"Can we go home now?"
Leonardo suppressed the urge to snap at Michaelangelo for asking that question again, and kept moving. They'd been sent out by Splinter to do a lengthy run across the darkened rooftops, and by the gods, they'd do a lengthy run across the rooftops!
He trusted that his silence would be enough of an answer. From the muffled grumbling that followed, it seemed like he'd gotten his point across. None of them really enjoyed running in the ice and slush of late winter, but Splinter told them to, and so it had to be done. If we only do the things we enjoy, we don't grow, he told himself.
He didn't say it out loud.
They circled around Central Park, hopping from rooftop to rooftop on the east side, heading south. Out of the corner of his eye, Leonardo saw Donatello look wistfully in the direction of the Metropolitan Museum. Mike skidded in a patch of ice, but broke free of it gracefully and with minimal fuss, so Leo didn't say anything. Raphael's voice briefly lifted enough to carry over the wind, as he harangued his brothers for their lack of speed, before falling back into determined silence. None of them were happy to be out in the cold.
When they got to the corner at 5th and 59th, Leo signaled a break. They took shelter among the dormant air conditioning units on top of the toy store and stretched their tired muscles, careful to keep out of sight of any lingering people walking below. Leo eyed the taller building next to them with misgivings – it wasn't likely that anyone could spot them, dressed as they were in winter camouflage, but he didn't like to take chances.
He took advantage of the break to do a quick survey of his brothers. Michaelangelo still grumbled about the cold and the slush, but he kept it to a low minimum, and could safely be assumed to be all right, if a little more uncomfortable than he would like. Raphael, who had been uncharacteristically quiet the whole night, leaned on a support wall nearby, stretching the kinks out of his calves and doing his own review of the others. His eyes glittered in the murky light as he met Leo's gaze, and one corner of his mouth twitched up before he turned away. He also could be assumed to be all right.
That left Donatello, who was standing with his back to them, craning his neck to get a glimpse into the computer store in the square below while still sticking to the shadows. While Leo – and Raph – watched, he shifted his weight onto his left foot and stretched his other leg. He still favored the right leg, a year after the shattered kneecap had been replaced, and Leo knew that the cold weather made the knee and the previously-broken bones of Don's feet ache. But he hadn't complained. No, it wouldn't be like Don to complain, and that was why his brothers watched him.
But he seemed fine, too, and Leo relaxed fractionally.
They struck out for home after a few minutes, when the lingering winter wind began to annoy them again. Mike put on a burst of speed. "Last one to St. Patrick's is a rotten egg!" he crowed as he swung away on a grappling line.
They ran again. It was dangerous to be so close to 5th Avenue, even during the early morning hours. Tourists never really cleared off the streets, and there was always traffic. But they'd gotten in the habit of going past Rockefeller Plaza during the holidays, mostly so Mike could get his fill of the Christmas trees and other decorations, and it was a comfortable run for them even after all of the decorations were gone. And the sense of danger helped keep them sharp.
"I wish it could be Christmas all year," Mike said wistfully, as they moved away from the Plaza and headed toward Penn Station.
Don cocked his head. "Then it wouldn't be special. It would just be ordinary, like every other day."
"Yeah, maybe," Mike allowed. "But wouldn't it be cool? Decorations everywhere, people being a little nicer to each other, special foods…"
"Those 'special foods' took you twice as long to cook as anything else," Raphael scoffed. "Thought we were gonna starve, waiting for that turkey to be done."
"But it was great, once it was ready," Mike's grin flashed white in the gloom.
Leo didn't say anything. He listened to their voices – gauged their levels of exhaustion, irritation, and general attitude from the subtle changes in tone, breath, diction, and volume – to determine if they'd had enough, or if they could still go on. From the faint slur in Don's voice, and the lowering of Raph's personal volume, he reached his decision: they could go on if they had to, but not for much longer. Not at maximum efficiency, that is. By his estimates, he had about another hour, or a handful of miles, before losing their focus completely. "Let's head for home, guys."
"Yay," Mike cheered briefly. Don rolled his eyes at the sound.
They'd only made it another three blocks before Don started limping slightly, confirming Leo's sense of timing. No one said anything. Leonardo made a mental note to make sure that Don took some aspirin when they got home, and slowed his pace to keep him in view. With a nod, Raph took the lead. It could be dangerous to let Raph lead – in some moods, he liked to take them on the most dangerous routes he could find, where they were either likely to find a fight, or have a difficult time finding steady footing on the crumbling rooftops. But he'd glanced at Don as he moved up, and Leo knew that Raph would take them home by the fastest and shortest route.
Home was still a mile away when a light pulsed in the sky right over their heads.
"Heads up!" Leo called unnecessarily – they were already spreading out, weapons in hands.
"Haven't we seen this before?" Don wondered out loud.
Mike groaned. "Yeah, it's what usually happens right before everything turns to crap."
A slim figure, wearing a cloak that billowed in the force of the passage, dropped out of the pulsing light, which condensed itself down to a pinpoint and disappeared. The figure adjusted an improbably-designed hat and looked around. "There you are! Hi, guys!" she said brightly.
"See what I mean?" Mike holstered his nunchaku with a grumble.
"Renet, what are you doing here?" Leo sheathed one blade, but kept the other one in hand. It made him feel better, when dealing with the Timestress, to have a weapon as close as possible.
"Looking for you guys, of course!" She preened, in that odd way she had. Raph's eyes roamed over her appreciatively, and Leo couldn't really blame him – she was definitely dressed to attract attention. She was also, as far as he could tell, the same age she'd been when they first met her a few years earlier.
"Renet," he said cautiously. "Don't take this wrong, but…when was the last time you saw us?"
"I just met you guys a few, um, what do you call them? Weeks? No, days, it was days! I met you a few days ago. Well, by my time, of course. But it's been a few years for you, right?" She blinked at him.
Leo resisted the urge to just turn and run – she'd probably just find them again. He answered tightly, "Yes. Years." Renet as a novice Timestress was a scary thought. He'd hoped they had seen the last of her at that age. Time travel in general made him deeply uncomfortable, but time travel in the hands of a newbie struck him as something slightly less dangerous than letting Shadow loose on a busy highway. Though they'd run into her as an adult, and accomplished, Timestress once – so he supposed she must eventually figure it all out, in order to grow into the role. He just wished she could do her learning with someone else's family rather than his.
"Oh, this is gonna be so much fun!" she squealed, bouncing up and down. Raph's eyes stayed glued to her…watches…and his grin became even more feral than usual. "Lord Simultaneous is actually sending me on an assignment! Like, without supervision and stuff! Guess he's starting to trust me, after all of that Savanti-what's-his-name stuff the other day, right? With that little grey dude who was, like, so grim and stuff?"
On Renet's other side, Don sucked in a deep breath and turned away, visibly fighting off the urge to say something. He grabbed Mike's arm and shook his head once, hard, in an urgent but silent warning. Leo could see the idea blossom in Mike's head: She doesn't know about the second encounter with Savanti Romero yet…and she definitely doesn't know about the time she saved us from Savanti Juliet!
Aloud, Leo said, "So, if you're on an assignment, why are you hanging around New York, talking to us?" He dropped his free hand and made a 'back away' gesture that he hoped his brothers would see, while he took a slow and hopefully subtle step backwards himself. "It's nothing going on around here, is it?"
She laughed too loud and too long at the idea. "No, silly! New York's a protectorate! If anything happened here, even a minor temporal slip, there'd be swarms of, like, senior level big wigs and all sorts of serious people all over the place! I'd, like, be sent out for coffee or something, so I wouldn't get in anyone's way." She paused, and for a second there was a shadow in her eyes. Then she shook it off. "No, I'm here because I, like – oh, this is embarrassing! Only, Lord Simultaneous says I shouldn't be embarrassed to ask you guys anything, partly because I'm, like, from the 79th Level of Null Time and all, and partly because you guys are, like, my best friends," she ran out of breath and looked around at them hopefully while she caught it again, "or at least, you will be. Someday?"
At that, Raphael finally tore his eyes away from Renet's curves and shot a grim look at Leo.
Leo hesitated. He understood exactly the apprehension that he saw in his brother's face. But in that hesitation, he lost control of the situation. "What did you want to ask us, Renet?" Don asked quietly.
"I need your help," she said simply.
"Okay," Mike shrugged.
Raphael slapped his hand to his forehead and turned away, grimacing.
Renet, however, perked up even more. "You will?! Oh, thank you, thank you!" she darted over and gave first Mike, then Don, big hugs that made them shuffle away uncomfortably; Raph scowled when he realized that the hugs were not coming his way. "It's really a big deal, only I'm not sure about the details – this is, like, a test to see if I can really become Lord Simultaneous' apprentice and stuff, and get to do more interesting things than just, like, dust books all day long and boring things like that."
"So what do you know about this?" Leo broke in impatiently.
She unhooked something dreadfully familiar from her belt – Leo hadn't noticed it before, in his determined attempt to keep his eyes on her face – and waved it around. "The Time Sceptre knows where we're going, and stuff. I just have to tell it we're ready, and – oops."
The Sceptre started glowing at her words.
"Ah, crap," Raph darted in, closing the distance between himself and his brothers; Don and Mike stepped closer, too, and the four of them watched in unified dread as the too-familiar nimbus of light and magical energy spread outward from the Sceptre. They all tensed when it washed over them – and then the ground fell out from under them and they were tumbling through one of the Time Sceptre's portals. Leo had just enough time to wish that he'd sheathed his second sword, so he didn't chance cutting anyone in their headlong flight through time, when the light suddenly brightened around them to a painful intensity. He squinted against it until it blinded him. And then he had to close his eyes completely and trust that his brothers were still with him.
This is going on way too long, he thought.
And unlike the other times they'd traveled via Time Sceptre, it hurt! A pounding headache started right behind Leo's eyes. In seconds, the pain spread to his stomach, too. Leo wondered if it was possible to throw up in time travel – he'd have to remember to ask Don about it, if they ever got out of this. Somewhere nearby – above? below? beside? he couldn't tell – he heard one of his brothers groan in pain, too.
The light faded abruptly. Instead of falling through time, they were just falling. Leo hit the ground, hard, and laid there without daring to move. He blinked, mostly to prove that he still could. There was a hard weight across his legs, and he had just enough sense left to realize that it was the shell of one of his brothers.
Brothers…the sense of family that drove most of Leo's life drove him, then, to haul himself carefully up onto one shaking arm. He had to rest there until the blackness receded from the edges of his vision.
Someone coughed nearby, deep and painfully, and Leo instinctively whipped his head around to see who it was – but the movement was too much for him. The blackness rushed in before he could see much. His trembling arm gave out, and he fell again.
His last thought, before unconsciousness claimed him, was: Somebody's missing…