Author's Note: I've had this plotline rattling around in my head for a while and it has taken me a great deal of time to write it out properly. Aside from being my second TMNT fic (2k12verse, set prior to "Target: April O'Neil"), it marks a return to writing in third person perspective for me. Generally, I am more comfortable in first person, but I believe that challenging yourself is imperative. Also, as my ideas have a tendency of growing beyond my initial vision, I have—yet again—decided to break this work into two chapters for the sake of readability. That being said, I hope you enjoy the story!
Dedicated to Terraform. She knows the reasons why.
Forever on a Winter's Eve
"Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable." – L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
"You must allow April to return in her own time…"
Master Splinter's words ricocheted in Donatello's mind as he soldered an array of wires to a circuit board. Another week had come and gone without word from April and he began to worry that she would never forgive them. Though he tried to keep her from his thoughts, she crept in regularly: the look of despair upon her face when she saw her father—his leathery wings spread wide, his scythe-like talons fully extended; the desperation in her voice as she begged them to do no harm; how her eyes burned with rage when she discovered they were responsible, like smoldering coals stoked to an inferno. That night was one of the worst he could remember and the days since limped by, each more listless than the last.
Lost in thought, he failed to notice a bead of molten metal slithering down the circuit board until it made contact with his thumb. His nerves howled in pain; he responded with a startled gasp and a string of expletives. He ran the burn under cold water and looked it over. It glared back—bright red, the foundation of a fluid-filled blister forming at its center. He cursed himself for being absent-minded and returned to his lab to continue working, but when he examined the board he knew it was ruined. Frustrated, he threw it against the wall; copper wire and shards of plastic rained down around him. With a sigh, he sat at his workbench and hung his head.
Everyone kept telling him that time and space were the common denominators; that through their application, April's battered soul would mend. But the longer he waited, the more restless he became. Perhaps it was because guilt was devouring him from within like an insatiable beast; perhaps it was because without her, his world seemed cold and colorless; or perhaps it was because by nature he was a man of action: if something needed fixing, he made the necessary repairs; if a wound needed attention, he cleaned, stitched, and bandaged it; and if his intellect could solve a problem or ease a burden, he devoted himself to the cause. Whatever the reason, he decided that he could wait no longer. He needed to see her. He needed to try to make things right.
He trudged from his lab to the common area, his legs stiff from disuse. His presence, however, did not go unnoticed. Raphael peeled his eyes away from the latest issue of The Walking Dead; the corners of his mouth tugged into a wry smile.
"Good news, Leo." He chuckled. "He lives! You can call off the search party."
Leonardo delivered a final forceful blow to the heavy bag in the far corner of the room, turned, and whisked the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.
"Donnie, you've been holed up in your lab for almost two days. Is everything alright?"
Donatello strove to be as honest as possible. He believed truth promoted trust; that speaking one's mind kept life's minor irritations from leading to conflicts. But when it came to his relationship with April, he took exception to the policy. The truth can be unkind; it can wound just as quickly as a lie—and doubly deep. He chose, instead, to evade the cause of his sorrow and focus on the superficial.
"The project I've been working on hit a bit of a rough patch." He shook his head in disgust. "It's a total loss. What a disaster…"
"No worries, Donnie." Raphael quipped from behind his book. "It couldn't be any worse than 'The Noodle Incident.'"
At the stove, Michelangelo froze and peered at them over his shoulder, his face red with embarrassment. The concoction he had been stirring began to boil over—frothing and spitting and running down the side of the pot.
"Dude! That was an accident and you know it!"
"Whatever helps ya sleep at night, Mikey."
"Master Splinter said it coulda happened to anyone…"
"Yeah, anyone with cottage cheese for brains…"
"Alright, okay, that's enough." Leonardo stepped between them, his hands held up dismissively. "Let's not start this battle again. 'The Noodle Incident' was…pretty bad, but now's not the time…" He turned his attention back to Donatello as Raphael grumbled and continued reading. "Are you sure you're okay? It's just… you've been really withdrawn lately and we're all a little worried about you."
"Don't be." He fixed a smile to his face, but it was merely a façade. "I'm just tired and disappointed. The board I was working on was rather complex and it took a great deal of time and energy to design, say nothing of the resources involved."
"Don't sweat it, bro." Michelangelo said as he turned down the burner on the stove, added some salt to the witch's brew in the pot, and tasted it. "We can help you find the stuff you need to make a new one."
At the suggestion, Leonardo brightened. Donatello's isolation had become something of an elephant in the room. Everyone wanted to help him but no one knew quite what to say. And while words, despite their immaterial nature, hold infinite power to heal and console they can have the opposite effect if carelessly employed. An outing to the junkyard, on the other hand, seemed perfect. With one small gesture, they could show their support while getting him out of his lab and into the world beyond.
"Yeah," Leonardo agreed. "We might not be able to help you build it, but we're more than willing to take a trip down to the junkyard with you to look for parts."
"We are?" Raphael demanded. His expression was the portrait of reluctance; in turn, both Leonardo and Michelangelo glowered at him. He sighed, and with a roll of his eyes, relented. He closed his book, set it aside, and with all the enthusiasm he could muster, added: "I mean, of course we are!"
A knot formed in Donatello's gut. In times of trouble, he and his brothers rallied around one another. They learned from a young age that the world was a cruel, unforgiving place and that they would have to band together in order to survive. But this was different. This wasn't a battle against a flesh and blood opponent, but rather an affair of the heart; it could not be put right from the outside, only settled from within. To find peace, he would have to go it alone.
"Look guys, I appreciate it—really, I do—but it would be easier if I went by myself. The components I'll be looking for are fairly specific and you aren't particularly familiar with electronics. Besides, these winter nights have been bitter cold. Why should you come with me just to freeze your shells off?"
"You sure?" Leonardo asked, his brow knitted.
"Yeah, I'm sure. It shouldn't take me long to find what I need. I'll be back before you know it."
"It's settled then." With a smile, Raphael picked up his book and thumbed to the dog-eared page where he left off. "You won't hear me complainin'."
Donatello retrieved his bo, secured it in its sheath, and turned to leave; a hand on his shoulder, however, stopped him in his tracks. Leonardo stood behind him. His face was a mosaic of emotions—concern, anxiety, and sadness muddled together.
"Donnie, be careful out there."
With a disarming smile, he nodded his acknowledgement, leapt over the turnstiles, and ventured into the tunnels. In but a few steps, the darkness swallowed his form.
The world above slumbered. Storm clouds, thick and grey, shrouded the night sky like a veil of smoke. The streets, typically filled from pillar to post with people of all shapes, sizes, and stations, were empty save the occasional taxi cab or vagrant. Snow fell like tickertape, blanketing the earth in a coverlet of white. Donatello leapt from rooftop to rooftop, savoring the nip of the frigid air at his cheeks and the sound of the snow as it compressed beneath him. His heart thundered. For the first time in weeks he felt purposeful—an agent of circumstance rather than a victim of it.
Before long, he found himself overlooking April's apartment building. The windows were dark save a few dimly lit by light filtering through drawn shades or the flickering of television sets. Confident he was unseen, he knelt and looked to her bedroom window. Frost collected at the edges of the glass and stretched inward, yet the center remained clear; within, he could see April's sleeping form—a living portrait within an icy frame. A comforter was wrapped around her body like a cocoon and pulled to her chin; her features—softened by sleep—belied the storm and stress of her waking hours. He had never seen her look more peaceful—or more beautiful.
He smiled. Of late, he hadn't slept well. Exhausted though he was, he tossed and turned as his mind flitted from thought to thought or worry to worry. When he did sleep, it was dreamless—little more than a voyage into the blackness and back again. Though tranquility eluded him, he hoped her dreams were sweet; that, in the realm of her imaginings, she was granted the comfort and happiness reality so frequently denied. And he wondered if she ever dreamed of him as he did her.
A nigh-inaudible sound, like the pattering of water against stone or the wind scraping a dove's wings, captured his attention. It was a sound with which he was familiar—it was the sound of his eldest brother's footfalls. Leonardo, ever-vigilant and concerned for his well-being, must have tailed him. His stomach fluttered. He was caught in a lie.
"Leo…" He murmured. He rose to his feet slowly. "Look, it's not what it seems. I-I didn't mean to…"
"You don't have to explain. I'm glad you came."
The voice was unmistakable. He spun around. Karai stood amid the darkness, flanked by a small army of footbots. She ordered them to stand down and approached, looking him over with the intensity and anticipation of a predator examining its quarry.
"You turtles would be worthier opponents if you weren't so predictable. All I had to do was deploy some of my footbots to follow that empty-headed girl. I knew if I was patient, eventually you'd crawl out of whatever hole you've been hiding in to get in touch with her." She rolled her eyes in mock-exasperation. "Like moths to the flame…"
"What do you want, Karai?"
"What do I want? You're supposed to be smart. I thought you would already know." Her face twisted into a grimace. "I want you and your brothers to suffer as I have; to know how it feels to lose someone you care about."
During training, Master Splinter often used anecdotes and maxims to reinforce what he was teaching. He was well-read and could easily quote Lao Tzu one moment, Machiavelli the next, and Mark Twain thereafter. Once, when they were practicing tactical retreats, Raphael griped—he believed devoting time to practice running away was, as he put it, "friggin' ridiculous." Master Splinter, however, explained the purpose of the training by quoting Sun Tzu: "He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious."
He swallowed hard. Karai was a highly skilled kunoichi fueled by rage and determined to sate her bloodlust in the name of revenge. What's more, she brought enough footbots with her to ensure the scales would be heavily tipped in her favor. Victory, it seemed, could only be achieved through retreat. He pulled a smoke bomb from his belt and prepared to disappear.
"Not so fast!" She bellowed. She unsheathed her blade; her robotic soldiers followed suit and readied their weapons. "Do you think I'm a fool?! Do you honestly believe I would let you slip away so easily? I've spent hours reflecting on my failures: how I went wrong, what I could have done differently, and—most importantly—why you got away. And I realized something: I have to attack the heart. If you run, the last thing April O'Neil will see is my face—just before I slit her throat."
Donatello froze. He scanned the huddled mass before him and took inventory of the opposition: twelve footbots armed with katana, nunchaku, naginata, tonfa, and kasurigama stood poised to strike on the south side of the rooftop; twelve similarly armed bots gathered at the north. Conversely, his arsenal consisted of six shuriken, three smoke bombs, and his bo. He was outmatched. He knew it. But he also knew he had no choice.
"It doesn't have to be like this, Karai. Nobody has to get hurt…"
"Save it. By the time this is over, someone will be dead. The only say you have in the matter is whether it will be you or her…"
"Leave April out of it. Your fight is with me…" He inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled through his mouth; his breath—visible in the cold—hung in the air before dissipating. In the moment, all of creation seemed to balance on the point of a needle.
"As you wish. Footbots, kill him!"
The robotic soldiers heeded her command and charged; in response, Donatello threw the smoke bomb in his hand to the ground. A sooty plume of grey erupted and shot skyward. When it cleared, he was nowhere in sight. Karai balled her fists in rage; she clenched down so tightly that her nails dug into the heels of her palms.
As her wail echoed—dying a little with each refrain—three footbots fell. Purple sparks sprayed from their heads accompanied by puffs of black smoke and the smell of melted plastic. She knelt beside the downed bot closest her and looked it over. A shuriken emblazoned with the Hamato family crest jutted from the back of its head.
"Cute, real cute…" She spat. "But you're going to have to do better than that…"
Donatello materialized at the far corner of the rooftop; the footbots sensed his presence and whirled around. Their eyes burned red for an instant as they committed the maneuver to memory; then, they went on the offensive. Five bots broke away from the group and attacked while the remainder provided cover with a barrage of kunai. Donatello drew his bo and deflected the projectiles; however, before he could regain his bearings, a nunchaku caught him in the temple and sent him stumbling back.
The metal men fell into formation, creating a semi-circle around him. They were trying to corner him—to use the edge of the roof as a natural boundary to limit his movement. He knew he had to act. He leapt in the air and delivered a jumping side kick to the head of the bot furthest left; with a crackle and burst of sparks, it dropped to the ground. As soon as he landed, he struck the next across the side of the head with enough force to send it off the roof. He swept the legs of the third; it fell with a clang and dropped its katana. Wasting no time, he scooped up the weapon and drove it into its chest.
The last of the bots in the formation—one armed with a kasurigama, the other with tonfa—advanced in unison. He recoiled and waited for them to make their move. The bot brandishing tonfa charged; the other held back, whipping the weighted chain of the kasurigama overhead. Donatello swung his bo at the bot's head; it predicted his attack and ducked, leaving him over-extended and off-balance. A blow to the head dazed him and split his lip and a subsequent strike to the knee sent him to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, but before he could retaliate, the kasurigama chain coiled around his bo like a metal serpent. He held on with all of his strength, but it wasn't enough—it was wrenched from his grasp and tossed aside. Then, the bots closed in. He avoided a snap-kick from one, blocked the tonfa of the other, and hooked the weapon under his arm. He refused to let go andused leverage to put its wielder into an arm-bar and slam it to the ground. Sparks erupted from its midsection, danced in the air, and fizzled out in the snow.
Just as he rolled away, the kasurigama chain shot toward him and wrapped around his wrist. With no time to brace himself, he was yanked down and dragged across the roof, wincing in pain as the skin on his thighs scraped against the concrete and peeled away. He tried to right himself and managed to get to his knees, but the bot redoubled its effort and pulled even harder. It was too much. With a dull clack, his shoulder popped out of its socket. His ragged breaths and grunts of exertion crescendoed to a scream. The pain was unimaginable—it radiated, seethed—dampening every thought and whetting every fear. In his condition, without his bo, he felt like a fly caught in a spider's web, struggling futilely for life itself.
"You're pathetic." Karai sneered. "You have no fight in you. It's disgraceful. I hope your brothers prove more entertaining when the time comes…"
The footbot lifted him to his feet by the throat, clamping down on his windpipe with rail-thin metal fingers. He tried to choke in a breath, but gurgled instead. The edges of his vision grew blurry and he felt lightheaded yet still he resisted, refusing to yield—refusing to die. He tightened his neck muscles and strained against its grip; out of desperation, he left his feet and kicked it in the face. The next he knew, he was on the ground gasping for air. He was free. He got up quickly and ran headlong into his opponent; he kept his legs churning, drove it onto its back, and slammed his fist into its head again and again until nothing but twisted metal and frayed wires remained.
He rose unsteadily, tramped away from the debris pockmarking the roof and pitching sparks in all directions, and retrieved his bo. His left arm hung at a grotesque angle—noticeably lower than his right, his thighs were gnawed up and bloody, and he sported a goose-egg on his temple.
"What?" Karai bristled. "No witty banter? No threats? The least you could do is plead for your life. After all, you've only taken down eight of my men and you look like you can barely stand."
The mind is a curious instrument. Most times, it can be moderated—focused on a specific task or end. Occasionally, though, it imposes its will, conjuring unbidden memories from its depths. Donatello's mind wandered back to a training session several months prior. He had drawn the short straw and had to face Raphael in close-quarters combat. He fared reasonably well until he slipped and took the blunt end of a sai to the throat. He immediately crumpled to the ground. Once he collected himself and caught his wind, Michelangelo—ever the optimist—tried to help him see the bright side: "Well, dude, at least if it hurts it means you're still alive, right?"
The profundity of the statement left everyone momentarily speechless. Such weighty words sounded strange coming from someone whose speech was peppered with slang, colloquialisms, and self-made portmanteaus. Still, he preferred it to Raphael's more abrasive stand-by: "Quit bein' such a pussy."
Now as then, he was hurt. Hurt but alive. So long as the latter remained true—so long as his heart beat and his lungs drew breath—he would fight. But he couldn't let Karai dictate the fight. To prevail, he needed to turn the tables in his favor. The rooftop provided no cover and left him vulnerable. He needed a venue change, someplace with chokepoints and blind corners, someplace where superior numbers meant nothing. The abandoned meatpacking plant on Forsyth Avenue came to mind. He had been there before in search of spare parts and found little, but the roof was lined with industrial refrigeration units and condensers. It was tactically advantageous, situated in a sparsely populated area, and it was only a few blocks away. But he needed Karai to take the bait. He needed to lure her away from April—to distract her from her objective. He needed to attack the heart.
"Say you succeed. Say you manage to kill everyone who's ever wronged you." He spat blood onto the roof and wiped the excess from his lip with his thumb. "Then what? It's not going to change anything."
"Maybe not. But at least I'd have peace of mind knowing that the monsters responsible for taking my mother away from me paid for what they did."
"Peace of mind..?" As he considered her logic, a faint smile graced his lips.
She her lips curled into a scowl. "What's so funny?!"
"Peace of mind." He chortled derisively. It was soft at first, but it built upon itself until it rumbled through him. "If you honestly believe that, you're naïve. Hate is all you have. It sustains you. It keeps you going. Gives you purpose. Take that away and what are you?"
Her muscles tensed and her features, once alight with superiority, became unreadable.
"Exactly. You'd be nothing—just a bitter, hateful, blight on mankind. You think you'd find peace if you killed us? You wouldn't be able to live without us."
"SHUT UP!" Her bottom lip quivered slightly and her eyes, fixed on him, were wheels of fire.
"All your life. All for this. In the name of a woman you don't remember; a woman whose heart would surely break if she realized you are her daughter…"
Her composure was feeble and her anger torrential; it eroded rational thought and made her reflexive. With her wakizashi raised, she hurtled herself at Donatello. He, on the other hand, remained calm. Reaching into his belt, he produced his T-phone and a smoke bomb. He hit the panic button on the former and slid it across the roof—it banked off the ledge at the other side and remained, alerting the others and sending them its coordinates; he threw the latter to the ground as a diversion and retreated, traversing snow-covered rooftops toward Forsyth Avenue. He looked over his shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Karai and her robotic soldiers in hot pursuit. She unwittingly fell into his trap: his brothers would track the signal, piece together what happened, and keep April safe. And he, hurt but alive, alone save the falling snow, would stand against her.
In its heyday, the Forsyth Meatpacking Plant was a lucrative enterprise, producing high-quality kosher meats for the city's burgeoning Jewish community. Around the clock, trucks came and went; workers filed in and out; and the smokestacks—urban geysers fueled by hickory and apple-wood—belched soot into the air. But after decades of wear and tear, the building—a monolithic structure from the 1940s—was condemned by city officials. Rather than allocating funds to renovate the existing structure, the owners opted to build a new facility. Now it stood empty: a symbol of the city's rich industrial heritage, a playground for miscreants seeking cheap thrills, a blank canvas for graffiti vandals, and a temporary home to drifters and pigeons alike.
Donatello dashed toward the plant in an irregular pattern, kicking up wisps of snow with every footfall. Kunai screamed past him, yearning to taste his flesh and lap at his blood, but he managed to stay a step ahead. At the back of the building, beside the loading docks, was a roof access ladder made of rebar bent into rudimentary rungs. He made his way there. He took hold of the lowest rung with his good arm and heaved himself up; as he climbed, his muscles—tight from the cold—quivered and cramped. He bit down on his lower lip, fought through the pain, and made it unsteadily—but otherwise safely—to the roof. Long cylindrical tanks stretched across one side; several large compressors loomed at the other, casting broad shadows that spilled to the ground below. Galvanized piping in various lengths and thicknesses ran between the two, the veins and arteries of a mechanical goliath.
He made a beeline to the far side of the roof, sticking to the shadows as he weaved under and around the low-hanging pipes. A small gap situated between the ledge of the roof and two of the compressors offered both protection and an easily defensible position; he stepped into it and sat down in the snow as he caught his breath. There was movement down below. He could hear it—the dry crunch of snow underfoot and the wimpling echo of loose stone gnashing the pavement—and knew he didn't have long. He lifted the hand on his injured arm to a pipe jutting from the compressor, wound his fingers tightly around it, and kept his elbow close to his body. Then, he simultaneously stretched, rotated, and lifted his arm; with a sharp click, his shoulder popped back in place. Unshed tears stung his eyes as muffled curses fell from his lips. He kneaded his shoulder with his fingers, rotated it back and forth, and tested his range of motion. It was tender and swollen, but he was fairly certain it would hold up if he didn't rely too heavily on it.
A sharp sequence of noises rose from below; with every strike, the building shuddered as if in pain. He knew what it meant. They were coming for him. He slid his bo from its sheath and got to a knee. The off-beat hammering grew louder and drew closer until, just as suddenly as it began, it stopped. For a moment, there was silence.
"I know you're up here, freak!" Karai's proclamation, venom-laced and shrill, cut through the night. "You have two options: you can either come out and face me or I can send my men in to retrieve you. But you should know that the longer I have to wait, the slower your death is going to be. The choice is yours. I'll give you thirty seconds."
She counted back from thirty. Each passing second tolled like a bell, signaling the approach of something ominous. Yet, he was calm—soothed by memories of those he loved. He thought of Master Splinter: how the smell of jasmine and sage incense lingered on him; how his whiskers twitched of their own accord when he was deep in thought; and how, when he believed his sons weren't paying attention, he stole glances as though framing pictures in his mind. He thought of his brothers: how Raphael changed the words to the Space Heroes theme song and sang it loudly—and badly—to irritate Leonardo, how Leonardo enacted revenge by replacing Raphael's liniment oil with Icy Hot, and how Michelangelo trumped them both with the culinary fiasco later dubbed, "The Noodle Incident." And then there was April. With her, ordinary moments blossomed into more. She was a rose in a concrete jungle; she was loveliness personified. When he first laid eyes on her, she kindled a fire in his heart. Initially, it was little more than a white-hot flame of attraction; but as he came to know her—to truly realize her virtues—it consumed him.
Karai mistakenly believed that entanglements of the heart were for the weak; little more than the sentimental distractions of doe-eyed dreamers. She thought those with nothing to lose were freer in battle, more willing to cross blurry ethical lines to complete their objective. What she didn't know—what she couldn't know—was that the opposite was true. If there was a power stronger than freedom, it was love. Those bound to others by love—those with someone to protect—were the most dangerous because they stood to lose something greater than themselves.
When she ordered her men to search the rooftop, she believed herself victorious—that with little effort Donatello would be laid at her feet like a sacrificial lamb. Perhaps if he had no reason to keep fighting, such an end would have come. But the fire in his heart burned bright. As her soldiers stepped forth, the lamb they sought shed its cloak of wool and revealed itself a wolf.