There was a chair left empty at Academic Decathlon, the spot reserved for someone that would never show up.
Even Flash knew not to take it, sitting on the edge of the stage and kicking his feet. They don’t have enough players to compete in any competition or event, but MJ still hasn’t made the call for Flash to join the team as anything but an alternate.
Their teacher didn’t bother to show, writing some bullshit email to the group about feeling sick but that they could meet without him. Nobody mentioned the extra emailed person that didn’t need the emails anymore.
MJ stands tall at the head of the table, pushing her sunglasses further up on her nose and running a stressed hand through her hair.
“Alright, let’s practice,” she says, voice rough and low. She grabs the stack of cue cards off the table like it’s a normal practice.
It’s not like it’s the first time they’ve been a player short, but this is the first time it’s been a permanent absence.
The room is quiet, nobody knowing the answers to half the questions she asked. The empty chair, the missing player, the extra email address, he would’ve known them all. He was always the one to carry them to victory at the competitions.
Nobody says it though.
Not even Flash, who sits quiet and patient, legs kicking rhythmically.
Another six questions pass without an answer, not even a guess.
And Betty finally speaks up, “I’m getting tired, MJ. Can we just- Can we call it a day?”
MJ’s shoulders square, jaw clenching, but she waves her hand anyways. “Fine. Go home. I don’t care.”
Nobody moves to get up. Not even Ned who would rather be anywhere but sitting next to an empty chair.
“I don’t want to hear it, Flash,” she snaps, nose crinkling like she’s trying not to cry behind her sunglasses. “Let’s keep going if nobody’s going home then.”
And so they continue, trying their best to work around the obvious absence between MJ and Ned.
“MJ, look-” Zach speaks up quietly, he looks visibly nervous at saying anything, but there’s a kind of sympathetic pain shining behind his eyes. “Peter, he’s… he’s gone, MJ. We can’t just pretend he’ll be back next meeting or back in time for the competition. We can’t pretend-”
Ned stands abruptly, chair kicking out behind him. He doesn’t say anything, jaw clenched and eyes watery.
He slings his old backpack over his shoulder and shoves his chair back into place. There’s a quiet second where he touches the back of the vacant chair, quiet and eyes closed like he can’t even bear to look at it. And then he turns and walks out of the room.
“Meeting’s over,” MJ says, sending a glare at Zach over the top of her sunglasses. She grabs her bag and the cue cards, eyes focused on the vacant chair. “I expect everybody to study twice as hard and be prepared for next meeting.”
Flash stands, eyes lingering on the chair. He doesn’t ask MJ to give him the spot on the team. He doesn’t want it, not as much as he wants Peter back.
“You too, Thompson,” MJ says as an afterthought.
It’s not perfect, it’s far from it, but it could be considered as the first stepping stone towards acceptance. It happened and there was nothing anybody could do to turn back the clock.
Happy sinks down on the couch next to Pepper, offering as best of a smile as he can.
“You doing alright?” he asks. He already know the answer is no. There’s nothing that could change that, nothing that could make her feel alright.
Peter had been Tony’s kid long before Pepper’s, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t Pepper’s kid. Peter was and Pepper loved the kid like he was her own.
Now everything’s different.
“I don’t know what to do,” she says slowly, sipping her tea with shaking hands. “I don’t know if we can do this anymore.”
Happy opens his mouth to offer support, advice, anything, but he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know what to say.
Pepper touches her stomach with a sad smile, blinking back tears. “We just lost Peter… I don’t know if we can-”
With a sigh, Happy gently rests his hand over Pepper’s arm. “I know it’s hard, but this is what Peter would’ve wanted, isn’t it?”
He remembers all those days watching over the kid, driving him to and from school, taking him out for fast food on the way to the tower, listening to the rambling voicemails about anything and everything.
It’s hard to believe that the kid is just gone.
Pepper’s trembling, tea nearly sloshing over the edge of her mug. “I don’t know if Tony can do this without him.”
There had been matching shirts with Best Big Brother and Best Little Sister written on them for when they told Peter. There had been a cake and a party and a weekend set aside for Peter to help them build the nursery.
Peter was going to be apart of their baby’s life just as much as Tony or Pepper was going to be.
And now he’s gone.
“How’s he doing?” Happy asks. “Tony, I mean. How’s he holding up?”
Pepper’s face falls just a little bit more. “I haven’t seen him in three days. He won’t leave the lab, total lockdown. Won’t let anybody in.”
“Oh.” He doesn’t know what else to say. Doesn’t know how to make it better. There’s no way to make this heavy pain that’s resting over Queens go away.
“How’s May?” Pepper asks instead, taking another slow sip of her tea. Happy steadies her hands on the mug when a little bit of the tea spills over the edge.
Happy’s been staying with May while Pepper stays with Tony. They figured it would be easiest to try to keep an eye on the two of them.
Shrugging, Happy sighs again. “As well as can be expected, I guess… She likes working a little too much for her own good. She’s been picking up as many shifts at the hospital as she’s allowed to. I think it makes her feel better to know she’s helping others, but she sleeps in Peter’s bed every night. Cries herself to sleep whenever she can sleep at all.”
Pepper nods like this is what she expected, like she knew exactly how May felt. Happy supposes she does know, she’s going through a parallel of what May’s going through.
“I just…” Pepper sighs and sets the mug down on the coffee table, sniffling. “I really miss him.”
Happy nods, blinking back the tears that threaten once again. “Me too, Pep, me too.”
MJ stalks through Stark Towers, glaring at everybody who tries to stop her.
It’s been four months.
Four fucking months and she’s sick of feeling useless.
“I just… I don’t know. It feels like I should’ve done something, you know? I should’ve tried to help at least,” Peter had said, turning his head to look at her.
They were lying out in the football field behind the school, skipping history as a protest. She wasn’t sure if Peter even knew what he was protesting, all she knew for sure, was that Peter hadn’t even hesitated to join her.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
He had looked back up at the clouds, curly hair framing his face like a halo, the grass around him making him look light and beautiful.
“I believe everybody deserves compassion. That everybody around us has their own ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and that their actions don’t necessarily reflect who they are as a person or the person they want to be.”
“So, I wish I could’ve done more for Flash. I wish I could help him. After hearing about what’s going on at home, I just… I wish I could help him.”
“Even after everything?”
Peter shrugged, looking over at her with a soft smile. He looked like an angel under the sunlight, all dimpled smile and soft eyes and radiating kindness.
“Even after everything,” he said. “I know Flash does what he does for a reason, and now we know why. I’d be angry too if my family didn’t pay attention to me. I’d be angry if I felt like nobody cared.”
MJ didn’t believe in much, but she always believed in Peter.
“Tony!” she calls out, knocking on the lab door loudly. She’s been to the lab exactly one time before. When she had been hanging out with Ned and Peter when Peter got hurt doing a dumb heroic thing and he’d taken them back to the tower to get himself fixed up.
“He hasn’t let anybody down in three months, honey,” Pepper murmurs, coming up behind her. Her belly is swollen underneath her shirt and there are dark circles under her eyes. “Trust me, I would know. He only comes out every few weeks.”
MJ, for her part, doesn’t give up. “Peter wouldn’t’ve wanted this! He wouldn’t want you to shut yourself out! He would’ve wanted you to be happy!”
“Friday?” she says.
“Yes, Miss Jones?”
MJ steels herself, expression hardening. “Unlock the door. Let me in.”
There’s a long few moments of silence where MJ’s sure she failed, that she’ll never get through to Tony, but then the door unlocks.
“I’m worried for Boss,” Friday explains quietly. MJ remembers Peter rambling to Ned about how he snuck into Friday’s code behind Tony’s back and started reprogramming her to be more careful about Tony’s health. This must be that programming coming into play.
MJ offers a half-smile to Pepper, a silent ask to be let down by herself, and then she heads down the stairs, shoulders squared and jaw clenched.
She falters when she gets to the lab, though.
Tony’s laying across the couch, a blanket across his legs that MJ recognizes as one of Peter’s. An old Iron Man blanket with holes and losing its once-vibrant colors, just like the real Iron Man laying on the couch is.
He’s tucked in an old hoodie and pajama pants, eyes glazed as he watches the TV. It’s Star Wars, MJ’s not too surprised, she’s caught Ned doing the same more than a few times over the past couple months.
There’s a stuffed animal clutched in his grip, one that MJ also knows is Peter’s. It’s a teddy bear, one of it’s ears missing and the plush worse for wear. It was from his childhood, from his parents that he’s kept ever since. She remembers him saying that he keeps it at the tower now.
“Tony?” MJ starts, nowhere near as confident as how she imagined she’d say it. She sounds small now, like the child she is.
The billionaire’s eyes flicker over to her before landing back on the screen. It’s the third episode, she only knows it because of how much Peter talked about Star Wars.
“Hey!” she snaps more forcefully, crossing the room to him.
She’s met the man a few times before whether it was at Academic Decathlon practices, hanging out at the tower with Ned and Peter, or whenever he’d pick Peter up from school. But whenever she saw him, he was always dressed immaculately, hair perfectly styled, the picture-perfect image of Tony Stark.
Now he looks like he hasn’t showered in weeks. Dressed in old pajamas. Now he looks run down and miserable, tear tracks visible down his gaunt cheeks. He looks like he hasn’t been eating enough. He looks like he hasn’t slept well in months.
“What do you want?” he asks, voice rough and hoarse with disuse. He doesn’t bother pulling his eyes away from the TV.
“I swear!” Peter laughed, so bright and loud like Life was filling him to the very brim and he couldn’t help but to let some of it seep into the air around him, making Ned’s face brighten before he even knows why Peter’s laughing.
“What?” MJ asked, eyebrows furrowing and biting back a smile. Peter’s happiness was infectious.
“Mister Stark was wearing Spider-Man pajama pants when I got up for breakfast!” Peter exclaimed gleefully. “He turned so red when he realized, but he said I was his favourite Avenger.”
Ned had laughed then, nowhere near as easily as Peter had, but nobody could ever exude that kind of easy happiness.
Peter laughed and laughed and laughed through the story of Breakfast at Stark’s, until his face went pink and his arms wrapped around his stomach and joyous tears fell from his eyes.
MJ tears the blanket off Tony, taking the stuffed animal from his arms and putting them just out of reach from him. Sure enough, the pajama pants are the old Spider-Man ones.
“What I want is for you to stop moping down here when you have people who want to help you. I want you to stop pretending like you’re the only one who cared about him. I want you to stop acting like you’re allowed to isolate yourself when you have a pregnant wife upstairs, torn apart by this and has to take care of herself and the company. I want- I want-”
I want Peter back.
She can’t say that, mouth snapping shut audibly as the emotions bubble inside her chest. She knows she’s lashing out at somebody who doesn’t deserve it. She knows she’s being harsh and unfair. But she cares. Ned cares. May, Pepper, and Happy care. Betty, Zach, Mister Harrington, Abraham care. Hell, even Flash and Brad care.
Some sort of parental instinct must spark inside Tony because he’s on his wobbly legs within seconds, gently touching her shoulder.
He smells kind of gross in a way that proves that he hasn’t showered in a little while. He looks exhausted, his hair is greasy, eyes bloodshot. He’s nowhere near the Tony Stark the world knows, not even close to the Tony Stark Peter knew.
But he’s there, his eyes are awake with a flash of life and he’s looking at MJ like he needs to help her.
“I’m sorry,” she says before she can stop herself.
“I’m so sorry!” Peter gasped. MJ rolled her eyes on instinct because Peter was always apologizing for things he didn’t need to.
“I stepped on your foot… And you’re apologizing?” Ned said, a smile on his face.
Peter shrugged, flushing shyly. “My foot was in your way?”
Tony’s face falls, a soft look touching his features. “I know this has been hard on you and everyone else, and I’m the one who should be sorry for abandoning everybody in a time of need.”
It’s said in such a carefully crafted way that MJ can’t help but wonder how many times he’s had to say it before. To Peter or anybody else.
Tears spring to MJ’s eyes before she can stop them and she goes to rub at them, to blink them back, to turn her head to the sky to stop them from falling, but Tony stops her, head tipped to the side with an almost parental look in his eyes.
“You’re allowed to cry,” he murmurs, one hand gently touching her cheek almost like her mother had a few days earlier when she found her crying over a television ad for the kind of shoes Peter always got. “You’re allowed to be upset by this. It’s worse if you try to bottle it all up.”
He gestures back to the couch almost carelessly with his free hand. “It’s what I’ve been doing, so I should know.”
Once the first tear fall, the rest follow suit, days’ worth of held back tears escaping the back of her mind where she’d locked them.
Tony, after asking if he could, draws her into a hug, keeping his arms wrapped around her safely like he can somehow protect her from the horrors of the world.
“I just want him back,” MJ cries into his shirt, Peter’s shirt.
She’s never felt capable of being vulnerable, never really learned how until Peter came along wearing his heart on his sleeve. She opened up to him occasionally like the day they laid down in the football field while skipping history. Or after the incident at the Washington Monument.
It’s a safe place where the grieving can cry without any repercussions. Where Tony holds her together even as she falls apart. Where he hugs her in a way he must’ve learned from having Peter around. Where they’re allowed to act however they want to act because they’re hurting.
Tony doesn’t seem to bother hiding his pain either and they sink to the floor, hanging onto each other like they save each other, like the power of their love for Peter can bring him back.
“I just really miss him,” Peter mumbled, leaning against Ned’s side.
The grass was dying and the air was cold. Peter didn’t cry, reaching out to just barely touch the gravestone.
“I know,” Ned said, letting Peter curl up against him.
MJ slowly sat at Peter’s other side, the vulnerability of the situation making her heart pound. But she offered out her hand for Peter to hold onto.
Peter’s not coming back. It doesn’t matter how many people pray for him, how many people miss him, how many people love him. It doesn’t matter. He’s gone and there’s nothing they can do to bring him back.
“I should’ve told him,” MJ says, words muffled and thick with tears, fists curling into Tony’s shirt. “I had this whole plan for our field trip to Europe next year. I was going to tell him how I felt. I was going to kiss him on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.”
Tony lets out a watery laugh, arms tightening around her. “He had the same plan. He had it all thought out. It didn’t matter how many times I told him to just tell you, he wanted to do it right. He sold all his Star Wars memorabilia to buy a necklace for you. The Black Dahlia or something.”
“I shouldn’t have waited so long… Maybe then- Maybe then I could’ve-”
“I should’ve told him I loved him,” Tony says, voice just as heavy as MJ’s. His chest trembles beneath MJ’s hands and she hangs on tighter. “I should’ve made sure he knew, but I didn’t.”
It doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t have mattered if Peter knew, had a girlfriend, had an established father-figure. It wouldn’t have made a difference. Peter still would’ve gone out that night. He still would’ve never made it back.
They both know that. They know that Peter knowing they loved him wouldn’t have changed anything.
But that doesn’t change the regret that hangs from their bones.
“I miss him.”
Tony nods, taking in a shaky breath. “Me too, kid, me too. But it’ll be okay, right? That’s what everyone seems to be saying to me these days.”
Arms tightening, one hand coming up to rest on the back of her neck like she’s seen him do for Peter dozens of times, Tony says with more confidence than MJ expected, “Yeah, it will be, kid.”
Ned walks into the penthouse, MJ and May behind him, determination echoed on each other’s faces.
“What are you doing here?” Happy asks, standing from where he’d been sitting on the couch. “Tony and Pepper are at a doctor’s appointment.”
Happy had taken Pepper to the past few months of appointment’s while Tony was locked in the lab, but after a much needed shower, a full meal, and a night of rest, Tony was up and ready to take on the world as much as somebody grieving could.
The paint can in Ned’s hand is brought up into view. MJ and May gesture at the large box they’re carrying between them.
“We heard there was an unpainted nursery that needed to be done,” May explains.
Peter was meant to be the one helping, but Ned had the weekend booked in his calendar to make sure he remembered. Ned acted as Peter’s secretary half the time to make sure the forgetful boy didn’t miss anything important.
And he just hoped the three of them would be enough to make up for Peter’s absence.
But Happy’s shoulders slump and he offers a weary smile. “They’ll be home in a few hours so we better hurry.”
MJ and Ned paint the walls a pale yellow, the color Peter had picked out. He had one of those paint strips pinned on his wall months in advance. May and Happy sit on the floor and build the crib, laughing at their own struggles to read the Ikea instructions.
It’s not perfect.
The absence in the room is noticeable. It makes the yellow feel too dim, the laughter just a bit too forced. It’s painfully obvious that it’s only been four months since it happened and they haven’t gotten used to how to hold conversations without him.
But it’s nice.
It’s nice to be together, the four of them, and do something.
Paint-covered and exhausted, they all sit on the floor, admiring their work.
“Peter would’ve liked this,” May murmurs. Her voice stays strong, eyes dry, a sad smile on her face. “He would’ve laughed and laughed and laughed about how we couldn’t put the crib together.”
“He would’ve stood on the ceiling to paint and he would’ve gotten it everywhere,” Ned says, voice small. “He would’ve gotten the baby an Avengers mobile and a Star Wars stuffed animal.”
They all laugh just a little bit, just enough.
The sun shines through the window and the clouds pass, the yellow paint is streaked and messy, the crib looks like it’ll fall apart at any second, they’re all stained in paint and their feet ache, but not as much as their chests do.
There’s a cavity in the room, the spot left between Ned and May, sitting against the door, the right size for Peter to fit between them. There’s a third paintbrush sitting unused in the bucket. There’s a spot in their hearts that sits empty and cavernous without Peter.
But it’s enough.
MJ nudges Ned in the arm, leaning over the empty seat between them to do so.
Ned’s grinning from ear to ear, a lightness in his eyes that hasn’t been present in too long.
“D’you ever think he’s watching over us? Think he’s proud of us?” MJ asks quietly.
Everyone’s crying around them for May and Happy’s wedding. They were surprised at how quick Happy popped the question and how quickly the wedding came, barely six months after It Happened. But all May had to do was murmur that sometimes you don’t know how much time you have left with those you love, and everybody understood.
Ned’s expression softens. “Course he is. This is what he’d want for all of us.”
Tony throws them a smile from where he’s standing at Happy’s side as the best man.
“All Peter would’ve wanted is for us to be happy,” Pepper says from where she leans between the seats. “I don’t think he would’ve minded having Happy as a step-father or whatever it counts as.”
“Can you imagine how much he would’ve complained?” Ned says, letting out a quiet laugh. “That’s all I would’ve heard from him for months.”
May’s smiling almost too big to kiss Happy when the priest, Rhodey who got ordained online a few weeks in advance, finalizes the marriage.
It’s been a long time since anybody’s seen this many smiles among them.
Pepper’s right, so maybe that’s why when the party begins, Ned steps aside and calls Flash.
“Hello?” he sounds awful and a wave of guilt rushes over Ned. He should’ve at least tried to talk to Flash after what happened.
“You doing okay?” Ned asks, trying his best to channel the kind person Peter was. “I know it’s been a long six months…”
Flash sniffles, obviously miserable. Ned wonders how hard Flash must be taking this. He wasn’t cruel and before It Happened, Flash was able to apologize to Peter.
Peter and him were almost friends before It Happened. Peter was changing Flash for the better.
“I just- I-” Flash takes a long breath, tears evident in his voice. “He only got sixteen years and I spent a quarter of that making his life hell. I- He didn’t deserve that. He was such a good person and I just- If anything it should’ve been me, right?”
“Hey, don’t think like that. Peter was too nice for his own good, but he always wanted to make sure he was okay. He never hated you. There was a reason he never fought back, Flash, he cared. He worried. He knew there was a reason why.”
Flash’s crying, breath hitching. “I just- I wish there was something I could do. I wish I could make this all better, but I don’t know how and I just- I hate myself. I’m a coward. I- I fucking-”
“You’re none of those things. Peter never held a grudge, so neither should you. And listen, Flash, what happened, happened. Nothing you could’ve done, would’ve changed the outcomes. There’s no point in hating yourself for what you did when you’ve changed, you’ve apologized.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Flash admits, more vulnerable than Ned has ever heard him.
And Ned sighs, soft and easy, looking up to the sky where the sun shines down on them and the clouds drift by. “It’s not your fault, Flash. Peter would’ve wanted you to be happy too.”
At their next Academic Decathlon Competition, they leave an empty chair at the head of the table, but Flash sits strong at the end of the table.
Before the competition starts, MJ and Ned look towards the crowd of families. MJ and Ned’s families smile at them, but the new additions to their family are grinning at them too, cheering them on.
Happy and May are sitting shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, grinning from ear to ear. May’s still in her nurse’s blue shirt, the ring on her finger shining under the lights. Happy presses a kiss to her temple, murmuring unheard words which makes May’s eyes flicker to the empty chair.
But it doesn’t make her as sad as it once would. Moving on works in strange ways and even if the grief and the pain isn’t gone, may never be gone, moving on doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Tony’s whole face is alight with happiness and pride, snapping pictures of them on stage like the picture-perfect image of a proud father.
Pepper at his side, waves at them before turning back to the newest addition to the family, cradled in her arms.
Parker M Stark, the two-month-old baby girl, smiles toothlessly up at her mom, mouthing at her own fingers.
It’s not perfect.
It’s what Peter would’ve wanted for them, happiness.