Author's Note: Um. Hi. Here's this. I think it's an ending. I could promise to write a sequel or keep it going, but I think we all know by now that it might take another year to get to either of those. So I'm leaving it like this as if it's an ending, and if inspiration strikes I'll take it up again.
So, yeah. Sorry for the wait.
It was almost funny. Raph had held a thousand different weapons in his hands. He'd handled blades and staffs, clubs and poisons, explosives. Even guns. He hadn't used them all, hadn't killed with them, but he handled them knowing they were fatal. Splinter had taught them all very young to respect the innate power in weapons. To never treat them casually. To always remember what ends they could achieve.
But nothing in his life had ever intimidated him as much as a small orange bottle rattling with tiny white pills.
He had faced death before. He had looked it in the eye, snarled his defiance. Invited it closer. He had grinned in the face of death, laughed. Felt his blood charging and knew what it was to be really alive.
It figured that when his own death finally caught up, it would be a dull, lifeless moment. It would be heavy, not light. Oppressive, not enlivening.
Maybe that's how he knew it was finally real. That's how he knew for certain that the pills would work – they would be enough, they would stay in his system, and they would kill him. He wouldn't escape it like he had all the other deaths he had faced down.
Good. That was the idea.
He tipped the bottle of pills into his palm and smiled, faint and sad. They'd forgive him, someday. Leo would go inward, Don would shut himself up in his books and computers, Mike would lose that sparkle of life he always had. But someday...someday they'd forgive him. He could trust that. He knew his brothers.
He could hear them in his head, practically. Even if he never believed them, he could always hear them.
He could hear them. And suddenly, like never before, he wanted to listen.
"I won't need anything else."
The words stuck in Mike's head, even as he moved around the kitchen absent-mindedly tugging out ingredients for dinner.
I won't need anything else, he said. And thanks, he said. For everything.
Mike wasn't an idiot. His was a brain that was raised on empathy, philosophy, and hour upon hour of after-school specials and melodramatic soap operas on TV. His brain rehashed Raph's words. The thanks, the 'get some sleep', and especially the 'I won't need anything else.' Mike's brain worked those words over, along with Raph's sudden bland peace, his sudden half-hearted optimism that things would get better.
His sense of empathy was confused towards Raph lately, and philosophy wasn't any real help.
The TV shows, though. How many times had he watched one of Splinter's soaps, watched some makeup-caked woman with tears in her eyes waver out a 'see you later, Roderick' and then pick up a gun the moment she was alone and point it at her own head? It was cliché, practically. As often as Mike yelled out to some character not to sleep with some other character because it'd just turn out they were brother and sister – and it always turned out that way – he had yelled at whatever Roderick was on the screen not to leave the room, because the dumb woman was just gonna talk to herself for a minute and then shoot herself.
Or try to shoot herself but end up grazing her brain and getting put in the hospital with amnesia so she could forget Roderick and hook up with some other dude. Who would turn out to be her brother.
Okay, but putting aside Splinter's love of horrible television, the point was that there was an air in Raph's room that reminded Mike of those TV scenes. An air of surrender. Putting on a brave face. Speaking with finality. 'I won't need anything else.' Not 'I'm all set for the night' or 'I'll call if I need you.'
I won't need anything else.
Mike considered the issue as he grabbed a knife to slice up some veggies. Stir fry would be quick enough, and Splinter'd be proud of him for making something healthy. Even Raph couldn't turn up his nose at a good stir fry.
He stared at the knife in his hand, watched it slice through an onion. Didn't acknowledge the sting in his eyes – maybe that was the point of cutting the onion first. He watched his hands doing this repetitious thing that required no thought, and he wondered absently why he wasn't already back in Leo's room, checking on Raph and making sure he wasn't doing anything stupid.
His instinct was tugging, and those words of Raph's were stuck in his head, but he was standing there cutting vegetables. Why?
Maybe he finally accepted the fact that if Raph was going to kill himself, he would find a way sooner or later. Maybe some freak spark of maturity was guiding Mike suddenly, telling him that if Raph was thinking of doing something drastic, the only one who could talk him out of it was Raph himself.
Maybe some dark side of Mike thought Raph would be better off dead.
He didn't know, but he stood there all the same. Slicing onion, slicing peppers, slicing shining pale strips of raw chicken. He loved Raph, and if Raph died he would never stop grieving. He would never forgive himself for standing there, making dinner and knowing, but not doing anything to stop it. Never forget the...
His hand and the knife stilled mid-slice.
The bottle of pills Raph so casually took from his hand.
Slowly his hand began cutting again, but his breathing was ragged and it wasn't the onion making his eyes burn now. Raph would be dead, and Mike would be an accessory to suicide. Don would never forgive him for making him sleep. Leo would never get over facing his fear and talking to Splinter too late to do anyone any good.
They'd fracture apart. They'd die. All of them. And not the easy way. Not Raph's way: fighting and snarling and pushing it to come faster. No, they'd die in a slow, horrible, lingering way. They'd choke to death, every breath drawing in guilt and anger and loss and resentment until it clogged their lungs like quicksand and strangled life out of them.
Mike wasn't a pessimist. He wasn't given to bleak thoughts, or drawn-out metaphors about choking to death on guilt. He wasn't used to the sudden hard curl in his gut that told him things would probably happen that way, that things were going to get as bad as they could get and that was the only option left. It was black and cold, this mood that suddenly pushed over him. Poisonous. Bitter.
Real. Maybe the first real emotion he ever had, without his usual brainless idiot optimism blocking the way.
He set the knife down and shut his eyes, curling his fingers around the edge of the counter. He didn't move.
Leo always felt invigorated as he left Splinter and his peaceful, powerful rooms behind. Usually he was fresh from meditating, and his head was clear and his spirit was cleansed. This time...
He chuckled to himself as he shut the door behind him. This time his reasons were a lot less spiritual and a lot more...basic? Physical? Selfish?
The thought made him laugh, and he looked around the quiet front room. There, in the kitchen...
"Mike!" Leo headed over. "You cooking?" He spotted neatly sliced piles of veggies and grinned even bigger. "I feel like I just fought an entire war, I could probably eat everything in the..." He trailed off. He was happy, relieved, even cheerful, but he wasn't blind. Mike wasn't moving, wasn't responding. He was standing at the counter like he was caught in some trance.
Leo's grin faded as he moved in and approached his brother. "Hey. You okay?"
Mike turned to him.
Mike's eyes were dark, strange. His mouth was set in a way Leo had never seen on him before. His body was tense. "Why should I be?" he asked, and his voice ground out like he was spitting gravel instead of words.
Leo's chest squeezed. It wasn't panic that gripped him, or confusion. Mike's eyes met his and all his confidence, all his joy at Splinter's acceptance of his feelings, slipped down through his feet into the stone tunnels and didn't stop until it was far, far away.
Replacing the happiness was a stunned sort of darkness.
Of course he wasn't okay. None of them were okay. Splinter accepting his feelings for Raph didn't change a damned thing, did it? Raph still hated him. He was still paralyzed and bitter and resentful, and Leo had always been his favorite scapegoat.
Honestly. How naïve had Leo been, thinking a conversation with Splinter would act like some magical balm? Splinter wasn't the key to everything. Hell, he'd probably even change his mind when he had some time to think about it. He'd start looking at Leo with disgust, cut their lessons short, distance himself from his disappointment of a son. And hell, Raph wouldn't care one way or the other. He said he didn't love Leo, and he probably meant it. He'd end up laughing at Leo for telling Splinter. Mocking him for his weakness.
If he lived long enough to mock.
Leo was so stupid, thinking somehow things would work out all nice and neat in the end. Life wasn't like that. Life was...shitty.
He turned away from Mike, fists clenching at his sides.
"Mike!" The word was a bark from the other side of the living room, angry and sharp and somehow it was Don's voice sounding that way.
Leo looked over as Don came out of his bedroom and shut his door, loud.
Don stalked towards the kitchen, anger twisting his features until he didn't even look like himself. "Mike, who the hell do you think you are? I told you I had to stay awake. I told you to leave me alone."
Mike whirled to face him. "Oh, please. You want to be such a martyr, don't you? Poor Donnie, shut up in his little room with all his books because God knows if he can't find some solution, no one can."
Leo snorted. "Sounds like him." Come to think of it, that was a pretty condescending way to act, wasn't it? Even when Raph first got shot, Don was there pushing his way up front, as if none of the others would know how to help him.
Don fired a glare at Leo. "Sounds like me? Well, at least I'm doing something. I'm not treating the fact that my brother got shot like it's some kind of dating opportunity."
Leo drew back, fury rising so fast and so strong it robbed him of his voice, but just for a moment. "You bastard. You think you know how I feel?"
"Nobody cares how you feel, Leo. Go shut yourself up with Splinter and meditate about it, and spare us having to listen."
"Oh, the hell with both of you." Mike turned away from them. "It's sad. Raph's going to die, and you two are gonna be all I'm left with."
"Like you're such a prize, Mike." Leo kept his eyes on Don, though, anger hazing his vision.
Don returned the glare steadily, but as he stepped into the kitchen he seemed to stop himself from speaking.
He looked from Leo to Mike, screwed his hands into fists at his sides, and let out a breath. "What...um. What are we doing here?"
"What do you mean, what are we doing?"
"I came out here to yell at Mike for making me sleep." Don's voice was odd and controlled, as if he was fighting back what he really wanted to say.
Leo snorted. "If you weren't such a...." He hesitated. Weren't such a what? Why was he furious at Don?
Don met his eyes. "You feel it too."
"Feel what?" Mike asked, a sneer in his voice.
Don looked at Mike, staring hard at him. "Why would I yell at you for taking care of me?"
Mike grimaced, but blinked suddenly as if confused. He looked from Don to Leo, and the anger curling his mouth into a hard grimace softened all of the sudden. He lifted the fists he held clenched to his sides, and stared at them until they relaxed and uncurled.
"Dude. This is weird." He looked back at Leo and Don. "I never felt angry like this, ever."
It was going away, little by little. The anger clenching Leo's gut eased, and as it did he realized how unnatural it was.
Was it the pressure getting to them? Maybe, but it was a little bizarre to think all three of them would respond to pressure by suddenly turning into angry jerks. Like they were competing to see who got to fill Raph's shoes once he...
Leo drew in a sharp breath.
Almost at the same time, all three of them turned and looked at the dark, silent doorway into Leo's bedroom.
Don's voice was low and stunned. "Something's happened."
Oh, God. Leo's chest clenched all over again, but it wasn't anger that gripped him. It was a horrible, wrenching certainty. That wave of darkness the three of them felt didn't come out of nowhere. Something had happened.
Raph's eyes were open and unfocused. Near his limp hand was a bottle of pills. On the floor by the table a glass had fallen, and spilt water stained the stone dark.
It almost looked like he was smiling.
But the thing that caught Don's eye was at the foot of the bed. A crinkle in the covers that came and went. A shift. A movement.
He could feel Mike and Leo on either side of him, could hear their breathing as it stopped dead in alarm, and then started back up again when they looked at what Don was looking at.
"Can you see it?"
Don blinked up at Raph. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Yeah, we can see it."
Raph's eyes came into focus slowly, and he looked at the three of them, crowded in the doorway. The same awe that had choked his voice shined in his eyes.
But Don couldn't get lost in the victory of that shift of covers at Raph's foot. He stumbled through the door and to the bed, lifting the pill bottle and clenching his fist hard around it. "Raph. Did you...?"
Don's breath left him, and he heard two matching sighs from behind him.
Raph looked at them, at Don, at the bottle. He reached for it, and Don only hesitated for a moment before letting him take it.
"I was going to." He looked from the bottle to his other hand as it uncurled to reveal a small pile of tablets grinding into powder in his fist. He stared at them, then tilted his hand and let them spill into the bottle and onto the bed. "I was going to," he said again, looking up at his brothers.
Don reached out, helpless to stop himself, and gripped Raph's hand. He could feel the sandy grit of crushed pills against his palm, and it just made him clench tighter. Mike came around the other side of the bed and sat heavily, staring at Raph without touching him.
Raph looked from Don to Mike, and then over Don's shoulder where Leo must have stood. "You guys wouldn't let me."
"What do you mean?" Mike asked, emotion thick in his voice and relief making it tremble.
"I don't even know," Raph said, his small smile curling into a more Raph-like grin. "It was....man. It's like all the thoughts that I've had this whole time, since I first woke up. They were coming up so loud and strong and I was listening, and then..." He shrugged. "And then they were gone."
"Gone." Don kept his eyes on Raph's face, focusing to ward off any premature overemotional reactions to the whole thing. Even when he felt Leo step up beside him and felt the warm press of Leo's hand on his arm, he kept his eyes glued to Raph's face.
Raph looked back at him, then at the pill bottle. "Gone. My head got all filled up." He cocked a crooked smile, almost like he was embarrassed. "I could hear you. All of you. All the crap you've been saying this whole time, about how I've gotta be patient, and be careful, and things'll get better. All this stuff about how bad you want me to stick around, even if I'm useless." His eyes flickered up over Don's shoulder. "And how much you want me here for...the future. And everything."
Leo didn't answer, but Don could feel his hand tightening on Don's arm.
Raph grinned, gruff and embarrassed, but glowing with uncharacteristic awe. "Shit. You'll think I'm nuts, but...I heard all that stuff you've been saying all this time, and it's like I never listened until now. Or...or like my...my own thoughts...they left just long enough to keep from drowning you out." He hesitated, his smile fading thoughtfully. "This isn't coming out right. Can't describe how it...."
"So try." Mike reached out and touched his arm, twitchy as if he wanted to reach for that bottle of pills but was controlling himself.
Raph could only look at him for a second before his eyes lowered and his face flushed dark.
Embarrassed, Don could tell, and already the strange awe that was all over Raph was starting to fade.
"I can't." Raph blew out a breath and sat back. "Anything I say's gonna sound dumb, and this wasn't dumb. I never felt anything like it before. I mean...I never been so close to giving up on myself before." He looked up again. "I almost did it. I had water, I had pills, and I had my own stupid fucking head shouting at me about how everything was over. And my mind's been shouting that same shit for a while now, okay, but suddenly..." He frowned. "Suddenly it went from shouting to whispers. No more 'you should do it', you know? It turned into 'since you're gonna do it, do it now.'"
Don's stomach curled. His hand clenched tight around Raph's, feeling the sandy scratch of broken pills trapped between their palms.
"It's...shit. It's fucking scary, when you stop being scared of giving up and start accepting it. I could have done it, guys. I knew for a minute there, sure as I ever knew anything, that there was no point keeping this going. I knew my life was over." His eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance, glittering too brightly. Not looking at any of his brothers, but not closing them out. "I don't want..." He stopped, throat working. "I don't want to feel like that. Not ever. I don't know why I always gotta assume the worst about everything. I don't want to. I don't want to carry this shit around in my head all the time. I just don't have any fucking choice. It's there."
He looked up then, past Don at where Leo stood. Something flashed in his eyes. "You guys talk so much like if I just tried I'd stop being so pissed all the time. If I really wanted to I could meditate all that shit out of my head, and wake up a whole new person. You think I like feeling this way? You think I've got some choice and I choose this?" He blew out a breath, lowering his gaze. He dropped the pill bottle onto the bed and brought his hand up to scrub at his face.
Don sympathized. He didn't know what Leo and Splinter and Mikey thought about it all, but Don himself had never doubted that Raph couldn't control his emotions. He had always known it, and if he forgot it for a while thanks to the trauma of the gunshot wound, he remembered it again the day Raph had gotten himself up to go to the bathroom on his own. He remembered it listening to Raph tell Leo that if they were keeping him alive just to rot in a bed, he'd rather be dead.
Oh, he had a few minutes of sheer anger at Raph's words. Fury over the selfishness they showed, over the lack of consideration for how hard his brothers were working to keep him alive. For a few minutes there he let himself think that Raph wanted to die just to spite them and their work.
Common sense came back soon enough, though. As furious as Don was, as strange as he felt when Raph woke up after that little bathroom jaunt and couldn't feel his legs, he did know at least intellectually that Raph wasn't spiteful and selfish. That Raph out of all of them was the most passionate about squeezing every last bit of life out of a day. When the darkness came over him and told him he'd be better off dead, that wasn't something Raph chose. It was something Raph warred with.
Raph looked at him suddenly, breaking Don out of his thoughts. "Last thing I want to do is hurt you guys. You know that, don't you?"
Don smiled, faint and brittle, and nodded.
All his life Raph had sliced out at his brothers verbally, hurt them, insulted them, all in those dark fits of anger he had. But he was always the first to jump in when any of them were in danger. He was first to charge, first to defend, even first to throw away his weapons and surrender if a brother's safety depended on it. The first to jump in front of a bullet.
Raph had always put more faith in action than words. When Splinter gave Leo the katanas, and made him the leader, it caused a rift between Raph and Splinter that no amount of words could fix. No matter how often Splinter told him how good he was, and how strong, and how worthwhile, Raph only had to look at those swords and the words meant nothing. Raph spoke without thought so often, he had to think of words as throwaway things. He showed his love for his brothers with his actions. It was a harder love to pick up on than Mike's open and oft-spoken devotion or Leo's parental concern, but if Don ever thought Raph didn't love them it was only because he forgot for a moment that Raph simply showed it differently.
Don saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and watched Mike reach out and take the fallen pill bottle. His hand clenched around it, a strange bleakness in his eyes, and Don thought he knew without having to ask how the entire bottle ended up in Raph's hands.
Raph followed Don's gaze, and swallowed when he saw Mike's face. "Mikey..."
Mike looked up. "So keep talking."
Raph hesitated, but nodded. "So you get it, right? How this shit is just crammed in my head and I can't ever seem to shut it off? Well..." He shrugged. "I guess I shut it off. I mean, that's gotta be what happened, because just when I was about to swallow those fucking pills, suddenly my own crap shut up, and those voices of yours were suddenly loud enough that I could actually listen." He smiled suddenly, some of the soft awe returning to his face. "I never needed to hear you guys so badly, and you came through. And it wasn't just hearing Mike say that having me around was more important than anything else – it was like I could suddenly believe it. Like I know how he feels when he says stuff like that. Like if it was one of you in this bed, I could feel how hard I'd fight to keep you going. And I could feel...I could feel that you feel the same way about me. I don't know if I ever believed that before."
"Raph." Don surprised himself by speaking, but didn't stop it. "You're our brother."
Raph grinned. "I'm an asshole. I've given you plenty of reasons to hate me."
"Never happen, Raph." Mike again, looking a little less bleak at the idea that his voice in Raph's head had stopped what his actions with those pills nearly caused.
"Yeah." Raph looked back at Don. "I could hear you, too, talking about all the options, all the possibilities. Saying just 'cause you haven't found it yet doesn't mean there's not some solution out there. And I believed it. Like the whole world was open suddenly, a thousand different options all leading to a thousand different possible solutions. And if the answer wasn't out there somewhere, hell, I'd just have to discover it myself. I dunno if that's how you actually think, Don, but damn. It was cool, feeling for a minute like there wasn't a thing in the world I couldn't figure out and fix if I just learned enough about it."
Don felt himself smiling a little, touched and somewhat amused by the words. "I guess that is how I think."
Raph grinned, looking past him at Leo. "And you. Don't get me wrong, you're the easiest one to hear normally, mostly because you spend so much time bitching at me. But it wasn't the bitching I heard, it was the other stuff. All that crap about being able to master myself, and discipline my own head and body. About how life's this constant struggle for perfection, and if I'm not any closer to perfect with half my body out to lunch, I'm sure not any further away either. Because let's face it, I was pretty screwed up before I got shot." His hand tightened against Don's, but he was still smiling. "I could hear you, and this whole thing suddenly seemed like a challenge, not an ending. Just one more hurdle to jump, and when have I ever shied away from a challenge?"
He looked around at them, his eyes glowing. It was probably the softest Don had ever seen Raphael look, and if it seemed strange on Raph's features it was a beautiful kind of strange.
"I got a lifetime of hearing my own negative shit in my head. For a minute, or two, or five, I heard you guys instead. And that was enough. One minute of you guys and this thing that I was about to kill myself over became just another training lesson. A challenge I could learn about, and could learn to beat. Something that wasn't nearly big enough to make you guys think less of me, or love me less, or want me around less. It became such a tiny fucking thing that when I came back to myself and looked at that pill bottle it made me laugh. I was gonna off myself because I can't jump around on rooftops for a while? Really? No way in hell. I have options to find and lessons to learn and a family that loves me more than I deserve."
He looked around suddenly, his grin wilting at the corners. "Right?"
"Right," Mike said, instant and firm.
"Right," Raph echoed. He hesitated. "I don't know why you guys showed up in my head. I don't know how I drowned out my own shit and managed to listen. I know....it's faded already. It's gonna go away, and I'm gonna remember how it felt but that's not gonna be enough all the time. So you have to remind me. I don't want to go back to how I felt before, but it's gonna happen. I'm me, you know? I just..."
"Raph, come on." Leo, sounding amused, spoke behind Don. "You think we're ever going to let you forget it? You think we're not ready to go another twenty years doing battle against your moods and your darkness? And then another twenty years after that? It sounds like you know us even better now than you did yesterday. You think Mike's love will ever fade? Or Don's optimism about finding answers will be silenced because you're a jerk now and then? Your attitude is as much a challenge to me as it is to you. Think I'm going to let you win? I've never let you win before in my life."
Raph's smile went crooked. "I've won against you before."
"Because you earned it. Because you fought for it." Leo moved around Don suddenly and stood over Raph, arms folded over his chest, challenge there. "Fight for it this time."
Raph bared his teeth in a grin, tight and fierce and like his old self.
Don cleared his throat. "Right. But fight for it in the morning. Epiphanies can be draining, and you're going to need your strength. Casey's coming down tomorrow for whatever it is you two call 'therapy'." He didn't miss Raph's smirk. "And while Mike's finishing dinner you get to sit here with me and go over every little thing you felt leading up to being able to move your foot."
Raph looked down the bed, and the sheet at his feet crinkled again, and he practically beamed. "I think you guys and your loud-ass voices just forced it out of me."
"Anyway, before you start grilling me about my foot..." Raph's face suddenly flushed a darker green. "I need to talk to Leo about something."
Don caught Mike's eye across the bed, and Mike grinned. Don just sighed. "Fine." He slipped off the edge of the mattress. "Leo, come get me when you're done in here. Mike....you can teach me to make stir fry."
Mike beamed, charging to the door with the pills clutched but seemingly forgotten in his hand.
Don flashed Raph a smile as he slipped out the door, and didn't fail to notice the look on Leo's face as he watched them go. Uncertainty, fear, anger, hope. Leo wasn't one to war with a dozen emotions all at once – that was Raph's domain – but Don couldn't tell just by looking at him which of those emotions was going to dominate the others once he was alone with Raph.
Don shut the door to the bedroom and shook his head as he followed Mike.
In the kitchen Mike had set the pills down on the counter, and was regarding the bottle with brow furrowed. "So..." He looked over as Don approached. "Right before we went in there. When you and me and Leo were standing here ready to kill each other for no reason at all..."
Don frowned. He'd forgotten all about those strange few minutes.
"You think we helped him?"
"How do you mean?"
Mike approached the counter and took up the knife he'd been slicing vegetables with. "I mean...he said he always hears us, it's just his own thoughts are too loud to really listen. And he said he never needed to shut off those thoughts so badly in his whole life as he did right then."
Don thought about that, drawing in a thoughtful breath. "You think without even knowing it we took on his thoughts for a while?"
Mike smiled over at him. "Why not? Weirder things have happened."
Don almost returned the smile, but the idea that Mike was right made him grimace suddenly.
"What? It's a good thing, isn't it? We helped him in the end, even without knowing it. All that meditation and being as one and all Splinters been teaching us our whole lives really paid off."
Don nodded. "You might be right. It would explain a lot. I just..." He frowned at Mike. "If it was taking on Raph's thoughts that had us all snarling at each other, does that mean how we felt then is how Raph feels all the time? Is that what he's having to fight against?"
Mike's grin faded.
Don sighed. If Raph really did have such darkness in him all the time, he would need all his brothers to fight it back enough to overcome his injuries. Then again, if Raph was given a few minutes insight into how the three of them felt, maybe they equally needed insight into him. It would certainly be harder to dismiss Raph as a jerk now that they really knew what it was like in his head.
A fight was always easier to win when one knew and understood one's enemy.
He moved up to Mike's side and nudged his arm. "Come on, Emeril. Teach me how to cut things up and throw them in a wok."
Mike's eyes went back to the shut bedroom door, but he drew in a breath after a moment and let himself smile. "I'll have you know there's an art to stir fry."
"Oh, so you're an artist now."
"Bet your ass. Just because you can't pour a glass of water without ruining it doesn't mean you have to resent those of us who are gifted in the kitchen."
Don nudged him again, smiling more sincerely. "I don't resent it. It keeps me from starving."
"Damned with faint praise," Mike sighed to himself. "The story of my life."
Maybe it was the fact that they had just come within an inch of burying Raph that was suddenly making Don brave. "You know, they say the way to a turtle's heart is through his stomach."
Mike looked down at himself. "I'd think you'd have to go through the plastron, not the..." He trailed off, blinking. His cheeks went dark, and his mouth curled up. "Oh."
Don shut the door behind him, and Leo looked at it for a few silent moments as he tried to gather up all his wandering thoughts into some kind of coherency.
Raph had almost killed himself. Okay. That was what it was – a wrench to think about, but that was all. Raph was still alive, and he could move at least one foot, and he wanted their help in a way he'd never asked for before.
Leo found it hard to turn 'Raph almost killed himself' into good news in his mind, but it looked like that's what it was. Good news.
He turned from the door to regard his brother, this strangely expressive Raph who came out the other end of a suicide attempt. Moving to the bed, he took a seat in the spot Don had abandoned. It put him at eye level with Raph for the first time in a long time.
Raph looked at him with wide-open eyes, looking as uncertain and conflicted as Leo himself felt. "So. Look." He frowned, scrubbing at his face with his hands and sitting back against the headboard of the bed with a sigh.
Leo opened his mouth to talk, to say something about what he had realized, what he had done, the last few days. But Raph kept going before he could get words out.
"So that whole speech Don likes to give about me. The sour grapes thing. Remember that?" Raph's hands dropped to the sheets at his lap, but his eyes stayed lowered. "I call him on it like it's bullshit. But."
Leo's throat worked. His stomach curled.
Raph sighed. "But it's not. I don't know if you can really understand all this stuff I'm trying to tell you about...you know, what it's like in my head. As bad as it is normally, all the pessimistic crap my brain fills up with, it's a thousand times worse with you."
Leo's rising hope took a blow with that. He looked down at Raph's still hand laying on his lap, and his hand twitched to reach out. To touch him as comfortingly and easily as Mike and Don could.
"You know how much I wanted your swords, right?" Raph's head tilted back, hitting the wall as his eyes went upward. "Splinter gave them to you because you were better with them. Which, okay, I knew that even back then. But still, every fucking time I see those swords, even now when I wouldn't know what to do without my sai, even now there's this voice in the back of my head saying 'you're not good enough, Raph.' I wasn't good enough for them. I wasn't good enough to lead us. And I'm not good enough for you."
Leo's eyes jerked back up to Raph's face.
Raph smiled faintly without looking back at him. "I'm not saying it's true or not, I'm saying that's all I can think of. No matter what else is going on around us, those thoughts come in every single time. All the dark bullshit my head fills up with, and then I get those thoughts on top of it. All I have to do is see you and it starts again. So yeah, I've been a jerk to you for a long time. I pushed away every feeling I ever might've had, because it's too hard dealing with knowing I'm not good enough to have to deal with that other shit too."
Leo jumped in the moment Raph paused to breathe. "You wanted the swords and didn't get them, so I understand that. But me? You never wanted me, that I knew about. I never said no to you."
Raph hesitated. His eyes shifted to Leo's face and held there, with Raph's usual bravery. "I couldn't give you that chance. I already resented you, Leo. I was scared I'd hate you." He flashed a raw, bruised kind of smirk. "I told myself you had to know anyway. You were always Mr. Perceptive about us, I convinced myself you knew exactly how I felt and you were ignoring it to spare my feelings. That way...I didn't have to ever say it out loud, and you wouldn't ever have the chance to laugh in my face."
"I felt that way for so long and thought those stupid thoughts so much that I shut that part down. I had to. I resented you enough for the swords, for being leader, for leaving because you were so much better than us and then not coming back until iApril/i went to shake some sense into you. But...hell. No point in trying to bury it again now that every one of my fucking brothers knows about it. So..." Raph looked at Leo, drawing in a breath, chin lifting proudly. "Ask me how I feel again, and I'll tell you the truth. And to hell with what happens afterwards."
For a moment Leo was tempted. But he remembered when Raph had looked at him so accusingly and reminded Leo that he never once said anything about how he felt. 'You've spent all this time trying to convince me of how I feel about you, not the other way around.' And Leo had thought about it and realized it was true.
When Leo made a mistake, he didn't repeat it. He faced it and learned from it. So no, he wasn't about to ask Raph to admit how he felt. Not when they both knew the answer already.
He looked at Raph steadily, heart thumping at the fragile pride on his brother's face. It was so hard for Raph to leave himself open. Leo didn't understand Raph's kind of ego, the macho pride he puffed himself up with twenty-four seven. But he didn't have to understand it. It challenged him, it inspired him. It enraged him. It kept Leo from becoming complacent for even a single moment. He couldn't take his position for granted because Raph was always there to challenge him.
And right there in that bedroom, with Raph ready to admit the feelings that hurt him for so long, that was another challenge. Raph was giving him an easy way out, and wouldn't even call him on it if he took it.
Instead, he drew in a breath and did what he should have done from the start, from the first moment Raph woke up after taking that bullet.
"I love you."
Raph's expression froze.
Leo reached out then as he'd wanted to before, slipping his hand to cover Raph's unresisting one. "If you told me years ago, I don't know what I would have said or done. I never even thought about the possibility of this until the first time Don told me what you were really saying out on that street when you thought you were dying." He smiled faintly. "But since Don told me, it's all I can think about. It's this doorway I never even noticed suddenly standing open, and it took me a while to figure out if I wanted to step through or not."
Raph's eyes scanned his face, crackling with a kind of intensity Leo hadn't seen from him since before the bullet.
Leo could feel his own pride crackling. He marvelled at just how hard it was, speaking these words to someone. "I knew if you died nothing would ever be the same, but I didn't know, not at first, if that was because of you, or if it would have been the same with any of my brothers. The idea of losing any of you..." He hesitated.
Raph nodded once, terse.
Of course Raph already knew. All of them did. Leo sighed. "It took me a while, Raph. Don took it as a given how I felt, and who knows? Maybe he knew before I did. He picks up on the strangest things. And Mike. Mike was constantly daring me to step up, to be something for you that he couldn't be, much as he wanted to."
Raph frowned, but nodded again.
Leo smiled suddenly, thinking of his talk with Splinter. It felt like days had gone by since then, but it was only a matter of an hour or two. "You know, even Splinter. He knew the moment I first asked for his blessing who it was I was talking about. He said he wasn't blind. Something was there, Raph. Something Don and Splinter and Mike all knew about. Something I was late to see for myself, but..." He looked up at Raph, and his voice trailed off at the pale shock on Raph's face.
"Splinter." Raph's voice was hoarse. "You told Splinter."
Leo felt a moment's apprehension, but suddenly remembered what Mike had said that brought him to Splinter's door in the first place. Raph valued action over words. Raph had been terrified to face Splinter's reaction when it was him and Mike fooling around. And Raph knew that Leo would be even more scared to face anger and disappointment in their father than Raph was.
So apprehension vanished, and he faced Raph evenly. "I told him about my own feelings. I asked for his blessing."
"You were hoping he'd say no. Looking for a way out."
Leo frowned. "No. I was making sure I could face my fears. I was making sure I was worthy of this thing you were offering me."
Raph searched his face, focused and dubious. "I wasn't offering you shit."
Leo grinned at that. "No, not right then. But I was ready to talk some sense into you so you'd offer it again."
Raph stared at him, incredulous. "You told Splinter you love me."
"And I never lie to Splinter. You know that."
Raph's expression shifted, as if he couldn't figure out how to react.
Leo tightened his hold on Raph's hand. He shifted, slipping closer to his brother. "I love you, Raph. I probably always have, and I know I always will. If you had died that day I would have realized it too late. Now that I know, and you're still here, I'm not going to waste any time. I'm going to help you get better. I'm going to help you get out there on the rooftops and into battles, even if it's never truly safe for you, because I know if you don't have that you won't be the you I love anymore. But you're going to take your time and realize this isn't going to happen tomorrow, and you're going to keep your impatient ass alive because you love me too and that's worth it. Right?"
Raph snorted, but it was soft and still stunned.
Leo couldn't help himself. He leaned in, curving his other hand behind Raph's neck and bracing him as their mouths found each other.
It was heated, burning. Raph was only still a moment before he met the kiss like a challenge, driving against Leo's mouth with years of repressed feeling behind him. His hand clenched around Leo's arm, but not to push him away.
Leo could feel it- the challenge, the pent-up emotions. It turned a first kiss into something searing, something that was everything Leo would have expected between him and Raph.
He pulled back too soon for either of them, but his question was unanswered. He pried his dazed eyes open and met Raph's gaze in challenge, the kind Raph never left unanswered in the past.
"Right?" he asked again, demanding a response.
Raph's dark eyes were glittering. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say, Fearless."
"That's no answer, Raph."
Raph's fingers twitched in Leo's hand, slipped through Leo's fingers to grip him tightly. "What kind of answer do you want? Yes, sir, Leonardo, sir. I'm here to obey."
"Shut up." Leo leaned in, meeting his eyes. "I want you to say it."
Raph scowled, but he didn't bother pretending he didn't know what 'it' was. He looked down at their hands, and when he looked back up the mock-scowl was gone, and his eyes were almost as soft as they had been when his brothers first walked it to find him sitting there with that pill bottle beside him.
"Fine," he said, and the defiance was faint in his voice, and gone entirely at his next words. "I love you, Leo. Happy now?"
"Yeah." Leo smiled, so wide it felt unnatural. He gripped Raph's hand and slipped his other hand up until his fingertips brushed down Raph's cheek. "Yeah, I am. How about you?"
Raph rolled his eyes at Leo's touch, but didn't pull away. When he answered his voice was quiet. Sincere. "If I'm not there yet I'm getting there fast."
Leo nodded. Not the perfect storybook answer, but an honest one.
There was still so much to work through. Raph's foot twitching was a far cry from his walking again, and once he was up and stronger there would never not be a risk of danger. It would take weeks. Months. Leo wasn't naïve enough to think this talk would silence all their future fights. Things would be hard and ugly for a long time, and Raph would have to war with his own dark voices. Leo could practically hear the fights they would have, could feel his own resentment and anger.
Every day would bring another battle. Raph would fight them at every turn, and would fight Leo just as hard as he had without love floating around between them like the ineffective cure-all it was supposed to be. It was going to suck, really, plain and simple. One huge challenge with a thousand smaller ones built in.
Leo had no idea how things would play out, and normally that kind of uncertainty would worry him. But there were two things he was certain about, and those two things were enough to keep the smile on his face and to let him lean in and meet Raph's mouth with his again.
One? He loved a challenge. And two?
Raph was worth it.