Donatello awoke with the touch of a gentle hand on his shoulder. He stirred, his eyes heavy as the days of sleepless nights finally caught up with him. He was warm; cushioned deeply into something . . .
As the room slowly came back into reality, he could feel hot, labored breath against his cheek, and he realized that he was buried against Raphael. Slowly, he pushed himself into a sitting position. His face was tight with dried tears and his eyes burned. Taking a deep breath, Don ground his fists into his eyes as he attempted to orientate himself. Slightly confused, he looked around.
Blinking rapidly, Raphael's room slowly came back into focus. The punching bag and other weight-lifting equipment in the corner; the messy array of comic books spread across the floor; random sais littered around the room.
Turning his head, Donnie winced as his muscles protested. A sharp pain shot from his neck down across his shoulders. Stretching, he massaged the kinked knots gingerly. His eyes spanned the room lazily. As his head oscillated to the left, he was suddenly staring into the dark eyes of Leonardo.
Donnie jumped slightly, and a sheepish smile crossed Leo's face. "Sorry." Leo apologized, his voice just above a whisper.
Donnie shook his head. "No, man. It's okay." His voice matched the timbre of Leo's, although he wasn't quite sure why. Raphael wasn't going to be disturbed with the brothers talking. Donnie's throat was sore and he cleared it quietly.
The brothers sat in awkward silence. Leo played with his hands as he looked at the floor. Finally, he looked up. "Look . . . I'm sorry to wake you . . . but . . . you were making noises. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Donnie looked over at Leo again. "Noises?"
Leo nodded, avoiding eye contact. "You were yelling . . . and crying."
Memories of last night's events came flooding back into Donnie's mind. Talking. . pleading . . . Raph . . .running out of time. . . .a cure. His eyes widened. "How long have I been out?"
Leo shrugged his dignified shoulders. "I don't know. I fell asleep on the couch. A few hours, perhaps? I fell asleep on the couch."
Donnie sat in silence, Leo's words slowly sinking in. A couple of hours . . .
A couple of hours?!
Fully alert, panic set in. A couple of HOURS? A couple of hours that he would never get back, hours of work that would never get done, and a couple of hours that Raphael was slowly slipping away.
The blankets twisted around his feet and Donatello struggled against them as he attempted to get to his feet. Leo furrowed his brow at his brother's sudden burst of energy. However, he held his tongue and instead, he leaned forward and helped untangle the disheveled sheets.
"What's wrong?" Leo asked as Donnie finally pushed himself to his feet.
"I need to get back to work . . ." he answered vaguely. His eyes were slightly unfocused and it appeared that he was speaking to no one. Leo knew the look well. Formulas, problems, and solutions were already running through his genius brother's head and there was no way of breaking through to him.
Instead, Leo held back his questions and took a step sideways as Donnie made his way to the door, still lost in his thoughts. Leo watched as Don's shell disappeared from Raph's room, the darkness of the hallway engulfing him. He stared into the darkness for a few moments, still piecing things together in his mind. Finally, he tore his eyes away and turned them to Raphael.
He still appeared the same: His eyes closed as he painfully drew breath in and out. His skin was still ghastly in color; pale and shiny. He looked peaceful . . . yet almost too peaceful. If it weren't for the rhythmic labored breaths every few seconds, Leo would have been worried.
Leaning forward, Leo gently straightened the blankets Donatello had kicked away. He pulled them higher and draped them over Raph, tucking them gently under his shoulders. He then ran his hand across Raphael's forehead. As his hand swept lightly from temple to temple, he could fee the clamminess of Raph's skin under his fingertips. His touch traveled down the side of Raph's face and his hand lingered slightly on his brother's cheek. His hand remained there momentarily as Leo closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer.
"Hang in there, bro . . ." His whispered request knotted in his throat.
Finally, he removed his hand and moved over to the chair that was set up by Raph's bed. Slowly . . . tiredly . . . he eased himself into what had been considered his home for too many days. It felt familiar under his legs.
As he leaned back into it, familiar emotions washed over him as well. Emotions of fear, apprehension, optimism, sorrow, confusion, helplessness . . .
Pushing them aside, he sighed audibly, breaking the silence of the murky darkness that encompassed the room. With one final glance toward his ailing brother, he shut his eyes and did the only thing he knew how:
The sound of glass breaking shattered the deathly silence that filled the Lair. Donatello stared silently at the spot where the beaker had exploded. In a daze, he watched as the liquid dribbled slowly down the wall. His mind reeled as the amber-colored concoction swirled and mixed as it dripped vertically to the floor. Finally, he tore his eyes from the mesmerizing mess and ran his hands over his face. He scrubbed his face hard, grinding the heels of his hands into his closed eyes.
His mind hurt. Hell, his whole body hurt. It ached with lack of sleep and frustration. Falling asleep had been a bad idea. Before, his body was deprived, but he worked through it, not realizing the stress. However, after his little nap, his body had come to realize that it needed rest and Donnie was more tired than ever. He found it hard to focus with his eyes and body screaming for sleep. Test after failed test went by. He didn't know how long he had been working, but it was long enough to allow his temper to flair. The puddle on the floor that was littered with small shards of glass was proof of that.
Dropping his head heavily into his hands, he focused on his breathing, pulling air deep into his lungs: In and out. With each breath, he felt slightly calmer.
In . . .
and out . . .
Repeating this, he tried to rationalize his thoughts.
What hadn't he tried?
What was the closest he had come to a solution?
What was he missing?
He couldn't remember anything. His eyes were growing heavier and nothing was making sense anymore. Lost in his thoughts, he felt his head begin to droop. Immediately, he snapped it upright, his eyes wide. Breathing deeply, he shook his head violently from side to side. He passed his hand across his eyes and down his cheek.
His eyes drifted to the top of his desk, and he stared at the mess of science equipment that littered the surface. Absentmindedly, he grabbed for a fresh beaker. As he reached for a small vial of lavender-colored liquid, he realized that his hand was shaking. Grasping his left hand tightly with his right, he felt the familiar sting of tears pricking behind his eyes: Hot and angry.
He mentally scolded himself for the emotional outbreak that was hindering his work, but as soon as the first tear slipped down his cheek, his will was broken. His shoulders slumped over as the sobs came again.
He had hit his wall.
He was out of options.
He was outsmarted . . . and no amount of praying or crying would change that.
It was dark.
Opening one eye, Donatello peered into the murky darkness. He turned his head to the right.
To the left . . .
But he was not afraid.
It was warm. Almost like a black sun was casting its rays onto his skin. He turned his face up to the invisible heat, his eyes closed. The stress slipped from his shoulders and he felt better than he had felt for days. Breathing deep, he smiled as the heat traveled from his face and down his arms.
A light abruptly switched on to his left. Immediately, Donnie's head snapped toward the unexpected brightness. As he eyes adjusted, he felt his breath catch in his throat.
A large, overhead spotlight shone down, creating a luminescent circle on the floor of the dark room. In the middle of the floor sat a single bed, its sheets kicked messily toward the bottom. And on the bed was a solitary figure. It sat at the end, its feet planted on the floor as it stared at its hands that were neatly folded in its lap.
Donnie squinted at the figure, but he couldn't see its face. Tentatively, he took a step toward the bed. Immediately, the figure snapped its head up, bathing its face in the glow of the spotlight. Donnie halted, his heart pounding as recognition sunk in.
Donatello stared, not daring to believe his eyes.
Raphael—his brother—was sitting up in bed, fully conscious. His color had returned—a rich, deep emerald green. A crooked smirk stretched across Raph's features that made his eyes twinkle in the light. That damned smirk that was so characteristic . . . that meant that he was up to no good . . . was now the best thing Donatello had ever seen.
"Raph . . ." Donnie's voice sounded funny in his own ears as it echoed dully around the dark room. Reaching for his brother, he took another step.
Raphael's eyes twinkled even more brightly as a wide grin replaced the smirk. Still smiling, he shook his head from side to side.
Instinctively, Donnie dropped his arm to his side, his brow furrowing. He took another tentative step forward.
With kindness in his eyes, Raph shook his head from side to side once more, his smile softening. He looked toward the darkness behind the bed before turning his gaze back to his brother. The damned smirk reappeared and Donnie's eyes widened.
"Don't . . ."
His request was feeble and died away. Before he could take another step, Raphael was on his feet. With a final smile, he was swallowed by the inky blackness.
Panic set in an immediately Donatello was running, blindly rushing into the darkness. He ran with his arms extended in front of him, groping wildly. His lungs began to burn as the light got further away.
When he couldn't run anymore, he slumped over, his hands on his knees. As he drew deep breaths into his lungs, he glanced over his shoulder. The spotlight was a tiny speck in the distance. Looking back into the darkness, he swallowed thickly.
"Raph?" The name echoed eerily.
Silence answered him. He felt tears stinging the corners of his eyes as he looked back toward the small speck of light in the distance.
Suddenly, his ears pricked. He heard something . . .
It was faint, but quite audible. Donnie turned his head toward the sound.
The laughter grew louder and Donatello blindly took a step toward it. As he walked, it grew even louder, echoing in his ears. His pace quickened. The light disappeared completely behind him, leaving him surrounded in absolute darkness. His fingers stretched before him, groping, the laughter still ringing in his ears.
"95, 96, 97 . . ."
Raph's voice boomed into the darkness and Donnie jumped at the unexpected sound.
"98, 99, 100! Ready of not, here I come!"
Donnie glanced around the darkness as footsteps padded in circles around him.
"Come out; come out . . . wherever you are!"
Donatello knelt and held his breath, confusion etching deep lines on his face.
Without warning, a door immediately in front of him opened, bathing him in light. He blinked rapidly at the harsh invasion and when his eyes cleared, he saw Raphael smiling at him.
But, it wasn't the Raphael he had just seen. Instead, it was a young Raphael, who was only about 8 years old.
"I found you!" Raph's eyes glittered in excitement. "Geez, Donnie . . . you couldn't find a better spot?"
Donatello pushed himself from his knees and took a hesitant step out into the light. Looking around, he recognized the Lair and the closet in the living room that he had been hiding in. He looked down at his hands . . .
His own 8 year old hands.
Hide and seek was the brother's favorite game. When they were young, Splinter never allowed them to leave the safety of the Lair, so they occupied their time finding new and innovative hiding places.
He stared in silence until Raphael's laughter broke his concentration. "You okay there, Donnie? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Donatello snapped his head up and looked into the smiling face of his brother. Looking at Raph smiling, he felt a weight being lifted from his shoulders. Slowly, a smile stretched across his own features. "I'm fine . . ."
Raph's eyes glittered. "Good . . .cuz you're It!" He swatted Donnie's shoulder lightly before turning and running from the room. Donnie laughed, reveling in his new found feeling of freedom. He watched as Raph's shell disappeared around the corner. Slowing to a walk, Donnie tiptoed to the corner and counted to three silently. "You can't get away from me that easily!" Donnie called before he jumped out into the open . . .
And stopped dead in his tracks.
He was standing on a rooftop, the wind blowing gently against his face in the night sky. A teenaged Raph stood at the edge of the roof, a few hundred yards away. A mischievous look crossed his face. "Then, come and get me, slowpoke!" Raphael took off, flipping over the edge of one roof and landing gracefully on the top of another.
Splinter had made up the game when they were young teenagers. It was a chance to get out, practice their ninja skills, and have fun at the same time. Donatello could take it or leave it, but it was Raph's favorite thing to do. He could get out some energy and aggression all while enjoying the open air.
Donnie took a running start toward the edge of the roof. He felt strong and agile. More so than he'd felt in a long time. His legs were youthful once again as they when he was younger. Raph was quickly disappearing a few buildings away. Donnie laughed as he pushed himself harder, jumping quickly and lively high above the alleyways. He felt his worries and cares slip away as the wind whipped past his head. It blocked out all sound, and he allowed himself to slip into a more relaxed state. Raphael was a figure far into the distance, but Donatello felt nothing but peace as he chased him across the rooftops.
Shutting his eyes, he let himself go, wishing to live like this forever. He felt free . . . able to accomplish anything. And his brother was by his side once more.
He heard someone yell. His eyes snapped open so suddenly, he stumbled as his feet hit the rooftop. His heart beat heavily inside of his chest as the yell hit his ears again. Raphael was nowhere in sight anymore. Fear returned and he pushed himself to run even faster. Flying, he threw himself across to another building.
He could see shapes in the distance. But, it wasn't just Raphael anymore. Dozens of shapes occupied the rooftop of a building. With one building to go, Donnie's adrenaline took over. It pulsed through his veins and propelled him forward. He landed, hard, on his hands and knees. Wincing, his breathing coming in ragged gasps, he looked up just to see Raphael launch himself toward Michelangelo.
His red-masked brother knocked Mikey to the side. Mikey landed awkwardly. But Raphael wasn't watching. Instead, he was looking incredulously at his shoulder. His shoulder that now housed a small needle topped with a yellow puff of feathers.
Donnie felt his blood run cold as all emotions came flooding back.
He was back at the rooftop fight between the Dragons a week ago . . . back when the nightmare started.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no . . ." It was the only thing he could think of to say.
He watched with tears in his eyes as Raph stumbled, the tranquilizer working fast.
His knees still sore, he crawled clumsily to Raph's side. Raph's face was already ashen, his breathing ragged.
He shouldn't look like this already . . . it was too fast.
Donnie looked down at his brother, his tears spilling over. He had already forgotten the feeling of freedom that he had just felt. His tears dripped onto Raphael's face, causing his waxy features to glow in the moonlight.
"Please . . ." His voice was only a whisper. He grabbed Raphael's arms and pulled himself closer. Burying his face against Raph's plastron, he struggled for words through his sobbing.
"Donatello doesn't cry . . ."
Donnie gasped at the sudden voice. Looking up, he was now sitting in Raphael's room, right where he had last seen him. The bed was empty and Donatello's heart plummeted. He looked around in a panic.
"What are you looking for?"
The voice sounded again and Donnie spun around.
Raphael was leaning, nonchalantly against the wall, his arms folded characteristically across his plastron. He was vibrant and healthy once more, a half smile stretched across his face.
Donnie gaped, a loss for words.
"What? For once you don't have anything to say?" Donnie's mouth moved, but nothing came out. Raph smiled softly. "It's okay . . . I'm the one that needs to do some talking."
Donatello knit his eyebrows together in confusion.
"I needed to say thank you."
Donnie finally found his voice. "Thank you?"
"Yeah. Thank you . . . for everything."
Donnie felt his face whiten as the words registered. "No . . ." It was a whisper . . . a plea. "No, please . . ."
Raph cut him off with a slight wave of his hand. "It's okay. I just needed to say thank you . . . and I wanted you to feel happiness like we did when we were younger."
Donnie wasn't even aware of his head shaking back and forth. "No . . . I can still help you. You can't give up." Tears spilled over his eyes and fell down his cheeks.
"I'm not giving up, little brother. There's just nothing more that you can do."
"Yes . . . yes there is. I can figure something out."
Raph shut his eyes as he shook his head slowly from side to side. "No, there's not. And I know that you are going to blame yourself. Don't . . . please. That's why I chose to see you one last time."
Sobs wracked Donatello's body. He looked at the floor, not wanting to believe the words that he was hearing.
Raphael took a step forward and pulled Donnie into his arms. Donnie fell into him, gripping at his arms, unwilling to let go. Raph stroked Donnie's head gently as he quietly shushed him.
"It'll be okay. You did everything that you could . . ." Raph's words were a whisper against Donnie's ear. "Tell everyone that we all fought hard . . . and thank them . . . for everything." He gently took Donnie's face in his hands and looked into his eyes. "We'll all be together again . . . I promise."
Donnie shook his head, his vision blurring.
Raphael smiled and wiped away a stray tear that fell from Donnie's eye. Donnie closed his eyes at Raph's touch.
"I love you . . ."
It was like a whisper, winding gently into the night. Donnie opened his eyes and suddenly felt more empty than he'd even felt before. He was alone.
Raphael was gone.
Taking a deep breath, Donatello mustered all of the strength that he had left before whispering into the darkness. "I love you, too . . ."
Donatello woke to Michelangelo's scream. As he picked his head up from his desk, everything came back to him, and he knew without even getting up that Raphael was gone.
He felt empty as he looked around his disheveled room, but oddly, he also felt a sense of peace. He could still feel Raph's light touch against his cheek and his strong arms around him. He remembered the dream that he had just encountered, and he couldn't help but smile slightly.
But then he thought of his family and the hurt that they were feeling right now.
Pushing himself up to a standing position, time seemed to drag as he forced his feet to move. He had barely made it a few feet into the hallway before he saw Leonardo. Leo was leaning heavily against the wall, staring blankly at the floor. He looked up as Donnie got closer, his eyes blank and lifeless.
Donnie could see Leo attempting to muster strength as he straightened. Immediately, Donnie reached out and pulled Leo against his body. "I know . . ." he whispered lightly to his leader. Leo relaxed under his grip, sobs shaking his shoulders. Donnie held him silently.
Finally, Leonardo straightened. "How?" His voice cracked as he wiped his eyes hastily.
Donnie smiled as he remembered the dream again. "I'll tell you later."
Leo didn't ask any questions. Instead, he simply nodded silently. Walking back toward the wall, he bent and picked something up from the floor. He walked the couple of steps back to Donnie and held it out to him. "We found this in Raph's room . . . there was one for each of us." His voice cracked again, and he immediately turned his face from his younger brother.
Donatello reached out and grabbed a small white envelope from Leo's hands. On the outside, his name was printed in Raph's writing.
His heart beat wildly in his chest as he slid his finger underneath the flap. Opening it, he pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded it. Raph's writing stared back at him. It was just like his hot-headed brother: angry and meticulous. Slowly, his eyes skimmed the words, his brother's voice coming through clearly.
If you're reading this, it means that I didn't make it. First and foremost, I don't want you to blame yourself . . . because I know that's what you are going to do. This is nobody's fault. I know that you did everything that you could. I know this, because I trust you . . . you are my brother, forever. No matter what happens to any of us, this will never change. Remember the good times . . . I know I will. I'm sorry for anything I've done to hurt you. You know that it was never intentional. Thank you for saving my shell so many times before. And thank you for just being you. You are amazing and I am going to miss you terribly. But, we'll all be together again. I promise. Help Mikey and Leo understand this, too. I'm sorry that this had to happen so soon. Change is inevitable. But, forever is only a short distance away. All my love . . . always.
Tears fell from Donnie's eyes, blurring the last lines of Raphael's letter. But, he felt tranquility through them. Raph's words hurt, but they were true. Change is inevitable. It wouldn't be easy, but they could do it . . . As a family. Now, it was time to begin counting the days until Forever.
A/N: First and foremost I would like to apologize for the time in between chapters. I swore that I would not be one of those authors that doesn't update in nearly 6 months. But, I had a REALLY hard time writing this chapter. I tried many different endings, and inevitably, it just felt right the way that it ended up. It was difficult to write, but it's finally done. I want to thank all of you who stuck through from the beginning. You really mean a lot to me. I promise, from this point on, I will update new stories much earlier :) Thanks again for all of the support and words of encouragement.