DISCLAIMER: I don't own the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles or any characters or situations associated with them. They are the property of Eastman and Laird and other cartoon network bigwigs who have bought the rights to them. No one has given me permission to do this, but I am not making any money off of this story. No infringement is intended.
The Japanese words are numbers counting backwards from seven to one.
A far cry from the aches and pains and nausea and general misery of the morning, the New York City street sparkled in the afternoon sun. Even the beggars seemed more cheerful than usual. And why shouldn't they be? With soft warm on her face and bustling noises and vibrant smells enveloping her, April found herself having to suppress a broad grin to keep from frightening passersby on the sidewalk.
Yeah. It was a good day.
Rarely did she approach this part of town in broad daylight, so it seemed strange to see the scenery all lit up and normal looking. April knew the guys would be surprised to see her. She had, however, just left an empty apartment; Casey didn't work on Sundays so he had probably been with Raph at the lair all afternoon.
And she needed to speak to her husband. Now.
Whistling, April made her familiar way to where she expected – and knew most of – her boys to be. Sure enough, Casey and Raphael were sparring in the middle of the floor when she arrived. Donatello noticed her first, and on his greeting the two on the floor turned around.
"April!" said Casey, immediately relinquishing his bat and approaching her. "What are you doing here?" Too concerned to wait for a response, he then asked, "How are you feeling?"
"Fine," said April, doing her best to hide her amusement. "Great, in fact."
The sincere assurance that his wife's condition was miles above where it had been that morning having apparently flown over his head, Casey said, "Shouldn't you be restin' or somethin'?"
For a moment, April could not contain her laughter, but it didn't take her long to collect herself enough to reply, "Believe me, Casey, I'm fine."
"What's so funny?" Casey demanded. "Why are you laughin' at me? What'd I do?"
"Nothing," said April, still grinning. "I'm not laughing at you." Before Casey could reply, April took both his hands in hers and looked him in the eye.
"Casey," she said. "I'm fine."
By now Mikey, Leo and Splinter had heard her entrance and come to investigate. April suddenly became aware of six pairs of eyes focused on her with varying combinations of worry and curiosity. Clearly, they all required explanation.
She had hoped to be able to get Casey on his own. To explain the situation privately, romantically, before they broke the news to everyone else together. That, however, didn't seem like a possibility right now. Oh well. They were all family here, and when did this family do things conventionally?
"Casey," said April, looking briefly into her husband's eyes. "Guys." She made sure to look at everyone in turn, to let them know they were all included. They had been in everything together, and would continue to be.
"Hang on," said Mikey's voice, "Don't take it off yet."
Shuffling noises behind her, then the click of a switch. April sensed, rather than saw, the presence of light on the other side of her blindfold.
"Okay," said Mikey. "Now."
April slipped the blindfold over her head, looked up and gasped.
"Oh, Mikey," she breathed, "It's beautiful."
Michelangelo beamed. Years ago, when she was still living in her old apartment, April had allowed him to paint the ceiling of her living room. He had enjoyed it so much that she promised to let him paint the ceiling of the baby's room in her and Casey's new place. Michelangelo had met the project with nothing less than elation.
"Drawing's really more my thing than painting," he replied with uncharacteristic modesty. "But thanks. I'm proud of it."
"It's perfect," said April. "You've really outdone yourself this time, Mike."
Going along with the soft white green they had painted the walls, the most artistic of the turtles had painted a rainforest scene on the ceiling of the soon to be nursery. Lush with leaves and vines and exotic flowers of every color, beetles, frogs, birds, baby animals of nearly every typical jungle breed, and of course the orange-masked ninja turtle's face hiding in the corner, the ceiling made the room come alive with color. No wonder neither of the future parents had been allowed in here for a week. This must have taken him forever.
"Wow," April whispered. Placing a hand on her now very round belly, April could almost feel the baby's approval. The scene was absolutely gorgeous.
"It's no Sistine Chapel," said Mikey. When April looked at him, he became mock-offended and said, "Yes, I know what the Sistine Chapel is. The original Mikey, Michelangelo numero uno, did it. I looked him up on Donnie's computer. But I figured you and Casey wouldn't want pictures of naked people all over your kid's bedroom."
"Thanks," replied April dryly, "That's very true. I appreciate it. Wow. Where did you learn to paint like that?"
"Sandry – she's from Northedge – taught me a couple of tricks." Northedge was an institution they had discovered several months earlier by the northern boarder of New York. Neither April nor Casey had been there, but according to the guys, it provided shelter to mutants of all kinds, originally human, animal or otherwise, from all over the world. The turtles, in their usual heroic way, had saved it and its habitants from discovery by the media, government or other potential mutant threats. After a few days, April imagined they must have been wonderful, of not having to hide from nearly everyone, the turtles decided they were happier in the sewers of New York and moved home.
The decision must not have been easy, especially for Donatello. According to the guys, Northedge had biochemistry and molecular biology lab that focused on the science behind mutants and possessed technology about which Donnie had only read. All of them found returning difficult, specifically him, but April was glad they did. She would have missed them terribly. They were family, after all.
"Like I said," Mikey continued, "drawing is more my thing. I hope the baby likes it."
"I'm positive he will," said April, gazing at the round, blue eyes of a baby monkey peeking over a leaf. "It's amazing."
"So you guys are sure it's a boy?"
"I thought you can't be positive until it's born."
"You didn't see the ultrasound pictures," said April with a wry smile. "Trust me. It's a boy."
Mikey laughed. As they went back into the living room to sit down, he asked, "So it's coming soon, huh?"
"Yep." April neglected to tell him that almost an hour ago, she had felt faint but distinct pains in her stomach. Her first contraction. Sooner than you think, she thought, easing herself onto the couch. She hadn't had another one since. Because she knew the actually delivery wasn't going to happen for a long time, it was pointless to say anything at least until her water broke. Faint twinges of excitement traveled up and down her spine every time she thought about it. She was going to be a mother soon!
"So are you going to tell us his name yet?" asked Mikey, sitting beside her and putting his huge green feet on the coffee table.
"Nope," said April, as she had many times before. "It's a surprise."
"Come on. I won't tell. Who would know?"
April raised her eyebrows. "You."
"Aw, please? When will you tell us?"
"After he's born.
"What if it's a girl?"
"Then," said April, "not only will I be deeply shocked, but I will be excited to no longer be the only female in this family."
"Nuh-uh. You have Angel and her girlfriend."
"Karrie? She doesn't count, she doesn't even know about you guys." The turtles and Splinter had decided to wait until Angel settled down with someone permanently, which would most likely be many years away, before introducing themselves to him or her.
"Angel then. She counts. She came out to you first.
"That's true." Angel had told April she was bisexual before anyone else. "Okay then, I'll be excited to have three girls in the family."
"The third one named…"
"Mikey!" said April, throwing a pillow at him. "You just don't give up, do you?"
"Not till you tell me."
Before April could reply, a second contraction, sharper this time, surprised her. Instinctively, she flinched and placed a hand to her stomach. Mikey noticed immediately.
"April? Was that what I think it was?" he asked, rising to his feet and taking the pitch of his voice with him. "Are you in labor?"
"Mikey…" said April calmly, but Michelangelo would not be calmed.
"You are. Oh God, you are. You're in labor. What do I do? I can't deliver a baby! Where's Jeanie when we need her? Where's Casey? We need to get you to a hospital."
"Okay…um…don't panic…um…wait there! I'll call 911. No wait! They're too slow, and I can't be here when they get here, and I'm not going to leave you, so…um…"
"Wait! You stay right there. Don't move. I'll go get the Battle Shell. I'm taking you to the hospital myself."
April had to fight back laughter at the terrified expression on the poor turtle's face. If Mike was panicking now, what was Casey going to be like? "It's okay."
"No, it's not okay!" Mikey cried, "You're in labor."
"No, I mean, well, yes, but it's okay. This stuff takes a long time. My water hasn't even broken yet, and we don't need to worry about getting to a hospital until the contractions get closer together."
Mikey eyed her warily. "You're sure."
"Yes," she said. "I've read all about it. It's fine. Relax. We don't need to go anywhere yet."
After a moment's consideration, Mikey relaxed and sat down. The two sat in nervous silence until he spoke again.
"So will you tell me the name now?"
Hunter Augustine Jones had a problem.
Looking up at the group of grownups, he attempted to explain his dilemma by waving rattle in his tiny fist and shouting "Nnnnbah!" But no one seemed to understand him. What resulted instead was a chorus of "aw"s (grownups liked to do that a lot, but Hunter couldn't figure out why) and chatter he understood to approximately the same extent that a squirrel would comprehend quantum physics. They didn't help him.
On top of a table not too far away sat Hunter's favorite toy. A plastic yellow ring big enough to fit around his fist with a duckling's plastic head sticking out of one end and yellow tail feathers shaped into the other, it sat hopeless inches out of his reach.
Hunter wanted that toy.
When waving the rattle again proved no use, Hunter realized he needed to take matters into his own hands.
Or feet. Hunter liked feet.
Gripping the lower bar of the table, Hunter pushed his little bum off the ground as far as his yet undeveloped muscles would allow. He managed a couple of inches, enough to fit one booty-clad foot securely beneath himself.
So far, so good.
Lifting the other foot off the ground proved more problematic. Hunter managed to slide it inward a little bit, but not enough. It wouldn't…quite…fit…under him…
By now, the boy was exerting enough effort to turn his face almost as red as his hair. The grownups started making noise again.
"Look at him. He's trying to stand up."
"You can do it, Huntie-man, come on, you can do it!"
The effort proved too much. Hunter sat down, defeated.
Foiled again. The world was a rough place when you were nine-and-a-half months.
Oh, but there was another toy on the floor next to him. Oooh, a rattle. That would do. Hunter picked up the very toy he had been holding moments before and bit it. Feeling it, exploring it. Easing the painful itch in his gums. It felt good.
"That taste good, little buddy?" asked Mikey with a fond smile.
"You have to wonder what he's thinking," said Leo, watching their surrogate nephew chew on his toys.
The three of them were sitting on the floor, surrounded by a variety of colorful plastic toys, the likes of which had not been in the lair before. Donatello sat a few feet away, watching. He had been pensive and detached from things all afternoon, though no one knew why. His beak twitched in the direction of a smile when Hunter waved his arms and blew a raspberry.
"You tell 'em, Huntie-man," he said.
Meanwhile, Splinter sat silently in the nearest chair, and Angel and Raphael lounged on the couch. As usual, the red-haired baby was the center of attention, but Angel's mind was on other matters and Raph's focus was to cheer her up.
"See, the advantage of being you," he told her, "Is that you ain't limited to half of the population like most people. So you can forget about the jerks and move on with more choices than the rest of us."
"Oh yeah," Angel muttered, scowling and rolling her eyes, "I can end up with assholes of both genders instead of just one. Go me."
"Aw, c'mon. Cheer up, kid. Need me ta go teach her a lesson? I ain't beatin' up no helpless girls, but if you want me to scare her or somethin', I got nothin' better ta do."
"Her?" Angel looked surprised for a moment. "Oh, Karrie. Nah, we split ages ago. That was okay, we just didn't work out. It was cool and everything. The one I'm talkin' about is a guy. Darren is his name."
"Oh. Well I never meet these people, how'm I supposed to keep 'em straight?" Raphael shot a grin in her direction. "But that's even better. I can really beat him up if ya want."
"No thanks," said Angel with the first shadows of a grin. "I don't really want to deal with it. He's just not worth the effort, ya know?"
"But that's the beauty of it, kid," Raph replied. "You don't hafta deal with anything."
Angel's lips quirked in a wry smile. In the moment's silence that followed, Raphael remarked how much she had changed from the young teenager about to become a Purple Dragon. Not only was she taller, but…something about her features just then seemed so different. He couldn't explain it. She still dressed almost exactly the same as she always had, though possibly not as outlandishly as she had as a gang inductee. After a minute's pause, she looked him in the eye. Even her facial expressions looked older.
"Two things," she said. "One: don't call me kid. I go to college, am not that much younger than you and you know it. Two," she gave him a weak smile, "Thanks Raph."
"Hey, what else am I here for?" Pause. "Kid."
Angel threw a pillow at him.
"Hello, hello," came a familiar voice from behind them. Everyone turned around; Hunter gave a big four-toothed grin that most everyone missed. April waved to him from the doorway. "There's my boy and his uncles! How are we, kiddo?"
One fist still clutching the rattle, Hunter stretched both of his short arms towards his mother. April laughed, scooping him up.
"How was he?" she asked. The turtles and Splinter responded with a chorus of "wonderful" and "very well-behaved" and "can we keep him?" April grinned.
"What do you think?" she asked her son, who was laying his head on her shoulder. She tousled his dark red hair. "Should I leave you here? Would you rather live here instead of with me, sleep in the dojo? I'll come every once in a while to feed you and change your diapers. What do you think of that?" Hunter dropped his rattle. "Done with that, huh? Oh, your duck-ring." Squatting with the grace of a woman who has had more than nine months of practice doing everything with a child on one arm, April picked up the yellow ring and placed it in her son's outstretched hand. "There's the favorite toy, Huntie." As he drew it to his mouth, she kissed his tiny forehead.
"Thank you guys so much for watching him," she said. "I miss him even when I'm away for a couple of hours, but this makes everything so much easier. Thank you all so much."
"He is no trouble at all."
"Anytime you need it."
"Here," said Donnie, rising, "I'll walk you out."
April had known as soon as she dropped Hunter off at the lair that something was wrong with Donatello. The uncharacteristic silence as he tried to pretend everything was normal had practically screamed at her from the moment she stepped in the door. She nodded and let him follow her out, hoping once they reached private he would tell her what was going on.
"This is Uncle Donnie," she murmured to her son. Doubtless he did not fully understand what she was saying, but the fact that he had learned so quickly to trust the four green – and one brown – men in his life, and the ease with which he had learned to associate them with fun, suggested that his intelligence leaned more toward his mother's than that of his father. He didn't make a response other than to smile around the duck-ring, happily covered in saliva.
"Okay, Don," she said without looking behind her, fastening Hunter into his car seat. "What's wrong?"
"Is it that obvious?" Donnie asked with a shyness that was distinctly out of character.
"Yes," said April, "It is. Are you okay?"
"Yeah…" said Don, "Well…yeah. But…something happened. At Northedge. And now I'm…confused." April raised an eyebrow. "I got a job offer."
"No kidding," said April, "Congratulations! What kind of job?"
"The main guy in the biotech lab is retiring. Well, since they aren't on a conventional salary, it's more like he's stopping work to go rest and do…something else for the rest of his life. At any rate, he's looking for new scientists to take over supervision and the more complicated procedures in his lab."
"And he asked you to take his job?" April asked.
"Well no. Technically, he asked his assistant Jaime. But I would take her spot, and since we're the same age and everything, we'd pretty much end up working together. We'd be the two in charge of everything."
"Wow," said April. "Don, that's great! That's wonderful. Congratulations."
"Thanks," said Don with a weak smile. "It's…all I've wanted. Fascinating biochemical research, amazing technology…There's just one problem."
"You'd have to move there, wouldn't you?" said April, patting him on the arm.
Suddenly unable to look her in the eye, Don nodded.
"Ouch. That's quite the decision."
"I just don't know what to do. I've talked to Sensei, and he gave me the whole 'you're my son and I'd miss you but you have to follow the path that is right for you,' thing. And I'm glad he's so supportive and everything but it's not that easy."
"Of course not," said April. "You'd be the first of your brothers to leave."
"Besides Leo," Don reminded her.
"He came back, though," said April. "That doesn't count. We're talking a permanent move, here, right?" Donatello nodded, suddenly miserable. "Oh, Donnie, that's so hard."
"It's the perfect job for me," Don continued. "The technology there is so complex that it would obviously require maintenance, and since I'd be working with it so closely, I would do a lot of it, which I love. The research is fascinating. Not to mention living where I don't have to justify myself or worry about being accepted. For example, Jaime is a turtle. A turtle. Like us. Only she's second generation: her parents were born turtles and mutated by a very similar ooze to the one that got us. Jaime? She was born what she is. A turtle, April. And everyone's okay with it. I don't think I can describe to you how wonderful that feels.
"But…" Donnie sighed again. "They're my brothers, April. My Sensei. My father. For almost fifteen years, they were the only family I knew. And you and Casey…I would get to talk to you by phone and internet, but I wouldn't be part of things here anymore. I don't like that at all. I don't want to lose you guys."
"Donnie," said April, placing a hand on his shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut; she could tell he was fighting back tears. "You aren't going to lose any of us. Even if you wanted to, we wouldn't let you. You're right about us being your family. We, especially you guys, have been through so much together that it would be nearly impossible to break that. No matter how far you go or how long you stay, we will find ways to keep in touch. You with your knowledge of technology know how easy it is.
"We want you to be part of our lives as much as we want you to be happy. You'll come back and visit us, we'll come and visit you, we'll write, we'll call, whatever it takes. I'll send you stupid videos of Hunter and Casey smearing marinara sauce over the kitchen counters, and Hunter's first word – I swear if it's 'goongala,' I'll cry," Donatello laughed, "etcetera. We love you very much, Donnie. And if this is the perfect job for you in a place you love, if this is something you truly want, and the only thing holding you back is a fear of separating yourself from the life you've known, then you know what to do. Do what makes you happiest, Don."
Don nodded. "I know. I just…I just never thought I'd be the first to go."
Now it was April's turn to smile sadly. "Someone had to be," she said.
"I know. Just never expected it to be me. Was sure the first person to go and not come back would be Raph."
"Chin up," said April, patting him on the shoulder. "It'll be okay. You'll see."
He nodded. Sad eyes with the tiniest hint of excitement watched April drive away.
"You…you…" Hunter cried, clenching his fits and turning his face so red that his bangs started to blend into his forehead (he had just been informed that he could not have more mashed potatoes until he had eaten three big bites of squash), "You…mooklish!"
Of the thirteen other occupants of the Thanksgiving table, only four did not burst out laughing. April and Splinter smiled but managed to hold back laughter. Jaime, the second generation turtle from the Northedge lab (and, for several months, Donatello's girlfriend) did the same. One year old Myriah, cranberry mesh coating her face and black hair, rapped the high chair tray with her spoon. Leonardo's students tried to hide their giggles behind their hands, but on seeing their Master laughing, didn't bother. Mikey nearly choked on his stuffing.
"If there had ever been even the most infinitesimal question about his paternity," said Don, "I believe that statement just erased it."
"You didn't see them yesterday," April replied, cajoling another bite into her daughter's mouth. "Running through the house shouting 'goongala,' Casey with his big wooden bat, Hunter with his little plastic one. I felt like a cavewoman."
More laughter. Hunter scowled. His I'm-a-three-year-old-grump mood lasted until later, when he and Leonardo's students separated themselves to play. Myriah sat on the floor playing roll-the-ball with Mikey and Raph, and everyone else sat on the couches and talked. April remembered all those family reunions she had dreaded as a kid, and wondered if many families liked the large holiday get-togethers as much as she enjoyed these. With two of his sons no longer living in the lair, one of them hours away, she imagined Splinter must have.
April, Casey and Leo told funny children stories, Don and Jaime talked about life at Northedge, and Raph and Mikey told stories about crazy New York City mutant turtle adventuresthey'd had since their brothers left. Life seemed exactly the same as it always had been: Raph and Mikey beat on each other, Casey and Raph beat on each other, Leo and Raph beat on each other, Mikey repeatedly needled everyone in turn and Splinter watched it wall with silent amusement. Even seeing Donnie with his arm around a girl, a female turtle at that, didn't take as much getting used to as April thought it would.
The new additions to the family fit in nicely too. Myriah, a fourteen-month-old fireball, announced that she was finished with the rolling game by picking up the ball, toddling up to Raphael and hitting him in the face with it. It shocked him more than hurt, but April was mortified. Casey got to his daughter first.
"Myriah," he said, scooping her up and holding her at eye level. "You do not hit Uncle Raphy in the face. Unless he deserves it, which happens a lot, but not that time. Now say you're sorry."
While Myriah did have some words, namely "Mommy", "Dy-ee", "Hunter", "goongala" and "NO", she did not yet have the capacity to understand remorse, more or less express it. She bit Casey's nose.
"I'm so sorry," said April to Raphael.
"It's okay. Didn't hurt or anything."
Mikey had not yet stopped laughing.
Just before the end of the evening, Michelangelo stood up to make an announcement. One he had apparently already made to Raphael and Splinter, for they exchanged glances when he rose.
"Ladies and gentlemen…and Raph and Casey," he began, bowing. "I, Michelangelo, like my brothers before me, will soon be leaving the lair."
"Say what?" said Casey. Myriah bounced in his lap, oblivious.
"That's right," Mikey continued, beaming. "My…career…which many of youthought would flop, has in fact granted me with the means to, with the help of a dear friend from Northedge, open up a comic book shop in upstate New York. Two months from now, I officially move in."
Donatello's eyes were wide. "Where?" he said, "With who?"
"A nice little vacant shop in downtown Potsdam," said Mikey, "No doubt, dear brother, you'll know where that is." Don and Jaime nodded. "Twenty-five minutes from our beloved institution. It has a two bedroom apartment above it. Sandry, for those of you unfamiliar with this lovely mutant…something…teaches art classes at Northedge. She'll continue to teach, I'll continue my…ahem…successful career as a comic book writer, and we'll sell comic books for rent, food and so on."
April was dumbstruck. The successful comic career to which Mikey referred was real. Some years ago, he had started to read Calvin and Hobbes books and after that had decided instead of creating comics about mutant turtle superheroes, to chronicle his family growing up. Characters were exaggerated for purposes of humor, but many stories stemmed from experience. The results were hilarious. He had published two books so far under the name Michael Angelo through legitimate publishing companies and earned a substantial amount of money.
"How are you going to run a store, dude?" asked Casey, bouncing his daughter on his knee. "Anyone who comes into that shop is going to run away screaming."
"Not in Potsdam," said Donnie, still gazing flabbergasted at his beaming brother. "It's so close to Northedge that the locals have long since gotten used to strange people."
"Exactly," said Mikey. "Even Sandry won't freak people out. Well, not everyone."
"How can you live with this girl if you don't even know what she is?" said Raph.
Jaime answered this one. "Sandry's…complicated," she said. "No one really knows."
April was still too shocked to speak.
Anticipating the long ride home, Don and Jaime left first. Leonardo soon followed with his students, mentioning an early morning rise. Mikey and Raph teased him about working them to the bone the way he had worked himself, they all exchanged hugs and left. Soon Hunter and Myriah were asleep in the car. April, returning to fetch a forgotten diaper bag found Splinter sitting in the living room alone. He gazed at something that was not there, his eyes old and thoughtful and sad.
"Are you okay?" April asked. Without words, Splinter nodded. For a moment the two sat in silence; April watched the old rat, waiting for a more satisfying response.
"When Donatello was your son's age," he said, "He used to break free from his room at night. I hated to lock them in, but everything else I tried, Donatello would figure out. Many times I found him wandering in the middle of the night. He was not rebellious like Raphael, but he could still get into trouble, and it terrified me. I feared that one night, he would break out of his room, wander into the sewers and be caught or hurt. I feared if that happened, I would never have seen him again.
"For a year, I slept on the couch, so I would know if Donatello had escaped before he could run into harm. In the colder months, this became unnecessary but the fourth summer after the TCRI accident, he began escaping again. One day, I took him aside and explained to him the dangers of wandering alone in the night. I asked him not to take down the barriers I had put on his bed, or the stoppers I had put on the door to alert myself to his escape. I explained that they were there for safety.
"One would think that a four year old would not listen to such a warning, but I had reached the end of my rope and did not know what else to do. Yet Donatello never broke free of his room again. Even as teenagers, he was always the last of my sons one would expect to run away. But you have seen that."
"Yes," said April. "I have."
"I realized that Donatello was not escaping his room out of a desire to find trouble, he simply saw the obstacles in his paths as challenges to overcome. Months later, when I had become certain he would not escape again, I gave him a broken down bicycle I had discovered and some old hand tools. I told him that out of reward for his obedience, he could take apart or put together the bicycle in any way that he wanted, as long as he was careful not to hurt himself or his brothers."
Splinter's smile had grown, his eyes sparkling with fond memories. "Now," he said, "I will not presume to tell you that one of his age managed to fix a bicycle whose previous owner had decided he or she could not, because even Donatello, brilliant as he was, had not reached that potential yet. But I will tell you that his interest in bicycling, for he still rides one to this day, is no coincidence." April grinned.
"That sounds like our Donnie," she said. Splinter nodded. Silence.
"I miss him too," said April quitely.
"He is very happy at Northedge," the older rat replied. April realized for the first time that, old as he'd always seemed, age was at last beginning to catch up with him physically. Rats did not grow gray, but he seemed more fatigued, was slower in speech and movement and was distinctly quieter, even in the midst of large, animated conversations. "His job matches his skills, while providing difficult challenges. And Jaime is wonderful, we all agree. He the happiest he's ever been."
"I'm sure he misses you too," said April. "So does Leo, and So will Mikey." Silence. Then, without warning, Splinter turned and looked her in the eye.
"I am a very old rat," he said. April started.
"No," she started to say, "you're –" but Splinter cut her off with a wave of his paw.
"Yes, I am," he replied. "I know. I am not saying I will leave this world soon. That time is yet years away. My main aims in life: first avenging my master Yoshi then passing on everything I had learned through my sons, have both been fulfilled. My purpose lives on through you and your children. I have no more to accomplish."
"Master Splinter," said April. "Your legacy, and I can speak for all of us, loves you very, very much. Don't for a second go thinking you're unnecessary or anything like that. Your sons, and Casey and I would be devastated if anything happened to you. Even Hunter would miss you. What would he and Myriah do without Grandpa Splinter?"
"And for that," said Splinter, "I am thankful. You are a wonderful family, and I am grateful every day for each and every one of you. But that does not change the fact that one day, I will no longer be here and when that happens, all of you will be perfectly capable of surviving on your own."
"Thanks to you."
Splinter smiled. "So many times when they were small," he said, the dreamy look back in his eye, "I became so frustrated that I wished with all my heart for it to be over. Many times I watched them play, and wondered with great anticipation the kind of adults they would become. Now that that time has arrived, I find myself wishing to go back."
"The plight of every parent," said April. "I find myself thinking that now about my kids. And I'm sure one day, I'll find myself in your position. I don't know what else to say, except I'm sorry that it has to be so hard."
"I did so many things wrong," said Splinter. "There are many stories I do not tell."
"I'm sure there are. But you did so many things right. And look at what came of it. Donatello is a happy, brilliant scientist with a life of his own and a wonderful woman. Leonardo is keeping up your legacy at TCRI, teaching Ninjitzu just like you did to children who have nowhere else to go, just like once he didn't. The nature of your adversaries may change, but their existence never will and Leonardo and his students will be ready to meet them in the next generation. I would be very surprised, also, if his students haven't learned a great respect for their Grand-Sensei if you will, through what Leo has undoubtedly told them." Splinter smiled. "Mikey is about to fulfill his dreams, and soon Raphael will too. And look at what wonderful people they are. They have you to thank for all of it. Never forget that."
"It is exciting to watch their lives unfold," said Splinter ,"but difficult at the same time."
"I bet," April murmured. "I can just imagine."
Over Splinter's shoulder, she saw Mikey standing in the entrance to the kitchen. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.
Faint wisps of delicate white smoke rose from incense bowls in elegant patterns to his either side. Every inch of his body lay as still as stone; with his eyes closed and breathing deep and cleansing and in perfect rhythm with his mind, Leonardo was the picture of tranquility, deep in the heart of meditation.
"No it's not, it's mine, I just let you borrow it!"
"No you didn't, I had it first!"
Evidently the bedroom adjoining his was less a perfect picture than a finger painting. On the walls. With mud. Leonardo sighed through his teeth, forced himself out of the deep, uncompleted trance and went to discover his distraction's source.
Though his students slept two to a room, Tryker, Drew, Melody and Rosie were all gathered in one. Tryker sat on his bed with a fully packed suitcase beside him, removed from the ruckus, while Drew and Melody stood in the center of the room with faces flushed and breathing quick as though cut off in the middle of an argument. Rosie, gentle, quiet Rosie, stood in the doorway when Leonardo arrived, most likely drawn by the noise as her master had been. All of them looked up at him with various mixtures of guilt and nervousness. Although in recent years he had learned to lighten up and laugh more, their first days together created the impression in his students of a teacher intolerant to goofing off. They did not fear abuse – Leonardo would never lay an angry hand on anyone weaker than he was – but the lash of his tongue and the ferocity of some of his punishments.
Leonardo cleared his throat. "Who can explain to me what happened here?"
Tryker, the picture of obedience and hard work, raised his hand.
"Melody wanted her book back," he said, his eyes blue and innocent, "But Drew says it's his and wont give it to her."
"It is mine!" said Drew, giving his sandy-haired surrogate brother a glare. His hair, a darker brown, had grown long enough to start looking shaggy again. He did not bother to push his long brown bangs out of his eyes as he spoke. "That book belongs to me."
"No, it's not!" Melody cried, waving the aforementioned object. "I read it first, I had it first, and that makes it mine!"
"I was reading it!"
"Oh well! Find your own stupid book, I want this back."
"But you – "
The arguing stopped. Everyone looked at Leonardo, who mentally closed his eyes and counted to ten. Years ago, when Mr. Mortu had asked him to come teach ninjitzu and live at TCRI, he had imagined himself with larger classes with children, mutants and aliens of all ages. He had imagined himself training an army with which Mr. Mortu and everyone here could eventually protect themselves against followers of the prisoner who still presented a threat. He had not imagined them introducing him to four young – very young at the time – children, placing them all in three adjoining rooms, and informing him that he was to become their master, teacher and surrogate parent until they grew old enough to fend for themselves.
What their purpose was exactly, Leonardo had yet to figure out. Nevertheless, he smiled, nodded and went along with the game. Eventually it had dawned on him that he had arrived in a very similar position to the one in which Master Splinter had found himself all those years ago. One would not think that Leo's respect for his aging Sensei had room to increase.
But it had. It did.
Leonardo held out a hand, palm up. Masking an indignant look with an expression of meek obedience, Melody placed the book in it.
The Wind in the Willows
"A book," Leonardo began, grateful for and impressed by the silence around him, "Is only words on a page, many pages. Printing on paper. It has no value without a mind to understand its meaning. Once one person has read a book, of what use is it any more? Can it do you any good sitting on a shelf? Does it accomplish anything simply by 'belonging' to someone? It does not. Which is why we share. We spread the ideas of a book around by allowing those close to us to read it, and read it in full. The story belongs to no one. That said," his fingers closed around the worn blue cover, "this book, in fact is mine. It belonged to me when I was your age and you will recall, Melody, that I lent it to you to read several months ago." Melody looked at the floor. "And you will thank me by allowing your brother," familial terms had become an accepted part of Leonardo's relationship to his students ever since the beginning, when Michelangelo insisted on them calling him 'Uncle Mikey,' "to read it as well." Melody nodded. "Now what do you have to say to each other?"
"Sorry," Melody muttered.
"Sorry," said Drew, still glaring but offering no argument.
"Good. We will be leaving in a few minutes. Be sure you are ready."
While Leonardo helped his students into the back of the helicopter, he remembered the day Dr. Stockman had "given" it to them. Climbing into the cockpit, he thought of the newer, better one kept at Northedge and realized how long ago it had truly been.
Soon Splinter, Raphael, Angel, April, Casey, Hunter and Myriah had joined them. Fitting twelve people into such a tiny craft was difficult, but six of them were small enough to make the squeeze bearable.
This was not Myriah's first trip in a helicopter – they had taken her for a short ride earlier that week so this one would not be entirely traumatic – but it was her longest. She sat belted into her father's lap, gazing at everything with delighted fascination.
Despite the emotional risks of exposing a five year old and a three year old to loud chopping noises for a few hours, Hunter and Myriah did surprisingly well. Myriah slept most of the way. Hunter spent a large portion of time reading one of his Uncle Mikey's books, more accurately looking at the pictures and pointing out the words he could decipher to his mother.
"Well we know who he takes after in the brains department," Raphael cracked.
"Hey!" said Casey. April flinched, fearing he would wake up their daughter, but Myriah did not stir.
"Now bro," said Mikey, "The key here is to relax. Relax. Be a fountain of tranquility or whatever Sensei always said. Breathe. Donnie, listen to me, breathe bro. This isn't gunna work if you pass out. Be a sea of tranquility, a fountain of peacefulness…or something like that. Look at me, look at me, Don. Concentrate on my voice. Everything will be okay."
Michelangelo was enjoying his role far too much, Leo thought. He would have bet that Donatello was ruing the day Mikey drew the short straw. However, it had worked out for the best, seeing that he lived closest. Leo placed a hand on his brother's shoulder.
"You going to be okay, Donnie?"
Donatello seemed incapable of speech. His eyes were almost glassy.
"Don?" said Mikey, waving a hand in front of his brother's face. "Helloooo?" He looked at Leo, Raph and Casey. "Would this be an inappropriate time to eat a clove of garlic and breathe on him? That usually seems to work."
"No," Don murmured with a semi-lucid sounding tone. "No'm'good. Th'nks."
Mikey grinned. "More than good, bro," he said, "You're great! Fantastic! This is one of the awesomest days of your entire life! Besides the day you met me, of course."
"The day he hatched, huh?" said Raph. "I'd say he counts that as a good day. Even though he met you."
"Don't listen to him," said Mikey to Don, as if the latter was the only one who could hear him. "He doesn't know what he's saying."
"Mmm," was the reply.
Donatello seemed to be coming around, but when Hunter entered the room, all dressed up and combed, with the ring on the pillow, Mikey had to hold his brother's arm to keep him standing. Casey patted his son's combed red hair and directed him to the back room.
"Breathe, bro," he said. "Breathe. You're good. A sea of peacefulness. A fountain of calm. A pond of tranquility. An ocean of…emulation. A stream of…"
"Mikey," said Raphael, smacking his brother on the back of the head. "Can it."
"Hey, I'm just doin' my job!"
"Well, do your job and get us in there," Raph replied. "It's almost time."
"Here we go, then," said Mikey. "Your big moment. How do you feel? Excited? Nervous?"
Donnie glared at him.
On surprisingly steady feet for one rendered almost mute, Donatello led them into the front of the church.
A building filled with more mutants than humans was jarring for those who didn't see it every day. Casey, at the end of the line, shifted nervously at the sight. Angel, April and Myriah, seated in the front pew next to Splinter, stuck out in this crowd. As did Leo's students, who sat in the row behind them, silent of their own volition for the first time that their instructor could remember. Everyone was grinning broadly, with the exception of Donnie, who could only gaze at the back door of the church with something between terror and awe. Mikey readied himself to catch a collapsing turtle at any moment, but the need did not arise.
First down the aisle marched a small girl with copper hair, light blue skin and pointed ears. Next came Hunter. One by one, several mutant girls in green dresses – one of whom was Sandry – made their procession until nearly everyone was at the front of the church.
Then they came. Donatello's heart jumped into his throat, taking his stomach with it. Time slowed down. Everything went quiet.
Out of the bright light streaming in through the double doors walked two turtles: one old and wrinkled, with a gruff but proud smile, the other smaller, paler, with a white veil over her head and a bouquet of flowers in her three fingered hand.
Suddenly, nothing else mattered.
From the outside, the estate looked exactly the same as it had when Casey first brought the turtles to it. Run down and abandoned to the point where passersby, few as they were, did not care to give it a second thought.
That was how its inhabitants wanted it. Their lifestyle was best left alone.
Inside, however, the house had transformed. No longer dusty and broken, but immaculate. Sparkling with décor both Japanese and American, contents betraying the presence of skilled warriors, honorable and intelligent minds…and four teenagers.
The upstairs had been renovated some years ago. It now held two rooms. Two girls slept in one, two boys in the other. The basement had become two rooms as well: the larger one a dojo and the smaller one a single room with a red rug and incense and sufficient space for a single mutant turtle to sleep.
One of the rooms on the ground floor had also been turned into a bedroom. His bedroom. Today its door remained shut.
Today passers by would notice crowds of people in and outside the house. Hopefully they would not stop to notice the…unusual physical nature of most of them. Invisibility was on few people's minds.
Inside, people filled the living room. Twelve year old Hunter Jones sat on the couch next to his mother. His dark red hair, just a shade darker than April's, had been neatly combed, his shirt and pants pressed. She wore all black and hugged him close, resting her chin atop his head. Occasionally she would squeeze her eyes shut to allow a couple more tears to fall.
Next to them sat a turtle with a blue mask around his eyes and black band of cloth tied around one arm. Leonardo's expression placed him well beyond his years. Rosie, her hair in a single braid and her hand in one of his, sat on the end, watching him. Drew, his shaggy main of brown hair brushed out of his face for once, Melody, her silence belying her character, and Tryker, his hands folded and his head bowed, stood next to them.
Fifteen, Leonardo realized. His students were fifteen. He and his brothers had been nearly that age when everything changed for the first time. That was a long time ago.
Nearly everything had changed since then.
When moving in, Leo and his students had brought an array of furniture for the living room, which at the present time seated Michelangelo, Donatello, Sandry and Jaime, all four of them with black armbands. Donnie was leaning forward, his hands on his knees and his gaze on the hardwood floor. Jaime's hand lightly rubbed his shell. Michelangelo hadn't lifted his face from his hands in nearly ten minutes.
Angel stood in one corner of the room, holding a toddler with Japaneese features and thin black hair. She held him to her as if she had nothing else. Her hair had been pulled into a bun, and in her high heels and stockings she looked nothing like the girl they had rescued from a gang all those years ago.
Raphael scowled. He folded his arms and gazed out one window, spun around and crossed the room to give the view out the other window the same glare. He hadn't stopped pacing yet. Casey leaned against the fireplace with a similar glare. The suit and tie and gelled hair felt as unnatural to him as it looked. His ten year old daughter, feeling just as uncomfortable in a dress and tights, stood next to him. Their arms were around each other, half her face buried in his jacket and one of his hands absently stroking her hair.
A small murmur of voices floated in from the next room and outside. No one in the living room spoke.
Even the decision to move was wordless. The turtles simply nodded to one another, exchanged glances with Casey and April, and those who had been sitting stood up.
April gave her son one more squeeze. "Take care of your sister," she whispered into his hair. "We'll be back soon." She kissed Myriah on top of her head before the little girl crawled into her big brother's arms. Casey slipped a familiar, comforting arm around her.
"Sensei?" said Tryker after Leonardo stood up. "Should we stay here?" Leonardo nodded, unable to speak. He felt a hand on his shoulder, knew it to be that of his surrogate son – no, his son – and clasped it briefly with his other hand. The six children huddled together on the couch.
The murmur of voices hushed as they walked through them. No one moved. No one spoke. They understood.
Deep in the woods, the trees gave way to a small clearing. Why no vegetation besides tall grass had opted to grow there, no one knew, but it proved helpful today. The sky sparked a crisp, radiant blue above the canopy, lit up in brilliant green by an unchecked summer sun. Warmth lit up the area around them with a friendly glow.
In many ways, the ambiance felt wrong. In many ways, it was perfect.
The six of them – for that was the way it had been for a long stretch of years – dug together. When the hole was finally big enough, the turtles lowered the casket inside. For a moment, the four turtles knelt beside it with bowed heads. April cried silently into her husbands arms, feeling his hot tears in her hair.
It didn't take half as long to cover it again. Everything happened in complete silence, until it came time for the sons to say their last goodbyes.
Michelangelo's was somewhat lighthearted, Donatello's was rich and thoughtful, Raphael's was brisk and to the point, and Leonardo's made tears spring into everyone's eyes. His last statement would stay fresh in their minds for years.
He who lives with honor dies with honor.
The six of them stood around the fresh grave, in its presence together for the first and only time; the seven together for the last.
Then it was time to go. They weren't long into their silent procession back when children's voices began to pierce the forest. For one moment, they all felt it; the feeling that they were together as they had always been and nothing had changed.
Just after the group emerged from the edge of the forest, two little girls, identical twin turtles, came running. Donatello scooped them up, one on each arm, and held them close.
"I found a bug!" said one, "a beetle. It looked pretty, and I was gunna show you, 'cause you or mommy could tell me what it is, but it flew away."
Donnie smiled. The other one rested her head on his shoulder.
Jaime, Sandry and Angel were also approaching. Beyond them, a group of children had begun a game of tag on the lawn. Among them were the four mutant orphans Mikey and Sandry had adopted, Hunter who seemed to be It, Myriah, Rosie, Melody and Drew. Tryker held back, unsure, but when he saw his Sensei's smile and nod, joined in.
The little boy in Angel's arms was putting up a struggle. Two little arms outstretched, he tried to dive towards the group of turtles.
"Someone wants his daddy," said Angel. She handed the boy to Raphael, who placed a kiss atop the boy's forehead and held him close.
"Come see daddy," he murmured. "C'mere, Yoshi."
Angel placed a hand on Raphael's arm. "You okay?" she asked. Raph nodded; she slipped her arm into his and the two of them, Yoshi hanging over his adopted father's shoulder and repeatedly hitting his shell, watched the game.
"Daddy?" said one of the girls.
"Yes, Kirby?" said Don.
"Can I get down and go play with them?"
"Sure, kiddo. Jackie, do you want to play too?" His other daughter lifted her head off his shoulder and nodded. Not a second had their tiny turtle feet touched ground when the two girls were off and running. Their giggles echoed off the edge of the trees.
Yoshi suddenly decided the forest behind his parents' backs was no longer worth his attention. He spun himself around and attempted to fling himself in the direction of the children on the field.
"Aw," said Raphael, "he wants to play. Listen here, buddy, you're just a little too little right now." Yoshi whined.
"Down! Down n'run!"
"Listen, kiddo. In a couple'a years, you can smoke those guys. Right now, Daddy doesn't want you gettin' trampled by the big kids."
"Down n'run'n now!"
"Sorry kiddo," said Angel. "Mommy agrees. The answer is no."
"No!" Yoshi cried, scrunching up his little face, "Down." Raphael resisted his struggles effortlessly.
"They won't squash him," said Michelangelo, "He's too cute."
"Not purposely," said Raph, holding his kicking son at half an arm's length. "But there all so much bigger than him."
"Mikey," said Raphael in a tone one would use to explain something to a five year old. "Marcus is an alligator."
"Nope," said Mikey. "Technically, he isn't, remember?"
"He's…complicated," said Sandry with a grin.
"Whatever," said Raphael. "I ain't lettin' your kid squish my kid."
"Then he can go with me," said Mikey. "Well be a team. What do you think?"
Angel and Raph exchanged glances.
"I'm okay with it," said Angel. Raphael agreed, much to Mikey's delight.
"Hey there, Yoshi-man. Wanna come see Uncle Mikey?"
"That's right," said Mikey, holding the little boy stomach down, hands in front as though flying. "It's Super Yoshi come to play! Watch out, unsuspecting cousins! Whaaaaaaa!"
With that, they took off across the lawn and joined the game. Raphael raised his eyeridges at Sandry.
"I married the turtle who never grew up," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm aware."
"Just as long as you're aware," said Don.
Silence enfolded the group again as they watched their children, nieces and nephews and brother at play.
"Look at this," April murmured. "Look at it. All of this. And it wouldn't be here if it weren't for him."
"He's here," said Leo. "Here and now. In us. In them."
"His legacy," Don agreed.
"And he never thought we'd get here," said Raphael. "No way. Not in his wildest dreams."
"All of this," said Casey. "Thanks to him."
Silence again. Leonardo closed his eyes, Don drew in a long, deep breath and put an arm around his wife, and everyone felt the familiar presence surround them. A breeze rustled the forest, carrying with it the sound of children laughing.