"It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been had it never shone…"- John Steinbeck
Under cover of darkness, he stood amongst the headstones, looking upon the grave before him. It had yet to settle. Grass had yet to grow upon it. Only a few rugged weeds and vines sprouted between the lumps of clay and scores of stones jutting from the dirt. He shook his head and sighed. In reply, a gust of wind, cold and damp, nipped at his skin and tousled his mask-tails; the branches of a nearby silver maple rocked and its leaves rustled in protest.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, that much he knew. There was no reason behind it and no justification for it. And that's what troubled him most of all. The illogic of it. The finality. He rubbed his weary eyes. The pressure building at his temples throbbed in rhythm with his heartbeat and he grumbled his discontent through gritted teeth.
Every time he considered the circumstances, every time he thought about what had happened, his emotions got the better of him and left him feeling muddled. It was a feeling he did not care for, accompanied by questions to which he had no answers. He knew that he was being irrational, that he was getting upset about something that could not be undone, and yet he could not help himself. He moved to leave; the snap of a twig at his back and the squish-squash of footfalls in the mud, however, held him in place.
"Donnie? Is that you?"
He turned. In the darkness, he could only make out her silhouette, but he knew it was her. "Oh. Y-yeah. H-hey April."
She continued toward him. "I thought so. What're you doing out here so late?"
"I suppose I could ask you the same thing."
"I suppose you could."
He could hear her grin within her words. "I, uh, I just came to pay my respects. I know it's been a couple weeks since… Uh… But I haven't really had a chance until now."
"I understand. Raph was in pretty bad shape. How's he doing, anyway?"
"He's healing. Slowly. I guess he keeps forgetting that we're not as young as we used to be; that injuries are going to take a little more time to heal than they used to."
"He's lucky to be in such capable hands."
"I do what I can. I wish I could do more. He's getting anxious. I can tell that he wants to get back up here, find the guys responsible, and make them pay. But that's a ways off. He's not strong enough right now. Heck, he's just lucky to be…"
He stopped short, afraid he would offend. She sidled up next to him and hooked his arm in hers. "It's okay. You can say it."
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them, they were flooded with tears and the moonlight danced within them. "Yeah… lucky…"
"I'm sorry, April. I didn't mean to…"
"Don't apologize. Please. Not for that. I'm glad that Raph is out of the woods and doing well. Besides, Casey would've wanted it that way…"
"I…uh… that's…" He tripped over his tongue. There were many things he wanted to tell her and so much more he hoped she'd understand, but the right words eluded him.
"Hey, it's alright." She gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "Let's just take it from the top, okay? What really brought you out here tonight?"
"I don't know. I was feeling restless and I needed to get out—out of my Lab and away from the Lair."
"Hmm…" Though she said nothing more, there was an air of accusation in her tone—a scrutinizing edge.
"Nevermind. It's nothing."
He grimaced. "Don't lie to me, April. What's on your mind?"
"Well… it's just… I suppose I don't understand. I mean, there was a time you were at each other's throats. When you could hardly stand the sight of each other or even to be in the same room. I just think it's a little odd, is all… That you would come here of all places..."
"You're right." He pulled his arm from hers and turned to leave. "You don't understand."
"Donnie, wait! Please don't go!" He obeyed her plea. He stood mere feet away, bathed in moonlight. It brought out the nicks and scrapes in his plastron and played off of the seemingly uniform yet wholly unique scutes of his carapace. His eyes shone like polished mahogany, soft and striking all at once. To her, he seemed almost mythological—a stunning being of sinew and armor, humming of power and strength and mystery. "I… I didn't mean anything by it. I… I was just making an observation. If I'm out-of-line, please… Please help me understand…"
He deliberated, neither leaving nor returning to her side. After a moment, he blew out his breath in tacit acceptance and spoke: "I came here to think. To make sense of it. To make sense of him… And I can't. I just can't. Isn't it funny how you can know someone without really knowing them?"
"I suppose it is. We only see glimpses. Parts of the whole."
He wringed his hands. "That's what troubles me. If you don't truly know someone, how can you ever hope to understand them?"
"I-I'm not sure…" Tentatively, she moved toward him. She reached out to lay her hand on his shoulder but noticed the way he was carrying himself and let her arm drop to her side. "To be honest, I'm kind of lost. W-why don't you tell me what you're thinking?"
"Because I'm not sure you'd care to hear it."
He said nothing. The wind scraped by them and she pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.
"Donnie, talk to me. Tell me. Whatever it is, no matter how it may seem, you don't have to protect me from it… I can handle it…"
A grin ghosted across his face but disappeared behind a pensive veil. He thumbed the leather strap bisecting his plastron, his eyes fixed to a point on the horizon. "I'm not very good at reading people. I never have been. That's Mikey's gift. I only see so much. And when I first met Casey, all I saw was a punk kid who didn't appreciate all he had going for him. I mean, it was pretty clear he had some troubles, but he also had freedom—a freedom I could only dream of. The freedom of normalcy and anonymity. And it bothered me that the whole world was open to him but he couldn't see beyond New York… Beyond the cheap thrills and the bright lights and the thrall of the city. To compound that, the two of you started growing closer and I could see you drifting away from me. It frustrated and angered me… and I took all of that out on him. Our rocky start, the years we bickered and fought… I blame myself for that. I didn't handle it as well as I could have or should have."
"Well…" Her brows arched and her voice lilted. "In fairness, neither did he. He saw the way we were together—the easy banter, the lingering glances, the hugs that lasted a beat too long... And on top of all of that, he saw all of the amazing things you could do—things he never could—and it made him feel inadequate…"
"That was never my intent. You of all people know that."
"I do. But he didn't. Back then, I think he thought that everything you did was a ploy—part of an underhanded master plan to make him look bad."
"Yeah, like I had time to orchestrate such a thing. Because we were never busy fighting for our lives or trying to save the planet or anything…" A throaty chortle escaped him and he rolled his eyes.
She laughed. Trilling sweetly, it sounded eerily out-of-place and her smile stood out starkly against the darkness. "Well, you always misunderstood each other completely."
"We did. For the longest time."
"It's strange." She fumbled with her shawl, her slender fingers drumming absently along its fringes. "Strange how some things change so noticeably while others hardly register. There are so many moments and milestones that stand out so clearly in my mind, but for the life of me I can't remember when or how you two worked things out."
"It isn't so easy to pin down, is it?" His eyes searched hers. "Well, it wouldn't be, I suppose. It didn't happen all at once. One of the benefits of being part of a close-knit group is that you work harder to find common ground. He and I were different enough that we were never going to be close. That wasn't his fault, nor was it mine. Some people just aren't meant to be. Apparently, I made him feel insecure; in turn, he grated on my nerves like no one else…"
"He had a knack for that."
"He did. But when you're thrown into life-and-death situations with a person often enough, you see them differently. You see them for who they are—beyond facades. Their courage, integrity, and priorities are made clear. When you're under fire and you look to the person beside you, you immediately know what they're all about. And with Casey, there was never a doubt in my mind… He was a good guy, even if he was reluctant to let it show."
A tear slipped down her cheek. "D-do you really mean that?"
"I do. Even if I didn't always agree with him, even if we didn't always get along, I knew I could trust him when it mattered most. And that sort of trust leads to respect. He earned mine time and again."
She sniffled. "I… I'm sure he felt the same way…"
"That's what makes this difficult for me…"
"How do you mean?"
"I don't think I…"
"Donnie…" His name left her lips like an ultimatum. There was no warmth. There was no compromise. Only curiosity and a desire to know.
He hemmed and hawed and then, with a sigh, relented. "You knew him best, far better than I, so it seems wrong of me to cast stones at him. But when it happened, I was so stunned and angry and I had so many questions. I wanted to know what would have possessed him to do what he did."
Her brow knitted in confusion. "But you already know… You and your brothers have gone out of your way to protect the city for years…"
"No. The circumstances are not the same." His eyes narrowed and latched onto hers. "That night, did he tell you where he was going or what he was planning to do?"
She said nothing. Her breaths became wavering gasps. Each was so sharp and sudden that it sounded painful and pitiful all at once.
"I didn't think so." He folded his arms over his plastron. "Raph didn't tell us, either. He just mumbled something about going to see Casey and took off. It wasn't until later that night that I got the call… He was panicked, scared… It almost sounded like he was speaking in tongues… I'd never heard him sound like that, so I knew it was bad. I just didn't know how bad until I got there. By the time I did, he had passed out. He had lost a lot of blood and was barely hanging on. And Casey..? Th-there was nothing… nothing I could do for him. He was already gone…"
"It's not your fault. There was nothing you could have done." Her face was a blank slate. She wore the look of an individual who had been ravaged by grief and had no tears left to shed. "I mean… I could tell. Uh, they n-needed someone to identify him…"
"Oh, April…"He snatched her up in his arms and held her. Guilt twisted in his gut like a knife. That someone would have had to identify Casey's body had slipped his mind. It made his heart ache for her. "I'm so sorry. That's awful…"
"It's okay. You endured it, too. Besides, it had to be either me or Shadow and I certainly didn't want that for her. .."
"Yeah… Losing a parent is difficult enough as it is. How has she been coping with it?"
She laid her head on his shoulder. "She's tough, just like he was, but I can tell she's hurting. She tries to hide it—tries to pretend that everything's normal—but I can see through her. She doesn't eat much and she sleeps all the time…"
"And you? What about you?"
She broke their embrace and looked up at him. Moonbeams dripped down upon them in spills and arcs of silver. It brought out the streaks of grey in her hair and the fine lines around her eyes. "Me? I'm all right. Hanging in there."
It was a lie and he knew it. "Really..?"
"Then tell me, April… Why are you here?"
His words sucker-punched her; a look of uncomfortable shock gnarled her features and she fidgeted nervously. "Wh-what..?"
He continued: "You say you're all right, that you're 'hanging in'… And I'd love to be able to believe you. But I know you too well. Whenever you're upset, you either busy yourself or go off on your own. There's no shame in it, you know. I do the same thing. That's why it's so easy for me to see…"
Her lower lip trembled. "I can't hide anything from you, can I?"
"No. So why don't you tell me what's troubling you?"
She dropped her eyes and studied the ground. He had pierced her veneer and she felt uneasy looking at him—exposed. "Because in the grand scheme of things, it's not important."
He gently raised her chin and forced her to look at him. "If it's important to you, then it's important to me."
She hesitated. His presence—his aura of patience and tranquility—lent her stability; his affection gave her strength. "I-if I tell you what really brought me out here, will you tell me what brought you? Without changing the subject or hiding behind half-answers?"
He nodded. "I will."
She acknowledged him with a tip of her head and steadied herself with a deep breath. "I'm tired. I'm tired of being strong all the time—of being the one who makes things better; of being the one who's expected to smile when things are at their worst. I'm tired of being everybody's rock. It's exhausting. And now, Shadow needs me, and I want to be there for her—really, I do—but there are times that I want to be alone. To cry. To think. To remember… Sometimes, I just want to break down and I just can't, because if I do…" She threw up her hands. "Everything will fall apart. Everything. And we're barely holding things together as it is…"
His hands found her shoulders. Dwarfed by the palms of his hands, he gave them a firm squeeze. "You're strong, April. You always have been. Even when you haven't been dealt the best circumstances, you keep forging ahead… It's part of who you are…"
She frowned. The muscles in her throat twitched as she choked in a breath. "Maybe I'd rather not be me… at least for a little while…"
His features seemed to wash away—to recede. All that remained were his eyes. Imprisoned within them, she saw a battered soul; a wounded spirit rattling its cage. "I understand how you feel."
It was a confession disguised as a declaration of solidarity. It took her by surprise. Every so often, Raphael would voice his discontent. She remembered too well the night that he rescued a young woman from a purse-snatcher. Though he tried to be careful, she caught a glimpse of him. Before he could even return her purse, she ran away—screaming, crying, and terrified. He arrived at her apartment some time later, stumbling drunk with bloodied knuckles. At first, he claimed that he'd torn his hands open during a scuffle. It was only after she'd pulled shards of glass from his wounds that he'd told her the story—and that when he caught his reflection in a storefront window, he'd destroyed the monster staring back at him with his fists. But Donatello was not like Raphael. He was not as forthcoming. Whenever he was upset, he lost himself in his work. It was his distraction. His escape.
"Wh-what was that, Donnie?"
He looked skyward and appraised the waxing moon, his lips upturned in a strange, almost beguiling smile. "I said that I know how you feel… about wanting to be someone else."
The words fell clumsily from her lips. "I… I never knew that you felt that way…"
"I do. A lot of the time…"
"But why..?" She trailed her fingers along his jaw. It pulled his attention from the cosmos. "You're incredible…"
"If I am, it's because I have to be… Just like you're strong because you have to be—because the situation calls for it. I do the things I do because I must. To help my family. And, whether I like it or not, it's part of who I am… Everything I've done—the things I've created, the battles I've fought, all of it—has been for them."
She didn't know what to say. His admission was a revelation and yet all she could do was stare at him in wonder.
"I've never asked for any of it, but it's all I know. Ever since I was young, that's just the way it's been. Having to hide, fighting to protect each other and what little we have, and making do with what the world above provides… That's been my life. But that doesn't mean that I've never wished or hoped for better."
She nodded in agreement. "You're not alone. I think it's pretty common to wish for better…"
"Yes. And the catch there is that one's definition of 'better' may differ vastly from another's." His eyes pulled to the mounded grave mere feet away. "Take Casey, for instance. Why does a man in his late forties with a wife, daughter, and all the responsibility in the world sneak out at night to play vigilante?"
She opened her mouth to speak but no words emerged. She looked like a fish out of water, gaping and gasping for air.
"I'll tell you why." He continued. "To fill a void of some kind—something he believed he was missing. Maybe it was excitement and adventure. Maybe he felt he had something to prove. I can't be sure. Maybe it doesn't matter. In the end, he made a conscious decision to put himself in harm's way and jeopardize all he had in an attempt to fill that void." His hands clenched into tightly balled fists—so tight that his knuckles went pale. "But that's what I don't understand. Why seek something more when you already have it all? What more could he have possibly wanted or asked for? What could he have thought he was missing?"
Suddenly, it dawned on her and everything fell into place: the reason he had come, the roundabout questions and evasive answers, his proclamations and prolonged silences. He was grieving, yes, but not for Casey. He was grieving for her. For Shadow. And for something more. Something he longed for beyond measure.
She threw herself into his arms. He buried his face into the crook of her neck and wept.
A/N: I wanted to try a little something different with this story. The goal was to rely heavily on dialogue and leave much of the interpretation up to the reader. I am confident that the overwhelming majority of people who read my work will come to a reasonable conclusion...perhaps the conclusion I intended or one more personally meaningful and compelling. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or critiques, I will hear them gladly and respond in due course. Thank you all for taking the time to read my work (especially to my friends and bastions of support over at Stealthy Stories! You know who you are!)!