A/N: Technically, this fic is still on hiatus for a while. I just have way too many projects going at once to give it the attention it needs. But tonight, it was calling my name. I've had this half-finished for a while now, so I thought I might as well finish it up and post a rare update.
Chapter 3: Omens
When the door slid open to the damp sewer tunnels, the sound of grating stone that usually meant fresh air and freedom meant nothing. For now, it reminded him only of strangulation, the damp and endless darkness. But Leonardo could only stand frozen despite the summer heat, his hands trembling and his breath quick in his throat. The filtering glow from a streetlamp pouring in from some distant sewer grate caught the thin veneer of blood that glazed his fingertips. In the night, it gleamed black, winking back like sightless eyes.
He closed his eyes with a grimace and held it for just a moment, leaning his head back on the slimy wall behind him. He waited for his stomach to settle and the nervous throb of his pulse to stop deafening him. Soaking in the silence interrupted only by the echoes of his own labored breathing and the musical dripping of the wall's heavy moisture, he found the edges of his self-control. Bracing his shell against the wall, he fought back the rising tides of emotion that were lapping at the corners of his consciousness, and found something solid to hold on to.
It was an awful time to be missing his father, but he could feel the pang of longing like the twist of a knife. Master Splinter had only just gone for a few weeks, and Leo had promised him not to let his brothers even set foot outside the Lair. He had made that vow without question, bowing deeply in the comfort of the warm glow of candlelight in his master's room. He swore he knew his place and all the reasons why. He knew the dangers, knew that if anything happened, they would be left alone and helpless. It had all seemed so clear.
How quickly clarity can fade away.
He felt strained, like butter spread over too much bread.
He sighed, letting his shoulders fall and praying for the tension in his muscles to release. Finally taking control of his breathing, he waited alone for the waking dreams of bloodied needles and nameless poisons to fade into something else. But he could only replace it with guilt.
A week had come and passed, and the heat had made the sewers damp and suffocating, quickly grating on already fickle patience. They'd all gone stir-crazy after eight straight days of nothing but bad tv and training. The smell alone, like stewing fecal matter rotting just outside their door, was enough to drive anyone nuts.
But for eight days, he had ignored Raph and Mikey's constant complaints about the heat, about the smell and boredom, about all the terrible ailments that they supposedly suffered after being cooped up for so long. But after fifteen years of listening to them whine, it was more than easy to tune to a different frequency and let their words roll smoothly down his back. It was Don that had him convinced in the end. "Only one quick run. Just a quick breath of fresh air and we'll be back home in no time. Then I promise we'll stop complaining. Right guys?"
Coming from Don's mouth, it all seemed so harmless, sounded so rational. Just a quick breath of air, he could handle that, and Mike and Raph's fevered nods had been so tempting with promise. Peace and quiet for even a day sounded like bliss. So, he folded. So he made a dumb mistake and he was stuck here staring that poor decision straight in the face like his own reflection.
I could have… should have waited. Master's going to be back any day now. Maybe if I'd just said no, we wouldn't be in this mess. His eyes traced back down to the thin coat of his brother's drying blood smeared across his fingers, giving it a disgusted scowl. It had been his responsibility, his own bad judgment that landed them all here in the first place. But one way or another, he had his brother's blood on his hands. If there was poison in those vials, he'd have no one left to blame but himself.
He felt dirty, crouching down to a puddle of runoff water. Some days, in the summer heat, the fire hydrants would turn into oasis for the dark-skinned neighborhood children, leaving the parched sewer floor damp like after a fresh rain. But it tended to only add to the smothering humidity. Leo scrubbed the thin veneer of blood from his hands the best he could, ignoring the stench and his instinct's whispers to avoid it. But even that was better than the blood.
He was methodically scrubbing at his palms, his wrists, when a noise further up the sewer tunnel quickly caught his attention. He snapped his head toward the sound out of instinct and froze, ignoring the trails of rusty water snaking down his elbows. The scuff of a shoe heal, the sound of a pebble skidding across the rough concrete, footsteps, breath, a shadow on the wall.
Silently, he abandoned his god forsaken little puddle, stepping backward to let the shadows consume him. Whoever it was had quiet steps, picking their way gingerly over the cracked concrete and through the filth. They were quiet, but far from silent. He could hear their every breath, feel the vibrations of every footfall as they rang along the tunnels. The shadow poured across the ground like spilled paint near his feet, caught by that same dim lamplight trickling in from the sewer grate.
He refused to let his heart race, let his imagination win and cloud his judgment, but in a breath, it was done.
"You startled me," he said loudly with a devious grin, emerging suddenly from the clutches of the shadows into the sickly light. "Oh my god!" She squealed without a second thought, eyes flashing and her pale little hand pressed over her heart in some rendition of a dramatic pose Leo thought only existed in Master Splinter's soaps. Her emerald eyes were wide with terror, but it quickly was snuffed by a wave of relief. "Oh Leo, don't do that to me! You scared me mindless!"
Grinning, he put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Sorry, April," he apologized, unable to chase away that contagious sideways smile that cracked his normally solemn exterior. Her look of shock quickly melted to mirror his lopsided grin.
Even through all the fear and guilt, his heart felt ten pounds lighter after seeing her reaction. But still, he couldn't keep the situation from tearing at his mind. His thoughts quickly raced toward Don and his chest tightened uncomfortably, losing his hold on that crooked smile. "Thanks for coming," he said quickly, his face sobering suddenly. "Don's hurt pretty bad and…"
He couldn't stop himself. He took in a shuddering breath and she paled as he roughly gripped her shoulders. "Oh, April… it- there could have been poison in those vials…" He was shaking when he turned his face away, letting the shadows mask it. He couldn't let go. His hands were aching for something to hold.
April couldn't stop her heart from doing that uncomfortable little flutter in her chest. She'd never seen Leo break down this way before. She'd only known him long, but there was always something about him that was so collected, so mature and unbending, like stone. She'd never seen him panic, seen this type of helplessness in his eyes. It just felt… unnatural. It was moments like this that reminded her, he was only just a kid.
When he seemed to get better hold of himself, he loosened his grip and let his hands fall helplessly to his sides. April took in a shuddering breath that was meant to be much stronger, and exhaled. "What can I do?"
"We need to analyze the needle I pulled out of Don's leg. He can barely stand, but none of us knows how to do it and…" If possible, Leo's face seemed to pale even further than it already had in the failing light. He looked almost sickly. But just as quickly as it came, it passed. "We don't have time for this," he said smoothly, raising his eyes again after a clap of silence, a breath. In that instant, the walls had built up again, that hard veneer of expertly disciplined self-control she'd come to expect from him.
Squaring his shoulders, he turned his back to her, pulling back the hidden pipe that opened the Lair's brick doors without a trace of the weakness she'd seen just seconds ago. "Don said that if it was poison, we don't have much time. He needs you to run tests."
The light was almost blinding when they stepped into the shabby comfort of the Lair, the smell of damp and sewage gratefully lessening for more familiar things. April followed him wordlessly into the kitchen. "How long has it been?" She asked, trying her best to feign even a shred of the strength he could harness in times like these.
When Leo stepped through the threshold, he didn't answer. His eyes swept across the empty room, a cold feeling digging its fingers into the pit of his stomach. They had to be in the lab. How Don had convinced them to drag him there in the first place was a mystery, but he had no time to think about it now. His eyes traced to the wall clock above the kitchen sink and those cold fingers only deepened their hold. He'd been out collecting himself in the sewers for nearly ten minutes. Turning on his heels, he rushed past April in a near sprint towards the metal door of Donatello's lab. "Too long."
April didn't even have time to think about this. She'd been a full-time lab assistant at Stocktronic Industries for over a year before nearly getting killed by the very machines she'd help produce. She could build a motherboard from the ground up, hardwire robotic sensory networks, and encrypt intricate tracking programs, but poisons? Needles? This was way out of her league. After just sliding by in college biology, she'd thought she was done worrying about these kinds of things. And after nearly getting eaten alive by Stockman's Mousers, she'd been praying that reopening her father's antique shop would be enough to support a permanent sabbatical from the scientific field. But here she was, paired with four living wonders of evolutionary biology and genetics, wracking her brain for anything she could remember from her old days chained to the university Organic Chemistry lab.
She tended to suppress those memories.
Right about now, she was also beginning to regret skipping all those gym classes back in high school because Leonardo had to be at least ten paces ahead of her by the time he'd reached the lab. He barged through the door like the place was on fire. Breathlessly, she followed suit.
Donatello was pale when she met his eyes, leaning up against a huge piece of equipment like his life depended on it. "Oh, Don," she breathed, watching the relief visibly wash over his face. He broke into a weak smile.
"I'm… I'm fine," he breathed, trying to wave her off in the same way he'd been chasing his brothers away for the last ten minutes. He just couldn't risk them tampering with such delicate equipment. It was hard enough to build the thing, never less repair it. But she seemed unfazed.
"You're not fine, nimrod," Raph inserted from his perch leaning against the far wall, looking rather displeased. He threw an almost unreadable look at April. "We've been tryin' to tell him this, but he's being too damn stubborn."
Under normal circumstances, Leo would have laughed at that.
But April was instantly at his side, taking no time to notice when her motherly instincts were kicking into overdrive. She had both hands on his shoulders, forcing him to look her in the eye. "Donny, I'll handle this, I promise. I'll run the specs, but you need to go sit and put some ice on that before you pass out."
Raph and Mikey took that as their cue to collect their brother with every intention of depositing him on the couch. Don couldn't do much in the way of protesting, so he mentally chalked it up as a defeat, shrinking a little under the weight of the room's collective glares. "Just… be careful with it, okay? And leave the door open?"
"Don. Go sit. I'll keep the door open and anything I break, I'll replace and then some."
"Okay, okay," was all he could add as he was dragged not-so-gently out the door by two brothers who obviously weren't afraid to manhandle the injured. He could only attempt to hobble fast enough to keep up before they wound up dragging him across the floor.
"Wow, I guess store policy's you break it you bought it," Mike quipped, finally easing Don onto the couch with a sigh. But he was far too nervous to completely mask his worries behind that easy smile. "That's harsh, bro."
"I'd say not harsh enough. Some people still think they're above the law," he retorted, sending an accusing glare in Mike's direction. Sometimes Don wonders if his brother just pretends to be so oblivious, or he's really just that dense.
"Next thing we know, you're gunna threaten to cut our thumbs off or something.
"Not a bad idea," he laughed. But his amused smirk quickly faded into a wince as Mike helped him prop his foot up on the coffee table.
"Just a little," he shuddered, hugging himself. "Is it cold in here, or is it just me?"
Without a second thought, Mike snatched the throw off the back of the couch and covered his brother. "Just you, dude. I hope you're not gunna go into shock or something. You were pretty close back in the kitchen."
Don closed his eyes and sighed, leaning his head back into the couch cushions. Raph returned with an ice pack and sat himself down heavily on the couch beside him. After the battle and the excitement that followed, exhaustion was starting to hit them pretty hard. "Mike, if it was only shock, we'd be lucky."
"I hate this."
The whimper was enough for Don to peel his eyes back open to see the fear that had overtaken his brother's eyes. He really couldn't tell him not to worry, no matter how much he'd like to. So he replaced it with a vow and hoped it would have the same effect. "No matter what it is... I'll find a way. That's all I keep thinking to keep myself from going crazy."
"Ha," Raph snorted, "we know bein' out of the lab right now is drivin' you nuts already."
Don didn't really have a response to that. They all knew it was true. A big part of Don's habit of 'playing doctor' had a lot to do with his inability to stay idle during a time of crisis. He wasn't the type of guy to just sit around and wait for things to happen. Waiting made him twitchy, and tonight was no exception.
"So… what do we do now?" Raph asked, staring blankly at his reflection in the black television screens.
Don took a breath, trying to relax his mind the best he could. "I guess all we can do is wait."
As Raph and Mikey were getting Don settled on the couch, April started the first round of tests. At least the computer would do most of the work for her on this one, especially since Don had already prepared all the vials.
Every vial she inserted into the spec, she said a little prayer.
"That's odd," she murmured, leaning farther in to squint at the readings that had begun to flash, neon ygreen against black, across the primitive computer screen.
"What is it?"
The reply almost made her fall out of her chair. She hadn't realized Leo had stationed himself in the open doorway. But she should have expected as much. "I'm… not sure. From what I see here, all that's registering is the blood sample."
"So that means…"
"I can't be sure exactly what it means," she interrupted, snatching the pile of spec readings still warm out of the printer and scurrying out into the living room. He followed close behind. As soon as she reached the couch, she dumped the pile into Don's lap. "I don't see anything out of the ordinary, Donny. It doesn't really make any sense."
He rifled through the pages with a crease in his brow, surrounded by his brother's growing hopeful expressions. "You're… right," he said finally. This really didn't make any sense. How oddly unsettling a complete lack of toxins could be. "Either those vials contained some unnamed substance that doesn't register on the spec or… they served a different purpose altogether."
"Like what?" Leo asked.
"Like… collection. They're collecting samples."
The newfound wave of relief that had just washed over the room was snapped away in an instant. Leo was almost more worried by this new prospect than the idea of poison. "But what would the Foot want with our blood?"
"I'm… not sure, to tell you the truth," he frowned, flipping through the pages again. It could be a whole slew of things. Research, maybe?"
Mikey's eyes had widened spectacularly. "What if they make, like, super-evil clone versions of us or something?"
"What kinda idiot would think of that?" Raph sneered. "Plus, I don't think I want to live in a world with two of you, Mike. Evil or otherwise."
"Guys, no, this is serious," Leo chided before they could make any more of a mockery out of the grim situation. There was something about it that rocked him to the core. He just couldn't shake the hard pit of dread that had formed in the bottom of his stomach. "Whatever it is, it can't be good."