Michaelangelo couldn't breathe.
The time portal seemed to be taking a lot longer than it should, and he couldn't draw a real breath. He could feel Leonardo's hand on his arm still, and it reassured him a little bit. He could hold his breath a little bit longer – but where were his other brothers?
It was quiet, too. The time portals weren't usually quiet, were they?
The slice across the back of his leg throbbed once, intensely, and he gasped out loud without hearing it. Leonardo's hand tightened on his arm.
He could move, he discovered, as long as he did it slowly. It was like moving through thick mud. Michaelangelo craned his neck around, moving slowly and painfully, until he could see Donatello off to his left. Don was looking back, watching Mike and Leo calmly. The corners of his mouth twitched upward, just the slightest bit, and Mike relaxed – his brother wouldn't be so calm if Raph were missing. So Raphie must be around here somewhere?
But he still couldn't breathe. And the pressure in his chest was starting to get uncomfortable.
Black spots appeared in the corners of his vision…
And then he was in free-fall. The lights changed around him, swirling bright colors and darkness, and all of his remaining breath got knocked out of him as he fell, hard and badly, onto a graveled surface. For e few seconds, all Mike could do was lay there, gasping at the sky and wishing his lungs would cooperate. This place seems familiar, he thought, as sound drifted to his ears and he grew accustomed to the washed-out, color-splashed sky overhead.
"Mike," Leo's face swam into view. "Mike, are you okay?"
"Uhhn." Now that sounded really intelligent, didn't it? Mike rolled over, slowly, and squinted around. His voice rasped, once he finally got control of it. "I'm...okay. I'm okay."
"We're home," Donatello didn't sound quite as relieved as he should have, considering everything. He grabbed Mike's upper arm and hauled him to his feet.
"Of course you're home!" Renet said brightly. "I wouldn't leave you there, once it was over!"
Mike whipped his head around so fast he got dizzy. He leaned on Don and opened his mouth to ask the obvious question – What are you talking about? – but someone else beat him to it.
"Take us back!" Raphael demanded, stepping forward. "We gotta get Mari outta there!"
"Nono, Raphie, it's okay!" she smiled, but it looked a little bit strained. "You guys were perfect – you did exactly the right things! Everything's okay with that time now! I mean, like, all the things that need to happen…well, they're gonna happen now! Because of you – urk!" She cut herself off and looked down at the sai that was pointed directly at the tip of her nose. Her eyes crossed.
"Send. Us. Back." Raphael sounded even scarier than he looked.
"I can't!" she squeaked. "I can't re-open that time portal to put you back there! It wouldn't work that way!"
"Why wouldn't it work – ?" Don began.
"She's just a little girl!"
"All of the people left in the monastery – "
Under the onslaught of rising voices and frantic questions, Renet backed away from Raph's weapon and put her hands over her ears. "Stop it!" She squeezed her eyes shut. Her ridiculous hat fell off. "Stop it, stop it! I can't explain it!"
"I don't want an explanation," Raphael gritted. "I wanna get that little girl someplace safe, and I want you to stay outta the way once you open that stupid time portal to get me to her."
"We're not opening a portal back there," someone barked. "Like Renet said, it's over. Done. Finished."
Lord Simultaneous strolled into view, dusting his hands.
"What are you doing here?" Mike finally managed to get a question out.
The man rolled his eyes. "Short memory spans, eh? Renet told you, this was a test for her. An important test. And since you boys did everything right," he gave them all a look that clearly said he'd been skeptical, "she passed. So, we're done here."
"Wait." Leonardo, when he felt like it, could dominate a room with that voice. And he obviously felt like it now. "We're not 'done' at all. You owe us an explanation." He slid one katana back into its sheath, but held onto the other one. Lights gleamed off the steel. "Now."
"It's like this," Renet began hastily. "I had to prove that I could chose allies to help me in my work, once I get further into my training. 'Cause there's some stuff I just can't do, right? At least, not by myself. So I had to prove that my friends – you guys – could be counted on, even if I wasn't around to give direction and stuff."
"So where were you that whole time?" Don frowned at her.
"In the 79th Level of Null Time, of course. I didn't leave, once I'd taken you through there for, like, your inoculations and stuff."
"Inoculations?" Now Don's expression actually darkened. "You mean you did medical experiments on us?"
"Of course not, silly!" Renet seemed to know she'd messed up, but didn't realize exactly how. "We'd never! We just, sorta, knew how to make sure you'd get some immunity to the plague, since I was kinda sending you into a bad place for it – "
"Except for you," Lord Simultaneous, in turn, frowned at Don. "It should've been the same for you as it was for your brothers, but you had a bad reaction and actually developed the plague instead." Then his expression cleared and he waved this off like it was no big deal. "At least nothing happened when we brought you back. How's your leg?"
Mike realized, with a start, that this was directed at him. Reminded, he slid his hand around the back of his thigh. But were he expected to find blood and swelling, he found nothing. "Hey, it's gone!"
"Of course it is – we cleaned you boys up, before you got back here. Couldn't risk having you bring back some kind of illness."
Leonardo studied the naked blade in his hand, eyes narrowing at the lack of blood.
"I don't care about any of this shit," Raphael growled. He stepped forward again, causing Renet to flinch away from him. "Send us back to get Mari – she's in danger!"
"She's not!" Renet squeaked. "She's not, she's perfectly fine, everything is okay for her now!"
"Everything is not okay!" Raphael lost his temper completely and shouted at her. The muscles in his neck stood out like cords. "That little girl is in the hands of rapists and killers, and everything is not okay!"
Renet cowered. "That-that was the whole point," she whimpered.
Lord Simultaneous' eyes gleamed in the low light coming up from the noisy street below. "We had to make sure that little girl grew up to get married to the right person."
"What. Are you. Talking about?" Raphael abandoned Renet and turned on her mentor instead. "She's five years old – she ain't gettin' married!"
"She will someday," Simultaneous was unmoved by the Turtle who quivered with fury in front of him. "Alexius made sure the mercenaries thought she was the royal bastard, didn't he? Dressed her up in expensive fabrics, put jewelry on her, made sure they could see her from the camp, played up the differences between her and the grubby children from the village. And it worked. The leader of the mercenaries – the first leader – he knew the royal bastard was a grown man, and a brother of the emperor in Constantinople. But that leader died of the plague. And so did his second in command, and the third. So no one was left who knew."
Michaelangelo remembered how Alexius had treated Mari, and felt his heart sink. "He told them she was the royal bastard…daughter of the emperor?"
"Yes," Simultaneous nodded approvingly. "And there wasn't anyone to know different. He got the idea from you," he looked Mike straight in the eye.
"ME?" Mike was indignant. "I never – "
"You called her 'princess'," Don remembered out loud. "Ever since she first joined us, you called her that."
"I-I…I did, didn't I?" Mike finished in a whisper. "Raph…"
"Don't," Raphael growled. "Don't you even try to make this Mike's fault." He brandished a sai at Simultaneous. "Get me back to her."
The short man shook his head. "You don't give up, do you? I suppose that's a good trait." He glanced at Renet. "You pick your friends well, I'll give you that."
"She's not my – !"
"At any rate," Simultaneous interrupted Raph's outburst. "The mercenaries who took her away from the monastery think that she's a royal bastard. She's worth a lot of money to them, as long as they keep her alive and safe. And they will. They did. They took her to the local lordling, and offered her to him for a ransom. That lordling has his hands full dealing with the crisis caused by the plague, but he knows a good thing when he sees it, so he pays the money and takes her as a bride for his son, who's only a few years older than her. She'll grow up healthy and strong, and have a lot of healthy children. And that's what we needed to happen here." He dusted his hands off again. "And so we're done here, boys! Renet'll be in touch when she needs you again – "
"Wait," Don let go of Mike's arm at last and stepped forward. "Why was it so important that Mari live to have children? What's so important about one little girl in that time and place?"
"It's not her – it's her descendent," Renet blurted out. She didn't see the quelling look that Simultaneous shot at her. "Mari's youngest daughter, Marianna, will grow up and marry an even bigger lord named Alexander. Marianna will be the mother of Cneajna, who will grow up to be the second wife of the Duke of Wallachia. And it's Cneajna's oldest son, Vlad, who was the reason for all of this."
Silence fell on the rooftop while the Turtles processed all of this. Simultaneous shot Renet another look, then watched the four Turtles with a hooded expression.
Something stirred in the back of Mike's mind, something that he associated with long hours spent reading scary stories that weren't necessarily fiction. Wallachia was the name of a place that triggered memories of reading about castles, and battles, and people dying in horrible ways for the amusement of a man who enjoyed their suffering. 'Wallachia' reminds me of something…something to do with scary castles, and bloodthirsty rulers, and Transylvania… He sucked in a breath and looked around at his brothers, seeing that they didn't yet realize what he'd figured out. "Are you telling us," he said slowly, his voice rising in pitch and speed as the pieces fell into place, "that you sent us back into a plague zone, made us fight bandits, and let all of those people die…just so Vlad Dracula could be born!"
"Vlad the Impaler?" Don's eyes went dark as he turned on Simultaneous. "You sent us back there so one of history's biggest sociopaths could exist?"
"Mari is related to…?" Raph stepped back. His weapons dropped to his sides as his arms and his expression went lax.
"Yes," Simultaneous folded his arms and glared at all of them equally. "As a cultural touchstone, the person you know as Dracula is immensely important. Long after every civilization of this time has changed or faded, this is something that endures. The children of this planet will still be telling stories about Dracula after they've colonized all the planets in the area, and finally initiated their own contact with other inhabited worlds. Even in the 79th Level of Null Time, we hear stories about him! In a way, he's one of the most long-lasting icons of this planet – where are you going?"
Raphael had backed away while Simultaneous spoke, wearing a blank expression that had the slightest hint of horror in it. He glanced blindly in the direction of his brothers. "I'm going home," he said flatly.
Without waiting for a response, he turned and leaped for the next roof, and was gone.
"I'll…go with him," Don frowned. He faded into the darkness after Raphael, but not before Mike saw that he was limping again.
"It's time we were going too, girl," Simultaneous began. He reached out – to start a spell? To grab Renet's arm? Mike didn't know, and it didn't matter, because Leonardo interrupted by stepping forward to put the point of his sword to Renet's throat.
"We are not friends," he said to her levelly, down the length of the steel. "You will not call on us to help you. You will not drag my brothers into any more of your little tests. Whatever you have left to do as a Timestress, you will do without us."
Renet squeaked. Lord Simultaneous stepped forward, concerned, only to fall back as Leo unsheathed his other katana and pointed it at the short man in a smooth gesture, without ever taking his eyes off Renet.
"If I see you again," Leo continued, his voice soft and deadly, "I will kill you. Do you understand me? You've hurt my brothers for the last time."
Tears welled in her eyes. "But, Leo!" she wailed.
"No," he was implacable. "Never again."
She sniffled. "I thought we were friends," Renet whispered.
Leonardo stepped back from both of them. "Friends don't only show up to put you in danger, abandon you, and break your heart," he told her flatly. "And that's all you've done for us." He kept both blades out until he was several steps away from them. "Mike. Let's go."
Michaelangelo knew when not to say anything. With one last glance at Renet and her mentor, he turned and ran for the next roof, rolled on impact, and came up running in the direction his brothers had gone.
If he strained his ears, he could hear Leo running behind him. He didn't want to strain, though – when he did, Michaelangelo could also hear the sound of Renet's sobs, fading away behind them as they ran.
Two days later, Mike wandered past Don's open bedroom door on his way to evening practice. Something caught his eye, and he stopped and backed up to get a better look. "Raph?"
His brother stirred at his approach, but didn't look up from the computer screen.
Michaelangelo leaned over his shoulder to see what was so interesting. "Oh. Those are pics of Dracula, huh?"
"Propaganda etchings of Vlad the Third," Donatello corrected. He was sitting crosslegged on his bed, sanding the length of a new bo. "There aren't any known contemporary depictions of him, only paintings and engravings done after his death, by people who'd never seen him." His eyes flicked up at Raphael, who continued to tab through the pictures on the screen.
"He doesn't even look like her," Raphael said quietly. He settled on a painting of a dark-eyed man with a mustache that looked fake. A pearl-studded cap of red velvet sat over long ringlets of dark hair that flowed over his shoulders.
"The hair, maybe," Mike reached out and traced his finger along the edge of the picture on the screen. "Mari's hair kinda looked like this, when it was clean and brushed…"
Donatello hopped off the bed and came over to get a good look. After a long moment, he offered, "She's only one of his eight great-grandparents, Raph. It's not likely that anything about her was carried cleanly down to him."
Raphael frowned, but said nothing. His eyes were locked on the dark curls in the painting.
"Guys?" Leonardo poked his head in the room. "Time for practice."
"Coming," Don said automatically. No one moved, though.
Michaelangelo felt Leonardo come up behind him and look at the screen, too.
"He's got the same hair she had," Leo said.
At that, Raphael took a deep breath and pushed back from the desk, forcing his brothers backward, too. "Okay, enough. Time for practice."
"Raph?" Leo reached out and took him by the shoulder. "Are you…?"
"M'fine," Raph shrugged out of his brother's grip. "I keep tellin' you guys, I'm fine. Stop acting like a mother hen, Leo, geez…" and he stalked out, heading toward the dojo.
"He's gonna be okay," Mike said quietly.
"Yeah," Leo nodded. "He will. Just…he doesn't need to be okay right away."
Don holstered his new bo. "He'll talk when he feels like talking. You know Raph – you can't force him into anything." He followed Leo out and down the hall to the dojo.
Mike lingered for a few moments, looking thoughtfully at the image on the screen. He traced down the length of the dark curls on the painted figure one last time, remembering the feel of Mari's silky hair wrapped around his fingers.
And then he snapped the monitor off and went to practice.
Life is good…and life goes on.