Double Promise by Azurine

Reed/Ben friendship. Ultimateverse.

"After a few weeks, Reed lets himself start to think that Ben really does like him."

To Master Flea for the quickie beta.

I wrote this after reading Ultimate Fantastic Four #1. I'm not sure what the age difference is between Ben and Reed, so I improvised. I improvised on a lot of things, actually, since I only had 32 pages of canon material to work with. *g*

Date Completed January 8th, 2004

He's six years old the first time someone calls him a freak.

It's the summer between first and second grade, and he's spent most of it working his way through a college geometry book he found in the basement. It's a Saturday, one of the many long, long weekends of his childhood.

He hates weekends, because that means his father is home all day. It means he can't sit at his desk and play with formulas and equations, because his dad wants to do father/son things, like play catch.

The day is hot, blindingly sunny. His baseball glove is stiff, not broken in, because he never uses it, and when the sunshine hits his glasses just right he's blind as a bat.

He tries, he really does, but his heart isn't in it, and he hates that his dad makes him do this. Resents him for insisting that this is fun, and for getting angry when Reed can't pretend he's enjoying it.

His arm is uncooperative, and the ball seems to jump out of the glove every chance it gets. He can tell his father is displeased, and the more displeased his father gets the more uncoordinated Reed gets, and it inevitably ends in tears.

Later, he hears his father complaining to his mother about him. "He's turning into a little freak," he says. "All he wants to do is sit in his room with his books." His dad sighs, and Reed can picture him rubbing the bridge of his nose like he always does when he sighs like that. "I just don't understand him."

Standing around the corner in the dining room, Reed wonders why that matters. He doesn't understand his father, but he still loves him. He doesn't know why his father can't do the same.

He's eight years old when he meets Ben Grimm.

Ben is twelve, big for his age, and already has that confident air that popular kids seem to come by naturally. He never looks awkward, or gets tongue-tied, and baseballs probably stay in his glove like they've been glued there.

Reed takes one look at him, standing there in the living room with his backpack full of math homework, and wants to run the other way. He goes to school with boys like Ben; he knows what they're like. They tease him, and push him, or pretend to be his friend and then make fun of him behind his back.

His mother says they're jealous because he's smarter than they are and school is so easy for him, but she doesn't know. She doesn't see their eyes when they come after him. They hate him, because he is weak. They are afraid of being weak, and he makes them uncomfortable. They deal with it by pummeling him into submission, proving to themselves and everyone else that they aren't like him.

He recognizes that look, the look they get when they call him names and push him down.

He's been seeing it on his father's face for years.

Reed has never tutored anyone before, and he doesn't want to start with Ben. This is going to be a nightmare, he thinks. Ben will resent the fact that Reed knows more than he does, and he will take it out on him. He will make his life hell, every chance he gets.

But Ben is different. He isn't mean to him, doesn't lie to him or hit him, or trip him when he walks by. Ben isn't embarrassed that he doesn't know things, or that he's being tutored by someone far younger than he is. Reed thinks Ben probably isn't embarrassed by anything.

And Ben's interested in him, in his books and the things he builds. Reed's never had anyone ask him about his projects, except his mom, and she does it in the distracted way of a mother trying to keep track of three kids, doing a cursory check to make sure he isn't playing with matches.

After a few weeks, Reed lets himself start to think that Ben really does like him.

The first time Ben steps in and stops the other boys from tormenting him, Reed knows that Ben is his best friend. He doesn't care if he's Ben's. Ben is his best friend.

He's the only 10-year-old in the eighth grade, and it's a solitary existence. All the kids are older than he is, and the few friends he did have got left behind when he skipped a bunch of grades. It doesn't bother him too much, though. He spends most of his time reading books he brings from home, and he likes having a whole table to himself at lunch, so he can spread out his notebooks and papers.

He never takes anything too important to school, though, in the notebooks. He learned that the hard way. These kids are older and meaner, and some of them carry lighters.

Ben is fifteen, still big for his age, still confident. Star linebacker on the varsity football team, which is unheard of for a freshman player. Reed goes to the games with his father, and they both cheer for Ben.

It's no secret that Ben is the son Gary Richards wishes he had. When Ben comes over to their house, he talks to Ben, and puts his arm around him, and asks him what he thinks their chances are in the next game. Reed goes up to his room. He's not included, and wouldn't know what to say if he was.

Even when he's grounded--which is often, and his father never seems to notice that it doesn't make a difference because he never goes anywhere anyway--his parents let Ben come over and hang out. Maybe his dad thinks it's the next best thing. He can at least tell the other fathers his boy is friends with Ben Grimm, and thus is not a total loss.

Reed's feelings about Ben lean toward hero worship and adoration, but there's also a little bit of envy. Everyone likes Ben. No one calls him a freak, or hangs him from the jungle gym by his backpack. There isn't much in life that doesn't come easy for Ben, except higher math.

Sometimes, when he sees his dad standing there with his arm around Ben's shoulders, beaming with pride over the latest football victory, he wishes he could be Ben. His father likes Ben, is proud of him. His father understands Ben. He doesn't understand Reed.

But Ben understands Reed, and sometimes Reed thinks he'd rather have that anyway.

He's eleven years old, just a few weeks away from the science fair that will change his life, when he makes a discovery that's nearly as amazing as the one that will get him out of middle school for good.

Ben's walking him home from school after saving his bacon yet again. It doesn't happen as often now, because the boys know that Ben looks out for him. And Ben waits for him outside the school, and if he doesn't show up right away, he comes looking for him. There's still the occasional toilet dunking or locker stuffing, but it's bearable.

What Reed really dreads is going home. When his parents see what's happened, his dad will make jokes about it and clap Ben on the back, but he'll be angry. He'll be angry that his son can't stick up for himself, and later, after Ben is gone, he'll find an excuse to yell at Reed.

The last time, he hauled him up by his shirt and screamed into his face. Why didn't he stick up for himself? Why did he let those other kids push him around? Didn't he care that people thought he was a weakling?

He's beginning to dread the aftermath more than the actual bullying.

His feet get slower and slower as they get closer to home, and he hesitates at the edge of the lawn.

Ben stands there next to him, squinting at the house a little. "You gonna be okay?"

"I'm fine." Not even a bloody nose this time.

"With your old man, I mean."

Reed shrugs, says, "Yeah, I guess." Even if that isn't the case, there isn't much either of them can do about it. Strange of Ben to ask, though. They don't usually talk about his father.

"You just need to hang in there," Ben says. "It won't always be like this. Someday, the bullies won't be able to get to you."

"I know."

Ben looks down at Reed, and then back at the house. "No matter who they are."

Reed looks up at him. Ben keeps squinting at the house, like he didn't just drop a bomb.

Ben knows. He's probably known for a long time. Reed wonders why he never thought about it like this, never thought that maybe things aren't what they appear to be.

Maybe Ben doesn't really like Gary Richards all that much. This is something that's never occurred to Reed, because Ben always seems happy to spend time at the Richards house, male-bonding with Reed's dad. Maybe he's nice to Reed's father because that's what good boys like him do.

Or maybe it's another way to take some of the heat off Reed, make his life a little easier.

Maybe Ben's one of the smartest guys Reed knows, in ways that have nothing to do with textbooks.

"I know," Reed says. Then, "You gonna stay for dinner?"

He doesn't want to talk about it more than they already have. Right now they can both pretend they weren't talking about what they were talking about, and he wants it to stay that way. Saying more would feel too much like betraying his father, and he's not ready for that. He suspects that someday he will be, but not now. Not yet.

"Yeah. I hope it's not that tuna thing."

Reed crosses the lawn, Ben tagging along behind him like an over-sized shadow. Some of the dread bleeds away, and his feet don't try to slow down as he climbs the front steps.

Someday, he thinks, when he's a famous scientist, he'll do something nice for Ben. Maybe when he figures out how to go to another dimension--and, more importantly, how to come back--he'll take Ben with him.

It'd be nice just to have him along, because Ben is his best friend.

The End

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