The universe was reduced to a sheet of black, an unnatural sleep that absorbed light, thought, and the senses. It was thick and impenetrable—Splinter could reach out and press against it, feel it, try to rip it from his face and tear it out of his mind, but there was no such thing as movement here. Distantly, he could feel his body breathing, his heart throbbing weakly, his veins pulsing with fragile life, but the moment he tried to focus on it, it was gone. That shrank to nothing when he found that he could not sense his sons.
They had always been there, halos in his mind, warm auras of life and brilliance, and they were gone. It had never been a reliable way of finding any of them, as he could not place the auras in any physical location, but he had known, in calm, clear moments, how each of them fared. Alarm and terror clouded this ability, but under no circumstances could he force himself to feel anything so sharply in this state, this place, this black haze. He could not sense his sons because they were not there, or because something cut him off from them.
When he reached out for the memory of what had brought him here, his hands only returned with the same nothing that smothered him. He pressed harder, futilely, then stopped. Some things could be seen in one's peripheral vision that could not be seen outright. Relaxing, he allowed himself to open, and what was brought to him was
A glowing symbol, low chanting, a sharp jerk as though he had been seized, then
The universe was reduced to a sheet of black, an unnatural sleep that absorbed light, thought, and the senses. It was thick and impenetrable, and Splinter was helpless against it. Not helpless. Never helpless. Not while I am of use.
"You ah no use here, Splintah-san."
It was only a voice, echoless, half-absorbed by the thick darkness, but Splinter knew it. Ancient One. Why have you sent me here? Are you acting under orders from the Tribunal?
A lighthearted chuckle. "Dis not a here, Splintah-san. You should know dat. Dis is a liddle space in da furdest reaches ob yoh mind. You be safe here, and not interfere."
Being sensei to my pupils and father to my sons is interference? He knew he should be angry, but the nothing absorbed whatever traces of rage blossomed from him.
"You smother your students. You ah too close to dem. Trust me, Splintah-san—have I led you wrong?"
I did trust you.
"Den trust me now. Yoh older sons in great danger, as ah you. An army is coming to wipe out all in dis village who do not surrender. Do you believe your sons will surrender?"
Not with innocent lives at stake.
"Den you understand dat you all face certain death, unless you escape dis place."
You have stopped us from doing just that, Shishou-sama.
"Nah, I just stop you from making tings easy fo' dem. Once you open da portal, I can reach trough and konk you out. I do same fo' all who try to bring you back here, except one."
"Yes. Dere only one who may rescue you, Splintah-san, and he is on dis side."
Michelangelo. He is alive, then. The muffled joy Splinter felt was barely satisfactory, but sharper than anything he had been able to feel in this state.
"Yes, he alive. But he does not know where you are, or what you face. If he does not find out, he will lose all he have, as will you."
And what is the point? Why do you punish him for what he cannot find for himself? Why do you punish us? What gives you the authority to choose... The walls of darkness became more absorbent, sucking his thoughts from his being and into other portions of his mind that he could not access.
"You ask too many questions. Do not be such worry-wart. He can find you, if he seek within himself."
You are...playing with our lives.
That merry chuckle again, and the voice did not dim, but was absorbed more by the darkness. "Splintah-san, you such a baby. Hab I ebah giben you reason not to trust me?"
Then there was only the nothing again.
Takeshi's tools of teaching were a pillow, a blanket, and a ceramic pot with a lid. They had "magically" appeared in the linen closet one day while Michelangelo slept. The whoops and cheers Takeshi had heard a few hours later coming from the closet were enough to tell him he had given his student an extra Christmas this year. However, he had a point to make with these items. As happily as his pupil had accepted bedding and a way to relieve himself without being marched to the bathroom twice a day, he had just as unhappily complained when they were taken away the next day after a disappointing performance during training.
"Luxuries are a privilege, Michelangelo," Takeshi had told him patiently. "You must earn your privileges back if you desire them."
Takeshi watched as his student performed an advanced kata with no weapon. Michelangelo's silly dependence on his over-used nunchaku would have to be wrung from him. He stopped drinking his tea in mid-sip. His assignment was not to actually teach this boy proper fighting. It was his inclination, however, and it did not hurt to do so, if all went well. He continued sipping his tea. Whatever Michelangelo had learned, it was not exactly ninjutsu, but a spinoff, an interpretation. It was very good and legitimate, but it was not ninjutsu.
The master set his cup down. "That is enough, Michelangelo," he said in his own language. He refused to lower himself to using his admittedly poor grasp of English, and they were getting on just fine with their current arrangement. Michelangelo had picked up a great deal of Japanese that he could now understand but not speak, whereas Takeshi could now understand his pupil's bizarre lingo but didn't dare to compromise his dignity by attempting it. "Show me fire."
The turtle blinked at him, suddenly frozen.
Takeshi blinked at him slowly. "The defensive position of fire. Show me." He suspected the boy knew nothing about this, but wanted to be sure. He seemed to know so much Takeshi had never heard of, although Takeshi would never admit it, but so much less than he should.
Sure enough, Michelangelo planted both feet apart, made the shape of a gun with his hands, and "fired" it straight at the wall, complete with sound effects. It was not amusing.
Takeshi lifted his cup again and took a sip. "Are you saying you know nothing of the five elements?" His eyes trained on his student, lids at half-mast, head tilted downward to sip his tea.
A spark lit in Michelangelo's eyes. "Oh! Yeah, we fought those guys way back when. They were, uh, wind, water, fire, earth, and metal."
Everything had been sounding good enough to be a recitation from a five-year-old until the turtle had reached that last word. Takeshi paused, wondering briefly is Michelangelo had gotten the five elements of ninjutsu mixed with those of feng shuy. "Metal?"
"Not metal," Takeshi corrected him, setting down his tea. "You may have another guess." He watched his pupil with catlike intent, radiating the impression that the consequences of getting this answer wrong would be dire.
That bizarre, inhuman face scrunched up in thought. From the beginning, Takeshi had been fascinated with the range of expression this supposedly impossible being was equipped with. Every now and then, he caught himself studying the humanity in the eyes of this alien face, grotesquely enthralled by the differences between what he had pictured when he had heard of these turtles and what was now before him. His mind had fashioned a snapshot, looking much like Michelangelo, but lacking the life and motion exploding from him now. He had known they were intelligent, but he hadn't considered that they would have personalities. In the end, it made Michelangelo no different from any other student, in all the good and bad ways. As he watched in detached interest, one of the turtle's eye ridges raised in pathetic defeat, lips pouting slightly.
"Easy Mac?" he half-squeaked, one corner of his mouth quirking in a solid wince.
Takeshi had no idea what he was talking about, but rose to his feet and folded his arms authoritatively, eyes narrowing slightly.
"What?" Michelangelo asked, sounding exasperated. "You think I paid attention when Master Splinter was talking about stuff?"
"The five elements are a central concept in ninjutsu," Takeshi said slowly.
"You mean like the five positions--" That light came on again in Michelangelo's eyes. "Oh. That's what...okay. Yeah. He talked about those, I just didn't know what he meant in Japanese. So it's, um..."
"Void," Takeshi answered for him, letting a little rough impatience leak into his voice. Apparently the boy had been taught the positions and their Japanese terms, at least, which would make his job easier. "Earth, wind, water, fire, and void. What did you learn of actual ninjutsu in your training?"
"Um," said Michelangelo, scratching the back of his neck, "body, mind, and spirit?"
"Yes," Takeshi said dryly, beginning to feel the tendrils of actual impatience. He stifled them, holding those impossible eyes again. "Even more elementary than the five elements. You should take pride in yourself."
Ever irrepressible, the turtle grinned. "I do. I'm the Battle Nexus Champion."
What? Takeshi's brows sank low over his eyes. What nonsense was the boy going on about now? Never mind. "As I was--"
"Battle Nexus Champion?" his student said hopefully, eye ridges inching upward. The boy was unusually perceptive if he had caught Takeshi's momentary confusion. "You know, greatest warrior in the multiverse?"
If Michelangelo had sensed his confusion, Takeshi would make it seem as though his confusion was about how pitiful a student like he could achieve any such thing. "You are not the greatest warrior of anything," he said patiently, "if I am able to defeat you so easily. You are lacking in body. You are easily distracted. I have not tested you in mind and spirit."
"My moonshine's okay, but Don said I lost my mind a long time ago," Michelangelo said with an irritating laugh that raised the hair on the back of Takeshi's neck. That such a being could laugh like that was...
It took all of his willpower to ignore the comment and its accompanying sound. "I will test you today on exercises that any young genin of the Foot can do with ease." He picked up his cup and saucer and drained the last of his tea. "Be prepared."
"But," Michelangelo said slowly, "thing is, I can kick your guys' butts. Except you, I mean. But back in New York--"
"You have not encountered the Foot of Japan before," Takeshi interrupted, hackles rising. He could not let the boy annoy him like this. Not that Michelangelo could be blamed for his misconception, considering the ways in which the American Foot had strayed during the leadership of Oroku Saki, who had never truly followed the old ways. Now Karai, his pupil, led them in the same direction, and would draw the Japanese division with them into destruction. But worse than Karai was Wakako, in power of the Japanese division during Karai's absence, with as much taste for power as Karai had for vengeance. Takeshi followed neither and obeyed only one, and that only because he, unlike his superior or his former pupil, was a true ninja.
Clan loyalty was not something that had been brainwashed or beaten into Ito Takeshi at a young age, but born into him, singing through his veins as surely as any other inheritance from the soil of Japan. Members of his clan disappointed him, strayed from the original teachings of ninjutsu—none more than the paltry American brethren. While Takeshi lived, however, and while the young spirits of his students were willing to listen, there would be a model of ninjutsu's true heart, and the old ways of the ryu would live on.
"If you wish to survive here," he said slowly, turning towards the kitchen, "then you must learn how to fight."
From behind him, there was a moment of silence, then, "That's...awesome, but why do you care if I survive?"
Takeshi ignored him. "When I return, I will expect you to be in your closet. You will have two hours to practice before I test your psychic abilities."
"Wha...you can't just not answer!" Michelangelo's voice was steeped with urgency and indignation. "It's been driving me nuts! Why do you care if I survive?"
Takeshi did not wait any longer. He walked into the kitchen to rinse the dishes. I can just not answer, Michelangelo. If you must know, I do not care if you survive. I do not care if Oroku Karai takes her petty revenge. I obey her, as I will obey the one who succeeds her when she dies stupidly, because she is jonin. But I do not hate either of you any more than I love either of you. One enemy or another, one jonin or another, it does not matter. I am a part of something more important. I am ninja.
Raphael hunched in the doorway of the small cabin, staring at the snow-laden town like it would dissolve into something considerably warmer and with more concrete. Behind him, in the stifling coziness of the cabin, voices ping-ponged back and forth at each other, arguing about things that couldn't be done instead of trying to figure out what could be done. Leo was being stupider than anyone.
His voice was speaking now. "I could try to open a portal myself. There might be something--"
Don cut him off. "No way am I letting the same thing happen to you. If Splinter couldn't do it--"
"I could try," came Usagi's somewhat laid-back tones, "but I don't even have your skill, Leonardo-san, let alone your master's. If the same thing went wrong--"
"You're not putting yourself at risk for us, Usagi," Leonardo said firmly. Raph's blood began to simmer. So Leo was fine with knocking himself into a coma, but if someone else offered, it was unthinkable. Like they didn't need Leo. Maybe they didn't need Leo.
Don seemed to share Raph's thoughts. "Then you're not putting yourself at risk, either. Besides, I'm not leaving him here. Even if we could carry him back, which we physically could do, I suppose, who knows what another encounter with a portal would do to him?"
If you'll let me interrupt," Usagi said dryly, annoyed, Raph guessed, at getting interrupted himself, "I do have a friend who can help, if anyone can. There's only one fairly minor problem."
"What's that?" asked Don.
"He's at least four days from here. He's a samurai-turned-priest I've known for years. He has more mastery over this sort of thing than anyone I know besides the Daimyo himself. He has grappled with the strongest demons of the spiritual world. If anyone could help your master, it would be him, and he would probably be able to open a portal safely." The more Usagi spoke, the faster Raph's heart pounded. This was exactly what he'd been waiting to hear—someone who could help Splinter and send them back to find Mike.
But of course, Don had to open his mouth. "Four days in the snow could be the end of him. He needs to lie still, and we need to keep trying to get him to drink water. And as long as he's here, I'm staying with him."
"Then I'll go." Raph found himself speaking for the first time, turning and leaning against the doorway and folding his arms decisively. "When can I leave?"
"Wait, Raph," Leo said quickly.
The little snot was going to make him take him with him. "Don's gonna need your help," Raph pointed out, eyes narrowing.
"He's right," Don said softly, glancing up at Leo from his seat by Splinter's cot. "I mean, you're almost as good at this medical stuff as I am, and I'd appreciate it, but if you want to go..."
Silence fell over the room like a cloak. Tomoe, sitting silently in one corner, shifted. Usagi folded his arms and changed his stance. The hollow sound of Splinter's deep breathing could be heard, but that was all. Finally, Leo nodded slowly. "I'll stay," he said reluctantly. "I...think my place is with him anyway."
"Cool," Raph said impatiently, psyched by the prospect of not being burdened by a brother. "When do I leave?"
Usagi brought a hand up to his face to rest a finger against his jaw, the perfect cartoon image of deep thought. "I sent out scouts five days ago, and I don't want anyone to go out until they come back."
"When do they come back?" Raph prodded.
"They should be back the day after tomorrow. They'll be able to tell us which routes are safe."
"Usagi," Tomoe said suddenly. "He doesn't have to go alone."
Usagi turned toward her, eyes narrow. "I need you here," he said with more urgency than Raph thought necessary.
Tomoe shook her head, never taking her eyes from him. "You know who I'm talking about."
There was a beat of silence, then Usagi glanced briefly at Raph, a trace of thoughtfulness in his eyes. "We'll talk about it later," he said softly.
Raph jumped at the voice sounding just by his elbow and almost swore. Standing just beside and behind him was a petite canine woman, looking very cold and nervous. "Lords? I heard there was a doctor..."
Leo nudged Don gently. "You're being paged," he whispered.
Don looked up, wide-eyed, then pushed to his feet. "Oh! Well, I'm not..." he stammered. "I can...what do you need?"
The woman pursed her lips against the cold for a moment, then spoke. "My son has been crying all day. It's his ears."
Donatello did not look in his element. "Have you tried covering them? Could it be the cold?"
The woman's eyes narrowed. "It is not the cold. The insides of his ears are bright red."
"Oh. Oh!" Don chewed his lower lip. "That would be an ear infection. Very common, and very curable back on Third Earth, where they have antibiotics. I suppose...but it would take a while to cultivate penicillin here."
The petite mother stared at him in confusion. "I'm...sorry?"
Don sighed. "I'll do what I can, okay? But I can't promise anything."
This was why Raph needed to go alone. Leo had already started talking defensive tactics with Usagi, and he doubted the word about Don's professed medical skills had reached this woman's ears alone. The two of them would be a crazy kind of busy in two days. Raphael, on the other hand, would be going nuts long before the scouts came back. Find priest. Get priest to open portal. Tell priest to go back for the others. Go through portal. Rescue Mikey.
Not that anything's ever that simple.
Michelangelo stared at the doorknob.
Takeshi had just gone into the kitchen, assuming Mike would go straight back to his closet. But Michelangelo wasn't so used to his captivity that he wasn't still thinking about its end. That doorknob was calling to him.
It can't possibly be that easy.
Open the door, walk right out, find the nearest window and climb down. Then what? Run through the streets completely undisguised and exposed? No. he would have to wait till night, and stick to the rooftops as usual. Was it night? He had seen no windows in the apartment. He could sneak out, find a window, and check things out, then plan to leave later if the time wasn't right.
Shadows moved through the crack under the door, and Mike squinted at them. Someone was outside. Guards? Probably. They had lost their advantage now that he knew they were there. He could handle two Foot ninja on his own, easily with the element of surprise on his side.
You have not encountered the Foot of Japan before.
His hand closed around the doorknob. At the same time, he heard a throat clearing. Takeshi stood in the doorway of the kitchen, arms folded, watching him like a hawk. Michelangelo swallowed. He could still go in spite of the ninja master, who was doing nothing to stop him. His hand tightened. At the same time, so did Takeshi's. For the first time, Mike noticed something black in the sensei's hand, mostly obscured by his palm, fingers, and opposite arm. Something black with an antenna. A radio.
Takeshi raised an eyebrow. "What are you waiting for?" he asked simply. "You are free to go."
Mike swallowed again, staring at the radio. What an un-ninja-like thing to have around, but it made so much sense. Takeshi could call for every ninja in the building in a millisecond. With dozens, scores, hundreds of ninja swarming toward this small apartment, packed into a little hallway, most wouldn't even see him before the ones in front had already taken him down.
He released the doorknob.
"I think we will begin your lessons now after all, Michelangelo," Takeshi murmured, eyes glinting.
The problem with chopsticks was their lack of versatility between different-sized hands. At least, that was the problem Don was coming up with, trying to handle the delicate instruments with his thick fingers. There were only a few noodles in the thin soup he was tackling, but he was hungry and the soup was warm. Usagi had tentatively offered to find him better fare, but something felt wrong about being privileged for no reason while everyone else was doing without. How had the little town run out of supplies so quickly? Or had they run out at all, and were just employing a strict rationing system? Starving to death slowly was no better than starving to death quickly, later on. Maybe he could work with the samurai on some kind of refined system of rationing. They would have to have an accurate head count, though, and that would be difficult to organize.
He drained his soup and set the bowl down. Leo was in one corner, speaking softly with Usagi and Tomoe. Splinter was bundled as heavily as could be managed, still lying in a gentle sleep. Raph had gone out for an evening stroll, which sounded like a decent idea, despite the cold. Don could understand the developing sense of claustrophobia and cabin fever, as he hadn't left the house since the night before. As much as he hated the cold, it was looking like a less and less imposing enemy as his legs ached to take a walk. He was restless, bouncing one leg and tapping his fingers, something indescribable making it impossible to drift into the light nap he'd dreamed of earlier. Maybe a stroll would help him get his thoughts in order. He grabbed a heavy fur cloak and pulled on a pair of boots, wincing at the alien feeling of footwear. It wasn't unpleasant, he decided, and threw the cloak on around his kimono. "I'm going out," he said over his shoulder before slipping out the door.
Snow fell gently from the night sky, painting the town in midair with speckles of white. The flakes danced before Don's eyes like sunspots, like tiny hallucinations, reflections from a thousand broken funhouse mirrors. This isn't real. None of this was real. He wasn't taking an evening stroll the day after his brother went missing and his father went into a coma. He wasn't enjoying the snow swishing around his feet as he walked, the feeling of warmth radiating from the cloak clashing with the clean, crisp air, or the velvet black of the sky above. Because if I really were doing this, enjoying the night air after all this has happened and even worse is to come, I would feel guilty. I would wish Mike was here, walking with me, enjoying the same things I am.
His throat closed, and so did his eyes. The air felt heavy, oppressive. Guilt. He'd jinxed himself. You've been too useful since you got here, Donatello. You've been reveling in the fact that people need you here. You've been looking forward to people needing you more. You lost the plot already, and it's been all of a day. You don't belong here.
Guilt, then homesickness. Mike, then Splinter.
Don turned sharply. Most sane people were inside right now, and he hadn't seen anyone when he came out. Now, a shadowy shape materialized from behind a cart blanketed in snow. The figure was also covered in snow, the long, lean frame shivering pitifully. "Saeko?" He remembered the name from the night before.
The weasel limped forward, kimono even rattier than before. "I caught my sleeve," she mumbled, pointing accusingly at the cart and swaying.
Don winced. She was drunk again. "Sorry to hear that. Can you, uh, get home?"
The flash in Saeko's eyes was slow, delayed by the sake in her system, but bright. "Can I get home?" she snarled, taking a threatening step toward Don, who held his ground. "You," she hissed, jabbing a broken-nailed finger in the general direction of his plastron, "are not a map."
"I realize that," Don said calmly, "but um, you're limping. If you need--"
"Don't say it. I. Do not! Need help." The geisha then proceeded to turn and storm angrily away, hunched over, still limping. With a slight twitch of his lips, Don saw the reason for the limp—she was still walking with only one sandal.
"Open your mind and ignore your senses. You should be able to tell when my attack is coming before you see or hear a thing."
Not that Michelangelo could see a thing. He was blindfolded and sitting in a chair. Takeshi stood behind him, prepared to bludgeon him to death, or so Mike suspected. This whole idea had been much too suspect from the beginning, even if it did sound like something Master Splinter would come up with. Takeshi had demonstrated how the technique worked just a few minutes ago, though, sitting in this chair himself and letting Mike take a few swings at him with a keibo. Each and every time, Takeshi had leapt out of the way just as Mike began to swing. The trick was apparently to reach out and sense hostile intent somehow. "Something inside should tell you to move," Takeshi had told him. Well, since I know what he's doing, everything is telling me to move already. Only God knows when he's--
Mike leapt out of the chair and whipped around, snarling and rubbing his shoulder. He shoved the blindfold out of his eyes. "What was that for?"
"You should have paid attention," Takeshi deadpanned.
"I wasn't ready!" Mike protested.
"Again." Takeshi raped the back of the chair with the keibo.
Chewing on the inside of his cheek, Mike sank back into the chair. He was barely seated before he was struck again, on the same shoulder. He turned and flung out an arm to swipe at his unwanted teacher. Takeshi stepped back easily to avoid the blow.
"Again," he said calmly.
Mike sank back into the chair, fuming. This was impossible. How could he possible be able to do this on the first try? Or on the third? Calm. He needed to be calm. He knew what always calmed him down: babbling. "I think you're nuts. Either that or you're cheating. Cheater-cheater pumpkin eat--"
He leapt out of the chair just as the keibo came down. It whipped past him and struck the chair. The odd sensation that had been screaming for him to move was already gone. That was...surreal. Totally a Matrix moment. Whoa. He stared at Takeshi. Takeshi stared back.
The sensei raised both eyebrows nonchalantly. "Again."
"I did it," Mike said quietly.
"Yes, you did. Now do it again."
Wetting his lips, Mike sat back in the chair. If I did it once, I can--
Mike let out a roar of frustration and pain. "That's it!" he snarled, jumping again to his feet. "No mercy. I am pulling every prank in the book tonight. You'd better be prepared, mister."
"Again." Takeshi's voice sounded slightly rough.
"No. Not again. I'm not Daniel-san, Mr. Miyagi." He jumped back just as Takeshi's strike lashed out. Holy crap! This is so cool! I AM THE ONE!
Takeshi grit his teeth, then a strange, unsettling look covered him. The irritation in his eyes was quenched. His shoulders relaxed. His jaw loosened. He looked at peace. In a completely nonthreatening manner, he reached forward and took Mike's arm in a gentle grip. "No, you are not Daniel-san." He began to walk, his hold on Mike's arm guiding him to follow, but not forcing.
Mike suddenly felt somber and alert. What is he...?
Takeshi continued to speak as they walked in the general direction of the closet. "But this is not a movie, Michelangelo. This is not even a test of skills. This is about your life, and whether or not you would preserve it."
They were at the closet. Mike started through the doorway, then turned to look back. "I'm not going back in," he said in quiet defiance, his newfound confidence teetering on what he was sure was the edge of stupidity.
A blow to his plastron knocked him backward suddenly. He lost his balance and fell hard on his rear. He heard the door shut before he could gather himself. The lock snicked in place.
"I am going to make soup," Takeshi said poisonously from the other side of the door. "If you have not ceased this childish disobedience, you will have none."
Mike struggle to his feet. "Yeah? Well, until you let me the hell out of here, I don't want your soup!"
There was silence from the other side, and Mike immediately began to regret his impromptu hunger strike. He passed his hand over his eyes and felt something slimy smear over his forehead. Puzzled, he glanced at his hand. There was a streak of bug guts and long legs over the ball of his thumb.
Cold terror struck into his heart. Oh no. Klunk II.