This is it. There might be a sequel, but I make no promises. Thanks for sticking with me.

It was time to talk to Splinter.

Michelangelo had been un-humanized by breaking into a secret government lab and—(that was where North had stopped them. He didn't want to know). Then, less than a day after things had been put to rights, the boys had taken it upon themselves to perform a raid on a known Purple Dragon stronghold. This had gone about as well as expected, meaning that while the criminals had been thwarted in their attempt to hide amazing amounts of stolen goods, Michelangelo had gotten injured pretty badly, prompting another, much more hysterical late-night/early morning phone call to North, and instigating a sleepless night during which North wasn't sure his young friend was going to make it. When Michelangelo's fever finally broke he blessed his younger sister Veronica for going over her nursing school homework with him so thoroughly, as well as Donatello for keeping such a cool head. (He'd had to go out and buy some antibiotics during that long night, and he'd carefully noted the irony and then filed it away for later. Much later.)

Then he went about ascertaining what it would take to get an audience with the esteemed Master Splinter.

Not that he was that snide with the turtles. And truthfully, if he were to be honest with himself, he'd kind of demonized the old rat in his head as the instigator of the danger the boys so often found themselves in. He resolved to be fair when he actually spoke to him, but he was finding it hard not to be disrespectful in his head. There had been a scary moment where Michelangelo's heart had stopped beating, and during those few seconds, North had performed the semi-blasphemous task of praying to God for Mike's health and calling on the devil to curse the one that had done this to him. It wasn't until the unreal car-ride a few hours later to pick up the antibiotics that he realized the one he'd pictured in his curse had been a humanoid rat.

Would I have done that a week ago, he'd wondered. Would I have reacted that strongly before? Somehow, seeing Mike as a human had driven home in his mind just how young the boys were, how vulnerable.

Sitting across from his own daughter during one of her rare visitation weekends, he tried to picture asking her (even assuming she somehow knew ninjutsu) to go into a warehouse full of thugs and other bad men and fight them. Then his traitorous mind pictured her lying in a bathtub, dying. He knew it was an unfair comparison, but the horror stayed with him.

He wondered, as he trekked through the sewers, what he wanted out of the old rat.

Splinter had agreed to meet him, in the lair even, though he had to be blindfolded before they would take him there. The fact that they required it of everyone did little to ease the sting of distrust.

The lair was everything Michelangelo had said it was, and several things he hadn't. For one, it smelled. Not quite unpleasantly, but rather strongly, mostly of that peculiar musk that was mutant turtle. There were other scents: rat, incense, sweat (lots of that, mixed in with the turtle-musk), the sharp stink of the sewers hiding behind the other scents, and a sweet-ish lemon scent that North identified as some sort of cleaning agent. It was definitely a bachelor pad, though admittedly a well-kept one.

Splinter's room was the source of the incense. North settled himself down in seiza in front of the rat. The floor was hard beneath his knees, sending his memory back to his days in the dojo of Garrity-sensei, where it lingered for a few moments. He brought himself back to the present to find Splinter gazing at him calmly, his face completely blank. It was a little hard to read expressions on a face so unlike a humans', but Splinter looked as inscrutable as a police officer. Well. He was the father of four teenage boys.

"Hello, Mister North," Splinter said. His accent was Japanese, his voice soft but carrying. He did not sound nearly as old as Michelangelo had made him out to be, though, to be fair, North hadn't really thought Splinter was "like, a thousand years old."

"Hello, Mister Splinter," North replied. He thought he heard a hushed noise from outside the room, and a whispered voice (it had to be Mikey) said incredulously, "Mister Splinter?"

"My sons, I believe April is expecting you," Splinter said in a slightly louder tone, an amused look on his face. "Do not be late."

There was a shuffle, and then a few moments later Splinter relaxed and smiled apologetically at North.

"Kids," he said, and some of North's antagonism fell away. He'd expressed the same sentiment himself on occasion. Splinter shifted his weight slightly, and his tone was more business-like as he said, "Michelangelo indicated you wished to discuss something important with me."

North nodded, feeling suddenly, inexplicably, ashamed. This was not the monster of his imagination. This was a single father raising four boys, doing the best he could under the circumstances. And yet…

"I am concerned about the boys," North said, then, steeling himself, "Specifically the fact that you let them patrol the city and fight crime. They're… awfully young to be doing that sort of thing."

Splinter nodded slowly. "And this concerns you," he said. It was not a question. North nodded. Splinter sighed. "You disapprove."

North cringed inside. What had he been thinking, coming here like this? What business was it of his? The thought of Michelangelo lying in a bathtub bleeding and shivering with fever gave him courage. He had a right to be concerned, even if he couldn't do anything but talk to the source of those concerns.

"Yes, I do disapprove. I understand that your circumstances are nothing short of extraordinary, but… Well, I have a sixteen-year-old daughter myself, Mister Splinter. I worry so much about her, and she doesn't even intentionally put herself in danger. I worry about your sons. I… I think of them as my own, in a way."

He felt embarrassed, somehow, admitting that. But Splinter smiled.

"I am pleased to hear it. I am also glad to know that your disapproval rises out of genuine concern for my sons. It will make this easier, I hope."

Splinter closed his eyes, and a strange expression passed over his face. North thought it might be pain. After a moment he opened his eyes and spoke.

"If you, a relative stranger, worry about my sons, how do you think I feel every time they leave the lair, every time they go into battle, every time they come home hurt? I taught them ninjutsu so that they could protect themselves from the outside world, because I knew that simply cowering in the sewers would not protect them forever. I knew that I could not protect them forever. And even then, when they were so small they could barely walk, much less do katas, I could see what my future held: hours spent waiting, staring at the first aid supplies set out in front of me, wondering if those small bandages and antiseptic cream would be enough. I knew this, and a part of me wanted to cower in the sewers after all, curl up around my sons and keep them with me always. But I knew that I could not. To do so would be to damage them in ways worse than their enemies ever could. I knew that I could not be there forever, and that they would need their independence in order to survive without me. I also knew there was a very real possibility that the skills I was teaching them could be turned to evil purposes. Ninjutsu is a dark heritage in many ways, Mister North, and I would rather have hid in the sewers and lived as animals, scrounging for scraps, than have my sons grow up to be villains. The only way to combat that, however, was to instill in them a virtue and respect for life so powerful that they could not help but act on it, and in so doing, condemn myself to this life of waiting. And possibly, I know, Mister North, condemn them to a short life. But I would rather have sons who would die protecting the weak and innocent than sons who would cower in safety thinking only of themselves and their own survival. I have four such sons, which is both my greatest joy and my greatest pain."

North swallowed at the lump in his throat. The demon was gone, exorcised by a rat with moral strength enough to choose the hardest path a father could choose. He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he would have chosen to cower in the dark, and he knew it made Splinter the better man—rat. When his voice was steady again, he said,

"Thank you, Mister Splinter. You do have four fine sons, and I am proud to know them."

Splinter smiled.

"Thank you, Mister North. Have I addressed all your concerns?"

North nodded.

"Yes. Yes, you have. Please, if there's anything I can do for you and your boys, just let me know."

"I will. It does my heart good to know that my sons have yet another ally on the surface world."

When the turtles came back with April O'Neil, North and Splinter were sitting in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting. North caught Michelangelo's eye and nodded. Mike's face broke into a relieved smile, and North got up to be introduced to April.