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Not Our Problem

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None of them heard a goddamn thing, except for Leo. 'Course he did. A book could tell you blind people had no better hearing than anyone else, but Fearless could apparently identify inanimate objects around himself by feeling the vibrations nearby cars sent ricocheting up through everything. 

Yeah. So. 

Whatever he'd had heard, it was enough to send him bolting across the skyline so fast he didn't even find the time to call out a word to either of them. Like he thought he needed every scrap of air to move as fast as possible? Raph and Mikey were left to pursue the extremely nimble blind dude across gulfs and past obstacles that really oughtn't have been traversable by someone who couldn't see.

Night snaked, cold, through the slowly recovering city. Most of the Foot insignia had either been taken down, or were falling into disrepair. Gang wars lit up the heat map here or there.

Made Raph nervous.

'Xpecially on nights like t'night when they'd been thinking about the future, and whether they even had one. Dead ends made Raphael nervous. The Foot regime was technically broken and the East Coast was recovering, but they had no real road before them or happy ending to gun for, and it just fucking felt like a dramatically appropriate time for tragic endings.

Raph hadn't been there for Donnie, and he'd barely gotten there in enough time for Mikey, and maybe Leo wouldn't presently be using echolocation or magic or whatever the hell for way finding if Raphael hadn't been such a fucking asshole and thrown him off his game that night, reaming him for decisions it was way too late to take back anyway.

"Slow down, Fearless!"

Of course Leo didn't. Tch! Idiot. Karai was still unaccounted for, and if this was a trap-

"Is it a cat?" Mike blurted, and if Raphael strained his hearing he was pretty sure he could hear some small animal howling.

"C'mon, not everyone's got your priorities," he snarked to his brother.

"You wouldn't see me light out like that over a cat," Mikey growled.

"Woulda once," Raphael teased. Paranoia or not, he'd been smiling a lot more since Shredder'd finally been shredd-ed.

Mikey scoffed with a disgusted noise in the back of his throat, and Raphael briefly went nostalgic for a time Michelangelo had been less like... like himself.

They caught up with Leo as he was descending at break-neck speeds into an alleyway, and followed. It sounded like someone had thrown away an unwanted litter of puppies or something. Smelled like it too, all blood and musk and body fluids. Sure enough, Leo threw open the heavy lid of a dumpster, and began frantically throwing aside poorly closed bags of rot and garbage.

Mike and Raphael shared a look. Leo wasn't as much of a hardass as Mike or Raph were these days, so maybe he would go try and rescue somebody's unwanted pet. Still, break-neck speeds for five blocks travel seemed excessive. Michelangelo's curiousity ended up piqued, and when he hopped down closer to Leo, it was damn good proof his old spirit hadn't completely shriveled away to nothing, so Raph didn't intervene. They could all hear the muffled, piteous crying of something or another.

Leonardo leaned into the dumpster, pulled up a bag, drew a katana, and slit off the top. The whole inside of it was creamed in red gunk, which spilled and spurted out down the side of the dumpster, along with meaty organs that looked sorta like liver and sausage.

That's not what they were, though.

Raphael went ram-rod straight when Leo set down his katana, reached into the bag with both hands, and hoisted out a slimy, twitching, human baby. It wheezed, mewled, and coughed, and Leo just stood there looking as frozen as Raphael felt, breathing heavily but otherwise just holding it aloof beneath the armpits. The baby appeared vaguely cognizant that its present circumstances were a great improvement on its previous circumstances, because it stopped crying.

"That..." Mike was the first turtle to find any words at all, "is not a cat."

Loathing filled Raphael, and he glanced up and around at the brownstone buildings whose inhabitants were either guilty or complicit in abandoning kin. He spat on the ground. "Humans are disgusting," he uttered. "Let's get outta here, need a drink to forget this stench."

"What do we do with it?" Mikey asked him, leery. Decades of everyone and everything being owned by the Foot were stamped on all their minds, and few humans other than April and her immediate lieutenants in the Rebellion had left an even halfway decent impression on them in a very long time. Today surely wasn't restoring anyone's 'faith in humanity,' har har.

"Leave it," Raphael muttered, because it was obvious. "And get Leo a bath in case he doesn't realize what the fuck he just drenched himself in."

"Leave it..." Mike repeated, but sounded unsure. Raphael glanced back at him.

"Maybe a real miracle'll happen and one of them'll hear it crying, and remember what responsibility is to their own damn flesh and blood."

"Or even just their own kind," Mikey muttered. "Yo! Leo? Bro! Can you hear us?"

Leonardo just stood there, still holding up the baby like it was the start of the fucking Lion King or something. Man had it been a long time since they'd had a proper TV. Ugh. Here he was missing Disney Movies. Either nostalgia was being wicked today, or he really was getting old. "Leo!" Raphael shouted loud enough to get his attention. Leo jumped slightly, and turned his 'gaze' back over his shoulder to indicate he was listening. "Drop it! Let's go!"

Leo remained in place, though, weirding both Raph and Mike out a bit. The baby was starting to move again, and if it had the life left to scream, it was going to attract attention. Mike gave Blue's shell a gentle shove. "Yo wake up!"

Leo blinked once. Twice. Then he turned his attention back to the dazed child. His arms bent at the elbow, pulling it down against the front of his clothing and slicking him in even more grime, where he wrapped an arm about it and reached out for katana. He cut the umbilical.

"Oh just great," Raphael tossed his arms. "What the fuck are you doing? Gonna drop it off at a hospital? Police station? Group home? Forget what shit world we live in? That the streets are swarmin' with riotin' kids, and ain't a public institution that ain't strugglin' at full capacity? Leave it. Sad truth is it's kinder."

"This is a baby," Leo stated as he turned to them, as if they could have even possibly been confused on that detail.

"It's human, yo. What do we owe humans?" Mikey grimaced. "April's still good, but we just downed a tyrannical regime they all let happen to themselves; Let them clean up their own messes, bro!"

"This is not a mess, Mikey," Leo said. "It is a baby."

Raphael snarled in the back of his throat but made a dismissive guesture. "Forget it Mikey. Let him try to pass it off on the hospital or whatever the fuck."

"Why?" Mikey asked. "Bro, Foot are still out there taking in unwanted kids and making brainwashed Clonetroopers. I say just leave it. If someone wants it, more power to them, but this is just feeding a twig to a fire we spent years putting out. No point to it, Raph's right."

Leonardo looked to Michelangelo. "This is a baby girl," he explained. "And she is coming home with us."

And Mikey's armor might have slipped just a bit, just then, changing disgust into wonderment; but Raphael strode straight up to Leo and shoved his face in his brother's. "Over my gutted shell," he laid down the law, voice low. "We have enough problems. Drop it, and move ya tail. Now."

"You don't give orders to me," Leo said without looking to his face, because he couldn't, "I think Michelangelo should name her."

Mikey's face went through paroxysms of uncertainty, as two very different sides of himself warred for control, and old broken things surged out scrambling for expression. "Yo, don't- don't even joke like-"

Raphael sneered and grabbed for the scum-covered pink problem between them, and Leo twisted away. Raphal grabbed his shoulder, and the edge of his shell, to manhandle him into turning about.

"RAPHAEL!" Leonardo exploded, and the amount of venom in his voice could have felled a dragon, which was crazy because it came from absolutely nowhere, and stung so hot that Raphael recoiled a step in surprise. Leo glared in his general direction, milky eyes actually expressive for once. "Why in father's name would you find it acceptable to forcibly tear a newborn infant out of my arms, be it reptile, mammal, or even alien? What the hell?"

Raphael's face darkened. He was quiet a long pause. "If you were ta do this, it'd blow up in our faces," he intoned. "Badly. Drop it."

"Do not lay a hand on her," his idiot older brother warned him. 

Raphael drew and twirled a Sai. "You can't fight me and carry that unwanted tumor at the same time, can ya?" Leo had sidelined Mikey, who otherwise would have backed Raphael; but Raphael didn't really need the backup.

Leo all but tossed the child into just one arm, and snatched his katana up again. "I'm not sure what's gotten into you just now, hothead," he warned, "but I am still your leader."

"What's gotten into me? How about you? Maybe I'm about ta declare ya temporarily unfit ta lead, eh!"

Leo's eyes narrowed, easing a foot back a step in a clear indication he was willing to try his luck at giving them both the slip. "Be careful. Be very careful what you do next. You are not yourself without a family to protect, and I cannot imagine how badly you'd torture yourself if another member went missing on you, and it actually really was your fault."

Raphael dropped his hands. He stared through his brother, because if he stared straight at him he was going to tackle him headlong into the side of the dumpster, and throttle n' concuss him into unconsciousness to keep him down. And then drag him someplace safe and tie him down there, for fuck's sake. Leo!

"Whoa!" Mikey snarled, jumping forward and raising his hands up flat between both of them. "Yo Raph's right, Leo, this is a terrible idea. But nobody should be talking about squashing any babies or running away from any families!"

"Both of you, it's October," Leo interjected. "Leaving her here through the night is tantamount to infanticide."

"Her parents or some shit left her there!" Mikey disagreed. "Us doing nothing is just not being good Samaritans or something! Just forget you found her, yo!"

"How can I possibly forget that? I can hear her breathing. I can hear her heart beating. When the weekend newspaper features a small paragraph detailing that an infant was found dead in a dumpster, I will know I could have done something to save it. I cannot forget that! How can you?"

"You can't read newspapers, you are blind!"

"Excuse me," Leo protested. "I do not rub your disability in your face," he gestured towards Michelangelo's missing arm.

"Okay, look, I'll give you a hand, and we can leave her at some group home. Okay?"

"As you so astutely pointed out, many of those are still overseen by Foot operatives," Leo just bickered.

"Then what are you going to do with her!?" Michelangelo exploded. "You can't take a baby back to our Lair!"

Blind eyes blinked a moment. "You do not think it might be 'fun' to be a father, Mikey?" Leo inquired, and Michelangelo's brain visibly, if metaphorically, exploded.

"But what... what... do we feed her?" Orange mouthed.

Leo frowned and settled down a bit at that, clearly thinking. "I would have difficulty identifying infant formula without opening the canister..." he did realize, before lifting up a very concerned expression. "Will one of you help me?"

Seething past words, Raphael slowly zoned out as an alternative to hitting anyone. In a day or two, when the thing was screaming and forcing them to once more abandon their latest hiding place, the two of them would get quickly over this shit, and either he'd get them to give it away or, hell, jam it back in a plastic bag and lob it into the Hudson.

Chapter Text

The fact that they were breaking into a supermarket for no good reason would have had Raphael on edge any day of the week, but right now it was all he could do to avoid pushing an entire aisle's worth of shelving units over in a fit of rage. And keeping a throttle on that was fucking important, because you had to hire one hell of a lot of guards to keep a huge-ass store running in New York City these days.

Most chain stores had abandoned ship and got the hell of doge when the Foot had taken up shop. Those clever bastards who remained behind negotiated contracts for operation under the totalitarian regime. Usually it was at the expense of hefty public relations dilemmas with the rest of the free world; they'd try to pass their economic savvy off as altruism whilst kowtowing plenty enough to never cost Shredder any face.

The inside of each place still looked like they had in the good old days, before Oroko Saki had carved out a swath of territory and named it his own personal Daimyō. Pfeh. Like the rule of thumb was to go on with a big blissful Walmart smile and pretend half the world weren't dotted in alien technology and the holdings of an evil ninja overlord! Pissed. Him. Off. But anyway, that was over. Nowadays, looters, gangs, and public unrest were the big issues. Every last mall or Home Depot or Target Superstore had security guards policing the entryways and exits. 

Of course, giant mutant ninjas, with expert lock-picking skills and superhuman strength, could throw one-another up four or five stories to catch a rooftop, and break into just about anything. So at least - fucking - that.

Raphael kept quiet during the procedure, and stayed far away from Leo and their newest huge problem. He was hoping it would cry and give them away; a few gunshots overhead or pinging off their shells would at least bring Mikey back down to earth.

But no.

Couldn't even be counted upon for the one thing babies had a reputation for: Crying.

Fuck it.

Red's nerves were alight. If he had to follow his brothers up and down aisles collecting pampers, he was going to blow his top. He wanted to follow them. He wanted to be close enough to help immediately in an emergency. He wanted to never let a single one of them out of his line of sight ever again.

Instead he went and found himself steak, ribs, hamburger, and sausage. Lots of it. Every brand. Varied enough nobody could tell shit was missing. Some uh, greens, too, since spinach was hard to get these days.

"Have you seriously eaten nothing but beef all week?" a long-gone voice chided him from the depths of old memories. "That's not how nutrition works, Raph."

Leonardo had snatched up a few regrettably Foot-branded eco-friendly canvas bags from near the registers, which had clearly been the supermarket's attempt to stalwartly ignore how bad reality had gotten. More power to em, it was a valiant attempt, it had probably kept a lot of people glued to sanity! Mikey grabbed a super sized bag of M&Ms from near the registers to do the exact same thing for himself. Sannnitttyy cheeckkk!

Oh right, Leo. Michelangelo led him through the baby aisles, trying to quickly discern what was needed.

Diapers! Television had warned them both that babies pooped hysterical quantities of poop. Mikey took one pack of each brand from the front and then eased out the products behind them to sit on the edge, so nothing would look out of place.

"Mikey," Leo whispered urgently, as Orange used his phone light to quickly scan formula canisters.

"Kinda busy." Why were there so many different kinds of human milk? Wait, was formula made from real human milk? Was there some sort of factory somewhere with-!? Okay Mikey, even you know that sounds stupid; We lived through an evil ninja takeover, not a Mad Max movie. Channel your inner Donnie to solve this problem! How about just look for the word 'newborn?'

"Mikey, she's very cold." 

"Don't think we have time to shop for onesies, bro," Mikey remarked, feeling afloat on some weird high that felt like it might come crashing down any second. Aha! Newborn! Dee would have been so proud of him. "Got minutes till the next guard patrol."

"Blankets?" Leo pleaded, as Mikey quickly bagged the canisters. He grabbed his brother's sleeve (forgetting that doing so was unnecessary) and led Leo towards home furnishings, and hoped they ran into blankets instead of curtains or rugs, even as that would be totally funny.

They nailed the blanket aisle, woo! Leo ran his fingers down everything as they jogged, till he stopped at something cotton, and picked that out to wrap the kid in. Mikey grabbed more of the same and handfuls of whatever was next to it, too, cause that was softer. Not like they could see much.

He did see Leo kneel down and pick the kid off of his shoulder to bundle her up, and when she didn't kick or wiggle much, Mikey got hit by a wave of extremely strange, stomach-twitching dread. But, hey, they'd tried their best, and if she did die then that honestly would probably be the best thing for them. 


On their way back, he paused beside the pharmaceutical aisles, with their heavy bullet-proofed pharmacy and its jail-cell-like bars, and dared to flick on his phone one more time. He snatched up a colorful box with the words 'Cold and Flu.' Colorful always meant 'for kids,' right?

Raphael found them almost before they started looking for Raphael, and he was carrying a very big duffel full of what was probably food (so yum, this break-in wasn't completely wasted!) The three of them got the hell back out onto the roof, and by then it was kinda super noticeable to all of them that the baby just wasn't crying. Nobody commented, though. Was best they didn't fight.

Chapter Text

Raphael snatched, stalked off with, and probably burned those unfortunately-branded canvas bags. The baby supplies had already been emptied into a teetering stack off in a misshapen corner of their teeny-tiny 'lair' by then. While they waited, Leo took the opportunity to open up a diaper pack and pull one of them out. He set to examining it with his hands. Which direction was up? On the floor beside him, the electric water kettle started to bubble and boil.

The baby continued to be (what Mikey presumed was) unnaturally silent. Which meant it would probably die, and then Mikey wouldn't have to be the one to remind Leo what a mess this was gonna snowball into.

The electric kettle turned itself off with a merry little 'pop,' task completed, and Leo put the diaper aside. Mikey glanced over to see his brother slowly pour steaming heat into a chipped bowl of cold water, like it was no more daunting or complicated a task than brewing himself some tea. How hot was 'too hot?' Leo made the judgement call.

Blue set the kettle down, soaked a wash cloth in the bowl, wrung it out, and then carefully unwrapped that much-too-quiet baby. For a second, Mikey thought that it might already be dead. Then it she made a little coughing noise and abruptly sobbed in alarm. Not loudly, exactly, just like she'd been scared awake by a bad nightmare, ya know? She quieted down almost immediately, maybe cause Leo was whispering stuff in Japanese to her.

She was covered in cheesy-looking white and red birth stuff, which Donnie probably would have had a name for, but Michelangelo sure didn't. It stunk, but Leo just patiently picked up each leg and wrapped the washcloth around it and pulled it lean, like he knew exactly what it was doing and had done it a thousand times before. He rinsed the cloth in the water, which reheated it. He dabbed her face, and turned her this way and that to get her shoulders and head. He lifted her up to wipe her bum, and picked up each foot and started doing the toes.

Mikey stared.

Those were tiny toes, man. Like... just tiny. 

The baby made weird little squeaks, or something like that, as if she found it weird to be touched. Hey, maybe she did. Hadn't she most probably just come out of someone's stomach earlier in the evening? Right, so it wasn't like there were any hands around poking her prior to this. New experience!

Leo finished washing her as deftly as he started, got her up onto a relatively clean section of his lap, and then started to work on the operation of that diaper. Popular culture would have led Mikey to believe diapers were difficult contraptions, particularly for middle-aged unmarried dudes who'd never so much as touched one before (and were blind). But, eh, Leo didn't have a particularly fussy patient; She more or less laid where he'd deposited her and breathed heavily like she wasn't particularly happy about something but, whoa, man, crying was just way too much work.

Blue successfully wrapped the diaper about and taped it into place. The result looked secure! Mikey nearly gave a thumbs up, before belatedly recalling, for the billionth time, yo, he can't see. So then Mikey nearly clapped, instead! But what's the sound of one hand clapping? Yeah. Exactly

At least Leo seemed satisfied with his handiwork, because he reached for a fresh blanket and somehow managed to swaddle that baby into an amazingly artisan-looking burrito.

How the hell? Welp, just showed you that if you folded a futon, kimono, haori, or hakama enough times, you got really good at making fabric look neat. At least if you cared. Which Mikey didn't, as his rolled up bundle of futon mat and duvet cover would attest.

"Uh, Leo?" Mikey interrupted. "Your whole getup's still covered in gross red birth crap."

Leo jumped. For someone so neat and clean they could make washing anything look trivial, blindness was a curse, yo. At least Leo could feel when he was particularly grimy and stuff, but stains over the plastron or shell could go unnoticed. Mikey didn't even have the heart to try and mix reds in with his whites on laundry day or tag post-it notes to him; Cause, like, it ruined the prank if you had to explain it, after all, and it wasn't like Leo could catch sight of himself in a mirror anymore.

Raph wouldn't laugh, either.

Leo hesitated and then temporarily found a safe place to set his newly burrito-ed child down on the futons, and went about removing his clothing. October was brisk, but he did not immediately B-line for his only fresh change of threads. Instead he picked up that baby and tiptoed over to poke through their supplies. Was he looking for baby formula? Oops, he was.

Mikey gave in to common courtesy, and hurried over to help him. They found the plastic bottle Mikey had almost forgotten to buy, and managed to fill it up with what anyone's best guess was as to the right temperature of water, with the amount of formula powder as was specified on the canister. Mikey made sure the lid was screwed on tightly, and shook it. Leo picked the baby back up, and took the bottle with a murmur of thanks.

She did not have any idea what a bottle tip was, and she didn't seem like she wanted to find out! Heh!

Leo kept one finger gently against her cheek as a guide, so he could tell exactly where her mouth was, but no matter how he offered her that bottle, she either turned her head, made grunts of displeasure, or else completely ignored it. Eventually, it bothered her enough that she started crying. Mikey almost giggled and quickly looked from her to Leo, whose facial expression was borderline frustrated and definitely worried.

They weren't gonna keep her. It was a bad idea.

But that didn't mean he wanted her to die of starvation with perfectly good food nearby! That sounded horrible!

"Lemme try," Mikey finally blurted as he scooted up beside his brother, shoulder to shoulder, shell bumping shell, and took the bottle from him. He got some formula on his forefinger, and pushed it into her mouth. She coughed, and snorted, and then made a funny smacking noise with her lips and tongue as if going 'whoa! what was that?'

"Come on, dummy, airplane's coming," Mikey cooed, even as a bitter voice in the back of his head shouted 'can't you hear how stupid you sound?'

Perhaps for unrelated reasons, the baby did open her mouth and lifted her tongue a bit, and rubbed her face against what was immediately available (which was the curve of Leo's hand), and Mikey took the shot and got that bottle right in there in. Tada! This time she latched hold like that bottle was a slice of marshmallow hot sauce pizza. Om nom nom.

Two turtles heaved a sigh of relief. Who would naively have assumed that getting a hungry person to eat could be difficult? Human babies were totally dumb!

Then the smell of beef wafted in to them, and they were both treated to the realization that Raphael had turned on the little propane grill. Ooh-hoo, they'd be eating deliciousness tonight! Not a bad day, all-in-all. Iiiffff one discounted the lifetime commitment chowing down on reconstituted probably-not-actually-human-milk milk-stuff beside him.

Heh. She made funny little hungry noises, little 'mns' and 'hnhs,' and her forehead was all wrinkled up like this was the most serious business in the entire world. Totally with ya there, burrito-baby, food's absolutely serious business! 

...They weren't really keeping her, were they? They couldn't. Not only would she most likely die if left with them (because clearly they had no idea how to take care of her), but she was a direct drain on all their supplies, energy, martial prowess, and lucky break quotas for the year. They lived in a concrete lean-to sandwiched between two still-inhabited but heavily damaged brownstones, the sad aftermath of some kind of rocket fight! And their literal lives were at stake at least bi-weekly, for goodness' sake!

"Thank you," Leo said quietly.

"Yeah," Mikey answered uncomfortably, and then cleared his throat and went to go drool over whatever Raphael was making.

When Mikey 'helped' Raphael bring the food inside, Leo was doing their laundry. By hand; they'd yet to find or fix a machine. But a makeshift wash-board was easy enough to cobble together, and he was presently scrubbing out blood stains from his hakama with white vinegar.

How Leo could accomplish removing stains all on his lonesome was an enigma to Mikey, who had trouble accomplishing the same even whilst sighted, but one supposed if it boiled down to elbow grease and remembering where the contaminant had been, Leo was theoretically patient enough just to time it. Mikey wasn't patient at all. Of course, Leo still held up the garments at the end to ask them if he'd succeeded, and Raphael had nearly killed Mikey the one time Michelangelo had answered 'yeah' without even looking.

Which was fair. Being tidy was part of being Leo, and taking that away from him was sorta cruel.

He'd washed the cottons he'd originally swaddled the baby in, too, and set those out to dry on their clothesline. Burrito-child was presently curled up upon his calves as he leaned forward over the laundry basin, and one could just imagine he'd looked to his left, looked to his right found nothing clean to set her down upon, and simply gone for the only remaining direction, which had been backwards. Probably kept her warm, though.

Kept her out of Raphael's immediate line of vision, too, which was an extra good thing. Raphael was presently a rare, dead-silent sort of pissed. Despite that, Red passed a plate of grilled sirloin and leafy greens over to Leo, and Leo took it and thanked him. Neither of them mentioned babies to one another. Raphael went over to hunker in his 'corner' of the shelter and eat. Leo finished his food first, to demonstrate appreciation for it, but then couldn't quite recall where the stains on his laundry were, and required Mikey to come over to him and point them out.

Mikey plugged earbuds into his cheap-o, screen-cracked phone, kicked up his feet, and chilled. One thing the Foot had never managed to steal from him was his library of tunes, and not for lack of trying! Raphael ignored both of them by means of a newspaper. Leonardo managed to dress himself one-handed, which would have been more impressive if Michelangelo didn't already dress himself one-handed each and every single time he ever got his threads dirty, period. 

These were the weirdest moments of their lives: when they were still awake but the sun was up, and they were three restless adults, crammed together in small spaces. Leo joked it had taught Raphael tolerance. Mikey had disagreed, arguing instead that it had only taught Mikey how to hold farts in (which was totally unhealthy, yo!), because there was no escaping Raphael's retaliation if the best shelter they'd managed to find was to crawl under the chassis of some broken armored tank or another. Raphael had a tendency not to pull punches much, regardless of context!

But when it came down to it, Mikey wouldn't want to be anywhere else. After you'd spent your entire life pretty much alone with your own quadruplets, relying on each other for everything—and learning to stay calm even when things were completely outside your control—it didn't really matter how different you all were, or how much you fought. You needed each other. You'd always share this indescribable wavelength nobody else could even get close to. The inside jokes could be one word long and leave them all in stitches for the better part of an hour.

By the time the three of them were finally ready for sleep, Mikey had nearly forgotten about the B-word, and it didn't look to be the first thing on Raphael's mind either. The three of them got out their bedding—the empty floor space was just big enough to accommodate all three mats—and Leonardo laid down first, carefully, with his burrito fastened to his chest. He centered her atop himself, eased up his hold as he made sure she'd stay where she'd been plopped, and then pulled the duvet up over the tip top of her head, like a little tent. 

Raphael took one look, kicked an annoyed Mikey's mat over beside Leo's, and then laid down not-between-them for the first in a really, really, really long time. Shell, he even rolled away from them, and slept on his side, which looked pretty painful on so thin a mattress. Mikey frowned, shrugged, and went to get in bed, only to see Leo also rolling away from both of them. Only this wasn't surliness; Leo was clearly keeping one shoulder bowed protectively around the baby, like he wanted to make sure Raphael couldn't snatch her away from him in the middle of the night.

Ugh. Mikey looked from one brother to the other brother. Anger surfaced, anger that Leo would risk their safety and group-dynamics over some human kid, who was probably Foot born-and-bred anyway, and who definitely wasn't their problem. But that anger fought with the new and confusing memory of Leo craned over a baby and cleaning its toes. Her toes.

Mikey hadn't named anything in a long time, and all of those had been monster names, not cute girly ones.

He flopped back on his shell and pulled his blankets up over his head. Both of his brothers sucked, and he wasn't going to back up either of their shells right now. 

Wish you were still here, Option Number Three. He wiped his face and tried to get some sleep.

Chapter Text

Leonardo was the lightest of three light sleepers, and the troublesome note on which they'd gone to sleep had left him on-edge.

So when the baby started moving about within her loosened blankets, his eyes flew open by immediate reflex, and he put a hand against her to gain a read on her situation. Had anyone else woken up? No, Raphael and Michelangelo still breathed evenly through slumber. As hair-trigger paranoid as he and his brothers might have been, they did live in a busy city with plenty of vehicles, people, background ambiance and stray animals; Everyone's sleeping mind had to be sharpened enough to decide between 'white noise' and 'possible ninja ambush.'

Alright then, what was the issue with Baby? She was awake, that much was obvious, and she appeared to be wiping the front and sides of her face against his kimono. This gesture was peculiar but simultaneously also very distinct, so he supposed it must have meant something which his limited knowledge of babies was unable to explain to him. He ran a thumb over her nose and mouth to see if something was the matter, and found a great deal of drool but nothing more alarming. Then she 'kissed' the pad of his thumb with her tongue up. 

Aha! Hungry.

Leonardo squeezed her gently against himself in an effort to keep her quiet and content while he sat up and felt around for the water kettle. It was still slightly warm, and that would have to do. Though blind, and unfamiliar with the tools of this trade, he managed to find the canister and pry it open with his nails, fished out the scoop, rinsed out their baby bottle, and successfully prepared fresh formula. 

Baby started fussing and mewling, but it seemed her small noises had yet to trip Raphael's unconscious Danger Detectors. Before she had a chance to cry, Leo slid the bottle sideways into her hungry 'kisses,' and she took that bottle with an immediate intensity and sucked on it. Leo leaned back a bit, relaxing. What time was it? Early. Would she wake him up again?

She passed out almost immediately after eating, and he wiped off her face, rinsed out the bottle, and preemptively dropped a scoop of formula into it under the suspicion he'd need it. He pushed these supplies up against the electric kettle, which he tapped to set to boiling. Hmm. He reached around himself and loosened his kimono, and then laid himself back down carefully so he could tuck her face against his naked plastron. If she minded the glossy texture she didn't show it, and this way he'd be able to hear and feel her stirring more easily. One thing was for certain: If she was going to wake any of them up, it best not be Raphael.

By the time dusk was on the horizon, Baby had woken Leonardo up no less than four times. Four seemed excessive. That would imply new mothers never actually got to find REM sleep, and instead were expected to operate on a string of cat-naps which varied between two and three hours in length. If that was the case, nobody was exaggerating if they referred to motherhood as a full-time job. What other jobs forfeited sleep? Soldiering? Firefighting? Ninjaturtlehood, some days, certainly. 

At least she was 'conscientious' enough to always start with face-rubbing, but kicking and unhappy noises would soon follow if he delayed in supplying her with food. For whatever reason, she didn't seem to have it in her to get particularly loud. Had her lungs been injured during her close encounter with asphyxiation? Leonardo couldn't know. There were a lot of questions only someone like Donatello could have ever been expected to answer off the top of his head, and Donatello hadn't been there for a very long time. They made due with guesses and half-answers.

Presently she was awake again, and she sounded particularly unhappy.

Leonardo wiped sleeplessness from his eyes, propped himself up, and then paused and grimaced into the intense and competitive smells of feces and urine. Somebody's diaper had grown heavier and heavier through the night, and an itchy sensation crawled over his skin. This was very much like she was carrying a soggy, stinky, dead animal around under her butt, and he was ashamed to have let it happen.

He poured the remaining lukewarm kettle water into a bowl, and then tiptoed over to refill it for everyone's tea and instant coffee, seeing as they'd be up soon regardless. Either Raphael woke up naturally, or the crisp sound of poured water startled him; either way, his movements stirred Michelangelo, who yawned loudly. Leo was preoccupied.

Under the nagging surety he ought to have changed that diaper at least once (perhaps twice!) throughout the evening, Leonardo returned to his futon, snatched up a pack of diapers as he went, unwrapped her blankets, and picked her up under her armpits. Oh, ew. I am so sorry, you poor helpless creature. Ew, ew, ew. She kept her knees curled up and her toes pointed out as if she wanted to be as far away from her own poopy as possible. Leo sympathized. He folded her blanket into a work-space upon his futon, and laid her down.

There, he cautiously unfolded that diaper. Oh dear. Well. Leo was slightly glad he could not see the color or consistency of what had happened, even if that meant there was a significantly higher possibility he'd accidentally touch some of it; the smell alone was a sufficient explanation.  He rolled up his sleeves and pulled the water bowl and wash cloth closer to himself; This could get messy!

Agh! Don't kick, you'll splatter your heels in it!

The moment Raphael sniffed in and whipped around to stare at him was obvious, if only because the other turtle's aura darkened in an instantaneous rush. Leo bit back on a reply. 'Be grateful I ensured you slept soundly through he night' would most likely fall on unsympathetic ears. Blue ignored his brother as he held Baby's feet out of the diaper mess and tried to decide how to pull off the feat of cleaning her without the problem 'spreading.' At last he decided to hold her by the ankles and hoist her butt just a little off the diaper so he could slip it out from underneath her. There! Now fold that up, maybe use the tape to keep it all... inside? 

Michelangelo crawled up beside him, and helped him lay another diaper flat. Leo didn't say anything because it best not to aggravate the dark red dragon glowering at them in the back of the household, but he was thankful. For now, there was a great deal of butt wiping to conduct. Oof. It was all in her little baby fat creases. No wonder she was displeased; Leo was vicariously displeased for her. At least she didn't have a tail to work around.

Raphael eventually stalked out into the dark October afternoon. Mikey watched him go and then looked back to Leo, who was taping the new diaper into place.

"Holy crap!" their littlest brother wheezed in laughter. "So much poo!" 

"This crap was definitely unholy," Leo shuddered as he lathered his hands and every surface he'd touched in liberal amounts of soap, feeling as germaphobic as Donatello in the moment. There was something almost terrifying about poo you couldn't see. He would never eat out of his bowl again, which probably meant he needed to find more bowls. And wash cloths. At least it was easy to lean outside of the shelter and dispose it down the same drain the three of them used for their own leavings. "Am I clean?" he begged for an accurate answer.

Michelangelo was still laughing, and it was familiar and comforting to have him cracking up over something so juvenile. "Yeah, dude, you're good!"

"Good." Leo shook his head and started swaddling up the baby again. "Alright, Mike? You and Raphael will need to go out alone today. Tell him he is in charge; That should cheer the hothead up."

Mikey stiffened, mirth evaporating in a burst of surprise. "You're staying grounded, bro?" he could hardly believe. "You?"

"Yeah. I think I should. I want to keep her inside today so I can accurately time how often she needs to eat," Leo explained, scooping her back up to rest her temple against his plastron. "Are you getting the same vibe she's a little... weak?"

"She's not noisy," Mikey agreed something felt wrong. "Is that a good or a bad thing?"

Leo shrugged, with facial expression and body both. No amount of decades putting up with Mikey taught a person how to take care of an actual child. "Do you think you can find a signal to use that?" he gestured in the basic direction of Michelangelo's phone, usually in a back pocket up under the lip of the shell, to keep it safe. Mikey got pathologically stressed without his music, in no small part because his library had been preserved from the time they were children and likely let him escape back to simpler times.

"Man if Raph catches me trying to hack wifi to websearch baby shit on patrol, he might throw my phone. Again." Mikey didn't seem on board with the idea, though being able to pun with 'baby shit' kept his mood bright. "And it'd be hella slow anyway. Dunno. Maybe I'll try. No promises."

Leo nodded, understanding that this was the best he'd get for now. Neither of his brothers seemed particularly excited about this new idea; But then Raphael was something of a neophobe, so that was to be expected. Far more upsetting to Leo was watching Michelangelo repeatedly pull away from a cute and helpless mammal, for it flew in the face of everything that had once been true about their littlest brother. "Well if you scavenge up any material for wash clothes, rest assured I'll put it to use."

"Sure thing bro! Good luck with your, uh, burrito."

'Burrito?' Hmm.

Well, if she was going to sleep for the time being, one presumed Leo might get some early morning exercises in. Perhaps he'd take one of these clearly all-important 'cat naps' after her next meal, and sneak another two hours of slumber in.

Chapter Text

This was her third dirty diaper that day, and Leo was dead-set on religiously changing them. No kid under his supervision was going to end up steeping in their own fecal matter ever again! Absolutely not!

Mathematics revealed a problem: If babies did in fact eat once every three hours—at minimum—and if they pooed roughly as often as they ate, then a twenty-four hour period would consume eight diapers. In a week, that would be fifty-six diapers. That was an absurdly large number! If accurate, their stash of pilfered disposables wouldn't last long!

"Did father go through this?" Leo asked himself, flabbergasted as he disposed of the most recent poo bomb. "With four of us?"

Staggered by the sheer quantity of waste management four babies would have required, Leonardo wondered if he and his brothers hadn't simply pooped diaper-less all over the place, with father's best and only solution being a mop. If so, who could have faulted him?

Well Leo didn't have four butts to police. He had one, and no excuse not to do his best by it. He finished wiping her clean, tossed out the wastewater, and then frowned down at his perplexing charge. He gently touched her elbows and knees to feel where her limbs were. Even outside the swaddling, she kept her arms and legs bent up close to her in the fetal position, with her fingers tightly clenched, and Leo did not know enough about babies to assess whether he ought to be encouraging her to stretch.

In fact, Leo did not know anything about babies at all. He might have been in his thirties, and thus arguably old enough by human standards to be educated on these matters, but he'd never even touched or seen a baby up close. He had never had a discussion about babies with any friendly humans. He had certainly never read a book on the topic (and now, sadly, he never would). Multimedia often depicted them as pooping machines, but that did not suffice as any sort of instruction manual.

Babies were supposed to cry, no? Frequently, and loudly?

Screw it. He'd give her another sponge bath. He wanted for an excuse to make her stir and move around a bit, to display more indicators of life. He poured fresh water, and tested the temperature to ensure it was less than hot. As he shifted things about, she coughed some miserable-sounded sobs, and Leo immediately felt no small guilt over so selfishly disturbing her.

But then he had plopped her back atop the warmth of his lap, and was running a moist cloth over her skin. Doing so seemed to energize her a bit. Sobs  transitioned to tolerant mumbles, squeaks, and grunts, and the tiny uncoordinated kicks and elbow-waggles she gave him seemed more excited then upset. Ha! Well, she wasn't a turtle, but clearly bath time hadn't been a terrible idea.

"Arigatō gozaimashita..." he breathed gratefully, and either the feeling of his breath or sound of her voice made her wiggle. "Anata ga ikite iru koto o shimesu..."

Hunkered down over her, marveling at the soft texture of her skin, and her chubbiness, and the fineness of her little nails, Leonardo realized he had no idea what she looked like. What color was she? Dark? Light? Her skin, her hair, her eyes? He 'looked' towards her face, stricken. Maybe...?

Leonardo slipped a hand under her shoulders and up to support the back her head, where a full head of extremely soft hair would probably make her look like a fuzzy monkey just as soon as it dried. Were most babies bald? Was it a matter of ethnicity? He hesitantly lifted his other hand up, touching her face that he might slowly and gently trace her features with his forefinger.  An image came slowly together in his mind, details solidifying like a colorless photograph. She didn't flinch or wiggle when his touch drew near her eyes, and he concluded she wasn't opening them much just yet. He felt a light crusting over her eyelashes and lids, and so abandoned his examination and took up the very edge of the wash cloth to break it up and dab it away.

"Soko ni, yoshi yoshi," he whispered. "Sore wa yoidesu ka?"

Leonardo did not know how to tell if she was healthy, or eating enough, or sickly, or disabled. Donatello would have been able to tell; Failing that, Donatello would have known how to quickly learn the information. But Leo did not have Donatello any longer, and he wasn't sure how much he could even count on his remaining brothers to help. Mikey's ambivalence left a sour, sad feeling in his gut that he simply had to ignore for now. He had to figure this out himself.

Very well: Leonardo didn't have his eyes, but he had his other senses, and those were what he would have to know her by. He leaned close to her skin, sniffing suspiciously for hints of afterbirth. He found some behind her ears, ears which felt so thin and delicate it was no wonder he hadn't though to wash behind them previously. The smell of poo clued him in he needed to wipe her underside better. There. The wound from the severed umbilical appeared to be healing, which was reassuring because he'd had no idea how close to her to cut it. 

Leo felt the brush of an eyelash against the curve of his thumb, where her head still rested in the cup of his hand. He 'looked' up from her belly towards her face, his snout just inches from her nose. By what he could feel against his hand, she squinted straight at him and blinked a few times, before squeezing her eyes closed again, turning her face into his hand. Apparently that was quite enough vision of the world for one day. A humming rumble trickled up from the depths of his chest, and for one incredibly peculiar moment, the entire world felt exactly as it ought to be. A nonsense smile crossed his face.

Then he blinked through the sensation, shook his head, cleared his throat, and went back to sniffing her up and down for anything else the matter. She didn't smell ill. Nothing smelled of decay, blood, or infection. If anything, she smelled quite plesant, like a faint aroma of warm biscuits. Hmm. Very well then! He concluded she was as clean as any baby was ever going to get, and so dried off each and every last little inch of her. He swaddled her back up in her blankets and pulled her to his shoulder, and pet a hand along her back as he listened to her breathe.

"Haruka ni yoi..." She was already very much asleep. He touched delicately at her face, admiring.

Perhaps... perhaps he really could trust his instincts, and that would be enough for now. He was a turtle, yes, but he had plenty of human genes. She certainly seemed their best expert on how often she required nourishment. He could keep her warm, clean, fed, and dry. 

Familiar footsteps—and a deathly bitter aura—made Leonardo reconsider his feelings about her silence; He immediately prayed it would hold out a few more days. When Raphael entered the small concrete shelter, it was clear a night atop the city had done nothing to improve his choleric temper. Raphael took one look at him, sitting there with this completely harmless child cradled across his chest, and the sneer which contorted his face did not require vision to pick up on. 

Leonardo rapidly reconsidered how visible the baby ought to be, and wondered if it might be best for him to place her somewhere as unobtrusive and out-of-the-way as possible whenever Raphael was there; At least until Red had calmed down and grown more used to the idea of keeping her. On the other hand, Leonardo was slowly growing angry that Raphael was still fighting him on this, particularly when someone's life was quite literally at stake. He wasn't so sure he wanted to cater to his brother's ill mood.

After all the times Raphael had broken basic safety rules as teen to rough-up armed robbers and thugs... Was there any of that distinctive, pugnacious, rough-edged goodness left in Raphael at all? Or had it gone the same way as Michelangelo's empathy, lost to the annals of time? 

But then... where was Leo's nobility? 

It had been a long time since he'd insisted on sparing the life of an enemy. Whenever the three of them sniffed out Foot patrols small enough to engage, the brothers dealt with them to a man—and gave chase to any of them who fled—to prevent them from reporting in to their overseers. Some Foot soldiers were not yet full adults, but that had always felt bitterly fair; The turtles had been forced to fight for their own lives since they were just barely fifteen.

And one of them had never made it to eighteen at all.

Enough. These were dark thoughts, and would help nothing. Leo decided to just weather through his brother's disapproval, and smiled thinly to remind him which of them still led this team, and this family. "Good morning, Raphael," he prompted. "Anything to report?"

Raphael stalked wordlessly past to obtain sausages from the icebox.

Leo frowned and slowly lifted a hand up to shield the back of the infant's head.

Whereupon he felt that her hair had indeed dried into an omnidirectional poof of monkey fluff, and had to stop himself from breaking out laughing with how absolutely fuzzy she must have looked. Well, Raphie might be trouble for now... but he'd come around with time.

Chapter Text

Crippled? No problem.

Depth perception gone? Ha! Hold my beer.

Blind? Pssh. Clearly Grandma Turtle back on Mom Turtle's side boffed a bat, because I'm about to give The Dark Knight a run for his money for that superhero name of his.

But Sudden Accidental Baby Acquisition!? Holy shit, I'm staying inside, it's dangerous out there!

Michelangelo entered the mini lair soon after Raphael, ignored mister big-red-and-grumpy, and instead glanced disbelievingly at where Leo was sitting there upon his folded futon, exactly where they'd left him.

The last time Leo had failed to join them outside, it was because he'd just been slashed across the eyes. Which had kept him inside a grand total of (drum roll please!) three days. After which he'd disappeared on them for months, to figure out how to become self-sufficient. (And on that note, 'Our newly blinded, fevering, and possibly suicidal older brother is missing,' still ranked as the most stressful thing that had ever happened to them, easily beating out all of the actual deaths.)

"Dude, have you even moved?" Mikey laughed as he tossed Leo a can of Mountain Dew (cause pop was always a treat!).

"Of course," Leo caught the can without looking (of course) or elaborating. He cocked his head as he manipulated the Dew to flick it open. "You both smell and sound like you've been in a fight."

"Ha, not a big one! Anyway, I'm pretty sure this old fossil can mop up anything I'm too busy being badass to bother with," Mikey chirped with a thumb jerked back at Raphael. Neither brother laughed. Derp. Oh great, you really are fighting again. He gave an annoyed shake of his head. "Was weird not having ya, though." 

Not that Mike liked to babied by either of this brothers! He was missing an arm, yeah, but he could break skulls with just one nanchaku plenty-good, and he exercised the stub solidly because he wanted to be able to use it to bitch-slap opponents hard enough to break necks when he was feeling particularly cocky (or, uh yeah, in an emergency, cough, right Leo). Though honestly, ya'd be surprised how many ways there were to kill a person with just your feet!

But having one of his brothers missing absolute crawled under his skin, reminding him of all the darkest months of life: Those time periods in which Leo and Raph hadn't been able to reign themselves in, where they'd been fighting so bad that one (or both) of them had stalked off and hadn't come back. Mikey had (three separate times!) been treated to the realization they'd ditched simultaneously, ultimately leaving behind and abandoning only one person: Mike. 

...S-speaking of brothers! Raphael stalked out to cook without a word to either of them. This was getting dumb. 'Angry glowering' wasn't the right way to go about trying to persuade Hamato Leonardo, whether in this dimension or any other.

In fact, Leo raised his voice enough that Raphael could still hear him: "I'll be staying here tomorrow."

"What? Again?! Why?" Mikey whirled on him with wide eyes.

Leo nodded. "The 'burrito' needs to eat about once every two to three hours, and she poos almost as regularly. Anyone holding her would need to take frequently breaks, even if she stayed dead silent, and she can't be left alone. So unless you want to stay with her...?"

Mikey waved his arm (and stub) in a rapid 'no no no!' because that sounded horribly boring! Leo tossed a bemused expression his way, but apparently sensed and interpreted the hand gestures. Hehe. 

After the initial amusement and alarm had faded though, Mikey felt resentment and uncertainty, and wasn't sure to make of this whole situation. How long was Leo gonna keep this up? It didn't make any sense. 

"So you're just never going out again?" Mikey asked rhetorically, because of course the answer was 'no,' and that would demonstrate how taking care of a baby was completely impossible.

"For right now I might not be at the top of my game, as she is also eating and pooping through the night," Leo slowly remarked. "I am trying very hard not to wake either of you up." Mikey sat forward in surprise with a guttural exclamation. "I'm guessing, based on admittedly very limited knowledge, that her stomach has started off very small and needs time to stretch. But as for how long it will take to transition from twelve meals a day into three...?" Leo shrugged. "We'll find out."

"Dude, without you we're at two-thirds strength!" Michelangelo tried to make him see reason. "That limits what we can do and makes for a super bored me and a super pissed off Raphael! We still have to feed ourselves and keep putting pressure on the Foot to keep any lieutenants from assuming control and quashing everyone and putting us right back where we've started, in case you've forgotten!"

Leo inclined his head in acknowledgement, but said, "That is not nearly as hard today as it was a year ago, but give me a few days to figure out a-"

"So what dude, you want to artificially increase the difficulty curve or something!?"

His shout apparently startled the baby, who jumped a little in place and then woke up with a good, loud cry. Mikey recoiled in surprise. Leo swiftly tried to comfort her, but one cry turned into more. Mikey glanced towards the exit of the lair, panicking over Raphael's low tolerence threshold. I did this! He looked back to the baby, and then scrambled forward on his hands and knees.

"Figure out some way to 'rock' her!" he hissed to jar their stupid leader's brain. 

Leo snatched up the suggestion, deftly transferred her weight down onto his forearms and the crook of the elbow, and then rocked gently in place with her. She didn't immediately close her mouth, but her next sounds were all soft hums and burred squeaks. The crying fit was over as soon as it had started. Mikey settled back on his knees, dropped his head, and breathed out a sigh of relief. No Raphsplosions. Good. Shell.

Mikey lifted his head to grimace at Blue Leader, but was startled out of his train of thought by the sight of her open eyes. She'd closed her mouth on a bit of her blanket and was humming to herself and staring up at Leo through the early morning gloom. Mikey stared at her.

"Michelangelo..." Leo murmured as he preemptively made some formula one-handed. "Will you... describe her to me?"

"Small, fat, and big-headed?" Mikey wondered aloud, before realization dawned on him. "Oh. Oh. Yeah, uh, okay." He scooted closer, and leaned over her to help Leo part the blankets so he could see her better. Those little eyes jumped to him and she made a sound into her blanket. "Whoa, is she looking at me?" he whispered incredulously. She waggled her brows a bit like she was still getting the hang of them, and they gave her such ridiculously exaggerated facial expressions! Haha!

"She seems to like faces," Leo agreed as he teased the bottle into her mouth. "She doesn't look at bottles or hands. Just faces."

"Even green faces?" Mikey found that weird, although one supposed humans came in a lot of shapes and different colors. "Huh. Well, uh, she's definitely not green. And her hair's hilarious, just standing straight on end like stuffed animal hair, and it's this impenetrable dark chocolate brown. Like I can't even really see her scalp through it. Just: Poof!" 

Leo leaked a little laugh. Mikey glanced curiously up to his fond expression, and then back to her.

"Her eyes have this goldfish cracker shape, and they're deep, but she's got the second eyelid line and super long lashes, so I got no idea if that means she's Asian or not? She's kinda a funny color, actually. Like, not brown, not really yellow, not pale or pink... Hey, it's almost like you spilled green tea on paper. What ethnic group's that?"

"Mediterranean?" Leo wondered aloud. "I think that skin color is called 'olive-toned,' despite—as you mentioned—not actually being green."

"Not sure!" Mikey chirped. "Maybe I'll figure out a way to look it up. Heh! Her forehead and chin pucker up so much! Bro you can't see it, but she's making this hilariously stern old librarian face right now! Ha!"

"Heh." Leo smiled. "And her eyes?"

"Brown, looks like."

"Well most humans eyes are. Can you describe them any further?" the poor blind guy pleaded.

"Lemme try to see without shining a bright light in her face," Mikey bit his lower lip as he leaned closer. La Burrita made the task easier by continuing to stare at him, though her eyes crossed and that was super adorable. Oh. Oh.

"I was expecting brown if she is Hispanic, Mediterranean, or Japanese," Leo's chatter suggested he was secretly desperate for an accurate mental picture. "Are they dark? Light? Nearly black? Dull? Honey-like? Have they any other pigments?"

"They're, um..." Mikey coughed a mirthless laugh. "They're kinda red. They're like, um, auburn-colored. But eyes instead of hair. Really warm."

Leo was quiet a breath. "Mahogany."

Mikey sat back up, and rubbed at his face, but didn't say anything. That had just sent him on a backwards memory spiral. A silence passed between to them, as a fortunately not-enraged middle brother cooked them up some delicious-smelling bratwursts. Mikey went to go sit on his own and pull out his earbuds. 

Offhand, Leo mentioned, "We need a space heater. Do you think you two can find one?"

"Dunno if that's gonna fly with Big Red," Mikey's lip curled, for he was resentful to have been confronted with Donatello's eye color when he totally hadn't been ready for it. "You a little obsessed, bro?"

Leo sighed as if Mikey were being intentionally difficult, even though Mikey had just helped him with something. "Seriously?" Blue asked him. "Mike, the last time we picked a hideaway above ground level—and failed to obtain a heater for the winter—both of us ended up snuggled in a ball under Raphael, with every scrap of clothing we possessed piled on top of us. And, bro, the sheer quantity of times I felt you evert onto the inside of my thigh was sufficient to leave me briefly questioning your sexual orientation. Can we not have a repeat experience when November gets here?"

Mikey's jaw dropped, and he felt his face going from green to brown to red. "What?" he squeaked.

Evert meant, um... 'turn inside out.' And, uh, it was the word a certain dork had given them during the awkward phases of teenager-hood, to uh politely and scientifically describe whenever someone's...

(...scary alien purple death worm made an unexpected guest appearance?)

They had started wearing clothing about then, if memory served! Yup! Clothing! Good stuff!

Leo looked positively surprised. "Raphael never brought it up? Huh." A slow smile twisted across Blue's face. "He told me he was going to dunk your head in an outhouse toilet first thing once spring came."

"G... guess I d-dodged a bullet," Mikey stammered, mortified. (Bad tail! Bad! You deserved to be frostbitten!)

If Donatello had been there, he would have something scientific about biology and turtles and stuff. But Donnie wasn't. This year he'd been dead exactly as many years as he'd ever even been alive in the first place. Even if, somehow, it always seemed like just yesterday they'd had him with them.

Still blushing scarlet, Mikey scampered away to go find Raphael. And mope about missing dead people. And recommend they visit the dump looking for a portable heater, yikes!

Chapter Text

Mikey was started awake by the sensation of motion above him, and tensed reflexively in anticipation of a fight. When he glanced up, however, Leo was just stepping across him to access the baby supplies. Whatever Leo wanted, Leo apparently couldn't find, which was kinda weird given that there were only like three kinds of things over there.

"Whassup, bro?" Mikey groaned, annoyed to be awake.

"She is not eating," Leo whispered.

"Again?" Mikey stretched, and then belatedly recalled Raphael was right beside him, because Raphael came awake with a deep breath and a flash of green eyes.

"She smells sour. She breathes quickly, and her skin is hot to the touch," continued Leo, perhaps honestly oblivious to the fact that the least sympathetic ear in the household was now listening. "She's sick."

Michelangelo popped up and pressed Raphael's shoulder with an arm stub to keep in place. 'I got this,' he tried to say without saying anything. 'Don't eat Leo.' Keeping both of them in the same family was rough some days, no matter how protective either of them were over the other. Or, maybe, because of that. "You lookin' for the medicine?" Michelangelo could find small packages amidst a plethora of unfamiliar objects faster than Leo could, and quickly snatched up the cold and flu stuff and offered it to him.

Leo reached for it, paused, and then smiled appologetically. "Can you read me the dosage?"

Oh yeah. Mikey wiped his eyes of sleep and blinked down at the package. "Well, I've got good news and bad news. Bad news: consult your pediatrician for usage in infants under three months. Good news: Primary active ingredient is acetaminophen. Didn't Donnie make us memorize an 'easy' weight to dosage ratio was when we were like, six?"

Leo hesitated.

Mikey hesitated.


"Fifteen mg per kg," Raphael said without vocal inflection.

Gah! Mikey stiffened and resisted the urge to glance back at him in surprise. Help from the least likely source!

"She's a little more than five pounds," Leo estimated. "Maybe six or seven."

Mikey looked back at the box. He blinked again, and then shook his head and rubbed his face. "Yes, I can math. Durr. That's like half the min dose in this. I'll measure it, you go..." he waved back towards Leo's futon mat, and Leo took the hint and got as far away from Raphael as floor space allowed. Blue sat himself down and arranged the child in his lap, and Mikey crawled over to him with a dollop of medication in the little measuring cup to see the problem for himself.

La Burrita was breathing through her mouth instead of her nose, and looked visibly hot and sweaty, with her skin all heated up in splotchy pink. Leo was clearly fighting a battle just dabbing up all the drool and boogies. Hmm. Was she going to spit the medicine out or cough on it, if they put it in her mouth? Well, they'd already established Leo wasn't very good at getting her to try new things.

Mikey dabbed some of the medicine onto a finger, and leaned over and got it on her tongue. She did this little wiggle-grimace-dance and curled her toes, like he'd just given her something crazy sour. Maybe if they mixed it with milk? But Leo said she hadn't been eating. Probably cause her poor nose was all stuffed up!

Now Michelangelo was pretty much on Raphael's side; the baby had to go, and she wasn't their responsibility, and she was weakening their team; but, right now La Burrita's sad face was making him feel super guilty about watching to ditch her. Still, she'd be better off with her own kind!

"We could drop her off at the hospital," Mikey mentioned, even as he ended up feeding her all the medicine himself, droplet by droplet on the tongue. He paused every so often to make sure she was swallowing. "We probably should, ya know?"

Leo scowled, but then seemed to seriously think about it. Mikey glanced quickly at him and then quickly back to Buritto-Baby.

"Yeah," Mikey liked where this was headed. "Yeah, come on, you know we can't take care of her. We don't know anything about human babies." Right, so this wasn't about them or their problems, this was about poor Burrita's best interests! This was pure altruism! "The emergency center's usually overloaded, but they're still gonna know how much Tylenol and stuff to get her, and she'll be really fast for them to treat. Just like that!" Mikey snapped his fingers. "It'll be easy for them, they have to do this all the time." At least he hoped so, but after they dropped her off it wasn't really their business anymore anyway.

Anyway, trust 'the right thing' to be Leo's biggest weak spot! "You might be right," their eldest brother admitted and then shrank a little bit, clearly dwelling on the idea and turning it over and over in his head.

Raphael got up behind them and started folding away his mat and foraging for breakfast. He didn't say anything, which probably meant he could tell what Mikey was doing and was giving him room to work. Excellent! Pay attention, bro, a master persuasivist is at work! Poor Leo's resigned tone meant this would all soon be over.

"Dude, she's kinda small," Mikey pushed, gently. "Don't babies get sick faster and worse?" That was probably true. "Kittens sure do. Iunno, dude, you gotta make a decision about how badly you wanna risk it."

Leonardo wrapped both arms completely around his aesthetically well-swaddled child. His shoulders started bowing together and his expression drooped, and, whoa, Mikey's gaped at him a little, because in all his life he'd never seen Leo look like depression had just literally eaten his soul out of his body. Like, ever. Even when they'd lost Donatello, or when Raphael had been laying into him about Splinter's death. But now Leo held that baby—that baby he'd only picked out of a dumpster two days ago, by the way!—like he'd rather melt away into ooze if he had to let go of her.

"Um..." Mikey swiveled about, sat slowly down beside his brother, and reached tentatively across the back of his shell. Whatever had gone through Leo's head the moment he'd found that baby, it, uh, it definitely wasn't what had gone through his or Raphie's. Like not even on the same game board.

Leo closed his eyes and was silent for a long moment, probably soaking in the comfort of having a brother nearby, or maybe just listening to the baby and the super rough time she was having. A long moment passed in quiet between them, after which Leo asked him a little meekly, "Have you thought of a name?"

'Naming it implies we're keeping it,' Raphael had warned Mikey the day before.

"Haven't actually thought much about it," Mikey lied.

"I see," Leo murmured. "Psychology question, Mikey. In which case do you think her survival odds are higher: If exhausted and understaffed healthcare workers have a name for her, or if she is referred to distantly as 'abandoned child number two-zero-seven?'"

Derp. "Well I haven't thought of any good names," Mikey un-lied. "It's not like she has any monster stuff to go off of, so unless you like 'Poopy Dumpling,' or 'Dumpster Dudette,' that won't work. I could just list random girls name. Susan. Patricia. May. Johanna? I got that one from a musical!" A tragic musical, doh.

"Would it not be more traditional to use something Italian, or at least art-historical?"

"What, our family's shtick?" Michelangelo blurted, only to see Leo frowning his way. Mikey blinked. Uh. Okay. He looked down at La Burrita. "Iunno, maybe that's just for turtles, yo? Dad's name was Splinter, and I don't know any girl Renaissance painters."

By the sad look in Leo's milk-and-stardust eyes, neither did he. Mikey bit his lower lip, wide-eyed gaze flicking between SadLeo and La Burrita. He tried super hard not to cave and give SadLeo whatever SadLeo wanted. Focus! Blah blah blah! Mikey was usually the one making sad puppy faces, not resisting them! This was weird and backwards, gah!

"Well! Uh, if you want to take her now, my vote's on Johanna!" he succesfully forced himself to stay on target! "Way more sing-able!"

Leo lowered his head. "Let me see how she responds to the medication, first. If it's enough... or..." He cleared his throat. "If it snowballs into an emergency before dawn, I will very carefully bring her to the hospital."

"Yeah, sure. 'Carefully.'" Raphael muttered as he sat down with a bowl of Cheerios (ironic cereal pick, bro!), apparently wanting them to shut up about the baby. Mikey rolled his eyes, but then too much quiet from Raphie would have been suspicious. "I'll believe that when I see it."

"I apologize for waking you early," was Leo's reply, and he straightened and seemed to resume his stoicism (that was a word, right?) as Mikey made faces at Raphael. "Well, since you might not get many more chances to... Mikey? Would you like to hold her?"

Wait. What?

Michelangelo looked back in surprise, fumbling for a reply that surprised him by never arriving. He made some kind of guttural sound, though he wasn't sure if it was an affirmative or a negative, and then quite suddenly there was a baby being offered to him. Um, so he took her hesitantly into the only arm he had (which left him with the question of what he ought to do in an emergency if he was about to drop her) and stared down at six pounds of grumpy grump, red-faced, forehead-puckered, fuzzy-headed monkey-baby. 

"Omigod," Mikey slurred, mind exploding with sugar sprinkles and kittens riding rainbows in bow-ties. "W-wait, what's she doing?"

"Is she rubbing her mouth into your plastron?" Leo inquired, sounding swiftly hopeful.

"Yeah. Sorta?"

"My best guess is that she is looking for a breast." 

"Oh man. Am *I* a mega disappointment. Muchos sorry, dudette...!"

"Mike," Leo sighed as he offered him the bottle. "Can you see if she'll eat for you?"

Mikey was eager to try and reached for the milk, only to be confronted by an old and suddenly bitter limitation. "Leo, I... only have one hand." 

Leo glanced his way, and then reached around him and grasped the round of his shoulder, sliding the length of the bottle in between Mikey's plastron and the severed tip of his limb. Mikey squeaked, and then very carefully maneuvered the bottle around using pressure and the full range of his shoulder. The baby, who was mouthing at his plastron anyway, grabbed hold of the bottle tip just as soon as it got into range, and suckled hungrily through grunts and sputters.

"Omigod," Mikey squeed, thrilled beyond words. "She's such a little chicken nugget...!"

Raphael made an inarticulate noise of disgust.

"Is she eating? Oh, she's eating," Leo groaned in relief. "Why are all diminutives food with you?" 

"Food's my Love Language!" Mikey blathered hysterically, much too busy holding and feeding a poor sick adorable baby to worry about all these silly questions!

Chapter Text

Raphael stalked back and forth past the entrance of their little 'den,' his gaze fixed on the horizon and red tones of the fading sun as he waited for it to be safe to leave the cluttered and damaged alleyway.

He heard Michelangelo come out behind him, but ignored his youngest brother (his only remaining younger brother).

"Hey I totally forgot I grabbed a bag of M&Ms at the superstore!" Mikey cooed seductively.

"Don't care."

Mikey grabbed his arm, and Raphael whirled on him with a glare. His brother obtained his hand, and deposited a tidy pile of all the red and green M&Ms onto his palm. Enough that Raphael reflexively cupped his hand not to lose any.

Raph scoffed, but then turned half a smirk up to Mikey's face. "We're still sortin' them, eh?"

Mikey beamed and showed off his own supply of oranges. "I didn't count to see if the proportions were still the same," he admitted. "But it seemed fair enough!"

Raph chuckled softly. "What'd ya do with the browns and yellows?"

"Oh. Lit one of the candles and left em as an offering in the back," Mikey answered somberly.

A long time ago, Mikey had suggested they needed to divvy up all M&M packs by color: Blue went to blue, Red went to red, Orange went to orange, Donnie could pick a color (Mikey suspected the lack of purple M&Ms was probably secretly one of the reasons Donnie preferred Skittles) and they'd split the rest.

Raph had felt something awry with this plan and consulted Donatello. After a quantitative analysis of a standard bag of M&Ms, Donnie had gotten on the phone with the New Jersey Mars Chocolate factory. He'd returned to Raphael and reported only two colors, blue and orange, took up a whopping fifty percent of an M&M bag. Raphael had immediately put Mikey in a headlock for M&M embezzlement, until it was determined Raph and Donnie would get two colors each.

Watching how Donatello went about solving problems had taught Raphael a lot of things about critical thinking. And Donnie had even given Raphael the green ones, and taken the least popular colors for himself, because Donnie was just like that. 

Of course, one time O'Neil was in the Lair, and after babbling at mach five for over half a minute, Donnie had gone awkward silent and promptly passed all his yellows to her. Which was only slightly less goofy than all of Mikey's winks, flexes, and pick-up lines. Oi!

"Well," Raph cleared his throat and ate some chocolate. "You better remember to clean em up again before we get roaches."

"No worries, dude, I'll totally eat stale, post-offering M&Ms!" Mikey snickered before calling over his shoulder: "Hey Blue! We're headin' out!"

Leonardo held his forearm against her head after he changed her diaper and realized the fever was down. Whether it was within 'good' parameters was woefully unclear to him, especially without a thermometer. He knew fevers were a body's means of burning out illness, but he also knew they could turn lethal.

He had to keep her hot, but not too hot. How hot was too hot? Had they given her too little medication? Too much? He couldn't afford to change Mikey's original guess; poisoning her with too much acetaminophen would be a surefire death sentence. Did she need clear fluids, or were calories and nutrients vital at this juncture? And how much should he exhaust her trying (and failing) to get a bottle in her mouth if she just wouldn't suckle?

Leo wrapped her up, and rocked her against his shoulder. He took up a fresh bottle and stroked the tip against her cheek, a gesture which always made her lips purse. Alas, no sooner did she contemplate suckling than she sobbed in frustration, scrunched up her forehead, turned away, and rejected the food.

He persisted and persisted and persisted, until finally she was too exhausted to fight and suckled. Leo almost called a tentative victory.

Then she vomited on both of them.

Leonardo wiped them both clean of undoubtedly greenish, bile-mixed milk, and tried to give her the bottle again. She just wouldn't take it. He stood and paced back and forward across the shelter, sleepless and nervous; rocking their miserable little chicken nugget to keep her calm as he sorted his feelings from one another.

She's not eating because her nose is clogged, he was sure. She feels like she is suffocating, and panics. 

Leo wished he had Michelangelo there to read him the back of the cold and flu medicine bottle again. He wished the Foot hadn't commandeered every cellular tower and broadband provider on the East Coast. He wished they were back at their home, their Lair, with a computer. That he wasn't blind. That they still had Donatello.

Leo wished for a lot of things.

Leonardo felt her blow fresh mucus bubbles out between her lips, which was disgusting, pitiful, and horrible, and he knelt down and took a wash cloth to wipe her face. By touch, he found irritated skin along her nose and upper lip, and realized these repeated applications of boogers, soapy water, and wash cloths were far too rough. Much more of this, and she'd break out into real rashes. Some kind of cream or ointment surely could have helped—if his brothers would only just help him!

Perhaps he needed to order them to. The chesty sobs of his newborn made him tingle with the desire to act, and he considered bundling her up and tracking down his brothers to have an argument about all this right then and there. But taking a sick baby out into the crisp October evening air, potentially for hours, sounded ill-advised.

To be fair, what more could they really do? Common colds weren't treatable and had to run their course, which was both good and bad. Good, because it precluded frantic scrambles for hard-to-find antibiotics. Bad, because the symptoms could turn lethal, and it was maddening not to know how well one was doing at managing them.

"Focus, Leonardo," he muttered. "Calm yourself, think back, and employ your reasoning capabilities." He held her in his lap, tracing fingers up and down her little abdomen, feeling tiny lungs hard at work. "What would father have done for you?" He thought as far back into his childhood as memory would allow. He thought about soup, bottled water, and tissues. None of that helped; A newborn couldn't even blow it's own nose to try and clear it. But boogers got out one way or another...

Wait. Could he help her cough some of it out? He had little else to try, and little things might be able to help. How to go about it?

Leonardo slowly turned the baby this way and that, considering, before turning her about so she was facing away from him. He tried to figure out how to hold her, particularly as her poor fluffy head lolled about so much. Human infants, Leo had learned, could not hold their enormous heads up straight upon their itty bitty necks.

Okay. Gently, he tapped upon her back. Then, a little firmer. When she didn't react much, he gauged his strength to give her a startling little 'thump!' between her shoulder blades.

Lo! With a loud cough, the baby shot a thick wad of mucus out like she was some form of projectile weapon! Bua-ha! Ew! Immediately she started crying, but all the rattling reverberations from the back of the throat were gone, and Leo nearly jumped for joy. Ha! Oh dear, oh dear. He pulled her back to hold her across his chest as he wiped her face and rocked her.

"Soko ni, yoshi yoshi," he whispered, ducking his head with a giddy grin. "Good girl..."

Now what had he learned? That babies were not particularly talented at clearing their own airways, and that a gentle but firm rap upon the back was an acceptable method for helping! In fact, as long as he was holding her, and could be sure she wasn't smothering herself, he could try holding her slightly face-down to employ gravity's assistance with mucus drainage. Ha! That was disgusting.

Wait! He reached out for the bottle and tried to give it to her, and she must have forgiven him about the rude back-pat because she chomped down very seriously on that bottle tip and furrowed her brow up to deliberate extensively about the relative pay-offs of milk vs. air at any one moment in time. Leo let her sort it out, and was careful not to startle her or press on her belly lest he induce another bout of vomiting. He even cut her off before she'd finished her usual ration, reasoning that would be safer than watching her fight and lose another fight with nauseousness. She didn't put up a fight, smacking her lips and squinting up at him.

She felt better, he realized. Still warm, still sick, still with both nostrils clogged and the beginnings of a rash on her upper lip, but she felt better; good enough to perk up and inspect the universe from the crook of his elbow. The medicine was doing its job. 

Leonardo took a very deep breath. He stroked her cheek, and smiled as she absently suckled on the tip of his finger. Her eyes slid about thoughtfully but returned to find him, like he was the only shape she was sure she could identify and thus he was required for referencing purposes. After a moment, Leo gathered her closer and touched the tip of his nose to her hair. Her mouth rounded in an 'o' as she yawned in big, and then she went to sleep right like that.

Perhaps it would be best if he got some sleep, too. When the fever returned, he was going to have to make some very difficult decisions about when and how much medicine to feed her. If they were lucky, they'd get one more feeding in before that happened. Leo returned to his futon and laid down with his tiny burden, knowing the worst parts of this night might still be ahead of them. For now the best either of them could do was rest.

Raphael had been right about one thing: if the fever worsened, Leo was going to be anything but 'careful' about getting her into the care of hospital workers. And if he suspected an overdose of acetaminophen?

He could well imagine ending up on the front page of Raphael's weekend newspaper, threatening triage nurses at sword-point in bold print on the front page: 'In an startling midnight incident, an infamous mutant insurgent rushed a hospital emergency room, disarmed four guards by katana, and demanded emergency attention for a completely normal human baby.'

Whereupon Raphie really would would bludgeon him to death with the first large, blunt object he laid eyes on.

Chapter Text

Leo lay on his shell, unable to move so much as even to twitch. He could not open his mouth to call out. The entire interior of the little lair was visible, which Leonardo was rather certain it should not have been. He'd lived in a world of blank gray with occasional bright flashes for a very long time now. 

Familiar footsteps padded across debris and gravel, and one of his brothers ducked into the shelter and squatted down. "Hmm," Leo heard, quickly followed by the crunch of sugar and chocolate—an M&M peice—between teeth. "That was sweet of Mike."

Leo could not move so much as to cause his own breath to hitch, and there were no words to describe how helpless that felt. But the brother who came further into the lair leaned over him with a pitying smirk was still eternally young, and obviously could not have actually been there.

"You've never had a Night Terror before, have you?" Donatello asked conversationally as he climbed onto Leonardo's plastron and sat down cross-legged upon his chest. "Talking from experience here: they suck. Commonly, people hallucinate a demon sitting on them, crushing all the breath out and slowly suffocating them."

Leo couldn't answer that, because he couldn't even move his head to nod that he understood. He had only the capacity to stare, and so stare he did. 

"I hope I'm less frightening than that, but try to keep calm either way; I know it's very stressful feeling unable to breathe," the genius drawled wryly as he ate a mouthful of brown M&Ms and draped his forearms across his knees. "What's actually happening," he said through crunchy chocolate, "is you're awake just enough to experience your body's natural sleep paralysis, which is kinda cool. Now loosely speaking, sleep paralysis is what keeps you from physically acting out your dreams. It also lowers and controls your respiration rate, which is the reason for the 'pressure' you feel on your chest; Obviously I'm not really here and sitting on you."

No. Obviously not.

"No," Donnie smiled apologetically. "Sorry. But the big thing I want to underscore is that all of these things you're experiencing are natural, and you are in no danger from them. In fact, after years of training your instincts, and given the near-REM cycle nature of this specific experience, my official judgement is that you would still wake up to anything that would usually wake you up. You aren't helpless. You just can't consciously end the Night Terror, in the same way you couldn't end a bad dream. The subconcious is in control of everything."

Objectively, that did sound like it ought to have made him feel better.

"Well, you also have zero ability to control or mitigate your body's fear response, Leo. Do you get what that means? The only thing you can do to cope is just resign yourself to experiencing it. It's... sort of like going through a panic attack, or withdrawal symptoms. Make sense?"

This was persistent, all-encompassing fear in every single nerve, without any ability whatsoever to move. This was feeling everything, affecting nothing, and experiencing tremendous cognitive dissonance about the realness of anything. It was aptly named; It was terrifying. If this was what some people felt like on a regular basis, whether owed to naturally imbalanced brain chemistry or poorly chosen drug addictions, than Leonardo had just gained a greater empathy and appreciation for quite literally everyone.

"Ha! If only we could give Raphael one, am I right?" Donnie winked. "Adds a training course to Sensei's mantra that," he imitated Master Splinter, "'Bravery is not a lack of fear, merely a commendable reaction to it.'"

Well. With the science and ninjitsu lessons out of the way, perhaps Leo had no particular desire to be awake.

"Holy crap, Leo!" Donatello laughed in disbelief, as if he'd heard that. "Really? It's as easy as that for you, huh? 'Fearless.' Hey, listen," Donatello leaned forward and planted a hand on either side of Leo's head, staring straight down into his soul. "This is what I wanted to tell you: I'm with you. I'm always with you. It will always be the four of us, and never just three. You know that, right?"

Did Leo know that?

Pervasive and unending fear was as painfully bearable as Donnie had just suggested; What hurt more was this inability to move. Leo wanted to reach up and latch hold and not let go; Instead, he couldn't even answer.

Donatello's expression twisted to compassion, and he lifted a hand and wiped tears from Leonardo's face. "I know," Purple murmured reassuringly. "I know. I'm sorry. Look, I need you to have a tremendous amount of courage right now, Leo. And faith, if you can believe it: Me, asking someone for faith instead of proof. But the world isn't always logical, sane, or fair, and you were the only one who was listening."

Leo wasn't certain what his brother meant, but it was cryptic enough beside that absurdly lucid lecture on Night Terrors to feel both ominous and real.

Donatello smiled and shrugged almost helplessly or bashfully. "Unfortunately, I need to wake you up now. But I promise you—I promise you Leo—I am with you."

But you are not. Not except in memory.

"Don't argue. Where has your spirituality gone?" Purple chastised. "I am."

... ... I believe you.

And though Leo would have preferred a few more minutes, or hours, or years; he used what seconds of this vivid insanity remained to recommitted his brother's features to memory. Donnie pitied him and held still for a moment, before leaning forward an inch and placing a fraternal kiss on his forehead.

Crying. He heard crying. Leonardo woke choking and gasping into darkness, shaking so hard and feeling so winded, that for a second he had no idea where or when he was, or why he couldn't see anything. Then he registered the tiny body fussing in the bow of his arm, and the entirety of his life rushed back to him so that he could comprehend that she needed to eat.

Unfocused and disoriented, his breath ragged and his face damp, he fumbled for the bottle and kettle. His hands shook as he splashed warm water atop fresh powder and forcing himself through the mechanical motions of sealing and shaking the bottle. He brought the result to his chest and managed to touch her face with the tip, and she latched on and fell silent to suckle.

Leonardo slumped. He bowed his head into her, and the tears flowed hot down his face.

He could still see his brother's seventeen-year-old face hovering over him.


There weren't words sufficient for this; what tore out of him could only be expressed in sobs. What the hell had that been? It had felt nothing like a normal nightmare. Had it actually been a 'night terror?' Had it been a vision? But no sooner had Leo spent three seconds trying to process the physiological trauma of that eerily vivid 'dream sequence' than he realized the baby was crying again. Leo bit his lips, throttling expressions of grief to listen to her, to her needs.

When she calmed down almost immediately, he was treated to the realization she might have been crying only because he'd been crying. He reached for her face. She was staring right at him.

"I'm okay," Leo breathed in hoarse and raw, an instant before a wave of protective fierceness entered into him. "I'm okay," he repeated firmly, and felt over her head. "Oh. Your fever."

She was still hot, and whined plaintively as if reminding him she was already having enough trouble eating and breathing with her nose stuffed up, and why did he have to add all the extra work of crying onto her platter for no good reason? Sheesh. He stroked her cheek and coaxed the bottle back into her mouth, and she argued with herself about air/milk trade offs.

"Easy now," Leo whispered softly. "You have all the time in the world. Don't rush."

I'm with you.

Chapter Text

Blindness had made it very difficult for Leonardo to achieve a meditative trance, perhaps because there was no greater sense of isolation achieved by closing his eyes. He'd lost the habit of it altogether, years ago.

But some things were like riding bicycles, and Leonardo desperately needed to find some sense of inner peace to deal with their newborn's illness and put strange 'night terrors' out of mind. Still carrying her, he sank into squat with his heels together and his head lowered, and held himself immobile, balanced, and poised. He focused upon their breath and heartbeats, and let his senses bleed out and mix with his surroundings.

When the fever first started making a comeback, Leo needed to assume the medicine was leaving her system. He reached for the bottle of cold and flu remedy with no small trepidation, but, as it turned out, the dosage lines on the little medicine cup were demarcated by grooves instead of colored lines, and Leo could find them by touch. He carefully prepared half a minimum dose, and then fed her the way Michelangelo had done: droplet by droplet upon her tongue.

And the medicine did what it needed to do. It didn't poison her. It repressed her fever, it kept her little aches and pains sufficiently alleviated, and it was most likely also an expectorant, and therefore loosening up mucus so she could drool and cough it out with his assistance. The next time he offered her the bottle she managed to take it, and she opened her eyes and furrowed her brows up at him, seeming terribly perplexed with why everything was so very uncomfortable. She certainly did huff a lot about it. 

Patience wasn't a virtue Leonardo had previously associated with babies, so he wondered if she might be staying 'calm' only because he appeared calm. She could clearly identify faces, so it was no huge stretch to speculate she knew the difference between stress and tranquility. If that was the case, then Leonardo's meditation was serving a previously unknown purpose: It was helping her rest while they waited this out.

With a renewed perspective on just how often she might be looking to him, Leo decided to smile at her more often. He also kept his face in easy view every time he changed her diapers, to make absolutely sure she never felt abandoned, not even for a moment.

He tried to think of something to do for her reddening skin. What he wouldn't give for even a tube of lip balm...

Wait! Leo felt about his things, looking for the rolled maintenance kit for his katana. From beside his peening steel and grit stone, he recovered a bottle of flaxseed oil, squeezed out a droplet onto his fingertips, and then dabbed it gently upon her lip and around the folds of her nostrils.

"Soko ni..." Much better. She huffed tolerably. He smiled. This would give her just a little protection against future sticky and caustic substances. 

Michelangelo's written Japanese was very poor, and he knew next to no kanji, so he was thrown for a loop when he realized he'd just spotted a rough transliteration of 'baby,' ベビー, above a shop window. He redirected his motion and then hastily tried to get around the building before Raph caught an inkling of what he was doing.

Certain things hadn't made the switch back to English yet, and shop signs seemed both expensive to replace and a great way of drawing too much attention to oneself during widespread paramilitary and civil unrest. Not to mention kids as old as twenty had grown up without daring to speak anything but Japanese outside the house. Culture wars had consequences, man; this might never be fixed.

Mikey was the team's reigning champion lock-picker. Given that he also only had one hand to do it with, he was also the most creative lock-picker. No challengers! Sometimes he literally did even use chewing gum. Donnie would have been proud of his inner MacGyver!

"Mike," Raphael snarled warningly, at the exact second the lock gave way. Mikey pushed the door open and spun about to back up shell-first into the store. He raised his arms to placate the angry tiger who prowled slowly in after him. 

Raphie read Japanese just fine; He'd analyzed Foot propaganda rags for almost two decades to mine info between the lines and triangulate troop movements and political maneuvers. Anybody who took one listen to Raph's guttural accent and pegged him for low-intelligence just hadn't seen what he could do with a sneaking suspicion and next to no info. (He took after April that way!)

"Don't hit me, bro! I know what I'm doing!" Mikey tried hard to appease.

Raphael sneered. "A baby store?" he growled, gesturing around at the little hole-in-the-wall establishment. "Ya gonna encourage dis?!" 

"Bro, we need Leo back, but we need his head in the game!" Mikey hissed his reasoning. "He needs a clean conscience, dude!"

Raphael's nostrils flared, but he cracked his neck and remained where he was. "N' what's dat mean, 'xactly?"

"Just abandoning a sick baby ain't gonna fly!" Mikey was sure. "I'll get him to go with the hospital plan. We'll leave it in a carrier, in some cute onesie, with a name scribbled on the back." Raphael wasn't sure he bought that. "He's gotta be able to tell himself 'I did my best and this is the right thing to do.' You read?"

Raphael straightened and contemplated this. He eyed Mikey for a long moment before huffing, neither approving nor strictly disapproving, but at least acknowledging. "Hurry up," he growled, and turned about to leave and keep watch.

Mikey heaved a tremendous sigh, turned about, and was startled by the big, picture-heavy, 'All About Your Newborn!' books perched on top of the display tables.

Cue dramatic comic panel angle...

Mikey bolted for the books, snatching one up and running a thumb through the table of contents. Colds, colds, colds, colds... Blah blah blah, consult your doctors—ha! Snerk! Haha!

Their little one was very weak.

By the time dawn was threatening on the horizon, she was as quiet as she'd been the night they'd found her. All the energy she'd amassed over the past two days looked utterly spent, and Leo even had to wake her up for mealtimes, stroking her face to send her hunting for that bottle tip. She'd taught him crucial information about what was 'normal' prior to taking ill, and now it all seemed up to him.

Leo channeled his thoughts away from morbid things, and away from the sleep-deprived dream and/or vision he'd endured.

An early, fast-moving set of footsteps surprised him, and he stood and drew his katana partway from its sheathe before concluding this was Michelangelo approaching, and that his breaths did not sound fearful.

"I got some stuff!" Orange gushed as he bounced into their shelter. "How is she?"

"Her fever has worsened," Leo admitted, sheathing the sword, "and I had to unpack the swaddling to cool her down a little. Where is Raphael?"

"Rooftop," Mikey waved. "I know how to make her presentable for the hospital! Please tell me we're going to take her?"

Leo stiffened. "I've decided against it."

"What?" Mikey stopped mid-motion. "Yo, she's sick! What are you thinking!?"

"She's been in the care of humans once before," Leo dismissed. 

"That's why I said the hospital, dude!" Mikey fought back. "Holy shit, stop being selfish about this!"

"Selfish!? Do you not think I realize she might very well die in my arms?" Leo rounded on his brother with a sharp growl. "It's all I've had to think about all day! I am well aware! But in the age we live in, she is just as likely to die of neglect in an over-crowded and ill-sanitized inpatient room that hasn't been properly washed, renovated, or staffed in a decade! If she must die, let it not be unwanted or alone!"

Mikey cringed momentarily before bouncing back into Leonardo's personal space to reveal with this argument was really about. "Raph doesn't want her, Leo! At all! You're kinda abusing executive privilege over him right now, cause he still says no!"

"And what about you?" Leonardo pressed, sure his youngest brother still had a heart. "Do you not like her!?"

"Liking something is completely different from taking care of it!" Mikey snarled right in his face. "She's not some pet! She's not gonna be an adult by the end of the year! Meanwhile she's taking one of the world's best ninjas completely out of the game! The Foot should have lobbed babies at you a long time ago; She's been more effective at keeping you down than armies, missiles, and a gruesomely efficient blinding!"

"Michelangelo," Blue scowled in reproach.

"No! No, I'm fucking PISSED at you, bro!" Michelangelo detonated on him, startling the baby. "I don't like you screwing with us and what we have going on! I hate it! You want someone to need you this badly?! Don't you realize we both already need you!? Your brothers need you! Your family needs you! Us!"

Leo flinched backwards, his eyes widening. Then the baby burst out sobbing, misusing energy she ought to have been conserving. Alarmed, Leo rapidly tried to recapture his balance, partition away his shock, and rock her. She wasn't entirely convinced by him, but quieted down to wrinkle her face at the universe. 

"... But you know what?" Mikey unexpectedly continued, quietly. "I'm not gonna take it out on Chicken Nugget, and I'm also not gonna let you kill her." He set down the 'basket' he'd been carrying, and drew out something. "Hold this."

Leonardo winced at the barb but then blinked, lifting a hand an accepting a strange rubber implement that felt a bit like some kind of squeaky toy. "What is it?"

"A nasal syringe," Mikey growled as he opened up their first-aid kit and fished for a bottle. "The book said to drip saline solution into her nostrils to break up the mucus, and then use the syringe to suck it out. That way she's not constantly drowning herself while she's eating."

"Book?" Leo whispered. "Mikey, where did you go?"

"Just shut up and don't let Raph see any of this," Mikey whirled on him and stalked back over to prod forcefully at his plastron. "He only let me get away with going into the store because of the hospital plan, so I got her a carrier and an outfit, but then the book said she can't go above a hundred point four degrees and to use a rectal thermometer for accurate readings, so after I stopped laughing hysterically—"

Leo threw an arm around Michelangelo's bad shoulder, grabbed the lip of the shell, and dragged his littlest brother to his side, crushing him there and pressing their foreheads together. Michelangelo tensed up as if to push away, before partially collapsing into the embrace and shuddering violently. Leo cringed, confused by why his little brother seemed emotionally vulnerableHe threw an arm across the back of Mikey's neck and the lip of his shell, squeezing him as close as he could without turning to face him head on. The baby sputtered, flustered. 

"Thank you," Leo murmured fiercely into him. "Thank you for not leaving me—or her—alone...!"

"Fuck you Leo," Mikey sniffled just as fiercely, glued to him with one hand curling reassuringly around one of the baby's arms. "You and Raph are the ones always trying to leave."

Chapter Text

Tension in the shit-hole they called a 'lair' was already hot before Raphael even ducked inside. Michelangelo was stubbornly wiping at his face and ignoring Leo, like some kind of serious tantrum had been let loose and Leo had just sealed up and gone stone-faced and unlistening through all of it.

Raph sneered and shook his head. Then he padded over to lean down and get a better look at Mikey. Surprised him for a moment when MIke just stubbornly glared away from him.

He doesn't want ta be ammo in a fight.

Raphael leaned back on his heels and took in a slow deep breath. Yeah. That's fair. Raph was wound up, and clearly Leo wasn't snapping back to his senses any time soon, and the air was ripe for a fight. But ain't your responsibility to be Peacekeeper, Mike. It's ours. It's on our shoulders to work shit out. He touched his little brother's shell.

Orange had watched Fire and Ice try to walk away from one-another before, on days when they were both their very different definitions of fed up; One of them acting like he was better'n than them; One going full alpha dinosaur stomping tantrum. Hell, hadn't Leo and Raphael threatened something to that effect less than a minute after finding that damn kid? A fight? Like it was okay to just give up, to leave family behind; Like they weren't all in the same ugly-ass boat together; Like they didn't need and rely on one another for everything; Like the Hamato Family had the luxury of growing apart. 

Let's try this Mikey's way.

"He's right," Raphael said, straightening to look at their elder brother. "Mike's right, and I weren't the one who put 'im up to it. He asked me ta come home slow, so I wouldn't screw anythin up."

"About what?" Leo asked him, still feeding that godforsaken pink lump he was serving as an organic pram for.

"You're thinking with rose-tinted lenses, Leo. Only so many reasons a person abandons a baby," Raphael reasoned. "Could be drugs, could be AIDS. Red Light girls can have nearly anythin swimmin in their bloodstreams. Point is: You dunno what the fuck was up with her ma. Kid could be on a timer, in need of serious medicine."

If he'd expected Leo to cringe up a bit and look decently guilty, that wasn't what happened. "Medicine is expensive," he answered quietly. "With the city as it is, I don't think she'd receive specialized care for free. But," his voice turned sardonic, "thank you for your concern, Raphael."

Red shrugged, keeping his cool. "Is it not worth at least tryin?"

"I am convinced she only has the flu," Leonardo answered, patiently, patronizingly.

"Which, if mem'ry serves, can snowball into pneumonia."

"Raphael, handing her over to the mercy of literally anyone, without much hope they'd do a better job than I, would make me no better than the last person who abandoned her."

"Ain't true! Leavin' her at a hospital or group home or even a random old beggar lady ya find on the street, ain't the remotely same as buryin' in her in a trash bag out in the back alleyway! You've already done your part by just savin her life. S'time ta hand her over to someone whose actual job it is ta take care of sick babies. You're a ninja. And even if ya wanted ta spontaneously retire, do a one-eighty, and change careers, ya can't. Cause you're a mutant, a freak, and ain't nobody gonna let ya run a foster home. Hell, you can't even keep a home; People are weekly tryin ta kill ya. The second they know you got a weak spot, they gonna aim straight for it."

"You make a very compelling and well-reasoned argument, Raphael," Leo admitted.

Damn straight I 'ave.

"But you greatly underestimate both my resourcefulness and my awareness of your ulterior motives."


Raphael snarled, "That's as good as saying 'I ain't gonna listen ta a word that comes outta ya mouth, Raphael, cause it ain't what I wanna hear!'"

"No," Leo 'glanced' towards him. "If I believed you cared about her well-being, even just for my sake, even if your sense of justice has otherwise shriveled to naught but reactionary violence, I would feel more comfortable—"

"And what if I'm fuckin' right!?"

"—working as a team with you to research the circumstances of her birth and scout out reputable organizations or acceptable adoptive parents to place her with. As it is, Raphael, I cannot trust you with her safety, nor take your 'advice' with anything but the utmost suspicion."


Raphael advanced on him, fingers clenched, arms shaking, livid. 


He saw Leo smooth a hand back to the hilt of his katana, like doing so was subtle.

('I don't trust you. with her safety')

"Yes, Raphael?"

Wounded and enraged beyond words, Raph spun around and stalked out of the shelter.

"Leo..." Mikey whispered. "Leo!" He spun back towards the interior of the enclosure. "He's gone...!"

"I can no longer hear him nearby," Blue confirmed worriedly as he stood up and came over to stand beside Michelangelo. "He's gone?"

"It's day," Mikey breathed. "Is he insane? You barely even argued with him! All our complaints about how Nugget's so dangerous to us, and he just-?" He gestured helplessly out towards the ghetto streets.

After a very long silence, Leo summarized the situation perfectly: "Shit."  

The sun was already high when Raphael dragged finally himself back to their pitiful excuse for a home, sweaty, hot, shaking, gross, and miserable. He dropped down to ground level and shuffled inward to find that his brothers were sleeping, but that all three sets of bedding already laid out: Blue, Red, Orange.

He scoffed bitterly, but then grimaced, pulled his trench coat off, and stumbled past loose items to drop to his knees upon his futon and collapse forward with a heavy (and somewhat satisfying) thud.

Raphael expected to be out almost as soon as his head hit the mat, but that wasn't what happened. Not a split second later, Leonardo gracefully sat up and twisted around to look at him. Raph sneered.

Go on. Spin up a lecture. Bombard me with questions. Where was I? Was I seen? Why do I reek of alcohol? What the fuck did I think I was doing? Am I completely retarded? Have I lost my goddamn mind?

"Mikey," Leo whispered, which swiftly revealed that Brother Number Two hadn't been asleep, either. "Blood."

"I don't see a wound. Twenty bucks says he was punching concrete again," Michelangelo grumbled as he got out of bed and started reaching for things. "See if you can get him to give you his hands."

"I'm fine," Raphael snarled, trying to pull his arms protectively under himself where neither of them could see or reach.

"Oh, I don't think any of us are ever entirely 'fine,' bro," Blue murmured with unexpected softness, stroking coaxingly up and down his shoulder and bicep, and finally tickling him under the arm where his ribs met his plastron. Raphael squirmed and cussed haphazardly before finally tilting to the side and reluctantly relinquishing first one arm and then the other. Leo pulled them out for inspection, gently uncurling fingers to grunts and winces.

"He break anything this time?" Mikey asked as he leaned over Raphael's shell with a hot rag. "Phew. I've got the Betadine, here. Hey, don't hiss at us, dude! We aren't the ones repeatedly 'mistaking' rocks for punching bags!"

He wasn't hissing at them, he was pissed at himself. His fingers curled needily against the skin of whoever was cleaning his knuckles out. Fuck. He'd laid down with the wrong side of his head facing up, and couldn't see them right now. Maybe that was best. Meant they couldn't see the only functioning tear duct. Fuck. 

Raphael was really only ever okay when he could feel them both against him like this. Hell he didn't even care Mikey was such a goddamn snuggler; It was the only excuse for why they sometimes ended up smashed against Leo, who'd otherwise hide from physical contact on the far edge of his futon. Leo was absolutely not a snuggler. Maybe Raphael secretly was. God, how much had he drank?

"One of us is gonna have to keep watch to make sure he wasn't spotted," one of his brothers muttered. "This is more than a few cups of sake past tipsy."

"There are cuts across the shoulder, and they don't look self-inflicted. He's been in a bar fight."

"What!? That's why we couldn't find him!? It's noon!"

"Well, seeing as he'd have caved skulls in before successfully injuring his hands this badly, I assume a wall was indeed punched somewhere along the way. But this up here was from a broken bottle. Of Budweiser, I think."

"Budweiser?" Pause. "Well at least he was at some hella shady dive. Most of the big gangs still got culture wars rules in place."

"Small mercies. Can you see if there's any glass fragments still in it?"

Orange clambered more on top of him. "Oh. Yup. Good catch." A hot rag was draped across his bicep. "Say, would you kindly pass me the tweezers, Doctor Hamato?"

"Of course, Doctor Hamato, I have them right here. I dare say, might I also interest you in a sturdy, reptilian-proof, surgical-grade, pre-threaded stitching needle?"

"Oh, indubitably, Doctor Hamato. I'll do this first and be right back with you in a jiffy."

"Why, carry on, Doctor Hamato, carry on. I shall prepare the gauze in advance."

Raphael heaved out something between a snicker and a sob. He felt both his brothers pause to touch wordlessly and reassuringly at his head and cheek, in a way he absolutely didn't deserve. It was the last thing he was conscious of before passing out.

Chapter Text

Red woke up to a mild hangover and the sound of city coyotes howling to celebrate the coming dusk, and found himself smashed between his brothers. Mikey was glommed around his shell with an arm thrown up over his side, and that was sorta normal; but Leo was sitting right up against the both of them, resting an elbow on a raised knee and holding a naked katana protectively between them and the entryway.

It took a moment for Raphael to register Leo was on watch duty because of him, and because he'd passed out without saying much, and there was every reason for his bros to worry he'd led home trouble.

"How are you feeling?" Blue greeted.

Raphael wasn't gonna complain. Through headache and nausea, he got his freshly bandaged hands on the mat and slowly propped himself up. Mikey made inarticulate noises in the back of his throat, but didn't actually wake up. "M'fine." He sat himself down slowly, and rubbed his face with a forearm, and then chafed his knuckles together to feel the dull ache of them. "Thanks."

Leonardo didn't immediately reply. He didn't launch an inquisition. He didn't start any speeches. He asked: "Do you mind if I lay down, then?"

Raphael glanced over at him, and realized he nothing short of exhausted; There were even dark circles under his eyes, and Raphael felt like scum knowing he'd caused it. His gaze did flick down to the lump in Blue's arms ultimately responsible for all of this shit, but then he looked away altogether and nodded. "Yeah, go ahead."

Leo sheathed the katana and laid down facing them, inclusively.

Raphael ground his teeth, cause the lack of rebuke or questioning was giving him nothing to shove back against, or fight, or cuss at. "I'm sorry," he growled.

For a second he thought his older brother might already be asleep, but then Leo murmured, "We had no way to find you. We combed our surroundings for hours, hoping to find some place you'd gone to cool your head. In the end we had to trust you'd made it out safely, and that you'd make it back."

Raphael grimaced, rubbed at the back of his neck, and leaned back into the wall. During the fucking day. "What'd ya do with the kid?"

"Made a satchel for her out of her blanket and tucked her into my kimono. Michelangelo woke up twice after you were already back, because he'd nightmared April was calling him to say they'd gotten intel you'd been captured."

Guilt settled in hard. "How's... uh," he cleared his throat, "how's the fever?"

"...Like a war of attrition against an invisible enemy." The baby started moving, and though it didn't seem like much, Leo groaned a feeble, "Oh, I do owe you a bottle right about now, don't I?"

Raphael glanced over at where the kettle and bottle were sitting right beside his own elbow. The bottle already even had powder in it. "Wait," he interrupted with a touch at Leo's shoulder. His brother stilled hesitantly. "Yeah," Raphael reaffirmed half to himself, and then leaned over, poured the water, and passed the filled vessel and lid to Blue.

Leo took it, sealed it up, shook, and then offered it to the child with an accuracy that belied his blindness. Raphael looked away, gaze settling on the formula canister and the place Leo always set up everything for her ahead of time.

A clean conscience... 

"Thank you," Fearless murmured uncertainly.

Red snapped out of his thoughts, and looked back to his neatly wrapped hands. "Sure thing." 

Raphael might have been the one suffering from a hangover, but he'd clearly gotten more sleep than either of his brothers. Mikey, who was usually restless to get out and onto the city, stayed down hard for another hour. When he finally managed to wake up, he took one sleepy glance up at Raphael, blew a raspberry at him, and then crawled over to Leonardo and sprawled sideways across their pallets and over top of Blue's legs to make it impossible for Leo to reflexively roll away from him. 

Middle Brother went to pick through their icebox for something to grill. Good food was standard procedure for making anything at all up to Mikey, and Leo had just gone days shut away on his own without his brothers around, so maybe some 'attention' from them was overdue. Even if it was Leo's own damn fault. 

Yeah, whatever Raphael, keep focusin' on Leo fah that goddamn baby, so ya can pretend ya didn't wreck half a speakeasy without more'n a coat, hat, and scarf ta hide the green. 

He did remember making it back to 'safe' turf, and setting up in a good stealthy lookout position, before wasting himself on truly disgusting bourbon. So maybe, in their ghetto neighborhood with its boarded up windows, he really had gone unseen just fine. But it wasn't clear at exactly what point in the middle his judgement skills had gone belly-up, so how much did he really trust himself? With Leo staying behind and alone every night?

Did he have any root veggies in here?

Plates of grilled carrots and chicken glazed in a pack of honey mustard sauce were enough penance for Michelangelo, who came awake like Frankenstein, with both arms (tch, but just one hand) held out to receive his food.

"Zombie Mike Smellsss Whiiteee Meeeattt..."

"Knucklehead," Raphael smirked as he handed over a plate. "Leo?"

"Mn," Blue propped himself up. 

Raphael always cooked, if there was food. He'd successfully made dinner with a coffee can that had collected rainwater, a lighter, powdered gelatin, a half-finished can of stale mixed nuts, and the only part of a discarded ramen brick that didn't have mold on it. Because, ya know what? Mikey had been hungry. It wasn't like Raphael had many other ways of showing he cared. Thrashing enemy ninjas was something he'd do anyways just for kicks; Successfully turning garbage into an edible jello casserole that boosted morale on a really bad day had seemed the bigger act of heroism.

"So, uh," Mike prodded him in the leg with an arm stub, "on a scale of one to ten, exactly how screwed are we right now?"

"I was sorta careful," Raphael muttered. "We're scoutin' after we eat, see if anyone's sniffin' around."

"Oh we are? Yo, after that stunt, what makes you think I'm not in charge?" Mikey pressed.

Ha. "D'ya wanna be?"

Orange held his stare with an excellent poker face for just a sec, before snickering and ducking his head, and stabbing up another piece of chicken. "Nope!" he admitted through food.

Red smirked, but sat down apart from them, still feeling slightly in the doghouse. He listened to Mikey and Leo disagree without arguing with one-another. Mikey still wanted to bring her to the hospital. Leo didn't. Everything stayed low-key. Peaceable. Raphael didn't get involved, instead distracting himself with looking over the objects in their hovel. He didn't feel riled.

Raphael encountered the carrier which probably still factored into this 'hospital plan,' which Michelangelo had brought from the baby store. It had a wicker exterior and a cotton-padded and blandly upholstered interior, with a few things thrown on top. Raphael nudged it, and then reached in and picked up some green fabric from within and overturned it to see what it–

What the fuck, Mikey! Raphael grimaced incredulously, but then scoffed a little fondly at soft and nostalgic memories. Ya seriously picked out a Kermit the Frog onesie? 

Michelangelo had done just that, complete with a hood with two big white frog eyes. Oh yeah, ya have dis whole hospital plan figuahed out, don't ya? Low blows and everythin. The tag on the back even had 'It's not easy being green' written on it. You said it, Kermit. 

"What about April?" Mikey asked in the background over bites of chicken.

"Mikey," Leo scolded. "The idea that April—the resistance faction leader—might know what to do with an abandoned baby just because she's a girl is not only unlikely, but also sexist. Her job is insanely difficult right now."

"Not what I meant! She's got the bird's eye view, bro! She'll know who can be trusted to bring lil Nugget where! We know where to dig up enough cash and robo parts for barter, I bet we could afford any medicine she needed! And it'd be one step closer to finding her some kind of home!"

Leo's silence meant he was thinking, but it might not have been the way Mike wanted him to. Raph tuned out. He didn't want to be mad at anybody right now.

In the rear of the hovel, Red stood up and leaned over the remaining baby supplies to count them. Not... curious, necessarily. Just poking his nose around. Yeah. He saw they'd gone through an entire pack of diapers already and started in on a second, and since they were labeled 'jumbo sized, 40 disposables' one had to wonder where Leo was putting the damn things. Forty of em? Seriously? Ten a day? Hnhh. The formula was lasting longer; Leo hadn't started into the second can yet.

Hey... Raphael remembered this brand of cold medicine. Geeze. Blast from the past. 'Made in New York.' No shit? Well then, welcome to da club, medicine company, ya survived. Imagined ya did shady shit the same as the rest of us. Wish we had an anonymous support group ta offer ya. 

His brothers had picked up a pretty hefty stack of blankets; way more than one imagined so small a baby needed. That was fine. They'd probably need the cloth, whether for quilts or tailoring or whatever. He reached over and thumbed through them.

And got a kinda nasty surprise.

Chapter Text

"I think La Burrita Chicken Nugget is overdue for a third nickname," Leo remarked, interrupting their discussion of April, hospitals, and alternate adoption plans with something which took Mikey completely by surprise. "You know. For luck. Until she has a real name."

Wait a minute, Leo liked those names!? Well, if it was all in the interest of good fortune, how could Mikey refuse!? He leaned over her sleepy face, and found her to be awake with her warm brown eyes squinting open. "Can she be Cocoa Bean?" he wondered. "Is that what you are, Little Bean? Are you nummy nummy chocolate?"

"I think she should indeed like to be a non-meat product for a time. Raphael-?"  

That was all the warning Mikey got before Raph suddenly whirled on them and lobbed a stack of blankets to the ground between them.

"Why?" Red snarled, oblivious to how Leo bristled protectively up around the baby again.

"Why what, dude!?" Mikey protested, because hello this was a delicate project here! He had a lot of work to do if Cocoa Bean was to get into better hands (and out of their own)!

"Why did ya two do this?" Raph almost looked more startled than angry. "Pick these?"  

"Bro, we just grabbed shit and ran!" Mikey complained. "What's wrong with them? Got a pattern you don't like or something, huh?"

"You mean ta tell me ya didn't do it on purpose?" Raphael's upper lip curled as he glanced between them both, as if he wasn't sure he believed them. Little Bean mumbled and huffed in distress, but maybe if Raph didn't start yelling she wouldn't start crying. 

Poor Leo started 'looking' through the blankets uncertainly, so Mikey gestured to their obviously guileless brother with both limbs.

"Hyello, Earth to Raphael? He's. Blind. It was pitch black. We're lucky we didn't grab home towels and floor rugs. What's even wrong with them? They've been here days already!"

It seemed to dawn on Raphael that whatever the hell they'd done 'wrong,' they obviously couldn't have done it on purpose. "Nothin," he grunted, and turned away. "Forget it." He rubbed his face, turned away, and ducked out of the hovel to go wash off his plate and, from the sound of things, use the 'bathroom.'

Mikey was a little nervous the hothead might just take off on them again, and waited to make sure Raphael planned to stay nearby. Neither of them knew what had set him off so badly the day before. "Man, what the shell is up with him?" Orange muttered. "We should be furious with him, and I've never seen you let him off so easy in our lives, and he's just... ugh!"

"I do not want to put her through the stress of listening to me become angry." Mikey looked back to Leo in surprise at that. Blue shrugged gently. "Could you look over the blankets?"

Michelangelo did. "Definitely no Foot insignia," he reported in. "Regular materials: just polyester or cotton, not even must variation in... color?" Mikey paused and turned the bundle sideways, and got out his phone to shine it on them. "Leo... they're purple. Like, all of em, even the one you've got her in right now. Purple flannel, purple polkadots, purple fleece, violet, purple, lavender, purple, violet, aaannnnd purple again." 

Leo's pale eyes widened as he rattled off the complete list of fabrics. 

"Musta gotten lucky and hit a girls' aisle, am I right?" Orange laughed nervously.

"What happened to the chocolates you set out last night?" Leo wondered aloud. "Did you clean them up?"

"What?" Mikey squeaked at the crazy topic change, before looking around quickly to find the little 'altar' he'd set up on a broken peice of rock in the back of the hovel. The candle had burnt away to nothing, but the surface was otherwise barren. Not an M&M to be seen. "Iiittt looks like the rats got them!" he laughed louder (and higher). "Cute little devils!"

"I see," was all Leo said before returning to his meal.

Michelangelo stared at Blue and the baby with wide eyes before remembering some of his own food was still going woefully uneaten. He shoveled it down, and reminded himself, repeatedly, that there was no such thing as ghosts. 

There were no such things as ghosts. Cruel coincidences were just crueler mirrors, reminding you how ugly reality was, how ugly you were.

Raphael went to break a chunk of concrete, and only the tight feeling of gauze and bandages still around his busted knuckles made him pull the shot. Wasn't the pain he withdrew from; He didn't want to put his brothers through patching him up again. Unpleasant waves like grief, fear, paranoia, and nervousness crawled across his shoulders and under the carapace of his shell.

Bipedal hips and shoulders, proper knees and elbows, powerful clavicle bones and pectoral muscles, and abdominal muscles; these were the only reasons he or his brothers had been able to learn ninjitsu at all; but they were also things that made them human, derived from fragmented human DNA they'd contracted—like a disease!—cause of their exposure to the mutagen. 

Their shoulder blades were under the shell—under the ribs—and right for a turtle. Raph had seen their skeletons by X-Ray before, and man that dense, mutagen-enhanced, and bullet-resistant shell dominated everything. They were turtles. Turtles. They had hard material called keratin in their skin which built up in rough patches of overlapping scales on their shoulders, legs, and outer arms. They didn't have a scrap of hair anywhere on them, they didn't have external ears or noses. Hell, they had tails.

But look at any of them from the side, and squint a little, and the tall, proud profile and upright head could be mistaken for a bald, discolored human wearing a shield across the back. The more-than-passing resemblance to 'real' humans was what let them slip by unnoticed in heavy enough clothing and bad lighting. Like 'real' ninjas, passing for laymen. And that was saying something, cause not one of them could have never passed for a 'real' turtle.

Raphael lifted up the concrete, threw, and roundhoused it. He wasn't drunk this time, and made contact with the target just right, and the feeling of it vaporizing into lime powder across the sweep of his heel was amazingly satisfying. 

There were no ghosts, just ugly truths. Truths which Raph didn't like to have shoved in his face, but knew better than anyone they simply had to get over and deal with. The four of them—three now—were the only members of their own kind, and that number was never getting any bigger. They weren't human; humans saw them as freaks, monsters, vendettas, trophy items, and science experiments. Humans were slime who would sell them out in a breath for pennies, or take them apart for curiosity. He and his brothers had been hunted their whole lives, and always would be.

They shared some of that with lots of other mutants, some of whom were neutral or potential allies, most of whom Raphael remained appropriately suspicious towards (pfeh!), but none of whom were actually part of the same family. And that family was Raphael's priority. 

And yet it was Raphael who had just gone and put them all in danger! Over nothing! God! Raphael spat on the ground. Fuck! In any other situation, the three of them would be picking up right now and moving camp. (And reaming him for being a hothead!) So why weren't they? The unspoken reason was very clear: Because of Leonardo. Because he was exhausted. Because of that little pink leech he'd fished out of a dumpster.

Another chunk of concrete went airborne.

(Because Raphael had just kept him up all day and night, worried out of his mind.)

Another chunk of concrete exploded into white dust. 

'He needs a clean conscience.'
'He has to be able to tell himself this is the right thing to do.'
'The second they know you have a weak point...'
'I don't trust you.'

Then Raphael had to take care of things himself, and quickly, before his own mistakes caught up with his family, before the Foot could get word of a burly green dude in a trench coat and start methodically combing the nearby ghetto, and long before anyone had a chance to lay hands on either of the only two family members he had left. He'd keep them safe.

There weren't too many hours left of the night, but it was still enough to take a peek!

Raphael was subdued as the two of them carefully crept through the ghetto, keeping to the harshest shadows. In a neighborhood with no glass windows—just boards—it usually wasn't tough to go unseen. Sometimes people crept into and out of dumpsters, alleyways, and sewer entrances looking for warmth, shelter, or other refuse to eke out a living on. Anybody who could afford one of the actual houses kept the doors locked tight.

Quiet shanties had built up where once there had been streets, traffic, and life. The power grid was still up, and spiderwebs of jury-rigged cables sprawled out from poles, but only about a quarter of the street lamps still worked; the others had either burnt out, or been knocked out by rocks by delinquent kids. Kids who ran occasionally past in pitch blackness, quick as cats, off on drug or weapons runs, or intercepting runs, or passing info. Until they got old enough to 'earn' tabbards from one faction or another, it wasn't clear which were on what side.

Some parts of Shredder's 'kingdom' had been neat, militant, honor-bound utopias. Some parts had been paved over with white-washed factories, laboratories, and warehouses. Plenty parts had muddled on, pretending to be nice, middle-class neighborhoods while prostrating themselves before the letter of the law. Many, many other neighborhoods looked like this; Cluttered, dilapidated, third-world.

Leo had a partially collapsed wall, layers of fence and open ceramic sewer pipes, and a permanent car crash all occluding him from discovery, but right now they needed to keep a vigilant watch over routes to the hovel while simultaneously getting in position to listen to rumors and whispers. 

"We're almost outta ramen," Raphael mentioned quietly when they ended up beside an old lady's 24-hour cardboard box grocery and newspaper stand, lit up almost entirely by the jury-rigged mosquito lamp buzzing away beside her radio. ('Succession wars continue to spread across most of the New York and Jersey territories, while most government posts stand empty-blah blah blah.') Mikey climbed carefully up onto a sturdier old window frame to keep lookout. Raphael unfolded a wad of discolored money, picked up a pack of noodles and a not-terrible head of cabbage, and paid.

Not all humans were bad, but it was totally understandable that most of them were perma-afraid of trouble. Course they were also too poor to keep providing groceries if the bros stole everything, so a turtle had to be careful about sourcing food. And though Mikey was a way nicer customer than Raphie, he also had trouble hiding his missing arm. Rumors could add up.

A street away, a kid who couldn't be more than eight went up to a nearby door to wait on a dubious package, wearing over-sized clothing filled with holes that had just been taped down with duct tape, and a moth-eaten and grease-stained baseball cap. Mikey took note, frowned, and then stared. The boy hopped about in place, eager to earn a buck, rubbing his hands together and breathing in to them to keep them warm. He had no future, but didn't know it yet. Feelings welled up in Michelangelo's gut, until one boiled out:

That will not be our Cocoa Bean.

Raphael got back and swatted him, startling him out of his distraction. "Numbnuts!" he hissed. Mikey squeaked, but Raph was in a forgiving mood. "C'mon, I wanna get some coyote bait. D'you hear em earlier?"

"Good call!" Last thing they needed was to add wild dogs to Little Bean's list of problems!

Chapter Text

Raphael was calmer, now that the decision was made.

Their first night after the bar incident had gone just fine. No disturbances, no sniffers, no robots, no rumors; not from any side or anywhere else in multi-block radius around them. Raphael had explained the circuitous route he'd taken back home to Mikey, and when they got back he told both of them he'd saved most of his drinking for once he was alone. Even if, yeah, he had gotten in a fight before that. Genuinely sorry about that, actually.

"Ey, ey, Mike watch it. Don't let that touch the food."

"What else did you bring?" wondered their blind member. "It has a slight mustiness to it."

"Gonna scatter around poisoned bait for the coyotes so they don't get ballsy," Raphael explained. "Sorry for your nose."

"It's very, very faint," Leo dismissed with a wave. "I recognize it now."

"D'you think the rats will eat it?" Michelangelo was understandably concerned.

"Prob'ly not more'n one or two," Raphael figured. "After Shredder tried that stupid ten step program to rid the city of 'em, the crafty little bastards likely know what every poison on this whole bloody earth smells like." He reflected on that. "Might kill someone's poodle, though," he grinned a little cruelly at Mikey, who grimaced.

"As long as you clean it up," he told Raphael, who shrugged and headed out to bait the alleyways.

Leonardo wasn't wrong to assign them watch duty. There were enough hours of daylight for them all to get a decent amount of sleep. But of course Leo wanted to take the longest and central shift for himself, so Raph scoffed and leaned over to eye their eldest brother.

"Ya do realize you're the one who's gonna be on his own t'morrow?" he asked Leo.

"I'm not going to be out. You two need to be at the top of your game because–"

"–Yeah, shut up and listen fah a second," Raphael put a hand over Leo's mouth, getting a very startled and huffy Blue. "Neither me nor Mikey is the guy who has ta be able to hear a fuckin' Ninja ambush comin' for him; We ain't the ones hunkering down in a static, scoutable location."

Leonardo pushed his hand away. "Your concern is heartwarming, but I will be fine," he implicitly cautioned Raphael not to mention his disability. 

"Really? Tell me ya ain't been napping while we're not here, then! The kid ain't givin' ya enough rest."

"Leave her out of this specific discussion."

"For fuck's sake, stop jumpin' down mah throat. Pretend I'm Donnie fah a sec." And then, because Raphael couldn't really imitate voices for shit, he went full throttle for girly lisp: "On the small handful of very specific days you're statistically most likely to get ambushed alone here, you should be tip-top shape." Mikey broke out snortling in pangs of laughter, and Leo's eyes widened. "Dat's all I'm sayin. Ya read?"

Leo frowned, but finally did seem to realize Raphael was speaking sense. Yeah. Thanks for noticin.

"Hey, Leo. What if I helped you?" Mikey giggled as he wiped his face of laughing tears. "I could stay up with the baby for the first watch, and then Raphael could wake me midway through his watch to get that last feeding in, and then you could stay up with her for last watch! You'll get eight hours of sleep to catch up on, and I'll still get six or so!"

Raphael raised a brow and looked from Mikey back to Leo. 

Blue looked stiff and uncertain of himself. "You... would be willing to do that?" 

"It's every two hours, right? Food and possibly a poop?" Mikey chirped. "I can do that! I've even got a phone to time it by! Raph? You'll wake me up right?"

"Uh. Yeah," Raphael decided, straightening up with a shrug. "No carapace off my shell."

They'd trapped Leo, who had no real choice but to give into their incredibly reasonable demands. Leo never liked that, never liked retracting an order he'd already carefully considered; Always glanced nervously about like he was sure he was failing in his duty if he second-guessed himself. That bit was probably Raph's fault; He challenged Leo all the damn time, even when he knew better, even when he just didn't like the best answer, and Leo had to be tough to tell him 'no.'

Leo finally took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh, deflating slightly. "Very well. Thank you. Both of you."

"Yeah, thanks for agreein ta sleep. Idiot," Raphael sassed as he stood himself back up. "Now that dat's over, I'm the one with the split watch. So goodnight gentlemen."

He headed over to lay his bedding down and get some sleep, but paused as he saw Leo very hesitantly handing the baby over to a gleefully smiling Michelangelo.

"Er. Yo. You lovebirds wanna snuggle over dat thing, since ya sharin' it?"

"What?!" Mikey jumped with a confused expression, before suddenly laughing. "Look at poor Leo's face! Dude! Have you even put her down since we got her?!"

"Barely," Leo muttered with obvious agitation, rubbing his forearms together as if he wasn't sure what to do with his hands now that he wasn't holding a baby. "I've already grown accustomed to feeling her breathe." He reached for his futon and started unfolding it with completely unchecked body language that suggested he was nervous. Raphael calmly looked away, moved his own bedding down on the far side, and went to sleep there.

"D'awww," Mikey snickered sympathetically. "Don't worry dude, I got her, I won't let you down. D'you manage to unclog her nose again?"

"Yes, and she's eating again, but she's still very tired and weak," Leo muttered. "Pay close attention to her temperature, Mikey. If it spikes even for a short time-!"

"I've got it, I've got it, dude, chill...! Cocoa Bean will totally still be here when you get up!"

Leo didn't sound like he was entirely sure he wanted to go to bed without lecturing to death the person who was telling him to 'chill,' but what choice did he really have? Mikey was apparently the only person he could 'trust.' 

Hands were clasped nervously over top of his arm, as if in prayer. "...Leo? Bro...? Please..."


A hand grasped his shoulder to shake him gently awake, and he blinked awake into a moment of disorientation during which omnipresent darkness made it ambiguous when exactly he'd woken up. Almost without exception, Leo dreamed in full color. Still, sometimes when half between worlds, he was left confused about whether someone might have been saying something to him just as he was coming-to.

"Your watch," Raphael chuckled with an unexpected and affectionate touch at the top of his head. "Man, you were out cold."

"Oh." Leonardo felt slightly bashful. He'd probably needed the sleep. He wiped at his face, and took a split second to feel over the floor with his hands to reorient himself. There was Mikey. He sat up and leaned over his sleeping brother, and gently felt for their newborn. Easy: Michelangelo had fallen asleep with her atop his plastron. Leo gingerly scooped her up and cradled her close to listen to her.

Was everything alright? Her smell, her breath, her temperature? She was warm, but the medicine was scheduled once every four hours, which meant she was coming due for another dosage. He touched her sleeping face, and felt an unexpected smile cross her lips. And then she pooped.

"Hey," Mikey whispered to Leonardo as Raphael prepared their coffee and tea with the kettle. "How'd ya sleep?"

"You need to learn how to diaper her appropriately," Leo chastised, before adding fondly, "but seriously, thank you. I needed that."

"No kidding, I think I need a diaper lesson!" Mikey snickered as he scooted closer. "But, um, sitting with her made me realize how sick she is."

"This can't continue," Leo admitted, "if the fever doesn't break soon, her strength will give out first. " Mikey did not immediately suggest anything, perhaps giving him compassionate solidarity instead. It gave Leo time to gather his courage up and hesitantly admit, "I liked some of your suggestions, about perhaps contacting April, for information, tips, advice. Perhaps we can get some help."

Mikey perked up. "With...out giving her up? You know, ya might have to compromise..."

"I... will try to make my best judgement based on whatever information we can get."

Mikey clapped his shell. "Well Big Red's not gonna wanna leave you here while we sniff around for her agents, and anyway we're short on time. I can try hacking wifi or telecom, but I might give up our location. Can you get Cocoa ready to move?"

"Yes, but you must bring me back one more thing: A proper poncho, preferably with adequate ventilation. It's going to storm." 

"Really? Looks like open skies, bro."

"He smells it coming," Raphael drawled as he gave them their drinks, sipped his coffee, and stood up to go have a look at the darkening sky. If Cocoa got caught in a deluge with no way to dry her or warm her up, that would be the end of her. "Wrap ya boots, knucklehead. We need ta be fast if we wanna beat the rain ta an article of clothing."

When the two of them headed out, Michelangelo climbed quickly for the roofs, but Raphael lingered a moment at the entryway to the shelter. "You're good, right?"

"I am wide awake," Leonardo answered, and Raphael grunted and went to duck out. "Raphael?" Red paused and glanced back at him. "Thank you. For... The sleep. The coyote bait and so forth."

"Sure," Raphael replied with a startling lack of antipathy. "Was just the right thing to do." 

Leonardo crossed his legs and eased their newborn down into the curve of his knee to cradle her. She gave a little garbled 'nyah!' to complain about his audacity in interrupting nap time, but then peered up at him with her eyebrow muscles flexing and un-flexing. First came the diaper change, during which she jerkily waggled her arms and legs, and kept him advised on just how much her own poo upset her. Then came her tiny dose of medication, drop by drop, with cleanly washed hands. 

Next he he performed the mucus-extraction operation Michelangelo had taught him: one drop of saline, each nostril, and then suck out the slurry with the nasal syringe. She hummed and huffed and finally cried out and spat up some goo on her own. "Yoku yatta," he chuckled even as that was absolutely disgusting and required immediately cleaning. Oh Sensei, the things you must have gone through for us, he admired nostalgically. Far too many green-colored bodily substances, I'm sure. And that sounded twice as stressful when their father had actual fur to keep clean. 

Once she was loosely wrapped back up in blankets again, and unfortunately already looking incredibly exhausted, Leonardo reached for the kettle and poured fresh warm water upon her buttery-smelling formula. Leonardo lifted the bottle and sealed it, and shook. "Oh don't you yawn at me, Little Bean," he murmured. "You need to eat."

He stopped on the third shake.

The smile drained off his face.

Blind eyes slid slowly to the bottle, dangling there in his hands, where powdered white formula could not be seen, but could be felt to swirl harmlessly, bit by bit dissolving into the water. 

Leo turned the bottle upright, and unscrewed the lid, and breathed deep to see if it smelled sour, or otherwise like old or spoiled dairy. Nothing smelled wrong with it at all. Frowning, he twisted about and reached over to pull up the edge of her formula canister, prying it up to sniff the contents. As always, it smelled rather delicious. He sniffed at the canister, and he sniffed at the bottle.

There was a difference. But what? Was it his imagination? No, something wasn't right.

A memory hit him, of Donatello growing suspicious towards delivery pizzas. Leo spun to his feet. He felt around till his hand landed on the half-empty bag of coyote bait and the small plastic tub of poison for it. Leo pulled the tub out, pried the lid off, and leaned over to smell. The musty odor of it was incredibly faint but suddenly terrifyingly recognizable.


Raphael had bought sodium cyanide—a fine, white powder with nearly no odor—under the pretense of poisoning the coyotes. He had seen where Leonardo had set the baby's formula out ahead of time. He had also been the last one to touch the kettle that morning, while making coffee, and so had been given an excuse to be leaned over on that side of the room without raising suspicions.

Raphael had put cyanide in the baby's bottle, and that was what the subtle difference in its smell had been.

Had she drank it all, Leonardo would have never even known. 

'Was just the right thing to do.'

Chapter Text

Michelangelo was not an incredible hacker. He wasn't logical. He wasn't patient. His 'Attention to Detail' had received a solid D- on its report card.

Worst of all, he didn't get much practice before real emergencies cropped up, because trying to tamper with the tightly controlled communications networks and 'intranets' permitted under the Foot Regime had always been extremely risky. But April had been and still probably was one of the better computer scientists and security experts in the nation, which was how she'd ended up working for Stockman all those years ago. When she'd offered to teach one of them about security, encryption, safe information transfer, and how to hack, Mikey had volunteered for a kinda personal reason:

All those times Mikey had bothered Donatello in the lab, and knocked and broken something, or dragged him from his computer to play a video game; Mikey owed him for all of it, and would pay him back as best he could, with this, with carrying the torch as best he could.

At first Michelangelo had gotten Raphael to build him a laptop. Raph could put together the parts of almost any device to make them work, and knew enough stuff about the low level 'firmware' (instead of software!) that made everything turn on and drain the right amount of power and play along nice with each other part. He told Mikey he'd learned it from putting together sensor systems with Donnie for his bike.

Later, when more black-market movement started opening up under the Foot's feet (doh-ho!), homebrew phones had become every hacker's instrument of choice. Which was good! Because Mikey had ended up a little shorthanded, eh-heh, and he could use a phone like lightning-fast.

Now Michelangelo had the software he needed to try and hack himself almost anything, gathered painstakingly from here and there, from The Resistance and from shady underground mini-clans, half-gangs, and queerly fanatical nerd collectives. (The V for Vendetta guys were always his fave!) Mikey also had the stuff he'd need to resist being hacked back. What he didn't know for sure was how any particular joust would go. He never had Donnie's surety, and now-a-days everyone's tech tended to be backwards and all-over-the-place, courtesy of social disorder as various forces fought to hold or take or heal the city. 

So Mikey might be able to hack himself some wifi or broadband access, or he might not. His attempt might be waved away as nothing, or it might mean trouble. And if they realized a 'bogey' was trying to burrow into their network from just outside the building, they might immediately think 'TURTLES!' or they might think 'RIVAL GANG!' or they might not even have the energy to care at all. That was the sorta game you played when an already-dead regime was crumbling to cinders and everyone who wanted to be the next 'shredder' was sabotaging everyone else, all while trying to look totally calm and in-control.

Anyway, to the present: If Mikey wanted to try and make contact with April, he needed to get himself into someone's telecommunications, and he'd have to do it before this rain that Leo promised could come, so he needed to select a location and a method from all his available options, and get cracking. Er, hacking. Whatever!

But no sooner had he prepped his phone for action than he saw a full strength signal was being provided under the name Viva La Resistance! 

No way. Had to be a honeypot trap, right? 

"Something's going down," Raphael interrupted his train of thought with something that turned out to be highly relevant. He was standing up tall on the building and gestured with a hand. "You hear that boom? That's not normal gunfire. That's a tank, ain't it?" 

"Naaaw, no faction would deploy heavy weapons this far out into the open... Would they? They can't afford it." But the booms cracking from across the cityscape, litters of gunfire and distant shouts, and glows of red suggesting fire, suggested there was a serious fight going on. He perked up, curious. "We checking it out?"

"We need ta stay near enough ta home in case there's an emergency," Raph muttered, not pleased at all by that limitaiton (but honestly he could suck it, because he was the one who'd gone out drinking in the middle of the day). 

Michelangelo looked back at his phone. Okay, here it goes. On a leap of faith, he jumped that cellular signal.

Welcome! We have captured the old library cellular tower, and have militarized the zone around it for four blocks! Steer clear, and attempt to evacuate the surrounding area if you have small children or elderly! We anticipate heavy retaliation from the gangs which have stolen this city from us, but we are determined to make our stand and prove their power is waning! We cannot guarantee to you we will succeed this time, or the next, so gather all the information you can which has been kept from you! Remember: Do not trust this signal or any other until the day our city stands free, so that the trickery of the gangs cannot impersonate La Resistance or harm you! Do not transmit personally identifying information! Stay off social networking sites! Assume all connections are insecure!

"It's them!" Mikey blurted. "That's a Resistance army unit holding its ground out there, bro!" This was exactly the kind of fight that screamed for Turtle action! "The gangs musta briefly allied and moved in to try and crush them because they captured a cell tower! I'll bet they're trying to blow the tower down ASAP to save face!" 

"Do you have internet?" Raphael suddenly realized, spinning towards him.

Michelangelo had been just about to head for the only search engines that had worked in this goddamn part of the country for years, but on instinct wondered if The Resistance had copied an external DNS. He typed in

"Oh. My. Sweet. Ancestors." Mikey showed Raphael. WE HAVE LA GOOGLEZ." It had been about fifteen years of Michelangelo's life since he'd seen that beautiful and oh-so-simple blue, red, yellow, and green banner. Sometimes, he'd dreamed about it. 

"Well hurry up!" Raph laughed scoldingly at him. "Ask it the answers to life, the universe, and everything! How the fuck do you make mozzarella!? Fuck Shredder and fuck the Foot for outlawing cheese!"

Holy shit did Mikey have a lot to Google! Was there someone on the other side keeping a giant repository of all the best memes half the country had missed out on over the last decade and a half of terror!? How had Lost ended!? Had Megan Fox's career ever recovered!? Who had won the World Cup the last decade!? Was Eating Super Fast an Olympic Sport yet!? Were Chezbrgr Cats still a thing!?

'Italian baby girl names with meanings,' was what he swiped across his keypad, and an internal voice squealed in horror and delight! Okay, okay, he'd just look for something very simple. Nothing crazy like their names! No painters! What about a name that just meant something totally simple, like 'girl' or 'lady' or 'beautiful'? Oh god, oh god, oh god, look at all the results he had! He tapped away like a maniac, and then tried to search in page.

'lady' he typed, and the webpage jumped down four letters. 

Dona, Donna (f): A lady, particularly of noble birth or high status.
Donata (f): A gift. Feminine of Donato.
Donatas (m/f): One who is helpful; One who lends or needs a helping hand. 
Donatella (f): A gift (from above). Diminutive of Donata. Feminine of—

Michelangelo dropped his phone. He tried to catch it with his opposite hand, and failed for obvious reasons, it hit the ground and clattered so the screen faced down. Mikey blinked vacantly, one hand still in front of him, contemplating his screen protector and phone case and wondering if he had just—again—destroyed a device he depended on daily for music. He must have been incredibly out of it, because Raphael had time to jump down, come up beside him, lean over, and pick up the phone.

"What the hell spooked you?" Raphael wondered.

Mikey reached feebly up towards him, but Raph had already turned the phone around and beheld the (still alive!) screen. "Don't throw it," Orange begged. "I didn't know that's what would come up. Please, I didn't-"

"Shit happens," Raphael muttered darkly as he handed the phone, intact, back to him. "Just reminds you what you have left to lose. Let's leave the humans to fight their own battles, and circle back around the ghetto to make sure we ain't got problems crawling up our own tails." There would be no turtle heroics today, not on behalf of non-turtles. And no more joyful googling either, it seemed.

Mikey clutched the phone to himself and staggered to his feet. 

A gift? 

Water splattered on his phone, and he looked up just in time to hear the crack of thunder overhead. Oh boy. He swiped away his internet browser and quickly brought up a communication app. Time to send a quick encrypted message and pray the other end was still operational.

The rain came down and it came down hard. It came down like someone had upended an ocean on them through a salad spinner, just a sheer gray curtain of rain that stretched everywhere. Michelangelo and Raphael were turtles, but cold rain in autumn could give one of them Cocoa's flu, so they made use of the ponchos they'd pilfered as they bolted, slipped, spun, and hopped their way home.

"Leo! I got a message through to April!" Mikey called as they neared the hovel. "She transmitted back meeting coordinates with all the right codes, we're set! And best part is, we might be able to—"

Raphael had paused right in the threshold, which kinda made it difficult for Mikey to get inside and HELLO it was raining out here! But as Mikey elbowed his way in beside Raphael, he beheld a quietly changed interior:

The large duffel bag which Raphael had used to transport so much food back from the superstore was gone. The wall of diapers, cans of formula, bottle, and medicine were missing. Only two rolls of futon bedding sat in the rear. An extra change of clothes and certain neatly wrapped personal possessions were missing.

"No," Mikey breathed, staggering a disbelieving step inward and looking around the tiny space in search of all the missing items (and the missing people). "Did the Foot actually get the drop on him?"

"There's no sign of a struggle, Mikey. The Foot wouldn't have packed up all the baby shit, or cared what futon was his." Raphael's voice was dark, monotone, dead. "Leo ditched us."

Chapter Text

Intermission: Eye for an Eye. 

Some years ago...

"You fuckers can't even be the ones ta kill me," the battered terrapin laughed tauntingly, as if his face weren't already crusted with blood and swelling with fresh bruisers. "I'm worth too much."

The Red Lion Lieutenant smirked and then nodded to one of his thugs. The next punch hit with a loud crack—had to, the bastard's skin was thick—and threw the turtle's head to the side. But the turtle they called 'Raphael' didn't yelp or scream, he just laughed louder. 

"Call up the Foot already!" he boomed, voice irksomely commanding when he was less than a prisoner—when he was just chattle. "The fuck ya think ya can do ta me that I ain't done ta myself for fun?" He spat. "Bloody tired of waitin'!"

"Oh you're 'worth' a lot, mutie," the Lieutenant sneered. "Trouble is, Shredder tends to pay in prestige. Some of us, we like colder, more tactile things than dat." He rubbed his fingers together. "Cash comes to mind."

"Zhat supposed to scare me?" Raphael grinned. Like he wasn't currently in the middle of an enemy base, deprived four days of food and two of water. Like he hadn't been sleeping tied up in his own shit and piss, with the rats gnawing on the edges of him. Like he didn't have his arms bound behind himself in chains, with six men holding him down. Like those six men were a badge of honor.

"And some of us, well..." the Lieutenant continued, "we just like our kicks, and you owe us a bit of payback." 

"Bring it," the turtle taunted.

"You don't understand your situation yet, mutie, so I'm gonna explain just for your benefit. First of all, you ain't a prisoner to us, a'right? You're just a really big, ugly, fat cow. So first up: Boys? Gag him. Cause animals, ya know, they can't talk."

Something vulgar came out in a roar, but between an entire army of men and just one turtle, the turtle lost. They pried open his jaws and got wadded cloth and leather between them, muffling and partially choking that wide mouth.

"Right. Next part of the plan I'll keep sayin' aloud, even if, ya know, animals can't understand." The Red Lion Lieutenant came closer, grinning. "But that's just us humans, we keep talkin to the stupid things anyway: Dogs, cats, cows. You're a bein a good bull right now anyway, ain't ya?" Green eyes stabbed up at him, and nostrils flared. "So back to what I was saying: We're gonna sell you, that's right, but we're going to do it in six pieces." Realization didn't dawn fast enough on that furiously angry face, so the Lieutenant clarified. "That's right. We've got six separate buyers, who all want a chunk of you. The most important of them's the Foot, but you're a hardy bastard, ain't ya? You can take it, right? And we won't cut anything you need. It's not like the Foot are going to care whether they get a bull or a steer, right?"

There it was: a flicker of understanding. But much to his fucking disappointment, the turtle didn't get scared. At least he got mad! And boy did he get mad, lunging into the hold of the men like he had a chance in hell of escaping, growling and croaking audibly, eerily, through the gag.

"Right." That would be enough. He turned away "Boys, get him on the table."

Bestial, muffled roars and snarls echoed as the thugs hauled their 'cow' along. The turtle fought so hard he managed to cause them some difficulty, and when it became clear he might temporarily drag some of them back a step and embarrass them in front of their boss (how fucking strong was this thing!?), one jammed the butt of a gun hard into his chest armor over the solar plexus. It did enough to wind him with all that food deprivation helping them along. They got him up onto the old carpentry table, clamping down chains with bolts and vices, and then leaning on the captured limbs to make extra sure there would be no escape.

They'd had enough casualties at the hands of these freaks. 

"That rotary saw ready?" the Red Lion Lieutenant inquired almost innocently as he fetched a small metal implement, and across the room one of his subordinates depressed on the previously unnoticed machine's trigger with an ominous ZZZWWWWWVVVV!

The Red Lion Lieutenant looked behind himself, and grinned. That sound had been what ultimately got the turtle's full attention.

"Awe he's scared." The Lieutenant slipped around the carpentry table, and walked along it. Green eyes flamed towards him, and a low and 'dangerous' rattle worked its way vainly out.  "I thought you were the badass of your little freak 'team,' hot shot? That could you handle anything anybody could throw at ya?

"D'aww, you poor, dumb, animal, of course you're scared. You can't understand a word coming out of my mouth, can ya? Must be my sentimentalism, wanting you to hear the 'reassurance' in my voice. You're gonna be just fine, cause Shredder wants you alive." He traced a gloved finger over the prone body and naked yellow scutes, "But, see, your body makes mutagen, and mutagen is the stuff everybody wants right now, the stuff everybody's scared of, everybody wants to control. And there's a couple parts of you which you don't need. Kidney? Half a liver? Balls? Yeah, those are no use to ya. A smart guy can take stuff like that out and put in suspension fluid, and ship it off to a lab to make more of that slimy liquid green gold. Am I right? Now that would be a small operation on a normal cow but, trouble is, you're a freak a nature and got all this thick armor in the way," he gave a scute a hefty pat. "So we gotta do something about that.

"And don't worry about us, this armor'll probably never heal once we're done with it, but do you think the Foot cares how pretty you are? Nah, just that you're alive. And—apparently—you think you can survive anything. So you better not jump or twitch or, ya know, we might accidentally cut a little too deep."

No growl came this time. The Red Lion Lieutenant grinned.

"First thing's first though. You see this?" The Lieutenant lifted a hand and traced a scar over his own face and his useless left eye. "This was a shuriken, courtesy of one of your freak brothers. And before we manage to get them down on this table too, I wanna send em a gift ta scare em a bit, let em know how royally they fucked up. So let's see that ugly face of yours, cow." He raised up the small, metal teaspoon he'd fetched. "I think that bright eye color of yours'll be pretty recognizable, don't you?"

The turtle obviously did not play along quietly. So the Lieutenant waved over more men, and had them grab hold. Even then, he was one hell of a tenacious bastard, and they eventually ended up pulling his head back in a noose and playing with suffocating him. What was the danger? They had defibrillators on hand. 

Eventually the spoon went in. And the spoon came back out.

The turtle made the lowest, most satisfyingly mournful groan, and the Lieutenant knew exactly why: The second that eye had come out, there went with it all depth perception. Forever. He'd never aim, throw, or jump straight again. It was already over, with that one tiny implement and that one tiny injury. No need for missing limbs or major stab wounds, just that one... little... thing.

Man, he was going to treasure this moment for a long time. "Good. Cauterize it." The hiss and smell of burning flesh didn't elicit another cry, just a violent twitch, because of course it didn't matter the way the missing eye had. "Get the saw over here! We're on a time table, remember. Pile on the bastard; he's not going to get out of this by tryin ta cut an artery—"

Black gas spilled into the room.


Death came for them all, quiet and swift as the sound of raven wings, as they screamed and shouted to one another. They couldn't see, and they knew their enemy also couldn't see, and that was their fundamental misconception about the fairness of the match-up. They did not even have enough time to suppose they were under attack by large numbers, nor begin to hamper one-another by mistaking each other for foes. Death simply covered the chamber in one quick circle, and then everything was quiet.


One by one, the vices loosened. A rotary saw came to life, soliciting a terrified jump, but then its blade was obliterated as it was put to use cutting all of the chains. When it remained too dull to cut the last shackle, a bolt-cutter was found among the surrounding tools to finish the job.

It took that long before Raphael managed to talk without vomiting. "I'm not like you." His voice cracked. "I can't—"

Warm, three-fingered hands clasped his face, smoothing over eyelids and injury. Raphael nearly swooned. Not enough to eat. Not enough to drink. His skull felt inflamed, and bright flashes were sparking up where the eye had been. "You do not need to be," came a familiar voice, calm and nearly monotone. "You are not blind." Then hands moved around his head, and Raphael felt the touch of cloth. He realized Leonardo had found his mask and was giving it back and tying off the tails.

"I-I..." So much had just happened. So much more had been about to happen. Nerves tingled along abdominal muscles beneath threatened plastron scutes. Leo gave him some water; Raphael grabbed numbly at the bottle, sloppily imbibing some.

"Michelangelo is clearing our way out. Can you walk?" 

Red had possessed the strength to nearly out-wrestle six men. Now his limbs were leaden, and he wanted to collapse. In all the times Raphael had ever been helpless, nothing had ever been intimately vulnerable in this same way, with strangers' hands on his body as they called him an animal, an object, and talked casually about all the things they were gonna pull out of his body and bottle.

Silence echoed between them for a moment. Then Leo suddenly grabbed hold of him and wrapped both arms tightly around him, filthy as Raphael was, and crushed them together. "I have you," Leo whispered, voice no longer calm or in-control as he pressed their foreheads together. "I have you, bro. I have you, and your gear, and your sais, and your mask, and I'm here. I'm so sorry I'm late, but I'm here. And if you want me to, I will compose an entire sonnet to describe the sheer titanic fervor of my wrath and grief," he snarled, "but it has to be once we are safe and we've been able to take care of you. Okay? Raphie. Please. Can you walk?"

His family had found him and come for him. No missing kidneys. No more starving. No broken armor. No saws. If anything, he just finally matched them.

"Yeah," Raphael huffed, and pushed himself up off the table. "Yeah. Give me a fucking weapon. I'mma need ta practice my aim stabbing out every fuckin' left eye I see." 

End Intermission

Chapter Text

"Leo wouldn't 'ditch' us...!" Mikey whimpered. He clenched his fingers through shivers, but then recalled how fiercely Leo had reacted to Mikey's help—Leo didn't want to be alone! Conviction strengthened Orange Turtle's voice. "He wouldn't have done that."

"Well he just did, Mikey," Raphael muttered as he went to rummage through his own things. He drew out a cigarette, but couldn't immediately find his lighter. He grabbed a spare. "Musta decided he didn't trust us not at fuck up that new 'project' of his, decided to go it alone." 

"No, he needed and wanted our help," Mikey disagreed immediately, still trying to suppress panic and get his bearings. "W-we need to find him. He could be in danger."

"He's a big boy, Mikey. He'll find us when he wants to," Raphael muttered as he cupped the cigarette to light it. "If he ever wants to. Seems to prefer humans at the moment."

"Would you quit moping!? Mikey paced. "Leonardo doesn't just abandon people! Ever!"

"Moping? Pfft. Must be misremembering how he made us leave Splinter."

"Dad died for us, Bro! Why does every conversation with you have to cycle back through the same ancient history? You know, Leo's stalked off hissing that he 'doesn't need your shit' before, and sometimes he's made some serious mistakes, but aside from you, none of us are paranoid psychos! He would never in a million years have just walked out of our lives without so much as a–"

Michelangelo stiffened. Then he slowly turned his head, eyes widening, brows furrowed, mouth drawn in a line of livid rage. He stared back past his shoulder at his red-masked, self-destructive brother. Raphael raised a brow.

"What did you do? Mike breathed.

"Fucked up a bar," Raphael reminded him.

"No," Mikey turned on him, voice thick with barely contained rage. "Leonardo would only have left like this if someone had given him a reason."

Raphael opened his mouth to say something snide and tired.

Michelangelo lunged at him like a viper, slamming into him so hard and driving Red's shell into the side of the hovel with such a loud crack, flecks of water and dust burst out from the wall. "WHAT DID YOU DO!?" Orange screamed into his elder brother's startled and sneering face, his voice ragged. "WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO US AGAIN!?"

Raphael tried to push him off, which of course Raphael had every reason to expect ought to be easy; but Michelangelo dug his heels in, shoved one of Raphael's arms by the elbow using just his stub, and grabbed the older turtle's throat. Michelangelo drove Raphael's shell back into the wall a second time. 

"What did you DO, Raphael!? I forgave you, I trusted you, I took your side! What did you do to my family!?"

His brother's mouth slackened and his eyes widened, and he stared at him in numb and shaken silence for several seconds, as if searching for something. Raphael slowly dropped his arms, sank back into the wall, and half closed his eyes. "It was what you said about him needing to have a clear conscience."

Mikey stared. "What?"

"The poison wasn't really for the coyotes. It was white; you wouldn't have noticed it sitting on top of the regular powder. Slipped in the bottle he'd already prepped, just before we left. Causes respiratory failure, which in this case woulda looked like the flu. Nobody woulda blamed anybody. Coulda grieved a bit, had a little funeral or whatever, and gone back to normal, focusing on what's important: the safety of this family."

"You..."  Michelangelo released him and staggered backwards. "You killed her...?" Raphael slowly peeled himself off the wall, brushing off lime. 

(Killed their dead brother's last gift to them?)

"Don't imagine he'd have packed up the baby gear if it was dead," Raphael muttered as he stooped to pick up his fallen cigarette. "Thought havin the bait already around th' house woulda tricked his nose, but he musta smelled it anyway. So now I guess that leaves us to bank on the flu. Unless you really do wanna try and track him down right now."

"Us?" Michelangelo breathed, face still blank and numb. "You want to kill your older brother's five-day-old baby, and somehow think I'm peachy keen with that?"

"Oh come off it, like you don't want it gone too? It ain't his problem, ain't our problem. He wasn't ever gonna give in to your plan. My way was ugly, but it was the only right thing left to do. By us or by it; this world's shit; death's a bless—"

Something... just...


Michelangelo went through what had happened like an adrenaline-rushed cut-scene in a video game with QuickTime events embedded at all the major action points, where you had to hammer key buttons to land awesome combos. No time to think, just time for waves of excitement at each next crazy stunt.

Like: Crashing out into the heavy rain of the alleyway in a tangle of roars and limbs! He remembered every slick trick he'd learned for grappling with one limb reduced be half, all the holds he'd perfected and all the ways he'd learned to use his knees and feet. Winning an unfair fight? You didn't need all your limbs! You did need to be strong, but you didn't need to be the biggest, or smartest, or log the longest practice hours.

You just had to be out of your mind creative. A little bit insane. 

A lot insane!

Nanchaku were flails, and his were condensed hardwood, and there were few things in the world reinforced just right to handle repelling that kind of collision; concrete broke and cracked open in plumes of powder, as his target tried to keep one step ahead of him, or attempted to hook the weapon in his cute little ninja forks. That was funny! Splash grit and water into his eyes with a foot!

Slam, slam, crackle, kick, slam, powder concrete, go for the face, go for the good eye with a thumb, with mud, with water; Hit aside the weapon, grab glass shards up with the toes, throw them as improvised weaponry; Kick, get him down, trip, pretzel, slam, wind, catch; Try to garrote with just the nanchaku, grasping the flail head with one knee; Fail (but who cares!?), pursue, disarm one sai, slam, lost the nanchaku (so improvise!)—powdered concrete and brick shells cracking into walls and metal!—scratches and the threat of impalation from upraised spikes of rusted steel rebar (Yoink!) dodged just in time, hit the head into the wall—

—Michelangelo woke up from his fervored button mashing, crouched half on top of his stunned brother, holding a sai upraised and already driving it down in an arc right for Raphael's throat, just to pinion him there and end it, and give them all the 'blessing' of another death.

Mikey pulled harder and faster back on the ark of the weapon, and the tip came hard down into Raphael's breastplate where the natural armor of the plastron was the thickest and could resist impalation. 'Crunch!' went the tip of the sai, and Raphael lurched and grunted hard in pain and surprise.

Snicker. Snerk!

Michelangelo broke out howling in laughter, adrenaline and testosterone and madness vibrating in every nerve; He wasn't scared of himself, or of what he had almost done, he was exultant, enraged, euphoric, homicidal, and giddy! He let go of the sai handle and left it embedded there deep enough to remain standing straight upright; He leaned over, wide-eyed and grinning from ear to ear down at Raphael. Raph stared back up at him, both hands against his plastron in hesitance, confusion, and anticipation.

Rain and mud had soaked them.

You got taken out by a cripple, asshole! So funny! So funny, why aren't you laughing, you fucker!? Isn't this all so funny!? (Where was his actual voice? Why couldn't he scream and vent? Where was the dialog tree for this game?) Mikey clutched one-handed at the lip of his brother's plastron and collar bone, shifting and changing his grip. Raphael held his stare, fingers hesitantly touching shell and sides, not sure whether to resist him or steady him. Mikey was still snickering, still laughing.

The violence was over? The violence was over. ♪♫ Hehe! ♫ ♥

"You are going to do exactly what I say," Michelangelo lilted sweetly, still grinning painfully tight, shudders ghosting over him. "Okay? Because Karai is still unaccounted for, and if she was waiting for a moment of vulnerability to dramatically kill off her diametrically opposed rival to avenge her dead master, this is it. And we are not going to let that happen. Do you hear me? We are not losing Leo. We are not losing him like we lost Donnie and Dad. We aren't even gonna lose the baby, because—ya know what?—we're just fuckin' awesome like that! We are not losing any more eyes, or any more limbs. You are going to find our brother—fast—because he needs us, and we need him. Cool?"

Raphael stared at him searchingly a few seconds, and his mouth opened as if to try and say something; but then his gaze darted to the side, and, with reflexes that would have made dad proud, Raphael rolled them both out of the way of an explosion of gunfire. Both brothers sprinted to their feet, dodging the wild patter of firearms from the rooftop above.

"I see seven," Raphael said as he leaned against the back of the hovel for cover and yanked his only locatable sai out of his own chest. "No obvious colors. Musta just homed in on the commotion, figured they'd bag a kill."

"Got the four on the left," Orange licked his lips eagerly.

"You're," Raphael swallowed, "unarmed."

"Bro, where you been for the past dozen or so years? It's called 'one-armed.' Beat ya to the middle kill!"



Chapter Text

"Alright," Raphael said as he hoisted up his gear on his shoulder, bit the cap off the highlighter, and splayed open their map across the wall of the hovel. "We got a few more hours of night, so we've gotta move our tails if we expect ta– Are you just... takin' that with you?" He gestured at the four foot long sleek techno-advanced assault rife Mikey was still leaning on under his stub like a crutch.

"Sure! Don't you think it's nifty? That guy's sure not using anymore, and lotza ammo for it floating around now-a-days."

"S... just not very 'ninja-ish.'"

"No. No it is not." Mikey beamed, blatantly oozing crazy.

"Uh. Right. Like I was sayin'," Raphael looked back to his map, "We both know Leo can be slippery as fuck, but for the next twenty-four hours or so, there's still only a limited amount of places he can be."

"How'd ya figure?" Orange wondered. "If I were him I'd just pick a direction leading away from you and book it!"

"Yeah well, that rain came down hard," Raph gestured outward. "You hear any police sirens at the local urgicare? Right, so that ain't where he's at right now. Leo has ta be someplace safe and dry. More importantly, he knew the storm was comin' but he didn't know exactly when, and he lit outta here with a sick baby he ain't gonna takes risks with. So he has to be someplace conservative we already know about."

"A sick baby he has to feed and clean every two hours," Mikey cooed, peering thoughtfully over the map. "He needs access to power or hot water."

"Not yet," Raphael disagreed with a raise of a hand. "Some of my lighters are missing and the sky'll give him plenty of clean water till ya the storm lets up; He's gonna try buy himself some time by heating up the formula by hand, which could mean any number of things: that he has a distant end destination in mind, that he plans to scout for resources in person, anything. Which is why we gotta move quickly, cause while the places he might be will skyrocket by tomorrow, we can be nearly sure he's pinned down right now."

"So come on, hurry up, where we headed!?"

"We gotta check these, these, and here. But notice something? Opposite directions, and only so many hours left. What you want to do, Orange Leader?"

"Split up, duh," Mikey complained as if 'splitting up' was ever something Michelangelo proposed. "I know where these are, little shaky on that one but I can find it. We can meet up here." Raphael stared. "Yo. Yo? Raphael! Tight time table!"

Raphael shook awake and nodded, marking off the destinations he'd have to hit before nightfall. The workload was pretty evenly divided. "If ya find him–"

"–I might have to actually talk to him so he doesn't run away again from Raphael-the-Child-Killer!" Flinch. "So if I'm a day late to out meetup, just suck it," Mikey said. "You're a 'big boy,' you can handle yourself. Now let's get the hell outta here! Tag!"

And with that, Orange kicked up his gun, shouldered it over the stump, slapped Raphael's shell, and bolted for the exit. Raphael took a hard step after his baby brother, and came up short. That shell disappeared into the rain. Raph's nostrils flared, and he swallowed hard. Then he recapped the highlighter, and folded up his maps, and tucked them away on his person. He took one last look in his ice box, and all the meat he wasn't going to get to eat. 


He pretended he was mad about that.

Raphael had pointed out six locations out on the map for himself, but he went fast, and he checked into the state of fourteen. If Foot were watching them, he'd rather them think the turtles had left heading west instead of east. Fourteen alcoves, ledges, half-buried shanties, collapsed buildings, and broken basements later, and several spots which had been destroyed or re-inhabited, and Raphael had to conclude he'd picked the wrong cardinal direction.

He didn't explain to himself why that was so goddamn terrifying. Not yet.

His and Mikey's meeting place for the night was the one big outlier on their map, slightly south and closer to the whole epicenter of the fucked-up Hudson River area. Closer to territories still held by factions of 'Foot.' There were a couple reasons it was a good hideout, and a couple glaring ones why it was bad

The upper tip of the sun literally bloomed on the horizon just as Raphael slid off the rooftop and down into the forgotten, boarded up garage that had gotten smashed between two rapid construction projects. Raphael glanced up and behind himself. If Mikey hadn't found Leonardo in any of the eastern spots, then he'd already be here. Raphael crawled down and under the boarded up doorway, and over the threshold.

First glance immediately told him it was empty, and had been for a very long time. The thick layer of dust on the ground would have shown two-toed footprints if either of his brothers had been there.

Raphael remained crouched in the entryway for a long moment, water draining off his poncho and running in streamlettes over the old concrete, wetting dust.

So, barring tragedy, Michelangelo had found Leonardo first. Which meant the two of them were talking about him right now, over that baby. And Mikey had that extra poncho with them, the one they'd gotten for Leo. Even if the rain held out another day, it wouldn't keep them in place.

...What would happen if they decided Raphael was dangerous?

Of course he was 'dangerous!' That was his whole fucking idiom! But his brothers could trust him through hell and back! He'd only been trying to help along that sick sack of puss Leo was treating like—

(Hothead. Drunkard. Beast. Psycho. Paranoid. Animal. Bull. Betrayer. Child-Killer. Monster.)

Quietly, calmly, Raphael cleared a place to lay down his futon. He got some sleep.

The odds Michelangelo had been spotted and successfully ambushed while on so odd a route were unlikely.

'If I'm a day late to our meetup, just suck it'. Kay. You're the boss.

Raphael waited an hour, and then two, looking over his maps. The key to being found was for the 'searcher' to move while the 'searched for' stayed put. But Raphael waited much, much longer than he knew it ought have taken a person to make the trip between any of the eastern scouted locations and his hovel. If Michelangelo hadn't found Leo, he was wasting time, because the rain was still coming down hard and they could be looking. But if he had...

(Then you've already lost them, asshole.)

Fine, then needed to get off his tail and bust his ass looking for them. Even if they'd already booked it the night before, he'd find traces of them and be able to make a mental picture of where they might be headed. He knew how Leo thought, and he knew how Mikey thought, and most importantly, he knew they were carrying a very ill baby who was going to restrict their movements.

(You've lost them. Stalking family members who think you're an insane danger to them makes you an insane danger to them.)

Fuck that. He needed to stop 'moping.' Particularly as Michelangelo had clearly indicated he intended all three of them to regroup. One or both of those idiots could be in very serious danger if Mike had failed to make the rendezvous.

Mikey slid down the pipework, hopping over a sudden crack and skidding the rest of the way to ground level. He ducked to army-crawl into the little shed or whatever it was, dragging in lots of water. Woops, Tehe! Not that they'd stay long; Raph would have an idea where to look next, if he hadn't already–

The sobering smell of blood hit him like a wave of steam in a sauna, and he looked up to the sound of breath catching, and one green eye staring incredulously at him through the darkness. 

What? Was he injured? Raphael usually cussed when injured.

Oh. Oh. Oh god, Raph. 

Mikey scrambled forward, barely gaining his feet before he was already sliding to his knees and reaching out through the darkness past quaking arms. His brother was breathing hard, somewhere between snarls and whimpers. Michelangelo didn't stop to see what he'd done, to scold or bandage him; He threw his arms around his brother's neck and shell. Raphael huffed a feeble, tearful whimper. Michelangelo pressed a firm kiss into the idiot's cheek, and got a startled huff in exchange, because nothing could shake Raph out of one sets of thoughts faster than 'blatant, unambiguous affection.' 

Bad time. This had been a bad time to leave him alone. Right after doing so much wrong—and deep down knowing it.

Raphael curled slowly around him, head, tail, and knees only, which probably meant his arms were a mess and he was too ashamed to share any of it Mikey didn't smell of alcohol, tobacco, or vomit; Just blood. For a moment it was all Mikey could do to hug the shit out of him, squeezing tightly, ducking his face down into his brother's shoulder even as there was kinda an emergency afoot. 

"W-where...?" his brother croaked, heady from blood loss. 

"Looking for Leo!" Mikey snickered, and then pushed firmly back against Raphael's plastron. "I knew better! I knew where to be!" he crowed. Red's leg and abdominal muscles tensed almost involuntarily, as if to prevent him from leaving, and he made a weak sound in the back of his throat. 

But Mikey kept the bad arm on Ralphael's shoulder, to give him weight and reassurance of another body, as he unlatched his medical supplies from himself.

He reached through the gloom to find Raphael's shoulder, and pulled along the bicep, and slowly turned and sat himself down with his shell up against Raphael's plastron, until his brother melted into docile putty and let him have that forearm.  Mikey held it there with his stump and pulled his phone out to have a better look. Raphael's self-destructive patterns usually had some cathartic or basal pleasure somewhere along the way. Not this, not just a naked sai down skin, over and over, splaying the same cut deeper and deeper till it was obvious he didn't know when to stop.  It didn't even look premeditated, or Raphael would have stripped down first before soddening all his clothing with blood.

"M'sorry," Raphael slurred, head hung low as he cooperatively lifted up both shaking arms, palms up. Mikey picked up the stitching needle carefully, so as not to accidentally unthread it. Disinfectant and saline on everything first. Keep it clean. "F'kn st'pid n' dr'matic n'–"

"and fragile, bro?" Mikey spat as he used knee and stub to keep stabilized the injured limb while he closed angry red lines up with ugly black thread. Raphael didn't even twitch at the needle point. "That's what you are, that's what we all are! Fragile!" And how long can we keep doing this before something gives for good? How much duct tape and paper clip is too much? Mikey bit the thread to sever it, and moved to the next arm.

"M... M'sorry," Raphael whispered, his snout butted tentatively into the back of Michelangelo's neck and slowly leaning there, likely from exhaustion. Or because they all knew each others' smells, and drawing comfort off that was the only imitation any turtle would ever have of drawing comfort off a soulmate life wouldn't ever be giving them. "Thought... ya weren't..."

"Coming back for you?" Mikey grimaced, and finished the stitches. "Bro, I can't even sleep without you! Maybe I just wanted you to panic, huh, ever think of that!? After you do the same shit to us over and over again!?" He traced guiltily, red-stained, across his handiwork.

('Her parents left her there! We're just not good Samaritans or something! What do we owe humans?')

All the fire left Michelangelo. All the jokes. "Maybe you did it," Mikey slumped back into his brother's plastron, defeated, lost, thin. "But I helped."

A heartbeat passed in mutually worn and bloody silence. Then Raphael lifted his head, cognizant.

"You didn't do this," Red whispered hoarsely into him. "I did. I did all of this."

Mikey felt tears press at his eyes. He lifted his bad arm, resting it against his brother's neck and hugging Raph's head close to him. "You do a lot of shit, Raphie. Doesn't mean we ever stop loving you." Orange sucked in a deep breath, and let it out in a shudder. "And I believe you now. We were supposed to die like proper tragic Asian heroes, mortally wounded in one last blaze of glory as we defeated the tyrant and avenged our fallen. We had to hold it all together just that long; to see it through to the end. Surviving longer than that was a mistake. All that's left is piss, wind, ghosts; tatters and broken half-parts of ourselves that don't work anymore. There's no epilogue to this story, just four sad graves and a sadder haiku."

"Mike," Raphael croaked.

"But I have an idea," Mikey perked up conversationally. He reached behind himself and found the sai Raphael hadn't bloodied. "You'll probably like it." He drew it out, and tilted his head back and to the side to look up at his brother. Then the spun the sharpened tip of it facing up, and laid it against both their necks. Same time?

His brother's hand caught his, almost more to ask 'what are you doing?' than to actually stop him. With a whimsy belied by years and years and years of the slow erosion of all mirth, energy, an innocence—like waterboarding—Mikey clenched the muscles necessary to drive that sai back and across. 

Raphael's hand tightened, shook, fought him, held him back. A green eyed widened slowly, wondrously. Then his other hand shot up, grabbing at Michelangelo's elbow. Nostrils flared. Raphael breathed heavily through grit teeth.

Mikey stared quietly up at him, over the long seconds of quivering muscle against muscle, strength against strength. Orange slowly smirked, his brows furrowing up sadly in the center. "You're gonna give," Mikey predicted. "You're too weak from blood loss, you don't care enough anymore, and the tip's closest to you anyway."

Raphael's face slackened. Then his hand hand at Michelangelo's elbow released, surrendering its advantage in leverage, and leaving behind a knowledge that at least this wasn't going to happen to them alone. They weren't going alon—

That hand darted under his armpit and tickled him. Michelangelo yelped and leaped in surprise.

Raphael tore the sai out of his hand, and threw it so hard into the opposite wall it wobbled and sang in place. Then he squeezed hold of Michelangelo, stuffed his snout back into the shoulder of that bad arm, and pressed a hand up against the tricep. Mikey's ruined arm was still leaning against Raphael's neck, and Raph was pressing to keep it there, to stay part of the embrace. Mikey stared at where one green eye blinked slowly just beside his face. At where his brother was silently cuddling with him. Then he closed his eyes, and let the tears come.

Chapter Text

Leonardo thrust the tub of poison back from himself with a howl. The baby, whom he'd left in her swaddling upon the futon, jumped in visible startlement and then started to cry. The sound of her alarm sent prickles along the skin of his neck and scalp and he wanted to crawl back to her side in a frantic panic. He dared not. Dared not let her see or feel him so out of his mind. 

He grabbed up the bottle and bolted for the entry way, dumping the contents with an angry slap of liquid against the sewer grate. Where was their medical kit? He dug it out from under Michelangelo's things, and took out the bottle of hydrogen peroxide. How much did he need? No way to tell. He poured an inch of it into the bottle, shook it furiously, and then bathed and washed every part of the plastic teat and lid in the residual. He poured it out, and repeated the exercise. He washed out the bottle, filled it with water, and drank from it, drawing the liquid onto his tongue critically.

Anyone but Leo could have easily stolen another bottle from somewhere. Anyone but Leo could have seen what they were looking for from afar. Leo had to depend a fastidious palette and memories from half a lifetime ago.

'Hydrogen peroxide detoxifies cyanide,' said a dork as he peered curiously at the two-liter bottle he'd just treated. 'Well, so do other things, but we have this. Neat, huh?'
'So I can drink the Orange Crush after all!?' 
'Uh, well it's safe to *dispose* of, but just because it doesn't have cyanide in it anymore doesn't mean you should drink its byproducts or hydr-' 
'I vote Mikey drinks it.' 
'Well then you can be on vomit cleanup duty Raph.'




Leo threw the medical kit away from himself with a hard clatter, and a scream of his brother's name, his fingers twitching upon the hilt of his katana as he stood in the entryway and stared hatefully out into unending darkness. His own sharp, angry breaths, and the flames burning in the confines of his soul drowned out the sound of everything. Almost everything. Not the sound of the sick and terrified baby thrashing with jerky, uncoordinated movements upon her back. The baby. Bared-teeth and sneering lips faded away into a grim, tight line. He breathed in deeply through the nose, and wiped his face to clear it. Eyes closed, he took in a second, deep breath.

Cool, calm, twilight settled across his mind. A soft rumble of thunder in the distance left him staring blindly up towards the starless overhead sky. He blinked slowly. Languidly.

Intention cemented immediately. He turned and strode back into the depths of the shelter, and knelt quietly before her. He reached down, finding her tiny arms and cupping his fingers around them, only to be treated by an unexpected surprise her swaddling had previously left him ignorant of: The moment his fingertips settled on her little palms, all of her fingers closed around his, and her frantic wails and kicks all stilled. Leonardo stared quietly down at where she was, and then eased one of his hands out of hers and up to cup her head, and to find her face all wrinkled up in concentration and her eyes on him.

Leonardo couldn't smile; He was not Mikey, and could not pretend things were alright when they were not.

After a moment's silence, he leaned over all the way down to her, and touched his snout to her soft hair.

"I will keep you safe, from your first day until my last," he told her quietly, rubbing a thumb reassuringly over the back of her tiny hand. 

If Leonardo had actually been anything like his father—a wiser leader—perhaps he would have known how to address the situation peaceably and help each member of the family in equal measure.

As it was, confronting his brother right now would be tantamount to fratricide. Leonardo had never felt so calm in his life, and the sheer quietness of it blotted out rage so hot it had threatened to become a full-body physiological experience. He'd never felt anything like that. Ever. If there was one time in all their lives where he might genuinely lose all control—might lose his mind—and actually attempt to murder Raphael in combat, it had not been when his nearest brother was screaming at him about abandoning Splinter, or blaming him for Donatello's death, or holding him responsible for each and every other friend, ally, and loved one they'd every lost. But oh, oh it would be now

That meant removing himself and the baby from the situation was the only possible option left to him.

But how? Spontaneity. The trick hadn't been getting out of the house, the trick was getting someplace his brothers could not find him.  This intense emotional experience would not be over swiftly, and certainly not by the morrow. And while Michelangelo had all the tracking instinct of a senile magpie; Raphael was a canny detective, and had been the team's mapper for years. Leo would already have his work cut out for him just to find a single destination by memory; but Raphael would be able to inventory every single possible location he could be, rank them by quality and likelihood, and plot an optimal search path across all of them. If Red Turtle didn't have the basic wisdom to give him a few day's space, that presented one hell of a sieve to escape.

Thunder crackled ominously, and the wind picked up with odor of ozone and warned him he only had so much time left. On one hand, he had a stray plastic garbage bag to suffice as a miniature poncho in an emergency. On the other hand, Leonardo would prefer never, ever swaddling Cocoa in a garbage bag, regardless of whether or not she'd be on his shoulder with her face clear and perfectly safe. He had enough loose psychological shrapnel stirring around in his mind as it was.

There it was, just ahead of him: The key to eluding Raphael. Doing something ill-thought-out and poorly planned that nevertheless got him out of the rain. He skid to a halt on the fractured asphalt, and felt with his toes for where a computerized and heavy steel lock ought to have been. None. Crushed long ago by tank treads and street wars, carried off as a looter's salvage and never replaced, bordered by the rear walls of tin shanties no one had the time to tear down. Leonardo knelt. The first speckles of rain hit the ground around him. His fingers slipped over the Japanese Kanji for 'forbidden', and pressed into them for purchase on the heavy steel cover, He gave it a sharp twist that broke rust, and then heaved it open.

There was no ladder descending into the depths. No way easily in; no way easily out: a sheer tube of concrete. Leo glanced up towards to the sky as he checked that Cocoa was secure in her satchel. Rain splashed on his face. He nodded, gathered up a piece of gravel, swung his legs into the tunnel, slid down a foot, braced with his feet against the opposite wall, and pulled the manhole cover back over top of himself.

For a long moment, he stayed there, with the only known exit still against his fingertips, still above him...

Mousers. Footbots. Turrets. Cameras. Gates. Traps. Patrols. A military-sponsored and maintained transport system and infrastructure. Train carts after train carts after train carts filled with political prisoners, slaves, children, invalids, and bums rounded up from the streets. The skeletons of buildings fallen into sinkholes; ruins of wars and demonstrations and examples made. For at least a decade in the middle there, 'sewers' hadn't necessarily meant 'safe.' Closer to 'suicide.' Too many bad memories. Too many nostalgic memories beneath the bad ones.

Now there was only silence. Silence and stillness but for the soft skitters of vermin and the trickle of water. The smell was familiar, at least. Leo dropped that piece of gravel he'd taken, and listened for how long it took to hit the ground. By the small 'tak!' noise it made, the maintenance walkway wasn't flooded. The coming storm would have rainwater pouring from above soon. Leonardo eased the duffel bag off his shoulder, and dropped it first. He dropped the empty wicker carrier, and his bundle of personal things and futon. He looked towards the baby at his chest, touched her face, and found her to be sleeping. Very well then. With a deep breath, Leonardo took his foot off the wall, and slid.

It felt dark.

Very dark.

Accustomed to seeing through the noise of a city, with its all its constant rumbles and movements, Leonardo felt the 'darkness' through his feet. Each drip, each rivulet, each faucet, each rat stood as a satellite on a black vellum darkness, broadcasting information in white chalk outlines. He stepped slowly, carefully, feeling the ground ahead of him, occasionally reaching out to toe the edges of the sewage canal and ensure it was exactly where he expected it to be. He needed time to adjust to this quiet.

His first order of business was to circumnavigate the paths around his only sure exit. A bolt cutter could open a locked manhole cover from topside in an emergency, but only a heavy explosive to could blow one open from below. Before he headed anywhere, he needed a sense for where he was and how to return there; for scaling a narrow vertical column was no challenge at all next to escaping a sealed labyrinth in which he'd lost his sense of direction.

Sounds and smells that ought to have triggered feelings of comfort or homecoming did not; this felt like descending into a crypt, not the sewers of his youth. 

The hard rubber of power cords was obvious only when it came directly under heel. Leonardo froze, standing before one of many stone archways, furrowing his brows as he turned his head from side to side. At first, the nondescript tunnel yawned into open nothingness. Then slowly, bit by bit, he pieced the story together: the security cameras hanging dead and silent from the ceiling, facing away, the gate sagging on its hinges, apparently buckled under several years of constant rust. Leonardo crept forward, feeling over the ground, until his toes found the edge of an automated defense system. No electricity sizzled within. 

Leonardo stared silently down into the darkness. Then he lifted his head and took in a slow breath through his nose, and tiptoed forward to prod at the gate with his sheathed katana. For the rust to be so extensive suggested this tunnel often flooded. He turned, listening to the water trickle in through manhole covers, but pour like fountain heads from the street gutters. Thunder boomed someplace muffled overhead, resonating through steel, earth and concrete, and briefly illuminating his surroundings in vibration.

Soft and tiny feet passed him on ground level, two sets of four. Leonardo listened as more rats passed, heading onward in droves through the holes in the gate, off into the darkness.

After a long moment of quiet, he abandoned his plan, turned on heel, pushed aside the rusted gate, and followed them. 

Chapter Text

A still-functional power outlet in the forgotten garage proved the key to filling a basin with steaming hot bath water. Michelangelo soaked a clean hand towel in it and then leaned over the futon and pushed the blanket away with his elbow to squeeze out trickles of hot water over his brother's shoulder and shell. Raphael groaned. Mikey snickered, and lowered the rag, rubbing over scales up under the lip of the shell, and sloughing away layers of sweat and grime. 

"S'not any blood there, numbnuts," muttered a Red Turtle quietly. 

"Bro, you're gonna shut up and endure my tender loving care," Mikey chided, holding himself up with his stump braced upon the apex of the shell. "S'making me feel better."

"Slavin' over mah sorry ass makes you feel better?"

"Well naturally why else would I do it? Because I feel sorry for you? Tch. Sad to say you've punched me one too many times for that." He ran the wash cloth up the back of his patient's head, pushing up and aside the mask tails and swiping under the band of the eye-patch.

Raphael huffed a big breath. Clearly La Burrita Chicken Nugget Cocoa Bean took after someone; she did the same thing when exasperated. Huff.

Michelangelo rinsed the rag off, and gingerly dabbed clean the stitches on his opposite shoulder. The forearms were going to take a lot more careful work; even with turtles, mutant turtles, who really did regenerate well when kept properly hydrated, it really wasn't smart practice to completely submerse tightly sutured injuries. You wanted to pat them clean, and pat them dry. Technically you wanted to use sterilized saline solution, but Leo had snatched that out of the medical kit before leaving. Sorry Raphael, Lil Bean's breathing is more important than your dumbassery!

Not to mention Raph had dyed the edge of his jacket and one leg of his cargo pants bright red, and Mikey had half a mind to pitch the clothing and tell him 'too bad, so sad, good-luck finding another extra large biker jacket or trench coat in this political climate!' Mikey wasn't a laundry person; He left the articles half-submersed in water with some soap. Taking care of his bros, though, that was fine with him. Even if every old scar along the side of the plastron and down the leg—all of which were covered up with clothing—brought back dark memories.

"Did I black out and miss doin' somethin' to deserve a spa day?" growled a very surly patient, who clearly did not at all like rewarded for doing absolutely everything wrong (but, hey, at least that made him semi-self-aware, right?)

"You want a spa day? Hmm. Tall order!"  Mikey glanced slyly across the garage, to where pine soap and ammonium cleaner sat next to a dusty bin of squeeze bottles. "But hold that thought, I like where it's headed!"

"That's not what I fuckin said at all, bonehead–!" Raphael snarled as Mikey temporarily tossed the wash cloth onto his shoulder and slipped over to poke at that box. Big Red's voice cut off and his eyes widened.

"Eureka!" Mikey proclaimed, holding aloft an old, forgotten hand brush with a thick oval of bristles. 

"I-I don't-" Raphael sputtered feebly, looking from him to the brush.

Giddy and sleepy, Michelangelo scooted back over to rinse dust off and then dip the brush into the bath water. "What's that dude?" he asked as he deposited the brush onto the top of the shell carapace, pressed the bristles into the crevices between the scutes, and pushed the first, slow scrub of it over the dome. "You were saying something?"

"Nope," Raphael denied quietly, cause no sane turtle in the entire world would ever turn down the soothing awesomeness which was shell maintenance.

Scrub! Scrub, scrubbbbb, scrubbb-de-dub-de-dub! Probably six months worth of grime—more? when had they done spring cleaning?—came off in itchy clots and crusts. Turtles, even acrobatic ones, did have quite a bit of trouble cleaning their own shells; and nobody had been feeling particularly affectionate towards anyone lately. Three diametrically opposed personalities in tight spaces with no goal of vengeance/justice/closure left to unite them? The last year had been rough. Mikey had started realizing Raphael would be the first one to throw them the middle finger (sai blade required) and walk away. And Mikey had almost been goading him into it. Just to get it over with quick, like a band-aid; to cut each other off like so many lost limbs, in morbid curiousity, to find out if they'd even survive.

A long, loud, crackly, nasal, alligator purr brought Mikey back to the present with a loud laugh. He leaned over his brother's shell, leering victoriously. Hee! Turtle shells and scrub brushes. "I heeearrrrd that," he drawled to someone who absolutely hated admitting to any need for cossetting, much less enjoying it. "You owe me."

"I owe you," Raphael croaked pathetically, eye shut. "Big."

"Good," Mikey went back to scrubbing; this was always a load of hard work, "cause I want a pony."

Raphael busted out laughing.

Leonardo considered the tunnels below, which were already filled knee-high with water.

His was presently in the company of about three hundred fairly ordinary-sized rats, all of whom seemed equally interested in lining up to lean over and stare down at the rising water levels. They were all, Leo included, sitting upon a nice sizable alcove overlooking a level change the sewers. This spacious room was about thirty-feet and unfurnished in each direction, and had formed when the foundation of a dilapidated basement had sunk and sunk and sunk slowly down into the earth to near-sewage levels. Ill-maintained concrete and topside wars had eventually caved in the wall. Now, upstairs, rain pattered on tin-covered and boarded windows, and the charred and half-destroyed roof of the building had long ago fallen in on one side, leaving the interior up there covered in plant life, scorched rubble, grass, rat droppings, and mold.

Leo (who it must be noted had found a clean object to sit upon, and thus avoided too great an acquaintanceship with a very large amount of animal dung) decided the rats were remaining near him because there was very obviously a tom cat upstairs, howling and howling as he prowled back and forward. Perhaps the tom refused to take his chances with anything human-sized and smelling-of-reptile. In any event, despite the coincidental nature of their temporary acquaintanceship, Leo could not help but feel there was a cartoonishly adorable, ironic solidarity in this, to be the presence of just so many tiny, furred, and distantly familiar individuals on his very first day back in a sewer, waiting out a flood. It felt like a good omen.

Now and then a new individual managed to swim its way to them, surmount the great climb leading up to the alcove, take one shocked look at Leo, and then shrug and join its cousins or siblings or what-have-you like nothing whatsoever was peculiar about this arrangement.

Having found this place gave Leonardo hope. It had been a single day, and already he had covered a substantial stretch of sewers without confrontation, and knew of two routes topside. The underground was less controlled—at least in this region!—than he or his brothers had realized. If he'd found two routes, then he could find more. So far he had more than he needed: a dry place to rest against a wall for awhile, fresh water for Cocoa, and an eye on the sun. He did have to politely shoo rats away from the two packs of ramen noodles which he'd managed to pack for himself. Cocoa's formula canisters were more robust.

Speaking of Cocoa Bean: By the way she started fussing against his plastron, she was either hungry again or wondering why in god's name her surroundings smelled so absolutely disgusting. Or pondering the existential mysteries of the universe. Sometimes, what with the way her forehead and chin puckered so intensely, it was amusing to imagine she contemplated a great many very serious and complicated topics. 

"Good morning," Leonardo greeted his poor sick child, stroking her cheek. 

She gave him a wrinkle of both brows that could not be interpreted anyway other than 'excuse me old man, where exactly have you taken us?'

Leonardo couldn't help but laugh. "I washed my hands after climbing up here," he whispered conspiratorially to her as he stood up. "Are you ready to watch a master ninja successfully change your diaper in his lap, while both squatting in place and yet simultaneously holding you, his own tail, and all of yours and his supplies off ground level and away from all the lichen and rat poo?" She nommed on her blanket and hummed, but that was likely just because some light had fallen upon him, and she could actually see his face now. Hmm. Now that he thought about it, he ought to pick a flashlight up if he came across one. "While blind?" he'd forgotten to add, but it appeared she'd already agreed to be impressed with him no matter the specifics.

"It's still early, and it's still raining," Raphael wasn't challenging Mikey's order of bed rest, but he'd perked up a bit and was cleaning his sai with oil. "Ya should be lookin' for 'im."

"Nah. Not leaving you like this, bro." Mikey yawned; he could practically imagine Leo writing that lecture. "Not risking it. Sides, I didn't sleep. You want me to be clumsy, maybe mess up, trip and shoot myself?"  He could imagine that lecture too.

"Knowin you're luck? You'd trip n' shoot someone else, right as they were about to kill you. While heroically rescuin' a bus load of children'r somethin."

"Damn straight, I'm just amazing like that," Mikey agreed lazily, kicking open his immaculately (In retrospect, that ought to have been a hint) folded futon for a nap. Both of them perked up on spotting the folded piece of newsprint tucked into the crisp lines of fabric, and Mikey leaned forward to grasp it. "It's origami," he realized.

Raphael's lip curled. "That Leo's aloof way of sayin' goodbye?" 

"No, it's a paper crane, dude," Mikey slowly fanned its wings out. "Dad made them at Christmas time, for family."

"Sensei made 'em for dead people," Raphael growled and went back to attending to his weapons. "Seems pretty clear-cut what that's sayin."

"Yeah well if he wanted an evil baby-killer to interpret the paper crane, he'd have put it in your futon," Mikey kicked the edge of his brother's shell. "Stop being psycho, cranes totally have a positive symbolic meaning! Right?"

"'If ya fold a hundred of them, ya wish comes true?'" Raphael asked rhetorically over the polish of steel.

That sounded vaguely familiar. "Yo, I wish I paid more attention as a child," Mikey lamented. 

"I wish ya paid more attention now.

"I wish you had real emotions and actually did shit to make people like you," Orange retorted snidely as he finished rolling out his futon to get that nap in, "instead of masking how dark and personal you take literally everything with your sarcastic, crab-apple badassary, until all the levies fail and your Feels end up splattered all over stuff in blood. But hey, we're thirty! Thirty-four? We're probably not growing up any more than-!"

Raphael must have grabbed hold of him with one arm and one leg, and dropped him there, because Mikey ended up bundled under his older brother's chin, with two covers getting shared over top of them. 

"That worked?" Mikey blinked. "D'aww, you're such a big ole sap-!"

"I'm freezing and delirious from blood loss, wise guy. Now shut up and let me sleep. ...N'Mikey?" Red crushed a fraternal kiss protectively down into the top of his head. Mikey could count the amount of Raphie-smooches he'd gotten in all his life on his fingers. Of which he had? Yeah, exactly: Not Many.

Michelangelo refrained from commenting, burrowed in tightly, and determinedly slept.

Chapter Text

It had been three days.

The two brothers were waiting in the shadow of an overhang, waiting for a firefight to subside ahead of them before either sneaking past or—depending on what was left—mopping up the leftovers. The street gangs involved were Foot splinter factions, and looked to have a few properly costumed members and more than a few scrappy new recruits in civilian getup. What they were fighting over wasn't entirely clear, and it looked like a brawl had broken out over something trivial. Tensions were high these days; nothing unusual, just the normal sort of stuff turtles either dealt with or dodged on a regular day-to-day.

Mikey made sure his rifle was properly reloaded, and cleaned the barrel. Raphael took out a deck of cards. The two of them started playing rummy, listening to the little snaps of small improvised explosives, and the crack of gunfire. Just a road away, people were mostly going about their own business, if a little more tense and hunched up than usual. Stray bullets were an omnipresent threat in this city. Sometimes Mikey wondered if he ought to scrounge up a Kevlar helmet or something; he'd been skimmed across the shell by some random rifle shot from nowhere once, and it had been pretty terrifying.

While they were waiting, some chick started getting aggressively stalked by a band of guys. She turned into an alleyway and started to run towards the violence, likely willing to take the risk of it all to shake her pursuit. The sad thing was she'd made a bad pick of getaway route: that alleyway newly dead-ended in a crashed delivery truck. Which was on fire.

Dialog floated up to the two turtles. The dudes chasing the chick seemed to recognize her as a prostitute, and wanted free samples.

Raphael discarded, and lit up a cigarette. Mikey drew.

"Hazukashi garanai de, honey, you are just very beautiful!"

"She's fat and clean is what it is," another laughed. "Smell her hair. Momo to kurīmu!"

"She has the tattoo!" Legal sex workers always did, a brand on the back of the neck.

"Mochiron, watashi wa sudeni anata ni itta, I told you, she's from Gendai Madamu No's! Those girls are always clean. You need a health card just to get in."

And that was when the woman herself spoke, requesting with a dignity and calmness that would have put Hamato Leonardo to shame: "Watashi ni furenaide kudasai." 

"Kanojo no koe o kiku! Listen to that Japanese! Like a cute little girl...! How old are you?" 

They argued in (fairly sloppy) Japanese about whether she was thirty or twenty; either way the verdict was she must have received special linguistic training, which was apparently proof of something they'd both suspected and liked.

Mikey discarded. "Do you wanna something about that?" he casually prompted his pugnacious bro.

"What? Oh." He shrugged. "Eh. What's the point?" Raphael muttered. "Fifty crimes are goin' on in a three block radius, not even counting the gunfight."

"Bored?" Michelangelo shrugged. "Something to do?"

Raphael gave him a sidelong look. "Drawing attention to ourselves with hostile bogeys nearby? While we're supposed to be looking for our missing brother?"

"Man, stuff like this used to get you super pissed," Michelangelo teased over the sounds of increasingly aggressive 'flirting.' That poor whore probably wasn't getting out of the alleyway without dispensing samples. 

"Still does. Humans are disgusting. More pissed I have to listen to people rutting than anything." Raphael blew out smoke. "Your draw."

"Remember back in the day? You went AWOL all the time to play vigilante. Splinter kept grounding you, Leo'd wait up all night...!"

"Yeah. Well, none of us are young or naive anymore. Can't fix a leaking faucet in a hurricane."

The whore was calmly explaining—in perfect Japanese—that she was under obligation not to take unchecked clientele because contracting a sexual disease would be cause for dismissal and she'd lose her job, residence, and healthcare. It was unlikely the boys harassing her cared about those sorts of things, but the unfazed way she spoke to them suggested she was older than them and might try using sheer force of grace to talk them down. And ya know what? They sorta took the bait, talking to her and promising her they were all 'clean.' She apologized to them, perfectly, saying that she could not take customers outside the brothel doors, not for any price, but explained that she could leave them with her card.

And getting a girl's phone number was almost good enough for some of them, but then one of the guys told her that this was fine, and that they just wouldn't pay her 'any price.'  Doh.

Now, Mikey, Raphael, and Leonardo had sat on a rooftop listening to people getting molested, robbed at knife-point, or even murdered many times before. Many, and that was the sad part, because there was no exaggeration there. It chafed them all in different ways, but Mikey felt like watching Leo stare impassively off at nothing (while something horrible was happening!) almost hit harder than the actual crime... cause, deep down, Mikey had to believe it was a mask and that something of his brother's innate personality attributes were still in there, somewhere. Raph had always been an asshole, but Leo had once been... noble.

Their lives had been rough and they had to pick their battles, and Shredder and his men had taught them—early on—that their desire to help people could be easily exploited. The sooner they'd grown desensitized to things like this, the sooner the Foot had stopped baiting them out with public executions. And, like Raph had said: leaking faucets in hurricanes... drawing attention... all of it was true.

"You know, I miss it," Mikey confessed a little as he discarded. "I miss feeling like heroes. Back when we knew we were the good guys, and not just the 'counter-bad-guys' guys."

"Pfeh. Look around, Mikey, ain't any such thing as heroes. We killed the fuckin' Shredder, we didn't owe anyone more'n that. Sides," Raph flicked the butt of his cigarette away, "why do they need turtles? Where are the human heroes?"

Mikey knew the answer to that: "Working for April!"

"Hnh." Raphael gave him that. "Should be more'n that. People who just throw down their shit and go, 'I can't take this anymore. Somebody's gotta do somethin, and if no one will, then I will.'"

"Like Casey?" Mikey asked a little sadly.

Raphael didn't answer, quiet and staring at his cards as he took another drag. 

Casey would have been the first person to rush in and bash open heads, come to think of it. Would he still be that way, now, if he were alive? Probably. He'd always been more of a doer than a philosophizer, and consequences had never much mattered to him! Heh. Poor Raph, Mikey shouldn't have mentioned Casey.

It turned out that the whore in the alleyway didn't have a weapon or a sneaky getaway plan. She didn't have an ace to play, or any heroes coming to her rescue, or scary consequences to threaten, or any leet combat skills. She was potentially facing down the entire end of her livelihood and joining the ranks of the destitute—all depending on how honest her rapists were being about their present state of health—and on top of that she was about to be gang-banged on the garbage-crusted floor of an alleyway without any of the usual rules, regulations, and bouncers which usually kept her safe, which would probably still be traumatic even though she was a prostitute. (Mikey didn't actually know how that worked, but Mikey also didn't have any prostitutes to question on the matter, and, to be honest, victims kinda all had the benefit of the doubt in his mind.)

And yet all of this she faced down with quiet decorum.

She didn't scream for help, start pleading, or anything. She lectured them softly and firmly, repeating that she would not consent to this and asking them to stop, even while the guys were talking to one another about who was going first, and how to get her clothing off (or whether just to cut it off). It was so weird that one kid even started slipping in a ton of honorifics and apologies and it became clear she'd made at least one of them feel incredibly guilty. Mikey had witnessed a lot of terrible things, a lot of really gruesome deaths, a lot of bloodcurdling screams, a lot of suicides, a lot of ghetto violence, and also some really bad 'public demonstrations.'  The Foot liked to perform executions by beheading people in open plazas. Technically rape was illegal and punishable by death on every level of society, but who enforced that in the ghettos? Plus, forced marriages were handed out by government officials like paid holiday time had been in a previous era. Mikey had witnessed enough to grow desensitized to it all. But this, this was kinda new

This was... brave. It hit Mikey somewhere, somewhere nostalgic that reminded him keenly of Leonardo (and of a baby girl who was about to grow up in this really shitty world). Something writhed in his belly, itched under his shell, fighting to tell him that the only reason he'd ever grown desensitized to any of this in the first place was because there had long been nothing he could do to help.

But... hadn't that changed? Wasn't there something he could to help, now? Now that the Foot didn't control everything?

Mikey didn't know anymore. 

He stared unseeing at his cards.

"She's old," one guy snickered. "She's like your mom's age, ha!"

"Damare, she's got an eel cave, she's good enough."

"Let's see that pretty face of yours, Ushi. Oh, don't be scared. Don't cry," one laughed condescendingly, even though no sobs were audible, which painted an incredibly vivid picture of quiet and helpless despair. "You're so strong, you can take it."

Do something, a tiny voice writhing inside begged. Please? I don't like this. I don't want to be like this anymore. I don't want to live like this anymore. I can hear what's happening down there, to a real person. Please?

Mikey reached hesitantly, slowly, and almost subconsciously for his rifle...

Raphael vaulted out of the overhang, swung to the opposite roof, and surmounted it. Mikey scrambled after him, just a little slower because Raph had both hands. He reached the alleyway as Raphael slid into it, where a woman sat in neat Japanese seiza posture with her clothing peeled open and men holding her hair and head in place as another guy stood in front of her face with his trousers sagging to his knees. Raphael wall-jumped halfway down into the alleyway, and landed so hard on one of the guys shoulders with a downward kick that bones could be heard to crackle somewhere . The sai went straight down into the top of the other dude's head.

Caught-With-His-Pants-Down Guy stumbled backwards with an incredibly unmanly squeal of alarm, and turned about to run.  Raphael drew the other sai and threw it so hard that all three prongs burst out the front of Trouser-Boy's chest.

Well. That was definitely a thematically appropriate upgrade to Raphael's technique for handling street crime. Mikey grinned, getting his rifle ready and looking around to make sure his bro was in the clear and nobody had overheard or was going to investigate. 

The woman jumped slightly at all the violence and quickly wrapped her arms around herself to cover up her nudity, but, true to form, did not move from her location or start screaming. Raphael had to actually walk around her to go get his other sai back, and stepped down on the body to pull it free. And then, being the drama queen he was, Raph licked blood from the blade. Geeze! Seriously, bro, you don't know where that human's been! Gross! Stop mixing your timelines, dude, that was for back from when you were only scaring them straight, you don't even have an audience anymore!

Except for the half-naked woman who'd just gotten covered in human blood on all sides, and whose mascara had definitely not been waterproof. She was kinda old for a brothel girl, but it was only noticeable cause her makeup was messed up. And she just sat there, maybe in shock, staring up at the giant green mutant who had just murdered three people and was displaying shock-value psychopathic suggestions of cannibalism for no reason whatsoever (or possibly just because he still had way too much adrenaline in his veins to think straight; he'd sure lit out to kill those guys faster than Mikey had thought the situation warranted; maybe they'd said something that had triggered him?) 

"Thank you."

Raphael glanced back the whore's way, displayed no expression at all for a moment aside from flared nostrils and generalized aggressive breathing. Then he cocked his head to the side incredulously. Cause, ya know, people didn't usually thank their rescuers, when their rescuers looked/behaved like Raphael. Running-and-screaming had been pretty standard even when the four of them had been five-foot-six and totally adorable.

"Do you intend I offer some form of payment?" she asked with brows furrowed thoughtfully.

Red looked her up and down. "Not interested, Babe," he made sure he was very clear, and then turned away with a rub of the back of his hand against his missing eye and a resumption of his cigarette.

Michelangelo nearly fell back laughing, and when Raphael swiftly climbed back up to the rooftop, Mikey gave his brother a hefty pat on the shell. "That!" Mikey wheezed through delighted, relieved, estatic giggles, "Is still the Raphael I remember! 'Knightwatcher!'"

Raphie growled, scowled, scoffed, but then maybe enjoyed the comment just a little. "Let's get the fuck out of here in case someone notices the bodies. Oh." He un-tucked his rummy hand from his belt and showed Mikey. "I won."

Mikey really did laugh that time, long and hard, leaning on his brother. Maybe Raphael wasn't a lost cause after all. Maybe there really was some good left in him; in all of them. Maybe the only question left was 'how to reach it? '

Maybe the world really could have 'good guys' again, soon.

Chapter Text

'Hey, wanted to tell you something serious,' Casey Jones had began over a beer. 'If anything happens ta me–' 

'–I bang your wife?' Raphael had grinned wide over his own drink and saluted. "Orders received!"

Casey had headlocked him and cussed him out, and Raphael had taken it and laughed. 'You'd look out for her, right? April.'

'I don't need *you* to tell me ta look out for mah own big sister, meathead!' Raphael had snickered as he'd pushed away and taken another swig.

'Promise me, though! Promise me you'd stick with her no matter how bad it gets. C'mon, she's already been captured once before!'

Raphael had blown him off, taunting him for being sentimental. He hadn't (and still didn't) liked thinking about anyone's mortality, and he had possessed the bigger death wish, so If either of them was going to die first, they had both known it was going to be Raphael. 

Quick bit of trivia: When helicopters crashed or ran into things, they didn't actually explode the way they did in Hollywood movies. Raphael would know, he'd survived more than his fair share of helicopter (and vehicular) crashes. But if you managed to pierce the gas tanks or engine just right, with something flammable? Well, mind ya, that kind of explosion still wasn't quite as exciting as it looked in the movies, more of a quick orange 'POP!' than a tower of fire... but that didn't make it any less instantaneously lethal. 

So back in the day, fighting against the Shredder, when they'd watched that missile fire straight for the battlecopter Casey was piloting?


'POP!' hadn't felt worthy of or dramatic enough to take from them what it had actually taken.

As it turned out, April hadn't been the one who'd needed someone to look out for her. April had placed her hand over her mouth, and her face had scrunched up as if she'd been about to scream out in shock and disbelief; but then a second later, she'd dropped her arm, turned back to her walky-talky and battle map, and resumed calling out very precise and level-headed orders. April had been fucking fine. She'd just lost her support pillar, her ever-loyal partner, her husband of eight years, and somehow she'd held her cool and soldiered on.

It had been Raphael who had fought ahead of their battle lines to tear apart the enemy artillery weapons with his naked sai; Raphael who'd been slicked in his own blood and screaming for vengeance; Raphael whom Leonardo and Michelangelo had needed help sedating, whom April had ordered dragged and carried back through their fighting retreat at the expense of several other peoples' lives. Lives he'd needed to pay back to her ten times over before he'd finally broken down and properly grieved.

The two of them had been searching for their eldest brother for over a week.

Despite the paper crane which Michelangelo kept insisting 'meant something,' Blue Turtle was nowhere to be found. But what did that mean? Leo could have been in trouble—could have been dead—or he could have been ghosting under the radar like some haughty, silent panther. Unless the Foot started parading around an empty turtle shell or broken katana, Raph had no new info. Neglecting to look for him felt irresponsible, but the sensation of being avoided by the smug bastard left Raphael wondering why he ought to bother.

"So," Orange Leader dragged out as he loaded fresh ammunition into that rifle he was enjoying way too much, "bro, serious opinion poll: Do you think we should just chill and look out for ourselves for a bit? Cause as much as I hate to admit it, by now he could be anywhere, and in retrospect he probably wasn't in a very conversant mood when he left. Maybe he wants space?"

Raphael cleaned off his sai and shook his head unknowingly. "Dunno, but what you said ta me about Karai rang true. Normally Leo could handle himself, 'xcept he can get damn stubborn when he's a point to prove, and on top of that we both know he ain't sleeping. Even assuming he even knows how to find us, he might not ask for help till it's too late."

Michelangelo thought about this. "We could try to seduce him out."

"We could what now?"

"Remember the last thing Leo asked for? A space heater. We could pick a new place for the winter, get it all set up and heated and comfortable... And then strategically place baby formula cans and diaper bags in a display outside the front door. 'No big, Leo, just if you happen to be keeping tabs on us...!'"

"We're not keepin' dat goddamn thing," Raphael muttered. "But the other bit sounds like a plan; Leo can't do electronics salvage on his own."

"Bro, seriously, what is it that you have against babies lately?" Raphael twisted to look at Mikey incredulously, and then gestured out at the city to indicate their blatantly missing brother who might or might not be dead. "Uh, dude, if you hadn't tried to kill his baby, Leo wouldn't be missing."

"It ain't his! I was trying ta keep us safe and focused!"

"Great job, it was highly effective, ten out of ten!"

"I effing-! Ya know what? I don't want ta talk about this shit."

"Then what do you want, yo?"

"Some more shit I can punch, ta get my mind off pandering ta someone who up n' ditched us." Raphael turned to him with a gleam in his eye. "Got an idea. You made contact with April the day he left, right? Well that means she's been waitin' on us over a week now. How about we don't stand the pretty lady up any longer'n we already have?"

Headquarters for their 'Rebel Leader' had moved and spread out since the fall of the Foot Regime, and even though Mikey and Ape supposedly had a solidly secure method of communicating, Raphael was super wary in approaching the designated coordinates. He'd kept tabs on the Resistance through rumors whispered in the streets, but there was a lot of disinformation rushing about right now, and he had a non-solid picture of exactly where they were going. Made him itch. Still, despite repeatedly holding sessions of democratic congress (in a way no older brother did, ever), Mikey was still holding onto the present leadership title for their group-of-two, and Raphael...

... Well Raphael didn't actually want that back yet. So he made disgusted noises about Mikey's 'carelessness' in the back of his throat, but followed close on his tail, hyper-vigilant, hyper-alert, ready to dive his little brother out of the way of danger at the slightest hint of danger.

Then Mikey actually recognized some of the guards by name and face.

The two of them were waved and pointed deeper and deeper into the pretty impressive compound, past medics, soldiers, rough guerrilla fighters, grease monkeys, hackers, counter-propagandists, and in general a much broader selection of skilled laymen then Raphael had ever seen one of their bases manage to support in the past. Bothered him, somehow, but not in that itchy paranoid way. The frenzied, hopeful energy of the whole place was right. Always felt that way around April, like she carried around a storm of it. 

April wasn't in a debriefing room for once; Nevertheless, they did find her sending off a unit of well-equipped men and women in black who looked to be a little special ops group. April was never not working. Mikey waited in the doorway for—as he quickly explained to an annoyed Raphael—the 'right moment,' and then proceeded to dispense of all his normal respect for the woman with a holler of 'Mama Bear!' as he leaped across the room to bury her in a hug. Raphael squinted after him in dismay, but then shrugged.

"Mikey!" April laughed, catching the spirited hug and returning it with a warm one, before pushing him out to arm's length and looking at him very seriously. "Tell me you still have Raphael?"

"Yo," Red greeted as he padded forward with his hands in his pockets. "Why me, specifically?"

"Because it's not like you to miss a date," she scolded with visible relief. "You keep me in the dark for a year and then leave me worried a whole week!?" She held out her arms to insist that no amount of hands-in-pockets would prevent her from getting that hug. He scoffed but then dutifully submitted himself. And hugged her back, tightly and a little longer than he strictly had to. 

"Good ta see ya, Ape," Raphael pulled back and gave her a once-over. She looked healthy, like she was eating right, all of her clothing but the purple headband was fresh and clean, and the dark circles that had been hanging under her eyes forever were almost gone. She was even wearing a yellow jacket. She'd just turned forty-one, but she looked ten years younger than she had when he'd last seen her. He smirked. "We're bored and out of work. Got anythin' for us?"

"As a matter of fact, I do. We've tracked down one of the last big mutagen factories and could use a sturdy spearhead to help capture it." April looked between them. "Leo?" she prompted an explanation.

"Oh yeah! Say, Raphael," Mikey asked snidely, rhetorically, "where is Leo, again?"

Tch. "Who the hell knows?"

"Oh, you're fighting. Of course you're fighting," April muttered in (relieved) exasperation (because at least no one new was dead). Then she tilted her head near Raphael to say, "You walk on Mikey again, I'll shell you." Raphael huffed in agreement/understanding. She almost laughed. "What was it about this time, dare I ask?" 

Fuck, that would get Mikey going. "It's nothin,'" Raphael answered gruffly, glaring at his brother.

"Nothing?" wondered Mikey with exaggerated awe and wonderment. "Wow...! Ya know, I really thought it had something to do with how someone tried to kill the baby!"

"Baby?" blurted April.

Mikey pointed accusingly up at Raphael (with a stump) as if tattling on him. "He put cyanide in her bottle! She could have died!"

"He did what to what!?" April looked baffled between them, likely off-balance by how juvenile Michelangelo was behaving.

Raphael looked irritably away and snarled through grit teeth, "Leo found this half-dead kid what some hooker shat out in a dumpster," so Mikey wouldn't info-dump any more wastes of time. "Thing was gonna die anyway."

April turned to look back up at him and didn't immediately say anything, and Raphael didn't add anything, so Mikey tried to embellish. April lifted a hand to silence Orange. "Wait. Let me see if I understand this," she pieced together with a heavy sigh of martyrdom. "Leonardo—our Leonardo—is missing today because he has mistaken himself for a nursemaid and is out there singlehandedly attempting to feed, diaper, and shelter an infant?"

"Like he's lost his fucking mind," Raphael looked back to her. Mikey tried to talk again. April's eyelids tightened slightly and her mouth thinned in a not-very-convincing smile.

Then she socked Raphael across the jaw, hard enough that he actually stumbled and had to shake his head to clear it of stars. Wow. She hadn't clocked him like that in... how long? Nice right hook, girl, you still got it. Raphael looked back as she shook out her hand, grabbed his shoulders, steadied him, and held his stare.

"That was courtesy of Case. Now: What exactly did you do?" she asked him, brows furrowed like she genuinely wanted to understand something. "And why?"

"That thing was Not. Our. Problem." Anger boiled up that she—of all people—didn't understand, when she was constantly called on to make hard decisions; Anger (wounded anger) she'd take Leo's side over his, when Leo wasn't even there, when she barely knew Leo.

April released him and leaned back, eyes heavy lidded. After a moment, she said, "I'm sorry. A year apart and I guess I forget your unusual circumstances: You're a mutant in an unfriendly city, an enemy of the Foot; you have a lot of problems already, and you need to look after your own. Obviously, unwanted babies drowning in human waste in the gutters of the city aren't actually a turtle's problem." She paused. "Weren't a rat's problem either, come to think of it."

Red Turtle's brows furrowed down at her. What?

"Raphael..." Concern for him—not concern for Leo, not concern for any babies, not condemnation—wrinkled at the corners of her eyes. "Once upon a time, that was you. You and your brothers. The motherless baby in the garbage was you."

Chapter Text

"Do you honestly need me to tell you that you aren't supposed to be martyring yourself?"

Loud, passionate crying woke up Leonardo up. He lurched reflexively for a sitting position, only to remember he had a baby sleeping under his hand and atop his naked plastron. He reflexively pressed her to him, catching her and all her blankets.

"Oh," he blinked rapidly in surprise, and then grimaced critically towards the opposite hand he now had flat against the grimy concrete. "Oh good evening," he yawned, juggling her into the curve of his elbow and squeezing her up so he could touch his nose to her hair. He kept that other hand firmly against the sewer floor for now; It had just come into contact with residues of human waste, and he needed not to pass any more germs on to their Cocoa Bean.

Cocoa flailed her limbs about with great gusto, and as if she found them no more useful than a ship's oars. Leo blinked towards her in fond curiousity. Then his eyes widened, and he turned his cheek into her forehead to feel...

...The fever had broken!

A cry of relieved laughter escaped his chest, and Leonardo sat forward and leaned her against his knees. Excited, he reached to where soap and basin of water were waiting, all ready to go, that he might swiftly wash his hands. "Dame dame! Jiji kireikirei...!" he chuckled in soft reassurance to her sobs. He shook his fingers dry and cupped his discontented child in both hands. Her eyes were completely open, she was breathing freely through her nose, and she sounded absolutely famished! 

Picking through his and her things where they stacked up neatly upon their garbage bag, Leo mixed her formula, fished out and shook the last of the lighters, and flicked the latter on for its heat. The baby jumped slightly. He chuckled. This would take a minute or so.

The baby mumbled quietly before beginning to waggle her limbs again; Leo glanced down inquisitively, but both his hands were occupied. Her sudden rush of exciting bleating sounded happy, and her toes found and curled against his armor. She kicked him harmlessly. He shifted his knees so as not to accidentally drop her, and used his elbow to get her blankets back over her feet. An involuntary smile rocked him suddenly, stretching the corners of his mouth tight. The fever had broken. The fever had broken, and she was going to live, and this was her feeling energetic for the first time in her life.

He hadn't failed her.

"Well," Leo cleared his throat shakily, "I think you must have spent all the good fortune of 'Cocoa Bean' this morning. What are we to do in Michelangelo's absence?"

It sounded like she hummed happily while nomming on her blankets.

"I have an idea," he decided as he swirled the formula over the lighter to avoid scorching any of it. "We shall use his preformatted examples: a Hispanic food, a meat product, and a dessert item. If we repeat that pattern over from the beginning, perhaps you might be La Enchilada? How do you feel about that?"

La Enchilada had no idea what he was saying, but squeaked as if absolutely thrilled with the universe. Leonardo finished with the lighter, got the bottle ready, brought it to her face, steadied a finger against her cheek so as not to poke her in the eye, and guided the teat to her mouth. She chomped down and nursed very seriously. Then she let go of the bottle and made feeble sounds of displeasure. He chased her mouth and stroked her cheek. She chomped down again, and released again. She thrashed her head from side to side and started to cry in frustration. Leo frowned. 

With sudden, somber knowing, he picked up the lighter and flicked it back on.

La Enchilada jumped, again. He slid the bottle back into her mouth, and she took it and latched on and nursed contentedly. He did not need to touch her face to know she'd been fussing because she wanted to see him. I understand, he absolved, even as they burned through the last of the lighter fluid, and mandated he go topside to find a solution before one hundred and twenty minutes could elapse. He had to; She had to eat. I understand. I want to see you, too. 

She passed out almost as soon as she'd emptied her bottle, and the heat of the lighter sputtered out not three seconds later. Leonardo did not immediately reach for his neatly folded clothing, electing instead to carefully pick her up against his collar, press snout to her hair, and rock them both in place for a short while.

Blue Turtle crept across the tin awnings of the unexpectedly thriving night market, smelling the steaming juices of fried foods, and listening to the shouts, gossip and soft laughter of people who were managing to enjoy their lives despite the bleak times. He wasn't certain what nearby factory or attraction kept so many people up and moving at this hour, but the livelihood reminded him vaguely of old Chinatown or other long-gone ethnic parts of Manhattan. He sniffed and prowled carefully from support beam to support beam, nervously searching.

He'd eaten but twice in the last four days. Somehow, amidst all this activity, Leonardo needed to try and snag himself some food. 

A guard strolled by, chasing away beggar women. Leonardo slipped down in the hollow behind a battered old plastic garbage bin. He waited patiently. Most of the refuse which people placed inside consisted of plastic cups, straws, disposable chopsticks, and kebab sticks. The presence of garbage—any garbage—denoted he was in a slightly wealthier area than the rock-bottom ghettos in which he and his brothers had made their last home (where no quality of chopsticks was too low as to be considered 'disposable'). Still, no real food. Not yet. His little Enchilada woke up and warbled at him, and he rocked her to coax her to silence.

A disgusted passerby walked past, muttered something in a language Leonardo did not recognize, and threw a closed Styrofoam container into the garbage can's mouth. Leonardo's stomach might as well have felt the weight of it, as it sailed through the air and landed amid the refuse. Weight meant that it was full. Carefully, while praying no one else had witnessed this careless disposal, Leo twisted about and reached through the back aperture of the garbage can... 

...Back up on the rooftops of this sprawling shanty-covered market town, and nestled between two boarded up windows, Leonardo hesitantly peeled open the cover of his spoils, uncertain what he'd find. An entire, fat, fried squid, purple and steaming, sat there atop a packed mound of soy-coated rice. On review, one, single tentacle looked to have been bitten into. Someone with disposable income had ordered this by accident, been too flustered not to pay for it, and simply hadn't liked the taste of squid.

Leo stuffed his face. 

The food was so good it almost hurt, which made little enough sense given that he'd endured longer periods of famine before. He swallowed almost without chewing, just tearing portions free. He ate every grain of rice, and then tipped his head back and felt the press of something like heat or tears against his face. Perhaps food reminded him of his brothers. Perhaps he missed them with a part of himself that hadn't gotten the memo on what Raphael had done. 

The swoosh of air and a heavy thud woke Enchilada up and put her to fussing, because Leonardo jumped in place. He blinked to himself, and then reached blindly over to feel for the laundry item which had nearly landed on him. He picked it up to rub it between his fingertips, and found it was a tattered old bamboo mat, like the sort one ought to put under a futon.

"That's it. Not just her. You, too."

None of them were sixteen anymore, and sleeping naked on wet concrete—while probably quite natural for a turtle—had left Leonardo feeling cold, slimy, and stiff. The personal maintenance tasks required to get up and dressed after just two hours of that were lengthy, which had left him either A) disinclined to try his luck at gathering supplies or B) traveling about chilly and naked for the first time since puberty. Now that he could lay down a futon again, two-hour catnaps had never felt more energizing.

Leo mustered his brazenness. Mustered his appetite. He fed and secured his infant and went topside again, aggressively tracking down food and water. Three tries let him make a functional stove out of a tin can, and he stole candles, lighters, wood chips and whatever else he could get his hands on. As his pork sausage cooked later that night, he had his hands free to touch La Enchilada's face as she watched him. He furrowed his brows down at her and conspired with her. She furrowed her brows up at him. He blinked in surprise. Had she just-? He felt her blink 'in surprise.'

Whereupon Leonardo surely had a Michelangelo moment and squealed deliriously, because the baby was copying his face. 

Leonardo flopped giddily on his futon, unwrapped her swaddling, and set her on top of his plastron to her baffled mumbles. He picked up her feet and gently rolling her onto her back and stomach, both to entertain her and get her to stretch. All sorts of delighted mewls and bleats answered him. Whenever she was on her belly, she kicked and palmed the surface of his armor like she was very determinedly trying to get up. Exercise! Excellent! Hmm. Where was that onesie?

After obtaining the outfit and feeling about in search of all its features, Leo felt large circles sewn on the hood which might have been eyes or spots, and deduced Mikey had elected to dress her as some sort of adorable animal. More importantly, the garment would keep her fingers and toes warm during play time, and had a flap at the buttocks to be used at diaper time. He felt her face just as soon as she was in it, and laughed. Michelangelo was correct: she always looked like a sour old librarian.

Previously, he had not been the turtle on ground level, risking having his face seen, but now her little hood jarred him to his senses. His next trip topside, he stole a shoulder cape and pulled the hood low like he was trying to get through a heavy rainstorm. He found leather gloves with grips, with the intention of letting out the hems the fingers to stitch them together. He found a scarf. He started looking for a heavier coat; if he was any chance he might end up outside with La Enchilada in the winter time, his clothing preferences were going to start running more Russian than Japanese. 

"I am even sacrificing my fashion sense for you," he conspired with her mirthfully as he sewed, and as she hummed contentedly into his shoulder after a particularly satisfying bottle. "Do you have any idea how peculiar that is for me? I don't even talk about clothes with anyone, I just... dress a certain way because... well it's difficult to explain. It is not like I even know what color this is; I could be wearing Hello Kitty right now and remain oblivious to it. That's... embarrassing. Yes of course I know I have more important things to worry about but-"

La Enchilada suddenly gave an enormous belch. Leo straightened and 'looked' at her incredulously. Then he started laughing. "Well! I think Mikey would be extremely proud of you right now." He kissed her fluffy head. "I know I am." She hummed. 

Chapter Text

The more time Leonardo spent sneaking hot water, kebabs, tea, and spicy Thai food from the night market, time he spent camping overhead and listening to the conversations, laughter, poker matches, and lives of people just below him, the more Leonardo felt energized by them all. Stealing the possessions of the destitute, just before winter, was starting to leave an ill taste in his mouth.

So he stole a bolt-cutter, and he went down into the sewers and cracked open the rust-coated bays where Foot automated defense systems had long-ago stopped working. He started dismantling them, appraising the various pieces by touch alone. Metal and mechanical bits were valuable as barter almost anywhere, but functional robotics, cameras, boards, and ammunition were all in a tier of their own and ought to be traded more carefully. Come to think of it, that probably wasn't a conversation he wanted to take Enchilada to. 

Leonardo was putting off admitting he had to get over his obsession with holding her. He'd been carrying her literally everywhere since the day she'd been born. Eventually his luck would run out and she'd scream at a bad time or he'd blunder into an encounter with enemy ninjas. Mikey had provided him with a perfectly good baby carrier, and Leo would just have to start... practicing placing her in it. So while he dismantled the turrets, this was what he did.

La Enchilada, as it turned out, was not on board with this plan. She woke up and began screaming like an axe murderer was after her, until a mortified and gaping Leo lost all resolve and pounced upon her to pull her out.

Alright, alright, this was very much his own fault! First of all: Leo had given her next to no experience with being put down. And second of all: they lived in a pitch black sewer in which she might as well have been abandoned for all she knew! Leo decided he'd practice holding the entire carrier while she was in it. As their food cooked that evening, he played with her in the carrier and practiced leaving her sight and swiftly coming back. This turned into an ironic game of peek-a-boo, after which she happily yawned in a big 'o' and drifted off to sleep.

Leo sighed in relief, turned off the stove, ate his ramen, and curled up to nap.

Leonardo woke up in a cold sweat, having seen his entire family slaughtered in vivid color. Panicking, he registered he hadn't the warmth of a brother against his shell, nor an infant against his chest. But of course she was just right there in her carrier. He slumped against it, covered his face in a hand, and started laughing feebly at himself.

It was rather warm outside that day, so he strung up a makeshift clothesline in the maze of buildings, dressed down, and cleaned and aired his things out-of-doors. His infant greatly appreciated the daylight and warbled to him. What a difference the days had made. Had Leo not been there at the start, he could not have known what a milestone it was to see her turning her head jerkily back and forth, trying to stare at everything.

'What the heck is that? What the heck is this?' she seemed to say to the whole world. Her feeble control over her own neck seemed to frustrate her, and three times she broke out crying with her head flopped dramatically back into his bicep because she required vision of something that was being totally impossible. Leonardo smiled down towards her, and hooked one of his fingers under one of her hands, to get her to grab hold of him and settle down. She gave her neck muscles so much exercise, he assumed they'd be the first to develop. At what age, he wondered, did human babies typically learn to sit? 

Only two walls of what had once been a proud, two-hundred year old building were left standing. These helped to hold up precarious 'squatter apartments,' whose support beams were otherwise just stilts of salvaged materials bound together at the joints with strip-ties. These lopsided 'buildings' had appeared crowded even before garbage from the nearby dump began overflowing through the alleyways like a slow but unstoppable mudslide.

A very unusual woman slid past the decayed and half-buried buildings, whose occupants were too old, cowardly, or handicapped to find anything better. She climbed a fence, dangled from the swaying tatters of an old fire-escape, and walked along rickety old chain link fence polls. At last she dropped down beside what once had been a closet under a staircase, but was now was a L-shaped hovel, portly and bowed out with water damage around its one crooked doorway. No door nor alleyway leading into or out from its cluttered little yard could be identified, but nevertheless she found clean wash basins and the smell of detergent. An old electrical cord had been tied tight between external walls to serve as a clothesline.

That was enough to rouse her suspicions. The woman's feet were as quick and inaudible as panther feet on the gravel and rubble. Only the soft creaks of well-oiled leather testified that she was armed and armored. She carried a sword, but the sheathe was padded to make no distinctive clink of wood or metal as she drew the weapon—just an old, soft, familiar whisper, as light as the brush of her bone-straight hair. She crept low up beside the hovel. Quiet as smoke, quiet as owl wings, she blended in against the tin and plywood walls and eased aside a plastic flap which served as a door.

Through the gloom, a basket stood out in dim relief upon a table, against the rear wall of the alcove. The fluffy-headed and sad-faced contents were human, and immediately began to cry at the sight of her. 

Hamato Leonardo did not breathe. He was separated from the woman by five inches of air and a millimeter of rusted metal, and pressed up hidden against the wall alongside the doorway. His katana tip hung motionless, facing down at angle, ready to punch through the wall, aiming for the space under her arm and between her ribs. His other hand remained open, palm hovering over the butt of the sword. He was patience incarnate. He was waiting for her to move forward another three inches, around one of the hovel's support beams, which would simplify everything in the event she somehow suspected such an ignoble strike.

The woman drew back an inch, as if startled or even slightly repulsed. A moment passed in silence but for the crying of a newborn. Then, apparently quite certain this was not the place she'd been looking for, the woman released the plastic doorway, turned, left, and continued her search elsewhere.

Leonardo's eyes widened. He lowered his katana an inch only because it was no longer useful in such a position. He repositioned his feet and listened, waiting for some call to hidden troops. Nothing of the sort happened, and as the woman's motions disappeared into the distance, Leonardo felt a cold static of emotions crawl over him, and his senses deadened to silence. His arms trembled with the ghosts of a murder uncommitted, and the katana slipped heavy from his fingertips and clattered upon the ground. 

Hello, Karai.

It's been years.

Where were you when we killed your father? 

It was too dangerous to take La Enchilada topside any longer. Leonardo's best bet was to fall back to depending upon her incredibly regular eating schedule. After her next meal, and after he put her to bed, he would leave. As long as he was quick and decisive in his trips out of the sewers, he'd be able to make it back before she woke. Before she could feel left alone to the world. (Again.) This was exactly what all that 'carrier practice' had been for. 

Even so, as this was the first time he'd be leaving her out of earshot, Leo scheduled today as a 'practice run' in leaving her alone. He'd only be gone for an hour. A little obsessively, he made absolutely sure she was securely swaddled, warm, and comfortable. "You'll never even miss me," he told the sleeping child, and then leaned into her carrier and kissed her face.

The sewers were pitch dark, and Leo was blind to begin with, but he still glanced repeatedly behind himself as he left her.

Leonardo had left his siblings a few times before, whether because of mutual disagreements or—in one noticeable example—because he could not bring himself to become their blind and helpless dependent, and had instead slipped out from under their sheltering arms with the objective to learn how to fend for himself or else die trying.

He'd worried about them in those times, and he'd missed them, but never in such a way that it became a physical tension or pressure he carried about in his shoulders and under his shell. Today, the sensation of yearning was bizarre. It seemed everything reminded him of someone he didn't presently have. For instance: Leonardo had no sooner stolen a rack of ribs than the sight of it made him think of Raphael. And the sight of a child playing with an old soccer ball reminded him of Michelangelo (and Donatello). He wondered if this was some kind of anxiety, induced by his separation from the baby.

Whatever the case, the sensations drove him back underground about fifteen minutes early, sliding down the old broken street gutter which served as his present route downward. Before his feet hit the ground, he was already sure something was wrong. Echoes whispered off the walls. Nervous (and feeling foolishly paranoid), he ran rather than walked.

The whispers coalesced into cries, bouncing back and forward off the walls, muffled by thick layers of earth and concrete. Not just cries. Screams. He hated himself. Fleet and sure on his feet amid all this sound, Leo rounded a corner, kicked off the opposite wall, and kept running. He perceived his camp site, and his thrashing and malcontent infant, but it was only as he skid to a halt beside her that he finally heard the rats. They'd climbed into her cradel, whether to be near the smell of milk or the softness of a warm body, it was not immediately clear.

Leonardo's eyes widened and he sucked in a horrified breath as the faint aroma of blood curled up to him.


Rats fled shrieking in all directions from sounds that would have put saltwater crocodiles to shame, as a primal and enraged reptile flung himself over the baby cradle. Two of their number were caught up by three-fingered hands, and hit the walls or floor hard enough to crackle and splatter. The baby didn't stop screaming for him, even as Leonardo spun the cradle around and reached in for her. He found rat feces and urine; he found her face; he found the hot liquid of blood on her cheek. An exclamation of roiling, violent, panicked, terrified things built up inarticulately in his throat.

Her eyes? Are her eyes okay? Please, ancestors, Father, anyone– Please! Let her be able to see! PLEASE!

His shaking thumbs swept feather-light over her eyelids, carefully, feeling the wholeness of them. Her left cheek was scratched and bitten. He touched her nose and lips and ears, and found her completely whole but for that one hurt cheek, and a light scratch on her lip. He covered the right eye, rummaged for a lighter, and flicked it on. His child jumped and looked at him, and Leonardo exhaled a relieved and tearful cry. Flashes of memories rocked him, of finding Raphael, of feeling his brother's sweaty pallor, that left eye completely missing with the damage burnt closed. Leonardo lit the little stove to make light for her, and then he scooped her up out of the carrier.

Leo was going to bathe her. Now. He was going to clean that cheek. He was going to wash her clothing, and her carrier, and every part of her, and inspect her and touch her, and count every finger and toe.

He pulled her to his chest and rocked in place with her, trying to control his breathing so she could calm down.

Rats. Rats had tried to eat her face.

Chapter Text

La Enchilada had clearly used up all of her luck again; Aside from two very small cuts where the rat's teeth had broken the skin on her cheek, she was entirely unharmed. Unlike Donatello, Leonardo could not interpret the health or actions of the rat she'd been bitten by, not even after review of the crumpled remains. He heard no talk of rabies or fever outbreaks topside, and there was no reason to believe this specific rat had been ill. It had tracked sewer bacteria over her. If she fell ill, treating her would be beyond him. She'd just shaken influenza. Her immune system was not strong. 

She clearly required the protective aegis of a new name, but Leo still couldn't get the letters 'L-A' out of his mind. 'Lambchop?'

Little Lambchop's things were wet, so he laid down to sleep, he stripped down his kimono to hold her against the warmer skin of his arms. She slept blissfully; He lay with her, wide awake, thoughts spiraling. Rats. Karai. Raphael. Every muscle in his body was tense, tense to the point he was nearly cramping, and the hours stretched out long and loud around them.

I can't do this I can't do this I can't do this I can't do this–

A word rippled across the darkness to him, in a cacophony of whispers: "Leo?" Sewage waters trembled, and curious rats scattered. 

Leo seized up to a higher degree of tension, eyes flashing open. Debris blew softly across the ground as if in a light wind. Usually, the sewers lacked wind. Drafts? Sometimes. Certainly not where he'd chosen to make camp. Footsteps stepped up behind him, and the scrape of leather knee pads on concrete reached his ears, and the gentle 'tok' of wood being set quietly down. 

No. No, Leonardo was very certain he was not presently asleep. He had all of his senses (sans vision), and he was not paralyzed. That left him with what? Not nightmares. Not night terrors. Hallucinations?

A three-fingered hand settled on his arm, physical, warm, lightly calloused. 

"You can't be here," Blue turtle whispered feebly through tightly closed jaws.

"Mn, and if I were, I certainly wouldn't be warm," Donatello agreed, climbing onto the futon behind him and reaching about his shell and midsection to settle in beside him. "Probably not very soft or huggable either, seeing as by now I'm sure the worms have had their way with me. Or maybe not? Hmm, I suppose studying the process of decay on a mutagen-enhanced organism would be enlightening on several counts."

"O-oh... god..." Leonard hissed in laughing hysteria.

"Hey," his dead brother murmured softly into his shoulder, hugging him tightly. "Listen to me. You are having a slow, protracted panic attack. Your heart rate hasn't slowed in hours, your breath rate is high, and your thoughts are going in circles. Your fabled self-control has melted and your emotions are everywhere. Our bros have each other to lean on, but you are dealing with this completely alone."

"I've been alone plenty of times before," Leo was in denial he could be experiencing this, "Without previously going insane!"

"I actually want you to play make-believe with me," Donatello murmured, and Leo could feel the reverberations of every spoken word through his shell and skin, so real. "Pretend I'm here... Because hallucinations of me are all you've got, but even that much might be able to calm you down."



Muscles slowly unknotted. Shudders built up along his spine to burst out of him in a sob. Another sob followed, and another, and another, till he was bawling into his infant child's hair. The ghost's hand wiped tears slowly, purposefully from his face. "That's it. That's exactly it. Break a little. Let it out."

"I miss you," Leo sputtered through tears. "You'd know what to do."

"With a baby? Boy do you give me a lot of credit. I'd know how to panic, that's for sure. I'd do it ten times as well as you, too, rapidly enumerating every one of a thousand diseases she could have just contracted, till I turned green in the face and fainted, and one of you had to shake me back to my senses shouting 'Dammit Donnie, you're a Doctor, do something!'" Leo snickered through sobs. "After which I'd list all the degrees I don't have and blurt possible solutions until you grabbed onto one of them and told us that was what we'd be doing. We were a team, Leo. Nobody was more important than anybody else. Why, think how much dead-er we'd all be without Raph running straight at missiles to chop the warheads off midair for us!"

Tired by tears, Leo could only grimace at the memory. "He was going to kill her."

"Yeah. Close his tail in a car door for me please," Donnie muttered spitefully. "And put dead roaches in his food. That was all you, by the way. You were the only thing that saved her. I saw her life flashing before my eyes," he spread out a hand to indicate said life. "It was very short, traumatic, and incredibly nearsighted, but man you sure smelled nice."

Leo blinked groggily. "She's nearsighted?"

"I'm going to assume it's a baby thing because she can literally see like... a foot away from her. Nothing closer, nothing farther, and that's an improvement over a week ago. Mn! Reminds me," Donnie tapped his shoulder smartly. "You need to get her vaccinated. She doesn't have our super-mutant immune system. She needs her baby shots, especially tetanus. Have that bite checked out while you're at it."

"Oh." Leo swallowed, and then shuddered and closed his eyes. "Thank you."

"Eh, you're at your best when you know what to plan." Three-fingers ran gently over his head and shoulder, and then hugged him around the middle again, tightly. "I should... warn you I won't be here with you quite like this when you wake up."

"I know."

After a fond, wordless (bittersweet) exhale, his Purple brother nestled back into him, like they were young again and would wake up in the morning to practice ninjitsu in the dojo with their father and brothers.

It was about noon on a Saturday and raining again, and children were out playing kickball in the streets in their battered ponchos with their boots tops wrapped tight in tape and garbage bags. Splash! went the ball as they giggled and joshed one another. They were hoping the rain would end by Halloween, because they were making masks they planned to show off. The shopkeepers were saving up on sugar for sweets. People, old and young, were starting to cut garbage into festive shapes, all spray painted orange and black. Halloween had survived the Foot cultural chopping block. Someone, somewhere, had likely advised it as a harmless method for reducing public unrest. Or a means of luring out foolish and nostalgic mutants. 

Nearby, a man sat on a stoop along the puddle-pitted pathway, mantled in a dull green rain cape, unnoticed and irrelevant as laughing children and the occasional traveler hurried past. He was eating a well-deserved lunch of steamed chicken out of a paper box.

Days of snooping around medical centers and following delivery boys had finally just culminated in an exhausting afternoon appointment with an elderly and very nearsighted neighborhood nurse. Of course someone had bawled the whole time and then promptly passed out in her satchel, wearing her medal of courage as an (apparently) brightly colored band-aid upon the arm. She was presently invisible against his chest and under his arm.

Planned, Carried out, Done. Mnn.

Across the 'road' from him, some animal perked up from between plastic garbage bins. Another rat? No... a small dog. It tottered out far enough stare.

His mouth thinned to a line. The dog nervously peeked from side to side, bobbed its head and whimpered hopefully. He ignored it. It pawed at the air, and bounced left and right on its hind legs, and then sat itself down, most-likely wagging its tail furiously. Leonardo tried to finish his chicken in peace, speculating that he himself must have smelled 'different' to warrant so much attention. The happy ears and tail floundered. The head dropped, sagging from hunched shoulders. It butt-scooted backwards from the rain to sit alone and dirty, like a little ill-pitched tent on the verge of collapse.


Leonardo fished out two more pieces of chicken with his chopsticks, leaned over, and deposited them on the side of the road. Up jumped the dog, just as surely as if it had been plugged into an electrical outlet. Then it ducked its head and folded its ears and tail and waddled quickly across the rainy pathway to come eat those bits of chicken.

Right. Now... shoo, or something.

Leo's limited experience with 'pets' consisted of the rare times in childhood when Mikey forgot to feed Klunk, Raphael was too busy murdering a punching bag to notice a very loud tomcat howling and rubbing against his leg, and Donnie was in the lab (and therefore blind and deaf to the real world). Aside from annoyance his little brother was so irresponsible and stress he might over or under feed the animal, Leo hadn't thought much of it. (One scoop, right? Was that a heaping scoop or a level scoop...?)

The dog licked its face, looked up at him and started sniffing. It slowly tottered only its front legs closer to him as if stretching out on pegs, like it was ready to flee at a moment's notice. Leo bristled, arm tightening protectively around the carrying satchel under the lip of his poncho.

Oblivious, the dog started wagging its... well its whole butt, really. Then it sat that butt down and scooted closer to him. Leo recoiled a bit. The dog rolled over and flopped on its back, and wormed about with its arms and legs in the air like oars. Leo grimaced in displeasure, and looked away, eating. At least it was a rather small dog.

The dog rolled upright and arm-crawled closer, sniffed inquisitively at his arm and his food, but then pulled its head back and did not make any hostile lunges. Its tongue lolled.

Leo was quiet a moment Begrudgingly, awkwardly, he reached a hand out towards it. He wasn't certain what angle one was supposed to approach a dog from. The front? The top? The side? It raised its head to sniff at his fingers, and he was grateful he was wearing gloves because it licked him. Wary of bite attempts, and ready to grab it by the throat in an instant if he had to, he touched at it. The body seemed fairly small compared to the head. The tail was a little rodent-like. The hair was short and likely coarse even when groomed. The body was stocky and the shoulders were meaty.

Would it let him touch its face? He felt up the neck to thin, triangle ears, and strangely triangular eyes. The nose was small on the rounded muzzle, making him think—again—of a rat. He had so little experience with dogs, even in terms of casual content, that it took feeling the distinctive, high 'roman arch' of its muzzle before the complete picture of what he was touching dawned on him, and he drew his hand back with an alarmed snap. It was a pit bull. That white, large-mouthed, child-eating, iconic-looking breed which had shown up in the news every time a province of Canada banned dangerous dogs. 

The dog—puppy—shambled eagerly closer, perhaps excited to have been touched, sniffing towards his face and then—abruptly—towards the baby hidden in his arms. Leo grabbed its chest and pushed it back with a loud and vicious demand of, "Sit!"

The puppy sat.

Oh. Well. Um.

Nervous, but pitying the unwanted creature, Leonardo overturned his box of chicken onto the ground. Then he stood up quickly and whirled away. He headed through the paths of the shantytown, passing travelers and children and shops. He placed paper bills on a counter and picked up a cabbage head, and then headed for the coverless manhole he'd found to the north. 

Water trickled through asphalt cracks and down the insides of the concrete tube. Leo secured his supplies and his sleeping infant, listened about (and above), and then began his descent. He was about three feet down when a bark nearly startled him out of his shell. Wow. Leo shook his head and resumed climbing. The puppy barked and barked again, running circles around the manhole and sticking its head in from each angle. If this drew attention....

The puppy leaned over, and put its paws on the inside of the manhole. It didn't slip in after him, however.

It deliberately jumped.

Nothing could have possibly prepared Leonardo for a dog who was either fundamentally confused about gravity or, after half a box of chicken, had enough faith in turtle-kind to follow him down an obviously lethal drop into pitch blackness. With a frantic decision made in the spark of the moment, Leo reached back and caught the plummeting furred body right before it made contact with his shell, getting his hand around one of its legs and dragging it back partially on top of him before it could bounce off and splatter on the concrete floor yards below them. 

The puppy scrambled upright with its paws flat on his shell, and seemed quite excited to be on an adventure. Leonardo was quiet a moment. Then he climbed down the rest of the way to the sewer floor, one hand still tight on the dog's rear legs to keep it from waking the baby. He squatted, grabbed a handful of its fur at the shoulders, and slung it off himself. He started to walk, and heard it sniffing through what he imagined was near blackness. It barked once, and then twice, and then bounded after him, crashed into the back of his leg, and stuck to his heel like glue.

Apparently, Leo now had a dog. A very unintelligent dog.

Chapter Text

The whistling of his tea kettle called Leonardo out of his meditation. He reached over to remove it from the heat source, but left the candle burning, and mixed hot and reserved distilled water for Lambchop's bottle. She woke up with big yawns at the smell of formula, and suckled like a glutton just as soon Leo got the food to her. He ran his thumb through her fluffy hair in admiration. He poured himself hot water, sprinkled in tea leaves, and drank in the vapors while he waited for it to steep and cool.

Everything was tranquil. Everything but the puppy who was running and rolling in manic circles around his camp site, chasing old coca cola cans, fighting with plastic bags, and tripping over its own front feet. Leonardo sighed out long and low, and slowly shook his head. He transferred more water onto the stove to cook some cabbage and noodles.

After awhile, the dog bounded up to him, filthy and covered in garbage. Leo flung out a hand, grabbed it by the scruff ,and tossed it backwards before it could touch the futon. "No," he commanded. Not walking on his bed. Not anywhere near the baby. The puppy barked excitedly and tried to pounce him or wrestle or something of that nature. Leo whirled on it with a guttural snarl. The dog yelped and backed up, and then sat its butt down, hung its head, and looked up at him meekly. Leo snorted and went back to his tea.

The dog was quiet a moment and then slowly started wagging its tail. Abruptly it made a noise of either willful or playful disagreement and raised a paw and tried to touch the futon. Leo 'looked' back towards it with a snap and cocked his head to the side. The dog paused, and then brought its paw back to itself, squeaked, and ducked its nose back to the ground. Leo 'stared' over its way for a moment longer, and then turned away again.

He washed his hands again before returning to cooking his dinner.

When he woke up a few hours later, it was to the sensation of an eager animal running at his face. Leonardo grabbed a fistful of its throat and chest and shoved it backwards and to the ground, flipping it onto its back. The puppy yelped, freezing up and whimpering in a stream of high-pitched squeaky noises. Leo blinked slowly, arms and fingers tingling with reflexive adrenaline. The baby started crying against his chest, alarmed to have been woken up and moved with such speed. 

Why... why could he smell blood?

Leo slowly released the dog, who lay where he'd deposited it for the moment, it's head flung back submissively and neck still exposed. He listened to his surroundings, and then frowned and stood up slowly, casting his senses about while he rocked little Lambchop to calm her down. He left the futon, but did not have to travel far. His toes connected with the first corpse. And then the second, and third. As Leo took stock of his surroundings, his eyes widened. No less than a solid dozen crumpled rat bodies were strewn all around the campsite, particularly around the fresh water and cabbage. Most had been partially eaten.

Blue Turtle turned slowly, incredulous and disturbed (his beloved father had, after all, been a rat), to where a darkness-blinded dog had rolled over onto its belly and was facing him as best as it could while frantically wagging its tail.

Leonardo was quiet for a very long period of reflection.

"Good boy," he decided at last. 

Half a city away, Michelangelo had no idea that the cutesie 'naming ceremony' he'd help to invent had been one of his bro's coping mechanisms for dealing with an incredible amount of very stressful close-calls. He probably would have been flattered! But temporary names for baby girls weren't the ones on his mind. Instead of paying attention to April's war briefing, Orange was playing nervously with his phone. He swiped it open, clicked it off, clicked it on, swiped it open, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse–

Dani (f): Judgement. Diminuitive of Danielle. Feminine of Dannie.
Danielle (f): Judgement. Feminine of Daniel.
Dona, Donna (f): A lady, particularly of noble birth or high status.

Donata (f): A gift. Feminine of Donato.
Donatas (m/f): One who is helpful; One who lends or needs a helping hand. 
Donatella (f): A gift (from above). Diminutive of Donata. Feminine of Donatello.
Donella (f): From 'Donna' and 'Ella.'
Donetta (f): A lady. Respectful form of Donna.
Donia (f): A lady. Form of Donna.
Donnalyn (f): From 'Donna' and 'Lindsay.'
Donnina (f): A lady. Form of Donna.
Donya (f): A lady. Form of Donna.

–a hand shot out beside him, grabbing his arm. "Stop that," Raphael grumbled testily. Michelangelo jumped slightly, because Raphael hadn't exactly been talkative over the last few days. "Ya makin' me twitchy."

"Mikey," April frowned and tapped at the battle map she and Raphael were all leaned over, "were you... paying attention?"

"Nope!" Mikey admitted with a bright grin and a tuck of his phone back into his pocket.

April straightened a little. "I haven't seen you be this, um, cute in a long time," she actually chuckled. "What's distracting you?"

Oh, uh, Mikey looked at Raphael and then back at April. I just want to name Splinter Junior's new daughter in honor of my dead brother, cause I somehow think he wants us to have her?  No big? Derp! "Tell ya later! Raphie should just hit me if I get distracted again. Where are those snipers positioned?

"Actually I got some other questions about this mission, Ape," Raphael interrupted, apparently deciding this was as good a moment as any to break his broody silence. "It's a mutagen 'factory' we're capturing, right? That means people in tanks under sedation, hooked up to assorted processors? What's your intel on what this place actually contains? How much collateral damage can we get away with once inside? Any reason to believe the place might be rigged to blow when we walk in?"

"Well," April cleared her throat and wiped her brow. "It's one of the last three mutagen mills still held by a Foot splinter faction."

"Who's got the rest?"

"Me," April looked up to him with a smirk. "All the ones I haven't burned down, or lost a missile inside, that is. Been one of my big projects for the last year, driving a wedge into the biochem wards."

Raphael raised a brow curiously. "You got em still runnin?"

"Ha! Well, mostly they're being used for storage while we ID everything. You have no idea, Raph, I'm up to my ears in suspension cells filled with everything from the mildest mutations you can imagine to long strings of fragmented organs held together by tubes and needles." Mikey gave a low whistle. "At the same time, while I haven't gone Evil Empress, I do some cells still rigged up to their processors, mostly tanks that just have globs of random cloned organs and other bodily tissues. They're producing a small amount of mutagen for use to keep spiking the black market with. For now it's keeping us on top of the game against the Foot and rival gangs, helping us keep them from rallying together while we free the city. We're going to be able to slow down and shut off supply the better things get."

Raphael could have taken issue; Instead he looked impressed. Mikey's curiousity was piqued. "Have you found Leatherhead?" He knew it was silly to ask; she'd have told him already if so.

Her eyes saddened and she shook her head. "I haven't found anyone close to us. Shredder might have had them executed once he had enough 'loyal' mutants to work with."

"But you still have three places left to check!" Mikey realized. "And wherever you haven't captured already must be the most secure places! Right?"

"Yes but," April sighed, "we're talking about the last three out of twenty-six. I've found," she counted off on her fingers, "mutanimals, mutant humans, political prisoners who were subjected to these experiments as a form of torture, members of underground gangs who was captured down the line, loyal Foot volunteers, a Foot traitors, and many clansman who were simply punished by being given over to the scientists." She dropped her hand. "But I've found no one we knew from the good old days. No one."

Mikey winced but nodded sadly. "Would there be anything to show they ever had him? For like... closure?"

"Yes. Absolutely. There will be digital records, and tissue samples in cold storage somewhere," April explained. "This regime's scientists were neurotic about DNA preservation. Trouble will be finding it. Mikey? There really is still hope, and I'm saying my Hail Marys for that poor sweet gator. Just be ready for the worst, hon."

Mikey was. Had been for a long time. "What are you gonna do with all the bad-guy mutants?" he asked after a second.

"We haven't decided," April admitted. "I've put together a council on the topic."

"They're beefed-up Foot slime. Liquidate them," was Raphael's no-nonsense answer.

April elbowed him. "Tons of them are highly disabled, not 'beefed-up.' And some of my best people were won over from Shredder from these kinds of situations."

"Like Stockman? Pfeh. Anyway, was back when they had vengeance to motivate them. I'd personally be cleaning ranks right now if I were you, but hey it's not my rebellion." Raphael shrugged. "What you expectin in this warehouse, exactly? Foot loyalists who just didn't turn out as awesome as Shredder hoped, or political prisoners and innocent folk? I need ta know how much ta care."

April cracked her neck and was quiet for a moment, almost curiously so. "I had better intel on the other mills; Helped me make crucial decisions about whether we could afford to bomb them. This one... This one I'm expecting a mixed bag. But let me let you in on something: I've been quietly on the tail of one single oddball tank for awhile now, and it's been eluding me like a ghost. and I'm secretly hoping they just moved the damn thing last year and I've just finally pinned it down."

"What's in it?" Raphael inquired.

"Dunno," April shrugged. "I've got data saying they've had it sixteen years and it's tagged with the word 'turtle,'" April explained. "It doesn't even have prisoner classification number, which might mean it's original research."

Raphael's brow furrowed. "Can't think of what that would be." Neither could Mikey, cause Donnie had already been dead a year by then, and they'd rigged his coffin with landmine just in case anyone ever found the cabin and tried to disturb him. The possibility they were about to run into gruesomely preserved remains was slim to none. "Couldn't be Slash; Timeline's wrong. "

"I know. But, well, call me sentimental, boys: If someone did mutate a complete new turtle, or somehow managed to clone one of you in whole or in part, I don't want anyone having it but us." She flashed them a grin, and the light hint of melancholy left her tone. "Though, hey, maybe we'll just end up finding Mikey's poor arm?"

"Omigod," Mikey was mortified. "I'd feel very strange meeting it again after all these years. Do you think it'll have forgotten me?"

Chapter Text

"Yo, Red Ninja," Mikey snickered at the top bunk, his arm draped casually over his head. Having beds for a change was nice, even if they were all stacked on one another. Always a perk of coming to the Rebel HQ! "If you think you're being stealthy, I've got good news and bad news!"

A brief and embarrassed silence—aside from the heavy breathing—followed. "Sorry," Raphael muttered gutturally and maybe even a little bashfully.

Michelangelo felt bad but laughed anyway; Privacy was a luxury the three of them didn't get to enjoy very often. "Naw, go ahead, bro. Who's stopping you?"

"No. M'fine. S'fine."

"Yo, you can't risk that," Mikey giggled, stretching luxuriously on his comfy mattress. "The humidity's low in here, what if it dries out and gets stuck and doesn't go back in?"

"...Dammit Mikey. Don't need a Donatello health lesson right now." He muttered something under his breath about sharpening oil.

"Number one veterinary operation with male turtles, Remember? Amputating prolapsed pen-!"

"Shut up. Shut up!" But Raphael did take his advice (snerk!) if the ensuing silence and muffled reflexive grunts were any indication.

"Hey I've got a question," Mikey started up conversationally after a few minutes.

"GAH! Do ya or do ya not want me ta finish what I-?!"

"Yeah but what do you think about? Like do you imagine a female turtle? Or do you think about an old porno, or just hot human chicks, or-?"

"Definitely na the sound of your voice, Mike!" an exasperated terrapin nearly sobbed he was so frustrated.

"It's an honest question! I don't think you're attracted to humans! You say the look like meat-colored peeled turtles!"

"Ah hate you. So much. Right now. "

"But you do, you think they're hideous! So does that mean you can only think of us?"

"Why the fuck would I think about any of us!? We're all dudes!"

"Aha! So you're more homophobic than racist?"

"I'm not-! Okay I'm definitely 'racist,' but even if one of us was a girl, that'd be ince-!"

"Do you think girl turtles would look curvy or would they basically be identical to us? Would they have boobs? Hair? Hey, do you ever imagine female rats, cause like Sigmund Freud postulated-"


"HA! What!? " Mikey squealed in disbelief (is that just a new family curse word, or is it an answer?), before outright exploding with laughter, laughter so hard it drowned out Raphael's answering snarl—though whether Red was horrified to have admitted to such a thing aloud, or simply angry Mikey continued to cock-block him by making it impossible to forget he was in the same room, Mikey wasn't clear. "What!? Our big sister!? Your best friend's wife!? Raphie!" he scolded through laughs.

"It's not like I got many fuckin options, like you just pointed out, thanks! And she's the only girl close to us!"

Mikey was laughing so hard. What a confession! "Not even Angel!? April!? But I thought you just admitted you think human chicks are ug-"

"It doesn't fucking mean anything! Shut up! I'm tryin ta-!"

"Say, do you ever wonder what it'd be like? Actual sex."

"How could I possibly have never wondered that!?" Raphael thundered in furious exasperation. "In thirty-four fuckin' years, how could it have nevah entered mah mind at least once?! Why are we even havin this conversation!?"

"Well I was thinking! Cause, ya know, since all we have is eachother, I was just thinking, if we were really desperate or had it on a bucket list or something, maybe we could, ya know...!" He made a suggestive 'hey there hot stuff!' clicking noise with his tongue.


"And hey, look!" He nudged the underside of the top bunk with his foot, eliciting a startled jump from the occupant. "Don't I already always let you have 'top?'"


Mikey was having the time of his life.  "Chiiilll bro...!" he wheezed through laughter. "Was just a suggestion!"

"I better have twenty bucks in these pants...!"

"For what?!"

"Ta pay a street walker ta get that mental image outta my head, ya daffy fruit!"

"Ha! Man, I dunno, with that ugly face of yours? Don't people usually charge premiums for handling exotic goods? Yeah, you're looking at at least a hundred and twenty, hundred and fifty, easy!"

A sai whistled and slammed into the bunk side with a heavy thud of splintering wood, and stuck there. "Shut. UP! I swear the only reason I ain't leapin' down there and STRANGLIN' ya with ya own nanchaku is 'cause it's out!"

"Oof, yeah, isn't it basically a big blow up sleeve of blood? That would be one hell of a target in a melee! Better hurry, you never know when we might spontaneously be ambushed! That's why you apparently are sleeping with your sai, right!? GASP. Unless you sexually fettishize phallic-!"


Mikey broke down laughing hysterically, unable to hold up the antagonism anymore, because the only person who could have possibly been more humiliated if caught in this position was Leo, and Blue was basically a monk so that never happened, and plus Leo wouldn't have gotten so fantastically angry! "I-I love you so much bro!" Mikey squeaked out. "But pl-platonicallyHaha! M-might w-wanna shower afterwards, y-your sex smell stinks like aquatic roadkill! Pfft! Haha!"

As it turned out, he gave away the game much too soon. When those seething, growling breathes trickled off to silence, Raphael abruptly said, in a very conversational and matter-of-fact tone of voice, "Yo, you realize it wouldn't work particularly well dat way, right?"

Mikey blinked. "What?" He'd forgotten what his last jibe had been, and Raphael's unexpected willingness to play confused him.

"With you on bottom, dumbass. If ya were gonna try somethin' that stupid and risky, ya really gotta think of the logistics of relative sizing. Th' only place ya have ta put it, which ain't made fah somethin' else entirely, is the space it usually takes up. So ya should probably not be stuffin' the largest possible object into th' smallest possible space."


Chagrined, Michelangelo grabbed hold of the nightstand, swung himself out from under the bed, and glared up at his brother up over the side rail and–! Raphael looked innocently over his shoulder at him and raised a brow, thighs slightly parted, making no attempt at hiding anything. Michelangelo took a deep breath through the nose, tried to retain his unimpressed expression, but then turned petulantly to climb back into his own bunk with a loud cuss of defeat.

Raphael chuckled blackly.

"Goin' out ta get some air," Raphael said to him the evening before the big attack plan would go into action. "S'like livin' in a cotton ball down here."

"Kay! Where we headed?" Mikey asked, standing up from his (second portion of) dinner.

"Alone, Mike," Raphael raised a hand to gesture he should sit back down. "Not you."

Michelangelo stiffened and his blood pressure spiked. "Alone? Why?"

"Wanna think," Red shrugged.

Mikey remained half-standing as he stared uncertainly up at his older bro and wondered at whether he trusted this explanation. On one hand, if Raphael wanted to give some thought to Leonardo, the baby, and life in general, it was understandable why he wanted to be alone, and probably best to let him go. On the other hand, leaving Raphael alone had produced some fairly undesirable results in the recent past, and at this point Michelangelo was maybe slightly (pathologically?) paranoid about being separated from him (while already separated from Leo!). "You... won't ditch me, right?"

Raphael straightened. "Nah. Why? You done anythin worth ditchin you over?" he joked.

"Well not to be Leo or anything, but," Mikey wished he had a second arm to worry his fingers bashfully together.

"Then stop worryin?" Mikey was ill-convinced. "Ngh." Raphael turned back and sneered down at him. "Ya gotta shut ya trap on makin' jokes with incestuous overtures if you wanna be clingy with me, kid," he growled quietly, to make sure no one overheard.

And, okay, technically that was a fair demand. But, "Does that disclaimer mean I'm getting a hug anyway?" Youngest Brother wondered hopefully.

Raphael muttered something inarticulate, but awkwardly put an arm around him. A number of disappearances, self-harm incidents, and near-suicides had occurred recently. Raphael squeezed him much more naturally, and Mikey's heart rate settled down. "Ain't ditchin' ya and ain't plannin on doin nothin particularly dangerous," Red Turtle promised. "I come back reekin' of alcohol, ya get April ta kick the shit outta me. Clear?"

"Yes." Mikey saluted. "Can do!"

"Right." Raphael clapped his shell and then headed out. "Seeya in a few hours."

Michelangelo watched him go and tried not to be anxious, but honestly he'd been sticking no more than a few steps away from his brother for weeks, and it was going to take some time before the trauma and stress of recent events bled away. Time before he was able to feel anything other than terrified or abandoned when Raph left his line of sight. So much so he ultimately forgot to take offense at being called 'kid.'


Crouching, Leonardo tossed the stone, caught it, tossed again, caught again. He listened to the crackling movements of damp and rusting motors as they whirred slowly open and then back together.  Toss. Catch. Toss. Catch. Whir-crkl-whir...

He slipped his fingers back to lean against the tunnel as a pivot point. Catch. Toss. Catch. Toss. Whrrll-crk-

He spun so that only his hand—and the stone—cleared the side of the tunnel. A loud plastic and metal CRACK! answered his efforts, followed by a loud mechanic sputter as automated defense systems sprung to life. Leo leaned casually back into his tunnel as machine-gun fire exploded like a horizontal rainstorm. The dog leaped into the air with a shriek of terror and ran away, barking the whole way. Ill-maintained and poorly calibrated mechanical parts spewed bullets wildly, chewing chunks out of the sewer walls just six inches from Leonardo's arm. The barrel of one gun heated, jammed up, and exploded.

Needless to say, the baby woke up and began crying. He concluded the world must have looked very shocking: pitch black and illuminated by bursts of bright white light from the flashes of gunpowder. "Oh," he murmured sympathetically, pulling her up against his face and nuzzling into her chin and belly. "I know." 

About thirty second later, the dog ran back, silent this time, and dove to hide underneath Leo's tail. Leo shook his head, sighed, reached down, pulled the dog out from under him, grabbed it by the scruff, and tugged it upright. "Sit."

The remaining turret stopped firing, and the smell of smoke trickled past. Leo rocked the baby and listened to both turrets attempt to retract into the ground. The motors of one whirred fruitlessly as some fractured part of the machine caught on the ground. Leonardo listened for awhile, ensuring the camera had been severed from its moorings, and contemplating the most likely locations of ground pressure sensors. He picked up his bolt cutters by the handle, stood, and stepped shell-first into the hall, and then kept that orientation as he sidled shifted over on the side of the busted turret.

He whistled. The dog burst out of its sitting position, flew after him, and of course ran headfirst into the wall beside him. It gave a sneeze and a shake of its head, and then hugged nervously against his feet.

Later, when he'd cut a path through the steel-barred gateway, lifted the dog gingerly up over the pressure plates, and disabled the power for the security system, he heard a font of water start up, smelled urine, and turned about to the conclusion that the dog was peeing on one of the turrets.

Leonardo thought about that for a moment.

"Good Boy, Casey."

Chapter Text

All across the city, old garages creaked open and jeeps swerved out into the streets with snow plows lowering to overrun gang barricades and clear the way. Piles of garbage moved, battered tank treads pulling armored titans out of premature burials beneath the refuse, engines still humming alive as they crawled over gang cars that tried to impede them and slunk down the major arteries of the world. False shanties got dragged aside by good old fashioned elbow grease, and out came the armored wagons, with men and women waving guns to one another and bolting to climb on board before the cars picked up speed. 

Many of those guys and gals were too young to remember a time before the world had been stolen from them. Some others were grizzled old hats who had had never once gone quietly into their graves, who had been fighting this guerrilla militia war for fifteen damn years. A rare few had been vets in a real army once and wore symbols of patriotism from an era long gone. For most of them, though, this had never been a matter of country just a matter of life. Instead of any flag, the symbol they all shared, the symbol spray-painted on every tank, the symbol etched in photochromatic UV-changing paint on the battlecopters which took off from amidst roof shelters and tarp-covered markets, and the symbol streaked upon their faces in blue woad and titanium white, was a defiant: 'NYC.'  

The epicenter of Shredder's domain hadn't been called 'New York City' for a very long time. Chances were it would be again, though, and soon.

God only knew if they could hold onto the city once they'd won and the afterglow faded, but that was a mess for the humans to sort out themselves. And, hey, what was he being a cynic about? His own life might have been fucked up and directionless, but maybe theirs weren't. Technically the war had been won a year ago for April and her Resistance, and you'd never know world-weariness and disillusionment ought to have settled in by now. Somehow April just carried a maelstrom around her, where nothing sat still, where nothing stagnated, where people just didn't give up. It wasn't like they were all dogs chewing for scraps on top of a garbage pile either; April's peeps were restoring stuff, stuff like the internet. The precision with which they cleared the streets spoke of a creepily effective underground infrastructure.

So many common people, all together, all on the same team, all in on different secrets, amid so much chaos, violence, and piecemeal gang wars. Mikey was right; This was where all the heroes had gone. Raphael smirked to himself as he leaned out and peered down at it all from the copter as the arteries of the city bled out into convoys, then organized ranks, and then a whole army of vehicles moving past crumbling walls and blasted towers, through great gates that hung broken and open. 

This shit's all yours, Ape. Five-star general, logistics mastermind, hacker, diplomat, whatever. Benevolent dictator, even. Anythin' happens to you before the world gets back on its feet, and it'll all come crashin' back down around our ears. He glanced back at where the woman was literally just beside him with a sniper rifle in hand, binoculars across her lap, and wearing a biker helmet that had been converted into a multi-purpose comm link. And ya's still out here in da trenches. Heh. Never were cut out ta be a stay-at-home-mom. Gonna Jinx ya at this rate.

"Got a job for you," April called to him as she toggled her helmet into quiet mode for a second. 

"Listenin.'" She looked fine in a biking visor.

"Come back alive even if you have to gnaw your own leg off to get out from under something!"

He grinned. "Ahm still hopin' ta go out in that blaze of glory we talked about."

"Nope, that's off the table," she informed him with a teasing lilt still in her voice, like a parent might revoke dessert privledges. "Shredder's already dead, no blaze of glory for you."

"What? But that was like all I had left to look forward to!" he half-complained, half-laughed. "What else is there? Getting old?"

"Listen here, tough stuff: Surviving random bad luck and impossible odds is your magical superhero ability," she told him with a stern jab of her finger. "You come back, Raphael. It's your job. To be the indestructible hardass who somehow always manages to make it back. Got it?"

There was something in her voice that told him he'd regret it for the rest of his life if he didn't make that promise. Like he had with Casey. He gave her a thumbs up. "Got it, sis. Quick check, then, this 'chute definitely works?" He gestured to the pack he was wearing. "Cause I'mma be pullin' the ties on it mighty late!"

"Oh wouldn't that be a morbidly comical and anticlimactic way to die," she laughed. "In a perfectly turtle-shaped crater. We'd be peeling you out with a spatula. Get down there cowboy! Step on some Feet as you land!" She switched her visor back into transmission mode.

Raphael didn't need that encouragement twice. "Yeeeahaww!" was his only answer as he leaped. Not a second later saw a glint of gray against the side to the east as Mikey did the same.  The race to the ground was on!

Leonardo crept slowly up onto the roof, listening to the distant sounds of gunfire, tank explosions, and extremely loud and decidedly funky 70s rock plenty older than Leo himself, with some kind of jazz saxophone that screamed pure cultural defiance of everything the inhabitants had city had gone through for the last decade. "New York City!" blasted the husky lyrics. "New York City! Que Pasa New York! Que Pasa New York!" Based on the direction of all the commotion, the war was being taken to a once terrifyingly impenetrable and white-washed 'science district.'

Despite the dangers posed by stray bullets and reactionary violence, an unexpected number of people, young and old, gathered out on fire escapes and at open windows, watching the 'show.' Someone shot off homemade magnesium fireworks. Boomboxes down the street started screaming rap lyrics from a more modern (familiar, nostalgic) era but in a very similar vein. 

Leo found himself tapping his fingers against the rooftop.

He had a feeling he knew where his brothers were.

Raphael and Michelangelo had dispatched the tower guards and defensive snipers before the bastards even knew what hit em, and worked their way down the windows into the anti-rocket and missile systems. A nanchaku in one control box and a sai through the power supply of the other took the machines down and cut off the flow of ballistic weaponry hailing down on April's front-line of armored tanks. Pickup trucks all pointed in reverse slammed on their accelerators, sprinting high tech artillery guns into range.  Both turtles transmitted all-clear signals and cleared their victories with eager jumps just as artillery shells followed up on their tails to finish pulverizing the guard towers to rubble. 

The choppers tilted forward, following on the heels of the first artillery shells, carrying 'payloads' of the best trained Resistance-side ninjas who rappelled to the ground over the front walls, using the confusion to get swordsmen into melee range with gunmen to blow a silent curtain of death inward and ahead of the explosions. 

"Boys talk to me!" April called in over their headsets.

"Raphael's about to get shot!" Mikey chirped blithely, and Raphael had half a second to spin about before gunfire fell behind him and nailed six or seven dudes right as they rounded the corner on his tail. 

"For fuck's sake!" Raphael nearly squealed, he was so unused to this. 

"Fixed it!" Mikey sang from somewhere above.

"That's unnatural!" Raphael shouted in serious disagreement. "Ninjas don't use guns!"

"It's cause I'm special, dude!"

"You're definitely 'special!'" Red roared as he unsheathed a throwing star and chucked it upward, nailing some hotshot Foot ninja right as the motherfucker leaped off a nearby wall with his katana raised at Michelangelo. Star took the guy out by the face, midair. SHINK.


"Damn straight! Stop showin' off that loud-as-fuck rifle and let's move!" 

"Ape! They're retreatin' into the inner complex, we're gonna pop through the walls or roof!"

"Raphie I found a rocket launcher!" Raphael made a sound half-roar and half-moan. "Look at this thing! It's got a guided laser sight!"

"Oh don't moan too loud, Raphael, that's valuable intel. Copters retreat out to transitory positions," April ordered. "They're armed to take out our hardware, they must have been waiting for us to close. I'm suspecting some kind of tunnel or fighting retreat is prepared."

"If that's the case, they mean to collapse the entire mill just as soon as enough forces pull in," Raphael said, and the elbowed Mikey. "Put that thing down and let's get inside and ahead of it all."

"It's mine, it's super cool!" Mikey chirruped as he slung the weapon and its ammo over his shell and followed up the warehouse side. 

"Mike, I'm serious." He shoved his brother's shoulder. "We gotta do this silent, we're lookin' for a dude in charge who has a detonator, and we're lookin' ta get to him before he sees us comin'."

"Oh. Ya know, that sounds like a Leo thing," he reflected.

Raphael chuckled blackly. "Definitely ain't sounding like a 'you' thing! Alright, I see block glass windows. You can get through that, right?" Mikey clicked affirmatively, and came up beside him.  Their youngest brother was wicked unnatural with those nanchaku sometimes; somehow shattering the glass block by block, without even needing to pause between strikes.

"Alright, squeezin' mah fat ass in first."

"Belay that! Boys!" April's voice came across loud, almost frantic. "Hold your positions! My sappers just busted into a tunnel under the complex, at northeast foundation. Right under your asses. There's a payload of RDX explosives straight up the side of the building!"

"So they are gonna collapse the building!" Mikey argued. "We need to stop them, your important test tube could be in there or whatever! Remains from Leatherhead or any of our friends-"

"Not until we've disarmed the payload, something about this smells wrong, and I want an all-clear before you go in there. Hold tight, wait for my orders."

'Holding tight' in the middle of a major battle, when there were so many delightful Foot to kill, and especially while exposed on the side of a building, was not something Raphael really wanted to do. He gestured to Michelangelo, and the two of them elected instead to climb the building to the top. "She's using the kiddy gloves with us," Raphael muttered to Mikey, who snickered as the two of them found armed guards up there, and divvied up the work of taking them silently down. 

"She hasn't seen us in awhile," Orange cooed as they regrouped at a janitorial hatch heading inward. "She forgets!"

"Boys, my team is using low frequency sonar to map the surrounding tunnels and I don't like what they see. Stay out of that building."

"Why?" Raphael snapped. "So the building collapses, so what?! Been there, done there, lived last time!"

"Because I don't see any escape tunnels. Just-I have other orders to give! Listen to me! Trust me!"

Raphael fumed, peering down the long, empty access chute. He looked over at Mikey. Mikey waggled a bro. "She said stay put," Raphael grit out, fully aware how ironic it was that he was the one playing devil's advocate on behalf of the order-giver.

"So that means we go in, right?" Michelangelo grinned.

Raphael huffed. He stared down the chute. Then he looked about himself, studying the rooftop. Slowly, hesitantly, he muttered, "Maybe it's too easy."

"What's too easy?"

"It's a trap," Raphael slowly realized, looking back to the chute and then leaning over to feel the interior rim. His eyes widened as he realized there was a second door, something which could slide out from one side and locked in with thick steel pegs on the other side.

"Well duh, it's a building rigged to smoosh an entire army!"

"No. It's not a trap for her army. Those Foot troops are cornered in there. They don't have the detonator. They're the bait."

"Bait for who?"

Raphael heard a click and reflexively retracted his hand, only for the secondary door to slam shut, lock into place, and electrify with bright blue sparks. "Us." Only turtles were worth sacrificing whole buildings for. Turtles and-

A great huff resonated out, like air seeping from every pore of a mountain, and with the bones of their feet the two turtles could feel payloads of a controlled demolition sprinting up the foundations of the building. April's "Holy Sh-!" screeched over their comm link and both them spun around, distracted from how they were standing upon a rapidly imploding building, because a missile deployed from someplace unexpected at around ground level, and flew straight past half a dozen helicopters, in the direction of one chopper way in the back with a shattered windshield which was listing so hard it almost looked like it was trying to barrel roll.

The sound which left Raphael wasn't indignant, enraged, action-packed, defiant, or decisive. It was soft and weak: pleading denial reduced into just one feeble exhale.

Nobody had to tell him whose helicopter that was.

Chapter Text

The last of his faith humanity was in that chopper, and Raphael didn't remember looking away from it.

Somewhere along the way, Mikey had been ordering, "Full sprint MOVE!" and technically Orange was 'in charge' of their tiny family at the moment, and then there wasn't time—wasn't air—to say more with because the roof they were standing on was shaking up so hard it was like a full magnitude ten earthquake vibrating up the bones of the leg, making it nearly impossible to stand. The sides of the mill were buckling out in a pancaked collapse, glass, metal, air and vaporized concrete exploding out in rungs of deadly shrapnel. Jumping six or so stories to the ground was loosely feasible only because they were mutants, but with so much destruction on either side they were going to have to time exactly when to jump just right, with the roof crackling and buckling and careening or falling open in a jigsaw before them.

One of the building's foundations wasn't going down—just one. It was the corner they'd been scaling, the corner Michelangelo had them running for, the corner April said her sappers had busted a hole under. Maybe that meant her guys had taken off the blast caps from the underground payload before anybody could throw the switch on that detonator. One support pillar wasn't enough to hold up a whole building, not by a long-shot, but as everything else collapsed, that one corner buckled and twisted slowly. They heard crazy loud squeals from steel crackling up to them through the soles of their feet. Then shit went kinda quiet. The corner of the mill—the corner they were standing on—it stayed up. If you peeked over the side of the roof, the remainder of its walls buckled out in a big bulge around the center, and all the concrete was cracked in half and pulling on the rebar at taut angles. Most of the glass had just shattered.

Eventually it'd all still probably collapse, but for this one second, Raphael could turn backwards into the radio silence and stare. Mikey was panting hard beside him.

The issue with the helicopter had most likely been that the pilot was dead and slumped over the steering column at an acute angle. After that the G-forces inside would have been incredible. To regain control of the helm, a person in the back would have to be able to get themselves across nearly vertical floor, past a wide-open cab door pointed down, and into the cockpit, where they'd have to throw a hundred pounds of dead weight off the torque pedals and right the column. Raphael could have maybe made a jump from back seat to front like that, or used Sai as pitons to claw his way across the floor, and Raphael would at least have been strong enough to move the pilot, but it probably would have taken him a minute or two just to get oriented.

April had been wearing a parachute though, hadn't she? If she'd managed to unlock her safety belt, could she have fallen far enough, fast enough out the open door, to get under the missile blast radius? Or would the G-forces from the moving cab have kept her pressed inside, glued to her seat?

What he saw first were a dozen large battlecopters clearing out at a sharp attack angle. Then he saw the wildly spinning bird herself, still in the air, with at least one rotor bent downward and chunks of her hull crumpled in or blown off. Raphael dragged in a hard cold autumn breath. She ought to have smashed headlong into that missile and popped like a fly like her husband. Maybe someone had thrown the throttle closed to induce governor failure, or grabbed the pitch control. This wasn't much better, because inside that helicopter was moving enough to make a person pass out, and if it hit the rear rotor into something like this, the whole thing was going to crack in half. There was also the matter of the second missile coming at her, which made him bodily flinch as it lit out of some silo. This time, though, the battlecopters were ready for shit, and one fired off interceptor rockets to detonate the warhead midair. 

The spinning copter slowed, waggled its ass, and drifted along slightly, incapable of hovering properly with its gear smashed up like that.

"Counter Espionage, this is Mama Pelican," snarled a voice that could have curdled blood. "We have a mole on security vectors seventeen and twenty-three. Radio back to base for thorough investigation, and engage temporary quarantine measures on affected soldiers. Authorization to terminate deserters granted until quarantine has expired. Eastwing birds, cover an emergency landing. Ground, do not yet proceed to shelling center towers. Raphael?"

That was his name. "Yeah?" his voice cracked.

"Find me the sniper who killed my pilot. Bring him back with a functional lower jaw, if possible."

A temporary mission control camp would usually have been pitched on the site of the victory, but with the mill reduced to rubble and suspicious conditions afoot, a partial retreat was made to headquarters. Raphael and Michelangelo stayed to mop up surviving Foot soldiers who held out in pockets, whether under the (now incredibly sloped) roof of the mill, or in the surrounding walls, grounds and fortifications. Once everything was dead, it was up to old hat Resistence guys and gals who'd once been demolitions and construction contractors to decide what to do with the itty bitty corner of the mill that hadn't been flattened. An archaeology guy was talking strategy with a chick who hadn't finished biochem about how there weren't enough resources to dig up the crushed sections left and try to recover anything; but maybe there was some way to partially preserve everything beneath for later. Tarp and salt, apparently, they needed lots of tarp and salt. 

It was dawn by the time the brothers hitched a ride back to HQ in a covered wagon, and that was about the time Raphael noticed there were some long-ass armor piercing bullets jammed in Mikey's shell, which was why Orange was so winded. He hit his brother in the shoulder (lightly) and glared something wicked at him. Mikey winked at him. Three young humans stared them from across the wagon, and then finally one of them, a girl, leaned forward to try and get Mikey's attention. She had it. She'd picked the more approachable giant green mutant.

"Can I have your autograph?" she asked, to Raphael's disturbed and disbelieving snarl.

It might as well have been the best day of Mikey's life. He signed with a picture of a shell and a date and everything, and then babbled ecstatically with the kids about internet cats, rocket launchers, comic books, and late nineties cartoons the whole ride. Raphael spent the whole trip pissed off as fuck, pretending he didn't know the idiot.

"Who exactly planned the collapse?" April could be heard over the hectic rush of papers and people in her War Room. "Who the hell do we know who could afford to give up that mill? And either that was one hell of a coincidence and the trapper just wanted to take out our own forward fleet of ninjas—which the men they sacrificed outnumbered, so that's stupid—or our mole tipped them off the turtles were here and the booby-trapping was done in mere days. By who? By some outside or auxiliary party?"

"All that sacrifice for just two guys, ma'am?"

"Two guys with one hell of a history. You've got a lot to learn about how Foot Clan think, kid," April answered. "Go watch 47 Ronin for an Americanized introduction; If you're dishonored and going to die anyway, your primary objective is to die avenging your lord and master."

"Rebel Leader? They had no sensors or cameras down with the bombs. They didn't blow the place just cause we found a payload and the cat was outta the bag."

"No they sure didn't!" Mikey agreed as the brothers arrived. He hurried forward; Raphael stopped moving and crossed his arms, glaring. "We breached the perimeter from the top, and everything slammed shut, electrified, and boomed like exactly five minutes after! Raph spotted the trap!" Orange jabbed his finger at her map. "Right about there! There was a whole 'nother door hidden there to lock us in!"

April stood there, slightly sooty, her shirt torn and bloody and numerous bandages showing where she'd apparently gashed herself in the tumultuous interior of her helicopter. She had a tall cup of coffee in hand, and looked more determinedly angry than tired as she reached out to clap Michelangelo's shoulder and shell in friendly greeting. "Well that's one hell of an important puzzle piece. Did it look like newly installed hardware?"

"Couldn't tell in the dark. Sorry about your 'special mystery tank,' by the way," Mikey added. "I guess it went squish?"

"I'll take two live turtles and minimal casualties over ambiguously labeled suspension cells any day of the week," she promised him. "You boys ever find me that sniper?"

"Yeah," Mikey stuck out his tongue in a grimace, "He committed seppuku all over the place, it was nasty. Well, either that, or some poor scapegoat got eviscerated all over a sniper rifle to make it look that way. We nabbed the 'evidence' and brought it your guys for later. Hey! Good job not getting assassinated!"

"Oh god, don't even get me started," April laughed testily. "I had four decoys in the air and two on the ground; I've half the base peeling scared Foot defectors out of closets, rafters, and mattresses to reassure them they're aren't on my hitlist, and the other half of the base rooting out the key people who might have performed the leak."

"You know who did it?" Mikey wondered.

April laughed. "Donatello always complimented I could write an algorithm for anything. Why not one for organizing who has what information when to bait out traitors? That comment Raphael made about clearing ranks is better done when you aren't a Nazi about—where is?—get over here, you bastard!" she laughed back towards Raphael after looking around for him.

Glowering, Raphael complied.

"You actually listened," she laughed. "Since when? I thought for sure we were going to end up crossing over at the pearly gates together this evening, and you'd have dragged Mikey along with us like the utter asshole you are."

"Nice stunt with the copter," he muttered. "Bonehead here needs bullets pried out of his shell, so I'm taking him to do that now."

April grabbed his arm as he tried to move past, and the jacket gave her enough purchase to hold onto so that he couldn't just shrug past it without being super obvious. She turned to look straight up at him. He sawed his beak together, silently fuming.  "I just nearly died," she snarled up at him, brown eyes narrowing. "I nearly died in exactly the way he died. Do something."

Raphael didn't have to do shit. 

Not a thing.

Raphael turned and wrapped both arms around her, crushing her to himself hard enough to crack her back. She grunted (maybe slightly out of pain, even) but hugged him back around the neck. He closed his eye tightly, brows furrowed. "Yeah," he gruffly affirmed. "Glad that didn't happen." He grimaced. "Probably gonna stick around ta help ya with the next two warehouses, if that's what next."

"Squeezing love out of you is like pulling teeth," she sighed almost fondly, and fuck did he hate everything right about now. She turned a kiss into his cheek, and he hated everything more, and she patted his collar. "Go take care of Mikey."

He nodded into her and made himself let go, so she'd go back to being, ya know, a leader doing important shit. He ignored how he'd apparently caught a case of the shakes, grabbed his little brother by the arm, and dragged the idiot off to get some medical attention.

"Ma'am," an aid could be heard to say to her. Raphael wasn't listening, but Mikey was. "An ex fire-fighter on the artillery squad just got back to us, says there's some rooms which survived the collapse."

"Anything worth getting particularly excited about?"

"Yes, Ma'am. They just found a cell submerged in ground storage, embossed with the Experiment ID you're looking for. The whole thing. 'EX-051905-AO-DH-0001.' It survived."

Chapter Text

"Yo, you got an extra cot for an idiot what took a bullet and didn't tell nobody?"

"More than one. You meatheads gave us a light load this–" a sassy nurse in sterile plastic blue with barcode tattoos paused mid facial expression as she realized what she was talking to.

"Helllooo, nurse!" Mikey was morally obligated to announce.

"Yeah don't worry doll, triage complete," Raphael snarked as he walked past, driving Mikey by the rim of his shell. "Anyone who wants to watch a mutant get bullets pried out of his back, I'm offering free tickets to nurses handing me shit."

One white coat stepped out with a faltering, "We have surgeons with experience—"

"Yeah, nix it, only one getting near him with knives is me. Need disinfectant, solid metalworking tongs with a good grip, a scalpel, and some cold compresses. Strip, Mike."

"Dude, I usually charge a fee for that-!" But Mikey's slow wheezing and gray facial complexion left Raphael in no mood for a banterfest, so he manhandled a laughing and complaining Orange onto the cot.

Neither one of them were used to actually patching up in a clinic, or to an audience, as Raphael pinned Mikey down with a knee and leaned over the shell to appraise the primary injuries.

"Those are in there good. Pop your lung?"

"Mayyyybee? Ow! Don't hit me, Raphie! I only even took them for you! I blew up the gunman with my rocket launcher and it was totally awesome and you didn't even notice, you big ungrateful-Ow!"

"If ya don't want me to hit ya again, maybe stop calling me 'Raphie.''"

"Well you all heard the man, someone get him some forging tongs from down in vehicular repair," said barcode nurse as she carried in an antiseptic wash and some giant cold packs.

Raphael had a moment to be impressed he'd been listened to. "D'you guys got some kind of quick actin' intravenous anti-inflammatory, and maybe some liquid nitrogen like ya use on warts?"

"We do."

"Oh-ho, hear that Mike? We're livin' it up!"

"Whatever you do," Mikey begged her as Raphael cleaned the patch of shell and started applying cold packs, "don't let him fill my shell with a hot glue gun, that's just animal cruelty...!"

A black chuckle. "C'mon now, Mike, hot glue n' duct tape is a time honored shell repai-"

"Raphael you fill my shell right with resin or don't you dare fill it at all...!"

"Nag nag nag," Raphael sassed, mood clearly improved, "we gotta close the capillaries-"

"Then use clay, pitch, anything!"

"Uh, sirs? We have liquid bandages."

"No shit? Damn. What are we at, the Ritz?"

Mikey, gripping the table as Raphael began loosening the tungsten slugs with a knife, mouthed 'thank you!'

Mikey could not sleep. It was two nights after the Super Big Battle, and Raph was 'out' again. 'Out thinking.' Dur, bro, people could think anywhere! 'People' didn't have to go out completely alone right after nearly getting trapped inside a trap made just for them! 

Orange paced back and forward in his room, counting the seconds between pangs of pain from where his shell was slowly healing. He'd been tasting blood on the back of his tongue a lot, and probably wouldn't be back to full stamina till that got better and stayed better for a week or two, so he oughtn't shadow Raphie. Or even mess around here at HQ while waiting for him.


Mikey took one despairing look into the training rooms, with all the fun toys he couldn't play with and trainees he oughtn't try to run circles around, and then finally tracked down April to see if she was an insomniac or kept regular hours.

As it turned out, he ended up finding out where her personal room was, which was kinda nifty, and was told she was still usually up at this hour. Her room was guarded and card-keyed, but it wasn't soundproofed, so after less than thirty seconds of Mikey trying to convince increasingly unpleasant guards he was a personal guest, she came and answered the door and waved him in herself. Yay! He blew a raspberry at the guard as he skipped past.

"Is Raphael off driving punching bags into extinction?" April inquired. Her room was spartan but for a work desk and an old battered arm chair, which she sat in to review documents and reports. Never not working; that was April.

"Not punching bags. Maybe gangs? He wants to 'get some air,'" Mikey grumbled with one-handed air quotes. 

"Well that's classic Raph. Always been the sort to require lots of alone time." She didn't sound particularly worried. Michelangelo wondered if he ought to tell her about some stuff, like Raph cutting himself. She might know what to say.

"Have you figured out what the scoop was on that trap, yet?" Orange pouted.

"Working on it," April sighed, scratching at her own healing arm. Her clothing was all fresh and new again, aside from her battered purple headband. "I've got a lot of enemies, high and low, hidden and unhidden. Once, my agents even found FBI resources behind a plot to poison me. Me. The FBI. We're talking the other side of the country, the not-screwed-up half, the half that can't really get here yet because Shredder's giant-robot and mind-controlled-super-mutant army is still solidly holding the border. But whether that only means there are a few bad eggs out there, or whether its systemic, or means someone powerful is getting jealous and nervous, and really wants to ride in like a white knight and steal all the credit when the time comes..." She gave a purse of her lips and a big shrug and shake of her head. "Well my spies haven't worked that out yet."

"Whoa." April clearly already had a lot in her lap, on all sides! Mikey didn't want to burden her with personal stuff on top of that!

"It does help me narrow things down that you two were also targeted. Together we only have very specific enemies. Of those enemies, only a few might be willing to sacrifice a very valuable mutagen mill to kill you both."

"Glad to be of help!" Mikey liked listening to the way she thought. It reminded him of his brothers, all his brothers, but especially Donnie. "What about your mystery tank?"

"My guys and gals haven't figured out how to get it out without any more structural damage to the collapsed building," she glanced at him, eyes bright with amusement. "But it's been waiting sixteen years to be found, so it seems silly to rush the last sixteen hours."

"Ha, okay!  I guess that's all I had to ask..." He didn't want to leave, not yet. "Can I maybe just hang out pretending I know how to be quiet and unobtrusive until you're ready for bed?" It was a weird request at their age, Mikey knew, but April only chuckled and nodded like it was the most natural thing in the world. And maybe it was. Mikey settled at her desk and drew out his phone to play with as he listened to her turning pages.

"Can you tell me more about this baby of Leo's?" she asked, surprising him. "You looked reluctant to say much around Raphael. Aside from, you know, throwing him under the bus with me at the start." Her lips quirked.

"Well Leo really did dig her out of a dumpster." Mikey set his phone down. "Great Kami only knows how he heard a baby crying from blocks away and decided that was a 'help me I'm suffocating' instead of the more standard 'help me, I pooped.'" Orange shrugged. "All this birth stuff was in the bag with her and it was super gross, and me and Raph—mostly Raph—told him to leave 'it,' but Leo was just like 'nope, dis mah baby.' I figured it was just him being responsible, like Standard Leo Stuff, and we'd talk him into leaving her someplace safe in a few days." Mikey winced. "But then, Ape, you didn't see Leo's face. When he asked me to describe her to him? Like she was the most interesting thing in the world, he was just... stoked. Smiling at her, talking to her in super cute Japanese, stuff like that."

April seemed pleasantly intrigued, and Mike liked that look on her. "What happened?"

"Well Leo wouldn't give her up. Not even to the hospital, not even after she got sick. We only had her a total of, like, five days, so I guess Raph figured he'd be the 'bad guy' and do the 'necessary evil' and Leo would just get over it? Cause whoa was she a huge liability! Leo could not go anywhere or do anything and was perpetually exhausted. She ate and pooped every two hours! Two!"

April laughed and leaned forward over her armrest, papers forgotten. "So I've heard!"

"Yeah well Raphie was legit worried about him, that's not a lie, I was worried too. Shell, I was mad at Leo for... screwing with our family, I guess." Mikey hesitated, not sure how to express it better than that. "But then the two of them never got in a huge fight about it. At the time I was like 'yay,' but now... I wonder if Raphael had dug his heels in like normal, would they have sorted everything with a fist fight before drastic shit happened? Raphie confessed later he'd put cyanide in her bottle, in case the cold didn't 'finish her off' or something like that. Leo split on us while we were out. Didn't even say goodbye."

"It..." April frowned. "It sounds like the two of them were on very different pages of this story."

Mikey smiled weakly. "I... I don't know if we remember how to be good people," he suddenly blurted. "Just how to survive."

April understood. "I think you could remember the details of how it works," she said. "Mind you, the world's not 'good' again either, just yet. These things get better in fits and starts... with relapses."

If she'd gone 'don't say that' or 'of course you're good people' he wouldn't have believed her. But, no, no she knew just what to say to make him shudder and slowly calm down. After a long moment of introspection, Orange reached back to pull out that paper crane from his back pocket and twirl it. "Hey, um, do you remember what these symbolize? I've," he blushed, "forgotten."

She leaked a smirk. "You can Google it!" Mikey jumped and looked at his phone in surprise. Oh yeah. Wow that's weird. Interwebz. "Splinter always said they meant hope. Hope in the face of terrible disasters. Happiness, luck, and eternal youth. I fold some on my anniversary, on Thanksgiving, on Christmas... They remind me of that, of home. And it's not like we have much storage space better decorations."

Mikey looked up at her in surprise. He looked back down at the crane. A smile hit his face. Leo was telling us he'd come back.

"What have you been Googling over the last week, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Oh! Uh. Leo... sorta said I could name her," Mikey blushed again. "Dunno if the invite still holds."

"You've been websearching baby names during our mission briefings?" April pursed her lips thoughtfully. Then she folded up her papers and set them aside. "I want in. What are our options?"

His throat went dry. "Uh. I. I've been thinking of naming her after Donnie."

April didn't seem to find anything strange or taboo about that at all. "Alright, are we talking about shades of purple like 'Violet,' names which mean intelligence like 'Sonia,' or D-names like 'Danielle?' And are we sticking with an Italian family name theme, a Japense family name theme, or are we branching out?"

Mikey's wide eyes flicked down to his phone, and then back up to April. He turned the device around and extended it out to her, and she leaned forward to take it with a gentleness that suggested she appreciated its value. "Oh I see. Donatella is honestly a beautiful name."

"Y-yeah," Mike's voice trembled. "But Raphael might kill me. And wouldn't the kid feel weird being named like she's a replacement?"

April laughed and bit her lip through a grin, scrolling up and down. "I had no idea Donatello was a diminutive of anything. That would make 'Donnie' a diminutive of a diminutive. 'A gift' indeed." Her gaze saddened briefly, but then turned giddy again and she looked back to Mikey. "So what about the root name for Donatella?"

"Donata?" Mikey sawed his beak together. "I dunno. Doesn't it look a bit too much like 'Donut?'"

"Oh my. We'd better double up on the 'n' or 't' when we spell it, we can't have this poor child being teased for being an incorrectly spelled doughnut in her elementary school classroom." Mikey stiffened, surprised. "Well, that's assuming elementary schools are worth going to in five years. Come now, Mikey, we can't have any child named in honor of Uncle Donatello going without a fantastic education...! I'll check if Montessori school does any homeschooling electronically..."

Mikey felt inexplicably and suddenly filled with glee. Donnata? Donatta. "Leo will have to avoid giving her any orders or instructions using her full name, or she's going to be so confused."

"Why's that? Oh! Do-natta go to bed. Do natta do this, do natta do that." April pulled out the full Italian accent for a beautiful, "Donatta toucha thata, eet's a-dangerousa!" and Mikey busted out laughing. "Oh my god, I never thought I'd finally get to pick out baby names because one of you boys was giving me nieces and nephews!" she cackled ecstatically.

"Why-" Mikey was still laughing, but a sobering question had occurred to him, "why didn't you and Casey ever have kids?" She sure seemed excited about them! And she knew a lot of baby names!

"Aside from the terrible timing?" April asked rhetorically, and her smile turned sad. "We tried. Mikey, do you um, remember that I was captured by the Foot, way back before we lost Splinter?"

"How can I forget that?! We thought you and Casey were dead!" Mikey exclaimed. "Dead dead! You were gone forever! We gave up hope! Casey said you chewed your way through your bonds and killed someone with a bar of soap! You guys washed up naked in the river! It was a crazy story! It was awesome and horrible and awesome again!"

"I killed two people with a bar of soap," she corrected with a grin Raphael would be proud of. "But I... I lost a baby, there. In that jail cell." Mikey's soul went cold. "I... I've only ever told Splinter. Casey watched it happen. I guess its finally been long enough ago that I can talk about it without crying. Conditions were bad there. I caught a persistent infection almost immediately afterwards, and it must have done some permanent damage inside me because I never managed to get pregnant again. And not for lack of trying." She raised a suggestive brow that would have made him laugh at any other time. "Even after the Foot took over and despite all of our responsibilities, Casey and I still wanted to have a family. So we decided we'd try to adopt a little girl. That was right before he died. I couldn't... do it without him. I'd needed him."

"Oh," Mikey murmured, horrified and riveted and hurting for her.

April flashed him a reassuring smile, and then reached out to give his phone back "If Donatta hasn't made it through her flu, even with all the family she has helping her from the other side, I will be heartbroken. And I haven't even met her yet."

"Can you... help us? Advise us?" Mikey slowly begged, slowly hoped, slowly wondered if maybe long-distance-helping might help give April 10% of a baby she'd never otherwise get to have. "We don't know how to take care of her."

"Well! First order of business is we need to find Leo," she tapped her armchair. "And after that we've the challenge of getting him and Raphael to kiss and make up, because this baby girl deserves to be loved by both her uncles. Plus: Raph's a self-destructive idiot who needs something to do with the rest of his life." She grinned knowingly, mischievously.

And just like that, Donatta had another guardian angel.

Chapter Text

Raphael wasn't in HQ more than a full sixty seconds on that late day in November, and already he had an unnecessarily excited Michelangelo in his face. "Raphie!"

Gah! "Stop callin me 'Raphie!'" Red Turtle spat in alarm, clutching the leather pouch uncomfortably to himself with both hands. He'd expected to have more time to plan this after arriving. "It ain't mah name!"

"They finally got that super secret special mystery tank to the base!" Orange nattered on, grabbing at his arm. "Let's go check if we can see it!"

"Dumbass! You realize it's probably just a bunch of internal organs floating in suspension fluid, right?" Raphael lashed out verbally, shoving Mikey away from himself. "That's what's in those kinds of tanks! Experiments! Just worth vomiting over and flushing to get rid of the DNA and lower the number of bioweapons fuckin' the world up!"

Michelangelo deflated, hushed and hurt. "Geeze Raph, way to kill the optimism vibes."

"I don't have any time for 'optimism' and neither do you!" But he felt bad. Real bad.

Mikey smiled thinly and gave a halfhearted shrug. "So what'd you get?" he asked, pointing to the pouch. Raphael scowled reflexively, hugging it to himself. Nervously. Bitterly. He watched his littlest brother's eyes dim further. "Fine just... shut me out, then. Don't tell me. I'm gonna go hang out with April, who doesn't just leave me here with nothing to do, terrified something's gonna happen to her."

Raphael sawed his beak, eyes wide, trying to think of what to say as Mikey walked past him. A tiny unsolicited noise helped him out.

Michelangelo paused, blinking rapidly and apparently struck dumb by hard waves of nostalgia. Raphael swallowed and then slowly turned about, and eased the battered pouch open and reached inside. MIkey blinked back at him in confusion. Raphael slowly and awkwardly pulled out the dirty thing inside, and held it out carefully for his little brother to see.

"You..." Mikey spoke slowly and without vocal inflection, his brows coming together as if puzzled instead of excited. "You got me a kitten?"

Raphael looked down at it, and then back up at him. "I couldn't find a pony."

"I can't keep a pet," Mikey said, voice still dull. "What am I going to feed it? What if we have to split and it's missing? What if it gets lost? Gives away our position? It'll totally pee on everything we own."

Raphael didn't answer, throat dry. After a few seconds, he shrugged a little. Then he held the kitten out further.

Mikey blinked at him slowly. Then, warily, almost like a super tired guy would if he were expecting some kind of trap, Orange turned around and came closer to slowly take the kitten into his hand. Raphael steadied it there, and it made tiny desperate mews up at Michelangelo and eventually flopped onto its face because it was apparently still confused about the whole 'born without a left arm' thing. 

Silence passed between them for the better part of a minute. 

Then Mikey quietly shuffled into his brother, head down. Raphael bristled and lifted his arms to grab his brother's shoulders, confused. "Are you-? Fuck, I didn't mean ta make ya cry! It was just sittin' there in mah way; If Leo's daft enough to think he can keep a baby, a cat's not so far off the deep-!"

"You saw a three legged kitten in the middle of the street and it reminded you of me," Mikey mumbled feebly, lifting his bad arm under Raphael's elbow and up against the side of his plastron, as he hugged the kitten to himself. "Help, please help me, I don't have both arms to hug you with..."

Raphael slumped and committed to a both-arms hug for them, minding the still-healing pits on his baby brother's shell. Fresh memories of watching Mike spit out copious blood when brushing his teeth mingled with memories of watching Orange hold a sai to their throats, or go ballistic while laughing hysterically about their missing brother.

Be okay. Red squeezed tighter. Get better. Please. I know I'm a fuck up and I weigh ya spirit down. Can't even stick around while ya healin, had ta go- Nhg...

Raphael released and muttered a gruff, "Happy early Thanksgiving," as he brushed cat fur off his jacket. "Or... something."

Mikey gave his howling kitten a bath in a sink full of warm of water, picked over it for live fleas, combed out eggs, and then dried the creature into an stringy, patchy, fluffy poof ball with a towel. Wasn't a flattering look. He peeked in both ears and told Raphael they needed almond oil or white vinegar or baking soda to cure it's ear mites. All of those things could be found in a kitchen, so they went to go figure out if Mikey could seduce some cafeteria ladies into giving a bottle or box of whatever he needed.

Anyway, one squeaky clean, thoroughly baffled, and baking-sodaed-eared kitten later, they finally set the scrawny thing down with a little dish of leftover giblets from the kitchen, and it pigged out like a crazy person into the gravy of it. Red was the one who remembered to throw some sand and baking soda into an empty wash basin. Just in time, too, cause he found the little bastard clumsily trying to scratch one-handed into his sharpening gear, looking for a good place to piss. He picked it up unceremoniously, and tossed it into the cat sand.

"Hey! Be gentle!"

"It's a cat, Mike. I could pitch it off a roof, and it'd be fine."

Mikey shoved him, laughing.  "Don't try it! He's a he. His name's Bazooka."

Raphael glanced down at the very unimpressive and slightly ugly yellow-gray kitten with the missing arm. "What's with you and guns, lately?"

"Well, not all the time we spent split up years ago was horrible," Orange brought up, before reconsidering "Okay lemme rephrase: Not all of it was wasted. I spent years picking up and playing with whatever guns I could find. Legit practiced my aim as part of my daily ninjitsu exercises."

Raphael lifted brow. "What reason? Bored?"

"A-actually... Without you guys around, I started panicking whenever I was in close quarters with another ninja," Mikey explained with a bashful gesture at his stub. "Took awhile before I started trusting myself alone in a melee again. At first I thought I really couldn't be a ninja anymore... and wanted to get good at something I'd never been good at before, to compensate. Well of course now I know better! I'm bitchin' awesome, near and far! But I just thought I'd bring it up. Turns out it's like falling off a bike, I still remember how to aim. Even if, ya know, it's not very sneaky."

"Maybe not," Raph thought about it. "Unless you wanna give your enemy the wrong first impression." He smirked. "Art of deception and all."

Mikey beamed. Raphael nudged him and lifted a hand to pat the back of his head and mask tails affectionately. 'Bazooka' clumsily buried his leavings in the sand (after falling on his face three times), jumped out, and promptly butt-dragged across the floor in front of them in a long, ocher streak.

"Yer cleanin' dat," Raphael mentioned.

"I wanna go see if they've got the tank thing setup!" Mikey tried again.

"Gonna nap."

"... Have you even seen April since the battle?"

"Guess not."

Mikey fired a stink-eye. "Bro you literally shut down on the battlefield when you saw the missile headed for her. I've never seen you do that in my life."

Red sneered over at him.

"Are you too manly to go sit and talk with her for an hour?"

"She's busy and surrounded by people who look up to her, I ain't gonna-"

"-dude I got bored once and it took me two minutes to find her personal quarters."

Raphael only sneered more.

"Hold on, can you like... listen to me for a sec? Make an exception for April. You were her husband's best friend, she signaled loud and clear she could use some company, and you kinda dropped the ball on her."

"As If I were partic'lary good 'company' for talkin feelings?"

Mikey planted his hands on his hips. "Give it a few years' practice."

Raphael's sneer tightened into a scowl.

"How is it you can do something as meaningful as bring me an adorable kitten, but you can't stop dwelling on the bad shit for just an hour and take some pleasure in how we're all still alive? You should want to see her, that would be kinda normal. Are you intentionally trying to build up a list of regrets for when somebody really does kick the bucket? Are we all really so painful that avoiding us is the best solution?"

A green eye flicked to him. Raphael slowly frowned, but then looked away again and shrugged.

"Dude. Honestly...?" Mikey sighed dramatically as he headed for the door. "Being on the receiving end of Raphael showing-he-cares is like, super enjoyable. Dunno why you think you're such shit at it."

April was still delegating men left right and center when Michelangelo found her in the planning room surrounded by whiteboards, documents, scientists, guards, and every sort of layperson. A gang was acting up, a war jeep had been vandalized, the list of potential 'moles' was growing slimmer and slimmer, and Baxter Stockman was sarcastically muttering something about bombing Hun with mutagen and wiping his hands of the matter and then snidely adding Oh wait—I DON'T HAVE HANDS, THAT'S RIGHT. 

Michelangelo didn't know much of anything afoot, but he hopped up to keep Rebel Leader company and gave Hun a sympathetic look. He got a long suffering grimace and a light incline of the head in return. The three or so years the turtles had spent absolutely hating Hun as teenagers had faded to mutual understanding preeettttyy damn quickly under the regime. It was hard to hate somebody who you knew had Stockman's voice screeching instructions and insults in their ear every second of every day. Much less, ya know, everything else he'd been through. 

April quickly delegated off half her concerns and tidied up the others. "There you are!" She looked back to Mikey with a twinkle in her eye. " What took you so long? They've just about got it all set up and secured. You want to go with me to have a look?"

"Yes!" He hadn't missed it then! "What is it?" 

"We're not entirely sure," she said as she gathered up a data tablet and turned from the table, giving out a few orders and then waving for some of her guards to follow. "My guys did a quick data tap at the scene of the warehouse, but the thing's been running off auxiliary power, busted oxygen tanks, and no caloric input for nearly a week and they didn't want to risk it dying in the final stretch before they got here."

"N'what'd they get from the tap?" asked a voice which made Michelangelo bloom happiness inside; He turned to see Raphael swiftly joining them. "Interestin' shit?"

"Biometric readings," April was excited, intrigued as she led the way and swiped across her tablet. "Heartbeats, respiration, muscle tone, skin turgor, white blood cell count."

"What's that mean?" Mikey squeaked.

"Means it might be a full-body organism," Raphael supplied, sounding begrudgingly interested. 

"Well don't get too excited," she warned with a reserved (and maybe slightly disappointed?) chuckle. "Brainwaves bottomed out the monitor, and even cerebellar activity's at minimum. It's brain dead, whatever it is."

"Awwww," Mikey was disappointed. "That's sad."

"We'll be able to defrost the glass and figure out more just as soon as it's plugged into a proper console, which should be happening upstairs as we speak. My guys and gals have been clearing out mini lab rooms to temporarily house any of the tanks we managed to recover, and I called in one of my best research duos from the broader warehouse ID project to check this tank out personally and satisfy any curiousity we might have. I mostly just want to know if the 'turtle' aspect is coincidental, or if it has anything to do with you boys."

 "So," Mikey brought up as they were riding in the elevator. "Raphael got me a kitten this morning."

April slapped a hand over her heart and staggered. "That heartless backstabbing asshole! He was supposed to bring me the make-up present!" Mikey busted out laughing. Raphael made a strangled noise in the back of his throat. "Well you know what?" April dusted herself off and lifted her chin haughtily. "He's going to have to cook that huge ass turkey in my freezer as compensation, or I'm just never going to forgive him. This'll just be the end of us. Stands me up on dates, never calls..."

"Layin' it on a bit thick," Raph muttered.

April grinned and elbowed him affectionately. "Great to have you back with us, sour-puss. Your company was missed."

Chapter Text

A metal catwalk paved the way across a lattice of cluttered bays. This had probably been some kind of assembly line factory, but the resistance had converted it into a series of labs, work spaces, and housing for machining apparatuses. A broken tank sat in one, and robots were being disassembled in another, and one was lit up and punching out some misshapen metal into casts as its mechanics and one computer guy fiddled with it. There were a lot of servers and data drives scattered around most of the bays, probably stuff stolen from the Foot. 

Their route ended at a rather snug room, by comparison, just barely tall enough to fit the thick-gassed tank the labor crew was carefully bolting down. Broad dents and a heavy layer of concrete dust smeared across the top proved it had indeed been through the partial collapse of a building, but the majority of the tank had gone completely unscathed below ground. A greasy-haired hacker girl in a lab coat was already eagerly at work at a half-finished workstation to the side, moving around her screens and bringing up all kinds of data graphs and lists of protocols.

"Alright talk to me people, did it make the journey?" April called, and a researcher who'd been circling the tank and hastily scribbling notes spun about and darted up to them.

"Biometric readings rebounded almost immediately upon administration of remedial blood glucose and proper oxygenation!" she reported. "It was floundering a bit yesterday and later while getting shaken around on the flatbed on the road, but it made it ma'am! Whatever it is."

"Can we get a defrost on the glass yet?" April asked, looking up to where the experiment numbers stood out in clear relief upon the cylindrical metal topping the glass.

"Working on it, working on it," the hacker said, her fingers flying back and forward over two keyboards. "Ma'am you have to see this later, this thing has an unprecedented number of experiments listed as being derived from it. Whatever it's made of, it's got a more stable genetic structure than any mutagen-enhanced organism I've ever seen."

"What's dat mean, exactly?" Raphael asked.

"Super high success rate in cloning bone marrow and gall bladder tissues," the hacker explained hastily without even looking back at them. "Mutant DNA usually just falls apart. This thing's genes were a mutagen-making cash cow." She did air-quotes and resumed typing. Raphael and April shared an uncertain look. "Ah. Found it! Interior lighting on. Glass anonymity toggling to off in three, two..."

The impenetrable, crystalline gray color of the glass dissolved to complete transparency, revealing perfectly formed contents. Mikey bounced forward with an awestruck "Whoa!" and Raphael blurted a startled, "Holy shit," and when one of them thought to look over and see April's reaction, they found her covering her mouth with a glossy look to her eyes that suggested she was biting back on tears. "He's beautiful," she muttered past her fingers.

"Where'd he come from?" Michelangelo gushed excitedly, hopping/skipping up to the tank to lean his hand against the glass and peer wondrously up at it. "Omigod he's so cute! He's all elbows and knees! Wait, is he a he? How do we tell?" He looked bewildered back to everyone else.

A humanoid turtle floated there in the suspension fluid, balled up with its arms curled to its chest, its head down, and its knees nearly touching its chin. It looked uncannily like the four of them had looked as kids (teens, whatever!) and yet at the same time not like any of them! To see a new turtle face after thirty-four years of humans was a crazy weird treat! It wasn't quite the same as them—the most obvious difference was it had five toes on each foot and probably five fingers on each hand (the hands were all balled up). And it's facial structure was way dif, with its snout being narrower and its jaw being stronger. 

"Doesn't matter what it is, does it?" Raphael asked, clearly disturbed but begrudgingly curious as he peered askance up and down the cell. "It's brain dead either way."

"Oh yeah. Poor little shelled dude or dudette," Mikey pitied the little thing. "I guess you'll never be a ninja, but you can have the teenage mutant turtle part. Maybe you can be an honorary ninja? Oh! Raphie! Raphael come look at his shell! It's beautiful, it's swirled like ornate wood! Come look, come look!"

Raphael hesitated a moment, but then slowly went to do just that. The shell was dark brown and intricately patterned with a bright copper. "Wow." Was a morbid moment, wanting to compliment a dead stranger kid's shell, but when the number of people belonging to your species—ever—had just suddenly jumped from four to five, it was hard not to stare. 

"Why's he or she in the fetal position?" April asked, her voice thick.

"According to the tank profile data," the hacker said, "he—and they do have him marked as male, so I'm assuming he either has human or turtle male sex chromosomes, depending on what he was mutated from—has a birth year listed and he's only sixteen."

"Sixteen years is how long they've had him marked as in containment," April recalled with a tight swallow, and the hacker nodded to say 'exactly.' "So he's never been out of this tank. He's never opened his eyes. Possibly, he was manufactured in there from the start."

"It's probably what caused the near-total brain death," the hacker agreed. "Poor beggar's basic mental functions never got a chance to develop, and on top of that he's not even responsible for breathing; everything including oxygenation is handled through blood processing. Speaking of which, these tanks usually use electrical impulses to keep the muscles stimulated to keep them from atrophying, so if you see him twitch, don't freak out. It's a common storage protocol to prevent strokes and gangrene over long containment periods."

"S'like gawkin at an overlarge pickled fetus," Raphael grimaced.

"Noooo," Mikey slurred happily, tilting his head this way and that to catch better glimpses of the fine-boned fingers, and to admire the slender structure of the plastron and shell. "April's right, he's beautiful."

"Creepy, dead, and makin' mah shell itch," Raphael muttered as he came back to April. "It clearly ain't a clone of any of us, but it looks way too similar for me ta figure someone just coincidentally mutated a turtle from scratch and got a near-identical look ta us. Mutagen's way more random than that."

"Well," April took a deep breath, cleared her throat, and apparently composed herself, "Donatello always said your own DNA was finicky, and we've seen that same thing with most other mutants. But by now we've run into more than one experiment where the Foot researchers were trying to stabilize mutant DNA by injecting additional genetic material. Maybe this was some kind of 'hybrid?'"

"Like if they worked off our DNA as a base? Hnh. That suspension fluid tinted?" Raphael grimaced back at the tank, "Cause if not, the skin's yellower than Mike's or mine. Slinkier build, too." Talking about it was making him angry, if the way his nostrils flared and eyes narrowed were any indication.

"The crazy thing," the researcher said as she peered over the hacker's shoulder to inspect the readouts, "is that there's no parent experiment number! Like he just... popped into existence into this tank!"

"May have come from another research department altogether," the hacker speculated. "Or maybe they found him somewhere external to the regime?"

Raph huffed. "Maybe they captured it from Bishop's crew when they took over the whole fucking place. That sadistic nutjob got hold of samples of our DNA once, and had done all sorts of weird shit with it previously." He looked to April. "Is ya curiousity satisfied, or you plannin' on pryin' deeper?"

"Prying," April answered. "I'll have my gals investigate this 'cloneability' of his and track down all his derivative experiments, and then I want to make sure he's one of a kind and there aren't any other similar projects floating around with different animal tags. Plus I still want the closure of knowing exactly where the shell he came from."

"And when ya find those derivative experiments?" Raphael loomed. "You gonna use them to make mutagen like the other tanks a organs ya've found?"

"No," April answered immediately and with a growl. "Not him, not a turtle, even if he's not related to one of you. I'll burn every scrap I can find. This is borderline personal; this hits close to home."

"Oh yeah, not to mention it's a huge security liability," the hacker approved this course of action. "You don't want to risk lose a DNA sample of a mutagen-producing organism that has anything other than the usual rock-bottom cloning success rates. That's just asking for an ecological disaster. Or an arms race. Probably why they kept moving him around, trying to hide him from us; he's a golden goose."

"Right. There a liquidation protocol on 'his' cell?" Raphael asked. "Ya don't need ta keep 'him' alive any longer n' this."

"Slow down," April said firmly, "and chill, Raph, I'll handle this as fast and as efficiently is wise. These girls are some of my best, and we've got him pretty safe under lock and key; The bigger problem right now is the half-shattered warehouse presumably filled with tanks derived from him and an unknown number of similar tanks in the warehouses we've already liberated. I need a list of every tank number we're looking for so I can order them purged." Raphael leaned back, considering this. "Plus I want to dig up this whole story."

"Nh. Ya always do."

"Hey can I name him?" Mikey asked while holding up his phone to the tank, probably to take a picture, and while earning an angry and disbelieving look from Raphael. "What? He was alive once, probably, right? And aren't we half-sure he's somehow related to us? You can't send him to the afterlife without a name, that's just like... the ultimate bad luck or something!"

"That's not," the researcher smiled hesitantly and bashfully, "unlike naming a preemie."

"Ah. Well, it's an interesting idea, but not right now," April smiled thinly. "Maybe later."

She looked to Raphael, who knew well he was being catered to. He made a conscious effort to settle down instead of getting irked.

"Well. This has been enlightening, if sad. What do you boys say we go get some lunch? I could use some harmless socializing, and I think my best and brightest could use some peace and quiet to dig through all this data." The researcher opened her mouth to protest that Mikey wasn't bothering them, but April gave her a look. 

"Yup! Thanks!" The hacker popped open a tin of popcorn and blindly stuffed some into her mouth while she continued to work. 

As they left, and after Raphael pushed Mikey ahead of him so the numbskull didn't linger, he took one last glance back at the thing as it floated there. Nothin anybody could do for it no matter what anybody decoded; Thing was dead. Raph looked ahead to April and frowned, wondering if she'd looked so emotional for a sec back there because of acute nostalgia at the sight of a teenage turtle or... something else.

Chapter Text

Mikey didn't tell anybody, mostly cause he didn't want to freak Raphael out, but he went back to see the tank twice. Both times at night; He didn't want to bother anybody hard at work!

"Hey little dude," he greeted, pressing his hand up against the glass. If he listened hard enough, he could make out Tank Teen's heartbeat. Michelangelo was starting to think this was how Leo must have felt, when he'd first picked up Donatta: This sense of responsibility and connection. 

Logically, Mikey understood what Red had meant when he'd called it morbid, but Michelangelo didn't feel squicked out or miserable as he rounded the tank and drank in every angle of the little guy. Yeah it was sad knowing Tank Teen would never open his eyes or 'be a real boy,' but looking at him was like getting a rare escapist peek into an alternate dimension, with alternate rules, where one of them could have somehow been a father. Mikey could make out every tiny ridge on his scutes, and every little scale on his shoulders and forearms. That kind of detail was something you couldn't get from dreams.

"I don't want to say anything to anybody, cause I'm scared. Like it's playing god, or idunno," Mikey mumbled guiltily into the glass. "But I can't help thinking about it: If you're so 'cloneable...' doesn't that mean they could make a complete new baby from you? Like... to give us a-a... a kid?" Somehow Mikey thought even Raphael would melt to butter if presented with a real live turtlebaby.

Was it possible to grow a fetus in a tank? Did it need a surrogate mom? Was that even what 'highly cloneable' meant? Would any clone die outside a tank no matter what they did? 

"Mew!" Bazooka decided to input as he popped up from the bag at Mikey's hip. 

Mikey reached down to scratch his head. "That's right, 'Zooka, it's a tiny turtle! Say, you know who'd have the answers? My brother Donnie." Mikey brightened. "I should set out some candles and Thanksgiving food for him and Splinter. He was always a sucker for smooth mashed potatoes, so I guess that means I better go help make sure Raphael didn't leave them au naturale." He pulled back, but then added. "I'll visit you again before we leave, lil dude!" And he waved at the unresponsive tank contents before departing.

It wasn't that Mikey was delusional or even in denial, but somehow saying 'goodbye' felt like a very important little ritual. Honorary Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle #5 had been alone his whole life leading up to this; If his spirit was still hanging around, MIkey wanted him to know he had a family now, and that there would be people waiting on the other side to bring him home. 

Maybe they could bury him in Northampton, if April didn't object. If not, there was always a place next to Splinter.

"You know, I always expected Mikey to transcend into the role of Family Chef," April confided as she watched their surliest family member basting the slowly browning bird. "Would have never guessed you."

"Mikey likes eating, that's completely different," Raphael muttered with a smirk her way. "Where th' hell d'you get a turkey, by the way?"

"Had a defector who'd been a servant to the upper class mention turkey meat, so I rolled up my sleeves and poked around and finally found a farm. Now I'm spreading turkey eggs from hands to hands as fast as I can." Raph lifted a brow. "I was already spreading duck eggs! There's some real serious issues with food hygiene and the factorization of chickens right now. And you'd be amazed how hardy and independent turkeys are. Plus people get hilariously happy when they see them, and they have nice personalities. Which... sort of makes it sad we're eating them, but eh."

Raphael started laughing. "This is weird," he lidded the cooker again. "Havin' a proper family get-together with proper gravy and stuffin and everythin... 'Xcept there's..."

"...Only three of us," April finished knowingly. "But you know what? Turkeys are the newest tangible proof that things really can get better with time."

He glanced over at her again as he placed aside the oven mitt and washed off his hands. "The bird's proof," he agreed softly.

There was a fritz of electronics behind them, and then an old set of speakers began blaring way-too-early Christmas tunes which Mikey, naturally, immediately began to sing along to: "Alll I want for Christttmaassss, is youuuuu-ohh-ooh-hoo-baaayybbehhh!" They both sighed simultaneously and then grinned at each other and chuckled. "I'm here to help!" Mikey announced additionally as he charged in.

"Great, ya can start by turnin' dat off."

The Foot observed no turkey-related holidays, and so of course nobody in the Resistance could take Thanksgiving off entirely. That said, somebody with brightly colored construction paper was bombing the premises with hand-print turkey cut-outs (only possible when a person had five-fingers!) and festive pilgrim hats.

Mikey and Raphael poked their heads in the cafeteria and volunteered their services to help get a feast ready for the whole compound. Felt like the right thing to do, since half the time the two of them felt like freeloaders who ate a lot. 

("Yes, he really can cook! He might look like a war vet alien biker pirate, but ask him to season cabbage if you need a test! I had no idea that stuff could be tasty!")

("What, Mikey? Eh... Give him some manual labor to do, he has a rough time screwing things up if his only job is stirring shit. Yeah don't worry about the arm thing, he manages.")

"Where have my turtles gotten?" April thought to wonder—mostly to herself—as she delegated small units to deal with the assemblage of drug warlords and psychotic Elites left running half her side of the world. 

"The mutants?" piped up a greenhorn guard, who looked dazed. "I just saw them. The big scary one was putting pumpkin pies in the oven. While conversationally discussing the merits of paprika. Those are still safe to eat, right?" 

"Oh. Yeah. He's, he's... like that?" The guard hurried past. Raphael's spending time with normal people? Being generous? Either it was Opposite Day, Raph owed Mikey some kind of favor, or else Red Turtle was starting to develop a weak taste for human company again. April crossed her fingers and hoped it was the latter; This was perhaps the first time in the turtles' lives when they might be able to carve out a place for themselves in the future. 

She picked up another piece of white paper and started folding another crane.

"Did you fold all of these?" A flour-dusted Michelangelo hopped up beside April to peer into her tall basket of paper cranes. "Whoa!"

"I told you," she chuckled as her assistant moved a few tokens on the war map. "Every year, for the holidays."

"You are so much more patient than I am," Mikey admired, reaching through droves and droves of cranes. "Ha! Anything I can help with, or am I just underfoot?"

"Actually, I've a question about the zone you and your brothers were squatting in; the same one we'd captured a broadcasting tower in. Do you remember?" Mikey did, and hurried around her to answer her and her aids' questions and help highlight what he and Raphael had learned about the area.

A growl reached their ears which Michelangelo might have paid no attention to (Raphael growled at him all the time!) if not for the startled shout of "Who let a dog in here!? Get it out imm- Oh!"

And since dogs and cats and every manner of fuzzy-wuzzy animal were of great interest to Mikey, he turned around first before anyone else.

For a split second, he almost didn't recognize the tall figure standing there at the threshold in the heavy black leather and cotton trench coat which looked like The Matrix and Mother Russia had somehow produced offspring together. The mantle of a deeply hooded green rain cape masked most of his face, and a knitted slate scarf handled the rest, but the katana peeking out from across the back was immediately recognizable as the one Miyamoto Usagi had given their eldest brother long ago as a Christmas present.

"Leo!" Michelangelo forgot to breathe as he bolted away from the table at full sprint. He was gonna tackle that turtle and never let him go.

Leonardo caught him at the plastron with a grunt, and held him back a foot that nearly put Michelangelo into a panic wondering if he blamed him for something; But then, just as quickly, Blue reached up and touched Orange's face, and grasped his cheek to stroke over it with his thumb, which was what Leo did whenever he badly wanted to 'see' someone.

"Where is she!?" Mikey demanded, clinging to his brother's arm and shoulder. "Is she okay? Can I see her!? What are you wearing!?"

"She's..." Leo reached hesitantly up for the edge of the coat, revealing a leather carrying satchel snug against the kimono, in which was visible the clear green edge of a green Kermit the Frog onesie.

"She's Keerrmmmy! Omigod you put her in it, look at her! Leo, Leo, Leo can I hold her? Is her flu gone? I still get to name her, right!? Where have you been!?"

Leo let out a hard breath that sounded off-balance and emotional, and Mikey looked up towards his very well hidden face. He reached up to Leo, and cupped the back of his head, and pulled Blue's head down so their brows touched and they could breathe the same air for a moment.

"Mikey," Leo finally said, and his voice quavered as he tugged down his scarf. "I'm surprised you are not angry with me."

"Why? For leaving? Bro, ain't nobody got time for that! Our family's together for Thanksgiving! There's turkey to eat! Real turkey! April just made a hundred paper cranes and I'm suspicious this might have been her wish! I made sure the mashed potatoes were super smooth so Donnie's ghost won't be offended when I leave some for him! Dammit!"  He hugged his brother's side gently so as not to squish the baby.

Leonardo slowly hugged him back and leaned into his temple as if the whole weight of the world were dragging him down. "Mikey..."

"You're back," Orange mumbled fervently, squeezing tight, "you're back, you're back, you're back, and you're both okay." 

Leo stiffened, straightened, drew out his katana and jabbed the tip towards something. Michelangelo twisted about in alarm, already knowing he'd see Raphael there.

Red Turtle's expression dimmed from surprised to guarded. "Yo," he greeted, still wiping his hands with a stolen dishcloth. 

"Listen, and listen very carefully," Leo enunciated, his voice gushing and moving about dynamically in a way neither of his brothers nor April had ever heard it. "Because I just walked a very long way in broad daylight to be here today, and I am not in the mood to deal with you. If you come within a yard of me, I am going to run you through.

Mikey looked agape between his two brothers. "Leo-"

Raphael's eyes narrowed. "Well hello to you, too." He jerked his chin to indicate the whole of Leo. "Ya seem a little high strung."

"Oh-hoh, I am the dictionary definition," Leonardo intoned. "Do not test me, Raphael; I've not slept properly in over a month."

"And yet," Raphael shrugged thoughtfully, "ya dun need any help?"

"Help? Help?!" Blue turtle's voice was a raw, nasty, emotive roar, "Yes, Raphael, between abysmal conditions, food scarcity, lack of sleep, the rats who tried to eat the baby's face in my absence, and an incident in which I ended up going unnoticed six inches away from Karai, I could have used some goddamn help. Thanks!"

"The rats what!?" Mikey gasped, as April stepped forward to prompt, "You've seen Karai?"

"Yes! And now, if you'd excuse me—hello, April, nice to see you—I need to nurse and diaper a baby," he announced with a grand wave of his hand. "Don't go anywhere! I'll be right back. Fifteen minutes. Tops."

And, with such tremendous sass, a sheathing of his katana, and a theatrical swoosh of his cape/coat, Leo whirled away, leaving three flabbergasted people in his wake. He gave a shrill whistle as he went, and that's when they all finally noticed small white dog who was sitting on the ground staring up at everyone with its tongue lolling out, because it spun about with a yelp and ran after him like the devil was on its tail, although by now it was the least strange thing about the meeting. 

"Oh he has a dog," Mikey mumbled flatly, before realizing what he'd just said, throwing up his arms, and bellowing, "Why do you have a dog!?" 

He charged after his brother to find out. 

Chapter Text

"It's not a real kitchen, but there's a sink and cooking stuff, and we've got chairs, and table, and even a couch!" Michelangelo excitably advertised as he tugged along his eldest brother into room they'd commandeered for Thanksgiving dinner.

Past drying kitchenware, the turkey sat proudly in her broiler, surrounded by insulated bowls of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, vegetables, and freshly baked biscuits. "Take a seat!" he called as he put up a cup of water in the microwave for the baby. One glance back at Leo revealed he'd gravitated towards the soft couch instead of the straight-backed chairs; that was uncharacteristically sensible of Leo! And the cant of his head suggested Blue was absolutely salivating in dazed anticipation over the table spread. Ha! "Do you need a snack?"

"Ah." Leo 'looked' away from the turkey, swung his backpack down from his shoulder, and eased himself to a seat upon the couch with a soft huff. "I'm fine." He pulled his hood down, and Mikey could see he looked well-fed but the skin around his eyes was dark.

If turtles wagged tails, Mikey would be wagging his! A minute was forever to wait if it was on a microwave! "What's with the dog?"

"That partnership is strictly business," Leo replied, without any acknowledgement of how the puppy was sitting right at his knee like a saint's most devoted disciple. It was immaculately white, but then anything owned or operated by Hamato Leonardo would necessarily have to be kept presentable. Cause, ya know, Leo.

Ding! Mikey grabbed out the water and hurried over to see Leo had produced a completely new can of formula. Blue must have needed to become crazily resourceful without them. Mikey reached for it, only for Leo to catch his arm by the elbow and hold firmly.

"Let me," Leo uttered.

For a sec Mikey didn't understand, and then he panicked. "I didn't have anything to do with Raph's-!"

"I never once believed you had," Leo murmured, but he did not give up the can.

Mikey released the water to him and sank backwards in dismay, feeling like an outsider. "Leo," he whined, but his brother waved for him to sit beside him. Mikey scooted as near as he could sit without sitting on Leo. He earned a little growl from a dog who probably wasn't certain whether the boss required protection. Leo draped a thick purple blanket over his arm, unexpectedly passed Mikey the finished bottle, and then carefully extracted the tiny child from her (undoubtedly very warm and safe-feeling) place under his coat. 

She kicked herself awake and cried out twice as she was deftly transferred to the blanketed crook of Leo's arm, and then suddenly Mikey could see her.There she was, with her poofy monkey hair and her face all scrunched up tight as a prune, and her big, brick-red eyes. Mikey's throat jammed up, like somebody had just come back from the 'dead' category of his mine and he hadn't even known. 

'Egads! How has this happened!?' their huffy baby seemed to demand with a flail of her arms as she looked between Mikey and Leo. 'There are TWO of you! Is this cloning technology!? Who opened the dimensional portal!?' Then her face suddenly lit up with excitement, and she kicked and danced in place while making all sorts of hilarious happy chortles!

And that was when Mikey understood their baby didn't need to have scales or scutes or a pretty, copper-swirled shell; their baby was already real and warm and alive, and Leo had managed to save her life against crazy odds. More than once. 

A nudge helped him remember he was the one holding the bottle (and that he ought to breathe), and Mikey leaned over to give her the tip. She was an aggressively proficient eater by now, and chomped down like a little green dino, suckling seriously beneath her puckered brows. Leo took and let out a deep breath, and then sank slowly back into the couch to almost, like, relax. "Did I hear you correctly that you have chosen to dress our Honeybunches as Kermit the Frog?"

"'Honeybunches?'" Mikey perked up curiously.

"Ah," Leo ducked his head and blushed a little. "I am not the Great Family Namer, and she and I seem to require a lot of luck, so I decided I would follow your examples; she has since been La Enchilada, Lambchop, and now Honeybunches. I'm concerned, however, that I only know one or two more Mexican foods, and so cannot keep this up forever..."

Michelangelo's heart cracked and leaked honey and sunshine all through himself, warming the butterflies in his stomach. "You did miss me."

Leo scoffed. "I missed both of you, every single day. The sight of beef made me lonely, and that's despite how badly I want to kill Raphael."

"Aww." Leo was so rarely ever emotional! Mikey snuggled into his eldest brother, and the baby waggled her brows at him, and Mikey giggled down to his toes. "Om nom nom!" he agreed with her in a baby voice. "Oh, lil' Kermit Honeybunches, I missed you and all your funny faces! Don't you ever leave me again, okay?" 

"Hamato Leonardo!" April announced angrily as she flung the door open to startled jumps. "I demand to see my niece, and if you think you can just hoard her to yourself, you've got another thing coming!"

Leo shifted his weight on the couch, eyes widening. "She's here," he called, and so she was.

Nestled there against Dad's neat kimono, was a baby no larger than a loaf of bread, absolutely dwarfed by her father's strong arms and calloused hands. She was green, as if to match the rest of her family; a tiny and fearsomely delighted pook of joy, waggling her fists and feet, humming for attention and peek-a-boo games from the faces above her. Her Muppet hood had fallen back to expose a mildly dusky complexion and a comically full head of hair, and despite not even being old enough to smile, she radiated joy like sunshine.

"She's such a tiny floof," Mikey warbled affectionately. "She has my fingers with her fingers. April. The baby is holding my haaaannnndddd..."

"Oh Leo," April's admiration bled into the thickness of her voice. "She's beautiful."

Leo chuckled fondly at their reactions, and April marveled at him, too. Resting there with his infant daughter in the curve of his arm, tired but nearly glowing with satisfaction, Leonardo looked every bit the proud father, letting the family in close to ooh and aah over their newest member. If anyone had been holding out hope he would seek out 'normal' parents to raise this baby, they were fooling themselves. Their Leonardo held that baby like his own personal masterpiece; like he might as well have been the one who devoted nine months of his life to bringing her into the world.

Of course, Michelangelo looked hell-bent on getting him to share!

"How old is she?" April asked as she sat on the arm rest beside him, and reached down to learn what baby hair felt like: Silky soft. "She's so small..."

"I am not sure. Perhaps seven weeks or so?" Leo estimated, pale eyes growing concerned. "Is she abnormally sized?"

"I don't know, it's been a long time since I was the one reading parenting guides!" April admitted with a laugh and a one-armed hug of their most noble turtle. "But Mikey's got the internet, so if you sucker up to him I bet he'll download you an audio book."

"Yo, I bet I can figure out her exact birthday and you can do that zodiac stuff you're obsessed with!" Mikey perked up, reaching back for a pocket and drawing Leo's newsprint paper crane. He unfolded it with an apologetic look his brother couldn't see (Leo seemed touched, regardless). "Ha, it has the date!" He scrunched up his brow to count and looked his brother. "October Forth!" So almost eight weeks!

Leo made a sour face of displeasure and said, "Four is an unlucky number." Mikey laughed and elbowed him. "It is associated with death."

"Makes perfect sense!" Orange Turtle went on to Mikesplain, "She met Death and he totally gave her a pat on the head, told her to wait, and phoned the turtle squad. They'll be old friends by the time she's eighty or ninety!" Leo was initially flustered, but then smiled slightly as if enjoying that interpretation. He even ribbed Mikey affectionately for turning a down into an up.

"We should get her a checkup," April had the baby's attention, and got a big baffled eyebrow waggle and a tight press of the lips. April laughed. "Daw, I look like an alien to you, don't I? I'm the wrong color!" Her turtles blinked rapidly in surprise. The baby mewled in agreement, looking back to Leo and Mikey for reference and then back at April as if trying to figure out what in god's name was wrong with her. "Has she seen any sort of medical professional yet?"

"She's... been to a well-meaning ghetto nurse for vaccinations."

"You got her her shots?" April planted a hand (the one the baby hadn't just grabbed hold of) on her hip, very impressed. "Well done, Mr. Hamato! How did you even know that was a thing?"

"Must have subconsciously picked it up somewhere." Leonardo shrugged before confessing nervously, "I was desperate to have the bite on her cheek looked at by a qualified person."

"A rat did that?!" Mikey squeaked in horror.

Their blind ninja gave a pitiable groan as he stretched out his legs as he told the story in somber tones: "I left her alone for forty-five minutes, because I told myself I was being selfish and foolish by carrying her around nonstop. When I returned, they were in her cradle, attacking her eyes and mouth as she screamed for help. If I'd been gone even another five minutes, she and Raphael would have had depth perception issues to bond on. Or worse."

"The... the universe just betrayed me," Mikey mumbled faintly. Leo glanced his way knowingly, and April patted his shoulder.

"Well that explains why you paired up with a terrier," she realized. At the turtles' confused glances, she gestured to the puppy. "Oh, terriers are all ratting dogs; Under any other circumstances, I'd have assumed a dog running up to you with a rat carcass going 'look what I did boss, aren't you proud!?' would have been a turn-off."

Mikey squeaked and turned more green than usual, but then giggled because that bull terrier was so derpy and happy—and a very handsome dog to boot, with solid flanks that promised it would grow as steady and dependable as a brick in a year or two. "Look at that butt wag, guys!" Orange praised. "So wow! Much excitables! Too much happiness to contain in just one butt!"

"Yes well," Leo sniffed haughtily, "it gets him plenty enough trouble, that's for certain. His job is to protect the baby for a few minutes when stealth is required of me, and he knows his ridiculous obsession with licking faces is strongly unappreciated."

Mikey and April shared a look and cracked up laughing. "So much for Leo magically becoming a pet person overnight!"

"He's still not a dog person; it's just only dogs could ever possibly meet his stringent behavioral standards!"

Leo gave a slight eye-roll but then April felt his inquisitive gaze fall near her; Sleepiness seemed to have made him more expressive than usual. "Would you like to hold the baby?" He asked.

"I-I-" April sputtered, "Yes! It's my due as her aunt! Hand her over!" As Leonardo slowly gathered up the baby upon her purple blankets, and lifted her up, April could not help but feel a momentary panic. Then the eldest of her three 'brothers' was putting a baby into her arms, and she felt heat on her face and tears press at her eyes, because the baby was so warm and tiny and fragile and wonderful. She'd never gotten to do this with her own child, and everything about it felt like stealing an experience back from the grave. "Oh," she mumbled, holding the girl carefully with one hand so she could wipe tears from her face. "Look at that... Hello baby girl... Oh, don't cry, don't cry, Daddy's right here. See? Right there."

"'Daddy?'" Michelangelo repeated in confusion, before looking over at a red-faced Leonardo. "Oh that's you!" he exclaimed in understanding. "Whoa!"

"I suppose it is," Leo whispered quietly. "I suppose I am."

"W-well then," Mikey's brain was conducting a fireworks show,"you have to master saying 'My Daughter' in this wise, vaguely Japanese accent like Splinter called us 'My Sons,' Okay!? It's very important! Oh my god. Is she going to be a Ninja!? Is she going to call you 'Sensei!?' Where are we going to get a dojo!? What weapon is she going to learn?! What if I want to be 'dad' too? Gasp! You stole half of her from me. I need to work overtime to make up for it!"

Leonardo was very quiet.

The fold of his hands in his lap and the wet look of his eyes suggested he had only just realized he had a daughter.

Chapter Text

The door creaked open, bringing a halt to laughter and conspiratorial murmurs. The family's black sheep edged silently in under their stares, looking uncertain of his welcome, countenance dark and defensive. His green-eyed gaze swept them up and down, and by the annoyed sneer which twitched at his mouth he must have concluded he had every right to be there. Without a word, he crossed the room to head for the turkey broiler.

Leonardo lifted a hand to the katana hilt and eased the sword out several inches. Raphael's face contorted in an ugly grimace and he turned to his brother with a snap. "Chill the fuck out, I'm cooking in here."

"Pardon us for being in your way," Leo replied, face hard as ice as he stood.

"Leo," Mikey poked Leo in the hip. "Bro, chill, it's almost time to eat. Are you going to have your katana out at the table while you're asking him to pass the gravy?"

"If need be," Blue stared unwaveringly. 

"I ain't gonna walk eggshells around anyone," Raphael growled, turning to approach the couch. Leo had a sword tip at his breast in an instant. Raphael laughed. "Don't make me promises ya can't keep! Ya think finally got it in ya to do it? Huh?" Red taunted by leaning into the weapon. "Maybe you should. If it's finally gotten ta that point, that you're capable of it, then just do it. Go on! Kami knows how long you've wanted to; put everyone out of their goddamn mis-!"

"If I'm capable of it?" Leo interrupted at a snarl. "You tried to trick me into poisoning an infant! What are you capable of!?"

"Anything," Raphael growled ardently. "Whatever I've had to do, no matter how low; whatever kept your frigid ass and this knucklehead alive."

"You justify this under the pretense protecting me? From a baby!?" 

"You was makin' a huge fuckin' mistake. Ya's wasn't listenin ta me, not ta Mike, not ta any form of reason; That thing left ya exhausted and us at-!"

"How many times have I given you orders you've taken issue with!?" Leo's voice rose slowly, like a tide. "I am your leader, your brother; I am an adult and she is only a child! Your problems with my good judgement were arguments you needed to win or lose against me!"

"Like you ever listen' ta anythin' ya don't find first in ya own head!? Sometimes you're wrong, dead wrong, and ya don't admit it till its too late—like when a chick ya never learned ta give up on is slicin' open ya eyes—so I took the matter inta my own hands, dealt with it so you didn't have ta dirty yer pretty white-!"

Leo's katana moved to the side, making an audible grit noise as it sliced across the upper layers of the plastron. It was so sharp and moved so fast, that while the cut it drew open in the biker jacket jacket was immediately obvious, it took a few seconds for his shoulder to start to bleed. Raphael cut off mid sentence, eye flying open widen, face a mess of incredulity and curdling wrath. 

"Holy shit!" Mikey croaked, leaping to his feet and grabbing at Leonardo's shell. "Stop!"

"Get away from me," Leonardo told Raphael, his voice hoarse. 

Raphael's fingers tightened into fists that tightened the full muscles of his forearms, but Mikey gave Leo a hard shove to knock him off balance and held out his stump to stall his fractious brother just a second.

"Raphie. Hold it in." There was nothing more refined for him to beg, nothing that wouldn't set off the explosion then and there. "You," Mikey grabbed for Leo's face so he could force that blind stare down towards himself. 

Pale eyes widened slowly, diamond-hard impassiveness thawing to confusion. On blue moons and cold days in hell, Blue Leader sometimes lost dominance spats to Raphael, but Mikey? Mikey had never even fought him before at all. 

"Don't you ever cut him again," Mikey enunciated every syllable clearly. "He's hard enough on himself. You can't just leave people behind; we need to stick together and to solve this as a family! You know this isn't how to talk to him, Leo!" Orange gestured back at Red, who was seething so hot and so bitter that he couldn't even interject with a demand Michelangelo stand aside and let Leo settle this with him mano-a-mano. 

"You think I have the luxury of trying to save his soul? " Leo asked, voice a low intonation. "No, I left because I would have killed him. I finally understand the complete lack of control he feels at all times because I am breathing it. I have never, not once in my whole life, been as angry as I was when I realized what he had nearly done—what he had nearly made me do. I am telling him to stay away because I feel insane and for once in our lives it is he who must wait for me to cool off lest I break something or hurt someone."

"Then maybe empathize with him!?" Orange suggested, now plenty angry himself. "Look, Raph made a mistake! A big one, but point out one of us who hasn't done something unforgivable before and needed forgiveness anyway!"

"He has forever tarnished my trust in him, and isn't remotely apologetic! I have a child to protect; she comes first, not soothing the egos of rabid dogs."

"Rabid?" Mikey leaned close to growl at his eldest brother. "Stop it, Leo. Stop treating him like he'd ever intentionally hurt us, like some kind of sadistic monster instead of our brother who loves both of us. This isn't going to fix things-!" 

"What he did was monstrous," Leo hissed back, "not any sign of devotion! That is going to take a long time to 'fix,' if ev-"

"I didn't do shit to you!" Raphael roared at the ground, trembling violently in place and refusing to look straight at Leo. "That's what comes first, you, not them! I nevah raised a sai ta ya! I was lookin' after ya!"

Leo broke. The ice shattered, and everything gushed out in a raw scream as he push Michelangelo away and whirled on Raphael:

"I LOVED this child from the moment I first stole her from her grave, and you tried to TAKE her from me, you selfish cunt!"

Raphael jumped and looked swiftly up at him; Mikey reeled more from the vulgarity than the volume.

"I am NOTHING; I am empty! I have no vices, no hobbies, no aspirations, no future, nothing but an inability to uphold my own code honor and a gift for boring people to tears! Suddenly I felt hopeful for us, and happy for the first time since Donatello died, and you are telling me you couldn't endure five days of her tremendously inconvenient presence for my sake?! When I do not even take away your booze and cigarettes anymore!? My happiness constituted an emergency!? 

"Do you hate me so viciously that I cannot love anything without your pre-approval!? Is this your age-old hatred of me for 'taking' our father from you!? A punishment for not 'grieving enough' for him!? When he was my father too and I would have given anything to take his place and died in his stead!? When he shoved me out our home and dropped the gate behind me, telling me he could not survive watching another one of his children leave the world before him, instructing me to protect you, leaving me with the entire burden of explaining his sacrifice to YOU!?

"You are my brother! I needed your help, and instead you cut out my heart, Raphael! Why!? What have I done to deserve it!?"

The baby started crying into the ensuing silence, loud enough to eclipse her father's heavy and trembling pants. The sound of her seemed to call him back to his senses, because his gaze shifted searchingly, and he shuddered out a wave of stress and turned to try and discern exactly where she was. 

"I-I-I..." Raphael struggled to articulate, eye wide.

"I am sorry for yelling," Leo breathed faintly in a completely different and nearly airy tone of voice, katana drifting uselessly. "Please give me a moment to compose myself."

April, who had watched this exchange from the sidelines to understand where everyone stood, now stepped forward and picked up Leo's empty hand to guide his crying daughter back to him. Leo took her with a firm clasp to his shoulder and tucked his face down to—apparently—smell her. After a second he turned away to pace with her apart from them, rocking her and murmuring soft, sweet, reassuring nothings in Japanese.

His brothers stared numbly, jaws agape, perhaps finally seeing their own cracks and vulnerabilities reflected back at them instead of Leonardo's usual flawless mask. 

April brushed past Mikey, getting her hand into Raphael's before the brief grace period elapsed and all of his armor slammed shut again. He nearly jumped out of his skin and looked at her. "Come talk with me," she said to him, and tugged him when he glanced uncertainly at Leo. "Come. Just step out with me for a second." He very nearly stumbled that first step, but then followed her out of the room and into the hallway. 

She glanced about to make sure there were no other officers or aids nearby, and then turned to Raphael and settled her hands on his shoulders. The bleeding on the injured one looked to be slowing on its own. "Are you okay?" she asked him. Raphael looked to her face, so far past 'incredulous' he was nearly at 'haunted.' She framed his face with her palms and held it, having learned from years of watching Splinter's relationship with his most troubled son that Raphael needed comfort to survive a genuine encounter with self-awareness; his only other buffer against pain and self-destruction was anger. 

"He doesn't hate you," she told him, and felt him flinch. "But he's very angry, and clearly exhausted."

Raphael shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking at nothing, and grunted a terse, "Yeah." He was too blocked up with thoughts and sensations to actually say anything.

April sighed deep,  settling her hands on his arms again. "Can I tell you a story?" He bobbed his head a little, just enough to let her know he was listening. "I was pregnant once. It happened before Casey and I got together." 

The topic startled him enough that a green eye slowly worked its way up to her.

"It wasn't his child, and he knew it, but Case still loved me. Loved... him somehow—he was sure it was a boy. I asked him if he could really do such a thing, if he could raise another man's son as his own. I would have assumed there'd be some resentment, hatred or... lost masculine pride or something! But... Casey just looked at me like I'd asked if the sky was blue or grass was green and said of course." She sank back on her heels and smiled sadly at her feet, remembering. "He said he might never be smarter than that kid, but dammit if bullies picked on him, he'd be paying their parents a visit to have a 'conversation' with a hockey mask and a baseball bat. I tried to tell him that was an invalid parenting strategy, and he just laughed."

Raphael couldn't laugh, not now, but mention of Casey's irrepressible spirit made him lift his head a little and listen more.

"He might have just been trying to keep my morale high," she sighed ruefully, "but I honestly believed him. Believed the man who was comforting me, and whom I was falling in love with, was just that kind of person. Anyway, we lost that baby, and Casey was almost as devastated as I was." She was chewing her lip and rubbing her arm, but continued. "When I never managed to get pregnant again, Case and I started talking about adopting a little girl named Shadow." She lifted her head and shrugged gently. "But... then I lost him, and I couldn't do it alone. The universe seems to have decided I was made for greater things, and has repeatedly shut every single door that led to motherhood."

"Why..." Raphael nudged her sympathetically, "why, um, ya tellin' me this?" 

She looked up at him very seriously, and squeezed his biceps and forearms and then hands gently. "Because I know when the shock of that argument wears off, you still aren't keen on the decision Leo is making. I understand why you fought him over it. But please, as a personal favor, let him have what me and Casey never got to have. That baby may not biologically be Leo's daughter, but that doesn't matter to him any more than it would have mattered to Case. Or me."

Chapter Text

"Lean on me." Mikey poked and prodded and insisted, following his frantic eldest brother back and forth, until Leo stopped pacing and did exactly that, sagging weight onto him. "Thank you," Mikey hummed, earning a startled half-'glance.' "What? I'll have you know, I like being relied on."

Blue was silent a long moment before very nearly babbling: "I should not have said such things."

Mikey grabbed his shoulder, keeping his attention. "Naw bro you did fine. Telling him about how you feel was so much better than taking the moral highroad."

"Who is to say what of what I said was truth or exhaustion? I should not have-"

"You're tired, Leo, but so what? You're not supposed to be untouchable."

"I am. I am supposed to be in complete control of my emotions. It is what I was individually trained for."

"Okay, well..." That was kinda true and kinda false, but clearly it was not an argument Mikey was going to win right now. "On the rare occasion you aren't a perfect paragon of ninja virtue, Leo, It's a special form of evil to try and pretend you're unbiased." Mikey tilted his head thoughtfully. "Because then you still apply all your normal arbitrator of justice tones of voice and act like the people you're upset with are damned." Epic dramatic hand-wave. 

Leo grimaced "I shouldn't have come here, I was not ready to speak with him, and I knew I was not ready." 

"Bro, it's Thanksgiving. You think we're the only people having awkward family dinners? You didn't do anything wrong. Uh, except for cutting him and ruining his jacket. Like, if you do that again, will be the one hitting you."

Blue let out whatever he was going to say next in a deep breath through his nose.

"Hey I thought of something. Maybe I should tell you? I don't think you ever showed Raphael the baby. I don't think he checked out your face while you were admiring her. You invited me close to meet her, and I'm not sure you realize it, but you kinda... gave me time to slowly come around to the idea, and care about her, and... I dunno, sorta see what went through your head when you first picked her up. You didn't really share what you were thinking outside of that. You hid her, and didn't talk to him except to push him away."

"He was not being approachable. And you—you have a history with pets, at least. I thought she would be good for you, she made you act..." Leo grimaced. "Childish. Again. Almost like..."

Mikey hesitated, slightly uncertain how 'okay' he was with his own 'childishness.' But seeing as it seemed to be something every last remaining person in his family had missed... Mikey wasn't inclined to hold a grudge, or remind them that they'd been the ones to train it out of him in the first place. "You think you're the only one thinking about that? Bro, I have a kitten asleep in my pocket right now. A three-legged kitten. Raphael found him on the street and brought him home to me."

Leo looked towards him, and Mikey let go to reach into the leather pouch at his side and pull out a bewildered and blinking little gray and yellow bundle. "Mew?" Bazooka squeaked. Mikey carefully pulled him up to sit in the space between his shoulder and the lip of his shell, which was broad enough for even a full-grown cat to balance on easily. Bazooka had a missing arm though, and tended to fall on his face. Mikey kept his stub up there to keep track of him. 

"This is Bazooka. Zooka? Meet Raphie's big brother, Leo, and Honeybunches the babe wonder!"

Blue was silent.

Mikey smirked. "Yo, if you don't ever remind people you aren't a robot—or a wind demon—can you really blame them if they make mistakes understanding what you need or feel?"

"I blame him." That answer was clipped.

"Uh, okay, maybe bad example-"

"But I understand what you are trying to say. You and Raphael are given to speaking your minds, or at least visibly venting or taking action. My retentiveness gives me self-control and precision, but perhaps itcan undermine...."

"...communication?" Mikey suggested the finishing word.

Leo accepted that with a quiet nod. "Or, in this case, Raphael's trust in me, trust that I hadn't lost my mind."

"Well quietness is not unique to you. You're just the world's most gymnastically extroverted introvert!" Mikey chirped, nuzzling his perplexed and sleepy kitten. 

"That's all, eh?" Leo 'looked' to him, and there was a faint mist of good humor to his voice again; Michelangelo beamed. And then hugged him tightly, because their brother had been missing for the better part of two months, and he was whole and in one piece, and yikes did Mikey want to make sure he didn't pivot on heel and run out on them again in some stress-imposed delirium. Leo huffed slightly, finally noticing Mikey was hanging all over him enough to be perplexed by it. 

"Ahnyah," the baby commented, staring at the kitten almost nervously, the corners of her mouth wiggling with a frown like she was debating whether she ought to start crying. She turned her head and quite literally looked at Leo like she was expecting him to do something. It struck Mikey she was already different—growing!

Leo was quiet a moment, probably still struggling with the aftershocks of pouring his heart out and downright screaming at Raphael. Then he said, "If that kitten is clean and well-behaved, you, um, you may attempt to introduce them. Be advised she may panic under the assumption that 'Bazooka' is a rat. He would not bite, correct?"

They heard a pitiful whine and Orange looked down to see a dog sitting right next to his foot, staring up at the kitten with tail frantically a-wagging. Michelangelo thought it was adorable until he realized Bazooka might be rat-sized to more than one person in this room. Eek!

April got Raphael back in the same room and into the corner with the sink so that he could dab his shoulder wound clean.

A glance to the side told her Michelangelo had scored a three-pointer on calming Leo down and didn't need help tag-teaming him. In fact, Mikey was the one holding the baby; his powers of seduction were clearly strong that morning if he'd gotten Leo to share their tiny floof less than fifteen minutes after a decade-defining meltdown on Raphael. A kitten appeared to be sleeping on the baby, but that part was very understandable; babies were everything any kitten could want in a napmate: warm, clean, soft, smelling of milk...

The water pattered on and off along the bottom of the sink as Raphael rinsed out blood. "Are you two teaming up on us?" Raph asked her in a quiet grunt. April winked and patted his shell.

And that was when Leo suddenly sneered angrily and shouted a prohibitive: "Casey!" which caught everyone by surprise.

An answering yelp drew their attention over to the table, where a white puppy was sniffing at Raphael's beautiful turkey. Leo whistled sharply. The dog whined. Leo cocked his head to the side with a snap, and the dog visibly cowered—for all of a second, before it perked up mischievously again.

The dog dove for the lid of the broiler.

Leo was already across the room, and around the table, grabbing the canine by the throat and dragging it off to shove it to the ground through a chorus of yelps and squeals.

Even Raphael cringed in alarm, shouting, "That's not how you spank a dog!"

"Leo!" April ran forward.

"Holy crap, he's never been an animal person, he doesn't know!" Mikey exclaimed over a startled kitten and a crying baby. "Leo! Leo! Ease up!"

"Negative, he follows me daily into incredibly dangerous situations and must be obedient," Leo replied calmly over his shoulder to them.Talking to Raphael might have had him in fits, but he didn't even look remotely confused about his opinion on this dog.

"Yeah, well for life-or-death situations you should totally dominate him!" Mikey agreed, trying to keep a kitten from falling with limited appendages. "But this is like choke-holding me for stealing cookies! It's a puppy, Leo!"

"'Punishment should always be proportionate to the transgression,'" April quoted an old rat as she touched Blue's shoulder. "Discipline only goes so far, the dog needs to respect you not fear you. This is too severe, you could have just given it a little smack on the butt and moved it."

Leo hesitated, still holding the (now very quiet) dog down as he considered what they were saying. "You... do not think Raphael's reaction to a ruined Turkey would be a little life-or-death?" he mumbled slowly, visibly uncertain. Nobody had to tell him who had cooked the largest source of protein in the room.

Raphael could not help but be slightly proud that Turkeys cooked by himself were so reputable as to warrant all this commotion, and just cleared his throat and did not contribute any advice or otherwise remind Leo that the two of them were fighting.

April knew what to say anyway: "A willful puppy's not unlike a willful child, Leo. Use this to practice for how you'd discipline a toddler."

Leonardo released the dog as if it had burnt him; for what they'd all seen in his response dawned on him, a warning about his hypothetical future behavior towards his daughter. He remained kneeling there, face going through a series of emotions which he was usually much better at hiding. The baby slowly stopped crying. Their puppy laid where it had been planted for a moment, and then slowly rolled over and whimpered up at him with its ears down. It licked at the air but then closed its mouth and nosed weakly for the turtle's hand. Leo flinched slightly. "What do I...?"

"Maybe uh," Mikey suggested, "accept it's apology? So it knows you don't hate it forever now? S'okay, dogs are like super forgiving. Cats would hold a grudge for nine years."

Leo patted the dog. The dog visibly calmed down and started wagging its tail, eyes for only Leo. His shoulders slumped slightly. "I'm sorry. I overreacted," he told the animal, who pawed at his knee playfully as if saying 'daww you don't have to do that!' He patted it again, and stood, and it butt-scooted up beside him and lolled its tongue.

"So," April cleared her throat now that the adrenaline of that unusual little moment was over. "Based on a cursory visual inspection, your dog is a 'she.' You've named your bitch after my husband?"

Leo straightened and blinked rapidly. "Oh. Hmm. Even better." April punched his shoulder and he turned his eyes her way with the ghost of a smile. "Well I can't change her name now lest I confuse her. Besides, it fits her. She is extremely foolhardy, confusingly loyal, pees on anything she considers the enemy, and assaults her foes with wild, manic enthusiasm, often throwing and rolling in their carcasses, which she half-ingests, throws up, pees on, and rolls in again."

April started laughing. Almost all of them started laughing. Raphael didn't quite make a sound.

"How did you even end up with her?" Mikey choked out past laughter. "Did you go puppy shopping?"

"I shared a piece of chicken with her," Leo replied almost guiltily. "How was I supposed to know this would happen? I left her behind, and she jumped two stories down a deadly drop after me and bounced off my shell and I barely caught her before she fell the rest of the way and splattered."

"Beginner's mistake," April cackled, patting his arm. "If you feed a stray, you make a friend for life!"

New Casey barked and lolled her tongue, and smiled up at all these exciting people whom she was now pretty sure, despite all the fighting, were the members of her pack. 

Except that strange squeaky fellow sleeping on the baby, that guy was suspect. 

Chapter Text

When Raphael nudged April with his elbow and told her the turkey was as ready as it was ever going to get. While he got the carving knife and divvied up the bird, the rest of them set up a little mixed shrine for everyone who could only really attend family gatherings in spirit anymore.

As kids, it had been completely normal to see Master Splinter to set little gifts set out for dead people at the holidays, and they'd never really felt much about it or questioned it. It was mostly for Tang Shen and Hamato Yoshi, who had been strangers to the four of them, more like storybook characters than real people. Then, the first year they'd seen father do the same for Donnie... the weight of it had kinda sunk in hard. 

Somewhere in the background, Mikey, who probably still had his arm full, advised Leo a picture was backwards. That there was a damn snapshot of the reasoning behind always 'sticking together.' Raph listened to them; didn't interject. Mikey rambled, specified they needed a little bowl of mashed potatoes for Donnie, and eventually asked, "How'd you manage to get more baby formula?"

"Ah. I pretended to be a pithy, abrasive, disinterested husband, whose wife had sent him out on a petty errand he was unnecessarily piqued about. It let me avoid looking directly at anyone, keep conversations short, and ask entitled questions like 'Ugh, where do I buy more of this shit?'"

"You pretended to be Raphael?"

Leo was quiet a brief second before confessing, "Ah literally copied dat accent," and Mikey broke out laughing like a hysterical, squeaky songbird. "I'm afraid I was never the creative one."

Raphael swallowed, trapped in some weird ass place between touched and pissed; the two of them were only coexisting in the same room by not acknowledging one another. Though, come to think of it, Raph was the one serving everyone's food, and Leo wasn't bothered or making snide comments. Trusted him with it just fine. Raphael glanced over at where Mike was holding that kid.

The baby was wide awake by the time they were sitting down for dinner, and when Leonardo tried to tuck her away in her carrying satchel, she complained vociferously at him. Leo had gotten into the habit of looking 'at' her, and tried to cheer up her up with little tickles at her feet and legs as everyone passed around the green beans, but it seemed she knew exactly what she wanted and would not be appeased.

With a bemused shake of his head, Leo returned her to the crook of his arm, and she went back to staring around at everyone's face. Mikey was slightly behind her, sitting on Leo's left, and, when she couldn't get a good look at him, she flopped her head back and cried melodramatically as if the entire universe were conspiring against her. Leo set the basket of buns back down, licked some butter from his fingers and wiped them on a napkin, collected her legs and butt up in one hand, and scooped her up into a partial sitting posture against his collar and neck. "There, how is that?" he asked into her temple, and adjusted her hood so it wasn't covering the left side of her face.  

His daughter (his daughter!) blinked bewildered at this new and confusing orientation of the world. Surely not everything was meant to be up and down? Hmm. Then she perked up in surprise to stare, because Raphael was leaning near enough for her to see him clearly for the very first time as he transferred a hefty portion of turkey to Leo's plate.

At the realization that she was just as curious about Raphael as she was about Mikey—that she of course had no idea how close the former had come to killing her—Leo stiffened and breathed in slowly and silently, trying not to recoil from his brother or lash out. April had been right: She was showing a clear preference for turtle faces, and Raphael was higher on her list of interesting things to stare at than April, Bazooka, or Casey.

"Can she sit up?" Mikey asked, breaking the tension as Raphael moved to the next plate.

"She can barely hold her head up," Leo chuckled in shaky relief, reaching for the butter knife. "But she is getting stronger. Her curiosity is clearly sufficient motivation to compel her to fight gravity."

"Is that's why you're not wrapping her up like a burrito anymore?"

"Mm," he finished eating his bun and wiped his mouth before replying. "Swaddling can keep her calm, but she'd rather be 'played' with: rolled around, balled up, pulled upright, and so forth. Only her head seems particularly fragile."

"Okay I get a play-date later. Mandatory. Hey! Do you think she can try the potatoes? There aren't any lumps!"

April had their answer, "Just a taste wont hurt her."

Leo held her steady while Mikey gently touched a tiny amount of potatoes to her tongue. She wiggled and danced a little, waggling her brows, and as Mikey and April broke out laughing and Leo touched her face, he felt her making all sorts of exaggerated grimaces and excited expressions. "Ha! I think she'll need time to prepare her findings on this experiment." She made a baffled noise into his cheek. He gave her leg a gentle squeeze. "Mn. What aside from kittens have you all been up to?"

"Oh I have been waiting for you to ask," Orange purred as he reached up to tickle the baby's tummy and earned a startled jump. "I got shot! Twice! April nearly got taken out with a missile and righted a spinning out helicopter!" Leo blinked April's way and felt her give a big clear nod. "It was awesome! Raphie even made me obey an order to wait in one place and not attack the enemy! Oh, and now I have a rocket launcher!"

"Oh dear."

Michelangelo was telling the story of the warehouse battle, all out of order of course, jumping from scene to scene as he was reminded of 'awesome stuff.'

Raphael wasn't the only who noticed Leonardo was eating ravenously; Mike looked downright impressed. Was weird on two counts. First of all, it must have been at least a decade since Raph had seen Leo treat food like anything other than a mechanical need deserving of absolutely minimal interest or attention, and he usually weighed less than Mikey despite being taller—though, to be fair, Mike was also built like a crusierweight boxer. Second of all, Leo didn't look like he'd been starving himself in any act of martyrdom over the kid; if anything, he looked like he'd probably been feeding himself better. His cheeks weren't hollow to match the dark lines under his eyes. 

"Raphael," Leo said, startling him. "This is beyond delicious."

Raph literally felt his face heat and was fuckin' glad Leo was blind because that was a weird over-the-top reaction to having his cooking complemented. "S'April's turkey," he growled in answer. Okay, enough of this. Maybe he was feelin' weird because he had no idea where the shell he stood with Leo right now, and Leo wasn't makin' it any clearer. 

"You need to get some sleep tonight," April instructed as she passed the cranberry sauce to Leo. "Pick someone to help you with the baby."

Leo hesitated. There it was: The distrust. Raph glowered. 

"I am not going to take 'no' for an answer, Leo; you have no excuses and no shortage of help. If you are simply feeling paranoid, I will bunk you with me. God knows I've gone most of my life wanting to stay up with a hungry two month old, so you can at least do the courtesy of letting me experience it for a single evening when I'm otherwise so terribly good with my bedtimes."

Leo blinked slowly at her over a spoonful of cranberry sauce. "Touche."

Ape chuckled knowingly.

"Wait, want to help!" Mike interjected. "Do you think just cause you ran off with her, you're the only one who wuvs her? Leo? I was there when we found her, too!"

They were still talking about nothing but the goddamn baby by the time Raphael was washing off plates in the sink, and the foam from the soap might as well have been steam boiling off his skin. He wanted to hit something. He wanted to bust his knuckles up on Leo's jaw. He wanted to overturn the table with all the food on it, but then he didn't want to lose the leftovers. Shit was good. He'd get more peace and quiet to enjoy Tupperware filled with it than he was getting right now. 

A whimper reached his ear over the pour of water, and Raph blinked and looked reflexively down. The dog was sitting there at his foot, peering up at him with those dark wolf-like eyes sat deep in an honestly egg-shaped head. She whined and waggled her tail hopefully. Raph sniffed. Yo, how's it hangin' Fellow Omega? You waitin' on scraps from someone who ain't noticin shit, too? Raph glanced over at whether April and Mikey were sitting on the edge of the table and playing with that baby. Then he reached over to the dirty plates, and scraped together some meat and veggies into a bowl. He leaned over, and settled the food down. She literally leaked gobs of drool onto the floor and then, after glancing back across her shoulder, attacked that bowl. He gave her a hefty pat that she tried and failed to growl through. "Good girl." 

Raphael rubbed her ears and then stood with a smirk and went back to the dishes and quieter thoughts.

A sharp startled hiss caught his attention, and he looked up just in time to see Leo and Michelangelo staring wide-eyed his way. What the-? April was right there at Raph's elbow, her shoulder turned towards him.

"Look at this face she's making," April laughed, leaning her back slightly into his side, and Raphael looked at her and the kid she was holding more out of disbelief than any desire to see. "You're green and I'm smiling, but she's positive neither of us is Daddy."

'Daddy?!' If the angry raisin expression on Kermit-Child was anything to go by, Raph, Leo, and Mikey weren't the only people in the room who thought April was nuts. He tried to look back to his dishes, but April stepped between his hip and the counter, like she was being sly or something about keeping him where she wanted him.

"Isn't she just the funniest little thing?"

Raphael tightened his hands to avoid grabbing April, picking her off the ground, and shaking the bad ideas out of her. "Hilarious," he ground out. 

"Oh fine, don't enjoy her! Your loss, sourpuss. By the way, Mikey and I want to make absolutely sure Uncle Donnie knows he's on lifelong ancestral support and/or guardian angel duty, so we're going to force Leo to name her in honor of him. We've decided on Donatta. What do you think?"

"What?" Raphael croaked almost exactly the same second Leo did.

"It's the eyes, see?" April hummed so contentedly Raphael nearly asked if she was high. "She has crazy, mad-scientist hair, and the biggest, warmest brown eyes, and she's always so scrunched up, like she's thinking so terribly hard! I asked him why not 'Donatella' since its such a pretty sounding name, but then we decided those would be big shoes to feel like one is expected to fill. Best not to set any impossible standards for this poor girl, right?"

What the hell was there to say to that? What the hell?

But April let Raph go, stepping out from around him and drifting almost dreamily back to Leo—as if she hadn't just planned that whole damn thing out to a T, as if any of it had been an accident. Raphael stared after her, resenting her, respecting her, angry and awed and bitter. He stared a little too long, and got to see Leo's paranoid and shaking reaction as she fed the little girl back into his arms. Hate surged through his veins and he barely registered the shatter of ceramic as he threw down a dish, twisted around, and charged for the door. 

"R-raphael," Leo called blindly over the crown of a baby's head. 

Raphael came up short but didn't look back.

"Thank you for dinner," his older brother whispered.

His nails tightened into his palms. He hurried out the door. Air. He needed air. 


Leonardo shuddered. He didn't say anything to April, lest he 'freak out' on her; the truth was she'd probably done the right thing, something he'd been too weak or frightened to do. (And she's gotten away with it, and the baby was safe.) He centered himself as best he could on limited sleep, nearly accessing a full meditative trance right in the middle of the room. Donatta fell asleep into the warmth of his shoulder, and he breathed deeply of her. For her, everything in the world was right. Her peacefulness was contagious.

Donatta. Her name is Donatta. Her name is Donatta.

My little girl's name is Donatta, and she is perfectly safe in my arms.

Leo was nearly calm when he opened his eyes and directed his attention back to Michelangelo to say something. But then Casey started barking excitedly, and a tall person leaned an elbow on Leo's opposite shoulder while licking mashed potatoes from a spoon.

"Classic Raph," Donatello drawled, apparently unseen and unheard by April and Michelangelo. "Classic you. Together you two are like a severe case of permanently unresolved emotional constipation. You're terrible for the colon of the universe. Though," he added thoughtfully, "so are many wonderful things. Caffeine. Caffeine is terrible for the colon. Never stopped me."

Leo was rigid in terror. Barring some kind of collapse or seizure on the floor of the room, he was very much awake and hallucinating.

"Yo, bro, what's wrong?" Mikey asked him. "You just went white. Er. Light green?"

"Chill dude, its Thanksgiving," Donatello chided with a nearly audible wink, before adding with his mouth full: "I'm just here for the potatoes."

Chapter Text

"Why are you here?" Leo whispered under his breath as Mikey and April cleaned the rest of the dishes and murmured worriedly about Raphael.

"Well obviously I've come to belt Muppet Christmas Carol tunes at you a month early," Donatello explained matter-of-factly, before breaking out into a full tenor, "We're Marley and Marley, Avarice and Greed... We took advantage of the poor, just ignored the neeeddy...!"

Leo blanched when Mikey started to hum the same song.

"Wait a minute, I can do that?" Donnie wondered aloud as he spun about, excitement mounting. "Oh it is on. If Raph has 'Dancing Queen' stuck in his head for the rest of forever, you'll know exactly who to blame. It was the Ghost of Christmas Past! Boooo...!"

Leo covered his mouth, stifling a sob of despair into the palm. Donatello laughed at him and draped an arm over his shell.

"Be grateful your ghosts are sweet to you." Purple smooched his temple. "Happy Thanksgiving, Leo."

"Am I insane?"

"Sure, why not?" Donatello shrugged with a wave of his hand to dismiss the concern. "I do like to think I'd be decent company for madness. Just don't hand the incorporeal dude anything delicate. And, bro, seriously, stop trying to talk to me where other people might notice, you don't want to look crazier than you are. If I'm your subconscious speaking, then there's no reason I shouldn't know exactly what's going on inside your head. Right?"

Leonardo 'stared' in the ghost's direction.

"Right, so just think clear sentences at me or something like that. Maybe shoot me a practice one right now?"

I am hallucinating in the middle of the day.

"Technically it's late evening. On a family-oriented holiday I was explicitly invited to. My planner was full, but I heard from dad there'd be food, so I moved some things around."

I need to leave. I need to get far enough away from Raphael, I cannot sleep someplace he might– Leo spun towards the door only for his dead brother to be right there blocking the threshold instead of standing behind him. Leo bristled, goosbumps along his skin.

"And what?" Donatello sassed angrily, leering down at him, breath suddenly cold as ice. "Leave her to mend all the bad blood between you two when he's a fifty year old dangerously estranged uncle, and she finally runs into him as an adult? Or do you plan on killing him? And what about Mikey, are you going to abandon him, too? April?"

Leo wasn't sure how to respond. His new 'conscience' had clearly thought this through, and Leo himself was exhausted.

"You... oh, you need to understand that part of what you feel is trauma, Leo," the ghost murmured, pretenses of anger dripping away as he reached forward. Leo felt warm three-fingered hands cup his face, and the realness of them sent weakness through him. "Your cycles of feuding and reconciliation give you an unspoken, mercurial bond with Raphael," Purple intoned. "He picks up on your feelings, and you rely on him for that. He calls you out when you are biased, drags you out to spar when you are melancholy; sometimes the two of you even share weird, silent moments of fraternal understanding which are enigmas to the rest of us. And he betrayed you."

I need to prioritize the helpless one in this equation. Leo breathed deep, trying to gather his strength.

Donatello scoffed. "You think to do that with self-sacrifice, by resolving to bare the pain of a lost brother? To cut him loose like a gangrene limb as if your siblings do not mean everything to you? As if this family doesn't mean everything to him, too? Leo. Don't be stupid. Raphael is not a lost cause, and you struck back at him so thoroughly it bordered on cruelty. You are angry, justly angry, and I agree both your personal pain and your moral indignation are valid—I'm not arguing with that. But Mikey pushed back against you for a reason. Raph's our brother and you need his help, and you aren't to leave him behind like he doesn't matter, like he's too far gone to have any value in this whole equation."

"What... what do I do...?"  Leo whispered into the touch of this... thing, this spirit or projection of his subconscious or whatever it was. 

Donnie smiled fondly. "Lead. Rally him back to your banner. Recruit him back to the team. Our fates are intertwined, our family is the only strength we have, and you need to see more of his potential than the 'threat' he can pose. Her and his future odds of survival are directly linked. Without him, you're denying her a pillar of our family; without her, you are denying him a purpose. You need him. She needs him. We need him."

"Our new dog has peed on the floor." April did a double-take of their family shrine. "And apparently ate all Donnie's potatoes! Casey!"

She did not hear Donatello's smug giggle. "Ah, yes, excellent; Blame 'Casey!'" Pause. "Wait, that sounds like I peed on the floor. Clarification: I did not."

The puppy had been smiling up at 'nothing in particular,' but turned at the sound of her name and tilted her head to the side with an apologetic mumble for whatever she'd done wrong. April shook her head, charmed and amused, and went to see if they had a mop.

"April? I put out some pumpkin pie out for Tank Teen. Omigod. We forgot to tell Leo about-! Leo? Leo? Uh, hey, Ape," Mikey chattered as he stole a hot water kettle and a wash basin from a cabinet. "I think Leo needs sleep pretty much immediately."

"I concur," Leo whispered in agreement, face gray, looking dazed and terribly out-of-sorts. 

"Come on," Mike reached out with his bad arm to guide his exhausted brother out. "I'll show you where we're staying, you can have my bunk till morning and then-"

Leo stopped in his tracks and his face screwed up in anger. Mikey looked worriedly back at him. "I have no wish to cohabitate with Raphael."

Mikey breathed deep. "Raph's not going to do that again."

Leo chuckled hoarsely. "Then he oughtn't have done it once."

"He doesn't have a motive. Every single person here has told him the baby's off limits: You vomited emotions on him, I went berserk and nearly killed him with his own sai, and April punched him in the face and said it was from Casey."

Leo's blind eyes flashed his way, and stubborn anger faded to uncertainty. 

"If he were to hurt her now, he'd lose everyone," Mikey said, weary of this, tired, and on the verge of simply blurting out the story of Raphael's newest scars. You nearly lost us. You would have found us dead and decomposing in a shed—and probably eaten out by rats, I've just learned. 

Leo opened his mouth to say something but then grimaced suddenly and seemed to think better of it.

"Bro," Mikey shook his head. "We're all holding on by threads, none of us know what to do with ourselves. You're the head of this family. What Raphael did was horrible, but he looks up to you." Leo's eyes widened slightly. "To tell him what his role in the team is, to tell us what the plan is, and why it's a good one. Are you really gonna walk away from us again? Throw him away?"

Leonardo was quiet a long moment. 

"No," he answered solemnly, and only when he could be certain of its veracity. 

He stepped after his brother.

Behind them,Donatello lingered just a moment, watching as April O'Neil—

No, April Jones, now

—mopped up after the puppy, despite having a fortress full of people to do it for it.

She had been twenty-four the last time he saw her. Now she was forty-two, and her red hair had grayed early as red usually did, and her face was lined, and she was beautiful. He smiled wistfully, sadly, with the weight of a thousand things simply lost and left behind forever across the span of years and years, and more years. A lifetime which had never been lived. 

Her clothing was all new aside from a very familiar, tattered, rolled up, violet headband.

"Goodbye," he whispered the most important unsaid word, and leaned over to silently deposit a handful of ice-cold yellow chocolates on the counter.

When Michelangelo found the top bunk of their room empty, and all of Rapahel's gear gone, Leo took one look at his little brother's face and then calmly laid his own palette on the floor space.

Mikey turned lifelessly to look at him. "Wh-what are you...?"

"He will be back," Leo said with a gesture to Raphael's bunk. "Leave it open for him. It will say to him that he has not been replaced."

"So y-you're staying? For sure?"

"I will not leave you dreading abandonment." Leo picked up Casey, and began to wash her paws. "But Raphael will be back."

Mikey stared for a moment and then pulled out his own futon and laid it beside Leo's. "You won't leave when it's my turn to sleep?" Mike asked nervously. "I don't have to be on guard to notice you sneaking out so I can shadow you?"

Leo choked a laugh and ducked his head. Seeming incredibly subdued, he shook his head. "Just promise me..." Blue breathed deep, "promise me, Michelangelo, that you will protect Donatta whenever I can't."

Eee! He liked the name!? "Bro, with my life. But..." Mikey sat with him, "I don't think it's going to be like that. Not this time." The puppy lolled her tongue at him, and Leo, and then up to their left at nothing in particular. "Yo," Mikey joked, "think ya need a toothbrush for her, too?"

Their neat-freak blinked. "That is an excellent idea." Mikey slapped his hand over his own face. "I have seen this creature intentionally consume feces, Michelangelo. And then attempt to lick people." Leo shuddered, and dried the dogs paws one at a time. She tried to kiss his face and he recoiled and pushed her head to the side. This ended up being problematic, because she caught sight of where Bazooka had crawled out of Mikey's pocket to pad around on the futons with his little nails stretched out.

Casey lunged!

Leo and Mikey both caught her and shouted 'No!' simultaneously. They woke the baby up and she warbled in surprise. Leo blinked rapidly and 'looked' around for a moment as if heavily disoriented and trying to 'find' something. Mikey didn't have time to figure out why, cause he needed a dog not to eat his kitten in the middle of the night! "No no, Casey," he said, picking up Bazooka and kissing the cat and then slooowwwlly presenting him for Casey's inspection.

Casey flopped her head to the side, but was apparently very good at processing 'no' because she stuck her head forward and sniffed up and down and left and right all over that kitten before breaking out into those licks Leo'd been mentioning, covering Bazooka from tummy to ear in one biiigg, slobbery tongue-wipe. Bazooka blinked dazedly, confused by what had just happened.

Casey had probably just gotten away with her first unscolded lick in months, and immediately gave another one, and then she scooted forward, wagging her tail like a maniac and licking Bazooka over and over again. Bazooka slowly, wobbly and unbalanced, and nearly being knocked over by each lick, slowly turned back to Michelangelo. He mewed in an effort to ask whether this whole situation was good or bad, and whether Mikey ought to seriously be considering rescuing him from this unexpected deluge.

Mikey didn't know one way or another, but he figured he was going to end up with a sopping wet kitten if this continued unabated, and tried to hug Bazooka to himself and pet Casey. He-he! He ended up the target of all her licks. "Leo," he snickered under the onslaught. "Poor Casey just desperately wants to luv on someone is all!"

Leo made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat, situating his blankets, disposing of his coat and outer ware, and loosened his kimono, perhaps with the intent of sharing body warmth. "Let me hold her with me until she needs to be fed," he said.

"But won't it wake you up when I picked her off of you?"

Leo hesitated. 

"It's okay," Mikey promised. "I'll be right against you so you can tell where she is while you're dosing off! Besides, you promised me a play-date. Show me how to entertain this tiny muppet!"

"... Lay down and set heron your plastron. Roll her onto her belly, and she'll push herself up a little." Mikey scrambled to comply, kicking off his shoes and snuggling up beside Leonardo to taking the baby. She couldn't lift her butt at all, but she did manage to clear his plastron with her head, big eyes staring at his face. Leo reached over, gently easing her into a roll and guarding the side of her head. Mikey grinned, lifting his stump to help balance at her as he tickled her little rolls of fat and pudgy thighs and feet.

This ended up being the right orientation, because Leo was down for literally thirty seconds after that before it was very clear he was struggling to stay awake. "Uh," Mikey nudged him. "Do you need me to actually like stand guard so you can-?"

Leo flung an arm around Mikey's middle, squeezed, dropped his head, and was out. Mikey peeked down at him and grinned from ear to ear.

Then Casey squinted at him suspiciously, smiled big, and revealed the reason for all Leo's preemptive paw washing. She trotted onto futon, flopped down behind Leo's knees, rested her head and one arm across his shin like he required her vigilant protection, and went to bed, too.

Whereupon Mikey decided he could survive one more stupid night of not knowing where the hell what kind of trouble Raphael was getting into. He beamed down at poor sleeping Leo, and then looked back to the curious baby and touched his nose to hers. "Hi precious," he whispered to her puzzled blinks. "I think your name really is Donatta now...! And, like, you keep to keep it this time! Do you know where it comes from?"

Blink blink! Bazooka walked across Mikey behind her, looking for somewhere to crash. Suddenly: Very serious thinking facial expression! "Awah?" she postulated.

"That's right, you got it from uncle Donnie! Man, lil dudette, do I got some stories to tell you about that turtle, he was crazy smart. One time he made this awesome laser which-!

Chapter Text

[Sometime October-December, unknown date]

He'd watched. Done his research.


Every real bath house left standing was still held by Foot splinter-factions, regardless of exactly what services were on their menu. Some of them were built of wood and rice paper, like they might as well have been dug out of ancient Japan and popped into a modern setting, with high walls and barbed wire to keep opportunistic ninja flunkies from entering through anything but the front door. Others had renovated hotels and skyscrapers, modifying only the external decoration of the architecture to draw off Shinto themes. 

There were usually gardens all over them, leaking from every window and spilling out of the grounds. Gardens, sakura trees, little waterfalls, and ponds filled with koi. Guards kept watch from the rear as older madams greeted people at the door with servants in waiting, wearing a splendor of decorative color on bright kimonos. In and out went couples who wanted relaxation, high-ranking officers, working guys on their days off, groups of lady friends in need of a spa. 

The ones not held by actual clan factions had been overrun, burnt, trashed, or reduced to mechanical dime-a-dozen whore houses—or slave pens for gang prisoners.

Most of the people who worked in the bathhouses also lived in them, and lots of those people just stayed inside day-in, day-out; half because they were shackled to the economics of low pay and high room and board, but half because the world outside was a hell compared to the world inside. For the small price of unflagging politeness and excellence of service, they got to hide behind the protective walls of bouncers, rules, healthcare, and political power in a place where things remained fragrant, beautiful, still, and tidy. 

Some still left, be the errand personal or sourcing food and supplies for the bathhouse. Was pretty common to see girls leave in large groups with baskets in hand all dressed in light pastel sun dresses and over-cute puffy winter coats and boots, with faux fur, impractical stuff nobody else could have kept clean, to make it obvious they were 'important' but off duty, as they went to pick out fresh fruit for themselves and buy combs or whatever. Men mostly left to smoke and let off steam before going back to being patsy ass-kissers to whoever wanted to yell at service staff for faster drinks and imaginary imperfections for the next six hours.  

His target, however, that one always went out alone with the straight-backed ultra-polite demeanor still on full-blast, gliding upon perfectly placed footsteps, and covered up in a dull coat and shawl.

And he'd studied her route well enough to get in the way of it. 


He elicited no jump or instantaneous alarm, but her face did grow puzzled, and she turned about to try and find who was speaking to her. She caught sight of the smoke from his cigarette. "Sumimasen...?"

"Watashiniha anata no tame no meidai ga aru,"  he explained the purpose of the conversation.

Rather than be intimidated, the woman smiled and gave a bow."Gomeiwaku o okakeshite sumimasen," she apologized with grace that nearly itched it was so believable and real, "Watashi wa Gendai Madamu no yokujō de nomi kokyaku o ukeireru koto ga dekimasu. Anata wa sono rūto o shitte imasu ka?" Her place had a non-competition clause, of course, and her best avenue for diverting unwanted attention from herself was to steer people there. 

But then it took three guesses why he was even talking to her. "Naze watashi wa soko ni iku koto ga dekinai to sōzō shite kudasai." He took a drag of the cigarette.

She peered up at him. "Watashitachi wa izen ni atta koto ga arimasu ka?"

That was sharp of her, seein' as not much of him was visible. "Watashi wa genkin o motte imasu. Haraimasu." 

"It is not about pay. I am in your debt, but I am bound by rules," she said, in English for whatever reason. "My livelihood is at stake. My home. My healthcare, my retirement, my safety."

"Zhat so?"

"The rules are simple. I cannot contract a venereal disease; If my birth control fails, I cannot refuse an abortion; and most importantly, I cannot take clients outside of my contract. These are the clauses for dismissal without severance pay." Her Japanese accent was thick, and that was despite the fact that she wasn't even ethnically Asian. Probably Spanish, if anything.

"I have a thousand cold," he held up the wad so it was visible. "Anata wa ni-do kangaete mo ī?"

That got her attention, but she seemed more confused than anything. "Watashi wa totemo kachi ga arimasu ka?"

He laughed. "Well not for ya looks. But discretion? Maybe."

"It is for but once?" she wondered, squinting. 

"Here's the deal, and once ya hear it ya don't get ta go back and think on it. Ya 'home' is swarmin' in Foot and there's a price on mah head bigger than I can pay, so I ain't trustin' ya the second ya out of my sight. One thousand; three hours. Figuah ya usual pay's a sliver off the top of fifty a pop, n' most of it goes to dat 'madamu' ya work for?"

"Kyodaina shazai, yūkan'na herupā o ukeirete kudasai. Watashi wa okane wa hitsuyō arimasenga, sekyuriti."

Ha. Well, he couldn't exactly blame her priorities. Maybe it was better that way. Lot of work had gone into what was fundamentally an incredibly risky idea he still wasn't sure he even liked. He waved to dismiss her. "Oyasuminasai."

She was quiet a moment. "You are not going to insist?"

"Ha. Lady, if I wanted to 'insist,' think ya could fight me off? Scream? I think you'd shut up fast enough with some duct tape and a few cuts. Here's a question: Would I be payin' a thousand for a wet hole?"

The whore considered this. "Anata wa sekkusu igai no sābisu o shitaidesu ka?"

He had no reason to answer that, but he did. "Anata wa san jū no toshi no shojo to hanashite imasu. Mezurashī buhin de."

"Anata wa ai o tsukuritaidesu ka? Ai to onajiyōni?"

He grimaced and didn't acknowledge anything one way or another.

"For your one thousand, for your three hours, for you, I will do this."

He was quiet a moment. Then he kicked off the wall and landed on ground level, and he took his time standing up to his full height and step forward to loom over her in all his ugliness, in the full freakishness of his skin color and scales. "You positive of what you're agreeing to? Cause you say 'yes' and I'm expectin' the follow-through, and—fair warnin—it ain't even where ya expectin it ta be."

She did not look him up and down, holding his gaze so solidly it threw the whole submissive, demure, service-industry thing she otherwise seemed to have going for a loop. "For such a high commission, Tenshisama, I should be expected to learn to adapt."

He had no idea of what to do, no expectations, no fantasy he'd been sitting on, and no particular motivation to explore her. He didn't undress her—wasn't interested—and the heavy ties of her full kimono at the back, with all their layers, created the illusion of something thicker and more sturdy than an ugly ass pink peeled shrimp.

If anything, he was poised waiting to see if he'd planned wrong and was about to get a tail of enemy ninjas on his ass in a compromising position. All the better he really had no qualms about fighting naked. 

She didn't need any direction, and she wasn't going to get any. He almost didn't care. The warm hands smoothing over his natural abdominal armor, finding the grooves and scars, studying the muscles of his arms, were a stranger's hands. They were almost unbearable, and he wanted them off of himself; unpleasant, violating distractions. And when the fingers found his hips and the thumbs traced down his groin muscles, honestly all he thought about was how long an injury there would take to heal before he could be expected to walk again; how hard it was to bandage, how much blood it'd leave.

She'd found the plastron featureless over his pelvic bone and he sneered to himself as she hesitantly felt lower and under him. "Yup," he laughed mirthlessly. Her fingers traveled further back, a gentle pressure on delicate skin, till she butted into the tail and the slit of the cloaca. He wasn't particularly aroused, and snorted when she thumbed at it. Her eyes lifted to his face, and he glanced at her. 

"You are in love with a woman," she decided.

"Tch. Whoever taught you to read fortunes needs ta be fired."

"I do not inspect the leaves of tea." Her fingers slipped around the back of his tail and then, unexpectedly, scratched down the scales. The sensation of friction—of vibration—caught his attention. "I read the tragedies in the faces of men."

"Tragedies?" he raised a brow.

"Of course. This is not a business of creating new happiness, Tenshisama. It is one of balming pain. Loneliness. Loss." Her nails traced down the front of his breastplate.

"Then ya species calibrations are off."

"I did not say you plan to do anything with this woman. You respect her far too much. You admire her, look up to her. But she is above you, and well out of reach, and you are not worthy." The whore crept back so smoothly on the futon she might as well have been half liquid, "But you still wish to know—to steal knowledge of—what that intimacy could have been like. To defy the world. Which is why you are here with Nobody," she lowered herself, brushing her mouth down the center line of his plastron, "To replace the smell of a woman you respect with the smell of Nobody, to replace her face with a blur, courtesy of Nobody; to render gray and harmless your fantasies. To place her back in a safe part of your mind, to punish yourself, to smear dirt on and forbid yourself and seal the certainty of what you are: lowly." She traced gently along the crest of his hip and the blood vessel leading down to his groin muscle, "And yet to pretend, just once, at the experience of being loved."

Her hand disappeared under him again, and this time the fingertips were lubed with massage oil when they found his cloaca and delicately followed the line of it. The palm smoothed 'innocently' over him as if ignorant of how it caught on the lip of slit, as she took a firm grip down to the tip of the tail, nails clicking down the scales on the back of the tail, skin flush and oiled along the underside. Then the touch reversed, and the palm slipped back between his groin muscles and legs, and down one leg to the inside of his knee.

"Have you the past experience of a kiss?"

Raphael eyed her up and down. "Na."

The whore smoothly pushed herself back up again, fingers running up his hip, and his arm, and to his shoulder. The way she tilted her head, splayed her fingers over the back of his neck, and studied him left him begrudgingly curious, open to finding out what this would taste like.

The whore learned and taught him to kiss simultaneously, navigating around his beak. Light press. Longer press. Lip, tongue, teeth. Her fingers on the vulnerable spaces of his throat turned into brushes of the mouth, flicks of the blade of the tongue, and then bites. He breathed slowly through them, easing a hand around the small of her back for 'control' over how far she sat up to kiss or leaned forward into him, but not exercising the pressure. 

"I shall be the best of Nobodies, Tenshisama," she said into his skin. "No name; no story. Plain of face; sensitive to the three pulses and their meanings; skillful in the art. A stranger for three hours, sharing the same space, on the same dirty road, a moment lost to the dust."

Skin, flavor, heat, smell, salt; the brush of long legs under the hand, the weight of them, the heartbeat against the heel of the palm, radiating from the thigh muscles.

He was about to be an unpleasant fit and he knew it. It took one look at a naked dude or a glimpse of a porno to know what she was built for, and that wasn't what a turtle looked like. The dimensions were off—the whole utility of the thing was off. As quiet and studious as she was being, touching, squeezing—shit—tickling the folds and sinuses surrounding the... the delicate head, it was another thing deciding how to wad it up and stuff it inside. 

The way she took it in both hands and worked massage oil into the tissue of it was way past anything he could imagine doing for himself. He dropped his head into the fabric where her smell collected in the fold of the kimono, and after a bit reached down to at least figure out what he had to squeeze into. The kisses which fell on his collar bone and the inside of his arm made him drip with anticipation.

"S-shhowww me..." he snarled down at her, energized, every nerve alight, the eagerly shaking tiger with three-fingered claws fisted in the fabric on either side of her. He bit down on her kimono, drinking in the smell of skin and sex. His thrusts shakily stilled so he could ask this question, tail curled forward to guide and support the flush underside of his member. As long as he wasn't stubbing his own tail, he wasn't crushing his hard plastron into soft skin, either; his hips didn't have to meet hers at all and it worked just fine.

"Which part?" she asked, voice deep, her nails tracing the scutes across his belly, the scratch of keratin an insanely provocative detail that left his tail twitching and the whole length of him curling and struggling to flex and open and undulate against tight confinement.

"Show me... why ya ain't enjoyin' it... as much as I am."

"You will need a free hand," she intoned almost like nothin' at all could faze her or distract her from all that calm and poise, which was insane given how much of himself was inside her. "And a gentle touch."

He leaned his weight onto one knee, feeling every micro-movement and jolt in his tail, and he gave her a hand.

His fingers were thick and not exactly human, but she placed oil on them and brought them down to touch the forward 'corner' of her slit instead of the actual opening. He wasn't sure exactly what she wanted, and the pads of his fingertips were broad, but when his first gentle dabs and strokes sent a jolt of tension through her legs—reflexive pleasure—he started feeling around to learn how he'd caused it. 

He could tell the difference, after a minute. He'd touched himself and the soft folds around the head to know what erectile tissue felt like, and sure enough when given enough exploration and light touch, the soft flesh started puffing up, enough for him to run into a firm, pea-sized little part mostly buried right in the center 'pocket' of that forward corner of flesh, easing out just enough to handle—with care—to tease around and to bother, and it earned him a rush of softly murmured sounds and twitches from her.

Wasn't that a crazy cruel fucking trick of biology? That was the sweet spot right there—altogether the equivalent of her head—and it wasn't even on the inside. There was no part of a dude's penis—his or any human's—which touched this bit of her while going in and out; her pelvic bone was literally in the way. But the juice oozing out around his member was proof of its importance, and that smelled amazing—like a drug he'd earned—and he eased his hips back and pushed in again to the conclusion she was tighter but he slid through the pressure like butter.

"Dōka dekimasu ka," she implored, and it turned out he'd earned even more, because her voice was thick and heavily affected, "angle upward...? Towards my belly."

He got his hands under her hips and picked her up and eased his lips low, which put his groin even farther away from the delicate outer parts of her. More proof hands were needed. A shudder went through her skin.

"Soko," she said, as the length of him slid up under her pelvic bone and past what felt like rough vertical muscles with dips between them. "There," she whispered again, and the quaking of the muscles in her legs had him eager and giddy and ferocious as he dragged her hips repeatedly into himself to push into that place she'd chosen. Eventually he got a knee under her and released her with one hand to just reserve the fingers entirely to ghost her sweet-spot. Her nails raked his armor over his belly, and against the roughest places of his scales, and her fingertips slid slick over his skin; all friction and vibration and intimate little touches. She bit at his neck.

He knew nothing about this woman, he didn't find humans sexy, and he hadn't undressed her even enough to see her breasts; and yet the smell of her sex was now eternally seared into his brain, and had him drunkenly roaring and growling reptile noises into her.

He got to find out what a chick's orgasm looked like because it clamped down on him and sent undulations of pressure down the length of her walls and the length of him like ocean waves. The understanding of what he'd accomplished overtook him like a shock of lightning from the top of his head to the tip of his tail, and the rush of his orgasm hit with a crocodillian wheeze, a growl which rumbled down long and low through the bones of his body. He hung there over her as every tiny tug or weave of his hips, and certainly every pulse of her body, sent euphoric shudders down his rigid spine. 

Usually took about a full sixty seconds for any of them to climax, during which he was tense in every muscle of his body. The way it had been explained to him, the sensations had to keep them immobilized long enough for an, er, slightly less efficient pumping mechanism to get everything out in two to four involuntary muscular clenches.

Then the delirious, full blown hijack of his nervous system abated and he was left shaking so hard he nearly collapsed on top of her. Sounded like a small concern but he could seriously injure a person by falling them. The closest thing in size to a giant mutant turtle was a Galapagos Tortoise; those things could weigh six hundred pounds. Raphael was about four-fifty. 

He recovered beside her. The smell of his sex and of hers was thick, and he basked in it. If she'd called the Foot and sicked em on him right there, he'd have just let them kill him and died. The arm she slipped around his neck, and the hand which cupped and stroked his face, felt appreciative, like he'd at least worked for some small part of it.

Whether she was just kicked to shit, didn't have an excuse for returning back to the bathhouse at this hour, or simply didn't want to go out into the cold yet, she stayed for a bit. Past the time she was on the clock. He didn't talk to her or ask why, cause she was right: he didn't actually want to know. He pulled up the duvet to keep her warm, bundled his arms around her, and drank in the first, last, and only exposure to a smell he was going to be jacking off to for the rest of the conceivable future. She turned a kiss into the top of his head, and counted the scutes down the side of his shell with her fingers, like there weren't anything weird or unusual about what kind of thing she'd just had roaring and rutting on top of her. She found the long scars on his forearms, and knew what they were, and caressed them once and turned them into herself and held them there. He dozed.

For three hours more, two middle-aged strangers who were standing at an unpromising crossroads between equally unpromising life paths, shared each other's company and rested in the silent understanding of it; there wasn't much right or wrong about it, and it was comforting, and there hadn't been any judgement.

Konbanwa. Good Evening
Sumimasen...? Pardon me?
Watashiniha anata no tame no meidai ga aru. I have a proposal for you.
Gomeiwaku o okakeshite sumimasen. Please forgive me for causing you trouble.
Watashi wa Gendai Madamu no yokujō de nomi kokyaku o ukeireru koto ga dekimasu. I cannot accept clients outside of Gendai Madamu's bathhouse
Anata wa sono rūto o shitte imasu ka? Do you know the route to get there?
Naze watashi wa soko ni iku koto ga dekinai to sōzō shite kudasai. Imagine why I can't go there.
Watashitachi wa izen ni atta koto ga arimasu ka? Have we met before?
Watashi wa genkin o motte imasu. Haraimasu. I intend to pay you.
Anata wa ni-do kangaete mo ī? Does that make you reconsider?
Watashi wa totemo kachi ga arimasu ka? Am I worth so much?
Kyodaina shazai, yūkan'na herupā o ukeirete kudasai. Watashi wa okane wa hitsuyō arimasenga, sekyuriti. Many pardons, courageous helper. It is not the money I need, but the security.
Oyasuminasai. Good night.
Anata wa sekkusu igai no sābisu o shitaidesu ka? Is sex the only service you require?
Anata wa san jū no toshi no shojo to hanashite imasu. Mezurashī buhin de. You are talking to a thirty year old virgin. With unusual parts.
Anata wa ai o tsukuritaidesu ka? Ai to onajiyōni? Do you want to be made love to?
Tenshisama Honorable Angel.

* Note: Author does not actually speak Japanese, making suggestions/corrections quite welcome.

Chapter Text

One of April's discreet procurement crews had made an interesting find in their other warehouses, and shipped some genetic materials on ice to the Resistance Headquarters overnight. April sort of wanted to share the news with someone. Since no bigger emergencies were afoot, she went in person to see where her turtles had gotten to.

She found their giant red diva missing, and though it miffed her she immediately regretted pushing him so hard. Maybe he had been getting worked up over feeling left out, but clearly she'd picked the wrong way of bridging the gap. Even a slight difference in tactic, like pulling him over to the baby, might have changed everything about how he'd felt at the end. Raphael had a sharp mind, but he had firecracker emotions at the end of innocent-looking fuses.

But the other two were balled up together like happy moss-covered boulders, with their pets flopped all over them, and a baby blissfully asleep in the wrap of their arms. Apparently someone had finally convinced Leonardo his little Donatta needed more than one parent. Good! Though if Mikey succeeded in his campaign to get her to call them both 'Dad,' Raphael would surely have plenty of jokes to lob at the 'happy couple!'

April grinned, leaning in the threshold and watching them for a bit. Then she came up and knelt, resting a hand on Leonardo's shell because he typically came awake the least violently of any of them when disturbed. "Hey," she murmured as he shifted. Once slate-blue but now milky-gray eyes blinked sleepily up at her. "Feeling better?"

"Yes," he did admit. "Thank you for your insistence, April."

Aw. Shucks. It had been a long time since she'd been able to really enjoy their company, and  Leo had always been the hardest to pin down of the three—the most aloof. She'd gone years barely sharing words with him. Mikey and Raphael were easier nuts to crack, and she hoped they'd stick around to help her sleuth through warehouse data looking for clues as to the ultimate fates of missing friends. Raphael in particular was surprisingly good at investigative data analysis, and Mikey was always eager to help. But as to Leo, she'd just have to seduce him into keeping this uplifting bundle of joy nearby for a few more weeks: "I've booked us and Donatta her very first pediatric checkup later. Two pm," she told him with a tap on his snout, and he gave a nod of acknowledgement. "Mind if I borrow the cute brother?"

"Noooooo," groaned Orange feebly. "S'Leo Cuddling Day, they're, like... as rare as Leap Years... You have to sleep in for them. It's a turtle thing."

"It's almost noon, Mikey, you can't keep Leos in bed any longer than that, they wilt if you don't feed them jasmine tea and a tidy diet of early practice kata." A huff from Blue Turtle sounded more scandalized that he'd lost track of time than anything. Mikey made a 'blaaahhh.' "Besides, I need your advice on something incredibly scientific."

"Oh, Donatello is surely rolling over in his grave," Leo muttered as Mikey sprung up with delight, and woke a baby, who immediately demanded breakfast.

Which was how April got to feed baby Donatta for the first time ever. She didn't realize she was crying until Leo reached over to touch her face and 'see' it for himself, but it was worth it because he scooted closer to her, and Leo was a hard turtle to get moments of closeness from.

'Tank Teen' was an upbeat little nickname that helped blunt the sting of a piteously unfair fate. Raphael had advocated to have the plug pulled on his life support soon, and of course he was right. April hadn't been certain what any of their reactions would be if she actually did manage to find him, but watching Mikey set out pumpkin pie to welcome his little spirit into the family ancestral pantheon had been rough. Rougher than witnessing revulsion or disownment. 

"What are they?" Mikey wondered aloud, jerking her out of her thoughts as as he walked around the lab room's newest installation: It was a display of four cylindrical tubes off to the left of the main tank. 

"Blastocysts," April replied, placing her hands on her hips. "My guys found them on ice and their numbers matched some of the experiments derived from Tank Teen."

"Blasto-whats?" Mikey blinked up at her.

"Extremely early-level embryos," April explained, holding up her hands to indicate a spherical shape. "They look like a whiffle ball or sweetgum seed pod, hollow and covered in briars for attaching to a womb. There's a packet of stem cells clumped on the inner wall, and that's what potentially grow into–"

"–a baby?" Mikey perked up, face cracking open with barely restrained joy.

"That's the idea," April agreed, please to have received a positive reaction. "Of course the scientists were just getting them to this state to extract that packet of cells and make things from it. These were in storage, and we're not sure if that means something's wrong or peculiar about them."

"Oh," Mikey looked back down at them. They were too small to see with the naked eye, but they'd been wrapped in visible packets of synthetic nutrients. "What um, what are you gonna do with them?"

"We've warmed them back up," her lead researcher explained. "So we're about to find out of they're still viable."

"You're gonna try and let them grow?" Mikey looked swiftly to her and then to April. "Really?" April nodded. "Whoa! How's it gonna work? How can you even tell if they're alive?!"

"It's very hard to tell anything just yet," the researcher explained for April. "At this stage they'll either keep growing, stagnate permanently, or outright fall apart. It all has to do with whether they have a complete genetic code. The problem is we can't even DNA test them to see what's inside, because they literally only have so many cells to lose and each and every one of them is important. Completely nonviable embryos can get to this state before giving up and being reabsorbed into the body—or, well, they would if they were in a body. If one dies, we can try to make some kind of prediction about the viability of the others. "

"Do they have to be in a body?" Mikey wondered.

"Actually we have the tech to grow them right in a tube!" the researcher announced a little proudly, adjusting her glasses. "Which is kindaaa creepy, but possibly no weirder than them just growing in an egg... That's the thing, we're not sure what they're supposed to be inside, and artificially implanting embryos in a human womb is... a non-exact science. During fertility treatments, you usually mix up and throw about sixteen embryos in and hope for the best that even one manages to stick. Even if these were normal, predictable human blastocysts, the odds that one of four would successfully implant on a surrogate mom is actually quite low. And we can't inject them into eggs either, because there are no turtle eggs lying around—and haven't been since the age of the dinosaurs—which would be large enough to eventually support a humanoid infant."

"So... they're kinda safer in the tube," Mikey realized, looking back down at them.

"As 'safe' as anyone knows how to quantify," the researcher agreed. "We're not even sure what temperature to have them develop at. Turtle eggs don't incubate very hot, and different turtles have different core body temperatures, and this is a hybrid on top of things. suggested trying all four at four separate temperatures."

"I arbitrated we would use human body temperature for all of them," April said. "Which is also Tank Teen's resting body temperature. I figured we'd randomly give Mutagen the benefit of the doubt it could create a self-perpetuating species. Why not? Plus the blastocyst shape is a pretty good clue the embryo thinks it's a mammal and is supposed to be in a womb; it would have taken another form if it expected to attach to a yolk. What do you think?"

"Is..." he was worried for them, and understood their information was limited. "Is the only other option just to trash them? Along with the other experiments?"

"I could put them back on ice and hope more detailed instructions for our new sea monkey kit show up," April joked gently to ease the mood. "But seeing as we haven't any indication the scientists ever raised up a full clone of him, I think we're on our own. Plus, the longer this goes unresolved, the more loose ends I'm leaving untied. Raphael won't be the only person breathing down my neck."

"So you figured you'd just give them a one-in-a-million chance," Orange understood as he peered into the cylinders. "How long will it take till we know more?"

"Well!" the researcher cleared her throat. "Assuming they're viable and progress at the rate of a human, they'll still be just a microscopic, completely straight digestive track and some straight vertebrae ten days from now. But then things will get really exciting really fast in about six days, they'll look like little alien fish with their heads and all sort of nubs growing in. The eyes will start, the heart will start, and soon after that they'll get large enough to see with a magnifying glass!"

"They'll have eyes at the end of the month?!"

"Yes they will! And heartbeats! If they make it. But eyes and brains won't really work until month five. Way before then, before you could even tell a dog apart from a whale, we'll be able to tell they're special just because they're turtles. I'm forecasting at about day 32 or so. They're at day 5 right now."

"Specifically because they're turtles?" Mikey was captivated in this learning experience.

"Mnnhmm! Everything on the vertebrate side of the animal kingdom looks basically identical to everything else as an embryo—except snakes, those are absolutely surreal, look it up sometime—but turtles look different really fast, because everything to do with the spine grows in early, and what's part of a turtle's spine? Exactly: The shell."

Mikey might as well have died from joy hearing about how tiny turtle babies had tiny turtle shells that made them special to look at before almost anything else in the world. "Four tiny turtles..." he murmured over the tanks.

"Yeah." April smiled. "Four might mean death to the Japanese but it's a lucky number for us."

"That might be too many little brothers for Donatta to handle!" Mikey grinned up at her, even though he and she both knew better than to get their hopes too high. "Maybe you'd need to take one off our hands!"

April allowed herself to smile. A real smile. "I'd love to."

"If it's alright with Rebel Leader," that was how her people liked to refer to April, the same way Mikey always had, "we'll include you in our encrypted chat and you can see our hourly updates. The first days will be crucial, every tiny little thing amounts to a milestone."

"Yes please!" Mikey submitted his phone eagerly. 

One of the reasons April had been able to recruit so many fully-schooled doctors to her cause, despite the fact that hospital service remained conscripted in this tumultuous political climate, was because certain medical specialties were in much higher demand for keeping ninjas fighting-fit than others. Surgeons, physical therapists, and anesthesiologists had been locked into jobs of prestige; whereas psychiatrists, gynecologists, and dermatologists had all been discarded to the ghettos... where April had eventually found, recruited, and retrained them.

That said, when the Resistance had picked up speed, and her hardworking men and women—especially her officers—had started needing to move their families into the safety of her paramilitary bases, boy, had April had plenty of pediatricians just lying around!

Anyway, at first, no one registered what exactly had just walked into the little waiting room of the musty pediatrics office at the Resistance HQ's civilian care hospital. The nurse swiveled around in her chair to take their information and screamed at the top of her lungs. Mothers, grandmothers, and aunts (whoever had custody, whoever wasn't busy fighting, whoever hadn't died) gaped up in various states of petrification, some trying to comfort children who'd been alarmed by that scream. One heavily tattooed lady in the back slapped her knee and laughed like this was the best joke she'd heard all year. Her kid took one look at her, raised a brow at Leonardo, and then went back to playing with his race cars. Little guy probably had the right of things.

"Oh come on now," April teased. "He's not only very handsome, but also technically on the market."

"April, please do not frighten me," Leo murmured politely as he eased his fussy newborn daughter out from her carrying satchel and lifted her up to bounce her against his shoulder. She hummed and warbled, immediately pacified by all the stuff to look at. Some of that 'stuff' looked back at her, her and her big warm eyes and fluffy hair. There was at least one 'awww' startled out of their audience, followed by a 'mama is that a dragon?'

"M-mrs Jones-!" the second nurse scrambled frantically forward, pushing her coworker out of the way with the goal of saving both their jobs. "H-how can I help you?"

"I've a two o'clock appointment for my good friend here, listed under 'Hamato.'"

"Oh! Y-yes, um, I see that, but the doctor is just running slightly late with a difficult strep patient, b-but if you'd like to see Dr. Rosemary instead I can shuffle around-"

"That's quite alright, I'm sure he is waiting to wait like anyone else, right Leonardo? Besides, it's little Donatta's first appointment. I'm sure you have some sort of patient history form for him?"

"Right, um, exactly, we-"

The original nurse's brain finally kicked in, and she held up a clipboard woodenly towards Leonardo and said in a rush: "Hi welcome to our clinic could you please fill out some basic information for us, sir?"

"Of course," he took the clipboard out of her vice-like grip with a gracious nod that sent her listing backwards in relief. "Thank you."

Leo managed to squeeze—just barely, but he was quite dainty when he wanted to be, and also more slender than both of his surviving brothers—into one of the uncomfortable waiting room chairs with their cheap metal armrests. April sat beside him and crossed her knees to prop up the clip board. 

"Ah, this would have been a fun errand to send Raphael or Michelangelo with you on," April teased as Leo transferred Donatta into the curve of his arm so she could peek around at all the other children. They seemed to make her excited, even if none of them were green. 

"Well Michelangelo would be writing down that her name is 'Peppa Roni' and that she turned one hundred and seventy years old as of the fortieth of Bannanatoots this year," Leo mused. "There would also be plenty of drawings in the margins. But why would it be fun to send Raphael, even in a better mood than he's presently in?"

April chuckled as she penned in 'H-a-m-a-' for him. "Raphael was always rubbed the wrong way by all the 'normal' things the four of you could never do. Well, I'm happy to report it doesn't get any more representative of the mundane, middle class, pre-regime American experience than to be sitting on brown carpeted seats in a cramped and slightly smelly waiting room with peeling manila and rose-printed wallpaper, leafing through Highlights magazines from the nineties. This is the pinnacle right here. The penultimate example of normal! He's missing out." 

Leo actually started laughing slightly, though he was trying not to further intimidate the people who'd either scattered to the sides of sides of the waiting room or else were valiantly holding onto their seats in an effort not to offend him. "So this is a nostalgic experience for you?" he wondered.

"Well I never actually got to be half the terrified unmarried young couple that has no idea what they're doing with their lives in a pediatric office with a new baby before," April drawled slyly. "So thank you for being my surrogate."

"Ah. It was an honor to serve."

"Hamato Donatta... Hakuna Matatta... You did actually approve of her given name, right?" He nodded deeply. "Birth date: October 4, 2026; Gender: female. Hmm. Have you given her a middle name?" she wondered of Leonardo, who perked up. "It's fine if you don't, the form just reminded me."

"Oh. I suppose I can. I am not terribly good with names." But even as he said this, an answer visibly lit up his face. "Usagi?"

"That seems beyond perfect, Leo."

Chapter Text

Those aforementioned nurses had warned the pediatrician, who welcomed Leonardo into her examination room warmly and asked him if he had any specific concerns today. She did look visibly relieved she had a completely normal baby to examine. Less pressure.

"This baby should really have a full head-to-toe physical checkup," April suggested. "She had no medical attention whatsoever at all at birth, and, if I've got my story straight, contracted influenza almost immediately afterwards?"

"On about her third day," Leo agreed, apparently sensing how the doctor waved him forward to set the little girl down on a little 'examination bed' with high sides. "She is about two months, now. I must warn you, she howled like a banshee the last time she saw a nurse."

"Never fear, I've inspected my fair share of grumpy babies," the pediatrician teased. "Hello little Donatta...! Ah, come, come, pull up the chair and sit with her. There. Isn't she just the perfect polite little lady?" With Daddy's finger in one hand and his other hand against the side of her head, Donatta was very happy to meet new people. The doctor took the opportunity to listen for heart, breath, and belly sounds with her stethoscope, an then asked, "What's the situation with her mother?"

"We do not know. Donatta was disposed of, along with all evidence of her birth," Leo explained. "I pulled her out of the dumpster and cut umbilical myself. With a sword. We found formula and diapers later that evening."

"Oh, I see." The pediatrician's voice was somber. "Was she covered in a cheesy substance?"

"That, and a great deal of blood. There was some other organ in the bag with her."

"The placenta. She really was just born. A lot of blood suggests her mother must have been hemorrhaging badly. She probably couldn't have been strong enough to get up afterwards to throw a baby away..."

"No. But, aside from congenital concerns, I do not suppose it matters anymore," Leo speculated as his infant suckled on the corner of his thumb. "I have her now, and I will raise her."

He got a strange look from the nurse, something that which nearly said: 'You're not even human, you can't possibly raise a-' before she caught sight of April's answering glower and quickly ducked back to her notes.

The doctor smiled at him, though, as she switched on her ophthalmoscope and bent near to examine eyes and ears, nose and throat. "She's a very lucky little girl. You'll be relieved to see I'm not seeing any signs of drug issues, not opiates, not even alcohol. Oh ho, is that bright? Don't worry, little Dona. Mn, eye color's a really rich chestnut brown, vision looks good. Is it okay with you if we draw some blood so I can make absolutely sure she doesn't have HIV?" Leo grimaced and nodded deeply. "Ah. Have you already been worrying about that?" He nodded again. "Well, methods for treating HIV have been advancing since the stone ages of AIDS research, even with everything else going on. Life expectancy is currently about fifteen years from onset with proper medicine, but that has every chance of improving as time goes on."

Telling Leonardo his baby, who he'd just named after his dead brother, might share that brother's short lifespan, was possibly the cruelest thing anyone could have ever done to him. Still, he took it with great poise and calm, saying, "I shall pray the result is negative." Giant turtles having a religion was clearly news to the nurse, who peeked at him again. 

"What a full head of hair this little imp has. No sign of any cradle cap. How did her bout with influenza go?"

"We fed her cold medicine to try and control the fever. Every four hours, no more than would constitute a 30mg dose of acetaminophen." That right there sounded like something Donnie had once taught them. They always carried him with them, in a way. "She was only about six pounds, and at first we had no means to check her temperature, but I was with her consistently the entire time, and did my best at estimating based off of how hot she seemed to feel. She had trouble eating until my brother brought me a nasal syringe and explained the premise of its use." Always, these boys were resourceful.

"Well! She's about... nine pounds eleven ounces right now, and that is respectable weight gain right there, so she's had enough to eat. Usually we don't recommend acetaminophen with babies so young, but let me just commend you: good job getting through with what you had. It sounds like she might have needed every bit of help she could get. I don't see any sign yet of any sluggish cranial reflexes and she's alert and bright-eyed, which suggests no damage from the fever. If we dim the lights, I'll try and get her to track a penlight."

Donatta complained when the lights went dim, but Leo played with her feet and she calmed down and squinted after the light. 

"Oh, that was excellent, little Dona. What a serious face you have!" Donatta sure did. "Alright, let's have a quick look at physical development milestones; the big two-month-old one is the ability to prop herself up a bit." 

Donatta performed with shining competence at what the doctor called 'tummy time,' pushing her head up with their hands to guard her head in case she should fall over. She could roll over with help, and—for Dad only, not for anyone else—she'd let herself be tugged up by the arms into a seated position, and hold her head up on her own. She pursed her lips in a super-excited 'o' and wiggled in place. April watched, enjoying every moment of their interactions. Leo would always smile at his little girl, and his smiles wrinkled his eyes they were so genuine. He touched his nose to hers.

"Is she not smiling yet? That's fine, the next big milestone you should be looking for is smiling. Her vocabulary of sounds should expand: coos, sighs, grumbles, things more complicated than variations on the sort of generic 'wah' sound you're used to. If that doesn't develop immediately, know it's totally normal for babies to lag one place or excel in another. She's also going to learn to grab over the next month, and that's when you can start getting her to play with toys. Be very careful, because she will put anything and everything in her mouth. And touch it with her feet, and throw it around and potentially bonk herself in the head, and goodness knows what else. Has she had any of her shots?"

"Yes. Early, I am told," Leonardo said, and produced a small card on which the names, producers, and batch numbers of certain vaccines had been written. "But she had been bitten by a hungry rat, and I was concerned. That was over a month ago." The pediatrician leaned over to examine them and nodded, turning to give the card to her nurse. 

"Well the good news is the incubation periods for most of what she could contracted from a rat bite have elapsed, with the exception of rabies. I'll have her blood tested for antigens to see if that's a concern."

April leaned a hand on Leo's shell and said to her, "You should terrify him with warnings about SIDS."

"We print pamphlets on that," the nurse offered helpfully.

"He's completely blind," April mentioned, earning a startled blink from the nurse but only a nod from the pediatrician, who'd apparently looked Leo in the face well-enough to tell something was off. "Or I'm sure he'd have robbed a library of parenting manuals by now."

"Pardon me, but I have returned every library book I've ever borrowed," Leo was terribly offended. "And most of the ones Michelangelo did. Lack of library card, ah, notwithstanding."

Leonardo had just learned about the existence of 'baby wipes' and 'talcum powder,' and it was as if he'd just been told there was a mythological race of phoenix samurai living in his basement that he just hadn't known about, that's how simultaneously thrilled and mildly annoyed he was. "These are amazing," he complemented of the wipes, after Donatta had decided that mid-skin-examination was a great time to poop.

"What were you using to clean her with every two hours?" April had to hear the story of what random resources had gone into keeping Donatta in such stellar condition. She'd have expected Leo to be stiff and disgusted about this aspect of child-rearing, but he was instead deft and considerate as he leaned over that baby and kept his face available for her entertainment.

"Wash rags and soap," he explained with a kiss of a little foot that had gotten in his face. (Goodness gracious, Leo, you are being so precious.) "Which irritated her skin, so I employed flax seed oil to forestall the development of any rashes."

April planted her hands on her hips. "Leonardo, how on earth could you possibly tell if she had a rash?"

"The skin becomes heated, has a slightly different texture, becomes slightly moist with fluid, and smells of infection. She developed one on the face as a result of mucus during her cold, originally." The nurse and pediatrician shared a look. Leo went back to sniffing his baby, apparently checking to make sure he'd gotten her clean. His preoccupation with her cleanliness, checking the little creases of her thighs and knees, and turning her legs and bum this way and that, playing with her toes as he did so, was probably cuter than anything Michelangelo had ever done in his life. April wouldn't be telling Mikey that. 

"He's a very high-functioning blind," April decided, as Leo fetched a diaper out from his things and bundled his baby back up as neatly as folded origami and presented her back for the resumption of her doctor's appointment.  If random nurses, Raphael, or anyone else thought Leonardo might be a less than ideal parent for this baby, oh they couldn't have been more wrong. Watching Leo focus on her was almost like a cross between watching Donatello focus on one of his newest experiments and Mikey playing an animal; the level of attention to detail was present, but so was the rich level of sentiment. In a way, he was starting to resemble his father, Splinter. In another way, he just finally looked like Leo again.

"Hmm. What part of successfully continuing on with my profession as a swordsman left my degree of functioning ambiguous?" he wondered aloud. April started laughing.

Casey ran out from under the chair, and Mikey pocketed his phone and turned around to see Leo rejoining them. Little Donatta had some bright Nickelodeon Band-Aids on her arms. Oh dear! Did that mean needles? "How was the doctor's office?" 

"Good!" Leo blurted, looking slightly frazzled. "It was a very strange experience, I was glad for April. Being among so many normal people, and all their normal children." He shook his head, not knowing how to define it better than that.

"Ha! How so? As a gigantic turtle, or as an armed ninja in a badass black coat?"

"Both. Is it black?" Leo sighed as he sat down beside Michelangelo in the cafeteria and touched absently at a stack of resealable food boxes Mikey had emptied. "I have no idea what colors I'm wearing." 

"Black gray and dull green. Dude, Raphie is totally going to be jealous of that coat when he calms down. It's like his dream jacket."

"Oh thank goodness, I'm not dressed in Sailor Moon or Hello Kitty print." Mikey broke out laughing and slapped his shoulders and shell. "Heha. Easy, Donatta is sleepy. She's given some blood for tests, and had a few more inoculations, so we may need to wake her up for her next meal."

"What a little trooper! Did she cry?"

"No, she didn't seem to mind and was easy to distract. I gather she's strongly driven by her sense of security. So long as I am close, she seems to only cry if she wishes to complain to me about something." Case had placed her paws on his thigh and peered up at him like she was trying to tell him he'd been gone for forever and she was sure she'd have to go track down and rescue him from evil rat monsters. Leo patted her on the head. "Oh, I also found out about this amazing substance called baby powder. I will show you later."

"What were the blood tests for?"

"Mainly? HIV and rabies," Leo grimaced slightly. "Raphael's comments about her mother perhaps having some problem stuck with me, and a dread creeps up on me that something must be wrong with her to have necessitated abandoning her, but the doctor says there is no sign of damage for drugs or diseases. Put her in your prayers. The life expectancy for HIV victims is still low, and she was clearly exposed to a lot of blood."

Mikey stiffened. "It's only a chance, right? Like her mom could have been totally clean!" Leo only sighed, clearly unable to keep from worrying. "Man. There's only one me and a lot of people to pray for right now. Yo: We need Raphael back. His prayers are so rare they weigh more."

"I'm not sure it works that way," Leo mentioned, "but I wouldn't begrudge the assistance either way. Have you any food for me or must I go foraging?" Mikey pushed a full, hot box to him. "Bless you." He dug in, still with that amazingly active appetite that was really unlike Leo. "Mmph. Another thing. We need a short form for Donatta, and for some reason I'm not sure I like 'Dona,' which was what the pediatrician defaulted to. Do you have any ideas?"

Mikey thought about that. "Well the internet told me Donatella is actually a cute form of Donata! But what about just like... Natta?"

"Natta." Leo considered that, and then inclined his head slightly to indicate he'd let that fly for a bit and see how it tasted. "You know, it's a small tragedy the chef is not getting to eat any of his own leftovers."

"Hey, I've got it covered!" Mikey grinned. "I'm saving the bones and stuff and putting them in a slow-cooker with veggies. He's gonna have turkey soup if he doesn't get back in time for turkey!" Leo glanced his way, startled. "I know, amazing, I actually pay attention once and awhile, don't I?! Aw yesss!" Mikey stretched and sighed contentedly, before glancing Leo's way a little worriedly, "Hey, um, do you think-?"

"-Yes. I'm sure he's fine." Leo's answer was immediate. "Though if he's not back by tomorrow evening, we're heading out in search of him anyway. I'll ask April if she knows someone trustworthy who can watch Donatta, if that's what it takes."

"Whoa." Well then. That was the plan. "Hey," Mikey nudged him. "Are you... ready to talk to him?"

"Perhaps not," Leo mused. "But for her and his sake, for all our sakes, I am ready to try." He stabbed up some turkey and beans. "The sleep helped."

Chapter Text

"The lab results got back, and Donatta tested positive for HIV antigens."

Leo listed so hard he had to catch himself with a hand on the table, and April nearly busted out laughing she was so giddy with her own relief; "So! I authorized usage of a viral load test, which is specifically for babies who have HIV positive mothers. And guess what? Nadda. Test came back negative. Her mother definitely had HIV, but through either luck, your care in cleaning her, mom's antigens, or divine intervention, Donatta did not contract it. She's a perfectly healthy little girl." 

Mikey, who'd gone petrified at Leo's side, managed to speak first: "Holy crap! Really!? You're sure!? Her mom had it?! That was a lot of blood and stuff!"

"Yuppers," April chuckled, tossing the results to Mikey. "Keep these safe or leave them with me! We don't have many of those viral load tests either, so consider it part of your compensation package for helping to sack the warehouse; you earned it. We'll do another antigen test again at about six months to reassures ourselves, but the doctor took one look at the results and proclaimed her healthy."

Leo still looked shell-shocked, and April felt like a terrible person, but after chewing her own nails for eighteen hours waiting for the result of the second test and not burdening him with the uncertainty, she felt uniquely entitled to have given him this brief scare.

"If she did have it, would there be stuff we could do?" Mikey wondered, now curious just in general.

"Absolutely," she affirmed. "There isn't an upper limit anymore, a kid with HIV could easily survive to see her own grandchildren. The key would be catching it early and managing it religiously. Leo did the best possible thing by telling the doctor he was concerned and having her tested—this was about as close a 'close call' as things could have possibly gotten. Another thing. Leo? Life expectancies aren't expiration dates, they're statistics. They include every child who dies at a few months old with no treatment and neglectful parents. Think back to high school math."

"I did not go to high school," Leo said vacantly.

Oops. Nope. No he had not. By high school, Leo had already been a ninja, and had known the experience of taking life from an enemy.

"We did have a Donatello!" Mikey triumphed. "If you wanted to spend any time with him, you were gonna learn something! I know how to do physics! Too many video games! Terminal velocity ought to be a function of air resistance and mass! Momentum is equal to mass times volume! The product of force and time is impulse!"

April laughed. "Well add seventy to a lot of zeros and divide, and you get an artificially low number."

"Just a question: Are the medicines for that stuff still rare or expensive?" Mikey continued to prompt, even though their child was healthy.

"Well the Foot allocated most research dollars to mutagen and alien robotics, and when they did do something for the general public it was to spend money on air and waterborne diseases. It can be hard to source current medications sometimes."

"Does that mean we might only have so long to figure out who her mom is, if we wanted to? For like, closure for her when she's older?" Mikey wondered.

April's mood sobered. "Possibly. But turn to the back of that folder, I thought you boys might love to see an ancestry profile, and we've materials for those just lying around waiting to expire, so I had the lab run one for you."

Mikey squeaked flipping through the papers she'd given him. "She's Sicilian!" He squealed. "And Irish and—Yupik? What's that?"

"Eskimos," April was smiling against as she went up to Leo to pat his shell reassuringly. "She's surprisingly heavy on the Eskimo."

"No wonder she's so fluffy, her ancestors needed insulation! Leo! Our baby is Native American! And like a million other things, this is so cool!  Look some people were from the Middle East! We're just turtles, I didn't even know you could figure this stuff out from DNA! Wow! Look at all these places!" 

At the end of the third day, Leonardo and Mikey (and Donatta) managed to find an abandoned campsite they could tell Raphael had used. The relatively close proximity to HQ suggested he hadn't sprinted away from them at full clip, which supported their assumption he was roving around the surrounding ghettos and dropping in on gang members across ward borders. The fact that he hadn't come back yet left them slightly puzzled.

They came home empty handed.

April asked for Leonardo to pick up where Raphael had been helping her plan out the next assault on enemy mutagen mills, but Leo swiftly declined. 

Blue Turtle's skillset, whether as a small-scale tactician or logistical strategist, would do no one any good if it left his brother feeling unnecessary; particularly as he worked best with Raphael on such things! The blindness had taken an edge off his ability to visualize a complete situation, and learning to synergize with Raphael had been how he'd transformed his weakness into a previously unrealized strength.

As it turned out, those plans were unnecessary.

"Shit." April stood between the main entryway to the compound, and cursed loud, squeezing her winter coat up against her chin. Icy water poured down so hard and with such heavy wind that trees listed, chain-link fences blew away, and clotheslines went flying like kites. Visibility was limited to nothing, the ground was freezing over in black ice, and whenever the rain briefly turned into hail it came down easily the size of Lima beans, cut thin ponchos, and left welts behind. Anyone with the slightest leak in their boot knew it by now.

"Communications are disrupted. Most drones, copters, and other aircraft are downed."

Far in the distance, a ghetto apartment rigged up against the wall of an old building, suddenly pulled one time too hard on aged and poorly maintained bricks. With crackles and screams completely muffled out by the weather, the whole thing began tumbling, destroying half a dozen homes as the remnants sprawled out over a road.

"A polar hurricane," April shook her head. "Thanks Shredder. Your concern for the environment shall be enshrined in our history books. Next to pictures of all the new species of two-headed frogs."

She turned her aids to direct: "Mobilize relief operations. Target the most at-risk communities and prioritize search-and-rescue. Open up the old basketball stadium and authorize the release of emergency rations to be deployed from stockpiles seven and eight. Find me a stash of hairdryers. Make sure victims know we only have so many supplies and to make plans for their return to the ghetto mid-winter. Let the network know not to save themselves for any missions; they should get out there and help people. We might have just been closed down until spring."

Leo wrinkled his nose into the spray of icy mist. "If that is so, we should not leech off you through the winter. We will be able to make our own accommodations elsewhere."

April didn't respond for a moment. "You are welcome to stay."

"You have a nation to save the soul of," Leo disagreed. "And we are mutant recluses of dubious popularity; Let us only be around when our actions can speak for themselves."

April tried to smile. "Well. Don't you dare leave Raphael behind; He'd bitch and mope for months before finally working up the indignation to track you down and slug you in the face."

"We will only move as one," Leo both assuaged her and promised his missing sibling, "Though I should not like to take Donatta out into this in search of him."

"Is that an invitation to snuggle a baby this evening? Well, you'll just have to lend me Casey, I'm not sure she'll sleep with both Daddy and Puppy missing."

The first time it happened, Michelangelo's phone piped with a notification, and he reached for it and quickly put in his passcode.

"You keep checking that," Leo remarked over lunch. "Are you messaging a new girlfriend?"

At any other time, Mikey would surely have had a spectacular reaction to that prompt, whether it came out as suave self-confidence or startled embarrassment. Now, though, he just cussed and tucked the phone away. Leo straightened worriedly and touched his shell.


Michelangelo only smiled brightly, said, "I need to go check on something!" and disappeared.

The second time it happened, the two of them were out in the freezing ice storm looking, and Michelangelo didn't see the message until he got back.

"Just lost #2."

Mikey slumped. There would't be anything if he went to the lab room;  Just the weird knowledge that two of the cylinders still contained growing stuff and two didn't.

The geneticist researcher girl who April had working on the project was super friendly and treated them like normal people, and she'd be looking at the embryos to try and figure out what had happened.

A couples hours later, that researcher info-dumped science terms and numbers into the chat.

'Failure of cloned embryo #4 determined to be standard by simple chromosomal marker test; The genetic code in the embryo's cells was found to be deteriorated and no longer matched the donor's.'

'Documentation on donor's DNA reveals non-standard, almost excessive numbers of redundant chromosomes (Note: it is expected that these chromosomes deactivated like double-X chromosome suppression to prevent the synthesis of redundant protines). Cloned embryo #4, by contrast, is missing significant human genes, lacks redundancies on all but several seemingly random alleles; suspecting remaining chromosomes to be heavily fragmented.'

Mikey had learned that it wasn't just a matter of switching on a microscope and playing Where's Waldo; most genetics tests just lying around to be looted were for human DNA, and studying things more complicated than that took bigger samples, lots of chemicals, and time.

'Telomerase chains were also artificially short on two of three tested chromosomes, with no apparent cause; telomerase protects genes from age-related degeneration.'

'Beginning study of cells from failed clone #2, will attempt to conduct alternative study, rule out damage from centrifuge as cause for severe genetic dissolution.'

Mikey closed his phone. He'd read enough to understand the dead embryo had basically just dissolved itself on a genetic level in an unexplained but expected manner, exactly like mutagen mutant clones usually did, and there was no way to know whether that had happened at the beginning of its life or just prior to falling apart, or whether either of the remaining two were just as doomed.

"Embryo #1 experiencing cellular failure along neural tube, expecting to lose shortly.'

Mikey closed his phone and leaned his elbows on the table and sunk his head into his hands.

"Tell me what has been upsetting you," Leo demanded.

Michelangelo didn't really know what to tell him. He'd sorta pulled off conveniently forgetting to tell Leo about Tank Teen, cause he figured Leo would think the same as Raphael and insist he be given a burial, and then they'd lose any chance at finding a speck of good out of all this bad. And why tell him about the embryos and make him sad for no reason?

(There wasn't going to be a new baby turtle, was there?)

"Michelangelo," Leo intoned sternly.

"You..." Mikey lifted his head. "You started meditating again, right?"

"I have, but if you think I will allow you to avoid the question–"

"Do you remember anything Splinter taught us about auras and the Astral plane a-and spirits and stuff? You were always interested in that. It was your thing the way pets were mine. Kinda?"

Leo looked unexpectedly hesistant and didn't reply for a moment. "I may."

"... Would you come look at something with me? I... I mean, nevermind, I did, I guess you won't see anything because they're all behind glass and you need to touch or hear stuff now."

"I can sense auras," Leo answered quietly. "What is it you wish me to 'see'?"

Chapter Text

When the two brothers reached the lab, April was already there watching the embryos with her arms crossed. Mikey looked sympathetically to her and then did a double-take of her distant and removed expression. 

See, April was usually like an engine of hope powering the entire Resistance; the way she perpetually grinned despite how hard her own life had been, always had a revivifying effect on pretty much everybody she met. She tugged on peoples' bootstraps, picked them back up again from wherever they'd fallen, and rallied them for another try.

April never gave up.

But the way Mikey had just caught her, she looked grayed off, like some part of her was dead and underground already, and had been for a long time. Her quiet expression said she had no hope; she'd foretold #1 and #3's deaths and it was already over to her. She looked like she was (prematurely) visiting a grave, for one last stone-faced farewell, and then everything would be back to business.

Fumbling for explanation that didn't rattle the foundations of his soul and render invalid every smile she'd ever given him, Michelangelo wondered if that story about her own lost baby hadn't been a glimpse inside her soul, to some dark box she'd long ago put aside for everybody's sake, her own included. Leonardo seemed to sense something wrong with her, too, if the tilt of his head was any indication.

"Are we intruding?" Blue wondered politely, and April's face came alive again as she turned to them, like that hollow emptiness had never been there.

"No, Mikey and I just got the memo another of the clones is dying. I need to get back to looking at our infrastructure reports to see what's going to need replacement after this storm. I'll see you boys later. Hey Donatta." She waved at the baby as she passed.

Mikey frowned after her as the lab doors opened and shut.

"Clones?" his eldest brother finally prompted, jarring him back to the present.

"Oh! It's four embryos," Mikey said, taking Leo by the elbow and steering him up to the cylinders so he could touch one and see the jist of what they were talking about. "Or it was. Two of them fell apart already, and the researcher working here—back at that computer over there?—she said another one's about to go, too. There's one left, but he's too small for them to check out his DNA and see if he's okay or not."

Leonardo frowned, eyes lowering. His palm smoothed across the tops of the cylinders, and rested on top of the one marked '3,' and Mikey glanced towards him curiously and waited.

"They are so small," Leo commented slowly, brow furrowed. "There isn't much there to title 'alive' or 'dead.'"

"Well you somehow picked the only one that's still got a chance," Mikey offered.

Leo withdrew his hand sharply at that, as if surprised, and Michelangelo arched an eyebrow at him. Michelangelo had expected Leonardo to be dismayed or act super responsible or something, but not to look like he had the heebie jeebies. 

"Michelangelo," Leo murmured, hugging a sleeping infant to his chest. "Could you give me a few minutes? I am going to... try and meditate. I have been practicing, lately."

"Uh, sure!" That was kinda what Mikey had expected/asked him to do. He leaned over to try and take the baby so Leo could focus, but Leo only waved him away to indicate she was no problem while he slowly picked a spot of floor and sat himself down in neat seiza posture. 

Michelangelo had never, ever, been any good at meditating. Donnie and Raph had both managed it when Master Splinter had coaxed their mind into a state of calm, but the only one of the three of them who'd done it rigorously and religiously had been Leo. Watching him, Mikey could recognize age-old breathing exercises, and those took him back, way back.

Deep, slow, silent breaths, timed with Donatta's; Synchronizing himself with the rhythm of sleep; Awareness of every nerve, of space, of breath; Awareness, slowly, of energy; Tingles of uncertainty, of anxiety designed to protect him from the unknown, of anticipation wiggling up his spine.

Are you still around?

He didn't know what he expected, but an immediate and unambiguous answer hadn't been it. Silence echoed louder and louder, like something physically gathering up and taking space, until three-fingered hands developed out of nowhere and rested on his shoulders. 

"Well that took forever," Donnie greeted with backhanded praise. "So! Am I a ghost? Or a hallucination you've established the power of lucid dreaming over? Have we decided? I'm taking notes on our progress."

Casey barked and whined excitedly. Leo throttled shudders, repressed giddiness, and paced his breathing. Donatello didn't tease any further, standing up to brush past him and see the cylinders. 

"Lend me a hand by opening your eyes," Donnie abruptly requested. "I'll help keep you over on this side."

Leo wasn't sure that was a good idea. He wasn't sure he wanted to trust in whatever he might experience if he obeyed; wasn't even sure if he was willing to risk imagining this spectre of his dead brother was 'real,' as opposed to a figment of his own strained mind.

Like tearing off a bandage, he quickly opened his eyes. The blank unyielding gray wall of his vision imploded with color, stretching out in flickering and quaking lines smoked over with chalk and charcoal, like an image put through too many layers of post-processing.

People stood out clearer than backgrounds, more distinct. Michelangelo was hot white and orange as he waited a little nervously in Leo's crisply visible periphery. Donatello's expression was thin-lipped and contemplative and his shape simmered with a deep, dark, low purple; his hands were cupped around the only one of the cylinders that retained a trace of movement or animation, but its light might as well have been from the dimmest of lichen.


"It's not going to make it," Donnie finally said. "Vital information for cardiovascular proteins is missing. It's heart will never form, never beat. It only has about half a month of development left. It will never even resemble a child." He looked grimly back at Leo. "Are you going to tell him, or...?"

Leo's breath caught raggedly, and everything went gray. More than one set of three-fingered hands caught him, and he was treated to the realization he might have swooned. Which was understandable. Because seeing anything while awake, even something so surreal, was staggering. Up until ten seconds ago, Leo's only experience with color in the past decade had been through memories and dreams.

"Did you nearly faint?" Mikey demanded worriedly from someplace muffled. "Leo? Leo!"

Leo grasped hard back down on that missing clarity, fighting to sieve real from unreal, to learn more about what in God's name was happening to himself. Orange, purple, and white snaked across his vision. He looked up into the faces of his youngest two brothers. 


Leo could see them.

Donatello, of course, was distracted by something other than this very emotional moment; but only an instant later, Leo also felt the source of his distraction like an elephant in the room, looming ominously large.

"What..." Leo intoned with a slow shake of his head, face growing blank again. "Mikey, what is in the tank behind us?"

Whoa, what? Well, er, okay maybe Leo was just asking because he could sense the basic shape of a mutagen warehouse tank nearby and wanted to know why such a creepy thing was in this room with all the not-yet-babies. Mikey knew Leo's physical senses were kinda outta this world... but the way he was acting right now was weird.

"Well, nobody is sure," Mikey explained haphazardly. "He's like a sixteen year old newborn that was never woken up or something. He's almost adult-sized, and he's what all four of them were clones of."

Leo stared innocently up at him for a long moment, his expression a bizarre mix of incredibly lucid and utterly spaced out. "Is he a clone of one of us?"

Mikey's eyes widened. He hadn't told Leo the embryos were turtles. Had he just- guessed? "N-not exactly. Um... bro, are you okay?"

"No," Donatello answered, stepping away from him and raising fingers to cover his mouth. "No it most definitely is not one of us." But the way he said it spoke volumes about what it therefore must have been.

"It's some kind of turtle," Leonardo pressed, as he reached up to grasp Michelangelo's shoulder and wordlessly request for help standing. Mikey offered it, pulling him to his feet. "How is that possible?"

Donnie shook his head and quietly started circling the tank, inspecting the creature from each side, though his response seemed to be less one of ignorance than disbelief. Michelangelo was trying to answer the question, and the researcher from the nearby computer station came closer to ask if she could help, but Leo was admittedly distracted.

"Hush," Blue turtle pleaded to both living people. "Hush, let me... just..."

A moment passed, and then Mikey asked: "Does he feel alive to you? He's brain dead. In the main tank." 

Leo looked slowly over his shoulder to see Donatello nervously rubbing his hands together, energized by questions as he made rounds of the tank, nearly hopping with curiousity and yet simultaneously looking confused or distressed. 

Nearly lost in the luminescence of the ghost, Leo could also see the tank and a form shackled with electrodes and blood transfusion wires, suspended in the murky depths.

Leonardo closed his eyes again for a moment, to temporarily shut off the sensory overload. He'd sensed auras before, and he'd always been able to describe their color, but he'd never seen anything so clear as this except when he'd been meditating for long hours under Master Splinter's tutelage. The smokey, uncertain, time-smeared look of everything was familiar, and now he recognized why.

Do not panic. Just experience whatever this is, and make a full mental accounting of it, and later try to work out whether it is hallucinatory or genuine with the help of someone else. 

Leo took a deep breath through the nose. Then he opened his eyes and looked to where Donatello was peering at the computer screens, running his hands through towers of hard drives, and pacing.

"If you are real, can you perform one last miracle?" Blue asked of Purple, because something about this whole event felt momentous even as he could not put his hand on what. He felt like he had come to stand there in this very place, this very day, by some strange string of almost fateful circumstances. He felt as if what happened next truly mattered. "Do you somehow have the strength?"

Donatello stopped and turned his head to look at him. There was an ageless look to that expression, an expression which Leo had seen before—when Donnie had been alive, when they'd been relying on him to do something impossible, something no one else could have worked out. 

"Um, bro?" Mikey giggled nervously beside his ear. "Wh-who are you talking to?"

"Can I save that little embryo Mikey wants to raise as his own?" the ghost wondered aloud, and then shook his head in answer. "No."

But... Leo grimaced, clinging to the sensation of import. Something similar had once led him to Donatta, he felt sure of that. It has to be now. Whatever 'it' actually was remained as elusive as it was enormous

The ghost held his gaze in silence for the longest moment. Then he turned and walked briskly across the room, past the cylinders and the tiny life struggling vainly for survival in the third tube, and directly for the main tank. There he paused, lifted a hand, rubbed his fingers hesitantly against his palm for a moment as if about to touch something slimy or otherwise uncomfortable, and then slipped his hand straight through the glass and laid his palm on the back of the creature's head. 

"It might be quite some time before we speak again," Donatello predicted. "But I promise to explain myself to you before the final fade to twilight. And clearly, at that." He closed his eyes, and lowered his head. A strangely wistful, grateful, or even just emotional smile crossed his face. "Oh. Hello..." 

Everything disappeared with a painful cut to gray.

His daughter's loud wailing called him out of some kind of murky fugue. He felt an arm and a half around himself, and realized Michelangelo must have caught him, which meant he actually had collapsed this time. Was it some kind of seizure?

Leo choked in icy air as his senses flooded back into him. Where was the baby? Safely in his arms; he hadn't dropped her. Casey was barking up a storm, and the researchers were talking rapidly and loudly as if surprised by something. He realized that the air was cold and misting up in front of his face.

"Mikey," he managed to request orientation from the universe.

"I'm here. Bro, what did you do?" Mikey asked in a low whisper. "The temperature in here just dropped forty degrees. There's frost on half the room. They think that-"

An automated voice called from the cylinders. "Cellular failure, test tubes #1 and #3."

Mikey went quiet. Leo closed his eyes guiltily into the sudden hush.

(The room had frozen over. The room had frozen over? His daughter was cold, focus on her, focus on getting her under his coat and into her satchel where it wasn't twenty-eight degrees, and he could warm her up.)

"You killed it," Mikey said, quietly, still staring at the little cells.

"There was... there was nothing I could do," Leo whispered as Donatta slowly calmed down against his kimono and plastron. "It was going to die. It was never going to be alive in the first place. There was nothing I could do."

"So you hurried it along?" Mikey looked woundedly back him. "Why?"

"I have no idea what Donatello did or why," Leo offered feebly, leaning heavily into his littlest brother and closing his eyes again. "I'm sorry it had this collateral. I think I just found out our dead brother is actually haunting me. I most probably need to lay down."

Silence echoed in the cold room for a second, though there was nothing supernatural about it this time.


Chapter Text

They are at the farmhouse. The lawn is freshly mowed, the grass is green, the pond is dark, and the sky is bright blue. A tire swing waves invitingly in the wind. April sits under the shade of crab apple tree, whose blossoms are pink with spring. Ahead of her, laughing and playing as they tumble across the grass is her family.

Her silly family. Her sister Robyn passes her father a cold glass of lemonade as they chat about her hobbies. Casey is laughing as he wrestles with the children. His hair is still dark, not gray like hers. 

There are three of them, the children. The oldest is eleven and has her father's shaggy hair but otherwise is going to be a beauty like Robyn. Probably just as messy, too! The middle child is the boy, and he has a full head of red hair that makes him look like he's perpetually on fire. He has a winning smile and can get almost anyone to see things his way.

Just slightly younger him is Shadow. She's blonde and rambunctious, and somehow she's her father's daughter despite not being related to either of them! She likes to play cowboys and Indians, and sometimes plays too hard with her older siblings! Poor Shadow, she ends up in time-out a lot. 

"Hi mom!" they call and wave to her. "Come play with us!" they encourage, and she laughs at their antics but stays under her tree. Casey ruffles their hair, and distracts them, sending one to push the other in the swing. He flashes a smile back at her, and winks. She waves back to him. He knows why she doesn't get up just yet to join them. He doesn't mind. He'll wait. 

"Hey mom!" Shadow waves to her as her older siblings see how high they can push her. Shadow is a little fearless. Casey watches ready and waiting under the suspicion their youngest might try to jump. 

Hey mom. 

She never gets enough of hearing that. Captured and safe and alive forever in a world where nothing went wrong, out there in the streaming sunlight, where it's never dark and dismal, never occluded or shaded by anything. 

Crab apples slip under clumsy footsteps, disturbing a dream that ought to go on forever in honey til it fades to morning. "H-hey mom," she hears in a voice crackling with puberty, and turns in surprise as a gangling child squats down beside her.

Her own dark green eyes stare nervously back at her, and he sounds like he does not know if he is welcome here, in this place where everything else is happy and flawless (and human).

"Can I... m-maybe... sit here with y-you for a bit?" he asks, soft and shy, green against green.

The catwalk lighting system lit up with hard clicks as she walked, row after row of floodlights illuminating her footsteps and the bays beside her. She passed workstations abandoned in the scramble to organize supplies for the ice storm. Some doors immediately opened to permit her passage. A quick card key and retinal scan worked for others. Guards nodded to her.

She stopped at the terminus, and let the door shut behind her.


Ahead, illuminated from inside the tank, the copper-swirled and olive-skinned turtle continued to float, knees tucked up against his chin with his tail curled between them, arms bunched to his chest, slender and long-legged and yet armored to the nines.

She stepped across the room, each boot heel a loud click in the silence. She stopped before the tank, and gazed within, and then slowly lifted a hand and laid the palm flat against the glass. 

"You know," she murmured into the silence, "you're actually a little older than they were when I first met them. Isn't that crazy?"

Eyes—whatever color they were, green or brown—didn't open.

April took a deep breathe and raised a hand to her brow, sliding her thumb under the old bandanna to slowly draw it off and loop the worn material between her fingers and around her wrist. She felt the old holes still cut in it. And then she reached into the interior breast pocket of her vest and drew out her only good portrait of Casey.

"I found him," she finally told the dead, after a long and contemplative quiet. "And you were right, Case, he was a boy." 

The tears, which only little Donatta had previously managed to sneak out of her, came out fresh to blur her sight.

"And he's completely unharmed," she breathed in a hard sniffle. "All those years we'd wondered if maybe Shredder had taken him to train him... If he'd eventually show up on the enemy's side. Classic theatrical ninja vengeance, right?" April laughed bitterly, smearing hot saline from her face. "Well. Somebody must have convinced him this was more pragmatic. Maybe he needed the mutagen in a big hurry." She felt over the glass. "It's almost worse."

"So," a voice from behind her made her jump. "Ya gonna come clean ta me 'bout what this thing really is?"

Shit. The door hadn't given Raphael clearance, and the door hadn't even reopened behind her. How had gotten inside? She turned slowly, looking back to see him casually leaned up against the entryway wall.

"Ninja," Raphael not-explained.

Emotional, with deep undertow caught out in the open, April was in no condition to be overseen. She looked back to the tank, and swallowed hard. The shape of a perfectly healthy boy floated before her. Her hand clenched against the glass. "Shredder made him a living trophy."

"Ain't really 'living,' is it?" Raph stood up and approached her. 

"But he is, and don't you see that's the twisted bit?" April muttered, wiping angrily at her face so she could confront this. "There's no hope left and there hasn't been in sixteen years. That bastard took the choice out of my hands from the beginning, and ended his life within hours of his birth, but somehow despite all that he still made it so I am the one who has to pull the plug and do it: I am the one who has to... abort my one and only child. Like he put the knife in my hand himself."

Raphael slowed.

"Got his vengeance on me from beyond the grave, didn't he?" She traced the shape of facial features with her hand, and then sank back on her heels. "The worst part is: I'm forced to acknowledge it was better it happened this way. Because I never had to decide whether I'd stake the freedom of the world on the chance to save one boy's soul. Which might have saved us all, because I knew I'd... hesitate."

"Child?" Raphael repeated, removing a cigarette from his mouth without lighting it. "With who?"

She shrugged helplessly, rubbing violet fabric between her thumb and forefinger. "Who do you imagine?"

Raphael leaned forward and touched her shoulder to turn her to look at him. "Donatello managed to get laid by a hot, red-headed, college-educated, twenty-four year old woman when he was seventeen?"

April was quiet a moment. "Knocked her up, too."

Raphael's face slackened as he realized she wasn't pulling his leg and he sank back on his heels. "Well fuck, I feel like I owe him a beer or something."

Of all the things Raphael could have blurted. She hadn't been prepared for retroactive, fraternal, and sophomoric congratulations of his brother's sexual prowess. April started laughing. The laughter brought the tears down in fresh waves, and she veiled her face with a hand to be alone with them until they were manageable. She tucked her picture away, and wiped her eyes. A three-fingered hand settled on her arm very hesitantly, because for some reason Raph was never quite clear on whether he was allowed to hug her. She didn't have the energy to give him the go ahead, but wished he just would. 

"If that's the truth, why'd you not tell anyone?" he eventually muttered, sounding agitated.

"What could you have done to help?" she asked, turning to him with a sad, fond smile. "Bled more? My men focused on recovering scientists, people who could fight, mutant soldiers... The only reason I ever found him at all is because I have an army balls deep in the science wards. We'd have never gotten in here without Shredder dead. There was nothing anybody could have done to save him."

"So you'd have just gone to your grave with the knowledge this kid existed!?"

"I told Splinter," she confessed. "And Casey knew."

Raphael grimaced, breathing out through his nose. "I don't get it. I don't get why you'd just... hide shit like that, I don't get why Donnie would hide shit like that."

"You forget how different things were," she thought back and shrugged. "We were all young, and tons of things looked possible if you tilted your head just right."

"Donnie woulda told us about shit dat excitin! You woulda told us!"

"Raphael... I slept with him twice, and then by the end of the week he was dead."

Raph recoiled, and then looked as if he felt incredibly guilty for disputing that detail.

"I went from deliriously happy, without a care in the world, to running up to him and Splinter and–" she didn't have to describe the gruesome scene; Raphael had been there and Raphael remembered. "I went to burying him with you. Donnie was my best friend, Raph. Either way. Not even three years of knowing him, and we were already sharing our brains with each other..."

"And then ya got taken prisoner like a month after," Raphael muttered. "That's what you meant, when you said you 'lost' a baby. You didn't mean it like a lady loses a baby," he looked at the cell, "you meant they literally took him from you." His hands clenched. "If we hadn't given up. If we'd kept looking for you-"

"Everything was already spiraling out of control," she told him, resting a hand on his arm. "You had no idea we were even alive."

"Well next time I'mma make sure I see a damn body!" Raphael snarled, looking back to her and going through several terrible facial expressions before finally realizing, "Ya didn't tell us before then... because ya had no idea, did ya?"

"That I was pregnant? No, who in God's name would have expected that? Donnie didn't. I actually convinced him to let me see his seven-hundred page master seduction plan." Raphael chocked on unexpected laughter. "If he had even the slightest doubt about whether we were genetically compatible, rest assured there would have been an appendix for condom designs."

"... There sure as fuck would have been," Raphael agreed, because that was just Donnie.

"I think I'm cursed," April confided, and Raphael blinked at her. "Yes. I'm almost sure. I'm cursed to be alone. Boyfriends, husbands, real and hypothetical children, adopted babies, aunts, uncles, sisters, and cousins. I don't get to keep anyone. This," she gestured to the cell, "is all that's left of my sad family."

"April..." Raphael winced almost delicately. "It ain't 'left.' It's dead, too. Much as you don't wanna, you gotta let go of Donnie, same as we all did."

She tightened her nails into her palm and didn't answer that.

"Ya can't just hold onto a dead body. Even one as nicely picked as this." He stepped closer, urging her to respond.  "Ya gotta let go."

"I know," she finally admitted. "I know. But I was serious about that curse." She gestured to where the dead embryos had already been removed. "We found four little clones of... him. They died one right after the other, of course, they were all genetically unsound; but the universe must have thought I was getting ideas again, and decided it needed to remind me I'm supposed to be the leader. It killed the last one with rapid onset of hypothermia, via a temporary heating malfunction in the ventilation system that is being officially classified as 'a fluke.'I almost expected lightning to spontaneously hit the power outlets where they'd been installed. Twice. And then the remnants to blow away dramatically, with tumbleweeds."

Raphael grasped her arm in an effort to comfort her, but she was no longer welcoming, because now she knew what he wanted, and she wasn't prepared to give it. April pulled away with a shake of her head, and turned towards the entrance.

"I need sleep," she said. "And I have plans to lay."

"April," Raphael sawed his beak and tilted his head to look askance after her. "Ya need ta finish this."

"Not yet I don't," she disagreed.

"Ya can't leave him like this, it ain't right," he growled, growing firm. 

"Not until my researchers have-"

"He deserves bettah from ya than bein' left ta rot in some lab!"

April stilled. A sneer curled at her lip. "What do you know?" she whirled to face him. "Suddenly because we're discussing a turtle, you care?"

"Kid would have been mah brother's son, damn straight I-"

"How dare you think you have any goddamn say in what happens to the remains of your nephew?" she asked him acridly, tone fanged. "You can't even bring yourself to love your living niece because she doesn't look like you. He's my son. He was as good as Casey's son. Your claim to the family card is fraudulent. You talk about it like you value it, but all you care about is how the people in it make you feel, and you're repulsed by both children, and repulsed by everyone's feelings towards them as a result."

Raphael's eyes widened and he breathed out whatever he was going to say through his nose instead.

April whirled away from him and the door swooshed open before her. So fast did she walk that she nearly didn't hear the computerized voice crackle to life behind her: 'Cell interface connected. Termination protocols accessed. Select from–''

She spun back see their black sheep leaning over the console, her own nicked authorization card in hand. Her eyes widened.

"Raphael!" she screamed. 

Chapter Text

"RAPHAEL! Stop!"

Raphael didn't heed her, keying in commands. She sprinted back to him. "Chill," he said, shoving her away as she grabbed for the console. "Ain't liquidating him, which is what I should do."

She grabbed his arm but obviously did not have the power necessary to budge him. "What are you doing?!"

'Termination protocol selected-'

"Givin' ya someone other than ya self ta blame."

"Don't take him from me! It's's not because of Donnie, Raph!" Helpess. Again. "Raphael! Stop! Please!"

That green eye flicked to her in question.

"I'm not holding on to him because he looks like Donnie!" she screamed into Raphael's face, clutching pleadingly at his arm and plastron, raw truth spilling uncensored and bittersweet. "I felt him kick for months inside me! Don't you understand!? I hummed lullabies to get him to fall asleep; He knew when I was sad, or angry; I dreamed of what kind of life I'd give him." Her nails had curled on scales. "I..." her voice was crackling, breaking up, "I was conscious when they cut him out of me, Raphael... I saw him. I heard him cry, I saw all his perfect toes and perfect fingers, and the edge of his shell," tears dripped, "and I heard him crying for his mother! For me! And I failed him, I couldn't get free in time, I couldn't protect him!"

Raphael stared at her.

Doubt came too late.

Sounds of fluid gushed from in front of them, and both of them turned back to look; in horror April realized she hadn't gotten through to Raph fast enough to stop him. Her researchers had never intended on opening the cell and didn't have it rigged to a proper reservoir. This couldn't be undone.

"No," she whispered, stumbling around the computer desk and coming up to the cell as fluid flowed out the room drain and the pneumatic locks on the cell began to release with puffs of air. The cuss words which spilled from her were ugly and cthick. She touched the glass as the body drifted slowly to the ground and layers of fluid broke from around its features. "Reengage his life support," she croaked her last hope as she reached under her vest.

"It's over," Raphael answered quietly and she bit her lip and shook her head in bitter, seething fury he'd take this last piece from her—control over when it ended—when the Shredder himself had taken all the others. Red Turtle approached her from behind and touched her shoulder. "Step back. Ya idea about Shredder trainin' a sleeper agent ta kill ya ain't entirely far-fetched." 

April twisted towards him—him: her closest remaining friend—and she grabbed hold of his arm and stuffed the pistol she always carried up under his chin. "Stop," she hissed at him. "Stop. Helping."

One eye searched her face, like he was trying to read a book in an alien language.

"I never got to hold this child as he entered the world," she whispered, "and if you have ever genuinely cared about me once in our lives, you must not stop me from holding him as he leaves it." 

Raphael sank back a step and restored a drawn sai to his belt. "Okay," he capitulated, steadiness gone from his voice as he ducked his head and watched her. 

Shuddering with adrenaline, April stared at Raphael, uncertain what he'd do next or where else he'd impose his weight (always where everything was fragile and no one could stop him in time). He looked cowed, but whatever she'd said to him, the dent she'd made hadn't been soon enough to matter.

Shit! She heard cords, intravenous needles, and tubes breaking free with crisp sounds and she perked up in alarm. Rolling motors began to slide the glass walls off their pedestal with puffs of air, and April turned back to the tank and stumbled forward in time to catch hold of that copper-swirled shell with both hands before it could topple.

Oof. Heavy. Definitely a turtle. Struggling to handle about two hundred pounds of dead weight, April got a knee quickly under the top of shell and an arm behind his neck to keep his head up as he listed into her, and then sudden she really was holding—for the very first time—what remained of her child. For despite how close as the tank had let her get to him, it hadn't been as close at this: With the leathery feel of his shell upon her palm, and his cheek and temple resting against her arm.

Wonder overtook her for one blissful moment. She touched his face. The texture of his skin was smooth and glossy, warm with life, and olive yellow. Her breath caught in her throat. These were some of her features, captured on a different canvas, in different paint, on a slightly different sort of organism. This was definitely her jawline, but that was Donatello's mouth. The curve of the eyebrow was hairless, but the shape of the corner of the eyelid and the bridge of the nose looked like what she'd see in a mirror. Her fingers traced down as the nose itself widened out into the top part of a short and slender 'beak.'

He is real. He-he's still alive...

Hurriedly, April touched his plastron and searched till she was over the bone and could recognize a heartbeat distinct from her own. She shuddered out a ragged sob, and got her hand around one of his and rubbed over the mound of the palm and the spaces between the fingers. He was still curled very tightly up, held stiff with muscles that had never been extended in any other configuration, shoulders rounded forward in nature's preparation for squeezing down a birth canal. She touched his arm, and then face again, smoothing her palm over slender cheekbones and temples and marveling at the lack of external ears.

She heard as Raphael approached and squatted down on the opposite side of the boy. Whether he was empathizing, wanted to see his nephew for himself, or was trying to make sure she wasn't spontaneously assaulted, April wasn't sure. She didn't trust herself to look up at him.

Because this was how her son was going to die. The mechanically oxygenated blood—his life support—was no longer circulating. He'd die of asphyxiation, right there, within the next few minutes. And yet until that happened, until that happened, he was still warm and alive and... "Oh," she whimpered, dragging in another hard sob of air and pressing a kiss into the crown of his head. "I'm sorry," she pleaded for someone to accept as she squeezed her boy into herself. "I'm so sorry. I wanted you. I wanted you so badly it hurts. I wanted to keep you safe." From jailors and the unforgiving world outside her body. She wiped her cheek into his, and hugged him tight.

A sudden jerk of muscles nearly made her scream in alarm, but then she recalled the electrodes which were set up to keep the muscles from atrophying. 

Which weren't hooked up anymore?

A hard, fluid-filled intake of breath beside her hear set every hair along her body to bristling with a terrified chill, and she sat up quickly and looked to see facial muscles moving and eyelids fluttering. A rough exhale spit out residual suspension fluid, and then the body was breathing quickly. Emerald colored eyes opened, squinting against the bright lab lighting and turning almost immediately to her face. The pupils dilated and contracted slightly through slow, deep, flinch-like blinks.

No expression bloomed on his face, although the nose wrinkled slightly. Those long limbs stayed curled, but twitched and wormed slightly in place.

April stared. Her own eyes stared back at her. "H-hi sleeping beauty," she whispered in a rush.

Green eyes continued to peek mysteriously up at her from the cradle of her arm for a few seconds. Then the boy jerkily turned his head into her as if trying to hide from the light.

April blinked uncertainly, following the motion. "What are you-?" His jaw moved. "O-oh god. Oh my god, you're rooting. You want a boob." She looked up at Raphael in shock and saw he wore a wide-eyed and disbelieving grimace. She looked back down. "So do most boys your age, but for very different reasons!" she sputtered. She was lucky she had a vest on, because someone already had all his teeth and was outright biting in search of a teat. "Oh god. Kami. God. Buddah. Jesus." She clutched that boy to her, shell and weight at all, and laughter erupted from her like the gates of heaven had been thrown open and music was spilling liquid down into their hell. "You're alive...!" she squeaked out through laughs, through sobs. "You're alive...!"

Her son made small bleats into her, and for all that his voice had already been broken by puberty, it was the same damn sound Donatta made into Leo. Less cute, maybe? Not a chance. Not a chance. Tears blurred all vision and she rocked with him, hyperventilating through the chant: 'You're alive. I have you. You're alive. I have you.' Nothing else mattered. No bleak forecast for any feasible future could break into the moment and change the sheer monumental importance of the fact that this child was breathing and awake and she had him. He cried soft murrs, sounding more perplexed than upset.

She heard Raphael climb to his feet with an inarticulate noise in the back of his throat. For a moment he must have stood there, petrified. Then she heard the sound of skin on metal as he pivoted, and hard footfalls as he fled at breakneck speed. Anger, fear, and desperation burst out from her:

"Raphael! Raph, help me!" A harder footfall and silence punctuated the sounds as he stopped short. "Help! Pl-please, Raphael! Please, I-I can't... I can't..." Sobs were making her stupid and she couldn't breathe. "I c-can't even carry him by myself...! I can't... Help me! Please." She was drowning in hysteria. "Don't leave us alone. Don't leave me alone..."

An eon passed in the interim, with all of herself dissolved into sunshine and panic in puddles around her. She blubbered giddy sobs and terrified laughter into her understandably distressed, developmentally delayed, and extremely unweidly child; a child who was coming more awake by the second against her collar, who had started trying to kick and flex, and who was clearly causing himself no small amount of pain when faced with the state of his cramped muscles.

She felt a three-fingered hand touch shakily at her hair and then her shoulder.

"I'm here," Raphael told her huskily from beyond her curtain of tears, from somewhere above and in front of her. His hands moved, and slipped past her leg under the shell. "I'm here, April, I got 'im."

Chapter Text

April had... basically snapped into 'Base Commander Mode,' somewhere between leaning hard into his arm for support and turning about to stride purposefully out of the room. Next he saw, her face was blank and her expression hard, and she was all orders into her comm. She scrambled people before she and Raphael even arrived anywhere, switching guards off, waking officers to handle information and security management, authorizing temporary detainment of anyone who tried the leave the base, dismissing skeletal night crews, and paging awake a handpicked assortment of doctors and science folk, including one guy who'd have to leave some other base and rush to get to the HQ by morning. 

Raphael followed on her heel. Paid attention to her. Ignored his own pulse. Ignored–

The awkward shape in his arms squirmed and started making noise. Raph looked down, quickly adjusting his arms to keep hold of the shell with both hands. The world's most dramatic frown was written there, the emotion all raw and honest, out in the pure. 

"What?" he breathed without intending to.

The kid pushed where his foot had ended up lodged against Raphael's shoulder, and squirmed against his own shell. He was kinda strong but his super tight range of motion and zero coordination kept him from achieving anything. He wiped his face jerkily back and forward into curled hands he could barely budge, and, after sucking in a bunch of little rapid breaths (and coughing out some preliminary little 'kek!' noises) he finally started crying... Only it wasn't like anybody his size ought to cry, it was more like some kind of goat or whatever, gravelly, choked, flat, and piercing, and it came out with every single exhale. 

Raphael grimaced, unnerved and estranged. He glanced to April, who'd held up a hand indication they should stop for a moment and who didn't seem to be able to hear the crying at all. He stared at her for a moment and then looked back down at the kid and hefted him up to change his grip on that shell and support more of the weight with his biceps. The kid jumped in wide-eyed alarm at the brief sensation of weightlessness, hands opening and tightening into fists as if trying to grab onto something secure that just wasn't there. Then he immediately resumed crying. Louder this time.

"What?" Raphael growled toothlessly, feeling the skin of the leg and arm. Then he grabbed at the kid's fingers. Cold. Of course he was cold. Kid was wet, naked, hairless, fine-boned, hadn't a scrap of fat on him, and probably had bad circulation to boot. 

Donnie had always been easy to get Christmas presents for, even if you didn't know a thing about technology. Wasn't a year the dork didn't need leg and arm warmers, or, hell, another scarf. The hardest part was usually holding out to Christmas before giving them to him. Leo's last gift to him, ever, had been gloves he could type with.

Leo had made them himself.

By the set of pipes on him, kid was damn fine. 

He wasn't particularly keen on laying at a weird angle on this cold, hard cot, with Raphael holding him down, as people shone bright lights in his eyes and poked him with needles. Guess one could say it was giving him the opportunity to discovery his own lung capacity (yeah, spoiler alert kid, you're a turtle; you got a lot of room for air in there). 

Raphael didn't like it either.

He didn't like four strangers with hands on green skin, buzzing like flies around a carcass. Nerves alight, he stayed poised there, memorizing faces and voices, criticizing expression, glaring at syringes and watching that they all came from sealed tubes in plain sight. Impossible breaths and cries resonated under his fingers and up through the bones of his skeleton. 

There was a semi-standard procedure to waking up a guy from suspension, mainly involving blood draws and a test of the nervous system. Usually the suspension tanks had people on an anticoagulant, to prevent clotting from so much inaction, which made it important how Raphael held one of those arms pinned down with the vein exposed, so his pitiful thrashing didn't tear anything open. Another hand, Raphael had clamped down on the side of the kid's head to keep it trapped there for an examination of the eyes and facial nerves. 

There definitely wasn't a procedure for what to do with somebody who'd been comatose since birth. Not even just comatose, but dead, not breathing on his own, nothing working on its own but the heart. How the hell had brain death just gone and reversed itself? What bleak prognosis was there on this shit? He'd been like frozen at the baby state. Okay. But he had a full-sized brain; how much catch-up was even possible? Raphael had just saddled the leader of the Resistance with a retarded kid. A very large retarded kid. At least one hundred and eighty pounds of retarded kid, heavier cause of that shell (and probably some water weight), and he hadn't even hit his final adult growth spurt yet.

Raphael looked to where April paused in her orders and accepted a report from the hacker girl. Her face was all business, maybe even mildly annoyed, deaf to them. Raphael looked from her back down to the kid, squealing helplessly and half-crushed into the mat. Raphael hadn't let go of his head, and had been putting more than a fair share of weight on that arm. He lifted his hand now with a startled breath.

"Uaaah! UAah-mn-uah! Uaaaaaaah!"

Sensation welled up in his gut, threatening to bubble over. Raphael wanted out of this room. 

A syringe showed up on the periphery of his vision, and he grabbed the hand holding it so fast he felt wrist bones grind together.

"What is that?" he asked quietly, because he hadn't been paying attention and hadn't seen.

"S-standard i-influenza vaccine for vulnerable immune systems," the doctor stuttered out.

April had been remotely setting up a safe room for the kid.

The three of them got in there in the early morning hours just prior to some troops getting back from disaster relief, like ten minutes before anybody was in the halls; and it still smelled of sawdust and silicone in there from whatever her guys had just installed. Curtains across the door and sound-proofing, from the looks of it. Supplies and random pieces of furniture, some still in shrink wrap, sat just inside the door. April locked the door with her access card and then strode across the floor to where a plastic-wrapped foam mattress leaned against the wall. She overturned it onto the floor with a thud, and then waved Raphael forward.

"Blankets?" he prompted over her hot-faced and perpetually sobbing child.

"No, he's eventually going to pee," she sighed, two steps ahead. "Until I can source some ultra large Depends, or resort to letting a herpetologist and urologist tag-team inserting a catheter, there's not much of a point of sheets. Might as well keep it easy to clean."

"Yeah but he's freezing. Ya can get a space heater and humidifier in here later, but he needs blankets now. "

She visibly thought about that. She hadn't slept through the night. "Alright. Can you handle him for a second?"

The last thing Raphael wanted was to be left alone with this right now.

He nodded anyway, because the way April was acting was even weirder than he felt. He listened to her step out the door, and then he did go over to the mattress and knelt to set the kid down carefully so that his curled limbs weren't under any extra strain. The cross-section of his shell was different-looking than Raphael's or any of his brothers'. It hugged him tighter and made it look less awkward to lay him on his side. The kid curled there, barely making any effort to twitch anymore. 

Out of nowhere, it dawned on him April probably did feel things. All those things she'd said to him at the console were proof. The way she'd cracked like a nut hugging the kid was proof. She just knew how to hide it all and store it where the sun didn't shine. She'd just kept kid's wake-up a secret from all but a handful of trusted staff and closely monitored guards, but that wasn't the real feat she'd pulled off. What'd actually happened was that April hadn't told a soul this was her kid. Hadn't put out a shred of evidence for it, in any of the ways she'd behaved or spoken.

Nobody had any idea she was suddenly vulnerable. 

Raphael glanced back over his shoulder at the door, and then looked down at the boy... who was still crying out softly with every breath, his eyes pinched tightly shut and every line of his face drawn in distress.


...Raphael leaned over, and reached through that defensive matrix of curled knees and elbows, catching those hands and folding them briefly in his own. He pressed some cold from them, and winced slightly when the fingers closed reflexively around his own. He pulled a hand free to chafe the upraised shoulder and arm. The boy sucked in a hard breath and 'coughed' those pre-sob noises again. Raph grabbed the leg at the thigh, feeling for trigger points as he followed the line between muscles down to the knee. He worried his thumb into the tendons, and then tightly clasped the back of the calf and dragged a knuckle down between the muscles all the way down to the ankle. Felt like an actual muscle cramp. Feet were cold, too. He rotated the ankle around and then pushed gently up on the toes to alleviate the cramp.

The sobs mumbled off into quieter noises, squeaking and coughing only when something hurt, and calming down after each one if Raph eased up and rubbed his shoulder. Raphael let go of his other hand and slipped a palm over his head and cupped under the temple. His thumb brushed the brow and head. Dark eyes blinked slowly open again and flit around hesitantly till they found him and blinked rapidly to focus.

"S'okay," Raphael said, reaching for the other leg. "Ya safe now. Ya ma's got ya, and ya gonna be just fine now."

The child cried out at a painful knot in the muscle around the knee. Raph grimaced.

The creepiest part of this kid was the contrast between how simple he was and how much he looked like their dead genius. Raphael had noticed the resemblance the very first time he'd seen him, regardless of the different jaw shapes. Only one of Raph's brothers had ever been that tall and thin at sixteen. Stare at him long enough, though.... and maybe it wasn't completely awful. The kid's facial expressions were tight, exaggerated, but correct. He kinda looked almost healthy but mismatched to his body; he didn't have that uncanny drooping of someone missing things on the inside. But, hell, would it matter? Would he ever be capable of anything? Some fuckin' important years had been missed in the in-between.

Raphael flexed the second foot, and then chafed roughly over upraised skin and the side of the neck and back of the head.

The kid gradually quietly down. Raphael picked up and tucked both of his hands up under his cheek, to warm them up a bit there, and then chafed the forearms and shoulders. And after a bit, them big green eyes slowly blinked shut, and, with a little yawn, the kid sank into unconsciousness. Raphael remained poised over him, forearms draped over warmed skin. He listened until he was pretty well convinced the kid really was asleep. Then he dropped his head, and shuddered out a hard breath of air. And another. After a moment, he felt slowly along the rough, nuanced texture of the shell, marking the grooves.

Then the door was opening, and he turned to see April reentering at a purposeful gait, coming up to him with a bundle of quilts. Raphael frantically lifted fingers to his mouth to tell her to be quiet. She slowed and then slowly fanned out the blankets one at a time. The two of them got the kid bundled up, and folded up a cotton towel into the curl of his tail. 

April was quiet for a moment, kneeling on the edge of the mattress. "So," she said, but nothing followed. It sounded to him like maybe disengaging Business Mode was a little harder than activating it.

"Do you still need help," Raphael asked quickly, "or can I step out?"

"You can go," she murmured, and he was up on his feet almost before she finished. "But if you want-"



        He headed for the door.

               'Don't take him from me!'

                    'Influenza vaccine.'

He fled that room, and he fled that compound. He got his things, flicked on his poncho, tugged down the hood, and went blindly out into the ice storm.

Somewhere far away, in an alleyway, in the dubious shelter of perilous old building, creaking roof installations, and nearby dumpsters, he turned his shell into a wall and slid to the ground.

'Squeezing love out of you is like pulling teeth.'

      'I am empty; I have nothing.'

        'I'm cursed. I don't get to keep anyone.'

       'Come back alive, Raphael.'

                  'Don't leave me alone.'

He stared at his boots for a long moment, his forearms draped over his knees. He looked to his shaking hands, breathing in hoarsely. He could see the edges of the scars he'd left in his forearms.

How many times did it take a person to learn something?

How many times could you make the same mistake before everyone else cracked, and no one was there to mop up the blood anymore?

(Slit their wrists. Cut their throat out with a sai. Lost control of a helicopter cause they didn't have anything to look forward to. Blew their lonely brains out with a pistol over the body of a dead child in the heart of a rebellion founded on 'hope.' Ran into old 'flings' in a melancholy and lost their sight. Snuck off blind into limbo to test their fate. Stayed behind in the hopes of holding off invaders long enough for three nineteen-year-old children to escape.)

                        'You are here to seal the truth of what you are. Lowly. Unworthy. Dirt.'

The first sob burst out of him in almost startled way, like a laugh, and got followed up by more in the same way, laugh-sobs that took all of his lungs, and slowly tapered off into hard, choked shaking. He lifted his hands over the top of his head and his forearms bunched behind his neck. He sobbed hard and hoarse into the muffled anonymity of the frozen rain, cringing in on himself.

And it got worse, much worse, till it required his whole body, so every drag of breath and every exhale was hoarse and hot and anguished. The dampness across one side of his face, leaking between his lips and dripping from his chin, wasn't rain. 

It was just guilt, like blood leaking down in rivulets from his hands across the whole of him.


         I asked him if he could really raise another man's son daughter as his own.'

            'I saw all his her perfect fingers and perfect toes.'

        'I heard him her crying for me.'

           'I couldn't protect him her.'

    'I wanted him her. So badly it hurt.'

'The unwanted child in the garbage was you.'

He felt something crawl along his skin through the muffle of cloth, and jumped slightly to look at it, breathing hard through the aftershocks. A rat sat there on his knee for a moment, just peering up at him, looking dry, plump and unconcerned with the cold. It stared at him, and groomed itself, and then climbed up his shoulder and onto his hands and head, and hopped up to a pipe to scurry along its way.

Raphael stared vacantly through where it had been for a very long time, and then slowly look back the way he'd came. 

Chapter Text

April settled in against her son's structurally sturdy side. It was almost anxiety-inducing to see his eyes closed again when he'd only just opened them, but small changes from then to now comforted her. His facial muscles moved as he dreamt. She could feel soft breaths through his plastron and against her palm if she lifted a hand beside his face. 

She was going to need to double her morning push-up and sit-up regiment. A sixteen year old turtle baby sounded like a handful.

How long did she sit there, staring at him, watching him sleep? All her emotions were burnt up like incenses, and she felt content and tranquil. No plans formed, no ideas stirred. She'd probably forgotten more than one something, and was overlooking a thousand others, but she at least knew her son was presently safe. Warmth built up where she was leaning. She couldn't carry him, or pick him up to comfort him if he was crying, but she could lay down and snuggle with him like a parent might with any older child.

So, that was what April did, easing an arm protectively around his shoulder and head, and curling partway around him so his he was partway sheltered against her breast. She drew the picture of Casey out. She still had the purple 'bandanna' wrapped about her opposite hand as she traced the features of her husband's face. After a bit she set the picture aside, and unwound the violet to place it down too. 

Her child came half awake with a choked warble, and she tucked a kiss into his temple and pet him. "Sssh," she whispered. "You can sleep..." He settled back down almost immediately, drifting back into the warmth and security of her. "I love you," she told him softly. "We've all been waiting so long to meet you. No matter how old you get, no matter how far you make it learning all the things you'll want to learn, or doing all the things you'll want to do, I love you. And so does Dad. Both of them."

She closed her eyes, and no tears formed even as that raw feeling hit her chest and heart again. She breathed deep to try and steady herself so she wouldn't start crying and wake him back up.

"Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for sending him back to me. Thank you."

It was probably four in the morning when Michelangelo finally managed to rouse Leonardo, by shaking his shoulder to take his turn at watching Donatta, and even then Leo felt very disoriented and nearly scalded himself with the kettle. Mikey held back on what likely amounted to a billion questions, and instead snuggled up tight against his side to sleep. They had time to talk later. 

Little 'Natta work him up next, with little kicks and squirms because it was time to eat again, and Leo sat up into the predawn hours and yawned heavily. Hmph. He was a little more lucid this time around. He felt carefully for the kettle and prepared her formula, and set water to boiling so he could brew himself some tea at the same time. Casey army-crawled up to lay her head on his lap, and he dropped a hand to rest upon her neck and slowly scratch her short fur.

Was she cold with such thin insulation? Casey? Perhaps he ought to invest in one of those silly dog sweaters if he decided to take her outside this winter. April seemed to know a bit about dogs; He'd ask her.

The door to the room cracked open, and Leo lifted his head to the surprise of Raphael stepping slowly in to join them, his footfalls almost inaudible, but his aura loud. 

Something was wrong.

Raphael felt unstable. A whirling, wild, and dangerous vortex; self-contained for this instant, but hypothetically capable of anything. Leo felt his own hand slip back an inch, headed for a surreptitious move for his katana hilt, but he stopped himself short so as not to signal hostility. Do not threaten him. Do not drive him away. Leo's instinct to protect his child blotted out some of his senses for a moment, fighting adrenaline-fueled surety that Raphael was presently incredibly dangerous.

Their middle brother stood there ominously in the doorway for a long moment, breathing hard and deep, staring at Leo (at the baby?), as he slowly eased the door shut behind himself without so much as a click. 

The seconds ticked by in pregnant silence.

Raphael moved.

But not quickly, and that was probably the only reason Leonardo didn't leap to his feet. With his own emotional byways congested, and heavily restrained, he watched in stiff and inexpressive silence as Red approached their little nest of futons. Casey seemed to sense the tension because she growled, but Leo hushed her with a hand on her scruff.

Raphael slowly sank to one knee, and just as smoothly got the other leg beneath him as well, taking seiza right in front of Leo. With great and menacing energy he drew first one sai from his belt, and then the other, but sat them off to the side and pushed them away. Raph then placed his palms flat on the ground, and bowed slowly and low over his own lap, head lowering in submission. In entreaty.

Leo straightened forward an inch, lips pursed in realization that Raphael was lit up with energy because he was cowed and perhaps even scared, not because he meant any harm; Blue reached forward and brushed his fingers against the crown of his brother's head, wordlessly absolving him. Raphael peered up at him and slowly pushed himself upright again.

Then Raph lifted his arms just an inch, palms up, in a gesture so hesitant and feeble it took Leo a moment to even notice, much less work out what he was doing.

Raphael was asking to hold the baby.

No. I can't. I can't let you. I am not ready to let you. You will hurt her. The risk of you hurting her is too high. The mere chance that you might possibly still want to hurt her is to much for me to bear. 

Oh... Master Splinter, Father: Help me, protect her, be with her, and be with him... 

Leonardo leaned forward on the palm of a hand, likely unsuccessful at neutralizing his facial expression. He clutched Donatta to him one-handed, and then slowly, carefully, he tilted her forward into his brother's arms. Raphael took her into the cradle of his arms gently but awkwardly, like she was a bag of jelly and potatoes he wasn't certain how to hold onto without letting slip. His uncertainty was a temporary excuse for Leo to stay hovering there in front of him, with his hands on his daughter as he scooted her so her head was supported. 

Not that it would take much more than a squeeze for someone of Raphael's strength to maim or murder her.

Leo sat slowly back on his heels.

Raphael didn't lift his head, apparently watching her or taking a good look at her for the first time, before finally saying something:  "Ah'm sorry. I still don't like you. But I'm real sorry." Donatta wiggled obliviously in his arms. Leo swallowed and folded his hands in his lap. "Why's she smilin' at me?"

Leo stiffened in surprise, and then scoffed fondly at the irony. Her very first smile; Of course it would come out at the least expected time. When Raphael glanced towards him, he shrugged slowly. "She doesn't know. To her you are a blank slate, with no black marks and no mistakes."

Raphael looked back down at the baby, who was thumping her little heels against whatever was available and dancing in place, and likely looking very excited, though, without touching her, Leo couldn't precisely tell. His middle brother was quiet a long moment, keeping her balanced as she wiggled and mumbled interested noises. Then his body language seemed to flinch or coil up or shrink or some such, and after a moment he leaned forward and eased the baby's waist into both hands to hold her back out to Leo. Leo took her and brought her to his shoulder, and held her there with a hand. He was surprised when Raphael stood again.

"Are you leaving again?" he asked.

"I..." Raphael cleared his throat. "Gotta help April with somethin'. Tell ya later."

"I'll... see you for breakfast then?" Leo fumbled.

"Yeah, maybe." He paused and, almost as an afterthought, shrugged off some of his possessions and went to set them back on his bunk. Then he slipped out the door as quietly as he had come.

April wasn't sure what time it was, but as she pushed the quilt out of her face and slowly propped herself up on her elbow, she discovered that all the furniture she'd had allocated for the room had been mysteriously unwrapped and assembled, including the low box spring, which ought to have been impossible without a very loud hammer. The supplies had also been opened and allocated around the new shelves and modular cabinets, which at the very least ought to have been crinkly as the shrink wrap was folded up and deposited in its garbage bag.

The only explanation for this was ninjas, but Raphael had already left and she'd given literally no one in the compound access to this room aside from herself. 

The crisp sound of something hitting hot oil made her jump and twist about, and there she found a collection of thanksgiving cookware had mysteriously showed up for duty. Raphael cracked a second egg over the portable griddle. "I forget how ya like ya bacon," he mentioned.

"Black and crunchy," she admitted. "But I hear that's bad for you."

"It's bacon," Raphael reminded her.

April ceded to that logic, and looked down at where her enormous bundle of joy was still blissfully asleep. She reached around his shell, and tucked in the blankets tightly, and then carefully and strategically removed herself from the mattress in an attempt not to wake him. Maneuver successful. She stood up and rubbed at her neck to crack the kinks out as she walked around the mattress and up to Red Turtle.

Raphael didn't look up as he flipped eggs and bacon, and set down some bread to toast on the griddle. "Ah'm listenin."'

She dropped her hand and peered up at him. "For a lecture? Or... some yelling?"

He nodded once.

"I'm not mad at you."

The sudden crack of his expression showed everything vulnerable and self-punishing under the surface as he looked disbelievingly to her. 

"How can I be mad, Raph? In a handful of minutes, I went from having a pickled fetus to having a son. You... inadvertently ended up giving me the only real hope I've had in my personal life in seven years. I... if I could feel anything at the moment, it would probably be something like gratitude."

Raphael flinched and shook his head rapidly: "I saddled ya with a huge commitment, a huge mess."

"Take one look at me and tell me I can't handle it."

"I nearly did a lot worse," he muttered quietly. "I nearly made ya kill..."

"I was mad." She rubbed at her face. "I wasn't just mad, I was... You took the worst and most defining traumatic experience of my life—and I've had more than my share of those—and you stepped into a role previously only held by Shredder, and struck what few burnt embers I had left from my grasp. Raphael. You're unstoppable, you're a bully who isn't afraid to force things, and when you think you're right, you're wicked. I wasn't ready for what you wanted me to be ready for, Raphael. And it wasn't like tearing of a band-aid, it was... I didn't have any reserves left to draw on. I was at my limit."

He ran his tongue over his lower lip, and lowered his head again. "What were you actually gonna do with that gun, Ape?"

"It's for self defense."


"I don't think I know. I don't think I want to know." She was quiet for a moment. "I'm a little frightened of you. What do I do if you spontaneously decide he's a liability? Who's supposed to stop you in time? Me?"

"No," Raphael muttered with a shake of his head, picking up the bread with the spatula, and assembling a bacon and egg sandwich on top of it. He reached for ketchup, added it, and then added the final piece of bread. "I'm done." He set the plate down in front of her.

Nothing had ever looked more delicious. She squinted back up her cook, and then dragged a stool over to sit. "His name is Zacharael." 

"The... kid?" Raphael prompted.

"Casey picked it," she said as she picked up her sandwich and pretended McDonalds was still on their side of the world. "It's not Italian, it's an archangel name." She talked shamelessly through her food. "Like 'Raphael.'"

"Oh." He squirmed slightly. "Ya don't have ta-"

She waved a hand. "Hubby's dead, so he's the one who gets the last word. I mean, I wasn't married at the time, but Casey would have adopted him. So that leave us with Zacharael Yoshi Jones; a mouthful we shall obviously shorten to Zak for the benefit of the child who may or may not ever learn to talk."

Raphael leaned back and was quiet for a bit. "Kinda weird... havin' a turtle not be a Hamato."

"Nope, he's a Jones," April confirmed. 

Raphael scoffed a little fondly. "Damn straight he is." His face darkened again. "Shouldn't just forgive me like that."

"I have the perfect punishment for you, Raphael. You're his godfather," she said, leaning her elbows on the table and looking up into his soul. "So for the rest of your life you'll never be able to look at or think about him without knowing that if anything happens to me, you're the one who has to raise him. How's that for teaching the consequences of a person's actions? Do you hear me? If anything happens to me. You're the one who needs to find my son, get him someplace safe, and protect him." A bright green eye just stared at her, face numb. "Do you accept that?"

Red Turtle was quiet for a long moment. "On mah life," he agreed quietly. 

She shrugged. "Then that's the closest thing to an apology I need to hear from you, Big Red. But," she picked up her sandwich again, "if you'd like a better grasp of the impacts of post traumatic stress disorder on peoples' psychology after living in a nearly post-apocalyptic totalitarian madhouse for over a decade, you might be surprised to learn books on that exist. This isn't the first time humanity's been in deep shit. It's just the first time alien technology was involved. Post World War II literature is a goldmine."

"Uh. Right."

"Hey, I have lots of mistakes to not make. It's important I do my research." She finished her sandwich and dusted her hands of crumbs. "You still look grim. How about I punch you in the face later? Twice? Will that help?"

He lost a laugh, hard and real, and then grinned askance at her. "It's a date. C'mere, lemme show ya the blender."

"The blender?"

"Bettin' you sent your researchers off ta figure out what to feed him, right? Well I been feedin' this family fah years and I can tell ya exactly what he needs. Ya remember back in the day, seein' me make protein shakes? Yeah. Picture that, but heated. Got it all in the blender already, just ain't turnin' it on till he wakes up. S'loud. This'll have the calories. It smells like milk. S'got yogurt in it for gut bacteria. You just handle the how to get him to actually down it without chokin on it, and should be good enough for now."

"Any cyanide included?"

"Hmn. Well it'd take more ta kill him than to kill you, so ya welcome ta have a taste."

"Don't mind if I do, your protein shakes were delicious."

Chapter Text

Leonardo went through morning Ninjitsu practice in the training rooms without waking Michelangelo; Mikey had, after all, stayed awake more than his fair share of night hours providing for Donatta, and the quiet of the physical exercise helped Leo gather his thoughts together with regards to the haunting. Something supernatural had occurred that previous day, and Leo had seen enough of demons, enchanted weapons, and strange rites to accept that. It was a far greater stretch of the imagination to scramble for scientific flukes which might explain why an area had gone cold at the same coincidental moment as Donatello's Spirit had been saying that temporary farewell. 

The safest and most rational assumption left to make was that Leo had actually been seeing a real ghost. But if that was the case, Leonardo was left to work out the mechanics of why exactly Donnie had shown up seventeen years after his death, and not at any previous juncture. Yes, it truly did seem that the ghost had gained power and lucidity both times Mikey had set out special offerings for him this fall season, but they (and especially Mikey) had been leaving Donnie (and Master Splinter!) offerings for years and years, and never before had the result been so obvious as this. Furthermore, this was hardly also the first year Leonardo had been blind (or stressed).

Now, it was the first year after Shredder's death. An observer could make the argument that the three of them were very troubled, and that they could use a little supernatural help figuring out how to survive into the 'peaceful' era looming ahead of them. But then it would have made more sense to be haunted by their father than their brother. Besides, Donatello's ghost was so astonishingly logical, one could almost make the argument his advice might have been more useful in helping them kill Shredder.

...They had only ever managed to pull that off at all because an... interdimensional traveler had needed their help and, in turn, helped them cheat.

Racking his mind, Leo could only think of one opportunistic variable specifically affecting Donatello, and that was a matter of numerology: he'd recently passed the threshold of being dead as long as he'd ever been alive. Whether that counted for something spiritually potent, Leo could not say, especially as the haunting didn't seem to have started anywhere near the brothers' birthday, and if one was counting the exact days which Donatello had been alive, then that anniversary would actually be midway through next year, at the 'seventeen-and-a-half' marker.

In addition to wondering about the reason for the ghost's apparitions, Leo was left puzzled by what things it had proven capable of. For instance: Donnie hadn't been able to show up and warn Leonardo about the cyanide, even if that Night Terror might have been a warning he knew something would divide Leo from his brothers. It also seemed queer he'd not popped up to blatantly yell: 'Yo, the baby's under attack!' during the rat incident, and instead just shown up later to calm Leo down. Donnie had seemed extremely concerned about the baby, though, and had expressed anger towards Raphael for trying to kill her. 

Leonardo finished his exercise regiment, and stared off at the unyielding gray wall of his sight for awhile.

It was time to be honest with himself: Leo had an unpleasant sensation he already knew the solution of this mystery, but had pushed it aside that he might search for any other explanation. Concern now drew his attention down, 'neath the lip of his coat, where Donatta slept snugly in her satchel. 

This 'haunting' had started immediately after she'd come into their lives, and grown with time. In that light, the ghost's varying level of abilities made sense: The ghost had been weak during the cyanide incident because the haunting was new, because Donatello had expended all his energy on speaking to him during the Night Terror, and because Donatta had been gravely ill. The ghost had been strong after the rat attack because Donatta was healthy. 

But Donnie hadn't shown up beside Leo to warn him about the rats, because Leo wasn't the haunted one; Donatta was. Donnie had never needed the memo he ought to be on ancestral support duty, he'd been hooked onto Donatta like a shadow from the day of her birth. Whether Leo had carried the dormant ghost to her, or whether Donatello had found her on his own and called Leo to the location, all evidence suggested the two were connected. Leo had never once seen the ghost without being in physical contact with Donatta, he'd also never seen him while she was awake; She'd been both awake and out-of-reach during the rat incident. 

So what did that mean? Was their beloved brother some kind of supernatural parasite on their newborn child? Was that the only reason Donatello cared about her health? Was that the only reason he cared that Raphael had nearly killed her? Was he dependent on her for nourishment? Was she merely a means to an end, a tool by which to empower himself and thereby 'stay' with his brothers? Was he merely a ghostly tick subsiding on her lifeblood, and, if so, was he purely benign, or might a temptation present itself which left him ultimately dangerous to her health? 

These were questions Leo would need to keep in mind to check into later, but perhaps not ones he needed to know answers to just yet. First of all: Donatta had grown unexpectedly healthy and robust after her run-in with influenza, and had apparently fought off an incurable illness at the gates of body with nothing more than divine providence and the help of her mother's immune system. Barring the possibility she'd been stricken by a fit of narcolepsy somewhere along the way, Donatello had not once had a negative impact on her physical health. In fact, he'd disappeared at least twice without necessarily intending to all because she'd come awake, suggesting she had more power over him than he had over her. Even if those scales could tip in the opposite direction, it had not yet proven a cause for concern. Secondly: Donatello's moral compass didn't appear to have grown any more selfish in undeath, and he'd done something the day before at the gross expense of his own 'energy.'

Had that affected Donatta? Hmm. No, it seemed not. Indeed, it seemed Leo had been more affected by the previous day's events than Donatta had. Leo, and, apparently, two doomed embryos.

Ah, that was right. The embryos.

If Michelangelo had been getting his hopes high about the possibility of adding a second generation of turtle children to their family, then Leo understood how painful the results of yesterday must have been. It was not that Leo explicitly craved a genetically related child, but he could well imagine the sense of kinship that might instill, to look down and see themselves in a child. Leonardo had unintentionally wounded his brother, and now really did owe him the best explanation he could muster. Blue could not deflect questions or supply half-formed answers. But! If Leo could manage to tell the story right, Mikey might end up too deeply intrigued by the mysteries of the haunting to dwell on the failed cloning attempts.

Hmm. Remembering the sad fate of the embryos drew Leo's mind back over to wonder about the central tank. He'd glimpsed the basic shape of what had been curled up within, outlined by the stale, scientific definition of life it still carried as a bag of meat and chemicals. The curl of the limbs and dome of the shell had been faded and beautiful, but everything in the core had been dark, darker than the doomed embryos with their feeble glow, dark like Donatello's ghost but without any of the rich coloring of a dynamic spiritual entity. On reflection, it had been disturbing to look at, like some cross between a plucked flower and a headless chicken, trapped between worlds in some transitory state which had never been allowed to be resolved. Leo's first instinct on beholding such a creature would have been to sternly insist it be allowed to die.

Yet! When Leo had felt fatefully obligated to request a 'miracle,' Donnie's ghost—which he'd just seen evidence to suggest was very real—had gone to the central tank and done something to the entity within, an action which had apparently required a great deal of 'energy.' One way or another, Leo now suspected it was his obligation to veto any plan involving euthanizing the... turtle? Yes, that was what it had been: a turtle. Where had another turtle come from? Donatello hadn't said.  Michelangelo hadn't known. Donatello looked to have worked the mystery out as he'd inspected the creature, but he'd not shared his observations with Leo, and Leo was also uncertain whether Donatello had been able to discern its identity using logical deduction, or whether he'd relied on some more mystical intuition.

Perhaps Leo ought to ask Mikey to take another look at the tank and its contents. Jarred by the unusual prompt, and armed with the foreknowledge that the tank had interested Donatelo, Michelangelo might be able to work out with creativity whatever Donnie had needed logic and magic for. 

Michelangelo's insights sometimes felt like magic, that was for certain.

It was probably a godsend that Raphael had found him that kitten; Bazooka at least gave Mikey something warm and fluffy to love on. Leo was uncertain whether they could have possibly provided for two children; Raphael hadn't been entirely wrong to draw attention to how much work Donatta alone would require. At least, hopefully, this time, Leo would have both of his brothers helping him look after her.

With a goal to unite them, the entire Hamato family on the same page, and a brand new member to take care, perhaps they truly would be able to find some measure of peace as they headed into their uncertain future.

He still did need to talk at length with Raphael... to resolve the many tail ends of the conflict between them, and to ensure they were both headed in the same direction.

...Leo also needed a tutor in meditation. Barring that, he needed to spend serious hours in practice, striving to remembering his father's lessons. If there was some 'real' element to all of this, then Leo needed... tools, skills, information with which to examine and understand events. It wasn't even just a matter of personal curiousity anymore, or a fascination with what he'd been able to 'see' despite the ruined state of his material vision; Whatever was happening, it was tied to his daughter, and Leo needed the basic threshold knowledge necessary to help her. Maybe if-

"Ya off solvin' the mysteries of the universe in dere?"

Leo startled in place as Raphael's hand settled on his head and tousled nonexistent hair. "Oh. Hello."

"Bro, Ah don't remember da last time Ah got the jump on ya."

"It's been a strange week," Leo admitted bashfully, enjoying the physical contact more than he'd ever admit, because it meant things were mending between the two of them. Though he did feel some reflexive protectiveness over Donatta, he pushed it down to where it could do no harm.

Raphael brushed his coat. "Were ya just doin' ya kata with a baby?" 

"Naturally, we must get an early start on her Ninjitsu education." 

Red sank back as if half impressed, half irritated, and wholly amused. "Ya know, I honestly can't tell if ya jokin'."

Leo smiled for what felt like the first in awhile. "It's good to have you back." Good to be talking and bantering with him. Donatta had at once changed everything and yet nothing.

"Yeah, well, youl'll probably be givin' me an earful 'fore the hour's out. Where's Mike? Sleepin' in, or eatin already?"

"Oh, hard to say; I left him at the former but it is about noon and I've never known him to miss two meals in a row. Have you slept? You seem... groggy."

Raphael nodded with a rub of his face, "I'll be fine, just gonna sleep like a rock t'night. C'mon, we need the knucklehead n' ta get back ta April."

"What for?"

"S'kinda complicated. Ah'll just show ya when we get there. But uh... do me a favor and don't take it ta... mean anythin'."

Leo wondered at that, but followed quietly in the assumption he'd soon find out. He had intended on discussing with Raphael where they might go for the winter to remove the burden of provisioning for them from April's shoulders, but of course such conversations could wait.

Chapter Text

Michelangelo was chastising Raphael for scaring them all about his whereabouts, and taunting him that he'd missed the best Thanksgiving Leftovers, when the three turtles made it into the soundproofed suite. Raphael not-listened politely until they were midway into the room and Mikey was still yapping, and then sighed. April looked at all of them, one blind, one tired, one talking a million words a minute. She crossed her arms, a grin tugging on her mouth. Raphael plopped a hand on Mikey's head, and forcibly turned his attention.

Mikey cut off with an airy squeak and his eyes flew open. For a moment he just stood there like he'd just had a panic attack.

Zak, who was curled up half on his knees, half on his plastron, and definitely half on his face, blinked up at them, jerkily dragging his head to a more sensible angle for seeing things (and breathing) as his eyes flit from face to face. 

Mikey flew across the room, stumbling to his knees as he reached out to peel back the edge of the quilt and take a gander at that ornate shell pattern. He sat back with an inarticulate noise, leaning over and slipping his hand around Zak's neck and cheek to cradle his face with one hand. "H-how did this happen...?" he breathed wondrously. 

"We're not sure," April answered, sparing Raphael the immediate blame. "It just... happened."

"Someone, please," Leo interrupted, "describe to me what we are looking at?"

"C-come here," Mikey begged, and so Leo gracefully did so, weaving around all sorts of other inanimate objects well enough. Michelangelo grabbed his hand as soon as he arrived, and brought it down to touch Zak's face. Leo breathed in sharp surprise.

"O-oh," Leo murmured, and his expression quivered emotionally. "Oh my."

Raphael winced with the realization Leo'd never seen him before, just a glass wall, because there'd been nothing to touch. If April hadn't walked in when she had, or if Zak hadn't woken up, he'd have only ever known second-hand descriptions of his own nephew. 

"He was supposed to be brain dead," Mikey whispered as if panicking, smoothing fingers over his shell and shoulder. "What's wrong with him? Can he not talk?"

"He's a baby, Mike," April explained. "Whatever flipped his brain back on, it didn't magically teach him how to be his age. He woke up two months behind Donatta."

"Like he literally was just born." Mikey felt gently over the back of the kid's head. "Hi little guy... I just met you and I think I'm in love."

Zak was looking shyly back and forth between the two of them, eyes pinched half shut, lips rubbing together, breathing heavily. Abruptly he squeaked and closed his eyes. His first distressed coughs of 'kehk! kehk!'' gave April enough time to dart forward, push Michelangelo back a pace, and get her arms around the bulk of her kid to try her luck at soothing him before the real crying started.

Raph came forward to see if she needed any help, but it looked April had already worked out the trick of rocking him in place with a hand on his shell, and the kid settled down pretty immediately. "Shh," she whispered anyway, peppering him in kisses. "Shh, it's okay, Zak. I've got you..." 

Had to be disorienting: Being the same size as the person you were expecting to pick you up and calm you down.

Mikey reached out to touch her should gently, "April, I can-" but then bristled up and made an indignant squawk: "Hey wait a minute, did you name him without me!?"

"She's his ma, she can do what she wants," Raphael snapped, but all he got was a perplexed look from his youngest brother and no reaction at all from Leo. "Like the sort what gets pregnant and carries the kid fah nine months, numbnuts!"

Zacharael cried out a startled 'Uah!'

"Raphael," April ordered. "Voice down." Raphael ducked his head apologetically. Zak had totally not liked the sound of the blender, either, as they'd learned.

"Wait. Wait, wait, wait," Mikey whispered as he pawed gently at April. "Wait, what?"

"His name is Zacharael," she said, turning a bit to look at him. "He is your nephew. He was not born in a tank; He was born in a jail cell. He was not engineered by Shredder or Bishop; He was conceived on a bed of rose petals surrounded by candles." She sniffed in a breath of air, and pet over her now-calm kid. "Either that or in the back seat of the Shellraiser. Mom might have jumped Dad while he was changing out the motor oil."

Whelp, that answered some of Raphael's lingering questions. Probably most of Mikey's, too, if his face was any indication. And, after a very long silence, Leonardo said: "I've spent seventeen years wondering which one of my brothers stole thirty-seven of my best pillar candles."

Mikey (in disbelief) and Raphael (in bemused and rapidly-blinking irritation) both turned to stare at Leo, who was apparently reflecting unecessarily deeply on the subject of these candles.

"I always assumed it was Raphael getting me back for throwing out his cigarettes, but then it didn't make any sense why he'd left the tea lights..."

Raphael planted his hands on his hips, looked at the ground, and quietly shook his head. Michelangelo wrinkled his nose and said it for them both: "Yo your priorities are weird, dude."

Leo squinted towards both of them. "Exactly how else am I supposed to react to this news? Should I squeal a redundant and out-of-character 'no way' or 'all the wasted years' or 'tell me everything' the way you would? Perhaps pretend to be squeamish or naive and mumble a 'I'm going to go meditate on this' and wander off? Ought I to curse loudly and stomp off to drink? Which matrix of responses would you prefer I'd been consulting? Truly, as of the moment, the only thing I can think of is that this might finally push Mike over the precipice of throwing his all into asking a girl out on a date."

Mikey sat back to reflect, eyes glazed over as far too many extremely stupid and exciting thoughts occurred to him simultaneously. 

Raphael scowled and hit Leo upside the back of the head. "Don't encourage him, he already has chicks asking him for autographs."

"I promise to be hyper-critical of his taste in women," Leo offered as a wincing consolation. "And to enumerate everything morally questionable about the circumstances of their attraction to one-another for their benefit in otherwise polite conversation, while doggedly nagging both of them about her birth control at awkward times, and whilst occasionally dragging him off to explain all the reasons he should not attempt to knock up the first individual he manages to seduce into sleeping with him. How's that? I'm sorry, I'm mildly in shock. This is Donatello's son?" 

"Hnh. Yeah, guess that means ya really ain't ever banged Karai?" Raphael concluded flippantly. 

"W-what!?" Leo sputtered as if terrified. " Of course not! What do you take me for!? That 'relationship' is strictly a function of mutual-"

"Boys," April interjected, clearing her throat and leaning over to flick Mikey's snout to snap him out of his daze. "Listen-"

"Can I play with him?" Mikey suddenly wheezed with a peek back towards Zak, apparently less preoccupied by his own hypothetical future relationships than he was interested in the new turtle. Raphael grabbed his head and steered him to look at April again. "Woops!"

"All of you." April scooted into a sitting posture, one elbow still against Zak's shell, as she enumerated her problems: "I need to hire caretakers, assemble an advisory team with regards to future steps for his development, design and acid test a security plan, and assess how much sensitive information I've been able to keep quiet. And, for the good of everyone, I need to carefully budget how I'm spending my time from now on." She looked directly to Blue and continued. "I know Leo intended the three of you head out until spring to find some safe place to bottle up with Donatta, and I understand why that would be a wise move.

"Not only are the three of you extremely prone to cabin-fever, but you're making my HQ look like a juicier and juicer target for revenge schemes and anti-terrorist propaganda. Someone already tried to kill Raph and Mikey. Despite that, I need to beg you to stay with me for another month. I'm pretty sure these first few days of... of his 'life' are critical, and I have a hell of a lot of responsibilities I'll be leaving in limbo if I stay here to give him all the attention he really needs. At the very least, it's going take me some days to convincingly and sensibly bow out for a few weeks under the pretense of contracting pneumonia. Can you help me?"

"I do not think a single one of us would argue it is wise to leave you right now," Leo reported, tilting his head to listen for any complaints, just to be sure. Mikey was already calling dibs on the first round of babysitting, and Raphael who owed April big time and wouldn't have left her hanging anyway. "Yes, you and Zacharael both have our services."

"So what happened!?" Mikey squealed softly. "How'd you know he'd gotten better?"

April shook her head. "We didn't have a clue until he was already out of the cell last night. He just... woke up."

Leo frowned. "I assume removing him from the cell disengaged his life support? Strange that this should occur in the middle of the night, without Michelangelo present, when he was so concerned about 'Tank Teen' and so invested in the cloning attempts." His face darkened and went all frosty, and Raphael could nearly hear his teeth grind on edge. "Was this done with your consent, April?

"No, it was done by an asshole," Raphael growled with a wave of his hand. "Yours Truly takes the blame."

"Have you not had your fill of euthanizing other peoples' helpless children?" Leo wondered aloud, standing to turn on him, all ice and nettles.

"Fuck off," Raph retorted immediately, retreating a pace and keeping his head low, bitter and coiled and definitely not wanting to hear more of what he already knew. "I ain't hurtin a scale on him, or a hair on her," he gestured to the baby girl's satchel, "so fuck off."

Leo tilted his head, lowered his chin and said nothing. Raphael waited, tense, to see if that would change.

Mikey clambered back in to retake a spot beside Zak. "Why are we arguing when we just found out we have a baby turtle?" he whimpered excitably, leaning over Zacharael's shell to peer at the state of his coiled limbs. "We should be talking about our tiny turtle...! What's he eat? What's he need? Omigod he's watching me! Why's he not laying flat? Look at his shellllllll, it's booootifullll. Omigod. Does he have April's eyes? That's it: I have a decree to make!" he turned to glare at his brothers. "I decree: That the day be spent in admiration of our new giant baby. All in favor?!"

Nobody told him 'decrees' and 'voting' didn't quite work quite like that. "We don't disagree, Mikey," Leo explained, blind stare fixed as best as it could be on Raphael, "but the three of us never talked about Donatta, and that nearly ended in disaster, so we should talk briefly about Zacharael without... without me throwing barbs as Raphael. Are we all on the same team, or are there details to work out?"

"I'm not gonna hurt him," Raph repeated, and then sneered at the ground and rubbed at the back of his neck. "I got a lot ta make up for, and if ya shovin' me out ta arm's length, I really can't. Can ya... can ya please just trust me?"

"I can," Leo grumbled as if annoyed instead of angry. "But if you would put my fears to rest with actual conversation about what's going through your head, in private or otherwise at your discretion, perhaps I might be less prone to jumping down your throat at the drop of a hat?"

Raphael choked out a laugh, and lifted a half-smile to peer over at him. "Suppose that's fair." 

"This is exactly what I'd hoped to see." April waved the two of them together. "Now kiss."

"And make up," Mikey chirped, still half-snuggled over Zak's shell.

"Pass," Leo and Raphael agreed simultaneously, but when Raphael slowly rejoined them, Leo put fraternal arm around his shell, and Raph... well Raph leaned into him for a moment.

Chapter Text

Donatta was grumpy about being unable to see anything! Gosh. This was awful. Voices were talking, and they were voices she recognized, and that meant people, people she recognized, and she — wanted — to — see!

She complained as loud as she could so Dad would notice her displeasure, and then things were very much improved when he brought her out to rock in the corner of his arm. Yes. Excellent! Freedom!

She waggled her arms. Faces! Faces, faces! She smiled at the first set of eyes that turned towards her, and watched Mikey perk up and smile back, and that was the best thing ever. She could not contain her excitement, delighting in how he came near to tickle her. He dipped to press a smooch into her face. She remembered Mikey's smell. Not as well as Dad's, of course, but she liked it all the same: Earthy and complicated and rich

Happy, Donatta kept smiling, looking up at all her other people, her family, but they were far away from her and she wished she could see them better. Raphael always looked at her like he found her peculiar or new. Nonsense! She'd always been here. From the start of everything. Where was puppy? Puppy! She could smell puppy somewhere. Pupppyyyyy! Dad, where's Puppy?

Dad picked her up a little bit, so her head was higher against his arm and she could see a little better, and he played with her feet 'till she forgot what she'd been looking for and ended up gumming on her hand instead.

Hands! Those were things! She was still working out the details. Feet were things, too! Donatta blinked downward past her feet. Oh, there was Puppy! Puppy was looking at Something; Donatta decided she'd look at Something, too.

Wait a minute.

Wait just...



Big dark eyes squinted hesitantly back at her from a brand new face. Donatta sucked in a round breath and then sighed out in an exquisite burst of high-pitched delight, because she'd just found another person who belonged to her. "Aeeiah!" 

"April!" Mikey interrupted their logistics planning overview with a very important news report. "Guys, one baby just noticed the other baby!"

Donatta certainly had, peeking far over Leo's arm, face alight with primitive joy as she wiggled in some uncoordinated attempt to locomote. 

"Speaking of encouraging developmental milestones," Leo murmured distractedly, trying to alter the vector of her attention her by hiking her up a little higher and bouncing her. But Donatta had decided exactly what she wanted to see, and Donatta was always so fussy about seeing things. Finally, with a hesitant glance April's way to make sure he was not overstepping his boundaries, Leo rolled his little girl over and settled her gently down upon the mattress, on her tummy and in front of her much larger cousin. April tiptoed back over to have a look.

Donatta pushed herself up with her hands, and gawped open-mouthed and smiling at Zak. Despite how she kneaded the mattress with her hands and toes, she still had no ability to push herself in any direction, and her pelvis stayed down just so she could keep her enormous head levered up. She squeaked, sighed, grunted, and growled,  making all sorts of comical noises which totally demonstrated her itty-bitty vocabulary was growing rapidly. April laughed.

Zak, by contrast, was totally just learning to focus his eyes, and hadn't even worked out that the touches, sounds, smells, and sights which reassured or frightened him all came from important objects in his universe. He did seem attracted to faces in the same way as she'd been, though, and stared at her. Leo kept a hand on both children in an attempt to keep an accurate picture of their first meeting despite the trouble of his blindness. 

Leo hadn't put her near the boy's shell, so there was no risk a sudden twitch or thrash might cause Zak to roll backwards onto her. No, indeed, it was their tiny fluffy Sicilian Eskimo baby who wanted to roll: For no apparent reason (but with her gaze still on Zak) she started teetering back and forward, and then plopped over onto her back with that big happy grin still on her face. She grabbed at her own fingers and rubbed her toes together, and only looked back up at Leo once to make sure he was there before resuming her infatuation. Leonardo didn't have the heart to pick her back up again to tuck her away into the safety of his arm just yet. 

Neither primary caregiver was entirely certain what the other felt was permissible, but by the look of them both agreed this was cute. With a gentle touch at Leo's hand to make sure he was game for whatever scheme she'd just hatched, April picked up Donatta under the armpits and pulled her gently forward just a few inches more, until the childrens' foreheads bumped harmlessly together. 

Zak only reflexively squinted to protect his eyes, but Donatta made one of her excited 'o' mouth shapes that mandated a full-body vibracious jig, which was doubly adorable given that she obviously couldn't tell Zak was 'a baby' and so must have been thrilled about meeting anybody green and turtle-shaped. Did she like the look of Raphael too? Heh, probably! April picked up one of her tiny hands and guided it forward until the knuckles brushed Zak's forehead, and while Natta probably wasn't entirely clear that it was her hand touching Zak, she held on tightly to April's fingers, and stared at this all as if somebody had just worked mind-blowing magic that required her utmost and complete attention.

Zak made a hilariously appalled face, like one might imagine a person would make if they felt a cockroach crawling on them, which sort of made sense given the respective size distances between himself and Donatta. When no other terrifying things happened, however, his face smoothed out again, and most everyone close to him could see his nostrils flare. Normal turtles, Donatello had once explained to his bros, had poor hearing, excellent tremorsense, and a very well-developed sense of smell.

Donatta sighed loudly again! Maybe she liked the sensation of breathing in so much air and letting it all out again? Sighs did feel kinda nice!

Zak squeaked, which probably wasn't a normal human baby sound, and which didn't sound explicitly distressed or happy; the best any of them could make out, he might have been just 'responding' to the only other squeaky-sounding thing in the room. Did turtle hatchlings peep and squeak and stuff? That didn't sound familiar, but some near relatives probably did! Crocodiles! Crocodiles did! Mikey had seen a Discovery Channel episode about that once. 

"She ain't grabby?" Raphael question, and MIkey nearly jumped because it was brand new for him to be making commentary on babies.

"That will start in another month or two," Leo explained. "Right now it is considered impressive that she can roll."

"Ya mean da part where she fell over? Hnh. That's pretty pathetic fah how much she eats and shits."

Leo chuckled knowingly. "Oh, you have only begun to dwell on that, Raphael," he intoned. "I am daily flabbergasted our father managed to keep the four of us alive. This workload multiplied by four sounds like madness. I can only speculate he synchronized our feeding times so we were asleep at the same times, swept away our feces with sewer water and a broom, and stole topside for hour-long stints in which he employed the full measure of his dexterity and desperation to steal whatever he could get his hands on to feed us with."

Raphael snorted. "We might have been a little different."

"I have considered that, but rather than sounding easier that only sounds harder," Leo shot a grimace back Raphael's way. "Imagine for instance we could crawl: We'd have been losing our blankets, dragging ourselves through our own waste, falling into the sewers, stumbling into subterranean creatures, and otherwise exposing ourselves to no end of dangers."

"Hey," Mikey laughed, "maybe that's what Zakky's squeaks are for! 'Help, I'm lost, where is everybody? Marco!'"

"Oh God, I am now imagining the four of you looking like tiny sea turtle hatchlings," April drawled, lifting a hand to paint a mental picture for them. "Donnie inexplicably upside down on his shell flailing in terror, but still right next to Leo, who is stubbornly remaining right exactly where Dad has placed him; both of them squeaking to orient Raphael, who is clambering out on a mission to find Mikey, who has a thimble on his head and has fallen off a stair. Eventually there's no way back up, so the rest of you go all fall off the same stair into a pile on top of him, and just keep squeaking until you're rescued."

"Story of mah life right dere," Raphael decided through Michelangelo's snickering laughter. 

Donatta was growing content with her adventurous stimuli for the moment, and Leo bundled her up into his shoulder before she could grow fussy. "Excuse me, but she probably needs to eat," he pardoned himself to pick around for a microwave. Mikey got up to help him. 

"Reminds me," April smooched Zak's head and then stood up to join them. "Zak managed to drink from a hard plastic straw on one, very specific sippy cup, and that is the only thing we managed to get him to latch onto after two hours of trying. Let me show you, because I'm going to need to step out and Raphael should get some sleep if either of you are to have help on the night shift..." 

"Wait, Zak can't eat just three meals like we can?" Mikey perked up.

April shook her head. "His stomach has to stretch first. It's never been allowed to do what it was designed to do, so it stayed small. We have a hell of a lot of catch-up to help him with."

Most of their talk so far had focused on security and trustworthy professionals, but now it was sensible to turn to what to do for their new 'baby.'

"Have you set some benchmark yet?" Leo inquired politely as he prepared his daughter's formula. "Do we have an idea of what level of functioning we're hoping he'll 'catch up' to? A goal? Specific skills to focus on?"

April gnawed on her lip.

"Look, I can't speak for his brains right now, and from what I overheard neither can anybody else," Raph answered for her as he crouched down and eased a hand onto the kid's shell and started to rock him. Mikey tried not to stare, because heaven forbid Raph be brought to his senses and stop.  "Humans ain't got a case like this in their medical textbooks, and Ape ain't got a therapist for disabled kids on staff she trusts enough ta poll just yet. Plus: Mutant, Turtle, etc." He counted off on all three fingers. "But one thing I don't need a doctorate for is to notice he's half paralyzed."

"Well," Mikey hesitated, "it took Donatta like a month to stretch out. Right Leo? She was all curled up, too!" Leo nodded.

"A'right, but you're also tellin' me I can measure baby accomplishments in terms of rollin ovah. And she ain't got remotely the same weight ratios as he does," Raphael argued as he depressed gently on one of Zak's thighs. The boy's eyes widened like he was uncertain whether this hurt. Raph didn't push any harder than that. "Her arms are like tiny paddles, she doesn't have to do jack shit to exercise and she's got a long-bone growth spurt ta look forward to. This shell's fifty pounds. He loses muscle tone, he's gonna be stuck in place like a rock. Look, c'mere, see this?"

Mikey returned and leaned over to peer as Raphael lifted a blanket. 

"This is a muscle cramp," Raph pointed out. "See?" Mikey did see, the muscle was literally going through slow spasms, and Raph left it like that only long enough for it to be visible before worrying his fingers into a trigger point to calm it down. "Ya gotta get him to push and pull weight a bit ta keep stuff from atrophying, and he's not only clueless what you're tryin', but can also barely move. That's where we start; we sure as fuck know physical exercise. If April ain't got a clear plan on how ta push him forward yet, we can keep him from fallin' futher back."

"I agree," April announced before leveling with them all: "Even with my admittedly cursory knowledge of developmental disabilities, I'm banking his physical skills have a better chance at making a comeback than his social and mental ones." That said, there was no hopelessness to the sharp gleam in her eye. If anything, she looked more fierce and sure of herself than ever. "Right now, for our long-term milestone, let's set our sights on crawling, playing, and enjoying himself, and pay attention to how well that works. Donatta's progress can help us directly compare him; we can keep track of where he gets stuck and build a better guidebook for this. Some of the barriers we hit, like these cramps, I'll bet we'll be able to push through with the right technique. But maybe not. I'll need to order a CAT scan to rule out brain damage. Guys, your intuition's about to count for a hell of a lot. I'm putting together a panel of experts, but you're the only experts on being-a-turtle."

Leo clasped her shoulder warmly with an arm across her back. "We have your back, Sister."

Donatta grunted and hummed where she was suckling her bottle like the world's most serious business. 

"Ah. She will help, too, Auntie April," Leo added with a blind wink, and April grinned and hugged him.

Chapter Text

April knelt down to spend five minutes cradling Zak, just her and her son, before entrusting him to Leonardo and Michelangelo's care until evening. Mikey, being himself, jumped right on that, scooting up beside Zak and talking in high-pitched baby tones to him. April gave Casey an ear-rub with both hands and murmured something to her, and Casey got a kiss, too. (Yes ma'am! I guard baby! You counts on me!) Raph gave Mikey a stern stink-eye that said 'keep it toned down,' shared a shoulder-bump of understanding with Leo, and stepped out to crash for a few hours.

"Holy shit," Michelangelo whispered over Zak as Leo came up to sit across from him. "Leo we have a nephew. We can make babies. Donnie and April made a baby. This is the baby. There's a baby turtle and he's alive and his name is Zak. Holy shit, I want to scream 'yahoo' at the top of my lungs...!"

"I cannot advise that as our nephew has proven to be alarmed by loud sounds and has only just grown acquainted with our scents. We are also going to need to institute some kind of penalty on using curse words around children," Leo remarked.

"Leo," Mikey whispered, grasping fervently at his older brother's arm over Zak's shell. "Donnie did this. Didn't he?"

Leonardo looked hesitantly towards him. "I... shall assume we are no longer discussing the siring of offspring."

"Yesterday," Michelangelo's tone was a plea for Leo to engage with him. "The freeze-over. You asked Donnie for a miracle, and this was it, wasn't it? He rebooted Zak."

"I... I have drawn that conclusion," Leo agreed quietly, feeling uncertain, evasively, and shy about this topic again. "Michelangelo, if I am to talk to you about this, I need you to refrain from getting riled up and over-eager. I am leery about you becoming enamored with the idea of this ghost."

"A ghost of our brother!" Mikey reminded him joyfully. The soft tones of his voice (and the fact that he hadn't brought this up to anyone else) suggested he was more aware of the delicate nature of the topic than he had to say with words.

"Someone dead," Leonardo reminded him sternly, nevertheless. "In honor of all the horror movies you have ever watched, Michelangelo, you must be wise enough to remain concerned and cautious about this haunting, not despite the fact that it involves Donatello, but specifically because it does. We do not know how the situation is going to evolve, and there are likely reasons the dead do not more regularly roam the land of the living."

Mikey leaned back a few degrees, and Leo lifted up a hand to reach for his face that he might perceive that his little brother's smile had pulled into a line of contemplation. Mikey was searching his face, and eventually asked: "You really have seen him, haven't you? Donnie?"

"I have heard him, felt him... and, yes, even seen him," Leo confessed. "Usually warm, breathing, and with a heartbeat. It is terrifying to know my senses are being lied to about something I... so badly wished was real."

"Geeze, really? Like, how, when?" Michelangelo was at least sympathizing with the difficult aspect of this instead of being overwhelmingly excited. "What's he been doing, when did it start?"

"It somehow has everything to do with Natta," Leonardo explained. "The haunting began soon after finding her. At first it was negligible, but it swiftly progressed to the point where he appeared to me while I was having a panic attack and curled up beside me to get me to sleep. Which worked, despite how terrifying it was. Perhaps because conversations with him are eerily clear and engaging; He explicitly told me to get Donatta vaccinated. He only seems to appear when my... nerves are on the fritz."

"W-was he there on Thanksgiving?"

"Yes. Leaning on my shoulder, making snide commentary, taking emotional constipation metaphors too far, eating potatoes, and apparently getting Jim Henson Muppet Christmas Carol tunes stuck in your head."

"Holy bajeebus. The- he. Things. Words. He ate the potatoes?"

"Yes. Half most impactful appearances occurred immediately after you gave him food," Leo explained. "But be careful with that, and warn me ahead of time if you are going to set anything out for him. I am absolutely sure he is connected to Donatta, and I do not yet understand how."

"Maybe it makes a bit of sense," Mikey postulated, thinking hard about this all. "She's brand new life in his family, right? He's dead, so couldn't there be some kind of Inyo or Yinyang balance going on there?" In following that thought, Mikey straightened. "Does that mean he'll only be around while she's super young?"

Leonardo hadn't considered that, and he took this new potential angle into review. "I do not know. The fact that he physically impacted the world of the living after some M&Ms and a few scoops of potatoes alarmed me. I must continue to play the role of caution. But... if you are right that his power comes from her youth, it would be remiss for me not to tell you he went straight for Zak's tank, reached inside, and told me it would be some time before 'we spoke again.' And he said something about promising to explain himself before 'fading.'"

Michelangelo took these words and thought about them for more time and reflection than Leo would have given him credit for. "I feel like if I tell anybody else, the magic will disappear. Like Raph will be skeptical and pop! it'll never happen again."

Leo chuckled. "If belief is necessary for this, Donatello is well-armed. I think you could single-handedly believe Santa Claus into existence, were you so inclined."

"I still remember when they told me he wasn't real. Raph and Donnie. I was devastated."

"So do I recall that day. I was livid."

"Ha! I was thirteen," Mikey admitted, "it was time, Leo, it was time." Leo huffed. Mikey giggled and looked from Zak to Donatta, who was watching Casey, who was sitting there beside the mattress like a sentinel and not crawling forward to lick Zak's face off. Casey smiled at the attention, lolling her tongue. Leo gave her head a gentle pat. Mikey smiled, and then looked back down to where Zak was dozing.

"Donnie really did this," Mikey breathed. "Raph... Raph would have opened the cell and Zacharael would have just died. April would have never gotten to meet him. And... would we have ever known? That he'd been Dee's baby, our real true family?"

"Oh, I cannot imagine what it must have been like, to wonder for years what had happened one's only child, and then, while seeking final closure, to at last find them reduced to the level of an organic machine, filed away in the back of a mutagen mill," Leo intoned with grave reverence. "I would not have wanted to talk about my true feelings, were I in her shoes. Such bittersweet confirmation of her suspicions. I barely want to swallow the idea it is possible to survive the death of one's child. If you had heard me howl when I realized what was in Donatta's formula, you'd not have recognized me. And I say that as one who'd held this child only a few days, and certain not carried her for nine months in anticipation of her arrival. I oft speak of specializing in self control, but perhaps I should be taking lessons from April."

"April's something else, man," Mikey murmured. "There was so many bad things already going on back then, and then we find out she lost a baby in the middle of it all?"

"I wonder if that experience was not the one which shaped her," Leo mused. "Any person would have been expected to fold and break under such a barrage of tragedies and traumatic experiences. We nearly did. Now we know she lost Donatello, her freedom, and her son within... what... half a year's time? Yet when next we saw her, she had orchestrated her own escape and dragged Casey out to safety with her. There was a grim set to her jaw and she leaped to her feet ready to fight to the death if she was so much as startled from slumber."

"She was always upbeat and her smiles reached her eyes," Mikey hazarded. "Was that all fake?"

"Perhaps not fake. She believed in us when we did not believe in ourselves. Perhaps she tasked herself to make hope for everyone else because she so badly wanted some of her own. She is courageous, either way."

"Then she really needs Zacharael," Mikey concluded. "Like more than she'll ever know how to tell us. We can't offer to take him and hide someplace safe."

Leo only nodded in agreement, deep in reflection. He had been so sure that the moment in which Donatello had been circling the cell had been important, and now it seemed that he'd been proven right. It was hard to argue that his intuition had been a trick of his imagination when the result was alive and breathing and smelling just as chelonian as any of them ever had. Leonardo reached slowly across Zak, again inspecting the lay of his coiled limbs. Mikey had scooted right up against him, and if Zak's calm breaths were any indication, he was comforted by the nearness.

"What... what's that smell?" Mikey abruptly said.

Leo smirked knowingly. "Very slimy poo. A lot of it. By the lack of any amusing expressions gracing her countenance, I'd wager Donatta was not the culprit."

"Oh dear." Mikey looked south. "G-good job Zakky..."

"Here's where we find out how much Raphael and April understood the mechanics of stain prevention."

Mikey was silent for a bit. "Since he's all balled up, how hard do you think it would be to tuck a pan under his tail? If it's, um, all in the same place on him as on us?"

"I think the Brilliance of Michelangelo just struck," Leo assessed. "Let me fold a blanket to lay Donatta down on, and then I will go have a 'look' at lay of the matter. Go forage for cloths, sponges, clean water and baby wipes. And soap, as I'm nearly guaranteed to touch certain substances that will leave me obsessively washing my hands afterwards."

It was heading towards evening, and they had a big problem.

"Uaaah! UAAAH! Nyaaah! Myaahh-teh-heh-Uaaaaaaahh!"

"Leo! Leo, Leo," Mikey protested, reaching out with his hand to stop his brother. "Stop stop stop, please!"

"These stretches are fairly simple," Leo argued, but more against the theory of the matter than with the audible results. He wore a very sympathetic wince, and there was a light cringe worked up in the curl of his shoulders that said he did not like how their nephew presently sounded to be in pain. "Can you neither distract nor calm him?"

"Nnyyggh! Nnhh! Mnnhh! Keh, heh, heh, mmnn!"

"I... I can't," Mikey admitted his fallibility. He just couldn't entertain Zak or keep the little guy's spirits up, no matter how he murmured, pet, or rocked him. "M-maybe it's cause he doesn't know me very well yet? Although I guess he just met Ape and Raph right before me. Man, Leo, he doesn't know anybody yet, he doesn't know whose on his side and who isn't. He's been stolen from his mom and shoved in a tank, and poked full of needle holes, and carried around between scientists and doctors, and his mom has to work, and the only other person who's been kinda nice to him is sleeping. He-he's gotta feel really alone... He's scared, he's still scared even now that you're not doing anything, and he's not getting un-scared..."

"Raphael did stress he must exercise," Leo reiterated, but then thought about his tumultuous experiences training Donatta to be left alone. And later on he'd found out from the pediatrician it could even be dangerous leaving a child unattended in a soft carrier, because they occasionally smothered themselves! There was more to any 'important' development than black or white. 

"I know but it can't be like this," Michelangelo begged. Zak was still crying, and Donatta didn't look very happy either. She was rolled on her side and staring at her unhappy cousin with a terribly forlorn expression on her face, wide eyes, and her brows all scrunched up, like at any second she might start crying, too. If she started crying, Zak would totally cry more. 

"Alright," Leo considered the puzzle this presented to them. "Perhaps we should consider that Raphael was going about this in an extraordinarily gentle manner, much more gentle than we'd typically give him credit for." 

"He won't stop crying," Mikey repeated, and because Zak had such raw expressions, Mikey teared up too. Oh boy. Oh boy, he'd better not let Donatta see that. 

"I have an idea," Leo gestured to him, "Let me take your place at his head, and you take my place as the person helping him exercise. Only... don't mimic what I was doing. Spend a moment to reflect, think about how you wanted to... 'play' with him. Gently, of course.

Michelangelo hesitated, because of course it made sense that the sighted empathetic guy ought to be on emotional maintenance duty for the baby, and the blind fellow with two hands and a very precision understanding of exercise really ought to be moving limbs around. After a second he moved to comply, though. 

Leo surprised him, kneeling down and scooping up the whole front of Zachrael into his arms, and pulling the the teenager partially into his lap. Zak kept crying. Leo lifted a hand to his head half just to support, and half to feel expressions Mikey could just glance at, and then Blue faltered for a moment, and grimaced pretty broad, cause man was that a rough thing to see you'd done to a person all in the name of helping them through some pretty debilitating cramps. "O-oh." His voice cracked slightly Then he cupped the boy's face with both hands and holding it, brushing under the eyes and over sinuses and face muscles with his thumbs. "Yoshiyoshi, osorurunakare," he murmured, leaning over deep to touch his forehead to the child's. "Watashi no kokoro o kyōyū suru. Kokyū surusuru..."

Mikey would have never imagined stiff, cold, stick-up-his-butt Leonardo would have been the one who could make babies melt into his arms, but that was what happened. Little Zak slowly peeked out past all his terrified misery, and mumbled scared things, but Leo kept murmuring sweetly back to him, and maybe something about his tranquility was just contagious. Michelangelo watched them for a bit and then clambered around Zak and leaned heavily into his shell to squish him just a bit as he reached over to touch the four limbs he had to work with using his fingers and stub. Maybe, even though stretching was still rough right now, they could get Zak to push and pull a little against resistance within his very narrow range of motion. First thing was first though, Mikey had to try and figure out if anything still hurt and, if so, how to get it all to relax a bit.

"Shinpai takusan, suzume no ko, miru oya," Leo whispered Haikus to their scared nephew, with words that went over his head but a softness that maybe didn't. "Kyō wa Nikkō de mitasa rete imasu, Djizōbosatsu wa watashitachi ni anata o tsurete kimashita..."

Slowly, bit by bit, Zak started breathing normally again.

Mikey started breathing normally, too.

Yoshiyoshi. There there. (Finally found a good translation for this! Was previously using 'soko ni soko ni.' You might think Leo has an excuse, being American, but his dad would have been able to say authentically soothing things to him in Japanese as a child, and he would remember some of them!)
Osorurunakare. Be not afraid.
Watashi no kokoro o kyōyū suru. Share in my kokoro. (Spirit, heart, essence, soul)
Kokyū surusuru. (Made softer with gentle repetition) Breathe.
Shinpai takusan, suzume no ko, miru oya. (A Haiku) Many are their worries, the parents who watch their baby sparrows.
Kyō wa nikkō de mitasa rete imasu. But today is filled with sunlight.
Djizōbosatsu wa watashitachi ni anata o tsurete kimashita... Jizo bodsatsu (a special guardian spirit responsible for shepherding a miscarried or otherwise lost child safely to the afterlife) has brought you back to us.

Chapter Text

With so much work to do, Christmas was sneaking on them. Soon there were festive tunes playing over the HQ loudspeakers; usually instrumental pieces so as not to induce auditory fatigue in the same way they'd done to retail employees in bygone eras. Raphael ended up finding evergreen boughs, though no one knew where from, and bent them into a wreathe he tied up with an enormous (of course), red bow.

There would be no trees this Christmas, just as there hadn't been for many Christmases past, not for anyone in New York. But, all across the city, there would be lit candles, spiked eggnog, presents, and warm conversations around fires as people huddled together for warmth. It was hard to ever really take a holiday like this from people.

While the luxury of having a stable and secure living space was available to them, Leo observed a regular schedule. Every morning he woke up bright (metaphorically) and early to enjoy his tea, recultivate his meditation for an hour of tranquility with Donatta, and then proceed to the training rooms for an hour of Ninjitsu practice. After awhile, he drew something of a following from the other early risers. This was probably for two reasons. First of all, these were often people who had been trained in Ninjitsu during service under the Foot, and who now lacked any Elite teachers. Leonardo was the only master they'd had to observe in quite some time, regardless of differences in spine stiffness.

Secondly, Donatta adjusted herself to Leonardo's schedule and was now insistent upon being awake and active during Ninjitsu practice.

Instead of being able to secret her—she who was still so very small!—within the shelter of his coat, Leonardo was obligated to let her out to see the world. Of course, she didn't really want to be set down, and though Leo had Casey on hand to guard her, he'd have preferred not to place her out of arm's reach with so many other people in the room. He shrugged off his coat, held her clasped securely to his kimono, and practiced with her.

'Baby Yoga' came to mind. He had a sneaking suspicion his following found this adorable, so he comforted himself with the knowledge that it was also instructive, as there were of course many times in a battle when one might end up encumbered or adjusting one's tactics for less than stellar fighting situations. 

Donatta clearly loved Ninjitsu practice; It was obvious from her huffs and smiles that she liked every bounce, jolt, and ounce of G-force. She liked the 'clock! clack!' sound of the katana on wood practice pillars; she liked the rocking movement of each kata; she liked the lunges forward, and the redirection of the feints, and the brief weightlessness of the jumps. Most of all, however, Donatta liked to spin. And when one day she broke out in a high-pitched squeal as Leonardo spun around through his morning pratice, it was all he could do to stop practicing, stab his katana briefly in the ground, and lean on it to help hold in his laughter. 

He peered blindly down at her with a big grin on his face. "Oh, you liked that, did you?" he inquired, with a wish that it could be easier to see her face whilst his hands were occupied. 

"Awaauuu-aa!" she trilled. 

He might have managed to resume that morning's practice with just a little lost decorum, but no sooner had Donatta 'answered' him than Leo heard the first notes of Tchaikovsky's Opera 71-13, the Waltz of Flowers from the Nutcracker Suite, start up over the HQ intercom. The piece was so recognizable to anyone over twenty that even surly Raphael probably could have whistled along to it without knowing its name. 

Leonardo spun up his katana to sheathe it, hiked up his daughter press her to his chest, and folded one of her tiny hands in his.

And that was how Raphael found Leo, twirling around on the floor of the training room to some nameless but familiar orchestral ballet, with a baby, to a crowd of awe-struck onlookers who were all probably ninjas. 

At first, Raphael was just pissed that Leo apparently couldn't even focus on Ninjitsu anymore, which was an all time low in things for Leo to be distracted about, because Leo practically was Ninjistu. A walking, talking encyclopedia of it. An annoyingly pretentious level of Ninjitsu, was Leo.

But then Raphael arched a brow, and his mouth twisted up at the corners into a bemused smile, because the absurdity started growing on him as his brother went spinning past humming loudly to the dramatic brass, strings, and harp of the stage tune. "Da-da-da-dun, da-dun! La-la-la-la-la, da-dun dun!"

After a moment, this took Raphael wayyyy, way back, to being goofy kids, piling into the training room after some Disney Movie. They'd been role-playing in highfalutin, 'elegant,' noble-person voices to one another 'Why yes, your highness, indubitably, I would love to dance!' as they used their agility for something other than fighting or sports for once, teaching themselves a dance they'd seen. Just playing, just having fun, too isolated and too young to think dancing with one another was girly.

Raphael wondered when exactly in the past thirty years Leo had managed to perfect his waltz. Was that was the sort of thing you sneakily practiced in your bedroom after sixteen or so? Raph would have totally made fun of him if he'd done it any more visibly than that, but Mikey and eventually Donnie would have joined in, so of course Raph would have, too.

Then Raph sat back on his heels, because Leo was dancing with a baby, and somehow that was just incredibly Leo, in some long dead and forgotten way. Was hard to express any more distinctly than that. Maybe because it was so effing... cute, and cute wasn't something anybody had been able to afford in ages. Raphael reached into his jacket pocket, and drew out one of the extra phones April had given to each of them to help coordinate in the event of emergency. He lifted it up and hit to record video. 

Early Christmas present for Mikey. 'Sides, Leo deserved it for having his guard down and failing to notice Raphael was there.

Casey was dying to meet Zacharael. The first time April tried to pick her up and pull her onto the bed to say hello, Casey immediately scampered back off the bed with her ears and tail down. April didn't want to wreck whatever elite Navy Seals training Leo had somehow managed to instill in his K-9 partner (what the hell had Casey been through to make her so loyal to someone who barely acknowledged her?) and instead asked Leo for help.

April had deduced Leo's concerns based on the breed. Bull Terriers were affectionate, mouthy dogs who would gently 'teethe' on peoples' arm and would lick faces until a person was drowning in dog saliva. On top of that, Casey was definitely too large to be a Mini Bull, too small to be an adult yet, and too obviously purebred to be a mix, which meant she was still a willful and silly puppy underneath all that intense military discipline! Regardless, Casey seemed to like her job of 'guarding people,' and she whined, pawed, and grew sad whenever other people got to go sit with Zak.

April gave the go-ahead and Leo whistled and waved Casey onto the mattress. After dissuading her from licking Zak's face, listening to his startled squeaks whenever her cold nose touched him, and weathering through the uncertain amusement of her sniffing his bum, their loving, bright-white puppy curled herself up against Zak and laid her head protectively on top of him. Bazooka, who'd already gotten clearance to snuggle the baby far in advance of Casey, batted one-handed at the puppy's tail for a solid half an hour and then curled up and passed out.

The pets probably alleviated generalized anxiety for Zak. Hell, he only seemed to rest easy if someone was leaning into him. Whenever Mikey was watching him, Orange would practically lay across Zak's shell while interacting with him, and Zak never protested and always seemed to breathe more calmly regardless of whether he was being pancaked into the mattress. Whether this was some intuitive demonstration of security that made sense only when one multiplied a social mammal by a silent reptile, nobody quite knew. It made sense to all turtles involved, and that was all that mattered.

They were holding their breaths hoping Zak's first neurological milestones would ever come.

Under April's direction, the turtles brought their nephew to the hospital ward for some brain scans and test in the dead of the night. Raphael was designated carrier, and Leo had applied some over-sized swaddling to help Zak stay calm. April's handpicked physicians administered a mild sedative, but without the help of the swaddling it might not have been enough. When they settled him down into the MRI machine and the tray began moving, Zak started breathing rapidly and then broke out crying so loud it was probably better classified as screaming.

His uncles shared tense and grimacing looks with one another. They didn't say it out loud, and didn't have to; they were all wondering whether Zak had some memories of the suspension tank. Donatta started crying in answer, and it was almost a bigger strike to the gut when Zak's screams cut back off to rapid breathing. 

"He can hear her," Mikey was the first to understand. "Leo! Leo, talk to him. He always calms down when you talk to him!"

April was reading the synopsis of her son's test results with his head and shoulders in her lap, and a throw pillow under the middle of his shell to help soak some of his weight. It was difficult to say what he did or did not remember of his daily experiences, or if he recalled the incident with the MRI machine. Adult and infant memories worked very differently.

There were obvious things his tests had highlighted as wrong with his brain, some of which would have looked more natural on an infant, and others which might have been turtle-related but would require she convince one of his uncles to climb into an MRI to be sure. The activated neural networks were organized incorrectly for an adult, illustrating how complex functionality and skills hadn't yet formed (and might never). The brain was smoother than it ought to have been, because tight and well-developed neural networks physically altered the landscape of brains. 

All that aside, the important revelation was this: There was no evidence of any actual damage or degradation of brain tissues, whether from the suspension, from drugs, from injuries, or—worth noting—from his own pregnancy while incarcerated in bleak conditions.

There were no dead pockets of that brain. Oxygenation was appropriate, water transfer was appropriate, blood flow was appropriate; there were no mangled capillaries, intracranial bruises as a result of the anticoagulants in his system, and no signs of any past strokes. The protective membranes around the brain were strong and intact. If there had been anything to pray these scans might reveal to them, this had been it: That the basic materials Zak had available to him were physically sound, despite their age. 

With a deep breath, April reflected upon a carefully folded and tucked away set of memories.

Once, near the beginning, a Foot Elite had looked her up and down, walked over, and ordered her prison rations be changed. After that, they'd fed her liver. Raw. She hadn't appreciated it at the time, but whoever that man had been—ultimately nameless behind scarf, straw hat, and the passage of time—his one moment of human kindness, his wisdom, his decision to behave honorably on behalf a mother-soon-to-be; these things were in part responsible for why her son wasn't afflicted by spina bifida or any other number of congenital defects. 

Raphael kept recommending she clean house, but he could not be expected to understand why April pitied ex-Foot operatives. He'd lived his whole life with them as enemies; His father's stories about Oroko Saki's treachery had been with him since early childhood. 

A soft bleat draw her attention back down to where her son was tucked against her chest. She furrowed her brows. Zacharael furrowed his brows, too. Of course, Zak usually stared at faces, so that wasn't– Her breath caught her throat and her eyes widened. Her son's brows unfurrowed and his eyes widened. April hesitated, and then stuck her tongue out at him. Zak took in a quick breath, lips parting in surprise, eyes studying her as he blinked deeply. She beamed, and scrunched up her brows. He did likewise. She dropped her reports to the side, and wrapped her arms about him, and leaned over to grin into his face and rock him. He hummed and mumbled happily. He so rarely ever sounded happy...!

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. 

She said her prayers into the kisses she left all over her 'little one.'

Chapter Text

Leonardo was off-duty and sleeping. Mike had snuggled up against Zacharael and dozed off between caregiving times. The baby-carrier sat near his feet. Casey had her head stuck in the basket of it. One might even say not a creature was stirring, if one were more seasonally inclined. 

Raphael shut the door quietly behind himself. He placed a foil covered plate of iced cookies on the counter and checked if Mikey'd remembered to start the coffee maker. Solid, he had. Raph set Zak's next meal to heating, poured himself a cup of joe, and then ambled back over to them.

Zak was fast asleep, arms and legs now sprawled out a little more naturally in front of him. He'd lost a few pounds entirely in water weight, but Raphael was keeping close tabs no his strength. The one downside to helping him stretch himself out was that his coordination wasn't improving at the same rate. Kid had no clue as to what any of limbs were for (same as the girl) and would jerk or throw his limbs about in reaction to nearly anything. Eventually he was gonna whack someone in the face or jab them with an elbow.

Oh well. Hazard of the occupation.

His ma seemed... good. Better. Like she was more alive, even though she now had twice as much work. Her grins just kinda glowed.

The baby girl sneezed. Raph glanced and then leaned over a bit to see what was going on in that carrier. She was colorless in the dim lighting, but her eyes were open and she was wrinkling her nose like some dog hair had just snuck up a nostril. Looking at her might have been a mistake, though, because after furrowing her brows as tight as an old prune for a split second, she suddenly broke out in a smile and started making noise. Raphael winced and eyed his coffee. Eh. He stepped over and hunkered down. She drummed her heels on the carrier. Raph tilted it slightly and glanced over at the pup, but Casey just gave him a sleepy and trusting expression.

Hnh. Was she gonna start crying for attention if she didn't get any? She'd always been a pretty quiet baby, but she was also used to getting her way. His brothers were probably spoiling her, picking her up near constantly, capitulating to whatever she seemed to want. Leo's saving grace was probably his schedule, so at least she napped when she was 'supposed' to.

On the other hand, Raph didn't want her to wake Zachrael or Mike up yet. Guys had another half hour to sleep. Merry Christmas.

Raph eyed her and then slipped a hand in under her butt and shoulders to pull her out of the carrier. He awkwardly adjusted her with the knuckles of his opposite hand, and finally got her to sit kinda sensibly in the pocket of his arm. She didn't seem to know how to laugh or anything, but she was still having a visible ball down there, flapping her arms in a way he sorta recognized from Zak. Was almost informative, seeing where the much larger 'baby's' body language was supposed to look like. All that floppy uncoordinated excitement made a lot more mechanical sense when your limbs were like stubby little ship oars. And not like Nanchaku.

"Yo," he greeted. Would she be quiet now? Would she make a fuss if he put her back down? Eh, there were more annoying things to be holding than her. If she pooed, though, he was not changing that diaper. Got plenty enough piss and shit from Zak.

Casey followed him around as Raph went to pull up a stool and enjoy his morning paper. The little girl had no idea what cartoons were, and seemed to prefer staring at him. Raphael glanced at her, a little distracted. He was sorta used to handling Zak by now, awkward as that was, but this tiny, warm, jelly sausage in his arm was still new. She smiled at him, though, like she didn't much care what his level of expertise and/or interest was. After a bit he figured he might as well smile back. S'long as she didn't get too excited or nothin'. 


Raphael was on his feet instantly, paper down and sai drawn, and by the way Michelangelo leaped up and crouched over an alarmed Zacharael, he'd felt it deep in his bones, too. Donnie had told them all a couple times they had a good natural 'tremorsense' compared to humans, where they could pick up on vibrations, but Raph was pretty sure anybody and everybody in the compound had just felt whatever the hell that was. Casey whined with a head-flop towards the door, and Bazooka-the-kitten bolted to hide under something only for Mikey to seize 'im mid-jump by the scruff.

"What was that?" Mikey hissed without a note of grogginess. Old news, old reflexes; shit was always trying to kill them. 

"Bettin' on a big explosive payload someplace down inside the base," Raphael growled. "Pocket ya cat. That wasn't high above us."

Bazooka was not happy about being thrust back into his carrying pouch and having the top zippered shut. Little nails poked through air holes as he mewed like a maniac. In some past era, this would have been animal cruelty; In the present, it was called 'being responsible and planning ahead.'

Their phones bleeped simultaneously, and Mikey checked his faster than Raph could even reach backwards. "It's from April," Orange reported. "Evacuation orders triggered automatically: Sedate and bring to Hanger B. Do not handover to anyone but me."

"Wasn't planning to," Raphael growled, striding over to peruse the room medical cabinet. "We got a rendezvous, let's not keep the lady waiting." He tossed an isopropyl alcohol bottle across the room to Michelangelo, who caught it and cleaned an injection site while Raphael identified two Midazolam pens. He bit off the cap of one and hurried over to his brother and flustered nephew. The jab had to be intravenous to work fast, and Raphael was presently holding another baby, but he got the tip in there with a quick peck and an alarmed outburst of crying from Zak. "Sorry kid." He threw aside the pen and scuffed his palm over the boy's head to reassure him.

"We need more hands," Mikey muttered as he knelt down and hoisted the kid upright, pulling an arm across his collar. "I'll carry Zak."

"Gonna need to tie him to ya," Raphael muttered in agreement, because that meant he'd be able to use his own shell as a shield for the fam if need be. None of them wanted to find out if Zak's was sturdy enough to soak a bullet, second gen turtle and all. "We got some kind of canvas with tethers in here in case Ape needed a team of docs to move him." They jury-rigged that up on Mikey's shell in the same fast, every-day-is-an-emergency way they'd been doing their whole adult lives, and tucked a blanket around him to hide what he was. Zak fussed and huffed; the Midazolam was gonna take a minute or two to kick in.

Mikey drew out his Nanchaku and glanced to the carrier and the little girl. "I can-"

"Got her," Raphael disagreed, because while Mikey could use the bad arm for it, he was already carrying enough. Raph got the girl back into her basket, was grateful she was quiet, and pulled the handle up over his shoulder before drawing both weapons and draping one forearm over her. That arm was gonna be half useless, but he could at least parry. "I lead. We get Leo and get ta Ape." He whistled sharply to Casey, who bounded after him with a bark. 

Everyone was on the move in a state of fevered quiet, trying to get as fast as possible to their designated hold-outs or exits or whatever the plan was for them, like an air-raid drill. A kid or two was clutching hold of a Christmas present they were determined to save. It quickly became clear the turtles were pushing into a current, and Michelangelo grabbed a guard to ask why.

"They took out the central shaft," she said. "Backed up explosives to it and dumped them in or something! We're getting into position to cover a fighting retreat backing up into the eastern column. Don't head North or West 'less you wanna get stuck, the defense plan is lopsided!" Raph knew that and knew why. 

Mikey let them go with a holler of thanks and asked Raphael: "What's the best way down a level, d'ya think?" 

"Jumping through the damn blast hole," he retorted, because then they wouldn't have to dick around with mazes and stairs. The two of them could climb a shattered elevator shaft—easy—grab their gear and Leo, and then leap back down without breaking a leg. "Let's haul ass, base's designed to drain empty in under half an hour."

Raphael had talked in private with April about her wacky layout of her evacuation plans, and contrary to what he'd expected, she'd planned out her own HQ to be easy to abandon

Turned out, April played from the start of every game presuming she'd be betrayed. And weren't that clever, when she knew her enemies specialized in cloak-and-dagger shit? She'd intended them to eventually hit here. She'd been baiting them for months, trying to get them all inside her base, with all the entrances and exits sealed and guarded by her men, so she could slam a lid down on top of them and catch her enemies' best agents inside, like lightning bugs in a jar. Half her hallways were set-ups, designed to lure ninja and shock troops into booby traps—

Speaking of ninja.

—Mikey spun about as a random civilian running past them slipped a tanto out of his sleeve. The blade went for the gap in his plastron under the bad arm, but Raph thought Mike was probably moving fast enough to deal with this before the knife—

With a savage little "AACCKKRRLL!" Casey sank her mouth up to the molars around the guy's ankle, pounds and pounds of bone-crushing force driven down upon wedge-shaped teeth, as she whipped her head back and forth and wrenched his leg out from under him. The would-be-killer shrieked and botched his attack. Mike didn't hesitate, Nanchaku slashing wickedly fast through the fucker's head, blowing apart bone and sending brains splattering. And, since they were pushing through a crowd, a lot of layfolk and guards jumped back from this with expressions of morbid fascination.

Hnh! Thank you, 'evil ninja,' for falling to the ground with your tanto still upraised in a death grasp. You were very helpful on the goddamn quick exposition front. 

"Good girl, Casey!" Michelangelo hollered as the two of them pressed forward again and absolutely nobody got in the way of them or their red-mouthed dog. "Hey, what's Leo been feeding her?! She's like better at this than we are!"

Chapter Text

Who were these fuckers, and why had their commander put so many gunmen halfway down a smoking, twisted, and absolutely unusable elevator shaft?

The fuck sense did that make? Okay, if they'd wanted to use this shaft as a rapid entryway to the base, fine. But then they ought to have ridden their rappel lines to the bottom and rushed out into April's evacuees to do whatever sabotage was planned, not just stopped midway down, stationed themselves around the shaft, and pointed their guns down to lay out suppressive fire. In theory that'd stop April's small handful of extremely valuable ninjas from climbing up for a few minutes, but meanwhile, her actual army was going to be catching their indefensible asses in a pincer from the sides. 

If this were an ordinary bunker, and if the enemy held the entire upper part of the base after some long-ass fight, Raph could imagine them stationing dudes up in the elevator to make sure absolutely nobody escaped. That didn't make any sense for their context though, because anybody with even an ounce of intel knew this base sat on a huge network of extremely defensible tunnels. Had practically being a routing office for Evil Ninja Post just a few years past. Pfeh! As flattering as it was to think the dude planning this fight had gone, "I know exactly where that Red Bastard'll head," and then put his troops directly in Raphael's way to trip him up for a few minutes out of personal spite, that seemed more than a little strategically unsound. There were sure as hell better choke points for it, ones that would be useful for holding off, ya know, an entire Resistance army. 

Or was their position intentionally temporary? Did something above the gunmen deserve a quick, heavily-armed defensive perimeter, after which these guys would retreat or advance? Were they using the shaft to get a lot of troops down to some precise level of the base? Were they after some target? Was this a full-fledged attack, or was it some kind of... raid?


Raphael grabbed Michelangelo and Zak, twirling them back down behind the shelter of the wall as the grenade detonate. He'd gotten half-crouched when the shrapnel hit him, slicing the back of his coat to ribbons and nicking the his right calf. "Fuck!" he snapped, more frustrated than anything. The baby girl had started crying, which was really going to ruin any surreptitious attempt to dart forward and peek up into the shaft to see exactly how high up these gunmen were positioned.

Oi! Raphael belated looked at the screaming baby to make sure she hadn't gotten hit by shrapnel. Had she? No, but her basket had taken a chunk of metal to the side and absorbed the impact for her. He pried it out with his sai. What about the dog? Alright, Case looked fine, she was hiding quietly under Mikey's tail like this was all old news to her and she was ready to whip out a cigar and tell him she had war stories to share with him when things cooled down. 

"We should head back!" Michelangelo told him as he adjusted Zak's weight, and Raphael heard off the ringing of the grenade that Zak was crying weakly into his shell. "Pick another route down!"

"Not yet." He needed more info. "Somethin' stinks. I wanna know Ape ain't pinned down above us." He gave the baby basket to his brother, slipping it over the bad arm so Mikey could press it in place and keep it clasped there. Then he tiptoed gingerly out and around the bloated and twisted elevator shaft. Slowly. Sloowllly... He got a glimpse of boots and gun barrels, and counted against what he'd seen for a brief instant earlier when the two of them had nearly rushed into the shaft and gotten themselves riddled with holes.

Hmm. The fuckers were clustered just above the floor above where he and his bros had been lodging. That might have been a coincidence, but Raphael wracked his mind for any obvious, clear-cut tactical reason to allocate so many men specifically to 'blocking three turtle ninjas from moving upward for short period of time.' What would he and his bros specifically be equipped to handle, if the need arose? Had to be something other than 'Rescuing April,' the whole base loved her.

Another explosion, high above them, gave him pause. Sounded smaller this time, like a controlled detonation to bring down a door or wall. Was along the southward wing, maybe? Where was that? The labs? April didn't have her best shit hidden away in this base entirely because she considered the location expendable, which was one of the reasons she'd been so edgy about having Zak here.

And then it hit him.

This wasn't a fully committed act of war; it was an armed burglary. They were here to recover the Foot's science project, their cash cow, their goose-that-lays-the-golden-eggs, their key to restocking a hidden mutagen mill someplace dark and underground and far away where April wouldn't find it, their ticket to reclaiming power over the mutagen trade; Floating in a tube, unconscious and sensory-deprived again and till the end of his days.


The fuckers were after his nephew, and their info was wrong by only a single detail. Raphael's mouth curled in a snarl. He bolted back to rejoin Michelangelo. "Change of plan!" He grabbed the cradle back, turned Mikey around and pushed him along. "We're evacuating immediately. B-line for that hanger, I'm covering your shell this time!"

"What's up, what changed!? You aren't gonna fight em? What about our stuff? Leo? April?" 

Raphael jerked his chin at where Zak was still carefully covered in canvas. "There's no time to risk it. When they find his cell empty and get intel you're carrying something big..."

"Shit," Mikey understood.

Raphael hated fighting retreats. Was plenty familiar with em, just hated em. Escaping collapsing buildings; outpacing door locks; smuggling valuable people out of shit sandwiches—felt like a pyrrhic victory at the end even if it was the right thing to do. But, hell, he was the guy who was best when diving headlong into a gunman nest to tear the bastards apart. He preferred when he could make a lot of collateral and it didn't matter (or was beneficial!). Now he was moving through crowds of laypeople he had to be careful with, while dodging every smoke bomb, distraction, and potential spy, steering Michelangelo as fast as possible towards the eastern staircase. 

Casey started barking.

"Proximity mine!" Michelangelo shouted, shoving back into him, and he and Raphael swapped places just in time for a concussive blast to send a dozen people flying. Raphael slammed hard into Zak and Mikey, and the onlyr eason the baby girl's basket wasn't crushed was because they both absorbed a ton of the force with their arms. Raphael's ears rang, but he could still hear Zacharael start crying, loudly this time.

These bastards were still trying to distract Mikey and Raph from getting upstairs from here. What would change if they realized they had to stop the bros from getting downstairs? Mikey slapped his arm to tell him someone was coming at them, and Raphael left him to catch the baby and her basket as he spun around to face the oncoming swordsman with his sai. He caught that katana in the prongs of ones sai, tore the lower prong of the second sai through the thigh of a reactionary kick, and jammed the length of the blade up through the center of his body cavity. 

"I need a festive hat," Raphael growled as he threw the body off the sai and held them like three-pronged brass knuckles to make sure his grip didn't slip while still off-kilter thanks to the grenade. "Santa Claws be angry. They're not gonna like 'im when e's angry. S'gonna be worse than coal, 'at's fah sure."

"Man I haven't heard smack-talk from anyone in awhile!" Mikey whooped. 

Raphael actually laughed. He looked to the baby cradle to retake it, but then paused. It had obviously seen better days and was sagging from bark strips and from the fabric lining where the wicker outer shield of it had been irreversibly fractured. His nostrils flared, and he placed a sai to his belt and reached into the basket to pull the little girl out. She was screaming, much louder than Zak—that was for sure—and probably covering up the noise of him, 'xcept Raphel he hadn't even heard her. Just background noise. Her face was red with all the crying, and she was holding all her limbs close to herself.

Kay. He had to do better than this or he'd be handing over a mashed stain to Leo when they finally ran into him.

He pressed her into his plastron, with the forearm under her back and, and his hand under her butt and around her leg, and then waved Mikey forward first. They stepped over blood, unresponsive lumps, and a lot of loud and injured people they couldn't possibly help except by moving their asses faster and bringing their hotspot of 'danger' elsewhere. 

They bolted down the staircase, sliding down rails and getting around the (comparatively) slow-moving herds of normal people. They hit the next floor down at a run, sliding through broader passageways designed for moving freight around on forklifts.

When they entered the loading bay beside the specified hangar, they were treated to the sight of April herself leveling a shoulder-fired missile launcher down the path perpendicular to them. With a hot rush of air and propellant, that rocket flew ahead into what presumably was Hangar B, and they could hear one hell of an explosion beyond, probably the sound of a vehicle being blown sky-high with crisped dudes shrieking. She waved ahead two masked ninja—her own best, most likely—and they ran into the room hangar ahead of her.

"April!" Michelangelo called as they approached. "What was that?"

"That," she explained grimly as she turned to them, "was not my ride. Nice effort, though. Radioing counterespionage," she tapped her communications link, "terminate suspected leak C-2, now, and pull up the war rig. Mikey. Mike, tell me you have him?"

Michelangelo stopped before her, and she reached up to that canvas to have a look. Zak was in no happy mood, though the sedative in his system was calming him down and keeping him too sleepy to do much. The deep breath she took made it clear she'd worried a lot more than she'd necessarily let on.

"Okay, help me get him on board," she told them, waving them through into the hangar as she got the cue from her men. "I want the two exiting the base through access tunnel 13, that's on the northern side. You'll need to know-" 

"Wait a sec," Raphael interjected, pushing up beside her. "We're stayin' with you."

"Not the plan. You need to get out of the immediate line of fire, and that isn't riding with me."

"Ain't up for discussion," he growled, stepping up to loom over her. "We come with you, and with him."

"Except for the part where that's not where I need you right now, Raphael. Get Donnatta to safety and find your brother!"

"Ya ain't sendin' us someplace safe while ya in danger!" he bellowed, grabbing her shoulder. 

She shoved her hand aside. "Do you think I'm an idiot? Suicidal?" she hissed. "You asked me once if I had what it took to sacrifice you if it meant taking down Shredder, and I told you yes; Do you think for one instant I don't appreciate that you want to protect your nephew? Do you suddenly not trust me?" He reeled a pace, wincing. She shook her head. "You listen to me and you listen to me good, Raphael: Get out of the base on foot, disappear off to the sidelines, lure some attention away from me, get her somewhere safe, and wait for my call. I need to fly under the radar in my best defended war-rig by screwing with the enemy's expectations of how ill-defended and agile I like to be; you'd jeopardize that if spotted with me!"

Trembling with anger, Raphael ran his tongue over his bottom teeth and lowered his head. 

"You're a ninja," she told him, stepping forward back into his space, clasping the edge of his plastron, and staring up at him. "If we get ambushed, you are the one who needs to be loose and invisible on top of the city so you can help us." He nodded. His knuckles were white around the crossbar of his sai. She leaned forward, into him and into the liability he was holding and hugged him across the neck with one arm. She pushed a kiss to his cheek.

'Are you intentionally trying to build up a list of regrets for when somebody really does kick the bucket?' Mikey had asked him.

As she pulled back, Raphael turned his face quickly to bump a chaste return kiss into her cheek.

April paused, and wrinkled her brow up at him. Then a heavily tricked out eighteen wheeler was backing up into the hangar, its two trailers armed and armored to the nines, like pods of conjoined Panzer tanks. "Hurry," she called, tugging on his arm so he could help Mikey settle Zak down within. Helpers latched the front of the rig onto winch cables, so it would be able to pick up speed even while traveling uphill to the surface. "Hit the accelerator!" she demanded as soon as her son was secured. She waved the turtles to disembark. 

Raphael took one last look at her, and at his nephew, and then grimaced to himself and bolted after Michelangelo to jump back to the ground. 

Chapter Text

April texted Michelangelo a passcode to temporarily disable trap doors on the way to the route out she'd picked for them, and Mikey handled popping them into each interface. There! The door wooshed open, and proudly showed off that it had already caught some enemy ninjas. Baby notwithstanding, Raphael rocketed into those poor suckers and tore at least one guy's arm from his shoulder. Mikey could only assume Donatta had ended up temporarily balanced (look ma, no hands!) on the space between Raph's shell and shoulder, which totally would have been dangerous if this was anybody other than a master ninja. 

Actually, screw that, this was Raphael, and those were enemy ninjas. Raphael!

"Do you want me to carry her!?" Mikey shouted as they bolted past splattered corpses. By the tabbards, these guys weren't 'Foot' anymore, but Mikey wasn't certain who that made them. 

"You've only got the one arm," Raphael disagreed, and it was a good argument.

"Yeah but I like her!" Mikey hollered back.

That one arm ended up being important for Mikey, because they got jumped from the side by some kind of half-mutant saber-toothed cat guy, who really deserved a Monster Name and to live longer than a single episode, but seeing as his teeth were going right for Mikey's head, Mikey snapped his nanchaku up to pulverize the lower jaw and fling the head backwards. The dude's mutant enhancements stopped the damage from being any worse than that, but he landed all dazed and akimbo, and Mikey sweapt his feet (paws?) out from under him and slammed the nanchaku down on his head. CRACKLE. Oh, yup, that guy was dead. Sorry, dude, turtle's gotta live!

"Told ya!" Raph snarled, seeming pissed instead of impressed. "Let's move!"

"Cat must have my tongue, I'm behind you on the smacktalk front," Mikey lamented. 

Raphael didn't laugh or even smile, like his good-humor from earlier was just gone. He looked like Chinese firecrackers that were ready to explode a thousand times, really loud, all over the place.  Michelangelo wondered if this was about April again, or if it was about Zak, or both. Raphael had rarely talked to Zacharael, not like the rest of them, and he definitely hadn't been into the whole murmuring reassurances scene, but every rough brush of his fingers across their nephew's head, every session of 'physical therapy,' every touch on his shell to say 'hello' or 'goodbye' had been a kind of communication, a kind of affection that—

On rounding a corner Raphael must have spotted enemies, because he threw Donatta into the air up over his shoulder for Mikey to catch. Mikey squeaked, flicked the chain of the nanchaku back across his forearm, and caught the baby one-handed with his stub to stabilize her.

"RAPHY!" he screeched in intense dissapointment. Donatta went silent for a brief second, and then burst out in absolutely horrified-sounding wails. Oh boy, oh boy, she was really upset. Casey whined at Mikey's heel, and maybe she'd be able to calm the baby down later, but... but dammit they'd better find Leo soon! Mikey caught the nanchaku in his elbow, picking her up to tuck her briefly under his neck and bounce her as he turned to look what Raphael had mauled this time. By the look of things, he was stabbing an unnecessary amount of holes into what looked like another mammalian mutant. The final slice of his sai eviscerated it, and Mikey hurried up behind him with a scowl. 

"Bro!" Mikey shouted. "No baby-throwing!" 

"Needed both hands," Raphael snapped, and then reached out and grabbed Donatta back so quick and rough that Mikey felt obliged to let go of her just so she didn't get yanked on!

"Hey, be careful with her!"

"She's still screamin' ain't she?" Raph asked. "So guess what: She's still alive."

Mikey glowered darkly. 'Affectionate'  my ass. Orange took in a deep breath through his nose, but then slid his nanchaku back into hand and followed. Somebody was not going to be asked to watch the baby again in the near future. Also, Mikey needed another basket for her. He'd have done way better protecting it from getting pulverized than Raph had done, and that was even with his arm missing!

They hit the surface at a run, attracting a spot of gunfire from one of several parties who seemed to be fighting each other over the base entryway, before losing pursuit in the ghettos. They were moving at a break-neck pace through the winding shanty-towns in the early morning hours, and encountered nobody dumb enough to be outside with all this chaos afoot. And if they had, Raphael would probably have bowled them over and kept running. The snow was utterly filthy and had been packed into ice along the little 'thoroughfares,' and Mikey skid more than once. The skies were overcast but that didn't necessarily mean it was going to snow.

Until they found a good alleyway with a solid fire escape, they didn't dare climb up tot he roof of the world or risk attracting sniper rifles. By then they'd put some miles between themselves and the base, and it was time to curve around and find a clever place to hide, focusing on dodging civilian eyes instead of military ones. Mikey grabbed Casey up and flopped her over his shoulder, pressing her in place as best he could with his upraised stump. Casey didn't fuss; she seemed to find turtle shells a very sensible form of transportation.

Moving rapidly from brownstone to brownstone, leaping over the gaps between buildings, judging snow and ice cover as best they could, the same problem was on both of their minds: They weren't catching any sign of Leo. If he'd exited the base ahead of them, he'd have been waiting for gunfire to direct him to their location. He ought to have been either ahead of them or right on their tails, and they weren't seeing scale nor scute of him. 

Michelangelo waved for them to stop in the shelter of a roof storage shanty, next to some rusty bicycles. He picked up his phone and risked a direct call to Leo's. "C'mon, c'mon, pick up...! We gave you a brick Nokia for a reason-" But instead of a dial-tone, Michelangelo was immediately redirected to an automated message saying the other line could not be found. He cursed, loud. 

"What's that mean?" Raphael growled.

"Could mean he's still underground," Mikey hissed. "Or it could mean the phone's out of batteries."

"Have ya seen how Leo maintains Leo's things?" Raphael retorted.

Mikey checked the internet to make sure the enemy hadn't managed to take that down next. Then he tried to send a text message through an app; Leo probably wouldn't figure out how to answer, but it would tell him if the phone was on. "'Delivery failed,'" he read. "The phone's off or destroyed."

Ominousness settled in on them like a heavy cloak of dread. Neither of them could think of a reason Leo might turn the phone off, not when it was a coordination tool and the three of them were separated. Raphael shook his head and then waved his free hand for Mikey to follow. For once, Mikey was moving faster than one of his brothers; he was used to climbing around with just one arm 'free.'

Michelangelo tried to contact Leo three more times. Nothing, nadda. At last he had to stop trying, because if the phone was in the possession of their enemy, they didn't need GPS tracking to give away their location. Mikey and Raphael climbed up into a partially sheltered area where the worst of the wind was off of them. The windows here had been bricked up years ago, but the ledges just outside of them could be sat upon. Overhead were panels of wood some enterprising person had laid across the gap between building to make a space to plant a home garden.

Whelp. Christmas was officially ruined. Here they were, not even an hour after dawn yet, and they were already homeless, cold, and hungry. Until night fell, they couldn't really go anywhere or steal anything without risking eyes, and they'd escaped the base with no supplies, nothing but the weapons at their belts and the clothes on their backs. Heck, in Raphael's case, not even much of that! The back of his coat was in ribbons. Was he hurt anywhere else? He had a few nicks on his forearms and a slash across the back of his calf which had blood caked around it but seemed to have closed on its own. 

Raphael sat down on his ledge, grimaced when the shrapnel in his shell touched the brick wall behind him, and then reached up with both hands to pull Donatta off his shoulder with a roll of his eyes.She was still crying. Man, she hadn't stopped. She must have been utterly exhausted, that sounded like a lot of work—

—Raphael cried sarcastically back at her. 

"Dude!" Mikey threw an icicle at him. It bounced harmless off Raph's bicep. "You suck at babies!" Casey made a humm of agreement from Mikey's shell.

"Yeah well it's already fucking obvious we know she's upset by now," Raph snapped back. "Nobody can do anything for her right now, so she might as well shut up and wait like da rest of us."

"Bro, it doesn't work like that!" Mikey hissed. "Give her to me!"

"For the last fuckin' time, Mikey, count your hands!" Raphael growled back. "You can't climb without at least one of em!"

"We're sitting in place right now! If I fall, I'll fall with style!" 

But Raphael wasn't paying any more attention to him. 

Raphael frowned out at the kid, and then pulled her closer and  grabbed hold of her left arm. He found scratches and purple welts across the knuckles. Sarcasm and annoyance departed. He flopped her on a knee and pulled up her sleeve. She'd been jabbed by the fracturing wicker basket and had a lattice of nasty purple bruises all down her arm and side. Her fingers were ice cold, and her arms under the onesie weren't much better. How cold was it out here?

Shit. Shit. 

There'd been a reason behind all this screaming, which made sense, on account of how Leo had managed to carry her everywhere and through everything, and she musta been quiet for him reliably even while in less than stellar conditions.

Raph held her butt in place over his thigh and shimmied off his coat. It caught on bits of metal in his shell, and he had to yank sharply in the tight confines presented by the narrow ledge. He brought the remains of it in front of him, flicked away rogue pieces of metal that had gotten caught in it, folded it on his opposite thigh so the cotton lining was facing up, and transferred the baby girl onto the undamaged portions and bundled them up around her. He chafed her to make friction, to make heat. Fuck it was freezing out here, he was freezing.

"What's wrong?" he heard Mikey ask. "Is she okay?"

Her full-body howls choked off to quieter, red-faced warbles, and she looked around herself as if thinking very hard and trying to figure out what was happening and if it was making things worse or better. Raphael pulled her up and breathed on her hands. How were her feet? He cupped his hands around them to get the heat of his breath through the cloth of the onesie. Success: The sobs quieted down another level, to discontented hums. He had to suppose her level of shrieking would have intensified if something like frostbite had been settling in. 

He felt the sleeves of the coat. One was intact. Raphael tied off the arm to convert it into a pocket, and then slipped her feet-first into it. He braced a hand on one side of the fabric, tore it in half down the ruined back, cut the undamaged hem portion with his sai, and then put one sleeve inside the other to double up on the insulation. He wrapped the body of the coat around to get a 'hood' on her, and tied it down with the tattered ribbons of leather which the shrapnel had ruined. 

The little girl breathed heavily, big breaths, deep breaths. She watched his face, too tired to even frown for than a second at a time.

"Raph," Mikey pleaded for info, scooting over to the edge of the ledge to peer. "What's wrong?"

Raphael stared down at them red-brown eyes and that Einstein hair, tiny and helpless, with no skills in world but smiling and rolling over. She stared up at him until the world got too big for her to handle anymore and she closed her eyes and sagged exhausted into her makeshift 'cradle,' sniffling in. He quickly gathered up a more secure hold on her, turned her into his plastron to cut out the wind, and held her there.

Yo, asshole. 

Question for ya.

Whatcha gonna do if Leo's dead?

All the fight went out of him, all the bitterness, and he wrapped both arms around the baby and shut off the rest of the world so he could rock in place with her till she actually fell asleep, and not give a flying fuck what it looked like from the outside.  

I'm sorry. He squeezed her gently. I'm sorry.

Chapter Text

'ベビー 用品' (Bebī yōhin) had been painstakingly stained with sumi ink over a wood plank across the doorway. The glass of the shop front was still intact and protected by iron bars. Someone with a clever mind had rolled some fiberglass insulation up against the inside of the glass to keep heat in for the winter months, but slipped pictures of baby products between glass and insulation to continue advertising their wares. No one was in the streets that Christmas morning, whether for shopping or any other reason, and especially not with the sounds of gunfire and explosions not particularly far off.

Michelangelo waved Raphael down from the nearby alleyway. The door was locked—no surprise—but it wasn't complex enough to survive Mikey's lock-picking skills for more than a second. He'd opened this same kind of lock a hundred thousand times. 

Usually he scoped his targets out better, though, and this time when Raphael pushed open the door, the two of them were treated to a chorus of shrieks and shouts. As it turned out, the people who owned this little ghetto shop lived in the back of it behind a curtained door, and during off-hours or family get-togethers they would gather around the stove in the middle of the building and use the floor space of their store as an extra living room. Very sensible of them!

"Oh," Mikey realized. "Hey, I know you're closed right now, but we kinda had a small emergency. You guys take cash, right?"

Raphael looked at him for a second, clearly inquiring, 'What?' but then reflected upon the situation for a moment, shrugged, reached into a back pocket, pulled out a wad of small bills, and tossed it to him. "Don't go spendin' it all on fancy wind-up toys."

"Roger!" Mikey cheered, and since nobody in the whole family of able-bodied men, mothers, young lads, and children, had responded to him except to cower and/or run for the back, Mikey quickly flit around gathering up a plastic baby carrier, a very nice purple quilt with yellow duckies on it, a can of formula, a bottle, this that and the other—ooh, baby wipes!—and hey, they could totally use that diaper bag. Suddenly! Out from the ranks of the family emerged an old grandma armed with a calculator. Mikey innocently presented her with his baby carrier full of supplies. Grandma squinted at each item and tallied up the final price.

"That's it?" Raphael asked, standing green, yellow, shelled, and shirtless at the door, with a pitbull beside him whose muzzle was still suspiciously pink. "Man, throw in some books and another couple pairs of clothing, s'fuckin freezin out here. Can we buy a hot cup of water, while we're at it?"

"Oh yeah, didn't she miss breakfast?" Mikey recalled. "Poor 'Natta, maybe they can recommend us a good place for cheap water heaters?"

A terrified woman came out from the back carrying two styrofoam cups of coffee, and Grandma sternly waved her forward. Why? Oh! To give the coffee to their customers!  Omigod it was complimentary beverages. For them. Squee!

Raphael took the cup with an utterly blank expression and stared down at it for at least six seconds. "This is some kind of Christmas Miracle right here," he said.

"Do you accept tips?" Mikey asked Grandma, who merely pointed at the handmade peppermint bark they had for sale right up front. She also sold them a tightly sealed thermos of hot water– at a respectable premium, of course. 

"Gotta say, that improved my morale!" Michelangelo whispered blithely through mouthfuls of white-chocolate peppermint bark. 

"Sshh," Raphael breathed gently, edging to the side and peering warily through the broken block windows of the junk-filled and leaky basement they'd taken shelter in. The two of them flinched slightly when a squad of feet in black tabi flit quietly past their hiding place.

Casey wrinkled her nose and sneered at the aperture, ears alert. Mikey gave her scruff a hefty scratch and wished he had some treat to give her. Was white-chocolate bad for dogs?

Together they kept quiet, until the lack of any commotion overhead convinced them their pursuers were not searching houses in this block. The two of them were under the radar again. 

Raph finally moved, and Mikey tensed a little as he saw his bro settle the new baby carrier down. Okay, what was gonna come out of Raph this time: Callous child-tossing, or something else? Raph maneuvered the makeshift swaddling he'd made out of his coat to remove the outer later of it. Donatta woke up with a choked cry and a startled wiggle.

Raphael whispered a pretty gentle, "Shh-shh," right to her as he undid the knot of the sleeve. He held her in the crook of her arms, check the warmth of her hands and then reached up the arm of the sleeve to check her feet. So far, so good; he was being careful.

"How is she?" Mikey whispered, tiptoeing over to observe. "Did she warm up?" 

"Lil' bit." Raph turned her to try and get her into the carrier, and Donatta suddenly broke out in loud, frantic wails to cease and desist. Alarmed instead of annoyed (three points!), Raphael pulled her fast back against his plastron, and she coughed and sputtered. He jostled and bounced her a little to try and calm her down, but only got her about halfway there. Her heavy breathing prompted Mikey to leaned over and press gently on her ribs from outside of the swaddling, but there weren't any broken bones. She wasn't particularly scared by Raphael either, come to think of it. She was frowning between the two of them, left, right, left, right: Not Leo and Not Leo. 

After a few seconds, Raph stretched out his legs and took a deep solemn breath. "Maybe make her up a bottle?" he suggested with a light nudge.

Food would definitely help! Mikey eased down their bag of supplies, pulling out the sealed thermos from the center and the can of formula. He was so used to preparing it by rote he almost forgot to glance at the can and see what the serving suggestions were or if this brand was any different. Huh! It had a dosage for a three month old. Mikey tried that. The water was still steaming when he poured it, so he surreptitiously cooled it down by it the window for a minute before creeping back to his bro.

He expected Raph to pass him the baby, but Raphael reached up for the bottle instead.

Which left Orange with a conundrum: Whether or not to continue giving Red another chance. By now, Raphael had thrown Donatta over his shoulder, grabbed her one-handed away from Mikey, mocked her crying, refused to let Michelangelo even try to carry her instead, and in general just been pretty awful about looking after her.

And ya know what? Mike wanted Donatta back. Like, now. Now would have been a great time. The only reason he wasn't up in Raphael's face, snarling obscenities at him for how he'd been treating her, was because the two of them needed to be on the same side right now. Didn't mean Mikey wasn't angry.

Raphael looked up at him. A slip of his facial expression said 'please,' of the 'let me fix what I've fucked up' family of pleases.

Oh boy. Hmm. Mikey puffed himself with courage, took a leap of faith, and put the bottle into his older brother's hand; Raphael took it, overturned it, and brought it down to Donatta. When she didn't immediately latch on, Mikey leaned over and tickled her cheek softly to coax that suckling reflex out. She turned her head into the bottle, froze for a moment as if she didn't know what to do with it, and then very seriously suckled like a maniac.

Bazooka had finally worked out how to open his pouch zipper from the inside, climbed out, and looked around as if incredibly unimpressed. He sat down and started to lick himself. Then he apparently thought better of things and immediately climbed back into his warm pouch. 'This is not my stop,' he meowed at Michelangelo, who reached in to rub his ears and chin.

"She always look like dat when she's eatin'?" Raph asked quietly. 

"Donatta? Like, always," Michelangelo confirmed. "Her level of focus while eating is god-tier. She looks like she heard someone whispering in the back of her class and is about to lay out a Pre-Algebraic smackdown like none the world hath ever before seen. I didn't know human face muscles could wrinkle that tight."

That mental imagery got a small chuckle out of Raphael. Donatta was startled and looked up at him for a moment. Then she resumed suckling, the bottle visibly bobbing with each big mouthful of milk. Raph smirked. "Donatta," he said.

Michelangelo sank to a seat beside his brother, watching, supervising, but then again Raph had spoken her name like he was hearing it for the first time. Hmm. He nudged his brother. "We should get some rest if we're going to find food and bedding when it gets dark." And find Leo. We seem to spend a lot of time 'finding Leo.' We should put some clownfish stripes on him. Mike pulled out the big purple baby quilt they'd just purchased, and went to throw it around Raphael's shell before the glimmer of embedded shrapnel caught his eye. He paused, drew out one of Raphael's sai, and coaxed his bro to turn away from him.

"Thanks," Raph muttered as Mikey levered and pried the mangled, irregularly shaped metal bits free. "I need at least sharpening oil by t'night."

"We'll hit a butcher's shop," Mike suggested. "And grab something delicious and smoked while we're at it."

"Don't even need an icebox for the leftovers," Raphael muttered through the chill, his breath misting in front of them. "Can just throw em on the ground."

"I think Casey would eat that plan, bro."


They glanced over to their puppy and stiffened in simultaneous disgust and horror. Casey was sitting there with the back end of a rat and a limp tail dangling out of her mouth, her own tail thumping excitedly. 

"Well," Raphael cleared his throat, no less near gagging than Michelangelo even despite his attempt at pragmatic bravado, "uh, so, that's one less mouth we have to feed." Suddenly, Leo was no longer the only one who wanted Casey to own a toothbrush.

Fed, freshly diapered, and changed into a clean stegosaurus onesie with bright red felt spikes going down the back, Donatta looked much better equipped to handle this Christmas's many other inadequacies. But hey! Presents were always exciting, right? Even if it was cause you'd just had all your original things broken and lost... right? Eh-heh. She still frowned at both of them for not being Leo, but whenever Mikey leaned over to smooch her little boo-boos, she watched his face and hands thoughtfully and didn't break out crying.

Speaking of boo-boos: The two of them had finally gotten a good look at those bruises the wicker basket had left on her, and it'd freaked Mikey out a bit. They needed to be way more careful with her! (cough, Raphael, cough), She had tremendous smallness, she had zero ninjitsu, and—on top of that!—she wasn't a mutant. Grr. Raphael. Mikey shot his bro a dirty look, and Raphael winced a little, but they didn't talk about it more than that. Maybe they didn't need to. As late as Raph was, he'd started being really gentle with her. Maybe Mikey could forgive him this time. To be fair, Mikey wasn't the grudge-holding kind.

One thing was certain, though: Mikey was totally carrying Donatta come night time! Darn it, if it took a whole hour, he'd get her to be okay with that new carrier! His stub was only useful for so many things, and carrying stuff with handles was totally in its repitoire! (*Flails!*)

When Raphael's shell was as clean as it was going to get, the two of them made a makeshift igloo of the baby quilt, torn coat fragments, a diaper bag, a kitten, and a puppy. Donatta wanted to be held, so Raphael kept her bundled up in fleeces and settled himself down with her spooned in the nest of his arms. He tried to sleep. Mikey had his own arm freed up to play with the baby for a few minutes. The expression on her face was very nearly forlorn, and while she didn't exactly want to 'play' right now, she seemed to be passively intaking all his touches and smooches to fill some internal comfort fuel tanks that had bottomed out on empty for a considerable earlier portion of the day.

"We know how you feel," Mikey told her at last, settling his arm over top of her as he nestled into his family a little further to sleep. "We want Leo back, too."

Blue better have been safe, wherever he was.

Chapter Text

Leonardo leaned the full weight of his body, his shell, down onto his hands, pressing firmly upon the length of the wound. Blood caked the makeshift bandages and the palms of his hands, and pooled beside him on the concrete.

If he died here, from this, oh would it be anticlimactic. But worse, far worse, would be if he were captured and made into bait for his family. His katana lay drawn beside him. If someone found, he would have to make a split-second decision about whether to slit his own throat. Who else had escaped the base? April? Likely. Zacharael? Unknown—The infiltrators seemed to have been after him. What about his brothers? His daughter? Surely, surely, if Michelangelo was still alive, then Donatta was. If he'd not yet traded shifts with Raphael. If any of them were alive at all.

He had to assume they were safe, all of them; to entertain otherwise was to have nothing worth surviving for, and by the cloudiness threatening at the edges of his consciousness, he was about to need every inch of morale he could summon.

Leonardo breathed in deep, reaching for a meditative trance, keeping pressure on the wound.

With Casey's assistance, Raphael managed to get a bundle of well-insulated Donatta into her new carrier. She still gave him a betrayed look, and Raphael scoffed bemusedly and tucked his coat fragments in around her to protect her from precipitation if any snow was on the forecast. "C'mon kid, ease up," he told her, "ya gonna hang with Mikey today. Ya like him, right?" He picked up the carrier, and lifted it up to pass it over Michelangelo's shoulder as Orange checked his phone.

"Aw yisss," the goofball chirped excitedly, clasping the basket in palce. "I have you now, Baby Natta! Muaahahahah!"

"Yeah, keep it down," Raph shoved his head gently. 

Donatta's brow unwrinkled, and she gave them two of them a tentative smile. Raphael relaxed a bit.

"Don't worry," Mike whispered conspiratorially to her, grin wide, "we do this alllllll the time."

"Or least more often than we'd prefer," Raph muttered, but the kid was smiling a little bit more at them, like she appreciated being told all of this despite not understanding a word. He nudged his brother. "I need a phone charger." 

"You left it behind in your bedroom, didn't you? Amateur," Mikey scoffed haughtily. "Phone ownership in this political climate is a commitment! Always be prepared!" Raphael rolled his eyes but Mikey being upbeat was helping the mood. "Lemme see the connector." He glanced back to his phone, blinked, and swiped. "Message from April!" He showed Raphael the phone.

An entry titled 'Red Hot Mama' had messaged: 'Arrived at new HQ 2 hrs ago. Myself and Zak are both safe. Bit the bullet and assigned proper care-taking team for him until things cool down. Sitrep?'

"Ngh," Raphael slipped back a pace, shoulder and spine muscles unknotting. He let out a stream of breath in relief, and then shook his head. "Tell her we'll still lookin for Leo."

"Roger," Mikey went back to one-handed texting faster than most people could go at full-clip with a proper keyboard. And that was even with larger fingers than his touch screen had been designed for. 

"D'you pick that contact name, or did she?" Raph had to ask, and MIkey only giggled in response.

Red Hot Mama texted back: "Roger that. Eyes and ears open. If he's been captured, we will find out where you need to go."

If Leo had been captured, Raph was gonna tear the eyes out of ever fucker who'd laid a hand on him. For now, though, they'd operate on the assumption Blue had gotten out of the base at an inopportune time and on the wrong side of the fighting. Red and Orange needed supplies for themselves right now, and had to prioritize gathering them as safely as possible, but after that they'd have to stay close enough to the war torn Resistance compound to keep an eye on things.

A cold front hit that second night, blowing in freezing air out of Canada. If they'd been alone, Michelangelo and Raphael could have toughed it out gathering supplies, looking for their brother, and holing up in dumpsters for the daylight hours. But with Donatta and Casey to protect, the two of them realized the hour was growing late to find proper shelter.

Their search led them to heavily locked storm-doors leading under an ancient, sagging brownstone, and when they shined a light inside they saw everything was covered in dust. Raphael popped the lock himself as the window built up howling around them, and they climbed gingerly in to explore what they'd found. 

It was quiet inside. Quiet and filled with shelves and tables. Michelangelo turned his phone to see, and frowned on the realization they were standing in an obviously long-abandoned but extremely respectable-looking tool shop of some kind. Raph would probably be able to tell what kind. There were saws, chisels, levels, bevels, and big work benches. By the layer of dust, no one had been down there in years. 

They found the door leading upstairs was locked.  Raphael pressed a finger to his mouth and then risked turning on a dangling light. It crackled and sputtered, and then illuminated the rest of the narrative on where this stroke of luck had come from: Leaning up against one side of the room were yards and yards and yards of fabric and ornamental lace.There was a cursive 'Hers' written on a sewing machine which had been halfway through upholstering an upside down and freshly carpentered chair. A matching 'His' was one the body of one of the table saws.

Mikey took pictures and saved them with thousand of others, hidden down in the recesses of his phone. One day, when things were better, Mikey hoped to know what to do with all those pictures; his gargantuan secret scrap book of other people's lives; a strange, sad, and pretty world he only ever got to glimpse from hiding. 

By dusk the next evening, a blizzard had settled in, and Mikey sucked in a deep breath. Okay... so... They had to feed themselves and they needed more hot water for their thermos; those things took precedence over everything else right now!

Raphael leered up at the the snow. "I'm... I'm not kit for traveling in that," he admitted after a long moment.

Michelangelo looked back at the fabrics. "Think you can make yourself a coat?" he asked.

"Hnh. Maybe. I turn the sewing machine on and there's a chanace the old man upstairs'll hear it and come to see who's broken in. But I can maybe rotate the gear manually and still go faster n' straighter than by hand. Depends on whether the old broad even had a pattern for clothin', and whether it's big enough. Shit's hard enough with a guide." 

"I'm still gonna go out. We need stuff," Mikey told him.

With a hard wince, Raphael nodded and clasped his arm. "Be careful."

'Board books' were printed on pieces of overlapped cardboard, presumably so that grabby little baby hands didn't shred them to pieces. Durable. Alright, then: Raphael sat the baby up in his lap and against his plastron, where he could help warm her. He opened up the board book to a random page and sat it in front of her, on the blankets they were sharing. He picked up his fabric and needle. 

Mikey wasn't going to find a coat out there on a clothesline in this weather. Not big enough for a beefy turtle, that was for sure. Well, the old lady hadn't had any patterns for coats, but she did have tracing paper he could make a pattern of his own on, and Raphael did have the fragments of his own coat. After letting out the hems and arranging the broken pieces, he'd sketched in the sizes he was going to need for each part, and then selected and cut the fabric. All that was left was to make the seam work tough enough it didn't fail on him till summer. 

At first, kid showed absolutely no interest in her new 'toy,' craning about to try and get a look at him and her pets instead. Whenever she was just about to fall on herself, Raphael pulled her back to his plastron. Her squirming dislodged the book, which fell forward onto her.

Just like that, her hands activated, and she grabbed the sides of the book, maybe just because they were right there sticking out for her to grab. She stared at what she'd gotten a hold of, and then looked up at him with a look that said something slow and disbelieving, like  'Have you seen this? Oh. My. God.' She looked quickly back at the book and then started to waggle it about and kick her legs. She quickly lost half of the cardboard into his lap as it fell out of her grasp. 

This got a chuckle out of Raphael. He picked the book back up, and put it in front of her, and turned a page. The wrong way, not that she'd know any better. She stared at the pages and then slowly leaned forward until she outright pitched forward onto the book with her hands flat against the pages (and obscuring most of the pictures) and held herself propped up like that. She continued to stare as if the center of the book held all the mysteries of the universe and was the most amazing thing in the world.

Raphael pet her new stegosaurus spikes and hoped she didn't pick now to try and roll over. Course the size difference between him and her was big enough she probably couldn't fall to the outside of his legs. When she started warbling, he tilted her back into himself and turned the pages of her book.

Man, that thing could keep her attention thoroughly captured. Between pouncing on it, kneading it, putting it in her mouth, staring at it, and holding it aloft like a trophy she was waggling in the air (and which occasionally bopped her in the head, not that she seemed to mind much), there seemed to be no end of activities she could find to do with this hunk of colored cardboard.  

"I see ya found ya hands," Raphael commented.

Donatta cooed at him, and he couldn't help but smirk. 

"Oh yeah? At least ya cute fah how much ya weigh us down." He turned another page for her. 

It took four days for the fighting to die down around the Resistance base. 

From what Raphael and Michelangelo could see of the action, April's men had ended up swamping their invaders on every front, every part of their army falling into place like a well-oiled machine. They'd pushed the enemy down into the mid levels of their own base, and sealed off all the tunnels out. Whoever was in charge of the enemy forces still had some guys on the outside, and had apparently rallied up a quick, slap-dash coalition of enterprising gangs and frustrated 'government' factions to assault the Resistance guys, but it wasn't doing diddly squat. 

The Resistance pulled out two tanks of what was probably an opiate gas, and started pumping them into the compound. Donned in gas masks and wielding tasers and riot shields, their guys started heading in with the very obvious intent of taking prisoners. It was noteworthy they never asked for a surrender, which led Raphael to the conclusion she was trying to get her hands on very specific 'death before dishonor!' styled agents. 

His suspicions were proven correct when a message arrived on their phones: "Caught myself some Ninja." That wasn't an easy feat.

Trouble was that they'd given Leo plenty of time to circumnavigate the fight, and still hadn't seen a trace of him. Raphael's skin crawled with the nagging fear he might have missed some vital window for acting—that these bastards really might have taken Leo as a consolation prize for failing to get Zacharael—and that April's intel would come to late. He ought to have done more, ought to have been bent to the grindstone, getting up close to listen and shake down lone enemy operatives and work out what they knew. 

For now, though, another day had been spent figuring out how to juggle a kid and a dog while finding enough food to eat. At least he'd assembled a proper care kit for his sai again. At least he had a coat. 

"You went out yesterday; It's my turn," MIkey insisted.

"Say, I got an idea: Now that we both got functional coats, why don't we both go lookin for our brother?"

"We can't just leave her alone! It's too cold to bring her out there, and the storm's back!"

Raphael gestured to the dog and cat.

"She needs to eat every few hours. What if she cries? What if the old man finds her?"

"Great, maybe he'll keep her."

"Raphael," Mikey scolded.

Raphael threw up his arms. "Then you watch her, you seem ta like it."

"Listen here, Raph, I am not your wife. And if I were, I would expect much more frequent sex."

Raphael gave him a funny look.

"You," Mikey jabbed him in the chest. "Are on babysitting duty. Deal with it."

Raphael was not happy. He paced the workshop liked a caged tiger, working off excess energy he no longer had free weights and punching bags to muffle. He'd never liked being grounded. Never. And now that the entire reason he couldn't go out was embodied in human form, he had more than a few curse words to say to her as he changed her diaper and pushed her back into her carrier that evening.

"This is your fault!" he spat, roving the workshop for the thousandth time. "Yours, and his! If Leo ain't never found ya none of this would be-"

Donatta didn't know what he was saying, but she must have been clued on by his sound that he was pissed as fuck, because she frowned at him with her brows pushed up in the center. Not like she was mad at him for being unsociable, or like she was gonna start crying because everything in her tiny world wasn't fucking perfect; she looked at him like she was scared of him, like she was scared being trapped in the same room as him. 

Raphael's face fell slack. He stared across the room at her. He looked away, and ran a hand over his mask and head. Then, guiltily, he wove his way over beside the carrier, and peeled her and her blankets back out. She always liked to be picked up, right? He brought her to his shoulder and then, because it only made sense, he unzipped his coat and settled her against his skin and carapace, to keep her warm. 

Ain't her fault. Someone's missing, or lost, or dead, or captured. Shit's sideways. Usually is.

The frown slowly eased off her face, and her eyes went back to being wide and curious. He sat down on a workbench, and breathed deep and let it out in a sigh. 

Shit. Ain't her fault at all.

The baby on his shoulder sighed, too. Raphael scoffed and leaned his cheek briefly into her to 'hug' her. 

After a bit, he got up and went over to the diaper bag, and fished out a board book and the copy of 'All About Your Baby!' which had ended up amid their purchases. He settled himself down on the blankets, and got her situated in his lap. He offered her the board book, but she looked up at him and frowned, and grunted at him.

Raphael watched her for a few seconds.

Then he reached back down, and picked up her book a bit. "'In the great green room,'" he read for her, showing her the picture. She looked back at the book. "'There was a telephone... and a red balloon, and a picture...'" They turned the page and she blinked rapidly as if startled by the sudden change in colors and shapes. She slapped her hand flat against the page and cooed. Raphael moved her slightly, and reached over to scratch Casey as the pup joined them. "'...of a cow, jumpin' over da moon.'" 

Chapter Text

"I have bad news," Red Hot Mama messaged them on the second day of January.

Raphael actually saw it first, because Mikey was midway through an intensive game of Peekaboo with the baby before bed. Sometime yesterday, Donatta had started snortling and giggling at him, and by now Mike was obsessed with getting her to laugh. 

"Mike." Raphael stepped over to him. "Somethin's wrong."

April sent them a few encrypted images that downloaded fast but took a moment to unpack. When the wait was done, they opened it to see pictures of the room they'd been staying at in the base, the room where Leo might have been when the invasion started. The walls were splattered with blood, like one hell of a fight had broken out in close quarters. The door was sagging off its hinges and scorched with explosive powder. 

Close quarters where was Leo would have been at his worst; His katana and footwork favored a large and complicated battleground. A swipe across the image gave them a view of the bunk bed, where a portion of the sheets had been cut free like would have been the case if someone had quickly made up some emergency bandages. That was scary on another count; Leo ought to have access to their first aid kit, which still had some real bandages in it.

"We found the bodies of two mutants," April told them, "but no sign of Leonardo. Most of your gear was damaged or looted sometime during the fighting. Our security footage got wiped during the raid because the infiltrators tried to hack it, and I'd installed an explosive fail-safe. I'm trying to find witnesses. Give me a few days."

Raphael ran his tongue over his teeth, holding on to his wrath. Then he messaged her back: "Keep an ear to the underground. Look for anyone selling 'turtle parts'."

"Raph," Mikey protested. Donatta was no longer laughing, staring up at their expressions.

"Doesn't mean I think he's dead," Raphael growled and stood. "If they captured him, they'll carve him up a bit before putting what's left in a tank. We need to move, follow these bastards back the way they came, make a few holes, see what falls out."

"I-I think we should stay," Mikey argued. "If Leo's injured, he might still be hiding waiting to recover!"

"If he's free he can help himself," Raph disagreed with a snarl. "If he's captured, he needs us now!"

"He..." Mikey was trying not to break out in a big argument in front of the kid. Raphael figured he had the right of things, even if that would mean tucking her away with Casey on babysitting duty for a few hours and arguing about it somewhere else. "Raph, what if he can't get to us, but it's because he's hurt?"

"Or because he's dead?" Raphael wondered aloud, tone less than nice. "We've been here since Christmas, and we ain't found him. That's cause he ain't here. We move, tomorrow night."

Michelangelo couldn't sleep.

Right that moment, Leo might have been in a suspension tank. Or on a vivisection table.

Or dead.

This time, he really, really, really might have been. Either Leo had run out of first aid bandages, or someone had killed him and needed the bandages for themselves. That had been a lot of blood, and clearly not all of it had belonged to the bad guys. They had no way of knowing how that fight had gone, and only a certain collection of unknown people might be able to to tell them. Had Leo gone down in the fighting? Had he been captured trying to escape? Had he escaped only to die of blood loss, was that why he hadn't found them?

Mikey got up and walked over to the windows, but they were covered in about eight inches of snow and packed ice.

There was...

... there was someone who'd know if Leo was dead. Who might be able to tell them, if...

But Michelangelo didn't have any of his favorite foods lying around. Except! Coffee! Raphael had found packs of instant coffee. Well, that stuff tasted terrible, but maybe it was only the connection to their memories of Donnie which mattered. Excited now, even though he kept trying to tell himself this probably wouldn't work—it probably wasn't this easy, this straightforward, this controllable—Michelangelo scrounged through their provisions to dig out a sachet of coffee, hot water, candles, and a lighter. He picked the northeastern corner of their shelter, and collected some pieces of wood as he went to help make the tiny shrine presentable.

He lit the candles, and supplied the little paper cup of hot coffee.

"Okay," he breathed, and wished he had a picture. "Um." Please. Donnie. I-I know I'm not supposed to treat this like an afterlife text messaging service, but... If there's anything you can tell us about Leo... About whether he needs us, about where to look for him...

Leo might have been dead.

But if he was, wouldn't Donatello know before anyone else?

Please don't be dead, please don't be dead, please, please, please, please...

Mikey ended up praying for a long time, actually, and not just to Donatello. At last, exhausted and wiping at tears, he crept back to his family and climbed in to bed to snuggle them. He didn't see when both candles suddenly snuffed out simultaneously.

A chorus of hisses, chitters, and singing insect legs rushed over the room, so loud that they startled Raphael awake. He opened his eyes and tried to sit up, only to realize he was immobilized from head to toe. 

A-and the ce- the ceiling...! Raphael stared helplessly as roaches swarmed across the ceiling, crawling out of and into every recess and crevice. It was surreal, how many there were, a blanket, a carpet of the things. For a moment his brain failed to register anything other than morbid amazement. Then he felt wriggling all around himself, and tried to look to see the floor covered in every manner of worm, millipede, and grub. Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, FUCK no! Do not want! Do not want! He tried to think of anything that might get him out of this situation or away from what (please please please) might be a dream.

He felt hands, freezing cold and slimy, grab hold of his legs, and he screamed and screamed internally because his lungs would not obey him. 

"Hello, Raphael..." purred a very familiar voice, as the slimy touch rose, grab by grab, up his body. Raphael's brain skipped a beat. He looked down to see a corpse climbing up over top of him, gaunt and rotten, eyeless and dripping with maggots, head and shell half caved in from the battery of maul strikes which had killed him. 

Oh. God. Donnie.

Worms fell off of him and onto Raphael, and he could feel each and every tiny one of them squirming. Had it been physically possible, Raphael would have probably soiled himself. The corpse leaned over him, breath cold and fetid, skeletal hands latched onto Raphael's wrists. His skin felt like the slimy, decayed silt at the bottom of a lake bed.

"We need to have a talk," Donatello's zombie informed him, perfectly well-spoken despite the way the jaw sagged on one-side from the way the temple and mandible bones had been shattered from the maul strike. "It's been awhile, hasn't it?"

Uh-huh. Sure had. Raphael stared in panicked, terrified, riveted attention. 

"Oh good, you're listening. Pay close attention, because I don't want to have to repeat myself. You are listening, aren't you, big brother?"

Yup. Yuppers. Absolutely listening. Listening very fucking hard. 

"You will wait for our Leo to get back to us. Understand? You will plant your feet... and you will wait... and wait... and wait... out of fear of me, since you possess no patience. A week. Two. However long it takes. Is that clear? You will wait for him."

Crystal. Crystal clear. Whatever you say. Leo, and waiting. Got it!

Donatello's zombie laughed at him. "One more thing, hot head... On the matter of the newest member of our family..."

What? What did-? The baby. Donatta. 

"Her." Donatello tapped Raphael's snout. "She likes it when you read to her. You should do so more often."

Okay! Sure! Uh-huh!

The zombie laughed more. "Till next time, big brother!" And he leaned over and pressed the most gruesome imaginable kiss to Raphael's brow. 

Raph woke up screaming like a dude who was being brutally murdered over an extended Halloween gore-fest movie. He scared his youngest brother, two animals, a baby, and an old man living above them. He slapped a hand over his mouth, gagged, and turned away to try and refrain from puking. 

From the tottering about of a three-legged gait—two old legs and a walking stick—the old man went to a window to try and find out if any of his neighbors had been screaming like that, and whether it was his imagination that a baby seemed to be crying from directly under his floorboards. Mikey bounced the baby. Donatta sputtered and calmed down, reassured by how the screaming hadn't continued.  After a bit, the old man gave up and went back to his television.

Raphael looked slowly back to Michelangelo, eyes wide. 

"Wh-what happened?" Mikey whispered, a look of near-panic etched on his face. Raph doubted he'd ever screamed like that once before in his life. Maybe as a baby, but he hadn't had the same lung back then. 

Raphael stared. "Nightmare," he whispered tightly.

"A nightmare?" Mikey whispered in harsh disbelief. 

"Yup," Raphael agreed just as tightly. "And, uh, I think we should take it easy today."

Mikey's brows lifted. "What about leaving the shelter behind and tracking down people who might have captured Leo?"

"Nope. Changed my mind. We should, uh, stock up on provisions and first aid supplies and... stuff. First."

Michelangelo stared at him a long moment. "Okay," he agreed. "It's, um, it's your turn to head out tonight. Are you gonna try and get another hour of sleep in or...?"

"...Think I'll polish my sai."

Michelangelo picked Donatta and perched her on his hip.

He was delighted to realize holding her this way actually worked! It gave him a little morale boost that morning, and looked adorable. His plastron started just above his hip, and while there was plenty of room in front of him for someone to put one leg, there was a heavy shell behind him which would keep anybody from looping their other leg around his back. Except! Donatta's tiny legs were so short she just managed to fit. He tied her there with a blanket, and then sashayed his hips back and forward and hummed to himself as he walked around and picked up things to pack them for a quick departure in case they needed to flee. Raphael looked incredibly distracted and didn't comment.

Mikey finally caught a glimpse of his shrine. The candles were still full, their wicks visible, which meant they'd blown out in the night. Frowning, he bit up the edge of the blanket he'd picked up, tossed it with a flick of his head over his arm, and finished folding it. He didn't say anything until Raphael had left to go scavenging. Then, with a discrete glance behind himself, Mikey walked over to the shrine.

The paper cup was empty of coffee. Unless Michelangelo wanted to blame Casey or Bazooka—unlikely, he kept them both supplied with little bowls of water—it seemed some kind of magic had just occured.

Mikey was silent for a moment. Then a grin broke out over his face. He started snickering, and then clutched at his mouth and smothered full-blown laughter.

"B-bro, wh-whatever you did to scare the shit out of Raph like that," Mikey complemented through cackles, "take this high-three...!" He raised his hand up flat, and batted at the air. Little Natta cooed in agreement, enjoying all this laughter. "Ha! Hahah! His face! Hahaha!"

If Michelangelo had had a shred of doubt that their brother was haunting them after Leo's testimony, he didn't now.

Nobody'd ever revenge-pranked like Donnie and Mikey had. 

Chapter Text

They started taking Casey for 'walks' because it was clear she was becoming stressed. She'd started carrying Bazooka around by the scruff or head, and while Bazooka didn't seem to mind, an in fact appeared to become very zen with all the attention, it was very obvious Casey needed to run around and have stimulation and do a 'job.' They'd carry her on their shells and drop her off here or there, or they'd let her follow them on foot and try teach her not to draw attention to wherever they were hiding. 

Eventually she started sniffing out interesting things to 'retrieve' and show them, like old shoes, bones discarded from the butchers' shops, and sticks with funny smells.

Michelangelo's preferred place to scrounge up food was a few roads crowded with shops that sold soup, noodles, and rotisserie-styled chicken and duck. Below, anyone getting home later than sunrise could count on hot food and a bit of chatter to fill their evenings. There was always talk of mining operations dissolving, people losing hard labor jobs they'd hated but being faced with uncertain future, and gossip of new infrastructure opportunities opening up thanks to whatever new powers—often the Resistance!—who'd moved in to occupy the power vacuums. People spoke more freely these days than they'd ever spoken under Shredder, though they still looked over their own shoulders frequently enough, maybe out of reflex. Mikey liked to watch them and listen to them, and Casey could always scavenge a meal for herself digging in garbage bins and begging at the street shops. All the same, he paid close attention to the rumors, listening for some shred of evidence as to where his eldest brother might be.

He was dangling upside down from an old potted plant anchor, pretending to be The Night, watching the market below for signs of ill-attended food, when *it* happened: Mikey heard Casey barking, and quickly flew his perch to go see if she'd run into trouble with dog catchers or naughty children or some such. Instead, he found her leaping up and down like a maniac in front of a man in a familiar green rain cape and badass black leather coat.

Michelangelo slid, scrambled, and scurried down brick and over sturdy snow awnings to peer down at the man. Casey had sat down in front of him and was frantically wagging her tail. Maybe he couldn't tell it was her? It wasn't like her color or distinctive breed were obvious in her bark.

"Leo?" he dared to believe.

The deeply hooded head came up immediately, and the man listed back on his heels. "Mikey," he said in the exact same way Mikey felt, which was like the clouds had parted and angels had broken out singing hallelujah!

"Back and to your left!" Michelangelo whispered. "The alleyway!"

Leo nodded and turned slowly as if regathering his bearings. When he started walking, it was with a distinct limp, and Mikey was left to worry about whether their family had just suffered another debilitating injury. If Leo couldn't climb, run, or pivot, it would definitely explain why he'd taken so long to bump into them. Mikey scurried along, watching over him from above, almost afraid he'd disappear into thin air while hidden behind the panel of an awning. They both got to the comparative safely of the alley, and Michelangelo leaped down to reach him.

Leo immediately turned to reach out for him, and Mikey caught him in a tight hug only to be staggered slightly by how heavily Leo leaned on him for support. 

What's wrong?" Mikey whispered fervently, ducking his head partially into Leo's hood to touch foreheads with him. "Are you hurt? What do you need?!"

"Water," Leo rasped into him, voice as thin and dry as paper. "You need to get me food and water. Please."

"We have a good shelter," Mikey explained. "Do you need me to-? Come on, take my shell, let me carry you."

"Is-is it far? I can walk," Leo argued.

Mikey turned his shell into his brother and reached back to grab for a leg to coax him into accepting the piggyback, only for Leo to suddenly grab his arm with surprising strength and hold him away.

"D-don't touch it!" Leo hissed.

"What?" Mikey was starting to panic just a little. "Why not?! Leo, are you okay?"

"No," Leonardo blurted with a chuckle and a slight, off-balance stagger, "But... I will be. Just..." He released Michelangelo's hand. "I'm sorry. Just don't touch it yet. I'll swoon."

"Okay. Okay, I'm sorry." Mikey steadied him with hand and stub. "H-here, give your pack. Give me your things, I'll carry them."

It took Leo a stressful few second to register what Michelangelo meant, but then he half turned and let Mikey help relieve him of the pack. With that weight securely transferred, Mikey pulled Leo's arm over his shell and placed his fingers on the ridge so he could hold on for support. "Come on," Mikey coaxed him. "Lean on me. I'm gonna call Raphael."

"Do you have any water?" Leo repeated into Mikey's shoulder, and the quiet urgency of the request raised warning flags. Michelangelo did have the thermos, but that was freshly filled with absolutely scalding water and couldn't be drunk directly from. Thinking quickly, he speed-dialed, tucked the phone to his head with his bad shoulder, and rummaged back in the backpack for Donatta's bottle. Aha! Leo still had it near the top. He put that into Leo's hold, and tipped the thermos to pour the water in.

"It's super hot, so give it a sec," Mikey cautioned.

Leo shuddered and nodded, lifting it up to mist over his features as he blew across the top. 

The opposite end of the phone line picked up. "Ya actually callin' instead of messagin?"

"Raphie! You need to carry Leo! He's like on the verge of fainting and I don't want to drop him if he can't hold on!"

"Location. Now."

"Market, south entrance!"

Leo was so desperate for water, any water, he winced through the first few sips like a burnt tongue was an inconsequential price to pay for imbibing liquid. Maybe he needed the heat, too. By the damp red irritation around the side of his mouth, he'd eaten at least one mouthful of snow just to make it this far.

"Don't touch his right thigh, that's the hurt one!" Mikey advised. "Leo? Just dangle that leg, we'll look at it when we get there!"

"Raphael should not touch it," Leo rasped into the back of Raphael's neck as the latter stood up with him.

"Uh, y-yeah I just said that," Mikey agreed with wince.

"He'll scream like a little girl," Leo added whimsically.

Michelangelo and Raphael shared a look, wondering how that could be true or whether their older brother was just delirious with fever. They started to climb, Raphael clearly holding most of Leo's weight in place by hand, Michelangelo climbing ahead to make sure they didn't run into danger. 

"Ya can pass out if ya need ta," Mikey heard Raphael offer. "We've got ya now."

Leo's quiet, "No thank you," was more air than voice.


They reached their destination without incident, and the low head clearance mandated Raphael set Leo down as Mikey got the storm doors open. Leo was still very much awake, but they each took one of his arms and helped him down the stairs so he didn't have to use his bad leg. Leo didn't protest. His head was hanging low, his cheeks were sallow and his eyes were sunken. He was very obviously dehydrated, and looked to have lost weight. 

But he was alive.

As they descended out of the cold, the sound of their baby crying hit them, and Leo's head jerked up. "Natta," he mouthed more than said, face creasing up as if he might start crying.

Mikey ran across the room to make room to quiet their terrified child, who had been so very sure her family had abandoned her. He pulled her cradle to himself with an urgent 'shh, shh, shh' and threw blankets off the futons to make space. Raphael helped Leo limp across the floor, and they each took one arm to ease him to a gentle seat. Casey bounded up to them, and Mikey fought her off and pushed her to a seat.

Donatta stared when she realized who was there, and her eyes flew open wide. Mikey held Leo in place with his stub, scooped her out of the carrier, and fed her into Leo's arm and plastron. He wrapped an arm around Leo's arm, to make carrying her easier. Donatta smiled. Donatta kicked her feet. Donatta reached for his chin, and took in a big breath, and squealed. 

Leo tried to pick her up to his face, and Michelangelo helped him, and for a moment Leo just looked totally blissed out nuzzling into the smell and heat of his giddy, happy, chirping daughter. She had uncoordinated usage of her hands now! And she grabbed at his snout and brows, and eyes, and Mikey redirected her fingers because, ow, Leo had enough problems right this second.

Raphael diluted some chicken stock with hot water and turned about. "Here, trade her to me for a bit. Take this and sip slowly."

Leo mumbled a feeble and frightened protest at having his daughter taken of his arms by Raphael. Despite this, his immediate, physical need for the water, salts and proteins in that soup broth was too great, and he quieted down with his cup of soup and did as he was told. Donatta complained about the separation on both of their behalves, but Raphael jostled her into an upright position against his own shoulder so she could see Leo, and she stared laughing and smiling again. She bounced and waggled her limbs, and chattered to them in grunts and sighs and warbles.

"You have her..." Leo mouthed to himself, gaze cast in her direction. "I knew you'd have her."

"Course we do," Raphael scoffed, transferring Donatta back to her cradle because he needed both his hands.  "We change her diapers ourselves and everything."

A weak laugh crackled out of Leo, who rubbed a gloved hand against his eyes even though he was apparently too dehydrated to tear up. He was weaving slightly. Mikey sat down with a leg around the back of his shell, and pulled Leo into leaning against him.

"What... day is it?" Leo finally asked them.

"January forth," Raphael answered as stuck his tongue out at a complaining Donatta, and then turned away to start removing Leo's rain cape and coat. He replaced these items with one of their blankets, and Mikey tucked it into place around him.

"Eight days," Leo whispered between mouthfuls of broth, visibly struggling against the urge to scarf it all down in one gulp. "I've been out cold for eight days."

Raphael and Mikey shared another alarmed look. Without another moment's delay, Raphael lifted up the skirt of the coat to get a look at that leg. Leo nearly flailed in alarm with both arms like a cartoon character, and sent broth sloshing over his glove as he reached out for Raphael's arm.

"Don't touch it!"  he spat, eyes wild.

"Fuck Leo, what!? These bandages need to be changed!" They were soiled through-and-through, frosted in some place, dried in others, sodden in some, with pieces of the hakama tied into them. It was somewhat terrifying just how many places they had to be described with different adjectives: the hakama had been torn from the outside of the hip to the inside of the knee, and bandages were tight around that whole length of the thigh. 

"Don't touch it!" Leo repeated as if in a panic, snarling right in Raphael's face. "Don't you-!" Overuse of his voice provoked a coughing fit, and he grabbed at his throat and winced through pain. They could see by the dried blood and cut in his glove that he'd taken a hit across the palm of one of his hands, and there was another chunk of flesh taken out of his chin that, while it had smeared his face and neck with crusts of blood, looked like it was pink and healing. 

Raphael grimaced, tense and worried about that leg. Michelangelo pulled Leo back to himself, chafed his shoulder, and pressed a smooch into his forehead. Leo managed to defeat that cough and sagged, breathing heavily. Mikey nudged the cup of broth, and Leo nodded feebly and took another starved and needy sip.

"Leo," Raphael prepared to be the bad guy. "We got more'n we need of medical supplies."

"It can wait a few minutes," Mikey interrupted, very nearly rocking their older brother to keep him calm. "We need to warm him up, rehydrate him, set his stomach to reboot, and lay him down first, okay? He's scared of fainting again before he's sure he's set to wake up again. Let him calm down."

Raph ducked his head and nodded quickly. "Gonna cut the hakama away to get it offa him without touchin' anything, then. Ain't keepin' him warm anymore, wet like this." He glanced to Leo, but Leo didn't protest, and so he bent over with a sai to cut away bloodstained fabric, untethered the hakama's rear ties, and slipped the rest off the remaining leg along with socks and boots. By the sight and smell of things, Leo hadn't gotten around having a bowel movement while unconscious. His state of uncleanliness drove home just how fragile he was. Raph didn't say anything, just cleaned him.

"We need a space heater, a humidifier, and a water kettle," Mikey said. "Like pronto."

"We can try and hit that appliance store later tonight," Raphael agreed, making use of baby wipes for a purpose that would never be discussed. Leo tilted his head back, and grimaced, and said nothing. Leo very clearly hadn't the strength to help himself, or he would have already. Mikey was basically cradling him as he kept him upright just long enough to drink the rest of his 'meal.'

A high-pitched squeal told them their littlest family member demanded somebody give her vision of Daddy, lest she bring the wrath of the old man upstairs down upon them all. 

Chapter Text

With babies and animals all arranged for maximum efficiency, Raphael and Michelangelo eased Leo into laying down. Mikey picked up Donatta and slowly settled her down on the breadth of Leo's plastron so the two of them could enjoy each other a bit. They kept him mostly covered with blankets, but bared the badly injured thigh.

"Hey, we need ta look at it now," Raphael told Leo, whose face nearly contorted in panic.

"It..." Leo took in a sharp breath and closed his eyes before nodding. "Not you," he specified.

"What ya got against me?" Raphael muttered, slowly locating the gauze ties and easing them off the cotton strips Leo had bandaged himself with. "Think I'm gonna cut it off?"

Leo shakily grasped Raphael at the bicep, but didn't try to push him away. 

Raphael paused and reconsidered just pushing through this with his weight. "Let me see," he coaxed. "M'not gonna... whatever. You want someone to clean it right? Pft, ain't gonna be Mikey."


"I..." Leo grimaced and nodded again. "I trust you."

Oh. Th-thanks. Thank you. But the way Leo said it suggested there was a real problem. Raphael pulled Leo's hand up a little higher to rest easily on his shoulder, and then bent over and slowly unpacked the cotton to reveal one hell of a long wound skimming around the hip bone, plunging down across the thigh, and redirecting somewhere along the way to push in along the side of the knee. 

Hmm. First thing Raphael noticed was the edges of the wound weren't together, but there also wasn't any fresh blood. Healing with that deep a groove in one's thigh wasn't in anybody's best interest, and for a second he figured they were going to have to try and make the injury bleed again to hope mutagen would set things right the second time around. Then he noticed other things weird about it, like that it hadn't healed like a canyon, it was more like a crack. There was a layer of pink visible through the gap in wound down at a level that might have been the bottom of the skin or the top of muscle.

Things didn't usually fail to seal like this, where there was a sorta separation between layers of the skin or a permanent opening in it down to the muscle, not unless there had been some kind of fluid or mass in the way. Had the wound been seriously infected at one point? The lips of the injury didn't look especially inflamed, but the whole thigh seemed a little swollen and irritated. Really bad splinters healed like this. Bullet wounds, if the bullet wasn't removed. Huge blisters, after you popped them. Stuff like that.

Hesitantly, Raphael got his hands on the thigh and teased open the mouth of the wound, to see if he could figure out what exactly he was looking at, what had caused it, and whether any 'foreign bodies' were still in—

—some part of Raphael had been completely ready for this, but hadn't informed the rest of him about its conclusions. It spoke up now, a little voice in the back of his head that said, 'Huh, yup, that's why. Couldn't have been anything else, right?'

The rest of Raphael tensed up, and his eyes widened, but he teased the wound open a little more to be absolutely sure he was looking at what he thougth he was looking at. This time it wasn't no dream: Lining the inside of the wound, like packed goose down insulation in a coat, was a layer of pale white, fat, contented grubs all curled up snug with one another.

Raphael looked away, fused his tongue to the roof of his mouth, and did not puke all over his sick brother. He felt the urge roiling up in him though. "Bucket," he said when he could speak. "Mike. Get me a bucket."

"What for? What is it?" 

"Maggots. Wound's packed with him like sardines in a tin. Probably saved his life; they musta cleaned out the infection."

Mikey stood there for a moment, half a sneer on his face, torn between equally loud urges to scream, 'What!?' and, 'Maggots can do that!?'

"Mike I'm gonna hurl."

That got him moving.

They removed them with tweezers. One by one by one. It took over three hours. Two just to clear most of them, and one to hunt down all the sneaky, half-hidden ones. It was almost a crazy thing to be grateful for, but: at least they were kinda big.

Mikey held the mouth of the wound pursed open, and Raphael applied gentle pressure on the side of the leg to find them and pluck them away.

Raphael talked about the American Civil war, and a History Channel episode where he'd been appalled to learn medics had induced maggot and leach infestations in soldiers to save necrotic wounds or partially amputated limbs. Donnie had apparently laughed at his reaction, so Raphael had powered through and grouchily stomached it all until the episode's discussion of bugs has passed. 

Even with stories of war and Donatello to distract him, Raphael was very ill-looking, and Mikey wasn't surprised when Red suddenly stopped, turned away, and gagged over an empty pail, eyes watering and mouth salivating until he fit of nausea settled down. It happened twice, and then the third time Raph really did grab hold of that pail and upchuck copiously into it.

It probably said something about how much Raphael loved them that he wiped his mouth with a clean rag and immediately turned back to the task at hand, each time.

Even if they'd had a lot of saline solution and a big water syringe, the two of them reasoned it wasn't wise to try and flush the wound clean. It wasn't open enough, and it was on three different facings of his thigh; if the water gathered in a hidden pocket and didn't drain out, gangrene or sepsis would set in. Leo was so frail, he didn't have a chance to fight something like that off. It had probably been the very thing the maggots—which Raphael explained were actually fly larvae—had saved him from in the first place.

Mikey was pretty sure 'fly babies' sounded a little bit nicer than 'maggots,' but whenever he had to point one out to Raphael, he exclusively referred to them as 'caterpillar nurses.'

Michelangelo glanced back a Leo, who was blinking slowly and looked to be zoned out in some half-conscious state, and who only moved to settle a hand weekly on Raphael or Mikey's head or neck or shoulder as they worked. He was so weak that they settled nearer to him purposefully just to support his arm and make it easier for him to touch them.

Donatta had been so excited to see Leo it had almost been comical; she'd been grabbing and gumming at his chin and face and fingers, cooing and muttering to herself, and twice trying to roll over (only to be caught by Leo in one instance and Mikey's stub in the other). Fortunately for everyone, she'd eventually exhausted herself and fell asleep under his chin, looking absolutely adorable with her felt red stegosaurus spikes perked up above her.

By the way Leo's nostrils occasionally flared, he really was smelling his baby. Maybe that made sense. Leo couldn't reassure himself by looking at her, after all, and petting her took energy he almost didn't have.

When they satisfied themselves that they'd learned every single crevice of this ugly wound in their search for stowaways, Michelangelo and Raphael swabbed the inside of it with cotton balls dipped in alcohol heavily diluted with saline, just enough to clean it up a bit. Mikey leaned over Leo, and pet his head.

"Is it over?" Leo rasped. Small wonder he'd freaked out every time they'd nearly touched the wound in the beginning; Knowing you had creepy crawlies inside you but had to ignore them because you were on a timer to find food and water before you died had to have been completely terrifying. 

"It's done," Mikey reassured him with a gentle smooch. "And Raphie only hurled once, you'd be totally proud of him."

Leo closed his eyes and breathed deep. "I-I..."

"You need to sleep," Mikey completed the thought for him. "Don't worry. Raph and I will make sure you get enough water and calories, even if we have to force feed you or steal some IV packs. You're gonna be okay."

Leo smiled weakly, and squeezed his arm. "I love you," was the last thing he said, before finally surrendering his death grasp on consciousness, and since Leo didn't really say stuff like that a lot, it left Mikey's heart clenching.

"Mike," Raphael called and waved him over to have a look. "You think this needs stitches?"

Mikey had been wondering the same thing. It was a big open slit in the skin, but, at the same time, it wasn't really bleeding. "Um. Maybe go with your intuition, and don't just apply medical procedures randomly cause you want to be busy?"

Raphael let out a breath and nodded to himself. "Let it breathe, that's as best as I can tell. The muscle looks like it sealed properly. When he's better, we're going to have to abrade the skin to try and irritate it into healing better. Although..." He felt over the skin, down to the knee. "I bet  we can put some medical tape just right here, to try and make sure the skin doesn't fuse weird and fail to stretch right."

They agreed to do this, but then Mikey had the idea to message April. If anyone could find out what to do with wounds this crazy, April's people could. He took a picture of the laceration and sent it to her, and then took a picture of their bowl of caterpillar nurses just to gross her out.

"Oh, hey, what should we do with these guys?" Mikey held up the bowl thoughtfully.

Raphael recoiled in stiff and nauseous revulsion. Oops! Totally not the right person to ask. Mikey removed the bowl from his view and thought he said something like 'Burn them...!'

Well, it didn't seem like good karma to murder babies who had probably saved your brother's life, when the only thing they'd ever done wrong was be vermin, but it also didn't seem sensible to let them hatch into flies, who'd go on to bother everybody, including babies and sick people. Hmm. Hmm-hmm-hmm.

Clearly, this mandated finding some steaming sewer vent and dropping them in. With a big dollop of Casey poop for added nutrition! Perfect!

April decided she was just lucky Mikey hadn't taken pictures of his 'caterpillars' while they were still doing their 'nursing,' and that she'd only been forced to bear witness to the aftermath once they'd been removed. She passed a description on to key doctors, and quickly routed their diagnoses and advice back to Mikey. 

She reached her war room early with a guard in tow, and arranged reports across the table, moving pawns. Usually she had other aids here by now. In fact, usually she had at least two other guards inside. Today ought to have been three. 


April deftly pressed a kill switch on her phone to wipe it's SD card and trigger a silent alarm. Raphael, if today is the day, please find my son. She extracted her pistol from under her vest, and turned around to see what spider had caught her this time. If they killed or captured her, they'd not gain access to any intelligence suggesting the turtles were nearby or that one of them was grievously wounded.

Before the door stood an immediately recognizable Japanese woman, of about her own age, posture straight and arms crossed behind her back. Her dark gray hair was tied back in a partial topknot, and she wearing black leathers with pointed epaulets, a katana and wakizashi at her waist, and a black silk scarf obscuring much of the lower half of her face. 

"Jonessama," Karai greeted in very familiar, clipped English. "I have topics to discuss with you."

Almost more interesting to April was how Karai had accomplished this: Standing just beside and behind her was the young researcher April had placed on  Zak's cell, who'd overseen growing the embryos, and who even now had tremendous security clearance on the entire project. April had liked her. She was brilliant, upbeat, richly human, and had never dropped the ball on any of a thousand secrets over her two years of service; she'd even taken an instant liking to Michelangelo when introduced.

Apparently she'd been a sleeper agent the entire time.

Chapter Text

"Hello, Karai," April Jones greeted tersely. "Been awhile." 

"If my intention were to kill you, Jonessama, I would have done so before alerting you to my presence."

As true as that sounded, her family had a flair for dramatic betrayals.  The duration of time in which ninjas affected to be unflappable and polite with their weapons sheathed was usually the only opportunity she had to best them in close quarters. April didn't lower the gun. Her guard moved defensively between her and the potential danger. "What do you want, then?" she prompted.

"I have been keeping an eye on you from afar," Karai replied. "I intended to seek out Leonardo first to make this audience less awkward, but he proved elusive."

"Karai, Leo's the last person who wants to see you right now," April retorted. "State your business, please."

The woman's eyes narrowed. "Since last we saw one another, you have murdered my father. And yet I do not speak to you with hostility."

"You helped kill my father, the turtles' father; quite a lot of fathers," April explained. "You're going to have to bear with me if my sympathy towards the loss of your own is stunted."

"You have not wondered why my duty did not compel me to his side during that final combat?" Karai wondered aloud. 

They had wondered about that. They had wondered a lot about Karai over the past year. The turtles had gone in to the final battle with Shredder expecting a Pyrrhic victory at best and a slaughter at worse, and yet all three of them had emerged alive. After his death, they'd expected Karai to assume control of the central pillars of the Foot clan while squashing pretenders and insubordinates. Instead, her absence had left a vast power vacuum that had torn the clan to shreds. April knew of thirty-six separate faction shards in America alone. Thirty-five. April had just gotten through baiting in one of them for a resounding defeat, and its lieutenants had sent her the severed head of their own leader as a white flag offering.

" I traveled to Japan," Karai described. "I sought out information regarding the tattered remnants of the Ninjitsu clans who still paid homage to the Tribunal, and the hidden location they had retreated to. It is not for one such as me to be granted an audience before the Tribunal, but I was able to convince an elder to bring before them my concerns."

"I... I don't understand," April admitted with a frown. "You were sort of... poised to be the empress of the world, and you... went on a pigrimage to seek out defeated, enemy ninja clans?"

"They were never defeated. They remained in the shadows. It is the Tribunal who taught the first ninja clans the art that would later become Ninjitsu," Karai exposited what April thought sounded familiar but which, until this moment, hadn't been relevant. "In ancient Japan, they could fight what the samurai caste could not, foes both human and non. Adaptive, cunning, subtly honorable instead of overtly, the ninjitsu clans were professional and unique warriors, whose purpose was ultimately worthy and spiritual: They could vanquish demons."

"So... you went back to the origin of Ninjitsu?" This did sound like a conversation Karai could have successfully had with Leo, actually, even at this point in their lives, with so much bad blood between them.

Karai nodded that April had grasped the jist of things. "Shinobi were never meant to be visible," she said matter-of-factly. "Certainly they were not meant to be a privileged class, pretending at superiority, dining off the corpses of the fallen, living off slavery imposed by cybernetics and alien slime. I do not share my father's ambition. For all his power and influence, he set us upon a dishonorable path. To set things right, I asked the Ninja Tribunal for a favor: Arbitration on the fate of the Foot clan."

Arbitration was useless without some executive arm to carry out its orders, which suggested Karai intended to accept and carry out whatever the Tribunal had decided. Puzzled at how long and detailed this story had grown, and at what it had to do with Karai ambushing her so peaceably in her own war room, April nevertheless did not set down her gun. "Okay," she slowly prompted. "What was their verdict?"

"Dishonor," Karai said. "Restitution. Penance. For one hundred years, the Foot clan shall not display nor pledge allegiance to its own symbol. We shall return to the fold of the shadow, and become as the wind. One by one, those who once upheld the law of the Foot clan shall abdicate positions of public power, voluntarily sequester themselves, renounce non-ancestral holdings, and take on this mantle of dishonor to reflect."

"Have you... seen the state of the Foot clan lately?" April asked.

Karai smiled thinly, just above the edge of her scarf. "That it is what I am here for."

"To unite the clan," April had assumed as much. "But with the intention of withdrawing? To where? To do what?"

"There is no 'to where,''" Karai said. "We have a single apartment in America qualifying as 'ancestral holdings.' Those who stand with me shall live as Shinobi live, among the common people, with no banners. There is neither any 'to do what.' We have no enterprises, whether in government or in organized crime which are not infected by the taint of my father's ambition. We must begin anew."

"I... don't think many of the Foot are going to embrace asceticism after a decade and a half of luxury and power," April mentioned the primary problem with this.

"Exactly, Jonessama," Karai agreed. "This is a culling. Two to four of my father's Elites may bend knee to me in acknowledgement of our true duty. The rest shall fall like wheat in harvest."

April straightened. 

"That is why I have to come to you," Karai explained. "You must be ready to take advantage of this situation, or civil unrest will rise up and swallow you."

"Why are you warning me?" April asked. "Why do you care what happens to us?"

"Because I believe you are the one with Tenmei, Jonessama. You are the survivor, the one whose vision of how the world should be has rallied its people to your banner. You are the one who slew the Shredder. You are the one who will end up filling his place."

That sounded ominous. "I'm not particularly interest in world domination," April disagreed.

"No, you are no warlord," Karai agreed. "People follow you in faith, not in fear, yet you are manipulative enough to set in motion events far outside yourself."

"I sort of expect there to be an end of this!"

"Where? When?" Karai inquired. "When the white knights ride in from the outside, pretenders, in love with fame, claiming they can protect us all from demons, monsters, and extraterrestrial invaders?"

April was ill-convinced she had these qualifications either, but Karai smiled thinly.

"Let me ask you this, then: Who do you wish to write the laws that govern mutants in this new era? Because, whatever lawmakers or warlords choose to pen down on paper, three turtles have proven they can go about their lives regardless, dodging eyes, eluding capture, and caring for themselves. But now one turtle cannot. Tell me, Jonessama, who do you trust to ensure your mentally handicapped child is to be considered a citizen of this country, instead of a possession of the state? Because as it stands, all mutants and all mutagen already belong to the government; and the people from outside will fear what they do not understand moreso than the Foot ever did."

April was silent a long moment, neither confirmed nor denying Zak's relationship to her. "What do you want of me?" she asked in a deadpan.

"To understand my purpose here," Karai answered. "In a different life, or if I had any notion you might accept, I would pledge the eyes and ears of the Foot Clan to your service."

Cold day in hell, today. "I'm not taking any of this at your word."

"I expected that. It will need to be proven by action," Karai responded. "I imagine the turtles will learn of my return by one route or another, and will share your suspicions towards my intent, but I do not intend to cross blades with them. The task ahead of me is difficult enough already, and my allies will be few. If Leonardo will not treat with me, perhaps you will become the closest thing to a neutral party I will have; at the very least, you have born witness to my words."

April studied the woman. "We'll see," she said. "Is that all you wanted to tell me, Karai?"

"Yes." Karai politely inclined her head. "I must be off, as there is duty to attend to, and work to be done. May I have the courtesy of knowing your guards shall neither kill nor apprehend me as I depart?"

April stared at this woman who'd been their uncorruptable adversary and the right hand of Shredder. Weary, April nodded.

"Thank you, Jonessama. Come, Naomi," she called to the girl beside her, and turned and just as quietly departed.

The young researcher faltered for a moment, and for a moment she looked filled with some impetus andready to say something to April, but then just as quickly she tore herself away, turned, and hurried after Karai.

April was going to have a very difficult time replacing her. Worse, all the research she'd been doing—research on mutants and mutagen, archiving the cells in the mills, and information about Zak and the neuroscience behind his brain development—was now compromised in more ways than one.

-sama An honorific added to names. Unlike '-san' which can simply be translated to 'mister' or 'missus,'
'-sama' implies great respect or admiration.
One could translated 'Jonessama' as 'The honorable Mrs. Jones.'
天命 Tenmei (A cultural concept) Having the mandate of heaven. Being intended by the gods to lead.

Chapter Text

The ship had sailed, the bridge had been burnt, the work she'd always been intended to complete now lay once more outside her grasp, and yet still Naomi flicked through her hundreds of pages of research one more time, staring through the MRI scans and brainwave charts, comparing them with her long lists of alleles and genetic reports. A month. She'd need another month, long enough to compare her fresh research with the work she'd done in childhood, and then-

-Stop fixating, stupid!

Naomi threw her thick file away from herself in disgust, but when some of the papers slid out and nearly got away from her, she slapped her hands back down on top of it to protect it. She bit her lip.

Hyperstimulating neuralplasticity for adult learning, with both the added complexity and the added advantages of mutagen. The reason Dr. Chaplin had been put on that project was obvious in hindsight: It would have allowed Shredder to industrialize military training for his mutant armies in a predictable fashion over narrower time windows. That would have meant more soldiers, produced more swiftly, with more standardized training, and better brainwashing. 

But for April Jones, it had meant her son might be able to overcome tremendous hurdles involving the recognition of body language, social structure, identity, and language.

And for Naomi, it had meant... 

...she needed to stop thinking about this. Seriously, she needed to stop. Still, she carefully straightened her papers back into Zachrael's file, and neatly tucked it away amid her folders. Safe. Where she couldn't work on it, but no one could take it from her.

Then she got up and tucked her hands on her big coat pockets and moseyed around, investigating the state of her lab, touching her alchemical sets, and her refrigeration unit with her precious samples. There was dust on everything, but that didn't matter. This was her safe zone, her playground, where she had defined herself outside the context of her maker. 

But when her fingers settled on the centrifuge, a memory of broken embryos hit Naomi like a kick in the gut, and she sank back on her heels and breathed through her grit teeth and tried to decide why. Maybe... maybe it really had been one of the most personally meaningful projects she'd ever been on. She was educated on test tube babies, she'd done more than enough experiments with cloned mutant DNA, and she ought to have been able to save them, but instead she'd watched as their genetic material cannibalized itself. All it had amounted to was a lengthy paper about how to improve the integrity of DNA for the cloning process.

Which was going to get blacklisted for awhile. Everything she'd done in the last two years would have her name stripped out and be treated as suspect. Eh, that was okay. She didn't need credit to have found some joy in contributing a corpus of work to the world. This had given her an outlet, it had been good for her, it had been a good, if temporary, experience. 

"You are not working?" Karai asked, and Naomi nearly leaped out of her skin because she was unused to being around people who could pop in and pop out in completely silence. The older woman offered her a box of Chinese takeout. "I expected to find you arm deep in some form of... goo already."

"I... Just need some time to shift gears and pick out a project is all," Naomi dismissed the concern with a smile. "I did work for her for two years."

"Of course." Karai prodded her with the box of takeout. "I think the time has matured you."

"Oh. Thank you." Embarrassment colored her face as she took it. 

Karai's eyes were on her, and Naomi didn't have to look up from her box of dumplings to know that. "You know your own mind," Karai said, which sounded more like a caution to remain vigilant than a statement of truth, and then she left just as silently. Naomi grimaced and tilted her head back to think.


They'd named the turtle 'Zak.'

Naomi hadn't gotten to see him in person, but the name had been scrawled across the top of the MRI scans. Naomi could have figured out which turtle had been the genetic donor by just by watching the three brothers, but Karai had been the one to deduce he was half human, and Naomi had to admit her data supported that. But how? The simple techniques that had spliced Naomi couldn't have made mutant DNA behave politely. As a child, Naomi had played at cloning mutagen-enhanced tissues. Ninety nine out of a hundred times, they simply ate themselves.

Allegedly, Zak's father, Hamato Donatello had been a genius, better than her father, easily as good as Bishop, and Bishop had at least figured out the delicate art of stabilizing mutant DNA for storage. Heh, she knew what that was like, having a dad it was going to be hard to measure up to. Had Donatello made Zak? Was the answer to that mystery buried in their old sewer home-?

"Stop thinking about this!" she shouted at herself as she was brushing her teeth, and then winced and hoped Karai was nowhere around. "It's not like you can mail them your results even if you did figure it out." She stalked off to her room.

When your life was an hourglass glued to the table, obsessive behavior was dangerous. It swallowed up valuable hours that could be spent doing more meaningful work. But obsessive behavior wasn't necessarily voluntary, and when one's primary occupation was cerebral, it had a way of working it's way back in through the cracks and blotting out more useful pursuits. By the time her laboratory was spic, span, and ready for operation, the brain chemistry of one specific mutant turtle was all Naomi could think about.

When the primary unsolved mystery of one's existence was how to dramatically accelerate the development of neural bridges in a mutagen-enhanced brain without inducing cancer or chaos, being placed on Zak's case was like giving Galileo access to the night sky. Naomi had nearly done it, nearly found a way to bring her life full circle, via this surrogate for the very problem she'd been put on this earth to solve, and in doing so helped-

Stop! Stop romanticizing this!

Naomi finished fixing the door alarm, threw down her soldering iron, pulled off her goggles, and rubbed her face and through her red hair. I very obviously relapsed. 

Maybe she needed to admit what she'd ended up working on to Karai, and accept her disappointed stare in exchange for advice. Perhaps the excuse for real conversation with her would be nice after the year absence. The problem was she didn't know what she'd say to the woman except 'sorry' and that, yes, she knew better. It wasn't like venting her actual feelings would fall on sympathetic ears. She'd grown used to bouncing her thoughts off of people without judgement, like with Janice, the encryption specialist she'd been paired with. That relationship had been memorable and important but it, like most things, had possessed an inevitable expiration date. Oh. speaking of which.

Naomi meandered back to her desk, sat, flicked open her laptop and started deleting contact information from her encrypted messager. Click, click, gone. Click, click, gone. Everyone who now saw her as an enemy. Her cursor hunted down the group chat panels, where red text already informed her she'd been booted by the admin from most of them. Deleted. Deleted. Deleted. De- Her cursor hovered over a window she'd created herself, where she'd been the last one to type a sad message of defeat. '#2 and #3 are gone.'

The embryos.

Hit by another wave of emotion she hadn't expected, Naomi let go of the mouse, crossed her arms before the keyboard, and settled her head down upon them. After a long while, she touched the Tab key with her pinky finger, and then pecked out the letters, 'H-e-y,' and touched the Return key. Then she turned her face into her arms. Her mind drifted, uselessly, frustrated, sad, paralyzed, wasting time. She wondered why this had meant so much to her. It... it wasn't the same thing as Zak's project, was it? No. It didn't have to do with brains. 

A notification noise pulled her head up, and she rubbed her face and nose and squinted at the screen.

"Yo, how's it hanging dudette?"

In disbelief, she looked to the keyboard, above which her hands uncertainly hovered. 

He didn't know. He didn't know.

"I need a pen pal."

Dot dot dot. "What's up?"

"Everything!" The sudden desire for verbal exchange was absurdly strong at the moment, but exactly what did she want to say? Everything exploding to get out from within her was sensitive. Not to mention she could have probably ranted for days about the extraordinarily boring (to everyone else) ins and outs of neuroplasticity in this agitated state! "If you had to write a Bucket List, what would you put on it?" she finally asked.

"Oh that's easy," a turtle responded. "To eat pizza one more time and get a girlfriend." Naomi busted out laughing, as his next line arrived: "What about you?"

"Well I've finished most of mine," she explained. "Riding on a roller coaster, falling in love, watching all the Harry Potter movies in one sitting..."

"Omigod, aren't there eight of them!?"

"It was a very unproductive day," Naomi admitted with smug and guilty glee. "Crushes count as falling in love right?"

"Close enough! What's the rush, though? Planning on dying sometime soon?"

"I was engineered with a pretty short lifespan," her fingers admitted for her, without her permission. She stared at them in surprise. "Most of it's already over."

There was a silence from the other side, and Naomi cringed slightly. But the answer which came (not a moment too late for her flagging self-esteem) was, "I'm really sorry." Following that came, "Foot experiments?"

"Yes," that was technically true. 

"You don't seem like an old lady yet!"

"Well I'm biologically much older than I ought to be, but it doesn't work like that, that's only because of artificial maturation. Basically there's a buffer material on normal genes which protects them from damage called telomerase," she educated, half afraid she'd be causing eyes to glaze over like she did when she just started blathering to Karai. "But genes lose some time every time cells divide, and mine are artificially truncated to run out after a very specific duration. There will be a short period in which I'm probably going to end up with a lot of simultaneous cancers, but the most likely cause of death will be septic or cardiovascular. I'm pinning my money on a stroke."

"Whoa, dudette, that is the saddest thing I have heard in a really long time. And I hear a lot of sad things. I'm currently living in the basement of someone who clearly outlived their romantic partner, and everything down here is marked with 'his' and 'hers.'"

Naomi clenched her hands for a moment, because she had so much more to get off her chest, but this was serious. She wrote out. "Don't tell me stuff like that. Things about where you are. My roommate's not friendly."

"Wait, what? Did something happen? Didn't you escape to the new HQ with everyone else?"

"Yes, but I lost my job," she hedged. "Which I could bemoan for hours. Our Rebel Leader had just given me clearance on the project with your tiny turtle. I was stoked. For, like, a lot of different reasons."

"April fired you?"

"Well, no. But seeing as I was a spy, and got a prominent leader of the Foot an audience with her, I think the polite thing to do was clear out my desk."

No response came. 

'Your father used you,' Karai had said to her, and it was what she'd say again if Naomi tried talking to her. 'You were his tool. No matter what else you believe, you must understand that this was wrong of him.' 

If it was only that easy, to understand and then to just apply and have it be over and done with. Naomi rolled over and tried to sleep.

She needed to stop thinking about neuroplasticity, turtle brains, and her creator's last project. It wasn't even important to him, she reminded herself, and it shouldn't be so important to me. He'd preferred robotics, for Christ's sake. This hadn't been his life's work.

But it had been hers. From blueprint, to conception, to the artificially accelerated maturation and training cycle, she had been both a proof in concept of his early research in advanced training algorithms, and the idealized research assistant; she ate, dreamed, and breathed mutagenics, neuroscience, biology, brainwaves, genes, without any of the cluttered background of robotics; she was the perfect helper and springboard for ideas. She was that project, and she'd never escape it.  

Some people were just tragic, bit characters in the plays of other people's lives, warnings against playing God. 

"Hey, are you there?" The bleep roused her out of testing and checking her genetic samples for routine maintenance. Naomi glanced over and perked up. "Dudette?"

She nearly lost some extremely hard-to-distill rejuvenation agent in her haste to get to her computer. "I'm here!"

"There you are!" Dot dot dot. "What's your name, dudette?"

Naomi took in a shaky breath. "Naomi." She sent. "You're Mikey, right?"

"Hamato Michelangelo! But everyone totally calls me Mikey."

She sat quietly before the computer for a moment, smiling sadly. "I thought you were very cute and I never worked up the bravery to say so. :( "

"Omigod. Rly? <3"

She turned scarlet and leaned her elbows on the table and her chin on her wrists.

"Wait a minute, how old are you actually?"

He'd caught that? Most people didn't listen to her when she rambled off details. "Well biologically I'm about twenty-six, but the actual numbers of years passed since I left the third trimester of fetal development amounts to a whopping eleven."

"How long do you have...?"

"Fifteen," she answered. "So four left."

"And there's nothing you can do to fix it?"

"It would probably be a waste of my time to try," she admitted. "If I suceeded, I could take a bath in all my Nobel Peace Prizes. It'd essentially cure cancer and most other age-related forms of degeneration. Karma would probably make me accidentally start a zombie plague to compensate."

"Ha! Oh! Oh hahah! Naomi, you've got a lot of spirit! :D"

She smiled. "There's something like a 0.426% chance that if I jumped into a vat of mutagen, it wouldn't instantly vaporize my fragile manufactured DNA and turn me to jelly, and I'd be cured! :D "

"Why would someone do that to you? Shorten your life like that?"

"My lifespan was scoped to the length of the project my 'father' was working on. You know how people program little helper tools for difficult research? Well, okay, maybe you don't know, but I'm the biological version of that. It was work that would probably help Zak out, but I can't even talk to anyone about how much losing that opportunity rattled me, because I'm not supposed to touch projects involving learning."

"Wait, why?"

She gnawed on her lower lip, thinking how to explain it. "A lot of people go through life with no sense of purpose. Not me. I know exactly why I'm here. My creator made me to solve a very specific problem, and I've never been unaware of that fact. Do you realize what that's like? It's like knowing who your God is, and what they intended you to do with your entire life. And if you just do that, then you can die happy, knowing you've completed your divine destiny."

"That sounds like a great feeling."

It was but it wasn't. "Drugs can make you feel that way, too, and it's just as fake. What happens when your creator is just some random dude with a lot of problems? Can you just surrender to their plan for you when you only have so many years left to live, and don't even have access to their research anymore? But fighting against it to accomplish anything else is hard too, and that's where I'm at right now. It's like... nothing ever feels right because you're not working on your Great Destiny." 

"Omigod, it's like he made you to be born with an addiction!"

"Exactly! That's why mother's so hard on me to pick my own route, but it's kinda difficult when every time my mind wanders it goes back to the same damn thing. I'm exaggerating, it's usually easier than this, I'm just distracted because working on stuff for April had me looking at mutant neuroscience and that's... that's it, that's what I was supposed to do. I feel like I took a hit of something I wasn't supposed to and I'm going through withdrawal. That's exactly the perfect analogy. Thank you, Mikey."

"Maaaannn oh man oh man oh man. No wonder you wanted someone to talk to, this is like having a mountain sitting on your chest gurl." She snickered and giggled, wiping at her face. "Hey, Naomi? Is talking helping? Are you feeling any better?"

She blushed and rubbed at her face. "I don't know why you're still listening. I told you I was a spy."

"Well I did panic and had to go check April was alive and stuff, and soooorrttta left you hanging for half a day. Sorry about that! This was kinda important stuff you wanted to say."

She blushed more, and sat back, and sniffled for a bit, and took a deep breath.

"I actually have to go for a bit but I'll be back later. You want to talk again?"

She perked up. "Okay!" Uh. "I mean: Okay. Less.. uh, exclamation points?"

She'd had an idea for a project. It had sort of grown off her weird obsession with the embryos. She'd started wondering if it was possible to write the rule book for how to... sort of... do her own creation 'right.'

Naomi wasn't actually going to create a baby. She had no justification for that and she wasn't going to be around long enough to raise a child. She was also fuzzy on how she felt about the ethics of her own artificial acceleration of a maturation cycle, and was suspicious it had caused a significant chunk of her own troublesome Sense of Purpose. 

But for the concept of it, she'd been trying to work out the logistics of how she'd 'clean' her own genes, and whether it was hypothetically possible to produce a viable starter cell styled after an ovum with all the right genes. She wanted to just see such a thing, to behold the blueprint for what she ought to have been, to stare at it's little X chromosomes under a microscope and know that they were properly formed. It wouldn't make for that innovative of a research paper, but it would give her something to look forward to until a better idea crawled into her mind.

"How does it feel to be eleven and twenty-six at the same time, by the way? Like, where does that leave you at mentally?"

She considered the question over her latest test tubes, as she carefully droppered liquid into each. "Well obviously my logical reasoning and verbal skills developed in double time. And socially and emotionally, my need for stimulation sort of starts and ends at 'do science, buahahaha.'"

"I knew someone like that! He still needed snuggles. And, like, to talk to people."

"Well I didn't get very many snuggles, but I did spend my first five years in constant dialog with Dr. Chaplin, so I did have someone to gush to and listen to. I'd still wager I'm underdeveloped in the ability to express myself emotionally. Probably somewhere around the early teenager level."

"Well then you're ahead of me!"

"How old are you?" she asked curiously.

"Thirty-four, but mentally I'm not sure I ever got past six-year-old, so you've already lapped me!"

She started laughing to herself and nearly spilled some things that oughtn't be spilled. 

"You were made by Dr. Chaplin?" he asked.

"I have his hair." But her mother's petite skeleton. Hmm. She needed her hands for this experiment and to type, and both were time sensitive...

"Did you like... love him? Was he like your father?"

Ooh. That was a rough question. "He was my idol. He was my teacher. Maybe it's a question of whether came to love me. If someone who you had looked up to as a child had been training and using you for their own purposes, but cared about you, could you hate them?"

"Oh. Maybe I know something about that."

"I don't know how to hate him. I sort of pity him. He styled my hair and clothing just like my mom's. Like I was a doll."

"That's creepy."

"You want to see creepy? I could send you his report on me. It's not light reading, but what really comes through is his excitement and enthusiasm at his breakthrough, marveling at every aspect of the design, the execution, etcetera." She paused to put her test tubes back in their rack, and then brought up a voice-to-text program. "Is this working? Oh. Yes. Great. Now I can talk with my hands full. Anyway, some years later, Dr. Chaplin must have gone back to read that report. He scrawled across it in pen, 'Out of everything I have done, for this, I am damned.'"

"Okay, that's almost sad. How'd you get away from him? Or did you? He hasn't shown up on anyone's radar for awhile."

"He's actually dead, although I don't think that was publicized. Bishop had him assassinated in the belief it would stall Shredder and the Kraang's ambitions, but Shredder just leveled Bishop once and for all, and replaced Dr. Chaplin with scientists he took from Bishop, so it actually accelerated his progress by leaps and bounds. That's the simplified version my mother gave me anyway. She found me immediately after he died and took custody of me. And he wasn't all bad. I think he regretted a lot of his decisions near the end. I know he was trying to decide if my condition could be cured with mutagen."

"So where do you live now?"

"In Bishop's old lab, as is suitably ironic." She wrapped each tube with electrodes.

"That wrecked bunker? I thought the Foot toasted the place!"

"Ha! They did, but they weren't scientists. Anybody with the right background could tell that someone as neurotic and obsessive-compulsive as Bishop would have needed to hide his secret stashes of research and genetic samples in some mathematically fulfilling order, probably using a Fibonacci sequence or division by pi and powers of two. I'm not going to say I've found everything hidden in this old tin can, but I've found enough. And the place is so ridden with traps and pitfalls that no one else comes here, but I know how everything's laid out."

"That's where your mom brought you to live? The booby-trapped lab of the guy who killed your only dad?"

"Well, with the exception of needing to eat twice as much as a normal child, and a lot of books, I was pretty self-sufficient. I've made or salvaged whatever I've needed."

"Yeah but... but why, yo?"

"Why'd she put me here? To hide me, I suppose. Given her priorities I just always assumed she didn't want my grandfather allocating me to finish my father's work. She doesn't ask much of me, aside from the whole spying thing, and that was honestly probably half because she wanted to make sure someone fed me. I think she's trying to make up for how Chaplin treated me. 'You are not a tool,' she always says. I don't think she knows what it's like to know that without being able to apply it, but I appreciate that she cares." 

A moment passed in quiet before Naomi realized everything she'd said, and she spun to look at the computer.

The silence grew.

Shit oh shit oh shit. She shouldn't have turned on the speech-to-text. She-she needed time to sensor her thoughts!

Then Michelangelo said: "I think you underestimate what your mom knows about being treated like a tool by a parent, Oroko Naomi. Maybe you should ask her about that."

"Why... Why are you still talking to me?" she blurted.

"Well you said you wanted a pen pal. Isn't that like a long-term thing?"

Naomi wrung her hands, and gnawed on her lip.

"Maybe I was thinking sometimes good things come from bad places?"

Naomi folded her hands together. "You aren't just talking to me because I said my research might be useful for a member of your own inner circle?"

"No. Believe me. To be completely honest, no one's ever going to let you near Zak, that's like... completely off limits. But if you need someone to talk to, lil dudette, I'll admit to something: You sort of remind me of someone. Though! I think we're going to have to get better at not telling each other where to find each other so no one ever feels obligated to tell anyone's family about how to *ambush* anybody. Cause ya know, Hamatos... Orokos..."

"R-right. Right!" Her face was red. "I'm going to need to set up systematic deletion of my conversation logs. I mean, not that she's particularly interested in my laptop or has ever snooped on me before but... I need to be careful, okay, I've got this. I can do this. Stop typing what I'm saying you stupid program!"

Michelangelo laughed at her, but added a <3 that left her red-faced and happy.

Karai paused in the threshold, surprised, and then came up beside the young woman and placed down a bag of groceries in open view. The entire lab was lit up, and Naomi was wearing a heavy apron and blowing glass into an elongated cylinder for one device or another.

"You are working?" Karai asked.

"Yup!" Naomi chirped, as if she hadn't been sulking around staring at blank paper for weeks. As if the melancholy gripping her had been resolved overnight. She worked the edge of the red-hot cylinder with set of tongs, and then place it to be quenched. She went over to check the calibration on her laser cutter, and then left that running to go mind a crucible she'd aimed two blow-torches at it. It seemed she was making tools for a new project.

Karai cleared her throat. "I realize you must have enjoyed your job."

"It's okay," absolved the young woman who would never quite outlive her own childhood. "I found something else. Besides, I was getting stuck in a rut there."

"I see."

Karai had never known exactly how to do right by her 'daughter.' It was unusual that a woman should find herself the last to know she had a child. She'd found Naomi standing over her 'father's' corpse clutching a binder of papers to her chest, wearing a blank and slightly confused expression. The girl's passing resemblance and almond eyes had been enough for Karai to immediately scour his records for evidence of his transgression, and she had found her own DNA. 

Naomi had never behaved like a child—not that Karai would have known any better what to do with her if she had—and the two of them had shared nothing in common but blood and worth ethic. In the end, there was so little Karai or anyone else could truly do for her. Her best had been to provide her with what material things she needed to be... 'happy.' Naomi seemed to manufacture enough of that on her own, if given the right conditions.

"It is good to see you so engaged," Karai decided, smiling tightly. "Do remember to eat."

直美 Naomi A Japanese name spelled similarly to but distinct from the biblical Na-o-mi,
Nao-mi is a combination of the words for 'straight' and 'beautiful.'
With different kanji, her name can also be translated to mean 'good experiment' or 'hell is a reality.'

Chapter Text

Unconsciousness was a star-painted ocean of deep, dark, blue water; peaceful to tread. Sometimes Leo swam upward, near enough to surface to see his own reflection in it, gaunt and weak. The visual stimulation was proof he was still dreaming.

In those times, though, he could perceive that his brothers were holding him up, cradling his head, and force-feeding him; and that he was passively swallowing broth and water, and oughtn't fight them. He knew he was warm, and he knew he was safe. In his brothers' arms, he could lay down his burdens and rest for a short while.

"Getting cozy?"

He looked about, catching a glimpse of motion through the water. Then arms clasped him around the shell and sides from behind. 

"You nearly died," his brother murmured somberly into his shoulder, oceans notwithstanding. 

Leo chuckled. "You would have had company."

"No," Donnie growled fiercely into him. "That's not how it works anymore. We're supposed to be four, always together. It doesn't work without you. We need you. need you. Don't... don't die... Please don't die. Please... Le... ddh..."

Inexplicably, Donatello started to weep, and this alarmed Leonardo. Tales of ghosts and spirits suggested they were at their more dangerous and least predictable when overtaken by an emotion, embodying each sentiment to its fullest polarity. Instead of arguing that his brother was mathematically confused about exactly how many turtles were presently living ('all my brothers are alive' possibly felt close enough to 'being four' from Donnie's perspective, anyway), Leo twisted about and got a protective arm around Donatello's neck to hold and look at him.

"What's wrong with you?" Leo asked. "Donnie? Tell me what you need."

"Calm me down," Donatello begged through shaky breaths, a note of panic entering his voice as his temperature plummeted, his skin melted like wax, and his heartbeat simply stopped. Things crackled and stirred around them in the ocean, and Leo looked around with great foreboding.

"H-how-?" he asked.

"Calm me down," Donatello began to repeat as things worsened, hyperventilating, "calm me down, calm me down, calm me down, calm-" Dead eyes widened. He looked at Leo with a flash of what looked like comprehension. "No. I don't need anything. I'm dead. Dead." He grabbed Leo's collar, and grinned giddily up at him through tears and decay as if enjoying a manic epiphany. "B-but you aren't...!"

Leo could hear his child as she busted out crying for him. He floundered through the fog of consciousness, jostling and nearly spilling warm broth. She needed him. She'd gone too long without hearing him.

"G-give," he pushed out of his throat. 

Someone got Donatta into his arms. He held her to him, pressing his mouth into her forehead and taking deep breaths through his nose, just like when he'd practice meditation with her. In deeply, hold, out. In deeply, hold, release again.

He listened to her fall into the same rhythm as her eyes drooped and her fingers curled at his cheek. He wondered if she'd been awaken by some terrible nightmare. Her heart was racing, but it slowly eased back to a resting pace. 

There was someone else in the room, an older woman. Leo glanced uncertainly up at her, standing there beside a sewing machine, all in dark flame, with a kindly smile and her hair done up in afro. There was nothing hostile about her. Just curiousness. She waved slightly to him. Leo closed his eyes.

Breath in and out... breathe deep and let go, my little Natta... Deep and let go... Back to sleep... back to sleep...

Halfway between the worlds of sleeping and waking, Leonardo felt both his dead brother and his very much alive daughter settle peacefully into him.

Leonardo faded groggily awake.

He had a brother on either side of him, like he was sandwich filling, with arms and legs thrown or wrapped around him.

This was not a good time for waking up. He closed his eyes, and breathed deep of their presence. His nasal passageways, mouth, and throat no longer felt like cracked desert landscapes. His stomach felt fine.

Somewhere around his leg, Casey shuffled closer and whimpered. Leo would have pet her, but his arms were under the blankets. 

A low voice rumbled beside him, soothingly, leading him out of sleep. Leo blinked slowly, deeply, to moisten his eyes, and then slowly turned his head towards the sound.

"And da prince said, 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down ya long hair!'"

"Aaaeeia!" a baby agreed with a slap of her tiny hands upon what sounded like cardboard but must have been a book.

"Yeah, ya always like that one. Dunno, he looks like a spoiled, whiny, playah ta me."

"Amwa," Donatta disagreed through gumming on the edge of the half-turned page. 

"Thought we established previously dat don't taste as good as it looks. Ya disappointin' me here, Sherlock."


"Mnhmm. 'Xactly. A'right, where were we?"


"No you nyah. C'mere ya lil goblin, no ruinin' ya favorite page!" And Raphael—this was indisputably Raphael—scooped her up, tumbled her back onto his forearm, and smooched her temple to her squeals, giggles, and kicks. 

The smile which built up on Leonardo's face brought a pressure to his eyes, and very nearly tears to go with it. This was what some part of him had wanted, had imagined. This. His family laughing; his family playing again. "I must be dead and in heaven," he mused aloud to himself, startling his brother into a jump. "Raphael actually sounds happy, and surely that's just not physically possible. I have it on good authority he is only capable of scowling."

"Er, I-" Raphael fumbled.

Leonardo chuckled, enjoying this high of good feeling and perhaps also enjoying having much more than his fair share of blankets for once. The air outside was cold, but this futon was blissfully hot. "Has Michelangelo seen you be this cute, or is the honor mine alone?"

Raphael cleared his throat as he swung his legs about and got to Leo's side. "Hey wiseass, ya hungry?" he asked with a brush over Leo's brow to feel for fever.

"Famished," Leo admitted, looking towards where he could hear Donatta giggling and mumbling excitedly. "Can I hold her?"

"Yeah, let me help ya sit, and then ya can entertain ya own damn baby while I get ya somethin'." 

"Ohhh..." Leo scoffed and smiled simultaneously as Raphael reached under his shell and levered him slowly upright. "Please don't swear off this habit of playing with her on my account. It looked good for someone. Me, maybe."

"Well, fah now someone needs to feed ya," Raphael stabilized his weight. "There. Can ya sit without help? Ya nauseous?"

Leo got his palms flat against the ground, and checked his feeble balance. Alarm swiftly overtook him. "I need to pee, and its an emergency."

Raphael swiftly passed him a bucket, set Donatta down, got the blankets out of the way, and helped Leo up just in time.

"Ow. Ow. That burns. Mnnhh. I'm so sorry." 

"Eh. Ya'll be happy ta hear none of it's commin' out red. Lucky ya kidneys didn't give out on ya, neither."

Leo sighed, but really couldn't have stayed up without help. "Well, this is awkward."

Raphael busted out laughing. "Ya stumble in outta the snow half-dead, infested with maggots, havin' pissed and shit yaself, and ya think this is awkward? Na, na, we're good! Today's lookin' up!"

Leo's face heated. "Puts a new spin on 'toilet humor.'"

Raphael was in an unexpectedly good mood, and kept laughing.

"Hello my little kunoichi," Leo greeted as Raphael at long last fed his daughter into his arms and situated his blankets back around him. "I am sorry I am so late in rejoining you. Did you behave yourself in my absence?"

His daughter laughed and smiled radiantly as he brushed her face and wild hair. She needed a hair cut! Oh dear. He'd need someone's help with that. Mm. Leo supposed he had few children for comparison, but he was sure she was beautiful, with eyes like smiling half-moons, and feather-soft eyelashes. He thumbed her nose and chin, and then laughed in surprise when she grabbed his nose.

"Oh! Oh that's right, you have the use of your hands now..."

"Yeah and she's clearly an unlicensed operator of em," Raphael retorted with a rattle of his head as he walked over to heat some food up. "Grabbed for my sai so many times I've actually resorted ta makin' sheathes for em, imagine dat. Nearly stabbed herself in the face with a screwdriver what rolled off a table yesterday. Never knew 'hands' needed a manual."

"I shall keep that in mind. Ah, not my eyes, Natta. They may not be incredibly useful anymore, but I've grown fond of keeping them where they are."

"Yo, Leo, c'mon; don'tcha mean, 'Do natta poke outta my eyes-a?'" asked Raphael in their family's best Italian mafioso voice, but as if critiquing the world's best spicy meatballs.

Leo contemplated that for a moment, freed up his hands and applauded over his child.

"Thank ya very much, be here all week..."

"Where are we?" Leonardo thought to ask, 'glancing about' and breathing in the scents of dust, wood, and oil (and whatever delicious meal Raphael was cooking). It seemed abandoned and yet strangely not.

"Basement. Like a fuckin' palace compared ta last winter, remember that? But the old man upstairs's probably got an itchin' suspicion someone's down here by now, and either ain't got the heart ta chase out squatters in the middle of winter, or rheumatism's makin' the stairs downward look like a mountain hike. Either way we've gotta move, soon as ya can walk. Trouble is April's got enough headaches right now, and ain't anywhere else gonna compare to how cushy this is. We got nowhere to go. The kid can't just tough shit out like we can."

Leonardo reflected upon that. Then he chuckled, because Donnatta was growling at him with a big smile on his face. "What do you mean 'rrr?'" he growled back at her, and tilted his head as she laughed and grabbed for his eyes again. She held onto the top of his snout instead. He blew air across her face. She squealed so incredibly loudly that Leo cringed and clutched her tightly to him with a stern shake of his head. Her brows scrunched together thoughtfully.

Then, above them, Leonardo heard a three-legged gait, two of flesh and one of wood, hobble across the floor.

"See what I mean?" Raph whispered. 

"I do." Leo realized they'd been stretching their luck dangerously thin while he'd been recovering. Bless that man for not investigating them any sooner. "How long was I out this time, by the way?"

"Bout five days," Raph replied, returning to him with a steaming bowl of soup, thick with cabbage, sausage, corn, and carrots. "But take it easy, ya lost a ton of weight, and ya gonna be doin push-ups with me fah months ta put it back on." He traded Leo for the baby, and sat down there.

"That long, you think?" Leo asked (with, shamefully, his mouth full) as he wolfed down spoonfuls of vegetable, salt, and meat. 

"Yeah. Ya toed really close ta the finish line this time around, Fearless," Raphael muttered, bumping shoulders gently with him. "Like, it ain't any wonder why ya dragged yaself ta ya feet in that state. Ya had maybe two or three hours left ta get a couple ounces of water in ya. Fah reference: We got ya ta drink eight ounces every two hours, and this is the first time ya peed since. Ya probably gained twenty pounds in water since we got ya home. And you're supposed to be a turtle."

"Oh." That was actually quite terrifying. Leo leaned slightly into the contact, and waited till he had enough food in his belly to talk without spitting carrots. "Where is Casey?"

"Out with Mikey. We been bunkered down extra careful since we found ya, but we need more food, and she gets loopy if stuck inside."

"I owe her an expression of gratitude; she is the one who found me."

"Got a stick of sausage back in the cooler with her name on it. Ya wanna give it ta her?"

 Kunoichi. A female practitioner of ninjitsu. The word is cleverly made by saying the names of the three strokes that go into writing the kanji for woman, 女, which are くノ一, to make Ku-no-ichi. 

Chapter Text

"Stop rilin' her up!" Raphael snarled because Michelangelo was blowing 'raspberries' or 'farples' or whatever the hell they were called onto the baby's tummy to make her squeal, giggle and kick. "S'bad enough we make enough noise accidentally!"

"Awww," Orange pouted, and the baby copied his pout perfectly and looked at Raphael, too. "We were just playing."

Raphael made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat, and hit Mikey lightly upside the back of the head. "Play quieter. We have ta move," he muttered as Mikey winced. "He's on his feet mosta the day, he can make it."

"He can't climb," Mikey disagreed, sagging weight back into Leo's shell where their brother was napping. "He can't even stay awake a full day."

"We're pullin' our luck fuckin' thin, Mike. You heard April. Miss Japan is back, we can't fuckin' loiter around the old HQ with a dog everyone there's seen, makin' a fuss in an abandoned basement."

Michelangelo kissed the baby to keep her content, and then stood up and waved Raphael they should step away to argue.

"Okay, Raphie, listen." Raphael huffed, but Mikey raised a hand to hush him. "We haven't heard anyone visit the old guy upstairs. So far he hasn't even taken a phone call. He's a recluse, and you've figured that out as well as I have. Probably before me, you're like... way smarter. Anyway, you want to be on the move because you think mobility will protect us, but it won't. It won't. Leo's a defenseless liability right now, no matter how badly we wish it was otherwise, and he won't admit to us when he's struggling to keep up. We can't protect him from enemy ninja on an open city. You can't protect everybody just by trying hard enough."

That stung. Raphael sawed his beak, and shifted his stance, and didn't say anything.

"We leave and we'll be seen," Mikey narrated, "We'll get caught in an ambush on unfamiliar terrain. And even if we manage to escape while slowed down with a dog, a cat, a baby, and an injured brother, I guarantee you either you or I will take a bullet or blade wound to protect one of them. Then we'll be down to just one person trying to support, protect, and find shelter for an entire family. You take us out there and you're asking for the Oregon Trail all over again."

"So what?" Raphael snapped. "We just hold out here all winter? I can feel it itchin' under my shell, Mikey, we ain't safe here. We're exposed, this basement's only so defensible, and the storm doors ain't hidden enough for me to think nobody ain't seen us as dark shapes goin' in and out."

"Maybe I'd agree if we had a place to go," Mikey negotiated. "But our route needs adequate shelter every single day of it, or he or Donatta could die to the cold."

"One of us could scout ahead," Raphael muttered.

Mikey grimly nodded, but he didn't like the plan and wished he had a better one. 

A third voice intoned: "I think I should have some say in this discussion."

The two of them turned in surprise to see Leonardo sitting up slowly. He raised his eye ridges at them and then shook his head as if disappointed.

"Am I not your leader?" he asked rhetorically.

"Uh," Mikey smiled weakly, "we just didn't want you to worry while you were healing."

Leo's mouth tugged into an almost-smile. He sighed forgivingly at the two of them, scooped up Donatta, stood, slowly, the good leg before the bad, and came up to where they'd been discussing. "My mind is the only part of me that's presently working at full capacity," he said. "Let's not waste it. Meanwhile, neither of you have asked me where I planned to hole up through the winter with Donatta."

Raphael and Michelangelo both straightened and glanced to one another. Mikey stepped forward to ask, "You know somewhere we can go?"

Leo nodded curtly. "The route is convoluted and not particularly easy, but I am confident it will throw off our pursuit. For starters, I need to be able to walk twelve hours, and it is my preference that we do this in the day, so the three of us need to make sure our clothing is adequate to ward off eyes. Michelangelo, you need a long sleeve to hide the missing arm. Raphael, you need a hood. My rain cape and scarf need to change color. I will also wear the katana under my coat, and carry Donatta in her satchel. We will pack away all sign of her baby supplies in other bags."

"Wait." Raph blinked in surprise. "You're havin' us walk the streets in broad daylight? The hell we going?"

"Several districts away. The fastest route is overland using the old highway. Fortunately, in winter time, we're just three out-of-luck guys with their dog, heading someplace to look for work. We blend into the multitudes, no stranger than any."

The younger two shared another look. "Ya got that far in two months?" Raph wondered, and Mikey gave a low whistle.

Leo smiled. "I was very angry at you, and I knew you'd follow me, and I was not ready to be found."

"Yeah. Wow. So where we's headed?"

"You'll just have to find out." Leo smiled more. "But should I perish tragically before we arrive, I think Casey knows the way." He winked, and then went to walk and exercise with Donatta like she was a pudgy little dumbbell. Or an airplane. 

Mikey and Raphael shared one more baffled look. Mikey leaned on Raphael's shoulder. "Well, we got Leo back!" he chirped. "I almost forgot what we needed him for, he was gone so long!"

"You mean aside from pitchin' him into a building filled with enemy ninja, cuttin' the lights, grabbin' out a popcorn, and watching the fireworks show?" Raphael asked with a fond chuckle. "A'right, you heard the turtle, let's get ta work on them 'disguises.' Probably gonna need a lotta ramen and instant coffee, I'm guessing."

Mikey stuck out his tongue in a 'Bleck!'

When Raphael left the following night and Michelangelo was on familysitting duty, Leo immediately asked, "What did he mean by 'Miss Japan?'"

Mikey cringed. "Damn. Uhh... Karai finally showed up."

Leo's grim expression suggested he'd expected that. "And you two thought to keep me from worrying by concealing this from me?"

Mikey teetered back and forward from foot to foot. "Well, you're kinda weird about Karai."

Leo glared for a moment but then 'looked' away and let out another of those forgiving sighs. "Michelangelo, the last time I saw her was the last time I saw anyone, and that was years ago. When she snuck up on my location this November, I was poised to kill her by stabbing through a wall. No duel, no challenge, no warning, no... honor."

Mikey's eyes widened.

"The truth is, I didn't even have to think about it; she was between me and Donatta's safety. I had only one advantage on her, and I was going to abuse it: I no longer needed to see where she was. In fact, the only thing that saved her life was that she found Donatta's crying so offensive to the ear that she apparently decided I could not possibly be in that hovel, and she turned away to check other leads. Which says something about her maternal instinct, I suppose." Leo waved a dismissive hand. "Regardless. Where has Karai shown up this time?"

"Well I'm not actually entirely sure," Michelangelo lied. "April was kinda brief, just telling us that Karai had been spotted, and to keep our heads down while you were out of commission."

Leo's eyes narrowed. "Is that so." 

Michelangelo broke very swiftly but pivoted. "Okay, okay, I talked to her in private but you can't tell Raphael any of this, he'll freak out and then he'll be in a terrible mood and living with him will be awful."

Leo blinked. "Oh. Hmm. Yes, I do suppose even the mention of her tends to make him break out in hives. What, em, happened, exactly?"

"Karai had a plant high up in the Resistance, somebody April trusted, who was working on Zak's project. Karai walked right in the front doors, used sixteen different plans to get each and every single guard and aid out of position, and basically ambushed April in the war room. Only, Karai just wanted to talk to her."

Leo frowned. "Talk?" he asked uncertainly.

"Yeah. I don't have all the intel, cause April was just trying to reassure me enough that I didn't blab to Raphael, so I guess I probably didn't get the full play-by-play. But Karai basically announced an intention to... scatter the Foot Clan. Dust to dust, wheat in harvest, something like that. She said Karai had been looking for you in particular, and had talked a lot about a... like... pilgrimage to Japan to find the Ninja Tribunal? Which, if true, would kinda explain why she thought you'd want to listen about it despite, ya know, everything."

It occurred to Michelangelo that not even Karai necessarily knew Leo was blind. Yeah, she knew she'd hit him in the face, but Michelangelo and Raphael had gotten there in time to drive her off immediately afterwards, and Leo had bounced back and healed from worse. Not many people knew Leo was blind! He'd told a few people over Thanksgiving, so that might have finally stirred up the rumor mills, but Leo had a habit of looking 'at' people when he was talking to them, and he was a really badass swordsman whenever he did appear on the enemy's radar. None of that screamed 'blind.'

Anyway, Leonardo was quiet for a long moment. Then he suddenly shuddered and raised a hand to cover his face. "Keep me away from anything involving Karai. I have already lost my eyes to her, and my poor judgement on a myriad of topics regarding her may also have contributed to the loss of our Father and Brother; I do not need my... feelings towards her character to cost our family any more suffering."

Michelangelo nodded and stepped forward to settle hands on his shoulders. "Don't blame yourself for Dad and Donnie. The bad guys took them away; It wasn't any of our faults. You just think of Donatta. She needs her dad!"

Leo nodded deeply. "It's easier, when someone helpless is depending upon you to make the decision. It's easier to know who you are, and what you will do protect them."

"Raphie's kinda like that too," Mikey said with a smile, leaning back on his heels again. "Speaking of which, it's funny to say this, but it's almost a good thing you weren't with us on Christmas!"

Leo looked towards him in surprise.

Mikey giggled. "Welllll, I'm not gonna say Natta had a great first day with Uncle Raph. He nearly got her crushed, threw her in the air to dive the enemy with both sai, and took forever to realize she was screaming at him because she was freezing and bruised. But. He... figured it out? How to dad. It just, ya know, it... took it longer for it to click for him. He needed her to... need him. Plus. I slowly figured out he was having a tough time putting her down or giving her to me, cause... well I guess cause we didn't know what happened to you? She was our last piece of you."

Leo's face went from hard and appalled to soft and contemplative. "It... I'm sorry I put you through that. Again, no less.Thank you for telling me this. For... encouraging him and keeping an eye on her."

"Hey, it took like an act of will not to grab her out of his arms and punch him in the face." Mikey rolled his eyes. "But like I told you, he's our bro. If anything ever happened to you, or even to me, Raph would take care of her like she was his own."

Leo smiled faintly.

"She's our baby. All of ours. We're all on the same page. We're ready to figure out how to do this. Man, her Prom's gonna be weird. Between you and Raph glowering knives at any boy who gets near her, I dunno how she's gonna get a date without my help."

"You can't even get yourself a date," Leo chided him with a smile.

"You just watch," Mikey poked him in the plastron. "One day I so will!"

"Hmm, let me think," Leo mock-planned. "You're going to need to convince Raphael to wingman you. After six hours of watching you nervously muttering pickup lines to yourself, he'll throw back a whisky, walk over to a group of ladies and start talking to them, and you'll be so jealous you'll shove him out of the way and finally steal the entire conversation. He'll dust his hands off, proclaim his work is done, and go back to watching sports at the bar."

Mikey gasped, staring off at this distant but very clear image. "You're right...! Raphael is totally not allowed to meet girls before me! Is that all that's been missing from my formula all these years!? Well that, the fall of an evil enemy ninja regime, and, apparently, being allowed in a sport bar..."

Leonardo chuckled and actually hugged him. "Ah! We've always had faith in your dazzling personality, Michelangelo, but now we actually have proof that we are not so revolting that a woman cannot overlook our appearance in a dimly lit room."

"You take that back, I'm adorable, I am absolutely handsome! I'm so handsome, I could work bachelorette parties, as a backup dancer for Beyonce, and in those Magic Mike shows and—" Gasp. "—I could play the titular character! Wow, that'd be a change, I've never been able to play the protagonist of anything before with you jerks around."

Leonardo busted out laughing so hard and real that the old man upstairs surely heard something, but Mikey didn't care, because Leo hadn't been able to laugh like that years and years and years. 

Chapter Text

It was as Leo had said: Just three drab, drifter schmucks and their mutt, puttering down the street to wherever work might be, bundled up against this cold January wind and making the most of the bright sun to keep them warm. No obvious weapons, all their possessions heaped in rucksacks on on their backs, insulated mugs of hot coffee (and soup, and baby formula) in hand. Casey was rubbed down with enough carrot juice and charcoal to completely change the color of her fur, and Raphael had sewn hat a patchwork 'coat' from the remains of his own for her to wear.

Raphael felt insanely exposed. Nothing around but flat concrete, traveling bums, and bent orange traffic cones; the only conceivable cover was the shipping trucks that rumbled by, bringing animals, food, clothing, and manufactured supplies across the country for sale. His shell itched, and he was repeatedly imagining scenarios where gangs or ninja clans drove up in trucks to completely encircle them down and take them down with gunfire.

"Your body language will give us away before anything else does," Leo muttered to him. "Be a shinobi, Raphael, blend in. Embody the dirty, jaded bum, hard working but with an unhealthy dependency on alcohol and tobacco. It should be easy for you."

Raphael snorted. "Shut ya trap, Fearless. How's ya leg treatin ya?" 

"Shikata ga nai, it loathes me, and protests this exercise, but itches more than it aches."

"Yeah, yer highfalutin vocab and pitch-perfect Japanese is gonna give us away before do." He lit up a cigarette, half out of spite.

"I missed you guys arguing about nothing," Michelangelo hummed contentedly.

Leo chuckled. "Let's quiet down and stick close to other groups of travelers to hide our numbers."

They met a number of rough but basically affable guys along their way, but couldn't take exactly the same sort of pit-stops as them. 

The turtle brothers could, of course, follow them in pursuit cheap hot coffee, bread, and soup. By being deft and clever, all three of them could place down money and pick up cups and bags without giving away the unusual seamwork of their gloves, especially under the visual clutter of tons of similarly bundled guys doing the same exact things.

Leo didn't even have to see what he was looking at, which meant he could pull his hood low, tighten his scarf, and never give a single person a chance to glimpse his face. Raph and Mikey gave themselves a little bit of extra protection by taking off their masks and smearing charcoal and pitch over the skin above their scarves.  Raphael in particular had a gift for pulling off looking like a huge linebacker from the Bronx with an ancestor or two from South Sudan. 

Course they had a baby they were keeping rather hidden; though Donatta was eating fewer meals a day and bigger portions, which gave her family more leeway in deciding when they'd feed her. Anyway, what they definitely couldn't do was join the other dudes whipping out to pee on brick walls together. So, when someone finally couldn't hold it anymore (*cough* Mikey *cough*), they had to find a dark place with a dumpster to hide behind, and took turns standing guard while everyone squatted or leaned over  to do their business. 

"Hey, guys," Mikey naturally had to turn this into a inquiry. "Has anyone ever used a urinal in a public bathroom before?"

Raphael slowly sank his face into a hand, and shook his head. 

"It probably would have worked better had I thought I could have gotten away with turning around," Leo dutifully reported, and Raph looked over at him in betrayed disbelief. "As it was, I was concealing my species, results were sub-optimal, and a hand-washing became mandatory."

"Oh, cool, was just wondering!"

"This is what happens when ya live ya whole fuckin' lives together with ya siblings," Raphael decided irritably. "Conversations about how ta pee."

"Well now look who's being a prude," Leo quipped wryly.

Raphael reached over and mimed him hit across the head, but didn't actually do it because Leo was the injured one. 

"Ahhh... I can still remember Donatello," Leo recalled, "shrieking 'CASEY' from the bathroom, high-pitched and bloodcurdling, terrifying enough to raise the dead."

"Man never did learn ta put da seat down," Raphael agreed sympathetically. "D'I ever tell ya he told me it wasn't his fault we 'peed like girls?'"

"I'm assuming you set him straight?" Leo concluded.

"Nearly knocked his teeth out," Raphael agreed fondly. "Man I miss that blockhead."

Sometimes the worst part of arriving at the end of things was knowing the people they'd lost in the middle wouldn't be coming back from some long absence now that the worst parts were behind them. The turtles and April had won back their future, but it was a future empty of familiar faces, with no opportunities to catch up and share war stories. Casey, Donatello, and a great many other people who'd once filled their lives were gone forever.

By the end of their journey, Leo was limping. Michelangelo found him a walking stick that helped him out and also disguised the injury as a more generic disability. Night was falling, and they knew they needed shelter, but Leo seemed unconcerned. He led them through a shanty-town, and at one point—in the cover of dusk—needed Raphael and Michelangelo to help him up a wall and past a fire escape. There they found an open man-hole cover, which Casey immediately ran to and began sniffing at.

Raphael slowed. "The sewers?" he asked in disbelief.

"Yes. Don't worry, the route we need to take is winding, but I know it, and it will get us under walls and past eyes."

"That's where ya were?" Raphael realized, coming up to eye the sheer concrete drop down with more than a little trepidation. "In the sewers?"

"In all manner of sewer, sunken basement, wrecked mall banished to the depths of oblivion, and abandoned subway line," Leonardo agreed. 

Mikey was just as nervous about this. "Dude, the sewers are death traps. There's only a few safe routes, like around Central Park, and all the ways out are sealed. How'd you even survive?"

"You are thinking with the past," Leo disagreed. "No one has been been maintaining infrastructure down there since Shredder's demise. Nor during the latter years of his reign, when we were but piddling threats, and his sights were set on world conquest. Shredder had but a personal and petty vendetta with us—the man outlawed cheese—but now, without him? No one really cares. We're at best nuisances and trophy items; they have many concerns much larger than us." His brothers glanced uncertainly to one another. Leo chuckled. "I know the way through this minefield, Raphael, Mikey."

"You do," Raphael said. "Well that's that. How we gettin' down?"

"The manhole is twenty-feet deep, and you can shimmy down that far and then release and drop the remaining seven feet to the ground. I have some rope for myself and shall go between the two of you since I am weakest."

"A'right. Sounds like a plan."

"Whoa, this is weird," Mikey said, looking around with his phone for illumination. "Geeze. How long has it been, old home? Do you remember us?"

"This ain't a home," Raphael muttered. "It's a dungeon."

"Come," Leo pushed himself up with the help of his walking stick and a mild wince, "we need to head along the southern tunnel for a ways. The air is warmer there."

Raphael cleared his throat, a smile quirking at his mouth. "Yo, Leo? We can't see."

Leo paused and then started to laugh, and leaned heavily on that stick to check his pack. "Oh, duh. Forgive me. I actually have a few flashlights, let me get them out."

"Wait what?" Mikey came over to steady him because he looked very tired. "Why would you have flashlights?"

"For Donatta," Leo explained matter-of-factly as he tossed them a torch a piece. "I may live in perpetual darkness, but she should not. Let me know if bulbs or batteries fail, we can resort to candles. Mm. This is going to be a treat for Casey."

"For-?" Raphael chuckled as he took half Leo's things onto his own back to lighten the load for him. "No wonder ya dog's obsessed with ya. Had ta follow ya blind in a deathtrap fah months."

The first night camping in the sewers was strange for them.

They carefully laid out their bamboo mats for the futons to keep everything clean. Leonardo led Raphael to where an old electrical cable was, to let him review the state of it. Raphael decided they'd try and nick a few electrical tools, to see if they could bum some power down here on another date. For this evening, they relied a tin stove and cook pot Leo had been relying on to feed his family-of-two.

"Nice MacGyver," Raphael complemented over his hot cup of ramen.

While feeding the baby, Mikey marveled at the little candle-powered stove. "It's like for a doll house! So cute! Way to channel your inner-Donnie, I completely forgot how to make those!"

Leo shrugged. "The baby needed to eat," was his sleepy and smiling answer. "Failure was not an option."

Casey trotted up to them, blissfully throwing a rat body in the air, rolling in the carcass, and tearing it apart with her mouth and feet.

"Ya lucky ya can't see that," Raphael said after a bit.

"I've stepped in it often enough," Leo lamented, but he smiled back Raphael's way. "I may be strict with her, but Casey showed up when I was at my wit's end, and did not leave me alone. I needed her help."

Casey accidentally threw her rat his way.

Despite all his exhaustion, Leonardo reacted lightning fast to recoil from the flung carcass and snatch it from the air before it could land on the bed. His whole body coiled up with revulsion at what had just happened.

Casey's ears drooped and she laid down with a tiny whimper.

"Okay, whoa, eassyy now Leo," Raphael drawled ironically. "Control that temper, big guy! Geennnttllee..."

Leo slowly looked towards Raphael with death in his eyes. Michelangelo busted out laughing, and little Natta stopped nursing to do likewise. 

The tunnels under New York, Jersey, and Hoboken had always been a labyrinth, built upon layer by layer, project by project, change by change, over two hundreds years in which human need for underground infrastructure had varied wildly. Since the turtles had been young, there'd always been massive wells, forgotten cellars, sunken catacombs, basement remnant of forgotten structures, and the occasional wide-open cave. The complexity had only gotten with the regime.

Of course, some avenues had an aura of white-washed, in-control chrome; but between the wars, displays of power, sinkholes, changing technology, and rapid and plentiful demands of a tyrant—and no legal or contractual terms to stymie progress—'labyrinthine' just didn't seem to cover the sixteen different channels of water, electricity, telecom, military transit, public transit, goods and postage delivery, sewage, service access, colonial structures and the inns and outs of a boarded up and sunken theater which were spider-webbing out and around from where they now stood.

"We must be patient," Leo whispered. "Automated infrastructure and human guards still patrol the military high-speed rail line."

"Can we take em out?" Raphael asked, picking out a sliver of a mirror to peer around a corner.

"Yes, but that's not the art to this," Leo replied. "It's my objective to inform no one a turtle has darkened the door of a sewer since we were originally driven out. I have taken out only what surveillance infrastructure I have been certain I could get away with, and in as unpredictable a pattern as I have been able to manage."

"A'right, no kickin' their asses unless we know where every single walky-talky and camera is. So... how do we get past?"

"When the guard changes, we walk out through a door of the theater. It is an hour overland to our next manhole."

"Ya weren't kiddin' when you called this route convoluted."

Leo shook his head and eased Donatta out of her satchel to nurse her for a bit. "Underground, above ground, back again, basements, manholes, maintenance shafts, broken drainage tunnels, the paths afforded by the blind-spots of half-broken cameras, boarded up subway exits..."

"The hell d'ya find all these routes?"

Leo winced a bit and was quiet, reflecting, before answering. "I needed to keep moving, to keep finding supplies, to keep... sane despite my loneliness without the two of you at my back." Leo looked towards him. "I was in a state. Providing for myself and Donatta consumed me, became an obsession and a game."

"Right. Well." Raphael tickled the girl's feet. "We'll be quiet when ya say so, and ta walk in ya footsteps. Right Mikey? Mikey?"

"Sorry guys, Bazooka had to pee and he got really particular. What were we talking about?"

Raphael sighed. Leo snickered.

They had no internet, but April sent an encoded message via text message asking for tips about therapeutic exercises for Zak, and how to scale them up while at the same time being gentle. Mikey and Raph had to put their heads together to figure out how to describe their methodology in as few sentences as possible to get it back to her in code and before Leo froze to death (they needed to be topside to have reception). 

Speaking which, Leo was visibly suffering. He hadn't completely recovered from the long walk on the first day, and was visibly limping and paused to grab at his knee and hip whenever a bathroom or food break was in order. The cold was clearly bothering him. Getting up and down stairs required full use of his walking stick, and he was letting his bad leg dangle whenever he had to climb or descend a rope, putting more strain on the rest of his body. 

Raphael ordered him to pick a place they could camp for a solid day. Leo argued he was fine and could make it the rest of the day. Mikey joined in on Raphael's side, and faced with both of them, Leonardo knew he'd be taken forcibly down if he didn't submit voluntarily. He thought about the problem and told them to hold on for another day because he knew of an excellent place to obtain fried squid. 

Michelangelo and Raphael got him pinned down that evening and changed his bandages instead of allowing him to change them himself. He repeatedly told them this was unnecessary. Raphael jerked a thumb at Mikey and said, "He likes taking care of people."

Leo huffed, embarrassed to be treated like a child. "And you?"

"I like watchin' ya squirm, ya stuck-up prick," Raphael grinned, and then sent to hunting down a muscle cramp around the healing knee. "Ya muscles are overcompensating for this shit."

Leo's wince and muffled curse proved he needed the help.

Raphael laughed. Mikey shifted around to rub at his neck and shoulder instead.

"I didn't take a wound there!" Leo complained. "This is unnece-"

"You're literally hunched over all day," Orange cooed. "Let us help, the less you hurt, the faster you'll heal."

Leo sighed and grumbled muttered to himself. 

"Oi, Fearless! Snuggle this."

"Awwoobwufl!" a baby giggled as she was deposited on Leonardo's plastron, and indeed that proved sufficient distraction to keep Leo quiet and at the mercy of his brothers' tender loving care. 

Mikey was singing. First he started 'ta-ta-ta'-ing out a basic beat for it, and then he started humming, and then he burst into Disney tunes and nineties music so abrupt that both his brothers twisted about to look in his direction and wonder whether this was safe or whether he ought to keep it down a bit. Donatta laughed and smiled and listened with big eyes as Mikey held her aloft.

"He lives in you! He lives in meeee! He waaaatchess ooovverrrr... everything we see!"

"Kid's apparently now Simba," Raphael reported dutifully to Leonardo. 

"This song is about Mufasa and the circle of life," Leo disagreed. "That would make us Simba."

"Well ya name is 'Leo,' but I ain't so sure Master Splintah would enjoy being likened to a giant cat."

Leonardo scoffed. "I think he would make an exception for Mufasa."

"Would be nice ta be standin' rock on a nice fertile plains we all rule, listenin' ta the clouds say 'Remember' in an epic deep voice," Raphael reflected as he wiped sewer drippage off his jacket. "Stead of, ya know."

"I want to be Rafiki," Michelangelo chirped. "He is the one singing this song anyway, right?"

"The wisest character in the story?" Leo mused on this.

"Was played by a woman in the musical," Raphael remarked with a grin. "Sounds like the perfect fit fah Mike!"

"Hey!" Mikey complained before rethinking the matter. "Nah, you're right, I'm totally secure enough in my sexuality to handle that, you'd totally botch it. You'll just have to be Scar, Mister One-Eye!"

"I can tell that your powers of retention," Raphael whipped around to bare teeth at Mikey with a grin and hold his hands high like claws, "are as whet as a warthog's backside...!"

"Into the waters," Leo murmured in tune, "into the truth, in your reflection..."

"He lives in youuu!" Mikey triumphed. Raphael laughed and bumped shoulders with him. Donatta found all of this quite fantastic and squealed along enthusiastically. Casey lolled her tongue and wagged her tail with great vigor.

Bazooka eyed them all from Mikey's shoulder like he found their attempts to 'be felines' cute and inferior. He gave a big yawn and went back to bed up there, snuggled between MIkey's neck and shell like the perfect scarf. 


仕方が無い — Shikata ga nai — It can't be helped.

Chapter Text

Raphael ended up the one holding Donatta, and although he wasn't quite sure how it had happened, he did not complain. She'd wanted out of her carrying satchel to see the world, Leo was obviously tired, and Mikey had been getting a tongue bath from Casey at the time, so he'd popped her up onto his shoulders with one foot on either side of his neck, her chin atop his head, and a blanket wrapped around her. He kept one his hands back behind himself to hold her torso supported and in place.

Her tiny gloved fingers curled at his mask and the band of his eye patch as she warbled and occasionally nommed and/or drooled up there. Eh, he had scales. He could handle it. Was sort of amusing to have her running commentary the whole time, anyway.

"And dhen what happened?" he finally had to ask.

"Dnaa, ffffllbb-oo," she grunted and sputtered and cooed.

"Is zhat so?" he feigned disbelief. "Can't be."

"Abma," she affirmed into his skin.


"Daaba ambababa!"

"Riveting story ya got dere, kid! Should tell it in the pubs. Ya know. Few years or so. I'll sneak ya in, dun worry, Leo wont notice a thing."

Raphael had a suspicion Leo or MIkey or both were on the verge of laughing at him, but he pretended not to notice. Besides, how was the kid going to learn to talk if no one talked back to her?

Michelangelo stopped walking. "I know where we are," he said, voice low.

Raphael twisted about to look at him with a raised brow and slowed. If it hadn't been for Leo successfully leading them safely past a helluva lotta dangers, he'd'a been calling Blue out for being lost and senile, leading them on a wild goose chase. They'd needed to change flashlight batteries more times than he could count, and tiptoed past more decaying security turrets than he was personally comfortable with. "Whaddaya mean?"

"I know where we are," Mikey repeated, looking weirdly subdued before hurrying up to walk beside him again.

"Where?" Raphael asked. "How can ya tell?"

"How can't you? Squatted in the area about a year ago," Mikey said with a nervous lick of his lower lip, "while you two doofuses were fighting with each other and driving me insane."

Raphael raised a brow, and then looked around uncertainly.

Trashed from the assault, filthy with lime, sewage, rust, girders, broken fragments of concrete, and the molding carcasses of long-abandoned furniture, sagged the Lair. Leo had brought them home.

"Do not flick on the fuse box," Leonardo ordered as he walked into their atrium and sat himself wincing upon a concrete support beam to grasp at his bad leg. "It will be attached to some meter designed to monitor whether anyone reclaims this place, which we will have to find and disable."

Neither Raphael nor Michelangelo said anything just yet, stepping very warily into the space and looking around with a caution born of... well, honestly, trauma. Together the three of them had been chased out of this place, their home, and left their father behind to die. That had been one hell of an impressionable memory. Raphael eased Donatta off his shoulders and bundled her securely into the pocket of his arm. 

"If we are to reclaim this place, we need to be no more than myths in the minds of the factions controlling the area."

"'Reclaim?'" Raphael looked to Leonardo. "We was lookin' for a place ta hole up for the winter. D'ya not intend on leaving when spring hits?"

Leonardo took in a thoughtful breath through his nose. "I wish to hear your opinions." He leaned back, shuttering his eyes. "I long imagined I would never return here unless I thought we could hold it permanently. But," he shook his head, "it's not what matters, now. It's only stone."

"Why lead us here?" Mikey asked in a hushed way, like he was in an empty cathedral and trying to be reverent.

"We will have a toddler soon. She will require someplace to toddle." Leo looked somberly towards them. "We should consider building her a real home."

Raphael tilted his head back and drew in a loud breath between his teeth, because he knew Shredder's successors had very different objectives and problems than Shredder himself, and the situation topside was nothing like it had been under that totalitarian regime. Still. These scars ran old and deep. "There's reasons we settled here," he said slowly. "It's deeply buried, big, connected, safe, sure as hell hidden..."

"Structurally sound," Mikey marveled quietly, because no part of the central space had collapsed despite the numerous explosions that had gone off within.

"And ah suppose..." Raphael rubbed at the back of his neck, thinking, "there actually ain't that many men were on Shredder's plannin' committee which knew exactly how to find this place."

"There's no graffiti," Mikey added, so softly and swiftly it was clear he was afraid to get excited about this in case it was a bad idea. "Or trash. Nobody's just wandered in."

"Nah. And the architecture even in the mid-levels above us is so messed up, wouldn't be hard to put in false walls or, hell, collapse tunnels."

"We can hide it again," Mikey agreed, energy mounting. "The front door, yeah, but also along the routes in and out. Maybe collapse the central elevator. We know the lay of the tunnels down here better than anyone."

"Make a buffer zone," Raphael completed the thought, and then glanced to Leo. "What are you thinkin', Fearless?"

"That... we would need to be very strategic in planning out our procurement of resources," Leo explained. "We could not leave even the mildest suspicion in anyone's minds that we've returned to the area. Trips for supplies, electronics, food, etc. may need to take two or three days, especially in the beginning before we have any defenses."

"Defenses," Raphael repeated. "Yeah, place needs to be fortified for us to either hold it or get out super fast and delay the enemy if need be."

Mikey looked between both of his older brothers, hoping. "Why... why exactly here?"

"It doesn't have to be," Leo mused. "It feels poetic, returning home because we are now the ones with a child. And I cannot lie: there some strange, smug, condescending satisfaction in acting as if Shredder were nothing—a bug, a pebble in my shoe—that I should go right back to exactly where I was just as soon as he was dealt with. And clean the place, naturally."

Raphael sniffed around at all the busted metal and broken furniture he knew it was his job to haul. "Ya found us a fixer-upper, that's for sure."

Leo lost a chuckle.

"Guys," Michelangelo slowly began to say, "it's not going to work the way we had it decorated, we need it to be ready for a human baby. She can't run around on naked sewer concrete, what if she cuts herself or gets sick? We need to put in a floor. Oh. Oh do we do wood? Tile? Linoleum? Carpet? I need interior design magazines! Better Home and Gardens, how was I supposed to know I'd need a stash of your issues!? How are we going to insulate the place, do we need to put in drywall? Raphie, we need to raid a Home Depot!"

"Otch, now he's getting excited," Red huffed with his hand on his hips and a shake of his head. "Soon he'll be asking me what color we're paintin' the baby's room, blue, yellow with duckies, or pink, and I'm just gonna gape at him in confusion as ta how he doesn't realize what the answer is."

"Well it'd be purple, obviously!" Mikey blurted. "It's her lucky color, Donnie totally bestowed it upon her or something! Oh, and green."

Raphael didn't flinch. Maybe it was true. She sure ended up in purple and green a lot. Better than pink anyway.

Leo smiled quietly up at them, both of them. "Can we do it?" he asked. "Can we make it work?"

"Well winter's sure as fuck not going anywhere for a few months," Raphael noted. "We gotta stay underground, you're right on that one. Temp down here's a solid fifty-five. Can't ask for more'n that at the moment. Course, if we can't turn the power on, let's pile into one of our rooms. It'll insulate heat better."

"We'll need adequate ventilation without an actual draft so we can set up a stove." Leonardo grasped his wall and walking-stick to stand. 

Raphael leaned over and pulled his older brother to his feet.

Leo smirked at him, and gave his kid a reassuring little caress, too. "Thank you. Let's go see how things have held up."

Michelangelo's room was a giant blob of mold, probably courtesy of just how much expired food he'd had under his bed at closing time, and just how many stuffed animals and other cloth products had been in there in various states of cleanliness.

Raphael's room had a really bad leak of lime that had calcified part of the door shut, but he gave the baby to Michelangelo and kicked the door in. After removing it's splintered fragments from the doorway, they found the room damp with puddles on one side, and the strong smells of mildew and algae on the air suggested ventilation in the room was poor. The drum set was in a bad way, but some old free weights were still good, and Raphael pounced on them like they were bags of addictive substances he was so excited to see them. He brought them outside. 

Leonardo's room had suffered the most structural damage, which had cracked the ceiling and caved in a corner wall, although in terms of humidity it had suffered the least. Leonardo entered at a limp and reached out to touch the worn leather spine of his copy of Sun Tzu's Art of War, sticks of incense, candles, comic books, and several collections of poetry. Some of these things had been damaged by the elements, but most still looked usable, which was ironic given how useless they now were to their blind owner. His brothers chafed and pat his shell sympathetically, and took his things to place with the salvaged free weights.

Personal objects weren't the only things that had held out in Leo's room, either: Mattresses usually had a coating of something which protected them from bugs, rats, mold, and flame, and Leo's appeared to have done it's duty; when Mikey went up to poke at it, he found the box-spring was rusting away but the mattress itself was still technically good.  Not bad for fifteen years of abandonment. But the room was drafty and cold, and the sagging rebar overhead left them worried some more small pieces of the ceiling might collapse at bad times. Not a huge danger for a turtle; big danger for a baby.

The three of them thought about their options and spoke about it with their eyes, posture, and silence. As one, they slowly turned and tiptoed to Donatello's room, and gingerly eased the door open. 

The funny thing was, Donnie's room wasn't really where Donnie had spent much of his time. He'd preferred his lab. Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo could all remember stumbling into that lab at some crazy hour of the night, grabbing their purple-masked brother, and dragging him into this room and put him to sleep. Donatello's room had not been Donatello's primary personal space.

But, out of all four of their rooms, Donatello's had held out the best. The ventilation was clearly good. The humidity was low. No water or lime had crept down the walls to pool anywhere. There were no signs of rat droppings. Of course, this made sense: Donnie, being neurotic, would have noticed and fixed any leak, infestation, or other imperfection a very long time ago. 

So his shelves were stocked with perfectly tidy books on extremely complex topics that he hadn't needed with any frequency and so hadn't kept in his lab. His bed was still made, with blankets folded seventeen years ago, never to be slept in, and not even his box-spring was rusty. Various technological devices were scattered around, including a laptop, shell cell, and some project he'd clearly taken in there to work on if he woke up in the middle of the night with idle hands. There were faded photographs tucked here and there, including a very candid shot of April smiling.

The room was like a perfectly preserved time capsule from the time they'd been seventeen.

"Please not here." Mikey's voice cracked. "Not yet."

They all agreed because they tip-toed back out, carefully closed the door to put the time capsule back into storage, and went to check the last 'small space' which might serve as a little houselette for them all.

The first time they'd moved into this lair they'd all been fifteen, and that was the first time in their lives they'd been able to have their own separate bedrooms. Naturally that had been a treat, a coming-of-age, a means of expressing identity, and a way of getting some privacy from one another. This time around, it never once occurred to any of them to clean out their own room and sleep there. Nobody wanted to be alone. Turtle piles were back in vogue.

They passed signs of their father's last battle in the dojo, which they'd not been around to witness. By the looks of things, Splinter had given them hell. His sons were proud to know that, proud and sad. They moved along to his personal bedroom, which looked to have been trashed and raided by Shredder's men. That said, the ventilation was good, the walls, floor, and ceiling were all dry, and there was no abundance of mold or lichen which would need to be sanded off the concrete to make the place livable. The place was modestly sized, and if they could get their hands on some insulative materials, they'd be able to heat it to a respectable temperature before working out their electricity problem.

Yes, they agreed without having to say anything, and they started laying down their rucksacks and pulling out futons and miniature stoves and bundles of clothing. They'd live here for the time being, in the shelter of their father's personal space, with what they could recover of their old things.

That night, Mikey asked Leo if he'd like to listen to him read any of his old things, like the poetry, or The Art of War.

Leo picked a comic book.

Mikey carefully peeled the pages open because they were very delicate. He described the action scenes for Leo with great gusto and some pantomiming that left their leader smiling.

Raphael ended up feeding the baby, and didn't mind at all. Her faces of intense concentration were so humorous they nearly deserved a story all their own. She nursed on bottles like she was critiquing fine wines in a spiffy British accent. 'I dear say, old chap, this one was a little extra milky. I do like a spot less milk in my milk.' He ruffled her hair, and noticed the soft monkey fluff seemed to be... falling out? Yeah, it was, she was shedding. But new hair was growing in that felt different, smoother, more like real hair and less like a lion mane of stuffed animal fur.

Huh. Kinda neat.

Chapter Text

"Aahh-tut-tut-tut! Illegal! Ref's thrown a flag in!"

Leonardo froze, caught red-handed with a hunk of concrete over shoulder. "It is not so heavy," he protested in vain, for Raphael homed in on the unsanctioned exercise and levered the weight off of him with a glare.

Mikey waved a finger as he scolded. "You are still limping."

"Am I to sit and twiddle my thumbs waiting to heal!?" Leonardo argued back. "There is only so long I can spend at meditation whilst the two of you are actually engaged in physical labor. I can feel how much strength I have lost, and I am not gaining in back by sitting in place! I insist on helping!"

Raphael and Mikey shared a look, privately impressed they'd been able to keep Leo in one spot for two whole days. For someone who could sit as deathly still as a gargoyle for hours and hours and hours when a mission was afoot, Hamato Leonardo was hilariously bad at not-training in his off hours.

"Irritating the wound a bit might jump-start mutagen into sealing it better," Raphael did mention. 

Mikey squinted at him suspiciously and then lifted a forearm to feel Leo's head. "Well, he's stopped fevering. And he doesn't look like he's gonna puke with each step anymore."

"A'right, here's the deal, Leo. Ya can work half days. T'day, ya's with Mikey, figuring out what furniture can be salvaged, what's turnin' inta firewood, and what's too moldy and needs ta be tossed out. And no heavy-liftin'. Ya can walk and ya can can disassemble stuff, but na carryin' anythin. Capisce?"

Relieved, Leo nodded.  

"Found this," Raphael, coming up to where Leo was someplace between meditating and sulking while Michelangelo played at gently tossing and bouncing the baby from the relative safety of the mattress-covered floor.

Leo looked up toward him, and Raphael passed him the elastic calisthenics band. "Oh!" He clutched it close almost like he was afraid someone would take it away from him. Raph knew the feeling.

"Heh. Merry belated Christmas. Rubber on most of 'em was bad, but this one still looked good. Just be smart not ta overdo it. Grew up on the same exercise regiments as me, you should know this shit."

"Yes. I did and do." Leo sniffed. "Yet you insist on coddling me."

"Well, guess muscle-building was my thing. You liked cutting leaves in half while they was fallin' around ya."

Leo cleared his throat and there was a gleam still just barely visible in his otherwise milky eyes. "Well then, perhaps you should be my personal trainer. Seeing as Michelangelo would go easy on me forever, but you won't be able to help yourself but push me."

"We need food," Leonardo brought up.

They'd been thinking about. They needed more than just food; they needed all sorts of supplies to begin this restoration project, and they needed to go check out and case a lot of different joints looking for those supplies. What they didn't want to do was leave their most vulnerable members behind and alone for multiple days  in a row while they did their shopping off someplace far away.

"One of us could stay behind," Mikey said. 

"Negative," Leo insisted. "You two are going out into danger and will need the backup; Meanwhile, I am remaining in a place so well-hidden that no one has even set foot in it in fifteen years."

"Not entirely true!" Michelangelo argued. "There's been at least one interdimensional traveler!"

Raphael grimaced. "Why'd ya bring that up?" 

It had been rough, talking to a version of your brother that was still just a kid, who you didn't know would survive his own timeline, who was pitifully naive and completely dependent on you for survival in this shit world. To say the three of them had guarded his every footstep would have been an understatement, and his unexpectedly quick departure back to his own dimension had been spiritually crushing.

It wasn't something they'd talked about since, like not giving words to it could make it like it hadn't happened, like they and April had worked out the Final Battle plan on their own, like having the help of 'a Donnie' to work out the most unexpected steps of it had been a dream.

"Well, what if Leo's jumped by evil clone versions of us from Dimension Z while we're gone!?" Mikey demanded. 

Raphael punched him for being an idiot. 

Leo had a more patient answer: "I've checked the lab doors and they are presently locked. I'd hear them as their broke their way out, and I'd hide."

"Oh. Well! That settles my worst fears. What about you, Raphie?"

'Raphie' drew back a fist to punch him again.

"What are we here for?" Raphael asked, as he boosted Leo and Leo's dog up into the tunnels above the Lair, back near the utterly demolished tunnels which had, once-upon-a-time, served as their childhood home. 

"I miss Leatherhead," Michelangelo warbled nostalgically as they surveyed the old cave-ins. Donatta warbled in agreement with him even though she had no idea what he was saying. Mikey bounced her and kissed her hair. "You'd had wuved Leatherhead. He'd have wuved you, too! He was a biiiig scary alligator, but deep down he was as soft and fluffy as a kitten...!"

While Michelangelo told the (slightly Orange-tinted) tale of Leatherhead the gator, Leo hobbled over and beckoned Raphael for help in rolling aside a heavy yellow block of lime. Beneath was a large plastic crate, also heavy, and when Raphael peeled the top off, he found it filled to the brim with salvaged electronics, mechanical bits, spools of cable, and neatly arrayed metal. A heavy pair of bolt-cutters and some other finer pieces of equipment lay beside them.

"Whoa," Raphael looked to Leo. "Holy shit, ya been holdin' out on us. You gather this while rovin' the sewers?"

Leo nodded. "This was the cream of the crop, at least as far as was able to identify. There is much more we can harvest if we find a way to deal with the rust or find a willing buyer, but... steel-working is difficult, much more difficult than working with aluminum or precious metals. The carbon count and purity truly matter. Anyway, I found more than I felt safe fencing on my own, so..."

"Yeah. A lot more." Raphael leafed appreciatively through the materials.

"If we act quickly and are very discrete, disassembling the infrastructure sewers can be a reliable source of funding," Leo mentioned. "I think it might be interesting to use this harsh cold winter to our advantage. It will allow us to stay heavily bundled, and we can buy our supplies honestly."

"There's lot's of good karma in that!" Michelangelo chirped, bouncing up to them. "I like it! Partially cause I totally feel we owe somebody for you surviving!"

Raphael chuckled a little blackly. "Yeah ya ain't entirely wrong. Night I stole our hot plate from a kichen, I jammed the last of our cash into the cook's apron ta pay for it. A'right. Let's do this. We need ta sniff out a fence." 

"Well, gotta admit this is a new form of weird-feeling," Raphael mentioned as they sauntered through the Walmart like they belonged there, as bundled up as everybody else in the poorly-heated building. They weren't even the only hefty-sized dudes wearing mittens right now, for Christ's sake.

"You're just worried about things back home," Mikey teased as he pushed their poorly calibrated shopping cart that kept trying to list to the left. "Don't worry yo, Casey's got it all under control!"

"Na, I'm worried about us right now," Raphael growled, because today's Walmarts had guards with machine guns patrolling the halls. He didn't dispute Casey's ability to have things handled.

But then suddenly the two of them found the cereal aisle, and it was brightly lit—like they'd never been able to see it before—and stocked wall to wall with everything from Lucky Charms to Mini Wheats to Cheerios. 

Mikey let out a satisfied sigh, and then smiled Raphael's way. "Like, not that I think we should be entirely off our guard, but can we just maybe enjoy being able to do a normal thing? We'll probably look less suspicious and more natural that way."

"The Cheerios are mine," was what Raphael had to say about the matter. "And next we're checkin out what kinda sausage is in stock. Some of that shit ya can leave out in ya pantry forever, and that's exactly the amount of sausage I want in my pantry. Enough for forever."

"Look, we're only takin' a peek," Raphael insisted, because they had bags and bags of groceries holed up underground which needed to get home. The two of them had used a very old yellowpages to look at what had used to inhabit some of the old, dilapidated warehouses and yards this side of town, places half given over to the ghettos, with stuff the Foot had never redistributed or cared about. 

"Dude, I know, your Cheerios, pork, and beef totally take precedence over us getting a sofa," Michelangelo teased as he finally popped the lock, and pushed up the creaky loading bay door of the old building. 

Raphael nudged him hard. "And I wanna get home," he admitted. To check on Leo. Even though the two of them were supposed to be casing nearby electronics shops and joints just like this one, figuring out what could be sourced where at what price. Inside, this place was pitch black and smelled of dirt, dust, and rust. They used their flashlights to get past a big semi truck hooked up to a flatbed, till they stumbled upon a big lever switch. They popped it on, and lights cracked to life with big 'thunk' 'thunk' thunk!' sounds all the way down the warehouse. 

Old Harrison's Builders' Supplies, the old phone book had read. The turtles found themselves staring at every manner of heavy decorative resource most people would have needed a flatbed, money, and a clear project in mind to enact:

There were every shade, color, and size of stone pavers, from slate to brownstone to marble, bricks running from blue-ish to burgundy to tan to bright fire-engine red, equipment for installing fountains, waterfalls, and every manage of water feature, boxed up materials for gazebos, cloth and extension systems for awnings, materials for above and below-ground pools, potting soil, cooking charcoal, storm drains and culverts and sump pumps and PVC piping, tarp, fire places, fake fire places, mantlepieces, grills of every size and shape, an endless variety of sturdy outdoor chairs, benches, and tables, quick-drying terrace chair cushions and couches, lumber, fake plastic lumber, plywood, mobile bar and buffet tables, indoor and outdoor lighting fixtures in every conceivable flavor and variety, decorative wooden molding, aluminium siding, tin roofing, waterproofed speakers and mini refrigerators, cooking accessories including high grade chef and sushi knives, tubs of plaster, bags of cement, cement mixers, grout, resin, wood stain, lubricant, silicone sealant, and glue.

"Ooooooooh..." reacted both Raphael and Michelangelo simultaneously, wide-eyed. This had not been what they'd expected at all, and that was totally okay. Now they knew what 'Builders' Supplies' meant. It was like a shop you used a Home Depot with. It was amazing the things that excited a person as an adult, this was like finding an abandoned Toys-R-Us. Better than a million dry socks. Oh, alright, a hundred thousand dry socks, at least.

Mikey pointed. Next to an unassuming pile of rocks and equipment was a laminated poster that said 'Outdoor Pizza Oven' with a picture of the final product assembled.

"Oooo-ooooohhhh...!" they extra special simultaneously agreed.

Definitely better than a million dry socks.

Raphael stooped to give Casey a good scratching. "Hey girl, you keep an eye on da boss while we were gone?" She sniffed vigorously at him and his pockets. He grinned, and pulled out a dog biscuit, and gave it right to her. Then he stepped out into the central hub of the Lair. "How's it hangin' up there?" Raphael asked. They'd put Leo to climbing up to survey the arches, dome, and walls of the central chamber. It kept him still most of the time, but still gave him exercise in the in-betweens, and his strength was clearly improving based on how casually he was presently sitting.

"I remain terrible at this," Leo informed him, over a level and piece of wood into which he was carefully carving lines and measurements. "But by the sixtieth or seventieth time around, we may assume I shall have created a usable diagram of what our house looks like." 

Raphael laughed. "High-time somebody forced ya ta learn a constructive skill. Welcome back to the Engineering Team! How many years, and ya've finally been granted readmission!"

Leo colored up a bit and tucked away his pen knife. Without Donatello, they'd had to become experts on a lot of things that didn't come naturally to them. The blindness had taken a lot of Leo's away from him. It was probably good he had a project that was getting him to learn how to visualize dimensions without his eyes. It might help bring back his competence in other things, too.

"How did the shopping go?" Blue asked, slowly climbing down from beam to beam to the ground.

"Well, Mikey wants to steal an abandoned flatbed and bring it home," Raphael admitted with a big grin.

"Oh dear." 

"But dun worry, I nixed the plan—till we got a place to park it, of course."

Leo landed beside him, using the good leg to absorb most of the impact. "Did you actually get the groceries?" he demanded sternly. "Our child is very nearly out of-"

Raphael passed him a box of Wildberry Poptarts with a laugh. "Yeah, c'mon, ya can help us stock our pantry. Then ya gonna show me ya stretching exercises so I can see if ya've been overdoin' it with the leg while I been gone."

Leo grumbled at him, but immediately extracted one of the Poptarts and chowed down on it like he hadn't eaten in months. "Mmmnhh. When did they start importing these again?" he asked through bites, following Raphael along. 

"Dunno, let's hope cheese is next, right?"

"Did you miss me!?" Mikey squealed, not to Leo, but rather over Donatta's carrier. He picked her up and flopped her over across his face and nommed playfully at her as she giggled and squealed back to him. 

Chapter Text

They had a project.

They had lots of projects.

First among these were insulating their bedroom. They knew, without having to talk about it, that they'd be keeping the decor in there and in the dojo in a traditionally Japanese style, but they got their hands on insulation with the intention of raising the floor, putting in a proper ceiling, and putting up drywall. For now, they used cardboard to make temporary walls to isolate off the insulation and keep anyone from breathing in fiberglass. Blankets, bamboo mats, and mattress helped buffer out the floor, keeping Donatta high off the concrete. 

Raphael and Mikey went out on a day trip, explaining they were taking the buses out and coming back by foot. Leo was surprised at their haste, but they brought home a grill and propane tank to solve part of their heating and food problem. It was an unnecessarily large and complex grill, and to bring it home they'd barely brought home anything else, but it was very obvious Raphael had fallen in love with it.

No one complained. Their first fresh-grilled hamburgers with onions, lettuce, and ketchup were worth it. Their happy chef was worth it. Their warm bedroom was certainly worth it.

With their 'houselette' successfully warmed, the next steps were to clear all debris from the house, sort the salvageable from the non, and begin making a list of jobs. Some of their furniture could be saved, for instance. 

Leo worked through some of the surviving cupboards he'd helped Michelangelo uninstall, treating them with sandpaper, bleach, and wood stain so they could be reused.  After that, there was fifteen years of slime and mold in the tub of the kitchen sink. Leonardo found himself a stash of dusk masks and rubber gloves which had once belonged to Donatello, and got to work. At the end, he was sure he could have seen his reflection in the surface. The sink was clean enough that Raphael found their old plumber's wrench and promptly got the water flowing.

Other things, like whatever the hell had happened to their tile bathroom floor, needed to be carefully chipped away, disposed of, and replaced. Their toilet was terrifying and crumbling in a way better left undescribed; they used the sewers instead.

Soon after they brought home the grill, Leonardo overheard his brothers arguing excitedly over what appeared to be a bunch of Pantone colors. He stared towards them in puzzlement for a moment. Then he realized they were discussing how to decorate the!

Leo's eyes widened his shoulders bowed together over the handle of the mop he was holding, and he lowered his head and 'looked' off at nothing. 

Once upon a time, his own room had been the most elegantly—if simplistically—planned and decorated. He had always liked the look and arrangement of his possessions in staggered, asymmetrical, but neat order. He'd liked his candles, his books, his sumi ink paintings. He should have liked to help choose the Lair's decorations...

When his brothers suddenly turned to him and called his name, he blurted, "Dark flooring and accents with light-colored walls help to make spaces look more open!"

They shared a look and busted out laughing at him, and Leo felt incredibly embarrassed and confused about where that had come from, even as both of them slapped his shell and hugged him.  But... they... they started including him in discussions about how they were going to decorate the place, and though Leo couldn't see what they were talking about, he focused very hard to imagine it based on their descriptions. Leo recalled a great number of colors and tones with great clarity, and could imagine them together and whether they would be harmonious or disruptive. He worked up the courage to make a few suggestions, and they received them very seriously.

It seemed they wanted to make use of different colors of stone they'd found to preserve or perhaps enhance the 'aesthetic' of a proper turtle lair by building much of the interior facing out of rock instead of concrete, but that required selecting exactly what stone they needed and how much, because if they were going to steal a flatbed, they'd really better not go back to the same place more than once or twice lest they attract attention.

Leonardo could help with this! He'd mapped every inch of their home, and he'd done it well and checked and triple-checked his measurements because it had been the only acrobatic exercise Raphael had prescribed to him since his injury. He showed them his carved diagrams, and Raphael questioned him to ensure they were good, and then the two of them got some paper together to copy the diagram down.

From listening to them, they also had a source for the cement they'd need, but no one knew yet how they were going to 'pour' cement into a ceiling. That would require more research. Research Leo, sadly, couldn't help with.

"Yo, Mike," Raphael had an idea for something else. "Ya know them heatin' systems people used to de-ice their driveways in winter time? Ya think we could, like, put one under the floor? We need ta lay down pavers and shit ta get everything off the same level as the bare sewer concrete anyway. What if we just put it in under that?"

"That sounds amazing," Leonardo admitted, blinking over at them. "I have been living in and under the husks of decayed vehicles, broken but conveniently sloped fragments of concrete, and drafty tin shanties for half of my life now, and now you tell me you're going to heat my floors?"

"Channeling your inner Donnie, bro!" Mikey cheered as Raphael scoffed fondly back.

Leo shook his head in slow disbelief "Can I have a Jacuzzi while you're at it?"

Raphael reflected and then looked to Michelangelo. "There's no way that building had all those above ground pools and not a single hot tub."

They backed that flat-bed back up into the sewers. They really did.

It took them a month of solidly committed planning, scouting out the exact means by which they intended to get the truck unseen into the underground. The primary danger in bringing a vehicle home wasn't in getting it from district to district, although many still had fierce borders or weigh-stations where questions might be asked and money might need to change hands; the turtles had winter, maps, and time on their side, and they could plot a roundabout and safe route. Their cargo also wasn't especially suspicious, although throwing some tarp over it helped hide the quality of the building materials. Without a full closed trailer, they couldn't be mistaken for transporting troops or goods of value.

No, the problem was that this vehicle, which was incredibly large and heavy, had to disappear in the vicinity of their home, with no spies or gossips the wiser. They not only had to get a semi truck into the shelter of the sewers—no small feat when only certain access tunnels could possibly handle such a large vehicle—they had to do it close enough to be able to transport the building materials to the lair by hand or by wheelbarrow over a reasonably short trip.

In the end they figured out that the best way to do that was to blend in. They prepared bribes under the implicit suggestion they were transporting drugs in their cargo intended for a rival gang. They paid off the sort of people who didn't ask questions because they were already knee deep in dirty money letting things slip their attention. Halfway down the Hudson docks, in a blind spot, the truck went dark under an overcast sky, and Michelangelo opened the door and watched the side of the road with a laser pointer to keep them straight on the broken network of potholes and gravel that had once been a road.

Leonardo was out waiting for them, monitoring the Hudson and its access pipes and overlooks. It was important the location be completely clear of rare midnight pedestrians, for while likely nothing could be seen, Leo could hear the heavy wheels, smell the old engine, and hear its churning. The semi truck slid gently under Raphael's guidance into position to enter the access tunnel beneath them. Michelangelo cleared barricades out in pitch blackness. Leonardo listened to their surroundings. Raphael started backing up...

In went the flat-bed, down into the depths of the sewer, tail end first, how a sharp incline and riding hard on quiet breaks Raphael must have successfully warmed up ahead of time. Leo dropped down, replaced the barricades, and disturbed all of the tire tracks to obscure them. He heard a crunch behind him. Concerned, he caught up with his brothers to find out Raphael had skimmed the edge of the tunnel and put out a tail light on the trailer, and was cussing out Michelangelo, who was trying not to laugh at him.

The floor was a diagonal lattice of slats and Michelangelo and Raphael were laying down pipes between them which would carry a mixture of heated antifreeze and water along the underneath of the floor once they eventually got their electricity and—hopefully—gas working.

"Hey! Leo!" Mikey asked as they worked. "We never asked how you got your injury or escaped the compound."

"Oh," Leo cleared his throat where he was feeding Donatta. She was playing with a block she'd grabbed hold of that morning and not let go of since. "I intended to fight my way to you, but knew you two hadn't your gear, so I quickly locked the door and took a few seconds to pack up my things and grab some of Raphael's lighters. Much to my surprise, I was ambushed directly and forcefully in the room by a mutant—who stepped in to deal with me directly—and no less than ten armed ninja who stood outside and made escape difficult.

"Was it a feline mutant?" Mieky needed to know.

"Yes," Leo sniffed, "which was terribly unfair, because if Ninjitsu was made for a skeleton, it was made for a cat skeleton and not a turtle one. In any event, he was holding butterfly swords—"

"Ho, boy," Raphael was already wincing as he laid down grout and pressed slats down. "I'm guessing that went delightfully for ya in close confines."

"Mn, at least I have a lot of practice against you," Leo agreed with a strong expression of distaste. "And with a second katana I might have managed a defense, but he did not even give me time to rise. I ended up blocking his opening strike with the cell phone—you saw the slash on my hand—and he nearly took off my head. I fought him off for a few seconds, but as soon as he hit my leg I understood the injury was likely grave and that my time to win the fight was limited."

"So what did you do!?" Mikey was riveted. Raphael reached over and hit him to get him to resume working.

"I took a note from the book of Raphael, threw down my katana, abused my shell, and bull rushed him. The tactic was unexpected; I assume he anticipated me to be more graceful and refined."

Raphael slapped his knee and gave a big laugh. "And then what!?"

"Well then naturally I had him and the other ninjas outside the room, but I was outnumbered and unarmed. So, assuming Michelangelo would never possibly observe safe storage practices for explosive weaponry, I took the rocket launcher from the wall—"

"No way." Both his brothers gaped at him. 

"—And I depressed the trigger, and I'm probably very fortunate that I'm blind, and do not know how to aim heavy weaponry, and that I missed the cat-mutant altogether, because the rocket went over his shoulder and detonated on something past the door and the shrapnel hit everything but me. The mutant was thrown towards me, yes, but his pain and shock lasted long enough for me to beat him across the head with the rocket launcher, retrieve my katana, and finish him off. The others were already dead or at least downed by the explosion."

Mikey fell over howling with laughter.

Raphael shook his head in disbelief. "Well damn."

Donatta had been looking increasingly fussy, and suddenly she turned her head from the bottle and started to cry. Leo, thinking nothing of it, picked her up against his shoulder to pat her, in case she was feeling gassy. She was up there no more than two seconds when an alarming squirting and splatter noise left Leo wide-eyed and stiff with shock. Donatta gave a big, relieved sigh.

Mikey and Raphael looked back up. By the expression on Leo's face, Blue could clearly feel all of the hot, green-tinged formula rolling over and into every crevasse of his shell. There was a lot of it, like a veritable blanket of white, like something at the very bottom of her tummy hadn't felt right so she'd just unloaded the whole thing.

"She upchucked on the shell!" Michelangelo wheezed with a point of a finger. "On the shell! On the shell!"

"Help me," Leo squeaked.

"Not it!" Raphael called, but Michelangelo had to stop whooping with laughter long enough to stand.

"Well," Leo rasped thinly, still covered in vomit, "I know exactly who is not getting me to preen their shells once we get the hot water running."

He got both his brothers falling over themselves to help.

Chapter Text

It was while Raphael was sweating with his coat off and tied around his waist, lifting heavy crates of blue slate, that Leo accidentally made contact with his arm. He felt the scars there, and realized how deep they must have been, and that they could not have been older than a few months.

Raphael caught sight of his face. "What?"

"You've cut yourself," Leo murmured disbelievingly. "When? Why?"

Raphael didn't immediately answer, shifting the crate from one shoulder to other. Leo grabbed at his arm to demand an answer, and Raph nodded he'd give one. "Kinda had a bad day when... I thought both you and Mike had had enough of me. And it got, uh, outta hand."

Leonardo leaned back on his heels. At the time, he had worried somewhat about his brothers, but not quite in this way. This illuminated some things about Raphael's behavior over Thanksgiving... And underscored just how badly Raphael had needed Leo to forgive him that night, after he'd woken up Zak, and come to the bedroom room feebly asking to hold Donatta for the very first time.

"I'm..." Leo tilted his head. "I di