Growing Pains and Orange Bitters

Chapter Nine: the hardest part of getting free

By: Serendipity

Author's Note: Wow, and here we are at the last chapter. (Disregarding the epilogue.) It seems like I've been writing this story forever. It's ancient! It's amazing, because no other story has made me as persistent to complete it as this one has. I'm probably going to go back to long one-shots for a while after this baby. Or AM I?

At first it was really difficult to start training.

That was expected, but it didn't stop the little rush of shock when he picked up a weight and felt his muscles strain to lift it. He hadn't remembered it being this hard to lift something he could have easily handled before, not even when he remembered how, during the thick, heavy days of depression, training had left him exhausted and winded enough to want to lie down and black out for hours. All of that was sort of a foggy, grey blur in his mind, so it was almost to be expected that he couldn't pick anything really solid from that.

For him, the hardest part of doing anything was starting it. Building, working, progressing, all of it was kind of, (not really, but almost, almost in the way that he had no way to describe it otherwise), simple. It was harder to tip the boulder over the cliff than to let it roll down.

He did stretches, small exercises and weight-training to build up the muscle, worked back up from simple kata to jumpstart the muscle memory.

Michelangelo set himself to an even brisker training regimen than Leonardo had actually prescribed for him: he wanted to work out, to climb the steep hill to recovery. He wanted to get better as quickly as possible, and this was just one hurdle to leap over on the way there. He'd never been the most patient of them, and sometimes all of that reckless flinging himself into training his body wasn't ready for actually had a price.

Since the price was usually exhaustion and a sleep so deep he wouldn't dream, he was more than ready to pay up. Of course, there were sore muscles and Leo lectures to contend with, so it wasn't all peaches. The patented Leo lectures were pretty much the same every time, slowing down, making sure he didn't overextend himself, remembering he was still recovering.

That was a pretty funny thing to remind him of, all things considered. He knew he wasn't 'recovered' yet. Michelangelo knew this because, well, he didn't feel exactly 'whole' anymore, despite the fact that he didn't feel so much like a ghost. Now he was better, no doubt about it, but still not quite right. He felt like someone had broken him and put him back together with a few pieces missing, leaving tiny and yet noticeable holes.

"You're drifting off again."

He turned and Leonardo was watching him speculatively. Those looks were getting easier and easier to read every day.

This was probably because Leonardo insisted on being his personal trainer every single damn day, which didn't really help matters much. Some people might have said that he was being a dutiful and thoughtful older brother. Michelangelo had decided that he was being an obsessed pain in the neck and a mother hen who couldn't actually take a hint and had taken to demanding cold showers even if he didn't really need them, just to make him back off for a few minutes.

"We've been doing this for the last two hours," he said, stretching to try and take some of the ache from his muscles. "Excuse me for not being a crazy person who can eat, drink, and breathe ninjitsu. I mean, I think we all get it by now. Ninjitsu is your profession. It's, like, your vocation. You probably feed off of spirit energy now. But normal people like me? Sometimes might get a little bored."

To punctuate this comment, he executed a few series of kicks and punches at the heavy bag, the blows making thick sounds against the leather.

"It's not because of that," Leonardo continued, "Boredom, I can see. Your focus is being compromised because you keep on pulling those all-night sessions, and you're not getting enough sleep. Remember what Don said about that? Your body's just not well rested enough to handle that, and if you keep on doing this, we're going to have you collapsing from exhaustion again. Sleep deprivation-"

"Yes, right, I know!" he snapped out, "Sleep more, eat more, join our professional training regimen to get buff! I'm just- I'm having trouble sleeping at night. Too much restless energy. I mean, it's for different reasons than before. I figure if I work out more, it'll get me more tired. I'm so weirdly hyped up all the time, it's insane."

He turned on his heel and headed over to the kitchen with the intention of grabbing some bottled water. His brother followed him at the usual distance, but just enough to make him acutely aware of his presence. While he understood why this might have occurred to Leonardo as being a necessary prevention step at first, it was really beginning to wear on his nerves.

Lately he felt like he was in some bizarre horror flick and Leonardo was the serial killer waiting in the wings. Only instead of a handgun or chainsaw, he'd have some kind of innocuous prop to suggest that he was just there to get milk or do the laundry.

There were two bottles of water left in the fridge, next to the carton of milk and the obscene collection of sports drink and Ballz. He snagged one, shut the refrigerator door, and turned around to see Leonardo still watching him.

"You know, if you really want to, Don can stick those surveillance cams up again," he suggested.

Leonardo looked puzzled. "Huh?"

"You know. He can stick up twenty-four hour 'Watch Mikey' cams in my room, and pretty much put them everywhere in the lair that I visit. And then you guys can rig the TV so it talks to me about cardiovascular stuff, and diet plans, and other healthy things, until I am a brainwashed zombie that shuffles around muttering "HEALTH FOOD" instead of "braaaaaains."

Water swished in the bottle as he gestured with both hands, indicating his zombified movements as they would surely come to be in the future. Leonardo had his eyes narrowed: he knew what he was getting at and was waiting for him to finish. Michelangelo changed the tone of his voice from flippant humor to something more serious, more quietly-spoken. The way he never would have spoken before any of this happened.

"No offense, but you're starting to creep me out. I mean, I understand," he added, seeing Leonardo begin to explain what he already knew, "It's not like I don't know why. I get it. I'm not, like, mad about it. But you gotta understand me…it's strange. It's weird, seeing you around everywhere. With everything I'm trying to do, I mean, it's hard."

"Okay, I got it," Leonardo said, still with that slightly confused expression that told him that he didn't know exactly what to do with this situation here. That was beginning to be a common look on him. "I'll just go set up the equipment."

"And there's another thing. I was wondering if you could maybe not be my practice partner?" The words shot past him without any attempt to think about them first, and he saw Leonardo stiffen and look back at him, brows drawn together, waiting for him to continue.

Michelangelo wasn't sure how he could describe the reasons for this without totally damaging Leo's sensibilities. The fact was, being near him all the time just made the attraction worse. Having him constantly hover over him was like some kind of torture, made even worse by the fact that Leonardo probably wasn't completely aware about just how much he was affecting him. It wasn't that they touched, or that they were even physically close lately…but the presence of his brother, just out of reach and still close enough to reach out and grab for built up day after day. He'd be a total liar if he said he hadn't entertained any hopes, or harbored any daydreams.

Meanwhile, those very fantasies made it even more difficult for him to see him each day. When he looked at him, imagined encounters still fresh on his mind, it made him feel like he was betraying Leonardo, like he was abusing him somehow, even if it was only in his thoughts. It made him paranoid, wondering how long it would take for those thoughts to fly out into the real world.

"It's really weird, bro," he managed, "I mean, with you always around me all the time, I get distracted. I don't want to, but I do," something of a lie, because he knew at least a part of him wanted to be distracted like that, "So you need to give me some space."

Leonardo exhaled slowly. "I understand."

"I mean-"

"I understand," Leonardo said with more force, cutting him off. An awkward silence fell, made of all the things between them that would have to go unvoiced.

It was bad enough having to talk about this at all without having the wall of stuttering, of unspoken buzzwords and hinted-at meanings. But neither of them actually came out and said it. And when either of them made a nudge in one direction, the other would shut it down. It was like a hygienic dysfunction. Something intimately humiliating that wasn't discussed in public.

There just wasn't really a good way to come out and say it. Even with the knowledge there, lingering between them thick and heavy as cigarette smoke in the air, talking about the problem was awkward enough to make his stomach twist into a pretzel and his throat close up to choke the words out. They spoke about it like it was an enemy waiting in the shadows, like just mentioning it by any name (incest, love, sick, feelings) would make it, like a demon, appear before them and spew secrets out into the air.

He was so, so tired of all of this.

"I can't have you near me all the time," he said finally, "It's…dude, it's confusing. I don't want to be confused. I don't want to feel like that, but you're always around, and it's-" suffocating me "Driving me insane."

Leonardo's expression looked oddly closed, the mask of complete control he wore when meditating or practicing. It was strange to see it on him while they were having, if not a casual conversation, then at least one without screaming or arguments. He nodded once, almost stiffly, and cleared his throat.

"Well," he said oddly, "I could stay away more. I'm just worried, sometimes. About you." Strange thing to say when he looked like he wanted to bolt from the room.

"I promise not to starve myself unless you're in the room watching me," he said, attempting to treat the issue with the lighthearted flippancy he could usually summon with ease, and failing. Both of them stood awkwardly in the silence until he sighed and added, "I promise I won't. I'm done with that. It's done."

Funny how he had to repeat it, as if by doing so he could make it a promise written in stone.

Sparring with Raphael turned out to be something else that was different from what it used to be. Back before, they used to play around, showing off new moves that didn't necessarily have real combat efficiency, pulling sneaky tricks, exchanging goofy insults and basically throwing in as much immaturity as they could get away with in front of Master Splinter. There was less of that now, with Michelangelo less inclined to be as playful, and Raphael less inclined to be as aggressive. He wasn't nearly strong enough to fight him as an equal, and Raphael wasn't about to raise the bar any farther than he had to.

Fighting him now was less hard-edged playfulness and more, surprisingly, a patient build-up of his combat skills. He was more patient than he'd actually given Raph credit for, and in his way more thoughtful than Leo had been.

Leonardo seemed to be pushing him, driving him to some point of health and mental wellness that only he could see and determine the distance of. It made sense why he would do it, he was worried and rushing to get his brother to a point of safety and stability, but the persistent, relentless way he went about it, never giving him slack, was tiring.

Raphael was less insistent. He didn't force a routine on him, even though there was sort of the framework of one. He clearly viewed all of that to be Leonardo's area of expertise, and so their sparring sessions were loose, anything-goes free-for-alls. Sometimes they'd use weapons, other times, when Michelangelo was tired from a heavy-duty exercise routine, they'd just play-fight, with Raphael calling out some of the moves he wanted Michelangelo to try on him, kicks, holds, maneuvers, and he'd end up sweating, tired, and yet satisfied. Sparring like that gave him pleasure in that it was something he didn't need to think about, and Raphael didn't ask him to talk about anything.

Truth be told, they barely spoke during those sessions.

Michelangelo pushed himself off the mat and braced for soreness, even though the ache of his muscles had been alleviated considerably as the months passed by. He kept on waiting for the soreness to act up as he sat up, moving gingerly out of force of habit. A few more bruises, nothing too bad.

"Augh," he moaned anyway, "This blows."

"Quitcher whining'," Raphael said, exhibiting a woeful lack of sympathy, "You get a five-minute break, and then we go back to more exercises. And then…well, then ya can go off and do whatever. Doin' pretty good today, actually."

Michelangelo snorted. "Sure I am. But you mean I can do better." That said, he snatched a towel off the rack and started mopping at his face, the sweat hot and prickly on his skin, his muscles burning. Not the intense burn that meant he'd be screaming for liniment the next day, but a comfortable kind that faded soon and left that clean, refreshing feeling after a good workout. That feeling he hadn't known he'd missed until he had it back again.

"I'm not complaining about all the training or anything. Okay, yeah…technically I am, but it's just complaining because I like to complain," he continued, ignoring Raphael's snort at that, "It's all good. But you know what would be great? Like, really, super, free comic book day, fluffernutter sundae with sprinkles great? Actually winning one of these. I'm missing the old days where I'd come in all macho and totally kick your ass."

That got him a laugh, Raphael gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder and snatched the towel, tossing it to the side. "Mikey, ya can't miss what was never there."

"What are you talking about? I specifically remember ass-kicking. Multiple occasions of ass-kicking."

"Yeah, well, you only remember those times because that was you getting' your butt pounded. Your memory that gone?"

"My memory is intact and full of shining moments of me totally winning. Lots of times."

"In what, Solitaire?"

"Oh, sure. Deny me my moments of glory. I have two words for you, dude. Battle. Nexus."

Raphael let out a groan of exaggerated exasperation and turned away. "Okay, champ, time's up. Back on the mat."

Michelangelo took a swig from his water bottle, remembering, in a stream of jumbled images, fighting when it was as easy as breathing, as easy as slipping through water. Remembered switching weapons with toys when his brothers weren't looking, playing tricks with silly putty and glue as they fought each other. Remembered more serious times after battles, when Leonardo (instinctive curl of the stomach as his mind brushed upon his name) pushed them time after time until they were sweating on the floor, fingers limp as noodles and wishing for rest. He remembered grey, miserable moments that played through his mind sluggishly, like ships moving through tar.

"Don't you want to…you know, ask me anything?" he said, quietly.

Raphael was turned away from him, so he couldn't see his expression as his shoulders lowered and firmly set. He shifted just enough so that Michelangelo could see his face, serious, eyes intense and betraying months worth of worries. Obviously trying to keep controlled.

"Would you answer me if I asked you?" He sounded hurt underneath all of that painstaking self-control, the kind that was alien to the way he usually let everything out in such brutal honesty.

Michelangelo swallowed hard and tasted blood, metallic on the roof of his mouth from a punch well-thrown. No good response came to him, or even (heaven forbid nowadays), a completely honest one. For a moment he floundered, caught between the instinctive and defensive reply of : 'yes, of course I would', and the more truthful: 'never, I couldn't risk-' then the moment passed and his brother patted him on the shoulder. He did it wordlessly, too rough, in the physical Raph-speak that meant for him not to worry about it.

He worried anyway.

The worry flared up in that instant and clung to him for some time afterward, thick and sticky, like the smell of smoke and burnt tar. Michelangelo wondered what would happen to him now, now that his own natural need to talk about problems was driving him and the only option open to him was the one person who he shouldn't talk to. Shouldn't, not because Leonardo wasn't willing, eager to help, but because Michelangelo was too eager to let him. He acknowledged this with a sullen twist in his gut, that he wanted to rely on Leonardo, he wanted to carry on this dependence…and how dependent could he really allow himself to become?

It was just that, as time passed, he started to realize that even a little bit of dependence could end up being a little too much.

When long conversations started sparking that little flame of hope that should have been reduced to a guttering ember by now, when sparring with him, sweating and written brightly in his mind with remembered body heat, the burn of muscles, Leo's eyes…when that came back to him in dreams at night along with every useless, hopeless emotion that should have died stillborn by now- he worried. And realized that with too much dependence on his protective older brother, he might actually start nurturing that hope.

Michelangelo realized that nurturing it could end up with him letting it grow until it was out of his control. He might not even want to get it back under control. And the fact, the realization that he could so clearly see himself doing that- it was more than a little frightening.

So he couldn't help but worry, a little more every day.

As time passed, his brothers stopped pulling their punches more and more. Little by little, practice returned to some degree of normalcy. Wooden practice weapons were replaced with live steel, and as his coordination steadily improved, he was able to return to using his nunchaku.

He'd missed using those weapons, had always been proud of his ability to handle the unstable, unpredictable nunchaku with accuracy and precision and even, if he was allowed to brag, with some artistic flair. A lot of artistic flair. He was the goddamn Picasso of nunchuckery. It was like being reunited with an old friend to have his 'babies' back, and to be able to wield them without his hands shaking to ruin his aim.

The first time he successfully knocked Leonardo's sword from his hand with a perfect lock, twisting the chain of his nunchuck around the blade and yanking the sword away with a practiced flick of his wrist, he received a smile that was part hope, part relief, and a lot of pride. He pulled off a few more disarming moves before his brothers realized that he was in truly possession of that skill and it wasn't just a lucky shot.

His body bulked back up, and Raphael decided that he no longer needed the muscle-building program he'd put him on when he felt he'd returned to the weight and muscle mass he'd been before.

The meals he was given passed from light foods and small, but frequent meals for a stomach that needed careful handling, and became more normally-portioned. His diet was rich with protein, full of meat and soy, and calcium with seaweeds and glasses of milk to repair the damage he'd done to his bone strength and his shell.

Despite his intense dislike for extra konbu and wakame in everything, no junk food, meat in everything, miso soup until he thought he was going to bleed it through his cuts, he couldn't deny the positive effect the diet had on him. Sluggishness faded away with time, and he became more alert, more energetic. Even his shell lost the dull, flaking quality it had before. (Michelangelo'd had nightmares of his shell deteriorating into sponginess, rotten material that crumbled away at the touch. The dreams always had him sitting up desperately, reaching back to see if it was intact.)

Raphael mixed bizarre energy drink smoothies for him, and Donatello made him vitamin cocktails that he decided to crush and add to his food to keep the nasty, dry-bitter pill taste away and keep him from gagging after the third vitamin tablet. The things tended to be unusually-shaped, large, strangely colored and speckled with flecks of a suspicious nature.

"Seriously, how many of these horse pills do I need?" he griped once, scooting the things around on the table and feeling suspiciously like a junkie.

Donatello gave him the stern professor look. It was a look that denoted that he knew best and Michelangelo should take his medicine or suffer the lecture that was sure to follow after more questioning.

Michelangelo met the stern professor look with an innocently questioning look of his own.

The looks battled for dominance before he decided to speak up again, rolling one of the things between thumb and forefinger without any real knowledge of what essential nutrients it supposedly contained. "I mean, I eat now, right? So, like, I should be getting everything from what I'm eating, right? No need for all of these medication and vitamin chasers?"

"Well, ideally, yes," Donatello said, "But we don't really have the means to keep you on a diet like that, and it's easier to give money to April for the vitamin supplements. Besides," he added with a touch of exasperation, "We aren't feeding you a whole bottle of pills every day. You have one multi-vitamin supplement, one calcium pill, one Vitamin C. Stop complaining, or we'll feed you nothing but the brown rice soup with seaweed."

"That is cruel and unusual. No, really, it is. That stuff looks like the creature from the black lagoon is going to pry itself out of the depths of my soup bowl and devour me whole."

It did, too. Brown rice was not only slimy and gross and dirty-tasting, but added in a strange, soup-like concoction with lengths of seaweed, it made a combination so vile and disgusting that he'd decided it was an abomination in the face of Iron Chef cooking gods and should be taken down. Whoever had decided it was a good combination was an insane cooking dark lord. He strongly suspected Donatello looked up strange health food recipes on the internet and fed him these mixtures to punish him for being sick. Which, of course, made him feel more than a little obligated to swallow the stuff in a culinary form of an apology.

'It's awful," he repeated.

Donatello picked out the dose from the table, poured the tablets into an empty cereal bowl with a tip of his hand, and started crushing them into fine powder. "Better get used to it, then," he said with a smile and a note of cheer. Michelangelo took the powdered stuff in his oatmeal with brown sugar and a token sigh of woeful regret that was more for Donatello, really, than for himself.

The punch caught him on the collarbone, forcing him to stumble back and duck to avoid the following blow, spinning around on hands and feet to defend himself. He turned and swung out wildly, trying to land a punch on Leonardo.

"Faster! Get that speed up!"

Leonardo easily sidestepped him, and his attempt to strike his shoulder failed. His knuckles barely scraped the edge of Leonardo's shell as his brother moved past him, almost careless in the way he shrugged off Michelangelo's attacks.

They'd been at this for hours, and he still didn't look like he was breaking a sweat. Bastard. He also seemed to be following his request for distance: he didn't make small talk, he didn't joke, he didn't even adjust his posture by physically demonstrating, moving his arms and legs in stance to make sure he understood. Instead, they had taken to absolute serious, straight-faced professionalism and safe distance. Leonardo would recite critique and the occasional praise, Michelangelo would follow through, and neither of them would step out of their neat little protective boxes.

"Watch your back!"

The flat of Leonardo's blade swatted against the bare flesh of his bicep, leaving a stinging mark that would bruise later. Backing up again, he circled him, striking out with his nunchaku every time he felt he could get away with it, and Leonardo blocked each of his attacks with a flashing gesture of his sword. While he could beat Donatello and occasionally Raphael now, if just through pure sneakiness, Leonardo continued to be too much of a challenge, and not just because of his skill. Fighting him, facing him, seeing him…all of it still felt weird. Still felt like going through a familiar action, but with something crucial about it twisted. Like walking through an upside-down hallway.

When one last attack failed to succeed, Michelangelo, growing more fatigued, his skin crawling with perspiration and heat, fell back and waited for an opening. None presented itself: with Leonardo going back to their no-holds-barred sparring method, chances of finding a weak point were few and far between. He flowed past him like water, just as changeable and just as impossible to pin down.

On one hand, this was something like a good sign in that it meant Leonardo felt that he was in shape enough and he had returned to a high enough skill level that they could fight seriously with him. This meant that he would most likely be let out to go aboveground soon, something he was looking forward to most of all. He'd missed watching the sky, feeling night breeze on his skin, watching the lights of passing cars and hearing the buzz and hum of the people in the street.

Hell, he'd even missed the high crime rate. He'd definitely missed beating down on the thugs who made the high crime rate. So, all of this serious, in-your-face fighting and training and catching up to practice his brothers had learned while he'd been…sick, yes, it had its good points.

On the other hand, it also meant longer and longer sessions, less free time (which he really needed lately, needed to sit and feel calm and do something normal, like video games), and a return to the back-breaking exercise which, in hindsight, he hadn't really missed all that much.

Leonardo made a move to attack him and he flipped backwards, landing neatly on his feet. Without pausing, he spun his weapons, building up momentum as he circled behind his opponent.

"Go ahead, attack," said Leonardo, watching him.

That was usually a lead in for Leonardo to pull off something sneaky and unexpected as ninjas generally did, but Michelangelo decided to take the bait, anyway. If anything, this particular sparring session had been going on at least an hour too long.

"Fine," he said shortly, diving in, performing a sideways swipe with his spinning nunchuck and aiming for a blow to the shell. None of them went for the various lethal targets in sparring practice when they used their actual weapons, since the risk involved was too great.

Still, neither of them had gone close to anywhere damaging when they fought: their blows had normal strength behind them, but their aim always erred towards the side of mercy. Blows to the back, to the shell, to the armored chest and never to a weak point. Maybe it didn't feel right striking out at each other's weakest points anymore.

As expected, Leonardo saw the swing coming and dodged it, launching himself in the air in a backwards flip that sent him soaring over his head, and Michelangelo saw his chance and took it. Lashing out with a speedy strike, he whipped a nunchuck up and snapped it hard against Leonardo's inner heel as he was airborne. The sudden pain in his ankle made him stumble, briefly, when he landed, and Michelangelo used the opportunity to land a swift roundhouse kick.

The glow of victory lasted about a second before Leonardo grabbed his outstretched leg and flipped him to the floor, pinning him with a foot to his chest.

Michelangelo looked up at the sword leveled at him and grinned wryly. "Maybe next time?"

"Maybe not.," Leonardo said, sheathing the swords in the swift, easy way he had. Having nothing left to say that didn't cross the boundary lines Michelangelo had laid down, Leonardo bent down slightly, extending a hand to help him up.

He looked at it dumbly at first, and then with consideration, as if waiting for something else to happen, and took it slowly. The warm grip of the hand hauling him upright was sensation enough to remind him that, lack of self-starvation or not, he still wasn't as stable as he could be. "Uh, thanks," he said haltingly, words spilling out one after another, a brief pause between each one. "So, um, I'm, like, getting better?"

"Of course you are," Leonardo said firmly, and it was obvious that he was pulling another one of his 'talk about two things at once' moments.

"Good," Michelangelo said in return. There wasn't much else he could say to that.

Clearing his throat, Leonardo continued. "That was a nice move when you hit me while I was overhead. Nice ingenuity. Creative." He sounded desperate to turn the conversation towards something safe, something that couldn't slip past his control and flip everything into instability. That was how they'd ended up speaking to each other lately, polite and on edge and always aware of the chance of avalanches occurring at any minute. So, he thought he was really doing both of them a humongous favor by going to check on the progress Donatello was making on the mysterious new tangle of wires and miscellaneous metal pieces he was working on at his worktable.

And so, when Leonardo grabbed his shoulder to keep him from leaving, it came as a surprise.

"What?" he asked, feeling a bubble of nervousness in his stomach, "I forget something?" Please let it be that I forgot something, and yet a trace of something else laced that thought, making it false.

"Look, this isn't working," Leonardo said, without any prelude whatsoever, because he was devastatingly blunt that way. "I know this is…difficult. And yeah, it is really weird, but this is just not working. It's one thing to ask me to keep my distance, which I've been doing. But it's another to just avoid each other like we have some kind of disease, and that kind of alienation isn't good for either of us. It isn't good for the family, and it isn't good for the team."

"How is it not good for them?" Michelangelo snapped out, ignoring the rest of it stubbornly, "I'm- it's not like everyone's you. It's not like we ever talked that much before! This whole…let's hang out with Mikey thing is pretty new to the family scene. I mean, on your side, not on theirs," he added miserably.

What he didn't want to say because it was too soaked in bitterness was: 'You never paid this much attention to me until I half-killed myself from not having it, and then you didn't even give me what I wanted.' Too bitter, and he knew it was only half-truthful, because he still didn't even know what he wanted, and he was pretty sure wanting Leo was like wanting a bullet to the head as far as life choices went. What he thought of saying and didn't want to say: 'Since when did you start talking for the whole family? Why do you always have to play like you're my dad and not my brother? Why does it have to be about the team and not about you and me?'

Or all about me, he thought, and his stomach twisted.

"Well, all right, I know what you mean," he relented. "They're gonna worry. You're right. It sucks, but….dude, I'm not going to be feeling right just talking like, like nothing's happened. And-" he cut off the rest, about how it was all still there, still intact despite all of his attempts to kill it, and somehow cutting a little deeper every day. It was just that he didn't notice, he could go through periods of normalcy before being jolted back into it by stupid, stupid little things. Not even the same reason every time: sometimes it was something as innocent as a memory, a picture, and sometimes it was as physical as Leonardo's arm against his.

"You can't just keep running away from me," Leonardo said, and he wanted to scream at him that yes, he could, and that's what he should be wanting from him.

Instead he let out a breath, steadying himself. Held himself in an unconsciously sturdy position, legs out, arms at his sides. "I told you that I couldn't get rid of it. Don't make me…don't ask me to hang out around you like this."

And he wanted to tell him what it would be like, how much worse it could get, but he couldn't. Couldn't because Leonardo was grossed out enough as it was, because any more information on that subject could probably ruin things (worse than they were?) and disrupt the delicate balance that they had going where neither of them cringed at each other and they could both look at each other in the eye. This was all thanks to the lack of TMI that he was being careful of.

It was a very important part of his everyday life that he keep a tight hold on all of the disturbing things and make sure they didn't crawl out like a whole slew of Pandora's box-type nasties.

Leonardo, clearly, did not understand this simple fact. He looked exasperated and definitely seemed to be floundering as he tried to make Michelangelo see reason. "I just meant," he said firmly, "That ignoring each other isn't a great solution to anything. Not that I can think of a solution to it, at the moment," he added with even more frustration, "But this…this is wrong. For one thing, it's not good for us as a team. Master Splinter told us that we can't operate without harmony."

"Which is great advice and all," Michelangelo interrupted, "But what kind of weird spiritual harmony can you expect from me right now?"

"Well, at least TALK to me once in a while! I-I can't stand not knowing what's wrong with you, okay? I spent too much time not knowing, and I spent too much time not knowing what to do after that, and I think that compared to what happened, compared to you…killing yourself without even thinking about it, I think that nothing you say can possibly be worse than that. I already know the-the problem," he said, lowering his voice as he realized they were in the middle of the Lair and being overheard wasn't so much an option as it was an inevitability, "And I've been trying to deal with that. But I can't deal with anything I don't know, and I can't help anything I can't see!"

He stood there, feeling heavy as rock. "You can't fix me," he said finally, quietly.

Leonardo stepped up closer to him, almost getting close enough to break personal space. Just on the edge of that barrier, edging the line. "I don't want to," he said intensely, "I mean, of course I do, but that isn't what I'm expecting to come out of this. Michelangelo, I understand why you don't want to be around me, and I know that I am the last person who can make your problems go away. For the record, I don't even expect them to magically fade away from anything I do. I'd like that, I'd like to think that just trying to set everything back to normal would actually make it so, but I know better."

"All I'm asking is that you stop closing me out- because then you start closing everyone out, and everything will degenerate until the cycle begins right where we left off. That's how it started near the worst of it, wasn't it? And you'll end up returning to that pattern again, only this time we might not be able to turn you away from the edge."

Leonardo paused for breath, looking like he'd caught on to a particularly good idea and he had to continue with it, keep on moving with that train of thought or else he'd lose it. That was a familiar expression to him, because it was one of the many 'Leo' expressions that was more often than not directed his way. He saw it every time Leonardo was attempting to explain some important concept to him and he couldn't understand what he was trying to say when it was all wrapped up in metaphor and spirituality and yin and yang stuff.

It was a look that said he'd found some way to express an idea so Michelangelo could understand it, could grab onto the meaning of the words and actually retain the information, and for a moment he remembered climbing a mountain, hands gripping the security of solid stone, cold air on his skin in a breeze that brushed through him instead of merely over him. Remembered the fear and worry over his fight in the arena feeling a little comfortingly distant from where they stood, and he recalled how the sky stood a perfect, motionless blue as Leonardo told him that they depended on each other as a group. Depended on him.

"When I was training with the Ancient One," Leonardo began slowly, "I remember trying to get past his guard in a particular exercise he had set me to. None of what he'd taught me up until then worked against him in the exercise, and no matter what sequence of attacks I tried, I failed every time. After the tenth attempt, he told me- well, what he told me might confuse you more than help you," he added, "But basically, he said that I was losing each time due to my own lack of creativity. I was trying to use all the by-the-book methods without trying to think of anything new."

"I got so caught up in thinking along the lines of training, I didn't bother thinking outside of them. I learned that there is no precise formula for success, and that if you make an attempt, and it fails, that it might now have been the correct approach to begin with. I learned that 'try, try again' should be 'try again in a different way. I forget that, sometimes," he said, voice going quiet, like it did when he admitted he did something wrong, "It's more difficult for me, sometimes, to find a new way of doing things, when what I usually do gets results. But, look…if what you've been trying, if what you're doing isn't working for you, then try something else. Find another way."

Michelangelo felt his stance lose its strength, felt his shoulders slacken and he crossed his arms, his fingers pressing into his bicep. "I don't know any other ways."

Leonardo smiled at him, tiredly. "You'll think of one. You're good at thinking outside of the lines."

The advice did stick, and he puzzled it over like one of Master Splinter's riddles in his head, like he was looking at one of those chain link puzzles and turning it from all angles to see how it worked.

So, it was clear that he couldn't ignore everything and hope for the best. That he needed to talk to his brother more, say more things than just what was absolutely necessary for two people living together with other family in the same space. Because Leonardo was right, awkward sexual weirdness aside, they were family, they were a clan, and that was supposed to go above and beyond anything else. He wondered why he used to think everything else would just crumble away in the face of that important word, family, when he felt his longing pulling at him the most.

Sometimes that felt more tangible, raw and real and unbending in the face of something as abstract as 'family'. Michelangelo would worry which one would win out, family or Leonardo, or really, since Leonardo was family and the longing wasn't really him, he wondered if the winner would be 'family' or 'Michelangelo'. And that scared him, because he'd always thought of himself as part of the family, not outside of it. He'd felt like outside of family, there wasn't a whole 'Michelangelo'.

When the day's exercises were over, Master Splinter dismissed the rest of his brothers and kept Michelangelo behind, beckoning him to follow to his room for a talk in private. He'd gone so far beyond fear of discovery that he actually spent some time wondering why he was being singled out for a talk this time, as if it was something simple like lack of concentration or doodling in his sketchbook while he was supposed to be paying attention to his lessons.

Not that he'd taken back to sketching any more, since a glance of his sketchbook in his depression stage had been enough to make him toss it in the trash can without a glance backwards and a silent decision to never draw anything until he could keep his problems from leaking out of his brain and onto the paper.

So, he wandered behind Splinter, in the half-thoughtful, half-out-in-space way he was tending towards usually. Not thinking of anything much, not going over anything important, but wondering, idly, about trivial, stupid little things. Like how to get to the next stage of the video game he'd just begun to play, and how many different ways he could beat the game before he got bored. Video games were great time-killers, and they were also great for spending time with people without actually having to talk to them. Great inventions all around.

He knelt down before his father, taking the typical way of sitting: formally, hands resting on his knees, and waited for whatever he had to tell him. His breath caught in his throat as the silence drew on a little longer than it should, and Splinter looked hesitating, like he didn't know what to say.

"Michelangelo," he said finally, "I know these past months have been a difficult time for you. You have stumbled into your first true spiritual crisis, and have come through your ordeal intact, at least physically. I am proud of you for accomplishing this, and I am proud of your brothers for supporting you. I do not know why you did not wish to reach me about your problems, but I acknowledge the fact that you felt you were unable to, I understand that there are some things that must remain private and for yourself alone, even in my own children. It is hard for me to accept, and I do- worry," he admitted, the falter only slight, but enough to be audible.

Once Splinter began talking, Michelangelo's expression had shifted until it became a sort of frozen, perpetual cringe. "I'm- yes," he said haltingly, and because there wasn't anything else to say, added, "I'm sorry." He couldn't say: 'It wasn't important', or 'I had it under control', because that was just obviously and totally a wash, and problems that were trivial didn't usually cause depression and months of side effects. Not to mention the whole situation with causing family rifts and endangering missions and otherwise being a total screw-up.

Then there were the fifty-dozen problems with telling the truth.

He looked down, his hands clenched over his knees, and subsided into silence as he waited for the rest of what his father had to tell him. In a weird way, he felt very small again, and about to be chastised for skateboarding in the kitchen- same stomach-clenching tension, same anticipation of the sky falling down on him, but not quite sure if it really would.

Splinter exhaled slowly "I do not wish to make you feel uncomfortable, my son," he said. The tone of his voice was meant to be comforting, the soft, calming way he spoke to them when they were ill or hurt. "What is past is past. There is no more I can do for that part of your life that has gone by, despite my wishes and regrets on that issue. Instead, I must talk to you about the progress you have made in healing yourself- and my concerns about it."

Michelangelo lifted his head at that, curious. "What…what do you think is wrong with me?" he asked, feeling a prickle of unease at the pit of his stomach as he waited for the response. It wasn't, at this point, that he was suffering from the fear of discovery. No, he'd decided that if Master Splinter hadn't found out so far, he wasn't going to now that all of his problems seemed to be hitting a more comfortable plateau. This was more similar to the fear of a recovering patient in a hospital, being told by a doctor that they needed to talk about his illness. What if Splinter had spotted something else, something Leonardo couldn't, and it was even more difficult to fix? It was a fear of relapse.

"I can not say," Splinter said, gently, his voice like a finger touching something fragile, "I don't know what caused your problems. Without knowing the source of your unease, your emotional disruption, I can not say what has happened to you, nor can I attempt to guide your way to fix it. I can only say that, although you have healed the physical results of your depression, the conflict in your heart is still very much alive. In some ways it has diminished, yes, but your emotions are still not in balance, and your mind is still caught in the turmoil that drove you down the road of self-harm."

When Michelangelo made a sound of protest, he continued quickly, "I do not mean that you intentionally went forth to harm yourself, but your actions have caused great harm to yourself nonetheless. "

He remembered the hazy greyness of those months and the way his arms looked, strangely thinner, his eyes hollow in his face, and nodded with slow, regretful acceptance.

"I am glad that you accepted the aid of your brother in this, and that you have healed your body," he said, and rose to his feet, stepping down so he was right next to him. He rested his hand on his shoulder. "But now you must concentrate on relieving the tension, bringing peace to the war inside yourself. You might believe that this is something like- an injury that will heal itself in time with no help from you, or a scar that you can live with without it causing any harm, but you can not continue this way. You are now on a precarious path, and while I hope I can save you from falling, it is entirely up to you whether or not you accept my outstretched hand."

Michelangelo shifted, not sure how to respond. It felt too sudden, putting him on the spot and he wasn't sure what answer was right. Wasn't sure if the 'right answer' was really what he wanted. "Master-" he started, looking up quickly, a step away from babbling like an idiot again. Probably about the latest TV shows, which he knew was an awful segue from a serious conversation, but he felt himself about to talk about it to do something about the tension, and he was going to get a solemn Look of Disappointment-

Master Splinter just shook his head. "Do not give your answer to me now, my son," he said, "Such a thing must be thought over. Only know that your answer must be your own. I realize that now is the time you must begin to do things for yourself, and solve problems by your own power. You are growing up, and while I will be here to help you for as long as I can, your road is becoming one that I can not guide you along."

Something clenched in his throat, raw and stinging, and his eyes felt teary-hot. "Yes," he said, trying to keep it together, and put a hand over his eyes while he tried his breathing exercises to calm down. When his father held him, giving him comfort, he couldn't help feeling guilty. One more member of his family he was worrying, letting them down. In this life we only have each other. If one of us falls- and he closed his eyes tightly, pushing the memory away.

Papers rustled as he sorted messily through the box he was sure, (fairly sure), was the one he'd stashed his paper and other paper-like, stationary-related products in. The room was still jarringly bare, most things packed away neatly in boxes from his neat spree. There they had remained due to his continued disinterest in turning to any of his previous hobbies.

A few of his designated comic book boxes were opened, and a couple of his comics lay on the floor from where he'd tried reading and gave up after the third fruitless attempt. His eyes would skim right over the words, barely noticing the script at all. Leaving the books where they lay gave him the feeling that he could always return to them later, even though he knew he probably wasn't going to.

Meanwhile, that same sense of apathy pretty much covered the entire range of free-time activities. He'd sometimes feel like playing a game or trying to scribble out a drawing of some comic book character, (copied from the book, and not drawn from memory,) and found himself losing interest about halfway through and abandoning what he was doing, only to spend the rest of his time with too much restless energy and no way to get rid of it.

So he'd taken on heading up to the surface to try and get it out, once he was considered good enough to head up there without endangering himself or the team. At first, one or all of his brothers would accompany him until they were sure he was fine without supervision and they felt they'd fully tested his ability to be safely independent aboveground. He wasn't entirely happy about their testing methods for this, though: tracking and attempting to capture him and bring him home. If they got him, he'd have to stay home all that night. If not, he was allowed to stay within the allotted time limit they had, depending on what time it was and what lessons they had that day. After a week or so of such treatment, he became very adept at finding supernaturally good hiding places and stealthily, but quickly, sneaking away.

Once he hit the rooftops, his routine was pretty simple. He'd just head the furthest from home he could, flinging himself into leaping roof from roof, using the landscape of the city's higher levels as his own personal track.

It was exhilarating, to race at top speed through the labyrinth of the rooftops, (some higher, some shorter, structure protruding and railings and sometimes clotheslines,) even better to feel that effortless use of muscles, athleticism and matrix-style gymnastics that kept him speeding, flying through the air and feeling it cool on his skin. When he was moving fast enough, he felt like the air had its own weight he had to push through. Funny to think of something as light as air having weight to it.

Still, it didn't feel like enough when he ended at the edge of his self-imposed boundaries, at the invisible fence that dictated the furthest distance he could separate himself from home. Standing there, watching the city bustle and go through business as usual, (along with the high crime rate business that at least kept him busy,) he would sometimes wonder if he was simply making attempt after botched attempt at running away.

One last paw through the box revealed a wrapped stack of envelopes and some lined paper, a bit wrinkled but otherwise intact. He lifted them up out of the rest of the random stuff, closed the cardboard flaps of the box, and pulled out one of the copic markers that he'd retrieved from the myriad of litter in the bottom of his 'art box'. A pen might be more appropriate, but that would mean he'd have to go down and sort through stuff in the main room, and he was having heavy-duty private time now.

From his belt, he pulled out three small cards fashioned from multicolored construction paper and decorated with lopsided pictures of a turtle in a cape. Letter for the Turtle Titan.

It had been surprising to see that he'd still been receiving these letters, even after being 'out of business' for so long. He'd never been particularly well-known, so that made the few pieces of mail he received even more rare. Seeing the letters that Silver Sentry had handed to him in their first meeting in god knew how long had made him feel uncomfortably guilty, especially when he found out that the kid who wrote the letters had been keeping it up for months. Looking at the face of the card, he noticed that the kid, (Connor, it said inside the card), had added raindrops in the crayoned sky and a very sad balloon-head with hair that he could only assume was meant to represent the boy himself, peering out on the edge of the card. Child language for 'I miss you'.

"You and me both," he told the picture, and started on a response. Connor deserved one for waiting this long for him. It was strange, and wrenching, that even one person still could think of him as anything like a hero.

The sound of polite knocking floated right past him at first. Usually when he happened to hear that sound, it didn't apply to him at all. This was because his brothers had obviously taken up an apprenticeship with Hun and learned his patented way of getting through doors: by plowing straight through without any regard for the people behind them. When the knock repeated itself a bit louder, he straightened up. "Yeah?" he asked, wondering if some new apocalyptic event was brewing.

Leonardo walked in and he decided there totally, definitely was.

"Do my eyes deceive me?" he asked in tones of utter shock, "Do I see Leo walking through my door after knocking? The Leo? When were you initiated into the religion of door manners? What aliens captured you and brainwashed you into it?"

Leonardo rolled his eyes. "Very funny."

'Of course it was," he answered. "Time for practice again?"

"No, the others wanted to go up and get some ice cream, so I came to see if you wanted to come-" his voice trailed off, and Michelangelo was too involved in writing his amazing response letter to see Leonardo reach for one of the cards. He heard paper shifting against paper, and looked up to see him reading one, eye ridges furrowed slightly. "What's this?"

His hand twitched in the automatic response to make a grab for it, but he figured it didn't matter at this point anyway. "A note," he said, holding his hand out and waiting for it to be returned. "It's mine," he added pointedly, "Came through express and everything. Also, it's not gonna blow up and endanger the world, so…yeah."

"Is this fan mail?"

Leonardo sounded caught somewhere between surprise, interest, and amusement. The first two, he could handle, but he didn't feel like dealing with the last, not with this. He snatched the card out of his hand and slid it into his sketchbook.

"Something like that," he said, almost defiantly. "It's superhero fanmail," he added deliberately, "For superheroes. By kids who like superheroes. The superhero in question being me. So, yeah. All non-superheroes and superhero-haters, please get out of the superhero clubhouse. Because it's for superheroes," he added, probably somewhat unnecessarily.

"Sounds like he misses you," Leonardo said, not responding to the incredibly obvious attempt to shoo him away.

Not knowing how to respond to that, he folded the note he'd written and slid it into an envelope. After a short pause with neither of them talking and the awkward factor stretching out unbearably, he opened his mouth and resigned himself to what was bound to be yet another Mikey Ramble in Self Defense.

"I used to pick these up a lot," he said abruptly. "Not- all of them were mine, obviously. I meant, for the others. Usually they don't exactly get responses, but they all got delivered. Um, I got a few, might still have them somewhere in one of these boxes. One of the perks of being a superhero: ninjas are great and all, and stealthy 'creature of the night' stuff is definitely cool, but you can't say we ever get fanmail."

"No," Leonardo said dryly, "We certainly don't."

"Well, you do. Except yours comes delivered by arrows and other sharp things to the head. That must be ninja fanmail. Superhero fanmail," he said with conviction, "Is much better."

"Less dangerous at least," Leonardo agreed.

"I mean, I know you don't like superheroes for some reason," he started.

Leonardo looked puzzled. "I don't not like superheroes," he said, "I mean, I get along fine with them and Silver Sentry seems nice."

"Okay, then you don't like them in theory," Michelangelo corrected. "You used to have this face I would call 'the superhero sneer'. And it didn't come around in full force when I had my comics out, or when I was watching Batman or something on TV, but if we saw one of them fighting crime or doing good right in front of our eyes, out comes the patented Leo Superhero Sneer. That used to confuse the heck out of me. I mean, it's not like you support burning buildings or car robberies or people in tights trying to take over the world. So why would these nice, awesometastic, if badly dressed, people get on your nerves so much? I swear you were cursing their existence in your head!"

Leonardo cleared his throat. "I don't dislike them," he said, looking like he was sorting through his head for a way to put the remainder of the statement he was about to make. "I just…disapprove of their methods."

"Their methods? Like the way that water guy totally doused the burning building? Or the way they solved that drunk driver the other day? Or the way they keep popping up and keeping people from getting mugged and basically do everything we do? The way they stand for truth, justice, and the American Way? Leo, you practically ARE a superhero! You're, like, the brooding anti-superhero who stands off in the shadows and hates on the others. Almost everything they do you'd totally approve of. You know, that greater good thing you for some reason can talk about better than me."

Leonardo, looking like he could just not believe that they were even having this conversation, narrowed his eyes. "They're…flashy," he said, "I mean, they make a huge show out of everything. They wear neon colors and unusual outfits and outlandish hairstyles, and they speak like they don't even take themselves seriously. Everything is completely out in the open for them, and it's…like they treat everything like it's a big scene in the comic books. They grandstand."

Michelangelo looked at him for a second. "So, you're saying that you don't like superheroes because they do everything you'd want to do, and they do it with style?"

Rolling his eyes, Leonardo waved his hand. "Forget it. I'm…glad to see that you're going back to it. I didn't even know you did stuff like this," he said, gesturing to the letter and the cards, "I mean, I didn't think you went out your outfit that much."

"Why would you?" he asked. He hadn't added any bite to his words, but it left a silent hole in the conversation anyway, a reminder that outside of something that really shouldn't have made them closer to begin with, they hadn't all that many common interests. That they hadn't seriously spoken together that much, they hadn't had the same bonding talks he had with Raphael or the casual pranksterism he'd shared with Donatello. The two of them were odd brothers out to each other, and that rift made it worse because they had nothing to really talk about when they were trying to avoid the obvious.

"So, ice cream," he said finally.

"Right," Leonardo replied, sounding a bit relieved, "Ice cream. Let's go before they leave without us and Raph eats it all." More normalcy he didn't feel right returning to so quickly.

He grinned at him anyway. "Sure," he said, "Let's get out of here."

I've got to get out of here.

I've got to get out of here.

That thought kept on picking at his mind while he went through his daily routine.

I've got to get out of here.

Out. Of. Here.

Running through his brain as he tried to keep things normal, balanced, clean and simple. Bothering him when he went through his exercises and downright tortured him on the edges of rooftops at night, the moon shining like a tiny flashlight through fog, and the city stretching out past his vision and leading out beyond, and he felt the crush of that invisible cage even more strongly.

It was like a constant, nervous voice in the back of his head as he felt himself sink into routine, quiet, repetitive, dull. He felt it prickle at his nerves when he realized that this might just be the rest of his life and he had nothing else to do but-

Get out.

If it's not working, don't keep going.

Find another way.

And he smiled when it hit him, because it should have been such an easy thing to think of.

"I want to request something," he said to Splinter, no hesitation, no confusion, no fear. And then he told him.

"You don't need to do this!"

It would have all been so much easier, he decided, if he'd snuck out in the dead of night leaving nothing but a note.

He'd actually thought of that, too. It had a nice touch of the dramatic and it would completely get rid of the problem of anyone trying to persuade him out of it when he'd had his mind set on the matter. His will was firm, he was like stone, nothing was going to get in his way, and he was on a mission. He'd decided against it after the split second it had taken him to think of it, of course, but that still didn't keep him from longingly considering the possibilities sometimes.

Especially now.

Especially when Leonardo seemed dead set against allowing him to accomplish his very first independent task in who knew how long.

"I do need to do this," he said firmly, shoving another bulky sweater in his bag. "I don't think you know how much. If you did, you would be quietly congratulating me for taking so long to think of something so crazy obvious, instead of yelling at me. You shouldn't be yelling at me, you know. It might be bad luck. I could crash my car into a tree and then your last words to me would have been those. Which aren't really great last words, I should point out. You need to think of new ones."

Leonardo, who had been pacing like a madman for the last half hour and had run the gamut from an aborted attempt at a lecture, some yelling, some very earnest attempts at getting him to explain himself, and right back to yelling again, looked like he wanted very badly to breathe fire. In the absence of this fire-breathing ability, he exhaled very loudly and massaged his forehead. "Mikey…Mike, I don't understand why you find the need to leave the city. You were improving, we've made significant improvements since you last had any issues, and I thought…I thought you were becoming more comfortable. I mean, you didn't say anything to the contrary."

Michelangelo snorted. "Of course I didn't. What was I going to tell you? 'I'm sorry, I'm still thinking inappropriate thoughts?' Did you want all of the details? That is the problem, Leo! I am having problems, and I can't talk to anyone about them except for you, and I'm afraid that- I'm afraid that if I keep on leaning on you, this could get out of control."

Leonardo shook his head firmly. "I wouldn't let it."

"Well, I wish I was in control of absolutely everything, like you," he snapped. Then regretted it. "Look, it's not like no one has done this before. I mean, you didn't just leave the city, you left the country. You went to Japan. JAPAN! I? Am going to New Jersey, for a grand total of two months. That's barely a vacation, Leo. Not that I think of this as anything like a vacation, because I am serious about this."

"You're not ready!"

"Oh, and you were? How ready do I have to be to cross a state line? Didn't we already go to, like, OUTER SPACE?"

For the last half hour, he'd been trying to persuade Leonardo that this wasn't an attempt to run away. That was more difficult than he'd thought it would be, mainly because he wasn't really sure himself if that wasn't exactly what it was. What he'd planned wasn't haphazard or desperate. It might have started out as just an outline, (a road trip sounded nice), but with the recruitment of Donatello, he'd managed to get the little details under control, plan which roads to take, which security measures to use, what to do if he was spotted or pulled over.

It was two months in New Jersey, driving wherever he felt like and basically getting space. Right now, he felt like he desperately needed that: space, room to breathe, away from the heavy stagnation, the stifling craziness he felt himself slipping into deeper and deeper. He needed time to build, time to evaluate, time to recreate himself step-by-step and give himself time to mourn whatever he'd lost and deal with whatever he'd gained. He couldn't do that in the Lair, enclosed on all sides by concrete and piping and Leo, and expect to come out of it sane. Depression was harder to be rid of than that, and he felt it still clinging to him like bits of a spider web.

Leaving might not be the right choice, but it was a better choice than staying.

Now, if only he could convince the hardheaded turtle in question, life could be pretty much okay.

"I need this to get my life back on track, Leo," he said quietly, "I need this because I feel out of control. I feel like I have no control, and everything I choose is because someone's, like, yanking on my strings like I'm a puppet. I can't live like that."

Leonardo's breath caught in his throat with a hiss, "You didn't say that. We could have done something else. Made up a different way of dealing with it."

They could have. But it would have still been them making the decisions and them trying to fit back the pieces of his life, and that wasn't the right way to go about fixing himself, even if it was a sight easier than the alternative.

Michelangelo wanted to tell him that he'd already leaned on them way too much, gave them too much of what should have been his burden to begin with. He wanted to apologize for doing that all along, from slacking off in practice to goofing off in missions to closing everyone out in something this important and letting it fall apart so quickly. He wanted to tell him that he needed to do this for himself but he also needed to do it for the team, for his family, because anything relying on him for support would eventually break, and he didn't want to be responsible for breaking his family.

It's not your fault, he wanted to say, but you'll blame yourself anyway, and I can't stand it.

He didn't say anything, and they both stood there, him holding the suitcase he'd finally managed to pack, Leonardo holding nothing but the emotional leash that kept him home, and they stood off. It was more like a fight than anything physical.

"You don't get to do this," he finally said to Leonardo, and watched his expression slowly settle into confusion, "You don't get to help me out and then not let me help myself out. I can't keep on letting you do it for me. I have to do it for me. I mean, you've done enough for me. It's my turn. Let me have my time."

He didn't know if his other brothers are listening on in this, he realized, and it's a wonder that he didn't mind so much anymore.

"All right," Leonardo finally said.

"I'll come back," he told him. "I promise." He said the last in Japanese, the language Leonardo seemed to find more concrete, more easy to believe in. He didn't intend to break it.

When he left, it was so early morning that it could still be considered night.

His brothers wished him good bye, good trip, other things like that. (In Donatello's case, a long list of everything he could possibly forget and he couldn't resist making the comment of: "Did you want me to bring clean socks, too?")

Raphael went misty-eyed like he was liable to do in mushy things like this, gave him an extra-hard pat on the shoulder, and told him to try not to crash the car.

His father shared a long look with him and he couldn't tell what it meant, but he had the feeling that he was beginning to be able to read those looks even better now. Then he, too, had wished him well, and he was left alone. 'Alone' wasn't the scary concept it used to be before.

They'd borrowed an extra car from Casey, and tricked it out with various useful bits of tech, courtesy of Donatello, who seemed to have made it his personal mission in life to make this trip run like clockwork. They tinted the windows, added nifty little compartments for various weaponry and a first aid kit that was probably a little overstocked. They made up a suitable food supply for him to start off with, and this went into a refridgerator-like compartment that still managed to fit into the car without them needing to ad any weird extensions to it. Michelangelo had taken to calling it 'the Mikey Bond-mobile'. The maps had been made, gone over with maybe ten different colors of hi-lighter and every landmark picked out carefully. A calling schedule had been established as well, so they knew he was safe and not being beseiged by the nefarious forces of evil while on the road.

When Leonardo came to say goodbye to him, they went stiff.

"So," he said.

"So," Leonardo said.

Not much they could say with the rest of the family there.

"I'll be all right," he told him. Leonardo nodded, and that was it. Hard to believe that here he was, about to leave, and the last thing he'd heard from him was going to be a 'so'. Then Leonardo reached out, like he was going to try the rough shoulder smack like Raphael had done, but stopped, slowed down, and just put his hand there. It felt like he was trying to steady him, or maybe just steady himself.

"Take care," he said, his voice going a little hoarse, and then quickly released him.

The road out of the city was crammed with traffic, and loud, and despite all of it he felt an exhilarating rush of adrenaline as he drove out of the city limits and onwards. He considered the road ahead of him but didn't make plans on it, didn't add details to it. He liked it better as the vague possibility of freedom.

He liked thinking of being alone, of being, for the moment, free. Maybe even, a little, he liked thinking about growing up.

Meanwhile, he wondered how long it would take for Leonardo to notice that he'd bedazzled his katana hilts before he left home.

(He didn't want to think of growing up too much, after all.)