Right away, Yoshi recognized that his little box turtles had become more than just corner store pets. They were children, now, almost human; with wide, bright eyes and dimpled faces.
It took him longer to recognize that they were his children.
They clustered together in sleep, a pile of tiny shells and loose limbs, and the smaller two were usually pillowed carefully between the larger. Yoshi did his best to find the cleanest, softest things to use in the way of pillows and blankets, and as the strange creatures didn't know any better, they never thought to complain.
Yoshi did not sleep often, and when he did it was only very lightly. So he was woken quickly by the soft sounds of an intruder, and felt his heart fly into his throat.
The sewer rats that found their small, open alcove were larger than Yoshi had ever seen before, and slunk quietly toward his sleeping turtles with hungry intent in the red gleam of their beady eyes. He knew that rats would chew through just about anything—knew they would try to take a bite out of whatever held still long enough to be eaten.
Yoshi was moving before he made any conscious decision to, sick with sudden fear and white-hot anger, and found himself falling on back on instincts brand-new to him; lashing out with a clawed hand and hissing through his pointed teeth, standing over his children on all fours and driving the rats away with sheer force of his presence. The rats must have confused his scent with that of the rest of the sewer before, because they scattered at the sight of him then, and he was left breathing heavily and trembling with nerves.
He stayed right where he was after that; curled around the turtles as best he could, wrapping one long arm around their huddle easily. They shifted only barely, and seemed to appreciate the added warmth of his fur, and Yoshi knew at that moment that he would sleep even less than he did before.
Knew at that moment that these little lives had become something more to him than what they might have been before.
When the morning sun came, pale light filtering through a grate at the end of the tunnel, Yoshi was greeted by the morning sky as well, in the form of two round eyes blinking at him from over a dusting of freckles.
"Hello, little one," he said, in a voice that was still hoarse with pain and disuse. But it made the shelled creature smile all the same, and reach out to Yoshi's muzzle with a tiny hand.
"Shhh!" it greeted him cheerfully, and after a moment of surprise, Yoshi found himself smiling in turn.
He made it a point to speak to them more, having realized how little he had before, lost to pain and confusion and heartbreak after the initial mutation. Not only did his voice seem to comfort them, but if they could emulate it—try to mimic the sounds and words he said to them—then they were capable of human speech. They needed a verbal platform to build off of, the way human children did.
Maybe it would not be so lonely in the sewers, with four little people to talk to.
Yoshi had names picked out for his little turtles when he went in to purchase them, largely a jest; he was fond of the Italian renaissance, but wasn't sure if it would be fair to saddle such large mantles to such small creatures, whose lives would begin and end in a glass tank. Names were important, and so he had decided to deliberate on it a little more.
Now, though, the turtles were growing in leaps and bounds; running with what he taught them, more content now to babble and experiment with sounds but falling back on the familiar and repetitive "shh," or "iya-iya" with a new, budding understanding of what the noises meant. They seemed to be reaching for knowledge, hungry for understanding in this strange, new world around them, and eager to bridge the gap that stood between Yoshi and themselves, developing at a far faster rate than he had seen in human children.
It appeared as though they had the potential to become something spectacular. Yoshi thought they might be able to carry those names, after all.
And on the matter of names, Yoshi's own felt newly foreign to him. It didn't fit with the same rightness as it did before, and he wasn't sure, entirely, what to do about that. Thankfully, with four energetic toddlers on hand, he had very, very little time to think of himself.
Personalities began to manifest quickly in his turtles, and of the four, Donatello proved to be the hardest to keep still.
There was an intelligence in those bright brown eyes that sometimes took Yoshi aback, and nothing escaped the child's solemn scrutiny. He had taken to bringing Yoshi found things, usually magazines or small pieces of trash from the shallow run-off, patting him gently on the arm to get his attention and then holding his prize out before him, with a silent question on every inch of his face.
Sometimes, like this one, the things that caught his eye were harmful; for all his speed and the years of his training, Yoshi only barely made it across the alcove in time to snatch Donatello up before he made it all the way to the broken mirror. Heaving an exhausted sigh of relief, Yoshi turned back to where the rest of the turtles had gathered around him for story time, carefully running the pads of his clawed fingers over the bottoms of Donatello's feet, to make sure he hadn't been cut by the glass.
Donatello patted his muzzle, and he looked down at the child, who then produced a fistful of wooden shards from the mirror's broken frame. How?Yoshi beseeched of the universe internally, though he kept his expression calm, and held the hand that wasn't cradling his turtle out in a gesture Donatello had quickly become accustomed to.
He surrendered the wood, but the question remained in his eyes, and Yoshi sat down in the circle of his children with a soft sigh. Leonardo scooted over to lean against his knee, and Raphael and Michelangelo had been left to their own devices long enough to begin a rowdy game of wrestling, and Donatello sat in his lap and gazed up at him patiently, seemingly ready to wait for days for an answer to even just one of his endless questions.
"It was a splinter, little one," Yoshi said, rubbing a hand over the child's head; a gesture that was becoming habitual and fond. "It was just a small piece of a much larger whole."
Yoshi didn't have need to leave the boys often; when he searched for food, he took them along, carrying them easily in a sling, fashioned from old towels he had washed carefully in rainwater. However, with the rain had come colder weather, and the turtles were unfortunately affected by it, and their constant shivering, even in Yoshi's furred arms, was like a knife to his heart.
So he went to the surface, for the first time since he had initially ventured into the sewers, and retrieved from his apartment all that he could carry comfortably and swiftly, and as many layers of clothes as would fit all at once. It was not a risk he would be willing to take ordinarily, the fur on the back of his neck bristling at every sound that might mean discovery—but for the same reason he was suddenly so desperate to live, he was willing to risk his life. His boys needed to be warm.
And he had thought they would remain asleep while he was gone—altogether, only a little over an hour—but he was wrong. They were awake, and crammed together in the farthest corner of their safely barricaded alcove, a fearful huddle he hadn't seen since their first few days together.
And Yoshi dropped his armful instantly, trading innate stealth for speed as he crossed the room, his long tail swishing rapidly with anxiety at the sight of their silent tears.
"What is it, little ones?" he asked, drawing their attention through the dark. He held his hands out to them and his tone was soothing, but they jumped at the sound of it, and turned bright, wet eyes up to him, and then—almost at once—began to cry.
It was the first he had seen them cry, and he was unprepared for the way it broke his heart. Any thought he had that they might fear him were dashed, as, when he kneeled, they broke from their huddle and sprinted to him with a speed he had not known they possessed; wrapping tiny, trembling arms around him as best they could and burying their faces in his fur and robes.
They were afraid they had been abandoned, he realized, and it was through a slow burn of regret and shame that he gathered them into his arms. They were all babbling, all of them stumbling to make themselves understood, even if it was just a confusing rush of the random words they had learned from listening to him over the last few weeks, but one word surfaced over all the others, one repeated again and again in much the same way he had repeated their names to them, carefully and articulately and with fond reverence—
And it was then that he realized that he had been given a name, as well. Not one they were aware of, not one they understood, but there all the same.
"Splinter," they insisted through their tears, tugging as close to him as they could. "Splinter, Splinter!"
"Yes, my sons," he replied gently, almost moved to tears of his own; overcome with love for these tiny creatures who held his heart in the palms of their hands. "Yes, my sons, I am here."