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Chapter 1 - Pink Camellia Edit

---Houston, Texas; November 14, 1975---

EEH! EEH! EEH! EEH!

Oto rolled over in bed, facing the inner wall and away from the infernal timepiece, and folded the ends of his pillow over his ears.

EEH! EEH! EEH! EEH!

He groaned and rolled over again toward the device, shutting his eyes tightly against the light that invaded his slumber through the thin paces between the strips of his window blinds. 'Stupid alarm clock,' he thought. He had been in the middle of a dream. Not a nightmare, but not really a happy dream per say. Just... a dream. Neutral. Which given how rarely he dreamed at all he considered a great privilege. The lack of dreams could be blamed on a lack of sleep in recent years, and the lack of sleep could be blamed on his life as a college professor nowadays and just before that an average student in America.

EEH! EEH! EE-!

"Shut up," he muttered as he reached a hand so tired it could barely hold its own weight to stop the alarm clock's incessant noise that violated his ears so easily in the early early morning. He turned over once more and buried his face in his pillow. Or rather, pillow. The individual pillows he owned weren't nearly as nice as they should be individually, so Oto stuffed two of them into one case so as to optimally maximize potential comfort. Soft, but just firm enough.

Ugh, what day was it again? Friday? Thank the Lord, he didn't think he could survive another single workday after how tiring this week had been. He groaned again, as regretful as a fish was to leave its bowl, rose from the bed where a clear indentation of his body had been left in the cheap mattress. He kept his eyes closed so as to preserve that last bit of sleep as much as possible. He had forced himself to stay up quite late last night grading papers to avoid spending the entire weekend on them and lost track of time.

Oto yawned and stretched, feeling and hearing multiple pops and cracks in his back and legs, and grunted in discomfort. He was saving up for, among several other things, a better mattress. He had considered selling his current mattress to make up for the last bit of cash, but other than the absolute certainty that nobody would ever buy it, he would never wish a mattress that uncomfortable on anyone, even his worst enemy. When he was satisfied enough that he could clear out the last remaining kinks in his neck later, he pulled open the blinds and squinted as natural light from the window flooded the room, or at least most of it. As much as he preferred artificial light to read, this saved a lot more money. Luckily the relatively small square footage of his apartment made it so most of it could be illuminated decently enough.

He left his room to go make himself a cup of coffee, black. As much as it made him feel as bitter as the coffee tasted, and no matter how convinced he was that nothing had the right to be so bitter in all of existence, it helped him wake up quicker in the mornings. After several sips as he leaned on the counter dressed in nothing but baggy gym shorts, he set the mug down on the counter and left to take a shower. As frugal as he tried to be, a warm shower was not something he would ever deny himself.

He turned the water up until it was almost scalding and waited for it to heat up, after which he pulled back the curtain and stepped inside, where he immediately sighed in relief. Sure the high temperature might not be the best for the nerves on his back but at least it was sure to absolutely annihilate any and all residual sleep that was still hiding out in his body. It was later in the year, so the holiday break wasn't too far away, a fact which Oto was very thankful for. As long as he didn't have to assign anything that he'd have to grade over said vacation, he'd be happy. The hot water was a pleasant and much anticipated reprieve from the occasional chill from the outside, and he made sure to relish it as much as he could whenever he could.

Once he was all lathered and rinsed, he left the shower and got dressed, got his stuff, and got in his car. Closing the door, he looked up at his rearview mirror with his silver cross necklace dangling over it and pulled it off to put it on. Oto then adjusted the mirror to look at himself for a while and sighed. This morning was the exact same as yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that. Honestly it was a wonder he hadn't gone crazy and took a roque mallet to the door from how repetitious his life seemed these days.

"Back to the old grind..." He sighed in exhaustion and grumpiness. He started his car and drive off to start what he just knew would be another day he would be going through the motions for.

Chapter 2 - Lychnis Chalcedonica Edit

---University of Houston Texas---

Oto slumped into his desk chair at the front of his class that looked back at the collection of empty student chars, set up on rising step-like levels. Checking his watch, he sighed in relief. He had just barely gotten to his room in time before the first bell to signify class was starting, a habit that despite his exhaustion he made sure to uphold every day he was at work. Not only did he think it was incredibly rude to leave students waiting out in the halls, but if he was there before then he could get everything done just a little bit quicker and, just maybe, have some downtime near the end of the class. It wasn't the first time he was almost late this morning, he just barely got to school itself in time for breakfast and some leisure time to read. He blamed his near-record losing arrival to his classroom on getting caught up in idle chat with Ms. Barnes, the Physics professor down the hall. As well as she meant it was a little hard to tolerate her bragging at how successful all of her classes were.

Taking a sip of the ice cold water he preferred to coffee, he opened his desk drawer and pulled out the lesson plan folder for this week. Last Monday he was to have assigned a presentation project in which students spoke about a particular religion with an object from that belief system. Instead, he told them to only focus on Christianity and other similarly Judaic beliefs - he was way too tired to grade lectures about theologies of which he knew next to nothing about, but he knew the Bible, both Testaments, cover to cover. He did tell them to try and not bring the same objects as another student so as to avoid repetition and lazy object choice, and resorted to having each individual student pic one object from a list to reserve for themselves alone.

The bell rang throughout the school signaling that the grueling day officially began now, and immediately Oto's class filed in and took their seats. He gave a small prayer in thanks for having one of the more decent classes that, rather than be rowdy, was willing to engage with the lesson, behave well during lectures, and made decent enough grades - a privilege that other teachers would gladly pay an arm and a leg for. Oto pulled out the attendance sheet and began to call out names and check off the ones present.

A full house, impressive. That meant they'd get more presentations out of the way and he wouldn't have to speak as much. He stood up, fixed his coat, and addressed the class.

"Alright everyone, good mornin'," he said, to which the students replied in kind, "today's presentation day. I hope y'all brought yer B-games, save yer A-games fer finals." That small joke earned him some smiles from the students, and he clapped his hands together. "I hope y'all also brought yer items, those are part of the grades an' I'd hate to see any of ya get C's 'cause ya fergot to bring yer grandmother's rosary." He pointed his finger randomly around the class to look for someone that looked prepared. "Austin, why don't ya start us off?"

A boy in the front row of the classroom nodded and pulled a collection of papers and an old Bible from his backpack. Almost every student in the class, save for a few of the overachievers who preferred to bring in more obscure relics, wanted to bring the one item that was practically guaranteed to be in every household, but Austin had beaten them all to the punch.

"Thank you Mr. Barry," Austin nodded. He stood up and walked to the center of the front of the class in front of Oto's desk, tucking the papers under his arm and clutching the Bible in his hands. "I bought this Bible from a local bookstore since the one at our house would fall apart if you so much as look at it wrong, and a few verses inside were highlighted. May I open my presentation with one?"

Oto nodded and sat back down behind his desk, fingering his necklace and leaning back comfortably in his chair. "Go ahead, floor's yers."

Austin cleared his throat and opened the book to a random page where a few verses were indeed highlighted and many annotations were made in the margin. "From Corinthians 4:16, 'So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.'"

When he finished reading, the embossed letters on the book's cover and the text inside glowed a deep green color, as did the eyes of everyone in the room, except for Oto's. They all blinked and shifted slightly in their seats.

"Is there anything more to yer presentation, Austin?" Oto asked.

"Yeah, there is..." Austin replied, sounding somewhat spaced out, before he dropped the Bible to the floor and ripped his papers into little pieces, dropping them to the ground as well, making Oto gasp. "Religion is a disease, especially Christianity." He turned around to face his teacher angrily. "Why are we talking about a religion that people ruin their entire lives for?"

"Austin," Oto said in shock, standing up quickly, "this isn't like you, what the hell's gotten into you?"

"He's right!" A girl from the back of the class who was usually quite, well, quiet, stood up and shouted. "How long was evolution kept out of school because religious idiots thought it was evil?"

Oto was taken completely aback by this sudden hostility. What was going on? "Guys, please, calm do-"

"He's got a cross on his neck!" One student shouted, pointing at Oto's necklace, "Get him!"

At once the entire classroom moves from their desks toward their teacher, faces filled with rage, and ran. Oto screamed and bolted for the door, quickly managing to get out of the room and slam the door behind himself, then lock it. The students inside pounded and cursed and hissed at him from the other side relentlessly. He backed away from the door quickly, clutching his necklace, and ran off to the nearest other room to call the police.

---Warehouse 13---

Hundreds of miles away in the Badlands of South Dakota, agent Michael Korss and supervisor Charlie Martin discussed recent events fondly.

"All I'm saying Charlie," Michael said in exasperation with a shake of his head, "is that maybe after that incident with the Nicot and Lickint incident I would have thought you'd at least take a break."

"I am," Charlie said, taking a drag from his cigarette, "I'm takin' a smoking break."

Michael sighed, not for the first time in the last hour. "A break from smoking!"

"Not gonna happen." Charlie tilted his head back and blew a puff of gray, odorous smoke into the air. His cigarette was running low and he flicked it into the trashcan nearby, then pulled out his lighter and out a new one into his mouth.

"They smell awful." Mike said.

"I think they smell great." Charlie countered.

"They're bad for you."

"Plenty of people in America smoke without a problem."

Michael reached over and plucked the cigarette straight out of Charlie's mouth and held it between the tips of his fingers in his outstretched arm as if it were radioactive. "Charlie."

The supervisor grumbled and shook his finger at the blond agent. "If anyone else did that I'd... well, don't matter."

"I'm just trying to make sure you live long enough to see your retirement party, whenever that actually happens. If you keep smoking you'll be lucky if you get an iron lung." Michael said as he looked at the cigarette disdainfully. He wasn't about to say he despised them - despise was a strong word. But he made sure to let Charlie know exactly how he felt about the little ashen menaces whenever he saw him smoking one.

Charlie held out his hand and moved his fingers to gesture that he wanted his cigarette back. "I'll take my chances. In a job like this I need something to take the edge off."

Shaking his head, Korss reluctantly gave the cigarette back, and Charlie promptly put it back in his mouth.

"'Sides," he said through teeth clenched around the cigarette as he tried to start is lighter with flick after flick, "better lung cancer than bein' scraped off the walls." He finally lit a flame in his lighter and lit his cigarette, and took a long drag before slowly breathing a cloud of smoke out. "Ahh... sweet relief."

Between waving his hand and coughing in a deliberately exaggerated manner to show what he thought without using a rather rude hand gesture, Michael was about to say something more when, across the room, he saw a piece of paper appear on a bulletin board. A newspaper clipping under a red thumbtack. He nudged his supervisor and pointed to it, and both men rose from their chairs and walked over to investigate.

"'Classroom Violently Murders College Professor in Fit of Mania.'" Charlie read aloud the headline on the clipping.

"Sounds like the kind of thing William Hearst's Board would say." Michael said. "Question is, is the exaggeration that he was murdered, or that he was murdered violently?"

"Well, you're gonna find out aren't you? You're on the case." Charlie walked back to his desk to begin filing out a case report. "I'll send you with Sweetwood for backup."

"Aw, c'mon Charlie, Joe Sweetwood?" Michael whined, "That guy's a total stick in the mud, everyone at the Warehouse says so."

"He gets the job done clean and calm." Charlie said.

"Exactly!" Michael said, spreading his arms in exasperation. However, knowing there weren't any other agents available to be sent out with him he groaned and collected his coat, Tesla, and Farnsworth. "Off to the daily grind it is."

Chapter 3 - Passiflora Edit

Sweetwood and Korss arrived at the school within two hours.  When they found the school, they discovered that the local police had been called and arrived on scene, evidenced by a small number of cop cars parked in front of the building.

Exiting the car, while Joe started walking briskly to the building, he noticed after a few steps that Michael was not beside him.  Turning around, he saw that his partner was still inside the car looking intently into the side mirror and messing with his hair, "Michael," Joe called out, greatly annoyed.

"What?" Michael asked, combing the left side of his hair with his hands, "this things takes a lot of maintenance and someone rushed me, so I forgot to bring my comb."

"It's just hair, Korss," Joe said.  He, for the most part tried to refer to his partners by last name only when greatly annoyed.  And with Michael, that happened more often than not.  "And we're on a case, nobody's going to notice."

"Says the man who spends an hour a day ironing all his ties until they're almost burnt." Michael countered.  He continued to fuss with his hair even as Joe stomped the ball of his foot on the ground rapidly and make a show of checking his watch.  The man was usually the more calm and reserved of the two, but when things messed with his schedules, he had a habit of letting his annoyance show through rather easily.  Finally, after another agonizing half a minute, Michael smiled and got out of the car.  With a groan of relief and annoyance coupled with a roll of his eyes, Joe turned around and walked more briskly to the school.

Once inside, it didn't take long to find the classroom they were looking for.  All they had to do was follow the crowd of students gathered outside one particular door, guarded by a lone and rather nervous looking officer who was doing his best to keep the crowd out and the maniacal students inside.

"Secret Service," Michael said while holding up his badge, "make a hole!" The gathering of students and faculty members quickly opened up a pathway for him straight to the door. He reached the officer, who sighed deeply in relief.

"Finally, some backup," the man sighed, "it's a madhouse in there, they've been tearing the room apart."

"Do you know where the teacher of this class is?" Michael asked. "Are they alright?"

"I'm the professor!" A man's voice with a distinct Texan accent caught Michael's attention from the beck of the crowd. Slightly startled, half expecting the article to be true in its report, he turned around and watched a man with slightly unkempt, dark hair stretch his arms out in front of him to get people out of his way and cut through the crowd. "I'm their religion professor, they were gonna kill me!" He said with a slight pant when he finally reached the agent.

Oto and Michael regarded each other for a few moments. Oto's face was slightly red, but that was probably from having to force his way through a crowd, Michael reasoned. He was about to say something when Joe nudged his side with his elbow and tilted his head toward the officer. The two turned around each other's backs and switched places.

Joe reached into his coat and pulled out a notepad and a pen unceremoniously, flipped it open, and posed his pen above the page. "Tell me exactly what happened before your students began to act strangely." He said flatly, leaving no illusion that he was trying to be polite, in a deep voice that clashed with his rather benevolent surname.

"Uh, oh, it was a project on religion - Christianity," Oto began. "I had my students come up and do a little talkin' 'bout it, I've done it before." He run his hands nervously and hunched his shoulders. "I've never upset my students before, I ain't sure what the hell happened."

"Did anything of note happen before? Was there an object that may have been involved?" Joe continued, disregarding Oto's anxiety while he continued to write notes.

Oto snapped his fingers. "Oh, oh yeah, I had 'em all bring in somethin' t'do with the religion! Austin, he presented first, right before they went crazy. He brought a Bible he had just bought and read a verse from Corinthians."

Sweetwood nudged his partner again with his elbow, not bothering to look away from his notes while he jotted more down for the case report he would be filling out later. "It's a Bible." He tapped his pen on his pad once he was finished and stuffed his supplies back into his coat before turning around to face Michael. "How do we do this?"

Michael stood with his hands on his hips, thinking for a few moments. "Hm... Officer," he said, turning and pointing to the man, "may we open the door a little? I wanna see what's going on in there."

"W-what? They could get out, what if-" The officer stammered in protest.

Sweetwood held up his hand to stop him. "Just open it a crack, we'll be fine." Obviously the man wasn't experienced with his role.

Reluctantly, the officer nodded and unlocked the door slowly. The agents nodded, and he opened the door for them just a crack. The pair bent over and peered through the sliver into the classroom. They couldn't see much inside, but they could catch small glimpses of students tearing posters off the wall that depicted a man kneeling in prayer, ripping apart rosaries, and tearing pages out of textbooks. The officer shut and quickly locked the door as the agents jumped back just as a textbook was thrown across the room and hit the door with a loud bang. They stepped back and leaned in to whisper to each other.

"So," Joe began, "we go in, Tesla them, grab the book and go? Blame the hysteria and knock out on The Usual?" 'The Usual' referring to what all the agents of the Warehouse almost always used to explain the unexplainable to bystanders and relatively unharmed victims of artifacts gone awry: gas leaks. They doubted someone could find a better cover up story.

Michael shook his head, sending it tumbling over his shoulders, which he quickly brushed aside. "Nuh-uh, I don't want to have to explain the sound of lightning in a classroom. Plus, if we can't zap them all, the others will see, and we'll have the rest of the mob to deal with."

Standing by, curious, Oto stood near the agents feigning nonchalance as he turned his head slightly to better hear what the two agents were saying, but between his distance to avoid being noticed and the talking of the surrounding crowd, he could only make out bits and pieces of their conversation.

"-go inside...the artifact...frenzy...no Tesla..."

The agents nodded to each other and stood back up, making Oto jump back in surprise. Thankfully, neither of the other two noticed. Michael went over to the guard again and convinced him to let him inside. Nervous as he was, he quickly opened the door again without argument and slammed it shut behind him while Sweetwood stood outside to wait.

Once inside, Michael watched as every face in the room slowly turned toward the intruder. Despite normally being one to feel comfortable in crowds, he instantly felt just a little nervous then. 'Mental note for later,' he thought, 'make a distinction between crowds and mobs.'

"Who are you?" a female student asked while in the middle of turning a few pages of the Old Testament into new confetti, nodding her head at him.

"'S'he a faithful?" another student asked more accusingly, squinting their eyes as if they could visibly see whether he was religious or not, and pointing at him. "He looks like he could be..."

Michael held up his hands defensively and cleared his throat before speaking calmly. "Nah, nah, not faithful to anyone or anything. I'm an atheist."

After a short pause, all of the students sighed together in relief as if they had been holding their breaths, and resumed their wanton destruction.

"I'm just, ah, here to grab something and go. No big deal, right?" He asked, keeping his hands up and scanning the floor. He quickly found a rather surprisingly untouched Bible that lay face-down on the floor, completely ignored by the students. He began to slowly step towards it while trying not to rouse too much more attention. "Why're you guys destroying this stuff anyway?"

"'Cuz it's religious propaganda." another female student told him matter-of-factly, turning to him while she busied herself, using a staple tear out the bindings of multiple books. "Why wouldn't we?"

"It's someone's personal property you know," Michael pointed out, trying both to distract them and maybe talk some sense into the vandals. "And that's kinda sorta illegal."

"These beliefs destroy lives, man." A male student with short cropped hair walked up to him, frowning. Based on the profiles of some of the students Michael had received on route to the school, this must have been Austin. "People all over the world fight stupid wars over old dusty books that dictate their entire lives and ruin their happiness. People everywhere are attacked almost constantly over it! We're doing this world a favor. Why would you even ask that?"

Michael twiddled his fingers and shrugged. "Well," he began, "I just think that, maybe, let people believe what they believe? I mean, I don't agree with all of it, don't get me wrong, but I've got no real beef with people who have a belief system."

As he spoke the rest of the students once again slowly turned their heads toward him, each and every student glaring daggers at him. Michael could practically feel the tension return to the room and knew immediately after he had spoken that he had said the wrong thing, and took a step back, toward the Bible.

"Yer a damn sympathizer, aren't you?" One student asked menacingly.

"You ain't no atheist," Austin said through gritted teeth and clenched fists, "yer a nasty traitor!" he shouted, rallying the rest of the students against him. At once they began to hurl volleys of their religious detritus and classroom equipment at him. Several small, but nonetheless painful items managed to make contact with his head.

He shouted and covered his head with his arm, then turned to run to the book. As he did, though, his foot landed on discarded rosary beads and was swept out from under him. He fell forward and landed hard on his hands and knees on the tile floor. He reached out to the book that was only an arm length's away before his ankle was grabbed and harshly yanked back.

The students began wailing on him with slaps, scratches, punches and kicks. He tried to fend them off, but was quickly finding himself very overwhelmed. He was about to call in Sweetwood for help when he felt someone grab a fistful of his hair and pull. Hard.

Almost instantly Michael kicked his legs up high and struck two students in the backs, then moved his legs between them and pushed them away. He grabbed the arms of two students punching him and pulled them together, knocking their foreheads together and crumpling them to the floor in a daze. Now with some leverage and room, he got up and stuck his foot out to trip a student running at him, sending him onto and over the teacher's desk where they landed on Oto's chair, also dazed.

Austin shouted and charged at the agent, arms flailing. Lucky for Michael, the kid may have been fit, but he sucked at actually fighting. He easily overpowered him with a light knee to the gut and a push onto the floor, where he put his foot on his chest to keep him from moving anymore. He didn't want to seriously hurt anyone after all.

But nobody messed with his hair.

The agent bent over and snatched the book off the ground and tried to grab his static bag from his coat pocket. Around him, the students were beginning to regain their composure with a shake of their heads. Just as a few charged him in unison, he finally pulled out the bag and stuffed the Bible inside of it in one quick flourish. A rush of purple and orange sparks flew out of the top of the bag, Michael just barely quick enough to close his eyes and turn away to avoid being blinded.

As the reaction died down to a fizzle, the classroom around him froze and blinked, the dark green light fading quickly from their eyes. Beneath him, Austin groaned and held his chest with a wince as Michael lifted his foot.

"Hey... what the hell just happened?" Austin asked.

"Uh..." Michael thought quickly as he swiftly hid the bag behind his back. "gas leak, yeah. Not enough of the good ol' O2 and too much of the... trinitroleurothane... oxibromous..." he pointed his finger at his temple and twirled it, "Makes you loco, y'know?"

He opened the door, narrowly missing Oto, had managed to get next to the hinged side of the door, and turned to Joe. "Got it." He felt a poke on his back and turned around to see the professor.

"Uh, hey, mister?" Oto asked. "Uh, are ya okay? It sounded, and looks, like ya got banged up pretty bad."

Michael chuckled and rubbed the spot on his head where his hair had been pulled. "Nothing I'm not used to, don't worry. Oto, right?" Oto nodded. "I'd recommend waiting until your classroom is refurbished before coming back, just a word of advice."

Behind him, Joe nudged his partner for the third time and gestured with his head not-so-discreetly back to the parking lot. "No time for chatting with the civilians, c'mon."

"You could really stand to get that big stick out of your muddy ass, you know." Michael muttered, annoyed.

"Malaphor aside," Joe said with a roll of his eyes, "there's no time."

The blond rolled his eyes and waved Oto goodbye. The professor returned the gesture with a reserved wave and small smirk.

As they walked through the parking lot back to their car, Michael pulled the Bible out of the bag and opened it up to its front cover. "'Property of MM O'Hair,'" he read a handwritten signature aloud. "Madalyn Murray O'Hair, figures. Must've been a Bible she read when she was younger," he said as he flipped through the pages to read some of the annotations. "All these notes talk about how awful the book is. She highlighted the verses that riled her up the most."

Sweetwood harrumphed in acknowledgement. They got into the car and buckled up, then started the engine.

"Isn't it weird?" Korss asked as he settled into the passenger seat. "The students all went crazy because they heard a verse read out loud. Everyone in the classroom heard it. But only that Oto guy wasn't affected."

Joe started to pull out of their parking spot, his expression level and eyes intent on the road. "He could have been protected by circumstance. Strong religious convictions, perhaps. He was wearing a cross necklace."

"Some of the other kids were too, before they tore them off and stomped on them." Michael tucked the Bible back into its bag, this time giving off little more than a tiny spark, and sat back as they headed down the road. "I think I'll tell Mrs. Frederic about him."

"I doubt he's got immunity, people like that are exceedingly rare, just about as rare as those who can sense artifacts themselves. Besides, it's been years since H.A.R.P. got a replacement for Gus." Joe said. "If it turns out you're wrong, she'll be annoyed. Have you ever seen Mrs. Frederic annoyed?"

Michael shook his head. "No. And it'll stay that way. I'm sure I'm not wrong."

Chapter 4 - Stephanotis Edit

That night Oto returned to his apartment after spending the entire rest of the day sorting the incident out with the police and then looking around town to shop for replacements to the stuff his class had destroyed. He had spent quite a lot of money at the beginning of the year getting all of those posters, figures, and books, some of which were either somewhat rare or had even come directly from his own home. He wasn't sure he could afford to replace them this time.

He, of course, had been the first one interviewed. Since the students could barely remember a thing and those agents had flown the coop, they naturally suspected that he either saw what happened or, more appalling, was actually behind the incident. He denied it, of course, and they found no evidence against him, and let him go. But the process of questioning, both as a potential witness and later suspect, drained him of energy and left him a nearly emotionally blank husk for most of the day.

As he put his keys on the wall-hung key holder with his mail in a little slot above them, he recalled what happened after the police were done investigating. He had gone to the Chemistry professor, Professor Oswin, and asked her if she had ever heard of... Trinitroleurothane Oxibromous - she hadn't. Those elements probably couldn't even combine that way. Meaning that whatever excuse that those Secret Service guys had given was complete and utter bull.

Just what the hell happened to his students?

He shut the door behind him with his foot and set his binder on the door side table, exhausted, and trudged his way to the living room with his head pointing down, unable to muster the energy to lift it. With a groan he fell on his side onto the couch, settled himself on the cushions for a moment, and sighed, enjoying the peaceful silence he had finally achieved.

"Professor Barry."

Oto's upper body shot up at the sound of a woman's voice and fell off the couch with a yelp. Groaning again and rubbing his elbow, he looked up. Standing in the middle of his living room was a slightly above middle aged woman, dressed in old tweed suit and a beehive hairdo, standing next to a much taller, much burlier man in a black suit of his own.

"W-what the hell?!" He shouted, backing up against the bottom of the couch.

"Please do not be alarmed, Professor Barry," the woman said calmly, her hands clasped together in front of her around the handle of a semi-fancy purse, "we are not here to harm you. We are here to offer you something I believe you have been looking for for quite some time."

His heart still beating a mile a minute, Oto slowly stood up, only slightly less freaked out now. Either the stress was finally getting to him and he snapped, or there were actually people inside his home. If the latter were the truth, why did they act so calmly about breaking and entering? Why did they break and enter? Why did he have a habit of asking himself questions he couldn't answer? "And... what is that, exactly?"

The woman smiled and extended her hand, as if she had pulled something from her purse without him noticing, holding out an envelope with a wax seal on the front. "A new, better life. I heard that you may have a special attribute that is quite useful in our line of work."

"What work?" He asked, slowly reaching out to take the envelope and holding it gingerly between his fingers as if it could explode, or was irradiated. The woman seemed not to care, and her apparent bodyguard stood loyally with barely any hint of emotion except the slightest hint of an amused smirk on his mouth, as if he had seen Oto's reaction before and found it internally hilarious. He kept his large hands at his sides though and stared ahead.

"We are with the government. In a way. A plane ticket to South Dakota, along with a map, have already been purchased and placed on your nightstand. Your flight will leave at noon sharp tomorrow."

"Hold up hold up hold up." Oto held up his hands and moved them to halt the conversation before it fell even farther off the rails. "What makes ya people all so sure I'd just up n' leave fer some job I don't even know about in a state I've never even been to on the orders of two random strangers who just broke into my home, when I've got a job and a life here?"

"We certainly cannot force you to accept, Professor," the woman said, "nor will we. You are perfectly free to refrain from boarding the plane, forget that this entire incident ever occurred, and continue your life as a college religious professor." She paused to let her message sink in, then continued. "Or, you could come to South Dakota tomorrow to a job that pays much better. To a job worth so much more. To a whole new world. A world, I will never tire of saying, of endless wonder. The choice is yours, Professor Barry."

Oto was silent for a moment, then began to open the envelope without taking his eyes off of the woman or her associate. The tall man looked down quizzically at her, and she raised her brow at Oto's stare.

"What?" Oto asked.

"Usually people tend to look away, and at an envelope when they open it," she said slowly, as if she were not used to such a response from people she met. "If you would please turn around for a moment. I find it rude to leave while people watch."

"Fergive me if I'm a bit cautious to turn my back to a strange lady and her giant bodyg-" he happened to glance at the bodyguard in question, paused, shut his mouth, and promptly turned around smoothly on his heel, facing the way behind his couch. After several moments of hearing nothing else, not even so much as a footstep or moving fabric, he turned back around, but found nobody there anymore. If it weren't for the envelope he could still feel in his grasp, he definitely would have thought he had finally snapped from stress, and would wonder how long until he started coming to work naked.

Not for the first time that day, he wondered to himself what the hell just happened. He looked down at the back of the envelope in his hands, reading the name of the sender written in fancy script, as if with a fountain pen.

Mrs. Irene Frederic.

---Warehouse 13, Charlie's Office---

"I'm not sure how I feel about this," Oto said nervously, being handed a Farnsworth and Tesla for the first time. "This all seems a bit... much. I'm still relatively new here, and yer already sending me out?"

Charlie Martin, ever the smoker, took a drag from his cigarette and sighed, rubbing his balding forehead. "Look, Barry, I've got a few months until I retire from the Warehouse and I've got a lotta stuff to take care of today. I can't keep arguing with you an' explaining everything about this place." A puff of smoke emerged from his mouth as he spoke to Oto, making the new recruit cough and wave his hand in front of his face when it hit him. "So, I decided what better way to get your feet wet than to have you go on a case with someone who knows how to do their job well?"

Oto raised an eyebrow. "Fergive me, Mr. Martin, but I'm not sure I'm quite ready, I've barely made a dent in the manual and-"

"And you likely never will," finished a man's voice behind him. "That manual's been around since the early Warehouses, nobody's been able to finish it during Warehouse 13's reign except maybe Mrs. F herself, and even I have my doubts."

The two other men turned around from the desk in the middle of the front office and saw a man with long blond hair that looked both disheveled yet handsomely stylish. Dressed in a simple white button-up shirt with rolled up sleeves and dark slacks, he smiled. Oto recognized that smile. "Ah," Charlie said, "Michael, perfect timin'. This is our new recruit, Oto. He joined us a few days ago and hasn't been on a case yet. Thanks for bitin' the bullet on this one."

Michael nodded and stepped forward, offering his hand to the new recruit. "Pleasure to meet you, sir. Or should I say, we meet again, Professor Barry. I'm Michael, as you already knew, but my friends call me Mike. Unless we're dating, then it's Mikey. Hopefully we'll be good buddies while we're working together."

Nervously, Oto took his hand and gave it a firm shake, evident of a polite man who knew his way around a polite interaction. He felt his face warm up a little when he grabbed Oto's hand firmly, but chalked it up to the warmth of the office and his choice to wear dress shirts instead of something thin and casual. "Pleasure's all mine, Michael. Or should I say mysterious Secret Service man who saved my classroom. Uh, what I wanna know is, if we're just collectin' stuff, why do we have to use-"

"No time, no time!" Charlie exclaimed, standing up and pushing manila folders into the men's hands, "We've got a report in Kansas, something about people in a restaurant losing weight and random junk being eaten instead of food. Now shoo, shoo, I'm busy!"

Quickly, Oto and Michael made their way out of the main office via the Umbilicus. Oto opened his envelope with great curiosity, while Michael opened it like it was a routine thing. Oto couldn't understand how something so fascinating and interesting wasn't as exciting to the other man as it was to him. "What could be making people eat plates and not get hurt?"

"And cause them to starve no matter how much they eat?" Michael added. "You were asking me a question earlier, what was it?" he asked, tucking the incident report underneath his arm as they exited the large complex and made their way to an old Chrysler car.

Lagging behind as he read and walked, Oto looked up and hurriedly rushed to the passenger side of the car, still trying to read as he buckled up. "Oh, yeah. If we're just collecting objects, why do we have these?" He pulled out the Tesla Martin had given him, looking at it in confusion and trepidation.

Michael shrugged, "Sometimes people get in the way of our job. Dangerous people, people who use artifacts to do bad things. In addition to collection, we have to work on preventing disasters. Keeping people safe from other people who'd cause harm."

"But aren't there other ways to do that? Using weapons like guns, or... electric blasters, seems a bit excessive, doesn't it?"

With a sigh, Korss started the car and drove away from the Warehouse on their way to the airport to catch their flight. "Sometimes there are more dangerous weapons than guns and artifacts, Oto. People can be the worst weapons of all."

"That's a bit pessimistic," Oto said. "That doesn't strike me as you. Where's the happy-go-lucky hippy-haired stranger I met a few days ago?"

Michael chuckled. "Ah, no no, I was just quoting Sweetwood. You know, the guy with the deep voice that makes you want to simultaneously pull the stick out of his ass or shove it in even father? You met him at the college too, he was my partner." Oto nodded in understanding, remembering the other agents and how awkward their interactions had been. "Unrelated, but I thought I'd get it out of the way, I knew you had something in you ever since the college. You're welcome for the job recommendation by the way, I've never seen Mrs. F. so excited to recruit someone when I told her you had immunity."

"She was excited?" Oto asked, unable to picture the calm and reserved woman being excited about anything no matter how warm her smile in his apartment the other day had been. Actually, just trying to made hi a little uncomfortable, and he promptly stopped.

"She cleared her throat." Michael said. "Believe me, that's excited."

Chapter 5 - Lucerne Edit

Oto and Michael stood outside the doors to the church, breathing into their hands to keep warm in the cold winter night. It was quiet, as all patrons had gone home for the day, and the two had the place to themselves. "Breaking and entering a church at midnight," Michael mused, "guess I can cross this off my bucket list."

Oto shrugged as he tried to pick the lock on the large wooden slabs blocking their passage. "Ya don't seem to bothered by it. This seems a little... disrespectful to God, y'know? This is a church, on Sunday, fer crying out loud. There," he said finally as the locks made a click and he pushed the door open.

Michael got up from where he was leaning on the walls and followed the other man inside. Once in, they closed the doors behind them, and immediately felt much warmer, feeling comfortable enough to remove their bulky winter clothing. Korss ran his hands over the polished wooden pews, seeing hymnal books tucked into little compartments on the back of the seats in front of each one. The church was modestly large, with a high enough ceiling to make him dizzy if he looked up. The chandelier was out, decorated with glass crystal decorations on small chains, idly dangling from ambient moving air.

Oto headed up towards the altar and paused, gazed up at the top where a large Crucifix was hung, then bent to his knees and clasped his hands together in prayer.

"Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart.
Give me true faith, certain hope
and perfect charity, sense and
knowledge that I may carry out
Your Holy and true command.

Amen." He finished, reciting under his breath, but in the quiet of the church Michael could hear him clearly.

"What was that?" he asked. "Sounds like you knew it by heart."

Standing up, he raised his eyebrow at Michael. "That was the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, to discern God's will. We're collectin' the original San Damiano Crucifix, I thought it was appropriate. Aren't ya gonna pray too, to make up fer, y'know, breakin' into a holy place?"

Agent Korss shook his head, "Nah, sorry. I'm an atheist, praying isn't my thing. My parents only took me church a couple of times as a kid," he explained, looking up at the artifact they were to collect. "I never really put much stock into it. Plus I'm not a fan of guys in the sky who call flooding a whole planet and drowning all life except what's on a big boat a 'good' punishment."

Barry sighed, "You do you, Michael..." he looked up at the Crucifix himself, and felt a twinge of anxiety hit him. "Ya know, my father was a priest fer our local church. He raised me to be his replacement once he aged out of the position. He always talked about how after he died, they'd need to take his body from the altar steps since he always believed that's where he'd spend his final moments."

"Sounds like an interesting guy," Michael smiled, "is he still preaching?"

His partner looked down and sat at the front pew. "N-no, actually, he... died when I was 13. House fire that got my mother and sisters too."

Korss gave a look of concern and sat next to him, gently putting a hand on his shoulder. "Oh, Oto, I'm so-"

"Don't be," he said quickly, "I didn't like him a lot." He clenched his fists, "Actually, I hated the old bastard. Jesus always said to turn the other cheek, but father hit both with the same amount of force."

"What do you mean?"

Oto sighed and buried his head in his hands, tired. "Let's just say my old man was very old fashioned. When we did good by him, he'd take us out fer ice cream. But if we did something wrong... my father kept a collection of belts in his closet. Leather ones, studded ones, some with metal and some with big buckles." He shifted in his seat as if he were uncomfortable sitting down, "An' if those didn't make us cry he'd take a big stick and hit us on the hands and knees. Once, when my sister couldn't cry anymore and he was still mad, he made her sleep outside with nothin' but an old ratty towel that she had to choose whether to use it as a mattress fer the muddy ground, or a blanket from the cold."

The newer agent squirmed more, uncomfortable and starting to sob a little. "My mother didn't do anything, she just stood there and watched. She'd hand him his belts and sticks, fetch the towel from the closet... my sisters and I didn't deserve any of it. But when that house fire happened, I thanked God. Is-isn't that messed up?! I thanked him for killin' my parents, and takin' my sisters out of that Hell on Earth!"

Michael got closer to him and reached a hand behind him, pulling him closer and rubbing his shoulder. "Oto, damn, I'm so sorry... look, I might be the least qualified person to say this, but if they believed in God, they must be in a better place now. And your parents are getting the punishment they deserve, right?"

The other man pulled himself together and rubbed his eyes. "Yeah. God, I'm sorry Michael, I, I shouldn't have told ya all that. It's so personal and I must sound like a pity case."

"Not at all, Oto!" Michael said, "Telling me means you aren't afraid to confront what happened. It was okay for you to feel that way from where I'm standing. And this means you put a lot of trust into a guy you've only been working with for a few months. Thank you."

Oto smiled and stood up, "Thanks fer listening and not judging', I guess. Now, uh, let's get this Crucifix and get out before we're struck by lightnin' or somethin'."

The two shared a chuckle before the walked up to the altar and grabbed hold of the large and ornate wooden iconographic cross. Taking it off the wall, their knees buckle under the sudden unexpected weight as it falls into their hands.

"You got it, Michael?" Oto asked, grunting as he lifts the upper end of the cross.

Korss nodded, and took the artifact in his arms as well, and the two started their way out of the building to put the artifact in their truck and bring out the replica they had. "Yeah, got it! And call me Mike." he winked, making Oto beam.

Maybe he'd stick around for a little while longer.

------

"P-l-a-t-I-t-u-d-I-n-o-u-s, platitudinous." A girl spoke into the microphone on a stage in front of a small table of judges and an entire auditorium filled with parents and students alike. It was nearing the final round of the elementary school's annual spelling bee, and only the girl and two other boys were left.

"You sure she's got the artifact?" Charlie asked through the Farnsworth, sitting in the Warehouse office and chewing on a cigar. "We don't wanna seem like we're targeting a little girl."

Michael turned the vaudio device around in his hands to focus the screen on the girl across the packed auditorium, where she had a flower tucked into her hair bun. "Looks like a gladiolus to me, and you said we were missing at least one flower from Frank Neuhauser's Bouquet."

Charlie nodded and leaned back in his chair, puffing out a cloud of smoke. "Good, we've been tracking that last flower for a few decades now. I'll let Mrs. F know we've got the full bouquet, she recently bought a few vases to brighten some of the flower artifacts up. I swear, it's like she's got future vision sometimes." With that, he closed his Farnsworth and left Michael and Oto to their mission.

"R-o-t-I-s-s-e-r-...y, rotisserie."

"I'm sorry, but that is incorrect. Thank you for making it this far." One of the judges gave a boy a sympathetic smile as he dejectedly walked off the stage to sit with his parents, looking down at the number card on his chest. That only left the girl and one other boy before a winner was declared, and with the former using an artifact, it was pretty obvious who the winner would end up being.

"Should we stop her and get the flower now?" Michael asked his partner. "We could make a distraction, shoot the sprinklers with our Teslas?"

Oto shook his head, "No, that'd be too harsh. If this girl is this far in the competition and loses, she might be heartbroken. Especially if the downside of the artifact is in play. She'd be extremely pressured to succeed..."

'Why can't you just make a good damn grade for once in your life?! I made you study for hour on end-'

'Please, Dad, I'm sorry, I tried-'

'I made you stop talking to friends so you'd have more time for homework-'

'It's just a few points away from-'

'And this is how you repay me, for all I've done for you? Get over here! Janine, get my new belt, the one with the big buckle!'

'No, please, Dad, I tri-'

"And I know how that feels." Oto sighed and leaned against a nearby column, watching as the remaining boy sat down after getting his word wrong. If the girl spelled this final word correctly, she'd win.

"Alright Sam, your final word is 'ascetic'."

"Ascetic," Sam repeated aloud, thinking to herself as she brushed her hand through her hair and touched one of the petals on the flower. "A-s-c... a-s-c-e-t-I-c, ascetic."

Oto smiled to himself happily as he watched the girl's face light up when she was told she was correct, and that she had won the spelling bee. She jumped up and down excitedly, and started crying happily. Two women rose from the crows and gave their own standing ovation, and Oto smiled just a little wider before shaking his head and looking back to Michael, who raised his eyebrow.

"Well," he said, crossing his arms and looking at Sam as she was handed a certificate and trophy, "how do we get the flower?"

"Follow my lead." The junior agent led Michael to the girl and her apparent guardians. Flashing his badge, he knelt down to shake her hand. "Hi there," he introduced myself, "I'm Mr. Barry, and this is my partner Mr. Korss. We saw you win, and I was wonderin' if we could ask ya a few questions fer the newspaper?"

The young girl nodded excitedly and hugged the two women, who then exchanged handshakes with Michael a few feet away.

"You did a really good job up there Sam, you must have studied hard."

Sam shook her head, "Not really, I don't study much." She smiled and tucked her hands in the pockets of her skirt. "Mommy says I'm precocious. P-r-e-c-o-c-I-o-u-s."

He nodded, "Oh really? Ya don't study? That's interestin'. Oh, I couldn't help but notice that pretty flower in yer hair, what kind is it?"

The little girl plucked the flower from her head and twirled it in her fingers, brushing the petals delicately with her fingers. "It's a gladiolus. Gladioli is plural. They're kinda big for my hair, but they're really pretty."

"Can I see?" Oto held out his hand for the flower, which Sam gingerly placed in his palm sideways. He held it up in his fingers and tried to think of a hard word to spell... but no matter what, he still couldn't spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. "Huh. Hey, Mike," he called over his partner to look at the plant in his hands. "I'm not really feelin' anythin'. Ain't that strange?"

"Say Sam," Michael said, looking down at the girl and messing up her hair, "where'd you get that flower anyway? Did one of your mommies get it for you as a gift?"

She shook her head, "Nope! Mommy got us a house with a big yard, and Mom likes to garden a bunch. Gladioli are her favorite, and they're my lucky flower, so she gave me one to wear straight from the garden!"

The two agents exchanged surprised looks, before Oto handed the harmless flower back to Sam and stood up. "Well, it looks really pretty in your hair. You keep on spelling to your heart's content, alright?"

Sam plucked the flower from his hand and quickly hugged him around the waist, making him smile warmly and look at Michael, mouthing and pointing at her. 'Look! She's hugging me!' Mike gave him two thumbs up and looked fondly at the little girl himself, sighing.

Later, as the two drove back to the airport to catch their flight back to the Warehouse, they spoke.

"That's a coincidence I never thought I'd see. It's almost too good to be true," Mike said from the driver's seat. "What are the chances a girl in a spelling bee wears gladioli, and we're just missing one gladiolus from an artifact bouquet?"

Oto shook his head and shrugged. "He works in mysterious ways, y'know. I'm just as surprised.... Hey, did ya notice that girl had.. um..."

"Two mothers?" Mike supplied. "Yeah, I noticed."

"How does-"

'I asked, they adopted her at three months old. They had been trying to have kids from donors for a while, but it turns out they're both infertile, so they settled for adopting her." Mike smiled as he turned a corner and entered the lot to the airport. "I wouldn't mind adopting a kid if I couldn't have any of my own."

"Really?" Oto asked, somewhat surprised. His father had always stressed that same-sex couples should never adopt, or else they'd "corrupt the children" to their agenda, and Oto couldn't have helped but to internalize that. It was just... weird, seeing those women. But was it really a bad thing? After all, this was his father, the one who said nearly everything was wrong with the world today. Besides...

"C'mon Otter," Mike said, using a nickname he had just now came up with. "We don't want to miss our flight, do we? Charlie's too close to retirement for us to give him a heart attack if the Warehouse has to pay for two more tickets."

------

Oto and Mike sat together in the B&B's backdoor patio at 2 in the morning around a small table and sharing some bottles of beer. A radio in the middle of the table played the current hits, and when Best of My Love finished playing, Mike turned the volume down.

"Hey, Otter," Mike said, setting his dripping bottle on the table with a clink, "In a few hours, you'll be celebrating your first official year at the Warehouse. Everyone at the office plans on throwing you a special celebration. But you didn't hear it from me. You ever thought you'd get this far?"

Oto took a swig of his drink, watered down due to his low alcohol tolerance, and tapped his fingers thoughtfully against the glass. "Honestly? Not really. After that incident with the monkey, I kept expectin' every case to turn deadly, someway somehow."

The blonde man chuckled, "That monkey did get you good. You're lucky you didn't need surgery after she went ape. Pun intended." He polished off his bottle and pushed it across the table, leaving a trail of water droplets in its wake across the glass surface. "Say, where do you think you'll be in five years?"

His partner raised an eyebrow in surprise and confusion. "Five years? You think I'll survive this place fer five whole years?"

"Well, maybe not whole years. At least four and three months. It's almost impossible to get rounded dates, and it would suck for you to get killed on your five year anniversary."

Oto crossed his arms and leaned back, thinking. He took everything into consideration; his skill at the Warehouse, his ability to be protected from any artifact, the average danger level of cases...

"I don't know. I mean, it's kinda impossible to think that far ahead, isn't it?" He asked. Mike opened his mouth to object with a slew of precognitive artifacts, but Oto silenced him quickly. "I mean, normally. If ya asked me before I came to the Warehouse, I'd have said either buried in debt from my job as a professor, or buried in dirt from the stress from my job as a professor. Now though, I can't really tell."

"Me?" Mike said, closing his eyes and smiling. "I see myself still in Univille. After just one year with the Warehouse, I never wanna leave it. If it moves, I'll move with it. Univille is my new home. I've even got my eye on a few houses." He sighed happily and looked out the window, where the sky was thankfully free of obstructive weather, so as to see the half moon and stars. "I'll probably be an agent until the day I die. Hell, maybe that'll be because I'm an agent. Who knows?"

Oto looked down at the neck of his bottle and gripped it tightly in his hand. "I'd... rather you not."

Mike sat up and turned to his work partner. "Huh? What do you mean?"

The southern man sighed and ran his fingers through his hair before setting the bottle down and leaning his elbows on the table. "Mike, after my family died, I was put into foster care. Everyone knows the system sucks. And fer me it wasn't any different. I was shoved from family to family, orphanage to orphanage, where hardly anyone ever paid attention to me. Those that did either got adopted, or grew tired of me. And you, yer still my friend... my only friend, to be honest."

Oto sighed and covered his face with his hands, and Michael moved his seat closer and put his hand on the other man's shoulder. "A long long time ago, I came to term with death and everythin'. I was okay if I died, no matter what happened. But what I'm not okay with is someone else dyin', and leaving' me alone. Most of all you."

"Oto, man," Mike said, uncertain of what to do. "Hey, that's what comes with the job. We all signed up for this, remember?"

"That was before we were buddies."

Mike looked down for a moment, then pulled Oto up by the shoulders and held him there. "Hey, Otter," he said, making the other man chuckle uncontrollably through his watery eyes, "I promise I'll be more careful on missions from now on." He held out his fist and extended his pinky finger, smiling wide. "Pinky promise."

Oto chuckled again and hooked his own little finger around Mike's. "And I'll be more careful too. 'Sides, someone's gotta protect yer sorry ass out there, right?"

"Oto, with you and your immunity by my side all the time, nothing's gonna happen to me. I guarantee you."

Just then, the grandfather clock in the B&B chimed, echoing throughout the house its signal that it had reached 3 in the morning.

"Woah, is it that time already?" Oto asked incredulously as he looked at his wristwatch, "we better get to bed if we want to make the party tomorrow morning without collapsing." He and Mike stood up together, the latter patting the former on the back supportively.

The two agents walked up the stairs and walked separate ways to their respective bedrooms, but not before Oto held back in his doorway and called back to his partner.

"Hey, Mike?" He called, and the man's head popped out from his own doorway as he lifted his shirt above his head to get ready to sleep.

"Yeah Otter?"

"Are ya still gonna bring me a present at the party later?" He asked, smirking.

Mike laughed and winked at him. "Maybe I'll get you your own toothbrush so you don't have to keep asking to borrow mine."

------

Christmas time. Everyone at the Warehouse planned on meeting at the B&B for the wintertime festivities. Except for Oto. And everyone got everyone else a gift. Except for Oto. It's not that he didn't want to, per say, it's just that he didn't enjoy spending money. Plus, he barely paid attention enough to any of the other agents to know what they could possibly want as a present. Did Charlie want a Cuban cigar, or something rarer? Maybe he'd enjoy some new suspenders? Or a toupee? And what about Mrs. Frederic? Mrs. F never really was one to want presents, despite giving agents some pretty decent stuff, but nevertheless Warehouse staff always got her new things. A new purse, ring, skirt. Nobody knew enough about her to venture beyond what they knew she wore.

Oto sighed and knocked his head against the wall of his bedroom, frustrated. The holiday season was supposed to be fun, but it always brought about memories of his childhood. His father barely got them presents for Christmas, and instead had them shovel snow throughout the neighborhood or rehearse hymns door to door, without any sort of compensation or acknowledgement. He always envied the kids outside who got the newest toy, the newest clothes, the newest anything. The best present he ever got from his father? A first edition copy of the Old Testament. He tossed it out the window that night. Turning from the wall before he gave himself a concussion, he looked at himself in the large vanity mirror across the room and adjusted his green tie.

He had only gotten one present this year. Normally he wouldn't have spent so much, but this one was special. He left it downstairs in the patio area, hidden so nobody would see it by accident. He didn't dare keep it in his room, for fear he'd give it away too early. Oto's anxiety worsened, 'What if he didn't like it? What if the others get mad that I didn't get anything fer them? What if-'

He heard a knock on the doorframe to his bedroom, and turned to see Mike leaning against the wall, dressed n his best suit. Black dress pants, light red button up shirt, and a bright pink tie. Mike was ever one to shy away from what Oto's father would call "girl colors". His hair was just the right amount of handsomely disheveled, and fell over his shoulders. Oto secretly envied that hair when he looked at his own short dark hair in the mirror.

"Hey Otter, the party's started without you. You alright?" Mike stepped in the room and gave his partner a once-over before sitting himself down on the edge of the bed, rolling up his sleeves. "You didn't forget to get presents, did you?"

The other man looked away nervously. "Actually, yeah... I was gonna, but, I don't know... I'm frugal, okay?"

Mike chuckled and pat Oto on the back before standing up again. "That's alright. C'mon, let's go downstairs. The cookies are done."

Once the two got downstairs into the living room, the B&B's current owner, a kind old man with glasses too small for his eyes and a mustache too big for his lip named Mungo, passed around a still steaming plate of cookies of various kinds.

"Ah, Agent Korss, Agent Barry," Mrs. Frederic smiled and shook the hands of the two agents, "Merry Christmas to you both."

"And the same to you, Mrs. F," Mike said, smiling that large smile that always seemed to make things happier. Even now, if that were even possible. "Actually, I, er, we, wanted to give you a gift."

Oto raised his eyebrow, "We?"

Mike reached into his pocket and pulled out a necklace box and handed it to the Caretaker. Opening it, she found a shining necklace strung with natural pearls. "Oto thought you'd enjoy something a little nicer than those plastic pearls you used to wear."

Mrs. Frederic smiled and winked at him knowingly before putting the necklace around her neck. "You know I don't ask for anything, but thank you both very much. Especially you, Oto. Now," she clasped her hands together at her waist, "don't let me take you away from the festivities. Go and mingle." She walked off to talk to Charlie across the room, leaving the other agents alone.

...

A little later, Oto had Mike follow him to the patio. When they entered, they immediately started shivering. "Brr," Mike commented, rubbing his arms, "it's freezing in here."

"Oh, crap," Oto exclaimed in a worried tone, "the present!" He ran to a nearby standalone drawer with what seemed to be a box underneath a sheet near the window. Pulling the cover off quickly, he opened up the box and pulled out a bouquet of flowers wrapped in plastic... and covered in a rather thick layer of frost. "Oh no..." he looked dejected, and slumped his shoulders.

Mike raised his eyebrow and walked over to his partner. "What happened Oto?"

"These were... supposed to be fer you." He held out the bouquet of frozen-over flowers. "Gerbera daisies, the lady at the floristry shop in town said they were a good gift fer friends. Ya said you'd like to have a garden of yer own, I thought these could hold ya over fer a month or two. But now..." He sighed and sat down on a patio chair and rubbed his forehead. "Why does this always happen when I try to do somethin' nice?"

Mike gently took the bouquet from Oto's hands and looked them over, seeing various colors of petals peek through the ice. "It's a nice gesture, Otter," he smiled and knelt, putting his hand on Oto's shoulder to comfort him, "Thank you. I'll put them by my window, maybe they'll defrost. Who knows, maybe they aren't dead."

"And if they are?" Oto still looked a bit sad, and avoided looking at the flowers, or Mike in the eyes.

The other man smiled, pat his shoulder once more, and stood to hold out his hand. "I read a file in the office that said there were artifacts that worked on flowers. Maybe there's something that'll help these little guys."

Oto sighed and took his hand to pull himself up. "Ya know, ya didn't have to cover my ass with Mrs. F. I'd be fine with her secret disappointment for not gettin' her somethin'."

"You kidding?" Mike said incredulously, "No way I was gonna throw you under the bus like that. Besides, she probably already suspected, but we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth."

Mungo's warbling voice cried out from the living room. "Boys, the roast is done! I, eh, got some help. Don't tell Mrs. Frederic. Come on!"

Mike smirked at Oto, "Bet I can get the larger half of the wishbone than you, Otter!" With that, he ran off, and Oto immediately tailed after him as fast as he could.

"Not if I get there first ya hippie!"

Maybe Christmas wasn't going to be so bad anymore.

------

The dancers twirled and jumped, plie'd and cabrioled, arrebesquing slowly to the classical music that filled the large concert hall. Tutus and leotards and shoes tied with shiny ribbon were everywhere backstage, where Oto and Mike observed the numerous competitors. The two had come on a report that a pair of dancers were doing exceptionally well in a competition; too well, in fact. One of them had tossed the other in the air and caught them, despite neither of them weighing more than 150 pounds.

"It'd take hours to sort through all this stuff." Mike lamented, looking over to a nearby plastic bin full to the brim with even more clothes and props that spilled out over the side. They had so far been unable to find any object that sparked in their static bags, and that was just at the rehearsal studio, not the actual performance hall that the competition took place in.

"Yeah," Oto agreed, crossing his arm and huffing out a sigh, "And that ain't accountin' fer the stuff the guys onstage are wearin'. How're we gonna sort through this stuff before the concert ends and they pick the winner?" There were only a few short rounds left, and the agents were running out of time, and patience.

"Next up," the announcer boomed over the speakers as the previous performers bowed and exited the stage. "Zak Bennet and Cataleya Miller."

The agents and the audience all turned their attention to the stage as two new dancers emerged from behind the large velvet curtain. Zak was dressed in a modest foam-green leotard and Cataleya a matching short-skirted dress with tassels, holding a bouquet of pink and white roses among several other flowers, wrapped in white cloth. They bowed gracefully to the audience, then to each other with eager smiles. Zak grabbed the hand Cataleya was using to hold her bouquet and they began to dance as the music started with the steady vibrato of violins.

As the song went on and sped up, piano and celesta being added in quick chromatic bursts, so too did the duo, spinning and kicking and jumping in rapid succession. The audience was enraptured from the start by the impressive display. The two seemed to anticipate each other's every movements right down to the gestures of their hands.

Mike whistled lowly, clearly very impressed. "Check out those moves. I didn't know people could dance so well together."

"I don't think they can," Oto said, nudging his partner in the elbow and pointing at the pair. "Look at the bouquet."

He was right - as Zak and Cataleya danced, their bouquet glowed slightly with a soft pink light.

Mike smirked and punched Oto playfully in the shoulder, making the other man wince and giggle. "Nice catch Otter. Question is, how do we get it? Ask 'em for it? They aren't gonna give it up easily, I wager."

Before Oto could answer, the crowd erupted in applause. Looking back to the stage, Mike and Oto saw that Zak had Cataleya in a deep dip just as the music slowed to a stop, clutching the bouquet together in their hands. They stood, bowed again and waved to the audience, and walked happily off stage towards the agents.

"Excuse us." Oto said, holding up his hand to halt the still smiling dancing duo as they passed behind the side curtain and out of sight of the audience. "Our apologies, but my partner and I are gonna need that there bouquet if ya two don't mind." He held out his hand expectantly, but anticipated resistance.

Cataleya and Zak looked at each other for a moment, then handed over the artifact with matching beaming smiles. The agents regarded the artifact with very confused expressions, not expecting such a positive response.

"That's okay," Zak said, "we don't need it anymore anyways, right Cat?"

"We were just showing off, we're in this thing for the fun of it really." Cataleya happily agreed before embracing her dance partner in a tight hug. "I don't care whether we win or not, I'm just glad the two of us made the crowd happy. Did you hear how they clapped? Oh, it felt amazing!"

Zak and Cat hugged each other again and waved goodbye to the quite dumbfounded agents as they continued on their way backstage.

"Uh....." Mike said slowly, "is it just me, or did they give us the artifact? ...Willingly?"

"Eagerly even..." Oto said in the same surprised tone. "Side effect of the artifact?"

The two shared a shrug.

...

Later at the Warehouse, Oto and Mike were storing the bouquet in the Musical Aisle after having it identified as having belonged to Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. They placed the bundle of flowers gently on its side next to a pair of black-and-white tap shoes with Neutralizer-purple felt pads covering up the metal plates, and were now on their way back to the office to check with Charlie before going back to the B&B and calling it a night.

"Easiest snag ever?" Oto asked as they walked, pointing and smirking at his partner. They paused near the entrance, marked by a street sign bearing 'BROADWAY' in white letters on a vivid green plate. He turned around in a slow circle, admiring the collection of artifacts in the section he had rarely ever visited before.

"Easiest snag ever." Mike agreed. "Oh, wait, don't touch that!" He ran over and grabbed Oto's arm to pull it back just as it had been hovering over a button connected to a large marquee with steps in front of it that the other agent had paused to ponder over.

Oto took a step back warily, shaken by Mike's frantic efforts to stop him. "What? Why not? What's it do?"

Mike shook his head grimly and cringed. "This thing is... eugh, you don't wanna know. I've never seen it in action, thank God, but I read the collection report on a whim a few months ago. Let's just say the agents who collected it couldn't walk for... a while..." He chuckled nervously and lowered Oto's arms, and the two resumed their walk.

Halfway back to the office, Oto stopped again and held out his hand in front of Mike. He raised a hand to his ear and looked around curiously. "You hear that Mike?" He spun around as if trying to find the source of something but couldn't pinpoint it.

Mike looked around confused, and even cupped his hands around his ears, but he heard nothing, He shook his head and regarded Oto curiously. "No, I don't hear a thing, sorry. What's it sound like?"

"...Music." Oto answered after a pause. He suddenly grabbed his partner's hand and lifted his arm above his head to spin him around on the tp of his toes, catching him off guard. "Now I wanna dance!"

"Oto, man," Mike said, his voice a little wobbly from his unexpected spin as he tried not to fall over. He spread hi arms out and tried to steady himself, brushing his blond hair out of his face. "You been hit by an artifact or something?"

Oto shrugged and smiled. "Dunno, don't care. What's wrong with a little dancin' anyway?" He took Mike's wrist again and dipped him without warning, putting his free hand on the small of his partner's back. Mike spun his arms out like a windmill and made Oto lose his grip, releasing him and making him fall to the ground, at which Oto giggled.

Mike looked up at him in annoyance before he finally shook his head and conceded with a sigh and chuckle. "Nothing, I guess!" He extended his hand and the other man pulled him back up to his feet. Straightening his ruffled shirt and running a combing hand through his hair, Mike imagined a jazzy swing to groove to, and Oto joined in with his own semi-awkward but valiantly attempted moves, and they laughed as they danced without care.

Chapter 6 - Moss Edit

---Plano Texas; May 5, 1978---

Jaslene huffed as she carried the large box of items to the storage room in the teacher break room. It was bad enough that her Algebra professor had convincedstuck her with stocking duty all during lunch when she should have been, well, eating lunch, but now she was staying behind after school thanks to a surplus of donations for the school's biannual toy drive that had left the board scrambling to get the toys donated to families as fast as possible to clear up space in the already full break rooms. On top of that, she swore this box was 20-something pounds; it was a wonder her back hadn't yet broken.

She stomped over to a round table in the middle of the lounge room typically reserved for the teachers to trade student-related gossip over, and set the box on top with a grunt. She put her hand against her spine and pushed, straightening herself up while massaging the abused bones. Mark her words Mr. Jerry would be the one paying the bill if she needed a chiropractor. Resigning to conserve her anger until she met him again, she opened up the box to assess what she'd be organizing. The usual fair of plushies, tiny clothes, superhero toys and generic, boring plastic playthings. Seriously, did nobody have any more interesting toys like an Easy-Bake or Pong?

Jaslene took the objects out one by one and sorted them into categories she had devised in her head: age group, interest level, playability, material, and whether they were electronic or not. As she suspected, most of the box's items were Simons, Star Trek figures, or cars... she might keep that Etch-A-Sketch for herself. After some more digging she finally reached the bottom of the box. Having looked away as she stuck her hand in to see if Mr. Jerry was coming in soon or not, her hand touched something furry and plush.

"Hello..." She peered into the box and pulled out the object, and old and withered stuff teddy bear. "Oh, hey there little guy." She smiled and held the toy in her hands by the underarms, running her fingers through the mohair fur that covered its body. As old as it looked, at it looked pretty old, it was still surprisingly soft. "Well aren't you a cute little surprise?" It looked to be early 20th century, by her estimate. Steif maybe? It had a sizable hole on the outside of its right arm, but luckily its stuffing didn't seem to be leaking out. She turned the bear over to see if there was anything else interesting on it, and saw initials stitched into its bottom, likely because the feet weren't suitably flat: KHK. The owner? Whoever they belonged to certainly loved them, it looked like it had seen its fair share of bear hugs - no pun intended.

Checking to see if anyone was watching, she gave into the urge that had been steadily building ever since she picked the bear up to hug it, wrapping it in her arms and pressing it snugly against her chest. She felt much better, like she had lost stress she didn't know she had. She never knew teddy bears could be so soft! After a few more moments of hugging, she finally (and somewhat reluctantly) let go of the bear and decided to put it with the rest of the plush toys. Whatever kid got this would be very lucky indeed. Or she could keep it herself tomorrow morning before the boxes were sent away.

As she finished putting the rest of the toys away, she had a sudden and unprovoked mental flash of an old memory, one she thought she had put behind her years ago after all those therapy sessions - her mother, smoking one of those God awful cigarettes. Her heartbeat quickened and she felt a little sick to her stomach. 'No,' she told herself, 'she's gone, she is in prison, she can't hurt me anym-'

"Jazz."

A woman's voice, cold and disturbingly calm on the outside, but yet concealing disdain and disgust beneath its stony composure, echoed through Jaslene's ears before solidifying and sounding like it came from behind her. A familiar voice. A voice she should not have been hearing. She slowly turned her head, her boy soon following, until she saw her, Ada, standing there with a cigarette between her fingers with an end glowing brighter than it should have been able to, smoke pouring from her mouth heavily when she spoke her name again.

Jaslene backed away into the table behind her, covering her face with her hands, and screamed.

Chapter 7 - Mistletoe Edit

Oto sat on the couch in the B&B's living room upside down with his head hanging over the cushions and his feet over he back. He absently flipped through TV channel after TV channel. There hadn't been a case for a good week or so and Oto was starting to get antsy. Ironic considering half the time, when he reminded himself how dangerous and exhausting cases were, he preferred to stay home. But without actually having a case to work on, he had been cooped up in the B&B, and not even occasional trips through Univille managed to keep him engaged for more than a few hours. He was so bored, he considered going to the Warehouse and flicking a few artifacts to the ground just to have something to clean up. After some more channel surfing he finally came across an old episode of Julia Child's The French Chef, where she was apparently making a cheese soufflé. Interestingly enough, he had heard that Joe had collected the master baker's own apron on a solo snag a few months ago. Unfortunately, neither Julia's prowess nor Joe's case report were interesting enough to keep him entertained for more than a few seconds. He closed his eyes and began picking at the worn couch.

"Blah," he muttered flatly each time he tugged at a frayed thread, "blah, blah, blah..."

He started kicking his feet and thumping them against the back of his couch, jostling it and himself, as well as giving him the satisfaction of movement without getting up to somewhat alleviate his blank mind fog.

Mike walked down the stairs toweling his hair dry, having just emerged from the shower and dressed only in another slightly larger towel around his waist. Slinging the smaller and wet towel over his shoulders and running his hands through his hair, he made his way to the kitchen to get some breakfast. He paused, however, when he saw Oto.

"Otter"? Mike asked.

"Yeah?" Oto answered in a monotonous voice more fitting of Joe than for Mike's best friend.

"Are you watching Julia Child?"

"Yeah."

"But don't you hate cooking shows?"

"Yeah."

"...Are you alright?"

"No." Oto raised his hands and let his collected clump of couch thread fall to the floor. "Nothin' to eat, nothin' to watch, nowhere to go, nothin' to do."

"So you're watching a show you don't like about food you can't eat?" Mike asked in a confused voice.

Oto's growling stomach answered for him. "Yeah..." he sighed, holding his stomach in a futile effort to silence it. Unfortunately, it could not be muzzled by mortal hands, and growled again in protest of its emptiness.

"Just making sure." Mike shrugged and continued on his way to the kitchen to check the pantry. True to his partner's word, it was nearly empty save for some foodstuffs that, no matter how hungry they were, they would never resort to eating for breakfast. With a sigh Mike turned around and went back up to his bedroom, returning shortly after with something in his hand. Coming back to the living room, and still dressed in naught but a towel, he plopped down on the couch next to Oto, which inexplicably made the other man turn pink and roll off the couch in surprise with a yelp.

Mike leaned over and looked at him, eyebrows raised in slight concern as Oto hurriedly got back on the couch, grumbling nervously. "You okay Otter? Did you hit the coffee table?"

Oto raised a hand and smiled nonchalantly. "No, y-yeah, yeah, just lost my balance when ya sat down s'all." He looked around for the remote, thankful he found it on his end of the couch and that he didn't have to lean over Mike to get it. He began flipping through channels again, hoping to find something, anything, able to distract himself. He found, finally, a sitcom he could tolerate and settled into the couch for a few minutes to watch in silent peace.

"You wanna kiss?" Mike asked after a short while.

"W-what?!" Oto was once again caught completely off guard and jerked his neck to look at his partner, much to the pained chagrin of his neck, which made a rather unfortunate popping sound. He winced and rubbed his neck, but kept his focus trained on Mike.

Mike held out the item he had been holding towards Oto, which he had not noticed, and saw that it was filled with little chocolates. "Hershey's Kisses. Don't tell Mungo we're having them for breakfast though." He winked and put the bag in the other man's hand.

Oto, simultaneously both relieved and peeved at the same time, took a few Kisses from the bag and ate them, dumping the small foil wrappers into little clusters on the coffee table, creating makeshift silvery, chocolate-scented constellations on the dark mahogany, thankful he finally had something good to chew on. Did Mike have to be such a happy-go-lucky fool all the time? Seriously! Oto had trouble wearing anything less than full length jeans in public, but here Mike was. Right next to him. Barely covered. With his dumb wet blond hair over his dumb wet shoulders. And the dumb water that dripped down his dumb torso down to the towel.

So annoying.

Yeah, annoying. That was the word he'd use.

The two sat there munching on chocolate for several minutes until about a third of the bag was left. The sound of a car pulling up the driveway met their ears and they soon turned to see Mungo, the B&B's manager, walk through the door carrying several cloth bags of groceries in his arms, stacked as high as his head and above.

"Mungo, you geezer," Mike said playfully, "why are you carrying so much?" The pair of agents rose from the couch and went to help him, but underneath the mountain of produce, barely able to move, Mungo waved his hand.

"No, no, I've got it," he said when he reached the kitchen. He put everything in the counter with a grunt. "Sorry I'm late boys," he apologized, rubbing his hands. "I was supposed to be back before you got up so you'd have a full pantry to wake up to, but I'm afraid I was caught up in traffic. They really should give me flashing lights, I'm a Warehouse associate you know!"

"Traffic?" Mike asked.

"In Univille? Oto added.

Mungo shrugged and turned around to greet the men with his classic warm smile beneath his large mustache, and the complementary shining eyes behind glasses whose small lenses made them practically seem more like doll accessories than an actual prescription pair. "I hope you boys didn't starve while I was gone, I made sure to buy some extra to make up for-" he stopped and gasped when he saw the bag of chocolates in Oto's hand.

"Candy? For breakfast?!" Mungo snatched the bag from him and slapped them both on the wrist. "I can't believe you two! I go out and get you your muffins and eggs and syrup and you resort to chocolate. And not even chocolate milk!"

The two agents began to speak at the same time to apologize, but the old man raised his hand firmly to stop them. "I don't want to hear your excuses! Go upstairs and get dressed, Charlie called and told me you have a case in Texas. Shoo, shoo!" He waved his hands. The two agents turned and sulked up the stairs like scolded children, which to Mungo they practically were. Behind them, Mungo watched them leave his view, leaning over to make sure they had gone up the turn and weren't hanging back, before he turned around with a smile and took a few Kisses out of the bag, popping them into his mouth.

Chapter 8 - Viola Tricolor Edit

---Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital---

Oto and Mike watched through the window into the hospital room where Jaslene sat on her bed, crying to her therapist and a policeman next to her. They could hear her muffled sobs through the glass, and stood there until a doctor came up behind them.

"Here are the papers you asked for," the doctor said plainly as they handed Mike the folder.

"Thanks," Mike smiled, taking the folder and opening it up to look at a clipped together group of papers. On the pages was the filed medical report and other basic information. He handed the medical records over to Oto once he had finished reading them to go over. "How did you say she was found again?"

The doctor looked at Jaslene sadly and crossed their arms. "Unconscious in a teacher's lounge at the local high school, result of a physical assault, and covered with small circular burns similar to ones made by putting a cigarette out on her skin. One of the teachers who had stayed behind to pack their stuff found her after hearing her screaming."

Moments later the officer opened the door and asked the agents to come inside. With a nod, they entered quietly and looked to the teen on the bed. Jaslene had stopped crying and was now hugging her knees to her chest while the therapist gently rubbed her back in slow circles and speaking softly to her.

"Thank ya fer lettin' us speak t'ya," Oto said, "could ya fill us in on what happened?" He stood a few feet from the bed, hands behind his back and watched Jaslene with concern. He recognized that kind of crying. Desperate and pained. Different from simple physical pain, or even from losing someone you loved. This crying sounded like what he used to sound like, crying that he had all but memorized the sound of.

Jaslene nodded and rubbed her eyes, red and puffy from her crying, and cleared her throat. "M-my mother," she stammered, "s-she attacked me. She got out and attacked me."

The therapist spoke to clarify, sitting closer to Jaslene and holding her wrist gently. "History of abuse as a child." she clarified. "Beating and cigarette burning primarily, and second hand benign lung cancer from her mother's smoking addiction. She was arrested several years ago after being reported and Jaslene has been staying with her father ever since."

"She's supposed to be in prison!" Jaslene exclaimed in confusion and anger, tears welling up in her eyes once again. "The officer said she's been in prison for years ad hasn't gotten out since. But she came to my school and went after me again." She began to sob again and rubbed her burn-covered arms.

"It's okay Jazz-" Mike started, but she only wailed harder.

"The therapist did her best to try and calm her down, telling the officer to fetch more pillows nd some water. "Er, that was what her mother called her. She just prefers Jaslene."

Mike looked down and took a step back in shame, muttering an apology and fiddling his fingers together. Oto, though, nodded to the therapist in understanding. He took a step closer to the bed and knelt down until he was below her eye level and got her attention. "Hey, hey Jaslene," he said softly with a smile, "Don't ya worry none hun, we'll get to the bottom of this an' make sure she won't hurt ya ever again. I promise, okay?" He reached out to offer his hand, which Jaslene took with a deep breath and slow, calm exhale. Blinking tears from her eyes, she nodded her head and smiled. When the officer returned with the requested pillows and drink, Jaslene took one and hugged it in a relentless vice grip like a stuffed animal.

The agents then left the room and made their way to the car to check out the high school she was found at. Through the parking lot, Mike noticed that Oto's gait was much more deliberate, downright aggressive even. He had to walk faster to keep up with him until they reached that car. Walking to the opposite sides, Mike could see Oto's face, which bore an expression he had never before seen on his partner's face - unbridled rage.

"Hey," Mike began when they opened the car doors, "you, uh, you okay Otter?"

Oto got into the driver's seat and slammed the door closed, shaking the car, and quickly buckled up. Jamming the key into the ignition and starting up the car, he peeled out of the parking lot with a loud squeal of the tires and jerked forward, pushing him and his passenger against their seats, all while staring daggers at the road in front of him.

"No." He said sharply. "Y'know, it's one thing to hurt yer kid. You lose all respect as a human from me fer that. But t'use and artifact to get outta jail just to go after yer kid years later just to hurt 'em?" He shook his head and stomped his foot with a shout, thankfully missing any pedals. "Unthinkable. She's gonna wish she never even looked at her kid."

"You get kinda scary when you're angry," Mike said. "Not saying its unwanted, just that it... really doesn't suit you. It's like seeing a parent cry or something, you aren't supposed to, it's not supposed to happen."

"Sorry," Oto muttered, turning the car's AC on to cool and calm himself down. "But one way or another this artifact is goin' down. Mark. My. Words."

------

---Plano Senior High School---

The two pulled up to the high school within minutes, in parts thanks to Oto's rage-fueled driving, though they had to look around a bit across the expansive front lot to find the right entrance, after spending almost as much time finding a viable parking space. Of course they had to go to school, one a school day.

"Ah, high school." Mike took a deep breath through his nose when he emerged from the car as if savoring the smell - which to Oto, was merely the smell of fresh blacktop and exhaust mixed with only a hint of freshly mown grass. Not exactly something to savor, in his opinion. At least it didn't smell like fudge, though whether that meant the artifact was merely inactive or not there at all was cause for slight concern. "The unholy land of homework, hormones, and headaches."

"Tests, tears, and tissues." Oto chimed in with a smirk, happy he was contributing and being funny. He wasn't exactly the most comically-inclined, but at least he was better at it than Sweetwood. Except for that one time when they had all gone out to celebrate Oto's first successful solo snag, of course. Who knew a joke about a blow dryer and a tractor would be able to make Charlie snort water out his nose?

"Games, gays, and grades!" Mike said, beaming, and began walking up to the front of the school with a chuckle.

"Huh?" Oto asked quickly, caught off guard. He stayed behind at the car for a moment, watching Mike go ahead, before hurrying to catch up to him. "W-what was that last part?"

"Grades?" Mike asked.

"No, before that." Oto said.

"Games?"

Oto groaned nd put his hand on his forehead. "No, in the middle!"

"Ohhhh!" Mike said in clarity, then chuckled again. "Sorry, got caught up in the alliteration." He continued walking along as if nothing interesting whatsoever had just been said and entered the school. Oto had lagged behind again and looked at him in confusion as he followed behind.

They found the front office with relative ease given the size of the school, and asked the resident officer to allow them access to the security footage from the previous night.

"Aight," the officer said, pulling up the footage and getting up from his chair. "Whas'a Secret Service need from here though?"

"Uh..." Oto started, his mind drawing a blank on a good excuse. Usually agents are taught improvisation skills and learn to memorize a list of potential cover stories for times when they get questioned out on the field, but unfortunately Oto couldn't remember a single thing. "President Carter is crackin' down on..."

"Janitorial efficiency!" Mike finished for him. "Yeah, he thinks you can't have a school if it isn't clean. What's that saying Otter? Cleanliness is next to the classroom and all that?"

The officer shrugged and left the room to the duo. Mike stretched his arms and sat down to begin sorting through the security footage throughout the school, having forgotten to ask what room the girl had been found in.

"So, what d'ya think?" Oto asked, leaning on a nearby desk and watching Mike from behind. "Mother used some kind of teleportation artifact as a temporary Get Out of Jail Free card?"

"Maybe," Mike said, "Edward Page Mitchell's Glass Eye?" Oto shrugged. "Oh, here she is!" Oto rushed over to the monitor and watched intently with him, his hand firmly grasping his shoulder.

He pulled up the video feed from the back of the school, where he saw a girl walking down the hall. Leaning against the wall was another student wearing a hoodie. The girl stopped in front of the boy and looked both ways a couple of times before pulling what looked like money out of her pocket and handing it to the boy, who then handed her a small plastic bag.

"Never mind..." Mike said with a sigh, rolling his eyes and continuing his search. He figured the officer would have that little incident covered, assuming he hadn't already, and continued to look. Behind him, Oto seemed to realize where his hand was, looked down at it, and quickly drew it back and shoved it into his pocket, thankful Mike hadn't seen.

God, was he really that emotionally stunted? He supposed he was finally making up for lost time since he had never had a high school crush while he was still actually a high school student. At least those silly youthful crushes went away in relatively short time. Four months time, anyway. And he had been partners with Mike for how long now? Oto hadn't realized he had spaced out until he heard Mike calling his name again, which did a rather good job of getting his attention in an instant.

Mike had finally found the right footage, this time the camera was in the corner of a room with a few cupboards, a microwave, a large round table in the center, and a few boxes on the ground. The teacher's lounge. In a few seconds Jaslene entered and dropped a heavy looking box onto the table and proceeded, with her back turned to the lens so as to obscure what specific objects she was handling. For a few minutes she sorted various toys from the box into neat groups, and then she seemed to empty the box. She leaned over the table to put one last object down, but froze and slowly rose back up. When she turned around, another woman suddenly popped into the room in a small flash of light, smoke visibly wafting off of her very skin. Jaslene screamed and backed away, but the woman lunged at her and began to beat her with her fists, her nails, even a cigarette that seemed to glow unnaturally bright. They stopped the video after she had been knocked unconscious and after the woman popped out again in another flash of light moments before a teacher rushed into the room.

"Okay, did you see the smoke?" Oto asked. "That was coming off of her skin, not just her cigarette. Side effect of the artifact?"

"Or the artifact is the cigarette. Did you see that thing glowing?" Mike replied. "But whose cigarette would let someone teleport?"

Oto shook his finger up and down in thought. "Hey... what if the officer was right? And that mother never actually left the prison?"

"A duplication artifact you mean?" Mike asked, confused. "Plenty of those."

Oto shook his head. "No, no, what if it was never really her mother, but just an apparition of her? A physical hallucination or somethin'? That box she was fiddlin' with coulda had an artifact inside!"

"Well," Mike said, "only one way to be sure. We gotta find that box."

---

On their way down the hall to the teacher lounge, the bell rang for lunch. Instantly, their path was flooded by a deluge of starving students all headed in the opposite direction as them, severely slowing them down as they tried to avoid a collision.

"Oh, this reminds me of lunch time at the foster homes." Oto said with sarcastic fondness. "I used to live here with one family. Lunch time with the Lorenzos was always a traffic jam."

"Full house?" Mike asked as he pressed himself against a wall next to Oto to avoid being trampled underfoot or knocked over by someone's wayward overstuffed backpack.

Otonodded. "They meant well but spread 'emselves too thin. Only house I actually liked staying at, but..." he paused, "I left. So they could afford more food fer themselves."

"That was... nice of you. You didn't have to, but you did." He stepped to his left and avoid another student with a large backpack that looked like it could give someone a good concussion, but got knocked into Oto anyway. His elbow accidentally jabbed his partner in the ribs, causing him to grunt in pain.

Oto grabbed Mike by the arms to steady him. The pain in his side, well, aside, he was glad Mike had told him what he did was nice. Whenever he told anyone about stuff he'd done he was always afraid of sounding like a show-off and turned red with embarrassment before he could actually say anything, keeping it to himself in the end. He had surprised himself when he even mentioned the Lorenzos in the first place, he hardly mentioned his foster years to anyone at all. But it felt so easy to talk about himself around Mike. Maybe after this case was over...

He looked over at Mike's profile, his head having turned to the side to look for an opening in the hallway crowd, and felt a lump suddenly clog his throat.

No. He couldn't face the rejection, not from Mike. What if he thought he as weird and didn't talk to him anymore? Or if intra-agent relationships were prohibited? Plus, he couldn't help but actually regret how he felt. He was reminded of what his father once said about a couple who had moved across the street from them, Rosalind and Violet Davies. Monsters, he called them, a living crime. He had not-so-passive, aggressively run them out of town within five months. Even if he knew his father was wrong... Oto still felt some self-loathing that had been forcefully conditioned into him since childhood.

Before Oto could decide if he would ever tell him, Mike grabbed him by the hand and pulled him through the slim opening in the jumble of hungry hungry students. It was a tight fit, but they finally managed to reach the lounge with only a few annoyed glances from teens trying to push past them.

Despite their late arrival, they just managed to catch a teacher leaving the lounge from her early lunch to get to their class.

"Excuse us," Mike asked her, "is there a box of toys in that lounge? From last night?"

The teacher shook her head with a frown. "Nope, sorry. They've all been taken downtown to one of the foster homes."

The agents groaned and thanked the teacher before turning to each other.

"My bet," Mike said, "is that downtown is gonna have multiple homes to check. Who knows if the artifact, if it's from that toy box and not the mother herself. hasn't already been given to a random kid?"

Oto's expression, which had moments before been slightly exasperated, returned to its previous serious/angry form. "I am not lettin' another kid get hurt again. No way in Hell. Let's go."

Chapter 9 - Cinquefoil Edit

---Downtown Plano---

The car skidded to a halt in front of the entrance to the large neighborhood downtown. Oto and Mike got out and went to collect their equipment from the trunk. Static mylar bags, check. Purple gloves, check. Farnsworths, Teslas, and a big bucket of goo, check check and check.

Oto reached into his back pocket and handed Mike a map of the town with their current location circled in sharpie. "You got a map too?"

His partner shook his head. "I know these streets like the back of my hand, I grew up here. Well, sorta, but it was a long year an' a half." Mike nodded and opened up the pamphlet to begin studying it. "It'll be easier if we split up," Oto continued, "You take the houses on this street, I'll take the ones on the next street over. If none of those ones have it we meet up at the turnaround and move on to the third together."

"And how many houses do we have to check?" Mike asked, stuffing the map into his own pocket.

"Er, seven." Oto replied. "And thoroughly too. Artifacts can be anythin', and with kids involved, they coulda lost this thing anywhere by now."

The two nodded to each other. Oto handed the bucket to Mike, who hoisted it over his shoulder by its leather strap and adjusted it until it rest at his hip. They then stuffed their firearms and communication devices into their remaining pockets and parted ways.

The sun was beginning to set and the moon was already visible in the sky overhead through the blend of pinks and oranges and purples. It would soon be night, although Oto planned on finding the artifact well before then.

---

Mike reached his house first. Walking down the short cobblestone path leading from the driveway to the front door, he knocked on the door in a short rhythm. Immediately the barking of several dogs could be heard, and soon enough a rather obese looking Chihuahua with a bad left hind leg appeared on the other side of the semitransparent glass of the door, yapping away.

"Bit, quit it!" A woman's voice with a pronounced Southern drawl to it called to the dog. Her command, however, fell on deaf ears and the dog continued to bark in its shrill and excited way. A moment later the owner of the dog, and the voice, approached the door and nudged the pet away gently but firmly with a sandled foot. She opened the door and looked the agent over. "Can I help you sir?"

Mike smiled politely. "Yes, please, ma'am. The foster homes in this neighborhood recently received several boxes of toys from the local high school's toy drive this evening, and as it turns out one of them is actually meant for an antique auction later this fall. We need it back, would it be alright if I came in to look for it here?"

The woman nodded, her frizzy and voluminous hair bobbing up and down, and welcomed him in. "We didn't get many toys on account'a my house havin' the least kids on the block, just one."

Right on cue a little girl of around five years old jumped out from behind a nearby slightly weathered denim couch. Her hands were raised, her fingers curled like claws, and a snarl warped her small face. "RAWR!" she roared in her equally tiny voice.

Mike feigned absolute terror and put a hand on his chest, taking a step back. "Oh no, a horrible maneating monster! It must have eaten your little girl!"

The "maneating monster" giggled and ran over to the woman to hug her leg. "I'm not a monster silly, I was playtending!"

The woman chuckled and picked the little girl up in her arms, resting her on the crook of it and bounced her a little. "Little Ally here wants to be an actress when she grows up, idn't that right?" Ally nodded. "Ally, hun, could you show this nice man the toys you got today?" She nodded again. The woman set her back down, and Ally ran quickly to her room with Mike following behind her with a grin.

---

At another house, Oto put toy after toy into his bag, having used the same excuse as Mike had, which they had agreed upon on the drive there. Still, after he stuck a model train, an Etch-A-Sketch, and a rattle into the bag, he got nary a spark. Not even the slightest hint of a fizzle. He huffed and scratched the back of his head in frustration before he stood, thanked the family, and left to go on to the next. Waving the family goodbye one last time, he walked down the street.

It had felt like an eternity and a half since he had walked through this neighborhood. He had nearly forgotten the houses and the people who lived within them - or at least, those he bothered to know in the first place - but looking at them now he could remember them with perfect ease. Barely any of them had even changed the flags on their mailboxes in the ten or so years it had been since he was here.

As he walked down the sidewalk, avoiding the large cracks that yielded to unkempt grass and wildflowers, he turned his head to look at the opposite side of the street, a bit of movement having caught his eye. There on the ground lay a bicycle, its front leg spinning endlessly. It must have been left behind in a hurry when its owner was called in for bedtime. Would they ever come back for it, or would it be left there to rust in the rain and become the new home for wandering insects? Judging by they haphazard location it was left in, did the child even care about its loss?

Looking at the bike reminded Oto of his time living here with the Lorenzos, around the middle of his tenure.

----September 17, 1967---

Oto sat on the front porch of the Lorenzo house in a white rocking chair that was only comfortable, as it had been bought from a local garage sale for just a few bucks. Splinters riddled the back and seat, so Oto had taken it upon himself to shave and sand off the back and cushion the seat with a thin pillow adorned with a simple flowery patten bought coincidentally from the same garage sale. At least he wouldn't walk around looking like a porcupine when he got up.

e had been busying himself with a collection of comics borrowed from one of the other kids, even though he was really only mildly interested in them, for some time before he decided to shift his attention to the kids on the street. A few of the neighborhood kids had challenged the foster kids to a bike race, as was custom for those who had nothing more to do on the weekend. Or, really, it was the foster kids who had challenged the locals.

It was mostly Carly's fault, for the most part. Her pride often dictated most of her decisions, and today was no different. Although they didn't have the best bikes, the kids at the Lorenzo home took the greatest care of what they had to the best of their ability, and thanks to Carly's encouragement, would sometimes boast that they could beat anyone in a race. Assuming the road wasn't bumpy and the sun wasn't in their eyes of course.

Carl, Carly's twin brother, held up his hands and stood in the middle of the street several yards away to as a referee who would call the start and stop of the race. Back near the house were Carly, on her favorite bike with its fancy hand-painted appearance, and local rival and frenemy Lee on his own black-and-yellow bike that was only a few months old and still looked rather new. They gripped their handlebars in anticipation, their knuckles white. Carl was about to start the race when another, younger voice cut him off.

"Waaaaaaiit!" Cried Theo, one of the younger kids of the home, as he rode his own bike up to the makeshift chalk starting line. Or rather, he tried to. His smaller stature was only complimented by an oversized helmet and another small bike he tried to ride on, although it would be more accurate to call it walking with how often he had to put his feet down to avoid toppling over. "I wanna race too!"

Some of the fosters groaned, sighed, and covered their eyes, while the locals barely kept their giggles contained.

"Theo," Lee said, "no offense, but you've barely ridden a trike without training wheels, what makes you think you can ride a bike?"

"What makes you-oh!" Theo was interrupted when he had to quickly steady the bike and annoyedly kicked down the kickstand. "What makes you think I can't?"

"We just don't want you hurtin' yourself." Carly said in a more concerned tone, though she too was slightly embarrassed by his desire to participate, knowing just how bad at riding he was.

"I can too ride!" Theo huffed and stomped his foot, his face turning red.

It was at this point that Oto, having watched, got up and walked off the porch, jumping over the short wooden steps and landing on the driveway, having set his comic book down on the small porch table next to the chair. "Okay," he said, "I can see where this is goin' . Theo, I'll teach ya t'ride."

"You?" Carly asked, a little surprised. "No offense Oto, but I always thought you knew more about Bibles than bicycles."

"I know enough to teach him how to ride without scrapin' his knee at least." Oto replied. He walked over to Theo and rest his hand on the younger one's shoulder. "We'll be back in less than an hour."

--

True to Oto's word he and Theo were back after half an hour. Theo wore his helmet, still rather large for his head, but it was strapped firmly around his chin to keep it from wobbling around. He rode his bike smoothly with a little more confidence, but still seemed somewhat nervous.

"Is everyone ready now?" Carl shouted his question, still at the finish line. The three riders called back in confirmation. "Okay! Ready!"

"Good luck Theo," Lee said, "you'll need it."

"Get set!"

Theo looked nervously behind him where Oto stood calm with his arms crossed. "You'll do fine Theo," he said with a small smile, "trust me."

"GO!"

Lee and Carly took off instantly, tearing down the blacktop. Theo was left half a second slow as he struggled to get his momentum started, but soon enough was right behind his competitors. His bike wobbled a little bit but ultimately stayed steady in its course. Lee had taken the lead t first, but since he started out with a burst of speed h had tired out quickly, allowing Carly to surpass him in the middle of the track.

With the finish line closing in and Lee and Theo equally behind Carly, who was already cheering confidently for her victory, Theo sped his legs up and swerved around her, nearly falling over in the process, and cut in front of her just as he touched the chalk line in the road.

The two losers both skidded to a halt in shock over what had just occurred. They lost? To someone who couldn't even tie his shoes right? The spectators clapped nonetheless, Oto especially. Theo, ecstatic, turned his bike around and rode back to the starting line. He jumped off, letting the bike roll and fall over onto the sidewalk with its wheels spinning, and hugged Oto as hard as he could.

"Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!" Theo thanked him rapidly with a smile beaming so bright it was practically blinding. "I won, I won, I won, thank you!"

Oto was taken aback and remained motionless for a while. This was the first time anyone at the home had hugged him; he had even refused the kind gesture of the Lorenzo parents themselves ever since he had first came here. It felt... good. Kind. He felt happy.

"No prob, Bob." Oto said, patting Theo on the head.

---May 5, 1978---

Oto shook himself out of his memory. How long had he been standing there smiling? He had a job to do, geez! He continued on his way and went to the next house on the block. He was still focused on his memory and almost tripped on the steps of the house's front porch.

He rang the doorbell and waited. As he stood, arms behind his back and swaying on his feet, he looked around the porch and at the various junk on it strewn about with little semblance of order. A small glass table with a chessboard staned with coffee rings, a rocking chair missing an arm... and a small floral-pattern cushion on its seat.

'Hold the phone...' he thought, turning and taking a step towards the chair He swore he saw that pillow somewhere before.

Before he could inspect the chair closer the door behind him opened. "Yes?" a woman's voice queried. Oto spun around quickly, recognizing that voice. Older, yes, but still the same cadence to it. "How can I-"

"M-Mrs. Lorenzo?"

Chapter 10 - Orchid Edit

The woman stopped and furrowed her brow. "Yes?" she asked again, "Do I... know you, mister?" She stepped out of the doorway onto the porch, leaving the door and the screen door behind it open.

Oto broke into a small half smile, completely forgetting about his case. He raised his hand in a small wave. "Mrs. Lorenzo, it, it's me. Oto Barry." He noted how different she looked now, a few more wrinkles than he last remembered, and her normally black hair now streaked with gray ribbons.

Mrs. Lorenzo's eyes widened instantly, making her pupils so much smaller in comparison. She raised her hands halfway to her chin. "Oto? Is that really you?" She took a few tentative steps towards him, as if afraid he was merely an illusion of some sort, and slowly reached a hand up to cup his chin. Upon feeling that he was really real, she broke out into joyous tears. "Oh my God, Oto, it's really you! I thought you were dead, we all did!"

"I'm so sorry I left." He turned read from embarrassment and rubbed the back of his neck with a gloved hand, looking sideways to avoid making eye contact. "I swear I didn't mean to frighten y'all so much. I just saw that you were strugglin' with money and thought one less brat t'take care of would help... Did it?"

Mrs. Lorenzo sighed and lowered her hands. "I'm ashamed t'admit it, but yes, it did. For a while at least, about seven years. Eventually the bills still overwhelmed us and we almost filed for bankruptcy, nearly sent all the kids away. But about a year or two ago around September we got a call from a nice old woman who said that she had arranged for some, as she said, 'financial assistance'. Now, I don't take no handouts, but over the month everyone had been adopted and we had gotten a rather generous donation."

Wait a minute... September? Old woman? That was around the time he had been recruited to the Warehouse two years ago, hadn't it? Had Mrs. Frederic... he did have to go through an extensive background check, and she practically knew everything about everything anyway, so theoretically, she would have known about his life with the Lorenzos. But would she have really...?

Mrs. Lorenzo grabbed Oto by the hands before he could finish his thought and pulled him inside. "Now, come on in, Oto, and have a drink. We can catch up on all y'all've been doin' these past years!" Suddenly, despite been an adult for several years, and a good deal taller than Mrs. Lorenzo, he suddenly felt just as much at her whim as he did when he was thirteen, and followed her dutifully inside.

"Uh, Mrs. Lorenzo," Oto began as they stepped through the front door.

"Please, call me Gladys." She insisted as they stepped through the short foyer into the living room.

"I'm not, actually here for a visit..." he said. Gladys released his hands and turned around to face him. "I work with the... government now. I'm actually here lookin' for somethin' specific, a toy. It's hard to explain."

Gladys looked crestfallen and fiddled with the hem of her faded sundress. "Oh, of course, yes. Well, that's, that's no problem at all." she said, the previously uncontained enthusiasm quickly having been replaced with unmistakable disappointment, painfully obvious. "Can't take you away from your job. But what in the Sam Hill does the government need with a toy?"

"It's real complicated." He said shortly, tugging nervously at the wrists of his gloves. "No time to explain even if I wanted to."

Before Gladys could ask another question, of which Oto was sure there were many, a little boy ran out from nowhere and hurried behind her, holding her leg and hiding his face behind a handful of sundress he had grabbed. The child held a small blanket of various colors in the other hand, dragging it along the floor next to him. He was so young he just reached the top of her thighs.

"Jeremy," Gladys told the boy in a soft tone, "say hi to Mr. Oto, he's an old friend of mine."

Jeremy nodded silently and stared up at Oto with wide eyes. "Hi." He said simply. Either he was shy, or just didn't know what to do around new people. Oh, how Oto could relate.

"Hey there Jeremy," Oto bent down to talk to him at eye level and smiled. "I'm just here to take a look at yer toys." He showed him his Secret Service badge. "I'm an official Toy Inspector, and I'm here to make sure they're all working at optimal levels of fun. Is that okay?"

The boy nodded silently and took Oto's hand, which dwarfed his own tiny one. As he was led away down a nearby hallway, Oto looked back at Gladys, who had just smiled wide at him with watery eyes.

Was ten years really that long? So much had happened in that span of time, and even more in the last three, but he had never really thought about how the lives of other people would change besides his own in the same period. It just never came to mind. How long had Mrs. Lorenzo cried? What happened to the other kids when they lost a fellow child?

---

Okay, he had a job to do. He admitted that he was procrastinating. But it wasn't Mike's fault. Honest. He just didn't realize how much fun it was playing the Magic Fairy Prince for Ally's little tea party. And the fact that Ally knew how to make decent tea may or may not have swayed him. Was it his fault he had a weakness for pomegranate?

Ally, as sweet as she was, simply wouldn't take his excuse that he "really should get going now" and time after time persuaded him to stay and play.

"She don't got many friends on the block," her foster parent had explained. "She ain't shy in any sense of the word, she just gets bored around a lotta people real quick. Only got one friend in the neighborhood she plays with regularly, an' that's Jeremy the next street over."

Despite his best efforts Mike was enamored with playing with her. He couldn't disappoint her, she was the Princess of the party! And, technically, he hadn't searched everywhere for the toy... he was taking his time and testing each one as Ally introduced them to him at her own pace.

"This is Sniffy." she said, shoving a stuffed smiling cat in a top hat and stitched tweed suit with bright yellow eyes in Mike's face. "He's sick and tired a lot, but that's okay because when he's not sick he's super duper smart."

She set Sniffy down and pulled out a plastic doll with comically smooth and bendy arms and legs, as if he didn't have a single joint in his noodly body. "Mr. Lanky likes to sleep outside 'cause he likes to see the stars and stuff. But he's too thin to carry my big telescope."

Then Ally pulled out a stuffed fox that had a stitch over its plump stomach, like extra stuffing had purposefully been added. "This is TyTy." She smiled and hugged him close to her chest to hard Mike was afraid the seam on his stomach would burst or his plastic eyes would pop out of his head. "He's the biggest, fluffiest, softest, warmest, and cutest foxy in the whole wide world! I got him two years ago, he's the bestest toy ever! No offense guys." She said in an aside to her other toys.

Mike watched with a smile as Ally set her toys together on the floor, leaning them together and putting her plastic cups in front of them. "They seem like good friends." Mike commented with a nod as he took a sip of his own tea.

Ally nodded in agreement. "They are, best best friends. Sometimes, I get worried that they don't like me because I'm not an animal too, but then I hug TyTy and I feel better."

Ally's foster mother came back into the room. Seeing the playdate in front of her, she sighed and put her hands on her hips. "Now Ally," she said sternly, "you were supposed to show Mr. Korss your new toys, not waste his time."

"No no, ma'am, it's fine." Mike objected quickly. "I'm having fun." He raised his cup, nearly toppling the makeshift paper crown on his head off.

"That's awfully sweet of your Mr. Korss, but you have an important job. Ally, show him the rest of your toys, please." With that, she walked back out of the room and left the child and her prince alone.

Ally slumped her head and lowered her shoulders. "Okayyyy." she got up and walked over to her closet, walked back quickly to pick up her three friends from the floor and give them each a kiss and set them on the bed, then hurried back to the closet. When he emerged, she carried a plastic toy bin in her arms, which she set on the floor and opened up. "I didn't get many today, just a green bunny and a snowman with gloves."

Mike took out his mylar bag and stuffed both toys in one at a time. No spark. Drat, looks like he'd have to check out the other houses after all.

"Jeremy got a really cuddly bear today though." Ally said, closing her toy bin and hopping up onto her bed, swinging her legs back and forth. "He was showin' me earlier, he hasn't named him yet. He looked real old though."

"An old bear?" Mike asked. "Like, really old?" Ally nodded. "Ally, your majesty, your Fairy Prince wishes to know, where does Sir Jeremy live?"

---

Jeremy stood up on his toes to reach the chain that hung down from the ceiling fan. He was so short that the extension chain had to have an extension chain added onto it. It didn't help that even to Oto, he considered the ceiling pretty high. He tugged on it and the light flickered on. Oto blinked, barely recognizing the room. His room.

When he lived here, it was cold, being located near the back of the house and coming equipped with a high ceiling, with a constantly flickering lightbulb, a mattress with one sheet and one blanket, and a door with a faulty lock. Now, though, the room was comfortably modern and warm, had a bed with actual blankets plastered with cartoon characters, a working light, and even its own television. Toys adorned a nearby window seat with built-in cupboards.

Oto went over to the seat and snapped the wrists of his gloves against his own to snap himself out of his stupor and remind himself of his job. The toy came first, he could reminisce later. He wasn't going to wait around for another kid to get hurt. He pulled out a static bag from his pocket, picked up a G.I. Joe action figure and dunked it in. Then a toy tractor, and a jet plane. He tried every toy on the seat and sighed when nothing got a reaction.

He tossed the empty bag on the seat and flopped onto his back on the bed, surprised at the comfortable mattress, covering his eyes. He should check another house, he knew... but between the exhaustion of being on a case all day combined with the emotional impact of visiting his old foster home after all these years was beginning to take its toll on him. He was about to resolve himself to get up, but before he could, Jeremy walked over to the window seat.

The kid knelt down and opened one of the small square doors beneath the seat, reached in, and pulled out an old and worn teddy bear. He turned around and handed it to Oto, taking his arms and moving them for him around the plush toy in a hug. Oto, strangely enough, would have hugged the bear all on his own - he felt such a sudden strong desire too. He instinctively hugged the bear tighter ad rested his chin on its head between the ears.

"Thank you Jeremy." The agent mumbled contentedly.

Jeremy nodded and left the room to go get Gladys. "Mrs. Lorenzo?" he asked as she sat reading a magazine on the couch. "Can we go for a walk? I think Mr. Oto wants some alone time, and I wanna see Ally."

Gladys cast a concerned glance down the hallway that led to her old charge's ex-bedroom, but obliged. She sighed, stood, took Jeremy by the hand and led him outside. "Maybe we can arrange for a sleepover with Ally, how does that sound? I don't think its her bedtime just yet."

---

Oto, meanwhile, lay on the bed for a few more moments until he heard the front door close.

"Gladys?" He asked aloud, confused. He stood up to check, but before he could leave the room his Farnsworth began buzzing. He set the teddy bear, somewhat reluctantly, on the bed to retrieve the vaudio device. He opened it up and answered the incoming transmission.

"Found it Mike?" Oto asked.

Mike shook his head in the negative. "No, but listen, a girl just told me some kid on your street named Jeremy has an old teddy bear. Old and antiquey kid kinda our gig, right?"

Oo turned around and faced the Farnsworth's screen at the bear that he had just been canoodling with lying innocently on its back on the bed. "Ya mean this thing?"

"Looks like it. Better bag it just in case."

Oto picked up the bear and his bag, then put the former into the latter. He turned his head away just in time as a flurry of multicolored sparks flew out of the top with a crackle and zap, then stopped. He opened one eye, then the other, and peaked into the bag in his hands. He sighed in relief and wiped his brow dramatically. "Phew. Glad that went over without a hi-AH!"

He was interrupted by the feeling of something small, hard, and hot striking him on the back of his hand, causing him to drop the Farnsworth on the ground, closing it shut when it landed. He grasped his hand and hissed in pain, looking at the developing square-shaped burn mark with a single vertical straight line inside the middle of the shape. "What the hell?" He spun around to see what had attacked him, and came face to face with his belt-wielding father.

Chapter 11 - Garlic Edit

"Oto? Oto?!" Mike called into his Farnsworth after he heard his partner scream before the feed went dead. He closed his device and got up.

"Are you leaving?" Ally asked him while she sat on the floor setting up a game of Candyland.

"Sorry, it's important, friend in trouble." Mike apologized.

Ally nodded in understanding. "Oki-doki-loki, hope he's okay. Say goodbye." She tilted the heads of each of her toys in a nod of farewell. Mike returned the gesture, then ran out.

---

"If it ain't the not-so-little disappointment." Oto's father said menacingly. "All grown up."

"F-Father?" Oto took a step back, unable to believe what he was seeing.

"Obviously. You always were the dumbest kid." He stood there on the window side of the room holding one of his favorite belts, with a large buckle and stud-covered strap. He was dressed in the garb Oto had most associated him with, his priest robes. The only difference from then and now was that he didn't remember his robes being covered in smoke stains and holes that still smoldered with embers. His face was even worse, bearing the marks of severe, even fatal burns, with twisted scars and uneven flesh. Half the hair on his head was gone, and what was left were burning, smoking patches that let off the sickening scent of singed hair. "I guess beatin' the stupid outta ya never worked."

Oto scrambled out of the bedroom and ran to the living room, but Maxwell appeared there too as if he had teleported. Oto shouted and jumped back. "H-how the hell are you here?! Leave me alone, I put you behind me years ago!"

Maxwell chuckled and shook his head slowly. "No, no I don't think so." He slung his belt again and struck Oto in the chest, knocking him back against the wall behind him. "You don't just forget me. Not yer father."

Oto fell to the ground and tried to catch his breath. He forgot his Farnsworth back in the bedroom, and neutralizing the bear did nothing. How was he supposed to stop this? He reached into his belt to grab his Tesla, but his hands were shaking so badly that his kept grabbing at nothing. Maxwell took the opening and whipped his belt once more, wrapping it around Oto's wrist, where it glowed red hot and began to burn his arm. He screamed in pain, and his father yanked the belt, sending him flying across the room where he knocked into the coffee table and broke it into pieces.

He groaned in pain and struggled to get up, but his back hurt too much. His father stepped forward but Oto managed to roll out of the way when he slung his belt at him again. The buckle sparked against the ground where he had been moments before and ignited a small flame on the carpet, which Oto quickly batted out with his sleeve. Still on the floor, he then backed away from his father, pure terror on his face as the other man raised his belt to deal a finishing blow.

Maxwell was about to bring his belt down on him when they both heard something bang against the front door twice before It burst open and slammed against the wall beside it. Mike stood in the doorway glaring at Maxwell intently with his Tesla raised and fully charged. He fired directly at him, but although the arcs of lightning struck him, they did not faze him whatsoever. The robe-clad man merely raised his head and laughed.

"Never could get yerself outta trouble, could ya Oto?" Maxwell asked. "First the fire, an' now... him." He sneered at Mike in utter contempt. "Disgustin', both of ya!"

"Get up Oto!" Mike shouted. "There's gotta be a way around this-"

"QUIET!" Maxwell roared. He thrust the belt at Mike and struck him in the head with its buckle. The blond man crumpled to the floor in an instant, unconscious.

"Mike!" Enraged, Oto struggled to his feet. His hands shook less now, his confidence emboldened by his anger and loathing.

"I was always afraid of ya turnin' out like them," Maxwell said, spitting on the ground in Mike's direction. "THat's why I had t' beat ya into submission. A father does best fer his kids."

"DON'T YOU DARE CALL YERSELF A FATHER!" Oto screamed at the top of his lungs at his "father". "DON'T YOU DARE! A real father loves his kids no matter what! A real father doesn't hurt them into complacency or use fear to control them!" His whole body was shaking now, not from fear, but sheer unbridled rage. "You. Are. Not. A. Father. I trusted you, I loved you, and you hurt me every day of my life!"

"Don't you yell at me boy," Maxwell said in frightening calmness, brandishing his belt, "I can still hurt you worse than I ever did back then. Ya ain't so fragile anymore, I don't have t'hold myself back."

Behind Maxwell, Mike stirred, awake again. He groaned and held his head, which had started to bleed, and watched the face off before him weakly.

"No." Oto said firmly through clenched teeth, clenching his fists so tight he thought he would cut himself with his nails. "You can't. Not anymore. I'm not lettin' you hurt me ever again."

"I did what I did because I loved yo-" Maxwell began, but his son cut him off.

"That twisted thing ya called love was the farthest thing from. Ya never loved anyone more than yer damn, twisted, corrupted beliefs. You took somethin' that shoulda been teachin' love an' used it to torture the people who looked to you fer love and protection. You never loved a day in yer life." Oto said. "An' I pity ya. I can pity ya, and I can hate ya. But I won't ever forgive ya."

Maxwell roared in anger and threw his belt at Oto, but the agent grabbed the buckle in one hand just before it hit his face without batting an eye. It began to glow and burn his palm again, but in a sudden burst of strength he didn't know he had in himself, he shouted and yanked the belt out of his father's grasp. As soon as he was disarmed, he and his belt vanished in a burst of light and smoke.

Everything was silent for a few moments until Oto collapsed onto his knees, physically and emotionally exhausted. Mike got to his feet and rushed over to his partner to kneel and look his wounds over.

"You okay Otter?" Mike asked, concerned as he held Oto's burnt hand. "You need a hospital for those hits, you might have a concu-"

Oto interrupted him with a hug and began to sob loudly in a combination of pain, residual fear, and ultimate relief. Ever since his house had burnt down he had always regretted that he had never gotten to confront his father. now that he had, he felt..... happier. Stronger. Remembering his father no longer hurt nor filled him with fear and anxiety. He felt free for the first time in a long time.

Mike returned the hug with an understanding smile, rubbing and patting his partner's back. They stayed that way for a little while longer until behind Mike, through the front doorway came Gladys and Jeremy.

"Oh my God!" Gladys gasped. She ran inside to look at her wrecked living room, hands over her mouth in shock. "What in the Sam Hill happened? Are you two okay?"

Oto sniffled, wiped his eyes, and nodded, getting to his feet. "Yeah, yes, we're okay. Home intruder, didn't know I was inside. There was a struggle - he got a few good licks in, but Mike here came to my rescue." He pat Mike on the shoulders as he too rose from the floor.

"Don't be modest, that was all you." Mike said with an exceedingly proud smile.

While Gladys went to her bedroom to phone the police about the intruder, Jeremy walked over to Oto. The child stood still, looking at him for a moment, then hugged his leg. Oto chuckled and pat his head, mentally thanking him for his help, whether he meant it or not.

---

Later, when it was completely dark out, after the police had searched the area and the ambulance had assessed Oto's injuries, he and Gladys stood together on the porch watching while Mike played with Jeremy.

"So," Gladys began. "Did ya really leave to give us more money? Or... were you unhappy here?"

"No no, God no," Oto replied quickly, "I was the happiest here, believe me. It was the best home I've stayed at, the first place ever that really felt like a home." He leaned his back against one of the support pillars on the porch, watching Mike cover and uncover his eyes as he played with Jeremy, both smiling. "But the rest of ya needed better, and me bein' there was keepin' y'all from that. Y'all made me feel welcome and happy. I was sorta returnin' the favor."

Gladys turned around and lowered her crossed arms with a sigh. She shook her head, "Well, I'm glad you didn't hate us. We coulda made it work, but I'm not gonna ignore the fact that it helped. Thank you, Oto."

He nodded and paused for a moment, as if contemplating something. Then he went over to Gladys and hugged her, for the first time. She gasped, but returned the hug with teary eyes.

"Thank you." Oto said softly.

They broke the hug and both rubbed their eyes, chuckling.

"So," Gladys said after clearing her throat, "Did you always have a super secret government job?"

Oto shook his head. "University religion professor for a while, which is how I got recruited. Long story."

"Well, I'm sure we'll have time to discuss over the phone once you get back home, right?" Gladys said. "And what about that Mike fellow, hm?"

"What about him?" Oto asked.

"How long have you two been together? He's very handsome, I'm almost jealous." She winked.

Oto nearly choked, but stifled his nervous response. "W-what? What do you mean, what makes you think we're a couple?!" He asked, perhaps a bit too alarmed-sounding to pass off as normal.

She pointed to his shirt with a smile. "You two are both wearing pink. Oto looked down and saw that, yes, he was wearing a dark pink shirt. How had he not noticed that? Where did he even get a pink shirt?!

"Forgive me," she chuckled, "not my place to ask anyway. Don't you worry about it. I'll go write down my number fer ya and we'll catch up then, m'kay?" Oto's nervousness faded and gave way to a meek chuckle of his own.

Oto nodded. She pat his arm lovingly and walked inside where she was quickly replaced by Mike, who jumped up the porch steps. He wasn't as badly banged up as Oto, of course, but he had been patched up with bandages and given a lollipop regardless, as per the overwhelming insistence of Gladys, who fawned over them both.

"Hey." Mike nodded. "So that was your old man, huh? I'll be honest, I knew he was religious, but I expected a little less of the fire and brimstone motif. The belt I expected though."

Oto picked up the bag with the teddy bear inside that he had left on the coffee stained chessboard. Pulling the toy out, he turned the bear around to show initials stitched onto the toy's bottom in red thread: KHK. "Based on the initials and effects, I'm guessin' it belonged to Karl Heine Kempe, aka C. Henry Kempe, the first guy in the medical community to identify child abuse. It must create a copy of yer parents if they abused ya and based their manifestation on their definin' traits. Jaslene's mother smoked a lot, my father was religious and died in a fire."

"And said people would both burn in hell." Mike added.

Oto snorted. "That too. It musta absorbed the desire to help kids get over their pain, so comfortin' them and takin' away their power over ya makes ya stronger."

Mike furrowed his brow in confusion. "But you've got immunity to artifact downsides, why did it still affect you?" He pointed at the bear.

"My guess?" Oto asked, turning the bear back over and looking it in its black, shiny eyes. "It isn't exactly a downside, it's the bear's way of helpin' ya. Sometimes ya have to face what ya hate and what scares ya to get over it and come out a better person."

His partner nodded in understanding. "That makes sense. The same thing happened to Jaslene." It was Oto's turn to look confused before Mike explained. "The guys from the ambulance told me. Her 'mother' showed up again at the hospital, but she pulled the cigarette from her mouth and she vanished. She says she feels much better now."

Oto smiled wide, glad. "Oh, y'know, Gladys thought we were dating. Said it was our shirts. Can you believe it?" He masked his internal nervousness with a forced smile.

Mike looked down at their similar garb and smirked. "Well, I was gonna say something, but I thought you had done it on purpose. We're wearing the same color shirt, of course people are gonna think we're dating, ya goob." He nudged Oto with his elbow and smiled wide, making Oto feel warm inside. Oto turned his head to avoid showing his momentary blush.

Gladys soon came back out with her phone number on several strips of paper, "In case you lose one." They bid her and Jeremy goodbye, got in their car, and drove off.

Chapter 12 - Cactus Edit

---May 10, 1978---

Mike stepped down the B&B staircase dutifully brushing his hair, having done so several times already that morning. He couldn't hel that he played with his hair when he got excited, but he couldn't have tangles, not today.

He had pulled out his best formal wear, the same outfit he had worn at last year's Christmas party: black dress pants and a light red dress shirt with the top buttons opened, and sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He was holding his bright pink tie in his hands.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and set the brush on a small table next to it, then headed to the living room. When he walked inside, however, he stopped and sighed when he saw Oto curled up on the couch underneath a quilt. He had seen Oto watching movies in here last night, but hasn't heard him go up to his room. Mungo must have gotten the quilt for Oto after the agent had passed out and turned off the TV for him.

Mike went over to the couch and pulled the blanket down from covering Oto's head. "Rise and shine sleeping dudey," he said softly, "the world says hello."

"Tell the world to stop knockin', I'm tryna sleep." Oto muttered grumpily, clenching his eyes tight and pulling the quilt back up. "I don't wanna get outta bed."

"Off the couch." Mike corrected. "An object in motion Otter, you gotta. It's Charlie's retirement party today."

Oto groaned again, slightly longer this time, and turned over to put his face in the couch pillow his head lay on. "Fiiiiine..." he grumbled begrudgingly. He turned over and rolled off the couch onto his back on the floor. He stayed there for a little while longer before he finally stood up. He rubbed his eyes and slouched, exhausted.

"How long did you stay up last night?" Mike asked. "Couldn't sleep?"

Oto nodded. "Against my better judgement I decided to stay up and watch The Exorcist..." he shuddered. "I won't be able to eat soup fer weeks."

"Sorry buddy." He held up his tie. "Can you hold this for me?" Oto took the tie obediently and Mike took out a black hair tie from his pocket. "Tell me which looks better, this," he shook his head a little to show off his long hair that reached over his shoulders, "or this." He lifted his arms and began tying his hair into a ponytail, looping his hair in and out of the tie. When he was finished he turned his head to show off his new 'do.

Oto felt a blush creep onto his face. "That-" he said, but his voice cracked a little. He cleared his throat and tried again. "That looks great, I love it."

Mike smiled. "Thanks. A special 'do for a special day. I've got some big news I've been waiting to tell, but I've been waiting for a good time. And today's party is it!" He held up his arms and shook them a little with a wide smile. "Could you help me with my tie too? I always have trouble with it, spent half an hour working on it in the mirror last Christmas."

"S'that why you just keep yer chest out fer the world to see?" Oto asked jokingly as he draped the tie over his partner's neck.

"It's only the top few buttons," Mike countered, letting Oto make a loop and begin to tie it.

"Still enough to blind anyone who looks at ya. Seriously, put those things away, my retinas can only stand so much 'fore I go blind." Oto took his time finishing Mike's tie, doing and undoing it over and over under the pretense that he was trying to get it just right. He finally tucked the end through a decent loop and tugged it tight. He straightened it out then tried to do the same with Mike's shirt by pressing and brushing his hands on his chest.

Honest to God he just tried to straighten his shirt, but Mike didn't exactly have the smallest chest. Not the biggest of course, it was really relatively modest. But Oto found his hands had a hard time moving.

shit, how long had his hands been there? Oto shook his head and pulled his hands quickly down to his sides. "Th-that look good?" He asked, trying to swallow the lump in his throat.

"Yeah, it looks good to me." Mike raised an eyebrow and cocked his head, still smiling that damn dazzling smile there. He had no right to be that smiley, or that dazzling. Not at all. "You alright Otter? You kinda spaced out there."

Shit. "Uh..."

"I get it, you're tired." Mike said. He took Oto by the shoulders and pushed Oto to the stairs. "Go on, get some more sleep, you obviously didn't get enough of it last night. Mungo will wake you up in time for you to get dressed and get to the party."

"B-but-" Oto tried to object, but Mike wasn't hearing any of it.

"Bed. Now. You still need to heal more from those bruises anyway." He pushed Oto up he first few steps, then stood with his hands on his hips. "I'll see you at the party Otter, sleep well!" He turned, grabbed his keys from the bowl on the table, and walked out the front door.

Oto wanted to follow after him, but as fast as his heart raced around Mike sometimes.... all the time... his body, or most of it anyway, couldn't get as excited with how exhausted he was. With a groan he trudged his way upstairs. He peered into Mike's room and lingered for a minute before turning around to his own.

'Should I tell him?' he thought to himself as he undressed for bed. 'Would that ruin his surprise?' He could barely form a mental sentence at this point, so he decided those questions would best be answered on his way to the party later. When he could remember what the hell he was just thinking about. Something about Mike, right? Oh yeah, Mike's chest. That would help him sleep. Sort of.

He was out cold on the mattress before he could even imagine undoing the top button of Mike's shirt.

Chapter 13 - White Chrysanthemum Edit

Several hours later Mungo walked into Oto's bedroom to wake him up at precisely 7 o'clock just as Mike had called to ask him to do. There was still some time before the party, a good hour or so, which would give Oto time to properly wake up and get ready. Let this teach him not to stay up all hours of the night watching horror movies; the screams of the dead, the dying, and the damned could wait until his next day off.

He paused at the foot of Oto's bed, eyes squinting through his small glasses and hands on his hips. The slumbering agent lay, snoring up a storm while his arms were wrapped around a pair of pillows he had stuffed into one pillowcase. He had curled up around and, arms and legs, and had his face partially buried in it. His snoring was interrupted by a short, unintelligible mumble, then he cuddled with it more.

"Alright Oto," Mungo said with his Israeli accent, "time to get up, the part starts in an hour." He grabbed the pillow between the agent's arms, but said agent whined and hugged it tighter, bringing his knees up defensively. "You want to see Charlie one last time before he leaves, don't you?"

Oto tenses and stretched his body with a heavy groan, letting the pillow go rather reluctantly. He sat up and yawned, trying to rub the burning out of his eyes. "Mmwha time s'it?" he asked groggily. He was way too tired to try and decipher what the clock on his wall meant.

"Seven in the afternoon, the party is at 8:30." Mungo replied. "Should give you plenty of time to get ready and driving."

Oto got out of bed and shuffled to the bathroom to shower, thanking Mungo with a mumble on his way. Turning on the water, he stuck his hand under the showerhead and waited until it got comfortably hot. Undressing completely, he stepped in and sighed almost immediately from the pleasant sensation of the water waking him up so comfortably, washing away his muscle tension smoothly. Slowly he crawled his way out into proper consciousness and could finally think clearly.

He and Mike had worked together for what, three years now? They were best friends, and he had called Oto by that cute nickname ever since their first year together that always made him smile. He was so comfortable around him too - he had been so rather quickly after they first met. The fact that Mike was almost naked around him the other day seemed to suggest that Mike felt even more comfortable around him than Oto did around Mike. And, more importantly, Oto hadn't been ashamed of himself ever since he had faced his father. The self-hatred wouldn't hold him back anymore.

In that case, what was?

Well, for one, he couldn't be sure if Mike was even actually gay. The Kisses was a coincidence, to towel might have been "bros being bros", the "gay" thing back at the high school could have just been, as Mike said, him getting caught up in the alliteration. On top of that there was the fear of rejection, of Mike not only turning him down, but downright pushing him away. Could he deal with that? Would he have to quit his job as an agent just to avoid him?

He finished washing up and got out of the shower to towel off. Once he was done he went back to his room and picked out his clothes - a dark green shirt and a purple tie, with his own black pants. He dressed himself as quickly as he could while avoiding wrinkling his clothes and looking sloppy. Looking at himself in his mirror, Oto decided he looked as good as he was going to get and headed downstairs.

Oto grabbed his shoes from the foyer and took them to the couch to tie them on. Mungo was in the living room as well, cleaning up and hiding a small wrapped package behind the television.

"Mungo," Oto said as he slipped a shoe on and started working on the laces, "why aren't ya bringin' that present to the party to give to Charlie?"

"Because if I give it to him at the Warehouse, then all the surprise and joy will be all gone by the time he gets here, and he might not even have time to open it there with all the socializing and other gifts he's in for." Mungo explained as he dusted off the lamps. "This way he'll have at least one last happy little gift here before he leaves."

Oto nodded with a smile as he tied one shoe and moved on to the next. "Makes sense." He kept focusing on his options as he tied, more on the negatives than the positives, as was his usual way of weighing important decisions. He frowned when he saw he had messed up his shoe and had to start over, and sighed.

"Oto?" Mungo asked, turning around to face the agent. "Is something the matter?"

"No, no," Oto objected, waving his hand and putting on a small fake smile, "I'm fine, just havin' some shoe troubles."

"Oto," Mungo repeated. He set down his duster and walked over to the couch to sit down next to the agent. "I can tell something is wrong. It does nobody any good to be down. Please, tell me what's wrong."

Oto sighed, slumping his shoulders, and let go of his shoes to cover his face with his hands. He hunched over and took some time to answer. "It's... Mike, Mungo. I wanna tell Mike somethin' important, but I'm absolutely terrified to. I'm afraid of how he might react."

The B&B manager nodded and rubbed Oto's back slowly, occasionally patting it reassuringly. "Ah, yes. I was wondering when this would come up."

Oto raised his head from his hands. "Huh? Whadya mean?"

"I saw it a while ago after you first arrived." Mungo began to explain, taking off his glasses to polish them with his shirt and raising them to a lamp light to check for smears. "I'm surprised it took you this long to mention it. Of course, I know things like that can be quite secretive, so I never told a soul, not even Mrs. Frederic. Though I'm sure she knows already to some extent."

"Was it that obvious?" Oto asked with a groan. "Does Mike know?"

Mungo shook his head. "No, I don't believe he does. He seems like he might be a little oblivious to the way you get nervous around him, or how you look at him when he isn't looking at you, like the very sight of him is the only source of joy in the world."

"Oh God..." Oto covered his face again in embarrassment. "I've wanted to tell him fer a while... longer than a while actually. But until recently I was angry at myself, and now I'm just afraid of what he'd say."

Mungo chuckled and took Oto's hands in his, squeezing them firmly. "I've known Mike for several years, he is loving to everyone. Believe me Barry, the worst he'd ever say is no, and then apologize for days afterwards. You have nothing to be scared of."

"Ya think so?" Oto asked with a sniffle.

Mungo nodded confidently. "Wo knows exactly what he'll say, but he would never hate you for anything in the world. And if you feel so strongly for him you might as well make it known."

Oto wiped his eyes and smiled, giving a short sob-chuckle. "Thanks Mungo, ya always have such great advice."

The old man shrugged. "That's what the B&B manager is for, to lend some perspective and assistance to agents' personal affairs. Not everything has to be about the Warehouse and artifacts after all. They have lives outside of it. Now, if you excuse me," Mungo stood up from the couch, as did Oto, "I have to go brush my mustache. I'll meet you at the party." With that, Mungo left.

Oto smiled and lingered in the living room for a little while longer before finishing his shoes properly and confidently walking out the front door and driving off, resolute.

Chapter 14 - Yellow Carnation Edit

After a while of driving Oto finally reached the Warehouse, finding several other cars already parked around the front entrance. The party wasn't scheduled to start for another half hour or so, and it was to be held in Charlie's office as a precaution against artifacts down on the main floor. He wanted to surprise Mike, maybe catch him on his own, but not before he made his own announcement, whatever it was. He didn't want to outdo whatever it is Mike had to say. With that in mind he decided to take the secondary entrance that Mike had told him about once; they had had to use it to escape Charlie's office after it had been overrun by fairies.

He drove to the stone Cliffside some miles away and got out of his car, quickly finding the right spot in the rock that he had marked himself with a small red flag just in case he ever needed to find it again. He brushed his hand along the wall and tried to remember the proper pronunciation for the entrance phrase.

"If... Iftah ya simsim." He recited. 'Open Sesame' in Arabic. As expected, a portion of the rock pulled back and slid up, revealing a second security door. Oto opened it and walked into the revealed corridor.

"Reject the right, miss the middle..." he said aloud as he remembered his trick to tell which door led to the Warehouse and which ones led... somewhere else. "and love the left." He chose the left door and true to his memory it led to a metal set of stairs on the side of the Warehouse.

Oto checked his watch - 8:15. He had a little leisure time to walk, the party would last for a while. He made his way down the stairs onto the ground level and walked through the shelves.

It was hard to put into words how he felt, or at least, he felt like he couldn't express enough with what words he had. When he had first come to the Warehouse three years ago, Oto had admitted it was better than his father by kilometers. But still, at the beginning, it felt like a literal maze filled with the threat of death at every turn. He was afraid of getting killed, of being fired. He didn't want to be let off more than he didn't want to die, to be honest. As strange as it sounded, once he had been exposed to this world of Endless Wonder he just couldn't let it go. It was too new, too fascinating.

After three years, the Warehouse could still surprise him, but it no longer felt foreboding. Now, it felt warm and familiar. Like a home. He was thankful for his chance to work here and made it known with his daily prayers. Thankful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Oto passed an aisle to his right and noticed one of the artifacts that he had collected with Mike, a pair of red and green traffic gloves from the day Sweden switched driving directions on its streets. That had been a bit of a tough one considering they had the ability to invert or reverse the movements of whatever they're pointed at. A little funny in hindsight now that he thought about it. It had been pretty comical the way they had to purposefully try to walk backwards in order to go forward, and had to switch over and over each time the person using them pointed at them.

He walked on, chuckling to himself, onto another aisle, gazing at other various artifacts. Some he had seen, some he had collected, and some he had never even seen before. He passed the collection of Holiday Aisles and recalled the time he and Mike had collected Kevin Zaborney's FREE HUGS Sign, the first time they had actually hugged each other. Granted it was artifact induced, but it had lasted a while as they had literally gotten attached to each other in their embrace. Walking had become quite the challenge.

Oto had liked that case.

Oto checked his watch again, 8:25. He'd have to pick up the pace now. He started walking faster, working into a mild jog towards the office. His heart sped up, but mostly because of the nervousness and anticipation he felt with every nerve in his body. He couldn't care less what the rest of the Warehouse thought - to hell with them if they didn't like him. All it came down to was whether Mike would accept him or not.

As he ran a few artifacts started to spark and wiggle in his wake, responding to his overwhelming excitement. The colors on an old finger painting swirled, a papier-mâché volcano bellowed smoke, and the windows of a small model town lit up. They could tell how he felt.

Turning a corner that led to the office he quickened his pace into a full on sprint, kicking his feet high and swinging his arms.

8:35, almost there.

Finally, he reached the stairwell that led up to the office balcony. Oto collapsed to his knees before the first step and panted heavily, trying to catch his breath. It was a good thing he never planned on entering any marathons anytime soon. As he let his lungs catch up with the rest of him he heard the party go on upstairs. Better to be fashionably late than a no-show he supposed.

After he had regained sufficient enough oxygen, he grabbed the handrail and pulled himself to his feet. He walked up the steps, his heart growing both in nervousness and excitement, almost like it would burst from his chest - which he had once had the misfortune to watch, but luckily that artifact was locked safely away.

Once Oto had reached the balcony he heard the sound of something clinking against glass a few times followed by Mike's voice.

"Excuse me everyone," Mike addressed the rest of the party-goers, "I've got an announcement to make. If that's alright by you, Charlie."

"Pease, go ahead, I've been on the retirement waiting list for three years. What's a few more minutes?" Charlie replied, his joke met with a few chuckles.

Oto walked across the balcony and stood next to the balcony, his presence masked by the pulled blinds over the windows. If he just walked in now he'd take the attention away from Mike, and he wasn't about to do that. He'd just stand outside, listen, and walk in when it had died down.

"Thanks Charlie. So," Oto heard Mike set his glass down on a desk. "I've been keeping a secret from all of you. Well, two technically, but the second is tied with the first, and I'm not sure even Mrs. F knows about it."

"Mr. Korss, believe me, if I don't know something, I'll tell you what it is." Mrs. Frederic's voice replied. At the same time a few small gasps were heard, signaling she must have popped in in her usual fashion.

"Glad to hear it Mrs. F." Mike said. "Well, the secret is that, I'm... gay."

'Wait, what?' Did Mike really say that? Or was Oto's hopeful mind just playing tricks on him? He felt his heart stop and froze, waiting for more, waiting for confirmation that he wasn't dreaming.

"And before you ask, I've known since I was in high school."

It was true! Oto exhaled a breath he had been holding for a while, his heart kicking bac into overdrive.

"That takes a lotta balls to admit, Mike." Charlie spoke up, no doubt holding one of his cigarettes. "I respect that, thank you for trustin' us all so much."

"Thanks again. I was convince to tell you-"

Oto turned and stuck his head through the doorway slightly, beaming with the widest smile that had ever touched his face, to watch Mike. The others in the office, focused on the other agent, didn't notice him. He couldn't wait to tell him how he felt! Maybe he should walk in right now and-

"-by my boyfriend Benny" He held up his hand to show off a ring with a silver band and a rhombus-cut pink diamond set on top. "We got engaged last month and he finally convinced me I should be open with you all."

Oto froze again. His smile disappeared faster than it had appeared. He stepped back, away from the door. Boyfriend? Engaged? He staggered his way silently to the staircase to avoid alerting the others to his presence, then stormed down them like there was no tomorrow.

---

Oto sat alone on the cold concrete ground somewhere in the Warehouse sobbing loudly, uninhibited now that he was isolated from everyone else. He wouldn't have wanted anyone else to see him like this anyway. He was an ugly crier.

'How could he?' He thought. 'After all we've been through? After all we've done together?' He felt so betrayed, completely and utterly betrayed.

"I wish.... I wish..." He muttered through sobs as he clutched Howard Carter's Coffee Pot in his arms and rocking forward and back, wishing over and over again in any conceivable terminology he could that it wasn't so. That Mike wasn't engaged; that they broke up; that he loved Oto instead. Each time, the kettle let out a shrill whistle, and each time a ferret popped out of the top. Several crawled over him, offering him little comfort. Most simply scampered away to run wild in the gigantic complex they would now call home.

For three years he had worked at this Warehouse with Mike, and for three years his feelings had only grown. He had been pining after him, really pining, for a few months now.

Several more ferrets crawled out of the pot and continued to scatter without a care, to be someone else's problem in the future. He had to have made over halfway to a hundred impossible wishes now.

What about all those times they had gotten close? The hugging, the times Mike was shirtless around him, constantly calling him Otter? Wasn't that flirting? Or was Mike really oblivious to how charming he was? And how long had he been with this other guy anyway? How long had Oto's feelings just been a complete waste?

Oto continued to cry until he ran out of ears and even then he just sat their silently, occasionally muttering a few different wishes than just for Mike to be with him, the only compensation being a new ferret to infest the Warehouse. 10PM now, the party had ended a bit ago. Should he just stay here, or go back tot he B&B and face Mike directly?

He sighed, realizing that they'd just come looking for him or fire him for not working. He rose to his feet, swaying a little out of both dizziness and dejectedness, and out Carter's Pot back on its shelf, sneering at it. Useless. Could that stupid, worthless hunk of metal even grant wishes at all? He turned to leave, almost tripping on a sleeping ferret, and huffed around it.

All around him artifacts reacted to his sorrow and despair. They sent up sparks or created balls of lightning that made the air smell of ozone. The previous artifacts that had seemed to cheer Oto on in his desire to reveal himself now instead seemed to either mock and boo him, or to join him in his depression. A collection of potted plants wilted and even a perpetually bouncing spring horse ceased its movement.

All was quiet save for his sobbing.

---

Oto arrived at the B&B a while later and slumped off his coat and shoes. Mungo came to the foyer to greet him with a wide smile.

"So," he asked, oblivious to his emotional state, "how did it go? What did he say?"

"He didn't say anythin'." Oto answered gruffly. "I didn't tell him." He started to walk to the kitchen with a surprised and confused Mungo in tow.

"What? Why not?"

Oto opened up the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine. With his low tolerancy that would be all he needed to forget about tonight. "He has someone else. Has fer a while apparently. God, how could I be so stupid!" He slammed the fridge door closed, making Mungo flinch. "Of course, onnce I'm finally open with myself, when I finally fell like I'm not a bad person, when I'm actually happy. It gets ruined!"

"Oto, please," Mungo pleaded, reaching out his hands to the distressed agent, "please don't drink tonight, it's not-"

"Don't tell me what I can and can't do, Mungo." Oto said coldly in a slightly deeper and more menacing tone. He squinted his eyes. He sighed and slumped his shoulders. "I'm sorry, it ain't yer fault, but please... don't tell Mike how I feel."

"But if you two could just talk it out-"

"No, Mungo, please. I don't want to talk to him about it. At least not now. Just, let me go to bed a drink."

Mungo stayed silent, then nodded and headed to the kitchen and soon returned with a few water bottles and some aspirin. "At least stay hydrated, hangovers are not good for you."

Oto nodded, took them, and hurried to his room. He didn't pause to look at Mike's room this time.

Chapter 15 - Pine Edit

The next day Mike received a call on the Farnsworth from Charlie. Apparently there was a case involving people literally bathing in fire that he and Oto should check out. After getting dressed he headed out to get Oto. When he opened his partner's door, he found him curled up underneath the blankets and pillows, head included, with the blinds pulled tightly shut.

"Hey, I didn't see you at the party last night," Mike said, "I was gonna wait until you came, but I got impatient to make my announcement. I'm sure Mungo told you though." He noted the wine and water bottles strewn about the floor. "Looks like you had a little party of your own last night though, huh?"

When his partner didn't reply, he continued.

"Charlie wants us to see a case in San Fran today, people bathing in flames or something. Our flight leaves in a few hours." He pointed his thumb over his shoulder.

Still Oto did not answer. Mike took a slightly concerned step into the room.

"Otter?"

"Go." Oto said suddenly from under the blankets, perhaps a bit too suddenly. "I'm... not feelin' well... hungover. Can't work."

Mike stopped, somewhat relieved his friend was alive and well, but still concerned. Oto knew he had a low tolerance, yet an entire empty bottle of wine lay at the side of the bed. Why would he drink so much, didn't he know he could get sick easily?

"Is there anything I can get you Ott-"

"Mungo got me aspirin. He's gettin' coffee now." Oto interrupted gruffly. "Go without me. Bring Sweetwood."

Mike groaned and stomped his foot on the floor. "Ugh, Sweetwood is such a bore! It's been so long since I've gone on a case with him, what am I supposed to-"

"Hungover. Sweetwood. Go. Now." Oto said each word roughly, punctuating each one and getting his annoyance across loud and clear.

Mike was a little hurt, but attributed Oto's cranky attitude to the hangover. He nodded despite the fact that Oto couldn't see him and left the room, pulling the door until it was only open a sliver behind himself. On his way back down the stairs he ran by Mungo, carrying a mug of coffee.

"Hey Mungo," Mike greeted the manager, who stopped, "is Otto alright? I've only ever seen him drunk once and that was before he knew he had the tolerance of an ant."

"Oto? Oh, yes, yes," Mungo replied with a fervent nod of his head, "Just too much drinking. I told him to take it easy last night, but the man barely listens when it counts. He'll be fine... eventually." He muttered, casting a downward glance.

"Well..." Mike looked back to Oto's room, "if you say so. Tell him I hope he feels better soon. And that he shouldn't drink so much." He continued down the steps and waved goodbye to the old man before opening the front door and leaving.

Mungo sighed and slumped his shoulders. He hated lying, he hoped he wouldn't have to do it again - or at least not too often. He carried the cup of coffee the rest of the way upstairs and knocked on Oto's bedroom door.

"Oto? I have the coffee for you."

The man in bed groaned something that sounded like "come in", which Mungo took as such, and he entered. Setting the coffee down on the nightstand next to the bed, he sat down on the mattress next to Oto and gently pat him through the covers.

"How are you feeling, Oto?" Mungo asked, looking at him through his small glasses with pitying eyes.

"Like shit." Oto grumbled. "It hurts to even talk to him.... it hurt when he called me Otter, Mungo. I used to be so happy when he called me that. What am I gonna do, I can't even face him after this." He shifted under the sheets and curled up into an even tighter ball.

"Time heals all wounds, Oto," Mungo told him as he slowly slid the covers off of the man, who squint and covered his eyes. "After a while you two will talk about things and sort this out. Maybe you'll move past him."

"But I don't want to move past him," Oto retorted, "I like him, I want to like him. It's so complicated."

"Isn't love always?"

"I'm gonna ask not to go on cases with him fer a while. Not gonna say why, I just won't do it." Oto said resolutely.

The old man sighed as the younger one sat up, and handed him the cup of coffee. "I may not have been married in the last fifteen years, but I don't think that's a good idea. But I know how stubborn you can get. I know love is a complicated son of a bitch. A battlefield, I guess you could call it."

Oto took a sip of the coffee, thankful that Mungo had somehow found a way to make the drink not taste as bitter as he himself felt. "It's so strange... It's like I can almost forget about it, almost, when he isn't around. But when I see him it's like an old wound just got stabbed again, and I get all hard and angry and depressed..."

"I understand." Mungo said, patting Oto's hand. "Do what you need, I have faith things will work out eventually." He looked at his watch and widened his eyes. "Oh, look at the time, I have to get to my seniors' yoga class."

Oto swallowed down another gulp of coffee with a furrowed brow. "You take yoga class?"

"Teach," Mungo clarified, standing up and heading for the door. "Someone has to pull people's legs from behind their necks. REst well Oto, and, I'm surprised I'm the one to tell you this, but... have faith."

Oto nodded and watched him leave. He lied back on his bed and closed his eyes. Without Mungo to keep him distracted his brooding thoughts slowly began to return and fill his head with terrible words.

Maybe he deserved this? Was his father right? No, no, hell to the no, his father was wrong, push that out immediately. Was it karma for feeling happy about his death though? Or did the universe just consider him its personal punching bag, one that it just wouldn't stop hitting until it finally broke him off his chain?

Mike wouldn't want him thinking this way.

It was a flash of a though, it only lasted for a second. But it stopped his negative thoughts in their tracks and forced them to the very back of his mind. And despite how awful thinking of Mike made him feel... it was true. Mike would never tolerate his self-deprecation under any circumstances, not at all. If he could, he'd sucker punch it into next week.

Feeling only marginally better, he finished his coffee and got back under the covers to sleep the rest of his hangover off. He'd try to save his anxiety over whether Mike could survive without him to guard against artifact adversities when he was awake.

Chapter 16 - Teasel Edit

---June 3, 1978---

Oto walked into the office, the Umbilicus door opening with a beep. Setting his light jacket on the table and closing the door behind him, he took a sip of tea from his thermos and recoiled slightly from the strong taste. It had been at least 2 weeks since he had started adding a tiny bit "extra" to his tea in the mornings and he still wasn't used to it. He thought about how much Mungo had hounded him when he found out, and how he eventually relented to lessening the amount of alcohol he added for the sake of his head and liver.

Shaking his head, he set the thermos on the table as well and walked over to a filing cabinet to grab a few inventory files. He took out a small folder this time - this morning he felt too exhausted tp do much work today. And yesterday. Or the day before that. He was ashamed at how much productivity he had lost in the past month, a loss that didn't go unnoticed but thankfully did go unconfronted. He didn't particularly want or need to get relationship advice from Mrs. Frederic of all people, thank you very much. He took the folder and turned to go out to the balcony down to the storage level, but stopped when he heard two voices getting closer to the door.

"I wouldn't exactly call myself lucky, Michael." Joe told the other agent as they reached the windows that overlooked the balcony.

"It's a case in the Bahamas, how is that not lucky?!" Mike asked him exasperatedly. "Beach, boys, bikinis, water, those drinks with the cute little umbrellas in them," he pinched his thumb and forefinger together to emphasize just how small the umbrellas were.

"Yes, and how am I going to enjoy it while I'm on a case?" Joe asked.

"You're always such a spoilsport Sweets, you gotta learn to live a litt-" Mike stopped when they walked through the open doorway into the office and saw Oto, who had quickly scrambled to sit down at the table and look busy. "Oh, hey Ott-"

"Hey." Oto nterrupted hm, sounding a bit stonier than he had meant to. Damn, now he made it even more awkward.

Mike awkwardly looked away, switching between fidgeting with the ring on his finger and his hair.

Joe looked back and forth at the two agents and groaned, trudging over to the desk and pulling out two manila enveloped from the middle drawer. He turned around and shoved one into Oto's open hand as he passed and then did the same with Mike.

"Before he left," Joe explained in an annoyed tone as he stood to the side, "Charlie told me that he had a collection of cases in his drawer that were either of minor note and didn't warrant immediate attention, or minor things like reports of hauntings or rare monster sightings."

"Charlie told you stuff?" Oto asked, looking through the envelope.

"And not us?" Mike added as he did the same.

"Unlike Oto, I always work." Joe said. Oto lowered his reddening face in shame. "And unlike you, Michael, I actually get work done in a timely, by-the-book manner. I don't dawdle." He walked over to the Umblicus door and opened it, drabbed a straw hat from the hat rack, and took out a pair of sunglasses from his pocket. He put both on and turned to face the other agents again, addressing them with a serious tone that contrasted with his new look. "I don't pretend to know what made either of you so weird, but for the sake of the Warehouse you better put it aside." With that, he left and closed the door behind him.

Oto and Mike stared at the door in silence for a moment. The former stood up and walked around aimlessly as he read the case file.

"Office building reported haunted by locals." Oto began.

"Building condemned after an urban explorer was injured." Mike continued, leaning against the desk.

"We really should investigate minor stuff like this more often, just in case."

Mike nodded slowly, eyeing Oto from a few feet away. He inched his way over to him as if he were an animal he didn't want to spook. Oto didn't notice as he continued to read the file.

"Mike," Oto said. The other man sighed inside - he was willing to talk to him for once. "I ain't sure I wanna go on this case." He looked at the various minor reports included by other urban explorers and ghost investigators.

"What's the matter Otter, scared of an office ghost story?" Mike asked and nudged his shoulder as he closed his own envelope with a grin, trying to lessen the thck tension in the room that had been building between them for a month now.

"Ghosts an' I haven't really gotten along well since you convinced me to watch The Exorcist." Oto admitted, looking away at the ground in a mix of embarrassment and a lack of desire to be near Mike. He still felt horrible about last month, but at least he no longer felt a sharp stab in his heart whenever he heard Mike's voice, hear him call him by his nickname, see him smile...

"C'mon, those kinds of ghosts aren't real... at least I don't think. But you can hold my hand if you see a shadow person, ya scaredy cat." Mike teased, putting his hand on his partner's shoulder.

"Never mind." Oto grumbled quickly and shrugged his hand away. "I'll take my chances with Linda Blaire. Let's just get this over with and not spend more time than we need to on it." He went back over to the table and began to collect his things.

Mike kept his hand in the air and followed Oto with his gaze. He furrowed his brow and wondered what went wrong. He stuck his other hand into his pocket and fiddled with something before walking out the Umbilicus after him.

Chapter 17 - Campanula Edit

---Chandler, Arizona---

The pair of agents drove down the road to their destination, having received the address of the office building in their reports. As Mike drove, Oto held up his Farnsworth so he could fill Joe in on what they knew so far without having to get distracted from the road.

As he held up the device, Oto looked absent-mindedly out the window, his arm bent on the door's armrest and his chin on his knuckles. He stared, barely seeing the various stores pass, hardly registering when those stores were momentarily replaced by an open field of grass before swiping quickly back to the urban jungle. What he did register, however, was Mike's voice, which seemed to break its way through his torpor like a battering ram as he continued to talk to Joe.

God, he missed his voice.

Sure, he heard it every day at the B&B. And at the Warehouse. But at first he tried to avoid it like the plague, to avoid the hurt. After a week of trying and immediately failing, it stopped hurting a little, but he just ended up not wanting to hear it so much at all.

Of course, he still wanted to hear him anyway, his mind was a living paradox. But he didn't want to hear it as coming from someone he disliked, but someone he liked. Loved. Not that he actually hated him...

He almost constantly wished, longed to hear Mike's voice, really hear it. To hear Mike call him Otter again, like a lover instead of a friend, when he was lonely. Other times he just wished Mike would never speak to him again, not out of hatred, but to keep himself from going to bed in tears for the third time that week. He wanted Mike to look at him and see him like Oto used to see him.. still saw him...

He wanted... wanted... wanted...

"Otter," Mike directly addressing him snapped him out of his thought and made him flinch a little, "you can close the Farnsworth now. Joe says so far he hasn't found his artifact yet, but a few more days undercover as a tourist should get him results. I think he almost smiled, he's making progress."

Oto closed the Farnsworth and tucked it back into his pocket. He wanted to say something, but didn't have a clue as to what. He just wanted to say anything, but eventually decided against it. Being in constant close proximity to Mike was starting to confuse him - should he be feeling better or worse? He seemed to be feeling both. He snuck a sideways glance at Mike's smiling face and felt a bit better. Then he looked down at the ring on his finger as it wrapped around the steering wheel and decided he felt much worse. He frowned, crossed his arms, and turned his body to face the window.

"Y'know Otter," Mike said as he turned the steering wheel to make a turn at an intersection, "After this case, once we get home, you wanna go get dinner at the diner maybe?"

Oto jerked a little in his seat. "Why's that?" 'Why is he asking me?' he thought. 'Why not take Benjamin? People usually take their fiancée to dinner, don't they?'

Mike shrugged, turning the wheel back to its normal position and putting his hands at 10 and 2. "It's been a while since we've spoken, and last Friday when I went there with Benny, I found out they have a new Pancake Mountain option. you can get these ten huge pancakes for free if you finish them in an hour or less!" He spoke excitedly with wide eyes and an even wider smile. Oto remembered Mike coming to the B&B the week prior in Benjamin's arms with a hand clutching his stomach. He had seemed sick and kept muttering "pahncah... pahncah..." At least now Oto knew what that was about.

"I'm... busy, actually." Oto muttered his answer. He slumped backwards into his passenger seat, resting his hand on his chin and his elbow back on the window.

"Really?" Mike asked. "What do you gotta do, organize your Bible collection in order of publication?" He chuckled at his comment, intending it to be a joke to cheer Oto up. He usually had to stifle a smirk whenever he made a religion joke.

Oto's face turned slightly red. "No. I'm just busy, okay, Michael?"

Mike's smile left his face faster than Mrs. Frederic popped out of a room. He remained quiet for a while this time. Oto had always, always referred to him by his nickname. Always. Not calling him Mike... it was jarring. It felt wrong. He gripped the steering wheel tighter, his knuckles whitening, and pushed down hrder on the gas pedal, challenging the speed limit with a rev of the car's engine.

"Okay."

Chapter 18 - Yellow Lily Edit

The pair drove in silence for some time before they finally reached their destination, the abandoned office building. It reached several stories high, covered in graffiti on the outside of the ground floor and practically every window broken to some degree. They were stopped by a large chain-link gate with a warning sign stuck to the front.

Mike and Oto emerged from the car and stared at the sign for a moment. They looked at the large padlock keeping the gate closed, and Oto went back to the car to retrieve his lock picking tools. When he came back, he knelt down to start working. As Oto had been getting his equipment, Mike straightened his rolled up sleeves, undid his tie and tossed it in the car, then undid some of the top buttons of his shirt.

"What are you doing?" Oto asked, watching him while fiddling with two picks.

He was answered by his partner jumping up and grabbing onto the gate with a grunt. "Gotta get across somehow, right?" He smirked and began to climb. "C'mon, this is a race, you wanna win, don't you?"

Oto shook his head in exasperation. Always making a game out of things, trying to make fun. Mike always managed to bounce back from anything. Oto had to admit, he did feel competitive - he always had when Mike turned something into a competition. He remembered the time they were making a cake for Mungo's birthday when Mike suggested they make it a contest to see who makes the best cake in the least amount of time. It wasn't long before Mungo had found them both in the kitchen, everything including themselves covered head to toe in flour, yelling at each other as they mixed their batter furiously, eyes burning with intense rivalry. Then they started throwing said delicious batter a each other. He swore he still found it whenever he took a shower these days.

He picked faster, but focused also on not being clumsy and breaking his picks. He head the fence rattle and clink rapidly as Mike hurriedly ascended it. Mike was just over the top, his stomach bent over it, smiling victoriously when the fence swung to the side without warning.

"Woop!" Mike shouted in surprise, almost losing his grip and falling.

Oto walked through the now wide open gate, the undone padlock on the ground, with a cocky grin aimed up at his partner. "Consider this payback for winning the cake contest." He said, waving his fingers as he continued into the building. "And be sure to get the equipment!"

Mike smiled behind him, an eyebrow raised, and struggle to get off the fence. Instead, he rolled off, arms flailing, and landed on the ground with a grunt.

---

Both agents were not inside and on the second floor, having found nothing on the first. They were about halfway to the staircase now, and were looing for and bagging every object they could find. While Mike surveyed the room with a flashlight, behind him Oto contemplated in silence, having turned around to look in the other direction.

That little bout of cheerful competition did make him feel better, he admitted. Oto had a habit of getting over stuff relatively quickly, so long as it didn't continue to take up most of his attention. If he were in an argument and was given a break without continuing to fight, he'd be fine, but he would still get grumpy whenever the subject that the fight had been about was brought back up again. He supposed that's why Mike was such a conundrum to him; it had been a month since Mike's announcement, and he had no longer obsessed over it like he had the first week. But whenever he saw Mike it just brought all of it back, though to a lesser degree. It reminded him how he'd never be together with him, never get loved back by him...

As Oto thought, the agents found another staircase and began their ascent upwards, Mike making one last sweep with his flashlight before continuing on.

But at the same time, as much as he wished he would stay upset, to hold onto that emotion, he couldn't help now but to feel happy again whenever Mike did something specifically to lighten his mood. Like the fence race.

He wanted... to move on. Oto wanted to move on. It all hit him at once, like a tidal wave of determination and positivity rolled into one. He wanted to apologize to Mike, to tell him how he felt, to be friends again. Even if they couldn't be together. At least they would both be happy again.

Oto turned back around and started walking to Mike with the intention of giving him the hardest hug that man had or ever would receive in the history of hugging, when he was interrupted by a strange noise.

"Did you hear that?" Mike paused and held up his flashlight-carrying hand, keeping his Tesla in front of him. Oto, behind him and carrying a handgun, paused immediately, his left leg momentarily raised in the air before he slowly brought it down to the floor. The old building remained quiet for a moment, but the silence was soon broken by the sound of an old phone ringing somewhere above them.

"...This place has been abandoned fer decades, how's there a phone ringin'?" Oto asked in a whisper, both unnerved by the noise and angry at being interrupted.

"I'm guessing that's what's behind all these haunting stories." Mike held his flashlight in his mouth and fished out a silver bag and a pair of gloves, handing them over to his partner, then putting the flashlight back in his hand. "This'll be a snap, right Otter? Just a harmless phone, I'm betting you."

Chapter 19 - Red Catchfly Edit

Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring.

Oto and Mike reached the next floor quickly, and for some reason the phone was still ringing. It had been at least a full minute by now since it started, according to their watches. Abandoned cubicles, overturned desks riddled with holes, and broken printers were suffocating under thick layers of dust decades in the making that floated in the air and made the agents cough.

Ring ring. Ring ring.

"That phone's getting really creepy now." Mike said as he shone his flashlight, a necessity in the darkness of the office building, on the old rotary phone that had browned and crusted with age, but refused to break down after all this time, as if it still had a purpose that had yet to be fulfilled and it wouldn't go down without a fight.

"And annoyin' as hell," Oto added, "c'mon, let's bag it."

Mike handed his partner the bag and gloves and stowed away his Tesla. Oto walked over to the phone slowly and carefully in case the phone was proximity activated, gloved hand outstretched to grab the phone and stuff it into the large silver bag.

Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring. Ring ring.

Oto admitted to himself that he honestly wondered what effects the phone had, if any, beyond simply ringing without power. Maybe he'd test it once they were at the Warehouse with more Neutralizer at the ready, just to be on the safe side. Then again, his curiosity was burning now as he crept closer to the artifact, and it wasn't like he could be hit with the downside anyway.

He grabbed the old black phone by the base in one hand, the body vibrating slightly as it rang, and held it up above the bag momentarily, before he set the bag down and picked up the receiver and held it up to his ear.

"Hey, honey, I'm gonna be a little late home tonight."

---

While Oto listened to the phone call in silence as if he were spellbound, Mike tried to pull the receiver away from Oto's head, out of his hand, anything. No matter how hard he pulled, however, he just couldn't dislodge the damn thing, and had grown more and more frustrated.

"Otter? Otter, can you hear me?" He asked, but got no answer other than Oto's blank star, locked straight ahead.

Mike groaned in frustration and proceeded to work on the phones body. Picking it out of Oto's hand, incredibly thankful that he could at least move that, he slung his Neutralizer bucket off his shoulder and set it on the table. He pulled off the lid and promptly dunked the body into the purple goo. But it got no reaction. When he pulled it back off, the layer of goo that dripped over it quickly hardened and cracked into a dull purple crust before breaking off all at once and falling to the tabletop below it with little clinks and clatters.

"Dammit, dammit, dammit!" He muttered, stomping his foot angrily. He jumped when he heard a loud gunshot from the receiver, but still Oto didn't flinch, didn't even blink. The shot was followed by about ten seconds of silence before Oto dropped the receiver onto the table, where it clattered loudly, with a sharp intake of breath and backed away. Mike took the chance to quickly dunk the phone back into the bucket and swiftly close the lid just as it finally reacted with a flash and sizzle, signaling the artifact was indeed neutralized.

Mike rushed over to Oto and grabbed his arms to steady him. "Otter, talk to me, are you okay?" He asked with great concern, his brows furrowed.

"W-wha-?" Oto tried to mutter.

"What did you do that for?" Mike asked, raising his voice. "I know you have immunity but still! You scared me to death, I thought something serious was gonna happen! For all we know the phone could have just shot you in the head, and then what was I gonna do?!"

Oto was speechless for a moment, caught off guard by Mike's anger. He had never seen Mike angry at anyone or anything before... it scared him a little.

Mike let go of Oto's arms and slid his hands down to his wrists. He lowered his head, his long hair falling over his face limply. "I'm sorry I raised my voice, I shouldn't have... you scared me. I was so worried."

"M-Mike," Oto began reaching a hand out to try and hold Mike's hands back, but the blond backed away without noticing and went to grab the bucket.

"C'mon, let's get this thing to the car." He hoisted the bucket onto his shoulder, glaring at it, and walked Oto by the shoulder out the building, guiding him carefully down the multiple flights of stairs.

Oto was too rattled by everything to say anything to his partner. Why couldn't he put down the phone? Shouldn't he have been immune to any side effects? Or was that not the adversities and he really had gotten off scot free? Not to mention Mike raising his voice at him.... He understood that he was just scared, Oto was too, but in an instant he felt rather meek. The sudden surge of elation and motivation to tell Mike he was sorry had all but passed anyway.

Mike opened the passenger side door and helped Oto inside before storing the bucket in the trunk, slamming it closed with another glare, and getting into the driver's seat.

"At least nothing went really bad." Mike said with a forced attempt at a smile. "You're not dead or growing a second head at least."

Oto nodded, but stayed silent. Yeah, at least he wasn't dead.

He just wished that high pitched ringing in his head would go away. It was really getting on his nerves.

---

"Well," Mike said proudly as he placed the old rotary phone on a shelf in the Samhain Sector, "That was... weird." he peeled the purple gloves off of his hands and stuffed them into his back pocket, clapping his hands together to get the pesky texture off his palms. He turned to his partner beside him. "How you couldn't let go of the phone no matter what, I mean."

Oto shrugged and took off his own gloves before walking away. "Effect of the phone, obviously." He said grumpily.

Mike followed behind him, "You sure you're okay Otter? I mean, you have immu-"

"Don't call me that anymore." Oto interrupted Mike abruptly, still walking.

Mike stopped, caught by surprise by the aggressive comment. He furrowed his brow in confusion. "W-what? Why, what's wrong?" He jogged back up to meet the other man, who only quickened his pace in response.

"I'm not your friend, you don't get to call me stupid pet names anymore." Oto responded in a cold and angry tone, shooting Mike a glare that froze him in his tracks once more and left him feeling somewhat numb and hurt. He moved over to the other side of the aisle and continued on his way, leaving Mike behind.

Mike watched, his hair having fallen over his face from the suddenness of his halt, and watched with a hard expression as his best friend walked away.

"Otter..."

Chapter 20 - Filbert Edit

---June 4, 1978---

Mike sat on the couch the next evening, longways so that his head and feet were on the opposing armrests, fiddling with a pink diamond ring. He stared at the silver band and the sparkling gemstone with a furrowed brow and frown, which was an almost unheard of expression for him to make.

From the kitchen, a man with gelled back strawberry blond hair walked into the living room carrying a watering can in one hand and a Walkman in the other, headphones secured over his ears. He hummed an upbeat tune until he spoke.

"Gonna go water the tuli-" He paused when he saw Mike's dour expression. He pulled off the headphones and set both items down on a nearby table, then walked over to the agent. "Hey, Mikey, what's the matter?"

Mike glanced up and tried to crack a smile to cover up his frown. "Oh, nothing hon, nothing. Just thinking about work is all."

Benjamin sat down on the middle cushion next to Mike's torso. "C'mon Mikey, I know your real smike from your fake ones. What's wrong?"

His lover sighed and put his wrist over his eyes. "It's Otter. Something's wrong and I have no clue what."

Ben raised the inner corners of his eyebrows. "Oto? You mean your work partner?"

Mike nodded. "Ever since last month he's been really distant. He hasn't spoken with me for so long. Then when we had to work together again yesterday, it looked like we were getting along again until..."

"Until what?" Ben asked.

"Until he said he didn't want to be friends anymore." Mike answered with a deep, long sigh. He turned over on the couch to face the back, the ring clutched in his fist.

Ben looked both offended and confused. "What? Mikey, he's your best friend, why would he say he didn't want to be friends anymore?"

"I don't know!" Mike exclaimed. "It came out of nowhere and... maybe it was me coming out?" He asked more to himself than to Ben. "Maybe I shouldn't have?"

"Hey, no." Ben grabbed Mike by the shoulders and pulled him up to face him. "You've told me so much about him, he never sounded like the kind of person to hate you for this."

"He grew up religious." Mike countered sadly. "His father-"

"And you told me he hated him and stood up to him." Ben countered back.

"What if it's something else I did then? I'm always trying to stay happy and crack jokes to keep everyone else happy too. Am I annoying? Or do I not know when to quit, or-" He was starting to cry now, feeling hot tears start to run down his face. "Was it my fault? Does he hate me?"

Ben immediately pulled Mike into a tight embrace and rubbed his shoulder in soothing circles. He stroked his hair and spoke softly into his ear. "Shh, shh, it wasn't your fault, I promise."

"H-how can y-you be so s-s-sure?" Mike asked through his sobbing, sniffling as tears fell from his chin onto Ben's shoulder.

Ben pulled Mike back and wiped the tears from his face with his thumb, brushing his long hair from his face. "You're always so cheerful and assume the best of people," he said. "When you're down, one of us has to have hope to compensate, right?"

Mike chuckled and hugged Ben again, wiping the rest of his tears on his lover's shoulder. He pulled back again and kissed Ben for a long few seconds. "Thank you Benny, I don't know what I'd do without you."

"Just don't cry anymore. When you cry we both end up going through a whole box of tissues." Ben said with an amused smirk.

Mike held up the ring in his fingers and stared at it again, this time more happily. He made up his mind; tomorrow he would fix this. Somehow. One way or another, he and Oto were going to be friends again.

Chapter 21 - Rhododendron Edit

---June 5, 1978---

Oto had woken up earlier than normal that morning with a terrible headache. He had no clue why, he hadn't gotten drunk last night. Had he? No, he didn't taste beer on his tongue. Getting out of bed had been hard either way, slight movements made him feel like an ice pick was being jammed into his forehead.

He did his best to trudge down the stairs without his head splitting open and managed to get to the kitchen relatively fine. Mungo was probably out shopping again - he tried not to shop during the weekend when the local market was more crowded. Luckily though, the pantry was still decently stocked up with plenty of food for breakfast. And the cabinet still had plenty of aspirin to boot.

Oto started to brew himself a cup of tea, but was so tired he accidentally put the leaves from the bag into the coffeemaker. Rather annoyed, he decided to at least see if it would still work (he doubted it). If it got gummed up that was Mungo's problem, not his. As he waited for his drink he crossed his arms and tapped his foot impatiently. He considered taking the medicine dry, but before he could act the machine started to release his beverage.

Or at least he tried to. It only gave out an abysmally small amount of tea into his cup. He picked the mug up and glowered at it before slamming his fist onto the counter, hard enough to rattle the cabinets and their contents. He swore under his breath. He didn't feel like making another stupid, goddamn cup.

He turned around and walked out of the kitchen, now both tired and grumpy. That damn headache wasn't helping anything either.

Something felt off though... Oto looked around, trying to place what was wrong. It was right on the tip of his - oh yeah, he was still alone. Whenever Oto would wake up, Mike had always ended up getting up soon after to talk to him, no matter how early he got up or how tired they both ended up getting. Why wasn't he here? Didn't he see him last night?

Oh, no. No, he didn't see him last night, did he? Mike had gone out and went on a date with Benjamin and went home with Benjamin and took Benjamin to bed and-

"Ow!" Oto hissed as he felt a sharp pain in his left and and something hit his feet. "What the-?" He looked down and saw his mug, or at least what was left of it. Now it was just a collection of shards, some on the floor and one piece embedded slightly in his hand. He stared at it for a few moments, dumbfounded, before grabbing it and pulling it out with a wince. At least it wasn't so bad that he'd need stitches. Why did his mug spontaneously shatter though? He didn't even remember what happened. One second he was thinking about Mike and Benjamin, then 'blip!', he was staring at his cup in pieces. Like his memory had blinked. Oto blamed it on the stress and lack of sleep. He stepped carefully over the glass on the floor and left it to Mungo to clean up. That was the old man's job right? He walked back upstairs to wash his wound and get dressed to head to the Warehouse.

---Warehouse 13---

Once he arrived at the Warehouse Oto immediately set out to work on inventory. Without a supervisor to directly give him assignments the agents had had to keep a rotating schedule of who does what work, and today was his turn to take stock.

Taking the clipboard out of the filing cabinet and a pen from the desk, he walked out to the balcony and down the stairs while flipping through the papers to decide which sections he'd work on. Arctic? No, too cold. The Excavation Site? He didn't feel like getting dirt on his clothes. Valentine Aisle? Hell no. He tapped his pen on the side of the clipboard in thought, getting more and more frustrated that he couldn't decide.

Next to him, a Chattery Teeth toy began rattling on its own, vibrating towards the other end of its shelf. Oto turned towards it, grumbled, and reached out to grab it and put it back. Before his hand got close enough though, it vibrated more violently and moved further away even faster.

"Stupid teeth." Oto muttered. He followed it as it neared another artifact, a small framed photograph of a family posing for the camera. Just as he was about to grab the teeth before it collided with the picture, it jumped off the shelf and onto the floor, clattering away rapidly. He growled and glared at it, but turned back around to the shelf when he heard a noise, to see the picture frame spin itself around on one of its corners and land face down on the shelf, vibrating. With a raised brow he reached forward to pick it up, but it vibrated more and moved away.

'What the hell is up with these...' he thought. But before he could finish it, he heard something rattling. Or rather, a lot of somethings. All around him, every artifact on every shelf was vibrating, glowing, going off in some way or another. The shelves themselves shook with the collective force, several artifacts threatening to topple over the sides if not topple the shelves themselves. But they weren't vibrating in place - they seemed to be moving away from something. Something in the middle of the aisle, between the shelves. Away from him.

Oto looked this way and that, confused, staring at the artifacts around him in mounting fear. Before he could even think about getting out his Farnsworth to call Mike, the headache that had slightly subsided since that morning returned with a vengeance. That ice pick had been replaced with a pick-axe, and was chipping away at his skull. He collapsed to the floor and cried out in pain, clutching his head as all around him the artifacts started to go from vibrating to bouncing, flipping, anything to get away from him. Like they were afraid.

The headache continued to grow worse and worse until finally, Oto blacked out.

---B&B---

Mungo huffed as he sat on his knees and swept up the bits of broken glass with a small brush and dustpan. He was lucky that yoga kept his back in such good shape. But the poor floor, it was scratched and stained now. He wasn't sure which he preferred, an unscratched but stained rug, or a scratched but dry floor. Either way, he'd have to clean it and buff it out now. He shook his head and wondered who would have dropped it and hadn't at least tried to clean it up.

Behind him, he heard the front door open followed by the clinking of keys. "Heya Mungo," he heard Mike greet him as he walked into the living room. "What happened?"

Mungo turned his head slightly to see him and sighed. "Oh, some fool dropped their coffee cup and din't bother cleaning up after themselves. I swear it's like I run a daycare sometimes."

Mike set a bag down on a table next to the couch and peered over Mungo's shoulder at the mess. "You mean Otter?"

Mungo shrugged and muttered something under his breath as he continued to sweep while trying not to send more tea from the floor onto the carpet.

"I'll have to ask him about that when he gets back later..." Mike said.

Mungo swept up the last of the glass and stood up with a drawn out groan, rubbing his leg. As he walked to the kitchen to deposit the detritus into the disposal, Mike sat down on the couch and propped up his feet on the coffee table, putting his hands behind his head.

"I'll be upstairs," Mungo told him. "I think I'll have a short nap before I work on the yard later."

"Mungo, man, you should just nap for the sake of having a nap. No work, you're always doing something. Relax a little!" Mike said as the old man walked up the stairs.

"I'll have a good rest when my heart stops, thank you very much." Mungo replied with a quick smirk, then continued up to his room.

---Univille---

Oto jerked when he awoke, taking short and sharp intakes of breath. He out a hand to his temple and hissed, the pain still lingering, but not as bad as it had just been. A moment later he heard the sound of a honking horn and realized he was in his car driving down the street. Specifically the wrong side of it. He looked up and saw a DB6 headed straight for him. He cried out and swerved the steering wheel hard to the right, just barely missing the other driver as they continued to blare their horn behind him. When he turned around to watch, he saw the other driver stick their hand out of their window to show him just how angry they were.

"What the hell?!" He asked aloud, shaken both by the near death experience and suddenly finding himself in his car. How did he get here from the Warehouse? What happened in the Warehouse? He looked around the car for any potential clues, but found nothing int he back seat, and nothing in the front other than his Farnsworth and Tesla, which had been tossed into the passenger seat.

Oto almost grabbed the Farnsworth to call someone about his blackout, thinking he might have somehow been affected by an artifact, but in his peripheral vision he saw that he was nearing the B&B. Almost immediately the searing headache returned. It took his entire concentration to park in front of the building and avoid swerving and crashing into the sign, but he thankfully managed. Once the car was safely parked his hands shot from the wheel and clutched his skull in a futile attempt to silence the pain.

He looked up at the B&B and noticed his vision began to blur and shrink until it was a small muddy circle through which he could barely see. After another moment his vision cleared and he could see normally, but something felt wrong. He couldn't move his hands anymore, or his head, or anything. His brain was giving the subconscious command, sending signals to his limbs, but his body just didn't listen. It felt like he was floating inside of himself, seeing through his own eyes but shifting slowly in an empty void. Instead, his head turned on its own and his hand reached into the glove compartment. A moment later, it pulled out his Warehouse-issued handgun.

'What's going on?' Oto asked. He tried to say it out loud, but not even his mouth would do as it was told, so his question merely came out as a thought. He watched from within his void as his body checked that the firearm was loaded, exited the car, and made its way to the building's front door.

'kill... kill...' A disembodied voice whispered around him. It was a voice, but not one Oto could accurately describe. It was like trying to describe how the voice inside your head when you read a book sounded - you couldn't. 'Kill... Kill...' The voice became louder, more sinister. In an instant, Oto somehow understood the intent this voice had for his body.

It wanted to kill Mike.

Oto started fighting as hard as he could as his body walked up the steps, struggling to get a foothold, regain some semblance of control. He didn't know how he was fighting, but he was doing it. His body opened the door and walked inside. It looked around for a moment until it located its target, sitting on the couch holding something small and shiny between its fingers.

Oto's body took a step forward.

"Otter?" Mike asked, looking up and over the back of the couch. "I was hoping you'd come by." He rose from the couch and walked over to greet his partner with an always ready smile. "I wanted to tell you someth-"

Oto's body raised its armed hand and aimed its firearm at Mike, who took a startled step back and held up his hands.

"Whoa! O-Otter, what's, what's with the gun buddy?" Mike asked nervously.

Oto could say nothing, couldn't tell Mike to run, or to tackle him and take the gun away. He fought harder. He felt his fingers and mouth twitch.

His body pulled back the hammer. Stared blankly.

Mike stepped back further, his back bumping into the couch. "Otter, please, please don't do this. Whatever I did to you to make you do this, I'm sorry, but please, you don't have to do this."

"m...M...Mike!" Oto managed to finally shout. with a burst of strength he regained control of his body just before it could pull the trigger and yanked it down. "Mike, you have to run!"

"What's going on?" Mike asked frantically. "Why do you have a gun?!"

"That phone, it got me," Oto said, feeling his hand start to shake as the inner voice fought him for dominance. "Mike, you gotta run, it's gonna kill you!" Slowly, his armed hand began to rise again, pointing once more at his partner.

Mike took a tentative step towards Oto, his hands still raised defensively. "It's gonna be okay, Otter. I-I'll call someone and get help, I'm not lea-"

"No!" Oto objected sharply. "I can't fight this thing for long, it's too strong, I'm already losin'." He grunted and strained, his face turning red, and slowly raised the gun and pointed it at his own chin.

"What are you doing?!" Mike asked, genuinely terrified. "Otter, what are you doing? You can't do this!"

"I love you Mikey!" Oto shouted. "I love you too much to risk hurtin' ya, or worse. If I can't fight long enough, it'll take control again and hurt anyone around me before help comes. There's no other way..." He blinked and began to sob, tears running heavily down his face and dripping from his chin.

"Otter, put the gun down, please. I'm begging you, just put it down." Mike said through heavy, terrified sobs.

Oto closed his eyes. He could hear and feel that evil presence in his mind shout louder and louder and fight him harder and harder, struggling to take back control of his hand. It took every ounce of Oto's strength to keep his hand steady, but he could not yet pull the trigger with that voice fighting him.

Suddenly Mike jumped forward and grabbed Oto's arm to try and yank the gun away. Oto opened his eyes and struggled to pull the gun back towards himself, but Mike was beginning to make headway. Oto was starting to lose strength, both to Mike and the voice, unable to keep concentration with his attention split between the two. He struggled to keep his finger steady as his vision started to blur.

Mike grunted and managed to pull the gun back, inadvertently aiming it at himself as he tried to pull it out of his partner's hands. All of this happened in the span of a few seconds.

"NO, OTTE-"

Bang.

Oto blinked. His vision sharpened, and suddenly he was in complete control of his body once again. His hand was on the hun, and he felt his forefinger squeezed tightly over the trigger. He looked ahead and stared, wide-eyed at Mike. Mike raised his head slowly, still gripping Oto's hand, as a dark wet stain on his chest rapidly grew.

"...I forgive you..." Mike said softly. Then he slid to the ground, where he stayed motionless.

Oto suddenly felt the world around him sway and turn upside down. He became dizzy and fell to his knees, his breathing becoming as rapid as his pounding heartbeat. He grabbed Mike and held him up, cradling his lifeless body in his arms.

"Please, no, please, pleasepleaseplease..." He sobbed. He prayed. He prayed for forgiveness, he prayed for Mike to live, he prayed for this all to just be a terrible nightmare. He could feel himself start to shut down completely, going into shock. He barely feel the tears coming even more freely now, soaking Mike's reddening shirt. But he could not speak. He could not scream. He was going numb.

That voice, that evil voice, laughed, increasing in volume. It had gotten what it wanted. But it was insatiable. It wanted more. It needed more.

One thing Oto could feel was himself curling up into a ball. But not physically - mentally. He felt the voice take control of his body slowly, the headache returning. So he curled up into a little ball in his mind...

It was becoming so quiet... weightless...

The headache was fading...

He curled up...

And Oto was no more.

Artifacts Mentioned or Seen Edit

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