Title: How Fragile Are These Threads

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em, wouldn't try.

Our lair is quiet at long last – no loud music, no shouting, no banging away at new inventions or old punching bags. I step carefully over their sleeping forms, my footfalls silent around their heads and twitching limbs, knowing that even in sleep their ninjitsu-trained senses are as keen as my own.

Raphael is dreaming again. He twitches, utters soft sounds in his sleep - animal noises, undoubtedly vestiges of his turtle heritage. I pause over him only momentarily to make sure he is all right. Raphael used to suffer from nightmares when he was younger; they still haunt him on occasion. I can only comfort him in his sleep now that he is old enough to be embarrassed that he still needs his elderly master to make the monsters go away. Awake, he is a dervish, a flame barely controlled; he burns even those he loves. Asleep, his fiery defenses vanish and leave him vulnerable to his own fears and to a brief touch from an old rat's hand.

Donatello is sleeping soundly - the sleep of the innocent, I think. All day he had been working on – well, when he explained what it was he'd been working on, I had been only lending half an ear, which was all he wanted in the first place. Donatello, our inventor, our scientist… he had always been a fast learner, from the day our mutual mutation began. Even as I learned and grew in intelligence myself, the little hatchling who would eventually be named Donatello absorbed every drop of knowledge I could give him like a desperate sponge. Now, although in ninjitsu he lags ever so slightly behind his brothers, in raw intellect he has surpassed even me. I do not think there exists a higher compliment for a father.

Michelangelo stirs as I pass him, and I pause, waiting to see if he will wake up. Of all his brothers, he is the easiest to underestimate; his love of the unexpected makes him seem childish. However, his keen senses and an empathic nature make him a formidable opponent and an even stronger friend and ally, as much as he tries to suppress it under feigned immaturity. As I watch, Michelangelo rolls over and starts snoring, for all the world as if he is unaware of me. I know better. Even in slumber, his senses reach out, test his environment, and find his sensei and his brothers exactly where they should be.

Leonardo sleeps slightly apart from the others. It is a matter of necessity, not choice – a heroic attempt to kick Donatello in the head from a disadvantageous position had resulted in a sprained ankle, so now my warrior-son sleeps on his back with his injured leg slung over the arm of the couch. As I pass him my tail accidentally-on-purpose brushes his face; he reaches for it instinctively. I let him catch and hold it for a few seconds before gently pulling away. When they were still young, Leonardo and his brothers used to follow me in a kind of train - Leonardo holding tightly to my tail in one hand, guiding his brothers with the other.

Six fingers, four toes, for each of four turtles. All is as it should be. I retreat to the area that has been partitioned off, by mutual agreement, as 'my room' to meditate until I fall asleep. There's a pipe dripping somewhere… tomorrow morning, I will have Donatello track the offending leak down and fix it. For now, though, it is well enough to leave it be. It makes a pleasant counterpoint to my breath and heartbeat. I settle into my cushions and arrange my robe around my knees.

Breathe… in… out. Sounds of dripping water, of sleeping sons, of own body going about the business of living. Smells of sweat and stone and human refuse. I do not exist. I am transcended, expanded, filling our sewer home. My old bones would creak if they dared under the strain of my consciousness. My sons, have you ever experienced this? Have you ever floated in nonexistence, sunk into these dark waters to emerge on the other side a drop of light in the universe?

I doubt it – and I would not have it any other way. Too many things tie you to this world still; your friends, your foes, your battles, each other most of all. Myself, I am old and have little left to offer you or the universe. You are the only threads that bind me to this plane, to a collection of bones and flesh and fur that was the pet of a murdered ninja. But oh, my sons, my dear sons… how strong those four threads are! For you I would turn away from Heaven and become a boddhisatva. For you I would endure a thousand years of exile from nirvana.

Far away, Michelangelo snorts and rolls over, and in my heightened awareness I see his arm flail and rest on Raphael's chin. He mutters in his sleep and shoves the offending limb away, but leaves his hand on Michelangelo's elbow. Both of their faces quirk in sleepy smiles. I cannot help but smile myself. No – there truly is little else I have to teach them. They have gleaned everything of importance from me and inscribed it on their hearts already.

They have each other, mind and soul. They have the way of the ninja. They have allies, despite my initial misgivings. And, as always and ever, they have me.

Contented, my consciousness slips into the zen state.

Leonardo limped sleepily across the concrete floor to where his master sat on lotus, enshrined by ratty cushions and the dirty laundry of teenage habitation. Splinter did not acknowledge his approach, which Leonardo took as a signal that he didn't want to be disturbed – either that or he was asleep. Gratefully, Leonardo sank to the floor and crossed his legs as best he could, in imitation of his sensei.

Leonardo didn't know how long he sat there, facing an unmoving Splinter, before Michelangelo laid a hand heavily on his shoulder. He jumped as reality abruptly slammed into him again. "Mikey!" he snapped. "Don't do that!"

Michelangelo was not listening. "Look at Master Splinter," he intoned. Donatello nodded from behind him, his green face drawn and pale.

Leonardo looked. Splinter had not moved an inch since the turtle had first sat down – not even a whisker twitched in the still, dank air. "Sensei?" Leonardo ventured, then reached out to touch his paw.

It was cold. Leonardo was on his feet in a flash, ignoring the pain from his hurt ankle, gripping the rat's limp shoulders. "Sensei? Sensei!"

Michelangelo dragged his brother away and they held each other back, shaking, as Donatello bent over their master, touching forehead, nose, wrists, throat, searching for any hint of moving blood or breath. Finally he looked up at Leonardo and Michelangelo, who were waiting for his final word, and shook his head sadly.

"No," Leonardo whispered. "Master Splinter…"


The shout came from behind them. Donatello had no time to react before Raphael, like his brothers still naked as the day he was mutated, knocked him aside and clutched Splinter's limp body to his chest.

"Raph…" Michelangelo started. Leonardo held him back with a tight shake of his head.

"Dammit, sensei…" Raph growled into the musty fur of his master's shoulder. "You can't do this! You promised…" His voice broke. "You promised you'd be there for me… Dammit! You promised!"

The stones of their lair shook under the echoes of Raphael's cursing and railing, and his brothers held each other and weathered the storm as his howls soared from their subterranean home into the bright morning of aboveground.