"Enter," commanded Splinter in response to the knock on his door.
Four obviously exhausted but elated turtles filed into the room and stood resolutely in front of their sensei. Splinter's hopes soared as the scanned their tired faces.
"Welcome, my sons. How may I help you?" he greeted them.
Leonardo spoke. "Master, we would like to resume training." All eyes were on Splinter, calm and determined as they awaited his response.
"And are you all in agreement on this?"
"Yes, Master Splinter," they replied in unison.
Splinter exhaled deeply as a glacier of worry melted in a rush. He looked at his students and smiled.
"Then it shall be as you wish," he responded, inclining his head at them.
Then the father in him overcame the teacher as the old rat stood up slowly to face his sons, and joyfully held out his arms to them. In an instant they were surrounding him, hugging their father enthusiastically and rubbing his head as they all smiled and laughed with release at being fully reunited. After several minutes, Master Splinter took a step back and gestured at the floor.
"Please be seated," he requested as he settled himself on a cushion. They complied happily, and waited to hear what their master had to say.
"I must commend you all for your strength in overcoming the difficult hurdle you faced," Splinter began. "I confess that I have not been oblivious to your struggles, and I am aggrieved by the knowledge that, had I interceded, it is possible I could have spared you some of the pain you endured. Yet I chose to do nothing—and for that I feel I owe you an explanation."
Splinter addressed them all, but he held Raphael's eyes for a moment before he continued.
"I have always striven to teach the importance of sticking together as a family. Yet what is a family made up of but individuals? Individuals each with their own dreams, and strengths, and fears. All of these differences added together can make a family unimaginably strong when the individual members are working together, but they can also create rifts when there is conflict or miscommunication. In such times of strife it can be difficult to see past your own fear and doubt. Self doubts in particular are the hardest to overcome because, unless you voice them, there is no one to contradict you."
"I knew this, and yet I felt it was crucial that you work things out on your own. You are no longer children, and the first lesson I wanted you to learn as adults is that standing by your family is a choice. You may not be able to choose your family members, and you may not be able to choose how much time you spend with your family when you are children, but as adults you are not obligated to remain together."
"Many families drift apart," Splinter continued, "and I knew it was a possibility that our family would not come out of this ordeal intact."
The turtles glanced briefly at each other, knowing too well the truth of these words.
"But had you not recognized that you had a choice—had I directed you to come together prematurely, I feared that in the challenges that await us those superficial bonds would have been inadequate. We cannot afford to enter the next stage as anything less than a fully committed and functioning unit—to do so would almost certainly result in failure."
Splinter looked at all of them, waiting for a sign from each that they understood and accepted what he was saying. Then he continued.
"I can see in your eyes that whatever you have been through, it has not left you unmarked—but I have no doubt that it has also helped you to become stronger. It is my hope that you will not easily forget the things you have learned. Most of all, remember that sometimes what your family needs most is not your physical strength, your intelligence, your leadership, or your courage—it is just you."
Looking at him, the four turtles marveled at their sensei's ability to so accurately summarize everything in one glaringly true statement.
"Raphael," Splinter said, addressing him specifically. "I know it is you I have most to thank for this recovery, and I am especially proud of you," praised Splinter. Then the wise rat stood up and bowed formally to the one in red.
Following his lead, Mike, Don and Leo rose as one and bowed to their brother as well.
Raphael hurriedly scrambled to his feet, completely embarrassed to be the center of so much praise.
"Quit it, guys, you don't need to . . . it was no big deal . . ." Raph sputtered.
Leo put a hand on Raph's shoulder. "I know it's asking a lot, but for once just do as I say and shut up," he said with a grin.
Michelangelo, who was quite enjoying seeing Raph so uncomfortable, took it a step further and prostrated himself in front of his brother, pretending to kiss his feet.
"Aaah! Mikey, get off!" Raph exploded, and he rolled Mike hard with his foot, causing him to hit Donatello. Don lost his balance and almost hit Master Splinter, who had managed to jump out of the way just in time.
Don recovered and helped Michelangelo up, saying, "Don't worry Mikey, you can congratulate him again at the banquet being held in his honor following the award ceremony."
Raph just made a noise like a growl.
Splinter sighed in a long-suffering way at his sons' antics, but his eyes were sparkling.
"Go now and rest, my sons, for tomorrow morning we will begin training. It is a long road ahead of us, but the first steps are often the most difficult."
Leo and Raph exchanged a meaningful look at these last words—they were almost the same ones Raph had uttered to Leo many weeks ago.
"Yes, Master Splinter," the brothers chorused, and they exited the room content in the knowledge that though the coming weeks would bring many challenges, at least they would be facing them together.
After they left, Splinter could still hear their voices coming from the family room.
"Raph?" he heard Michelangelo say.
No answer from Raph.
"Did you ever know that you're my heeeeroooo? You're everything I would like tooo beeeee!" Mikey sang in a sappy high pitched voice.
"I MEAN IT, GET OFFA ME YOU MUTANT!!!"
Sounds of laughter could be heard fading away as the four departed, and Splinter could not help chuckling along with them.
"Things are definitely back to normal," he concluded happily.
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