"Ahahahaha! I've done it! I've done it! Now Master Shredder will have to appreciate me! No more insults! No more put-downs! Without me he would be nothing, even though he'll never admit it!"
Vincent flew upright in bed, the quilt slipping from his shoulders. ". . . What was that? A dream of an alternate Baxter?"
It had to have been, unless of course it was a dream that meant nothing. But Vincent had seen Baxter so clearly, and it hadn't been his Baxter, nor either of the others they had met in other dimensions. This one was small and slender, like his Baxter, but his thick blondish-brown hair was curly instead of shaggy and he wore different glasses. His voice was also much higher pitched. He was a new Baxter.
Vincent slumped back into the pillows. He had never dreamed of the alternate counterparts before, not even his. Baxter and Barney dreamed about their alternates. Why would Vincent have dreamed of one?
He frowned. That Baxter sounded wild, crazed. But even in his maniacal laughter, his desperation and sadness were obvious. Vincent's circuitry ached for him. He wanted to hug him close, comfort him, find out what was wrong and try to fix it. He hoped that Baxter had a Vincent to love him. Or at least that he would find one. And he hoped that Baxter and his Barney could become dear friends and brothers, if they weren't already. He had the feeling that the alternate Baxter was alone and aching from loneliness.
Suddenly he became aware that someone had the television on downstairs. That wasn't unusual, per se. But it was late and they all had work tomorrow. Vincent got up, wondering anew if Baxter and Barney had also dreamed of the new alternates.
He wasn't expecting to get downstairs and find both his brothers on the couch, watching some type of animated movie. But that only lasted for a few minutes. When it became obvious that the lion character on the screen was so enraged and jealous of his brother that he was plotting a murder, Baxter and Barney exchanged a look of mutual horror. They watched on for a bit, perhaps hoping that there would be some change of heart. But the murder happened---haunting, chilling, and completely cold-blooded. Barney snapped off the television. He leaned forward, digging his hands into his hair.
Vincent decided to make his presence known now. "Baxter? Barney? What's going on?!"
Baxter sighed. "We made the mistake of trying to watch The Lion King," he explained.
"I thought that was a children's film," Vincent said. "That is something people show to their children?!" He pointed at the television.
"It probably goes over their heads," Barney mumbled. "It's based on Hamlet. . . ."
"I know some schools put on their own productions of Hamlet, but at least the play has never been marketed as being written for children," Vincent said. But that, of course, wasn't his real concern. He was distressed that a children's film had included content that had upset his brothers so much. He came farther into the room and over to the couch. "Are you alright, Buddy?"
Barney just grunted. "No. . . ."
Baxter gave him a worried look. "Barney . . . ?"
Barney shook his head. "I felt like that lion to some extent. I felt the jealousy, the anger, the rage. . . . I felt inadequate and pushed aside. It hits too close to home."
"But you never wanted to commit murder," Baxter said softly.
"No, but I was so filled with rage that I thought I wanted to hurt you." Barney finally looked up. "And then I did . . . and I couldn't live with myself. And he . . ." He also gestured at the television. "He planned a premeditated murder and carried it out with relish. Part of me wonders how anyone could feel that way about their own brother. The other part . . . the other part fears that I might have become that twisted and heartless if Vincent hadn't got through to me. Scar must have only ended up driven to murder over a long period of time. I doubt he always hated Mufasa that much."
"Barney, you proved you could never be Scar," Baxter said softly. "You drew the comparison yourself. Scar delighted in the evil he was doing. He didn't regret it. You were so horrified you couldn't believe you'd really done it. And you immediately wanted to make sure I was still alive."
"And what you did certainly wasn't premeditated," Vincent said. He perched on the couch arm.
"I know. It was blind rage. And I suppose I have to be grateful for that." Barney straightened.
"I have a wonderful brother who always loved me in spite of how much he was angry and jealous," Baxter said. "It's obvious that the love died for Mufasa ages ago, if Scar ever loved him at all."
Vincent beamed at Baxter. He understood. They had both come so far in the past almost-year. From Barney's expression, he knew Baxter was right.
"Yes," he agreed. "I always loved you. And I always will."
Vincent looked to Barney with deep pride. It was still hard for Barney to lay his true feelings this bare on most occasions, but tonight he had wanted to say it.
"I know," Baxter said. "And it is such a wonderful thing to know. Of course, I feel the same about you."
"Which was my other saving grace, when I was finally willing to accept it," said Barney.
Vincent smiled. The movie wouldn't continue to bother them now. At least, he hoped not.
"We didn't wake you up, did we, Vincent?" Baxter asked in concern.
"Oh no. I was already awake," Vincent said. But was it the best time to say he had just dreamed of an alternate Baxter? He debated with himself. They might meet the alternate on the morrow. They should probably be advised of that, especially given the alternate Baxter's troubled nature.
"Bad dreams?" Barney wondered.
"Not exactly," Vincent said. "I think it was an alternate Baxter."
"Another one?!" Barney frowned.
"And you didn't see alternates of Barney and you?" Baxter said in surprise.
"I just saw you," Vincent said. He looked at the clock. "But we can talk about it later. You two need to get some sleep!"
"You're right." Barney got up.
Baxter stood as well. "How did things seem in this other world?" he wondered.
Vincent hesitated. He didn't want to give Baxter bad memories of working for Shredder to take to bed with him. "Let's just say it looks like there are some things we'll need to straighten out."
Barney grunted. "Wonderful."
"We can do it," Baxter said with confidence.
"You know, we actually only helped the first set," Barney pointed out as they headed for the stairs. "The second set solved their own problems."
"That's true," Baxter relented. "Although I think just seeing us united gave the second set hope."
Vincent smiled in agreement. "We'll see what happens."
"Well, here we go again, kids," Raphael said. "Now, who's going to come out of there this time? Any guesses?"
But no one came out.
"Let's go have a look!" Michelangelo chirped.
"I'll go," Baxter said, getting up from the couch.
Barney promptly followed him.
Together they peered through the portal. On the other side, it seemed to have opened on a type of darkened stage. A scientist with thick curly hair was adjusting dials and cackling like a maniac. "Ahahahahaha! Look, Master Shredder! I've done it! I've opened a portal!"
An annoyed voice bellowed from somewhere unseen. "Don't bother me now, you maggot! I'm making up a new rap about something I hate!"
What was apparently the alternate Baxter flinched and turned away, hurt. But then he focused on the portal and his eyes gleamed again. "What an amazing scientific triumph! Who knows what chaos will be unleashed! Now I'll have to be considered for entry into the Criminal Hall of Fame! Ahahahahaha!"
Baxter and Barney fled.
"What's wrong, Dudes?" Michelangelo blinked. The brothers were sheet-white as they fully returned to the living room.
"The . . . the other me," Baxter gasped.
"He's insane," Barney added.
"Huh?" Michelangelo was puzzled. "How so?"
"He's laughing like a hyena," Barney said. "And talking about the Criminal Hall of Fame, whatever that is."
"I didn't caterwaul like that when I worked for Shredder!" Baxter said. "That was only after I was cross-fused. . . ." He shuddered and looked away. "Except for that time when I kidnapped Splinter. . . ."
Vincent laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm going in."
Barney started. "You can't do that!" he snapped. "You don't know what that madman will do to you!"
"He's probably the type who experiments on people," Baxter gulped.
"Nonsense." Vincent walked through the portal.
Alarmed, Baxter and Barney scrambled in after him. The Turtles and Splinter swiftly followed.
Vincent was walking up to the new Baxter, completely at ease and with purpose. "Hi, Baxter!" he greeted.
The other Baxter started. "Who are you?" he demanded with a defensive frown.
"I'm Vincent. I'm one of your best friends in the other dimension." Vincent pointed back at the portal.
"Ooh! I opened a portal to an alternate dimension?!" The other Baxter paused and looked back at Vincent. "Wait. . . . You're . . . you're my friend?" Suddenly he sounded sweet and lost.
"Yes," Vincent said. "Michelangelo is your other best friend."
Michelangelo gave a cautious wave. "Hey, Alternate Baxter Dude!"
Now the other Baxter's eyes turned sharp and cold. "You?! You can't be one of my friends! It's because of you guys that I'm in this fix in the first place!"
The Turtles and Baxter all cringed.
"You mean Shredder tricked you about an invention of yours and we wouldn't believe you and you got arrested and thrown in an insane asylum?" Leonardo said carefully.
"Exactly right!" the other Baxter fumed.
Michelangelo looked ill. "Man, I wish some things didn't ever happen in other dimensions too."
"You did that to your Baxter and he's friends with you?!" The other Baxter was in disbelief. "That isn't for me! I'd rather stay with Shredder!"
"The guy who tricked you?" Raphael retorted. "You really are crazy."
Suddenly the door blew open and four more Turtles rushed in. "Alright, Shredder!" the other Leonardo cried. "We're not going to let you ruin our new tour tonight!"
"Tour?" Leonardo repeated. "What the heck?"
"Foolish Turtles!" Shredder boomed. "I will ruin whatever I want! Foot Soldiers, attack!"
The visiting group jumped a mile as ninjas emerged from every part of the shadows and began fighting with the new Turtles. The other Baxter ran behind the stage curtain.
Raphael watched a Foot Soldier sail overhead. "What say we give these guys a hand?"
Leonardo drew his katanas. "Works for me."
The other Michelangelo looked over as they ran into the fray. "Hey, am I seeing things or are there more of us all of a sudden?"
"They must have come through that portal Baxter opened!" the other Donatello said.
"Hi," the other Leonardo greeted with a smile. "Welcome aboard."
"It's a pleasure," Leonardo said.
Raphael kicked an approaching Foot Soldier. "Hey, these guys aren't robots. . . ."
"I think that's only in our dimension, Dude," Michelangelo said.
With eight Turtles, plus the Stockmans helping where they could, the Foot Soldiers were defeated in no time. Shredder roared and cursed, but remained out of sight. "You blithering idiot! You've released more Turtles into this world! And you actually thought this would help me?!"
Baxter flinched, his eyes haunted. It was obvious to whom Shredder was screaming.
"I'm sorry, Master Shredder!" the other Baxter wailed. "I didn't know Turtles would come out!"
"You never know anything! It's no wonder everyone rejected you!" A harsh thump. "I'd get rid of you too if I had a better option! Maybe you should go through the portal you opened and stay over there!"
Barney jumped. "He just kicked that other Baxter!"
Michelangelo, who had a clearer view of backstage, shook his head. "No, Dude, he shoved him into the wall. Either way, other Baxter or not, that is not acceptable!" He ran forward, both nunchucks swinging over his head. "Hey, Shred-Head! Why don't you pick on someone your own size?!"
Shredder looked up with a start. "Well, that certainly won't be you," he sneered. "You're minuscule compared to the Turtles in this world!" He stepped forward. "And what do you care what I do to that worm anyway?"
"In our world, he's our best bud," Michelangelo snapped. "But we wouldn't like you shoving him around like that in any case!"
The other Michelangelo came up next to him, much to the other Baxter's shock. "Yeah! Especially when he was just trying to do something to please you! . . . Well, not that we condone anybody pleasing you, but I mean, you don't bite the hand that feeds you and all that."
"That's right!" Michelangelo nodded.
"If you try to harm him again, you'll have to deal with all of us," Vincent said, electricity sparking from his hands.
"Pah!" Shredder regarded them in disgust. "Take him if you want him. I have Krang's technology, and soon I will indeed ruin your new tour. If I can't steal all the music, I'll just steal your audience so there's no one to listen to you! Ha ha ha ha!" He turned and vanished among the curtains.
Michelangelo bent down next to the other Baxter, who was kneeling on the floor. "Are you alright, Other Baxter Dude?"
"I'm fine," he said defensively. "He's right; I did a stupid thing. I never should have opened a portal without knowing what was on the other side."
"It sounds like he fired you," Leonardo remarked.
"Oh, he always talks like that," the other Baxter said in resignation. "Then he calms down and wants me again."
"And why should you be there when he does?" Baxter finally spoke up. "I wouldn't tolerate him treating me like that for very long."
The other Baxter started. "You . . . you're me," he gasped. He stumbled to his feet. "Look, I . . . I don't know what to do. I don't have anywhere else to go, thanks to the Turtles who live over here."
"Hey, you try to conquer the world, naturally we have to stop you," the other Raphael growled.
"I never tried to do that back then!" the other Baxter screeched, pumping his fists to the ceiling. "You never believed me! You never even listened to my side of the story! You call yourself good guys and heroes, but where were you when I needed a hero?! Huh?!" His eyes flashed with untold pain and anguish. "Where were you?!" He stood there, defiant, daring his Turtles to answer him. When they were too stunned to do so, he jumped down from the stage. "I thought so. You only care about people on your terms."
Finally the other Leonardo found his voice. "Baxter, wait!"
But the little man had already vanished into the shadows.
The other Raphael shook his head. "Sheesh. What an emotional dweeb." But his voice trembled slightly; he had been shaken by the accusations.
"Actually, from what he told us, his story mirrors our Baxter's pretty closely," Leonardo said quietly.
Michelangelo nodded. "And our Baxter actually was innocent when he claimed he was."
The other Turtles stiffened. "You mean . . . he really wasn't trying to conquer the world with his Mousers?" the other Donatello gasped.
"No," Donatello answered. "He really did create them to catch rodents. Regular-sized rodents," he added. "Shredder saw potential in them and tricked Baxter into giving him control of them, claiming he was going to market them."
"We didn't believe Baxter either," Leonardo added. "He ended up in jail and then the insane asylum because we wouldn't even check out his story."
The other Turtles bowed their heads. "Oh no," the other Leonardo whispered.
"Hey, don't feel too bad," the other Raphael tried to say. "He's sure working for Shredder voluntarily now."
"Because we drove him into a corner," the other Leonardo said.
The other Michelangelo nodded. "Shredder went and busted him out of the asylum, but nobody would touch him with a ten-foot pole. They all thought he was guilty. Especially since we thought it." His shoulders slumped. "Poor guy. . . ."
The other Raphael finally allowed himself to look a bit stricken too. "I guess by the time Shredder busted him out, he really had cracked up."
Baxter looked down. This was too much deja vu for him. He wasn't sure how long he could stand staying in this world.
Barney laid a hand on his shoulder, the pain and regret sharp in his eyes. If only he had been there when Baxter needed him so much!
Baxter looked up in grateful surprise. It was still unusual when Barney initiated contact. Any time he did was highly meaningful.
"I don't think he's insane," Vincent spoke up. "I think he badly needs a friend." He got off the stage. "I'm going to go find him."
The other Raphael looked to him. "Hey, you'll probably need a guide, unless you've been in this building before."
"I haven't," Vincent admitted.
"I'll go!" the other Michelangelo chirped.
"And we'll go with you," Baxter said, looking up.
Barney nodded. "We go where Vincent does."
The others finally noticed Barney's presence. "Wow, you're Baxter's twin brother," the other Michelangelo exclaimed.
"So there is a Barney here?" Barney was wary. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing.
"Sure there's a Barney," the other Raphael said. "He just doesn't have anything to do with Baxter. Some stupid sibling rivalry and like that."
"It always is," Raphael remarked.
"Why don't we all go look for the other Baxter?" Leonardo suggested. "We can talk while we look."
"Yeah!" Michelangelo agreed. "Like, what's this about a tour? What do you guys do?"
The other Turtles blushed a bit. "We're celebrities," the other Leonardo admitted.
"We are superstars!" the other Michelangelo grinned.
"I hope that means you're rich," Raphael remarked.
"Yup!" said the other Michelangelo. "Of course, we have to put most of it into savings, but that's cool."
Splinter, who had been quiet, was now stunned into speaking. "You perform?!" he said in disbelief.
"Sure!" the other Michelangelo said. He jumped down from the stage. "Our Master Splinter does too!"
Splinter rocked back. "What?!"
The other Leonardo chuckled a bit. "I guess it sounds pretty weird if you guys are still ninjas full-time."
"Well, it sure sounds like we don't care about sticking to the shadows," Raphael said.
"Our Master Splinter gave us his blessing to branch out," the other Leonardo said. "He felt that we wouldn't have musical talents if we weren't meant to use them. And he liked the idea of us spreading positivity with our music."
"Yeah, and we totally defeated our Shredder with it!" the other Michelangelo exclaimed.
"This is starting to sound like Equestria Girls with Turtles," Raphael grunted.
"It's not like our music is magic or anything," the other Michelangelo said. "Although that would be mondo cool!"
". . . And Shredder spends his time trying to wreck your careers?" Raphael said flatly.
"He said something about stealing music," Michelangelo blinked.
"Yeah, he tried that last year," the other Raphael said in annoyance.
"Well," Barney said pointedly, "getting back to more critical things, what are you going to do about your Baxter when we find him?"
The other Turtles looked at each other.
"We need to help him, Dudes," the other Michelangelo said.
"Okay. Maybe if he'll leave Shredder for real and not do any more bizarre stuff, we could take him in and try to let everybody know we were wrong about him and they should give him another chance," the other Raphael suggested.
"Good idea," Leonardo nodded.
"Only if he's really insane now, how would it be safe for him to be loose in society?" the other Donatello worried.
"I really don't think he's insane," Vincent retorted again. "But even if he is, it's likely more from mistreatment than chemical imbalance. Kindness could save him in that case."
Baxter slowly nodded. "That was the case with me," he said softly.
The other Raphael looked back at him. "So you're really buddy-buddy with your Turtles?"
Baxter smiled. "Yes. We've all forgiven each other and forged a new future together."
"Well, that sounds like something Mikey would write," the other Raphael remarked.
"Yeah! Maybe I should!" Mikey exclaimed. "Err, if the other Baxter will forgive us. . . ."
"If he's anything like me, he will," Baxter said.
"You guys use nicknames too?" Raphael blinked. "I'm starting to think we're the only ones who don't."
"Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't," the other Leonardo said. "Maybe right now it would be better if we did, to avoid a lot of confusion."
"Works for me," the other Raphael shrugged.
"Leo, Raph, and Donny?" Michelangelo asked.
"Yep," said Raph.
"So why don't you use nicknames?" Mikey asked out of curiosity.
"Who knows," Raphael said. "I guess it never occurred to us."
"The computer picked up a surge of dimensional power!" Krang exclaimed. "It looks like someone opened a new portal right in Barney's house!"
"I don't want to meet any more Stockmans!" Shredder whined.
"How about another you?" Krang smirked. "You were absent in the other two dimensions, already defeated." He pointed at the screen. "But here you are."
"Hmm." Shredder watched as his counterpart stormed across a stage, ranting and raving at his Foot Soldiers. "Maybe this dimension is promising after all."
That was when the other Shredder stood center stage and began to rap and dance.
"I hate incompetence
All of these idiots are in my hair!"
Shredder stiffened. "Then again, maybe not."
Krang turned down the volume. "I am going to have nightmares tonight."
"I'll go talk to him," Vincent said. "Why don't the rest of you wait here?"
"Suits me fine," Raph said.
"But tell him our offer," Mikey said.
"I will," Vincent promised.
He approached the edge of the stage and pulled himself up to plop down next to the other Baxter. "Aren't you tired of Shredder's abuse?" he said softly.
"Sure I am," the other Baxter replied. "Especially since I usually don't mess up and he treats me like that anyway. He even threatened to throw me in his music-destroying machine last year, when I wasn't doing anything wrong. But he took me in when everyone else was avoiding me like the plague. I don't have anywhere else to go."
"My family and friends and I have spoken with the Turtles of this world," Vincent told him. "They feel awful about how they hurt you now that they know the full story."
"They knew it before. They just wouldn't believe it," the other Baxter snorted.
"That was the same with the Turtles in my dimension," Vincent said. "But they finally listened. Now Baxter is their dear friend."
"Pah!" the other Baxter grunted. "They must be kinder than the ones here. They're all hypocrites!"
"I understand how you'd feel that way," Vincent said gently. "I thought of the Turtles from my dimension as hypocrites too. Then I realized we were all to blame, including me."
"You?" the other Baxter sniffed.
"My Baxter was so filled with rage and hurt that he wanted revenge on everyone and I encouraged it," Vincent said. "I just wanted him to be happy. I didn't realize I was making everything worse."
"Hmm." The other Baxter considered this. "They really did do wrong by me, but I guess it didn't help their impression when Shredder broke me out of the asylum to work for him." He sighed. "And now I've been doing wrong by them."
"Yes," Vincent agreed. "But your Turtles are willing to take you in and help you get back on your feet in a legitimate business if you agree to leave Shredder."
The other Baxter looked up at him in stunned shock. "Really?!"
"Really," Vincent insisted.
The other Baxter was silent as he processed this. "Why are you so nice to me?" he wondered. "My counterpart and his Barney don't even want to be around me."
"They just don't know what to make of you," Vincent said. "You startled them when they first arrived. They thought you were insane. They were horrified."
"But you're not?" The other Baxter was still perplexed.
"My Baxter was insane when I first met him," Vincent said. "That doesn't intimidate me. But I don't think you are insane, are you?"
"I guess not," the other Baxter said. "I try to be tough and mean for Shredder. I don't want him to do anything really awful to me. I don't like what he does, though. Not really. I didn't like when he tried to steal all the music in the world. I was kind of fascinated by how the machine worked, but I like music. . . ."
"What did you do about it?" Vincent asked.
"Not much," the other Baxter shrugged. "I didn't even make the machine or anything; Krang did. But I built a machine that temporarily freezes time, and I helped Shredder demonstrate how the music machine worked, and I tied April up, and . . ." He trailed off. "I was supposed to oversee the disposal of two stagehands who got kidnapped with April, but I used a knockout gas on the Foot Soldiers once we got outside in the alley. Then I got the stagehands away. The Foot Soldiers thought the Turtles had ambushed them, and that's what I told Shredder later, so I was safe. I didn't want anyone to die. . . ."
Vincent put an arm around him and drew him close. "You're better than the act you put on," he said softly, gently stroking the curly blondish-brown hair. "You don't need Shredder. Just leave him. You'll find true friendship and a good future by turning to your Turtles. And your Barney."
"Barney doesn't love me," the other Baxter retorted. "He never did."
"All Barneys love their Baxters," Vincent insisted. "Maybe they don't always know how to express it, but they feel it in their hearts."
"How many have you met?" the other Baxter frowned.
"Yours will be the fourth," Vincent smiled. "There's probably more out there too. They're all different, but the love is always there."
The other Baxter finally settled into his new friend's embrace. "He really might love me?" He still sounded disbelieving. "He always made fun of me and scolded me."
"Sometimes, if someone doesn't know how to express their love, it can come out like that," Vincent said. "My Barney loves so deeply that it scares him. For a long time he couldn't express it except through anger and frustration."
"That doesn't make sense," the other Baxter objected.
"He wasn't very logical," Vincent agreed. "But he's finally learning how to get across what he really feels."
"That sounds wonderful," the other Baxter declared. He hesitated. "I wish . . . I wish there was a you in this world. . . ."
"I'll bet there is," Vincent said. "Or there still will be. We haven't seen one yet without me."
"That's a nice thought," said the other Baxter. He closed his eyes. "Maybe I will leave Shredder. I never wanted to be bad."
"And you shouldn't have to be," Vincent said. He continued to sit there, just being gentle and comforting.
The other Baxter smiled. For the first time since childhood, he felt truly loved.
In the doorway of the theatre, the rest of the group was still watching.
"I can't believe Baxter is the one who freed our stagehands," Donny said.
"Well, that was one mystery we never did solve," Mikey said. "They thought we'd saved them, but we knew we didn't. We didn't even know Shredder had ordered them killed!" He shuddered.
"All Baxters are good at heart," Barney said.
He and Baxter continued to observe as Vincent soothed the other Baxter. Instead of crazed, he seemed perfectly normal and sweet now.
"It's hard to believe he was cackling maniacally when we first arrived," Baxter said.
"Vincent has a calming effect on all Stockmans, apparently," Barney said.
"And that's wonderful," Baxter said. "It looks like we were too quick to judge this other me. Vincent wasn't bothered at all."
"That makes sense, with how much he loves you," Barney said.
Baxter looked a bit guilty. "I shouldn't have thought this other me was so terrible. That's what everyone thought about me."
"The way this Baxter presented himself, it wasn't a sight either of us could be easily prepared for," Barney said.
"I hope there is a Vincent for him," Baxter said.
"Count on it," Barney grunted.
"Maybe we should find his Barney," Baxter suggested.
"I know where he lives," Donny volunteered.
Raphael raised an eyebrow. "Oh yeah? Why's that?"
"We tried to ask him once if Baxter ever told him where he lives," Leo explained. "We thought we could find Shredder that way."
"Yeah, but Barney didn't know and he ranted and screamed about Baxter," Mikey frowned. "He said he didn't want anything to do with his 'pathetic, crazy brother.'"
Barney sighed heavily. "Then I doubt there's much we can do. If he's not ready to make amends, he won't."
"How long ago was this?" Leonardo asked.
"A little less than a year ago," Donny said.
"Then we should try again," Leonardo said. "He might have changed his mind by now."
"I think we have bigger problems," Donny worried. "Shredder's planning some new scheme. He said he'd steal our audience! We need to be on hand to stop him."
"Hey, the more, the merrier," Raphael shrugged. "If we can get Barney to help, you'll have another ally against Can-Head."
"That's true," Leo relented. "It's worth a try."
"By the way, how do you steal an audience?" Raphael wondered. "At least in this dimension?"
"I don't even know," Donny admitted.
"But I'm doing it!" the other Shredder suddenly cackled over the loudspeaker system. "I'm sending all of your audience to Dimension X!"
"You can't!" the other Baxter exclaimed as he jumped down from the stage. "Not without me!"
"Fool! I don't need you to run this machine! I only needed you to build it!" The other Shredder sent an ear-piercing shriek of microphone static through the building. "But you'd better come back if you don't want me to send you to Dimension X as well!"
The other Baxter trembled. "I don't want to go to Dimension X. . . ."
"You're not going to," Vincent insisted.
"If Shredder has that machine working, you won't be able to do anything about it!" the other Baxter retorted. "We'll all end up there!"
"Then let's get out of here and find your Barney to help us!" Raph insisted.
"Oh, he won't help once he knows I'm involved," the other Baxter frowned. He looked to Vincent. "What you said was beautiful and comforting, but it doesn't change the fact that Barney despises the ground I walk on."
Barney flinched, looking to his Baxter with questioning eyes. Had Baxter ever believed that Barney felt likewise?
Baxter looked away. He had.
"Look, some of us will go find Barney while the rest of you stay here," Raph said. "How's that?"
"We'll like, probably all be gone by the time you get back," Michelangelo gulped.
"How about we see if music helps hold him off again?" Raph smirked.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Raphael exclaimed.
"It's true, other uses!" Mikey insisted. "I'll teach you guys a gnarly song we did called Pizza Power!"
Michelangelo's eyes lit up. "That sounds totally radical!"
Raphael folded his arms. "I can't believe I'm going to defend myself against an evil ninja warlord with a song."
"Neither can I," Barney grunted. "I should probably be part of the group that goes after the other me."
"What about you?" Raph looked to his Baxter, who looked petrified.
"I . . . I can't . . ." he stammered.
Vincent laid a hand on his shoulder. "You don't have to. He'll be brought here."
"No. . . ." The other Baxter shook his head. "He won't want to see me. The last time I ever tried to see him, he . . ." He squeezed his eyes shut. "He told me I wasn't his responsibility and he wasn't my keeper. He told me never to come back again!" Several tears slipped free. "It's no use. We can't stop Shredder and Barney's disowned me. I . . . I should go back to Shredder."
"No!" It was Baxter who had spoken. He stepped forward, gripping his counterpart's shoulders. "That is the one thing you absolutely must not do!"
"Baxter . . ." Barney said quietly.
"If you stay with Shredder, who knows what horrible thing will happen to you!" Baxter continued. "Krang eventually tried to murder me and I ended up cross-fused with a fly for two years!"
The other Baxter stared, dumbfounded. "W-What?"
"Dude . . . that's . . . that's awful," Mikey gasped.
"And I have never forgiven myself for turning Baxter away whenever he needed my help," Barney spoke up. "You may think your Barney hates you. He may think he hates you. But if something were to happen to you, he would never be the same."
"Give us a chance to find him and convince him to come help," Leo pleaded.
The other Baxter finally looked down and nodded. "O-Okay." He hesitated. "But I still don't want to go with you."
"Then I'll stay here with you," Vincent soothed.
Baxter was worried. He didn't like that idea either. "But Vincent . . ."
"We'll be okay," Vincent insisted. "Just hurry and find the other Barney."
"Like, we will!" Michelangelo promised.
"We should get April and Kip too," Leo said. "And our Master Splinter. Every voice helps."
"Who's Kip?" Donatello blinked.
"A real wimp of a reporter," Raph replied.
"Oh. I guess he's your Vernon," Raphael remarked.
"His real name is Vernon," Raph said. "I dunno why they call him Kip."
"Nevermind all that! Let's go!" Barney snapped.
As the group that was leaving hurried to a side door, several screams echoed through the hallways.
"Shred-Head's sending his first group to Dimension X," Michelangelo gulped.
"We'll be back soon," Leo vowed.
"You'd better be," Raphael quavered. "I don't think there's a lot of time left!"
"It says that the other Shredder had a rap hit last year with something called I Hate Music," Krang intoned as he typed into the computer.
"He made music about how much he hates music?!" Shredder snorted. "Well, not that rap is really music, but . . ." He stared at Krang in horror. "This is horrifying!"
"I wonder what I'm like in this dimension," Krang said.
"Who cares?!" Shredder retorted. "Let's hope our Turtles and Stockmans get stuck over there!"
"You know," Krang smirked, "you told me you really wanted to be a writer more than a ruthless conqueror."
"Yes. I wanted to write prose!" Shredder scowled. "I didn't want to make up idiotic raps! Only . . . hmm. It's interesting how this Shredder writes and tries to conquer the world both."
"Shredder . . ." Now a warning note had slipped into Krang's voice.
"Maybe this would be the perfect time to start writing my memoirs," Shredder said.
"What?!" Krang burst out.
"Well, nothing else is working," Shredder retorted. "We could get money and fame from the book!"
"Which we'd have to fork over to pay for all the times you'd get sued for slander by people you included in the book," Krang said.
"Hmm, good point," said Shredder.
In a moment the door opened. "What do you want?" the other Barney frowned at him. He looked identical to the other Baxter, aside from his curls being red.
"Barney, we need your help," Leo insisted. "Shredder's at large again and now he's trying to kidnap everyone and send them to Dimension X!"
"With an invention created by my darling brother, no doubt," the other Barney snarled. "That idiot never listened to me! He's gone crooked! I owe him nothing!"
"He never tried to conquer the city with his Mousers," Donny said. "He was telling the truth about what happened all along."
Baxter stepped forward. "I know, because his story closely parallels mine."
The other Barney rocked back. "Who are you?!"
"I'm Baxter from a parallel dimension," Baxter replied. "Your Baxter opened a portal connecting our worlds."
". . . Well, that sounds about like something he'd do," the other Barney retorted, after taking a moment to recover from the shock of that statement.
Barney walked up next to Baxter. "We both came over to see what was happening in this world."
The other Barney went stiff. "You . . . you're not estranged?" he gasped.
"We were for most of our lives up to this point, and you don't know how much we regret it," Barney said. "We do need your help to defeat Shredder. But more than that, we want to implore you not to keep making the mistakes we did." He looked into his counterpart's eyes. "I can't believe you don't love Baxter deep down. He's at a crossroads right now. He wants to leave Shredder."
"And you don't know how much it would mean to him for you to be there to support him," Baxter said softly.
The other Barney snarled. "I have my own life! I'm not my brother's keeper!"
"You are," Barney insisted. "And you had better take the responsibility before it's too late. I tried to push my Baxter into standing on his own and not relying on anyone for help. Instead I only pushed him away. It was largely my fault that he fell as far into the darkness as he did. Don't do that to your Baxter."
"You've got a lot of nerve, turning up here and telling me what to do!" the other Barney shot back. But he was shaken by Barney's words.
"Barney, please!" the other April exclaimed, coming forward now. "We really do need your help. If you can't find it in your heart to forgive Baxter, at least come with us and help us stop Shredder."
"He'll empty the entire city if he's not stopped," Leo said. "And he won't stop there."
The other Barney finally nodded. "Alright. I can't let that happen." He came onto the porch and pulled the door shut after him.
Baxter smiled. "All Barneys are good at heart," he said.
"Why do I just know he's going to bring that song home with us?" Raphael remarked.
"Well, we all love pizza," Leonardo smiled. "Would that be so bad?"
"But a song about pizza giving us power to fight crime?" Raphael rolled his eyes. "That's so . . . so cheesy!"
More screams and microphone static. An entire row of people vanished.
"Raphael, I fear that your negativity is granting this Shredder more power," Splinter said. "We are in a different dimension from our own. Problems are not handled the same way we would handle them. We must keep open minds."
"Yeah!" Mikey exclaimed. "We have to get what audience there is left to sing with us. It will weaken Shred-Head's power!"
Raphael groaned, rubbing the back of his neck. "Vince, do you sing?" he asked.
"Well, I never tried," Vincent said. "It would probably sound a little strange coming from a computer."
"Dude, that doesn't matter!" Mikey told him. "What matters is that it comes from your heart. Errr . . . whatever you have for a heart?" He gave a sheepish smile.
Vincent gave him a genuine smile. "I can do that."
"Vincent does have a heart," Michelangelo chirped. "Not the actual organ, but more than good enough."
"I believe it," Donny said. "Otherwise he couldn't have got through to our Baxter."
The other Baxter was still tense and jumpy. His gaze darted about as he looked for where Shredder was. None of them could see him, but he was obviously there, operating the machine from the shadows.
"I can sing on-key," he stammered.
"Alright, Mikey is going to lead us in a chorus of Pizza Power now," Raph said. "Then we're going to follow it up with Follow Your Heart and Count On Us."
"Gag me," Raphael muttered.
"Raphael!" Splinter's voice was stern.
Raphael flinched. "Sorry, Sensei."
The door burst open and Leo led the other group in, complete with the other Barney. "Okay, gang!" he exclaimed. "Let's all sing now. We taught the others the songs on the way."
"Fools!" the other Shredder bellowed. "You will never have enough power to defeat me!"
"That is where you are wrong, Shredder," the other Splinter declared. "Positivity will always triumph over evil."
"Let's go!" Mikey cried.
The other Barney looked around with a frown.
"If you're looking for your brother, he's right here," Vincent said, laying a hand on the other Baxter's shoulder.
The other Baxter shrank back.
The other Barney caught sight of him and immediately looked away.
"He was worried, Dude," Michelangelo said. "He wanted to make sure you hadn't disappeared."
The other Baxter didn't look convinced. "He probably hoped I had," he muttered.
The other Barney flinched but said nothing.
Mikey started the song, hoping to unite the group. They sang with varying levels of confidence, along with the remaining audience.
"No!" the other Shredder roared. "You're weakening my power!"
"Gnarly!" Mikey exclaimed. "And we'll keep on weakening it!"
Several resulting bursts of electricity that shorted out and smoked revealed the location of the invention. Baxter ran forward onto the stage, pulling a dark curtain away and revealing the other Shredder at the console.
"You haven't defeated me yet!" the other Shredder bellowed. "There is still negativity in your little group. And I can use that to my advantage!" He cranked up a dial and pushed a button.
More static and screams.
"Raphael is gone!" Leonardo said in horror.
"Barney!" the other Baxter shrieked. "You took my brother away!"
"Indeed," the other Shredder sneered. "Maybe you shouldn't have involved him in the first place."
"He was helping us out, Shred-Man," Raph growled. "He sincerely wanted to defeat you even if he couldn't forgive his brother yet."
"And now he's in Dimension X, where he will stay," the other Shredder cackled.
"No!" It was the other Baxter who had spoken. "No, I won't let you do that to him! He was never a criminal! He didn't deserve that!" He ran forward, desperately scrambling onto the stage. "I was the disappointment in the family! I'm the one you should have taken!"
"Baxter, no!" Leo cried.
But the other Baxter couldn't be stopped. He leaped over the console, tackling the other Shredder to the floor.
"Turtles, go!" Leonardo commanded. "We have to get to that machine and save Raphael and the other Barney and everyone else who was sent away! Not to mention to save the Baxter who lives here!"
"No duh! Shred-Head's gonna try to kill him!" Michelangelo exclaimed.
Both sets of Turtles and Splinters ran for the stage, fighting off emerging Foot Soldiers as they struggled to get to where the supervillain was wrestling with his former employee. Vincent shocked several Foot Soldiers out of the way, while Baxter and Barney looked for other methods to bring them down.
"Keep singing!" the other April encouraged the audience.
Baxter looked to his Barney, suddenly at a loss. "What are we going to do?!" he cried.
Barney tripped a Foot Soldier. "Keep singing, I suppose. If it really makes a difference."
"In this dimension, it seems to," Baxter admitted.
The other Baxter was of course coming out on the losing end of the fight with his Shredder. He shakily reached up to the console with a sore hand and grabbed hold of a lever.
"No!" the other Shredder screamed. "That will throw my machine in reverse!"
"It's my machine," the other Baxter snarled. "And I'm bringing my brother and the rest home safe and sound." He pulled the lever. A bright portal lit up the stage and all the missing people began to drop out safely to the floor.
"Raphael!" Michelangelo exclaimed in relief as the red-masked Turtle emerged.
"Well, if that wasn't a trip," Raphael shuddered.
"Are you okay?!" Leonardo demanded while kicking a Foot Soldier.
"Fine!" Raphael replied. "But I'm sure glad to be back!"
Even with the people being freed, the other Shredder wasn't about to give up on causing destruction. With hatred burning in his eyes, he drove his spikes into the console while the other Baxter was still operating it. He screamed in pain.
"Shredder's shocking himself along with Baxter!" Leo exclaimed in horror.
"No way, Dudes!" Mikey pulled out his nunchucks and threw them. "We are not letting our Baxter get hurt any more!"
The nunchucks hit the lever with enough force that the other Baxter was forcefully thrown free. He hit the wall and collapsed limply to the stage.
"Baxter!" The other Barney had just dropped free of the portal. He ran over, shaking, falling to his knees next to his brother's body. "Baxter . . . no. . . ."
Mikey trembled. "Was I too late?" He blinked back tears.
Donny laid a hand on his shoulder. "You tried, Mikey."
"But he was trying to do the right thing!" Mikey protested. "He shouldn't have to . . . to die!"
"Doing the right thing doesn't always mean you'll come out of it alright. Even if it should." Baxter was shaken. It was the first time he had seen one of his counterparts harmed. He wasn't sure how to react. It was like seeing himself hurt and yet it wasn't.
"I won't believe he's dead," Barney snarled. "Look, Shredder's escaped during the bedlam! If he could survive that electric charge, Baxter could as well. He's stronger than he looks." He stepped closer to his Baxter. There had been so many nightmares when he had feared for Baxter's life. They had come out of this disaster alright, but his heart went out to their counterparts.
"What happened to him?!" the other Barney demanded.
"He saved you," Vincent told him. "And all the others Shredder took away. Shredder punished him for it."
The other Barney looked stricken as he took his Baxter in his arms. "You found your courage when Shredder took me," he rasped. "Seeing how afraid you were of me . . . pierced my heart. I hurt you that much. And still you saved me." Tears slipped from his eyes. "All my life I've hated you. Only I never did, really. I was just so angry and frustrated at how you were always more known than I was. But you never did it on purpose. Then you lost your way and I tried to say I didn't have anything to do with it. . . . But I did, didn't I? I was never there for you when you needed it. I'm so sorry, Brother. So sorry. . . ." He started to rock back and forth. "You thought I wanted you to go away tonight. It's not true, no matter what I said in the past. I was so relieved to see you were alright when I came. Please wake up. . . . I don't know what I wouldn't give to . . . to just hear your voice again. . . ."
Then there was a weak groan. The other Baxter opened his eyes. "Barney?" He tried to smile. "You're back. . . ."
"Because of you," the other Barney said. "You almost killed yourself trying to save me!"
"I . . . wasn't trying to," the other Baxter stammered. "Get killed, I mean. . . ." He looked away, the fear creeping into his eyes again.
The other Barney's heart broke at that look. "Baxter, I always thought what you did was unforgivable. But it was me all along. I'm the one who needed forgiveness. But I abandoned you when you needed me most. There can be no forgiveness for that."
The other Baxter responded by hugging his brother close. "I forgive you," he whispered. "You really love me."
The awe in his voice stabbed both Barneys. "You never knew," the other Barney realized, sickened.
Barney looked to his Baxter. "And you never knew until I hit you with a crowbar and instantly regretted it."
"At least I found out," Baxter said. "And at least we're together now."
Vincent beamed. "And these two will be together as well."
"Alright!" Mikey whooped. He glomped his brothers in joy.
"And you saved your Baxter's life," Baxter smiled at him. "No doubt he would have been dead if you hadn't acted when you did. I believe this is the start of a beautiful friendship."
"For sure," Michelangelo grinned.
Mikey looked thoughtful. "Me and Baxter Stockman as best buds?" He nodded. "I never thought it could happen, but I like it!"
"It'll be gnarly," Michelangelo promised. "He's a great guy when you get to know him!"
"And that goes for Michelangelo too," Baxter said, looking to his counterpart as he suddenly became aware of the conversation.
The other Baxter looked at Mikey in stunned amazement. "You saved my life?"
"I guess so, Dude." Mikey came over and knelt down. "I threw my nunchucks when Shredder started electrocuting you. Then the machine blasted you back against the wall."
Donatello nodded. "The force of the impact must have been what knocked you out."
The other Baxter slowly sat up on the stage next to his Barney. "A Ninja Turtle actually protected me," he said in awe.
"Just like we should have done a long time ago," Mikey said softly. "You probably never would've been in the asylum or with Shredder again if we'd just listened to you."
The other musician Turtles gathered around him. "Nothing can make up for what we didn't do in the past," Leo said. "But will you accept us as your friends going into the future?"
The other Baxter started to smile. "I will," he said.
"You should really go to the hospital," the other Barney exclaimed. "At least to be examined."
"I'm alright," the other Baxter insisted. "For the first time in my life, I'm alright."
Michelangelo beamed. "Happy endings all around!"
"Just the way it should be," Mikey added.
"Would you really be thrilled if he didn't?" Krang grunted. "It's not like that one was causing us any grief."
"No, but he betrayed his Shredder, and it would have been nice to have seen him suffer for it," Shredder retorted. "Even though I'm not terribly crazy about that other Shredder myself."
"Well, nevermind! We've been watching this other dimension for too long." Krang flipped the channel. "I have something far more productive for us to watch."
Shredder gawked as what appeared on the screen was a clip of the heroine transforming in the Japanese anime Sailor Moon. "You have got to be kidding. And I thought it was bad enough that you watch soap operas."
"Oh, this isn't what we're supposed to be paying attention to!" Krang retorted with impatience. "It's the scheme the villain is using to collect energy. Here, I'll rewind it so you can see." He smirked. "It's given me a few ideas for the future."
"Getting ideas from magical girl shows," Shredder grunted. "There's something wrong with that somewhere."
"He had a good idea," Krang insisted. "And I'm sure I can perfect it! Watch!"
Shredder scowled. But as he watched, he had to admit the scheme had promise. "Alright, Krang. I'm game," he said at last.
"Good, because I've already started construction on what you're going to use for our next plot," Krang said. "And I don't want any foul-ups this time!"
"That makes two of us," Shredder grunted.
"What a night, huh?" Michelangelo said.
"It's been a strange one. But fulfilling in the end," Barney acknowledged.
Baxter nodded in agreement. "Our counterparts have found a new life together." He smiled happily.
The other Baxter looked up at his new friends, awkward yet happy. "I defied him," he said in amazement. "I actually defied Shredder!"
"You did good," his Barney said.
"And that is mondo awesome!" Mikey declared. "You're gonna be one of us now, Baxter Dude! Maybe Raph and I'll write a song about you!"
"It's not out of the question," Raph said with a gruff smile.
"A song?" the other Baxter repeated in amazement.
"Yeah, and it'll be part of our new tour," Mikey said. "You could come with us and be in charge of special effects or something!"
The other Baxter slowly smiled. "Maybe I will."
"We are totally leaving him in good hands," Michelangelo said.
Leonardo smiled. "We are. And now we need to be getting back home."
The other Baxter looked to the visitors. "Thank you . . . so much," he said. "You've given me a new lease on life."
"You did it all yourself," Vincent smiled. "And I'm proud of you."
"I'll miss you," the other Baxter said woefully. "I still wish you existed in this world too."
"I'll always consider you a dear friend," Vincent said. "Even though you're not my Baxter, you're very special to me."
The other Baxter smiled.
At that moment a spaceship descended onto the street. Everyone gawked. In a moment the door opened and an embodied Vincent limped out, clutching a bleeding arm. "Help . . . please. . . ."
The other Baxter's eyes widened. He ran forward, taking his Vincent by his other arm. "We'll help you," he promised. "I'm Baxter."
"I'm V.I.N.CENT-2152," the other Vincent replied. "Let's be friends, shall we?"
The other Baxter beamed. "Let's," he agreed.
"Well, speak of the devil," Raphael remarked.
"Everything will be alright here now," Vincent smiled. "They'll look after the other me. Let's go and allow them to get acquainted."
His group agreed. Except for one thing.
"So, uh, how are we going to get home?" Raphael asked.
"Oh!" The other Baxter pulled a device out of his pocket. "This is my portable portal generator. It's set to your dimension's frequency. I'll send you home with this."
The other Barney was holding a cloth to their Vincent's arm. "Then we'll need to get you someplace where we can examine you," he said. "You're bleeding!"
"I made this body for myself," the other Vincent said. "But I wasn't expecting to crash and end up hurt."
"You'll be just fine," Vincent smiled at him. "You've found the best friends you possibly could."
"Really?" The other Vincent blinked. "That was certainly a coincidence."
"I would venture to say that 'blessed' would be a better term," Splinter said. "I doubt very much if coincidence has anything to do with it."
"It couldn't," Michelangelo said. "Not after how you guys are so good for each other in every dimension!"
The portal opened. Leonardo started to lead his group towards it. "Maybe we can visit again someday," he said.
"Or like, you guys could come to our dimension next time," Michelangelo offered.
"We don't defeat villains by singing to them, though," Raphael said.
"Hey, we're still ninjas," Donny said. "We can fight with the best of them!"
"We'll see you around then," Barney said.
"Good luck!" Baxter called.
"Goodbye!" Vincent added. "Friends."
Then they were back in the living room and the portal was closing.
Michelangelo collapsed on the couch. "Wow! That was a mondo amazing experience!" he gushed.
"I could think of other words for it," Raphael said. "Especially after I ended up in Dimension X. But overall, yeah, I'm glad we went. Even if the idea of a song-based world is going to live in my nightmares for a while."
Baxter chuckled. "It wasn't that bad. Odd, certainly, but not a travesty."
Michelangelo soon began singing Pizza Power.
"What'd I tell you?" Raphael said wryly.
"That's not a bad thing to bring home," Donatello said. "In fact, I think we could all use a little pizza power now!"
"Totally, Compadres!" Michelangelo jumped up. "I'm gonna pop a couple of pizzas in the oven."
"You know, we just had dinner before we left," Barney remarked.
"But that was hours ago now!" Michelangelo called back.
"It is useless to protest," Splinter said with a smile. "Anyway, there are worse addictions than pizza."
"How true," Baxter chuckled as he got up to follow Michelangelo.
Barney looked away. "The more we run into these alternate Stockmans, the more it dredges up our unhappy pasts, at least for me." He sighed, passing a hand over his forehead. "I try to focus on the fact that we're helping them unite, and that helps, but it doesn't fully erase the pain of those memories."
"It wouldn't," Baxter said. "I've certainly thought about such things too." He paused. "This world . . . was especially painful for me."
"For me too. It particularly hurt seeing the loathing this Barney seemingly had for his Baxter," Barney said. "And I know that must have crushed you as well. Although strangely enough, his feelings seemed to be more because Baxter fell down a dark path than anything else."
"It must have been about more than that, since it seemed to have gone on for all their lives," Baxter said.
Barney grunted. "True. He also mentioned the usual reasons---jealousy, feeling left out. . . ."
"And they proved that they're not like Mufasa and Scar either," Baxter said.
Barney's eyes flickered. "I hope there aren't any dimensions where that is the case."
"I say that's highly unlikely," Vincent chirped. "Some things are indeed universal among dimensions, such as the rift, unfortunately. But so is the love."
Barney smiled a bit.
"And so too is that the love is what triumphs," Baxter said. "All of these other sets want to be united." He laid a hand on Barney's shoulder. "And that is wonderful."
Barney gazed into the distance. "Why is it that we're the ones helping them, though?" he wondered.
"Maybe ours is the 'Prime' dimension?" Baxter suggested.
"Or maybe you two are the first to solve your problems," Vincent said. "You did it without another set coming in to counsel you. Hence, it's your privilege to help the less unfortunate sets in other dimensions."
"And yours too, Vincent," Baxter said. "You helped this last me so very much."
"And it felt wonderful," Vincent said. "I wish I could have counseled you to turn away from a dark path instead of encouraging you on it."
"Live and learn," Barney said.
"At least there wasn't any permanent damage," Baxter said.
"There are memories that will never go away," Vincent said. "Things you know you did because of me."
"I prefer to focus on the good," Baxter said. "You've done so much good for me and for Barney. Now you're passing it on to other sets."
"And that will always be a comfort," Vincent agreed. He paused. "You know, I noticed that other Baxter never once found me strange, just as you two never have. Even when he first saw me, he asked 'Who are you' instead of 'What are you.'"
Barney nodded. "I'd say that shows his true spirit well."
"And when you said you were my friend, that was all he cared about," Baxter said softly. "You were right, Vincent. He just badly needed a friend."
"And I'm so glad he now has several," Vincent declared.
"So are we," Baxter said sincerely.
"I wonder, was tonight the first time you've ever sung in public, Barney?" Vincent wondered.
"If you don't count when I sung in church with the rest of the congregation," Barney said. "And at no time have I ever sung solo."
Baxter looked to Barney. "You know," he chuckled, "of the two of us, you really are the better singer."
"I know," Barney said. "But I never thought you'd admit it."
"You were always the better musician in general," Baxter said. "I acknowledged that all the way back during that misadventure at the Floxy Theatre."
"We've come so far since then," Barney remarked. "I can hardly believe I went from being so troubled and dark to where I am now."
"I can," Vincent said. "And it's wonderful."
"Sometimes I'm still amazed by the changes you've made in not only your life, but your attitude," Baxter said. "It makes me so happy to see you happy, Barney. I know you rarely were before."
"I always should have been," Barney said. "I had reason to be. I just wasn't seeing anything clearly. Now I know that it shouldn't have mattered if our parents didn't care about me as much as they did you. You loved me, and that should have always meant the world to me."
"To a child, it would definitely matter if he felt he wasn't getting love from his parents," Baxter said softly. "To adults too, really."
"I should have been grateful for what I had instead of focusing on what I didn't." Barney sighed. "And I know we all need to sleep, but I'm still reeling from everything we've experienced tonight. I don't want to go to bed yet."
"Well." Baxter smiled. "I don't have to be at Channel 6 as early tomorrow. And I know you two don't have a morning class. So let's just stay up for a while longer."
Vincent grinned. "I'm game."
Barney relaxed. "I like that idea. But I'm not really in the mood to watch anything."
"Then let's just talk," Baxter said softly. "I'd rather do that anyway."
Barney nodded. There had been far too little of that for most of their lives. They had no shortage of things to talk about.
"Let's," he agreed.