Disclaimer: see previous chapters.

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So obviously my attempt to get this out soon after the last chapter failed miserably. I'd forgotten that we had two birthdays coming up in the family, and then on top of that, I mixed up my timeline a bit and had to shuffle pretty much this entire chapter around. It's taken a bit to knock it into order, but hopefully it was worth the time. No real warnings, other than a basic one for Raph's language.


I managed to make my way into the stairwell without rippin' the door off the hinges, but it was a damn near thing.

How the hell did Leo always manage to get into trouble like this? He was like a magnet for it, I swear. And he was the one who was s'posed to keep us out of trouble? I knew it wasn't like Master Splinter could've known when we were kids that people would be constantly tryin' to kill Leo, but still.

He just…

I slid down the wall to park my ass on the landing. Ah hell, who did I think I was kiddin'? It wasn't Leo I was mad at, it was just…everythin'. It was Karai findin' us, and listenin' to Leo gettin' hurt and not bein' able to do a damn thing about it. It was bein' stuck in a hospital, seein' Leo's empty bed and wonderin' if we'd find him alive, knowin' that if those swords had gone an inch or two further into Leo's chest or stomach, he could've been one of those people I'd seen in other rooms with tubes down their throats…

Just everythin'. I needed to get out of here, out of the city, an' just—away from people. All the times I'd wished we were human, I never realized how full-time it was to live above ground in New York; you never got to be alone. When we were turtles, I could spend hours walkin' around the sewers and never see a single livin' person; even if it stunk, it was miles and miles of space to myself. Or I could find a rooftop an' watch people without havin' to deal with 'em—close enough to not be alone but far enough that no one was freakin' out. But now…now goin' in the sewers seemed more claustrophobic than I could stand, and if I tried goin' up on a roof somewhere, someone would prob'ly think I was gonna jump, and it'd turn into one hell of a mess.

I just wanted space. Maybe I could talk my bros into packin' Leo up an' headin' out to Casey's grandma's place. I'd never hated the farm, but it'd never really been associated with good memories, either, other than the time we'd spent there after the big change; it was pretty much just a place to hole up when we'd gotten the shit kicked out of us again. But the thought of bein' out there with just my bros and Casey an' April, no jobs or idiots on the sidewalks or constant noise, sounded perfect. Or maybe we oughta just grab Leo and head to Sensei. We'd heard Leo talk enough about the Ancient One's place and how peaceful it was; if there was anythin' we needed, it was some peace, an' if there was any place we were guaranteed to not be found by anyone, it was the top of a freakin' mountain in Japan.

I could get some space, an' we could keep Leo somewhere Zen enough that maybe even his piss-poor luck would be purified or zapped or whatever. Everybody wins.

It took about five minutes for me to finally get moving and get down to the main floor; I didn't think Leo would mind the extra time to get his head back on straight, and Don and Mikey prob'ly wouldn't even notice while they did their mother-hen routines. I glanced around an' saw Casey out front on his phone and Hitoshi waitin' by himself in the lobby. April and Naomi must've headed to the bathroom or whatever, which was fine by me. Naomi…I knew she wasn't Karai, knew the situation was completely different; it was just a matter of rememberin' that. I knew it didn't make sense to be more worried about some girl Leo had met than the ex-Foot member who knew what we all looked like, especially since Karai aside, Leo was a good judge of character.

But hell, I'd never been the guy everyone looked to for logical thought patterns.

I sighed an' sucked it up, headin' toward Hitoshi, who smiled slightly when he saw me. "Raphael-san. How is Leonardo-san?"

I shrugged. "He's as good as can be expected. The doc says he didn't pull any stitches, at least, even if he aggravated the hell outta his side an' shoulder. He's up for visitors again," I offered.

His smile widened a bit. "I'm glad to hear it. I think, however, that considering the circumstances, Na-chan and I will return tomorrow."

Ah hell. That was the last thing I needed, to tell my bros I'd scared off Leo's friends by bein' a jerk. If Sensei were here, I'd be gettin' his walking stick on the back of my head, an' I'd deserve it. "Look, don't leave just 'cause of me," I said, forcin' myself to meet his eyes. "I'm an ass; if Leo's talked about us at all, you've probably heard that a time or two. I just…" I gestured, hopin' he'd get the picture. "Leo's used to lookin' out for everyone except himself; someone has to be a suspicious bastard on his behalf sometimes."

Hitoshi shook his head, pattin' my arm. "I assure you it's not because of you, Raphael-san—"

"Just Raph's fine," I interrupted.

"Raphael, then," he said easily, which I figured was as good as it was gonna get. "Given the situation, I imagine Leonardo-san would prefer a chance to compose himself before he faces any visitors outside of family. He…he has been very careful about what he has told us about his connection to Oroku-san, but I heard enough to know that it is likely an…unpleasant one, and a rather personal one. I doubt having to deal with those memories on top of his injuries will be very easy for him, let alone having to do so and put on a good face for company."

Was it an old guy thing, bein' able to read people like that? I was used to it from Sensei, but it was unnervin' from a stranger. I wondered if Leo knew Hitoshi had seen so much into him, even if he didn't know any specifics. "Yeah, there's a lot of bad shit—sorry, bad crap to put a lid on. Leo's had a lot of practice with buryin' it, though."

"I imagine so. Your brother…he is a puzzle in many ways. When he left the dojo the other day, he left with the kind of farewell you expect from someone who isn't sure they will return. To see someone resigned to battle at such a young age…I have seen many martial artists in my time, and after several years, you learn to gauge their skill levels even without fighting them," he said suddenly, and I blinked, tryin' to figure out where the hell he was going with the topic change. "Leonardo-san has no hesitation around weapons, and in one case he responded instinctively to the sound of a sword leaving the sheath. That is not a reaction you see in mere hobbyists, but rather in practitioners with actual combat experience."

He said it like he was just pointin' out the weather, but while he wasn't outright askin' a question, he wasn't just makin' small talk, either. "Have you seen a lot of people in the second category?" I asked.

He glanced at me. "I believe I have met a few," he said, and I'd've had to be a lot stupider than I was to miss what he was gettin' at. I couldn't fight the urge to straighten up under the quiet gaze. "All the parts about your past Leonardo-san detailed as briefly as possible," he commented. "He spent quite a bit more time telling us that he was a danger to us if he stayed, and that Oroku-san is more of a threat than even her lack of manners implies."

That was a nice way of sayin' Karai had half as much sanity as she had swords. As for Leo…I snorted. "It ain't somethin' he'll admit to, but with Leo…" I held my hands in front of me about a foot apart. "Common sense," I said, then moved my hands until there was twice as much space between them. "Martyr complex an' protective streak."

Hitoshi's mouth quirked slightly. "I picked up on the last part." He hesitated, goin' serious again. "If I am overstepping with this question, tell me, but…Leonardo-san mentioned that his main concern was that we might get caught up in things, and that we might be the second set of friends whom he'd cost a home."

Ah hell. Of course Leo would be worried about Hitoshi and Naomi gettin' caught up in things like April had been. The fact that he'd mentioned it, though…Leo had probably pulled it out as his biggest card to try an' scare them off to keep them safe. "He talked about that?"

"Briefly and sparingly, as with everything else. He mentioned that he led trouble back to you, and a friend's home ended up being destroyed as a result."

I nodded. "That was April's." I glanced at him, tryin' to read his expression, but he just looked concerned rather than worried. I couldn't figure out how to ask him why without stickin' my foot in it, so I figured I might as well just go for it. "An' you weren't worried about bein' round two when he told you that?"

He tilted his head, eyein' me. "Would you have preferred that he'd been successful in warning us off, as he was obviously trying to do?"

"That's not it," I said quickly. Dammit, it was like tryin' to interrogate Sensei. "Just…look, our situation is weird; we've got enough drama in our past that most people don't want anythin' to do with it. So it's stranger to find someone that doesn't care about the blood feud than it is to find someone who thinks it's nuts."

Hitoshi hummed thoughtfully, takin' a seat an' wavin' me down beside him. "And how many people have you shared your past with, that you know with such certainty that it's too unusual to be accepted?"

…He had a point. Granted, we hadn't really told anyone about our past, 'cause it was hard enough to explain the Shredder thing without even gettin' into the 'giant mutant turtle' thing too—but come to think of it, after she got over the talkin' turtles issue, April had barely bat an eye at the whole Shredder fustercluck.

Said a hell of a lot about our lives that the clan feud was the easiest part to explain an' accept.

Hitoshi just nodded like I'd actually answered him without sayin' anything and continued. "I have a feeling that Leonardo-san was leaving out quite a bit regarding the circumstances surrounding that incident, and that it most likely was not as directly his fault as he implied. I am not asking, but I am willing to bet there were…contributing factors tied to the occasion in question."

"There were. But Leo wasn't exaggeratin' when he said that Karai is a threat," I pointed out, hopin' Hitoshi wasn't underestimatin' her. He knew enough to be involved an' in danger, but not enough to know exactly what the hell to expect…though findin' out Karai had landed Leo in the hospital had probably hammered home how serious it was. "An' she ain't exactly good at bein' low-key."

"No, obviously not," Hitoshi agreed grimly. "But she is also obviously fixated on Leonardo-san. Even when she came to the dojo, it was clear that I only mattered as a way to get to your brother. I am not trying to make light of your warnings—believe me when I say that I take them seriously, for Na-chan's sake if nothing else—but I believe you're in more danger of being targeted than I am. And despite the fact that the threat might very well be real for us as well, no, I don't regret knowing your brother or continuing to be his friend, no matter what baggage comes with him." He smiled at me slightly. "I assume that's what you're getting at."

Who the hell was this guy, Gandhi? Didn't anythin' faze him? "How does this not bother you?" I demanded. "You act like ongoin' battles with another family are totally normal."

"Ah, normal." He made a face, leanin' forward to brace his elbows on his knees. "Normal is so very relative, Raphael. For anyone, normal is simply what they've known all their lives, or what they've seen in the lives of those around them. According to some, Na-chan's life isn't normal, growing up with a father and no mother, living above a dojo with weapons and martial artists interspersed with school and parties with her friends. For that matter, my own life might not be considered normal, leaving what little family I had in Japan to come here and marrying a woman who shared my homeland but knew nothing of the culture."

Hitoshi shrugged. "Normal is what we make of it. This situation between your clan and Oroku-san's…it is your normal, and while I can't pretend it isn't one of the worst feuds I've ever seen, neither is it the first. I grew up knowing families that have their own feuds, ones that are much older than the two generations yours has spanned. I don't know of any that are quite so violent, but then, it's not exactly something you generally ask a neighbor about."

"So…what, you don't care?"

"I care for Leonardo-san's sake, because this is obviously something painful for him, and for your and your brothers' sake, since he is concerned for your safety as well. But other than that, I'd rather not let it bother me," Hitoshi said quietly, starin' at his clasped hands. "When I met Leonardo-san, he seemed…adrift, as if he was looking for a direction and planned to just walk until he found one. Once we started talking, it was obvious that he had his roots in you, his family, but he still seemed like he was looking for a safe harbor. I know what it is like to feel lost like that; when my wife died, it was as if I'd forgotten where I belonged without her beside me to orient me. Leonardo-san seemed driven more by bewilderment rather than grief, but all the same, I wanted to let him know he had some place he could drop anchor, as it were."

I had no idea how to handle this guy. I'd never met someone who spilled this kinda stuff to strangers before. It was good to know he wasn't freaked out by what Leo had told him, but weird, an' I couldn't help bein' curious about what kind of person could just take in stuff like this without blinkin'. "Why? I mean, that seems like a lot to do for someone you just met."

"A lot to do? Oh, hardly. Providing a listening ear for someone, and a place they can visit without any expectations being placed upon them…that is a very simple thing to provide for anyone, let alone for Leonardo-san, who repays me with good conversation and good company. I have found that there is a very real satisfaction in being able to support someone, even if it is only in small ways. And for me, personally…" His face softened as he glanced up to where April an' Naomi had emerged from down the hall. "It is an opportunity to try and learn from my mistakes in not being a better guide to my own daughter."

"What? But she seems…" I gestured. "Happy, y'know? You guys seem close, from what Leo's said. And it doesn't seem like it's hurt her at all." I didn't really know anythin' about her, but considerin' how ready she'd seemed to give my shit right back to me, she sure as hell hadn't grown up hesitant or weak.

"Na-chan has a good heart, and she is particularly forgiving of those she cares about, but the truth is that after my wife died, I let her down," he said bluntly. "I was reeling from losing my other half, and there were stretches of days when my grief won out over almost everything else. It took me a while to pick up the slack, to try and find a new balance in fulfilling the roles of both parents. I spoke to many other parents—mothers and fathers—to try and figure out how to be both for my daughter. I eventually realized that the best place to start was with support; I would be there for Na-chan, as much as I possibly could, and count on her to tell me what else she needed."

"And I found that that was a fair approach for anyone you might meet," he added, turnin' to smile at me. "Even if you don't know what else someone might need, I have yet to find a single person in this world who would say no to having one more person in their corner. Leonardo-san…it seems to me that he needs that, no matter how composed or responsible he is. And it's not fair of me to offer him support and then take that away just because he has enemies."

I was the last person who would argue that Leo didn't need more people in his life, even if I couldn't understand havin' an open door—no questions asked—like Hitoshi apparently did. "So you just…like bein' able to help?"

"I do. And on the selfish side, I find your brother to be a very good friend. Leonardo-san is more willing to simply sit and talk about everything and nothing with an old man than most young men his age."

I bit my cheek to keep from laughin'; that was definitely somethin' Leo had a lot of practice with. "Why are you tellin' me this? I mean, it's not like I mind, but…this is private stuff, an' you've only known me about an hour." The guy kinda unnerved me with how much he could see and knew, but even I could tell he was just tryin' to be a good friend or mentor or whatever to Leo.

He tipped his head to the side an' hummed thoughtfully. "I know a good deal about you simply through your brother's stories, and I think it's fair that you know some things about me in return; you strike me as the sort to want to know who you are trusting your loved ones to." His gaze turned considerin', and I wondered if it was a sensei thing or a father thing that made you feel about as transparent as a piece of paper when guys like Hitoshi or Master Splinter looked at you like that. "When we first met, Leonardo-san said that you were a strong lieutenant for him, but also his greatest challenger."

I bristled, tryin' not to think about all the ways I'd "challenged" Leo over the years an' what Leo might have told him. "Yeah?"

"He also said you were a strong support in his life." His hand landed on my arm and squeezed firmly. "It is good to see he was right on all counts."

…What the hell was I s'posed to say to somethin' like that?

Hitoshi glanced up to see Naomi an' April emerge from down the hall, and patted me on the shoulder as he got to his feet. "Raphael, I'm sure it will hardly surprise you to hear that few of Leonardo-san's stories don't involve one or all three of you. And at times he has spoken of you with exasperation, yes, with longsuffering and occasionally with bewilderment, but always with affection as well. I consider him to be a rather good judge of character for someone his age, and as such I am inclined to believe him when he tells me you and Donatello-san and Michelangelo-san are some of the best people he knows."

I shrugged, tryin' not to feel my face get hot as I stood too. "Leo doesn't exactly know many people."

He chuckled. "I'm quite sure that's beside the point. Raphael, I am not offended because you care enough about your brother to be defensive on his behalf; indeed, I believe you are quite right that he is often too busy looking out for other people to bother considering himself much. I'm glad he has you to worry about him."

"Worryin' about him's easy," I drawled, "it's gettin' him to let you do somethin' about that worry that's a headache."

"Believe me when I say I know full well how that works," Hitoshi said dryly, his eyes soft as he looked at Naomi. "Still, no matter how difficult they are, they are worth it in the end, ne? And we outnumber them, so whether they concede gracefully or not, eventually we will get them to put up with being taken care of."

I snorted. "Are you proposin' that we team up to mother-hen Leo?"

He looked like just as much trouble as Mikey before a prank when he glanced at me. "Would you really turn away another ally?"

"No," I admitted, meanin' it for the joke and seriously. "If nothin' else, he won't know what to do with it comin' from you, an' he'll prob'ly be too worried about bein' polite to say anythin' about it, so you'll prob'ly have better luck for now than we do."

"Any advantage is a good one," he said cheerfully. "It was good to meet you at last, Raphael, despite the circumstances, and I am glad we were able to talk. I'm sure I will see you at some point this week."

"At least one of us'll be here as often as possible, an' I think Mikey was takin' care of addin' your names to the visitors list," I offered.

"I appreciate it. I'll see about finding some books to bring Leonardo-san to keep him occupied and hopefully make your jobs a little easier." He dropped his hand on my shoulder an' squeezed it again. "Take care, Raphael, and I wish you a quiet watch."

"I…thanks. See ya around."

I hung back as Hitoshi joined April and Naomi, an' saw Naomi start slightly as he spoke to them. She glanced at me—I wondered if she thought I'd told 'em to leave and maybe Hitoshi was just coverin' for me bein' a jackass—then back at her father, noddin' finally. April touched her on the shoulder, sayin' somethin' with a smile, an' waved as they headed out the door.

She drifted over to me as they disappeared into the crowd on the sidewalk. "What was that about?"

I shrugged. "He said he wanted to give Leo time to calm down an' get centered or somethin', didn't want him to feel weird about tryin' to act normal for company if all this was freakin' him out." I crooked a smile. "I don't think he believed me when I told him Leo had a lotta practice gettin' over stuff like this. Anyway, I think they're plannin' on comin' back tomorrow instead."

"That was very thoughtful of him."

"He's…he's got a lot more figured out about Leo than I would've thought anyone could in just a couple months," I said slowly, tellin' myself I was stupid for feelin' antsy about that. He was just a nice, if weird old guy…even if he seemed to have better luck readin' Leo in a couple months than I used to in a couple years. "What were you an' Naomi talkin' about?"

"Basic things, like how long I'd known you guys and how we'd met." She gave me a look when I stiffened. "Obviously I didn't say anything about how you guys used to be, Raph; it's not my secret to tell. I just told her the basics—that you guys saved me when Stockman sent the Mousers after me, that we've been family ever since. What you looked like didn't exactly come up in the conversation."

"And how'd she take it?" I couldn't help wonderin' if Hitoshi's Zen-master acceptance the norm for their family.

April tipped her head in a shrug. "I don't think she thought it was any stranger than hearing about your history with the Shredder and Karai…less, maybe." She grinned a little. "She said that if it hadn't been for the robots, it would've sounded like any other cutthroat Wall Street drama—a maniacal boss, putting a hit out on someone who'd seen too much. You know, the classics."

I snorted. "So she's not freaked?"

"I don't know her well enough to tell," April replied. "She's obviously curious, since Leo probably only told them the bare minimum, and she seems worried, but I think it's more for him than herself. She's a little unsettled about it all, though, hearing about Karai and knowing she came to their home, especially now that she's seen that Leo wasn't exaggerating about Karai being violent. How about her dad?"

"He's…" I shook my head. "From the sounds of things, he doesn't care, other than bein' worried about Leo an' us. He was just all…'normal is relative' and 'crap happens' about it, and basically said he doesn't plan on goin' anywhere." I shoved my hands in my pocket. "He seems to care about Leo. Worries about him, too."

"That's a good thing. It'd be a shame for Leo to lose such new friends."


April nudged me with an elbow. "That was certainly a heartfelt endorsement."

I shook myself. "I don't mean anythin' by it, it's just…" I spread my hands out. "I don't get them. I mean, when we first met you, I figured we'd get you back to the surface an' that'd be it, we'd never see you again, 'cause why the hell would you want to hang out in a sewer with a bunch'a mutants when you already had to deal with a crazy boss with a robot fetish? An' then when you stayed, when you kept comin' back…at first I figured it was 'cause we'd saved you an' that made us alright in your book. An' then we got to know you, an' you were family, so it finally made sense."

I paced a little, lettin' April herd me towards a quieter corner while I tried to figure out what was buggin' me. "People we rescue on patrol, they can't stop screamin' about the turtle thing long enough for us to even talk to 'em, let alone tell 'em about the whole Shredder-Foot-Karai thing. But Hitoshi…he knows we've got a psycho bitch gunnin' for us, and that she knows where they live, and he still just brushes it off. So, what…does that mean bein' dangerous, bein' someone who might get their friends killed just by association, isn't as bad as bein' a freak? Puttin' people in danger is better than not bein' human?"

"That's hardly a fair question," April said softly, takin' a seat against the wall an' pattin' the floor next to her in invitation. "As a matter of fact, it's a logical fallacy."

Out came the ten-point words. "Meaning…?"

"It means that your argument is based on a faulty assumption," she translated from geek speak. "You're asking if being turtles is worse than potentially dragging people into the business with Karai. For anyone to weigh that properly enough to make a decision, they'd have to know about both. You're arguing that since the people you've rescued on patrol scream and run when faced with you as something other than human, but Hitoshi and Naomi took Leo's revelation about Karai with basically a shrug and a grain of salt, being mutants is worse than being a danger to someone."

"All signs so far point to that bein' the case," I drawled, slidin' down the wall to sit next to her. "We've got plenty of examples to draw from."

April sighed an' whacked me on the head. "You need to think more like a scientist. You've heard Don talk about control variables in experiments, right?" When I nodded, she continued. "To compare anything in science, your two samples or groups have to be exactly the same, as far as you can manage it, with just one different factor, because that factor is what you're trying to measure. In your 'experiment,' you're measuring reactions to you as turtles or you as people it might be dangerous to know due to the risk of collateral damage, but your sample sets are in no way equal."

She shifted, turnin' to face me better as she held her left hand up. "The people you guys rescue on patrol are usually victims operating purely on adrenaline and reaction; pretty much everything is being controlled by their hindbrains, which are basically only capable of parsing things into threat or not-threat, fight or flight. So they're reacting in a situation of fear, where they're already primed to be afraid of anything that moves." She waited for me to nod, then held up her other hand as well. "But when Hitoshi and Naomi found out about Karai, and that they might be targeted for being Leo's friends, they were safe and relaxed at home, drinking tea. The two climates for these two groups—people seeing you as turtles, and people finding out you're in a clan war—couldn't be more different."

"Maybe, but—"

"And then," April continued, glarin' at me slightly for apparently interruptin', "you have to realize that as positive as Hitoshi and Naomi's reactions have been, if you're trying to establish an average for people's reactions to you, they exist as outliers, because Hitoshi is from Japan, and clan feuds are a historical facet of that culture. On top of that, while people might think clan battles are archaic and wonder why you don't just call the cops instead, we as a culture are primed to see revenge and getting even as a matter of course—take movies like Kill Bill, Taken, the Bourne trilogy…even in kid's movies, most of the resolution involves not just the happily-ever-after ending for the good guys, but also the bad guys getting what's coming to them. So we grow up thinking that getting revenge is almost a right, or at the very least a normal response."

I hated to admit it, but she made sense. "So you're sayin' that they don't work 'cause they don't fit into the usual standard of 'normal,' in terms of growin' up without knowin' about ninja feuds or anythin' weird like that. So…you an' Casey are the only real samples we have to work with in terms of humans who know about both the ninja an' the mutant things?"

I didn't expect her to start laughin'. "Oh gosh, no. We count as outliers as well. I grew up with an uncle that went on crazy adventures all over the globe, and then wound up with a mad scientist for a boss who had delusions of grandeur and tried to kill me with rat-eating robots. And Casey…well, Casey grew up with his own version of a clan feud with the Purple Dragons. And his mind works on its own set of wavelengths; as long as your principles are the same, he doesn't care much about the rest of it." She smiled as she looked out the door where Case was still arguin' on the phone. "Basically, Raph, it's impossible to establish a standard reaction or even a most likely scenario based on your past experiences, because everyone is different. You can't pigeonhole everyone's possible reactions into immediate acceptance or immediate rejection. Is the truth about the history between you guys and the Shredder easier to handle? For given values of 'easy,' yes, because revenge is something we as a culture understand and accept. But that doesn't mean that being a mutant is worse, just that it's harder to get your brain around right away."

"So how do you think Hitoshi and Naomi will take it, if Leo ever tells 'em?"

April huffed out a breath thoughtfully, stirrin' her bangs. "I have no idea," she said frankly. "I mean, considering how well they took this news, it stands to reason there'd be a decent chance that they'd accept it after a little time to parse things, but there's no way to know unless—or until—it happens. They both seem to like Leo and care about him, so that will probably help them realize that it really shouldn't matter what you guys used to be. But this is Leo we're talking about; unless something else goes pear-shaped like this situation did, he's not likely to tell them for a long time yet, if ever. I imagine he'd have to get a lot closer to Naomi for him to feel like he owes her—and Hitoshi—that explanation."

I blinked, thinkin' over the things Leo had said about his visits with the two of them. "You think she's the one he'd want to tell first?"

April smiled, an' it made me a little uneasy. "Yes, but it's just a hunch."

"Did Naomi say somethin'…?"

I got what was prob'ly supposed to be a soothin' pat on the shoulder. "Nothing that concerns you," April said pertly, still smilin' as Case finished on the phone and ambled back inside. "Just me being optimistic. Now come on, we should go give Don and Mikey some backup."

The rest of the day was…busy, sort of. We all hung out with Leo for a while until he got twitchy an' annoyed in the face of all the attention and the fact he couldn't leave an' threw us all out. Don dumped some books on him to keep 'im busy an' Mikey went to talk to the nurse about Hitoshi an' Naomi an' apologize for Leo bein' a horrible patient.

I booked it. No one needed to tell me to leave twice; I had an itch between my shoulder blades just from bein' there a couple hours, an' since I was gonna be goin' back that night to stand guard with Leo, I needed out, for everyone's sake. I went to Central Park an' ran off some of the tension, an' got back to the apartment to find Don putterin' around cleaning. I chased him out the door to go take care of the groceries an' picked up where he left off; I'm no Martha Stewart, but if it was a choice between cleanin' our place or dealin' with people at the markets, I knew which one I'd choose.

It felt stupid, bein' domestic, worryin' about things like cleanin' or pickin' up cereal. Not just because Leo was hurt—we'd learned pretty early that life had to go on, includin' chores, even when one or more of us got knocked on our asses—but because we were at war, dammit. Karai was out there, somewhere.

An' I was at home, doin' dishes.

By the time dinner rolled around, I was almost glad I was stayin' at the hospital with Leo, 'cause I was runnin' out of arguments for why I shouldn't go lookin' for Karai, an' I couldn't exactly give Leo shit for wantin' to do the Lone Ranger routine if I ran off to do the same thing.

The place was quieter when I got to the hospital, the lobby mostly empty since visitin' hours were endin' in about 20 minutes. I took the stairs up to Leo's floor an' nodded to the nurse at the desk. She pushed some kind of time log at me, I guess to keep track of when we got here—and who to blame if Leo got riled up, probably—so I scrawled my name, took the 'visitor' pass she slid across the counter, an' headed for Leo's room.

A new nurse was just finishin' up with checkin' Leo's bandages while he carefully didn't look at her, an' I leaned against the doorway to smirk at him. The movement caught his eye, and he glared at me.

Oh yeah, it was definitely going to be an ugly few days tryin' to keep him quiet here.

The nurse turned to see what Leo was lookin' at, an' smiled at me tiredly. "I'm sorry, sir, but visiting hours are almost over. You'll have to make it quick."

I held up the pass between two fingers. "I'm gonna be stayin' here tonight. It's cleared with his doc and the desk."

She frowned slightly, peerin' at the pass before she flipped through Leo's file. I could tell almost the exact second she found the surgeon's note about Leo's status as a "malpractice" victim, 'cause she glanced at Leo with a sympathetic look that I could tell was makin' his teeth grind. "Okay. If you need anything, feel free to check at the desk."

"Will do."

She hung Leo's chart on the end of the bed an' smiled at us before slippin' out of the room. I hooked a foot around the visitor's chair an' dragged it beside the bed, tossin' the pass on the bedside table as I got comfortable, raisin' an eyebrow at Leo. "So. How're you doin'?"

Leo gave me a look that said he was damn tired of hearin' that question. "I want to leave. I can't…" He shifted, wincin' as the move pulled on stitches and sore muscles. "I can't stand it here. The door's wide open, anyone could come in—everyone does, especially the nurses, they come in any time they want—I can't leave, I got yelled at for going to the bathroom on my own, like I really needed any help, and it's just too—" He waved his good arm, an' I could guess what he was gettin' at.

Too open. Too bright. Too crowded.

Too easy for enemies to just walk right in.

"Hey." I punched him lightly in the knee when he started twitchin' again, waitin' for 'im to look at me. "I am the last person who's gonna give you crap about wantin' to get the hell out of here. You got people watchin' you all the time, no weapons, an' you're stuck in a dinky room in what looks like a crappy bed; of course you're gonna hate it. Hell, if it'd been me in your place, I prob'ly would've made a break for it too, though there would've been more collateral damage."

He snorted, knowin' I was right. "You could break me out now, earn Brother of the Year award."

I barked a laugh, honestly amused and doin' him the favor of pretendin' he wasn't as serious as he was. "Like hell. Don aside, Mikey would kick my ass for it; by the time you make it back to your place, he's gonna mother-hen the sanity right outta you." I grinned at him. "You got yourself a new bodyguard."

Leo grimaced at me an' shifted until he found a more comfortable position. "I think you're right. I didn't quite expect that when all this started."

"What, Mikey growin' up?"

"No, Mikey…trying to take care of me." He cracked a smile. "I kind of figured he'd be too busy making friends with half of New York."

I shrugged an' leaned back in my chair. "Is it a bad thing that someone's takin' care of you for a change?"

I couldn't tell what he was thinkin' when he went quiet an' looked at me. "No, just…unusual. I still have to remind myself to let him."

Let him. That was Leo, havin' to remember to let his bros take care of him instead of bein' his own one-man army. "It's good for you," I told him. "An' he ain't the only one."

His face went soft, the big sap. "I don't mind it from any of you, Raph. You should know that."

"Your version of 'not minding it' could use a little more 'sure, go ahead' an' a bit less 'thanks, but I'm fine,' bro," I drawled.

"I'm working on it," Leo protested. "Without Master Splinter around, someone has to look after you guys, and I—" His face twitched toward panic mode. "We still haven't called him."

I slapped my hand against his chest when it looked like he was gonna try an' get up. "What, an' you're gonna go ask for a phone an' take care of it? Chill, bro. Donnie said he'd call 'im tonight when they got back to our place. Said it'd be lunchtime over there, or close enough."

"Oh. Good." He settled back into his pillow, obviously thinkin' about somethin'. "I miss him," he said quietly. "The only time I've ever not seen him for this long was when I was off traveling. It's…odd not having someone to go to for advice."

I wanted to ask him if it was just as weird as not havin' someone to take orders from, but I didn't wanna open that can of worms tonight. "I miss 'im too. Hey." I propped my feet on the end of his bed, shovin' his over slightly. "I was thinkin', when we break you out, we should head over there, to the Ancient One's place. Even if the rest of us can only take a couple days off from work, Seiichi's deal's done now, right? So you could have a little more time over there to recuperate."

He smiled. "That sounds great," he said softly. His expression turned a little wry. "Is it strange that I find it weird to think about healing up somewhere other than at the farmhouse?"

"No stranger than us goin' to a farmhouse to board a spaceship an' turn into humans," I pointed out. "Or you landin' in a hospital where we try to convince the doc you've got PTSD or somethin' rather than bein' afraid of gettin' shipped off to a lab."

Leo tipped his head in agreement. "It's all about perspective," he said, his voice dry.

"Mm. Hey, Leo?"

He glanced at me, his face curious. "Yeah?"

"…What're we gonna do? About Karai, I mean, if she ain't gone." I felt bad askin', 'cause Leo had enough to deal with, but hell, the question had been slammin' against the inside of my skull an' creepin' across Don and Mikey's faces most of the day, an' I had no answers of my own.

"I don't know, Raph," he said tiredly, an' I remembered he'd been stuck in here for almost two days, on edge, with little to no sleep. "We can't really do much more than wait. If this," he waved a hand at himself an' the hospital room, "is enough to satisfy her, then maybe this was the end of things. If it isn't…then I guess we go back to waiting."

There was somethin' in his voice that made me frown. "You don't—you think she'd be crazy enough to come here?"

He looked at me, one eyebrow raised. "She was crazy enough to come after us at Chuck's and kidnap Ryan."

"But this is a hospital."

"And that was a populated apartment building in the middle of the day. I don't know that there's much of anything she cares to be stopped by any more."

"Shit." I sat back, wishin' I didn't believe him an' tryin' not to think about Karai completely off the tracks an' runnin' around a hospital. "Is that why you told the doc you wanted someone here at night?"

Leo glanced down at his morphine pump, but not before I saw his face get a little red. "…Mostly," he said with a small shrug.

The other part bein' that he really didn't wanna be left here at night on his own, injured, with no one to watch his back. I had to catch myself to keep from teasin' him, 'cause he was finally gettin' over the 'leaders show no pain or weakness' bullshit he tried to pull all those years, an' like hell I was gonna do anythin' to push him back towards that.

Plus, no one knew Karai as well as Leo, an' if he thought there was a possibility of her showin' up here, then like hell were we leavin' him alone.

"So, anythin' we should be doin' about it?"

Relief flashed over his face for a second before he put on his thinkin' expression. "I'm not sure there's anything we can do, other than keeping an eye out at our places and April and Casey's. Now that she's abandoned Foot HQ, we don't really have a place to look for her now. About the only thing we can do is wait for her to get caught, or wait for her to come to us…and even with as sloppy as she's gotten, I don't think the former is likely to happen, and not just because the cops will probably be looking in the wrong places."

I scowled. "Okay, for the record? This 'sit around an' wait for the psycho ninja to come after us' idea sucks."

Leo dipped his head to the side in lieu of a shrug. "We're living proof—emphasis on the living part—that you can't kill what you can't find. I guess we're just seeing what it's like on the other side of the equation."

That deserved a dirty look. "The philosophical approach is really not helpin' here, Leo," I informed him sourly.

"Well, it's about the only approach I can manage, so deal with it," Leo sniped back. "I'm not in shape to be anything but bait for the time being."

I could feel my face go kinda cold, an' had to remind myself that tryin' to strangle Leo was definitely not gonna help his recovery as I jolted up from my chair. But that he would even think that we'd let him play bait… "Leo, you—"

"Sit down and calm down, Raph; people are trying to sleep," he said sharply, his eyes on mine. "Don't pretend the thought hasn't occurred to you, too. I'm wounded and on display in a public place—it's practically the definition of being bait. But I never said I was volunteering for it. If I was less injured, it'd be a viable plan somewhere else, but not here; there are too many defenseless people who could—and knowing Karai, probably would—get caught in the crossfire. The sooner I get out of here, the less of a chance there is that Karai will decide it's worth the risk and try her luck getting to me here."

Because that was exactly the thing I needed to be thinkin' about, knowin' Leo would be here on his own tomorrow while we were all at work. Awesome. I paced over to the window, starin' out at the city an' wonderin' where in all that mess Karai was. As many years as we'd run patrols, the city looked more familiar like this, seein' it lit up at night from several floors up. I didn't think it'd ever look as familiar from street level. Sometimes it seemed like the only connection between the roofs and the street was that our problems followed us everywhere.

"Raph?" I looked to the side just enough to see Leo's reflection in the window. Much as I hated bein' here, it helped, a little, to see he was doin' alright and guard him, to make up for not bein' able to keep him from getting hurt in the first place. "Seriously, don't make me come over there."

It was a cheap shot, but it worked, 'cause we both knew he'd do it. I sighed and stomped back over to the chair, swingin' my feet back up. "This is bullshit," I informed him.

"No one knows that better than me, Raph. But there isn't anything we can do about it."

Oh, I wasn't so sure about that. I figured if I put my mind to it, I could hunt Karai down an' hang her off the Brooklyn Bridge to use as a piñata before leavin' her for the cops to find.

Leo's foot knocked into my own. "So what'd you do today?"

I shrugged. "Not much. Took care of some crap around the apartment, went for a run." I grinned a little as I thought of a better topic. "Talked to Hitoshi for a bit."

He looked sorta curious, an' tried to push himself up in the bed before he realized how stupid that was. "What about?"

"How much of a headache you are to take care of," I informed him. It was partly true, an' it made him get that Be Patient With The Little Brothers look he got when I used to come home late or we were screwin' around durin' patrol. Can't go wrong with the classics. "And everythin' that's happened."

That got rid of the humor on his face faster than I meant it to. "How…how are they taking it?"

"So far, so good," I said honestly. "It doesn't seem to be freakin' them out too much. But you already got to see how they reacted, didn't you? You said they still wanted you to come back after you explained about Karai."

He made a face. "They did, but I just…I kind of wondered if maybe they thought I was exaggerating or being paranoid. I didn't know if things had changed now that they have obvious proof of how…messy things can get."

"Doesn't look like anything's changed to me. Hitoshi said it seemed to him like you were tryin' to scare 'em off rather than warn 'em, and said he's not goin' anywhere." I studied his face. "Did you want to scare 'em off?"

"No!" Leo shook his head, bracin' his shoulder with his good arm for a minute. "No, I don't, I just—I don't want it to be the fight at April's all over again, you know? I don't…I don't think I can take being responsible for that again."

I knuckled him in the side gently. "That wasn't your fault, bro. It coulda been any one of us, and for how quickly all of 'em got there, they had to have been watchin' her place already."

That got me a weak smile, the kind where Leo was pretendin' to believe me. Idiot. "Probably. But this time, I'd be the only one to blame for all of this landing on their doorstep," Leo said sourly. "They welcomed me into their home without even really knowing much about me. I might not be the expert on social interaction, but even I know that you don't pay that back with property damage. I don't want to see them get hurt, and I'd like to still be welcome back after this is over."

"What are they like?" I asked, curious. Leo could usually read people faster'n I could, an' I wanted to know what he saw in them, see if Hitoshi made any more sense to Leo than he did to me.

"They're good people," Leo said, his voice soft. "Hitoshi-san…his sense of humor is a lot like Mikey's, and he's very welcoming. He's traveled a lot, seen parts of Japan I'd like to visit if we ever got a chance. And he's very…accepting. I think he knows there are a lot of things I'm not telling them, but he doesn't seem to mind."

I nodded, pretendin' to be starin' at the city lights even as I watched him outta the corner of my eye. "And Naomi?" April had made me more'n a little curious (and suspicious) earlier when she mentioned talkin' to Naomi, and I couldn't help wonderin' what she looked like from Leo's end of things.

His face twisted a little, like it didn't know which expression to go with before it settled on somethin' that just kinda looked confused. "She's…formidable," he said finally.

I looked at him, eyebrows raised. "Really? All the words in the English language, an' that's the one you go with?"

He gestured sorta helplessly. "Have you met her?"

"Briefly." I thought about how she'd squared off with me about a minute after we were introduced, and…yeah, formidable worked.

Leo must have read the agreement on my face, 'cause he just nodded. "She's very strong-willed and self-assured, and definitely not as…Mikey-ish as Hitoshi-san is. But she's fun to spend time with. She teaches yoga there at the dojo."

Yoga, huh? I told myself not to be a creep an' not to try an' picture it. "So how'd your date go?"

Leo rolled his eyes and groaned. "Of course you were going to bring that up," he grumbled. "It was…awkward. From what I gathered, Rae didn't know that Naomi and I had met when she set us up, but when Naomi mentioned that she met someone named Leo—from when Yuki-san and I visited the dojo—Rae figured out they'd both met me. And she told Hitoshi-san, but not Naomi. She and Hitoshi-san apparently try to fix Naomi up with dates fairly often, so when I ended up being the person she was set up with…"

I snorted. "Awkward was an understatement, huh?"

"A bit," Leo agreed. "I don't think she likes people trying to organize things for her. I think she keeps some shields up until she gets someone's measure, but then she's very interesting. Once I told her I wasn't looking for a relationship any more than she was, it got a lot less awkward, and it was…it was nice. She's easy to talk to once you get to know her."

Only if you're prepared to either stand your ground or give it, I'd bet. I wondered if Leo had figured out how much they sounded like each other, at least in terms of stubbornness. "So you're not interested in her?"

"I'm…" Leo looked sort of lost. "I don't know. I like seeing her and spending time with her, but the same can be said of Hitoshi-san."

"He's not your type," I said, holdin' the straight face as long as I could.

Leo barked out a laugh, kickin' me in the ankle even as he pressed the heel of his hand against his side. "Moron. You know what I meant."

I grinned. I did, but hell if it wasn't more fun to give him crap. "Sure. Go on, this is me behaving."

He gave me a wry look. "Don't I know it. Naomi…I just don't know, Raph. I mean…I guess if I'd ever tried to picture the kind of person I'd end up with, she'd be a lot like Naomi, but we only met a little while ago; I'm still trying to get to know her. And besides, I don't want to mess up what I have there already. Getting to visit them is like…the best way I can think of to describe it is that to them, I'm just a normal person," Leo said, his gaze a little distant as he thought. "There's no standard I have to reach, and they don't have any expectations of me other than company. They're not expecting me to impress them, and…and I don't have to. I'm not their leader or a role model or an example—I'm just a friend. And I don't have to be anything else."

That was somethin' I'd never thought about Leo needin'. I'd always figured he enjoyed the way we'd looked up to him, the way Sensei had named him the leader; hell, I know I would've. And at first, he probably did too, but after a while…after a while it probably would've started feelin' a lot heavier. When he'd gone off on his jungle trainin', I'd loved bein' the oldest in the Lair, the leader. But then a couple weeks turned into a month turned into several months, an' the pressure of it, of Master Splinter expectin' me to be the temporary leader, of leadin' patrols knowin' we were one man short an' had less firepower because of it, of Mikey askin' what we should do…it got claustrophobic.

We never saw that part of Leo; he seemed to take on more an' more an' just handle it. I wondered if things would've been different if we'd seen how it weighed on 'im, if he'd let us see it.

Too many ifs. But it wasn't like you can ever do anythin' with regrets, other than not makin' the same mistakes again in the future.

I shifted in my chair. "So they're good for you, then."

"I…" Leo bit off a yawn an' cleared his throat. "Yeah, I guess they are. Do you like them?"

"Do I…? Does it matter? I mean, they're your friends."

"And you're my brother."

Ah geez. "You don't need my approval to make friends, Leo, but yeah, they sound like good people, even if Hitoshi does have some really creepy Jedi mind powers."

Leo snorted. "He has what?"

I shrugged. "You know, the whole…read you like a book kinda stuff."

He smiled slightly, lookin' confused. "Master Splinter does that to us all the time."

No argument there. It had been hard enough to get stuff past Leo, but Sensei? No chance. "Yeah, but it makes sense comin' from him, 'cause he raised us, y'know? It's just…" I shrugged. "It's just weird for anyone to see through us that easily. Hitoshi…he talked to me like he knew me, just from what he'd heard about me from you."

Leo's smile turned wry. "Maybe we just make sense to everyone except each other, Raph. You can't see the forest for the trees, and all that."

"…You can't see what?"

"It's a saying. It's like…if you're standing right in front of some trees, they're all you can see because they fill your view. It's not until you step back that you see those are just three of a hundred trees, that they're just a fragment of the forest. It's all about distance and perspective."

I looked at Leo, thinkin' of all the years we'd fought, how nuts we'd driven each other…and, despite all that, how much I'd missed him when he was gone on his trainin' trips. If we'd had more distance like that regularly, or if we'd both been better at perspective an' not just seein' the parts of each other that pissed us off, would things have been different?

I knocked my foot against his, starin' up at the ceilin' for a minute while I tried to shove down the memories and regret. Leo had been my best friend when we were little; when exactly was it that I'd stopped lookin' at him as my brother an' started lookin' at all the ways he wasn't what I wanted him to be? "Yeah. Yeah, I can get that." I caught Leo tryin' to hide another yawn. "Hey, you should get some sleep."

"I'm fine."

If ever we were gonna coin a phrase for Leo, that'd be it. "Says the guy in the hospital bed. How much sleep have you actually gotten since you've been here? An' bein' unconscious doesn't count," I added as he opened his mouth.

Leo shifted. "…Not as much as I'd like," he admitted. "It's not exactly a restful environment."

That was an understatement. Between bein' used to bein' nocturnal, an' bein' stuck in a bright buildin' full of strangers, I knew I wasn't gonna have to worry about fallin' asleep. "I get that, but the doc isn't gonna let us spring you early unless you're as healed up as you can be in three quiet days, an' the easiest way to get there is to get some sleep. Where's your morphine pump thing?"

Leo held it up, lookin' confused. "It's right here, why?"

I leaned over an' clicked it a couple times, blockin' Leo's hand when he tried to swat me away. "We both know you're only usin' what you want, which has always been a hell of a lot less than you need," I told him as I sat back.

He glared at me, but I could see the added pain meds were already startin' to kick in from the way his eyelids started droopin'. "Ass."

"You oughta be used to that by now." He was tryin' to fight the drugs, moron, so I leaned forward, tappin' my fist against his. "Leo, seriously, it's alright. I've got watch, bro; you just worry about resting."

Leo sighed an' sank back into the bed, eyes on me. "Talk about something."

I swallowed, tryin' not to be a girl about the way Leo was tacitly sayin' he trusted me to have his back. He always had, even when I didn't feel like I deserved it. "Like what?"

"What you saw on your run today. People you've met at work." He yawned, blinkin' slowly. "Or the Nightwatcher— what it was like, who you saved…" Leo huffed a laugh. "How you made the costume."

I stared at him. Findin' out that I'd been the Nightwatcher had pissed Leo the hell off at the time. And those stories…"You oughta know from our patrols that the stuff I got up to on the streets doesn't really fall into the category of relaxin' material."

"So censor it," he mumbled as his eyes closed. One side of his mouth quirked up. "You're good at that."

I couldn't help grinnin'. He wasn't wrong. "Gimme a sec," I said, heavin' myself outta the chair. I turned it so that I was still sittin' by Leo's good hip, but now I was facin' the hallway an' could see everyone comin' an' goin'. I thought about what I could tell 'im. For all he'd joked about it, I could tell Leo was a lot more interested in hearin' about my time as the Nightwatcher than the people at work; he'd spent a lot of his days after the fight at Winters' tower findin' out from Mikey and Don what he'd missed while he'd been away. The Nightwatcher, though…that was mine, somethin' of my own.

Still, there were a few stories I could share.

I settled back into my seat, proppin' my elbow up by Leo's hip. "Okay, well, I don't know if you've ever looked at the helmet," I began, feelin' Leo shift his hand 'til it rested against my arm, "but I rigged up a headset in there, tuned like a police scanner to their frequencies so I'd be able to pick up on any muggings or burglaries that were goin' down. It was effective, but it was a bitch to learn all the police codes in the beginning. Anyway, there was this one guy, some sergeant or somethin', who got so pissed every time they got a call to come an' cut down some scumbags that'd I'd strung up. An' the guy who did dispatch most nights, he knew it, an' I guess he thought it was hysterical, 'cause he'd patch in other guys that were on patrol before callin' this sergeant, just so they could hear him explode. An' when they called him…the guy was Irish, an' I swear, I learned new ways to cuss a guy out every single time…"

Master Splinter

Something that no one tells you about living on your own—and indeed, something I had had no opportunity to find out for myself, not in twenty years of living with four sons—is exactly how long it takes for silence to begin to sound normal.

Living on my own, with only the Ancient One's strays for company, was strange in the extreme the first month of my 'retirement,' as my sons put it. For so many years, silence had been a rare visitor in our lives; it would stop by at night, when all my sons were asleep, and linger for a few hours. If one of my sons had been injured, the Lair would be quiet as his brothers tiptoed around whoever had been hurt, in that classic fear that somehow, being loud would be detrimental to their recovery. Silence was rare and hard-won, and most often I would have to leave the Lair to get any real quiet, or take a few scant hours to myself as my sons went on patrol.

So adjusting to a life in which the only sounds of life were my own was decidedly odd. I will admit to bribing the cats around the residence in the beginning, unnerved as I was at having no company other than my own; treats were left out unattended, and I moved much of my meditation outdoors, in hopes that the sight of me sitting still and quiet for hours would convey my presence as harmless or even welcoming. Wistful for more intelligent company, I even visited Ayame, the medicine woman who lived farther down the mountain near the Ancient One's home. She was a quiet woman, and reminded me much of Tang Shen. Hers was a kind nature, and save for a few moments of wide-eyed staring, any awkwardness at revealing myself to a human was minimal. The company was most welcome, if cautious, and we traded careful stories of our relationship with the Ancient One. I left with an invitation to return for future visits, one which I hesitantly returned.

I appreciated the presence of someone who could one day become a friend, or at worst, was a polite acquaintance and no potential threat. I was careful not to wear out my welcome, which in truth was not difficult, as twenty years of secrecy and caution were hard to overcome and I was hesitant at first to allow myself to be seen very often, even by one person.

By the second month, however, I found myself more relaxed than I had been in years. Each day was largely the same, filled with little more than meditation and gardening, or the occasional visit to Ayame. Presently the cats began to join me for meals or meditation, napping in sunbeams or sitting curled up nearby. I began to wake more and more often with at least one cat on my pillow each morning, or tucked against my side, purring and blinking at me in the dawn sunlight. They were steady companions, with few complaints about my early nights and early mornings. Ayame and I continued to visit a few times a month, and if nothing else, both our gardens benefited; I began growing those plants she needed but lacked the room or time for, while she in turn presented me with cuttings of plants to expand my garden or tea collection.

My visits with Ayame kept me from becoming too unfamiliar with human contact, but I was still caught off-guard when the shell cell rang late one morning. It had been so long since I'd heard it that it took several rings for the sound to register, and both cats mewed at me curiously at the noise. I glanced at the clock; it was nearly eleven, quickly approaching lunch, which would make it close to nine in the evening in New York. I rose from where I was tending a bonsai and gathered the phone quickly. "Hello?"

"Master Splinter?"

There was no helping the smile that spread across my face, not that I would want to. "Donatello, my son, it is so good to hear your voice. How are you?"

There was a split second of hesitation, and I felt my smile begin to fade. "I'm alright, all things considered."

I recognized that tone of voice better than I would like; all of my sons had sounded like that at one point or another, calling the Lair to try and prepare me so that I could brace myself for the sight of one of them coming home injured…as if there was anything that could actually lessen that worry for a father. "Something has happened," I stated. "What is it? Is it your brothers?"

"Just one of them. Leo…was attacked. It was Karai." Donatello obviously heard my sharp intake of breath over the phone, as he continued hurriedly. "He's—well, not okay, really, but not any worse off than he was after the incident on the space ship, comparatively."

"And you and Michelangelo and Raphael?" I demanded.

"All fine. Well, I mean, other than Leo being hurt, but we're all unharmed."

I sighed, barely making it to a cushion before relief weakened my knees. "My son, what happened? When last you wrote, your only contact was the misdirection of targeting the Foot patrols in the sewers."

Donatello took a deep breath, then began to explain. I could feel my chest getting tight at the story—so much had happened in the few weeks since I'd last heard from them!—and it was so much harder than I'd expected, to hear of them being in danger and being so far away. I had not accompanied them into battle for years, my age and old joints stealing much of the speed and sprightliness I would need to be of help rather than a liability, but at least I had always been there when they returned to the Lair. If nothing else, I could at least reassure myself with the sight of them at home or a hand on their foreheads in the infirmary if they were injured. "But he will recover?"

"Absolutely," Donatello said firmly. "The surgeon said that Leo came through the surgery well, and that he should be out of the hospital within a week…less if he's being too much like himself and we have to bring him home early for everyone's sake. He…snuck out of his hospital room this morning; the drugs he was on had him pretty messed up, and I don't think he remembered we were human. Anyway, no one saw him leave, so when we got there all we had was an empty hospital bed and no explanation."

A long sigh buzzed slightly with static over the connection. "It scared the crap out of us—we thought Karai had gotten to him somehow—but he was fine, just holed up in a room down the hall. On the bright side, his doctor is now willing to let him go in three days instead so long as we can keep him quiet that long. He thinks Leo was a victim of malpractice, and that's why he's so jumpy at the hospital. We're going to be spending the nights there so Leo at least knows he's not alone when he wakes up. He's even less fond of being there than we are of having him there, but as much as I'd rather have him home…this was a close call; it's better that he has some professional help."

"And you have heard no more from Karai?"

"No." My son's voice was a low, disgruntled growl. "The police are on the lookout for Karai, and no one is allowed to see Leo at the hospital without checking in against a list of visitors approved by us, but that's all we can do for now. I think Raph and Mikey want to go after her—I can't say I wouldn't mind going either—but leaving Leo alone would be just asking for it."

"My son—" I had to bite my tongue quite firmly to keep myself from ordering them to simply open the portal and come straight to me, to wait here until Karai gave up or was caught. The situation was theirs to handle, and taking the fight to her might very well end up being their best option; there was no telling how the pieces would fall when it came to Karai, especially since she seemed to be treading the path of madness as Stockman had done.

"Don't worry, it's more of a pleasant fantasy than a plan," Donatello said hurriedly. "They're just—we're all just a little tired of this. It's just a waiting game now, but we're ready."

I let out my breath slowly, forcing myself to relax. My sons were safe and well for the most part, and Leonardo, as unpleasant as it was to say, had truly had worse. "And you cannot do this waiting here?" I asked mildly. I would not order such a thing, but I was still a father, and I defied any other to not ask such a question in my position.

There was a noticeable hesitation over the phone. "I wish we could, but I don't think so, Sensei," Donatello murmured finally, his voice wistful and tired. "We have jobs to get back to tomorrow, and despite his escapade today, Leo's in no shape to be moving around much. Plus there's no guarantee that, if she can't find us, Karai won't go after April and Casey or Leo's friends."

I sighed, stymied by my son's logic. "After, perhaps?"

Donatello huffed a laugh. "After, definitely. I think we'd all like a long weekend away. How are you doing? Is everything still going well there?"

"Very well," I said, allowing the subject change for the moment. "It has been most restorative. I feel a great deal better and more rested than I have in years. I imagine Michelangelo will be thrilled to know that I have earned the trust of the stray cats that have made the property their home, and by all accounts I have passed muster and am deemed a friend."

Donatello chuckled, and I smiled to hear the honest enjoyment in his voice. "He'll love that. Since I know he'd want me to ask, have you come up with names for them yet?"

"Not yet. At first I hesitated because I did not know if they were strays or just lost, but I am certain now that they are no one's pets. At this point I am waiting simply to get a better idea of their personalities before I assign names, assuming they decide to stay."

"I'm glad you have some company, even if they're not talkative." My son sighed. "I miss you, Sensei," he said quietly. "We all do. It's so strange to not have you here. I'm stuck as the only reasonable one while Leo's indisposed, and I miss having backup."

My heart ached to hear the fatigue in my son's voice, and I nodded, though I knew he could not see it. "I miss you and your brothers as well, my son; fiercely. I wish that I could be there with you, but I believe it best for us to wait until it is safe for you to come to me at the Battle Nexus."

"I know, Sensei. It's just wishful thinking." I heard a soft clatter from his side of the line. "We've battened down the hatches here at our place for the night, in case Karai picks now of all time to try something, and April and Casey are back at their place; it's safer for them, and if something should happen, we'll still have some backup around for whoever needs it. Mikey's…I'm not sure if he's asleep or not; even if he is, I know he'd like to talk to you. Want me to give him the phone?"

I knew my sons needed their rest, both to recover from what had already happened and to brace themselves for what was to come, but I very much wanted to hear from all of them and assure myself that they were well. Just this once, I would be selfish. "I would appreciate that, my son. Is Raphael asleep as well?"

"No, he's at the hospital; he's first up to bat to stay the night there with Leo." The other end of the line fell silent for several seconds. "Raph held it together really well the past few days, Master Splinter. He kept a lid on things until we'd seen Leo was alright, and then he and Casey went…out, I don't know where. It helped, wherever they went. For his sake and ours, though, I hope the police find Karai or she finds us soon, because otherwise, Raph's going to go find her…and I don't know that he'd ask me and Mikey to come."

Oh, Raphael. My heart ached for my most passionate son, for I knew he would blame himself for his brother being wounded while they were so near to each other, even if there was nothing he could have done. At the same time, I could not help a thrill of fear to hear that he was considering targeting Karai on his own—fear, but not surprise. Donatello's quick defense of his brother, however, was a change from the norm—but a pleasant one. Donatello was normally the most exasperated with Raphael's tendency toward fighting, next to Leonardo, and yet it was obvious that he had come to understand his brother better; I was glad to see the fruits of that empathy. "I imagine not, my son. Let him know, and Leonardo as well, that I miss and love them both, and that I look forward to hearing from them."

"I will. Give me a second and I'll pass you to Mikey."

I waited over the sound of rustling and muffled voices, hoping Michelangelo was indeed awake. If I didn't know as well as I did that going to them would be a distraction, I would be packing my things to journey to the Battle Nexus. As it was—


I closed my eyes, another knot of tension unwinding from around my heart at the sound of my youngest son's voice. "Michelangelo. How are you?"

"I am having a really crappy week, Master Splinter," he said bluntly. "How 'bout you?"

Despite the situation, I could not help but chuckle. "Mine has been decidedly better than yours, I fear, though I would trade with you if I could."

"I wouldn't want you to," Michelangelo countered solidly. "We're…we're getting by. Donnie and I are holding down the fort—and Raph—as best we can, it's just…it was really close, Master Splinter. And I wasn't even there when it happened. I know that Raph…it was bad for him—worse than it was for Leo, I think, as weird as that sounds. I don't think Raph's gonna get over that for a while, being there and not being able to do anything other than hear Leo get hurt. But…but I think I would've rather traded places with him. I mean, not because I might've gotten caught at Foot HQ—and can you imagine Raph sneaking in there and not giving himself away by punching everyone in the face?"

My faith in all my sons' abilities to be one with the shadows was absolute, and I knew Raphael had restraint and the presence of mind to exercise it when he chose to do so, but to send him into Karai's lair in his state of mind…I winced to think of it. "No. No, I'm afraid I cannot."

"Me neither. Anyway, like I was saying, it wasn't the danger or worrying about Ryan that was the worst, it was…it was not knowing how bad Leo was, not knowing if he'd still be alive by the time I got Ryan and got out of there." My son's voice was bleak and haunted, and for all his concerns about Raphael, I feared he would have his own nightmares; they all would. "As bad as it had to have been for Raph, I think I would've rather been there. I mean, I'm glad I was able to get Ryan out, and I think it needed to be me or else the—things would've gone differently, and maybe messier, but still…at least being there with Leo, he knew he was still alive. At least he had that much."

"I would not wish for any of you to go through such a thing, Michelangelo," I murmured.

Though I would never say it, in my heart, I too would have preferred Michelangelo to have been with Leonardo during Karai's attack, for I truthfully believed he could have weathered such a thing the best. Raphael was so protective, and kept such careful count of the ways he felt he failed those dear to him, that this would leave a scar in him for far too long. And while Donatello's more rational nature would let him see where Raphael would not that there was nothing else he could have done, I believed his lingering, undeserved insecurities about how his skills matched up to those of his brothers would have him wondering if one of them could have done better in his place.

Michelangelo, though, his was a resilient nature. He bent and adapted faster than his brothers, and while he loved no less fiercely than any of them, he did not cling to his worries the way his brothers could. He was quick to give and accept absolution, and though the fear might have stayed with him, I believed he would have recovered faster than Raphael.

"That makes two of us. Other than the ulcers, though, we're all fine. Leo's…well, Leo's Leo, which means he totally thinks he's ready to just head back home. And I want him back here—we all do—but…you saw how much that shoulder wound bothered him the first time around, and now he's got that plus a hole in his side, and he's basically wearing his Stoic Leader face all the time now so we can't see how much he hurts." A heavy sigh. "He's probably only gonna use his morphine pump when one of us is there, 'cause he's already off his game from being hurt, and he doesn't want to risk being hurt and loopy around strangers."

I fought a smile at the longsuffering in my son's voice. "After what has happened with Karai, your brother will likely always be hesitant to trust anyone outside of the family, I'm afraid."

"It's not just that, it's that he's—we've—been fighting for too long. He doesn't know how to turn off that part of his brain; he's never really gotten a chance to do much other than fight or train or look after us."

I could not say for sure, but I did not think I was imagining the hint of accusation in Michelangelo's voice…and if it was indeed there, I could not pretend I hadn't earned some censure. I stood by my decision to make Leonardo the leader—I had desperately needed someone on "my side," as it were, to raise so many active young boys on my own, and I knew if I hadn't made a choice, my sons likely would have squabbled among themselves to decide who was on top—but I had come to understand, and regret, the unintended results of that decision over the years. And now it seemed my other sons were seeing those results as well. "I know, my son. I had hoped that this change would be an opportunity for him to lay down his arms, as it were, and the burden of vigilance; it seems I underestimated Karai's determination."

"I think Leo'd still be having trouble even if Karai hadn't messed things up. It's hard for him to undo that many years of being chuunin first and everything else second…I'm doing what I can to help him with it, though."

I did not need the reminder that Leonardo had left little time for himself over the years amidst practice and leading his brothers on patrol and in battle; I was well aware of the disparity between Leonardo's duties and his personal time, but it was an awareness I'd gained mostly in recent years, to my shame. For so long, it had been hard to see how much time he devoted to his duties—no, that was inaccurate. In truth, I had not thought to look for ways he was neglecting himself. He led his brothers well, set a good example, and eased some of the burden on me when it came to looking after Michelangelo and the others, and from what I could tell, he was not unhappy with the way things were, so I had simply assumed that he was…content with things.

I assumed, rather foolishly, that if he felt overburdened by his duties, he would tell me.

"I am sure that you will be a good influence on him, Michelangelo." As a father, I couldn't fault the way my youngest son cheerfully pursued the things he enjoyed the most without reservation, even if, as a teacher, I had occasionally wish he'd applied more of that delight to his studies—particularly meditation. "Let no one tell you otherwise."

"I…thanks, Sensei. I will. Or won't, I guess. Anyway, I think I have to go—since we have to work tomorrow and I'll be bunking with Leo at the hospital tomorrow night, Donnie's making his doctor face at me about getting some sleep. I hope you have a good night—or, wait, day, I mean."

"You as well, my son. The day dawned quietly and peacefully here, and I hope it will do the same for you. Good night, Michelangelo."

"G'night, Sensei. Love you."

"And I love you, my son." I waited for the click as my son hung up before turned my own phone off, lowering the cell to my side with a sigh. My poor sons. Yet another time for me to regret the way that my vendetta, and my master's, had entangled my sons as well. A gentle pressure against my leg drew my attention, and I smiled to see one of the cats industriously kneading my thigh while the other sat primly at my side and blinked at me. I imagined their presence was as much due to the fact that it was time for lunch as it was in reaction to my distress—if not more so—but the gentle thrum of their purring was soothing no matter what had brought them, and the distraction was welcome.

My sons…my sons were beyond my reach, for the time being, but I could at least take care of my new charges, and be glad that they at least were in no danger from the turmoil of my past.

A/N: As always, reviews/concrit/notes about errors are appreciated!