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.
Twice in his whole life, Leonardo Watch had found himself frozen, unable to move even as the world also slowed to a crawl around him.
The first time had been two years ago, at Liberty Island, after the sky had torn itself open and a demon had reached through, speaking in that gently matter-of-fact tone. Choose who will see things through to the end.
He'd been both pathetic and afraid then, his knees locked and his throat tight; all he'd been able to do was stand there, helpless as Michella traded away her sight without the slightest hesitation.
And now, two years later, what had changed?
Nothing at all, really.
Klaus went down without a sound, but Karolina surged back to her feet with a roar, and on her face was an expression of pure raw fear. The small part of Leo's mind that was still functional was sympathetic: I knew she still liked him, there's no way you could know Mr. Klaus without liking him and also god, I'm glad this wasn't my fault--
"Zapp!" Steven bellowed. "Zapp, no, don't--"
There was a sharp ringing sound, like the clash of metal off metal, but it ended with a dull thunk before a tremendous spray of blood filled the air. Leo tore his gaze away from Klaus finally and looked up.
Half of the witch was still where he'd been, encased solidly in ice and standing upright. The upper half of him, however, had been sliced clean through, and was now at the ground by his feet. His expression was frozen in a look of shock, nearly completely soaked in his own blood. Zapp sucked in a noisy phlegmatic breath and spat the result straight onto the witch's face. He didn't look terribly apologetic for what he'd done.
Steven groaned. He hadn't let go of Leo yet, but he sagged, rubbing his face with his free hand. Leo turned slowly to look at him as well. It was odd how distant everything felt, now, as if he'd channeled everything into screaming Klaus's name, and now that the world was still moving, he had nothing left to really feel. "Mr. Steven?"
"This would have been easier if we'd kept him alive," Steven said. His voice was muffled against his hand. "At least it wasn't a proper death-curse. Thank god for small favors."
Leo hummed at that in vague answer. "Oh?"
Steven's fingers parted enough for him to peer through them at Leo. Whatever he saw made him frown, his brows drawing together. "Young man--"
"I don't think it was such a bad thing," Leo said. His voice sounded strange to his own ears. His body felt heavy -- bulky, somehow, as if he had too much of it to carry. How ridiculous. "He killed Mr. Klaus, after all."
"You!" Karolina snapped. "Witness! Get over here!"
Leo tilted his head slowly. Karolina was kneeling beside Klaus's body, one of his hands caught between both of hers, as if she'd been feeling of a pulse. How silly. Even with his eyes closed, he could tell that Klaus's aura was gone. There was no point.
And if he just stayed here, in this quiet fog that had risen up around his emotions, then maybe he wouldn't have to acknowledge that. He wouldn't have to look Klaus in the face and just know--
Steven made the decision for him, though: as Leo stood there considering, Steven began to walk, dragging Leo with him. His voice was low and oddly gentle, the way one might talk to a frightened animal. Wasn't that funny? Like he had anything to be afraid of now, anymore--
"Young man. Young man, you need to listen to me. Right now, we need your Eyes more than ever. A curse has rules to it; that's what a witch excels in. A curse can always be broken. Do you hear me? A curse can be broken."
"But only if we can find the conditions," Karolina cut in. Her voice was grim.
Leo blinked at her -- when had they gotten so close? why were they all standing next to Klaus's body like this? -- and then the rest of those words finally sank in. "What?"
"A curse can be broken," Steven repeated. His voice was strained but steady, and it was a good thing, really, that he was still holding onto Leo, because Leo's knees turned to water with that. If Ms. Karolina says there's still time, then there's still time. Don't faint, young man. We need you to--"
As he spoke, though, Klaus groaned and sat up.
Everyone recoiled at that except for Zapp, who came swaggering up, his hands in his pockets and his knees akimbo. His teeth were bared in a scowl, and Leo tensed before he could quite help it -- if Zapp tried to attack him now --
But all Zapp did was lean down and forward, until his face was a scant inch away from Klaus's, his face set in a fierce scowl. It might have been funny in any other situation. As it was, Leo finally found the strength to tug out of Steven's support and stumble over himself, dropping to his knees next to Klaus, glaring as scoldingly as he could manage. Zapp didn't even glance his way.
"You look like shit, Boss," he said without hesitation "It wouldn't even be a challenge to kill you like this."
Klaus blinked at that. His glasses had been knocked askew at some point, and he still hadn't straightened them. Leo's fingers itched, but he forced himself to keep them as fists on his knees. He hadn't yet opened his eyes for the same reason he hadn't actually reached out yet -- Karolina was there, hovering as a watchful presence. For the moment she was distracted by Zapp, staring at him like she wasn't sure just precisely how hard she should punch him for the comment.
Oh, hey, you and me both, Ms. Karolina. Look, it's another way we could get along.
"My apologies," Klaus said at last. His voice sounded strange, stiff and stilted, more heavily accented than Leo could ever remember him sounding, except in the few seconds right after waking up, groggy and off-balance in the world. And now, as it always did, it faded after a few seconds of talking. "I do feel a bit under the weather. What happened?"
They all stared.
"Er, Boss," Zapp said. Now he seemed a bit more rattled. He flapped a hand helplessly behind himself, at the mess that remained of the witch. Klaus followed the movement with obvious confusion, and his eyes widened a beat later.
"How did that--"
"You got hit with a curse," Karolina cut in sharply. "We don't know yet what it does, Klaus, so until it does--"
"Karolina!" Klaus turned to her. His expression went from mildly confused to one of open, nearly childish shock. "When did you arrive in Hellsalem's Lot? I would have come to meet you, if I'd known."
She rocked a little at that. For a moment she looked equally surprised, her eyes wide. "What are you talking about? Your Scarface probably knew the moment I arrived in America. And if he knew, then you should too."
"Steven hasn't said anything," Klaus said. Because it was Klaus, he only sounded mildly confused rather than scolding or distressed, but he did turn to look at Steven at that. "Right?"
Steven just stared for a few seconds longer. "Klaus," he said, very slowly. "I told you she was here yesterday morning."
"... You did?"
Steven's frown deepened. His eyes narrowed After a long pause, he pointed to Leo. "Do you know who that is?"
Klaus followed the gesture, his brows drawing together. "That's Leonardo, of course. Why would you even ask that, Steven?"
"Leonardo Watch," Steven said. His voice was low and dangerous, and as much as Leo wanted to say something -- encouragement, maybe, or at least some acknowledgement -- he found himself frozen by the expression on Steven's face. "Who is he, to you?"
Klaus frowned. "He's a member of Libra," he said. "And a valuable one at that. You've seen how well he's done over the past six months, Steven; you told me yourself--"
Steven held up a hand in a stop gesture and turned to Karolina. Her expression was equally grim.
"There you have it," he said.
"Of course," she said. She rubbed at her face with one hand. "It would be that sort. You never do anything easily, do you, Klaus?"
"I'm sorry," he said. He ducked his head and folded his hands in his lap, the picture of contrite embarrassment. "But, Karolina, the easy way is not always the right way; you know that as well as I do."
"You don't even know what I'm talking about," she said with a groan. For a moment she kept her hand pressed over her eyes, then moved it just enough that she could look at Leo, leaning around Klaus's bulk. "You. Witness. Now is where you will be most necessary."
"Huh? Me?" Leo rocked back a little under the weight of her glare. It was as good as any of Klaus's when he was extremely focused. "What can I do?"
"A curse is a contract, in essence," Steven said. His voice was only nominally more gentle than Karolina's, and when he touched Leo's shoulder, his hand was vibrating slightly. "These sorts of things always have a catch to them. We need you to find it."
"How do I do something like that?" Leo's voice rose at that, in spite of his best efforts, and he forced himself to stop, taking a deep breath. "Even with the Eyes, how am I supposed to find ..."
"It's a memory curse, Leonardo," Steven said flatly. "It'll eat through everything he has, and when his mind is done, it'll work on the rest of his body."
"He'll eventually forget how to breathe," Steven said. His voice was cold now; Leo could feel the ice in those words, sinking into his veins, headed straight for his heart. "His brain will forget how to regulate everything. He will simply forget how to keep himself alive. So right now, young man, every part of this--"
"Steven." Klaus's voice was gentle but firm, but it was enough for Steven and Leo to jerk apart, looking at him. "Have faith in Leonardo. I do."
I do. It was all he said. It was all he needed to. Leo's breath wheezed out of him at that, as if he'd been outright punched in the gut. His heart pounded in his ears and his palms felt clammy and cold.
"Mr. Klaus ..."
Klaus put a hand to his heart, turning to face Leo properly. "You are a member of Libra," he said. "I believe wholly that you will be able to accomplish whatever it is you need to, in this situation."
His glasses were still sitting lopsided on his face. It made him look -- younger, somehow, not quite as settled into his skin as he normally was. The difference was subtle, but it surprised Leo for how much it changed the final effect of his look. His sincerity, though -- the odd sweetness that was in everything that Klaus did -- that was still there. And that was enough of a comfort that Leo found himself leaning forward for it, reaching up to finally adjust those glasses--
--And Klaus pulled away, out of reach, with a small confused noise. He reached to fix his glasses himself, his brows drawn together. "Leonardo?"
"Er." Leo hesitated a moment, trying to breathe around the sudden rock wedged in his throat. These past six months, he'd said, when Leo had been a member of Libra for the better part of two years. They hadn't even been dating six months at this point. Oh.
A beat later -- a beat too late, really -- he jerked his hand back and rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry. There was -- you were sort of--"
"Focus, young man," Steven said. His voice was sharp, but something under it was softer, almost sympathetic. "The sooner we can figure out to crack it, the more likely we'll be able to reverse the damage."
Leo jerked again, looking up at Steven, who just nodded at Klaus, calm as before. It was only in his eyes, really, that there was any hint of sympathy or warmth. And that did help, a little, but it still felt rather like something had been lodged directly in his chest, and breathing around it felt almost impossible. Leo curled his hands into fists, digging his nails into his palm to force himself to focus as directed.
He opened his eyes. Off to the right, he heard Karolina suck in a sharp breath and mutter something. Was it German? Maybe it was Swedish. She did nothing else, though, and Leo took a deep breath before he turned to look at Klaus.
When he did, though, it took physical effort to not jerk away and close his eyes again. Klaus's normally enormous aura was a shell of its former self -- barely bright enough to register as "alive" at all -- and on closer inspection, it was less because it was reduced and more that it was being ... contained. It was the best word that Leo could think of for it: the lines of the curse had wrapped itself around Klaus's aura like impossibly long strong ropes, pulling it in and forcing it into a space far too small to properly contain it. Every few seconds, Leo could see a brighter puff of energy simply squeeze out and dissipate.
If he stared particularly hard at those, he could see flashes of faces and scenery, both familiar and not, and the implication of that made his stomach churn.
You don't have time for that, he told himself sternly, though he had to swallow hard a few times to keep the bile back in his throat. Focus.
He leaned in, bracing his hands on his knees now, to get a better look. After a few seconds of staring and calibration (and a refocus each time he blinked), the letters on the lines of the curse became abruptly clear. Like a Magic Eye picture -- and how long had it been since Leo had seen one of those, seriously -- it just seemed like one second, the lines of the curse were dark writhing lines, slowly contracting tighter and tighter around Klaus, and then abruptly there were words, so small and finely packed that even when he forced himself to focus, he could barely make them out.
He rocked back at that with a low hiss, finally closing his eyes and pressing his fingertips against the lids. They were almost too hot to bear touching.
"Did you see anything?" Steven asked. His voice was much closer now; he must have moved in while Leo was distracted. Leo tilted his head up, and it was a few seconds before normal vision swam into focus. Steven looked deeply intent, his jaw set like he was about to start grinding his teeth. At the moment, Leo couldn't help but sympathize a little.
"Some," he said, almost apologetic. "There's ... a lot, to put it lightly."
"Could you read it?" Karolina cut in. "What did it say?"
"Er." Leo spread his hands a bit at that. "Kind of? It looked a lot like the way a Blood Breed's name looks ... I can read them, but not read them, you know? It's not how like Mr. Klaus can just look at them and know what the letters say. It's like a different language."
"Because it is," Karolina said. She reached into her breast pocket, pulling out a pair of glasses. The lenses were a familiar shade of blue. As Leo stared, she put them on and leaned close to Klaus, enough that their faces nearly touched. Klaus only blinked at her, perhaps a bit confused, but otherwise apparently unconcerned. It was, Leo thought, rather like some large well-trained dog waiting for a cue from his master. Her frown deepened, and a moment later she sat back herself, pushing the glasses up to rest on her forehead before she looked at Steven.
"It's full of traps," she said. "'Beware ye who follow this path, for in doing so, for ye risk the greater effects of the curse,' that sort of thing."
"Of course," he said. He rubbed at his face and sighed, then looked at Klaus. "You never do anything by half-measures, do you."
"I apologize," Klaus said, and the thing was, he sounded entirely like he meant it. Because of course he did. "But there is little point in not giving the whole of your effort, no matter what you do."
"Klaus," Steven sighed and cut himself off. He shook his head and turned to Leo again. "Young man, I'm afraid that you will need to--"
"I'll do it," Leo said, so quickly that he surprised himself a little. "Whatever it is. I'll do it."
For a moment Steven looked mildly surprised. Which was ... fair, actually, given Leo's history, but.
"All right," he said. "What we need for you to do is this."
"We need you to transcribe the whole thing. The more complicated a curse is, the more likely it is to have clauses stuck into the text at random intervals; if we don't follow them all to the letter, we run the risk of having our countermeasures backfire. We might end up getting drawn in, or we might accelerate the damage to Klaus. You have to be extremely careful with this, young man; a single wrong letter and we might read the whole thing wrong."
"... No pressure or anything."
"Oh, there's pressure, young man; there's plenty of it. Work as quickly as you can, but without any mistakes. We don't know yet the rate that this curse will take to run its course, so for the time being, we must assume a deadline of Friday. Karolina and I will work on the translation as you get the text to us. Klaus will unfortunately be unable to read anything pertaining to his own curse. Don't look like that, young man. It's how curses work. They have certain standards to uphold, even if they only need to follow certain rules. So long as we do everything correctly, everything should be fine."
"... So, what you're saying is, I'm reading the fine print on a magical contract."
"In essence. Good luck, young man."
By Thursday morning, Leo had the worst headache of his entire life.
Part of him was impressed by that. He'd had some spectacular ones, in his life -- even before he'd recieved the Eyes, he'd been prone to migraines (thanks, Dad and also Grandma Claudia), and after ... well. He'd become awfully good friends with his toilet for a good long time, and he'd taken enough pills that he was pretty sure his liver was wrecked, no matter how much alcohol he did or didn't have.
The rest of him, though, deeply regretted the whole thing.
At some point, someone -- maybe Chain, maybe Zed -- had dragged him away from staring at Klaus. Probably it had been around the time when he'd stopped being able to tell what his hand had been scribbling; he'd been dimly aware of Steven and Karolina arguing about the legibility of his writing before someone had bodily picked him up and carted him off. He'd been given tea and some pills -- "Don't ask where he got them, young man, just take them" -- and the next thing he knew, there was too much light coming in through the windows and the inside of his mouth tasted like something furry had been tossed in there to rot.
Leo lurched upright, which was the first mistake. Lights exploded across his vision, and none of them due to anyone's aura acting up. He clapped both hands hard over his mouth, but it still took a few seconds of swaying in place before he was certain he wasn't going to throw up all over the couch. Once he had his gag reflex under control, he looked up, and there was Gilbert. Of course.
"I have tea for you, Master Leonardo," he said. "Please be sure to drink all of it before you return to work."
He held out the cup in offering. It was steaming gently and smelled faintly of apple. Chamomile again, then. Leo took the cup without protest, curling around it so he could breath in some of that steam. He'd never been much of a tea person before -- and to be honest, he still really wasn't -- but he had to admit it was helping his head.
So he did as he was told, and he drank the whole of his tea before he handed the cup back and wobbled to his feet. Everything was still too bright and out of focus, like someone had dialed up the bloom filter too high. Leo walked with his hands outstretched, feeling his way as much as seeing it, until he found his way to the side office where Klaus was being kept.
Which was a turn of phrase that made him a little sick to use. Being kept, like he was some sort of animal -- but it had been Klaus's idea, first and last. Just in case the curse changed as it aged, and somehow made him dangerous to others. He'd looked at Leo very seriously as he'd explained, and went on to say, If you decide that it is too much of a risk for you, Leonardo, I understand; I would never ask you to make that choice--
He knocked first, at least, then poked his head in. "Morning," he said. "I'm ready to start."
Steven and Karolina were already there, sitting on either side of Klaus. Karolina had those glasses on again, with their uncomfortably familiar blue lenses.
"Ah, young man," Steven said. His voice was slightly hoarse, as if from disuses already. There were the beginnings of dark shadows under his eyes. He pushed back and stretched his arms over his head. His back made a series of loud popping noises that Leo could only sympathize with. "Good morning."
"Good morning," Karolina echoed, absent-mindedly. She pulled the glasses off, blinking hard a few times. That was also a gesture Leo recognized. "We've made some progress. You do good work."
Leo rocked on his heels at that. "Really?"
"Really." She folded the glasses and tucked them away in her pocket before she turned to look at him. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but she seemed satisfied. "You have a very good hand and eye for the words. I am surprised you don't know how to read it yourself."
"Oh, hah." Leo ducked his head for a moment, embarrassed. The weirdest thing about it was that she both sounded and looked completely genuine with the compliments. However brusque she'd been yesterday, she was effusive about it today. "Thanks. Uh. Good morning, Mr. Klaus."
"Good morning, sir," Klaus said. He had his head cocked to one side. His brows were drawn together. With the set of his jaw, he often looked more serious than he actually was, though this time he was actually frowning. It wasn't stern, just confused. "... Have we met?"
The question was like a slap, hard enough to rock him. Leo was sure his heart actually stopped beating for a few seconds.
"Uh," he said. He swallowed hard. "We, uh ... I'm a -- y-you know, I--"
"He's a member of Libra, Klaus," Steven cut in smoothly. "Leonardo Watch."
"Leonardo ..." Klaus's frown deepened for a moment before he brightened. There was recognition, but it was vague at best. "Ah, the young man with the All-Seeing Eyes of God?"
"Him, yes." Steven rose from his chair, gesturing at Leo to take his place. Leo couldn't make himself move, though, still completely frozen in place. "He's the one reading the curse for us."
"I see." Klaus continued to frown for a moment longer before the concern cleared from his expression. He turned to Leo fully and inclined his head in a small, polite nod. "I'm in your hands, then, Leonardo. I apologize for not remembering the circumstances of our relationship."
You don't even know the half of it, Leo thought. It was half-hysterical in his own head. "Ahaha, n-no, don't -- don't worry about it. It's fine. Uh. Curses, right? I'm surprised you're all right with some weirdo like me looking you over like this. Heh, I mean -- just, it's probably strange--"
"No," Klaus said. Goddamn, the man never changed, even when he didn't remember anything. "You are a member of Libra. Steven has vouched for you. Karolina has praised you. I trust their judgment."
Oh. "Oh." Leo tried to swallow and found his throat too tight to manage. "Haha."
"Let's keep going, shall we, young man?" Steven's voice was low in his ear, and Leo started, looking up. A hand settled on his back, giving him a gentle push to the vacated seat. "We've determined that he's losing about two to three years a day. He's twenty-eight. That gives us a bit more leeway before he's truly in the danger zone, but even so--"
"We still want to get on this as quickly as possible," Karolina said. "Klaus, are you ready?"
Klaus leaned back in his chair, adjusting to a slightly more relaxed position, and nodded. "I am."
"And you?" Karolina looked at Leo. He ducked his head in an effort to not meet her eyes, shuffling to sit in the chair. Breathing still felt like a tremendous effort. His hands felt clammy, and he curled them into fists on his knees to try and keep the tremor from being too obvious. "Leo?"
Get a grip, he told himself. It's not his fault. He doesn't know better. He's cursed right now, for god's sake. It's not about you. Get it together, so you can actually be of some goddamn use.
Leo took a breath and lifted his head. He opened his eyes, gritting his teeth against the initial flare of brightness; as always, it took a second or two for the lenses to adjust. The curse had definitely drawn in tighter around Klaus now, and maybe it was only Leo's imagination, but there seemed to be less of his usual aura trying to strain its way free. He kept his jaw set as he skimmed the lines of the curse, searching for where he'd left off the previous night. This morning? He couldn't actually know for certain.
"I'm ready," he said. His voice wavered a little, and he tried to pass it off by clearing his throat. He held out a hand for a notebook and paper, and realized only belatedly it would show off the shaking in his hands.
To his relief, though, neither Karolina nor Steven said anything.
Klaus, on the other hand, shifted forward.
"Are you certain you're all right?" he said. "You don't appear to be feeling well. I don't want you to strain yourself. If you can't handle it--"
"I'm fine," Leo snapped, a bit more sharply than he really meant. He felt guilty an instant later, worsened when Klaus cocked his head and leaned back, like a dog that confused over a scolding. "No, it's just ... you know, I'm worried. That's all. Since I wanna be sure and do this right and everything."
"I'm sure you will do fine, Leonardo," Klaus said. There was still concern shaded in his voice, warm and low, and Leo swallowed air at the way the pressure in his chest abruptly tightened. "I trust you in this."
I wish you wouldn't, Leo thought, but nodded. He leaned forward himself, forcing his eyes to focus, and once he found his spot again, he began to write.
It was easy enough to fall in the rhythm again. He would scribble characters for maybe a minute, a minute and a half, then have to pause and close his eyes for a short while in order to let them cool off. That was an improvement from even a month ago. He was getting better at using the Eyes of God.
And in all honesty, he wasn't sure if he was glad for that or not.
Occasionally he heard the door behind him open and close again, and the low sound of voices -- mostly Steven's, but there were snatches from everyone else who frequented Libra's office, too. Leo tuned them all out with the methodical ease of long practice. It was the same sort of zone he would get into with his photography at times -- that need to sit still and patient, letting the rest of the world roll on past him while he worked.
Eventually, though, Klaus moved again. It was amazing, how completely still he could sit: his control was complete enough that there'd been a couple of times where Leo could almost (almost!) forget that he was reading off a living being.
"Perhaps we should have lunch," he said. "You still don't look particularly well, Leonardo."
"Huh?" He fell back at that. He shook his head a little, in a halfhearted attempt to clear it, and what a bad idea that turned out to be. The headache that had been lurking at the base of his skull, low and throbbing, abruptly exploded into fireworks of pain. "Ah--"
"Leonardo!" He heard a low creak of movement, and then one of Klaus's hands settled on his back, large and warm and so familiar that it made his eyes sting. "You've been overdoing it. I thought so. Karolina--"
"No, no, it's fine," he said quickly. He waved a hand blindly, and when his fingers brushed against Klaus's chest, he couldn't help but let the touch linger for a few seconds before he shoved. There was no way he was actually strong enough to move Klaus, but Klaus leaned back anyway, accommodating. He caught a brief whiff of familiar cologne as Klaus moved. "I've just got a bit of a headache. It's okay. I'm used to it."
"That is hardly all right," Klaus said, and Leo didn't need to see his face to know he was frowning. "I understand the situation is a serious one, but you mustn't push yourself so hard."
"I," Leo began, and then swallowed harder. He couldn't really tell if the pain was worse in his head or his throat or his chest. "I'm not, really ..."
"Lunch sounds like a fantastic idea," Steven said abruptly, and for a rare once, Leo was grateful for his timed interruption. "Karolina?"
"A meal would not be amiss," she said. "In fact, I think it would be good for all of us to stretch our legs." She rose to her feet and held out a hand. "You as well, Klaus."
"Ah." He blinked at her a moment, then took her hand. There was no creak or strain as he got to his feet, not like when Steven or Leo himself moved, and for a man who'd been sitting in the same chair for at least twenty hours straight, he was unfairly limber still. "Thank you, Karolina. Are you certain it's safe?"
"It is a curse meant for a single person," Karolina said. For a moment she frowned, her gaze going downcast, before she squared her shoulders and straightened again. "In short, it was meant for me, until you were incredibly stupid. Five years! Five years in this city, and you've only become more foolish."
"Hey," Leo began, halfhearted, but Klaus actually threw his head back and laughed.
Aloud! With his mouth open! And everything!
It took him a moment to recover, and when he did, he only shook his head and said something else to Karolina, in rapidfire German. Whatever it was, it made her eyes go wide before she snorted and swatted at his arm -- light and playful, the way Michella sometimes batted at him when she was only pretending to be annoyed.
Leo's stomach felt like it had dropped out entirely. The appetite he'd been nursing dwindled to nothing, and the back of his mouth tasted like ash. He could hear ringing in his ears.
A hand touched his back, jolting him out of his thoughts. He looked up at Steven, but said nothing as he was gently nudged out of the room, back towards the main office.
About halfway there, though, Steven stopped.
"I said before, didn't I, that their families are old friends?"
"You did, Mr. Steven."
"Good," he said, and then again, softer, "Good. You know there's a whole lifetime that neither of us were part of either, right?"
"I do, Mr. Steven."
"Good," Steven said again. He paused, then sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "What I'm trying to say is--"
"No," Leo said. His voice was quiet, but Steven stopped at once. "I get it. I'm not gonna let this get in the way of anything. I wanna be able to help Mr. Klaus, no matter what. This is something I can actually do, for once."
Steven was quiet for a moment, then said, "The damage might be reversible."
"You said." Leo curled both of his hands into fists. "But it might not be."
"... It might not," Steven allowed. "We won't know until we break it. Are you ready for that?"
Am I? Leo wondered. If Mr. Klaus never remembers us as we were ...
Would it change anything, really? They weren't living together. They'd gone on a grand total of six dates in five months. (Not that Leo was counting, except where he totally was.) Klaus was attentive and and gentle and appreciative and ... and honestly, Leo felt a bit guilty for how poorly he did in comparison.
But what would be different? He couldn't be so casually free with Klaus's personal space -- but he wasn't really anyway, and especially not around others. There was something warmer in Klaus's eyes when he looked at Leo, and sometimes he would call Leo Leo, instead of Leonardo. There were presents sometimes, which were nothing flashy or even overly romantic, but always thoughtful and-or well-made: a new pair of running shoes, an upgraded phone, a larger memory card for his PSP. The first-day limited edition of a game he'd been whining at Zapp about. A better camera. Fancy sit-down meals at restaurants where they didn't even print the prices on the menu, and the receipts which he never let Leo see.
... Meanwhile, Leo still called him Mr. Klaus, and the only meals he could treat Klaus to were at various schlubby fast-food joints. Had he ever given Klaus a present, even? He was pretty sure he hadn't.
Which meant, in the end, everything about the relationship had benefitted him, and what had Klaus gotten out of it?
Nothing, except Leo himself, and what the hell sort of prize was that?
Maybe it was for the better, in the long run.
"It's fine," he said. It hurt to say, but he was fairly certain it would hurt worse not to say. He did tell me I could walk away. He wouldn't hold it against me.
But if I did ... "As long as he's alive ... Mr. Steven, as long as he's alive, I'm not going to give up on him. I don't think I could."
He looked up at that. Steven was looking at him with narrow-eyed intent, but when Leo caught him, he just smiled.
It was an oddly friendly smile, too. For a rare once, there didn't seem to be anything behind it other than an actual sincere affection. Steven inclined his head a little, and it felt more like a bow than a nod.
"Indeed, young man," he said. "Just as Klaus says. 'As long as a man takes a step to the light ...'"
"'His spirit will never be broken,'" Leo finished. His shoulders shook for a moment, not quite able to raise in a shrug, and he sighed. "I don't really know that I'm that noble, Mr. Steven. I don't really think I can save the world or anything. I don't really want that responsibility, either. I just want to be able to help him. And if he wants to save the world, then I guess I'm gonna do that too, whether he remembers me personally or not."
Steven tilted his head at that. His expression was unreadable for a moment, and then he huffed. It sounded nearly like a laugh, and he came close enough that he could pat Leo's back. His hand was wide and broad and oddly warm, though not nearly as much in comparison to Klaus's.
"Let me tell you a secret, young man," he said. "I think the same could be said for all of us."
He ended up having lunch with Zapp and Zed; the moment he walked into the main office, Zapp pounced, as if he'd been waiting by the door the entire time. ... Which, honestly, didn't seem too unlikely. He hadn't said more than ten words total to Zapp since they'd brought Klaus back from the curse site, though he'd been vaguely aware of someone nervously pacing near the side office where they'd been working on the curse. He felt almost bad about it. The situation had to be as nerve-wracking for the rest of Libra as it was for him alone.
He'd almost resisted, even so; there was an uneasy, itchy feeling in the back of his mind that he couldn't shake off, the feeling of what are you doing, wasting time, standing around and talking and not trying to read more of that curse? There were literal years of Klaus's life bleeding away. It wasn't like Leo's own memory-loss incident; that had been a one-time thing, and only a single month, this was--
It'll eat through everything he has, and when his mind is done, it'll work on the rest of his body. He'll eventually forget how to breathe. His brain will forget how to regulate everything. He will simply forget how to live.
"Leo?" Zed asked quietly. "Are you all right?"
He jumped at that, fumbling with his drink. They were at the diner, though they'd taken a booth rather than sit at the counter this time. Zapp had wandered off a short while ago, muttering about needing a piss. Most of Leo's meal was still untouched. He slouched lower in his seat and sucked at his straw almost aggressively.
"I'm fine," he said at last. "I mean. My head's okay. I'm not losing anything in it."
"That isn't what I meant." Zed picked up a fry, though he didn't eat it. "You and Mr. Klaus ..."
"That's not important right now," Leo said firmly. "I'm not gonna worry about it until after we've got this handled."
Zed frowned. For someone whose features were so alien, his expressions could be recognizably human at times. He didn't have eyebrows, precisely, but there was the bony ridge right over his eyes and those were surprisingly eloquent. "Even if you say that, it's bothering you, isn't it?"
"No way." Leo fidgeted in his seat. "I mean, I guess, a little, but there's no point in worrying about that right now. There are bigger problems. Like, you know, how Mr. Klaus is losing his memory a little at a time? His body's just going to--"
"I know, Leo," Zed said. His voice was gentle. It was a relief, but it stung as well. "I'm familiar with curses."
Leo groaned. "So, you know." He lifted a hand to flap it listlessly. "Helping break it is the only thing I can do right now. The rest of it is sort of ... I mean, it sucks, but what am I supposed to do?"
"I'm kind of a shitty boyfriend, okay, I'm kind of getting that now." He rubbed hard at his face. "What the hell do I even have to offer? I don't even know what the fuck Mr. Klaus was thinking, agreeing to go out with me in the first place. It has to be because he likes me though, right? Multiple dates means it's not just out of pity, right?"
"God, though, it's Mr. Klaus, isn't it. It's not pity. It's like -- it's real sympathy or something, and he's probably convinced he really does like me, though holy shit, what for? I haven't done anything for him since we hooked up and now there's something I can do but I still can't stop it from getting worse and he's already forgotten about me anyway, so what's even the point--"
"Yoooo, Pubehead!" A heavy weight dropped on Leo's back abruptly, hard enough to bang his head into the table. "What the fuck's wrong with your face? You look like shit. And I'd know, I just saw one that looked exactly like--"
"Could you have some decency, for once in your life?" Zed cut in, his voice sharp and exasperated. "No one wants to hear about your toilet adventures."
"What was that? You wanna fight, punk?"
"Oh, no. Unlike some people, I respect the rules of an establishment. If you'd like to get yourself thrown out, by all means, but I am going to finish my lunch with Leo--"
"Look, Fishsticks, I ain't gonna take that kinda shit from anyone." Zapp's hand settled on the back of Leo's head, grinding his face harder against the table. "You too fuckin' chicken for it? Chicken? Chicken of the sea? Oh shit, you're a goddamn tuna, man! I figured it out!"
"Now you're just babbling like an idiot."
"Hell no, that one was great! You tell him, Leo!" And he hauled Leo back upright at that, smushing their cheeks together. "I'm a fuckin' genius."
Leo sighed. He reached up and managed, with some effort, to peel Zapp's hand off the collar of his shirt.
"I'm gonna head back," he said.
"Huh?" Zapp said, at the same time Zed said,
"Leo, are you sure? You've barely eaten anything."
He shrugged, squirming out from under Zapp's weight and getting to his feet. He dug around in his various pockets for a moment, then dropped a crumpled wad of bills onto the table. "Yeah, I'm sure. This'll probably cover me. If it doesn't, just let me know, okay? Thanks."
He gave them the best smile he could, but he heard Zapp say, as he walked off, "What the fuck's up with him?"
And Zed's exasperated sigh in response: "Are you really seriously asking me that ..."
Leo started to walk faster, and thankfully was out the door before Zapp could reply.
The weather was starting to slant towards chilly, and he caught himself thinking, I should ask Mr. Klaus if he wants to go shopping with me, before he smacked his own face as hard as he could. A couple of pedestrians scattered to give him a wider berth at that.
"You're an idiot," he said aloud to himself. "One thing at a time."
He squared his shoulders and began to walk. There was a certain trick to it, when navigating the sidewalks: you focused straight ahead and you gave no indication you recognized the people around you. If someone approached going the other way, you either adjusted without making it look like you were, or you made them blink first.
Leo had gotten very good about not blinking over the past two years.
Things would be fine. They would have to be fine. Leo would bust his ass for this one thing -- this one vitally important thing -- and they'd undo that curse. He'd be saved. So what if Klaus no longer remembered him? So what if there had been pieces of him that Leo had never seen in their time together? He'd be alive, and that was what mattered. The world wasn't ready to lose Klaus von Reinherz, and if Leo could do anything to prevent that, then maybe ...
... well, maybe -- he'd gotten Klaus to go out with him before, and he'd been pretty shitty about it. So maybe, this time around, if he was very good -- if he worked hard, and if he actually applied himself for once in his life ...
Then, maybe, he'd let himself ask for that again.
But even if he didn't, he told himself sternly, he'd make sure the curse was broken. He'd make sure that Klaus was safe. That would be enough.
He told himself this, over and over, the whole walk back to Libra headquarters, and by the time he arrived, he'd almost (almost) managed to convince himself it was the truth.
I'm still torn on the possibility of an epilogue. The number of parts may go up solely for that, but I do promise the whole thing is finished.
On Friday evening, the cursebreaking effort hit its first major victory, and its first major snag.
As expected, that morning, Klaus had not recognized Steven or the general office at all; at some point, he had gone to the window and looked out at Hellsalem's Lot and had only made himself more concerned. It had taken both Karolina and Gilbert vouching for them before he'd allowed himself to be calmed. Leo's eyes had fascinated him enough to distract him for a short while. The All-Seeing Eyes of God! I never imagined I would ever see them this close. It must be true, then, that we are living in uncertain times.
With that, and a book, they'd convinced him to stay patiently still for the rest of the day, as Leo continued to diligently transcribe the lines of the course. There was something almost soothing about it, now that he'd figured out the proper focus to keep the Eyes in as he worked. He still had to stop semi-frequently to let them rest, but it was better progress within himself than he'd expected even of himself. He even let himself be a little proud about that, even if there was no one to really brag to about it.
... well, Klaus would have been proud, if it was the Klaus of last week, the one who'd watched Leo struggle through two years of learning how to best master using the Eyes.
The Klaus of this Friday, though, while he was still unfailingly and sincerely polite, held himself very carefully still and tense even while immersed in reading. From anyone else, Leo might have wondered about him being afraid, but even with this "younger" Klaus, the idea seemed preposterous. Even with pieces of his memory missing, this was Klaus; fear was something that could not even touch him. He was invincible--
--except, though, he really ... wasn't.
The thought had struck Leo as he was on another short break, keeping his head tipped back so he could rest a cool cloth against his closed eyes. If Klaus were truly invincible, they wouldn't even be here in the first place: not him, not Karolina, not Steven ... and certainly not Klaus, sitting still and quiet and very nearly at military attention.
As he mulled over these thoughts, though, Karolina's voice rose in an indignant squawk, on the other side of the small office, at its one cramped desk. "Oh. Oh! You cannot be serious!"
"You can see it as well as I can," Steven said. "Unfortunately ..."
"I know that, Scarface," she said. "I can see the words. What I object to is the utter audacity of it."
"It is a bit over the top, isn't it?" Steven said. He sounded rather grimly amused -- the sort of mood that one held onto tooth and nail to keep from doing anything more drastic. "Especially for our Klaus."
Leo shifted at that, tugging the cloth enough aside so he could peer over at them. At some point earlier that week, Steven had dragged in another chair from a different room and he and Karolina sat with their heads together over the desk as they conferred over ... whatever it was that they'd found. There was an ink smudge on Steven's cheek, just under his scar. Leo watched them for a few moments, then looked at Klaus.
He was sitting forward a little in his chair compared to just a moment ago. The book he'd been reading now simply dangled from his hands, in danger of slipping out of them entirely. His jaw was set and his eyes were troubled, and Leo thought: He really is afraid.
It hit hard enough that he inhaled too-loud and fast about it. Klaus glanced at him curiously, but though his gaze was more guarded this time, it was like some veil had fallen away. He'd lost six years in the course of three days, and every morning, he woke up and the current world was just a little further away.
"Mr. Steven," Leo said, without breaking eye contact with Klaus, "what happened?"
"Hmm?" Steven glanced up; Leo could see that movement at the edge of his vision. "Ah, young man. It's nothing, really, just a bit of a snag--"
"No," Leo said, louder than he might normally, and his voice was stilted with how he was forcing it, but he still couldn't look away from Klaus's face. "No, I really want to know. What happened?"
There was a pause, and then Karolina sighed. "It is a stupid thing," she said, "but we have found the first condition to breaking the curse."
"What?" Leo's head snapped around at that. "Why is that a bad thing?"
"It is and it is not." Karolina set her elbow on the desk, her mouth pulled into a frown. "The first step involves a 'selfish act' on the part of the cursed."
"A selfish act?" Leo cocked his head.
"There aren't any specifics on that, thankfully," Steven said dryly. "But yes. The first step is that Klaus himself will need to be selfish about something. He has to do something that he wants to do, regardless of whether anyone else wants him to do it. Take something for himself, do whatever it is he alone wants, make demands that aren't for the good of anyone but himself."
There was a long pause. All three of them turned to Klaus.
He looked outright uneasy, even fidgeting a little in his chair. He turned the book over and over in his large hands, keeping his gaze downcast.
"I ... could, perhaps," he said. His voice was strained. "I don't particularly want to -- after all, if it is for the sake of my own survival, then, that is selfish in its own way, isn't it ... ?"
The silence following that was long and stilted. Both Steven and Karolina looked away, back to their notes, but Leo found himself frozen by the look on Klaus's face. He'd never seen Klaus look so troubled, not even when that blob of carnivorous jam had devoured his favorite gardening shop the other month.
"... Well, let's not go rushing into it," Steven said at last. "That's only the first step. We need to make sure we have all of the conditions translated before we go trying any of them. Timing might be a requirement. So don't worry Klaus," he added, and even his expression softened at that -- possibly because Klaus was hunched in on himself now, as if he could make himself small and unnoticeable. "You have time to think on it."
"For something that I want for myself," Klaus said. It was a low murmur, as if to himself.
"Right," Steven said. He looked at Leo then, one eyebrow raised. It wasn't sympathy in his expression, but it was close enough that it stung. "Young man?"
"I'm on it," Leo said. He pressed the cloth to his face one last time, as if he could leach out the last bit of coolness from it, then set it aside. He felt oddly, obscurely guilty as he opened his eyes and focused on Klaus again. His hand shook a little as he picked his pen up again. He forced himself to ignore it.
Something selfish, was it ... that was even more impossible to imagine than Klaus being afraid of anything. Everything about him seemed specifically geared to serving others; even in their personal time together, Klaus liked to hover and to dote. Was there anything at all, really, that he would want selfishly for himself?
Maybe when he loses a bit more time, Leo thought, and tried not to cringe at the automatic wellspring of guilt at the idea. Even Mr. Klaus had to be a bratty kid at some point ... right?
On Saturday, Gilbert took Leo home long enough to shower and grab a change of clothes. He'd been sleeping in the office all week, so as to end later and start earlier, but when he'd rolled off the couch on Saturday morning, Gilbert had been there, impeccable and pleasantly unreadable as always.
"If I might make a suggestion, Master Leonardo," he'd said, and Leo hadn't really been able to argue that. He'd at least tried to be as thorough as possible as well as quick, and he left his dirty clothes on a pile on the bathroom floor. He'd either get to them when he got to them, or he'd come home and find them mysteriously gone and laundered and hung up in his closet. They might even be ironed.
(He wasn't sure how Gilbert had gotten a key to his place, when even Klaus didn't have one. Occasionally he thought about asking, and always decided he'd rather not know the answer.)
And really, he had to admit, the shower did help with clearing his head. Most -- though not all -- of his lingering headache faded after a long judicious application of hot water, and he felt a little less like the whole world was going slowly to hell.
When he walked into the office, though, he could hear the sounds of shouting in German.
"Oh boy," he muttered under his breath. The room was almost conspicuously empty: Zapp had probably taken off the moment the argument had started, and Zed had probably followed suit to be polite. It was always sort of luck of the draw as to whether Chain was around or not, and K.K. generally only came in when there was special need for her. And that was very definitely Steven's voice involved in the argument, along with both Klaus and Karolina.
"I don't suppose you know what's going on, do you?" he said to Gilbert.
Gilbert's expression shifted from politely good-natured to politely concerned.
"The young master is requesting to speak with his oldest brother," he said. "At this point in his life, their honored mother was gravely ill, and all three of the young masters were deeply concerned for her health. Though Master Klaus was abroad at the time, he often spoke with Master Fritz, who remained in Germany by their mother's side, for updates to her condition."
"She has since recovered entirely," Gilbert said smoothly. "But the young master is understandably concerned, as he is currently reliving that period. Please, be gentle with him."
"Gentle?" Leo asked, but his hand was already on the door, pushing it open.
The first thing he was struck by was ... well, to put it lightly, the lack of anything to feel.
Klaus was pacing nervously in what small amount of space was available, his shoulders hunched and his arms folded behind his back. Steven and Karolina were at their usual spots by the desk, though all three of them looked up at Leo in the doorway. He braced himself automatically, then cocked his head when nothing came.
Oh, right. He looked at Klaus properly, slitting his eyes open just enough to take a deeper look. The curse actually seemed to be a bit looser today, with brighter flares of Klaus's natural aura bleeding through, which meant that it was like looking at a normal living person, rather than a dead one. It still wasn't Klaus, though. There was no sense of pressure, no pushback, just ... nothing. Honestly, the lack was more disconcerting at this point.
"Ah, good morning, young man," Steven said. He sounded more strained than usual, and his smile was stiff. Leo wondered how long they'd been arguing with him about this. "We're in a bit of a tizzy this morning, I apologize."
"This is the young man we told you about, Klaus," Karolina said. "Will you believe us now?"
Klaus didn't answer at first. He narrowed his eyes slightly, and Leo resisted the urge to take a step back. No matter how frightening he looked, with his shoulders hunched and his head lowered and frowning terribly, there was no actual threat in his posture. And maybe someone watching from a distance would mistake that, because as Klaus walked towards him, both Steven and Karolina rose to their feet with expressions of obvious concern.
"Klaus," Steven said, "maybe you should go ahead and sit," at the same time Karolina said,
"Klaus, don't frighten him, Leo is trying to help you."
That was wrong, though, Leo thought. They were both wrong. Up close, Klaus didn't look angry -- he looked exhausted. There were dark circles under his eyes and a faint tremor to his shoulders, so faint that even the Eyes almost missed it. He stopped just in front of Leo, leaning down to stare at him with a desperately intent sort of ... hope, actually.
"Is it true?" he asked quietly. "My mother is fine?"
Mr. Gilbert said she was, so of course she is, Leo almost said. But that wasn't what Klaus was doing, was it? He wasn't asking Gilbert; he was asking Leo. Why he was asking Leo, Leo himself couldn't say, but if he was being asked ...
So he nodded, and he tried to make himself at least sound perfectly confident in his answer: "She's fine, Mr. Klaus. Promise."
"You promise," Klaus said. His voice was soft. He studied Leo's face again, this time with open curiosity -- but still the same focused intent as always. It was almost like the way he'd look at Leo when it had been just the two of them, and that realization felt an awful lot like someone had wrapped their fingers around Leo's throat and squeezed. He nodded, forcing himself to meet Klaus's gaze the whole time.
And that seemed to be the right thing to do, because Klaus's shoulders sagged and he let out a heavy breath.
"Very well," he said. "Thank you ... 'Leo,' was it?"
"Uh," he said. His voice came out squeakier than he meant, and he paused to clear his throat. "It's Leonardo. Leonardo Watch."
"Then, Leonardo Watch," Klaus said, and he put a hand to his heart, inclining forward in a half-bow, "I will entrust myself to you. Thank you for your efforts. I apologize that you must take time out of your day for this."
"What? No!" Leo blurted. "I mean, it's no trouble at all, it's -- you'd do the same for me." If you remembered me at all. "I'm glad to. There's not really a whole lot I can do, compared to the rest of you guys. So, uh. Seriously. I'm happy I can help."
Klaus leaned forward to study him more intently. Leo froze up again, his heart pounding suddenly loud and fierce in his chest. Klaus didn't remember. Their relationship hadn't even been six months old, and everything of that had vanished on the first day, one of the first victims of the curse. He didn't know who Leo was -- he didn't even remember Steven, and they'd been friends for years before Hellsalem's Lot.
His face was also really close, and even if his aura was dimmed, the actual heat of his body wasn't. Leo remembered, suddenly and too-clearly, how it felt to be actually pressed up against him, all that impressive physical power under his hands. For a man who was always so perfectly in control in every other aspect of his life, he was always more than happy to acquiesce to any demands Leo would make when they were--
Shit shit shit shit, you stop thinking that right now, this is NOT the time to be thinking about any of that. Leo swallowed hard, and he could tell he was blushing. Hopefully no one would actually ask him why. Klaus wasn't moving, his face still dangerously close to Leo's, still so completely intent, and none of it made any sense. He didn't remember anything, so why--
"Klaus," Karolina said. Her tone was oddly gentle, especially compared to how she normally acted. "You should sit, and we can get started."
"Mm," he said, and this time he obediently turned and went back to his usual chair. Leo trotted after him, keeping his head ducked. He had no illusions that either Steven or Karolina hadn't noticed his blush, but at least he could trust them to not bring it up. Not in front of Klaus.
"Leo," Klaus said.
He started at that, fumbling with his notepad. "Mr. Klaus?"
"Have you been in this city for very long?" He leaned forward a little as he asked that. "Do you enjoy it here?"
"Er." Leo cocked his head. "Uh. About two years now? It's not bad here, I guess. Kinda easy to run into stuff if you don't wanna, but it's easy to get away from, too."
"'Stuff you don't want to'?" Klaus's brows drew together. "Do you mean street harassment?"
"Ehhh." Leo held up a hand and waved it back and forth. "Usually they want my money. I'm not stupid enough to just carry a ton of it on me, though. Just enough to keep muggers happy-- whoa!" He leaned back as Klaus leaned even further forward, back into his personal space. "Mr. Klaus?"
"You should not endeavor to make people like that happy, Leo," he said. He frowned. "If you would like, while I am here in this city, I would be happy to escort you--"
"Whoa, whoa, no, hey!" Leo leaned back further, holding up both hands. "No, it's fine! I'm just fine, I promise."
Klaus didn't look very convinced. "But, Leo ..."
"Really," he said, with as much force as he could. "It's fine. Um. Thanks for worrying, though. I'm careful! I swear," he added, when Klaus looked ready to protest again. "I'm gonna get started transcribing now, okay?"
"Mmm." Klaus sat back at that finally, his hands laced together in his lap. His expression was still quite clearly troubled. "You must be careful, Leo. There are all sorts of people who would take advantage of you, especially with your particular skills."
Leo frowned a little at that. "I don't really have that many," he said. "I don't have a whole lot going for me."
Karolina made a small choked noise at that. When Leo glanced at her, though, she was scribbling something down furiously, her attention apparently completely focused on his previous notes.
"That's not true at all," Klaus said. He sounded almost insulted by the idea. "Even when I don't know you at all, I can tell."
Oh my god, would you stop that? Leo didn't say. He could feel his blush going hotter; his ears felt like they were burning now. He swallowed convulsively a few times. What was anyone supposed to say to that? This was rapidly approaching outright unfair. "Mr. Klaus--"
"If you two don't mind," Steven said, and from his tone, he sounded like he couldn't decide whether to be amused or annoyed, "we need to keep working on this. There will be time later for flirting."
"Fl--flirting?!" Leo yelped, at the same time Klaus slumped with a sigh.
"My apologies," he said. "I did not mean to distract you from your work, Leo."
"Er," he mumbled, low, fumbling with his notebook again, to the correct page. His mind was whirling, his thoughts tripping so fast he felt dizzy. Klaus wasn't denying the accusation, and Steven had known him for some time, but even with that, Leo knew how Klaus tended to conduct himself anytime he met someone new for the first time and took a liking to him. "No. No, it's fine. Sorry. I'm working now."
When he looked up, he saw that Klaus's ears were just faintly red, like Leo's own. He was looking off to the side, and though he picked up a book and opened it, he seemed much more interested in watching Leo study him. He wasn't fidgeting, but he seemed restless, taking the occasional deep breath, like he wanted to say something, though he cut himself off each time.
What was even going on?
That evening, while Leo leaned back in his chair with a cloth over his eyes -- his headaches were doing better, thankfully, even if they weren't dissipating completely -- he heard Klaus clear his throat quietly. When Leo peeked out from under the cloth, Klaus was there, standing beside by the chair. He stood at a brisk, almost military attention, his hands folded behind his back.
"Leo," he said. "I apologize for the short notice, but I wondered if you'd consent to have dinner with me."
"Say what," said Leo.
If anything, Klaus stood up even straighter and taller at that. He coughed into his hand and tugged at his vest.
He was definitely blushing.
"I would have offered a restaurant of your choice," he said, "but both Karolina and Steven have advised against leaving the building at this time. I have requested Gilbert provide a meal. If you're willing ..."
"Uh," Leo said. He could feel his face going hot. He'd just gotten his eyes cooled down, and now he could feel it starting right back up. "You mean, like -- you, and me, and --"
"Only if you'd like," Klaus said. Someone else might have mumbled it -- okay, in honesty, Leo would have mumbled it, and he probably had, the first couple of times -- but Klaus was quiet and straightforward about it, his eyes and voice clear. "Of course, if you're unwilling, you are free to say so. I don't wish for you to feel obligated."
"Obligated," Leo repeated. It took him a moment to process the word, and once he did, he sat bolt upright, dislodging both the washcloth and Sonic, who went zooming off to the other side of the office to chatter at them scoldingly. "Obligated?! No! I mean yes! I mean!" He scrambled to his feet and hesitated. What are you doing, Leonardo Watch? Weren't you just telling yourself you'd wait until this was done?
Yeah, but it'd take a better man than me to say no to that face.
Leo took a quick breath and ran a hand through his hair. At least it was clean at this point, though there were still clumps of it standing on end. "Okay, sorry, back up. No, I don't feel obligated, yes, let's do this. Uh. Where, if we're not going out?"
"I'm given to understand that the view from the main office's balcony is quite nice," Klaus said. "If that's fine with you ..."
"It's gonna be cold," Leo said.
"That is fine," said Klaus, who looked oddly pleased by the idea. "I am sure we will manage somehow."
As it turned out, by "managing," Klaus meant that they would be sitting side by side, rather than facing each other properly, and that apparently there was a heat lamp wired over the balcony itself. Who knew? But it meant that even in his worn sweats, without any sort of proper coat, Leo wasn't cold at all.
And actually, the view from up here was pretty nice at night. The dark meant that the giant veil of fog around Hellsalem's Lot was no longer visible, and the lights of the city itself were more than bright enough to burn in clear view.
"It is almost like looking at the stars," Klaus said, "only you are looking down instead of up."
Leo huffed briefly, but he couldn't quite suppress his grin. "That's one way to put it," he said. "Were you ever here before the change? When it was still New York?"
"Only once." Klaus looked thoughtful. "It was some years ago. My oldest brother, Fritz, he had a business trip that coincided with a school holiday. I was able to persuade him and my parents both to let me come along."
"Yeah?" Leo slumped a bit more comfortably in his seat, though he caught himself before his shoulder bumped up against Klaus's arm. "Did you like it?"
"I did, very much," Klaus said. There was a small smile on his face, fond and distant. How long ago had it been, for him? "Some years ago," he'd said, and with the progression of the curse, he was about mentally ... what? Twenty right now? God forbid, eighteen? He might've been an actual kid at the time he was talking about. "I spent a great deal of the time in the hotel room, to be honest. But he took a couple of extra days to go around the city with me." He turned to Leo at that, his eyes bright, and he was actual fidgeting a little in excitement. "We rode the subway several times. It was fascinating."
The comment startled a small almost-laugh out of Leo. He had vague recollections, through a haze of pain, of someone commenting how Klaus sure likes the rail system. He found himself charmed by the image in spite of himself. "Yeah?"
"Is that very strange?" He turned to Leo at that. His eyes were light and there was the beginning of a small smile on his face. It was a more relaxed expression than Leo could remember seeing on his face in some time -- maybe ever. "But it was fascinating. You could see the stations going by, and so many people coming and going ... ah, I thought it was amazing."
"Maybe we could go later," Leo said at once. "You know, when everything's settled."
"When the curse is broken, you mean." Klaus's smile faded slowly. He turned to look out at the city again, lacing his fingers together. "It is a very strange feeling, you know. To be surrounded by all of these people who know you so well, and yet, to you, they are all strangers."
Leo swallowed hard at that. He ducked his head a little, scuffing the toes of his shoes against the ground. He was guilty of that too, wasn't he? It was almost too easy to forget that Klaus was suffering in his own way, trapped in a world that grew less familiar with every day. What was that even like? Knowing that every passing minute, you were losing something, and not being able to know what it was until you tried to recall and couldn't--
A cold lump settled in Leo's throat. What did you even say to something like that? He stared down at his hands for a few moments, mind racing.
"I lost some of my memory once," he said at last. "It was only about a month's worth, but it was still pretty weird."
Klaus glanced at him sidelong. "Oh?"
"Yeah." He shrugged, tipping his head back. "Just, one day, I woke up and I was in a hospital. Got like ten stitches here--" he tapped the side of his head, "but I had no idea how I got there or why. I couldn't remember anything going back a whole month. People kept coming by to try and talk to me about it, but ..." He shrugged. "I never did get that month back."
Klaus hummed at that, low and thoughtful. Leo hesitated a moment, then took a gamble, leaning to bump his shoulder against Klaus's arm properly this time.
"You came by a lot," he said. "You were pretty worried."
"I would be," Klaus said, and there was no hesitation in his voice for that. He looked down at his hands, still laced together and resting in his lap. "I have always wanted ... to be someone that others could rely upon. My brothers, they are both fine people, and they shoulder that responsibility well. I wished to emulate them. If I do have the responsibility of an organization like Libra, I want to give everything I could to make sure you were taken care of. All of you."
"You do," Leo said -- blurted it, really, before he could stop himself. "Jeeze, Mr. Klaus, you're just ... you're everything."
Silence stretched out after that, just long enough for Leo to really think about what he said. Shit, this is why you think about what you're saying before you open your big fat mouth, good job, Leonardo Watch--
"Thank you," Klaus said softly.
Klaus ducked his head. He was smiling again, faintly, but it was a strained sort of smile -- the kind that just looked deeply sad instead of anything good.
"It means a lot," he said, "to know that someday, I am able to reach a place like that. That there would be people who would trust me so deeply, and fight so hard to help me. People that I don't know at all right now, who have no connection to my family or its influence ... they have come to trust me. And that is something I must treasure."
Leo was quiet at that. What could he even say? He could reach out to Klaus, maybe; he could babble another confession (as if the one you just said wasn't enough!); he could let it go -- but that look on Klaus's face stuck with him, and harder than he really expected.
"Hey, you know," he said, and waited until Klaus looked up again before he continued: "Just because we miss the guy you become doesn't mean we don't care about you as you are right now, either."
Klaus's brows drew together at that, but he looked genuinely surprised by that. Bingo. "I would never insinuate--"
"No, of course you wouldn't," Leo said, raising his voice, speaking over him. "But, okay, Mr. Klaus, it's not like you're any less Mr. Klaus to me, just because you don't remember some things." That was half a lie, but Leo wasn't about to spring their lovelife on the guy like this, and anyway, the statement as it was had good forward momentum. "You're still Klaus von Reinherz. You're still that guy that we look up to and rely on. You're still someone that I lo--ok up to. A lot. A stupid curse isn't gonna change that."
Klaus blinked slowly at that, then smiled again -- a proper smile this time, quiet and relieved. "Thank you, Leo."
"Yeah," Leo said, and it took everything he had to keep his voice casual, and not let it get too high and panicked. You almost fucked up there, Leo, you sure almost said the wrong thing, christ, this is why you were supposed to be good and actually keep your distance. "Sure. Any time."
On Sunday, they stumbled across the second and third qualifications for breaking the curse. In addition to a selfish act, Klaus would have to drink the blood of someone who knew him for all the years that he'd forgotten--
("Are we sure this is a witch and not a vampire? That's kind of gruesome.")
--and that had to be immediately chased with a shot of holy water, as blessed by a Cardinal from the Vatican itself.
"Finally, something easy," Steven had deadpanned. Leo had thought it was a joke, but a couple of phone calls later, and Gilbert announced that the shipment would be arriving by noon the next day.
"I don't even know why I'm surprised," he said to Zed, who just shrugged.
By this point, he was starting to see characters even when he had his eyes closed and the Eyes themselves uncalibrated. On the plus side, he could go nearly a full five minutes now without having to rest them. There was something to be said about a quasi trial by fire to get used to actually using them for longer stretches at a time. It at least felt like they were making some good progress.
Gilbert had volunteered his blood for the second requirement -- it would have be a toss up between him and Karolina, at this point -- so that was two of three known down, but ...
There was still the issue of "a selfish act," and who knew if there were possible other requirements. Leo had asked, somewhere between Thursday and Friday, what all of the text could possibly be, if they weren't all conditions for breaking the curse.
"Mostly, it's a very bad romance novel," Steven said dryly. "Perhaps our witch liked to think of himself as an aspiring writer."
"He must have been very frustrated though," Karolina had said in agreement. "Especially if this is the quality of his work."
It sounded almost like an actual joke; it was enough that Leo did a bit of a double-take. She had not bothered to do her hair up this morning, so it was a shaggy mess around her face. It made her look less intimidating. Leo found himself wondering if Klaus's hair would do the same thing, if he let it grow out: all curled angles, like a lion's mane. There was a faint smile on her face as she studied her notes.
"I suppose, if you are ever terribly bored, young man, you could try reading them," Steven said. "I've heard there's quite a market for bad erotica these days."
"Erotic--" Leo choked on the word. "Mr. Steven!"
He laughed at that, and to Leo's surprise, Karolina did as well. That was ... promising, actually; maybe it meant that they were making actually decent progress. If he had to hazard a guess, he would have said he was about three-quarters of the way done in his transcription. If he pushed himself, maybe he could finish by the time the holy water arrived.
Ambitious as he was, though, there was a slight snag to that: Klaus himself.
As near as they could tell, he had regressed to sixteen years old, which was -- according to Gilbert -- a "very bleak" time in his life. He sat so rock-still that he seemed almost like a statue, but there was none of his usual solid confidence in his posture: he kept his shoulders hunched and his limbs tucked in close to his body, as if he were afraid of the sorts of things he might do with them if he let his concentration slip for even a second. And while Leo was quite used to Klaus being in control, this seemed to be something else entirely. It was distracting at best, and disturbing at worst.
When he asked, though, on a short break for water, Gilbert had refused to answer.
"If the young master wishes to tell you at some point, then he will," he said. "Until that time, though, it is not my story to tell."
And also, of course, he'd entirely forgotten the conversation he'd had with Leo just the other night. Leo wasn't sure if he was relieved for that or not.
If Karolina knew the reason behind Klaus's sudden change in mood, she gave no outward indication of it. There was nothing really to complain about for it: he was still cooperative, especially once the story had been explained to him (all with judicious application of Gilbert's steady soothing presence and provided tea), but unlike the previous days, when he'd seemed at least interested, if not outright curious, about Leo's eyes ... today, he simply kept quiet to himself and said nothing at all.
So at lunch, instead of just bolting down the takeout that Zed had brought him, Leo picked up his meal and carried it back to the small office where Klaus was sitting. He'd refused Steven's invitation earlier, even with prodding, and in the end he'd been left to brood.
Leo knocked on the door once, then peeked inside. "Mr. Klaus?"
Klaus didn't move. He had not, it seemed, moved since he'd first taken back in that chair that morning. His glasses did flash briefly, though, and Leo took that as an invitation, whether it was meant so or not. He shouldered into the room and trotted over to "his" chair, sitting down and holding out his bag of fries.
"Want one?" he asked.
Klaus blinked slowly. At first, it seemed like he wouldn't answer -- fair enough, really, given the situation -- but then, finally, he shifted and cleared his throat.
"What is that?" he asked. His voice was softer than usual, more halting. His accent was thicker than Leo had ever heard it be.
"Uh." Leo looked down at the bag, then up again. "French fries?"
"French ... ?" Klaus's brow furrowed. "I do not think I have heard of such a thing."
"... Er." How sheltered had he even been, at this age? Leo wondered. Even if he was a super rich "young master," and Leo had some sinking suspicions that he might have outright royalty in him somewhere, surely in this modern day and age, he'd know what fries were, right?
On the other hand, maybe not. "They're just potatoes," he said. "You cut them thin and deep-fry them. They're better when they're hot, but, you know. Do you want one?"
"... Why?" Klaus stared at the bag for a few seconds longer, then looked up at Leo's face. His expression was torn; he seemed to be outright confused by the very idea. "Why would you give me something like that?"
Leo stared back. "It's lunchtime," he said. "I dunno about you, I mean, you're always so calm, but me, I get pretty nuts when I'm hungry. Michella -- uh, my sister, that is -- she calls it 'getting hangry.' Get it? 'Cause you're hungry and you're angry at the same time, haha ... ha ... uh." He ducked his head a little. "Sorry. You're probably used to fancier stuff than this."
"That's not it," Klaus said. There was an odd stiltedness to his voice, even with his halting English pronunciation. His breath hitched a little. A beat later, Leo thought: actually, it's that he sounds miserable, and then it struck him he was right. As stiff and still as Klaus was holding himself, he looked outright brittle in that moment, like a small shove would be enough to break him into pieces. "I just ... I do not understand ... why you would make an offer ... to a thing like me."
"A thing?" Coming from anyone else, Leo would have been completely outraged. As it was, he was still pretty stung by that on Klaus's behalf. "Mr. Klaus, you're not a thing--"
"I am a beast," Klaus said. Now that the first cracks had appeared, it all seemed to be rushing out. His expression crumbled entirely, and he stared at Leo with haunted, pleading eyes. He'd never looked so devastated, not in the whole time Leo had known him.
What the hell had happened, when he was sixteen?!
"I am a miserable pathetic beast, a monster unable to control my own base instincts," Klaus went on, his voice growing rougher with each word. His hands opened and closed in fists on his knees, trembling violently. "I am only alive by the grace of God and acceptance of my family, but they should have put me down. They should have treated me like the rabid animal I was. I--"
"Mr. Klaus!" It burst out of Leo in a shout, and usually he would not have imagined that would be enough, but Klaus flinched away from that, his eyes wide. There were actual tears in his eyes, and that was just wrong, that was so many levels of not okay that Leo barely knew where to begin. He was on his feet, he realized after a second, his burger and fries spilled on the ground. Whatever. There were more important things. Leo reached out, ignoring the way Klaus flinched again, taking his face firmly between both hands.
"I don't know what happened to you," he said. He opened his eyes as he said it, and now, finally, there was a spark of actual reaction from Klaus at that, staring up at the glowing blue. Leo had never used the Eyes for dramatic impact before, but it seemed to be working now, thankfully. This was important; at least in this moment, there had never been anything quite so vital as getting through to Klaus. "I don't understand why you'd -- Mr. Gilbert said you'd have to tell me yourself. I'll ask you about that someday maybe.
"But the thing is, Mr. Klaus, you're not that. Whatever awful things you think, that's not at all true. You're not a beast, or an animal or a monster, god, why would you even say that? You're human. You're the most human human I've ever met. No one else in the world is like you. You're all -- you're so good, Mr. Klaus, you're the best person I've ever known, and the best I think I ever WILL know. And -- and I know maybe you don't believe me now. That's okay. I still--" Leo took a deep breath at that. Goddamnit, he'd already gone back on his decision once; what was another time? Another dozen times? These were extenuating circumstances. Even his own past self had to concede when Klaus was saying such awful things about himself.
He wanted to know. He wanted to know so much, and this was absolutely not the time to ask. Leo swallowed hard, faltering, before he forced himself to press on.
"There's no one else in the world I look up to more," he said. The words came out a bit more lamely now, but they were still important. They were important. "You'll forget I said this tomorrow. You'll forget everything about me tomorrow, and you've already forgotten about me lots of times. I don't care. You're -- you're kind of amazing, Mr. Klaus. If I can be even half the man you are, I wouldn't be able to ask for anything more."
Klaus stared at him, his eyes wide. They were still wet and shining, but he seemed distracted from his own unhappiness by that. He swallowed hard enough that it clicked in his throat. After a moment, he reached up and he touched the back of one of Leo's hands with his fingers. His expression was wondering.
"You are a very strange man," he said at last. "I do not understand. But I will not dishonor you for your kindness."
"God, fine," Leo said. "You'd better not."
This was the point where, normally, he might have tried something sappy. Maybe he would have hugged Klaus or -- in a world where he was braver and Steven wasn't in the other room, along with the rest of Libra plus guest -- kissed him.
Instead, Leo dropped back into his chair and picked up his lunch. He brushed a piece of carpet fuzz off his burger. Eh, probably still good.
"Ah," Klaus said. It was a soft breath, the kind of thing that could be easily brushed off. Leo looked up. Klaus was looking at him, leaning forward slightly, the first change in position he'd had all day. He was smiling a little, tentatively and awkwardly, somehow managing around those jutting lower fangs. "May I ... may I try one?"
He gestured to the fries.
And Leo, charmed and heartsore both in spite of himself, held out the bag. "Yeah, sure. Go ahead."
On Monday, Leo had to relinquish his PSP to Klaus to get him to sit still long enough for Leo to transcribe the last parts of the curse. He'd tried very hard to be good; Leo could see him straining, like a dog ready to go outside. A game system was the best compromise they could come up with, and Zapp ended up getting him started on the basics of Monster Hunter.
By that evening, the holy water had arrived and was safely stored in the office fridge, along with a small vial of Gilbert's blood; there was still some debate as to whether what the "selfish deed" Klaus would need to do even was, but just before midnight, Leo let out a whoop loud enough to make both Steven and Karolina jump. Klaus didn't even look up, absorbed in the game, but Leo found for the first time in nearly a week, he didn't care. He threw his notebook into the air, leaving his arms, not even looking where it fell.
"And done," he said, with feeling. "Good night."
I HAVE A LOT OF HEADCANON ABOUT HOW TO INTEGRATE THE PILOT CHAPTER INTO CURRENT CANON.
On Tuesday morning, Klaus said, "I want to ride on the subway."
His accent was very thick now. Everyone stopped to look at him with that; the debate on how do we go about the first step had been raging for nearly the whole morning. He couldn't swing his legs, too large with how he fit in his chair, but he drummed his heels against the floor. He wasn't quite pouting, but he was fidgeting. It was weird, seeing a little kid's gestures in that fully-adult body.
"There's only a five percent survivability chance today," Steven said at last. "It's not a good idea."
Klaus sank down lower in his chair. He didn't pout, but he looked awfully close to it. "Fritz promised me," he said. He sounded outright sullen. "He promised that we would go today. I am old enough for it. I could go by myself."
"I want to ride on the subway." He set his jaw. That was a familiar enough gesture, though it seemed out of place when it wasn't a life-or-death situation.
"There are too many things to do today," Karolina said. "You mustn't be so self--ish ..."
Everyone stopped again. Leo resisted the urge to laugh. After nearly a week of agonizing over that, wondering what on earth would inspire Klaus to be selfish, when the man never seemed to want anything for himself ... That solves that, huh.
"Okay," he said, and he got to his feet. "Let's make a morning trip of it. Uh, sorry your brother isn't here," he added to Klaus. On impulse, he reached up and ruffled Klaus's hair, which made him duck and actually giggle, like a kid might. God, that was weird when the guy still dwarfed him even while sitting. "You still wanna do this?"
"Oh, I do," Klaus said. His eyes were wide, and he didn't bother to hide the anticipation glowing in his face. "Could we really? I'd like that ever so much. Please?"
"Awwwww," K.K. crooned. It was the first day she'd been in the office since the previous week. Leo wondered if Steven had called her, just in case. She was giving Karolina a wide berth, but the impulse seemed to overpower her as she swept forward, throwing her arms around Klaus's head to hug him. "Klausie, you're sooooo cute! I wish we could keep you like this forever."
"Ms. K.K.," Leo said in horror, at the same time Steven said,
"K.K.," and Karolina said,
"Are you insane?"
"Just kidding," K.K. said, without skipping a beat. She hugged Klaus again and let go. "I'll go too. Leocchi has the right idea. We can make a whole day out of it, doesn't that sound fun?"
He blinked at her for a moment, then smiled. It was wide and unselfconscious; whatever anxiety he'd developed about smiling and his teeth had clearly come later in life. It was ... still scary, but also kind of cute at the same time. "Yes ma'am. I'd like that very much."
K.K. let out a delighted whoop and caught Klaus's hands, dragging him to his feet. And once that got the ball rolling, the entire office ended up following along -- even Chain, who materialized to walk next to Steven, occasionally conferring with him in a low voice. Probably some other business. Leo decided he didn't really want to know.
Outside, it was a clear bright morning. The air was crisp and just this side of too-cold, and when he took a deep breath, he felt lighter than he had in an entire week.
Maybe -- just maybe, then -- everything was going to work out after all.
The fourth and fifth conditions to break the curse were:
One, that the affected would need to recite the Lord's Prayer after drinking the holy water.
And two, someone who loved the affected would have to call them by name.
On Tuesday evening, Klaus blinked. A fog settled over his eyes and then lifted and he straightened up, looking around curiously at the ring of concerned faces around him. The change was obvious when it happened all at once, rather than slowly over the course of a week: his back was straighter and somehow still more relaxed, and he was both alert and curious, aware of the world in a way that he had not been previously.
"Good evening," he said, and, "I'm sorry to have worried you all."
Everything after that passed in a sort of hazy blur. In the end, it had been decided that Gilbert should be the one to say Klaus's name, and Leo found himself a little ...
... Well. If he was honest, he was disappointed that he hadn't even been given the chance. Would he have taken it? They needed someone whose connection to Klaus was straightforward and uncomplicated, and wasn't it weird, how he was somehow neither of those things? His high school classmates (and most of his college ones, in all honesty) would've been shocked.
That Leo Watch, man, if you want someone who's not going to ask you for anything more, you go to him. He's an okay dude. Just don't ask anything of him if you wanna keep seeing him. He's hard to read, but that part's for sure -- he's not interested in more.
Leo let his head drop with a groan. There was no way to actually argue any of that. College had been a blur more than anything else; he'd never really sought anything out, but things -- people -- had happened to him, usually when he'd least expected it. He hadn't really cared before, so it was funny how much he really, really, really cared now.
But even when he did, here was the truth of the matter: he was outside, leaning against the railing of the balcony, ignoring the celebration party going on inside. It was a relatively small one: just the immediate office and Karolina, but someone -- possibly Zapp, maybe Chain -- had broken out alcohol that Leo could smell from the other side of the room. Even Karolina had looked intrigued, as she and Steven and Klaus had emerged from that little side office one last time. There had been a number of final tests they'd wanted to do, in order to ascertain how much Klaus might have permanently lost, and the fact that all three of them had looked pleased ... that boded well, at least.
And that was precisely when Leo had made his escape outside.
What are you even doing? Shouldn't you be inside with him? You're so happy about this, aren't you?
You are, you know you are. So why are you out here?
Maybe he just felt overwhelmed after being cooped up in that small side office for so long -- maybe he just wanted to stretch his legs, and even if it was cold, it was kind of nice after being in the stuffy heat of the office -- maybe he wanted to avoid the stink of alcohol and the songs that Chain and Zapp were singing -- maybe ...
... maybe he didn't want to see the look on Klaus's face after all this time; maybe he was scared of the idea that Klaus could remember everything but forget Leo -- their relationship was still such a relatively new thing ...
Maybe he was just a coward, after all.
Leo tried not to jump at the sound of his name. He turned and looked over his shoulder at Klaus, standing tall and impossibly larger than life in the doorway. Even with the backlighting of the office behind him, Leo could see his expression clearly. The Eyes were good at that, even when he didn't have them open.
"Hey, Mr. Klaus," he said. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," said Klaus. He hesitated a moment, then added, "May I join you?"
Instead of answering directly, Leo scooted aside. There was plenty of room on the balcony, especially up against the railing as he was, but it was an invitation, and Klaus took it. He settled easily next to Leo, warm as a furnace. It took a great deal of effort not to lean into it.
"You've had a difficult time of it," Klaus said. "I'm sorry."
"What?" Leo jerked at that, looking up at him. For the moment, at least, he was looking up at the stars, a sharp and noble profile. "No, hey, I'm -- I'm fine, I'm not the one who lost my memories or anything--"
"But we are none of us alone in the world," Klaus said. His voice was barely more than a murmur. He turned to look at Leo, quiet. "If something happens to us, then it in turn affects those who are closest to us."
Leo opened his mouth. He closed it. He coughed and looked away. "Yeah, well ..."
Klaus touched his face gently. It was a very light touch, almost too gentle. Leo's breath caught at that, but he couldn't make himself look up again.
"Leonardo," Klaus said again, quietly, "I remember, you know. I remember the things you've said to me."
"Oh, god," Leo said with a groan. He slumped forward against the railing, draping himself over the edge, so that his arms dangled uselessly into space. "That's, that's actually pretty awful, I'm sorry--"
"I'm not," Klaus said. "Please don't mistake me, Mausebär. I remember the words you said to me, time and again, when I was afraid and doubtful. I remember them as if I lived them at the right times for all of that. They are as engraved in my heart as if you have been by my side for the whole of my life."
"They were embarrassing," Leo mumbled, before something caught his attention. "Wait, what did you just call me--"
"I regret the pain that it must have caused you, to deal with me in those states," Klaus went on. He turned to face Leo now, the full burning power of his regard now brought to bear, and Leo thought he might go blind with it -- or cry, maybe, one or the other. Klaus's aura was flaring brighter than ever now, beautiful in its unfettered state. For a rare once, though, it wasn't overwhelming -- or maybe it was, and Leo had just finally gone off the deep end, but that was fine too. That was just how Klaus was, very almost too much for the people who loved him best. His hand was still on Leo's face, warm and steady. "Even if I did not remember, I brought you pain. That is the very last thing I would have ever wanted."
"I," Leo said, and swallowed hard. "I know that. J-jeeze, Mr. Klaus, it wasn't your fault, you don't need to go that far."
"I do," Klaus said, entirely serious. "I should, if you allow, apologize to you every day of my life for that."
"Every day, that's a bit excessive--"
"Perhaps it was my fault even before that," he said, and now he sounded thoughtful about it. "I thought that I was being clear. I was certainly trying my best to be demonstrative. But I have should have said the words properly long ago. I am not afraid of my feelings, and you, as their recipient, deserve to hear of them."
"Please understand," Klaus said. He was calm -- ah, there it was, that same deep calm that Leo still vaguely couldn't believe hadn't been a constant for his whole life. "I love you, Leonardo Watch. If possible, I would like to have you by my side for the rest of my life. In a personal capacity, as well as a professional one."
"Uh," Leo said. His voice came out as a high squeak. How embarrassing. "M-Mr. Klaus--"
"And if nothing else," Klaus added, and he smiled at that -- gently and small, the same sort of careful repressed expression that Leo had come to know before all of this madness -- "I would like it if, when we are alone together, you could stop using such honorifics with me."
"Oh," Leo said. "Um. Okay, M-- Klaus. Klaus." He peeled himself off the railing and forced himself to stand, facing Klaus in turn. His heart was pounding hard and fast in his chest. It was hard to remember, in this moment, how bitterly unhappy he'd been just a few days ago. Just frigging yesterday. Everything instead felt swallowed up by a warm gold glow. He was a little bit appalled at himself, to tell the truth.
Hadn't you decided you wouldn't follow up on anything? You were just gonna let this go if he hadn't said anything. Good thing he did, Leonardo, because you are a fucking idiot. What the hell were you thinking, telling yourself you'd be okay with that?
Who knows, he decided. But he wasn't going to let this moment slip by. Not now. "I -- I think -- I mean, uh, we're sort of -- I also, you know? I. I'm kind of. I really. Me too."
Klaus's smile grew wider at that. It wasn't any more attractive, but it still did funny things to both Leo's heart and stomach. He moved his hand so that it could curl behind Leo's neck, large and warm. His touch was steady, and he used it to hold Leo in place as he leaned down, very gently touching their foreheads together. He smelled warm and familiar, and it took effort for Leo to not lean into it in turn -- and then he thought, fuck that, I've spent this whole WEEK being good about that, and he leaned up and put his own arms around Klaus's neck in turn. The angle was a bit too awkward and close for a kiss, but he tipped his face to squish their noses together, and it was the most ridiculous godawful sappy thing, and he loved it.
Maybe not as much as he loved Klaus, but hell. He was starting to realize that there was very little that he did.
"My mom's gonna want to meet you," he said. "And all of my aunts. I have so many aunts and they're all crazy. God, I'm already sorry."
Klaus laughed at that, a low warm sound. His other hand settled against the small of Leo's back, tucking him in closer. "I apologize as well. My own mother is looking very much forward to meeting you. And she is a very strong woman. She might frighten you. My brothers, however, are both very gentle."
"... You said they were gonna be visiting ..."
"They will be," Klaus said. "Don't worry, I will protect you from them."
Leo snorted at that, but he couldn't make himself stop grinning at that, either. "You'd better."
On Wednesday morning, one week after she'd arrived, Karolina Alvarrson left Hellsalem's Lot.
She did not ask anyone to see her off, but Klaus volunteered anyway. Leo tagged along for the hell of it, really; he didn't feel close to her at this point, precisely, but after an entire week practically locked in the same room as someone, you got kind of familiar with them. Neither of them questioned it, at least.
At the airport, both she and Klaus got out of the car. Leo followed suit, though he kept mostly behind Klaus as he did. It was particularly windy that morning, strong enough that even with Karolina's hair as tightly pinned into a bun as it was, strands of it whipped free around her face. Her expression was solemn.
"You will not be able to keep him a secret forever," she said. "Your young man."
Something about her tone of voice made Leo pretty sure she wasn't talking about the relationship. Klaus straightened, and his own expression went serious at that.
"I know," he said. "I suspect they are already beginning to guess. Our luck with the Elders that have manifested in Hellsalem's Lot has been too good."
Ah. They were talking about the Eyes. Leo ducked a bit further behind Klaus and touched his closed eyelids. They felt so normal, no different from before they'd changed. But still ...
"You are also a terrible liar," Karolina said. She sounded resigned by this. "No wonder you have Scarface do all of your talking, when it comes to the rest of the world."
"Steven is also better at French than I am," he said. He sounded a bit chagrined. "His grasp of languages is quite remarkable."
"That's not the only sort of language he is good at," Karolina said. She sighed. "Klaus. There will come a time where all the secrets will come to light. The rest of the world is hungry for what he could do for them. We are still dying out there, and it will not be forever before they notice how well you have kept your own alive, here."
"I will deal with that when the day comes," Klaus said quietly.
"You must be ready for it," she said. "When that day comes, I will not be able to be your ally."
"I know," Klaus said. "But, Karolina--"
"But I will not tell them," she said. Her own voice was softer now, nearly lost with the winds. "When they find out, Klaus, it will not be from me."
For a moment he said nothing. Then he held out his hand, and Karolina took it. They did not shake, but clasped hands. Like soldiers might, Leo thought -- or warriors, more: two people who both understood that way of life far, far better than he did. Maybe more than he ever would, or could.
More than he really wanted to, if he was entirely honest.
Then they both let go. Karolina gathered up her small bags and walked off. She did not look back. Once she was through the doors, Klaus turned around, back to the car, and to Leo.
"Let's go home," he said.
In the car, Leo dug out his camera. He hadn't used it in a while -- longer than the week where he'd been holed up in the office, that was for sure -- and he turned to Klaus.
"I want a picture," he said.
Klaus looked up from his blank stare out the window and blinked. "Leo?"
"Look, okay," Leo said. "I just want some proper pictures of the both of us. I don't have any, you know? They're all of just you, or just other people in Libra. I'm not in any of them."
Klaus's brows drew together. A small frown on his face lingered for a moment before it cleared up. He didn't smile with his mouth, but it was there in his eyes. He held out a hand to Leo, and Leo scooted closer and held up the camera.
It would be a squished and fuzzy selfie, and he would probably later look at it and wonder at how damn unsteady his hand was.
But for a first, he thought it was a good one: the two of them looking at the camera, neither of them exactly smiling, but still looking happy. There would be others later, but that one, Leo knew, that first one he was never going to delete.
If someday, the rest of the world found out about his eyes and wanted a piece of them, let them do it. He was ready. As long as he was with Klaus, he thought -- no, pretty much he knew -- he was invincible.
And that, he knew, was something he wouldn't ever, ever forget.
I waffled and considered, and in the end I decided not to write the epilogue. I would still LIKE to eventually write some kind of smutty coda, though, or at least maybe how they hooked up in this particular continuity, since I have at least two other stories (one finished, one just started) that will be connected to this. Look at me, trying out this continuity thing!
Thank you very much to everyone who has read and kudo'd and commented! (´▽｀)ノ♪ I'm sorry that I'm not always the best at replying, because I am always super stoked to get them!! I hope that at least by writing more, I will make up for some of my own shyness.