Leo's fever broke at least two more times that night; each time, Raph was awake with a small light beside him in the chair, keeping his vigil. The second time, Leo's eyes wandered around, his ears straining to hear all those breathing sounds of his brothers at rest. Donnie's snores and slight whimpers; Mikey saying little words in between sighs and snorts; Raph catnapping with his deep, steady heaves, straining against the plaster to utilize his diaphragm, and one open eye on Leo as his brother stirred.

"Hey, big bro. Go back to sleep, huh?" Raph would say, and redampen a rag to wipe his brother's sweat-soaked face. Leo would spy Lizzie's hair coming over as she peeked down at him from Raph's bunk where she'd been tucked in, and Raph would gesture to her to get back up there.

When Leo awoke in the morning—i.e. Don's dim solar light simulator came on in the corner of the room and lit up one wall—Mikey and Donnie's bunks were empty, as they'd both gone to work. Leonardo reflected, looking down at his blanket, and his brother asleep on folded arms, sprawled forward out of the chair onto the edge of Leo's bed, like that protective fire; 24 hours ago, he'd dragged his brothers out of bed and into the sewers for intensive training, after working all night in the shop with Raph. Now an orphaned ten-year-old slept four feet above him, and Raphael was scarred for life. He found himself staring at his brother's sleeping face, haunted by half-complete nightmare images and the impression of camellia flowers like flashes of light on the backs of his eyes. He found he hated the slashes, the way they stood between himself and Raph, between the face of his little brother and Leo's mind.

Leonardo placed a hand on Raphael's shoulder, and stirred him slightly as to wake him; but, when he was unsuccessful, remained content with the contact, however minor, wondering how much he deserved it. His brother was so docile in this state, his expression gentle; his entire skull seemed to have different shape, the intense glares and permanent frown and maniacal focus gone, wiped away. He almost wanted to peel the ninja mask away as well, to remember that face as a child, but he could not peel the slashes back, or the stitches, or the time.

When Leo awoke again after dozing off in his musings, Raph was holding the damp rag back on his brother's forehead, wide awake.

"Hey, Leo—ya ready for some breakfast? Don says you'll need energy for that fever a' yours."

Leo smiled. "Where's Liz?"

"Out in the kitchen helpin'—not sure what Donnie's thrown together, but we better get out there before he puts somethin' dangerous in it. I told Lizzie to inform us of any suspicious-lookin' vials or bottles."

Leo chuckled, sitting up. "She hasn't seen proper food in forever—she'll probably report the milk cartons."

Raph leaned over and started helping him; Leo almost waved him away, but refrained, on an almost instinctual thought. What good would it really do, to let his brother watch helpless as he struggled—what could it prove, what could it damage? They both did it; he wondered which of them had done it first.

"Um… was I rambling last night?" Leo asked, as he got to his feet; he heard the handcuffs clink against each other.

Raph watched him carefully. "Not too bad. Other languages, mostly. I didn't know you knew so many, bro… I won't tell the guys or anythin', if you're worried."

Leo smiled. "I didn't think you would, Raph. Even though you have every right to sit back and watch Mikey make fun of me."

Raph's slashed face betrayed little, and he remained quiet, leading Leo out of the bunk room. The smell of coffee assaulted them immediately, and the sound of Donnie having a rather heated altercation with a customer.

"Look, for the last time, I am not a psychic! The psychic hotline you're looking for is 1-800-555-D-A-W-N-HELP, not D-O-N! Learn to spell and have a great day!"

In his distraction, Donnie failed to notice Lizzie sneaking a cup of coffee; as she wandered by focusing on it, Raph deftly lifted it out of her hands with one arm.

"Nice try, kiddo. Rule of this house is no coffee 'til at least fourteen," he said, half-laughing, handing the cup to Leo and getting him into a chair. It seemed the customer was not willing to let Donnie off the hook so easily.

"Oh, you want to speak to my supervisor? Here, let me transfer you." Donnie made a sarcastic beeping sound. "Hello, ma'am, I'm Donnie, Donnie's supervisor. We don't do Tarot card readings, and if you wanna know the truth, spending your time on unproven, superstitious hocus-pocus doesn't exactly help your case that you're not an idiot!"

Leo snorted into his coffee; he never got tired of Donnie's hotline calls, no matter how banal. Mikey wandered by; he was attempting to glue the oversized, fake zipper to the front of his shell, but for some reason he had already put the head on and couldn't seem to accomplish the task. Leo tried to get up to help him, but Raph waved at him to sit.

"Mikey, you dipstick—lemme see it!" Raph said, grabbing the glue from him. "What're you doin' with the head on?"

Mikey's voice echoed slightly inside the head. "Donnie's surveillance camera's malfunctioning—I'm testing it out while the compu's runnin' diagnostics or somethin'." He whirled a giant, squeaking nunchaku that sounded like a dog toy. "The new sonar device isn't working either. Can't go to my gig 'til it's up."

Donnie finally got off the line and flung his headset on the table. "I haven't had nearly enough coffee for crazies like that!" he exclaimed, taking a desperate gulp from his mug. Mikey laughed.

"You've had, like, three pots, dude—in the last hour."

Raph finished gluing on the zipper and went towards the coffee pot himself, but found Donatello's bo coming between he and the caffeine.

"Hey—what's the big idea? I make you coffee every mornin'."

Donnie ushered his brother back towards the table. "In case you hadn't noticed, you're still hopped up on pain killers, and I'm not too interested in seeing what happens when we mix those with caffeine, little brother."

"I am not," Raph denied, sitting down.

"Oh, yes you are. I gave you enough to get you through the night—in a couple hours, you're gonna be in a world of hurt. In case you forgot, your shell was crushed last night."

Lizzie sat down beside Raph, now with a cup of milk, and he nodded at her approvingly. He glanced at the pile of pancakes. "Pst—Liz, what's in these?"

She looked up. "Two cups Krusteez boxed mix, one teaspoon vanilla extract, two cups filtered water, a half-cup canned, drained blueberries, and a tablespoon of butter," she recited. "And three dashes cinnamon powder."

Raph chuckled, Mikey—who'd taken the head off to eat—grinned, and both Leo and Donnie stared.

"Whoa," Leo said, under his breath.

"Narc," Donnie said, smiling. "So, Raphi, your little spy has a photographic memory. How'd you figure that out?"

"Trainin' her yesterday," Raph said, forking a couple pancakes. "I may be a brute vigilante, but I ain't stupid."

Donnie sat down as well, taken aback. "Whatever you say, Raph—no one said you were."

Leo focused on his pancakes, troubled by a vague déjà vu.

"Pancakes're great, by the way," Raph said, his tone of voice not changing—matter-of-fact, and flippant, denying all deeper meaning.

Mikey began rolling his pancakes into burritos. "Cool—check it out, Raph. New patent idea." As he did this, Lizzie watched intently, and began to do the same. "Kid fits it well, dudes."

Raph gave a half-grin. "Yeah—that reminds me. April was here last night. What'd she say 'bout the whole thing?"

Donnie sighed and glanced at Leo, who gestured at him to take the cake. "I'm not playing bad cop this early in the morning," he said, and returned to his coffee, making Donatello roll his eyes.

"Fine. She said Lizzie should stay here 'til no one's after her anymore. Then April's gonna take her up to foster services for us, since we don't have her mother's name to look for any relatives."

"Yeah, we do," Leo perked up. "It's one thing we got out of Karai last night—after Raph's cavalier attitude."

"Hey—I said I was sorry. I shouldn't've gone in there, and I toldja so, too. What more d'ya want?"

Leo sighed. "You're perfectly capable of being polite, Raphael. I just wish I could get you to respect me enough to actually do it. And there was no way I could have just left you with those Foot medics."

Raph shook his head. "Man, you gotta trust me to take care a' myself sometimes, Leo. No wonder Karai acted like I was some little kid—my own brother seems to think he has to hold my hand the whole way. Last night had nothin' to do with my respect for you, and everythin' to do with Karai's respect for us."

Leo scoffed. "Yeah—her lack of respect because I can't seem to control my own loud-mouthed little brother."

Donnie held up his hands. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. I thought you guys got through all the tests together? Why would Karai expect you to control Raph when you couldn't have got there without him?"

"Thanks, Donnie," Raph said, taking a pointed bite of pancake and sounding vindicated.

"You're supposed to back me up, here," Leo hissed at Donatello, who shrugged.

"Sounds like Karai was playing you guys off each other. If you got each other's backs through the tests, you should've done the same thing when you talked to her. Now she knows your weakness as a leader, big brother."

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Leo asked, somewhat belligerently.

"Sometimes, you don't listen," Donnie said, slowly and not accusingly. "And that goes double for Raph."

Raphael didn't deny it, but grabbed another pancake, smiling. Seldom had Donatello ever taken his side of a debate; it felt good to have the reasoning brother in his corner for once. Mikey remained quiet, he and Lizzie both watching the exchange, troubled and slightly bewildered. Mikey poured the kid some orange juice while she grabbed another pancake for him, in silent agreement.

Leo sighed. "What—so all this is my fault? That's just what I thought."

Raph chimed up. "All what? We're fine, Leo—stop beatin' yourself up over nothin'. We got there, even though you lost the key to these stupid handcuffs—we survived, we got some info, even though I acted like a moron—no harm, no foul."

Leo shook his head. "You just don't get it, do you? You're not the big brother. I shouldn't have expected you to get it."

Raphael laughed a bit. "Get what? Look, I know I lost my temper on Karai last night and made you look bad, and I'm sorry. And I wouldn't say I'm sorry if I didn't have any respect for ya—so gimme a break."

Leo gritted his teeth. "You're my little brother. I should have taught you respect by now. I've been training with you all this time, and we still can't work together on that basic level, because I cannot seem to guide you correctly. I keep failing, even when you ask me for my help. So what kind of brother am I?"

Raphael watched him in disbelief, then laughed, and got up. He began to walk, restlessly, in the living room.

"Uh-oh," Mikey said, under his breath. "Major uh-oh." Donnie nodded in agreement, placing a tired hand over his eyes. Leo got up and followed his unraveling brother.

"Does it ever end?" Donatello asked rhetorically, pouring more coffee.

"Raph"—Leo began, sounding as though he were going to confess something, but Raph cut him off.

"I… will not be… your personal failure. You got me, Leo?" he asked, turning around, with that trapped, stirring demon behind his eyes, speaking slowly and deliberately, sounding very different. "You don't get to blame yourself for my stupid decisions. You don't get to take responsibility for what I say or what I do."

Leo shook his head, appearing noble—great and powerful Leonardo, again that immortal and unassailable force he had been growing up, his vulnerability gone with the fever. "When an adult makes a mistake, Raphael—when a leader makes a mistake, even if he doesn't intend for anything to happen—he takes responsibility. What you do reflects on me. It doesn't matter who made the decision. It still falls on my shoulders. No excuses."

"Don't confuse bein' the leader with bein' my brother," Raph said, his voice lower. "I asked for your help because you're my brother. I stick by you because you're my brother. I follow you because you're my brother. I protect you because you're my brother. I don't do anythin' outta some weird ideal a' you bein' my General or somethin'. We're not like the Foot, Leo—we don't run things like they do. You can't just forget that 'cause Karai seems all honorable t' you."

Donnie looked at Mikey, one eyebrow ridge raised. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Mikey, in his turn, pushed a bowl of Mallows towards him.


"Marshmallow," Donnie shrugged. They both glanced at Lizzie, who now sat between them, drinking her juice. He pushed the bowl her way. "Marshmallow?"

She took one, tucked it into her mouth, and gave a thumbs up. "'mallow," she agreed, and the brothers grinned.

"She does fit in pretty well," Donnie chuckled.

"Yeah, well—none of that helps in front of the Foot clan, Raph," Leo said. "You're too simple-minded to at least pretend? You couldn't be pragmatic, and use your manners, and do what I say—even once?"

Raphael scoffed. "Oh, I'm simple-minded now too, huh? That's right. Stupid, simple-minded, vigilante brute Raphael, who's good fer nothin' but bein' the muscle, right?" The monster intensified behind his eyes. "I understand manners better 'in you think, Leo. We got through those tests as equals. If Karai disrespects me, she's disrespectin' you, and that actually pisses me off. You don't get to just reverse positions outta nowhere when the fight's over, and take responsibility for me, or my actions. You shoulda took the hint when I threw that battle, but ya don't get it, Leo. I threw that battle 'cause I knew I could stay there and handle myself, while you talked to Karai. An' you refused it. I admitted you were better fer the job, an' you wouldn't take it! How can I follow ya when you refuse t' let me? It's like ya think you have to force me t' do it before I'm really followin' you—but it's always my decision!"

Leo shook his head slowly. "No—no, Raph—you had no choice, that whole time. It's an illusion if you think you did. That's why it's all my fault. Just let me take responsibility. It doesn't have to be a struggle."

Raphael worked his jaw, behind the horrid slashes. "No. I don't want you to take responsibility f'me. The thing is, y'can only take responsibility if I give it to you, an' I don't. You don't get to decide. None of it. It's my life—you're my big brother, Leo, but my life is my responsibility. You don't get to decide what I do, what I say—it's not yer fault, or yer problem, unless I ask fer help. Ya have no control over any of it. You can't decide how I live—and Leo, ya can't decide how or when I'm gonna die." He had his arms out, frankly; the monster was gone behind his eyes, leaving only a slight sadness, as though while speaking he had come to truly understand something.

yours to protect…

Leonardo didn't know why he did what he did next; he knew only that Raphael had hurt him, badly, and he wanted very suddenly to hurt him back. He reached into a small declivity made in his belt, normally used for a hidden shuriken, and threw its contents at Raph's feet, standing still and silent, resentful and not entirely understanding why.

Raphael stared at the tiny item, blinking; his response showed that he could not manage, or refused, to understand its significance, and made Leonardo feel instant regret, and wish he could just take it back. Mikey and Donnie craned their necks to see. Glinting on the floor was a tiny, silver, unassuming handcuff key.

"Where'd you find it?" Raph asked, looking back at Leo, perplexed.

For a moment, Leo's heart ached, and he considered going along with his brother's somehow innocent assumption—Raph, of all people, innocent about something, still trusting in a thread so basic that had been broken without his knowledge. But he knew he couldn't keep it up if he lied.

"I… I never lost it, Raph," Leo said, his voice breaking unexpectedly.

Raph continued to have trouble grasping it, the struggle on his face asking Leo for a kind explanation. "So… so you had it with you the whole time—you just forgot where ya put it?" he asked, subconsciously taking a step backward, after leaning to pick up the tiny, insignificant object.

Leonardo found that his own hands were trembling. This little thing; this little decision—so small, so fathomless. Tsubaki.

"No, Raph," Leo whispered, unable to raise his voice any higher, lest it carry a sob. "Like I said… I gave you no choice."

Raph was staring at the key, down in one hand, a dumbfounded, helpless expression all over his disfigured face.

"This's what those nightmares were 'bout…" Raph whispered, almost inaudible. He said nothing else about them, unwilling to betray what his brother had said during his fevers.

"I guess… I was just afraid, that you'd leave me there. You didn't want to go… and I knew, as long as we were connected, that I could protect you, and nothing bad would happen to you. But I forgot… how fiercely you could protect me," Leo said.

Raphael looked into the key, its small, semi-reflective surface; into his brother's eyes, and the way he refracted back, a distorted mirror, cracked glass, twins separated forever, his own face, twisted, monster-like, behemoth—ugly. The hand holding the key became a fist, a fist lingering in the air ineffectively, as though he could not decide what to do with it—or worse, that he was powerless to use it, to control or change anything around himself with it—he turned in several directions, lost, looking at objects at random, his eyes wild, the fist uncurling. All he found was a knot in his stomach, the turning of the earth coming up suddenly under his feet, nausea, helplessness.

"Raph"—Leo said, but could say no more. He wanted desperately to take it back—to take everything back, a lifetime full of transferring his anger and his powerlessness and his anxiety over the safety of his family onto his little brother, crushing him under his shadow. He had unfairly shared the weight with him, without offering a shred of thanks or acknowledgment or help, when his brother had needed it most. Better than Raphael because he'd used his shell as a bridge, because he'd been carried there by someone who had once thought of him with awe. By someone who'd trusted him. Whom he refused to trust back. Whom he refused to be equal to. It was easier to let this brother stand, through the glass darkly, and be the monster—be the other, the darkness, while he walked in the light. "Raph…"

"I wish I were dead," Raphael whispered, utterly powerless, his hand at last falling by his side; he continued looking around, as though for a way out—big, tough Raphael—their rock, the fire that protected them with his silent belligerence, unwilling to be vulnerable, unwilling to move, the shadow of his brother, protector of Leonardo's right side. Donatello and Michelangelo both stood, their cynicism and amusement at the fighting gone long ago, watching their brothers with a mixture of incredulity and sickness, feeling the uncertainty, and the deadly nature of the words, slicing the air between them. Leo stepped forward, as to help, but Raph shook his head, his eyes wandering all over but refusing to focus on him. "I think I'm gonna be sick…"

And, as by some twisted irony, Raph followed in Leo's steps and moved outside, to be violently ill in the sewers beyond the den. Leo went tentatively near the door, in case his brother needed his help; they all expected that after he pulled himself together, Raph would do as he always did: leave, for a couple hours or even a day, then return home, ready to resume life as usual; he, however, did not. He came slowly back in the door, still not looking at Leo, and went for the sink, to drink some water and spit it back out again, trying fervently to get a grip on his insides.

"Raph—you okay? Need something to settle your stomach?" Donnie asked, trying to be helpful and not reference the fight. Leo continued to watch from the den, now himself completely powerless and confused.

"Thanks, Don—gimme a minute. I should be fine… nothin' some milk couldn't cure," Raph said into the sink, splashing his face.

Donatello was breathing hard; he looked at his elder brother, a strange light in his eyes; Leo watched it, realizing that it was betrayal. Mikey had sat back down again, and a line of tears was trickling down to his neck; he had nothing lighthearted to say to bring the mood up, no string of hope to make things shine, nothing to make his brothers feel better, nothing to remind Leo that things would be okay. He realized they were waiting to hear it from Raphael, who held the fire around which they sat, protected. Without it, the shadows disappeared; but so did they.

Raph sat back down at the table, his hand slightly extended on its surface, staring at that tiny, insignificant key. One in a series of insignificant events, that when taken together were capable of changing him so much. Keys to a dark and troubled life, into which few lights had shone.

Leo at last came forward. "Raph, please listen to me… I was just afraid. I admit it, okay? I was afraid for you—I wanted to help you. I wanted to protect you, to teach you that we could really work together, if you'd just follow along, and see things my way. It was… shortsighted. I know you said you'd stay… I just couldn't stand the idea of you running off or running ahead, to get hurt, or get killed…"

He received no response; Raphael didn't so much as turn around, or flinch, or show any sign that he'd heard him.

"Raph? Can you hear me?"

Mikey shook his head, understanding. "Raph, want some milk?"

"Yes, please," Raph said quietly. "Thanks, Mikey."

Leo, who'd been standing behind, tried to get in his brother's line of vision, but failed. "Raph? Look at me. Please!"

Donnie stirred his coffee, watching as unemotionally as he could. "Not so fun being ignored, huh?"

Anger reared up slowly inside Leonardo—anger at Donnie, for this small, annoying jab—at Raph, for pretended he wasn't there—for Mikey, who pointed it out so smugly—at himself, for everything. His voice shook when he spoke.

"So that's it, huh? You're just gonna play the silent game and give me the cold shoulder, like a five-year-old? Really mature, Raph! Can't you just talk this out with me like an adult and stop acting like a… like a…"

They all heard it in their minds, that long-ago rhythm. Acting like a baby.

Leo heard himself suddenly, as though standing right next to his body, as though he were sitting in the chair with Raphael, as though he were again in the grove of tsubaki, watching his younger selves, throwing out all those insignificant, horrible, damaging little words, until he had at last received them in kind—through that dark, distorted, funhouse mirror.

And Raphael, so solid, remained silent, calmly attaching the little key to the severed chain on his half of the handcuffs, and squeezing the metal together. Like the Nightwatcher motorcycle… something he couldn't afford to forget. Lizzie stood, as though deciding it was okay to approach, and came near to Raph, unexpectedly placing an arm around his big shoulders, and hugging him in her large ball of clean clothing.

Donnie remained standing, looking resolutely at his little brothers and at Lizzie, before folding his arms.

"I think you should probably go somewhere for a while, Leo—unless Raph disagrees." His voice was very firm—an older brother, in warning, taking Leo by surprise.

Raph heard him, and looked up, not making eye contact with the eldest.

"He's injured, and he's still infected an' got a fever. An' he's family. So he's not goin' anywhere. This is all between me an' him—you guys don't have t' feel betrayed or nothin' 'bout it. It's just… somethin' 'bout the two of us… messin' each other up, fer no good reason. We share th' same amount a' blame. It's not all Leo's responsibility."

A small smile crept slowly over Donatello's face at the gravity of Raphael's words. Mercy. He made a gesture to Leo, who remained staring at his little brother, more wretched, unhappy and weak than he had ever been, rendered so by such simple—compassionate—words. His brother refusing to be the monster.

Mikey and Donnie went along with it, acting perfectly normal around their eldest brother, as though nothing had happened, without expectation for Raph to speak to Leonardo, which he didn't. They refused to be angry, to penalize Leo or give him vindication; they never once uttered that they yet forgave him or took so much as a fraction of the burden off his heart. When he passed Raph, in the bunks, on his way to brush his teeth, Raphael simply averted his gaze gently, abolishing his brother's existence. He and Mikey continued training the girl in shinaii, their laughter brightening the den; Donnie watched with a new confidence, protective and sure of himself, assuming the role of the eldest.

Leonardo, on the other hand, exiled to an in between realm yet tied to them by this unfinished sentence, haunted the den like a discontented ghost. He ran through the sewers, training, searching in vain. In his darkest moments he considered seppuku, watching the glimmer of his blades. The white camellia in his dreams told him it would be dishonorable to kill himself over such a disagreement, and that he must weather it. He ran, looking for the return path to that closeness—he and his brother, identical again, against the cold metal youkai, the moment Raphael turned around and bore with the weight of that crushing blow—Leonardo sometimes saw, in his dreams, beneath the demon's helmet, not his six-year-old brother's face, but his own, dealing that terrible burden.

I wish I were dead.

Ore wa shinitai da yo.

He realized he had said the same thing to Raphael, whether in dreams or in waking, but had not been understood. Across the continents of his and his brother's minds, he could not make himself understood. He could not take it back. He could not control his brother's pain. He could not save him from himself.

There were no words he could think of to bridge that gap. Their actions still seemed hopelessly tied to one another, in that marionette spider web. Yet he could never trace them back far enough to find a solution.

On the third day of this, when Lizzie was still asleep on her makeshift bed in the den, Leo came back from training all night to find his brothers eating breakfast, Raph still smelling slightly of axle grease from working alone all night in the shop. Leo was determined; he could not be here until he'd worked himself out.

"What's up, Leo?" Mikey asked, smiling at him and eating a slice of pizza with Life cereal on it.

"I think I'm gonna stay with April and Casey for a while. The infection's gone, and the wounds are doing better. I'll be back in a week or so," Leo said, lost and somewhat quiet, staring at the tabletop.

"That's probably not wise," Donnie said, noncommittally. Raph had his back to Leo, eating his cereal meditatively, his eyes lingering on the handcuff.

For a moment, Leo felt his pride drain, felt his body become light; the words flowed before he could think, from somewhere deep within him.

"Raph—you have every right to feel betrayed, so there's no way my apologizing will fix anything. I just… I just want you to know that, no matter what stupid things I might say or do to you—you're my brother, and I love you. That's not going to change. That's… that's all." That said, he then placed a hand on his brother's shoulder for a moment, wishing he could keep it there, before—for the first time in his life—letting him go. He started to walk away.

Mikey and Donnie watched Raph's face; his eyes glittered between the healing slashes, to show he had been listening. He looked at the handcuff, listening to his older brother's steps growing close to the door; with them traveled something that could very well be lost forever. Give and take. Checks and balances. Leo's pride, and his own.

"Leo…" Raphael called, grabbing his attention. Leo turned, and Raph kicked out the chair beside him. "Don't be a martyr—you're not goin' anywhere."

Leonardo closed his eyes, trying not to shout with joy at the top of his lungs, as the tension in the room vanished, and the world suddenly righted itself. He came and sat down; Mikey and Donnie let out their breath collectively, as though they'd been holding it all along.

Leo almost spoke, but was intercepted.

"I'm sorry, Leo," Raph said, calmly.

Leonardo almost questioned him, almost told him it wasn't his fault, and entirely his own—but bit his tongue.

"I'm sorry, too," he said, and realized, powerlessly, that he'd begun to tear up.

Mikey and Donnie watched him sympathetically, with no trace of anger on their faces. Leo realized for the first time since the argument that they hadn't been showing him mercy, but love; they hadn't wanted to exile him, or alienate him—just to listen to what they'd been telling him. To trust them enough to be okay, to allow himself to be normal, to be weak, to be afraid—to be just like them. Mikey handed him some pizza.

Raph gave him a half-smile. "Well, bro, we better figure out some plan'v attack here. The Foot's after Lizzie, and Karai's gotta good hunch on where she is."

Leo took a deep breath. "Yeah, you're right. Donnie, you analyzed the samples and all that. What d'you think?"

Donnie scratched his chin; by now Raphael had told him everything that Karai had said at her headquarters. "Well, we know she's just a witness; they think she might be an experiment. That could give us the edge here."

"Hey, yeah—and Lizzie's turnin' out a real good butt-kicker. She's a quick study, dudes. That's also an advantage." Mikey pointed out, with a mouth full of pizza. He took great pride in Lizzie's abilities with the shinaii, despite it being such a product of her amazing memory.

Lizzie came out to the table, rubbing her eyes, dressed in a t-shirt now and a pair of Mikey's over-sized Hawaiian shorts; she was looking far healthier than she had when they'd found her, and all the tangles had been worked patiently out of her hair by a steadily warming Donatello. She appeared to know by instinct (or had been listening) that Leonardo's self-imposed phantom period had passed, and the brothers had returned to a state of normalcy. She patted Leo's shell.

"Milk you want?" she asked, with her slate-faced seriousness that made Leo laugh.

"If you're heading in that direction I'd prefer some coffee. Thanks."

She smiled, in a way learned from Raph, and bounded over to the coffeepot.

"And don't let me catch you sneakin' any, kiddo," Raph warned.

She came back with coffee and a cup of milk, to sit down between Leo and Raph, providing some link to the past that tied them together again, just beyond the spider web. Leonardo looked around at them; newly five, with Master Splinter's presence hovering somewhere around them, though he was not sure from where. Perhaps in the compassion, in the link between, in the understanding, learned from standing in each other's footsteps, watching through each other's eyes.

Even with that looming threat, they sat and joked over breakfast, something like a family, without having to say it. Like they'd always been, Leo supposed. Shifting, changing, elements drifting in and out, even when incomplete. He smiled. Something like.


(To be continued in part three, Walking the Line)

Author's Note: This fic is more that thirty-thousand words long, so if you are reading this words, I thank you for reading, and you OWE me a REVIEW. Just a few words, telling me what you thought, are suitable. The third will be up on the Ninja Turtles section of the Cartoon genre, not in TMNT. I hope you'll all follow me there as I continue, and again, thank you for reading!