Compare, Contrast

February 2010

Summary: Reed Richards and Victor Van Damme: a study in contrasts.
Spoilers: Ultimate Fantastic Four #1-12.
Continuity: This fits in with Ultimate-verse continuity, but borrows a little of Victor's 616-verse background for added flavour.
Disclaimer: Characters, settings and concepts belong to Stan Lee, Marvel and many others; borrowed for entertainment value, not profit.

Reed's earliest memories are of warmth and cuddles, and parents who are still proud that he's such a clever boy.

Victor's earliest memories are of sleeping on dirt around campfires in the frigid Latverian winter.

Reed is five years old. He has a fourth grade math text, but it's puzzling him a bit. Why multiply and divide in such laborious stages, when you can look at the numbers and just know?

If he doesn't puzzle hard enough, he can hear his father's rising voice through the thin walls of the bedroom.

"-more damn books! The kid's costing me more in a month than he should do in ten years!"

His mother's quieter replies are inaudible, but he can easily work them out from the route that his father's responses take. Simple algebra.

Reed starts writing out a system for classifying emotions in his careful rounded letters.

Maybe if he can write out the equation of what makes his father mad, he can figure out how to solve it.

Victor is six years old. His mother hums, crouched before the fire, and the flames twist and dance. She makes dragons, spirals, mountains. He sees angles, curves, dimensions.

"But how does the magic get from you into the flames?" he asks.

"Magic is," his mother says. "You cannot seek to explain it - but you can master it. We never see the wind, but any fool can tell when it blows. True wisdom is knowing where it will blow next... and how to change it."

Her hand on his shoulder warms him more deeply than the fire. Victor stares at the flames, until they dance in the dark behind his eyelids, and he thinks he sees every shape they could possibly become.

Reed is seven years old, and he's now an older brother.

The baby is a bit of a disappointment. He'd like to study her, but his parents won't let him do anything.

"No experiments, please, Reed," his mother says wearily.

"Get your hands off her, you little monster," his father says, snatching the baby away and cuddling her close as if she's something fragile and precious Reed will smudge with dirty hands.

Maybe things will get better once she's old enough for him to start teaching her math.

Victor is eight years old, and his mother is dead. The clan whisper of demons, and watch him with suspicious, fearful eyes. They don't remember how they loved her now, how they turned to her when their children were sick, their horses lamed, their fields infertile.

It's a lesson he'll remember well.

They are small, pathetic people, and he's glad to be leaving them, fiercely, hotly glad. It's almost enough to keep him warm on the jolting ride to the border, pressed up against the scratchy warmth of Boris' rough-spun jerkin.

He'll leave this poverty behind, these wretched, ignorant people who have held him back every day of his life. His father is a stranger, but he'll surely understand. He'll see the greatness that Victor was made for, talk with him as an adult and equal and understand the visions that spring from Victor's mind instead of fearing them as uncanny and wrong.

Maybe then he won't keep missing his mother like an aching wound torn in his gut.

Reed is nine years old, and he doesn't fit in middle school any better than he did elementary school. His brain's still too big, and his body's too small.

At least Ben's here. But Ben's two grades ahead, and he plays football, and he has crowds of friends of his own.

Reed only has one friend, and dozens of enemies. They're not smart, but they don't have to be to stalk him and catch him in the moments that he's alone. They throw his books, they steal his glasses, they stamp careful pages of calculations into puddles and then grind his face there too.

He could live with it, if they didn't leave physical traces that are impossible to erase on his way home.

"For Christ's sake, kid, what's wrong with you?" his father demands again and again. "Why don't you stand up for yourself? You're embarrassing me. You're pathetic."

Sometimes he wishes it wasn't so easy for him to calculate the full weight of all his years of future education, hanging over his head like an avalanche waiting to fall.

Victor is ten years old, and he has a destiny. A destiny and a history, and he must never forget his place in either.

His father's home is a mansion, a place of glorious riches undreamed of by his childhood clan.

Its lavish rooms are colder than it ever was huddled on the mountainside in his youth.

His father stands over him, ready to strike him down every time he falters in his recitation of the succession. The pain is nothing. Victor can endure pain. But the humiliation burns and twists in his gut. Every blow is a reminder of his imperfection.

He will be perfect. He is perfect. All he needs to shed is weakness, carelessness, the desire to put human comforts and childish wants over his drive to succeed.

He recites the line of succession again, and though his tongue still falters, in his mind he is already soaring beyond this, rising up to claim the future that is his by right.

Reed is eleven years old, and he's finally free. The Baxter Building is everything he ever dreamed college would be, only earlier, and better.

Here he's not the freakish little boy showing everybody up by being smarter than they are; he's a respected mind, consulted and listened to. Here the teachers aren't embarrassed and resentful when he knows better than they do, and the other kids don't beat him up but argue with his theory or scribble down notes.

Here he doesn't have sisters bursting into the garage in the middle of experiments, or his father shouting and screaming about the noise, the electricity bills, the cost of all his books. People crowd round to watch his experiments, and ask intelligent questions when he tries to explain the results.

He misses Ben already, but he's making new friends, and nobody laughs or sticks a foot out to trip him as he crosses the cafeteria. People like him here.

This is where he was born to be, and he never ever wants to go home.

Victor is twelve years old, and he loathes America. He loathes his fellow students. It's an insult to say these children are his equals. They tinker with toys and hold them up for approval like toddlers making finger-paintings.

They don't see what this place is. The military guards, the blast doors, the perpetual surveillance... This is a prison for intellect. A sweatshop, turning the fruits of their labours into food for the military machine.

The US military has no right to a claim on his inventions. He's a Van Damme. The blood of kings runs in his veins. He should have his own army. He should be the master, not a slave kept in a poorly disguised cage.

They think they own him, but they're fools. He will use the machines that they give him, steal the all knowledge they permit him access to, take all the tokens they offer as bait for their pathetic trap. But in the end, they will be left with nothing.

They will not hold him. No one will ever hold him.

He is Victor Van Damme, and he is greater than this place could ever contain.

Reed is thirteen years old, and he hasn't seen his father since he started at the Baxter Building. He's not sure he'd be seeing him now, if Doctor Storm hadn't waved the carrot of an increase in the stipend they pay for Reed's residency. Reed's inventions are earning the think tank more money than their most optimistic projections.

Maybe now his father will see that his work is not just pointless theory, but real calculations to fix real-world problems.

"I could show you the lab," he says, scurrying to keep up with his parents. He's grown, but not as much as he thought he had, and he still can't match his father's long strides. "Um, a lot of it's classified, but some of the designs-"

"I had enough of those damn machines taking over my house for six years, why would I want to see more of them?" His father fixes him with a sour glare.

Reed stutters, but regroups. "Or you could come up to my room. Mom, I actually cleaned up and everything..."

"We have to get home," his father snaps. "That sitter costs an arm and a leg. You know, other people's kids actually do their bit to help out..."

His mother gives him an apologetic smile as they leave. "Maybe some other time, sweetheart," she says, already turning away.

Reed stands and watches them go.

Victor is fourteen years old, and his father's blows no longer knock him to the floor as they once did, but he still isn't strong enough to stand unmoved.

"You disgrace me," his father says. "Two years, and what have you achieved? Worthless trifles. Pathetic toys."

He stalks the room, cold eyes assessing, finding every flaw.

"What's this?" he roars, tearing a book from the shelves. One of the mystic texts Victor had sought out, drawn by half-formed memories of the books his mother had once kept in her lock-box.

All burned now. Gone up in flames like his mother.

His father stamps on the precious tome with disgust. "I send you to the finest school in the world, and you spend your time on peasant superstitions? You are an embarrassment to the line of your forefathers. I wash my hands of you."

He shoves Victor back, sending him sprawling into a table and shattering dozens of delicate experiments. He turns and stalks out, slamming the door behind him with rattling force.

There is no one to see, but Victor still struggles to his feet. He is a Van Damme, and he will not be bowed.

He will not.

Reed is fifteen years old, and he feels like he's bolted together out of pieces that don't fit right. His voice quavers and squeaks, and his body never does what he wants it to. He's stupidly clumsy, and everything he does looks awkward.

When he's around Sue, he feels like his skin is three sizes too small.

He has a project, and he knows she'll like the project, he sat up all night analysing everything he knew about her preferences, even down to the colours and typeface he used to print the plans in... but now he's here frozen by the door, and he can't talk to her.

He's about to turn and flee when she looks up and sees him. She smiles as brightly as if he's somebody special, and he feels dizzy.

"Hey, Reed," she says, walking over to him. "What's up?"

It's enough to break the dam, and the words rush out all at once, too fast and tumbling over each other. "I, er, I came across some interesting results in my research into trans-dimensional transfer of organic material, and I was wondering if- that is, I was hoping, er-" He's tongue-tied.

"Reed?" Sue takes his hand and smiles. "I would love to work with you."

He's speechless again, but there's nothing he could say to make this moment better anyway.

Victor is sixteen years old, and his frustration at listening to Richards is reaching boiling point. Gravity. Gravity! When is he going to figure out that he needs to take into account the damned gravity? At first Victor had derived a smug pleasure in seeing that the think tank's beloved golden boy had missed something so elementary, but as the whining drags on and on with no revelation in sight, he's really had enough. He's going to have to correct Richards' math just to get him to shut up.

Of course, the last thing he wants is that idiot following him around like a puppy - it took enough kicks to his pathetically low self-esteem to get him to leave off his inane overtures in the first place - so he lets himself into Richards' room. It's disgustingly easy: naturally, Richards doesn't have Victor's mastery of the arcane arts to ward his property, but he hasn't made even the most token attempt to use his science skills to create a lock. What kind of soft and sheltered life has he lived to be so naïve?

It's probably Victor's disbelief that there are no security measures anywhere that delays him enough for Richards to catch him altering the equations. There's a one-sided fight for the notebook - the boy has muscles like spaghetti, does he not even have the self-respect to train his body? - but Victor gets to make his point. Soon enough, Richards has to come crawling back and admit that he needs Victor's help.

He hardly needs Richards' offer of aid in return, of course, but with Richards to take over the uninspiring grunt work he can concentrate on higher things.

He supposes he can live with the arrangement.

Reed is seventeen years old, and working with Victor is the most infuriating, crazy-making, dizzying thing he's ever done. He can't understand how Victor's mind works, but impossibly, illogically, it does. He makes leaps that are completely unsupported, and yet when Reed scrambles to fill in the calculations and prove his ideas wrong, he finds he's just caught up to the place where Victor was already.

But he's so imprecise, always prizing speed and stopgap answers over the most accurate figures. Ninety-nine times in a hundred those decimal points don't matter, but Reed cares about the one and Victor doesn't.

"It's going to blow up in your face," he repeats over and over, and doesn't quite like himself for the ugly twist of disappointment in his gut when it never does.

They spark and they fight and they almost kill each other, but they're brilliant. They do more in an afternoon than Reed can achieve in a month, and Victor never stops, never lets him rest even the little that he would do on his own.

They're going to break something soon if they keep it up at this pace, and it might be Reed's brain or it might be the laws of physics.

He's willing to take the risk either way.

Victor is eighteen years old, and is still undecided whether he's going to kill Richards when this project is over, or employ him.

Richards is a pedestrian thinker, incapable of the smallest act of intuition, and he compensates for it by pedantically calculating everything. Pages and pages of equations to support a solution Victor can pluck out of the air at a glance. He shaves away tiny fractions of inefficiency simply by being too stupid to stop once he's found the solution.

And of course the imbeciles who run the think tank believe this makes his work 'better'. None of them can see the big picture, recognise that what you achieve is secondary to how you achieve it - and what you intend to do with it. They'll applaud Richards for spending a month chipping worthless fractions of a second off a system that already works, as if time won't march by, as if a clever enemy won't take advantage of that month to render all advances useless.

Richards may make someone a useful resource, scribbling away in a lab somewhere polishing ideas to flawless gems.

But Victor is born to rule.

Reed is nineteen years old, and his first job offer comes as a surprise. He's still blinking at the card in his hand when Franklin Storm comes in to see him.

"I think the man from InfraTech was very impressed with you," he says, and there's probably some sort of coded message in his tone, but Reed has never been good at deciphering that sort of thing. He shows Doctor Storm the card.

"He offered me a job with their research department."

"Really?" Doctor Storm says, and now Reed's pretty sure he must have known that all along. "And what did you say?"

"I, er, didn't say anything," he admits. "I wasn't really expecting it."

Doctor Storm stands back and studies him with his head cocked. "Are you happy here, Reed?" he asks after a moment.

In his childhood, that question would have raised a danger signal; lie now, or only make everyone else more unhappy with you. But now, he thinks of his experiments, and Sue Storm, and the room that's been his home for almost half his life, and finds he can answer it honestly.

"Oh, yes," he says.

He couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

Victor is twenty years old, and he takes the news of his father's death with little affect. Truth be told, he's not sure he feels anything.

Doctor Storm seems uncomfortable with his lack of response. He shuffles awkwardly in his seat. "Now, Victor, I appreciate this is hardly the time, but I'm afraid this raises some issues with your security status-"

"I'm an American citizen," he says, though it means less than the paper that it's printed on. This country isn't his, and he doesn't give a damn about it.

And it doesn't trust him. Does Doctor Storm really think he doesn't know that this 'personal chat' is being closely monitored by the think tank's military backers? No doubt they're itching for an excuse to declare him a threat so they can lock him up and keep him under their control.

They have no idea who they're playing with.

"Yes, yes, that's quite true, son," Doctor Storm says hurriedly. "No one is disputing that. It's just that now the agreement with your father is no longer in effect, we need you to sign a new personal contract just to make sure your position with the project isn't compromised."

"Of course," Victor says, and sees Doctor Storm's shoulders slump minutely in relief. He allows a second before he smiles sharply. "I'll have my lawyers examine it closely."

Doctor Storm's back to looking extremely uncomfortable.

Good.

Reed is twenty-one years old, and he's not sure that he's even human any more. The transporter accident has transformed them in ways that science can barely begin to classify.

He's gone over the numbers again and again. He didn't make a mistake. He couldn't have. He calculated everything to the highest degree of accuracy. He checked his results ten times over.

Victor never calculates anything. He just leaps, and expects the ground to be there under his feet when he lands.

Victor wanted to change the numbers. He was convinced his ones were better, even though he didn't have the proofs to support them. He didn't understand Reed's phase-space theory, so he invented imaginary flaws to justify his sense of superiority.

He didn't have permission to make any changes - but when has that ever stopped Victor?

Reed calculates and recalculates, and the answers never change. His numbers were right. He couldn't have made a mistake. So Victor was the one who did this. This is all Victor's fault.

They have to track him down and make him change them back.

Whatever it takes.

Victor is twenty-two years old, and he's evolving. The remnants of his old body are tearing away, slowly - but not painfully. He's beyond pain now.

Beyond the trifling concerns of humanity.

Richards' pathetic science was so flawed that even Victor's corrections couldn't make the test work as planned... but in his infallible instinct, he has created something greater. The crucible that will forge him in preparation for the destiny that is his due.

His robot spies converge on the Baxter Building, and he sees Richards on the roof with Susan Storm - unchanged, still human, holding hands; pursuing nauseating teen romance with no regard for the fact that the fate of the one who saved them both is still unknown to them.

As his spies draw closer, he can overhear their conversation, and his rage grows. Richards dares to blame the failure of the experiment on him? Destroy Victor's hard-earned reputation for perfection rather than admit to his own error?

Everything he's built is shattered, and it's all Richards' fault.

But Victor will make him pay for this insult.

Whatever it takes.

End