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Madame Butterfly

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It was the day after Alpha-1's ill-fated visit with Maximillian the alien computer. Vincent wandered into the kitchen and found Barney sitting at the island, staring into a glass of orange juice. "What is it, Barney?" he asked in surprise. "Is something wrong?"

Barney slowly looked up. "What were religions like on your world, Vincent?"

That certainly wasn't what Vincent had expected him to ask. "About like they are here," he answered as he sat next to his friend. "Some involved idols. Some didn't. There were angry gods, merciful gods, gods to pray to for harvests or love or safe space travel. . . . There was one similar to the one you and Baxter worship."

Barney grunted. "I guess that shouldn't surprise me."

"What's really on your mind, Buddy?" Vincent asked.

Barney leaned on the island with one elbow. "I've never told what happened to me when I was trying to get out of the collapsing building."

"Baxter and I have certainly wondered, but when it must have been such a traumatic experience, we didn't want to ask," Vincent said. "We hoped someday you'd feel ready to talk about it."

"I woke up thinking about it today," Barney grunted. "I don't know why. Probably no reason." He paused. "I . . . didn't do it on my own, unless I took leave of my senses. And even though I've tried to tell myself that's probably what happened, it doesn't work. I know that isn't true. Someone . . . pushed me towards the door when I couldn't find it."

"Someone else was there?" Vincent was stunned.

"Only there wasn't. When I looked back, no one was there." Barney leaned forward. "But I felt hands on my back, Vincent! Someone pushed me! And I heard a voice. It said that I wasn't going to die that night; I had a lot of living left to do." He shook his head. "How do I explain that?"

"How do you?" Vincent returned.

"If I wasn't insane, the only other explanation seems to be an angel," Barney said helplessly. "But how . . . why would God send an angel to me, of all people?"

"Oh Barney," Vincent sighed. "Baxter and I have known for a long time that you're a good person. And we've forgiven you for what you did wrong. Don't you think God knows you even better and has even greater forgiving power than us?"

Barney finally nodded. "Logically, I know that," he admitted. "Telling it to my heart is far more difficult." He stared across the room. "What could possibly be so important about my life that God would take time to send me an angel?"

"Because you're important in the fight against evil?" Vincent suggested. "Because Baxter would have been heartbroken if you had died? Because it wasn't your time to die?" He paused. "Maybe all of the above, plus the fact that God loves you."

Barney looked at Vincent for a long moment. "I feel like I'm talking to a priest."

Vincent shrugged. "I absorbed knowledge of Earth's religions, as I said. And I already had the knowledge of my original planet's similar ones."

Barney hesitated. "A stupid question, I suppose, but . . . do computers have a god?"

"In general, computers worship their creators as gods," Vincent said.

". . . Well, that makes sense," Barney muttered.

"I, however, always saw my creator as a man. And I had that pesky idea of wanting computers to rule over organic species."

"So that wasn't just about Earth," Barney mused.

"No. I think it started when we started traveling and I saw how . . . well, stupid some organic species could be."

Barney smirked a bit. "Vincent, you arrogant little . . ."

"Oh, I worked everything out very logically and precisely and determined how I could have made much better decisions than what they came up with a lot of the time. Of course, as I've said, the crew of my ship wasn't interested in conquering planets. We weren't out for war; we were like Star Trek."

"If you suggested something contrary to your mission, weren't they rather put-out about it?" Barney wondered.

"They expected the computers to talk freely. That was part of the reason why we were allowed to be free spirits and not be restrained by programming. They said it combined the logic of regular computers with the heart of organic species and created something better than either one."

"And I imagine that gave you an ego boost too."

"Well, it never hurt."

Barney shook his head. "It's the same everywhere, I guess. A little power and knowledge always goes to one's head. Including mine," he grumbled.

"I was treated highly while the ship ran, but not as a friend. No one ever really treated me like a friend," Vincent mused. "I certainly wouldn't have expected Earthlings to do so. But then it was Earthlings who actually did." He turned to look more fully at Barney. "It's the last planet I ever thought I would want to live on, let alone to defend. And now it's the only planet where I want to be."

Barney smiled a bit. "I'm glad."

"Do you think . . . the God you worship would accept me here?"

"Since you're no longer trying to conquer the world, I don't know why not." Barney gave Vincent a thoughtful look.

"I can't deny I still think a world ruled by computers would be great," Vincent confessed. "Just not a world like Alpha-1 wanted. But humans are so illogical so much of the time. A computer could show them how it should be done."

Barney smirked. "You probably have a point there. But since you're a computer that feels, do you really think you're logical all of the time? Many people believe that feelings are illogical."

"Feelings tell us who we are. Without them, we're little more than Foot Soldier-level robots." Vincent smirked too. "And that is illogical."

"You're certainly the most unusual computer I've ever met," Barney remarked. "But that's a good thing."

"I should hope so." Vincent leaned back. "All that being said, you're right that I won't try to conquer the world again. I'd probably be overthrown if I succeeded. I'd rather stay with you and Baxter."

"Then you're not a threat and there's no reason for God not to welcome you to Earth," Barney said.

"Unless He doesn't care for computers either."

"In your case, I'm sure He'd make an exception." Barney got up from the table. "We'd better get ready to leave. We have to be at the university in forty-five minutes. Don't forget to button your shirt," he added over his shoulder.

"I didn't forget," Vincent muttered. He reached down, swiftly closing the buttons. "I was just putting it off."

****

Baxter was sitting at the long table in his living room, reading the morning emails. Or attempting to, at least; his mind kept drifting. At last he sighed and shook his head. He couldn't possibly concentrate. Not now.

He knew Barney was starting his teaching job today, with Vincent as his assistant. Baxter wished them both well; he knew that Barney was uneasy about moving forward with this chapter of his life. And he could certainly understand why. It was a frightening thing to try to integrate back into society after walking a dark path for so long. For Barney, who had been a criminal while sane, it was even more daunting than ever.

Not that it had been easy for Baxter. He had settled in quite well to his new life, but sometimes he was still confused or concerned about performing certain tasks or meeting certain people. He still didn't get along very well with some of them, such as Mr. Blodgett. Oh, they had an understanding, and Blodgett was civil, but Baxter knew he was still unhappy about the past. Baxter couldn't blame him.

Oh well, he sighed to himself as he looked over an email that had just come in from a young viewer. He couldn't make friends with everyone, as Michelangelo seemed able to. He wouldn't even be comfortable actively trying. He just tried to be himself---a decent person, erring a bit towards arrogance at times, meekness at others---and let the chips fall where they may.

He had to smile at the email. Many Channel 6 viewers really did like him. And this particular one was asking a question to help with a science project. He clicked Reply and took the time to type out a thoughtful and helpful answer.

As he sent it, he leaned back, his eyes sparkling with the hint of a new idea. It always made him happy to impart his scientific knowledge, as it made him happy to see budding scientists take interest. Now he had just thought of a possible way to further those ideas. He was going to pitch the idea to Burne as soon as he got into work today. It could generate a great deal of new publicity for the station, so Burne would probably like it.

He closed the computer and got up, hurrying to gather what he needed to take in to work. As he passed by the family photo he had of himself with Barney and Vincent, happiness and joy swelled his heart. He touched it briefly before heading out the door.

He had been so bitter upon first being turned human again, angry about the way his life had gone and not knowing whether to believe that the kindness shown to him by the Turtles and Splinter was sincere. But when he had at last realized it was, and also that his brother truly did love him, the bitterness had begun to melt away. He had focused on rebuilding his life, forging friendships, and trying to save Barney from suffering the same fates that had befallen him. He was a different person now. He was free.

He answered the Turtle-Comm as he started down the stairs. "Hello, Michelangelo," he greeted.

"Hey, Baxter Dude!" Michelangelo chirped. "What's the haps?"

"I'm just heading in to work," Baxter said. He tried to keep his attention on the steps. The last thing he wanted was to trip and fall.

"Gnarly," Michelangelo said. "I know Barney's gonna start teaching today. I was thinking of dropping in on his class and seeing how it's coming."

Baxter smiled in a bit of amusement. "You're a little young for a college class, Michelangelo."

"Oh, I just thought I'd hang out at the window," Michelangelo said. "And just for a minute. I wouldn't wanna be a distraction or anything."

Baxter chuckled. "You're very thoughtful. I'm sure Barney would appreciate your support . . . although I imagine he would also be baffled by it."

"Yeah, he's still having trouble getting used to the idea that I could actually care about him," Michelangelo said. "Do you think he'll ever come around?"

Baxter reached the bottom and headed out the door. "He finally came to believe that I care about him," he said. "It may take longer with you, but yes, I do believe he will fully come to accept your caring in time."

"I hope so." Michelangelo paused. "Do you think there's anything I can do to, you know, help things along?"

"You're doing just fine," Baxter assured him. Arriving at his car, he unlocked it and climbed inside. "Barney's main issue is still that he has trouble forgiving himself and can scarcely comprehend that anyone else can. But he's starting to get used to the idea."

"That's good," Michelangelo declared. "Well, I'll let you go, Bud. Don't wanna talk and drive at the same time!"

"No, I don't," Baxter agreed. "But if you do go down to the university, let me know how Barney's class is coming along."

"Sure thing!" Michelangelo promised. "See you, Amigo!"

Baxter hung up, smiling to himself as he started the engine.

****

Barney and Vincent made it to the university in plenty of time to set up the classroom for the arriving students. They had reviewed the lesson plan the previous night and Barney was writing on the chalkboard when the first students began to trickle in. Vincent, who was sitting cross-legged in his chair with the manual, looked up. "Good morning," he greeted.

"Hey," called one student.

"Good morning," said a second.

"Are you programmed to greet us?" wondered a third.

"No, I'm greeting you to be congenial," Vincent retorted.

Barney looked at them over his shoulder. The one who had asked had only heard about Vincent but had not met either of them beforehand. "Vincent is a computer with free thought," he said. "He can carry on a conversation with any of you as easily as I can."

"Wow," said the third student. "That's amazing. Did you build him?"

"No, I didn't," Barney said. "Although I built the laptop and the solid energy generator he's using. I use a different process than Mr. Mellish, who I believe also works on campus. But we're not here to discuss electrical science."

The rest of the class trickled in, some familiar with Vincent and some causing a similar conversation on his origins to be repeated more than once. When they were all there, Barney turned to face them. "Good morning," he greeted. "Some of you have met me. For those who haven't, I am Dr. Barney Stockman. I've taken over for your former professor, who decided he had . . . ahem . . . more important things to do than teach a neuropsychology class."

Some of the students laughed.

Barney folded his arms. "I like to know whom I'm teaching. Those of you who haven't previously met us, kindly introduce yourselves."

He memorized both the faces and the matching names as they stood and did as requested. Most meant nothing to him, but the last one sounded familiar.

"Diane Oakland?" he repeated. "Any relation to Professor Oakland?"

"Yes, Sir," Diane informed him. "He's my father."

Vincent gave Barney a curious look, but Barney wasn't about to explain in class. He simply nodded in approval. "A good man. Alright, all of you, please open your textbooks to the chapter written on the board."

The students complied.

****

Burne was in just the right mood to listen to Baxter's idea when he arrived at Channel 6.

"We need something new to draw viewers in," he was exclaiming as he pounded Irma's desk. The cup of pens jumped.

"Like what, Mr. Thompson?" Irma asked.

"I don't know! Like a follow-up story on that broken-down theatre, maybe. Isn't the renovation going again?"

"Yeah, it is," Irma nodded. "Howie's been involved with some of that."

"Well, why don't you go down there today with Dr. Stockman and do a report on it?" Burne waved a hand in Baxter's direction.

Baxter raised an eyebrow. He hadn't even realized Burne knew he had come in.

"Us?!" Irma said in surprise. "What about April?"

"I've already got her covering another story," Burne replied.

"I'd be happy to do it, Sir," Baxter said. "But I'd also like to talk to you about an idea I had."

"Oh yeah? What's that?" Burne turned around to listen, folding his arms as he leaned on the desk.

"Why don't we run an ongoing contest for grade school children in the New York area who are interested in science? Every week, we'll pick one of them to co-host the science segments of the news with me," Baxter said.

"Hmm." Burne held a hand to his chin. From the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes, he liked it.

"That sounds like a great idea, Dr. Stockman!" Irma chirped. "And it'd give Channel 6 a lot of good publicity."

"I'm sold!" Burne declared. "You can announce the contest on the news tonight."

For a moment Baxter stood in surprise. He had been mentally preparing himself for how to defend the idea to Burne if it was initially rejected. He hadn't fully expected for Burne to accept it right away. He shook himself out of his daze before his boss could comment on it. "Thank you, Sir!" he exclaimed. "You won't be sorry."

"I'm sure I won't be," Burne said. He turned to head for his office. "The viewers really like you, Doctor."

Irma smiled. "So does the staff." She came from around her desk. "Should we head on over to the Floxy now?"

"We might as well," Baxter agreed. "It will probably film well in the morning light." He blinked. "Although I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do there." He turned to stare after Burne, but the man's door was already shut. "I'm not a reporter. And I didn't think you were, either."

"Well, we've watched April enough times to figure it out," Irma said. "Come on; let's check out the equipment we'll need and go." She walked up to him, linking her arm through his.

Baxter regarded her in surprise but didn't protest. Irma had never been that bold with him before. As long as she meant it in a platonic way, he liked it and wasn't nervous about it.

He smiled and nodded in agreement. "Let's."

****

The Floxy Theatre still looked like a disaster from the outside. But when Andrea Lukas unlocked the door and allowed Baxter and Irma to step inside, they were both impressed by the changes. Most of the balconies had been restored, including the one Barney had fallen from on that horrifying night several months ago. The seats were in the process of being reupholstered. And a new painting of an actress in a kimono and a butterfly mask had been placed on the wall opposite to the painting of the Phantom.

"Wow," Irma breathed. "Everything looks amazing, Ms. Lukas."

"Thank you, Dear," Andrea smiled. "We're very happy that the Phantom has allowed us to resume the renovation. That last adventure with the Ninja Turtles really seemed to have a positive impact on him."

"That's . . . good," Irma said slowly. "Have you seen him since then?"

"Every now and then he comes out to watch us work," Andrea said. "But since the organ is in storage until everything else is completed, he usually emerges from his painting or stands on the balcony."

"He comes out of the painting?" Irma shuddered. "That's kind of creepy."

"Oh, we don't mind it at all," Andrea said. "Even the construction crew has gotten used to his appearances." She looked to Baxter. "Dr. Stockman, I've noticed your critical tongue is quiet today. No more insistence that ghosts are not real?"

Baxter looked embarrassed. "I'm afraid I've discovered they are very real, Ms. Lukas. But I have no desire to go into that."

"It's enough to know that you've been enlightened," Andrea smiled. She glanced to the blond cameraman as he filmed. "What else would you like to see for your news story?"

"I'd like to know more about this girl," Irma said, walking over to the new painting. "Who was she?"

"An unknown actress who likely dates from around the time as the original Phantom," Andrea said. "Her painting was unearthed from a secret room a month ago. What looks like the original butterfly mask was in there with it."

"How strange," Baxter blinked. "Why would those objects have been hidden away for over a century?"

"We would certainly like to know!" Andrea exclaimed. "Would you like to see the mask?"

"Would we!" Irma said in amazed excitement.

Andrea smiled. "Come along then." She gestured for them to follow her down a familiar corridor.

Baxter looked around at the old walls as they walked. He remembered traveling this path when they had chased Barney, who had been playing the Phantom at that time. It was strange to be back now that so many things were different. Barney had resolved the problems he had told Baxter about at the Floxy Theatre. Now he had left Shredder and Krang at long last and was embarking on a new life.

Really, Baxter sort of wished that he could pop in on Barney's class too. He was so happy for and proud of his brother.

Andrea led them into an empty room and crossed to a stone wall. When she moved a particular block, a panel swung open and revealed a small compartment. "Here is the mask," she announced.

Baxter gazed down at the butterfly mask. Its main color was red, with swirls of orange and pink throughout. Despite being over a hundred years old, it was remarkably well-preserved.

"It's very impressive," he said in surprise.

"Impressive?! It's gorgeous!" Irma lifted it out, admiring its perfect mixture of colors. "Oh, how I'd love to wear something like this to a masquerade ball."

"When the Floxy is restored, we're going to feature it in a display case in the lobby," Andrea said with pride.

Baxter nodded. "I'm sure it will be a hit with tourists." He paused. "That actress is wearing it in that painting, but I don't remember that her character was supposed to wear a mask in the production. That's Madame Butterfly, isn't it?"

"Yes," Andrea said. "The character doesn't have a mask, that's true. But speaking of masquerade balls, that's exactly where our mysterious actress must have worn it! I just wish we knew more about her."

Irma suddenly stiffened, her eyes going blank. "Her name was Sophia Marguerite," she intoned.

Both Baxter and Andrea turned to stare at her in disbelief. "Why, how on Earth do you know that?" Andrea exclaimed.

"She was a rising star around the time the Phantom was performing." Irma continued to speak in that same monotone, looking through the mask instead of at it. "But she died under strange circumstances right in the theatre."

"My goodness!" Andrea looked to Baxter. "What do you think of this, Doctor?"

"Miss Langinstein must have read about it somewhere," Baxter said helplessly. "Miss Langinstein?" He gently shook Irma on the shoulder.

Irma started. "Huh? Oh." She set the mask back in the compartment. "I don't want to drop this."

"How did you know that information about the actress?" Baxter asked.

"What information?" Irma blinked at him.

"Why, you gave us her name and what she was up to," Andrea said in amazement.

"I don't remember saying anything!" Irma exclaimed. "How would I know about her?!"

Baxter leaned over, peering at the mask. There wasn't any writing on it. "Maybe your friend Howie Hardy told you and you subconsciously remembered?" he suggested.

"Maybe," Irma shrugged. "But that's weird that I wouldn't remember saying it. I guess I was so caught up looking at the mask."

"I guess," Baxter said, shaking his head in disbelief.

****

When Baxter and Irma returned to Channel 6, they found Michelangelo already there waiting.

"Hey, Baxter, Irma!" he greeted with a wildly waving hand. "Like, how'd your assignment go?"

"Quite well, I think," Baxter said.

Irma seemed slightly dazed. "Yeah . . . well." She sat down at her computer. "I'm going to look up that actress."

Baxter looked over as she typed Sophia Marguerite into the search bar. "You said you didn't remember talking about her in the theatre," he said in surprise. "But that is the name you said."

"It is?" Irma stared at the screen. "I guess I must remember then."

Michelangelo leaned on the desk. "So, uh, would somebody mind filling me in on what's going on here?"

Baxter sighed and folded his arms. "It's rather hard to explain," he said. "Miss Langinstein picked up an old mask supposedly belonging to an unknown actress and seemed to go blank. She recited several facts about the actress, including her name and where she died."

"Whoa," Michelangelo gasped. "Mondo bizarro."

Irma clicked on the top search result and stared at the short blurb from an old newspaper. "Oh wow," she gasped. "It says Sophia Marguerite was a popular actress at the turn of the last century, but her popularity was cut short when she died during a masquerade ball where she went as Madame Butterfly. The ball was held right in the Floxy Theatre. I'm surprised that isn't more well-known."

"Mega creepy," Michelangelo said. "How did she die?"

"It doesn't say," Irma replied. "But it does say her mask disappeared that night. Someone must have taken it and put it in that secret compartment with the painting!"

"Who on Earth would do that?" Baxter scoffed.

"Well, it sure wasn't her," Irma said. "She dropped dead at the ball and she was wearing her mask then. But when the doctor got there, it was gone!"

Baxter frowned. "And you not only told her name, but that she was a rising actress who died under mysterious circumstances in the theatre."

"Um . . . okay, I'm creeped out now." Irma pushed away from her desk. "I want to get my mind on something else. What's up, Michelangelo?"

"Oh. Well, I just dropped by to say that Barney is doing A-Okay with his teaching," Michelangelo grinned. "Vincent too. The class seems pretty fascinated with him, but they're keeping their mind on the class . . . which kind of . . . went over my head." He looked embarrassed.

Baxter chuckled. "Neuropsychology is very complex," he agreed. "I'm glad Barney and Vincent are doing well. I was sure they would be, though."

"Yeah, they were gnarly!" Michelangelo chirped.

The door to Vernon's office opened then and he wandered into the lobby. "Well, I heard you were out at that musty old theatre again," he greeted Irma and Baxter. "I'm glad I wasn't there this time."

Irma turned to look at him with a start. "Carlton!" she exclaimed, in an overdramatic voice very unlike her own.

Everyone stared at her. "Carlton?!" Michelangelo said in disbelief. "Like, who's that?!"

"Really, Irma," Vernon sniffed. "You've been hanging around that old theatre so long that you're starting to sound like you belong there." He looked to Baxter. "I hope you'll never behave like a theatre person, Dr. Stockman."

Irma rocked back and looked confused. "Uh . . . what are you talking about, Vernon?"

"What am I talking about?!" Vernon shot back. "What are you talking about?! Calling me 'Carlton'! Of all the . . ."

"What?" Irma held a hand to her forehead and looked helplessly to Baxter and Michelangelo. "Did I really do that?"

"Yes, you did," Baxter frowned.

"You don't remember, Dudette?" Michelangelo blinked.

"I don't remember at all," Irma said in dismay. "I must be working too hard."

"Yes," Vernon retorted. "I guess you must be."

"I don't even know anyone named Carlton!" Irma insisted.

"Hmph. I should hope not," Vernon sneered, sticking his nose in the air. "It's such a snobbish-sounding name."

"You should know, Vernon, considering what a big snob you always try to be," April remarked, suddenly appearing through the glass doors.

Vernon did not look pleased.

"Hi, everyone!" April greeted the others as she approached Irma's desk. "So what's all this about someone named Carlton?"

"You know, I'm like, really not sure," Michelangelo frowned.

"I called Vernon 'Carlton' and I don't even know why!" Irma moaned. "And I said weird stuff at the theatre too! Worse, it was actually true and I didn't know it!"

April stared. "I think this is a story I need to hear from the beginning."

****

Michelangelo rode back home with Baxter towards evening.

"So, like, are you gonna see Barney and Vincent tonight, Bud?" he asked.

"I hope so," Baxter said. "I said that if the day wasn't too exhausting for them, maybe they could come over for dinner. Barney didn't shoot the possibility down."

"Bodacious!" Michelangelo chirped.

Baxter frowned a bit. "I just wonder what to make of Miss Langinstein's odd behavior today."

"Aww, well, Irma always has been a little out there," Michelangelo said. "I wouldn't worry too much about her, Dude."

"You didn't see her at the theatre," Baxter pointed out. "It was very eerie."

"It does sound like it was kinda creepy," Michelangelo conceded. "But like, what do you figure is the explanation?"

"I don't know." Baxter sighed. "I don't want to instantly decide that everything out of the ordinary is something paranormal, but after everything I've experienced lately, it's hard not to at least consider the possibility."

"Well, how about this? Start thinking of all the other possibilities and then figure out which one is the wackiest!" Michelangelo suggested.

That brought a smile. "That's not a bad idea. Unfortunately, the other possibilities are also unpleasant for Miss Langinstein. They range from being overworked at the least to . . . well, not being all there mentally at the worst."

"Maximum bummer," Michelangelo proclaimed.

"Being overworked wouldn't be so terrible, if it wouldn't take long to cure." Baxter gripped the steering wheel.

"And uh, what's the paranormal possibility?" Michelangelo sounded leery.

"That the Phantom . . . or someone not among the living spoke to her at the theatre and somehow she received the message." Baxter shook his head. "It sounds so outlandish. I mean, spirit communication appears to be very rare. Why would something like this be picked up on?"

"I don't know, Dude. But there's one more possibility, isn't there?" Michelangelo shifted in his seat. "When she acted out at Channel 6, she kind of seemed like a whole other person."

"Possession? Oh no, Michelangelo." Baxter shuddered. "I am not going to believe in that too!"

"Well, hey, it's not that much different than mind-control, is it?" Michelangelo defended. "We had to believe something was up with Vernon and that alien crown."

"But we don't really know he was possessed," Baxter retorted. "There may have been some scientific properties in the crown that tapped into his brain and took over." He paused. ". . . But whatever happened to Miss Langinstein started as soon as she picked up the mask. . . ."

"See?!" Michelangelo exclaimed. "That mask is probably haunted!"

"But she didn't take it with her," Baxter objected. "It couldn't have taken over her mind the way that crown did with Mr. Fenwick."

"I think maybe I should get the guys and even Master Splinter and we'll go check it out," Michelangelo said. "If there's any weirdness connected with that mask, Master Splinter would probably pick up on it!"

Baxter pulled up at the grate nearest the Lair. "You're welcome to it, Michelangelo. But I don't really expect you'll find anything."

"Maybe not, but hey, it's worth a try!" Michelangelo undid the seatbelt. "We've gotta find out what's up with Irma."

"Yes," Baxter agreed. "If it's not something easily explainable."

Michelangelo paused. "You know, you've been working at Channel 6 a long time. Are you ever gonna start being less formal? I mean, everybody's 'Miss' or 'Mister' or something. I'm sure it'd be okay if you started calling them by their first names."

Baxter flushed. "It's hard for me to not be formal," he said. "Anyway, I'm Dr. Stockman to them, except when they want to make it clear who they mean between myself and Barney. I'd say it all evens out."

"Yeah, I guess you can see it that way," Michelangelo said slowly. "I just kinda wonder. . . . If we had full names, would you call us 'Mister' too?"

Baxter chuckled. "In your cases, no, I don't think so. It's hard for me to imagine being formal with you and the other Turtles."

"Gnarly!" Michelangelo grinned. "Oh, are you coming down to say Hi?"

"I'd like to, but I should probably call Barney and see if they're coming for dinner," Baxter said. "I'll need to hurry home and make something if they are."

"Righteous notion. Okay!" Michelangelo hopped out of the station wagon. "Thanks for the lift, Bud! Maybe I'll see you in a few minutes and maybe not. But I'll let you know if we're going out to the Floxy!"

"You do that," Baxter nodded.

****

April was just leaving Burne's office when she heard the strange sounds of stomping on the floor and a high-pitched voice singing what sounded like an old ragtime song. Bewildered, she followed it to the copy room, where Irma was singing and dancing around the water cooler while holding a stack of newly printed paper.

"Irma!" April exclaimed in disbelief. "What are you doing?!"

Irma stopped and looked to her. "I'm getting ready for tonight, Darling," she answered in an exaggerated prissy accent. "What else?"

April frowned, her hands going to her hips. "But Irma, what . . ." Her eyes glittered as a new thought came to her. "Oh! You have a date?"

"I most certainly do!" Irma said. "A date with the wonderful audience at the Floxy Music Hall. I've been planning it ever since I saw Carlton again today. You'll be there, won't you, Darling?"

April could only stand and blink rapidly at the sight. "Uh . . . yeah," she stammered. "Sure. Wouldn't miss it for the world!"

Vernon appeared in the doorway. "What's all this racket?"

"Irma, um, has a date," April said slowly.

"She's also suddenly developed the ability to sing on-key," Vernon sniffed. "Although the song itself leaves something to be desired. . . ."

"Carlton!" Irma threw herself at Vernon, placing her hands on his shoulders. "We're going to light up the stage tonight, aren't we?!"

Vernon's jaw dropped. He stared at Irma for a long moment, absolutely stunned. To the side, April looked just as shocked.

Finally Vernon took hold of Irma's wrists and eased her back. "Irma, what's come over you?" he exclaimed.

"I just want us to share one last performance," Irma said softly. Now she sounded profoundly sorrowful. "We never had the chance before; our happiness was cut so short."

"Irma, I don't know what you're talking about." Vernon glanced to April, deeply troubled.

April shook her head. "I think this is getting serious. I'm calling the Turtles." She pulled out her Turtle-Comm.

"The Turtles?!" Vernon objected. "How are they going to help if Irma is losing her mind?!"

"I don't think she is," April retorted. "At least, not the way you're thinking. I think something else is trying to take over her mind!" She looked to the Turtle-Comm. "Come in, Turtles!"

It was Donatello who answered. "Hi, April," he greeted. "What's happening?"

"Did Michelangelo tell you about how weird Irma's been acting today?" April demanded.

"Yes, he did," Donatello said. "Did something else happen?"

"You could say that." April looked to where Irma had pulled away from Vernon and now was dancing and twirling around the room with arms waving wildly. "She's calling Vernon 'Carlton' again and wants to perform onstage with him. She thinks she's going to be at the Floxy tonight."

"Okay," Donatello said slowly. "That's not good." He set the Turtle-Comm down and started typing on his computer. "Michelangelo said this actress's name is Sophia Marguerite?"

"Yeah," April confirmed.

More typing. "Carlton Bradford was her leading man in several productions," Donatello told her. "There were always rumors going around that they were romantically involved, but they both insisted they were performers through and through. Whatever the case, Carlton was devastated by her mysterious death and refused to perform without her. He became a detective and eventually unearthed the truth that she was killed by another performer who wanted to move in on her spotlight. After that, he mysteriously dropped out of sight."

"So how does that help us?" April exclaimed. "And why does Irma know about him or her?!"

"I don't know," Donatello admitted. "Michelangelo said Baxter told him everything started when Irma picked up a mask."

"That's what they told me, too," April agreed. She frowned. "But why did she pick Vernon to be Carlton? If Dr. Stockman was with her when it happened, why didn't she pick him instead?"

"Maybe because Vernon looks more like Carlton," Donatello said. "At least in height and hair color." He held the Turtle-Comm up to a photograph of the two performers on his computer screen.

"And how would Irma know any of that, either?!" April wailed.

"In the good old summertime," Irma blissfully sang in the background.

"Honestly, that doesn't even sound like Irma," Donatello said.

"Well, then, who is it?!" April cried.

"As much as I hate to say it, probably Sophia Marguerite," Donatello said with a sheepish grimace.

"So she possessed Irma through the mask?!" April clutched the Turtle-Comm. "Donatello, I thought you didn't even believe in ghosts!"

"Unfortunately, we've been discovering they're real, haven't we?" Donatello sighed. "It would be like hiding your head in the sand to deny them now."

"Okay." April leaned against a copy machine. "Let's say that Sophia Marguerite really has possessed Irma. Obviously it can't be solved by taking the mask away, because she doesn't even have it! What do we do?!"

"Uh . . . I'll get back to you on that." Donatello paused. "But if all she wants to do is perform onstage with 'Carlton,' maybe you should let her do it? Who knows; it might put Sophia's spirit to rest and she'd move on."

April shot a doubtful look at the carefree Irma. Now she had thrown the printed papers in the air and was dancing through them. Vernon was standing by and gaping in utter disbelief.

"I'm guessing she'll probably do it whether I let her or not!" April exclaimed. "But will Vernon go along with it?!"

"Just tell him it might get Irma back to normal," Donatello said. "We already know he can sing." This he added pointedly.

April chuckled at the reminder of the Vegetable Vampire nonsense. "I'll tell him," she said.

Vernon frowned, looking over at April. "You actually want me to get on some ratty old stage that will probably collapse under us and perform with Irma's alternate ego?!" he exclaimed in disbelieving indignation.

"I'm sure the stage is strong," April said. "You were on it several months ago and they've been renovating a lot more since then."

"Hmph," Vernon grunted. But he sighed as he watched Irma pick up the papers only to fling them again. "Well . . . maybe it would be worth it. . . . If you really think it would help. . . ."

"Donatello thinks it might," April said, "and he makes good sense."

Vernon folded his arms. "That's some people's opinion. But I suppose I . . . really do . . . miss Irma. . . . Somewhat. . . ." He tugged on his collar.

April sighed with a smile of resignation. Vernon had made a lot of progress to even be able to admit to that much aloud, even thought it still sounded rather callous. "So you'll do it?" she asked.

"I'll do it," Vernon agreed. "But I draw the line at dressing up in period clothing."

"She probably won't care," April said. "She just wants to perform with Carlton again."

"And what if she realizes I'm not Carlton?" Vernon shot back. "Then what?"

"We'll worry about that later," April insisted. Into the Turtle-Comm she said, "You guys will all come down for the . . . 'performance,' right?"

"We won't miss it," Donatello promised. "I'll see if Baxter, Barney, and Vincent will come as well."

"Great," April said in relief. "I just hope you're right about humoring her bringing Irma back."

"Me too," Donatello muttered.

****

Barney drove towards Baxter's apartment, Vincent beside him in the Cadillac's passenger seat. Barney was silent, but seemed fairly content. The day had been long, but nothing disturbing had happened. It was an encouraging start.

After a couple of blocks, Vincent spoke. "I think things went well today."

Barney nodded. "They're a good batch of kids, willing to learn. We should get along fine."

"You knew Diane Oakland's father, didn't you?"

"He was my favorite professor when I was in college," Barney said. "He was a good man who made sense . . . unlike some others I could name."

"You mean Professor Willardson."

Barney raised an eyebrow. "I've never talked about him."

"Baxter did. He . . . came to your funeral. . . ." Vincent looked awkward to be discussing the subject. "Baxter really wondered why he was there. He hadn't wanted to approach Willardson because of how he'd been treated, but he figured he needed to say something out of politeness. When he tried, though, the man had already left."

Barney grunted. "And he hated me even more than he hated Baxter," he said. "I can't imagine what he was doing there."

"Maybe he started to feel better about you?" Vincent suggested.

"I don't know. You'd think he would have said something to the family if he did."

"Baxter said he was a very strange man."

"The running joke about Willardson was that he demonstrated a scientist didn't have to have evil intentions to be 'mad,'" Barney said. "He was always coming up with some bizarre invention that he claimed was for the good of mankind and trying to use it on his students."

"Baxter mentioned that he claimed to have a machine that could turn people into dogs," Vincent said.

"Yes, he tried to use it on both of us, but we escaped. I still have no idea if it really worked and I have no desire to know."

"Baxter also said you were the one who reported him, even though he probably thought it was Baxter."

"I don't know why I put up with his madness as long as I did." Barney gripped the steering wheel.

"Was it that invention that made you do it?"

"I should have done it then," Barney said. "But I didn't. Then I actually saw one of his inventions in action. It didn't physically turn anyone into something they weren't, but mentally it did, which was worse. He used it to make a student act like a gorilla. That probably sounds so ridiculous it's laughable, but it actually wasn't. The student didn't agree to be a test subject in the first place, and after the experience, he was traumatized. I believe he needed therapy to even be able to get back to a halfway normal life."

"That's . . . disturbing."

"Yes, it is." Barney frowned. "But then I think that I was far worse than he ever was, because I was sane and I created insane inventions out of bitterness and greed. I had no illusions that they would benefit mankind. I only cared that they would benefit me. And how do I know who might have ended up traumatized from those?"

Vincent looked to him. "At least you've come back to reality and regret what you did," he said.

"I suppose." But Barney still looked unsettled. "We were both aware of the oath 'First do no harm' and we both broke it. How is it forgiveable for either one of us?"

"Isn't that more for medical doctors?" Vincent blinked.

"That doesn't matter. How was I ever entrusted with an assignment like this?" Barney sounded both baffled and awed. "How could anyone feel that I would look after these kids well after what I did?"

"Because they judged you on what you did last, not what you did farther back," Vincent said. "A man who risked his very life to save everyone in the city, even after previously inventing out of bitterness and greed, was someone deserving of both forgiveness and trust."

Barney fell silent. He pulled up in front of the apartment building without speaking. But at last, as he started to get out of the car, he said, "I just hope their forgiveness and trust isn't misplaced."

"It isn't, Barney." Vincent's voice was firm and unshaken without a shred of doubt.

Barney looked over at his friend, his adopted brother, and shook his head in amazement. He doubted he would ever not find it incredible that Vincent had gone from hating Barney to loving him so dearly. When Vincent spoke so insistently about Barney's goodness and the forgiveness and trust in him not being misplaced, he wasn't just speaking from naive idealism. He spoke from his own feelings, because he too had learned to forgive and trust Barney after not forgiving and not trusting him at first. And he knew Barney was worthy of every bit of the confidence placed in him now.

Baxter met them at his apartment door. "I'm glad you're both here," he smiled. "I have dinner ready." He hesitated. "And err . . . after we've eaten, I need to go over to the Floxy Theatre."

"What for?" Barney asked with a quirked eyebrow.

"Come in and I'll explain," Baxter said.

****

By the time Irma, April, and Vernon left for the Floxy, everyone's nerves were ragged. Irma had flipped back to her normal personality again for a while, confused and worried and scarcely able to understand why she didn't remember long stretches of time. April had tried to comfort her, but Vernon felt far too awkward. And when the time had drawn nigh of eight, Irma had become that other person again, showy and excited and determined to perform with her beloved Carlton once more.

Vernon had opted to drive, unusual for him since he preferred to delegate that responsibility to April. But he wanted April's attention on Irma as much as possible, because he absolutely did not know how to handle this scenario.

He hoped Baxter would be coming. With Baxter he felt comfortable letting down his guard and showing that he actually did care. Although he was trying to open up more to April and Irma, he still found himself having trouble with revealing his kinder feelings. He wanted to talk to Baxter about what was happening and what he should do---even though he was sure he knew what Baxter would advise.

He had never thought anyone at Channel 6 would change much, let alone so dramatically. April wanted her big scoop, Irma wanted a boyfriend, and Burne screamed for a story. None of that had changed after Baxter had become part of the staff. But now Irma was changing, becoming a completely different person, and apparently against her wishes. She was frightened. And having witnessed it happening instead of forgetting it as she did, Vernon was terrified.

How could he hope to help Irma find herself again? April, maybe, or even Baxter could do it. He was good at helping people find themselves. But Vernon wasn't even good at finding himself. How could he reach out to Irma and succeed?

Maybe if he thought of it as similar to what had happened to him with the alien crown. But that had been outright dangerous. This character didn't seem to have any malevolent intentions. Oh no. In fact, that was also part of why he felt so awkward. She was crazy about him . . . or rather, the person she thought he was. How was he supposed to handle that? And how would Irma handle it if she started coming back to herself and saw how he was handling it? Or how she . . . well, Sophia . . . was handling it? What if Sophia kept making advances on him that could be construed as romantic? Irma wouldn't like that at all. He certainly didn't.

. . . Well, it wasn't so much that he didn't like it as it was that it was preposterously awkward for someone else to use Irma's body to do it. How was he even supposed to feel about that? The person looked like Irma, but wasn't Irma. He had never even thought of Irma in such terms. And he had always been one of the few men Irma had never put on a pedestal. She would probably sooner stay single than ever entertain the thought of dating him. Now Sophia was using Irma's body to practically throw herself at him and beg for "one last performance together." Exactly what would that performance consist of, he wondered.

There was a reason why romance in the workplace was generally discouraged. If it fell apart, it would be ungodly mortifying to have to continue working so closely together. Of course, this really couldn't constitute any kind of a romance, but . . . if Irma realized what was going on, how well were they going to come out of this?

"Earth to Vernon."

He practically jumped out of his seat. "What is it?!"

"We're here," April said. "Are you planning to come in?"

He blinked. He had parked in front of the Floxy without even realizing. "Oh. Of course."

Irma didn't even seem to notice the theatre's dilapidated state. "It's so good to be back!" she cried, spreading her arms wide. "Isn't it wonderful, Carlton?"

"Wonderful. Yes." Vernon brushed past her and over to the door.

He nearly fainted when the door opened from the inside. "Like, don't have a cow, man," Michelangelo greeted. "We got here first."

"Wrong catchphrase," Raphael muttered from behind him.

Vernon placed a hand over his heart. "Don't I have enough going on without adolescent turtles scaring me out of twenty years?!" he cried.

"You should be more worried about Irma," April said in frustration as she tried to push Vernon inside.

"Irma doesn't even know what's going on," Vernon objected. But he let her push him. "She's getting off easy."

"Yeah, I guess you've kinda got a point there," Michelangelo mused.

"Only are you sure she doesn't know?" Baxter spoke up quietly.

Vernon visibly relaxed to see his friend standing near Michelangelo. "Dr. Stockman," he greeted. "Irma never seems to remember when she comes back to herself, so I don't see how she could know. . . ."

"Maybe she knows, only she can't remember once she's allowed to take control again," Baxter said. "She might be desperately fighting against Sophia Marguerite whenever Sophia has control."

Vernon looked down. "I suppose that could be true. . . ."

Irma hurried past him and the stage to the dressing room area. "I'm going to get ready for our big performance," she announced.

April stared. "Irma, wait!" she cried, hurrying after her. But Irma had already vanished backstage. Undaunted, April pushed past the heavy curtains.

"Kinda weird that Sophia doesn't think anything of mutant turtles being part of her audience," Michelangelo remarked. "Or a mutant rat." He indicated Splinter, who had determined he should come due to the bizarre circumstances.

"Maybe that's Irma's memories trickling in," Donatello suggested. "Irma wouldn't find it strange, so Sophia doesn't either."

"An interesting theory," Barney remarked. "Or maybe she's so deadset on this performance that nothing else matters. Obviously she isn't seeing things clearly or she would know that Vernon Fenwick is not Carlton Bradford."

Vernon suddenly panicked at a new thought. "What am I going to do if I don't know the songs she wants to sing?!" he exclaimed. "Or the scenes she wants to act out?!"

"Calm down, Vernon," Leonardo spoke up. "Maybe you'll know. And if you don't, maybe you'll be able to wing it."

"Or I could provide the lyrics," Vincent suggested. "I can look up anything she wants to do."

"Could you?!" Vernon exclaimed in sheer relief. For the moment, he didn't even stop to think that he was talking to a living computer. Let alone the living computer that had held him captive in Channel 6's transmitting room.

"I'll go to the prompter's box right now," Vincent said. He climbed onto the stage.

Baxter gave Vernon an encouraging smile. "Everything is going to be fine," he said kindly.

"And now you'd better get on the stage to wait for her," Leonardo prompted.

Sighing to himself, Vernon complied.

“You know,” Raphael interjected, “things are following a disturbing pattern.”

“What do you mean?” Baxter asked.

Raphael counted on his fingers. “First, April gets a mind-control collar. Then Vernon runs into a possessed alien crown. Now Irma finds a mask. I think our friends need to stop getting weird accessories, don’t you?”

Baxter shook his head. “I don't think it's a laughing matter, but I see what you mean.”

April looked hesitant when she returned to the stage area moments later. "Irma's ready," she said slowly, "but I don't like this. . . ."

"You don't like this!" Vernon grumped. "You got me into this, April!"

"Not the performance," April retorted. "Her costume! It's . . ." But she trailed off as Irma appeared.

Baxter in particular stiffened. Irma had found the kimono that Sophia was wearing in her painting. She had also put the butterfly mask on over her glasses.

"The clothes Sophia died in," April whispered.

Irma, or Sophia, or whoever, looked thrilled to be on the stage, looking out over an audience. It scarcely mattered to her that there were only eight members of said audience, or that more than half of them were mutants, or that a walking computer had settled in the prompter's box. She was lost in the glory of her past, rekindled tonight with the promise of this performance.

"Thank you so much for coming," she said, her voice choked with emotion. "Tonight, Carlton and I will perform a collection of our favorite pieces. I feel so very honored that we are able to bring this concert to you tonight."

Vernon was already starting to panic. And when she named a piece from Madame Butterfly as the first selection, he almost fainted. "I can't sing opera!" he hissed.

"Stay calm," Vincent answered. "Here are the lyrics." They appeared on the laptop screen in large print.

Vernon swallowed hard. "I just know this isn't going to work."

It was quite a calamity when Vernon attempted the foreign pronunciations. He had heard the song before, as he had attended the opera semi-frequently with his family in his youth, but that didn't help him remember it under pressure. He could only helplessly follow along with the instrumental Vincent was playing from a performance on YouTube. April cringed throughout.

Sophia, however, seemed not to notice any of that. She was performing again, and with whom she believed was Carlton, and that was literally all that mattered to her. No matter how Vernon stumbled over that and subsequent songs, she was only filled with bliss and love and happiness.

To Vernon's relief, there were a few popular songs in the bunch that he actually knew. Those certainly went the easiest for him. He even managed to relax slightly and even get into the spirit of performing.

The final piece, however, was not only opera, but a moving love song. By the end, Sophia was embracing Vernon and she had also drawn his arms around her, and Vernon was completely red as the notes finished.

It was Michelangelo who broke the awkward spell that the audience clearly felt as well as Vernon. He leaped to his feet, clapping wildly. "Bravo! Awesome! Gnarly!"

Everyone else snapped to and also clapped, realizing that they needed to stay in the spirit of the performance in the hopes of getting Sophia to move on and leave Irma be. And they actually were quite impressed. With Sophia guiding, Irma really had been singing on-key and very beautifully. Vernon, too, had made a valiant effort, and his voice really wasn't bad even though he didn't know the majority of the material.

Sophia leaned in, resting her head against Vernon's chest. "This is the way it was supposed to be," she said softly. "Always."

Vernon went an even deeper crimson. "Are you happy, S-Sophia?" he stammered.

"Very happy." To his shock, she suddenly went on tiptoe and kissed him on the lips.

April slapped her forehead. "Oh brother!"

"Yeah, who wants to run down to Wal-Mart and get the mouthwash Irma is going to want when she comes out of this?" Raphael cracked.

"Raphael," Leonardo chided.

Baxter shot Raphael a look. But if he intended to say anything, Sophia's next actions sent all thoughts of it out of his mind.

"I never want this to end!" she burst out. "We've been apart for too long. Not again. Never again!" She held out her hand and what looked like a beanstalk burst through the floor and lifted them up through the tarp over the broken skylight in the roof.

Vernon shrieked. "What are you doing?!" he wailed.

Down below, everyone was rushing onto the stage in shock.

"Totally bogus!" Michelangelo cried. "How is she doing that?!"

Clouds gathered and thunder rumbled in the sky. Lightning split through the darkness, but instead of rain, armored women on horses began to soar and swirl through the sky.

"I don't believe it!" April gasped. "Valkyries?!"

"Uh, say what?" Michelangelo blinked.

"Female warriors in Norse mythology," Splinter explained. "She appears to be bringing elements from various operas and plays to life!"

"Whoa." Michelangelo stared. "That's awesome. Even though it's also, like, mondo bad news for us."

"'Awesome' is hardly the word I was going to use," Raphael retorted. "Messed-up, maybe."

"Or both," Barney shot back. He stared into the sky.

"Shakespeare wrote that all the world is a stage," Sophia declared, her hair flying in the wind. Amazingly, the butterfly mask stayed put. "I am going to make that literal. As long as the world is a stage, our performance doesn't have to end!" She looked up at Vernon. "We can stay together forever!"

Vernon went sheet-white. "What?!" he gasped.

"Oh, maximum bummer!" Michelangelo yelped. "Everything backfired! What do we do now?!"

Baxter held up an arm to shield himself from the furious wind. "I'm afraid the only ones who have a chance of fixing this are Mr. Fenwick and Miss Langinstein!" he exclaimed.

"Come on! Vernon's completely frozen!" Raphael wildly gestured upward. "He never wanted to do this in the first place."

"Can you blame him?" Barney grunted.

"I mean, there's no way he can figure out how to get us out of this!" Raphael insisted.

"Do not count him out, my student," Splinter replied. "Dr. Stockman is right: it is he and Irma who hold the key to saving our world . . . and perhaps Sophia as well."

"Come on, Master Splinter! She's the one causing all the trouble!" Raphael said in disbelief.

"Look at the situation with your heart, Raphael," Splinter told him. "Think about why she is doing this."

"Because she's completely nuts, that's why!" Raphael shot back. "She thinks Vernon is her leading man. That shows she's got her screws loose right there. Now she's going to wreck the whole world because of it!"

Baxter came closer to the base of the beanstalk. "Mr. Fenwick!" he called, desperate to be heard. "You have to find the way to make her stop and bring Miss Langinstein back!"

Vernon started, coming back to the present at the sound of Baxter's words. But he didn't feel any better about the situation. "I can't!" he screamed. "I'm not a hero. I can never be a hero. I'm not even Carlton!"

"That's it!" Baxter exclaimed.

"What's it?!" Vernon snapped.

"Tell her the truth!" Baxter stepped back. Vincent came up behind him, laying his hands on Baxter's shoulders.

"That's ridiculous!" Vernon screamed. "She'll probably demolish the world if I tell her that!"

"Not if you tell her in the right way," Barney said.

Vernon swallowed hard. Sophia was waving her hands again. Down below, scenes from old productions were beginning to play out in the streets. The people walking by were being transformed into the characters. They stopped, staring at their period clothing in bewilderment. Then their eyes blanked and they became completely wrapped up in the spell, beginning to act out scenes they probably didn't even know in their right minds.

Vernon tugged on his collar, nervous, frantic. "Irma, this isn't you," he quavered.

"I am not Irma!" Sophia's voice had an eerie, echoing quality now. She spread her hands to the sky. Rain began to pour down on the next block over and the people began to act out the shipwreck scene from The Tempest.

"I know you're not Irma!" Vernon cried. "And I'm not Carlton!"

She stiffened, her arms suspended in mid-air. "What?"

Emboldened, Vernon grabbed her and turned her around to face him. "Look at me, Sophia! Really look at me! I'm not Carlton. I didn't even know most of those songs you wanted to perform! I'm nothing, nobody! Why would you want to spend eternity with me?!"

Instead of exploding, Sophia trembled. Tears filled her eyes. "I was fooling myself," she whispered. "Of course I knew you weren't Carlton. But I wanted so badly to believe that he was somehow still here, waiting for me, as I've been waiting for him all these years."

The drive had gone out of her. She waved her hands and the scenes from the plays disappeared. The people returned to their rightful clothes. The beanstalk also vanished, letting them descend harmlessly onto the roof.

Vernon was too occupied with the situation to notice. "I'm sure he is waiting," he said. "Why don't you go to him, Sophia? Let Irma be herself again. Please. I . . . I want Irma to come back."

She shook her head. "I don't know how to go to him," she sobbed. "That's why I've stayed here. I thought that I would find him here, somehow, someday. . . ."

"I've been here, Sophia."

Both Vernon and Sophia jumped a mile. Standing just to the side of the hole was a translucent figure dressed in a cape and floppy hat. The Phantom. . . .

Sophia pulled away from Vernon in shock. "Carlton?!"

"Yes." He came closer, holding out a hand to her. "I've been looking for you, but I could never find you. Come with me now and we will have an eternity to perform together."

Sophia's eyes filled with light. Then she stepped free of Irma's body and went to him, taking his hand. "Goodbye," she called back to Vernon. "Thank you for your kindness. I'm sorry about Irma. She'll be alright." They shimmered and faded.

Vernon gaped after them. But before he could think how to process this at all, Irma stumbled into him. "Whoa. . . ."

Quickly Vernon caught her, drawing her to him without thinking. He realized at about the same moment she did. "Irma?!"

"Vernon?!" Irma rocked back, staring at him. "You . . . you said you wanted me back. You really meant it?"

"Y-Yes," Vernon stammered. "Are you alright?"

"I . . . I'm fine. I . . ." Irma stepped forward and the roof groaned under her feet.

That brought them both to a complete realization of their situation and location. Shrieking in equal terror, they sprang into each other's arms. "Get us down from here!" they screamed.

"Hang on!" Michelangelo called. "We're coming up!" He threw his grappling hook and caught hold of the roof. "I hope that holds. . . ."

"You hope!" Vernon retorted.

To everyone's relief, both the rescuers and the rescuees made it safely back into the theatre. April ran over, her eyes sparkling. "Irma!" She hugged her friend. "You're alright!"

"I sure am," Irma declared as she returned the embrace. "And it's thanks to Vernon."

Vernon went red. "Oh, I'm sure that ghost would have resolved the problem without me. . . ."

"Ghost?! What ghost?!" Donatello exclaimed.

"The Phantom of the Floxy," Vernon shuddered. "Apparently he was Carlton!"

Irma nodded. "They left together."

"Whoa. Mondo bizarro. But that is like, totally radical!" Michelangelo grinned.

"And I guess this means the Floxy is no longer haunted?" Raphael said hopefully.

"Oh, I don't know," April said. "I bet they'll both come around sometimes. This place obviously meant so much to them."

"How romantic," Irma said dreamily.

The Turtles looked at each other and started to laugh. Some things really didn't change.

****

Vernon made himself scarce on the way back to Channel 6. When they arrived, he promptly vanished into his office.

"So, I wonder what's up with him?" Raphael remarked.

"That was a pretty harrowing experience," Leonardo said.

"Yeah," Michelangelo agreed. "Can you blame the dude?"

Raphael rolled his eyes. "Hey, Irma's the one who really went through the most."

"They've both been through a lot," Baxter insisted. "Surely you really know that, Raphael."

"Yeah, I guess," Raphael frowned. "But I still say Irma got the worst of it."

"There are many kinds of suffering, my pupil," Splinter said. "Who are we to say if one is more painful than another?"

Raphael sighed. "Even when it's Vernon? I mean, he overreacts to everything!"

Irma started past him. "I'm going to talk to him."

Raphael stared after her. "I don't think she'll get anywhere."

"We'll see," Leonardo replied.

Irma walked up to Vernon's office and knocked on the door. "Vernon?"

Silence. Then, "Come in."

She opened the door and stepped inside. "Hey," she said softly. "Are you okay?"

Vernon raised an eyebrow. "You're asking me?!" He folded his arms. "I'm fine."

Irma didn't believe it, but she pressed on. "I wanted to thank you for, you know, putting up with me all that time and getting me back to normal," she said.

Vernon flushed and looked away. "Well," he sniffed, "I only did it because April kept pushing me."

Irma's hands went to her hips. "Really?" From her tone, she didn't believe it.

Vernon sighed, his shoulders slumping. "No. I'm lying. I would have done it anyway."

Irma smiled a bit. "I never would've thought it before, Vernon, but you can actually be sweet. I like it."

Vernon looked back. "You do?"

"Of course." But now it was Irma's turn to flush. "Um . . . about that kiss. . . . I'm . . . sorry about that. It was the actress and . . . well, you know I'm not forward like that. . . ."

Vernon was red again too. "I knew it was the actress. Oh, not that it was a . . . bad experience or anything. . . . Actually, it was . . . nice?"

Irma perked up. "You mean that?"

"Well, yes. . . . I mean, it wasn't terrible. . . ." Vernon shifted.

"You know, you two are starting to sound like a couple in a really cheesy romantic comedy," Raphael spoke up from the doorway with a roll of his eyes. "All that's missing is for you to just stop beating around the bush and kiss."

"Raphael," Baxter scolded. He pulled the Turtle away from the door.

"Now one has to wonder how Raphael knows what a couple in a cheesy romantic flick sounds like," Michelangelo grinned.

"Hey, I only caught the tail-end of it while I was waiting for something better to come on," Raphael shot back.

"Sure you did," Michelangelo giggled.

Vernon looked like he wanted to crawl under his desk, but somehow he didn't. "Hey, I thought you didn't remember things that were going on while Sophia was in control," he realized.

"I didn't at first," Irma said. "But then I started fighting back against it . . . and I realized you were actually fighting for me . . . That . . . helped a lot, actually."

"Well . . . don't expect it to happen a lot or anything." Vernon was starting to go red again. "I do have a reputation to hold up."

"Of being a cowardly creep?" Irma intoned. She came closer and laid her hand over his. "Hey, I know you're scared. Me too. And tonight was really scary for both of us. But I also know you're a lot more than a big scaredy-cat. I know I wouldn't have believed it several months ago, but thanks to Dr. Stockman, you've really started to show that you're a nice person. I like that a lot."

"He has helped me a great deal," Vernon said.

Irma stunned him by giving him a quick hug. "Thanks, Vernon. You're a good friend."

She pulled back before he had a chance to reciprocate . . . if he would have. But she had certainly left him with a lot to think about.