Author's note: I want to thank everyone for being so patient with me these many years that it's taken to write this story, and those who sent the words of encouragement – I hope I have ended this story in a way that is worthy of the soul of the story. Happy Reading!

No Place to Call Home

Chapter 18

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength,

while loving someone deeply gives you courage."

~ Lao Tzu

I opened my eyes and breathed in. Something was different. My body felt light- my arms and legs moved differently. I rubbed my eyes, tried to focus and then looked around. I was in a dark room, if you could call it that. I didn't sense any walls, but it wasn't wide open. The only thing was a dim light overhead. What was this place- and where were my clothes?

"Where's the neck-brace..."

"Start CPR..."

I turned, looking for the source of the voices. They were garbled and distant; for a moment I thought they weren't real. The darkness went silent again, and then-

"His pulse is weak..."

"Weak, he's BLUE."

The voices suddenly sharpened, as though they were right beside me. If I'd had any hairs on my neck, they would have stood up. Mike's voice – it was cracking. They were so close...

"Mike? Donnie...? Quit hiding and come out."

The sounds changed to beeps and clicks... a whoosh of air, a gush of water. The smell of rubbing alcohol and latex gloves.

"Somebody get some towels... "

"I fear it may be a concussion..."

Concussion..? The sounds and lights suddenly decreased, returning me to darkness again.

I didn't know how long I had stayed in that spot, or whether I was asleep or just sitting in the dark. It was so easy to stay still and let my limbs hang. I didn't want to move. I eventually opened my eyes and looked around – same dark room with the single light. It was nice not to hurt, but.. where the hell was everyone?

"Can he hear us? Maybe we can talk him back to being awake-"

"No, you're just going to be in their way-"

"I am staying. YOU can go to hell-"

"…next person to start yelling is gonna get a dose of horse tranquilizer..."

"You are both acting irrationally, and it will not help..."

The light flickered overhead. Maybe there was a speaker or something wasn't seeing? The voices got quiet, but the emotions were clear as day. I could FEEL the tension...

The latex smell returned, and then something pricked my arm. Warmth traveled up my arm and across my chest. The light overhead brightened slightly.

"He's had two transfusions already..."

"—malnourishment and hypothermia, on top of those bullets in him."

"WHY did he jump..?"

The voices suddenly vanished, leaving me with my thoughts.

I was surprised at everything I was hearing – it sounded BAD. They talked like I was on death's door. But I didn't hurt as much as before. Well, at all actually...

I moved my hand down to my side - no pain from the bullet wounds. I brought my hands up - no blisters. No blood. Maybe the pond-water had washed me off and helped with the pain. But then... where was I? How long had I been there to heal every single cut, bruise and even the gunshot wound?

Nothing made sense... What was this place?

"Raph..."

I lifted my head, looking around. The whisper echoed in the room, just barely loud enough to hear.

"Who's there.?"

The light brightened ever so slightly. I got to my feet and slowly turned around to investigate the darkness. Something held me back, preventing me from leaving the circle.

"I hope you can hear me, bro... Donnie said talking to you would help. So here I am.."

I looked up at the brightening light. Michelangelo's voice came in clear, like he was standing right over me.

"I'm glad you're back home.. Things haven't been the same since you left."

"Mikey... what am I doing here?" I hesitated, surprised how hollow my own voice was. "How do I get out?"

He paused, but I heard him sniff.

"Hey... do you- do you remember back when we got Sensei from the Shredder? He- he was all weak and dehydrated and stuff. The foot had really treated him badly..."

I sank to the ground – how could I not remember? We were going to April's when he collapsed. We brought him into the guest room and kept watch over him. Donnie explained that the adrenaline had kept him going longer than he should have. He slept for three days straight. We all stayed together in the room to watch him, but I stayed by his bed every second of the day and night until he woke up.

I knew that the Foot had followed me back to the lair when I first rescued April. If I had obeyed the cardinal rules of 'never be seen, leave no trace', Splinter would never have been taken, April's store would still be standing... I blamed myself for a lot.

"I... I remember you felt bad over everything that had happened. I know now... how you felt." I could feel the faintest sensation of warmth on my shoulder. "I felt so powerless when you left home. I should've fought harder when you first left, but ...the others said you were just hiding out. If I'd not listened to Sensei, if I had run after you... you wouldn't… be like this."

I could hear his voice breaking. All I wanted to do was pull him into a hug.

"Mike... no... It wasn't something you could control. You should know that..."

Once Splinter had fully recovered, he told me that I could not control everything that happened. And for what DID happen... if things hadn't gone the way they did, Shredder would still have a grip on New York, we wouldn't have April and Casey as the friends we have now, and me and my brothers wouldn't have had that weird spiritual bonding around the campfire. It made a huge turn-around in how I felt about the situation – I could smile and mess with my brothers, even after everything that we had endured. It made our bond that much stronger.

I was going through the same thing, but the roles were switched. If Mike had followed me, I wouldn't have left – and I wouldn't have learned as much as I did. I would still be storming around the lair, unwilling to talk to the others and being in a pissy mood all the time. I wasn't going to be like that anymore.. everyone I had met in my travels showed me what I had waiting for me, whether if I wanted to acknowledge it or not. It just sucked that I had to get damn near turned into mincemeat to learn it…

"Donnie said you needed more time-but it's taking so long", he whispered. "I miss you Ani. I want you back..."

"I'm right here, Mike. Wherever here is…"

The light overhead pulsed brightly. Maybe if I could get up there, I could find a way out. There weren't any doors that I could see. I didn't care what the place was anymore, or why I was there. I wanted out now.

I hunkered down and jumped as high as I could, reaching for the light. Instead of falling back down immediately, I hung in the air like a bubble.

"Ah!" I flailed my arms and legs, trying not to fall forward or backwards.

Okay, a slightly panicked bubble.

Once I was on solid ground, I regained my bearings and looked at my situation. I was in a pit, or some kind of room with no doors or windows. I could hear the others, but I couldn't' see them. I was breathing, but I could float in the air, like being underwater. This was the weirdest damn place I'd ever been.

I looked up at the light again. It continued to pulse, almost beckoning me to come to it. This weird floating thing could be useful. I hunkered down before jumping again, 'diving' up with both hands out in front of me. I propelled myself forward with both arms, doing a breaststroke. I made it a little higher before sinking down again. Now I had a direction...

I jumped as high as I could and kicked my feet, reaching towards the light. Well, nothing else made sense in this place - but it worked. I kept kicking and using my arms to 'swim' upward. I got so high that I couldn't see the floor below, but it was getting harder to move upward - it took more effort to go less and less distance.

As I reached toward the light, it flared out – and burned like fire.

Every muscle in my body suddenly constricted. The side I had been shot in tore open, tearing flesh and crushing bone. I cried out and doubled over, clutching my side. My lungs gurgled and choked – I couldn't breathe. I slowly sank to the floor, curled up with my arms wrapped around myself, trembling from head to foot.

I didn't dare move a muscle. I don't know how long I laid there. It felt like hours before I was brave enough to open my eyes. I slowly lifted my head to look around, and found myself back on the floor of the room. The light was once again pulsating gently.

What the hell had just happened? I hadn't felt a pain like that in... Years. Not since my beatdown from the Foot Clan. And I nearly died from that.

"Be brave, my child..."

I gasped, looking up at the flickering light. Did he hear me? Did he find me?

"I know you are hurting, Raphael... but you are strong, you will find your way."

"Wait... wait, don't leave me here," I said, trying to push myself up off the floor. The light started to fade, making the circle of light around me smaller.

"Your brothers miss you, and I ... love you so much..."

"Please..." I begged, reaching towards the light, "don't leave me!"

His voice went silent, and I knew he was gone.

The darkness returned, worse than before. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I collapsed on the floor, burying my face in my arms. My head told me to get up and move, before the light would be gone and I'd never get out. But my body fought against me with every nerve and fiber. I had come so far, and had battled so many things... but the pain I felt put a fear in me I never known. If I went back, I was going to be in so much pain...

I finally understood where I was. I wasn't in the lair. I wasn't in a hole somewhere. I was trapped inside my own head. Afraid of what I would wake up to. It had been a dark place full of nothing- until I heard their voices. This was all something to make me see what I'd shut out and kept away; so I would know that the only one holding me back... was myself.

"Oh Ryu..." Splinter whispered," I waited every night for you to come home. Now I only wait to see your eyes meet mine again..."

I tilted my head, looking up. The darkness changed to a deep dark blue light.

Ryu... it meant 'dragon', but it was a term of endearment he used when it was just me and him talking. As far back as I could remember, he used to call me that. It wasn't mushy like the others, it was just a.. sign of affection. His little dragon. Hearing him call me that... it hurt. I had not heard that name in a long time... part of me felt like I didn't deserve that name.

"You have faced such dangerous obstacles. But you are home, and you are safe," Splinter whispered, his voice wavering. "'You have brothers who miss you...and a father who loves you..."

Hearing his voice break, I knew I had to go back. I had a chance to fix things, unlike the people I'd met in my travels. I was so close. This was my last chance.

The light above lost the blue hue, glowing brighter than ever. My whole body trembled as I got to my feet. I knew this was going to hurt. So much more than anything I had experienced in my life…

I took a deep breath and started swimming upward. The light increased as I ascended; unfortunately, so did the pain. I pressed further, kicking my feet and reaching up for the light. I could hear more sounds, faint at first but increasing and getting clearer. My lungs burned and my side began to hurt, and my arms and legs got heavier as I struggled to get closer to the light. My hands curled up nearly into claws - scarred and tight from burns - making it harder to reach out. I kicked as hard as I could with one last giant push.

I was engulfed in pain, and cried out as the light above exploded...

"Mm.."

Warmth... I could feel it down to my bones. There were bright lights overhead – blinding, even with my eyes closed. But it still felt good. I could feel every inch of my body, compressed by bandages and wrapped with blankets. The sound of beeps and whirring machinery was all around me.

Something was covering my mouth. A ragged moan rose from my throat as I tried to lift a hand to remove it. Pain coursed through my body, reminding me to move as little as possible. Blurred figures stood over me, blocking some of the light to my relief.

As I breathed in, my chest gurgled and made me cough. I fought the urge and jerked in pain. I felt hands turn me onto my side, removing the thing from my face and gently thumping my shell.

"Relax, Raph..." It took a moment to register Donatello's voice, but I felt his hand on my arm. "Just let it come up."

I could taste pond-water in my mouth as I coughed up something solid and nasty. Someone took a cloth and cleaned my mouth. The coughing finally settled down, and I was rolled back onto the pillow.

My eyes were glued shut, and I struggled to open them even a little. My head pounded enough to dull my hearing, but I could sense figures standing around me. One moved a little, and the light dimmed beside the bed. Another went to put the mask back on me, but I turned away. Those things always made me claustrophobic.

"Iie, do not fight it..." A warm hand rested on my forehead. I forced my eyes open as the mask was put back in place.

"Spli..." I croaked. My voice sounded grated and hollow; like someone else was speaking... the mask over my mouth didn't help.

"Shh... it is alright now." I felt a kiss on my forehead, and I used every ounce of strength I had to look up, tears wetting my eyes and running down my face.

"Stay..." I whispered, catching barely enough breath to whisper.

"Save your voice," He whispered, putting a hand on my shoulder. There was some movement, a soft click ... warmth traveled from my wrist and slowly up my arm. "I will stay with you."

He moved his hand to my chest, and I could sense the others moving away from the bed. Another soft click was heard, and then it was just the two of us. A knot formed in my stomach, and I suddenly felt a rush of tears down my face.

"Sleep, little one... Things will be better in the morning." A warm hand touched my face, wiping under my eyes with a thumb. The last thing I remember was a rush of air in the face mask, and then nothing.

I don't know how long I'd been asleep.

The clicking and beeping sounds were all but gone. I inhaled slowly, feeling a rattle deep inside my chest. I breathed out and kept my breaths very shallow. I still had the mask over my mouth, pushing cool air into my lungs. The smell of antiseptic wasn't nearly as strong as before. I managed to pull my arm up towards my face and push the mask off with the back of my hand.

A piercing alarm suddenly screamed beside me, nearly levitating me out of the bed.

"Off..." The sudden adrenaline gave me enough strength to get one hand up to cover my ear. A hand touched my arm, and the alarm stopped after a second or two after. My head started pounding again.

"Sorry, Raph..." I moved my hands and blinked a few times before I realized Donnie was talking to me. He looked at something on my hand before setting it down.

"No mask. Please…" I pleaded, lying back again. Don took the mask from my face and set it aside.

"Alright, just for a moment," He whispered, slowly inspecting the bandages on my hands.

"'kay", I croaked. I sounded like I had eaten gravel for a week. Sure felt like it. A quick cough hit me before I could stop, and my chest flared up in protest.

"Easy, Raph," Don said, turning me to my side and thumping my shell. "You need to breathe."

"Hurts to breathe," I groaned, lying back again.

"Pleurisy does that," Don pulled the blankets up to my shoulders and put the mask back on my face. He then reached for something behind my head. "Stay still- this will help."

I heard a click, and then a feeling of warmth wrapped around me. I exhaled, melting into the blankets.

"Better?" Don asked, peering down into the blankets. I either groaned or purred, according to Don's later account. I think he was fulla crap, but it made him smile. I was just grateful to hurt less. I felt Don pick up my wrist and fuss with some stabby, pokey, needly things in my hand, and I came out of my warm stupor.

"Where are-"

"Save your voice," he said in his best 'Doctor' voice - a skill he'd perfected ever since he was allowed to put Band-Aids on us when we were kids. "I told Mike to get some rest before I came after him with horse tranquilizers."

"Is... he okay?" That comment sounded familiar for some odd reason. Had I heard that before...?

"Well, he's been in here a lot since you came back," he said, setting my wrist on the bed again. "Non-stop since you started moving and making noises the other night. He woke up half of Manhattan."

A wave of relief washed over me. Even after what I'd said to him... he was still my crazy lil' Oto.

"He can't wait to see you," Don said, moving his seat closer. "Just don't let him wear you out."

"Thanks, Donnie," I said.

"Well, don't thank me just yet," he replied. He reached out and put his hand onto my forehead. "This might hurt."

Before I could ask why, he lifted my eyelids open, grabbed a flashlight out of nowhere and blinded me.

"Iie-" I coughed, trying to turn away as he flashed back and forth between both eyes.

"I have to check, Raph," Don ordered, tapping me once on the forehead with a finger. "Well, your eyes are dilating normally again."

"Not helping", I grumbled, pulling away and squeezing my eyes shut. "M'seein' spots..."

"Don't worry; I'll let you rest in a bit." He released his hold and stepped away from the bed. I could hear him scribbling notes. "How is the rest of you feeling?"

"Hit by a truck," I mumbled, closing my eyes.

"I'm not surprised. You look like you crawled off a Michael Bay movie set," Don said, flipping sheets nearby.

"Things got.. rough," I said, glancing away. Every bullet wound, cut mark and burn had some tragic story behind it. "I thought I'd make it on my own... but things didn't turn out."

I paused and looked up at Don. He wasn't giving me any judging looks or taking notes. He just looked at me and listened.

"It was hard... things would be okay for a little bit. But, nothing worked out. The loneliness sucked. It just got harder and darker and..."

I paused when my voice wavered. I didn't want to broadcast my failures, but I couldn't stop talking. I hadn't acted like myself at all. I'd forgotten who I was. I did things I was gonna have to live with for the rest of my life. It felt like layers of crap and misery were burying me where I lay. I had to get it out of my system.

There was a (horribly long) moment of silence, before Don quietly cleared his throat.

"Raph… I can take care of physical pain; broken bones and scraped elbows. I can't fix broken hearts or battered pride. But, whatever you went through… know that I'm here for you."

I sniffed, nodding quietly. He leaned forward and gave me a small one-armed hug. I held onto his arm with my one good hand, grateful for the contact after being alone for so long. After a moment, he sat me back into my warm cocoon and then quietly returned to doctor mode. I took the moment to adjust my vision and look around the room, now that the spots were gone.

There was an IV Pole with a bag attached to the line in my hand. Some weird steam thing was connected to my oxygen mask, and something else was hooked to my chest with wires. In one corner of the room, there was a cot covered in a heap of blankets, and a sleeping bag on the floor beside it.

"I know you just woke up a bit ago, Don said, picking up a glass of water from the side table. "But you need to rest as much as possible. Your body is still coming out of hibernation."

He put a straw in the glass, removed the air-mask and held it up to my mouth.

"Least I'm not blue anymore", I said, sipping the straw slowly.

"You heard that?"

"I guess so," I said, spitting out the straw. I reached one hand up to wipe my mouth, when I noticed my arm come out from the covers. I just stared at it. I hadn't realized how... small my arms had gotten. They weren't just lean—they were weak-ass scrawny.

"Muscle loss," Don answered, quietly clearing his throat. "The body breaks down muscle in extreme survival situations... not enough food... or constant exposure."

I drew a breath, not realizing I'd been holding it. I dropped my gaze and pulled my arms close into my body. The feeling of insecurity struck me again. He knew... he could see all the physical signs. He didn't need Casey or anyone to tell him, he'd seen it enough times.

The Door creaked ever so softly, and we both looked up. Standing in the doorway, Splinter stood with widening eyes.

"Ryu," He exhaled, exhaustion and relief all mixed together in a faint smile.

"He just woke up Sensei," Donnie replied, closing his file. Splinter walked into the room, abandoning his tea and cane by the door before moving to my bedside. Donnie stepped out of my line of vision, drawing the curtain half around the bed.

Something welled up from deep in my chest, threatening to spill over. The most I could do was a take a shaky breath as Splinter leaned in, touching my face with one hand.

"My dear child," Splinter whispered. His eyes were dark, almost sparkling from the tears that spilled just as freely.

He looked me over as he sat on the side of the bed. He took my hand into his, clasping it ever so gently, like I could break.

"M'sorry," I said, squeezing his hand. "I tried to do things right... but I messed up real bad."

"No... There is nothing for you to be sorry for, my son," Splinter said, shaking his head. "You are home, that is all that matters."

I couldn't hold it back – I hadn't acted right or smart this entire time. Just like all the times in the past. I had broken every single cardinal rule he had ever given us since we were children. Having to come back and face him was harder than any physical setback I'd faced in my entire time in exile. The previous ideas of coming back to New York and just hiding elsewhere in the sewers away from them felt more and more like the cowardly, sleazy kind of approach.

"Almost got... killed," I said. My voice cracked as I lost control. "I hurt good people. Innocents... I did HORRIBLE things. Was gonna hide- save my own skin, but... I couldn't. Then I got the letter, and.. I lost everything."

"No... No, you have not lost anything", Splinter sighed, stroking my cheek with his thumb. "You have a home and a family that missed you. And a father who loves you so very much."

My breaths turned to sobs as I leaned into his hand. He adjusted his seat on the bed before wrapping his arms around me, pulling me closer to him. I leaned my head against his chest, trying to hold onto his sleeve with one bandaged hand.

The memories I had tried to ignore for so many months now all came out ifromn a raging flood. The smell of jasmine on his robe. A strong heartbeat and steady rise and fall of breath. Letting us crawl into his bed when thunderstorms echoed through the sewers. Consoling us when things went bump in the night and riled our imaginations. The first night 'home' with Splinter after the Shredder had kidnapped him...

All this time, doubting the sincerity of the letter and racking my brain over and over about what to say, and how to get back on good terms - even if I still wasn't a son after all this. I was so unsure what to say – but he took me back with no hesitation.

"Let it out, Raphael... you will feel so much better for it," he said. He rocked very slightly, matching the speed of his breathing. His cheek rested against the top of my head, both arms supporting me as I buried my face into his shoulder.

"M'sorry... m'so sorry..." I managed between breaths. I didn't know what else to say...

"Sh sh shh… Iie. Ryu... There is nothing for you to be sorry about. There were things done in anger that never should have occurred," Splinter said, looking down. "It should never have gotten to this point..."

He paused for a moment, and then reached for something on the side table. He sat me up a little and held the cup of tea to my lips. I took a few small sips and nodded. He set the cup on the table.

"The day you left ran through my mind a thousand times. I should never have lost my temper... I thought you were staying at Mr. Jones's apartment and it was only a matter of time that you would return. But you were never there. I feared that something had happened to you. That you had not left, but had been taken by force…"

He paused and pulled back slightly, looking down at me.

"I did not see the truth until your brother confronted me."

"Mike?" I said, looking up. Splinter nodded, taking a slow deep breath.

"Raphael… no matter what trouble you get yourself into, or how many disagreements you and I have. You are my son. Nobody can take that from you. And I would never deny you that right."

His words lifted a heavy weight from my shoulders, and I clung to him until I couldn't stay awake anymore.

"Sleep, my child…" He whispered. "Papa has you now."

I heard a distant chime, and opened my eyes. The infirmary was dim, save for a light by the counter. I stretched a little, joints popping and cracking all over. I was tucked in and warm, but my back was sore as hell. I pulled my arms out from under the blankets and realized that the IV was gone. Don must have removed it during the night. I turned and looked over the side of my bed. Splinter was sitting in the chair with a blanket over his lap. Mike was on the floor, wrapped with a blanket and sleeping with his head against Splinter's leg. Splinter opened his eyes and looked at me.

"It is early, Ryu", he whispered. "You should sleep."

"Hurt too much," I whispered, shaking my head. "Thirsty."

He nodded, and then took a glass of water from the side table and held the straw up to my lips.

"Did you sleep well?"

I nodded, peeking down at Mike. I leaned forward and took a few sips before sitting back.

"When did he…"

"Shortly after you fell asleep," Splinter whispered, putting the glass back on the table. "He is very eager to see you."

I looked down at the snoring turtle. What had he gone through after I'd left? I hadn't really considered their reactions to my disappearance. I guess I'd blocked it out mostly when I'd first left. But Mike and I were always a team – while Leo and Don fussed over strategy and scientific crap, Mike and I were jumping in feet first, getting our hands dirty and causing havoc. What did he do with me gone?

"Raphael..?"

I blinked up at Splinter. He studied me for a moment and sat back.

"You were lost in your thoughts."

"Gomen… I was just wondering. How he was when I left."

Splinter looked down at Mike, rubbing his head gently.

"He struggled. He was very confused about why you were gone. He distanced himself from your brothers, argumentative with me when I told him you needed time for yourself to think."

"You thought I was gonna come back after a few days."

Splinter nodded and sighed. "I tried to reassure him that you decided to take time for yourself before coming back home. But the days stretched to weeks… and your brother would talk to me less and less. I meditated more and more to come up with a solution to the matter. Things came to a head around Christmas."

Christmas… I had gone to visit April, and they had been there. Mike had followed me out and begged me to come home. I got so nasty towards him, when he said I was having a 'tantrum'. He really had no idea what the full situation was… He was so happy to see me—and I was so mean.

"The Christmas gathering at Ms. O'Neil's home... Michelangelo saw you and followed after you. He returned, completely distraught. He let loose a torrent of emotion that he must have been holding inside for weeks."

Splinter rested a hand on Mike's shell, looking a lil sad as he remembered.

"He was furious at me.. He accused me of throwing you out, that I had shirked my duties as your father... then he told me that you had not returned because you believed that you had been disowned and no longer my son. He told me to… 'stop staring at tea leaves for some supernatural answer and fix our family'."

"Damn.." I said, looking down at my brother. Mike wasn't always one for bottling up his emotions, but the supernatural tea leaf thing was harsh – like something I would've said.

"Hm.. it was a crude eye-opener… but one that I needed. I knew I had waited too long, that some damage had been done. But I was determined to find you and bring you back... to show that I had not—would not...abandon you."

He reached up, taking my hand. "I am so sorry that you felt that way, Raphael…"

I squeezed his hand, shaking my head. I felt bad Mike had gone through so much on his own.

"We searched the city... We searched every news resource we could find. As we gained more insight of where you had been and what had happened to you, the more I feared for your safety. Learning that you might have been at the cabin was our first true sign of hope."

"That's when you sent the letter," I whispered. He nodded wordlessly, and looked down at Mike.

"Your brother became more and more restless as we drew closer to where you were. When you were brought home… he would not leave this room for days."

"Days?" I said, looking up. "How long have I been here?"

Splinter tilted his head slightly. "You have been in the infirmary for six days. This will be the seventh."

I couldn't believe it. The time had felt so much shorter when I was out. Any wonder I was sore- I'd been stuck in bed for a solid week.

"Your body needed that much time to heal", Splinter said, taking a deep breath. "You went through so much. But your brothers all took turns waiting for you to wake up."

All of them.. even Leonardo?

"Your brothers worried for you, Ryu," Splinter said, gazing at me. "Do not let past pain keep you from healing today."

Mike stirred and yawned from his spot on the floor. Splinter moved his hand from Mike's shell and rubbed his head gently.

"Wake up, aiko." Splinter whispered, smiling. "There is someone who wants to see you."

Mike blinked a few times and looked up. I gave a little wave from my spot on the bed, and Mike suddenly scrambled to his feet.

"ANI! You're awake!" He barely kept himself from leaping onto the bed, wrapping his arms around me and burying his head under my chin. I hitched a breath as pain shot through my side, but I returned the hug with one IV – free hand.

"Easy, Michelangelo," Splinter scolded quietly, "He is still injured."

Mike pulled back slightly and looked at me. "Sorry…"

I smiled and shook my head. "It's alright, Oto… I missed you too."

He buried himself against me again, lightening his grip just a little. Splinter stepped away to give us a moment, and I rested my cheek against Mike's head. He sniffled and clung to me, rambling desperately.

"I missed you so much, Ani, you didn't tell us where you were and then we fought at the Christmas party and I didn't think you'd ever be back, and I thought the others didn't care about you, but then we started the wall and we looked for you everywhere and I got scared when I heard you were hurt, and then we saw you at the park and then you wouldn't wake up and I thought—"

"Easy Mike, EASY… take a breath, Oto," I said, shaking my head. He was gonna hyperventilate if he got anymore worked up. I kept an arm around Mike and scooted back a little to sit up. I pulled him back a little, catching his eyes. They were red and puffy, like he'd been up for hours.

"Mikey… I'm so sorry I treated you the way I did," I said, holding his face with both hands. "I will never abandon you like that ever again. I promise."

Mike smiled and nodded. It was time to fix this family…

I spent two more weeks in the infirmary, but not just to get over the remaining chest cold, cuts, bullet wounds and burns. I'd gotten so weak from lying in bed that I had to do physical therapy to get my strength back.

Sometimes the pain was unbearable, like when I started doing core stretches to flex the muscles around the bullet wound. It took a while for shell to grow back around it, but I was eventually able to sit up and move around the infirmary a bit.

My hands were the worst to deal with. I couldn't really hold onto anything to steady myself, and weapons… well, I was never able to get my sai out of the pond. I was still kicking myself over that. At the rate I was healing, it would probably be another few months before I could even try to go back and search the pond. The damage, I feared, was going to be permanent.

The time wasn't all pain and misery, though. Splinter spent a lot of one-on-one time with me, especially after the pain of countless physical therapy sessions. Mike was with me constantly, unless he was shooed out to give me some quiet time. He got Donnie to help him make a 'speedchair' – cuz 'wheelchairs are slow', according to him – out of an old kitchen seat and a few skateboard wheels. It was supposed to be for me to have an easier way of moving around outside the infirmary; we ended up drag-racing it down the hall and crashing into a heap of pillows. We laughed our asses off, but Splinter put his foot down and the chair got parked.

Leo didn't really come in that first week. I'd catch him looking into the room during physical therapy, or passing through the hallway at mealtime. But he never came into the room. Then, one morning, that changed.

I had just woken up, and had managed to shuffle to the bathroom and back, when I heard a knock at the door. I held the back of the johnny shut and turned, keeping one hand on the bed. Leo was standing there with a tray of food. I stared at him before clearing my throat.

"Uh- come in."

He nodded his head slightly, stepping into the room. I managed to sit down on the side of the bed and pull one leg up onto the bed. He set the tray on the bed and looked at me for a moment.

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm getting better..."

Leo nodded, glancing down at my tray. "Donnie said you've improved enough to go back to your own room tonight."

"That's good."

It… felt awkward as hell. We both stared at the breakfast tray, like it could give us an answer… or at least something to talk about. Then I saw the orange. I reached over with my good hand and picked it up.

"Here," I said, holding it up to him. I didn't mind oranges; they were just too messy to deal with. But Leo always liked the smell of oranges – maybe that's why he liked cleaning the dojo all the time. Leo hesitated, but then took the orange with a nod.

"You remember… when Sensei first found oranges", he started, tearing the rind open. "We'd sneak into his room and make orange sparks with the candles."

Oranges were wicked rare for us to have. One day, Sensei found a whole crate of oranges left out by a dumpster—all because a few had rotted. We had enough oranges to eat at every meal for two straight weeks. We ate oranges til we TURNED orange. Then, Donnie learned that the oil in the peel was flammable: If you squeeze the orange part (not the pith), directly into a flame, there's these itty bitty pockets in the skin that pop, and it would make little sparks. You'd think we had discovered a stash of fireworks, the way we reacted every time there was a tiny little flash.

"Yeah, I remember. He always knew when we did it, though." It was kinda obvious, when his room would still smell like burned oranges several hours after the incident.

Leo removed the rest of the peel and set it aside. Then he tore the orange in two and offered me a chunk.

"I'm... I didn't want to interrupt the others when they were taking care of you," he said, peeling apart his own half of the orange. "I didn't want to come in at a bad time..."

The memories of my past encounters flashed through my mind briefly. It had taken a lot for Leo to come in and see me. And I didn't want to miss this chance to work things out with him.

"Well, now's a good time," I said, popping a chunk of orange into my mouth.

Leo exhaled and looked down. "I didn't know what to do… I was torn. Angry that you had left the way you did, angry that you had risked your life so recklessly… then you came home to us, nearly half-dead. It was just like the farmhouse all over again. And Splinter dropped everything to focus on you and nobody else."

I studied him quietly. This was sounding suspiciously like a lecture…

"I thought 'Hey, I've been a good student and obedient son this entire time. I've continued my duties and extra during this time. Why is there no recognition in that?'"

Yeah, this definitely sounded like a lecture. I opened my mouth to say something, when Leo put a hand up.

"Just… hear me out." He took a breath, looking at the floor. "I confronted Splinter, all puffed up and ready to make a case for how wrong he was doing things. I told him how 'his son' was being selfish and reckless, and that I wasn't going to time on someone that wanted nothing to do with us. He had other sons to take care of..."

This conversation was not filling me with much hope…

"Well… Splinter took me aside, and explained why he had worked so hard on the wall… and how scared he had been that you were hurt or dead. You were literally pulled from the edge of death. He was so grateful to have you back… that's why he's spent so much time with you," Leo said, rubbing his neck. "And… I felt about three inches tall afterward."

Leo chewed his lip, and then looked straight at me. "I'm sorry, Raph. I was only thinking of myself. Not the reunion of our family. The son being selfish was me. You didn't deserve that kind of resentment. You risked everything to come back to us. I should have done the same."

"I… don't blame you for feeling that way, Leo." I said, reaching out and putting a hand on his shoulder. "I wish I'd done things differently too."

Leo patted my hand and nodded. "Once I knew my error, I stepped up, helping with more duties, making sure Mike and Donnie were okay, and helping with the wall."

I frowned a little. "Wait… what's this about a wall?" Mike had mentioned it in his babbling, but I didn't get details.

He paused and looked at me. "I'll show you."

He took my bathrobe from the side chair and set it on the bed. Then he grabbed the speedchair from the corner. I pulled on the bathrobe, and managed to move from the bed to the chair. He made sure I had my feet up on the legs of the chair before he slowly rolled me out to the hallway. I pulled the bathrobe around me and sat back, glad to finally get out of the infirmary again.

He wheeled me out to Don's lab and stopped in front of the door. He knocked once before opening the door. He wheeled me inside and towards a large wall, covered in papers. He stopped the chair in front of the wall, and then flipped a switch. I blinked a few times at the sudden brightness of the lights, and then finally saw what was in front of me.

Dozens of newspaper articles, notes, photos and maps. Printouts of addresses, street routes, and pictures of buildings... a wall completely covered with tape and paper. A computer with police scanners and radios took up another wall.

I pulled myself to my feet, wrapping my robe around me as I slowly stepped towards the wall, staring at the sheer volume of paper on the wall. Police reports of the station break-in, a menu from Jake's, A scribbled note that read 'left farmhouse – Port Authority North, 7:20'...

"The day after you showed up at April's... Splinter called us all together and we started searching for you. You were always a few steps ahead of us..."

"You looked for me..," I said, looking from the wall to Leo. He walked over to the wall and stood next to me.

"I was against it at first. Mike and I butt heads more than once. But… we don't leave family behind. No matter how much of a pain in the ass they are," he said, looking down the length of the wall. "You were a hard one to keep track of. Surprising, considering everything you managed to do."

"Least they got my good side for the police sketch," I joked, seeing a sketch of a bald man with green paint on his face and a bandana over his nose.

"You have no idea how hectic things got after you left the city. The papers said that your break-in was practically considered a terrorist act."

"Figures…" I said, slowly looking over the scribbled notes and paper clippings. "Did they blame me for the dead guy in Central Park? He was frozen on a park bench."

"Nothing suspicious..."

My eyes fell onto a dusty stack of newspapers on the desk.

The image on the front made my stomach suddenly drop. It was a photo of the police cruiser and the SUV. I rested a shaky hand on the paper, pulling it closer. I could still smell the burnt rubber and old radiator fluid. I wiped the dust off and picked up the paper.

"They survived..."

I looked up. "What?"

"They recovered," Leo said, looking at the photo. A photo from the cruiser's dashcam shows a figure running from the SUV. I closed my eyes and turned away, still struck with guilt for leaving them in the snow and cold alone.

"I… I tried to help them. I put a coat on the kid, but… I had to hide from the police."

Leo nodded slowly. "That coat kept her warm until the police arrived. You saved her life."

"I sure didn't feel like a hero at the time." I didn't think I ever would feel good about any of what I'd done.

"But you did some good out there." Leo said, looking up at the wall. He pointed at the menu from Jake's bar. "The owner of that restaurant – he said you were always welcome… even with your… Shellitis?"

I snorted, chuckling. "I told him I had… Polynesian Cheloniantitis."

Leo shook his head, but smiled. "Well, whatever it is, he said you were a good worker, and you better give him a call in the future."

"He was a decent guy," I said, still in awe at the sheer amount of paper stuck to the wall.

"Oh, there's one more thing," Leo said, putting his hands on my shoulders and turning me around.

There, sitting on some chairs, were Mike, Don and Splinter. On Don's lab table, there was a short, squat tree covered in lights and a few decorations. Mike smiled and waved, bouncing in his seat.

"You weren't here for Christmas… so we wanted to give you one now."

I blinked several times, biting my lip as Leo wheeled me up to the table.

"Merry Christmas, Raphie." Mike leapt out of his seat and gave me a hug.

"We have something for you," Don chimed in, setting a wrapped box on the table.

"I believe it is something you have been wanting for a very long time," Splinter said. He got to his feet and came to my side, setting the box in my lap. He kept a hand on my shell as I removed the ribbon and opened the box. I gasped.

My sai… tarnished, flash-rusted, nasty… damaged, but together. I drew a shaky breath, fighting tears as I lifted them out of the box.

"I found those in the water when I pulled you out of the pond," Leo murmured, kneeling beside the chair.

I looked from the sai to Leo, putting an arm around his neck and pulling him close. He wrapped an arm around me and returned the hug.

"They're… they're so damaged. I ruined them." I looked up at Splinter, ashamed that I had neglected them so badly. It would take a miracle to get them back to normal…

Splinter shook his head, leaning his face in close to mine. "Iie, they are not ruined. They may be a little tarnished, but they are not irreparable."

"Think of it this way, Raph," Leo said, looking at the sai. "It's not damage. It's character. And it gives you a good story to tell in the future."

I nodded, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand. I finally felt complete again.

"Thanks guys… I couldn't ask for anything better."

It's said that experiences can build one's character. Well, I gained a lot of both after that. I didn't fight with Leo nearly as much, and I'm closer with Mike and Donnie. Sensei still gives me grief about curfews, but you can see he's not really mad. He's grateful that I'm here, and so am I.

Hopefully, you got something useful out of my story, now that I finally finished telling it. I coulda pulled that whole "everything's a dream" kinda twist and cut it short… that woulda pissed some people off. Maybe an alcohol induced hallucination...

Eh, screw it. I'll leave this writing crap to Mikey.