Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1987

Electric Soul

By Lucky_Ladybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! ThickerThanLove helped with some key plot elements. This 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.

Autumn had definitely come to New York City, bringing with it the traditional autumn thunderstorms. The one Bebop and Rocksteady were currently trying to harness was especially fierce, with rain flying down in sideways sheets, howling winds, and vicious, insistent lightning.

"I still hate thunder," Bebop whimpered. "Why do we have to do this?"

"Because the boss said it would be a perfect way to get the rest of the energy we need," Rocksteady said with impatience. "And we have to do it here at Barney's place because it's got great access to the storm. Now hold that canister still!"

"I don't think this is going to work," Bebop objected. "Lightning don't do what you want it to. It goes wherever it pleases."

"It's gonna work!" Rocksteady insisted. "Krang said it would! We just havta get this lightning rod hooked up to the canister and . . ."

A booming roll of thunder interrupted him and sent Bebop flying onto his back in terror. "MAMA!"

Rocksteady yelped in shocked surprise. He tipped forward, accidentally knocking the lightning rod over and banging it into the iron gate around the mansion. At the same moment, lightning flashed and struck the rod. The entire gate sizzled.

"Oh! Look what you made me do!" he burst out.

"I can't help it, Rocksteady," Bebop protested. "I hate thunder. I hate it!"

The electricity continued to sizzle and spark. Now one of the nearby fuse boxes was getting into the act. Smoke emerged from behind the closed cover.

"I think we made a boo-boo." Rocksteady gulped.

Bebop stared at the growing disaster in dismay. "What if we've caused something that's going to hurt Barney?!" he exclaimed.

"Well, it'd be your fault for jumpin' on me!" Rocksteady snarled. He pushed Bebop away and leaped up as the electricity visibly jumped from spoke to spoke on the gate. "Let's get out of here!"

Bebop stumbled to his feet and backed up, still staring at the mansion as he moved to follow Rocksteady. "Something is going to go wrong. I know it!"

"Then I don't wanna be here when it does," Rocksteady snapped. "We can't do anything about the lightning rod and stuff now; we'll be electrocuted. We'll have to leave it here and go!"

"I know, but . . ."

Electricity lit up a window on the third floor and the pained scream carried through the glass. Both mutants jumped a mile.

"That wasn't Barney," Rocksteady realized.

"Well, somebody got hurt!" Bebop cried. "And it would have to be somebody close to Barney!"

"Right now I don't care," Rocksteady exclaimed. "Let's get out of here!" He grabbed Bebop's wrist and physically pulled him away.

xxxx

Vincent had been upstairs in the control room, working to turn off the electric gate for the duration of the storm. When the electricity suddenly spiked, he stared at the computer read-out in alarm. "Lightning must have struck the gate," he said in alarm. "And it wasn't turned off yet!"

He turned the dials and pulled a lever. "I have to stop the overload. . . ."

Electricity charged into his hand without warning. Even as his eyes widened in pain, more electricity exploded through the console and hit him squarely in the chest. A scream of agony echoed through the mansion as he was violently thrown across the room and crashed to the floor to lay still.

The door flew open seconds later. "Vincent?!" Barney took in the sight of the room and almost immediately saw what was left of his friend. He rushed to kneel beside him. "Vincent!" He grabbed the limp wrist, then typed into the blank laptop. Nothing.

He looked up at the sparking console. Electricity had hurt Vincent before, when he had taken a blast to save Baxter from the effects, but at the same time he had also been damaged by Krang's digital mites. This time there wasn't that problem, but the electricity from the console had no doubt been stronger than the prior blast. And Barney couldn't risk it continuing to act out and starting a fire.

Hurrying across the room, he reached and pulled the emergency switch on the wall. For a moment the room was plunged into darkness as the main power was cut off. Then the hum of the generator started and the back-up power came on. The back-up power wasn't connected to the console, so one disaster had been avoided. But . . . had a worse disaster already happened?

Swearing under his breath, Barney returned to Vincent's side. The laptop was still dead, but at least it wasn't sizzling or smoking. He had to believe this could be fixed. And if it couldn't . . . if the laptop had been fried . . . what about the motherboard?

"Vincent, can you hear me?" Barney demanded.

Nothing.

Barney snarled. Even during the prior disasters to Vincent's being, the laptop had always come back online in some manner. The fact that now it was completely unresponsive sent a chill down the scientist's spine. He knew what that seemed to mean. And he also knew that it absolutely could not mean that.

"Come back, Vincent," he whispered. "You have to come back. . . ."

He continued desperately trying to revive the laptop with every keyboard combination he could think of and the repeated pressing of the Power button. What worried him the most was that Vincent was always "on" whether the laptop was or not. Now, neither one was responding. That couldn't mean anything good.

"He's just unconscious," he said through gritted teeth. "He has to just be unconscious. . . ."

But no matter what he wanted to believe, his fears continued to pound through his mind.

xxxx

Baxter was in the basement. It wasn't a level Barney had ever used much, but it was fully finished with rooms. Baxter wasn't sure why he had taken a notion to go down there tonight. Maybe because he wanted to talk to Michelangelo without the thunder interrupting as loudly as it possibly could.

Baxter certainly wasn't afraid of the phenomenon, and on a scientific level he found it fascinating, but he also felt it really didn't have any practical use aside from determining how far away a storm was. Once the storm was upon them, the thunder was just a booming irritant. And Baxter had always hated lightning's tendency to knock out the electricity, usually right in the middle of something important. It had just tried to knock out their power now, as a matter of fact. Or maybe it had and Barney had turned on the generator. Overall, he would be perfectly fine with thunderstorms not existing.

He sank into a flowered couch-most likely left by a previous owner-and opened his Turtle-Comm. "Hello, Michelangelo," he greeted the boy with a smile.

"Oh hey, Baxter!" Michelangelo beamed. "Man, it is mondo good to hear from you!"

"We just spoke this morning," Baxter chuckled.

"I know, but it's been a long day and we can't go much of anywhere with all this rain and . . ." Michelangelo shifted.

"Michelangelo." Baxter quirked an eyebrow. "Were you in the middle of something?"

"Oh no!" Michelangelo insisted, a bit too quickly.

Baxter shook his head. "The daily therapy session, perhaps?" It wouldn't be the first time Michelangelo had tried to get out of one. On good days they went alright, but on the bad days Michelangelo hated the sessions and saw no need to keep going through with them.

Indeed, the Turtle's shoulders slumped. "It's . . . kind of not been a good day today," he quietly admitted. "Leonardo's been trying to get me to talk to myself in the mirror and tell myself I'm good and stuff . . . you know . . . and it's awkward and draining. It was hard enough to say it just once, the other night at the party. I hate giving myself pep talks and saying stuff over and over like a broken record."

"It's a good exercise, though," Baxter said.

"I get the reason for it," Michelangelo said. "But tell me honestly, Baxter-would you like doing it?"

"If I felt as horrible as you've been feeling, no, I wouldn't," Baxter conceded.

"Then it's totally okay if I don't like it," Michelangelo pressed.

"Of course it's okay," Baxter said with a sympathetic smile. "But you still need to do it, my friend."

Michelangelo heaved a sigh. "Okay, okay. Give me five minutes to finish up and I'll call you right back."

"Alright. I'll be here." Baxter pressed the button to disconnect the call and leaned back into the couch, staring up at the ceiling.

Michelangelo had been coming along so well ever since the Turtles had started the regimen Barney had drawn up for them. Despite the bad days, he was definitely improving. Being able to say he was worthy of love, even to phrase it as a question, was a huge triumph. The next step was to get him confident enough again that it wouldn't be a question at all. Baxter was sure it would happen. Splinter, the Stockmans, and April had all been pulling for Michelangelo in addition to the other Turtles. With so many in his corner, Michelangelo had been cheering up more and more.

And as for Baxter himself, well . . . he had told Barney and Vincent that if Michelangelo didn't get better, he wouldn't either. The more Michelangelo improved, the better Baxter felt. He still felt horrible for not having seen the falling beam that fateful day when Michelangelo had been hit and ended up with amnesia, but he was working on accepting that it had been an accident and forgiving himself. He hadn't told anyone but his brothers the depth of his feelings, not wanting to burden the Turtles with that when they had their hands full with Michelangelo's anguish, and Barney and Vincent were both completely rooting for him. Barney hadn't officially implemented a regimen for Baxter to follow, but probably only because Baxter hadn't been broken to the extent Michelangelo had. He and Vincent both encouraged him to talk, however, and Vincent had suggested that Baxter try repeating to himself that it had been an accident and he couldn't help it. Barney had added for him to also say it wasn't his fault. Baxter didn't like that much more than the mantras Michelangelo was trying to say. But he still tried to dutifully do it.

"Baxter, old pal?"

He jumped a mile. "Vincent?!" He sat up straight, eyes wide.

Vincent was indeed standing before him, hesitant and confused. But while it was usual for his energy-generated body to be somewhat see-through, it wasn't usual for the laptop to be so as well. Or his clothes.

Baxter stood and came closer. Was he seeing things? "Vincent, I didn't hear you come in," he said.

"I didn't!" Vincent exclaimed in dismay. "I was upstairs, working in the control room, when I realized it was storming. I was going to leave, but I thought there wouldn't be the danger of a power surge up there and I should disable the electric gate for the duration of the storm. I remember being shocked by the console . . . being blasted across the room . . . and then . . . then I was here. . . ."

Baxter stared at him in disbelief. "Vincent . . ." He reached out, trying to touch the alien computer's shoulder. His hand passed through. The same thing happened when he tried to grasp the laptop's keyboard. He fell back, his heart gathering speed.

"Baxter . . . what's wrong with me?" Vincent sounded vulnerable . . . scared. Baxter had never heard those emotions from him before, even after all the calamities he had been through. Vincent had always been strong when Baxter was falling apart, even when he'd had plenty of reason to break down himself.

"I . . . I don't know," Baxter stammered. "It . . . reminds me of when Mr. Fenwick and I were hit by the Ghostbusters' equipment and we were forcefully astral-projected, but if this is like that, then . . . that would mean that . . ." He stared in stunned amazement. ". . . I'm looking at your soul. . . . I know we already knew you had one, but this is positive proof. You can carry on past mortality. . . ."

Vincent looked more shaken than amazed. "Am I dead?"

Baxter headed for the stairs. "I don't want to believe that. Mr. Fenwick and I were able to be restored. I want to believe you can be as well. Come on. Let's go up and find Barney."

". . . Do you think Barney will be able to deal with this?" Vincent asked.

"I . . . don't know," Baxter stammered. "But we'll have to tell him. . . ."

Vincent knew Baxter was right, but he hated thinking of how poor Barney would react. He plodded after Baxter up the stairs.

Baxter's hands shook as he gripped the banister. He certainly didn't want to believe Vincent was dead. But this . . . this was incredible. They had feared he was dead in the past. And not knowing if he had a soul or spirit, Baxter and Barney were afraid they would never see him again. It had been devastating, crushing. They had come to believe that Vincent had a soul, but they hadn't seen any physical proof of such and hadn't thought they ever would. Now . . . this gave Baxter some comfort, even as he was horrified to think that this time, Vincent really had been terminated.

They reached the ground floor and climbed to the second. As they went up the final flight of the stairs to the top floor, Baxter called out. "Barney?"

Barney sounded abrupt and angry when he answered. "What is it?"

Baxter flinched but asked, "Barney, what's going on?"

"I don't know!" Barney snapped. "It looks like there was a freak power surge in the control room that shouldn't have happened and . . ." The sound of something clattered to a surface. "Vincent's been hurt. I've taken the laptop apart to look at the motherboard and other circuitry, and I can't find any visible damage, but nothing I do boots the laptop up. And Vincent doesn't answer me. . . . He can't answer me. . . ." The mask of anger faded enough that Baxter could hear the crack in Barney's voice. "Maybe we'll just have to wait like we did when Krang hurt him, but . . ."

Baxter glanced over at Vincent before replying. "That won't work this time, Barney," he said softly.

"What?!" Barney was angry again. "What do you mean, it won't work?! Are you going to say he's dead? You, who are always encouraging me to have hope?!"

"Barney . . ." Baxter bit his lip. This was going to sound insane, but he had to say it. "Vincent's standing here, with me. . . ."

Dead silence. "Brother, what are you talking about?" Barney demanded then. "Are you half-asleep?"

"He's here, Barney," Baxter stressed. "I don't know how else to say it. We believed he had a soul to go on with, but of course we hadn't seen it. Well, I can tell you now that I'm seeing it."

Another silence. When Barney finally spoke again, his voice was an odd mixture of horror and awe. "He . . . has a soul? He's . . . he's dead?"

"Maybe he isn't!" Baxter pleaded. "Maybe it's like when Mr. Fenwick and I astral-projected and we were able to come back!"

"Maybe." Barney still sounded very strange. "I'll put the laptop back together. Then . . . help me carry him out of here. . . ."

"I . . . we'll be right there," Baxter promised. "I'll just call the Turtles and Splinter for help."

Vincent looked worried. "I think this is too much for Barney to process right now," he said softly.

"He can deal with it," Baxter said, occupied as he reached for the Turtle-Comm.

"Remember how he got when he thought you were dead," Vincent pleaded. "He's really shaken." He looked at Baxter. "I know you are too, but . . . you're also thinking how wonderful it is to know that I have a soul. Barney's too upset to process that right now. His focus is that I'm probably dead."

Baxter paused. "You're right," he realized in sickened alarm. "I don't know why I said he could handle it. That's not like me. Or maybe it is. . . . I always saw Barney as the strong one. And until recently, so did he."

"I wonder if Barney will be hurt that I went to you in the basement instead of first appearing to him," Vincent said, also quiet.

Baxter started. "You couldn't help it!" he exclaimed.

"When you astral-projected, you thought that maybe you subconsciously teleported to Barney because you were so desperate for help," Vincent said. "What if I subconsciously came to you because I was afraid Barney couldn't handle it?"

Baxter had no answer for that. He pulled out his Turtle-Comm and clicked it open. But before he pressed the button to call, he said, "I don't think that's what happened. You'd know that Barney would be panic-stricken and devastated when he'd find the laptop and be unable to get you to respond. You wouldn't leave him to that fate if you could help it. I don't think you had any control over where you went."

Vincent was silent. "Thanks, Pal."

Baxter gave him a sad smile before hitting the button.

It was Michelangelo who answered. "Hey, Baxter Dude!" he chirped. "I was just about to call you back!"

Baxter gave a weak smile. "I'm afraid something has gone terribly wrong in the past five minutes. Michelangelo, we need your and the other Turtles' and Splinter's help."

Michelangelo blinked in astonishment. "What's wrong?"

"Well . . ." Baxter glanced at Vincent. "It's . . . difficult to explain. Vincent was hurt by a power surge and now he seems to have . . . astral-projected. . . ."

"Whoa, seriously?" Michelangelo's eyes were wide.

"I don't know how else to describe it," Baxter said. "He showed up in front of me and he's . . . transparent. We're hoping there's a way to . . . put him back with his physical form, but . . ."

"Don't sweat it, Amigo! I'll round up the others and we'll be right there," Michelangelo promised. "I'm sure everything's gonna be fine."

"I hope so," Baxter said. "Thank you, Michelangelo."

"Tell Vincent everything's gonna be okay," Michelangelo said. "We won't let you guys down!"

The sad smile was on Baxter's lips again as he hung up. "If only every problem in life could be solved like that." He went over and sank into a chair in the hallway.

Vincent went and knelt beside him, placing his hands on the chair arm. "Baxter . . ." His voice trembled. "What's going to become of me? What if I am dead? What will I do? Where will I go?"

Baxter looked to his old friend. It shattered his heart to see and hear Vincent so frightened. Suddenly it hit him then, as it really hadn't before: Vincent really might be dead. And even with a soul, that was a horrible fate for him right now. Baxter had no idea what to tell him.

"I don't know," he admitted sorrowfully as the tears pricked his eyes. "Oh Vincent. . . . I wanted to help you through this, but I don't know what to do. I don't know what will happen to you. And I . . . I don't want to lose my friend . . . my brother. . . ."

"Don't cry, Baxter," Vincent said with a sad smile. "I hate to see a grown man cry. . . ."

Baxter weakly laughed and tried to brush the tears away, but to no avail. "Even now, you're trying to comfort me," he said in touched amazement. "I should be comforting you. . . ."

"I don't think anyone can really know what to do in a case like this," Vincent said quietly. "How could they? When has something like this ever happened before?"

"Probably never," Baxter admitted. "But then again, who knows. Maybe you're not the only one of your kind who has . . . had this experience. . . ."

Vincent sighed. "I certainly don't know if any of them have died . . . or what happened to them if they did." He looked at Baxter with renewed fear. "What if I have to go to my original planet's afterlife? I don't want to be there! I want to be here. . . ."

Baxter frowned. "I don't think that would happen," he said. "You're a citizen of Earth now! You've lived here for centuries. Your loved ones are here. Surely no one back on your planet could love you as much as Barney and I do!"

"They didn't love me at all," Vincent said. "But . . . would I be accepted by your God? Would I be allowed in Earth's afterlife?"

"I don't even know if I'll be allowed," Baxter said helplessly. "But you've been trying to be good and do good. . . . If God is just, I don't know why He'd reject you. . . ."

"By that logic, He wouldn't reject you either," Vincent said. He looked back to the control room. "And we'd better go over there now. . . . Barney probably has the laptop put back together. . . ."

Baxter weakly nodded. "Alright." He got up and headed down the corridor. "Barney?"

Barney was on his knees next to Vincent's lifeless body, a screwdriver in hand. He had indeed just finished closing the inside of the laptop. As he looked up, the color drained from his face.

"You see me too," Vincent said softly.

". . . Then you really are . . ." Barney stumbled to his feet. "Vincent . . ."

"I don't want to think I'm dead!" Vincent exclaimed. "I'm not dead!" He rushed his body, frantic to re-enter it. Instead an invisible force repelled him and he flew backwards, sitting down hard on the floor. "Ow. . . ."

"Vincent!" Baxter knelt next to him. "Oh Vincent. . . ." He reached out, wanting to hug his shaken friend and brother, but he drew back. His arms would only go through.

Vincent smiled sadly. "I guess . . . this really is it, old pal . . ." He looked to Barney. "Old buddy . . ."

"No!" Baxter exclaimed. "When I astral-projected, I couldn't immediately re-enter my body either! Maybe you have to be completely calm for it to work . . . or something. . . ." He swallowed hard. He felt so helpless! In his heart, he prayed that the Turtles and Splinter would arrive soon. Surely Splinter would have some advice that might help.

"I want to think that," Vincent agreed. "But can we really trust that it's true?"

"We have to trust something," Baxter said.

Barney gritted his teeth. He wanted to believe, but he was so afraid of false hope. "Well, we can't just leave Vincent's . . . body laying here like this," he said. "Help me take it into one of the empty bedrooms."

Baxter nodded. "Of course." He bent down, gathering the solid energy legs in his arms. Barney pulled the form up under the arms and let the laptop rest against his chest. Together they took their brother's body out of the control room and down the hall to the first bedroom, where they carefully laid it down on the bed.

Vincent followed them in and stood by, awkwardly watching. "I didn't realize I looked like this," he said. "Somehow your body looks so different when you're looking at it three-dimensionally and not just in a picture or a video."

Barney sank onto the edge of the mattress. "That's all you can think of to say?" he said, his voice gaining an edge.

"I don't know what to say, Buddy," Vincent said softly. "This is awfully strange for me too, you know."

"Of course it is," Barney grunted, running his hands over his face. "Don't mind me. I don't know how to handle it either."

Baxter laid a hand on Barney's shoulder. "Everything's going to be alright," he said helplessly. "It has to be. . . ."

Barney could hear that Baxter was trying desperately not to cry. But in a case like this, he certainly wouldn't blame Baxter if he did.

xxxx

The Turtles were all definitely shaken by the news Baxter had brought to Michelangelo.

"Is it really possible, Master Splinter?" Leonardo exclaimed.

"What, my son?" Splinter replied. "That Vincent has a soul or that he is truly out of his body?"

"That . . ." Leonardo swallowed hard. "That we can put him back. . . ."

"I will certainly try," Splinter said. "And all of you must help me."

"You've got it, Sensei," Raphael declared. "We'll do anything we have to, to put Vince back to normal again!"

"Of course," Donatello nodded.

"Totally!" Michelangelo cried.

Splinter smiled. "Then let us go. We must hurry; they must all be very confused and distraught right now."

The group hurried out of the Lair and into the Turtle Van. Donatello switched on the windshield wipers as they came out from underground. "Boy, it's really raining cats and dogs out here," he exclaimed. He drove as quickly as possible while being careful. They all lived more or less in the center of the city, so Barney's house wasn't far.

"You know, I wonder how Vince got blasted anyway," Raphael frowned. "I thought Barney's place would be protected against overloads like that."

"With electricity, there's always that danger of something going wrong," Donatello said.

"Totally bogus, man," Michelangelo said in disgust. "It shouldn't have happened to Vincent."

"I am certain he would rather it was himself than Baxter or Barney," Splinter said.

"It shouldn't have been any of them," Raphael retorted. "They didn't deserve that!"

"No, they did not," Splinter agreed. "But life is very rarely about what someone deserves."

"Wow, Master, I've never heard you be cynical like that before," Leonardo said in surprise.

"Everything in its proper place, Leonardo," Splinter said.

"Well, I can say that those two dudes are not in their proper place at all!" Michelangelo pointed to where Bebop and Rocksteady were standing under a pine tree near Barney's house, talking into a comm-link.

"What the heck?! What are those losers doing here?!" Raphael exclaimed.

"Let's find out!" Leonardo leaped out of the Van the moment Donatello brought it to a stop.

"Aww, but Boss, we can't go back to Barney's and get the lightning rod," Rocksteady was protesting. "We'll get electrocuted!"

"Put on some rubber gloves and do it!" Shredder screamed.

Leonardo glowered at the two mutants. "Are you two the ones who caused a power surge in Barney's house?" he demanded.

"Uh . . . does it matter if we were?" Bebop said uneasily.

"You bet your tusks it matters!" Raphael snapped. "You guys killed Vincent!"

The mutants started. Bebop especially looked ill. "What?"

Donatello laid a hand on Raphael's shoulder. "Hey, easy, Raphael. We don't know he's dead."

"We know he's basically a ghost," Raphael retorted. "Isn't that all we need to know?!"

"G-Ghost?!" Bebop exchanged a horrified look with Rocksteady, who tried to square his shoulders and look brave.

"Oh, there ain't no such thing as computer ghosts," the rhino insisted.

"Really," came a soft, mild voice.

Bebop and Rocksteady went stiff. "Um . . ." Slowly Bebop dared to look over. A very transparent Vincent was standing down by the gates. To the mutants' absolute horror, he passed through and walked over to them.

The Turtles were staring as well. "Vince," Raphael said softly.

"You're like, totally see-through, Dude," Michelangelo said. Sadness filled his face and voice.

Bebop leaped into Rocksteady's quaking arms. "Mama!"

Rocksteady promptly dropped him. "We didn't mean to kill you," he stammered. "You've gotta believe us!"

"What's going on over there?!" Shredder boomed.

"We killed the computer!" Rocksteady wailed. "And now he's going to haunt us forever!"

"Don't speak such nonsense!" Shredder snapped. "Computers can't be killed and they don't have ghosts!"

Vincent walked over to the comm-link and peered into it. "May I point out the error in such statements?"

Shredder stared. "What the Devil . . . ?"

"And I would also like to mention, there's no danger of my haunting your two mutants," Vincent continued. "Why would I want to bother spending time doing that when I could simply stay with my loved ones?"

"This is a trick," Shredder objected. "There's no way this can be real!"

"Then answer me this, Shredder," Vincent said. "If it's not real, how can I be out in this pounding rain without short-circuiting?"

Shredder fell back. It almost looked like the visible skin was turning pale. "Then . . . you are . . ."

"We tried to tell you, Boss," Rocksteady said.

"Shredder, what's going on in here?!" Krang's voice gurgled in displeasure.

Shredder pointed at the screen. "Those two blockheads accidentally caused a power surge at Barney's place. And apparently it killed the computer!"

"Well. You should be thrilled," Krang said with dripping sarcasm.

"But it was my right to destroy it!" Shredder whined. "And on purpose, not by some idiotic accident!"

"Who cares. Either way, it's gone!" Krang snapped.

"Only I'm not," Vincent said lightly.

Krang froze. "What."

"It's a ghost!" Rocksteady exclaimed.

"Please open the portal so we can get back to the Technodrome, Krang!" Bebop begged. "We can't do anything now. The Turtles and Splinter are here, and Baxter and Barney are coming out of the house . . ."

Indeed they were, sharing an umbrella between them.

"Vincent?" Baxter looked worried. "What are you doing out here?"

"Just taking advantage of this situation to show these two lunkheads the consequences of their actions," Vincent replied.

Bebop shifted. "Barney . . ." He looked to the redhead with genuine sorrow and regret. "We didn't mean to do this. We're both really sorry."

Barney shot him a stern look. "That won't bring him back to life."

"We know." Bebop's shoulders slumped. "But if we could turn back time and stop this from happening, we would!"

Barney studied him for a long moment. "I think you mean that."

"I sure do," Bebop said sadly.

The portal suddenly opened. "Oh, come on, you morons!" Shredder snapped.

Rocksteady came to attention. "Let's go, Bebop," he exclaimed, tugging on the other mutant's arm.

Still reluctant, Bebop nevertheless let Rocksteady pull him through the portal. "I'm really sorry," he said as it closed.

Barney sighed, clearly not sure what to think. "I want to be angry," he said. "I think I've gone numb. Or maybe it's that I'm desperately hoping this can be fixed." He looked to Splinter. "What do you think?"

Splinter was thoughtfully holding a hand to his chin as he studied Vincent. "I do not pretend to know much about technology, but in what condition is the laptop?"

"I can't find any damage," Barney said. "But it simply won't turn on. I've tried a power cable in case the battery was drained. It doesn't work either."

"Then perhaps the intensity of the electric shock simply forced Vincent out of his body," Splinter said, "and the laptop cannot operate without him." To Vincent he added, "And yes, we should be able to repair that."

Vincent shifted. "You don't think that maybe the intensity of the shock created this form for me and I didn't have it before?"

Splinter smiled and shook his head. "I do not. You have proven on many occasions that you have a soul."

"And don't forget what you said about your experience with the magnet," Baxter prompted.

"That's true," Vincent mused. "I went somewhere else, even if only for a moment."

"So the shock absolutely didn't create this form," Barney said gruffly.

"But what about how I couldn't even get back in my body when I tried?" Vincent worried.

"Let us go inside and see what we can do," Splinter said. "These things can take time."

"I did wonder if maybe I was too upset to focus," Vincent remembered.

"And that is certainly possible," Splinter said. "Perhaps we can all provide the calming atmosphere you need to try again and have it succeed."

"Only now there's another problem!" Leonardo moaned. "It looks like someone decided to take advantage of the storm to go rob somebody!" He pointed across the street to where a figure in black seemed to be quietly slipping through a living room window.

"Oh great," Raphael said in disgust. "Their power must be off so their alarm isn't working!"

Leonardo drew his katanas. "Let's go, Turtles!"

Michelangelo shifted. "But . . . Vincent . . ."

"Go ahead and stop them," Vincent said. "I can wait."

"And if you need help . . ." Barney hesitated. "We'll do what we can."

Leonardo smiled. "Alright then!" He charged across the street. "Turtle Power!"

The other Turtles followed, although Michelangelo still looked reluctant. Raphael too, when the Stockmans thought about it.

"They should have this perfectly in hand," Barney grunted. "I don't know why I said that."

Baxter smiled. "Because you love them. As do we all."

"Indeed," Splinter nodded.

Vincent started across the street in spite of himself and peered in through the window. They had all thought there was only one burglar, but now it looked like a second one starting to emerge from the shadows, crowbar in hand. The thief slowly raised the weapon towards Donatello.

"Look out!" Vincent exclaimed.

The Turtle whirled, knocking the weapon out of the crook's hand. At the same moment, the other one turned to stare at the window for the source of the cry. He screamed in horror. "It's a ghost computer!"

"There's no such thing!" the second burglar objected.

"Oh? Then what's that?!" The first one pointed at the window.

The second burglar took one look at Vincent and shrieked, running for the back of the house.

"After him!" Leonardo exclaimed. He and Donatello gave chase, leaving Raphael and Michelangelo with the first crook, who desperately kicked out at them and ran towards the door.

Vincent leaned on the windowsill with crossed arms. "Who are you more afraid of?" he said smoothly. "Two Ninja Turtles or one supernatural computer?"

"Is that even a question?!" the crook quavered. He went stiff against the door, shaking, and the Turtles soon had him sufficiently in custody.

"Whoa, Dude," Michelangelo remarked. "Who'd think that Vincent could scare people like that?"

"Eh, everybody's afraid of ghosts," Raphael shrugged. "Even people who know the ghosts."

"Like, I never did get that," Michelangelo frowned. "I mean, if they know the per-er, ghost, why be scared? I mean, they're the same as they always were."

"Who knows, Michelangelo." Raphael shook his head. "There's just something about transparent beings that really gets to people, for some reason."

Leonardo and Donatello, meanwhile, had chased the other burglar through the house and out the back door. "Now where is he?!" Leonardo exclaimed. "I don't see him anywhere!" He stood in the pouring rain, clutching both katanas as he frantically searched the backyard.

"Maybe he doubled back and went to the front," Donatello suggested.

"And face Vincent? No way!" Leonardo stepped off the back porch and into the yard. "He must have gone this way!"

He and Donatello had run to the edge of the yard when they heard the man crying out in terror. "There's a ghost computer back there!"

"And there's Casey Jones right here," a familiar, muffled voice intoned. "Either way, you're in for a nightmare and a half, Lawbreaker!"

The two Turtles exchanged a Look and peered over the fence. Casey Jones had hoisted the robber into the air by the front of his hoodie. The crook flailed and shrieked, grabbing at the beefy wrist in a desperate attempt to get down.

"Casey!" Leonardo exclaimed. "Boy, are we glad you caught him! He was just about to get away!"

"What are you doing out on a night like this?" Donatello wondered.

Casey flung the crook over the fence and then jumped over himself, hauling the guy up before he could attempt another escape. "I figured criminals would be out on a night like this," he said. "So when I heard there was a power outage on this street, I knew it was where I should try first."

The burglar struggled as Casey marched him towards the front yard. "I'm not going around there!" he screamed. "Not with the ghost computer!"

"Ghost computer?" Casey sounded incredulous at best. "This guy is a nutball."

By now Raphael and Michelangelo, in the front yard with the other crook, were in earshot. "Oh really?" Raphael said casually.

Casey went stiff at the sight of Vincent. "You!" Without warning he shoved the burglar away from him and into Leonardo and Donatello's arms as he reached for his bat. "Taking over TV channels is against the law, even for walking machines!"

Vincent panicked. He cowered, throwing both arms over the top of the ghostly laptop out of habit-even though the weapon wouldn't hurt him now. It passed through and Casey dropped it like a shot.

"It is a ghost computer!" he gasped.

"What are you doing?!" Indignant and angry, Baxter was running over now, followed closely by Barney. Splinter trailed after them.

"If Vince was still solid, our resident nutcase Casey Jones here would have just clobbered him!" Raphael cried.

Barney's eyes flashed. "Vincent helped catch these criminals!" he snapped at Casey. It looked almost laughable to see a little man like him standing up against a fierce muscle-bound man like Casey Jones, but he wasn't budging. Instead, he poked Casey in the chest. "You should be grateful to him, not try to hurt him!"

"And you too!" Casey snatched Barney's wrist and his coat and started to lift him off the ground. "Working for interdimensional criminals is also against the law! It figures you'd stand up for that thing!"

Baxter screamed. "Put him down!"

Vincent straightened and stared, helpless and in horror. "Barney isn't a criminal!" he said in desperation. "Don't you dare hurt him!"

"Everybody stop!" Leonardo burst out. He shoved the burglar at Donatello and rushed over. "Casey, I know you feel like Barney and Vincent haven't properly paid for what they did, but they have. Barney nearly died trying to save the entire city from destruction. And he and Vincent have risked their lives over and over to help us in the fight against evil. They're not bad guys anymore. Focus on the ones who are." He gestured to the burglars. "Take these guys in to the police!"

"Well . . ." Casey stared Leonardo down. "If you're sure. . . ."

"Like, totally, Dude," Michelangelo declared.

Finally Casey lowered Barney onto his feet. Shaken, Barney stood there and let Baxter hug him in relief.

Baxter looked over Barney's shoulder at Casey. "Why didn't you attack me too?" he wondered warily.

"You would've been next," Casey said. "Although at least in your case, you were clearly out of your mind when you attacked the city."

"And he's sane and good now," Leonardo said. "They're all our friends."

Casey didn't respond to that and instead grabbed both burglars by the backs of their hoodies. "Alright then. I'll leave you to your friends. I'm taking these scuzzbuckets in."

Raphael waved with both fingers. "Have a nice night!"

Baxter's shoulders slumped in relief when the vigilante was out of earshot. "I've heard about Casey Jones, of course, but I never actually expected to meet him," he said in dismay. "Although I guess I wondered if he would hate us if we met. . . ."

Barney straightened his vest and coat. "Obviously he does."

Vincent looked at him with sadness. "Are you alright, Buddy?"

"Yes," Barney said. "Thanks to Leonardo."

"I couldn't even do anything," Vincent berated. "I scared those crooks, but if I hadn't gone over there, maybe that idiot wouldn't have attacked you!"

"You couldn't have known," Barney said. "All you knew was that the Turtles were going after a burglar. And you wanted to be helpful."

Baxter nodded. "Computers love to be helpful." He gave Vincent a sad smile.

"But in this state, I can't do anything except pretend it's Halloween every night!" Vincent cried. "And obviously that doesn't work on everyone. If I really am . . . dead . . . I won't be able to protect you anymore. I'll just have to stand around and watch you get hurt!" He covered his eyes with his hands. "It's just like when I was only a motherboard, except that now I can see and move. But if I can't really intercede any better now than I could then, what good is seeing and moving?!"

"Oh Vincent . . ." Baxter looked in sorrow to Splinter. Now that the excitement was dying down, the fears were starting to creep in again. What if Vincent was dead? Baxter looked away, blinking back tears. He had tried so hard to believe it wasn't so, but the grim possibility couldn't be ignored.

"Let us go back to the house," Splinter said gently. "We will try to put you back in your body, Vincent."

Vincent slowly took his hands away. "Alright," he said slowly, doubtfully. ". . . And if you can't?"

"Then we will try to decide what to do next," Splinter replied.

xxxx

Bebop was still shaken when he and Rocksteady arrived back on the Technodrome. Shredder, instead of gloating, was nervous and pacing. Krang was watching him in irritation.

"Will you stop already?!" he finally blurted.

"But what's going to happen now?" Shredder exclaimed. "That computer's dead, but it's still hanging around. What kind of trouble will come from it still being around as a ghost?!"

"Why, Shredder, I do believe you're afraid of him haunting you," Krang smirked.

"Of course I'm not!" Shredder snapped. "But I am worried wondering what kind of things he . . . it could do to sabotage our plans! It could spy on us and we wouldn't even know it!"

"Hmm. We'd probably know it, unless he can make himself invisible," Krang said. "I wouldn't worry about it too much. Like he said, he'd rather be with his loved ones than haunting the enemy."

Bebop decided he had had enough. He turned to trudge out of the room with Rocksteady.

That was when Krang finally decided to acknowledge their presence. "And for all that, you didn't even get the energy you were supposed to," he growled.

"I wish we hadn't even been trying," Bebop said. "I never wanted anything to happen to the computer."

"Well, it's too late now," Krang said.

"But Barney . . ."

"Will you shut up about Barney?!" Krang shrieked. "Get out of here, both of you!"

The mutants fled down the hall.

"Gee, Krang sure is mad," Rocksteady frowned. "Maybe you'd really better can it, Bebop."

"I just wish there was something I could do to make things right," Bebop said. "You'd think the computer could be fixed."

"Well, we sure don't know how to do it," Rocksteady retorted. "If Barney can't fix it, it probably can't be fixed."

"Yeah. . . ." Bebop stared at the floor. "Don't you feel bad or something, Rocksteady? I mean, we didn't mean to do it, but we did it. It's our fault the computer's dead!"

Rocksteady was silent a moment. "Sure I didn't wanna cause that to happen," he said. "And sure I feel bad. But we can't put the computer through the machine we put Barney in after I hurt him. There's no way for us to fix this."

"So we should put it behind us?" Bebop finished.

"Yeah, I guess that's what I'm sayin'," Rocksteady said.

"But Barney loved that computer. He'll feel so awful." Bebop frowned. "I can't put it behind me just like that."

"Then I don't know what to tell you," Rocksteady said. "If you start messing up even worse because you can't concentrate, maybe the boss or Krang will kick you out!"

"Maybe," Bebop said noncommittally.

Rocksteady stopped walking and turned to stare at him. "Don't tell me you wouldn't care!" he gasped. "We don't have anyplace else to go!"

"It doesn't seem like we ever get anywhere working for the boss," Bebop said. "Maybe we should try to find something else."

"The only 'something else' would be the joint," Rocksteady said. "You don't wanna get behind bars again, do you?"

"No. . . . But Barney didn't have to," Bebop said hopefully.

"Because he saved the whole freakin' city." Rocksteady rolled his eyes. "And we already talked about that. We don't wanna do that! We might not be so lucky and survive like he did!"

"I know. I don't want to do that," Bebop said.

"So there's nothing to talk about," Rocksteady insisted. "Just focus on your life as it is. It's never gonna get any better. There isn't anything better for guys like us."

Bebop frowned. "Yeah. You're probably right."

"Anyway, we like being the bad guys, right?" Rocksteady continued. "We tried bein' good and you didn't like it any better than I did!"

"That's true," Bebop said, but he still didn't look convinced. "I didn't want to be this bad, though."

"Hey, it was an accident," Rocksteady said. "And it's not like you killed something living. He was just a computer."

"He wasn't just a computer!" Bebop cried. "Barney loved him! And he acted alive! How can you kill something if it wasn't alive to begin with?!"

That silenced Rocksteady. He rocked back, blinking at Bebop in surprise and confusion. ". . . I guess you can't," he conceded.

"So we murdered Barney's best friend!" Bebop turned and stormed down the hall to their room.

After standing and staring a moment, Rocksteady followed. Bebop had flung himself across the lower bunk, staring at the wall. And, Rocksteady realized, he didn't know of anything he could say that would make things better. So instead, he awkwardly sat in the gaming chair and gazed blankly at the television without really seeing it.

xxxx

The group had dried off from the storm and was now gathered around the upstairs bed. Splinter stood closest, one hand on the top of the laptop and the other in Leonardo's hand. "Now," he explained, "we will all link hands and concentrate, willing our loved one back to the mortal plane. Vincent, try to focus on our thoughts. Calm yourself. Then try to re-enter your body."

Vincent still looked skeptical, but he didn't protest.

For a long moment the group struggled to concentrate. Vincent tried to reach out to them, to feel their thoughts, but all he felt was a dark void. He shuddered. When he held out his hand to the laptop, again he was repelled.

"It's no use!" he cried. "I can't feel any of your thoughts. You're right here, but if I close my eyes and try to feel you that way, it's like I'm completely alone. I can't be calm! I should be able to be logical and practical, but everything logical and practical in me says I'm dead. I'm not on the same plane anymore. I am alone!"

Baxter looked at him with worry and anguish. "Vincent . . ."

"You're not alone!" Barney suddenly snapped. "We're right here! You know that! You admitted that!"

"But we're worlds apart," Vincent replied. He sank to the floor and slumped against the wall. "I'm never going to really be with you anymore."

"Dude . . ." Michelangelo broke the chain and went over to him. "You can't think that! You have to try again. Come on!"

"I can't!" Vincent shot back. "I've tried. Maybe it's because you're organic and I'm not, but I can't feel you! I can't feel any of you, even Baxter."

"I won't believe that!" Baxter came over to him now. "Alright, so you're not organic. You should still be able to feel our thoughts if we reach out to you! At least the way Splinter explains it. You're on a different plane, a spiritual plane where thoughts should be able to be picked up easily!"

"I'm completely alone!" Vincent retorted. "If I was really on some spiritual plane, shouldn't I see organic beings who are dead too? I'm all alone."

". . . Maybe because that's what you've always feared death will be like for you," Barney said.

Everyone looked to him in surprise.

"Is that possible, Master?" Leonardo asked. "Vincent fears so much that he'll be alone in death that he's boxed himself into that situation?"

"I suppose it's possible," Splinter said slowly in surprise.

"In psychology, we're taught that people often create their own prisons," Barney said. "I certainly did that for myself. If we do it while in the body, why not when we're out of the body?"

"And if that's what I've done, how do I stop?!" Vincent burst out. "There's no way of knowing that this is in all in my mind. Maybe I am dead! Maybe I'll always be cut off from all of you, even after you die too! And even if I'm not dead now, how do I make myself stop having this fear?! It's a very real, very logical fear! Some people say animals won't be allowed in Heaven. How would a computer ever be?!"

Barney slammed his hand onto the nightstand. He really didn't have an answer for that. Vincent was right; no one could.

Now Baxter was openly crying. "If you wouldn't be allowed . . . then it wouldn't be Heaven," he said sadly. "It's only Heaven with all our loved ones."

Vincent looked away. He hadn't wanted to make Baxter cry. Usually he was always so in control, which was normal and logical for a computer. And even when he was upset, he could generally control it around his loved ones. But now he was so scared, so terrified, that even he had lost the ability to be in control. He didn't know how to ever be calm.

"I want to go back," he whispered.

"Vincent. You'll be allowed in Heaven. That's what Ruth was trying to tell you."

Everyone jumped a mile at the strange, deep, ethereal voice. No one else was visible in the room, but someone had spoken. And Barney had gone sheet-white.

Vincent looked up, staring around the walls and the ceiling in disbelief. "Who are you?" he demanded. "How do you know about Ruth?!"

"I'm Harold," was the calm reply.

"Great-Grandfather Harold," Baxter whispered. "Ruth's husband."

Barney was fixated on the direction of the voice, still completely pale. "It was you," he choked out. "I could never forget that voice. . . ."

Now everyone was staring at Barney. "What are you talking about, Dude?" Michelangelo blinked.

"Yes," Harold said, seemingly ignoring Michelangelo. "It was me. Ruth and I are always watching over you, Barney, and you as well, Baxter. And as you have adopted Vincent as a third brother, we are also watching over him. And all the rest of your family, biological and adopted."

"Me too?" Michelangelo pointed at himself.

"Of course," said Harold.

". . . You're our guardian angels?" Baxter wondered.

"Yes," Harold said. "And Vincent, you are not dead. Splinter and Barney are right-the only thing keeping you from re-entering your body is your own fear. Be at peace, Great-Grandson."

Vincent pointed to himself in disbelief. "Me?"

But the voice did not come again.

Now Baxter was beaming. "It's alright, Vincent! Everything's alright. You'll be with us now and you'll still be with us when we're all dead!"

Splinter was smiling as well. "Yes. You have received a great gift. Really, we all have. Let us try again, Vincent. Surely this time, it will work."

Vincent pulled himself to his feet. "Let's try," he agreed.

Once again everyone joined hands and concentrated. Vincent closed his eyes, reaching out for their thoughts.

"I feel you," he said in awe. "I feel all of you! It isn't a dark void anymore!"

"Then come home, Vince," Raphael said. "We all want you back."

Barney nodded. He was too shaken to speak, but he was every bit as sincere.

For the third time Vincent extended his hand and touched his body. And this time, it phased through. "It's going to work this time," he whispered in joy. "I'm coming back."

Everyone looked up. The spectral Vincent was nowhere to be seen. But the laptop screen was still blank.

Baxter walked closer to the bed. "Vincent?"

Barney came up beside him, tense, watching.

The laptop abruptly came to life, booting up as though nothing had happened. Cheers rang through the room. And when the Desktop loaded and switched to Vincent's face, everyone moved in closer to embrace him.

"I'm back," Vincent said in awe. "I'm really back. . . ." He raised his hands off the bed and reached for his brothers, wanting to touch them and absolutely convince himself this was real.

Baxter and Barney rushed him in an instant.

"Vincent . . ." Barney clutched at him, burying his face in Vincent's shoulder.

Baxter hugged him in joy.

"This is totally epic!" Michelangelo exclaimed as he and the other Turtles joined in.

Splinter smiled, watching them all, and approached Vincent when there was an opening. "Welcome back, Vincent," he said, and hugged him as well.

Vincent was surprised. But Splinter was perhaps equally surprised when Vincent returned it. "Thank you," he said softly. "Thank you. . . ."

Baxter looked happily to Barney. "We're all together again," he exclaimed.

"Just as it's supposed to be," Barney said, gruffly yet sincerely.

xxxx

Everyone had gathered downstairs for a celebration and was waiting for the pizza to cook when Baxter suddenly remembered Barney's strange words to Harold. "Barney, what did you mean about telling our great-grandfather 'It was you'? When did you ever hear his voice before?"

Instantly, all eyes were on Barney. Only Vincent didn't look confused.

"Yeah, that's right," Michelangelo remembered. "What did you mean, Dude?"

Barney looked around at all of them, seeming to be having an inner debate with himself. Finally he spoke. "When I was trying to get out of the collapsing Dansing Building, I was lost and confused near the bottom," he said slowly. "I couldn't see the door. Suddenly someone physically pushed me out, but when I looked, no one was there. They told me I wasn't dying then, that I had a lot of living left to do.

"Part of me thought I'd cracked up. The other part knew I hadn't. And the only possible explanation was an angel. But that seemed sacrilegious. Why would God send an angel to me?

"Vincent was the only one I ever told. He assured me that I was worthy and deserving of an angel. It still seemed incredible to me, but I tried to consider it. Now, our great-grandfather talked to Vincent and I recognized his voice. It was him. He saved me." His voice choked up. "I didn't think any of our biological family even loved us."

Baxter hugged him close. "I'm so glad you finally told us, Barney," he said softly. "I had no idea."

"None of us did," Splinter said, "but what a powerful and cherished experience. You were right to withhold it until you felt comfortable sharing it, Barney."

"Seriously," Michelangelo said, his eyes wide and his voice hushed.

Vincent beamed. He was thrilled that Barney had decided to share it, and not only with Baxter, but everyone present. ". . . And he actually called me 'Great-Grandson.' Me. I'm a computer. . . ."

Baxter regarded him in joy. "You're our brother, Vincent," he said. "And our great-grandparents have accepted you into the family." He looked at the Turtles and Splinter. "All of you."

"So bodacious!" Michelangelo exclaimed.

"You all belong in our family," Barney said. "I'm glad that some of our biological family sees that."

"How's your dad feeling?" Michelangelo wondered.

Barney paused. "I don't think he will ever call Vincent 'son,' but he definitely respects Vincent and everyone else who has been more of a family to us than he has ever been." He finally smiled a bit. "And that's more than I could have ever hoped for."

Baxter nodded in agreement. "We're both very happy that he feels that way. He truly has changed."

Splinter smiled. "One thing I have learned is that it is never too late to change."

"No, but sometimes it's too late to fully mend things that went wrong," Barney said. "I highly doubt we will ever be as close as normal fathers and sons are."

"That is understandable as well," Splinter said. "But let us wait and see. You and Baxter have certainly become as close, or may I say, even closer, than many brothers."

Barney looked at his twin. "That's true," he admitted. He smiled more. "And it feels amazing."

"It does," Baxter said, softly and sincerely. "It's what I always longed for so much."

Vincent had a far-off look in his eyes. "And now you finally have it, Pal," he said. "I'll be back in a minute."

Baxter stared at him in surprise. "Where are you going, Vincent?"

"I'm just going to try something." Vincent waved and went into the kitchen. "And I'll check on the pizza while I'm in here."

He slipped into the corner and tapped in some commands on the keyboard. After a moment, Bebop appeared in a corner of the screen. "What's goin' on?" He sounded and looked wary.

"I hacked into your comm-link," Vincent said. "I wanted to let you know I'm alright."

Bebop sat up straight, holding the comm-link in both hands. "This ain't a joke, is it? Or a trick?"

"Could a ghost hack into something?" Vincent said lightly.

Bebop stared at Vincent's image on his comm-link screen. "You're . . . really okay?" he said softly.

"Seriously?" Now Rocksteady appeared behind Bebop.

"Yes," Vincent said.

"How?!" Bebop demanded.

"The electrical charge just pushed me out of my body," Vincent said. "I found the way back."

". . . So . . . why are you tellin' us?" Bebop wondered.

Vincent paused. "Since you felt terrible about it, I thought you deserved to know."

". . . Well . . . thanks." Bebop sounded both choked up and relieved.

"Yeah!" Rocksteady exclaimed. "He was really upset! Well, I felt bad too . . ."

"Just be careful in the future," Vincent said. "And maybe think about what Barney has told you."

He disconnected the call and leaned against the counter, staring off at the opposite wall. Maybe they would never leave Shredder. But he did like to think that they weren't hopeless, especially Bebop. For him to feel such guilt and anguish over having possibly killed Vincent, maybe it would make him think twice in the future.

That was something Vincent liked to think, at least.

"Vincent?"

He looked up as Barney peered into the kitchen. "Hi, Buddy." He pushed away from the counter and went over to the oven. "I think the pizzas are just about done."

Barney came in closer. "I know I didn't say much to you tonight," he said haltingly. "And some of what I did say was harsh. But . . ." He shook his head. "I just couldn't bear the thought that I'd lost you. I didn't know how to cope."

"Oh Barney." Vincent's smile was kind. "Don't you think I know that?" He laid a hand on Barney's shoulder.

"Yes," Barney rasped. "But . . . I still wanted to say it. I didn't think I'd make the same mistakes I made when Baxter astral-projected. . . ."

"You didn't. You weren't nearly as harsh with me," Vincent said. "And in any case, I know how much you love me, Buddy. There's nothing you could say that would make me think otherwise."

"Thank you," Barney said softly.

"Thank you, for being such a good friend . . . and brother." Vincent smiled at him and opened the oven just as it dinged. "Dinner's ready."

Barney smiled too. "Let's take it in together."

"Let's," Vincent agreed.

They each took a pizza and carried them into the living room, to their waiting loved ones.