Epilogue – The Outer Ring

Splinter is on guard even before the peculiar bubbling feeling has entirely gone away, squinting into the glare and opening his stance to protect his sons.

"Are you Hamato Splinter?" asks a blurry figure.

He blinks, and his vision clears. There is a man in front of him, tall, wearing a suit. Something about him feels wrong.

Raphael tugs on his robe. "It's Mr. Mortu," he whispers.

"I am," Splinter says, watching tensely to see how the stranger will react.

The response is unexpected. Mr. Mortu bows deeply and addresses the floor. "Welcome, honored guests." He straightens. "I am Mr. Mortu. I apologize for the - abrupt manner in which you were brought here." He gestures to a doorway. "Please. We will be more comfortable in the other room."

Splinter moves cautiously down the three wide steps, letting Mr. Mortu precede him through the door. The next room contains a large table surrounded by a dozen comfortable-looking chairs.

"I will explain everything," Mr. Mortu says, while Splinter scans the room. "Please, be seated."

The four Turtles climb up into chairs. A moment later another person enters the room and lays heaping plates of food in front of each of them.

"Thank you, Mr. Skegg," says Mr. Mortu. The other man nods and silently leaves.

Leonardo pokes at his food. "Can we eat it, Sensei?"

Mr. Mortu doesn't say a word as Splinter sniffs each plate, checking for traces of poison. "Yes, my sons. You may eat." He takes a chair for himself and turns to their host. "Now. Who are you, and how do you know my Master Yoshi?"

"It is a long story," Mr. Mortu says, and he commences to tell it. He begins by peeling off his skin. ("Oh, gross!" exclaims Michelangelo, but it doesn't stop him from eating everything on his plate.) He continues with a tale of spaceships, prisoners, and brave warriors known as Guardians. He finishes by recounting how a pet rat, four baby turtles, and a canister of green ooze came to be in the sewers of New York City.

At the end of the story, Splinter has a great amount of trust in Mr. Mortu, and an even higher opinion of his Master Yoshi.

"I was then assigned to locate the individuals affected by the transmat run-off," Mortu concludes, "which I have now done. All that remains is for me to render you whatever assistance you require." He leans forward. "What would you like me to do for you?"

"I would like to go home," Splinter says.

Mortu looks disappointed. "Is that all?"

Splinter tenses slightly. "Will you not let us go?"

Mortu glances at the four Turtles, half-asleep from the long story and their heavy meals. "May I speak with you in private?"

Splinter rises, and they go to stand just outside the door of the room.

"I would like to make you an offer," Mortu says in a low voice. "If you wish, I can arrange for you to be transported to my homeworld. We are an advanced, civilized people. We do not have the prejudices of humans. You would have the same rights as any other citizen."

Splinter narrows his eyes. Mortu may be one of the people Master Yoshi willingly gave his life to protect, but being sent to another planet, with no way of leaving under his own power, feels too much like a trap. "Is this an offer, or an order?"

"I am not coercing you," Mortu says. "If you wish, you may return to your old life in New York, and make your home where you will. Or, if you prefer, I can give you a new life in a place where you will be respected, and free, and safe."

"And what about my sons?" Splinter asks.

"Yes," Mortu says. "All of you."

Splinter flicks his gaze through the doorway. "I must think about it."

Mortu nods. "Of course. Take your time."

And then he simply walks away.

Splinter paces the room for a long time, thinking over Mortu's proposal.

If Mortu is honest, if Utrom society is what he says it is, then this could be the freedom and security he has always wanted for his sons. They would not need to live underground, or eat garbage, or hide. They would never need to fight for their lives.

On the other hand, if Mortu is lying, Splinter will find himself in a world where his existence is known, and where he does not even have a relatively safe burrow and a painstakingly-accumulated knowledge of where to find food.

Of course, Raphael's existence is now known in this world, and his home may not be safe for long.

Still, even if the Utrom homeworld is everything Mortu has promised, can he really give up Earth? Can he leave the planet where his Master Yoshi lived and died, the world that is his sons' birthright, even if they are never able to enjoy more than a tiny part of it?

If he agreed to go, and regretted his choice once there, would the Utroms let him go back?

He paces, and thinks.

The four Turtles sit in the chairs (too big, but padded just right), holding their stomachs and trying not to throw up from overeating.

"Hey," says Raph, to distract himself from the seething rebellion in his guts. He sticks out his foot and weakly kicks at Donnie's chair. "I beat your record. I held my breath a whole twelve minutes."

"You did not," Donnie says.

"I did too!"

"Did anyone see you?" Donnie challenges.

"Well, no..." Raph admits.

"Then it doesn't count," Donnie says firmly. "Show me, and then I'll believe you."

"You know," Raph says wisely. "You don't gotta see everything yourself. Sometimes you should just believe what people tell you."

Donnie reflects on this for a while. "I'm sorry I lost you," he says quietly.

"It's okay," says Raph. "You found me again. That's what matters."

"We're glad you're okay," Leo says.

"Me too," Raph says. "I mean, that you're okay."

"Are we gonna go home soon?" Mikey asks sleepily.

"Yeah, Mikey," Raph says. Some little worry is niggling at him, but he's too full, and too tired, to think about it now. "Real soon."

Raphael wakes up when someone touches his arm. Master Splinter beckons to him, and he silently slides down from his chair and follows his father out of the room.

Splinter sits on the floor, near the metal platform, and Raph sits too. "Are we goin' home, Sensei?" Raph asks.

Splinter looks down for a moment, then raises his eyes. "Raphael," he says heavily. "I am not sure we are going home."

Raph frowns. "Why?"

"I am not sure it is safe." Splinter fixes Raphael with a penetrating gaze. "Raphael - Who found you? How were you captured?"

Raph's heart freezes. So far everyone has just been happy to have him back, but now comes the part where he's in major trouble. "I'm sorry, Sensei," he says, in a small voice. "I was curious."

Splinter frowns. "I do not understand. Curious about what?"

"About... about everything," Raphael admits. "I wanted to know what people were like. So I... I went looking for some."

"Oh, Raphael," Splinter says softly, but Raph keeps going.

"I just wanted to find one nice human, but all of them were mean to me, asking me weird questions, and then they had the sleep-daggers, and they put me in a cage..." He wipes his eyes. "I'm sorry, Sensei. You were right about everything. Do I... do I gotta do a million flips now?"

Splinter reaches out and gathers Raphael into his arms. "No, my son. You do not have to do any."

Raph can't quite believe this. "Do I gotta do them later?"

"No," Splinter says, rubbing his back soothingly. "Never. I will never punish you for wanting... for wanting more than we have had."

"I'm never gonna do it again," Raph promises. "'Cause... 'cause we got enough." He remembers the earlier part of the conversation, and scoots backwards out of his father's arms. "We got a place to go, right? The humans aren't gonna get us again?"

"No," Splinter assures him. "We have a place to go. A place where you will have much more room to explore."

Raph furrows his brows. "Like... Japan? Is that bigger than New York?"

Splinter smiles sadly. "Even better than Japan." He rises. "Go and wake your brothers."

Raph pads back into the other room, wondering what his father might think is better than Japan.

Splinter finds Mr. Mortu in a room down the hall.

"I have made my decision," he says, when the Utrom looks at him expectantly. "I and my sons will go to your homeworld. If you are deceiving us, we will at least be the prisoners of Utroms, and not of humans, and so I will not have to wonder how my captors could belong to the same species as my noble Master."

"I promise you," Mortu says, "this is not a trick."

Splinter nods slightly. "You understand that it is difficult for me to trust."

"I understand," Mortu says. "You have had few allies, and you have seen your Master cruelly betrayed." He looks away, then back. "Did you actually see... ?"

"Yes," says Splinter. "If you have encountered my Master's murderer, you have seen my mark on his face."

"I am sorry to say I have not," Mortu says. He rises from his chair. "Do you wish to visit your home, before you depart?"

"No," says Splinter. "There is nothing we need."

"Very well," says Mortu, moving towards the door. "I will have Mr. Skegg prepare the transmat."

"What about you?" Splinter asks, and Mortu pauses. "What will you do, now that your assignment is finished?"

"I expect to join you shortly," Mortu replies. "I - have been forbidden to leave this planet until I completed my assignment." He turns, and smiles. "I am looking forward to going home."

When Splinter returns to the room with the big table, his sons are awake and waiting for him.

"Where are we going?" Michelangelo asks, as soon as he enters.

Splinter sits slowly in one of the chairs. "We are going to a new place," he says. "It will be very different from our old home."

"Will it be like where Raphie was?" Leonardo asks. "'Cause I didn't like it there."

"No," Splinter says, and he hopes he is telling the truth. "It will not be like that."

"What will it be like?" Donatello asks.

"It will be safe," Splinter says. "We will be able to walk in the streets, and live in a real house, and eat as much food as we want, all the time." His sons look a little sick at the idea. "You will be able to play with other children."

His sons glance at each other. They have never needed any other playmates, and Splinter wonders if, by gaining friends, they will lose something else.

"But... what about the humans?" Raphael asks.

"There are no humans," Splinter explains. "There are only people like Mr. Mortu, and they do not mind that we are different."

Michelangelo makes a face. "They're not gonna take their skin off all the time, are they?"

Splinter smiles at him. "I do not think so."

Michelangelo shrugs. "'Kay."

Splinter looks at his other sons, wordlessly asking for their approval.

"And we won't get lost?" Donatello asks.

"You might get lost," Splinter says honestly, even though it makes Donatello's eyes widen with fear. "But it will be the kind of lost where you can trust a stranger to point you home again, and then you will tell me what new things you saw."

"Will we be allowed to go to the grate?" Leonardo asks, while Donatello thinks about this.

"There will not be a grate," Splinter says. "You will have the sun. All of it, with nothing in the way."

Leonardo looks at him, torn between believing impossible things, and thinking his father a liar.

"But Sensei," says Raphael, who has been listening pensively. "I said I wasn't gonna go lookin' for stuff anymore. I'm happy with what we have."

"But I am not," says Splinter, and all his sons look at him in surprise. "I want more for you. I want you to grow up in a place where you can look for things, and make discoveries, and learn who you really are." He looks hard at his sons, willing them to understand that his mind can still be changed, and that he is seeking not just their acceptance, but their agreement. "Is this what you want for yourselves?"

Something strange passes over Raphael's face. "I want to know who I am," he says softly.

His brothers just look confused, and Splinter grieves for his sons who have not even had enough space to ask the question. "Is this what you want?" he asks again.

"If you wanna go, then I wanna go," Leonardo says.

"I wanna go too," Michelangelo adds quickly.

"We're all gonna go, right?" Donatello asks. "'Cause it doesn't matter where we are, as long as we're all together."

Splinter closes his eyes. His sons had learned to listen, to obey. And soon they would have room to ignore, to challenge, to ferret out their father's mistakes and find a larger truth.

He hopes that the learning will be less painful than what Raphael has gone through, and that the answers will not hurt as much.

"Yes, my sons," he says. "Yes, that is exactly right."

At that moment, Mr. Mortu appears in the doorway. "Whenever you are ready," he says.

Splinter opens his eyes. "We are ready."

Splinter stands before the three wide steps, his sons gathered around him.

"I have alerted my counterparts that you are coming," Mr. Mortu says. "They are already preparing a place for you." He gestures to the platform. "Whenever you are ready."

Splinter leads his sons up to the gleaming dais, and turns back to face the center of the room. He centers himself for the journey, and a thought comes to his mind.

"Mortu-san..." he says, as Mortu moves to the control panel. "Were you the driver of the truck?"

Mr. Mortu bows the head of his robotic body. "I am sorry."

"Do not be," Splinter says. "It is the third-greatest gift I have ever received."

"What is the first-greatest?" Mortu asks.

"My sons," Splinter replies, without hesitation.

"And the second-greatest?"

"My Master Yoshi."

Mortu nods. "Yoshi was a great gift to us as well. It is in his memory that we do this for you."

"Thank you," says Splinter. "For everything." He straightens slightly. "We are ready."

Mortu turns a dial. The sound of the machinery rises into a concordant hum. The glow from the ceiling intensifies, focuses.

Splinter puts his arms around his sons, and they raise their faces to the light.