This story is set in the CGI-verse. Some of the details are different because, well, it made for a better story. This is my attempt to explain why the family got so dysfunctional while Leo was gone.

I don't own anything.

The Domino Effect

It all started with Leo.

Doesn't it always? Leo is the oldest, the leader. He goes first almost by definition.

But this time, where he was going, we couldn't follow.

I never really understood how being alone was supposed to make Leo a better leader. But Master Splinter was usually right about those kinds of things, so I didn't question it.

Maybe I should have.

Or maybe it wasn't Leo who needed to grow up.

I knew it wasn't fair, to go on being the baby of the family while Leo took on more and more responsibility. But he never seemed to want any more from me. Raph and Don were his seconds-in-command, his lieutenant in battle and his partner in household management. They did it because they were good at it, because they liked it. But when there was more to be done, Leo never saddled them with it. He just did it himself.

He just took it as part of his job to make our lives as easy as possible.

No matter how hard it was for him.

And I knew it was hard. I would ask him sometimes, if there was anything I could do to help.

He'd only smile at me. "No, Mikey. It's fine."

And I understood that he needed me to not take responsibility, to stay as the pure and unspoiled little brother, who wasn't yet hardened to the realities of our world.

So I did.

And I won't say I didn't enjoy it.

But as much as I liked having three older brothers standing over me, protecting me from the harsh glare of the sun, I knew that they were also preventing me from living in its light.

From growing.

Then they started to move aside, one by one, and finally there I was, out from beneath their shadows, the sunshine on my shoulders.

And boy, did it burn.

Leo went first. He packed his bag and took off for Central America. Before he went, he had long talks with Raph and Don, and I knew he was giving them instructions, everything they needed to do in his absence to keep the family safe.

All he said to me was, "Don't be sad, Mikey. I'll be home before you know it."

It was a lie.

Raph went second. He started being around less and less. He was always holed up in his room, or walking the tunnels, or just beating his sandbag for hours on end. He was lost, without Leo. Nobody would think from looking at the two of them that they even liked each other, but they had a real closeness, and without it Raph was falling apart.

He started going out at night, trying to find something to fill the void.

He found something, all right.

He'd come home late, covered in fresh injuries. He'd patch himself up, badly, and then he'd fall into bed and not wake up until afternoon.

He'd come downstairs, eventually. I would say hello to him, and I would pretend I wasn't looking at the red wounds and white scars where he used to be green.

I had always thought Raph was the greenest of the four of us. He was unashamedly green, the way he was unashamedly everything else.

I hadn't known, then, about the secret he was keeping. The metal suit he was building to wear over his torn skin and gouged shell.

But then he stopped coming home beaten and bloody, and I knew something was up. I knew he still went out at night, and I couldn't believe he was just sitting quietly on rooftops, not getting into trouble. I was terrified that he was hurting himself in ways I couldn't see.

So I went into his room, one day when he was in with Master Splinter, probably getting lectured. I felt bad about invading his privacy, and especially about doing it while he was being interrogated, but I was scared and I had to know.

I looked behind the junk on his shelves. I rummaged through his closet. And then I opened the chest where he kept his gear, all his most valuable and important possessions.

And there was that helmet.

I picked it up, and then I lifted the big silver mess underneath, and then I knew why Raph wasn't coming home injured anymore.

Oh, Raph, I remember thinking. This won't protect your heart.

I had known, even before the armor, as soon as Raph-coming-home-injured became the routine of our lives, that it was the hurt in his heart that made him go out every night, letting punks abuse his body.

That's right, letting them. Sure, some of those scars he got because he was outnumbered or caught by surprise. But I know Raph. I know that some of them he got on purpose, just so he would feel something. So he would have a mark on his skin, a message written on his body, this is how much I love my brother.

So much that, when Leo wasn't there to receive it, the energy kept pouring from him anyway, spilling in all directions, lashing out at everything around him, ricocheting back so that the unfocused power of it destroyed its own source.

I put everything back where I found it, and I left in a hurry.

And I didn't say anything.

Maybe I should have.

And that left Donnie as the oldest sane brother.

As the de facto leader.

And being leader was something Don never, ever wanted.

But he tried to do it anyway, and to do it well, because Don never does things by halves.

It didn't sit right on him. It eroded him, wore him down. He tried to fill Leo's shoes, while still wearing his own, to do the work of two Turtles, and it almost killed him. It made him less than he had been before.

He was still doing the technical work around the Lair, and he started staying up later and later so he would be there when Raph came home, so he could patch him up properly instead of letting him bandage himself, one-handed and too tired or self-loathing to care.

Then Raph started wearing the armor, and he didn't need help when he got home anymore. Don stayed up for him anyway. I had thought he was using those quiet hours to work on his own projects, but then I found out he was doing something else with the long sleepless nights.

This is how I found out.

I stumbled downstairs, once, at three in the morning, needing a glass of water. As I stood there in the kitchen, drinking, I realized I was hearing something. A stream of technobabble. I followed it back to the source, and there was Donnie, swiveling back and forth in his chair, a headset over his ears, apparently talking to someone really dim.

I waited.

"What was that?" I asked, when he was done.

"I got a job, Mikey," he said tiredly. "I'm tech support."

"Hey, cool," I said. "What are you going to use the money for? New computer stuff?"

He glared at me. "Food, Mike."

I blinked back at him. "What are you talking about? We have plenty of food."

"We're not animals, Mike," he said, tearing off the headset and throwing it down on the desk. "We're not going to eat out of dumpsters anymore."

And we didn't. Checks came to April's mailbox, she turned them into electronic dollars in some online account, and Don traded the mostly-theoretical money for groceries, ordered online and delivered to a convenient sewer grate.

It was pretty cool. But Don was working way harder to buy food than we ever had to scavenge it, and I could tell he hated every minute.

Almost as much as he hated lecturing Raph about how he slept all the time and didn't contribute anything to the family.

He wasn't even doing his own projects anymore. I guess he felt that building useful little contraptions, and waiting up for a brother who didn't need his help, wasn't enough. That he needed to do more for us, to take care of us, the way Leo always tried to.

And that damn job consumed all of him. He didn't have the time or energy left for anything he liked. He just... shriveled.

And in Leo's absence, in Raph's withdrawal, Donnie went third.

Then Don started giving me these Looks, And how are YOU contributing to the family?, and I knew I was going too.

I had tried to do what I always did, to be the cheerleader, the optimist, the one who made everything seem okay, but it was getting harder. Everything wasn't okay, and I couldn't pretend anymore. I couldn't pretend for myself, and I couldn't pretend for anyone else. They weren't buying it. The happiness I forced myself to show didn't reflect and multiply the way it usually did. It only faded and died, and it seemed to take every other good feeling with it.

I couldn't stay in the Lair anymore.

I went out, one night, with my sketchbook, and I worked on ideas. The next morning I showed them to Donnie. He nodded silently, and called April.

Two days later April showed up with a load of supplies, bought with funds withdrawn from Donnie's account. It took me a week to fix the costume, to repaint the van, to steal time on Don's computer and print out a stack of fliers.

Things were slow at first. But then I started getting phone calls, and it was a gig here, a gig there, and the cash came home and I paid Don back for the start-up costs.

Business got better. Some weeks I was out four, five days, doing parties and events. Wearing a big plastic head with a big fake grin, making other people happy.

But I wasn't making myself happy, and my family was still broken.

I started giving Don almost all of the money. I didn't want it. It was blood money, trickling down as everything I loved burned to ash. There was nothing I could buy with it that would even begin to replace what I had already lost.

I finally had people, daylight, a tiny piece of a normal life. But all I wanted was the comforting shade of my family.

I was growing up, finally, and it hurt.

When Leo came home, I was so excited I fell off the couch. Everything was going to go back to normal.

But it wasn't that easy.

We couldn't go back to how we had been, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Don't be sad, Mikey.

I'm not sad, Leo. But I'm not innocent anymore, either. I was never as pure and unspoiled as you thought I was - as you wanted me to be - but now I can't even fake it.

You can stand over me again, and hold me in your shadow...

... but you can't make me forget the light.