Warning: this story will involve suicide ideation. A lot of it. And I feel like I can't put that out there without following it up to say that killing oneself is never the right answer. Never. And it isn't the only answer, either. There is always an alternative, and there is always a reason to keep going. If you need a reason, here's one – you are reading my story, and that makes you valuable because it matters to me. So if the idea of hurting yourself feels appealing and if you have no one else to think of, for my sake, go look up the Suicide Prevention Hotline and let someone tell you that you matter. Okay?
Also, there will be some gore and some description of gore.
Further author's notes at the bottom.
My name is Donatello and I have a pretty great life.
I'm the third of four brothers: Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, although we're almost effectively the same age. But hierarchy matters in the Clan, so it's important to know who came in first. Leo has that dubious privilege. I'm still not sure how Master Splinter determined eldest from youngest when he adopted us – we were all just babies. Leo thinks he just knew, Raph thinks he guessed randomly (and wrongly, if you ask him), and Mikey claims he picked his favorite to be the youngest and worked backwards. Me, I'm inclined to think Master Splinter didn't decide who was the oldest until later, when our personalities became apparent. Because there's no doubt we all fit where we are, no matter what Raph says about it.
Leonardo is strong and wise, and he is the best of the four of us at all our training, from pure ninjitsu to stealth to tactics to the mystic arts of meditation. He's always alert, always looking out for danger or weakness so he can step in to protect the rest of us. He's also got a serious superiority complex and could use a couple of years of vacation, but he'll never take any time for himself. He's Master Splinter's right hand, as befits the eldest son, and he is always preparing himself for a worse battle or a more difficult kata. When Master Splinter hands over command of the family to him, he'll be so ready for it he might explode. But he's reliable and trustworthy and he embodies all our honor. We're lucky to have him.
Raphael is, first and foremost, loyal. He comes off as if he were nothing but a hotheaded brute, slamming his weight around and blowing off his temper at the slightest provocation, but half of that is an act and we know it. Raph would kill or die for any one of us, and most of his rage is based in fear that he won't be there to protect us when we need it. He clashes with Leo over everything. You name it, they fight over it. A proper second-in-command isn't supposed to challenge the Clan's authority that way, but it has always worked for us. Even when they hate each other, Leo and Raph care about each other on a deep, powerful level, and without Raph to push him, Leo would lose a lot of his intensity. Raph is our strength the way Leo is our honor.
Michelangelo, the youngest, is carefree and funny and irresponsible, which is his way of keeping things from getting too serious. Leo and Raph can go days locked in a cycle of fighting and then refusing to speak to one another, and it's usually Mikey who breaks them out of it by one-upping them or catching them off guard or just making them laugh. Mikey could be as good of a ninja as Leo if he ever tried – he's got a raw athleticism even the "fearless leader" envies, but then, that would require Mikey to sit still long enough to learn to master it. Mikey's priorities have always revolved around the things that make him and everybody else happy, from cooking to storytelling to practical jokes. He teases Raph and pranks Leo and he can quip at our enemies while pulling off some crazy stunt that shouldn't work but just does because he's Mikey and he makes the impossible possible. Mikey's our joy and hope and, especially after a long day, our honesty – he always says the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, and it's usually what we're all thinking.
And me? Well, I'm the third son, and really not much is ever expected of a third or fourth son in a Clan, so while Mikey took that freedom and became Mr Joy And Sunshine And Oh So Much Snark, I went another direction and delved into my studies. I'm a passable ninja, don't get me wrong, but I will never drive myself to the bone like Leo or pound for hours to build up my strength like Raph, and I've got nothing on Mikey. I'm not the strongest or the sneakiest or the fastest, and any one of my brothers can beat me in a fair fight. But my real virtue has always been that I'm uncommonly intelligent. Which, in most ninja Clans, is a nice way of saying "you're a waste of space," but Master Splinter was very firm from the start that each of us had our contributions and never lets others in the Clan get away with whispering about "that useless third son." And I'm not useless. I'm just different from the rest of them. I'm clever even for an Animal, and I've learned all kinds of things from experimentation and curiosity. I'd like to be a true alchemist someday, not just a tinkerer like I am now, but for that I'd need a lot more room and a proper lab and more books. And possibly a little peace and quiet once in a while.
Our Clan is unique in that we're one of the only Clans in the area to include Animals. And I don't mean "animals" like "critters that run around on the forest floor." I mean Animals – anthropomorphic creatures who have vaguely humanoid features and high intelligence. (It's always bugged me that Animals are gauged on their Animal-ness by comparing them to humans, but then again, there are other turtles out there who aren't Animals and there aren't any humans like that, so it makes sense even if it rankles my pride.) Animals are rare – we're thought to be the offspring of some kind of wild magic or alchemical processes, but we don't really know where we come from. Most Animals just appear one day, walking out of a forest or swimming up from the sea and realize that they can learn speech if they try. My brothers and I were lucky – we were found when we were turtle babies by Master Splinter, who is also an Animal, a rat. He took us back to his Lord and was given permission to raise us as Clan.
Our Feudal Lord, Master Hamato Yoshi, is just about the best and most honorable human I've ever met. So many other Lords would have ordered a quartet of Animal turtle babies drowned or cast out upon discovery, as it would be many years before we would be able to serve; at that age we were no more useful than human infants and twice as troublesome. But Master Yoshi covered us all with his robe and gave us to Master Splinter to raise as his sons. So we became part of the Hamato Clan and were trained from that day by Master Splinter to serve our Lord and protect him. There are plenty of rank-and-file soldiers under Master Yoshi, but Master Splinter only taught the four of us to be ninja, and we are always trying to live up to that great honor by proving ourselves. It helps that, for whatever reason, Animals tend to be better than average humans at many things; we're often stronger or more intelligent or more resilient. In our case, the four of us are exceptional even by Animal standards.
That's not conceit. It's simply fact.
But it helps that we have a good and strong sensei in Master Splinter, and he has led us to many victories on behalf of our Master Yoshi. The lands around us are always in turmoil, and other Feudal Lords are often looking to seize Master Yoshi's territory for their own. That's where we come in – the Clan soldiers might hold back an opposing army, but my brothers and I make sure it rarely gets that far. Scouting parties are always sent home in pieces, and assassins are discovered and stopped before they ever reach the central compound. We aren't cruel – we follow the ways of honor – but this valley is Master Yoshi's, and as such, it is under our protection. We don't permit others to harass the peasants or steal from our people, and we make sure all those who live under Master Yoshi are always taken care of, whether that means fighting off bandits or helping in the harvest.
Often, it's Leo and Raph driving off the bandits and Mikey and I doing all the harvesting. I think my older brothers are allergic to any kind of work that isn't related to fighting sometimes.
It's always been a good life. I mean, I argue with my brothers as much as anybody else would with three such distinct and strong personalities trying to share their space, but I would never, ever turn my shell on them. And they would never ever turn their shell on me. We're Clan, we're family, and we're brothers. If one falters, the others step up. If one falls, the others will fight on until we have bled vengeance from the very stones. It's part of why our Clan is so strong – we aren't just fighting for honor or glory. We're fighting for one another, and if I wouldn't drive myself to my best just on my own behalf, or even for Master Yoshi, there is nothing I wouldn't do for my father and my brothers.
Good thing, too. 'Cause this day might well be my greatest test ever.
I'm just finishing up at my workbench when I hear the smallest noise behind me. A lifetime of listening has taught me to tell every sound apart instantly, observing and dismissing without conscious thought, so I don't even tense. A moment later, there is the near-silent sliding of my door.
But I don't turn to the door – one-handed, I take my bo from its place strapped to my shell and bring it down with a firm strike into the blind-side shadows on my right, swinging it overhand as a master raps the knuckles of an inattentive pupil at lessons.
"Don't touch it," I say without looking up. "It's not ready yet."
It's not often I catch Leo off-guard like that, so I stifle a laugh as he sighs angrily and shoves at the bo – I'd gotten him right on the forearm.
"You've been working on that armor for weeks, Don. If Master Yoshi can't wear it to battle tonight…"
"He will," I assure him, looking up at last. "But the symbols are still drying. If you smear them now, they won't work."
"If you say so," Leo shrugs. He understands the principles behind alchemy, but not its intricacies. To Leo, one wiggly shape is the same as another, but to me it's the difference of a spell to prevent rust to a spell that causes it.
"How soon do we move out?" I ask, standing with my pot of newly mixed ink to inscribe the final sigils.
"As soon as the moon rises." Leo steps back and watches me for a little while as I slowly and carefully work the ink into the last few forms and secret symbols that will imbue the armor with protection and luck. "It always amazes me."
"That I can do this?" I have to balance the brush between my teeth so I can move some lacings out of the way without putting down the ink, so it comes out more "Dat ah ken dloo dit?"
"Well, that you are so good at these symbols and yet your calligraphy is so hard to read," Leo smirks at me.
I take the brush out and go back to my work on the side of the breastplate, scowling. "My calligraphy is fine. Just because I don't feel the need to observe every ancient form of perfect writing when I'm taking notes like some turtles."
"I think you do it so we can't read your notes," Leo teases me. "You like making it hard for us."
"You could always take some time to actually learn alchemy yourself," I suggest mildly.
It's an old taunt. When we were children, Leo would be right beside me studying, while Raph and Mikey found increasingly-creative ways to get out of it. But when the time came for learning about alchemy, Leo got really frustrated. He's highly observant and has a well-trained eye, but he remembers the moves of forms and katas better than the tiny differentiators in alchemical symbols. One swoosh to the left can change the entire purpose of a symbol. How he memorized enough characters to master artful calligraphy I'll never know – I suspect he gave up on alchemy because he realized I would handle it, but as the proper oldest son he had to be able to do the fancy writing stuff. Anyway, for years I've tried to get even one of my other brothers interested in alchemy the way I am, just as a backup. One winter I got really sick and they had to go on a mission without me, and they sure missed my little tricks for making fire hotter and wood drier and blankets warmer! But they came home and learned just those basics and then left me to the rest of it.
Oh well. If they hadn't, if they all bent themselves to be alchemists, there might be less I could do to serve the Clan, and then where would I be? Not out, not with this family, certainly. But I'd have to get good at something else. I'm also a fair blacksmith, and I've been taught to make weapons, but I've not had a lot of chances to practice yet. Besides, the weapon that breaks the most often around here is mine, and a wooden bo doesn't take a forge to recreate. I am superb at finding the proper sort of tree to fashion a new bo for myself – I can locate a good branch and sand it down within the hour if I'm really motivated. And once or twice, when I didn't have that hour, I just fought with a barked branch and bound up my poor fingers later.
"Is there anything else you need before we head out?" Leo ignores my point as usual.
"Nope," I say, brushing ink carefully over the helmet. "My pack is already full enough, thanks." I tip my head to the shoulder-bag I often carry. It has everything from some basic alchemical ingredients to some tools for emergency repairs (or breaking in), to a few critical medical supplies. That's me, the do-it-all turtle, Donnie the Versatile.
"Glad to hear it, little brother."
I finish my last sigil and look at Leo in concern, my forehead wrinkling. "What's worrying you?"
"What do you mean?" he tries to deflect. Oh, Leonardo. Don't try that on me. It hasn't worked since we were tiny.
"You're obviously bothered. Come on – out with it."
Leo smiles sheepishly. "What gave me away?"
You mean besides everything? Now that I'm looking at him, it couldn't be clearer if he was waving his arms and shouting. Which is usually how Mikey gets our attention, actually. I set down my ink and brush and face him, crossing my arms across my plastron. "You only ever call me 'little brother' when something's up. Something big."
"It's not necessarily big," Leo shakes his head. "It's just…Master Splinter and I had a vision in meditation today."
I tense. "Dire?"
"Very," he nods wearily. "Nothing but shadow and evil and sorrow."
I step close to him. Leonardo's visions are always good, and if and Master Splinter shared it…
He reads the look in my eyes and sighs. "Don't tell the other two, okay? I've got enough to worry about without either of them getting paranoid. You know how they are?"
"You mean how Raph won't leave anybody alone no matter what it does to the mission and Mikey will get nervous and make mistakes? Yeah, I know." I tip my head. "But you told me? You never tell me."
"I know," Leo reaches out and grips my shoulder. He squeezes tightly and I can see the worry in every taut line and sinew of his body. "But it's different this time. I just…I thought someone else should know." He stares into my eyes. "I need you to be ready."
"Ready for what?" I ask.
After that so very cheerful statement, Leo makes an exit that is equal parts drama and dismissal. If he wore a cape, it would swirl around him like the wind itself was dancing in his wake. I know he does it deliberately – Leo is not just preoccupied with the actual strength of the Clan, but also the perceived strength of the Clan. If he looks like an intimidating force to be reckoned with, which he absolutely is, by the way, he wins the mental battle before he even draws his swords.
But I know him too well. There's a hitch in his step, a tension in his shoulders. That cape wouldn't quite swirl right if he were wearing it now. Leonardo is really worried this time.
Not that I can really blame him. Tomorrow we face perhaps the most dangerous and important battle of our lives even before the warning of Leo's meditations. Master Yoshi has a neighbor to the south with whom we have always had an alliance, and that neighbor called upon us in the spirit of friendship to help him defend his own borders. There is a Lord who has been taking conquest to a new extreme, sweeping through the land, and at last he has turned his eye this way. Master Yoshi will be leading us and many of the soldiers into battle to help support and defend our ally, because if this Lord burns through the lands to the south, we will be next.
Something about Leo's paranoia must be contagious, because I find myself turning back to my workbench in contemplation. There's truly nothing more I can do for Master Yoshi's new set of armor – it has been the labor of the last year, not to mention the months spent planning it. Every ikada was hand-crafted, every kawa odoshi specifically cured and cut for its purpose, the suneate measured twice (thanks to our Master's patience) and tested extensively for perfect freedom of movement. And at every stage of the process I worked alchemy into the very metals and leathers, the coals to heat and temper, the hammers and delicate tools that wrought every piece. It is my finest work and a true masterpiece. I have turned myself inside out in its creation and there is literally nothing more I can do for it now.
But the lessons of this past year are strong with me, too, and just because I cannot better protect Master Yoshi does not mean I am idle. So, after I call a body-servant to carefully deliver the armor to our Master's chambers, I have a few hours yet before moonrise, and I intend to use them. As part of our pre-battle ritual, my brothers have left me with their primary weapons for inspection and, if possible, improvement. A few years ago, one of Mikey's nunchaku broke in combat when he had thoughtlessly wrenched a bent piece back into its approximate shape without considering the weakness inherent in the metal after such treatment. Since then, if we know we will be fighting, they all give me their weapons the day before so I can ensure they never break in their hands again.
By the time Leo returns to collect me, Raph and Mikey at his heels, I have done everything I could think of twice over on their weapons. I can see from their faces that they are surprised.
Leonardo fights with twin katanas, master of not one but two weapons and several different complimentary disciplines. The katanas themselves are a little shorter than those a human would use, and heavier too – a testament to my brother's skill and strength – making them harder for anyone else to wield and much more deadly in his hands. The blades gleam as they always do after my care, but this time I have added something extra. A long series of sigils run the length of each blade, the ink sunk straight into the metal by the power of alchemy. The scroll-work is aesthetically lovely, but the power imbued is far more important. Knowing Leo as I do, I didn't dare make any modifications to the tsubas or tsukas, as it could throw off his extremely delicate balance.
Raphael's sais were much harder, but eventually I found a way to run a spiral of symbols around each of the wicked points, and the tsukagashira bears a powerful sigil at its heavy, rounded end. Raph is a brawler and a close-in fighter, though his weapons are traditionally also the proper counter against a swordmaster. The real trick to improving the sais lies in what cannot be seen – beneath the leather wraps that soften the grips is a tightly-woven series of symbols that are so strong they have left imprints in the leather itself. But the braidings that cover the tsuka are thick, also covered with symbols in simple ink this time, so I hope he won't mind the difference.
Michelangelo fights with a pair of nunchaku, which I know inside and out as he's broken them more than once. Unlike the traditional style, where a stout cord would connect the two batons, Mikey's are joined by thick kusari chains. Each link in the kusari has had a sigil added to it in at least one place, and where the kusari are clamped onto the jukon-bu there is a tiny, tiny string of them almost too fine to make out. The chukon-bu, like with Raph's sais, has been completely redone, and if Mikey pulled off the single layer of leather that separates the hard wood from the air, he would see reams of sigils covering every bare spot.
"Wow, Donnie! What'd ya do?" Raph asks as he looks over his beloved sais with a critical eye. Wisely, he makes no move to pick them up. Raph is no alchemist but he's a fair blacksmith himself, and we've worked side-by-side on weapons-crafting before. He knows that sometimes alchemical processes leave metals hot for hours.
"If you were gonna put weird stuff on there, couldn't you have painted something better like a dragon or a tiger or – Yipes!" Mikey, however, in spite of being warned a hundred times, tries to pick up his nunchaku and gets burned fingers for his trouble.
"You know better," Leo admonishes him. Mikey says something rude, but he's busy cramming most of one hand into his mouth to soothe the burn so it comes out very muffled.
"Here," I take pity on my younger brother and hold out a hand. Mikey's eyes are alight, and I can tell he's mostly faking his pain just to get me to do this. I sigh. So predictable. Still…Mikey does really good pleading help-me-I'm-tiny-and-helpless-and-cute eyes. I give in.
All my primary supplies are in my bag, so I reach to the top shelf for my secondary stash. I pull out a small jar of a white salve and the tiny applicator brush. The salve itself does most of the work to numb the immediate pain, and by painting it on with the right sigils, the injury will heal before the numbness wears off. But the part Mikey likes is the instant of charging the sigils. I breathe a single word over the neat line of marks on his fingertips and the white flashes gold for a moment before fading completely. I'll admit, it does feel neat, like a sudden trickle of ice.
"Thanks bro!" he grins at me.
"So, why the extra trouble, Don?" Leo asks me, examining his swords carefully.
"Well," I meet his eyes before fixing my gaze on the glittering weapons on the table – all polished to within an inch of their lives, because if I'm taking care of the weapons I go all the way and heat hasn't been a problem for me for years – "I just had a feeling we might want a little extra help this time."
Leo understands and his face relaxes a little. Still, there are mountains under less pressure than my brother.
"They gonna be cool any time soon, brainiac?" Raph asks, and I can see his fingers twitching to hold his sais. Patience is distinctly not one of Raph's virtues. I run my hand expertly over the air a finger's width above the blade of the katanas, which I had finished first. Still pretty hot.
I hum as I consider and then, feeling three sets of eyes on me, decide they're just going to stand here staring at me until they can have them back. I crack my knuckles once before I push the palm of my right hand down onto the blade of the nearest katana. There's the momentary searing pain as the heat hits me, but almost as quickly it vanishes as I whisper out a long string of words. At my command, the heat moves up my arm, along my shoulders, and down to my left hand, which I have put on the pot in which I hold my ink. It's a really useful technique, being able to transfer the energy of the fire's heat into the ink that I will use next time, even if it does cause that momentary hurt but no actual damage. It only takes me a few moments to cool each of the weapons enough for the others to touch.
They practically leap on their weapons when I step back, each handling them with care. My workshop is just big enough that all three can spread out a bit and take a few practice swings and jabs. I see Leo nodding to himself and I'm glad I didn't mess with anything but the flat of the blade. Raph raises an eyebrow in my direction – he did notice the weight differential – but it's slight and he smirks as he looks at the sigil that he will probably be stamping onto some foreheads when he reverses the sai to use it in a punch. It means "strength and endurance" and, in Raph's hands, will probably mean a lot more hurt in the blow. Mikey swings the nunchaku cheerfully, and if he's aware that they move faster and more smoothly and silently, but the chains are ten times stronger, he doesn't say anything.
"Thanks bro," Raph tucks the sais away in his belt with an expert flick and then scruffs me on the head.
I'm just shrugging off the scruff when Mikey pops up beside me and says, "What about your bo?"
"What about my bo?" I ask, tipping my head.
"Don't you do any of your magic doohickey stuff on it too?"
Oh. Um. This is a little awkward. I take the bo from its place strapped to my shell and hold it out laterally. Let's see if I can explain this without getting yelled at.
"Every bo I craft gets the same sigils on it," I say, pointing to the four symbols carved directly into the wood. "Strength and endurance. Silence. Protection. Justice." I twirl it and put it away.
"And what does the rest of this mean?" Leo wants to know as he looks at his blades.
I sigh. Typical. "Everything I just said plus a lot of high-level charms and other additions. Luck and prosperity and honor just to name a few. Insurance that the weapon will protect you even at the cost of itself."
"Why don't you have that stuff on your bo?" Now Raph's looking at me. I sigh again.
"The bo is not refined the way your weapons are. Alchemy works better on metals and other tempered or treated materials if you aren't using it on something alive like a person. The wood is too raw, too natural, but also dead. The only alchemical sigils that work on something that close to a pure natural state are those sigils that are the most simple and earth-based. If I could do real, wizard magic, or even if I had learned some higher-order alchemy it would be different, but I can't and I haven't."
"So you're saying because the bo is mostly just a dead tree you can't put as much mojo on it?" Mikey asks. Where on earth did he get a word like "mojo" anyway? I'll never know where he comes up with some of this stuff.
"Basically. I mean, I'm sure there's a way to do it. I've just never taken the time to figure it out." I can see Raph's face starting to resemble a thundercloud. Hoo boy, looks like I've woken the sleepy tiger and he's feeling protective. Great.
But Leo saves me. "I'm glad you do as much as you can," he claps me on the shoulder. "And thank you for going to this extra trouble for the rest of us." He looks at Raph and narrows his eyes. "We should be grateful for the hard work you've done rather than try to belittle it or pass judgment when none of us can really understand what you do."
Ha! That pulled the fight right out of him. Raph huffs and scruffs my head again, rumbling something.
Mikey looks like he's going to say something, but a soft gong ringing outside interrupts him. It's the signal that the Clan is ready to head out and we need to be with them. Leonardo wastes no time, nodding curtly to the three of us before striding out the door, expecting us to follow. Which, of course, we will. Mikey bounces after him, and I pause just long enough to make sure the forge is cool enough to leave without risking a fire and to grab my newly-charged pot of ink to add to my shoulder-bag. But when I look up, Raph is leaning on the door-frame.
"I know ya too well, Donnie," he says. "I know ya skimped on your own protection to make sure you had time for the rest of our stuff instead."
Uh oh. I open my mouth to argue, but Raph shakes his head.
"I get it, bro. Don't worry about it. I'd do the same if I could. But watch your back. Fearless," he grins at his favorite nickname for Leo, "thinks I don't know, but he's no good at hiding when he's worried. Something's up. And you gotta know it too if you did all that extra work. So you make sure that bo of yours is strong enough to protect you the way it should or I'll break it over your head." He leaves.
Oh. Yeah, that could hurt.
Because we are traveling to defend the land so far to the south, we're starting out on horseback. My brothers and I always meet long journeys with mixed feelings. On the one hand, turtles are not built to sit on horses. Seriously, even the most carefully-crafted saddle still can't make it a comfortable experience. We're just not shaped or weighted correctly for it. We each have a custom-made saddle, and the horses that carry us are huge, powerful animals that could carry a fully armed samurai, which is good since that's about what we weigh. But it's still not pleasant.
On the other hand, our horses absolutely love us and we're pretty fond of them as well. Horses are intelligent enough to know that we are Animals, and thus closer to them than humans. Most animals are calmer in the hands of Animals like us – we understand each other differently. Humans teach horses to respond to verbal commands or reins or kicks. We communicate with horses in a language of bodies and eye-contact and subtle movements. Our mounts have been ours for years, and we've grown together more than most horse-rider pairs.
Leo's horse is huge and black, and just as proud as his rider. That horse will do anything for Leo as long as it is impressive or skillful, as if the pair of them belong at the head of a parade or an imperial army thousands strong. He's also the oldest of our horses – he was given to Leo when we were about nine on the occasion where Master Splinter formally made Leo his heir. Unfortunately for Leo, though, in a fit of childhood exuberance he named the poor thing Virtues Of Bushido, which, over the years, has degenerated to Bushy. I think Leo has given him a different name that he uses privately now, but since he doesn't want anybody coming up with a new nickname he just lets us call the horse Bushy.
Raph's horse is a dark brown, and probably the fastest horse in the valley. She's fierce and she hates everybody but Raph whom she adores; she only barely tolerates me and Mikey, and I suspect Raph trained her to bite Leo but I can't prove it. Originally her name was Angel, since she was named before anybody knew what a cranky spitfire she was, but now we mostly call her Hothead. I can't imagine why. It's not like she can give Raph a run for his money in that department or anything. Hothead's the only girl of our four, and she mostly keeps the other horses in line. Sometimes I think Hothead tries to be the matron of the herd just to spite Bushy, and it works.
Mikey's horse is also brown, but much lighter in color than Hothead. He's unfortunately named Klunk because Mikey got the idea and decided it before any of us could stop him. Klunk isn't clumsy, in spite of the name, though. He's agile and flexible, and very clever. Of the four, I'm pretty sure Klunk is the smartest, with maybe a touch of Animal blood in him. I swear I've seen him and Mikey laughing together after they pull some stunt, usually scaring Leo half to death. Klunk also gets out of every single paddock or stable or any other enclosure and we've never really figured out how. At this point we just let the guy run free – he always comes to Mikey's whistle.
My horse is a medium grey color, and he's named Professor. He's extremely sweet-tempered, and he's the one most likely to wind up with someone other than me on his back. Hothead won't bear any rider but Raph, Klunk doesn't mind being ridden by humans but insists on bouncing around so much they don't really enjoy the experience, and Bushy glares disdainful murder at anyone he deems unworthy climbing on his back. Professor just doesn't mind that much. Professor is also the largest of the horses, bigger by a hand and a half than Bushy, and it's a good thing too because inevitably he winds up carrying most of my supplies. Professor might be as smart as Klunk but he's content with being a horse, I guess. I think he knows more alchemy than my brothers do, though, just from listening to me babble about it for the last five years.
Master Splinter has a horse, too, black and named Honor, but she is usually stabled with Master Yoshi's stallion. He will ride tonight because of the distance, but more often than not he prefers to walk no matter how far we're traveling. I wish he wouldn't. He's not a young rat anymore, and he already needs a walking stick when he gets tired. But getting Master Splinter to rest himself is like getting Leo to stop worrying – it would be easier to push the moon backwards.
We're saddled up and all our weapons and supplies are loaded when Master Yoshi arrives on his own white charger, resplendent in his new armor. As the only ninja of the Clan and as his special favorites, we have the right not to be down on our knees before him all the time, so we stay mounted and just drop our heads respectfully.
"Good evening, Splinter. Good evening, sons of Splinter," he greets us politely.
"Good evening, Master Yoshi," Master Splinter speaks for us.
"The moon shines brightly tonight," Master Yoshi smiles at us as we lift our eyes. "It shines with the righteousness of our cause and the strength of our blades. We ride tonight not to war, but to the protection of our people."
"We are honored to serve, Master," Splinter smiles a little. Master Splinter has known Master Yoshi since he was a boy and our father was his particular guardian, and I think he loves him with a special kind of loyalty.
"And it is my honor that you stand at my side, Splinter. I am privileged indeed to have five such warriors and their respect." Master Yoshi urges his horse forward and we all move to make way, but he stops.
"Donatello," he says and I suddenly feel like the entire valley is staring at me, "I wish to thank you for your extraordinary work on my armor. In all my days, I have never seen its equal."
I duck my head in what I hope looks like modesty but is really because it's supremely impolite to be grinning like a maniac into one's Lord's face.
"After these lands are again peaceful," he continues, "I wish you to explain to me the work you have done, the meanings of the many sigils, the art of your creation."
I look back up in surprise. "Master?"
"I know little of alchemy myself," Master Yoshi is meeting my eyes with a warmth that gets right inside my skin, "but I know its powers and its uses well enough. If, when you make your explanation to me, I find it is as intricate and advanced as I suspect, we may have other matters to discuss."
"Other matters, Master?" I am curious enough that I forget that I'm being stared at by basically everybody.
"Donatello," his smile widens, "this work suggests that you might be among the most talented and innovative alchemists in any of the surrounding lands. I wish to know the true scope of your abilities because I believe there may be something I can do to help you further and expand your understanding. There are only a handful of truly superb alchemists in the world, and I believe you ought to be numbered amongst them. If your aptitude is what I believe it is, I will sponsor your studies such that you might discover the truth of your gifts, and that you might bring honor to us all."
I can practically feel my brothers' surprise and joy on my behalf, but I can't look at them right now. I mostly want to jump out of Professor's saddle and dance and shout my own joy until the mountains ring with it. To be permitted, encouraged even, to find the limits of what I can do, to learn from other master alchemists, to invent new techniques and expand the understanding of the arts – there is nothing I want more than that. Master Yoshi could pile me with gold and I would trade it and everything I own for this chance he offers me freely.
It takes me a long moment to control the emotions bubbling up behind my plastron, and I have to swallow twice before I can force words through my throat thick with wonder and maybe even tears but hopefully not because I am still a ninja and ninjas don't cry. "I am humbled and honored, Master Yoshi. I thank you for such kindness."
"No, Donatello," he nudges his horse closer still and puts a warm hand on my bare and admittedly trembling shoulder. "It is I who must thank you for the selflessness of your work. It is you who have given me a gift I cannot repay. It is a great pleasure to serve you as you have served me."
Clearly seeing that I am utterly out of words, Master Yoshi releases my shoulder and continues off to address my brothers and then the lines of his soldiers awaiting his orders. I look down at my hands – which are shaking, I note absently – and study them as if I have never seen them before. They are crisscrossed with scars and calluses, the latter from my study of ninjitsu and the former from my mishaps in the forge. But inscribed on each palm is a symbol I carved there many years prior, a powerful sigil that allows me to conduct my alchemy through my hands rather than needing a wand or other tool. I gave myself to the study of alchemy before I was really old enough to know what I was doing, but I cannot be sorry about it.
"Donatello," Splinter's soft, kind voice draws my attention from where I am lost. "My son."
I look up and see that he has come to stand at my knee. He gestures with a hand and I lean down so he can reach my head. He settles a soft, fuzzy palm along my cheek.
"I am very proud of you, Donatello."
"Yeah!" Mikey finally explodes. I can tell he's been bursting but held himself in check until Master Yoshi was mostly out of earshot. "Dude, you're so awesome! Way to go!"
"That's our little brainiac," Raph smiles at me.
"You deserve it," Leo is smiling too. "It's about time the rest of the world found out how special you are."
I'm starting to protest – and getting out from under that much fond attention would be good for my bashful nature before I start blushing – when the sharp sound of metal striking metal interrupts us all. It's the signal that the time has come to move out. Master Splinter leaves my side and deftly climbs astride Honor to lead us. We will be at the head of Master Yoshi's forces for the march, riding as scouts and guards for the rest to come. We always look thoroughly impressive there, too – the dignified rat with his sharp eyes and keen expression flanked by the four of us. We don't wear samurai armor because we don't need it, but we each wear protective pads on our elbows, knees, and wrists, and we have our belts and the sheathes for our weaponry. And our masks. From the day we became ninja, we have each worn a mask. It's a little strange, since we don't really have identities to conceal. Not a lot of giant turtle Animals around, after all. But they set us apart and they do make us more intimidating. Leo has blue, Raph has red, Mikey has orange, and I have purple. To this day, I don't know what the colors mean, but I think Master Yoshi does. I think he might have chosen them for us himself.
The next moments are a blur of getting into position and taking off at speed, and I find myself pushing Professor faster than usual. My brothers and father join me as we ride five across the road into the night, and when it's just us, I let myself grin as though the smile would break me in half.
I thought I had a pretty good life before. Now I can't wait to find out how much more great it will be!
Yeah, I know. I begin with a dire warning at the start and we end the first chapter with Donnie optimistic and truly elated. That's gonna change, folks. Just so you know.
This story was my attempt to write a version of what I've been calling "Donatello and the Beast" as in the classic fairytale. Any similarity to any other telling of "Beauty and the Beast" is entirely the fault of, well, starting from the same base. There's only so many ways to get here, you guys!
That said, mine came out pretty damn unique, and I'm happy with it. Also, this story is, in many ways, closer to my heart that any other I've written in a long, long time. Partly, writing in first person for one of a very few times in my life made things quite personal. But, in addition, Donatello sort of followed me as I've gone up and down my own struggles in life. I giggled with him when he was silly, and I cried with him when he hurt. There's a lot more of me (and, by extension, several of my friends) in this story than usually happens.
I'll update every week as always – the whole thing is done with 12 chapters. Hang in there for the ride, and I hope you enjoy it.
Lastly, thank you eternally to my friend Montera who helped me make the full cover, which you can see on the version posted to AO3.