I own no turtles, no April, and no huge but cuddly-looking rat ninja master.
So, this is it: the last chapter of Stronger. I know I may have confused some of you with the title of Chapter Eighteen ("Finished"), and I apologize for that. I still had something I wanted to do with this story before moving onto a new one. And yes, good news to those who have hung in there with this one: there will be more stories. More of Meli and Leo, and some of just Meli getting to know her new family. So, onward we go.
CHAPTER NINETEEN: FORWARD
Meli finished dusting the largest of the bookcases and turned to give the front room of the Trove a look. Not bad, she mused. In the last week, she'd been able to repair most the damage done by the drive-by. The insurance company had hired someone to replace the big glass-plate window, and Leo and his brothers had been coming over at night to help in any way she needed. A giggle escaped her as she thought back to the previous night, when Raph and Mikey had been trying to help her with some of the more delicate treasures the Trove had to offer. Their bickering had finally escalated to the point that Leo had sent them both home to the lair, and only he and Donnie had stayed to help rearrange things.
The front door opened, and she whirled toward it, her heart immediately kicking into high gear. An older man stood there with an umbrella. "Hello. I was told I could find antique books here?" he asked. His voice was cool, but not unpleasant.
Meli smiled and walked over to him. "You've come to the right place," she said. "What are you interested in?" She kept some distance between her and the stranger; after the week she'd had, she wasn't about to get too comfortable with someone she didn't know. Not anymore.
He nodded toward the bookcases in the back. "Old atlases, actually. Maps. Scrolls with maps on them. That sort of thing."
At the word scroll she involuntarily gasped, but he didn't seem to hear her. He was moving toward the back of the store now, and she followed, trying to calm down. "I have some maps and atlases, yes, and one or two scrolls, but I don't think those have maps on them," she said. The man stopped in front of the bookcase she'd just finished dusting and reached for a heavy book that she knew contained maps of the old world countries.
"This is exactly what I wanted." He turned to her, and she smiled, pleased to have had what he was looking for. "How much?"
"That particular one is $150," she told him, and waited for the flinch that usually followed hearing such a steep price. But he merely pulled out his wallet and nodded.
"Sounds about right for a treasure like this." His tone had warmed considerably, and he followed her to the cash register. She rang it up and he paid for it, running one hand over the worn leather cover. "These are getting pretty hard to come by," he told her.
"They are," she agreed and handed him back his change. He stuffed it into his coat pocket.
"Would you like a bag for it?" she asked, but he quickly shook his head.
"No. I want to carry it, feel the leather," he said. He turned to go, walked to the door, then added over his shoulder, "Your father says to tell you hello."
Meli eyes widened and she hurried from behind the counter toward him, but he stepped outside and the door swung shut behind him. Running to the door, she jerked it open and stepped outside. The man was gone. Dad? Who was that guy, a friend of yours? Where are you? Why haven't you called me again? Shoulders slumped, she stepped back inside and closed the door. It was getting late; she normally closed by six pm, but the clock was slowly crawling towards six-thirty. With a sigh, she turned the lock on the door and flipped the sign from open to closed, and triggered the new security system Donnie had wired in for her.
It would be an hour or so until the boys came, and she didn't want to stay here alone, not after having an opportunity to talk to someone her father knew cruelly yanked away. But Leo doesn't want me out roaming around after dark by myself, so what can I do? She could, of course, just go anyway. But that would breach the implicit trust she shared with the blue-wearing turtle, and she refused to do that. So she shut the lights off in the store, made some tea, and sat down to help Master Chief blow up some seriously messed-up aliens.
An hour later, right on cue, Leo and his three brothers beeped in. Donnie had made sure they all had the proper code to enter the apartment without setting off the shrill alarms, though he'd also threatened to change it after Raph and Mikey's behavior the night before. Meli set the Xbox controller aside, and wiped at her cheeks, cursing her inability to just let it go. If her father didn't want to talk to her, then that was the way it would be. Her phone he'd called her on had been lost in her struggle in the pool, and Donnie had set her up with one of his custom-built T-phones, which was way cooler than anything Verizon or Samsung had.
"Hi," Leo greeted her as she turned to him. But upon seeing the traces of tears on her cheeks, he instantly moved to her and drew her tightly against him. "What's wrong?" he asked, and there was a slight growl to his voice.
She pulled back and took a breath. "I had a customer tonight that bought an old atlas, and right as he was leaving, he told me my dad said to say hello to me." Her voice wavered. "I tried to catch him, but he was gone by the time I got to the door." She wiped at her eyes and swallowed hard. "I don't know why he won't contact me again. I thought he would want to know how things turned out with my uncle and the scroll, but I guess...I guess not." At that a tear spilled from her eye and raced down her cheek. Leo put his hand to her face and deftly caught it on one finger.
"I'm sorry, love," he said, his tone gentle. He eased her back into his arms and held her close, rubbing her back. "If I could make him talk to you, I would."
"I know." She forced a smile to her face and took a step back, peeking around him. His three brothers stood behind the couch, dark expressions on their faces. "Hi, guys," she said. "I have pizza in the oven, and-"
"Meli." Raph moved toward her. His eyes were deep with concern. "You don't have to do that." He stopped in front of her and put his big hands on her shoulders. "We know how much that upsets ya."
She nodded. "I know. But there's no sense in moping over it, either. I can't change anything." She smiled over at Mikey and Donnie. "You guys have to be starving, though. I know Splinter was really giving you a work-out today." She moved away from Raph and headed into the kitchen. She put on an oven mitt and reached into the oven to take out the two pizzas she'd made earlier. Setting them on coasters on the table, she smiled at the four boys, wanting to reassure them that she was okay.
Mikey grabbed a plate and immediately loaded it with four pizzas. "Oh, man, home-made pizza! You're the best sister ever!" he said.
"Don't let April hear you say that," Donnie warned. He too loaded a plate and began eating.
"Oh, yeah. Um, you're both really great sisters," Mikey quickly amended. Raph cuffed the back of his head. "Ow!"
"Shut up," Raph told him. He handed Leo a plate and filled one for himself. Meli went to the fridge and got out two-liters of soda and set them on the table. She glanced up and caught Raph's eye; he frowned, and she smiled.
"I'm okay," she mouthed to him, but he didn't seem swayed. She poured some Mountain Dew for herself and headed into the living room. The boys soon joined her, and it was quiet for a few minutes as they worked their way through both of the pizzas. She loved this time of night, when they came over and hung out. They were the family she'd never had.
"So, what's on the agenda tonight?" Donnie asked. He'd finished first and was eager to get to work.
"Well, I think everything is pretty much done now," she said. "If you guys want to move the old couch out to the alley, that would be great. My new one is getting delivered tomorrow." One without bullet holes, thank goodness. Some of her customers had asked her about the holes, and why the store had been closed for a week, and she'd simply said it had been a random drive-by. She shuddered delicately remembering that night, and Leo set his hand on hers, giving it a squeeze.
"We can do that," he said. He looked to his brothers. "Come on, guys. Let's get to it." They followed him out into the store, and Meli smiled as she watched how effortlessly they picked up the old behemoth, how seamlessly they worked together. They really were amazing. She hurried ahead to open up the back door, and they carried it out and set it down.
"Gees, sucker's heavy," Raph said, giving the old couch a slap.
"It is. It belonged to..." Meli trailed off, a wave of sadness cresting over her. Leo reached for her, and she let him tuck her in close to his chest. She took a deep breath. "It belonged to Uncle Rafe. He bought it overseas somewhere, and had it shipped here as an opening day present when we first opened the Trove."
"It is a pretty cool couch," Donnie said. "But that new one you picked out is really nice, too."
Meli smiled. She'd ordered the new one online, and had shown it the boys the week before. "I know, I really like it. Hopefully it's comfortable."
"Why do you have a couch in the store?" Mikey asked as they walked back into the apartment.
"I have it so people can sit and look at the books before they buy them," she said. "A lot of the books are expensive, and I don't want someone to be unhappy with what they bought." She led them back to the store, and gestured around the room. "I love all the things in here, and I want whoever they end up with to love them, too."
"You should get some old sais or somethin' in here," Raph said. "Or swords, or you know, ninja weapons. People would go for those."
Meli smiled. "You know, I think they really would. That's a good idea. I've always had books, and trinkets from other countries, but weapons would be a seller, too." She gave Leo's hand a squeeze. "And I have four experts who can check the weapons over for me."
Leo nodded, a twinkle in his blue eyes. "We'd be glad to help you," he said. There was a knock on the front door; Leo instantly moved Meli behind him, while his three brothers fanned out to his sides, forming a protective ring around her. She smiled to herself and gently pushed on his shell.
"It's okay," she said. The knocking grew more insistent, and she side-stepped out from behind her boyfriend. He reached out and snagged her hand, giving her a stern look.
"You're closed," he said.
"I know. I'm just going to tap the sign," she said. Leo reluctantly let go of her, and she hurried to the door. Reaching up, she tapped her fingers on the eletric "closed" sign, hoping the person would get the hint and leave. She wasn't about to open the door, anyway, not with Leo and his brothers all standing behind her.
"Meli? Meli, sweetheart, open up!"
Her heart seemed to stutter in her chest, and she felt light-headed. Leo rushed to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. She could feel his anxiety, and took a deep breath. "It's okay," she said, turning to face him. "It's my dad."
"Oh." His eyes widened, and he took a step backward. "Um, we'd better go, then." He touched her cheek. "Are you okay? Do you want me to stay? I can hide out in your room or something," he offered.
She stepped close to him and kissed his cheek. "Why don't you all stay? I doubt he'll stay here long. He never stays with me."
"Really? Well," Leo glanced behind him, "I guess that would be alright." Meli saw the apprehension on his brothers' faces, and smiled at them.
"Really, guys, it'll be alright. Why don't you hide out in my room, and I'll come get you when he leaves?" She hoped they'd agree; she wasn't sure she could handle being alone after her father left.
"Okay." Leo gave her a quick kiss and followed his brothers out into the apartment. Meli pulled her shoulders back and turned to the door, and opened it.
"Meli. It's about time." Alastair Tomkins marched in and set his briefcase down on a small table. He shook the snow off his great coat and turned to look at her. "You're looking well."
"You too, Dad." She stepped forward to hug him. His hugs were always quick, efficient, and to-the-point. "You never called me back."
"Well, you know. I was off finding things," he told her. "Do I smell pizza?"
"Yes, but it's all gone." She knew she should've had the boys hide their plates and cups, but decided it wasn't worth worrying about. Her father wouldn't focus on that, anyway.
"Ah, well." He took a look around the room. "Where is Rafe's couch? He'll be upset if something happened to it. He paid a pretty penny for it, you know. Bugger always mentioned it whenever possible."
Oh, Dad, if only you knew. But she wasn't sure she could tell him about what all had happened, how her uncle had voluntarily gotten turned into a giant lizard and drowned in a subterranean pool. "Well, someone did a drive-by on the place, and it got shot up. So I'm replacing it," she said.
Alastair's eyes grew wide. "A drive-by? My goodness. I see you were unharmed, then."
Yes, thanks to a pair of ninja turtles. It was really amazing how much she couldn't tell him, how much her life had changed in the last couple weeks. "I'm okay. But the big window was wrecked, so I had to have that replaced, too."
"I see." He reached out and patted his briefcase. "I found something quite special on this last trip of mine. Would you like to see it?" There was a gleam in his eyes that reminded her of Mikey when he had something cool to show her, and she smiled.
"I'd love to."
"Good." Alastair opened the case and took out something wrapped in cloth. "This little treasure is just for you, sweetheart. I simply couldn't resist." He unwrapped it and handed her a small turtle figurine. It was heavy and green, with soft yellow eyes, and its shell glittered with different hues of blue, red, purple, and orange. "It caught my eye, and I just had to have it," Alastair added. "It really beckoned to me."
"Oh, Dad..." Meli couldn't even begin to find the words to express what she was feeling. It reminded her so much of all four brothers, and tears moistened the corners of her eyes. "It's amazing, Dad, really. I love it."
"Good." Alastair smiled wide. "I thought you would like it. I know I've been gone quite a bit, my sweet, but I have found some wonderful things."
"Are you staying awhile this time?" she asked. She cradled the turtle to her chest, unwilling to set it down just yet.
"Well, I don't know. A few associates of mine are in town, and I've planned to meet them tonight for drinks. But after that, well, I just don't know." He gave her an apologetic look. "I know we rarely see each other these days. You know, you should come with me sometime. See the world."
"I'm content here, Dad. This is enough for me," she said. There was no way she could ever leave Leo, or her new family. Not for any adventure.
"Whatever happened to that scroll I sent you? Did Rafe ever try to attain it?" Alastair frowned. "I really didn't want to involve you, but you're such a smart girl, I knew you'd be able to handle it."
Gee, thanks, Dad. "Um, well, yes, he did try to take it. But I was able to get rid of it, and-"
"What? You got rid of it? Sweetheart, that was an irreplaceable piece of history! Why on earth would you do that?" His voice rose as he spoke, and she bit her lip. She could tell him what had really happened, but didn't want to tell him about the boys. "Oh, I'm quite disappointed in you." He walked away and she knew he was upset, but also knew it wouldn't last. Something else would catch his attention. He went to the big bookcase that had the atlases on it, and turned to her. "Say, did an older fellow come in today? Buy an atlas from you?"
I knew it. "He did," she said. "Who is he? He told me you said to say hello."
"He's an old friend from my childhood. We've decided to do some adventuring together." He grinned. "That atlas he bought will help us find many more treasures."
His excitement was fetching, but she couldn't find it in herself to be too excited, knowing his "adventuring" would take him far away from her again. "So are you leaving soon, then?"
"I suppose so. As soon as we pick a direction." He walked back over to her and reached out, taking hold of her shoulders. "I love you, sweetheart, and I'm very proud of you for sticking it out here in this terrible city. I have a new phone now, and I'll leave the number with you." He leaned down and planted a gentle kiss on her forehead. "Anytime you want to come along, you let me know. I'd love to have you."
Her heart swelled and she hugged him around the waist tightly. "I love you too, Daddy," she said, hoping her voice didn't reveal just how emotional she was feeling.
He reached into his coat pocket and took out a small piece of paper. "My new number," he told her. She took it and tucked it into her jeans pocket. "I really must be going now, dear, but know that if ever you need me, you can call. You can always fly out and meet me somewhere, too."
"I know, Dad." She watched him take up his briefcase and walked him to the door. He smiled at her and left. She shut the door and locked it, and slid to the floor, the little turtle folded securely in her hands. She realized he hadn't told her how he'd come across the scroll, or known what it was, but somehow, that didn't matter now. The scroll was indeed history, and her uncle was gone.
"Meli." She looked up and saw Leo hurrying toward her, while his brothers looked on.
"I'm okay," she said, and let him help her to her feet. He hugged her gently, and the warmth of his solid body and touch of his warm hands soothed her spirit. She showed him the turtle. "Dad got this for me overseas."
"Wow." Leo took it from her and held it carefully. The others came and gathered around them.
"It has all of our colors on it," Mikey pointed out, a grin on his face. "That's so cool!"
"Heavy," Raph commented as he took it from Leo. "Nice."
"I wonder what kind of turtle it is?" Donnie said. "Maybe a sea turtle, with all of the different colors."
"Does it have to be any one kind?" Raph asked. "Can't it just be a turtle?"
Meli took the little turtle from Raph. "Follow me," she said. She walked over to an old heavy oak desk and set the turtle down, then opened one of the drawers and rummaged around. Finding what she wanted, she pulled out a small piece of black material and a pair of scissors. The boys were quiet as she worked, Mikey leaning close to see what she was doing. She took the little scrap and bent down over the turtle, hiding it from Mikey's view. Finished, she turned to the four of them with a grin, and held out the turtle. "How about this?"
"Yeah, that's wicked."
"Best kind of turtle."
She blushed and let them pass the little turtle around, a black mask adorning his little head. "Thanks, guys." When Leo handed it back to her, she set it down on the desk. "Thank you for staying. I didn't want to be alone after he left."
"Are you okay with him showing up and just leaving again so soon?" Leo asked. His voice was soft.
"I will be. I mean, that's how he is. But he got a new phone, and left me the number, so I can at least call him now whenever I want," she said.
"What about the scroll? Did he say anything about that?" Donnie asked.
"He wanted to know if Uncle Rafe had tried to get it, so I told him it was destroyed." She sighed. "But he didn't tell me anything else about it. I'm not sure it was really that important to him. He gets easily distracted by new things."
"Huh, wonder who that sounds like." Raph reached out and whacked Mikey on the shell. The youngest turtle glared at him.
"Hey, I can't help it. I have a questioning mind," Mikey argued.
Raph rolled his eyes. "Yeah, ya got something," he said. "So, since we're done here, maybe we should play some video games?" There was a hopeful note in his voice, and Meli laughed.
"I think that can be arranged," she said. "I have the newest Black Ops if you want to try that. It just came out yesterday."
"Sweet!" Mikey and Raph gave each other a high five and bolted for the apartment. Donnie grinned and sauntered after them.
Leo ignored his brothers and kept his gaze pinned to Meli. "So, they're gone. Tell me how you're really doing," he said.
The smile left her face. "I'll be okay. I just, sometimes I wish this was enough for him, you know? But he's not happy in one place. He never has been, so it's not fair of me to expect him to stay." Her voice was low, and she didn't try to hide the sadness anymore. Leo wouldn't expect her to.
He pulled her into a hug, and rested his chin on top of her head. "I'm sorry. I wish he would stay for awhile. I know it's hard for you, having him gone so much."
She nodded against his chest. Here, in his strong arms, she didn't feel so bad. And she knew her father wasn't gone for good; he'd be back, bringing new treasures to stock the Trove with. "It is, but you know what?" She pulled back so she could see his face. "I have another family now, with a father and sister and three great brothers. And," she gently traced the line of his jaw, "a boyfriend who is the best guy in the whole world. So I'm pretty well-off."
Leo smiled and gently kissed her. "I love you, Meli. And I promise, you'll always be able to count on us, and on me."
"I know." She leaned against him. "You can count on me, too," she whispered. Forever.