It started with an arm around the shoulders. A small thing, but then Valeria was in the habit of noticing those.
Spider-Man – one Peter Parker, Val’s fourth favorite uncle – yawned, obnoxiously loud, and slid his arm across the back of the couch, around the Human Torch’s – one Johnny Storm, Val’s first favorite uncle – shoulders.
Johnny looked at him, amused, for one split-second before he melted into the embrace, slumping against Peter’s side.
Valeria narrowed her eyes.
It was her fault, that was the thing. She’d spoken the conclusion before she’d had time to really realize the gravity of it, to map the reactions it would net, to see the consequences. She was in the habit of that, too.
“Someone’s going to have to stay behind,” she’d said, standing at the threshold of the Negative Zone.
She hadn’t realized it would be her Uncle Johnny. She should have. The math was simple: neither Uncle Ben nor Uncle Johnny would ever allow it to be one of the children. Neither Uncle Ben or Uncle Johnny would ever let the other stay behind.
But Uncle Ben had only spent six days in his human form. He was unused to being overpowered. Uncle Johnny had taken him by surprise.
Johnny had known all that.
Johnny had known that when Valeria had promised they’d be back it had been a child’s desperate lie.
Johnny had known he was going to die.
Valeria had doomed her uncle with just seven words, and the worst thing about it was that there could have been no better outcome.
The lights were dimmed. The table was covered. Bentley was wearing a very tall hat.
“You come to me on this, the hour of my snack time,” he said, crunching an apple. “To ask me a favor.”
“I’ve heard things from the moloids,” Val said, “about a job you pulled on Aunt Jen and Uncle Wyatt.”
Bentley nodded gravely, putting his apple down so he could steeple his fingers together gravely. “The Great Date Caper.”
“I need you to do that again,” Valeria said, “but successfully this time.”
“There were mitigating circumstances! I was several months younger then than I am now!”
“I need you to break up Uncle Johnny and Spider-Man,” Valeria said, cutting to the chase and putting all the cards on the metaphorical table. The physical table she stabbed with one finger, because Uncle Doom had done it once in front of her and it had made him look very impressive.
Uncle Johnny wasn’t very good at relationships. That wasn’t a criticism, just a fact. Darla Deering had moved on while they were away, and Val personally remembered Daken, who had thrown her dad off the building, and Psionics, who had kidnapped Uncle Johnny to try and use him as a Galactus battery. Franklin had a lot of stories, especially because he remembered when Uncle Johnny had been married to an alien imposter.
Valeria liked Spider-Man, but the odds that it was going to work out just didn’t seem very good. It was better to end it now, before Uncle Johnny got too emotionally attached. He was in the habit of that.
Uncle Johnny had been hurt enough; Valeria couldn't see it happen again.
“Break up your uncle and Spider-Man?” Bentley said, stroking his chin. “Yes, my young padawan, I think this is indeed a job for … the love master.”
“Take that stupid hat off,” said Valeria.
“Your niece is looking at us weird,” Peter said, settling down on the couch. He was in regular clothes for once, no spandex to be seen, and he shoved his cold toes under Johnny’s thigh.
“You’re imagining things,” Johnny said.
Peter took his chin in his hand and turned his face towards where Valeria and Bentley were standing in the hall, looking suspiciously like the twins from The Shining.
“Oh,” Johnny said, batting his hand away. “Huh. Yeah, that’s a little weird.”
“Told you,” Peter said.
“Ignore them,” Johnny told him. “It’s probably some baby evil genius thing. I bet it doesn’t even have anything to do with us.”
“Ohh, Torch,” Peter said, rolling his eyes. “If our lives were a horror movie, you’d be the murdered cheerleader.”
Breaking up Uncle Johnny and Spider-Man had been easy, but Valeria had maybe felt a tiny twinge of guilt when she and Bentley launched their plan. It was brief, but it had been there.
“Val, honey?” her mother asked her later, when she and Bentley were enjoying a celebratory snack. “Do you know why your Uncle Johnny is on the living room couch with all the lights off and sad music playing?”
“He and Spider-Man broke up,” Bentley said, crunching a carrot stick.
“What?!” Sue said, hand flying to her chest. “That’s not possible.”
Val made frantic cutting gestures at Bentley, but his mouth was bigger than the force of her glare.
“It is if you stage it,” he said, with a huge grin.
Sue narrowed her eyes at him, and she changed directions and looked at Valeria instead. Valeria drew her shoulders up a little.
“I had some… concerns,” she said, in a very measured, very reasonable, very adult fashion. “About the nature of their relationship and about Spider-Man's general character.”
“The nature of their – Reed really is always in that stupid thought room at the worst times,” Sue muttered under her breath. Val bristled; she liked the Deep In Thought room and was constantly bitter about being told she’d have to wait for one until she was at least ten.
“Concerns,” Bentley repeated, crunching another carrot stick. He pushed the binder he’d appeared with the previous afternoon across the table towards Sue. "You'll find an index in the back, but I'd start on page six. He broke 40 windows one year alone. That's as many as four tens. And that's terrible."
“Where did you get all this information?” Sue asked, flipping through the binder.
“I have my sources,” Bentley said mysteriously.
Interlude: Bentley’s Sources
“More maraschino cherries, Ms. Watson? Top off your sprinkles?”
“How did you get in my club, again?” Mary Jane asked, squinting.
“Why trouble yourself over tiny details when I have a ray gun that turns anything into chocolate?” Bentley asked, smiling his most winning smile.
Mary Jane settled her elbows on top of the bar and said, “Alright, kid, you got yourself a deal. I’ll talk.”
“Excellent,” hissed Bentley, tenting his fingers.
“Do you know Valeria thinks you two broke up?” Sue asked when she found Johnny and Peter lounging around in the kitchen that night, passing a tub of ice cream back and forth between the two of them. They were using one spoon. Sue didn’t want them to break up, but the honeymoon phase was going on a little long.
“Oh yeah,” Johnny laughed, waving his phone around. “Might want to do a little something about phone privileges. She hacked Pete’s.”
“I’m almost proud,” Peter mumbled around the spoon. “But mostly I need that for work.”
Sue took Johnny’s phone from his outstretched hand, scrolling – very, very carefully – through his recent texts with Peter. There was a long string of messages detailing why he and Johnny should part ways, all excellently reasoned, and in a manner not totally unlike Peter.
“How did you know this was from Val?” Sue asked, handing the phone back.
Johnny snorted. “No chatspeak.”
“I text and swing!” Peter said. “I text and swing, I can’t look at the screen that long! I told you this already! Anyway, I think Bentley’s involved because I found a hobby horse head in my bed.”
“You’re telling me you knew it was Valeria because she spelled everything out correctly?” Sue said, ignoring Peter’s last comment.
“Do you know how long it takes me to read half your messages? This isn’t 2002,” Johnny shot at Peter before turning back to Sue. “Don’t be too hard on her, sis. It’s kind of cute she doesn’t like her favorite uncle dating.”
“Thought the favorite uncle was Doctor Doom,” Peter muttered, only to yelp. “Stop melting the ice cream!”
“Her favorite uncle,” Johnny repeated, glowering.
“Yeah, yeah. You’re the favorite uncle, that Grammy was stolen from you, et cetera, et cetera. Here, fix it.”
“Sue, don’t say anything to her right now, please? She’ll just escalate and the last thing I need is Pete stranded out on one of Saturn’s moons. We’re pretending to be broken up until she gets over this whole thing,” Johnny said, twisting his fingers in the air above the carton. Peter settled his elbows on the table, watching with interest as Johnny pulled the heat from the ice cream.
“It’s genius, right?” he said.
Sue rolled her eyes. “You won’t last a week.”
She regretted it as soon as she said it; Johnny and Peter’s gazes snapped towards each other, big grins on both their faces.
“First one to screw it up has to do whatever the winner wants,” Peter said.
“In the bedroom?” Johnny said, eyebrows waggling.
“Don’t talk about that in front of your sister!” Peter hissed.
“Try not to hurt yourselves,” Sue said as she left the room – but she faded out of sight, first, so they wouldn’t really be sure.
“You know, all this sneaking around,” Johnny said, forcing the window open. Peter, clad in the black costume to better blend against the night, swung himself through the window. “It’s kind of hot.”
“Oh, yeah, real sexy for you, sitting around in your tower waiting for me to do the work,” Peter said, pulling Johnny towards him. Johnny fingered the line between suit and mask, teasing a little. “Did Reed treat the windows with something? It’s like a slip ‘n’ slide out there.”
“Oh, so that’s what Val was brewing in the bathtub earlier,” Johnny said. “I was kind of worried she was going into a different biz. Hey, you want to pretend to be a hot cat burglar or something?”
“Your niece tries to kill me and you ask me if I want to roleplay?” Peter said, but his incredulous tone didn’t match the gloves hands rucking Johnny’s shirt up and skimming along his ribs.
“Well, do you?”
Peter seemed to consider it for a moment. “Yeah, sure.”
And it was fun, for the most part. Johnny thought clandestine meetings were romantic, and Peter had always gotten a kick out of a challenge. He did miss the little things, though – Peter laughing at some joke at dinner, letting Johnny drape himself all over him in the middle of the living room after a long fight, lounging around in Peter’s hotter than average body heat like a cat in the sun.
It was also possible that Johnny had underestimated Val’s attention span.
“Uncle Johnny!” she called, knocking on his door. “Why is your door locked?”
“She’ll get bored!” Peter hissed in a mocking whisper. He’d been sleeping off a long night out swinging on the town on Johnny’s significantly nicer mattress and he was bleary-eyed and scowling. Johnny tried to kiss him and shove him towards the closet all at once. “How long can she possibly hold out for? I wonder who said that!”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” Johnny whispered back. “I’ll fix it, just not right this second, I don’t want her to think I’m a liar –”
“You are a liar, you are still seeing me --”
“Just nap in the closet!” Johnny said, shoving him in and shutting the door. He sagged against it for a second – he could practically feel Peter glaring at him through the door – and then he unlocked his bedroom door.
Val looked ticked off. Johnny hadn’t known a face that tiny could even look like that.
“Hey, princess,” he said, surreptitiously smoothing his hair back.
“Why was your door locked in the middle of the afternoon?” she asked again.
“You can ask your dad about that one,” he said.
“Is there someone in your room?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“Why would you think that?” Johnny asked, stepping back so she could see his empty bedroom. She marched in, always the tiniest tyrant – and then she went right to his closet and yanked open the door.
Val stared at Peter. Peter stared at Val.
“I came for my things,” he said, completely straight-faced, and grabbed a whole armful of Johnny’s wardrobe off the hangers. He pointed one menacing finger Johnny’s way. “And stay out of my life, you clothes thief.”
Then he marched out the door with his head held high.
Valeria looked like she hadn’t quite expected that.
“Never date,” Johnny told her. "Never."
Peter called an hour later.
“I hate you, I want you to know that,” he said. “This charade has got to end.”
“I know,” Johnny said, collapsing backwards on his bed. He stared at his open closet. “For the record, that was a ten thousand dollar leather jacket you stole.”
“WHAT?” Peter said, voice reaching a pitch never before heard in nature. “Why do you own a –”
There was a loud sigh from across the line. “I’ll swing it by later.”
Johnny was hanging around in Reed’s lab, tinkering a little with a new invention that needed a fine touch, when Peter called him the next week. He'd been off the grid for a few days, but Johnny wasn't really worried. Sometimes Peter got himself into situations that took him out of the city unexpectedly, and he was terrible about calling when he was chasing a bad guy.
“Her Majesty’s still out for blood,” Johnny said without leeway, “but if you pick up pizza from that place I like - keyword: I - maybe we can manage a rendezvous.”
Peter made a noise that was like a laugh, but wet and awful. Johnny’s blood froze in his veins.
“Yeah, that’d be nice,” he croaked.
“Pete,” Johnny said. “Where are you?”
“No time for that,” Peter said, and Johnny could practically see him, always so proud even when he was beaten into the ground, strong shoulders and long fingers and that horrible, horrible responsibility that filled every inch of him. “I just wanted to –”
“Pete, don’t say it, just tell me where you are!” Johnny said, slamming his fist against a nearby counter. Reed looked up at last, alarm on his face.
“Still got your obscenely expensive jacket,” Peter said instead. “Just realized that. Still need to give it back to you.”
“Why are you like this?” Johnny demanded, pressing the heel of his palm against his prickling eyes. “Peter –”
“Because it’s my thing,” Peter said. “Okay, Sparky. I'm gonna -- I’ll see you later.”
Then he hung up. Johnny wanted to scream. He wanted to flame on and burn everything down. He wanted to throw his arms around Peter and never let go.
A long hand landed gently on Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny breathed out, long and deep.
“Was that--?” Reed asked.
“Who else?” Johnny asked, swiping at his eyes. “Never just tells me where he is. Never lets me help.”
“He’s stubborn,” Reed said, drawing Johnny into a hug. “So are you.”
Johnny nodded, shutting his eyes.
“Okay,” he said, pulling away from Reed. “I’m going to go see if I can find him. I hate this.”
“I know,” Reed said, gently. “It gets easier.”
Johnny snorted. “Sure. Maybe if you don’t have your daughter trying to break you up.”
“I’ll talk to Val,” Reed said, chagrined. “Again. Call if you need us, Johnny.”
Neither of them noticed Franklin in the doorway.
“You broke up Spider-Man and Uncle Johnny!” Franklin wailed, standing in the doorway of Valeria’s room and looking very near tears. Val pushed the welding mask up on top of her head, hoping that Franklin wasn’t upset enough to tattle – Mom really didn’t like her welding unsupervised, even though Grandpa approved.
Dad got shifty whenever they tried to bring him into the argument. Valeria suspected he’d been welding unsupervised at her age.
“Whoa there, look at the time,” Bentley said, glancing at an imaginary watch as he turned off his own blowtorch. “Is that the fish kids calling me?”
He skedaddled. Valeria watched him go in silent judgment; everyone always got uneasy when Franklin got emotional, which was ridiculous. Franklin was just Franklin, and it was stupid to be nervous around him just because he could create baby universes and bend reality.
“Why would you do that, Val?” Franklin said.
“I did it for their own good,” Val said, frowning. She shook her – extinguished, Uncle Johnny always made sure she was good about fire safety – blowtorch his way. “You’re the one who told me all about Uncle Johnny’s marriage.”
“Spider-Man’s not a skrull!” Franklin said, sounding outraged. “And now he’s never going to come around here anymore!”
Valeria rolled her eyes. “You’re so dramatic! Of course Peter’s going to come around, he’s a member of the team.”
“He was Uncle Johnny’s replacement, and Uncle Johnny came back,” Franklin pointed out.
“He teaches for the Future Foundation!” Val continued.
“Because he was on the team!” Franklin said.
“He’s family,” Val finished, throwing her hands up in the air.
“Except he and Uncle Johnny broke up!” Franklin said. “And now it’s going to be awkward and they’re going to hate each other and Uncle Johnny’s sad and Spider-Man’s not going to come around anymore. He won't even tell Uncle Johnny where he is right now.”
“No,” she said. “No, that’s not possible.”
“It is,” Franklin said sourly. “Spider-Man didn’t always used to hang around, you know.”
Val didn’t; Uncle Peter had been in her life for the entirety of it. She couldn’t imagine him not randomly swinging by, or joining her parents and uncles on a mission, or catching her alphabetizing the canned goods drawer and lifting her up so she could get the very top shelf.
She ran the calculations again in her head, and she added in the warmth of Peter’s eyes, and the way he’d acted around Uncle Johnny that day Uncle Johnny had returned from the Negative Zone, the hand Peter had rested on his back, the way Uncle Johnny – worn, tired, brittle at the edges, too thin and too pale and the result of Valeria's decision – had turned to smile at him.
“I’ll fix it,” she said.
“Don’t let Bentley help,” Franklin told her, sniffing.
“Val,” Peter said, standing exhausted on the Baxter Building rooftop. The web bandage across his ribs was holding, but not for much longer, and besides he would have really liked to replace it with the real deal and maybe a little tender love and care. Val’s steely-eyed stare was crushing his hopes and dreams just a little bit. “Valeria. Valeria Meghan Richards. I know you think I am after your beloved uncle’s dubious honor and you know what? You’re right. You’re totally right! You’ve outsmarted me a hundred percent, but I have a very long day, and your dad has a fun little thing called actual medical equipment –”
Val stuck out one tiny hand.
“Truce,” she said.
“Uh,” said Peter. “What?”
“Truce,” Valeria insisted, thrusting her hand more insistently in his direction.
He stared down at it and, not seeing a buzzer, tentatively took her small hand in his.
"Truce," he repeated, dubious.
She shook on it.
“I was wrong,” she said. “You should get back together with Uncle Johnny. He misses you.”
“Well, that’s…” Peter said, struggling with what it was, exactly. “I miss him too.”
“I know,” she said, letting go of his hand. “I miss you.”
“Aw, Val,” Peter said, dropping to his knees so he could wrap her up in a loose hug. “You tiny, tiny supervillain.”
“Flattery gets you nowhere, Uncle Peter,” she said, putting her own arms around his neck.
“The lady doth protest too much. Hey, doth the lady maybe want to call her parents?” Peter said. “Because I think I am about to pass out.”
When he woke up it was to the sound of Johnny’s voice, humming along to a song Peter had heard on the radio and Johnny’s thumb running over his knuckles. Johnny was grinning down at him, radiant in the infirmary light.
“Did anyone ever tell you you’re the most infuriating man on the planet?” Johnny asked. “Morning, by the way.”
“Urgh,” Peter said. “Is it?”
“Nah, it’s like, four in the afternoon,” Johnny said. “You were barely out. Reed fixed your ribs.”
“Yay Reed,” Peter said woozily, sinking back against soft pillows. He flipped his hand over for Johnny to take properly. “Hey, your niece gave me permission to court you or whatever she thinks is happening.”
“I heard,” Johnny said. “See, what did I tell you? She came around.”
“Yeaaaaah,” Peter said, smiling in spite of himself when Johnny brought their joined hands up to his mouth to kiss Peter’s knuckles. “Next time, I get to choose the plan.”