CHAPTER TWELVE

XXXVIII

Professor Andrews lived.

He was rushed to hospital, spent a few hours in surgery, got sewn back up, and lived.

He was declared unfit to stand trial though, on account of his bein' a vegetable.

Fittin', really.

Amber reckoned it couldn't have turned out better for him than if she'd planned it.

The organization – BioGenetics Development, Research and Testing Corporation – were big time creeps, involved in all sorts of illegal shit. Testing various drugs, diseases and bacteria, viruses and other nasties, including genetics experimenting. These were the kind of creeps who decided that animal activists were right – testing products intended for human use on animals just didn't make sense. Problem was, they just couldn't get enough volunteers for such dangerous tests.

They figured no one would notice if a few vagrants and criminals in the eyes of the law went missin'.

They were right. No one had.

The FBI tried to hush it up, but the NYPD were there first and within days it was splashed all through the media. They connected the little girl Mikey had freed with the whole affair and she became the unwittin' poster child for indignant citizens everywhere. Nothin' but a kid that nobody wanted, no parents around and her grandad too senile to notice when she wasn't there. Most of her time was spent muckin' about on the streets, and it made her an easy target. She was pounced on by charities and organizations and soon enough the donations came pourin' in from across the nation. Ended up bein' around fifteen grand, not bad for a minority kid with a harelip. Imagine if she'd been white and pretty.

As for the rest – they were taken into hospital and rushed to other research facilities, where they had to undergo more tests and examinations to see how much healin' could be done.

Most of them were unable to live without constant care and supervision. Some were in continuous pain. Some had gone completely around the bend.

Hell, killin' 'em probably woulda been kinder.

Of course, no one could expect that this spelled the end for the entire corporation. The CEO denied any knowledge of the whole affair, claiming he'd approved funding only for your average run-of-the-mill animal testing facility.

True? Not likely. But then, I've always been the cynical type.

But the paperwork was clean.

People were horrified, of course. Horrified and disgusted and outraged. And they fuckin' loved it. The story ran for weeks, fuelled as much by the public's perverse and ghoulish interest as by the revealing of each sordid detail.

Given that most of the victims had been homeless, without family, forgotten and rejected, and BioGen had neglected to keep a record of their names, they remained nameless and faceless. Photos of them were splashed everywhere but it wasn't them the people saw – just the wretched husk, deformed and mutated, that held them.

I never felt they really got justice.

XXXIX

"Raphael is taking you back up tonight, isn't he?"

Amber jumped but didn't look up. She raised the cigarette to her lips and took another draw. There was a rustle against stone and Leonardo lowered himself down besides her. They were sitting in the trophy room, dark and quiet, out of sight of the rest of the den.

"That's the deal." She confirmed. "Definitely time for me to be on my way."

They did not look at each other. Amber's gaze was concentrated on her toes, the cracked and yellowed nails there, the trail of smoke that snaked the air in front of her. Leonardo tilted his head to survey the shelving that housed the memories of past battles won and adventures had. He sighed.

"You are – you are welcome to stay longer, if you wish." His voice was strained and stiff, but sincere. She smiled, exhaled.

"Thank you, Leonardo." She replied with strong gratitude but she had no intention of doing so and he knew it.

They sat, he on his knees, palms flat against his thighs and she with one leg crossed over the other, arms folded. The silence grew so that beyond them they could hear the sounds of Michelangelo exclaiming over the newest game level he'd conquered. It made them both chuckle.

"I'm not sure what Michelangelo's going to do with his latent maternal extinct once you're gone." Leonardo said wryly and she snorted.

"This wasn't exactly – a victory – for us." He said hesitantly, after a moment. "In fact, overall, it turned out to be a pretty botched up affair. A lot of things went wrong. In many ways we were sloppy. And the outcome – was not – entirely satisfying."

She shrugged, stubbed her cigarette out.

"That's the way the bee stings sometimes, baby." Underneath the flippancy there was an undercurrent of something darker.

"What for you, now?"

"Same old, same old," she stretched her legs in front of her and leaned back on her hands. "Go back to my beat, hope it hasn't been nicked by someone new. Work. Drink. Smoke. Dance. " She was evasive, and glanced at him from the corner of her eye.

"Mmmm." His eyes ran over the sharp shining edge of The Shredder's helmet. "How are you… feeling… these days?" He was evasive too.

She sighed. "No, no I no longer feel an overwhelming physical yearning for heroin, if that's what you're asking me. "

He half-smiled and it irritated her.

"Why do you care what I do about that, anyway?" She snapped at him. He didn't respond for a long moment, instead unfolded his legs and rose, turning to leave. He laid a hand on her shoulder, a strong and companionable grip. She turned her head upwards to look at him, into the feeling amber eyes that gazed down at her in the semi-light.

"Because my brother does." He responded simply and then, with a final squeeze, let her go and moved to the door. "All the best for the journey ahead of you. I hope you find what you wish for."

XL

Donatello self-consciously started filling a plastic bag with valium, new fits, cotton wool and alcohol swabs while she fidgeted awkwardly, outside the old train carriage that served as his laboratory, various scrap metals and half-formed gadgets littering the area around it like particularly esoteric modern art efforts. She had had the least interaction with this one, and the unexpected thoughtfulness behind his efforts touched her.

The cluster of computers flickered and hummed as he hit a button and the printer whirred to life. A quiver of concentration set on his brow as he folded the sheaf of papers and tucked them inside the bag.

"There's uh, there's some information in there for you on – you know – your, uh, condition."

She thought distantly how she had the option here to be angry, to scorn him for the gesture, as though she needed pity or help. Instead she just felt something warm and tingling pool downwards from her chest and she reached over the rickety shelving that housed the three spare keyboards and assorted extra hard drives and cupped his cheek, feeling the cool, pebbled skin smooth beneath her fingertips.

"Thanks, baby."

He half-grinned and waved a hand to dismiss it. He hesitated a little before continuing carefully:

"So, uh, Hep C is a blood borne virus but from what you've described you don't share needles."

"No, I don't." she agreed. "But I used to, when I was younger. All the time. I've probably had it for years."

"Oh." He looked downwards at the desk, fidgeted a little with a stick of ram, scratched the back of his neck. "Did you – uh – did you know before – "

"No." she was short. "But I wasn't that surprised."

"I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "It's one of the hazards, baby. You make choices sometimes – between waitin' til you can get your hands on a clean fit or fixin'. If you know the risks, you can't really cry about it later."

"Well, uh, there should be plenty of info in there for you, and I'm sure if you ever needed it I could give you some advice – "

She laughed, a dry and husky sound. "Oh baby, I know it all. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, get plenty of sleep, don't take drugs, don't drink, don't smoke. Basically do everything exactly the opposite I been doin' it the last few years. But thanks, you know, you're real special for offerin'."

Finally he turned his big, soft brown eyes upwards and looked at her. She thought it was the first time he'd really looked at her since she'd been there. She held his gaze and smiled at him. Shyly, he smiled back.

XLI

"What?" Michelangelo shrieked in a surprisingly high-pitched voice so that she winced. "But I was gonna teach you all the cheats on Mortal Kombat!"

He was hanging over the back of the sofa, face was so forlorn, so struck with mute disappointment that she felt tempted, truly tempted to fling her knapsack back down and hop onto the couch beside him. Instead she folded her arms tight across her chest and frowned, fixing her gaze downwards. "Don't make this hard for me, baby." She muttered and he acquiesced, pouting, reaching back behind him on the coffee table to pick up a foil wrapped package. "Well. I made these for ya. They're double-double chocolate chip chocolate muffins. I know you like chocolate. " He tucked them into her knapsack then threw open his arms. "C'mere," The grin was back, wide and honest and something inside her crumpled. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him fiercely. Her hands ran over the rough, patterned surface of his shell and she winced again as his muscled arms squeezed her tight and pushed the air from her lungs. He smelt cool and fresh, like cut grass, solid and warm against her. She whispered into his ear: "I think I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow."

They'd watched The Wizard of Oz, singing along to If I Only Had A Brain, until Raphael had strode past muttering darkly it should be Mikey's theme song. He'd then got up and proceeded to do an impersonation of the Scarecrow that had her in stitches. It had been the film that had brought both of them out of their funk immediately following the attack on BioGen. She hadn't asked him what had upset him so much and knew that it was still simmering there, below the cheery smile and sparkling eyes. She rather thought – hoped - Splinter would take care of it, once she had left and they had privacy again.

Michelangelo gave her a final squeeze and then drew back, hands on her shoulders and beaming at her.

"I was serious about that alleyway dinner delivery service." He said seriously and she laughed. "Come on, babe, I've just started to fatten you up, we can't stop now!"

"I'll think about it." She said and they both knew it meant no. They regarded each other for a long moment, her hands moving up to touch his where they rested on her shoulders and she winced, once again, and flickered her gaze away.

"Mikey – you know – you really – really took care of me and uh, I appreciate that a lot. You did a lot for me. More than I can say really. " She finally managed to tear her eyes back to him. "Thank you."

He drew her in for a final hug. "No sweat, dudette. This joint needed the drama."

XLII

She didn't want to do this. Would it really matter if she didn't, she argued, if she just left? He probably wouldn't notice – wouldn't care – this was way too difficult. She was getting that tight, constricted feeling across her chest just thinking about it. Amber continued to hesitate outside the screened doors until the rasping voice within startled her.

"Enter, child."

Stomach fluttering she pushed back the doors and stepped into Splinter's room, blinking against the dim softness of the candlelight. The old rat sat before a low table, composedly pouring fresh tea. She advanced nervously over the matting and stood, with the strangest feeling of being back in the principal's office, hands behind her back. One clawed hand gestured she may sit and she awkwardly lowered herself into a cross-legged position, tugging at the short hem of her dress and hoping the dimness of the room hid all sins.

He motioned she should take one of the cups and she obeyed, biting her lip at the heat of it in her palm, for it had no handles.

"I just wanted to say thank you." She began and he nodded.

"But of course. Our home is always open to friends in need."

There was a lot she wanted to say. A lot she thought she should say. That she was awed and overwhelmed by their world. That she understood why they kept themselves secret. That she could be trusted. That they had been generous beyond words. That Michelangelo needed to talk to him.

"Thank you." Was all that she said, dumbly. He nodded again and they both drank.

"I will speak to Michelangelo," he said then, surprising her once more.

XLIII

"Ready?" Raphael had been distant again but she'd moved from the sofa to his room. Splinter's brows rose very high on his head until it had been revealed that she occupied the cushions beneath his hammock. That the rat's thoughts had wandered down that path had made her deeply uncomfortable, made it difficult for her to look at Raphael and she had accepted his stony silence without arguement.

The sleeping arrangement had been an unspoken agreement and it kept the nightmares from overwhelming her – nightmares of the sickening crunch of bone, the shrieking screams and the wild eyes, the blood that obscured them, the giddy wave of maniacal satisfaction she'd felt witnessing these effects of her own actions. The desire to lift the weapon again and again and again.

Perhaps he was revolted by her actions and that was why he'd retreated once more. Not that he really was that different…

Trauma can lead to extreme reactions, Donatello had said, but they'd all given her the briefest of strange looks, were just ever so slightly uneasy for a while.

A lot of things had gone wrong, Leonardo had said. They'd expected all the attention would be on Amber. They should've gone completely undetected. Without the solid evidence Donatello had later uncovered, they had nothing to hand onto the police. If they'd given Donatello just a little more time, he would've uncovered it without the need for them to move in at all.

But then again, they thought there would be people to save and they hadn't wanted to wait for the police to act.

She dreamed of Maria as well. Maria's liquid dark eyes and round face, her cheery smile and short, shapely legs. She dreamed she was on her way to her beat and passes Maria, who calls out to her and gives her a hug and laughs how are you, my friend, hope you go home with a sore cha-cha tonight, eh! Dreams that, when she woke, leave her feeling empty and sore, reaching out into open space for the final silvery edges of Maria's disappearing form. Raphael slept on his stomach in the hammock and when she woke with the little choking noise in her throat, her cheeks wet, he would reach an arm down to meet her searching hand and hold it. It was the most communication they had.

Until right when she was leaving.

She nodded and he motioned that they should go.

Once out of the den and on his bike, arms wrapped around him and the vibrations rattling through her, she felt alien to the city, its thrum and beat. After two weeks below ground in their insular world, not working, not using, she could hardly imagine going back to the rhythm of her old life. She wondered if she could still manage it.

He pulled into a dark alleyway, engine puttering to a halt and they sat for a moment in silence until she climbed off, brushing her hands over the back of his shoulders, the suit smooth beneath her palm. She wanted to touch his flesh.

"So – uh," he sounded as awkward as she felt, voice muffled by the heavy helmet he wore, disguising him from the world. "What are you gonna do about Maria's kid?"

Her stomach coiled and she backed up, looking down and to the side, shaking her head.

"Oh hell, you know, I don't even know where she lives. It's not my responsibility. I'm not going to deal with it. You do it. She's got a police record. You guys know what to do. I don't. I can't."

The pause between them was heavy; above them a cat ran along a fire escape.

"Let me know what you find out." She finished and he nodded, a quick, jerky movement. Another long silence and she scuffed her boot against the uneven gravel.

"Take off your helmet so I can say a proper goodbye." She tried for some of the old sass but it fell flat. He shook his head once.

"Can't. Too – " he began but she cut him off, exasperated.

"Come on, Raphael, don't start this shit, man. Just take it off." She didn't like the pleading note that sounded beneath the irritation, but he complied after a moment's hesitation.

She looked at his face, the frown that seemed to constantly hover on his brow, the grim set to his mouth, the intensity in his dark eyes and the mottled grey-green of his flesh. She had once envisioned him as tall as a tree and just as wide, blonde haired and grizzled, scarred all over from a lifetime of brawling. The memory had a smile flicker across her lips.

"Will I see you soon?" she asked, and fumbled for a cigarette to hide the tremble that took her whole body, not just her hands. She was out.

"I'll be around." He was non-committal. She wondered, with a pang, if she might not see him again.

"Don't be a stranger." It came out as a whisper and he looked away, down at his handlebars, grip tightening.

"I won't." And there was a promise in his tone. He looked back up to her and she stepped closer to him, so that her thigh brushed his knee. His gaze wavered as she got closer but finally fixed directly on hers. Not feeling wholly in control, she reached out and took his face in both hands, her thumbs smoothing his cheeks, closing the distance between them completely.

The kiss still took her by surprise even though she initiated it. His mouth was a lot wider than she had ever experienced before, the flesh rougher. But something about it felt good and right and so she kept pressing into it as he stiffened against her, drew back, then relaxed and gave into it. She had not kissed anyone in so long. It felt strange and wonderful; not just kissing a bizarre inhuman creature in an alley, but kissing at all and so she kept on, and finally he yielded and responded, tongue just barely flickering against hers.

They finished and she stepped back, suddenly embarrassed. "Don't get used to freebies." She half-snapped, half-joked, turning away from him and fumbling again for a cigarette that wasn't there.

He said nothing, but she heard the sliding sound of his helmet being replaced.

"Well," she said, knowing how forced it sounded. "I gotta go stock up on smokes before I go nuts. See you soon?"

He gunned the motor and she turned around to take a last look at him, his face hidden beneath the blank and uncompromising visage of the helmet. "Take care of yourself." He told her. "I'll be watching."

Then he was gone, tearing out of the alley and back into the night.

XLIV

Amber paced up and down in front of Thistleway's for a good ten minutes before finally deciding to go in. It was early afternoon and the streets were lively, a busking group of singing kids inspiring something of a dance celebration. It was warm, truly warm and people were cheerful. Spring was almost there.

She'd argued with herself over this decision for days and just when she'd made up her mind once and for all, another doubt twisted her. She paused, tapped one heel frantically on the pavement, smoked and growled at herself.

Stupid, to be so scared! Why was she scared of these do-gooder jerks, anyway? When had she ever been scared of them? She talked herself up, took a quick swig of gin to brace herself and then ran up the stairs before she could change her mind again.

"I'm here to see Rachel." She told the fellow behind the counter and he smiled at her and moved into the back offices to pass the message on.

She waited, still tapping one foot, hands thrust deep in the pockets of the big coat it really was getting too warm to keep wearing. She had almost decided to walk out again when Rachel emerged, smiling.

"Amber, I'm so pleased to see you!" She said, welcoming, coming around behind the desk to take Amber's hand and shake it. "I'm really glad you've decided to apply."

"I just want to make a couple of things really clear," Amber jerked back, jutted her hips out defensively. "Before we get started. I'm not quittin' the streets and that work will always be number one. Okay?"

Rachel nodded. "Absolutely. This is only a part time position and we understand you have other priorities in your life."

Amber nodded agitatedly, still not convinced. "And I don't want anyone preachin' at me or tryin' to tell me how to live my life, you got it?"

Rachel nodded again, face grave. "That just won't happen, Amber. You're the expert in this position. This place is changing. It would be really great if you could be part of what makes it change. Come on, come out the back here and let's do this interview."

XLV

I must be goin' mental.

Three days later and I can still feel the warmth of that kiss.

I keep wipin' at my face but it just won't go away. Feels like others can see it – I keep waitin' for Mikey to start ribbin' me.

He don't, of course. This is just downright embarrassin'.

My neighbourhood skyline is no longer broken by the thick black fog of that smokin' chimney. I wonder if Amber hears Dr Andrews scream in her dreams. I wonder if she's sorry, at all. It was only a couple of nights but still I expect to reach down and find her hand there when the den is silent and perfectly black.

The den is back to normal, as far as you can count it as ever bein' normal. The others are at ease again, the disruption is gone. But somethin' about it still feels a bit odd and displaced to me. I can still smell the conditioner she used on my cushions. She left long, pale, shimmerin' strands of hair all over the place. I pick them off the furniture everywhere I go, wrap them over and over my knuckles.

Leo leaves in two days. I'm dreadin' it. I ain't good at goodbyes. Already I'm missin' him.

I wonder if Splinter will ever name me ready to do what he's about to do. I shouldn't be surprised Leo got there first, but I wish he hadn't anyway.

The streets are still mine. I'm trying to keep low until Leo is gone but I'm beginning to get noticed. They don't fear me. Yet. They still think they can bring me down, that I'm some no-skill lucky punk they'll get the better of.

I look forward to showin' them different.

I'm stayin' away from Amber. It seems like the thing to do. Not sure what to say to her after she surprised me with that lip-smacker. My first kiss.

But I told her I'd be watchin', and I am. I'm watchin' her right now from across the street. I'm on a rooftop, crouched amongst cheap plaster sculptures, crumbling and worn away by the weather, watching as she enters the rambling old brownstone. She's put on some weight, thanks to Mikey, no longer looks quite so frail, like she might scatter to dust if you put too much pressure on her.

I move. Leap down the side of the building, bounce off the opposite wall, hit the street. Wait for the lull in traffic then cross, nothin' more than a silver flash in the eyes of the oncoming cars. Move inbetween the brownstone and its neighbour, craning my neck upwards where the night sky peeks indigo down at me. Then I climb. Up the fire escape of the building next door, right up to where a little old lady keeps plastic pot plants on her little balcony, the plants in them dead and withered from the long winter. She's inside, watching the television with the volume up all the way. I crouch outside, sheltered by the night, and gaze into the window opposite.

Amber sits on a lumpy mattress, a little furrow of concentration between her brows, her lower lip stuck out. She looks kinda childish like that, almost innocent.

A cord is wrapped around her upper arm so the flesh below it bulges, the tangled web of scars pink and red. The thumb of her opposite hand is depressed on the syringe, its thin silver point stuck into the crook of her elbow. She finishes the shot and pulls the syringe out, sighs and leans back against the wall, a dreamy little smile washing over her features, wiping the care and concentration away. Now she looks almost pure.

Some things just never change.