Pepper made him feel better in that moment before when he got sad about there always being something, but when the day of May’s one year death anniversary came up, he felt surprisingly caught off guard. The night before, he stayed out maybe a little too long, but Tony didn’t get on his case. Thirty minutes past curfew and Karen relayed a message to hurry home. So, he did. He, not for the first time that day, ignored Tony’s questions on if he was going to go to school the next day. He swung back to the Tower, making it in forty minutes late, before he took a shower and went to sleep.
When he woke up, his entire body was aching. It was a weird ache. He wasn’t hurt or anything, but he was sad. His body was hurting in the type of way a body aches after being tense for too long. That made sense because he had a very rough night of sleep because of the tossing and the turning and the nightmares that bothered him all night. He got up in time for school, got ready, and when he came to the kitchen, Tony was sitting there. Normally, Peter would wait for the alert that Happy was there to take him to school. Tony didn’t usually drive him that often.
Side note – when Peter pestered Tony into letting him drive to school, Tony got visibly uncomfortable. He was probably scared of something happening to a new-ish driver going through the heart of New York to Queens with all the traffic and bad drivers. If it took a good driver like Happy fifty minutes to drive what should be about half an hour from the Tower to the school, Peter would have a struggle. He was thinking about this a lot at that moment because that hour drive alone could be beneficial for him, to just listen to music and be alone. It could have also been a terrible thing, but he was willing to try it.
“You don’t have to go to school today,” Tony said when he saw Peter. “You’ve only missed one or two days. This could easily be a skip day.”
“I’d rather not.”
“You need the distraction, huh?” Tony asked, and Peter nodded. Tony got off of his seat at the counter and came over to Peter. “On a scale of one to ten, how bad do you think today is going to be?”
“Eight,” Peter easily answered. He took a few more steps forward and just put his forehead on Tony’s shoulder, and Tony gave him the hug he was looking for. “I’ll be okay.”
“I know you will. Want a McDonalds breakfast?”
He didn’t exactly want a breakfast, but he needed to eat. “We can.”
“I know you’re probably not hungry,” Tony said with a sigh as if he read his mind. “Thank you for the willingness to eat.”
Peter kind of zombie-walked behind Tony on their way to the car. He let his phone connect to the car automatically and play whatever he was listening to last instead of finding a new playlist to put on because he didn’t really care what they listened to. Tony had to remind him to buckle up before they left. He pulled one leg up on the seat with him and hugged his knee to his chest while he scrolled through his phone mindlessly. He gave Tony a quick answer of, “Pancakes,” when he asked him what he wanted to eat for breakfast.
His head hurt. All around his head, especially his forehead. He couldn’t just take something like Tylenol because it would do him absolutely no good. Why was he putting himself through the stress of going to school? He could have taken the skip day and relaxed. He could have hidden himself in his room for hours or pretend everything was okay in the lab with Tony or he could have hung around the various members of his family for distractions until he was actually okay. Instead, he decided the best way to go about the day was to go to school with people who didn’t really like him and have to do work and answer questions that the teachers would ask.
“I’ll be okay,” Peter said to Tony when they got to the school. Tony hadn’t said anything to prompt it, but he seemed very hesitant on letting him get out of the car. So hesitant that the car was still locked when they parked. “I know I have a bad record of not being okay, but I will be. I’ve done this before.”
Peter didn’t mean for that last line to come out, and even if he did, he would never mean for it to sound as depressing as it did. “I know you’ve done this before, but that isn’t going to make me less worried. Do you want someone to stay around the area in case you need to go home?”
“No, I’ll be fine. I can make it through a day of school.”
“I know, but just in case. If you need someone, I don’t want us to be almost an hour away.”
“I know you’re just asking because you want to do anything you can to make sure I’m okay, but I’m kinda in a bad mood, and I don’t want to take it out on you, but-”
“Point taken. I’m annoying you.” Tony didn’t sound sad or offended by that. Instead, he unlocked the car. Peter must have looked as guilty as he felt for being irritated because Tony was quick to offer reassurance. “You’re trying to avoid misplacing your anger, Pete. Don’t be sorry. I know it has nothing to do with me. Try to have a good day. My phone will be on me all day if you need me.”
Ned was waiting for him at the lockers and went to greet him with their handshake, but Peter shook his head. After Ned pulled out his phone, probably checking the date, he pulled Peter into a hug. “I’m sorry, dude.”
MJ joined them a few minutes later as they stood around in silence waiting to go to their classes. She didn’t say anything to break the silence. What she did was take a place next to Peter, wrap her arm through his, and used her free hand to hold up the book she had been reading. Peter leaned just a little bit into her.
It seemed like everybody who wasn’t Ned or MJ was just trying to make him angry. His teachers kept calling him out to answer questions when he wasn’t paying attention and wasn’t raising his hand. People kept bumping into him in the hallway. The lunch the school was selling smelled terrible, so he decided not to eat. The pancakes he had for breakfast were filling enough to get through the school day.
Something did happen during the day. It was right after lunch. Peter was at his locker, grabbing the stuff he’d need for the second half of the day. He was alone, had his headphones in, and wasn’t bothering anybody. He was listening to a playlist of May’s favorite songs because he didn’t know how to not make himself hurt more. Someone from behind, probably in a playful manner, grabbed him by the back of his shirt and pulled him. They didn’t even grab him hard. His spider sense went off, but it was small alert. It was more of a ‘you’re about to be touched’ warning and not a ‘duck and cover’ warning, so he didn’t react. But after the touch? He reacted.
He spun around, already unsure of where this anger was coming from, and grabbed the front of this guy’s shirt. He half expected it to be Flash, but it wasn’t. It was just some guy he knew from when he took band from the grade above him. They weren’t the best of friends or anything, but they could have a conversation from time to time. They had never reached the friendship level where they had each other’s numbers or social media accounts, and they likely never would now. When he grabbed his shirt, he turned back around to the lockers and he had this guy up against it. “Do. Not. Touch me,” Peter said. Threatened, really. He didn’t say a threat, but the threat had obviously been received.
“Man, what the hell?” the dude, Max, questioned.
Someone was next to him now and was moving his hands away from Max. He turned on them, but then saw it was MJ. MJ, who had a locker in the same hallway, and who had saw the ordeal happen. The anger went away instantly. He didn’t think MJ would have that kind of effect on him. “Apologize,” she demanded as if Peter was a seven-year-old.
Peter sighed, but he listened. “Max, I’m sorry,” he said. “Just…not today, okay?”
“You’re okay,” Max said, but he still seemed hesitant. Max was a bigger guy. He wasn’t overly muscular, but he had enough. Peter was not a bigger guy and his muscles didn’t exactly show, yet he moved Max around the hallway as if he weighed nothing. “You’re strong for a little dude.”
“Bye, Max,” MJ dismissed. She closed Peter’s locker and led him by the hand away. She pulled him to a hallway with less people and stopped. “You can’t do things like that.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“I know you’re grieving, but that doesn’t give you an excuse.”
“I’ve just been so mad today. I don’t know where that came from.”
“I don’t like seeing that side of you.”
“I don’t have that side of me. Even when I’m…you know…” He made web shooting motions. “I don’t jump straight to violence. I don’t know why that happened. I’m an ass.”
“Yes, you are,” MJ said. Ever the realist. “So, can it. Don’t do it again.”
MJ was such a perfect person. She wasn’t giving him a pass for what he did. She wasn’t making excuses and telling him it was okay. She was criticizing him, but he didn’t feel like she was mad at him. He didn’t even feel like she was disappointed in him. She was holding him accountable, but he could feel it coming from a good place. It made him feel like crap, but he deserved for her to keep it real with him rather than play good cop.
“I’m really sorry, MJ.”
“I know you are.”
That was a small event. Such a small event. But it was such an out there thing for Peter to do. He didn’t have a violent streak. He didn’t have a mean streak. He was the type of person to apologize if the person behind him stepped on the back of his shoes. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. He officially branded himself a terrible person and went the rest of the day keeping to himself. He didn’t want to take his anger out on another innocent person. He wanted to be better than that. He had to be. So, he texted Tony. Tony could usually help with anything.
Peter: I almost beat a kid up
Tony: What did he do??
Peter: Absolutely nothing
Peter: He grabbed my shirt but we know each other and are kind of friends and hes nice
Tony: I’m not seeing why you almost beat him up
Peter: Me either but it almost happened
Peter: I got so mad
Peter: I understand now what people mean when they say they saw red
Peter: Im sorry
Peter: I try to be the best person I can be
Peter: But I guess I cant
He had to put his phone away then so the classes could change. When he saw MJ in the hallway, he walked up next to her. The anger that had been building up started to fade away again. She made him want to be a better person than he already wanted to be. He worked on being as good as he could, but she made him want to be even better. She didn’t even do anything, but he wanted to do it for her anyways. It was hard to be mad with her around. At some point, he should probably deal with those developing feelings before they got out of hand. He wasn’t sure he was ready to handle whatever came with his feelings for MJ.
“Doing better?” she asked.
“Now I am.”
She gave him a quizzical look before cracking a very rare smile (he almost wanted to smile back because of her). “You’re something else, Parker.”
He sat next to her during their next class which they shared together. Ned was also in this class, and he took a seat behind the table Peter and MJ were seated at. Before class started, Peter pulled his phone back out to see what Tony replied with.
Tony: It’s a rough day for you. Did you apologize?
Peter: Yeah. MJ made me
Tony: Do you feel sorry for what you did?
Peter: Now I do. At the time not really
Tony: Was it a reaction to being grabbed? Spider stuff?
Peter: I probably shoulda taken you up on staying home today
Tony: Think you can make it until school is over?
Peter: It wont happen again
Tony: I know it won’t
Tony: Are you okay?
Tony: Is the kid okay?
Peter: Max is fine
Tony: And you’re not?
Peter: I dont meant to keep getting so angry today
Tony: I know you don’t
Tony: Do you want to take a trip this weekend?
Peter: Where to?
Tony: I’ll figure that out later. Trip?
Peter: I’d like that
Tony: I thought you might say that
Tony: Me, you, and Pepper
Tony: No work
MJ reached over and took his phone out of his hand, placing it face down on the desk. “You can stay calm without Tony,” she said.
“It doesn’t feel like I can.”
She reached into her pencil case and pulled out red and blue Sharpies before grabbed his arm. “Why do you think you can’t stay calm without Tony?” she asked while she started doodling on his forearm with the red one. She was whispering. The teacher was talking.
He watched her doodle away flawlessly. She wasn’t making any mistakes, not that he saw at least. She was drawing flowers without the stems and leaves. Red outlines, blue coloring. He didn’t answer until she finished with the first flower and was working on the second. Watching the ink appear on his skin was very calming. “My life kinda went downhill all at once, but he was there to make sure I didn’t go down with it.”
“Yeah? And what about all those times in your life when you went through something and you pulled yourself through it?”
“This is different.”
“You’re right,” MJ agreed. “But it isn’t all that different. You made it okay when you relied on yourself to keep yourself calm. It wasn’t always easy, but you did it. You have Tony now, which is good. You shouldn’t have to hold yourself up alone all the time. It’s great to have someone there for you. That doesn’t give you an excuse to forget how to be there for yourself.”
“I can’t remember how I did it before,” Peter admitted. “I mean, when Ben died, I leaned on May, but May was leaning on me. I guess it was easier to be strong for myself when I had to be strong for her, too.”
“You’re strong enough for you,” she said. He looked up from his arm to look at her, but she was still focused on coloring his skin up. “Today is a hard day for you. Today is an exception. Those other days when you’re uncomfortable and need to text Tony? I’m sure we’re all very happy that you have somebody to lean on, but what you’re not seeing is that your strength comes from you. Relying on Tony makes you think that you’re getting your strength from him.”
“So, what, I should just stop going to Tony for things?”
“I’m not saying that, Peter. What I’m saying is don’t forget that you’re strong with or without him. Lean on him as much as you need to or want to, but don’t forget how to lean on yourself. You got yourself this far.”
“I think you just gave me a pep talk.”
“Damn right, I did.”
He was in trouble. He might really be falling for her.
Neither one of them paid attention for the rest of class, and Peter didn’t pick up his phone until class was over. Even then, he put it in his pocket. Ned met up with them on their way out of the classroom. “Sick!” he exclaimed, seeing Peter’s arm. “Nice work, MJ.”
“I try,” she said with a cocky smirk. Peter smiled.
Tony picked him up from school that day rather than Happy. He rarely did that because when he did, people came by the car to talk to him. Especially after the news of the adoption got out a couple of months ago (wow, was that really only two months ago? This year was going by so slowly seeing as how it was only March). Peter got to the car and kind of had to slide past the people wanting to talk to Tony. He got very claustrophobic for a moment and almost freaked out, but he lowered his head and pushed through it. By the time he got to the door, the crowd all took a step back to let him in. Shout out his classmates.
“I remember why I don’t usually do this,” Tony commented. He honked his horn to get people to back up before he pulled out of the school. “What the hell is on your arm?”
“MJ. I think she was trying to distract me.”
“Did it work?”
“Is that why you didn’t text me back?”
Peter finally pulled his phone back out of his pocket and checked his messages.
Tony: I know you’re having a rough day, but I’m proud of you for how you’re handling it all
Tony: I know something almost happened, but my point still stands
Tony: You okay kid?
Tony: You know how to reach me if you need me
Tony: Love you
“I love you, too,” Peter said, replying out loud to the texts. “Sorry, MJ took my phone, and then I forgot to check it.”
“You don’t usually forget to check your phone. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing.”
“MJ took it because she was trying to prove to me that I don’t need you to be calm,” he explained. “They know I go to you if I’m nervous or anything. She was trying to show me that I’m capable of helping myself if I need to.”
“You can always come to me no matter what.”
“I know. She pretty much said that, too. I guess she was just remembering how I was before, you know? I didn’t have you to lean on like I do now. I didn’t lean on May like this, or Ben, either. She was trying to remind me that I was okay then and I can be okay now.”
“That…is true,” Tony said hesitantly. “I just don’t want you to think you have to do anything alone. We all know you’re strong on your own. You have nothing to prove. We’re here for you.”
“I know you are. I know everybody is.”
“How do you feel about what she said?”
“I think she had some points, and I know what she was saying. It’s just hard to feel like I did before. Like, it’s hard to feel like I’m able to put my phone away when I’m at school and not text you when I need help calming down even though I was able to do that before.”
“I don’t want you to feel like you need to do that.”
“I don’t feel like I do. I just…I don’t know. I guess I just don’t feel as strong anymore.”
“You’re very strong, kid. That’s not me saying that cause you’re my kid, either. You are very strong. It takes true strength to be able to be happy even though you’ve been through as much as you have. You don’t sit down and wallow in your self-pity. You’re strong enough to look at the bright side. You’re strong enough to talk through your problems. You’re strong enough to laugh with the rest of us. You are very strong, Pete.”
“I felt very weak when I grabbed Max like I did earlier,” Peter said, sinking down in his seat. “I felt him grab me and then I had him up against the lockers. I don’t really remember thinking much at that moment other than thinking it was Flash messing with me, but when I saw it was him, I still didn’t stop. Dad, I slammed him against the lockers. He looked actually afraid. I don’t know where that came from.”
“You didn’t hurt him. That’s what’s important here.”
Neither one of them spoke for a little while, opting to just listening to the music play. It was Tony’s phone hooked up, but Peter was okay with that. He just laid his head against the window, watching as they slowly made their way through traffic. He knew he couldn’t physically feel the flowers MJ drew on him, but he kept rubbing his arm where he knew they were. It genuinely calmed him and distracted his mind. He knew he’d be giving that calming tactic a chance at some point in the near future.
“Pete?” Tony said when they were about five minutes away from the Tower.
“Are you okay?”
Peter didn’t realize his crying had been so obvious. “I know. Sorry.”
“That’s not anything that you should ever apologize for. What do you need?”
“I think I just want to hide in my room forever and forget I exist.”
“I think that last bit is excessive, but if you’d want us to leave you alone for a while, we can do that.”
“Of course, kid.”
Peter skipped out on talking anymore for a while. He walked past a few people and only nodded a hello at them before going into his room and shutting his door. He laid down on his bed and got under the covers. No light, no TV, no music. He wanted to be surrounded by nothing but his blankets. The tears started almost immediately. He cried over May. It had been an entire year without her. One year without the woman who practically raised him. Over two years without Ben, and that made him cry a little bit harder. How could he have made it so long without his aunt and uncle, the two people who took him in when he lost his parents too young?
How did everybody in his life just keep dying?
It was hard to remain optimistic every single day. His life really sucked sometimes. Why did he deserve this pain? What did he do? He should never have ignored the robber that killed Uncle Ben. That had to be it. That one mistake he made was going to cost him everything he’s ever loved. Who was next? Would it be Ned, the person who had been in his life the longest out of everybody he knew? Would it be Tony, who really took over the role of a dad before Peter needed a guardian? Or would it be Pepper, who was more of a mom than he deserved?
When the tears started turning to panicking, he got out from under the covers and stumbled to his desk. He found markers and held out his other arm and did what MJ did to him earlier; he drew on his arm. He wasn’t an artist exactly, but he tried to copy what MJ did. He smiled faintly at the Spider-Man colors she must have deliberately chose. The color he chose was brown. MJ wore brown a lot. Was it her favorite color? Or was it purple? That was the color she had in her hair before. He grabbed purple, too. Brown and purple was a weird combination at first, but he thought it looked good together.
That really calmed him down quickly. He had to remember to thank MJ for the trick later.
He sat down on the floor in front of his desk and put his arms on the chair with his head laying on top of them. He was still sad, but now he was tired. Too tired to keep crying. He took a nap instead.
“Hey, kid,” Tony was saying quietly. He felt himself being shaken. He opened his eyes and sat up, almost headbutting Tony in the process. “Easy, bud. Hey. Why are you sleeping here?”
“Tired,” he mumbled. He leaned against Tony, who was crouching beside him. “What time is it?”
“Ten. How long have you been asleep?”
“Since 5:43,” Friday answered after Peter shrugged.
“Must’ve tired yourself out, huh?” Tony asked. He stood up and took Peter’s outstretched hand to pull him to his feet. “Let’s get you something to eat, okay? Then you can go back to sleep.”
“I don’t want to leave my room.”
Rather than arguing, Tony nodded. “Okay. You don’t want to, so you don’t have to. I’ll go bring us something to eat. Find something to watch while we eat and get changed into something more comfy, okay?”
When Tony came back, he brought Pepper with him. She was already in her pajamas and came carrying a few extra pillows. Tony had also changed clothes while he was gone wearing his own night clothes. He was carrying a tray with spaghetti, which was probably what they had for dinner, cookies, and three plastic cups. On top of Pepper’s pillows was a carton of milk. “Tony said you were going to look for something to watch. What’d you settle on?” Pepper asked.
“I have two options. I wasn’t sure if you wanted a movie or a show.”
“We could do either.”
“The Office or-”
“The Office,” Tony interrupted. “Whatever else you were going to suggest doesn’t matter. The Office every time.”
Peter put on season 4 of The Office and relaxed on his bed. He was wearing very soft pajama pants and an Iron Man shirt (Tony smirked when he saw it), so he was pretty comfortable. He grabbed his plate of spaghetti off of the tray and sat with his legs in front of him as he ate. He was in the center of the bed with Pepper and Tony on either side of him. When he was finished eating, Pepper grabbed his hand without saying anything and just squeezed it. Neither made a big deal out of it when Peter cried a little while into their night. They didn’t speak encouragements to him or try to make him feel better with words. But they comforted him with their presence and with physical affection. Pepper kissed the top of his head and Peter almost started crying all over again.
But he didn’t end up crying himself to sleep. He ended up just falling asleep after some episodes with Tony and Pepper still laying with him, both snacking on the cookies they brought in and just being with Peter. Which was all he really needed now. He had his time alone to cry and grieve, and now he had his family there with him.
He didn’t deserve them, but he was grateful he had them.