Raphael Hamato was not an impatient child, exactly. Master Splinter's chastisements were off the mark on that one. It's just that the gargantuan, impregnable fortress of Raphael's patience had mice. There was exactly one mouse for every person in the world. So Raph had patience except when it came to people.
And doing boring things.
And Mikey. He had to be listed separately, since he didn't count as any of those.
However, Raphael had extreme patience when it came to...well, anything he didn't have to wait on.
Which is why this exercise was pointless. When would Raph ever have to stand on his head, waiting to, um, not stand on his head anymore? Even worse, Michelangelo was across the room from him, making the occasional face and taking the stinging swat of Splinter's stick on his thigh as if it was a price well-paid. A roach crawled across the floor, but no one was allowed to do anything about it. Raph's blood boiled at the sight of both of them. He would pulverize the little insect later. After he stepped on the roach, of course.
"Master Splinter?" Donatello said softly.
"Silence, Donatello," Splinter breathed in soothing tones.
"I'm getting a head rush."
"You may not move until I give permission."
Yeah, this blew.
Fifteen hours passed. Yeah, fifteen hours. Really. Fifteen long hours passed. No, twenty. Twenty hours. Gone. Raph was starving to death, a husk of his former self when Splinter finally said they could move. Letting loose with a sigh of relief, the four turtles swung their legs to the floor, preparing to turn right side up.
As soon as Raph's left foot touched the floor, Splinter said, "Freeze!"
They all froze. In that position.
So this was great. This was even less comfortable than the hand stand, crouched like he was about to crab-walk. Or like that girl from The Exorcist, which they hadn't been supposed to see but had watched anyway to give Mikey nightmares. So what if it had given Raph nightmares, too? The important thing was that Mikey suffered. Meh. Stupid spider-walk girl.
"The first one of you who moves will have to watch the others eat dessert tonight while he looks on in envy," Splinter said evilly. Splinter said a lot of things evilly, especially when he was saying things Raph didn't want him to say.
So they held position. Raph was not going to watch Leo eat dessert while lecturing him on patient as though he didn't get it enough from Splinter. Then Mikey would be all taunting. He wondered what Splinter had brought for dessert tonight.
While he pondered, he waited as though he had no problem with patience. He waited for so long that the muscles in his arms and legs ached, then burned. Tears formed in his eyes. He could hear the grunts of exertion from his brothers, but Splinter stood still, unmoving in the corner of his eye. This really was taking a long time. Maybe he'd been exaggerating about the twenty hours before, because this really felt like it was going on too long even for one of Splinter's exercises.
"Master Splinter?" Leo's voice was strained. If Leo was begging for an exercise to end, something really was wrong.
Donatello took the first fall, and the others followed gratefully. Groaning, Raph hauled himself to his feet. Splinter still hadn't moved. Don made it to their master first, concern slapped on his face like a sculpted plaster mask. Leo came in second and took Splinter's unmoving hand. The rat didn't seem to notice or respond. He wasn't blinking. He seemed to be looking at something very, very hard. Something that frightened him.
"What is it, Master?" Leo whispered. No response from Splinter. His eyes were locked straight ahead, somehow both piercing and startled, and he didn't move at Leonardo's touch. "Master!" Leo repeated, more urgently this time.
Raph's heart lurched to his throat, but he stood back in the periphery, as if getting too close would confirm something he didn't want to know. Did he say Exorcist was scary? Fuck that. THIS was scary.
Don, meanwhile, was studying Splinter closely, and he hesitantly put up an arm and waved in front of Splinter's eyes.
Nothing. Not even a blink.
"Donny?" Mike said in a small voice. "What's wrong with him? Should we move him? Should we—"
"No," Leo said in a low voice, cutting him off. And in spite of the calmness of his tone, something about it made them all pay close attention.
Raph's eyes switched back and forth from Leo's face to Splinter's, and then to their joined hands, and somehow he knew what his brother was going to say before he said it. "He's being attacked on the spiritual plane," Leo's certainty was more chilling than the way his tone went flat and hard.
"What do we do?" Don seemed to shrink into his shell just a little bit. "Leo? I don't know anything about..." he trailed off, biting his lip.
"We gotta find out who's doin' this, and stop 'em!" Raphael smacked his fist into his palm. He looked at his brother urgently. "Leo, tell us where to go!"
"Nowhere," Leo was just as still as Splinter now. He went even more still, until he barely seemed to breathe. His mouth didn't move much. "There's nowhere to go...nobody to fight."
"There's gotta be someone to fight!" Raph turned to the other two in disbelief. "Somebody, somewhere, is doin' this to him! Leo, just tell us - where do we go?"
"There's no body to fight," Leo said again, barely at the edge of hearing.
"Raph, wait," Mike grabbed his arm. "Listen...he's saying 'no body'. It's somebody who's got no body...er, I mean...yeah, that's what I mean! It's somebody who...isn't a body."
"What?" Don asked in disbelief. "Mikey, that doesn't make any sense!"
Raphael looked from one face to another. "...okay, maybe it does," he decided finally. If nothing else, Mike was good with words, and if he said he heard 'no body' instead of 'nobody', Raph was willing to go with it. "But I gotta know, Mike, what does that mean? Who do I get to pulverize?" he snarled.
"You can't," Mike pointed out, eyes widening and beginning to dart about. "You can't pulverize a ghost. Or a demon. Maybe he's possessed. Maybe there's more than one of 'em!" He drew closer to Raph as he spoke, eyes checking every corner of the dojo.
It was infectious. Donatello took a quick glance around the room, then murmured to Leo, "Is he right? Are we all under attack?"
Leo didn't respond, but his lips moved slightly. His eyes were nearly closed; only a faint glimmer of them showed between his eyelids.
"It's not a ghost," Raph snorted, attempting to dislodge Mike with a single shake. It didn't work.
"You don't know that!" Mike said in a frantic stage whisper, as though it would prevent him from being heard by any passing ethereal being.
Leo suddenly cried out.
The younger turtles whirled just in time to see their brother's hands thrash. They ran to hover as near to him as Donatello would allow. "Stay BACK! I said, back away from him!"
Raphael stared at Leonardo, his eyes huge and dismayed. Their brother had fallen silent again. "This is freaky, Don. this really sucks!"
"Dudes," Mike whined, shifting his weight nervously. "I think he's in pain!" He launched forward and grabbed Leo by the shoulder, shaking him furiously.
"Don't, Mike!" Donatello protested, but it was too late. Michelangelo began to scream.
Then the sound cut off abruptly - a quiet strangle, then nothing.
Raph shouted - not words, but the cry of an animal. His heart was pounding in his ears now and the world had gone white with terror. He shot forward only to be punched in the face by Donatello.
"No!" Don shouted, leaping onto him and holding him down.
"That thing has got MIKE!"
"For once, you've got to listen!" Donatello shouted, and punched him again.
"NO TOUCHING!" He drew back his fist again and let it hover.
"I won't!" Raph snarled. "Jesus, are you crazy!"
"I'm the only sane one! NOW PROMISE ME!"
"Okay, Fine!" Raph mumbled, rubbing at his sore beak. "I promise, all right? I won't touch nobody."
"Sorry. I just..." Donatello blinked and sat up in a daze. He scrambled off Raph and held out a hand to help him up, cheeks burning. "I didn't want to lose you too!"
Raphael ignored the outstretched hand and clambered to his feet, dividing a glare between Don and...well, the rest of the world. Even the pain in his face wasn't enough to make him forget that Mike had been screaming. "So whatever this thing is, it gets 'em when they touch each other? And it hurts 'em?" He pushed past Don's hand to hover just outside of touching-range of the strange group of living statues. "So how'd it get Splinter in the first place? He wasn't touchin' anybody to catch it!"
"I don't...I don't know," Donatello bit his lip and studied them as well, carefully keeping his hands tucked against his sides. "I don't know much about the spiritual plane. Splinter keeps having me practice, but it all seems so...foggy. Not real, you know?"
Raph nodded tersely. He did know, in fact. "So what do we do? We can't go out there and get 'em...can we?"
"Not me," Don admitted in a small voice. "I don't know how to make that work."
"Grah!" Raphael said, knowing it was a stupid noise and a stupid reaction. "I hate this! Stupid spirits and stuff - we weren't doin' anything to them! And they're chicken, too - they won't come out and fight us out in the open, 'cause they know we'd kick their sorry little wispy butts!"
"We have to do something," Don clenched his hands, bringing them up in useless fists - punching wouldn't do any good on the rest of the family. He looked at them for a long minute, breathing hard. Raphael thought he was working himself up to punch someone, anyway, even if the only available target was him.
Silence fell in the dojo again. Raphael hated it even more this time.
Don shook himself out of whatever thoughts he was having, looked at his own hands one more time, and then back at Raph. "Well. I don't know much about the spiritual plane, but I do know how to experiment." His head lifted, just slightly, and suddenly he lost the 'scared kid' look he'd been wearing since Leo started slipping away. "I'm going to grab Mike, and see what happens. You go get a towel or something, so you don't have to touch me, and use it pull me away in a minute. And I'll tell you what I saw."
"No, Donnie, are you crazy?" Raphael's lunge to stop him was blocked by the unmoving bodies of the rest of the family, and so he couldn't get there in time. "What are you doin', are you - Donnie!"
Donatello, wearing an intense look of concentration, reached out and wrapped his hand around Mike's wrist, where it almost touched Leo's shoulder. And then he screamed.
"Donnie!" Raphael almost grabbed him—almost—but stopped short even as his brother suddenly went silent.
But there was no mistaking the silent scream on his face.
Raph stood frozen, panting shallowly, his skin prickling. Finally, his brain unlocked as Don's words played through his head. Towel. He had to get a towel. Raph spun, his eyes scanning wildly around the dojo until he saw a towel draped over one of the weapon racks along the wall. He bolted over to it and made a grab at it, missed, and finally seized hold of it, knocking over a couple of practice staffs in the process. Then he sprinted back to his helpless family, cursing his own clumsiness. When every second mattered, he, Raphael, suddenly had butterfingers!
Once back by Don, he wasted no time. He looped the towel carefully around Don's arm without touching him, held his breath, and quickly pulled it to detach him from Michelangelo's wrist in one smooth motion.
Don fell back with a gasp, landing hard on his rear and backpedaling gracelessly across the dojo floor.
"Whoa, Don, whoa!" Raph said, and his heart beat faster when his brother's wide eyes looked not at him but through him. "You okay, bro? What didya see? Whatta we do now?" he asked when Donatello finally stopped retreating.
Don's entire body was trembling, and he didn't answer.
"Don!" Raph waved a hand in front of his face. There was no sight of recognition, no sign his brother saw him at all. But his mouth moved as if forming words, and Raphael leaned in closer to hear.
"Kulev," his brother said in a dry whisper.
Then Don looked down, suddenly baring the palm he'd been touching Mike with. The skin was blistered, as if he'd clutched a hot iron instead of his own living, breathing, terribly still brother.
That settled it, as far as Raph was concerned. Baring his teeth, he snapped the towel around Michelangelo's wrist and seized both ends to yank him free.
"No!" Don cried suddenly, throwing himself at Raphael and tearing him away. "He's too close. He's too deep. They're in deep. Abort now and they'll burn all over."
"What?" Raph blinked, uncomprehending.
Don took a deep breath and counted, slowly and out loud, to five. The rest of his breath hissed out. The wild look in his eyes faded. "It's not a spiritual attack, Raph. It's a physical being. We just can't see it unless we're touching them. But as soon as we touch-"
"It's over," Raph finished for him, whispering. He swallowed hard. "What does it look like?"
"It's like a snake," Don said in a hushed voice. "It's winding around Master Splinter and dripping venom that drips and drips." He covered his eyes briefly as if trying to regain himself. "My hand hurts," he murmured.
Raph's eyes widened. "What's it going to do?"
"I don't know. It wasn't doing anything besides sitting there, dripping. It's like it was waiting for something. Or...hesitating for some reason." Don blinked. "It doesn't usually come to the surface."
Raph's mouth opened, closed, opened. "This ain't the surface."
"It is compared to where it lives." Don shook his head. "This is really weird, Raph. I don't know how I know this. I didn't know it a second ago." His hands started to tremble.
"Don." Raph clenched a hand down hard on his brother's arm. "Tell me whatcha thinking, Don. That look you're giving me is freaking me out!"
The scary look did not get any better. If anything, it got even more ominous as Don leaned forward and said, "Maybe you need to see for yourself."
Donatello tugged the towel out of his hands pointedly. "Yeah."
Raphael's eyes widened. "What? You want me to...? No!"
"But - you were all ready to touch Mike a second ago!"
"I changed my mind!"
"You're CHOOSING ignorance!"
"You be the brain! I'll be the muscle! It'll work great!"
"Raph! I only got a brief glimpse but it was very... look, you're at a disadvantage! I'll be right here to pull you off again. I can't describe for myself everything I saw!"
"And I can't describe to YOU how fast that thing is gonna EAT me, Don! I know even less about this spiritual mumbo-jumbo than you do!"
Donatello gave a frustrated huff and threw the ace in his sleeve. "Stop being a such a SCAREDY-CAT!"
In spite of knowing that it was a deliberate ploy by his brother, Raphael bristled. "I ain't scared!" he snapped, forcing all the bravado he could muster into his tone along with the slide into bad vocabulary. "You say that again, and I'll slug ya!"
"Then do it! Find out for yourself what we're up against!"
Raph turned and looked over his shoulder at his family. From where he stood, he could see Master Splinter's fierce, frightened expression - that hadn't changed since all of this started, years and years ago. Or maybe it just felt like years? And he could see part of Mike's face, too. Only it was the part of Mike's face that looked scared and lost. "...okay," he said at last. He swallowed down the fear that started to choke him as he realized what he was agreeing to, and said as firmly as he could, "Okay, I'll do it. But just for minute!"
"Just for a minute," Don agreed solemnly. "I'll be right there, Raph, and I'll get you out."
"You'd better," he growled. "Or I'm gonna come back from the spiritual plane and kick your ass." He forced himself to walk the short distance to his frozen family.
Don hurried beside him. "Remember, it's not the spiritual plane. It's just a state of reality we can't normally detect - maybe you'll see more than I did, since you know that going in. Maybe it won't be so disorienting to you."
"I got it, I got it," Raph waved him off. He stopped next to Mike, and stared hard at the place where Don had held onto Mike's wrist. It didn't look like it would burn him. It just looked like...well, like Mike's skin, really. Nothing unusual about it. But Raphael glanced down and saw the way Don's hand was curled up, protecting the burned flesh of one hand while he held the towel in the other, and he almost backed down from his task.
No. I ain't a scaredy-cat, he told himself fiercely. And Raph sucked in a deep breath and reached for Mike's wrist.
His last thought, before he made contact, was: Oh, crap, this is gonna hurt!
He touched Mike's skin solidly, refusing to be timid once he'd committed to the action, and his jaw clenched tight as he held his breath and braced himself for the pain and terror that was sure to seize him.
He was bracing himself so thoroughly that it took him a moment to realize nothing was happening.
Raph blinked uncomprehendingly, then slowly pulled his hand back, studying his palm. Nothing. No burning, no blisters. He narrowed his eyes, and once again placed his hand firmly on Michelangelo, this time wrapping his fingers around him slightly as Don had done.
He looked at Donatello. "Somethin's wrong. It ain't working."
Don looked from Raph's face then down to his hand, which was still touching Mike. His brow furrowed in puzzlement. "Wha—what do you mean?"
"I mean, I'm touchin' 'im, but I don't feel nothing!" He pulled his hand back and again, and then reached forward and touched Michelangelo a third time to demonstrate just how unaffected he was.
Don gaped at him. "I, I don't understand."
"Did you, like, do somethin' else? Were you thinkin' a' something, or concentrating when you did it?"
"No. I mean, I don't think so," Don said, shaking his head. He looked at his brother. "This doesn't make sense. It should work…" Then his face calmed slightly as his thoughts took over.
Raphael took his hand off of Michelangelo. "Maybe it'll work with Leo," he said, all of his fear temporarily overridden by the mystery of why the experiment hadn't worked.
"No, Raph, I don't think you should—!"
But even has Donatello was objecting, Raph had already taken a step closer to the elder turtle, and he boldly reached out and touched a finger to Leonardo's shoulder.
This time, he could feel it. Something wrapped around his wrist, like a thick, cool hose. Then he could see everything.
It was like a snake. Snake-like. Only it had hundreds of tiny clawed lizard-feet. Raphael was horribly reminded of a giant centipede, only this was reptilian and blue-and-black and glowing. He opened his mouth to scream, but the thing raised its head-its narrow, triangular head-and caught him with its blue eyes.
Its human eyes.
The way those eyes flickered just so slightly, taking in all its surroundings and not simply staring down something it perceived as a threat, made Raph's scream stop in his throat. One of those tiny clawed feet rested against the ball of Raphael's thumb, touching gently but not digging in. Raph was vaguely aware of the burning sensation coming from that gentle touch, but was far more taken by the creature's gaze. It was like they were the only two beings in the universe. His brothers, his father, all faded into the shadows, dimmed by the glow of the creature's skin.
"Do you know the way to the sun?"
Its voice sounded off, like it was speaking in an acoustically dead room, too close to Raph's ears. Raph shook his head. "You just go up, I think," he said without thinking. "We're not allowed up there, though."
"Neither am I. But if I go back to the Underground, I may never come out again. I don't even remember the way. No one can see me there, either. But if I touch, it hurts them."
Raph's lips parted slowly, his heart beating hard against his chest. "Leave my family alone," he said without feeling any of the bravado the statement carried. The creature's human eyes were mesmerizing. He felt the coils of the creature tighten in response.
It brought its head close to his face, its eyes blinking rapidly. "Not until you find me the sun," it said.
"How'm I supposed to find you the sun if you're holding 'em hostage?" Raph asked, genuine anger finally beginning to trickle back in. "I can't bring it with me."
"I don't want to keep it," the creature said quickly, almost sheepishly. "I just want to look at it."
The creature vanished, and Raphael found himself stumbling back against Don.
"Raph! Are you okay?"
Raph took a deep breath, then turned on his brother. "Five more seconds! FIVE MORE SECONDS and I mighta been able to do something!"
Don, who always had a response for everything, looked stunned and said nothing.
Huffing out his frustration, Raphael turned back and took hold of Leo's arm, the last place he'd seen one of the creature's coils. He found himself staring again into the creature's eyes.
"I can't bring you the sun," he said decisively. "It's millions of miles away."
The creature blinked once, slowly. "It is inches away," it said, drawing closer to Raphael. "You have seen it, haven't you?"
Raphael opened his mouth for several seconds before he could speak. "You mean, like, you wanna look in my head?"
"You remember it. Remember feeling it on your skin."
It was true. Raphael had occasionally glimpsed sunlight, but had only once actually seen the sun. It was a rare day, the only day they had gone topside during daylight. The warm glow the sun cast on his skin had been alien and indescribable. It was one of his most treasured memories.
"That is what I want. I want to remember the sun. I need your memory."
Raph snapped from his thoughts. "You mean, like...you wanna steal my memory?"
"Only the one! You have so many!" The creature looked completely innocent of malicious intent. "I have so little now. I used to remember the sun, and now I only remember remembering. When I have the memory, I will go back to the Underground and trouble you no more."
"No way!" Raph said automatically, recalling the humid haze circling the sun when he'd seen it.
"I give you my word!" The creature seemed to mistake his outcry, turning the corners of its mouth downward in an awkward attempt at a pitiful expression.
"I can't..." Raph swallowed, tightening his grip on Leo's arm. Leo couldn't feel him. Mikey couldn't see him. Splinter couldn't hear him. "Please," he whispered. "Just let 'em go. Please."
The snake rested its chin on Leo's shoulder and glanced up at Raph. It was not unlike a dog begging, but it bore greater resemblance to the pointed look Splinter gave when he meant what he said and refused to repeat himself.
The longer they stayed in its thrall, the harder it would be to come out.
"Okay." It came out as a half-sob.
The creature raised its head, then gave a nod. Swiftly, it uncoiled itself from his family. Raphael was suddenly standing in the dojo again, no strange shadows, no snake-creature. Splinter, Leo, and Mikey were stirring suddenly. The standstill was at an end, but the memory...
The memory of what?