It was a cool night under clear skies in the city. The waning essence of steamed trash accumulated on street corners indicated the beginning of autumn. The recent billowing of the shirts and pants of the youth into a style that is most often described as “parachute” indicated the beginning of the nineties. Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and Leonardo were on a mission to find new makeshift quarter pipes for skateboarding, new pizza places willing to deliver to shadowy figures in a nearby phone booth, and new back alleys for sparring with deadly weapons. These were, of course, the things modern teenage boys like to do. Following the advice of their master, Splinter, the boys were careful to avoid the busier areas of the city, the bluish-white glow of the street lamps, and even the faintly warm oranges and yellows of the neon signage of clubs and restaurants nearby.
Meanwhile, underground and away from all the colors and comforts of society above, were two other large mutants traipsing through the sewers. Rocksteady and Bebop were stomping and splashing around the shallow, murky water, hunting turtles. Ironically, the element of stealth is ideal for an ambush, but it is lost on the pair who would seek to ambush ninjas.
After unknowingly circling the same subterranean vicinity of three city blocks for over an hour, Rocksteady was the first to express his evident agitation. He huffed and stomped twice, splashing wastewater up to the knees on his companion’s threadbare cargo pants. The mutant pachyderm henchman barked to Bebop that he was splitting up and checking out another passage to the right, and insolently commanded that the mutant warthog henchman investigate another passage further down and to the left. Bebop nodded, but thanks to his obnoxiously large and purple polarized goggles, Rocksteady couldn’t notice the look of contempt his partner returned.
With a mildly exasperated snort, Bebop complied and began trekking ahead solo. He could feel the conviction draining out of him, especially when he heard a distant wheeze and the probable sound of his cohort slipping in the sewer and falling gracelessly on his butt. In the solemn company of himself, he finally began to consider his mission, then his role in the mission, and then his role in anything over the last few months. Through his goggles and a scattering of navy blue moonlight filtering in from a few grates above, he stopped to inspect a dark grey mass at his feet. The corpse of a pigeon must have flushed its way down into the sewers somehow. Normally, Bebop enjoyed depluming and gutting dead animals and harvesting their bones into jewelry, such as the pendant he wore around his neck. However, this was a particularly fowl fowl, all waterlogged and covered in filth. In an uncommonly considerate motion, he stepped around the carcass before trudging on through the sewer.
The dead bird got him thinking about all the dangers of life, which he typically shrugged off with ease. Although his confidence in math was subpar at best, he knew there were at least four large mutant turtles who often worked well together, and just one large mutant warthog attempting to encounter them right now. That math wasn’t reckoning very well at the moment.
Fifteen minutes later in some arbitrary corridor under the city, Bebop observed a crudely-fashioned wooden door over a portion of the wall up ahead. It was absolutely the only door he had ever noticed during any of these lousy skirmishes through the bowels of this city. This realization made him recall just how many awful excursions Shredder had sent them on. The man was working with an alien who liked to complain a lot from its little control room in the abdomen of a pro-wrestling android that shot lasers from its eyes. In all their grandiose plans, for whatever reason his boss prioritized the targeted killing of four sewer dwellers. This was, of course, Bebop and Rocksteady’s problem too, he mostly understood.
He was now standing alone in front of a makeshift door in the sewer. Filth was all around him. Bebop considered kicking the door in while being prepared for combat, though there didn’t appear to be any sort of barricade or lock on it. He stood there for a moment, thinking and listening, then slowly pushed the door open with his calloused knuckles, and looked inside.
Beyond the door looked like a living room to Bebop. There was a rancid couch with some pallets stacked up beside it, perhaps serving as a large end table, supporting discarded pizza boxes. The oddly bright room was perfectly quiet, which prompted the mutant warthog mercenary to open the door fully.
Further into the room and partially around a corner, sitting perfectly still atop a cushion in the lotus position was an elderly-looking rat person. Splinter, the sensei of the turtles, was meditating. He did not visibly react to his guest in any way.
Bebop froze. The feral part of his brain that was usually dominant urged him to rush forward with a surprise attack. He hesitated, suddenly realizing he had never attacked an elderly person. Then again, there were never any little old ladies doddering all alone in Manhattan at night, waiting to be victimized. On the other hand, this wasn’t an elderly person meditating before him. This was a giant rat that just sort of looked wizened and old. Bebop had never seen a rat this old or big before. But then again he had never found a warthog girlfriend, so maybe life simply wasn’t fair.
Splinter was not his quarry. Even if he was a fellow mutant, he looked much more the part of a wise old man in a magenta bathrobe. Unfortunately, the warthog grossly misunderstood the man who trained the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was not wearing a bathrobe, rather it was a traditional martial arts outfit known as a gi with his black belt securing it at the waist. The rat man was a consummate master in martial arts, including many skills of the mind. Bebop was alone and very much out of his element. He would later recall staring at his grungy boots while rallying to attack, only to raise his head and see Splinter looking right into his eyes. Startled, he clutched the chain around his torso in preparation for wielding it.
“Sit down, my son,” Splinter gently commanded.
Bebop missed a beat, but then arched his shoulders forward and began to spring off of his dominant leg, preparing to charge like the warthog he sort of was.
“Sit.” The sensei’s terse command was more forceful this time, and unmistakably no-nonsense.
The would-be assailant stopped in his tracks. Obediently, Bebop sat, whereupon he flinched for a split second as the couch let out a faint squishing noise under his weight, which suggested the cushion might be damp, or worse. Splinter did not appear to react to either the noise nor his guest’s look of alarm.
“Where is your friend,” the sensei asked casually.
Bebop didn’t have any friends. It took him a full three seconds to comprehend that the rat man must be talking about Rocksteady. That knucklehead might be all the way to Spanish Harlem by now with his superior navigational skills. Communication was not his best talent, and Bebop simply replied as best as he could, “I don’t know.” It was, at best, the truth.
“Are you looking for my sons?”
“Huh?” Bebop was not hunting any younger rat men. This question also confused him.
“How can I help you, my son,” Splinter offered patiently.
Bebop thought to himself, “How many sons does this dude have? He just called me his son. Maybe he doesn’t know what ‘son’ means. Maybe I don’t know what ‘son’ means.” All the rat man saw, however, was a lumbering brute scratching his hide and replying with “Uhhh.”
“Bebop,” Splinter continued, “A sensei, or master, teaches his student to face the world and his missions alone. If he does not teach his student well, he is setting his student up for failure.”
The warthog man snorted in surprise. “You know my name?”
“Yes, my son. And I know your master well. I know him as Oroku Saki, but you know him as Shredder.”
Hearing Shredder’s name triggered a combative reflex in Bebop’s brain. He almost bucked in his seat as he let out an aggressive snort. The optics of a giant warthog in goggles raging on a couch, however, were not particularly terrifying.
By the time Bebop had gotten to his feet, another fairly quiet but firm command came from the rat man. “Sit.” Splinter had still not moved from his lotus position.
The aggressor’s snorts abruptly ended in a sort of hiccup sound, followed by the familiar ‘splork’ of the massive beast sitting back down on the soiled couch.
Splinter continued, perfectly at ease. “An honorable master will teach his student the skills…” He paused, thoughtfully, “…and the confidence to complete his mission. I can see that you are are feeling unprepared and unsure about being here.”
“Hey!” Bebop protested, but wasn’t sure how to follow through with it. He was always prepared with a garden variety threat whenever one of the turtles talked smack to him. This time is was an old man, and old rat man, calling him out while being perfectly respectful. Maybe he was unprepared. Maybe his discomfort felt worse than any swat across the head with a bo, or any flying turtle kick to the back. He blinked, benumbed.
“It’s not your fault,” Splinter consoled in the same flat affect. “You have never experienced the joy of victory. Shredder has not given you the tools or the training one needs to achieve victory. Because of this, he is constantly setting you up for failure. Did you know that?”
Unable to discern helpful wisdom from a lecture, the warthog man rallied, “Tell me where the turtles are!”
Pleased that his intruder was finding his voice, Splinter nodded respectfully. “I understand you’re looking for my sons, but they are not here. Let us discuss what brings you to our home, and we can wait for them here together. I’m sure they will return sooner or later.”
“You want me to wait here?!” The tone of Bebop’s voice was still loud and aggressive, as though he didn’t realize he was asking a civilized question.
Splinter stared at him for a moment, then got to his feet rather spryly for such a venerable-looking rat person. “I’ll make tea,” he offered, and shuffled over to a hot plate and kettle atop a large spool that was once used to hold a length of industrial cabling.
The lair was quiet again. Bebop found himself looking at the makeshift wooden door from which he had entered. He was fidgeting on the squishy couch and feeling anxious and confused, partially waiting for anyone to come through that door. He thought to himself, “Where were these turtles? Where was Rocksteady? What the heck am I doing here?” Suddenly, Bebop farted, then started tapping his boot on the pale grey masonry of the floor. He hoped the boot-tapping racket would have hidden the noise. Splinter had his back to him, and if he had heard anything, had not reacted noticeably. No sounds could be heard beyond that door, and inside the room was only the sound of water approaching boiling point and the faintest din of a fluorescent light overhead. Now noticing it, he wondered how any of these appliances work down here as well.
“Are you planning on attacking the turtles?” Splinter was looking right at Bebop, who hadn’t realized he was staring straight up at a fluorescent bulb. He looked like a novice using sunglasses to stare at an eclipse. The warthog quickly looked ahead at him, but balking at the question. He stopped tapping his feet.
“Shredder says we have an important mission,” he replied, almost boasting. “We can’t let those turtles ruin our plans.”
Splinter asked evenly, “Do you have a plan, Bebop?”
“Yeah, I’m going to trample those turtle twerps!” Bebop had practiced his alliterative taunts so long, he had announced one without remembering his audience.
“A good master loves his student like his own son,” Splinter deflected. “I would never command the turtles to go attack someone. Martial arts training is for self-defense. I know your master Shredder well, and I know he does not like the turtles. But tonight, my sons are having fun, and being young, and taking good care of themselves. I would imagine you would prefer to be having fun tonight as well, correct?”
“But Shredder says…” Bebop began to reply, but stopped and gritted his massive teeth before continuing his sentence.
“Look at where you are! Look at your choices!” Splinter barked, quite uncharacteristically. He did not appear frustrated, and his words halted Bebop once again. Though hidden behind goggles, the warthog man’s eyes widened in surprise as the tea kettle began to whistle. Bebop farted once again under the audial cover of steam.
“You yellin’ at me,” Bebop asked. He had been a subordinate for so long, that his words to a master came out more subdued than he intended.
Splinter walked slowly over to Bebop with two cups of tea. He handed one to his guest and stood before him for a prolonged moment. A standing Splinter was roughly at eye level with a seated Bebop. Beholding the rat man up close, Bebop saw a frail old man, a rat man, with eyes that were as alert as ever. Those eyes appeared to have no malice. If there was any indication Splinter noticed the fresh smell of fart, his eyes indicated nothing.
“I am saddened to watch you struggle, when the struggle does not have to be. You and your friend have encountered the turtles many times before, and I suppose you’re looking to take something away from the encounter that they cannot give you. Even if you defeat them, you will still be at war with yourself.”
Without realizing, Bebop was choking up a bit as he nodded absently to the compassionate words of this stranger.
“It is not your fault that Shredder made you into the creature you are today,” Splinter continued. “It is not your fault he places unrealistic expectations on you and Rocksteady. It is not your fault you are always a low-level boss fight that doesn’t require a lot of quarters.”
Bebop was nodding and squinting through tears inside his goggles. It felt good to receive such amnesty from a wise old rat man. He did turn his head, however, confounded by that last statement. Splinter raised an eyebrow while looking right at him as he sipped his tea. Clearly, he wasn’t born yesterday.
“Bebop,” Splinter asked, encouragingly, “what would you like to do with your life?”
“I don’t know,” the warthog man replied amidst sobbing and snorting. It was discouraging to Splinter to see how quickly he had a lackluster answer for such a question.
“Do you think the turtles are happy?”
Bebop nodded meekly, then pawed the teacup and downed its contents in one impressive gulp.
“As I said, I have trained the turtles, and I love them as my own sons. I wish for nothing more than to give them the tools and the confidence to be happy, and to go seek happiness for themselves. I am a sensei, not a dictator. Though the turtles on occasion protect me and their other loved ones, my role is not to simply command them to do the things that I find are beneath me to do. Do you understand?”
“What about Shredder?” The tone of Bebop’s voice indicated he was indeed afraid of the man.
“Do you suppose he will expend the resources to track you down and punish you in some way?”
Bebop looked down at his lap, unsure of the answer. He noticed his necklace dangling below his stooped head. He had made it himself out of a bicycle chain and the skull and some bones of a pigeon. Suddenly, for the first time, this adornment felt completely ridiculous to him. He thought to rip it off his neck, but lost the energy to do so.
“I think,” Splinter continued, while gently collecting the teacup back from Bebop’s hand, “That he’s far too busy trying to take over the galaxy with help from warlords from outer space. You probably don’t have to worry about retribution much if you simply never go back.”
With those words, Bebop raised his head to meet Splinter’s eyes once again, as though the figurative yoke around his neck had just been lifted. Then he thought again for a moment, and asked “What about Rocksteady?”
“If he can’t find his way here, how is he going to come find you? Besides, if he does find this place, I will speak with him just as I have spoken with you. He deserves a chance to be happy as well. We all do.”
Bebop sprang up in jubilation, nearly crushing his host’s rat foot. He was unsure of his present and his future, but he felt revived somehow, like he could do something great for once in his life.
It would take months for him to gain real direction and confidence, but later the mutant could be seen teaching basketball to teens in Spanish Harlem in an after-school intramural program. Having avoided daylight for nearly all of his formative life, it felt great to socialize and live freely. Most of the teens assumed he was an eccentric coach who used to be a former mascot, and simply never took the costume off.
Rocksteady was never seen nor heard from again.
The turtles had no idea an exchange had ever occurred between their sensei and one of their would-be rivals. It was nearly a year later, when Michaelangelo was hopping and playing air guitar all throughout the lair in the sewers, when he ended a solo by jumping on the couch. After a satisfying squish beneath his feet did he look down and see something wedged behind the cushions. Reaching down to retrieve it, he found a dingy bicycle chain with what appeared to be a pigeon skull affixed to it…