You don't think about your reflexes until afterward.
Disclaimer: I don't own the TMNT. Today, anyway.
By Lady Dementia
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
He'd seen it coming without really comprehending it, that moment suspended out of time when Winters had flung himself at the line of turtles standing at the gate between worlds. A spiked monster the size of a small cargo ship had been hurtling toward them, claws carving sharp splinters of stone floor in a futile attempt to stop, and Winters was going to save the turtles by tackling them out of the way. Their brains were stunned at the sudden appearance of a gigantic monster charging them. That vital second froze them up; their minds scrambled to switch to a new tactic for dealing with this totally unfamiliar foe. Winter's was a heroic action that took only a second--that switch-over second they couldn't afford--to complete from sprint to sprawl. He could have, SHOULD have, gotten them all out of the way.
But Donatello had been at the end of that line, the furthest from Winters, given the most of that fraction of a second to SEE what was about to happen.
Raphael's reflexes, conditioned by almost two years of nightly street-fighting against every form of scum that wore a human form, took over where his brain temporarily failed. In any other situation, that probably would have saved his life. Usually when he saw a human shape leaping toward him, powerful and with obvious intent to take him down, it was a bad thing. Getting out of the way of said bad thing was therefore a good thing.
Except that tonight, Raphael's reflexive flinch put him out of Winter's frantic reach. Just by an inch, but by just enough. Donatello's brain chose to kick into high gear for that fraction of a second he'd been granted as the turtle closest to safety. He saw Raphael flinch back, left standing before the monster sliding toward them. He saw the reflex begin to melt into realization, but too late for Raphael. Always too late for his hot-headed brother.
Raphael's reflexes worked differently than his own. Raph's fought first and thought later; he reacted to Winter's rush as just another step in the ongoing battle. Donatello's reflex, however, was to think. Splinter had always encouraged this trait in moderation with his ninjitsu training, but while his body responded quickly, his mind had always been faster. Using his mind was so deeply ingrained into his reactions that when his brain cut out, it still spun thoughts faster than his mind could comprehend them. Reflex, for him, picked a thought to follow.
That exact moment's thought speculated on the consequences of Raphael's reflexes. The speculation caught his shell-shocked brain and slammed the 'ON' switch in the sliver of a moment given to him. Speculation became fact, the fact that Raphael wasn't going to be able to get out of the beast's way in time, and what would happen as a result. On the heels of that fact snapped Donatello's choice. There wasn't much time to decide, but some decisions require less thought than others. This one was practically reflex.
Leonardo had been tackled first in Winters' lunge, and in a distant way Donatello was glad Leo was facing the wrong direction to see what happened. Sheer momentum wouldn't have allowed him to do anything, but Leonardo might have hurt Winters in trying. Michelangelo would have yelled Raphael's name if he'd seen it coming, but the red-banded turtle was behind him. There was no escape behind them, only the four stone Immortals, and Michelangelo's reflexes had kicked in. Michelangelo's reflex was to dodge, to find an escape route and get some distance. Of all of them, in this situation his reflexes served best. He saw the monster, he saw Winters, and he threw himself sideways with the man's tackle without even thinking about it.
Donatello jumped backwards, watching his two brothers shells fly past him and smiling slightly at the panic in the Winter's face as the man's face flashed by. He'd tried, and Donny was grateful to the man for saving at least two of them. If Raphael had to face this, however, then Donatello would be there with him. The visceral fear of losing one of his brothers had hung over the last two years Leonardo had been gone. He'd discovered in the last half second that it didn't matter how often he'd muttered a wish that Raphael had been the one sent away. Losing a brother meant losing a brother. Terror stabbed into his gut at the thought of ANY face missing in that horror-story future.
So he jumped back, and that's how the monster hit him. The beast's flailing dumped it over onto its side as it slid out of control, but its waving hind paws smashed into him like a razor-edged bulldozer with a need to kill. The paw slammed him back and downward, and Donatello cried out as he spun wildly. Mid-air and without any leverage, all the ninja skill in the world couldn't help him. He grappled with the uppermost claw heading for his throat, but the sucking pull of the gate threw off his attempt to evade the other claws. They scored down his plastron and grabbed softer flesh as he screamed. His left leg opened up from groin to knee, impaled through the upper thigh by one wedged claw. Another claw flexed and cleanly snapped his lower leg, but his scream was overshadowed by thundering white noise as the gate lit up. The sucking pressure whipped them into a vacuum of pressure and light as suddenly fiery as a candle doused with gasoline. Something heavy clobbered his shell, forcing the air from his lungs. His scream became a coughed wheeze as a crack more felt than heard cleaved his shell, and a great weight abruptly jerked open the split. If he could have inhaled, he'd have screamed again.
The world overflowed with white light and dizzying movement. Struggling against claws, pressure, and vertigo, Donatello became a green streak in the tumbling mass whirling around the towering spire of power that flared incandescent as it pulled them upward. Another world's gravity grabbed the tangle of monster, turtles, and stone generals. Eyes watering with pain and blurry from bright light, the purple-banded turtle heaved a breath as the weight on his shell literally fell off, and he caught a glimpse of fear on the stone Immortal's face before red crackles began covering it. The sensation of something stuck in his shell keeping the crack open, however, didn't abate. That pain paled in comparison to his fear and agony when the monster tossed him by his impaled leg in its thrashing, and his breath came out in another scream. It vanished as it left his throat, blended with the cacophony of panicked bellows.
Apparently someone had heard him after all. Relief blotted out the pain for the blink of an eye. For that brief nanosecond, he was the turtle toddler who hadn't been able to reason away monsters under the bed at night. And, like always, he called out for his bigger, meaner brother to scare his fear away. "Raphy?!"
The claw threatening to slash his throat flexed again, and Donatello concentrated through the pain on stopping it. His lower leg was flopping in a very disconcerting and extremely excruciating way while his thigh pulsed pain and freely spurting blood with every movement of the beast, but out of the corner of his eye he spotted green. Red cloth on green skin, with its own scattering of cuts leaking droplets of blood into the air, but Raphael was coming for him. Swimming up a current of light toward him, except that the directions were all wrong and he was certain Raphael couldn't defy gravity. Except that this was the gate to another world, and everything in him screaming about the impossibilities and laws of physics could go hang, because he didn't care so long as Raphael got his shell over here and helped him. He'd figure out the new rules to a new world when he had dealt with the more important matters.
The part of his mind not occupied with struggling for his life celebrated the fact that Raphael was alive and seemed to be okay. Pissed and worried, if his expression was anything to go by, but pissed and worried was far better than absent completely. Pissed and worried Raphael was the Raphael who was always there to pull him out of trouble, whether that be monsters under the bed or Elite Foot soldiers. Donatello was extremely glad to see pissed and worried Raphael. This was the Raphael that kicked butt and took names until whatever threatened his family wasn't able to anymore.
Donatello hadn't realized he'd relied on this Raphael so much. He hadn't even known until Leo's rescue tonight that he'd missed him at all. In the slush of panic and pain filling his mind, a giddy kind of feeling surged at the sight of his brother: familiar, missed, and defying GRAVITY to reach him.
Somehow, a smile fought up through the pain. "Gotta trim this mutt's claws," he gasped, pressing his hands to the spurting artery in his leg as Raphael hauled himself up using whatever was lodged in his shell--probably a sword, if one of the Immortals had put it there--and got a grip on the claw threatening his throat. The red-banded turtle braced his knee against the beast's foot and yanked back with all his considerable strength. The knuckle popped out of joint. The monster howled at that and shook its whole leg, and Donatello shrieked above all the gate's considerable noise.
Raphael swore fiercely, wrapping his arms around his brother and pushing off from the monster with his feet. Donatello's olive skin, already an unhealthy pale color from blood loss, took on a gray tint, and Raphael slapped him sharply. "Don't fade on me, Donny! Tell me what to do, here!" He knew basics, not what to do with this. Donatello shook his head, wobbling at the neck, but Raphael didn't wait for him to recover fully before taking advantage of the gate's free-fall to push himself down to his brother's leg. He had to do SOMETHING. Basics were a starting point, right? He'd apply pressure to stop the blood, because Donatello was GUSHING.
Grimacing, he pushed the flap of muscle and skin hanging loose back into place, slippery with blood and hard to grip. He wrapped his hands around Donatello's thigh, digging his fingers into the back while using the whole length of his thumbs to try and seal the edges. "Talk to me, Donny!" he called above the roaring noise.
"We're falling," his brother said, making no effort to be heard above the noise. Blood loss, shock, and the pain had combined into a haze slowing his mind. Reflex chose a thought to follow. They hadn't defied physics, really. When he thought about it, it was perfectly logical that what he'd thought was up in their world would be down in another world. It was a matter of reversal for the method of arrival. "We're falling, Raph," he repeated a bit louder.
"Donny, tell me what to do!" his red-banded brother barked.
Glazed eyes blinked down at him, clearing slowly. Clearing to see down, past the brother who was now beyond worry and into straight-out afraid for him, past the generals--when had they become human?--falling beneath them, to what they fell toward. Rather quickly, at that. Of course. He'd already thought about that, although only now was his mind catching up to comprehend it. If they'd fallen up leaving, then coming would mean falling down…
His mind finally processed that. "Raph, we're FALLING!" he yelled, pointing, and Raphael followed his gaze.
If he hadn't known his brother so well, Donatello would have never known what he'd said, and even that was because he saw his brother's mouth move. A moment later, and he couldn't see a thing as Raphael let his thigh go and grabbed him around the waist in a bear hug. His leg exploded up his body and burst in his head like a popped valve. Blood pounded in his ears and blanked his senses in a wave of agony, and Donatello felt vaguely concerned that he couldn't hear any screams. He was sure he was screaming. All he could see or hear or feel, however, was a weightless sensation, as if he were suspended in a sea of black speckled with white, no, white speckled with black, no, it was the white fire of the gateway, and his vision was clearing, and, oh, SHELL it hurt—
Raphael didn't bother to be gentle. There was no time for thinking of being gentle. There was only time for action when he saw the ground rushing up at them. No matter the fight and how bad it was going to end, that was his reflex, to respond with immediate action—and take the blow for his brother. His hands automatically let go of Donatello's leg and seized him around the highest point he could reach, and his legs wrapped around his brother's so that no matter what angle they dropped at, he'd be the one who hit the ground first. There was no time to climb higher and protect Donatello's head, but he yelled at him to use his arms. It was hopelessly lost in the blast of hot air that struck them from below.
The power of that wind, its sheer rush of speed, heat, and dryness, felt like the reverse of Niagara Falls. It nearly ripped them apart, only Raphael's stubborn strength holding them together, and if they hadn't already been in trouble they certainly were now. The two turtles tumbled, unable to control how they spun. Donatello's face locked in a grimace of pain, but his uninjured right leg bent around Raphael's while he covered his head. It took maybe three seconds total for the wind to scorch them with its arid heat, and Raphael hacked against his plastron as they choked on air that seared their lungs. It sucked the moisture from their eyes, forcing them closed in self-defense, and Donatello couldn't take the disorientation. Closing his eyes to the combination of free fall, pain, and sudden blood loss caused him to vomit, heaving and coughing. He couldn't lower his arms, but he couldn't clear his throat to breathe, and Raphael kept shouting something at him.
"Turn around!" His hands scrabbled at the split in Donatello's shell, but he couldn't reach it. Oh, shell, he couldn't reach the sword! "Donny, TURN AROUND!" He pushed at his brother's body, but now their legs were twisted together, keeping them in place. He was wrapped around his brother as far as he could, protecting as much of him as possible in that final plunge toward the ground, but all Raphael could think was that he couldn't protect Donatello's back. And he knew that their first instinct upon falling was to roll to dispel the energy, just as they'd been drilled by Master Splinter. The glimpses he caught of the ground through slit eyes were getting closer and closer, and if Donatello fell on the sword stuck in his shell… He HAD to get that sword out, but he couldn't get the sword out if he couldn't reach it! His voice cracked, "DONNY, MOVE!"
It was too late. Over the rushing air and roar of the gate came a series of dull thuds below them, and the two turtles latched onto each other. They didn't have to think about it. Something at the animal base of their brains shot visceral fear through them at that sound.
How could they possibly have braced themselves for a fall between worlds?
Earth returned thirteen monsters to the merciless planet that had spawned them, and it, sadistic as its children, stole from Earth four now-mortal generals and two turtles. It was no surprise that introductions were rough. Five of the beasts, immortal no longer once they were back where they'd come from, died quick deaths smashed open over the great carved threshold of the gateway. The next six monsters lingered on for another few seconds after impact, having been spared a fast death by dint of the metal capsules encasing them and the bodies of the predecessors cushioning their arrival. One capsule whirled clear and actually landed intact. Its occupant, shaken, battered, and still bound in chains, immediately leapt at the barred window, snarling at the freedom out of its reach.
Then it fell silent. The generals and the largest of the monsters fell out of the white portal, stopping the agonized howls of the trapped and broken as they landed and starting their own chorus of wails. Even as those cries started, the creature backed away from the porthole. From the back of the capsule, it could barely see the gate spit out the last of its unwilling passengers before crackling loudly and disappearing back into the sky for another 3,000 years. But the anguished sound of futile protest from one of the green brothers and the shriek of a hurt animal did not tempt its interest. It remained pressed against the back of the capsule, snarl completely silent and no longer of anger.
After enjoying 3,000 years of immortality on Earth, it had not missed its home. Its home, however, seemed to have missed it. There was a greeting party waiting for the new arrivals, ready to welcome them. A greeting party, of sorts.
The first fanged mouth in line curved in a brutal smile, and under the harsh burn of the sun, eager shadows moved in on the wounded.
A new pitch entered the screams soon after.
And all Donatello could think was that it wasn't supposed to be like this.
He could hardly see. Whether that was the unbearable, burning sunlight or something more, he didn't know, but he could see enough to know that his problems were the least of their worries right then. Raphael was a dizzying tornado of red and green streaked with silver sais, desperately trying to defend them, trying to push back the slavering pack. Somewhere behind him, there were human sounds of panic and fear, along with the familiar clash of weaponry. He presumed that those belonged to the generals. The bellows and yelps, snarls and roars? Those were new, and he had no idea what they belonged to.
No, he did know. Logically, they belonged to monsters similar to the thirteen Winters had collected to close the gate. Donatello KNEW that. He just couldn't seem to make himself follow the thought to the right conclusion and comprehend what he already knew. A hundred, maybe a thousand thoughts flew through his mind in the space of a minute, and he couldn't do more than focus on a single one. That was how his reflexes worked, and all he had left were reflexes.
"Donny, ya gotta breath!"
His cheek was pressed into grit so dry it leeched the blood from the scrapes it had created across his face. Bile bubbled in his throat and dripped slowly to the ground under his slack mouth, gummy and acidic. He couldn't cough it up. He couldn't breathe around it. It would burn his lungs from the inside out, but he'd die of asphyxiation long before that. That was a simple fact of life, just like the way that his hand twitched in the dust in front of his eyes without his violation, or the way he couldn't feel his legs. Somewhere behind him there was a general without a sword. He wished he could give it back with a pound of flesh extracted as interest, if only for his brother. As vengeance for the look on Raphael's face when he'd seen how they'd landed. What had happened. What couldn't be undone. That look…
"Donny! Don't you DARE die!"
He'd never heard that in his temperamental brother's voice before. It sounded wrong and disturbed his racing thoughts. They turned toward his brother. Poor Raphael. Raphael would always throw himself in the path of danger to save his brothers. He would always move the world to protect it. The purple-banded turtle didn't doubt that not one of the generals would survive if Raphael himself lived long enough to reach them. That was how his brother was. He talked tough, but he'd rather take the blow than suffer through someone else's pain. He needed action like Donatello needed thought. He was helpless in the face of an enemy he couldn't fight, and that helplessness was the only thing Donatello had ever seen scare his big, mean brother.
For his own sake, Donatello was distantly glad that he couldn't feel much below his chest as Raphael appeared out of nowhere in his spotty vision and suddenly yanked him into a fireman's carry. He was pretty sure that would have hurt worse than landing on his leg had, right before something in his back had given up with a sickeningly wet sound and made a broken leg a minor injury. As it was, being laid over his brother's shoulder merely forced the air from his chest, opening his swollen throat and splattering Raphael's shell with puke.
"Hold on!" Raphael yelled over his shoulder at him, voice strained and hoarse. He couldn't tell if it was from the dry atmosphere or fear.
Raphael, retreating? Raphael never retreated.
His mind turned that over, paralyzed by shock and bloodloss. His hands continued to twitch. For all he knew, so did his feet. There was nothing left to respond to Raphael's shouts but his mind, and that was so chaotic it ran in every direction at once. Raphael was retreating. His big, mean brother, the brother who could fearlessly rescue him from the monster under the bed, was running, jostling him with every step as he sprinted in full-out retreat.
This was wrong. Not just Raphael retreating, although that was wrong and part of the overall wrongness. Donatello absently struggled to breath, remembering that it was a necessary part of staying alive, and he contemplated monsters. When he'd grown up, science saved him from the monsters under the bed. There was no science to subdue these monsters. There was no realization one night that impossible things were not possible, and could not be possible, and that was that. He'd no longer called his brother to defend him, because he'd found his own weapons to bear when monsters came calling.
But Raphael had never stopped protecting him, not even when the monsters under the bed stopped being the product of a child's imagination and became the real thing. Just because he was no longer wanted didn't mean that he wasn't needed.
Maybe they'd spent two years ignoring that little detail of being a family. Donatello couldn't shake the feeling that this wasn't how they were supposed to rediscover that fact. As his head knocked against his brother's shell and his lungs refused to expand, his thoughts circled back through monsters and generals, children and brothers. That feeling wouldn't go away, and it was easy to see why. They'd been half a second away from safety, he and Raphael. Winters should have gotten them out of the way. Right now, they should be celebrating with Leonardo and Michelangelo, Master Splinter, April, and Casey. They should be together as a family, reaffirming the bonds that had weakened but not left during the long years. It didn't take Raphael's frightened eyes staring into his to see how much he was needed by the hot-headed turtle, or the shouted words make him remember why they needed each other. He knew without the hands on his chest that they were connected. He needed Raphael like the air forced into his lungs.
The reflexes that he hadn't had time to think about made so much sense, now. He needed Raphael's rashness to balance his deliberation, just like Michelangelo's automatic dodge countered Raphael's tendency to make a stand or Leonardo's snap judgments cut through his own tendency to overthink and speculate. Raphael acted first because he was the fastest at it. Donatello thought because he had the smartest mind. They each had their strengths and weaknesses, carefully balanced to support one another. Raphael would act first and think later, while Donatello would think first. Yet when they fought together, Raphael acted upon what Donatello thought, and Donatello would think in the time Raphael's actions bought. They were a team. More than that, they were a family. Teams were trained, but family was ingrained.
Raphael had stepped out of the path of salvation, and Donatello had followed. Not because it was smart, or even logical. He'd done it because Raphael was his brother. Just as the red-banded turtle had been there for him as a toddler when his imagination had gotten loose, he'd been there for Raphael when real monsters appeared. Maybe he hadn't always been wanted, but he'd been NEEDED.
It struck him as absurd that such extremes had occurred when it seemed like the whole point of the last two years, perhaps especially the last day, could be narrowed down to something profoundly true and ignored. It had been so deeply simple, such a basic instinct he hadn't thought about it until after the fact.
One side of his mouth, the unmarred side, trembled. Trying to smile, because something so tragic had to be funny. Trying, and failing, while everything he'd discovered too late evaporated in tears exposed to the sun.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
LD's Note: I mean this fic to be a one-shot, to be continued if I have time or inclination. Thanks to Leonardo, of all people, for help with this fic.