Author's Note: Several years ago, I spent three months working on a research project in Costa Rica, literally chasing parrots through the jungle. This story was born out of a desire to bring Leo's time there to life by using some of my own experiences as inspiration... and I can only hope I don't bore you to death with the end result. It came out a bit longer than I intended, but there just weren't any clean places to put in chapter breaks. Everything Leo talks about is true to the best of my knowledge (much of it comes directly from my own experiences, as I mentioned), but I'm not quite so confident on the Spanish used herein. So if any Spanish speakers out there find errors, please feel free to correct me. Thanks for reading!


Las Cosas Pequeñitas

Michelangelo couldn't be sure just when it happened.

When he searched back through his memory, he knew it hadn't always been so, yet somewhere between the days when the only thing more scarce than food was clean water, and where he stood now, looking across the common area with all of the comforts modern technology had to offer, it had come to this:

He didn't know his brother anymore.

Oh, he knew things about him—he knew his brother's favorite combination of pizza toppings was mushroom, olive, and green pepper, and that his favorite video games were problem solving ones. He knew that one of the scutes on his carapace, half way up on the left side, had an irregular splotch of darker pigmentation on it that reminded Mike of a dragon, agile and fierce. And he knew that one winter night when he was seven, his brother had woken all of them up without Splinter's knowledge and lead them through the sewers to an unfamiliar side-tunnel—one where a missing sewer grate provided a rare, unobstructed view to the world above.

But it was what lay below the portal that had drawn their attention that night—a gleaming white rectangle with feathered edges cast like a welcome mat over the half-frozen sludge of the tunnel floor. It wasn't just snow; it was snow they could play in. Snow they could pack into balls and launch at one another, or mold into tiny snow turtles; snow that stung their skin and melted in their mouths, accumulating almost as fast as they used it up. Snow that wasn't topside, and therefore technicallywasn't forbidden.

Snow that left their teeth chattering long after they'd returned to the lair, in spite of having snuggled together under as many threadbare blankets as they could find.

Mike was unsure which of his brothers had suffered more after their forbidden excursion—the one who'd spent the rest of the week in bed with a painful-sounding cough, or the one who'd shown them the way.

But those things were just trivia, random bits of memory fallen like bright scraps of ribbon from a package he'd never bothered to open. Those things weren't Leonardo.

Sure, he could list some things Leo liked. After all, they'd grown up together, even if the gap between their respective interests had widened with each passing year. But Mike didn't know why his brother liked the things he did, didn't know his views on current events, didn't know what he thought about before he fell asleep at night. The truth was, those questions hadn't even interested him when Leonardo was around all the time. It was hard to feel distant from someone when you saw them every day, when you knew their habits and mannerisms and, most importantly of all, exactly what would annoy them the most at any given time.

But all of that changed when his brother went away on training.

Everything changed when Leo went away.

His oldest brother had been home a little more than two weeks now, and part of Mike still couldn't quite believe he was really back, like maybe he'd wake up on the same couch he'd fallen asleep on the night Leo had come home, and realize it had all been a dream. Perhaps that's what made him pause today as he was walking past the couch where his brother sat—the need to reassure himself that the turtle before him was real, and not just an apparition of his dreams.

Mike squinted a little, taking in the differences between this Leo and the one that had left them two years ago. The turtle sitting before him was leaner, for sure—even from behind, it was evident in the reduced breadth of his shoulders. His muscles were more wiry now than bulky, though still sharply defined. The old gouge in the rim of his shell was still there, of course, but both his carapace and his skin were marked by newer scars as well, ones that would never be part of the remember-whens that occasionally sprang up between all of them as they relived old adventures. Even the way Leo spoke now was different than before. It wasn't an accent, exactly, but a mild softening and blending of certain consonants that made some words sound muzzy, indistinct. Mike hadn't noticed it much lately, though.

Since his rescue from the stone generals, Leonardo had been even less talkative than usual.

The most telling difference to Mike, though, was the fact that his brother was actually sitting and watching TV. The Leo of two years ago had seldom turned on the TV to watch it by himself, and it was even more rare for him to look as intent on it as he did right now, sitting forward at the edge of his seat with his elbows resting on his knees, eyes glued to the screen. Mikey couldn't really make out what his brother was watching, but from the look of things it had his complete attention.

Michelangelo's hand tightened unconsciously around the axle of the skateboard he carried, but instead of continuing on his way to the half-pipe, he just stood there, rooted by a stalemate of opposing impulses. It would be easy to keep walking, to lose himself in something fun, tell himself he had all the time in the world to reconnect with his brother. Yet without ever consciously making a decision, he found himself instead moving closer to the couch until he was standing just behind his brother's shoulder. All the time in the world? He'd had 20 years. And as far as he was aware, the half-pipe wasn't going off on any major training excursions anytime soon.

Leonardo didn't acknowledge him when he approached, but Mike knew better than to think he'd snuck up on him. Now that he was closer, he could see that his brother appeared to be watching some sort of nature program—the camera was panning over a vivid green forest canopy broken only by wide serpentines of brown water.

"Hey," Mike said softly after a few moments. "Whatcha watching?" He hated that his voice sounded so hesitant, hated that it felt like he needed a real "reason" to speak to his brother, like just wanting to talk wasn't important enough. The worst thing was, none of these feelings had basis in anything Leonardo had said or done since he'd been home. Things had slipped so far, Mike just…didn't know how to be around him anymore. With all the places he'd been, all the things he'd experienced, how could Leo be interested in anything Mike had to say?

At Mike's question, Leo glanced briefly at a DVD box on the coffee table. "Uh, Planet Earth," he answered, and of course he didn't seem the least bit startled to find someone was behind him.

Mike's gaze swung over to the box as well, and then it clicked. Right, that nature documentary April had lent to Don over a month ago that he still hadn't returned. At Donny's insistence, Mike had watched a clip that featured a crocodile tearing apart a wildebeest in super slow motion, which was pretty badass, but he'd had to leave shortly after to get ready for work. Another day, another birthday party. But that life was behind him now.

He continued to stand there, rather hoping Leo would say more, but his brother remained silent, apparently too absorbed in the show for conversation. Mike looked down at the skateboard in his hand before glancing back over his shoulder at the half-pipe once more. Then he clenched his jaw and gently lowered his board to the floor, leaning it silently against the back of the couch. He'd already passed up too many opportunities to get to know his brother. And since when had he ever been put off by someone acting less than enthused to interact with him? In Mike's experience, sheer persistence was the key, and at least with Leo he didn't have to work about dodging blows. He hoped, anyway.

So he made his way resolutely around to the front of the couch and took a seat next to Leo, casting a sidelong glance at his brother and noting the distant, almost hungry look in the blue-masked turtle's eyes as he stared at the TV. And even though they were sitting right next to each other, it seemed to Mike that his brother was still very far away.

Two years. And according to Leo, he'd spent one year, half of his total time away, in Central America. Costa Rica, to be exact, a fact which Mike's brothers might be surprised he actually knew. But that was really all he knew. A name of a country he hadn't even been able to pick out on a map prior to Leonardo's letters. A name, it turned out, he couldn't even say right—not at all like Leo's version, which came out sounding like "cose-ah-rica," as if it was one word, not two, and all of the letters were trying to escape at once.

Two years—so much he didn't know. And as he studied the TV screen once more, now displaying a canopy view of the dense foliage, Mike thought, Well, gotta start somewhere.

"So…what was it like?" he ventured softly.

Leo tore his eyes away from the screen and looked at him, as if just noticing he was sitting there. "What?" he said blankly.

"The jungle," Mike said, nodding at the TV. "What was it like?"

Leonardo's brows shot up for a second, and then he glanced briefly back at the show before turning back to Mikey. "What was it like?"

"Did I stutter?" Mike retorted, but it lacked his usual sarcastic bite.

Leo's forehead cinched a little, and he turned to face forward once again, his eyes moving back and forth introspectively as he thought about how to respond. Still facing the TV, he said, "It was…"

Mike hardly moved, hardly even breathed as he waited for his brother's response.

Finally Leo turned to meet his eyes. "…Hot," he finished with a helpless shrug.

Michelangelo sat in stunned silence for a moment. "It was hot?" he repeated dumbly. It was such a gross oversimplification, he couldn't help it—he laughed. Slowly, Leonardo's mouth curved in a smile as well, his eyes briefly catching Mike's, and in that moment of shared amusement, all of the younger turtle's former uncertainty vanished. The brother he'd once known was in there; Mike just had to find him again. Suddenly he found himself laughing even harder, though he couldn't have explained why.

"Wow," Mike said when the worst of his laughing fit was over. "You're kidding me, right? It's hot in a tropical rain forest? Jeez, bro, you should, like, publish that, or something. You'd have the whole scientific community in an uproar!" Mike didn't know exactly what "the scientific community" was, but whenever Don said it, he pictured a bunch of old dudes sitting around a card table using unnecessarily long words to argue about things normal people found extremely boring. This seemed like it would be right up their alley.

Leo shrugged again, looking slightly embarrassed. "Sorry. I guess it's just…hard to summarize," he defended.

Mikey studied him a moment, and though his smile remained in place, his voice was serious. "Who said I wanted a summary?"

The older turtle regarded him uncertainly. "What else do you want to know?"

This time it was Mike's turn to shrug. "Anything." Everything.

Leo turned back to the TV screen, his brow furrowing thoughtfully, and after a moment he closed his eyes. Slowly he drew in a breath, and the crinkles in his forehead smoothed as he let it out again. When he finally spoke, his voice was so soft it was almost as if he was talking to himself. "It's so hot," he began slowly, "that if you're doing anything other than just sitting in the shade, you're sweating." He sat back a little in his seat and opened his eyes again, facing straight ahead but not really watching the TV. "If you're standing in the shade, you're sweating. If you're sitting in the sun, you're sweating. Except for during the wet season. Then it doesn't matter. You're just wet all the time anyway. Even when it's not actually raining, the air's so thick you feel like you could swim through it. And under the canopy, the trees are dripping constantly, so it may as well be raining." He glanced to the side, and Mike, who'd been watching him intently the whole time, nodded to show he'd been paying attention.

"What else?" he asked quietly, just to make sure his brother didn't slip back into the silence of his own thoughts.

Leo hesitated. "Well… you know that time Renet got us all stranded in the Cretaceous Period?"

Mikey gave a short nod. How could he forget?

"It felt like that—well, minus the giant meteor. And the dinosaurs, of course. Though there were some pretty big iguanas," he added as an afterthought.

Mike snorted.

"Even though I knew I was on Earth," Leo continued, "it might has well have been a different world, everything was so alien. The animals, the vegetation… there are these animas called coatis that look sort of like raccoons, but with stretched out noses, and lizards that walk on water. Lagartos de Jesucristo, they call them. Jesus lizards. A handy alarm system, as it turned out. They run across streams to escape land predators, and the splashing warns everyone else. And the manglés… trees with roots that are actually mostly above the ground, so they look like they could just get up and walk away, like those tree people out of Lord of the Rings."

"Ents," Mike supplied. And there it was again—evidence that they weren't so disconnected after all, even though Leo's knowledge of Tolkien came primarily from the books, and Mikey's came mostly from the movies.

Leo turned to him and smiled softly. "Right. Ents." Then his expression went thoughtful again. "Even the air itself tasted different, like dirt and rotting vegetation, with just a hint of bitter chemicals on your tongue from the pesticides. And sometimes the smell of sewage, if you're near human habitations."

Mike grinned. "Don't even try and tell me that didn't make you the tiniest bit homesick."

Leo's mouth twitched in response. "You got me," he said. "It was oddly comforting, sometimes—partly because there was so little else to remind me of home. Just the feel of things, the energy, is something entirely different. Here in the city, everything is so… frantic. Go go go, all the time, so much surplus adrenaline you almost can't help but get caught up in it. People rush without even knowing what they're rushing for. But in Costa Rica, time itself seems to run more slowly, even in the cities. Maybe the heat makes everyone sluggish, I don't know. Nothing runs on an exact schedule, and people don't get all impatient and angry about it like the do here. They just go with it. Visitors to the country call it 'Tico Time.' If the bus schedule says the bus will arrive at one o'clock, it's understood as one o'clock más o menos, anywhere between one and one-thirty." He shrugged. "It's just something you get used to."

"Easier for some than others, I'd guess," Mike noted shrewdly. Heaven forbid any of them should be more than one minute late for warm ups when Leo was home. He filed Tico Time away as a potential excuse, next time he was late for practice.

Leo cast him a knowing glance and smiled a little. "Yeah, well, it was the first of many differences I had to get used to." He paused for a moment with a reflective air before adding, "But as it turned out, it was las cosas pequeñitas, the little things, that had the biggest impact."

Michelangelo studied him, his brow furrowing slightly. "What do you mean?"

"Well… when most people hear the word 'jungle,' they think of the big things. The obvious things. There are these enormous trees, the ones you always see on nature shows," he said, nodding at the TV, "But really they're essentially the framework of the forest, the background—like the skyscrapers here in the city. And there's the 'charismatic megafauna', of course: the cougars, jaguars, tapirs…they're the largest animals, besides humans, but they're incredibly rare, and even more elusive. The cocodrilos you have to watch for, but it doesn't take long before avoiding estuaries is second nature. Though, one time I did encounter one in the ocean at night, when I swam too close to the mouth of a large stream. Gave me a bit of a start—I didn't know they swam in saltwater—but after that I was more careful."

Mike didn't really know what a "tapir" was, but he had a pretty good idea on "cocodrilo", and his mouth curved up a little at the picture of Leo bumping into one in the ocean at night. "Did you tell him 'hi' from Leatherhead?" he asked. "Maybe it was a relative."

Leo snorted a little. "I didn't wait around to find out. Aside from his smile, he didn't look to be in the mood to exchange pleasantries."

"Right," Mikey said with a grin. "So then what about the little things?" he prompted, hoping his interruption hadn't completely derailed his brother's train of thought. Leo was talking more freely now, and Michelangelo didn't want him to stop there.

"Little things like…thorns. Like the tiny jellyfish that float around in the ocean, difficult to see but painful enough to make you want to avoid them. Plants that sting, or give you a rash. Venomous snakes that blend in perfectly with the forest floor, scorpions that like to crawl into your gear at night, and of course the bugs. Especially the bugs. Mosquitoes, flies, chiggers, gnats, ants, ticks, centipedes, spiders…all around you, all the time. And all of them offer different hazards. Ticks transmit all sorts of diseases, bot fly larvae actually burrow in your skin and grow there, fire ants and army ants deliver a painful bite and are all over the trees and forest floor, spider bites get infected easily, and mosquititos, which even the finest mosquito netting can't keep out, can give you Leishmaniasis."

Mikey's eyes were wide open now—quite wide, in fact, and the only response he had was, "Gesundheit?"

Leo didn't smile, exactly, but his expression relaxed, and the portion of his mask behind his eyes creased just a little.

"Did all of that stuff happen to you?" Mike asked. "Cuz like… it sounds bad." He didn't specify which part, cuz it all sounded bad, and he couldn't help but scootch ever-so-slightly away from his apparently parasite-infested, disease-carrying brother.

"Some of it…" Leo said with a shrug that seemed to Mike a bit too unconcerned for the list he'd just rattled off, "but you figure things out pretty quickly. You learn to automatically inspect everything before you touch it or step on it, and shake out your gear before using anything. Ticks start to itch after they've been attached about twenty-four hours, and as long as you can find them then, the risk of disease transfer is pretty low. If you have a lesion that just doesn't seem to heal, it's probably a bot fly—the larvae have to keep an opening in your skin so they can breathe."

Mike found himself unconsciously scratching his arm. "Then what do they do, just pop out when they're done, like an alien?" Sometimes, he cursed his all-too-vivid imagination.

"Something like that. But once you learn the trick, you can get 'em out before that."

"What's the trick?"

"Duct tape," Leo answered.

Michelangelo blinked. "…Duct tape?"

"Yup. You slap a piece of duct tape over the lesion, and the larva suffocates and dies. Then you can pull it out. Hopefully intact, or it'll—"

"Get infected," Mikey finished for him. "I get it. So what does a… botfly larva…look like?" he asked somewhat apprehensively.

Leo regarded him steadily. "A maggot," he said. "A big one."

"So let me get this straight—you were pulling giant maggots out of your skin?"

"What, you think I should've left them in?"

Mike just gaped at him. Really, in spite of his infamous dramatic response to all things icky and strange, it wasn't that easy to gross him out. After all, they'd been in close contact with all sorts of vermin and filth growing up in the sewers—that, and he'd had a brother like Don, who was always collecting specimens to study up close—but none of the creepy crawlies he'd been exposed to tried to live in him.

That he knew of, anyway.

"Dude. That is SICK." Then his eyes went wide again as a new thought occurred to him. "Are you sure you got them all out before you came back?" he squeaked.

"There were a couple of hitchhikers," Leo admitted, "but I told them you were much better real estate, and they mysteriously vanished in the middle of the night."

"Ha ha ha, very funny," Mike said, but inwardly he was pleased. This was a bit closer to the Leo he used to know, with the benign, deadpan sense of humor.

One side of Leo's mouth quirked up in a slight smile, but after a moment he turned back to the TV, staring thoughtfully. Only this time he didn't need a prompt from Mike to continue.

"The mosquititos—um, I think most people here call them 'sand flies'—were another problem. There's no trick for stopping those, and for as small as they are, they have a wicked bite. In the evenings, when they got really bad, the most effective thing was just to go as high up as I could in a tree and hope for a breeze. That's about the only thing that kept them off. But it worked out really well. Turns out, it was much easier, and safer, to stick to the trees as much as possible anyway. The main problem with that was the monkeys. They didn't really appreciate the intrusion."

"You should've made friends with them!" Mike said eagerly. "Tarzan's gotta have a Cheetah, right?"

Leo shook his head. "These monkeys made it pretty clear they didn't want to be friends. The howlers weren't so bad—their bark is worse than their bite. Usually once they realized I wasn't going anywhere, they either moved off, or settled down and ignored me. They were good for sounding off alarms, too, if anyone came near. But the cariblancos can get really aggressive. Best to avoid the trees they've claimed. Too bad, too, because they seemed to like the ojoche trees, which are perfect for sleeping in with their smooth bark and long, wide branches."

"Cariblanco?" Mike repeated doubtfully. "Sounds like some sort of monster, like Chupacabra's cousin or something," he said, imagining five-foot-tall, hairy, hunchbacked monsters with long claws and dripping fangs stalking swinging through the trees.

Leonardo smiled. "It just means 'white-faced' monkey. Like the… like the one on Friends."

Mike cocked his head. "You mean Marcel?"

"Um, sure."

"The cute little fuzzy black and white thing? Those are your killer monkeys? Dude, you're supposed to be this bad-ass ninja, remember?"

"Right. And what was I supposed to do, hack up every troupe of monkeys who bared their teeth at me? I was the intruder, Mikey. I was the one who didn't belong." Then Leo turned away again, and Mike studied him for a long moment before speaking.

"Sounds lonely," he said at last.

Leonardo hesitated, then nodded slowly without looking at Mike.

Then why didn't you come home? he wanted to ask, but he didn't. Leo was just starting to open up, and Mikey didn't want to risk shutting him down.

Leonardo swallowed visibly, and when he continued speaking, his voice was soft again, almost a whisper. "Funny thing is, I still miss it. I thought about you guys every single day I was there… and now that I'm back here with you, everything reminds me of what I left. I hear an echo in the sewer tunnels, and I can almost pretend it's the roaring of howler monkeys that woke me up every single morning before dawn. When I hear people speaking Spanish on the streets, no matter what they're saying, I feel a strange sense of longing, and a, a camaraderie with them, even though I don't know them. Even though they sound a lot different from the Ticos. The Costa Rican people," he explained at a look from Mikey.

Now Michelangelo was finding it impossible to ask enough questions to satisfy his curiosity—every thing Leo said made him think of at least four, but he settled for voicing the most recent one. "How do they sound different?"

Leo looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said, "The Ticos have this way of sort of…swallowing their consonants. Mexican Spanish sounds very harsh by comparison, and Spanish spoken by people from Spain is even more so. Especially in the rolling of the 'r' sounds. That, and most people in Costa Rica use the informal speech, as if they're close friends with everyone." He shrugged. "It says a lot about them, as a people. So does their token phrase, pura vida."

"Poora what?" Mike asked, tilting his head slightly. Leo had said it so quickly, he couldn't even recognize the components. To him it sounded like "poor-ah-beeda."

"Pura vida," Leo repeated more slowly, annunciating each word separately this time. "Literally translated, it means 'pure life,' but it's used as a standard greeting or farewell, or just an expression of goodwill. Sort of like 'aloha' in Hawaii. In can be used in just about any context, and its exact meaning varies, but the overall spirit of stays the same. Pura vida. Live and let live."

Mikey nodded, and slowly smiled. "Sound like my kind of people."

"Yeah. Probably," Leo smiled at him. "They use diminutive forms for a lot of nouns, too, which gives the impression of closeness, or affection."

"What do you mean?"

"Well… you know all those ridiculous pet names you have for Klunk?"

"Klunky? Kitkins? KitKat? Klunkinator, Destroyer of Mouse Civilizations? Mr. Snugglepants?"

"Right," Leo said with a roll of his eyes. "They use nicknames all the time, for random everyday things. They don't even have to be alive. All you do is tack a suffix on the end of a word, and you can change the meaning. Like take the word for 'fish'. Not fish swimming in the sea, but fish you eat. Strictly speaking, you'd say 'pescado,'" he said, clearly annunciating every syllable. "But when a Tico says it, it sounds like 'pez-cow'. It's like they drop an entire syllable, and lose the 'd' sound entirely. But in most villages, you're more likely to hear 'pescadito' anyway, meaning 'little fish'. It's supposed to refer to the portion size, a little bit of fish, a small piece. But they use it so frequently, it's not necessarily referring to size at all. It's like it's not just little, but cute. Made things confusing until I learned the local dialect a bit better—made the root nouns harder to pick out."

Mike nodded, and after a moment's thought he said, "So can you…I mean, you're fluent, then? In Spanish?"

"Passably, at least," Leo answered. "Not that I'd ever be mistaken for a native speaker, but I can communicate anything I need to."

Then he went silent for a moment, and when he next spoke, his voice was more distant, somehow. "I'm starting to lose it, though," he said. "Just two weeks back here, not hearing it spoken every day, and it's already fading. I have to really reach, sometimes, for words that used to just fall from my mouth without effort. Inevitable, I suppose. But still, it makes me feel… sad, somehow, that something I spent so long learning can just…go away like that. Already that part of my life is beginning to feel like a dream, and soon there'll be nothing left to prove to myself it was real. You know?"

Leonardo looked up then, his brow pinched almost pleadingly, and it was that expression more than the words that sent a pang through Michelangelo's heart. He couldn't understand, not really. But fortunately, he had an exceptional imagination.

"Still dream in Spanish a lot, though," Leo went on. "Sometimes it's so vivid, when I wake up I have to lay there a minute before I remember I'm not in the tropics but half a mile underneath New York City," he said with a wry smile. "But soon, even that will fade. At least I have Master Splinter to talk with in Japanese, or I'd lose that, too." He turned to Mike. "That's really the only way to do it—studying and memorizing isn't enough if you don't have anyone to talk to."

There was a moment's silence, then Mike blurted out, "You can talk to me! In Spanish, I mean. I don't exactly speak it—yet!" he added in response to the unspoken skepticism on Leo's face. "But I have some basics! You know… hasta la vista, baby," he said, taking on the classic, deep Arnie voice his brothers usually groaned over. Then switching to a thick Mexican accent he added, "Yo quiero Taco Bell. And uh… dónde está el baño?"

Leo eyed him with one brow ridge quirked speculatively. "So, let me get this straight. If you were stuck in a Spanish-speaking country, you'd be able to find the Taco Bell… and the bathroom?"

Mikey shrugged. "Hey, what can I say—I'm a quick study."

The older turtle gave a short laugh. "I guess there is an undeniable logic to pairing those phrases," he admitted.

"Non soy legumbre," Mike said with a wise nod of his head.

Leo laughed again. "'How about 'cierra la boca no entran las moscas'?"

Mike cocked his head. "Uh…you might have to help me out with that one."

One side of Leo's mouth twitched upward as he answered, "Loosely translated? Shut your mouth or the flies will get in." But the sparkle in his eyes belied the harshness of the words.

Mike rolled his eyes in response, but his smile faded as he watched his brother, who flashed a brief smile in return and went back to staring absently at the TV screen. The younger turtle hesitated, once again torn by conflicting impulses. His earlier offer, though cloaked as a jest, had been genuine. But it would probably be much safer for his self-esteem to just let it go by, since he doubted his brother would take him seriously anyway. And even if he did take him seriously, Mikey had some idea of what he would be in for if Leo accepted. Still… maybe it could be a good thing. Fun, even! They could make fun of Raph without him knowing it, drive him crazy! And even Don, for all his genius, didn't speak Spanish.

But in the end, it wasn't any of these things that made him decide—it was just the sight of his usually stoic older brother sitting there next to him, looking almost…vulnerable.

"I meant what I said before," Michelangelo said slowly, and Leo looked over at him. "You can talk to me, if you want. In Spanish, I mean."

Leonardo smiled at him in the indulgent way an adult might smile if a child offered them a half-eaten lollipop. "Thanks, Mikey. I appreciate the offer, but it's really not enough, now. I mean, I kind of learned that way, practicing speaking out loud to…someone, even if they didn't understand, but now that I know the language, I need something a little more interactive."

Mike took a deep breath. Do it! Say it now! "You could teach me!" he blurted out before he could change his mind.

Leo's brow ridges flew up, but Michelangelo met his eyes unwavering as his brother studied his face, resisting the urge to trivialize the moment with more joking.

"Are you serious?" Leo asked him at last.

Mikey held is brother's dark eyes for another moment, and gave a staunch nod.

Still Leonardo looked dubious. "It would be a lot of work, Mikey…"

Michelangelo's stomach squiggled a little, but he'd known what he was offering, and he wasn't going to back down that easily. Rather than give assurances, he blew out a breath and sat back a little. "Look Leo, no offense? But you suck at the motivational stuff. I mean, why not mention how much fun this could be? How maybe there's some totally awesome Spanish comic series that's been completely unreachable to me until now, or, or a whole new world of Central American junk food out there, once I can read the recipes! Why's it always the work part you focus on?"

"Because it would be a lot of work—you can't learn a language in a couple of sessions. I just want to make sure you understand what you're offering, before I…"

The older turtle faltered then, and before he could finish, Mike interrupted. "Before you what?" He was watching his brother closely as he waited for the answer, because just for an instant, something had flashed across Leo's face that made Mikey suspect he knew what he'd been about to say.

Leonardo hesitated, and for a moment Michelangelo thought he was wrong, that his brother was going to say something totally predictable, and logical and, and Leo-like, such as 'before I waste the effort.' But then Leo sighed, softly, and lowered his eyes as if embarrassed as he said, "Before I get excited."

Michelangelo's heart surged then—Leo was excited! Over the prospect of teaching him! That was all he needed to know. "Well I do understand—or at least I have some idea, since this is you we're talking about here," he said with a grin. "Contrary to popular belief, I do occasionally filter things through my brain before I go blurting them out. Not that you should, like, stake money on it, most of the time, but yeah. Happens sometimes. So my point is… I'm in—if you're willing to teach me."

The turtle in blue scanned his eyes briefly. "I'd be honored," he answered at last, bobbing his head in a slight bow, and it was so unnecessarily formal, so very Leo, that Mikey couldn't help but smile.

Leonardo straightened again, and though he didn't say anything, he continued to scrutinize Mike closely with an odd expression on his face, gratified, yet somehow somber at the same time.

"What?" Mike asked. When Leo didn't answer immediately, he said, "Look, I may not pick things up as quick as Donny, but—"

"That's not what I was thinking," Leonardo cut him off with a shake of his head. "It's…" his eyes were still on Mike's face, keen and searching. "… I was thinking how much you've changed since I left."

"Not that much, really," Mike answered, averting his eyes and scratching the back of his head self-consciously.

"More than you think," Leo persisted, "and I mean that as a compliment. The Mikey I remember wasn't too keen on volunteering for long-term lessons that would detract time from playing video games."

"Maybe… But I haven't changed as much as you have," he countered, eyeing a particularly nasty scar on his brother's arm.

"Right," Leo scoffed. "That's why the second I returned, I went right back to my old habit of bossing you guys around. I'm a new turtle, all right."

"Well, you're leader," Mike said with a shrug. "Kinda comes with the job description, doesn't it?"

"No… no, it doesn't," Leonardo answered slowly, his eyes once again taking on that distant look. "I just didn't realize it before. All that time spent in pursuit of enlightenment, only to come home and pick up exactly where I left off. But I think I know what I have to do, now," he added more quietly, as if talking to himself. Then he looked up at Michelangelo. "Thanks, Mikey."

"Um…for what?" Mike asked, completely mystified.

Leo smiled. "For helping me see the way."

"Oh. Uh…sure. Anytime," the younger turtle said, still completely baffled. "I mean, that's what I'm here for, to help you out with life's bigger questions. Right up my alley. It's totally no problem, no problem at all."

Unsurprisingly, Leo saw through the act, and he gave a gentle smile before explaining. "When I first got back, I guess I thought I had to step up—take charge again right away, show everyone I was still in control, when what I really should've done was step back for a while. You've changed—all of you have changed. Forcing my way back in without understanding how things are now was a recipe for disaster. A leader needs followers, and until I get to know you guys again, understand what you've been through, all I have is a meaningless title."

Mike nodded to himself, taking in what Leo said. "You need to get to know us…to be a good leader," he summarized out loud. He met his brother's eyes then, seeking confirmation.

Leo nodded, but continued to search Mikey's face intently, probably sensing there was more to it. Mike had never been good at the whole inscrutable ninja thing.

"Right. Well, here I am, I guess," the younger turtle said with a hunch of his shoulders. "Might as well get me over with first. No time like the present for a nice revealing heart-to-heart. And I think Don's in his lab, if you wanna tackle him next—heck, you could probably knock us both out before dinner. Raph may be a bit tougher, since he hasn't been too keen on talking about his…activities… over the last two years, but hey, at least you'll be two-thirds closer to being leader again, and—"

"Mikey…" Leo said, his forehead knotted in concern. "I think you misunderstood—"

"No, Leo—I understood just fine," he said with an edge to his voice. And god, this was why he usually bypassed the confrontational route, because even now, without so much as raising his voice, he felt his throat tightening up against his will.

"Splinter gave you a job to do, and you need us to do it. So I'll just go ahead and give you the highlights, to save you from having to read between the lines of what the others tell you: Don ended up hating both of his jobs—the one you left him with, and the one he got for himself—but no matter how smart he is, or how good of a leader, he was always destined to fail at that task, because whether he's aware of it or not he'll always measure himself against you. And Raph swore he didn't care if you ever came home—said he thought you were dead, anyway—but the weapons hanging on the wall in your room mysteriously never collected any dust, and once I caught him walking away from your room with the corner of a rag sticking out of his belt pouch. And Master Splinter…" Mike choked a little here, swallowing hard and cursing himself for getting so emotional, but he didn't drop his eyes.

"Master Splinter said we had to have faith, that you would come back when you were ready… but I could tell that every day that went by without word from you, it cost him a little more to say it. And in case you're not getting the point, here," Mike said, his voice growing a bit stronger again now, "Every single day of our lives for the last two years has been about surviving until you got back. And it wasn't because we needed you as a leader." He held Leo's eyes for just a second longer before looking down and angrily swiping away the tears he never seemed to be able to hold back, no matter how badly he wanted to come across as mature and rational. So of course here he was, going off on Leo of all turtles and then bursting into tears, like he was five for god's sake. So much for brotherly bonding…

Then he felt Leo's hand on his shoulder, and he sniffed, but he didn't look up. "Sorry," he said hoarsely, all of his anger having drained away with the last of his words. His brother's hand firmed on his shoulder.

"Hey. Hey, it's okay, Mikey," Leonardo said, jostling his shoulder gently. "There's nothing to be sorry about. I missed you, too. I missed all of you. Every day."

Finally, Mike risked a glance up, startled to see Leo's eyes had a shine to them as well.

"I didn't stay away because I stopped caring," Leonardo said. "I just… got lost. You know, in here," he said, touching a hand briefly over his chest. "I screwed up. A lot. And I still feel kind of lost—but I'm starting to find my way again. And I'm sorry, for making it sound like you were just part of an agenda. That's not how it is. I've just, I've been feeling so isolated from everyone since I came home, like I don't fit anymore… and I'm not like you," he said, his eyes flicking back and forth as he studied Mike's. "It's in your nature to reach out to others, but when I'm struggling with something, I just, I get so focused within, I tend to lose sight of things around me."

"Yeah… I've kind of noticed that," Mike admitted, but he was still taking in everything that Leo had said. He hadn't just been imagining it, then, this distance he'd been sensing from his brother. Leo had just had to reason out what Mike had known instinctively—they all needed to reconnect. And for the first time, he realized that maybe that was something that was unique about him among his brothers, the ability to know just what to say or do to cheer someone up, or put them at ease, or even infuriate them, without any thought at all. He generally acted on pure impulse… but most of the time, it worked. And he felt a slight shift in his perception of his brother, knowing that at least in this one thing, he was good at something that Leonardo had to struggle with.

Then Michelangelo nodded, and smiled a little to show there were no hard feelings. "Okay. I get it."

Leo offered a smile in return, and jostled his shoulder again before dropping his hand. Then his look turned to one of concern. "You've had your share of isolation, too, haven't you?" he asked gently.

Mike hesitated, and then nodded, avoiding eye contact. But Leo had been honest with him, and maybe… maybe it would feel good to talk about it. "I guess I thought… I mean, I hoped… the same thing you did. That things would just go back to normal once you got back. Not like they wouldn't be a little dysfunctional at first—cuz I mean, there's always Raph being a butthead to consider, and nobody holds a grudge better than Donny. But I figured, yannow, that was kinda to be expected. I mean, we've always been a little dysfunctional, right?"

"Just a little," Leo agreed.

Mike looked up, hesitated, and looked down again. "But… I think deep down, I knew that was just wishful thinking. That Raph's tantrums weren't just wangsty mood swings, like when we were younger, and Don's bitterness wouldn't disappear as soon as he'd met his caffeine quota. I saw how everyone was changing… so I tried even harder to act normal, just to sorta compensate. I was in denial, I guess. I kept it up so long, I think I even managed to convince myself I hadn't changed. So now everything's just, like, all screwed up in my head, and I just, I don't know how to deal. You know?"

Okay, so Mike may be better at knowing what to do in certain situations, but Leo had him hands down when it came to explaining how he felt. To his surprise, though, his brother didn't look confused at all.

"You spent so long telling yourself that things were okay, that you're only now beginning to feel the full emotional impact of what you actually went through. Does that sound right?"

Mike's jaw dropped a little. "How do you do that?"

Leo smiled. "It's no big deal, really—just an old Jedi mind trick."

Mike laughed and spontaneously hugged his brother. "I can't believe it," he said, scrunching his eyes shut and squeezing Leonardo extra tight.

"Hey, it's okay, Mikey," Leo said, patting his shell soothingly. "You have to allow yourself to feel those emotions before you can heal."

Mike shook his head, and gave an extra squeeze before releasing his hold and pulling back. "No, no," he said, wiping some surplus moisture from his eyes. "It's just, I can't believe you finally made a Star Wars reference! All these years… I'd almost given up on you! But now…" Mikey pulled his legs up on the couch so he was sitting Indian style, and nodded sagely as he switched to his best Yoda voice. "Proud of you, I am."

Leonardo snorted and shoved his shoulder, unbalancing him enough that he had to break his Yoda pose to recover. "Maybe you haven't changed as much as I thought."

Michelangelo grinned. "Not when it comes to the importance of Star Wars, anyway."

Then he deliberately dropped the subject. Their joking had effectively lightened the mood, and Mike had had enough of soul-bearing for the time being anyway. "So, how do we start these Spanish lessons?" he asked, reverting back to the former topic as if there had been no interruption.

Leonardo studied at him for a moment, and then apparently decided to go along with it. "Well, I started with a Spanish-English children's picture book I found—it had all these cartoon pictures of common settings, like a classroom, a grocery store, a garage, stuff like that. And all of the objects in each picture were labeled in both Spanish and English. So I just started learning the words for as many things as I could, and I think that might be a good place for us to start—once you've learned the alphabet and how to sound out Spanish words—which shouldn't take long—we can put up post-it notes so you can learn everyday objects around here, and go from there."

Mike nodded slowly. "That sounds good." It wasn't as bad as he'd feared… maybe this would actually be fun. "And then what'd you do, after you'd learned the names of things?"

"Well… I listened a lot, I guess. I'd hang out in the trees on the edge of this village on the outskirts of the jungle, and just observe the people going by, try and pick out words I recognized when they spoke to one another. I learned a lot from the young children in particular, because they speak more in short phrases and use simple words, and the adults with them tend to do the same. If I heard words I didn't know, I'd look them up in this pocket dictionary I had. Listening helped a lot with my pronunciation, too, even though it felt really weird saying stuff out loud, at first."

Mikey nodded, and then imagined the two of them doing "homework" topside, eavesdropping on people speaking Spanish, and making a game of translating what they were saying. He squirmed a little, feeling more and more excited about the possibilities. "So what did you do to practice, talk to the trees, or something?"

"Nah," Leo said with a casual wave of his hand. "I had a pig."

Mikey blinked. He had to've heard that wrong. "Did you say… a pig?"


"As in, curly tail, grunts a lot, rolls in its own manure? That kind of pig?" Yeah, okay, so they'd grown up in the sewers, but still it didn't seem like Leo's idea of a choice companion. Then again, Mike reminded himself with a snicker, he'd also grown up with Raph.

"Well no, not exactly that kind. A saino, a wild pig. They have coarse hair, and a bristly, tufted tail. And wicked sharp teeth with tempers to match. The adults do, anyway. This one was just a baby."

"So… let me get this straight," Mikey said with the beginnings of a smile, his former disbelief giving way to the potential hilarity of the scenario. "Tarzan has a loyal and intelligent monkey—"

"Chimp," Leo corrected. "It's an ape."

"Whatever," Mike continued dismissively, "And Zorro has a mighty black stallion… even Mario has Yoshi, who's at least a freakin' dinosaur, even if he's not very intimidating. But not you—your animal sidekick is a piglet?"

Leonardo grinned somewhat sheepishly, and Michelangelo couldn't hold it in any longer. He laughed, rocking forward in his seat, tears forming in his eyes at the picture in his head of his brother, the elite ninja, toting around a baby pig! "Iiiiiit's Jungle Boy! And his amazing sidekick, Wilbur!" he gasped out. "Or maybe Babe! Did you teach him to herd sheep? Oh wait, no sheep in the jungle…"

Leo smiled tolerantly, taking the teasing with apparent good humor. As Mikey was wiping the tears from his eyes, still snickering, he caught sight of Donatello making his way toward them, apparently drawn by the noise. The purple-masked turtle was looking at them curiously as he approached, his lab goggles pushed back on his head.

"Hey guys," Don said when he'd reached them, looking back and forth between their faces with slightly tentative eagerness, as if unsure of his welcome. And it came to Mike with a start that maybe he wasn't the only one who'd been feeling awkward around their recently returned brother.

"Hey Donny," Leo replied easily.

"Hi Don," Mike said, having mostly succeeded in getting his giggles under control. "Leo here was just telling me about his pet pig, in Costa Rica," he summarized. As Mike had hoped, Donatello's timidity vanished at the immediate inclusion, and his tight smile relaxed as he plopped down in a knobbly armchair nearby. "You had a pet pig?"

"Well… sort of. I found her caught in a snare, probably set by one of the Nicaraguan squatters. They tried to catch deer and wild pigs for food, since they had very little money to buy any. Only this one was so small, instead of getting just her neck in it, she'd managed to get an entire foot and shoulder through, which saved her from being strangled when it snapped up."

"She?" Michelangelo interrupted. "Jungle Boy and Miss Piggy!" he exclaimed with a new burst of laughter. "You must've been really hard-up, if that's the best female companionship you could find!"

Leonardo continued to smile good-naturedly, but in was in a matter-of-fact voice that he explained, "Well actually, I almost ate her."

Mike's laughter broke off suddenly. Okay, that wasn't what he'd expected.

"Animal protein was hard to come by," the turtle in blue continued. "I mean, beans were my main source of protein, but getting actual meat was rare. I ate fish when I could, or crabs. And sometimes I got lucky with an agouti, but it wasn't usually worth the effort. And here was some easy food, right in front of me. She was so small, I wouldn't even have felt bad taking that amount of food from whoever had set the snare. But in the end, I guess… I guess I was craving company more than pork chops," he said with a shrug.

And Mike felt it again, that pang in his chest, that stab of sympathy for what it must have been like for his brother, a zillion miles away from those who cared about him most. A quick glance showed him Donatello was no longer smiling, either.

"I've read that pigs are really smart—as smart as dogs," Don said. "People who keep those potbelly pigs insist they make really good pets. They can even be housebroken and learn tricks."

"Well, I'm not sure how smart Miguelita was," Leo said with a grimace, "But she was good company. I had to carry her with me when I was in the trees of course, but once she'd healed enough to walk around, she followed me everywhere when I was at ground level. She was pretty weak at first, and I'd put her in my lap to clean and dress the wounds left from the snare, feeding her little tidbits to keep her still. Which meant that even after she was completely better, she was constantly trying to climb into my lap, even if I crouched down for a moment to study a track. And she'd wag her tail and grunt when she was happy—which was pretty much anytime she found food. I'd overturn logs for her sometimes, just to see her tail going as she rooted for grubs and worms."

Leo was smiling reminiscently, and Mike couldn't help but smile with him. But Don's initial expression of amusement had turned to a look of puzzlement.

"Miguelita?" Don said. "That's an unusual name. It almost sounds like Miguel."

"It is. In keeping with Costa Rican custom, I tacked on 'ita,' because she was so little and cute.

Don's brow puckered even more. "But isn't Miguel a boy's name? It's Spanish for—" He broke off abruptly, searching Leo's face. Then, to Mike's surprise, Donatello began to smile. And a glance at Leonardo's face showed him the older turtle was holding his mouth in a tight line, trying not to smile himself.

"What?" Mike said, switching his gaze back and forth between his two brothers. "What does it mean?"

Donatello's eyes flicked to Michelangelo briefly, and then settled back on Leonardo, at which point his smiled broadened still more. Leo's eyes were sparkling behind his blue mask even as he strove to keep his expression impassive, his mouth twitching at the corners in spite of his tightly pursed lips as he met Don's eyes.

"You guys, what is it?" Mike said again, knowing there was some joke he wasn't privy to.

Don glanced at Mikey yet again, and this time when he looked back to Leo, the other turtle gave the barest of nods.

Turning back to Mike with a gleeful grin, Donatello said, "Miguel is the Spanish equivalent of Michael. And if you tack the diminutive suffix on to make it 'Miguelito,' it's like saying 'Mikey.'"

Michelangelo stared at him, then at Leo. He blinked. "So you named your pet pig after me?"

Leonardo nodded again, still fighting to keep a straight face, though it was clearly a losing battle.

"Well see that's the thing," Don continued in an infuriatingly superior tone, "In Spanish, anything masculine ends in 'o', and anything feminine ends in 'a.' Leo's little…friend… was a girl pig—Migueli-tah," he said with an emphasis on the final syllable. "Which begs the question—why, dear brother, did you see fit to name this female pig after our brother Michelangelo?"

"Because, uh… he missed me the most?" Mike ventured hopefully.

"Well?" prodded Don, turning to Leo expectantly. "Was that it?" His devilish grin said he knew perfectly well it wasn't.

Leonardo gave a firm shake of his head, and finally there was a glimmer of a smile breaking through. "I, uh…" he shook his head, as if lost for words, and then he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he looked down at his feet, and at last dropped the last remaining shreds of composure. His mouth widened in a grin and his shoulders began to shake with laughter, and when he could manage it, he said, "She, uh, when I first found Miguelita…" He was laughing too much to really talk smoothly, "She was, she was in the snare and—" Leo's voice broke again, and he glanced up at Mike as if in apology before he said, "Sh-she was screaming." More laughter. "Just squealing really, really, loud… high-pitched… and I'm sorry, Mikey, but—" He was shaking his head now, wiping involuntary tears of laughter from his eyes. "Whenever she did that, it just… reminded me so much of you."

Don was positively howling now, curled up in his chair, quite beyond any ability to talk, and all Mike could do was glare at both of them.

Mikey crossed his arms over his plastron. "That is so not funny," he said indignantly, but he wasn't really mad. He hadn't seen Leonardo laugh like this in a long time, and somehow just knowing he'd made him laugh even from half a world away was worth the ridicule.

Leonardo, still laughing helplessly, jostled his shoulder in a friendly way, and then slung his arm about Mikey's neck.

"Did you have any other 'pets' you want to tell us about?" Mikey asked. "Maybe an unusually smelly, ugly toad named Raph, or a particularly industrious hermit crab named Donatello?"

Leo wiped his eyes, and shook his head. "Nope, there was just Miguelita," he said. His hand was still resting companionably over Mike's shoulders. And even though Mike was still pretending to be offended, he didn't shrug it off.

"What happened to her?" Don asked, apparently having gotten control of himself, though he still wore a residual grin. Then his face sobered when Leo didn't answer right away. "You didn't… eat her, did you?" he asked somewhat apprehensively

"Of course not!"

Mike breathed a sigh of relief.

"I… left her somewhere safe," Leo explained.

"You should've brought her back with you!" Mike interjected. "I'm sure she and Klunk would've hit it off." Actually, he was pretty sure it would've been the opposite, but it was a fun mental picture, Klunk and a little pig curled up together…

"I did consider it," Leo said, finally sliding his arm off of Mike's shoulder, "But it was… I decided it wasn't fair to her. How could I confine her to the sewers when she was used to having the entire jungle?"

Mike and Don shared a meaningful look, and then Mike looked down and nodded. Leo had come from a place of warmth and freedom and sunlight and fresh air… to this—and maybe for the first time, Mike thought he understood a little of why his brother had taken so long to come home.

"So I ended up 'borrowing' a boat one night and taking her out to an offshore island," Leo continued. "Turtle Island, actually," he added with a smile. "Isla de Tortuga. Seemed fitting. It's uninhabited, though people would occasionally take day trips out there to snorkel. Anyway, there were other sainos out there, and once I was confident Miguelita was finding plenty of food on her own, I left her there."

"…And then you came home?" Mike guessed. If he ever had to go somewhere where he couldn't take Klunk, he knew he'd put it off 'til very last.

Leo met his eyes, and nodded slowly. "And then I came home."

A chain of questions streamed through Mike's head then, questions about what finally made him come back, and how long it had taken him, how he'd done it… if anyone missed him when he left, besides a little pig… but he didn't voice any of them. The important thing was that he had come back. And suddenly, it occurred to Mike that they'd never properly celebrated that.

Don, looking rather pensive now, opened his mouth as if to speak, but Mike interrupted him, springing up from the couch. "Dude! I've got it!"

Leo and Don both turned to him with identical expressions of startled puzzlement, but fortunately Mike was used to this kind of reaction, and it didn't faze him. "A party! We need to have a party!" He grinned, expecting an enthusiastic response, but his brothers merely exchanged confused looks. "You know… like a 'Welcome Back, Leo' party!" he explained.

This time there was comprehension, but still not the eagerness he'd been hoping for. Clearly he was going to have to sell this a little harder. "It can be, like, jungle themed!" he said, now facing both of his brothers and gesturing emphatically as he talked. "Yannow, green streamers draped all over like vines, food, jungle-themed music, it'd be great!"

"Mikey, stop, that's enough," Donatello said firmly.

Michelangelo's enthusiasm deflated just a little, but he wasn't ready to give up the idea. "But it's a party! For Leo!" Really, should he have to say any more than that? "I really think—"

"No, Mike, I mean that's enough," Don repeated, cutting over him. Then he dropped the serious face and smiled. "It sounds great. If Leo's up for it."

Mike blinked, then turned to Leonardo to wait for his response.

Leo appeared slightly embarrassed as he looked between them, but finally he shrugged. "Sure… I mean, it's not necessary or anything, but if you guys want to… "

Mike's face split into a grin, and he bounded spontaneously over to Leo and hugged him, and then Don, too, just 'cause he was there. "This is gonna be so freakin' awesome, just wait!"

Donny was grinning too. "All right then, let's make this happen. How can I help?"

"You wanna call April and Casey and Leatherhead, find out when they can come? And uh, maybe clear things with Master Splinter, too?" Mike would've gone to their father himself, except that his last four party ideas had been vetoed… and okay, so maybe Toga parties and Casino Night weren't exactly up Master Splinter's alley, but Mike didn't want to take a chance on this one. If Don pitched it, their sensei was sure to give it the green light.

"Sure," Don agreed. "If you want, I'll even volunteer to do music for the party."

"Hey, yeah! …Could you—"

"Yes, I'll get 'Jungle Boogie," Don cut in with an exasperated tone. "And 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight,'" he added at a pleading look from Mikey. "And enough jungle-themed tunes that we'll all feel like smashing the speakers by the end of the night. Hmmm… I could probably even find some actual tracks of monkeys and frogs and bird calls from the Costa Rican jungle," he said, looking way too excited about that idea, in Mike's opinion, but he supposed Don had to have his fun, too.

And speaking of fun… "Great!" Mike said. "You handle music, and I'll handle food! Also jungle themed, of course," he added, now pacing back and forth in front of the couch to relieve some of his suddenly overflowing energy.

"What can I do?" asked Leo.

"You're the guest of honor, bro. All you need to do is show up," Mike answered him.

Leo opened his mouth to object, but Michelangelo interrupted before he could speak. "On second thought, I guess I could use your input for the menu. What kind of stuff did you say you ate down there?"

"Mostly rice and black beans, I guess."

"Oh. Right," Mike said rather disappointedly, but he quickly recovered and tapped his cheek thoughtfully for a moment. "Well, we can find a way to include that…" Once I spice it up a little, he thought. "What else?"

"Fruit… and Gallo pinto for breakfast."

"What's that?" Mike asked eagerly.

"Yesterday's rice and beans, refried with some seasonings and egg, or some other meat, if you have it."

This time Michelangelo didn't recover so quickly. "Okaaay… I don't think we need to have that much rice and beans… but I'm sure I can work out something," he said, mostly just thinking out loud at this point. Clearly, Leo wasn't going to be much help. Hi everyone, thanks for coming! Anyone want a drink? Over here we have your lukewarm, silty water with authentic jungle 'mud' taste. Flavorful, yes, but don't fill up on that! Save room for the main dish—rice and beans, with a side of… more rice and beans!

Sheesh. He could do better than that. "I think… yeah, we could do chips and bean dip, maybe some guacamole…"

Leo nodded, apparently satisfied, though Don looked strangely suspicious.

"And taco pizza…" Mike went on, already compiling a grocery list in his head, "and maybe something…"

"Taco pizza?" Don broke in.

Mike paused. "What, you don't like taco pizza?"

"I, well I do, sure, but I thought this was supposed to be jungle themed?"

"Right," Mike said with an air of extreme patience. "Hence the taco part. And I think we'll have… something with banana—you did eat bananas in the jungle, right?" he asked, clearly addressing Leo.

"Well, uh… actually, yes," Leo said.

Mikey nodded. "Banana splits it is, then," he said, and Don gave a loud sigh and rolled his eyes skyward.

"And I can do celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins… or… maybe chocolate chips," Michelangelo continued. "Or both! I think I'll do both!"

"Celery sticks?" Don said, wrinkling his brow. "I know I'm going to regret this, but why…?"

"Bumps on a log, dude! The bumps—the raisins slash chocolate chips—are like the bugs, walking down the celery-log."

"Ah. Did you actually eat any of those things in Costa Rica, though?" Don asked, looking at Leo.

"Just the bugs," Leo answered with a rare grin.

"Who cares!" Mike cut in. "The point is that it's jungle-y!"

Donatello exchanged looks with Leo, but he didn't say anything this time, and Leo didn't seemed inclined to object. Don shrugged, and relented.

Mike and Don went over a few more details, and finally Leonardo said, "Look, if you're not going to let me do anything to help, can I at least make a request?"

Both of them went quiet and turned their attention to their older brother.

"Can I have Cowabunga Carl at my party?" he asked with a straight face.

Don laughed, though he quickly tried to disguise it with a cough. Leo's expression was earnest, but his eyes were dancing.

"Maybe," Mike answered, eyeing him speculatively. "It would cost you, though."

"But I'm family!" Leo protested.

"Right. So it'd cost you extra."

Leo laughed and gave it up, and Don chuckled, but though Mike smiled along with them, inwardly his attention was focused on a distant noise he quite probably had only imagined… but for a second there, he could've sworn he heard a familiar bark of laughter from the direction of the dojo.

Abruptly, Mike said, "Alright, well I guess I'd better get cracking on the menu, and come up with a grocery list. See you later!" He rose and walked off, leaving Don and Leo just sitting there, staring after him, but he was sure they wouldn't think anything of his sudden departure—they knew how fixated he got when he was excited about something. When Mike was far enough way to be reasonably certain they weren't watching him anymore, he veered off toward the dojo and trotted lightly to the doorway, peering silently in.

Nothing. Empty. It had just been his imagination, then.

He let out a breath and began to turn around, but something made him hesitate, and instead of leaving he instead took a step into the dojo. Immediately there was a hurried scuffing noise to the right, and Mike turned to see his brother Raphael, standing awkwardly beside the wall near the doorway looking uncharacteristically guilty.

"Jesus, Mike!" Raph hissed, clearly attempting to regain some composure. But the fact that he kept his voice low wasn't lost on Mikey. "Ever heard of announcing yourself?"

"Sorry. The whole stealth thing is kinda second nature, you know?" he answered casually, taking a few more steps into the dojo. He cocked his head, studying his brother carefully. Then his eyes tracked down to take in the towel on the floor near the wall, as if Raphael had been sitting there only moments before. "So… what're you doing?"

"I was, uh, just working out," Raph said, a bit too hastily in Mike's opinion. "What else would I be doin' in here, meditating?" he shot back with a snort.

But Michelangelo wasn't about to be sidetracked. "Working out, huh? Must a' been taking it pretty easy." No heavy breathing, and not a drop of sweat on him—not exactly typical of one of Raphael's workouts.

"Well, I mean I just finished workin' out. Been coolin' down, actually," Raph said, and he bent and hurriedly snatched up his towel off the floor near the wall, wadding it up into his hand as if he could make it invisible.

"Ah. I see," Mike said levelly, and then he just stood there eyeing his brother, who was trying hard to appear nonchalant as he stood holding the crusty towel.

He failed. Miserably.

Mike had a pretty good idea what Raphael had actually been doing, and it would be easy to call him out on it—not to mention hilarious! Imagine his tough, surly, antisocial brother, hiding in the dojo eavesdropping while his brothers joked outside… Why, the Wizard did give you a heart! Really, think of the possibilities! He could tease his brother about this for years! Or better yet, blackmail him!

Except… well… the more he thought about his brother sitting there all alone, listening, the less hilarious it seemed. Things had obviously been strained between Leo and Raph lately—and not the usual barely suppressed hostility kind of strain, but a sort of cautious, overdone civility that was just plain weird.

Pardon me, dear brother, but if it's not too much trouble, could you please pass me the orange juice?

Dear me, it's no trouble at all! I'm appalled and disgusted by my own lack of consideration—had I not thoughtlessly placed the desired beverage so far from your person, you would not have had to suffer from such thirst!

Not at all, not at all, old thing! It is I who must apologize for interrupting your breakfast. Indeed, I feel the best course of action is to take my juice elsewhere so there can be no further chance of such needless disturbance.

No, no! It is I who should vacate the area, so you can re-hydrate yourself in peace. In fact, I insist on being the one who leaves…

Okay, so maybe they didn't sound exactly like that, but it was actually quite painful to listen to, even without the British accent he gave them for his imagined conversation. But it was clear that whatever had happened between them right before Leo was taken by the Stone Generals, they were still trying to work through it. Until today, though, Michelangelo hadn't fully appreciated just how difficult it might be for both of them—Leonardo had just told him that he'd been too "focused within" to reach out, and apparently Raph would rather hide in the dojo and learn of his brother's experiences indirectly than risk rejection by attempting to join them, as Don had done.

As Michelangelo continued to study his brother, he reached a decision. "Well, I'm glad you're done," he said slowly. "With your workout, I mean. Cuz I need your help."

Raph still looked decidedly on edge, but his shoulders relaxed slightly. "With what?"

"I was just talking with Leo and Don, and well, we decided we should throw a party for Leo—you know, like a 'welcome home' party," he explained, even though he was quite certain Raphael already knew this. "I'm in charge of the food and decorations, and I'm recruiting you to help me," he said, jabbing a finger in the air at his brother. "It's gonna be at least a two turtle job, getting all the stuff we need and hauling it back to the lair."

Raph didn't answer right away; he just stared. And Mike did his best to return the stare neutrally.

"That's why you came in here—to ask for my help with party planning?"

"Well no. Actually, I was planning on bugging you until you agreed to help me," he answered with a smirk. "So really it's best if you just skip all the protests, and accept the inevitable."

"Um. Sure. I guess I could," Raph said slowly, but he was still looking at Mike rather strangely.

Well, that was easier than I thought… "Great!" he said, and using the element of surprise to his best advantage, Mike seized him by the arm and began leading him out of the dojo.

"Mike, what—where the hell are we going?"

"Just come with me," Mike said. The trick was to take action quickly, before his brother had much of a chance to process it. He continued to pull him out towards the living area, with Raph only resisting feebly—either he just wanted to get whatever it was over with quickly, or he had an idea what Mike had in mind, and his reluctance was just for show.

Leo and Don were still sitting where Mike had left them, and as he and Raphael drew closer, Mike said, loudly, "Look, I'm telling you, Raph—if we're gonna do this right, we need to see for ourselves. I won't take 'no' for an answer." Still keeping hold of his brother, he didn't stop until they were in front of the couch. Then, addressing Leo and Don, he said, "Do you guys mind if we, like, start the DVD over? Raphie and I are teaming up on the decorating committee, and we need some ideas."

Donatello blinked. "You… want to watch Planet Earth?"

Mikey grinned and nodded. Raph stood stiffly by his side, but he didn't contradict him.

"And you're aware it's a nature documentary? As in, nonfiction? Potentially educational? Mind-broadening, even?"

"Whatever. It's jungle-ey," Mike said dismissively. "And this is a jungle-themed party. We need dee-tails. Hmm," he said, tapping a finger thoughtfully against his chin. "And popcorn."

Don just stared, but Leo shrugged and said, "Well, I don't mind. I pretty much missed the whole thing anyway," he said, nodding at the credits scrolling down the TV.

"Sweet," Mike said, and he pushed Raphael down on the couch by Leo. Then he handed the remote to Don. "Here. You get it set up while I'm making popcorn."

Then he headed to the kitchen without waiting for a response, smiling to himself as he went. The Master Manipulator strikes again! When he returned with popcorn, he was pleased to see everyone still sitting exactly where he left them, even if Raph was still scowling unpleasantly.

Mike plunked himself down next to Raphael, his bowl heaped high with popcorn. "Okay, ready!" he said, and he dug out a handful of popcorn and began munching. He was on his second handful when he realized the DVD still wasn't playing, and he paused mid-chew, realizing all of his brothers were just sitting there, staring at him.

"What?" he said with a spray of popcorn bits. Then he looked down at the bowl, and back up at his glaring brothers. He swallowed. "Oh. Did you guys want some, too?"

There was an audible sigh from Don, and a simultaneous noise of exasperation from Raph, followed by a smack to the back of Mike's head. Ow.

"Gimme that!" Raphael said, seizing the popcorn bowl while Mike was busy rubbing his head. "I'm in the middle, I'll hold the bowl."

"Fine," Mike said sulkily, but inwardly he was elated—especially when Don abandoned his armchair to sit on the floor in front of the couch, a tactical move that put him closer to the popcorn. Yup, it was just like old times… and if Michelangelo felt he didn't get quite his fair share of popcorn, especially considering all the time he'd spent finding that perfect butter-to-salt ratio, he supposed the sacrifice was worth it. After all, what was a few kernels of popcorn compared to all of them spending some long-overdue quality time together?

But in the future, he was definitely going to do separate bowls.

-Al Final-