Apologies for taking so long. This last chapter absolutely had to be dragged out of me kicking and screaming.
Tonight there was no moon, and Leonardo moved through the darkness with a thrill borne of newly realized freedom. After nearly five weeks of confinement in a house that seemed to shrink every day, at last he stood outside in deep snow with the wind against his face. The bandages were off, the stitches gone, and the hunt was on. All he heard was the sound of the tree branches covered in ice groaning in the breeze and, in the distance, three heartbeats pounding with anticipation.
His youngest brother, the only one he hadn't caught yet, hid somewhere close by. Mike's heartbeat, quick and light as himself, echoed between the dark trees and called to Leonardo like the scratching of rabbit paws in cold earth called to a hunting wolf. He followed that sound silently over the snow, moving along exposed rocks and fallen trunks when he could, slowing down to glide over the fresh snow when he had to. Far from freezing, the ice exhilarated him, waking him from weeks of healing sleep. Now he came back to life, breathing deep, moving without pain and without the tightness borne of torn muscles and skin. Not far now.
He didn't have to struggle to hide in scattered shadows when the night was one great shadow covering the whole forest and the starlight gave him only silhouetted edges, a glint of silver hinting at the slope of the snow. He paused and crouched down, brushing his hand over the ground. Michelangelo's footprints stood out to his adapted eyes nearly as much as his heartbeat pounded in the air, his shallow breath quickening as he hid from his older brother. So close now.
Breathing through his mouth, tasting the air while listening to the sounds coursing over every branch, over every stone, over his skin so that he became part of the night wind, Leonardo slowly, deliberately crept towards the tall sycamore he knew his brother was hiding behind. Michelangelo breathed a little faster, as if he knew his brother stalked just a few feet away though there was no way he could've heard. Leonardo tensed, digging his hands into the ground as he prepared to pounce.
Michelangelo screamed as a dark blur struck him from the right, sending him sideways into the snow. He flailed and managed to grab Leo's arm, dragging him after, but his brother was on top and there was no way to escape. He stared with wide eyes but it was nearly impossible to see his brother against the black trees and sky. He could only see his outline against the stars.
Leo sat up, brushing snow off his hands. "Gotcha," he laughed.
"Don't do that!" Mike gasped, glaring at him. "You nearly gave me a heart attack."
"If you have a heart attack, it'll be all the junk food you eat that does it, not me." Leo stood but didn't offer a hand up to his brother. There was no way he could have withstood his brother's weight without falling.
"You're just ticked I got you to eat nachos last night," Mike said. He got up, using the motion to mask his hand as he gathered a large amount of snow and flung it at his sibling. To his dismay, Leo spotted it in time and dodged sideways so quickly that it seemed like he hadn't moved at all. "Man, that's just not fair."
"Brat." Leo glanced back through the forest. Not too far away he saw Donatello and Raphael standing on the back porch staring into the trees anxiously. He sighed and turned towards them. "Come on, let's go back before they think I ate you."
"You can see them? Do they look pissed?" Mike winced as he walked beside him. "I wonder how long that was. Raph said I'd better last longer than five minutes, but that seemed really quick. Can you hear them? Are they talking about me?"
"No, I can't hear them yet, they're too far away." And at this distance, they were more like blurry shapes. He only guessed by their nervous fidgeting that they were anxious. He looked back at his brother. "He told you to last more than five minutes? I hope you didn't have a bet going."
"Uh, kind of. Last slice of the chocolate cake I made."
Leo couldn't help laughing. He hadn't had any and couldn't stand the thought of it, no matter how Mike had pleaded for him to eat some. Truthfully, though, Mike hadn't pleaded very hard. "You should've tried harder, then. There's no way that was five minutes."
"Nuh-huh, that had to be over five minutes. Dude, how could you know if it was or wasn't? You couldn't have counted the seconds." Mike grabbed his shoulder. "You didn't count, did you?"
"No," Leo assured him, "I didn't have to. Donatello's been timing me. It took less than three minutes getting him and Raph combined, and nailing you didn't take much longer."
"Oh, that must've made Raph real happy."
"It's not all Raph's fault." Although Raphael's grumbling about being in the snow and wind had helped. "Donatello was using a glow-in-the-dark watch to time me. I spotted the light the moment he turned it on."
When they got to the porch, Mike did his best to ignore Raphael's smirk. "Three minutes, forty-five seconds, wimp. That cake's mine."
Mike stuck his tongue out and walked inside. Leo heard him mumble something about "not if I get there first" but he didn't say anything.
"You took a little longer finding Mike," Donatello said, putting his watch away. "Is the cold starting to get to you?"
"Not really. He just didn't have a bright glowing watch on him," Leo said. Now that he was in the small circle of light coming from the house, he slipped his mask back on. "How'd I do?"
"Pretty good," Donatello said. "You got faster with each of us. You're feeling all right? No twinges or anything?"
"I'm fine," Leo said, slightly exasperated, "just like I was yesterday, and the day before that..."
"Okay, I get it," Don said with a smile. "You're officially all healed up. Just don't push yourself for a few more days, okay?"
Leo nodded once and watched him go back in, feeling like a heavy weight had lifted from his shoulders. Proving to his brother that he was capable of taking care of himself again, especially after such a long convalescence, had been nearly impossible. Raphael had given him the idea of a kind of obstacle course and Michelangelo had mentioned while watching a sci-fi horror movie that the aliens reminded him of the things in Stockman's pocket dimension, so he'd come up with the idea of tracking them down. If he could catch three healthy turtles, he was allowed to go five feet without anyone telling him to get back in bed to rest.
Finally he stood on the back porch, free to watch the clouds drift across the stars. Snow began to fall again but gently, adding a fresh layer to the ice and sleet. He leaned against the railing and closed his eyes. The cold was a welcome change from the stifling living room.
"Not still thinking about running off, are ya?" Raphael stood beside him, staring at the sky.
"No," Leonardo said. "You were right. I just had to get control over myself again."
They stood silent for awhile, listening to the wind and to their brothers as Michelangelo nearly broke several dishes in the kitchen. Once the squabbling died down again, Raphael glanced at Leo. "I gotta admit, I was impressed with how fast you found all of us."
"It wasn't hard," Leo said, never opening his eyes. "Even if I couldn't see so well at night, I could hear all of you."
"You heard us breathing?" Raphael asked.
""Not just that. When it's quiet, I can hear your heartbeat. All I had to do was listen."
"All you had to do was hunt," Raph said, and he kept going before Leonardo could interrupt. "I know, you weren't hunting us really, but you were still using that part of you, right?"
"I can't live without it," Leo said, then winced at how that sounded. "I mean, I can't see the way I used to, my hearing's changed, food doesn't taste the same...I'm one step away from claws, Raph, I can't help but adapt."
"That's what worries me." Raphael turned to face him, arms crossed. "You're really comfortable with it now."
"Would you rather I have another nervous breakdown?" Leo snapped.
"No, no, it ain't that--"
"You're the one who told me not to worry about it."
"That's when you were fighting it," Raphael said. "Now it's like you're completely opposite. You're enjoying it."
Biting back an immediate "no I wasn't," Leo lowered his head. After a few seconds, he answered. "I can't help it. Everything feels so...vivid. It's like I've been asleep all of my life and now I'm suddenly awake. Once I stopped resisting and started exploring what I could do, it didn't seem so bad anymore."
"And the nightmares?" Raph asked.
"Gone." Leo smiled and glanced at him. "I haven't had one since that night."
Raphael didn't say anything. No nightmares could be a good sign, hopefully that his brother's subconscious was fully his own again. Or it could mean that he'd now that he'd stopped fighting and had accepted these changes, his subconscious no longer needed to hide in his dreams. He sighed to himself. Maybe he was just jealous.
"Well, at least your nightmares stopped," he said, leaning against the railing again.
Leo tilted his head. "You have nightmares?"
"Yup. About when we were coming up after ya." Raphael closed his eyes, remembering the fear he'd felt, the sense of urgency when he heard his brother scream. "Those damn stairs seemed to go on forever, especially when we were slogging through all the dead bodies you left us. But the last few flights were the worst. I heard you and Shredder fighting above us, but no matter how fast I ran, it didn't feel like I was getting anywhere."
Although he could hear his other siblings conversing in the kitchen, Leonardo glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were alone before answering. "I barely remember any of that. I remember thinking that you were dead...I heard you die so clearly..."
"That was the hallucinogen," Raphael said.
"Yeah, but...he set the trap so well. If I hadn't been...what I am now...I would've died. I would've been blinded by rage and he would have defeated me easily."
"Instead he ran and you had to chase after him," Raph said.
"I scared him, I think," Leo said softly. "He was used to me being..."
"Honorable to the point of being stuck-up?" Raph asked.
Leo glared sideways at him. "Something like that."
"But...before that, when you were still climbing up, you left one hell of a mess for us. I mean, the whole stairwell was covered in blood and the bodies...was that you or was that the thing inside you?"
"Me." Leonardo didn't move, staring at the snow falling amongst the tree branches. "I know that part of me scares you, but it's always been there. It just got released in Stockman's game and it never went away."
"I thought I was the one with anger issues," Raphael said, sighing loudly. "You always had it together."
"I kept it under control," Leo said. "But then Stockman broke more than just my genetics. After the game, I couldn't keep it hidden anymore."
"Really?" Raph asked. "'Cause I remember you stopping me from getting really rough in a lot of fights. In fact, it's usually been you who stops me when I get angry and lose it."
"I..." Leonardo tried to think back and remember old fights. He didn't remember a bloodthirst before the game, but surely it existed.
His brother's confusion only confirmed Raphael's worries. "Leo, you didn't start feeling like this until we got you out of Stockman's hands. You fought it for awhile but now you're starting to take it for granted."
"It doesn't matter," Leo said firmly. "I've got it under control--"
"And hunting us right now?" Raphael asked.
"I wasn't hunting you," Leo snapped. "It wasn't for real."
"Listen to yourself!" Raphael growled. "Not real? You said yourself you're just one step away from claws. You're slowly getting better, but we could still lose you."
For a moment Leonardo didn't say anything. He just turned Raphael's words over in his head, considering them. "It doesn't feel nearly as strong as it used to," he said softly. "It's much weaker than before. I haven't..." He stopped. He didn't want to tell him about the images that used to run through his head, visions of his siblings dead, of hundreds of humans in mangled piles.
"I trust you," Raphael said. "Just...don't give in so easy, okay? Don't lose who you are."
Leo merely nodded. They watched the snow for a little while, but Raphael finally started to feel the cold and went back inside after making Leo promise to come in soon.
When he was finally alone for the first time in weeks, Leonardo sat down on the back porch steps and stared at the clouds. His brothers talked and laughed inside the house, and he couldn't help smiling when Raphael squawked in outrage as he discovered that Michelangelo had run off with the last slice. But they carried on easily without him, and he found the quiet offered by the snow much more familiar and comfortable.
If Raphael was right, then he could be an even greater threat now than before, now that he couldn't tell the difference between what he was now and what he'd been before the game. But he felt more in control of himself now. No more catatonic spells, no more nightmares, no more images in his head and he was even having an easier time eating. Never mind that food still reminded him of body parts.
They'd said it'd take time for him to come back entirely, to slowly become what he used to be. But now it seemed like they'd given up on that hope and wished he'd come even halfway back. He felt like a disappointment, but...he stared at his hands, clawless and normal. Whatever he was now, the sensations he felt, the wind and the sounds and the rush when he hunted, they were too much to give up. Maybe Raphael was right and this had been developing for some time in his subconscious, borne from the artificial high that the game gave him. But even if they were stronger now, he controlled them easier. He didn't have to be afraid of them.
The snow turned colder and he shivered. The night and frost had its uses, but right now the warm glow of the kitchen lights seemed far more inviting. With a last look at the darkness, he went inside, closing the kitchen door gently behind him.