Chapter 1: Prologue
Tore away everything
Cheating me out of my time
I'm the one who loves you
No matter wrong or right
And every day I hold you
I hold you with my inner child
–"Serenity," from Godsmack
Head bowed, Splinter sat cross-legged before his makeshift shrine to the past and contemplated the future. Through his meditations he sought peace, but all he found within himself was fear and unrest reminiscent of his first years as a mutant. Sighing into the silence of his dojo, he opened his eyes, his gaze going immediately to the photograph on the shelf of himself with Tang Shen and Miwa. He had been a man then, or so he had thought. How young he had been, how naïve and full of pride. He had believed his strength and skill would protect them from anything that the world could throw their way, and under that pretense he had lost it all to someone he had once considered a brother. In his grief, he had abandoned his father's dojo and the remaining Hamato Clan loyalists like a coward, leaving Japan altogether for the place that Tang Shen had wanted to raise their family.
New York City.
Despite being in a city teeming with people, he had never felt more isolated.
His eye went next to the broken glass vile and the small plastic bowl that had come free with four baby turtles he had purchased on a whim one day. He had promised the tiny reptiles that he would take good care of them, and after his run in with the strange identical men and the ooze, he had kept that promise as best he could.
The pain of his mutation had been indescribable, and in his shock it would have been easy to succumb to the madness that threatened at the edges of his psyche. Their crying brought him back from the brink. The four toddler-esque turtles, having also been through the intense rigors of their own mutations, cried out in the alley. Their wailing had been unbearably similar to a human infant, to Miwa's cries in the night when he and Shen would groan in exhaustion and take turns dutifully warming her bottle.
Yoshi had saved them that day from discovery, and they in turn had saved him by forcing him into the role of father once more. He could not be overtaken by his grief and self-loathing, not all the time anyways, not with four rambunctious boys to raise. He'd been determined to do better this time, to keep himself humble and hidden away from a world that would undoubtedly harm them. They had to stay in the shadows, unseen and unheard at all times.
Feeling like nothing but a fragment of his former self, he became Splinter, the mutant rat.
By the time the turtles were four years old, they had started thinking outside of the lair. They had wanted to explore, to run and play like any other children. In hopes that it would curb their energy, he'd begun simple training with them daily. Even so, sometimes when he had been off foraging for food, they would wander from the safety of their home. They had never strayed far, but it was enough to be worrisome and he'd imposed strict rules and consequences for leaving.
Sighing wistfully, Splinter looked up at the tattered, brown teddy bear propped up on the shelf beside the turtle bowl. It had been Raphael's favorite toy.
Splinter would never forget the day that he had come home to find Michelangelo and Raphael missing, then Michelangelo's teary-eyed, panic stricken face when he had finally returned, alone. Raphael had been swept away after falling into the water, and it had been impossible to track him in the tunnels by scent. Splinter had searched the pipelines inside and out, the shorelines, and even the water treatment plant in hopes of recovering his lost son, but it had all been in vain.
He had been forced to admit to himself that it was his own depression and budding agoraphobia that was holding them back under the guise of safety. It was then that Splinter realized that he could not shelter his boys forever. They needed to know not only how to defend themselves if they were ever in trouble, but how to avoid that trouble in the first place. So he'd taught them about the tunnels underground, how some led to the subways and tracks where people would be, where it would still safe to play after it had rained or when it was icy, and made them memorize how to get home from different sections of their underground labyrinth. Eventually, facing his own fears, he started to teach them about the surface and how to move unseen in the shadows alongside the bustling human world, complimenting their ninja training.
Now, having just celebrated their fifteenth 'Mutation Day', they were street smart and savvy to the outside world. His boys had good hearts and he knew that sometimes they covertly helped people they encountered. While Splinter viewed this as unnecessary risk to them, he could hardly punish them for being kind and empathetic as long as they were not discovered. Of course, over the years there had been sightings and whispers, but they had never left any physical evidence behind of their existence.
Until her. April. The girl they had rescued last night. She had spoken to and interacted with all of them, and they had promised to rescue her father. If that wasn't troubling enough, their kidnappers appeared to be robots and aliens, something Splinter was still having a hard time wrapping his mind around. He understood that these creatures were a shocking discovery to his sons and a challenge to fight, but that was no excuse for them to get sloppy.
All it took was a single shuriken left at the scene of the crime to make the news. Ninjas in New York?
They had laughed off the newscast and said no one had actually seen them besides April and her dad, that it was fine and not to worry, they would be more careful next time.
Yet something about the sight of his family crest displayed on prime time television had made Splinter cringe, and the knot in his stomach hadn't managed unwind itself since. There was a feeling of dread that he could not shake, that his family was in danger from an unnamed force he could not shield them from.
Chapter 2: Past, Present, Future
Raphael and Karai are finally reunited after four years apart, and the Foot Clan's hold on Tokyo District is more secure than ever. It only takes one phone call and a stray shuriken from New York to put Shredder and the entire clan into a tailspin.
Maybe everything's changed
And maybe I stayed the same
What does it matter to me now, anyways?
If I ever regret it
If I'm ever repentant
Karma sings and we'll dance the dance, baby
–"All That You Are," from Econoline Crush
Karai had always loved it when the sakura blossoms happened be in full bloom on her birthday. When she was little, she had thought of it as a secret gift to her from her mother. As she had grown up, she'd learned that the timing of the blossoms could be predicted by the weather patterns and temperatures leading into spring, and varied by region around the country. Even so, looking around the courtyard at the ethereal beauty of the cherry trees on her sixteenth birthday, it was easy to get caught up in her own childhood fancies and smile up at the clouds in thanks when no one was watching.
Her birthday party had been arranged by her father, as everything else in her life seemed to be. At least he had invited her friends and people she actually liked, along with the typical band of Foot figureheads and suck-ups. The gathering was simple and elegant, much like everyone in attendance, aside from herself. She stood out starkly among the business casual crowd in black tights, an oversized Billy Idol t-shirt, heavy make-up, and recently cut black-on-blonde hair. Her unbuttoned jean jacket with studded spikes on the shoulders completed her ensemble, and gave the apt appearance that she might leave her own party at any moment.
It was funny, sometimes, when she remembered how badly she had wished her father would spend more time with her when she was younger. Since Raphael had left, her dad had taken her completely under his wing. She went on business trips, sat in on meetings, and helped with the public dojos. Her own martial arts training was often directly under his instruction, and her formal tutoring had started leaning heavily towards business and finance long ago. Incrementally, he had let her in on the other side of his empire and how the Foot operated within the gray areas of the law or completely above it.
She had felt particularly smothered over the past year, resenting that she had so little time to be herself or pursue her own interests. She had thought dating Kaito would show Father that she was more mature and needed some distance. Instead, she suspected that her father requested reports from Kaito of her actions while he was not there to keep tabs on her himself, which had only succeeded in prompting her to eventually break up with her boyfriend.
So, she found other, smaller ways to assert herself under her father's thumb. Like putting her own spin on projects and missions she was leading, giving orders without consulting him first, by adding more piercings to her ears, or sneaking out to party in the city until one of her Foot underlings tracked her down and brought her home. She lived for the moments that her father would give her that disapproving glare and sigh, almost imperceptibly, before pretending not to care and continuing on as usual.
She toed the line of rebellion without disobeying him outright with tightrope precision.
"We should hit the clubs later," a voice whispered behind her ear.
Karai turned, finding no one behind her, then jumped when she turned back and Shinigami's face was only inches from hers.
"Shini!" Karai scolded, slapping her arm. "I'm going to kill you one day by accident."
The young witch laughed and twirled away with a wink, her black dress flaring out around her. "You are really rocking the new look," she commented.
Her new makeover had been a dare from Shinigami, the most extreme look Karai was willing to try based on photos from a website featuring several punk and alternative bands.
"I actually really like it," Karai said honestly. Not only did she feel more confident and edgy, but it had the lasting benefit of her looking what her dad would deem as inappropriate for any future formal and legitimate business functions.
Shinigami had become a retainer for the Foot Clan six months ago, a consultant and conjurer of all things mystical. Karai wasn't as superstitious as her dad, but there was no denying that Shini was capable of doing some rather inexplicable things. If nothing else, she was well versed in mythology, the occult, and magic, and had the best illusions and deceptions Karai had ever witnessed. Shinigami claimed to have inherited her abilities from her grandmother, who also happened to be the one who raised and trained her in the mystic arts.
"Sorry I'm late to the party," Shinigami said, "but I knew it would be boring."
Karai smirked in agreement. "Come on, there's someone here who has been waiting very impatiently to meet you."
She led Shinigami to the long food table where Yumi stood holding a small plate of appetizers, her free hand resting unconsciously on her swollen belly as she chewed. She wore a plain pink maternity dress with long, flowing sleeves, and a matching ribbon tied her hair back.
"Yumi, this is Shinigami," Karai introduced.
Yumi's eyes widened in excitement and she hurriedly set her plate down to shake Shinigami's hand with both of hers. "It is very nice to meet you! Karai told me that you might be able to tell me if I'm having a girl or a boy? The baby was not cooperative for the ultrasound and I really want to know."
Shinigami smiled at her exuberance. "Of course I can," she said confidently. "May I?" she asked, nodding towards her abdomen.
"Yes, yes," Yumi replied, letting go of her hand.
Shinigami crouched and rested her open palm over the baby bump, closing her eyes and whispering under her breath. "Boy."
Yumi squealed in delight, then furrowed her brow. "Is he alright? Is he healthy?"
After a moment of silence Shinigami stood up straight. "Yes," she said, "and he will be very smart, just like his mother."
Yumi pulled Shinigami into a tight hug and thanked her repeatedly, and Karai could only giggle and shrug at the "Help me," face Shinigami directed at her.
Yumi released Shinigami before the witch scattered into bats, or mist, or some other spectacle, and was in the middle of lamenting how she couldn't stop eating when she paused mid-sentence and stared behind Karai. "Oooh, baby kappa grew up," Yumi said quietly, fanning herself with an empty paper plate.
Karai whirled around, her heart suddenly skipping.
Raphael had entered the courtyard, completely ignoring everyone in it and heading straight for her father. Soldiers of every rank practically tripped over themselves to get out of his path, and Karai was pleased at the fear and respect he now commanded within the Foot. He knelt before Saki, head bowed, no doubt thanking him for allowing his return.
She wanted nothing more than to go to him and welcome him home, but he and her father were having a conversation now, and Raphael hadn't so much as glanced her way. She found herself feeling slighted despite knowing that he was obligated to greet Saki first, to figuratively kiss his ring and give him full attention for as long as it was demanded.
Though she had seen Raphael months earlier, it had been in the dark, he had been cloaked, and it had been under extreme emotional stress. He looked so different, and she took a moment to observe him as he stood tall and proud in the broad daylight.
The most notable physical change in him was his shell. As a child, it had been green, darkening a little more every year. It had since matured into a deep mahogany brown, and the scutes looked much tougher. The top left of his shell bore a lighter scar in the shape of a three fingered flame, a symbol that the Foot Elite commonly had branded onto their backs or shoulders.
It was also obvious that he had put a lot of effort into bulking up after his recovery. The way Yumi and Shinigami gawked shamelessly at the wonderfully defined muscle exposed between the black wrappings on his arms and legs made her cheeks heat up.
Once Saki dismissed him, Raphael scanned the courtyard until his eyes met hers. His stoic facade cracked into a small grin as soon as he recognized her, banishing any embarrassment she had felt at being caught staring.
"Go," Shinigami urged with a nudge as Raphael began crossing the yard in their direction.
People scurried out of the way as they closed in on each other, away from the mutant boy who had catapulted himself to feared assassin and Foot Enforcer. While others fled his path, Karai practically flung herself into his arms; she had never felt anything but safe and secure in his iron grip, and she hugged him savagely.
He squeezed her tight for a moment, hard enough that it challenged her ability to breathe, then held her out from him to take a look at her. She felt self conscious under his gaze; despite Shinigami's approval, Karai knew her father didn't like her new look, and Kaito had kept asking when she was going to 'go back to normal' before their breakup.
"You look great," Raphael said.
"So do you," she answered, laughing when he snorted and rolled his eyes at her compliment.
He rubbed over a fresher looking scar on his left bicep, covering it with his hand. Karai noticed how nicked up his shell was, and all the thin lines of scar tissue here and there where his skin was exposed. It was par for the course when training with live blades and living the kind of life they led; she had earned a few of her own in the past four years.
"Did my father give you a mission already?" she asked. "That looked like a serious conversation just now."
"Yeah, babysitting you. I'm told you are evading your bodyguards and sneaking around in the city."
"I've been doing a fine job taking care of myself so far," she countered, annoyed.
"Yes, I've heard. The Butcher, is it?" he said drolly. "I have to agree with Master Shredder on this one, it should be me taking care of that, not you."
Karai wondered at how casually they could bring death into a conversation, and who should be killing whom. She couldn't pinpoint the exact age that she had realized her life was vastly different from the norm and that she was the heir to a criminal empire, but it had really hit home the first time someone had tried to assassinate her.
She had been clumsy and unprepared mentally, but years of training had made her self defense almost automatic. Her would-be murderer had ended up with his throat slashed, staggered backwards into some netting, then tripped and fell off a dock. His foot had tangled into the net as he fell, suspending him upside down while he bled out. Not knowing what else to do, Karai had shakily called her father and had even managed to stop weeping by the time he had come to collect her.
The restrictions on her freedom doubled down after that. Frustrated that some lowly mercs and assassins prevented her from any chance of enjoying a normal life, especially when she was able to slip her father's tight leash, she let anger strengthen her resolve to prove herself against any others who tried to do her harm. There had been two more attempts on her life since that horrible night at the docks. Karai had purposely recreated the scene of her first kill to make it clear to the Yakuza that it was her, personally, that was the one taking down their hit men, hoping they would heed her warning and leave her alone. Her predictability should have been a handicap; they had known she would go for their throats, but they still couldn't beat her, and she took a vicious sort of pride in that. By the time she had left her third foe hanging face down over a puddle of their own blood, she was nicknamed The Butcher by the enemies of the Foot Clan.
And now here was Raphael, wanting to protect her, half convinced by Father that she was some damsel in distress. She laughed aloud at the thought, giving him a wink and a devilish smile.
"What makes you think you can keep up with me?" she challenged, using her shoulder to nudge him back a step.
It took a moment for the playful smile she used to know so well to come to his lips, the defiant glint in his eyes. It was if he had to remember how to have fun again, and it made her heart ache a little.
"You think you can take me?" he scoffed, his grin broadening.
Her hand slipped under the denim jacket to the hilt of her wakizashi at the small of her back. "Let's see if your time with the Elite gave you more than just an ego," she said slyly, drawing her weapon in one fluid motion and arcing it towards his chest.
Raphael blocked her easily, the pair of sai from his belt in hand and crossed before him in a second. He used them to yank the tanto to the side and down, trying to push her off balance. Karai recovered quickly, freeing her blade and spinning to his left.
The guests watched out of curiosity or for their own amusement, but the setting remained relaxed. This was a Foot gathering, after all, and impromptu mock battles were not unusual and tended to involve far more alcohol.
Karai led Raphael further out into the courtyard and away from the crowd as their sparring became more spirited, steel flashing faster between them as they laughed and threw taunts at one another. Their movements disturbed the delicate sakura blossoms hanging heavily on the branches of the trees they weaved around, the white petals floating slowly to the ground all around them.
She was surprised by her own joy, by how genuine and pure it felt. She was transported in spirit to a time when they had been small enough to climb these trees and sparred beneath them with sticks, when their friendship and futures had never been in question and they'd known that they would never be apart.
"Not bad," Karai teased, "for a warm-up." She glanced wistfully into the nearby forest, their childhood domain, then back across the courtyard at the gathering. "Let's get out of here," she whispered conspiratorially.
She sprinted without another word, weaving through the natural cover of branches and bushes without looking back until she was deep within the woods. Crouched low beside the thick trunk of an ancient tree, Karai steadied her breath quietly and remained alert, hand on the hilt of her weapon.
Raphael was no where to be seen, but that was hardly a surprise. Slowly, she unfurled herself to stand up straight and survey the serene landscape around her. She took a step away from the gnarled trunk, her exposed back feeling immediately vulnerable. Trusting her instincts, she pivoted on one foot and turned back, shuriken flying from her hand to embed themselves on one of the lower branches of the tree she had just been sheltered under. The shadows seemed to shift, and Raphael revealed himself to have been perched just left of where the silver shrapnel struck.
Karai grinned. "Of course I did, I wasn't actually going to hit you."
Raphael jumped down from the branch, katana lifted over his head. He brought it down towards her as he landed, the sweep of his blade clashing against hers with tremendous force. It took all of her strength and a double handed grip on her short sword to block it, and still it inched dangerously towards her face. He followed up with a knee to her hip that had her scrambling to keep her footing as she disengaged his blade and backed off.
He stood with his katana pointed directly at her, all playfulness from earlier gone. "Don't hold back," he said in a low, serious tone, then attacked again with the same punishing power behind his strikes.
Karai hated to admit it to herself, but she was startled by his sudden intensity; had it not been for all of the sparring she had done with her father, she would have been completely overwhelmed by Raphael's hulking size and strength.
Defensively blocking and trying to hold ground directly against him wasted too much of her energy, so she focused on redirecting his blade with her own instead while she fought to regain some control. Karai had always had an edge over him with quickness and maneuverability, and she danced in and out of his guard more and more confidently, the warm buzz of adrenaline in her head.
Enjoying the challenge, Karai sharpened her offensive game and chose her strikes with careful calculation. Raphael countered her with equal enthusiasm, if not a bit predictably at times, and it was she who drew first blood when her blade flitted across his thigh just above the knee. She paused out of courtesy to make sure it was nothing serious, but Raphael used her momentary distraction to crank that very leg up and kick her.
His foot felt like a wrecking ball to her entire torso, and her breath left her in a whoosh as she was flung back a few feet, landing hard on her butt in the damp grass. She had lost her grip on her wakizashi midair, and it laid hopelessly out of reach. She only had a few seconds to collect her thoughts as Raphael lunged for her, and having barely caught the breath that had been jarred from her, all she could do was sweep his feet as he closed in. He tried to avoid it a beat too late, tripping up just enough to give Karai an opening to exploit.
She rose quickly from the ground and launched her shoulder into the top right of his chest with all of her strength, seizing control of his sword arm and turning so her back was against him in an attempt to wrest the katana from his grip. This should have also been the perfect position from which to throw him, but she met the resistance of a stone wall as she tried to pull him forward; she grunted with the effort of it, thinking that he must outweigh her three times over to be giving her this much trouble. Her situation was perilous now, her back pressed fully into Raphael's unforgiving plastron with both arms and most of her strength occupied with the task of immobilizing a limb as thick as her body. In seconds, his free arm crossed over her and across her throat, closing in for a choke.
Karai was already pissed off that Raphael was testing her; it was intolerable to her pride that he come back and beat her in their very first fight as if she'd been coddled all this time. Assessing her options, she decided to cut her losses with disarming him; she was too close to Raphael for him to really be able to use his katana effectively without risk to himself. In one efficient movement, Karai released his sword arm and spun violently in his tightening grip. Though she was still pinned to him, at least facing him protected her ability to breathe. The move was one she was practiced in, and against a human her next course of action would have been a knee to the groin or abdomen. She cursed internally at herself, since against Raphael this would only result in her slamming a knee into bone-hard armor.
His eyes sparkled like cold emeralds, confident in his imminent victory over her. His foot nudged between hers as he prepared to throw her to the ground and no doubt drive his katana into the grass next to her head, signaling her utter defeat at his hands.
Karai was having none of it.
Crushed face to face against him, she simply lifted her chin and kissed him. His eyes widened in surprise as her lips pressed into his, the tension in his muscles slowly draining away. She was able to rock back in his softened grip, admire his dumbfounded expression, then whip forward in a vicious headbutt that made him reel back and let go of her completely.
She seized the katana from his lax hand before throwing her weight into him to knock him on his shell. As soon as he hit the ground Karai had one knee pinning his arm and the other atop his chest, with his own blade pressed delicately to his throat.
"You fell for the oldest kunoichi trick in the book," Karai teased with a grin. "Serves you right for testing me. Who do you think you are, my father?"
"We need to know what we are capable of apart, before we can fight well together," Raphael grumbled as he sat up, a blush on his cheeks.
Karai flopped down on the ground next to him, tired, and handed back his sword.
"Is that how you beat the others, too?" he asked, trying to sound smug.
"Nah, I didn't need to resort to trickery for them. They weren't as good as you."
Raphael smiled wanly and looked away.
"Hey," she said softly with a gentle nudge. "I missed you."
She hugged his arm and rested her head on his shoulder, his closeness making her relax. The forest was peaceful once again, and she couldn't think of any other place she would rather be at that moment.
She felt his warm breath in her hair as he tilted his head to hers.
"I missed you, too."
"Where is Shinigami?" Saki yelled at the two hapless Foot soldiers in his office.
"I'm sure she will be here any minute, Master Shredder," one of them replied quickly, the nervous tremor in his voice only aggravating Saki further.
He growled impatiently, glancing down at the unconscious mutant turtle sprawled out on the Oriental rug in front of his desk.
"Keep post outside the office," he barked. "Don't let anyone in but the witch."
"Yes, Master Shredder," they said in unison, retreating hastily from the room.
The Foot Clan had been on an upswing recently. Since Raphael's return a month ago, he and Karai had been making waves in Tokyo, visiting the city together often and keeping the Yakuza in their place. There were portions of the city that the mob still controlled, but with both of his successors by his side, they were not trying to challenge for new territory and the Foot held much more influence over the district.
All it had taken was one simple phone call to derail Saki's spirits.
Chris Bradford had contacted him about an hour earlier, and alerted him to a news broadcast that had aired in New York. It was a very short clip, speculating on the presence of ninja in Manhattan over a single shuriken found at the scene of an altercation. It was something Saki would normally scoff at as trash news and sensationalism.
Except that the shuriken was engraved with the Hamato Clan crest.
Enraged by the idea that Hamato loyalists or possibly even Yoshi himself had somehow escaped, he knew the situation would have to be investigated immediately. His mind would never rest until he knew for sure that the legacy of his most hated enemy had been eradicated from this world.
Raphael stirred on the floor, and Saki dourly watched him come to. Karai was busy teaching classes in the public dojos, but he had summoned Raphael for a debriefing after watching the clip.
"That's the Hamato crest?" Raphael had blurted, uncharacteristically interrupting Saki before he'd even really begun to explain the full extent of his grievances.
The turtle had turned a sicklier shade of green before uttering one word and fainting. Splinter.
Raphael groaned, shaking off his confusion and rising to his feet. "I'm sorry, Master, I don't know what happened," he said.
Saki waved off his apology. "You recognize that symbol," he stated, pointing at the screen mounted on the wall.
Raphael winced and swayed slightly on his feet, looking pained, but nodded.
The office door burst open and Shinigami rushed in.
"Finally!" Saki snarled. "I need you to retrieve some of his memories."
Unfazed, the young witch breezed by Saki and invited Raphael to sit across from her on the rug. She held up a large bauble containing what she called a hypno stone by a chain and lifted it to her face so it aligned with her right eye.
"Look into the stone, Raphael," she whispered. "Focus on nothing else. It will ease the pain and dizziness in your head."
Within moments, the mutant's body seemed to relax, his expression vacant.
"He is in a trance state, Master Shredder," she said. "You may speak freely."
"I need to know what memory was triggered by him seeing the Hamato crest," Saki said. "Someone had started training him before I brought him here, and now I have to know who."
"Understood." Shinigami stared into the void of Raphael's green eyes, one hand touching his temple. "My grandmother did good work," she commented, impressed. "The wall remains strong, even after all these years. But be warned, Master Shredder, there will be cracks in the barrier once we are through, and it is possible that it may crumble completely."
"Do it," he ordered.
"Bradford, change of plans," Shredder said sharply into the phone.
Chris Bradford muttered incoherently into the receiver on his end, more asleep than awake, and squinted into the darkness at his digital clock. It was just after four in the morning.
"Your North American tour is canceled. I need you to stay in New York. Hamato Yoshi is alive, a mutant rat going by the code name Splinter. There are three other turtles that he has trained, possibly others. He could have an entire army, rule nothing out. Start with the sewers. Team up with Xever, he knows the city inside and out, organize your best fighters and recruit them into the Foot. Find Hamato Yoshi."
Bradford held the phone away from his ear, listening to Saki's angry voice from a safe distance while his groggy mind digested the rant and sorted through how all of this was going to affect him.
Cancel the tour? His agents could figure that out.
He grumbled in disgust at the thought of tracking down more mutants. Dealing with that one turtle freak years ago back in Japan had been bad enough, but three more? And a rat!
The prospect of working with Xever was only slightly more appealing than spelunking in the sewers. He groaned and took a deep breath, then put the phone back to his face.
"Sounds great," Bradford said, thankful for all of his voice acting. "Mark my words, I will track them down as soon as possible."
"Track who down?" a confused feminine voice asked from behind him as he hung up.
"Oh, uh, Annie," he said, surprised. "You're still here," he added under his breath. "It was just a phone call, go back to sleep."
"It's Marie," she countered dreamily before drifting off once again.
He sunk back down in bed, defeated, and regretted ever having sent Shredder that news clip in the first place.
Author's Note: The hypnosis portion of this chapter makes reference to the drabble Smokescreen in the Promise series, in case you wanted a refresher/haven't read it.
Chapter 3: Enter Casey Jones
Michelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo have their night go awry when they meet a vigilante in a hockey mask. Things only get stranger from there when they are attacked by a man in red armor accompanied by ninja.
Come to the fight, to the hope, to the freedom
Everything starts with someone believing
Someone with faith and heart
That is bound with truth
–"My Salvation," by Econoline Crush
Michelangelo winced as he carefully removed the tiny, black ball of fluff, claws and rage from his shell while his brothers laughed hysterically. He let the cat drop gently to the littered alley floor and watched her bolt from them along with his hopes and dreams of bridging the gap between mutants and humans. 'Mittens' had left him a few scratches as a parting gift, but Michelangelo didn't hold it against her. The cat had been happy enough to be petted and snuggled by him until her owner had spazzed out.
What did I do wrong? he wondered to himself. He had made sure to be as friendly and non-threatening as possible, and was even trying to return the dude's cat. Sure, he looked different, but not everyone could be so shallow.
He was sure there were people out there that would accept them if they only made the effort. Master Splinter had taught them how to move about the city in secrecy from a young age, warning them against interacting with anyone. For the most part, they heeded their Master's words on the dangers of being discovered, but over the years there had been times when it had been impossible for them to not interfere in human society. It turned out that some people could be pretty horrible to their own kind, and neither he, Leonardo, nor Donatello would turn a blind eye to it if they could help.
Michelangelo had always longed to reach out to some of the people they had aided; the ones whose startled double-takes held more curiosity than fear, or who uttered thanks to the shadows at their unseen saviors. April befriending them had emboldened him to the possibilities of connecting to others, but so far, it wasn't working out very well for him.
"I just need to find someone that I have more in common with," Michelangelo insisted stubbornly as his brother's giggling subsided. A nearby billboard caught his eye and his face lit up with a smile once more. "Like Chris Bradford!" he said, pointing excitedly.
Leonardo stared back at him dubiously. "Chris Bradford, the celebrity, with a chain of dojos across the country?"
"Yeah! We have tons in common," Michelangelo replied confidently.
Leonardo and Donatello exchanged that look, the one that meant they were going to dismiss whatever he was saying as nonsense. Undaunted, he looked back up at the billboard of his idol to reaffirm that Bradford was currently in New York. He instead noticed the silhouette of a man on the rooftop holding what appeared to be a hockey stick. In a blink, he was gone.
"Guys? Did you see that?" Michelangelo asked quietly.
"What?" Donatello asked, him and Leonardo instantly at attention.
"I saw somebody on the roof."
A clunk from the nearest fire escape put them on all edge.
Leonardo moved swiftly to Michelangelo's side. "Kraang?" he asked under his breath.
Michelangelo shook his head.
A small, black object shot out of the darkness from behind a dumpster. Michelangelo felt himself being tugged out of it's trajectory by Leonardo even as he began to dodge it himself. The projectile whizzed by his head and smacked the brick wall behind them, resulting in a loud pop and a burst of smoke.
Despite the brief moment of confusion, all three of them had their weapons at the ready as Hell's goaltender rushed them at high speed on rollerblades. He clashed with Donatello first, hockey stick against bo.
"I knew the rumors were true!" the guy proclaimed, his voice slightly muffled by his hockey mask. "Weird freaks running around the city."
"Well isn't that the pot calling the kettle black," Donatello quipped, looking more irritated than anything else as he easily thwarted his attacker. "What the heck are you supposed to be?"
"The name is Casey Jones, and this is my neighborhood. Now, what have you done to him?"
Donatello cocked his head in confusion. "Done to whom?" he asked, then rapped Casey's knuckles with his bo.
Casey hissed in pain and withdrew his hand, cradling it to his chest reflexively. Donatello tore the hockey stick from his one-handed grip and tossed it a few feet away, cornering him against the rusted out dumpster.
Still at Michelangelo's side, Leonardo snickered and sheathed his katanas. "He's just some vigilante."
"I suggest you leave," Donatello warned sternly.
"I suggest you answer my question," Casey rebutted, his gloved hand shooting towards Donatello. The glove hid a makeshift taser, and suddenly Donatello cried out and fell to the ground.
Leonardo growled. "You did not just do that." Eyes narrowed, he lunged for Casey.
Michelangelo bounded over to Donatello, who was already coming around. He helped Donatello to his feet and had him lean on the dumpster, then turned his attention to what kind of pummeling his other bro was giving this supposed vigilante.
"Where is the guy?" Casey asked angrily, now armed with a baseball bat.
Leonardo caught the bat in midair as it came towards him, pulling Casey forward for a face full of knee pad. The hockey mask slipped away, revealing their assailant's young and painted face.
"Whoa, whoa, Leo," Michelangelo steadied Leonardo's ready fist. "Donnie's fine. Let him go, he's confused."
Forcefully shoving Casey away so that he fell onto his butt on the grimy cement, Leonardo chucked the baseball bat to the ground next to Casey's feet in disgust and went over to Donatello.
Michelangelo had to give credit where credit was due; this guy was fearless and still trying to brawl. He picked up the bat and came at Michelangelo without hesitation.
"Dude, quit it, we don't want to hurt you," Michelangelo said.
Leonardo harrumphed and Donatello raised a finger wearily and said, "Well, actually..."
"Who are you looking for?" Michelangelo asked, doing little more than deflecting his swings.
"The man who was screaming for help. What did you do to him?"
"Nothing! I tried to return his cat and he freaked out on me. He's not hurt or anything, he's in his apartment."
Casey still had his bat at the ready but stopped his assault, eyeing Michelangelo suspiciously.
Slowly bending to pick up the mask that had clattered to the ground, Michelangelo held it out as a peace offering.
Casey snatched it back, looking undecided about what to believe now that his world included giant, talking turtles.
Just as it seemed like everyone could calm down and go home, the alley was silently taken over by about a dozen black-clad ninjas. None of them moved, a threatening tableau surrounding the masked vigilante and three mutants.
"Ninjas, in New York?" Donatello muttered in surprise. "Other than us?"
"Wicked," Casey said under his breath.
"Sure, human ninjas are cool, but mutant turtle ninjas are automatically evil," Michelangelo whispered back sarcastically, rolling his eyes.
A single shuriken whistled through the air towards Donatello, embedding into his bo only inches from his face. He gritted his teeth. "I've had just about enough for today!"
With that, the alley broke out into utter chaos. The mysterious ninja were armed with either katanas or spears, but Michelangelo decided on his nunchaku for defense. He could tell by their scent and the exhalations of their efforts that they were human, and while he was not prepared to be run through with a sword any time soon, he also didn't want to seriously hurt them. It was clear from the glimpses he got of his brothers fighting that they had the same idea. They had already been attacked tonight over a misunderstanding, so it seemed cruel to maim first and ask questions later.
When Michelangelo heard Casey's protest of, "Hey! I'm not even with these guys!" he couldn't help but chuckle. A spear-wielding ninja was giving Casey a hard time, and Michelangelo swung by to deliver a well-placed smack to the base of the guys skull, just hard enough to drop him.
Despite being so outnumbered, half of the ninja were quickly subdued. Leonardo seemed keen to take over the fight with the remainder, a confident smile on his face. Michelangelo watched Leonardo block and parry their weapons with his blades while avoiding actually slicing anyone with the precise and effortless grace unique to him.
Like a video game on easy, Michelangelo thought to himself.
Except someone else then dropped into the alley, and it was clear that this was the boss fight. Clad mostly in red and wearing some armor, including a metal helmet, he was an imposing figure, partially because of his size, and partially because he had giant spikes on his shoulders.
Boss-man went for Leonardo straight away with a bare-knuckled punch to the face that sent him reeling back in surprise. Then he spun on Casey, who just happened to be standing the closest, slamming him into the brick wall with a rib-crushing roundhouse kick.
Switching to his kusurigama, Michelangelo rushed him with Donatello at his side. Donatello reached him first, but was instantly disarmed and swept aside brutally with his own bo.
Determined, Michelangelo threw the weighted end of the chain, snagging the forearm that held his brother's weapon. He hauled back with all of his strength, jolting the man's arm forward roughly. He dropped the bo and grabbed the chain with both hands, yanking Michelangelo off balance and snout-first into a fist.
"Ugh, I can't believe there are more of you," a deep voice rumbled from within the mask.
Still dazed, Michelangelo felt his own chain snake around his neck and tighten. Heart beating frantically, he struggled to his feet and tried to pull back some slack for himself as his breath was abruptly cut off.
The man rebuffed Donatello's charge, but it left him distracted enough that Leonardo was able to cut through the taut chain and release Michelangelo, who gasped for air thankfully and pulled the rest of the chain from around his neck.
The alley suddenly lit up in red and blue and everyone froze. It seemed none of them wanted to risk discovery by the police, and without a backwards glance the strange man and his pack of ninjas were gone.
Leonardo motioned for them to likewise disappear, but Michelangelo lingered a moment longer.
The human vigilante, Casey, was splayed out on the filthy ground, unconscious. The sharp scent of blood made Michelangelo's mind up on the spot. He scooped Casey up and beat a hasty retreat from the flashlight beams that pried into the alley.
The first thing Casey saw when he woke up was the IV in his hand. He squinted down at it in confusion, then at the blue cotton blanket his hand rested on. He groaned as he realized he was in the hospital, then cussed loudly when he tried to sit up and a bolt of pain shot through his chest.
The sound caught the attention of a nurse passing by his doorway.
"Ah, you're awake," she said, entering the room.
"How did I get here?" Casey asked.
"You were found laying outside the ER entrance. Your injuries indicate that you may have been attacked. Would you like me to call in a police officer to speak with you?"
"No," he said quickly, the strange events of the night coming back to him.
The nurse looked concerned, like she maybe thought he was the one that had been up to no good, and he really, really didn't want to be questioned by the cops right now.
"I didn't see them," he added gently. "The cops won't be able to do anything."
She pursed her lips and nodded, her expression a little less suspicious as he tried his best to look harmless and pathetic. Her pager beeped and she flitted off into the hallway, leaving him to settle into the least painful position and rest in misery. Left to his own devices, too sore to sleep and without any distractions, his mind quickly turned to the downward spiral that was his existence.
Not that his life had never been perfect, but things had really surged into one giant shit-storm lately, and the catalyst for all of it had been one chance encounter with the Purple Dragons a few months back. That fateful night, he had happened upon a woman being mugged in the narrow laneway behind his apartment building by three guys. Being fresh off of hockey practice, he'd had his stick with him and thought standing up to them while brandishing it would be enough to scare them off. The tatted up Dragons turned on him instead, putting up far more of a fight than Casey had expected. He was no pushover; none of the punks walked away unscathed, that's for sure, but they'd also left their mark on him. Bruises aside, one of them had taken a cheap shot at his knee.
The pain and swelling had been bad enough that he could barely put weight on it for a week, and he'd had to take some time off from school and hockey to recover. That had meant more time at home with his old man, whom he generally avoided like the plague. With Casey laid up and injured, his dad had at least kept from lashing out at him physically for a while, but his regular bilious, drunken rants were inescapable.
Once he was back on his feet, Casey had kept his knee wrapped for hockey and managed to catch the eye of a state league scout. He'd jumped at the opportunity to try out for a semi-pro team, his dreams of making his passion a career brighter than ever until his physical, where it was discovered that his knee injury was actually a partial ACL tear. The recruiter had called it a 'ticking time bomb', and had turned a deaf ear to Casey's desperate insistence that he was fine and could still play.
The Midtown Ice Rink, a place where he'd once felt the most at home, had suddenly became a shrine to broken dreams and the futility of his life. He'd quit his team and barely went to school. He'd spent a lot of time on the run-down rooftop patio of his apartment building in solitude, sneaking the odd beer up from his dad's endless supply, writing in his journal and feeling generally sorry for himself. All the while, that familiar current of anger had flowed just beneath the surface, and being pissed off had seemed more proactive than the depression, so he'd clung to that, nurtured it even.
His entire future had been destroyed the moment he'd tried to help someone, but he didn't regret it. No, he'd been at the receiving end of too much injustice to ignore it or make excuses as to why it wasn't his problem. Too many teachers and coaches had overlooked his bruises over the years, assuming they were the results of sports or his scrappy schoolyard behavior.
It was that line of thought that had led him to his most recent epiphany: Maybe it was time he stopped overlooking the crime and suffering all around him.
In that moment, Casey Jones had been reborn. He'd watched as five cop cars screamed down the street from his roof and set down his unfinished beer in the wake of flashing red and blue lights, inspired. There were gangsters, scumbags and freaks all over his city, preying on people and ruining their lives just as his had been and worse. Crime had risen sharply the past year, and obviously the police couldn't keep up. Energized with purpose, Casey had felt in his very heart and soul that if he was better prepared this time, he could help people.
His first forays into vigilantism had so far been rather hit or miss as far as action went. Unless he wanted to wade hip-deep into known criminal hang-outs and get himself shot, most of his nights were spent in waiting. Listening for that cry for help or alarm to go off as he navigated neighborhoods in the shadows, getting a feel for the city's hot spots and trouble areas. His greatest asset in the few confrontations he'd had was the element of surprise. The more unexpected, unorthodox and unpredictable he was, the quicker the resolution and the better the outcome.
Being stuck in the hospital was already making him crazy. Casey sighed, glancing at the clock. It would be dark soon. He should be out there, trying to get to the bottom of the fact that there were ninjas running around New York with mutant turtles, or shaking up the Purple Dragons, or even keeping an eye on that liquor store that kept getting robbed. Anything but just laying there like a useless louse and running up a hospital tab he couldn't afford.
A doctor came by to inform him that he was under observation, and had suffered two hairline fractures on his ribs. He had also required eight stitches just under his collar bone on the left side for what appeared to be a stab wound. She asked him a few questions, looked at his chart, scribbled in a few notes and then put something in his IV, finally leaving him alone once more.
As the painkiller made it's way through his bloodstream he was able to breathe a little easier. His earlier anxiety about needing to be on the street eased up, along with the bitterness at being alone. Casey didn't spend much time at home, but he was fairly certain that his dad hadn't been to their apartment in at least four days. In trying to track him down, the last location he could reliably peg him at was the dingy little bar down the street that he'd liked to frequent with off-track betting. On more than one occasion, he had told Casey that if he ever "won big on the ponies," he would be on the first plane to Vegas and never return. Of course his dad talked a lot of shit, and Casey had never taken very much of it seriously, until he found the courage to search his dad's room and discovered most of his clothes were missing.
Mind clouded, he stared up at the blank ceiling. Disassociated from the pain, both physical and emotional, the near-certainty that his dad had abandoned him, just as his mother had abandoned them both eight years ago, just didn't have the same sting to it.
He must have drifted off, because the next time he opened his eyes the room was dark and it was relatively quiet beyond his closed door. Still in a haze, he squinted at the window in his room as it moved and twisted, suddenly concerned about just how stoned he must be. Then the shadows shifted, and a silhouette emerged that closed in on his bedside. Startled, he flailed as he realized someone had just broken into his room, the sudden movement making him gasp in pain.
"Hey, hey, it's alright," a voice said soothingly. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Casey's eyes widened in surprise as they adjusted to the dim light. "You're the turtle!" he blurted.
"Well, yeah," it responded, grinning. "The name is Michelangelo."
"What are you?"
"Only the awesomest mutant ninja in town," he said with a wink.
"You brought me here, didn't you?" Casey asked.
Michelangelo nodded. "I also have all of your stuff at our lair. It didn't seem like a good idea to leave you out in front of the hospital in all that padding and armed with sporting goods. I'll give them back when you are out, don't worry. Leo said you probably wouldn't want me to hang around, so April gave me her phone number to give to you. Call it when you are out and she will arrange a place for you to pick it all up. Donnie's been working on phones for us but they aren't ready yet, so it'll have to be April's for now. She's our only human friend, by the way. Well, I'm online friends with Chris Bradford now too, so I'm sure I can go say to hi to him soon. I'm so happy he accepted me, that guy is my hero! It doesn't seem like most other people want to give us a chance, just look at the guy with the cat! But if it wasn't for him, we never would have got to fight with you, and that was kind of cool."
Casey blinked, his brain overwhelmed as it attempted to follow the turtle's winding road of logic. "Thanks?"
"Here's the number," Michelangelo said as he handed Casey a scrap of paper.
Casey took it and and tried to clear the fog enough to say something intelligible. "I'm sorry I assumed you were the bad guys."
Michelangelo shrugged it off, like it was so commonplace it didn't bear mentioning, which made Casey feel even worse.
"It's okay. I'll leave you alone now," he said, returning to the window.
"Fighting with you was pretty cool. If you ever need some back-up, let me know."
Michelangelo smiled broadly. "Are we friends now?"
"Yeah, we're friends."
Chapter 4: In Times of Need
In Japan, Raphael and Karai are left reeling in the aftermath of Shredder's fury and the discovery that Hamato Yoshi is alive.
In New York, Bradford and Xever team up and set a trap for the three turtle brothers.
Ah, it'll take a little time, might take a little crime, to come undone
Now we'll try to stay blind to the hope and fear outside
Hey child, stay wilder than the wind and blow me in to cry
Who do you need, who do you love, when you come undone?
–"Come Undone," Duran Duran cover by My Darkest Days
Raphael couldn't remember anything about the strange fit that had gripped him, but the effect it'd had on those around him was profound. His brief memory, plucked from a childhood that seemed a lifetime ago by the symbol of their sworn enemy, had backed up what the small bit of evidence from New York suggested. Hamato Yoshi was alive.
Master Shredder's rage had known no limits ever since that knowledge had been revealed to him. His temper, already notorious, had become ever more unpredictable, spreading a tangible fog of fear and tension over anyone in his proximity. He had been running grueling drills for his soldiers and promoting those deemed worthy in preparation for his absence. Other fighters were on reserve to accompany him to America and bolster whatever ranks Bradford had managed to put together. A special task force had already been dispatched to aggressively hunt down any leads of Hamato loyalists remaining in Japan, and if so, what they knew of the fate of Yoshi.
Raphael, however, had been put on the back burner for a few days. If he suffered another episode and remembered anything else that might be useful, Shredder wanted him safe and close at hand. Truthfully, Raphael was quite ashamed that he had fainted at all, and right in front of his Master, no less. Apparently, he'd been in such a state of shock when he'd passed out that Shredder had had to call on his witch, Shinigami, to restore his consciousness. She checked on him daily for any other weaknesses in his psyche, and though he distrusted the odd girl immediately, she was good friends with Karai, so he conceded to Shinigami's brief examinations peacefully.
Among all the chaos, it was Karai that concerned him most. When not specifically required to be present, she withdrew from the world and everyone in it. Retreat was not her typical response to problems, and he worried about how she was doing and wondered if maybe she blamed him for this whole situation arising at all.
After weeks on end of spending most of his waking time with her, her sudden absence left him feeling empty and alone. It was reminiscent of the loneliness that had plagued him when he had first been sent to the farm, but with a sharp twist of longing and rejection that he'd never experienced before. Back then, he had missed her presence and reassurance, her friendship and familiarity. He had never had to pursue her company; she was always the one taking him by the hand and pulling him on to their next adventure or easing his oft-troubled mind. He wanted to be able to do that for her, to be the one who held out his hand and took the weight of the world off of her shoulders for a little while.
Except his hands felt oddly clammy around the bushel of flowers and herbs he held, and his heart was kicking up a nervous pitch in his chest as he followed the stream that ran through the edge of the forest. Hachiko frolicked around his feet with a stick in his mouth, looking up hopefully at Raphael periodically for a game of fetch and nearly tripping him up.
Up ahead, Karai was sitting on a large, flat stone, worn smooth to the touch by centuries of rain. It jutted up from the bank of the stream and overlooked a small clearing in the woods on the opposite side of the water. As he neared her, his nervousness began to melt away into resolve. She was meditating, eyes closed, still clad in gray track pants and a black tank top from her training session this morning. She sat in classic lotus position, legs crossed and hands resting on her knees. Her left cheek was swollen, and the red blotches on her arms were already darkening into deep blackish-blue bruises. At her side, the thick jacket of her gi was neatly folded, the stamped red foot on the smoothed-out black fabric face up.
Of all the members in the Foot Clan, none were held to as high a standard as Karai was. As much as he had been pushing his men to their breaking point, Saki was pushing her beyond that, breaking her completely to rebuild her in his own image, his true heir. He was never going to send her away to the Elite camp to do so, as he had with Raphael, but he was seeing to it personally that she earned the title.
Raphael let his feet fall a little heavier in the damp sand to make his presence known, and Hachiko helped his cause by wading noisily into the shallow water to chase frogs.
Karai inhaled deeply, exhaled audibly, and opened her eyes, relaxed.
"Hey," he greeted softly, feeling awkward and nervous again under her gaze.
"Is that where you've been all morning?" she teased lightly. "Picking flowers?"
"Well, I do have a lot of time on my hands until your crazy friend clears me as sound of mind," he griped, stopping to stand in front of the rock she was perched on.
"We might be waiting a long time then," she quipped, her attempt at a playful jest falling completely flat.
Almost eye to eye, he could see the impact point of the swelling on her cheek clearly, and her short, two-toned hair was disheveled with dried sweat. She looked beautiful and fierce, but also exhausted, physically and spiritually.
"I'm sorry," she said, averting her eyes, "that I haven't been around. Are you okay?"
Raphael shrugged it off, as if three days of her avoidance hadn't been eating him up inside. "I'm fine. I thought you might be angry with me, for starting all of this."
"Is that why you've brought me flowers?" she asked dryly. "Do you not know me at all?"
He looked down at the bouquet he had spent hours putting together, feeling a bit ridiculous and at a loss for words. His cheeks heated up when her hand reached out and touched his shoulder, but he managed to make eye contact once again.
"That sounded...harsher than intended," she admitted, her hand dropping back into her lap. "This is why I've stayed away. I'm not..." she struggled. "I can't...couldn't help you through what happened. I'm so drained, I have nothing left to give, not even for you, so I just stayed away."
She hid her face in her palm for a moment, obviously fighting the tears that had welled up.
"This pain in my chest, it's constant. I can't make it go away, I can't defend myself against it," she said, one fist clenched over her heart. "I feel like I will never know peace again, not until I have avenged her," she whispered.
He rested a hand lightly on her knee and leaned forward, head down, his heart aching for her. She moved to rest her forehead on his, a gesture that had comforted her at times in years past. It seemed to help ground her, and he waited patiently until the threat of tears had abated from her.
"Thank you," she murmured, her fingers cradling the side of his face briefly before parting from him.
"We will find him," Raphael assured her. "I promise that I will not rest until the man who took your mother from you is dead at your feet."
"Father says I'm not strong enough to face him yet," she said, wiping her face quickly with the back of her hand. "That he is a mutant now, with at least three others under his command."
"My brothers," he stated dispassionately.
"I can't believe it was the same man who brought us both so much misery. What are the chances?"
Indeed, it had shaken him to the core that the one who had abandoned him so long ago was Hamato Yoshi himself, but today was about Karai, not him.
"It was fate," Raphael said firmly. "And together, we will be strong enough to destroy whatever is left of the Hamato Clan."
"We need to start training more, together," she said, determined. "These other turtles, they will be like you, strong, but they will also share your weaknesses."
"Okay," he agreed reluctantly, looking over her battered body, "but no more sparring today."
Karai pursed her lips, ready to argue, then sighed. "Fine. What did you have in mind?"
Raphael presented her with his bouquet, holding them out. "These are for you."
"Raaaph. " Karai groaned in exasperation.
She looked almost betrayed at the thought that he had reduced her to a simpering damsel, to be cheered up at the cliché of flowers and chocolate. She should have known him better.
"These plants are special," he informed her.
"Oh?" she responded dubiously.
"When dried and ground together in the right proportions, they make a contact poison that causes temporary paralysis. When added to a basic blinding powder, the effect is immediate once it enters the eyes, nose or mouth."
Karai perked up, her expression a mixture of relief and interest.
"Would you like me to show you how to make it?" he asked.
Raphael was treated to a small smile of affirmation as she quickly collected her gi top and hopped down from the rock, then tucked herself in along his side so his arm would be around her as they walked back towards the manor.
Betrayal was one of the themes that came up often in Master Splinter's stories, but until now, it had only been a vague concept to Michelangelo; a word he merely knew the definition of, not the gravity of its reality.
He had been beaten, bound, and left as bait in Bradford's dojo, and none of it had hurt as much as finding out that his new best friend and childhood idol was part of the Foot Clan. Bradford had been the fighter in red who had almost strangled him to death in cold blood, then pretended to be his friend to get at his family. The unbridled disgust in his voice and the laughter at Michelangelo's expense after the great reveal had left him feeling gutted. He had never been ashamed to be a mutant before that moment, had never given in to the periods of self-doubt or even loathing that Leonardo and Donatello sometimes did.
Michelangelo was more angry at himself than Bradford, really. A leopard couldn't change its spots; it was he that had been too star-struck to see Bradford for the predator he was. He huffed through his nose, tested his bonds again, and grumbled into the tape over his mouth. There was no way he was wiggling out of these ropes before his brothers found him.
Unless...they weren't even out looking for him?
He had to admit, he'd been kind of a jerk, flaunting his human friends in Donnie and Leo's faces. Going on and on about how famous Bradford was, how cool he was in real life and how awesome a fighter. Then, when his brothers could take no more Chris Bradford talk, he'd switch gears to his brief nightly visits to Casey at the hospital instead. Casey seemed to enjoy his company, but now that he thought about it, no one else visited the vigilante. Maybe Casey was just using him, too, bored and lonely as he was.
A light clicking noise caught Michelangelo's attention. The five Foot soldiers that milled about in the semi-darkness hadn't noticed it, or the fact that Leonardo and Donatello were slipping inside the skylight high above their heads. The turtles descended silently on ropes into their midst, knocking each one out with quick efficiency.
All the while Michelangelo struggled to speak, his voice muffled behind the tape. His brothers were smart enough to know that they were walking into a trap, but they were also likely to be expecting the same type of odds they faced in the alley. This time there were many more Foot soldiers waiting in hiding in the basement of the dojo, and Bradford had a partner who was also an exceptional fighter. He didn't look like much of a ninja in blue jeans and a vest, but the man named Xever was undoubtedly a well-trained member of the Foot and a master of all things sharp and pointy.
Donatello reached him first as Leonardo kept guard. "Hey, Mikey," he said quietly, removing the tape from over his mouth.
"We have to go!" Michelangelo blurted in an urgent whisper.
"I know," Donatello answered soothingly, kunai in hand. "I'm just going to cut you free..."
"No time," Michelangelo said frantically, his muscles straining against the ropes. "Drag me, anything!"
"Uh, Donnie," Leonardo said warily, backing up closer to his brothers. "We're in trouble."
Michelangelo felt the cool steel of the small blade slide between his fingers as Donatello passed it on to him and stood.
Foot soldiers in black flooded the dojo, from both the basement and the main street entrances.
Bradford's smug laugh made Michelangelo shudder, and he set himself to the awkward task of sawing at the thick ropes between his wrists with the tiny knife.
"You didn't really think that you could sneak past us, did you?" Bradford sneered.
"We had to try," Leonardo said in a low, angry voice, his katanas at the ready.
"Get them," Bradford commanded.
Michelangelo's progress with the rope was excruciatingly slow, but he couldn't risk dropping the blade by being sloppy. He watched as his brothers were swarmed by ninjas, wave after endless wave. By the time he got through the rope, whipping his arms out from behind his back and yanking at the bit that still bound his ankles, his heart sank as he assessed the ongoing melee. Many Foot had fallen, but there were so many and his brothers were beginning to tire.
Bradford jumped into the fray, his katana clashing against Leonardo's two with enough force and skill to demand his full concentration. Four ninjas pounced at his open flank, sweeping his feet out from under him with staffs as he tried to maneuver around Bradford. As soon as Leonardo went down, Foot soldiers piled onto him and disarmed him. Donatello wasn't any better off, and finally free of the ropes, Michelangelo stood up and spun around in search of a weapon.
Xever grinned, spinning two butterfly knives to attention, one in each hand. Michelangelo gritted his teeth in anger. Xever had been standing behind him the entire time, watching him struggle out of the ropes as his brothers were overcome by impossible odds.
"Come on, tough guy," Xever taunted.
Michelangelo sprung forward, brandishing the kunai and a fist larger than the man's head. Xever avoided the blade deftly; he practically moved like a snake, dodging and striking in turn. Foot soldiers surrounded him, and it was all Michelangelo could do to deflect and avoid the damage that was trying to come at him from all sides.
The now-hated voice of Bradford crept up smoothly from behind and said, "That's just about enough out of you."
A blunt strike to the back of the neck made the world go dark. He hadn't been out for long, maybe a minute, tops, but it was enough. He was being dragged backwards by what felt like a hundred hands, and metal closed tightly around his wrists before they were hoisted into the air. He had joined Leonardo and Donatello along one of the walls in the basement of the dojo, each of them chained and shackled with their hands up above their heads.
To his left, Donnie looked at the floor, bruised and weary. To his right, Leonardo stared in a cold rage directly at Bradford.
"I'm sorry, guys, this is all my fault," Michelangelo said.
"Yes, yes it is," said Xever. "And it is about to get much, much worse," he promised.
At his side, Bradford smiled. Behind them, the horde of Foot ninjas were standing at attention or tending to each others wounds.
Bradford took a few steps forward, regarding the three of them like specimens on display. "Where is the rat? Where is Hamato Yoshi?"
"What did you tell him, Mikey?" Donatello asked under his breath.
"I never said anything about Sensei," Michelangelo answered, his heart racing.
"How do you know so much about us?" Leonardo asked sternly.
Bradford closed the distance between him and Leonardo quickly, punching him in the face. "I ask the questions, not you."
Michelangelo and Donatello thrashed against their restraints, their chains clanking loudly overhead.
Leonardo stared into Bradford's eyes unwaveringly, and spoke to calm his brothers. "Stay strong. Tell them nothing."
Bradford laughed cruelly, turning back to join Xever. "We have a hero."
"Not for long, we won't," Xever said, fiddling incessantly with one of his butterfly knives.
"Yoshi will come looking for you eventually," Bradford said, addressing the turtles. "Or, we will get his location out of one of you."
"That's right, turtle freaks," Xever grinned, sauntering up to where they hung helplessly. "Master Shredder would prefer you alive, but he also said to use any means necessary to find the rat. So..." he trailed off, tapping Donatello's plastron gently just below the neck with his knife.
"No," said Bradford. "Start with Michelangelo. Leave the one in blue for last."
On either side of Michelangelo, low growls imperceptible to human ears erupted in unison from the throats of his brothers as Xever moved to stand in front of him. He gulped heavily around the lump forming in his throat. He couldn't remember a time in his life when he had been more afraid than this, watching the sadistic smile spread over Xever's face as he contemplated Michelangelo.
"Where is Hamato Yoshi?" asked Bradford again.
Michelangelo stayed silent.
"Xever..." prompted Bradford.
"I'm going to enjoy this," purred Xever, readying his knife.
"There's a fire upstairs!" yelled one of the Foot soldiers in the group.
"What?" Bradford said irritably, spinning to face his ranks.
Indeed, now that it had been pointed out, the faint smell of smoke had wisped downstairs and the ninjas started to murmur amongst themselves.
"The rat is here," said Xever, losing interest in his hanging prey.
"Get the fire extinguishers! Get upstairs and be ready to fight," ordered Bradford.
Michelangelo let out a long sigh of relief as everyone cleared out of the lower level. Upstairs, footsteps thundered and people shouted in confusion.
"Is it really Master Splinter?" asked Michelangelo.
"I don't know," replied Leonardo, who was scanning the room and the shackles for some way to get loose. "That wasn't part of the plan. He knew they were trying to get to him, that's why we didn't want him to come here in the first place."
Within seconds, fire alarms went off in the building, wailing into their sensitive ears. They all cringed and tried to shake themselves free, but it was no use. It seemed they had traded death by torture for death by fire, and the smoke began rolling down the stairs steadily and making them cough.
A single Foot soldier emerged on the steps, rushing towards them with a bundle of towels. The ninja threw a towel over each of their heads, and Michelangelo gasped with surprised relief as he realized they were sopping wet with cold water, cutting down the sting of smoke in his nose and eyes. His wrist and ankle shackles were unlocked, and after a quick glance under the towel to make sure Leo and Donnie were with him, he followed the Foot soldier with blind trust through a window well and out into a narrow alley.
As soon as they were outside, Leonardo took over, directing them to the nearest manhole for shelter away from the chaos. Smoke, sirens, and lights from a firetruck, an ambulance and a couple of squad cars provided the much-needed cover to slip away unnoticed. Still, Leonardo surged on, taking a twisting,winding path through the sewers so that even Michelangelo didn't know exactly where they were anymore.
Exhausted and panting, Michelangelo found that he was still clutching the cold, wet towel in his hands as if his life depended on it. "Are we safe now?" he asked tiredly.
"Maybe," Leonardo said, looking back suspiciously.
About ten paces behind them, gasping for breath with his hands on his knees and head almost between his legs, mask discarded, was the Foot soldier who had freed them.
"Hi...guys," he wheezed, looking up and giving them a weak wave, his black hair spiked and wild from water and sweat.
"Casey?!" Michelangelo whooped happily, rushing him and scooping him up in a hug.
Casey gasped, eyes wide. "Dude, my ribs! OW!"
"Oh, yeah, sorry," Michelangelo said, setting him down. "Wait, are you in the Foot Clan, too?" he asked despondently.
Casey snorted. "No. Just found a spare pair of ninja pajamas in the dojo."
Leo tilted his head and regarded Casey. "What where you doing there?"
"Well, Mikey invited me to come over and meet Chris Bradford and play some basketball tonight."
"That's what the B stands for!" Michelangelo interrupted excitedly.
"Anyways," Casey continued, "I got out of the hospital today, and I figured, hey, why not?"
"I guess it's a good thing you did," Donatello said begrudgingly.
"Yeah, too bad the guy is such a douche," Casey mused. "It really ruins his star power."
"So you set his dojo on fire?" Michelangelo asked.
Casey grinned. "Hell yeah. I knew those guys wouldn't hang around once the firefighters and cops started showing up."
"You saved us," Leonardo stated, still in disbelief.
"Of course I did. We're friends."
"Aw yeah, human friend!" said Mikey, practically giddy as he and Casey fist-bumped.
"Look," Casey said sagely, "not all people are assholes. I mean, most of them are, but not all of them."
He then fished a pill bottle out of his pocket and winced as he dry swallowed one. "Is there somewhere nearby that I can crash?" he asked. "I'm really sore."
"You can totally crash at our place!" Michelangelo said gleefully.
"Wait, what?" said Donatello.
"We can't just bring him to the lair, Mikey," said Leonardo.
"Why not? Hasn't he proven himself? He saved our lives, dudes," Michelangelo pointed out. "I'm sure Master Splinter would love to meet him."
Casey smiled a toothless smile at Leonardo.
"Fine, but only because I'm too tired to argue," Leonardo sighed. "Come on, this way."
Leonardo led them on, Casey close behind and Donatello trailing last. Michelangelo let himself drift over to Donatello's side and asked in a whisper, "Donnie, what's a douche?"
Donatello groaned at the sewer ceiling. "I'm not explaining that to you right now."
Chapter 5: Fight or Flight
Raphael is sent on a brutal quest that forces him to confront an old trauma.
I stumble through the wreckage, rusted from the rain
There's nothing left to salvage, no one left to blame
Among the broken mirrors, I don't look the same
I'm rusted from the rain, I'm rusted from the rain
Dissect me 'til my blood runs down into the drain
My bitter heart is pumping oil into my veins
I'm nothing but a tin man, don't feel any pain
–"Rusted from the Rain," from Billy Talent
Inching carefully through the underbrush, Raphael paused at the end of the treeline that sheltered him, the Elite archer known as Gero at his side. Under the moonlit sky, a pale, L-shaped building stood out in stark relief in the darkness, situated in the middle of the clearing they bordered.
Recent Foot espionage had revealed this place to be a training centre for anyone with the coin and fortitude to endure the regiment. The catch was that new students had to be invited by those who had trained here previously, which was how they had managed to maintain their secrecy for so long. It was also very secluded, about a two hour hike from the nearest village. In that respect it reminded Raphael of the Elite training camp, except that had been a farm and this was clearly a training facility. The longer portion of the 'L' was living quarters and rooms, with the shorter portion being the dojo.
The head Sensei here was the last practicing Grand-Master of ninjutsu that remained of the disgraced Hamato Clan, having fled the Foot takeover fifteen years ago. Master Shredder's push to uncover whether there were any more Hamato loyalists left in Japan had been fruitful, and not only in this discovery. The Foot's long and frustrating investigation into who was responsible for churning out so many well-trained mercenaries with their eyes set on the Yakuza bounties against them suddenly made perfect sense. The more recent batches of pupils here were primarily those very assassins and Yakuza soldiers looking for specialized martial arts experience.
Fitting that a Hamato would be happy enough to benefit off of such a situation, preparing men to fight the Foot Clan for money while never getting directly involved in the crossfire. Raphael scowled. They were about to put an end to that right now.
Master Shredder had made his orders perfectly clear. No mercy. No survivors.
With painstakingly slow and deliberate movements, Gero and Raphael both shifted into an archer's crouch and notched an arrow into their bows. There were two men on guard outside of the building. Gero pointed at the sentry who sat on the red-shingled roof, his position partially obscured by the pointed apex. Raphael nodded infinitesimally in agreement, taking no offense to the more seasoned man taking the harder shot.
The other sentry was leisurely pacing the grassy perimeter of the building, and had disappeared around the far side not long ago. He was due to round the corner and come into sight once again any time now. Raphael and Gero pulled the arrows back, the strings of their bows taut and ready. Something in their careful movements still managed to draw the eye of the man perched on the roof, and he turned his head towards the blackened thicket where they hid.
The two Foot archers froze in place completely, relying on the shadows to keep them concealed and ignoring the pestering of the biting and buzzing insects that had plagued them all evening. The sentry on the ground finally turned the corner, signaling the release of their quivering arrows. They hit their marks within seconds of each another, one high, one low; two instant kills. The man on the roof slouched forward unnaturally, while Raphael's mark dropped to the ground with barely a sound. The chorus of frogs and crickets continued uninterrupted and the night remained calm.
Raphael and Gero both released a long breath, allowing themselves a moment to stand and stretch out their cramped muscles.
Gero moved along the edge of the trees and positioned himself so he could cover two of the three exit points in the building. The dojo had its own door to access the outside, and there was another at the inset of the 'L' shape that appeared to lead in and out of a kitchen area. The front entrance of the living quarters was off to the far right side, almost exactly where Raphael's arrow had felled the sentry.
Raphael set his bow down beside Gero. It would be unsuitable and cumbersome in close quarters.
"Are you ready?" Raphael asked, his voice barely a whisper.
Gero nodded. "I'll have a clear vantage if anyone tries to escape over here, as long as none of them get by you on the other side."
"No one is getting past me," Raphael assured darkly before turning away.
He crept up to and then along the faded white wall and crouched by the door, straining to hear anything on the other side. Nothing.
He drew his katana and slowly turned the latch on the door, his heartbeat speeding up in anticipation of some loud click, alarm, or attack, but there was nothing.
Inside, all was dark and silent, save for the light sound of snoring drifting down the hallway. The living area was surprisingly well furnished and modern, a far cry from the Spartan existence he had known at the farm.
His large feet padded silently towards the hall, where Raphael discovered two doorways on either side. The sliding door was partially open to the first one on the right, volunteering the unfortunate occupants sleeping inside to be the next to perish. The bedroom was split by two simple bamboo and silk dividers, creating three separate partitions with an occupied bedroll on the floor of each. The sleeping men wore only light pants in the still, balmy night, the tattoos on their arms and torsos exposing them as mobsters.
Raphael looked down on them impassively in the dark, steeling himself for his grim duty. He dispatched the first two without a sound, one critical hit to each vulnerable body and they were never to wake again. Truly, it was a cleaner death than they deserved.
The third man, however, seemed to have that sixth sense of imminent danger that some warriors possessed. He snapped awake as Raphael rounded the silk divider, his hand darting out and seizing a dagger on the floor by his bedroll. He lunged forward in an attempt to bury the dagger in Raphael's thigh. The turtle side-stepped it deftly, and with a flick of his wrist his blade slashed smoothly through the flesh of the man's throat.
Raphael grimaced as he was spattered with a fine mist of blood as his foe collapsed. He had prevented the man from calling out a warning to the others in his final moments, but the dagger clattered to the ground, breaking the silence with a seemingly unjustifiable cacophony.
He held his breath and cursed savagely in his head as he heard movement in another room.
Peeking carefully out of the doorway he was in, he confirmed that the hallway was still clear. Straining his already heightened senses, he could hear someone in the room directly across from him unsheathing a sword. The door started to slide open, and Raphael crossed the hall in two purposefully heavy footsteps.
He wanted to keep his advantage, counting on whoever was in that room not to charge out blindly into a confrontation with an unknown number of enemies. It was a gamble, but it paid off. The people inside had backed away from the door, preparing themselves to attack whoever dared to cross the threshold. The door had only slid open a few inches, and on opposite sides of the same wall, Raphael and the men he hunted remained out of sight from one another.
Raphael removed his black cloak and took a deep breath, knowing he could not hesitate once he sprung into action. He hung the hood of the cloak over the bloodied tip of his katana, holding it in his left hand. In his right, he clutched a tanto, the eight inch straight blade reversed to protect wrist and forearm. He squatted as low to the ground as possible before sliding the door open with a violent sweep of his foot, simultaneously thrusting his katana up and into the room. The cloak on the end of his weapon was impaled into the wall by another sword instantly.
"Intruders!" Two voices from within sounded the alarm.
The man who had attacked his decoy gasped in shock at the sight of Raphael crouched in the entrance, frantically trying to pull his katana from where it had embedded harmlessly into the wall and pinned the black cloak. The second man was waiting directly to the right, having been out of sight until Raphael ducked inside, still as low to the ground as possible. Raphael blocked the downward plunge of that man's katana with his own, then drove his tanto directly into the man's abdomen, jerking the blade up harshly towards his sternum before removing it. He fell to the ground with a horrible, gurgling groan, knocking a dimly lit oil lamp from a nightstand behind him on his way down. It shattered and the small puddle of oil ignited immediately.
The other man had managed to free his katana from the wall and swung it down towards the mutant, a deadly whisper through the air. Raphael crossed his katana and tanto above his head, catching the down-swoop of the man's sword as it pressed eagerly into the bloodied 'V' formed by Raphael's blades. His emerald eyes glittered coldly from behind his red mask as the point of the blade was stopped mere inches from his face, almost insulted that this human was still trying to push forward as if he thought he had any chance of overpowering him. Still trapped in the crossed weapons, Raphael swept the sword aside, surging to his full height and throwing all of his weight into shouldering his opponent's chest. The momentum combined with unyielding muscle and the jagged ridge of his shell crushed the man against the wall, a punishing force that drove the wind from the his lungs and cracked his ribcage. The sword clattered to the ground between them, and by the time the man had slid down the wall until he was seated on the floor, he was dead.
There was no time for reprieve, however, as the sounds of people whispering and arming themselves reached Raphael's ears and made him anxious about his position. He could not afford to have anyone slip by and escape through the front door, something that would be a very real possibility if he got tied up fighting in this room. Also, the fire in the corner had spread up the wall and onto the bedroll, filling the small space with acrid smoke.
He opted to spring out from the room, throwing a handful of shuriken to buy himself a few seconds to assess his situation. Five men had gathered in the hall, two of which yelped as metal shrapnel bit into their flesh. They were seasoned warriors who had been prepared for an attack, but nothing could have prepared them for him. Seeing the legendary Foot Enforcer, a burly mutant turtle that stood almost six feet tall, shocked them just long enough for Raphael to get his bearings.
He lunged forward with uncanny speed, swinging his katana and beheading the closest man outright. He spun on his heel and brought a sai into his left hand, blocking an overhand stroke from a sword with it and parrying another with his katana simultaneously. Raphael twisted his sai and yanked, disarming the man and swiftly striking his face with a forward elbow. He went down, nose broken and bleeding, only for another attacker with a naginata to take his place. Raphael narrowly avoided the thrust of its blade, while his katana clashed repeatedly with that of the man who was now slowly trying to flank him to the right.
Raphael growled loudly as a bald man took a swing at his side with a short sword, chipping out another painful notch from the unguarded ridge of his carapace on the left. He kicked the bald one sharply enough to slam him into the wall a few feet away, leaving only one swordsman and the naginata wielder to deal with directly. He got a fatal hit in on the swordsman, at the cost of a glancing slash from the naginata across his forearm.
The bald man and the one with the broken nose picked themselves up and fled towards the dojo. They would meet their end at one of Gero's arrows for their cowardice, no doubt, or they may have been alerting their Sensei, wherever he was. This left the man with the naginata alone and without any real hope of defeating Raphael one on one, and he was dispatched without hesitation.
Unable to catch his breath before moving on, Raphael left the three bodies in the smoky, blood-spattered hallway. The walls were blackened all along the left as the fire picked up momentum, and the scent of charred bamboo and burnt flesh stung his nostrils. Sword and sai in hand, he passed by the kitchen area, mind racing.
This type of hit would have normally required a three, maybe four person unit, but Master Shredder had been distracted and rushed. Raphael and Gero had been sent in on incomplete intel, with the expectation of six to eight students and their sensei, but already Raphael had encountered a dozen people, including the sentries that had been posted outside. The element of surprise was completely blown, and now he was going to have to fight a ninjutsu Master that was potentially as skilled as Shredder himself, alone and to the death.
The entrance to the dojo hung open in invitation, but he hesitated at the threshold, trying to listen over the pops and crackles behind him as the flames consumed the walls and spread across the hall. As far as he could tell, there was no one waiting to ambush him from either side of the doorway, and with white-knuckled grips on the hilts of his weapons, he peered inside.
The large rectangular room was lit with bright oil lamps, and set up as one would expect a classic and humble dojo to be. The entrance was more to the right, with an alter directly across the room from him and matted floor stretching off to the left. On that far end was the door that led outside, and it, too, was open, suggesting Gero had gotten some target practice after all. Sweeping his gaze to the right, he noticed a full partition that cordoned off what Raphael assumed to be more bedrooms. He regarded it suspiciously, wondering if there were any more people hiding in wait for him there, but didn't have time to dwell on it.
A lone figure stepped boldly out of the bouncing shadows and into the center of the dojo, an older man with thinning grey hair and a skinny beard that reached mid-chest. He sneered in contempt.
"Come, Demon," the man ordered. "Let me put your dishonorable soul to rest."
Raphael barked out a laugh, entering the dojo fully, eyes snapping to white once more. "Your students are mobsters and assassins," he spat, "and you want to talk to me about honor? Typical Hamato."
"It speaks," Master Hamato snickered condescendingly, sliding a chain slowly through his hands and bringing a sickle shaped blade into a ready stance. "I'm glad you have enough wits about you to understand why I'm killing you."
Growling through clenched teeth, Raphael advanced carefully, cursing himself internally as his heart thudded in his chest. It just had to be a Master wielding a kusarigama. Everything else about this mission had gone sideways, so why wouldn't he be up against the one weapon he had the weakest defense against? Just looking at one made the scar on his plastron heat up with shame, the result of a long ago punishment and the first mark of many that Master Shredder had inflicted upon him. He'd had an avoidance of training with them ever since, and now he might pay for that folly with his life.
The old man's eyes darted momentarily from Raphael's slow approach to focus behind him. No doubt the wall there was starting to darken and peel, and smoke was already pouring into the large dojo all around them. Raphael took the distraction as an opening to lunge forward, but a thick blade whistled by his face in warning, halting him. His cheek stung, warmth blooming as blood seeped lazily from a shallow scratch.
With another flick of his wrist, Master Hamato's weapon was back in hand. He tapped the grip of the kusari portion, splitting it into two thinner, customized sickles, one still attached to the chain and the other spinning briefly, free in his left hand.
When the chained blade swung out at him again, Raphael blocked it with the sai, trying to wrap the chain around it and haul it out of the man's grasp. His katana clashed with the other kusari as they spun and maneuvered in and out of each other's guards, until the tangle of sai and chain was resolved by Raphael's sai going skittering across the floor. He double handed the hilt of his katana in proper form, knowing that the human would not have the strength to break that grip and disarm him.
Regardless, it was soon clear that Raphael was in over his head. The old sensei was fast, and definitely almost as skilled as Master Shredder. Anytime he closed the gap between them, he was having to spin and duck away from the much longer reach of the kusari on the chain, plus the hand-held one once he did manage to get into range to use his sword. He had already felt their bite a few times, and blood was now flowing freely down his arms and one leg.
It was getting harder to breathe, and he panted in the smoke-filled dojo, a wall of flames behind him and Master Hamato purposefully keeping himself between Raphael and the exit to the outdoors. His only chance of backup was getting outside and drawing the man out into the open for Gero to shoot. Alternately, if he could just get the kusarigama away from him, Raphael would be able to crush him hand to hand.
Finally the kusarigama's chain wrapped around Raphael's katana, the bloodied sickle hanging limply below it, and the man tried to wrench the sword away from him. The metal of his blade whined as the chain tightened and threatened to snap the tempered steel. They were close to the exit now, the only place left in the dojo where the air was somewhat breathable as the smoke sucked the oxygen from the room, and although the old man could not pull the katana out of Raphael's grip, he was not losing his weapon so easily either. He hung on with both hands, onto the chain and his free kusari blade, which jutted out towards Raphael so that if the turtle pulled too hard, it would stab him in the face or shoulder.
It was a dangerous tug of war, and when a woman suddenly appeared from outside and flung a kunai in his direction, it was all Raphael could do to haul himself aside just enough to avoid having it plunge into him.
"I told you stay out of here," scolded Master Hamato, his voice hoarse.
Raphael used the moment of distraction to kick the old man away, leveling his sword and allowing the links of chain to drag down the blade and disengage. He growled through bared teeth in frustration as two people now blocked the only way out from the growing inferno.
The woman laughed without humor, drawing a katana and moving into position next to her Sensei. "I just couldn't miss the opportunity to meet the only...creature...to ever survive my poison."
Raphael's eyes widened behind his mask, and his next breath died in his throat. She was the source of the poison that had almost killed him, that had made him wish for death for days and had weakened him for months. He lowered his sword and stepped back, uncaring of the inferno behind him or the way the smoke stung tears from his eyes. A chill rippled up his spine despite the heat at his back at the certainty that the kunai which had so narrowly missed him had carried that very same poison.
His nostrils flared in panic as he regarded her katana suspiciously.
"That's right, Enforcer," she purred. "One nick from my blade is all it will take. I promise that you won't survive it this time, freak or not."
As the pair stepped further into the burning building, Raphael backed up another few steps. He squinted through smoke and tears, his heart hammering painfully in his chest. His breath came in ragged, insufficient drags, making his thoughts blacken around the edges until all that was left was the acute memory of waking up to his own screams as the fever had burned through his veins like molten lava.
Almost blindly and on pure instinct, he bolted towards the open door, willing to take any consequence to avoid another taste of her poison, and barreled through the old man. Raphael barely registered the grunt of pain the man let out on impact, or the sting of his kusari blades as they hooked into his shoulder. He kept going, pulling Master Hamato along as he all but flung himself out into the night and landed on all fours in the lush grass.
He tried to get up and keep moving, but his momentum was hindered and he found that he still couldn't breathe. While the old man couldn't overpower Raphael's desperate charge, he had managed to regain control of the situation. The chain was tightened around his throat and with a mighty tug, his arms were pinned to his sides. Forced to his knees, he was held in place by the man behind him. His foot was firmly planted onto one of Raphael's calves to keep him still, and the mutant wheezed pitifully through his panic attack as best he could, every muscle tight and his heart seizing.
Framed by firelight, the woman approached them, hardly tall enough to look down at Raphael.
"I can't," he gasped frantically as she lifted her poisoned katana casually. I can't die like this. I can't, I won't, his mind raged.
"Nothing but an animal after all," she sniffed, flicking her blade towards him.
Focusing whatever strength he had left into this final movement, Raphael spun his upper body to the side as violently as he could manage, throwing the man behind him off balance and into the path of the blade. As she had said, it only took a scratch. Raphael scrambled back and shook off the hands that clawed at his shell until the man thumped stiffly to the ground. The metal chains, now slackened, slid easily over Raphael's bloodied skin and coiled into the grass at his feet.
The woman was on her knees, keening and shaking the body of her Master, trying to rouse him pointlessly from the deadly poison she took so much pride in. She was so shaken with grief that it took her too long to get a hold of herself and rearm; Raphael picked up the kusari blade from the dewy grass and plunged it right into her chest with a savage roar.
He took up her katana with the intention of throwing it into the blazing building, back into hell where it belonged, when one last figure rushed him with an enraged cry of his own. Raphael snarled, feral and half blind with rage, then turned and ran him through.
"Mother...grandfather…" he whispered into Raphael's bloody shoulder.
Raphael watched the light go out the boy's eyes in disbelief, the heat and panic of the battle instantly dying with him. The boy couldn't have been any older than he was.
"No, no no no," Raphael chanted to himself, sinking down into the damp grass beside him in horror.
This kid wasn't so different from him, raised as a soldier into a feud he'd had no part in. He had never had much of a choice, but Raphael had just made sure that any possibility of one had been taken from him, irrevocably.
Tears blurred his vision and he gasped back a sob. He couldn't do this right now. The dizziness from not being able to breathe properly for so long was clearing, and he had to make sure no one was left.
The thought of any more killing made him feel heavy, burdened in a spiritual sense. He walked out towards where he had left Gero, knowing what he would find. It was almost a relief when Raphael found the two bodies of the men who had fled the dojo earlier on. They had indeed met their ends by Gero's arrows, but the smoke from the fire had obscured the other ninja's vision enough for someone to get the drop on him, probably the boy. When Raphael found Gero, he was curled into a ghastly, twisted position in the bushes, a poison dart sticking out of his arm.
Half the dojo had already burned down to support beams and embers, and the rest was still ablaze. Raphael trudged around the perimeter of the clearing, checking for the scent of anyone who might have tried to escape into the woods. There were none. He had completed his mission; every last one of them was dead.
He was cold, numb to the core as he retraced his and Gero's steps through the thick forest alone, but he embraced it. His wounds, failures, guilt, doubts, shame and anger would all be waiting for him when the shock wore off, but for now all he could do was put one foot in front of the other until his world finally went black.
Karai hadn't known it was possible to feel so much relief and so much dread simultaneously. Alerted by the ruckus of ninjas scrambling around the expansive foyer and the orders they barked at each other, she had run from the dining room, abandoning her lone place at the dinner table. The sight of Raphael standing just inside the front door, covered from head to toe in dirt and blood, stopped her cold in her tracks.
An unmasked Foot soldier brushed past her swiftly, apparently the appointed messenger to her Father.
"Raph!" she called out, closing the distance between them quickly and gesturing everyone else away with a wave of her hand. "I knew it, I knew you weren't dead," she whispered vehemently, grabbing one of his huge hands in her own and squeezing as if to make sure he was real.
Raphael showed no sign of having heard her, his gaze fixed over her shoulder, and Karai faltered. Releasing his hand, she backed up a few steps so she could take a more critical look at him, but he was so filthy that it was impossible to assess his condition. She bit her lip worriedly, hating the tense silence that he had imposed between them and wondering how much of the dried blood that clung to him was actually his.
He remained eerily still until her father came into view. Stiffly, Raphael stepped forward before kneeling and bowing his head respectfully.
"It is done, Master," he rumbled.
"I've heard," Saki replied tersely, "and while I am pleased that you completed this mission, I had to waste extra resources when you failed to show up for your rendezvous driver days ago. Care to explain yourself?"
"I was wounded and blacked out in the forest on my way there. It had rained a lot by the time I woke up, and I knew no one would be able to track me so I found my own way home."
Saki raised an eyebrow and regarded him coldly. "So I see. Is there anything else I should know?"
Raphael hesitated, his voice quiet and monotonous as he answered. "It was as you said it would be, Yakuza and mercenaries under a Master wearing the Hamato crest, except there were many more men training there than we originally thought." He paused before continuing in the same dead voice that was raising the hairs on the back of Karai's neck. "The Master's daughter was also a skilled kunoichi, the one responsible for creating the poison that has been used against us in the past."
"Excellent," Saki said. "Our eradication is complete, and the Foot Clan is stronger than ever. No one will be foolish enough to antagonize our people while we are overseas." He shifted his attention. "Karai," he barked, "see to it that Raphael is cleaned up and bandaged immediately. I need you both ready for the flight to America tomorrow evening. Understood?"
"Yes, Master," they said in unison.
"Very well." With that, he turned on his heel and retreated to whatever business he had been interrupted from.
Raphael got to his feet, putting his hand out to ward Karai off before she even moved. Her voice caught on the inhale of her breath, her lips parted to speak, desperate to ask him if he was alright as he resumed his stilted gait and walked away from her. That type of doting had always driven him crazy. Nevertheless, her father had tasked her with making sure the stubborn mutant tended his wounds properly, which, if left to his own devices, he surely would not.
She trailed after him slowly, keeping a large gap between them so he wouldn't feel crowded. With each step his shoulders gradually began to slump and his feet to drag, swaying slightly until finally he leaned against a wall at a standstill.
This time she couldn't stop herself. "Are you okay?" left her mouth before she could quell it as she flew to his side, her hand gingerly touching his arm. She waited for the outburst of anger but it didn't come.
He just kept staring up the hall, eyes empty, and muttered. "Isn't that pretty obvious?"
She wanted to make a quip, the usual type of banter they used to distract one another from pain, but she couldn't get over the wrongness of him. He was too cold, too distant; possibly still in some state of shock from trauma or blood loss or both.
"Locker room showers," Karai said firmly. "The space is large and no one will be in there at this time. We have to clean you up so I can see how bad it is, alright?"
She tugged at his arm, encouraging him to put it over her shoulders, then regretted it almost immediately when hundreds of pounds of turtle shifted his weight against her side. He managed to find more of a balance and they shuffled awkwardly down the hall towards the private dojos. By the time they reached the nearest locker room, Raphael was leaning on her as heavily as he could without sending her crashing to the ground, they were both panting with exertion, and Karai felt her shoulders protesting painfully every step of the way.
She heaved him off as gently as possible, and he braced himself against the tile wall under one of the shower heads. He hadn't spoken the entire way here, hadn't responded to Karai's gasping words of encouragement, and he didn't answer her now when she asked about the water temperature as she adjusted it. Sighing, she decided a hot shower might warm up his core temperature, and if it was too much he could adjust it himself.
Dried mud had flaked off of Raphael and all over her, and she was sweaty from the Herculean effort of helping him get there. Wincing, she turned the water pressure on a neighboring shower head up to the highest setting and simply stepped under it fully clothed, letting the hot water beat down on her sore shoulders. It probably would have been wiser to call on some Foot soldiers to help her out, but she knew Raphael would be opposed to having anyone else seeing him this vulnerable, so she had persevered.
She looked over at Raphael, who had tucked his face against his forearms still rested on the wall. It seemed as if layer after layer of grime ran down him and to his feet, leaving an appalling amount of grit around the drain. The water was almost black at first, then tinted brownish red as the last of the dirt, ash and blood washed away. His wounds were slowly revealed, some of which appeared quite gruesome and wept fresh blood, and Karai realized with a pang how close she had come to losing to him.
"Raph..." she said, her voice soft but urgent. "I was going to hide away tonight. Father's been so driven lately, I knew he wouldn't delay his trip to America for me if I bailed. I planned to go find you as soon as that plane took off. Their search for you was rushed and hampered by the rain and the need for discretion, but you have to know that I wasn't leaving here without finding you."
She reached out through the water and steam to rest a hand on his bicep and his whole body tensed.
"Please just go," he mumbled, barely audible above the spattering of the water.
She huffed, turning off her shower and wringing the excess water out of her short hair. "I still need to dress your wounds," she reminded him as she eyed the cuts and gouges adorning his body. It was a wonder he hadn't bled out, mutant healing abilities or not. "Is that a burn?" she asked, her hand drifting back to him as she noticed a few damaged scutes on his shell.
"Don't." He turned his head as he bit out the warning, his eyes flashing feral and white.
"Don't what?" she snapped back. She was too tired to play this game with him right now, to let him keep himself shut down within some flawed notion of self preservation. "Help? Care about you? Worry?"
"Don't make me feel anything!" he snarled, turning on her, his voice echoing shockingly in the shower room.
Karai took a clumsy, squelching step back in surprise, her eyes narrowing. "What the hell happened to you?" she yelled back. Finally she had begun to crack his emotionless facade, and rage was exactly what she had expected to seep through first.
"Just leave me alone!" he roared.
He growled savagely and cocked back a fist, but she would not be intimidated by this seemingly mindless display. Karai tensed, but stared him dead in the eye as his fist swooshed past her face like a wrecking ball and thudded into the tile behind her. His knuckles stayed in contact with the cracked porcelain for a few moments and he looked down at her, his breaths coming in shallow pants once again. When he blinked away the white over his eyes, the familiar emerald left behind was full of shame.
"No," Karai repeated, softly this time. "I told you I wasn't going to leave you. Talk to me, Raph."
A few more minutes of silence went by, Raphael's gaze averted but no longer glazed over. He winced in pain and gritted his teeth. "There were too many of them, okay?" he spat. "It was practically a suicide mission."
"Father wouldn't have sent only the two of you if he had known."
Raphael didn't look convinced. "He didn't know and he sent me anyway," he said, and the hint of betrayal in his tone sent an icy finger up her spine.
He bowed his head and sighed as the numbing state of shock he must have been in for the past few days wore off, and he crumbled a little more, slowly sinking to his knees on the unforgiving floor. "By the time I got to the Master of the dojo, I was tired and he was ready for me. Him and his daughter. Her sword was covered in that poison."
Raphael's whole body shuddered violently, and Karai carefully placed an encouraging hand on his shoulder. He didn't talk about the incident with the poison, but she had heard secondhand that he'd been in agony for days, and she knew for a fact that it had taken months for him to recover physically.
"The dojo was burning down all around us and I was losing. I panicked like a cornered animal," he said bitterly. "It was a fluke that I defeated them at all." His hand came up to rest on her back, a warm weight to contrast the now cold, soaked shirt that hung heavily on her frame, and pulled her closer to hide his face against her belly. "She had a son."
Unconsciously, Karai squeezed him a bit tighter as her stomach dropped. She didn't want to hear the rest, but she had been the one to make him open up in the first place and she braced herself for what was next.
His voice broke into a heaving sob. "He rushed me and I just...reacted. I murdered his whole family right in front of him. I killed a kid," he wheezed.
"Our age never stopped them from trying to kill us, for years!" Karai replied angrily, thinking of her isolated childhood, the loses they had suffered, and the assassination attempts, three of which she had taken care of herself. Surely no one had ever mourned for their lost innocence. "I hate everything about this mission and how it went down for you, Raph, but you made it home and we are safer now."
"Then why don't I feel any better?" he asked darkly.
"Because it was still a horrible thing that you had to do."
Karai had heard from the scouts who had looked for Raphael that the remains of at least a dozen people had been at the scene of the burnt out dojo, not including Gero. There was no pussyfooting around that it had been a massacre at her father's orders, and despite the criminality of those who perished, that kind of carnage would have been difficult for even a veteran to handle.
"You had no choice," she said gently, hoping to offer him some comfort.
"Neither did he," Raphael whispered shakily. "He was just like us, just like you, and I killed him."
"Shhhh," she soothed, feeling his struggle to rein back his tears.
"Stay close to me in New York," he said fiercely.
"I mean it," he growled hoarsely, looking up at her and giving her a small shake by her hips for emphasis.
His eyes were wild now, scared, even. "Master Shredder is not himself. I know how much you want to find Hamato Yoshi, but don't let your father make you a pawn..."
"Don't let anyone else hear you talking like that," she said, cutting him off.
She didn't think that her father would make the same mistake twice, especially if her or Raph were a part of it. Regardless, she shivered in her waterlogged clothes on the outskirts of the shower spray as one of the most feared assassins in Japan continued to cling to her, bloody and broken, and tugged his face back to rest on her midriff.
"We'll watch each others backs, okay?" she whispered after reaching out and turning off the cooling water. "Now let me get you patched up so you don't die on the way there, you stubborn ass."
Author's note:This fic was on an unofficial hiatus while I was experimenting in other fandoms and trying some new things, and also taking care of real life drama. Happy to announce that the HIATUS IS OFFICIALLY OVER, this fic is once more going to be updated, and warning, this chapter is where we start to earn the M warning for violence. Enjoy and let me know if you are still around for this, I love you guys!
Chapter 6: Loyalty
What is the true cost of loyalty?
What if this whole crusade's
And behind it all there's a price to be paid
For the blood
On which we dine
Justified in the name of the holy and the divine
-"The Hand That Feeds" by Nine Inch Nails
For the first time in months, a stroll through the city streets in downtown Manhattan didn't feel like a job, which was odd, since that was exactly what Casey was on a quest for. Though he remained vigilant for signs of danger or any shady happenings, the bustle and vibe of the city was very different in midday than it was after dark.
The company didn't hurt either. Trying to be subtle, he glanced down at April, who was walking close enough beside him on the crowded sidewalk that their elbows brushed periodically. He had to admit, when the turtles had introduced him to their “other human friend”, he hadn't expected her to be such a fox, or a teenager from his old high school. Beyond the superficial stuff, she was kind, loyal, brave as hell, and an absolute firecracker. He could see why they had accepted her wholly into their little family so quickly.
Her blue eyes met his, catching him staring, and she arched an eyebrow. “What?”
“Nothin',” he replied, averting his gaze quickly. “Just thinking it's nice to take a walk without looking for trouble, ya know?”
“Well, if you keep hanging out with the guys you won't need to look very far. Trouble always seems to find them.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Casey laughed.
“It's kind of cool having someone else who knows about the turtles,” April admitted. “I spend so much time with them, it's really hard not being able to talk about them to anyone else, or to share our crazy stories.”
“I know, right? I still can't believe we saved the city and no one will ever know.”
“We know, that's all that matters,” April said seriously. “Thank you again, for coming with me to that Kraang warehouse.”
“I'm just glad we did, otherwise we would've never known about them planning to contaminate the water.” Shuddering at the thought of how close half the city had been to being turned into Kraang monsters, his thoughts turned to their failure to pick up any leads on April’s dad.
He stole another glance at her pretty, freckled face, and it was apparent that her thoughts had wandered into the same territory. They continued down the next few blocks in silence, more melancholy than awkward, until they reached the apartment building April's aunt lived at.
“Well, this is me,” she sighed, coming to a halt. “I think we hit most of the places that had signs up in their windows, but you should really look at job postings online. A lot of places only accept applications that way.”
Casey rubbed the back of his neck. “My computer is from the Stone Age but I'll see what I can do. Thanks for helping me write my resumes and stickin’ it out with me all day.”
“No problem,” she said cheerfully. “Hey, maybe Donnie can refurbish your computer for you? You should ask him.”
“I don't think he likes me much,” Casey snorted. “He's pretty sweet on you, though,” he couldn't resist teasing. A pink blush spread over her cheeks, and Casey's eyebrows went up in shock for a moment before he managed to school his features again and cleared his throat.
“If, uh, you're not busy later, do you wanna come over and hang out with me and Mikey? We're gonna have a couple beers and grab some pizza, then go on patrol later tonight. You don't have to come for that part if you don't want to.”
“Casey,” she admonished, smacking his shoulder. “He's only fifteen, and you aren't much older.”
“Trust me, it does nothing to him, he just likes the taste of it,” Casey defended, putting his hands up and laughing. “Chill out, Mom.”
She scoffed. “Don't let Splinter find out,” she warned, shaking her head with a reluctant smile.
The mention of their ginormous rat dad certainly gave Casey pause and goosebumps broke out over his skin. He didn't mean to be prejudiced or anything, he just really, really had a hard time with rats. Meeting one that stood over six feet tall and was a master ninja had been an experience, to say the least.
“And I can't come over tonight,” she continued. “I'm so behind in school after all this stuff with the Kraang and Rockwell.”
“The scientist,” April emphasized. “If you run into him make sure you are calm. And gentle,” she added sternly.
“No problem, Red,” he said, flashing her a gap-toothed smile as she headed into the lobby of her aunt's building.
Alone once again, he decided to cut through Little Italy with the intent of visiting his doctor's office on his way home. He was hoping to get a refill on the pain prescription he'd gotten at the hospital. He hadn't exactly been taking it easy the past few weeks, what with fighting aliens, scumbags and some Baxter nerd in an armored battle suit. His ribs still ached on the regular, and he figured it would be good to have some extra pills in case his knee flared up or one of the turtles got hurt.
As he continued on his way, a bold, handwritten sign caught his attention in the window of a fancy restaurant.
HELP WANTED: Busser/kitchen help. No experience required.
He backed up on the sidewalk to read the name scrawled gracefully along the blue canopy, Dell'Abate Ristorante, and debated with himself. This place had ties with the Italian Mafia, but that wasn't exactly common knowledge. It was a busy fine dining spot that he'd never be able to afford to eat at, with a Yelp page and good reviews. It seemed innocuous enough, just another eatery in Manhattan.
As much as April had helped coach him and tried to make him look presentable, he knew that half of the disinterested, judgmental faces that had accepted his resumes today had likely tossed them directly into a recycling bin. He was three weeks behind on his dad's rent and he hadn't heard a word from the bastard. Their crazy old coot landlord, Ms Pelowitz, had come to give Casey grief over it, and he'd begged her to let him pay the rent under his father's name until he came skulking back home from Vegas or wherever the hell he'd fucked off to. She had given Casey two weeks to catch up and that had been four days ago. He literally could not afford to be picky.
His feet were moving before he'd consciously made up his mind, and the distinct, delicious scent of Mediterranean food struck him invitingly as he entered, making his stomach growl. Inside, the restaurant was subtly divided into three areas. The main floor contained a few rows of tables that were bordered by the street-front window to the left of the main entrance, and beyond that, a short staircase of four or five steps created a slightly elevated lounge framed by a brass railing. Casey could see a few free-standing tables, but it appeared to be mostly large booths back there. To the right of the entrance were a few more regular tables, then some smaller high tops across from a large, dark mahogany bar. The wooden furniture throughout matched the bar, any upholstery on the chairs and booths were a red, velvety material, and all the tables contained crisp white tablecloths and wine glasses at each seat setting.
Only a few tables were occupied, but the servers were buzzing around their sections in fresh white dress-shirts or blouses, making sure their tables were prepared just so for the coming dinner rush. Reluctant to interrupt any of them, Casey made his way to the bar and sidled up to the bartender to say hello.
The man behind the bar looked up from polishing a glass, his face skeptical, no doubt ready to tell Casey to get lost if he tried to order a drink. “Can I help you?” he said dryly.
“I'm here about the busboy job.”
“Ah, just a minute,” he replied, setting down his glass and disappearing through a swinging door just past the bar.
Casey picked at a coaster, feeling out of place and underdressed, but before he could second-guess himself any more, the door popped open again. The bartender breezed out, gesturing to a grandfatherly man in kitchen scrubs and an apron who stood between the threshold of kitchen and dining area, keeping the door propped open with his back.
“Hello,” the old man greeted with a friendly smile. “Come on in, let's talk.”
He ushered Casey into a spacious kitchen, patting his back as he went by as if they were long lost family, and guided him over to the currently empty dish washing station. They were alone save for one other young chef, who was busy doing dinner prep and cleaning grills behind the counter.
“I'm Tommy Vizioso, part owner and head chef,” the old man introduced formally, sticking out a large, calloused hand for Casey to shake.
“Oh,” Casey said dumbly, allowing Tommy's hand to engulf his own in a rough handshake. He truly hadn’t expected any of the Vizioso family to actually be working here, especially so openly. “Um, Jo-” He slammed his mouth shut and took a couple of seconds to get his shit together, then a couple more to curse himself for using his actual full name while vigilante-ing all over the city. He cleared his throat, trying to save face. “My name is Joe.”
Tommy's eyes were sharp but kind as they watched him. He smirked a little, as if expecting that reaction, and it made Casey relax a little.
“Have you ever worked in a restaurant before, Joe?” he finally asked.
Casey shook his head. “No, sir.”
“It's a lot of small odd jobs in this position,” Tommy explained, his Italian accent apparent but not heavy. “Things like washing dishes, cleaning, running food, changing kegs, unloading trucks to restock...not difficult tasks on their own. But when it gets busy and everyone needs everything at once, you have to be able to handle the pressure and prioritize,” he said, bringing one hand down in a chopping motion onto the flat of his palm in emphasis. “We don't always get breaks and the hours can be long. I need someone hardworking and reliable, you would be supporting all the staff, understand? You think you can handle it?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Casey said. This was the most promising interaction he'd had with a business so far, and he reasoned that if Tommy wanted to give him this job, he'd take it and keep looking for something else in the meantime. Between the rent he owed, his hospital bill and the general expenses of living, this wasn't the time for moral semantics. The only reason he had food in his fridge at all right now was because he had emptied the wallet of the last Purple Dragon he'd thumped before calling the cops and bailing.
Tommy regarded him steadily. “I'm willing to give you a shot, but we have to clear it with the big boss first.” He had a mischievous glint in his eyes and smiled. “He just so happens to be here right now. Are you ready to meet the Don?”
Casey's eyes must have bugged out of his head because Tommy whooped with jovial laughter, then shook Casey's shoulder in what he supposed was meant to be a comforting gesture.
“Ah, come on,” Tommy said merrily. “Follow me, it's okay. If you want to leave just tell me and we'll go, okay?”
“O-okay,” Casey agreed reluctantly.
He followed Tommy around the corner, noticing for the first time that he walked with a pronounced limp, and got onto a service elevator. His stomach clenched with nerves as soon as the doors slid shut and closed them in together. It wasn't that he really got a bad vibe from Tommy, per say, but no one knew where Casey was right now and he was about to meet a Mafia Don. This was not how today was supposed to go.
The elevator descended one level, then opened to reveal a concrete hallway and a heavy wooden door at the end. Two men in black suits stood outside of it, their stances straightening up as Tommy approached and greeted them. One of the guards frisked Casey quickly and professionally, making sure he was unarmed and not wearing a wire.
Casey scowled but didn't resist, and though Tommy shrugged apologetically, he waited until Casey got the all-clear before pushing open the door. He was directly behind Tommy, standing warily between the two sentries when he heard Don Vizioso bellow, “I told you I wasn't to be disturbed while I was eating!”
“Ehh, not even your Uncle Tommy?” his voice boomed back. “What's the matter with you? It's almost dinnertime upstairs and I got someone for you to meet real fast.”
“Fine, but only because you make the best lasagne in New York,” said a wet, muffled voice.
Tommy snorted and turned back to Casey. “Relax, you already made it farther than the last three who wanted this job.”
Casey supposed that was because no one would be stupid or desperate enough to get mixed up in all of this. Casey Jones, equal parts stupid and desperate. Let's do this, he thought hysterically as Tommy stepped aside.
Casey entered the room, which was surprisingly empty save for a single large table at the far end with a faux fireplace behind it, and a few smaller tables off to each side. It looked like a small banquet hall, the décor similar to upstairs.
Don Vizioso, legendary mob boss, was actually a bloated tick of a man. He sat at the main table with an impossibly large bowl of spaghetti in front of him, which was disappearing at a steady pace into his sauce-stained face.
“This is Joe,” Tommy said, urging Casey forward. “I want to bring him in for a few days, see how he does.”
The Don set his beady little eyes on Casey. “Well, come on over here, kid, I don't got all day.”
Casey lowered his gaze, trying not stare, and shuffled across the threshold to stand at the opposite side of the table as expected, feeling very exposed since Tommy had hung back by the exit.
“Joe, huh?” Vizioso grunted with his mouth full. “Joe who?”
Casey broke out into a cold sweat as his mind went blank. “It's just Joe.”
“It's disrespectful to drop your family name,” Vizioso said, eyes narrowing.
“They dropped me without a second thought,” Casey answered, real bitterness creeping into his voice.
Vizioso looked taken aback for a moment, the constant stream of food going into his mouth interrupted. Then his lips smacked together as he started chewing again. “Fair enough.” He gulped down half a glass of wine and belched. “You in school?”
“No, sir. I'm finished high school,” he lied, hoping that they would think he was at least eighteen.
“You in any kind of trouble?”
“A little bit,” Casey admitted.
“The kind of trouble you might bring to work with you?”
Between the stomach-churning noises the Don made as he ate, and his own nerves, Casey fought to hold back a grimace as a wave of nausea hit him. “No, sir, nothing like that,” he managed.
“I don't mess with the business upstairs, and whoever Tommy hires is not of particular interest to me, usually. Do you know why I had to meet you?”
Casey, half-sure that he'd been made, went through the index card in his brain of criminals he'd pissed off lately that might have had Mafia ties. “No, sir,” he said, proud of how steady he kept his voice in the midst of his internal panic.
“I know that you know who I am, and you're still here. You've got some coglioni on ya, kid, and I respect that. What I respect even more is someone who can keep their head down and their mouth shut, someone we can trust. Maybe even someone who can run some special errands from time to time, for the restaurant, of course.” Vizioso stilled, leveling Casey with a dark, intense look. “You seem like someone who appreciates the value of discretion, Mr Joe Nobody who's in a little bit of trouble.”
“Yes, I do,” Casey answered carefully, daring his lungs to loosen up and exhale. They didn't know.
“Work hard, prove that we can trust you, and we'll take care of you, kid.” Vizioso speared a meatball onto his fork and pointed it at him. “Show us anything different, and you won't last long around here,” he added in a low, threatening voice before shoving the entire meatball into his mouth. “Capiche?”
Casey got the distinct impression that the Don wasn't talking about a simple firing, and realized, not for the first time in the last half hour or so, that everything about this was a terrible idea. He should politely decline this ludicrous offer and get on with his life while he still could.
“When can I start?” he asked instead.
Raphael awoke, bone-weary and sore, on an unfamiliar bed in a room he didn’t recognize. He was sprawled out on his plastron, left cheek pressed into a soft, gray comforter. The only thing that kept him from jolting fully awake was the sight of Karai across the room, sitting back in a chair with her feet up on a desk, playing around on her phone with her earbuds in and humming along quietly to some song.
Stretching with a groan, he groggily recalled the fourteen hour flight from Tokyo on the private jet, then settling into the largest penthouse suite available upon arrival at the airport hotel. The living room of the suite had quickly become crowded with the men Saki had brought with him from Japan, awaiting orders and instructions from their Master. None of this had involved or interested Raphael in any way, and despite having slept most of the flight to New York, he'd still been exhausted and had taken a face-first dive onto the first bed he'd found.
Karai removed the earbuds when she noticed him moving and set her phone aside. “Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” she teased. “It's about time, we have to start getting ready soon.”
Raphael grumbled unintelligibly in response.
“There's a meeting at the new H.Q. in about two hours,” she added.
Raphael's eyes widened and he sat up. “How long was I asleep?”
“A while,” Karai replied, shrugging. “Father didn't leave here until all of our luggage and equipment was brought over to the watchtower, so we're only a few hours behind him. I convinced him I needed a shower and a proper meal before I could be expected to join him.”
“Princess,” he scoffed.
“I was really just buying you some more nap time.”
She said it with snark, but Raphael saw the softness in her eyes. She knew that the more he slept, the faster he healed, and he appreciated her stalling tactics greatly.
“He had new armor made for us,” she said, a hint of excitement creeping into her voice. “Check this out, you're gonna love it.” She sat up and spun in the desk chair, tapping a foot on top of a large black and silver case.
Raphael lumbered over to the desk, catching his reflection in the full length mirror next to it for the first time since that hellish night. His skin was dull and his eyes haunted, and he wasn't wearing anything but the multitudes of bandages Karai had practically mummified him in the other day. Some spots were stained where he'd bled through, and most of them were starting to fray.
“I look like absolute shit,” he snorted, trying to be flippant about it as he turned away from himself.
Karai stayed silent as he clicked open the locks on the case and removed the lid. Nestled inside in fitted foam was a large, oval shaped piece of spiked shoulder armor and a custom-made gauntlet that was almost identical to the ones that Shredder wore. His breath caught in his throat as he ran the tip of his finger along the raised portion of smooth metal that would release twin blades, mimicking handheld dragon claws. The only major difference between this one and Shredder's was that it lacked the static blades that overlaid the casing for the retractable ones, giving it a sleeker appearance.
“I got a peek at it while you were missing,” she said quietly, almost reverent. “I was so scared that you would never get to wear it.”
Suspicion curled sourly in Raphael's stomach, spoiling the moment. Shredder had commissioned this way before Raphael had gone on his mission to destroy the last Hamato dojo; this type of craftsmanship could not be rushed. Why not give it to him for that dangerous task, unless he was sent into battle under-prepared on purpose? Had he been meant to prove that he was ruthless and resourceful enough to earn every shard of his eventual mantle as the Shredder? On the other hand, Shredder really could have been saving this for his battles here in New York, where he would be facing, presumably, evenly matched mutants for the first time.
“I also made sure all of this was taken care of for you once I got you patched up,” Karai said gently, sliding another sizeable case from under the desk for him to open. “There's a new cloak in there for you as well.”
Inside, he could see his sword atop leathers and knives. It appeared to contain everything that he’d discarded in a heap the second he'd walked back through the door of the manor after days of hiking and stowing away on fruit trucks, in a haze save for the singular focus of getting home. He closed the case quickly, not yet ready to examine the contents too closely.
“Thank you,” he said softly, looking up to catch the concern in her features before she could smooth them away.
“I'm going to change these bandages and we'll get geared up and go, okay?” she said, her tone begging him not to argue.
“These bandages definitely have to go,” he agreed, “but they're staying off.”
“Raaaaph,” Karai groaned in exasperation.
Raphael rolled his eyes and shooed her away, locking himself in the ensuite bathroom. The glaringly bright light within did nothing to improve his image in the mirror as he peeled and ripped off layers of white tape and gauze. He took a quick rinse in the claustrophobically tiny shower and examined his wounds as he gingerly toweled himself off. A lot had healed, but the gouges in his thighs, shoulders and upper arms where the sickles had hooked into him were still ragged and raw. He cursed under his breath; Karai was going to ream him out forever over this.
The bedroom was empty when he opened the door again, but a large med-kit was sitting on the bed.
“Dammit, Karai, I can't show up to a Foot Clan meeting covered in bandages,” he yelled out into the main suite, startling a bodyguard. Raphael huffed at the man and continued. “I'd rather have them see that I'm injured but unaffected, than see me taped up like an invalid.”
“Pretending to be unaffected, you mean,” Karai yelled back, narrowing her eyes at him when she exited another bedroom and met his glare. “Macho bullshit,” she spat as she crossed the suite and pressed against his chest until he yielded and backed up into the room again.
“It's important that I don't look weak and you know it,” Raphael said sternly.
“Fine, get your gear on and put on a brave face while it rubs the wounds beneath raw and bloody,” she snapped, crossing her arms and staring daggers at him.
He growled loudly in defeat. She had him there and she knew it. “Do we have enough of the black joint wraps to cover them up afterward?” he asked, sighing.
“I think so,” she said, her voice all honey now that she had subdued him.
He bit back his irritation, giving in to her efficient but caring hands, and noticed that she had slipped into her new armor while he'd been showering. There was the typical black bodysuit from neck to toe, but sleek metallic armor encased her chest, shoulders, forearms, shins and the sides of her thighs. The gauntlets each had a streamlined blade that pointed like shark fins at the elbow, and the hand bracers had single small spikes mid-knuckle.
“Your armor looks good,” he offered.
“It's awesome, right?” She paused from her doctoring of him and knocked on the breastplate. “Plus, now I'm bulletproof.”
“Less than half of you is bullet resistant,” he corrected.
“Whatever,” she mumbled, a small grin spreading across her lips.
Covering up the stark white bandages once Karai was done with him proved to be something of a challenge, but minus some assistance with his upper arms, he managed it on his own. Karai could usually sense when he was near the end of his patience with being fussed over, and wisely left him to his own devices to finish getting ready. By the time he was done wrapping his feet, ankles, hands and knuckles as he usually did, hardly a hint of green skin showed through the clinging black fabric on his arms and legs. The effect was a bit dramatic, but it served his purpose.
Unable to stall any longer, Raphael opened the case Karai had packed for him, the slightest tremor in his hand. His leather harness had been repaired and cleaned, and he strapped it on over his shell with practiced ease. His katana, tanto, sai, and remaining kunai had been polished and sharpened, all of which he holstered after a brief inspection, until he got to the sai.
The single weapon felt heavier than the pair ever had. He had inherited those sai from Ichiro, one of his mentors, and mastered them in honor of his memory. While he had technically avenged Ichiro's death by destroying the kunoichi who had poisoned them both that day, losing one sai to the fire because he had panicked made him feel unworthy of it's twin. It felt disrespectful to leave it behind, however, so he tucked it into its place on his belt.
True to her word, Karai had secured a new black, hooded cloak for him, as well as one of his spare sets of knee and elbow pads. Carefully folded at the bottom of the case was his mask, the one he had created from his red childhood cloak that their nanny had made for him so many years ago. Karai knew the sentimental value it held for him, and he could tell that she'd gone out of her way to make sure whoever washed it had taken special care. He lifted it to his nose and inhaled, relieved that the scents of blood and smoke had been completely eliminated. He tied the tails of his mask deftly, adjusting it so the Foot insignia was centered on his forehead and the down-turned points of the fabric rested along either side of his face.
The shoulder armor and gauntlet were perfectly fitted to him, turning his entire right arm into both a shield and a weapon. With the cloak trailing down his shell to the backs of his knees, the added distortion of it and the spikes to his silhouette made him look like an absolute tank. The vague resemblance to Shredder's image left him feeling somewhat unsettled, but he had no time to dwell on it.
Karai leaned into the room from the doorway to give him an approving once-over with her eyes. “Much better, no one would ever guess you were face-down in your own drool an hour ago.”
Raphael side-eyed her in annoyance but she only laughed.
“Come on, tough guy, it's time to go.”
In short order, Raphael, Karai and the bodyguard that had been stationed at the suite for them were leaving through a private exit generally reserved for celebrities avoiding fans and paparazzi. They loaded up into a limo, and Raphael stared out through the tinted windows as they drove through a city so similar and yet so different than the one he had come to know.
Returning to New York held no nostalgia for Raphael. He barely remembered the city, or the life he had led here before being cast out by none other than Hamato Yoshi himself. It could only be fate that Raphael had been discovered and taken in by the very clan who had been most betrayed by the man, that his personal enmity aligned so perfectly with Karai and Saki's vendetta.
So why does everything about this feel wrong? he wondered as they pulled up to the front entrance.
He could see why Karai liked to refer to the building as ‘the watchtower’ as they scaled the stone steps. It certainly wasn't a church anymore, though it still possessed stained-glass windows that were quite beautiful. Looking up at the giant clock and noting it was 10:20pm, he paused at the threshold of the old repurposed cathedral that would be their new Foot Clan headquarters until he felt a gentle tug on his finger.
Karai was urging him forward silently, reminding him of his resolve. It didn't matter how he felt, whether he had his own score to settle or not. He would give anything for her, and he owed Saki his life and loyalty, so he fell into step with her again until they were ushered inside by a masked Foot soldier.
Inside, the ground level was mostly barren, a marble floored chamber with high ceilings where even the slightest of footsteps echoed. Anyone wandering haplessly in the front door would feel immediately conspicuous and unwelcome, and if their intentions were to bring harm upon the occupants here, there was scarcely any cover for them to hide from the sentries posted to this floor at all times.
They were led to an elevator and escorted to the third floor, but the Foot soldier fled before Raphael and Karai entered what could only be described as a throne room.
The third level of the cathedral had been renovated into something as grandiose as the man who sat upon that throne, Shredder in all his spiked and armored glory. The ceiling peaked sharply above them, triangular as the uppermost roof atop it. Behind them, the yellowed glow of the back of the giant clock loomed, and ahead, behind Shredder's massive seat, a huge glass window overlooked New York City. Foot banners hung proudly on the walls, and on either side of a long stone walkway that led to the throne were stillwater trenches. Beyond those, lighting the room eerily, fires were contained within smoked glass cases running along the side walls. The platform of black stone that the throne sat upon was raised a few feet above the walkway, with three glass stairs leading up to it, ensuring that Shredder would tower above every one of his subjects even if he was sitting.
Karai whistled appreciatively, doing a small spin as she took it all in. “Love what you've done with the place, Father.”
Raphael took the more traditional route and knelt at the foot of the the stairs, bowing his head. “Master,” he greeted, only standing up straight when Shredder nodded to them.
Seconds later, the door opened and two men sauntered down the aisle. Automatically, Raphael planted himself at the end of the walkway, narrowing his eyes when he recognized Chris Bradford in the lead, wearing his red armor minus the helmet.
A fake smile split Bradford's face and he laughed. “Raphael, long time, no see. You were such a scrawny little thing the last time I saw you. Good to see that you've grown up...” he said pleasantly, stopping directly in front of Raphael so he could take advantage of the five or so inches of height he had on the turtle to look down at him, “...some.”
Raphael scowled and backed up to let Bradford through, who shouldered past him roughly.
The second man Raphael had never met. He was tall and dark-skinned, clothed much more casually than Raphael was used to seeing within the ranks of the Foot, in jeans, sneakers, a black vest over a plain white t-shirt.
His movements were lithe as he walked directly up to Raphael, stopped, and extended a gloved hand. “Xever.”
Raphael had been briefed on the Brazilian mob boss who was loyal to the Shredder, and he looked down at the man's tiny hand with some amusement. “Raphael,” he said, grabbing Xever’s whole forearm and giving it a slight shake before letting him pass.
Xever quite dramatically knelt at Karai's feet and kissed her hand. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said, voice smooth as silk.
Karai rolled her eyes and pulled her hand away as Raphael took his place next to her, and Xever stood at Bradford's side to the left of their Master’s throne.
Shredder stood, his presence suddenly overshadowing everything else. “Bradford, Xever,” his deep voice rumbled with a sharp edge.
Raphael stood a little straighter and felt Karai tense at his side as the two men fell to their knees, heads bowed. They all knew that tone of voice only too well.
“I am very disappointed with your performance,” Shredder continued. “You had the turtles in your grasp, had them trapped, and you let them escape. What do you have to say for yourselves?”
“It had all gone according to plan, Master,” Bradford babbled. “I don't know how the rat managed to slip past all of our soldiers. There were men posted on the roof, at every exit, in the dojo, in the basement. It should have been impossible.”
“Hamato Yoshi is a master ninja,” Shredder said, his voice getting louder. “His mutation likely holds advantages we don’t know about yet. Either the men you have been recruiting and training are not up to par, or you underestimated the enemy and your plan was destined to fail from the beginning. Either way, this on your head, Bradford.”
“I'm sorry, Master, just give me another chance,” Bradford pleaded.
Shredder's right arm lifted and two long blades snapped out from his metal gauntlet, and Raphael actually heard Bradford's heart stutter.
“Please!” Bradford begged as Shredder descended the few glass stairs. “I swear I will not fail you again!”
“No, you will not,” Shredder agreed, letting one of the blades slip beneath Bradford's chin so he would look up at him. “Consider yourself on thin ice, Bradford. You will have to earn your place back at my side.”
“Yes, of course, Master,” Bradford gasped in relief as Shredder pulled away from him.
Raphael had to admit to himself that he felt a certain morbid satisfaction at watching Bradford grovel at Shredder’s feet like the sniveling coward he was. He listened raptly and focused on every word being spoken. It had been years since he’d had a conversation in English, and watching Shredder and Karai switch so effortlessly into their second language reminded Raphael of how his formal education had been cut short when he’d been sent to the Elite camp.
“And what about you, Xever?” Shredder asked.
“I was just following Bradford's orders,” Xever said slyly. “Ever since they got away, I've had all of my people and half of the crime underworld besides that on high alert for man-sized turtles. Most of them think I’m crazy, but they are already known to some of us; there have been sightings for years, apparently. In fact, I already have a message from some Purple Dragon nobody looking for a reward, says he knows where to find them. I'd like to set up a meeting tonight, with your blessings, of course.”
Shredder retracted the blades and regarded Xever coolly. “I'm listening.”
Raphael caught Xever smirk at Bradford, and decided that he liked the wiry Brazilian right then and there.
“Well,” Xever said, “we know that their rat Master will come for them, and I will not make the mistake of underestimating him. So, if this tip checks out, we will simply capture the turtles again and set the trap, properly this time. I'll bring you Hamato Yoshi alive, and will personally peel those mutant freaks from their shells to drop at your feet.” He looked over at Raphael and winked. “No offense.”
“Very well, Xever, this will be your mission to lead,” Shredder said.
“I'm not going to take orders from that street rat,” Bradford gritted out furiously.
“Stand!” Shredder commanded shortly, and both men jumped to their feet. He looked pointedly at Bradford. “You are to stay with Karai and take her to see all of our dojos and recruits. I trust her judgment on the worthiness of who will be initiated into the Foot Clan officially, and then handed over to my generals from Japan to oversee. I also want reports on our financials, our allies, potential threats, as well as lists of media outlets, law enforcement and politicians who are already on our payroll or can be swayed in our favor. This information is also to be shared with Karai and brought to me within twenty-four hours.”
Karai groaned under her breath, and Bradford instantly deflated but was smart enough not to push. “Yes, Master Shredder.”
Shredder turned his attention to Xever. “You know the city and it's dark underbelly well. Get Raphael acquainted with some of our key people, our safe-houses and caches. Follow up on the lead regarding the location of the turtles and make your play. The two of you will have access to whatever you require.”
“Yes, Master Shredder. Thank you,” Xever said with a bow and a gracious smile.
“Raphael,” Shredder addressed him next. “You are to follow Xever's lead for now. You need time to build your knowledge and familiarity with the city and our resources here. Now go, all of you.”
Raphael bowed his head slightly, appearing calm outwardly but increasingly anxious within. “Yes, Master Shredder.”
“Father,” Karai interjected. “If there is a possibility of them seeing combat tonight, I should be there. I can look at reports any time.”
Raphael heard the tiny intake of breath Shredder took to gather his patience before responding to her. “This is not up for debate,” he said firmly.
“It's fine, Karai,” Raphael said sharply. As much as he wanted to keep Karai close, he did not want Shredder to doubt his fighting capabilities or think that he needed her as a crutch until he was at hundred percent again, otherwise he would likely keep them from working together even longer on principle.
Karai turned to face him and argue, but he cut her off with a warning glare, his lip perked up in a partial snarl. The severity of his expression did not reach his eyes, however, which instead begged her to drop it for their own good. It was a look she knew well from their childhood, one that told her to be quiet and subservient right now so they would be able to find a way to do whatever it was that they wanted later.
She sighed and turned back to Shredder. “Understood, Father,” she said tightly.
Chapter 7: Behind Blue Eyes
A brief, but intense meeting between Raphael and his brothers leaves everyone shaken.
Excuse me for my hesitation, have I met you before?
Your face seems so familiar and longing for more
Your eyes they tell me something that I understand
Your eyes they hold the truth and
The truth is, you’re miles away
-” Miles Away” , by Depeche Mode
Standing tall and stout in the middle of the Killer Cookie Fortune Cookie Co factory was a caricaturesque wooden statue of a Chinese man in a conical straw hat, positioned between two elevated conveyor belts on the main floor. Raphael scowled at the tacky centerpiece and the overwhelmingly sickly-sweet scent of fortune cookies as he followed Xever up a flight of stairs to a partial second level. High above, a number of light fixtures hung from the rafters, a few their bulbs flickering weakly.
“This is one of our safe houses?” Raphael asked skeptically.
“More like a quiet, neutral place to have meetings and discuss business,” Xever explained. “After hours, of course.”
Raphael nodded curtly in response.
Their trip here had been brief and amicable. Xever really liked to talk, and though it took some time for Raphael to get used to the unique accent and cadence that he spoke with, he soaked up all of the information Xever had to give him attentively. He learned which parts of the city and greater New York area the Brazilian mob operated in, as well as a touch about their international connections, the names of his top henchmen, and their primary revenue streams. Xever’s organization mostly ran on drugs and arms, with the Foot Clan only having a direct interest in the latter. Nonetheless, Xever handed twenty percent of his total profits over to Shredder, and in return, the Foot aided in brokering some of their weapons deals and offered protection whenever any of the Brazilian’s other assets were threatened.
As curious as Raphael was as to how this allegiance had been forged, a quick check of the time on his burner phone showed that Xever’s contact would be here any minute. “Who is it we’re expecting?” he asked instead.
“Fong, the leader of the Purple Dragons. They are at the top of the small time gangs in the city,” Xever answered, waving a hand dismissively. “They run much of the East side, mostly thugs and petty crooks. They might be useful in the future, but I doubt it.”
The front door opened and the pair of them waited impassively as a man crossed the threshold and made his way upstairs and over to them. The description of the gang had Raphael irritated already; he wasn’t interested in having allies that sounded like low level Yakuza grunts. Fong’s appearance didn’t help his opinion any, either. The man wore black pants and a vest with no shirt, revealing either a large birthmark or scar on the center of his chest and a dragon tattoo on this left arm.
Raphael watched him approach from beneath the hood of his cloak. Fong was trying to act natural, nonchalant, but his sweat stunk of nerves and his heart rate was just this side of too fast.
“Hey, Mr X, how’s it going?” Fong greeted Xever as if they were old friends, hand extended.
Xever looked down at it and back up at Fong, making no move to shake, and Fong awkwardly pulled it away and slicked his hand through his short, dark hair.
He glanced at Raphael, cowed for a moment by his height and bulk before noticing the yellow plates of his plastron below crossed arms. “Oh man, are you one of them?” Fong asked in alarm, eyes widening.
“Do you know where to find them or not?” Raphael snapped impatiently.
Stumbling back a step, Fong cleared his throat and turned back to Xever. “I was told there would be a finders fee,” he said, his voice somewhat shaken.
“And you will get it, once we find them,” Xever replied, eyes narrowing dangerously. “Where did you see them?”
As if on cue, the sound of shattering glass off to their left had them reflexively reaching for their weapons. Time seemed to slow for Raphael as he watched three figures glide through the air and land gracefully on the loft among the spray of glass, eyes blank and weapons drawn.
“We’ve got you now,” the one in the blue mask was saying in the same breath as his leap.
Raphael winced as the sight of the coloured bandanas they each wore triggered his memory, like a blinding flash in a pan.
And red...Raphael had always been red.
In the few seconds it had taken for Raphael to process that, the other three turtles had taken up a much more guarded stance with the realization that Fong was not alone. They tensed, knowing they had a much bigger fight on their hands than they had first anticipated.
“Oh great,” griped Michelangelo, “it’s that Xever guy and...scary, black cloak dude?”
“Get them,” ordered Xever, pushing Fong towards Leonardo’s twin katana.
Everyone jumped into action. Leonardo immediately hit Fong with the hilt of one of his katana and kicked him into the nearest wall, pinning the man there the next instant. Obviously they had some unfinished business, but Raphael paid them no mind; he couldn’t care less if they had come here looking to kill the two-bit gangster.
Donatello moved in on Raphael with a bo, which he blocked and knocked aside with his metal gauntlet. Donatello faltered as Raphael’s cloak flared with the movement, revealing the glinting spikes of his shoulder armor, his plastron, and the right side of his shell.
“Another mutant?” Donatello whispered in wonder. “A turtle? What…?”
Raphael took advantage of the confusion to get a proper two handed grip on his katana and drove it forward, meaning to run Donatello through, but he sidestepped the attack swiftly. Raphael raised his sword, bringing it down in a fluid, diagonal sweep, then bore down on Donatello’s staff heavily when he used it to block. With Donatello pressed, Raphael glanced back to check whether or not Michelangelo was still a threat. Apparently, Xever had taken off after Leonardo, knocking him down the stairs, and Michelangelo had joined that fray out of sight on the main level, so it was just the two of them. Raphael grinned down viciously at the shocked face staring back at him, his blade digging into the bo and the wood creaking as it curved slightly under the pressure.
Donatello spun out from under him, jumping back and twirling the bo in front of himself defensively, then transitioned smoothly into a ready stance.
“Raph?” he asked, his mouth agape. “How…?”
Raphael lunged forward, crashing through Donatello’s defense and directly into the other turtle with his armored side, at least one of the bladed spikes making contact. Donatello grunted at the impact but would not be bowled over; he tucked his staff between Raphael’s body and arm and twisted, strong enough to lock up Raphael’s elbow. A quick maneuver to the side wrenched Raphael’s shoulder back, Donatello controlling his arm from behind Raphael’s own shell and then driving him face first towards the railing. The hot bloom of fresh blood as the semi-healed gash on Raphael’s shoulder opened up under all of the wraps and metal made itself known to him before the sharp sting, and his katana dropped, skittering across the floor. He caught himself before he collided with the railing by grabbing hold of it with his left hand, pushing back, and whirling to face Donatello again.
“I don’t want to fight you,” Donatello said, and while he didn’t have hands on Raphael anymore, his bo was now modified into a naginata, and the blade adorning said staff was leveled at his chest.
Gritting his teeth and blocking the pain from his mind, Raphael charged forward and released the twin dragon claws from his gauntlet. Donatello, his upper left plastron and arm scratched up and smeared with blood, decided against taking Raphael head-on again. He stayed nimbly just out of Raphael’s guard, striking at all of his vulnerable points -- the sides of his shell, his thighs, the backs of his knees and ankles -- while avoiding the devastating claws, but Raphael deflected the strikes easily with his blades and his own agility.
Raphael’s black cloak billowed all around them, further obscuring Donatello’s aim, and the naginata eventually got caught up in it. Raphael seized the cloak, wrapping the staff up into the fabric even further, then dragged it towards him until the blade was harmlessly behind him to his left. Donatello swayed forward with the force of it, and Raphael headbutted him squarely in the face, knocking him temporarily senseless. Raphael yanked the naginata from Donatello’s grip, shucking off his cloak and tossing both aside.
Raphael lifted his clawed fist, intent on swinging it down into Donatello while he was still dazed, when a chain snared his gauntlet and blades. Raphael watched with growing rage as a sickle came to rest limply by his hand as a kusarigama tightened and jerked his arm away from Donatello, sending an agonizing pang from his agitated wound all the way to his fingertips. His darkened gaze followed the line of chain to see Michelangelo precariously perched on the railing, muscles taut with the effort of holding Raphael’s arm back.
“Raph?” Michelangelo asked, smiling despite the situation they were all in. “Leo! It’s Raph! He’s alive!” he yelled enthusiastically. A crash and a hiss of pain from the lower level indicated that this distraction had cost Leonardo, and Michelangelo cringed apologetically down at him.
Raphael hauled back his arm, sending Michelangelo flying towards him and the clawed gauntlet he had entangled. Michelangelo practically cartwheeled and spun on a dime to avoid the blades, pulling at Raphael’s arm once again so that the claws were facing the floor before stepping on the chain for better control.
“Raph, stop,” Michelangelo pleaded, trying to hold him still.
Donatello shook the fog from his head and freed his naginata from the cloak on the floor. Raphael roared in pain and frustration and took the chain of the kusarigama in both hands and heaved Michelangelo forwards, gaining enough momentum to swing him into Donatello. The two collided with a solid thunk, and before they could recover from the impact, Raphael grabbed each of them by the backs of their shells and ran them over the railing. Shaking the chains off of his gauntlet, he watched as Michelangelo and Donatello landed on the main level, collected themselves within seconds, and rushed to join Leonardo’s struggle to neutralize Xever.
Though he had doubtlessly learned some ninjitsu over the years, Xever did not fight like a ninja. He had a style that was unfamiliar but entrancing to Raphael, with a combination of knife-fighting, street brawling, and acrobatic, unorthodox kicks that were difficult to predict. He was amazing, but not powerful enough to hold off all three mutants at once.
Retracting the claws back into his gauntlet, Raphael picked up his katana and ignored the few drops of blood that dotted the concrete beneath his fist. His shoulder bled slow and steady, the black fabric of his wraps dampening as the blood was absorbed incrementally down the length of his arm.
Below him, Xever was pinned face-down on the floor by Donatello, who had both of the man’s arms restrained in one hand and much of his weight dropped to one padded knee resting on the small of Xever’s back. Donatello’s bo was held firmly along Xever’s neck, restricting his movements even further, but despite this, Raphael sensed no urgency or imminent danger. If they had intended to kill Xever, it would already be done. Instead, quite foolishly, their attentions had turned away from their captive and up to Raphael.
Michelangelo made a move towards the base of the staircase but Leonardo stilled him with a hand, ushering him back and putting himself slightly ahead of his brothers.
“Raph, I don’t know where you’ve been all this time or what you’ve been through,” Leonardo called up to him, “but we just want to talk.”
“I don’t owe you any explanations,” Raphael spat.
Above his head, Raphael heard the gentle pattering of feet on the roof. Their two lookouts, hidden atop nearby buildings, had no doubt alerted the other Foot Soldiers at Xever’s beck and call the minute the turtles had come crashing in. Through that same broken window, a dozen Soldiers flooded into the upper level and gathered at Raphael’s back. Downstairs, ten more entered the main floor at both the front and rear entrances to the factory.
“We don’t need all of them alive,” Raphael said brusquely before leaping over the railing. Alighting on the conical hat of the wooden statue, he slid down the slope of it before launching himself from its brim.
The room was in chaos before he even hit the floor. Xever tilted his hip roughly and kicked into Donatello’s calf, breaking free from his hold. The Foot Soldiers were everywhere, surrounding the three turtles, some attacking and some holding their positions further afield to prevent them from escaping.
Raphael raised his katana, bringing it down towards Leonardo with the full weight of his freefall. Leonardo blocked with both of his swords, straining under the pressure but otherwise surprisingly steady.
“How could you?” Leonardo asked incredulously, their faces inches apart and separated only by sharp steel. “We’re your brothers.”
“Your brother is dead,” Raphael returned, teeth bared. “You left him to die.”
“That is not...” Leonardo denied. “It wasn’t like that!”
“Wasn’t it?” Raphael snarled, and a minute flicker of doubt and guilt crossed Leonardo’s features.
Leonardo pushed back, having to break away from their deadlock to fend off two Foot Soldiers that had come up behind him; both were useless heaps on the floor within seconds. While his defense against Raphael didn’t waver, he could see the fear in Leonardo’s eyes as he assessed their situation in that split second. He and his brothers had been completely unprepared for this onslaught and their defeat was inevitable. Raphael knew Leonardo was going to yell the order to retreat before it left his lips and surged forward, trying to box him in against a conveyor belt where swinging two swords around would be more of a handicap than an advantage. Leonardo foiled that tactic by leaping five feet straight up into the air, finding his footing on the metal rollers of the belt, and taking a swipe with a katana that saw his blade whisper past Raphael’s cheek with only an inch or two to spare.
“Retreat!” Leonardo hollered.
Foot Soldiers surrounded Leonardo quickly, and Xever calling Raphael’s name pulled his attention away from retaliation. Xever was running towards him and pointing up, where Donatello and Michelangelo were making a break for it on the stairs and mostly succeeding in cutting a path through the sea of black-garbed ninja that had crowded onto the steps all around them. Some of their men were down, making a speedy ascent almost impossible for Xever. Raphael nodded, stepping closer to the staircase and into Xever’s path, then leaned forward with his hands palms up, one resting over the other. The next instant, one of Xever’s sneakered feet thwacked firmly into his palm, and Raphael launched him skyward. Xever sprung high into the air with a hoot, grabbed ahold of the railing with one hand, and flung himself feet first into Donatello mid-stairway.
Raphael raced up the staircase the more conventional way, clearing three or four steps at a time and the injured Foot Soldiers that littered them. He slammed into Michelangelo, who was trying pull Xever away from Donatello, knocking him off-balance and sending him scrambling up the last few stairs. Raphael was on him in an instant, driving him backwards on the upper level with fists and elbows until Michelangelo’s carapace scraped against a wall and he could go no further. Raphael leaned his left forearm across Michelangelo’s chest to keep him in place, looked him in the eye, and brought his katana to the other turtle’s throat.
“I missed you every day that you were gone,” Michelangelo blurted, the words leaving him in a rush as if he desperately needed them to be heard before he died.
It was said with such sincerity that it made Raphael’s breath hitch painfully. His hand shook, unable to strike the killing blow or withdraw his blade. That blinding white light returned, searing his mind, followed by the image of Michelangelo peering up at him, his blue eyes large and full of tears, his face much younger.
Don’t worry, I’ll always protect you, Raphael heard his own childish voice promise.
The bolt of pain that followed in his head made him flinch, and he had to squeeze his eyes shut before frantically blinking away the remnants of the light. When his vision swam back into focus, Michelangelo was staring at him expectantly. He hadn’t attacked while Raphael had been briefly incapacitated, nor had he made a move to get away. In fact, Michelangelo didn’t even have a weapon in hand despite having nunchucks and small kunai holstered along his belt.
“Raph, I am so sorry,” Michelangelo said softly, and Raphael’s brow knit in confusion.
“Get away from him!” Leonardo snapped, and suddenly Raphael was being barreled into from the side and tumbled to the floor.
Disoriented, head throbbing, Raphael sat up in time to watch Xever shake his fist at the broken window and shout, “Come back here and fight, you cowards!”
“Damn it!” Raphael cursed loudly, as much at himself as their escape.
Xever was already on his phone, reporting in and making arrangements for the Foot Soldiers who were too injured to leave of their own accord.
A scuffling of cardboard caught Raphael’s attention as Fong emerged, completely unscathed, from behind stacked cases of fortune cookies. Raphael growled, descending on the man in three large strides and flinging him to the floor.
Xever looked up, one eyebrow raised, and promptly put away his phone. “So, the roaches are coming out of the woodwork now that the fight is done.”
Raphael grabbed Fong by the vest and dragged him up to snarl in his face. “I should kill you right now.”
“Wha-what did I do?” Fong stammered, terrified. “You wanted to find them and there they were!”
“Idiota,” Xever barked, smacking the back of Fong’s head. “You can’t tell when you have a tail? You led them right to our hideout.”
“You better have something useful for us,” Raphael warned.
“Okay, okay, let me go,” Fong said, raising his hands up in surrender. Raphael relinquished the grip he had on the vest and the man continued, his tone fast and choppy. “Okay, so, my buddies and I went down to this noodle shop, 24/7. The owner owes us some money, older guy named Murakami, and we roughed him up a little ‘cuz he wouldn’t pay. Then those turtles showed up with a girl and ran us off. Must be friends of his or something.”
“A girl?” Raphael asked, emerald eyes narrowing. “A human girl?”
“Yeah, young, cute. Redhead.”
“Did she fight?” Raphael pressed.
Fong shook his head. “No.”
“Is that it?” Xever asked.
“Get out,” Xever said simply, handing over a small roll of cash from one of his pockets.
Fong had the good sense to take his money, shut up, and flee the building.
“Master Shredder is not going to be happy about this,” Raphael muttered, clenching and unclenching his fist. His fingertips were starting to feel numb, and a few more drops of blood speckled the concrete with the motion.
Xever noticed, but didn’t comment. “This debacle was not a part of my plan. It would have been ideal to capture them, of course, but this changes nothing,” he assured. “We will set our trap, exploit their weaknesses, and we will have them once and for all.”
Raphael nodded thoughtfully. “They are an even match for me, in strength and fighting,” he said, struggling to find the words in English, “but they are not confident when things don’t go their way. They hesitate.”
“I was thinking more of their other weaknesses. Their human friends. Not much to go on with the girl, but Murakami? We know where to find him, and I think he will make excellent bait.”
Raphael grimaced. Abducting a loved one to lure out his targets wasn’t his style, but then again, human beings were a lot easier to track than elusive mutants, and he had been ordered to follow Xever’s lead, for now. He rubbed his temples, trying to will his headache away. “When are we doing this?” he sighed.
“Tomorrow,” Xever replied. “It will give us time to regroup and plan the details. Those turtles will not get away again.”
“Where on Earth have you boys been ? What’s happened?”
The sharp edge of alarm in Master Splinter’s voice could still pin Michelangelo to the spot, but unlike his brothers, he just couldn’t stand still. He fidgeted and huffed when Leonardo shushed him instantly and answered over him.
“We wanted to make sure no one would go back and hurt Murakami," Leonardo said, "so we tracked down the leader of the Purple Dragon's…"
Master Splinter’s ears laid flat and his tail whipped angrily, but he kept his temper. “I understand that the Foot and the Kraang have landed on our doorsteps, but that was reckless and unnecessary,” he scolded Leonardo. He turned away, agitated, and rifled through a cabinet in the kitchen.
"There’s something you need to know,” Leonardo continued carefully.
Michelangelo wondered how Leonardo was staying so calm, when the knowledge and emotional fallout of their discovery was still clamoring wildly in his own mind.
He watched as Splinter handed the antiseptic wipes that he had rummaged up over to Donatello to clean his bloody scratches. Donatello accepted them eagerly and muttered something about how it was a wonder they hadn’t all died of sepsis by now under his breath.
Silence fell, and his brothers seemed to be mulling over how to best break the news, while Splinter waited in that impossibly patient way he had until they were ready.
“Raphael is alive!” Michelangelo burst out with before he imploded.
Donatello face-palmed and Leonardo turned to stare at him like he was an idiot, but Splinter took it as if he were absorbing a physical blow.
“Way to ease him into it, Mikey,” sighed Leonardo.
“I’m sorry!” Michelangelo yelped.
“Where is he?” Splinter asked quietly.
Leonardo and Donatello glanced at each other, but Donatello must have silently deferred, because it was Leonardo who spoke up. “We followed Fong into the fortune cookie factory in Chinatown, hoping to give him a bit of a scare, but he was meeting with Xever and Raphael. We tried to talk to him, but he attacked us, along with a bunch of Foot soldiers.”
“No,” Splinter denied with a punched breath. “How can this be? Where has he been all this time? Why would he be working with the Foot Clan?”
“He's not just working alongside them,” Donatello piped up dejectedly, still dabbing at his wounds. “Raph was commanding the soldiers with Xever. He’s not only a part of the Foot Clan, he holds a position of authority within it.
Splinter sunk down into his old, worn chair, looking confused and pained as he tried to make sense of it all.
It was heart-wrenching to see their father and mentor in such a state. “It’s going to be okay, Sensei,” Michelangelo said, moving to kneel beside the chair and rest his hand over Splinter’s. “All we have to do is bring him back. He just needs to talk to you and everything will be fine.”
“Do not try and bring him here!” Leonardo yelled, almost in a panic. “He is extraordinarily dangerous right now, to all of us. All we know for sure is that he’s in the Foot Clan, and the Foot Clan is trying to find out where Master Splinter is, by any means necessary. We can't trust him not to harm us, or with the whereabouts of the lair, even if he says he wants to come back. Especially if he does. We have to be smart about this."
“If he sees Sensei, he’ll remember how much he loved him,” Michelangelo said stubbornly, unable to comprehend why this was even up for discussion.
“He thinks that we left him to die,” Leonardo countered. “So obviously he’s been brainwashed, doesn’t remember, or both.”
Michelangelo leapt from his place at Splinter’s side and got in Leonardo’s face aggressively. “He remembered me!”
“He had a sword to your throat, he was going to kill you before I knocked him away!”
“He’d had it there long before you ever showed up, and he couldn’t do it. He looked at me and he remembered something,” Michelangelo hollered. “Maybe if you hadn’t shoved him aside, he would be home with us right now!”
“Yameru!” Splinter ordered sternly, and Michelangelo felt a tug on his arm as Donatello slowly eased them apart.
“Please, stop. I need some time to process, to think,” Splinter said, “but Leonardo is not wrong about disclosing the location of our home to Raphael at this time."
Michelangelo gaped at Splinter. “I don’t believe this! Raph is our family, we can’t just leave him out there!”
Splinter stood, approaching Michelangelo with his hands out placatingly. “Michelangelo,” he said gently.
“No!” Michelangelo bit out, trying to sound firm, but the emotions churning his chest were quickly ebbing from angry outrage to guilt and sadness, making his voice waver. Tears pricked behind his eyes. “You don’t understand,” he managed, his fists clenched at his sides. “I was the one who lost him, I’ve got to be the one to bring him home.”
Michelangelo closed his eyes against the tears and was pulled forward into Splinter’s chest for a hug, and after a moment of resistance, he melted into it and clutched at his father’s burgundy yukata.
“I understand,” Splinter rumbled.
“I have to try,” Michelangelo insisted, his voice finally cracking.
“I know,” Splinter said, squeezing him tighter. “We also cannot risk losing the home and family we have built here because we rushed into this, and we cannot force Raphael back before he is ready. We will find a solution, together. Okay?”
Michelangelo nodded into the now-wet fabric his face was pressed into, not feeling okay at all.
Raphael really should have known better than to go along with Xever when he offered to take him someplace where they could relax and have a drink to recover from the decidedly crappy night they’d just had, but he’d been too fatigued to argue. Occupying most of the backseat of Xever’s car, he’d closed his eyes, put his head back against the seat, and waited for his migraine to dull into a mind-numbing throb. When the movement of the car slowed and came to a stop, he cracked his eyes open and stared at the gaudy, neon sign blankly. The outline of a woman blinked on and off in pink, and green letters loudly declared: The Bunny Run.
They turned a corner and parked behind a rundown, boarded up building attached to the strip club. He had the fleeting hope that the abandoned portion was their destination, until Xever looked back at him and grinned impishly before exiting the car, leaving Raphael scrambling out after him.
“Are you crazy?” Raphael hissed at Xever as he slammed the door shut.
Xever ignored him and popped his trunk in the dark parking lot, gesturing into it. “You might want to ditch the heavy metal so you don’t scare the ladies. I’ll have it brought to the lair for you later.”
Raphael’s jaw dropped. “You think this shit is what’s going to scare them?” he shouted, waving the gauntlet in Xever’s bruised face and sorely tempted to spring the claws. “Not to mention, Master Shredder hasn’t approved me being seen in public yet.”
“This is my club, which makes it, in part, Foot Clan property,” he reasoned smoothly. “The people who work for me will know about you soon enough, and believe me, none of the patrons are going to pay any attention to you. Even if they do, you would be surprised what can be passed off as ‘part of the show’ in the entertainment industry. Now settle yourself, Turtle, there’s a private bar where it’s quiet, staff only.”
Raphael’s migraine flared back to life and he cursed in Japanese. “Fine,” he ceded, unbuckling his armor and carefully arranging it and the gauntlet in the trunk.
As a hasty afterthought, he also dropped his cloak and mask inside, a small wave of relief flowing through him as a mental and physical weight was lifted from him. Not only had he always felt too confined while traveling in a car, but he was suddenly feeling claustrophobic in his own skin with the layers of added bandages, wraps, and metal. The mere thought of parting with his weapons left him rattled, however, and Xever didn’t seem bothered by him remaining armed when the trunk banged shut.
“I don’t believe this,” Raphael mumbled, following Xever across the back of the abandoned building to the staff entrance for The Bunny Run.
The steady beat of music surrounded him as they entered, pounding rhythmically in his skull and punctuated by cheers and catcalls from the crowd. Directly ahead was a huge, crescent shaped bar, and roughly half of the tall chairs situated in front of it were occupied. A bartender in a yellow crop top looked up and waved at them, then went about her work as if seeing a giant turtle in the staff doorway with her boss was only the tenth weirdest thing she’d experienced that night.
Raphael’s attention couldn’t help but be drawn to the spotlit main stage to the far left that featured two metal poles and a bikini-clad woman at each one, scores of men egging them on and throwing cash as they spun in unison. One of the women flipped upside down, her only support the press of her hip and her hands on the pole below her, and slowly did the splits to the howling approval of her audience. Raphael cocked his head to the side and stared raptly, impressed with the athleticism and strength that move would require. When she righted herself, his eyes followed the long line of her legs, the absurdly high heels she wore accentuating the muscles in her calves and the curve of her rear. After a flurry of nimble spins, she paused to pose dramatically, then flung her top across the stage.
Cheeks heating up, Raphael averted his gaze only to find a smaller stage with an almost naked man dancing for the favors of a mixed group of women and men.
“Do you want to go watch?” Xever asked, too close to his ear so he could be heard above the din.
Raphael jumped almost guiltily, turning away from the spectacle and shuddering at the thought of all those rowdy humans pressing flesh against him as they watched girls undress. “Hell. No.”
Xever tilted his head quickly to the side, indicating to follow him. Raphael kept his eyes fixed on Xever’s heels, wondering if he was noticeably blushing. He was led to a locked office, which in turn had another hidden exit inside a closet, which also required a key.
Raphael blinked, disoriented, when they emerged into another, very similar office. “What the hell?”
Xever smiled, and when they left that second office, Raphael realized they were now in the ‘abandoned’ building attached to the club. A fair-sized lounge stretched out before them, the decor soft and muted with overstuffed couches and chairs, low tables, and fancy draperies to hide the ugly boarded windows. Only one other person was in the room, a woman in a long, velvet robe that reclined on a couch with her bare feet up on a table, a Cosmo magazine in one hand and a snifter of brandy in the other. She greeted Xever and eyed Raphael curiously, then went back to her reading.
Xever got behind a small, wooden bar with four backless stools and scanned the bottles critically. “There is a washroom down the hall, first door on the right,” he said. “In case you wanted to freshen up. I noticed you were bleeding earlier.”
Indeed, with the armor and gauntlet gone, his wraps were tacky to the touch. “Thanks,” he said curtly, and headed off in that direction.
“Maybe don’t go any further into the back,” Xever added after him.
Raphael let out a long-suffering sigh; he didn’t have to be told. The whole place reeked of sex and booze, and his sharp ears picked up the lewd noises coming from the back rooms as he approached. Locking himself into the washroom gave him a reprieve from it all, but the lack of distraction brought his nerves roaring back to the forefront of his consciousness.
Using a small throwing kunai to carefully slice through the wraps, from his right knuckle to just past his elbow, he peeled them off and threw them in the trash. His shoulder had stopped bleeding, and the bandages had absorbed enough of the blood that the stains weren’t obvious on the remaining black fabric hiding them. Unable to redress the wound on his own, he left everything from mid-bicep up untouched. Rinsing the semi-dried blood from his hands and the bared portion of his arm as best he could in the sink, he tried and failed to not to let his mind wander back to the blue eyes that had invoked the wrath of his headache.
I missed you every day that you were gone. He sucked in a painful breath and blotted his arm with a towel. Why had it been Michelangelo that stilled his hand? What could he have possibly promised to protect his brother from all of those years ago?
Most importantly, what the hell was wrong with him? Periodic migraines had plagued Raphael since he had been poisoned, but the episodes relating to his old, barely-there memories left him debilitated. If Michelangelo had been ruthless, Raphael would be dead. If he couldn’t get a handle on whatever was happening to him, it put him and his Clan in danger. If he couldn’t be strong enough to face his past without crumbling, Karai could get hurt because of it, and that was a guilt he knew he couldn’t live with.
Raphael was snapped out of his thoughts by the sounds of feminine giggling and realized that he was bracing himself on the sink, his hands gripping either side of it so tightly that it threatened to crack the porcelain. He let out a slow, shuddering breath and let go.
Goddamnit, he was tired.
The idea of alcohol suddenly felt like salvation, and the prospect of Xever’s banter was a welcome alternative to being holed up in his room at the lair to avoid Master Shredder’s biting commentary.
Breezing out of the washroom and heading back to the lounge as if he could outrun his anxiety, he found two women laughing and hanging off of Xever, a blonde and a brunette in matching grey satin robes that barely reached their thighs. Raphael tensed, but hardened his resolve and did the same thing he’d always done when walking into a place full of humans that he hadn’t met before: kept his expression somewhere between neutral and stern, his stride confident, and pretended that he belonged there. He sat himself parallel to the bar, one elbow resting atop the smooth surface, leaving a stool empty between him and Xever, and regarded the trio.
“Ladies,” Xever said smoothly, “this is my friend, Raphael. He’s here from Japan on business.”
The girls smiled at him, their eyes roving his body in open fascination, and the hot blush of color returned to his cheeks. Their pale skin was also flushed pink and their hearts beat quickly, the scent of sweat evident beneath their perfumes, and Raphael recognized them as the two that had just been performing.
“Sweet costume,” said the brunette, who’d also been the one Raphael had admired earlier. “Looks totally badass.”
Raphael snorted. “Thanks.”
Xever tightened an arm around each of the women’s waists to regain their attention. “What are the chances of getting a little company tonight?” he asked them.
“I have another set in an hour, but then I’m free,” the blonde answered affectionately, playing with his wild hair.
“I have to run tonight, sorry, hun,” said the brunette. “I just wanted to say hi. Oh, and nice meeting you, too,” she added to Raphael before slipping free of Xever’s hold and gracefully taking her leave from them.
“Just the two of us later, then?” Xever said, shooting the blonde a sly look.
“Kurt is on his last set for the night…” she replied suggestively. “I can ask him if he’s busy later.”
“Perfect,” Xever practically purred.
On the bar sat a full bottle of Crown Royal and six shot glasses. Xever nudged three of them over to Raphael and filled all six with whiskey, picking up one of his shots and lifting it to him.
“You ready?” Xever asked.
Raphael looked down at the three shot glasses situated by his hand, each about the size of his thumbnail, and scoffed audibly. He grabbed the bottle. “Cheers,” he said dryly, taking a long pull straight from it.
The humans laughed and Xever got on board, knocking back two shots in quick succession and hissing as the alcohol stung a small split on his upper lip from their earlier skirmish.
“I’m gonna go take my break and get done up for my next dance,” the woman said, kissing Xever on the cheek and whispering into his ear. “I’ll see you later.”
She stepped towards Raphael, reaching out as if to touch his arm, but seemed to decide against it when she noticed his steely gaze on her hand. She withdrew it respectfully and ducked her head towards him. “It’s not a costume, is it?” she asked in a quiet, conspiratorial voice.
Raphael took another swig from the bottle and looked her dead in the eye. “Nope.”
“Don’t let the boss over here get you into too much trouble, alright?” she said playfully. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Raphael.”
The coy drawl she used as she said his name made the nape of his neck prickle and his breath catch, and by the time he had found his tongue to reply, she had already sauntered off.
Xever grinned wolfishly at him. “You are welcome to stay the night if you like. I bet one of my more adventurous girls would even keep your bed warm.”
“I don’t think so,” Raphael replied quickly.
Xever began to protest, perhaps mistaking his refusal as disbelief, but Raphael tuned him out and drank some more Crown Royal, focusing on the smooth burn of it in his throat. It wasn’t that he was completely uninterested, per say; more that this scenario was far too reminiscent of his time at the farm, when the men there used to share graphic stories of their conquests around the fire, tease him, and sometimes offered to buy him a woman for the night just to watch him squirm.
“I’m fifteen years old,” Raphael said, cutting him off. “I know you aren’t making fun of me, but being the inexperienced freak of nature that I am, this kind of shit was a favorite for some of the jerks I trained with to taunt me about when I was just a kid. So drop it,” he warned.
Xever paused, then took another shot before speaking again. “Apologies, I just assumed by your reputation and stature in the Foot Clan. I, too, had to become a man by the time I was your age, but I was alone. Master Shredder must have raised and trained you directly.”
Raphael inclined his head in agreement. “I also spent four years training for the Elite under Master Takeshi. My age was kept from the other men I lived and worked with so they wouldn’t treat me like a child. Not that I think it would have mattered much for training and sparring. If anything, once they knew I could heal fast, they were harder on me,” he muttered, raising the bottle to his lips once again.
“From the stories I’ve heard about the Elite training, I’m surprised you survived,” Xever said, clearly impressed.
“I almost didn’t. Hell, even the crazy horse almost killed me my second week there.”
“Who’s Crazy Horse?” Xever asked, confused, taking one of Raphael’s untouched shots for himself.
“No, an actual, crazy horse. I still have a little dent in my shell from when he kicked me,” Raphael said. “Of all the stories you've heard, I bet the fact that every Elite Soldier in the Foot Clan today got their asses handed to them by a horse as their first lesson wasn't one of them.”
Xever threw his head back with a whole hearted laugh, and a smile teased at Raphael’s lips. His migraine was being successfully chased away by the whiskey, and he drained the rest of the bottle in one go.
“What about you?” Raphael asked. “I’ve never seen anyone fight like you before.”
“I’ve spent most of my life mastering capoeira,” he replied. “It was considered such a dangerous martial art in my country that it was illegal to practice it for over a century.”
“Could you teach me sometime?”
“Sure,” Xever said with a grin.
They made plans to train together, and Xever happily droned on for a while about the history of capoeira while Raphael listened intently, enjoying the pleasant buzz he had going until they were interrupted by three dancers entering the lounge, a man and two women. The women seemed content to take their breaks in the sitting area, but the tall, tanned man in black short-shorts made his way directly over to Xever and kissed him soundly.
“Nina said you were looking for me,” he said breathlessly.
“Always,” replied Xever with a sultry smirk.
Raphael assumed that this must be Kurt, and probably his cue to leave. Kurt eyed him warily when he stood up and informed Xever that he was heading to the watchtower, shrugging off Xever’s offers for another bottle, a bed, or a ride back.
Raphael fled the club the same way they had come in, then climbed up to its roof to get his bearings. He took a few minutes to appreciate the city air, which, in direct comparison to the shuttered up lounge, was downright fresh. The whiskey that had eased his aches and pains was already starting to wear off, but he absolutely refused to get into another goddamn car. He knew how to slip through a busy city like a shadow, he just needed to know which direction he was heading.
He plucked his cell phone from his belt and let it rest in one palm, then used a rubber-tipped pen to type out the address into Google Maps on the touchscreen. The notification for a text message cut him off, and seeing Karai’s nickname pop up on the screen was enough to warm his heart for a beat. He was exhausted and out of sorts, and suddenly longed to be in the company of the only person he trusted enough to drop his guard around.
Raph: Do you mind typing in English? I need the practice writing
Princess: Seriously? Fine...there are 8 people in medical and Father is looking stabbier than usual. What the hell happened?
Raph: The turtles attacked us trying to get to our contact, but we have the info we need to trap them. It’s under control
Princess: Are you sure?
Princess: So, was it weird? Seeing them?
Raph: This whole night has been weird
Princess: Bradford is driving me nuts, I’ve walked Hachiko 3x today just to get breaks from him. And he had the nerve to ask if I’m 18 yet!
Raph: Yeah, and Xever runs a brothel through his strip club. Ask me how I know
Princess: WHAT hahaha
Raph: Are you done with Bradford?
Princess: Am I ever
Raph: I meant done work for the night
Princess: Yeah, why?
Raph: I could use some help with my shoulder
Princess: OMG how bad is it?
Raph: It’s fine, it bled a little when I was fighting. I just can’t bandage it on my own
Princess: You are actually asking for help so I know it’s way worse than you are letting on
Raph: It’s really not. I’m on my way home
Princess: The watchtower is home now?
Raph: It is when you’re there
Princess: Aww, you sap. You must really feel like shit
Raph: Shut up. Be there soon
Karai shifted her weight uncomfortably under the casually lecherous gaze of Chris Bradford. She leaned as far away from him as possible on the soft leather of the opposite bench in the back of their limousine, her patience wearing thin. Spending most of the previous night and today with him, engrossed in charts, reports, and financial statements to be delivered in some semblance of order to her father later this evening, had been tediously dull as much as it had been a monumental test of self-control. The man was an insufferable braggart, taking credit for everything going well within the New York faction of the Foot Clan and making excuses for the rest.
He was also a notorious womanizer, something she had not been expecting to experience firsthand, and it seemed that his fans and meager brush with celebrity had only reinforced Bradford's gross attitude that any woman should be grateful for his attention. She glanced over at how he postured and preened as he spoke about the dojo they would be visiting, and wondered if he was even aware he was doing it. A ping from her cell phone alerting her to a new text message saved her from having to feign interest in what he was saying.
When she saw that the text was from Raphael, she instantly bit her lip in worry. He had not been himself last night, distant and unwilling to speak about the encounter with his brothers at all, and beneath his unusually docile cooperation with her doctoring, tension had radiated from him like a steady static until his exhaustion won out and he’d fallen asleep.
Raph: Is Bradford still with you?
Karai: Unfortunately. Why?
Raph: I'm supposed to let him know that we have the bait and are setting the trap tonight at 10pm, but I don't have his new phone number yet.
Shredder is expecting the new recruits to be selected and ready in time for the ambush, but he wants you both here with him and ready to receive the turtles
Karai: We're on our way to one of the dojos now so I can take a look at what we're working with. That gives us about 3 hours, should be fine.
I wish I could be there tonight, this is total bullshit
Raph: You have no idea...
Karai: What’s wrong?
Raph: He's fucking blind
Raph: Our bait. Is an old blind man
Karai: Hurting him was never part of Xever's plan, though, right?
Raph: No but he wants him scared for real when the turtles show up, and keeps threatening him
Karai:So what are you going to do?
Raph: I just put him in one of the spare rooms at the watchtower and told him he wasn't in any real danger if he went along with us. I'll have to gag him when we leave but until then I'm guarding him myself
Karai: Be careful. Please. You shouldn’t even be fighting at all with your shoulder like that
Raph: I’ve had worse
If Bradford touches you make sure you break one hand and leave the other for me
Karai relayed the portion of Raphael’s message meant for Bradford to him, lips curled into a small smile as she tucked her phone away. It quickly turned into a scowl as they pulled into the driveway of the Downtown Athletic Club. It was a huge, full service gym crawling with civilians.
“Are you serious?” Karai asked, eyebrow arched.
“Don't worry about it, I work out here all the time,” Bradford said. “I rented the largest studio and had them put down mats. If everyone I called in shows up, there should be fifty men altogether. We've got it for two hours, booked as a private martial arts clinic for the top Bradford Dojo students from all over New York. You can put them through their paces and hand pick the next batch of American Foot Soldiers just as Master Shredder requested. They are all willing and able,” he boasted.
Karai wasn't sure if she was supposed to be as impressed by this whole set up as he obviously was. “We'll see,” she muttered as the driver opened the door for them.
She felt distinctly out of place as she trailed after Bradford. The Athletic Club was a gym on an industrial scale, with of rows of equipment, partitioned rooms for more specialized interests, an Olympic sized pool, and studios were people could take different classes. No one paid her any mind, though a few recognized and mooned over Bradford as they passed.
Once closed into the expansive private room that Bradford had rented, she felt instantly more at home. She stood next to Bradford, her head not even reaching his shoulder, and surveyed his students as they lined up in rows and bowed to him. Bradford had promised her fifty men, and there were, in fact, fifty men. It struck her immediately, as she felt their eyes wash over her and heard their snickers, that Bradford had a ‘type’ for his favored recruits: big, strong, jocks who could turn a blind eye to their already gray-area morality for the chance to make some cash, hurt some people, and be a part of something bigger than themselves. There was a place for them in their organization, without a doubt, but a variety of skill-sets and personalities made the most cohesive teams, and she was glad that they had brought Soldiers from Japan to help fill out the ranks and mentor the Americans.
Karai’s restlessness from the past few days caught up with her, and she warmed up with the men, letting her mind wander and her body take over, going through the motions as Bradford barked orders at them. She let go of her frustration at having to stay behind tonight with her father and Bradford, making peace with the knowledge that when Xever, Raph, and the rest of the Clan brought the turtles in, possibly kicking and screaming, they would need to be ready to help get them into containment cells. They were the key to finding Hamato Yoshi, and Karai had to keep sight of that bigger picture.
When Bradford called them back into line, Karai hung back and wiped the sweat from her brow, taking note of which men were panting the heaviest after their warm up exercises. Her body hummed contentedly, ready for action, and it was an effort to stand still as Bradford spoke at the front of the room.
“You all know why you are here,” Bradford said. “Those of you who are chosen are to be ready to go into battle against an almost unbelievable foe. Tonight. Anyone who thinks they can’t handle that, get out right now and don’t ever let me see your face again.” He paused for a beat, then continued when no one moved. “Master Oroku will be taking over from here for assessments.”
Even as Karai returned to Bradford’s side, many pairs of eyes seemed to shift towards the door as if they were expecting someone else. She took a step forward, clasped a hand over a fist and bowed. “Konichiwa. I am Master Oroku,” she greeted formally.
There were a few outright laughs, a few more that muttered things like:
‘Is she for real?’
Bradford chuckled and clapped a hand roughly to her shoulder. “Well, have at it. I’ll see you later.”
Karai narrowed her eyes. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“I have a life outside of the Foot,” he said lowly. “I have appearances to keep up, or people get suspicious.”
Karai scoffed loudly. “Unbelievable. Fine, leave me with your cretins, I’ll see who I can salvage from this mess.”
“That’s the spirit,” Bradford said in a fake, upbeat voice. He waved to the class and talked over their murmurings. “I leave you in her very capable hands. Make sure to impress the little lady here, and you will no longer be my students, but my brothers in arms,” he said dramatically, as if that would be some sort of reward or honor for them.
A few of them let out small cheers or other sounds of excitement, so perhaps, to them, it was. Bradford left, and Karai pinched between the bridge of her nose with her eyes closed as the men continued to chat and joke with one another. She counted to ten in her head, collected the rest of her patience, dropped her hands to her sides, and stood up straight.
“Silence!” Karai yelled in her most commanding voice.
It was unexpected enough that it made them quiet down and pay attention, though many of them still eyed her like hungry hyenas.
“I think that before we begin any type of assessments, a class is in order after all,” she continued, her voice even. “I’m going to teach you boys a lesson that I know Chris Bradford never could.”
She cracked her neck to each side and waited for the inevitable snorts, snickers and ‘What would that be?’ nonsense to die down before smiling diabolically and answering.
Author's note: Quick shout out to mysteriouskunoichi for helping me stay on course and lending her advice whenever I need it. You've been in my corner from the start and I appreciate the time you've put in with me when I'm feeling insecure or need a sounding board.