Well, here it is: the end of the story. Thank you so much to everyone who read, commented, or added this story to a Favorites list -- it means a lot to me, even if I'm too tongue-tied to respond effectively.
A sequel is already underway, and will soon be posted here.
A breeze blew through the upstairs hall of the old farmhouse just as Raph stepped out of the bathroom after his shower. It carried the scent of honeysuckle from the vines growing up the side of the barn.
The house was quiet for once. April and Casey had gone into town for groceries for the family's long Fourth of July weekend. Shadow was napping on the front porch under Splinter's watchful eye. And the Turtles had scattered to their own pursuits immediately after morning practice. Raphael himself was looking forward to some quality time with the television, a baseball game, and the last two beers in the fridge, during the rare afternoon off.
He stopped short when he stepped into the kitchen. "Thought you were still in the barn, practicing."
Leo didn't turn to look at him. "I came back in when Don decided he'd had enough." He still wore his full gear and that, combined with the way he continued to stare fiercely out the back door at the edge of the forest, set off some quiet alarm bells in Raph's head.
"Somethin' wrong?" Raphael stepped up to see for himself.
Leo shook his head, eyes never leaving the treeline. "No. Not really. It's just…Don went into the woods."
Ah. It explained Leo's tension. It also explained the faint shiver that ran down Raph's spine.
Aloud he said only, "He's gonna be okay. They can't grab him again."
"I know it," Leo frowned. "I know the Triceratons can't get near Earth again, and I know Don's perfectly capable of taking care of himself. It's just…I knew that the last time he went into the woods, too."
It was Raph's turn to frown. In the months since their return home, they'd had to learn to deal with the residual effects, physical and emotional, of Don's captivity. The obvious ones, like his knee and wasted limbs, were actually easiest to deal with – Utrom medical recommendations went a long way toward guiding his physical therapy. It was the rest of it that was hardest to deal with. How do you fix the inside of somebody's head? Raphael wondered, not for the first time.
The nightmares were to be expected. Don had bad ones, too – dreams that made Mike's worst screaming terrors look like playtime, and Mike freely admitted it. Don didn't like to share his nightmares often, though. Raphael thought it was because it was obvious that what he dreamed of were actual events, not made-up figments. Still, they'd expected nightmares, and they knew how to soothe him back into sleep, most nights.
It was the days that surprised them and presented the biggest challenge. Bad days, when Don couldn't eat anything with meat in it, for reasons he refused to explain. Days when he couldn't bring himself to stay in the dojo, but sat outside the door, trembling and glassy-eyed, while his brothers practiced. Days when he couldn't even make it as far as the dojo at all, but sat huddled on his bed for hours, staring blankly into space with the most terrible expression of devastation Raph had ever seen.
On days like those, Raphael wanted to kill someone.
It scared him, though he'd never admit it. Don had survived! Why couldn't he just…be okay? Why couldn't he just focus on his re-developing skills, and the sheer awesomeness of his survival, and just calm down?
He knew it wouldn't do any good to voice these questions out loud. It surprised him to realize that he felt that way, almost as much as it surprised him to realize how much Don's continuing emotional pain was spiraling outward to affect the other members of the family.
Raph glanced at the treeline, then back at Leo. "Well, there's no reason we can't go after him, is there?"
Leo finally broke his fixed stare to look back at Raph. "We can't do that. This is something he needs to do for himself."
Raph looked past Leo at the trees. "Clearly Mikey didn't get the memo." He pointed. Leo whipped his head back around just in time to see their brother's shell vanish into the undergrowth.
"C'mon, Leo," Raph clapped a hand on his brother's shoulder. "You're right. Donnie needs to do this for himself. But he doesn't need to do it by himself, does he." He opened the back door and crossed the porch, knowing that Leo would follow.
Sure enough, Leo caught up with him a second later. "Say that again," he demanded.
"What? Donnie doesn't have to do this by himself – "
"No, the part before that. The part where you said, 'You're right'."
Raph rolled his eyes, and Leo laughed, some of the tension leaking out of his face. They walked through the knee-high grass in companionable silence for a while, before Leo said, "It's been a good couple of days, hasn't it?"
And it had been. If Don had bad days, he had good ones, too. Days when he would play hours of video games with whichever brother or brothers dared to take him on. Days when he would fix old appliances for the family homes, or help April with repairs to a vacant apartment. Days when he practiced hard in the morning, lost himself in a book all afternoon, and fell into his bed to sleep soundly through the night. Days when he almost seemed exactly as he had been, a year earlier.
Raph figured that was enough, for now. There were slightly more good days than bad ones, and the increasing hope that there would be mostly good days in the future…and it was enough.
Mike was waiting for them in the clearing. "Could you guys make any more noise when you follow me?" he griped. But he was smiling too much to mean it.
"Thought we'd go to the river," Raph remarked casually.
Mike looked pointedly at the swords Leo still wore. "Uh-huh." Leo just looked at him blandly, and Mike finally snickered. "You guys're as bad as I am." Then he sobered. "I just wanna know he's okay, right? I mean…this is where it was."
"We know, Mike," Leo clapped him on the shoulder. "We know." And they did know. Almost nine months earlier, Mike and Don crossed paths in that very spot – Mike heading away from the river, Don heading toward it – for what had seemed like the last time.
They went down the trail, taking no precautions or special steps for silence at first. As they got closer to the river – without seeing Donatello at all – Raph felt his own heartbeat start to pound harder. For no reason he could admit, he thought, Not again…
The river sparkled through the trees.
Mike's breathing was audible, shallow breaths that couldn't possibly be helping him. It was contagious – Leo's shoulders betrayed his tension, too, when Raph glanced back to look at him.
Without a word between them, they all dropped into stealth mode. "Shoulda found him by now," Mike murmured almost soundlessly.
Leo shook his head, not to downplay Mike's worry but in irritation at himself. "Wait." He stopped, and put his fingers to his mouth, blowing a whistle-call that mimicked an owl. It was Don's call. The three of them froze, ears straining for any kind of a response. Raph felt his stomach knot up – it was exactly the way they'd started their search for Don the last time, all those months ago –!
From the tangled undergrowth ahead came the answering whistle.
They crashed through the shrubs, totally heedless of silence.
Don glanced up from the notebook in his lap and grinned, amused and totally unaware of their near-panic on his behalf. He sat on one end of a fallen birch that angled out over the river, smiling at them like it was no big deal. "Jeez, guys, could you make any more noise?"
"That's exactly what I said!" Mike cried. He dropped onto the birch next to Don – probably as much to hide his weak-kneed relief as for any other reason, Raph decided – and made a sweeping gesture meant to isolate himself and Don from the others. "But you know how these two are – they've just gotta be dramatic and stuff. They just don't understand subtlety, or finesse –"
"Subtlety and finesse?" Don echoed, smiling. He stood up quickly and stepped away from the fallen tree.
"Yeah, like we do – ack!" the birch, unbalanced under Mike's weight, tipped him into the river. He came up a second later, sputtering indignantly. "Hey!"
"Ya gotta admit, Mike, that took subtlety," Raph propped an elbow up on Don's shoulder and grinned at their sodden brother.
"And finesse," Leo added, stepping up on Don's other side.
Mike splashed water over all three of them. Don squawked and scrambled to protect his notebook. Things degenerated predictably after that, as all of them found some reason to jump, fall, or be pushed into the river.
Later, they lay in a patch of late afternoon sun and let the warm air dry them off. They didn't talk. It was enough just to be, Raph reflected. He figured it was as close as he'd ever get to the "peace" that Splinter said meditation should bring.
Eventually Don stirred. He sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. "It was right here," he said softly. One hand worried at the brace that he still wore around his right knee.
"Here?...oh," Raph looked around reflexively as he realized what Don meant.
"They were on a platform, one of those floating ones. I didn't see them until they were literally on top of me – they just swooped down and grabbed me by the upper edge of my shell," Don laid a hand on the back of his neck, fingering the edge, "and then…"
Realization lit Leo's face. "So that's why we never found any tracks or signs at all!"
"Yeah," Don sighed. "I took a couple of them out, on the way up – thought maybe I could push one of them off the platform and into the river, so at least you'd know – but they hit me with a tranquilizer before I could get the leverage."
Mike sat up then, and looked at Don with worry clear on his face. "You know they can't come back, right?"
Don gave him a tired smile and leaned back on his elbows, relaxing out of his huddle. "I know it, Mike. I know. It's just…I needed to prove it to myself, y'know?"
And they did know, all of them. The Utroms had been furious to know Triceratons had come to Earth for any reason at all. So much of their millennia-long science experiment depended on Earth not coming into contact with other species, especially hostile species, until much later. There had been lengthy discussions and angry speculations and a lot of other talking that Raph didn't care about. What he did care about, though, was the result: Utrom patrols were specifically on the alert for any signs of Triceratons coming within a light-year of Earth. They wouldn't – couldn't – get their hands on any of the Turtles again, at least not in the same way. But still…it was one thing to know it, and another thing to really believe that the enemy was a light-year away.
Raph made a mental note to get Don to tell him exactly how long and far away a light-year was. Preferably in miles, so it would make sense…
"So are you finished proving it to yourself for the day?" Leo asked carefully. Raph squinted at Don while waiting for the answer, and saw him as Leo must be seeing him: so much better than he had been the day they got him back, but still not 100 percent.
Don really thought about the question, and then smiled his slow, careful smile. "Yeah. Yeah, I think I'm done for now."
"Let's go back to the house – I could really go for a snack right about now."
"A snack!" Mike leaped to his feet and headed for the path back to the house. "I'll make it!"
"No!" Raph surged up after his running brother. "No peanut butter, Mike – I mean it!" He chased Mike back up the path. Mike eluded him, taunting and laughing, always staying one step ahead. They left the path and ran through the forest, just to keep running.
Somehow they circled around through the trees and came back to the other two just as they left the treeline, and the four of them went home together.