This story is set a few years in the future of the NT-verse, contains some swearing, and uses character death as a jumping-off point.
A Thousand Miles, A Single Step
...far from home...
He doesn't know what it is.
He loves his family, more than words can say. He knows it. They know it. There is no power on Earth, or elsewhere, that could forcibly separate him from them.
But there is this strange thing inside his soul, that keeps drawing him away.
He hadn't even known it was there, until he had gone to live with the Ancient One. He'd only left home, that time, at Splinter's insistence. But the journey had woken something in him, something that had never quite gone back to sleep.
Splinter had been surprised when, after a few months of being home again, Leonardo had asked permission to travel alone around the States. Permission had been granted, and Leo spent half a year exploring all that his country could offer to a young mutant. The next trip saw him in Brazil and Argentina for ten months, walking through the rain forests and across the pampas, seeing how far his feet could carry him before gravity, or magnetism, impelled him to stow away on a flight back to New York. After that, another quiet request, and off again on a slow, meditative tour of Europe.
His current wanderings have lasted a year and a half. He's been keeping in touch with his family via the improved shell-cell Donatello gave him during his last visit home, the one that bounces encoded signals off satellites, so that it will work wherever his restless spirit takes him.
Today he gets a text message from Raph. He can't read it. It looks scrambled, improperly decrypted. After a while, he realizes it's not meant to be English. It's their secret language, the one they invented as children. The strange phonemes are imprisoned in the writing system Donnie devised, the system that's nothing more than Roman characters co-opted into representing sounds that don't even exist in any human language.
He sounds it out, letter by letter.
Splinter is dead. Come home.
Leo took the sonic jet from Copenhagen - faster-than-sound travel was becoming popular again - but it still wasn't fast enough for Raphael.
"You're too late," Raph says coldly, as soon as Leo walks in the door.
He isn't too late for the funeral. Will wait for you, Don had written back, when Leo frantically texted them all I'm on my way to the airport. It hasn't even been twelve hours since the first message.
"Raph -" Leo starts, but Raph only shakes his head, and gestures to the door of Splinter's room. "Just go."
Leo hesitates, then turns and crosses the floor. He pauses once more in the doorway, then enters the chamber.
Splinter is lying on his bed, hands folded, eyes closed. Michelangelo is kneeling beside him.
Leo touches the youngest's shoulder as he lowers himself to his knees.
"Oh, Leo..." Mikey says brokenly, leaning against him. "It happened so fast. We would have called you sooner, if we knew..."
Leo doesn't say anything. It's too late for words.
They sit, lost in their own thoughts.
After a while Don comes in, kneels, embraces his long-absent brother. "I'm sorry," he says, as if any of this is his fault. "This is a terrible homecoming."
Leo hugs Don back, giving what comfort he can. "How...?" he begins, and finds himself unable to complete the question.
"Heart attack," Don says. "He didn't suffer."
Mikey almost chokes on a sudden sob. Leo pulls away from Don to rub Mike's back, giving all the comfort he can spare, finding he has none left for himself.
...walking in shadow...
Raph never comes in. Eventually, Leo rises and goes to look for him, leaving the youngest two to stay or go as they will.
He finds Raph in the dojo, but not working out his frustration on the sandbag or attacking phantoms with his sai. Just standing, looking at the rack of weapons. Weapons that Splinter made, or stole, or got by other means that he wouldn't even talk about.
"Where were you?" Raph says softly, without turning around.
Leo advances slowly. He's not in the mood to argue with Raph, and certainly not to get into a physical fight with him. "Raph, I..."
"Where the hell were you?" Raph says again, and Leo can see the muscles all along his arms shift with tension.
Leo has been asking himself the same thing. He doesn't think he'll ever forgive himself for not being there in his father's final moments, and he's already spent the past half-day trying to reason away his failure as a son. "There isn't anything I could have done..."
"Fuck that, Leo," Raph says viciously. "Don'tcha think he would've liked to see his golden boy one more time before he died? Couldn't ya just have been a little unselfish, and made an old man happy?"
"I'm not -"
"Go to hell, Leo," Raph says, still without looking at him. "Make that your next trip."
Leo moves forward again, but stays outside the almost-palpable circle of Raphael's reach. "He loves you too, Raph." He uses the present tense consciously.
"Yeah," Raph mutters. "I scored a lotta points at the end there, really narrowed the gap."
Leo is so tired of being guilt-tripped for what Raph has always seen as perpetual favoritism. "Stop thinking of yourself as second-best. We're not even running the same race."
Raph snorts. "Is that what they say in Soviet Russia?"
Leo doesn't rise to the bait. "You're his favorite Raphael," he says staunchly. "He never asked you to be anybody else."
Raph only shakes his head, and moves closer to the weapons rack, further from Leo.
The conversation is over.
There is no comfort here for either of them.
...can't stay here...
Leo returns to the main room, and follows the sound of soft voices to Don's lab. Don and Mike are there, talking quietly over a neatly laid-out row of strange implements. They stop talking as Leo enters, and watch a frown crease his brow as he scans the tools.
"For preparing the body," Don says, with his typical talent for guessing what people are trying to ask.
"Who...?" Leo starts.
"Mike," Don says, nodding to the youngest.
Leo is momentarily surprised, but the feeling fades quickly as he looks into Mike's stoic face. Mike has reached his tipping point, the place where his brothers' protection can no longer keep the weight of the world from his shoulders, the place where he hardens like a diamond and his own strength comes shining back to ease the pressure for them all.
"If you want any help..." Leo offers.
"It's okay," Mike says.
Don adjusts one of the gleaming instruments, but it was already perfectly parallel, and he only returns it to its original position. "How was your trip?"
Leo doesn't really want to talk about that right now. His own thoughts are closer to home.
"Please," Don says. "I need to hear about... something else."
Leo knows what it is.
"Is this it?" he had asked Master Splinter one day, when the endless effort just to survive felt like it was going to suffocate him. "Is this all there is for us?"
He had felt, then, that he had gone as far as he could go. He and his brothers, nearly grown, had the running of their little home down to a science. Their fighting skills were reaching their peak. They had a few friends, and the area they were allowed to roam around had expanded steadily, until it pushed against the very borders of their island city. For a time Leo had revelled in what felt like freedom. But then the boundaries of his world had frozen in place, and he had begun to realize that they would not move again. Not unless humans suddenly became accepting of those who were different.
And his freedom began to feel very much like imprisonment.
Then he had discovered travel. The change of scene, the subversive joy of moving invisibly around other people's cities, had given his soul new wings. Had made him feel, maybe not that he belonged in the world, but that great swathes of it could belong to him.
And as much as he loves his family, the warm safety of home kills a part of him.
Life is out there.
He needs to chase it.
...this road we walked...
Leo murmurs some platitudes about his journey, not even listening to his own words. As soon as Donatello looks satisfied, he excuses himself, going out to the main room and sitting heavily on the couch.
Grief, and the exhaustion of travel, dull his senses, and it takes him a while to realize that this is not the same couch that was here last time he was home.
He closes his eyes, then makes himself open them again and look around, taking in the changes of the past eighteen months. The TV stack has been rearranged, a new wide-flat-probably-HD-screen taking pride of place in the center of the display. There's a new mural on the wall, a trompe l'oeil of beach and ocean, certainly Michelangelo's work. There's a huge contraption that Leo can't even begin to guess the purpose of, some new miracle of Donatello's.
But underneath the newness, old things also. The same bookshelf, with mostly the same books on it. An old familiar mug on the coffee table, a mug that has circled from full to empty, from dirty to clean, more times than he wants to count. Raphael's red motorcycle helmet, left on a hook near the door.
The helmet looks the same, but Leo can't help wondering whether it's a new one, a reincarnation, a replacement for a predecessor that got crushed in one of Raph's death-defying stunts.
It had taken Leo so long to understand Raph's particular brand of defiance.
It had really started when Master Splinter made Leonardo leader over his brothers. Raphael had always been one to test the limits of their father's authority, but he had begun then to rebel against Leo as well, to challenge every order the eldest tried to give. Leo had learned only slowly, painstakingly, the value of Raphael's backtalk.
It wasn't simple refusal, wasn't empty sniping. Raph's objections were valid, perceptive, useful. But he presented them in such a combative way that Leo didn't hear them. His only response was to shout louder, to command more forcefully, to strong-arm Raph into compliance. But the complaints, like erosion, had their effect, and Leonardo's skills as a leader were honed by invisible degrees. The constant battle to be obeyed without question, to correct his own mistakes before Raph had a chance to tear apart his plans, taught him to think harder, to trust his brothers more, to make better decisions.
And Raph in turn had upped the ante, objecting to every new tactic with determination and insight, hounding Leo to ever-increasing heights of strategy and leadership.
Eventually, Leo had realized what kind of arms race he was competing in, and he knew that Raph had known it all along, had been purposely building him up by breaking him down, by making him fight for every inch.
Things had gotten better then. Leo had confronted Raph about his peculiar debating style, thanked him for his frequent suggestions, and asked him to, in future, offer them in a more reasonable tone of voice. Raph had denied everything, maintaining that Leo was a moron who would lead them all to disaster if Raph didn't stand in his way and berate him until he changed his orders. But after that Raphael brought his observations to Leonardo's attention more subtly, prefaced by did you notice? instead of by open your eyes, idiot.
Raph was not as stupid as he let everyone believe. Leo knew that, had never been fooled by the act. It wasn't intellectual inequality, or, really, any kind of inequality, that had divided them. Ultimately, it wasn't obstinacy, jealousy, or rebelliousness that kept them constantly at each other's throats.
It was Raphael's incredible zeal for diving headfirst into dangerous situations.
Just as Raph stopped Leo from doing things based on bad planning, Leo tried his hardest to stop Raph from doing things based on no planning at all. Raph, however, had proved both immovable and unstoppable. Nothing Leo said or did ever had the slightest effect on Raphael's reckless behavior. It was that recklessness that had truly driven a wedge between them. It had embroiled them both in an endless battle over whether Raph had the rights to his own life, or whether his duty to his family outweighed his desire to make that life what he thought of as a full and intense one, what looked to Leonardo only like a short and brutal one.
Their relationship had always been difficult.
And now Splinter isn't there to referee their battles.
Looking to the future, Leo sees only the same fight, again and again, his own efforts to protect Raph from himself against Raph's determination to do what he wants and damn the consequences.
It's that sameness, that hopelessness, that stultifying lack of forward motion, that Leonardo keeps trying to escape from.
And yet, maybe it's his constant running away that has frozen his relationship with Raph where it was five years ago, long-distance phone calls and brief, restless homecomings giving them no opportunity to grow, to heal, to become more.
He still doesn't understand Raphael's brazen defiance of his own mortality, and doesn't think he ever will. It hurts him deeply that his beloved brother has so little regard for his own life. It hurts to know that Raph can't believe anybody even cares whether he lives or dies.
Maybe it's time to stop trying to understand Raphael. To stop trying to change him. Maybe it's time to simply accept him.
To make the most of the years they have left.
Forward motion is still possible. He can walk away from this fighting that gets him nowhere, and go to a place where Raphael won't push him away, a place where this wall doesn't rise between them.
It's possible. If his body stays at home, and his spirit moves to give Raphael space to walk confidently on his lonely road.
It will be the hardest journey.
Raph comes out of the dojo, and sits heavily on the opposite end of the couch. "Why do you do it?" he asks, without preamble.
Leo lifts his head, tiredly. "Do what?"
"Go away all the time." Raph shifts, imposing himself on the cushions, forcing them into a more comfortable arrangement. "Do you hate us that much?"
"It's not about you." Leo closes his eyes. "I'm not... avoiding you, or anything."
"Coulda fooled me," Raph mutters.
Leo opens his eyes again. "Why do you always go out alone at night?"
Raph stares at him. "You wanna argue about that now?"
"No," Leo says. "Not argue. Just... just tell me why."
Raph looks down, and moves his shoulders, not exactly a shrug. "That's where the world is. That's where stuff happens. But you guys never wanted to..." He trails off, not specifying what his brothers didn't want to do.
Leo nods. "That's why I travel. To go where things are."
Raph shakes his head, not accepting the explanation. "Leo, you live in freakin' New York City. You don't have to go halfway around the world to find things."
Leo sighs. "That's why we'll never understand each other."
Raph glances up, questioningly.
"Because you need to stay in a place where you can change things," Leo explains, "and I need to always find a new place that can change me, and so I complain because you're putting yourself in danger and you complain because I'm far away, and neither of us can be happy without making the other miserable."
Raph laughs, suddenly. Leo frowns at him. "We'll never understand each other," Raph says, "because you're crazy." He stands up. "Where're you off to next? After the funeral?"
"No," Leo says. "The question is, where are you off to?"
Raph blinks. "Come again?"
"I've travelled enough," Leo says. "I've been selfish and hypocritical. I've done to you exactly what you did to me, while still telling you not to do those things." He leans forward, resting his forearms across his knees. "I'm done. You go. Do whatever makes you happy. I'll wait for you."
He looks up when a long minute has gone by with no reply. Raph is looking at him with narrowed eyes, suspiciously. "Where's the real Leonardo?"
"He's here," Leo says. "He's finally here."
Raph sits again, closer to Leo this time.
"You've done so much to help me," Leo says, staring at his toes, "and all I've done is try to keep you prisoner. I couldn't understand what you wanted, so I tried to make you do what I wanted." He raises his head, a little. "Can you forgive me?"
Raph puts his hand on Leo's back. There's an awkwardness in his movement, an uncertainty towards this brother who, suddenly, is no longer eighteen. "Y'had good reasons," he says, and Leo knows that if he wants more forgiveness than that, he will have to find it for himself, mine it from the unwelcoming mountains of Raphael's frustratingly indirect communication.
"Listen," Raph says, and Leo focuses, ready to absorb everything. "I know I'm gonna die alone. That's okay. But... ya really shoulda been there for Master Splinter."
"Did..." Raph doesn't have Donnie's talent for guessing. Leo will have to find words for this question. "Did he ask for me?"
"Not exactly," Raph says, and Leo's heart sinks a little lower. "He was lucid right to the end, knew ya weren't there. But he said he loves you."
Leo can't hold himself up anymore. He sags against Raph, letting his head fall into the curve of Raph's shoulder.
He loves us all.
Leo still can't fathom Splinter's endless ability to give his love equally to four such different children. There was never any favoritism. Only pragmatic recognition that each son had his own strengths and weaknesses, that one was suited to the burden of leadership, while the others would only have been crushed by the isolating weight.
It was this skill of unconditional love that Leo had long tried to learn from his father, and had never mastered. Now he fears he never will.
But if he had learned anything from his father, it was that perfection was a goal, and not a threshold. One could not arrive at mastery without passing through inexperience.
You must begin where you are. Only practice will make you better.
He sinks into himself, resting in memories of his father, in the echoes of a voice inside his head.
And he and Raph lean on one another, at least physically, for the first time in far too long.
"You really want this?" Raph asks, after a while. "To sit and watch me stupid myself to death?"
"You're not stupid," Leo says automatically. He reorders his thoughts. "Don't worry about me. I just want to be there when you come home."
Leo knows, from how long it takes Raph to answer, that they're both thinking the same thought.
Or when you don't.
"You won't wait up, will you?" Raph asks. "I hate it when you do that."
"I won't wait up," Leo promises.
He won't. He'll sleep, and when he wakes in the morning there'll be sunrise and breakfast and, if he's lucky, Raph.
Sunrise and breakfast and Raph, every day.
It's a monotony he could get used to.