Katana blades with depressed, exhausted eyes. "That would be most gracious of you."
The Foot soldier bowed once more before shouting instructions in Japanese at another Foot soldier standing nearby, who ran off immediately. Splinter and Raphael were then led out of Shredder's former sanctuary turned temporary prison, and there they waited for their ride back to the rebellion hideout.
After several moments of silence between them, Raphael finally looked up at Splinter. "Sensei?"
Splinter eyed Raphael.
"I was just thinking... You know that night the warehouse burned down, before Shredder disappeared with Leo?"
Splinter's ears retracted solemnly at the memory.
"Well, uh…" Raphael rubbed the back of his neck. "A lot of it was a blur near the end, but I can still vaguely remember most of it. Except the part of me getting out of the warehouse. I kind of…blacked out around then.
"See, last thing I remember is a whole ton of crates falling on top of me." Raphael stared into a void ahead as he strained to remember the events that followed. "Next thing I knew, I was outside. And I saw someone over me. With a hood over their head."
In response to that, Splinter reached back for the hood of his own robe and pulled it over his head. "Tell me, Raphael," he asked, "did they look like this?"
Raphael glanced up. His eyes widened a little when Splinter smiled back at him.
"Wait…" he stammered. "So it was you then?"
He threw back the hood and refolded his hands behind his back. "You called for my aid, did you not?"
A groundswell of guilt washed over Raphael's soul then as he recalled his mind-controlled self faking panic in his urgent call to Splinter. He pushed it to one side, instead focusing on piecing together the muddled chunks of his memory. "Yeah, I guess. But… I don't know, Sensei."
Splinter arched his eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"I'm so convinced I saw someone else." He looked straight up at his Master. "When Karai popped up a few days later, I really thought it was her that had gotten me out. Then when I saw her with that hood on, I just knew it was." Raphael massaged his temple. "It was her I saw, I'm almost sure of it. But…"
Splinter watched Raphael struggle mentally, highly interested in hearing whatever conclusion he would come to.
"It couldn't have been her," he argued with himself. "She didn't come back to New York until after Shredder got to Japan. So why did I see her?"
After a moment's pause as Raphael desperately tried to clear the haze of his memory, Splinter came to a gradual realization. He set a calming hand upon Raphael's shoulder. Raphael, all the while, appeared trapped in his own thoughts to notice him. "My son," Splinter explained gently, "it is possible that you had a form of yogen. Or premonition."
Raphael cocked his head, face twisting in mild skepticism.
"It is not uncommon. More often they appear to the yogen-sha, great prophets that can foretell future events. But while many believe this to be a gift only few possess, I believe it is a rare transcendent phenomenon anyone may experience. Especially those on the brink of spiritual transformation." Splinter grinned down at Raphael, whose eyes had become wide and glazed over as he took in all that his Master told him.
"Or," Splinter added more lightly, compelling Raphael to finally focus on his Sensei, "perhaps it is merely a blank in your memory you later filled in something you wished to see."
Raphael was stunned at the latter suggestion. "Wait, you're not implying I wanted Karai to save my shell, are you?"
"Perhaps on a subconscious level, my student." Splinter straightened and stepped forward past Raphael when he noticed the van approaching, leaving a trail of floating dust behind it. "I know you have often distrusted Karai, but it is possible that, deep down, you anticipated her return. As much as you strived to convince your brothers otherwise, surely you did not believe she was entirely incapable of virtuousness."
Raphael glanced away guiltily. He'd never voiced his pessimism directly to Splinter, but it was certainly no secret that he'd had a difficult time embracing Karai as an ally during her three-month absence, and especially so before then. But in truth, he did have slight sympathy for her. If he had been raised by the Shredder, he probably would have turned out just as bad – if not worse. It wasn't that he didn't want her to come to their side. It was the lengths his brothers would go to for it. And it was the lengths Shredder would go to prevent it.
The van finally pulled up. A Hamato soldier climbed out and pulled the sliding door open for them. Splinter nodded thankfully and approached. He first laid Leonardo's Katana blades across the seat. Before climbing in after them, he looked back at Raphael, who stood in his place and watched Splinter blankly.
"Are you coming, Raphael?" Splinter called, his voice gentle yet wary.
Raphael's eyes refocused at the question. But instead of complying, he suddenly said, "Actually, Sensei, would you mind if I walked back on my own?"
Splinter furrowed his brow suspiciously.
"I just need some time to myself. To clear my head, you know?"
Eventually, Splinter nodded understandingly. "All right. Be safe, my son." With that, Splinter climbed in. The van door was pulled closed and the vehicle turned and began its descent down the mountain.
Once it disappeared, Raphael finally looked back at the great fortress behind him. Despite the friendly Hamato and Foot soldier now standing guard, it still appeared as ominous as before. The chilling events of last night played vividly in his mind.
But that wasn't what was on the forefront of his thoughts just then. Something else was irking him for a long time now. Something he hadn't done anything about. Not until now.
He marched back into the former Foot headquarters, silently acknowledging the Hamato soldier standing by the door. He'd become familiar enough with these corridors, but the room he was looking for he had yet to pay a visit to. So he searched the dark halls, poking his through every doorway until he found it.
Until, finally, he did. Behind a large steel door, he found a laboratory. It was much smaller and shabbier than the one back in New York. But he saw the familiar candy bar wrappers and yellow sludge scattered all over the stone floor, and he knew this housed none other than Baxter Stockman's experiments.
Raphael strode into the room, his steps calm and vigilant. He wasn't really anticipating any surprises as much as he was reflecting on the long period of time he was detained in a similar laboratory. Even a similar metal slab with leather restraints, he noticed, was at one end of the room. Next to it was a table of containing beakers, flasks, and dishes containing all sorts of chemicals, all next to a jar of brain worms.
His fists clenched. A low growl escaped his throat. Right away, he closed his eyes and breathed. No. He swore to himself that he would neither blame himself nor seek revenge for what he and his family had to endure. But these experiments. These horrible endeavors to subjugate an unwilling mind.
He stormed towards the table, and with one strong, swift tug, he flipped it over, shouting angrily as he did. The contents shattered and spilled all over the floor, reacting strangely with Stockman's disgusting yellow upchucks.
He trudged over to the larger desk on the other side of the lab, where there were piles of notes and notebooks scattered about. It would all go, regardless of its relevance to him. He swiped his arm across the table, violently knocking it all to the ground. With it fell a large beaker containing clear fluid. Whatever it was, as it spilled all over the loose papers, it caused them to disintegrate and emit a stream of smoke, like blowing out a candle.
He imagined Donatello shouting at him, explaining the dangers of knocking over unknown chemicals. He didn't care. He wanted it all gone. Nobody else would suffer.
Scanning the rubble, he nodded in satisfaction. He then noticed the jar of worms had not shattered, the brain worms squirming around uncertainly. He walked over and picked it up off the ground. He didn't blame the little pests. He hated them, but he didn't hate them. They were just the vehicle for the chemical Stinkman had created for Shredder. Still, with all the damage they'd done, he wouldn't risk them being around.
Perhaps the birds were hungry, he thought with a smirk.
~ Three Days Ago ~
After a night of heavy rain, Splinter was greeted that morning by clear skies and sunshine as he quietly wandered the grounds of where his old dojo once stood.
While his family still fought to overcome their jetlag, Splinter had managed to return to a normal sleep schedule fairly quickly, using his time in the luggage and storage compartment of the plane effectively. It had been a long, awkward flight. His daughter, Miss O'Neil, and Mr. Jones quickly obtained seats on the commercial flight to Tokyo. Splinter, his sons, and (by some miracle) their mutant allies had managed to sneak aboard in the storage compartment of a later flight carrying recalled Japanese cars and car parts. In truth, he was grateful they did not all share the same space as he dreaded the thought of Karai and Raphael creating a thick, tense atmosphere as they shared a confined space, repelled by one another for hours.
His sons sat at far ends of the storage space, stewing in their grave concern for their brother. In the meantime, Splinter entered into deep meditation before falling asleep for the remainder of their flight, attempting to adjust himself to their upcoming time zone. It was only when they arrived that he realized neither Raphael nor Donatello had slept despite Splinter's insistence. Michelangelo had supposedly slept, but only before waking suddenly from a nightmare.
Splinter was glad they were at least resting now. He was both astonished and pleased when, after another long and tiresome drive in a van to Splinter's old village, Karai began leading them up a mountain towards the monastery he had grown up attending with his father and adopted brother, and later his wife and daughter. The pouring rain did little to dampen his spirits, although he could not say the same for his drowsy family, who were asleep on their feet as they were forced to ascend the steep path leading to the Swallow's Nest. Still, when they finally reached the temple, he was even more delighted when they were greeted by the same monks his father had entrusted with his spiritual refinement. He dared not admit it to his sons at risk of becoming compromised, but he had become quite emotional as the memories of his former life came back in crashing waves. The Turtles and their friends, too exhausted from the long journey to follow up on their interest in the sacred significance of the monastery, almost immediately retreated to the rooms the monks had set up for them.
So that morning, awaking with the monks and alerting them should his family be concerned, Splinter left the monastery as the sun was beginning to rise. He walked down the pathway, now damp and somewhat muddy from last night's delude, to the bottom of the mountain and towards his old home. It was not far from the monastery – about a forty-five minute walk altogether at a normal pace. Once arriving, he found the home in surprisingly remarkable condition, possibly more so than when he and his family had inhabited it. The front porch had tall flower pots on either side of the door. The roof had been retiled, and the windows had recently been renovated. Staying hidden, he squinted to see if anybody was inside. Soon after, sensing no movement, he abandoned his curiosity and moved on.
It was when he arrived at his intended location that he nearly choked up. This part of the forest that his dojo had once stood remained untouched. Grass had formed over it, and even a few small trees had been planted. He was silently thankful for that. This land may very well be all there is left of his ancestral Clan.
As he wandered the grounds, he made his way towards the pond he and Tang Shen used to have picnics by with Miwa. There, he noticed something he did not recognize. What it was caused his breath to hitch.
He neared it, almost certain he knew who it belonged to. Sure enough, once close enough to make out the shodō, it read:
The words barely scratched the surface of all that Tang Shen's pure, beautiful soul had to offer. But it was a worthy start.
It was Shen's wish to be cremated, her ashes spread across the waters of this very pond as it harbored so many of their memories together. But the thought of her in that dojo as it burned to the ground… He couldn't bear imagining the state she was in when they finally dug her out. Was there a body left to cremate? He shut his eyes at the image.
Still, over sixteen years, he had come to peace with her departure from this world. He felt her spirit as he meditated, and he saw the same spirit she had possessed in his sons. When he discovered Miwa had survived, and then when she learned the truth and regained her honor, she seemed to suddenly embody everything that had made him fall in love with her mother.
Tang Shen was at peace. He was sure of it. But it did not stop him from falling to his knees and crying before her tombstone. As he did, he felt her spirit drifting around him, comforting him, inspiring him to persevere. Keizoku wa chikara nari.
When his eyes gradually wandered towards the pond, imagining his wife sitting over a blanket entertaining their baby daughter, his brow furrowed when he caught sight of the lotus blossom growing from the bottom. Lotus blossoms were not native to this part of the island. Tang Shen loved them and would bring them home whenever she returned from her grandfather's home in China. But she'd never tried to grow them here. Where had this one come from?
~ Three Months Ago ~
Kirby O'Neil was proud of his new business. Buying the antique store under his building had all but cured his phobia of leaving his apartment. Plus he'd always had a slight fascination with an antiquity. It was like an insignificant part of history the world forgot, yet may carry great value to another either for its use or memories associated with it.
He didn't mind sitting behind a counter from ten until six. To him, it was better than leaving the apartment and risking another Kraang ambush. If only he could convince his daughter to take over what he would now call the "family business."
As he was closing up for the evening, a light tap on glass emanated in the silence. Glancing up at the front door of his shop, at first he saw nothing. His blood pressure probably raised a few notches. But he breathed out a sigh of relief when he saw the head of one of the Turtles peering through the small window above the door upside-down. He grinned welcomingly as the Turtle expertly landed in front of the entrance. Mr. O'Neil owed a lot to these mutants; he never objected to their visits.
"Good evening, Mr. O'Neil."
"Leonardo," he acknowledged the Turtles' leader as he entered the shop, though he was surprised to see him. It was normally Donatello stopping by offering his assistance. Presumably to get close to April; that was no secret. "What can I do for you?"
Leonardo rubbed his arm diffidently. "I came to ask a favor."
"Oh? And what's that?"
"April mentioned you sell flowers here?"
Mr. O'Neil arched his brow. He wouldn't have pegged him as a botany enthusiast. "Yes. Over here." He guided Leonardo to a cooled, glass cabinet under strong artificial light. "What are they for?" He smirked when Leonardo blushed. "Or who, rather?"
He hesitated before admitting, "Just a girl." When Mr. O'Neil narrowed his eyes suspiciously, Leonardo hurriedly added, "Not April! Someone else."
Mr. O'Neil nodded, letting out the breath he didn't know he was holding. He respected the Turtles greatly, but he was still a father to a teenage girl. Heck, he didn't really dislike Casey outside of him being an average, rough, underachieving teenage boy getting close with his daughter. It was part of a father's job to protect his daughter. And all that he and April had been through, he had every right to be protective.
"I was wondering how much you knew about them."
Mr. O'Neil smiled. "Quite a lot actually. You know, I'm quite the aficionado for unique flowers. If we didn't live in the city, I'd love to grow a garden of rare and foreign floras."
"Right," Leonardo said awkwardly. "So…do you have any that grow in Asia? Maybe from Japan?"
"Hmm…" Mr. O'Neil eyed his collection of potted plants. "I don't think I have any indigenous only to Japan. But," he quickly pointed to one near the corner, "this one is native to a lot of parts of Asia. It's considered sacred there." He grinned as he seemed to peak Leonardo's interest, watching the Turtle as he leaned in and stared at the flower. "It symbolizes purity, beauty, grace, knowledge, and serenity." He coughed after realizing how he sounded. "Or…so I hear."
Leonardo smiled. "It's perfect."
~ Thirty Minutes Later ~
Karai entered her room that evening, head hanging and mind a buzz. The confrontation with Raphael had left her in a daze. She hadn't known anything about what the Turtles had endured after her accident in Stockman's laboratory. To learn about it any other way probably wouldn't have made a difference, but to hear it from Raphael, the least trusting of the four brothers, somehow made it more impactful. Leonardo would have tried to brush it off as no big deal, Donatello would have dismissed it as a thing of the past, and Michelangelo would probably try to distract her, as well as himself, by showing her his comic book collection again.
She glanced up at the provisional room that would serve as her bedroom for the time being. She could tell, upon her arrival, the Turtles didn't really know how to make things hospitable for a human girl despite countless visits by April. Really, she was just glad to be free of her mind-control prison; she could sleep in the sewer tunnels for all she cared. But they had done their best to make her accommodations as comfortable as possible. A mattress had been set up for her, complete with blankets and pillows. A small nightstand with a lamp was on one side, and some fresh towels and slippers hung from a chair. On the other side of the bed was a lotus flower…
Wait. That was new.
Curiously, Karai walked over to the flower in the cache pot that had not been there before she went to brush her teeth These were rare in the Western part of the world. The petals were a light shade of pink, beautiful next to the flickering candlelight she had lit earlier. Something about the flower brought back memories she never thought she had. Years of looking at photos of her mother suddenly came to life, with Tang Shen and her father waving a similar lotus blossom above her, then throwing it into her tiny hands. The image of her father, however, was a blur.
Next to the lotus was a note. Karai picked it up and raised it to eye level. The candlelight illuminated enough light for her to make out the handwriting.
'Welcome home,' it read.
She smiled. She'd seen Splinter's English handwriting, which wasn't nearly as neat as his Japanese shodō. It wasn't Donatello's as she'd seen his notes sprawled all over his work desk in his lab, and she highly doubted Michelangelo's writing was nearly as neat. As for Raphael… With all the tension between them, she didn't expect such a thoughtful homecoming gift from him.
There was only one person in her life that would go so far out of his way to make her feel at home. She gently touched one of the petals of the lotus blossom.
Suddenly, the words on the page began to blur in front of her. Only then did she realize her eyes were hazing over with a thick layer of tears. She blinked, and they escaped the corners of her eye, slowly trickling down her cheeks and off her jaw. She choked back a sob, afraid of being heard. What had come over her?
"This isn't who you are!"
"I know you're confused, but you know the truth."
Leonardo's words resonated with her since. Although the mind-control chemical had since been eradicated from her body, her mind was still scrambled. Yet she wasn't convinced it was the chemical causing it.
"You've let us down too many times." Now it was Raphael's voice in her head. "You're way too unpredictable, and I really can't trust you around my family."
Karai had to squat down, her head suddenly pounding, the tears streaming down her face now. The damage she had caused. She knew Shredder; she knew what he was capable of, what he was willing to do in the name of vengeance for her mother's death. But she hadn't thought about what he'd have done to avenge her own mutation.
Vengeance. Anger. Scheming. Destruction.
"Sooner or later, Shredder's going to want to take revenge again."
No doubt about it. But enough was enough.
It was time to take a stand.
The afternoon brought clear skies as Raphael finally reached the hut. The walk to clear his head had worked, although now he couldn't wait to find a bed to sleep on. Or any flat surface at this point.
"Come on, bro, throw it over. I'm freezing!"
"Not until you say it."
Raphael smiled to himself. It had only been a few hours, but it was nice to hear his brothers' cheerful voices.
A loud groan from Michelangelo. "Al right, I'm sorry I splashed you guys."
"Aw, come on, don't pull a Raph! Just throw me the towel; I'm getting frost bite."
"Highly unlikely," replied Donatello.
Raphael got through the thicket just in time to see Donatello toss a towel to Michelangelo, who immediately wrapped it around his soaking wet body. "Seriously, that's way colder than it looks," he groaned, glaring at the pond. "Even sewer water is warmer."
"Not nearly as clean though," April reminded him.
"Thanks for making sure, Mikey," Casey joked with a smug grin. Michelangelo simply glared back as he dried the back of his head and neck. Raphael was now pretty sure he knew how his brother ended up in the pond.
"Oh, hey Raph," Donatello suddenly acknowledged, only then noticing Raphael standing on the other side of the pond. "Where've you been this time?"
Raphael shrugged. "Nowhere important," he assured them.
He looked around to see nearly all of his family and friends casually hanging around the pond, the sun now shining brightly above their heads. Slash sat upon the same boulder as before, eyeing the scene deeply indulged and humored, while Leatherhead had his feet dipped in the pond, watching a toad on a lily pad, his large scaly tail swaying back and forth in silent delight. April was sat upon a log just by the dock, wringing her ponytail dry of presumably some of the pond water Michelangelo had splashed in her and Donatello's direction. Casey and Donatello stood on the dock with Michelangelo, the latter glowering as the former laughed at his own prank. Some Foot and Hamato soldiers had also joined them outside as well, many of them having sustained recent battle wounds that have since been treated. They all lingered in back, also enjoying Raphael's brothers and friends' tomfoolery.
"Yo, Raph, you should totally go for a swim," Casey offered manically, raising his hands and curling his fingers as Raphael came to joined them.
Raphael stopped where he was immediately, sending Casey a warning glare. "Don't even think about it, Jones."
Michelangelo dropped his towel and suddenly lunged at Casey. "Your turn, sucka'!" Casey's reflexes, however, allowed him to dodge the shove intended for him, causing Michelangelo to stumble forward. He yelped as he tumbled face-first back into the pond. Casey and Raphael shielded themselves from the splash that followed.
Michelangelo resurfaced, looking annoyed. "I'll get you next time, Jones," he jeered in a low, raspy voice. "Next time." He shifted his narrowed eyes back and forth before dejectedly slumping his shoulders. "Aw… Where's Ice Cream Kitty when I need him?"
"How was your walk, my son?" Raphael spun quickly upon hearing his Sensei's voice. He stood only feet away, tall and confident as always, now leaning against his cane. Raphael hadn't even noticed him approach. Judging by the surprised faces of his brothers and friends, neither had anyone else.
Raphael rubbed the back of his head, suddenly growing timid. "Fine, Master Splinter," he returned.
Splinter left it at that after a nod of acknowledgement. Raphael silently thanked him for respecting his wish to keep it between the two of them.
Michelangelo climbed out of the water again. When he reached for the towel, however, Casey managed to quickly swiping it away. "Come get it, sucka'!" he exclaimed before running off. Michelangelo growled before chasing after him.
"Would you two quit it already?" Donatello droned, eyes still red from exhaustion. "Seriously, what are you running on? Plutonium?"
When Casey ran past, Splinter snatched the towel away and handed it to Michelangelo as he came to a stop next to him. "Phew, thanks Sensei." He accepted it before sticking his tongue out at Casey.
As a light wave of laughs emanated from the group, including Slash, April, and a few of the Hamato and Foot soldiers, it was only April to gradually turn her attention away from the scene and towards the hut. Only then did she notice them, catching them emerging slowly and carefully through the door and onto the porch. When she did, she gasped and immediately shot to her feet.
Everybody else reacted similarly upon finally realizing who had finally joined them.
Karai barely acknowledged the crowd of people staring in her direction with a small smile, instead focusing on the fragile task at hand. His arm was draped over her shoulder, and she had a gentle grasp of his wrist, tentatively avoiding where the bandages protected the raw, exposed flesh. Her other arm was wrapped tightly around back of his shell. Although she supported him, much of his weight was sustained by his own two feet. As of now, he managed to balance himself with her aid as well as that of the doorframe until they both came into the afternoon sunshine.
Michelangelo dropped his towel where he stood. "Leo!" he exclaimed ecstatically, running to greet his brother, eyes wet and mouth stretched in a wide grin.
Donatello's legs pumped forward instinctively, catching up to his little brother just before he made it to the rickety staircase leading up to the porch. He used his Bo staff to stop Michelangelo from tackling Leonardo to the ground. "Easy there, Mikey," he urged, voice gentle and sympathetic. It wasn't his wish to keep them apart – especially understanding full well exactly how Michelangelo was feeling at the moment; but the last thing they needed was Michelangelo getting too rough.
Leonardo smiled. "It's all right, Don," he insisted.
Donatello ignored him and hurried up the steps to his side. "I'll help you down," he said to his brother, but really he found himself directing the comment to Karai.
"I got it," Leonardo assured him.
He ignored him and attempted to maneuver himself under Leonardo's other arm. "Here, just let me-"
Donatello was surprised to be abruptly pulled back down the steps and out of Leonardo's way. "Yo, Don, relax," Raphael implored. "He's fine." Again, this somehow seemed to be directed towards Karai, to whom Raphael nodded to with a grin.
Karai smiled in return and resumed aiding Leonardo down the steps.
"Easy- Easy!" Donatello urged. Raphael rolled his eyes. Michelangelo looked as though he were going to burst from the accumulating impatience.
Karai was gentle as she guided Leonardo down one step at a time. He appeared a little shaky on his feet, but with Satoshi behind them watching with a confident grin, nobody really worried about whether it was a good idea for Leonardo to be out of bed.
His appearance would probably indicate otherwise: The bruises and lacerations still littered his arms and legs. Clean bandages still shielded the major ones to his shoulder and chest from further infection. Besides his usual wrist wrappings, his wrists, where shackles once sustained his weight for days, were now wrapped with bandages. On one arm, the gauze was a lot thicker, stabilizing a broken bone inches from his carpals. The claw mark to his face (April cringed at that one) was as stark as ever; it had now congealed to a dark red, glaring against his still-pale green skin.
Nobody mentioned it, but he seemed thinner as well. Perhaps it was because of the injuries and slightly paler complexion, but the more likely and deplorable answer that occurred to them was a lack of nourishment during his captivity. Nobody really felt like asking. Especially seeing how pleased he looked to see them even during his painful struggle to get down four steps.
And that was the brothers' biggest relief.
Throughout the years, the Turtles would often return home with minor to moderate injuries obtained during a game, training exercise, or mission. It was an occupational hazard, almost bound to happen from time-to-time. They'd learned to roll with it, oftentimes even taking pride in it – or at least Raphael did. They never let their wounds get them down, no matter how bad they were. It was a pact they'd all made as children, never running to Splinter and asking him to "kiss it better." At the time, it was their way of proving to him they were tough enough to finally go to the surface. Now, it was their way of urging each other and themselves to keep fighting no matter what.
Leonardo was a shining example of that now. As he finally stepped down onto the weedy cobblestone, he winced only once before brushing it off and looking up at his brothers, Sensei, and friends.
"Hey," he said into the uncanny silence.
Immediately, Michelangelo ignored Donatello and hurled himself forward. Heeding his concerns, however, he stopped directly in front of Leonardo. Karai pulled away to give them a moment. From then on, Michelangelo inched forward at nearly a snail's pace, arms outstretched, and slowly and tentatively draped his arms around his brother's upper body. Only when he noticed Leonardo hadn't flinched reactively did he tighten his embrace. He squeezed his brother and his eyes shut, which didn't stop the tears from flowing out from the corners of them.
Michelangelo choked out an undeliberate sob when he felt Leonardo wrap an arm around Michelangelo in return. He didn't care if it was to return the affection or to maintain his balance. He was just happy to be in the arms of his brother and leader in all things. "It's good to have you back, bro."
Leonardo smiled, warmly embracing his brother with his good arm. "It's good to be back, Mikey."
"Dude, you don't know how worried we were about you," Casey chimed in as April brushed past him in a light jog towards Leonardo. He put up a fair fight against publicizing his softer side, but despite his tough, offhand mannerism, Casey was blinking away tears.
Leonardo tried to pull away, though Michelangelo kept his arms securely around him. He patted his little brother's shell comfortingly. "I'm getting a sense."
Donatello finally came in and pulled Michelangelo's arms away.
"How are you feeling, Leo?" April asked gently, coming to Leonardo's opposite side. "Are you okay?"
Leonardo smiled as he eyed his family and friends. "Better now," he decreed.
That earned him another sudden embrace from Michelangelo, which did cause him to flinch this time as Michelangelo's hand accidentally brushed the wound to his shoulder. Donatello quickly pried Michelangelo off of him again. But it was like trying to get a neodymium magnet off away from a metal pole; Michelangelo just kept pulling towards his big brother. It was long enough for April to give Leonardo a quick and genuine hug before helping Donatello to quell Michelangelo's excitement.
"Leonardo," Splinter finally said, approaching his most dedicated of four pupils. "I am so happy to see you are mending." He eyed the claw mark to his face in deep dismay.
Leonardo straightened as best he could. "Thank you, Sensei." Holding onto Donatello's lower arm for support in case he fell forward, he bowed to his Master.
Splinter felt his heart twist at the formality. As of now, he was not a Sensei congratulating his student on surviving an encounter with the enemy. He was a father experiencing overwhelming relief to see his son alive, safe, and recovering. This father dropped to his knees in front of his son, startling him as he did. His eyes brimmed with tears, and he gently pulled Leonardo into a fatherly embrace.
Very quickly, Leonardo too allowed himself to be overcome with joy and relief as he wrapped his arms around Splinter's furred neck. Leonardo was a rock, but a porous one. Days of isolation from his family, staring directly at a door knowing the only ones to pass through it would be his enemies. Unsure of where he was, uncertain of how he'd escape, growing increasingly doubtful of being rescued as he lost track of time entirely. It wasn't an experience he'd soon forget.
When Splinter pulled away, Leonardo waited for a wise speech or words aimed to hearten. Instead, Splinter inhaled sharply, seemingly overwhelmed. Somehow, Splinter found himself at a loss for a response. So, with his hands still compassionately gripping Leonardo's shoulders, he simply nodded his head before casting his eyes downwards in silence. He strained to contain his emotions and breathe steadily, but all of his exhales were shaky.
His family was concerned. "Sensei?" Michelangelo asked cautiously.
In time, Splinter finally regained his composure, glancing towards Michelangelo reassuringly before returned his gaze to Leonardo. "Forgive me," he requested. They waited for him to follow up with a mild apology and wise, comforting words to cap it off. But it never came. Instead, their Sensei once again began to fight tears as he looked from Michelangelo, to Raphael, to Donatello, to Karai, and finally back to Leonardo. "Forgive me…" he whispered, his voice and body trembling. One of his hands moved up from Leonardo's shoulder to the back of his neck. He looked as though he was going to either fall forward or pull his son into another embrace.
Out of concern for both his Sensei and his brother, Donatello rushed forward and held Splinter's shoulder supportively. Michelangelo did the same. They were surprised when Splinter pulled them all in close. "Raphael," he beckoned softly. His body rigid, Raphael respected his Sensei's request and joined them. Splinter enveloped him in the embrace as well.
The Turtles were stuck in the hinterland between concerned and discomfited. They too were thankful for their reunion and grateful for their endurance, but it wasn't normally their Sensei losing their composure. Master Splinter was never overwrought. Overreacting and overprotective, sure; but not one prone to breaking down emotionally. Especially not in front of them.
But Leonardo, empathetic, shifted beneath the pile of his brothers to signal it was time to comfort their Master. "There's nothing to forgive, Master Splinter." Blinking away his tears, Splinter looked up at Leonardo, who gave him a compassionate smile "You trained us to persevere."
"Yeah," Raphael agreed. "You taught us to look after ourselves and each other."
Splinter, through bleary eyes, nodded his head musingly.
Michelangelo kept his arm wrapped around Leonardo's shoulders. "We would've never stopped looking for you, bro," Michelangelo assured him.
Donatello did the same, more cautious of Leonardo's injuries than Michelangelo was. "Thankfully Karai made it a lot easier to find you."
Leonardo glanced towards Karai with a grateful look. She smiled and nodded in return.
"We're just so glad you're okay."
Leonardo felt his heart flutter. "Thanks, guys." He looked back at where April, Casey, Slash, and Leatherhead watched him, then back towards the Foot and Hamato soldiers gathered around them, choking up at the family reunion. "All of you."
Splinter pushed himself to his feet and grinned down at his family. "I cannot begin to express how proud I am of you all," he decreed.
His family smiled as they exchanged looks with one another.
Splinter eyed Leonardo directly once more. "You are trembling, Leonardo." He stepped back to clear a path between his pupil and the fallen log near them.
The Turtles quickly complied. With Donatello and Michelangelo's help, Leonardo limped over and took a seat on the log by the pond. Anxious eyes were still on him, so he broke the tension: "So, is anybody gonna fill me in on what I missed?"
Michelangelo, of course, was the one to jump forward. "Oh, man, where to start dude?" He plopped himself down on the grass in front of Leonardo so he was directly facing him, crossing his legs tightly in front of him. "You should've seen Shredder's face when we all snuck up on him. Totally didn't see us coming!"
Donatello and Raphael exchanged a look and swallowed back their dread at the dropped name, fearing it may spark horrid memories for their brother. But when they saw Leonardo barely react, instead leaning in interestedly as he listened to Michelangelo prattle on about their successful rescue, they exhaled their tension.
"Dude, it was sa-weet!" Michelangelo exclaimed. "You should've seen it. Leatherhead went all savage and stomped on 'em like they were nothing but weeds. And then Slash went BOOM with his mace, knocked 'em all to oblivion!"
As Michelangelo went on, Raphael felt his legs shaking and his head beginning to spin. Judging by Leonardo's concerned eyes suddenly on him, he was probably swaying a little as well. So avoiding the risk of toppling over, he slowly lowered himself onto the ground, keeping his balance with his hand planted atop the log. He leaned his shell against the thick roots of the log protruding outwards. Their stable yet springy nature allowed him to nestle himself comfortably against them.
Donatello followed his lead, taking a seat on the grassy ground next to Leonardo's legs. Despite his nap earlier, he was still physically and mentally beat. The scare with the septicemia earlier wasn't something to glance over.
Michelangelo was still talking, and Leonardo was still listening. But Raphael's vision was beginning to blur, a loud ring resounding in his head. He'd kept himself lucid for too long now. But, desperately, he wanted to stay awake just a little while longer. It had been quite some time since all four of them had been together – and it was the first time his entire family was gathered in a trouble-free environment. But he couldn't anymore. He saw Donatello slowly drifting off as well, resting his head against his arm upon the log. So Raphael leaned his head back against a protruding root and was asleep in minutes.
~ Two Days Ago ~
Casey Jones eyed the ume tree curiously. He'd been warned repeatedly about the fruit it bore, but they looked so much like the yellow plums in his backyard, he couldn't help himself. So he picked one off a branch, rubbed it on his shirt, inspected it, and took a bite. His face contorted at the sour taste that met his tongue before he quickly spat it out. He rubbed his mouth on his sleeve several times to rid of the remaining taste.
"Hold your arm up higher."
Casey's ears perked up at the voice in the distance, just over the hill ahead. Throwing the ume to the ground and wiping his hands dry on shirt, he trudged up it.
"Just lower your elbow a bit. …Yup, you got it."
As he ascended the hill, a startling scene came into view over the grass peak, nearly causing his jaw to drop. April was holding a bow and arrow tight in her grip, aimed directly at Karai.
"Um," April's voice wavered, "are you sure this is a good idea?"
Karai smirked. "Trust me, I've been doing this for as long as I can remember. Just focus on the target."
Sighing exasperatedly, she nodded firmly and raised the bow, stretching and extending the arrow back. One eye closed while the other followed the shaft.
"Any eye dominance issues?"
April's brow furrowed. "What?"
"Do you see better from your right eye?"
"Then both eyes open."
Without questioning, April complied, returning to a proper stance.
Casey watched agape. April was far from a professional archer. Was she actually going to target practice on a person? He considered voicing his concerns, but the last thing they needed was a surprise.
"All right. At the count of three. One…two…"
April's eyes narrowed as she focused them.
With that, Karai threw an apple up into the air as hard as she could. April immediately followed it with her bow and released the string, firing the arrow into the air. The arrow did not strike the apple directly, but it did appear to deflect somewhat during its descent. The apple landed on the grass between her and Karai, bouncing and rolling until coming to a stop, revealing a thick slit through the shiny red skin.
"I got it?" April asked excitedly.
Karai picked up the apple, revealing the gash. "Right there," she pointed out.
April raised her fist into the air. "Yes!"
"Nice work, O'Neil."
She beamed proudly.
"Whoa," Casey finally said from atop the hill, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He watched Karai disappear into the forest before turning to April. "Remind me never to get on your bad side from now on, Red."
April turned to him and smirked. "What do you mean 'from now on'?"
"I just hope I didn't hit anything," April suddenly remembered her initial concern, looking towards the thicket of trees in the general direction of where the arrow would have landed.
"Don't worry," Karai said, emerging from the forest with her arrow. "You hit a shrub. There's not much wildlife up here other than plants and insects."
"If you need some more stuff to shoot, might I suggest one of those disgusting yellow plums back there?" Casey suggested, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the ume tree.
Karai laughed. "You're supposed to pickle those, Jones. Not eat them raw. They'll give you a stomach ache."
Casey's expression went blank as he clutched his stomach worriedly.
"Okay, a few more tries, and I think I can hit it," April said with an air of confidence.
Karai smiled before turning to where she'd left her sword and cape next to a nearby tree. "Maybe later, April. Right now I have to meet with Donatello about our plan." April nodded understandingly as Karai adjusted the cape over her shoulders, hooking it secure at the front. "Why don't you practice your Tessenjutsu?"
April suddenly tensed, her shoulders raised to the level of her ears as she cast her eyes down dismally. She reached for her Tessen and raised it to eye level, keeping it folded. She inspected the weapon Splinter had gifted her. It was one of the most humbling days of her life with the Turtles and Splinter, to be offered a treasure that would have belonged to her Sensei's long lost daughter. But that had been before they knew of Miwa's survival. Now, the treasure was rightfully hers. April had no right to hold onto it any longer.
She looked back up at Karai as she had begun packing up the archery equipment. With a deep sigh, April put down the bow and walked up to Karai, holding up the Tessen. "Karai," she said.
Karai turned around. Her face contorted in confusion when she noticed April holding the Tessen out to her.
"I think this belongs to you."
Karai was taken aback at the offer. Her eyes darted from the war fan to April inquisitively.
"Master Splinter said he'd always intended on giving this to you." She offered a sad, genuine smile. "Don't worry; I haven't used it that much. It's not damaged."
As April spoke, Karai continued to eye the Tessen. She felt warmth fill her heart. In truth, she didn't know how much she had meant to her real father. Not being raised by him and certainly not being told the truth about him by Shredder, she knew very little about Splinter. She didn't know what kind of father he would have been to her. Would he have been overprotective? Lenient? Compassionate? Had things been different, would he have been vengeful like Shredder? It never occurred to her how her life would have been different if she'd been raised and trained by Splinter. All that mattered to her was fighting for herself.
She looked up at April, who was watching her repentantly. Finally, after a moment's silence between the two of them, Karai gently pushed April's hands back towards her, closing April's fingers over the Tessen. "No, it belongs to you," she declared with an assuring smile. "You're as much a Hamato as I am."
A look of surprise washed over April's face. Her eyes welled up with tears, her mouth set to a large grin. Before she could restrain herself, she had thrown her arms around Karai in a tight, genuine hug. Karai's body stiffened, surprised by the sudden wave of affection. Eventually, she smiled and patted April's back awkwardly in a lame attempt to return the friendly regard.
April pulled away, eyes still filled with excitement. "I've always wanted a sister," she proclaimed.
Karai laughed. Clearly it was still slightly awkward for her, so she resorted to raising the handful of arrows in her grasp. "So, same time tomorrow?"
April nodded. "Can't wait."
Casey smiled as April waved goodbye and ascended the hill in his direction. "How was that?"
When April stopped next to him, her brow was furrowed in slight bemusement. "Like hugging Raph," she replied before she continued past him.
"Raph, wake up! Quick!"
The urgency in Donatello's voice startled him out of his sleep. His eyes shot open. "What is it?"
"We've got company," Donatello informed him.
Quickly, he scrambled to his feet after he turned in the direction of where Donatello was looking. Everybody else was doing the same, including the remaining Foot and Hamato soldiers who had all swarmed out of the hut to see who was coming towards their so-called "hideout." Even Leonardo, with Karai holding her hand out for him to grasp in case he lost his balance, was on his feet to formally greet the approaching villagers.
Splinter smiled and was the first to step forward upon laying eyes on his dear friend. "Haru," he saluted with a humble bow.
Matsui-san immediately raised his hand to stop him. "Please, Yoshi," he insisted. "You bow to no one."
Behind Matsui Haru, Raphael recognized the respectable man called Rokurou. This man spoke kindly and genuinely. "Matsui-sensei has informed us of your tales, Splinter-san. Forgive me for my rash accusations earlier."
Splinter shook his head, dismissive of such a trivial thing.
"We are most pleased to know you survived." This from an older, silver-haired woman in a traditional kimono. "We had feared the worst after the tragic passing of dear Tang Shen."
Matsui-san was quick to jump in after that, addressing the entire group of warriors. "I have told the village of your brave fight against the Shredder."
"It is true then?" asked a woman, bracing the hand of a young boy they presumed to be her son. "Has he been defeated?"
Splinter smiled humbly. "Yes," he affirmed. "Oroku Saki is no longer a threat to your peace."
"He is a prisoner in his own fortress," noted a Foot soldier.
Another man in official uniform, the same man Raphael witnessed earlier steering clear of he and Splinter as they sauntered down the village market, cleared his throat. "Then it is time to bring him to justice," he decreed. He bowed to Splinter. "Thank you, Yoshi-san. Long have we lived in the shadow of Shredder's army." He eyed the Foot and Hamato soldiers gathered around behind him. "And thank you all. We had lost all faith in the art of Ninjitsu after it had cast so much evil over our land. You have reminded us of the good it once brought our village."
Yuito, the most passionate of the Hamato soldiers, stepped forward proudly and took a knee. "And we will proudly serve and protect you all from here on."
A wave of satisfaction passed over the villagers. Matsui-san and Splinter grinned in good humor, the latter placing a hand on Yuito's shoulder. "Stand up, noble warrior." The arguably-overzealous soldier complied and bowed to his Clan leader.
Matsui-san, meanwhile, looked directly towards Karai, who was still helping Leonardo stay on his feet. His eyes were alight as he observed her reform. "This must be Miwa," he acknowledged.
Karai straightened, her cheeks turning red. The last time she had seen this man, she had floundered him with harsh accusations of trying to corrupt her by suggesting she may not have been who she thought she was. When she met his gaze now, however, all that tension was gone when he offered her a kind, forgiving smile. She returned it and bowed her head to the village healer, both out of respect and thanks for his recent benevolent services to them.
"You look so much like your mother," he remarked. He then turned to Splinter, adding, "But she has your smile, Yoshi."
Both Splinter and Karai blushed sheepishly.
"Please," said Matsui-san. He sauntered to Leonardo's opposite side and settled his hand upon his carapace. He glanced around at the mesmerized ninja warriors surrounding him. "This is no place for recovering war heroes. All of you, return with us to the village so you may mend in comfort."
"We would gladly open our homes to all of you," remarked the silver-haired woman.
Splinter, on behalf of his family and allies, bowed to the villagers. "Thank you. We are most indebted to you all." Behind him, the Turtles, April and Casey, Slash and Leatherhead, and the Foot and Hamato soldiers all bowed as well.
In no time, everyone was scrambling around to prepare to transport their supplies and the wounded. Karai helped Matsui-san guide Leonardo to the van parked behind the hut, while Raphael and Donatello hurried to help Satoshi collect all of the equipment and medication still residing in the makeshift infirmary.
"Wicked," Casey commented, watching everyone run around like worker ants. "Does that mean no more hiding? 'Cause I've kind of wanted to try that sashimi restaurant in the village."
April gave him a peculiar look, "I thought you hated seafood."
"I do," Casey replied. His brow then furrowed. "Wait, what's sashimi then?"
Two days had passed since the villagers arrived at their hideout. Upon arriving to the village, there was a great feast awaiting them all in the village town center. (Casey, it turned out, did not like sashimi.) The soldiers were housed in various homes while the wounded, including Leonardo and Casey, were taken to Matsui-sensei's clinic. While April and Casey stayed in the village, Splinter, the Turtles, and the Mutanimals returned to the monastery, though Slash and Leatherhead insisted they were still quite happy outside.
Now, soldiers were healing, the village was celebrating, and ties were forming between clans, mutants, and civilians. And Raphael finally took some time alone with his thoughts again. He was squatted down by another pond. This one was much smaller, not far from where the Hamato dojo once stood. Where he and his brothers rescued their Sensei, then watched him lose all that he held dear. His eyes darted from one fish to another as they swam through the murky waters. A few of them hung around a lone lotus blossom on one end of the pond. It was a little peculiar seeing how there were no others about, but he didn't think twice about it.
They were going home in a few days. He couldn't wait, but he was also going to miss this cultured, deep-rooted corner of the world. He'd grown to like the Hamato and Foot soldiers. He'd made friends with the villagers. He'd quelled the fears the children had of mutants. The fate of his Clan had changed here. As far as they were concerned, the war between the Hamato and Foot was over. And Shredder was out of their lives forever.
He exhaled slowly and heavily after breathing in deeply though his nose. Meditation was finally working.
He was suddenly distracted, however, by the sound of quiet grunting somewhere behind him. When he spun around, he was greeted by nothing but trees and shrubs. He pushed himself to his feet when he heard it again, recognizing who it was immediately.
Hurrying through the forest, he searched until he found him, wandering through the thicket. More like stumbling as he would grab onto adjacent trees for support. Raphael shook his head. Just as they'd warned him not to wander off alone with his leg injury back at April's farmhouse, they warned him again to avoid walking around unaided, or at least out of earshot should he need to call for help. But among the other things he and Leonardo had in common, it was stubbornness and pride. No way would that stop him. If anything, they just set limits for him to push.
"Leo," he finally called.
Leonardo's head shot up from where he was scanning the grounds. Raphael was disappointed to see that he had taken his brother entirely by surprise. And Raphael hadn't exactly exercised stealth. In fact, it seemed like he'd given him a fright. Perhaps Leonardo still had a ways to go in his psychological recovery along with his physical.
"Should you really be wandering around on your own?"
Leonardo raised his fingers to his lips, grinning surreptitiously. Raphael nodded and grinned as well. Yeah, he thought as much.
"Don won't leave me alone. Thankfully April asked him to help her practice her archery- ah!" Raphael was about to sprint forward when Leonardo cried out suddenly. It turned out he'd stepped on a sharp root sticking out of the ground. Leonardo waved him off. "Don't worry about it."
"How're you feeling?"
Leonardo shook his foot. "Fine; just stubbed it."
Raphael gave him a sassy look at Leonardo's jokey remark.
"Come on, not you too," Leonardo droned seriously. "It's been two days. I'm gonna be fine."
"Dude, if you knew what you put us through... We can't just brush this off like you can."
Leonardo glanced away. Perhaps Raphael had spoken too soon.
"I'm serious, man," Raphael's voice went quiet and empathetic. He settled his hand on Leonardo's carapace. "Maybe it'd help to talk about it. I sort of know what you went through, don't forget." His mind went back to Baxter's destroyed lab. "Shredder…didn't try to control you too, did he?"
"He gave up pretty quick," Leonardo admitted. "I faked it at one point to try and escape. But, I don't know, maybe the chemicals got to me or something. I tried to take him out when his back was turned. Just made him angry. Stupid of me."
Deep down he knew this called for a solemn moment as his brother reflected on a failed leap to freedom, but Raphael laughed instead. It was salty, but somehow derived from some form of deranged humor in the depraved part of his soul. "Yeah, well, I know stupid," he muttered under his breath.
Leonardo, to his guilt, didn't laugh. He instead looked away bleakly.
Raphael shut up after that. After a moment of strung out silence, he finally said, "Look, Leo, I'm so sorry." He hung his head in quiet shame. "It's different when it's just my life. But I shouldn't have risked yours like that. I get why Splinter kept getting me to meditate three or four times a day…"
"Donnie told me what would've happened if you hadn't come when you did."
Raphael's breath shuddered at the awful reminder. When he looked into Leonardo's eyes, he saw the deep, unfeigned gratitude reflected in them.
"Honestly," Leonardo went on, "I was almost sure I would never go home, that I'd spend my last days in that cell without ever seeing you guys again." After having gradually shifted his gaze away, he turned to face Raphael directly once more. "But I kept telling myself: If I'm gonna go down, it won't be without a fight."
Although the thought of losing his brother sent a cold shiver down his spine, the thought of him going down fighting filled him with pride. So his response was a genuine smile, albeit a dejected one. "If that day ever comes, bro," he avowed, grasping Leonardo's shoulder, "I hope I'm fighting right alongside you."
Leonardo smiled, his eyes shining as he silently thanked his brother with them, and clutched Raphael's shoulder in return.
For a second or two, they stood there proudly before one another. Kindred spirits, equally cocky, stubborn until their end. Thinking the other gone for days, then reunited as the fate of their Clan shifted. Overwrought with emotion, it was Raphael to suddenly tug Leonardo forward into his chest, rocking him in a firm embrace, head buried in the crook of his neck. Leonardo immediately wrapped his arms tightly around Raphael in return, nestling his head on his brother's shoulder. Today, their usual hand clasp after a victorious moment would not suffice.
When they broke apart after a suitable amount of time, though they were sure it was probably longer, both hurried to dry their eyes before the other noticed. When they realized it was futile, they shared a light laugh. They raced to recover their wits anyway, subconsciously trying to prove to the other their own resilience.
"So how you holdin' up?" Raphael was first to regain his composure. "Besides the…you know, physical stuff."
Leonardo rubbed the back of his head. "Good. Yeah, I'm, uh…I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the whole Karai thing."
"'She finally fill you in?"
Raphael smirked. "Well, congratulations. Today's the day you get to say 'I told you so.'"
Leonardo chuckled half-heartedly, casting his eyes down to the ground.
Raphael furrowed his brow. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," Leonardo said quickly. Too quickly. "It's great. I'm really happy for her."
"Tell that to your face."
Leonardo shrugged it off. "It's no big deal. Just…I thought we'd have a bigger hand in it."
Now Raphael was really confused. "What are you talking about, bro? You're the one who got her out of the mind control."
"No way. She did that on her own." He muttered, "We didn't even need Donnie's cure."
"Listen to yourself," Raphael exclaimed when Leonardo staggered away towards the pond. "You're not giving yourself any credit here. She wouldn't have even known the truth about who her real father is if it weren't for you. Let alone retaliate against Shredder." Raphael came up next to him. "You did your part, man. She just needed some time to figure things out on her own."
Mulling it over, Leonardo finally let out a heavy breath. "Yeah, I know. You're right, Raph."
"Good. Do me a favor and tattoo that on your hand or something."
Leonardo laughed. But as they sat in silence for a while, Raphael saw he was becoming melancholy again. "It's just… She's made a life for herself here now." Leonardo sighed dejectedly, hanging his head. "There'll be nothing for her in New York anymore."
As soon as he said that, Raphael immediately felt sorry for his brother. Over time, as Leonardo matured, his fixation on Karai had become less of a teenage crush and more of a sincere desire to help their Sensei's daughter. Raphael had pestered him a lot about it when he probably shouldn't have; for reasons Raphael had not seen at the time, Leonardo did genuinely care about Karai and her wellbeing. He saw goodness in her. And because Raphael didn't understand it then, he challenged it – even mocked it, without considering the damage he was doing.
But even amidst the selfless compassion that drove Leonardo to doing all he could to save her, Raphael was confident there was still something there outside of simply wanting to reunite Splinter with his daughter. He'd seen the spark in his eyes when she complemented him. He'd seen his cheeks turn red when he embarrassed himself in front of her. Yeah, there was no question about it.
Raphael wrapped his arm around his shoulders. "Sure there is. Her father for one thing," he noted smugly. Before his brother could reply, Raphael tightened his grip and added, "Nothing's forever, bro. She can't stay away from you for too long."
Leonardo eventually realized he was being teased. He smirked at Raphael and nudged him.
Out of nowhere, they were suddenly tackled from behind, two arms looping around their necks. Leonardo flinched, while Raphael spun around angrily. Both found themselves looking directly at Michelangelo leaning over them, his grin so wide that his face looked as though it would split in two at any moment. "Aww, this never gets old," he proclaimed.
"Mikey," Raphael warned, but Michelangelo didn't pull away.
"What're you doing here?" Leonardo asked as Raphael shrugged him off of them.
"Looking for you," Donatello replied from behind them. "We were afraid you'd gone wandering off on your own."
"No way," Raphael attested. "He's been with me the whole time."
Leonardo thanked Raphael with his eyes when they fleetingly caught each other's gaze. Donatello didn't question it, and Michelangelo just pulled them both into another tight group hug.
"No, dude, Antonio's Pizza," Michelangelo annunciated to the monk, who was clearly struggling with his English. "You'll love it. They've got vegetarian pizzas too, so you'll have no problem." He playfully nudged his new Buddhist companion in the ribs. The monk nodded blankly, smiling at the Turtle's sheer enthusiasm.
"Michelangelo," Splinter warned. "Some respect."
Michelangelo hunched forward in mild embarrassment before jumping down off the front porch of the Swallow's Nest, the rucksack bouncing off his shell from where it hung off his shoulders.
"Leave me alone, Don."
"Put the bag down then."
Splinter sighed and rubbed his temple as he heard his sons squabble inside the monastery.
"Geez, should I just lie down? Would that make you happy?"
"It would, as a matter of fact!"
Donatello and Leonardo both stepped out of the monastery and onto the porch, the former carrying a large duffel bag over his shoulder while the latter brooded behind him.
"Leonardo, you must not strain yourself," Splinter instructed. "You still have much healing to do."
Leonardo sighed disgruntledly. "Hai, Sensei."
"All right, I think that's everything," Donatello declared. Recognizing the monks standing by, the tallest Turtle lowered the duffel bag to the floor, turned to the monks, and bowed. "Arigatou gozaimasu. You've been most generous- Put it down- Put it down."
Leonardo rolled his eyes and dropped the duffel bag. He folded his arms sulkily across his chest. Slash approached and patted Leonardo's shell empathetically before taking the duffel bag to the van parked nearby.
The monks bowed in return. "It was our honor to be hosts to Splinter-san's prodigy."
"Prodigy's probably a strong word," Raphael muttered as he passed by with a rucksack hanging from his shoulder.
"I kind'a like it," Casey nodded, taking the rucksack from Raphael and heaving it into the back of the van, where April dragged it to the corner so there would be room for all of them. "It makes you guys sound like Titans or something."
Leonardo bowed next to Donatello as well. "We cannot thank you enough, Bhante."
It had been a week, but the day had come: They were finally going back to New York. Leonardo was doing well psychologically, and he had come a long way physically. The lacerations to his shoulder and chest were still healing, dressed in clean bandages daily, showing no signs of further infection. The claw mark to his face no longer concerned him or his brothers as a potential scar, seeing how it was already beginning to fade. His radial bone would take another few weeks to properly mend itself, so the cast Matsui-sensei set over his lower arm would stay on until then. Other than that, he was his old strong, valiant, determined self again.
Karai suddenly joined them on the deck, a wide grin spread across her face. She stopped between Leonardo and Donatello. "Before we leave," she proclaimed as she seized each of their arms, "there's something I want you all to see."
"Oh, sweet! I love surprises," Michelangelo chimed. "Good ones anyway." He followed Karai closely as she led them through the monastery. The others trailed behind, Raphael meandering in the back as he eyed the Hamato and Foot soldiers that lined their path, maskless and smiling. Many of them even bowed their heads as they passed. It was jarring, but he did take silent pleasure. He could see his brothers relishing in the heroes' welcome as well.
Karai led them into a large room alight with lanterns and blazing candles that surrounded the room, brightening the walls.
"Whoa," Michelangelo sounded.
All four walls were home to a massive, extensive, elaborate mural. As the Turtles looked closer, they saw that it appeared to have been completed over decades, probably centuries, the events of the Hamato Clan's history depicted with each passing age. Splinter smiled as his American students expressed their amazement at the traditionally-painted Japanese paintings. He glanced towards Karai and, upon meeting her gaze, nodded thankfully. Her eyes were alight.
Donatello quickly took fascination with the image of samurai and military soldiers clashing. "Amazing!" he exclaimed. "I didn't know our Clan took part in the Satsuma Rebellion."
Casey Jones, who lingered in the doorway, scratched his head. "Satsumas? So what, like, against tangerines? Ow!" He recoiled and clutched his shoulder where April smacked him hard.
Leonardo was entranced as he walked alongside the mural in the chronological direction. Throughout his life, he would listen ecstatically as Splinter told him stories of his Clan's history. Now, he scanned the mural intently, taking in every story each of the paintings told, playing Splinter's words in his mind as though it were yesterday. To see those tales depicted on the wall here – likely etched into this wall immediately following the events – filled him with overwhelming joy. The emotions a whir in his mind threatened tears.
Behind him, Michelangelo gasped. "Guys, look!" he cried.
They did. Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello joined Michelangelo where he stood in front of the edge of the mural. Splinter, watching them, suddenly realized that he did not recognize this part of the mural. The image that bordered it was no longer the image of his grandfather. In fact, there was now something next to it.
What now ended the timeline of his ancestry brought tears to his eyes.
Four figures, green skin and shell backs, in valiant battle stance. Each was clad in blue, red, purple and orange eye masks, the tails wafting behind their heads. They bore their signature weapons: Katana, Sai, Bō, and Nunchaku. Littering their feet were defeated enemies ranging from mutants to robots. Above them, a tall, noble figure of half-man, half-rat towered the victorious scene.
The Turtles, scanning the fresh painting, had fallen silent. Their eyes welled up with salty tears, their mouths forming wide, proud grins.
"Hey Red, there's us!" Casey proclaimed, pointing to the small but poignant representation of himself in the background, in his hockey mask and gear, back-to-back with April holding up her Tessen.
April, too, became emotional, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
"This is so cool," Michelangelo finally choked, understanding the weight of seeing the image of him and his brothers alongside those of the many warriors that led to their Sensei becoming the great Master he was. Donatello laid his hand on Michelangelo's shoulder as he too stared up in awe at their life now part of a greater legacy.
Leonardo turned to look at Karai, prompting his brothers to eventually do the same. "Why aren't you here?" he asked.
Karai cast her eyes down. "Maybe someday," she muttered humbly. "When-…if I earn it."
Splinter was the one to interject. "Miwa," he professed, "you have much to be proud of. All on your own, you successfully gathered the surviving members of our Clan, and those exiled Foot soldiers who will fight for peace over power."
Karai nodded, forcing a derisive smile. "Pride is not something I'm overwhelmed with, father," she admitted. "I feel like I have an obligation to both Clans. Although I'm a Hamato, being raised in the Foot… I can't leave them in shambles. I trained with many of those soldiers before they were unfairly exiled."
Splinter frowned at his daughter's lack of confidence in her accomplishments. Karai looked up at her father, eyes filled with humility. She breathed in to speak when-
"For the record, I'd say you've already earned it."
Splinter turned and stepped out of the way so Karai could see the Turtle in full view. Michelangelo grinned agreeably, while Donatello knitted his brow, and Leonardo's mouth hung open in surprise. Raphael ignored his brothers and continued to address Karai, stepping forward. "I mean, come on, you basically resurrected the Hamato Clan, made a peace pact between them and the Foot after centuries of war, and most importantly…" He paused for a theatrical touch. "You saved my family."
Karai's eyes gleamed.
"I never thought I'd say it, but…Karai, I-"
"Wait!" Michelangelo interrupted unexpectedly, fumbling as he pulled out his T-phone. He held it up towards the two of them. "Okay, once more from the top. I need to get all this."
Raphael glared. He inwardly thanked Donatello for knocking Michelangelo's arm down before cutting to the chase. "Anyway, I just- I owe you one. Or, like, a lot really. And…thanks."
He growled at the camera flash and artificial shutter sound that distracted them. Donatello grabbed Michelangelo by the rim of his shell and pulled him back. "You'll thank me later, dude."
Karai smiled. "We'll call it even."
Raphael nodded, grinning as well.
"So, Karai- or, uh…Miwa?" Michelangelo scratched his head. "What are you gonna go by now, anyway?"
Shifting her gaze somewhat, Karai eyed the lotus blossom painted into the background of the mural the Turtles had failed to notice. "I'll get back to you on that."
Splinter hugged Karai close. "It pains me to leave you now, my daughter."
As they broke their embrace, Karai offered a comforting smile. "It won't be forever, father," she assured him. "I will return to New York before you miss me."
Splinter smiled confidently in return. "Your mother would be proud."
Karai closed her eyes at the mention. She breathed in, maintaining her integrity, before looking back into her father's consoling eyes. "Thank you," she whispered. She sincerely hoped her mother was spiritually with them tonight, and if she was, that she would finally be at peace.
Both of them finally stepped back to get a full view of each other's Clans. It was nighttime now, and the remote Tokyo airstrip they all stood on was vacant. Behind Splinter and his family, the private plane that once belonged to Shredder waited for them to board so it could fly them back to New York. But not before one final goodbye to Karai and the handful of Foot and Hamato soldiers that accompanied her to see them off.
"Later, sis!" Michelangelo said ecstatically. "We'll video chat tomorrow, kay?"
Karai laughed and nodded. No doubt it wouldn't happen, but she'd wait a few days for them to adjust to their time zone. "Goodbye, all of you," she said, bowing alongside the Foot and Hamato soldiers. "Until next time."
They all bowed in return, their hearts filled with despondency over their parting.
The Hamato and Foot soldiers scampered off the private runway after that. Karai began to follow, only to come to a slow stop. Her back was turned for a while, her head hunched forward in hesitation. Finally, she turned around, eyes wide and contemplative until they eventually caught Leonardo's sad gaze. Only then did she find herself returning towards the plane, her steps slow and premeditated. She slowed as she neared him, brushing a side strand of her hair back nervously as she did. Leonardo watched her, his pupils dilated in curiosity and anticipation.
Finally, Karai closed the gap between them and wrapped her arms around his neck, nestling her head on his shoulder. In his ear, she whispered two words:
Just as Leonardo was about to fully return the embrace, she loosened her grip and cupped the side of his face in her hand, smiling gracefully. Then, leaning in, she kissed him lightly on the cheek. Leonardo was at a loss for words as she pulled away and hurried off after the Foot and Hamato soldiers without another word.
Casey's head was violently thrust from side to side as an ecstatic April vigorously shook his arm, silently mouthing the words "oh my gosh" over and over. Michelangelo did the same with Donatello's arm, then sharply pulled him into a side embrace.
The plane started up behind them. As they all boarded behind him, Leonardo stayed behind in a daze and stared after where Karai had disappeared across the field and into the darkness.
"Let's go, lover boy." Raphael smirked, tugging at Leonardo's arm in the direction of the plane.
Leonardo eventually followed his brother up the steps, the streak of red across his cheeks clear for everyone to see when he entered the plane's fuselage, where everybody was watching him in pride. Splinter grinned at his son's sheepishness. Raphael chuckled and trapped Leonardo's head in a playful headlock when he wouldn't break out of his stupor.
"Dudes," Michelangelo said as they all settled in their seats and the plane prepared for take-off, "when's our next trip to Japan?"
Cover art by RadioJane on DeviantArt.