When Erik is twelve (“Twelve and a half,” he insists whenever his mother leaves that part off), his father comes home from work early one afternoon. Erik has been enjoying a short holiday from school mainly by pestering Edie into making pastries for him - flaky ones filled with warm dark chocolate that mother and son share on the balcony of their flat in Derendorf. Edie is finishing a story about an old sailor following a great white whale all over the vast oceans when the front door clicks open and Jakob announces his presence.
“We’re moving to America,” he announces to them. “My employer is opening a new office in New York City and wants me there to make sure everything transitions smoothly.”
“I thought it was Poland,” Edie says, frowning. Erik remembers hearing them discuss Poland earlier in the week, had been intrigued by the idea of moving there.
“So did I,” Jakob replies. He sighs a little but perks up when he sees that Erik is listening to them. “What do you say, son? How does New York City sound to you?”
“It sounds very far away,” says Erik. Much, much farther than Poland, he thinks.
“Miles and miles,” Edie tells him. She falls silent for a moment, brushes a lock of hair out of Erik’s eyes with a finger, trailing it down his face and tapping his cheek. “So very many miles away,” she says.
“It’s not all that bad,” Jakob says. “If all goes well, we might be back here within a year, two at the most. You’ll see, you both will.”
Edie and Erik share looks of skepticism with each other, but two months later they’re sitting on a Lufthansa plane that will take them all those miles and miles into JFK Airport. Erik, who has never been on a plane before, is clutching desperately at the arms of his seat.
“Now, now, Liebling,” Edie soothes, “planes are safe and nothing to worry about. We haven’t even taken off.” She touches one of his hands, then, startled by something, gasps and looks down at it. Erik follows her gaze, and - oh. The metal of the armrests have completely caved in, making it looks like they’ve been crushed by a giant, not a twelve year old boy.
“Oh,” Erik says. He refuses to look up, unsure of what his mother’s reaction will be.
“Well,” says Edie. “Not the most opportune moment to discover this.” Her hand knocks gently under Erik’s chin until he’s forced to meet her eyes. She smiles at him, wide and loving and accepting, and Erik is overwhelmed by the force of it. “I always knew you were a special boy,” Edie continues. “Just one more thing to add of the list of reasons why.”
She leans forward and kisses him on the forehead. Erik very pointedly does not bury his head in her shoulder and cry, though he desperately wants to.
Brooklyn is not Derendorf, and New York City is not Düsseldorf, and for whatever reason he hasn’t worked out quite yet, Erik finds this unreasonably irritating.
No, that’s not it. He knows exactly why he finds it irritating. Erik kicks the side of the curb outside of his new school, which hurts his foot and doesn’t make him feel at all better. I hate New York City, he thinks viciously. I hate it so much, and I want to go home. He knows Edie feels the same way, considers asking her to force Jakob to take them home to Germany so he doesn’t have to set foot in this dirty brick building in the middle of a hundred other dirty brick and concrete buildings with five hundred children screaming at each other in a language he barely knows -
“Hello,” a reedy voice behind him says. Erik jumps, whirls around, just-awakened senses already reaching out for whatever metal is closest - but it’s just a boy, a tiny, sickly-looking thing that Edie would one look at and insist they take home to feed. The boy smiles up at Erik and sticks out his right hand. “Steve Rogers,” he introduces himself, eyes wide and eager. “Please to make your acquaintance.”
Erik hesitantly takes Steve’s hand and shakes it. “Erik Lehnsherr,” he mutters, embarrassed by his own thick accent.
Steve’s blue eyes widen even more, and Erik is beginning to think that there’s no way the human face is supposed to do that when Steve says, “You’re new here? Where are you from? Are you from Europe?”
“Uh,” Erik says, frantically processing the strange words as fast as he can. “Yes? I’m German.”
Steve looks at him like he would a newborn puppy. Erik groans internally. Figures the first person I meet would be touched, he thinks glumly.
“You’re probably going to want the principle’s office,” Steve is saying. “The secretary takes care of all the new kids’ schedules and all that. I can take you there! Maybe we’ll even be in the same class!”
Erik thinks that God doesn’t hate him that much, but he’s proven wrong when the secretary hands him his class schedule and it matches Steve’s. Steve, of course, beams at Erik and drags him down the crowded hallway to their classroom. For such a little thing, Steve seems to fill the space around him like he was a boy ten times bigger, and Erik reluctantly admires his self-confidence.
“We have Mr. Potts for math first thing, and then history with Ms. Smith, and then art, which is my favorite class,” Steve rambles. “Do you like books?”
Erik is saved from having to answer when a tall, dark-skinned man walks into the room and calls him up the front to present him to the rest of the class. He stammers through a brief introduction, flushing hot when a few children giggle at his accent. Erik resists the urge to rush out of the room, steps gingerly down the rows of desks once the teacher dismisses him, and takes his place in the space next to Steve.
Steve, to his credit, merely smiles at Erik again and makes a hand gesture that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to Erik.
I hate New York City, Erik thinks again miserably.
Jakob is right, though. Two years after they arrive in America, right before Erik is scheduled to start high school, the company asks them to move again. But it’s not back home to Derendorf, not back to Germany at all, not even close - instead, Jakob calmly informs his wife and son over supper one night that they will be moving to Philadelphia.
“Erik, I know you’re upset,” Edie says, “but you will fix all the silverware you just ruined. Now, young man.”
“I don’t want to fix them,” says Erik. “And I don’t want to move to Philadelphia, either. This isn’t fair.”
“Do what your mother tells you,” Jakob insists. “You think I enjoy having to pick up and move again? I don’t, but that’s what happens when you’re an adult and have family to watch after - you make sacrifices, you do what you have to do to keep feeding them. One day, you’ll know what I mean.”
Erik doesn’t think this likely. He fixes the silverware, though he leaves one spoon misshapen, as if that would show his parents.
He has no close friends in the area to tell, really, though he does inform one or two of his classmates who happen to live in his apartment complex. He’d managed to make it through the last few years making more enemies than friends - first by being much smarter and faster at picking up complex concepts than everyone else around him, and second by accidentally revealing his control over metal and magnetism to the entire school one memorable afternoon.
As if being the smartest wasn’t enough, he had to be the only mutant in his grade as well.
Erik and Edie are packing the last of the utensils into cardboard boxes when the door buzzer goes off. “I wonder who that could be,” Edie mumbles as she wanders off to answer the door. Moments later, Erik hears her exclaim in delight at whomever has come up to see them. She comes back and trailing behind her is - Steve.
“Erik, why didn’t you tell me you had such a sweet, polite friend?” Edie asks.
“He’s not my friend,” Erik says. “He just likes to follow me around.”
“Erik once held a bully up by his belt to get him to stop punching me during assembly until the teachers could get to us,” Steve tells Edie, smiling gleefully. “It was amazing. Your son’s a hero, ma’am.”
Edie shoots Erik a look of pride mixed with curiosity and warning, a look that says We’ll be discussing this later, you may count on that. Erik groans and wishes for the ground to rise up and swallow him immediately.
Steve, who hasn’t grown or filled out an inch since the day Erik met him, places his hands on his hips and tries to stare Erik down. Erik rolls his eyes. “What, Rogers?” he asks.
Steve raises an eyebrow. “Why didn’t you say something about moving? I had to hear about it from Bucky.”
“It’s actually none of your business,” says Erik. He sees Edie inching out of the kitchen and grabs onto her wrist. “Don’t we have to finish this packing?” he asks desperately.
“We still have a few days, Liebling,” she says.
Traitorous mother, Erik thinks.
Steve ends up staying for the rest of the afternoon but politely reclines Edie’s offer to stay for supper, saying his own mother would be wondering where he’d gotten off to. Erik is relieved to see him go, though once the door is closed and bolted, Edie fixes the most motherly stare she has in her arsenal at him. Erik gulps audibly.
“My son the hero,” she says. “And why was I not informed of this?”
“It wasn’t a big deal,” Erik tells her. “Anyone would have done it.”
Edie reaches over and ruffles his hair. “Of course they would have,” she says. “But you did it, and that’s what makes it wonderful.” She manages to plant a kiss on his cheek before he squirms away. “Now, what shall we have for supper, Mr. Hero?”
“Ice cream,” Erik says. “All the best heroes eat ice cream for dinner.”
Edie laughs him off and mentions something about lentil soup being healthier for growing boys, but when they sit down to eat with Jakob later, it’s a big sundae (three scoops of chocolate ice cream topped with hot fudge, M&Ms, and whipped cream) she sets down in front of him, not soup.
Philadelphia goes much the same way Brooklyn had - Erik distinguishes himself early on in high school as a genius at mathematics and science, joins the mathletes and physics club, does extremely well in almost all his other classes. And while he’s not the only mutant in his class anymore, he does have the more impressive set of powers. Friendships aren’t something he seeks out; Erik remembers the sting of children laughing at him when he spoke, grumbling when he knew the answer to a complicated equation, whispering behind his back when he twisted metal with his thoughts.
And even though his accent has faded over the years, even though he surrounds himself with people who understand numbers and circuitry almost as well as he does, Erik is still shy and wary of others, preferring to keep his own company. He gains a reputation for being sarcastic and mean, becomes brusquely disdainful of others’ feelings and opinions. Erik finds he doesn’t mind this perception of himself, that it’s almost easier to act like he’s better than everyone around him (because, with his talents and intelligence and passion, he sort of is, in a way).
Erik’s desire to return to Germany fades for the most part, though Edie and Jakob start talking about visiting their families right around the time of Erik turns sixteen. He waves off their requests to help them plan, too busy researching engineering programs at universities around the country and deciding which ones he’d like to apply to eventually. Erik submits an application to Stark Industries’ Young Scientists Scholarship Program in the spring of his junior year in high school and wins a full ride to the school of his choice, and he’s on his way home to tell Edie when he sees the police activity a block from the apartment.
The police officer tells him that it was an accident, that Edie and Jakob hadn’t had time to get out of the way of the half-ton truck that lost control on a too tight right hand turn. He says that they must have died on impact, which meant it was mercifully quick for them.
Erik responds to all of this by crushing the truck into a ball of scrap metal. He tries to choke the distraught driver with the necklace he’s wearing, crucifix digging into his Adam’s apple obscenely, but the officer knocks Erik out, and when he wakes up a few minutes later, Erik cries for the first time since well before the flight from Germany to America.
Rather than be placed in foster care, Erik applies to the courts for and is granted emancipation. He stays with the local rabbi and her husband until he graduates from high school, and then he packs his parents’ belongings into storage and moves to a small apartment of his own. Erik makes it into the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science with a focus in electrical engineering and throws himself into absorbing as much knowledge and experience with which his professors can provide him.
It’s a clear, cool spring day when Erik hears someone calling out his name while he’s walking to his Intro to Digital Signal Processing course. He frowns and turns in the direction of the voice. He doesn’t know many people outside of his degree, has made enemies of most of them already, so it’s odd that someone would sound so excited to see him. A tall, beefy man is running toward him, and Erik briefly considers running away to avoid having to speak with him, whoever he is.
The man stops in front of him and beams warmly. “Erik Lehnsherr, I thought that was you,” he says. “It’s been a while.”
Erik blinks, takes in the stranger’s blond hair and blue eyes, and - “Steve Rogers?” says Erik.
“You remember!” Steve exclaims, smile reaching from ear to ear.
Erik gapes. “You, uh,” he says weakly, “I didn’t recognize you. At all. With the...tallness and the muscles and all that.”
“I know, I know,” says Steve. “Growth spurt. Guess I was a late bloomer! But what are you up to these days? Wacky that we run into each other after all this time!”
“Engineering,” Erik replies, trying to edge away.
“You always were good with numbers. I’m studying art - I was always scribbling in notebooks, remember?”
Erik does not remember, but he nods anyway. “Listen,” he says, “I really have to get to class but, uh, I’ll see you around?”
Steve nods enthusiastically. “Of course! Bye now!”
Erik spends the next two years trying to avoid the overly optimistic and cheerful force of nature that is Steve Rogers. He doesn’t succeed until commencement, when he manages to slip away after receiving his diploma without letting on to Steve where he would be heading afterward. Erik breathes a sigh of relief on the plane to California, happily forgets that Steve exists for the next few years as he works toward a Master’s degree from Caltech’s CSEM division.
Erik graduates, applies to Stark Industries and is summarily rejected because apparently making one’s interviewer cry is frowned upon. It’s not quite soul-crushing, but Erik mopes on the inside of a bottle of fine Scotch for a few days before picking himself up and looking elsewhere.
Coulson Engineering snaps him up within the first ten minutes of their meeting.
“You’re hired,” Phil Coulson says. Before Erik can say anything, he calls down to a Pam in HR to prepare new hire forms and send them up to his office immediately.
“You didn’t even look at my references,” says Erik. “Which aren’t that great, I feel I should warn you. People don’t seem to like me very much.”
“I’ve seen your designs from your time at UPenn and Caltech,” is the reply. “I’d be an idiot not to bring you on right now, poor people skills or not.”
Erik goes through five project aids within the first month of his employment and is subjected to no fewer than four HR interventions (all of which involve a dolphin hand puppet, and Erik has nightmares about that for a long time).
And then Azazel Kozlov walks into Erik’s workspace one morning.
“Finally,” Erik growls. “I’ve been waiting for a new aid for over a week now, it’s nearly impossible to do most of these calibrations on my own. Well, go on, get suited up.”
“Actually,” Azazel says, “I’m looking for the men’s room, but since you’re clearly an insane person, I might as well stay. I wouldn’t want to leave and then have to live with the guilt if you suddenly dismember yourself with the laser cutter.”
“Please,” says Erik. “This thing couldn’t slice a cucumber if it tried.”
Suffice it to say, Azazel works well with Erik, and Coulson is more than happy to make their arrangement permanent. Erik is from that day on in a constant state of war with the applied sciences division for having poached him away from them. He spends much of his free time over the next few years thinking of more ways to make his coworkers’ lives miserable - that is, until the day he’s wandering through a bookstore and ends up bleeding profusely all over the most amazing, perfect man Erik has ever met. His time is spent in much more pleasant activities after that.