Part 18

Candle glow colored the table and bookshelves golden red with deep shadows. The incense bowl lay before Splinter, smoke curling in wisps like a thin screen between then. Quietly as always, Leonardo whispered in and shut the door behind him with the faintest click of the latch.

As he sat down, he tried to remember the last time he had knelt before his master. He couldn't. Too much time had passed and he wasn't the same person. He met Splinter's look. Was his father the same person?

The silence stretched. Leonardo knew this game. Sit quietly, speak when spoken to, and leave when dismissed. But he wouldn't allow it. Splinter's stern admonissions, his disappointment and his unwavering demands seemed to float up with the smoke. A surge of anger twisted in his stomach.

Leonardo looked up, his eyes unreadable behind the darkened lenses. He had given up so much to come to this point. Normal sight, peaceful dreams, a relationship with his family that was predictable if nothing else... He steeled himself. He had not lost those things in vain. He could do this, and he started speaking before Splinter could.

"I'm not who you think I am," he said. "I never was."

Silence. Whether that was because his master disagreed or was angry that Leonardo had spoken out of turn-he couldn't tell and it didn't matter.

"I'm not a tool," Leonardo kept going. He'd rehearsed what he wanted to say, but now that he was here, surrounded by candlelight and the familiar smoke, his thoughts came out stilted and hesitant.

"I'm not a weapon, I'm not a shield for them. I'm more than 'the one that keeps them safe'." He forced himself to keep eye contact. If he broke away now, he'd falter. "I'm not as smart, or open, or even as powerful as they are, but I'm not a guardian for them, either. I won't be a sacrifice."

At the word 'sacrifice', the incense popped and hissed out. Splinter picked up another stick, gently touching the tip to the candle. Leonardo felt a touch of relief as the focus fell to something besides him, even if only for a moment.

"I never meant to hurt you," Splinter said as the censer burned again.

The old anger made Leonardo tremble-Of course you did-but he battled it down and bit off his own voice. Getting mad was useless now. That fight was done with.

"No. But I did. Because I didn't know myself," Leonardo said. "No one knew me. I fell apart and then no one knew how to put me back together again. Like a puzzle, and we had the wrong picture."

"You didn't know who you were," Splinter said, questioning him without heat, as if he were holding back his own emotional strain. "Then how do you know what you are now?"

"I was told what I am by many people," Leonardo murmured. "I've been told I'm acting out of character or like an animal. That everything I'm doing is wrong."

Splinter nodded once. So Leonardo understood his concerns, even if he refused to agree with him.

"I will decide what is out of character," Leonardo said, looking through his mask's empty black eyes. "I will decide if I'm wrong or right."

Again, silence. Splinter remembered the drawings he'd found, Leonardo's secret images of his family pressed to paper like memories. Splinter had looked like a monstrous giant eating his young, and he wondered-no, he was sure that was what Leonardo saw right now.

"And if those decisions hurt your brothers?" Splinter asked without anger.

"I can't live like that," Leonardo said. "Crushing myself, second guessing. We can't live like that anymore."

Splinter exhaled. He'd seen this mood on Leonardo before, this stubborn streak that refused to bend or break. There was no fighting it when it came upon him. Splinter would simply wait and see if the streak ended, but he began to doubt that it would. Leonardo had dragged his family through his personal hell and back simply because he'd lost his balance, and now he returned with a balance that Splinter didn't like.

But Leonardo refused to give up his new balance, having won it after so many sacrifices. Splinter had no choice. He would wait and hope his eldest son didn't drag them into the ground this time.

"I hope this new life suits you," he said softly. "The risks are great."

Leonardo leaned back, not realizing how he'd set his shoulders and neck so forcefully. He'd been prepared for a full assault, and Splinter's uneasy acceptance made him feel lightheaded.

"It's the only way," he replied.

Neither of them spoke again. The conversation Leonardo had dreaded for days-it had felt like years, even-was done. He nodded respectfully and stood, leaving as quietly as he came. The scents of incense and smoke and melted wax faded as he left them behind, making his way upstairs.

His footsteps felt light, and as he walked with his head high, back straight, he felt as if his muscles were slowly unknotting themselves. He didn't think this argument was over, but for now he'd won a key battle.

Paint. That would clear his head.

Back in Michelangelo's room again, he lost himself in adding to the dragon. The paint went on the wall a little easier today, and he expected that it would go on easier tomorrow. His arm no longer screamed when he lifted it, and the bite wound on his throat and shoulder pulled less and less with time.

Sometimes he felt less like himself and more like a walking collection of scars. Not that they didn't have their own scars-Michelangelo's playing around in a fight worked their opponents into a froth that sometimes bit him back, and Donatello...Leonardo sighed. They didn't always cover Donatello well enough as he worked. And Raphael-well, any berserker would get scars.

He hoped his scars faded over time. They pulled whenever he moved so that he felt them constantly.

Footsteps came up the stairs. They were ninja soft, but Michelangelo could never get rid of that last bit of noise.

"You snuck off on me," Michelangelo said, coming in with a handful of pizza and soda. "Bad Leo. No cookie."

"Don says I'm not allowed cookies anyway," Leonardo grumbled.

"Yeah, well, what Don don't know..." Michelangelo let his voice trail off and held up a box of chocolate chip. "Promise not to disappear if I nod off again?"

"Promise. Toss," Leonardo said, and it wasn't quite an order, wasn't quite a request. He caught the first one with his free hand and let his sore arm complain all it liked.

"Almost done yet?" Michelangelo asked.

His little brother lay back in bed and watched, but his eyes were still drowsy. He'd probably fall asleep soon. They'd all been recovering from their ordeal on the ship. April had compared it to a car accident. "You're still sore and achy for days afterward."

"I'm maybe halfway," Leonardo said. "The dragon's almost done. It just needs its scales and accents finished. Then I finish the background."

Michelangelo looked over the pieces that Leonardo had pencilled in. A family of bunny rabbits, a unicorn in a field, some birds of paradise flying over head. It felt like a sliver of sunlight cutting into his room. As he watched, Leonardo added a swirl to the dragon's eyes, giving a light to them that made the creature seem alive.

"Geez," Michelangelo breathed. "That's awesome how you do that."

Smiling but hiding it by turning away, Leonardo added another highlight to the claws to give them a sharp edge. "It's nothing special."

"Yeah it is," Michelangelo said. "I swear that thing's gonna fly off the wall."

Leonardo was spared finding a way to reply to the compliment by the sound of the front door. They both froze, relaxing when they heard their brothers' voices downstairs. The sound of dragging steel and a heavy thump told them they'd salvaged plenty of supplies.

"Hey, you guys upstairs?" Raphael called.

"We're here!" Michelangelo yelled.

Wincing at the noise, Leonardo set aside his brushes in water and capped the paints. He didn't want to try to work with three people watching him, and besides, good scavenging meant dinner.

"You're not gonna help them?" Leonardo asked.

Michelangelo grinned and picked up one of his comics. "I'm watching over you, ain't I? I'm sure they've got it."

The hum of the microwave and a quick 'ding' told them it didn't matter. Their siblings were almost done downstairs anyway. Leonardo chose a seat beside Michelangelo on the bed and leaned against him, yawning as he read the comic book over his shoulder. He hadn't read one in ages, and he'd always liked-

"Wait," Leonardo mumbled. "Since when does Robin wear that costume?"

Michelangelo grinned. "You've been out of the loop for awhile, big bro'."

As Michelangelo explained, Leonardo let his voice drift into a comfortable background whisper. Ever since being stuck in Stockman's game, the lair had been full of creeping noises, but with his little brother there, the constant drips and skitters of unseen insects faded away into nothing. Funny how real silence only settled in his head when he was with his chatterbox brother.

And if he slept more often with a sibling each night, sharing Michelangelo's pile of mattresses, Raphael's hammock or Donatello's bed, none of them teased him for acting like a kid again. Their heartbeats, soft breathing and occasional shifting reassured him when nightmares woke him. After the echoes of claws on steel dragged him awake, much like nails on a chalkboard, he would lie awake in the pitch darkness, staring at the pipes over their head and listening to his brother's heartbeat.

In the rare instances that he accidentally woke one of them up, he listened to them whispering that he was safe and at home. And with a slow nod, perhaps a shaky breath, he'd lie down again and force himself to close his eyes. And if they noticed that he was curled up closer against them, they didn't tease.

o0o0o0o

The night was eerily quiet. Even the typical sounds of New York at night-cars on the bridge, late night tv and the distant ocean-faded into the cool wind pushing a newspaper down the street. The street had to be deserted for them to feel safe, and yet the empty sidewalks reminded them of the when Stockman's monsters ran loose.

"All clear?" Raphael asked, softly calling up to the roof.

Perched on top of the tattoo parlor, Michelangelo scanned the neighborhood one more time and nodded. Then he sat down on the edge and opened one of the take-out boxes beside him.

"He better not eat everything," Donatello said, sparing Michelangelo a glance as he helped Leonardo set out a handful of paint against the wall.

"He won't," Raphael said, coming up beside him, but he glared at Michelangelo knowing he might. "If nothing else, he'll leave Leo's portion."

Kneeling by the paint, Leonardo heard them and sighed as he picked out the brush he wanted. "True. He's kinda overprotective lately."

Raphael and Donatello shared a look but didn't reply. Instead they climbed up onto their van, parked along the sidewalk, which gave them a comfortable view of Leonardo's work.

"You sure you're gonna be okay with us watching?" Raphael asked. "You've been touchy about it before."

Leonardo half-shrugged. His wounded shoulder pulled against the growing scar, and he mentally noted that he wouldn't be able to hold his right arm high for very long. Best to work on the base of the mural and work his way up over the week.

"I'll be fine," he replied. "You've been watching me finish up at home. And having you here means I don't have to keep a watch out."

Donatello glanced back and forth down the empty street. He supposed someone might walk through here, but the night was quiet and calm. They'd hear anyone coming a block away.

"Sounds easy enough," Donatello said, sparing a pointed look at Michelangelo and raising his hands as if about to catch a baseball.

Taking the hint, Michelangelo sighed and tossed down several takeout bags, one after the other. Donatello caught them easily, setting them on the roof beside himself and opening one.

"We've really gotta start cooking," Raphael sighed, digging out an eggroll. "I'm getting sick of Chinese every night."

"You wanna be the cook?" Donatello asked. "Besides..." He waved once toward Leonardo but didn't say anything, knowing their big brother could hear every word. "Everyone likes it. Even Mikey ends up eating his vegetables."

Raphael nodded once. For some reason, Leonardo could eat Sam's Cantonese Cuisine without any problems. They'd all force down a thousand eggrolls if it meant he didn't starve.

On the roof, Michelangelo stretched and jumped to the streetlamp, sliding down enough to leap onto the van. He landed with the faintest metallic thump, which earned him annoyed looks from the other three, especially as he dug into another take out bag, ignoring the rustling paper.

Michelangelo's eating masked the sound of a charcoal pencil scratching an outline on the bricks.

"So what're you drawing tonight?" Michelangelo asked around mouthfuls of rice.

"Statue of Liberty," Leonardo said, nodding once at the harbor. "Been practicing, but this time I have to draw in the water, too."

Raphael smiled at the hesitance in his voice. "Haven't sketched the ocean much, huh?"

"It's hard," Leonardo said. He paused, lowering his hand from where he'd drawn the first basic lines of her pedestal. "I don't see the light reflected like I used to. I'm afraid it's gonna look weird."

"We should go up to the bridge," Michelangelo said. "Maybe take an hour or two so you get a good view. Just as a refresher, of course."

With his chopsticks, Donatello reached over and stole one of his chicken bits. "And the ice cream shop on the corner wouldn't hurt either, huh?"

"While we're there, we might as well," Michelangelo grinned.

They were willing to take the risk of escorting him near the open water? Leonardo smiled, then remembered he was horribly self-conscious about them watching him practice. He knew it was silly. They'd seen him practice katas in the dojo with all his mistakes, sprawling awkwardly on the floor when he landed wrong, the occasional stupid self-inflicted cut, and the times he stumbled over his own exhausted feet. Why was it so terrible that they watch him practice with a pencil instead of a sword?

"You don't mind?" he asked. "It'll take awhile. An hour, maybe."

"More fun than working out in the dojo," Raphael said.

Beside him, Donatello nodded. "It's good to take a night off. And this is cool. I haven't just sat back and looked up at the sky in ages."

They all nodded. So easy for the humans to take that simple pleasure for granted, but living underground gave them a sharp appreciation for open air and clouds over the moon. Even the breeze was a rare luxury.

Leoanrdo looked up, wincing slightly at the moonlight. He wanted to ask Donatello if he thought he might ever see normally again, but he didn't say anything. Donatello was no miracle worker, and his brother had already said that there was a chance he would slowly lose his feeder genetics. It was just his own nerves that made him keep asking.

After all, his claws were gone. The feeder instincts were fading. He would hold out hope that his proper eyesight would return and he would one day see the sun again.

Later on, when Leonardo's arm was too sore to keep working, the paint disappeared before he could ask, swiftly carried into the van by his siblings so he wouldn't have to. He didn't know whether to frown or smile. Their ready help felt strange after a lifetime of having to nudge them to work. Of course they would still treat him like something fragile, but he wanted to balk and show them that he could take care of himself.

Not that it completely true, he thought. He needed the help, and he told himself he was lucky to be allowed out. Yes, allowed. They tried to give him some space as they hovered, but they never moved more than a few feet away for fear that he'd try to vanish again. Their constant vigilance was aggravating and reassuring at once.

"Could be worse," Michelangelo whispered in his ear, coming up beside him. "We could've locked you up at home."

As he climbed into the van with him, Leonardo shot him a look but didn't answer. Of course his little brother noticed his discomfort, and of course he had a point. But his sing song teasing and the fact that he'd be locked up reading comics and eating ice cream and ramen noodles made it easier to swallow.

They spent more than an hour at the docks, listening as the waves brushed under the creaking wood where they sat, watching the city lights play on the water. Leonardo's pencil worked across his tablet, creating shapes that slowly turned into reflections and heat waves. Michelangelo looked over his shoulder, glancing back and forth between the paper and the water.

"You've done this before, right?" Michelangelo whispered.

"Sometimes, when I could see better," Leonardo said, looking over the sketch again. "Is it that bad?"

"No," Michelangelo said. "It's just...it's like it's moving. If I tilt my head, it's like the water moves."

"Really?" Leonardo couldn't help the pleased note in his voice. Maybe his poor eyesight wasn't such a handicap after all.

He turned to ask Michelangelo if the sketch wasn't too dark and found his little brother wrestling with Raphael, biting off the top of his cherry sundae. Next to them, Donatello laughed and grabbed Michelangelo's remaining cone, and the three of them wrangled with each other while staying balanced along the edge of the dock.

Flipping the page in his sketchbook, Leonardo made quick, long strokes, hasty circles, roughed in centerlines for the eyes and erased the stick figure lines to add muscles. They shifted, falling backwards onto the dock, and he added the new position, leaving the first lines like an echo.

They suddenly froze when they realized none of them were watching Leonardo, and at the edge of the ocean no less. He laughed at their wide eyes as they all looked, relaxing when they saw he was still there. While Michelangelo finished the rest of Raphael's sundae and lost his cone between the slats in the pier, Leonardo took the moment to finish his own before they remembered he had ice cream. As expected, Michelangelo came crawling towards him, checking if his cup of rocky road, coffee and maple walnut was empty.

"Whoa..." Michelangelo whispered as he spotted his pad. "You just did that? Dudes, check this out!"

Leonardo reflexively tried to pull his drawing back, giving in as Michelangelo tugged it clear. Raphael crept up behind Leonardo, one hand on his shoulder as if to make sure his brother couldn't slide into the water, and Donatello peeked over Michelangelo's shoulder. There was a brief few seconds of silence.

"You're gonna put yourself in there too, right?" Donatello asked.

Leonardo looked at the image. If he added himself, he'd look like a calm outsider looking in on a rush of motion. His reluctance must have shown, because Raphael laughed once and tapped the free space along side.

"Might be hard," Raphael said. "He'd be sitting, staring at the ocean, drawing like crazy, then making sure we didn't get any of his ice cream..."

Raphael shot him a look at that, but Leonardo didn't notice. He tilted his head and stared at the picture again. His brother was right. He wasn't really all that still, come to think of it. In his own way, he was as energetic as the rest of them. He nodded once.

"Yeah..." he said softly. "I'll add myself in."

He slowly traced himself in, forced to put himself in closer than he thought he should because of the edge. At first he was staring out at the ocean, then he was drawing, then he was eating ice cream and he had to add in Michelangelo creeping close. That meant adding Raphael in behind him and Donatello beside him, and suddenly the ghostly images blended and merged until he couldn't tell where they all ended and where he began.

They were a tangle, a satisfying tangle.

End

author note: apologies for the delay. Real life smacked me around a bit (you wouldn't believe how hard), and I'm barely getting up again. If you're still here, I'm glad I finally got this to you.