Breathe! Just breathe, dammit! Raph thought, but those breaths he did manage were quick, shallow things, insufficient for the oxygen he so desperately needed.
"Sorry, I'm almost done. I'll—Raph?" April's forehead furrowed in concern as she peered more closely at his face. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I think… maybe I need some air," Raphael said in the same half-choked voice. He couldn't think, couldn't process anything right now, and apparently he looked as close to puking as he felt because she didn't even attempt to delay him with questions about what was wrong.
"Go. Get some air," she said, and stepped aside as he practically launched himself out of the bathroom and down the hall to the kitchen.
He threw open the window and floundered out onto the fire escape, catching the railing in both hands to anchor himself as he sucked in breath after breath of cold air. The nausea passed quickly, but even when he was no longer in danger of hurling, he was far from okay. His stomach was a jumble of knots that tightened every time his mind slipped back to the way he'd felt when he'd looked at her, and when he removed one hand from the railing and held it in front of his face, it was trembling visibly.
"Fuck," he said out loud, flapping his hand as if he could shake the tremors away. When that didn't work, he impulsively vaulted up onto the railing and from there leapt up to the landing of the fire escape above him. Two more bounds and he was on the roof. Once there, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to jump across to the next one, and then the next. He was three rooftops away, and about to make it four, when a twinge of pain in his injured arm snapped him back to reality.
He halted and glanced at the cut, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw the tape was still holding, and then looked around him. What the hell am I doing? He'd gone into flight mode, as if putting some distance between them would somehow make this go away… but rationally he knew running off wasn't gonna help. Distance couldn't erase the way his pulse had quickened when she'd touched him, or the way he'd felt both terribly ill and painfully alive just from looking at her. But more importantly, April was probably already wondering what was taking him so long; just disappearing like this might make her start asking questions he didn't want to answer. And right now, even confused as he was, there was one thing he was absolutely sure of—
No one could ever, ever know about this.
So he had to go back—at least long enough to give some excuse and go home. Then he'd have some time to think about this, figure out what he was going to do. Whatever this was, he knew he couldn't explain it away as mere physical attraction… but still, maybe it wasn't so bad. Maybe it was just a, a crush! Having a crush on his best friend's girlfriend would still make him an asshole, but a crush was something you got over, right?
Not always, answered some inner voice, and his knotted stomach cinched tight again as he thought about his brother Donatello, and the way he looked at April sometimes with those pained, wistful eyes. Oh god, is this what he feels like when he's around her? And when he sees her with Casey… At that thought the nausea returned full force, and Raph actually sank into a crouch on the gravel of the rooftop, bracing himself with one arm while pressing the other over his abdomen, his breathing coming almost raggedly. Fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK!
He tried desperately to banish those thoughts—he didn't have time for this. Right now he had to do whatever it took to pull himself together and go back to her apartment. His breathing began to slow a little, and when his stomach had settled somewhat he rose again and turned around to retrace his steps, this time mindful of his injured arm. If it started bleeding again, he might just have to reconsider the "run away" option rather than face April's wrath.
When he reached the fire escape again, he saw April on the landing below with her coat on, ready to head up the stairs. Her face smoothed in relief when she saw him. "Hey, I was just coming up to see if you were okay. Didn't you hear me calling?"
"Um, no. Can't hear much up there with the wind," he lied. He paused and stared down, trying to adjust to this new strange way of seeing her, like a filter had been removed from his eyes. It was still April… but now he saw every nuance, every movement, every change in expression like he never had before, and it made his chest ache anew.
"So… are you coming back in?" she asked, and Raph swallowed hard and started down the stairs. When she saw he was coming, she retreated back inside, and Raphael followed her through the window.
Once they were both inside she turned to him with concerned eyes. "So what was that all about? Are you feeling any better?"
"I dunno, I just… suddenly felt sick." That last part at least was true. "Feeling a little better now, but still sorta weird. Thinkin' maybe I should just head home, in case I'm coming down with something."
Her brow furrowed and she stepped forward, reaching out with one hand towards his face…
Raph reflexively jerked back out of her reach, his mouth gone suddenly dry again.
She paused with her hand still in the air, eyebrows raised. "Relax—I'm just checking to see if you have a fever." She didn't wait for him to respond, but reached forward again and laid a wrist across his forehead.
Raph closed his eyes when he felt her hand upon him, trying to stay calm and just concentrate on his breathing, but he wasn't able to draw a full, normal breath until her hand withdrew. He opened his eyes.
"Hm. You do feel a little warm… it seems kind of early to be showing signs of infection from your arm, but maybe you should check with Donny when you get home, see if he wants to put you on some antibiotics just in case. In the meantime… I'd really feel better if you'd stay here for a while, maybe get something besides beer in your stomach and see if you feel any better before you go leaping across rooftops."
"I don't think—"
"Please, Raphael—I'd be worried about you if you left like this. Just stay for a little while. Please?"
He knew he should refuse, tell her he would go the safer underground route and just get the hell out of here… but there she was, looking at him with big pleading eyes, waiting for an answer, and when he finally spoke, the wrong words came out. "Um… I guess I could. For a little while."
She exhaled and smiled a little. "Good. Go sit down; I'll get you some water."
The pizza arrived a short time later, and Raph even managed to choke some down, having refused April's offer to make him something a little easier to digest. Yup, a typical relaxing evening, just two friends eating pizza and hangin' out… yeah. All except for the 'relaxing' part. Raph didn't know if he'd ever be able to relax around her again. He couldn't stop looking at her, stealing quick glances while she was watching TV and then looking away again just as swiftly, feeling as guilty as if he was watching her undress. He envied the Raphael from an hour ago, joking and talking with her with such casual ease. God, if only he could go back to that…
The only upswing he could find in this whole screwed up scenario was that it was destined to remain completely one-sided. This, this crush, or whatever it was, was something he had to deal with, but at least there was no risk of reciprocation—he had no delusions about that.
"How're you feeling?" April asked, breaking into his thoughts as the TV show they had on came to an end.
"Okay, I guess."
"Good." She paused, watching him, and then said, "Hey… Raph? When you were explaining before about practicing with real weapons, and the joking, and about… not being afraid? I just wanted to tell you, I get it. I feel kind of dumb that I even needed you to spell it out for me, but I'm glad you did. I guess I needed a reality check."
Raph shrugged. "No big deal."
She gave a quick smile, and then turned to gaze absently at the TV, looking rather thoughtful. "It's weird, isn't it?" she said after a short silence. "We couldn't BE more different from each other, right? I mean, just look at us! And yet sometimes when I'm sitting here with you… or Leo or Don or Mikey, I just… forget."
April turned to him again, her eyes seeking his, and all he could do was stare back into them, his breath locked in his chest and his heart beating painfully. "Yeah, that's… weird," he managed finally.
She held his eyes a few seconds longer, and then abruptly broke eye contact, turning away and tucking some loose strands of hair back behind her ears. "Anyway, did you, um… are you done?" she asked with a vague wave at the pizza box.
"Uh, yeah. I'm done."
"Okay, then I guess I'll just… start clearing things up," she said, fumbling a little as she began gathering up the napkins and plates.
After helping her clean up, and assuring her again that he was feeling better, Raph left—and made it as far as the rooftop again before sinking weakly down against the side of the stairwell, drinking in the cold air as if he'd just sprinted across the city. He felt drained, exhausted, like he really had been ill, but at least he'd made it out of there before collapsing.
We couldn't BE more different from each other, right? I mean, just look at us! And yet sometimes when I'm sitting here with you… I just… forget.
Oh god. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, gritting his teeth as he waited for the aching pressure in his chest to subside. Why, why hadn't he left earlier as he'd planned? He had enough to deal with as it was, and now this on top of it… Every time her words replayed in his head it was like someone had taken a two-by-four to his plastron, but that wasn't even the worst part. Raph didn't know what horrified him more—what she'd said, or the tiny spark of hope that had flared in him when she said it.
It was hours before he headed home.
Usually when Raph had something on his mind, it was action he craved—running, fighting, lifting weights, whatever. But right now he mostly just felt… tired. There were other things, too—confusion, guilt, anger… but all muffled under a heavy layer of fatigue. So he wasn't in the mood for most of his usual pastimes, but he didn't want to go home yet, either. In truth, what he wanted was a good stiff drink. And as soon as he felt like his legs could handle it, he pulled himself up to go get one.
Years ago, when he'd been in the thick of his Nightwatcher obsession, a close call one night had lead to the creation of emergency caches hidden at various locations around the city. That way if it wasn't safe to go home, or if he couldn't make it home, he'd at least have access to a few necessities. Most of them just consisted of a basic first aid kit, a couple of blankets, and some food and water. Even when he retired as Nightwatcher, though, he'd left his caches as they were—never knew when something like that could come in handy. A couple of them he'd even expanded, using them to store things he didn't feel comfortable keeping at the lair… and it just so happened that one of them was nearby.
When he reached the rooftop where his stash was located, he selected a well-depleted bottle of rum, and as an afterthought grabbed a heavy blanket, itchy but warm. He also kept an assortment of confiscated weapons there that he was sure Master Splinter wouldn't approve of, and some emergency cash, also confiscated, but he left those untouched and went in search of a more scenic spot to sit for a while. He didn't have a destination in mind, really, but just kept on until the buildings stopped and he found himself staring down at the dark void of Central Park.
He'd been to the park many times before, of course, but it had never really been a big draw for him. The area was pretty heavily patrolled, and the 1:00 am curfew strictly enforced, so even as Nightwatcher his time had been better spent elsewhere. Mike and Leo came here more, though he doubted it was for the same reasons. Raph was pretty sure Leonardo came to bond with the trees like some goddamn elf, since he'd practically lived in them in Costa Rica, but Mikey… well if he had to guess, he'd say Mikey was drawn to the people. Even at night in the warmer weather there were plenty of them—walkers, joggers, people taking carriage rides—but unlike on the streets of the city, where they could "escape" into a building at any given moment, people in the park were completely out in the open, their every word and movement exposed for anyone who cared to take notice.
Raph understood the whole people-watching thing—before they'd been allowed to explore the city from above street level, almost everything they'd known about humans had come from TV and magazines, and it hadn't take them long to figure out it was very different from how people actually lived. So they'd watched. Even from the beginning Raph had been drawn more the city's shadier denizens, the people who hung out in the shadows, who flaunted the rules and spoke mostly in street slang. But Michelangelo had liked to watch people engaged in more wholesome activities—families picnicking, kids skating, frisbees flying… and Central Park before dark was full of them.
Raphael paused on the rooftop, considering briefly, then decided this was as good a place as any for his purpose. He made his way to a corner of the roof a little more sheltered from the wind and sat down, pulling the blanket around his shoulders before taking a quick pull from the bottle. He grimaced at the taste, but the liquor burned satisfyingly going down and settled warmly in his stomach. There wasn't much to see below him—just the tops of trees and a couple of dimly lit pathways, and one lone couple seemingly oblivious to the cold as they walked hand in hand into the park.
Raph watched them for a time, finally turning away when they stopped to share a leisurely kiss by a park bench. Couples—no matter where he looked in the city, it was always couples. He took another swig from the bottle and swung his gaze out across to the skyscrapers that formed the other wall of the chasm below, making the park look like a sanctuary of stillness and silence in the otherwise lurid city.
Raphael had never quite understood the human obsession with finding The One. He had a family, and a few friends—plenty of companionship. Of course he'd fantasized often enough about being with a woman… just not being in a relationship with one. Even hanging around April and Casey after they started dating hadn't changed the way he felt. Frankly, a full-time relationship seemed like a lot of work… and the "romance" part? The holding hands, sharing food, walking around oblivious to everything, stealing kisses in the moonlight… Seriously, did any guy actually want to do that stuff—well, besides the kissing part?
Maybe that was why he hadn't seen it coming with April—being with her was just so, so easy. It didn't feel anything like what he thought of as romance… which was partly why all of this was so confusing. He took another drink, hoping the rum would help silence the rabble of thoughts jostling in his head. How the hell did this happen? What does it mean? And just what the fuck am I supposed to do about it?
Raph didn't know if the drink had anything to do with or not, but after a time things did begin to crystallize; among all the thoughts clamoring for attention, one sobering fact eventually eclipsed them all. When it came down to it, it didn't matter that he'd somehow developed feelings for April. It didn't matter what it meant, or exactly how it had happened… it didn't even matter if she'd really meant what she said about sometimes forgetting how different they were. There was only one thing that actually mattered—
She's Casey's girlfriend.
That was it; that was the bottom line. Casey was his friend—hell, friend wasn't even the right word, really. Brother would be closer, though that wasn't a perfect fit either since he was pretty sure nothing could ever match the bond he felt with his real brothers. But the label didn't matter. What mattered was he couldn't do anything to betray Casey. Ever.
Which meant that no matter how far-fetched, how absurd, how insane it might seem that there was any risk of things going further, he couldn't take any chances. Even realizing he'd developed this, this crush on April made him practically sick with guilt, and it wasn't like he'd meant for it to happen, or even had any idea where things were leading. If he had, he would've… well of course he would've stopped hanging out with her!
But now… just the thought cutting her off like that made his chest squeeze tight. It ain't like I'd never see her, he told himself. She's part of our family—there'll be holidays, movie nights, and she'll come down to the lair sometimes, just like before. But that didn't make him feel any better, didn't make it any easier to breathe. And it occurred to him that she might not take it very well, either, if he just suddenly stopped coming over. She'd know there was something wrong then, and April was nothing if not persistent when it came to getting answers.
Maybe he could just… leave things the way they were, play it cool and wait for this to blow over... but then her words from earlier came back to him once again.
Sometimes when I'm sitting here with you… I just… forget.
His stomach twisted, and he pressed the palm of his free hand hard against his forehead. "Fuck fuck fuck," he growled out loud. He took another drink, upending the bottle completely, but only a trickle came out. "FUCK!" he yelled, and hurled the empty bottle with all of his strength out into the void. There was a sharp crack and a tinkling of shattered glass when it hit the street below. The couple in the park, now sitting on the bench and kissing, didn't even look up.
It was no good; he couldn't do it. Even if he tried to act normal he'd fail miserably, and she'd know something was wrong—and the same thing would happen if he just quit seeing her altogether. Either way, he was screwed. But maybe… maybe he could just sort of… back off, little by little. He could play it like he was just losing interest. He felt sick inside, imagining how that would hurt her. Hell, she might not even buy it… but he didn't know what else he could do. At least this way, when he dodged her inevitable questions about what was going on, there was a good chance she would form her own conclusions and take his silence as reluctance to hurt her feelings.
No. No way, I can't do it, he thought as he imagined her reaction, her face when she connected the dots. He rocked forward, this time pressing both hands to his forehead. There had to be another way, there had to… be…
She's Casey's girlfriend.
He squeezed his eyes shut tight, breathing heavily, and then swallowed hard. After a time he managed to take a deeper breath, slowly in and out, willing himself to relax. It took some time before his muscles actually obeyed, but he couldn't control the goosebumps that prickled across his skin in spite of the blanket he wore. I have to. I have to do it. At that moment he really regretted his decision to go with the rum; the small amount left in the bottle had been good for a buzz, but right now it was oblivion he was thirsty for.
He was still sitting there trying to gather himself when his shell cell buzzed. Raph rubbed his eyes wearily and pulled the phone out of his belt, scanning the caller ID. Casey.Not exactly who he wanted to talk to right now.
He answered anyway.
"Yeah," he said, but his usual brusque greeting came out as more of a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Yeah."
"Look man, we gotta talk," Casey said without preamble.
Instantly Raph's heart sped up. Casey wanted to talk? What if he…? But no, that was absurd. There was no way he could know anything; it was just Raph's guilty conscience talking. Be cool, just be cool. "Um, sure," he said with attempted nonchalance. "What's up?"
"I know you 'n April have been havin' fun lately an' everything, and I'm cool with that, but apparently we gotta lay down some ground rules."
His heart skipped a beat. "Ground rules? What—?"
"An' I gotta be straight with you—I don't think I should even have to say this to my best friend."
Raph was in full panic mode now. Fuck me. He knows. I got no idea how, but he knows. He broke out in a sweat, feeling light-headed and quite incapable of formulating a coherent response. Fortunately Casey didn't seem to expect one, and he just forged ahead while Raph listened, dry-mouthed.
"But apparently I do, so I'll just spell it out for you: when my girlfriend finally agrees to watch Rambo, or any other hard-core action flick, I damn well better be included!"
"Wh-what?" Raph croaked.
"YOU GUYS WATCHED RAMBO WITHOUT ME!"
Suddenly, although he could still hear his heart pounding in his temples, the vise gripping his chest loosened, and Raphael breathed in sweet air.
"For years I been tryin' to get her to watch it with me! YEARS!" Casey raged on, "And finally she watches it with MY BEST BUDDY and I'm not even there! Wasn't even told about it until WAY after the fact!"
"S-sorry, man, I, I didn't know!" Raph sputtered, struggling to re-adjust now that he knew the real problem. And it wasn't until after he'd said the words that wondered why that was. I didn't know—she never told me. It seemed a little… odd. If Casey had been trying as long as he said to get April to watch Rambo, how come she'd never mentioned it when Raph picked the very same movie? And… how come she hadn't told Casey they'd watched it at all until tonight? But he didn't say any of that to Casey. "Look, you're right, I shoulda' thought of it. I swear, if we make plans to watch any more action movies, I'll make sure you're there."
He could hear Casey breathing over the phone, and he just waited, hoping it meant he was cooling off. Apparently he was, because next time he spoke his voice sounded more normal, both in tone and volume. "Yeah… okay. That's all I wanted to hear. Uh. Sorry for, y'know, jumping on you like that."
"Hey, it's Rambo. I get it," Raph answered.
There was a pause over the phone, and then Casey said, "So… how'd you get her to go for it, anyway?"
"I uh, helped her in the shop."
"That's it? I've helped her in the shop a million times!"
Not lately, though, according to April, Raph thought. But all he said was, "I don't know what to tell ya."
There was a slight sigh on the other end. "It's okay—least I guilted her into watching the rest of 'em with me. You can get in on that too, if ya want. Make it a threesome."
Raph's stomach churned at the very thought. "Um, thanks, but it's okay. I hogged the first one, so you two enjoy."
"Okay. Well if you change your mind..."
"I'll call you," Raph agreed, but he knew he wouldn't.
A short while later they hung up, and once again Raph leaned back and closed his eyes. If he'd felt wrung out before, it was nothing to how he felt now. Plus the phone call had effectively killed his buzz, so he had to face the trip home dead sober—not a pleasant prospect. He sat a while longer, but without the burn of the liquor even the blanket didn't keep the chill out for long. Reluctantly he pulled himself up, casting his gaze downward one last time before turning for home. What he could see of the park was empty now; no doubt the couple from the bench had gone in search of someplace warmer to continue their activities…
And for once it wasn't just the physical part Raphael envied.