Vincent stood in front of the upstairs bathroom mirror as he washed up at the sink. The clothes he had been wearing he had placed in the laundry. He would see about doing the wash later. As long as he was careful not to get any water inside the laptop, he wanted to freshen up after that experience. Of course, one solution would be to will the energy-generated body away and then bring it back; it would be fresh then. But that was the easy way out. Vincent preferred finding solutions that never required the removal of the body. After taking care of it, he ran a wrung-out damp cloth around the laptop, wanting to feel completely clean.
Zach was in the bathroom downstairs, also cleaning up. He didn't have any spare clothes, but Barney had offered one of his robes while they waited for Zach's family. The boy had accepted, seeming amazed.
Vincent hoped that Zach would be able to let go of at least some of his jealousy by being around the Stockman brothers. They were endlessly grateful to him for helping Vincent. And Vincent intended to briefly speak with the Turtles about allotting Zach some more time in the future. He deserved that.
He took a towel to dry himself off before tossing that down the laundry chute as well and heading out to go across the hall to his room. He didn't need to be discreet, since as Barney had pointed out, he hadn't designed his body with anything that needed to be covered up.
He wasn't surprised to find Barney outside the bedroom door, watching him approach, clearly still reeling. "Are you alright, old buddy?" Vincent asked.
"I thought you were dead," Barney repeated. "I thought there was no way you could have survived. The cab exploded . . . and the driver abandoned his laptop and it was hurt. . . . We thought it was you. And then all that rain on the mountain. . . . It seemed hopeless."
Vincent stiffened. "The driver had a laptop?!"
Barney nodded. "Donatello is trying to repair it. . . . We wanted to fix it even if it wasn't you. Baxter said how horrible you'd feel about it being left there."
"That driver was cruel and careless," Vincent said bitterly. "If only I'd known it was there . . ."
"You couldn't have known," Barney said. "You had no reason to check."
"I always will in the future." He gave Barney an urgent look. "Do you think it can be repaired?!"
". . . We're not sure," Barney finally admitted. "Probably the only way is to combine parts and pieces from other old motherboards."
"That poor computer won't know who it is anymore," Vincent frowned. "But I guess that would help give it and other computers a second chance. . . ."
"Maybe Donatello can salvage enough that it won't have a complete identity crisis," Barney said. A year ago he would have found such a discussion utterly preposterous. Now it seemed perfectly natural to converse with a computer about computers' feelings.
"Maybe. I hope he can. And you thought it was me? Oh Barney. . . ." Vincent looked at him sorrowfully. "If I could only take it back. . . . You and Baxter must have been suffering so much. . . ." He paused. "You said you tried the back-up?"
"I had to," Barney confessed. "But it didn't understand feelings. It wasn't you." He stepped closer to Vincent. "I have my final proof. You have a soul. There is no other explanation."
Vincent gave him a sad smile. "I'm glad to know that, but I wish it hadn't come at the cost of you and Baxter being so heartbroken." He stepped into his room and went to the closet for some fresh clothes. He didn't mind if Barney stayed.
Barney leaned against the doorframe, just watching him. He had thought Vincent was gone for good, even though he had clung to some threads of hope in spite of himself. And here Vincent was, alive and well, slipping into some Bermuda shorts and one of those loud Hawaiian shirts. He was home.
"Where's Baxter?" Vincent wondered.
"I'm here," Baxter said, stepping out from the hall. "I wanted to give you and Barney a few minutes alone first." He smiled in joy. "Vincent, we missed you so much!"
"And I missed you and Barney," Vincent said. "But at least I didn't have to think you were dead. I'm so sorry you had to think I was."
"You're safe. That's the most important thing," Baxter said.
Vincent hesitated. "Did you . . . see the back-up too?"
"I wasn't there when Barney tried to interact with it," Baxter said. "But we saw some of your memories." He paused. "We saw the one where you tried to help me with some formula for undoing my mutation. I don't even remember that happening."
"That was when April and I first encountered each other," Vincent remarked. "But I'm sorry you had to see that one, Pal. I was thinking that maybe I should mark the memories that you might be upset by so you won't stumble on them unaware."
"That's a very thoughtful idea, Vincent," Baxter said.
Barney was silent a moment. "We also found the message you'd left for us."
"Oh." Vincent looked a little awkward now, perhaps even embarrassed. "I wasn't sure at first whether to even let you see that. I thought maybe I'd delete it before you had the chance. I thought it might make you feel too sad."
"Naturally we were sad," Baxter said. "That's a mild word for it. But it was so moving to see you address us like that. We'd never want you to erase that clip."
Barney nodded. "That's true. It was very . . . meaningful. You're always thinking of us, Vincent."
"Of course," said Vincent. "You both made my life meaningful. I could never not think of you." He stepped into the hall with them. "Where are the Turtles and Splinter?"
"Downstairs eating pizza and soup," Baxter chuckled. "And they're very happy to see you too."
"Do you think Zach's family will be?" Vincent looked a little nervous now.
"You helped Zach," Barney said. "If they have any sense at all, they'll be grateful to you."
"I hope so," Vincent said. "I made a new friend in Zach. I would hate for his family to hate me."
"I can't think they would," Baxter said.
They headed downstairs. When their friends saw them coming, they all brightly looked up. "Hey, Vincent!" Michelangelo grinned. "You're really okay!"
"Yes," Vincent smiled. "And I'm so happy to be home."
Raphael gave him a thumbs-up. "You're lookin' good. Especially since we thought you could be permanently burned out or shorted out."
Vincent shuddered. "Just about anything would look better than that."
"Indeed," Splinter agreed. "Young Zach did very well in protecting you."
"Some of our students came to help look for you yesterday," Barney said.
"Really?" Vincent looked both surprised and pleased.
"They skipped the day's classes," Baxter said. He smiled. "They really care about you and Barney."
"I'm very happy they do," Vincent said. He looked to Barney. "You have made a positive impact in their lives, Buddy."
Barney nodded, looking humbled. "There's no doubt of that now, but it's still incredible to realize. I don't remember any of the previous classes I taught caring so much."
"Maybe because you were too angry," Raphael shrugged.
"Yeah, like, you're not so prickly now, Dude," Michelangelo said.
"I suppose not," Barney mused.
Silence fell and Vincent looked to the Turtles. ". . . This may be an awkward time to say this, but it should probably be said before Zach comes back in or his family arrives," he decided. "Zach misses all of you. He feels left-out lately."
The Turtles looked to each other in chagrin. "I guess we haven't seen too much of him for a while," Leonardo realized.
"I just figured he'd gotten on with his own life," Raphael said.
"Oh, he still idolizes all of you," Vincent said. "And your lifestyle. He was telling me he wanted to be a computer programmer in the day and fight crime at night."
"Like, when would he sleep?" Michelangelo blinked.
Vincent smirked a bit. "That was what I asked." Sobering, he continued, "He felt he could make it work because all of you do it."
"Uh oh." The Turtles exchanged another look.
"We'd really better talk with him," Donatello said.
"I would strongly advise it," Splinter nodded.
"And try to make some time for him in the future," Vincent said. "He seems to relate more to you than he does to his own family."
"We should," Leonardo agreed. "I didn't realize his feelings went that deep. . . ."
"I don't think any of us did," Donatello said in dismay.
Zach came out then, freshly showered and wearing the robe, which was dragging on the floor. He tried to quietly hold it up so he wouldn't trip. "Hi, guys!" he chirped.
"Hello, Zach," Leonardo smiled. "Your family should be here soon."
"Well, that's good," Zach said slowly. He sat down at the table and reached for a piece of pizza.
"And I'm going to extend the range on your Turtle-Comm," Donatello said. "Of course, the rain was so bad today that even ours went out after Michelangelo talked to Baxter. But you probably could have gotten through earlier if the range had been stronger."
"Yeah, that's what I thought," Zach said. "I guess you didn't want me to have as long a range as yours, huh?"
"It wasn't that," Donatello insisted. "We didn't think you'd need a longer range."
"But like, you sure proved us wrong, little bud," Michelangelo said.
"I guess so." Zach still seemed subdued.
The Turtles and Splinter shared a look before Michelangelo plunged ahead. "Hey, how about in a day or two we hang out and do something fun?"
Zach looked to him with a start. "You mean it?!"
"Like, sure! It can be a celebration of you coming home safe!" Michelangelo said. "We haven't seen a lot of you lately, Zach, and I guess that's our fault." He frowned. "We shoud've checked in to see how you were doing."
"That would have been nice," Zach admitted. "But I could have come to visit, too. I've been so busy with school and after-school stuff . . . and I figured you were probably busy with saving the world and . . . well, being with your other friends. . . ."
"We never meant to make you feel left-out, Zach," Leonardo said sadly. "We're really sorry."
The other Turtles nodded. "Like, seriously," Michelangelo said. "We should have realized."
"That's okay," Zach said. "You guys have a lot to think about without me."
"But you're our friend too," Donatello said.
"Not to mention our fifth Turtle," Raphael added.
"Yeah. You totally deserved better," Michelangelo said.
"So we'd really like to make it up to you," Leonardo said.
"I'd really love that," Zach said. His eyes were wide and bright.
"Great," Leonardo smiled. He hesitated. "But Zach, even though we made you an honorary Turtle and we really appreciate your help, we don't want to see you end up like us, always having to be ready to stop some new evil scheme."
"That's why we didn't give you the full range on your Turtle-Comm," Donatello said. "We hoped you wouldn't need to use the strongest range."
Michelangelo nodded. "You don't have to be an adult yet. You should enjoy being a microdude while you can. Maybe you think you wanna be an adult now, but in the future I think you'd regret not having taken the time to be a kid."
"Maybe," Zach said noncommittally. "That's kind of what Vincent was telling me. But I want to be useful. . . ."
"There are many ways you could be useful without endangering yourself," Baxter spoke.
Zach looked to him in surprise. "Really?"
Baxter nodded. "I'm sure there are programs in your community that you could become involved with."
"Yeah, there probably are." Zach hesitated. "But that wouldn't be like helping the Turtles. . . ."
Again the Turtles exchanged a look. "Maybe we can find some things for you to do to help us that wouldn't put you in danger," Leonardo said. "And of course, I'm sure every now and then there will be a time when we'll need to call on you for help in stopping the bad guys."
"You've come through with flying colors any time we needed you," Raphael said.
"That would be great, guys!" Zach exclaimed. "I really do want to keep helping."
Splinter smiled, looking pleased. He had stayed silent, wanting to let the Turtles handle it if they could, and he liked what they had done.
Now Zach shifted in his seat, looking chagrined. ". . . I guess I should tell you guys . . . I lied about my age," he mumbled.
"Aw heck, we always knew that," Michelangelo said.
"Vincent said you probably did, but . . ." Zach looked up at him. "It's really okay?"
"Sure," Michelangelo said. "You just wanted to impress us. But hey, it's even more gnarly that you helped us out so much when you were so much younger than you said."
The other Turtles and Splinter nodded. "Indeed," said Splinter.
Zach grinned big. "Thanks, you guys." When he turned to catch Vincent's eye, the computer was grinning back at him.
At that moment there was a knock on the door. Barney excused himself to answer it. Zach's family was standing there, all looking hopeful yet slightly apprehensive.
"Good evening," he greeted.
"Is Zach alright?" asked his mother.
"He's fine," Barney nodded. "He was just sitting down to a late dinner. You're welcome to join in as well, if you'd like. I cooked another pizza and there's also soup."
"Hey, thanks!" said Walt, and he hurried into the kitchen.
Vincent slowly came to the doorway, looking hesitant and uncertain.
"I doubt Zach would have made it back in as good of condition as he's in if it hadn't been for Vincent," Barney said.
"Oh." Zach's mother stepped forward, looking Vincent up and down as she clearly wondered what to make of him. "Thank you," she said at last, her voice filled with emotion.
"If you ever need anything from us, we'll do our best to come through," said Zach's father.
Vincent relaxed. "Thank you," he said. "But Zach helped me, too. I don't think I would have made it back at all if it wasn't for him. He kept me safe from the rain."
"Zach is a very resourceful, caring boy," Zach's mother said.
"Mom! Dad!" Zach came to the doorway now. "Vincent is awesome, isn't he?! He's my friend now, just like the Turtles!"
Immediately he was enveloped in hugs. "He's pretty awesome, alright," his father said.
"We were so worried!" his mother exclaimed.
"Yeah, we didn't know what had happened to you," Walt said gruffly, but he looked happy too.
"I'm really sorry about that," Zach said. He looked awkward with all the hugs, but then he smiled. This was nice.
The Turtles, Splinter, and the Stockmans smiled too. Everything was as it should be.
Eventually all of their friends, old and new, left and the Stockman brothers were left to themselves. Barney had told Baxter and Vincent that he would clean up in the kitchen and they could have some time to interact alone, but they insisted on helping, happy to all be together. When they were getting ready for bed, however, Vincent followed Baxter into his room.
"How were you holding up, Pal?" Vincent softly asked.
"It was . . . very hard," Baxter said. "I had to try to be strong for Barney's sake or I very likely would have fallen apart myself. I had already crumbled inside."
"I was worried about it being like that," Vincent said. "I hoped that you and Barney could draw strength from each other, but I guess it was too soon after uniting as a family for that. . . ."
"We were starting to try to," Baxter smiled sadly at him. "Yes, we had problems, and I eventually snapped at him, but then he apologized and we both tried harder to get along."
"I'm so glad." Vincent smiled.
"It was . . . hard, remembering when I thought you were gone in the past and fearing it had happened now." Baxter studied him. "Are you really alright, Vincent? You weren't hurt by the rain?"
"I'm just fine," Vincent asssured him. "Zach took me to a cave the first night. The second night we were in an old barn. Tonight Zach fixed that blanket around me and we were able to take the bad guys' car."
"That's wonderful," Baxter said. "Oh, the police caught them, by the way. They've confessed."
"Good to know," Vincent smirked.
Baxter hesitated, then hugged him. "Vincent . . . I'm so happy you're home," he whispered.
Vincent returned it, holding his first friend close. "I missed you so much," he said. "Barney too."
"You really do mean the world to Barney," Baxter said. "You do for me as well. I'll never forget again how much you were there for me when I needed someone so badly. And I'll never forgive myself that I forgot at all."
"You wouldn't have, if it weren't for the fly," Vincent said. "I don't blame you, Pal."
"I know," Baxter said. "But I still feel badly about it anyway."
"You were so troubled and confused," Vincent told him. "As you basically told Barney, becoming human again didn't instantly heal you. There was so much you had to work out about yourself. I was part of that, especially since what I seemed to be went against everything logic told you I could be. Even after seeing me again, you still didn't fully understand. Why would you?"
"Sometimes I wonder if I understand even now," Baxter said. "But we gave strength to each other when we thought Barney was dead, and my memories of you started to come back more during that time. I'm so glad they did."
"And I'm so glad we were able to bond again, Baxter," Vincent said. "I love Barney very much, but I love you too. I would feel like half of my circuits had been ripped out if we were no longer close."
Baxter shuddered. "That would never happen," he vowed.
Vincent smiled. He knew it.
"That experiment we tried . . . why did I forget that memory?" Baxter wondered. "I remembered going to see Barney earlier that evening."
"Maybe it was the shock of being pulled into another dimension when you tried to use the formula," Vincent said. "I have to admit, I was afraid something even worse might happen, so I was relieved it was only that. But I felt so bad for you. When I realized you didn't remember any longer, I didn't press it. I felt it was better that way."
"It probably was," Baxter sighed. He paused. ". . . We also found the memories when you and Barney first met. . . ."
"Oh. Did you listen to those?" Vincent looked like he wasn't sure what to think of the news.
"Barney switched it off when he realized what it was," Baxter said. "I was curious, but I wasn't sure I felt up to listening to him rage about me. I felt sure Barney would rather I didn't hear it, too. So in the end I played some more of your space memories instead."
"That was probably for the best," Vincent agreed. "The Technodrome memories might hurt you, it's true. And they would probably dig into things Barney would rather not think about now." He paused. "But it is very moving to hear how Barney gradually softened over time."
Baxter smiled. "And how you helped him do that. Maybe someday I will want to hear those memories because of that."
"Maybe someday, Barney will even want to face them too," Vincent said. "But it's alright if he doesn't. I doubt anyone likes to revisit memories when they weren't at their best."
"I certainly don't," Baxter said. "But at the same time, I know they happened and I feel I should be brave enough to face them." He paused. "One of the people who strongly supported searching for you was one of the firefighters I mutated into a giant termite. I was stunned that he didn't hold any ill feelings towards me or you."
"That is surprising," Vincent mused. "I guess there are still forgiving people in this world aside from our friends."
Baxter nodded. "It's a humbling realization. I'll want to let him know you're back safe. Of course, April wants to do a news story on it, and I suppose we really need to."
"That's true," Vincent said. "It will be important news that Zach has been found alive and well."
"And that you have been too," Baxter said. "Not to mention that you and Zach helped each other get home. April wanted to do the story tonight when we called her, but we convinced her to wait until tomorrow so that you and Zach could both rest tonight . . . and spend time with family." He smiled. "That's similar to how it was when Barney came back alive. We did the press conference the next day."
"I remember," Vincent said. "Barney didn't want to do it at all, but he went along."
"He recognized that it was probably a good idea, I think, even if he didn't want to admit it," Baxter said.
"I still wonder about all the people he met during those days," Vincent said.
"So do I," Baxter agreed. "But I hope Barney will want to share those memories with us someday. Until then, we'll just have to be patient and wait."
Vincent said, "I guess it's strange for me, knowing that he keeps those memories to himself. He talks to me about almost everything."
"I know," Baxter said. "Those experiences really were part of changing him. He was different when he came back to us." He smiled a bit. "He finally found some peace with the world and himself."
"And he desperately needed both," Vincent said.
Baxter nodded. "I'm so glad he confides in you about almost everything, Vincent. He never had someone he trusted that deeply and he needed it so much. I wish that he would feel like confiding in me more than he does, but I'm happy he does at all. It's better than he ever used to do." He managed a smile.
"You're right, Pal," Vincent said. "And I shouldn't be complaining about him keeping one thing from me, considering everything he's willing to tell me. You're kept in the dark much more and I know that's hard for you."
"I grew to accept it in the past," Baxter said. "I hope that now that we're getting closer, he will keep opening up to me more and that it's not only something he'll do when he's desperate for a listening ear."
"I'm sure he'll open up to you at other times," Vincent said. "It takes time, especially if you're an aloof and stubborn man like Barney, but he's making so much progress and he really does want to include you in his life now."
"And that's so incredible to me," Baxter said softly. "I never thought he would stop being angry at me, let alone talk to me like a normal human being." He looked at his friend. "Thank you so much for your part in giving us that gift."
"It wasn't all on me," Vincent said. "You and Barney did a lot of it yourselves. But I realize I helped Barney to thaw out and I'm so happy I was able to help. I got so many things about friendship wrong, but with Barney I finally started doing some things right."
"You always did some things right," Baxter said. "But yes, because of your friendship with Barney, you learned and grew up."
"And with my age, it was about time I did," Vincent remarked.
Baxter laughed, then suddenly sobered. "Vincent . . . how long do alien computers usually live?"
Vincent smiled at him, and there was no trace of sadness. "A long time. As I told Zach, even longer when they have something to live for. If I'm left to my own devices to die of, well, natural causes, it shouldn't be something you'll have to see."
Baxter considered that. "Would you live on for a long time without us?" He frowned. He hated to think of Vincent being all alone again.
"No," Vincent said softly. He hugged Baxter close. "Everything will be alright, Pal, as long as I'm allowed to stay here after I die."
Baxter relaxed and was caught up in the embrace. It was warm, comforting. And he found himself believing Vincent. "I'm sure that you will be, Brother," he said. "God wouldn't be that cruel."
Vincent also wanted to see Barney again. After leaving Baxter to undress for bed, he wandered to Barney's room and found his other brother just standing at the window and staring out into the night. "Barney?" he called softly.
Barney slowly turned. "I . . . wasn't sure if I was going to tell you this," he said. "I don't remember ever crying, even as a child. It just wasn't the way I expressed or released emotions. It wasn't that I didn't feel like it sometimes or even that I didn't want to. But I considered it weakness and I was trying so hard to always be strong. Then this week, I thought you were dead and the back-up was my last hope to have you back. When I tried to talk to it and it didn't understand feelings, I broke down and wept for the first time in my life."
"I'm so sorry, Barney." Vincent came into the room and over to him. "Tears aren't weakness, especially as a expression of love. But I never wanted to cause such pain."
"It's part of the package," Barney grunted. "I couldn't care about you so much without the pain coming along too."
"That's true." Vincent paused. "You said from the beginning that the back-up wouldn't be me, but I pushed to have it made. I probably shouldn't have."
"No." Barney shook his head. "Baxter was right; having your memories is important. If you ever are gone, that's the only part of you we'd have left. I'm glad you encouraged me to make the back-up. I just shouldn't have been so foolish as to try to talk to it."
"It's understandable you'd try," Vincent said softly.
". . . I said I loved it . . . meaning you, of course," Barney said. "It couldn't comprehend the feeling or the idea."
"I comprehend it," Vincent said. "And I love you."
Barney relaxed. "I know," he said. "That's why you are . . . something special."
Vincent smiled, then looked sad. "The aliens from my home planet would find it concerning for me to have learned to love."
"Would they have tried to reprogram you?" Barney asked in concern.
"No," Vincent said. "Not since part of the point of having computers like me was so we could learn and grow. But they would have watched and worried, waiting for me to do something that they considered detrimental to the mission."
"And if you had?" Barney really dreaded knowing the answer, yet he had to hear it.
"I would have been put out of service unless I could prove that my way of thinking was not detrimental," Vincent said. "And with their mindset against forming close relationships, that would have been unlikely."
Barney's eyes narrowed. "It's so ironic that a non-organic being had more humanity than the organic beings."
"It is, isn't it," Vincent said.
Barney pondered a moment. ". . . I suppose if your body ever was destroyed and your soul could go into the back-up, it would then be 'on' all the time, wouldn't it?"
"I suppose," Vincent said. "Or I could certainly modify it to that effect."
"Let's just keep things as they are for now," Barney said. "There's no need to change anything unless we have to."
"Alright," Vincent agreed. "I would override the existing interaction program if I took over anyway."
"I'd hope so," Barney frowned. "It would be unsettling if you went back to square one even with your soul in the back-up, the same as some humans do after suffering something extremely traumatic and forgetting everything."
"And then only be back to as I am right now upon dying and being freed of the flawed body?" Vincent shuddered. "It should be able to be different for me."
"Then that would be one more advantage you'd have over organic beings," Barney said.
"I think you can look upon the back-up as simply what you might get if you had a soulless body that did wake up," Vincent mused. "I've heard of scenarios like that in horror productions sometimes. Maybe it could basically function, but it wouldn't be the person as you know them. It would be missing that certain something the soul brings. So once my soul would inhabit the back-up, that spark would be there and you'd have the complete being again."
"I can see that reasoning," Barney said. "I don't know what to think of it, but I hope that for organic beings at least, that type of horror scenario doesn't really happen. It was difficult enough for Baxter and Fenwick to be laying unconscious and not waking up without their souls. It would have been infinitely more disturbing had their bodies been awake and acting anything like the back-up of you did."
"It would have been," Vincent frowned.
For a moment there was silence. Then Vincent asked, "What did you do about teaching classes this week?"
Barney sighed. "I couldn't do it," he admitted. "I knew I'd have to, but I hadn't yet got the strength to buckle down and do it. Mr. Dalton wasn't happy. His assistant reminded him that I've been very reliable up to now, however, even coming in when I'm physically unwell myself."
"Something I've wished you wouldn't do," Vincent said.
"It's served us well," Barney said. "And the reminder cooled Mr. Dalton's feelings for the time being. Will you feel like going to the afternoon class tomorrow?"
"Of course," Vincent said.
Barney paused. "And if you'd like . . . maybe tomorrow night we could watch Knight Rider."
Vincent's eyes lit up. "Really?"
A nod. "Really."
"I'd like that a lot," Vincent said.
"I thought you would," Barney said. "I . . . would too."
Vincent smiled. "I know you're not that interested in the series, Barney, but that means a lot to me that you're willing to try it."
"It means a lot to you," Barney said. "And I do appreciate the friendship between the characters. But most of all, I appreciate sharing that time with you. I . . . never before had anyone I wanted to spend time with. Now I have two."
Vincent beamed, happy to be included but even happier that Baxter was. "Maybe Baxter could watch with us too?" he suggested.
"If he wants to," Barney agreed.
"I think he would, for the same reason you're willing," Vincent said.
"Probably," Barney said. He turned away slightly. "Vincent . . . when did you ever see past all the twisted anger and hatred to whatever good I had in me back then? Baxter apparently saw it all along, but with him it's more understandable with his 'brother' pitch. With you . . . I still don't get it."
"It wasn't easy, Buddy," Vincent said. "In the early days, it took a lot to push back all the disgust I felt for you. But I wanted to believe Baxter wasn't wrong that you cared, and since you admitted to me that you lied to Krang to save his life, that helped me believe it was true. But I didn't understand you and there were still setbacks."
"Such as when Baxter astral-projected," Barney supplied.
"Or even when you were making the lightning stone and I misunderstood your intentions for staying with Krang to be selfish," Vincent added. "I recognized your goodness long before that, but I think it was only when I understood what you were willing to do to stop Krang's plan that I realized the full depth of your goodness and potential. And I also realized I was going to lose you." He walked around to face Barney. "I didn't know how I was going to stand that. I wanted with every part of me to stop you . . . but I couldn't. And deep down, I knew that you were right; there was no other way. But that didn't make it any easier. I first agreed to talk to you out of loneliness and sorrow, but then you really became my friend. To lose one who had become so dear was absolutely crushing. I do know what that's like, Barney, and I am so very sorry you had to experience it too. I know there were differences in the situations that made the grief different, but we still each thought we'd lost a loved one."
Barney looked at him. "And we got them back."
Vincent smiled. "Yes, we did."
Suddenly Barney looked emotional, vulnerable. "Vincent . . . if I hadn't left without you, none of this would have happened."
Vincent looked at him in surprise. "Barney, you were just doing what the caller said," he said. "They ordered you not to bring anyone, including me. You thought our students were in danger. You had to comply with the caller's wishes. Anyway, Big Louie would have been after me regardless. The way things worked out, he and his men are all in jail. Who knows what would have happened otherwise. I'm home safe, and so is Zach, and I like to think that I made a positive difference in that boy's life. We might not have met if this hadn't happened. I regret that you and Baxter and everyone else had to suffer. But I don't regret the good that came out of this."
Barney slowly nodded. "You make sense, Vincent. I'm supposed to be able to think logically; hopefully I can come to see it that way too."
"I think you can, old buddy," Vincent said. "But I understand if you can't. It would have been so horrible for you and Baxter."
"I was driving Baxter away," Barney confessed. "I didn't know how to deal with my pain and I wasn't thinking about his. He finally snapped at me; I don't know how he took it as long as he did. But he forgave me . . . again, and we tried to move on from it."
"Baxter told me," Vincent said. "I'm so glad you were able to start moving on from it. You needed each other so much."
"If Baxter had left, which is of course what I deserved, I don't know what I would have done," Barney said.
"You would have still tried to go on," Vincent said. "You're not a quitter, Buddy. You never have been."
"But after having so much . . . and losing it . . . I honestly can't say I could have taken it." Barney looked at him. "I used to fool myself into thinking I had everything before, when I only had material things. Deep down I knew I didn't. It's now that I have everything."
Vincent smiled. "You sure do." He stepped closer. "And you'll never lose us, Barney, not to death or betrayal or anything else. We love you too much for that."
"I know you'll never leave me willingly," Barney said. "And that will always be incredible to me. Thank you, for coming home."
"Where else would I go?" Vincent said softly. "Where else would I want to go?"
"You had the whole universe at your beck and call when Maximillian was here," Barney said. "But you didn't want to explore. You wanted to live here on Earth, with me and Baxter." He sounded awed.
"Exploring was interesting, but I was still empty inside," Vincent said. "I only found what I wanted here." He laid a hand on Barney's shoulder. "Of course I'd come home, Brother."
"Brother," Barney repeated. "My brother. . . ."
His life had always been rich with Baxter as his brother, even though he hadn't accepted it for years. Now, not only were they finally a real family, but Vincent had joined them as another brother. He thought he had lost Vincent and feared he might lose Baxter too. But he hadn't lost Baxter, and now they had Vincent again as well.
"My life is so full," he said.
"All of our lives are," said Vincent. "Now that we have each other."
Barney smiled and stood looking out at the city with Vincent. It was true; they had all enriched each other's lives. And that was something to always treasure.
They turned to see Baxter in the doorway, ready for bed. "Hi, Baxter," Vincent smiled.
"I just wanted to say Goodnight," Baxter said.
"Goodnight," Barney returned. He hesitated. "Baxter . . . I never could have made it through these days without you."
"I feel the same about you, Barney," Baxter said. "We buoyed each other up."
"I . . ." Barney hesitated again, shifting his weight. "It will seem strange in this house without you," he finally continued, his voice gruff.
Vincent stared, his eyes wide with surprise and hope.
Baxter also looked surprised. "Barney . . . ?"
"Just keep coming over whenever you feel like it," Barney said. "And staying as long as you want to. Even . . . indefinitely."
Now Baxter's eyes widened. "Barney . . ." He smiled. "I'd be so happy to."
"It always should have been your house too," Barney growled. "That was why it always felt so empty. I wasn't sharing it with my brother."
Vincent was overjoyed. "We'll all be together now, for always!"
Baxter came into the room. "I never expected this. . . ."
Vincent laid a hand on each brother's shoulder. "I've wanted it for so long."
"And I have too," Barney admitted. "I was afraid to ask. But after what we've just come through, I didn't want to put it off any longer. I know there will still be problems, but now I believe we can push our way through them. I want both my brothers living here." He gripped Baxter's other shoulder.
"I'm so happy," Baxter said softly. He reached and pulled Barney and Vincent into an embrace. "My brothers. . . ."
They embraced him whole-heartedly. Indeed, this was the way it should be-their family united, no matter what came at them.