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A Walk In The Park

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“It's an unnecessary risk.”

“Then show me a photo of the surveyors and I'll go. Not really my type of place, but--”

“It won't work. You have never met them. I know them, I must--”

“Then take him. You know phone service is spotty in there. It's about our best bet. Zapp's too easily distracted. K.K's too focused on you. And we can't send the whole chain of command in. That would be a love letter to our enemies...”

Leo knew three things the second he stepped into the office that morning.

One: He'd interrupted something.

Two: That something must have been important, since Steven was leaned over Klaus' desk. The two were talking, arguing really, and Steven was wearing that flat look he got when he forgot to put on any kind of expression.

Three: That he had absolutely no idea what that something was. Which probably meant it was really big. Big enough for Steven and Klaus to disagree on it, and disagree on it in front of people. Which never happened. Which probably meant he wasn't supposed to be overhearing this conversation. There wasn't a single other member of Libra in sight, so that meant THEY knew to clear the area. None of them had bothered to inform Leo, who'd just come busting in, holding some donuts and a coffee he'd picked up from the only Dunkin' Donuts left in a four mile radius--

'So,' thought Leo, 'someone's probably dead.'

“You’re taking someone,” said Steven. “Would you send someone in there alone?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Well, there you go.”

...and they were trying to work out who was skilled enough to go. And disagreeing on it. Leo's sympathies went out for whoever that poor bastard would eventually be. He turned around to go. Tactical retreat, really. Walking in on the kind of 'This might be how the world ends' conversation he definitely did NOT have the clearance to overhear was probably not good office etiquette--

Except the moment he turned around was the moment Steven looked up.

“Ah, speak of the devil,” said Steven. Klaus made a particular click with his tongue. Steven waved it off. “Not literally, of course. Young man, if you have a moment?”

“My apologies, Leonardo,” said Klaus, almost at the same time. His line was set in a harder line than normal, and he didn't look at his computer even once. “I must request your assistance in this matter.”

'Crap,' thought Leo. 'This must be really bad.'

“Oh, good,” said Steven, remembering then to smile. It was one of those mild, close-slipped smiles. The kind someone who hadn't walked in late to his part-time job at a secret society might've mistaken for totally understanding. “You brought donuts.”

 


 

 

This was how Leo somehow ended up in the car with Klaus, making their way uptown to west 79th street, and the entrance of a critical spot in the area once known as Central Park.

“Actually, I didn't know Hellsalem's Lot had a Parks department...” said Leo.

“They do very important work for us,” explained Klaus, “This city had over 1,700 parks prior to the incident. Though many of those parks did survive the initial contact, quite a number of alterworld species now grow there. Regular authorities found it impossible to penetrate some of these wild areas. The New York Department of Parks and Recreation was folded over into a chapter of the regional Security, Containment, Procedural unit. It has been their duty since to monitor the lifeforms in these areas and ensure they do not grow out into other parts of the city.”

How Klaus could say all that with such calm precision was always something of a mystery to Leo. Especially considering Klaus' was pretty much just burning up the car with his concern. The worst part was, Leo knew Klaus was probably simplifying the answer for his benefit.

“That's...kind of cool,” admitted Leo, “But, uh, if the parks existed before everything – why'd they send in a survey team at all?”

Leo wished he hadn't asked. Klaus sighed and shut his eyes. Despite his formidable profile, he looked like someone had kicked him in the gut. It was such a lousy expression to see on him a person might almost felt obligated to throw themselves out of the car for having inspired it.

Leo however, knew what it was like to be thrown out of a moving vehicle, so he settled for just feeling like he kicked a puppy. A really, really big puppy.

“Because Libra requested it,” said Klaus, in low voice. “That is to say, I requested it. As a favor. A number of local factory operations have been venting allergens made from the pollen of an Beyondian-Earth hybrid flower into their warehouses. Only those who have developed a tolerance to this allergen are able to step into these facilities without showing an immediate reaction. It has prevented agents of Libra from infiltrating their ranks. I had thought, if we were able to breed a milder version of the plant in question....ah, but only a very few cultivars exist on this side of the gate.”

“And only in the parks,” said Leo, it said a lot about the time he’d spent in his city that he could follow most of that. It also said something for the number of spy dramas he’d watched growing up, but that was besides the point. “So...that's what the surveyors were looking for? The location of some of these plants?”

“Yes,” said Klaus, “Emilia Moses is an expert at mapping out areas that have been affected by transdimensional distortion. Annette Calvert is a xenobiologist and the only one able to identify the species we would need. They are also dear friends. It did not seem so dangerous a request at the time. Both were very familiar with the park and its present condition, if I'd known that they would be caught like that, I would never have...”

Klaus cut himself off. The car came to a stop. Klaus said something quiet to Gilbert and got out. He held the door for Leo. They stood together on a broken sidewalk, staring up a tall stone wall and a gate with numerous 'CAUTION KEEP OUT' signs posted in multiple languages. Leo took one look up above that wall and flinched. Klaus hadn't been kidding about the Beyondian influence. The mess of trees and bushes scraggling over the edge of that wall throbbed with an otherworldly aura. Leo rubbed his temple and ground his jaw until his lenses eased into a weaker setting.

“Leonardo,” said Klaus.

“I'm fine,” said Leo. It took a second, and it still hurt, but now at least the glow was more a pleasantly weird green, as opposed to migraine-inducing. “I was looking at it too hard. I didn't think it would be this...strong.”

Leo blinked. Klaus shifted away. His hand, Leo realized, had been hovering just over the small of his back. He'd been ready to catch him. Leo tried not to feel too mortified to know he'd looked that unsteady.

“It is not always this intense,” said Klaus, almost apologetically. “The surveyors are caught in the area formerly known as the Ramble. It is known to shift periodically in response to the individuals near it. There is a set path, as it is grounded in our world, but the park itself takes measures to obscure that path. Furthermore, the course the Ramble itself attempts to place visitors on may take them to areas beyond our world. Many have entered, hoping to find these paths. Some have not returned. Your eyes may be one of the few things capable of penetrating that distortion. As such, I would be asking you to bear the brunt of my mistake. ”

'Mistake,' seemed a bit extreme. Then again, a lot about Klaus was kind of extreme. Leo looked up. He wanted to disagree, to say something useful or encouraging, like 'That just sounds like something you had to do. I don't think anyone would blame you for that...' but Klaus was looking at him now, and at the center of that sudden fiery attention it Leo found it suddenly really hard to speak, with his heart banging in his ears.

Klaus had an effect on people.

“Mr. Klaus,” managed Leo, swallowing hard. “I don't think--”

“Leonardo,” said Klaus, “I have already jeopardized the lives of two valued associates. I will absolutely understand, given what I have told you, if you do not wish to accompany me on this rescue operation. I am not ordering you to accompany me on this assignment. I have told Steven I am willing to do this on my own. You are more than welcome to say 'no.'”

'Shit,' thought Leo, 'Not when you ask me like that.'

“...if you think I can help any,” Leo heard himself say, “Sure, I'll go.”

 


 

 

'’Sure, I'll go’? Well, watch out. We have a badass here,' thought Leo, miserably. His inner thoughts sounded depressingly like Zapp. Never a good sign.

Well, whether it sounded cool or not, Leo didn't have a lot of brain space to consider it for too long. The inside of the park was bright. Leo swam in that huge, throbbing brightness.

He could make out the outline trees, of branches, of...everything really. All of it just brimming with color he knew no one else could see. It reminded him a little too much of what the world had looked like in the weeks just after he'd gotten the eyes, when he often woke up in the middle of the night accidentally staring through his bedroom floor.

Leo dialed his lenses down to a lower setting. Here, he could make out a bit more. It all still brimmed with aura, but at least he could make out trees, flowers, bramble, even some small animals. At this register, it looked less like a fever dream and more like forest made entirely of glowing crystal. It was almost beautiful. He could almost get why people would want to come here, even with all the danger involved. He just had to find the path for Klaus. That wouldn't be too bad, if it all looked like this...

Then a vine slunk out and catch a pigeon midair, Leo practically leaped into Klaus' arms, and he knew he'd be utterly useless to him.

“Ah, that was once a strain of sumac,” said Klaus, almost excitedly, as he lowered Leo to the ground. “Please stay near.”

Leo couldn't really be any nearer in that moment. He felt quite fine where he was, actually. The crook of Klaus' arm was sort of nice, and supportive, and not likely to get dragged into some killer plant, like the one that belched up feathers behind them as they crunched their way up the overgrown path that had once been one of Central Park's most famous historic sections, according to Klaus.

Historic for what, though? Being really confusing?

'Concentrate,' thought Leo, 'Concentrate, and try not to have a damn heart attack.'

The path wobbled, though. Leo switched to a higher setting. It ached. He turned his head, tried to make some sense of the area around him, for a moment he couldn't see anything besides the bright speckled debris under their feet then--

“Oh,” he said, “there's a dim spot. There. I think that's the path?”

“Mm. I can't see it,” said Klaus. For a moment, Leo resisted the urge to go: really? It was right there, just a little to the left. The light just kind of cut off. But he knew what Klaus meant, saying that. “... Leonardo, if you would show me.”

“As in...?”

“Yes.”

“Um. Sure.” Leo switched their visions. It was surprisingly easy to do, this time. He'd never really tried it on a person so willing before. It felt less like dragging a camera off its subject and more like switching a slide. Klaus tensed, but if he found the shift nauseating, he didn't let on.

“I see it now,” he said. “Thank you.”

He stepped forward, and Leo felt another plunge of disorientation. The park now looked different from before. The paths ahead of them were laid out in a more jagged, zig zag fashion, something far more toothy about them. What’s more, the trees looked different. They were larger, and more solid, and the occasional nonsensical vine considerably thornier…

“That will do,” said Klaus.

Leo flicked it off. The park returned to its original throbbing brightness.

“Mr. Klaus,” said Leo, rubbing his eyelid. It only felt a little hot. “Does this place...change depending on who’s looking at it?”

“Yes,” said Klaus, “The Ramble in its current form responds to the heart of the individual caught in it. It is generally believed it’s in response to its...historic purposes.”

“Really? What was that?”

“Complicated,” said Klaus-- and did he sound a little flustered? “It is over one hundred years old. In theory, though, this means it should bring the visitor somewhere that they would like to go, to meet someone that they would like to find. I know Dr. Calvert and Dr. Moses, and would very much like to find them. And so it stands to reason, so long as we do not lose this path, it will take us to them.”

“Right,” said Leo. “So as long as I can see it--”

Something flickered in the corner of Leo’s vision. He blinked. A new path had appeared, right beside the dark one. This one looked a bit different from the others. Rather than jagged, it curved downwards, the plants shivering beside it turned a faint pink.

“We should continue,” said Klaus.

“Right,” said Leo. Concentrate. He had to concentrate.

Nevermind one of the bushes seemed to slither out to grab at his sleeve as he hurried to keep in step with Klaus.

Nevermind he thought he saw a pair of animal eyes peering out at him from that tree up there.

Nevermind that as they turned a corner a root managed to dislodge itself from the shimmering ground.

Nevermind that Leo tripped on that root, promptly fell backwards, and somehow, before Klaus could even turn, he went tumbling down the slope, down into the bushes, and into all of that teeming color, with little more than a yelp.

 


 

Leo lay at the bottom of the incline. He hadn’t managed to knock himself out cold, but he felt so stupid he almost wished he had.

“Ugh,” he said, he looked up. He thought he saw the top of the ridge. It didn’t seem terribly far. “Mr. Klaus, I’m okay!”

No answer.

“Mr. Klaus?”

Nothing. Actually, he should’ve known better. This was Klaus. If Klaus could have reached him, he would have already been there, probably bent over Leo, completely ignoring the fact Leo had been dopey enough to let himself trip in the first place…

‘No wonder he didn’t want me to come here,’ thought Leo, ‘If just the roots are taking me out.’

Leo sighed, and started looking around for the real path. He found it, after a moment, winding off to his right. A few steps in, and it started to bring him upwards. Good, he’d be back at the ridge in no time -- except then the path levelled out. Then it started going down again. Then it started to turn left, wind around, then around again--

“Wait, and this is the ORIGINAL PATH?”

Then it opened up into a clearing.

It looked enough like the original clearing Leo breathed out in relief.

‘Good,’ he thought, ‘I’ll yell me head off, Klaus will hear me, and then we can pretend I wasn’t stupid enough to do that.’

“MR. KLAUS?” he called, “MR. KLAUS, I’M OVER HERE--’

Nothing. Just the crunch of his own feet, and the skittering of some horrible slithering thing trying to wind it’s way up his leg--

“SHIT,” Leo stomped at it. “Get off!”

The vine twisted, made a squeaky noise, and slunk off.

“Hah,” said Leo.

Leo Watch, the bane of plant life.

‘I want to find Mr. Klaus,’ thought Leo, desperately. ‘I want to find Mr. Klaus right now. I want to find him now, and fast, so I do not make myself a nuisance and I do not because the member of Libra who got himself eaten on what was supposed to be a LITERAL WALK IN THE PARK…’

Then Leo saw the light.

Two lights, exactly. They hovered just opposite of his face, and after a moment of squinting, Leo saw they were attached to a person. A person with rumpled hair, a bit of a baby face, and a pair of bright, blazing eyes.

Red.

Red. Red. Red. Red. Red.

“...um. Hi?” said Leo, taking a step back.

“Hi,” said Leo, taking a step forward. “I was kind of hoping I’d find you.”

Leo swung his head quickly. The clearing was a whirl of color. The path. The path. He had to find the path -- maybe that-- no that was a gazebo. Or that-- no that was a tree. Actually, forget the real path. He had to find Klaus. He had to find Klaus very soon before things got really bad and really weird and anyway there, behind the gazebo, there. If he ducked through there he’d get away and--

Then Leo felt his eyes swing back in the other direction with a whirr like a camera lense. That’s when he knew he’d been a second too slow.

“Looking for Mr. Klaus?” asked the other Leo, smiling blankly. The light in his eyes pulsed, something mechanical moving under the smooth surface: his lenses shifting, adjusting, really focusing on Leo. Just after he’d gotten them, he’d spent a lot of time examining them in the mirror, and every morning he switched through his settings to see what worked best -- he knew what his own sights looked like, but but he’d never found them quite as unnerving as he did in that moment. The cheery smartphone blue was one thing, but that red. That warm, beautiful, sickening...

An illusion. A trick. Mind control plants. Weird pollen. It had to be something like that. It had to be--

“He told you about this place, right?” said the other Leo. “You know it connects to other places, right?”

“...uh,” said Leo.

The other Leo sighed. “Yeah, he did.” He shook his head. Leo’s head shook with it. He couldn’t help it. His eyes followed where the other one’s eyes went. The extra lense blended purple with his own. His vision began to stutter and bounce. He felt distinctly ill. “He wouldn’t have brought you here without telling you. He’s just like that. Argh, I forget how slow I can be sometimes. Look, can you just take me to him? I want to see him too.”

“I don’t know where Mr. Klaus is,” said Leo. “I’m just as lost as you.”

“And I’m a Blood Breed,” said the other Leo, with a little laugh and even if his aura weren’t bleeding, even he hadn’t just said it -- yup. There were the fangs. That little extra bit of horrible confirmation. “You are definitely not as lost as me.”

“...Fair enough,” muttered Leo, before he let his knees give out.

He’d hoped to break his line of sight. He’d hoped to roll clear, into a bush or something, before you know, slipping out of mind and out of sight . It didn’t work. One of the other Leo’s eyes flicked with a decisive click, and then all at once he blurred and vanished.

“Afterimage,” said the other Leo in his ear, arm suddenly all at once around his chest. The other hand grabbed at his chin, yanking his head close. “Wasn’t there. Come on, Leonardo Watch, you know how that works. This is just sad. Even for me. Show me your world, already.”

And much to Leo’s horror, his own eyes opened up like a projector. Memories. Dozens of them. All flicking by at once. He could feel each being pulled from his head, checked, and pushed back in, like someone swiping through the gallery of their phone. They came fast, and in no particular order. There, a group of men and women limping out of a subway. There, getting up in the morning in his old apartment. There, Zapp making a face into his camera. There, nearly getting into an accident coming into the office. There, Aligula on top of the monster truck. There, the Adirondacks. There, a hospital room and the stench of blood. There, Michella’s empty eyes. There, Klaus at his desk. There, Klaus in e-den. Klaus, clutching his bleeding side. Klaus, trying not to smile at an office party. There, Klaus winding back his arm as he threw himself fully into an Elder’s raging attack. There…

“Screw you!” gasped Leo, jerking his head back. He’d hoped to clock the other Leo in the face, but the other Leo must’ve guessed he’d do that, because he just shifted out of the way. He put a leg around Leo, to keep him down -- Leo couldn’t help but feel a stab of outrage at how stupid it all looked. He had to be this weird and lame even when he was some terrifying vampire?! “Ugh, so Blood Breed me is just some sicko voyeur?! Who the hell said you could just go through my memories like that!”

“Technically you did. We are the same person-- ugh, stop squirming!” The images snapped off. “Fine. FINE. I’ve seen enough anyway.”

The other Leo extricated himself from the human/blood breed pretzel with the slipperiness of a snake. Leo found himself shoved into the park ground, his mouth stuffed full of branches and bramble.

“They’re a pretty close match, though,” he said, in a soft voice. “Your world and mine. And voyeur, huh? That’s not the worst way to put it. Except, you know, I didn’t have to become a Blood Breed for that. Standing around. Watching the world go by. Letting stuff just happen. I’ve always been that kind of person, you know?”

Leo did. That was the worst part. For a second he did. He knew exactly what he meant. All those ‘have a nice summers’ on his high school yearbooks. All those relatives, poking him: “Leonardo, what are you going to do with yourself?” The occasional college party, sitting off to the side, not bothering to talk to anyone. Sticking himself behind a camera, the most noncommitted journalism major in the world. Not bothering to do anything. And of course, Liberty Island--

‘Shit, I’m working on that!’ thought Leo, shoving himself upwards. ‘That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?!’

But the other Leo seemed to read his mind. “Okay, yeah, it could be kind of frustrating sometimes. I beat myself up about it a lot.”

He sat down on Leo. Leo couldn’t do anything. Whatever was going on with the other Leo’s vision, it kept him pinned, as though something much bigger was currently crouched over him, keeping him wrapped in bloody red wings.

“But deep down I knew it was just easier than actually doing anything…It was really annoying to think about. Was I lazy, a coward, or just kind of a dick? Turns out, no, I was just destined. I came to Hellsalem’s Lot, and suddenly it was my job to just watch the world go by. Lucky me, huh? To be part of something like that. I saw all kinds of amazing things when I was with Libra. It was something, being a part of all that. C’mon, Leonardo Watch. Your world’s not that different from mine. You like to watch them. You can’t lie to yourself about that.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t talk to people in stupid Halloween costumes.”

“....nothing for that lousy personality, though,” said the other Leo, “Hah. Guess this is one of those constants. Good. It’ll make it harder for them to tell the difference.”

“Like HELL it will,” snarled Leo, around a mouthful of dirt. “I’m not a vampire! Also you’re from another dimension! Or an illusion! Who says you CAN get out of here?!”

“We’ll see won’t we,” said the other Leo, “Since you’re going to show me the way. When I was human, I only mouthed off this much when I was totally freaking out. And when I was totally freaking out, who did I think about to calm down? You want to see Mr. Klaus really badly, right now. So do I. Of course I do. He was the most amazing of all of them, you know? Mr. Klaus and Libra aren’t around in my world anymore. So I want to see them again. I want to see them again, and again, and again. In as many worlds as I can, until it all turns that beautiful red. So you should really show me.”

Leo shoved his face into the dirt. The other Leo grabbed him by his hair and dragged his head up. His lenses whirred. Leo’s vision exploded with light. He could see all the paths in the clearing. There were at least three but one of them, undoubtedly would take him to Klaus. Klaus, who was probably looking for him. Klaus, who was probably worried sick

‘Okay, Leo. You need to stop thinking about him. You need to stop thinking about him RIGHT NOW.’

“Show me,” said the other Leo, in a hungry voice. “Show me everything.”

Leo started to sing the Oscar Meyer Weiner song as loudly as he could.

“WHAT THE HELL,” sputtered the other Leo. “DON’T THINK THAT’S GOING TO WORK.”

Leo started singing the Oscar Meyer Weiner song even louder. He wrenched his head to the side, struggling to keep from looking where the other Leo wanted him to. He couldn’t help it though. He could see the brush flickering ahead of him-- an outline in the distance, through the smoke that had suddenly filled the park like debris from a broken building, a voice in the distance, calling across the wrecked street.

“Leonardo!”

‘Mr. Klaus,’ thought Leo, ‘Not now, definitely not now--’

The memory flicked off like a movie at the end of its reel. Leo was back in the park, with a crazy otherworld version of himself still sitting on his back.

“Heh,” said the other Leo, “Got it.”

The path now glowed clear ahead of them. The other Leo wrenched him to his feet.

“All right,” he said, “Let’s--”

Then the world flicked out again. It became a dark dark room. The lobby of a burnt out building, to be exact. Above them, the world was on fire. Below them, sirens were screaming, then suddenly something huge came hurtling out of the darkness, blood dripping from its hand rapidly crystallizing into a vicious looking lance--

Kreuzvernichterlanze,” roared Klaus, the glowing red crackle of his technique launching forward without any apparent hesitation.

“Mr. Klaus?!” The Blood Bleed released Leo in sheer surprise. The extra lense over Leo’s eyes vanished. Leo’s vision became his own again. Leo only had the barest moment to register that sudden looseness of being before ten a hand seized him by his shoulder and pulled him back, dragged him across the clearing, through the battered wooden gazebo, and out of the clearing.

“Mr. Klaus,” said Leo, practically sobbing with relief as they came to a faltering halt along a steeper part of the path. “That was…. really close.”

“That would be because it was an illusion,” said his rescuer, equally out of breath, in a voice Leo felt like he should recognize, but one that definitely did not belong to Klaus. “And that guy just fell for his own trick.”

“Oh,” said Leo. He tried to focus on the newcomer. His vision hissed and spit. He jerked back. The air smelled like burning wires.

“He overloaded you,” said the stranger. “You should sit down for a little.”

“Okay,” wheezed Leo. “But first, uh, can I ask something?”

“Eh?” said the newcomer.

“WHY IS MY VAMPIRE SELF SO LAME,” cried Leo, before promptly screwing his eyes shut and throwing himself onto the park floor.

“Uh...”

“JUST. ARGH. BLOOD BREEDS ARE THE WORST. BUT YOU KNOW. AT LEAST THEY’RE FRIGGIN’ IMPRESSIVE. OF COURSE. SOME STUPID ALTERNATE UNIVERSE VERSION OF MYSELF GETS HIMSELF TURNED INTO AND HE’S THE ONE LAMEASS BLOOD BREED. I DIDN’T EVEN GET ANY TALLER. I JUST BECOME ONE OF THOSE WEIRD BUNNYBOILER TYPE OF PEOPLE AND COME ON--”

“He probably did do a lot of damage before he tried to come to your world...”

“THAT DOESN’T MAKE ME FEEL BETTER. AND BY THE WAY THANK YOU. UNLESS YOU’RE HERE TO DO SOMETHING WEIRD TO ME TOO, IN WHICH CASE YOU CAN FUCK RIGHT OFF--”

“Uhhh… I’m…also from Libra?”

“Okay,” Leo wheezed himself back into his senses. “That’s fine then.”

The newcomer helped prop him up against a tree. Leo cracked his eyes open. They were still spitting and popping, but he could make out the outline of a bridge up ahead, and the man kneeling over him. He looked like he could’ve been a member of Libra. He was older, kind of skinny, with mussed and slightly greying hair, a dress shirt with the collar popped on one side, a loose red and black tie, and a battered black suit, with a cross-shaped pin on the lapel. The pin hung almost level with Leo’s face.

“That pin,” said Leo, his mind finally starting to catch up with the rest of him. “Isn’t that one of...are you related to Mr. Klaus?”

The newcomer paused.

“No,” he said, after a moment, “I’m not. I’m just --uh, wow, that’s a funny thought. Keep your eyes shut, though. You need to let your lenses cool down a little. If you crack one here it’s going to take you a while to get out.”

“Are you one of the butlers?”

“DEFINITELY not,” said the newcomer, almost chuckling. Leo laughed, too. He kept laughing. His body shook all over. His voice sounded cracked and weird. The stranger reached to the side of his head and pressed his finger at that twitching point just behind his temple, all at once the world stopped swerving in and out.

“You know a lot about my eyes,” mumbled Leo, as his lenses settled. “I don’t think anyone would’ve told you without telling me. You’re not going to try and pull them out or something? I’m really tired of people trying to do that without telling me first...”

“Don’t worry,” said the newcomer, “I’m about the last person who needs them.”

His finger was still pressed against Leo’s temple. Leo glanced at it out of the corner of his eye. He could make out the bulky watch, and the faint ring of scar tissue, just around one of his fingers…

Leo looked up.

“Hi,” said Leo.

“Hello,” said Leo, smiling tiredly. His eyes whirled, and snapped off. “Just ‘Watch’ is fine, if that’s a little less weird.”

“It’s really not,” said Leo.

“I guess not,” said Watch.

 


 

 

They leaned on the bridge, waiting for Leo’s eyes to settle.

“Should I be here?” asked Leo. “Talking to you, I mean.”

“I don’t THINK reality will collapse,” said Watch, gazing upwards. He kept his eyes open. Leo wondered how he did that for so long. He must’ve had the worst kind of splitting headache from it, but Watch didn’t seem bothered at all. He just tilted his head to one side, light flashing as he checked the sky. Checked the water. Checked the bridge. He blinked between each shift in his gaze. Checked Leo. Snap. Snap. Snap. Like a camera. “...I don’t think I’m your future. Hm. How do you feel about the opening overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute?”

“What?”

Watch paused, frowned, then whistled a few notes. Leo shrugged.

“....nope. I’m not your future,” said Watch. He did, Leo couldn’t help but notice, look slightly relieved. “But then, I couldn’t exist at the same time as that Blood Breed, either. Time travel isn’t really how The Ramble works, anyway. It’s a place that deals more with possibilities. And desire. Klaus explained it to me, once.”

He smiled, a little wistfully. Leo felt a strange stab at his gut. He said Klaus’ name so casually. The one might talk about a colleague of equal standing, or a close friend.

“Did he bring you here, too?”

“No,” said Watch, “Never. I came here because one of the pigeons cut out on me during my morning watch and...eeeh well, not worth going into it. I THOUGHT that was why I came here, but that’s probably not it. I’m probably here because you want me to be here.”

“... my imagination isn’t that good.”

“No,” said Watch, smiling faintly. “But you wanted to be able to save yourself. And not have Klaus have to do it.”

Leo looked down.

“Yeah,” said Watch, scuffing his foot along stones of the bridge. He waited. Leo knew exactly what he was waiting for.

“Michella,” started Leo.

“She’s fine,” said Watch. “She’s safe. She’s really happy.”

“But you still--”

“She’s fine,” said Watch again. The light in his eyes dimmed. The light. In his eyes. The All-Seeing Eyes of God. “She insisted. Don’t think too hard on it. Things just came up in my world.”

“Things just came up?” asked Leo, tensely. Sure, he’d often thought about what it would be like to be able to really help people, of being someone capable of standing on his own, being someone Klaus respected, but he’d done his best not to think about the cost -- the cost that had originally, and continued to be, borne by someone else. “How did things just come up? You came to Hellsalem’s Lot for a REASON--”

“Libra’s important,” said Watch.

“So’s my sister,” said Leo, because of course she was. Of course she was. He didn’t want to think, in a million years, of a world where she wasn’t the most important thing, a world where he might not choose to follow up on fixing this mess, this stupid mess, this mess that was all his fault, a world where he might’ve entertained, even for a moment, that being a hero could matter the slightest bit more--

But here one was, standing right in front of him with one hand in his pocket, not even looking especially bothered, just a little sad.

‘I’m angry,’ realized Leo, all at once. ‘I’m really, really pissed off.’

“You remember why you’re even with Libra, right?” he heard himself ask. “You’re there because Michella had to pay for you. All because you froze up like an IDIOT when things were bad. All because you could never just do anything. She lost so much--”

“Hey,” said Watch. “Don’t say that. Michella’s stronger than you’re giving her credit for.”

“I know. She’s sure always been stronger than you,” said Leo, “That’s not what I mean.”

“I couldn’t go,” said Watch.

“Yes, you could,” said Leo. He hated thinking about this. He’d gone a few years now without thinking about this. And now here he was, facing some stupid apparition that represented all the awful decisions he hadn’t had to make just yet. “Yes, you totally could. Are you telling me you couldn’t have done something? If you’re here because you’re the me who can fix things, are you really going to tell me an opportunity never came up?!”

“It did,” admitted Watch, “And I couldn’t do it.”

“Then you’re worse than that stupid vampire. Why? Why NOT?”

Watch took a sharp breath. He held it, for a moment or two, the corner of his mouth twitching as he considered the answer.

“Because someone had to lead Libra,” he said, finally. “And Klaus said Steven couldn’t do it on his own.”

Leo trailed off. Leo put his hands back on the bridge. Watch just sighed. He looked tired, and pale, and old.

Around them, the park was quiet. Their reflections flickered in the water under the bridge. Or maybe just Leo’s. He didn’t look too hard, just then. He wasn’t sure the water was even real.

“Mr. Klaus said…” Leo stumbled. This was just plain wrong. “You’re the Chief?”

“Yes,” said Watch. “I know. It seems like a terrible idea. I said as much. But he said it had to be me. I was the only one who could see things clearly and...”

“Mr. Klaus,” said Leo, “Would never give up.”

“He didn’t,” said Watch.

“But if he’s not leading Libra...”

“He didn’t give up on any of us,” said Watch, his voice catching, just slightly. He reached for his lapel, and cross-shaped pin, clutching it like a lifeline, his scarred hand twitching over its polished surface. “That’s just how he was.”

Leo didn’t want to see this anymore. He stepped away from the wall. He put his hands in his pocket and walked down the bridge. A moment later, Watch followed him.

“...this is a sick joke,” muttered Leo.

“I’ll say,” said Watch. “I’m honest, I probably did have pretty selfish reasons for being here.”

“I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

“Can’t blame you,” said Watch, “You’re right. I’m not really any better than that Blood Breed. I wanted to see him again, too.”

“I don’t want to hear this anymore.”

“... but instead, I found you,” said Watch. Leo stopped. Leo looked over his shoulder. Watch stood at the end of the bridge, following him only with that unblinking, unfaltering stare. He wasn’t any taller than Leo -- at twenty four Leo knew the score there -- but in that suit, and standing the way he was, there sure was an illusion of height there. “So I guess I’m still pretty self-centered.”

“That’s not new,” said Leo, more bitterly than he meant it. Or maybe just more honest than he meant it.

“Guess not.” Watch shrugged. He tapped his foot again, idly. He had surprisingly nice shoes. Leo wondered in what world he’d become someone who’d wear shoes that nice. “If you keep going that way, you’ll probably find the way. You just have to calm down and focus.”

“That’s not new, either.”

“And,” said Watch, his foot stopped. He shifted. He raised a hand. Then lowered it like he’d changed his mind. “... give yourself a little more credit, too. You’re not as bad at this stuff as you think. Trust your friends a little more when they say stuff like that to you.”

Leo took a step away. He took a breath. Something ached. Something deep in his throat just hurt. What could he say? What could he do? How could get away from this? This other version of himself, who was so sad and weird and probably not real and saying things that just seemed to get his heart racing more...

“You’re worth more to them than you know,” said the apparition, “Leonardo Watch.”

Leo turned and ran. He ran without checking the path ahead of him. He ran without looking back at the path behind him. The park around him became nothing but a whirl of light and green and strange auras. He wasn’t proud of himself for it. But he did it. Watch didn’t follow. He probably couldn’t. Eventually, Leo ran out of breath. He slumped his shoulder against a tree. He breathed. He calmed down. Relatively speaking.

“It wasn’t me,” muttered Leo, “That didn’t happen. That wasn’t me. I’m me. I’m me. I’m just. Normal, kind of weirdo me. Klaus is fine. Michella--”

Leo stopped that thought and shoved himself back to his feet.

He saw a lake.

The water was still, and dark, which meant it must have been part of the original park -- the real one, the one in the place that was once New York. The path under Leo’s feet still glowed a soft green, but it sloped slightly downwards. Leo moved towards the water. It seemed like the best way to get some sort of bearing of where he was.

A stick snapped under his shoe.

“Eh?” someone called, “Is someone there?”

Leo froze. Down by the water, a set flat boulders lay near the bank. Leo could make out the vague shape of a person sitting on one of those boulders, facing the water. They weren’t wearing a suit. And they weren’t glowing. Their aura, when Leo checked, was just that of a normal person. Had someone else gotten lost? Leo slid half of the way down to them. It could’ve been of the surveyors. It could have been some unfortunate dogwalker. Or...

“Hey,” called Leo, “Hey, do you need some--”

The person turned towards the sound of his voice.

“--help?” Leo froze. His shoulders dropped. He sighed, rubbing the back of his head. Of course.

“Hi,” he said, instead.

“Hi,” said the Leo sitting on the rock. “I guess I’m a little turned around.”

“Do you….er,” Leo started to gesture, then stopped. He knew that would be kind of pointless in this situation. “Know who I am?”

“There’s a thing called voicemail…” said the other Leo.

“All right, scratch that, stupid question,” said Leo, quickly, “You’re just taking this really well?”

This Leo shrugged. “It’s not really the worst thing in the world.”

“I guess not,” said Leo.

“Wanna sit down?”

“Sure.”

So Leo sat down on the rock with this new Leo. This new Leo leaned back on the boulder, resting on his elbows. He didn’t look that different. Leo wasn’t sure why he should have. He wore a jacket that had gotten stolen on Leo’s first day in Hellsalem’s Lot, and a pair of jeans Leo hadn’t even bothered to take with him. His camera hung around his neck. Leo weighed asking why he still had it, but decided against it. It was sort of nice to have a doppleganger who didn’t want to have some long disturbing conversation. Still, after a bit, Leo couldn’t help but turn and say:

“So. How did you get here? Did Mr. Klaus tell you about this place, too?”

“I don’t know a Mr. Klaus,” said this Leo. Which sure answered that. “Sounds like one of Michella’s friends, though. I don’t know how I got here-- I’m pretty sure I don’t exist. I’ve probably just been here the second you showed up.”

“Oh,” said Leo, “That really self-aware of you? Uh, sorry about that?”

This Leo shrugged. “I don’t mind. The water smells nice.”

It did, actually, not that he mentioned it. It smelled like early spring, when fresh shrubs grew along the banks, before it got hot enough to to make everything all murky and oily with the rot of summer at its peak.

“It’s actually December,” said Leo. “Out in the city, I mean.”

“Really? That’s funny. Hellsalem’s Lot must be a really weird place.”

“You get used to it.”

“Really?”

“No.”

“Hah,” said this Leo, “Sound’s like fun.”

“It’s not,” said Leo. “It’s really, really not. You’re totally better off where you are.”

“Yeah?” The other Leo turned to him, eyebrows raising, just a little. “You sure about that?”

He didn’t squint anymore. It hurt to look at him too long. Leo ended up going back to watching the water.

“....that was a bad way to say it,” muttered Leo. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” said this Leo. “I don’t think I’d have handled it well anyway. I’m not particularly brave.”

“What?” Okay, that didn’t make sense. Leo knew which possibility this was. This was the him he’d wished he’d been from the start. Why on earth would he, of all people, think…. “But you-- you’re the me who--”

“‘Please, not me,’” said this Leo, in a voice that seemed to echo louder than it should’ve, across the cool, still water. “‘Not me. I don’t want it. Pick someone, pick anyone, pick anyone else, but please, not me.’”

“Oh,” said Leo. That answered that, didn’t it?

“Yeah.”

“That...does sound like something I’d say.”

“You don’t know. You didn’t say it.”

“I guess I didn’t.”

“That’s something.”

“I guess so,” said Leo. Maybe it really was. He didn’t feel particularly good, knowing it, but he didn’t feel particularly awful, either. He supposed, as far as worst fears or bare minimums went, this wasn’t the most awful option. “Mind if I just sit here, for a little bit?”

“Sure,” said this Leo. He smiled. It wasn’t a hungry smile like the Blood Breed, it wasn’t a worn down, like Watch. It just seemed a little dreamy, maybe a little vague. “I don’t have anywhere to be.”

So Leo sat. He didn’t think about much. Just sat there, next to the young man with the burnt out, empty eyes. They didn’t talk after that, which was fine. It was kind of nice, not to think of much. Then, after ten minutes or so, Leo stood and brushed the bramble off of his pants.

“Are you okay?” asked Leo. “I mean, I know you’re not going to be here after I go, but are you okay?”

“I won’t be around to worry about it,” said this Leo, “But it’s nice of you to ask.”

 


 

Leo turned the corner from the lake. Leo scrubbed some of the dirt from his face. He took a breath, opened his eyes, stared up at the shivering path ahead of him.

“You’ve made your point,” he said. To the park. To whatever… thing that made up this park. The path wobbled. Light danced at the corner of his eyes. A couple of trees leaned forward at the sound of his voice. “People want to be better. I want to be better. I get it. I get it. But that’s enough.”

No answer. Leo didn’t really expect one. Something crunched behind him. Leo turned -- but he saw nothing. Just the vague dimness of the lake behind him, and the stones, someone might have still been sitting out on the rocks but it was hard to tell, from this distance, and in all the light.

“But there’s something else I want,” said Leo, stumbling up the path. Branches and roots grabbed at him, he trudged on. “Besides all the stupid selfish stuff. I mean, I guess it’s kind of stupid and selfish too, in a way. But I guess everyone’s stupid and selfish about some things? Aaah, whatever. I’m talking to a bunch of bushes. I want to see Klaus.”

No answer. Leo shoved another slithering branch out of his way. It bounced back, and slapped him across the face. He shoved it away again.

“I want to see him,” he said, louder this time. “I want to see him, right now.”

And then, Klaus was there. Barreling in behind him on the path -- he’d been the one snapping all that bramble. He skidded to a halt, fist firmly clenched around a squirming, skittering branch with grasping claws at the end of it. This in of itself was kind of weird and upsetting, but Leo couldn’t really be assed to care about that just then. Leo smiled and rubbed the back of his head.

“Hi,” he said. So relief really could ache sometimes. Or maybe that was just affection. Or maybe it was his other versions kind of coming back to him. Anyway, it was Klaus. It was really Klaus. All seven feet of him.

“Leonardo,” said Klaus, a little breathlessly, as though he’d just barrelled through half of the park -- which, knowing Klaus, he probably had. “Are you hurt? Forgive me, the Ramble overtook me. I did not realize you had fallen out of step until--”

“I’m okay,” said Leo. He became aware, all at once, how battered up he must have looked. Covered in dirt, and bits of leaves, scratch on his face, and oh right, the vampire had sat on him at one point. “It looks worse than it is. I just kind of flailed around a bit. Sorry to worry you. I lost my focus.”

Klaus’ eyes softened, just a bit. He threw the branch over his shoulder. Leo tried not to laugh too much at the way it actually shrieked in outrage when it landed somewhere in the bushes behind him. It didn’t know why he felt so lightheaded. They were still in the middle of a interdimensional maze.

“You needn’t apologize,” said Klaus, “You came here on my account. And it was, and continues to be, my responsibility to ensure your safety”

“I know,” said Leo. “Like I said, I’m okay. Just a little dirty I guess? Uhhh... How long have you been looking for me?”

“For me it has been fifteen minutes,” said Klaus, his face darkened with understanding. “But I suspect that has not been the case for you.”

“Yeah,” said Leo. “Probably. I just. Um. Haaah.”

He stepped wrong on the path. It wasn’t actually much of stumble. He fixed himself before he fell backwards into any more dimensional rifts, but Klaus moved very fast. All at once, Klaus had an arm at the small of his back, holding him steady. Leo grasped Klaus’ forearm. He couldn’t help but notice, just a little bit, the cross on his tie clip. Then he thought about Watch and his pin and suddenly he had his forehead resting on Klaus’ chest. He tried not to think about how low that placed him. It was really warm though, and not quite as rock hard as it could’ve been. Klaus was, after all, a living, breathing person and Leo was suddenly just really glad that continued to be the case.

“Sorry,” said Leo, “Sorry, sorry. I’m okay. I’m back. I’m fine. I’m haven’t even asked about you. Are you okay?”

He said this while pressing his forehead into the ridiculously nice fabric of Klaus’ vest. He was going to get snot all over it if he started to cry. He sucked in a breath, hiccuping a little.

“I am fine,” assured Klaus. He seemed, for a moment, frozen in alarm then-- before he pressed his palm against Leo’s shoulder blades. “Are you able to walk? If we must find the exit, we will--”

Leo squeezed his arm. He hadn’t really meant to do something quite that personal, but Klaus froze, so he guessed it worked.

“No,” said Leo. He made himself look up. He made himself look Klaus in the eyes. Because if he couldn’t even do that…well, why say that at all? “I can do this. I just realized something.”

Klaus stopped. He was waiting for Leo to go on. Of course he was. Holding his arm tighter, Leo counted to five and pulled himself together.

“You said this place responds to the heart right? And hearts can go a lot of different ways, right?” Like ways to vampires, or horrible futures, or… “Maybe, we shouldn’t be following the main path? Maybe, if you just let me see what you want, and since what you want is to find surveyors -- I think I might be able to figure out which one of these will take us to them.”

For a long moment, Klaus didn’t say anything, and Leo wondered if what he’d said didn’t sound completely crazy. ‘Or not. Or totally not,’ he almost said, ‘What do I know…”

But then, at the end of that long moment, Klaus smiled. Just a faint one, but it came in spite of so much concern that Leo sort of got where his other selves were coming from, getting all caught up on it.

“If you believe that to be the case,” said Klaus. “It seems likely. Very well, Leonardo, if you lead, I shall follow.’

‘Fine,’ thought Leo, ‘Fine, not-crazy-other-me. Maybe you did have some kind of point.’

 


 

In the end, they found the surveyors at the top of a weird little spiraling hill topped with half of a castle tower. They’d arranged a picnic blanket and some small sandwiches. They looked almost a little annoyed they’d been interrupted, until they saw it was Klaus.

“Oh, Mr. Reinherz!” said a woman with coke-bottle glasses and a tie-dyed sundress over jeans -- the xenobiologist, maybe? No telling. “THERE you are. Oh, you should absolutely SEE the specimens I have found. The ones you have requested, of course, and I believe I have discovered at least three new species in the course of just our breakfast. I also happened to find that rose you mentioned you wanted to see. I took a clipping. I think it should make an excellent addition to your garden--”

The xenobiologist, then.

“Er, what she MEANS to say,” cut in the second woman, the surveyor, who was dressed considerably less like a hippie, and more like she’d been on her way to a job interview. Dress pants, dress shirt, gatling gun-- wait what? “Sorry about all this. The Ramble snuck up on us. Annie got excited about it and there was no walking in a straight line after that, so I figured we’d better stay put until you got here. I’d have called, but you know how service gets in here--”

“You are both unhurt, then?” asked Klaus.

“Oh, you sweetheart, yes we are fine, honestly you did not have to do all this--” said Calvert.

“Except we could have been stuck here for days and I’ve only got so much ammo,” said Moses. “Also, I think there’s bears in here now? That’s new.”

“But THANK you,” said Annette. She opened one of her bags. Klaus looked an equal part serious, excited, and then excited-but-trying-to-remain-serious-because-this-was-not-the-time-to-be-indulging-his-hobby.

It only sort of worked.

“I hope you have some idea of how to get ALL of us out,” said Moses. “My Red Thread technique only works for one--”

Leo cleared his throat.

All at once, everyone looked down at him.

“Um, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” he said, pointing. “The door’s right over there.”

And, sure enough, they were now all standing at the gate. A street sign over the wall said ‘Fifth Avenue.’

They’d come out the other side.

“.... I will have Gilbert bring the car around,” said Klaus.

 


 

“Take the rest of the day off,” said Steven. “I think, all things considered, you should get to enjoy it. Particularly since you haven’t ended this one in the hospital. And since you have spared us quite a bit of awkward explanations to the municipal committee.”

Steven’s glanced over towards back off the office, where Klaus was presently locked in excited conversation with the xenobiologist. The surveyor looked a bit less thrilled by this, but now and again, even she cracked a smile. She wasn’t as stone cold as she let on.

“I like that last part,” admitted Leo.

“Klaus does, too,” said Steven, “I’m not sure if it is apparent to you, but your safety is something of a priority to him. Your eyes haven’t overheated too badly, have they?”

“... I’ve got a headache,” admitted Leo, “But I think I’ll be okay. I’ve had a lot worse.”

“Excellent,” said Steven. “Be sure to check in with the doctor if that changes. I’m told the Ramble can leave a bit of a mark on people, physical and otherwise.”

He was already typing something into his phone -- probably in relation to those plants. That did seem like a big deal, even if Klaus hadn’t mentioned it since returning from the park. That was just how things were in Libra, sometimes. You only ever got so much information about any one thing.

Still…

‘Klaus said Steven couldn’t do it on his own.’ Leo wondered how true that was. Steven seemed good at running a lot of things. Did that other version of himself know something he didn’t? Or was this wishful thinking? Leo knew he’d probably never get much of an answer on that.

He hoped not, anyway.

Still, he couldn’t help but wonder...

“...Mr. Steven,” said Leo. “One question.”

“Hm?”

“Mr. Klaus mentioned the Ramble reacts to the heart of the individuals inside of it.”

“That does seem to be the case, doesn’t it?”

“He said it had something to do with its history. Was it, I don’t know, where people went to make wishes or something like that?”

“Make wishes?” Steven stopped texting. Steven looked up. Steven’s eyebrows raised, considerably. He pursed his lips, lowered his phone, and considered for a moment. “That is… way to put it, I suppose.”

“I was stuck in there all morning, Mr. Steven.”

“Fair enough,” said Steven, with a slight shrug. "Nowadays they say the Ramble is a place that can take you to find the person you’re searching for. There have been many times in its past before when it did that. But back then... how to put this? It was a place for spirited young men to find other spirited young men. For recreational purposes.”

“Recreational purposes.” Leo stared. “You’re saying it was a gay hookup site, aren’t you.”

“In an era when such things were not as accepted as they are today,” continued Steven, with unmerciful sagacity. “Yes. Its interesting how the context of places change over time and with a bit of interdimensional interference. Does answer your question?”

“I guess so,” said Leo. Welp. That was a conversation. That just happened. With one of his bosses. “I’ll... see myself out.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day,” said Steven.

 


 

Leo stepped out onto the sidewalk and stopped. He reached up and pulled a leaf out of his hair. It didn’t look like much -- just a crumpled dead leaf. The kind you should find in a park in December. Leo sighed. He had more questions than answers after all. Well, okay. They’d found the surveyor and the xenobiologist, they’d gotten the plants that Libra needed, he’d managed to not go completely crazy and he’d technically even escaped a Blood Breed -- even if he wasn’t sure if that Blood Breed was real or had ever been real.

Still, something bothered Leo.

He thought about calling Zapp and Zed to see if they were done with their lunch break. He thought about stopping by the station to see Nej. He….wanted to avoid parks for a bit, so maybe he’d catch Real another time. He could also go to the diner. He could go downtown and just take pictures for a bit. There was plenty Leo could do. Possibilities. Endless possibilities. He wondered if any of those would lead to him becoming a monster. He wondered if any of those would lead to him sitting at Klaus’ desk.

...he really didn’t want that one to happen.

Leo was so caught up hedging on what to do he almost didn’t notice Annette Calvert and Emilia Moses emerge from the building. Moses in her dark violet trench coat, trying to rope Calvert into a big fuzzy parka.

“I am so glad Mr. Reinherz seems in such good spirits. It has been wonderful to see him again, hasn’t it?”

“I think I could’ve done with seeing him outside of getting stuck in an interdimensional probability sink,” said Moses.

“Oh, darling, I know that was a bit harrowing, but you have to admit it was a LITTLE fun. It’s been so LONG since we’ve had a real adventure like that. I worried you get bored.”

“I’m never bored,” said Moses. “Not with you.”

“And I love you, too, dear,” said Calvert. She grabbed Moses hand, laced their fingers together, and gave her a tug. Moses followed, any half-hearted attempt at a scowl vanishing in an instant. Neither of them seemed to notice Leo as they left. They seemed, in the end, totally lost in each other.

Which answered a question Leo hadn’t even really thought to ask.

“...arrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh,” he said. “Okay, FINE. FINE, SAD SACK FUTURE ME, HOW ABOUT THIS.”

He turned and marched back through the store, into the backalley, into the basement, up the secret elevator, passed a mildly confused Steven (on the phone) and back to Klaus’ desk.

“MR. KLAUS,” said Leo. “I KNOW YOU’RE REALLY BUSY RIGHT NOW. BUT WHEN YOU’RE LESS BUSY MAYBE LATER THIS WEEK OR SOMETHING DO YOU WANT TO GET COFFEE?”

“Hm?” Klaus looked up. He’d been looking at one the seed pods the xenobiologist had left on his desk in a little jar. He put it back on the desk. It was the most bewildered Leo had ever seen him. “Beg pardon?”

“I SAID DO YOU WANT TO GO GET COFFEE WITH ME SOME TIME,” said Leo. He would not overthink this. He would not overthink this. He would absolutely not overthink this. Who knew if that would throw him into some OTHER weird alternate universe. One where he didn’t have the guts to do this. “AND WHEN I SAY COFFEE I DON’T MEAN WORK COFFEE. OR FRIEND COFFEE. I MEAN LIKE. DATE COFFEE. ON A DATE. WITH ME. SOME TIME THAT’S GOOD FOR YOU.”

Klaus ears turned bright red.

“AND BEFORE YOU ASK,” said Leo, very quickly. Because at this point, he understood some things about Klaus. “I’M FINE. IT’S NOT SOME WEIRD PARK THING. I’VE JUST REALIZED I KIND OF WANTED TO ASK.”

“I see,” said Klaus, he only looked...mildly less flustered. He coughed, and suddenly looked down at his hands. It was impossible for Klaus von Reinherz to look small, but for a moment, he made a very good go of it. “In which case, I am flattered by your interest, relieved that it a genuine overture, and would like to accept your offer -- though, ah, I am unable to give you a definite date at this time.”

“AWESOME,” said Leo. “LET ME KNOW WHAT WORKS FOR YOU. WHEN YOU KNOW. YOU’VE WORKED OUT THAT MAGIC POLLEN THING.”

And then Leo turned and walked out.

By the time he’d get back on the curb, he’d start to realize what he’d done. By the time he’d get home and lie down, he’d probably totally start freaking out about it. There were a million ways it could go wrong. There were a million was for him to humiliate himself almost completely.

But in that moment, in that exact moment, standing in the elevator, bright red and laughing like a crazy person, Leo saw only one possibility, and that was the one where he’d have coffee with Klaus, maybe in a few days, maybe next week, and it seemed, in that exact moment, like the best idea he’d had in a long, long time.