Disclaimer: TMNT was created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. TMNT belongs to Mirage Studios. I am not making any money from this fic.
Hi guys! Sorry for putting my comments all over the top of the fic (I'm sure you don't care what I've got to say :-D) but I've used a small number of Japanese words which might need translation, so here goes:
Makiwara – Loosely, a karate training dummy
Kiai – 'cry of the spirit'
Togi – the art of sharpening, cleaning and buffing katana
Kanahada – one of the last powders used in Togi
Koro – an incense burner
Kogo –a small, usually ceramic, pot for incense powder
Anyway, I'll be quiet now – please, enjoy!
Leo shivered. Despite his long, black trench coat and hat, and Don's scarf in place of his own, he was still cold. The snow had fallen afresh every day during that week, so he was told by the locals, but it hadn't put Leo off - not a bit.
He remembered that it had been snowing this time last year, too.
He pulled down the brim of his hat and kept walking, his feet disappearing to the ankle in the white, crisp ice-powder.
It was an interesting walk through the stricken orchard to the farmhouse. The naked trees looked almost black against the pallor of the snow, their leaves shed weeks before; their death the precursor to rebirth in the spring. With the exception of some evergreens, the landscape was bare and dead.
It looked, Leo felt, like his soul might have appeared a year ago.
It was towards one of the few evergreens he now headed. It was a young tree, born before Don had left for the Summerland, and they had hoped it would bear his spirit for many years longer than he had lived.
As he approached, he saw the dignified but simple grave marker than Raph had carved with his own hands until they bled. He'd spent hours doing it; it was something with which he could soothe his helplessness, his unyielding pain. It was a tall, straight memorial, simply marked 'Hamato Donatello'. In such an open place, it was risky to have added anything more; all the important people knew who he was and what the cenotaph represented.
The memorial loomed suddenly, and within a few short strides Leo arrived at his destination. He was still for a moment, looking over the memorial with his eyes. A small, wan smile crossed his face and he crouched before the wooden fixture, putting one hand on it gently. He glanced up as he flicked off the two inches of snow that rested on top of the memorial and then looked back to the letters carved into the wood, tracing the snow out with a finger.
Eventually he stopped, tucked his trench coat beneath his knees and sat down on them in the snow.
"Wow. It's been a year already.
"Time goes so fast."
He smiled sadly.
"And yet so slow. Sometimes it's like you never left, like I still expect you to be in your lab or working on something in the shop. Sometimes it's like you've been gone forever; and that we're all old men in your absence.
"Sometimes I think we are."
Leo took a deep breath; the cold air took him by surprise and made him cough a little. He paused, waiting to catch his breath before he continued; as though the cough itself could sully his words.
"God, I miss you, Donny." He said. He brushed a little snow away from the base of the cenotaph absently.
"I don't think I've had a proper talk with anyone since you've been gone.
"Mikey's not the deep conversation type.
"And Raph's just been even angrier since you left.
"I miss our midnight chats about life, death and the cosmos." Once again, Leo smiled and this time it was full of undisguised sorrow.
"I miss how you'd come into my room, or I'd go into yours, and we'd talk and talk until we got told off by Master Splinter and sent to our own room.
"I used to love listening to your ideas, trying to follow how your mind worked and just not being able to because it worked so much faster than mine. Watching a genius at work is a beautiful thing, Donny."
The wood was slightly warm under Leo's fingers; he took comfort in the feel of the natural fibres beneath his fingers. His hands were icy cold; he could barely feel his fingertips anymore. It wouldn't be long before he had no choice but to go to the farmhouse and start up the fire - but for now, it could wait.
He'd waited a year for this reunion.
"Naturally, nothing works anymore. Raph and I do what we can, but everything you made, everything you created started to rot as soon as we got home. We just couldn't maintain it anymore. We didn't have the skills.
"I hope you're not too mad about that. We really did try. Trying to imitate a genius is a hard task.
"And Raph just used it as an excuse to get angry again. He'd never say it, but he thinks he let you down by not being able to pick up the slack.
"He misses you too. We all do."
Leo breathed the cold air silently for a moment. It really was edging closer to that time; his body was grumbling a lot more now about the bone-numbing cold than it had been.
But not yet.
Not just yet.
"Oh! Mike has a garden now.
"Yeah, I know.
"Nobody was more surprised than me, I can tell you.
"He pretty much can't grow anything but daffodils – for a guy with green fingers, he sure can kill plants quickly. But he tries hard.
"April got him some Hyacinth bulbs and those things are hardy. Even Mikey couldn't kill them.
"And I guess sewers do have the best fertilizer, even if they don't always have the best natural light."
Leo shivered. The winter sun was setting quickly, its orange haze glimmering across the edges of the conifer they had planted by Donatello's grave.
"I…have to go inside now Don, but I'll be around for a couple days. The others were all thinking of you in their own way this week; I just really wanted to come see you properly."
Reluctantly, Leo got to his feet, his body stiff from the freezing cold. Once again, his hand brushed along the top of the grave marker, clearing off a few new flakes of snow as they fell.
His steps were heavy as he approached the farmhouse. Searching in his belt, he dug out the door keys and jammed them into the part-frozen lock, trying to get in. After a little jimmying, he managed to open the door, and a small flurry of snow followed him through the doorway as he turned to shut the door behind him.
It was a little comforting to be out of the snow, and even before he took off his coat and hat, Leo knelt before the empty fire grate, pulling some logs out of the store next to the fireplace and the matches from the drawer on his right.
Later that evening, Leo sat on the moth-eaten old sofa, wrapped in a blanket and holding an indulgent mug of hot chocolate. He gazed into the fire in the grate, the flames twisting and turning like a creature in the last throes of its life. He sighed.
It hurt more than he'd expected to be here alone.
"But there's got to be something. I-I mean, you're not going to just drop dead, right?" Leo heard the pain in Raph's question, but Don's answer filled him with nothing but dread.
"Actually, that's probably exactly what'll happen." Don said, his voice shaky and uncertain. He flashed a quick smile, but it was weak and he had not the strength to sustain it.
It had taken for him to collapse during a training session for him to even tell them he'd been ill, that he'd been suffering debilitating headaches for weeks. He'd hidden the nausea and the visual impairment from his family for as long as he could, but his sudden collapse in their presence had forced him to show his hand.
Leo cursed himself. If he had thought about it, if he had paid his brother the attention he deserved, he'd have noticed the fact that he hadn't been in his workshop so often, that he'd put off jobs he'd normally have done in a matter of minutes, that he had to practically sit on top of the computer screen to read what it said.
Mikey sat on the bed beside his brother. He was silent and wore a look of intense worry.
"So I don't get it. An In-Your-Ism. What is it?"
Don looked at Leo for support. Leo instinctively stepped in to explain what he could, but his understanding was also limited.
"An aneurysm, Mikey. Donny's got a blood vessel with a bulge in it in his brain. Right, Donny?" Leo fumbled over the words, but Don nodded in agreement.
"So Mikey's got a bulge of fat where his brain should be, doesn't mean he's gonna die because of it." Raph said. He smacked Mikey's head noisily, but Mikey slapped his hand away, irritated at the interruption. Normally that would have started a fight, but even Raphael – who never needed much of an excuse to lose his temper - did nothing in return. What Donatello was saying was too important to miss, and he was clearly too worn to say it twice.
"It's probably getting more swollen - bigger. That would explain why I'm getting the headaches. If it bursts, I'll probably die… or at least be severely brain damaged. I probably wouldn't even be able to breathe on my own.
"I think I'd rather be dead than live like that." A deathly hush was all he received in response to that comment.
"If I were human, they could do something about it. But, seeing as there isn't a large pool of Mutant Turtle brain surgeons, there's not much we can do." His humour cut too close to the bone; he couldn't raise a single smile from the worried family that surrounded him.
"So…It's an 'if' rather than a 'when'? You keep saying 'probably', Don. We need to know what you mean by that." Leo asked gently, trying to clarify what his brother was saying. It was Leo's nature to look not for the 'when', but for the 'if', for the 'must' and not the 'can't'. His heart sank as his brother closed his eyes.
His next words may as well have been a kill blow, because they sure felt like one.
"No, Leo. It's definitely a 'when'."
Again, there was an uncomfortable silence. Leo's legs felt weak; he wished suddenly he could swap places with Mikey and sit on the bed.
"So... How long?"
Leo cringed inside, but chose to say nothing. It was just like Raph to be short and to the point – especially when he was hurting. Don could not meet their eyes.
"Days rather than weeks." He said finally. Raph turned immediately and headed for the door; not another word escaping his lips. He shut it hard behind him.
The rest of the family stood awkwardly for a few minutes. It was such a shock; none of them knew what to say. Don fidgeted with the bedcovers nervously.
He could feel the eyes of his family on him; feel their concern burning like cold alkali on his skin. He hated that his family were so concerned, that they were so worried. He felt as though he ought to apologise for their distress.
As he was about to do so, the silence was interrupted.
"Is there truly nothing we can do, my son? It sits ill with this old rat to…to watch…" Master Splinter's voice disappeared even as Leo reached for his arm surreptitiously. Don shook his head. He glanced up at Leo and said, finally,
"No, it's okay. Really." He raised his palms to his remaining family and waved them appeasingly.
"I don't expect you to watch. I've arranged to…to go away. It's fine; I don't mind being on my own.
"Casey said I could stay at the farm. I didn't tell him why; I guess… somehow it wasn't important.
"That way, you can remember me the way I always was. You don't need to watch me go."
Leo felt his heart crack right down the middle.
He was damned if he was going to let his much-loved brother go away and die by himself.
"Forget it, Donny. That's not happening." Leo's voice was hard, despite himself. He couldn't bear the idea of his brother feeling that he had to go away and die by himself; the image of his brother alone in the day's last trails of sunlight, counting down his last breaths, alone but for dust in the sunbeams brought tears to Leo's eyes.
"Wherever you go, we're going with you. All of us. Always. We lived our whole lives together; we are going to be with you when you die. Wherever that is and…whenever that is."
Leo's voice faltered as he spoke again.
"We love you."
He reached out to grab at Don, suddenly painfully aware of the gap between them. Unexpectedly, Mikey reached up and grabbed Leo's hand, pulling it forward with one of his own and grasping Don's hand with the other. He put them together unceremoniously and placed his own over the top, resting his head against Leo's arm in misery.
"I don't want you to go." He whispered, as his eyes filled. Finally, brought to silent tears himself, Don leaned forward and wrapped his arm around Mikey's head.
There the three boys sat for some minutes, silent but for their tears – about which no words were spoken afterwards.
They did not notice when Master Splinter left the room.
The night had brought more heavy snows. Leo stood on the veranda wearing his trench coat and hat, Don's scarf now a permanent part of his wardrobe. He looked into the winter sky, a gentle smile on his face as the wind quickly blew the pinkish clouds across the frozen sky.
At his feet were a scrubbing brush, some carbolic soap and a bucket of steaming water.
Having warmed his cold bones during the night, he was prepared now to give his brother's grave the treatment it deserved after a year's wear and tear. Although Don would probably have been satisfied to let the wood rot away, to let his memory pass quietly from the world, Leo felt it was his duty to ensure that during his lifetime it did not.
Taking a deep breath to clear his lungs of the night's cobwebs, he picked up the bucket and took the short walk to the graveside.
"Hey." He said gently, greeting the cenotaph as warmly as he would have his own brother, had he been there. He put down the bucket at his feet and brushed off the three inches of snow that had fallen on the monument during the icy winter night. He sighed and a frown creased his brow. He was quietly irritated that the snow had the audacity to keep falling in the spot which he had brushed off.
He trudged back to the veranda to pick up the brush and the carbolic and returned quickly. He knelt before the grave, put the brush into the hot water and pulled it out swiftly – the heat on his hands after the near-arctic cold made his fingers tingle.
He loaded the brush lightly with the soap and began to scrub the marker down, starting at the very top, taking delicate care to brush the moss and dirt out of even the tiniest veins in the wood.
"Master Splinter asked me to remember him to you – he asked me to bring something for you too, but I don't know if I'll get it going in this weather. He imported it 'specially – with April's help."
Leo rinsed the brush and carefully scrubbed over the same area to get the soap out of the grain of the wood.
"She misses you." Leo said, simply. He paused and sat back for a moment.
"Whenever she comes into the lair, she looks over at your corner. I know she does it – even if she doesn't.
"After all, she can't 'geek-out' with the rest of us guys. We don't do the geek thing so well."
Leo smiled wryly as he once again rinsed and reloaded the brush, scrubbing lower down the marker and picking at determined clumps of moss with his fingers.
"It's weird, watching the Discovery Channel and not having you tut and puff and correct them from your corner. I learned more watching the Discovery Channel with you than I actually learned from watching it by myself.
"I loved how you would get all self-righteous when they'd misquote Stephen Hawking, or omit something from 'How it's Made', or disprove something in 'Myth Busters' that you'd swear was possible.
"It used to make me smile."
Leo slid his fingers over the carvings that had adoration written through them, in the silent language beneath. He smiled knowingly.
"I think we've all gotten a little more stupid since you went away.
"I think your smarts must have been rubbing off on us all the time you were at home."
Time passed slowly and without acknowledgement, and Leo continued to speak as though to an old friend he had met again for the first time in years.
"Oh. Mikey -" Leo stifled a gentle laugh. "Mikey wanted me to bring you this…" He searched in his pocket suddenly, shivering with the rapid movement. He finally pulled out a wooden bird from his pocket. It was coarsely carved, textured –and yet created with a fine sense of purpose.
"Mikey's taken up hobby craft in general. It doesn't just stop at gardening." Leo looked the bird over and said, starting to laugh,
"He…he tells me it's a crane, but he broke the legs off."
He laughed again, but this time there were tears in his eyes. He pushed his face into the sleeve of his coat, the wooden, legless bird still in his hand.
"Sorry. It's…actually quite emotional being here.
"Sorry, Donny. I didn't mean to bring all the emotional baggage with me."
Leo took a moment to compose himself and put the bird back in his pocket.
"I've got to finish cleaning before I can put it here." He said, for the first time almost as though to himself. Putting the crane back into his pocket, he picked up the water bucket and sloshed the contents across the bottom of the memorial, melting away the snow and the ice before he bent his back to scrub again.
Don sat on the sofa, a wet towel over his face. Leo looked on in concern from the corner, but said nothing. As he stood silently, his arms folded across his chest, the sound of a car door being slammed made him glance out of the window. He saw Raph and Mikey, wrapped head to foot in warm human clothes struggling towards the door with two paper bags full of groceries each.
They were not being very stealthy – and that wasn't good enough, for a whole bunch of reasons. Noiselessly, Leo opened the door and indicated for them to be silent, an angry frown on his face. Raph scowled but said nothing; Mikey simply looked chastened. Leo reached out and took a bag quietly from Mikey and ushered him into the farmhouse.
As the boys entered, Mikey glanced towards Don on the sofa, arms and legs splayed everywhere as though he had literally just crashed there. He slid off his coat silently, spilling flakes of freshly fallen snow onto the floor. He actually took the time to put it on a coat hook by the door. As he trundled into the kitchen wearing a worried frown, he found Raph and Leo having quiet but heated words.
"We can't let anyone know we're here, Raph! We have to be silent; we can't risk an attack right now. Don can't defend himself and-"
"What? I can't shut a car door now, Leo? What do you want me to do, go out and shut it again quietly?"
"Don't be an idiot, Raph! All I'm saying is-"
"Look, can you two take this outside?" Mikey interjected. Both brothers paused and looked in surprise at their orange-masked sibling. Mikey's frown didn't waver.
"Don's trying to get some rest out there – he knows when you're all tense. Go away and be tense somewhere else, would you?" he finished huffily, opening a cupboard door and ramming in some cans of soup.
Raph stormed towards the back door and opened it, slamming it behind him. Leo stretched to his full height and stalked after his brother, opening the door and, in contrast to Raphael's instinctive reaction, closing the door gently as he left.
"Wow…" said Mikey, tiptoeing to reach the top shelf and installing a can of beans. "They actually listened to me."
He heard movement to his left and turned to see Don standing next to him.
"Hey, bro." Mikey said. "Can I get you anything?"
"Yeah." Don's voice was weak and cracked. "Do we have any more of these towels in the refrigerator? They're the only thing that helps." He didn't remove the towel from his face as he spoke, leaving his words muffled. It also left Mikey's worried scowl unrecognised.
"Yeah – I'm pretty sure Mommy Leo would have put some in there for you. Hang on for a sec." Mikey said, heading towards the refrigerator by the back door. He knew that when Don referred to the towels as being 'the only thing that helps', he meant that even the painkillers weren't enough anymore. Only the numbing cold brought him any relief at all.
Mikey opened the fridge door and reached in for a prepared towel, saying,
"Here you go! I thought that-"
He was interrupted by the sound of his brother crashing to the floor. Wide eyed, Mikey slammed the fridge door shut, not responding to the door flicking back because the fruit juice had jammed it - like it always did.
"Don! Donny!" Mikey yelled, racing to his brother and throwing himself down by his side. He immediately turned him onto his back and tore the towel away from his face. Donatello's breathing was rasping and weak, and his face was a mess of blood. His eyes, half open in his head, were dark and unfocused, and it broke Mikey's heart that there was no recognition in them. With shaking hands, Michelangelo used the towel to wipe the blood from his brother's face, isolating a heavy nosebleed as the cause.
"Don, Don, can you hear me, its Mikey…" Mikey asked frantically, only to be greeted by the same grating breaths. Vaguely remembering something Don had told him once about being able to choke on your own blood and vomit, Mikey pulled him over onto his side, took a cursory swipe at his face again with the towel and pushed himself to his feet, instantly reaching for the handle to the back door, screaming,
"Leo!!" he yanked down on the door handle and swung the door open, leaping outside, not caring that he was undisguised, not caring that it was cold, or that the snow burned his feet; searching, his eyes flicking back and forth and the cry leaving his mouth even before he set eyes on his brother.
"Leo!!" Leo turned immediately, adrenaline pumping around his body at the panic in his brother's voice. He ran back, grasping Mikey's arms tightly.
"Mikey, what is it?"
"It's Don – he collapsed! I-I…"
But he didn't get a chance to finish. Immediately on hearing Mikey's words, Leo was gone – headed back towards the house, the heavy weight of panic in his heart and adrenaline in his legs.
He barged into the kitchen and saw his brother laying on the floor, his chest heaving, a puddle of blood collecting on the kitchen floor beneath his cheek.
"Don!" Leo cried, dropping to his knees and running a palm over Don's face. He too saw the lack of recognition in his brother's eyes and baulked.
"Donny… Donny, is this it…? Is this…" Leo trailed off as Mikey re-entered, closely followed by Raph. He also knelt beside Donatello while Mikey crouched, and Leo heard Raph's breathing quicken and the words die on his tongue.
"This is it, isn't it? He's dying. He's dying!" exclaimed Michelangelo, dropping to his knees and covering his mouth with his hands.
"Shut up Mikey!" Leo snapped, trying to think. "Raph – Master Splinter was meditating in the woods – go get him, quickly! Mikey, you help me move Don to the couch!"
Raphael immediately stood, swearing and cursing about old rats meditating in the freezing cold snow. Within seconds he had disappeared, and Leo and Mikey were carrying Donatello through to the front room.
"On the couch, Mikey, on my count. One, two, three-!" Leo said, and between them they hefted their brother onto the couch. Leo immediately grabbed hold of Don's carapace and pulled him on to his side.
"Mikey, run upstairs and grab some blankets." Leo instructed. He heard his brother's suddenly clumsy feet on the wooden stairs, having left without offering a response.
Leo ran through to the kitchen and grabbed a damp towel from the fridge, still ignoring the trapped juice carton.
He quickly moved back to his languishing brother's side and wiped his face with the cold towel. He had hoped for a response, but received nothing. He hung his head for a moment, trying to quell the sickness rising in his stomach.
He heard the footsteps of Michelangelo on the stairs and looked up as he approached with his arms full of blankets. He dropped them on the floor and started layering them over his stricken brother.
Suddenly, Leo's hand snapped out, and he grabbed Mikey's wrist. His little brother turned to look at him. Leo's heart felt like a stone in his chest as he saw the look of despair on Mikey's face.
"I'm sorry I shouted at you." he said, squeezing Mikey's wrist gently. Mikey nodded, and Leo couldn't fail to notice his eyes filling with tears. He bit his lower lip like a child might, and Leo stepped forward to pull Mikey into his arms.
"He did say it might be sudden, Mikey." Mikey put a hand to his face on Leo's shoulder and sniffed.
"I know. I know… It's just…"
"I know, Mikes… You don't have to say anything." Leo said gently, pressing his face to his brother's cheek.
They could both hear Don's guttural breathing. As they continued to pile blankets on him, it would occasionally be interspersed with some kind of instinctive swallowing. However, when Leo knelt beside him, he saw that Don had dribbled on himself; his lower jaw was slightly slack. With a heavy heart, Leo took up the towel and wiped Don's mouth with it.
Mikey dropped to his knees at the arm of the sofa and reached up, putting his hand on the top of Don's head gently. He pushed his face onto the arm of the couch and said, tearfully,
"I hope his head doesn't hurt anymore."
Leo tucked into the stew reluctantly. It was a strange feeling to know that the canned food Mikey and Raph had purchased that day was still in the cupboard and still in date. It was the contents of one of these surviving cans that Leo picked at now – it was one of Mikey's favourite stews, so naturally he'd bought as many cans as he could find. Leo, on the other hand, wasn't so keen on it, but didn't feel like going into town wrapped up like a mummy just to get something else.
He wasn't entirely sure about Irish stew at the best of times, but this evening, in this place, it made him pull a face and push it aside.
His tolerance levels were lower than normal, he suspected.
Still, he'd eaten most of it and didn't have much of an appetite anyway. The bread had been fine; he'd brought a fresh loaf with him yesterday and it had helped to disguise the taste of the canned stew.
"I don't know how Mikey eats that." Leo said to himself. He sat back in the wooden chair.
His katana, never far away, were in a corner by the fire – he had spent what had remained of the afternoon cleaning them before the fire as the sun set on Northampton and the quiet little farmhouse just outside of town.
Standing, he wandered across to the window, gazing out into the night sky. The stars were as clear as the night was fresh; it looked as though there might be a reprieve from snowfall tonight.
He smiled, and traced the Big Dipper with his eyes.
"I saved for ages to get you that book on Astronomy for our Birthday. You know, the big one. And you were so pleased with it, and I was so proud. That was the first year we were allowed to pawn our 'lost items'– I guess we must have been about eleven. It's amazing, what people lose down drains. We'd find jewellery, cash, bus passes, electronic gadgets – wallets would be handed in to the police, but we'd find those too. Master Splinter said that anything we couldn't use, we could keep and he'd arrange to have it cashed in at the pawn shop.
"It was the equivalent of getting pocket money."
Again, Leo stood quietly, comfortable in the warm silence and with his imaginary company.
"I took the book back when we cleared out your room. It still had all your torn paper page markers in it, with your untidiest handwriting scrawled all over them.
"Now that I can't get any more examples of that, they're all the more precious.
"And I remember that you'd lay on your front in bed, propped up on your elbows, pen in mouth, reading that book far beyond when the lights were supposed to be out.
"And I'd go to sleep with a big proud smile on my face."
Leo smiled wanly.
"I didn't take much else. Some books, a little of your tech – and whatever you were growing in that plant pot. I still don't know what it is, and I don't think I want to know, but it's doing really well.
"Mikey and I fought over your blanket, but I let him take it.
"It still smelled like you for a long time, but I think Mikey eventually got up the courage to wash it. It's not that it doesn't smell like you any more; rather that it smells much less like you."
He paused, listening to the owls and the crickets in the darkness.
"It took six months before I could open my photo albums." He said, his voice hollow.
The crickets seemed somehow louder in the absence of his words this time.
He sighed and looked back into the main room, where the fire needed stoking.
"I guess some struggles never end." He said to himself gently, referring to the owls and the crickets. Inevitably, the noisy crickets would be hunted by the owls and devoured, leaving the survivors to piece together their lives and start again.
Leo finally moved away from the window, walking over to the fire and stoking it with more wood from the bin by the hearth. He prodded the smoking embers with the poker, hoping to encourage the flames to envelop their new prey.
Putting the poker back into its holder, he stretched. He heard his elbows and shoulders pop and grimaced.
"I need to train more."
He moved away from the hearth, leaving the now roaring fire behind him as he picked up the dish from the table and headed out to the kitchen with it.
While he washed the dishes that had accumulated during the day, he said to himself,
"And I have just realised that I am so talking to myself. It's different by your grave, but in the front room?
"I guess I could have done with the company of someone else after all.
"I thought I'd be okay, but… it's the first year and…it's hard."
He felt bad then for suggesting that he'd been talking to himself, and therefore refuting any possibility that his lost brother might have been able to hear him beyond time and space and fate.
Still, he did not speak again.
When the dishes were washed and the evening began to grow old, Leo wandered listlessly into the front room. Deciding to watch some TV before retiring upstairs to the loft, Leo turned on the TV, gave it the customary thump on the top to get it going, picked up the remote and folded into the old sofa.
The sound of an entertainment channel drifted throughout the farmhouse as Leo placed a palm gently on the empty seat beside him. It was almost an unconscious movement, as he flicked through channels.
None of them really caught his attention, until he was greeted with the opening strains of the 'Mythbusters' theme.
"Hmph. I didn't know Casey had the Discovery Channel in his cable package up here." Leo said casually. He smiled, and laid down the remote control on the arm of the couch.
Leo entered the loft, the gentle light of winter falling coldly on the rich, warm wood of the walls. He took the last few steps in his stride and bowed to his father, who sat beside Donatello's beleaguered body. His father nodded his head in acknowledgement.
There was no central heating in the farmhouse, so whenever the turtles would go upstairs in winter, they would need to wrap themselves in blankets or put on the convection heaters. They had tried to make do without the heaters; they burned electricity like crazy when they were on for long periods, and seeing as Don couldn't get downstairs anymore, they'd have had to be on all the time.
Even Splinter had succumbed to the cold this morning and sat with a thick comforter wrapped around him. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable at the icy winter air, Leo reached down to the end of Donatello's bed and unfolded a blanket, wrapping it around himself and sitting on the floor beside his brother's bed.
It was the third day since Donatello's haemorrhage and subsequent collapse. His breathing had slowly become more and more noisy and intermittent; it was hard to tell if the bluish tinge on his lips now was from the cold or the lack of oxygen to his brain.
Between then, Leo and Master Splinter had taken on the bulk of his care. Don could do nothing for himself and their hardest task had been trying to get him to take water – which they had succeeded in to some small degree. Leo knew he was dehydrating even as they sat beside him, and that unless they could get water into him, he would die – and soon.
But he was already dying.
He wasn't going to get any better.
He was going to get worse, and eventually fade away.
A bubble of mucus slipped down from Donatello's nose and Leo sighed, taking the towel from the arm of the chair and wiping it away, along with the near-constant trail of spit that had chapped his lips, up here in the cold air.
"Why is it only us, Master Splinter?" Leo said hotly all of a sudden, holding Don's head still as he washed his face with a wet wipe. "Why do my other two brothers not help us take care of him? Donatello is their brother too; don't they want what's best for him?"
When the old rat spoke, it was with a voice full of exhaustion.
"What is best for him, Leonardo? In all reality, he does not even know we are here.
"Your brothers are simply not strong enough. I have taught you all to stand up to your fears, to defy expectations, to take the hardest path – but perhaps this path is too difficult."
"It's not easy for any of us – it's not easy for you or me, but we're still here, giving him the care he needs, no matter how difficult it is!" Leo raised his voice without intention. Ashamed by his sudden outburst, he threw the wet wipe to one side and huddled himself within the blanket. His breathing shook.
At first, Master Splinter did not respond to his son's quiet tears. After a few moments, he got out of the chair and sat down beside his grieving son.
"Leonardo… You are so very strong. You have strength in you that straightens you where others would bend, that guarantees that you stand for good in all that you do, that ensures you always make the right decision, no matter how hard it is.
"Other people do not find it so straightforward to make the right decision all the time."
"There is no decision." choked Leo. "Only what has to be done."
"My son, that is exactly what I mean." Master Splinter nodded, and rested a paw on his son's shoulder as Leo continued to weep.
After a little while, Master Splinter said, strangely,
"When the time comes…
"When the time comes, Leonardo, I expect you will make the right decision."
Master Splinter got awkwardly to his feet, and moments later Leo heard the soft sounds of the old rat's feet on the wooden stairs.
For a long time, Leo sat silently on the floor, listening to nothing but the guttural sounds of his brother's laboured breathing.
Raph had more anger and nervous energy than he knew what to do with. He'd already sparred with Mikey for more than an hour, but the baby brother's heart was far from in it.
Since Don's collapse, Mikey had been quiet and withdrawn. It was as though one of his safe places had been removed and he didn't know what to do without it. Don's breathing would echo around the house without the TV or music on, so more often than not, Mikey found himself outside, snoozing in the barn's hayloft, out of the way of his other brothers.
Michelangelo tried very hard to block out the reality of the situation, and if he didn't have to look at Leo's worn face or Raph's angry one, he could continue to pretend that Don was merely temporarily absent – rather than lingering in the impenetrable limbo between life and death.
He could hear Raph below him as he repeatedly kicked and punched the makeshift makiwara he'd made when they had arrived. With each strike he let loose a kiai that shook the barn, keeping Mikey awake as he lay prone, with his hands over his ears in the hayloft – unbeknownst to Raphael.
After a while, the striking stopped, and Mikey could hear Raph's angry, hard breathing. He also heard the half-hearted last kick as it rumbled through the makiwara, and the swearing that accompanied it.
"Raphael…" Both boys were taken by surprise at the sound of their sensei's voice. Raphael turned to see Master Splinter inside the doorway. Neither of them had heard him enter, or even felt the cold of the winter wind to tell the tale of his arrival.
Raphael's eyes acknowledged his master, but he offered no words.
"Raphael…"repeated Master Splinter gently. Raphael turned back to the makiwara.
"Leonardo needs you, Raphael. As does Donatello."
Raph grunted and kicked the makiwara – but did not issue a kiai.
"There's nothing I can do for Donny now, Master Splinter." He replied, landing a solid punch into the makiwara.
"Perhaps not. But there is still much you can do for Leonardo." Master Splinter stepped forward and blocked the next kick Raph aimed at the makiwara. His voice was soft and without warning; he wanted Raphael to make the coming decision on his own.
"He is tired, and needs to rest. Will you take over from him and watch over Donatello for a time?
"Donatello may not be able to see you now, or speak to you, or even know your presence; but he is still your brother and is still in need of your care.
"Let your heart guide you, Raphael. Go to him. I fear… You may not receive a-"
"I'll go…Father." Raphael interrupted, not wishing his sensei to finish his sentence, to say the words 'you may not receive another chance'.
Splinter put a paw on his son's hand, and patted his bleeding knuckles gently.
"You have already trained your body enough for today, Raphael." Raphael nodded, all the steam seeming to have escaped him.
Master Splinter watched as Raphael walked towards the barn doors and pulled them open, allowing a gust of snowflakes to enter the barn and an icy wind to permeate the wooden building.
As Raphael closed the doors behind him, Master Splinter said, without turning,
"Michelangelo, you can come down now."
Accompanied by a slight rustling in the hay, Michelangelo peered down over the side of the hayloft.
"How'd you know I was here, sensei?" he asked quietly. Master Splinter smiled sadly.
"I could hear you crying, my son."
Mikey did not offer a reply; instead he jumped slowly down from the hayloft and stood before his father.
Their eyes met, and Master Splinter indicated with a curl of his paw that his son should approach. Mikey did so, and was surprised to find his father's arm around his neck. Without another word, Mikey surrendered and wrapped his arms around his father, abandoning himself to sorrow. Though Master Splinter would not have let the baby of the family see, his own fur was matted with tears.
Leo sat beside Donatello, his forehead resting on his fists, his elbows braced against his knees. The room was quiet but for the sounds of Donatello's awkward breathing.
Leo was thinking.
In fact, thoughts were swirling around his head; justifications, denials, empty words – and two sentences that kept coming back to him, no matter how he tried to forget them.
'When the time comes, Leonardo, I expect you will make the right decision.'
'I think I'd rather bedead than live like that'
"Oh God, Donny…" Leo whispered to himself, moving the heels of his hands to his eyes.
He didn't hear Raphael approach.
"Go get something to eat, Leo. I'll look after Donny." Leo leapt in his seat guiltily as Raphael approached. He shook his head groggily and rubbed his face.
"Is it that time already?" Leo asked. Raph shrugged.
"No, but I noticed you didn't eat anything this morning."
"Not hungry." Was Leo's immediate response – and he really wasn't. Actually, he felt very, very sick, sick to his very soul.
He looked up as Raphael wrapped a blanket around himself – the same one Master Splinter had used earlier – and settled himself beside Donny on the bed.
"So. You've finally decided that you're benevolent enough to look after him, have you?" Leo asked, bitter bile rising suddenly within him.
"What's up with that?" Raph asked, irritated. "I'm here now, ain't I?"
"Yeah, so where have you been the last two days, huh?" Leo asked angrily, throwing off the blanket that rested on his shoulders. "Did you think he didn't need you then, huh?"
"Shut up Leo! I just needed some things laid out for me, that's all!" Raph snapped back. Their eyes met for a moment – and then Leo's defences crumbled.
"I'm… I'm sorry, Raph. I don't know what I'm thinking anymore." Leo said, heading for the stairs.
"Hey, Leo, wait-" Raphael said, concerned for his brother. However, Leo had already disappeared quickly down the stairs – it appeared that he wasn't in the mood for talking.
It was with a heavy heart that Leonardo performed togi on his katana in a corner of the kitchen. He spent more time doing it than he ever had before, and it was already a lengthy process; their performance today was going to be more important than on any other.
Leo had to make sure they were as sharp as they could be, so clean he could see himself in them, so perfect that they would cut like a razorblade.
He had to make it fast when he put Don out of his misery.
He felt sick; but when he felt weak, when he felt as though he could curl up in his corner and cry, he heard those two sentences again in his mind;
'When the time comes, Leonardo, I expect you will make the right decision.'
'I think I'd rather be dead than live like that'
His heart felt like a brick in his chest; but he was killing his emotions with every breath, deadening them, not letting them get in the way of what he had to do, not giving them even the time to scream before he dragged them down into the murky depths, one hand over their mouths.
His thoughts, jumbled and pained, continued on despite his displeasure at their presence.
I…I have no choice…
I can't let Donny go on suffering.
Who knows how long he might hold on for…? I mean, there's no chance of him getting better – he is going to die, no matter what…
We have no idea if he's in pain, or how much…
It…It breaks my heart to…to even think about this, but…
I really have no choice. It's the only fair thing to do…
This is the right thing to do.
In the last stages of polishing, he took a deep breath and looked up. Something wasn't right – and it wasn't just the way he was feeling.
There was silence.
Proper, empty silence.
He couldn't hear Don's gasping breaths anymore. He heard Raph swear loudly and call for him. Panicked, Leo struggled to his feet, tipping his kanahada everywhere. It was secondary, ridiculously unimportant as he raced up the wooden stairs to the loft to find Raphael bent over Donatello, his blanket around his feet.
"He's not breathing Leo! He's not breathing anymore!" Raphael said, fumbling at Don's throat for the edges of the blankets that covered him. He threw them back and Leo knelt beside him, taking Don's hand in his.
For the first time since his collapse, Leo noticed that Don's eyes were closed. Raphael threw his brother on his back and prepared to begin CPR when Leo grabbed his hand.
"What you mean, 'don't'? Donny's dying, Leo!" Raphael snapped angrily, pulling his hand free and placing his hands on Don's chest one more.
"Yes! He is! And nothing we do can stop that happening now, nothing!" Leo screamed, tears filling his eyes. "All you'll do if you bring him back is prolong the pain – his and ours!"
Raphael paused, his own breathing harsh. Leo could hear the agony in the wordless noises he made as he came to his decision. Leo tactfully said nothing of the tears that rolled down Raph's face – his hands shook as he removed them from Don's plastron. Leo stood, trembling, and threw the blankets back over Donatello as he lay still, silent for the first time in three days.
"Should we get Mikey?" Raph said, his voice wavering. Leo shook his head.
"No. Mikey can't take this." Leo's voice was equally as weak.
For a minute or so Raph and Leo knelt side by side, their eyes wide and their faces pale.
Even though they were expecting it, the groan Don gave as his last breath was expelled from his body took them both by sickening surprise.
Raphael rocked on his knees as he heard it and put his head in his hands, but Leo was much more reactive.
He leapt from his position by Raphael and fell towards the stairs, his shaking legs making it hard to stand as he threw himself against the banister for support. Even before he opened the front door and cast himself out into the snow, he could feel the wracking sobs rise in this throat, tears burning his face.
He didn't need to do it. He didn't need to rob his brother of his life. Don had done what he always did - he had selflessly made the decision to go, had decided that enough was enough and had spared Leo the torture of having to end his suffering.
He didn't know whether his tears were ones of relief or grief or both. All the emotions he had been cramming down for the past few hours came back all at once, blinding him as he fell into the snow, unable to stand, unable to find the strength to fight off the biting cold or the crippling pain in his soul.
"Leo!" He heard Raph's voice behind him and his brother's reassuring hands on his shoulders as he dragged him to his knees. Leo let himself be dragged, even as he felt his tears freezing on his face.
"C'mon Leo, get up… get up, you're scaring Mikey…" he heard Raph's words shakily coaxing him as he struggled with the utter numbness of his legs. He gazed in front of him, and suddenly his youngest brother filled his vision. Mikey's eyes were filled with tears and he threw himself around Leo, setting him back down in the snow even as he had begun to win the battle with his legs.
Leo mildly wondered how Mikey had got there so quickly, but his brain wouldn't focus on anything but the matter at the forefront of his mind.
Donatello was dead. Finally, his brother was free of his pain.
Again, tears filled Leo's eyes and emptied as he grabbed for Mikey, half-hugging him, half-using him as a standing prop. He felt Raphael's strong arms around his shoulders, and once again Leo felt himself fall victim to his sobs.
His body wracked with them, and his tears encouraged the grief to rise like a tsunami in his brothers. Nobody needed to explain what was going on to Mikey – a reaction like this could mean only one thing; that Don had passed from limbo directly into the arms of Death.
There the boys stayed, their grief holding them together, not feeling the arctic cold of the snow around their feet and knees, not feeling the ice in the wind as it chapped their faces, not feeling anything but each other's warmth and the devastating loss they shared.
It was here that Master Splinter found them a few minutes later, still locked together and fractured like a fossil, under a thin covering of snow.
The snow had indeed held off the previous night. Leo smiled as he approached the cenotaph, wrapped up against the still bone-drenching cold. In his hands he held a small pottery koro, filled with ash and a smouldering piece of charcoal, still waiting to be buried. A small layer of white ash covered the charcoal as he approached the grave marker proudly.
"I got it going. It should be okay now." Leo said softly, getting to his knees before the marker. The wind blew gently through the trees suddenly, rustling the evergreen conifer before him. A couple of small piles of snow fell to the ground from its boughs– it seemed as though the conifer was ready to throw off the clawing hands of winter.
Leo carefully prodded and pushed the charcoal to about half way down in the ash of the koro with a pair of tongs, pulling back a coating of the white ash over the top. It set off steam amidst the cold weather and Leo smiled again.
"I'm pleased it didn't snow again in the night." He said, respectfully resting the koro on the wooden base of the humble monument. He dug around in his belt for a little while and took out a kogo full of incense granules.
"It took ages for this to come – Master Splinter was worried that it wouldn't come in time for the trip. Every time we had any contact with April, he wanted to know if it had come and she kept having to tell him no.
"I'm glad it came. It put Master Splinter's mind at rest."
Leo tapped the lid of the kogo to straighten the incense within and lifted the lid, placing it carefully in the snow just before the grave marker. He placed the body of the kogo on the base of the monument and straightened up.
He steepled his fingers before his brother's grave and bowed.
"Thank you, Don. For everything."
He took a pinch of the incense between finger and thumb and tossed it gently into the koro. Almost immediately, a sweet scent permeated the air. Leo smiled softly.
It felt good to honour his brother in the traditional way.
He steepled his fingers again and bowed, taking another pinch of the incense and casting it onto the koro.
"I love you Donny, and I remember you every day. I don't think that will ever change."
Once more he repeated the action, bowing and casting one more pinch of incense onto the koro.
"And…although I miss you like you wouldn't believe… Every day it gets a little easier to remember you with happiness, instead of pain."
Leo sat for a few moments more, his eyes closed and his hands pressed together in quiet respect, the scent of the incense filling the air around him.
Suddenly, his eyes snapped open.
He wasn't alone.
He could sense someone approaching the farmhouse.
There was no reason for anyone to be up here. It was time for Leo to make himself scarce.
Within seconds, he'd disappeared around the side of the house, his hand on one of the katana concealed beneath his coat. He glanced back at the gently smoking koro and cursed himself. It was clear that someone had been residing here, and very recently.
"Leo? You up here?"
The voice was very familiar. For a moment, Leo was stunned, but he released his grip on the katana and peered around the edge of the farmhouse to confirm his suspicions. He saw someone standing before the grave, dressed up to his nose in warm clothes. A hood was pulled as far as possible over his head, and Leo could just see the tiniest bit of green poking out of the very front.
"Raph?!" Leo said, coming into full view. The newcomer turned, and pulled down the zip on the top that covered the lower part of his face.
"Hey, Leo. I knew you must be around here somewhere." He pointed to the smouldering koro.
"Raph, what did you come all this way for!?" Leo asked incredulously, pulling loose Don's scarf.
"What did you come all this way for?" Raph asked pointedly. Leo fell silent.
"Touché." He said, and smiled gently. He was surprised suddenly at how pleased he was to see Raph – he'd been feeling very alone on the snowy acres of farm, even with the pseudo-company of Donatello.
Raphael glanced back at the grave silently.
"You've done a nice job." He said finally. He glanced up at Leo, his hand drifting to the top of the marker. Leo smiled his gratitude gently.
"It's no more than he deserved.
"I was…planning to make my way home today, but if you want we can stay longer?" Leo said, trying not to press any of Raph's buttons. It was likely both of them could do without a fight here, in this place of quiet and respect.
"Nah." Rah shook his head. "I'll be fine with something to eat and a catnap – and five minutes with Donny."
"Sure." Leo said. He shifted his feet and glanced at the grave.
"And five minutes with Donny." repeated Raphael pointedly. Leo looked up.
"Oh. Sorry." He said, immediately turning to make himself scarce. He looked back as he approached the steps to the farmhouse and saw Raphael crouch down before the cenotaph.
Quietly, Leo shut the farmhouse door behind him and collected what supplies he thought they might need if they were to head back the way Leo himself had arrived – on foot, and by hitching on cargo trains. He even grabbed the last two tins of Mikey's Irish Stew with a 'yuck' expression on his face.
As he put the pack by the door, he couldn't resist gazing out of the window at Raphael as he crouched by Donatello's grave. He looked as though he was in mid-flow, a chuckle on his lips. Whatever story he was telling, it must have had an interesting punch line, though Leo couldn't hear a word. He smiled sadly.
Part of him wanted to go outside and listen in on what Raphael was saying – and part of him knew that doing so would be an act of treason to Raphael; an unforgivable deed which would, without doubt, end in a raging argument.
He respected his brothers – both present and departed – more than that.
He drifted away into the centre of the room and turned on the TV, giving it the customary thump again.
"So… I did what I thought you'd want me to do." Finished Raphael eventually. He patted the top of the wooden cenotaph.
"I owe you that." He whispered, getting to his feet. He glanced back towards the farmhouse and sighed, the ghost of a smile on his face.
Trudging through the cold snow, he stomped noisily up the steps and opened the door to the farmhouse. He closed the door behind him, and started to take off his decidedly wet human clothes.
He walked between Leo and the TV to throw them in a pile before the fire.
"Move your shell, Raph!" Leo tutted, craning to see around Raph's wide frame. Raphael deliberately turned and put his hands on his hips, a wicked grin on his face.
"Are you just going to leave those clothes there?" he asked, indicating the pile by the fire.
"Yup." Said Raphael, yawning and heading towards the loft.
"They'll still be soaked when you come down!"
"So you'll catch your death." Leo scowled again, deeper this time.
"Yeah, yeah." Raphael said as he disappeared into the loft space. Leo could hear him walking across the creaky floorboards and digging himself a blanket out of the box at the far end of the roof.
Despite himself, Leo smiled.
Sometimes he liked to be alone. Sometimes he liked to meditate on his own, to consider things by himself, to have some 'down-time'.
And sometimes he loved to be around his brothers more than was probably healthy.
Having lost one of them, it made those who remained all the more precious.
As the cusp of the afternoon drew near, Leo found himself picking up the clothes Raph had discarded by the fire and digging out a portable airer from the utility room.
"Something tells me I'm still going to be looking after you guys when we're in our thirties." Leo muttered, putting the clothes over the airer with a practiced hand and tugging out the jacket and hoodie under the arms to straighten them on the rail.
As the afternoon sun grew long across the farm's acres, Raphael emerged from the loft, yawning. Leo sat on the sofa, legs folded, reading an old copy of 'Little House on the Prairie'. As he saw Raph's approach, Leo snapped the book shut.
"Thank God." Leo said. "I don't think I could take another 'Oh, Pa!'"
"What?" said Raph, irritably.
"Never mind." Leo responded, unfolding and getting out of his seat. The fire smoked quietly in the grate; Leo had let it burn out before damping it down with a little earth.
"Your clothes are on the airer and there's bread and ham to make a sandwich with. And no, you can't have hot food because I've turned of the electricity."
"Fine, fine." Grumbled Raph, heading for the kitchen. He heard his brother pottering around; opening the fridge door, taking out the ham and the butter, grabbing a butter knife from the third drawer on the right.
An hour passed speedily, and found the two brothers standing out in the snow once more. The air was crisp, but there was still no sign of a further snowfall. For the last time that winter, they stood before Donatello's grave.
"Well, that's us, Don. I promise, I'll be back next year – if not before. I'll be thinking about you until then." Leo said softly. Raph glanced at Leo and then cast his gaze to the monument. He smiled a very understated smile and said,
"Yeah. See you next year, kid.
"Maybe next time Mikey will come."
Leo suddenly jumped and dug in his pocket with one hand.
"What are you doing?" Raph asked, bemused. Leo finally pulled out a small, wooden object.
"I nearly forgot to leave Mikey's…whatever it is. He'll never forgive me if I go back home with it." Leo replied, crouching down and gently putting the legless crane down on the base of the marker. Raphael pushed his face deeper into his jacket.
"Stop laughing, Raph." Leo said, screwing up his face into his most serious expression. Raphael shook in his jacket, standing otherwise perfectly still.
"I-I'm not laughing…" Raphael giggled. Leo tried to fight off the grin on his face, but just ended up tittering.
"Stop it, Raph – it means a lot to Mikey…" Leo coughed and straightened his face. Raphael didn't say anymore, but Leo didn't try to get him to stop snickering, either.
"Don, next year we'll bring him with us – and maybe you'll get a crane with legs." Leo said, a wry smile on his face.
With that, the brothers looked at each other, and their expressions grew solemn again.
"Later, Don." Leo said, turning away and padding through the snow. He did not look back.
Raph's eyes lingered on the monument for a moment longer. The waning sun shone on the snow that still remained on the evergreen conifer by Don's grave, shining like diamonds in the fading light.
"Save a seat for me, Bro." Raphael said quietly. He turned and marched smartly through the snow, catching up to Leo quickly as the last of the day's sunlight warmed the trail of their long journey home.
Thank you for reading to the end. I hope to have more stories posted soon! :)