A/N: Hello, folks! It's been a while since I ventured into the TMNT section, and I gotta say, it's good to be back. The last time I came 'round these parts, I was under my old pen name of Angelfeatherwriter...which makes me realize just how long it's been, yeesh. As such, I thought I'd bring an offering of fic to you all! I'm afraid I might have some rust on me, but regardless, I hope you enjoy. Lastly, massive thanks to my good friend and beta Willowfly, who for some reason has stuck with me this whole time.
To The Slaughter
It starts with a simple thing. You and Michelangelo heading to the woods that skirt the coast, carrying axes over your shoulders. The night is deep, your breath frosting in the air, New York's nocturnal din only finding presence in echoes that shake the leaves.
What a night for firewood. (what a night for need of a fire.)
Any tree is good as another, but Mikey ends up choosing. An old oak, gnarled, twisted, frail-looking. It's small; so will be your fire. The axe sticks on the second strike. On the fourth, Michelangelo wipes his eyes. On the sixth he looks to you, his mask darkened with moisture, and asks you to finish. His voice cracks on the last word.
When the small oak falls, you chop the wood into usable pieces and load it onto your sled, then drag it through the black night. The freezing air pricks your skin like needles. You haven't felt warm for hours.
Donatello is done preparing the body when you return. His shoulders sag when he sees you; like maybe if you never returned, there would be a different reality tonight. Maybe if you'd never returned he could have gone out and found you, and when he came back everything would be fine again. That could work. No room for logic in desperation. But your heavy footfalls shatter his almost-illusion with a finality that shakes the ground.
Fighting you every moment, Raphael is weightless as he drifts in carrying matches and a jar with a simple oriental design. You think it must almost be a relief, being so far away, but you also know it's only to stave off the worst of the shock. Eventually Raph will come crashing down, hard and violent and forcefully taking with him every branch he hits. Then he'll hit the ground and dig, and dig and keep digging until he finds a new lowest point in the world.
You perform the funeral rites because, well, it fell into your hands like every other unspoken burden. And also because you might be the only one who remembers the weathered old hands guiding yours years ago, teaching you the ritual for a purpose that was then blissfully unknown. The words are ancient and beautiful, and taste bitter in your mouth. Raphael strikes a match and throws it at your last word. Flames engulf the body like a blanket of perfect hellfire. Because hell must be where you are.
Five is now four. Nothing lasts forever. How many more funerals, you wonder? How many bodies will make it to this pyre of wet brick and sawed pipes?
(and who will mourn he who has no one left to put his there?)
Have you ever thought about how you'd, you know…"go"?
Like, maybe you never had before, but it's coming up a little more these days. Not that you're inviting it to. Depressing thoughts aren't really your thing; they're better left to your brooding older brothers, the lot of them, always sulking around with grim looks on their faces.
They've been doing that a lot lately too, haven't they? Except not in the way they did before. Leo spends more time meditating than he does sleeping, which he just does sometimes anyway, but he never actually looks peaceful while doing it anymore. He looks disturbed. Like if you went up to ask him something, his head would spin three-sixty degrees and then he'd bite your finger off. He doesn't seem angry at the world and himself like he was that one time—but he's distant, distracted, doesn't smile as much or laugh as often. Neither of which are exactly things he did all the time in the first place, so you find it a little surprising how gaping of a hole missing smiles and a laugh can leave.
Even Raphie's anger seems more pointed now, as though he's found something specific to be mad at instead of just everything, and he hates it. Hates being able to rationalize his bad temper. He doesn't fight with any of you anymore, not even Leo. He just growls and snarls and paces around the lair like it's a cage or something. You would think that the punching bag cussed him out at one point with how hard he goes at it, his grunts of exertion always echoing through the walls of the lair while he tries to beat it to death. But isn't it a little weird, how that's the only thing he's been punching? He hasn't smacked you in weeks. He hasn't gone topside in a month. Casey is starting to phone, but Raph never takes the calls.
And poor Donnie is just worried about both of them. He's worried about you, too, come to think of it. You wonder if your genius brother just has some kind of daily planner in which he carefully schedules his fussing over each of you. Yesterday was totally Leo's day. Today is probably Raph's. Augh, that means that yours is tomorrow. Perfect. You don't think you've lost any screws yet, but maybe Donnie is just assuming that only two out of three would be too lucky. And you wonder whether his manic brother-preservation mode ever manages to extend to himself, because as much as you hate to admit it, you're worrying about him, too. He really doesn't tinker anymore and his eyes are just...sad. Incomprehensibly. He's always murmuring into his shell cell, asking April to make deliveries of text books, but he doesn't meet her eyes when she hands them off with a concerned gaze. So make that three out of four? Great.
Maybe they wouldn't be so bad off if they were like you. They're your brothers and you know them—the question you bury, they embrace. They probably take it on a second date and pay for the meal. You see it in the pinching around their eyes when they look at each other and at you. They're thinking about how you'll all...go. Ever since Master Splinter passed away, it's like a giant, fat elephant came to take his place.
You miss your sensei just as much as they do, but you know that this is no way to live. Drifting around like zombies in a bad horror flick. You're an expert on bad horror flicks, and this would rate, like, one star. Half a star. It sucks. It sucks and you want your brothers back. (and your father.)
Why are you the only one moving forward while everyone else goes back? This isn't how it's supposed to be, and you're being childish about it, but acceptance is lonely. You want to just fall behind with them and throw your arms around Leo and wait for him to lead the way again. Yet the path behind is shrouded in darkness, thicker than blacks of New York's deepest shadows, and you're worried.
What if your leading is the only thing keeping them from being swallowed whole? What if you stop to wait for them to catch up, and they bring the darkness with them? What if you reach back to pull them forward only to be sucked in?
(what if you're just too afraid to ask how you'll die? what if the only thing keeping you ahead is denial?)
(what if it's four out of four?)
Update medical records.
Raphael, entry five-four-nine-two. Diagnosis: bloody knuckles. Severity: mild. Treatment: bandages. Painkillers offered despite dwindling stock, mainly because you knew he'd refuse them. Mostly a courtesy at this point, anyway. You're no longer nine years old and bloody knuckles don't send you wailing over your brother's well-being anymore. That stopped around the tenth time. And you stopped believing he'd take painkillers the very first moment he learned that supplies were finite in a world where injury was not. Raph hasn't gained any frightening wounds in weeks now, and you're not sure whether that's even more worrying or not.
(but you're going to worry. you're always going to. your brothers are helpless sometimes, they can't understand how much you're doing for them. they can't keep your water clean or your home dry. they can't write firewalls to keep your isolated network isolated. they need you.)
Michelangelo, entry five-four-nine-three. Diagnosis: incomplete; likely indigestion or flu. Severity: mild to moderate. Treatment: antacid. Monitor closely over the next couple days. You know the cold season is quickly rolling in and Mikey is the most prone to getting sick. You don't have a lot of desires in life, but one of them is to be able to go a single winter without having to sit at your feverish little brother's side with a bucket. He says the oddest, most heartbreaking things while under a haze. Dreams of walking on the surface, of rescuing a damsel and getting a thank you in reply rather than a scream. On the other hand, it's a little early into the season for the flu. It could be a classic case of Michelangelo failing to grasp the concept of throwing out rancid food. You'll have to watch closely.
(never stop watching. stop watching and they'll slip away between your fingers. you're not a doctor but you're the closest thing they have, and remember the last time you were the one who got sick? they had to deal with the devil. bishop could have kept you all and packed your organs into neat little containers. and at least you would have been too mindless to care, but your brothers, they—)
Leonardo, entry five-four-nine-four. Subcategory: chronic shoulder pain, entry zero-one-one. Diagnosis: damp weather affecting old shoulder injury again; usual complaints of stiffness. Severity: mild, with climate as the only trigger, but condition is likely to worsen with age and should be monitored throughout life. Treatment: physical therapy session. You've yet to convince Leo that physical therapy isn't synonymous with strenuous exercise, though, which means he continues to believe practicing high-level kata is an acceptable way to conduct treatment. You hope he'll catch on by the twentieth time you threaten drugs. You also hope that he won't beat himself up over being in pain, which is somehow illegal in Leonardo Land.
(they might lose themselves, you understand? mikey is still so young and emotionally dependent, and without someone to lead he'll wander right to his death. like a lemming. raph will never stop being angry and self-destructive; you've done the bloodwork and his hormones are wrong, it's like even they want to rip themselves out of his skin. and leo is always reaching so hard for that flawless ideal that he'll probably get tired and construct one himself someday, standing tall and rigid and robotic. a perfect statue of something that is not your brother.)
Donatello, entry five-four-nine-five. Diagnosis: migraine, likely stress-induced. Severity: mild. Treatment:
(they need you.)
November, entry five-four-nine-five. Phone April and ask her to make another med run. Partition off and sanitize work area. Sign up for advanced online medical courses. Consult Leatherhead for advice in entering the field. Break down prototype molecular destabilizer for conversion into medical equpiment. Prepare second computer for compelte transfer of medical logs. Obtain blueprnits for hospitaal
Update medical records.
Donatello, entry five-four-nine-six. Diagnosis: migraine, likely stress-induced. Severity: moderate. Treatment: nap.
(you need them. You need the warmth of skin against yours, not just the bite of cold metal. You need to hear fond words, not clicking machines. Patient smiles that lid the eyes, the gentle push of fingers pressing a coffee cup into your hands. You need to speak and be heard, fear and be held, touch and be felt—)
(you need your brothers. you need them so much more than they can ever understand.)
You think you're a real piece of work, don't you?
It must be real tough being you. Look at all that muscle, all that skill and training that's carried your sad shell through every ass-backwards mess in your life. You're just a fragile little princess, aren't you? Maybe you should gather up your skirts and flee to the edge of the fucking real world, then keep right on going until you hit fantasy land. You'll fit right in with all the other freaks living there.
Mad now, huh? Gonna go crack your knuckles against Purple Dragon faces until their ink stains your hand? Like you always do. Just fight and kill until the world makes half sense again. Violence is easy. Violence makes more sense than your life.
But you're not going to, because it makes you sick. You started caring at some point; good job. Now it makes your gut twist to think about all your senseless, precious fighting. You see corpses lying face-down in the gutters and it makes you feel like puking. You're real good at that, you know. You're real good at destroying things. Probably don't want to ruin that for yourself, right? You're not good at much else. You're not gonna find release in meditation or engineering or video games. This is your thing. This is what you do. And they're gonna notice if you stop. Massacres, blood lakes in alleys, that's all just expected. That's all just Raphael. You quit doing that and they're gonna wonder why.
And if you tell them why, they're just going to laugh. They should. What can you do? You've been taking things apart for so long and now you're wishing you can make them instead? You can't build like Don. You can't coax smiles out of people like Mikey. You can't even create a shitty little zenned out corner in your brain like Leo has to retreat into. You'd kill for one of those. Of course, you'd kill for anything.
Get it? Damned if you do, damned if you don't. You're screwed. Spent so much time building this hill of bones that they just throw 'em to you like you're the family dog now. Add another to the pile. But when the ground suddenly looks way too far away from up top and you want down? Too bad. You're too high up. You're gonna fall and break your useless head open. So sit there like a dog and let them keep throwing bones at you until you're crushed to death. And then let them know how Splinter's doing from the afterlife.
Yes, Splinter. You think about him long and hard. He was old. He was ancient, and you're a fucking moron if you thought he was gonna last forever. You're a fucking moron if you thought it would be age, with how you're always dragging him into your fights.
Donnie was talking to you earlier, when he was patching up the knuckles you split open on your punching bag. He thinks you're all going through some post traumatic stress disorder. He thinks Splinter may not have prepared you all well enough for his death. Ain't that something? Your genius brother is an engineer, a doctor, and a psychoanalyst. His eyes didn't meet yours when he was speaking, just followed the circular motion of his hands as he worked. That means he probably doubts himself. Can't blame him. Leo would shit cats if he heard Don placing this on your sensei's shoulders.
Well, guess what? It doesn't matter whether it was Splinter's fault or not. He's gone. His ashes are spread in that nice park Yoshi used to take him to when he was still a regular rat, with his very own makeshift gravestone and walking cane making up a memorial that nobody is ever gonna understand. And he's not coming back.
So how's your hill of bones, you savage? You get a good view from up there? Good. Then sit back and watch us pick off the rest of your family one by one, and don't even bother coming down. We'll throw the bones to your pile once they're dead.
Ghosts that fade in and out of the room, hanging from the heavy eyes of your brothers, massaging poison into your shoulders and knifing words into your ears. By the candlelight, you see them. Dark and heavy presences that flutter against the shōji doors. Black silhouettes. Nipping at the ankles of your family, curling their spindly fingers around your throats. The ghost on your shoulder hisses into your ear, every word a blade.
(listen. listen to me.)
You don't. You won't. The fingers slice into your windpipe, but you won't listen.
(your body will lay where it falls. no pyre. no funeral. no one left.)
You won't listen.
The ghost clicks its teeth and says again, louder.
Listen. Listen to me.
LISTEN TO ME
LISTEN TO ME
But you won't; you won't do anything. You can't, can you? That's why you've been sitting here for days, watching us pry you apart like clams. Your head is heavy, your shoulder stiff. And your spirit is lined with hairline fractures. Like glass fragments, crushed in our palms. All we have to do is squeeze.
We're waiting for Michelangelo to fall. Did you expect your baby brother to get so far? Does it sting to see his soul push forward as yours shatters? Your pride is thick like congealed blood. Little Mikey, dragging you away kicking and screaming from your own weakness. Humiliating. But if you can't shoulder the weight of three brothers, then neither can he. He'll tire. And we won't.
Then we'll go after Donatello. Such strong younger brothers you have. Don, who gives up far too much for you already. Have you ever considered that he could be somebody? He could be the one to invent something amazing, or maybe he could cure cancer. Something beyond your comprehension. Maybe his genius would save him from the dissection table and give him a shot at a normal life. But not as long as he has you all to look after. Not as long as he keeps your home cozy and your existence a secret. Not as long as you depend on him like a child.
Raphael. His spirit cracks and shudders like thinned ice, but always rebuilds over itself, scarred and damaged. Thicker than before. It will rot from the inside out, each layer burning to ash, until ugly scar tissue is all he has to remember himself by. Can you count the ones left by you? Can you see the words you've slashed into the ice? Can you hear the hatred that never made it to your ears?
And then you? Nothing. You don't fight back. You've sat here and listened since the day your master's ashes settled in the grass. You're already broken. You watch our shadows dancing on the rice paper, flickering against the candlelight. You see us in your mind's eye. You taste us in your bile. You feel us under your skin. You sit and bleat in the darkness as we drag your family to the slaughter. And you—
"We," Leo breathes, "have no fear of the darkness."
(you finally speak, and your words are achingly pedantic. you intend to fight now? you feel us crawling down your skin and only then you are defiant? you must fear the dark. the dark is always unknown. it is a fool who is not wary of the unknown.)
Leo's fingers press together in his lap. "My brothers and I are always cautious. But we will not fear. If the path ahead is dark, we blend into the shadows and wear them like cloaks. We are unknown."
(you believe yourself equal to the blackness that shrouds your path?)
"Just a little."
(and you believe you can carry the weight of them all.)
"Maybe not. But I can get rid of heaviest burden." Leonardo climbs to his knees. His teeth grit, eyes piercing the shadow flickering against the shōji doors. "You feed on the grief of mourning sons. You grow fat on our terror, planting your poisonous seeds in our minds. And I think we've had just about enough of being your farmland."
His silhouette writhes on the rice paper paneling, distorted by the candlelight. (you cannot protect them. one by one, they fall for you. your perfect little soldiers. your poor little brothers.)
Leo picks up the candle and laughs. "Ride's over. Get off."
The last thing he sees is his own shadow, still dancing along the shōji doors, magnifying across the wall as he draws near. Then the candle wick is pinched between his fingers, and the room is blanketed in darkness.
Three heads turn from the couch when he slides the door open. Raph, cracking a thin smile, lifts his arm and motions him over wordlessly. Leo rolls his shoulder as he approaches them, stretches, then slumps between Don and Mikey. "Hey guys," he yawns. "You're all up late."
"Speak for yourself, Fearless. You've been cooped up in that room all day." Raphael itches his bandaged knuckles, earning a light slap on the arm from Don, and he glowers before turning back to Leo. "You even know what time it is?"
"One in the morning?" Leo shrugs while Mikey, impressed, whistles loudly.
"You gotta stop being so good at that, bro. It's a little freaky."
"There's also a clock on the DVD player," Don points out. He's looking a little wired, but still fondly rolls his eyes when Mikey spots digital display and mouths an 'oh'. He shakes his head and looks over at Leo. "How's your shoulder feeling?"
"Fine. What about you guys? What are you all doing out here?"
"Talkin'," Raph answers gruffly, crossing his arms.
Donatello sighs. "What Raphael means is, none of us could sleep. So we kind of just wandered out here one at a time." He hesitates, biting his lip. "But I think we're overdue for this. It's pretty safe to say we've all had some...issues, to work through. For lack of a better word."
The corners of Leo's mouth twitch. "Maybe just a few."
"Who can blame us?" Mikey draws his knees up. "I mean, it was always Sensei who shook us out of our funks before."
Raphael's gaze cuts from Don to Leo. "Guess dealin' with his death was one lesson he couldn't teach us."
"It wasn't his to teach," Leo says quietly.
"Master Splinter couldn't just tell us how to manage our grief," Donatello agrees, leaning back. "I think...I think maybe this was the lesson. Learn through experience."
"A lesson he could only teach once," Mikey softly adds.
Raph silently absorbs that for a few seconds, fiddling with his bandages. A disbelieving scoff bursts from his throat. "And boy, did we tank."
Don rubs his temple. Mikey stares at a notch in the end table. Leo taps his finger against his knee pad. Then they all slowly join in, adding their own shaky, amazed laughter to Raph's, and they're probably all half-insane. But it's nice. It's something.
"We haven't failed yet," Leo abruptly says, looking up. His brothers stop laughing to glance at him with surprise. "We're here now, aren't we? And like every hardship we've been through before, we can beat it if we stick together. No matter how many of us are left."
Their faces are quiet as they process his words. Leonardo sees the clouds in their expressions, heavy and windswept, pushed and pulled from all sides. How long they've been lost in this storm. He extends his hand to Don; the hurricane breaks from his eyes as he takes it, and it's a domino effect when he reaches out to Raphael, and Leo grabs Mikey on his other side, and suddenly the fog dissipates and they're left bundled together in the crisp clarity of a winter night.
"Jeez, Leo," Mikey grumbles, grinning wider than he has in months. "Only you can be that cheesy and dark at the same time."
They all have a laugh at that, and it sounds even better than the last one. Leonardo squeezes both hands in his grip. "Let's bundle up, guys. I think it's time we paid Sensei a visit."
(here's your answer, demon:)
(he who has no one left to mourn his death has already done enough mourning himself and would never wish it upon anyone else. he whose body never makes it to the pyre lets it fall where it is—the slaughterhouse. right next to the other body, the one he ran in after instead of waiting for his turn.)
(here's something you may have noticed: we are not lambs.)