April shivered as a cold wind trickled like icewater down the collar of her shirt. But it was more than just the chill that raised the hair on her arms. It was the quiet prickling at the back of her neck. The sure sense that someone was watching her. Drawing her hoodie more firmly around herself, she squared her shoulders and moved deeper into the darkness. The feeling, she knew, wasn't real. It was the same feeling she got every time she did something she knew was forbidden.
Not that her father had ever said anything specifically about this particular scenario; it had always been one of the things that she just knew growing up in New York. Don't stick metal things in the electrical outlets. Don't trust that traffic will stop for you. Don't go into Central Park at night.
If Dad could see me now, he'd have a fit.
She braced herself for the storm she knew was sure to follow a thought like that, but it was more an aching melancholy that swept over her than the crushing wave of grief she was used to, and it faded after a few moments, leaving her wondering once again at the circumstances that had brought her here. So many things had changed in the last couple of months.
She glanced up as the leaves rustled overhead, and a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, chasing away the last of the regret. Maybe this wasn't so bad, all things considered. Her definition of "dangerous" had certainly shifted since her life went off the rails, and a few trees in the dark barely registered on the scale any more. As two shadows detached themselves from the foliage to drop down behind her, the grin got wider. Her definition of "safe" had changed a lot, too.
"See," she said, though she kept her voice pitched low. "I told you nobody comes here at night."
Before either of her companions had a chance to answer, they were bathed in a flash of light. April had a fleeting moment to register warm eyes glazing over cold and white before they moved, the nearest shadow reaching out and dragging her into the foliage in their wake. As the world caught up with her, she turned her head to watch the headlights of two bikes zip past on the path where they'd been standing.
She felt the tension ease from the arm around her waist - judging by the size of it and the way it had been unwittingly squeezing the air from her lungs, she was guessing Raph. The quiet snort next to her ear confirmed her suspicions. "Nobody, huh?" Raph drawled.
"Well, almost nobody." She slipped free of him as his arm fell away, creeping back toward the path, but it looked deserted for real this time. "Come on. If the Visitors' Centre is over there, it means we need to cross this path, but there should be lots of tree cover on the other side."
She felt more than heard Donnie move up behind her to peer over her head, and just having him nearer eased some of her nerves. Having him around just made her feel so much safer. It made sense, given their whole dramatic, break-out-of-an-alien-prison-and-fall-out-of-a-helicopter introduction, but it was more than that, too. She caught him watching when he didn't think she was looking, but it didn't creep her out in the way that it did when the guys at school did it. It was kind of reassuring, actually. With her dad…gone, and her aunt away on business more often than not, it was comforting to know that someone was looking out for her.
His Tphone beeped, and the glow of it bathed Donnie's face as he peered at the incoming message.
"What's our fearless leader have to say?" Raph asked from April's other side.
"Where are the eggs," Donnie replied. Exchanging a glance, both brothers erupted into a muffled fit of giggling.
Refraining from joining them was difficult - really difficult - but as the oldest by a year, part of her felt that she had to maintain at least some level of responsibility, especially given how concerned she knew Splinter was. "Are you ever going to change that back?"
"Maybe," Donnie replied, grinning, and April couldn't help but return it. It wasn't her imagination. They were definitely coming easier to him when he was around her now, his earlier awkwardness and hesitation fading into a much more comfortable rapport as they spent more time together. "When it stops being funny."
"It will never stop being funny." Raph stepped up to the path, tilting his head as he listened for anyone or anything coming toward them. "But we should probably let him know where we are." Between one blink and the next, he was gone. His voice drifted back from the shadows on the other side. "After a couple more messages."
"Deal," Donnie agreed. His move toward the path halted the second April rested her hand against his arm, and her eyes were adjusting enough that she could see him look down at her, though his expression was still shadowed.
"You sure he doesn't know where we're going?" April whispered.
"Positive," Donnie answered. "It's not exactly hard to keep him in the dark. Trust me."
Smiling, April took the hand he held out to her and let him lead her into the dark on the other side of the path. There was never any question of her trusting him. Ever. If she hadn't needed his help with her plan, she wouldn't have let him in on her surprise, but this wasn't something she could pull off on her own, and she'd barely gotten the question out before Donnie had enthusiastically agreed to help her. She was glad of it, too. The time they'd spent together planning this and figuring out what she'd need to pick up to help pull it off had been something she'd sorely needed. Chances to just hang out and talk to someone her own age had dropped from few to nonexistent since word of her Dad's disappearance had gotten around the school, but the time she'd gotten to spend with Donnie had helped take a lot of the sting out of that. She was still figuring out the rest of his brothers, but talking to Donnie had been effortless from the start, even with the awkwardness.
"Will you two hurry up?" Raph's aggrieved whisper drifted back toward them. "I'm growing moss over here."
Donnie's fingers tightened around hers, and she put herself completely into his hands as he tugged her along in his wake, trusting him to keep her from tripping or running into anything in the shadows beneath the trees.
Watching everyone at school pull away from her had hurt, more than a little, and she knew she'd been putting walls up in return, telling herself she was just fine on her own. She hadn't thought she'd wanted, or needed, another friend.
She was starting to realize how very glad she was that Donnie was determined to prove her wrong on that front.
Mikey shifted his weight out of habit, dancing from foot to foot as he tried to take it all in, but there was just so much to see, and he wanted to see all of it. Leo, of course, pulled a Leo and just went to look for directions. Like a stupid sign was going to tell you how cool something was. April might be able to, but so far there was no sign of the others, and Leo hadn't looked happy about the text he got back from Donnie.
"Hey, Leo, what did Donnie say?"
"Under the chicken," Leo answered cryptically, scowling as he looked at the sign. Leo said stuff Mikey didn't really understand a lot, but this was weirder than usual. Still, given the look on Leo's face, Mikey figured that it was probably better not to ask for an explanation.
A noise from the trees caught Mikey's attention, and he crept toward it, eyeing the movement in the branches. Was that a squirrel? Or maybe a raccoon. Or maybe it was a bat, which would be cool, unless it was a vampire, which would totally suck unless maybe it gave him super powers because being a ninja was cool, but being a flying ninja would be even-
"Hey, check out the sign," Leo said, breaking into Mikey's train of thought.
Mikey blinked, crashing back down to earth hard, and looked at the sign Leo was pointing at. "Turtle pond?"
"Wanna check it out?" Leo grinned. "Maybe we'll run into a relative."
"Ha-ha," Mikey groaned - since Raph wasn't here, somebody had to keep up the tradition of ragging on Leo for his jokes - but his curiosity was definitely piqued. Aside from Spike, they didn't see a lot of other turtles, and he was kind of curious to see what their distant cousins looked like in real life. Running into more mutants wasn't exactly likely, but still… He met Leo's expectant gaze with a smile of his own. "Okay!" Tagging Leo's shell, Mikey took off down the path. "Let's do it!"
Racing down the trail, Mikey let Leo do the work of checking the signs for directions, saving his own attention for the park around them. This was… This was amazing. All the trees lining the path, the thin fog forming in the late-night chill, the mist that bushed against his feet, dancing away from him as he stomped in the grass - it was just so new. He'd thought the tree in the dojo was nice, but he was starting to get what all the stories Splinter read and the shows on TV meant by nature.
Even Leo wasn't immune. His brother had actually stopped scanning the trees for bad guys or whatever, and he was staring at the trees with some of the wonder Mikey felt reflected in his own expression. They hadn't run into a single human, so Mikey slowed a bit, wanting to enjoy this while it lasted.
"We have got to come here more often, Dude. This place is awesome!"
"It really is," Leo said. "It's like when Captain Ryan led that away mission to the paradise planet, right before they-"
"Leoooo," Mikey groaned. "You're gonna ruin it if you go all space nerd."
Leo blinked at him for a second, before a mischievous grin spread across his face. "Okay then," he said, and smacked Mikey on the arm. "Tag!"
"Hey!" Mikey laughed, but Leo put on a sudden burst of speed and pulled ahead. "Ninja tag, huh? Bro, it is so on!" Leo didn't look back, but Mikey knew it was because Leo had no doubts that Mikey would follow, and their laughter echoed through the trees as Leo darted off into some kind of wilderness area at the side of the path. Mikey reached, straining, but though his fingers almost brushed Leo's shell a few times, his big brother managed to keep one step ahead as they leaped off rocky outcroppings and over a winding stream. Even so, Mikey didn't miss the fact that Leo kept glancing over his shoulder, checking to make sure they were still together. He wasn't sure if he found that reassuring or annoying. It wasn't like Mikey couldn't handle the forest at night by himself - not that he particularly wanted to, if there was a possibility of vampires - but maybe if he sneaked off through the trees just over there, Leo might think-
Without warning, Leo skidded to a stop. Mikey smacked into him a second later, grabbing onto his shell to steady himself. Before Mikey could say anything, Leo raised a hand and pointed.
About to complain about the bruising the sudden stop had left on his beautiful face, Mikey looked where Leo was pointing, and all thought of protest died away.
Up ahead, rising out of the mists, was an actual, honest-to-goodness, castle.
"Whoa…" Mikey breathed, gazing at the sight. Fog covered the pond and cloaked the castle, and with a quick glance to make sure Leo wasn't watching, Mikey pinched himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming. It felt like they'd just travelled back in time to…to somewhere there were knights, anyway. Someplace far away from New York. Forgetting himself in his excitement, he reached out for Leo. Tugging on his brother's hand, he ran up to the structure, looking for any open windows. Now that he'd seen it, he just had to see inside.
But it wouldn't hurt to have Leo along. It wasn't that Mikey was certain that they were going to run into anything. It was just that, if there was going to be a place in the city with a witch or two living in it, it was this place. Bringing backup just made sense.
As they neared the castle, their footsteps slowed, splashing through a puddle, and the sound brought with it a memory of their childhood. A flash from a time when Mikey was constantly dragging around one of his brothers, Leo more often than not, filing the sewer tunnels with a chorus of fear and excitement as he exclaimed over some new discovery.
Nii-chan! Nii-chan, look!
As Mikey let go of Leo's hand and began to examine the castle for a way in, he hear Leo slow behind him. "Hold on, Mikey. This isn't like the Kraang base, this is public property…"
"Oh come on , Leo," Mikey sighed, running his fingers around a window frame. "It's not like we're gonna hurt anything. And we'll make sure it's locked when we go."
Mikey quickly redoubled his efforts, trying to make sure Leo didn't have time for a sudden attack of conscience. "Sheesh," he breathed as yet another attempt fell flat. "All those movies and comics about storming the castle were wrong. Who knew they were so tough to get into?"
Mikey flinched at the singsong call behind him. He hadn't thought Leo would cave so soon. "Aw, c'mon bro, we barely-"
But his protests faltered at the sight of Leo standing in front of the open castle doors, dangling a lock pick from one hand. He planted the other hand on one hip, a smug grin on his face. "Well? What are you waiting for?"
"Duuuude," Mikey breathed. "This is the coolest thing you've done in…like, ever. "
Leo's grin faltered a little at that. "Uh…thanks?"
"C'mon, brah, let's do this!"
Planting his hands on Leo's carapace, Mikey showed his big brother through the doors. But as the darkness closed around him, Mikey's hands stayed firmly where they were, an echo of an old habit from when they'd explored the darkest recesses of the sewers when they were kids.
Without warning, the door slammed shut behind them.
Unable to hold back the high-pitched screech, Mikey had climbed halfway up Leo before his older brother managed to turn to face the doorway. Clinging tightly to Leo's face, Mikey struggled to bring his breathing back under control. "Whawazzat?"
"Probably just the wind," Leo said, or tried to; his voice was muffled by Mikey's arms. With an exasperated grunt, he grabbed Mikey's hand and yanked. "Will you get off me?"
"Yeah," MIkey said. "Just the wind. Nothing two ninjas can't handle, right?"
"Right," Leo said. "Come on, let's see what this castle is hiding."
Just the wind, Mikey repeated to himself as he followed after Leo. His big bro was right. There was nothing to be afraid of. Wind had to be a big problem in castles like this; that's why the torches in the stories were always flickering. Made perfect sense. And if he kept telling himself that, he could ignore the fact that Leo didn't breathe a word of protest when Mikey's hands latched on to his carapace again.
Okay. He could admit it. Maybe the horror movies last night had been a bad idea.