xxxi. headache

"I ain't goin' in there."

"But Raph, someone has to." Mikey holds up a translucent green bottle, shaking it so that the pills inside rattle. "They're really hurting."

Raphael frowns, crossing his arms tighter over his plastron as he leans back at an angle to peek through the slightly cracked door. The lights are off and it's quiet in there, which means that the two turtles inside are either sleeping or in too much agony to do anything but lie there like they're dead. Something twitches in his chest that is most certainly not concern.

"Then you go in," he counters, leaning forward again and uncrossing one arm to point at his youngest brother.

Mikey pulls a face. "I went last time! I bumped my foot on one of Leo's bookshelves, and he slurred something about me being a worse ninja than 'that other orange eyesore'." He puts a hand to his chest mournfully. "That hurt me, Raph. He didn't even know Naruto's name."

"Yeah, well, last time I went, Donnie said he'd take apart the Shell Cycle and use the parts to fix the toilet if I wasn't quieter," Raph growls bitterly. Sure, it's not like Don was thinking straight, but he'd still pound him into brainy paste if he tried it. No one messes with his ride.

"Well, I—"

"Quiet!" two voices snap out from the room, almost as perfect in harmony as they are in agony. Raph and Mikey both wince, eying the door warily as though their ailing brothers are going to fly out and beat them into blissfully quiet submission.

When nothing happens, they sigh in unison. Mikey gives Raph a pointed look and holds up the bottle again.

Raphael growls and snatches the Excedrin from his brother. He hates migraine duty.

xxxii. parade

When Casey invites April to the annual Stacey's Thanksgiving Day Parade, she has a hard time deciding whether to accept. She was rather looking forward to spending time with the guys and her dad—and while she doesn't technically have to be at the lair until nighttime, she'd kind of promised she'd stop by early and help out with the cooking. (Babysit the cooking, really. Nobody wants worms and algae in the stuffing except Mikey.)

She tries to make an excuse about visiting with friends that day, but she can't meet his eyes when she's doing it. Even worse, he's quiet throughout the whole process; when she looks again, he's frowning, the pink of his tongue pressed through the gap where his missing tooth is. It's the look he has when he's trying to be thoughtful, which, admittedly, isn't very often.

Yet after a few moments, he merely shrugs and brushes it off. "S'fine, Red. No big. My old man was gonna breathe down my neck if he knew I was taking a girl anyway."

The next evening, as she's methodically picking through a casserole with a fork to check for undesirable additions, she's interrupted by a loud whoop that echoes through the lair and nearly makes her topple the dish over. April sprints out into the living room to see Casey Jones gleefully tearing through the lair, his broken smile reaching to his ears.

He spots April and waves enthusiastically. "Red! Your 'friends' are a bunch of mutant turtles? That's rockin'!" He punctuates the statement by pumping a fist into the air, and then takes off towards the dojo. Leo and Raph, who had been watching with tightly reined patience, sputter loudly and take off after him, with Mikey laughing as he follows behind.

As she watches him go, April feels a much softer presence draw up beside her.

"I thought it was time," Donatello says quietly. "We all did."

She looks over her shoulder to meet his gaze, expecting him to flinch, but he doesn't.

"Are you angry?"

Is she what?

"No," she says in a breath, and leans forward and hugs him. He jumps slightly, and she knows that if she could feel his heart through his plastron it would be beating a hundred miles a minute. "Not at all, idiot."

Her idiot. All of them, just idiots, parading into her life one by one.

xxxiii. ink

When Leonardo is eleven years old, he sees a soggy pamphlet caught in a storm drain just two miles out from the lair. He climbs the wet brickwork to the grate, wraps his legs around a pipe, and manages to tug it all the way through without shredding more than a few pages. On the way home, he leafs through the damp papers, his brow shooting up in confusion.

Why would humans do that? It seems like such a silly idea.

And yet...

Three days later, he sneaks a permanent marker from Don's graphing kit and seals himself away in his own room. Digging out an old pamphlet speckled by white water spots, he spreads it across the tatami mat in front of his futon and sits with his legs crossed. He rubs his left shoulder, taking a deep, steadying breath, and then uncaps the marker, pressing it into his flesh. His tongue pokes out from his mouth as he draws, careful and methodical as to avoid making mistakes at his awkward angle.

When he finishes, he caps the marker, climbs to his feet, and looks in the mirror.

The taijitu is a little lopsided, with some of the coloring going outside of the circle, but it's cool. There's something inexplicably pretty about it—a symbol of philosophy, now a part of him. The body is a powerful, connected thing, and to harness it as a physical canvas for spiritualism...

The smile fades from his face. Slowly, he lifts a hand and rubs at the shoulder again, biting his lip worriedly.

Is it shameful?

He's never even heard of tattoos until now. Master Splinter has certainly never talked about them—is there a reason for that? Is he disrespecting both his body and the philosophies he paints onto it? Is it—a taint? He thought it was art; even now, peeking out from between his fingers, it looks beautiful.

And yet...

It doesn't wash off; not all the way. He scrubbed until his shoulder turned dark olive in irritation, but still blotches of ink are settled deep in his skin. Desperate, Leo rifles through the kitchen cupboard and wraps his arm in a bandage, then, dejected, goes to bed.

The next morning at breakfast, Don turns to him at the dining table. "Leo, have you—hey, what happened to your shoulder?"

Mechanically, Leo shoves a spoonful of cereal into his mouth. "I made a mistake."

xxxiv. smoke

"Want a smoke?"

Leo glanced over just as Raphael tapped a cigarette from his pack, plucked it out, and settled it between his lips. He raised an eye ridge as he held out the pack towards Leo.

After a moment, his brother reached forward to accept it. "Sure."

If Raph was surprised, he didn't show it. He only fished in his belt for a lighter and brought it to his face, shielding the flame from the wind as his thumb flicked across the metal grinders. A moment later he tossed it over to Leo, who did the same.

After Leo's cigarette lit up, he snapped the lighter closed and slid it across the wet grass back to Raphael. Taking the cigarette from his lips, he held it above his head and watched the tip slowly burn away, smoke blossoming into the night air above their heads.

Raph rolled his eyes, arms crossed behind his head. "You gonna smoke it, just stare at it all night?"

Leo didn't respond, but tapped the cigarette with a forefinger, letting a shower of softly glowing ashes fall onto his plastron.

Raphael sighed and turned on his side. "You're bein' all poetic and crud again, aren't you?" When his brother didn't respond again, he grunted and flipped back onto his shell. "Whatever. Waste your own pack next time."

But he ended up watching two trails of smoke dissipate into the night sky, too.

xxxv. sieve

They're standing over a porcelain tub filled with shimmering, viscous blood. He sees their mad faces in the flickering dark.

(a river over stone.)

Their words are weapons, only weapons, but he is a stone, and they will wash over him like—

(a river over stone.)

One of them smiles toothily, his hands drenched and glistening.

(a river over—)

"The little one screamed the loudest."

(three cracks split him open. the river runs red.)

xxxvi. eyes

His blade pulled up against tender flesh, he freezes.

A phantom touch brushes across his wrist; a memory, his father's feeble paw, trembling as it grasps him with all the strength left in a frail, dying body.

"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."

Good, he thinks. It's the best thing that ever happened to me.

He slits the throat of Casey's murderer without another thought.

xxxvii. law

"Nah." Casey hefts his golf bag over his shoulder and shrugs, the bats and hockey sticks rattling on his back. "I'd make a bad cop. My family and the law's never been buddy-buddy anyway. 'Specially not my old man."

Mikey cocks his head and sits up on the couch, dropping his comic book onto the cushion. "Dude, are you saying you come from a whole line of vigilantes?"

"Not exactly." Casey's eyebrows knit together and he looks away, rubbing his jaw with a calloused palm. "Just drop it, man."

"But that's so awesome! I—"

"Mike." Raph gives a suspiciously violent tug to the strap of his knee pad. Without looking up, he grits his teeth and tucks his sai into his belt. "Drop it."

xxxviii. poison

"That crud'll kill you."

Angel pauses, lowering the joint from her lips. She smirks at him, ticking an eyebrow up so that her barbell piercing glints in the light.

"Chill out, Red," she says, punching him lightly in the shoulder. She draws on the jay again, blowing a plume of thick, milky smoke into the night air. "S'just weed. They even use it in medicine and shit. Totally harmless."

Raph looks at the ground uncomfortably, reaching a hand up adjust his baseball cap. "You ever seen a guy with a bad high?"

She snorts. "I ran with the Dragons for a while. What do you think?"

He doesn't respond, so experimentally, she holds the joint out to him. He recoils as if she'd just tried handing him a severed head; hastily, she takes it back.

Neither of them speak for several minutes. After a while, Angel catches a shadow of movement from Raph-her eyes trail down to his hands, where she sees him rubbing a thumb over a faint scar on his palm. Softly, she nudges him with her shoulder, startling him to look back at her.

"Hey, s'okay, Raph," she says. "You don't gotta if it skeeves you out that much."

"It ain't that," he interrupts, a bit more sharply than he'd intended. He looks away from her, embarrassed. "S'just… me and by bros, we're already way too paranoid. One time, we…"

He trails off, scarred palm clenching into a fist as a memory sweeps him far, far away. Angel feels her heart soften; carefully, she stubs her joint against the brick wall and leans into him.

"Sounds like you've already picked your poison," she says gently.

His laugh is dark, and rumbling, and bitter. "Trust me, Angel. It wasn't our choice."

xxxix. trapeze

Mikey sweeps into the living room, chest heaving as though he'd just run ten miles. "Hey, did you guys hear about that thing that happened at that one circus?"

Most of them ignore him, but Leo looks at him askance. He sets down the remote. "You mean those acrobats who died because their trapeze cables came loose?"

"Huh?" Donnie, apparently now interested in the conversation, flips his goggles up. "Did they miss the net or something?"

"They never performed with a net. That was their thing," Mikey cuts in hotly. He opens his mouth to continue, but Raph tosses his magazine roughly onto the table and growls.

"I heard about those guys. That's why you leave this stuff to the professionals."

"They were professionals!" Mikey's hands flutter angrily, like he's full of nervous energy he doesn't know what to do with. "Anyway, they had a little kid—"

"Yeah, weren't they supposed to bring him into their act soon?" Leo shakes his head. "Unbelievable. Just think about what would've happened if he performed that night."

"What a shame," Don agrees in dismay. Mikey tries to speak up one more time, but Donnie is already pulling his goggles back down, and Leo is reaching for the remote, and Raph… got up and stormed away like half a minute ago.

With a hiss of frustration, Mikey turns and runs back towards his room. Forget them. He's got a poster to promote to right-above-the-bed status.

(Years and years later, while the four of them are "touring" a college in Gotham City, New Jersey that April is looking into, Mike gets the sense that they're being watched. He turns sharply and catches a glimpse of a black-and-yellow cape fluttering in the moonlight before it disappears into the shadows.)

(He doesn't think much of it—a towel, a jacket that got swept away by warm summer winds. But before they head home, he still pesters his brothers to stop by the old lot where Haly's Circus used to be.)

xl. hospital

Raph shivers.

"Do we have to do it this way?"

"Yeah. Can't we just climb through the window or something?"

"No, Mikey. You heard April. We're doing this right or we're not doing it at all."

No one spoke. 'Not doing it at all' wasn't even an option.

"I don't want to go in there."

"None of us do. But after all the times they've been there when it was one of us…"

"I want to see it for myself," Don says quietly. "I said some pretty harsh things last time."

"Then let's go already."

"Okay." Leo tugs self-consciously on the knot of his overcoat, then pulls the hood up over his head until it shadows his face completely. "Everyone ready?"

Their silence is his answer.

The four of them move forward into the building, glass doors sweeping open to receive them, and step into a bright, white-walled, noisy lobby that reeks of sickness and medicine. They cluster together like wild, frightened animals, none of them leaving Leo's side, ignoring the odd looks they're getting as he shuffles to the receptionist's desk and clears his throat.

"Excuse me." He shoves his hands into his pockets, burying his face into the blue scarf around his neck. "We're here to see Mr. Jones…"


A/N:

I feel there should be a disclaimer here or something. Don't do drugs, kids. Stay in school... update your fics in a timely fashion, for example, before Thanksgiving of last year and before Casey is actually canonically introduced into the group. Hahaha... yeah.

Sorry this one was such a long time coming.