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Erik Lehnsherr is married.

People outside the Engineering Department at Stark Industries, located on the 54th floor of Stark Tower and composed of forty-six of the best engineers in the world, fail to grasp the significance of this statement.

What the outsiders know is that Erik Lehnsherr is widely regarded as one of the best engineers Stark Industries has. Even though he’s a new arrival—hired on six months ago; rumors say that Tony Stark himself ran into Lehnsherr at a job fair and hired him on the spot—he’s already regarded as Stark’s go-to man for the more complicated designs of whatever the hell Stark Industries is involved in at the moment (the projects can change drastically from one week to the next depending on Tony Stark’s moods, which, according to the secretaries on the 86th floor, usually leads to Pepper Potts screaming something along the lines of, “Profits, Tony, profits!” to which Stark declares, “I work for the good of society!” and then proceeds to spend five hundred thousand dollars on a new car).

What the outsiders don’t know is that Erik Lehnsherr is possibly the most frightening individual they will ever come across. Ever. He shuts himself in his office for most of the workday, and when he emerges, it is only to fetch the bland coffee from the break room (this is Stark Industries, you’d think there’d be decent coffee), run across the street for a sandwich at the nearby diner, or visit the restroom. He barely speaks to anyone, and when he does, he always looks half a second away from snapping at everyone in range. Apparently, nothing anyone does is ever good enough for Erik’s standards; when the project leaders present their progress, he always points out mistakes, criticizes mercilessly, and sends everyone back with more instructions heaped on. He’s the definition of a perfectionist, which is bad enough, but a mean perfectionist? It’s hell.

He’s also got this awful smile that belongs either on Shark Week or in a museum, preserved for posterity to scare little children when they don’t eat their vegetables or some other shit. That smile is terrifying, perhaps the most terrifying part about Erik Lehnsherr. Sometimes he says something that’s not humorous in the slightest, and then follows it up with that horrendous grin that is probably an exhibit at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, filed under the heading ‘Holy shit, is it possible to smile with that many teeth, and is it possible that that smile means anything other than intense homicidal intent, help.’

His coworkers have attempted to draw him out of his isolation. “He’s shy,” Moira declares. “He probably needs some encouragement from us, to help him open up.”

She goes to invite him to lunch one day and returns pale and wide-eyed, shaking her head.

“What happened?” Sean asks, leaning forward at his desk. His cubicle has become the unofficial Erik Lehnsherr Rumor Center, mostly because he makes up the most random, scary shit that might actually be true because this is Erik Lehnsherr and no one has any idea what to expect.

Moira shakes her head again. “He is definitely not shy. That’s not it.” She shudders a bit. “I knocked on his door and asked him if he wanted to grab a bite, and he said, totally straight-faced, ‘A bite of what?’ and then smiled at me—”

“Smiled?” Alex says, shivering. “Was it horrible?”

“It was horrible,” she confirms. “He seemed to think it was hilarious, and he just—he just kept grinning, and I had to get out of there. So I did.”

The others don’t blame her; Erik’s horror-face-that-passes-for-a-smile is something they prefer not to face. They’d rather lick sandpaper, or piss Emma off, or attend one of those insanity kicks Tony Stark likes to call ‘company retreats.’

(They aren’t company retreats, by the way—or at least, they aren’t one in any conventional sense. They involve keg stands, strobe lights, and a horde of women, which would be totally fine except Tony Stark inevitably shows up and forces everyone into what he calls ‘bonding exercises,’ usually involving heights and usually a good form of torture that the military should consider employing against enemies of the state. The things Stark’s brilliant mind comes up with are, frankly, alarming and probably illegal. Most of the Engineering Department calls in collectively sick on company retreats days. Tony Stark, as of yet, hasn’t called them out on it; he seems to think they’re just missing a great party, when in reality, they’re dodging bullets. Multiple, Tony Stark-shaped bullets.)

They try in vain to invite him out to drinks after work, but he usually stays behind much later than they do, and he always turns them down, gruffly citing previous engagements. The general consensus is that that is utter bullshit, because there is no way he has previous engagements every day for two weeks, which was about as long as the Engineering Department gave him until they decided to throw in the towel. Erik Lehnsherr is just an antisocial bastard who hates humanity and probably goes home to skin turtles or something, because that seems like something a guy with a smile that does for fun.

Anyway. Never let it be said that the Engineering Department didn’t at least try to understand Erik Lehnsherr. Let it only be said that Erik Lehnsherr is impossible to understand, and that any effort to try to prove otherwise will result in that maniacal grin and possible dismemberment. (And dismemberment is, in fact, a possibility. Underestimating Erik would probably be unwise.)

The whole point of this is actually two points.

Point number one: Erik Lehnsherr is a cantankerous, grumpy, evil, shark-faced bastard of a boss.

Which leads directly to point number two: Erik Lehnsherr’s husband has got to be either a) the biggest masochist in the good ol’ U.S. of A (and possibly in the world), or b) an equally cantankerous, grumpy, evil shark-faced bastard (which terrifies the crap out of ninety-five percent of the department, because imagining someone worse than Erik is the stuff of nightmares), or c) a shy as hell, easily dominated, luckless fool who had the misfortune of catching Erik’s eye.

The fact that Erik is married is shocking enough. Imagining who the hell would be able to put up with him, who would actually agree to marry someone like Erik, is mind-boggling. Both the identity and the nature of Erik’s husband is a source of endless speculation in the office. Six months in, and they know next to nothing about this mysterious husband; all they know is that Erik has a wedding band on the fourth finger of his left hand and that Erik sometimes gets phone calls around lunch time that bring out that creepy shark-smile.

Plus, there’s the flowers that show up randomly on Erik’s desk, always with a card, and that narrows the options down—Erik’s husband has got to be Erik’s polar opposite because no one can imagine Erik sending flowers to anyone, except maybe if they were poisonous and maybe if they were monstrous and man-eating with teeth as sharp as Erik’s.

The rumor mill grinds on interminably. Even Raven, who is notoriously good at figuring out every little embarrassing detail about anybody, comes up empty. Another month passes, and the entire office figures that it’s about time to give up. They’ve exhausted the topic, and if a seven-month investigation has gone on fruitlessly, the question will probably never be solved.

Then, bright and early one Monday morning, Emma Frost glides up to Sean’s desk where the usual group has gathered, tasteless coffee in hand, rubbing sleep out of their eyes.

“Did you see the memo?” she asks no one in particular.

“What memo?” Darwin asks.

“The memo. The memo. Stark’s thing about the company party next Saturday.”

“Oh, that,” Raven says. “Celebrating the 50th anniversary of blah-blah-blah. What about it?”

“It’s mandatory,” Emma informs them all coolly.

Alex slurps his coffee. He prefers to drink like a barbarian, thank you very much, no matter how many dirty looks people in neighboring cubicles send him. “So…?”

“So Erik is required to come.”

“So…?”

She rolls her eyes, elegantly. Everything Emma does is elegant. “Also, I’ve been put in charge of handling the Engineering Department’s invitations and RSVP list, since Erik isn’t the party-planning type, as you can imagine. As such, I have full access to all the details.”

She pauses dramatically, waiting for them all to stop sipping their coffee and pay attention. When she’s got eye contact with half the group—which, at this point in the morning, is the most focus she’s likely to get—she says airily, “Erik marked himself down as plus-one.”

All of them freeze for a moment. Then Raven exclaims, “What?” at the same time Sean says, “No fucking way,” and then they all stare at Emma, wide awake and grasping for details.

She smiles smugly at all of them. Power’s always been her favorite thing in the world, and she uses it now with pleasure, enjoying the way everyone looks on eagerly as she slowly opens her mouth and licks her lips. “Well…”

“Come on, don’t hedge,” Raven says impatiently, leaning forward against the cubicle wall. “Does this mean…?”

“He’s bringing his husband,” Emma confirms with a sharp grin. “On the plus-one, he wrote Charles Xavier.”

Alex pounces on that immediately. “Finally, a name. Seven goddamn months and we finally figure out the guy’s name. Jesus, Erik’s a tight-lipped bastard.”

“How do you know it’s his husband?” Hank interjects softly. He’s a timid kind of guy, quiet but brilliant. Everyone knows Alex has a crush on him roughly the size of Pluto that has been going on for ages now, but Hank is oblivious and whatever, it’s not the office’s job to fix relationships anyway. It’s much more fun to watch Alex bumble around trying to do nice things for Hank and then invariably fucking it up, mostly because he’s just absolute shit at the romantic things and can’t express his feelings properly without sounding like he’s utterly furious.

“He’s right,” Angel puts in. “Different last names.”

“First of all,” Emma says archly, “why would he take someone to a company party who’s not his husband? Second of all, who else would it be? A friend?”

They exchange glances and nod in singular agreement. Erik doesn’t have any friends, it’s against his genetic code or something. So this Charles person has to be his husband.

“Okay,” Raven says, chewing on her bottom lip. “Okay. So we’ll finally get to see who it is, right? This is a good thing.”

“A good thing? What if his husband’s exactly the same as he is?” Sean’s eyes widen as a thought strikes him. “Two Erik Lehnsherrs?”

They all shudder violently. One is bad enough; two together would probably wipe out the entire Engineering Department, plus some of the Physics Department on the floor below.

“Still,” Raven defends after a moment, “we get to see him. See who’s right. He can’t be exactly like Erik. That wouldn’t be possible.”

They think on that for a moment, imagining two Erik’s. The thought is too horrifying to stomach, so when Darwin says hastily, “Well, we’ll just see on Saturday, won’t we?” they gladly end the conversation then and there.

*

The next week is spent lurking around Erik’s office, trying without success to catch any clues as to who the hell Charles is and what the hell he looks like. Sean, who was probably a hacker wizard in his past life, searched Charles Xavier up on the Internet and comes up with dozens of results, each of them different and none of them plausible. Charles Xavier the bullfighter? Not unless Erik has been taking regular trips to Spain that no one has noticed. Charles Xavier the eighty-year-old bookstore owner? Unless Erik has a bizarre kink for geriatrics, they all doubt that one. Charles Xavier the genetics professor from Columbia? Please. Someone like that belongs nowhere near someone like Erik Lehnsherr and his razor-sharp grin.

On Friday afternoon, the door to Erik’s office opens, and out he steps, coat on, briefcase in hand. As one, everyone looks at their clocks: five-fifteen. A full hour before everyone else gets off. Erik Lehnsherr never leaves this early. This is radical. This is a break from a seven-month-long routine. This is unbearably intriguing.

Raven gets up casually from her desk and meanders over to where Erik is standing by his office as he loops a scarf around his neck. Everyone else in listening distance rises slightly in their cubicles, standing tall enough to watch but still low enough to be able to duck back if Erik turns his gaze their way.

Raven—being Raven, probably the boldest girl (or guy) in the entire office, with the exception of Emma—gets right to it. “Leaving early today?” she asks sweetly, managing to strike the delicate balance between offhanded and rabidly interested.

Erik looks at her. At least he’s not scowling, Sean thinks from two rows over. There’s that.

“Yeah,” he says slowly, as if he’s surprised Raven’s approached him at all. “I’m going to dinner.”

Raven’s smile widens. “Oh! With anyone?”

Erik gives her a strange look, probably because her curious smile is turning a little manic. “…Yes. With my husband.”

“Your husband,” Raven repeats. “I heard,” she adds casually, “that you’re going to the company party tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Erik confirms brusquely. “What about it?”

“Well,” Raven continues, undeterred by his tone, “a little bird told me—”

Erik’s eyes narrow. “Frost.”

“—a little bird told me that you’re bringing a guest.” Raven bats her eyelashes. That usually works on no one but Hank, and that’s only because Hank’s been crushing on her just as hard as Alex has been crushing on him. Yes, this is a respectable office in Stark Industries. No, this is not a mid-afternoon soap opera.

“What about it?” Erik asks, beginning to walk. He’s got the longest fucking legs in existence, and one of his bastard things is to walk approximately at the speed of a charging rhino—which is to say, about forty miles faster than anyone else, which means walking beside him requires some good cardio and determination.

Raven’s got both. She keeps up, barely, and says, “Well, that’s nice of you. To bring him to a company party, I mean.”

“He insisted,” Erik says flatly. “He wanted to see where I work.”

“Oh!” Raven exclaims brightly, seizing that bit of information and storing it away in the archive of her mind labeled ‘Charles Xavier, mystery man.’ “That’s cool of him. So, you’re headed to dinner with him now?”

He shoots her an irritated glance and answers, “Yes, and I’m already late. Excuse me.”

Raven ignores him. “Where do you guys like to eat? What’s Charles into?”

Erik stops so suddenly that Raven overshoots him by three steps and has to backtrack. “You know his name?” he demands.

Raven looks at his unreadable expression. This is unfamiliar territory, because Erik is scowling 99% of the time and smiling horribly the other 1%. Never unreadable, like he is now. He might be trying to look interested. He might also be contemplating drowning puppies in his toilet.

“Yes…” she says slowly, unsure of what he means by that. “Emma. Last week…”

His lips start to turn up. Teeth are beginning to show. “Seven months sneaking around and you’ve only just discovered his name?” He cracks a grin. It is unsurprisingly terrifying. “You’re a really poor detective, aren’t you? Almost as poor as your midterm reports are.”

He laughs, and Raven stands there for a moment, half-hoping he chokes and dies on his insult.

He doesn’t.

When he’s sufficiently recovered from laughing at his own cleverness, he sobers up and says abruptly, “Go back to work. You’ve got a report due Monday, and I expect it to be color-coded. Don’t forget like you did last time.”

With that, he takes his leave, striding out with all the asshole indifference he has. Raven returns to her desk and resists the urge to shred every single color-coded sticky note she has.

*

The company party is, predictably enough, more of a rave party than a company anything. Typical of Stark, really, no matter how many times Pepper Potts nags at him to make his company at least semi-respectable. No one minds much, because anything with an open bar is awesome (and probably dangerous, because anyone who puts unlimited alcohol into the hands of Sean or Alex is irredeemably insane).

Even if it’s loud and boozy, everyone is still in suits and dresses, because Tony Stark insists on formality at the oddest times. Raven has donned a purple dress that has Hank following her like the love-struck puppy he is. Alex and Sean have cleaned up nicely, which is a surprise because no one had thought they even owned suits. Emma’s glittering white dress draws everyone’s eye with every movement she makes. She dazzles with her ostentatious entrance, and then proceeds to capture and recapture attention as she weaves her way through the lobby.

No one spots Erik. Not yet, at least.

Then, at seven-thirty, half an hour after the party opens, Darwin pops up where their group is congregating near the side wall underneath the massive portrait of Howard Stark. “Saw Erik,” he announces. They’re still in the lobby, not in the ball room where the music is currently blasting away, so he doesn’t have to shout. “He walked in a minute ago.”

Raven whips her head toward the doors. “Where? Where’s Charles Xavier?”

Darwin shakes his head. “He was alone when I saw him.”

Sean groans. “Of course. Should’ve known it was too good to be true. Hey, do we even know if this guy even exists?”

They all consider that for a moment.

“Holy shit,” Raven says slowly. “We don’t.” Because no one has ever seen even a picture of Erik’s husband; the only evidence that he exists is the silver wedding band on Erik’s finger.

“He can’t be faking,” Hank disagrees. “He goes out to dinner with him…doesn’t he?”

Once the idea has been raised, none of them can forget it. “He could be lying about that,” Alex points out.

Hank furrows his brow. “Why? That serves no purpose.”

“It serves the purpose of making him seem less like a lonely, antisocial prick,” Alex says dryly. Then he reconsiders and corrects himself, “Well, it would make him seem less like an antisocial prick, if he wasn’t constantly reaching epic levels of dickery.”

“He can’t have made it all up,” Raven says, shaking her head. “Emma saw—the guest list—”

“Come on,” Sean interrupts. “Making up names is the easiest thing in the world. He’s like one of those guys who can’t handle the fact that no one likes him and makes up an imaginary friend, right?”

“Do those people even exist?” Alex asks, sounding moderately creeped-out.

“Did you think people like Erik Lehnsherr existed before you saw him?” Sean counters.

They chew on that in silence for a moment.

Then, out of nowhere, a smooth voice, sharply accented, asks apologetically, “Excuse me for crashing your little party here, but could any of you tell me where to find the Engineering Department?”

As one, they all swivel to find a handsome young man on the edge of their circle, impeccably dressed in probably the best tuxedo in the house, complete with a perfectly tied bowtie. He looks much too elegant to be a part of anything Tony Stark-related. He looks like he belongs in a high-society fundraiser, the ones that take place in mansions with multi-billionaires who sleep on beds of gold and have cheetahs and giraffes as pets.

“The…” Sean repeats slowly.

“Engineering Department,” the young man repeats pleasantly. “I was told this was a multi-department party. I’m trying to find the general area of the Engineering Department.”

Emma steps out of their circle and approaches the stranger with a conspicuously seductive spring in her stride. As naturally graceful as she is, she’s the only one who looks like she belongs in the same room with The Tux.

“Hello,” she nearly purrs, and Raven and Angel stare because Emma considers flirting beneath her level—she prefers to be the pursued rather than the pursuer. But in cases like these, with a man who looks like he’s wearing a ten-thousand-dollar suit, she makes exceptions. Apparently.

“Hello,” The Tux returns with a bright-white smile. Seriously, his teeth are so fucking white and pretty that Sean reaches reflexively for sunglasses. “Can you help me?”

“I can do more than that,” Emma says, her voice sultry, and Alex is pretty sure he has never heard such an obvious come-on in his life.

“This is the Engineering Department,” Moira cuts in quickly, before Emma leaps on The Tux and mauls him. “Or part of it, at least.”

“Oh.” The Tux sounds relieved. “Good. I’ve been wandering around for a while now. There are so many people here.”

There really are. There are rumors that Stark reconstructed the lobby and ball room not to accommodate the monthly expertise conferences but for the parties. Knowing Stark, those rumors are probably true.

“Come join us,” Emma offers, taking his arm and drawing him into their circle. “Where are you from? I’ve never seen you around before.”

“I don’t work here. I’m waiting for someone,” The Tux explains, joining them. “I got here later than I intended. Work got in the way.”

“Work always gets in the way of fun here,” Sean groans. “God, you’d think Erik would have better things to do than kill us every day with paperwork.”

None of them notices The Tux’s eyes lighting up. Instead, they’re wholly focused on the subject of bitching about Erik now, since it’s one of the only things a disparate group like them has in common.

“Did you know what he told me last week?” Alex complains. “He said that my report lacked details. Details, really? I wrote a fucking thesis for that report. It was, like, twelve pages long. I had bullet points.”

“And when I tried to invite him out for drinks after work,” Moira adds, “he told me, ‘Don’t you have work to do? That survey I gave you is due tomorrow afternoon.’ As if I didn’t already know that.”

“I was about to go home the other day,” Angel chimes in, “and he walked by my desk and gave me thirty pages of reading that I was supposed to look over and annotate by the next morning. Honestly. It’s as if he thinks we never sleep, or eat, or do anything besides work.”

“Probably because that’s all he does,” Raven sniffs.

“That, and going out with his mysterious husband who may or may not exist,” Sean says. “Seriously, has anyone seen either Erik or his nonexistent husband yet?”

They all turn to look around at the crowd, and at that moment, Erik appears out of nowhere, scaring the crap out of Sean, who leaps nearly a foot into the air.

“Jesus,” he breathes, holding a hand against his heart. “Erik. Didn’t see you there.”

Erik ignores him. Instead, he circles around the group and oh-so-casually slips an arm around The Tux’s waist. “Hi,” he says, pressing a kiss against The Tux’s cheek.

Everyone stares. The Tux smiles and says, “Hello, love. Sorry I’m late, the lab ran longer than expected.”

Holy shit. Holy shit. If ever there was a situation to warrant an emphatic ‘holy shit,’ this is it. This is it times a thousand. No one says a word. This is impossible. Erik’s husband is supposed to be some sadistic, creepy, evil-eyed monster, just like Erik is. Or he’s supposed to be this timid, scrawny, frightened little rabbit of a thing. He’s not supposed to be this gorgeous, red-lipped, bright-eyed guy armed with a charming smile, a killer fashion sense, and a polished English accent. He’s not supposed to look remarkably well-adjusted, or like a generally nice guy, or—freakily enough—happy.

How the hell does one get married to Erik fucking Lehnsherr and be happy about it?

No. Raven’s shaking her head, expressing the unspoken sentiment of the whole group. Darwin is staring, looking utterly confused. Sean has yet to pick his jaw up from the floor. This can’t be Erik’s husband. This can’t be—

“Charles Xavier,” The Tux says with a wide grin at them all. “I’m Erik’s husband. It’s very nice to meet you all. Although,” he laughs, “maybe I’m in the wrong place. Erik, you don’t seem to have very many fans here.”

They all cringe, expecting Erik to turn his glare on them. That glare could cut glass, and all of them have had the misfortune of experiencing it. None of them wants to relive that experience again.

But Erik doesn’t even so much as glower. Instead, he looks almost abashed as he mutters, “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated,” Charles repeats with a chuckle. “Everyone seems to think you’re positively draconian.”

“I’m not that bad,” Erik tries, sounding much nicer than he’s ever sounded to any of them.

That’s such a blatant lie that Raven can’t help but blurt, “Erik, sorry, but you’re a dick.”

Two seconds later, she realizes exactly what she’s said, and to whom she’s said it to, and—oh, shit, shit, shit—mentally prepares herself for a verbal pink slip, right then and there.

Everyone stares, wide-eyed and nervously expectant, at Erik.

Instead, it is Charles who says, puzzled, “What are you talking about? Erik’s one of the nicest guys I know.”

That makes them stare at him. Is he absolutely, positively joking? He’s got to be joking. But he’s got the straightest face they have ever seen. Seriously. It’s straighter than Erik’s spine, which is saying something because that bastard’s got the straightest posture in probably the entire building. That’s 86 floors. That’s saying something.

Charles surveys their expressions and realizes they don’t believe him. He looks honestly surprised to realize this. “I’m not lying,” he says slowly. “Erik is truthfully a very nice guy.” He looks over at his husband. “Right? Erik?”

Erik averts his gaze. “Well…”

Charles’s bright smile falters. “Erik? How many times have we talked about being sociable? And polite?”

“I…try,” Erik mutters.

“He doesn’t,” Alex announces, growing bolder every moment Erik doesn’t lunge at any of them. It seems like Charles is actually keeping Erik in line, which—let’s face it—probably no one else on earth could do. Alex intends to take complete advantage of it. “He criticizes everyone, no matter what.”

“Yeah,” Raven says, catching some of his bravery. “And he makes us redo reports if there’s even one typo.”

Angel nods. “And when we ask him out after work, he always refuses.”

“And when it was Moira’s birthday last month,” Sean adds, “he told us to cut the party short and get back to work.” Moira nods in agreement at that.

“He makes me rewrite every single paper,” Darwin says. “Every single time.”

Emma Frost sniffs. “Sorry, sugar,” she says, directing her words at Erik, “but you are a cruel taskmaster.”

They all look expectantly at Hank, who never likes to complain but there’s no way anyone works under Erik and harbors no complaints. After a moment of hesitation, he says in embarrassment, “He makes me talk any time we’re in the conference room, even when he knows—” he hesitates again, glancing furtively at Erik, then finishes in a rush, “—even when he knows I hate it.”

Charles looks surprised. “Erik, what are you doing to these poor people?”

“I have my reasons,” Erik says defensively, which marks the first and only time any of them have seen Erik on the defensive; he’s always so frighteningly aggressive.

“Well, let’s hear them,” Alex says brashly. He’s going to keep pressing as long as they seem to be on equal footing. Then, if it seems like Erik’s about to snap, he’s going to leap back and cut his losses before Erik can take his head off—literally.

“I only criticize you to make you better,” Erik says slowly. “You all need to get better in order to move up the ladder. Stark Industries, any of the top companies—they all have very high standards. Raven, even one typo makes you unprofessional. And the sticky-notes thing—if you can’t follow simple orders, no one will want you. I was trying to—to teach you to take orders.

“Darwin,” he adds, “you write good reports. But I want you to write excellent reports. You have the potential, and I knew you could do better. That’s why I made you write them over again.

“And about Moira’s birthday—the project we were working on was due the next morning, and none of you had done enough to finish it. Stark came around asking me about it, and I promised we’d meet the deadline. I didn’t want to break that promise.

“Hank, you know how bad you are at confidence. Building up your self-esteem is something you need to do if you ever want to get promoted. That’s why I make you talk every time, for practice.

“And about the invitations to go for drinks—I always eat dinner with Charles, every day. I wasn’t lying about anything,” he finishes, looking vaguely contrite.

All eight of them stare incredulously at Erik. That is, without a doubt, the most they have ever heard him talk in any amount of time, and he sounds—dare they say it—rational. Nothing like the perpetually angry, terrifying prick they’ve seen for seven full months.

What’s even more astonishing is that he actually sounds like he’s trying to help them out. By being strict as hell and arming himself with a smile that makes him look more than a little deranged, he’s been trying to make them better.

In the stunned silence, Charles says, looking faintly worried, “You don’t have to have dinner with me every day, darling. I don’t want to keep you from making friends.”

Erik looks at him. “I want to eat with you. And none of them—” He glances around. “I just thought I wouldn’t be very welcome. I thought…I didn’t think that was what you all thought about what I was doing. I didn’t know that was why you were avoiding me.”

To their shock, he actually sounds sincere. And he didn’t know? How on earth could his actions have labeled him as anything other than absolute douche, and what other possible reason could they have for being scared shitless of him? Honestly. Honestly.

“I tell you to be nice,” Charles sighs.

“I am. I talk. I…joke.”

Unable to help herself, Raven barks a laugh. “What? When?”

“All the time,” he says solemnly, and that is when they realize collectively that, holy crap, Erik actually thinks the things he says are jokes, not insults, and he’s actually trying to be funny with them. Insults from friend to friend? Acceptable. Even funny. If only all of them had known Erik was trying to be their friend, not trying to tear apart their pride and dignity with a single sentence.

“That—” Sean chokes. “When you…do that freaky smile thing…”

Erik frowns. It’s more confused than condemning. “What?”

“That—that freaky—” Sean tries to demonstrate, baring all his teeth, curling up his lips. He fails miserably, closer to looking like someone smacked him in the face with a two-by-four than Erik’s horrifying grin.

Erik shocks them again by looking a bit crestfallen. “I—Charles always said…”

“You’ve got a beautiful smile, darling,” Charles assures him. “It just takes some getting used to.” He flashes them all his own charming grin—a dozen, dozen, dozen times more pleasant than Erik’s grimace. “Take it from a guy who has some experience in that department.”

Erik still looks unsettled. “Does no one really get my jokes?”

Charles sighs. “Erik’s got a wonderful sense of humor,” he tells them all. “It just takes special people to understand it.”

“You told me I was funny,” Erik complained, narrowing his eyes at Charles.

“You’re hilarious.” Charles gives him a conciliatory kiss on the corner of his lips, tiptoeing to reach. “Really.”

Erik sighs. He says after a moment, clearly still preoccupied with what they’ve said, “Are you thirsty or hungry, schatz?”

“A water would be fine, thank you,” Charles answers. “I’ve got to get up early for lab tomorrow, and I’d rather not be buzzed.”

“All right.” Erik kisses him lightly on the forehead and heads off through the crowd.

Raven stares at them both. Not even half an hour ago, she’d thought Erik Lehnsherr was incapable of any emotion other than sullen anger, or fierce anger, or frustrated anger. Seeing him now, so affectionate with his husband, is mind-blowing. This must be an alternate universe or something—or maybe Erik’s been replaced by a clone, a doppelganger—because the Erik Lehnsherr who shuts himself up in his office and glares at people if they come too close is so not a man who kisses his husband so gently and offers to fetch him refreshments. Not. At. All.

“So,” Charles says into the silence, “Erik’s told me about you all. Let me try to guess your names, all right? Humor me.”

Nothing in the world could stand against his earnest smile. So they nod in acquiescence, and Charles scrutinizes them each in turn.

“Emma, right?” he says slowly, pointing straight at her. “And…Raven, and Hank, and Alex, and Sean, Darwin, and Angel, and Moira.”

“How did you do that?” Moira asks after a second, amazed.

Charles laughs. “Erik talks a lot about you all. Plus, I have an excellent memory. Something that’s helped me on through graduate school, that’s for sure. I’d tell you all about it, but people have been put to sleep by my lectures before. Genetics isn’t for everyone.”

He winks—not a sleazy wink; a cute, charming one—and at that point, Moira’s pretty sure that anyone who meets this guy falls for him. Raven shares her opinion word-for-word. Emma wonders briefly if she’d be able to wrestle this perfect-looking man away from Erik’s side, the fact that he’s gay be damned. Alex and Sean are wondering how the hell someone as grumpy as Erik snared someone as bright and charming as Charles. Darwin is thinking, Erik is one lucky bastard, and Hank is thinking, If he starts talking science, I would go gay for this guy.

Charles is in the middle of explaining his intensive research on genetic mutations in the human population spanning three generations—and Hank is in the middle of swooning—when Erik returns, glass of water in hand and a crumpet in the other.

“Here,” he says, handing both over to Charles.

Charles’s entire face lights up. “A crumpet? Where on earth did you find this?”

“This is Tony Stark,” Erik tells him. “What can you not find at one of his parties?”

“True that,” Sean confirms, and the look Erik shoots him actually seems somewhat friendly—or at least, not openly hostile.

“I was born in London,” Charles explains to them, “but I moved here with my family when I was ten. Still, I’m more English than I should be sometimes.” He points to the crumpet and grins. “Case in point: I miss the old food. Erik has to make grocery runs occasionally.”

“That’s a lie,” Erik mutters. “I make grocery runs for your cravings every week.”

“I said, ‘occasionally.’”

“He makes grocery runs for you?” Alex asks, sounding awed. “He wouldn’t help any of us if we were on fire.”

“If we were on fire and being attacked by a serial killer,” Sean adds.

“If we were on fire and being attacked by a serial killer and falling out a tenth story window,” Alex continues.

“If we were on fire and being attacked by a serial killer and falling out a tenth story window and being shot at by ninja turtles!”

“What—Sean, that’s lame!”

“It’s a legitimate concern!”

Erik stares at them both. “I would help you,” he says, indignant. “Of course I would help.”

“He really would,” Charles says. “I told you, Erik’s one of the nicest guys I know.”

He finishes off that statement with an emphatic bite into his crumpet. The next sound that comes out of his mouth is a moan so obscene that Raven would have gotten a hard-on, if that were even remotely possible. All of them stare wide-eyed at him as he says through a mouthful of muffin, “Good Lord, Erik, this is the best crumpet I’ve ever had. Where on earth does Tony Stark get these things?”

Erik looks perfectly at ease, so maybe Charles having food orgasms is a regular occurrence. Either that, or Erik’s got the self-control of an android.

“Stark never settles for anything but the best,” he says. “Explains why the company’s in the state it is.”

“That, and Stark’s decision to take his weapons line off production,” Charles muses. “Very admirable of him, in my opinion.”

Erik harrumphs. “Closing the most profitable part of his business? Yes, very admirable.”

“But he is adding new departments,” Charles points out. “Stark Industries is going to new places, isn’t that what he said? They’ll have new avenues to explore, new things to do. This company is far from going downhill.”

“But it could be better,” Erik argues. “This entire company was built on weapons manufacturing. Changing the identity of the company is impossible to do in such a short time, which is what Stark’s trying to do.”

“You have to give him credit for it,” Charles says, sipping his water. “He’s doing what he thinks is right.”

“What’s right isn’t always what’s best.”

“At that, love, I’ll have to politely disagree,” Charles says with a cheeky grin. “As always.”

“As always,” Erik says, and subsides.

They marvel at that. Erik never backs down. Ever. For anyone. Who the hell is Charles Xavier and what kind of miracle worker is he?

“Are you sure you don’t want any champagne?” Erik asks after a moment.

“No, I’m certain,” Charles replies. “I absolutely cannot be hungover tomorrow. It’s a big day for the lab.”

Erik snorts. “Hungover? Please, Charles. You’re hardly a lightweight.”

“No, you’re right. But still.”

“Not a lightweight?” Raven interjects, eyeing Charles’s slight frame. He looks as if one beer would put him under for twelve hours at least.

Erik scoffs at her skeptical tone. “You don’t know drinking until you’ve drunk with Charles. He can drink you under the table.”

“That’s hardly true,” Charles protests.

“Right. He can drink you under the table and then still be drinking by the time you wake up.”

Charles pouts. “Going around spreading rumors about me, ruining my reputation? What kind of husband are you anyway?”

“The best kind,” Erik says, and kisses him.

It’s lovey-dovey. It’s unbearably lovey-dovey. Raven can feel her head having a mini-implosion at the incongruity—they’re just so cute together, and cute is a word that should never, ever, ever in any universe be associated with Erik Lehnsherr, cruel slave-driver extraordinaire.

And yet.

For the rest of the night, Charles regales them with stories of his college days, of his current professorship, and of him and Erik. He is unbelievably charming and nice and funny. Most of the group is probably half in love with him before the night is out, and if he and Erik ever split up, there would be at least two proposals before Charles could so much as sign divorce papers. He tells them all of Erik’s little, strange quirks, with Erik standing by with an abashed look on his face that says, “If this were anyone else but you, Charles, I would be ripping your tongue out right now for embarrassing me.”

“How did you meet?” Angel asks eagerly. Deep down under the cynical nature, she’s a romantic. “Tell us how you met.”

Erik groans. “Don’t.”

Charles grins widely. “Erik hates this story because it proves that he's a big softy inside, but I love it. It was…almost seven years ago now. I was walking down 8th Street at night. It was probably around eight—”

“It was nine-thirty,” Erik corrects.

“Right, nine-thirty. So it was pretty dark, and I’m trying to walk quickly because you know how the streets can get dangerous at night. My flat was—what, seven blocks away at the time?”

“Eight,” Erik says.

“Eight,” Charles agrees. “Eight blocks to go at night. All of a sudden, this cab pulls up next to me, and I tense up. I’m pretty sure someone’s about to hop out and I’m about to get kidnapped or mugged or something, and then this tall, gorgeous man climbs out of the cab and asks me if I’m okay.” He laughs. “Really, his first words to me were, ‘Do you need help?’ Then—can you believe it—he gave me his jacket. A complete stranger.”

“It was cold,” Erik mutters. “You were walking without a coat or a scarf, and it was probably forty degrees outside. You looked cold.”

“You thought I was a homeless person,” Charles accuses, though his smile tells them he’s only teasing.

“You were wearing tweed. You looked like you’d walked into a Goodwill, shut your eyes, and grabbed random clothes off the racks.”

Charles winces. “Not true.” At their incredulous looks—because he is probably the best-dressed man they’ve seen all night—he grins and, as if he’s read their minds, explains, “I grew up with a lot of family money. I know how to dress. I just prefer not to.”

Erik rolls his eyes. “Which is a shame.” His voice drops a little, and he meets Charles’s eyes. “You look amazing, by the way.”

Charles flushes a bit in pleasure. “Thank you. So do you.”

They share some intense eye contact, which Raven breaks with an uncomfortable cough. “Um…the story?”

Charles looks away first, clearing his throat. “Right. The story. Where was I?” He thinks for a second, sipping his water as he does. “Oh, right. So Erik asks me why I’m walking and not getting into a taxi, since it’s dangerous to walk alone at night. I tell him that I don’t have my wallet on me, which is true; I’d forgotten it back in my office at the university, and I’d already walked too far to go back to get it. So Erik tells me to get into his taxi.”

“I suggested it.”

“No, your exact words were, ‘Get in the cab. You’re not walking.’ Which was more than a little questionable, in retrospect; if you’d been a serial killer, I’d have been dead.”

“Yeah, because you got into the cab without a word.”

“Because I was cold, and it was dangerous.” Charles pauses. “Also, because you were the hottest thing on two legs I had ever seen, and I was planning to flirt with you.”

“Which he did, by the way,” Erik adds. “And for the record, he is a terrible flirt.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Charles sniffs. “It worked on you, after all.”

“I took pity on you because you were so bad. That’s the only reason I agreed to coffee the next day.”

“I still maintain that it worked,” Charles says. He holds up his left hand, wedding band gleaming. “This is proof.”

“So he drove you home?” Moira asks, a dreamy smile on her face. “How sweet.”

“Yep. Drove me straight to my flat and paid for the fare, too.” Charles grins at Erik, something soft and private in the expression. “Told you he was a gentleman underneath all that grumpiness.”

“Oh, shut up,” Erik retorts, but it’s good-natured. He smiles back, and for once, it doesn’t look as if he’s plotting murders; in fact, it actually looks fairly happy, and maybe even a little handsome. In that moment, Raven thinks she can see something of what Charles must see: a different Erik altogether than the one who terrorizes them about color-coding and stapling on the wrong corner of the papers.

Their eye contact goes on a little too long again, and when it looks like they’re on the verge of grabbing each other and making out, Emma says smoothly, “Who wants drinks?”

“Me,” they all chorus at once, realizing at the same time that they haven’t had one drink all night, which, in a Tony Stark party, is something of a miracle. Apparently, Charles Xavier is just that genuinely interesting.

“I think you’ll have to count us out,” Erik says. “Sorry.” He manages to make it sound somewhat apologetic.

“Sorry,” Charles echoes. “No alcohol for me tonight.”

Erik puts a hand on the small of his back. “I’m ready to go if you are.”

“Yes, sure.” Charles smiles at them all and gives them a little salute. “Good to meet you all. I hope we see each other again.”

They offer him a chorus of the same—yes, it was a pleasure to meet him, he should drop by the office some time, or go out with them for drinks after work. He promises to do so at some point, making sure they have his number so they can contact him later. Then he takes Erik’s hand, lacing their fingers together, and gives them one last wave goodbye before disappearing.

“Well,” Sean says after a moment. “That was unexpected.”

“If you’re referring to the whole night,” Alex tells him, “then yes. Let’s get drunk.”

It seems like the best way to deal with the residual shock of meeting Erik’s perfect, amazing, brilliant, charming, nice husband and having all of their preconceptions absolutely shattered, so they all go and do just that.

*

*

*

Later, when they’re lying sated in bed after Erik’s stripped Charles’s tuxedo off with his teeth—the most painful foreplay Charles has ever endured—Charles remarks, “Your coworkers seem nice.”

“They hate me,” Erik groans, rolling off Charles and onto his side of the bed.

“Oh please,” Charles says breezily. “No one can hate you. They just…don’t know you like I do.”

“Right.” Erik kisses the crook of Charles’s elbow. “And they never will.”

Charles laughs. “Well, when you put it that way, I hope they never will.” After a moment, he sobers up and says, “I hope you make friends there, Erik. I don’t want you to be lonely in your own office. That can’t be healthy.”

Erik is silent for a second. Then he says, a bit awkwardly, “I’ll try.”

“Try?”

“I’ll go out the next time they ask me. Happy?”

“Very.”

Erik sighs. “Forcing me to go out with people who hate my guts,” he laments. “What kind of husband are you anyway?”

Charles grins and rolls so that he’s half on top of Erik’s chest, looking down at him. He studies Erik’s expression for a moment: teasing, half-amused, those lips twitching up into a smile. He really is amazing. Hopefully Erik’s office will one day see that.

“Only the very best kind,” Charles answers, and then leans down for a kiss.