By Angelfeatherwriter and Willowfly
A/N (Willowfly): So here I am, back again with yet another project to spam the boards with. Lucky you? Perhaps, perhaps not. But this time I've got a double-whammy. A collaborative fic with my pal Angelfeatherwriter! Be prepared to be confused. Be prepared for darkness and graphic violence. Consider yourself warned, and enjoy!
(Angelfeatherwriter): While Willowfly sits over there and flatters herself, I'm going to list off a few facts. The chapters of this fic will be kept fairly short, as we both tend to ramble on in our descriptions. Also, since this is a collaborative effort, there may come a time when things do not mix properly. Please give critique where it's due.
Without further ado, Clockwork.
"Each time dawn appears, the mystery is there in its entirety"
Chapter 1: Dawn
Sometimes, in the dark, he remembers. The soft sounds of sleep are like the buzz of night bugs, and he can trace their outlines in the pitch. Three bodies, the sleeping bodies of his brothers. Memory doesn't come to him like it should, and he knows it well. He chases them like moths in the dark, but they crumble in his hands like ashes. He wants so badly just to touch, to pin them down and listen to what they whisper in the dark.
The whispers pull like a tide, and something's telling him that this just isn't right.
But for now he'll lie awake and trace the plaster on the ceiling, the cracks that twist like living veins until they become paths to places he used to know. It's a road he's long forgotten.
The seconds and minutes and hours pass by without purpose. He relies only on the bloody orange that trickles through the buildings, the rivers of light winding around the urban mountains. They flow together like a sea, its glistening source pulling up slowly from behind a skyscraper, quenching the hungry world that once starved in darkness.
He finds himself pressing up against the glass, looking down at the ground that never sleeps—at all the streaks of color that wind on pave, moving with the lonely shadows of people, only handfuls now, creeping across the sidewalks in the gray half light. It flows together somehow, the light and the dark, all the sluggish grains of life that shift so restlessly beneath. The light touches his face. Something erupts, a force—primal and disheveled—rebels inside like swimming against the current, and he almost pulls away. It's strangely warm, but still he shivers. The cold of night still clings like the stench of iron.
Rings of haze creep across the glass along his palm print, his fingertips, from the rise and fall of his breath. But he can't decide where he'd rather be- gazing through the window into the new-lit sun, or like the light itself. He thinks it's freer there. Freedom, he used to know, but doesn't remember why. He thinks back to the whispers of his dreams but still, he can't remember a time when his life's purpose was for anything other than to serve.
He blinks lazily for a moment, heavy lidded from the lack of sleep the nights bring, but doesn't turn. He can focus on his reflection like this, see the outlines of his eyes, his brother's stare behind him.
"You look like a psycho starin' out that window. You know that, right?"
He turns his head, the buzz of the new dawn breaking still ticks like clockwork in his veins. "I had that dream again," he whispers. The others are still sleeping. He can see Mikey's shape buried in the blankets on his cot. The warm light reaches over him to quench all the shadows. He turns his head to Raph again, bleary eyed. His brother is propped up on his elbows, staring sleep-dazed and mask-less, a knot in his brow.
"How much sleep did you get this week anyways? Ten hours? Fuck, Leo. You're gunna drive yourself crazier than you already are."
He turns his eyes away. The intensity in his brother's stare is something maddening and perplexing at the same time, and he doesn't think he can handle that. Not now. He lets out a sigh that snakes along the glass, shoulders falling as he presses his palms to it again. "I'm not crazy, Raph," he breathes. "I just... it feels like something's missing. I don't know what."
"Yeah, whatever," his brother sighs tiredly from behind. "Keep tellin' yourself that." The squeaking of the cot springs says he's lain back down again. They all seem to be giving up on him lately.
Only a moment of silence and breathing until the alarm goes off. Ten minutes until practice. Raph moans a furtive sigh and throws back his blankets, scrubbing at his face. Mikey's groaning under the bedsheets, peeking his head out of the mound.
"You up already?" He yawns greedily, stretching his arms over his head. "I hate that alarm."
Don hasn't even moved yet. He's still a motionless lump under a pile of blankets. Leo gives Mikey a smile before crossing the room, silently, just as he always has, and gently shakes his sleeping brother by the shoulder. "Hey Donnie, practice time."
In only moments the room is filled with movement, and Leo busies himself with gearing up. He pulls at the cloth that hugs tightly against his shell, wincing as the material begins rubbing against the crook of his neck. It's mostly broken in by now, but still tends to hack away at his skin like a layer of black sandpaper. He grabs for one of the yellow belts that line the broken-down radiator and ties it around his waist absently, the motions eased by years of practice. Massaging his knotted shoulder with one hand, he sweeps up his swords with the other and slips them into their sheaths.
They're all suited and dressed now, looking more alike than they ever have, if not for their expressions. Don hasn't said a word since he rolled out of bed, still staring hazily at the floor as they file out. Walking down the winding hall, Leo catches a look from Raphael. It feels a lot like doubt. But he's the leader, and Raph's always doubted his fair share. It had nothing to do with the dreams. Nothing.
The halls quickly fill as they walk, and it isn't long before he finds himself being pushed and bent to the will of the crowd that flows into the elevators and down the stairs. Leonardo can't stand times like these, the chaos of a faceless sea of people, the fact that the only things keeping him upright are the bodies pressing in from all sides. He often feels like he's lost track of his brothers, but a breath of relief when he finds them again—nobody else has shells.
Leo breathes a sigh when the pressure eases and they file into the dojo. He's glued his eyes to the tatami mats to distract himself, and a wave of something that feels like a memory prickles at the back of his brain. He shakes it free before he could be caught daydreaming.
The large room is already swollen with people, rivulets of black and yellow seeping into corners, shifting restlessly like hornets, stretching, laughing, exchanging playful jabs while some are silent, still thick and slow with sleep. He's watching them all with stark fascination. A group of them gathered near his right. A dark man smiles to a girl with a braid snaking down her back, the corners around gray eyes are creased like origami folds until they see Leonardo. His face falls. The others turn and stare coldly before shifting wordlessly to the far side of the room.
It's segregation every morning- during training, during meals, like the air they breathed was poison to their lungs. Every sunrise was like this—waking, entering the crowded dojo and the room shifts away like oil and water. Sharp glances in their direction remind them to keep their eyes low. The scorn in their gazes is tangible, real, and it rolls over his shell like dripping water. They're nothing. New. Inexperienced. Disposable. He can tell that there's something else, too. It feels a lot like hate.
And then the familiar stirrings of rebellion—he's far better than any one of them. Tension pulls at his muscles in his neck, guiding his eyes into those little silent challenges. Fights have broken out over less. But no. He's not that stupid.
Still he can't help praying that the gray-eyed man would find him matched during sparring session.
The violent tremblings of a gong strike the room, and the people line up like ravens on a power line. Leonardo tries not to roll his eyes, but if they had any shred of intelligence, they would have been in their roll numbers long before the call even sounded.
Shiryou-Sensei is standing on the platform as the sound of the gong fades into the corners of the room. His skin is tough and creased like worn leather, and his expression equally commanding as the room takes order. Life has left most of his body crippled—he leans to one side like a crumbling pillar, and the brown belt sashed around his waist is lopsided, telling tales of arthritic, battle-worn hands. Eyes, bittered a bronzed yellow by age and strife, narrow at his vast army as if they're no more of a threat to him than a pack of wet kittens.
Cats, Leonardo believes, are the most dangerous when wet.
He doesn't waste his time with pleasantries, but stands, arms folded and unmoving, to order the first kata. "Kihon." His voice, full of gravel but as bold as the sound of the gong, fills the room to be repeated tenfold. "Kihon!" The dojo erupts with the first motions of morning practice.
It's a simple exercise, a series of strikes and blocks Leonardo remembers like it was engraved into his brain matter. Step, lunge, turn, strike, step, block. It was more like breathing than action, movement without thought—perfection. But not all can say the same. Don had been in a haze since wake up call... even before that. Leo tries to focus on the task at hand, when the room bows to end the exercise and being another. But it's hard to focus when Don's about two seconds behind the rest. He's lagging badly for some unexplained reason, and the lump in Leo's throat is telling him the calculating gaze his sensei had set upon his brother would not let the matter go so easily. Don knows this. His clumsy movements, usually so smooth and precise, bleed together in a desperate attempt to catch up.
Leo can tell when Don loses his hold on the rhythm. A single overstep causes his thin recovery to shatter, and he stumbles. It only lasts one second. The kata has ended and the bodies flow into a bow. Don is still a half a step behind, lifting his head with a sheepish grin under his sensei's scrutinizing stare.
"Enough," he begins harshly. The room freezes over like an intake of breath. Shiryou-Sensei is stepping down from his wooden platform, parting the black sea of ninja, eyes still fixed on Donatello. "You. Green one." His voice cuts like a knife. "You are sloppy even for a lower level. Apologize for your failure."
The others are crowded around the two of them now, looking on with expressions of disgust. Don's brothers look on worriedly, though. Leo exchanges a quick glance with Mike, swallowing thickly before turning away.
Don's head is bowed low, a hot flush sweeping across his cheeks. "I... I'm sorry," he croaks.
"Explain yourself," Shiryou says coolly, never looking away.
"I was tired. I'm sorry." He knows he practically reeks of embarrassment, and the nervous tremble in his voice definitely doesn't help his case. But he can feel all those eyes on him and this awful sinking feeling in his stomach that makes his palms sweat and his mouth go dry. He doesn't dare to look up.
"Are you aware that performance such as this could cost you your life in battle? That even one, small slip, one pitiful excuse of an attack could mean the end of you and your comrades?"
There was a pause. Shiryou would not leave without an answer.
Don stole a glance at his sensei's face, feeling his flush deepen. "Y-yes. I know... it's just that..."
"Silence," the man said sharply, pausing for a breath and clap of what he commands. "Then you are aware the severity of such sloppiness."
"Yes, Sensei." That knot in his stomach was getting bigger. He wanted to gasp for air.
"And you understand that it is my duty to weed out the weak for the better of the whole. Correct?"
"Let me tell you all a story we can learn from, then," he growled, raising his voice to the rest of the room. "The Samurai, celebrated warriors of the Emperor's army, had a practice of training that proved quite valuable in such cases. They would scour the countryside and cities in search of a worthy opponent. Then, they would duel. The winner would leave with his life. The loser dies in his dishonor."
Another pause. Shiryou circles Donatello like a hungry vulture. For now, Don's eyes are still glued to the tatami, trying to hide his horror. He swallows thickly, but it brings him no comfort.
"Then I ask you, ninja. Do you believe this practice to be of value in this case?"
A chorus of "Hai" echoes through the room, except for four. Leonardo, staring on helplessly, is forced to press a palm to his brother's plastron when he steps into the circle. Raphael, growling in his ear, his hands balled into fists. "They ain't gunna do it, are they?"
Leo closes his eyes for a moment, and prays.
"You are lucky the Master sees some value in you, or I would cull you like the animal you are," he says flatly, still circling. Leonardo feels his chest tighten, his eyes narrow, but he knows he must hold back like the hand that's pressed against his brother's chest. "But still, we have alternative methods to teaching the same lesson. Slader, if you will."
Slader. The sound of the name is like poison on the tongue—the minute it's uttered Leo knows his brother is in trouble. It's the huge gray-eyed man from before, locking eyes with him as he emerges from the circle. The wicked grin across his face speaks volumes. The sea of bodies parts without a second question, a hush of whispers fills the air like a sudden breeze.
Leonardo's eyes fall on the green belt wrapped around his waist—breaths draw and bodies stiffen around his, and he grits his teeth in silent outrage. Green. The dark color melts into his black outfit, and suddenly Don looks very small against him, with his bright yellow belt adorning his own waist. A higher rank. He was a superior to every person in that room except Shiryou-Sensei himself.
Donatello lifts his eyes to his opponent and swallows. The man just drips with strength. He's massive, and an upper-level ninja. This... is probably going to hurt. A lot.
"What the fuck is he even doin' here?" Raph hisses, and Leo can feel the unbridled rage crawling beneath his brother's skin. "Ain't he supposed to be fuckin' around sippin' cocktails in that green belt dojo of his?"
Leo swallows, mouth dry as he scours his mind for a possibility. "A test," he decides, but his voice is gouged hollow as he stares at Slader's belt. "Shiryou-Sensei was going to—"
"Quiet!" Shiryou's voice, sharp and controlled, blasts through the dojo. His gaze locks with Leo's, and then Raph's, and then turns back to Donatello. He angles his crooked hand in a signal, and Leo finds himself pushed back by the crowds that move to the edge of the dojo. "Bow to your opponent, and do not disappoint me again."
A cold sweat prickles his skin as he bows to to the wall of a man. His breath catches in his throat at the sound of a single word.