Sometime around two that morning, a warm front from the Gulf made a grudging, ponderous, unseasonable trek north and hit New Jersey. It clashed there with the lower edges of a cold air mass that had kept New Englanders close to their fireplaces and radiators for weeks. Soon, snow began to spin among the Manhattan towers.
Splinter was half-crouched on the highest shelf of the trailer, scratching at the ceiling, when the metal roof inches above him began to rattle with small hail. He'd have to work faster, now, to keep what little progress he'd made on the seam from freezing. He grabbed the heavy, dented can of fruit cocktail at his side and banged it against the bent line where the roof and wall met. Time was his enemy now, not sound.
Picking his way out of this trap before anyone arrived could take hours. No security had arrived, alerted to an intruder. That was bad. Guards he could have handled. Getting past even the small crew of early morning hotel employees, however, would be a daunting task, and that was only if luck held and they opened his trailer door before the breakfast rush. He pounded again, felt more of the sheeted metal flinch beneath the blows. Not enough. He picked at a steel staple, using the edge of a screw he'd found beneath one of the carts.
Soon the rat's sensitive ears picked up the steady thrumming of rain that followed the hail. Chill water struck the car and melted the hail, then began to pool in the depression of the center. Half an hour later, as the hole in the trailer widened enough for the backlot's lights to glint in, the pool overflowed and rainwater began to fall over the car's cold sides, heavy. The sounds of the dripping water came to Splinter like distant subway trains... Or Pacific waves against a lonely ship's hull... Or a quiet thunder of hoofbeats...
in the meadow were horses
running in moonshadow
leo watched them run to the trees that crowded the grass. when the horses were gone, he turned around to ask the wizard a question, but the wizard had grown into crumpled brick.
leo waited. the grasses grew
the grasses were soft...
he lay in the cool, damp field, turning his face from the dew and wiping at the wetness around his mouth.
he kept missing.
the moss beneath the grass was swollen with water, saturated and rising. leo couldn't keep his face dry
he tossed restlessly, felt the cold of the water shock his skin
"it's a flood" the bricks said comfortably. "open your eyes it's just a flood"
Leo opened his eyes.
"Water," he said, sitting up and hearing the blankets beneath him squelch loudly. His head roared and spun, dizzy from the movement. Leo braced himself on one hand, his fingers splashed. Cold wetness was oozing up his thighs. "Mikey, flood! Wake up!" He grabbed his brother's side and shook him as his stomach clamored for attention. "Donnie, Raph, it's flooding!"
Why was it so dark? Did all the night candles burn out? They shouldn't have played with the precious wax so much!
"Is Splinter back?" Mike asked, the words weak with sleep.
"I don't think so." They had a candle in their room, on Don's side. An extra, just in case... "Donnie, quick, can you light the candle over there?"
"My blankets're soaked," Raph cried. "There's gotta be an inch on the floor already!"
They listened to Don scratching at a matchbook, and waited nervously for the light. Leo didn't want to move until he could see the outer chamber. He could hear the change in the dripping water that soundtracked their lives, how the running drops left splashes and echoes instead of their usual hollow draining sounds. The den smelled different, and Leo wished he could see into the blackness and know how bad things already were. He was afraid of reaching off of their bedding and finding nothing but a bottomless lake of water all around them.
Don was cursing at the matches scraping at the cardboard in his hand. "C'mon, ya damn sulphur, let's go. You're not the wet ones, here. Just light, wouldja..."
"I'm hungry," Michaelangelo announced. More asleep than awake, Leo guessed.
A sudden flame sipped the air, blinding them, then fed its fire to a candle shaking in Don's left hand. The Turtles squinted around at their home, blinking the last of their sleep away. Raph had been right; at least an inch of grimy liquid was covering the scrubbed stone of the floor.
"All that cleaning we did," Raph moaned at Leo's side. "Where's it all coming from?"
"It's coming from where the new room is!" Don shouted. "It must have all backed up behind the new wall - we never gave the water anywhere else to go. Not if it rained. It must be raining Topside! Oh geez!"
"Raining?" Mike cried. "No way, it's January!"
"Some pipe must have broken," Raph agreed.
Mike scrambled out of the blankets. "Where's Splinter? We were asleep a long time, he's gotta be back!"
Leo splashed his way out of the alcove and through the other room. He leaned out the door to check the tunnel outside: "He's not here, guys. But you're right, Don, most of it's coming from the new room. Those holes..."
"Is it wet out here, too?" Raph asked, shoving past Leo and climbing over the stone 'step' of their door. The water along the bottom of their sewer sounded like it had a current, sweeping all sorts of debris past the Turtles and their home.
"Quick, guys, we have to get everything off the ground," Leo shouted to the light behind him, deciding to ignore Raph's shove. No one liked to tangle with Raph just after he'd woken up. "Grab some bricks for Sensei's chair!"
Mike snatched the candle Don had managed to light and started running around, setting the flame to the other lights of the room, sending the wet lair into a stark blaze of color. Oily swirls looped on the water's shallow black surface, but little else floated there, for the moment.
"Come on, Mikey, give me a hand over here," Don called, staggering toward Splinter's chair from a corner by the door, a cinderblock hanging from both hands. "...things are...heavy - "
Leo grabbed one of the blocks and heaved it over to Mike. "Here," he said as his brother jumped back, letting it crash into the water at his feet. "Stack 'em up, quick."
"There's a couple more over there," Don told him and Raph. They started grabbing bricks, too. The chair was riding high in no time, and everything on the room's low, homemade tables quickly found a place on the crowded wall shelves. Safe. The water could only rise another six inches before it would clear the 'step' to the lair and flow out into the sewers.
Mike ducked into their alcove and lifted two cardboard boxes from behind the blankets. The Turtles kept 'their' stuff in these. Leo helped him balance the boxes' sodden bottoms on a tabletop, which he had perched carefully on the arms of the chair, then ran to help Raph and Don with the soaked blankets.
"Wait, guys, we can't put those over here!" Mike warned them. "They won't fit! And they'd just soak our stuff and Master Splinter's chair if we put 'em up."
Leo scanned the room helplessly.
"There's nowhere else," Don said.
Raph glowered at them. "I am not gonna stand around holding these things until the water goes down!" he cried.
"No, they're too heavy," Leo agreed. "Any ideas, guys?"
Mike shrugged, taking some of the load from Raphael. "Are there any more bricks somewhere?"
"Nope. We used them all for the new wall," Don said.
"Then we're stuck," Mikey whimpered. "We'll just have to take turns holding them until the water goes down a bit."
"No way. Why bother?" They turned to Raphael, who sloshed past them into the alcove. He dropped the soaked blankets into the water, sending up an angry splash as he spun to face the others. "Splinter's not here. We can dry them out later and he'll never know the difference."
"That's dumb, Raph!" Don countered.
"He'll be back," Mike shouted at him. "You even said so! Maybe sooner than we think!"
"Oh, and how would you know?"
"Cause he just will!"
"So what are we supposed to do until then?"
"Until then, we live up to what he has taught us." Leo lifted one of the candles, the nice one that sat in a small glass globe by their sensei's chair. The light cast orange shadows on the Turtles' pale cheeks. "We don't know why Splinter's not back. But we're old enough to be responsible for the lair while he's gone, right? So that's what we'll do. It's what he's trusted to us."
"You've got an idea," Raph guessed, voice flat.
Surprised at Raph's assumption, and bewildered that the others were looking at him expectantly now, too, Leo hesitated. Should he come up with anything like an order at this point, Raphael would most likely jump him. Yet saying nothing would get them all in trouble with the sensei. If he came back. He decided to compromise.
"Well, there's no place to put them in here. We just have to find another dry place." Let them figure it out.
"Out in the tunnels? We could hang them on some pipes!"
"Are you kidding, Mike?" Don rolled his eyes. "They'd never get clean again!"
"We ain't gonna try to put them somewhere topside, Leo, if that's what you're thinking."
He put his hands up, eyes wide. Innocent.
"Got it! The training room!"
Good job, Donnie, Leo thought. Saved my butt again.
"Yeah, if the ledge hasn't been overflowed already," Raph muttered.
"Let's go find out." Mike led the way out, squeezing through the doorway with his armload.
They moved, their bare feet splashing and sloshing the rising water that swept months of frozen debris along its path. The Turtles' footsteps echoed until the four brothers sounded like an army charging through the sewers. The tunnel actually did have a current, something they hadn't felt since November. The city's debris slid past them in the chill water, a silent presence that brushed their ankles like shadows. Raphael reached the silt chamber first.
Their training room was often wet during spring, when the huge snowbanks set up by the DPW plows melted into the swollen storm drains. Tonight the rain was only heavy enough to trickle over the floor, spread a few feet in its center, then move on between frosted edges toward the River. Leo, balancing the candle's globe on his blankets, led the way to the right-hand ledge. Don set his burden down gratefully beside Raph's.
"Where'd Mikey go?" Raphael demanded.
They had three seconds to panic before Michaelangelo appeared in the arch of the entrance. "I'm right here," he said, leaning briefly against the bricks.
"You okay, Mike?" Leo held the light up to see him better.
"I got dizzy." Mike shuffled over to the ledge and dropped his blankets there. "You guys went too fast."
Raph was at his side. "Shoulda said something, Mikey. We'd have stopped. What happened? You get hit or something?"
Mike shook his head, slipped down the wall and leaned back at the edge of the candlelight. "Just hungry. I always get extra hungry when I'm tired."
They listened to the water flow.
"Well," Leo said quietly, "Well, let's head back, then."
Mike whispered something.
"What?" asked Raph.
"I don't think I can walk that far."
No one moved.
"Mike, come on, we're all tired. Quit being such a baby."
Mikey glared up at Leo, but didn't take the bait.
Don scuffed the floor with one cold foot. "Guys, I don't feel all that great, either."
Leo wanted to groan. "We can't stay here, and don't even think about asking 'why not', Raph. I don't care if you're tired, we're going back." It wasn't working. Don limped over to Mikey's side.
"Splinter's gone, we're starving to death, what's there to go back to, Leo?" he asked, slumping down next to Mike.
Try something else. "This is a test. Okay? A test. We have to be strong, fight our way through the enemy's energy-sucking rays. So haul up, we'll work together." He walked over to Mike, trying not to wobble. When did the floor get so tilted, anyway?
"Here. Give me your hand," he said. Mike looked up, knew Leo wasn't taking no for an answer. "We can't disappoint Splinter."
Mike winced and got to his feet. His skin went a pale, sallow green in the cheeks and he staggered a little, catching himself against the ledge. Leo held his hand tightly, ready to grab him. "You're okay, Mikey, you'll make it. Don?"
Raph was helping him up.
"Stick with Raph. Let's get home." He reached past Mike, snatched up the candle globe, and followed Don and Raph back into the sewers. Mikey moved slowly, eyes wide, trying to hurry. He was shivering.
"Feels like everything in me's shaking, Leo."
"It's okay, just keep going."
"Or turning to wood. Stiff, you know?"
"Mmm." He knew the feeling.
Up ahead, Don had fallen in behind Raph. He stumbled every few steps. Until then, Leo had hoped they were just faking, but now it was obvious. The hunger was too powerful, and the others had given up the fight of pretending it away.
"God. I wish we could eat something. It's like being ripped up inside."
"I know, Mike. We'll try and sleep when we get back. Then you won't feel it so bad."
Mike slowed a little, stretched out an arm to the side of the pipe for extra support. Raph and Don got farther ahead. "Leo?"
He shifted the hot globe in his fingers to get a better grip and climbed over a tire in their path. "Yeah?"
"If I go to sleep, just make sure I wake up when Splinter comes, okay?"
Like you won't be the first one to hear him coming, Leonardo thought.
"Geez, Mikey. You're gonna wake up fine on your own."
"Come on, Leo, promise! I'll be your best friend!"
Leo glanced at the wax in the candle and held his breath. It wasn't that bad yet. But if it got that way... It was a hell of a request, he realized. "Promise," he muttered. If he had to stay awake from now through next week, he'd make sure all his brothers woke up when Splinter came home.
"Turtles' Honor," Leonardo whispered.
The rat leaped down from his perch one final time, turned, and took the last four rolls from the raided tray. He put one in his mouth and tucked the rest into the bag on the floor, then climbed the rack again, with the bag in one hand. The slim steel rods swayed as he reached the top, and for a few moments Splinter feared that the shelves would collapse beneath the added weight. But, by some miracle, the storage rack held. The rat muttered and ducked his head out of the opening he'd created. Just a few more inches on either side and he'd be able to make it through.
The rain left his whiskers dripping as he leaned back in, but it had slowed in the last hour. The lot glowed with murky yellow witchlights where the halogen streetlamps hung in thick fog. Splinter hoped it lasted. He might need the cover. There had already been trucks in the lot, that swung in, roared for what seemed like hours, then pulled out again, leaving a city silence of comfortable background noise and traffic. Splinter set his hands back on the upper edge of the car's side and began to push outward again. His arms strained, the muscles in his back went taut with effort. Beneath the wrappings he'd torn from the bottom of his cloak, the rat's palms were bleeding again. But the metal gave, eased toward the backlot cement a few millimeters, and gave some more. Below the line of screws that bonded it to the roof, the siding bulged downward. Splinter shoved out again, his legs tensing on the rack where he kneeled. A popping sound came at his ear and he lurched forward as the wall slipped off another screw. He caught his balance, relaxed, breathed, shifted his grip and leaned in again.
Something banged against the door behind him.
The rat cursed and lunged at the wall. It gave, a quarter of an inch. Splinter's arms shot over to the other half of the semi-circular opening and pushed down with desperate force. This attack came close to freeing the wall from another screw, but it wasn't enough. He nearly leapt back to his first handhold and jerked at it, ignoring the sudden spurt of blood that ran down his wrist. A clang as of clashing pots came to him distantly.
Splinter struggled against the metal. He dropped one hand long enough to seize the bag and force it through the hole, then shoved again as the thud reached his ears. Ten feet, he guessed. If he was lucky, he wouldn't break anything when he jumped. If he was lucky, he'd be able to jump. The rat gained another screw's width on the hole. The opening showed nearly three feet of outside light across its top, now.
He heard something shift and click behind him. Splinter faced the curled upper edge of the siding, placed his hands on its center, and drove his weight down with a cry. The eight inch gap fell to nine, then ten. It went no farther. The door opened.
Splinter ripped the cloak from his back and shoved it through, then dove. His head slammed out into the wet night behind his bleeding hands, and he felt the raw skin of his duct-weary shoulders scrape painfully on the edge of the roof.
"Hey, who left the lights on in here?"
Slamming his hands to the side of the trailer, the rat shoved forward until his chest was free. He lunged outward, arms coming away and ready to roll him through the fall.
Had the siding not curved into a gentle U when Splinter had forced it out, the master would have cut himself badly. As it was, his hips were caught by the slimmer sides of the opening and pinned him painfully, in midair and already committed to falling. The pain forced a surprised yelp from the rat, and a shocked scream echoed off the walls of the trailer behind him.
"Gah! What the heck is that?!"
Splinter pulled himself up on his hands again. He tucked in his legs, bent forward. His arms went tight and powered off the wall.
The sensei hit the ground and rolled, coming up in a stagger. His head swung, spotted the food bag and fallen cloak. He snatched them up in the wall of mist, pointed himself away from the glowing lights above, and fled the Kimberly like a thief into the night.
Fog hung among the city's towers, filling the spaces above the frozen pavement, descending through fire escapes to take over the alleyways. It swept from the rooftops to the refuse in the wake of the storm - grey smoke on a fallen battlefield. The rat used the blurring, crossing open parking lots and streets in its natural cover. He had abandoned what was left of his torn cloak in an alley near the Kimberly, shortly after his first excursion underground.
The storm drains were flooded.
Their water levels were dropping, now that the rain stopped, but the sewers would be dangerous - even deadly- for hours yet. So Splinter had left his cloak in the pre-dawn darkness. New Yorkers could accept a rat of his size, even one that carried a bag in its teeth, but he dared not risk appearing with a cloak on his back. He hardly minded the loss.
What bothered him was the length of his above-ground journey. Even with the help of the fog, he would have to move with some degree of stealth, and that would easily triple the time he needed to get home to the Turtles, with the food bag dry and intact. He fought the thoughts that drifted to his sons. Splinter well knew that worry for them was a wasted effort of emotion now, a distraction as alluring as his hunger had been.
Still...the sewers were flooded.
How would they react to the rising water, alone, without any idea where their master was or why he hadn't returned? He had left his sons for nearly ten hours several times before...but always with warning.
What would the Turtles do, if they felt he had abandoned them?
The Turtles stood crowded in the entrance to the lair, leaning on each other. Candles still burned on the shelves of the room, sending up a hundred reflections on the water that covered the stone floor. Don shivered against Mike's side and clenched his hands.
"We can't sleep in here," he said.
No one answered. They knew.
Mike shifted his weight onto the other foot. "I don't want to go all the way back," he murmured, barely audible over the sounds of water behind them. Don glanced down the tunnel that led to the training room, which seemed so distant now, and had to agree. The candle globe that Leo still held sent a wavering trail of gold before them into their home. Leo didn't follow it in.
Don wasn't going to be the first to step off the wet shelf into the deeper water of the den.
Some minutes later, Raphael shrugged Don's arm from his shell and leaned toward Leonardo, taking the candle from his brother's hands. He crouched down on the doorstep and set the globe out before him, on the water of the den. The Turtles watched, fascinated, as he carefully lifted his hands away from the glass.
The light floated. It bobbed in the miniature waves, breaking through the oil patterns, silent as the four who watched it.
Don watched Raph let it float out of reach, but still no one moved.
"Is Splinter ever gonna come back?" Michaelangelo asked.
Don flinched. "Sure he will," he said, the answer coming like reflex, like a long-argued protest.
"Maybe we should go look for him."
"Get real, Mikey," Raph growled at their feet, "You're the one doesn't even want to go as far as the damn training room."
The huge darkness of the night beyond their tunnels seemed to creep closer.
Don held his breath. Should he ask? One of them had to say it...
Mikey was looking at him, seemed to guess, seemed to ask him to voice the question he didn't dare. Okay, Don decided. "What - what if he's caught?" He ran nervous fingers up the cold bricks of the doorway. "He might not be able to come back."
There. It was said. They could face it now.
"And what if he's dead?" Raph added. Don could have hit him. That was overdoing it!
Mike leaned on him, burying his nose in his brother's shoulder.
"If he is..." Leo said slowly, "if he doesn't come back, we'll be okay together."
Raph lurched into the water, chasing the candle, passing it, sending shimmering waves into the air as he plowed across the room. He reached Splinter's chair and stood before it, his back to the others, then reached up and lifted the table from its perch on the chair arms. The others moved aside as he staggered back, letting him carry the load into the sewer outside, their boxes still balanced on its surface. He set it down gently, the battered legs just straddling the current of water. "There," he said, stepping out of the shadows to stand among his brothers again. Raph had taken a headband out of one of the boxes, and he pulled it carefully on. "Now we can sleep somewhere."
Mike was the first to follow him to the big seat, perched on its bricks, the fringe of its duster brushing the water.
"But there isn't enough room for all of us," Don commented as he and Leo came over. He could tell that wasn't going to stop Raph, though. He had the look in his eyes that made Don want to find a white flag when they were in practice.
Sure enough, Raph just shrugged and offered a hand to help Don climb up.
bring your tissues, and
To take a snooze like the little Turtles, drift