Summary: Sue figures out who it is that's always been there for her.
Notes: Written for delmcatee for Yuletide 2011.
For a long time, Sue thought of Ben Grimm as being a bit like Reed's imaginary friend.
It wasn't that she doubted he existed; it was just that, well, Reed almost never said anything about his family or his life before the Bax, and when he did it was always to tell stories that started with "My friend Ben..." It was obvious the friendship had been a lifeline for him, but that didn't mean it had been half so important to the boy on the other end. Would Ben even remember him after all these years apart?
So she was both pleasantly surprised and wildly curious when Reed revealed that his childhood friend would be coming along to join them for the Nevada tests. She'd lobbied for Ben's inclusion with her father when the military kicked up a stink about allowing random civilians on the site. It was lucky that "keeping Reed happy" was an acknowledged priority all round.
It had been Sue's biggest priority at the time. Looking back, it was hard to believe that all she'd been worried about that day was whether she would like Ben and if Reed would finally stand still long enough for her to ask him out after his project had succeeded.
It had never once crossed her mind that Reed's science might not succeed. Sure, Victor Van Damme had had been doom-saying all along, but then he'd picked that nickname up for a good reason. Victor's views on other people's incompetence had never borne much resemblance to actual reality.
Had Victor really sabotaged the test? There was no way they could know for sure this long after the fact. Once Sue would have said yes immediately, accepted it without question, but it was harder to believe in Reed's infallibility these days. Still, she wouldn't have changed the results for anything.
Which made her feel guilty, because it was all right for her, for Reed, for Johnny. But it didn't work out quite so well for Ben.
It was hard to remember if Ben had been what she expected when he arrived that day. It was hard to remember what he'd looked like at all. He didn't keep pictures around from before, and Sue couldn't really blame him. She had a vague impression of a big guy, hairy arms (why the hell was that what stuck?) but the rest was swallowed up by the image of familiar orange rock. The thing that remained clearest in her mind was the one detail that hadn't changed: his eyes. She remembered thinking even then that he wasn't much to look at, but he had pretty, pretty eyes. Eyes full of kindness.
That was how she'd recognised it was him, how she'd believed it was him, when she first saw him after the transformation. The outside had changed, but inside he was still Reed's friend Ben.
Reed's-friend-Ben. That was who he'd been to her for a long time, just like she was undoubtedly Reed's-girlfriend-Sue to him. The two of them connected only loosely by the fact that they were both in orbit around the same point.
But lately Sue had realised it was really about time that she stopped letting her world revolve around Reed Richards.
The first time that Sue really got to speak to Ben was after the initial chaos had died down and she'd finally gotten her chance to herd everybody into the bio-scanner and make a proper assessment of their condition.
In theory, anyway. Getting Johnny to sit still for any length of time had never been an easy task before he could fly and set himself on fire at will, and Reed was impossible to drag away from his obsessive brooding over what had gone so wrong with his experiment. (Except to practise making out, which was educational to a degree, but not really providing the sort of experimental data she was looking for.)
So Ben was the only one she could reliably get into the scanner for any length of time. Although working with him had frustrations of its own, since his new form wasn't exactly conducive to internal imaging. He sat patiently while she ran through the scans on the high setting, then the maximum setting, then the very definitely not safe to use on humans setting - all with barely even a hint at what impossible internal structure kept his lungs expanding and veins unobstructed under all that crushing weight of rock.
She hated admitting defeat, but she'd always had a better sense of when to let things go than Reed or Victor. "I'm going to need to recalibrate the bio-scanner," she said, biting her lip as she frowned over the readings. "This is the setting we used on Gus's fossils, but it's not getting a clear image through your skin." 'Hide' would be the more technical term, but unlike Reed she could recognise the line between scientific accuracy and tact.
"You're telling me I'm too dense," Ben said laconically. "Yeah. Heard that one before."
With that glum tone, it was hard to tell if he was joking or genuinely down. Sue flashed him a small smile and kept her response light as he emerged from the scanner. "Oh, I don't know," she said. "I figure you've got to be pretty something to have kept up with Reed Richards all those years."
"Yeah? If you think that, I'm guessing you smart kids never did a lot of Phys. Ed." Ben stretched, and she tried not to stare in fascination at the way his rock plates rippled just like natural muscle. "Who's a guy gotta kill to get a burger around here?" he asked.
Her inner biologist was itching to quiz him about his appetite and metabolism, but she sensed that now was not the time. She grabbed her jacket. "We can get lunch at the cafeteria on level thirty-four," she said. "At least it should be quieter now Victor's not around."
"Evil goatee dude's a noisy eater?" Ben asked as they emerged into the hallway. He spared a wary eye for the military guards flanking the door; Sue was used to them, but she knew that Ben was all too conscious of the fact that they considered him a threat.
"Noisy arguer," SUe explained, hoping to take his mind off it. "He and Reed used to get lunch together, mainly because they didn't trust each other left alone inside the lab. Reed ever tell you about the time that Victor built a disintegration ray from his desk lamp?"
They traded stories about Reed's finest hours of hopeless geekiness over their burgers and fries, and managed to pass a whole hour without a single mention of testing or super powers or failed experiments.
At the end of the meal Ben grabbed their plates to take over to the robotic dishwasher, but he was the one who nodded in acknowledgement to her. "Thanks, Suzie," he said gruffly as he turned away.
She'd never been a Suzie to anybody before.
She decided that she kind of liked it.
Sue broke up with Reed after her father's funeral. Well, actually, she broke up with Reed before her father's funeral, but Reed, being Reed, had always struggled to understand what people meant when they said they needed time to think. For him, thinking things through was instantaneous, some intricate calculation of a thousand possible futures with a path of joined dots leading to the best one.
That ability to see everything at once was what made him a genius. Maybe it even made him a genuine hero, the kind of guy you would want to take charge when the world faced a major crisis. But it didn't make him somebody that Sue could live with right now.
He'd left her, in the middle of the wave that swallowed New York. And the frustrating thing was that she couldn't really even hate him for it, because he'd been doing the right thing, he'd been trying to save the world, he'd been... looking at the big picture.
And maybe it was selfish, maybe it was childish and unbecoming of a supposed superhero - had she ever asked to be a superhero? - but she didn't want to be with somebody who could take that step back and see the world in true perspective, recognise how small and unimportant one relationship was compared to the greater scheme of things.
She'd taken a good look at what the world had turned into recently, and frankly she'd be just as happy not seeing it as it really was. Lack of perspective was what was getting her through the days.
When they'd parted after the painful conversation at the funeral, Reed had been muttering something awkward about packing up his things to move out of the Baxter Building. Sue probably ought to have been the better person and told him that he didn't have to go, but honestly it was just a relief to know that she wouldn't have to deal with him when she got home.
If it was still a home with all the people that defined it disappeared. Dad was dead, Reed was leaving; Johnny had quite literally taken off after the ceremony, destination: anywhere but here. In the morning Sue would no doubt find the energy to start worrying about him, but for tonight she was just selfishly grateful to have one more responsibility lifted. Other people's feelings were too much for her to deal with right now. She didn't even want to deal with hers.
Which was probably why she ended up sitting in the corner of a darkened bar instead of going back home to the Bax. Drinking a diet soda, because even when she was evading responsibility she was still the sensible one. Still the practical one who figured out the details of getting things done.
Somebody was going to have to take on the job of getting the Bax back up and running. New York would need the think tank more than ever with the challenges of disaster recovery ahead of them. She'd have to go through her father's files, find out how many of his old contacts were still alive, see about coordinating things with SHIELD...
There was a certain peaceful calm in sitting jotting mental notes, undisturbed despite the noisy bustle of the bar. Anyone making a beeline for the empty seat beside her was suddenly very surprised to find that not only was there no seat, there was no blonde girl sitting in the corner either. Super powers did have their advantages.
But the heavy tread that approached halfway through her second drink was too distinctive and familiar to mistake. Sue didn't bother either to look up or turn invisible as the bar stool beside her creaked and groaned under the stress of far more weight than it had been designed to take.
For a moment, there was a companionable silence, and then the rasp of cloth shifting against rough rock.
"So. SHIELD dude offered me a job the other week," Ben said.
"Yeah?" She sipped her soda.
"Yeah. Test pilot."
She nodded musingly. "Sounds like something you'll be good at." She glanced sideways at him.
For a guy who put the literalness into granite-faced, he managed to do 'pensive' pretty well. "I didn't accept it yet," he said.
"You should," she told him. It would be nice to think that someone out there was getting something that they wanted, and Ben probably deserved it more than any of them. He'd had the least forewarning of what he was getting into at the Nevada site, and he'd suffered the worst results out of the four of them. Yet he'd always been there for the rest of them, above and beyond.
Steady as a rock, Sue thought, and wondered if it was possible to get giddily drunk on nothing but grief and other people's alcohol fumes. Of course, the lack of anything solid in her stomach since breakfast probably didn't help.
Ben looked at her for what seemed like a long time. "Sure there's not something else around here I oughta be doing?" he asked; rough, gravelly words, but it was never the tone or the expression that mattered with Ben, only the eyes. Kind eyes.
Sue smiled at him. "You already did it," she said. She drained her soda and stood up, swinging her jacket back around her shoulders. "Walk me home?" she asked.
Half the city was still flooded and in ruins, but after everything they'd been through it seemed like a quiet, uneventful walk. Sue looked across at Ben as they rode the elevator back up to their quarters at the top of the Baxter building. "Are you staying here tonight?" she asked.
Ben pressed his rocky lips together. "Nah. I got a date with a man in a helicarrier. Gotta be daisy fresh for my interview in the morning."
"You'll blow them away," Sue told him with a smile as the elevator opened.
"Long as somebody remembers to tell them not to blow me away," he grumbled good-naturedly. He hesitated on the verge of parting from her to head back to his room. "See you around, Suze," he said, with gruff awkwardness.
It seemed like she'd been exchanging nothing but words of parting all day. Johnny had said he'd call her when he got where he was going. Reed had said they could still stay friends. Mom had said that she'd stick around for as long as Sue needed her. All empty promises, going through the motions of emotional obligations too painful to keep up. They'd disappear on her as soon as they could get away with it.
Ben was still gazing at her with those soulful blue eyes, just the same as they'd been the very first day that she'd met him. Unchanging. Steady as a rock.
"See you around, Ben," Sue said.
And knew that she would.