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         There was a commotion at the other end of the long hallway and Leopold pointedly kept his chin down with his gaze fixed on the textbook under his nose. He had to be at the studio on the weekends to keep an eye on things and make sure no one burned the building down, but that doesn't mean he had to actively participate in his father's latest endeavor. As far as he was concerned, it just meant he had to move his studying from the desk in his bedroom to the reception desk at Hydra Network.

         "Does anyone have a spare blowtorch?"

         Of course, he could only pretend to be oblivious for so long before things would cross a line. He didn't recognize the voice, but that didn't matter, because his only job on the weekends when he was there was to keep anyone from setting the building on fire -- and now there were mentions of a blowtorch ? If he didn't put a stop to it, there was the potential he may actually die, if he even made it long enough to face his father.

         Leopold got to his feet as quickly as he could manage without tripping over them. When he turned his head to investigate, his gaze landed on a young woman lingering in one of the partially open heavy doors about halfway down the hall, and he paused in confusion. Regardless of her odd and worrying request, he'd been under the impression that the only other people in the building during his weekend shifts were producers and writers. Based on the white powder on her shirt and in her hair and the vague smell of chocolate in the air, he could only assume she was a caterer, or something similar. The only other possible option was that she was part of the same club he was in -- the execs' kids club. But, if that were the case, he would have recognized her. The board of executives his father loosely considered friends hadn't changed since he was ten years old. The execs' kids club was a group of people he'd known for a decade and a half, and she was not a part of it.

         It was clear by the look in her eyes that she was just as confused by his presence as he was by hers, and Leopold took a deep breath without moving from where he was. After a few moments, he was able to make himself speak up, voice miraculously steady despite everything he was still trying to figure out. "I don't think you're supposed to be here."

         At the words, he could see her eyes grow wide with obvious fear and panic. "No, please--! My name is Ophelia Sarkissian; I'm competing in the first season of Sweet Eats ? We start filming tomorrow, and the producers said we could use the practice kitchen before we start, and the kitchen in my hotel room is too small for my cupcake prep -- please don't make me go!"

         Leopold frowned at the woman -- Ophelia -- who had to be around his age, and took another careful breath. The only thing he really had to worry about was safety, and baking didn't seem very dangerous. "Look, just... don't burn anything, okay? Put off the fancy blowtorch stuff until filming starts? I kind of like living, and I can't do that if there's any property damage." Normally, he wouldn't even care that much, but the show sounded familiar, and he knew his father wouldn't be the only one upset if there was an accident before filming even started. " Sweet Eats , that the one Stephanie is hosting, right? Kind of a stupid name for a show, hard to say too quickly, and you can tell her I said that."

         Stephanie Malick was one of the few people he considered to be a friend, and one of the other members of the executives' kids club. She was one of the first people he'd met after the move to America, and they'd been growing up together since. When their fathers had put together the money to buy the studio, Stephanie hadn't been entirely supportive, but she did recognize the purchase as a personal opportunity. Even if everything was still technically under the Hydra umbrella, it was a decent jumping off point. He could understand that, even from the point of view of someone who didn't want to stay in the family business. Her choice to host a baking show wasn't any different than his choice to pursue and engineering degree.

         The almost stunned look in Ophelia's eyes made it hard for him to keep from smirking, but he waited, patiently, for her to find her voice. "That's not very polite to say. I'm sure whoever thought of it put a lot of time and effort into their work. Besides, who are you to judge a show by its title?"

         With a short laugh, he shook his head and made sure there was no one at the door before taking a step toward her. He didn't get so close that he would be in danger of getting flour on himself, but close enough that they could have an actual conversation without disrupting anyone else who might be on the same floor. "Just tell her that a friend thinks it could be better, and if she asks who, my name is Leopold Fitz, and she doesn't scare me. And, for the record, the rules of politeness don't scare me, either."


         The sun had gone down and she was supposed to be sleeping so that she wouldn't be exhausted on camera, but Ophelia was too mortified to even close her eyes. That morning, going in to do a trial run with her signature recipe had seemed like a good idea, but she'd ended up making a complete fool of himself in front of the son of a network executive. What was worse was that he had likely already told the horridly embarrassing story to the host of the very competition she'd been trying to prepare for. There almost wasn't a point in even showing up. With the reputation of being an overachiever, and potentially being in cahoots, with someone so close to production, she would go home in the first round for sure .

         If she got eliminated that early on, she might as well quit . Her bakery would never get the attention she was hoping for and the money she was hoping to get from a win couldn't do anything to help her business grow if she didn't get it. Ophelia had been so close to getting everything she needed, and she'd screwed it all up by trying a little too hard. They'd all laugh at her, if they weren't already, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

         She'd lose everything.


         [ text | to: Eagle Two ] Emergency meeting. The club house. One hour.

         [ text | from: Eagle Two ] It's already after midnight and I have class in the morning.

         [ text | from: Eagle Two ] Can it wait?

         [ text | to: Eagle Two ] No. I need to talk to you right now. Please.


         Stephanie stood up from the couch as soon as she heard the door open, taking a deep breath while she wrung her hands. Filming was less than seven hours away, and she couldn't find any reason to actually be there. The only reason she would even be hosting was because of who her father was, not because of any talent. There was no guarantee that the audience would even like her, and then the show would be pulled, and then she'd never be on television again, and she wanted to talk out how she was feeling with someone she trusted.

         The list of options she had on that front were limited. She wouldn't put something as heavy as her insecurities on her girlfriend's mind. Grant wouldn't understand. Werner wouldn't even try to understand. That only left her with one potential shoulder to lean on.

         "I know your classes are important to you, Leopold. You know I wouldn't ask you to be out this late if it wasn't important."

         Before she could open her mouth again to keep speaking, she was wrapped up in a tight hug that she hadn't realized she'd needed so badly. Even after watching him grow up, it was a shock that he wasn't still that ten year old little Scottish boy who followed her around their fathers' business dinners like a lost puppy. He was a man , now, not a child, and she knew just how capable he was at talking her through her funks.

         For instance, she hadn't even started to mention what was going on in her head, and he was already making the perfect suggestion. "Let's get some of the ice cream out of the freezer and turn on a movie, yeah? I can get notes from someone else if I miss a class. You're more important."

         Stephanie let out a sigh at the words and kept silent instead of calling him out on his lie. They'd been friends for more than long enough for her to understand how much getting a degree would mean to him, and she would have understood if a class was more important to him than her crisis. A degree was his only way out of being forced into the family business, and he deserved a life as far away from Hydra as he could get. The last place he should be at two in the morning was at the club house, talking her through a stupid problem.

         But he was there anyway, and after knowing him for so long, she was well aware that he was going to stay until everything was worked out. Even if she didn't know him as well as she did, she could have figured as much out based on the fact that he was already pulling away so that he could make his way across the large space to the kitchen.

         What their group called the club house wasn't what most people would think of when the words came up. Originally, the penthouse was a gift from her father, a reward, of sorts, after her high school graduation. It was intended to be her home, an independent space where she didn't have to work around her father's routine, but the city was too loud, even at night, and she'd known within a month that it would never be her home. So, she'd moved all of her things to a house on the edge of town and the penthouse had become their sanctuary. It was a place they could go to get away from their families for a few hours, or a peaceful place to study, or just sit around and play video games. It was the safest place she'd ever been to.

         When her head insisted that everything was on the verge of falling apart, she couldn't imagine anything better than ignoring the outside world with one of her best friends.

         Tucking a lock of blonde hair behind her ear, she mustered up a weak smile while taking the pint of ice cream when he returned to her side. "We're not going to finish this entire thing. We'll be asleep on the couch before the movie even really gets started."

         The laugh that came from Leopold's chest was enough to make her smile grow wider, more genuine. "Don't underestimate me, Steph. I could eat this entire thing on my own, but I'm sharing , because you look like you could use some chocolate."

         "You know me too well sometimes." And it was true. For as well as she knew him, their familiarity went both ways, and she appreciated it on nights like this. "Does that chocolate come with a side of late night chatting?"

         On any other day, she would have hated the grin that spread across his face, the expression that was more smirk than smile, that showcased the confidence he'd been feeling more and more in the past few years, but on that night in particular, it was a welcome sight. It was better than any of the terrible movies from the nineties he was surely going to suggest to help with her funk. "Of course it does. Chatting certainly sounds better than rewatching Sliding Doors with you again." And there it was, right on cue, the crack at the romantic comedy they used to watch together, though more often for his bad nights than for hers.

         They were still best friends, and she still saw right through him. His jokes were just as familiar as every other memory they shared of that place. "You used to be just like me, you know? You thought your dad was the king of the world, and you wanted to be the perfect child... and then, for some reason, you changed your mind and you're doing the exact opposite of what he wants. How do you do that?"

         This time, the laughter that reached her ears contained no humor, and it made the night's ache worse. There was a reason their friend group had stuck together for as long as it had, and the thing that bonded them wasn't exactly happy.

         "You know, even the king of the world has his flaws. I just happened to grow up and realize he was never the king of anything." Their fathers liked to pretend that their power actually meant something, that anyone outside of their immediate social circle actually gave a damn about how much they were worth. At least, in growing up, their children had grown to see through them. "Besides, my father is completely miserable. Why would i want to be like him, knowing that? He's rich, and he has everything, but... over the years, I think that only made him more angry. I'm getting my engineering degree because I want to do something that I enjoy . I might actually end up in a life where I don't have to worry about what he thinks, anymore... That's why you're hosting your show, right? It makes you happy. I want that. I want a job that makes me as happy as yours makes you."


         With headphones in while he took notes in an almost full journal, Leopold didn't look up at the sound of the door opening, not even realizing he wasn't alone until a paper cup of tea was set down on the desk by his open textbook. He could smell the sugar in the steam that was escaping through the hole in the plastic lid and quickly pulled the headphones from his ears. "Oh my god, you're a lifesaver. I swear, if I have to balance once more practice formula on an empty stomach, I'm going to throw up."

         The gentle pressure to his curls and the feeling of the kiss to the top of his head didn't even slow his desperate sipping. "You need to take a break, kid. Like a real break, not another weekend where you pretend that stupid desk job is a distraction." Even if he was only part of their ragtag little club through a loophole, Grant Ward was still a close friend, and they had enough of a history that he was usually correct in his observations. "Al let me in, so we shouldn't try to hang out here but we could go to the club house? Let's go get you in front of a screen for a few hours."

         "I have finals next week, Grant. I have to study." Shaking his head, Leopold turned to the next page in his textbook and set his already half downed tea aside. "I really have to pass this term, okay? I can't go and goof off today. But... tell the girls there will be a meeting on Thursday? There's something I want to talk about before I make any kind of decision on it."

         There was a sigh from directly behind his ear, a sound that made him instinctively shiver, a sign that his occasional fling was less than satisfied with the results of his poorly veiled flirting. "Fine, I'll send them a text. But I'm staying here for a bit, at least until you're alone. He seemed less than happy when he opened the door for me."

         At the words, the Scot looked away from his textbook and toward the figure that was spreading out across the bed. "Can you at least close the door if you're going to talk shit about him, please? I'd need more than just your help to get my things to the club house if you piss him off. Let me just finish the review for this chapter and then we can go get dinner or something, yeah?"

         Grant rolled over onto his stomach with a frown, shaking his head while he opened the messaging app on his phone. "I know you don't want to start anything, but you can't live here forever. If you want to squat at the club house while you're on break, none of us would blame you. I'd even spot you gas money to get to campus if you wanted to stay longer than that."

         They made eye contact for a moment before blue eyes dropped back to blue writing. "That's what Thursday is about. I might have a way to get out of this house, but I need help, okay? I have to stay on civil terms with my father for just one more term, and then you can fight him, if you really want to. But, right now, can you just..." Leopold squeezed his eyes shut tightly, letting out a shaky breath before whispering. "I don't really feel up to sex tonight."

         "I figured." Taking a deep breath, the older man kept his gaze aimed toward the desk. "I dropped off coffee this morning and John mentioned that Al was working from the house today. After the last time... really, I only came over to make sure you were okay. But, if that changes at any point, you know you can call any of us."

         The only response he got was a small nod and the sound of another page being turned.


          They had been taking up half of the hospital waiting room all night long, impatient for visiting hours to start up again. By the time the morning actually came around, they were all too terrified to go back and actually see the person they were there to check on.

         With her legs curled up on the seat next to her, Channing let brown hair pool in Grant's lap and tried to cling to sleep for as long as possible. Making sure their friend was okay was near the top of everyone's priority list, but so was staying sane. If they went back and he was in bad shape, she was well aware that the two elder members of their meager group would be occupied -- Grant would be fuming and going across town to give Alistair Fitz a taste of his own medicine, and Stephanie would be trying to stop him. But she would still be there, and so would Werner, and Leopold would still be in a bed.

         It was a mess of a situation, and they all hated it, but there was nothing they could do anymore. None of them were capable of turning back the clock and getting him out of the house for the day, or going over to ensure he wasn't alone with his drunk of a father. All any of them could do was sit, and wait, and fear for the worst.


         Filming the third round of competition was the first chance Stephanie had to really get to know anyone. She'd wanted to go around and introduce herself to everyone on the first day, but they hadn't had the time. With when they wanted to start airing, they needed to get the first two episodes filmed in a week, and only then did she have time to go and say hello.

         The last contestant she met with was a young woman who had been making some of the best cupcakes she'd ever tasted. She was usually quiet, but her cream cheese frosting was so good that the host had taken a few spare cupcakes to share with her friends. As she approached the couch in the contestants' break room, of sorts, she could see the fear in the woman's eyes and tried to make her expression soften. "You're Ophelia, right? I just wanted to come say hello before we started filming for the day. I'm--"

         "Stephanie Malick, yeah." She still looked scared, and maybe a little awed, but not so much that she couldn't speak. "And I'm Ophelia, yes. I'm surprised you haven't heard all about me, actually, after I used the practice kitchen, last weekend. I made a bit of a fool of myself."

         There was a beat before Stephanie shook herself into moving, sitting down on the couch with a softer smile. "I'm sorry, I don't really know what you're talking about. Did something happen that I or the producers should be aware of?"

         Ophelia's eyes went wide at the words and she was quick to shake her head, opening her mouth to explain. "Oh, no! I mean, I thought you already knew about that. I may have... I met a friend of yours - Leopold Fitz? We talked, a little bit, about the show. I was... some of the things I said may have come across as rude."

          That explained the fear.

         "Oh." With a quiet laugh, she tucked her hair behind her ear and offered up a reassuring smile. "Well, he never said anything to me about it. And, even if he did, your cupcakes are fabulous . You could probably be a murderer and I'd keep you around just for some of that cream cheese frosting." Once the tension had left the air between them, Stephanie smiled a bit wider and lowered her voice. "Between you and me, Leopold has probably heard far worse from our friends. Anything you said was likely kinder than he's used to. Don't worry about him, he can handle it."

         There was a faint smile starting to appear on the other woman's face, some clear relief showing in her eyes. Maybe, if the competition continued in their favor, they could talk again. Until then, they had a show to film, and Stephanie made sure the test kitchen was always open.


         [ text | to: The Club ] Meeting. Thursday afternoon. Fresh pizza.

         [ text | from: Steph ] I'll be there as long as filming wraps up on time.

         [ text | from: Steph ] It's not an emergency, is it?

         [ text | to: The Club ] No emergency. Mishka just wants to talk about something.

         [ text | from: Puppy ] I'll be there. Dad gets back into town Wednesday night and I was going to lay low at the club house for the weekend, anyway.

         [ text | to: The Club ] I'll get an extra pizza, then. You can have weekend food.

         [ text | from: Puppy ] You're the best!

         [ text | from: Mishka ] I thought I told you to stop calling me that.

         [ text | from: Mishka ] But it's not an emergency, just wanted to bounce something off of you guys before I made any decisions.

         [ text | to: The Club ] I'll be at the club house right after work on Thursday.

         [ text | to: The Club ] Keep the couch warm.


         [ text | to: Eagle Two ] Are you sure Thursday isn't an emergency? It sounds a bit intense.

         [ text | from: Eagle Two ] Not an emergency, but it is important.

         [ text | from: Eagle Two ] It may or may not involve a way to eventually move out of my father's place.

         [ text | to: Eagle Two ] I do want to know more about something like that.

         [ text | to: Eagle Two ] I'll talk to the producers about wrapping up early, then.

         [ text | from: Eagle Two ] I'll see you Thursday.

         [ text | to: Eagle Two ] Love you, Leopold. I'll bring cupcakes.


         Leopold was used to taking up as little space as possible, curled up in the corner of the club house's leather couch. He had a textbook held up so that he didn't disturb the head in his lap, or the small screen that was being held above it. It wasn't so disruptive, having to adapt to Channing's position; he'd gotten used to that over the years, too.

         If Stephanie was his best friend, and Grant was a protective on-again-off-again boyfriend, Channing was a close sister. While everyone else was off inheriting homes and buying their own places and living free lives, they were the ones who were stuck. Everyone knew that Alistair Fitz and Alexander Pierce would never give their children anything at least while they were still alive. So, while they waited for their fathers to die and finally give them more than a lecture or a few bruises, they hid at the club house if they didn't have anywhere else to be.

         "Are you almost done with your chapter? I want macaroni."

         With a faint smile, he lifted the textbook enough to look down at her. "First of all, you are just as capable of making macaroni and cheese as I am. Second, Grant is already on his way here with pizza."

         She let out a groan and sat up to frown at him, shaking her head. "Put down the book, nerd, and make me some food." There was a beat of quiet before she sheepishly met his gaze. "Please?" They both moved to the country at a young enough age that their accents had softened with time, but there were occasions mostly around each other, when they would be a hint more prominent. Most commonly, when someone noticed a bruise, or when they could talk about their fears. Or, in this particular instance, when Channing wanted to use a surefire manipulation tactic. "I'll let you have the last slice of pizza later, without complaining ."

         Leopold inhaled a slow breath and let it out with a heavy sigh, shaking his head. After knowing each other for so long, they all knew how to manipulate each other, to some extent, but she didn't need to try with him nearly as hard as all of the others did. "Fine, I will make you some macaroni and cheese."

         "Like my mum used to make, not the boxed stuff."

         He only stopped for a moment to press a soft kiss to her forehead before getting to his feet, a small, fond smile pulling at his lips. "Not the American knock-off, got it. Any drink requests to go along with the appetizer? Or are we waiting for the others to get here before we break out the non-alcoholic juices?"

         Channing got up to follow him, grinning happily while she shook her head. "Grant is grabbing real drinks -- a two liter of the sugary stuff. Mountain do. And then, whatever the rest of you want." She bounced while they walked, clearly happy with how the afternoon was playing out. "Hey, we'll probably have some leftovers after tonight, maybe you could come hang out with me for a day over the weekend? The club house can get lonely."

         He'd gotten a pot onto the stove, and all he could really do in that moment was stare at her while waiting for the salted water to boil. They'd developed a code over the years, a way of speaking so that none of the others would worry too much when things at home got bad. Every single member of their group had issues with their family, but they were all free . They weren't quite as lucky, being stuck with the fathers they had.

         "You didn't manage to leave before he got home, last night." It wasn't a question, and it didn't have to be, and she didn't really have to nod her head to confirm anything but she did it anyway. "Yeah, I can stay all weekend. I might have to go to campus tomorrow and fill out paperwork, but I'll come by right after. I can bring along a few horror movies -- you love those. Though, I think you just like to watch the rest of us jump and scream."

         His shoulders sagged with something like relief  when her smile returned and her voice was back to almost normal levels of cheer. "Only because your scream is hilarious, Leo. You make all of the times that I jump and flinch totally worth it."

         Leopold rolled his eyes, relaxing further at the use of the shortened variation of his name while he turned to add the noodles to the bubbling water. "I'm glad my misery makes all of yours worth it."

         "Oh, it definitely does."

         They both fell quiet, then, hovering close to each other in their odd, protective dance until butter and pasta and cheese were together in bowls and they could settle onto the couch again. Channing was almost three full bites into her own food when the main door swung open, happy laughter spilling into the living room with the smell of pizza sauce. It made the entire space feel warmer, safer , and even with the noise of most of their small family being there, it was peaceful .


         After two whole pizzas and most of the soda had been consumed, Leopold wiped the crumbs from his hands before running a hand through his hair. He knew that, on the surface, his plan just seemed to be a way to get out of his father's home, but he knew about the ulterior motives that lied within the finer details. There was a lot he didn't know, about his father and why they moved, and why he got some of his worst beatings whenever he so much as mentioned his mother. He wanted answers , and he'd done enough research to know that his plan might be one of the only ways to get them.

         "So..." The Scot glanced between his group of friends without making direct eye contact with any of them and cleared his throat awkwardly. "I signed up for independent study, next term, and while looking for a topic to focus on, I came across this internship. It's not paid, but it gives me experience for when I finish school, and I get a few more credits if I fill out the paperwork in time for next term."

         There was a long moment of silence before Grant gently nudged his shoulder. "Okay, Mishka, what's the catch?"

         Leopold looked down at his hands and inhaled a slow, careful breath. He made himself look up, watching their reactions while he spoke and gave away his real reason for changing his mind about independent study. "The scientist I plan on reaching out to, he's not technically in my field. All of his work is in biotechnology, but... I did some research, and he's Scottish , and... he went to school with my father."

         Silence fell again, only no one would say anything to break it. They were all too stunned to even try. Everyone in the room knew that the idea was insane, that Alistair barely let him go to class with the caveat of giving up his weekends to work at the studio. If he found out about what was technically another job, none of them knew what to expect.


         Making it through six rounds of competition had left Ophelia feeling confident, but she still stopped by the practice kitchen every weekend. It gave her the opportunity to clear her head and focus on something that wasn't the stress of the clock -- and it served to her advantage, seeing as the only poor comment that Stephanie had given her was about her decorations. If a day off meant practicing her piping and fondant work, then she'd take it.

         After cleaning up her work station, she boxed up most of the cupcakes she'd made, all designed with colors and patterns inspired by animals, and closed up the kitchen. Baking for a few hours was all fine and dandy, but her favorite part of her Sunday tradition had become dropping off her best creation at the reception desk.

         "Okay, Doctor Fitzy, have one inspired by your favorite."

         Curls bounced while he lifted his head, the computer in front of him opened to even more research than normal despite the fact that school was on break. He let out a gasp at the sight of the treat placed on the desk and he reached for it eagerly. "You made a monkey." Leopold didn't hesitate, pulling the paper away from the cake to dig in with a happy noise. He didn't even try to speak again until he'd finished his first bite and hummed again, plainly satisfied. "Is this banana nut?"

         She laughed while she watched him, pulling up the rolling chair from the unoccupied desk behind him with a shake of her head. "No, it's a vanilla cinnamon cake with banana cream filling. I did put some almost extract in the frosting, though, so that might be what you're tasting."

         There was no hesitation before he took his next bite, letting out a moan when all the flavors hit his tongue. "You're my favorite person in the world and you  make Sundays worth living."

         Ophelia giggled at the words, shaking her head and setting the boxes of cupcakes down so she wouldn't risk dropping them. She'd been sitting closer and closer to him as the weeks passed, but she'd quickly learned to not attempt physical contact when she'd leaned closer once, to look at something on the computer screen, and he'd flinched away like even being too close to her had burned. Since then, she'd been as friendly as she always was, but gave him a bit more breathing room. "What are you reading today? More internship research?"

         With a nod, he set the cupcake down again so he could scroll up and show her the title. "It's fascinating. He's been doing cancer research, right? But most people wouldn't even think to look at an animal to find a cure, let alone a salamander, but he did , and it sounds like it might pay off." By the time Leopold turned his head to look at her, he was grinning widely a sight that made her chest feel warm. It wasn't something she got to see very often. "And I get to meet him tomorrow morning. I actually get to work with him, and maybe be a part of finding something amazing. How cool is that?"

         It was nice, being able to witness him being so excited about something. He'd always seemed so moody before, always frowning. Maybe he had just needed something to inspire him -- or a few cupcakes.

         "Just don't forget all of us little people when you cure cancer and learn how to make yourself immortal, alright?"

         He laughed at that, shaking his head before looking back over at the article. "Of course not. I'll need to hire someone for cupcakes when we celebrate, right? And I already have your number, so we're all set." There was a long moment of silence while he finished his cupcake, his gaze finding hers again. "If I get you a picture, can you make a salamander inspired one?"

         Ophelia let out another giddy laugh at the question, about to speak up when the building's main door swung open. It wasn't the door itself that made her go quiet, but his reaction to who it was who had opened it. One moment, the curly haired Scotsman had been smiling and laughing with her, but as soon as the vaguely familiar silhouette of Alistair Fitz filtered in with the sunlight, he'd fallen silent and his grin had completely disappeared even as his gaze flickered to the computer screen. She'd only met Leopold's father once, when she'd arrived on her first day and everyone had introduced themselves, but based on the sudden tension in the air around them, she didn't want to stick around and have too many interactions with him.

         Clearing his throat from next to her, the younger Scot sat up straight when he spoke. "Should I let Gideon know you're here? Or John?" For just a moment, she thought she'd heard his voice shake, only to dismiss the notion when he spoke up again. "Or are you just going to your office? I can text Grant to get your usual coffee order when he makes his run."

         But Alistair barely glanced at his son, his gaze staying focused on her while he smiled, almost seeming to ignore the other man's presence entirely. "Hello, dear, It's Ophelia, isn't it? I do hope Leopold wasn't bothering you too much. You can let me know if he's in the way."

         She did her best to smile through the veiled threat, shaking her head while getting to her feet. "Oh, no, I just stopped to drop off one of my extra cupcakes, and then Leopold was telling me about his in--"

         "Tomorrow. I was talking about the classes I start tomorrow. Nothing particularly interesting. I'm sure she's completely bored by me." A weak smile pulled the corners of his lips upward, but it wasn't anything like the grin he'd been sporting when she'd passed off the cupcake. "Thanks for the treat, Ophelia. See you next weekend."

         The abrupt dismissal caught her off guard, but she didn't dare say as much, or anything about how she'd been cut off before she could gush about her friend's impressive internship. There was one key difference between this Sunday and the others, and she had good enough eyes to know exactly how most people reacted to Alistair Fitz.


         [ text | from: Cupcake ] I didn't mean to get you in trouble with your dad. I'm sorry.

         [ text | to: Cupcake ] You didn't. He's always like that.

         [ text | to: Cupcake ] I'm sorry if I seemed rude. I don't really want him knowing about the internship.

         [ text | from: Cupcake ] Why not?

         [ text | from: Cupcake ] Something like this is HUGE. He'd be so proud if you told him.

         [ text | to: Cupcake ] My father is never proud of anything I do. I'm lucky he lets me even take classes. He hates that I want to study science.

         [ text | from: Cupcake ] That's stupid. You're brilliant. The world of science is lucky to have you. He should be able to recognize that.

         [ text | to: Cupcake ] The scientist I'm working with this term, Dr. Radcliffe? They went to school together, back in Glasgow. I don't want him to know yet.

         [ text | from: Cupcake ] Trying to get some stories about your father's youth?

         [ text | to: Cupcake ] No. It has nothing to do with him.

         [ text | to: Cupcake ] I want to know if he can tell me about my mum.


         Leopold was hesitant when he stepped into the lobby of the building he'd been emailed the address of, glancing around at the walls that seemed to scream money . He'd all but grown up around places similar, so it wasn't that he was intimidated he was just a little surprised . Then again, it made sense that someone in the business of curing cancer might have a bit of disposable income.

         As it turned out, Holden Radcliffe didn't have an office. He worked out of his penthouse in the middle of the city. If it had any effect on the situation, it just made him more comfortable, even as he stepped forward so the man at the desk could ring the penthouse.

         He knew all about these places -- how they worked, why they worked. Having a doorman or desk was an extra level of security, but it cost a little bit more, for the tenants. The club house had a door man, but no desk, and Grant's apartment just had a buzzer. It had been a while since he'd been in an apartment building that was quite this flashy, and he was fairly certain he hadn't even had an ID to show when it was asked for.

         His father had a fair amount of money from partially owning a company, of course but it was clear that Holden Radcliffe had quite a bit more.

         As soon as he was given directions to the elevator, Leopold turned to head down the short hallway and let the mechanics carry him almost two dozen floors up. The doors slide open to reveal an open air balcony the city skyline in front of him glowing a magical shade of orange with the rising sun. That alone was worth more than what they paid for their house in a year.

         "Leopold Fitz, I presume?"

         He was a bit startled by the sudden voice, blinking before letting himself smile. He'd seen plenty of pictures, of course, in papers and articles, but this wasn't a picture, this was a person . The man in front of him was brilliant, and somehow seemed more real when his face was partially in shadow thanks to the sun at his back. The situation, however, still felt completely impossible.

         "I... yeah, I'm-- that's me." The younger Scot was somewhat dazed while he stepped forward, plainly in awe. "I know I haven't seen inside yet, but this place is so cool. I didn't realize science could be so... lucrative ." After a moment, he realized how that must sound, his cheeks growing warm and flushing a bright shade of red. "I mean, not that I got into science for the money, or anything, I just... I didn't know anyone could be in it for the money. I was just going to do it because I love it -- I mean, I still am, I just... I'm making a right fool of myself, aren't I?"

         The gentle laughter he got in response was far from what he expected. Maybe he was too used to his father's cold dismissal of his interests, because someone who was actually smiling just seemed too good to be true. "You know, I think the last time I saw you, you were, what? Three years old? It's a bit difficult to make much more of a fool of yourself when you used to only come up to my knee."

         The words left him stunned, heat creeping up his cheeks and almost certainly turning them a bright shade of red. He didn't remember much of his childhood, but maybe because the idea of toddling around the man he considered a scientific hero in a nappy was far too mortifying to ever look back on. As if to drive the complete and total embarrassment home, his voice actually squeaked when he managed to find words his eyes wide. "I'm sorry...?"

         The next laugh he got in response was just as gentle as the first, and just as startling. There was a genuine smile on the older Scotsman's face, not some parody of the expression that was halfway between a smirk and a sneer. "I won't hold your tantrums against you, I promise. But I will make quite a few comments about how much you've grown. It's been twenty years, after all. Now, the view is lovely, but why don't you come inside. I can put the kettle on while I show you around."

         Leopold took a deep breath before making himself nod his head. His cheeks still felt hot, so he assumed they were still flushed with his mortification, but he could at least make himself move to follow the most impressive scientist he'd ever met into an even more impressive apartment. At the very least, it would be a job requirement , for the next few months, and he intended to be a very good intern.


         "And then I got to meet Oliver, who is the most adorable little creature I've ever seen. Seriously, let me show you a picture -- he's so small, and his tail just wiggles so much, and--"

         "I'm sorry, his what ?" Grant barely managed to keep from dropping his glass of wine while he coughed, shaking his head and staring in confusion at his boyfriend across the table. It was supposed to be a calm night, just a nice dinner and maybe some dessert, and then they'd go back to his apartment and hide out for the night so that Leopold wouldn't have to make up some story about why they were all dressed up just for video games and pizza, which was what they let Alistair assume about their nights together. Instead, he'd gotten stuck listening to over an hour of babble about the Scot's first day of his internship, and while that wasn't a bad thing in the slightest, he was having trouble keeping up. "Real quick, what species is Oliver?"

         Blinking at him, with a small, confused frown of his own, Leopold shook his head. "He's a salamander , Grant, what did you think he was? Pay attention."

         With a shake of his head, Grant sipped quietly from his glass again and shrugged his shoulders, not saying a word if only so that he could let his dinner companion continue his excited storytelling. He wasn't paying much attention to what the words were, rather how the accent they were said with seemed to be that much more obvious the more the smile grew. Each word came out curled with the Scotsman's lilted speech, like they had tried to come out so quickly that they'd gotten stuck and bent to force themselves out into the world. It was more intoxicating than the wine, and it was perfect.