*Well, we've made it to the end of yet another long journey. It can be a bittersweet feeling to get to this point, but there are enough "distractions" on my mind right now that it doesn't really register this time. Many, many thanks to my beloved betas for all of their help. It's no small task to edit a fic of this size. Thank you, Mikell and Annie. I appreciate both of you so very much.
Thank you also to my friends and reviewers, whether you've been with me from the beginning, or just started coming around recently. The highest form of flattery to an author is a well-thought out review, in my humble opinion. You kept me going and posting throughout the last few weeks, during some stints when I honestly didn't feel like continuing. You just don't realize the effect encouragement has...and we ALL need it.
My next project is coming, slowly. I'm doing a lot of thinking and strategizing, but I don't have much down on paper yet. Until we meet again...thanks for reading along with me through this entire project, and please enjoy the last chapter. :)
Leonardo trotted downstairs after his youngest brother, grinning at the thought of a harmless game of Ninja Tag. It feels like it's been forever since we were all healthy enough to consider something like that. It just hasn't been the same without all four of us. I don't think it ever could be. Still, I have to make sure Don isn't pushing himself too hard, or he'll end up no better off.
He was puzzled when he didn't see his other two brothers in the Rec Room. "You said they were waiting for us, Mike."
"They're probably outside already." Michelangelo pointed to the back door and saluted. "Leaders first."
Leonardo spared him a withering smile and exited the back door onto the cool pavement of the patio. He didn't see or hear any sign of his brothers. The stillness was slightly unnerving, and instantly gave him the feeling that something was off. He looked over his shoulder just in time to see Mike slam the door from inside.
Set up! I should have known.
The blue-masked turtle spun back around and came face to face with Raphael. The sight of his younger brother covered in an unidentified substance was so surprising that a chuckle bubbled up before he could stop it.
"I don't know what you're laughing about, Leo," Raph said threateningly. "Your medicine is coming up next."
Leonardo backed up a step closer to the door, even though he was certain Mike wasn't going to let him in. "My medicine? I didn't do anything to you!" he protested.
"This is all your fault," Raphael growled. "It was your stupid idea."
"What are you talk—oh." Leonardo caught a glimpse of Donatello's glare and understood. "I'm not the one who attacked you, Donny, just remember that."
"No, but you put him up to it," Don said dryly. "So you've earned retaliation of your own."
"Is there something in the rules that addresses that?"
"There will be when I'm through," Donatello answered.
Leonardo briefly considered running, but there seemed little point. If it doesn't happen now, they're just going to keep scheming until they pull it off. It's better to bite the bullet. He raised his hands in resignation. "All right; you've caught me. What do you intend to do with me?"
"Since you like Cream of Wheat so much, I thought I'd make you some of your own," Don said innocently.
"You didn't have to go to any trouble."
Donny shook his head. "You asked for it, Leo."
"Yeah, I know. Don't dish it out if you can't take it. Are you going to keep me in suspense?"
Raphael's arm came around his shoulder as if Leo was going to try to escape, and as he glanced at his red-masked brother, he completely missed Donatello's first missile. The mixture smelled like the cereal, but the texture was so much stickier that he didn't dare trying to open his eyes. Just as well. Why would I want to see it coming?
Leonardo silently bore the brunt of what turned into an attack from two fronts. He didn't grimace until he got his first taste of the sickeningly sweet Cream of Wheat, and had the temptation to spit it out. "What's in that stuff?" he complained.
"Molasses," Don replied impishly.
"Could you hurry up before I turn into a statue?"
"Hang on a second, Bro," Raphael instructed.
He stood still as a moistened towel was rubbed over his face. Special care was taken around his eyes, and Leonardo finally felt safe to open them. He tried to shake off the excess cereal from his shoulders, but the molasses wasn't allowing much to escape.
"That is disgusting," he informed his brothers.
"Then we're on the same page," Donny said evenly.
"Yes. No more Cream of Wheat. Ever." Leonardo shook his head. "You're finished, right?"
Raphael laughed. "Do you believe he was gonna use all this stuff on me?"
"Good thing you managed to turn him around on me," Leo said sarcastically.
"I believe in giving credit where it's due, Bro." Raphael smirked. "Now I get to be satisfied, and I'm using the downstairs bathroom first." He shot around Leonardo and bolted inside the house.
Leonardo groaned as the uncomfortably sticky sensation rolled over his nerves and gazed at Donatello. "It isn't safe to let you stew, is it?"
"Sometimes you have to make a point."
"Got it, Don." He was extremely close to throwing his arms around his younger brother, but decided to spare him from another attack of the cereal that he hated so much. It was retaliation after all. I brought this upon myself.
When Mike wandered outside, however, he fixed the orange-masked turtle with a stern look.
"Ninja Tag, huh?" Leo challenged him.
"I had to say something to get you down here, Bro. If you feel like chasing me around, I'm still good to go."
Leo's hand snapped out to capture the youngest turtle by the wrist. "I don't want you to run. Stay here and feel the love."
"No - I don't wanna feel it!"
The blue-masked turtle smile as he wrapped both arms around Mike's shoulders. "This is brotherly bonding. You have to play a part in it too."
Michelangelo wasn't giving up easily, but Leonardo wasn't letting go of him either.
"It's only fitting." Leonardo chuckled. "You're the one who loves this stuff so much."
"The reaction," Mike clarified. "I love the reaction."
Leo hugged him more tightly with another smile. "Deep down, I think we all do, Mikey. Just some of us more than others."
The alarm on Leonardo's cell phone went off around 6:00 in the morning, and his first inclination was to pitch the device. Why would it even be set to go off when we're technically still on vacation, he wondered. As he rolled over to glance at his sleeping wife, he suddenly remembered why. Shunshi. Why did I convince myself that the earlier start would infuse better discipline? I must have been out of my mind.
The ten-year-old had a couple of years of karate already under his belt, but after spending a few intensive sessions with the boy, it was clear to Leonardo that they needed to start from a fresh slate. He's far too unfocused, and more concerned with throwing tricks than he is with learning to control his body. That has to change, or we can't continue.
The blue-masked turtle started to rise carefully, but he didn't make it out of bed without waking up Calley.
The young woman rubbed one eye sleepily. "Leo? Getting an early start?"
"With Shunshi. He was fifteen minutes late last time, and I figured that being forced to get up earlier might prompt him to be more punctual in the future. He honestly had no excuse for being late; he was only playing a game with Mikey."
Calley gave him a half smile. "So you're getting stricter with him?"
"I have to," Leo said seriously. "If he wants to learn ninjutsu, discipline plays a large role. I don't want to be too hard on him, but at the same time, he can't take this lightly."
She nodded. "I'm sure you're no slave driver, Leo."
"I haven't pushed him too hard yet. I'm trying to remember that he's a little boy too, but our Sensei was much more…rigorous with us at this age than I have been with him."
"That may be true, but you'd been learning ninjutsu for years," Calley remarked. "I bet he'll come around, Leo. Shunshi seems to have the drive."
That's part of what bothers me about all this, he thought inwardly. I have to make sure that Shunshi's in this for the right reasons. Even wanting to be like us isn't the correct motivation.
Leonardo hid his concern with a smile. "He has passion, and that's essential for learning too. I won't tie him down all morning."
"I hope you won't," she returned. "I've been enjoying our walks."
The turtle bent down to meet Calley as she rose off the mattress to kiss him. "I'll see you in a while. Get some more sleep."
Leonardo shifted backwards on grass that was still wet with dew, easily avoiding the ungainly bokken assault without bothering to block the blows. He'd seen at least a dozen opportunities to disarm the boy or at least throw him off balance, but the turtle had yet to take any of them.
By this time Sensei would have done something to stop me in my tracks, but I really can't compare our progress with Shun's. He's had a different life than we had, and not entirely in a good way.
Leonardo noticed Shunshi panting and stopped retreating from him. "You're wearing yourself out, aren't you? Do you recall that it takes twice as much energy to swing and miss someone as opposed to hitting them?"
"How can you call it a spar if you only run away?" The boy's frustration couldn't have been more apparent.
"What have you been doing for these last few minutes, Shun?"
"It does not seem that you want to teach me this, Leonardo-san."
Shunshi's deep-set frown reminded him so much of Raphael that Leonardo nearly laughed. "What did I tell you about the method for facing a first-time opponent, Shunshi? You've done nothing but attack ever since we started. What's the magic word I gave you?"
"Intercept?" he asked a little sheepishly.
"To intercept your attacker means you have to let him do something first, Shun. When you go to fight a strange opponent, there are a lot of things you don't know about him. His speed, strength, agility…all of these can catch you off guard.
"That's why it's so dangerous to charge into a battle based only on your own skill. You're not taking your enemy into account. You're not allowing the opportunity for yourself to hone in on his strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has a weakness that you can exploit, but it won't do you any good if you don't take the time to consider your opponent."
"What if there is not time to know your enemy?"
"There's no rule that you have to strike first, Shunshi. It's a rare circumstance where you won't have a chance to observe at least a couple of their moves in action. When it comes down to it, the most important thing is to keep your head in the fight."
"But when you are reacting by instinct in a duel, what does that have to do with your mind?"
"It has everything to do with it, Shun. I can't act by instinct effectively if my mind isn't already focused. You need to understand that the stronger adversary doesn't always win, not even in a fair fight. Just look at me. I'm younger and stronger than Takashi was, but he almost beat me. If my artery had been severed completely, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. He almost killed me, because I gave him the opportunity.
"I allowed rage to distract me, and I lost sight of him. In that moment he had the advantage, and he played it well."
"Yes, but you overcame him, because you are the best. All of you are." Shunshi verily glowed with pride.
Leonardo gazed into the boy's earnest dark eyes for a couple of seconds, and motioned to the picnic table near the patio. "Sit down with me, Shunshi-kun."
The boy seemed bewildered, but followed him over to the table.
"Why do you think my brothers and I are the best?" Leonardo asked.
Shunshi's eyes brightened. "Because you are. You will fight no matter what. When an enemy attacks, you have the strength to deal with him. You don't let anyone hurt your family. If I can grow up to do that, having the ability to dispatch someone if I need to, I'll be happy forever."
The turtle winced at his choice of words. "I wouldn't say that 'dispatching' someone should make you happy, Shun."
"But if they are attacking you, you said that it was proper to fight back."
"To defend yourselves and others, yes, but not to take joy in it. We should never be glad when we're forced to hurt someone else."
"You were not happy to win your duel with Takashi?"
"I was relieved it was over, but there's a difference, Shun. I wrestled for many days with the thought of facing Takashi, because I had a strong feeling of what it would come down to."
"I don't understand, Leonardo-san. Why should we not be glad when evil falls?"
"It's not wrong to be happy because a threat is removed," Leonardo clarified. "I'm extremely glad that the city and our family are safe, for instance. What I'm trying to point out is that violence is never the 'best' course of action. It was Sun Tzu who said that the supreme art of war is to subdue an enemy without fighting."
"But what if they are forcing you to fight, like the Akiudo did? Why is it a bad thing to defeat them?"
"The act of overcoming the enemy itself isn't bad, Shunshi, but your heart must be guarded. You have to keep your motivation in mind at all times."
The boy gazed at him silently for a long moment. "What was your motivation with the Akiudo?"
"I could have had many. They've destroyed thousands of lives through the years because of their slave trade. They've hurt my friends and family more deeply than I can describe. They invaded our city, and annihilated innocent civilians. With all of these factors in mind, it would have been easy to go out for revenge, but that would have been the wrong reason. We acted in defense of the city, and everyone else that the Akiudo would have hurt if we'd let them."
Shunshi nodded slowly. "But it isn't right to take joy in the defense?"
"It's the physical act of hurting someone else or taking a life that you shouldn't take joy in, Shunshi-kun. When you experience happiness in destroying your enemies, you risk blurring the line that separates you from them."
"But you're nothing like the Akiudo."
"When one is capable of great violence, there's the possibility for abusing it, no matter what side you're on. It's not hard to be drawn off the narrow path, Shun. The way of evil is wider, and easier to access. That's why you have to go into these situations with the correct mindset. All life is precious."
The boy shook his head sharply. "The men who took advantage of my sister, are they precious, Leonardo-san? What of the ones who preyed upon us both?"
The turtle could tell he'd struck a nerve. "Their actions were despicable and without excuse. But yes, Shunshi, their lives still hold value."
"I don't see it like that. I don't think I could."
Leonardo rested both hands on Shunshi's shoulders. "For your own good, its better that you deal with this now. Without forgiveness, there is no room for me to teach you, Shunshi-kun."
"Forgiveness?" he echoed. "How do you forgive for that?"
"It's more for your benefit than theirs, Shun. Lack of forgiveness is a poison that will destroy you from the inside out."
"It's too soon," he said softly. "They ruined things for Hisui. I could do nothing to help her. She thought she was keeping me from their abuse, but I saw."
Leo nodded. "But holding a grudge in your mind is like allowing them to maintain power over you. Is that what you want?"
The boy was quiet again. "Did you forgive the Akiudo for all these things they did?"
The blue-masked turtle took a sharp breath. "We didn't discuss it in so many words as a team before going in, but if we'd struck them with the full force of our anger, they would have all been slain. We showed mercy where we could…so…in our own way, I suppose we did forgive them."
"You are going to have to teach me this too, Leonardo-san."
Leonardo drew an arm around the boy's back. "There's no sweeter freedom than to walk with forgiveness and without regret, Shun. Learn this while you're young, and nothing the world throws at you will make a difference. You'll be unshakeable."
"I'll be like all of you," he replied. "That is everything I want, Leonardo-san."
Leo gave him a wry smile. "None of us are perfect, Shunshi-kun. We never will be. But we've come to rely on each other, and it's gotten us through a lot of things no one should have survived in one piece."
Shunshi bit his lip. "When Sayuri-san first took us in, I was worried that it might not last. I didn't know if she only felt sorry for us, or if she would be there for good." He met Leonardo's steady gaze. "So then I come here, and I wonder the same thing."
"Donatello told you that ninjas keep their word, Shun, so that's all you need to know. You're welcome here. It's okay to relax and feel safe."
The boy released a shuddering breath that sounded too large for him as he raised his eyes to look around the backyard. "I want to, Leonardo-san."
The pain in Shunshi's voice could have broken the turtle, and he hesitated before responding. "There are some injuries that are more difficult to recover from than others," Leo said. "It takes time. The important thing is to not give up, on yourself or us. We're going to be there for you, Shunshi-kun. With all the questions you'll have to face in this life, that doesn't need to be one of them. We take care of each other, and we always will."