Disclaimer: I don't own Fantastic Four.


Ben had wondered if this day would come.

Now that it had, he could only stand with his feet firmly on the ground, staring into the oblivion of gray cement that seemed to swim beneath him. He hadn't really meant it. Yes, he'd wanted to do it for some time now. And yes, he'd imagined time and time again how satisfying it would be to prove, once and for all, that he was still superior.

He looked down at his dry, cracking hands. Now that it was over, now that the deed was done, his hands weren't the same. They weren't physically different, of course; he'd used these same enormous fingers to hold up a collapsing building just this morning. He'd used them yesterday to caress Alicia's face. But now. . . he saw himself for the monster he truly was. For the monster he had truly become.

"Oh, my God," he said under his breath, the actuality of his mistake rising in his chest, crushing his hardened, stony lungs. Scattered, broken thoughts streamed through his head. He should call for help. He should call Reed and let him know what happened.

"So, I've been thinking, Pebbles."

"Oh yeah?" Ben was in an awful mood today. Alicia had left for an arts convention in California and he already missed her. He was by no means able to tolerate the kid's antics today.

He buried his head in his hands—the sin-ridden hands—and thought that maybe, for the first time since he'd turned into this mutant, he might be crying actual tears. Because he wasn't a monster. True, he did get riled up on occasion, but he would never hurt somebody purposefully. Especially not. . .

Johnny. Lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood, pale and unconscious, his eyes closed in a grimace of pain. Their kid.

Since the time Johnny had first taunted Ben about his powers, he'd known that he could easily overpower the kid. It was a constant nuisance, an everyday test of his self-control, trying not to put the kid in his place whenever he got cocky. But Ben would never do that to him. Not to the kid. He knew the kid well enough to know that he never really meant his sarcastic, biting remarks; even before the storm had changed their lives, Ben had had a soft spot for him.

The ache in his chest near doubled, remembering the early days—the simple days. Back at NASA, when Ben had been Johnny's commanding officer, he'd given the kid absolute hell. But Johnny had thrived. His potential as a pilot grew to near impossible limits for a boy of his age; he'd been hardly seventeen, a high school dropout. Incredibly smart, but unmotivated. Ben had whooped his ass into shape.

As much as Johnny complained, though, Ben knew he was grateful. Because whenever matters were serious, Johnny was the first at his defense. The kid stuck up for him in public, watched his back during emergency calls, asked if he was okay whenever he seemed distressed. Johnny liked it when everyone assumed he was heartless, but Ben knew the truth.

Which was why that made this so much more unbearable.

"You know how Reed said all of your organs were made of stone?" the kid asked lightly as they made their way back from the club.

Ben grit his teeth. He wouldn't yell at the kid—he'd had a tough few weeks after coming down hard on himself when he didn't manage to rescue a last survivor in a fire. Before now, he hadn't been himself, really; no wisecracks, no mockery, no partying or cockiness. He was losing weight, spending hours in his room, so deep in thought that he couldn't hear anyone knocking on his door. The team was worried about him.

So he forced himself to answer. "Yes," he said as calmly as possible.

The kid grinned slyly. "So, wouldn't that mean your brain was made out of stone, too?" It was the first time he'd smiled in a month. "I mean, I've personally always thought you were a rockhead, but—"

And then he'd done it. Ben—calm, reasonable, caring Ben Grimm—had backhanded the kid into an alley wall.

The kid had crumpled instantly. Ben wondered if there had even been a moment for him to perceive what had happened to him as he fell. Johnny's body had seemed as light as a feather, as if Ben had hit sheets hanging off a clothesline instead of a full grown twenty-year-old man.

Now, a full minute after the incident, he was still gaping at his bleeding friend. The kid he'd taken under his wing. The one he'd tried to straighten out, the one he'd tried to protect from the Von Dooms of the world. Susie's little brother. A member of their family.


His normally deep, rasped voice seemed all at once jagged and torn. He shuddered, taking a deep breath. The streetlamp illuminated the blood seeping from Johnny's head and Ben had to look away for a moment, disgusted with himself. Of all the people he could possibly hurt, it was Johnny that he would least expect to be his victim. The kid who'd been an orphan since the age of nine, who had felt lost and purposeless before Ben put him into motion—Ben had tried to be there for him in the way his father never could be. Obviously, by the looks of things, he wasn't doing nearly enough to complete that task.

It was plain to see Johnny was a mess, and not just because of what Ben had done to him. There were deep circles under his eyes. His skin was pale, his frame weaker and smaller, his eyes less vibrant and mischievous. Ben saw the bloody marks on the kid's open palms where he must have subconsciously embedded his nails in a fist. Why had no one made an effort to help him?

It was too late to help him now. Johnny would never trust him again.

Ben leaned down, the earth beneath him groaning slightly at his weight. He carefully touched Johnny's shoulder. "Kid?"

Johnny didn't move a muscle. He didn't even wince—he was out cold.

Even through his thick, massive fingers he could make out a pulse. A weak one, but a sure one nonetheless. He'd have to hurry and get Johnny back to Reed if the kid would have a chance. He cast his eyes down to the ground in shame. How would he ever explain this to them? I got PO'd, so I smacked him unconscious. By the way, this is the same Ben Grimm who is supposed to be a model citizen for children everywhere.

Cautiously he lifted his friend off of the ground—the Baxter Building was only a block away. He could carry him there on the abandoned night streets without any disturbances. Anxiously, Ben began to hurry towards the apartment, trying to forget himself and his guilt long enough to make the kid safe again.

Johnny looked so young with his eyes shut, Ben realized. But then again, he was young. It wasn't fair that he and Sue and Reed were always down his throat about everything—it wasn't like it wasn't normal for a kid to party. He'd been nineteen when he'd turned into the Human Torch—hardly an adult. In fact, it was laughable that they put so much responsibility on him. But the powers made them regard him as an adult, as hard as it was on him; fortunately, though, over the past few months, he truly had grown. Much to Sue's utter confusion, he was becoming more and more like Reed every day.

Well, except for tonight. When he was actually being himself, and Ben had clobbered the living daylights out of him.

He realized he was standing outside the apartment door. Nobody had given him weird stares on the way up to the top floor. For once, the place was empty...but somehow this didn't comfort Ben. He wished someone would yell at him, beat the crap out of him, shake him and make him see, really see, what he'd just done to one of his best friends. But nobody could do that now, and nobody ever would. People were too scared of the Thing to oppose him, and he was too bulky to be shaken or beaten by anyone.

The doorknob twisted and Ben forgot his strength, accidentally crumpling the metal in his fingers. "Damn it," he grumbled, using his shoulder to ease the door open instead.

Sue was awake instantly. "Ben?" she asked groggily, seeing his frame in the doorway. "How was the. . . ?"

Party. Ben had forgotten that earlier in the night they'd been at a party—not that either one of them had been in the mood.

A violent gasp escaped Sue's mouth and she pitched forward towards Ben, seeming to reach them in one single, terrified stride. "Johnny," she whispered, touching his face, wiping some blood off of his forehead.

The panic in the room was stifling. Sue was beyond words, staring stupidly at the two of them as if she couldn't possibly comprehend what was happening. "But...but..." Her eyes filled with tears. "Who did this?" she demanded, her voice louder now.

The noise alerted Reed, who stumbled out of a room, rubbing the sleep off of his eyes. "Hey—" he stopped in his tracks, seeing Sue's expression. "What happened?"

"Johnny," Sue said weakly, motioning to her limp brother in Ben's arms.

Reed's eyes widened. "Oh my God," he stammered, pulling Ben into the lab. Numbly, Ben set Johnny limp body on the metal table, stepping aside to let Reed work.

Reed gave the kid a quick once-over, cringing at what he saw. "What the hell hit him?" he asked, seeing the gaping, bleeding mass on his head, the bruises and cuts on his right side where he'd collided with the wall. Ben swallowed hard, wishing he could just spit it out without feeling so awful. Finally he just came out and admitted it:

"I hit him."

It was barely a whisper. Neither Reed nor Sue heard him; or if they had, they chose to ignore him.

"I hit the kid," Ben repeated himself, louder this time.

Sue heard him this time. "What?" she asked, incredulous. Her eyes, shining with tears anxious tears, widened in disbelief.

Reed was attaching machines to Johnny, paying everyone else no mind. "He's cold. His temperature's dropping," he said frantically. "Sue, get me something to stop the bleeding!"

She snapped out of her stupor. "Get out of here, Ben," she said viciously.

Ben bit his lip, flinching at the sharp noise of rock on rock. "I. . .but. . ."

"I said get out!" she shrieked hysterically. "Look what you did to my brother! You're. . . you're. . ." She let out a strangled sob. "You're a monster."

The infamous Thing could only stand there and stare stupidly at his feet. He knew that no one could ever slap him and make him physically hurt, but Susie had come as close to it as anyone ever would.

"Sue!" Reed yelled again, completely unaware of what was happening, "I need your help, okay?"

She rounded on him then, leaving him in the midst of his own misery. A machine hooked up to Johnny started beeping loudly. Reed swore colorfully, yelling at Sue to hurry up. Ben looked up and saw Johnny, small and pale, with an oxygen mask now attached to his face.

He couldn't take it. If Johnny was going to die on them, he wouldn't stand there to watch.

No. Instead he did everyone a favor—exactly what Sue wanted. Turning his back on the beeping machine, his frantic best friends, his wounded apprentice, and everything the Fantastic Four stood for, he left.

And that was my first (and probably last) Fantastic Four fanfiction. I really just had to get that off my chest because Johnny angst was dying to be written. DYING to be written! It was like...something COMPELLED me to torture him. What is it about him that makes him so torturable? Probably the whole cocky I'm-king-of-the-world-while-still-being-boyishly-innocent thing. Eh. Anyway. Review?

running in circles