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Raising Hybrid Puppies

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“Tony Stark came into your shop?!” Ned all but shouts.

Peter ducks his head as if that would keep his schoolmates in he cafeteria from staring.

“I didn't know Tony Stark did charity, Parker!” is Flash’s immediate reply. Sometimes Peter thinks Flash plans his entire day, including when to get his lunch, around humiliating Peter in front of a maximum number of people.

Peter pouts at Ned who’s already looking at him with big, apologetic eyes. He can’t stay angry with his best friend, even on a horrible day like this.

“Does he actually have an AI? Did he use it? Did he have the StarkGlasses Five E or, oh, oh, oh – was it a new model? Did he use his phone? Please tell me he used his phone.”

Peter huffs a laugh despite his mood.

“No; I guess; and yes. His phone… It...” Peter bites his lips. “It looked completely different. Like there's a miniature arc reactor in there.”

“I knew it!” Ned cheers, then launches into a five minute speech on the rumors of Stark having commercialized his horrendously expensive arc tech which so far only powers Stark Tower, four of his plants, one research facility upstate, and, well, ensures that Mr. Stark doesn’t die from shrapnel. To think that he built the prototype in a cave in Afghanistan, while being tortured by terrorists for weapon specs, and to have met such a genius face-to-face…

It takes several moments of silence for Peter to notice Ned has stopped gushing and started grinning.

Oh-oh.

Peter shakes his head. Ned’s grin widens as he keeps nodding.

“Tell me, young padawan,” he teases, “is the real-life Tony Stark as handsome as you say he looks on television?”

Peter rolls his head back with a groan.

“So that’s a yes,” Ned concludes.

Peter aims for a nonchalant shrug. He probably misses by a mile.

“Could also be your dad, though.”

“Well, my Dad’s dead.”

“That was low, dude.”

Peter heaves a sigh. “Sorry. But it wasn’t like... He ruined it the moment he opened his mouth! He was, you know, he was mean! And childish! And, and when I said the coffee’s from Queens his face did this thing, like he’d just stepped in poop!”

“Puppy poop?” Ned offers.

“I don’t think he likes puppies,” Peter grumbles. Ned, bless him, almost manages to stifle his chuckle at how petulant he probably sounds.

“Oh! That reminds me – check this out.” Ned pulls up the Arc, SI’s web browser, and a few clicks later Ned hands over the device. “I finished it! It’s been live since midnight.”

“Dude, I thought you were asleep! I could’ve used some help with Spanish…”

Peter takes the phone, an older StarkPhone model that’s still working despite how much Ned and Peter have been tinkering with it. Peter’s still saving for one of his own but the dishwasher breaking last month really set him back. Like, to zero.

“Woah, this looks good,” Peter says honestly.

It’s a website for their initiative called the Neighborhood Avengers, the friendly next-door heroes who help the elderly with groceries or protect stalking victims. It originated in Brooklyn but it has spread to all parts of New York. The Hybrid Puppy has sort of become the local group’s headquarters since its founders are regulars.

Ned’s web design’s steadily improving. He also did the one for their coffee shop, but this time Ned integrated a lot of MJ’s artwork and the team meeting schedule is right there on the –

“Shit, the meeting is today!” Peter jumps to his feet, leaving the phone on the table. “I forgot to order the muffins!”

“Relax, dude, we’ll be fine without…” Ned tries but Peter is across the cafeteria and out to Smoker’s Corner before he can hear the end. Not that he smokes, it’s just that the spot has the best reception and it’s closed off so teachers can’t really catch you.

“Mr. Toomes, hi, uh, this is Peter. Parker. I, uh, I’m sorry to bother you, and this is probably too late but I forgot to tell you that we’ve got a meeting today and if you – I mean I get that it’s short notice, but –”

“Sure as hell it’s short notice,” Mr. Toomes grouses. Peter can hear the telltale sounds of the busy bakery in the background. “Be glad my daughter still keeps up with things from Oregon, she texted me about the homepage first thing this morning. Saw the announcement and figured you’d been too busy.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Toomes,” Peter says again. “I’m sure we can pay for the rush order –”

“Nah, then how could I sleep at night?” the other man huffs. “I might not have time to set up some old lady’s DVR but I can keep you boys fed.”

“And girls. And women,” Peter corrects automatically.

Thankfully it gets a laugh from Toomes.

“Yeah, yeah, gotta be politically correct. No, sir, I’m not being racist towards you,” Toomes adds, apparently to a customer on the other end of the line, yet Peter can’t make out the response, only Toomes’s laughter and a muttered “Oversensitive pricks” that he decides to pretend he didn’t.

Hours later, after a grueling Spanish period and another round of “I say Penis” with Flash in the hallway, Toomes makes good on his word. The door to The Hybrid Puppy swings open on too many boxes stacked in front of the man who’s wearing a manic grin.

“Don’t look so frightened, son,” Toomes teases. “Nothing in there that’s gonna kill you. But tell Rogers to stay away from the coconut ones. Wouldn’t want Manhattan’s finest to die of anaphylactic shock, would we?”

By now, Ned has saved all his projects, closed his laptop and is at Toomes’s side to help. Later, it’s also Ned who sets up the muffins in the back where a corner table has been reserved for the team meeting because Peter’s drowning in orders for their October special.

“No, ma’am, it’s not a Pumpkin Spice Latte,” Peter says for the gazillionth time when two beat cops enter. Maybe he should ask MJ for a sign that clarifies how much more awesome their Pumpkin Palooza is compared to the boring syrup at Starbucks.

“I came here because I wanted a Pumpkin Spice Latte,” the woman complains. She’s tall and covered in makeup and her costume must be some sort of brand because the logo seems familiar to Peter. “What kind of coffee shop are you?”

“The best kind,” one of the cops says from behind her.

The woman’s annoyance evaporates the second she clasps eyes on the men behind her. Peter can empathize – Officers Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are… captivating. And probably the reason Peter’s got comfortable with liking men really quickly.

Peter makes the woman’s drink while she angles her body towards Steve and runs a hand through her hair. Bucky’s eyes glint with mirth and he winks at Peter who hides his grin behind the espresso machine.

Zinha is already pouring Steve and Bucky’s usual coffees, which Peter takes with him to the back where Ned and the rest of the Avengers core are tearing into the muffins. It’s brave of them – they’re basically Mr. Toomes’s guinea pigs for his mad recipe ideas.

“I think those are zucchini apple?” Ned offers.

“Mr. Toomes is a strange man,” MJ notes.

“Didn’t we kill someone with a zucchini once?” Clint Barton leans back against the wall.

He’s sitting on the bench since he’s somewhat allergic to being on ground level. That’s why he says he came to Manhattan – there are enough private security gigs in skyscrapers.

His partner in everything, Natasha, takes a sip from her mocha. “I think it was a cucumber.”

“Nah, definitely zucchini.”

“Do squashes even grow in Afghanistan?” MJ interrupts. As usual, Peter can never tell whether she’s sincere or sarcastic.

“Greenhouse,” Natasha supplies curtly, which sends Clint off into a laughing fit for some reason neither of them are likely to share in the near future. Maybe at the Hybrid Puppy Christmas Party given enough eggnog.

Sometimes Peter finds it weird that their group is half ex-military, half high school students. According to MJ, though, it makes perfect sense.

“You’re so full of shit, Romanov,” is Sam Wilson’s way of greeting.

Bucky and Steve trail after him, Bucky out of breath from laughing with Steve trying to glare at his fiancé and failing abysmally.

Peter hates that he can never relax at these meetings, as fun as they are, because he’s never fully there. As soon as the counter gets busy he has to return, which leaves him with little input over the initiative and picking up the jobs that remain and fit his schedule. It’s not that he doesn’t like taking Gary to the doctor or doing the groceries for the entire Queens Bridge Club… but he doesn’t feel like he’s part of the team, somehow.

He hands out one last Amber Ambrosia, their berry-flavored blend, and is about to head back when a hush falls over the coffee shop.

Immediately, adrenaline floods Peter’s system…

… but it’s only a split second before the fight-or-flight moment passes.

It’s not a robbery.

It’s Tony Stark.

Again.

Peter swallows. Zinha is at the cashier but Mr. Stark ignores her. He ambles to the still-full glass case filled with pastries, bagels and more, next to which Peter is trying to get his pulse under control.

“Any recommendations?” Mr. Stark asks, completely out of the blue.

“Uh, recommendations?”

Mr. Stark slides down his glasses to look Peter directly in the eye. “You were the one raving about them yesterday, kid. Like a walking five-star Yelp review. Which you guys have a lot of, by the way. They all make these sound practically orgasmic. That’s a lot to live up to.”

“O-orgasmic?”

His stammering earns a sly grin. Peter fears he’ll die on the spot.

“Now that you know my expectations,” Mr. Stark continues, “which one should I try first?”

“Uh,” Peter manages, then shakes his head. He’s good at recommendations. He just has to pretend like this is any other customer. “Are you in the mood for sweet or savory?”

Mr. Stark’s eyes crinkle. “I’m in the mood for a lot of things… Oh, you’re talking about food, ha, my bad,” he adds with a wink.

Peter decides to analyze that later.

“I do have a sweet tooth, though.”

“And you appreciate coffee, right?”

“Oh, I more than appreciate coffee,” Mr. Stark agrees, his tone dripping with innuendo.

“Then, uh, then I’d suggest you start with the Almond Coffee Muffin?” Peter says, more confident now. Mr. Stark leans forward to inspect the row Peter is indicating in the glass case. “It’s one of our most popular muffins. It’s, uh, vegan. The coffee is from Brooklyn and the almonds from a rooftop garden in Hell’s Kitchen.”

“That’s a phrase I’d never thought I’d hear,” Mr. Stark murmurs, then straightens. “Sold. Give me five. And another coffee. Largest cup you have.”

“Coming right up,” Peter promises and seeks Zinha’s eye. She grabs a recycled paper bag for the muffins while Peter brews the coffee. His neck is prickling the entire time and when he turns, he realizes that Mr. Stark has been watching him.

The man nods towards the coffee machine. “What model is that?”

Peter glances over his shoulder and back before he can stop his fidgeting. He’s glad he hasn’t spilled any of the hot liquid yet.

“A custom design, sir.”

“Let me guess, some local manufacturer?”

“Uh, well, kind of?” Peter ducks his head as he enters the purchase into the register. “I sort of designed it.”

“Hm.”

It’s impossible to say whether Mr. Stark is impressed or not – well, definitely not. A sixteen-year-old kid piecing together a coffee machine will never compare to the stuff Mr. Stark invented when he was Peter’s age. Or younger, even.

“That will be $15,50, sir.”

Peter forgets to breathe after that because his mind flashes back to the picture of the two hundred dollar bills. He has no idea if last night ruined his chance of ever getting a tip from Mr. Stark for all eternity. Usually, Peter has perfected not getting his hopes up to an art form, yet Mr. Stark appears to be the exception to his rule.

“Keep the change, kid,” Mr. Stark says, accepting the paper bag from a smiling Zinha and grabbing his cup as he turns to go.

Peter stares after him. Takes a deep breath. Looks down.

On the counter, there they are.

Two one hundred dollar bills.

The hush that has fallen over the coffee shop holds for another second. Then the door falls shut behind Tony Stark and all hell breaks loose.

“That was AWESOME!”

Peter’s head snaps up.

Ned emerges from the back, waving his phone wildly. “I filmed the entire thing, oh my god, do you have any idea what this will do to our street cred?”

There’s a flurry of “Was that Tony Stark?” and “Guard my coffee, I need a selfie!” from around the shop. The only people who seem unimpressed are Steve, Bucky, Sam, Clint and Natasha.

“Stark Security’s all about robots and drones, man,” Bucky explains.

“Yeah, ain’t much room for people like us,” Sam agrees. “I see a lot of the effects at the VA. Not pretty, brother.”

“Is that going into the tip jar?”

Peter turns to Zinha and follows her eyes to where the bills are burning a hole into the counter.

“Why wouldn’t it?” Peter wonders. “But maybe we should store it in the register? Coins get nicked, after all, so it might be safer?”

It’s only when the line of Zinha’s shoulders relaxes that her worries dawn on Peter.

“Oh, you were – but why would I even –? I mean, we’re both working. Tips are shared at the end.”

“They better,” Zinha says but she’s grinning. “My budget for Christmas presents is, like, zero. Nada.”

MJ snorts. “Your makeup budget seems to be doing well, though.”

“Why’d you even get up?” Ned says. “I thought the gawking would be beneath you.”

“Tony Stark is just another person in crisis.”

Steve clears his throat, drawing Peter’s attention. The man’s brow is furrowed in concern and he’s looking right at Peter.

“Do you need a refill?”

Steve steps up to the counter with a shake of his head. “Did he make you uncomfortable?”

Oh yes… Peter shifts his stance, wincing inwardly.

By some miracle, his brain-to-mouth filter kicks in and he doesn’t say that. What he does say is, as innocently as he can: “Not really? Why?”

“It’s just Stark was laying it on thick, Parker,” Bucky translates.

“Oh, he, uh, he doesn’t mean it! I mean, why would he, I’m, uh,” Peter stammers, “and he’s, you know…”

“The Prince Charming to your Cinderella, or some other self-deprecating metaphor?” MJ suggests.

When all Peter does is shrug sheepishly, she sighs and grabs both officers by their uniform sleeves.

“Come on, let’s get back to the Halloween plans. I want to increase the reach of Pagan harvest celebrations in this Nation Under God.”

With that, MJ spins on her heels and returns to the back with the others following. Only Steve lingers for another moment, lips pursed, until Peter’s attempt at a reassuring smile chases him off, too.

Peter sags against the fridge, releasing a long breath that does nothing whatsoever to calm his racing mind. Orgasmic? In the mood for many things?

Sure, Tony Stark has a reputation for being a flirt, but… but why would Mr. Stark flirt with a sixteen-year-old kid from Queens?

For one wild, daring second, Peter imagines a world in which that is a possibility, where Mr. Stark would ask him out to dinner and show him his workshop afterwards, where they’d kiss against the door of Mr. Stark’s Audi R8, all eager and hungry for –

“Earth to Peter!”

Peter snaps back to reality, where there will never be dates or making out against luxury cars that have been personally upgraded by Peter’s idol, just more debates about Pumpkin Spice Lattes with customers who don’t realize how privileged they are to be complaining about this stuff in the first place.

It’s a great fantasy, though.