He recognized the sounds at once.
The over-loud shutting of the lair door. The stumbling footsteps.
Don sighed and tilted his lamp up, straightening from the wires he was attempting to splice together. It was late - his spine was aching, and his vision blurred when he looked away from his precise work.
Late, but that never stopped Raph.
Don shut his eyes, driving his thumbs into his eyelids to pry the haziness out of his vision. Slowly he stood.
Raph didn't like them to know he drank so much, but Don was usually awake when he came home, and was usually the one to put him to bed.
"Caretaker," Raph had called him once, bleary-eyed and grinning, safely tucked into bed. "Guess that's why it's okay. Leo'd give me shit for the rest of my life, and Mikey'd get all wide-eyed and innocent about it. Not you."
No. Not Don. Don tended to his brother and never brought it up again. Don's job was to bandage the scrapes, apply antiseptic. Leave water and aspirin by the bed.
It wasn't his job to dwell. His worries stayed safely tucked inside his own mind.
He stood up and sighed. At least he didn't hear the muffled whispers and snickers that meant Casey had come back with him. There was nothing worse than mornings when Leo found Casey on their sofa, smelling like beer and denying he and Raph had done anything but patrol.
He opened the door to his room and looked out.
Raph was just a silhouette in the kitchen, feeling for counters and walls to help him on his trek towards the fridge.
What brought it on? He wondered as he padded quietly to the kitchen to steer his brother to bed.
Probably the fight between Raph and Leo. Fighting for them was as common as breathing, but tonight it got ugly. A lot of anger, a lot of hard words about honor and family and obligation. Of course Raph had gotten in more than a few below-the-belt shots of his own.
Just another evening at home.
Don moved into the kitchen. He spoke quietly before he was too close, since Raph's reflexes were somehow quicker when he was drunk.
"Come on, Raph. You know you shouldn't be…"
He trailed off, realizing the moment before his brother turned that the silhouette of him was too slender. That his belt had straps that went over the shoulders.
That the band on his eyes wasn't red.
He froze, mouth open, and stared at his brother. "Leo?"
Leo turned too fast, unsteady on his feet. A hand came out and caught the side of the fridge. His eyes were round. "Don. What're you doing up?"
Don didn't answer for a minute. The stumbling, the too-loud voice. He hadn't been wrong about the signs. But…
Don recovered, though, because he was the caretaker and that was his job. "Come on, Leo. You shouldn't let anyone see you like this."
"Like what?" Leo tried, blinking too slowly. "I just wanted some water."
"You just got home. You smell like you've been bathing in beer." Don spoke slowly, patient. "Come on. Bedtime."
"I do not smell like…" Leo didn't bother finishing. He fell quiet, and stayed quiet as Don took his arm and helped him across the kitchen and living room.
Don almost went to Raph's door, the instinct there, but he turned them to Leo's with just a moment's pause.
Leo went, only leaning on him a little. Lighter than Raph, who was comfortable enough with Don now that he practically made his smaller brother carry him.
But tense. Silent. Leo.
Don opened Leo's door. He squinted through the darkness, knowing better than to turn a light on.
Leo moved on his own towards his bed, and Don released his arm only when he was sitting.
Water. Aspirin. Don sighed. "I'll be right back. Don't sleep yet."
He went to the kitchen and poured a glass of water. He found the bottle of pills.
When he returned Leo was still sitting up, a dark shadow against the lighter black of the wall. His eyes were shimmering glints of light.
Don moved to the bed and sat at the edge. "You'd better take some of these now. It'll be bad enough in the morning."
Leo obeyed him, only a little slower than usual as Don shook a couple of pills into his hand and handed him the water.
He left the aspirin by Leo's bed, knowing he'd need more when he woke up. "Do you…" He hesitated. "Want to talk about this?"
Raph never did. Raph laughed him off and said humans got drunk all the time and never had deep psychological reasons for it.
But this wasn't Raph.
Leo looked at him, nothing but eyes and shadows. "Go to bed, Donnie."
Don stood. Caretaker. Never asked questions. It was his role. "I left the lid off the pills for morning. Don't take too many. Your blood will be thin enough from the alcohol."
"Don't tell anyone?"
He turned back at the door, the softness of the request making him frown painfully. "Leo…Raph does this all the time."
"Think that's ever an excuse to act a certain way?" Leo flashed a smile. It vanished an instant later, like a bubble popping. "Please."
"I won't." Don regarded him. "Are you alright?"
Leo was quiet.
Don watched him as much as he could in the darkness. Big brother, leader, impervious to weakness. More skilled than the rest of them, more gifted. More at ease with the confines of their world.
Leo was infallible. Maybe that was why the whole thing felt distant and surreal.
Leo answered him, surprisingly enough, the moment before Don would've turned and left him to sleep.
"He said I wasn't his brother."
"What?" Don moved in again. "Who?"
"Raph. He said…he said if I couldn't treat him like family then I didn't have to be family."
Don sighed. He sat down on the edge of the bed. "Raph says a lot of things he doesn't mean."
"He meant it. He's said it before." Leo drew his legs up, wrapped his arms around them.
It was strange, the difference. Raph slurred and grinned and laughed when he was drunk. Leo…spoke precisely, even more slowly that usual. Overcompensating.
When Raph was drunk, Don ordered him to bed, babied him a little, and never told anyone. That was the right way to deal with him. He had no idea what the right way with Leo was.
Apparently the silence was a good start, though, because Leo suddenly spoke again. "You know I'm family, Donnie. You know it."
Don nodded. "I know."
"I'm not good at it. But I am."
Leo's eyes were wide and bright, and Don frowned to himself. Raph's habit of speaking whatever thoughts were in his head, however dark and exaggerated and untrue, had stung them all at one time or another. But Leo never let on.
"You don't have to be good at it, Leo. It's not a skill you have to learn. It's something you are no matter what."
"You don't understand. None of you do."
Don frowned. "Don't understand what?"
"Ever since we were kids…all I remember is wanting to see the world the way Splinter did. He was always so strong and sure of himself. He was our father, Don. How could we not want to become him?"
Don hesitated. Leo's words were coming faster now, revealing a little of the slurs he'd been trying to hide. "No one blames you for--"
"Yes. You do. You all do."
"Leo. We don't."
"You sure as hell don't argue when Raph does, do you?"
He blinked, frowning.
Leo wanted them to stick up for him?
Mike and Don had learned a long time ago not to get involved in their fights. They weren't built for arguing the way Raph and Leo seemed to be.
He spoke carefully. "We don't argue with him, and we don't argue with you when you say Raph is a bully with no sense of honor. But we know it's not true."
Leo went on as if he hadn't heard. "You practically agreed with him just now. Said I don't have to be good at being a brother. Because you don't think I am good at it. Just like Raph."
"No. Shut up. You don't understand, and none of you ever did. What Splinter teaches us is everything. It's survival, and grace, and spiritual balance. It's everything that could be important in life. Every single time I learn something new it feels like a gift, Don. And every time I want you to share that with me, you roll your eyes and laugh and call me teacher's pet."
Don frowned, realizing Leo wouldn't listen to him. That was something Leo and Raph had in common when drunk, anyway.
"You more than any of them should understand, Don. You think learning's just as important. But the things you like learning are all about the world and things topside and how they work. The things I like learning are us. Our bodies, our minds. How to make them sharper and faster and clearer. How to keep us alive. How to teach us to handle this…this life we've all been stuck with."
Don's attention caught on that. He looked up sharply, met Leo's eyes in the darkness.
"I want you to focus more on yourself, on your skill, so you can live long enough to learn everything else about the world. And I want Mikey to learn to control his moods, to know he can take things seriously. To protect himself, so when the bad things come he doesn't take them so hard. And Raph…someone has to teach Raph, Don. He'll self-destruct. His anger and his words, they're poison. When he can he directs it outward to hurt us, but mostly it stays inside him and hurts him. It's so dangerous. All of you…all of you can be hurt. All of you get hurt. And I have to stop it. I have to keep it from happening."
"Leo. You know that's impossible." Don's voice sounded gruff to his own ears.
"No. It's not. It can't be. Not if I'm a good enough leader. Not if I can get you to learn. I can do it. I have to. Splinter says a good leader…"
Don reached out and found his arm. "Maybe that's what Raph meant. Maybe he worries too, that you're trying too hard to be a good leader and you forget you're our brother, and we'll love you either way."
Leo snorted again, without the bite. "You won't be here to love me if you're killed. Raph doesn't know how to love anything 'cause I can't fix what's wrong in him. How long before something goes wrong in you, or in Mikey? You'll suddenly realize that those computers and things are more important than your own life, or Mike will get hurt one day and stop even trying to balance the good with the bad, and he'll break. You'll break. Then all of us will."
Don regarded him. "We're stronger than that, Leo."
"You could be stronger, though. I could help you, if you'd listen to me."
"You don't have to be our leader all the--"
"That's just it, Don!" Leo fell back against the wall, his slurs getting thicker as the alcohol depressed his system. "It's not being a leader. That's being a brother. To me. It's the only way…"
"The only way?"
Leo looked at him. "The only way I know to show you I love you."
Leo sat there, tense and tired and loose-tongued because of the alcohol. "Don't tell anyone."
Don blinked, then realized that Leo was going back to his original request.
Heaviness weighed at Leo more than alcohol or a late hour could cause. "Please, Donnie."
Don reached out. "Come on. Lay down."
"I won't say anything. Just lay down."
Leo obeyed, shifting awkwardly so Don could pull his covers back, and then laying heavily on his side. "My head's spinning."
"I'm not surprised, your first time getting drunk."
"Not my first time."
Don froze, cover in his hands, looking to his brother in surprise.
Leo smiled faintly. "I'm just not usually as clumsy as Raph."
Don tucked the cover around him, unsure what to say. Unsure what to even make of his brother.
"You wanna hear somethin' bad?"
"Probably not, but go ahead."
"Ev'ryone thinks I'm this great student. Like just cause I listen so hard and try so much I must be a half-step behind Splinter. But even though I listen to everything he teaches me and I meditate for hours and I try so damned hard…" He smiled, faint and bitter. "Getting drunk's the closest thing to enlightenment I've ever felt."
Don reached out, unthinking, and lay a hand on his brother's temple. "Go to sleep, Leo. You'll feel better tomorrow."
Leo obeyed, thou Don doubted that either of them believed those words.
For a while Don sat there, watching his brother sleep, thinking random thoughts about how much someone he cared about could truly hide from him.
Maybe, he figured, maybe it was time to stop being caretaker in one-hour bursts late at night. He could keep their secrets and bring them aspirin and the next day act like he didn't know more about them than he had. But maybe that wasn't helping. It wasn't helping Raph, and it wouldn't help Leo, and God only knew what kind of shadows Mike hid behind his laughter.
He stood and left Leo to his sleep. Maybe he should do more, but Don had no idea what more might be. They made him promise not to tell, and Don never broke a promise to his brothers.
He looked around the dark lair before shutting the door to his own bedroom. Maybe…
Maybe the solution was in the problem. Maybe next time they should all get drunk together.