A/N: I've been suffering some pretty heavy duty writer's block ever since my computer crashed. This little drabble is both an attempt to ease that pain and experiment a bit in material outside my comfort zone. Originally I was hesitant to post it, but I thought I might as well. I guess not everything can be a winner. Heh. Go chibi fic.
"Ichi… ni… san…"
There was a pause like a gasp for breath as single bead of sweat rolled slowly down his brow. The little turtle paused and wrinkled his snout, staring cross- eyed at the drip.
Wide blue eyes snapped up to meet his Master's dark, wise ones. The old rat gazed back stoically, fighting hard to remain stern. They'd been through this, countless times, and still Michelangelo's attention span could rival that of a very inquisitive insect.
"But it tickles!" he giggled, crossing his eyes and wrinkling his snout again. From the far side of the room, Donatello did the same, taking in a shallow gasp and quickly clamping his hands over his mouth to stifle it when it drew his Sensei's attention. Splinter had to stifle a chuckle of his own at the stern way Leonardo wordlessly elbowed his brother in the side. Donatello took his hands away and pulled a face.
"Do you know what comes next?" He asked slowly, trying to hold the boy's gaze from his position on the floor. But as quickly as his attention came, it left like a leaf caught on a passing breeze, and Michelangelo's eyes were trained to the tatami mat, giggling again as the bead of sweat finally rolled off his snout and onto the floor.
"'m sweatin'," he said cheerfully, as if discovering a completely new sort of revelation, watching the tiny puddle form beneath him in the candle light.
The old rat sighed and changed his grip on his walking stick to distract himself from the smile that threatened. "Yes you are," he said as flatly as he could manage. "Maybe you would not have such difficulties if you paid attention during our lessons instead of drawing in the margins of your paper."
The boy's eyes shot up again, that familiar spark aflame and a crease in his brow, his mouth drawn into a hard line, the picture of concentration. "But I like ta draw," he squeaked, eyes shining with tears that threatened to spill. Earlier that morning, his Sensei had threatened to take his pen away.
"That you do," Splinter sighed, "but learning is useful as well. You know your numbers, my son. Ten push-ups and you will be done." For a moment, he paused, waiting for his son to continue, but as the moment wore on, the silence held fast, along with Michelangelo's hopeful gaze. Splinter eyed the ceiling and prayed to Amida for patience. This was the third time they had to start over. "Do you know what comes after san?"
The determined crease in his brow only deepened as he wracked his brain, his face scrunched into the picture of six-year-old concentration once again. "Um…" He paused. "Sichi?"
From the far wall there came a groan where three impatient turtles waited, trying their best not to fidget. Raphael had his thick arms crossed over his plastron, an annoyed scowl on his face. "He gotta do all these jus' cause he call Sensei 'daddy'?"
From beside him, Leonardo shrugged and whispered as if speaking of a great taboo. "That's the rules. You can't say that in the dojo. Gotta say Sensei," he finished with a solemn nod.
"Leonardo! Raphael!" Splinter chided, pressing a weathered claw to his lips, signaling for silence. The boys shuffled their feet and dropped their eyes to the floor. "Start again, Michelangelo."
The little turtle's shoulders sagged. "Awe, man!" he sighed, dropping down to start again. "Ichi…" by now, his arms were shaking. "Ni… san…" He took in a determined breath, scowling at the floor. He pressed down again. "Shi…"
A smile spread wide over his face once he brought himself up again, looking over his shoulders to where his brothers stood lined up against the wall. "Hey guys, I did it!" he laughed, earning him two grins and a thumbs-up from Raphael before Sensei cleared his throat. The boy's attention quickly snapped back to his Master.
Solemnly, the old rat nodded, though his whiskers twitched, still fighting back the amused grin that threatened to crack his composure. The boy's proud smile didn't break until his father spoke again. "Only six more, my son."
"Six?" the boy gaped, staring now at his hands splayed out before him on the floor. "That's how many fingers I got. Nuts!"
"Just do it, Mikey. You takin' forever," Raphael whined from afar, earning himself a scolding glare from Splinter.
"I have warned you once, Raphael. Do you wish to join your brother?"
"Um… no," he answered quietly, dropping his gaze and letting his tightly crossed arms fall limply to his sides.
Turning back to Michelangelo, the old rat watched his son's arms tremble. Slowly, the boy dipped down once more. "…Go," he murmured softly, pushed himself up, and stopped, never lifting his head.
There was a pause.
"I forgot," he sniffed, two thick tears rolling slowly down his cheeks and pattered onto the floor. His little shoulders began to quake. Without instruction, he began again. "Ichi… ni… san… shi… g-go."
Another pause. Still, he did not lift his head. From behind, even his brothers had stopped their fidgeting. With a sigh, Splinter finally folded. "Roku," he whispered.
"R-roku," Michelangelo repeated with a whimper, pushing down again.
"S-shichi," he sniffed.
Splinter paused and watched his son tremble, two more tears rolling down his beak. But before he could speak again, he pressed his quivering arms back down to the floor. "…ku… ju."
It was if the entire room had been holding its breath, and had let it out in one quick exhale. Michelangelo rocked back on his knees and smiled despite his swimming eyes. Weakly, he sniffed again and wiped his snout with the back of his hand, letting one more tear roll slowly down his cheek. "I did it," he murmured, still smiling to himself.
The old rat returned it, gently laying a gnarled paw on his little son's shoulder, kneeling to meet his tear-filled eyes. Secretly, his frail heart was breaking. "Well done, my son," he whispered, slowly helping the boy to his feet and guiding him out the makeshift door. "You are all dismissed."
Exhausted, the boy tottered and sniffed back his tears as his brothers came to join him, each patting his shell they way only brothers can. "Good job, Mikey," Leonardo said softly, hugging his arm around his baby brother's shoulders. From the other side, Donatello silently latched onto his brother's hand.
And as they made their way into the living area, Splinter stood just within the dojo door, steeped only in the failing candle light. Within his chest, his heart sank like a leaden prayer. He wished he could blunt the blade held by man, bend the world to spare them. But the lessons they were destined learn about ugliness, cruelty, truth and acceptance- he knew they would never survive unscarred. He could not blind them to the gruesome truths. He could not bottle the precious innocence the world hungered to strip away. The best he could do is give them the strength to heal, to love, and to prevail.