Japan had looked more beautiful

Splinter watched the sun set across the Shinano-Gawa and felt the irony of the melancholy settling over him. This was the most a sewer-dwelling hideaway could dream of —open air, sunset in his homeland, his four wonderful sons not fighting, not arguing, but wrestling and laughing and barking sharp cries of victory. His friend the Ancient One stood nearby, watching the horse-play with a degree of solemnity. This was as close as they'd ever come to a family reunion, a grandfather with his grandson and great-grandsons.

The old rat sighed a little, supposing Japan would never be the same to him without his master, the missing link in that family. It had to become something different now, but no less beautiful—gold and red in sunset rather than silver and green in morning. His sons brought him greater joy in the autumn of his life than he had ever imagined possible without his unknowing sensei. There had been days when Hamato Yoshi had not even crossed Splinter's mind. But coming back to his homeland brought back a keen sense of loss that he could not dismiss.

His sons were not ignorant of the way this place had affected him. Leonardo in particular had been reluctant to take this outingwithhis master in such a mood, and had offered to stay at the Ancient One's house with him to meditate. Michelangelo, whose concern for his master had not quite overcome his excitement at the prospect of this outing, had pressed him into coming. The last thing Splinter wanted was to be alone, so he had come along for this tour of the mountains with his sons and the Shishou.

Now they were by the steep banks of the river, some yards from a cliff over the water that Splinter had to continually warn his sons about. His ears flattened against his head in anxiety as Raphael and Michelangelo sparred within mere feet of the cliff's edge. His fingertips dug into his knees as he restrained himself from telling them to stop. They were trained ninja. They did not need their father to worry needlessly over them.

Perhaps sensing the old rat's solemnity, the Ancient One broke from his watchful stance and sank down to sit by Splinter, who moved aside to allow for the Shishou's size and lack of concern for personal space. "You boys be kehful, hai?" he broadcasted nasally, casting Splinter a wide, puffy grin. "Yoh sons make you proud foh good reason, Splintah-san," he said casually.

Splinter recognized the "ulterior motive tone," which the Ancient One adopted when he used a casual statement to lead to something deeper. "They do bring me great joy, Ancient One," he replied calmly. He didn't like being patronized—not even by the Ancient One, who seemed to assume he knew Splinter's sons better than he did simply because he was older.

The Ancient One squinted as though in genuine thought. "Leonahdo, now," he said, tapping a finger against the air, "he some ninja. He do good foh one his age. But you no tell him dat, or he believe it."

This was precisely the sort of thing Splinter tried to avoid with the Ancient One. "Yes," he gave him. "Leonardo takes great pride in his abilities. When he doubts himself, he doubts his entire being, because his pride makes up so much of himself."

"If yoh speak of pride," the Ancient One broke in, "Donatello has much pride. Too much. Knows his own genius."

"Donatello takes pride in himself," Splinter admitted, restraining his irritation, "but pride is not his main concern. I cannot teach him enough, Shishou-sama. Always, he desires to learn more, to know more."

"Which is a sort of greed, Splintah-san," murmured the Shishou sadly, shaking his head.

"Which is an admirable trait, Shishou-sama, if you know him," the rat said patiently.

"One so young must be content with the pace his sensei has chosen for him," stated the Ancient One. "It is the sensei who teaches, not his student."

Splinter frowned. "What did you wish to speak of, Ancient One?" he asked directly, seeing no point in this dance. The Ancient One wanted something, was leading up to something, and pretending otherwise was only a waste of time and patience.

"So young and impatient, Splintah-san," the Ancient One said with some amusement. "I wish to speak to you of yoh son Michelangelo."

"Why, Shishou-sama?" Splinter questioned. His eyes landed on his youngest son, who was wrestling Donatello to the ground. "Because he is reckless? Because he spends far too much time on video games and comic books and too little time on his training? Because he lacks faith in himself and therefore accepts his own mistakes too easily? I know these things, Ancient One. I have memorized his weaknesses and cannot rid him of them overnight, or upon request," he stated with a note of bitterness. "Michelangelo has the potential to be a great ninja, a truly great warrior, and his spirit is indomitable. Surely if you have known him long enough to know his flaws, you can see that."

The Shishou was silent, staring at Michelangelo idly, and Splinter could see the cogs of his mind working behind his tiny black eyes. "Do not tell me what my sons have yet to achieve, Ancient One," the rat said firmly, but without the bitterness he had not managed to restrain before. "None of them are a hopeless cause, even if some have far to go." Perhaps the right words would stop those cogs. Splinter did not trust those cogs.

Instead of stopping, the cogs clicked into place. "Sometimes," the Ancient One said softly, "to teach da liddle bird to fly, you have to trow him off cliff." He did not look away from Michelangelo.

Splinter watched the Shishou carefully, then briefly glanced away, nodding softly. When he glanced back, the Ancient One's lips were moving slightly, a look of intense concentration forming on his face. Frowning in suspicion, Splinter glanced toward his sons. Michelangelo was close to the cliff's edge—too close. He was playfully fending off Raphael and laughing uproariously, his feet stamping indentations into the soft earth below. But the earth on which the old rat sat was not soft enough to bend so. His frown deepened, this time in alarm. The Ancient One's lips moved still, murmuring softly in a mystic tongue.

"Ancient One!" hissed Splinter, but the old Shishou did not stop or even slow. The rat rocketed to his feet. Michelangelo's foot sank deeply into the ground, then began to slide backward, toward the edge of the cliff. "Michelangelo!" Splinter called in alarm, watching in growing horror as he realized what the Ancient One was doing.

Michelangelo had only begun to react to his father's call when the earth at the cliff's edge crumbled. Raphael jerked forward and snatched for his brother. Donatello and Leonardo had not even seen yet. Splinter was already racing toward his son. "Michelangelo!"

There was the horrible sound of earth tearing from earth, and just as Raphael's fingertips brushed his brother's, Michelangelo dropped out of sight, a cry of alarm lingering in the air where he had been. The rat arrived at the cliff's edge breathlessly and stared thirty feet down the edge of the cliff to the waters below.

The Ancient One was now silent.

There was no sign of Michelangelo.