Chapter 5: Of Remnants and Harbingers
"These blood red eyes,
Don't see so good,
But what's worse is if they could…
Would I change my ways?
Wasted times, and broken dreams,
Violent colors so obscene,
That's all I see these days,
-The Black Keys, "These Days"
Just after dawn, the city rouses from its slumber. The din of the morning commute—of car engines and horns; of commuters and pedestrians—fills the air like the roar of some great cataract. A pang of sadness grips me and I sigh; she squeezes my hand and looks at me knowingly.
"You have to go, don't you?"
"I probably should. If I wait much longer it'll be hard for me to get underground without being seen, but…"
I stretch my arms out overhead and suppress a yawn. "But I don't really want to go. It's been such an incredible night… I guess I don't want it to end."
At that, she beams. "It doesn't have to. Stay, Donnie. I'll whip up some breakfast—I make the best instant oatmeal, we can catch a movie, maybe squeeze in a powernap later on... What do you say?"
My imagination gives form to her words and I find myself daydreaming. I see her sitting across from me, giggling hysterically as we talk about one thing or another over bowls of gummy oatmeal and singed toast. Then, she's snuggled up beside me, nuzzling her cheek into my plastron while Holly Golightly marvels at storefront windows, pastry in hand, in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." And later, we're lying in the warmth of the sun. She's looking into my eyes and I into hers and, in that brief exchange, we understand our heart's desires. And as we drift off, holding each other close, the world around us seems a stereopticon of color and light. But as quickly as it came, the moment passes. The realist within me pushes the dreamer out of the driver's seat and takes the wheel.
"What's on your mind? You have that look in your eyes…"
"Oh, sorry." I feel the blood rush to my face. Self-conscious, I drum my fingers against my thighs. "Your offer is incredibly tempting, April. I would love nothing more than to stay, but…well, the only reason I was out last night to begin with was that the boiler in the Lair broke down and I had to find some replacement parts. I was going to make the repairs right away, but Leo called me before I had the chance. They've gone all night without heat and I imagine it's getting pretty cold down there..."
She raises my hand in hers and tenderly kisses it. "Always so unselfish…"
"To a fault."
She rises and leads me to the roof access door where she slips off my jacket and hands it over to me; I pull it on and tie it closed. The wind brushes past us. It nips at her skin and plays with her hair but in spite of it, she smiles.
I nod in agreement. "Raincheck."
I wrap her in my arms, nuzzle her cheek, and breathe her in. She's soft and warm and smells of lavender and vanilla. We kiss and linger—anchoring each other to the moment—and reluctantly go our separate ways. But, unlike last time, there is no anger, no fear, and no tears. There is only a promise forged beneath a sunrise and consummated with a kiss.
Light of day aside, I make it back underground without being seen. I collect my duffel bag at the base of the ladder, pull it over my shoulder, and head for home. As usual, the tunnels are quiet; only the hushed jangle of the tools accompanying every footfall cuts through the emptiness. Though the air is dank and cold, I'm blissfully warm. The euphoria following reconciliation, the traces of her scent on the collar of my jacket, the feeling of her lips against mine, even the tangy sweetness of the raspberry wine has my head swimming with nostalgia and hope.
Second chances are rare. More often than not, choices—no matter how poor—are driven toward their conclusions, either out of ignorance, pride, or some misguided sense of integrity. And the result, invariably, is regret. Trapped in a cycle of self-loathing, the regretful abandon the present and future to cast stones at the past and curse life for being the cruelest teacher—one that imparts wisdom only after the test has been given. But April broke the cycle. She confronted her demons and helped me vanquish my own. She spoke her piece and I mine until the chasm that drove us apart was bridged by forgiveness and understanding. In the process, an old fire rekindled. It was like rediscovering a part of myself; something I cherished above all, something I thought was lost forever. And while atonement can't efface the painful memories or wasted years, it has laid a foundation for the future.
My thoughts carry me home and I arrive with little recollection of the journey. So as not to wake anyone, I open the garage door incrementally; it creaks like an old man's joints and as I pass beneath it, I remind myself to grease the rollers. I take off my jacket, hang it up, and grab the tools I need to make the repair: the acetylene torch, the ratcheting pipe-cutter, a piece of sandpaper, and some solder. Sliding the door open as quietly as I can, I step from my lab.
The television in the Lair is on. Though the volume is low, I can hear strings and woodwinds playing a melancholy overture with a familiar melody, the provenance of which eludes me. Maddeningly, the more thought I put into its identification, the farther away the answer seems to slip. With a sigh, I tip-toe down the stairs, pass into the adjacent hallway, and make a beeline for the boiler. In what has become a ritual, I visualize the repair from start to finish: plotting every step, double-checking my inventory of tools and parts, and accounting for potential setbacks. Only when I reach the end of the hallway do I hear it—the rumbling hiss of the boiler. Panic knots my guts. Did I leave the gas on? No. I remember shutting the unit down before my run-in with Raph. Besides, even down here, the smell would be noticeable. Did a pipe freeze and burst? Unlikely. The Lair isn't cold enough. I didn't notice before, but it's pleasantly warm. Alarmed, I race to the boiler, drop to a knee, and look it over. What I see takes me by surprise: it isn't as I left it. There is no ruptured tank or bent pipe. It's up and running, whirring contentedly. Under further scrutiny, I notice that the expansion tank, pressure-reducing valve, and associated piping are not salvaged pieces, but brand new—sterling and pristine. All that stands out are the joints: the soldering is solid but crude; the work of a novice. Confusion puts me in a fog. I get to my feet and head back to my lab.
Then, out of nowhere, it hits me: the music playing on the television was the score to "The Shawshank Redemption." Brimming with pride and self-satisfaction, I pump my fist in triumph. The exhilaration of connecting the dots, however, fades as another connection is made and the words—forgotten until now—resound:
"I know Valentine's Day isn't exactly your thing, but I snagged copies of 'The Last of the Mohicans' and 'The Shawshank Redemption.' We can have a movie marathon, chow on some good eats… It'll be fun. Whaddya say?"
I groan and pinch the bridge of my snout. Between my excursion to the salvage yard, the search for Raph, and my encounter with April, I forgot about the plans I made with Mikey. My heart sinks. Actions wound relationships but thoughtlessness destroys them. Mistakes and poor decisions can be forgiven, but thoughtlessness is much more difficult to rationalize and explain. After all, how do you tell someone they slipped your mind without making them feel inconsequential?
I curse myself, round the corner, and make my way to the living area. As I draw closer, I can make out his form. He's sprawled out on the couch, backlit by the images flickering across the television screen. I try to think of something conciliatory to say, but guilt steals the words off of my tongue. Instead, I take a deep breath, swallow hard, and let the words flow freely.
"M-mikey… Look, I'm… I'm really sorry. I got held up by something… unforeseen. I know it's a poor excuse… I should have called… But I guess I was just thrown by the whole thing."
He doesn't answer.
Puzzled, I sidle along the arm of the couch. From this angle, with the light of the television at my back, I can see that he's asleep. A tattered blanket covers one leg; the other is stretched out across the cushions. Similarly, one arm hangs over the side of the couch while the other clutches a half-eaten bowl of popcorn. I can't help but smile. He looks so peaceful, like nothing can wound or touch him; like all is as it should be. I won't deprive him of that. My apology can wait. Waking him would be an even greater sin than the original offense. I gently slip the bowl from his grasp, set it on the floor, and pull the blanket back over his legs. He stirs, nestles his head into the crook of the couch, and settles.
"He was determined to wait fer ya, but I told 'im I didn't know how long you'd be." Raph stands at the landing of the stairs. Even from half the room away, he looks terrible—his left eye is blackened and his bottom lip is split and puffy. "I gotta say, though, I'm impressed… I didn't expect the ol' 'walk of shame' so soon…"
Part of me wants to laugh, if only to underscore the absurdity of his claim; instead, I smile weakly and shake my head. Perhaps if I knew what is on his mind or what his intentions are, I would let my guard down, but after all the years of unpredictable behavior and irrational outbursts, it is a luxury I can ill afford.
"Trust me, it's not what you think. You overestimate my abilities…"
He grins, winces, and lightly massages his lip with his fingers. Chuckling dryly, he levels his gaze on me. "I don't think so, Slugger."
"Look, Raph… about earlier, I…"
With a wave of his hand, he cuts me off. "Don't… There's a lotta stuff I wanna talk with ya about and I don't wantcha t' get ahead of yerself… 'Sides, I'm sure you've got questions of yer own…"
"You want to…talk..? To me..?"
I can't recall the last time I had a conversation with Raph that lasted more than a sentence or two. Most of our exchanges have been monosyllabic, revolving around either injuries or—his topic of choice—my flaws and inadequacies. But this is different. He's reaching out to me. I don't know why, nor do I care; in this case, the action is more important than the motivation behind it.
"Well, yeah." He says matter-of-factly. "Don't act so surprised…"
"Sorry…" I clear my throat. "But let's go to my Lab. I don't want to wake Mikey."
"Awright… It'd prolly take a bullhorn t' do that, but whatever."
He follows me into my lab and closes the door behind him. I take a seat at my drafting table and turn my chair to face him; he, on the other hand, does not move or speak. Standing just inside the doorway, his eyes roving the room, he remains.
"Raph, you don't have to stand. There's a chair by the desk. Make yourself comfortable…"
"Nah. 's OK."
He folds his arms across his chest and drops his eyes to the floor. He seems conflicted, uneasy; like he's fighting a silent war I know nothing of. Experience has taught me that if I push too hard or prod too much, he will turn inward, and if that happens, nothing will change. So I give him time. Minutes pass and I simply wait, knowing that—like always—he will open up when he's ready, on his terms. It takes a little longer, but he finally speaks:
"I, uh… I'm not… I'm not very good at this kinda stuff… But, I… guess you already know that, doncha?"
"It's okay." I will my voice to be soft and mellow. "That you're here is enough."
He steps toward me and meets my gaze. I didn't notice from across the room, but his eyes are clear and lucid, housing the fire in his soul. For the first time in the longest while, my brother is standing before me. My brother. Not some second-rate incarnation smelling of booze and vomit. Exhilaration, warm and electric, suffuses me and though I try to play it cool, I can't help but smile.
"Yer wrong, Donnie." He says. "Whydaya think you deserve less than everybody else, huh? Whydaya do that? Ya sell yerself short all the time…"
"Force of habit, I guess."
"Yeah, well cut that shit out. Ya got nothin' to be ashamed of. Ya got no reason to think less of yerself. Not like me… I've got nothin' but reasons." His hands ball into fists and he hangs his head. "All I do is fuck everything up."
"That's not true. You've made mistakes, sure, but so does everyone else. I mean, look at how I handled things with April. I should have been more understanding of her position. I should have known that being with me would've been a huge adjustment for her. But instead I took it to heart. I let it make me bitter and it didn't have to be like that."
"Bullshit!" He roars; his neck muscles jump, seemingly startled. "That's absolute crap. You didn't do nothin' wrong. What were you supposed t' do? Crawl t' her and beg?"
His words are stones skipped across the surface of my mind and they disrupt clarity like they would the waters of a calm lake. Following April's Valentine's Day snub, Raph was the least supportive of me as I coped. While Leo and Mikey wanted me to do whatever would make me happy, Raph remained decidedly non-committal. At first, I thought he was too embroiled with his own demons to care, but after the night he tried to stop me from seeing her, I felt it had more to do with his loyalty to Casey than anything else. Now, though, a different image is forming and it's as intriguing as it is puzzling.
"So you're saying I was right to be bitter? To cut her out of my life and avoid speaking to her?"
"Yer Goddamned right. What she did t' ya was terrible. SHE wasn't the one taking the risk, YOU were. SHE was in a position t' let ya down easy if she wanted, but she CHOSE t' hurt ya. SHE was the one that owed YOU the apology. It's that simple."
"Why does it matter who owed whom? Talking it over with her could have helped, but I was afraid to do that—afraid it might confirm an ugly and unwelcome truth. Maybe if I was more open with her, she would have understood my position and I would have understood hers. Maybe we could have made amends sooner. Maybe we could have fixed things."
"Ya know, yer right about almost everything… But not this." He takes a deep breath and blows it out in a long, steady stream. "Yer so orderly and consistent you expect everyone else t' be, too. But that ain't how it works. People believe what they want to. At the time, April couldn't deal with the thought of bein' looked down on or treated different. She hadta work that out on her own. Nothin' you coulda said woulda changed that. Actually, it prolly woulda drove her further away…"
"Look, sometimes it takes people a while to understand." He wheels the chair from beside the desk and positions himself in front of me. "How many times have all of ya tried t' help me the past few years? Too many t' count. But I didn't wanna listen. I didn't wanna hear that what I was doin' was wrong cuz—for a while—it helped, ya know? But just like April, I hadta figure it out on my own. Talkin' to me was never gonna be enough."
Never before has he admitted any wrongdoing. Until now, he's zealously defended his actions, repelling any offers of help with bravado and arrogance. For him to take ownership of all he's done is a revelation. I lean forward in my chair and close the distance between us.
"We'll always be here for you, you know that right? No matter what happens…"
"I…" He swallows hard and runs a hand across his forehead. "I… know I don't deserve all of ya. I've putcha through so much shit and fer no good reason at all…"
"Now who's selling himself short? We're a family, Raph. We're not going to give up on you when things go wrong. That's when we need each other most."
He looks away. Whenever sentimentality bleeds into a moment, he becomes uncomfortable. He always has. He rarely bears his heart and soul, preferring to keep them under lock and key. He nods his understanding and I back off, not wanting to press too much. When he's ready, he wrings his hands and continues:
"When it all started, it wasn't a big thing. Casey and me were just havin' fun and passin' the time. But then it became somethin' more. I'd have a drink or two t' unwind… and then two became three and three ended up bein' six. And you tell yerself that you can stop whenever ya want to, but ya can't because it becomes a reaction t' a lotta things… Stress, happiness, nerves, boredom…" His eyes latch onto mine. "Anger…"
"But why? What… what drove you to… to… um…uh…"
"Drink?" He says, finishing my thought.
"Man, it's gonna sound stupid…" He stares ahead, the gears in his mind spinning away. "It even sounds stupid in my head."
"If it's important to you, I want to know. And besides," I clap him on the shoulder good-naturedly. "You already have a lifetime of dirt on me."
"True." He admits with a shrug. Sobriety hardens his features. "I guess… well, I've always had a hard time… y'know…acceptin' things the way they are. That we're forced t' hide all the time, that the most natural things are either tougher than they need t' be or totally out of the question fer us. It just ain't fair. It took me a long time t' come to a place of peace with that… But then we met April an' Casey an' it changed things. Sure, two people ain't a lot, but they weren't terrified of us and they didn't see us as freaks… Well, it made the impossible seem possible… That maybe everything we thought we knew was wrong; that maybe humans could accept us. And that thought—no matter how insane and unrealistic it was—made me more hopeful than I'd ever been. And when you and April started gettin' close? Well, I know I gave ya a ton of shit o'er it, but—and if you tell the guys, I'll deny the fuck outta this—I was rootin' for ya. I mean, here was somethin' we never thought could happen happenin' right in front of us… And I got t' thinkin' maybe someday I'd have somethin' like that fer myself, someone who would see past… someone who would look at me the way you two looked at each other. But then she hadta go and fuckin' ruin everything. She did the one fuckin' thing that I worried she'd do—she acted like every other human we come across. She couldn't deal when things got too real fer her and she freaked…"
Suddenly uncomfortable, he gets up and begins to pace, occasionally muttering to himself under his breath. His chest rapidly swells and deflates and I can tell he's getting worked up.
"Raph…" My voice wavers. I lift myself from my chair and walk alongside him. "It's okay. I can't say I know exactly how you feel, but I know what it's like when you feel like things will never get better; when it hurts so much you can hardly stand it. I've been there and it's a lonely place… And you'll do almost anything to escape it because when you're there… it's agonizing."
He stops in his tracks. "How'd ya do it, Donnie?"
"Dig yerself outta that hole. Everyone could tell ya weren't yerself, butcha never let it bring ya down. H-how'd ya do that?"
I cross my arms, not out of condescension or indignation, but because otherwise I feel uneasy—exposed. "Everyone has moments of weakness and I'm certainly no exception. I just tried to hide mine. Part of it was out of shame. I didn't want any of you to look at me with pity in your eyes. But the rest? I just threw myself into projects so I wouldn't dwell on it. I knew that if I did, it would ruin me." With a sigh, I add: "And even then, there were times..."
The casual observer would likely discount Raph's intelligence, failing to look beyond his hulking form or virulent temper. That would be a mistake. While he may not be well-versed in organic chemistry or applied physics, he's uncannily instinctual and has a long memory. I don't know if it's what I said or the way I'm carrying myself, but he pinpoints the moment precisely.
"Like that night in the tunnel? When you were goin' t' see April?"
"W-well, y-yeah, that would, um, c-constitute…"
"It ain't exactly one o' my proudest moments, either." A strand of spit spills over his swollen bottom lip; he wipes it away with the back of his hand. "I shoulda just left ya alone. It wasn't somethin' I shoulda done, jumpin' on ya like that... I just wanted t' help. I didn't wanna see ya hurt o'er her anymore 'n I really didn't want her t' think treatin' you like shit was somethin' she could get away with… Y'know, like just cuz you ain't human she could treat ya however she wanted and you should count yerself lucky or somethin'. Cuz that's a load of shit. It's the other way around. Always has been."
The other way around? What is he trying to say?
"You don't have to explain. I am just as much at fault. I said some horrible things to you, the most hurtful things I could think of, and it wasn't just because I didn't want you telling me how to live my life or who to associate with…" I take a deep breath and clear my throat, brushing aside my reservations. "It was because I thought… I t-thought you were siding with…with Casey…"
He says nothing in reply. He nods in neither agreement nor disagreement, his expression a blank slate from which nothing can be gleaned. Turning away, he leans against the edge of my desk, unable to face me. Perhaps if I didn't know him, I'd be fooled. Perhaps I'd think everything is fine and that he simply needs a moment to himself. But I know better. And I'm reeling, desperately trying to regain my footing.
"H-hold up, Egghead." He brings his hand to his face. I can't be certain, but I think he's drying his eyes. "Is that really whatcha thought? That I'd just put Casey over you like that? That I'd just toss ya aside like you don't matter..?"
I feel about an inch tall—totally and utterly ashamed. "At the time, yes… You couldn't stand to be anywhere near me. Heck, you could hardly look at me without getting angry..."
Slowly, he turns and faces me, his normally brusque voice a ghost of itself. "Casey's a good dude. Better than alotta people give 'im credit for… He's fun t' hang with and we've had some good times, but he ain't you… Sure, I don't always understand ya and I have no idea what's goin' on in yer head half th' time, but yer always goin' outta yer way to make things better…" He hems and haws, either unsure of what to say or how to say it, but quickly dismisses his apprehensions with a wave of his hand. "Even when ya had no reason to; even when it wasn't easy. That's what makes ya who ya are… That's what sets ya apart. Ya don't find that everywhere. It's a rare thing an' it gets o'erlooked more than it should… Taken for granted, even. I know I've done it. April, too. So when she tracked me down 'n told me how she felt 'n what she wanted t' do, I knew I hadta try t' help."
Curiosity seizes me. It whispers from the peripheries of my mind, practically pleading for details; yearning for me to delve more deeply into an exchange that hums of mystery. Though I've been careful and have tried not to pry, I can't help myself this time.
"H-how did she bring it up? How did she go about asking..?"
He smiles and turns away. He knows he has leverage over me, and I can tell that he intends to milk it for all it's worth. Meandering between my desk and drafting table, he eyes the sundries thereon, fiddling with this or that. "That information's gunna cost ya."
I throw my hands into the air. "Oh, c'mon!"
He plops down in front of my drafting table and chuckles. "E'rything has its price, Donnie…"
"Dare I ask?"
"How's about I tell ya 'n then name it?"
My heart drops into my gut. It'd be like handing him a blank check. "I… um…erm…"
"D'ya wanna know or doncha?"
He knows he's got me. Reluctantly, I ignore my better judgment and extend my hand to him. "Deal."
"Deal." We shake on it. As soon as my hand leaves his grasp, he begins: "She started callin' Leo 'n Mikey a buncha times, prolly startin' back in October er so. They had a long talk 'bout it one night—mainly 'bout what t' do, whether or not t' tell ya 'n all that. I just happened to o'erhear it 'cuz I needed t' take a piss. They wanted t' leave it t' her; they wanted her t' be the one t' make the first move 'n get in touch with ya. An' fer a while, that was it. Ev'ry so often she'd call 'em, they'd give 'er the same answer, and that was that. I think they thought she'd leave it at that, that she'd accept it 'n move on. But she didn't. She started callin' me. I was her last resort—I don't think she wanted t' involve me 'cuz of Casey—but she was desperate. I cussed her out a couple times and hung up on her a couple more. Jus' like Leo 'n Mikey, I thought that'd be it. Y'know, ignore her 'til she stopped…" His eyes grow wide and his voice rises in pitch and volume. "An' damned if she didn't just show up one night, totally outta the blue. I gotta spot—a drainpipe down by the docks—where I go from time t' time… 'n somehow, she found me down there, tyin' a few on. She started tellin' me 'bout how much she missed ya; that she never felt about anyone else the way she felt about you 'n all that lovey-dovey crap. I couldn't tell if she was bein' honest or not, so I kinda called her out on it... An' then she told me and I knew she meant business…"
"What? What did she say? How did you know?"
A smile spreads across his face. "She told me she was gonna quit Stanford. She told me she was gonna move back here and do whatever she needed t' do to make it up t' ya. An' she told me that she loves ya. I damn near spit my beer out at that, but the way she said it, the look in her eyes, everything… She wasn't blowin' smoke. She meant ev'ry word."
Though we talked all night, April never mentioned quitting Stanford or moving back to New York. In fairness, though, I never asked; I assumed she was simply visiting. It takes me a moment to process the notion and yet another to remind myself to breathe.
"She… she said that..? All of that..?"
"Yeah. An' she wanted t' do something t' show ya how strongly she felt but didn't figure you'd wanna talk. So we put our heads together; she planned all the romantic junk and I tried t' think of a way t' getcha out of yer Lab. I figured, it bein' the middle o' winter 'n all, something happenin' to the boiler'd do the trick. Still, I think it's safe t' say I got screwed on that deal…"
"So… you and April… the whole time..? But… but… How…? I don't…"
"Like I said, there was a lotta plannin'." His hands tremble involuntarily; he balls them into fists and thrusts them under his arms. "I spent some time figurin' out how t' break the boiler without breakin' it too much… Then it was just a matter of orderin' the parts off the 'net, which April was more than happy t' do..."
"You mean… you… you…" A jumble of thoughts and feelings creates a bottleneck, and I find myself unable to speak. When the haze of befuddlement clears, my faculties return. "Y-you made the repairs..?"
"Well, yeah. Yer not the only one who can fix things, Donnie…" He leans back in his chair and clears his throat. "Which brings me t' my fee…"
Dread snakes through me. Lightly chewing my lower lip, I brace myself for the worst. "Oh, uh, ok-okay… W-what do you have in mind..?"
"Well, I've known fer a while that I need t' change…that I can't keep fuckin' up. Helpin' April was a turnin' point; it gave me a reason t' stay clearheaded, t' cut back on the booze. An' I found that on days when I was plannin' somethin' or figurin' out the logistics of somethin', not only was I drinkin' less, but I didn't wanna drink. I had somethin' t' focus my energy on, even fer a little while… But when ev'rything was set, I couldn't help myself. I fell right back into my ol' pattern. An' then I got into that accident…" He hangs his head, tightening his grip around himself all the while. "An' y'know what? When I saw myself headin' for that pole, all I could think was: 'Are ya kiddin' me?' I mean, all o' us, we've been through so much—we've been up against the Foot, the Purple Dragons, the Kraang—and there I was 'bout to be taken out by a damned utility pole 'cuz I was too fuckin' drunk and stupid. An' when I came to, lyin' on the ground and hurtin' like hell, I realized somethin'… That I didn't wanna die. Not like that…"
His candor floors me and I don't know what to say. Everything that comes to mind either sounds inadequate or contrived. Kneading my thighs with my hands, I drop my gaze; the space between he and I grows with each passing moment. He swivels in the chair, snatches my half-finished technical drawing of the stealth cycle off of the drafting table, and holds it up.
"This is what I want. I wanna help ya build 'er. I know I ain't exactly experienced. I gotta lot to learn and I know it ain't gonna be easy, but I was thinkin' that maybe…if it ain't too big o' deal…"
He eyes me skeptically. "Just like that?"
"Just like that. You're going to need something to occupy yourself, Raph, something to take your mind off of things—especially when you feel like having a drink. I don't have to tell you that the road ahead is going to be a difficult one. You already know that. So, if there's something I can do to make it a little easier for you, I'll do it… And besides," I say, grinning. "You did a pretty nice job on the boiler… the joints were a little sloppy, though."
He laughs heartily and it crescendos, filling the room. "Nothin' gets past ya, does it Donnie?" He gets to his feet, teetering from one side to the other on unsteady legs. "I prolly coulda done better, but I couldn't keep my damn hands from shakin'. It's been pretty bad…"
He's going through withdrawal. No wonder he's been keeping his hands tucked under his arms. Even now, after sharing so much—after letting me see what lies beneath the surface—he's trying to mask his vulnerability. Some things, I suppose, never change. He starts for the door.
"Well, uh… good talk, bro. I, uh, gotta go 'n meet Sensei in the dojo. I… had a long talk with him last night 'n he thinks meditation will help me beat this thing…"
He turns and faces me.
"It occurs to me that I never apologized for what I did and never thanked you for what you've done."
He shrugs. "I had the first thing comin' and the second was long o'erdue." With a half-grin, he turns on his heels, exits the lab, and slides the door closed behind him.
I remain in the middle of my lab with a strange expression undoubtedly plastered on my face. After all that's happened, it's hard to describe how I feel. There's a level of acceptance that accompanies hopelessness—a feeling that circumstances will never change and that it's best to accept life, warts and all. I suppose in that regard it's like drowning: you thrash and struggle and fight until you realize that you can't win. But unlike drowning, there's no terror, no urgency; you don't realize it's consumed you until it's too late—until your spirit is broken and your fire has been extinguished. It's a feeling I knew all too well… until Raph reached out and saved me.
It pains me to admit it, but I didn't know he was fighting the same battle as I. The signs were there, sure, but I assumed they stemmed from something else entirely. Or maybe I was too blinded by my pain to notice or too wounded to care. But circumstances have changed. For the first time in the longest while, my eyes are open. My wounds have healed and the resulting scars are remnants of the past, not harbingers of the future.
I sit at my drafting table, look over my design, and pick up a pencil. Salvation takes many forms. Some find it through faith, others through causes. I found it through my brother; through his heart and spirit, out of love and hope. And it's my hope that he'll find it through me, bolstered by the bonds of brotherhood, smelling of oil and fuel and sweat, and sustained by the understanding that no matter how things may seem—no matter how hopeless or cruel—he is never alone.
Author's Note: Thank you all so much for reading and for your continued support. It is my sincere hope that you have enjoyed this story in its entirety. I would be remiss if I did not thank my esteemed colleague Terraform for her assistance and encouragement throughout the writing process. She has talked me off more than a few ledges since I started this "Valentine's Day Story" (it really grew beyond that, didn't it?) back in January. I would also like to thank all of my fantastic and devoted readers for their wonderful comments, compliments, and boundless patience. You guys ROCK! Finally, a special thank you goes out to the writers who have inspired or entertained me, particularly: SleepingSeeker, JayJones, Enimul, The Nerdfighter, Alex Hamato, dgLari, and BubblyShell22.
And if I happened to forget you (my apologies), insert your name here:_.
Thanks again for reading! I greatly appreciate it.