My thanks again to the lovely Deirdre for her fabulous beta-reading skills. kisses Especially at this time.
It was like the skies had opened up and rained down lightning.
The six mugs that were left had responded quickly to their compatriot's alert, stepping out of the apartment to open fire into the darkness, the charge of their weapons crackling brightly around them. The noise was shattering.
Above them, cloaked in shadow as they hailed bullets down the hallway, Raphael eased himself carefully across the ceiling. Seven left.
Bring it on.
He moved swiftly, any sound he made disguised by the roar of gunfire, until he was past the lot of them and was able to drop down. A guy at the rear of the group yelped when the shuriken hit his wrist, incapacitating his trigger hand, but his accomplices couldn't hear him. Two quick snap kicks laid him down, and then before him, the biggest of the lot held up his hand, urging them to hold their fire. Barely thirty seconds had passed since they began.
The gunfire came to an abrupt stop, the silence so sudden it rang. The hallway was dark once again, clouds of dust rising into the air, and the goons edged forward slowly, still peering into the darkness, trying to ascertain if any of their barrage had hit their intended target.
Behind them, unnoticed, Raphael grinned and unslung the manriki.
The Big Guy, at the front, suddenly turned to his friends with a scowl, and caught sight of the weapon as it hurtled towards him. Reflexively, he shot up a muscular arm, and the weapon glanced off it, causing him to yell in vicious pain. As the others all turned as one, he went stumbling, gripping his wounded arm as Raphael sprung.
He came silently out of the shadows, leaping high into the air, both sai drawn. First priority was weapons disarming. Then he could really cause them some pain.
The barrel of one weapon was caught in the prongs of his sai as it turned towards him, and then it was flicked away. A powerful kick broke the elbow of a trigger arm, and he ducked past the wounded guy as another weapon was levelled, its sudden burst of fire catching the man groaning and hugging his arm tight against his body. As the shooter paused, dismayed by the fact that he'd taken out one of his own, a broken cry of "Doug!" issuing from his mouth, Raphael grabbed his arm and twisted, dislocating the shoulder. Doug's mourner let out a scream that rent the night.
Raphael was hardly finished.
He vaguely recognised faces as they rose before him; kids and men he'd taken down over the last eight months or so. He couldn't remember where he'd seen them, what crimes they'd committed, or how badly he'd dealt with them. Just that he'd encountered them before.
As his foot connected with the sternum of one, he wondered how many were supporting a wife and kids somewhere in the city, like Mickey. A swift gut punch followed by a brutal uppercut to another, and he considered what sort of desperate cycle they might be trapped in. One guy screamed loudly in agony, another managed barely a whimper, and Raphael remembered Amber, trapped somewhere by these thugs, and the violence they'd enacted on her to wreak vengeance on him.
His savagery increased.
He came back to himself an indeterminate amount of time later, to find one guy in his grip, his filthy shirt bunched up in Raphael's fist, his face swollen and bloodied under the assault that had been levelled on him. He felt giddy, momentarily, the heat of his rage striking through him like a punch. He could see, in the guy's slackly parted lips, a tooth swimming in the blood bubbling up out of his mouth, and Raphael abruptly dropped him to the floorboards.
He heard a hissing moan and the shifting of a limp body against the filthy ground. He whipped around, hauling the mug upwards by the hair. The mug was already in too much pain to whimper; he just squeezed his eyes shut tight as his face contorted in an agonised grimace.
"Where is she?" Raphael hissed into the thug's face. The guy twitched, his mouth working frantically. Raphael shook him viciously. "Tell me. Now."
The mug's lips continued to flicker, and Raphael leaned closer as he finally got them together, ready to hear what he had to say.
A second later, his vision was obscured by a mouthful of spit and blood. Snarling, he wiped his face and slammed the mug up against a wall, restraining himself from a blow that would surely render the guy insensible and incapable of answering.
"Tell me where she is!" he snarled, and the guy made a sharp, high-pitched whistling sound that he belatedly realised was laughter.
"Fuck you, man," the mug whined.
"I'll kill you," Raphael promised him in a low growl, and the mug's laughter increased.
"Then you'll have to kill me. Fuck you, man. Kill me then. Go on. Kill me."
Raphael's vision blurred again, this time due to the savage bolt of pure fury that ripped through his head. He was barely aware of flinging the mug down to the floorboards, throwing himself down on top of him and raising his sai, readying himself for a blow of such power that the prongs' blunt tips would penetrate the mug's throat like a knife through butter.
There was the unmistakeable creak of floorboards above their heads.
He stopped, whirling around. His skin felt hot and wet, his breath raspy in his throat, his vision spotted and blurred. He shook his head rapidly, realized that there were only four goons crumpled up in the darkness around him, and that three were missing.
With a roar of pure rage, he hurtled down the hallway toward the stairs.
When the door lock was blasted in, Amber threw herself into the furthermost corner and rolled up into a ball, her knees to her chest, her arms wrapped around them and her head tucked down.
"Get the bitch," she heard the Big Guy hiss, and a second later hands were laid upon her. She kicked out, her booted feet connecting with a hipbone hard enough that her captor yelped, before shaking her viciously and throwing her to one side. She stumbled, but kept her balance, leaning up against the wall. The Big Guy sneered at her, and then kicked the table savagely across the room, before rounding on José.
"What the fuck's goin' on in here? Why didn't you open the door when I knocked?"
"She – she – she – poisoned me – stuck me with somethin' – dunno – she's jammed somethin' into me, she's poisoned me, poisoned, poisoned!" José's voice pitched higher in hysteria as he began blabbering, and The Big Guy took a step forward and rammed the butt of his gun against José's chin, knocking him out.
"That's my brother, man," one of the others barked darkly, and Rex rounded on him, gun aimed.
"Save it for the Nightwatcher," he snarled back.
"What the fuck is that upstairs, man, is that the Nightwatcher?" the other guy asked. "What the fuck have you got us into, Rex, what the fuck?"
"SHUT UP!" Rex roared, pulling himself up to his full height. Unexpectedly, Amber felt a wave of hysteria rise up in her, the urge to laugh burbling in her throat. She swallowed hard around it. The Big Guy and the other one braced themselves in front of the door, guns cocked and aimed.
José's brother levelled his eyes on Amber, and then narrowed them calculatingly. "We gotta kill her. Kill her now. " Amber felt her guts tip upside down as the barrel of his automatic met her eye to eye, but a second later The Big Guy had knocked it away with one meaty arm, barely stepping out of position.
"You fuckin' crazy?" he screeched. "She's our chip! You seen that thing up there?"
"What you done to my brother, bitch?" José's brother remained expressionless, his eyes glittering in the pale neon of the lone lightbulb overhead.
"That don't matter right now, get into position!" The Big Guy barked, swivelling his head away from the door and trying to catch his eye, but José's brother didn't move.
"We oughta just kill her, Rex," he said flatly. "We all dead anyway. Might as well get one in."
"I ain't dead!" Rex roared, moving away from the doorway completely, stepping up to tower over José's brother as the other guy turned fearfully to watch the infuriated exchange, the gun jerking in his shaking hands. Amber chewed on a nail and watched them all dispassionately. "Nightwatcher totalled my van, got me fired from the only legit job I had in ten years and sent my son down. I'm not leaving here without a piece of him!"
Amber, José's brother and Rex turned to see the remaining fellow lying motionless on the ground. Even as the three of them turned to the gaping black jaw of the doorway, a silent barrage of fury exploded through it.
Amber threw herself back up against the wall, hit the table and dropped to her knees, rolling beneath it, eyes wide and jaw slack as she watched Raphael attack.
She'd never seen him fight before. Sure, she knew he could. But until now, she'd never seen it. She knew that he was strong, that he was fit, that he was fast. Even still, she could not quite comprehend the speed with which he now moved, disarming them of their weapons, throwing the guns far from where they could retrieve them, turning back to block punches and kicks before laying in with his own.
She crouched beneath the table on all fours, her body numb and burning, watching him with round, swollen eyes. She watched and devoured his movements and realised after a second that he was holding back, that he was allowing them to stay up and fight back, that he was easily, almost languidly dragging the battle out. She wondered why.
As the seconds ticked by and the other two grew weaker, becoming slower and more fatigued in their movements, alternatively huffing and crying out in agony, she understood.
When Rex made a desperate leap for her where she huddled under the table, she was not altogether surprised. His nose had been broken again, blood pouring from it in two long rivulets down around his mouth and chin. Raphael had the other guy by one arm, twisting it at an unnatural angle so that the guy's unearthly howls added a macabre soundtrack to the Armageddon of the dirty little low-lit room. And then Rex was barrelling into the table, knocking it backwards, one bloody fist around her neck, the other pressed limply and flapping against his side. With a bone-tearing crack, Raphael spun the other guy away and finished him off with a powerful double round house kick before turning, snarling, to find Rex.
"I'll kill her," Rex spat around a mouthful of blood, his voice stammering. "I'll snap her neck like a fu-fucking twig, you sonuvabitch!"
Raphael eased himself into a squat, still with that awful, vicious snarl on his mouth. His eyes so narrow that they were barely white slits in the mottled grey-green of his face, his red eye-mask stained darker in places from the blood of those he'd lain down earlier. Amber stared at him from a gaze that was beginning to speck and smart white from the pressure of Rex's hand around her throat, her breath coming in hard, painful gasps. All she could think was: 'My mother will never know how I died,' and then Rex was roaring, and she felt her larynx begin to collapse under the pressure of his crushing grip just as Raphael growled, actually growled, and flipped both sai out of his belt, leaping across the space separating them.
The world blurred, then went white, furious and burning at the corners.
Beside Rex's prone, silent body, Raphael panted, feeling himself slowly return, the boiling roar in his body replaced with a buzzing numbness. He wiped his sai off on the man's dark shirt, replaced them in his belt, and ran both hands back over his face, feeling the heat of the wetness that covered him.
Amber sat up abruptly and vomited, nothing but a quantity of spit and bile.
He stared at her dispassionately. She always did have a weak stomach.
She looked about blankly for a moment, the bare bulb overhead swinging and throwing its light around the dingy room in a bright arc, before her eyes flickered over Rex. She studied him for only a few seconds, and then swivelled her neck around, the bruises on it already darkening, and brought up her gaze to meet Raphael's. They stared at each other for a long, surreal moment, and then she raised an eyebrow.
"Hey," she said.
"Yeah. Hey," he replied.
She shifted with a wince as he got to his feet, his muscles beginning to twitch as the adrenalin slowly dissipated, and leant over to offer her a hand.
She took it, and he hauled her to her feet. She was so light, like a child, like a doll. He pulled her up too fast, and she stumbled forward. He caught her by the hips and steadied her, something new and hot beginning to burble in his belly as he felt the bones of her pelvis against his thumbs.
"Do ya need a hospital?" he queried.
She took a step back and let her head loll, tested her weight. "I don't think so. It's hard to breathe, though."
His hands ran up her hips to her ribcage, catching on the fabric of her dress so that it lifted a few inches. "How hard?"
"Like you could scream each breath hurts, or just unpleasant this is kinda annoyin' hurts?"
She took a few deep breaths in, wincing with each one. He studied her face as she did so, at the way her freckles clustered together in the middle of her forehead, how the darkness of the bruises on her cheekbone made the paleness of her skin all the more pronounced.
"Just really unpleasant," she decided, and he pressed gently against her ribcage. She twitched and scowled, but didn't yelp, and he shrugged.
"Don't think you got cracked ribs. Probably just bruised. I should take you to an emergency room anyhow."
Amber stepped over Rex's body and moved to the front corner of the room where José had tossed her backpack. Fumbling inside it, she found her pack of cigarettes and tapped one out, flicking the lighter out of the pack and lighting up. Taking in a long, heavenly draw of nicotine, she waved Raphael's statement off. "Naw. I'm ok. Appreciate it if you take me home, though." She'd had to move away from him. His hands on her had seemed to burn, had set her sensitised skin tingling. It made it even harder to breathe.
Raphael turned to watch her, still feeling curiously disconnected from his body, slightly out of it somehow. He cocked his head to the side and watched as she slung the knapsack onto her back, lifted the cigarette again to her mouth and tossed her long hair over her shoulder. He noted the way strands of it caught on her arm and then slid off, and the way the hem of her skirt skimmed the tops of her thighs, poking out from it; bony, bruised and pale. Quite unexpectedly, he felt his tail stir and drop, and he turned away in alarm.
A moment later, there was a shuffling sound of fabric shifting and scratching. He turned back around to see Amber fumbling through the clothes of the men lying strewn about them. Reaching into the jeans pocket of one, a guy with curly dark hair wearing a bandana, she withdrew his wallet and removed a few crumpled bills, jamming them into her knapsack. Then she tossed the wallet back down on his head before moving to the next body.
"What are you doing?" he questioned her distantly, knowing what he was seeing seemed sick and wrong, but somehow not moved to do anything about it.
She shrugged. "Taking their money. After all this shit, I figure they owe me. Seems fair, anyhow."
He shook his head to clear it, frowning. His body was coming alive now, and he was aware of parts that ached or were coiled too tight. All of a sudden, he felt flooded with pins and needles, as the whole awful reality of the night fought its way back into his memory in brief, violent gasps. He thought he should stop her, but some part of him was so desperately relieved to see her walking around, as cool and savage as before, that he couldn't.
She turned to look at him, one strap fallen and baring a freckled shoulder, the funny little stubbly spot on the right side of her forehead where they'd loped off a lock of her hair, her eyes blue and bright beneath the stark globe. He tightened his fists and resisted the urge to throw himself across the room at her.
"Take me home," she said.
In the distance, dawn was beginning to crack over the horizon, a bright red spark bleeding into the periwinkle blue of the night sky. He gently eased her into the window of her squat, and she set a shaky boot on the floorboards, but did not take her hands from his shoulders, obliging him to step in after her.
"Have a coffee," she commanded, and he thought of Donatello, who would be waking soon and would be annoyed to find he was not there, not even asleep in his room. But then Amber was leaning against the wall and unlacing her boots, one knee bent and crossed over the other. The damn strap had fallen off her shoulder again, and her skirt had hitched up, so he sat down on the lumpy mattress and watched her silently.
If he went home now, he might have to lie about all that had happened tonight. Lie about how close he had come to being shot to pieces; how close Amber had come to dying. Lie about an abandoned tenement lying scattered with the bodies of men, some just barely alive and some not so lucky.
Amber brought the coffee over, instant, black and sweet, in two chipped mugs. He took the one she offered, and she placed hers on the floor beside the mattress and slowly, painfully eased herself into a sitting position next to him. The early morning air between them, already growing rapidly humid, was heavy and moist.
He took a sip of the awful coffee and squeezed his eyes shut, suddenly remembering her bending over their bodies, reaching into their pockets and taking their cash.
"Amber – when – when they took you, did – did they – " he couldn't get the words out, it was too awful a thing to think of.
She turned and looked him directly in the eye, holding his gaze. "No," she said with finality.
He waited for relief to flood him, but it didn't. There was something about it that continued to bother him. "Really?"
"Yes. Really. Believe me, Raphael. They didn't."
He released a gust of breath, placed his palms forward on the mattress and bowed his head. Thank God.
"I can't see you anymore." He hadn't realised he was going to say the words until they were out of his mouth, and he felt himself grow cold and numb as the reality of it hit him. She chuckled.
"I knew you were going to say that." She sounded as though she were trying to be dispassionate, but then she leaned over and grabbed a bottle of gin standing next to the stool by the mattress, hauling it over for a heavy gulp.
The air was so heavy it was getting difficult to breathe. He gasped, lifted a hand to his face, and did not look at her as she stared at him, her bruised eyes round and intent.
"I can't," he whispered.
"No, you can't," she said agreeably, and it stung, sharp, like a blade. "Not on the bike. Not in the suit. Not as the Nightwatcher. We'll just have to go back to the way it was before all that."
"Amber," he murmured and turned to look at her. She raised an eyebrow at him, and he didn't know what to say. He couldn't argue with the logic of that.
Couldn't, or wouldn't.
He should get up, right then, and go. Just being near her endangered her, that much was certain, but there were plenty of other reasons to go. If he had Donatello's practicality, or Michelangelo's shamelessness or Leonardo's bravery, he could recite them all for her now, one by one.
She smelt of blood and sweat and something else, something he recognised intuitively, although he had never had much experience with it. Something he'd smelt on April occasionally when she was around Casey. It unnerved him and simultaneously made it harder to convince himself to go.
It flooded him in a rush, the wrongness of it all. She's just been kidnapped and beaten, she almost died, the thought went around in his head. And then, somehow more furious, the retort from something savage and brutal deep down in his core: And I saved her. I saved her. I took her back.
Disturbed and edgy at the vicious sense of ownership that had rushed through him, he set the coffee mug back on the floor so sharply some of the black liquid spilled over the rim, darkening the dusty floorboards. He edged backwards.
"I better go." He'd almost turned when her fingers encircled his wrist as far as they would go, light as a butterfly.
He could've shaken her grip off like rain and kept on going. It was her voice, the rawness of it, the stark need she revealed at that moment that froze him where he was, up on one knee, poised for flight on the dingy, lumpy mattress in that squalid little room.
"Why – why not?" He did not recognise his own voice, so raspy and sharp it sounded.
Her grip tightened; it was little more than a caress.
"Because I want you."
She said it firmly, without hesitation, though her voice was low. Numbness flooded through him, dull and warm, and through its hum he was aware of turning his head to look at her. She shrugged again, her old standby. "I want you to stay."
The room was growing steadily lighter as the sun continued to rise beyond the window, and he could see how red her eyes were, how pronounced the bruises and swelling. His eyes ran down her face and over her breasts, where her tiny nipples pressed hard against the fabric of her dress, and then lower to where the scarred skin of her inner elbows looked pearly, as though it might peel easily away.
He remembered the feel of his hands on her hips, how his fingertips had met around her back, how tiny and frail she felt in his grip. He could hurt her. His eyes lifted to her face again, where she locked her blue gaze with his. Her lower lip was slack and hanging slightly open, and he recalled the brightness of her smile when she was happy, when she laughed. She was so human.
"I –" he was ashamed of the way his voice caught, "I don't need your pity."
She sat forward on her knees then, eyes flashing and pale skin flushing red. "Pity? You think this is – Jesus Christ. I'm still alive. I can still want things for myself!"
Get up and leave. The command came as though from a distance, and his body did not obey. He bowed his head, staring at the lumpy, threadbare wool of the blanket between his knees.
"It would never work." His voice was so low he barely heard it, but she came closer, once again shrugging.
"Why does it have to?" She caught up the edges of her dress, a grimace of pain quick-contorting her face, and pulled it up and over her head. "Why should that stop us?"
Unable to resist, he looked over at her. Although naked, she seemed frailer and more grotesque than ever, the bones of her ribs protruding through her flesh, her stomach caved inwards and the tiny curve of her breasts barely thin half moons on her chest. The whole of it was covered in a vivid pattern of bruises and scars, yet somehow she was also lovely. The sight of her awoke something hungry and furious in him. Like a taper to a flame, it ignited and rushed through his body, and he knew there was no going back.
He felt himself shift, turn onto his knees and move towards her over the mattress, and she came forward to welcome him.