Well, this is the story that started my recent TMNT proliferation. After re-watching a bunch of episodes, I found a lot of things that went unresolved, mainly having to do with Donatello's mental state. I took the agony he went through in season 3 and carried it deeper. If you think this goes a bit far, let me assure you from personal experience that flashbacks can indeed be as vivid and destructive as I describe. But it takes a pretty nasty trauma and a lot of denial and repression to generate it. Looks like a formula that adds up to Donatello pretty well in my opinion. So, for the angst-puppies out there, this one's for you.
Continuity: Takes place between "Bishop's Gambit" and "Exodus part 1" – definitely important, because it's the only time enough stuff has taken place to put Donnie where I want him and yet before Leo starts to dive into his own issues.
Disclaimers: I don't own the TMNT, Splinter, April, Casey, Bishop, Leatherhead, the Fugitoid, the Triceratons, or anybody else that gets mentioned in the tale below. This story is not for profit and not intended to infringe on anybody's rights. Let's just call this my contribution to the fan community, especially the segment that thrives off of Don-centric fics and overcoming internal demons.
Reviews are, of course, welcome, but not necessary. After all, I kinda wrote this because it was in my heart. Recognition is just icing on the cake.
Donatello's workshop was usually an orderly place, at least, to a trained eye. To an untrained one, it appeared to consist of piles of half-finished gadgets, a smattering of random tools, and as many blueprints and notes as could litter the surfaces of the multiple tables and benches stuffed in the old train-car. But to a scientific mind there was method amidst the madness, a pattern within the evident chaos. Every item had a place where it belonged, and a reason for being there, either by association with a work in progress or in relation to the larger equipment. Unlike the garage, which was as much Raphael's place as his younger brother's, or the open computer station in the living room, the workshop was the one place in the lair that the turtle nick-named "brainiac" had claimed for his own. Donatello took great pride in his space, in the orderly functionality of it, in all the things he had created there.
But something was wrong. As he surveyed his domain in the family's lair, the ground beneath his feet began to shake. A few post-it notes slipped from their perches and fluttered to the ground like stiff feathers. A dull roaring sound seemed to reverberate through the space.
"Uh…guys?" Donatello called. But whereas the uncertainty in his voice would normally have drawn his brothers and father together, called them to his side in the face of danger, the lair was empty. No one answered his plea for help. The purple-clad turtle turned back to his workshop alone.
Suddenly the floor in the center of his shop ripped open, revealing a yawing darkness of swirling shadows. Something glinted in the sparking electricity that seemed to dance from dozens of crumbling projects that were shorting out all around the turtle. Something pointed, something sharp. Like a bone or a horn or a spike. A Triceraton? The Shredder? He resisted the urge to shudder at either thought, but only barely. The form loomed in front of Donatello, menacing and laughing in a haunting voice that chilled the ninja and lit cold fear somewhere beneath his plastron. He backed away a step at a time, drawing his bo staff from its customary place into hands that shook.
The figure drew closer. Out of options and uncharacteristically unable to think, Donatello swung the bo with all his might, praying it might slow down this horror. But the staff broke in his hands, shattering as though it had been made of glass, and left him defenseless. As the turtle raised terrified eyes to the shadowy, wicked form, he felt himself run pale, utterly helpless in the face of it. Donatello had never been a coward, never one to abandon a fight, but he knew, knew as the shadow wrapped a hand the size of a taxi around his unresisting body, that this was only the beginning of his pain.
The sudden snap of a familiar voice brought Donatello's mind back to him. His eyes flew open. He was still seated, but his shoulders were caught tightly in Master Splinter's grip, and the wise rat held his son's gaze.
"Master…?" The purple-clad turtle was horrified at how thin and small his voice sounded, and at the feel of cold tears on his cheeks. Frightened? Crying? Here, in front of his brothers? A tiny voice inside poked at him that his brothers were the only ones in the world he could hope to trust, but he pushed it away.
"My son, you were deep in meditation with the rest of us and evidently had some sort of waking dream. You have obviously seen something troubling. Will you tell us about it?" Master Splinter's eyes, always so full of warmth for his sons, were touched by worry, and his voice was coaxing.
"I…" Donatello hesitated. He longed to explain the vision, and what he knew it meant, to his family. A turtle could only study so much science, and therefore so much psychology, before he began to understand and apply it to his own inner-workings. He felt sure that if he could only say the words, could only relieve himself of the pressure of carrying these fears alone, then perhaps he could finally banish them. But a glance to his brothers, leaning in curiously, caused the gentlest turtle to re-chain his heart behind walls of steel. He just could not bear to show them weakness. To let them down again.
"I'm fine, Master Splinter. Just a bad dream, I guess," he replied as casually as he could manage. When the turtles' sensei released his shoulders uncertainly, Donatello took the opportunity to stand up and dash his tears away with a gesture he hoped looked like rubbing his beak. He looked down at his family, still crouched in position with expressions of concern and confusion on their faces. "I think I just need to take a walk. You know, air out my brain."
"Donnie! Hang on a minute!" Leonardo protested as he got to his feet. But the purple-clad turtle had already turned his shell on them and was making pretty good time escaping the lair.
"Whoa. What's up with him?" Michelangelo asked impishly as Donatello vanished.
"Looks like somethin' got under old Donnie's shell," Raphael answered, standing up himself.
"I believe you are correct," Splinter replied, not taking his eyes from the place his son had been meditating. "Something has disturbed your brother, something he cannot face. Something he even fears to share with me."
"Well, what could have happened? I mean, we only just got away from Bishop again after he kidnapped Master Splinter, and the time before that we all got flung into different weirdo dimensions, right? So what's the big deal?" The youngest turtle considered his own words for a moment. "Oh."
"It's worse than that, I'm afraid."
"What're you talkin' about, Leo?" Raphael demanded as the leader narrowed his eyes.
"Donnie's been having nightmares ever since the Triceratons invaded. He won't talk about them, but they've only gotten worse since we went up against the Ultimate Drako. I think something happened back then, something that's bothered him for too long."
"How do you know he was having nightmares?" Mikey wanted to know.
"I've heard him at night sometimes, shouting in his sleep."
"As have I," Master Splinter put in heavily.
"Why haven't I heard anything? My room is totally closer to his than either of yours is!" Michelangelo protested.
"Because your snorin' is louder than a freight train! It's a wonder any of us can sleep through it," Raph said. Beneath the asperity of his comment, though, there was clear anger in his voice. The red-clad turtle may not have been the most level-headed of the brothers, in fact, that was usually Donnie's virtue. In point of fact, the hothead of the turtles hadn't heard Donatello in the night, either, and the fact that his younger brother had been having nightmares without him doing anything to help was whittling away at what little fuse Raphael had.
"Enough of this," Master Splinter said, breaking off Michelangelo's comeback. "You must follow Donatello, help him know that he is not alone and needs not suffer without the support of his family. I do not know all that haunts him, but you must help him defeat it, my sons."
"But what about you, sensei?" Leonardo asked. "Shouldn't we bring him back here to talk to you? I mean…"
"No, Leonardo. This is something that your brother must resolve with your aid, not mine." The rat's voice was absolute.
"How come?" Raph pushed.
"Trust me, my sons. Donatello has need of you three now. My time to speak with him will come when he is ready. But first you must bring him back to himself. Go, all of you."
As the three turtles made their way after their fleeing brother, Splinter closed his eyes in pain.
"May you bring him the peace that I cannot."
Donatello felt the hard smack of roofing reverberate through his feet as he leapt from building to building. Normally, running away from his problems wasn't his style. Really, that was Raphael's department. Even Leo sometimes blew off steam by leaving his worries behind as he raced through the city in utter silence. But, for all his brainpower, the ninja could think of no other way to outrun his own thoughts.
"This is stupid," he admonished himself as he came to rest on a building that overlooked Central Park. "I should just go home, apologize, and get to work on that new security grid. If I hadn't been sleeping so badly I could have gotten it done before those audio-drones got into the lair and hurt Master Splinter."
He felt the slow stir of bottled fury in his heart and with a sound more like a growl than a grunt launched himself towards the next edifice. Though Central Park was one of the last places he wanted to be, this was pretty far from the turtles' usual stomping grounds – Donatello could only hope that meant no one who might come looking for him would find him. He took shelter in the shadow of a turbine on the roof, looking over the street below.
"If I hadn't let those stupid dreams get to me, if I hadn't let them all down, I wouldn't be in this mess in the first place! If I had been stronger, none of this would ever have happened! How many times am I going to screw up and get somebody hurt?" Donatello could feel himself slipping again. The purple-clad turtle didn't easily give in to anger, but like all his brothers, rage lived within him, a primal holdover of their turtle legacy. He was normally better at channeling it than this. But things hadn't been normal for a long time. The nightmare from his meditation was a recurring dream that had plagued him for months, really; now it was apparently intruding into his daily life as well.
"Why can't I ever get anything right?" The ninja felt his fingers curl into his palms, fists bone-pale with tenseness, and he spun, intending to smash the innocent metal turbine behind him. Something, something had to be to blame for his failures, something had to suffer for all he had done. His arm lashed in perfect, practiced motion.
"Easy there, Donnie. Wouldn't want to hurt nobody."
The turtle blinked as fury gave way to surprise. A familiar, emerald green hand was closed on his wrist, neatly stopping the intended punch. Two more forms joined the third from the deepest shadows. The turtles faced their brother evenly.
"Guys…how did you find me?" he stuttered. Great. His brothers had come to force the truth out. To find out how deep his shame went. To learn what a failure the brainiac of the turtles really was. This was definitely not his night.
"The tracers. Remember? You've still got your Shell Cell on you, and you showed me how to use them, just in case," came Leonardo's calm, steady voice. The leader emerged from the cloaking shadow fully, his eyes narrowed in concern. "We were worried about you, Don."
"Yeah, dude! What's with all the angry vibes? You're starting to act like Raph, and we don't need two of him. Shell, we don't need one of him!" Mikey grinned.
"Look, I just needed some air."
"You can't use that line, bud. I made it up, remember?" Raphael pointed out.
"Don, something is going on with you and we're really getting worried. Can't you just…talk to us?" Leo said, reaching a hand for his brother's shoulder.
"No! I…just…leave me alone!" Donatello twisted out of Raph's hold on his wrist, simultaneously ducking Leo's gesture, and turned to run. Away from his brothers, away from the family he had let down. Away from his failure.
"Oh no you don't! Nobody runs away from us!" The next few moments were a blur of green hues, but soon enough Donatello was pinned underneath Raphael, with Michelangelo helpfully sitting on his feet and Leo holding his right arm firmly.
"We've had just about enough of this, Donnie!" Michelangelo said, and though the characteristic laughter of his personality remained in his mannerisms, it was gone from his tone. "You can always talk to us! Can'tcha trust a turtle?"
"It's not…" Donatello took a breath around the weight perched on his middle. "It's not that. There are just some things that you guys don't know, things I don't want to know. And…" his voice closed unexpectedly.
"You're our brother. Whatever it is, we're in it together," Leo said firmly, waving the other two off and pulling the second-middle turtle to his feet gently.
"'Sides, with you wiggin' out like this, we don't work so good. Much as I hate to admit it," and a ghost of a smile crossed Raphael's features, "we need your brain workin' on all cylinders to keep the rest of us goin'."
"No! No, you don't! You can't, you shouldn't rely on me that way!" Donatello exploded with surprising desperation. "I'll let you down!"
"Donnie, what happened to you with the Triceratons? What happened when we separated into different worlds? You've never give us a straight answer, and you need to." Leo's voice was still gentle, but it had taken on the tone of leadership, a role that the purple-clad turtle had always respected. The insight of the eldest brother was keen, and he could now sense some of what hid behind even the most feverishly constructed walls. Trapped by his brothers, by his own heart even, Donatello's resistance fell.
Of course, when his resistance fell, he hadn't expected his body to follow suit. But then again, the sudden release of pent-up agony would have sent any sane turtle to his knees. Instantly, the other three were around him. Leo still had a hold on his brother's hand, which he now noticed was shaking. Mikey crouched to his left, somber for once. Raphael, unable to see a brother in need without helping, had instinctively gripped Donnie's other shoulder tightly to soften his fall.
"Talk to us. We're here."
The storm broke with violence. Donatello, still on his knees, could no longer fight the pain that had torn at him for weeks. He felt tears stream from his eyes, somehow hot and dry though they splashed on the six comforting arms that held him. Shuddering, wracking sobs tore at him, his beak buried in a muscular but welcoming shoulder. When he could move, the second-youngest reached out with his trembling arms and clung to his brothers, wordlessly begging for the bond that held them together. And, as the truest brothers they had always been, the other three held their hurting fourth, body and soul.
"When the Triceratons took me," his voice surprised them all – no one had expected Donatello to speak so soon. But once he began to release the pressure, he could not stop it, could not hold it back anymore. "It was all because I was trying to protect April and the others. I thought I could do it on my own, but they got me. They…the Prime Leader would have done anything to me, anything to find out where the Fugitoid was. But I wouldn't tell him. I couldn't. I tried to tell them that he wasn't on earth anymore, tried to make them leave without hurting anybody else. They didn't believe me.
"I knew you guys would come for me. I believed you would. But I was powerless against them, and they knew it. They had a device…" A sudden spasm shook Donatello and the three brothers traded glances. Donnie had never shared this part of his experience with them. His voice sounded…tortured. The way Leatherhead sounded when he talked about Agent Bishop right before heading into a blood-rage.
"They put it on my head. It was a thought-reading machine, and it was designed to extract all memories from whoever was wearing it before it killed them. I could feel it, guys, I could feel the circuitry climbing around in my head, slowly taking apart every memory or thought of my own and displaying it for the Triceratons to see. And it hurt, it hurt worse than anything I'd ever felt before. They were erasing my identity, taking everything that made me unique and turning it into nothing more than data for them to pick over. They were eating away at my soul."
Raphael's eyes became slits and he held his breath to hold in his anger. He was suddenly sorry that they had ever let the Prime Leader of the Triceratons go be locked in a friendly, harmless jail cell. Donatello was his little brother, and though not as "little" as Mikey could be, he was under Raph's protection. To learn that those horn-heads had invaded him, had assaulted him, it boiled the red-clad turtle to the core. Donnie should have had vengeance for what had been done. Nobody, nobody touched his family! Ever. And for his brother to have had to live with this for so long without telling anyone, to hide his suffering from his family even while the others had recovered from their experiences and moved on, it left the angriest turtle truly seeing red. Why hadn't Donnie trusted him with all this?
"I…I tried to fight them," Donatello resumed his tale. His voice shook with shame, "I tried to keep them from finding out where Professor Honeycutt had gone. If they saw in my head that I knew he had gone to the Utrom homeworld, then even more of our friends would be in danger. But it hurt so much and there was nothing I could do to get that thing out of my head! If it had been any of you, I'm sure you could have resisted it, but I couldn't. I just…couldn't. I wasn't strong enough.
"They were moments away from tearing the information from me when I finally broke. I screamed, I cried like when we were babies, begging for our father to save me. And somehow Master Splinter answered me. He managed to cross time and space and he found me. He wrapped himself around my mind, somehow, and blocked the machine. I remember feeling it short out without my betraying our friends. Master Splinter saved me, but he should never have had to. I should have been strong enough. I should have been able to do something about it on my own. But it…it tore apart everything I thought I was and it left me nothing. Master Splinter broke the device, but it had already broken me, too. It proved that I'm just not good enough for him or for you guys."
"Donnie, that's not even true, bro!" Mikey interrupted. "If you couldn't stop it from getting into your head, there's no way any of us could've done any better!" He couldn't watch his older brother tear himself apart like this anymore. Donatello was the calm one, the gentle turtle, the one who always had the answers and who always knew what was best, even if he couldn't figure it out as fast as Leo could in a fight. It wasn't fair for Don to blame himself for not knowing everything. Shell, Donnie didn't even blame him for not knowing anything! Certainly Master Splinter didn't blame Don for any of this!
"But I still failed everybody anyway. I told them how to scan for the Fugitoid, told them how to identify his positronic signature, not knowing that it would almost get us all killed when they used that information against us later. It was my fault we got caught by Agent Bishop's men. It was my fault we almost got sliced and diced and we lost Professor Honeycutt for a while. If I had been smarter, I would have found another way to get the Triceratons to leave us alone. I should have protected everybody. But I didn't. I didn't. It took Master Splinter to get us out of the mess I created, all by my own stupidity. Everything that happened to the earth, to all of you, from the minute the Triceratons took me captive was my fault, and a lot of people got hurt because of it!"
"No, Don. Mike's right. You were trying to protect the earth, trying to save millions of innocent people. That's always the right thing to do. You couldn't have known what Professor Honeycutt would do, that he would come back here. You couldn't have known about Agent Bishop. None of that is your fault!" Leo's breath was raspy. Even he, the turtle who knew all about inner balance and peace, could feel himself tipping. How could Donatello have blamed himself like this? He understood taking on the weight of the world all too well, but he had never drowned in it, not like this.
"Donnie! Snap out of it!" came Raphael's voice. Everyone knew that tone – the red-clad turtle was enraged, but not at his brothers. At the force that had hurt one of them. "I get that what they did to you was horrible, but you ain't got to hurt yourself worse over it! You always find a way to get us out of trouble, and it's 'cause 'a you we do so good in the first place. We know you do your best, and it's always bin good enough ta get the job done!"
"But that's just it!" Donatello roared, his head snapping around to lock eyes with his older brother. "I tried to tell myself that after the invasion was over, that I had always done my best. That just because I got it wrong didn't make me a failure, and it worked for a while. But then…" his eyes closed and he went suddenly pitched downward. If his brothers hadn't had ninja reflexes, they might well have let Donatello hit the ground. One moment he was kneeling, staring at Raphael; the next, he was face-down on the rooftop, retching as though he had been punched in the gut on a full stomach.
"Don!" Leo supported his brother's shoulders as the other two jumped clear of the mess. The turtles' leader was close enough to hear the anguished whimpers that came with wave after wave of sob-laden nausea.
"Donnie, nobody's dead! We're here with you!" Leo waved for Michelangelo and Raphael to help him support their brother's form. Together, the three held him until the spasms passed, drawing him to an even more sheltered place on the roof. While Donatello struggled to regain his breath and his control, Leo stared at the other two with wide and distraught eyes. What else could have happened to the most peaceful of the brothers? What more had Donnie been asked to endure?
Donatello was falling. Later, he would be amazed by the strangeness of the experience, of feeling at once as though he were literally reliving the past, and yet also dimly aware that he was in the present, safe and surrounded by his brothers. But none of that calm understanding came to him now – the shadows of everything in his heart had burst into his world full-blown. If the admission of his guilt over the Triceraton incident had been a storm, this dive into his scarred psyche was a tsunami. He had not wept the first time he had walked through this hell, and those stilled tears had torn him to shreds while they waited to be shed. Reality fell away and his mind betrayed him to his innermost pain.
The nightmarish world of the future stood around the purple-clad turtle, an odd combination of the destroyed lair, the park where Splinter's grave stood out starkly white like a sick moon, and the Shredder's throne room. Tattered hangings bearing the Foot emblem swung in an unfelt breeze, touching the cracked and fallen stones of the family's home that he loved so well. Donatello could feel himself quaking as he stared at the ruins around him. There lay Michelangelo, the last scream of his life like a ghost on his beak. Nearby were Leonardo and Raphael, the rift that had grown between them now eternal and unsurpassable. Tears were evident on Raphael's contorted face, while Leo's mouth was still open in shock and betrayal. The air smelled of death and dust, choking the one lone survivor.
"No! Not again!" Donatello shouted, running an impossibly long distance to where Mikey's body was a twisted reminder of his failed plan. He flung himself down beside his brother, horrified to feel his knees squish into the cooling lifeblood that had ceased to pour from so many wounds. He touched Michelangelo's shoulders hesitantly, then urgently, alternately begging his younger brother to wake and shaking him with anger and pain.
"You can't! You can't be dead! Mikey, please, please come back! You have to wake up! You can't leave me alone like this!"
Wild with grief, with the unimaginable loss of his brothers, Donatello sprinted desperately to where the older two sprawled, driven from the one-armed version of his brother by tearing, sinking, unremitting guilt. He grabbed Raph's outstretched hand, taking the limp fingers in his own ice-cold ones, tugging desperately. His other arm looped itself under Leonardo's neck, drawing the once-leader's head into his lap. The purple-clad turtle could not help but notice that his brothers, so vibrantly green in life, were fading to a grey paler than his own skin. His tears splashed onto their bodies.
"Raphie! Leo! Please, please wake up! It's my fault! It's me that should be dead, not you! Not you! Come back! Don't go! Don't leave me!"
The world was spinning, the pain was unbearable. Near to madness, the one survivor tore himself from his siblings, fear and guilt and shame now threatening to overtake his suffering. He stumbled to his feet only to trip and find himself lying upon Master Splinter's grave. The cold monument, hastily scratched and unworthy of the body it marked, regarded him accusingly. Donatello curled into the dry dirt, digging his beak into the ground as he had his father's shoulder when he had been little. His hands tore at the earth with a mind of their own, his legs thrashing uncontrollably.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry! You're dead, you're all dead and it's because of me! You believed in me, believed in my stupid plans, and you died for it! It should be me lying here, not you! I didn't…I didn't mean to let you down. You're all dead and gone and I'm alone and it's all my fault and I'm sorry!" He screamed into the dirt, working himself down as though the earth could embrace him instead of the arms that would never hold him again. Donatello wanted to die, wanted to bleed here beside his brothers and leave this world and find them so he could tell them how sorry he was, how afraid to be alone, and beg their forgiveness for his failures. This was the future, this was their future, this horrible end with only one turtle left standing, more alone than anyone in the universe had ever been before. His heart was dying. Guilt filled him and punctured his spirit as though spewed from a machine gun into his unresisting, unprotected body.
This was the end of all things in the world. Their objectives, their honor, anything that had seemed to matter until this moment, it all meant nothing against such a reality. Donatello never knew before whether his love for his family outweighed his need to save the world, but he knew it now, and had paid a terrible, terrible price for that knowledge. It didn't matter that he was alive and the world was safe. It didn't matter that he had saved countless lives. He hadn't saved the ones he needed to live. He had failed them all, and he would suffer with them forever.
"Please, please come back. Please don't leave me. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…"
It was the most haunting thing any of them had ever experienced. Donatello was clearly in a world within his own mind, seeing and hearing nothing of them even though they held him. And the things he was describing from the depths of wherever he had gone, describing feverishly as though he could scratch away the pain by casting it away from himself, the other turtles felt sick at it. A world in which they had failed and the Shredder ruled? In which Master Splinter had died and they had separated in the face of that pain? In which their gentlest brother was left to watch them die and live with the consequences? They could not imagine it, but they could see what it had done and was doing to Donatello.
"I…I didn't know," Leo stuttered, astounded. Donatello was curled in on himself into fetal-position, his head suspended by Raphael's knees. The purple-clad turtle had been moments away from hurting himself on the rough asphalt of the roof before his older brother had intervened, cradling his head as though it might somehow alleviate the pain. Leo himself had wrapped himself around Donnie's plastron, trying to keep the spasms at bay. Michelangelo held his shell, bracing his older brother's shoulders in horror.
"None of us did," the usually cheerful youngest said through a dry and stuck throat.
"Donnie, Donnie, it's all right," Raphael crooned softly. It was the gentlest his brothers had heard his voice in years. "We got ya."
"Why didn't he tell us?" Mikey demanded, feeling sympathetic tears streak down his face. "Why didn't he tell us? Why did he hide it from us?"
"Because he's afraid of it coming true. Like saying it out loud might make it happen somehow," Leo replied. The leader of the turtles, the one who could face down the worst danger alone and yet be untouched in his heart, was cold to the core. This was not an enemy he could defeat by swords or skill. This wasn't even something he could strike at to knock it away from his brother in need. This was something far worse, far more insidious. Of all the turtles, Leonardo understood what the guilt Donatello must be experiencing could do to a person. He knew what it was to feel that he had failed and let down his family in a mistake that might cost them their lives. But it had never actually happened that way. He had been spared the sight of mangled bodies the way his brother had not. And Leonardo would have traded places with his brother in a heartbeat if he could have.
"But it won't happen. We won't let it happen." There was no mistaking the steel in Raphael's voice even though his tone remained gentle and his words were directed, not at the turtle who had spoken, but the one who needed to hear it.
"So what can we do?" Mikey asked, his own desperation growing as Donatello's recollective flashbacks became only more violent. It was now taking more than casual effort to hold their brother against the instinctive lashing against an unseen but keenly-felt pain. It seemed as if Donatello, lost in himself, would tear himself apart literally to match what was being done to his heart.
"We've gotta reach him, Leo," Raph said, finally lifting his eyes to the leader.
"And we will."
Over and over and over again it happened, over again and again Donatello watched his brothers die, watched himself do nothing to save them, watched his world and his heart crumble. It got no easier to witness; the more times the purple-clad turtle relived the experience, the greater his guilt and pain became. For every time his brothers died, he felt the cut anew, slicing away yet another part of his sanity, gouging deeper into the refuge of family that had always been the source of his courage and strength.
And no matter how many times it happened, he could not break the cycle, could not save any of them, could not tell them how sorry he was before it was too late. Even if he had had those few precious seconds in which to tell his brothers what he felt, to apologize for letting them down time and again, he didn't know if he would even have the courage to do it. What words could possibly express the amount of guilt Donatello felt for getting his family killed, for letting their lives fall apart, for not being there to save them as they all had done for him so many times? He was a failure, a coward, and his brothers had paid the price.
The voices that spoke in effortless unison were so warm in that cold world that they caught the purple-clad turtle entirely off-guard. He jumped and spun from his place at Master Splinter's gravesite towards the sound.
"It can't be…"
Though he could still see the bodies of his brothers littering the ground, between himself and their corpses stood Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. They seemed almost to glow with an inner light, a softness that was entirely absent from the harsh reality around them. They stood together, looking as young and whole as they had been in Donatello's memory before this place, before this future. And their eyes were all for him.
"We're here, Donnie," Raph said gently. "You're not alone anymore."
"We didn't know," Mikey gulped, taking in his surroundings and turning visibly pale. "We would have been here sooner if we'd known. We're sorry, dude."
"We aren't dead, Donnie." Leonardo, flanked by the other two, was the only one who seemed unaffected by the situation. He stared intently at his younger brother, as though nothing but Donatello existed, as though nothing could distract him from the one in need. "This isn't real. You have to let it go and come with us."
"But…I can't. I failed, Leo. I failed you all. I always do!" The tears came again, and the purple-clad turtle hung his head helplessly.
"No, you don't. Donatello, you've never let us down. You've always been there for us when we needed you. We don't blame you for any of this. Please," and Leo put a hand that was hot upon his brother's cold and trembling plastron, "please stop doing this to yourself."
"Come back with us. You got out of this world once," Michelangelo put in, lifting his brother's chin until their eyes met. "You've got to get out of it again. Or…you might get stuck here. You know, the whole 'self-fulfilling prophecy' thing?"
"Mikey's right," Raph said, moving to put an arm over Donatello's shoulders. "You ain't gettin' better here. Come back with us to where we can fix this."
"But I…" He looked around wordlessly. The evidence of his eyes was too good to be true. His brothers had come back from death, had come for him in spite of everything. "What if I fail and it happens again?"
"You won't." There was no doubt in the words, nor in Leo's eyes.
"We won't let this happen," Raph promised with some anger trickling into his tone.
"Promise." Mikey's certainty was as bright as a flower in this lifeless world.
Donatello closed his eyes and allowed his brothers to draw him into their arms. It felt like falling into a pool of warm water after freezing halfway to death. For a moment he could feel corporeal bodies embracing him, but the sensation broadened and melted until it seemed he was flowing between three bright clouds that were gathered about him. There, held as tightly as he had ever been in his life, Donatello sensed a shadow separating from him, as though the light of his brothers could drive the darkness from his very heart. For one moment he hesitated, reaching out to cling to the black stain and draw it back inward, back to where it was familiar, even as it destroyed him. But there were his brothers again, rising between himself and that pain.
"We're here with you."
"We got ya."
"Come back with us."
Their words floated back to him through a confusing sea of possibilities. And then another voice joined them, a fourth presence barring him from the shadow and drawing him into warmth with an impossible strength and serenity.
"I am with you, my son. Let it go."
With a shudder that was as much spiritual as bodily, Donatello released the darkness. He looked at it, looked unflinchingly at the truth of what had been tormenting him, and finally saw it for what it really was. Yes, that world, that experience had been real. But that was not the fate he and his brothers would be forced into accepting. It had been real, but in another sense it would never be. His brothers were alive. Master Splinter was alive. And he was alive to keep them that way.
The pain of the memory, the images, the guilt and failure was still with him, but its power was diminished. He felt turtle hands tugging at him, heard comforting words that had no sound, knew the touch on his shell was that of his father's guiding love. They pulled him near, drew him farther and farther from the shadow he had so reluctantly cast away. Donatello knew he could resist his family if he wanted, could return to the inky void that had claimed him for so long. It was easier to float in pain than to face and overcome it. It was his choice, to fall into the darkness or to fall into the light. Either one could swallow him whole, either one could command the rest of the course of his life, either one could rule his mind and heart. But only one was the fate he wanted.
Donatello chose hope.
"He's coming around!"
"Don, you alright buddy?"
"Give him some air, guys."
Donatello opened his eyes slowly. He found himself curled on his side, still on the rooftop he last remembered. In a triangle around him sat his brothers, all evidently coming out of a deep meditation. He vaguely remembered the events of the last hour, his recollection getting fuzzier after breaking down emotionally in the face of the other turtles. There was something…something as insubstantial as a dream and yet bitterly real that chilled him inside. Something that had happened, that had almost overwhelmed him and broken his mind. But he also felt calmer inside, in spite of the trauma that still wounded his heart. The fatalistic desperation of his pain was gone.
"You…you came back," he finally forced out, pushing himself to a sitting position. The other three gathered around him slowly, hesitantly. Donatello winced at the pain in their eyes; somehow, they had seen his memories.
"You should've told us, bro," Raph said after a long, awkward pause. All four of them were thinking of the images they had seen in Donnie's mind, images that would haunt them all now, though none like the one who had been there. But Raphael's voice was disarmingly non-accusatory, and his face was far more contrite than upset. "We would've understood."
"Yeah. Nobody should have to go through that alone. Especially not when we're brothers," Mikey nodded. He flashed a strained grin at his brother, but there was no mistaking the reflexive flick of his hand to his elbow, as though ensuring himself that he still had both arms.
"I didn't really mean to. I just…there was no way to explain it, you know? And I didn't want you to know what I did, what I didn't do, how I let you all…" his voice faded as his throat closed.
"Yeah, we know, Donnie. But you don't have to be so afraid of us. We'd never blame you for anything like that. You wouldn't blame any of us if we let something bad happen to you." Leo put a hand gently on his younger brother's shell. "And you know we'll always come back for you."
"Yep. We're brothers. Together 'til the end." Raph punched Donatello's arm, but there was no force behind the blow.
"And don't you forget it!" Michelangelo put in, jumping up to give his brother a solid noogie on his domed head. Of course, that only lasted until Raphael could swat him, but then, that was exactly the reaction Mikey had been hoping for.
"Are you going to be all right now? I mean, I know it's not all better, but…"
Donatello looked into the eldest turtle's face, reading the concern and uncertainty there as clearly as though it had been printed on a computer screen. But behind the immediate worry, Leonardo's face was round with something else, something that heartened the hurting turtle: love. Raphael had always been the best at family loyalty and dedication, Michelangelo had always been the joy and laughter of the brothers, but Leonardo was the sincerity and honest emotion that bound them. Emotion that had not abandoned Donatello even in the face of the greatest adversity.
"With time, and help, I think so," the purple-clad turtle admitted. "It was…like nothing I've ever known. I won't," and he shivered violently at the chill that overtook his thoughts, "I won't ever let it happen that way, I promise. I'll never get lost for years – I'll always come back. I promise."
"We know that, Donnie-boy," Raph smirked wearily.
"I never knew I could hurt so much. And…when it happened the first time, I was so deeply in shock that I didn't even really feel anything. I just stood there, thinking about you all, absolutely frozen. And then I was zapped back to the rest of you so fast I never really got the chance to face what I'd seen. I guess it got to me."
"It's called 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,' bro," Mikey said seriously. At the incredulous looks from his brothers, he shrugged. "What? It happens in the comics all the time!"
"Ain't that encouragin'," Raphael sighed.
"It was like I was really there, but you were there, too," Donatello continued.
"We were. And so was Master Splinter. Just like how he reached you when the Triceratons came," and here Leo watched his brother very closely. It was no accident that in the calm after the experience he brought up the Triceraton invasion. Leonardo needed to know, and he knew his brother needed to know, if the trauma was still as debilitating as it had been an hour before. He needed to know if the mere mention of it would send Donatello back into his own world of pain, or if his brother had overcome it enough to go on.
"I…" But instead of remembering the feeling of the alien device violating his mind, Donatello instead remembered the warmth and love of his father, there to protect him when he was in need. "Yeah. I guess it was like that. Something I should really study more, see if I can figure it out, huh? I mean, psychic contact through meditation is pretty unusual, even for mutants."
Leonardo felt a smile break out on his face. Under the strain of the past hour, under the pain of weeks of bottled suffering, there in Donatello's tentative, thoughtful look was something real that had not been there in a long time. Though the brainiac's expression was brittle, and his eyes were hard points of light as he tried to muscle some normalcy back into his demeanor, there was also a sense of relief underneath, as though the weights that had held him had melted away. His brother was not whole yet, not completely, and he would probably still have nightmares, but he was healing. It was the difference between being asleep and being in a coma – Donnie was finally asleep instead of half-dead inside. Leo knew it would probably take a long time before his brother was back to himself, but now he could begin the journey.
"Sure." And Leonardo put all the unspoken things in his heart, all the pride and love he had for this remarkable brother of his, into that one word. Without saying anything, without even looking, he knew Donatello heard what he meant.
"Come on, guys. We should head home. Master Splinter's probably worried about us," Michelangelo said, finally breaking the moment. "Besides, it's almost time for the monster movie marathon!"
"You ready?" Raphael asked the other middle turtle while Leo dealt with Mikey. The eldest understood without being told Raph wanted a moment with his mending brother.
"No," Donatello sighed honestly, "but I won't be until I start going anyway."
"Sensei'll help you."
"I know. But you guys helped me, too. I think I needed you first."
"I know," Raph nodded. "I'm that way, too. So the next time you need to blow off some steam, you come talk to me. You got that? Don't go runnin' around bottlin' all this stuff up, okay? At least beat on Mikey to get it out of your system, bro!"
"I'll try." Donnie could hear the fear in his voice around a cracked smile, the uncertainty of what would come next, of how he would finish overcoming his experiences. He winced at how weak he still was, at how liable to mess up and let his family down. But he was startled out of his thoughts by a flick of strong fingers on his beak.
"You're alright, Donnie," Raph said softly. And though it was said with confidence, with a sense of camaraderie, with the intent to bestow a sense of equality between them, the double meaning was not lost on the turtle who needed it. The red-clad ninja smiled sternly at his younger brother. "Now quit thinkin' so much and let's get moving."
Donatello straightened his shoulders and faced his turtles. His brothers. There was so much still ahead of them, so much that could go wrong. But they were together, and that was all he really needed in the world. With his brothers at his side, the purple-clad turtle felt that he could face and survive anything. And more than that, he had a reason to be the best he could be, to push himself beyond any limits, to fly without wings. He would defeat this fear, cast out the shame and guilt that had distracted and destroyed him for too long. He would restore order to his mind, cleanse the darkness from his dreams, regain command of his own destiny. Partially because he needed it for himself. But mostly because he wanted to be the brother that the others were to him. He wanted to be the son worthy of the father he had in Master Splinter.
The first steps were painful, as they always were on a journey back from heartbreak. But this time, Donatello was not walking alone – he was flanked by three green shapes he knew as well as he knew his own shell, three shapes that meant absolutely everything. He would never be alone, even in his own mind, ever again. It was something worth fighting for, something worth dying for.
Something worth living for.