Howard found the Ivy League lecture circuit rather tedious as the years went on. However, there were still some perks. The adoration was nice.
The adoration was very nice when it came from attractive, wide-eyed undergrads like the young man who was waiting for him outside after he finished his annual talk at Harvard.
“Mr. Stark? Mr. Stark, can I have a word?”
Maybe it was the artlessly coy curve of his mouth. Maybe it was the way he looked up at Howard through his lashes, half entreaty and half naked curiosity. Howard was charmed despite himself. “Certainly. You can have a dozen, if you want.”
“That’s very kind of you, sir,” said the young man, his smile widening. “I’m Charles Xavier. I think you knew my father?"
Xavier, Xavier - wait.
Charles' eyes were a familiar shade of vivid blue. "You're Doctor Xavier's kid?"
"You look a lot like him."
He didn't, except for the eyes, but those were an exact copy. That was all anyone really remembered of Brian - intense blue eyes, a sharp mind and the heavy, suffocating silence that seemed to fill the air around him. Howard tried to recall his voice and found that he couldn't.
Charles looked briefly surprised and then gratified, twin spots of red staining his pale cheeks. "That's the first time anyone's ever said that to me. Thank you. I'd like to think we're a bit alike up here too."
He tapped two fingers against his temple. Held them there, and kept staring. The bright light of his eyes seemed to spill over and for the briefest of moments Howard got the impression that whatever lay within Charles was far too powerful to be contained by his slight frame.
Charles had his father's eyes.
When his mother still lived, he could always get through to her, no matter how drunk she was, just by holding her head still and making her look him in the eye.
(In those moments she sometimes called him Brian by mistake, and that was - difficult. Because he could never work up the courage to correct her.)
Now she was gone, and the number of people who would admit to having known his father were, for various reasons, rather small. Charles was glad Howard Stark was amongst them, and not just for the sake of a warmer acquaintance than he could earn by charm alone. Howard had been everything Charles had expected and a bit more on the side, once he'd worked his way inside that bright, quick mind.
When Charles told Raven this over lunch, her eyes lit up with mischief. "You chatted up Howard Stark and I missed it?"
"Wasn't much of a chat. I was just curious. He really is brilliant, completely brilliant."
Howard Stark's mind was a maze, deep and complex enough to carelessly lose oneself in. Still, Charles was getting very good - it had been the work of a moment to understand Howard's internal filing system, and then finding what he'd been looking for became a matter of yanking the right strings.
Out of simple curiosity, he had also taken a peek at Howard's work on certain war-time government projects, and was honestly surprised that the American government had told the truth about the Super-Soldier Serum. There was truly no duplicating it, not with Abraham Erskine dead, and the body of the only successful recipient lost at sea.
(Which was just as well, really, especially if what Howard suspected about the earlier phases of testing was true.)
Raven rolled her eyes, which was about as much respect as his protestations of innocence deserved. "Uh huh. Not much of a chat, my ass. When are you meeting him?"
There was no point in denying it, not when she knew him far too well. Charles dangled the hotel room key in front of her. "Drinks, tonight."
She was silent for a long moment, unusually solemn, clearly weighing up her words. (She'd been doing that a lot more since the funeral. As if she was afraid that he'd break if she applied the wrong kind of pressure.)
"This is about your mother, isn't it?"
Charles kissed her hair, inhaling the pleasant scent of her perfume. "No, dear sister. It's about Kurt."
"Which is the same thing."
"More or less."
Kurt's debt went further even than his treatment of Charles' mother (fell down the stairs, indeed), but Raven wasn't to know that. He'd hidden the scars well.
As if she was the mind-reader, Raven suddenly threw her arms around his middle, hands tightening in the light fabric of his shirt. "Be careful."
The Howard who met him at the door seemed a completely different man to the one who'd flirted as easily as he breathed hours earlier. He'd clearly been drinking, and the smile he offered Charles once they were seated was hollow. "Well? What do you want from me?"
Charles put on his most open smile. "Who said I wanted anything?"
"Everyone wants something," Howard said, with a valiant attempt at playfulness.
Surely such an effort deserved a straight reply. Charles leaned forward, bracing his elbows on the smooth tabletop. "I have a small favour to ask of you. Well, I say a favour, it's really more a mutually beneficial kind of thing."
"Stark Industries plans to unveil a new robot prototype at its next Expo, yes? A huge step towards true Artificial Intelligence?"
Howard's dark eyes narrowed. "How did you - "
"I have my ways." Charles rested his chin on his linked fingers and kept staring back. "My point is this: I know for a fact that MarkoTech is working very hard on a proof of concept to beat yours. Additionally, I know that the company has been terribly mismanaged and would be ripe for a takeover right...about...now."
"Interesting, if true," Howard said cautiously, but he'd leaned forward as Charles' voice got softer, and Charles knew his work was done.
"Feel free to do with it what you will. I'm just the bearer of good tidings. In light of which, would you like to offer me something to drink?"
The spell he'd woven broke at just the right moment; Howard threw his head back and laughed. "Confident, aren't we."
Charles gave him the diffident look he reserved for weedling information out of reluctant professors. "I can only aspire to your self-assurance, Mr. Stark."
The sound Howard made was more like a chuckle this time, but the way he looked at Charles (conspiratorially, like he both heard and appreciated the joke) more than made up for it.
"If we're going to drink, you can call me Howard."
Howard sat on Charles' information for a week, waiting for independent confirmation. It wasn't that he didn't trust the kid. He'd just been burned once too often lately.
The SHIELD agent standing in front of his enormous desk had short dark hair and the sort of hard-edged attractiveness that seemed to be an unwritten requirement for anyone who wanted to work there. "Report on Kurt Marko, Mr. Stark."
Her voice was pleasantly low and a little scratchy.
"Xavier's background checks out. As far as we can tell, his information is good."
Howard let out a long breath, torn between relief, exhilaration and rampant curiosity. "I wonder why he's so eager for his step-father to crash and burn."
"The death of his mother two months previous, perhaps?" The agent said sarcastically.
"Am you judging me for misusing SHIELD resources, Agent - "
"Maria Edwards, sir. Six months, and you finally achieve intellectual curiosity about me."
Her eyes were coolly amused, and that bit of emotion where before there had only been a very professional blank transformed her face entirely. Howard felt his mouth curl up at the corners.
"Well, Maria, how would you like to go for drinks tomorrow night and talk about the proper use of SHIELD resources?"
"Reassignment," Maria said, in her clipped, proper tone.
Howard blinked. "Pardon?"
For some reason, that earned him a smile. "In a month, when I'm no longer working directly for you, ask me again. Nicely."
Two days after that, he got a letter. Both the envelope and the single sheet of paper inside it were made from the same thick, creamy paper.
I'm glad you recall our discussion, and I hope your business goes well.
Howard stared at the elegant, looping letters printed in jewel blue ink for a long moment before bursting into reluctant laughter.
"Branson! Branson! Get in here, we've got a takeover to finish."
Thank you. I won't forget.
Howard put Kurt Marko the man out of his mind as soon as humanly possible. It wasn't until years later that he thought to enquire after what had happened to him, and was told that Marko had committed suicide from the despair of losing his life's work.
The miserable sod had been clever but very temperamental and had left his company in such a state that it took months to sort out. Howard couldn't bring himself to feel too bad about the whole thing.
"Fancy seeing you here."
Howard stared at the neatly dressed man in the wheelchair for a long moment. It took the sight of familiar blue eyes to jog his memory, when he finally tore his eyes away from the (sleek, futuristic, very interesting) chair.
"Charles! Charles Xavier. It's been a while."
Charles' smile had dimmed with the years, acquiring an intriguing enigmatic twist. His eyes were brighter and more penetrating than ever. Excluding the chair, the intervening years had definitely been good to him.
"More than a few years. I'm surprised you remember me."
Howard grinned. Somehow, the expression came more easily than he'd thought possible. "How could I forget? You got me a company."
Charles inclined his head gracefully. "Only a little bit. My congratulations to you and your wife."
"Your son. Mrs Hamilton was just telling me what a delightful child he is."
It took Howard a long moment to remember that he'd bought Tony along. Maria had been adamant that Tony be allowed to attend part of Stark Expo this year, since he'd expressed an interest, and he'd had such a good time that they'd let him stick around for the party too.
"Ah, that. Tony! Tony, come here."
Tony had turned as if he'd been jerked on puppet strings at the sound of his father's voice, and he stared up at Howard anxiously when he'd picked his way across the ballroom, his minder nowhere to be found.
Howard found a smile for him. "This is an old friend of mine. Be polite."
"Nice to meet you, sir," Tony said, looking up at Charles with barely restrained curiosity written all across his face.
Charles' smile was suddenly so brilliant it made all the previous ones look false. "I'm not old enough to be called sir. Just Charles is fine, Tony. It's very nice to meet you."
"Can I ask a question?" Tony said, very quickly.
"What happened to your legs?"
Howard clamped his hand down on Tony's shoulder. "Tony!"
"No, it's all right. My car skidded on an icy road. Very unfortunate," Charles said. His pleasant expression never wavered.
Tony's lower lip wobbled. When Charles held out his hand, he came closer almost alarmingly quickly. "That's awful. You know what, Mr. Charles? Daddy's been trying to make flying cars for years. When I'm older, I'm gonna make it happen."
"I believe you," Charles said.
Howard had the strangest feeling that he did. Evidently, Tony's young mind came to a similar conclusion. "You do! Mr. Charles, I like you."
Charles patted Tony's shoulder, exactly where Howard had gripped him before. "The feeling is mutual. You're welcome to visit me in Westchester sometime. Would you like that? We do some interesting work there."
"Yeah, that'd be really nice," Tony said eagerly. Then he turned a petulant glare on Howard. "Daddy doesn't really take me places, though."
Charles smiled. "Well, we can't have that."