Missed Steps

BY : Ghost-of-a-Chance
Category: +S through Z > Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Dragon prints: 44
Disclaimer: I don't own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or any of its characters or affiliates, Lemony Snickets' "Horseradish" or Emily Dickinson's poetry, or any referenced passages. I make no money from this.

Previously posted elsewhere as part of "The Gallery of Memories." This takes place in the distant future, about ten years after Amber first revived in Kimber's body. There are spoilers here for future events in "A New Lease on Life." Amber and Glen's Scots♦ will be defined at the end.

Warning: here be munchkins. Prepare for cavities.

Suggested Listening: Carrie Underwood "What I Never Knew I Always Wanted," Savage Garden "Truly, Madly, Deeply"

Missed Steps

Many years ago – sixteen years ago, in fact – a woman named Amber O'Brien died with only the regret that she never found a love worth living for. That was the official story but the truth was much more complicated: she found that love as a child in dreams of a boy from another world but the connection was doomed from the start. Two people from two different realities could never meet outside of dreams…at least, so they thought until Amber died and was given a new lease on life in his reality. Sixteen years, Amber considered with a wide, crooked grin, was really not that long after all—not when one considered she left behind the year 2011 and awoke in 2016. Ten years, now that was a much more impressive number to her. After all, a little over ten years ago she and Donatello pledged themselves to one another and began a new life together.

After over a decade the Lair was still very much the same as the day she first arrived there, if a little more spread out, expanded on, and improved. There were some changes - the kitchen was cramped nowadays what with all the extra mouths at mealtimes and the home's upkeep was more time-consuming. There were always repairs to be done, too. Things broke, structures weakened, little hands found new ways to injure themselves on supposedly safe surfaces…hence why Amber sat plopped down on a stool in the pantry doorway, screwdriver in hand, finishing up the install of hardware for a long-overdue door.

A wheezing nasal giggle drew her attention from the latch to the culprit responsible—a young boy barely six who had a naughty habit of climbing the pantry shelves to reach the cookie stash and getting stuck at the top. Byron Isaac, or "Zack," was her little miracle—well, one of them at least.

At first glance he seemed purely human—a little oddly formed with unusual proportions, granted, but he wasn't obviously a mutant. Still, anyone who looked closely enough could see the truth. His skin didn't match either parents'. The color was a smooth olive tone—paler and browner than Donnie's skin but cooler in color than a normal human could boast without terminal illness or a steady diet of pennies. Even at six years old his family could see that he would have his father's lean build and his impressive height. He had a flat, wide nose, chubby cheeks, full lips, small, flat ears, and an adorable gap-toothed grin that practically matched Donnie's as a child but with crooked teeth—and that was saying nothing of the most obvious trait. She shook her head at the irony, her grin only widening. He got her grey-green eyes, ears, and overbite but Donnie's thick, rough skin and complete inability to grow hair. Even now, hunched over with a hand-whittled brain-teaser puzzle and nearly cocooned in his favorite green afghan, his bare head was carefully covered with a matching knit cap.

"Check." Amber followed the proclamation to the man sitting at Zack's left. Straddling an old wooden chair, arms crossed across the backrest, Donnie stared down his opponent fairly exuding the sort of confidence that never failed to send her brain straight to Gutterville. Despite knowing he wasn't the only male in the kitchen who could pick up her 'screw-me' pheromones she couldn't resist a thorough once-over. Donnie's opponent scowled, grumbled something thick with brogue, and studied the blank pieces on the board for a way out. Unfortunately for Glen Devon, Blind Chess was much more complex than traditional chess, and Donatello wasn't an easy opponent at either.

Amber's Gran'Da never fully recovered his health after developing pneumonia in the first year after his granddaughter's death. Every winter he grew weaker and wearier, and his family worried he wasn't much longer for their world. All that changed when Splinter reminded them of a rather obvious fact—every year in Amber's new reality was marked by two in her old one. Not too long after the family was first reunited from beyond the grave, the eldest mutant extended a standing invitation to his son's future grandfather-in-law—anytime, any day, for any length of time. After a short while of getting to know one another, the two were decided: the stay was permanent. Living in this new, slower-paced world was extending Glen's lifespan and being away from Missouri's harsh winters and humid summers was much easier on his weakened lungs. …and, of course, being out from under his daughter's roof, away from his son-in-law, and in the company of his beloved granddaughter and another similar in age, was a drastic improvement in his stress levels, temperament, and blood pressure.

The situation couldn't last forever—Glen would eventually pass on from this life to the next—but in the meantime, he had only one thing to say: "Hah!" he barked into his tumbler of fine single-malt. "Tak' tha'!" The taunt followed a rather well-executed move involving swiping Donnie's Bishop with a Knight. There was just one problem with that move…

"Not so fast," the mutant warned glancing pointedly at the piece Glen just moved. "Check it." Glen glared in open suspicion but obediently lifted the Knight he just moved…and swore a guttural Scots blue-streak only he and Amber understood. All the pieces on the board were pale unstained wood—unidentifiable by camp when upright—but every piece in each 'camp' was marked on the bottom with a dab of black or white paint. The Knight he used, like the Bishop he captured, was a black piece…and he was playing white. This twist was what made Blind Chess so tricky—players had to keep track of all their pieces at every move and there were consequences if they made a mistake.

"Aw, soak yer heid," Glen groused shoving his small pile of captured pieces toward Donnie. The genius hummed thoughtfully as the other returned the captured Bishop, contemplating his options, then replaced the pieces and returned a black pawn to the board…blocking his previous check on Glen's king. Glen smirked behind his thick beard and mustache, grey-blue eyes glinting, but said nothing of the concession.

A faint raspy noise split the silence in what used to be the barracks; Amber stilled, her every sense fixing on the small room just off the hallway. Sure enough, another cough followed, then a bout of sharp hacking and wheezing. The three at the table turned to her as one but she was already gone from their sight.

Amber tapped softly at the partially-open door; her instincts told her she was needed, that the occupant might not be able to answer her, but experience told her barging into the room was a definite no-go. "Emily?" No answer. She tapped at the door again, this time a little louder. "I'm comin' in, okay?" Not even one foot inside the small lavender and lace-decked bedroom and Amber could hear the young one's ailing lungs rattling; the underground, alas, wasn't the best place for a child with a cold. "Aw, Emmy," she murmured brushing the child's soft ginger curls off of her brow. The heat coming off that skin made her wince. "My poor lil' lahss…are you feelin' even a tad better?"

"N-N-ho," Emily croaked. "Throat h-hurts…"

"A cold'll do that, Em." It was the truth but one which wouldn't reassure anyone facing it, much less a child of six years. She stepped away to collect a glass bottle, medicine dropper, and small carton of some fruit-flavored drink from the dresser; after a glance at the sparkly blue clock on the wall, she turned to scrutinize her daughter's appearance. Emily Jane's olive-toned skin was even less brown and more verdant than Isaac's but now it was far too pale; sweat shimmered on her little round face from the fever and exertion of coughing. Further evidence of her struggle ringed her remarkable hazel eyes in puffy shadows, that evidence all-the-more visible without her purple-rimmed glasses. Her mind made up, Amber deftly drew another dose from the syrup bottle and popped open the juice box. "Still, you're not coughin' as badly today, an' you were able to handle some soup earlier—it may not seem it, but you are gettin' better, Lil' Scribs." She didn't mention the fact that Isaac was already mostly over his cold. It seemed he inherited their father's impressive immune system while Emily got stuck with her weaker defenses.

"N-hot fast en-hou—" Halfway through the word the tickle in her throat struck again and she delved into another hacking fit. It was silly to hope for anyone to recover from a bad cold overnight but Amber couldn't help but wish for just that—every moment Emily and Isaac were sick, even with a common cold, was a moment too long. How did her own mother manage to stay positive and pushy all the times she got sick as a child? "N-N-ho, duh' wan'—"

"Aw, wheesht now," Amber chided mid-whine and helped her daughter sit up. "I know, this medicine tastes somethin' awful but it is helping—if you don't take it, you won't get better, hm?" Emily shot her mother a pucker-lipped, openly suspicious glare and Amber had to bite her lip to keep from laughing; it reminded her of her mother, Ginny, facing down a car salesman promising a low finance rate. "C'mon, Sweets, your Da blended this just for you an' your brother—it'll hurt his feelings if you won't take it." The scowl weakened, Em's little lips quivering just the slightest bit; she was, after all, Daddy's little princess no matter how much the nickname supposedly embarrassed her. "If you take it without arguing, I'll have Uncle Mikey bring you some orange sherbet later, okay?"

The magic words had an immediate effect, though Amber couldn't be sure whether the winning combo was orange sherbet or Uncle Mikey. Both were equally likely considering Emily's sore, scratchy throat and Michelangelo's 'professional fun-uncle' attitude. Even after silently downing the cough syrup, though, the girl pulled a gruesome face and gulped down the juice in one breath to rid herself of the after-taste. As she fought off nausea from the foul-tasting cough syrup, Emily turned to a favorite past time. "Mum…why y-hou…call me…il'—"

"Lil' Scribs?" Amber finished when her daughter started coughing again. "We've told you that story so many times, Sweets. How aren't you tired of it yet?" Her answer was a shy smile and a lopsided shrug. Children weren't as prone to growing bored of the same tales over and over, as evidenced by the thrice-replaced binding on Isaac's favorite storybook; parents always tired of telling a story long before their children tired of hearing it. "When your Da an' I found out you an' your brother were on the way, we knew we needed to find the perfect names for you. We needed names that would tell you just how special you are to us, give you room to grow, an' remind you of what really matters in life." Emily scooted her little bottom over on the bed to give her mother room; the moment Amber was seated the little redhead curled up against her mother's side.

"Your Da chose Isaac an' Jane," Amber continued, petting Emily's shoulder-length curls. "Your brother is named for a brilliant scientist Da greatly admires, an' who made great discoveries in his field. Your middle name comes from a strong, clever woman whose stories far outlast her; her name is Jane Austen. I chose Byron and Emily—your brother's name is for a poet my late Gran' loved, an' you're named for another poet—Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites."

"B-hut wh-hy Scribs?" Emily piped up; a gentle pop to the tip of her nose set her giggling, although with a pronounced wheeze in her lungs.

"There are few adults who've never heard any of Dickinson's poetry," Amber explained, "but beautiful as it is, the poetry's only part of her story. Like you, Miss Dickinson lived most of her life apart from the rest of the world but she was happy. She didn't need the world to love her so long as she loved herself." Granted, Emily Dickinson was a hermit and may have wanted to socialize more but the message of self-acceptance and confidence was just what the little hybrid needed.

"As for the nickname," Amber continued with a crooked smile, "Miss Dickinson had a funny way of writin' poetry: she wrote some of her best poems on envelopes an' sent them to friends an' family with letters. Her writing wasn't the neatest—more scribbles than handwriting—" Emily's shadow-hung eyes brightened in realization; even after countless retellings this part of the story always excited her most. "The messy handwriting might make people think she was plain, simple, an' nothin' so special. If they look beyond the writing, read the lines behind the scribbles, the truth is obvious: she was a beautiful soul with a beautiful mind, an' she accomplished great things in her time." Another fudge, alas—Emily Dickinson's moment in the sun didn't come until her time on earth was over, but it all happened because the right person saw past the scribbles and seclusion. Amber let the half-truth roll of her shoulders like a promise of Santa's yearly visit, again rationalizing that the message was what mattered, and she summed up the tale the same way she always did. "You're a beautiful soul, Sweets, with an equally beautiful mind; not everyone will understand you because of how truly special you are—"

"C-huz my Da's a mun…uh…h-he's a…a moo…" Her nose wrinkled in confusion, trying to recall the word she heard from Uncle Raphie last week.

"He's special," Amber corrected gently; she suspected the word was mutant but if Emily heard it from Raph during one of his self-disgust-fueled-turtle-tantrums it might also have been monster. That was one word Amber hoped the twins would never hear attached to their family, especially to them. "Da, your uncles, an' yer Gran'da Splinter are all special—they're not human on the outside but on the inside, where it matters, they're more human than most of New York. They aren't easily accepted by others because they look different, but that doesn't make them ugly—different isn't always bad." Emily's face fell, as always saddened by the realization that her father, uncles, and grandfather may never be accepted by the world. "You know what your Da said the first time he saw you?" Amber prompted to redirect that thinking; Emily shook her head, hazel eyes hopeful, and Amber repeated Donnie's words to the letter. "She's beautiful. You an' your brother don't look just like him, Em, an' you don't look just like me—you're each a wonderful mix of both of us. You an' your brother might not always be accepted by others because you look different, but to us, an' to anyone else who really matters, you're perfect, inside and out."

As always, the affirmation triggered Emily's shy nature and she burrowed into her mother's side to hide her blush and sheepish smile. Amber said nothing—she just petted Emily's hair and let her process the story and promise all over again. Normally, she'd recover quickly and want to hear more—stories, songs, poetry, anything went in these quiet moments. Normally, however, her daughter wasn't weak and weary from fighting a cold; for that reason, it came as no surprise when Amber felt the little body tucked into her side start to sag and slide down toward the mattress. She carefully extricated herself from the tiny lump leaning on her and laid Emily down to rest some more. As she tucked the blanket around the girl's shoulders and smoothed her frizzy hair away from her cartilage-shielded internal ears, she found a pair of light-refractive hazel-green eyes peering up at her. "Wu-hun more?" Amber hesitated. "…please?" That did it—how could her heart ever allow her to resist the puppy-dog eyes?

"Just one," she agreed softly, "then you need to rest a bit, a'right?" Emily gave a sluggish nod and squirmed into a more comfortable position in the blankets as Amber settled on the edge of the mattress again. "This poem was written by the woman you were named for," she revealed gently carding her fingers through her daughter's thick hair, "Emily Dickinson." She took a moment to collect herself, gather her breath, and pull the lines from her memories, then recited in a slow, careful murmur.

" 'Hope' is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –"

A gentle sigh broke the silent pause; dimming hazel eyes blinked slowly. Amber momentarily choked, her voice stolen by the sweetness of the moment, then continued softer than before.

"And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –"

This time the breath was a yawn, partly smothered in a frilly purple pillowcase. Amber slowed and softened her words, petting Emily's riotous hair instead of playing with it. "I've heard it in the chilliest land," she professed to the darkening eyes sliding closed, "and on the strangest Sea…yet…never…in Extremity…" She paused—a soft, wheezy snore answered her silence—a crooked grin split her lips. She ducked to leave a light kiss on the rust-colored hair. "…always, and entirely," she whispered altering the words and the message, "my lil' girl you'll be."

Mere minutes after she left the kitchen, Amber breezed back through the utility room again. "Hey, Hon," Donatello greeted his mate, "how's—" The question fell flat when he got only a watery smile and a squeeze to the shoulder on her way out of the kitchen. The genius twisted in his seat just in time to see her duck into the Lab and switch on the lights.

"Yer lahss is daein' jus' fine," Glen remarked, pointedly arching one grizzled eyebrow. "Hawd yer fashin'."

When they first met—nay, even for the first couple years of the two men's acquaintance—Donnie wouldn't have understood even half of what the elder said. After he moved in, the two immediately began interacting regularly thanks to Amber's meddling. Thanks to that the genius was learning to 'talk the talk' – or, at least, how to interpret it. "I know," he admitted tugging at his already stiff neck. "It's just a cold. She's going to be fine and logically there's no reason to worry or fuss over something so small but—"

"She's yer lil' lahss, Son," Glen countered with a smirk. "Logic has naethin' fur tae do wi' it." Donnie nodded in silent agreement—all his prized logic and rationality went right out the window when the twins or their mother were involved. Curious how they could be his Achilles Heel and give him strength all at the same time… "Save a' 'at worryin' fur when she brings hame 'er firs' boyfrien'," the elder added with a smirk. The genius nodded mutely, eyes locked on the lab's open door; when it hit him what Glen said, though, he lurched around so hard he knocked into the table and toppled half the chessboard.

"Oh, Hell no!" he blurted, eyes practically bulging. At his right, Isaac burst out laughing at him and quickly devolved into wheezing snorts and SHNERKS. "No boyfriends! Not gonna happen, not over my dead—" An unexpected impact—a tossed pawn—hit him square in the forehead right over the bridge of his glasses. He physically cut the threat off with his teeth in an audible snap. Glen's smug grin sucked all the wind out of his sails—a favor he returned with an accusing glare as he worked to right the fallen chess pieces. After how many boyfriends Emily's mother had before they met in life, who could blame him for being wary of boys around their daughter?

"What's wrong with Mum?" The two adults turned to Isaac in open confusion; how did he get from cackling to concern so quickly? Donnie blinked. He smelled Mikey's influence. "She's gone quiet again…is she okay?" Donnie craned his neck to see around the wall of cabinets, searching for some explanation. Amber was, indeed, quiet—too quiet—and after so many years of fighting her demons along with her, Donnie knew it was happening for a reason.

"I'm sure she's fine, Zack," he reassured Isaac but he didn't really feel the smile he wore. "She's probably just thinking too loudly again." He glanced over at Glen—the elder gave a slow, pointed nod—he turned back to his son, sliding off his chair. "I'll be right back," he promised, heading toward the hall. "Keep an eye on Grahn'Dee for me, okay?" Predictably, Glen grumbled under his breath about his son-in-law using the kids' nickname for him but aimed a sly wink at the already grinning boy. The moment Donnie was out of sight and earshot, Glen reached for the chessboard and smoothly turned it around a full 180 degrees. The genius' black pieces—and field advantage—were now switched with his few remaining white pieces. "…an' naow," Glen stage-whispered to the laughing, wheezing, snorting six-year-old, "we wait."

In the silent Lab, Amber stared through the bookshelves lining one wall, wondering just how she found herself in that situation yet again. No, that didn't quite fit. She knew why she was in the lab—she came to find her favorite volume of Emily Dickinson's poetry on the thought that Emily might enjoy 'reading it' with her after her nap. How she wound up frozen in front of the bookshelves wasn't the question at all. The real question was why, after so many years, she still froze upon realizing the book wasn't on the shelves and never had been.

Ten years had elapsed since her new life began—ten long, confusing, heart-warming years of managing the healing scars from the death that led her to a new life. After ten years moments like this were nothing new but every time, they never failed to catch her off-guard. It was always something simple, so harmless she never thought to guard herself against an impending shock. The children asked about her life before she met their father, prompting her to search under the bed for a photo album. She heard the tail-end of a forgotten song on the radio and dug around on her computer for a digital file from a ripped CD. On movie nights, the brothers and their mates couldn't decide on a movie suitable for any young eyes watching with them and she hurried to find the perfect family-friendly classic on her shelves.

Every time she fully expected to find what she sought, exactly where she sought it; every time she was suddenly hit with the reality that what she searched for was never there to begin with. There were no photo albums under the bed she shared with her mate—the albums she remembered were all stashed in a footlocker under the bed in her old house. The computer she searched wasn't her rusty trusty '04 Toshiba dinosaur—it was a newer, higher quality laptop Donnie scavenged and refurbished for her without ever being asked. (He claimed Kimber's computer was 'older than Raph's turtle-tantrums and even less cooperative' but she suspected he just wanted to spoil her with some him-exclusive awesomeness.) The movie never existed in this reality, nor the shelves she kept it on along with the rest of her disks and tapes. Now the story was the same. That much-loved volume of poetry was gone with her old life; it fell apart with the storm-driven collapse of her old home and wouldn't be found on the bookshelves of this one.

All of those things—those pointless, silly, petty possessions that mattered none in the grand scheme of things—they were long gone with her old home, the home she left behind with her old life and old world. It was so ridiculous…that sudden moment of comprehension never failed to catch her off-guard. She didn't mourn her lost belongings; she simply dreaded recalling her death after having momentarily forgotten it.

Once, she sought to describe to Donatello the fallout after a panic attack, building off the words of another describing the death of a loved one: "It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark," the writer explained, "and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things."The description was accurate she considered when concerning the death of another. Her situation was entirely different. This feeling was like rushing down the stairs in total darkness, realizing she counted one step short, and finding thin air beneath her outstretched sole.

A moment of weightlessness followed by the sickening pull of gravity…the expectation of solid ground and the threat of an unfeeling void…the certainty of a measured descent interrupted by the dread of an impending crash landing… Amber shuddered, cringing from the sick, twisting feeling of adrenaline flooding her bloodstream and turning her stomach. Learning of another's death was like counting a step too many; being reminded of her own death was counting a step too short and landing in a heap at the foot of the stairs.

A wrought iron bench dusted with pollen—a stately Yellowwood tree in full bloom—this place is for the dead, so why does it make her feel so alive?

She forcibly shook off the memory, noting with pride that it didn't sicken like so many of its brethren once did. 'This rainy day, too, will pass.'

"Amber?" The unexpected address startled her, but not nearly as much as it once would have. Donnie hovered in the open doorway, right hand still poised at the frame from knocking. "You alright, Honey?"

Amber gave him a small smile and nodded. "I will be," she promised with a shrug. He studied her silently, analyzing the smallest tells—from the precise compression of her developing crows' feet to the balance of blush and pallor in her cheeks, he always read her like a picture book. As always, he found the answers he was looking for…and right now, what he found was just what she always tried to spare the others. Once he would have pushed her for details, pled for an explanation and promised to take care of her, to fix her broken soul. Of course, during that time he would have found her cowering into the foot-well of his desk or drowning out an onslaught of memories with the pain of fingernails gouging her wrist. They were both well beyond that point—years beyond it—and they both knew it well.

He glanced out the door for witnesses or eavesdroppers. After a steady nod and thumbs-up at the concerned blonde and greener-than-usual brother watching from one of the old red tweed sofas, he pushed the door closed behind him. "There," he smiled and held his arms open in invitation. "No one's watching and worrying—if you're not fine, you don't have to pretend to be."

Amber's eyes watered at the unspoken truths hidden behind his words but no tears fell. In their first year together, she and Donatello were complete idiots about each other and everyone suffered for it. They couldn't communicate effectively and suffered over every miscommunication. He couldn't let go of his determination to save her from her problems long enough to realize she didn't need saving. She was sure every attempt she made at recovery was hopeless, never realizing she wasn't putting enough effort in it, to begin with. They hid their fears, worries, and dreads, and every time one of them stumbled over those secrets they couldn't believe the other felt like they had to hide any of it. He fell prey to suspicion and fear, and she to tears and anger. Now…

Amber sighed, stepping into her mate's protective embrace and soaking in his calming scent. Rich, pungent coffee—sweet spices and a note of citrus from his soap—the chemical tang of clean engine oil and the salty musk of honest sweat—she breathed in every note, mentally connecting sweet memories to each one. Within moments the churning in her gut smoothed and her scattered thoughts settled.

Now, she silently admitted to herself, they were more. They were past all those silly, ridiculous vices that once kept them apart and they were only growing stronger. She knew she wasn't the same person she was before she died. Something was taken from her in the storm-wrecked school—something else was left in its place when she woke in the underground—but those somethings were only a small part of her. Now she knew that she was capable of withstanding much more than memories of a time long gone. Donatello knew he couldn't solve her problems for her. He couldn't make all the dark memories of her past life go away, set her broken soul, or make good on his age-old vow to fix her. Now he was confident such things weren't needed. She was strong enough to weather life's downpour; she'd dance in it, too, especially if he joined her.

The atmosphere changed without any of the crackling that once made his scales crawl. Her breathing patterns were even; the fingers clutching his shoulder and opposite suspender strap were steady and gentle. Following their lead he dipped his head to nuzzle the juncture of her bare neck, grinning when she tilted her head invitingly. With one gentle pass of his lips over her pulse-point, he knew she was in control again. After a couple more pecks and a teasing nip for good measure, he leaned back to meet her eyes. "Better?" he asked without asking; she answered without speaking.

"A missed step," she explained without emphasis or shame. He nodded in understanding, well remembering her analogy of the stairs and the original she derived it from. "It's not as bad as before, not nearly that bad. It just always hits so…so suddenly…an' it takes a while to sink in, every time."

"Your thoughts realign and your memories fall back into place," he countered to show he understood, "and while it sinks in, you're vulnerable all over again—you feel lost, trapped, maybe even frightened…" Though she nodded she grimaced as though in disagreement and backed out of his arms, both hands quickly wrapping around her gut. "Nauseous, too?"

"Never to this extent," she muttered staring down at her stomach in accusation, "not for years." Her face went blank—her eyes drifted out of focus—then just as suddenly she shook it off as though discarding a ridiculous notion. "I'll be alright, Dee," she promised and let go of her stomach to cup his cheek in her palm. The pad of her thumb brushed along the pattern of prominent scales scattered across his cheekbone like freckles; her eyes followed the path wistfully as if mapping out a new constellation in the skies.

"I know you will," he answered returning the gesture and raising her a playful snout-to-nose nudge. Not so long ago, a moment so tender as this one would have ended with a long, breathless bout of lovemaking. Donnie wouldn't have thought twice about locking the doors and heeding that call, whether by spreading her naked across his workbench or bending her over his desk—the only question would be whether he wanted to meticulously draw out every last breath and shudder or crash her brain all at once like an over-worked processor. As sweet as the present was, he certainly missed the spontaneity from the years before the twins.

Now, alas, they had a reason to dial it back—technically two reasons, and one of them sat at the kitchen table chatting with his great-grandfather. Isaac had no idea yet what it meant when he noticed that 'funny smell' around his parents but neither was willing to endure answering those questions just yet. He was only six, how could they possibly explain sex pheromones to him without permanently scarring him?! Heck, he still got grossed out anytime they kissed around him and they never went to the lengths Raph and Mercy always did. Those two really needed to come with a parental advisory warning or something. At least one of the twins was probably too congested to notice any lingering Eau-de-Horndog on her parents…and if not, she should still be sleeping.

Immediately upon arrival in Emily's little blue and purple room, Donatello was all-business. He deftly checked her temperature, lungs, pulse, and a mess of other vital signs and organs that didn't necessarily need monitoring. He wasn't just checking on one of his human 'sisters,' or trying to figure out why Raph was ralphing when Mercy was the pregnant one. Emily, she was his baby girl—he learned early on that there was practically nothing he wouldn't do for her, or for Isaac.

All the while he mentally charted their daughter's progress, Amber quietly wandered around the room needlessly tidying the already tidy room. Once the room was again neatened to her satisfaction and the vaporizer on the nightstand was verified still acceptably full, she turned to address her mate…only to find herself speechless and choking up.

It was like staring through a window to another time and another life, where an older, more bristly man tended to his flu-stricken granddaughter. In that life, Glen lounged in his massive old armchair with Amber curled up half on his lap and half on his shoulder. He read to her until she dozed off, then refused to move a muscle or let anyone move her until she woke of her own accord. In an adorable contrast, Donatello perched just on the edge of the twin bed, darkened eyes suspiciously shiny. He seemed unaware that he'd long since stopped petting Emily's hair, and even less aware that a few riotous red curls were wound around his fingers. The visual was too precious for words—Em always had him wrapped around her little fingers and the rust-colored locks tangled in his proved the feeling went both ways.

Without warning, a pair of bespectacled hazel eyes lifted to meet Amber's, brown in the shadowed room. "Was your hair ever this red?" he asked in a whisper.

"No," Amber admitted rubbing his bare shoulder, "but Gran's hair was to the day we lost'er…an' if Gran'Da's tales are true, my uncle's hair was nearly this bright before he faded to blond."

"Wh—he went blond? –but his hair's white!" Amber nodded, her eyes drawn to a fine trace of paler color gleaming from Emily's otherwise russet hair.

"I told you early greying runs in the family," she reminded him as they gingerly rose to their feet. "Red in your hair can fade fastest, but true redheads tend to fade to blonde long before they go white. Bart went white while he was still in high school…Mum says he wasn't much older than Emily when his red started fading." She thoughtfully tugged at the end of one waist-length braid shot with thick grey locks, considering the hint of strawberry blonde in her daughter's hair. "Her hair's always been so bright, so warm," she sighed, "the ultimate ginger. I hoped the early greying skipped over her since Mum only started blonding when I was in college. I didn't start seeing grey until I was a teenager…but...Em may end up white before she's old enough to drive."

For a moment the room was still, the silence only broken by the sniffles and faint wheezing of the still-sleeping child. Perhaps that silence was why the unexpected contact—a work-roughened hand cupping Amber's jaw and cheek—gave her a start. Donnie's eyes were soft and his smile even softer, almost humoring. "When you see yourself," he pointed out, "you tend to miss the brown and see only the grey. When Emmy's hair starts to fade, I'm sure you'll see the blonde more than the red…but if you break that pattern, you'll see something wonderful."

Amber glanced up at her grey-shot bangs—momentarily going cross-eyed from the awkward angle—then down at Emily's russet hair, and finally back up to Donnie's eyes. "I don't follow ya," she admitted. "What're ya haverin' 'bout now, Speccy?"

At first, he didn't answer—he just curled one arm around her soft waist and coaxed her close enough to share breath. He caught her right braid in his thick fingers and pointedly wound it around both. He ducked to inhale the lingering perfume of her shampoo. A few years back the generic coconut was slowly replaced by a more mature coconut oil and shea butter blend; he approved more every time he smelled it on her. "You see grey and blonde, Braids," he professed into the grey-streaked plait, "but me? I see silver and gold."

Silver and gold…someone, Amber decided with a decidedly wet sniffle, was intent on killing her with feels. Vividly she recalled the day Donatello first discovered her greying hair—the day she and Mercy started leeching out Kimber's punch-red dye and found the nest of coarse grey vipers infesting her otherwise brown hair. When the color started fading from her hair at nineteen, Amber quickly learned to despise it. She endured endless stares, unwanted advice for hiding the grey, and scornful looks when she decided dying it just wasn't worth the cost or trouble. Donatello took one look at those wire-coarse streaks and compared them to starlight in a scene straight out of a cheesy anime.

"Besides," he pointed out leading her back toward the kitchen, "remember what Issac got from me?" He cast a pointed glance up toward the ceiling with an entirely too innocent smile then playfully waggled his bare eyebrows at her. "Bald. He got bald." Amber couldn't contain her convulsive laughter; he barely dodged the teasing swat to his bicep.

"Oh, Dunnie, yer horrible!"

When Donnie and Amber stepped into the kitchen, all activity and sound suddenly cut off and the two occupants stared at them intently. The couple exchanged a suspicious glance, easily communicating their concerns without a single word. Amber checked Isaac's clothes for cookie crumbs but found only the bright, lip-gnawing grin of a child anticipating something hilarious. The genius, meanwhile, searched for clues from his crotchety chess partner but gave no sign of his thoughts. Finding no reason for suspicion Amber shrugged it off, put the kettle on to boil for some Echinacea tea, and set to emptying the dishwasher. On his way back to the table Donnie paused to teasingly ruffle the soft yarn blanketing Isaac's scalp. The boy squirmed, yanked his cap down over his ears, and giggled a protest at the teasing almost-noogie; the moment Donnie took his seat again Zack hop-scooted his stool closer anyway.

"Weel?" Glen reminded dryly as the boy snuggled up against his father's side. "I's still yer turn." It was a challenge, Donnie realized with a smirk—a challenge he'd gladly accept. His eyes dropped to the board, quickly taking in the locations of each remaining piece and their proximity the rest. Never taking his eyes off the board, he reached out to a seemingly random pawn, tapping the rounded top in a show of consideration. The smug grin in Glen's eyes fizzled out when the genius returned the taunting stare over his glasses. He shifted to a piece on the exact opposite side of the board, flashed the rook's black dot at his opponent, and replaced the piece right in the kill zone of the nearby king. Glen visibly deflated, seeming to sag from his faded hair to his stark white mutton-chops; he repeatedly glanced from the board to Donnie and back again in disbelief.

"Well?" the younger reminded in with no small amount of sarcasm and a high-arched eye-ridge. "Now it's your turn." A muscle by Glen's left eye twitched and a flood of heat followed it.

"Really boys?" Amber chastised, passing around mugs of hot tea  then sitting down. "Do I need'a separate you two?" The answer came, as it so often does, from the mouths of babes—or, rather, one young boy laughing so hard he could barely breathe between snorts and wheezes.

"Da' b-beat Gran'Dee!" Isaac howled as the embarrassed blush on Glen's face darkened to an irritable heat. "He—he even cheated—an'—an' Da still won!" Amber shot a stern glare at the elder but the crooked, toothy grin at her lips contradicted it.

"Oh, really?" she drawled. Her question went unanswered so she inspected the bottom of the trapped king herself. It was, indeed, Glen's king, and he didn't have any way of getting out of the trap. "You cheated an' still lost? What an excellent example to set for the young'uns, hm?" Glen bristled and fired back a long stream of unusually thick brogue in protest.

"Ah wiznae cheatin' th' bludy bawheid," he groused at her, for once not bothering to tone down his burr for their benefit. "Ah wiz jist tryin' tae keep'im oan his taes." Donnie and Zak exchanged equally perplexed glances then shared a mutual shrug—after all, other than cheatin', the insult, and a couple of commonly twisted words, the rest of it was far too thick for either to understand him. Amber, of course, understood every word and snorted in dismissal.

"Secretly switchin' sides hardly strikes me as keepin' him on his toes," she countered with a teasing wink at her mate. "Just admit it, ya sleekit auld sook, ya were tryin'a make Zack live up to his name." At first, the only result was the red fading from Glen's face; then a deep, guttural chuckle rasped upward from his lungs.

"Ah'll drink tae tha'," he rasped aiming a grin at Isaac then Donnie; he tipped his glass of Scotch to his granddaughter then lifted it for a sip. One moment, everything was fine—the mood of the room was jovial and the stress level nonexistent; the next every eye was fastened on Amber's suddenly pale face in horror. Eyes wide, hand covering her mouth and nose, she lurched out of her chair and bolted from the room, clipping the doorframe on her way through the utility room. Glen's glass never made it to his lips, instead, hovering mid-air as he puzzled out her bizarre reaction. "Weel, 'at was odd! She loves th' reek ay—" Mid-sentence he picked up a trace of a familiar noise from the bathroom beyond. He froze. Slowly, menacingly, he turned to fix a dark, accusing scowl at Donatello. "Ahmber loves this stuff," he reminded as clearly as possible. "Why cannae she now handle the smell?"

Easily recognizing the insinuation and the threat accompanying it, Donnie stammered an apology, scrambled out of his chair, dodged around the table, and bolted after her. A moment later he ducked back to the doorway wearing a forced smile. "It's probably nothing," he told his son with a weak, tinny laugh. "I've got this." When he fled again, Isaac turned to his grandfather with a suspicious whine.

"Mum's gonna get fat like Aunt Mercy, isn't she?"

Sure enough, Donatello found Amber bent over the nearest commode retching like a frat-boy coming off a three-night bender. Heaving a sigh he stepped into the tiled cubicle, pulled her twin braids to safety, and started rubbing her back. When the dry-heaving was over and the mess was dealt with he followed her back out to the sink. He held his silence while she rinsed her mouth and splashed water on her face; she turned to him with a cringe. "I don't suppose that was another missed step," he deadpanned.

Amber held up one finger – a universal 'hang on a second' gesture – dug out her phone and checked the calendar. As she swiped further and further back in time her eyes grew wider and wider, then finally screwed shut entirely. She let out a rather pitiful sound halfway between a whine and a groan and slumped against his front, smacking her forehead against his plastron repeatedly. "Yup," she finally muttered to his waistband, "a big one."

In hopes he was misreading the situation but doubtful just the same, Donnie retrieved the phone from her grasp. Sure enough, 45 day-slots in a row were unmarked with little red icons in the corner, and there were no less than three missed reminders at the top of the screen. "You missed a shot?!" The braided head buried in his chest nodded weakly. A closer look at the screen revealed a probable explanation – her last contraceptive shot was due a couple days after Briallen brought a cold home from work and started generously sharing it with everyone in the Lair. Everyone spent the next two-and-a-half weeks playing hot-potato with the virus, then Isaac and Emily finally picked it up, too…and when the kids got sick, all bets were off. Between nursing the rest of the family and their usual tasks, they hadn't even had the energy for a half-awake tussle in almost a month... Donnie scrubbed his hand down his face, shaking his head in disbelief. Ridiculous though it may seem, he totally blamed the mutagen; how else would his swimmers have survived camping out until the coast was clear? "Glen's gonna kill me," he groaned, "again."

"If it's twins again," Amber snorted, "I'm'onna kill ya first."

"Heaven forbid you should appreciate we only had two." He rolled his eyes. "In the wild, a typical red-eared slider female would lay anywhere from two to twenty eggs per clutch." A tense, awkward silence followed the remark—he cringed. "That just buried me deeper, didn't it?"

"Yep," Amber answered dryly. "Good thing I like ya, Speccy; that's grounds for neutering."

After a long, rough day at the grade-school, all Briallen wanted was to come home, shower off all the sweat, kid snot, and finger paint, and curl up for a rom-com with her Mikey. Alas, this was not to be; one step through the bathroom door and she was faced with the worst news possible.

Amber and Donnie were necking against the trough sink. Amber's closed eyes were crusted with salt…her cheeks were stretched taut around a grin…one of Donnie's hands was protectively cupping her belly…and they were freaking glowing. There was only one possible explanation…

"He knocked you up again?!" Bree's horrified screech startled the couple apart mid-nuzzle. Her eyes darted frantically around her for some sort of defense but all she found was a can of disinfectant spray on the garbage can lid; she snatched, shook, and aimed it, all in one rapid movement. "Back!" she warned, "Back I say!" Amber and Donnie exchanged matching 'you're kidding me' expressions then turned to glare at her almost as one.

"Bree," Amber said dryly, "ya can't catch pregnant. It's not like that cold you brought us."

"Yeah?! Well, you two also said humans and mutants can't procreate!" she reminded shrilly. "Now we've got two hybrids underfoot and Dog knows how many more on the way when Mercy pops! I work with kids! They're terrors! Having my own would be like bringing work home, I'm not ri—"

The bathroom door swung open without warning, the handle cracking into the shower stall door behind it hard enough to dent the metal; before it even cleared Mikey barreled through in search of the fire. It took a minute but he figured out the situation rather quickly. After all, there was only one reason he could think of for his mate to threaten Amber and Donnie with a can of Lysol. All emotion drained from his face leaving him visibly exhausted. "Oh for Pete's sake, Bree," he sighed dragging his hand down his face. "Lighten up already. It's not their fault you're late."

Even after everything that happened that day, no one would have ever expected the once-in-a-lifetime event that followed…

Briallen Hardy swore.


Yeah, that's a Once-in-a-lifetime event because BREE DOESN'T CUSS. She spends too much time with kids to let herself pick up the habit.


• TITLE from a quote from Lemony Snicket's Horseradish, also used in the first "Series of Unfortunate Events" film. This quote is included word-for-word in the scene in the Lab. That scene is actually what spawned this entire one-shot, to tell you the truth, and it's based on a very real occurrence. Almost a decade has gone by since my own storm happened and it's gotten easier to handle; that said, there are still moments that trip me up, usually out of the blue. A ridiculously common one is like what happened here, and it plays out almost identically. I'll go looking for a book, usually a non-fiction or a non-reference book I use for writing references, fail to find it, then suddenly realize I can't find it because it's gone...and it's been gone for years. I lost over half of my belonging when my home was destroyed but it never really strikes me as important or tragic. They were just possessions - clothes, dishes, keepsakes, all stuff I can live without - no one was hurt or lost, and that's what matters to me. The only exception to that is the books...my books are the only possessions I ever really mourned the loss of.

•The poem is Emily Dickinson's "Hope is the thing with feathers." It was the first poem of hers I ever came across and remains the one I love most out of many favorites by her. A relative of mine introduced me to a book last year called "The Gorgeous Nothings" which reproduces Emily Dickinson's envelope writings in print and photos; I'd highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys poetry


♦ Tak' tha'! Take that!

♦ Aw, soak yer heidGo soak your head.

♦ Wheesht – Scots hush or be quiet, doesn't necessarily indicate aggression or cruelty; often used in a teasing or affectionate manner.

♦ Yer lahss is daein' jus' fine, hawd yer fashin'Your daughter's doing just fine, stop this silly fussing.

♦ She's yer lil' lahss, Son - logic has naethin' fur tae do wi' it She's your little girl, Son – [you're going to be worried,] logic has nothing to do with it.

♦ Save a' 'at worryin' fur when she brings hame 'er firs' boyfrien'Save all that worrying for the day she brings home her first boyfriend. YES, he SERIOUSLY went there! XD

♦ What're ya haverin' 'bout now, Speccy? – Scots and MWT blend, roughly What nonsense are you spouting off now? Scots "Speccy" just means he wears glasses.

♦ Weel? I's still yer turnWell? It's still your turn.

♦ Ah wasnae cheatin' th' bludy bawheid - I wasn't cheating the bloody bawheid. Bawheid – ballhead / bald person. Considering Amber picked up her tendency to tease her loved ones from Glen and Bart we can safely assume they both use the term simply as a way of saying 'that bald guy.' Keep in mind, though, the term can also be used to mean stupid or empty-headed so neither would ever use it as a serious insult OR aim it at Isaac. He's bald, true, but it would come across more as a real insult than a tease.

♦ Ah wiz jist tryin' tae keep heem oan his taes I was just trying to keep [Donnie] on his toes. [challenge him]

♦ Ya sleekit auld sook / you were tryin'a make Zack live up to his name.you sly old softy. / The name "Isaac" is from Hebrew, meaning "he will laugh."

♦ Ah'll drink tae tha'! I'll drink to that!

♦ Weel, 'at was odd! She loves th' reek ay—[pause] Why cannae she now handle the smell?Well, THAT was odd! She loves the smell of [Scotch whiskey.] Why can't she handle the smell now? Basically, he's demanding "What did you do to my precious gran'baby?" (No, he really doesn't want to know, he's just being intimidating.)


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