Notes from the author: Just a heads up to my readers, but while I was writing this chapter I posted a little preview up on tumblr and I think I might start sharing little snippets and things from here on out.
My tumblr sn is listed in my profile, so if you wanna see the previews or even ask questions about things, feel free to send me an ask!
The air was crisp and welcoming, not so very cold for a September evening in New York City. It was likely suitable jacket weather and perhaps a bit too chilly to walk around with bare arms, at least not without feeling the occasional shiver whenever the wind blew a little harder.
Erin had spent most of her life in Connecticut, so she had long ago become accustomed to adapting to the temperature drops that came with autumn and winter. The night wasn't half as cold as the worst weather she'd ever been in and wasn't even half as bad as one might have expected for so late in the month. She hadn't felt the need for a jacket when she'd left her apartment for work in the afternoon, the slight shift in to cooler air hardly even bothering her regardless of the occasional passing of cars generating wind on the street corner where she stood. It'd probably be a matter of days before the weather would be where it was meant to and she'd have no choice, but to venture out with a coat, so it felt nice to just enjoy the air while she was able. Though, nice weather regardless, she still would have preferred to be inside with a hot plate of the chicken parmesan she'd been promised.
Her stomach gurgled at the thought of dinner, particularly when she'd had a modest lunch that day, usually consuming vending machine fare or a small sandwich whenever she had to work. The food April had said she was preparing sounded incredibly appetizing regardless of how much tomato sauce she'd consumed with all the pizza she had whenever she'd thus far hung out around the turtles. The hunger made her extra anxious to reach April and Casey's place, giving the anticipation she'd felt about meeting the couple an additional edge. While she was fairly certain things would turn out fine, telling herself that her nervous feelings stemmed from psyching herself out, Erin couldn't stop the urge to sway her weight slowly from one foot to the other in an effort to work her anxiety physically out of her system. Even though it probably wasn't possible to make stress disappear so easily. Maybe that was what distractions were made for and why cellphones were so damn handy.
She exchanged a few texts with Jamie, making plans to hit the gym again in the coming days regardless of how likely it was for them to stop going within two to three weeks at best. Either Jamie would be too tired after work and too busy with Maddie to go one night or Erin would feel too drained from her job, both of them putting it off until they went for about a month without setting foot in the gym. It had been the same song and dance ever since they'd both moved to NYC, awareness of their routine having done little to permanently change it.
"Maybe next year," she told herself, quite possibly for the twentieth time.
No one had arrived once she'd finished her exchanged with her best friend, leaving the brunette to pass the time by checking a few social media sites and browsing through old photos on her phone. Most of the pictures were of her friends, many of them smiling or getting up to some sort of mischief, snorting at a forgotten image of Adam drunkenly giving Jamie a lap dance while Annette slipped a dollar bill in to the visible band of his boxers. As much as Erin hated clubbing, preferring to have drinks at a friend's place or at the little hole-in-the-wall pub her friends had claimed as their regular hangout, she had to admit that hilarity always ensued whenever they went out. As well as headaches, usually as a result of obnoxiously loud music or the next day hangover. Loathe as she was to experience that sort of pain any time soon, she sent a text to Adam to suggest getting together soon, wondering if he'd met Annette's new girl yet. Chances are that he hadn't, though. Not when work and whatever girl he'd been dating for the past few weeks tended to take up a great deal of his time. She made sure to affectionately call him a jerk in her text.
Hardly expecting her friend to respond that evening, she went back to browsing her photo collection, finding a few awkward selfies she'd taken amongst the pictures of her friends. Selfies she had no intention whatsoever of keeping, cringing before she deleted them all.
"Ya always make that face when yer lookin' at pictures of yourself?"
She recognized the voice immediately, but the fact that it was right beside her made Erin instinctively hide the screen of her phone against her chest to shield it from prying eyes. Eventually, one day in the future, she swore she would manage to adapt enough to Raphael and his damnable ninja stealth skills that he'd no longer be able to sneak up on her. She was sure of it. She was also very, very sure that he was wearing pants.
Pants, a massively bulky coat, and an assortment of garments clearly meant to disguise the fact that the person underneath said mountain of clothing happened to actually be a giant mutant turtle. She gawked at him, from his massive boots to his scarf and beanie, feeling absolutely blindsided by the disguise he sported.
He was wearing a turtleneck sweater of all things.
Raphael looked irked, at least judging by his body language and the narrowing of his eyes, so Erin cleared her throat in a staunch effort to not laugh at her easily irritated friend. She tucked her phone in to her purse, choked the amusement back, and angled her head in the direction they'd have to head to reach Second Time Around. Taking the hint without comment, Raph started walking at a fairly brisk pace, clearly eager to get back to April and Casey's apartment. Erin rushed to keep up with him, noting that it took him all of a minute or two before he slowed his gait for her, head tucked slightly down and hands shoved in to the pockets of his coat.
"So...interesting disguise choice," she said after a block or two of silence, looking over at him to watch his eyes dart her way briefly.
"Interestin' ain't the word I'd use," he responded, tone just a bit terse.
"Well, when I say 'interesting', I mean it's sort of..."
She lifted her hands as she reached for the right word, the right way to say what she was thinking, dropping them when she decided that it would be easier to just get straight to her point instead of trying to broach the subject politely.
"You're bundled up really well, but I can still see a whole lot of green under that beanie. I'm just surprised that nobody catches on or notices is all."
"People notice, but it ain't enough to make 'em care. I walk around like usual, people'd start pointin' and shoutin' about a giant turtle in no time. You hide enough of what you don't want someone to see, only give 'em a glimpse, then it ain't enough to make 'em look twice. People are usually so busy tryin' to get from point A to point B that some dude who looks like he's just wearin' a mask ain't worth thinkin' about for more than a second."
"Yeah, I guess that does make sense."
New York was the City That Never Sleeps, active and lively no matter what time of the day or night it happened to be. There was never a lack for people coming and going, rushing to get to some meeting or meal or arrangement. Disinterest for what wasn't a part of a schedule or important plans honestly sounded perfectly natural. A person could run around dressed up in a gorilla mask in order to get hits on Youtube, but that didn't mean that folks would necessarily watch it for more than a few seconds before returning to whatever they had been doing, whatever was important. She supposed that maybe, humorous as it was, the disguise wasn't such an odd choice at all. It was quite clearly bothersome and didn't seem to be something Raphael enjoyed having to use, leaving Erin to wonder for a moment what might have been going on in his head. It sucked that he had to reach for being ignorable just to take a walk down the street, that he couldn't just stride down the sidewalk with the same confidence he seemed to carry when he was on a rooftop or in his home. Having to hide just to exist sounded pretty damn painful.
"Is it uncomfortable?"
"Fuck yeah, it is. Especially the damn shoes. I dunno how you humans can stand walkin' around in this shit all day long. If you ask me, this clothes crap is overrated."
He hooked a gloved finger in to the collar of his shirt, tugging it away from his neck for a moment, as if suffocated by the closeness, obviously nettled by the material against his skin.
"We kinda can't help it, Big Red," she began, plucking at the hem of her t-shirt pointedly when he glanced her way. "We can't just walk around naked."
"Why not? Me and my brothers do."
"Technically you wear masks and belts and stuff, though. And you've got shells, so naked works for you guys. Humans have too many...wobbly bits. It'd just look awkward."
"I dunno. I think you could pull it off."
The comment caught Erin slightly off guard, particularly the complimentary nature of it. While it wasn't as if Raphael constantly insulted her, he didn't exactly throw praise her way either nor had he ever given any indication that she was easy on the eyes. She hadn't even considered that the turtles might even have any inclination towards finding humans physically appealing, the thought that any of the brothers might consider her pretty having never crossed her mind. It wasn't like he'd outwardly called her hot, merely suggested that she wouldn't look bad if she walked around in the buff, but it was still surprising enough to make her cheeks feel a bit warm. Thankfully, Raph flashed her his usual 'up to no good' smirk, making it clear enough that he'd just been trying to get her all flustered rather than truly praising her figure or anything. She felt a little silly for thinking his comment had been sincere.
"Don't take much to get you blushin', does it?"
"It's cold out. It's the wind."
"You makin' up excuses or suggestin' I should keep up the comments to keep you warm?"
"Oh stuff your comments, Big Red."
"You're the one blushin', so I think that name suits you better."
"Oh god, shut up!"
She knew that she'd only turned redder, even despite knowing that he wasn't being serious, because he started laughing, the sound only getting louder when she reached out to give him a shove. She barely sent him off balance, next to no force behind the push when she was starting to laugh herself, genuinely more amused than embarrassed by his teasing. It honestly felt really, really good that they were able to harmlessly poke fun at one another so easily, their banter feeling even more natural than it had at her apartment the other night. He'd been in her life for less than a month, had clearly not wanted to be in it at all in the first place, but the laughter was a perfect reminder how things had changed since she'd talked to his sensei. How April and Casey would react to her was still very much up in the air, but she felt a bit more hopeful that everything would pan out all right. It had been that way with Splinter in the end and with Raphael comfortable enough in her presence to jokingly flirt instead of constantly scowling at her, there seemed to be enough cause to cling to a hint of optimism. Maybe meeting the other members of the turtles' family was less of a test as she feared and just another way to further solidify that she was a worthwhile part of their lives now.
As she entertained the notion to try and chase away whatever anxiety she still had left, Erin noticed a man weaving unevenly down the sidewalk, heading in the opposite direction of Raph and herself. She heard him muttering loudly even at a short distance, catching a smattering of slurred curses and gibberish, figuring the poor guy had gotten himself in to quite the drunken stupor. Raphael made no comment in regards to the fellow, grabbing Erin's arm to slowly lead her in to walking to his right side rather than his left, wordlessly putting himself between her and the swaying alcoholic. He didn't turn his head, didn't fully look at the man, but Erin could see the turtle's eyes periodically darting towards the other human as the pair of them walked by, staying close to her until the unintelligible yammering was well behind them. Once they were a sizable enough distance from the intoxicated passerby, Raph moved away again, leaving them to walk just as they had before albeit with their positions switched. She felt no need to address what had happened, opting not to speak of the man or Raphael's reaction to him, but Erin did let herself smile as she thought the moment over.
She felt she now knew why she felt such a special connection with him. He didn't have Mikey's easy-going manner or Donnie's apparent kindness nor even Leo's generally respectful, unintrusive presence. Raph seemed to treat the people around him, the people he knew, with a heavy helping of antagonism, but also a great deal of consideration. It wasn't overt or obvious, seeming largely unspoken, but he had his own way of showing that he looked after others and she realized now that he'd started to extended that same treatment towards her. It hadn't been there at first, not when he'd still thought her dangerous or that meeting her had been a mistake, but now she could tell things had shifted. Raphael was cranky and crass, often rude and even a little intimidating, but when a person mattered to him he found ways of making it known, just as he had with her a moment ago. She was in his circle now and as odd as it may have been to be drawn in to it, she found that she liked being there.
Things with April and Casey were going to be just fine, because she felt all the more confidant that she wouldn't just have to vouch for herself. The turtles, even Raphael, would vouch for her too.
"What're you smilin' about?"
"Just thinking about meeting your friends. April sounded pretty nice on the phone. And I pretty much love her already for making chicken parm."
"You tell her that and she's probably gonna end up feelin' the same way. Shit, I can already picture you two bein' all buddy-buddy."
"How about her husband? Think I'll get his approval too?"
"Don't see why you wouldn't. Casey's all right. Has a thick skull and a short temper, but he's cool."
"You two must be best friends then."
"The hell does that mean?"
"You tryin' to imply somethin', Brooks?"
Raph continued to grill Erin about the implication of her words, the brunette chipperly sing-songing out dismissive answers. The conversation remained as such for the remainder of the trek to April and Casey's apartment.
It was a surprise to absolutely no one that Raphael made a beeline straight in to the bedroom as soon as he'd set foot inside the apartment. He brushed past his brothers and friends without a single word, seeming to care little for introductions or the like, the door slamming shut behind him. Hardly anyone glanced his way when he'd moved by, attention directed from their plates to focus instead on the new arrival.
Mikey climbed out of his chair and headed over to the woman, smile as bright and welcoming as it always was, arms spread out as if he fully intended to give her a hug of greeting. The fact that she'd slapped a hand over her mouth and started shaking kept him from committing to an embrace, arms half way around her before he noted the oddness of her disposition, pulling back to look her over. At such a close proximity, however, it was easy enough to hear the faintest laughter slipping between her fingers.
"If there's something funny, dudette, you've gotta let me in on it."
Everyone else quickly became privy to her muffled chuckling, Donnie and Leo exchanging curious looks while April and her husband, partly dragged over by his wife while he continued to eat from his full plate, stepped closer to see what the deal was. Seeming to realize that she just couldn't hide it anymore, Erin allowed her hand to drop, letting out a string of helplessly amused giggles.
"He was wearing a freaking turtleneck!" she practically wheezed, smile only getting bigger when Michelangelo caught on and began to chuckle right along with her. "I've gotta know whose idea that was."
Casey finished slurping up a mouthful of noodles, rubbing a flick of sauce off of his chin before he waved his hand, looking pleased as punch to take credit for his fashionable joke. Erin held up her own hand, needing very much to give him a high five for his masterful planning, and Casey didn't seem to mind participating in the celebratory gesture. He in fact appeared simply delighted to continue grinning smugly even after Erin and Mikey choked back their laughter when the bedroom door opened. Raphael, comfortably back in his usual lack of clothes, fixed everyone with a mildly sour look, having probably overheard the laughter or gathered that he'd been the subject of discussion during his brief disrobing. Any desire he may have had to comment seemed secondary to his appetite, the turtle grabbing one of two prepared plates sitting on the kitchen counter, turning to let the back of his shell rest against the counter's edge as he dug in to the still-hot meal.
"Well, since Raph clearly doesn't plan on taking care of introducing us properly..."
It was mostly clear who was who given that there didn't appear to be any other humans in the apartment who hadn't been accounted for, but the necessity of engaging in proper greetings wasn't exactly ignorable. April extended her hand, her smile as welcoming as the warmth of her home, and Erin reached out to take it for a quick shake.
"As you've probably gathered, I'm April and this is my husband, Casey. It's nice to meet you."
"Erin and the feeling is definitely mutual."
Casey, midway through twirling noodles around his fork, settled for a nod and a grin, far from unfriendly, but seemingly more inclined to let his wife handle introductory pleasantries and the like.
"Feel free to set your purse wherever. There's a plate on the counter, so help yourself. What do you want to drink?"
"Just some water would be fine, please."
"You sure?" Casey interjected, one cheek bulging slightly as he spoke with his mouth half full. "We've got beer and soda."
"Nah. Water's good."
April headed to the fridge to see to Erin's request, her spouse simply shrugging at the beverage choice while he moved back to the table to sit down and finish up his dinner. As Erin set aside her bag, she spent a few seconds taking in the apartment, having to admit that it was a damn nice place. Nicer than her own for sure. She'd always been a fan of the way a room looked with a single exposed brick wall and it definitely suited the open concept of the main living space, coming together beautifully with the various antiques decorating the whole room. It looked fairly cozy overall, lived in yet well maintained, and it made Erin feel maybe a little bit guilty for how often she left laundry and other bits of clutter just laying about her own place. Perhaps she'd try tidying up some whenever she went home for the night if she didn't immediately end up falling in to bed.
She accepted the bottle of water held out to her and uttered her thanks, moving to the counter to pick up the plate April had been kind enough to set aside. She turned to join her hostess in sitting at the table when Raphael's fingers, lightning quick in their intent, snagged the single slice of garlic bread sitting near the edge of her plate and he immediately took a bite.
"Okay, really? Is this gonna be a regular thing with you stealing my bread every time we have a meal around each other?"
"Maybe not every time. Just when the situation calls for it."
"And how does this one 'call for it'?"
"Ya laughed about the turtleneck."
"Only because it was hilarious."
"So is your face right now."
Erin tried to force the pout from her lips, finding it even harder to manage doing so when Raphael made it a point to shove the whole remainder of the bread slice in to his mouth, licking up a mess of crumbs as he chewed.
"Raph," both Leo and April chimed in at the same time, their voices mutually disciplinary in tone, but the damage had already been done.
All things considered, a stolen piece of garlic bread was really not a big deal and Erin was positive she could easily figure out another way to get Raph back for his shit-giving at another time. She still had a whole plate full of warm food to enjoy and the smell of it was good enough to nearly make her mouth water, looking loads better than any of the bland garbage she'd get out of the machines at work most days. A seat had already been pulled out for her, one located between April and Donatello, and she dug in to her meal once she was comfortably settled, letting out a moan of approval.
"Me and April make a mean chicken parm, don't we?"
"Mm-hm. Can I hire you guys to cook for me? I'm usually too tired to make something decent to eat after work, so most of the time I order out."
She had a few recipes in her repertoire, like pot roast and a few casseroles, but living alone and working twelve hours shifts tended to make it seem almost pointless to cook a meal when takeout was a phone call away. She whipped up something good if Jamie brought Theo and Madison over or vice versa, but it usually happened every other week, even if dining in tended to be easier than taking a fussy infant out to a restaurant.
"Casey and I usually do the same thing unless it's more of a special occasion."
Erin's lowered her fork from her lips, swallowing hard as she glanced over at April, brows arched up in surprise.
"Meeting me counts as a special occasion?"
"Well, the boys only have new people to introduce once in a blue moon and Leo mentioned on the phone that you might be a little nervous about meeting us, so I thought dinner might help make you feel a little more comfortable."
She looked from April to Leonardo, sitting across the table, and wondered when he'd even figured out about her worries given that she'd made no mention of them as they'd talked on the phone earlier that day. As cheerful as she'd tried to be about their exchange and agreeing to meeting the turtles' extended family, it hadn't seemed from her perspective that her tone of voice may have given anything away. Yet somehow, it made perfect sense that Leo would have known, a brief reflection of their past interactions enough to remind her that the turtles' leader was incredibly analytical of those around him. He'd noticed how wary she'd been of him when he'd set foot inside her apartment the first time and had made sure to reassure her consistently that he would do her no harm. When she had done nothing more than take a steadying breath outside of Splinter's room, he'd calmly told her to just be herself. Even a subtle change would have been enough to tip him off, make him want to help put her at ease. Leo made sure to notice things that needed to be seen, because it made it easier for him to quietly look after the people in his life.
Erin turned back to April, realizing that the other woman was so much like the brothers she cared for in that she tried to be good to people. Spending a few minutes in the redhead's presence only told so much of her as an overall person, but nothing about her friendliness felt faked or forced. She had proven to thus far be welcoming and sweet, the openness with which she let Erin in to her home showing that she was perfectly willing to accept a stranger simply due to the fact that the turtles liked her. When she wanted to give someone a chance, she seemed keen to do so genuinely and without resignation, just as the boys had shown signs of doing even before Splinter had fully investigated her personal character.
Leo had noticed her worries, Raph had acted as a potential shield between herself and an inebriated man, and April had made her a hot meal just to show her how welcome she was in to this new circle of people she'd stumbled in to. Every single person in the room, no matter how incredibly different they were, all had the very common similarity of just being generally good people. It was something she'd already known, but still a realization that continued to springing up with every new hint of what made the odd ragtag family so great, so very worth the secrecy she had to exercise in order to keep them in her life. Erin only had a small handful of close friends and acquaintances in her life, so when she made friendships that held a lot of promise, they never failed to be something of a marvel to her. Especially when the feeling seemed to be almost mutual.
"Just putting it out there, but I do make a pretty mean Yankee pot roast."
"Dinner's on you next time then?" Casey asked, the slant of his grin reminding her so much of Raphael that there was no doubt how alike the two probably were.
"Definitely. I'll make sure to buy extra rolls so a certain somebody won't steal mine."
She heard a loud snort coming from somewhere behind her and very pointedly didn't turn around to acknowledge it, at least not until Casey snagged a half-eaten piece of garlic bread from Leo's plate and chucked it in Raphael's direction. Had he not been in the middle of stabbing a piece of breaded chicken, the turtle probably would have dodged, head snapping up once the slice beaned the top of his cranium.
"You lookin' to get an ass kickin' tonight, Casey?"
"What for? I keep hearin' about you lovin' bread, so I figured I'd help feed yer addiction."
"And I'll help you in to the dumpster outside if you airmail me anythin' else."
"Why don'tcha set your plate down and we'll see who ends up goin' dumpster divin'."
The two both grinned through the ping-pong of threats, evidently not nearly as angry as their words might have implied. The way Leo and Donnie groaned while April pinched the bridge of her nose seemed to indicate that it was a pretty common thing for Casey and Raph to threaten bodily harm to one another, Mikey looking to be the only person who found the apparently typical exchange wholly amusing. Erin liked to give Raph guff in return to whatever he gave her and she felt sure enough that his brothers did the same, but from what she'd witnessed so far Casey looked to be the one who gave Raph the exact same brand of shit that he gave everyone else. In a way, it was almost sort of sweet that temper turtle had an equally temperamental bestie to gripe with, though she didn't dare to say as much when she knew they'd probably just deny having any sort of special bond.
"Fine by me. I've been meanin' to take out the trash tonight."
"So you're gonna throw yourself in the dumpster?"
Raph and Casey immediately shut their traps, grins disappearing when they caught the mix of agitation and seriousness on April's face, the pair cowed by the single utterance. Apparently, making April O'Neil mad was one thing that both hotheads dared not do, their playful threats completely silenced in the wake of the woman's severe expression. It was pretty amusing to see two equally muscular tough guys being completely brought down by the ire of a single petite redhead. Erin had no idea how often her new acquaintance had to employ what Jamie would have called her 'mom voice', but the effectiveness of it had to mean that she used it on at least a semi-regular basis.
"Both of you are on dish detail when you're done eating and if anyone throws food again, you're not getting dessert."
Neither looked game to argue, the room momentarily growing quiet as everybody turned their focus back to finishing their meals, April looking at ease again with the threat of roughhousing diminished. The silence which followed didn't seem as if it would last for long, the scraping of cutlery against plates a brief prelude to further discussion, Donatello choosing to resume conversation.
"Oh hey, April. Didn't you say you had an alibi you could have Erin use on her other friends?"
That got Erin's attention right away, her eyes full of question as she waited for April to swallow what she'd been chewing in order to elaborate on the subject Donnie had brought up. Naturally, she wouldn't be spending every night in the company of the turtles, but she had hope to see them regularly and given that the vast majority of her free time involved hanging out with Jamie, she'd need excuses as to why she might already have plans. Excuses which wouldn't result in her best friend wanting to play a repeating game of twenty questions.
"Yeah. You told them you made four new friends from work, right?"
"Mm-hm. Four male friends in particular and Jamie especially isn't going to forget that easily."
"I'm guessing she hears 'male friends' and she starts getting the matchmaking bug?"
"You have no idea."
Erin knew Jamie meant well with her hopes of being able to pair her best friend up. She brought the subject up at least once a month, always asked if she'd had any luck on the dating front, but it wasn't as if she spent all of her time trying to set up blind dates or suggest potential beaus. Jamie had stated previously that she knew Erin didn't have to be in a relationship to have a happy, fulfilling life and never wanted her to feel as if she was doing something wrong by being single. But Jamie had been there for Erin when her last relationship had fallen apart years ago, had supported her through the confusion and heartache, ever insisting that she deserved better than the pain she'd been put through. The fact that Jamie's present relationship with Theo, regardless of its faults, had been set up by her had only made her best friend hope even more for Erin to find someone special once again. Every little bit of light-hearted yet semi-serious pestering came from a place of complete love.
"I can lie to her, but it'd help if I had really solid ones to use, because I'm not that great at coming up with them on my own. Annette and Adam, they shouldn't be too hard to hide things from, but Jamie's known me since high school, so if I wanna keep her from snooping too hard for details, I'll need a good alibi. Or back up. Or both."
"Is there anyone aside from Jamie we really need to fool, like your parents?"
"My mom lives back home in Connecticut and she never gets too deep in to who I hang out with. My dad and I haven't had an actual conversation since I was about six, so he's not an issue."
"Well, if it's just your friends, why don't Casey and I meet them sometime? If you're hanging out with the guys and Jamie happens to call or anything, Raph can easily pass for Casey. They have pretty similar voices."
"I do not!"
April ignored the two and continued.
"All we have to do is say that you didn't really hit it off as well with three of your new co-workers, but you and Casey got along really well, especially after he introduced you to his wife. Anytime you're with the guys or have plans with them, you can just tell your friends you're with the two of us."
It was a pretty simple bit of deception, enough so that Erin honestly felt a little foolish for having not come up with such a plan on her own. It sounded promising, though, and definitely like something that could work if Jamie started getting a bit too curious. Actually meeting April and Casey would only add more validity to the story and probably keep Jamie or any of her other friends from inquiring about potential boyfriends or the like. Overall, it was a pretty good plan in Erin's book and she was relieved that April had come up with it, not to mention thankful that they were willing to go along with things so she could help keep the turtles' secret. With as long as the couple had known the turtles, though, they were probably used to coming up with clever ruses to deter others from discovering their mutant friends.
"That sounds good. I think I can go along with that. I'll make sure to mention you two next time Jamie asks and we'll worry about figuring out a time to hang out together from there. I don't know if you'll ever really need to meet Annette or Adam, but Jamie is cool, so I think you'll like her. I babysit her daughter sometimes too, so I'm sure either you two or the guys'll see Maddie at some point."
"How old is she?"
"Going on six months. She's a complete carrot top, just like her mom. I keep waiting for her to start getting her mom's freckles."
"Oh, how cute!"
"I think I've got some pictures of her on my phone."
Casey and Raphael didn't seem particularly interested in either seeing the photos or paying attention to anyone cooing over them, both finished with their dinner and resigned to start washing dishes. Mikey, however, did get up from his chair in order to see Erin's phone once she pulled it out of her pocket, he and Donnie checking the images out while Leo ate the last of his parmesan, smiling whenever the phone screen was flashed in his direction.
"Babies have been known to start babbling more coherently at six months and within a year they can even say whole words. It probably wouldn't hurt to get a stuffed turtle to keep at your place, just in case Jamie starts hearing baby babble that seems out of nowhere."
"Good idea, Donnie. You guys really know how to keep all your bases covered."
The tech savvy turtle shook his head in a polite dismissal, finding no reason to be complimented for his ability to come up with a proper fail-safe. He'd quite possibly done so on numerous occasions long before Erin and her friends had been a factor for consideration.
"If you're willing to go the extra mile to keep anyone from finding out about us then the least we can all do is make it easier for you. We'll all have you covered one way or the other."
"Good to know."
Making certain she didn't slip was surely more out of necessity for their own safety over anything else, but it was regardless a relief to know that the brothers and their friends would assist her with every step of keeping up pretenses and fabricating tiny falsehoods. She'd already decided that deceit for the sake of having the turtles in her life was worthwhile, even if it wouldn't always be simple. Having a little extra help with her efforts and knowledge that April and Casey had done the same for several years gave her more confidence in her ability to do what was needed. Whatever difficulty or even frustration could come with the territory could be handled if and when they came. After having spent so much time stressing about gaining acceptance Erin was just content to relish the existence of her new support system of ninjas and antique shop owners.
The issue of Jamie and the rest seemed to have been covered well enough to change subjects, everyone finishing up their dinner as April told Erin a bit more about her first meeting with the turtles and Casey, regaling the other woman with tales of rescues and fights with the Foot. Mikey happily supplied his own details as April told her stories, adding his own colorful descriptions to her narration, quieting only when April started divvying up a cheesecake for dessert. Leo, Donnie, and Raph had their own details to share, of course, as excursions from the past were shared. They all detailed very particular ways they'd taken down enemies when April's recounting of their deeds lacked the sufficient details that the turtles felt were necessary, showcasing their pride in the skills they'd honed. It all sounded incredibly far-fetched, with mentions of city gangs and ninja leaders, other mutants and hints of magic, but Erin couldn't find it in her heart to be wholly skeptical when she had met four talking turtles and a giant rat. According to the stories, the turtles had saved New York on numerous occasions well before she'd even considered relocating to the sprawling metropolis, the four of them saving lives while she had been attending high school. She was kind of relieved when no one tried to turn the conversation around or ask her about her life, feeling that her prior existence hardly warranted discussing after learning about such things as Raphael's past excursions as the Nightwatcher.
At some point during the course of the conversation, once dessert and the dishes were both finished, everyone migrated from the table to the couches in the area clearly designated as the living room, the large sectional couch proving to be especially comfortable. By that point, Casey had taken to explaining his own prior outings as a masked vigilante, beating down criminals with a hockey stick and surely the same cocky attitude he displayed as he talked about his adventures. The fact that he'd once fought crime and apparently still helped from time to time seemed to make sense given not only his muscular build, but also the fact that he knew the turtles in the first place. Erin didn't know if NYC boasted any other secret crime fighters, but it seemed totally reasonable for heroes of a similar ilk to cross paths and inevitably partner up. Even if becoming allies had occurred after a few scuffles.
"So you two pretty much beat the crap out of each other a few times before you became friends?"
"I dunno about each other or anythin' like that. I knocked this loser on his shell so quick he didn't even know what happened."
"I think you might've gotten a head injury from that first fight, cause that ain't how I remember it."
"I had you kissin' pavement before you even noticed my skin bein' green."
"Yer full of it, Raph. That ain't how it happened."
"Truth hurts, Case."
"I can show you somethin' that hurts, green bean!"
The two started scuffling, hurling insults at one another in the same fashion as before, grinning through the guff. Erin was snickering by the time Raph had gotten Casey in to a full nelson, his brothers divided as far as who they seemed to be rooting for even though neither hockey enthusiast nor sai-wielder seemed keen to pay their audience any mind.
"How often do they do this?"
"Almost every single time they hang out."
"Who usually wins?"
"Of course that's the one part of our conversation they actually notice," April groaned, watching her husband continue to try freeing himself from Raphael's hold.
Erin had a feeling that both men, human and turtle alike, would contest whoever was citing as having more victories even if it turned out that they tended to be equal, the pair having enough ego between the both of them that they'd probably never be able to agree. She was maybe leaning towards rooting for Raph, but somehow cheering for someone other than her host while comfortably lounging on his sofa seemed like some kind of rude faux pas. Keeping her lips sealed and her preferences silent occurred to her as being the more polite thing to do.
Quiet and prepared to keep watching as the boys had it out, Erin shifted to get a bit more comfortable on the couch only to move off of it when the loud wail of multiple sirens caused everyone in the room to make way towards the windows. Seeing New York City's finest go speeding down the street was nothing new for any of them and a pretty common staple of living in the Big Apple, not a day going by that one didn't at least hear sirens in the distance. There would always be a crime or a fire or some other dangerous thing which needed to be dealt with in a city as big as NYC. Unlike most folks, however, who could simply go about their usual business when the cars and lights passed, the turtles were ever drawn to the telltale warning of danger. As the two police vehicles sped down the street, disappearing around the corner with the flashes of red and blue fading away, the four brothers stepped away from the windows with all traces of humor gone from their faces.
"All right, guys. I think we're going to have to cut the night short."
"Yeah, Leo's right. Can't ignore the boys in blue when they're practically hollering at us to follow," Mikey agreed, hands wrapping around the nunchucks tucked beneath his belt without tugging them loose.
Leonardo looked first to April and Casey, the couple seeming completely understanding of the situation, his sights then settling on Erin with clear apology in his eyes.
"I'm sorry we have to leave so soon. Especially without seeing you home first."
"It's all right, Leo," Erin answered, quick to offer reassurances. "I probably ought to get home and get to bed anyway. I've gotta work tomorrow and sleep calls."
"We'll make sure she gets home all right. You boys just be careful, okay? And Donnie, I'll call you once your payment for the computer comes in."
"We will and thanks, April."
The turtles all bid their respective good byes, leaving in a rush via the fire escape, off to stop whatever trouble they were set to find. They'd acted fairly calm about heading in to potential danger, which at first had seemed strange to Erin before she reminded herself of everything she'd learned that night alone, knowing now just how incredibly typical it was for the foursome to act as heroes from the shadows. Everyone who had been present in the apartment that evening save for her had been dealing with the crime fighting aspects of the turtles' lives for years, leaving her feeling almost like a fish out of water with how utterly new it felt to her. Despite not following the turtles or being able to see what they'd be getting in to that night, the notion that they might have a fight ahead of them made her feel pensive and concerned. Hearing about previous struggles and being told that they secretly fought crime was a far cry different from actually seeing them leave to chase danger. Would one of her new friends end up getting hurt? When would she find out if somebody did suffer an injury? How often did they end up bruised or worse doing what they'd spent most of their lives doing by keeping their city safe?
It seemed wise not to let her thoughts get ahead of themselves or start worrying needlessly when the boys would probably be okay. No matter how many times they might have been injured in the past they were still alive and kicking after well over what sounded like a decade of cleaning up the streets. She couldn't help entertaining horrible possibilities, but what good would it do to psyche herself out? It was early in to this aspect of her life and while having friends with a dangerous profession was completely new territory, she decided that she needed to learn to deal with that knowledge straight away. She'd have to figure out how to accept the worry without choking on it, relieved at least that she did have people in a similar state who she could turn to. If any two people in the world could gather what she was starting to feel, it had to be April and Casey. Unlike her, they'd actually witnessed firsthand what the turtles could do and if they were calm then she saw no reason to let herself freak out too hard.
"Why don't you pull around to the front of the building, so you can drive Erin home, Casey? We'll wait downstairs for you."
"All right, babe. Be there in a minute."
Casey leaned down, pecking April softly on the lips, fingers grazing her cheek before he headed for the door, snagging a set of keys from a hook on the wall on the way out. Ordinarily Erin might have insisted that the couple needn't have gone to any trouble or that she would have been perfectly fine walking home, but it had started getting late and the heavy meal she'd had seemed keen to start wearing her down. Worry about the turtles aside, her body definitely felt the desire for sleep and a ride home would surely be quicker than a seventeen minute walk to the Lower East Side. She doubted that April would have taken no for an answer anyway even if Erin had insisted on going home by herself.
After snagging her purse from the counter where it had previously been set aside, Erin followed April out in to the quiet hallway. The door was just short of being closed when April seemed to remember something she'd almost forgotten, reaching just inside the apartment to pluck a yellow leather jacket from the nearby coat rack.
"Here. Why don't you take this for now? I'll get it back next time we get together."
"Thanks, but I'm all right. It's really not that cold out."
April shook her head, dismissing her refusal, and she held out the jacket until Erin relented, slipping in to the garment.
"You'll need it. Trust me."
Rather than question what those words meant, the brunette followed the other woman down the stairs and to the street, the sidewalk empty once they stepped out. There looked to be no sign of Casey anywhere, but it seemed doubtful that it would be a long wait unless they'd had the misfortune of not finding close parking last time they'd driven anywhere. Even though it was late and the street didn't seem to boast much traffic, there was still plenty of noise to be heard, from car horns to the muffled music of someone driving with their stereo turned up too high. For the moment, however, there were no sirens and it made Erin wonder if whatever crime the turtles had gone out to stop had already been taken care of. She felt half tempted to pull out her cell phone and see if there was any information she might find, crossing her arms over her chest to resist the urge to check for news.
"Erin, I forgot to ask, but do you mind giving me your cell number?"
"Oh right! I should've given it to you when I was showing you those pictures earlier."
Grateful for the reminder, as well as the distraction, Erin whipped out her phone as April did the same, telling the other woman her number and using the text message she immediately sent to program her number in to her list of contacts. Though she wasn't so sure she'd contact him quite as much, she still accepted it when April gave out her husband's number as well, glad to see both their respective names amongst her other friends.
"If anything ever happens with the guys, can you call me and let me know?"
"A little. Trying not to be."
April waved her hand as if to shoo away any sheepishness Erin felt from being concerned, giving her shoulder a gentle, reassuring squeeze.
"It's all right. I used to tell myself not to worry all the time, whether it was about the boys or Casey, but fighting it is like charging in to a battle you can't win. It's a little easier to deal with once you just accept that you're scared for them, even if they're just doing their usual, run of the mill patrols. It helps to remember that the turtles are tough. Tougher than most people honestly. And they've only gotten stronger and smarter with age."
There was something in April's eyes that seemed far away for a moment, almost reflective, and she turned to look back at the building which held both her home and her livelihood. It was the look of someone summing up old memories, potentially those which had been hidden amongst all the stories she'd shared that night.
"The city's come a long way since I first met them. No real Foot activity, hardly any Purple Dragons. It's not completely safe, but things are quieter than they've been for a long time and have been for a while. I was there for some of the worst of what the boys and Casey have been through and they all came out okay. Things aren't perfect, but they're better and that definitely makes coping with the worry less of a struggle."
April could have been trying to reassure Erin more than anything, but the words sounded just as much like a reminder meant for herself. From everything she'd heard that night and before, every little detail the turtles had shared, April O'Neil had been a pillar of love and support since the instant she'd come in to their lives. They held her in high regard, probably higher than anyone else save their sensei, and the woman seemed to know just how much she meant to the brothers, how incredibly important she was in their lives. Keeping her head together, being strong and stable while her family was out being heroes, seemed very much like something she would never and could never give up. It took an incredible person to do what April did and still manage to smile instead of being overcome by doubt or anxiety.
Whatever reflections of days gone past that she'd found herself caught up in appeared to have faded away again and April faced Erin once more, a gentle smile she'd shown so many times that night settled back upon her lips.
"You know, the boys have me, Master Splinter, and Casey. A few other people too. But I think it helps them a lot to have friends they can just be themselves around, people they don't have to hide from. It's been a long time since any of us have gotten to see Angel or Keno or any of the others, so I think meeting you was a good thing."
It was a huge relief to hear those words in light of all her past worry and all the concern she felt at present. Erin hardly expected to make much of a difference in the turtles lives, but she was more than happy to offer her friendship and her home to them during their downtime. If those simple things truly meant something to the four brothers as April said then she was glad to give what she could. Befriending the shop owner and her husband was just another added bonus.
"I hope so. After how hard running in to me was on Raph at first, I'd much rather be someone they don't regret meeting."
"I don't think that'll happen. I was honestly a little bit worried when Leo first mentioned you on the phone, but I'm not anymore. Not after seeing how far you're willing to go to keep the boys a secret."
If April or Casey had actually been testing her or secretly sizing her up during the course of the night then she'd managed to gain their approval, just as she'd hoped to. She had no clue if there were any other people in the turtles lives outside of their sensei and the couple she'd just become acquainted with who might be wary of her in the future, but for the time everything seemed to have come together just fine.
Erin heard the revving of an engine, almost like an echo of thunder resounding up and down the street, the sound so loud and near that the woman couldn't quite keep her focus on April. She looked about, wanting to see where the vehicle was coming from, catching sight of a motorcycle, black and silver in color, coming out of a nearby alley. It was a massive machine, looking as powerful as it sounded, and she couldn't even have guessed the model when she knew absolutely nothing about bikes, familiar only with the Harley-Davidson brand. The motorcycle turned to head down the street towards where she stood with April, moving slow, and as it neared Erin realized that she recognized the torn jeans and dark gray hoodie the cyclist was wearing, even if the helmet he had on happened to be concealing his face. The fact that the biker pulled to a stop next to the curb where she stood only confirmed Erin's suspicions.
"Oh. Well...now I see why you wanted me to wear a jacket."
The temperature outside may not have been a bother while standing or walking, but she knew she'd end up freezing if she rode on the back of a motorcycle with no coat on. Provided they didn't wreck and she didn't end up dying horribly.
"So...you know...it really is a nice night for a walk."
Casey held out a helmet, cocking his head to the side, and despite not being able to see his face very clearly, Erin felt about ninety percent positive that he was probably trying not to laugh at her visible unease. Her own nervous expression stared back at her from the shiny fiberglass surface of the helmet, practically mocking her.
"Don't worry about it. I ain't never been in an accident on this thing and I ain't about to go crashin' any time soon."
"And he'll make sure to go slow," April added, shooting her husband a look that practically swore vengeance if he went hot rodding at high speeds. "I'll text you tomorrow to let you know how things went with the guys tonight."
"Okay. Thanks. Hope to see you again soon."
Erin inhaled deeply, held it for a few seconds, and then exhaled hard before she tucked her hair behind her ears and slid the helmet on. Casey slipped up a bit further on the bike to make room for her, revving the engine impatiently as Erin slowly threw her leg over the seat, settling uneasily in to place.
"Ready?" Casey asked over the roar of the engine, lifting one of his feet from the ground as Erin tentatively reached her hands around his middle.
As the bike sped off down the street, Erin held on tighter and closed her eyes.
She hoped that both she and the turtles made it through the night unscathed.
A/N: I hope you guys are prepared, because there's gonna be some drama and fluff in the next chapter.
Smpalopoli: Glad you're still here to enjoy the ride!
PrimeEmily135: Super sorry you've had stressful school stuff to deal with, but I'm happy that my last update gave you a nice distraction! I'll do my best to keep the updates coming!
CGKrows: Thanks so much! I'll admit, it can be a bit of a bummer not to get very many reviews or much feedback whenever I post a chapter, but I'm sure it's as a result of not many folks reading this story. As far as I can tell OC stories aren't usually most peoples' cup of tea, so it's always so nice when people do give it a chance and take the time to leave feedback like you have.
Snow Wolf Alpha: I'm glad to be back! I had a lot of fun writing Erin and Mikey's exchange. Naturally, the main part of this story is gonna be Erin's interactions with Raph, but I love writing about her growing friendships with his brothers and the rest and Mikey is always such a hoot. I'm pretty sure he's gonna end up being one of Erin's closest pals.