Things were worse.
A constant watch remained over Raphael. He shivered and sweat as his body was attacked with an ever present fever. It was lucky if he woke once within 24 hours, and if he did, his eyes only remained open for a handful of minutes.
His family did all that they could to keep him comfortable.
He was rapidly losing weight. He had stopped eating four days ago, and his body was weak, anemic, and frail.
When he did wake, he could barely talk. His words came out in whispers, hardly audible, and the whispers took more strength than he had. It normally ended in a coughing fit that left tiny flecks of blood around the corners of his mouth. He would then collapse in exhaustion, all energy gone.
He was dissolving; eaten from the inside out.
Donatello had yet to leave his room. He worked relentlessly through the hours. His eyes burned. His energy was low. But he couldn't stop.
He was close.
He was always close.
But, he wasn't close enough.
He was missing one small thing, yet he didn't know what it was. And he was beginning to second guess himself.
He had cured the venom, but without that missing ingredient, the treatment would destroy Raph's body. He would kill his brother.
He was running out of options.
And, he was running out of time.
It was late.
The Lair was quiet except for the small sounds coming from Donatello's room. His desk lamp cast a glow that caused eerie shadows to appear around his room. Don's hands shook from exhaustion as he used an eye dropper to drip some amber colored liquid into a Petrie dish. He held his breath as he pressed his eye to his microscope.
Instantly, his heart dropped. He released his breath in one solid whoosh.
He gripped the tube that held the amber liquid. It shook violently in his hand, and for a brief moment, he almost uncharacteristically hurled it across the room in frustration. Closing his eyes, he continued to grip the container until his fingers hurt. The pain seemed to bring him back to reality, and almost instantly, his anger cooled.
Placing the cylinder on the desk, Donnie sat back and pressed the heels of his hands deeply into his eyes. His head pounded. Leaning back, he stretched the sore muscles of his back. Sighing, he pushed himself away from his desk and slowly stood. His legs protested as he straightened them.
Unconsciously, he began to pace the floor of his bedroom. His movements were stiff—almost robotic—as his muscles were subjected to the unfamiliar exertion. As he moved, his mind wandered. His eyes closed as he rifled through the experiments that didn't work and then moved to the limited options that he had left. But his thoughts were muddled. He couldn't think straight. He couldn't remember what chemicals he had tried anymore. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to think scientifically.
He had a problem.
There was a solution.
But what was it?
And was he resourceful enough to find it?
Abruptly, Donatello stopped pacing and opened his eyes. He stood about an arm's length away from his bedroom door. Glancing over his shoulder, he let his eyes sweep over the messy disarray that covered his desk. Glass tubes, Petrie dishes, and various containers of chemicals littered the surface of the desk and the floor around it. Bringing his head back around, he stared at the closed door in front of him.
He bit his lip as thoughts flooded into his mind. He tried to put them into some sort of order. Again, looking back at his desk and then to the door, he felt his heartbeat thud heavily inside of his plastron. He had never felt so nervous to leave his room.
Yet, as he looked back at his desk again, he realized that the answers he needed were not going to come to him at his desk. Instead, he needed to allow his mind to clear. He needed a breath of fresh air. And, he needed to see someone else.
He needed to see Raphael.
His fingers shook slightly as he reached out for the doorknob. Gently, he grasped it, the metal cool under his fingertips. Swallowing heavily, he turned it slowly until he heard it click softly. Taking one final glance over his shoulder, he took in a deep breath and released it before quietly pulling the door open.
Darkness hit his eyes. The Lair was completely silent with the sounds of sleep. It was cooler out there, and Donnie couldn't help but close his eyes momentarily and breathe the fresher air deep into his lungs. Releasing it silently, he opened his eyes and took a hesitant step out into the hallway.
Noiselessly, his feet padded softly down the hallway, as he moved forward and away from his room. He moved slowly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Finally, he reached Raphael's door. Shutting his eyes, he took a deep breath and attempted to steady his frantic heartbeat.
He felt like he was going to be sick.
He felt like a failure, and Raphael was living proof of it.
But, he needed to see him.
Cautiously, he gripped the doorknob. He turned it, pushed the door open, and slid into the bedroom in one solid, silent motion. Holding the doorknob on the inside of the door, Donnie leaned against his hand, allowing his bodyweight to gently push the door shut once more. He closed his eyes in the heat of the room, afraid of what he was going to see. So, instead he listened.
He could hear Raphael's labored breathing. The steadiness was broken occasionally by a series of small coughs and shudders.
Tears pricked at the corners of Donnie's closed eyes, threatening to spill out if any opportunity were given.
Still pressing his shell against the door, he could hear the soft, rhythmic breathing of his brother and, without even opening his eyes, Donnie knew that it was Leonardo. Matching his breathing to Leo's, Donnie took some of his leader's strength and calmed himself slightly before opening his eyes.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see Leonardo sitting in a chair near Raphael's bed. His head drooped slightly as he slept, his hands folded meticulously across his plastron. Donnie moved his eyes from his oldest brother and could see the darkened shape of Raphael on the bed. Without getting any nearer, he could see how small he appeared, even under the mound of thick, heavy blankets.
Donnie's heart broke.
Raphael was always the strong one: physically, mentally, and emotionally. He prided himself in his strength. And now, to see him look so tiny, so minuscule, so ill . . . it was uncharacteristic. And Donnie couldn't help but feel the invisible monster that was guilt pressing down on him.
He took a few steps forward, still lost in his thoughts, but as he got closer, moving his feet became more and more difficult. He looked back at the door, contemplating just turning around and leaving.
"Hey." The voice was scratchy, thickly cloaked with sleep
Donnie swung his head around. Leo was slowly waking, rubbing his sore neck warily with his hand. Donnie cleared his throat quietly before answering. "Hey."
"What time is it?" Leo was sitting upright now, rolling his shoulders in a deep stretch.
Donnie shrugged his shoulders and then quickly realized that in the poor light, Leo probably couldn't see the slight movement. "Um . . . I don't know."
"Oh." Leo sat in silence for awhile; taking in his surroundings as he sleepily rubbed one eye with a balled fist. Suddenly, he turned his head back at Donnie. "Did you find something?" His voice held such excitement that Donnie almost broke down in tears right then and there.
Attempting to swallow the thick lump that was quickly forming, he cleared his throat once more. "Um . . .no."
Leo's shoulders slumped momentarily, but soon he regained his composure and turned toward his smart younger brother once more. "So, what's going on?"
His voice was patient and kind.
Just like Leo . . .
And at the present moment, Donnie found it to be condescending, and loathed its tone.
Donnie looked down at the floor, angry at the tears that were tickling the corners of his eyes. They didn't even touch his cheeks, and he could already tell that they were hot and angry.
Another sign of his failure.
He heard the slight squeak of the rocking chair as Leo pushed himself vertical. Without looking up, he could hear that Leo was walking toward him, with his soft, patient footsteps. His eyes continued to burn a hole into the floor until he could smell Leo's natural, simple, fragrance. As usual, Leo was tolerant, allowing Donnie the time to bring his head up. He stood close, but not too close; never touching.
Taking a deep breath, Donnie finally turned his head and attention toward his oldest brother and was suddenly grateful for the darkness, so Leo couldn't see how wet his eyes were.
"Um . . ." His voice was thick, and didn't sound right inside of his head. He swallowed briefly and tried again. "I don't really know. I-I just needed to—"
He broke off, his throat too thick to talk.
Leo placed a hand gently on his shoulder and Donnie wished the he would just go away.
"You needed to see him, didn't you?"
Donnie nodded, and this time, he didn't care if Leo couldn't see it in the murkiness of the room.
Leo sighed heavily through his nose as realization set in. "Of course you did . . . ." It was a quiet remark, almost inaudible, and Donnie didn't know if it were meant for him, or simply Leonardo thinking out loud.
Finally, after a moment of silence, Leo squeezed Donnie's shoulder, a firm but loving gesture. "You take all the time you need, okay bro?"
Once again, Donnie only nodded, finding it too difficult yet to speak.
Another gentle squeeze to his shoulder and in his mind, Donnie could almost see the small smile on Leo's lips. "I'll be right outside if you need anything."
And then he was gone and Donnie was faced with his greatest fear: Being alone with his dying brother.
His brother who was dying because of him.
Because he couldn't find the answer.
Donnie waited for the sound of the door being pulled quietly shut before he turned back toward the bed in the middle of the room. Taking a hesitant step forward, he tried to stop the butterflies that fluttered relentlessly in the pit of his stomach.
Reaching the rocking chair that Leonardo had been occupying, he stepped in front of it, reached his hands behind him to the armrests, and pulled it up to his legs, closer to the bed. He eased himself slowly, wearily into a sitting position and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He stared at Raphael's body on the bed until his eyes began to blur with threatening tears.
He brought his hand up to his face and hastily wiped at his eyes. He rubbed his face from his forehead, to his eyes, and finally down to his mouth. Leaning his mouth against his hand, he forced himself to breath as he stared blankly at the floor.
He didn't know how long he sat there, but finally, he removed his hand from his face and let it drop limply between his legs. Taking a breath, he moved his eyes back up to his brother.
Raph lay unmoving, breathing heavily; the sound deafening around the silent room. His shoulders and arms were above the blankets, lying straight down his body. His hands, always so strong, were weak looking as they limply lay next to his thighs. He looked so different; so small and fragile. Already, in this short period of time, the definition of his muscles was beginning to fade, causing him to look like a completely different person.
Shakily, Donnie reached forward and placed his hand gently over Raphael's. Raph's hand was cold. It was dry and chapped and felt rough under Donnie's touch.
Rhythmically, Donnie began to rub his fingers lightly over the top of Raph's hand. He sat in silence, his mind reeling, as he took in the feel of his brother. With each pass over Raph's knuckles, Donnie felt the pressure of his guilt pressing down even more. He licked his lips, tears brimming.
"Hey." A cracked whisper was all the he could muster. He squeezed his brother's hand and cleared his throat. "I know it's been awhile—I-I mean, I've been meaning to-" his words caught as a single tear fell from his eye. He sniffed, looking down at the hand that he was holding and tried once more. "I've been meaning to come and see you."
He couldn't fight the tears any more. Silently, they fell from his eyes, soaking his face and dropping onto their clasped hands. "I've tried. Oh, God, Raph, I've tried so hard. I've tried everything. And now . . . I-I can't remember what I've done. I don't have any more answers. I-" he swallowed thickly, the chair rocking deeply. "I just don't know what else to do. Tell me what to do."
Raph's chest gently rising and falling was his only reply.
He was sobbing now. He gripped Raph's hand with strength he forgot he had and fell forward off of the chair, so he was kneeling beside the bed. Bringing his other hand up, he placed it over their intertwined hands and buried his face deeply into their connected flesh.
"I need you, Raph. We need you. Please . . . just tell me what to do. Tell me how I can help you. I need to help you . . . " He spoke into the blankets, his voice muffled as he pleaded with his brother; pleaded with God; pleaded with anyone that would listen.
His sobs echoed harshly around the room. He squeezed his eyes shut, unable to speak any more. Freeing his hands, he fisted them tightly in the blankets around Raph's arms. They were drenched with his tears.
Donnie felt gentle pressure sweep across the back of his head. He looked up. Tears heavily clouded his vision, but he was still able to see dull eyes turned toward him. "Raph?" Sitting straight up, Donnie fumbled for Raph's hand again.
A weak smile crossed Raphael's face. "Hey, bro." His whispered voice was breathy and weak. He wheezed slightly as he inhaled. "Long time, no—" He broke off as his body was attacked with violent coughing.
Terrified, Donatello immediately pulled himself up onto the bed, next to Raph. Breathing hard, his hands traveled lightly down Raphael's neck and ran over his collar bone until the coughing subsided.
"—see . . . ." It was a strangled word, and Donnie couldn't help but chuckle lightly at Raph's typical stubbornness.
Yet, as Don brought his hand up again and lovingly caressed the side of Raph's face, the seriousness of the situation came rushing back like a crashing wave, and his lightheartedness was instantly replaced with the familiar feelings of guilt and fear.
Patiently, Raphael looked up at his brother, allowing him the time he needed.
"I know it's been awhile, pal . . . ." Donatello's voice was soft as he choked out the words. It was one of the hardest things he had ever had to say to his brother. "But, I've had to work . . . God, I've been working so hard."
He broke off, and Raph's eyes continued their steady, gentle gaze. Feeling the tears once more, Donatello inhaled sharply and turned his head, unable to look at his brother anymore. He stared absently at a spot on one of the blankets.
Weakly, Raph squeezed Donnie's hand, making it even more difficult for Donnie to turn his attention back. "I know you have."
It was no louder than a whisper, yet the words drove a steak directly through Don's heart. Choking back his sobs, he turned to look at his older brother again, tears glistening in his eyes. "But I haven't worked hard enough . . ." He broke off again as the realization of his failure hit him like a ton of bricks. "I can't find the answer."
Falling forward, he buried his face into Raph's plastron. He clutched the front of Raph's shell in a viselike grip as tears fell from his eyes and pooled in Raph's collarbone.
Raphael slowly reached a hand up and laid it across Donatello's neck. With his remaining strength, he attempted to console him. "Shhh . . . it's okay. You did everything you could. It was just meant-" he paused to inhale painfully, "meant to be this way."
Donatello looked up, shaking his head violently. "No—no, please. Don't talk like that. We need you."
Raphael's eyes were closed now, exhaustion evident on his face. A small smile played on his lips. "You'll be fine. You'll all be fine . . . . You always are . . . ."
"I can find it. I can find the answer and make you better." Donnie was near hysterics, not even bothering with the tears that fell freely from his eyes.
"I know, Brainiac . . . I trust you." His voice dropped to an even quieter whisper and Donatello had to place his ear directly over Raph's mouth just to hear him.
The word was like a red hot dagger being plunged into his back.
"But, how? How can you trust me?" He laid his head back down on Raph's chest. He asked the question aloud, although he wasn't sure if it was for his own thoughts or if he was really expecting an answer.
"Because I love you."
It was the last whispered thing that Raphael was able to muster before exhaustion overtook his body.
Donatello heard the fragmented statement as his head lay on his brother's chest. Knowing that Raphael had finally slipped back into unconsciousness, he opted not to move. Instead, he was contented to cling to him and listen to his weak heartbeat as those last words echoed in his head.
Because I love you . . .