There were a thousand sounds in the rat's dreams. Colors and shapes he had never seen, smells he would never understand, and voices, voices, millions of voices. They weren't the voices of other rats, but of men, whispering to each other with words he didn't know, and at last, one of the voices spoke to him.
"Go to the great house on the hilltop, little one. You will find it there."
The ooze was deeper than Splinter was comfortable with. His nose twitched furiously as he assessed the glowing puzzle and drew back in hesitation. He wasn't sure why it made him so hesitant. After all, paws were made to get dirty, and this stuff was simply dirt, glowing or not. The four little reptiles didn't seem to be uncomfortable, and he couldn't simply leave them to drown themselves. He crouched by the edge of the puddle, gearing himself up before creeping in. It was oddly lukewarm in the cool, dank sewers, more sticky than wet. It seeped into his fur as he crawled deeper into it, and he began to feel oddly warm. One of the tiny creatures was near, lowering its head to dip its chin in the thick ooze. Splinter stretched out one paw just as the creature suddenly started forward. The rat managed to seize a slippery grip on its tail and lift it into the air, where it shook itself suddenly, nearly slipping from Splinter's grasp and flinging globs of ooze directly into the rat's face. It wasn't unlike having a car's tires spray mud at him, although this was in much smaller quantity.
He quickly scuttled to the edge of the pool and set the turtle down on the relatively dry concrete before diving back in. Towards the middle, the puddle was deep enough that one of the turtles was struggling to keep its head above the ooze. He snatched it up by the shell with both paws, only to have it suddenly retract into its shell, tail and all. He wrapped his arms around it and waded through the waste-deep ooze until he could place this one by the other one. The next one had almost made it out of the puddle on its own, but the last one was fighting to climb over it onto the dry concrete as if there were no other way to reach safety. Splinter gripped the one on top and brought it back to lie with the others, then returned for the other. By this time, it had already made it out of the ooze. Nearby was a battered old coffee can that would make a good home for the creatures until Splinter decided what to do with them.
Not that there was any real question about what to do with them. Splinter hadn't forgotten Tang Shen.
The rat never wondered why the other rats couldn't read the signs in the shop windows. He barely remembered not being able to himself. Those signs told him there was food inside. Fresh fish and rice and sweet daikon radishes were many times better than rotting carrion, and before long, he was leading other rats into shops for scavenging. He began to enjoy finding ways inside stores and houses. Sneaking about became an expertise rather than simple necessity. Bright and young an enthusiastic, he took pride in the skills he developed. One day, he even made it into the big house on the top of the hill, riding up in the bed of a truck and skittering up to the roof, where he found his way in after prying off a shingle. That house had the best food. Sushi of every kind, pickles, fried noodles, and tender dumplings were always available somewhere, and the leavings of dinner were so delicious the rat couldn't think of going anywhere else, or even of going back to tell the other rats about this heaven.
There was a small hole in the wall by the kitchen, and it was the perfect spot to hide and wait for one of the people to turn their back or drop a little morsel. He liked to watch the woman prepare the food, as little as he could understand why food needed any preparation at all. Humans were too fussy about their food. They would save time if they ate everything just as it came. The rat thought for some time that they even chewed too much until he tried it himself. It was pleasant not to swallow a large lump of hard vegetable, he found. It sat better in his belly, and he could feel full from eating less and saving what he did not eat.
The day everything changed was one of the days when he had dashed out while the woman's back was turned. A shadow descended upon him, and something crossed his throat—one of the instruments the woman used to cut food, only much, much larger. An angry voice shouted horrible things, and a gentler one answered it. Then, with the gentlest touch in the world, a hand lifted him—how terrifying!--and placed him somewhere else on the counter, and he found himself looking upward into the eyes of the woman. She was offering him a smile and a slice of the daikon she had been chopping at. She spoke, and he took it completely for granted that he understood her.
The rat was puzzled, but still gnawed on the slice of radish. He was not poor, just a little nervous. Humans, while they had plenty, never seemed to be willing to share with rats in particular, and were as likely to kill them as not. But poor? This rat was the richest in Japan, nibbling away at a radish that had been simply handed to him.
"Poor thing. You know what it is to be an orphan."
An orphan? Orphans were the smaller humans that lived on the streets. Other humans treated them the same way they treated rats. Unlike rats, however, orphans had only themselves. Very few of them became packs. It had been some time since this rat had been around other rats, but that didn't make him feel qualified to be an orphan.
In fact, he didn't understand what it was like to be an orphan until he had been part of a family.
They were children.
Their faces smiled. Their eyes shone. They knew him as the one who had fed them the night before. They were dirty and hungry and vulnerable. They were orphans.
He stared at his own paws—no, hands. They were so alien to him he felt as though he had become someone else. He was someone else simply in that he was now someone, not some creature. Semantics, he thought, then caught his breath. Never in his life had he thought in words. Understood them, yes, read them, learned them, but only as a detached way of knowing the human world. Have I become human? He raised his hands to his face and felt whiskers, then a soft coat of fur. His eyes trailed downward to his own body. He still bore ratlike characteristics, but his own body startled him nevertheless. He was very large now in comparison to the little hole he had slept in, and felt oddly exposed even in this secluded area of the sewers. A little draft from a grate in the ceiling caught him, and he shivered. Now he understood why humans wore clothes.
He felt a nudge against his leg and his eyes landed upon one of the turtles. It was smiling up at him—smiling! Splinter felt his own stomach twist and rumble. This mystery would have to wait. They needed food. He needed food. He couldn't take care of four children and himself now that they had become so huge. What could he do with them?
I have always found plenty for myself. I will simply have to work harder.
The thought of feeding four mouths as well as his own was overwhelming.
Tang Shen fed three large men and herself.
She also took care of Splinter.
It would be wrong—dishonorable--for me to let them die when she was so generous to me.
There was no place to keep them now that they were too large for the coffee can. He would have to trust that they would not wander too much while he found food for them.
Shen was a goddess. She had bathed him and given him a cage with scraps of cloth he could make into a cozy nest. He was a pampered king among rats. When he was not in his cage, he was on her shoulder or in her hands with one of her slender fingers stroking between his ears. She was his adoring mother and Yoshi was his indulgent father. The rat liked to make them all laugh by imitating Yoshi and Mashimi's movements as they practiced. Mashimi didn't laugh. Mashimi had tried to kill him when they first met, and the rat was not inclined to trust him. Yoshi was often gone on some errand, but Shen was always there, always his mother.
At least, until she died. Then Yoshi took the rat in his cage and moved with him to America. Yoshi spoke to him less than before, bowed under sorrow. He no longer laughed when the rat imitated him. He would slam doors and rattle the rat's cage. He was not always kind, as likely to ignore the rat as not, but the rat did not expect kindness from such pain. He still slept in Yoshi's hands during rainy afternoons, was still pampered and beloved, but in Yoshi's mind, he must have still belonged to Shen, for the ninja master often wept during their times together. Sometimes Yoshi forgot to feed the rat, but the rat understood. Food was Shen's domain, and it caused Yoshi pain to think of her. In that way, he was no different from the rat.
Yoshi began teaching ninjutsu to a few young students. Few remained in his classes for long. Perhaps the work was too hard for them. The rat didn't understand why they would let such an opportunity pass. If he could be tall and powerful like Yoshi, to wield so much strength in his bare fists, he would do so. If he were like Yoshi, could he have protected Shen? Would his master be happier then? Would they have been able to remain in Japan?
Splinter still mimicked his master's movements, but not to amuse him. With sharp little ears, he listened as Yoshi repeated the lessons of the Ancient One to his students in class, then to himself in his private exercises. In this way was the art of ninjutsu passed from the unsuspecting Yoshi to his incidental pupil.
Splinter had learned to read the American language almost as quickly as he had learned Japanese, which made scavenging much easier. Master Yoshi had always spoken of honor, but there was no honor in starving to death, and even less in letting others starve to death. He had found kitchens he could creep into with better food than what he could find in garbage cans, and it didn't make the babies sick like food that was thrown away did. Warehouses were even better, as they had many different items besides food. The best things to have were pots, matches, and Sternos, as it was impossible to eat rice when it was dry. He made a makeshift stove in their little hovel in the sewer and cooked rice. It also became essential to cook meat now, as raw meat now made him sick. As long as he was careful, food was not too much of a problem, and neither was water, since he had learned long ago which color of pipes held clean water.
He had other problems instead.
He had woken one morning to find one of the turtles snuggled against him, fast asleep. He had stared at the child as its plastron rose and fell gently. Not it. He. Not a turtle, but a boy. What was the word? A son. My son. Something deep in his bones began to tremble, and he brought one shaking hand to brush over the soft cheek. Humans have sons. Rats have offspring. I must be...
Suddenly, a face appeared, popping out from behind the shell of the sleeping child. This face was grinning with every last tooth it had grown since their transformation. The boy began to climb over the other one, reaching for Splinter with one hand while the other was occupied with climbing. The sleeping boy whimpered, then wailed in anger and exhaustion, shoving at the one on top of him. The second boy fell with a cry, landing hard on the concrete. He shrieked until the other two were awake.
And then he had to get them back to sleep, because he was their father. Not their keeper, but their father.
There was one that always went to sleep very easily, the most docile of the four. Splinter was thankful for him. One after the other, they all dropped off to sleep but the one that had climbed over the sleeping one—his brother. He had not stopped crying. Splinter took him gently in his arms and, imitating what Shen used to do, pressed his lips to the child's forehead.
Speaking was so alien, so strange, but not difficult. The boy stopped crying as though startled, then reached forward and took two handfuls of whiskers. Splinter went about the delicate work of extracting his whiskers from the tiny but oddly strong grip. A few minutes later, the boy was asleep and snuggled against Splinter's chest. In the eyes of the children—his children—Splinter found the love he had borne for Shen and Yoshi, his unknowing spiritual parents. And now I am the head of my own family, he wondered, resting his cheek against the top of the boy's head.
"He who lives without honor will end without honor."
"This is a waste of time. Finish him."
It was some volition that was not his own. The rat was flying through the air, teeth gnashing, many times his size in his own mind. Shen had died on his watch. It would not happen to Yoshi. His teeth sank into flesh, tasting the fresh, hot blood of his enemy. A great bellow echoed through the room, and a massive hand closed around him. Then, he was flying the other way. A voice called after him.
"STAY OUT OF THIS, LITTLE PEST!"
It was not the voice of the large one or the armored one, but of Yoshi—or not. It did not sound entirely like Yoshi's voice. Yoshi never screamed in anger, only in pain and sorrow. It must have been one of the other ninja after all. Yoshi would not speak in anger when he was about to die. No, Yoshi could not die. Yoshi was too great a human, too good and powerful to die. He could never...
By the time the rat scrambled to the top of the windowsill, he was an orphan.
The older the boys grew, the more things they needed. It seemed that they were hungrier every day. Out of curiosity, Splinter had brought home an entire pizza he had found on top of a garbage can one night, and now the boys couldn't get enough of the stuff. But the main staples were rice and pasta, foods that were filling and didn't spoil. Once canned vegetables were discovered, meals became easier. Meat was a rare treat, as it required refrigeration and spoiled quickly if it wasn't eaten the night it was taken. With the help of a book and the industrious Donatello, Splinter had managed to redirect a line of electricity near their lair. They installed power outlets in every room while the other three walled up passages to the outside. After years of living by candlelight and cooking over small flames, they had electricity.
After that, running water was a simple matter. A curtain was hung in a circle around one pipe. The end of the pipe was sawed off and replaced with a nozzle and a shower head to make a serviceable shower. Sinks were made in the same way. A stove and a refrigerator were rescued from a nearby dumpster. They were old and a little unpredictable, but in working condition.
"Only take if it will not be missed," Splinter told his sons.
The lair was now a veritable paradise. With clean, running water and electricity, everything was a thousand times easier. Tables, chairs, and cupboards had been collected over the years, and there was even a tattered love seat the entire family could squeeze onto if two of the boys were in Splinter's lap. Wonder of wonders, there was also a television which didn't pick up any channels and a VCR. The boys had their own room and their own mattresses, adding to the scarce supply of privacy. The living room was spacious enough to accommodate a small dojo area.
Splinter had begun teaching his sons ninjutsu when they were five years old.
"Yoshi will not survive."
"You think so, brother?"
"I see many things. Yoshi is strong and gifted in our ways, but he is also stupid. He will become a part of something that will kill him."
The second brother watched the first with the slightest of frowns. He was not given to expression except in deep thought. "But Yoshi is our greatest champion. He is the vessel which will carry our ways into a future where ninjutsu is not the corrupted cult of the Foot clan, but that which was created in the beginning by the Tengu."
"Yoshi will carry our ways to future generations," the first brother said softly as they walked noiselessly over the deserted road. It was late, and the little town was asleep. "Nevertheless, he will die before his life is fulfilled."
There was an unnerving sound. The second brother's eyes flickered down to the road to see a cluster of rats tearing at the flesh of some poor dead beast. He nudged it with the toe of his sandal in an attempt to scatter it, lips drawing back in a snarl. "Disgusting." He glanced backward to say something to his brother, but his words stuck in his mouth when he saw what he was doing.
The first brother had knelt in the dust and drawn some small treat from his pocket. He now held the treat loosely in his steady hand, pupils enlarged from the darkness and a relaxed focus. His eyes slid shut. He did not move. Eventually, one of the rats broke off from the group and darted into his open hand, nibbling at the bit of food. The first brother opened his eyes and peered at the small creature, which had now taken the food into its tiny paws and was gnawing at it greedily. He gently touched the tip of its nose with his pinky finger. The rat stopped eating and stared in rapt attention at the one holding him, standing tall on its back legs, food lowered to rest over its belly. With no less wonder did the first brother gaze back.
"You have become the new vessel, little one," he whispered just loudly enough to be heard. "You are now blessed with a purpose, and with this purpose come special gifts: loyalty, intelligence, honor, and compassion. Such things which are unknown to your kind you now possess, and you have risen above your brothers." Then he leaned in and whispered something only the rat could hear. It perked up its ears, sniffed the air, and bounded from his hands, skittering quickly into the shadows.
The second brother watched the first with one skeptical eyebrow raised. "A rat shall be our vessel? A rat? Really, brother?"
The first brother smiled, still gazing upon the tiny one's footprints in the dust of the road.