Think about a brother's love, but try not to think too hard.
WARNING: the following fic is intentionally meant to cross a taboo. If you can't deal with it, quite reading now or whenever you reach your tolerance point. I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT if you keep reading. If anybody dares give me grief over the subject, I will point at this and make sure to speak in words more appropriate for 3-year-olds who apparently cannot follow simple instructions.
Alright, if people haven't figured it out yet, each of the endings means that the story can end right there. If you liked how the previous part ended, then by all means stop reading there. This part is not meant to be kind to readers.
By Lady Dementia
Wait. Pause. Rewind and start again, because it hadn't happened like that. It hadn't ended like that. That wasn't what happened. That's wasn't how it had ended!
The nightmare vanished, but the inferno seemed to have followed him. Raphael jerked awake choking on a panicked gasp, unsure if he had been the one screaming or not. Superheated air surrounded him like it wanted to consume him. His eyes squinted open, and the sun hit him with a bolt of lightening between the eyes.
"Gah!" His immediate concern became escaping it. His eyes squeezed shut, and he rolled over until he fetched up against a familiar shell. He didn't open his eyes again. He didn't want to and didn't need to. His hands latched onto the top of the crack without fumbling, and his ragged breathing began to slow. He'd memorized the new map of his brother's shell, and the weight of guilt grounded him back into the world.
On the heels of guilt came reassurance. "Bad dream?"
He licked his teeth. The way his stomach gnawed inside him, he wished he could go back to sleep already. "Yeah." Six--was it six? Seven?--weeks ago, he wouldn't have admitted that. Six weeks ago, however, he'd been on Earth and allowed his stupid macho image. It had been important to him, then. He'd been tough, he'd been cool, and he wouldn't have told Donatello anything about how he felt unless it involved telling him to bug off.
This world didn't allow such luxuries. It had knocked the arrogance out of him in the past six weeks and dredged him of everything unnecessary. Attitude had been one of those unnecessary things. He'd also lost some 40 pounds of weight, not counting the leaden pounds of guilt counterbalancing lost flesh.
Survival will do that to a guy.
He rubbed the top of his head against the rough edges in Donatello's shell, honestly unable to remember what the nightmare had been about. It had seemed to tear the heart out of his chest at the time, but his heartbeat gradually slowed from hammering noise in his ears. His stomach picked up its griping as if to take up the slack. "S'okay, Don. It's just a dream, an' I can't remember it, anyhow."
Obviously concerned, his brother waited a moment more for him to say something else. When he didn't, Donatello sighed. "All right. But I'm here if you need to talk."
Raphael grinned, not even noticing anymore that his lips split in the dry air. "You're not goin' anywhere? What, no appointment with th' Pope?"
"I'm not up to the dress code. I seem," he said as dryly as the air, "to have left my big hat collection in my other shell."
That effectively shut the other turtle up. He could feel his brother's regret for the comment as soon as it was made, and that redoubled his guilt. Instead of playing the blame game with Donatello, Raphael turned his face toward the heat radiating from where he'd been sleeping. Sunlight still boiled through the cavern's entrance. He didn't need to open his eyes to see that, but he did because he needed to see what time it was.
Out past the cliffs, the horizon wavered as rock sizzled and popped, cooking the air above the ground to a burning heat. The fiery orb sinking below the undulating skyline had dimmed. Soon the rocks would make more sounds, cooling in the sunset. The cold would begin then, desert cold crackling sand underfoot and freezing the unsheltered. The temperature only became bearable in the time between sunset and the end of the long twilight when the air chilled but the rock released its heat upward for a while longer.
He slept exposed to the sunlight at the mouth of the cavern for this reason. The setting sun was his wake-up call. The NightWatcher had been nocturnal by inclination, and here nature backed up the instinct. The sunset signaled an end to the hellish day and allowed him to venture out of the cave.
And venture he would, because there wasn't any water here. That required hiking to one of the few water sources in this arid land.
"Time t' move, bro," he murmured, already reaching for his brother's belt. He'd been carrying his brother for so long it had become habit, slinging the leather around his waist and tying it to the loose ends of his own belt, and then hitching the whole thing up to his chest. The shoulder strap just barely reached long enough to go over both their shells and tie to his belt when he used the scrap of a mask to knot it. He didn't remember whose mask it was. It had long ago been discolored by blood, dirt, and repeated use. By now the fraying cloth seemed to be colored in oddly-splotched brown stains. The other mask tied the remaining three-quarters of Donatello's bo staff onto the left side of the conjoined belts, in the gap between the two shells. It wobbled annoyingly, but Raphael only had one sai left. He needed all the weapons he could find, even broken ones.
The whole tangled mess of frayed straps and knots looked like it shouldn't work, but when he stood, his brother stayed on his back. Clumsy, but effective. It worked better than a fireman's carry, anyway. Raphael needed his hands free.
Besides, Donatello couldn't feel it.
"Eat something before we go." The voice came from behind his head, slightly to one side where the shoulder strap leaned his brother's shell a bit off-kilter. Donatello stayed behind him all the time, these days: back-up, reassurance, goad, or burden, depending on the hour. The brother who always watched, always waited, and was always there, same as always. Fraternal concern filled his voice. It made him hard to snap at when he nagged. "Raphy..."
Raphael flinched. His macho image had peeled away weeks ago, but he flinched for a reason other than pride. He covered it by beginning the climb up the outside of the cavern, barely wincing at the gritty pain from the burning stone. "Don't call me that," he growled, steadily heaving them up the cliff face.
The words didn't change from world to world. Actions translated without a hitch. He could have been climbing the side of a building in New York, grouching at his brothers for calling him by a baby name that he'd outgrown at age seven. Except for the fact that Donatello never called him that unless something scared the brainiac into calling for help from his muscle-bound brother. Every other time Donatello had called for 'Raphy,' Raphael had been able to run forward and face the problem. This time, however, 'Raphy' couldn't help him.
Raphael had become one of the monsters he used to scare away. Monsters didn't have baby names. Monsters didn't deserve them.
The blame game had gone in circles so many times that Donatello skipped the opening salvos and launched a pre-emptive counterstrike. "I'm your bro. I can call you whatever I want, because I love you."
The argument had holes in it the size of a Mack truck, but logic failed him whenever his brother said stuff like that. Reason usually didn't matter to either of them in this argument. He shouldered the burden of guilt while Donatello fought to free him, seemingly unable to comprehend that forgiving him only made it worse. Hate? Raphael knew how to deal with hatred. He could handle contempt, scorn, and anger because they were old friends for a mutant freak in New York. Even fear he could accept, because at least he knew he deserved it. The guilt he carried made him a monster, and monsters deserved it all.
Love? Monsters…weren't loved. If Donatello meant it, then Raphael couldn't be a monster; the guilt threatened to dissolve, threatened to make him FEEL. Just the words skipped his heart up into his throat. His eyes squeezed shut in something more painful than guilt.
Luckily he'd reached the top of the climb by then, or his grip would have loosened. Maybe falling to his death would have been easier to bear, but he pulled himself to the top of the cliff to sprawl forward and shudder. He lived again. The blasted turtle had probably timed it that way. Six weeks ago, Raphael would have scoffed at the words and stormed away in a cloud of insults. The only insults he said now he directed at himself as he failed to rise and continue onward. Dontallo's words reduced him to this, his mouth opening and closing in inexpressible emotion. The difference six--eight?--weeks could make…
It didn't help that his body kept shaking far past the point where he should have recovered from the climb. The barren landscape seemed awful bright for the time of day, and he squinted against the light. He braced his hands against the ground, but his wrists felt limp and his elbows wouldn't lock. Exhaustion compounded by borderline starvation and malnutrition did this, and he knew his brother was right. He had to eat. But, shell, he didn't want to.
"Don't." Please, don't.
"You have to eat. You won't make it to the water hole without eating." Donatello's voice gentled from his previous self-assured certainty. That assurance--no trace of doubt or shyness--had reduced Raphael to emotional jelly, but this required a different approach. The soft-spoken turtle coaxed his brother like he would a wild animal. "It'll be okay, bro. Don't open your eyes, and take it slow. Reach back, right, just like that. Come on, you can do this. Don't think about it…"
His hands shook, but he couldn't remember the last time they hadn't.
"Brace your elbow on something before you break something!"
He scowled and glanced over the fire at his brother before quickly looking away. The split shell on Donatello's back oozed raw and red between the dull brown plates that gaped open. Part of Raphael screamed at him--his fault! Donatello would have never been hurt if he hadn't--but his brother made an encouraging noise. His gaze yanked away only to fall on another source of shame and guilt, pushed up against the stone where his brother had insisted on keeping it in case it could somehow be reattached, cloned, whatever techno-mumbo-jumbo he thought he could do with an amputated leg. In the meantime, the withered green limb with its broken bone jutted up in the sand. It had dried out before decay could set in, leaving it eerily preserved. The sight made his stomach lurch sickly, or maybe he should blame that on dinner. Dinner had been trying to steal the severed leg at the time of volunteering for dinner-dom. That was gross in its own right.
He glanced the other way and scooted over until he could rest his elbow on an outcropping of stone sticking out of the dirt. His hand steadied a bit with the support, and he went back to slowly cleaning fine grit out of the internal workings of a Shell Cell "This ain't my thing, Don." He balanced it between his knees and other hand while he spat on the frayed stitching at end of his belt and used the wet threads to dab. "You know I ain't very good with any of your--ah, crud, ya sonnavu--" Big, clumsy Raphael made an impatient swipe at a particularly stuck grain of sand, and a colored bit on one of the green chips snapped. "Sh--!"
His attention automatically shifted to Donatello, and the anger thudded into a brick wall of guilt. "Urg…sorry, Don. I broke it." Piece of crap--no, his fault. Just like everything else. He'd rushed it even though he KNEW better. "This just ain't my thing," he offered again, lame excuse that it was. It wasn't 'his thing,' but neither was playing doctor. There wasn't anyone else available.
His brother's exasperated sigh whispered through the shallow cave, bouncing off the low ceiling and blending into the crackles from the fire. He had no idea how Donatello could make a sigh sound like he'd been saddled with an utter moron, yet his voice could be so patient. He'd probably picked it up from Master Splinter. "Alright, sir, let's take a look at the damage, shall we? Is the device functioning properly?"
Oh, the Technical Services Help Line voice. Donatello was well and truly peeved. After he'd managed to smash their other Shell Cell and render it completely unrecoverable through a burst of misdirected anger and a hard rock, this voice had becoming familiar. Raphael meekly tapped the cover back into place and pressed the right key. The screen fizzed white on black. "No service."
"Did it turn on, sir?"
"Donny, I TOLD ya--alright, alright." He scrubbed a hand over his face. "Fine! I turned it on, it ain't plugged in, I haven't spilled anything on it lately, it's been dropped between worlds, I let suspicious creepazoid monsters gnaw on it, an' the warrantee's DEFINITELY expired. That answer all your questions?"
"I don't think they provide maintenance service out here, anyway." Thankfully for Raphael's guilt-dampened temper, Donatello's efficiency interfered with holding grudges. Weariness and pain would have ended the huff soon enough in any case. "No service? But you see static, right?"
"Yeah." He frowned. "No sound, though. I mighta broken the speakers."
"You're not doing anything you don't know how to do, Raph. This is no different than working on your bike. Start with basic mechanics and work from power source to each separate part." Donatello could convey confidence even from across the room, facing away without any real idea of the actual damage. "I gave all of you guys instructions on how the Shell Cells work, and you knew what I was talking about then. You still know. I'm just talking you through what you already know."
Raphael stole a look at his brother out of the corner of his eye and gritted his teeth until his jaw creaked. Somebody had to do it, anyway. Donatello couldn't. That left fumble-fingered Raphael, the hot-head Neanderthal, to repair the one thing their family might possibly use to track them across the universe. No pressure or anything.
As he cautiously levered the Shell Cell open and stared at the delicate circuitry inside, he could only think that he was the wrong turtle for the job. Leonardo would have been patient enough to follow Donatello's instructions. Even Michelangelo could have done better; he had an amazing memory for colors and organized chaos. Either of them would have kept their tempers better than Raphael. Neither would have gotten their brother so badly wounded that he couldn't deal with the mess of wires with his usual ease.
That wire right there, however, did seem familiar to Raphael. He could almost hear Donatello lecturing on how to jury-rig the tiny piece of technology in case of emergency… "Do we really need sound?"
"Is everything else intact?"
"Yeah. One of th' chips is totaled, but that's it."
"That's fine." The injured turtle sounded oddly muffled. "I think you'd better help me, Raphy."
Raphael looked up, setting the damaged Shell Cell aside before anything other than the strangeness of his brother's tone registered. "Huh?"
The Shell Cell forgotten, he scrambled around the fire to Donatello. A liquid gurgle came from the wounded turtle, and Raphael swore softly, pressing one hand against his brother's shell for support on the crack as he pushed the uppermost shoulder forward until the gurgle became gagging and a full-out retch. Bluish lumps and milky stomach acid puddled under Donatello's head, and Raphael swallowed queasily. He had to look away even as his brother moaned painfully and vomited up more of last night's dinner. The unfortunate monster had ended up a meal due to a deft throw of his sai, but it had tasted as vile as the other species Raphael had hunted since their arrival a week and a half ago.
He endured Donatello's puking until the coughing eased. "Ya…done?"
"Good." With that, he leaned over his brother and added to the puddle, his stomach no longer able to handle what he'd forced into it earlier in the night.
It had become some kind of vicious ritual. Donatello's weakened body would reject the meat first, but Raphael would follow suit soon after. The few times the healthier turtle had been able to observe the bestial inhabitants of this world, the sparse vegetation he'd gleaned after watching them graze had left him with twisting gut pain and diarrhea so severe he'd been forced to guzzle their limited water supply continuously. He hadn't inflicted that on his brother. Donatello probably wouldn't have survived it. As it was, at first he'd had to hand-feed the semi-conscious turtle tiny bites of pre-chewed flesh cooked on the end of his sai; later, he'd been able to chew for himself, broken tooth and scabbed face notwithstanding, but every time, it came right back up.
Both of them were rapidly losing weight to the killer bulimia. That had shown immediately on Raphael's bulk as constant activity wore him down. He always moved, retrieving water, hunting, and fighting, but he had more body mass to burn before it became critical. Donatello didn't have anything to spare. The stone general's sword may have paralyzed him, but his body kept sucking energy from itself in the effort at repairing what it could. His muscles hadn't atrophied so much as consumed themselves, and Raphael could only watch helplessly. He'd tried to find something to hold enough water to boil their leather belts and pads in, but even wasted and ill, Donatello had read him the riot act about applying old survivor stories to modern chemically-treated--not to mention sewer-soaked--leather products. Starvation would apparently do less permanent harm to their digestive tracts than the stuff that made their equipment nonflammable.
Raphael didn't doubt his brainiac brother often, but he was beginning to wonder about that. His hands trembled finely, and his body ached at every joint and deep in his slimming muscles. He rested against his brother, briefly unable to rise or move them away from the stench rising from the bile soaking into the sand. It steamed in the cold night air, and he turned his head away from the reek. That put the side of his face against Donatello's bony shoulder, and he could feel his brother shiver. They were sort of cold-blooded to begin with, but Donatello didn't have any reserves left for body warmth.
He lifted his head and shuffled back on his knees, dragging his brother closer to the fire with tired determination. "You're the brain, Don. What th' shell's goin' on?"
Fever-glazed eyes caught the firelight with ghostly glitters around the edges. They shifted upward to study his face as if confused by his presence. The firelight gave his eyes a queerly flat look, and for the split second before his brother slowly blinked and recognition dawned in those flame-edged pupils, Raphael prayed to take the injuries for himself, the paralysis and amputation and infections--all of it, just so his brother wouldn't suffer. This pain-muddled caricature of his intelligent brother almost physically hurt to see every time that huge brain lost to the rest of his body. It seized and shook his heart like a terrier with a rat.
The big eyes, sunk dark and red-rimmed into a hollow-cheeked face, closed halfway as Donatello slid into the light meditation he used to control the worst of the agony. It kept him from screaming fits most of the time.
Raphael swallowed, guilt and stomach acid stinging his throat. His fault, caused, perpetuated, and undeniable no matter how Donatello tried to invent excuses. Which was worse: to have dragged his brother into this, or to fail to care for him in the aftermath?
Donatello's breathing evened out, rasping through his swollen throat in restricted, shallow breaths that didn't aggravate sore tissue. "It's…it's this planet. Entire…entirely different ecosystem, Raph. We're…outsiders. Remember the...monster at the diner you…f-fought? You said…" Despite his care, he had to pause and cough hoarsely with short exhalations that didn't have much pressure behind them.
"Lemme try, Don." He cast his thoughts back, hoping to figure out before Donatello hurt himself trying to explain. "Nod when I get to it. I heard the disturbance report an' headed in. It was that cruddy little all-night diner the construction guys like, and th' night guy was blubbering behind the counter when I got there. I headed back. The thing was trashin' the freezer--" His brother twitched a nod. "The freezer?" Nod. He tried to remember everything about the little red dynamo that he had tangled with as the NightWatcher. "It was eating everything?" Nod. "Trashed the freezer, tore all a' the boxes up and kept shoving everything in sight in its mouth--" Nod. He didn't get it. It had been weird that such a small monster could be eating so much, but he'd had bigger concerns at the time. "Donny?"
"It wasn't…EATING, Raph. You said it…took bites out of things."
"Well, yeah, but--"
His brother croaked an attempt at a laugh. "I'd bet that…it threw everything up again. Bet it had the same...same problem we do, stuck in…a different ecosystem. I could…almost feel sorry for…it. Immortal monster…forever hungry because it…it couldn't digest our food."
The hand cushioning the injured turtle's shell flexed suddenly, surprised comprehension tensing all of Raphael's aching muscles. "Donny, we ain't immortal."
"Then you had…better find something we...we can eat."
He could make it, and staggered to his feet to prove it. He could feel Donatello glaring at the back of his head. He couldn't disguise the way his body shook, weak and undernourished, but he could ignore his begging stomach for a while longer. Just a little while longer. "Not right now, Don," he said before his brother could start in on him. The words came out more pleading than he'd intended, but the other turtle didn't let that sway him.
"You said that last night!" he barked back with the best Leonardo impression in his repertoire. "Sit your shell back down before you keel over in a faint and we're left exposed all night! Starving when you don't have to is senseless, and I will NOT allow you put yourself through this like some kind of screwed-up, undeserved penance!" He stifled the retort that it was deserved, but Donatello stayed one step ahead of him, saying, "This isn't penance, it's self-abuse. I refuse to be a part of your delusional need to punish yourself for something no rational being could possibly blame you for. I don't blame you for what happened. I don't blame you for what you've done. I WILL blame you if you die, Raphy, so sit down and eat!"
A flash of sheer rage burned hotter than the sun finally out of sight, but his notorious passion couldn't supply his weak body with the calories it needed. His legs gave out, dumping him to the ground, and he fell forward onto his forearms, intentionally slamming his fists into the hard rock. The pain distracted him from his stomach and his shame, even if only for a second. His attention sidetracked for a moment, blinking at the shadow he cast. There were no shadows at night, were there?
He shook his head sharply, dragging his mind back to the argument: "Don't call me that!"
"Why not, Raphy?" The hard note in his brother's voice contrasted sharply with the teasing words.
"You never used t' call me that!"
"So? Why would that matter now?"
"Why are you arguing, Raphy?"
"STOP it, Don!" Raphael glared at the stone in front of him, feeling his brother's presence at--on--his back. The guilt had stacked higher even as their weights dwindled. Only their shells remained the same, great carapaces that bore him down into the ground as shame wormed its way up his back as if their shells offered no protection. Shame, and horror made slightly more palatable by passing time and Donatello's repeated logic, but his stomach snarled its demands over it all. Donatello had warned him about the emotional effects of starvation, but he hadn't warned him about the clash between ninjitsu training, New Yorker NightWatcher toughness, and true survival desperation.
Maybe he hadn't known.
Maybe he'd hoped it would never become an issue.
"Stop it," he whispered. "Cut it out."
He knew. They'd had this argument practically every night for nearly three weeks now. Yet now, as ever, Raphael fought the inevitable. He could shoulder the guilt and die a monster, but for this voice insistently calling him back by chains of memories and locks of shame. If it were real it would mean something, but he was a realistic, a cynic, and mysticism was for Master Splinter and Leonardo. He wished, oh, how he wished, that he could believe his brother's words, because then it would be absolution. It could never be acceptable, but understood..?
Instead, it made sacrilege somehow pathetic as some subconscious part of him obviously tried to 'make it all better.'
Nothing could make this better, just as he couldn't go back in time to when 'Raphy' was a hero in his brother's eyes. Why? Because it was sick and wrong, yet his heart cried in shamed joy to hear it.
His head lowered, defeated and hopeless, to rest on the stone. "Because you're dead, Don."
"Raphy? Look at me."
He didn't want to. He'd do anything for his brother, but he'd found that looking Donatello in the eyes afterward was impossible. He hadn't been able to look at the mangled turtle before without overwhelming feelings of guilt, but now…?
His eyes tried to seek his brother's, they really did, but inexorably, they slipped down the still form to focus on the one thing he didn't want to look at. The rags that had once been his mask covered the stump of Donatello's leg, and horror welled up Raphael's throat. His stomach, despite being echoingly empty, cramped and tried to throw itself out of his body. When he did wrestle his gaze away, he had to see what Donatello had become in the last week or so: pus ran and immediately crusted yellow-red over his shoulder from the open wound splitting his shell, and black veins ran up his thigh from the massive wound the beast's claw had torn there. The eyes…shell, he didn't WANT to look in his brother's eyes. They had sunken so far back into his head it created a terrifying mask, and they were flat like a dead fish's, half-lidded and unseeing.
He tore his eyes away, looking down at his shaking hands instead. They were clenched around the last scraps of food they could digest. When they'd first talked about it, the portion in his hands had supposedly been for him. It had been far easier to rationalize slipping a little extra into what he gave Donatello, especially when the infection kept getting worse and the lucid periods grew further and further apart. He might be hungry, starving, but a mouthful for him was one his brother needed more. An entire world of indigestible creatures and plants, a starving, injured sibling, and his stomach kept trying to be greedy?
It made him feel about an inch tall. "We got enough for one last meal, Donny. Think ya can chew on your own this time?"
"Raphy…look at me."
"I did," he mumbled, licking his lips involuntarily. It could have been nerves or hunger.
"Right now, Raphy." Donatello sounded so somber, so THERE, that he had to glance up. It was the most lucid he'd heard his brother in the past three days. His eyes went to the stump, then quickly up his body, and Donatello sighed. "Raphy."
His eyes paused.
"D…Don?" His voice cracked, high-pitched and tremulous. His eyes remained locked on his brother's face, the first long look he'd taken in over a week. "Don?!"
"You have to end this, bro," Donatello said, and his mouth didn't move. His eyes didn't track. Only the struggling heave of breath indicated that he still lived. "I'm not meditating anymore. This is a coma, and I'm not going to wake up. You…you have to--"
"No!" It would have been a shouted protest, but it came out a whimper. The last of the meat dropped carelessly to the side, and Raphael crawled forward in an awkward rush to cup his brother's unresponsive face in his hands. The green skin with its ashen undertones and papery texture nearly burned his palms. The fever had gotten worse. "Donny! Donatello?! No, don't' do this t' me, don't ya dare--!"
"The body's still in pain, bro. Please, you have to end it…"
Had he gone crazy? Had the guilt and shame driven him over the edge? He looked into dead fish-eyes, straining to see his brother inside them. There was a voice in his head, and his head insisted he heard it and what he heard was his brother. Yet here his brother laid--gone missing from behind eyes gone flat and opaque. His thumbs ran over and over the starvation-prominent bones of Donatello's cheeks, trying to rub the life back into unresponsive flesh and skin. The dull eyes didn't even blink. Only the breath remained, sour as he bent his face toward that assurance of a living body. The whole cave smelled of that unhealthy sourness, if he cared to smell it. Sour bile, sour fear, and a recent rank, sour-sweetness stench he didn't want to identify.
"Donny," he whispered. "Donny." The name repeated in a mantra, a chant that he'd use to draw his brother back. He was no Leonardo, but his ninjitsu training had covered meditation. Maybe he couldn't contact Master Splinter as Donatello had years ago, as he'd been trying to do again in the past few weeks, but he could provide a beacon for his lost brother to lock onto. Donatello couldn't be in a coma. He was lost, not missing completely. Even a trained ninja could become too weak and confused by bodily pain to make it back. The body hadn't deteriorated past the point of supporting the spirit. No, he'd have known if his brother had gotten that bad. He'd have noticed the difference, because Donatello couldn't slip away like that. Brothers knew when that kind of thing happened, right?
"Raphy? You know it's true. There's gangrene--that's rot, Raphy--setting in on my thigh. It's gotten into my bloodstream. The infection under my shell has sent my temperature through the roof, and I can't fight it anymore, bro." Donatello sounded so very tired, and his voice seemed to come from directly in front of him. Raphael opened tear-blurred eyes, mouth still shaping his brother's name, and stared into a face that hadn't moved. That face had familiar features sunken and pain-twisted in unfamiliar ways. "I thought that I'd still make it for the last few days, but all the antibiotics in my lab couldn't save me now."
It was only a delusion. It couldn't be real. He had to concentrate. His eyes closed, squeezing a bare teardrop out of the corners. They dried immediately to salt crusts in the parched air as his breathing slowed and calmed. His focus bucked like a wildcat in a trap, but he projected as hard as he could. His entire body tensed, his hands trembling on his brother's face with more than starvation's weakness. Desperation carried his voice into the astral plain, and he called his brother's name.
Donatello answered, but not how he'd hoped. "You don't have to do that, Raphy. I know where you are. I'm not going to leave you alone, I promise."
"No!" The cry ripped out of his throat, and he threw himself back, away from the empty body, almost into the fire. "NO! The fingers that had held his brother's face dug into his own. They clawed up to seal his palms over the sides of his head, letting him stare at his brother. The lips didn't move, but he could still hear the voice despite his hands in the way. "This ain't happenin'! This just ain't happening!"
"Raphy, you have to listen to me!"
"You're not real!" Raphael screamed back, savagely twisting the fear into rage. "You ain't my brother! Who the shell ARE you?!"
In a world without watches, still it felt like time ticked by: seconds into minutes, the minutes inching onward. Each tic of an imagined clock twitched a muscle in Raphael's side, making his breathing erratic. The turtle remained frozen nearly in the fire, apparently unable to feel the flames, his arms raised in a defensive gesture that hadn't worked. After hundreds of twitches, the voice hadn't returned,
He lowered his arms. The hands clamped around his head wiped down his face and fell into his lap. They shook, but he pretended not to notice that fear, not hunger, caused the shaking. For a long time, he sat watching his brother slowly breathe. In, and out. In, and out, pausing before the exhalation and waiting almost too long before inhaling again. His chest started to hurt, and he had to look away when he realized he'd been matching the stilted breathing pattern.
"What is wrong with me?" he whispered, bowing his head. "Have I gone crazy, Don?"
"…would you feel better if I said yes?" Donatello said, so real there was the tiny, normal click of teeth, and with his familiar hesitation when Raphael's temper could explode without warning. His brother knew how to handle that temper, however, because Donatello was good at finding a way to compromise. If Raphael looked up, that's who he'd see, offering yet another compromise to his violent sibling in red.
His hands curled into shaking claws, but they stayed on his knees. He didn't look up. He didn't want to see.
He could almost FEEL Donatello's eyes on him, always compassionate. Too soft-hearted for a ninja, but somebody had to think of life instead of death. Even Michelangelo's smile had only brought humor into the business of death. Leonardo had been a ninja among ninjas, without the urge to see if there was something to living outside of ninjitsu. Donatello had always striven to build ways of life around ninjitsu, as if being ninja was only a day job that he had to dutifully put in his hours for before getting to his real calling. Raphael had never understood any of his brothers, but that he understood least of all. Raphael could only protect life by dealing death, never live it or be part of it. The NightWatcher never took off the armor and went home to make the world a better place during the day. He only knew how to be violent, and use his violence for others. He was a ninja and a vigilante, and that was Raphael.
He'd always gotten the feeling that his brother had never understood him, in return. But he'd never seriously thought Donatello was mad. Everyone, at one point or another, had thought Raphael was crazy. Now it was a question of whether he'd really snapped or not.
"It's too late for that to matter, bro," Donatello said, avoiding the question, and tears grew in Raphael's downcast eyes. "Master Splinter taught us that sometimes, there's a last mercy somebody has to have the courage to grant. I think he hoped we'd only have to do it to honorable foes and allies, not family, but he taught us for a reason." His voice faded, exhausted, a last murmur before sleep. The tears in Raphael's eyes fought to fall. "Look at me, Raphy." Precious water brimmed in agonized eyes, threatening to overflow as Raphael slowly raised his head, looking at the body before him. Flat eyes didn't look back. Fever and pain had leeched everything but the spreading rot from Donatello's form, the sickly sweet and sour smell of death winning, and a sob shook Raphael without a sound. "I'm in PAIN. You have to do something, and there's only one thing left you CAN do."
"You're not real," he choked. "This is all…it's my screwed up head. It ain't real." But still, one of his sai found its way to his hand, and he sat there clutching it, unable to look away from his brother's broken body. A slow death on a battlefield or a slow death in a bed, where was the difference? Assisted suicide for honor in seppuka or sparing a gut-wounded warrior further agony had sounded reasonable; it had been a duty he'd never thought he'd shrink from. Their sensei had taught them well in every aspect of a warrior's life, including recognizing when a battle was lost.
He'd avoided ever thinking about what would happen on the streets of New York and who exactly he'd had to learn this for. Now they were far from New York, its hospitals and streets and many rooftop battlefields, and the tears dried and dried as he thought of battles lost and let the tears fall.
"I don't have to be real," the voice he couldn't possibly be hearing said, impossibly gentle and infinitely sad. "If you have to think that I'm not truly speaking to you, I understand. I can be a figment of your subconscious if that's what it takes, but you have to do this." Sorrow twined through the words like the fingers of children who used to be. Sorrow, perhaps, for those children and the adults they had grown into. "Please. It's time to give me mercy, bro."
His shoulders jerked, and his throat closed on the words he wanted to say. Words of denial, fear, and grief, or maybe something as simple as the years of rage at his family reverting back to fear for it. Despite the fire searing his shell, cold seeped into his joints and over his skin in shivers that physically hurt. Short, hot trails of liquid evaporated under closed eyes. It took him longer than his weak body called for to work his way upright. He paid in doubt and heart-sick pain for each inch he moved forward, but that was a price the guilty had to pay. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he paid the minimum; soon, very soon, he planned on paying in full, as every monster should.
When he fell to his knees beside his brother, something in his chest snapped, and a choppy bark came from his mouth. He couldn't tell if it was hysterical laughter or just another sob. Whatever it was, it stammered into silence while in his head the unspoken words whirled faster and faster until they merged into a keening wail. His free hand reached out, plaintive, but no response came to the pleading touch on his brother's face. There were only hoarse breaths and rotting scent, and his hand slipped under Donatello's neck to support his head as Raphael lifted the unresponsive body into his lap. His hunger-withered muscles shrieked in protest, and he didn't care. There was no pain, his stomach didn't howl its hunger or sap his strength, not right now. Right now, there was only the brother in his arms, and the sai trembling in his grip. There were only a thousand different memories, words, and futures compressed into this moment lasting forever.
There was only an ending.
"Gimme a sign, Donny," he begged, pressing their foreheads together. Tear-wet eyes searched from a distance of millimeters, and found nothing. He pulled him closer, tucking him underneath his chin, and closed his eyes.
And one turtle hunched over the other, unable to protect him any longer.
"Love you, Don…"
"I know, Raphy."
"Then go away!" he demanded, most of the fight drained out of him. He'd gone through weeks of arguing with part of his own mind set on tormenting him, and it always ended like this. He always had to remember what he'd done, as if he could ever forget. The same circular game of blame and denial, and in the end he couldn't force the memory of his brother away.
"Not yet," Donatello said. "I followed you between worlds because I didn't want you to be alone, and I won't leave you alone now. I won't abandon you like that."
He'd never gotten over how REAL he sounded, as if the voice coming from his brother's shell still came from a living turtle. Sometimes, that was a comfort; more often, a source of bitter self-hate. Just now, it made Raphael flinch. When his brother sounded that determined, he never gave up, be it on a computer, video game, or stubborn sibling. Or at least, he never had in life. In death, he seemed to have the same tendencies. "Am I crazy, Don?" he asked as he pushed himself upright against the trembling in his arms. "I'm hearin' a voice in my head. That ain't right."
Donatello snorted wryly. "I'm as real as you are."
Which neither answered whether Raphael was crazy nor if Donatello was really there. If Donatello was a figment of his mind, he was still real and Raphael was insane. But if Donatello was real, then Raphael wasn't crazy. They'd argued their way around this subject often enough in the past weeks that he didn't pursue it. In all likelihood, they'd return to it by the end of the night, although he already knew they words they would say. He'd yet to think up any argument his brother couldn't sneak around. Donatello never gave a straight answer, and real or not, his brother could outsmart him any day with double meanings and bizarre-but-true logic.
Even while living and half-dead with infection and fever, Donatello had snared him with reason into something he'd have never thought to do on his own. He couldn't deny that it made sense. While his brother had lived, at least he'd known he hadn't been alone in this necessary madness. Logic had convinced him then.
Emotion, however, rarely made sense, and it had tumbled the logic into a confused maze of excuses and guilt.
He sat for a while, looking out over the cliffs and letting everything settle. He was vaguely surprised that he could still see in the night, but emotional turmoil didn't take as long as it felt. The sun had just set, after all, and it seemed to be a bright night tonight. He couldn't work the energy up to wonder why. The night had started with a nightmare, but reality wasn't much better. The daylight heat soaked upward into his legs and hands. Chill night air began to blow around him. His brother's shell protected him from the cold wind as it had kept numerous attacking beasts from scarring his own back. He'd lost one sai to sentiment, abandoning it in a cave he prayed he'd never see again, but his brother's broken bo staff had acted as a replacement. Even in death, his brother supported him…
Maybe he kept him sane, as well. If he was sane at all.
But 'maybe' wouldn't get him any closer to the water hole. To survive, as Donatello insisted he must, he had to make the hike to get water before the cold grew too intense. In order to make the hike, he had to give his starving body fuel to burn. Saliva pooled on his tongue at the mere thought, and his stomach roared. He swallowed hard. He didn't want to, but he had to.
He knew all the arguments, had gone over and over the logic, and some part of him refused to lay down and die. After six--seven, maybe eight?--weeks, he knew his family couldn't find him. If they could, how would they find him? Winters had waited 3,000 years to open a portal to this world, and it would take…it would take a Donatello to figure out how to change that wait. Raphael had failed to save Donatello. He didn't deserve to be saved by his family, even if they knew how to.
The guilt weighed heavy, the shame heavier, but as long as there was a way to stay alive, that stubborn, senseless part of him kept finding it. He'd heard the term 'survivor's guilt' before. It had taken the past weeks to understand what it really meant. The guilt didn't come from survival, because if he really regretted living, he'd stop. The guilt came from the lack of regret. He did what he had to in order to survive, and knowing that he COULD choose to die gave him the burden of shame for not choosing that path. Had it been Donatello's choice, then perhaps permission would have eased this horror-story life. As it was, he was left to second-guess and make up his own excuses. THAT was survivor's guilt.
His shoulders hunched against the words he knew were coming.
"You have to eat a few mouthfuls, Raphy, to give your stomach something to work on." Calm and rational, Donatello could have been standing behind him at the kitchen table, telling him to eat his vegetables for the vitamins. "Not much more than that, or you'll be sick. Will you do that for me, bro?"
He opened his mouth to shout at the voice, insist it couldn't be real, tell it to get lost, but what if it listened to him? Out of his mind or not, the only thing keeping him going was the imagined voice of his brother, because he HAD heard Leonardo and Donatello talk, he HAD listened to Master Splinter. He didn't believe in all that mystic stuff, not really, but just in case this was real--if it went away, he'd be alone with his guilt in this hellhole planet…and he was too tired to fight. Not anymore, not tonight.
He wavered somewhere between horror and resignation, gradually giving in, and Donatello prodded him over the line. "You swore you'd live," the dead turtle reminded him softly, and Raphael swallowed hard. "Don't back out on me now, bro."
Even the heat-thirsty air of this world couldn't dry his hands. They remained tacky with rust-red stains, drenched in fratricide, and his stomach…growled. The sai had left a brown splotch on the far wall where he'd flung it, but he couldn't make himself let go. Not yet, maybe not ever. He sat, blindly staring at his hands, and waited for the loss to hit.
The scent of copper overwhelmed his senses, copper and the strange smell of the vegetation he'd piled on the fire earlier. No wood, of course. This world had nothing recognizable, nothing digestible: no animals or plants or fungus or whatever other category of food that Twinkies fell under. Even the water tasted odd. Only this seemed familiar, the texture and smell from childhood injuries and Foot attacks. His stomach gurgled and clenched. How often has they licked the blood from a scrape, wiped away the bleeding to see the wound and absently stuck a finger in their mouths? The liquid shimmer of tears dried to salt at the corners of his eyes, stinging, but he didn't notice as his hands rose. Copper, smoke, and heat, close and thick, and the half-sobbing breaths he took in the cup of his hands brought the scent of his brother deep into his lungs.
Memories rose from the base of his numb brain to haunt him. Donatello, letting Raphael bind his arm while the Battle Shell's engine spilled thick black smoke and the tech-geek turtle gleefully explained what he'd tweaked this time that had snagged his elbow but would make the van run that much smoother now. Donatello yelling at him in the living room while pizza burned in the oven and the NightWatcher's blood ran down the back of his knee where his brother couldn't see the secret injury. Donatello's breathless laugh as sais and a slice off one finger intercepted a Foot goon's sword on some burning city rooftop, and his brother rolled away from the with a flippant remark in return for Raphael's gruff scolding to watch his back better. Donatello, face strained and scraped, teeth gritting as he ordered--screamed at--Raphael to use the sword pulled from his shell to make the cut and separate the leg hanging by a scrap of torn muscle.
Moments trapped in time, covered in brothers' blood. Familiar, disturbed, and comfortable in this anguished circle he found himself wallowing in. He could have saved him, he couldn't have, but he'd been too far gone, not that far, but if he'd been better, faster, stronger…
He couldn't force his eyes open, although he couldn't remember closing them. His guts twisted inside him, nerves and hunger and grief so new it was only beginning to truly hurt. His mouth opened against his damp hands. "Yeah, Don?" he said thickly, quietly.
"Do you know how much I love you?" How could a sentence feel like an embrace, like Donatello knelt and enclosed his suddenly vulnerable brother in arms whole and strong again..?
He tasted rich copper, gold on his tongue, as he nodded mutely.
"Do you love me?"
"…yeah." A bare whisper, smothered in his chest.
"Do you love me enough to stay alive?"
He jerked his face out of his hands, abruptly recalled back into reality. His eyes stretched wide, crackling salt and iron from the folds around them, and his heart stuttered, gag reflex and frozen horror stopping each other halfway and jolting him violently. "I--you--I--!" The fire cast lurid shadows in blood-soaked sand and the hollows of his brother's face. A dim glittering where eyelids had sagged slightly open made it seem as if Donatello glared accusingly, and Raphael's throat closed, working in soundless pain. His brother's head lolled lifeless, and he reflexively touched one gaunt cheek to still him. Once his hand touched the cooling skin, he couldn't draw away, and he made a noise too soft to be distinguished as a word. The sound lingered into a pained keen, an animal caught by its leg in a trap, trying to deny the choice presented to it.
Still jerking with stifled sobs, Raphael closed his eyes and bent to press his forehead to his brother's. He shifted a bit, and the side of his face slid down to rest against Donatello's neck. Tacky warmth stuck their skin together, and he moaned. Swallowed down the coppery-tang saliva flooding his mouth. Nodded.
"Do you think I'd love you less for staying alive?" Raphael nodded, paused uncertainly, and started to shake his head; it turned into a nod involuntarily, and he turned his face into his brother's neck as if to hide his misery. "Then don't think, bro."
The heavy weight in his lap sounded so sure. He opened his eyes and lifted his head slowly. The glare had become something sleepy, half-aware and lazily watching him. An illusion of the firelight and his desperation, but he could almost believe it.
His hand shook as he tenderly brushed the eyelids closed all the way. "Okay, Donny."
"Come on. You can do this." Coaxing, Donatello calmly talked a steady stream, and Raphael tiredly let the flow of words wash over him. Washing thought out of his head, washing the horror into a background of white noise where nothing in the world was important but the aching emptiness of his stomach and his brother's voice. Distant static, far away from him. His arm reached up and behind, groping for the only thing on this planet he could digest. The puzzle Donatello had solved before the end, but the pieces were running out. It wouldn't matter for much longer if he couldn't keep it down or not, because soon there wouldn't be anything to keep down.
He'd surged to his feet, sparse meal forgotten as his brother's soothing dialogue broke off in a tense snap of his name. "What?" His knees felt too loose, but he staggered and managed to keep his footing. He barely felt the additional drag of another shell on his back by now.
"Do you hear that?"
Raphael turned in place, head tilted. He expected to hear the stealthy approach of one of the monster packs that roamed the area, or the dull roar of a sand storm. Those were sounds his dead brother had warned him of before, sounds that he'd subconsciously been aware of but hadn't quite registered. This time, he saw it before he heard it.
He blinked, squinted, and blinked again. "…what the shell?" The sun's final rays were gone from the night sky, but off in the distance over the cliffs, light still shot into the clear air. Bright, white light, a vengeful spear of it from the heavens. "No…way. No way! Don! That's--!"
"The gate!" Donatello finished when words failed him. "The gateway's open!"
How long had it been open?! With the harsh sunlight during the day, he'd never have noticed the additional light from the gate! It could have been open for hours, and--
A chill having nothing to do with the night air ran down his limbs. "Don, we don't know who's opened it. We don't know who's over there!" he hissed. He'd only ever accounted for three of the general's bodies. He's assumed the fourth had simply been dragged off, but what if the fourth general had opened the gate? What if an army of monsters marched on Earth right now? He had to get to his family…but at the same time, what if it was the Foot? Worse yet, what if it was his family? His remaining brothers, his father, April, and Casey, coming to look for two turtles where there was only one left?
This wasn't supposed to happen. The gate had sealed. Somewhere in the back of his skull, he'd known all along that he had only been delaying the inevitable by humoring the--imagined?--voice of his brother. He'd been destined to die for his crimes against his brother, maybe against all his brothers, maybe against his entire extended family.
Now the impossible had happened, and standing there staring at it, he shrank from what it implied.
"Would you rather stay here?" Donatello asked, perfectly reasonable. "Get your shell MOVING, Raphy!" he suddenly bellowed, once more the turtle with the split-second answers that saved the day, and Raphael lunged forward before he thought. Knee-jerk reflex, reaction before thought, but he had Donatello to think for him.
His feet had calloused in the sewers of New York, but city calluses were nothing compared to the toughness glass-edged sand and stone had carved in his feet and hands. The thick skin still split when he ran, stretching dry and inflexible over heel bones pounding over the ground. Small spots of rust began to stain his tracks half a dozen steps down the trail he'd chosen. It would draw a bevy of slavering beasts soon enough; despite being unable to digest him, they apparently weren't smart enough to stop trying. Only a sai in the face stopped some of them. Others would stop for the bodies left behind so long as he kept running.
Once in motion, the heave of dry air into lungs and the feel of overtaxed muscles giving their last sufficiently distracted him. Or, if not a distraction from the whirlwind of emotions, it did allow the painful revival of something he wasn't sure he recognized: hope. One hand gripped the shoulder strap, holding it stable. His pupils dilated wide in the dark night, gathering all the light available as he headed down the cliffs for the gullies leading to the wide desert that would eventually take him to the gate.
What if the gate closed before he reached it? How would anyone find him before they gave up the search as useless? Would they stop if they thought he was dead? Would they stop if they knew Donatello was dead?
What if they left him behind?
His tracks left an uneven trail behind him, scuffed places where he missed his footing and stumbled, a particular rock where he picked up a limp from a gash on the arch of his left foot, the sideways drift in the sand where he staggered, trying to keep going forward when all his body wanted to do was lay down. His breath rasped, overpowering Donatello's voice calling him onward until all he could hear was the panicked beating of his heart. Adrenaline kept him upright, squeezing the drops of energy out of internal organs and over-stretching the elasticity of tendons. Stiffness began to set in, but all his joints felt unbearably loose and full of fire.
The cold night air felt as if it drew steam off his skin. Perhaps it did, precious water sweating away in hot droplets to evaporate in the desert.
The gate blazed in the desert sands ahead, turning the dunes a ghostly blue-white, colder than ice. Bat shapes flitted about it, unpleasantly familiar. His free hand went automatically to the one remaining sai in his belt. Evil creatures. Surely they had to close the gate soon to prevent those monsters from getting through again. They wouldn't wait, they couldn't wait, and this world stretched wide. A hundred turtles could be lost in the crevasses of the cliffs, much less the desert dunes. Nobody could be expected to search forever here. They'd give up, and Raphael would be forgotten…
Unexpectedly, that did not seem like what he wanted. Exposing that sneaky, suicidal part of his mind to the fierce survivor made it wither. Guilt had power, but the survivor still lived. Adrenaline rushed shame aside, because for the first time in six--seven?--weeks, Raphael had HOPE.
And Donatello's voice kept pushing, pulling, prodding, never letting him stop, never letting his starving body slow further than a jog. "One more dune, Raphy, come on, up. Another one, good, let's go, one more…" He obeyed bleakly, expecting any second for the light to go out and leave him wandering the frozen waste, abandoned without food or water or hope.
The last dune came with an abruptness that shocked him. The endless climb and fall of the sand dropped off into solid stone carved into mystic symbols, and he tripped from surprise. The sudden plunge sent him tumbling, too stiff and drained to land properly. He clumsily shielded his head and grunted as Donatello's shell smashed into the stone, clattering loudly against his own shell and driving the breath from him in a hoarse wheeze. It hurt his chest. Something swift and chattering swooped out of the icy light, a nightmare beast with leathery wings. Raphael's sai came to hand without thought, and he slashed upward at the thing It shrieked at him and backwinged out of his light-blinded vision. It took him a moment of exhausted rocking, but he managed to roll onto his side, and from there he pushed back onto his knees, sai at the ready.
The gate towered above him.
Even starved, dehydrated, and pushed to the limits, it inspired awe. Raphael gaped upward.
"Look out!" Donatello shouted behind him.
Another chattering monster winged around the pillar of light and dove for him, and he forced his body to dodge. His hand began to sweep upward to impale the thing, but spasms seized his arm muscles. Metal clanged on stone as the sai fell from nerveless fingers. His other hand was already moving, shaking loose from the shoulder strap to grab the shortened bo staff from his side. The creature yowled at him and flapped out of reach before he could strike out. He snarled back warily, lurching to his feet and swaying forward to put his back to the tamed lightening between worlds. The white-blue light rippled out there on sand and alien backs, circling the gate.
His vision faded in and out, and he swallowed with a sandpaper mouth. Tremors shook his calves, moving up his knees and thighs, and he staggered back. Too much activity on a weak body. He should have eaten tonight. He should have listened to Donatello, as always. "Donny?" he murmured. "Donny, I…"
That…wasn't Donatello. Raphael's head jerked up, although he hadn't known he'd lowered it, and he overcompensated. One ankle twisted under him as he whipped around and caught a dizzying flash of an orange bandana. His numb hand flailed, and he toppled backward almost in slow motion.
"April! Leo, he's here! Here at the gate--Raph! RAPH!"
There was a brief glimpse of Michelangelo's face, too brief to identify the expression, and then he fell. White light surrounded him, drowned him in the thunder and flash. His mouth was wide open, gasping for air that spat and sizzled over his teeth, running over his skin and bleaching it as all the blood in his body glugged to a slow standby. Falling, he breathlessly realized. Falling through the gate. Falling between worlds.
Terror paralyzed him. Freefall had taken the weight from his back, and he slapped at his chest, trying to find the straps--yes! Another shell clunked roughly against his own. "Donny!" he shouted. "Donny!" He called for a dead brother and was too terrified to realize or care what he did. The searing, colorless light in his eyes only brought back memories of screams and blood, the crack heard above the thundering roar of the gate. Untapped reserves from his heart fueled a wild spin, and he saw a patch of something up ahead, below, whatever. The last time he'd seen something like that, it had been the ground they'd fallen toward. Raphael screamed into the gate: "DONATELLO!"
The voice didn't sound right, even over the howling pitch of the gate. Raphael glanced over his shoulder through slit eyes, but of course there was no one there. But the voice hadn't come from behind him...
He braced himself the best he could. "Get ready, Donny!" The extra shell on his back might unbalance him, but the benefits of extra armor outweighed the problems. Yet even as he hurtled downward with gravity, he squinted at the bottom of the gate and frowned. "What the shell is THAT?!"
Donatello laughed, wispy and unplaced in the roaring tunnel of light. "That would be every air mattress, pillow, and couch cushion in the lair!"
In the last second before he dropped, Raphael almost laughed, too.
The landing knocked the wind out of him and launched him rolling across the marble floor when he bounced off a cushion. His twisted ankle gave out, and he picked up a collection of bruises that his fragile body would show for some time. But when the pillows stopped flying and Raphael tumbled to halt, he sat up shakily with his limbs still attached. Dazed, he shook his head. Nothing seemed quite in focus. To one side of the tower of light, a massive man in armor slugged bat-creatures back through the gate. Further back, and blurrier as a consequence, a shorter, more wiry man with a white mask did the same. There were green forms bouncing onto the cushioned pile under the gate, now: two familiar green shapes, plus a taller human with red hair.
And before them…
"My son," Splinter said, and then drew in a breath sharply as he looked past Raphael's starveling appearance and over his shell. The uneven crack showed above Raphael's own shell. The thin, robed shoulders, the shoulders of a father who had born the weight of loss, eased. Slowly, as natural as a sigh but far more sad, they slumped again. Sad eyes looked into Raphael's eyes, full of a depth of understanding only a father could own. "My son." Sad, sad eyes, spilling tears to wet gray fur as they looked over his surviving son's shoulder. "Oh, my son."
"Master Splinter?" Raphael's voice broke, and it didn't matter. He shook so badly his teeth chattered, desert cold, shock, and strain crashing down on him like an unbroken fall. "I'm so sorry, Mast'r Splinter. I couldn't--I couldn't--" One of the rat's hands lifted, reaching out to him, no, reaching past him, and his neck cracked stiffly as he swiveled on his knees to look.
Nothing met his wide eyes. He didn't turn back around. His body had reached its considerable ends, but his mind had fastened on the more important point: his father hadn't been reaching to HIM. He had reached to the space behind him. It was empty, as it had always been. Hadn't it?
Suspend disbelief, for the cynic had come home through a miracle. How hard could it be to believe..?
How much harder would it be to give up guilt and shame than bear it?
"I promised I wouldn't leave you alone."
There was nothing there.
Nothing, as the world rearranged around and inside him, but a cracked shell. A once-purple bandana finally unraveled, the knot holding the tangled straps together slipping loose from his chest and slithering over his shoulder, and the heavy burden he'd carried dropped with a quiet lack of drama to the ground at his feet. Raphael looked down at it, at the withered scraps of green skin inside it, and it was empty. Only a body; however loved its inhabitant had once been, there was nothing left there.
A familiar voice, disconnected at last, whispered to him, "You're not alone anymore, Raphy."
Then even that faded away.