He awoke to warmth, all around him—and it might've been stifling if not for the contentment he felt, the complete and utter relaxation of his body, and the haze of sleep that still enveloped him. He kept still, intending to postpone full wakefulness as long as possible, when he felt a stirring behind him.

Raphael stiffened. What the—?

He rolled to his back, and turned to see April asleep beside him.

April.

Lying right next to him.

In bed.

He was suddenly and fully awake, but still oddly disoriented, and he half sat up as he looked around, trying to figure out where he was. Almost immediately, he knew. He was in April's room. April and Casey's room. It looked… different, but there was no doubt about it. His heart was pounding as he tried to remember, tried to figure out how he got here, when April stirred beside him again. Her hair was loose, tousled, and she muttered something in her sleep and stretched an arm up across the pillow her face was pressed into… and immediately Raph's eyes caught on her shoulder—her slender, bare shoulder that was no longer covered by the sheet draped over the rest of her.

He was in April's room, in her bed, and she was naked underneath the covers next to him… or at least topless.

He couldn't make any sense of this, of how this happened, but that wasn't his biggest problem at the moment. I have to get out of here. NOW.

He scuttle-scooted backward, dry-mouthed with panic, but he was all caught up in the blankets coiled around him, around his legs, and he twisted and kicked but he couldn't free himself. He grabbed the sheets, trying to tear them away, and April moved again, this time opening her eyes and blinking sleepily.

"Raph," she muttered.

He didn't answer, but redoubled his efforts to free himself.

"Raph, hey, stop," April said faintly, and then she touched his shoulder.

That was the final straw, that touch—for what it meant, for what it made him feel, and he thrashed almost wildly, desperate to escape the bed that seemed to be trying to swallow him whole.

She grabbed his shoulder then, shaking, and her voice became louder, more assertive. "Raph! Raphae—OW! HEY DUDE, WAKE UP! RAPH!"

He gasped, feeling as if he'd smacked into a wall, and immediately upon opening his eyes realized it wasn't far off the mark. Not wall. Floor. His cheek was pressed against the floor, and he squinted up to see his hammock, still swaying gently, and Michelangelo staring down at him with wide eyes.

"I KNOCKED, okay?" his brother said with a note of panic in his voice. "Leo sent me! Practice is supposed to start soon, and when you weren't down for breakfast, Leo said to check on you, and I knocked, and you didn't answer so I peeked in, and you were sorta like, struggling, so I tried to wake you and you KICKED me and fell out of your hammock!"

All of that was said much too quickly to process for someone who had yet to peel himself off the floor. Slowly Raph pushed himself up on one arm, and then he was sitting up, rubbing his face. He looked over at the clock, strategically placed at the other end of the room. Yup. He'd overslept. "Fuck," he muttered, which was all he could think to say under the circumstances.

Michelangelo watched him for a moment. "Um. You okay?" he asked.

"Peachy," he grumbled, and started to get up. His brother extended a hand out, and Raph looked at it for a heartbeat before grasping it. Mike pulled him up.

"So what was that, like a nightmare or something?" Michelangelo asked.

"Or something," Raph answered, and automatically began hunting for his mask and gear.

His brother stood quietly, watching him as he gathered his stuff. "Anything you wanna talk about?"

Raph plucked his mask off the floor, straightened, and began tying it on. "It was just a dream," he said dismissively, as if he'd already forgotten it. Right. I wish. "Tell Leo not to get his panties in a bunch, I'll be right down."

"Sure thing," Mike said, but he continued to stand there, watching. "So… you're not mad that I came into your room without permission?" he asked at last.

Raphael just shrugged. "You said you knocked." Several times. "Guess Leo would a' freaked out if you didn't check on me."

"Right. Exactly." Mikey paused, then said, "Are you sure you're okay?"

Raph turned slowly to level a dangerous look at him. "Ask me one more time and you'll find out."

His brother took the hint. "Ooookay, see ya downstairs," he said, beating a hasty retreat.

Raph watched him go, and then heaved a sigh. The truth was he wasn't okay. This wasn't the first time he'd dreamed of her, and there seemed to be a pattern emerging. The first time, just a few days ago, he'd dreamed he and April were curled up on the couch together, sitting up but sharing a blanket, her warmth pressed against his side and her head resting on his shoulder. Weird, for sure, since Raph wasn't exactly known for his cuddly nature, but otherwise no big deal, right? Right… except the warmth he'd felt had had very little to do with the blanket covering them.

In the next one April had been massaging his shoulders. There wasn't really anything… suggestive about the way she touched him, but as in real life he'd been powerless to move. Long after awakening he could still feel her hands on him, working slowly and firmly against the muscles, and just the memory of it was enough to make him shudder involuntarily.

And now today, it had been more intimate still, and his stomach swooped when he wondered just what his dreams would be like if the progression continued along this path. Even though the end of the dream had been dominated by feelings of anxiety and panic, it was the other parts his thoughts kept slipping back to—the feeling of relaxation and contentment and warmth, the fall of her hair across the crisp white pillow, the sleepy way she'd looked up at him, not quite smiling, and of course her smooth bare skin emerging from the sheets. She hadn't been freaked out when she'd seen him next to her in bed…

I wonder if we… Goddammit, no, it was just a dream! Nothing happened before that, because it wasn't real!

Savagely he tugged on his other kneepad, took a deep breath, and went downstairs. Maybe practice was exactly what he needed right now—nothing like good ol' fashioned violence to take his mind off things.

When he got downstairs, Mike and Don were already in the dojo ready to start warm-ups, and Leo was just about to join them. Leonardo turned to him, his expression neutral.

"Hey. Sorry, I guess I forgot to set my alarm," Raph said at once. He glanced past Leo into the dojo, and then back in the direction of the kitchen before looking back to his brother. "Um. Do I have time to grab something to eat real quick?" His brother was a hard-ass when it came to punctuality, and he was in Training Mode right now, all business, but he wasn't unreasonable. Depending on what Master Splinter had planned for today, it could be a while before he got another chance to eat.

Leonardo studied him with a swift glance that seemed to take in everything all at once, and Raph knew that Mikey had told him about the "nightmare."

"Go ahead," Leo said. Then his eyes settled on Raph's right arm. "How's the arm?"

"You mean besides the pus and the smell?"

Leo's eyes narrowed very slightly, and Raph sighed and rolled his eyes. "It's fine, Leo—just like it was yesterday when you asked, and the day before that."

His brother's jaw tightened just slightly, but all he said was, "Just the same, I'll ask Donny to take a look later." Which of course meant he wasn't giving Raph a choice in the matter. "And don't forget to wrap it good before practice."

"Aye aye, captain," he answered with a mock salute. Still, he supposed he understood how Leonardo felt—Raph had inflicted wounds on his brothers during practice before… sometimes it had even been accidental. Even though they all accepted these kinds of injuries as part of the package, it was hard not to feel a little guilty.

By the time Raph finished eating and wrapping his arm, Leonardo was leading his brothers through a set of slow katas designed more for stretching muscles and loosening joints than practicing real skills. Raph took a couple of laps at Leo's direction before joining them. After the preliminaries were finished came the more intense part of the warm-up routine—the part that actually prepared their bodies for the physically strenuous workout that their sensei undoubtedly had planned for them.

The specific content varied somewhat on a day-to-day basis, and today Leo had them doing stations—flips at one, rolls at another, climbing ropes, punching bag… and that was just the warm-up. When they were younger, Splinter had had them on conditioning schedules as well to make sure they stayed on track with cardio and strength-building, but now they were expected to keep up with that one their own—and with the rigorous daily training sessions they had, it was easy to spot anyone who'd been slacking. In addition to all of this they had a weekly schedule for one-on-one sessions with Master Splinter, and regular topside drills.

Once upon a time, Raphael had found this regimen oppressive. Not the physical work itself—that he'd virtually thrived on. It was more the rigidity of it, the relentlessness of it, and the perceived lack of choice. But now he saw things differently. The team was whole again, and he intended to do everything he could to make sure it stayed that way.

The arrival of their sensei signaled the beginning of training, and they knelt around him to hear what he had planned for today's session. Raphael listened attentively… for the first minute or so, anyway. But as Master Splinter talked on seemingly without getting any closer to explaining what they'd be doing, it became increasingly difficult to keep his own thoughts at bay.

He'd only spoken to her once since That Night. She'd called the next day to see if he was feeling any better, and to badger him about checking in with Don "just in case," in spite of his assurances that he was feeling much better. Which was a lie. If anything he felt worse, and the goddamn dreams weren't helping.

Ain't like I can control 'em, he thought, but guilt tightened around his insides like a frigid coil of wire. Because even though he hadn't called her, knew he shouldn't call her, he'd wanted to call her. He'd even considered texting her, in spite of the fact that he hated sending text messages—ninja or not, tiny buttons and oversized fingers weren't exactly a smooth combo. But he was supposed to be backing off, not finding new ways to contact her. No, he should wait for her to call him again, which would probably be when she had some night in mind for their next get-together.

And then what?

Raphael's stomach lurched a little as he considered his next move. Assuming there were no legitimate conflicts, should he agree to see her? The thought was both thrilling and terrifying. To carry out his plan, he knew he had to see her eventually… but maybe he should put it off a bit so as not to seem too eager. He fidgeted a little, unthinkingly, and then drew in a short, startled breath when he felt the slight but unmistakable kiss of steel against his throat. He froze, not even daring to breathe as his entire existence shrank to that one touch, that cold line pressed to his neck. It didn't matter that he knew himself to be in the dojo surrounded by family, or that it was clearly the blunt edge of a weapon that was touching him. Here it might be purely symbolic, but in other circumstances it was the prelude to a lethal strike. Game over. The end. And it was never something to be taken lightly, even in training.

Still holding completely still, Raph raised his eyes to see his father—no, his sensei—staring at him across the length of a sword, expression impassive but eyes blazing.

"It is not just physical distractions we must practice overcoming," the rat said, clearly elaborating on something he'd already said that Raph hadn't heard. "Is that not so, Raphael?"

Raph swallowed. "Hai Sensei," he said, resisting the impulse to look down as the burn of shame spread over his face. He recognized the blade as Leo's, and knew their sensei had just made an example of him… and he had no defense, no excuse—not one his father would find acceptable, anyway. The rat held the sword in position for a moment longer before smoothly withdrawing it and handing it back to Leonardo, who wore his best poker face as he re-sheathed the weapon.

"It is clear there is something on your mind," Splinter continued, "So it is fortunate that you will have a lot of time to think while you are cleaning the dojo this afternoon—including the practice weapons," he said with a gesture to the far side of the dojo. "When you are finished you will also clean your brothers' personal weapons, if they wish it."

Raphael felt the familiar smolder of indignant anger pressing against his chest, trying to break free, but he gritted his teeth and fought it down, even managing a small, submissive dip of his head as he answered, "Hai, Sensei." This day just keeps getting better and better.

The rat studied him another moment before giving a short nod of acknowledgment. "Now, I while I repeat the explanation of today's training for Raphael…" He looked up, his eyes sweeping around to include the others. "…You three will do Jisatsu."

There was an audible groan from Michelangelo, and a huff of resigned breath from Don. Only Leo was silent, but Raph was sure he was no more thrilled than the others. Jisatsu, an adaptation of the "suicide" sprints commonly used in American athletics for conditioning, was one of Master Splinter's more evil exercises. Instead of sprinting back and forth from line to line, they alternated between running and flips—no chance for a rest, no letup in between. It was grueling, and as far as Raph could tell, the only purpose was to tire them out. Quickly.

"Begin now!" the rat barked in Japanese when they moved out too slowly for his liking, and only when Mike, Don, and Leo had spread out and started the exercise did he turn back to Raphael. "So," he said, watching Raph closely. "Does it seem fair to you that your brothers are doing Jisatsu when you were the one who was not paying attention?"

Raph shook his head but kept his eyes downcast, trying his best to block out the sounds of his brothers' exertions. "No Sensei," he said quietly.

"Good answer—it is not fair. Just like it would not be 'fair' if they were hurt or killed in a fight because your thoughts were elsewhere. You must learn to focus your mind at will, no matter what distractions are present. Wakarimashita-ka?"

Yeah, he understood… but it still pissed him off. It wasn't like there was much danger of him spacing out while he was actually fighting, it was just the sitting around and yacking he found tedious. But then again, even though they hadn't been fighting, he'd still ended up with a sword at his throat… which he supposed was exactly the point his father was trying to make. "Hai, Sensei," he said at last, his tone resigned.

"Good. Because that is the focus of today's training."


Using the term "training session" to describe what happened after that was almost laughable. Torture session was more like it. The concept wasn't wholly unfamiliar—Master Splinter said they had to practice fighting under difficult conditions as much as possible so they could adapt more easily when things went wrong in a real battle, and from time to time he created scenarios meant to mimic such conditions.

Like one time, Splinter had woken them all up after just a few hours of sleep and held an impromptu training session. Another time he'd had them fast for 24 hours before practice. Predictably, training on an empty stomach had been harder on one member of the team than the others. Raph was eagerly awaiting the day he'd tell them they needed to practice fighting while intoxicated, but for today the plan had been to give each of them physical impairments by tying or weighting down an arm or a leg. Which would have been hilarious to watch, if they were all "handicapped" at the same time… but of course that wasn't good enough for Splinter.

Theoretically, they were supposed to overcome their handicaps well enough to fight against able-bodied opponents, so each time they were paired up to spar, only one of them was given an impairment, which basically amounted to an ass-kicking of epic proportions. And since none of his brothers were particularly happy with Raph after the whole Jisatsu thing, they took their revenge where they could.

So now here he was—banged up, exhausted, and on the home stretch at last. Raph had spent the afternoon—all afternoon, except for a quick lunch break—vaccuuming, sweeping, dusting, beating mats, and mopping. He'd even cleaned the candle sconces and replaced every single candle. Plenty of time to think indeed… Master Splinter had even forbidden him from listening to music while he worked, so there'd been nothing else to do but think. And no matter how hard he fought it, his thoughts came back to one thing… or rather, one person. Even this, cleaning weapons, reminded him of the last time he'd seen April, and the way she'd handled his sai with such delicacy and reverence. It made his stomach flip a little every time, and that was bad bad bad, but he couldn't seem to stop. And he still didn't know what he was going to say next time she called and invited him over…

When Leonardo entered the dojo several minutes later, Raph wasn't exactly in the best of moods.

"Hey. How's it coming?" his brother asked.

Raph grunted, a noncommittal sound. Leo could take that however he wanted.

"What do you have left?"

Wordlessly he raised the bokken he'd been cleaning and pointed it at the weapon rack near the workout bench where he sat. "Got all those weapons left to clean, plus Mike's and Don's, an' whatever you brought for me," he said, at last glancing over at his brother.

"Right. Here you go." Leo held out his hand, and Raph raised his brow ridges when he saw what his brother was offering. "Two shuriken? That's all you've got for me?"

Leonardo shrugged lightly. "Thought you'd be happy."

"Ecstatic," Raph grumbled. He held out his hand to accept the weapons, and set them down next to the rest of the stuff. Leo's full "arsenal" was by far the largest, so he supposed he should be relieved he hadn't brought more, but Raph couldn't muster much enthusiasm about that when he'd been at it so long already. He picked up his cloth again and continued cleaning the bokken. "That because you feel sorry for me, or because you don't trust me to handle your precious weapons?" he said sourly.

"Neither," Leo replied, taking a seat beside him on the bench. "My other stuff just doesn't need cleaning, that's all. Just did them last night."

Raph snorted. "Of course you did." He remained silent as he continued going over the wooden sword, making sure to get deep in the grooves and fissures with the cloth. Then he glanced over in surprise when Leonardo picked up a second cloth from the ground in front of him, dampened it in the bowl of water Raph had put on the floor, and began cleaning the handle of a kama he'd taken off the rack.

"You don't have to do that," Raph muttered, but he was slightly mollified by the gesture.

"I don't mind—I actually find it kind of satisfying," Leo answered as he continued cleaning.

"Maybe you don't mind, but Splinter might. This is supposed to be my punishment."

"I don't think he'll mind. I think he was impressed with you today."

Come again? Raph glanced over, hoping for something more of a clue in his brother's expression, but Leo had his eyes fixed down on the weapon.

"You think he was impressed with me?" Raph said. "For what, beating the all-time record for how fast one of us ends up with a sword at their throat?" He shook his head. "Can I have some of whatever you've been smoking?"

Leo glanced up with a quick smile at that last comment, but he was serious when he answered, "You screwed up… but you accepted the repercussions without getting defensive or surly or… violent, and you worked hard during the rest of practice. Besides, it wasn't like you were the only one who wasn't paying attention during Sensei's explanation. Hell, Mikey was practically catatonic, and Donny… well, he's good at hiding it, you know? But I doubt he was hanging on Master Splinter's every word."

Raph was quiet for a moment, taking that in, and he was scrubbing the bokken rather aggressively with the cloth when he said, "So how come I was the only one to get nailed for it? How come they're not scrubbing out toilets or something?"

Leo ran the cloth once more down the handle of the weapon, and then stopped, resting his elbow on his knee as he turned pointedly to look at Raphael. "Because his standards for you are higher."

"Wha—why?!" Raphael sputtered.

"Well, you're serious about this now." Leonardo paused, and searched his face with those keen eyes. "Aren't you?"

Raphael couldn't even keep up a pretense of cleaning now. He could only stare. And for some reason, his heart was beating a little harder in his chest.

"Okay… let me ask you this," Leo continued when he realized he wasn't going to get an answer. "If Splinter gathered us all together tonight and announced that from now on, training was optional… where do you think Michelangelo would be when it was time to start practice?"

"He'd be in front of the TV playing video games," Raph answered immediately. "And eating junk food until he made himself sick."

Leo nodded. "And where would Don be?"

"He'd… I dunno. He might show up sometimes, just enough so Master Splinter could see he was trying, but mostly he'd be on his computer or in his lab."

Leo nodded again. "And where would I be?"

That was a no-brainer. "You'd be right here. Every goddamn day."

This time he got a flicker of a smile, and then Leo looked him in the eyes and said, "Where would you be?"

Raph lowered his eyes, thinking, and then he raised them slowly to meet his brother's. "I'd be right here with you," he said gruffly. He spoke the words softly, but his left hand was clutching the handle of the bokken so hard it hurt.

Leo held his eyes, studying them for a long moment, and finally nodded. "And that's it. That's the difference. Master Splinter sees it, and I see it. Mike and Don… their hearts aren't in it. Yet, anyway. That could change, just like it did for me, and for you. And if that happens, they'll be held to a higher standard, too."

Raph looked back down and continued rubbing the practice sword, which was undoubtedly cleaner by now than it had been in years. "Great. Just fucking great. So I get to be held to a 'higher standard,' and then get punished when I fail to meet it. I'm honored. Truly."

"Welcome to my world," Leo said with just a hint of bitterness.

Raphael laughed in surprise, and his brother glanced up with a rueful smile. Then Raph looked down and shook his head, still smiling. He switched his damp cloth for a dry one and went over the practice sword again, thinking. "That why you came in here, to give me some sort a' pep talk?"

"No."

He finished drying the bokken, inspected it, and then took yet another cloth, dampening with a little linseed oil. Master Splinter hadn't specifically said he had to oil the wooden weapons, but it was part of good weapon maintenance to oil them when they started to get dry, and Raph figured if he was gonna do this, he might as well do it right. "Why did you come here, then?" he asked at last.

"In part, because Master Splinter asked me to inspect your work when you finished, make sure everything was up to par. But mainly, I came because you seem like you have something… weighing on you."

It was an opening, an invitation to talk about it if he wanted to, but there was no way in hell he was going to tell anyone about this. So he sighed in feigned frustration and deflected. "I'm fine! Jeezus. You said yourself the others weren't paying attention either, so why don't you go see what's bothering them?"

His brother finished running an oiled cloth over the handle of the kama, and then replaced it on the weapon rack and selected its twin for cleaning. "It's not just your lapse in attention this morning, it's your whole… vibe," Leo said calmly.

Should've known, it's the damn "vibe" again giving me away, said his sarcastic inner voice. God it was annoying having a brother like Leo sometimes.

Leonardo glanced sidelong at Raph. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to." He shrugged. "Just thought I might be able to help."

I wish, thought Raph, but he didn't say anything, and even though it was clear his brother wasn't the least bit fooled, he let it drop. They both worked in silence for a time, cleaning side by side, and perhaps because Leonardo didn't seem inclined to press him on it, Raph's resolve to shut him out began to waver a little.

"So what do you do, when you have something… weighing on you?" Raphael said at length.

Leonardo's eyes flicked to him, just for a moment. "You mean if I don't want to talk about it?"

"Right," Raph confirmed. He knew his brother was letting him know the offer still stood, but it was out of the question.

"In that case," Leo said, "I'd probably meditate on it."

Raph paused in his cleaning, and leveled a Look at his brother.

"Hey, you asked me what I'd do," Leonardo defended, "You didn't ask me what I thought you should do."

Raph sighed. "Okay, smartass, whaddya think I should do, then?"

"Depends. I need a little more information. Not specifics," he added quickly, "Just… well, for example, is it a problem you're trying to find a solution to?"

Raph shifted a little on the bench. "Noooo," he said after a moment's thought. "I've got that worked out, but I just, um, can't stop thinking about some of the details. It's like my mind just keeps going back to the same things."

Leo nodded to himself. "What about at night?"

"Sorta the same thing. I can't seem to get my brain to shut down, and when I do, it's, um… I have these dreams." God, those dreams… the worst part was, as much as they freaked him out, part of him hoped they would continue.

His brother was quiet for a minute, running the cloth smoothly over the staff he was working on. "Sometimes," Leo answered at last, "When your mind seems to be running in circles, it's because it's unable to complete the cycle of thought. In many cases, that's because you're blocking it, either consciously or subconsciously. When your mind spends a lot of time blocking when you're awake, it can carry over to your unconscious mind—which is the part that takes over when you're sleeping."

"Very informative. And that's supposed to help me how, exactly?"

"Well, sometimes if you allow your mind to complete the cycle of thought, it'll stop running in circles and let go, so to speak."

"And how do I do that?" Raph asked slowly. "Complete the cycle of thought?"

"Normally I'd suggest using meditation to sort of tap into your subconscious and override the mental block, but since that's apparently out of the question, if I were you I'd try some release techniques."

It was too perfect—he couldn't pass it up. "Release techniques, huh?" Raph said, looking up at his brother with a sly grin. "I gotta tell you, I thought I was doing enough a' that, but I guess I could do a little more if you think it'd help."

Leo rolled his eyes and huffed. "Okay, forget that—let's call them… bridging techniques, then. Basically, they're techniques to help you unblock your unconscious mind so it can complete the cycle of thought while you're sleeping. The idea is that when you wake up, your mind won't be so preoccupied with it."

Well that kinda sounded like a load of crap to Raph. "Kinda sounds like a load of crap to me," he said bluntly.

Leo shrugged, seemingly unfazed. "Just an suggestion. I can tell you how to do it if you want."

Raphael hesitated. It did sound like crap… but then what would it hurt to try? If it didn't work, he'd be no worse off than he was now. And even just sitting here talking to Leo she wasn't far from his mind, with Casey in a distant second, which somehow seemed backwards to him. He'd been spending so much time with April, but Casey was his best friend. Maybe that was the problem—maybe he just needed a little refresher on where his loyalties were supposed to lie. He didn't think Case was working tonight, and he could definitely use a change of scenery...

"Thanks, but it ain't that big a' deal. Think I'll just give it some more time."

"Suit yourself," Leo said, and continued cleaning.

They cleaned the rest of the practice weapons together, more or less in silence, and though Leo might have been hanging around to see if he would change his mind, Raph rather suspected he was just being… nice.

That, and his brother really did like cleaning weapons, which made him wonder which of them was more screwed up.


Author's Note: It was rather late at night when I did the final read-through on this, so please let me know if noticed any errors. As always, other comments or concrit are welcome as well.

~KT