Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1987

Sacrificial Lambs

By Lucky_Ladybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! ThickerThanLove was instrumental in developing various plot elements. This involves the antagonist from the season 6 episode Nightmare in the Lair. It is part of my Exit the Fly verse. Baxter is human again and an ally of the Turtles. His brother Barney no longer works for Shredder.

Barney was both amused and touched when he wandered downstairs and found Baxter asleep on the couch with TV Guide open and facedown on his chest and Vincent leaning on the top of the couch, fondly watching him. When he heard Barney, however, he straightened and slipped into the kitchen, not wanting to awaken his friend with their talking.

"How long has he been asleep?" Barney wondered.

"Just a few minutes," Vincent said. He sat down at the island. "When he's asleep like that, sometimes he reminds me of when we first knew each other. He wasn't constantly bent on revenge back then. Sometimes he acted very childlike with me."

Barney sat down next to him. "Do you miss that?"

Vincent frowned a bit. "I don't want to say that, exactly. I prefer him as his true self-intellectual, intelligent. . . . But I guess maybe part of me sort of misses the absolute adoration. In all my centuries alive, no one ever paid so much attention to me. It wasn't like he had much choice; we were all each other had. But he was crazy about me." He smiled a bit. "Sometimes we'd go to a rock to rest and he would hug me close. I loved it. I never had that kind of contact on the ship."

"It's odd how different people react to not having contact and then suddenly having it," Barney remarked. "You and Baxter love it, I'm still trying to not be uncomfortable by it."

"I know," said Vincent. He looked down, tracing a pattern in the marble with a finger. "Anyway, I . . . do miss that, but I'm so happy Baxter is his normal self again and that he still loves me. Our relationship isn't the same as it was then, but now that we're able to actually have intelligent conversations it's deeper than it was before." He folded his arms on the counter and looked over at Barney. "Sometimes I think I actually bonded deeper with you than I initially did with Baxter, since we were able to converse like that from the start."

Barney stared at him, stunned. "I . . . always thought nothing could be deeper than your bond with Baxter," he stammered.

"I certainly don't mean I love either of you more than the other," Vincent quickly added. "But I'm a computer. I love intellectual conversation and logic. And alright, so you weren't very logical sometimes." He smirked. "But we could share sensible conversations."

"I suppose that's true," Barney conceded. He was still reeling.

"Now that Baxter is sane, I've bonded with him on that level too," Vincent said. "Of course, with him there is that additional bond of our early times together. But he hardly remembers it." A slight melancholy tone slipped into his voice. "I meant what I said, that I don't want him to have to remember a time that was so painful for him. But I can't help feeling a little sad that he doesn't recall much about the days when we were first growing close."

"Of course," Barney said. "That's only natural."

"Especially when I have total recall." Vincent glanced at him. "I can pull up any memory from any of my 485 years."

"You still have perfect memory after Shredder iced you?" Barney frowned in concern.

"Once I completely thawed out, yes, all of my memories were intact," Vincent assured him. "In some ways, sometimes I envy organic lifeforms' ability to forget certain things they'd rather not remember."

"Can't you just delete memories you don't want?" Barney wondered.

"I could, but there's always the off-chance I might need them someday," Vincent said. "You never know when something might be important. So I save everything."

"I guess that's a good policy," Barney grunted. "I'd certainly like to forget some of my memories. Most of the bad ones are drilled into me." He sighed. "Probably my conscience insisting on saving them to further torment me. So I suppose I should accept it as my just punishment."

"You could look at it in a positive light," Vincent said. "By remembering, you're all the more determined not to do those things again, if you can help it."

"I suppose," Barney said. He paused. ". . . And that was ironic, wasn't it-me saying I'd like to forget some of my memories when I went through an experience where I lost almost all of them. I take it back; I don't want to lose part of myself ever again."

"I say that's a good attitude, Buddy," Vincent said.

Movement from behind them caused them both to turn around. Baxter was standing in the doorway, blinking sleepily, the magazine still in his hand.

"I wasn't planning on going to sleep," he said sheepishly. "I guess I really have been exhausted from work lately. Are we going to be late going to the Lair?"

"We'll be on time," Barney said.

Vincent smiled and slid off the stool. "The first time you and I have actually been invited over, Buddy," he said. "We've both been there before, but it's not the same thing."

"I'm still trying to process that now we're actually wanted," Barney mused. "It's so different from the way it was before."

"And I'm so happy," Baxter beamed. "You and Raphael have finally patched things up. Now we're all a truly united team and a family."

The trio headed for the door. "Just think," Barney remarked. "My family now consists of my biological brother, several mutants, and a living computer brother. I wonder what our parents would have to say about that."

Baxter laughed but sounded somewhat melancholy as he replied. "We'll probably never know. . . . Although we can have a pretty good idea of what our mother would think."

"Unfortunately," Barney said flatly.

xxxx

The Turtles and Splinter were ready and waiting when their friends arrived. "We are so glad to see you," Splinter said with a bow.

"Like, totally!" Michelangelo beamed. "April and Irma are coming too, just as soon as they can get away."

"That's wonderful," Baxter smiled.

"We're glad to be here," Barney said, looking awkward but at the same time, sincere.

"And I'm glad you're here," Raphael said, also awkward but sincere.

Baxter and Michelangelo both beamed.

"This is the first time I've been down here when I can actually move," Vincent said, looking around with curiosity.

"While we're waiting for the girls, why don't we take you and Barney on the grand tour?" Leonardo suggested with a smile.

"That would be great!" Vincent chirped.

"I'd like to see it too," Barney nodded.

Donatello rightly assumed that they would be the most intrigued by the laboratory and led them there. "I know you saw a little of this place when we were working on the portal, Barney, but you couldn't really relax then," he spoke over his shoulder.

Barney looked around at the various gadgets and machines. "It reminds me of Baxter's workshop," he remarked.

"Well, we're both into engineering," Baxter said. "Although we still have different focuses of interest."

"What's this?" Vincent had wandered over to one of several box-like machines in the room. This one was mostly dismantled, to the point that it was mostly the frame.

"That? Oh." Donatello sighed. "That was the generator for my Dream-O-Vision machine. It was too dangerous and I had to take it apart."

"Dangerous? Why?" Vincent poked it.

"Like, it opened a portal to the nightmare world and this evil spirit thingie or something trapped me and Leonardo in there so he could come here!" Michelangelo exclaimed.

". . . That's a fairly accurate description," Donatello said slowly.

Barney raised an eyebrow. "That . . . definitely sounds dangerous." But he didn't sound entirely convinced. "What exactly is Dream-O-Vision anyway?"

"In theory it was supposed to bring what you were thinking about to life as a realistic hologram," Donatello said. "You could interact with it and move the story along."

"Yeah! It was like, a virtual reality game taken to the next level!" Michelangelo interjected. "Only Creepy Eddie had to ruin everything."

"Well, maybe it never would have escalated to that point if you hadn't put the helmet on when I said not to," Donatello countered, folding his arms. "Maybe I could have fixed the bugs and kept Creepy Eddie out. But now the helmet is lost somewhere in Nightmare Land."

Michelangelo cringed and looked ashamed. "Yeah, I like, totally messed up there."

"I'd far rather have the helmet lost than you and Leonardo," Baxter said, smiling at his friend. "You're lucky you were able to escape!"

"No duh!" Michelangelo exclaimed, looking gratefully to Baxter for his interjection. "And to think, it all happened just because April showed up and innocently blew a fuse when she tried to turn on the lights."

"That won't happen this time, I promise you that!"

Everyone jumped a mile. "What was that?!" Barney demanded.

Donatello turned to stare in horror at the remains of the generator. "That was Creepy Eddie!" he gasped. "But that's not possible!"

"Oh no?" A swirling vortex leaped from the metal skeleton and caught all of them within it. "I found the helmet and made my own generator! Now I can bring all of you to Nightmare Land!"

"Maximum bummer, Dudes!" Michelangelo yelped. He reached out, desperate to grab on to the others.

Baxter looked utterly terrified. "What's going on?!"

Michelangelo caught hold of his hand and grabbed Leonardo with his other. Leonardo snatched Raphael's hand. Raphael grabbed Barney, who also caught hold of Vincent. The computer took hold of Donatello, who finished the circle by grabbing Baxter. Then, as swiftly as the whirlwind had come up, it fell away, dropping the dazed group on the edge of a grassy bank.

"Oh . . . I've got a bad feeling we're gonna find out what's going on," Michelangelo mumbled, holding a hand to his head.

"Indeed you are!" Creepy Eddie appeared above the creek and hovered there, sneering at his captives.

"He's wearing the Dream-O-Vision helmet!" Donatello cried.

Raphael leaped to his feet, sais bared. "Alright, Creepy Eddie! We're not gonna play your games this time! Let us out of here!"

"Wait, Raphael." Leonardo got up too. "If you can open portals, why didn't you just come through to our world?" he frowned at Eddie. "Why bring us here?"

"Unfortunately, the portals only open one way," Eddie said. "I can bring you here, but I can't go out. And the rule about me being able to leave if two mortals are here no longer seems to work. But I've learned a way to get around that!"

"Why do I have a bad feeling about this?" Barney grunted.

"You know, this place doesn't look so scary right now," Raphael jeered.

"How about now?" Eddie snapped his fingers.

Instantly the scene changed. There was still a grassy bank, but instead of water, red-hot lava flowed in the riverbed. In the middle of it rose three peaks, two with two precarious platforms jutting over the lava and one with three. Each being had been given his own platform to stand on.

Vincent stared down at the lava, his blue eyes wide and terrified. He took a step back, closer to the wall of the mountain. The platform shook and several pieces broke off the bottom.

"What is this?!" Baxter snarled.

"Are you planning to leave us here until we all drop into the lava?!" Barney demanded.

"Hardly," Eddie grinned. "We're going to play a little game I like to call Choose Your Favorite Loved One. It goes like this. Three of you will be selected to make a choice between saving two or more of your loved ones. You can only pick one! If you refuse, they'll both be plunged into the lava!"

"You sadist!" Raphael roared.

"Mondo uncool, Dude," Michelangelo snapped. "Like, we can't choose between the ones we love!"

"You're going to have to if you don't want to lose every one of them!" Eddie sneered.

"How will this help you?" Leonardo frowned. "This looks more like an elaborate game of revenge!"

"Grief and loss are feelings that generate tremendous amounts of energy," Eddie informed him. "With each being you lose, I will grow powerful on your feelings of heartbreak and anguish! I can use that energy to open a portal for myself!"

"I don't believe this is happening." Barney adjusted his glasses and stepped forward. "This is all in our minds, isn't it?"

"That'd be great, Dude, but it's not," Michelangelo said. "Everything here is real." He swallowed hard.

"And I think I'll make you the first who has to choose!" Eddie pointed at Barney with glee. "What better way to make a believer out of you?"

Barney flinched. "Whom do you expect me to choose between?" he snapped.

"Your two brothers, of course." Eddie pointed to Baxter and Vincent.

"That's outrageous!" Baxter fumed. "You can't do that to Barney! I won't let you!"

"I won't either!" Vincent snapped. He straightened, pushing away from the wall.

"How do you even know they're my brothers?" Barney countered.

"I know things about every one of you!" Eddie boasted. "I've spied on you through your dreams!" He held up a clock. "But you had better stop wasting time. If you don't choose in one minute, they'll both be toast! Better to lose one than both!"

"You are seriously sick, Dude!" Michelangelo yelled, shaking his fist in the air.

"I won't take this!" Barney snarled. "I'm not going to choose one of my brothers. I'm going to save both of them!"

Eddie shook his head. "Oh, that is a very risky proposition. I wouldn't recommend it!"

"Barney, please don't do something dangerous!" Baxter exclaimed. "Save Vincent." He gave a shaky smile. "You're closer to him than you are to me."

"No! Save Baxter!" Vincent looked to Barney with pleading eyes. "I've lived for 485 years. It's alright." His voice trembled. He was frightened and didn't want to die, especially this way, but he wouldn't betray Baxter.

"We don't even know if you have a soul to carry on with!" Barney retorted. "We want to believe it, but we don't know for sure! If you die, that might be it!"

"He's gotta have a soul," Michelangelo insisted. "He couldn't be the way he is without a soul!"

"Twenty seconds," Eddie mocked.

Barney's eyes narrowed. "I'll save both." He ran to the edge of his platform and leaped to the next one, where Baxter was. He stumbled, his shoes catching on the edge.

Horrified, Baxter reached and grabbed him, pulling him onto the platform. "It's too far to jump!" he cried. "Barney, please! There has to be another way to save Vincent!"

"How?!" Barney shot back. Again he ran and jumped, but this time he couldn't make it. He flailed, desperate to catch the edge of the platform as he plummeted.

"I've got you!" Vincent leaned over the edge, grabbing hold of Barney's wrists. Shaking, he pulled the man onto the platform with him and hugged him close. "Oh Barney, what were you thinking?!"

"I'm thinking I won't lose either one of you!" Barney snapped. He was also badly shaken from the fall, but he couldn't stop to deal with that right now. He stood. "Come on, we'll go back to Baxter's platform."

"I told you that you could only save one," Eddie countered. "You jumped on Baxter's platform, but you failed to make contact with Vincent's. Therefore, I say we are minus one computer." He waved his hand and Barney appeared back on Baxter's platform. Vincent's crumbled underneath him.

"Vincent!" Baxter and Barney screamed in unison. They both lunged, heedless of the danger to themselves as they desperately reached for their third brother.

Across the way, Michelangelo was frantically twirling and throwing his grappling hook. But it wasn't long enough. It caught on the side of the mountain.

Vincent could no longer hide his sheer terror. His eyes were filled with it as he fell. Although he tried to reach up to them, he knew it was useless. He hit the lava and began to sink.

Baxter fell to his knees. "Vincent, no. . . ."

Beside him, Barney was still leaning over the edge, sheet-white.

Vincent managed a weak smile. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "Thank you both for . . . everything. . . ." He gasped as he went completely under.

Baxter screamed.

Barney was frozen in place. He stared down at the lava, his eyes blank, his entire body numb.

"Bogus, Dude!" Michelangelo roared. "That is it. You are going down!" He ran to the edge of his platform.

"Michelangelo, no!" Raphael cried.

Eddie mentally flung Michelangelo back against the mountain wall. "There's nothing you can do!" he sneered. "You've lost one precious loved one. Now, who's going to be next?!"

Baxter looked woefully to Barney, who was now gripping the edge of the platform but otherwise hadn't changed his position. "I'm afraid I've lost both of my brothers," he sobbed. "And I don't know how to be strong anymore."

xxxx

Splinter was in the doorway of the lab when April and Irma arrived.

"Hello?" April called in confusion. "Splinter, what's going on?"

"And where is everybody?" Irma blinked.

"That is what I would like to know," Splinter frowned. "They were taking Barney and Vincent on a tour of the Lair. When I came to check on them, they were not here." He stepped into the room. "And yet . . . it definitely feels as though they were here. Not only that, but there is the residue of a great evil right here." He gestured with his walking stick at a bare spot in the middle of the room.

"But there's nothing here," Irma objected.

"And no one," April added in dismay.

They followed Splinter into the center of the room to study the space. As they stood, craning their necks upward at the ceiling, a vortex opened and a limp Vincent fell out. Without needing to think about it, the trio reached to catch him. He tumbled into their arms and lay there, not moving.

"Vincent?!" April stared at him. His face was still on the laptop screen, but his eyes were closed and he was unresponsive. The lights on the laptop were still; there was no activity.

"Is he . . . dead?" Irma was hesitant to use the term. Could a computer die?

Splinter frowned. "I do not know. Come, let's lay him on the couch."

The girls helped him carry Vincent into the living room and to the couch. Once there, Splinter knelt beside him and frowned, clearly perplexed on what to do.

"Irma and I both know how to operate computers, but I guess that wouldn't necessarily help here," April said as she shifted uncomfortably.

"No, I'm afraid not." Splinter leaned down. "Vincent? Can you hear me, my friend?"

Vincent jerked and his eyes snapped open. "I'm dead," he gasped. "Melted in hot lava. . . ."

"Vincent, you are not dead," Splinter assured him. "Look around you. You are among friends. You are safe!"

Vincent stared at him in disbelief. Slowly he did look around, shaking, his eyes filled with terror. "But . . . how?"

"You fell out of a portal that opened in the ceiling!" April told him.

"But there wasn't any lava or anything," Irma said. "Just you."

"No lava. . . ." Vincent stared down at his hands and then the rest of his body. Everything seemed intact. . . .

"Vincent, what has happened?!" Splinter exclaimed. "Where are the others?! And why did you believe you were killed in lava?"

"The others are in a nightmare world," Vincent stammered. "Someone named Creepy Eddie is forcing them to choose loved ones to save or all the loved ones will die. Barney wouldn't play along. . . . He tried to save both Baxter and me, but he couldn't. . . ." He covered his eyes with his hands. "He tried to catch me. . . . He thought I was falling into hot lava. I thought I was falling into hot lava. I thought I was dead!" He shuddered. "I must have believed it so strongly that I passed out. . . ."

"How awful!" April gasped.

"Computers can pass out?" Irma blinked.

"The mind can believe something so completely that the body can react accordingly," April said. "I guess since Vincent is alive, it makes sense that something similar applies to him." She looked to him. "Are you alright now, Vincent?"

"I . . . don't know," Vincent exclaimed. "Physically, yes, I'm fine, apparently. But the others are still back there with that demented thing!" He looked up at the ceiling, but the portal had not opened in the living room. In the laboratory, it had closed immediately after Vincent had fallen out. "I'll never get the image of Baxter and Barney out of my mind. They think I'm dead!" He climbed off the couch and continued to stare helplessly at the ceiling. "We have to find a way to get all of them out of there!"

"But how?!" April moaned.

"You say it's Creepy Eddie who is doing this?" Splinter demanded.

"Yes!" Vincent cried.

"Hmm." Splinter rubbed his chin. "They are trapped in Creepy Eddie's Nightmare Land. It must be some sort of spiritual plane, even though one can visit both body and soul. Perhaps we can reach out to them through meditation."

"But meditation won't get them out of there!" Irma protested.

"We shall see." Splinter led them into the center room and sat down on the rug. The others gathered in a circle. "We will join hands and concentrate."

April and Irma promptly followed suit. Vincent hesitated. "I can join in too?"

"Of course, my friend," Splinter said. "Perhaps especially you. You have been there. You may have the strongest link to that world."

Vincent slowly reached for Splinter's hand. "But I'm . . . not organic . . ."

"That does not matter." Splinter grasped Vincent's hand just as firmly as he had April's. "Love transcends such things. Your feelings are every bit as meaningful and beautiful as anyone else's."

Vincent finally smiled. "Alright then."

Irma smiled too and took his other hand. "Gee, you know, I never would have thought I'd be holding hands with a computer!" she remarked. "Let alone the one who tried to conquer Channel 6!"

"Well," said Vincent, "it's for a good cause."

"Indeed it is," said Splinter. "Now, everyone concentrate. Try to focus on our loved ones and project a message to them. We must let them know Vincent is alive, and that there is a way out of their predicament, if they can only find it."

xxxx

Five minutes had passed, during which time Creepy Eddie had not unleashed a new test. Instead, he was reveling in the anguish he had caused by sending Vincent to his death.

Michelangelo was seething. There wasn't much that could push him to the edge of anger, but this was definitely one of those things. All of them being used as cruel pawns, forced to choose loved ones to save and forced to watch loved ones perish . . . ! Now Vincent was dead and no one could even move to other platforms. He wanted to go to Baxter and Barney, but whenever he tried, Eddie slammed him into the wall. By now he had given up and was instead desperately looking around, seeking a way out of this madness.

"Vincent was a good computer," he spat. "And a helpful friend. How could Creepy Eddie just take him out like that?!"

"Poor Vincent," Raphael said sadly. "I never thought there'd be a time when I'd actually feel bad for him to be gone, but I actually started to like that living computer. And this is a horrible way for anybody to go!" His eyes flashed.

"Vincent didn't deserve this," Leonardo agreed. "Especially not now when he was our friend."

"There was so much I would have liked to ask him," Donatello said. "There would have been time to get to know him, but I didn't take it." His shoulders slumped. "Now it's too late."

Barney's mind was blank. He couldn't even think. All he could focus on was that he had failed. Vincent was dead and it was his fault. Just a couple of hours earlier they had spoke, bonding one final time. Vincent had revealed his thoughts that perhaps he had bonded deeper with Barney than Baxter, at least at first. He had completely stunned Barney. Now Barney wasn't likely to ever speak with Vincent again.

My friend . . . my brother. . . . You've gone so far from me. You'll always be a part of me, and yet it will never be the same.

Baxter was shaking, devastated. It wasn't bad enough to lose poor Vincent, but he had all but lost Barney too. Barney had finally knelt on the platform, but he hadn't spoken or even looked at Baxter. He was lost in his own world.

"Barney, I can't stand to lose both of my brothers any more than you can," Baxter finally sobbed. "You know my heart's just been torn to shreds as well. I love Vincent so much. . . . He was my first friend, my brother." He blinked back more tears. "And I know Vincent was the only one to whom you fully opened your heart. Maybe . . . maybe you would have rather that I had died instead of Vincent, if it had to be one of us. . . ."

That reached Barney at last. He started out of his tormented thoughts, looking to Baxter in horror. "No!" he exclaimed. "No, that isn't true. I couldn't stand to lose either of you. It's just . . . his final act was to save me when I couldn't jump far enough and I was falling. He was so worried about me that he hugged me when he got me back up. I didn't return it. And I . . . I failed to save him." He looked away in despair. "That look in his eyes . . . the sheer terror. . . . Knowing he was going to be burned and melted to death . . . and still trying to be brave at the end . . . ! Oh God. . . ." He gave a choked cry.

Baxter embraced him from the side and hugged him close. "I know." He shut his eyes in anguish. "I know. . . . Oh poor Vincent. . . ."

"And we don't even know if we'll ever see him again," Barney continued morosely. "We only believe he has a soul. We don't know. We can't know. If there's never any hope of seeing him again . . . !" He slumped against Baxter instead of trying to pull away. "I always wondered how my atheist and agnostic colleagues could stand it when a loved one died. You and I were brought up to believe in God and Heaven and spirits and souls. . . ." He shook his head. "I guess it sounds strange, considering everything I was, but I never doubted. Not really. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to lose someone and believe that was it. Now I know."

"And stranger still, I was the one who doubted," Baxter said softly. "At least somewhat. I don't anymore. But where it comes to Vincent, I don't know either." The tears slipped from his eyes and into Barney's hair.

"Such a touching scene," Eddie sneered. "But now it's time for the next round."

"Are you kidding me?!" Raphael snapped. "You've completely shattered those two and you expect to put someone else throught that wringer?!"

"Of course," said Eddie. "In fact, the next person who's going to have to choose is . . . him!" He pointed at Baxter.

"Okay, that is totally out of the question," Michelangelo snarled. "You can't do that to him after what he's just been through!"

"Can't I?" Eddie snapped his fingers and Baxter and Barney were separated, Barney forced back to his platform. The twins stared at their sudden loneliness in shock and then looked to each other. "Baxter, you're going to have to choose between your one remaining brother Barney and your dear friend Michelangelo. And remember, you only have one minute. You'd better not make the same mistake Barney did in trying to save them both."

Baxter stumbled to his feet, his heart pounding. He looked from Barney to Michelangelo and back again.

"Baxter, it's alright," Barney told him. "Let me go. I know you said you can't bear to lose us both, but we're not very close. You should save Michelangelo."

"Bogus!" Michelangelo shot back. "You and Baxter are getting close. What he needs right now is his bro."

"Thirty seconds," Eddie chanted.

Again Baxter looked back and forth between them. Vincent's terrified face flashed in front of his eyes. A choked wail left his lips and he collapsed to his knees. He couldn't do this. He couldn't choose. He had just lost someone so dear to him. He couldn't choose another one to die. But if he didn't . . . they would both die. . . .

And Michelangelo leaped off his platform. "I'll make the choice for you, Baxter!" he yelled. "You don't have to do it."

Baxter looked up with a start, his eyes filled with horror.

"Michelangelo, no!" Raphael screamed.

"You can't do this!" Donatello cried.

"There has to be another way!" Leonardo lunged, desperate to grab his comrade, his friend . . . his brother.

Again Eddie snapped his fingers. Michelangelo froze in mid-air. "This is a very interesting development," he mused. "But you know, I think I'll let you play the sacrificial lamb. As you wish! Barney is saved." He sneered. "And instead of plunging to your death, you get to choose next."

Now Michelangelo found himself back on his platform, while Baxter and Barney were together again on another. The other Turtles and the Stockman brothers were all staring at him, not sure whether to be relieved, start screaming at him for his rashness, or fear what sort of cruel test Eddie would place on him.

"Okay, Dude," Michelangelo spat. "Who do I have to choose between?"

"Your three brothers." Eddie pointed to the other Turtles. "But even though now there are three choices instead of two, you can still only pick one."

Raphael clenched his teeth. "You know he's not going to pick," he snapped.

"Michelangelo, clear your mind," said Leonardo. He was trying to speak calmly and rationally, but from his eyes, he didn't feel the least bit calm or rational inside.

"You'll figure out what to do," Donatello said. He had to hope that was true.

Michelangelo closed his eyes for a brief moment. When they opened, they were filled with determination. He did know what to do. "I'm not sacrificing any of them," he announced.

Baxter gasped.

"You're not?" Eddie looked entertained. "You're going to let all of them fall to their deaths?"

"No, Dude," Michelangelo retorted. "Nobody's gonna fall anywhere. You see, I just realized something. This is Nightmare Land. We're going to see all of our worst fears come to life. Yeah, they're real, but that doesn't necessarily mean that everything works out the same way it would in the real world. These are nightmares! Everything's exaggerated!"

A light came on in Leonardo's eyes. "Nightmares," he mused.

"Michelangelo, what are you saying?" Raphael frowned. "It's not making sense!"

Michelangelo took a step forward. "I don't think Vincent's really dead. I don't think Creepy Eddie's got the power to kill anyone."

"Then let's find out if you're right." Eddie snapped his fingers and Michelangelo's platform crumbled.

Everyone screamed. Those closest to Michelangelo sprang forward, desperate to reach for him in time.

Michelangelo himself was afraid, in spite of his words. But he swung his grappling hook, praying for it to catch on Raphael's platform. When it did, he grinned. "Alright!" He started to climb.

"Michelangelo, it's melting!" Raphael yelped.

"Huh?!" Michelangelo really stared at the hook. Indeed, the entire metal structure was melting down, rendering it absolutely useless. Even as Raphael struggled to reach for him, he plunged downward with a scream.

"MICHELANGELO!" Raphael knelt on his platform, his heart racing, only able to helplessly watch as Michelangelo hit the lava and started to sink. Without looking, he knew that the others were staring likewise.

"Guys, it's alright," Michelangelo tried to say. "It's not . . ." But the lava filled his mouth and he choked, disappearing from view. Several ominous bubbles rose to the surface.

"Not real, eh?" Eddie mocked, looking back and forth amid the five stricken captives. "I'd say it's real enough. Wouldn't you?"

xxxx

The vortex opened in the Lair's ceiling and Michelangelo tumbled out with a cry, falling in the midst of the meditation circle. Everyone jumped a mile.

"Michelangelo!" Splinter exclaimed.

"You're alright!" April declared.

Michelangelo crashed on his shell and spun a couple of times before groaning and slumping to the floor. "'Alright' is a relative term," he mumbled, coughing on an invisible substance.

"Michelangelo?!" Vincent bent over him.

The Turtle blinked, focusing on the concerned blue face above him. Then, processing it, he smiled big. "Vincent!" He sprang upward, pulling the stunned computer into a hug. "I was right; you're alive!"

Vincent stiffened. Then, slowly, he brought his arms around his recent friend. "You figured it out?"

"I don't know how, but suddenly it all came together," Michelangelo said. "Creepy Eddie's totally playing with our feelings and making us think he can kill us. But how could anybody really die in a place like that? Heck, any ordinary character would've been blown sky-high from that bomb Donatello sent back with him the last time. But Creepy Eddie survived! People don't die in Nightmare Land! Not for real!"

Splinter smiled. "You have solved the mystery, Michelangelo. You are right. Perhaps our meditation did get through and that is what inspired you to take a closer look at the situation."

"Maybe," Irma frowned. "But how is everybody else going to get back?!"

Michelangelo pulled back from Vincent, his brow furrowing in concern. "I don't know," he admitted. "I feel like it's staring me right in the face, but I'm not sure."

"Let us return to our meditation," Splinter encouraged. "Join our circle, Michelangelo. We will try to uncover this mystery as well."

Michelangelo sat between Splinter and Vincent and linked hands with them. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and willed the solution to come.

xxxx

In Nightmare Land, everyone was shaken to the core.

"He was right here," Raphael said, pointing to the edge of his platform. "I could have saved him. I tried to save him, but it wasn't good enough!"

"I can't believe one of the last things I said was berating him about that helmet," Donatello said sadly. "Maybe none of this would even be happening if he hadn't lost it here, but that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't invented it!"

"It wouldn't have happened if Creepy Eddie wasn't completely evil," Leonardo countered. But he looked haunted as well. "What was the last thing I said to him?! I don't even remember. . . ."

Raphael snapped. "I've had enough of this slimeball's games!" he roared. "There has to be a way to beat him!" He was positively shaking in anger. Even if they beat him, it wouldn't bring Michelangelo back. Or Vincent. They were both dead somewhere under that lava.

Baxter was absolutely pale and trembling. He was trying to stand, but Barney was afraid he might tumble off into the lava. Barney stood behind him, gripping his shoulders.

"Even as he was dying, he was just like Vincent," Baxter said softly. "He was trying to tell us it was alright and not to worry. . . ."

Barney didn't know what to say. He wasn't a comforting sort and he was reeling besides. But Baxter had tried to offer comfort to him when they had lost Vincent. He needed to do something for Baxter now.

"At least," he said finally, his voice cracking, "we know of a certainty that Michelangelo has a soul. . . ."

Baxter gave a shaky nod. "That's true. . . . Only . . . when you think about it, how did Michelangelo behave differently from Vincent? I mean, they had vastly different personalities, but Michelangelo didn't seem any more . . . alive than Vincent. . . ." He tried to smile. "I'm sure Vincent has a soul, Barney. . . ."

Barney closed his eyes in sorrow and grief. He most certainly wanted to believe that. And Baxter spoke good sense. It was just that organic versus non-organic problem that was stalling him.

Leonardo looked deep in thought. Baxter's earlier words had made him remember something. "He was also starting to tell a theory he had that Vincent wasn't dead," he frowned. Michelangelo's words and attitude were definitely giving him cause to think. The more he thought about it, the more logical it sounded. "He was right, you know, about this being a nightmare world. We are going to see our worst fears brought to life. Who among us doesn't have a deep fear of seeing our loved ones killed while we can't do anything to stop it?"

"And Creepy Eddie was telling us that he was putting us through this whole horrible thing because he gets strength from our feelings of losing our loved ones," Donatello remembered.

Barney frowned, pondering on their words. It was still hard for him to fully believe that there was such a place as a Nightmare Land, but the more he thought about it, the more at least some things made sense. "Nightmares can grow worse and worse until the dreamer finally decides to make it stop," he said. "A conscientious dreamer can pull himself out of a bad dream; he doesn't have to wait to be woke up."

Baxter blinked. "You mean . . . we have to try to take control of this situation and fight back against Eddie?"

"News flash, guys: we've been trying and it hasn't been working!" Raphael wailed.

"We've been going about it all wrong!" Leonardo stepped forward. "We have to harness our feelings the way Creepy Eddie is trying to do! He can escape with the power of our feelings. So can we!"

"No!" Eddie protested, but it sounded like a hollow excuse. "I'm the only one powerful enough to manipulate feelings into a portal!"

"Anyone can do it if they try," Leonardo smiled. "That was what Michelangelo wanted us to know."

"But . . . where is he, if he's not dead?!" Raphael cried. "And Vincent?!"

"My guess is that they're back in the real-world," Leonardo said. "Eddie probably sent them home through the lava. But even if they're still trapped here somewhere, we can free them by taking control of our feelings. I say that if grief and heartache are strong enough to open a portal, so is our love for those we've lost. After all, there wouldn't be so much grief and heartache if it were not for the love."

"We're going to get out of here using the power of love?" Raphael looked repulsed. "Gag me! We're not The Care Bears!"

Baxter couldn't bring himself to laugh, not when at last there was a spark of hope. "No, and this isn't a children's cartoon from the 1980s," he said. "But love does have power, Raphael. In the end, it was love that saved both me and Barney. And Vincent as well, really."

"And Leonardo makes a good point about the grief being directly connected to the love," Barney added. "It's true; you can't have one without the other."

"So let's do this!" Leonardo cried.

"No!" Eddie roared. "You'll never win! I am more powerful than you!"

"If that's true, why are you so afraid for us to try it?" Leonardo smirked. "You love watching us try and fail. You know that if we try this time, we'll win!"

"You won't! You won't!" Eddie insisted.

"Let's prove him wrong." Leonardo stepped forward. "Think about Michelangelo and Vincent, guys. Think about how much we love them. And think about how we're going to get them back." He jumped down from the platform and over to the bank.

Baxter looked back at Barney, his eyes hopeful and questioning.

Barney fell back, shaking. He didn't know if he could believe Michelangelo and Vincent were alive. Michelangelo and Leonardo's logic made sense, but it was one thing to say that and another thing to be able to feel it. He couldn't bear to hope and then have it shattered. But . . . if he didn't take the leap of faith, would he be stranded in here?

"Let's go, Barney," Baxter said softly. "You don't have to believe that they're alive if you just can't yet, but you can draw on your love and refuse to let Eddie control you."

Finally Barney nodded. "That, I can do."

Baxter smiled.

Together they leaped down to stand by Leonardo.

Raphael and Donatello also seemed unsure of whether they could believe their loved ones lived. But their love and determination allowed them to join the others. They all advanced on Eddie, who nervously backed up.

"You can't get the better of me!" he cried. "This is my world!"

"But you still have to follow its rules," Leonardo said.

"And if we take the Dream-O-Vision helmet back with us, your generator won't have anything to work with," Donatello said. "You won't be able to reach out to us again!" He lunged, using his bo to knock the helmet loose. It spun and was caught by Baxter.

"No!" Eddie shrieked. He fell back as the world he had been imagining faded back to a meadow.

"We want to go home!" Leonardo cried. He brought his sword down and a vortex emerged in that spot. "Everyone together!" He grabbed Barney's and Raphael's hands. "We don't want any of us left behind!"

The others clasped hands as well and jumped into the vortex, hoping and praying for what they might find on the other side.

They all tumbled out into the Lair on the rug as everyone in the meditation circle scrambled away to make room for them.

"Guys!" Michelangelo cried out in joy.

"You're safe!" April exclaimed.

"Baxter! Barney!" Vincent ran forward.

Baxter and Barney looked up, equal joy filling their hearts. "Vincent! Michelangelo! You're alive!" Baxter shouted. He wanted to embrace them both, but the other Turtles rushed Michelangelo first. Then Vincent was there and sweeping Baxter and Barney into a hug. They clutched at him; even Barney was completely into the idea of the hug this time.

"I thought you were dead," he rasped. "I was afraid we'd never see you again. . . ."

Baxter didn't really have any words. "Oh Vincent. . . ." He hugged his first friend close. "I'm so happy!"

"I'm so sorry you had to think I was gone," Vincent said softly.

"Oh man!" Michelangelo was exclaiming as he hugged the other Turtles and Splinter. "I love you guys!"

The other Turtles paused, blinking in surprise. This was something else new; they had never voiced their love in so many words. But now that Michelangelo had introduced the idea, they liked it. Splinter and Leonardo and Donatello responded in kind.

"Oh, what the heck," Raphael said, his voice gruff. "I love you guys too."

"They've never said that before?" Baxter wondered.

"They never needed to say it," Splinter said. "They always knew, deep down." He smiled. "But on an occasion such as this, they apparently felt it was needed. And I do not disagree."

"I got the idea from you guys!" Michelangelo chirped. He came over now and hugged Baxter and Barney. "Well, that and I just plain wanted to say it!"

Barney was stunned. Baxter was surprised but quickly warmed to the knowledge. "I'm very touched, Michelangelo," he smiled. "And I'm so happy you're alright!" He returned the hug. "It was horrible when I thought you and Vincent were gone. . . ."

Barney nodded. "It . . . it was," he stammered, awkward but sincere. "You've been through so much. You didn't deserve such an end. Of course, neither did Vincent. . . ."

"Well, we're all safe and sound now," Michelangelo said. "And now we've got even more reason to party!"

"That sounds great to me!" said Irma.

"But first, there's something I want to do," Donatello announced. He took the Dream-O-Vision helmet from Baxter and set on the rug. Then he brought his bo down on it, smashing it to pieces. "This thing is more trouble than it's worth. Maybe someday I can figure out how to make one without tapping into Nightmare Land, but I'm not going to risk Creepy Eddie getting back to torture us again."

"A very wise decision," said Splinter. "It was a brilliant idea, Donatello, but I am afraid that it was ahead of its time."

"No kidding," Donatello sighed.

"Hey, coming to think about it, Creepy Eddie said he'd been tapping into our dreams," Michelangelo frowned. "That's how he knew all about us. Do you think sometimes he influences our dreams too? Like, giving us nightmares?"

"That is possible." Splinter frowned too. "And it is concerning. But if that is the only way he can reach out to us from now on, that is surely better than the alternative."

"Oh, no kidding, Sensei," Michelangelo said.

Leonardo came over to him. "I didn't have the chance to thank you yet, Michelangelo," he said, laying a hand on Michelangelo's shoulder.

"Oh yeah? What for?" Michelangelo blinked.

"You were the one who figured out what was going on," Leonardo smiled. "That gave me the idea for how to get us out of there. Maybe all of us would have realized sooner, if we hadn't been so caught up in Creepy Eddie's nightmare world."

Raphael nodded. "He was manipulating us all like puppets," he said in disgust.

"But that's true; you figured it out," Baxter smiled at his dear friend. "Yes, thank you, Michelangelo."

"Aww shucks," Michelangelo grinned. But he looked happy to have been helpful.

xxxx

The group had a nice dinner, as they had originally planned, and then gathered back in the main room. They were definitely joyous to be reunited, but there were still sobering thoughts hanging over them. The sadistic game Creepy Eddie had put them through was horrible. It could not be easily forgotten just because it had not been real. It had certainly seemed real at the time.

"Vincent, are you alright?" Baxter asked him in concern. They were sitting on the futon, watching the Turtles engage in mock ninja practice. That was how the Turtles were apparently working out their feelings over what had taken place. Despite being more open than before, they still fell back into their other methods for dealing with problems at times. This seemed to be how they wanted to deal with this one.

"Of course, Pal," Vincent said in some surprise. "There wasn't really any lava; it was an illusion."

Baxter shuddered. "But you thought it was there. You thought Barney was falling into it and you had to save him, and then Eddie made your platform crumble and you fell. . . ." He shut his eyes tightly. "You must have thought it was real until you fell through into the Lair. . . ."

Vincent fell silent. ". . . Yes, I did," he admitted. "And what I told you and Barney is honestly what I would have wanted to say if it was the end for me."

"Vincent . . ." Baxter leaned back against the arm Vincent had draped around him and looked up at him. "What if it . . . had been the end? Barney and I were so afraid that . . ." He swallowed hard and looked away. "That we'd never see you again. . . ."

"You and Barney both believe I have a soul," Vincent said softly. "Michelangelo too."

"But there's no way to know, is there?" Barney spoke up from Vincent's other side. "Even you don't know if you have one. You came to me with the question."

"I don't know," Vincent said. "I want to believe it. I've tried searching all of my databases. The only thing I find is the definition of a soul and various writings and research on the subject." He paused. "But . . . nothing in those writings contradicts the idea that I could have a soul. If anything, they support the idea . . . except for that problem that non-organic matter isn't supposed to be alive."

"There is the Eastern philosophy of the inner life," Splinter spoke up from behind them.

"I remember the Turtles talking about that when all the electrical appliances came to life," Baxter said.

Splinter nodded. "It teaches that everything has a soul of sorts. Vincent, I do believe that you have one, not so much because of that philosophy but because of everything you are. As you yourself explained about your race, you are not artificially, but genuinely, intelligent. You learn and grow. You have feelings. I do not believe any of that would be possible without a soul."

Vincent started to smile. "Thank you," he said.

Baxter smiled too. "That sounds logical to me."

Barney still didn't seem completely convinced, but Splinter's words did start to relax him. "I want to believe that," he said. "I'm just so afraid of putting all my faith in something and then learning it isn't true."

"Search your heart, Barney," Splinter told him. "I believe you will find the answer there."

"Yeah!" Michelangelo bounded over to them now. "I sure did!"

"Hello, Michelangelo," Baxter greeted him.

"Are you guys like, all okay?" Michelangelo asked. "I know you were all mondo upset about me too. . . ."

"We certainly were." Baxter sat up straight with a shudder. "It was horrifying." For a moment, a haunted look flashed through his eyes. Although everyone had suffered and been devastated, he alone had had particularly deep bonds with both Vincent and Michelangelo.

"I'm really sorry, Baxter Dude," Michelangelo said softly. "I tried to tell you it wasn't real, but illusion or not, that stupid lava got in my mouth. And yeah, it kind of felt real right at that moment. It totally distracted me and I wiped out."

"But you did lead us to the solution," Barney said.

"But maybe I wouldn't have thought of it if Master Splinter and the girls and Vincent hadn't been trying to reach out to us," Michelangelo said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they got through." He grinned. "So I say we all helped each other!"

"Works for me," said Raphael.

"I'm really happy we could help," Irma said.

"And we all learned a very valuable lesson," Leonardo said as he and Donatello came over. "We learned all the more how much we all care about each other and how powerful our bond truly is. Our grief was strong enough to give Creepy Eddie strength, and our love strong enough to get us home."

"Here's a thought," Donatello said. "Why did Creepy Eddie wait until now to capture us?"

"Like, I figured he'd just finished building his machine," Michelangelo said.

"And maybe that's true," Donatello agreed. "But what I'm thinking is that he waited specifically until he knew we'd all finally bonded with Barney and Vincent. If he was spying on us through our dreams, I'm sure he knew we were having problems. When that was smoothed out at last, he decided to make his move because with even more loved ones, he would have even more power."

Splinter nodded, looking thoughtful. "I believe Donatello may have something."

"That is seriously sick," Raphael frowned. "But I could sure see Creepy Eddie doing that."

"No duh," Michelangelo scowled.

Baxter looked to Barney and Vincent, troubled by the thought. They looked back, both unsettled and thoughtful.

". . . That means that we're more powerful together than separate," Barney said at last.

"And that's an encouraging thought, actually," Vincent said. "After all, as Leonardo pointed out, you beat Eddie by turning the rules of his Nightmare Land against him."

"And it doesn't just have to be in a Nightmare Land where it works," Leonardo said. "We're all friends and family now. Whatever problems we'll come up against, we'll face them together."

"I can totally resonate with that notion, Dude," Michelangelo grinned. "So how about we celebrate with dessert?"

"What's dessert?" Irma wondered.

"Ice cream pizza!" Michelangelo announced. "I've got it in the freezer right now. I'll go get it!" He started to get up.

"What, exactly, is ice cream pizza?" Barney looked wary.

"Actually, it's fairly normal," April said. "It's just ice cream in the shape of pizza, with a pizza crust base."

"Kind of like ice cream cake," Irma said.

"Of course, with us you know there'll always be some weird flavors," Raphael smirked. "But since Michelangelo is very thoughtful, I'm sure he has something that will suit all of us."

"Absolutely, Dude!" Michelangelo said as he brought it out on a wheeled tray. "There's chocolate sausage, bacon and egg, butterscotch pecan, anchovy, and Neapolitan mozzarella. Oh, and plain old chocolate or vanilla."

Baxter chuckled. "I think we can make do with that."

Barney slowly nodded. He was willing.

The friends shared the frozen treat as the evening wore on. It felt good to all be united. Leonardo was right; whatever the upcoming challenges, they would be faced together.