It was both strange, and bittersweet, to come back here. The passage of so many years and memories should have left far deeper scars than just dust and crumbling bricks. Don't know what the hell I was expecting, I guess...but I was at least hoping there'd be somethin' left behind to say that we were *here*, that we had lived.
I snorted at the irony of it all. Technically, we never existed in the first place..no birth certificates, no finger prints, only a few scattered photos, and the shoddy accounts of eye-witnesses over the years. And even those were probably shaky at best...who in the hell could babble about seeing giant turtles bustin' out ninja moves in dark alley ways and not be considered a bit screwy in the brain? That ninja vanishing stuff came in handy, you know.
My chuckle was bitter against the dark as I hobbled onward. I winced and popped my aching joints, hating the way my cracking bones sounded like fire arthitis was kicking up a shine tonight. I halted my lurch, and settled my battered wreck of a body into the floor for a rest.
Breathing heavily, I eased my legs into folding, and cursed the dull ache that lit fire underneath my shell. I stared down at my hands, and scowled. The knuckles were bulging, and my fingers were curled like tree roots. I could still use my hands, but it just hurt any more. And I was at the age now where everything hurt.
Gettin' old is a bitch, I tell ya. I suppose griping is stupid, though. With as many bones that I've broken over the years, I'm damn lucky that I can move at all. This whole aging thing...ugh. Master Splinter grew into it gracefully, and once babbled to me about "It is wisdom, not youth, that makes us whole, Raphael. Consider the difference between the acorn and the mighty oak. A tree cannot become what it is meant to be without accepting change."
Didnt' make much sense then, or now. Maybe Master Splinter and Leo think that getting old is some sort of mystical journey, or some weird path to enlightenment.
Me? Hell, no. I've always considered to be a slow slide to the grave. The one complication is that I never thought I'd live to be old in the first place. Who would have thought that Raphael, the hot-head, the loner, and the angry one, would be here-hunched over and exhausted and old, and not able to get off his shell without a production?
Yep, ya heard me right: I'm old.
The ache ebbed away to a dull throb, enough so that I could slowly hobble to my feet and shuffle on. The echoes of my footsteps seemed to summon ghosts and memories with every inch lurched forward. Going back to the old Lair should have felt more like coming home.
Now, it felt like going to a grave.
The familiar curve of the last coridor spiraled back into the darkness into what looked like a dead end and an empty passage. Guided by pure instinct and memory,
I fumbled around the cold coil of pipes. Even though we had lived in a remote area, where few would ever see, let alone venture, Don had still made it a priority to keep our home as invisible as possible.
I gave the handle a savage yank, which took an embarrassing amount of effort now. From within the dark, I heard the grinding whine of gears protesting, as they slowly lurched to life. The door to the Lair was little more than a large, square shaped slab that opened and shut with the complicated system of chains and pulleys Don had created with our limited resources. Thank God it still worked, but damned if I could figure out how.
The Lair door groaned as it was hoisted upward, and I was treated to a blast of stale air. Dust, disuse, and emptiness seemed to have that effect down here.
I fumbled for the flashlight at my belt, wary of the abysmal dark. The place had been deserted for God knows how long, and I could barely see the hand I waved in front of my face.
I heard the sharp, abrupt click of something in the Lair, and my hands shot to my sais, instinctively. I pressed myself against the bricks, hoping that the dark corner would shield me from view.
Rigidly, I waited as I heard footsteps, and another click. I was blinded by the abrupt flare of lights as the Lair was suddenly awash with the blaze of gold and hum of ancient light bulbs.
"Raph." I heard Leo's voice before I could see him.
I blinked as he slowly turned around, eyes narrowed and searching for me. Feeling like an idiot, I lowered my weapon.
Dumbly, I stared, at the lit candles flickering around a frayed matt he had dragged out from the old dojo. Leo had his head tilted back, and he was squinting to see me.
Apparently, Leo had decided to visit our old home for one last meditation session, since he had his limbs all curled up in the reflective pose. Leo grunted softly as he finally stood up to face me. He still had that smooth grace, but now it came in slow, strained movements that had to be carefully planned.
I saved my brother some of the trouble by nicely moving forward until we were so close, we could touch. Leo's eyesight had been failing for a while now, and I knew that he always hated the frustation of not being able to make eye contact. Age hadn't been too kind to Leo, either. All those years he spent scowling and fretting about us had finally showed up in the etching of fine lines around his mouth, but especially around his eyes. The shadows had come to rest in the hollowed out wrinkles,
making him look splotched and strange. For some reason, he wasn't wearing his bandana, so it made his eyes look even darker.
Sighing, Leo only said, "I thought that I would find you here."
"Yeah? Why?" Even after all of these years, Leo's eternal vigilance had never ceased to amaze or irritate me. He paused for a long moment, as he gently eased himself back down. Turning his head towards me, he pat the dojo matt, in silent invitation to sit.
Grunting, I folded my legs and lowered the rest of me beside him. He waited patiently for me to get settled before he gave me that sad, knowing smirk.
"Because we both know that when we leave here, we're not coming back."
I hitched my shoulders, hating both the finality and the truth of the thing. "Ya don't know that, Leo. We could always-"
"Raphael." Leo's voice was still laced with that authority as he only waited with another sad shake of his head. "We agreed to this, remember? And honestly,
after all that we've done for this city, we deserve to have some peace."
"Ya mean that we're too damn old to do anything else."
"We are, Raphael. And, frankly, I'm grateful that I've lived long enough to see this happen."
Sighing softly, he grimaced and shifted. "I know that getting older is part of the price paid to survive as long as we have. I just wish Master Splinter had been a bit more forthcoming in just how hard it would be."
We both fell silent, then. Our father had been gone for years, dying peacefully in his sleep after a nasty winter and a cough he couldn't quite shake. Even though it had been almost twenty years, it did nothing to stop the world from blurring, or me having to blink to keep the tears from spilling. Thank God that the rest of us were still alive, and relatively intact.
Donny had taken refuge from old age by simply plugging into his damn technology and researching everything he could about the aging process of turtles. Oddly enough, he was almost cheerful when he gave up his bo. Apparently, being liberated from constant fighting gave him the time to pursue the intellectual things he had no time for. He found solace in reading, tinkering with his workshop, and generally puttering around the Lair.
Mikey was still every bit the cheerful knucklehood, and spent a lot of his time pointing out how grateful he was that he had no hair to turn grey. For some sick reason,
he also had a hell of a good time ribbing us all about how he had aged the prettiest. He still used his nunchucks...we all still had our weapons and did our katas, but now, we all paid for practice with new aches and pains where there never was before.
After a nasty bout New York winter, a frozen Lair, and pneumonia that nearly killed me, the painful conclusion was obvious. We couldn't survive another winter in the sewers. I don't remember a hell of a lot, other than laying there, delirious from fever, and hearing snatches of the troubled conversation between Mike, Don and Leo.
In the end, there was no arguing, or yelling, just the sad finality of the whole thing. When my fever finally left me, I put up one hell of a one-sided fight, but nearly dying made me seriously think about how I wanted to spend whatever time I had left. After a life time of waging a one turtle war, and the years I had spent fighting, I was too damn old and tired to do it any more. I knew that much longer than I could admit it.
But, after seeing how much this once little stroll had cost me, I knew that I couldn't do it any more. I was trembling, and huddled over from the cold. And even though And what was more, after seeing that ragged fear on Leo's exhausted face, I knew that I couldn't put my brothers through any more of my crap. Maybe the flame of the hothead had finally flickered out to this pathetic moment. Maybe I was finally getting that I was neither immortal, or young. It still sucked.
"I wish Master Splinter had been a bit more forthcoming in a lot of things, Leo. What the hell are we going to do at the farmhouse for the rest of our lives, anyway?"
Leo had the grace to wince as he closed his eyes. Attempting, and failing to keep the irritation hidden, he snapped, "What would you rather do, Raph? Pick your poison between freezing to death or being found and dissected or God only knows what?"
I just glared back, seething, as I waved a hand upward to the bricks. "Leo, this is our home! We grew up here, we bled here, Master Splinter died here, and you keep acting like it's just some crap to be scraped off and forgotten! Doesn't it mean anything to you?"
"Don't you dare tell me that it means nothing to me, Raph. And don't try and paint this place as if it's heaven on earth." Leo quietly snarled back.
"You have no idea how many times I sat up, with you or Don or Mike, taking care of an injury. Or how hard it's been to keep you all together when Master Splinter passed away."
He buried his head in his shaking hands for a long moment, before whispering, "Not all my memories are happy ones, Raphael. And I think that after all that we've been through together, you'd understand that."
"What are you sayin', then? That this place ain't home any more because bad stuff happened? Leo, bad stuff happens anywhere!" I didn't bother to curtail the volume as I bellowed at him. Leo just put his hands to his sides,waiting for my storm to pass.
"Raphael, bad stuff may happen, anywhere, but there's a lot less of it at the farm house." Leo met my glare with that earnest gaze, completely unaffected by my hissy fit.
"Besides," Leo paused to give me that sad, understanding smirk, "the only thing that could make a sewer a home in in the first place is the fact that we were all together."
There was a long, heavy silence between us, as I waved a hand around the Lair. The place was empty, now, gradually stripped bare as we packed away what we planned on taking, with April and Casey graciously storing our crap at their place, or hauling it away to the farm house. Don and Mikey were already up there, making repairs, moving our things, and busying themselves with making the place home.
I stared at the large central chamber that used to be the dojo. At one time, this place had been loved, filled with noise and action and katas. Now, the whole place was just that sad, abysmal silence. There was only the flicker of Leo's candles, making my finger's shadow look like dripping knives against the brick. Leo gazed around, and said, quietly, "This place looks like a tomb. I never realized how big and empty it is."
"It never seemed empty because we were all here to fill it up, Leo."
Leo quirked an eyebrow at that, as he slowly nodded. "And to think, now, there's literally no trace of us being here at all. It seems so sad, so...final."
Turning to me, he finally asked, uncertainly, "Raph...do you think that anybody will remember what we did? That what we did mattered?"
"Doesn't matter." My voice was a bit more brittle than I meant it to be. Leo jerked up sharp, now pissed off.
"What do you mean that it doesn't matter? How-"
I cut off his offended bluster with a hand to his shoulder. "We never did any of this stuff-protectin' people, protectin' the city, any of that- because we gave a damn about being remembered. I thought we did all of this because it was right."
Leo's brow furrowed, and I flushed. It was rare that I ever sounded so wise, and it was weird. "Besides...*we* know, and *we* remember."
Leo cracked a slow smile. "Do you think it will be enough?"
I hitched my shoulders. "It will have to be."