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Noli me tangere
Thanks to Victoria P. for the beta.

Sue was the only girl Reed dated in college that you didn't set him up with, and the only girl who lasted more than two dates.

"It's so futile," he used to tell you. "I can never tell what they're thinking, Vic. What do they want from me? And what if I get it wrong?"

You could have offered advice, but instead you just watched his mouth, the gull-swoop of his lower lip as he fretted. You knew where these conversations tended to end up-a smugly slow handjob on the narrow twin bed across from yours-but you didn't mind. Reed never did know what he had hold of, how exhilarating it could be to make his eyes widen and empty of those perpetually racing thoughts. Afterwards, it would take at least five minutes for him to get up and get back to work. (You timed it, in fact, continually aiming for longer. Another personal challenge for a man who always welcomes them.)

All that ended when Sue started coming around, of course. Victor von Doom couldn't play substitute for an ingenue girl. Though she was pretty, you never made a move on her, either. In fact, despite her unquestionably spectacular figure, you vaguely pitied her, all those long hours spent perched on the edge of Reed's bed waiting for him to finish "one last set of calculations." It was rather pathetic to be kept dangling on a string by Reed Richards.

You didn't learn to respect Sue until the day she walked out on Reed.

He was actually on the phone with you, babbling in incoherent dismay, when she walked in, one strand of hair wandering down her cheek from her otherwise tight ponytail. She was still breathing fast, her breasts rising and falling quickly beneath her thin black sweater.

"I'm going to have to call you back," you cut Reed off mid-splutter, and got to your feet. "Sue. Is something wrong?"

She shook her head like she was trying to get rid of something. "No."

You had to suppress a smile. The power of information. "Are you sure? You don't look well."

She didn't look at you. "Do you remember when we graduated? How you said I could have a job with Von Doom Industries whenever I wanted it?"

You had actually even meant it at the time, what with the champagne, her full lips curving against the glass across the table from you, and-of course-her remarkable achievements in the lab. "Of course. But, Sue"-you came around the desk and touched her hand-"what about Reed? What's happened?"

She didn't pull away, but the eyes she lifted to you were as cool and blank as they were sweet. "Please don't ask me that, Victor."

All right, you thought, interest blooming, if that's how she wants to play it. You smiled and conceded the issue, but you didn't let go of her hand, and you talked a long time before she freed it to let down her hair.

Over the next two years, Sue slid smoothly into the role you began planning for her that night. Board meetings and high-level lab strategy sessions, charity dinners and gala concerts, she was perfect by your side. Beautiful enough to be seen with a von Doom, brilliant enough to work for a von Doom, clever enough to stay single for a von Doom and yet not surrender to him too soon.

Reed stopped calling you not long after her move, but, as ever, you knew how to be magnanimous in victory. Ben Grimm caught you in the parking garage one night, drunk and vaguely threatening, but security was more than competent to deal with him.

Month after month, she stood next to you, in front of you, took your hand stepping out of sports cars and into restaurants. You were usually close enough to smell her perfume, gardenias. She knew what you were after, knew what she was doing. But you never kissed her. Never took her to bed.

It's time for that to change, you thought, as you looked at the data Reed sent you before his presentation. Two years is long enough.

But not as long as one minute, twenty-four seconds, which was how long it took you to decide after you realized what the camera feed from the entry bay was telling you. You looked back and forth between the image of Sue's twitching hand, proclaiming life where it should be impossible, and the closed shield-door that stood between you and the radiation storm that still howled around the station, and you gritted your teeth, and you chose.

As you gathered up her body gently, you felt deep in the bones that radiation was surely poisoning that it was the last time you'd ever touch her.

It was actually that sick feeling that made you go back for the others-the sense that everything was already lost which was only magnified by the brutal slice of shattered metal instrumentation into your cheek as you pulled Reed from the wreckage. You passed out right after you finished tugging Ben Grimm inside and returned to where Sue lay on the floor. When you collapsed, your hand fell just short of hers.

When you wake up, you're alone in a hospital bed. You leave it in defiance of your doctors' warnings; you have a dying empire to tend to, and all the tests have come back negative. But the sick feeling doesn't go away, no matter how many people you snarl at, how many bunches of flowers you send to the facility in Denver.

When you go to the Baxter Building, you're ready to confess to her. To work with Reed on the problem. But she stands there in her new room, beautiful and rigid and passive like a toy that someone moved without your permission, and you know. She's going back to Reed. All that time you thought she was her own woman, soon to be yours, and really she was just waiting for him to claim her again.

She's not worth your secret, the mercury you're coughing up in thick drops like blood, the lurch in your nerves any time you go too near a power source.

When you see your vulnerable flesh wearing away above the metal in your hand, you're almost glad. The next time you touch something soft, you want it to hurt.


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