Dark Winter

Dark winter -
We honor your spirit.
We honor your soul.
We sing to your shadows.
You carry us home.

~Hymn

"Master Splinter!" She sounded surprised, that he had answered the phone, but she didn't ask about it. "Do you have power down there?"

"Yes, we are fine." He paused. "Has yours gone out?"

"It's out all over the city," she said. "No lights, no heat. They're telling everyone to go to the weather shelters."

"You should go, then."

"I know. But they're so overcrowded..." In that moment, he knew what was coming. "I know I'm only one person, it won't make a difference, but..."

And he already knew how he would reply.

He should have said no. He should have kept his sons' secret. But he was so lonely...

He met her at the door. "Do not be alarmed," he said.

"Alarmed?" she said. "Why -"

And then she caught sight of the four Turtles sprawled across the chairs and couches, looking for all the world like they were dead.

"Oh my God."

"They are hibernating," he said softly, and waited for the reaction.


He had provided her with a cup of tea, a seat not already occupied by a comatose mutant, and multiple assurances that his sons were, in fact, quite all right.

He watched her sip slowly at the steaming beverage, and he remembered the first time she had sat in this Lair, watching them all warily and worrying for her own safety.

This day, she was more worried for theirs.

"How -" she began tentatively. "How long are they like this?"

"Six to eight weeks, usually," he replied. "Depending on the severity of the weather."

"And how long -"

He turned his own teacup between his hands. "It has been a month."

She looked at him with great sadness, empathy he would not have expected from a woman who was not herself a mother. "And you've just been... alone?"

He smiled, with the calm that came from many cold winters followed by just as many blossoming springs. "I am never alone, Miss O'Neil."


But the truth was, he was alone. He was alone as his sons descended into the hibernative fugue (as Donatello called it in the seasons when it did not claim his mind), as they lost their reason and became little more than mindless animals. He was alone when they collapsed into their nests of blankets, and he was alone while they lay there, corpse-like, until some deep nucleus of their ancient reptilian brains sensed the return of milder weather, and gently roused them from their slumber.

Until that happened, they could not be woken by any means.

And so he spent the winter alone, watching over his defenseless children, slowly eating from their stores of food, making sure there was enough left to satisfy his sons when they awoke from their long fast.

The first few winters - when his sons were still only children, and not the young men they were becoming now - those had been the worst. He had spent the long, silent weeks in a state of constant anxiety, not knowing when or whether his children would wake.

The next few years, he had almost come to look forward to this season. It was lonely, to be sure, and the sight of his sons lying there, loose-limbed, not breathing, never quite ceased to worry him. But after ten months of noise and activity, of being constantly responsible for his sons' education, safety, happiness, and well-being, he had to admit he enjoyed a few weeks of peace and quiet.

And in recent years, he had come to understand that torpor was one of the safest states his sons could be in. While they hibernated, they did not starve or become sick. They were not out in the world, where they might be attacked, captured, hurt in any number of ways he did not care to imagine.

He knew where they were, and he knew they would be all right.

It was just hard, sometimes, to wait for them.


April volunteered to clean up the tea things. While she busied herself in the kitchen, Splinter moved among his sleeping sons, adjusting a blanket here, smoothing an untroubled brow there. Even in ordinary sleep, his sons never looked this peaceful.

April returned, pulling her sweater close about her.

"I know it is uncomfortable," Splinter said. The chill of the Lair. (Too warm, and his sons' rhythms would be disturbed; they would wake too soon.) The experience of calmly going about everyday business, as though their loved ones were not lying there, cold and deathly still. The knowledge that these intelligent, vibrant young spirits could be reduced to this by a quirk of their own biology. "Perhaps it would be better..."

"It's all right," April said. "I'll stay."

They both pretended she was staying so she wouldn't have to brave the snowy streets.

But they both knew she was staying so he wouldn't have to be alone.


She slept over that night. He went to his room, she went to Michelangelo's, and they turned the lights off in the central chamber, leaving the Turtles in the dark as though they were just part of the furniture.

In the morning, the Turtles were just as they had been left. Raphael was mostly-upright in the recliner, looking almost like he'd simply dozed off while watching television. Donatello and Michelangelo lay, blanket-muffled, on the couch, their legs tangled together. Leonardo huddled alone on the low lawn chair.

(The least desirable nesting site. When his intelligence and talent for strategy were stripped away by the encroaching torpor, Leonardo remained the smallest of his brothers, the perpetual loser in their instinctive shoving contests.)

He prepared breakfast for two, quietly, in the kitchen. Automatically, he noted how much food was left, how much a grown woman would eat in a day. There was still more than enough. He had little appetite, in the winter. Eating alone was too depressing.

It made him wonder what his life would have been like, if he had not found those baby turtles. He imagined it would have been a sad and empty life, filled only with scavenging, hiding, and yearning for company.

Gaining human-like intelligence had opened new doors for him, made him want things he had never wanted before. He had been overjoyed when he had discovered the young turtles were intelligent too. Day by day he had watched them grow, expanding their minds, learning new concepts. He had delighted in their first words, in their endless questions, in their realization that they could disagree with him and their discovery that they could know things he didn't.

There were few things he enjoyed more than simply conversing with his sons.

And so it pained him deeply, when their minds were stolen from him, when they became howling beasts for a week and then passed out, so that he did not hear their voices at all.

"Good morning, Master Splinter."

He turned. "Miss O'Neil. Did you sleep well?"


After breakfast, they watched the news.

"This is so strange," April commented. "Having the TV as your only window."

Splinter hummed mildly, and listened to the reports of the storm that was happening right above their heads.


She had shoveled out a manhole cover, in order to get down to the Lair.

That strategy, however, only worked in one direction.

As he watched the images of the deep-buried city, Splinter began to realize that April now had little choice as to whether she would stay with him.

She was a prisoner of the weather, as much as his sons were.

For an hour they listened to forecasts, to reports of snow totals, to lists of schools that were closed and to statistics of how many plows were out. By the end of the hour, it was clear that they would not hear anything new. Splinter picked up the remote, pointed it at the television, clicked the power button.

For a moment he listened to the subtle electronic hum of the TV, the sign that it was drawing power even when not in use. Then he turned his gaze to April.

Her own gaze was towards the couches. Her attitude was focused, thoughtful, as though she were trying to solve a problem.

"What are you thinking, Miss O'Neil?" he asked.

"Four," she said, as though the number of Turtles had only occurred to her now. "Four boys." She turned to face him. "What was the worst age?"

He smiled kindly, encouraging her curiosity even when the question made little sense to him. "I do not take your meaning."

"I just mean..." She gestured towards the Turtles. "Well, when were they the worst? When they were babies, and couldn't do anything for themselves? When they were eight?" Her lips quirked up; the thought of his sons as children seemed to amuse her. "All boys are destructive at eight. Or maybe when they became teenagers?"

His smile gentled, as he fondly remembered what she only imagined. "Miss O'Neil, my sons have been a joy to me at every age. I do not regret one minute of my life with them."

She propped her elbow on the arm of the chair, her chin in her palm. "What were they like? When they were younger?"

He rose from his seat. "Let us sit elsewhere," he said, "and I will tell you stories of my sons."


They retired to his chambers, closed the sliding door and lit some candles. The flickering warmth made the space seem smaller, cozier, insulated from anything that might happen without.

Splinter settled on a cushion, breathed deeply, drew the memories into his mind. "It is now sixteen winters since my sons were given to me," he began. "Much has happened in that time..."

She sat cross-legged on the cushion opposite him, and listened with rapt attention.


He told her why Michelangelo had shiny ripple marks on his forearms. He told her about the day Donatello discovered electricity. He told her how his sons had chosen their birthdays, and how later they had insisted their father have one as well.

But there were also stories he did not tell, secrets he did not give away. He did not tell about his sons' recurring nightmares. He did not tell why Raphael had twice as many scars as any of his brothers. He did not explain why they could not answer her, when she had asked them if they had always wanted a sister.

He kept their secrets, and he hoped they would forgive him for the one he had shared.


They had dinner together, the most pleasant dinner he had had in many weeks.

They bid each other good night.

She closed the door of Michelangelo's room, and he stood in the central chamber for many long minutes, listening to the silence.


The next morning he rose early. The door upstairs remained closed, and from the stillness in the Lair he knew his guest was yet asleep.

He moved softly to the door of the dojo, bowed, entered, began his exercises. The deceptively simple patterns of Tai Chi lay easily on his limbs, and he moved from one form to the next, finding center and serenity in the familiar flow.

After a time, he noticed April slide into the room, in a manner she may have thought was stealthy. He pretended to take a few minutes to become aware of her.

"Miss O'Neil." He finished his form, and began another. "Would you care to join me?"

She shifted, watching his movements, seeming to try to guess how much more difficult they were than he was making them look. "I don't know how."

He smiled. "The dojo is a place for students, as well as for masters. If you are willing to learn, I am willing to teach."

She was quiet for a long time.

"Okay," she said finally. "How do I start?"


"The first lesson," he said, as he knocked her to the floor, "is how to fall down. Every other lesson consists in how to avoid falling down."

She groaned as she got back to her feet. "You make it sound so easy."

"The concept is simple," he replied. "It is only the execution that is difficult."

"Unfortunately," he went on, as he kicked her feet out from under her again, "nine-tenths of ninjutsu is execution."

"Is that a terrible pun?" she asked, as she stood up.

"Ninjutsu is a difficult subject to learn," he replied, "and not an easy code to live by. But I have never seen any reason why it should be completely devoid of fun. Now -" He shifted his stance. "If you stand like this, you will not fall down so easily..."


Later, he sat in his armchair, reading a book. April had brought out a chair from the kitchen, and was perched upon it, one leg curled under her, her wet hair pinned on top of her head, a notebook between her hands.

"Master Splinter?" she said.

He looked up from his book. "Yes?"

She hesitated before asking her question. "May I draw a picture of you?"

He tilted his head. "I did not know you were an artist."

She smiled at her notebook. "Sort of."

He resettled himself in the chair. "Of course you may."

The scratching of pencil on paper, the mere presence of another conscious being, was a comfort.


"There."

He looked up. April was looking at him expectantly, her notebook held before her chest, the portrait towards him.

"You are more than 'sort of' an artist, Miss O'Neil," he told her.

She turned the notebook back around, settled it in her lap, traced her pencil across a line. "Is it all right if I keep it?" she asked. "I won't show it to anyone..."

"I would be most honored," he replied.


Later that evening, they sat in his chamber, and he told more stories of his sons. At a late hour, he finished a tale, and then simply stopped speaking.

A moment of silence, and then April raised her head and blinked at him. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to keep you up."

Splinter shook his head. "I do not mind delaying sleep, for such good company."

April smiled. "Me neither. For such a good storyteller."

Splinter returned the smile, accepting the compliment. "Before I tell another," he said, "I wondered if you might like to speak of your own family. I know very little about them."

April laughed sadly. "You don't want to know more."

Splinter frowned. "I am sorry. Is the subject... ?"

"No, it's all right." She switched her sitting position: she had folded her legs to the side, unwittingly adopting the traditional position of Japanese ladies. Now she crossed them, tucking her feet under her knees. "My father... passed away when I was in college. A heart attack. Very sudden."

Splinter listened quietly. Something was happening in this moment, something that did not require him to voice a response.

"I felt like I was too young to lose my dad," she said softly. "I still feel too young..."

"We are always too young to lose our parents," Splinter said. April nodded, pursing her lips. "Your mother?" he prompted gently.

April shook her head. "We were never close. I tried harder, after my dad... but she sort of resented it, like I was just using her as a replacement. I think... I think it really only made things worse."

"I am sorry to hear it," Splinter said.

April plucked at the fabric of the pillow. "I almost feel -" She trailed off. "This is horrible."

Splinter only waited, letting her choose whether or not to speak.

"I feel like I'm an orphan," April said, barely above a whisper, "and I'm just waiting for the paperwork to go through."

Splinter closed his eyes. He knew well the pain of having a loved one alive, but just out of reach.

He looked up at the young woman sitting across from him. "Miss O'Neil..."

She looked back at him, and he knew it was the wrong name.

He hesitated only a moment before asking: "May I call you daughter?"

Her tear-stained smile was all the answer he needed.


She wound up staying for three weeks.

He taught her the basics of ninjutsu; she taught him the fundamentals of figure drawing (a talent partially inherited, and partially learned, from her father). They spent the long days talking about their lives, their dreams, the world, and the things that lay beyond time and reality. He learned about April's early career aspirations, about her sister, about her days as a soccer player and the boys she had dated. In turn, he told her about his life in Japan, about the exploits of his Master Yoshi, about the fantastic hidden places deep below New York City.

April grew accustomed to the unconscious Turtles (as accustomed as it was possible to get), and she learned how to check on them, to see that they were warm, but not too warm.

At the end of the three weeks, during a commercial break in one of the soap operas Splinter had taught her to watch, she bent to slide her hand along Michelangelo's chest, to gauge the heat inside his cocoon of blankets.

"Master Splinter!" she said. "He's breathing!"

Splinter leapt from his chair, moving to April's side and touching Michelangelo's face. He was indeed breathing. His brothers were not yet, but they would be soon.

"My daughter," he said, even as he straightened from examining Leonardo. "You must get your things."

"What?" she said in surprise. "Why?"

He steered her gently away from the couch, propelling her towards the stairs. "You cannot be here when they wake," he said. "You cannot ever have been here."

She looked back at him in confusion, even as she stumbled up the steps.

"They -" He couldn't meet her gaze. "They did not want you to know." He looked up again. "Please. Do not let them suffer for their father's foolishness."

"It isn't foolish," she said.

He could only wait, to see what she would do.

"Don't worry," she said. "I'll keep your secret."

An hour later her bag was packed, and with a reassuring hug and a soft echo of her promise she left the Lair to return to the world aboveground, to a city that had dug itself out weeks ago.

By the time evening fell, all of his sons had risen from torpor into ordinary sleep.

And sometime before midnight -

"Good morning, Master Splinter."

He turned. "My son. Did you sleep well?"