Gritting his teeth, he took a deep breath and turned the communicator on.
"What the hell was that?!" Raphael yelled. "What the hell? You threw the fight--just what the hell were you thinking? No, I take that back! Obviously you weren't thinking! And what the hell was that at the end? I know it wasn't what I think it was! It better not have been--!"
"Dude, that's my shellcell!" Michelangelo said, wrenching it from Raphael's hands. He glared at Raphael for a second before looking at the viewscreen. "Leo, what the hell? Why'd you beat me if you were just gonna throw the fight? Couldn't you have done that during our fight? Then I could've beat Usagi and been the Battle Nexus--"
"Give me that!" Raphael snapped, grabbing the communicator back. "If I hear you whine one more time--Leo, you better gimme one damn good reason--"
"Enough!" Splinter deftly plucked the shellcell from Raphael's hand. "Leonardo, do not leave that room. We will be there soon. And I expect an explanation for your actions." He paused. "And Usagi's."
Without giving him time to reply, the communicator screen went black.
Leonardo's skin grew cold. Splinter might have accepted his reasoning for staying out of the galactic spotlight, but the rest of it? Explanation? He loved that bunny samurai, but when he imagined telling Splinter exactly that, his stomach tightened into painful knots. Bad enough to have to explain to Splinter, but to do so in front of his brothers?
The room felt too small. He couldn't breathe. He had to get out. He had to--
By the time he stopped to think what he was doing, he was already out of the room and in an unfamiliar hallway. Outside he heard the muffled cheers of the crowd, but this part of the palace was empty save for himself. Even better, afternoon shadows covered the rafters overhead. Hearing footsteps coming towards him, he leaped up amongst the thick wooden beams in the ceiling and backed into a corner.
"Man," Michelangelo said as he came into view. "When he screws up, he really screws up."
"I can't believe he took off on Master Splinter," Raphael said. "And Splinter thought we were the ones who were gonna start trouble."
"I can't believe he threw the match in front of everyone," Donatello said, a touch of awe in his voice. "What could've made him do it?"
They glanced at each other, a possible answer apparent in their eyes, but none of them seemed willing to say it out loud. Leonardo watched them silently, torn between staying quiet or catching their attention. If only he knew where Splinter was--
"Continue searching. I will remain here."
Mystery solved. Leonardo shrank even further into the shadows as his master stopped beside his siblings. His face looked serene as usual but his tail twitched furiously, betraying his mood.
"I don't think he's coming back here," Raphael muttered, but he obeyed regardless, leading Donatello and Michelangelo outside.
When they had left, Splinter stood for a few moments staring at nothing. He tapped his walking stick a few times and after a minute, his tail calmed and lay flat. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled and stood straight.
"We are alone," he said.
Wishing that he hadn't stopped running, Leonardo hesitated several seconds before taking a deep breath and leaping down, landing in front of his master. Falling to one knee, he bowed his head and did not meet his father's eyes. His nervous breath sounded loud to himself and he fought to bring it back under control.
"You conceded the fight," Splinter said. "A fight you could have won."
Splinter didn't tell him to stand. Leonardo winced and silently nodded.
"I did not want to win."
Splinter's cane tapped once on the hard floor. "Why not?"
"I..." Leonardo clenched his hand into a fist. "Champions are made famous across the galaxy. I had forgotten that. I do not want to be known."
"And you thought conceding in such a manner would bring you anonymity? Before this match you were already known. What you have done today will only bring you more acclaim."
"Only as Usagi's...opposite," Leonardo said, carefully choosing his words. "Only as one of nameless Nexus saviors. I hid behind Michelangelo's name before. In time, the rest of the world will forget me."
"You underestimate yourself," Splinter said. "And you overestimate Usagi."
"What?" Leonardo almost looked up but remembered himself in time. He kept his gaze focused on his master's cane.
"It is not entirely your fault," Splinter sighed, and his tail twitched a little less as his irritation shifted to another target. "You are young. You could not be expected to understand such matters, especially when couched in the ways of another world."
Confused, Leonardo struggled to think of something he had missed or perhaps misunderstood. "Master, I don't understand what you mean."
"Usagi is a samurai," Splinter began. "You have already seen the differences in our cultures, the natural clash between our styles."
Honorable samurai and treacherous ninja, Leonardo thought.
"But you have not learned about one of their traditions," Splinter said. "We train as clans and families because ninja cannot form schools openly. Our loyalties are strengthened by blood."
"Samurai have the luxury of learning in schools, but they have another custom, shudo. It is where an older, experienced samurai will take a young novice under his care for more--" he paused to find an appropriate word "--intimate instruction."
Several seconds passed before Leonardo understood exactly what his master had told him. Even more time passed before he realized what it meant to him. His eyes widening, he looked up at Splinter and found his master looking down at him, an unreadable expression on his face.
"The relationship is not equal," Splinter said. "How could it be when the elder samurai has all the experience?"
"That's not true," Leonardo whispered. "This has nothing to do with that."
"The relationship is not equal," Splinter repeated. "The outcome will favor the elder, even if he must resort to manipulation--"
"No." Leonardo stood, taking a step back. He stared warily at his father as if expecting an attack, feeling as if he was already under attack. This was worse than the disapproval he'd feared. He'd trusted Usagi with everything. If that was true--
"That isn't true," Leonardo breathed.
"I am sorry you must learn this way," Splinter said.
"No." He wouldn't believe it. He couldn't. Usagi was honorable and honest, he wouldn't do something like that. Usagi wouldn't take advantage of him. He met Splinter's iron look one more time and flinched.
Splinter exhaled and shook his head. "Come. I must take you home, away from here. You must never meet Usagi again."
Shock compounding upon shock, Leonardo wanted to scream and deny everything. Instead he couldn't raise his voice above a whisper. "What?"
"He has an unfair advantage over you. You will return home and I will try to undo the damage he has caused."
No, he couldn't. Leonardo's voice died utterly. He knew if he spoke, if he said one word, it would be to acquiesce as always to his master's command. He had no choice. He obeyed every command as he had been trained over his entire lifetime. There was no way to say no.
So he didn't even try. Refusing to acknowledge his master's startled gasp or wide eyes, he turned and ran. Within a moment he was outside of the Daimyo's palace. No one had left the arena yet as the final ceremony took place, and he heard their cheering as he escaped beneath the stands out into the main street. Completely empty even of vendors, the street echoed back his footsteps and erratic breaths as he headed for the hotel. The doors were locked. Desperate to get inside before his brothers found him, he ran around the side to the tall maple tree that stood outside their window. He easily scaled its branches and edged out along the largest one, leaping through the window and then closing it after himself.
With the shutters drawn, no light entered the room, but he didn't think to light the candle. Instead he sat down and leaned back against the wall, squeezing his eyes tight as he caught his breath. Everything had been so perfect this morning. And now everything had broken.
Long minutes passed. He thought he heard Michelangelo's voice once passing somewhere below and the front doors rattled as someone tried them, but soon the hotel fell silent again.
His breathing came back under control, but his heart refused to stop pounding and his stomach still felt twisted in knots. If Usagi came back and said it was true, that Splinter was right and he didn't love him and none of this meant anything--Leonardo choked. Impossible. If that happened, he couldn't stay with Usagi, but he didn't think he could force himself to return home, either. Home meant facing his father in absolute failure and his brothers who couldn't bring themselves to admit that Leonardo had fallen in love with the samurai.
But if what he hoped for came true, if Usagi reassured him that their relationship was one borne out of real love, what then? Would they stay together? Would Usagi even want him on his travels? He'd never mentioned anything like that. Leonardo knew he couldn't intrude like that, no matter what.
Every possible path he took led to the same conclusion, solitude. Cut off from his family, cut off from Usagi, he could not go back and he could not go forward. Trapped in a cage of his own making, he curled up and scorned himself for cowardice as he refused to think about either choice.
Tired from running in mental circles, completely unaware of his surroundings with his eyes half-shut, Leonardo didn't notice the door open or see Usagi sit down until the rabbit lit the candle on the table. All at once the world seemed to start again with the murmur of people outside, the sound of guests moving around downstairs, and the sound of Usagi's breath as he sat at his side, leaning close.
"What's wrong?" the samurai whispered, gently touching the side of his face. "What has happened?"
Usagi tried to peer into his eyes. If his lover regretted his decision to concede now...but he didn't think that would happen. Leonardo wouldn't regret a decision like that, not when he valued his life as a ninja so much.
"Usagi..." Leonardo took a deep breath and steeled himself. "Forgive me, please forgive me for asking this, but my master..."
When Leonardo hesitated, Usagi guessed a little of what might have happened. So the old rat was not as accepting as he'd hoped. Of course not, he realized. What father would want to see his son surrender fame and success for a life of wandering?
Usagi inwardly berated himself. Such a public kiss had been a gamble, now obviously a reckless gamble. He should never have let his passion take hold of him like that, but being in the ninja's presence, having him on his knees--the thought still sent shivers through him.
"What did he say?" he whispered.
"Is this shudo?" Leonardo asked, unable to meet his eyes. "Is this nothing more than a samurai taking a novice under his care?"
Usagi blinked. Shudo? He reeled back and sat straight. Is that what Splinter had accused him of? He never would have expected it of Leonardo's master, but for the ninja to be reduced to such a state, there was no other possibility. Splinter had introduced the chance of their intimacy being hollow, and Leonardo always listened to his master. Usagi counted himself lucky that at least Leonardo had come to give him a chance to explain one way or the other.
He smiled. His amusement was truly unfair, he knew, but now he had the confirmation he'd hoped for that this was not a casual fling for either of them.
"No," he replied. "I am too young and you are too old, and we are far too closely tied for shudo to apply."
Leonardo raised his head, meeting his gaze. "Then what are we?"
This time Usagi's answer came easily. "When we are born, there is a string tied to our finger. And somewhere out there miles and miles away the other end of that string is tied to someone else, someone meant for us and who we are meant for." He leaned close again and nuzzled his lover's cheek. "And I have found my destined."
A measure of relief filled Leonardo. Even if he still remained alone, at least this was real. "'Destined'?" he echoed.
The note of confused wonder made Usagi offer in a rush. "Come with me." When Leonardo's eyes widened, Usagi scrambled to explain.
"Forgive me. I meant to ask you a little later, to approach this less bluntly, but I want you by my side. I realize it would mean leaving your family for a while, but you could always return to your world whenever you--"
His words were cut off with a kiss.
That night, tension again knotted Leonardo's stomach. Only knowing that once he finished saying goodbye to his family that he could return to Usagi gave him the incentive to walk down the street to meet them at the Nexus arena gate. Now that the tournament was over, nearly everyone had left the town and the Nexus was empty.
He didn't know what Splinter had told his brothers, but watching their sullen expressions as they stood behind the master did not inspire any confidence in him. Raphael's hands flexed into fists at his sides, while Donatello looked at him like an experiment to examine. Michelangelo had his arms crossed as if to protect himself.
Splinter did not move as Leonardo approached, but when his student did not kneel, his tail twitched.
"You were wrong," Leonardo said first. "It is not unequal."
The master sighed and did not try to argue. He recognized the look in his son's eyes, the same as when he left the lair against his wishes out of sheer will. His son would leave. All he could control now was how he left.
"You have chosen then," Splinter said. "You will go with Usagi?"
"You're going away?" Michelangelo asked in a small voice.
Leonardo nodded once. "To his world. For a time."
Raphael snorted at that. "Just like that? Figures. What if something happens, huh? We're just shit outta luck while you go off having fun?"
"You know how to contact me," Leonardo said, refusing to fight. It didn't help. Raphael just turned and refused to look at him.
"For how long?" Donatello asked. "Will you write? You'll come back and visit, right?"
He froze as Michelangelo suddenly rushed him, trapping him in a tight hug. Slowly he forced himself to relax and hold him back.
Leonardo closed his eyes. It wasn't fair to have to decide between one world and the next, but that was his only choice. That the choice was painful and tore him in half didn't change anything.
"I've lived for the family for so long," he whispered. "I have to try living for myself for awhile."
When Michelangelo didn't move, he gently held him back at arm's length. "Mike, you know I'm not going away forever. I'll come back once in awhile. And you can come visit whenever you like."
"On my honor."
There was little else to say, or that he could say. A few more awkward words passed, a few silent seconds in the night breeze, and then he watched them go home without him. Nothing resolved, nothing even really addressed. They knew the bare facts, nothing more. But he didn't think he could articulate anything else.
Feeling as if he'd closed the chapter on a part of his life that he knew he could never really get back, he returned to the inn. He'd left Usagi waiting for him, not wanting to make him face his family, and now he found him leaning against the maple tree with his arms folded. As he came close, the samurai touched his face.
"You've lost something," Usagi said. "Are you all right?"
"I would've been torn in half no matter what I did," Leonardo replied. "At least this way I found something, too."
"I wish you did not have to know regret," Usagi said. "It never lets you go, not really."
Leonardo shook his head. "I don't regret this choice, just the way I had to make it."
Usagi nodded in understanding and didn't say anything else. Together they both drew the gate back to Usagi's world and recited the short chant. With the night wind at his back and the samurai at his shoulder, Leonardo stepped through to the other side.
Although he had no idea where he was or where they were going, he couldn't help ignoring the landscape and looking first at the sky. Thousands of bright stars and not one cloud.