Author's Notes: I do not own the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or any of their companions. That honor still belongs to Mirage.
Please take a moment and applaud R.R. Ten'ou for being so kind as to be beta reader amidst all the hustle and bustle of her own life. Thanks again Ten'ou!
There's a smattering of bad language in this chapter, with one expletive hitting PG 13 - sorry, but there's just no censoring some characters. :) This is the concluding story for this little mini-series, so without further ado ...
If he squinted hard enough he could just make her out her form, enveloped as she was by the turbulent mass of people exiting the spandreled latticework of Latimer Hall. The students spilled out from a multitude of buildings onto the mosaic of Berkeley's campus like a breaking wave—inundating the grounds and seeping gradually into every crevice.
She wore the scowl he knew so well—the one that caused her lips to draw in tight like a bow string and gave her forehead that single, irregular furrow. No doubt she was contemplating the chemistry lecture she had just come from. Had she been the social type, she probably would've been complaining about the lecture like her classmates on every side—but instead she walked alone, her intense expression and sure strides causing crowds to move aside in spite of her small size.
Her hair had grown out some in the last month, he could see, and soon it would be long enough to be pulled back in a ponytail. After a time she slowed her pace, and abruptly came to a halt on the now-empty sidewalk—contemplating something that was manifest only in the recesses of her mind. She made her way to the nearest patch of grass and pulled a notebook out of her backpack before sitting down. She flipped through pages with the measured precision of one who had spent a good deal of time holding fragile vessels of caustic liquids, and peered in closer when she spotted an entry of interest.
He wished she would smile.
He lived for her smile.
But he knew she wouldn't. She was too deep in scientific mode, thinking only in equations rich with elemental abbreviations and molar coefficients. At present, her brain had no room for anything else … and certainly no room for any thoughts of him.
Donatello closed his eyes and sighed—a profound exhalation, and the only voice he allowed his current emotions. With the departed breath fled some of the hollow ache that resided quite permanently in chest, but the subsequent intake of oxygen brought it back to him afresh, and he nearly choked at the utter bleakness of it.
When he next opened his eyes, the interactive map of the UC campus displayed on his monitor had reverted back to its usual appearance—gone were the imagined masses of students, the Campanile and the Sather Gate reduced to monochromatic parodies of what they would have been in life.
In life. As he would never see them.
As he would never see her among them. Instead, his mind gathered stolen images to manufacture a world he could never be part of.
Pathetic, that's what you are Donny-boy, he thought with disgust.
He told himself that at least six times a day, but it didn't seem to help. He still felt compelled to look at the clock at every opportunity, quizzing himself on what class she would be in or what she might be doing at any given time. He knew his way around the campus as if he'd walked it with her every day with for the last month, and he even went so far as to try and find copies of the chemistry lectures online so he could keep pace with what she was doing and discuss it with her via email.
Way to go, stalker, he told himself. If Ricki knew you were doing this, it'd completely freak her out—and that's saying a lot.
He vividly recalled the night she had told him about the scholarship. For him, the memory would always be a double helix of emotion—equal parts joy and misery bonded together and twisting away into eternity.
"Donny, Donny!" she screeched, throwing herself at him with an openness that she rarely displayed. "I got it! I … I can't even fucking believe it! I'm gonna study chemistry at Berkeley!"
Don welcomed her into his arms, holding her as tightly as possible for as long as he dared. His heart leapt at the close contact, wishing it was possible for them to simply melt together. In all the time he had known her—more than a year—they had never once hugged. But even as his spirit climbed to new heights, his stomach sank with the heaviness of lead in a murky pond.
They broke apart, and still she held both of his hands and danced around, unable to keep still. She was smiling as never before, her hazel eyes squinting so much that they practically disappeared. He couldn't help it—he smiled back broadly, sharing in her joy and enthusiasm.
"Ricki, that's great!" he managed. And he meant it. What did it matter that his heart was gradually becoming ash, like the burning end of a cigarette?
She ceased her dancing and looked at him, eyes sparkling. "Yeah, well, not too damn shabby for a common hoodlum, huh?"
"I always knew you had it in you," he responded, fervently hoping that she would continue holding his hands. "Ever since the first time I saw you concocting a homemade bomb in some old alley, preparing to vaporize that poor innocent dumpster…"
She released him, and whacked him playfully on the arm. "No way was that dumpster innocent! You wouldn't even believe the insults it shouted at me! It was always sayin' shit about my mom … An' don't even get me started on the smell."
"Yeah, yeah," he chuckled, trying with all of his might to keep things light. "I've heard all this before …"
She giggled a little, but stopped abruptly when she realized she was doing it. Instantly she sought to regain some semblance of dignity; but she couldn't quite rid herself of the smile that graced her features.
"Well," she said, suddenly self-conscious. Her fingers raked nervously through her sandy hair. "I …uh … none a this woulda happened if not for you, Don."
He wanted more than anything to pull her back into his arms, to hold her there so long that all thoughts of scholarships and college and chemistry faded into oblivion.
But instead he just smiled a shy smile, and prayed for the strength to get through the night without betraying himself.
They sat together on the top of that building into the small hours of the morning, dangling their legs over the edge of the roof. He asked her all about Berkeley—when the term started, what classes she wanted to take, and what the requirements of the scholarship were. She answered everything in a business-like manner, but the restless drumming of her feet against the side of the building as they talked belied the neutral tone of her voice.
He only wished he could see her better in the near-darkness, so he could capture the memory of her face as it was tonight. For once, her visage was completely open, her eyes glowing. It was like he was seeing Ricki as she might have been, had life thrown her different cards. Once, she met his gaze for a brief moment—pausing in mid-sentence as she recognized on a subliminal level something deep in his eyes, but then she blushed and looked away in confusion.
And suddenly he understood. This wasn't Ricki at all—this was Erica. Pure, unguarded, and free.
And he was glad he had gotten to see her like that, if only for one night.
Even now, he could close his eyes and feel her warm body pressed innocently against his, smell her hair, hear her elusive laughter as it had sounded on that night. All at once a terrible pressure began building in his chest, and it forced its way up to his throat like a billowing wave of steam.
Knockety-knock-knock, knock knock.
Shit, not now, thought Don, and he swallowed hard, struggling to master himself.
"Come in, Mikey," he managed to squeeze out through the collapsed tunnel of his throat. He took his time closing out the web pages, giving himself a few extra moments to compose himself before turning to look at his brother.
Mike slowly held out his video game to Don, who accepted it without a word. Then the orange-clad turtle just stood there, looking slightly lost, and Don's heart went out to him again in spite of his own inner turmoil.
"It's the right thing to do, Bro," he said with conviction.
Mike looked at him, then slowly smiled and nodded his head. "I know. I feel lighter already."
Don smiled back gently and then waited, expecting Mikey to leave once he had relinquished the game. But Mike continued to stand there next to him.
"Did you need something else?" Donatello asked quizzically. How much trouble can Mikey get into in one day? he thought to himself.
"Uh, no … I mean yeah, but …" Mike was looking at him in a strange way.
"It's okay, Mikey. You know you can tell me."
"I know, but that's not …" He hesitated. "I just thought I'd ask, you know, how you're doing."
And that was all it took—just one kind word, and Donatello's carefully maintained wall of composure began to crumble away like sandstone from a cliff. His shoulders sagged and he put his head in his hands, shielding his face from Mikey's inquiring eyes as his insides twisted like a washcloth about to be wrung out. Fingers pressed to his forehead, he fought against the surge of hot tears threatening to break over him.
He felt an arm softly encircle his shoulders. "Donny, Donny … what is it?" Mike asked worriedly.
Don hesitated. For some time now, part of him had been wanting to talk to someone about how he felt, and several times he had considered broaching the subject with one of his brothers—but he had known he wouldn't be able to do so without completely breaking down, and he was hesitant to let anyone see him like that. Leo was always just so … in control of himself that Don squirmed at the thought of falling apart in his presence. And Raphael? The very idea of telling Raph was almost laughable—not because he was uncaring, but because he was nearly as uncomfortable seeing outward displays of emotion in others as he was with revealing his own. Oh, he knew Splinter would have listened and sympathized with him, but for reasons he couldn't explain he hadn't felt right about going to his father, either.
Then there was Mikey … the lighthearted, fun-loving prankster … but Don was always the one comforting him.
And yet … and yet here he was, alone out of all of them, inquiring after Don's well-being with one arm wrapped so comfortingly about his shoulders … Suddenly, Don didn't feel so much like the older brother anymore.
Tears began to slide out against his will, burning like acid rain and darkening portions of his mask to the color of bruised plums. Still fighting for control, he swallowed painfully. "It's … it's just that …"
Michelangelo, bless him, didn't say anything. He just tightened his arm around Donatello's shoulders and waited.
"I just miss her so m-much," he managed finally, his voice breaking as more tears slipped free with the words.
"Your friend Ricki?" asked Mike, even though he knew the answer.
Donatello, still keeping his face hidden, simply nodded.
"You're keeping in touch, though, aren't you?"
"Sure, for now," Don croaked, "but it won't stay that way."
"C'mon, I doubt that," Mikey said gently, trying to sound positive. "I didn't know her very well or anything, but you two were, like, pretty tight. I mean, all you nerds seem to stick together, and she spoke Geek nearly as fluently as you."
Don shook his head, scrunching his face up as if he was in pain. And of course, he was.
"I know," he said, his voice quavering. "But she's in a different world now. We'll continue to keep in touch for while, but eventually we'll become immersed in our separate lives and … and I'll be okay with that. I'll have to be okay with that."
"But … but why?"
Swallowing hard, his voice strained, Don said, "Because that's just the way things are. This is my world—I grew up learning and inventing on my own here in the sewers, occasionally sharing things with you guys, and most of time I was perfectly content with that. And then once I had April and Leatherhead to share ideas and projects with, it was more satisfying than ever before."
Then he drew a slow, calming breath, and continued in a steadier tone. "But at the same time … you can't have any idea how much it would mean to me to be able to go to college—to be part of a scientific community, to share my ideas and have them challenged, to be right there where paradigms are obliterated and rebuilt as a matter of course." Here he hesitated before continuing.
"I'll never have those things. And I'm okay with that, for the most part. Really, I am," he said, risking a quick glance at Mikey.
The purple-clad turtle paused once again, and the air itself seemed to grow heavier in sympathy with his emotions. "But she can have those things in California. And even if we lose touch because of it, that's okay because … because …"
"Because you love her," finished Mikey for him.
When Donatello finally looked at him, the expression on his face nearly broke the younger turtle's heart.
"Aww, Bro," Mike said softly, and no two words ever held more compassion.
Kneeling alongside Don's chair, he drew his brother gently to him, enfolding him in both arms so that Donny's head was tucked against his shoulder. Wrapped in his baby brother's protective embrace, Don found he couldn't hold it in any more, and he cried brokenly, helplessly as Mikey stroked the back of his head and rocked him gently in sympathy. Donatello clung to his brother like he was shipwrecked and Mike was his life raft—and with the profusion of tears that poured forth, it wasn't much of a stretch.
After a while his shuddering sobs began to abate, but Mikey held him tightly still. Only when at last Don's sobs slowed to sniffs did Mike loosen up his embrace. Then he rose to fetch a box of tissues from next to the bed. Donny tried to compose himself, and when Mike knelt again and offered him the tissues, he gratefully pulled several free.
"I'b sorry," Don said with a stuffed nose as he blotted his eyes. He blew his nose. "I snotted all over you," he said, pointing at his brothers shoulder.
"It's okay," said Mikey, and he ignored the dampness on his own shoulder and rubbed Donny's arm gently, up and down.
Don then proceeded to mop up Mike's shoulder, and half a dozen more tissues littered the desk when he was through.
"I'm sorry, Don, but this is completely unacceptable," Mikey said at last, his face stern.
Looking at him in surprise, Don didn't even know what to say. This was not at all the reaction he had anticipated.
Mike then pointed to the wadded up tissues strewn about the computer desk—a few were even resting on the keyboard. "You would totally chew me out for that, dude," he said.
A laugh that sounded more like a sob escaped Don's throat, and Mikey smiled in triumph.
Then Michelangelo grew serious again. "Did you ever tell her?"
"No," Don answered with a sigh, feeling more drained than if he'd just single-handedly taken on every Purple Dragon in the city.
"Why not? Maybe she feels the same way. For all you know she's crying her eyes out over you as we speak."
Still sniffling slightly, Don said, "It doesn't matter."
"I'd say it matters, like, a lot, Bro. 'All you need is love'—or so the Beatles said, and I may not be much of a fan, but even I'd agree they knew what they were talking about on that one."
"It doesn't matter because I would never tell her. What if she'd decided things differently because of me? Not that that's likely, but I didn't want to risk it."
"But, Donny, isn't that the idea?"
Don was silent for a moment. He'd fantasized about such things endlessly—about the two of them falling in love, and living in New York, and being inseparable. Or at least as inseparable as a human woman and a mutant turtle who lived in the sewers could be. And truthfully, if she had suggested any such thing, he could not have refused her. But she hadn't, and in the end it all came back to one thing.
"No," he said softly. "I wanted her to go … she deserves so much more than what she had as a life in this city. She deserves more than me. College, travel, the chance to make a difference in her field, children if she wants them someday… Then again, maybe I'm just a coward," he said hollowly.
Michelangelo reached out and grasped the rim of his brother's shell, jostling him gently. Don looked up, and he was surprised to see tears in Mike's eyes this time.
"A coward? No, Don. Never you," he said simply.
Don gave him a watery smile, and for the first time since the night Ricki had told him she was leaving, the knot he had inside of him loosened up slightly. It gave him hope that one day he might even be able to draw a breath without it tightening cruelly about his heart. Mikey's hand was still resting on his shell, and Don covered his brother's hand with his own and held it there, silently thanking him for his words.
Eventually he released Mike's hand, and then he asked, "Have you ever been in love, little brother?"
The younger turtle sat back and shook his head slowly, his eyes wide. "No dude. Not really, not like this—and seeing you right now, I kinda hope I never will be. Seems like it can be a real bummer."
"Bummer, yeah," smiled Don. That's the understatement of the decade.
"Speaking of which …" said Mikey slowly, "how come you never told anyone? I mean, we knew you guys were, like, hanging out a lot, and I'm sure we all kinda figured you had a bit of crush on her, but I never guessed …"
Staring down at his feet, Donatello said, "I … I don't know, exactly," and he heaved another painful sigh. "At first, I guess I told myself it was just that—a crush. And then by the time it moved beyond that, I didn't even want to admit it to myself, much less tell anyone else. It wasn't like, you know, I ever thought I had a shot. It just seemed like maybe if I never spoke it out loud … it wouldn't be so painful when she left. And I knew she would someday. Leave, I mean."
"But she left, what, a month ago? And you've been secretly pining away this whole time?"
"I know, it's pathetic," said Don dismally.
"I wasn't thinking that," Mike said quickly. "It's just that … I wish you woulda told me sooner."
Don caught the faintest flutter of hurt in Mikey's tone, and it took him by surprise. He had never considered the possibility that keeping this from his brothers would cause them pain.
"I wanted tell someone, after a while, but I was … it was just that …" He stopped, not knowing how to explain. Finally, he gave up trying and just looked at Mikey apologetically. "I'm sorry."
"No!" exclaimed Mike almost angrily, but his tone gentled considerably when he saw Donny's face. "I don't want you to be sorry—not for me, anyway. I mean, look at yourself, bro!" he said, gesturing at the mounds of crumpled tissues.
"You just lost enough fluids to, like, flood a good part of the sewer system, and none of us had any clue what you were going through! So if anyone gets to be sorry, it should be me, for not asking how you were sooner. What you can do," Mikey continued, "is remember that I'm—that we're here to help you, too. We're always here to help you." He scanned Donatello's eyes for a moment. "Even if all we can do is listen."
Don was taken aback—he could only stare back stupidly. Is this really my irresponsible, scatter-brained, clueless, practical joker of a little brother talking?
"Mikey … I'm—you're right," Don said, just barely preventing himself from apologizing again. "I'll be sure to remember that," he promised, and smiled.
The younger turtle instantly smiled back, and patted Don's shoulder. "Good, cuz now that we've gotten that straightened out, we can move to stage two—which consists of Yours Truly helping his beloved love-sick brother get through this! Just tell me what you wanna do, whatever would make you feel better, and we'll do it," he said with a grin, and looked at Donatello expectantly.
"That's okay, I don't think—"
"Eaghnt!" Mike held up his hand making a noise like a "wrong answer" buzzer. "Sorry! That option is invalid, please try again."
"No, really Mikey …"
"Eaghnt! Look, you don't seem to be catching on here, so I'll tell you what—I'll toss out some ideas and you can pick one."
"Uh, okay, sure," said Don in surrender.
"Okay, let me see …" he said, tapping a finger to his chin. "Do you want to, I dunno, eat like, gallons of ice cream and sit around listening to mushy love songs while crying on my shoulder? Cuz I'd totally do that with you, I'd just have to put on a rain coat or something first …"
"Mikey, I'm sad—not gay. That much at least should be pretty clear," Don said dryly.
"Oh, right," Mike laughed, and then thought some more.
"I got it! Let's get plastered and talk about how completely evil women are, and then write drunken emails to Ricki telling her you're so over her, and boy is she gonna regret passing you by cuz she'll never find anyone half as good as you! I could totally make that happen—I just found Raph's latest stash of liquor the other day, and it's only a matter of time before he moves it again, but since it's for a good cause I'm sure he wouldn't mind if we just, like, borrowed some. You know, to help you out," Mike said with a wink.
Don rolled his eyes. "Should I be worried about how excited you look over this idea?"
"Is that a 'yes'?" Mike asked hopefully.
"No! It's not really my thing. Besides, it's not Ricki's fault, and alcohol's a depressant anyway so it'd just make me feel worse."
"See, that's your problem, dude," Mikey countered. "You're being too logical about all this! The point is that after a few drinks, you'd start to see it as her fault, hence the writing of scathing emails, which would make you feel better cuz you'd be unloading your anger, which is really very healthy—it's not good to keep your anger pent up inside," he said, as if the logic was undeniable.
Donatello raised an eye ridge. "Even if the anger is fake to begin with? I don't think I buy it. Come on, what else you got?" He was actually starting to get a kick out of this.
Mikey deflated slightly when his drunken email extravaganza was vetoed, but he quickly rose to the new challenge.
"Okay, then we could go steal Raph's mp3 player," he suggested, shrugging.
Don's brow ridges flew up. "And how would that make me feel better?"
Mikey grinned wickedly. "Dude, obviously you've never taken a close look at Raph's face when I mess with his stuff or you wouldn't even have to ask! It's totally hilarious! Well, for about three seconds until he catches me, anyway … but it's definitely worth the pounding!"
Laughing, Don said, "Well, then, the only hitch I see is that I'm not quite sad enough to be feeling suicidal."
"Hmmm, good point." After a moment, Mike said reluctantly, "Well, I guess I could let you win at Scrabble again …"
"Let me win? Again?"
"You're right, you're right—that probably wouldn't work since I don't know if I could come up with words small enough to stay behind your score …" He ignored Don's incredulous laughter and pretended to be thinking carefully.
"Ha! I know! How bout Trivial Pursuit? It should be easier to let you win at that one, since I know all the answers and I can, like, purposely say the wrong ones. And hey, don't you worry. I'll take a handicap, too—you can start with four pies," he said with a straight face.
Don could only laugh.
"Aaaalll right, five pies then."
Seeing that his brother was now laughing so hard that he couldn't answer, Mike finally dropped the act and smiled.
When at last he found his voice again, Don became serious and said, "You know, Mikey, as appealing as all of those options sound, I don't think any of them will help." He waited for the younger turtle's expression to fall before adding, "Yeah, cuz you see, you've already managed to cheer me up, and I don't see how anything else would do a better job." Then Don grinned at him, and he marveled at how quickly Mikey's face went through an exact reversal of expressions to end in a beaming smile.
Mikey gave Donatello a spontaneous hug, which Don returned warmly.
"You'll be okay, huh?" Mikey asked after releasing his brother.
"Course I will," Donny answered, and he rested his head against his Mikey's shoulder. Another minute passed in silence before either of them spoke again.
"There is one thing you could do for me."
"What's that?" asked Mike.
Don cleared his throat. "Maybe sometimes I could, you know, sort of ramble on to you about her, and you could pretend not to be bored out of your mind?"
Mike reached over and rubbed Don's head. "Sure thing, buddy." There was pause. Then he said. "Uh … you wouldn't mind if I brought my video games along, would you?"
Don lifted his head to stare incredulously at his brother's face.
"What?? Naturally I'll mute them …" defended Michelangelo.
"Hmmm, on second thought," responded Don with a glint in his eye, "maybe I would like to see you steal Raph's mp3 player …"
A/N: Mmmm, this was both my favorite and my most challenging chapter to write for this series, and I'd be happy to hear what you thought of this section or any other. Critiques will be carefully considered for future writing projects. :)
As always, thanks for reading!