Chapter 1: long live the walls we crashed through
"The stars look lovely tonight.”
It teases a surprised snort of laughter out of Donnie, exactly what April was hoping for, and she hides a pleased smile in his sleeve. The sticker stars along the walls and ceiling of her bedroom glow peaceful and teal.
“They’re the only stars in the city tonight,” he remarks, and April can clearly picture his brown eyes tracking through the dark toward her bedroom window, where the rain is tapping without rhythm against the glass. “Light pollution aside, it’s probably going to storm until morning.”
Casey is asleep between them, newly bruised from a highly enthusiastic street hockey game, and Donnie is running fingers through his hair. He’s never brave enough to try it when Casey is awake, makes up for it now.
“What a menace,” Donnie continues, a little softer. “He keeps this up and he won’t have any teeth left by the time we’re in college.”
Donnie is going to graduate a year early. He and Casey and April have already applied to NYU. Casey’s award letter is on the fridge right next to April’s, and it’s been a few weeks but sometimes it looks like he still can’t believe it. They’re going to college together, they have everything planned.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” April says, without bothering to lift her head. Don’s shoulder makes a fairly comfortable pillow. “Have you thought about it yet? What you want to do?”
Kind, clever Donatello. He could do absolutely anything, April is certain. She’s never known anyone like him, there’s no one else in the world who can read about stars and poetry and mechanics and medicine with the same unobjective dedication.
But her question gives him pause, fingers stilling in Casey’s hair, and uncertainty leases the bright space in his eyes. April tries not to sigh, but she might as well have, because it telegraphs through her body somehow anyway.
Apologetically, Donnie says, “I won’t fall behind. I’ll take all my prerequisites first, and by the time I get them out of the way, I’ll figure out—”
“It shouldn’t be this hard for you,” April says without cruelty, finally sitting up to look at him. “You used to be full of ideas. You used to bookmark all the openings at NASA on your computer. You must still want something, Donnie.”
He looks down at their hands for a long moment, quiet and still for so long she isn’t sure she’s going to get an answer.
Then he says, “I want to make enough money that Leo never has to work another day in his life.” His brown eyes are bright when they move to meet hers through the dark, burning with determined devotion. “I want to pay back all our debts, and buy us a house, and put Mikey through school. I still want to make the world a better place, with new advancements in technology, or an engineering breakthrough, but I want to make their world a better place, first. And then…”
His gaze drops away again, and he twines his fingers through hers. Traces the familiar lines of Casey’s face with his free hand, like a totem or a good luck charm, and Casey stirs at the touch, blinking honey amber through the dark while Donatello finds bravery.
“And then, after that,” Donnie whispers, so sweet and sincere. “I want to marry the two of you.”
It’s almost dreamlike, the glow of April’s stars, and the sound of rain, and the future waiting for them patiently, kindly, just around the corner—and now more than ever, as she and Casey draw Donnie into a kiss that goes three ways as naturally as the earth moves around the sun, April can’t wait to meet it.
Chapter 2: together, with them
Sometimes it was easy to forget how young Donatello still was. Leo stood in the doorway of their shared, currently trashed bedroom, probably looking every inch as shocked as he felt.
Donatello was hunched over his laptop at the desk, head in his hands and shoulders shaking with Leo fervently hoped wasn't tears.
"Donnie?" he said carefully, and watched Don jump about a mile. And then his heart ached for his little brother, who was clearing his throat and rubbing his face on his sleeve and putting himself back together in a handful of seconds.
"I—I didn't hear you come in," he said, muffled, without turning around. "Sorry for taking up your desk, I'll—"
But Leo had dropped his coat and the armful of patient charts Karai had given him to take home on his bed and was wrapping an arm around Don's shoulders a moment later. "Hey," he said, "talk to me."
And Don trembled for a moment under the weight of whatever it was, lips pursed tightly—then he darted a glance at Leo from under his fringe, brown eyes wide and wanting.
"I'll have enough credits to graduate early after all," he said slowly. "I have the highest GPA in school, and I've been submitting all those scholarship applications—we want to go to NYU together." Tears were forming in his eyes again, and Leo found himself desperately scrambling to piece together the situation, to understand what made it bad enough to warrant tears from stubborn, stoic Donatello, when his little brother added softly, "Me and Casey and April."
Oh. Leo's arm tightened around his shoulders.
He didn't pretend to understand the relationship Donatello had with his two best friends. They were inseparable, always had been, and there was a closeness and a familiarity between the three of them that Leo had never seen before. Casey and April were dating, but Leo had seen Casey hold Don's hand during the slow, sweet part of a sad movie, and he had seen April kiss Don when they were alone in a corner of the kitchen before Thanksgiving dinner, and he had seen that the way Donnie smiled when April's name lit up his phone was the same way he smiled when it was Casey's.
He didn't understand it, but he trusted Donatello, he trusted the three of them, to be smart and safe and work things out on their own. He certainly had no room to offer counsel or suggestion when it came to romance or relationships or dating in general, good lord. (He was half-hoping that Donatello or April would field The Talk with Mikey when it came down to it—the other half hoping they could avoid The Talk with Mikey forever, honestly.) But now, for Donatello to rip apart their room and cry in frustration and look at Leo with those big, beseeching eyes—
"Aw, Leo," Donnie said suddenly, under a watery laugh. "Don't look like that, no one broke my heart. Put your scary face away."
"I don't have a scary face," Leo retorted automatically, feeling his face redden words notwithstanding. Don shook his head a little, smiling smally, and Leo shifted around so he could sit on the edge of the desk. Don's hands hovered over the laptop for a second, like he was considering shutting it before Leo could see whatever he had open, and then he let them fall into his lap. "What's going on, Donnie?"
"It's—well, I just don't think," he hedged, barely making eye contact, "that university is something I—"
Not this again. "Donnie."
"We can't afford it, Leo!" he burst. "I know we've had this conversation over and over, and I know you want me to do whatever I want to do—I know you'll kill yourself finding a way to make it happen. And I want it so bad, so bad, I've been killing myself, too, I've been doing everything I can think of, and I put in my application, and I'm pretty sure I'll get in, but—" He blinked through a fresh sheen of frustrated tears, wiping his face with the heel of one hand. "Leo, even if I get a scholarship, even if I get grants, how can I justify spending thousands of dollars on college when we can barely pay rent? How could I do that to you and not hate myself for it?"
"Donatello, I work hard to give you guys the opportunity to do whatever you want," Leo said, hurting at the sight of Donnie hurting. "I want you to go to NYU, if that's where you want to go. There's nothing to feel guilty about, nothing at all."
"We can't afford it," Donnie said stubbornly, miserably. "We just can't."
"You convinced Raph to finish high school, but there's no way you'll convince him to go to college," his brother said stoutly. "And good luck getting Mikey to talk about his future plans, it's like herding cats. "I'm not good at anything, Donnie," "Cooking/soccer/people skills don't count, Donnie," "I'm not as smart as you, Donnie, I'll probably just get a job like Raphie and Leo." I could strangle his math teacher for making him think he's stupid."
Leo's stomach twisted sharply, but he shook his head. "We aren't talking about them right now, we're talking about you. And you want to go to NYU with your significant o—your friends." Nice save, Leo. He ignored the way Donatello's whole body went frozen and tense, and forged ahead. "That's what you want to do. That's what me and Raph have all worked hard for. This is what all those midnight coffees, and apple-and-gronola sandwiches, and good luck charms Mikey brings you in the midst of your study sessions have been for. This is what you have earned, all on your own, by your own power, and all the time you've put into your education that other kids your age have spent being kids your age."
Donnie was blinking at him, and the bright wet in his eyes was something less edged and sharp. Leo didn't hesitate to run a fond hand through Don's brown hair; he didn't often get the chance to dote on anyone other than Mikey.
"You and Casey and April have all put a lot of effort into this. You three make a good team." Leo hesitated, then cupped Don's face and added, "I want to see you make this happen, and stick this thing out together. With them."
It wasn't supposed to make Don's face crumple, but it did, and his little brother muttered, "Of course you'd figure us out and be okay with it. No questions asked. You just want me to be happy, no matter what it costs you."
Leo blinked, and rubbed his thumb against Don's damp cheek. "Well, yeah."
He thought that much was pretty obvious.
Chapter 3: love looks like
There wasn't very much Casey had to get used to - not really. The guest room at April's place had been his for about as long as forever, and he kept most of his stuff there to begin with.
The important stuff, anyway.
The necklace his mom gave him before she died hung from the mirror over the dresser, his hockey gear was piled in the closet, the floor was carpeted in extra clothes and comic books, Mr. O'Neil nagged him about keeping it clean. Over the years - after his sister moved out - he stopped going home to his dad's apartment any more than a few scattered nights here and there. When he needed something signed for school, or when his mom's anniversary came around.
He didn't have any warm fuzzies for the old man, but he didn't want to hear about the NYPD fishing his body out of the river on the eight o'clock news, either.
Then his dad hit him, for the first time in almost a year. His dad, a wasted, balding, ex-cop, and Casey laid him out. It wasn't even hard. Wasn't fair, not really. Not with how many empty, scattered bottles there were on the floor. His dad stared at him like he was a stranger, and standing there, Casey felt like one.
That man wasn't family. That apartment wasn't home.
Donnie's eyes had been the brightest thing for miles that night and Casey's skin burned where Donnie touched him - it felt just like when April leaned in to kiss him, intimate and scorching and worth everything in the world. And little Mikey, who Casey loved every bit as fiercely as he loved his little sister, told him in simple, succinct terms, that sometimes family is the people you choose.
"They love you 'cause they like you," the kid had said, earnest, even with those awful bags under his eyes and the new sickly paleness of his skin, "and they want to."
And April was furious with him, because love looked like that sometimes.
And Mr. O'Neil told him to "come home, Casey," like it was so obvious, like it should have been that obvious, and Leo dragged Raph home before anyone else got hurt, and Mikey played tic-tac-toe with him on his practice test, and Donnie reached for his hand under the table, because love looked like that sometimes.
Chapter 4: softer than stone
"'No one has a heart of stone.' It's something mom used to say," Casey explains, and the fingers curled around his squeeze a little tighter.
It's her birthday, and it's cold for an afternoon in April and the skies are a little gray and rainy, but his little clan has gathered in the cemetery with him, anyway; all of them sitting in a cluster in the cool grass, passing the bottle of champagne April brought back and forth. They poured a glass for mom, first, and it's sitting on the edge of the polished granite headstone.
Raphael is warm at his back, and April's head is pillowed on his shoulder. Leo has an arm around Mikey, and the other around Karai. Donatello's fingers are tangled with Casey's, and he swallows a lump in his throat.
Every single one of them have a mom of their own to miss, and they're here missing his mom for the day, instead. For him.
"I used to think she musta been wrong. That there musta been a few exceptions, 'cause dad was so damn mean after she was gone, you know? But, uh - " He clutches Donnie and April a little tighter, a little closer, and they lean into him warmly. "I guess she was right."
Dad's heart broke when mom died. Stone would have been a lot sturdier.
And Casey's heart is so full and tender it should be impossible, and he knows stone would be sturdier, stone would be safer -
but for the warm bodies huddled up to his, and the tipsy, affectionate bump of hands and hugs that hold him in the cold, and the kisses pressed to his hair and the side of his face, Casey thinks,
I'll risk it.
Chapter 5: the best people in life are free
The thing about Donnie was that he never knew when to quit. He could be operating flawlessly on two hours of sleep and two-to-ten pots of coffee, and you wouldn't know it till he opened his mouth and tried to be a human being and all that came out was some form of "fuck off, I'm working" in varying levels of attitude, from 'pissy' to downright 'will set you on fire.'
Or, similarly, he could be at home, trying to put on a jacket before Casey's surprise birthday party – and honestly, who the hell did Casey's family think they were fooling – and missing the second sleeve four times; prompting Casey to bite the bullet and ask the question he'd been dying to ask since he walked through the door five minutes ago.
"Hey, D. Y'alright? You look a little… y'know. Terrible."
Sharp red eyes cut across the room to him, and Don opened his mouth – then shut it again, and blinked. Because tonight was Casey's twenty-first birthday, and Don never said shitty things on Casey's birthdays, and Casey wore that knowledge like a suit of armor.
"I'm fine," he muttered, and seemed to give up on the jacket. Which wasn't the best idea, since it was February. Casey frowned, and stood up, and Don sensed danger. "Really, I'm fine," he added quickly, backing up for every step Casey took towards him. "Just – I had a long day at work, and – "
But this close, it was easy to see Donatello wasn't going to make it to the party. He wasn't going to make it much farther than the front door – his eyes were glassy, and his face was a dull, burnt red – and something fierce and toothed came alive in the pit of Casey's chest.
"Jesus Christ, Donnie," he said sharply, cupping his face in one hand. And he didn't recoil at the packed heat rolling off Don's skin, but it was a pretty close call, and that just sealed the deal. "What the hell are you doing, you should be in bed."
"No way," Don said, and his expression folded into the ridiculously stubborn glower that promised a knock-down, drag-out fight every time. "There's no way I'm missing your birthday. I took some medicine, I'll be fine. I mean it."
Proving once and for all that Don, genius that he was, was also an idiot.
And the thing was, Casey's birthday wasn't a big deal. Hadn't been since mom died, really. He got a card in the mail from his sister, and his dad left him alone unless he was smashed, and he usually treated himself to a slice and a root beer from the dive down the street then called it a night.
Or, that's how it used to go. That was before April and the guys had fully adopted him, dragging him unresisting into their fold. And now he had a family of his own, one that was his, pieced together from the best parts of broken homes. He loved them more than he knew what to do with – and they loved him, too, he finally had that figured out. So for the last few years, his birthdays usually kicked ass.
But it had nothing to do with the places and the parties, and everything to do with the people. Obviously.
So Don was an idiot.
"Who are you calling?" Don said suspiciously, when Casey pulled out his phone. His eyes tracked Casey warily, and shot wide in surprise at Casey's quick, 'Hey, April.' "Jones, don't you dare!"
But he subsided into a coughing fit, one that seemed to fold him in half, which was what he got for getting so worked up in the first place, the moron. (Casey beat feet to the kitchen for a glass of water, anyway, because Casey was wrapped around two little fingers in this life, and one of them was most certainly Donatello's.)
And by the time Don drained the glass, and got his wheezing breath back, April had promised in no uncertain terms to 'take care of everything,' and 'be home in an hour.'
Don looked torn between fury and tears, and it was a neck-and-neck race but misery was gonna win out either way, and Casey literally could not handle waterworks without getting a little misty-eyed himself; so he shoved his phone into his pocket, and moved back into Don's orbit. Put himself close enough to get punched, but he wasn't too worried about that.
"You're being stupid," Casey said succinctly, taking Don's face in both hands. "You really are. I'm gonna give you a pass 'cause you're sick, and your brain isn't firing on all cylinders, but next time I won't be so generous."
"But it's your birthday," Don said, and he sounded so upset that Casey felt a pang deep in the soft, warm, pulpy part of his heart. "And now it's –"
"If the next word out of your mouth is 'ruined,' I'm gonna clock you. My birthday would have been ruined if my boyfriend passed out or puked or something because he's sick as hell and didn't tell anyone. But since that didn't happen – and since you're gonna shut up and be good and let me and April take care of you – then I got nothing to complain about."
"You could've just – I could've just stayed home, and you could've gone."
Casey was the one with two brilliant, beautiful partners to somehow measure up to and do his best to be good enough for, but nine times out of ten Don was the one convincing himself he was inadequate in this thing the three of them had. It showed itself in weird ways, and this was definitely one of them.
"I'm not even going to tell you why that's dumb," Casey replied, and he didn't mean for his tone to gentle so much, but there it went. "'Cause I know you know already."
Don leaned into him, blinking wetly, and then leaned a little more, and – yeah, okay, he was going down. Casey caught him quickly, and bore him to the sofa in a few swift steps.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," he chanted, working Don out of his layers and wrestling off his shoes. Made a trip back into the kitchen to whip up a cool compress and weed out the thermometer, grabbed a bottled water out of the fridge, and took his haul back out into the living room. He was planning on setting up shop in the armchair, but Don's glassy eyes were open and following him; and wow, he was really sick, he looked even worse now that the act was over.
And without any conscious decision on Casey's part, he switched tracks. Ended up on the sofa with Don's head pillowed in his lap, tracing the cool, wet trails across Don's forehead from the compress with the tips of his fingers, and talking to keep him company, about class and the weather and the birthday wish he would have made on the candles of a cake. A wish he made instead on the dusting of freckles across Don's cheekbones that Don would swear up and down he didn't have, grinning when Don's face wrinkled in annoyance but he couldn't muster the strength to argue.
April found them that way forty minutes later, storming their shared fortress armed with two bulging pharmacy bags and no small amount of fierce determination. But her face softened on the two of them, and she only paused to close and lock the door behind her, and slip out of her coat and shoes; then she swept towards the sofa, bringing a crisp winter chill along, and sat on the edge of the coffee table. She slid cold fingers into Donnie's hair, and murmured something sweet and soothing, and then took Casey by the chin and kissed him in the proprietary sort of way that knocked his whole world spinning.
"Happy birthday, baby," she said, and then, "Scoot over," and Casey scooted. Let April bury her icicle toes under his thigh, and her hands under his shirt, because apparently Casey was nothing but a convenient space-heater, and complained the whole time while she giggled unrepentantly, just because he knew it would make Don smile.
And it did. And hell, Casey was smiling, too.
Chapter 6: joy to the world
“I think your dumb brothers know,” Casey groused without heat as he pulled on borrowed pajamas, glad the T-shirt could muffle his voice and hide the way his face was still burning.
“They’re your dumb brothers, too,” Don said mildly from his side of the room, and he sounded largely unruffled, the slightest bit amused. “Are you really gonna sleep over there?”
“Feels weird to take Leo’s bed,” Casey admitted, giving the bed in question a dubious look. “But I can’t just–y'know–with you. Not with your brothers asleep right across the hall. What if they come bouncing in here in the morning and find us cuddling?”
“They won’t,” Don said softly, in the tone that meant either his feelings were hurt, or he was trying to spare Casey’s. One was less okay than the other, and the few moments Casey stood still and tried to figure it out was all the time it took for Don to take pity on him. “Just come over here,” he added, lifting the corner of his comforter in clear invitation, looking sweet and soft in a threadbare thermal shirt and faded boxers. “You’re being an idiot.”
Okay, Casey thought, crossing the room and sliding into bed next to Don, arguing briefly over blankets and pillows and who got the drafty side by the window. Okay, maybe he was.
Because it was the day of Christmas Eve, and he wasn’t home alone. His brothers were still up at five in the morning, talking quietly and laughing just down the hall. The whole apartment smelled like gingerbread and sugar cookies, and the early morning sky outside was winter gray and thick with snow, and Casey was impossibly warm.
Which probably had less to do with the two inches of blanket Donnie had surrendered, and more to do with the strong arm wrapped, with purpose and affection, tight around his waist.
Chapter 7: figuring it out
“Jesus,” was Don’s greeting when Casey dragged himself home, followed by, “what happened?”
Casey shrugged as he shut the door behind him, and shouldered off his hockey gear, letting the bag hit the floor with a muffled thud and kicking his sneakers off next to it.
“Took a hard check near the end of practice. Shit happens.”
“You’re bleeding,” Don said incredulously. Poor guy still wasn’t used to this college hockey business. But Casey wasn’t exactly complaining, not when Don ignored all his own boundaries to step right into Casey’s space and take his chin, turning his face toward the light to better inspect the damage. “Did you shower at school?”
“Uh, yeah. Thought the bleedin’ stopped, must’ve opened up again on the way home.”
“Go sit on the couch. I’ll be right there.”
And then he was gone, taking that sudden proximity with him, and Casey huffed a disappointed sigh and grudgingly did as he was told. April wouldn’t be home from class for another two hours, so it was just the two of them, and their small apartment felt somehow smaller as Donnie returned with the first aid kit.
“Aw, come on, D. All that ain’t necessary.”
“Shut up,” Don said without heat, and sat on the edge of the coffee table. Casey’s legs made loose brackets that Don’s knees slotted neatly in between, and he took Casey’s face in hand again, all proprietary-like, and it made Casey swallow back a rising heat in his face.
They were new at this, still. A little awkward with each other just yet, happy to be together with April in this cozy student housing unit Leatherhead helped them scope out, but still getting used to not being at home anymore, and being on their own as mostly-functional quasi-adults, and living together, like people in love tended to do.
“There,” Don said, what felt like two seconds later, already leaning back and away. “Done.”
Casey had approximately five seconds after that to regret not getting his ass kicked a little harder at practice, if it would have meant Don manhandling a little longer, and then Don said, “Would you like a back rub?”
“Uh,” Casey said eloquently, and Don started to withdraw into a shell literally right in front of Casey’s eyes. So he continued, too quickly, “No, that’d be awesome, man. Thanks, for real. I just – why, though?”
“I’ve read that a massage helps speed up muscle recovery after an intense workout,” Don said slowly, in that tricky halfway point between bravery and ‘nevermind, forget it.’ “And you’re usually pretty sore when you come home, so I figured. It might help. Just – stop looking at me like that.”
Casey didn’t realize he was grinning until he noticed Don blushing, and then he could only grin even wider. “You read that, huh? You go lookin’ up how to make your boyfriend feel better after a rough day?” he couldn’t help but tease, warmed and delighted.
“You want the back rub or not?”
“Babe, you can rub me down anywhere you want,” Casey said with a leer that probably looked ridiculous, given the dumb smile still plastered across his newly bandaged face. “Y’don’t even gotta ask, seriously.”
And down the road, Don would be ridiculously good at giving massages. Like, voodoo magic good. He would straddle Casey’s hips and dig expert fingers deep into the bare muscles of his back, and talk or tease or scold him for not taking better care of himself, all while Casey moaned and whimpered and agreed to literally whatever he said because holy shit how did this feel so good. And it would be familiar and comfortable, in that not-so-far-flung future place, but Casey would think back to this first, fumbling time on the couch with the most fondness – this flustered, earnest Donatello, who wasn’t sure where to put his hands but was determined to figure it out, and this lovedrunk Casey Jones, who laughed without cruelty the whole time.