A short author's note: Big thanks go to Backseat Writer, who patiently read and commented on many drafts of this fic, until it was very different from, and far superior to, what I had originally written. Anything that I owned when I started this project – which included neither the Turtles nor my own soul – now belongs to her.
And now on to the fic.
Where the Heart Is
"Sensei." The Turtle set his jaw. "If you say no one more time, I'm going to have to get on my knees."
Splinter sighed. "My son... I am sorry. But the answer is no."
Donatello, as threatened, dropped to his knees. "Master Splinter - they have nowhere to go. They have nothing. Compared to them, we're rich. Why can't we -"
"Because this is not a house of charity," Splinter said. "I appreciate that you are trying to help, Donatello, but we cannot invite strangers into our home."
"But they're not strangers!" Donatello protested. "I see them all the time! And, Sensei, it's freezing out there. The shelters are overflowing, they don't have -"
Splinter held up a hand to stop the outpouring of words. He could not listen to this. Could not allow himself to be persuaded. No was the right answer, even when it was as hard for him to give as it was for his son to accept. "Donatello," he said. "You know why we cannot do this. You must let it go."
Donatello smote the floor with his fist. "Master Splinter," he said, his head bent low. "You always tell us to help people. We can help a lot of people, by doing this. We can put fifty people down here, easily. We can save their lives. Why won't you -"
Splinter reached forward, and his claws came up under Donatello's chin, gently but firmly, forcing him to be silent and look up.
"My son," Splinter said, and he knelt slowly, bringing himself to Donatello's level. He did not enjoy dominating his sons, did not get any pleasure from seeing their eyes well up with tears when he forbade them from doing something. And yet he was always forced into the role of stern lawgiver, because it was the only way to keep them safe. "I cannot fault your generosity. Your heart is in the right place. But we must protect ourselves before we can protect anyone else. We cannot compromise the safety of our home." He withdrew his hand, brushing his fingers against Donatello's cheek.
"They wouldn't betray us," Donatello whispered. "They wouldn't."
Splinter closed his eyes, resting his hands on his knees. He could not be open about this. Could not show how much he wanted to say yes. The safety of his family was always his first concern, no matter what he had to sacrifice to secure it.
"Donatello..." he said. "It is one thing to bring blankets to destitute men who think you are wearing a costume. It is another thing to let them sleep on your floor, to show them who you are when you are at home. What reason would they have to not betray us?"
"Because... they're my friends..." Donatello offered.
Splinter opened his eyes, and fixed his son with a penetrating gaze. "Would they still be your friends, if they knew you were not wearing a costume?"
Donatello bit his lip, and his gaze dropped to the side.
"Donatello..." Splinter said gently. He could not bring himself to be forceful, not with this son who was already so broken. He could have been so much, but the circumstances of his childhood had warped him, stunted him, and he was dangerously close to accepting those limits, to cutting off his potential forever. "These are men who have nothing more to lose. You have been a loyal friend to them, bringing them things they are much in need of. But you know how valuable you are to people who would see you only as a curiosity. Your 'friends', as you call them, could make great profit by betraying you to those people."
"They wouldn't," Donatello repeated, but even as he said it he couldn't meet his father's eyes.
"You are not sure about that," Splinter said.
Donatello's fingers tensed against the concrete. "Why?" he said softly. "Why does it have to be this way?"
Splinter stilled his thoughts, waiting to hear his son's.
"Why is my -" Donatello grabbed at his rounded snout, at the smooth plating across his chest. "Why is this worth more than me?"
Splinter reached out for Donatello's wrists, gently pulling them towards himself, sliding his hands up to trap his son's fingers in his own. "Only to people who do not understand, Donatello. Only to people who do not matter."
"Everybody matters," Donatello said fiercely. "Mutants, homeless... we're still people. You can't just dismiss someone because... because..." He squeezed his eyes shut, and tears leaked out from between the lids. "Because you think they're not like you..."
Splinter's heart ached, as he heard the words that should have been true, as he held Donatello's hands in his. If only he could hold forever, keep his sons behind the shield of his hard-won wisdom and foresight...
"It's just circumstance." Donatello's voice had become hoarse, and he swallowed before continuing. "If we look different, if our lives are different... it's not because we're different on the inside. Why can't anybody see that?"
"My son..." Splinter rubbed Donatello's fingers with his thumbs. "I would change this, if I could. I wish more than anything that the world would close its eyes, and see with its heart, and know what amazing people my sons are. You are needed, Donatello. You and your brothers. You should not be locked away like this." He moved one hand to touch Donatello's shoulder. "It is their loss, my son."
"No," Donatello said. "It's mine." His head lowered again. "They lose a few people, but I... lose everything." He looked up. "I will lose a friend tonight, Sensei. When I visit the colony tomorrow, someone will be dead."
"I know it is difficult." Splinter released Donatello's hands, bringing his own close to himself. He did not deserve to feel the comfort of his son's touch as he denied him one more thing in a world that was already so ungenerous. "But we must make choices. We cannot help everyone."
"Please, Sensei," Donatello said softly. "The old Lair. It's too destroyed for anyone to live in, but just to stay for a few nights..."
Splinter listened to the new request, and gave it careful thought. A less dangerous way, and a satisfying one. He and his sons took so much of what humans cast off, that it would be good to offer something they themselves were finished with to those who were more in need of it. But still...
"It is not safe," he said.
Splinter held up his hand. "The burrow is not safe. What if it collapsed? How many of your friends would be hurt then?"
Donatello shook his head. "No, it's sound. I go there sometimes, and nothing has shifted in months. As long as they don't touch anything, they'll be fine."
Splinter turned the idea over again in his mind. He didn't regret no. No had kept his sons alive, had given them whatever small happiness they possessed. And yet he gave yes sparingly, only when he was sure it would increase that happiness, and not destroy everything he had worked so hard for. "It will not hold very many people," he said.
"I know," Donatello said. "But it's a few. It's better than none."
Splinter did not reply immediately. He sat in silence, and Donatello watched him, waiting for his verdict.
"Very well," he said at last. Donatello's face lit up, and Splinter raised a finger to head off his son's excitement. Yes, but only up to this limit, only a small and careful kind of freedom. "Go to the colony. Take aside five of your most trusted friends, and give them directions to our old home. Warn them not to touch anything they find there. Tell them also not to bring anyone else, that there will not be room. Do not accompany them, and do not let them see where you go when you leave. Is this understood?"
Donatello nodded solemnly. "Yes, Sensei."
Splinter did not miss the way his son trembled to be off, yet remained kneeling respectfully before his father. "Go, Donatello," he said. "Return quickly."
Donatello made as if to rise, but changed direction halfway, instead reaching forward to embrace his father. "Thank you, Sensei." A quick hug, and then he was gone, grabbing his coat and rushing out of the Lair.
Splinter stayed where he was. "Yes, my son," he said softly to the empty room. "Yes, to everything you are."
And to everything you could have been, in a world without no.