Chapter 1: Tactical Retreat
Leo paced around his room, too agitated to sit still. He wanted to leave the lair, maybe run topside and get some fresh air. But then again, he didn’t think that would help. It would temporarily, but his current problem wasn’t a minor upset. What he really wanted was a private talk with Master Splinter. But there was no such thing as privacy in the lair, and if he left with their Master, his brothers would get curious and someone, probably Michelangelo, would follow them. Leo sighed and punched his pillow, then shook his head and strode purposefully to Splinter’s room. This couldn’t wait. He’d just have to risk his brothers either overhearing or tracking them.
As Leo passed the living room, he heard Mikey moving around in the kitchen and noticed Raph napping on the couch, TV on. Nodding to himself, he brought his ninja training to bear and made his silent way to Splinter’s doorway, kneeling on his rug and waiting to be acknowledged. Splinter was in the process of drinking tea.
Setting his mug on a low, circular table, Splinter made eye contact with Leo. "Care to join me for tea? I can get you a mug, if you like. I sense you could use some warmth." Splinter lay a warm hand on Leo’s shoulder to prove his point, his voice and his expression exuding compassion and tenderness. Leo leaned close to Splinter unconsciously. "Your spirit is distressed."
Leo considered the offer. If he had tea, he’d have to stay here, but tea would be comforting. It was something firmly associated with Splinter and his bond to him. Still, he really didn’t want the others to hear this conversation. Leo looked over his shoulder at the doorway, looked at Splinter, looked back at the doorway, and folded his arms over his chest defensively. He turned back to Splinter. "I…I’d like tea. Just…Not here." Leo’s tone was indecisive and flat.
Splinter lay his muzzle against one hand thoughtfully. "I think a trip to the botanical gardens might be in order. Or perhaps a cave. We can meditate and get some training in as well as talking. Let us take a thermos of tea, our mugs, and a light meal. We can tell the others you are honing your spiritual training. Do you feel up to meditation?"
"I think it would help, Master. But right now, I can’t."
"That is all right. We will work up to it. Have some tea in the meantime. I’ll be back with your mug."
"I can just use yours. You’re not sick, right?" Leo smiled, the first one Splinter saw since he’d come to his room.
"I am perfectly safe, my turtle," Splinter said kindly. "I will go prepare our picnic. You should bring your swords and prepare for travel."
"Of course, Sensei," Leo said deferentially as Splinter was leaving. Leo drank the rest of the tea in the pot. It was about two mugs worth. The warmth of the drink did sooth his sorrow. At least, it was not so raw and sharp. He got dressed to go out, ninja gear and himself hidden for daytime travel.
Splinter and Leo left the lair, leaving a note taped to the TV. Raph was still sleeping and the living room was otherwise empty. Indeed, Michelangelo had left a note on their dining table saying he had gone sewer skating.
Splinter carried their cooler and their picnic blanket while Leo walked briskly beside him. Neither of them spoke. Though Leo was curious where Splinter was taking them, he knew it was not a question that needed to be asked.
After an hour of steady travel, Leo at last saw where they were headed. It was a cave, just as Splinter had said. Leo followed Splinter inside and after some twenty more minutes of walking, Splinter spread the blanket on the ground near a placid lake. Opening the cooler, Splinter offered Leo a bottle of cool water and took out some ham and cheese sandwiches. There were vegetables to go with the sandwiches, packed separately to keep the bread from becoming soggy.
Leo drank the refreshing water gratefully and took a seat, taking a couple sandwiches for himself and half the vegetables.
"Your brothers would not have lasted so long, being quiet. This is unusual even for you. And while I appreciate your focus and skill, this is not a contented sort of silence. What troubles you, my son?" Splinter began eating his sandwich, Leo already having started in on his meal.
The heartache previously kept at bay by his constant activity returned with a vengeance. Leo put his partially eaten sandwich in the container they’d been packed in and turned pleading, tearful eyes on Splinter, both arms reaching for him in a desperate attempt at an embrace.
Splinter put his sandwich down as well and took Leo into his arms, rubbing his shell and stroking his cheek as Leo wept quietly on his shoulder. His tears came hot and fierce, his hoarse moans heartbroken and despairing.
At the sight and sound of Leonardo’s agony, Splinter felt a surge of unreasoning anger. Whoever or whatever had hurt him, Splinter was going to demand recompense. But first, he had to help Leonardo. He shoved his wrath to the back of his mind and called on the pity that was readily available. He whispered soft commands, crooned comforting sounds, told his boy he’d be all right.
But Leo shook his head emphatically. And his quiet, yet firm, declaration broke Splinter’s heart. "The fellas hate me."
"Leonardo-" Splinter began to challenge, but Leo cut him off.
Leo pulled back and picked up his sandwich again, but didn’t eat. "They changed me. They don’t like me as I am. I’m too serious; I worry too much; I get in the way of their fun.
"Well, did they ever stop to think that maybe there are things about them I don’t like? Did they even care that taking away someone’s identity is unethical? And what if I’d been turned evil or couldn’t be changed back? Did any of them think about those things? I’m guessing not. Because they don’t think things through. Maybe Donatello did but was outnumbered.
"Whatever the case, I can’t tell you how much that hurts," Leo whispered, eyes filling with tears again. "The people I love most in the world and they don’t even love me back. Only reason I haven’t left home is because of you."
Splinter was speechless. He knew Leonardo had a temper and could sometimes be quite direct, but this kind of bleak pessimism was something he’d never seen before. Leonardo usually projected confidence and control, as well as an inner certainty about his place and purpose in their family, on their team. But he supposed that was before such a blatant display of disrespect and carelessness on the part of those he sacrificed so much for.
"Leonardo, your brothers must be made aware of how deeply they have hurt you. Furthermore, perhaps some time away from them would be beneficial to you. Do you think April would allow you sanctuary at her apartment for a short while?"
"Only way to find out is to ask. But I don’t want her to see me like this."
"We can ask when you are more composed. For now, I would like you to meditate on this: you are the conscience of the team, and their morale. Without you, the team has no courage, no conviction, no higher calling. Yes, they would stop petty crime, help those who are defenseless. But it is precisely your combination of responsibility, strategy, and justice tempered with mercy that makes you the only turtle for the leadership job. You are irreplaceable and necessary to the smooth functioning of both the team and our household. Each of us performs a vital and important role. Do not allow short-sighted immaturity to dictate your value to yourself. Learn to know your worth; understand that value comes from within."
Leo set his sandwich back in the container and began to close it, but Splinter touched his wrist gently. "Would you like to eat first?" When Leo looked up, Splinter’s eyes were laughing. Leo flashed a genuine grin and ate heartily, and Splinter knew that Leo would be okay.
After their meal, Leo and Splinter held hands and sank into meditation. Splinter was saddened and disappointed by his other boys, but he was sure they didn’t hate Leonardo. Nevertheless, consequences could indeed have been dire and everyone, maybe even the world, was incredibly fortunate that the only thing that happened was that Leonardo became irresponsible and lazy. Perhaps the Alterator worked primarily by changing one’s mood, rather than fundamental character. Even so, the team did not need two Michelangelos. The balance would be completely thrown off.
Leo considered Splinter’s words about his importance to the family and the idea of intrinsic value. He knew he was valuable in the same way he knew life was valuable, in the same way he understood that every individual was a unique entity that would never be created again. But that wasn’t enough. He needed the love of his family. It didn’t matter what he thought of himself if others didn’t think him worthy of respect and affection.
"I can’t, Sensei. I can’t disregard what the guys think. I know they don’t fully understand my position. I know that renders their opinions unqualified. But the only way to not care what they think is to not care about them. And I can’t do that, either." Leo sighed in frustration and helplessness. He hated not being able to master a concept or carry out a command set by Splinter. It made him feel inadequate.
Splinter, however, sensed Leo’s turmoil and lay a comforting hand on his forearm. "It is good that you cannot stop loving them, my student. I am certain the feeling is mutual on their part. They have forgotten your positive qualities, but that is different from not loving you.
"I will contact April and see if she will host you. If she agrees, we’ll meet with her when she’s ready for you and I will go home alone. I will tell your brothers the truth about you and where you are. I think your absence will thoroughly drive home the severity of their misconduct, as well as helping you to heal. Hopefully, when you return home, everyone will have learned something."
"It’d be nice to get away for a while, honestly. A change of company and scenery sounds inviting."
Plan made, Splinter and Leo left the cave and headed back toward home, talking things over with April as they walked.
Chapter 2: Fraternal Friction
April picked Leo up in her car after work and Splinter walked home, working to keep himself under control. He was angry, but he had to be gentle. He loved all his students and he knew that none of them were cruel or spiteful. They did not behave as they had for the sole purpose of hurting Leonardo. In fact, they probably thought it wouldn’t hurt him at all. He had to be firm, but fair.
When he entered the lair, he found Raph and Mikey on the couch in front of the TV. They were both watching for him when they heard him come home. Two sets of eyebrows rose at Leo’s absence.
"Sensei," Raph greeted with a nod. "Didn’t your note say you and Leonardo had gone for training?"
"Yeah, Sensei. He should be with you. Is he okay? I’m totally there. Raphael, we gotta get Donatello."
Raph stood up. "I’m on it."
But Splinter raised a hand and shook his head. "Stay calm, both of you. Leonardo is in no danger. But please collect Donatello and meet me in the training room. I will explain when we are all together." Raph and Mikey nodded acknowledgement and both disappeared to fetch their brother.
When everyone was assembled on cushions, Splinter took several calming breaths and looked around at his sons, expression stern and eyes sad. The turtles looked uneasily at each other. They never met in the training room unless they were in serious trouble or for matters of life-or-death importance. With Leo’s conspicuous absence, everyone knew this was the latter, even if Leo was safe.
"My students, do not fear for Leonardo. He is with April. She has agreed to allow him to stay at her apartment for a little while. He was in desperate need of a break, a change of scenery. It would seem he believes he is not wanted here."
"What? But he lives here," Mikey complained indignantly.
"Hey. I haven’t been more sarcastic than usual," Raph put in, "but if he doesn’t want to be here, I don’t want him here."
Splinter looked sharply at Raph, but then shook his head and turned to Donatello. "And what do you say, my turtle?"
"Why does he think he isn’t wanted here? And why was he so desperate to get away that he begged April to take him in? I mean, I know April will look after him and she’s a great friend, but even when he left last time, he didn’t stay with her. He went off by himself and came back on his own when he realized we needed him and he was being stupid. Didn’t he learn from that?"
"And as usual, it is Donatello who asks the correct questions. Firstly, my students, I would not call Leonardo’s insecurity stupid. It is understandable for him to sometimes doubt his ability to lead well. But this time, his turmoil does not come from himself, but from outside. He is with April because he feels that she, at least, cares about him. Right now, he needs to be reassured that he is loved."
"But he is loved." Mikey was vehement, heartbroken. "What would make him think he isn’t?"
"Um, guys?" Donnie said hesitantly. "I have a really bad feeling it has something to do with my Personality Alterator."
Splinter offered Donnie a partial smile. "You are on a roll, my son. I believe that is the expression for a winning streak."
"That’s it, Sensei." Mikey beamed happily, but then turned serious again at Splinter’s curt nod.
"Guys, I told you the Alterator was a bad idea," Donnie scolded.
"Don’t even start, Brainiac," Raph practically growled. "Only reason you said it was a bad idea was because you hadn’t fully tested it."
"That’s a very valid reason," Donnie protested.
"Yeah, but it’s not like you disagreed with us. You wanted him to stop nagging us, too."
Donnie sighed heavily and nodded slowly. "Yes. He was critical and controlling."
"He was impossible to live with," Mikey grumbled. "Can’t watch TV, gotta get training in, the place is a mess, that’s junk food. He didn’t train us more than you usually do, but he expected us to be like him. And I get that it’s part of the leader job, but for some reason, he was stricter than usual. We just…got fed up."
"And you could not simply talk to him and tell him how you felt?"
"Well, he said he was left in charge and thought you wouldn’t want us slacking and living in a rubbish dump. He said you’d want us to maintain our bodies and minds properly. He said it was his job to ensure we did that. Clean environment, clean mind."
Splinter smiled fully. "I see. He was absolutely right, you know. About everything. But I understand how dealing with his overbearing attitude could get to be too much as well.
"He never meant to make your lives miserable. Just like you never meant to make him feel unwanted. I believe this entire fiasco was an unfortunate accident. Presumably, Leonardo steadily increased his strictness, too, when he found you boys would not comply readily to his commands. It is the nature of leaders and employees, I’m afraid. Workers try to get out of working and managers have to hound them. Perhaps you boys should meditate on the value of compromise."
"You know, we could have done more," Donnie said guiltily. "I don’t think it would have killed us to take out the trash or keep our rooms reasonably neat. He was scolding me about my lab."
"Just because we got frustrated with him doesn’t mean we don’t care, Sensei," Raphael said uncharacteristically sadly.
Mikey hung his head as a despondent silence fell. But then, he perked up and pulled out his turtle com. "I’ll call our fearless leader. I’ll tell him we want him here." He put the call through as he spoke.
Splinter pursed his lips and clasped his hands together, certain this was a bad idea. But it was too late to change course.
"Leonardo here. Something…Oh. Hi, Michelangelo," he finished awkwardly.
"Leonardo, Sensei told us you’re with April. Is that true?"
"Yeah. She’s sitting right here. Do you not believe Master Splinter?"
"No. I do. It’s just weird that you’re with her and we’re not. You should be here."
Leo frowned, then sighed. "I don’t…It’s complicated."
"You don’t what, fearless leader?" Raph cut in, voice snapping like twigs.
"Raphael-" Leo sighed again, more deeply this time. "Look, I just…I need to be away from the lair. April kindly agreed to make sure I have shelter, food, that kind of thing. I’ll return when I’ve sorted myself out."
Raph snatched the com from Mikey and glared at Leo. "Yeah? And when will that be? Or are you just ditching us like the last time, when the world froze over? Remember that? Maybe we’re just not important to you."
Leo’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open in surprise. Snapping it shut, surprise turned into pained sorrow. "I’m sorry about that. You’re right. I should have stayed with you fellas. I should have talked to the team about my lack of confidence. But it’s different this time."
"I don’t think it is," growled Raphael. "I think you’re running away again, hiding again, not talking to us again. What’s your problem, Leonardo? You think we can’t understand you? Why don’t you try us?"
Leonardo looked toward April, at a loss. How could he tell his brothers the truth? If they told him to his face that he didn’t love them…Wait. Raphael had just said that and it was like being punched in the stomach. He couldn’t do that to them.
April looked compassionately at Leo and held out her hand for the com. Leo passed it to her.
"Raphael, guys, if I were Leonardo, I wouldn’t want to spend another minute with you with the way you’re treating him. You call him just to yell at him about how he’s treating you. I know I might be overstepping my bounds. I know I’m not your family. But if you really want him back home, you should give him a reason to want to return. It’s what I’d want. Convince him that he’s important to you, that he’s loved for more than just his skills as a leader and a ninja."
Beside her, Leo nodded gratefully.
Splinter nodded at his students and took the com from Raph. "Wise advice, Miss O’Neil. I am afraid my turtles are still woefully narrow-minded. I do not believe you have overstepped anything but have instead shed light on precisely what Leonardo needs. May I speak to him again, please?"
Leonardo reappeared on the screen of Michelangelo’s com. "Sensei?"
"Leonardo, do not feel you are on a time limit. I have already explained to your brothers what has driven you from home. I cannot do more than that. They must come to understand implications on their own.
"Unfortunately, you are part of a team, and I cannot leave you alone entirely. It may be that we need your abilities to save the world or the city. I give you my word that I will not call you unless there is a true emergency, such as serious illness or injury, or Krang and Shredder being up to their despicable schemes. Can I count on you to cooperate should the need arise?"
"Of course, Sensei. There’s no need to even ask. Just because I’m personally upset doesn’t mean I don’t still have a job. I’ll contact you when I’m up to coming home."
"Very good, Leonardo. Donatello’s indicating that I should let you speak with him. Shall I?"
Leo paused in thought, a hand against his cheek. Finally, he nodded. "Sure. All right. The others had their chance. Only fair."
Donatello looked at Leo a moment before speaking, gathering his thoughts. "Leonardo, Sensei mentioned that he didn’t think you were strict from the start, and he’s right now that I think about it. At first, you’d just make comments about things needing to get done. It was when we lazed around that you became more commanding and demanding. So I guess it’s partly our fault that you had to be more unpleasant. You didn’t want to. You’d have preferred not to. I should have kept my area of the lair tidier and taken your orders more seriously. I apologize for the disrespect."
"Uuuh…" Leo managed to keep a neutral expression, though his tone was somewhat uncertain. He would have preferred an apology for inventing the alterator in the first place, maybe, or at least for gambling with his life and identity. Still, he supposed Donatello was trying, and he did appreciate that his leadership was being acknowledged. "It’s all right, Donatello. Anything else you wanted to say?"
"No. That’s it."
"Okay then. I’d prefer it if you guys followed Master Splinter’s policy and didn’t call me unless there’s some legitimate reason. I’d better get going. Stay safe, all of you." Leo disconnected the call without waiting for a response.
Donnie sat holding the com in vague pain before silently handing it back to Mikey and getting to his feet. "I think I’m going to go for a run in the sewers. I need to do something mindless."
"Good idea," Raph agreed. "I’m going to go listen to the radio."
"And I’m going to heat up some pizza," Mikey said. "Need comfort food."
"I will be meditating or napping. I find I am suddenly weary."
The turtles paused on their separate routes and looked at Splinter in concern, but he shook his head and walked slowly to his room, leaning on his cane as though the heaviness in his spirit were physical. The turtles looked at each other, looked at Splinter’s retreating back, and shrugged, continuing on their ways.
Chapter 3: Dessert and A Movie
On Saturday morning, a few days after Leo came to live with April, Irma called her at around ten o’clock asking if she’d like to go shopping or to come over to her place for a girls’ day in. April suggested Irma come to her place instead, and that’s how the three of them came to meet.
"Hi, Leonardo," Irma said cheerfully.
"Hey there, Irma," Leo said equally happily, offering a kind smile.
"April, you lied. Leonardo’s not depressed," Irma accused her friend, setting the plastic bag she was carrying on April’s dining table.
"Irma, I said he’s sad, not depressed. He could still use some cheering up, some kindness," April replied.
"Leonardo, are you sad?" Irma asked.
Leo hesitated, glancing curiously at the container Irma had put down before looking back at her face. "Well…um…I’m doing okay thanks to April, but I can’t say I’m totally all right. I’m just…I’m not sure if the other turtles want me around or still think of me as their friend."
"What?" Irma looked incredulous. "Leonardo, you’re being ridiculous. I’ve seen you guys together and you guys look fine. So maybe you got into a fight and the guys said something mean. I’m sure that doesn’t mean they hate you." Irma patted Leo’s forearm sympathetically, trying to be reassuring.
Leo sighed and lowered his head briefly. "No. It’s more than that. I don’t think they like who I am. They’d rather I wasn’t myself."
"But Leonardo," Irma protested, "no one’s perfect. No one really likes all of a person, right?"
Leo blinked, then winced.
"Irma," April hissed. "Leonardo, what Irma means is that just because the guys might not like certain traits doesn’t mean they want you out of their lives. We’re sure of it."
"Yeah," Irma added with a sassy wink. "Just wait. The guys’ll be begging you to come home, giving you a sob story about how much they miss you. You’ll see. And hey, April and I aren’t your family, but don’t forget that we care about you and appreciate everything you do for defenseless civilians like us." She indicated the container with a flourish, taking it out of the plastic bag and opening it to reveal a tasty-looking cake. "And if all else fails, eat. Everyone knows chocolate has feel-good properties. Try some?" Irma grinned hopefully at Leo.
Leo smiled, clearly touched. "I’d love to."
April went to the kitchen and returned with a knife, forks, and three little plates, cutting each of them a large slice of cake. The little group sat at the table and dug in. When Leo took his first bite, he savored the moistness and fluffiness of the cake in delight, eyes closing as he grinned with childish glee. "Wow, Irma. This is delicious! Thanks so much."
Irma looked at April with a knowing smile, April nodding in response. Addressing Leo, Irma answered, "I’m glad you like it. I made it myself. I wanted to help a little."
Leo clasped Irma’s hand and squeezed it gratefully, practically inhaling the rest of his cake. The remaining food was covered and refrigerated.
"Hey, if we’re staying in, how about a movie?" Irma suggested.
"Great idea," Leo nodded enthusiastically. "Should I microwave some popcorn? And how about some milk to go with the cake? You gals seem to have some left."
"I like all these ideas," April agreed, getting up and turning toward the kitchen.
But Leo held up a hand and brushed past her without a word, setting glasses of milk in front of April and Irma before pouring himself one and drinking greedily. That cake was tasty, but sure made one thirsty.
"What should we watch?" Irma asked.
"Whatever it is, no monster movies, please," Leo called from the kitchen, plastic wrapper rustling as he removed the popcorn bag from it. "I don’t need reminders of home."
"That’s okay," Irma said, grimacing. "April and I don’t like those."
"Sure thing," Leo answered as the microwave beeped and hummed to life.
"How about a romance?" April suggested.
It was Leo’s turn to grimace as he came back to the table. "I don’t mind romance, but I’d rather it not be the main genre," he explained, hoping to soften his expression. "What about a movie with sword fights?"
April and Irma laughed, Irma rolling her eyes teasingly. "Men," she muttered to April, who nodded with an exaggerated, long-suffering sigh.
Leo glanced away uncertainly, not sure if he should laugh or feel hurt. But Irma noticed and squeezed Leo’s arm. "Oh, no. I’m so sorry. I was only joking." Her face fell, proving her sincerity.
But Leo laughed good-naturedly and waved a dismissive hand. "So no on the sword fights?" He winked.
"Weeeeell," Irma said, pretending to think it over, "I suppose we kind of owe it to you now. Besides, I don’t really mind them."
"What about Spartacus? It’s somewhat…mature, but I don’t think it’s anything you haven’t read about before. It might be to your taste."
"I don’t think I’ve seen that. But if you think I can handle it, I’m willing to try it," Leo said as the microwave dinged.
"I’ll get that," April said. "Can one of you get the movie going?"
Irma did the honors and the three friends sat on the couch, Leo between the women, basking in the simple pleasure of each other’s company. Leo even teared up visibly when Spartacus had to duel Antoninus to the death, whimpering in pain at the final words between a father and son. April and Irma were quick to cuddle and comfort him, and he blushed and hid his face under their ministrations. But the women were gentle and soothing and ultimately successful in getting Leo to look them in the eyes again, managing to convince him that no, they were not laughing at him.
When Irma left April’s, she found she genuinely liked the blue-masked turtle leader. If only he were human.
Chapter 4: Trouble in Paradise
As the days went on, life in the lair became increasingly strained. No one wanted to train, since it reminded them so much of Leo. Even Splinter had to force himself to keep up the routine, and the turtles could tell his heart wasn’t really in it. Eventually, the family decided they’d train daily, but for a shorter time, since everyone had trouble focusing properly.
When the turtles weren’t training, they did solitary activities or Raph and Mikey would do something together. The only time Splinter saw his remaining family in the same room was at meal times. Donatello practically lived in his lab; Splinter stayed in his room; and Raphael and Michelangelo could be found sitting next to each other on the couch, radio between them, or outside skateboarding. Those two gradually began to spend more and more time outside as the atmosphere in the lair became simultaneously distant and dead. The lair was nice and quiet, but Splinter found he wished a stupid monster movie was playing, his sons happily munching pizza as they talked among themselves about anything and everything. It happened that one day, the turtles didn’t eat pizza at all. They said it wasn’t the same without Leonardo. And that was when Splinter thought that maybe, he had an emergency on his hands.
Leonardo had decided from the beginning that he wouldn’t eat pizza or drink tea at April’s apartment. Those items had too much connection to the lair, and his mission was to disconnect from his brothers and take time for himself. April gave Leo free run of her book collection. She also had rice, pasta, bread, and a good variety of meats and vegetables to go with them. They shared breakfast and dinner, Leo fending for himself for lunch. April always had oatmeal, coffee, fruit, and a slice or two of toast for breakfast and Leo liked sharing that routine. He skipped the coffee, though, drinking milk instead.
Leo trained outside on the roof in the mornings and after sundown. April sometimes watched, marveling at his superhuman agility and strength. April wondered how much was from ninja training and how much from being a mutant, but she supposed it didn’t really matter. Those factors enhanced each other.
At first, when Leo trained at night, he was totally focused on what he was doing. In fact, when she’d asked if she could watch, he’d had to ask her to repeat herself and then answered with an absent affirmative, as though even then, he hadn’t quite heard. But April knew he had because every once in a while, he’d glance in her direction to see if she was still there. She’d stayed that entire session, fascinated. During subsequent sessions, she stopped by just to check on him, staying to observe only if the mood struck. On one such occasion, she found Leo looking out into the distance, expression pensive. When asked what was wrong, he’d said he wondered how his friends were doing on patrol without him. And that was the first clue she got that Leo was starting to miss home.
A few days after that, Leo didn’t train at night. He was lying full length on his side on April’s couch, April reclining next to his feet. He had one arm propped on the armrest with his knees bent, head raised and turned toward April as she looked him in the face.
"April," he began somberly, "I want to thank you for letting me stay here. It’s been fun watching musicals, documentaries, and even some combat movies. I’ve read some great psychological nonfiction and some pretty touching fiction. I’ve been exposed to more variety in media and food during my time here. You’ve been wonderful and caring and supportive and everything I needed. But I think I should be getting home. I need to run, to fight, to feel useful. I’m sorry. I don’t mean you aren’t enough…" Leo trailed off, the fingers of one flipper fiddling with his belt nervously as he looked at the floor sadly.
But April smiled kindly and patted him on the shin gently. "Awww, it’s okay, Leonardo. I know it’s not me. You’re an athletic, physical person and I can well imagine that being cooped up here or even in your lair would start to become stifling after too long. Do you miss your family?" April’s tone was loving and a touch hopeful.
"I’m kind of nervous about seeing the guys again, but I’d like to see Sensei for sure."
"Would you like to go home now? I can drive you."
"Want to get rid of me already, huh?" Leo chuckled.
But April shook her head emphatically. "No, no! It’s not that. You’ve been a wonderful guest. If you ever need to get away from your team again, feel free to ask me. I’d be more than happy to feed you and keep you entertained."
"Oh. You really mean that?" Leo was a tad surprised by April’s enthusiasm.
"Yes," she answered firmly. "You’ve been no trouble. You’ve even been helpful, making me dinner once in a while and doing some of the cleaning. I’m here for you if you ever need help."
"Thanks," Leo said softly, giving April a genuine smile. "And no. I think I’ll see about getting home tomorrow sometime, if that’s okay."
"No problem. You have to call them first anyway, right?"
"Right." Leo nodded.
"I hope you can patch things up with your friends. You boys still have each other, and that’s invaluable. You have such a strong team because you love and respect each other. You owe it to yourselves to try to get that back before it’s too late and all you have left is regret. I don’t want that for any of you. You turtles, and even Master Splinter, are family to me."
Leo sat up and pulled April into a loose embrace, his hands on her shoulders. April imitated the position and leaned close to him. "I think I can speak for all of us when I say we love you, too."
April giggled and kissed Leo’s cheek. "You are such a charmer."
Leo released April, stood up, and bowed to her with a grin before sitting next to her again. "Surprise."
April laughed merrily. "No. Not really. But it’s always nice to be treated to your brand of gallantry."
A pleased chuckle was April’s reward. "I’ll talk to the fellas. I just hope they meet me in the middle."
"If they don’t, I will be glad to make sure that they understand exactly what they did. And I won’t be nice about it, either."
Leo cringed at April’s threatening tone. "I…hope it doesn’t come to that."
"It’s your discretion. I think you know the team better than me. Just call if you think they need a blunt telling-off. I think I’ll head to bed. I’ll see you in the morning."
"Good night, April. And thank you. It’s nice to know you’re on my side."
April bowed to Leo before leaving the room, Leo smiling after her as he removed his mask, armbands, and the rest of his gear in preparation for sleep.
Chapter 5: Attitude Adjustments
The next morning, April and Leo shared their last breakfast. April found she was a little sad to lose Leo’s company, but it wasn’t like she couldn’t visit him or see him again. She sincerely hoped he and the family would come to an understanding. She knew Splinter had raised those boys well and every single one of them was good at heart. She wasn’t the kind of woman who really wanted a family. When she thought of the turtles, however, she felt pride and envied Splinter his ability to take full credit for them. Nevertheless, she knew her current lack of children was right for her.
Leo stowed his empty oatmeal packet in his belt as he cooked it in the microwave. He ate quickly and quietly, retreating to the couch when finished and turning on the news. April looked over at Leo from time to time but said nothing. She got the impression he didn’t want to talk.
After she finished her meal, April cleared the table and got ready to leave for work. When she was heading out, Leo walked with her to the door and embraced her firmly, though he still hadn’t said a word. April embraced him in kind and squeezed his shoulder. Meeting his worried eyes, she smiled reassuringly. "It’ll be fine, Leonardo. Remember what I said. My home is open to you and people love you. I’m sure the other boys do, too. Keep me posted, okay?"
"Will do," Leo said hoarsely.
With a final pat to Leo’s shoulder, April disappeared on her way to the elevators. Leo made his lonely way back inside.
Deciding he should train and get his day started, Leo headed to the roof. As he’d hoped, the invigorating movement elevated his mood and cleared his mind. After about an hour and a half, he came back inside and sipped at a glass of juice. As he did so, his gaze happened to fall on the answering machine near April’s phone, which was indicating a new message. Debating whether or not to play it, he eventually decided that if the message wasn’t anyone he knew, he’d stop listening to it and leave it there for April to find. He hit Play and the machine clicked on.
"April," came a familiar voice, "I’m aware you are working at present, but can you call me on the turtle com when you receive this message? I do not think this is something serious enough to contact Leonardo about, but I need you to speak to him and have him call me. Thank you."
Leonardo was already reaching toward April’s telephone before his brain caught up to him and realized he actually needed his com. Finishing the rest of his juice, he left the glass on the table and sat reclining on the couch as he called Splinter.
"Hello. Who is…Oh. Leonardo, my student. No wonder the call was so fast. Thank you for contacting me."
Leo raised an eyebrow. "Uh…No problem. Is there something wrong at home?"
"Yes, my son. You are not here." Splinter’s expression was completely devoid of humor.
Leo frowned. "I don’t quite understand. That has been the case for a couple weeks now. Why is it suddenly a problem?"
"You have ever been astute, my student. Difficult to put things past you.
"Leonardo, we need you here. All of us. Your brothers barely speak to each other. They only speak to me if I speak to them. We have all withdrawn into our own thoughts and worlds. We are mourning you, though you are not dead or missing. Your brothers feel you do not love them. I believe they understand how you felt when you left home, though they still do not seem to grasp how changing your identity made you feel. We need to talk face to face. As soon as possible." As Splinter spoke, he saw Leo’s expression grow more and more grave.
"I’ll be waiting near the closest sewer entrance. Can you bring the turtle van?"
"I will see you soon, my son." Splinter ended the call, feeling a thrill of anticipation and joy.
When the van pulled up, Leo wasted no time and got in, finding himself beside Splinter, Mikey on Splinter’s other side. Donnie was driving while Raph sat beside him. Everyone looked at Leo a long moment, but Donnie remembered they had to get moving and the spell was broken as he took everyone home. Leo looked around at his family on the silent ride. No one seemed to know what to say.
When Leo finally set foot inside the lair, he stopped and looked around. He knew the place but had to take a moment to reorient.
Mikey nodded to him. "Been a while, huh? Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
Leo blinked in confusion. This was his home. He could easily get his own food or water. And it wasn’t really like Mikey to offer to do that kind of thing. Donnie or Sensei, sure. But Raph and Mikey would much rather be served than to serve. Realizing he hadn’t actually answered, he shook his head in the negative. "Already had breakfast and enough to drink at April’s. I’d rather get on with our mission and talk. There’s a lot to discuss." Leo’s tone was all business, efficient and brisk. Mikey bit his lip in response, giving a small nod. Raph glared at Leo, but didn’t say anything.
Leo headed to the training room, his family trailing after him. Even Splinter was actually flanking him, exchanging a concerned look with Donnie that Leo missed. Leo sat a little apart from the rest of the family, Splinter sitting between Leo and the other turtles. They were arranged in a lopsided triangle. Everyone looked expectantly at Splinter to get the meeting started.
"Leonardo, did you have a nice time at April’s?" Splinter asked evenly.
"Yes, Master," Leo replied politely, his expression turning wistful. "I was happy there. We shared breakfast and dinner, watched movies, and I read some good books. Irma even came over sometimes. She baked me a cake." Leo smiled fondly.
Off to his left, the brothers exchanged guilty, uncomfortable looks. "What kind of cake?" Mikey asked sadly.
That was the Michelangelo Leo knew. Smiling kindly at him, Leo answered. "Chocolate."
"Lucky," Mikey said enviously.
Leo chuckled. "I tell you what. When your birthday comes around, I’ll ask Irma to make you one. You’ll love it."
"Thanks, dude." Mikey returned Leo’s smile, comforted.
"Did April cook for you?" Raph asked.
"Yeah. Sometimes. I made her pasta with vegetables, once I made her fried rice, and sometimes I made her oatmeal. We always had the same breakfast: oatmeal, toast, fruit, and milk or coffee. April had the coffee. I don’t think she’s really a tea person. At least, I didn’t see any around her apartment. She made me parmesan chicken thighs one night, and then there were pork chops and chicken soup. Remember that?"
The other three turtles groaned, but then laughed. "Honestly, the soup was good. It was just too much in too short a time," Raph clarified.
"Right," Leo affirmed.
"Sounds like April took great care of you," Donnie murmured, his tone a touch resentful. "Meanwhile, we’ve been a mess."
"Are you accusing me?" Leo challenged. "Because it’s not my fault."
"Maybe if you hadn’t left home…" Donnie shot back.
"Maybe if you hadn’t driven me away…" Leo replied.
Donnie had no answer to that. He knew, deep down, that if Leo had felt like a part of the family, he’d have stayed. Donnie sighed heavily and looked Leo straight in the eyes. "Maybe you should live with April, Leonardo. You’re clearly better off with her. We can’t even carry on a civil conversation anymore."
Leo did not miss the sorrow in Donnie’s eyes. They were totally dry, but broke his heart all the same. "April was a wonderful hostess, a supportive friend, and showed me nothing but sympathy and kindness. But she’s not enough. I need her and I need my team and family. You all serve different and important functions. And as caring as April was, she’s a woman and a civilian. She’ll never understand what it is to be a warrior, and there are some things a guy just can’t say to a woman. I assume April feels similarly about me. You see?"
Splinter smiled warmly at Leo and everyone nodded.
"I’ve been maintaining my training regularly. April watched sometimes. She seemed impressed. But a few days ago, I started to miss patrolling. I started to miss the thrill of combat, the team banter, and began to wonder how you all were doing without me. It was nice to have a break and necessary to take time away from here, but I can’t really live like that. I need motion and battle and purpose, and all of you provide that."
"Glorious leader," Raphael said, sounding accusatory, "have you noticed, by any chance, how clean the lair is?"
"I knew something was different about the living area," Leo said in sudden understanding. "But it doesn’t really add up. Sensei told me you guys have been rather…um…separate lately. Doesn’t cleaning imply teamwork? Or did one of Donatello’s inventions go crazy?"
Donnie blushed at that, and Raph and Mikey exchanged smirks.
"Leonardo," Mikey said quietly, "no one uses the living area enough to make it look lived in. Donatello has mostly stayed in his lab, Sensei has been in his room, and Raphael and I have usually been outside, and not always together. When we finished off our pizzas, we never bothered to order or make more. What was the point without you? We don’t watch monster movies or other shows we used to watch together. Even training has been shortened, and I know for a fact Sensei hasn’t had the passion for it without his best student. We know. You love ninjutsu and are good at it, and you made teaching it a joy for Sensei. With us, it’s just a job. We train because we have to, the way we do chores because we have to. Leonardo, we need you, too. We’re all slowly dying."
"But guys," Leo said in frustration, "do you want me? It’s not enough just to be missing me. That’s going to wear off and then we’ll have the same problem again - you wanting to change me. It isn’t worth it to me to serve a team and family who wishes I were someone else. Why should I believe what you say after what you did with the Alterator?"
"Leonardo," Donnie said, "we didn’t want you to be a different person, exactly. We just wanted you to be less overbearing. We hadn’t meant for the Alterator to change you quite that much. Kind of like how we sometimes want Raphael to be more considerate or Michelangelo to be more diligent."
Leo considered Donnie’s words. This made sense to him. "So you still wanted me to be me? Despite my ordering you around too much?"
"Yes," came the simultaneous reply.
"I’m going to add, in the interest of full disclosure, that Michelangelo and I didn’t consider what might happen with you being less concerned with responsibility and duty," Raph put in. "We didn’t think about how the same responsibility that sometimes annoys us is really bad for criminals and villains."
Leo nodded sternly. "And what if I couldn’t be returned to normal? You didn’t think about that, either, huh?" It was Leo’s turn to sound resentful.
"Compadres," Mikey gasped, "that would have been terrible. We’d have lost Leonardo forever. If he were a slacker like us, who would we look up to?"
"Who’d save our shells when we forget something important?" Donnie asked.
"And Leonardo can be amazingly resourceful and strategic," Raphael agreed.
Splinter added his voice. "Not only is Leonardo a dedicated ninja and an honorable person, but I need him to help me with you three. I require him as he is. I cannot tell you what kind of peace of mind he affords me. When I go on retreats to hone my spiritual training, I leave him in my place. I expect him to do double duty as both team leader and a substitute for me. He must train you, be a father to you, handle mission coordination, and take care of himself. If he is harder on you when I am away, it is likely at least partially due to stress. The three of you ignoring his requests or commands makes his job that much harder. I hope I’ve helped you to understand what it means to be leader of your team."
Silence reigned as the turtles processed their teacher’s words. Remorse and regret emerged as the dominant emotions in the group.
"I always knew I wasn’t cut out for the job," Raphael commented.
"Only Leonardo really is," Donatello said with certainty. "The rest of us would resent having to put everyone else first."
"Hey," Leonardo interrupted, "I resent it sometimes."
"Maybe. But the difference with you is that how you feel won’t affect your decisions or your actions. You might resent not being able to meditate as much as you want, but you still keep yourself available in case there’s a problem and you’re needed."
"Mmm. I see what you’re saying."
"Don’t you mean you hear what he’s saying?" Raph smirked at Leo.
"Raphael-" Leo began to scold, but he cut himself off and smiled, chuckling. "Fine. Have it your way."
"Bro," Michelangelo said almost timidly, though he looked into Leo’s face with sincerity, "we never meant to make you feel like we didn’t love you or want you. We were just thinking of ourselves and wanting to make our lives easier. We’re sorry we hurt you. You gotta stay with us. We aren’t a team without you. How can we convince you?"
"I think we should follow April’s example and put him first," Donnie suggested.
"Hey," Raphael protested, "I’m not waiting on him hand and foot. That’d be unbearable."
"Nah, amigo," Mikey said. "I don’t think Leonardo would want that. It’d make him feel uncomfortable, unless he’s sick and legitimately doesn’t feel up to moving. Hey, what kind of pizza do you want, Leonardo? Maybe that would convince you we’re sorry. And which monster movie do you want to watch? It’ll be like old times."
Leo grinned. "You’re on the right track, I’ll say that much. For pizza, I want something reasonably healthy. No sugary toppings. As for movies, I don’t want to see anything." He winked at Donnie. "What I want is a Star Trek marathon. And I want Donatello to watch with me."
"I’m so there," Donnie grinned happily.
Raph and Mikey made disgusted noises. "Good thing there’s pizza," Raph muttered. Mikey nodded.
Splinter spoke up, sounding intrigued. "A normal pizza and something decent on television? Might I join you, my turtles? Perhaps this time, I will enjoy the food."
Everyone looked at Leo.
"I’d be honored, Master," Leo smiled contentedly. "I didn’t know you liked Star Trek."
"I remember it as a young man," Splinter answered. "I didn’t realize you liked it, either."
"It’s all Donatello’s fault," Leo mock complained.
"I regret nothing." Donnie smirked smugly as Leo laughed happily.
Mikey headed to the kitchen to start the pizza, Raph following him. Donnie found the Star Trek videos and had the first one all ready to go. Leo went to read, Splinter and Raph did some light training, and Donatello read Genius Quarterly on the couch. Before joining Donnie on the couch with a book, Leo put his oatmeal packet in the family scrapbook. He felt it was a way to both honor April and remember the Alterator incident and its consequences.
The aroma of warm tomato sauce had the turtles’ mouths watering in anticipation and Splinter smiling to himself. Mikey brought out two large pizzas, already sliced, calling Raph and Splinter back to the living area. One pizza was garlic, spinach, eggplant and chicken. The other had pepperoni, mushrooms, asparagus, and arugula. Leo gasped in delight, eyes widening as he snatched two slices of each variety. Splinter took a slice of each. Donnie started the marathon and he, Leo, and Splinter occupied prime positions on the couch. Raph and Mikey sat beside each other at the dining table, though they were facing the family. Raph and Mikey were sharing a smaller pizza with marshmallows, fudge, pepperoni, and black olives to substitute for the pizza with arugula, since neither cared for it. All eyes turned to Splinter as he took a bite of the chicken pizza. To everyone’s surprise and joy, he took another, and as Star Trek played in the background, the family was whole once more.