She sat on her bed with her legs pulled up to her chin. The lavender coverlet, sparsely embellished with a floral design that ran longitudinally, bunched and heaved around her. She had not moved in hours. She could read her room like a sundial and the shadows, spilt across the floor and creeping up the wall, told her as much. The sun was low, barely above the horizon, and it cast her room in the coppery light of dusk. Though it was enchanting, she remained unaffected, detached—as though its warmth did not reach her.
She had been dreading this day for weeks, watching it approach with steadily growing anxiety. That it elicited such negativity only made her feel worse. It was, after all, supposed to be a happy occasion—a cause for celebration. But coping was like that. It was highly variable. Some days her sorrow barely registered; others were beleaguered by it—where something as simple as passing by Murakami's, walking down the coffee aisle at the grocery store, or even working on her physics homework, reminded her of all she had lost.
Usually, even on her worst days, she was able to muddle through. She would keep her eyes down, her feet moving, and her mind occupied, either with a good book, soothing music, or by tending to the window box she kept on the fire escape. But today was different. The novel she was reading failed to quiet her mind, her music only added to the discord, and her window box, once a cornucopia of summer blooms, had withered after an early frost. Only her thoughts remained. And they resurrected memories she had no desire to revisit...
She laid in the darkness, her bloodshot eyes staring vacantly into its depths. Sleep proved elusive. Just as she began to drift off, she was shaken awake by thoughts that crept like wraiths from the peripheries of her mind, rattling chains wrought of woe. They were harbingers of truth; reminders of what she felt earlier that evening, of what she knew so incontrovertibly it seemed unreal—that Donatello was gone. Taken. And that nothing, no matter how fervently wished for, could bring him back. Again, she broke down. Again, she cried until her chest ached and her throat was raw.
But her thoughts were not her only tormentors.
Though she knew very little about her abilities, she understood that they were an emotional mechanism; that they grew stronger and more volatile when she was angry or afraid. Control was dependent on focus, but all she endured had left her mentally and emotionally threadbare. It wasn't long before her strength waned and her hold over her powers began to slip. It wasn't long before what lay steeping within the tattered hearts of her adoptive family burned its way into hers.
And it came in tides so overwhelming that she feared she would be swallowed up; it came in tendrils so acute and razor-sharp that she clawed at the mattress and bit the insides of her cheeks to keep from crying out. It was disorienting. The room seemed to spin on a gyroscopic axis, tipping and lilting one way and then the next, and amorphous forms seemed to pool and sway in the blackness around her. It was more than she could bear. Fearing she would be ill, she sprang to her feet and lunged for the door. She tripped and fell but kept moving, scrambling on all fours until she found the handle to the door and managed, with quavering hands, to open it.
Frantically, she crawled into the dimly lit hallway. It was quiet save the sound of muffled guitar seeping from behind the door to Michelangelo's room. Though nearly inaudible, it was dulcet; a swirl of notes that coiled and unfurled sweetly. Despite her inclination to flee, she wrapped her arms around herself and dropped to her knees.
And closed her eyes.
And envisioned the melody in color and form, dancing before her.
Each note was a steppingstone toward composure. Each was a focal point that quieted her mind. Though she could still feel what had overtaken her, it was subdued—manageable. She breathed in deeply—rhythmically, and got to her feet. From where she stood, she could make out the sofa and beanbag chairs in the livingroom, backlit by the glow of the neon sign in the kitchen. The promise of comfort—of a larger space away from what ailed her—had its appeal, and she began to make her way there.
But as soon as she passed before Raphael's room, she was bombarded again. An invisible force pressed in on her from all sides and tightened around her ribs. It was vice-like. It squeezed the air from her lungs. It took all she had not to panic, not to lose focus. Instead, she sucked in a breath, gritted her teeth, and hummed the familiar guitar melody to herself, all the while putting one foot in front of the next as quickly as she could.
Where Raphael's emotions assailed her from without, Leonardo's blossomed from within. As she walked by his room, a shiver of dull pain shot up her spine and radiated from her center. All at once, her limbs felt heavy and cumbersome, accompanied by a caustic tightness in her gut. She doubled over, clamped her hand over her mouth, and dry-heaved. It was debilitating. It was miserable. And it took all of her effort to continue.
Exhausted, she labored to the sofa and flopped down. For the first time since Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo had come to her apartment, frantic and out-of-breath—for the first time since life as it was had changed forever—it was quiet. There was nothing to distract her, nothing to keep her occupied, nothing for her to do, purposefully or otherwise. Her thoughts were her only company and they betrayed her by paving a path to realization—realization of a grim reality she never could have envisioned and of circumstances unwillingly thrust upon her.
Tears welled in her eyes and slipped down her cheeks. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed. So lost was she that she never heard the mournful wail of the teakettle, nor the patter of his approaching footfalls, nor the sharp tap, tap, tap of his staff against the concrete.
"April...?" His voice was soft, brittle at the edges.
She dabbed her eyes with the back of her hand. Master Splinter stood behind her. His demeanor, normally warm and reserved, was markedly different. Unnervingly so. He was a husk, dead at the root of himself and withering from the inside-out.
"Were you unable to sleep?"
"I couldn't if I wanted to…"
"If the spare room is not to your liking or if you would be more comfortable in another…"
"It's not the room, Sensei." She murmured. "It's everything else. I can't stop thinking, no matter what I do or how I try. None of this makes any sense. None of this even seems possible…"
"And yet here we are." His hand found her shoulder. "Come. I find a cup of tea lends not only comfort, but also perspective."
She followed him into the kitchen. The teapot sat upon the table, swaddled in a dishtowel to keep its contents warm. Two mismatched cups—a proper teacup with a matching, albeit chipped, saucer and an oversized ceramic mug proclaiming 'A yawn is a silent scream for coffee'—flanked it. Master Splinter gestured for her to sit and poured her tea. He then served himself and sat across from her, watching the steam rise from his cup.
"I know how you must feel, April. Many years ago, the life I had known was ripped away from me. All that I had loved was lost and so was I. There seemed no end to my grief. At first, and to my shame, I wanted revenge… But something stopped me. A memory as clear as any…"
"Wh-what was it..?"
He sipped his tea. "During my first battle with Saki, a glancing blow caught my arm and sliced it open. It wasn't a deep wound, certainly not a grave one, but Tang Shen, as was her way, saw what was bound to happen if things did not change. That night, as she cleaned my wound and stitched it shut, she begged me to stop fighting. To put it aside. I refused. I told her that Saki was responsible, that he would not let us alone, that he was the one who would not allow us to live in peace. She bandaged my arm with tears in her eyes and said: 'Aite no nai kenka wa denkinu.'—'One cannot quarrel without an opponent.'"
Her expression flickered between sympathy and uncertainty. "I'm sorry, Master Splinter… But how did remembering that make you change your mind? I would think it would have made you angrier… I mean, there'd be so much regret… "
"Yes. There was. Regret is a cruel teacher, but an effective one. It is easy to run from one's past—to try and distance oneself from it—especially when there's fault or guilt. But I needed to remember, to understand that it was my inability to listen to reason—to choose a different solution—that led to everything that followed. And so I did. And I healed."
She could feel herself on the verge of tears again. Her hands trembled. She wrapped them around her mug to steady them. "B-but how? How d-do you live w-with it..?"
"Time is a skilled healer. Through its passage, comes acceptance, enlightenment, and eventually peace. But you must trust in it and you must withstand the many difficult moments that lay ahead. It will not be easy and there will certainly be times when you will struggle, but one day it will not burden you so."
"But what if I can't..? What if I'm not strong enough..?"
"You are. But more importantly, you must be." His voice, ever authoritative, wavered. He breathed in deeply, exhaled slowly, and continued: "For me, even once I made the decision to live, it was still so very hard. Ultimately, I chose to honor Tang Shen and our daughter by laying down my arms and fighting no more. There was nothing left worth fighting for, anyway. Everything I had cherished had been taken. So I came here, to New York. And fate gave me purpose and reason anew… And a chance to be a father once more. So, I tried my very best to keep them safe and provide for them. Life wasn't easy, but it was filled with countless little joys." He shook his head and dropped his gaze to the table. "As a teacher, it is your greatest hope that you have prepared your students for every possible challenge they will face, that you have given them the knowledge and skills they will need to persevere and overcome… As a father, it is your hope that your children will surpass you, that they will be better, happier, wiser… And that they will not fall victim to the same blunders or be haunted by the same sins… By both measures, I have failed…"
"Failed..? H-how can you say that?"
He looked to her, misty-eyed. "It is the truth. My mistakes, my weaknesses… The rivalry Tang Shen pleaded with me to abandon... All demons of my past—long dormant—that returned for their revenge…"
She could feel his sorrow like a yoke around her neck, bearing down. It was faint, but it was there. Culpability settled over her like a pall, for she knew her role in the tragedy—unwitting though it was—had made it all possible. "Sensei… I-it wasn't… Y-you didn't… I…"
"I know what you are going to say. I'd rather you not."
"B-but I need you to know... I-I want you to understand…"
"I do. I understand." He reached across the table and clasped her hand gently in his. "Let me make this plain. Donatello cared a great deal for you. There were times he tried to hide it, but I was never fooled. I could see it clearly…"
She swallowed hard, suddenly uneasy. "I… I cared a lot about him, too."
He nodded pensively. "There are many things I never believed possible for my sons; things that seemed unattainable because of their nature and the rigidity of humanity. I never believed they would meet someone who would accept them, say nothing of anything more substantial than that… And for that, I am thankful…"
"M-Master Splinter… Please…"
"No. Whatever you are feeling, you must accept what you can and endure what you cannot. You must forge meaning from it, not dwell on it. Only then will you be able to move forward. Only then will you heal…" He finished his tea, got up, and put his cup in the sink. "Donatello gave his life so that you could live. And so you must LIVE…"
He started toward his room and took a few steps before looking back to her. "...or else two lives will be lost…"
He turned away, his every step punctuated by the tap, tap, tap of his staff.
Tap, Tap, Tap.
The noise shook her from her thoughts and, little by little, the fog in her mind lifted.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She sat still and glanced in the direction of the sound—the door that opened to the fire escape. Though curtains obscured her view, she knew one of the guys was on the other side. It had been difficult muddling through face-to-face encounters with them. They were quick to provide reassurance—that they cared for her and wanted her around—but something beneath the surface troubled her. It was nothing they said. No. They would never be that unkind. No. What pained her most was unspoken yet palpable; it was implicit, yet overwhelmingly plain. Even if the words were never spoken, they had been formed, weighed, and measured. And though they had been gracious and considerate of her feelings, she knew too well what they wondered and how they felt, because she felt and wondered similarly. All it did was open her mending wounds afresh and leave her feeling helpless.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She stayed put; refused to move. She hoped that stillness would be enough—that if she was still and quiet, he would grow impatient, lose interest, and leave. But the rapping came again, this time with an overture:
"April, open up! I know yer in there…"
His voice was gruff, his tone pointed. She tightened her hold around her legs. The last thing she wanted to do was face him.
Tap! Tap! Tap!
TAP! TAP! TAP!
"April, you don't wanna play this game with me. You'll lose. I'll stay here all night if I have to, but I'm not goin' anywhere until I see you and you talk t' me. So go 'head, pretend yer asleep or whatever, pretend you don't hear me. That's fine. I got nowhere I gotta be."
Silence, like an invisible mediator, kept them apart—she on her side of the door and he on his. For a moment, she believed she had won, that she had waited him out. It wasn't until he began to pace that she realized she was mistaken.
CLOP, CLOP, CLOP.
CLOP, CLOP, CLOP.
CLOP, CLOP, CLOP.
There was a cadence to his steps. Each was sharp, loud, and deliberate, so much so that she could hear the latches on the windows shake in protest. She had patrolled with him enough to know that if he so desired, he could pass through the night without the slightest noise to announce his presence. Yet he seemed determined to make as much noise as possible. She grumbled to herself. It was a ploy. It was a dirty, underhanded ploy designed to get a rise out of her and drive her from inertia to action. And worst of all, it was working.
She threw her feet over the side of the bed and stood. Her legs were stiff and refused to obey and she bobbled from side-to-side before managing a few tentative steps. Once the feeling passed, she made her way to the door, unlocked it, and pulled it open. On the other side, Raphael stopped his pacing. His back was to her and his arms were folded across his chest.
"'Bout time." He said. "What was that all about?"
"What do you want, Raph, to wake the whole neighborhood up?" She huffed and rolled her eyes. "Why are you here?"
He turned to face her and leaned back against the railing. "Never realized I needed an engraved invitation…"
"I never said you did. But I figured you could take a hint… I… I'm not really in the mood for company."
"Yeah? That's what I thought, too. Needed some time to think so I slipped away the first chance I could. Didn't wanna stick 'round the Lair tonight. Didn't wanna deal with the pity party. And now look," He held out his arms and gestured to himself, chuckling. "Here I am."
"Well, I'm serious." She crinkled her nose and shook her head disapprovingly. "I just want to be alone. Today especially. I need to be. You of all people should understand that."
"I understand. But I'm serious, too." He moved toward her. "An' I don't think you should be cooped up all alone in yer room. Today 'specially."
"So you know what's best for me now, is that it?" She said fiercely. "You?! Please…"
"Nah. Yer gettin' it all twisted. I ain't here to tell you what to do or to pick a fight with you."
"Then why ARE you here?"
His expression turned sour. "Hey, you don't have t' be so damn pissy… I just…"
"What? You just what?"
"Forget it…" He turned away and, with two quick jumps, pulled himself up onto the roof.
She remained in the doorway. Shame filled the void he left behind.
"Raph!" She scrambled up the railing and took hold of the roof's ledge. The muscles in her arms coiled and corded as she clambered up. "Raph, wait!"
She was almost to the top when her forearms dragged across the lip of the roof and the tender skin there was rubbed away. She winced and bore down, her feet flailing before finding purchase against the brick façade. All that was left to do was swing her legs up over the top but as she did, her grip weakened and she started to slip. Time slowed. Her mind raced. All the air in her lungs fled in a startled gasp. She was going to fall.
Only she didn't. A large hand seized her wrist and steadied her. She looked up with wide eyes at Raphael, whose expression was her mirror.
"Whaddya DOIN'?! Are you CRAZY?!"
"I… uh… I was…"
"You weren't thinking, that's what!" He began to pull her up.
"Wait, wait…" She swallowed hard and drew a deep breath. "I… I can do it myself. I h-have to… I'm all right. Really."
His brow rutted in incredulity. "You serious? You almost dropped into the fuckin' alley! What in the hell were you trying t' do, anyway?"
She clasped her free hand around his and pulled herself onto the roof with what remained of her strength. Unnerved and breathless, she took to a knee and shielded her face from him. "I… About before… I didn't mean to bite your head off. I just… I haven't been at my best lately…"
"You're not kiddin'." He crouched down beside her. "That why you haven't been around?"
"It's part of the reason… It's part of the reason I haven't gone out too much at all… Apart from school. I just… I've just been having a hard time…" She sighed. "The days are long and sometimes it's easier for me to be alone… To stay away. It's no one's fault, really. I just… need to work through everything. I need to try to come to terms with it so I can move forward."
He looked away, feigning interest in the glittering monoliths in the distance. "Funny thing. The things yer talkin' about, all the things that get to you and keep you holed up in yer room… They're the same things that get me itchin' to get out whenever I can... "
She got to her feet and glanced at the abrasions on her forearms. Droplets of blood shined dully in the low light of the streetlamps. "Funny's not exactly the word I'd use."
"You know what I mean…" He stood. "Anyways, you all right? I saw you tore the hell outta yer arms. Looked pretty nasty."
"It's not that bad… just a few scrapes is all." She dropped her arms to her sides. "That shouldn't have been so hard for me… I used to do that kind of stuff without a second thought."
"Yer outta shape."
"Excuse me?" She could not hide the outrage in her tone
"Well, you gotta know it's true." He said as though to justify his bluntness. "Not exactly like you've been 'round to train since…"
He looked to her, saw the pangs of remembrance in her eyes, and looked away. The words died on his lips. Muttering under his breath, he kicked some loose stone across the roof.
"Hey… Raph, it's okay. Really…"
She reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, but he pulled away. The muscles in his neck, as thick and strong as braided cable, visibly jerked with every breath he took.
"Raph…" Her voice was a salve. "You don't have to protect me from the truth or sugarcoat anything… I… I can't run from it or hide away from it for very long before it finds me anyway. I… I have to get used to it. So whatever it is that you were going to say…"
Her words did not reach him. His hands, balled into tight fists, shook and his breaths grew evermore heavy and ragged.
"I'm FINE!" He roared. "Just fuckin' FINE! I can't even talk about my own brother, can't even SAY HIS NAME… But, hell, I'm just GREAT. EVERYTHING'S JUST GREAT."
She took several small steps away from him, speechless. He paced like a caged animal. It was as though the constant movement and its predictable pattern was all that kept him from completely losing control.
"Don't do this to yourself. Please… Don't put yourself through this. Not now. It won't help. All you'll do is drive yourself crazy..."
He laughed bitterly. "Oh c'mon, April! Who're you tryin' to fool, anyway?"
"Fool? I'm not trying to fool anybody. I'm just trying to help. I know how hard it can be to cope…"
He spun around on her, glowering. "Oh, that's rich. Yer gunna lecture me about copin' with this like you've been doin' such a good job of it. Like yer an expert or somethin'. Please. Yer just like everyone else. You can't stand bein' reminded of what happened, so you try to run from it. It's been months. You lock yourself away in yer room 'cause you're too fragile to deal. All you do is try to avoid it."
"Fragile..?" She was equal parts stunned and offended. "Fragile. Is that what you think?"
"Yeah. It is." His eyes were narrowed slits of emerald that burned with intensity. "Yer tellin' me to take it a little at a time… to take it little by little. But you don't do any of that, do you? Yer too busy feelin' sorry for yerself. Yer too busy sittin' in yer room wishin' you could go back and undo somethin' that can't be changed. Hell, I can't even talk about Donnie without you lookin' like yer about to bawl…"
"Go to HELL!" She bellowed. "You've got NO RIGHT. Not everyone is like you, Raph."
"Oh? An' what's that supposed to mean exactly, huh?"
She thrust her finger at him. "Who are you to tell people how to feel? I'm trying my best. I have my own way… and I'm trying—really trying—to figure it all out…"
"Nah, You're just lyin' to yerself." He spat. "That's not tryin'… that's feeble…"
"Well, at least I CARE." She marched up to him, jaw set and ready for a fight. "At least I let myself feel. You? You put on this front like you're so damned tough, like nothing bothers you. It's bullshit. You may think you can fool everyone else, but you don't fool me."
A low growl bubbled at the back of his throat. "Say whatcha want. Go 'head and discount everything and put it right back on me—on my temper or whatever the fuck makes it easier for you to draw the conclusion you want. I don't really care..." He snarled, teeth gritted. "But don't you EVER tell me that I DON'T CARE about Donnie. DON'T YOU EVER SAY THAT T' ME."
And then, beneath the haze of his anger, she could see it. It was in his eyes; in the tremble of his lower lip as he spoke. But worse yet, she could feel it. The disbelief. The helplessness. The heartache. It clung to him with ferocity and refused to let go.
"You…" Her features slackened in realization. "You blame yourself…"
He faltered. His defenses gave way to vulnerability and, in that moment, he was open to her. Self-conscious, he grumbled under his breath and spun on his heels, wary of her keen eyes and prying intuition.
"Raph, please, don't go!"
He paid her no mind and ran to the edge of the roof. But before he could leap to the adjoining building or down into the alley, she called out to him:
"That's why you came, isn't it? That's why you wanted to see me so badly, right?"
He stopped in his tracks.
"Stay. Please. We can talk about whatever you'd like. Just… please." She came up behind him cautiously, her steps light and soft. "You don't have to go through this on your own."
He was pinned in place—defeated. With a groan, he deflated, dropping slowly down to sit on the ledge of the roof. She didn't wait for him to offer her a seat at his side.
"You're not alone, Raph." She took his hand in hers. "You might feel that way, but your brothers… Master Splinter… me… We're all going through it. We're all trying to come to terms with what happened…"
"It's not the same." He growled. "None of you had a front row seat. None of you were there."
"I know… and I can't imagine what that must've been like…"
"It was fuckin' awful, that's what. Nothin' prepares you for it. Nothin'. I mean, I've seen some shit that would make normal people puke until they were dry heavin', but that..? It rips somethin' outta you and you never get it back... And it's always there… It creeps up on ya and it's always there…"
He dug his forefinger and thumb into his eyes; she gave his hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze.
"I remember seein' all of the footbots on the roof 'cross the way." He continued, gesturing to the adjacent building with a jut of his chin. "And I figured he was in a bind, a real tight spot. But I didn't put two-'n-two together until Leo mentioned gettin' you down to the Lair… It just didn't dawn on me 'til he said somethin'. That's when it all made sense. Why Donnie was there, the footbots, his T-phone, the distress signal… It all clicked."
She nodded, but did not interject. Inwardly, her heart thundered and her innards knotted and roiled.
"He came here to see you. To talk to you. You were pissed at us fer what happened to yer dad an' Donnie couldn't accept it. He musta wanted to try an' smooth things over with you. We probably told him a hundred times t' let you work through it on yer own… That you wouldn't stay mad at us forever… That you'd give us a chance to put things right… 'Course he didn't listen. After all, what the hell did we know? He was the genius and we were just his idiot brothers…"
"You know he didn't see you that way..."
He grinned and stifled a laugh. "Maybe not all the time… but most of it, probably. Fact of it is, he thought he knew best. And if we were talkin' 'bout science or history or any sorta knowledge you could get outta a book, then yeah, he did. But when it came to other people? That wasn't his strong suit. He could be a little slow on the uptake with stuff like that…"
"I didn't make it any easier for him." She offered.
"You were mad. It happens. You had every right t' be. We asked for yer help, we messed up, and yer dad ended up footin' the bill for it. It wasn't fair and it was on us." He shook his head, his eyes fixed on wrappers and trash skittering across the pavement below. "Nah, I don't blame you for bein' angry. My only complaint is that you weren't angry with all of us equally… You put it on Donnie like he was the only one at fault… That wasn't right …"
"I know… I know it wasn't. But, at the time, I just…"
"Couldn't help it..?"
She met his gaze and nodded meekly. "Yeah…"
"Makes sense. The more you care about someone, the more betrayed you feel when they let you down."
Absently, she ran her hands up and down her jeans, smoothing creases and fingering the seams. "No, I was stupid. Just unbelievably stupid. What good was holding a grudge going to do, anyway? It's not like it would have made a difference and it definitely wouldn't have helped me get Dad back."
"The things we do when we're angry, right?" His expression hardened, half-obscured by darkness. "Not always the best…"
"Yeah… I suppose you would know better than anyone…"
He clacked his tongue in exasperation and she knew she had crossed the line.
"Oh Raph… I didn't mean that…"
"Nah... No need t' apologize. It's not like yer wrong. Hell, I wish I could tell you that I'm not angry all the time, but I am… Wish I could promise you I won't let what I'm feelin' rule me, but I can't. It runs deep. I've been trying t' keep it under wraps—t' keep myself from feeding into it, but it's hard…"
She cleared her throat. Since Donatello's passing, a burning question had plagued her. She so feared the answer that she held it within and refused to give it voice. At every turn, it held her back; it perpetuated the cycle of penitence and self-loathing and mired each passing day in the offal of the last. But with Raphael at her side, suffering from wounds he sustained in a battle she never realized he was fighting, it was obvious that confidence was far more liberating than silence.
"Are you angry with me..?"
His brow furrowed. "Huh?"
"You said that you're angry... Are… Are you angry with me..?"
"'Course not. If I got pissed every time someone gave me shit over my attitude, it'd be bad news all around…"
"T-that's not…" She drew a breath to speak, but the words turned to ash on her tongue.
"April, what's the matter…? Whaddya tryin' to…"
She struggled to articulate herself. Only clipped slurries of half-formed words emerged. He snatched her hand up in his and looked to her; she lifted her eyes to meet his. And in his eyes she saw benevolence and concern and—above all—understanding. They were kindred. Sorrow had made them so.
"Oh… Y-you meant about Donnie…"
Wordlessly, she nodded. He looked down to the streets below—down to the sea of concrete, brick, and steel—and sighed.
"No… I'm not… Angry with you, I mean. Not anymore, anyway. I was right after. I just kept thinkin' of how much different things could've been if one or two things played out some other way… If you woulda stayed underground after we knocked out the Technodrome, or if yer dad hadn't been mutated and you hadn't stormed out on us, or if we'd tried harder to understand how Donnie was feelin' and helped him work through it..."
Her eyes welled and her features gnarled.
"But then I realized I was placin' too much of the blame on you. It's not like you were the only reason Donnie was out there like that…"
"I was…" She began to cry. "You know I was. I was the one who pushed you all away. I was the reason he felt he had to make things right. I was the reason he came alone… because of how he felt about me. It should have been me that night, not him…"
"N-no…" His voice wavered and broke. "No… None of us woulda wanted that. We'd never leave you out to dry like that. Donnie 'specially. He wanted to save you. Put himself out on the line to save you. Came real close to pullin' it off, too… Closer than I coulda done… But it just wasn't enough. He knew what he was riskin', April, and he did it cuz he cared. Cuz he saw so much in you. So don't think for a second he'd've wanted it any other way… He was always lookin' out for everyone… That was who he was… Not like me..."
He trailed off and released her hand. She inched closer, threw her arm over his shoulders, and pulled him into a half-hug. "Talk to me. Let me in…"
He held out a little while longer. She stayed by his side. Wave after wave of raw emotion radiated from him and burrowed beneath her skin, yet still she remained.
"That night... When Donnie came outta his Lab, he told us he was goin' to the junkyard t' look fer parts. It seemed suspicious, given the timing an' everythin'. I kinda figured somethin' was up before Mikey 'n Leo even suggested we tag along… but it was bitter cold that night and the last thing I wanted t' do was leave the Lair to go to the junkyard and watch him pretend t' look fer supplies or follow him to your place and watch him sulk. So instead of playin' along like I'd been, I stood my ground. Soon as Mikey mentioned we should go along, I played it off. I made it clear I wasn't plannin' to…"
"You can't hold that against yourself… You couldn't have known…"
"I SHOULDA! I SHOULDA KNOWN! Karai was out for blood. She was determined to get to us, no matter what it took or what she had to do to make it happen. I shoulda kept my fuckin' mouth shut and gone. None of this woulda happened…"
"Raph, you don't know that for sure…"
"You're right. I don't." His hands shook. He clenched them into fists and pressed them hard against his temples. "That's what gets me. I dunno what woulda happened if things were different. I dunno if it woulda made a difference at all. But I know I made it easier for him. If I'da just gone along, he woulda known he couldn'ta lied and said he was goin' someplace else cuz we woulda been there with him. He wouldn'tve been happy 'bout it, but with us watchin' his back, it wouldn'ta turned out so wrong..."
She wanted to console him. He was revisiting the same choices and sequences of events and torturing himself in the process. He was no more to blame for what happened to Donatello than anyone else, but he bore the brunt of the burden. He shouldered the load in grief just as he did in battle.
"You did nothing wrong." She said, hugging him more tightly. "Donnie would have found a way to get away from you if he wanted to. You have to know that. He was always a step or two ahead and he could be as stubborn as anyone when he set his mind to it."
His chest began to heave, filling and emptying so rapidly she feared he would hyperventilate.
"But that's…the thing… you don't… understand… I… I have one job… One… I keep 'em safe… All of 'em… That's what I'm… supposedta do… An' I didn't… I couldn't…"A sob, painful and tight, tore its way from his core. His clenched hands shifted from his temples to his eyes to hide his shame from her. "I can't do nothin'… else… Ain't good fer nothin' else… An' I failed him… He was lyin' there bleedin' and I couldn't do a damn thing to help him… I was powerless… But even then… even when he was strugglin' to breathe, he made me promise him…that I'd be strong… That I'd be the one everyone could lean on… But I dunno how t' do that anymore or even if I can…"
Tears ran down her cheeks. She patted his carapace soothingly. "You couldn't be more wrong. You're strong. You're the strongest person I know. And you've kept your promise to Donnie… Everyone's been leaning on you and you've been there to keep them from crumbling. Even Leo after Karai…"
"You could have really tore into him for what he did and how he went about it, but you didn't. You stood by him. You've been there for him. And it might not seem like much to you, but I don't know that I would have been able to do the same…"
He said nothing, waiting for her to continue.
She went on: "I was furious. Practically murderous. After what she did to Donnie, she deserved so much worse… And it hurt so much more because it was Leo's doing. I mean, if there was one thing I knew I could rely on, it was his honesty. His judgment. He and I used to talk quite a bit; to speak our minds, even if it was just small stuff. To know he kept something as big as that to himself… I felt so betrayed."
"I s'pose…" He muttered, dropping his hands into his lap. "Leo was blind when it came to her. I saw a fuckin' psycho, he saw somethin' else. Doesn't change nothin' now, though. Doesn't matter. She's gone 'n what he's been goin' through is bad enough without me tellin' him 'I told you so.'"
She leaned her head against his shoulder. "You don't see it, do you? You've been through so much and until tonight, until you finally said something, you've kept it all in. You can't do that. It'll eat you alive. Trust me, I know. You have to let yourself feel it. Being strong doesn't mean that you have to hide your pain. It doesn't mean you have to go it alone."
He cast her a sidelong glance. In the moonlight, his eyes shone like slick stones. "You've been goin' it alone, too…"
Her lips pulled into a smile. "We're two sides of the same coin, Raph. We need each other. You can be my pillar and I'll be yours. Whenever you need me…"
He grinned at her sheepishly and she nodded. It was a silent exchange, but one that carried great weight and meaning. For within it was a promise. And within that promise laid a measure of forgiveness and understanding.
The breeze, damp and cool in the throes of autumn, ghosted by. Not dressed for the weather, she shuddered, her teeth chattering; he pulled her close and ran his hand up and down her arm, trying to keep her warm. When he made contact with the raw skin on her forearm, she immediately hissed and recoiled.
"Ah, shit! You okay?"
"Yeah… You just caught me off-guard."
He averted his eyes. "S-sorry…"
"It's okay." She said sweetly. "You just forgot. To be honest, I forgot too until a second ago. Besides, it was my fault to begin with."
"Come by for trainin' once an' a while. We'll get you back into roof-jumpin' shape in no time."
She swatted him good-naturedly. "Jerk."
"Seriously, though… Leo, Mikey, Master Splinter… We've all missed you. It'd be good t' have you 'round again." Before she had the chance to acquiesce or object, he got to his feet and extended his hand to her. "Now let's getcha inside and patched up. Not like it's gettin' any warmer out here."
She took his hand. He helped her from the roof and onto the fire escape; she opened the door to her apartment and gestured for him to follow. Her bedroom was pitch black, but neither had trouble finding their way.
"Can I get you anything to drink? I think all I have is water or tea… I wasn't expecting company…"
"Nah. Don't fuss. Have a seat 'n get warmed up."
She sat on the edge of her bed. It had become the point around which her entire universe revolved. It was where she awoke to face the day on her own, without him; it was where she would go to be alone—to be angry or accusatory; and it was where she would spend long nights awake, wishing she could do something—anything—to change the way things were. But at some point, the cycle became toxic and her bastion of solitude became a prison of her own reckoning. She knew she needed to change, but it was far more difficult to bring change about than it was to long for it. Until he came to her. Until he forced her to face her demons by facing his.
The overhead light flicked on, momentarily blinding her.
"Awright, let's get you cleaned up."
When her vision cleared, he was on a knee before her, looking over the scrapes on her arms with a washcloth in one hand and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol in the other. As he went to work, she clamped her eyes shut and bit down on her lower lip, bracing against the sting of the antiseptic. It was then that it dawned on her: the skillful dexterity of his movements, the purposeful gentleness with which he worked, the familiarity of his touch. It was haunting. It was comforting. And if she allowed herself to believe... if she tucked away her nagging thoughts and surrendered to the moment…
She snapped to attention. Concern was etched on his face. "Huh?"
"I asked you if you were okay. I thought maybe I had the bandages too tight or somethin'."
"Oh… N-no…" She stammered. "I was just... just… nevermind, it's silly."
"If you say so." Restless, he shifted his weight from side-to-side and busied himself by gathering and putting away the first aid supplies. When he returned, she had not moved. She sat stone-silent and stared vacantly at the wall. "You sure you're all right?"
"Y-yeah…" She managed weakly. "I am."
"Hmm. Well, when you decide to spill, you know how to get ahold of me." He turned toward the door. "But I gotta get goin'. I'm sure Mikey'll be pokin' around lookin' for me soon as he's done in the kitchen. With any luck, nobody missed me. Last thing I need is Splinter or Leo ridin' me for sneakin' out."
He was out on the fire escape before her senses returned. "Raph!"
She kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks… For everything…"
He smiled. "You too."
"Happy Mutation Day."
He acknowledged her with a small nod, jumped onto the fire escape, and climbed to the roof. She watched as he bounded ahead and leapt from rooftop to rooftop, his form receding into the night.
Author's Note:I wish to extend a huge "Thank You!" to all of you for sticking with me on this story. I know that I tend to take an obscenely long time between posts and that I am often sidetracked between updates by unrelated one-shots, so it means a great deal that so many of you continue to come back to this story! I also want to express my gratitude to all who voted for this story (and all of my stories, really) in the recent Stealthy Stories FanFiction Competition. It meant a great deal to me. Finally, this story would not be possible without my supportive network of friends and fellow writers, so to: Terraform, Lexifer666, SleepingSeeker, TheIncredibleDancingBetty (and her IncredibleDancingBaby! Congrats!), The NerdFighter, Poetique-Justyce (Congrats on the publication!), BelatedBeliever1127, Faithful Whispers, BubblyShell22, calloutdrummer47, and anyone else I may have forgotten (not intentionally, I assure you) THANKS SO MUCH!