Clarity, Her Tomb
Disclaimer: Don't own TMNT. It owns me. We're okay with that.
Author's Notes: And here's a long WIP I've been fiddling with for a while. It's an attempt at actual, genre horror in the TMNT realm. Which means it's going to suck because I can't write horror. But right now it might actually be unsettling; you tell me. XD The horror part comes later in Chapter One and things will get gruesome fast; if you are easily grossed out or mindfucked, you probably don't want to start this one.
It's similar to The Butcher and Baker and Candlestick Maker, I'll admit, but only in the prologue. Trust me, it's something else entirely soon.
Though no, it shouldn't make sense yet. Does it ever? XD
(Thank you all so much for reading, if you bother with it. Everyone is so kind and amazing in this fandom. You've my utter gratitude and hope that it's at least enjoyable to someone.)
The way to madness is not a fog
but clarity, her tomb.
close to the ending
"I just want out," he said. "Let me go. I just want out."
The towers of spare parts and errant tools were vague forms, shadows even to his practiced eyes, and although he'd never felt frightened of Don's lab before, his entire stomach churned, protesting. He swallowed the bile. The blood masked its acidic tang, the swelling in his cheek pressing over the taste buds in his tongue. It ran hot down his face, the reminder sticky on his neck. The last thing he wanted was to be reminded. Across the dark space, he could make out the gleam of metal on the worktable, menacing in its mystery. It could be his swords. He hoped it wasn't. The silence was crushing his ear drums. 'Oh god, please don't let it be my swords,' he thought, 'or anything else.'
Far in the corner, something skittered.
"I don't want to be here," he mumbled, legs curling closer to his plastron. His shell was scratching against the brick walls, the tremors impossible to control. "Please, just let me go home. I don't… I don't want to be…"
Crying like a child in the night. Ridiculous. He thought his heart was going to explode in his chest from racing so hard, the sweat cooling on his body barely registering in his mind. His breathing. Too loud. Splinter taught them better, he—fur clogging the drain, a long string, oh God, don't think about it, don't think about the stick and the hole in the robe and your side, burning—was going to get caught, his stupidity, all those heaving breaths and half-captured sobs wrestling their way into the quiet. Breathe deeply. He had to center himself. Find calm. Balance. Find—
Don's computer crashed to the floor.
"Go away," he whispered, his left hand going to his face, smearing the tears and slick traces of blood up his head. His other hand throbbed; he tucked it close and rocked, eyes wild and wide, too afraid to shut them. "Go away, go away, go away, go away, go away—"
Air trickling in across the floor, the vents, sweeping up his calves like a balm. He sucked it in painfully. Dusty, damp, the sewers. No, not the sewers. Not home. He glanced up through his fingers, squinting. Don's computer on the table. Damn it. Damn it. Looming shapes, the gleam of—he wasn't going to be able to do this, not anymore, he was—
The skittering become scraping. Sliding across the floor. Papers rustling. He sensed the form before he saw it.
"Don't." He whined low in his throat; instinctive, forgotten. When he was five, Splinter pressing a cold cloth to his forehead, the fever. Pain. He'd forgotten what it was like to be filled with terror. So fast, his heart. Going to die of it, clogs crumbling up. Seizing. Rotting. "No, no, no, don't, no, no, no, no—"
The door opened and light came into the room.
He could see it again. Leo pressed his uninjured hand to his mouth, the fingers clawing between his teeth to muffle the scream. And again. And again. And again. His heels scrabbled at the floor, sliding for purchase, unable to get anywhere. The door closed silently and footsteps padded across the room, dim once more. Don crouched down in front of him.
"Don't tell me you're done already?"
Leo wept into his hand, shirking back. Don frowned, disappointed, and then rubbed his head.
"That wasn't long at all. You sure you don't want to try again?" When no answer came besides muffled keening, Don sighed. "Do you want the scissors?" Another pause. "You can't have them if you don't say anything. It's very rude to ignore someone. If Master were here right now, he'd be very upset with you."
"No," Leo moaned.
"You don't want the scissors?"
"No, no, no—"
"I'm going to leave then." Don waited patiently. "No? You're sure? You know what? I'm going to be your best friend. I'm going to leave them here, anyway. Would you like that?"
"Oh god, Donny, please…" He shook violently, unable to hold himself in place. "Please, Don… don't leave me alone… don'…"
The scissors clacked gently on the cement. In front of him. "I'm going to go now," Don said warmly. "Don't worry, it's almost over."
"Don' do this… please, I jus'…"
"And Leo? Remember, you're right handed."
"So cut out your left eye last."
close to the beginning
"It'll get infected if you're not careful," said Don.
"Hm?" Leo glanced up, squinting against the bright glare of the lamp he cradled his wrist underneath, and registered the exasperated face of his brother. "Oh. I already put some stuff from the cabinet on it."
"Some stuff," Don repeated, rolling his eyes. "That reassures me so much, Leo. Forgive me for ever doubting your medical prowess."
"I can take care of a cut," Leo pointed out in annoyance. He shut off the lamp and started to rewrap the bandage snugly stretching around his palm, flexing his three fingers. Don watched with a frown.
"Yes, well, stomping around in the sewers with an open wound never helped anybody," his brother grumbled. He yanked Leo's hand towards him unceremoniously, pulling at the wrap until it came undone and reaching for a new square of gauze from the first aid kit sprawled out across the desk. He pressed it securely against the gaping line of red. Leo winced slightly, but he let his brother continue the job. There were some battles he'd never win against Donny that had nothing to do with martial arts. And unlike Raph or Mikey, he'd long ago learned that lesson well enough to stay quiet when Don had that look on his face.
"You're lucky you didn't need stitches," Don muttered crossly. "Insanely lucky, in fact. Statistically, there's no way you should have been able to pull that off. You're so lucky Raph didn't tell Master Splinter. You're lucky I didn't tell Master Splinter. Not that he doesn't already suspect. What made you think you could get away with that?"
Leo hated to be reminded of his mistakes. This was no exception. He shifted uncomfortably and scowled. "It wasn't as though there was something else to do, Don. It was this or let some Foot ninja stab Mikey."
"Yes. Yes, by grabbing a swinging blade with your bare hand."
"You would have done it in a heartbeat for Mikey, too."
Don tugged the wrapping so tight that Leo thought his circulation might be cut off above it. "Of course I would have," he answered tightly. "I would have also tried using the sword I had in my other hand to make a perfectly easy block, too. It's very boring, I know, but we can't all be clever like you."
Leo resisted the urge to snap at him. Instead, he took a deep breath and let it go, the tension draining from his shoulders. He'd already had this fight with Raph yesterday and again all through the night with himself. It was a humiliating burn in the back of his mind that he knew Donny didn't mean to viciously stab at with his words—there was nothing wrong with being worried for a brother, he reminded himself. And Don was only ever angry when he was worried for someone. The fact he hadn't seen this particular, sarcastic brand of Donatello for over a year was just startling, a familiar face from darker times, and if he wasn't so frustrated with everyone telling him off for his failure, Leo might even be touched at his appearance. For him, it had been a split-second of stupidity that had nevertheless left little damage and an intact brother (so therefore, easily forgotten). For the others, it wasn't so easy. It was a possible loss of two, narrowly averted, a reminder that none of them were infallible. He already knew from looking in on Mikey late yesterday that it had spun itself into at least one of his brother's nightmares—he'd crept into the room, smoothed out Mikey's forehead, and waited until the whispers of his name ceased.
'Welcome to how I feel half of the time,' he almost wanted to say, but the thought made him feel guilty. It wasn't a feeling he wished on any of them. The weight of perpetual concern, the "what if" games, an ever-narrowing tunnel of possibilities… they were the demons Leo wrestled with that didn't belong to his siblings.
Don was studying his hand entirely too fiercely, wrapped up in his own world. Leo sighed, put his free hand on Don's shoulder, and squeezed gently. "I messed up," he said simply. "I'm sorry."
Don glanced up at him briefly, eyes dark. Then he went back to picking at Leo's dressing. "It's not that," he said quietly, the anger gone from his voice. "I know you didn't do it on purpose and that you'll… practice, somehow, to make sure it never happens again. I know you, Leo. That isn't the problem."
"So what is?"
"You could've lost your entire hand."
"I could've lost a brother," Leo reminded him.
"Yeah. But you could've lost a hand and…" Don fidgeted uneasily, unable to look Leo in the eye. "You don't even care, do you? It wouldn't have mattered in the slightest."
Leo hesitated. His first instinct, to soothe, not through a lie but through omission, fled under the intense pressure of his brother's nervous fingers petting the bandage. His hand hung limply between them. "Donny… it would've been the same for any of us. If it were between Mikey and a hand—even on accident—it wouldn't have mattered, no. I've risked more than just a few fingers for you guys before and you've done the same for me. Is it really that weird?"
Don shook his head silently. Leo couldn't tell if that was a yes or a no.
He carefully lifted his appendage out of Don's grasp, smiling warmly at his brother. "Look, don't worry about it. We've had worse things happen. What's different about yesterday night? If anything, we should've laughed this off."
"It was different," Don said lowly. "Somehow… I don't know."
"When you were bent over, I couldn't see what happened to it. But then the moon hit the roof and I thought I saw…" Don trailed off, an unreadable expression flitting across his face. Then it was gone and all Leo could see was exhaustion. "Look, forget about it. Just keep an eye on it, okay?"
"I'll let you keep an extra one on it, even," Leo promised. He stood and Don followed, still studying him tiredly. "In return, don't get too upset over this, okay? It's not the big deal you all seem to believe it is."
Don stared at him. "It'll get infected if you're not careful," he finally said flatly. He turned and started towards his lab.
"I said I'd let you take a look at it if you—"
"I wasn't talking about your hand."
the question of frailty
"You feelin' okay, Leo?"
Leo spat into the sink and raised his head, catching sight of the pale figure in the doorway of the bathroom through the mirror. The light was butter-yellow and thin, making his brother an almost sallow shade of living. "I'm fine, Mikey," he said, reaching for his towel. He pressed it briefly to his face and inhaled. Put it back down. Mikey was still on the threshold, arms tucked around his shoulders as though he were cold. It felt over eighty degrees to Leo. He wondered what changed in the space between them.
"You don't look okay," Mikey said. "This is, like, the third trip to the bathroom you've made to chuck up dinner tonight. I didn't think you ate that much Sesame Chicken."
His stomach flipped at the reminder. "Didn't throw up," he muttered, willing it down. "At least not yet. Thanks, Mikey."
"Sorry." And he did appear to be contrite. Leo studied him in the mirror, oddly fascinated by the lucidity of the moment. Mikey was never still, never solemn. But his reflection was a sliver of himself, unsmiling and distant.
There was silence that Leo was surprised to find himself the one breaking. "You feeling alright, Mikey? You're never up this late. Or this early."
Mikey shrugged. "Do you ever have one of those dreams that are so real, you can't believe it's a dream? An' when you wake up, it's like… maybe this is the dream instead, maybe I wanna stay there next time? 'Cause sometimes it's nice to feel like things are real. But when you're awake, everything is just passing time. Reality should be infinite."
"That sounds more like something Don would say," Leo said dubiously. He refolded his towel and replaced it. "Or maybe Raph." Who often muttered such things when brooding in depressing contemplation rather than his own fury, rare but oddly more disconcerting. "What brought this on? Did you have a nightmare?"
"You used to stay with me 'til I fell asleep when I had nightmares," Mikey murmured. "Now you wait 'til I sleep and stay 'til I wake up. What's more bogus, Leo? I mean, which way works better? Do nightmares get chased off before you close your eyes or after? 'Cause I don't know."
"Mikey…" Leo said worriedly. He crossed and took his youngest brother's face in his hands, brushing at the mask still there. His own was draped over the towel rack. "Mikey, what's wrong?"
Mikey closed his eyes, leaning into Leo's touch. He was still frowning. "Can't say. Nothing's what it looks like anymore."
If he didn't know the signs of his brother's body better, Leo would say Mikey were sleep-talking. "What's changed?"
"You," said Mikey. "The way the… I dunno, the clock. The hours used to be smaller, I think."
"Would you like me to stay with you until you sleep?"
Mikey shook his head. "That's not what I mean."
It was like being lost in a place with no streetlights, only instinct to guide him. Leo unwound Mikey's bandana and wrapped it around his arm absentmindedly for safe keeping, the other hand stroking at the bared skin beside his brother's eye. "Let's get you to bed. Tomorrow things will go back to normal. I promise."
"Why d'you do that?"
Mikey took hold of Leo's hand—the injured one, the bandages itchy against the healing flesh—and tugged it down from his head. He didn't answer, at least not what Leo expected. "How d'you know?" he asked instead.
Leo tilted his head in question. "What would I know, Mikey?"
"If this is a dream?"
"It's not. It doesn't feel like one. There's coherence and cause and effect. Up is up, down is down. My thought process is arranged by common sense and a clear concept of time. I'd know if I were dreaming, little brother, and this is definitely real." Leo said it softly, meaning to reassure. Mikey just stepped back, hesitation clear in his countenance.
"But it'd be better if you were dreaming," he said. "That means you can stay here forever, right?"
"Your cut's all bloody and stuff."
Leo glanced down, startled to find the tiles bathed yellow under the light bulb encroached upon by a widening pool of black. His hand was soaked through, bandages unrecognizable, and the steady dripping seemed as loud as the jump of his heart into his throat. He thought Mikey was holding it but when he looked up, the bathroom door was wide open and empty, a gaping hole into the lair that revealed nothing. He stared at the barren living area for a while and then went back to bed. As he passed Mikey's room, he peeked inside and saw the vague, shadowed form of his brother standing beside the bed, staring intensely at the covers. His mask was still dangling on Leo's arm. Leo hung it on the doorknob and shut it behind him.
When he woke up, he could smell the toast burning in the kitchen. He stood, stretching, and dressed in his pads silently in the dark.
"It looks fine," Don announced with a grin, balling up the gauze and tossing it into his wastebasket. It rolled on the edge and fell in with practiced ease. "I pronounce you perfectly healthy. You may now train with your right hand."
"Thanks for the blessing, Donny." Leo flexed it idly. "That's not actually what I came in here for, though."
"Oh?" The wheels of his brother's computer chair squeaked as he spun back to his computer, fingers already a blur above the keyboard. "What's up?"
"I've been… having trouble," Leo mumbled. "Sleeping."
"Like how? Insomnia? Restlessness? Too much or too little? You could be unconsciously resisting your body's natural urge to rejuvenate through REM sleep. It wouldn't surprise me, honestly."
"I've heard you get up to practice around two in the morning for three nights in a row," Don said casually. "I was going to bring it up if you didn't. I'm glad you took the first step."
Leo warred with the conflicting emotions inside of him. On one hand, it was embarrassing to know his latest problem had already been discovered, never mind the discomfort he felt in revealing it in the first place. On the other hand, it was a relief. Don would know what to do. He obviously had a multitude of ideas already set out in his head according to different scenarios. It was like any mission they went on; back-up plans were settled in various layers, every possibility accounted for if Don could help it. He traced the thin, closed line of upraised scar tissue in his palm. "I've been disoriented. Weird dreams. I keep waking up and getting confused, like I'm not sure if…"
"If you're still dreaming?"
"Have you talked to Raph yet?"
"Why would I talk to Raph?" Leo asked, bewildered. In his chair, Don shrugged, face still pushed towards the glowing screen of his monitor.
"Raph knows a lot about sleeping problems. If anyone could help you, it's him, not me."
"But you're the one that helps Raph," Leo pointed out.
"Correction. I'm the one that attempts to help Raph. He doesn't appreciate assistance as much as you do, unfortunately. Anyway, I don't want to resort to sleeping pills just yet because the body tends to become addicted to them. We should try to settle your sleeping cycle with melatonin first, I think. I'll give April a call, see what I can do. If we can get you to have a regular sleeping pattern, the disorientation may fade away on its own."
"Okay." Leo slumped in his chair, the original dismay definitely flowing towards relief now. "Thanks, Don. I didn't know how much more I could take of this. I've had Mikey talking philosophy at me for over a week now in my dreams."
"That is seriously messed up," Don sputtered.
"Tell me about it."
"Maybe you need a psychiatrist instead of pills."
"Cute, Donny. Very cute."
"After my brain, people always recognize me for my mastery of wit."
Leo laughed. He didn't tell Don about the dreams where Mikey stood in his room for hours, staring at the bed, a haunted visage that blended in with the pitch black. He didn't tell Don about the swinging rope or the cats growling in the sewer pipes. Some things didn't need to be said, especially when they would soon be gone.
"Your mind is troubled today, my son."
Leo opened his eyes wearily. The mat felt uneven under his thighs, the grooves of the woven fibers an irritating reminder of the room around him. He didn't tell Master Splinter that. Instead he said, "I'm sorry, sensei. I'll try harder this time."
"You haven't been sleeping," his father mused, sharp eyes glinting. He pressed a wiry hand to Leo's arm. "You have bruises under your eyes, Leonardo."
"Don's helping," Leo said distantly, his vision wandering past the room.
"One cannot achieve focus in their life until they can achieve focus in their death," Splinter told him. His voice was calm, but thinly veiled concern filtered through it. "You did not come to me with this problem."
"No." He never went to Splinter with his problems anymore. Not the biggest ones. He trusted implicitly in his father's advice; it was his ability to follow it that Leo doubted. "Forgive me. But I don't know what there is to tell about it."
"If you cannot even achieve the simple state of meditation—" Splinter broke off. "Is it something about Raphael?"
"You are looking at him."
Leo turned back towards Splinter, surprise registering numbly. He had been looking at Raph. Beyond the dojo space, through the slit in the door, as his brother snickered at Mikey and smacked his head with the carelessness of the elder. They were watching television. Leo felt their muffled noise settle into his shell and his ears like a splinter, digging into him relentlessly. He had to fight the urge to turn around again. "No," he murmured. "It's not got anything to do with Raph. It's just me. My sleep's been… restless, of late."
"And your dreams, Leonardo?"
"Perhaps if you describe them to me… There are many burdens that require only a shared knowledge to divide them."
Leo didn't think that would help at all. Instead, he felt fear settle in his chest. As though by telling his father they would, instead of disintegrating the burden, add further to it. A transferable plague. "Sometimes I'm waiting for someone to come get me," he said tentatively, unwilling to part anything but bare traces. "At first, I feel them just beyond the door. But when they come in, they only…"
"Yes, my son?"
"I don't remember," said Leo, though he did. The candle flickered and he thought he saw his father smile, but then it was gone.
grains by gold
"What the shell are you lookin' at?" Raph muttered, taking a drag from his mug of coffee. Leo blinked in his seat at the kitchen table.
Raph was silent. Then, "You sure you ain't dead?"
the first step is down
He woke with sweat cold on his forehead and tremors in his arms. He stared at the bookshelf where his scrolls and novels were placed alphabetically, neatly sorted into rows, until his pulse slowed. He was almost surprised that Mikey wasn't standing above him, eyes boring him through the mattress. As it was, he couldn't tell how that felt. He might have wanted it.
He put his ninjaken against the wall. They'd been by his bedside for most of the week. He wouldn't need them to get a glass of water, but then again, these nights, a glass of water was almost always something more. He might need them, after all. Leo left them, anyway. Some sign of defiance, maybe. Something more? What was it Mikey had said? 'Cause sometimes it's nice to feel like things are real.' No, not Mikey. That had been a dream.
His head was spinning. Not enough sleep—or too much. It was hard to tell.
He didn't know it was a dream for certain until he padded into the black kitchen and reached out, sliding his fingers up the wall to his left where he knew the electronic switch would be. Light flooded the room. Don was sitting at the table, drinking from Raph's cup, the kettle going on the stove as though he knew he'd be having company.
"Let's do something new," Don said.
Leo hovered in the doorway. "I don't want to. I'm going to get something to drink and go back to bed."
"Are you, Fearless Leader?"
"Raph calls me that," said Leo sourly. "Not you." He went to the stove and pulled off the kettle's lid, checking the water. Don chuckled behind him.
"You won't want that one."
"I can see that." He replaced the lid. The cloying scent of blood wafted up from the steam, the red mass inside bubbling away happily. "Is that what you're drinking?"
Leo walked over and plucked the cup out of Don's hands. Don watched in amusement as he studied it before sipping at the mix. Leo wrinkled his nose but deemed it acceptable; he sat at the table and casually turned the cup around so the handle would face the southeast. "The sleeping pills were supposed to fix this," he told Don with a sigh. "It's getting ridiculous. Is this some B-rated horror flick of Mikey's or what?"
"Or what," Don echoed. "You don't have to be here. This is of your own volition, you realize."
Leo drew from the tea again. Then he turned and spat onto the kitchen floor's peeling paint, the splatter of maroon fanning out across the pastels. He pushed the cup towards Don. "I'm going back to bed."
"You lack clarity."
"Yes, I've considered that to be the problem. It'd help if you'd just go away."
"But I'm here because you want me to be," Don chided kindly. "That logic is skewed. You have to consider my position."
Leo stood and walked out of the room. He left Don there alone, the light going off behind him, and in his head was the image of his brother sitting in the dark with his teeth white and bared and more bone than bearable. It did not occur to him until he'd woken up again that they should, perhaps, have been red.
"Again," said Master Splinter. He didn't have to repeat himself; Leo heard the call inside his mind, a blistering hiss in his own voice. Again. Again. Again.
If it wasn't right, if it wasn't perfect, it was all over. All of it unraveling at the seams, the spaces between where Mikey was giggling in the corner, bothering Raph, the spaces between what Donny said and what he meant, somehow joined at joint, inflamed fire, inside of Leo. He took that and went with it. Bled with it. Bore it as his strength. The sword thrummed in his hand, vibrations of sound and movement and spirit.
Sometimes he didn't hear Master Splinter at all. And sometimes he wondered if his father even spoke; that perhaps, somehow, it was all in his head.
Maybe this heady concern about the waking and the sleeping realm was undeserved. Rather, maybe Leo had always been dreaming, some twisted loop or chain that tracked itself steadily like a false life, something procured at a penny shop that lasted longer than its endurance claimed. The sweep of the blade through the air, nothing. The sweat cooled on his shoulders, nothing. The muffled voices of his family, they were…
This was rapidly becoming a problem. One he wasn't sure he could solve on his own, but there was no choice. No other involvement. Leo had to handle this because the issue was handling himself, and no one else would be given the control Leo himself was denied. He felt like he was still dreaming. This should mean more. He should feel more. He should sense things beyond the cloud hovering about him.
When he opened his eyes, he was alone again.
the red pill
"You should start seeing improvement right about now."
Leo glanced up, his thumb pressing down into the healing scab of his hand. It seeped pink. Pain. It shouldn't be a relief, but it was, and so was the click of Don's screwdriver against the computer's outer shell he was putting back on the monitor. "Thanks for your help, Don."
Don paused. "You do know you're awake, right? I mean, you said…"
"No," said Leo, "I know I'm awake."
the rabbit hole has no stairs
The sewer smelled like the sewer. Like it always did. Real, normal. Leo listened to his brothers' feet splash in the drainage and felt relief burn in his soul, deep and comforting. There was no question that this was where he wanted to be. The mission had gone well. No nasty surprises, no unexpected injuries. His swords were heavy on his shell. A comfort.
It was like he'd sat up from a long nightmare. Clarity and coherency returned, a cool and quicksilver run of excitement in his veins. He felt like he hadn't done anything in a long time. His hand, healed despite the small scar, looked perfectly normal in the darkness. "Slow down there, Leo," Don was saying, laughing, from behind him. "The lair isn't going anywhere soon."
"Hey, I ain't complaining," Raph protested, sloshing ahead to grin viciously at Leo from his side. "Fearless here's actin' his age for once."
"Let's see you act yours now," Leo shot back. Raph threw his head back and laughed.
Don came up closer behind them, crossly huffing. "You two want to race, save it for later. You would not believe the acrobatics I had to pull back there. Why can't we ever get kids with spray paint cans? I miss kids with spray paint cans."
"Ninja, robots, aliens, and gang members ain't good 'nough for you?"
"I'm just saying, it'd be nice."
Leo slowed his pace for Don, nudging Raph with his elbow sharply when he moved to go ahead of them. Grudgingly, Raph fell back with him. "I don't know, Donny," Leo said. "The spray cans would probably have hydrochloric acid in them, knowing our luck. Be prepared for any eventuality."
"Hydrochloric acid in spray paint cans?"
"I'm just saying," Leo teased gently. He looked back to smile at Don. In the shadows of the tunnel, he could only just make out the gleam of his brother's eyes and the soft, muted tones of his skin and bandana.
"Hey," said Raph. "Where's Mikey?"
Leo frowned and craned his neck to look behind Don. "He was with us after the last turn…"
"That goofball." Don sighed and turned, losing himself in the darkness. "Mikey! Mikey, we're leaving without you!"
"So funny, Don!" their youngest brother's voice shrieked from farther down the tunnel. If he strained, Leo could hear the clumsy clanks of the pipes as Mikey ran towards them.
"Let's just leave 'im," Raph suggested. Leo rolled his eyes and shoved his brother into the nearest, slimy wall. He heard the smack and grunt of displeasure, then sidestepped from the swipe he knew would be coming his way.
"I'll go get him," he said wryly, dodging again as Raph cursed and made a grab for him. He turned on his heels and knocked lightly on Don's shoulder as he passed, the water splashing around his ankles. "Stay here, he can't have gone far."
"Sure, leave me alone with the great conversationalist."
"Donny, I swear I'm gonna—"
"Hey, watch it!"
Their voices eased into the back of Leo's mind as he jogged further away, the tunnel veering to the right and leading him out of sight. He paused, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness, before continuing. The years of practice had give them all sharper sight in these sewers, though not quite the nocturnal vision needed, especially as day descended into night and the sparse lighting from grates faded into nothing. He thought about switching on the small flashlight at his belt, but then thought better of it. Mikey would be recognizable by sound alone. Given a crowd of a hundred, Leo knew he could pick out his youngest brother in it even if blindfolded.
"Mikey," he called quietly, letting the echo carry itself farther down the way. No need to shout; it was a lesson his family hadn't always seemed to learn yet. "C'mon, Splinter's going to worry as it is."
Nothing. Leo frowned and held himself still, listening for noise. There was nothing but silence, however—the huffing and sloshing had ceased. "Mikey?"
"Right here, bro."
Three feet behind him. Leo whirled, startled, his hand pressed to his chest. "Jeez, Michelangelo, give me a heart attack," he gasped, already working to calm his breathing. It came quickly and easily, and he rolled his eyes. "Very cute. Let me guess, you were waiting on the ceiling? You're getting better at this surprise attack thing," he added with grudging pride. Mikey's stealth skills were not the most well known in the family, something he'd been attempting to rectify recently.
"Let's go, huh?" He started forward, expecting to hear Mikey fall into place beside him… but there was just silence. "Mikey?"
He fumbled for his flashlight, sighing in exasperation. "I'm not going to play games with you right now…" The bulb only flickered; he shook it until the beam became strong. Flashed it in front of him. "Master Splinter might be—"
it has no stairs
The bed sat on top of the placid water.
Mikey was missing his mask. He stared down at the bed, blankness in his eyes and a flour-pallor to his lime skin. In the flashlight's beam, he seemed only half there. Too still.
"No," said Leo in surprise. "I'm awake."
it has no stairs
The bed sat on top of the placid water.
Mikey was missing his eyes. The blood dripped down his chin in thick streams, bubbles coming out where he breathed thinly through his beak. In the flashlight's beam, he seemed only half there. Too still.
"No, I'm awake!"
it has no stairs
The bed sat on top of the placid water.
Mikey laid in it, buried under the covers, his fingers trailing off of the side of the mattress and lightly brushing the water. He was giggling.
Leo turned and ran.
it has no stairs
The flashlight hit the ceiling at jagged intervals, flashes of the tunnel searing into Leo's eyelids. He cracked something when he hit the corner of the tunnel; felt shell creak in protest, pain down his spine in slivers. Whirled around with the momentum. Kept running, elbows just as wet as feet, smelling the sewer water he fell into, dizzying, pungent. Gasped for air.
Raph caught him as he ran past. "Whoa, whoa there! Easy, buddy—"
"What happened? Where's Mikey?" Don demanded, concern heavy in his voice. Leo quaked briefly in Raph's hold, the fingers clasping his shoulders as entrapping as a cage, and then he sagged into it with relief. In the light, Raph's eyes were brown and bewildered.
"Mikey," he said. "I think I'm… no. This isn't a dream. I felt pain."
"Leo, you aren't dreaming," Don said gently. He touched Leo's arm.
"I know that." He shrugged out of Raph's arms, willing his heart to stop racing. Took deep breaths. Calm. Finding his center. Ridiculous. Maybe he'd had a flashback, some remnants of the dream leaking through, but he was awake now. He could feel his sides burning; he must've hit the corner too hard. Stupid of him. Even in a panic, he should have… "Sorry, guys. Don, do you want to grab Mikey and tell him to stop playing games? We don't have all night."
"And the tightass returns," Raph muttered, brushing off his hands. "Just as weird as ever."
He ignored the humiliation flushed throughout his body. "Just shut up, Raph. Don, he's just there, around the corner…"
Don took his flashlight, eye ridge quirking upwards. "Afraid of big, bad Mikey? You?"
'Not him, too.' This was getting to be ludicrous. Leo took another deep breath and straightened, feeling foolish. "Nevermind, I can get him. It was just weird, I thought I saw—"
"Bro, I can't believe you just left me back there!" squawked Mikey, turning the corner behind them. He was panting, drenched up to his thighs in sewer water and glaring at Leo as he stood between their brothers. In the bouncing flashlight beam Don cast at him, he looked more sallow than normal but undeniably Mikey. "Raph, I expect that from, but you? I have been betrayed. Et tu, Leo?"
"When did he read Shakespeare?" Don asked in horror.
"Et tu, Donny!"
"You don' even know what that means, bozo," Raph grunted, smacking Mikey in the back of the head.
Relief, quicksilver and heavy, coursed through Leo's body and he released the tension in his shoulders. It seemed incredibly stupid now. How humiliating. He could only hope he didn't actually yell any of those things at the real Mikey back there. If he had, Mikey wasn't telling, and Leo wasn't about to ask. "Okay, guys," he interrupted, slicing through the banter quickly before it took off to new proportions and left his hands, "let's start back. I don't want to worry Master Splinter."
"Forget that," said Raph. "Let's make it interestin' for once."
Leo opened his mouth to shoot the looming trouble down, but Mikey was quicker. Mikey's mouth was always quicker. "Ooh, do I smell the freshly watered scent of greenbacks?" crowed their youngest brother. "Is Raphie willing to put that money where his mouth is?"
Raph laughed, low and patronizing. "Like I'd ever bet money with you, Mike. You don't got any to bet in the first place."
"I do." Don flashed them a white, toothy smile. "And I have a shiny new toy with my name written all over it in a catalogue that will solve half my software problems, so talk high, guys. What's the win?"
"Guys, I don't think we—"
"Simple shit. First one to get to the lair wins. No rules," and this with a pointed glare to Leo, "An' no time limit. So long as the winner gets there alive, he's good for the cash," drawled Raph. Then he added, "A 'undred from each."
Mikey whistled. "Think of how many comic books that would buy me."
"Think of how many chores you're gonna do for me if ya lose."
"Care to raise it even higher?" Don asked slyly. Raph rolled his eyes, fingering his sai.
"I'm green, but I ain't a money tree. A 'undred fifty."
"If you have that much money," Leo muttered disapprovingly, "you should be contributing to the household, not wagering it in a fifteen minute race. It's ridiculous. I don't even want to know where you got it, Raph—"
"'Course you do."
"Why bother when all I have to do is ask Casey and—"
"Ready set go!" yelled Mikey loudly, erupting out of the shallow puddles and ripping towards home. Raph immediately pushed Leo out of the way and swore, tearing after his younger brother and hollering about "stinkin' cheaters an' you don't even gotta 'undred bucks!"
Leo turned to Don, who just shrugged and immediately set out a brisk pace after the others, waving Leo's flashlight apologetically.
"Great," Leo said, exasperated. He stood alone in the tunnel. "Fantastic. Wonderful. Thanks, brothers."
Then he started to run. He didn't have a hundred and fifty dollars, after all.
it has no stairs
He passed Mikey not three minutes from the lair door and almost stopped to help him. But the knot tied around his wrists looked very complicated and, despite Mikey's rabid cursing towards Raph that followed him the entire way back, Leo really didn't feel guilty when he remembered that he barely had ten dollars, much less fifteen times that. He was going to have a long, long talk with Raph and Don. And he'd be back to get Mikey out just as soon as he made sure he wasn't going to be doing dishes for half a year to get out of this.
Not that he couldn't just claim he never agreed to any of it. But if he won, he definitely couldn't claim that.
Leo half-expected to hear familiar noises; Raph's bellows echoing down the sewer pipes, Don's airless laughter. But the rest of the run was silent. His own panting, soft and masked under the cloak of control, was barely captured in his ear drums. When the last of the stretch came, he'd already started to lag, recognizing the futility in the race if he hadn't come on the last of his family yet.
Well, it was good exercise, anyway.
He almost turned back for Mikey, but the faint sound of footsteps from behind him reassured Leo that his brother wasn't far behind. He instead continued, slowing to a walk in hopes they'd finish it together. Leo would vouch for Mikey. Mikey had sounded interested, but he never actually agreed to the race officially. This was more Raph and Don's game. Besides that, it would give him the time he wanted to ask Mikey exactly what had happened when they were alone before…
It wasn't to be, however, because the lair came before Mikey did. Leo sighed and opened the hidden door with practiced ease. "So what is it, Raph's hoard or Don's shiny new toy?" he called out into the stillness.
There was no answer.
His shell was aching. Leo rotated his shoulder, rubbing at the muscles. Hot shower next, definitely. If Raph hadn't already claimed it. They shared the habit of wanting one after a particularly energetic night. "Don?" he asked loudly. Nothing. "Hey, guys, I can't possibly be the first one here."
No answer. Leo shrugged. He went to check the lab but found the machines hibernating, their blinking lights frail in the shadows. The bedrooms, too, provided nothing. Splinter's own doors were shut, the lantern behind the paper boundary flickering against its shell warmly, and Leo bowed slightly to it before he went to the bathroom and flipped on the hot water.
Fifteen minutes later, he opened Mikey's door and found nothing, as well. Every room but Splinter's was utterly empty. No one had returned yet.
He knocked against the doorframe of Splinter's room, but the weathered voice he expected to inquire didn't sound itself. He waited. Then he slid open the door and stepped into his master's room.
The light was on, but nobody was home.
just a bottom
It was well past five in the morning before Leo heard anything.
By that time, he'd called both April and Casey, searched the surrounding tunnels six times, called on every Shell Cell sprawled around the lair, meditated for over an hour, paced the dojo area even longer, and went through all the security camera feeds from tonight. They wielded nothing. There was no clue, no hint. His home was cold. It reminded him too much of the last time he'd returned to find his entire family missing.
Five saw him staring at the wall on the sofa, knots undoing and redoing themselves in his stomach, and a cup of cold tea on the coffee table. He'd only kept on the main living area light. When the creak of the door came, Leo leapt over the couch cushions so swiftly that he made himself dizzy.
"Donatello! What the hell were you thinking?"
Surprised, Don stopped. He held up his hand to his eyes like he couldn't see Leo, heaving and panicked, in front of him. "Oh. Leo? What are you doing here?"
"We happen to live here," grated Leo. "It's the place we come home to after a mission, remember? The end of the race?"
Don stared blankly.
"Where is everybody?!"
"Oh Leo," said Don in suddenly dawning understanding. "I'm sorry. We should have been more specific."
The lack of concern or wounds settled something bound so tightly inside of Leo that it almost made him ill to let go of it. He was trembling from keeping it in check, but now it released itself, draining him utterly. He was aware, quite abruptly, that he was exhausted. "Specific?"
Don laughed gently. "Sorry, Leo."
"The apology can come after the explanation."
"It's just," and here Don chuckled again, "you're in the wrong lair."
"Race isn't over yet. In fact, it's just started." There was some piece of metal tucked into Don's belt that he kept tapping with his fingers, a nervous tic of sorts, that Leo only now noticed. "Want to be partners?"
"I don't understand." Leo swallowed. "We're in the lair."
"That's funny," remarked Don in genuine puzzlement. "I thought the television set was over there." He pointed to the left.
Leo shook his head and half-turned, confused and angry. "It is over—"
It was on the other side of the room. Leo jerked back harshly, entire body coiling up. No. Yes. Flip side. Like a mirror, the entire room, all their furniture and the wall scrolls on their opposites sides, the paintings turned towards the stone with their naked backs showing, the coffee table upside down with its legs in the air. Insane. He was dreaming. Again, again, he had to be—
"But since you're here," Don said, "you may as well stay for dinner."
oh, honey, you're in for a treat
End of Prologue