Leo stands in the middle of the cavern, his katana in his hands. Before him, Ue stands with sword and staff. Two faint bubbles of silver light are fading into the points of the crosspiece.
It's as if the battle he remembers never happened.
He sinks lower in his fighting stance.
He looks over his shoulder. His brothers are standing in a blue bubble, like he remembers from the first time he dueled with Ue. They're beating against it with their fists, and calling for him.
He hears them, and he wants to go to them.
But he can't.
It's over, now. He can't win this fight. Now he knows for sure Ue is willing to use magic in battle, and he can't win against that. His only hope is strategy.
And his strategy had failed.
It had been working. It had been working, until his brothers interfered. If they had only waited, if he had endured the pain a little longer...
Why couldn't they have just done as he told them?
Maybe I should have told them what I was planning to do...
Ue interrupts his thoughts. "Your brothers have great spirit, Leonardo," he says. "But I am afraid they do not understand what right of observance means."
"Let them go," Leo says softly. "Just let them go."
"The rules state," Ue says, and Leo has the feeling he's quoting from a sourcebook that has not been made equally available to everyone, "that if an attendant abuses the right of observance, that privilege can be revoked."
Leo feels cold inside, at what Ue might understand revoking a privilege to mean.
"I could send them elsewhere," Ue says, and Leo's hands tighten just a little more on the hilts of his katana. "But I know how you will react. So, instead, I will go elsewhere. I will let you take your leave of them. And then we will battle." He sheathes his sword. "You know that there will be no more cowardly tricks. Next time, we will duel."
He raises his staff, and then he vanishes.
He turns, and his brothers come spilling out of the vanished bubble, moving as quickly as they can to his side.
"Are you all right?" Don asks. "I think you passed out..."
"I'm okay," Leo says. He lifts his swords, angling them over his shoulders and returning them to their sheaths.
"What the hell were you doing?" Raph demands. "Why wouldn't you fight him?"
"I can't," Leo says, sinking towards the floor. "I can't kill him, Raph."
"Don't think you get much choice, bro," Raph says, as all four of them sit heavily on the smooth stone. "It's him or you, and, uh, I know which one I pick."
Leo rests his head in his hands. "He won't leave me alone. He's waiting for me, forcing me into this. I'm giving him every chance to walk away, but..."
"He won't back down," Don surmises, "and you can't."
"Exactly," Leo says.
"But you knew that," Mike says, putting a hand on Leo's shoulder. "You knew he wouldn't quit. Why did you keep giving him chances?"
Leo only buries his face deeper in his hands, and can't reply.
"Everyone deserves a second chance," Don says, into the silence.
"Okay," Raph says, "but ya gotta draw the line somewhere."
"It doesn't matter now," Leo says hollowly. "I'm over the line. I couldn't beat him even if I wanted to."
"What were you trying to do?" Mike asks. "I mean, it didn't look too good from where we were standing, but you must've had a better plan than hoping he would get bored or whatever..."
"No, that was pretty much it," Leo says. "It - it's not that he wants to kill me. He wants to fight me. But only if I fight back, only if I'm – "worth it", whatever that means. Like... like a cat playing with a mouse. If the mouse lies very still, the cat loses interest."
"So that's it," Raph says bluntly. "You were hoping he would lose interest."
"Fuck, Leo," Raph says. "That is the stupidest damn plan you ever came up with."
"It was all I had," Leo says.
"And that was better than letting us help because... ?"
"Because you can't!" Leo jerks his head up, glaring at his younger brother. "Did you fail to notice that he can stop you with a thought? Did you miss the fact that, even without magic, he's at least as good of a ninja as you are? Damn it, Raph, he's after me! And if you could stop being a selfish, pig-headed idiot for two seconds, you would see that you at least could get out of this alive, and that's the best we can do tonight! And if you insist on throwing that away also, then nothing I have ever done for you matters at all."
There's a stunned silence.
"Please," Leo says, more quietly. "This is the best I can do. Don't let it be a waste."
"Leo..." Don says. "Don't give up yet."
Leo shakes his head. "I'll fight him," he says. "I'll do something. But wherever I go after this... I don't think I'll be coming back."
"It was a good idea you had," Mike says. "I mean, when you explain it like that... it almost makes sense."
"I thought so too," Leo says. "It was almost working. But I didn't expect him to... to do those things. I underestimated his determination."
"No," Raph says suddenly. "He underestimated yours." He looks at Leo steadily. "You weren't gonna break, were you? You were gonna go all the way."
"I would've tried," Leo says.
"Damn," Raph says. "I fucked up, didn't I."
"Yeah," Leo says. "You kinda did." He stands up and rolls his shoulders. The pain from earlier has faded, and there's no point in delaying the inevitable anymore.
His brothers rise as well, standing with him one last time.
"Now what?" Mike says.
"Now I fight," Leo says. "I'm ready." Then, louder, more confidently: "I'm ready."
At his words, lines of color explode across the walls, and Leo squints to protect his eyes. When he looks again, every inch of wall space is covered by tiny symbols, each a subtly different rainbow hue.
"What is that?" Mike says from beside him.
"I've seen this," Raph says, taking a step forward. "Down in one of the tunnels. I think - I think it's writing..."
"What does it say?" Don asks.
"How should I know?"
No sooner has Raph spoken, than the strange symbols begin to rotate, seeming to turn in a third dimension, as though millions of tiny panels are flipping over. When they settle, the walls are inscribed with a different set of symbols, a set slightly more familiar.
Leo moves forward, seeing if these characters are what he thinks they are. "It's kanji..."
"Can ya read it?" Raph asks. Though Splinter had taught the Japanese syllabary writing to all of them, they got little practice at it in their American lives, and only Leo could get through more than a very simple paragraph.
Leo scans the wall in bafflement. "I don't even know where to start..."
Once again, the cavern seems to hear their words, and the panels begin to flip again. This time, there is not a symbol for every panel. Three-quarters of the rounded dome becomes blank, and the remaining area changes to show a single message in big, bold characters.
"Okay..." Leo studies the symbols. The first are katakana, an approximate rendering of his foreign name. "It says... Leonardo. The sun is rising. You must fight. Enter the..." He frowns at the unfamiliar word. "Portal? Alone."
"Portal?" Raph says. "Ya sure that's right?"
"No..." Leo admits. He turns to his brothers. "Never mind that." He looks to each of them in turn, willing them to listen carefully. "Guys, I'm running out of time. Whatever -" He squeezes his eyes shut. It's too painful.
You are ninja, Leonardo. This is what you were trained to do.
He takes a deep breath, opens his eyes, and continues. "Whatever happens... do what needs to be done." He puts his hand on Michelangelo's shoulder, the brother who most needs his strength tonight. "Be strong. Get home safely."
A loud sniffle from Mike, and he pulls his youngest brother into a hug. "I love you."
"I love you too, bro," Mikey says in his ear.
After a long minute, Mike backs away, and Don advances to embrace his brother.
"You can do it, Leo," he says. "I know you'll come back to us."
"One way or another," Leo says grimly.
Don pulls away just enough to meet his gaze. "With honor, Leo," he says, in the language of their adoptive ancestors.
Don steps back, and Raph is next, hugging Leo fiercely.
"Go all the way, bro," he growls. "Kick his ass. Then bring it home for me, so I can kick it again."
"Take care of them, Raph," is all Leo says in reply.
"I love you all," Leo says, one more time. "Tell Master Splinter -"
"We won't," Don says. Then, more softly: "You will."
Leo nods, with all the confidence he can muster. Then he turns to face the wall.
Enter the portal. WHAT portal?
This time, the cavern seems to sense his very thoughts. The symbols on the wall begin to flow like water, rippling, whirling clockwise, slowly and then faster. They form into a shining circle, then spread downward, becoming an archway.
Leo holds his head high, and walks through it.
"Leonardo," Ue greets him cordially, almost before his vision clears. "Welcome."
"Ue," Leo returns, with equal, if cold, courtesy. His eyes remain fixed on Ue, but his attention flicks around the room. It's another chamber, rounded like the last one, but smaller, limiting the possibilities for evasive maneuvering. Ue meant what he said, in the other cavern. There would be no more tricks.
"The time for our challenge ends soon," Ue says calmly. "We must fight."
"I don't understand these rules," Leo says, anger and fear rising in him at just how fully in control of tonight's events Ue is. He had thought that they were creating this game together, but it seems more and more like Ue is in charge of the rules, just as he is in charge of everything else. "You said yourself, this is a duel to the death. How can it have a time limit?"
Ue crosses his arms. "The rules state that the combatants must have a chance to rest. Each round of battle can last only one night."
Leo's mind races. If I can only keep him talking until sunrise...
No. This ends NOW. There is no round three.
He draws his katana. "I would not want to keep you waiting." He beckons with one swordtip. "Let's fight."
He settles into a defensive position, and prays that his plan, his last idea, will work. Go all the way. It's his only chance.
Ue draws his own sword. "This battle will bring me great glory," he says. "Let us make it a worthy combat." He too adopts a defensive pose. "I will grant you first strike."
Leo takes a deep breath and raises his sword.
Then he lowers it.
He kneels to the ground, placing his weapons on the floor before him.
"What?" Ue has straightened from his pose out of sheer surprise. "Leonardo, there is no surrender!"
"I am not a warrior," Leo says calmly, keeping his head lowered and his hands on his knees. "I do not live and think as a warrior. I do not fight for sport; I do not believe taking life ever brings honor. I will not fight you, Ue. If there is glory for you in killing an enemy who is not a warrior, an enemy who does not fight back, then -" He tucks his head further down, exposing his neck. "Kill me."
There is no cold blow to the back of his neck. No clatter of a weapon dropped or soft hiss of a sword replaced in its sheath.
"You disappoint me, Leonardo."
"If I am unworthy," Leo says steadily, "then kill me."
"I cannot kill an enemy who kneels." Leo's heart leaps at Ue's words. "Stand, Leonardo."
It's working. He can't kill you if you don't fight back.
Even as he repeats it, though, he feels his body rising. He is lifting, his legs unfolding beneath him, and as his head is forced up he sees Ue holding the staff aloft.
"I asked you," Ue says, softly, dangerously, "to stand."
Leo feels his dangling toes brush the floor, and then he is lowered slightly, so that his heels too are touching the ground. He imagines that, from the outside, this looks very much like standing. He wills himself to fall.
"Fight, Leonardo," Ue says, and in his peripheral vision Leo sees his swords rise to the level of his hands, and float there, waiting for him to seize them.
"You can control me all you want," Leo says, as calmly as he can, even as his heart freezes at the idea that even his own body is now under Ue's control. "I can't imagine there's any honor for you in fighting a puppet."
The skin around Ue's eyes contorts, and Leo pictures the rest of his masked face twisting as well. Then the hilts of his swords are thrust into his hands, and his fingers tighten painfully around the bindings.
"It is just as easy for me to kill you with magic," Ue says, "but you will find it easier to die by the sword. Magic is slow." He says the word with great relish, and as he does Leo feels the tearing, burning sensation invade him again.
It hurts. It hurts everywhere, and just as there is no place for him to hide in this chamber, there is no place to hide within his own consciousness. He can't escape the pain, can't take himself away from it. He can only endure, clinging to his plan and to his honor as tightly as he can, even as his fingers clench harder and the rough cloth cuts into his palms.
"Why, Leonardo?" Ue is asking him. "Why do you accept suffering? Do you hate life so much?"
Leo closes his eyes. There is only the blood in his hands, the pain, Ue's voice.
"I do not understand you, Leonardo. I know you are different from others in your world, but to have such a strange spirit… a spirit that chooses death…"
No. No. That isn't true. That's not why he…
"I choose life," Leo grits, and through the swell of pain he forces his voice to come out of his throat. "I choose life, Ue! I choose life for both of us!"
"That is not a choice!" Ue shouts back at him. "That is cowardice!" The burning intensifies even further, then suddenly slackens, freeing the breath Leo hadn't even realized was trapped inside him. "Answer, Leonardo!"
"Then I – choose – cowardice," Leo pants. He swallows hard, an acid lozenge that burns all the way to his stomach. "Do you want to kill a coward, Ue?"
A long, long moment. The fire in his stomach, the blood in his hands.
And then, finally, the sound of metal on leather.
"You are not who I thought you were, Leonardo."
"I am who I am," he replies. He keeps his eyes closed. He had always vowed to die with his eyes open, but that is an act of bravery, and would betray him. He keeps his eyes closed in order to live.
He feels the magic release him, knows it by the sudden coldness in his limbs, by the way his feet rest more solidly on the floor.
Instantly he sinks to his knees, casts his swords away. "I cannot win a mortal challenge," he says. "End this, Ue. Kill me, or release me."
Ue advances, his footsteps loud in the silent room. Leo risks opening his eyes, knowing the other ninja is now so close he will not be able to see Leo's downturned expression. The toes of Ue's boots are within Leo's field of vision, and Leo waits for him to draw his blade again, and strike.
"You are not the foe I sought," Ue says. From his position on the floor, Leo realizes how tall the other ninja is, but still he does not move. "There is no honor for me here. I must continue my search." He steps back, giving Leo space. "I release you from this challenge."
Still Leo does not stand. If he does, if he shows any willingness at all to fight, the foreign warrior still might change his mind.
"I cannot bow to an enemy who kneels," Ue tells him.
"I cannot bow to an enemy who finds glory in killing," Leo replies.
"Very well." A bright glow begins to fill Leonardo's vision, starting at the top and spreading downwards. "The sun is rising, Leonardo. It is time to go home."
And then he is gone, and Leo is alone.
Don holds Mike in his arms, and waits. It seems to take a long time. He wonders whether anything will ever happen.
If Leo loses... do we just stay here, forever?
The portal disappeared as soon as Leo walked through it, and once again there is no way out of the domed chamber.
All they can do is wait, and hope.
Raph is pacing, the angry energy of his footfalls seeming to have already worn a groove in the stone floor. Mike is standing very still, his face buried in Don's neck, barely seeming to breathe.
Don just tries to keep it together, to be the balance between the brother who can't stay in one place, and the brother who can't move at all.
And then the room begins to glow.
Don turns his head. The wall is unbearably bright. He squints against it, trying to see what's coming.
Raph moves up beside him, protectively. Mike raises his head, also ready to defend himself.
Something dark moves within the light. A figure, coming towards them. It's blurry at first, indistinct, but gradually it becomes defined, until it is outlined sharply against the glow.
Raph moves first, grabbing Leo up in a hug. "Did ya do it?" he asks. "What -"
"Yes," Leo says, returning the hug. There's something awkward in his grip, but Raph barely notices. "I went all the way, Raph."
Raph releases Leo, only to punch him lovingly in the shoulder. "Knew ya had it in ya."
Leo smiles wordlessly. Then he turns and reaches out to meet Don's approach, to embrace him, but Don stops short, looking at Leo's outstretched arms.
"Leo!" Don grabs one of Leo's wrists, then the other one. "Your hands!"
"I know," Leo says, "he –" He looks down, and his eyes widen. "What?"
His palms are glowing with a silvery light. He turns his hands curiously, rotating his arms in Don's loose grip, and the light moves with them. He curls his fingers, and the light fades, seeping into his palms, leaving only green skin.
"The hell was that?" Raph asks, grabbing Leo's arm away from Don so he can look closer.
Leo pulls back, until Raph lets go, and looks at his own hands. Then he looks up, his gaze resting on the bo behind Don's shoulder. "Donnie, you got your bo back."
Don reaches up to touch his weapon, and confusion furrows his brow. "Yes…?"
"How?" Leo asks.
"When Ue grabbed the staff," Don says, "everything sort of… wobbled. Then we were in the observance bubble, and –" he gestures to the paired sai in Raph's belt "- everyone had their own weapons again." He tilts his head. "Didn't you notice, earlier?"
"I wasn't really paying attention," Leo says. "He… he reset everything, didn't he? He sent us back to the beginning of the battle, so we could fight again." He holds up his hands. "He's doing it again."
"What?" Don says. "Leo, what happened in there?"
Leo turns his hands around, looking at his palms. "My hands got scraped up. When he tried to make me fight."
"What?" Raph's brow furrows. "When he tried to – didn't you kill him?"
"No," Leo says, seeming hurt at how Raph had misunderstood him. "I didn't fight him at all."
"Yeah, and now look." Raph points accusingly to Leo's hands. "He's resetting again. How long're you gonna keep doin' this, Leo?"
Leo shakes his head. "No. It's over. I surrendered."
Raph throws up his hands, and paces away.
"Then… isn't he going to come back?" Mike asks, in a small voice.
Leo glances again at his uninjured hands, then reaches forward to draw Mike into an embrace. "No," he says, finally feeling like he might understand the rules. "He's not resetting so he can try again. He's resetting because the challenge can't be left half-finished."
"So… it's over?" Mike asks.
"Yes." Leo tightens his grip momentarily, then lets go. "I finally got through to him. I'm not the person he wants to fight." He looks at each of them. "He doesn't understand our kind of honor. He thinks I'm a coward, because I wouldn't kill him." He smiles. "I let him believe it, because it was the only way we would both walk out of there. But I hope that someday he'll learn what we know: that it takes much more courage to let your enemy live." He moves forward, between his brothers, towards the center of the room. "Let's go home, guys."
"Uh," Raph says. "Love to, bro, but... how?"
Leo looks to the ceiling. "Just wait."
Even as they watch, the white light emanating from the domed ceiling turns silver, and then the very stone begins to drip down and flow away, like paint bleeding off a wall.
And they're standing in familiar sewers.
The tunnel is low, dim, wet from the weekend's rain. It has the same undifferentiated bricks and pipes as any other tunnel.
Don groans. "Not again…" He rotates slowly, looking for identifying features, trying to get his bearings. "Where are we now?"
Leo only points to the storm drain in front of them. Pale light is streaming through the narrow opening. "Look."
Mike moves forward, rising on his toes to peer out at the world above. "Wow," he whispers.
The others come up to stand beside him, and they watch the white stone of City Hall gradually turn pink, as the sun rises over the edge of the world.
"But..." Don says, "how can it be so early? It felt like so much longer…" He frowns. "Is - is it Tuesday?"
"I don't think so," Leo says. "Everything is being undone." He looks at his unbloodied palms. "It's a new day." He lowers his hands, and turns to his brothers. "It's later than we should have gotten home, though. Master Splinter will be waiting." He glances once more at the sunrise, then moves away from the drain. "Come on."
And they follow him, to the lower tunnels, to their own front door.
There's one more brick wall.
Raph can't help glaring at it, even as Don reaches into the hidden panel that conceals the unlocking mechanism, and flicks the switch that makes the two parts of the wall move smoothly apart.
The way opens, and they go in.
"My sons!" Splinter hurries to meet them as they enter, touching each of them, making sure they are safe. "I had thought you would be home hours ago. Your phones did not seem to be working..."
"Master Splinter." Leo bends to embrace his father. "We're all right. And have we got a story for you..."