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Raising Hybrid Puppies

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PROLOGUE

“Come on, Peter, can’t you miss a few shifts?” Ned pleads. “I’m sure Mr. Harrington will let you back on the team if you ask.”

Peter shakes his head, careful not to let his smile drop. “You guys got this.”

Ned opens his mouth, probably to argue, but Michelle materializing next to them stops him.

“Come on, loser,” she says in that affectionate way of hers.

Peter wishes them good luck and waves them off as they board the bus to the decathlon in Washington. He turns away before it gets too much, though, and takes off in a run to leave Midtown Tech behind.

The crowds of tourists slow him down as they always do, but Peter is small and agile and reaches the corner of 6th and 37th ten minutes later. His destination is a small, independent coffee shop tinged in afternoon sunlight barely making it past the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Seeing the name in large, corny letters with an even cornier cartoon puppy still makes Peter’s heart ache every time he sees it. Ben chose the name, was so happy with it, his shoulders squared in pride about having saved up the money to pay the down-payment on this amazing location.

Peter shakes the memory out of his head and slips past a family in line to get coffee and pastries.

“Hey, Aunt May!” Peter calls on his way into the back.

“Hello, Mr. Two Minutes Late,” she calls back.

Peter winces, immediately guilty. He shouldn’t have seen Ned off.

Not when he knows May’s struggling again.

He jumps right into the flow of frothing milk and making espresso shots next to where Mariazinha, Mr. Delmar’s daughter, is blending a smoothie. Peter doubts it’s for the two women in designer clothes laden with more shopping bags than Peter’s closet could hold, so he pushes one skinny latte in their direction with a smile.

“Your soy mocha is coming right up,” he promises the other woman and speeds through the motions. After four months, he could make them in his sleep.

He places the finished drink right next to the tip jar. At the beginning, he hated being that obvious and believed people would gladly tip their barista like they do their waitresses only to quickly be disillusioned.

The Designer Women, however, seem to have forgotten he even exists. The second one picks up the paper cup and turns away, already taking a sip.

Peter blinks after them.

“Parker, a hand?”

Mr. Toomes’s voice jolts Peter out of his thoughts. The man owns a bakery at the other end of the street – “A real one, not one of those tasteless factory bun disposals,” as Mr. Toomes is prone to grousing whenever someone complains about his prices.

He’s a gruff guy and a bit extreme, but without The Sweet Vulture’s muffins, bagels, bread and cakes, Peter doubts they’d have survived even their first month in the competitive world of independent coffee shops.

“I threw in some leftover rolls from yesterday,” Mr. Toomes says as he hands over a rack of muffins. The ‘You can’t sell them but you can eat them’ goes unsaid.

Peter beams at him. “Thank you, sir!”

“The little guys gotta stick together, right?” Toomes smirks at him. “Hello, Mrs. Parker.”

May nods with a tired smile and hands over the money for the delivery.

There’s a short reprieve from customers save for one of their regulars, an athletic guy in a NYU sweater who draws out his moments with Zinha as much as he can. Peter feels slightly better that he won’t be able to afford university if they take guys who haven’t realized after three weeks that Zinha is wearing rainbow-flag earrings.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Peter snaps back to reality. Toomes is glaring daggers at the ancient flat screen in the corner, a leftover from the couple they’d leased the place to after Ben… After Ben. It takes Peter a second to make out the Stark Industries logo next to the newscaster.

“Privatizing public transport – what’s next, Stark?”

“Uh,” Peter interrupts, “but Mr. Stark said there’ll be cheaper rates because of the reduced energy and maintenance costs –”

“Yeah, and you know why?” Toomes spits. “Cause he’s replacing the maintenance crews with those robots of his. Bad enough I get my mail from one of his drones now. Poor old Ray’s been delivering mail for forty-seven years and then Stark swoops in and takes that away from him. That’s not revolutionizing the industry or helping people. That’s just the rich getting richer and us paying for it.”

“But, sir, uh,” Peter begins. Too many thoughts in his head at once make it hard to choose just one. “His arc reactor technology is helping people –”

“Oh, stop it with the hero worship, son,” Toomes cuts him off. “I’m the last to say Stark’s not a gifted engineer. But then he should stick to it, not waste his time and money on private jets and hookers.”

Peter has no idea how to respond to that. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to because a group of seniors just walked in, the tourist look complete with digital cameras and paperback travel guides.

The next hours pass in a blur. Peter has to clock out at 6 PM, at least officially, because he won’t be 16 until next year and can’t work more than three hours on a school day. He pretends to do homework in the back while he’s actually restocking supplies, putting in orders, using May’s log-in information to balance the books and tinkering with spare parts to upgrade their equipment without having to buy or pay for replacements.

He can do homework when they close up, which falls anywhere between 9 and 12 depending on how many customers they still have. Today, it’s 10.30 PM. May looks dead on her feet after an unplanned double-shift and not for the first time Peter imagines dropping out of school. His aunt wasn’t ready to take the coffee shop back, but the interim owners wanted to move on and it was either this or give up on Ben’s legacy.

Sometimes, Peter wonders what his life would be like if they hadn’t taken back the shop, if Peter hadn’t cancelled his internship at Osborn Corp., if May had had the time to really heal.

Then he watches her close up and smile at the sign above the door, and he knows it’s all worth it.