She had heard him come in four hours ago, through the basement entrance, and so she stayed up for him, waiting until he was ready to talk.
She knew he would want to, eventually. If he had really been in a non-talking mood, she never would have heard him at all.
She sat on the couch and watched reruns she had seen a million times already, just to pretend she had a reason to still be out of bed (a reason other than him) and at three in the morning he finally came upstairs.
She offered him hot chocolate, he accepted, and after the water boiled they both sat silently, nursing their own drinks.
"Hey, April," he said, when their mugs were mostly empty. "Do you still have that photo album?"
"Sure," she said.
He swirled around the dregs of his chocolate. "Can I see it?"
She got up, went to the bedroom, pulled out the well-hidden book from the back of her closet. She carried it back to the kitchen and laid it on the table.
He pulled it closer to himself as she sat down, turned it over and opened it from the back. He flipped pages until he came to the first - really the last - that had pictures on it, and from there he steadily worked his way backwards to the earliest pictures. His pace did not slow until he reached the first page, where a single photograph, a family portrait, held pride of place at the front of the book. And there he lingered, gazing at that image of his much-younger self.
"Damn." Just a soft exhalation. "Is that really us? When were we ever that young?"
She remembered those days, her friends fumbling through their teenage years as she tried to make a place for herself in the world of adults. She'd been single then, alone in her apartment. She hadn't minded the solitary life, but it did mean that if she didn't make plans to meet someone, she was likely to spend the evening by herself. Unless, of course, her mutant family came to visit.
Which they did often, arriving regularly on her fire escape to clamber through the window and fill her home with youthful energy. They would watch movies together, or just talk. She loved her work in the antiques shop, but she loved those evenings with her friends also, listening to their tales of a life so very different from her own.
It had only become more different as time passed. She had married Casey, given up trying to persuade him to work a day shift, and resigned herself to still being alone at night. Alone, still, and no longer satisfied with living that way.
And a little envious, too, of the way the guys were together almost all the time, even closer than they had been before -
"You wanna hear a story?" he asked.
She shook away her thoughts, and focused herself on the present. "Sure."
He didn't look at her as he spoke, instead keeping his eyes on the photographs in the album. "We were eight years old," he began, slowly. "We were out scavenging with Master Splinter. We were spread out a little bit in the tunnel, seeing what was floating down. It was a slow day, nothing too interesting. Then Donnie found something, and he came running back to show Sensei what it was." He lifted his mug, remembered it was empty, put it down again. "It was a camera. Well, we all knew that cameras were for taking pictures, and we knew pictures were bad news. But somehow Donnie talked Master Splinter into letting him bring it home."
April smiled. "Him and his silver tongue."
"No kidding." He flipped a page, to look at a picture taken outside the farmhouse. The Turtle in it was far away, impossible to identify. "Donnie could talk a tiger into trying polka dots. Anyway - we brought the camera home, but then Master Splinter took it away, and put it in his room, and wouldn't let us touch it."
April sipped at her cooling chocolate.
"Few months later," he continued, "we all decided we were bored. Whatever Sensei suggested, we didn't wanna do it." He laughed. "We must've been driving him nuts. Well, after a while, he told us that if we could be quiet for half an hour, then he would get the camera out and take our picture." He smiled at the memory. "Our first picture. Instant silence, April. Coulda heard a ninja's footstep."
She nodded, appreciating the metaphor.
"Thirty minutes later," he said, "out comes the camera. Silence, over. We had a big fight about how we were gonna pose, about who was gonna be in the middle. Sensei threatened not to take the picture after all, if we couldn't agree on something. But we did, and he held up the camera and -" He mimed snapping a photograph. "Then he put the camera on the table, and we all waited for the picture to come out."
"Oh," she said. "A Polaroid."
He shook his head. "No. It was a film camera. Needless to say, the picture never came out, even when Donnie took the thing apart to see where it was."
"That's too bad," she said. "I guess you couldn't mail away the film..."
"There wasn't even any film in it," he said. "We had no idea how the damn thing worked. Don fiddled with it until it broke, and then we just threw it away. We found others, sometimes, but we never bothered with 'em again." He flipped the album back to the first page, and touched the picture of himself and his brothers. "So this was our first picture."
"Oh," she said. She remembered how they had been that afternoon - nervous, excited, curious, all at the same time - and now she understood why. "So that's why you were so -"
"Yeah." He shook his head. "We were such stupid kids..."
"Not stupid," she said. "Just..." But she couldn't think of any word that didn't sound negative.
"Stupid," he echoed. He traced his finger over the images in the photo. "Who are these people, April? This couldn't ever have been us..."
She didn't reply, because she knew that he knew perfectly well that he had once been that stiff-faced teenager in the photo.
"Is it us?" he said again, very softly. "Were we ever really four?"
She didn't know how to answer that. She reached out and put her hand over his.
He looked up at her. "It's our only picture, April. I thought... I thought maybe I had only imagined it." He lowered his head again. "Sometimes I think all of that was just a dream. Sometimes I think this is a nightmare. But I never seem to wake up..."
She couldn't claim to know exactly how he felt. But she did know that horrible sense of being trapped in a life not quite her own, of being pushed inexorably away from another time, a time she could never get back. She wanted to say something, to tell him she understood, but she didn't know how to put the feeling into words. So she only asked, "Are you staying over tonight?"
For a long time she had resisted letting them stay in the basement apartment. The couch was okay (at least until Casey moved in, and having surprise sleepovers became too awkward); the downstairs room was not. She had advertised aggressively, trying to find a new tenant, but nothing had materialized. Eventually she had just given up trying, and remodeled the apartment for their use, accepting it as one more thing in her life that would be transformed by Turtles.
She hadn't thought they would even want to sleep in that basement.
She had been wrong.
"Yeah," he said. "I think I will." He sighed and moved his hand, making her move hers so he could see the picture again. "You know... sometimes I think he's still there. I wake up and -" He shook his head, then slid his arms together and crossed them on the table, burying his face in them. "I just miss him so much..."
She moved her hand back, resting it on his elbow.
"I never gave up thinking I would see him again," he said, his voice muffled in the cave of his arms. He lifted his head a little, rubbing away the tears against his shoulder. "Even when I was forgetting what he looked like, I didn't give up... and then, just the other day, I remembered you have this picture. I thought you had it... And half of me was praying you did, because I forgot my own brother's face, and half of me was praying you didn't, because it would be so much easier to pretend he never existed..."
She rubbed his arm slowly, hoping her touch could bring him some comfort.
"And what kind of a brother am I," he said hollowly, "that forgets, and is happy to have forgotten?" His eyes fell to the photograph, the changeless image, capturing forever a moment that was gone in the blink of a camera shutter. "Now it hurts all over again..."
"It's not bad," she said gently, "to want to move on. He wouldn't hold it against you."
"I know," he said. "It's just hard to let go, when we'll never know... what happened to him." He stood up slowly, letting her hand slide from his skin, signalling that he didn't want to talk anymore. Then he hesitated, feeling perhaps that his exit was too abrupt. He shifted, looked at the mugs stained with remnants of chocolate. "Thanks for staying up, April."
"No problem," she said, and it was honest, as her flimsy pretense for staying up had not been. "Good night."
"Good night," he echoed.
Then he moved softly out of the room, and she was left alone with the only proof that there had ever been a fourth mutant turtle.