Many thanks to greshunkai for her sharp eyes.
~KT

Sooner
By KameTerra


From a young age, each of them had known they'd have to face it sooner or later.

For Raphael, it was sooner.

"Raph, are you-"

Raphael retched again as he leaned against the tunnel wall, his fingers curling with the effort of it. "I'm fine," he growled, and then he spat and wiped his mouth in a futile attempt to rid it of the bitter taste.

He felt his older brother's hand come to rest on his shoulder, and though the last thing he wanted was anyone touching him, he kept his hands pressed hard against the slimy brick of the tunnel. He knew if he removed them, he wouldn't be able to hide the trembling.

"Raph?" Leonardo tried again. "Hey, it's okay. You had no choice, you-"

"I said I'm FINE!" he replied through gritted teeth, and as he breathed, slowly and deeply, the nausea at last began to fade. The memory, though, remained as vivid ever. He could still feel the percussion of the gunshot through his chest, and the accompanying ringing in his ears. He could still see, as if in slow motion, his shuriken flashing through the air an instant before it lodged deeply into the man's exposed throat.

Raph spat again, and then straightened slightly. When he felt like he was in better control of himself, he glared back over his shoulder at Leonardo. "Will you fucking back off?"

Leonardo searched his face for a moment, and then he let his hand slide from Raphael's sweat-slicked shoulder and stepped backward, not even calling him out on his language. Back behind Leo, at a much more comfortable distance, Don and Mike looked on worriedly, and helplessly. Good. At that distance, the shadows would hide the shaking of his hands. At last he dared give up the support of the wall and took a couple of steps before crouching beside a pool of fetid runoff. It was littered with wrappers and debris, and smelled foul, but Raphael didn't care. He proceeded to rinse his hands in the mucky water, scrubbing until what he could see of the sticky blood was gone. By the time he was done with that, the shaking of his hands had largely subsided, and his heart had slowed to something like a normal rhythm.

Raph rose and turned to face his brothers. Pulling in a final, steadying breath, he said, "Okay. I'm ready."

They all continued to look at him in that somber, almost scared way, and Raphael's jaw tightened.

"Ready for what?" Leo ventured at last, apparently speaking for all of them.

"Ready to go to the next spot," Raph said impatiently.

Leonardo paused, studying him again before saying, "I think we'd better just get home."

"What? This is supposed to be a salvage trip—we can't just go back with nothing!"

"I think Master Splinter will understand," Leo said slowly, and behind him Michelangelo nodded in agreement.

Raph looked incredulously between Mike and Leo, and then he shook his head. "No way. Fuck that. We already had to leave behind the other stuff we got-"

"We'll find more stuff another time," Leo interrupted calmly.

"No, you don't get it," Raph hissed, and Leonardo's brows rose at the intensity of his tone. "I AIN'T gonna let this trip be for nothin'. It can't be for nothing… understand?" His heart was beating wildly once again, and though he was careful to keep his voice sounding tough, inside he was pleading with his brother to understand, to give in just this once…

Leo's eyes continued to study Raph's, and at length the blue-masked turtle's shoulders eased just a bit, and he nodded very slightly. Raphael dared to let out a breath.

"We'll make one more quick stop, get what we can, and then we'll head back," Leo said.

"Leo, are you sure that's a good idea?" Donatello piped up from behind. "Maybe we should-"

"One more stop," Leo said firmly, turning to face Don and Mike. "It won't take long, and then we'll go."

Don and Mike exchanged looks, but there were no further protests, and they all headed off toward another familiar spot where they found useful items from time to time. This time they proceeded topside with exaggerated caution. All of them were on edge, weapons drawn, half expecting another incident… but everything remained quiet. They found a couple of things on the wish list—the motor off of an old lawn mower, and a pair of area rugs that were a little frayed but hardly smelled at all—and in what seemed no time at all, Leonardo was directing them to head back down into the sewers.

Even Raphael didn't object this time. Unlike past excursions, there had been no banter, no friendly competition to see who could find the best or the weirdest stuff. It was just in and out, silent and efficient.

Raph wondered if they'd ever feel at ease topside again.

He wondered if it would be such a bad thing if they didn't.

Still, he felt better returning with something in their hands, even though he suspected Leonardo's instincts were correct, and their sensei would have preferred they return earlier.

They didn't talk on the way home. Raph could feel his brothers glancing at him as they walked lugging the rugs, especially Michelangelo, but he avoided their eyes. When they reached the lair, Leonardo predictably headed right to Master Splinter's quarters. After helping to stash the few items they'd brought back, Raph headed upstairs. Before he'd gotten too far, though, Michelangelo spoke up.

"Hey… Raph?"

Raphael stopped and waited, but he didn't turn around.

"I was gonna fix something to eat," Mike continued hesitantly. "Want me to make you something?"

"Not hungry," Raphael answered, and he continued up the stairs.

"Well then you wanna, like, watch some TV or something?"

This time Raph turned to look at his brother, and sure enough, there it was—that worried look, like Mike was afraid maybe he'd start cutting himself if he was left alone. "Mike." He waited until his brother's eyes caught and held on his. "I'm fine. Okay?"

The truth was he wasn't fine. Instead of dulling the memory, all the passage of time had done was make it seem worse. Raph could too easily imagine what it would be like right now if things had gone down differently, and every time he thought about it he broke out in a cold sweat. But there was no use in making his brothers worry—he could deal with it on his own.

"Um. Okay," Mikey answered, but it seemed more like he was afraid to argue than that he was convinced.

Raph sighed and turned away again. One thing at a time. "Gonna hit the shower," he said. "I'll come down later."

He didn't specify how muchlater, and when he first went upstairs, he sorta figured he'd hole up in his room for a while and blast his worries away with the kind of music no one else in his family could stand, even at a much lower volume than he preferred. But by the time he was out of the shower, he knew music alone wasn't gonna cut it. He needed something visual to compete with the images that insisted on resurfacing in his head, and he ended up heading downstairs to join Mike in watching TV for a while.

Mikey and Don were both there when Raphael arrived, and with a perfunctory grunt of acknowledgment, he flopped down on the couch to stare numbly ahead at the TV screen. He had no idea what they were watching, and he didn't care. He did, however, wish they were allowed to drink—he was sure alcohol was called for in a situation like this. And it wasn't like the usual human age limits applied to them anyway, but Master Splinter stood firm on that one. They were too young, he said.

Which had always struck Raph as ironic, since they were old enough to fight…

And old enough to kill.

The man's eyes widened, and the darkness of the night along with the dirtiness of his skin made the whites of his eyes seem to glow in the dark. The gun slipped from his fingers, landing with a metallic thunk on the ground. Clutching at his throat, the man went to his knees, every breath he tried to pull in marked by a wet gurgle and a rasp that seemed to Raphael it would wake the whole city. By the time he collapsed, Raphael was close enough to see that his eyes were fixed and glazed over—whatever he was looking at, it wasn't part of this world.

"Raphael," came Splinter's voice, and the turtle looked up looked up with a start. The rat was staring at him intently from just outside the common area, but his voice betrayed nothing. "Come here, please."

Raph's eyes tracked to the other side of the lower level, where Leonardo was just making his way up the stairs, and Raphael glowered at him. At that moment, as if he could sense Raph's malignant gaze, Leo turned around and looked back at him unabashed. Self-righteous little prick, Raph thought, Splinter's pet, runnin' his mouth about every goddamn thing that ain't his business… Raph would have a "chat" with him about this later. But right now, it seemed he had no choice but to go with his sensei. He rose, still scowling, but otherwise followed obediently as Splinter lead the way to his room. He shot a last look back over his shoulder at Mikey, but his brother just shrugged and gave him a sympathetic look.

"Kneel, my son," the old rat directed once they were alone in his quarters. Raphael sighed inaudibly, and sank to his knees. Splinter then wordlessly handed him a cup of tea.

The turtle sniffed it lightly, and grimaced. "Um, thanks, but I don't-"

Splinter, now pouring a second cup, merely gave him a Look.

Raph got the message, and cleared his throat lightly before taking a drink. He coughed a little, surprised by the strong taste of the unfamiliar brew, but made no comment.

His father settled himself unhurriedly on the other side of the low table, and savored the steam rising from the cup before taking his first sip. Then his eyes rose to meet Raphael's. "Your brother told me what happened tonight," Splinter began.

He was quiet then, probably waiting for some response, but all Raph did was lower his eyes and force down another mouthful of the Toxic Tea.

Splinter sighed softly. "Raphael."

The way he said that one single word expressed more than an entire lecture, and in spite of Raph's resolve to play it cool, an abrupt pressure in his chest suddenly made it hard to breathe.

"I knew this day would come," the old rat continued softly. "But I had hoped with all my heart that it would not come so soon."

There was another quiet sigh from his father, and still Raph kept his eyes fixed downward.

"You are thirteen years old—but I cannot lie to you and say this would be any easier if you were older."

He felt a fuzzy paw come to rest on his shoulder, gentle but firm, and if it were anyone but his sensei, Raph would have knocked it away none too gently. "It's fine. I'm fine," he managed hoarsely. His throat felt thick, constricted, and after he said the words, he wasn't even sure who he was trying to convince—Splinter, or himself.

His sensei's paw firmed still more on his shoulder. "I know you will be, my son," the rat said, making it clear that he was in no way fooled. "The decision to take another's life, as much as the action itself, will never be easy. Should never be easy," he amended. "But sometimes it is necessary, and from what Leonardo told me of what happened, your judgment was sound."

Raph squeezed his eyes shut tight and hunched lower, as if he could sink right down into the floor. Then he shook his head.

"Raphael. You made the right decision," Splinter said, his voice full of calm assurance.

The turtle was used to trusting that voice, obeying that voice… but this time, he knew better. His breaths were coming more rapidly, more shallowly, and Raph was terrified that at any moment, his hands would start shaking again, but he couldn't let it go by. "No," he said in a low voice, shaking his head all the more adamantly.

"It is normal, and in this case healthy, to feel guilt, Raphael. But you killed this man to protect your brother. You-"

"It ain't that," Raph cut in, in his turmoil forgetting the long-standing rule about interrupting his sensei. His forearms were beginning to tremble now, and his fingers curled tightly around his teacup. Through the touch of the rat's hand on his shoulder, Raphael felt his father stiffen at his words, and after a several beats of silence, the hand slowly withdrew.

"Look at me, my son."

Impossible. Raph wanted to obey, but it felt like there was a two-ton weight pressing on the back of his neck. It was all he could do just to keep breathing through the collapsing tunnel of his throat, so he just focused on doing that. Slowly, deeply… in and out.

"Raphael. Look at me." And this time the furry hand touched him under the chin, and with firm pressure lifted his face.

He managed a quick glance at his father's face, but immediately dropped his eyes again.

"Tell me," Splinter said, and the gentleness of his tone in no way diminished the strength of the command.

His father held his chin steadily for another moment, waiting for Raphael to answer, but the turtle couldn't talk around the lump in his throat. He swallowed hard, and felt his control slipping. He shook his head again, almost in a panic at knowing what was coming, at knowing the heated pressure building behind his eyes was going to overflow… and just when he was thinking of fleeing, rules or no rules, Splinter released him, his hand retreating gently to allow Raph's head to bow once again.

"Drink," his father said calmly.

Gratefully the turtle raised his cup, in his relief practically gulping the strong tea, and feeling his throat ease as he did so. Splinter didn't say anything else right away, and Raphael kept on drinking until the cup was empty. Then the rat wordlessly proffered the teapot and refilled it. This time, realizing his sensei wasn't going to press him just yet, Raph sipped more slowly, and as the heat of the liquid spread through his body, he felt his tension begin to ease.

Across from him, Splinter sipped his own tea. After a time, he said quietly, "Now, tell me."

Raph glanced up again, and then stared down into his cup as he swirled the tea, knowing he wasn't going to be let off the hook, no matter how long they had to sit here. Might as well get it over with. "It ain't the killing part," he started slowly, and though his voice still didn't sound normal, he at least felt he could get the words out without blubbering like a baby. "I'm okay with that. I mean, not that it—not that I liked it!" he said, horrified by how that came out.

He could still remember how it felt, knowing the crumpled form on the ground would never get up because of him, knowing the last painful, rattling breath the man drew was rendered ineffective by the cold piece of metal he'd lodged deep in his throat. Only when the spasmodic, involuntary expansions of his ribcage, the body's final, futile attempts to breathe, had stilled did Raph attempt to remove the shuriken from the ruined throat. And only then did the stream of blood switch to a deluge, splashing over Raphael's hands as if to mark him as the unequivocal slayer.

Raph had only just made it underground before he got sick.

He took a slow breath, and went on. "What I meant is that, as much as it sucks, I get it. I get that sometimes, there ain't any way around it. I'd do it again if I had to." Then slowly, finally, he raised his eyes unprompted, and met his father's. There was more strength in his voice when he said, "The problem is that I hesitated."

Splinter's sharp brown eyes didn't falter, but Raph saw the surprised twitch of his eyebrows, a reaction his sensei didn't quite stifle in time.

"I saw the guy first," Raph hastened to explain. "His eyes were on Leo, even though he couldn't have seen him too good in the shadows, an' I saw him pull a gun. Mike an' Don were too far away to react, even if they'd seen him, and Leo had his shell to 'im. Don't know why the guy decided to shoot first an' ask questions later—maybe he saw just enough of Leo to know he wasn't human—but as he raised the gun and took aim, I had a chance to react… and I hesitated." He held Splinter's eyes for a long moment, searching for disappointment, or blame, or even anger, but he could discern nothing.

Raph took a great breath and broke eye contact, looking down at the mat. "Because of that, the guy got a shot off. Bullet hit the dumpster not ten inches from Leo's head. Less than a foot. That's when I reacted. The guy didn't get a chance at another shot… but he never shoulda gotten the chance at the first one. Ten inches the other way, an' we'd 'a been carrying Leo home." Now his breathing was coming quickly, almost raggedly, because he could picture the alternate ending almost as vividly as the reality, only it came in a series of stills rather than a continuous reel—Leonardo's body crumpled on the ground, a splotch of blood like a Rorschach on the dumpster behind him; Don and Mike, crouched over his still form of their brother, their hands gloved in blood they couldn't staunch, eyes terrified and haunted; a surreal and somber march through the sewers, their steps heavy, eyes downcast as they carried their tarp-covered burden home to their father. Raph felt the nausea rising again, but this time he fought it down, and at length took a drink of tea.

He could feel his father's eyes on him, but it was some time before the rat spoke. "In battle, things happen very quickly. It may have seemed afterward like you did not react quickly enough, but-"

"No," Raph said, firmly shaking his head. Now that he'd made the admission, he was going to own it. "No. I already had my hand on the shuriken when he was raising the gun, an' it took him a few seconds to aim. I could've had him." He clenched his jaw. "I could've had him… but I froze up. I knew if I made the throw, it would have to be the throat—it was the only area exposed enough, and the only place I could be certain would stop him instantly at that distance. But I also knew that if I dropped him, that was it, ya know? He wasn't gonna get back up, an' I wasn't… I didn't wanna… shit," he faltered. He blinked his eyes rapidly, his teeth clenched so hard his jaw hurt.

"You are right, Raphael," Splinter said after a short but heavy silence. "There is a difference between caution and hesitation. If it means protecting yourself, or this family, I do not want you to hesitate." He paused briefly before continuing. "But you are wrong if you think wishing to avoid killing is something to be ashamed of." He once again placed a light paw on Raph's shoulder. "On the contrary, it is just what I would hope for. It does not make you weak; it does not mean you are a bad brother, or a bad son. It means you value life. That is not a fault, Raphael. It is a virtue."

Raph knew his father was waiting for him to look up, to meet his eyes, but he couldn't. Not just yet. Not when his control was so fragile, with heated moisture already blurring his downcast eyes. He knew the words were meant to provide comfort, even vindication, and he trusted his father, but something in him was revolted by the thought of crying for this stranger, this man he had killed, or even for himself when it was something he'd do again, a hundred times over if he had to.

As if reading his thoughts, Splinter gently took the teacup from him and set it aside, He leaned forward from his kneeling position and embraced Raphael. "Grieving for a life lost—even one you have taken—shows great compassion," his father whispered close to his ear. "It is okay to let go, my son. I am proud of you."

Raph allowed himself to be hugged, and he even leaned into it a little, though he didn't relax completely. In a way, it would be so easy to do what his sensei said—to let go, be a child again and cling to the only security he'd ever known, to cry for the stranger he'd executed as much as for himself and the indefinable thing he'd lost… but though he couldn't completely stifle the tears that escaped from his eyes and burned tracks down his face, he didn't let go. He felt older, somehow. Ancient. And with this feeling came the conviction that even though his father had infinitely more wisdom and experience, he didn't have to agree with him.

Sometimes, no matter what anyone else said, he had to go with his gut.

As this concept slowly solidified in his mind, Raph grew calmer. "They don't deserve it," he whispered.

"Who?" his father whispered back, still holding him close.

"Our enemies—anyone who'd try an' hurt us. They don't deserve my sympathy." His voice was steady, but gruff, and he wasn't surprised when Splinter pulled back to study him again. The rat looked in Raphael's face for a long time, and Raph looked right back at him. "I won't do it," the turtle continued evenly. Then, pointedly, he wiped the accumulated moisture off of his face with the back of his arm. His eyes were dry now. "I won't cry over scum like that. They mess with me, with us… then they only get what's coming to 'em."

Splinter's eyes flicked back and forth as he searched Raphael's, and then he sighed, looking suddenly very, very tired. "I understand why you might feel this way, but I do not want this experience to… harden you, Raphael. It may feel safer right now to divide things into black and white, to deflect your true feelings with anger and hate for the ones you label 'scum,' but you must fight that urge. It is too easy—and in time, if you continue down this path, you will become like those you hate."

Raph held his father's eyes for a moment, and then looked down, his breath tight in his lungs with the irony of it all, the unfairness of it all. "How is this supposed to work, then?" he asked, not even trying to disguise the frustration in his voice. He looked up. "We're supposed to fight, protect one another, kill if necessary, and then… what? Melt into tears afterward? Hold hands an' pray for their eternal souls? How the fuck does that make any sense?"

"Language, Raphael," Splinter said, a hard glitter in his eyes. "You are permitted to ask questions, but you will do so respectfully."

The "or else" was left unspoken, but Raph could imagine several ways his sensei might proceed if there was another slip-up, and he knew he wouldn't like any of them. "Hai, Sensei," he replied deferentially, and then he took a deep breath and tried again. "I guess I'm just… confused. I killed someone tonight in defense of my family. You told me I did the right thing. But now you're tellin' me I'm also supposed to feel bad about it? How… what—" He stopped, and bit the inside of his cheek before he got himself in trouble again. "…I don't get it," he ended bluntly.

Splinter looked at him calmly. "But you do feel bad about it… do you not?"

Raph blinked. "Well… yeah."

"But you also said you would do it again, if you had to."

"I would," he affirmed, still feeling slightly off-balance at the direction things had taken.

"Then what you see as a… contradiction, is in fact possible."

Raphael looked down again, thinking about this, but still somehow unsatisfied.

His sensei sighed again, and sipped his tea. Then he looked gravely at Raph and said, "My son, I have always sensed a… darkness… in you." He paused, apparently making sure he had the turtle's complete attention before going on. "I know you are aware of it, that you fight against it—and most of the time you succeed."

Raph had gone completely still, petrified by his father's words. Was it that obvious, then? Was this darkness, as Splinter called it, visible to everyone, like a stain, or a shadow cast over his skin?

"I have never spoken to you of this because I did not want you to feel as though there is something wrong with you—because there is not, no more than there is something wrong with Michelangelo for being imaginative, or Donatello for being curious. It is simply part of your nature."

The turtle felt his sensei's eyes on him once again, waiting, and he looked up.

"I repeat, there is nothing wrong with you," Splinter said gently.

"If there's nothing wrong with me," Raphael said huskily, "then why is it something I have to fight?"

Splinter gave a ghost of a smile. "Because we must all find balance within ourselves. Your brother Leonardo, for example, is very much a perfectionist. In moderation, it is a good and useful quality, but if he allowed this tendency to take over, it would become a handicap."

Raph snorted a little, but otherwise kept silent. He knew his father was being unusually open with him—obviously now was not the time to comment on Leo's other flaws…

"This quality you have gives you fire and passion, but unchecked it can quickly turn to anger and hostility. This is what I mean by darkness. Do you understand?"

"I think so," Raph said slowly.

"But?" his sensei pressed, apparently sensing there was more to it.

How the hell does he do that? Raphael shifted a little, unsure exactly how to explain. Hell, he couldn't really explain it to himself—but he knew that wouldn't be an acceptable excuse. He drank some more tea as he thought about what to say, and though the liquid was cooling off, it still burned slightly going down. He frowned down at the cup, and then looked sharply up at his sensei. "What kind of tea is this, anyway?"

The rat's furry brows twitched upward momentarily, but otherwise did not react to the abrupt change in subject. He looked down at his own cup, cocked his head slightly, and answered, "It is what I think you would call… Irish?"

"Irish? What's—" Then suddenly it clicked, and his eyes widened. "You, you spiked the tea?"

Splinter showed absolutely no embarrassment as he answered, "It seemed an appropriate use for the small amount of sake I had left."

"Sake," Raph said to himself, still somewhat in shock. He'd never tasted it before—didn't even know his master had any. "I thought we weren't allowed?" His voice came out sounding distant and flat—he wasn't sure how he felt about this yet.

His sensei regarded him speculatively before answering, "You are too young to be taking alcohol… what is the word? Recreationally. But in this case, I thought you might benefit from the, ah… medicinal properties."

"So… what? You wanted to get me drunk?" As soon as he said it, he knew it was absurd, even insulting, but to his surprise his father's mouth pulled back in a wry smile.

"I did not expect you, of all of my sons, to object to being given alcohol." Then, still smiling, he said, "I assure you, I meant only to ease some of your anxiety, and it seemed appropriate given what you have been through tonight."

Raph looked down at his cup. "I was thinking the same thing, earlier," he admitted quietly. "I just didn't expect—I mean…" He looked back up, and shrugged lightly. "No offense, but I always pictured my first experience with booze with more, uh, beer. In it. And loud music. And Mikey makin' a fool out of himself. Don building a beer bong." And Leo looking on disapprovingly. "Not, um… not—"

"Not Irish tea and serious conversation with your father?"

"Right. But… I guess it ain't too bad." No, it wasn't the beer fest he'd always imagined, but it seemed a rite of passage, somehow. A concession on his father's part. He, Raphael, by his sensei's own rules, technically wasn't old enough to drink, but some things superseded mere age, and it seemed that in sharing sake with him, Splinter was acknowledging that.

"I must admit, I am relieved to hear this is your first encounter with alcohol," the rat said with a slight twinkle in his eye. Then he once again lifted the teapot. "It is not beer, but perhaps you would care for some more?"

"Why not?" Raph replied, and he held out his cup while Splinter topped off their cups with the remainder of the tea. This time when he sipped, he took a moment to evaluate the taste… and decided this particular concoction was better swallowed quickly.

"Now, you were saying?" Splinter prompted.

"Was I?"

"You were about to comment on what I said, about finding balance within."

Damn. "Oh. Right." He would've been all too happy to let this part go by, but clearly his sensei wasn't going to let that happen. And Raphael knew better than to lie. He eyed his father, trying to decide how open to be. Whether it was the alcohol eroding his usual reserve, or a shift in perspective after his recent lethal experience, he decided on full disclosure. "I get it," he began slowly. "I get what you were saying about finding balance, about controlling my, um, 'darkness.' Or at least I think I do. And I agree… with some of it."

He risked a glance up, and Splinter was staring back at him. Only someone who knew him well would be able to detect the tension in his carefully relaxed posture.

Raph met his gaze and forged ahead. "You say not to let this harden me…" he said huskily, "But I think it should, a little. Because like I said, next time I ain't gonna hesitate. Someone looks like a threat, I'm takin' 'em out before they even get a chance to try anything. I won't kill 'em if I can avoid it, but that concern will always be secondary. And I know that means that sometime or another, I'll judge wrong. I'll kill someone who didn't deserve it. Maybe I'll kill a hundred people who don't deserve it." He paused here, still meeting his father's eyes, and when he continued there was a new edge to his voice.

"But I'd rather kill a hundred people who are actually innocent, than give one of 'em a shot at my family." He paused, still meeting his father's eyes. "So yeah, I'd say it might harden me a little. If that's wrong, then I'm sorry. But it don't change how I feel about it." He let the words hang for a moment, and then dropped his eyes and waited. Waited for the argument, the reprimand, the lecture, or whatever followed such a pronouncement, knowing it wouldn't change anything. His mind was set, whether his sensei approved or not.

Splinter was silent for a short time, apparently digesting this. "I know that what you say comes from a place of love," he said finally. "You want to protect your family, and that is as it should be. But it also comes from fear, and that is what makes it dangerous. No matter how much you wish to prevent any harm from befalling your loved ones, many things are outside of your control. You cannot be everywhere at once; you cannot see every threat. Imagining you can will only—Raphael!" he barked suddenly.

Raph looked up to narrowed, piercing eyes and flattened ears.

"Did you hear me?" Splinter asked.

Slightly confused by the sudden change in energy, Raphael answered, "Yeah. I heard you."

The rat studied him for several seconds, and then his eyes narrowed still more. "No." He shook his head. "You did not. You listened, but you did not hear."

"Um. I didn't?"

Splinter shook his head again, and his tail flicked sharply. Raph caught the movement, and his eyes widened slightly in surprise. Rarely did his sensei show such overt agitation during these kinds of talks.

"No," his father repeated. "Your ears are open, but your mind is closed." There was an edge to his voice, and his tail swished again as he turned his head away. Then he said quietly, as if to himself, "And there is nothing I can do about it."

Raph sat, feeling unsettled and slightly confused. He'd figured on some sort of reaction, but not such outward… frustration, for lack of a better word. The silence stretched, and just as Raphael was thinking of saying something, the rat sighed and let out a slow breath, his fur smoothing as he exhaled. At last he looked back to the turtle.

"So be it, then," Splinter said, and the words fell coldly on Raphael's ears. Was his sensei… giving up? No lecture? No further wisdom to bestow?

"Sensei?" Raph said, eyeing his father uneasily.

"There is nothing further I can say—you have chosen your path."

"I, uh, don't mean to disappoint you, Sensei, I just—"

"You have not disappointed me, Raphael," Splinter said with a sigh, and both his voice and his gaze were gentler this time. "You have reminded me that some lessons cannot be successfully taught, but must be learned from experience. I do not agree with your conclusion—but you must do as you see fit."

"Um. Okay then," Raph said, still wary.

"However, you must give me your word that you will not forget what we have discussed today. That is all I ask. You do not find it useful now, but in time perhaps my words will help guide you to a path you cannot yet see."

The turtle considered this, and then nodded his head seriously. A promise, then—not to change his decision or his actions, necessarily, but to keep some part of his mind open to other possibilities. But for now, he would throw himself into the role he had chosen. He would be the guardian, the protector, and when necessary, the slayer… because he just couldn't be anything else. And maybe, hopefully, he'd delay the moment when his brothers would have to face what he had today.

He was excused a short while later. Splinter had laid a paw gently on his shoulder as he left, silently assuring him that there were no hard feelings, but it was still an awkward end to their meeting. Raphael's mind was so far away from where it had been when he entered Splinter's room, he had all but forgotten his pledge to seek out Leo for a little chat… that is, until he practically ran into him on his way past the dojo. But for some reason, what he'd wanted to say didn't seem all that important anymore, and Raph was ready to let it go.

Which was why it was so annoying when Leonardo insisted on getting in his face.

"Hey Raph, can I talk to you for a second?"

"Maybe later," Raph said, attempting to step around him.

"Hang on, I just want to talk. It—"

"Nothing personal, but I'm kinda talked out right now," he interrupted, and it was the truth. He wasn't even mad anymore, really. After all, he admitted to himself, it wasn't like he'd honestly expected his brother to hide what had happened, and even without the gory details he had no doubt Splinter would have called him in for a talk.

He started to veer around Leo again, but his brother stepped pointedly back into his path.

"This'll only take a minute."

Okay, now Leo was starting to piss him off. "I said maybe later—as in NOT NOW. Now outta my way!"

Leonardo stood firm, his mouth tightening. "Hang on a second. I just wanted to tell you… I just needed to say… thank you. For—you know. For what you did."

Leo had that look, that self-satisfied look he got when he was doing The Proper Thing and he knew it—but Raphael felt heat rise to his face, along with a surge of adrenaline that made a physical explosion inevitable. He shoved his brother—hard—and Leo was so wholly unprepared for his reaction that he was thrown backward, his shell hitting the wall with a muted crack before he regained his footing.

"What is your problem?" Leo said, glaring up at him from a semi-crouched position. His muscle tension betrayed his anger, but as always, it was still controlled, which pissed Raph off even more.

"You think I did it as some sort of favor? That what you think?" Raph flashed at him, gesticulating angrily as he spoke. "Like leaving you the last piece of pizza, or something? You think if you don't seem properly grateful, maybe next time I'm just gonna watch you get shot?"

"What? No! No, I just—" His eyes narrowed behind his blue mask. "I don't get you sometimes, Raph." He straightened out of his defensive crouch. "Actually, I don't get you most of the time. Here I am, trying to express my gratitude because I know what you did was difficult, and you practically attack me for it! I mean, if you won't let me say thank you, what'm I supposed to say?"

"Nothing! You don't gotta say anything!" He kept his hands squeezed into fists at his side, determined to keep them to himself this time.

"Yes. I do," Leo said, and the change in his tone made Raph study him more closely. The turtle in blue squared his shoulders and held his eyes. "I do have to say something," he repeated, gently but forcefully. "Don't pretend it wasn't a big deal—we all saw your reaction. It was for me you went through that, that pain."

Raph sighed, and consciously relaxed his bunched shoulder muscles. "Wasn't what you think."

Leo looked at him strangely. "What do you mean?"

Raph sighed again. "It's not important," he muttered. Then he glanced up at Leo's expectant face and said, "Look, here's the deal—thanking someone implies debt, right? Like I done you a favor, and now you owe me."

Leo gave him another odd look, and nodded. Raph understood the look—it was more of a cultural Japanese thing, to view things in terms of debt and repayment, and it was no secret to his family that the older he got, the more Raphael thought a lot of it didn't apply to the life they lived. Still, some of it was all but imbedded in their psyches by now.

"Well you don't owe me nothin'," Raph growled. "Someone comes at you, or Mike or Don or Sensei, it's the same as if they were attacking me. Thanking me would be like, like thanking your arm for defending your head. It's stupid, and unnecessary. And frankly a little insulting."

Leo blinked, opened his mouth, and then closed it again without saying anything, looking decidedly out of sorts. Which pleased Raphael immensely. Leonardo shifted his weight from one leg to the other, and finally said, "I didn't mean to… I mean I didn't think… Um. I guess I retract my thank-you, then."

"That's better," Raph grunted. Leo continued to stand there, staring at him in an odd way. "What?" he barked, and though his brother didn't quite jump, he twitched a little, which was almost as satisfying.

"I guess I'm just… surprised, that's all. I thought… I mean, I didn't realize you felt that way, too."

Too. This time it was Raph's turn to be surprised. Their eyes connected, and in that moment, all of their usual antagonism was engulfed in a rare surge of understanding. It was like they were not only brothers, but partners… equals. Then Raph cleared his throat and looked away, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously. He wasn't used to being in agreement with Leonardo. "Yeah. Well…"

"Hey Raph?"

Raphael dragged his eyes back to his brother's.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but… I'm glad it was you," Leo said slowly. "I mean, instead of Don or Mike."

And once again, they were on the same page. "Me too," Raph agreed quietly. It wasn't that he thought their other two brothers wouldn't be able to handle it, he just didn't want them to have to handle it yet. Funny, he'd never really included Leo in that. His older brother seemed somehow less… innocent. Their sensei had always told them it wasn't a matter of if, but of when. Maybe Leonardo was the only one who had truly believed that.

At length Leo cleared his throat and said, "So. You're okay, huh?"

"Yeah. I'm okay."

"Because you don't have to be," Leonardo said simply.

The concern was genuine, and Raph knew his brother was giving him an opening to talk about it, if he wanted to—but even as he was preparing his usual casual dismissal, he caught a glimpse of something else lurking behind the concern in his brother's eyes, something pleading, and almost… fearful. And in a flash of insight, he understood: Leonardo didn't want an assurance that he was okay—he was hoping for an admission that he wasn't okay, that he was struggling. Because someday, it would be the leader's turn, and he wasn't at all sure how well he would handle it.

The truth, then. He owed his brother that much. "I don't mean I'm fine like it don't bother me," Raphael said slowly. "I'm fine cuz… you're alive. I mean, we're all alive." He paused. "Anything else I c'n handle… and so can you."

For a moment Leonardo locked eyes with him, and then his brow furrowed and he looked down, nodding. "Thanks, Raph," he said quietly.

Raphael clasped Leo's shoulder—solid, warm… alive—and jostled it a little. But he was thinking of his brother's previous thank-you, the one he'd taken back, when he said, "You're welcome, bro." His grip firmed on Leo's shoulder. "Anytime."