It's funny, he thinks as the steady roar of the city rises up to lap at his ankles, standing alone on the rooftop bathed in red neon, how quickly one can adapt.
All those months in the jungle. Upon first entering he'd been impressed with its silence, so new and strange a sound. Absolute.
Would he ever grow used to such quiet?
He'd lain down on his belly against the soft, moist earth and breathed it in, a long, slow and hungry breath. He'd stopped moving, limbs settling naturally, eyelids falling softly shut. When the final movements of his body had stopped, every muscle loose and uncoiled, tongue dropped to the floor of his mouth, when even the sashes of his bandana had ceased the sway caused by his movement – then he had heard it.
The steady rhythm of the jungle's breath.
How easily it could be mistaken for silence – there was no hum of electricity ever pumping, no roar of vehicles or machinery, no chattering voices all struggling to overpower each other. There was not the collective march of eight million footfalls, the thrum of music pulsing the airwaves or the whine of static.
If artifice existed, then it was only in the numbing perfection of each glossy leaf, or looping webs of vine.
Exhausted by the journey he'd come from he'd remained still and silent on the jungle bed for what could've been days. Certainly it had grown lighter, then darker, although the sun was obscured from view where he lay. He could only tell from the change in the jungle's greens – a vivid motley of brilliant, jewel-tones to a dusky collage of dark and muted shades.
Later he would come to recognise the time of day by the activity and noises of the animals around him, most of who remained hidden from view. His senses were sharp, and had become sharper throughout his mission. But theirs were still the superior.
Leaving the jungle he had pondered then how he would ever grow used again to the tumult of artificial sounds from human civilisation. He had marvelled that such unnaturalness could ever again be normal to him – until he realised with a start that he was on the outskirts of the city and the electrical pulse had risen up all around him once more, overcoming the sway of the wind and the leaves rustling, the shuffling of the earth and the pat-pat-pat of dew as softly and viciously as a hand at the throat. He'd chuckled at himself. Laughing at himself was something learned from The Ancient One.
He hadn't noticed leaving that behind either.
Not until recently, anyway.
Now he stood on the rooftop, the same one that a few weeks earlier he'd spat into the rain and risen up on to face off against his brother, his best friend and ever-traitor.
He'd wanted the showdown, as much as Raphael had. He'd urged him to back down but that had been in arrogance, so sure had he been that he would come out the victor. His smug self-assurance had made failure a seeming impossibility. Raphael was too undisciplined, too unhinged. His passion drove every battle and Leonardo had been sure the coolness absorbed from the jungle floor, the snap-quick reflexes further perfected dodging snakes and the strength acquired in battling for every meal would favour him.
In the end, it was not loosing the fight that had felt so grotesque and sickening, so awfully unreal in its very actualness as he'd panted on his back, the rain cold and hard in a way the jungle rain had never been, looking up into the raging, blind eyes of Raphael. It was that he'd thought he'd lost his brother.
Even after the reconciliation, it rose up in him sometimes, that feeling. His head would snap up, suddenly finding himself a little breathless, tense. It drove him from his room, out of meditation or from training. Drove him to seek out Raphael and make tentative invitations his brother always accepted, always awkwardly.
But somehow, he thought, somehow they were slowly getting used to each other. Falling back into a rhythm they hadn't shared since the age of sixteen and even then it had been fraught with tension that had finally been released, now. Slowly, they got to know each other and, in the learning, found each other exactly as they had remembered from lost youth when leadership and usurping had only ever been games.
It made them both happy.
As youths their relationship had been playfully competitive, never in earnest. In the early days as their personalities formed and emerged, they had spent as much time alone together, more perhaps, as with their other brothers. In those days, before they began to establish their ranking within the family, they were rather more an endless source of delight rather than frustration for each other, constantly challenging, encouraging, cheering the other on – they were driven by similar passions, similar needs and then, they understood each other. But things changed.
The natural pairings fell to Raphael with Michelangelo, Donatello with Leonardo. Leonardo fell naturally into the leadership role, long before it was ever formally acknowledged by their father. But Raphael counted himself a lone ranger, even committed as he was to the family. Of them all he was the most independent, the most likely to question authority, to ask why. Of them all he was most in trouble with Splinter, most tested their Father's near-unending patience. He could not accept that a thing was, simply because he was told so by their Sensei, the way that Leonardo did. He took little interest in their book studies, showing no inclination for being the excellent "all-rounder" that Leonardo pursued with a passion. His focus instead was wholly the physical, in which he excelled. In which he did, indeed, exceed Leonardo for a time. Leonardo had found himself unreasonably resentful of that fact, not understanding why it should be so until he realised that the time he committed to reading, to practicing his writing, to studying, to perfecting his katas, was all time Raphael spent training. And so began Leonardo's habit of rising early, before any of them, to train in the dojo. It was not enough that Raphael was regularly teased for being the dunce of the family in spite of his martial excellence. Leonardo would be the best at all things, no matter the cost.
Raphael had not even been aware of this, his silent resolution. Not aware he was in a one-sided competition with his brother until the ferociousness with which his brother began to beat him in sparring matches further awakened his own aggressiveness, and the physical battle began in earnest.
But even still, the bond between them was a close one, and it stayed that way for several years more.
He rather thought he had a good idea of where Raphael was, and he turned in that direction, scaling the rooftops over the city thrumming below, as it ever had, always either below or above. The cityscape passed by in a blur, the cool night air drying the sweat on his skin as it sprung to the surface, the varying cement and tiles, glass, steel and brick beneath his feet unforgiving even against the thick calluses he had. Gradually, the environment changed, becoming more rugged, crumbling and dank. The pulse rising up from the streets was different, more visceral and vicious. Here the sound of a siren rose with greater regularity, the clanging of an alarm, the wail of an ambulance. The traffic thinned, fewer people willing to trespass this side of town this late at night, but the street corners thrummed with activity, groups of men and boys clustered there, lone women weaving their way through.
Gradually he reached the geographical triangle where sin for sale was at its densest, long strips of streets populated with strip clubs, dirty book stores and adult shops, and the less trendy rave clubs, framed and interspersed with crumbling residential buildings. Here, solitary men in grimy singlets, leather jackets and suit shirts made covert eye contact and murmured coded enquiries when one got close enough. Here, solitary women in jeans and boots, mini-dresses and flip flops, leaned up against shop windows and communicated silent messages with piercing stares.
Leaving the lair at night had always been a habit of Raphael's, and Leonardo hardly expected it to stop simply because he gave up the Nightwatcher. The vigilante helmet remained on the shelf in the trophy room, but regularly as they grouped together in front of the television, Raphael would slip quietly away. Or, in the dead of night, Leonardo, a trained light sleeper, would hear the soft grinding sound of the lair's brick doors sliding open. He never seemed any worse the wear for it the next day than he'd ever been. Leonardo didn't question it. If Raphael had given up his nightly wanderings altogether, then Leonardo might've worried.
And things were better. The brooding, temperamental turtle was less sullen and savage with his brothers. Leonardo still had much to discuss with them, especially Donatello, but from what he'd gathered Raphael had given them both an increasingly hard time the longer Leonardo was gone. Now he was making amends in his own way, engaging in playful verbal sparring with Michelangelo, offering his rough mechanical skills to Donatello who accepted the offers with slightly grudging bafflement. From what Leonardo understood, leadership had not brought out the best in his quiet, intellectual sibling and there was a great deal between he and Raphael that had yet to be rectified. Still, Raphael seemed willing to try.
But even still, Leonardo could perceive all was not entirely right with his brother.
He seemed restless, pausing on his way to his punching bag to watch the news with a still, quiet eye, a grimness that had Leonardo watching, watching him as he would move on to workout with frightening intensity. He would brood, in a way he hadn't since the first years of teenage angst, getting lost in thoughts which darkened his brow and that not even Michelangelo always dared to snap him out of. Sometimes he would tip his head back and gaze upwards at the bricks patterning the roof of their home, or whilst on a training run through the sewers, pause beneath an open manhole to listen to the sounds of the street above.
He often wanted to invite his brother to speak to him about the thoughts that were obviously burdening his mind.
But they were still a little shy with each other.
Leonardo did not know where the spot was exactly, but he knew the neighbourhood enough to select a central starting point and fan out, covering a ten mile square radius in all directions, scouting the rooftops as he covered them, seeking the familiar shape along the perimeters. He knew it was only a mater of time until he found his brother, and he was right.
Raphael made no indication that he knew Leonardo was there, although he must. Leonardo watched his brother silently for several long moments, the red bandana ties that lifted slightly in the breeze, the hunched shoulders above the cracked and scarred shell, gleaming darkly in the glow the hidden street below threw up. Wild noise rose up from it, a riotous symphony of car engines, horns, club music, people chattering, machines buzzing and pumping, but far back as he stood, Leonardo could see none of it. Just the long stretch of silhouetted buildings in all directions, and the dusky golden-orange glow rising from the street Raphael overlooked.
He went and sat down beside his brother.
"Hey." Raphael still did not look at him, but the greeting was amicable. He returned it in kind, glancing at Raphael's profile as he did so. The turtle's face was intent, but calm and Leonardo followed his gaze to the street below.
The prostitute was leaning up against a lamppost, nodding her head and singing along to the music that blared from the record shop behind her.
"It's four in the morning, the end of December, I'm writing you now to see if you're better…"
Her thin arms were crossed over her chest and her skinny legs were stretched out in front of her, one ankle crossed over the other. Half of her long red hair fell over one shoulder, partially covering her face, free of makeup and heavily freckled. Around her people moved, carrying bags full of takeaway or arms wrapped about each other, cigarettes and bottles in paper bags dangling from hands, or late night groceries clutched in their grips. Around her the street vibrated with life, but she seemed outside of it and beyond it. She ignored it all except the cars that drove past and the music that played and the cigarette in her hand.
She looked the same to Leonardo as she had two years earlier. Too thin, too pale, too apathetic. She wore a very short red cotton dress with Mickey Mouse on the front and long fishnet gauntlets. Her flat-heeled boots were scuffed and worn. A sad and pitiful sight. He remembered the mingled disgust and pity he'd felt looking upon her in the past and was somewhat surprised to find it dissipated now. Instead he found a warm rush of compassion filled him.
He glanced again at Raphael as the girl flicked her cigarette butt to the gutter. His brother was careful to keep his expression neutral but his eyelids flickered under Leonardo's gaze though still he did not turn to him.
He had expected Raphael would persist in seeing the girl, but he had never dared to dwell on how far the relationship might've progressed during his absence.
If the silence continued, he would start to.
"How is she?"
Raphael shrugged, a barely perceptible movement of his big shoulders. "She's the same."
He wanted to ask if she'd started using heroin again, but he thought he already knew the answer.
"Is she still… sick?"
Raphael was silent for a moment, his jaw tense. "She got treatment. But I think it was too late. I don't understand it all really. Ask Don."
They were quiet again. Leonardo turned back to the street.
"I hear that you're building your little house… deep in the desert. You're living for nothing now, hope you're keeping some kind of record."
As they'd grown older; the natural alliances between Raphael and Michelangelo; Leonardo and Donatello, had shifted and changed, evolving as naturally as they'd been formed. Soon it was Donatello and Michelangelo, complementary in their opposing personalities, an hilarious and gently deprecating union underscored by a deep and abiding loyalty. Michelangelo ribbed Donatello on his geekiness; Donatello returned with dry cracks on Michelangelo's goofiness. They could agree on nothing, not what movies to watch, what snacks to consume, the best way to approach a problem, what weapons to use when they sparred, who could win in a fight between Batman and Superman and yet the gentle camaraderie remained constant; the arguments never grew ferocious or even tense. They were the gentler brothers and they were gentle with each other.
By contrast, no such force drew Raphael and Leonardo closer together. The differences that bound their other two brothers closer only drove them further apart. They were both of them isolated, both by choice and yet both felt their loneliness keenly and sought no solace in any of the family, let alone each other. It had been startling for Leonardo to realise, in the warm moist depths of the jungle, that he had set himself apart as much as Raphael had, though perhaps for different reasons.
Leonardo's were all to do with his responsibilities to the family. To be "the one". The responsible one. The mature one. The capable one. The reliable one. He could never afford to be off his game, to goof off or slacken up. At all times he had to be finely tuned, utterly focused and absolutely on top of everything. It was a lonely path and though he often reminded himself he chose to walk it, there were times he felt his feet drag beneath the weight upon him. And yes, times he felt the twinge of envy, of desire, when his brothers did that which he had forbidden to himself – all night benders with Casey, begging off sick from training, rigging up pranks to play on one or the other – in this matter, as in no other, all alliances were off.
By contrast, Raphael isolated himself within the unending tide of his emotions; always too uncontrolled, too ferocious, too much able to overcome him. From the very beginning he'd been a champion of the underdog, as ferociously led by what he saw as right and wrong as Leonardo was by honour. He couldn't help but question authority at first, as much as that grew to vex his brother over the years, his need for independence grew quickly into a need to pursue that upon which he fixated alone. He grew angry with Mikey, who never took things seriously enough for him, frustrated with Donatello who regarded the events of the surface world with what seemed to Raphael as a dispassionate eye and outright resentful of Leonardo. For every reason. For any reason.
It was not that Raphael wanted to lead the team. He just wanted to lead himself. He did not want to have to answer to any higher authority, accept commands that might not align with his own sense of justice.
But despite all this, their love for the other was fierce. Or none of this would've bothered them so much. For several years now, ever since the city-wide gang war that first brought Karai into their lives, a war they'd both so violently disagreed upon, the rift between them had widened, begun by their similar yet strangely opposing philosophies, each secretly frustrated in their inability to be the friends they once were, resenting each other for not understanding and disgusted with themselves for continuing to lash out at the brother they loved.
"The last time I saw you, you looked so much older, your famous blue raincoat torn at the shoulder…"
A car, filled with young, screaming men went skidding up the street, music thumping and blaring from within. As they passed the girl one of the occupants threw an empty bottle at her, the glass shattering into a thousand shards on the hard cement, skittering up and around her like rain. She recoiled the same time Raphael started forward, hands on his weapons, teeth bared. The car went screeching around the corner, its occupants hooting to each other and Raphael sat back, a quick glance dared towards his brother, suddenly uncomfortable as though he realised how much he'd just revealed.
But Leonardo had already seen it all.
"Do you miss it," he asked, surprising himself. "Miss being there, in the heart of it?"
Raphael didn't answer for a long moment and Leonardo began almost to think he had only thought the words, or said them so quietly his brother had not heard them over the din of humanity below them; or maybe he was just ignoring him. Then Raphael spoke.
Leonardo thought, his mind cast back to the jungle, its humidity like a kiss, how easy and natural it had felt to slip into its rhythm, to stay silent, to adopt its pitilessness, its relentless moving forwards over whatever stood in its way.
He thought perhaps he owed his brother an answer. Instead he said: "I tried. That is, tried to do there what you tried to do here."
An undercurrent of guilt was obscured in the depths of his voice. And he thought he had revealed more than he wanted to also.
They once more fell silent, eyes on the girl below them.
She was not beautiful, that girl, not sweet or charming. She spat on the sidewalk, drank gin straight from the bottle and swore blithely at strangers who looked at her too long, swaying on legs too thin, shivering and blinking under the harshness of the street lights. And as easily vicious as she seemed, as ugly and bleak, there was a curious vulnerability to her, a frailty that he knew brought his brother back here night after night, that drew Raphael to her regardless of how frustrating it might've been, infuriating to him and his ferocious protective needs.
For Raphael, it was not the perfect celluloid beauties that held Michelangelo's attention, or the motley array of alternative camgirls that pulled Donatello's interest. But nor did he adopt the detached monk-like disinterest Leonardo strove to maintain (which would one day be effortless, surely…). For Raphael it had always been the girls of the streets, ordinary and simple, more beautiful in their realness than any two-dimensional representation and all the more tormenting for it. In this, as in all other things, Raphael chose the hard path. Just as he chose to haunt the streets of the roughest, bleakest neighbourhoods, how he understood, far more than any of them did, that life there was not black and white. His powerful sense of right and wrong worked on an entirely different level; it took into account abject poverty and desperation, violent and ignored lives that found solace in petty crime and drugs. The girl on the street below somehow encapsulated it all, embodying as well its sheer hopelessness. As he watched her, all too aware of Raphael's intent gaze, the tension in his shoulders, Leonardo felt a cringing moment of despair for his brother.
Now was not the right time. But soon, someday soon, he would have to talk to Raphael about severing his ties with the girl. Not knowing quite what those ties were, or how tightly bound.
He did not look forward to it.
When Raphael spoke it was so quietly Leonardo thought for a moment it was a trick of the wind, the way it whistled high up here.
"I can't stop thinking about it." He paused, shifted. Leonardo remained silent though he tensed, waiting. "All of it, you know. Everything that's going on – down there." He gestured to the street and its surrounding blocks with one hand, the fingers straight with tension. "Can't stop wondering… who and what… if… if places that came to depend on me… if they're still safe. If people – girls – kids – if they…" He was never good when it came to explaining himself. The words seemed to jumble in his mouth, coming out confused and conflicted. Rash action was far more his style, in that he shined.
Leonardo swallowed against the urge to divulge what he would call advice; what his brothers would dub a lecture. And continued to listen.
"You know, I was doin' this sort of stuff with Casey. But… but when I took on that – identity – it became different. I became different. I didn't haveta be so cautious anymore. Didn't haveta hide so much."
Leonardo bit back the desire to say that they could never afford to be incautious; that it was crucial to their very survival and no circumstances would ever change that. He went on listening, willing his body to relax.
"And I felt – more powerful. Capable of – People were… grateful. I know Donnie's sayin' I didn't do nothin' – that I was useless – but the shops I helped, they'd give us food free and no questions, old furniture or equipment, anythin' they thought I could use. I never asked. They smiled when they saw me. And – and I made a difference, ya know?"
That's what Leonardo had felt deep in the jungle, sometimes daring to approach a village, concealed high in the trees above and listening to campfire tales of the Ghost of the Jungle, of seeing them smile, embrace each other when their goods were returned to them, or the "tithe collectors" came no more. Of the young women who no longer feared being spoiled on their way to the river. He'd made a difference.
And they'd loved him for it.
What was happening there, now that the Ghost no more watched the jungle?
"I mean, I didn't even care about any of that stuff, I woulda done it anyway. And things changed around here. Not a lot, but enough. And now… now I don't know what's going on down there. I can't know. If I know, I'll – I mean, I won't be able to stop – and – and – what if they think I've abandoned them? I mean, I have abandoned them. Seems wrong somehow. To make a change and then – well, then just disappear. Let it go back to the way it was." He took a deep breath as though readying himself and below them a car screeched to a sudden halt, causing a chaos of blaring horns and shouts of abuse behind it. "I just… I don't know if I can promise you, Leo, that I'll never…" he broke off, shook his head and drew his legs up, crossing his arms over them, hands dangling.
Leonardo had plenty to say, but nothing that was going to help right then. So he remained silent. After a moment, Raphael shrugged.
"Any way. At the least. I can watch her. Do somethin' useful. I mean, if it's gonna be anyone, it's gonna be her."
Leonardo knew then, without a doubt. He couldn't say how or why, what gave it away exactly. If it was the way his brother looked away, off to the side out over the rooftops, the slightly guilty note in his voice, how his shoulders drew protectively inwards. Or the way he then glanced back down at the girl as a man paused to exchange a few words with her, she smiling at him in a way that made her almost pretty, tossing long strands of hair back over her shoulders. Leonardo did not like what he saw there in Raphael's eyes.
The man moved on and the girl shrugged. Clearly it was a hard night.
"I see you there with the rose in your teeth, one more thin gypsy thief…"
Raphael looked at Leonardo then, until Leonardo turned his gaze onto him. Raphael held it for just a second, just long enough for his brother to see the silent plea there, then looked back down to the street again.
Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, Leonardo shut his eyes and took a moment to compose his thoughts. With his eyes shut, the city sounds seemed to swell louder, the breeze cooler on his flesh. Careful to keep his voice gently neutral, he finally spoke.
"You can't always be there. Not even for her. You can sit here and watch her all night but you'll never see everything. It could be she gets into a car you can't keep up with, and doesn't come back. Or maybe it'll happen during the day, in a drive-by she gets caught in. Or when she next injects she might do too much and overdose. Maybe her liver will just give up on her one day. You might never even know how, just that one day she doesn't show up here."
"I'd find out." His voice is almost lost to the traffic then, but Leonardo's ears, honed by the forest, catches it.
"And would finding out change the fact? Would it undo it?
Raphael remained sullenly silent for a moment before murmuring something else. My choice, Leonardo thought it was.
"I think she would have something to say about that." He kept his voice soft, though it grew stronger. "About choices. That where she is and what she does is a choice she made. "
He felt Raphael make a flinching gesture of irritation, a silent so what? He turned his head and looked steadily at his brother.
"There is nothing you can ever do that will change that." He spoke with quiet deliberation. He could feel the resistance in Raphael in the way he shifted, suddenly restless and he persisted. "She will make her choices regardless of you. They all will. They will continue to do so. The only thing that remains then, is what choices you will make."
"What can I tell you my brother, my killer. What can I possibly say. Hey, I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you. I'm glad you stood in my way."
Raphael brooded, head hunching over, glowering, his eye ridges furrowed tight together. Leonardo did not look away and finally Raphael spat out, desperation tinging the edge of his words:
"Well, what am I supposed to do?"
There was so much in the question. So much he was asking about.
But suddenly the answer occurred to Leonardo, and it was simple.
Leonardo stood, took a last look down at the girl as she spun around in a slow circle, her hair fanning up just slightly, her unpleasantly thin frame illuminated in the cold neon glow of the 7-11.
Then he turned his gaze down to his brother, who continued to watch the scene below them with a tense jaw and clouded eye, concertedly not looking at Leonardo as though he was not even there.
"You could come and spend some time with your family." Leonardo's voice was gentle, soft, just barely rising above the din of the traffic around them. He stood there waiting, not taking his gaze from his brother's profile. He stood and waited, in silence, calm and patient.
Finally Raphael stood up, still looking down at the street.
Then he turned his back on it, and side-by-side they made their way home.
Lyrics from Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat, an inutterably wonderful song.