To date, there are three million, four hundred and eighty-six thousand, two hundred and eleven unique curses on record. They range from the ridiculously simple to the excruciatingly complex, and each one is a riddle.
A curse, strictly defined, required four parts to be properly defined as such:
One, it had to have a designated target. This could be as specific as a single person or broad as an entire country, though certainly the efficacy of said curse diminished the more general its target.
Two, it had to require certain conditions in order to be triggered. A more refined curse required those be met every time it was enacted, but so long as the initial rules were met, a spell could be properly referred to as a curse.
Third, it had to take time to take effect. No proper curse started out at full power at its beginning; the best of them started as seeds and were allowed to grow, and perhaps even to adapt, depending upon the situation.
Which meant that fourth of all, there must be a way -- however small, however improbable and difficult -- to break it.
On Tuesday morning, Steven said, "It looks like Karolina is going to be in town for the week."
The name wasn't familiar to Leo, but K.K. groaned aloud, sliding down so low on the couch that her back was nearly flat to the seat. "Her? Scarface, you've pulled some pretty tasteless jokes before, but that one has to be one of the worst."
"I wouldn't joke about something like that," Steven said. He lifted his coffee mug to his mouth, but just stared across it, and Leo followed his gaze to see he was staring at Klaus. "Better forewarned before she arrives, right?"
Klaus's expression didn't change, and he didn't slow down his steady typing. The glare of the computer screen reflected in his glasses, which only added to the opacity of his expression. "Mm. I'm sure she would be happier to avoid us, as well."
"Klausie, no," K.K. said. She pushed herself back up again, her expression somewhere between a pout and a scowl. "No, no, after everything that happened, she should be the one apologizing, not you."
"Be that as it may." Klaus shrugged briefly, still not looking away from his screen. "Thank you for letting us know, Steven."
Steven hummed something that sounded like an agreement, then glanced at Leo with a raised eyebrow. "Ah, young man. You don't know who that is, do you?"
"Nope." Leo shrugged, though he glanced at Klaus again, briefly, before he looked back at Steven. "Not in the slightest."
"Of course not. You see, Karolina is--"
"She's a nuisance," K.K. put in. Though her lips pulled into an exaggerated sort of frown, there was something genuinely hard in her eye as she said it. "She's old-fashioned, bull-headed, and far too conservative for anyone's good."
"--She's a Fang Hunter," Steven said smoothly, as if K.K.'s interjection hadn't happened at all. "Ah, we've worked with her a few times in the past, before Libra. Her family is old friends with Klaus's."
That got a low whistle of surprise out of him. "Really?" He looked at Klaus again. "Though, uh, I'm guessing something happened, huh ..."
"Before your time, young man," Steven said, and K.K. slammed a fist against the table with a growl.
"I should have shot her when I had the chance."
"K.K." Klaus's voice was relatively mild, though there was an edge that Leo recognized his own mother using, whenever she was just short of shouting. "You're going to give Leonardo the wrong idea."
"Hell yeah, I'm giving him an idea! It's the right one!" She banged her fist again against the table and turned to Leo, her expression set in a frown. "Listen up, Leocchi. That woman has the biggest stick up her ass than anyone you'll ever meet."
"K.K.," Klaus said, still mild, "language."
"I'm surprised that she's capable of functioning without her precious rulebooks! Take those away from her, and what can she do? Nothing! And who does she blame? Everyone except herself! I'm telling you, if I'd been thinking properly at the time, I would have just fed her the barrel of my gun--"
Steven sighed, low under K.K.'s rant, and wandered over to the couch, gently depositing himself down between Leo and K.K.
"There was an incident, about two and a half years before you came along," he said quietly. "No one in Hellsalem's Lot really knew how to deal with each other, huma and Beyondian both. Karolina's organization tracked a witch to the city, but because their methods clashed with Klaus's, and jurisdictions being as they were ..." He sighed and waved a hand. "There were civilian casualties."
"There were children," K.K. growled. She was practically vibrating with her rage now. "We did everything we could to make sure there were no casualties; it was because they couldn't bend that things went to hell! And that woman still had the guts to say it was our fault--"
"K.K." This time, Klaus's voice was sharp, like the crack of a whip, and K.K. finally shut up, though she was still trembling, her rage palpable. "Please. It was a long time ago. There is no point in dwelling upon it, unless there is something we could have learned from the incident."
Ah, Leo thought, taking a careful sip of his soda. He's dwelt on it.
"Anyway, she's not here tracking anything this time around," Steven said. His voice was nearly a drawl, and he stretched out his long legs, propping them on the coffee table and crossing them at the ankles. Everything about his tone and posture was precisely put together to look as casual as possible, but his eyes were cold enough to send a nervous chill down Leo's spine. "It looks like she's just restocking, and Hellsalem's Lot is the easiest place to get some of what she needs."
K.K. snorted rudely at that. "How the mighty have crumbled," she muttered, and got to her feet. "She's still got some nerve. Klausie, I'm taking off. Don't work too hard, you hear me?"
"Of course not." The sharp edge was gone from Klaus's voice; he sounded as mild as he ever did. "Have a good rest of the day, K.K."
She sighed, tossing a wave over her shoulder before she was gone, her boots clicking sharply against the floor. Steven watched her go, glanced over at Klaus, then sighed and set his mug down and got up as well.
"I've got meetings," he said. He didn't elaborate, but there was a particular grimace to his mouth that Leo had learned to recognize: I have meetings with people that Klaus wouldn't approve of, and as long as I don't volunteer any hints, he won't ask, and he won't have to know. He glanced at Leo, and some of his strain faded into a wry sort of smile. It was almost friendly. "No wild parties while I'm gone, young man."
Leo saluted sloppily, not bothering to straighten from his slouch. "Yessir, Mr. Steven sir," he said smartly, and that got him a hard ruffle of his hair before Steven was gone, too, leaving him alone with Klaus in the office.
For nearly a full minute, Leo thought he'd be able to hold out: his PSP was in his bag, and even if Zapp wasn't around, he could probably take a few quests on his own -- or maybe he could see if Gilbert needed any help with the cleaning, or --
He glanced at Klaus. Nothing about his posture or expression had changed since he'd scolded K.K., but there was a heavy sort of weight in the air; for a moment, Leo wondered if he would be able to see it, if he just forced his Eyes to focus enough.
With that in mind, he put his cup down and rose, shuffling his way over to Klaus's desk. Only when he started to make his way around it, where Klaus sat, did Klaus even seem to register him; he looked up, his brows drawn together. "Leonardo?"
He hesitated a moment -- even after several months, he could never quite tell precisely what was all right and what wasn't, according to Klaus's sense of propriety -- and then he decided ah, to hell with it and reached out, wrapping his arms around Klaus's neck and just leaning against him.
It was awkward, as hugs went, and Leo had the vague feeling he was doing something about it wrong, but shit. You were supposed to be supportive for your partner, right? So he'd do it, damnit. He could do this supportive boyfriend thing.
"Leonardo," Klaus said again, though now it was a sigh rather than a question. He leaned into that touch, just a little, and lifted a hand to touch Leo's elbow in turn. "It's all right. It was years ago. Libra didn't have half the influence it does now. And no matter what K.K. says, we were also at fault."
"Ms. K.K. always gets more worked up if kids are involved," Leo said, by way of agreement. He held the embrace for a few more seconds -- because it felt nice, actually, to his vague surprise -- then pulled away. Klaus's hand fell away from his arm easily as he did, and he nudged at a stack of paperwork so that he could hitch a hip onto the desk. "So. A family friend?"
"The Alvarssons and Reinherz have been allied for centuries," Klaus said quietly. "Our brothers still work together quite closely. But Karolina and I have not spoken since that day."
"... Oh." Leo kicked his feet a few times, considering his next words carefully. "Were you guys friends?"
Klaus leaned back in his chair. It groaned faintly under his weight, but held.
"More properly, I think you would say that we were rivals, and so that made us friends," he said at last. "We're about the same age, and both of us came along some years after our older siblings. A great deal was made about our potential. We trained under the same masters; we interacted with the same circles. When it was decided that I would be heading Libra, she was the first to congratulate me."
His voice went softer at the end, which was about as wistful as he ever got. Leo swung his legs a few more times and glanced at him; he'd actually turned his head, staring in the general direction of the mini-conservatory. One of his hands, resting on the desk by Leo's knee, had curled into a loose fist.
"Maybe you'll be able to patch things up someday," Leo said, looking at that hand before he glanced up again. "You're not that old, Mr. Klaus. I can't imagine anyone being mad at you forever."
Klaus blinked and looked back at Leo at that. For just a second, his eyes were wide and his expression was outright startled; in spite of his fierce features, there was something vulnerable about his expression. It reminded Leo of a lost kid, all fidgeting uncertainty.
Then he smiled.
It wasn't a large one, or terribly prominent -- Klaus never tried to smile with his mouth unless he was trying (usually too hard) to appease or appeal to someone -- but it softened his eyes and the rest of him; it brought him back down to earth, back within Leo's reach.
Sometimes (most of the time, to be honest) Klaus seemed practically mythical in his scope, both too good and too honorable for the real world to hold him. More than once Leo had despaired of that, intimidated by the gap between them. Klaus was a man larger than life, who both had and lived up to impossible standards, and Leo was ... Leo. Nothing terribly impressive at all.
But then, sometimes, Leo would be able to do or say something like this, and it would make Klaus -- check himself, somehow, and at least for a while, he was there and grounded. And while he was, Leo could touch him. There were so many things he was still nervous about, but at least like this ...
A warm hand touched Leo's face, the palm so wide that he could press his face into it. He had before. In spite of himself, he relaxed into it, reaching up to brush his fingertips against the back of that hand.
"Thank you, Leonardo," Klaus said. His eyes were still soft, and his voice gentle now. Some of the trouble had eased out of his expression, and Leo decided to count that as a win. "You're right. As long as we're both alive, there's no point in giving up hope."
"Right," Leo said brightly. He couldn't help but puff out his chest a little; how often did he actually manage to give advice -- and to Klaus, of all people! -- that got a reaction like that? "So, you know, however mad she is at you now ... I believe you'll be able to win her back over someday, Mr. Klaus. If anyone can, it'll be you."
On Wednesday morning, Leo tolerated a good-morning kiss and breakfast before heading out to a morning delivery shift at Dogimo's. (Klaus had offered and offered, and each time Leo had refused: he wanted neither a raise nor to move in; it wasn't much by way of independence, but no matter what the rest of the family thought -- Michella, what were you even telling them?! -- Leo himself wasn't quite ready to move to that sort of kept status.)
And on Wednesday afternoon, disaster struck.
Leo had just arrived at the building, set to head inside, when the door banged open and Klaus strode out, flanked by Steven and Zapp. Klaus was in the process of pulling on his gloves, and his expression was one of a familiar grim determination.
"Ah, Leonardo," he said. "Good timing. There's an incident."
"What?" he said, even as he turned on his heels, trotting to keep up. "Seriously? Isn't it early for that sort of thing? Usually they wait till at least after lunch ..."
"It's not a Blood Breed," Klaus said. "It's a witch. Zapp will update you on the way."
He turned to head for the car, Steven close behind him, and Zapp threw an arm around Leo's shoulders to steer him to the bike. Leo came along easily enough -- it wasn't really worth it to push back against Zapp -- though he did glance back once, as he pulled his helmet on. Was it only his imagination that Klaus looked a bit more strained than usual ... ?
"Yo, listen up, Pubehead," Zapp said. He straddled the back of the bike, tapping one foot impatiently.. "The Boss wants this to be as clean of an in and out as possible. Witches are nasty business."
"Uh huh," Leo said, as he got on. "So, what, I'm guessing this isn't gonna be any like -- hag on a broomstick, or warts or anything, right?"
"Huh? Come on." Zapp snorted, raising his voice over the roar of the bike's engine. "Where the fuck have you been living these past two years? Of course it ain't anything like that. A witch is just someone who's an expert at curses, and they can be a dick as easily as a chick."
"I guess that's one way to put it ..." Leo glanced up, frowning a little as he did. "So Mr. Klaus doesn't like them?"
"The Boss doesn't like anything that's gonna hurt people, c'mon," Zapp said. "Nah, witches don't show up often these days. It takes a lot of fuckin' work to get to that point. Who's got the time for that shit?"
"I guess," Leo said. "He sounded kind of serious about it."
"The Boss's incapable of not sounding serious about things," Zapp said with a snort. "Don't worry about it, Leo, if you're scared, you can hide behind me."
"Like hell I'd do something like that," Leo grumbled. "Give me a little more credit than thaaaaaaaaAAAHHHHHHHH!"
He slammed on the breaks at the last second, the bike's tires screeching hideously; it was some sort of blessing or weird stroke of luck that they just avoided simply going over the edge of the sinkhole that had abruptly opened in the ground, about six feet wide. All around them was the blaring of horns and angry shouting, and Leo could see Klaus and Steven's car, so that was at least a little bit less of a heart attack than it could have been.
"Shiiiiit," Zapp hissed in his ear. "The fuck just happened there?"
"Like I'm supposed to know?!" Leo demanded, his voice high and shrill. "It just started glowing and opened up--"
As he said that, though, something darted out of the sinkhole; it took him a moment to recognize the blur as a young man with a smooth babyface and huge eyes, his mouth twisted into an exaggeratedly wide smile. He had a long blade raised up over his head, and he was coming right for Leo and Zapp -- and Zapp hadn't noticed yet, still staring at Leo with bristling annoyance, like a ruffled cat, and shit shit shit, we're gonna die like this, goddamnit Zapp, he can't be moving that fast, Sonic was harder to keep track of that this guy--
A dark blur rose up right in front of the bike as he thought that, and instead of the blade coming down on Leo's head, he heard the ringing noise of metal rebounding off metal. He'd thrown up an arm instinctively, and it still took him a few seconds to peek up. Behind him, Zapp made a stunned choking noise.
The young man who'd come out of the sinkhole seemed to be suspended in the air, his weight balanced on his blade, which had clashed with someone's arm. They were tall and broad, and Leo could see the light glinting off red hair, and something in his chest relaxed. "Mr. Klaus--"
That's not Mr. Klaus.
The woman who'd blocked the attack glanced back at him briefly, her expression cold and blank. When she looked away back to her opponent, she drew back her fist and aimed a punch at him, only to have him springboard backwards, backflipping out of the way. A shrill cackle rose up from his throat, piercing enough to make Leo's ears hurt.
"Leonardo! Zapp!" There was Klaus, now, running up to them, with Steven close behind. Before he reached them, though, he skidded to a stop, staring at the woman who'd appeared.
"... Karolina," he said.
"Klaus," she returned, her voice clipped and short. "Still slow on the uptake."
He set his jaw at that and swallowed hard. On someone else, the expression would have been angry -- and maybe it would still look like that -- but Leo could see the hurt that flashed in his eyes briefly at that. He squared his shoulders a moment later, calm as he strode forward, and something in him softened as he finally reached the bike. His hand half rose, then dropped again. "Leonardo, Zapp, you're all right?"
"A-OK, Boss," Zapp said, though he was still tense enough to be vibrating slightly. His posture looked relaxed enough, but his zippo was in his hand and his eyes were narrowed, staring at Karolina's back. "Leo?"
"Uh," Leo said, then nodded. "I'm fine, Mr. Klaus. Don't worry about me."
A ghost of a smile passed over Klaus's face, mostly in his eyes. "I will always worry about you, Leonardo," he said. "You could pull the heart from my breast, and I would still worry."
Leo choked at that, and even Zapp looked away from his glaring to give Klaus an incredulous look. Leo could feel his ears growing red, and he pinwheeled with his hands for a moment, unable to find his voice. Jesus Christ, warn a guy before you're going to say something like that!
"If you're done," Karolina said, her voice icy, "there's still a witch down there."
Leo was half-regretful and half-relieved when Klaus snapped back to attention at that. He moved around the bike to stand shoulder to shoulder with Karolina. She wasn't quite as tall as he was, nor as powerfully built, but the top of her head went past his jawline, and maybe she wouldn't be able to pick up Leo and his bike, but he had no doubt she could probably benchpress at least twice his weight.
Zapp elbowed him sharply in the side as he got off the bike, a shit-eating grin on his face. He didn't say anything; he didn't need to. Leo looked up and shook his head -- the habit he'd developed over rolling his eyes -- and aimed a halfhearted kick at Zapp's ass as he swaggered forward as well.
"Leonardo," Klaus said. "We're going to need your Eyes."
Karolina shot him a sharp look, but said nothing. Leo hesitated a moment before he trotted over, careful to keep Klaus between him and Karolina. Once he was close enough, Klaus lifted a hand, pressing his fingers gently to Leo's back. It wasn't for long -- just a heartbeat -- but it was more blatant and public a gesture than he'd ever done before. Leo jerked at that, looking up at Klaus, who met his gaze evenly.
"A witch's aura will not be as dramatic as a Blood Breed's," he said. "In fact, it will not be too different from a standard huma's. They work by disguising themselves. You'll have to pay attention."
"I know that you can do it," Klaus said. "Just concentrate."
Leo took a deep breath and nodded. After a moment's hesitation, he tugged his goggles up and into place. It felt a bit odd -- he hadn't used them in nearly a year, but with Karolina standing there and glaring ...
Once they were on, he opened his eyes.
At first all he could see was darkness; the sinkhole seemed to be deep enough that it was swallowing the light itself. He leaned a bit further over the edge without thinking about it, and Klaus put an arm out in front of him like a barricade. Leo leaned into it, curling one of his own arms around Klaus's to help brace himself. As the Eyes adjusted, he finally began to be able to pick up movement there in the dark. One in particular caught his eye.
"... There's at least half a dozen people down there," Leo said. "I can see them moving." His hand tightened a little on Klaus's sleeve. "One of the auras is very weak. We might want to call an ambulance."
"Mm," Klaus said. "Steven--"
"Already on it," Steven said, somewhere behind them.
Karolina made a low noise; Leo saw her move at the edge of his vision, barely visible around Klaus's bulk. "What on earth--"
"The witch, Leonardo," Klaus said. When Leo glanced at him, his gaze was still focused down into the darkness of the sinkhole, but there was something tight around the corners of his eyes and mouth. He'd done that on purpose, Leo realized a beat later; he'd actually interrupted someone. Of course he wanted to find the witch, but more than that ...
"Uh, right," he said, and turned his own attention back to the sinkhole. The one flickering, fading aura caught his attention first again. At this distance, and with that sort of lighting, he couldn't tell much more than that, and he found himself holding his breath a little each time that light seemed to fade a little more.
The other five auras in the sinkhole were scattered but starting to move towards each other. Leo leaned a little harder against Klaus's blocking arm, straining his vision as hard as he could. It was beginning to get hot under his goggles and he could feel the edges of his eyes beginning to itch. Karolina was still staring, he knew, and the last thing he wanted to was to give anything away. Not when Klaus himself seemed worried about the situation.
But no matter what his intentions, Leo finally flinched back with a hiss, dragging his goggles up to his forehead and rubbing the heel of his palm across his eyes.
"Leonardo," he heard Klaus say, worry clear in his voice. "I'm sorry--"
"Nah, it's fine," he said quickly. "I just needed a moment." He pulled the goggles back down and flashed Klaus a brief grin, only slightly strained, and turned his attention back to the sinkhole.
No ... no ... no and no ... someone better find that last one, they really don't look like they're doing well at all--
Even as he thought that, though, that one fading flickering aura flared abruptly, so bright that Leo flinched back. It took him a moment to realize that both Klaus, Zapp, and Karolina had done the same. A moment later, he saw the witch's face again -- the same pretty young man as before, his eyes wide and his mouth pulled in a grotesque smile.
A beat later, strong arms scooped him up as easily as if he weighed nothing at all. Leo yelped as Klaus swung his fist up, blocking the witch's next blow as easily as Karolina had. This time, though, the witch leaned in closer, looking past Klaus and to Leo.
"Oh, I see," he said. He sounded deeply satisfied. "That's how you were doing it. Very clever, little Witness. You do you."
He jumped back before Klaus could strike him, though, landing on the other side of the sinkhole with a ballet dancer's grace, balanced on his toes.
"I'm surprised," he added, cupping one hand over his mouth, as if he were calling from a far greater distance. "It's been years since any of your sort popped up! And here you are, in Hellsalem's Lot, city of dreams and nightmares." He leered, running his tongue over his upper lip. "Libra's cute little pet."
Klaus's arm tightened around Leo; the noise he made was deep and deeply offended both. Before he could say anything, though, Leo grabbed at his tie and yanked, pointing.
"Mr. Klaus, up there! Move!"
Even before he finished yelling it, Klaus was moving. He tucked Leo up closer against his body and dove out of the way, a moment before a battered car -- where had that even come from?! -- crashed down where they'd been standing seconds before.
"Awwww." The witch pouted, sinking from his en pointe position to stand flat on the ground. "You're pretty good, aren't you?"
"Good enough," Leo said, scowling back at the look on the witch's face. "Where did that even come from?"
"Where?" The witch's eyes went wide at that, innocent and condescending both. "Where else, silly? How about, I'm fucking magic."
As he spoke, bits of debris began to rise up from the ground. It started with fragmented pebbles at first, but by the time he'd finished, the battered car itself was also rising, with groaning metal and crunching glass. The witch drew a little circle in the air with a finger and his lips moved almost soundlessly.
Klaus was already moving as the car was flung at them again; a huge blood-red cross sprang out of the ground, catching the worst of the blow. As soon as the cross was in place, he half-twisted, using the bulk of his body to shield Leo from the smaller pieces. Leo, pressed up tight against his body and just peering over his shoulder, watched as Zapp launched into action, with Karolina immediately in sync with him. The witch was distracted from pressing his attack by the two-pronged attack, and he let out a shrill cry of irritation when an ice spike shot up out of the ground. Anyone slower would have been skewered; as it was, the witch left a trail of blood in his wake as he leapt aside. He only had a few seconds to regain his balance before Karolina was on him, driving at him with hard slashing blows.
It wasn't just her arm that she'd blocked with, Leo realized after a moment. There was a long blade strapped to her arm -- no, it was her arm? -- that she treated like a proper extension of her body, as effortlessly graceful with it than anything Leo had seen from a member of Libra.
"Leonardo," Klaus said. "Please wait here a moment. Behind the cross."
Leo started as he was set down, looking up at Klaus's solemn face. He looked so serious that Leo found himself struck by it; it was almost pleading, in its own way. Without a word, he nodded, and Klaus clapped his shoulder briefly, a warm heavy weight, before he turned and sprinted off to join the fight.
Once that happened, it was over almost ridiculously fast.
Whatever technique Karolina was using, it seemed to dovetail extremely well with the Brain Grid style; while Klaus had a slight edge on sheer brute strength, Karolina seemed to beat him out for speed, and with the two of them together -- along with a judicious placement of one of Zapp's nets and Steven's ice -- and it was only about five more minutes before the witch was down, his whole body frozen except for his head.
Even so, Leo waited a bit longer before he began to make his way carefully around the sinkhole, towards where they were gathered.
By the time he arrived, though, the argument was already in full swing.
"Karolina, you must understand, you cannot simply do something like that here--"
"Or what? Why not?! You know the sort of damage he could cause if you just let him go, Klaus! You cannot suffer a witch to live!"
"Now, now, Ms. Karolina," Steven said. "Things work rather differently here in Hellsalem's Lot--"
"By the Suzuki-Cox Agreement, all witches must be granted a fair trial if they are captured within the bounds of Hellsalem's Lot--"
"A fair trial? A fair trial?! That's just a waste of time! How well can your jails even hold a thing like that? There's a limit to what should be allowed, Klaus! Do you even realize how many people you could be putting into danger like that?"
"We cannot break the law simply because it suits us to do so, Karolina. Libra works with the law."
"Only nominally," Steven put in, his voice a lazy drawl. "But yes, we've a bit of a reputation to keep. Please understand, Ms. Karolina."
Karolina drew herself up to her full impressive height. She didn't have the same sharp jaw or jutting lower fangs that Klaus did, but she matched the intensity of his scowl easily. One of her sleeves had been shredded up to the elbow, and Leo could see that the arm underneath was completely covered in a metal gauntlet which was topped with a short wide blade whose tip came out just over her knuckles. It looked like the sort of thing that could do a considerable amount of damage.
"This isn't their world to govern, Klaus," she said. In spite of the sternness of both her expression and her posture, there was something that seemed to soften in her as she spoke. It took Leo a moment to place it, but it was in her eyes, just the same as Klaus when he'd worked past the first initial burst of passion and only emotion was left. "Just because the alterworld intersects here, you of all people must know that it's foolishness to expect them to adapt themselves to our rules--" She cut herself off when she noticed Leo, her eyes narrowing. "--And anyway, who is this?"
"Er," Leo said, holding up both hands. It was meant to be a placating gesture -- or maybe just a stop, please, I'm harmless -- but Karolina moved around Klaus, stalking towards him now. He wondered if gazelle being stalked on the plains ever felt quite this trapped by a hunter's gaze. "My name's Leo--"
"He is Leonardo Watch," Klaus said quietly. "My subordinate and good friend." There was a long pause, like he was weighing the words, and then his voice went softer still, "The person I've decided on."
Karolina's eyes went wide. Her head snapped around so fast that Leo was vaguely surprised she didn't simply break her own neck. "Your what?"
"The person I hold in the highest regard," Klaus said, and somehow that was a lot more embarrassing than if he'd just come out and said my boyfriend or anything simple like that. "He has been a valued member of Libra for some time now."
"Him?" Karolina stared at Klaus for a few more seconds, then turned her attention back to Leo. After a long moment of contemplation, she leaned in, abruptly too close, and Leo staggered back with a yelp. As he did, though, he saw surprise flash across Karolina's face. This time, when she turned back to look at Klaus, it was slower, but there was no less disbelief in her expression. "Klaus, this boy--"
"Is precious to me, and nothing more than that," Klaus said.
Like that's nothing?! Leo wanted to ask, though he bit his tongue. Karolina turned away from Leo entirely with that, and Leo noticed both Steven and Zap slowly moving back, sliding between Karolina and Leo while she was distracted.
"Klaus," she said. She sounded angry again, but it was a deeper sort of thing, the sort that dug its hooks into a person's heart and festered. "Do you know what sort of treasure you're holding onto, here?"
"My mother and my brothers are hoping to fly out here for the Christmas holiday," Klaus said, and that was news to Leo. His family? That meant they were really actually without a doubt serious, right? Oh god, did that mean he'd want to meet Leo's family, too? His aunts would eat the man alive.
"That's not what I meant!" Karolina snapped. "Do you know how long the Hunter's Organization has been searching for the current bearer of the All-Seeing Eyes of God? Do you realize how important this is?"
Ah. The comment was like a splash of ice water straight to the face. Leo went still. He could only see half of Klaus and Karolina now, with how closely Steven and Zapp had clustered in front of him. He curled his hands into fists and swallowed hard. Of course.
Certainly, Leo believed with the whole of his heart that Klaus cared about him as a person. He had genuine interest and investment in Leo's life, even outside of their relationship. And the rest of Libra, as careless as they could be, never treated him as an extension of his Eyes.
That's right, he thought. His heart was beating hard and fast in his chest, enough that it made his breastbone ache. Everyone in Libra knows me, and they care about me, but to the rest of the world ... to all the other Fang Hunters and people like them ...
... I'm just something that could be used as a weapon.
"Leonardo is a man capable of making his own decisions," Klaus said. His voice sharpened with those words. "I saw no reason to expose him to people who would not respect that."
Karolina rocked back on her heels at that, as if he'd physically struck her. "Klaus," she said. "Do you even understand what you're saying? If word of this got out ..."
"It hasn't so far," Steven said. His tone was bright and friendly, but his expression was colder than his ice. Even looking at him sidelong, Leo could read the threat in his posture as clear as a broadcasted sign. "We've all been very careful. Free will is important to our esteemed leader, so of course it's important to the rest of us."
Karolina's brows drew together. Her gauntleted hand opened and closed in a deliberate sort of gesture, and it took every ounce of willpower Leo had not to flinch away. She'd been on par with Klaus; if she decided to make it a fight ...
"He could do a great deal of good out there," she said at last. Her voice was heavy. "We are dying, Klaus. Ulf's entire team was wiped out not two months ago."
Klaus went still at that, but his indrawn breath was sharp and audible. "Ulf?"
"It wasn't even an Elder." Her voice was bitter. "Just a low-level Blood Breed that managed to disguise himself and get in too close. They didn't know until it was too late."
Leo could see only half of Klaus's expression, blocked as it was by Karolina, but he looked outright stricken by the news. She could have stabbed him with that blade of hers, Leo knew, and it would have hurt him less.
Klaus bowed his head without a word, and Steven turned neatly at that, making shooing gestures at both Leo and Zapp. It was seamless, really, how he went from casually standing by to moving them. Leo was almost jealous, really; Steven was still able to read and respond to Klaus's emotions far faster and easier than Leo himself could manage. He let himself be led without too much protest, taking one last look back over his shoulder--
Later, Leo would say it was nothing but sheer dumb luck that had guided him, rather than any sort of instinct.
If it had been instinct, he thought, he would have noticed sooner.
Everything happened in a bit of a blur.
Leo saw the witch's arm moving before he registered what was going on; it had just been a strange bit of movement, just beyond where Klaus and Karolina stood. He'd peeked under his lashes to get a better view, and a beat later he realized.
"Mr. Klaus!" He turned before he could think twice, lurching against the arm that Steven threw in front of him on instinct. "Mr. Klaus, the witch--!"
Both Klaus and Karolina turned at that. Karolina's arm went up first as she moved to stand in front of Klaus. And her gauntlet had worked well enough as a shield before, against the witch's blade, but Leo could already tell, even as Steven hauled him further back, that it wasn't going to be enough.
They were both such tall broad people. They were such easy targets for the curse, which Leo could see writhing and twisting around the witch's arm, hungry for its victim. He swore he could see actual faces in that awful thing, all of them gaping maws, all of them large enough to even swallow someone like Klaus whole.
"Zapp!" Steven shouted, and Zapp was already moving, and he was fast, but he wasn't going to be fast enough. It wasn't going to be enough, and Leo knew with utter certainty he was going to watch Klaus's friend get eaten as he watched -- Klaus's friend, whom he'd been so upset about falling out with, after hearing that others were already dead--
And then Klaus -- glorious, noble, stupid Klaus -- Klaus, who never thought twice about danger -- whose reason was always just, because you were there --
Karolina was tall and bulky with muscle, nearly his match in physical size and stature; unlike with Leo, he did not try to catch her and toss her inside. Instead, he slammed his shoulder into her back with the whole of his own considerable weight and strength. Caught by surprise from behind, Karolina pitched forward, just in time for the curse to sizzle over her head, singeing some of her hair, but otherwise--
Klaus made no sound. He only stood there for a few impossibly long seconds; one could almost be fooled into thinking he was completely fine.
Then he took a step back before his knees simply buckled, and he collapsed to the ground, all still without a word. His aura, usually so bright and powerful that it was like looking at the sun, snuffed out completely. Leo surged harder against Steven's arm, straining against that iron grip, and he opened his mouth and he screamed.