The note made no sense. Part of him wished he'd crumpled up the paper and its chickenscratch without bothering to find out what it was. Donatello's handwriting, no doubt. But this was scrawly even for Don, as though it has been written with a shaking hand. The note had been tucked between Mike's front door and its frame, and when he came inside, there were six missed calls on the cell phone he'd left on the kitchen counter. So, like a fool, he'd called Don.
He has an irregular heartbeat. It could be in a week, or in the next breath he takes.
Now Michelangelo splashed through the sewers, blindly seeking his childhood home. For some reason, he wondered why he'd taken it for granted last time he'd been there, and hadn't taken a good look around to remember the way it was. The sentiment didn't make any sense, either, except that somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he wasn't coming back to the same home he'd had when he was younger.
O…okay. Is he…okay?
He doesn't seem to be in any pain.
For a man of much feeling, he had always, in all his twenty-six years, felt conflicting emotions as a hazy confusion. Now, the feelings were so potent, he could put names to each one of them. It was like being comprised of two puzzle pieces of opposite colors but precisely the same size. Exactly one half of him hoped Splinter would be dead when he arrived, and he could go on with his life without being haunted by the image of his father, frail and breakable, sunken into his deathbed. Exactly one half of him was horrified that this other half existed, and propelled him forward with the knowledge that, if he did not hurry, he may never see his father again. Mike himself didn't know which side he wanted to win.
Leo wouldn't tell you this, but he's completely wiped. He needs sleep. If told him you'd sleep in the room with Sensei, Leo might actually agree to sleep in his own room for once. Is that okay?
It would just be to make sure he can get what he needs if he wakes up at night. Water, an extra blanket, turning, things like that. It's all about making sure he's comfortable, at this point.
More than anything, Mike wished he hadn't agreed to that. Didn't most people die in their sleep, in the middle of the night? Oh god, what if I'm the only one there when it happens?
It's just Master Splinter. Same as always, Mikey.
Mike didn't know. He'd read Leo's daily e-mail updates, which had started coming when Master Splinter's problems had begun. Before, it had been a weekly update, just to keep in touch in the past few years since the other three had moved out.
Was it a mistake to leave?
Don had actually been the first to find his own nook of the sewers. To other families, it would seem normal for the kids to start finding lives of their own. To their family, it had been a revelation. Raphael had moved out months after Don, finding an abandoned and condemned building that was too much of a landmark from the past to be destroyed. Once Mike's career as a comic book artist and writer had taken off, he'd taken up residence a few blocks from Raph. Leo had stayed behind. No one had expected him to do anything else. They had all kept in touch, getting together on holidays and the occasional weekend. Those reunions had made life feel normal again.
Michelangelo stopped outside the lair, heart and veins fluttering with anxiety.
This is it. I'm going to see him.
Half of him quivered and wept. The other half wanted to do it already. Mike took hold of the single pipe that served as a switch to open the hidden door and sucked in a deep breath.
Then he stood there, ankle-deep in runoff, and began to weep.
He's not acting like it. He's awake now, actually. You wanna talk to him?
I…yeah, but…I don't think I can.
Above all the confusion, Michelangelo knew he did not want his father to see him weep like he was already dead. No one deserved to see anyone mourn for them when they were still alive.
Tell him…tell him I love him, and…I miss him.
"I miss him." Not "I'll miss him." It wasn't quite saying goodbye, but he wasn't sure if he wanted the chance to do so, especially if Splinter still had some hope that he would survive. Mike couldn't quell that hope. It might make his father afraid. It sure scared the hell out of Mike.
How to say goodbye for the last time? It seemed impossible to sum up every feeling he had into a concise farewell. He didn't want to summarize—he wanted to have long conversations with his father, talks he'd never thought about because he'd thought he had all the time in the world. He wanted to glean love and wisdom from the mind of the dying, but only now, when he had no time to do so.
Mike turned the pipe, and the door slid open. No one was in the living room, but a soft, golden glow emanated from Splinter's room. Michelangelo crept forward as the door ground closed behind him. A shadow interrupted the glow on the wall of the hallway to Splinter's room, bobbing closer until Leo appeared. His face was drawn, his brow tense, his eyes bloodshot, and he walked with the energy that comes from the last fumes of willpower in one's body. Wasting no time, he approached and wordlessly embraced Mike. Caught up in the sudden reassuring touch, Mike held on after his brother's arms loosened, prolonging the hug for a few seconds before they parted.
Leo swallowed, then spoke, his voice dry and gravelly, as if he'd spent all the moisture in his body on tears. "Don said you'd sleep with him tonight."
Mike nodded. "Yeah." No!
"Thanks," said Leo, the line of his shoulders easing. "That'd be a big help." He tossed his head in the direction of Splinter's room. "Wanna come see him?"
No! "Yeah." Mike gulped the little saliva he had in his mouth to wet his parched throat. Every pore in his skin was vibrating with a hum of breathless, terrified anticipation. He took a deep breath. Down, boy.
Leo seemed to read his trepidation and gave a reassuring, if utterly insincere, smile. "It's just Master Splinter."
That's what I'm afraid of. I don't want to see him if he's changed so much I've already lost him. I want Master Splinter. I don't want the old man he becomes before he dies.
The room was arranged as neatly as possible, studded all over with cream-colored candles. Mike's eyes glanced off the bed in the center to the familiar face of Don, who was setting down a glass of water with a straw in it. Don gave him a smile that was a little more sincere than Leo's.
"Master Splinter? Mikey's here."
Now that Mike was looking at his father, he couldn't seem to look away. Splinter didn't look as emaciated and frail as his overactive imagination had anticipated. It wasn't the rat's body at all that caught his attention. Splinter's face was passive, unstressed, but his eyes were wide, windows to a spirit dampened with a calm but uncertain melancholy. Those eyes widened slightly when they turned to Mike, and Splinter's lips barely parted, barely moved. It struck Michelangelo harder than a blow from a rocket launcher—Splinter had thought he would never see him again.
Caught in his father's eyes, held there by something much more powerful than himself, he finally understood that it didn't matter what he had to say, what he wanted to learn, what he wanted to remember. Splinter looked like his prayers had been answered, and that mattered. Now Michelangelo was drawn forward by a love so powerful it seemed to come from outside his body and surround him, and he perched precariously on the edge of his father's bed. Splinter's eyes had not left his face, and his mouth was still trying to form words.
"It is…good to see you," the old rat managed finally, his voice barely phonating.
Mike grinned, and was amazed that he had the capacity to do so. Previously afraid to look at his father, he now couldn't help but touch him, clasping his hand carefully and folding it between his own. "It's good to see you. You feeling okay?"
"Yesh," Splinter slurred quickly, gripping Michelangelo's arm, then raising his free hand to claim a weak hug. Mike wrapped his arms gingerly around his father, not even tempted to clutch him in a crushing grip like he normally would have.
"He had a good day today," Leo reported. "He's been excited about you and Raph coming."
Now Splinter finally looked away from Mike, glancing searchingly at Leo. "Is he…here?"
"Raph's on his way," Mike answered for him, gently taking his father's hand. He studied the rat's face further, suddenly struck with the realization that even though this would be the hardest thing he'd ever gone through, taking care of his father would be the easiest thing he'd ever done.
It's just Master Splinter. Now he understood.
"Seeing someone like that can change the way you view them," April would comment sympathetically later on, when he spoke with her.
"No," he would reply, eyes going distant. "It changes you. You can feel yourself becoming what they need. You grow. But it doesn't color your memories of them. It colors you."
It was only when Mike walked away from Splinter to start hot water for tea that he even thought about crying. He was filling the kettle with filtered tap water when Raph came in, waved to him distractedly, and made a beeline for Splinter's room. The sight of his most untouchable brother under the influence of the situation made Mike's throat clench. He looked down at his hands and felt, for a moment, like he was half as tall as he was and a third as old as he was. The angle of viewing was all wrong, but he could very well have been a child again, filling the kettle for his master, except for the cold sense of adult rationality and the distant knowledge that this was a very, very different situation than he had been in the last thousand times he'd filled this same kettle.
My father is dying. This will no longer be his house.
A sudden, desperate fear overcame him, and he blindly shut off the water. For some inexplicable reason, he had the sensation that his own childhood was being sealed off from him, and the last lifeline to it would be cut when Splinter's life ended. He would lose his own identity, not Splinter's. The walls of the lair darkened, the one light on in the kitchen suddenly blinding him with frozen luminescence. Stomach churning, Mike placed the kettle on the stove with shaking hands and turned the burner on. Making tea had never been so hard in his life.
When he turned around, Don was behind him, looking sympathetically at him. For a moment, Mike had no idea what to say, in spite of the fact that thousands of thoughts fought each other like armies in his head. Then he blurted something out.
"This place's never felt like this before."
He could tell by looking at him that Don knew exactly what he meant. His older brother's mouth tightened into a grim line. "It won't ever feel this way again," he replied quietly.
Michelangelo's closed throat tightened painfully, and he knew tears were imminent. "But it...won't ever feel like it did before."
After a moment, Don shook his head. "No. It won't."
Tears had always come more easily to Michelangelo than to the others. Holding back always resulted in horrible indigestion that was far more painful than the crying. Still, it was rare for him to completely break down sobbing, but that was what he did, bending under the weight of fear and grief until he was leaning against Don. Donatello's arms encircled him. Hanging on his brother was the only way for Mike to keep himself from sinking all the way to the floor. Warm water kissed his bare shoulder—Don was also crying. Mike couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Donatello weep. It didn't ease his heart, but it erased his self-consciousness when he grieved with someone who was going through, to the smallest detail, exactly what he was going through. This was a long, impossible journey, and they were both in it for good.
It was going to be the longest week of their lives.