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Don't Feed the Animals

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Peter is so totally screwed and that’s just a fact at this point.

Not that he blames May, of course. There’s no way she could have known she’d get called into work so suddenly. It’s just, well… he needs another chaperone. And where on earth is he going to find someone now, just days before the field trip?

Peter puts his phone down on his desk and runs a hand over his face. He needs something to take away his anxiety and help him clear his head a little.

Hot chocolate. He needs hot chocolate.

He makes his way to the kitchen, through the maze of hallways in the compound. As he waits for the milk to heat up in the microwave, Peter begins a list in his head: May is obviously out of the question; Mr. Stark would never in a million years agree to watch a bunch of snot-nosed teens for a day; Ms. Potts has a company to run and Peter wouldn’t want to bother her with something like this; there’s no way he’d ask Vision to do it, either; and since Colonel Rhodes is still on the mend, Peter doesn’t want to put any more unneeded stress on the man.

Peter is in quite the pickle.

The microwave dings. Peter pulls out the warm milk and adds the cocoa powder, stirring gently. On his way back to the other side of the island, he grabs a couple cookies from Mr. Stark’s secret stash. As he sinks into his chair and takes that first chocolatey sip, he hears footsteps coming from the direction of the lab. Peter turns to see Mr. Stark enter the kitchen, coffee mug in hand.

“Hey, Pete,” he greets, patting Peter’s shoulder before taking his mug to the sink.

“Hey, Mr. Stark,” Peter returns. He takes another sip of hot chocolate and tries to think of more possibilities.

Mr. Stark pauses, looking back at the teen sitting in front of him. “What’s with you, kid? Something happen on patrol last night?”

“No,” Peter admits, “I’m just thinking.”

“I thought I smelled something burning.”

Peter makes a face at his mentor.

“What are you thinking about?” Mr. Stark asks. He leans on the counter across from him.

Sighing, Peter explains, “My Environmental Science class is going on a field trip to the zoo on Friday and May was supposed to chaperone, except now she has to cover for her coworker all week so she can’t go. And that means I need to find someone to fill in for her or my teacher is gonna kill me.”

Mr. Stark thinks for a moment, stroking his goatee.

“Yeah, that does sound like quite the predicament,” he says quietly.

“The only people I could think of were you, Ms. Potts, Vision, and Colonel Rhodes, but Ms. Potts has a company to run and Vision would just raise a bunch of questions and—”

“Woah, wait, what about me?”

Peter rubs the back of his neck. “Well, I figured you’d have better things to do than spend the day at a zoo with a bunch of teenagers.”

“Are you kidding me?” Mr. Stark says. “The zoo sounds way better than going to boring meetings and pretending to pay attention all day.”

“Really?”

“Totally. When did you say it was?” he asks, already pulling out his phone.

Peter can’t help the excitement blooming in his chest as he tells him, “It’s this Friday. We have to be at school at the normal time—which is 8 if you didn’t know—and then we’re gonna head over to the Central Park Zoo and we get to do whatever we want—within reason, obviously—and we can go anywhere in the zoo as long as we’re with an adult, but we do have to head to certain habitats because we’re gonna have a worksheet to fill out that we have to hand in so—”

Mr. Stark raises a hand, effectively cutting Peter off from his rambles.

“I’ll fill in for your aunt as long as you don’t talk my ear off while we’re there,” he proposes. “Deal?”

“Deal!” Peter says, grinning broadly. A thought quickly comes to his mind and his smile falters just slightly. “Uh, Mr. Stark, you wouldn’t happen to have your clearances already, would you?”

🕸⎊🕸

Friday comes quickly for Peter. Environmental Science isn’t necessarily his favorite class this year, but he can’t deny that he’s super excited to go to the zoo, especially since Mr. Stark will be there.

That morning, he catches an earlier train to make sure he definitely won’t be late. He also maybe kinda sorta wants to be there before Mr. Stark gets there.

When he gets to Midtown, there are already a few kids from his class milling in front of the entrance; the ones who notice him approach offer small smiles. By the time everyone in the class shows up, there are five minutes until they have to leave and Mr. Stark is nowhere to be seen.

Peter tries not to panic too much. He might be stuck in traffic or want to be fashionably late… or he forgot entirely. Peter quickly shoves the thought from his mind. No, Mr. Stark is a lot of things but forgetful isn’t usually one of them. Plus, he seemed like he was actually looking forward to this when they talked on the phone the other night.

“Mr. Parker?”

Peter glances over his shoulder to see his teacher looking at him expectantly.

“He’ll be here soon, Mrs. Hernandez,” he assures her. “Promise.”

But then there are two minutes until they have to leave and still no Mr. Stark. The other kids are beginning to get annoyed with him, he can tell, because they just want to get the trip started. Peter checks his phone, in case he missed any calls from the man, when a car engine catches his attention.

He raises his head just as one of Mr. Stark’s fancy cars pulls into the parking lot and parks a few spaces away from the class. Mr. Stark gets out of the car and straightens his crisp black suit before walking over to the group of students gawking at him.

“Sorry I’m late, teach,” he calls, adjusting his sunglasses. “Traffic was a mess.”

Mrs. Hernandez just nods dumbly.

When Mr. Stark reaches Peter, he clasps a hand on his shoulder. “How's it going, kid?”

“Good! You ready for the zoo, Mr. Stark?”

“I was born ready,” he says. “I should probably go meet with the boss lady before we go, so we’ll talk later, alright?”

“Sure thing, Mr. Stark!” says Peter.

As soon as Mr. Stark is somewhat out of earshot, the rest of the class descends on Peter, their voices blurring together.

“How do you know Tony Stark?”

“Holy crap, Parker, I didn’t think you were serious about that internship!”

“Can you ask him if I can get a picture?”

Peter tries to answer their questions despite his quickening breaths and the growing headache behind his eyes. He’s never been good at being the center of attention, but with his heightened senses, the sudden increase of noise makes him feel even worse.

Eventually, Mrs. Hernandez calls for everyone to get on the bus and Peter breathes a sigh of relief. He climbs on behind Cindy and takes a seat toward the back of the bus, some distance away from everyone else. It’s not like he’s trying to be antisocial or anything, he just needs some time alone to chill out and let himself calm down a little. He doesn’t get very far into his “me time” before Mrs. Hernandez is addressing the class.

“We’ll be splitting up into groups before we get to the zoo and I’ll hand out the worksheets then,” she tells them. “Everyone must be part of a group and you must stay with a chaperone at all times.”

All heads swivel toward Peter expectantly, and he slumps in his seat, trying to disappear on the spot.

“I’ve already chosen your groups, guys,” Mrs. Hernandez says quickly, earning more than a few groans up and down the bus. She starts reading names off of a list, pairing kids with one of the nine chaperones. If Peter’s math is correct, and it usually is, that means there should be three kids per group, with one group of two. Mr. Stark’s name is the last one read, followed by, “Mr. Parker and Mr. Thompson.”

Peter’s heart sinks to the pavement racing beneath the bus. Twenty-six other kids in the class and it just has to be him . A few rows ahead, Flash turns around, giving Peter a wicked grin, and all of Peter’s excitement for the trip disappears at once.

An hour later, the bus pulls up outside of the Central Park Zoo and everyone clambers off to stand with their groups; Flash makes sure to step on Peter’s foot when Mr. Stark isn’t looking. Despite the flare of pain, Peter doesn’t say a word. He’s been waiting for this all week, and he’s not about to let Flash ruin it for him.

Once Mrs. Hernandez has passed out the worksheets and everyone has gone through security and the ticket stalls, they’re free to do whatever they want.

“So, where do you want to go first, boys?” Mr. Stark asks, his eyes scanning the map he’d picked up at the entrance.

Peter opens his mouth to respond, but Flash doesn’t give him the chance.

“Let’s go see the poison dart frogs!” he says. It doesn’t sound much like a suggestion.

“You good with that, Pete?”

Even though he really wants to see the penguins, Peter shrugs and replies, “Sure.”

As they set off for the frogs, Flash in the lead, Peter notices Mr. Stark watching him. He glances over and gives his mentor a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. No need to make him worry on his day off.

🕸⎊🕸

By the time lunch rolls around, they’ve seen everything Flash wanted to see and one thing Peter wanted. Not that Peter’s complaining—everything has been awesome so far and he’s still enjoyed all the animals. He could have done without Flash’s snide comments and jabs every time they were out of earshot of their chaperone—“I didn’t know they had a Make-A-Wish for orphans, Parker”—but at least Mr. Stark seems to be having a good time, which, if he’s being honest, is infinitely more important to Peter.

They stop at one of the restaurants near the entrance. When Mr. Stark offers to pay for the meal, Flash decides to order the most expensive thing on the menu, complete with a large soda and a large cup of ice cream. Peter, who’s gotten used to Mr. Stark paying for things for him at this point, sticks with chicken fingers and fries and a small pink lemonade, because why not?

“Hey, Parker,” Flash says as they sit down at a table with their trays of food, “can I look at your worksheet? I wanna check my answers.”

“Yeah, sure,” Peter responds, knowing full well Flash hasn’t written a single word on his.

While Flash is very obviously copying Peter’s work, Peter and Mr. Stark talk about school, the company, and the engagement. They don’t mention Peter’s “extra-curricular activities” with someone else sitting so near, though Peter is dying to discuss his new web formula that he hasn’t gotten to show his mentor yet. But he restrains himself, knowing he’ll be heading to the compound that afternoon and can show him then.

Once they’ve all finished their lunches, they head out to see the rest of the habitats.

“I wanna go see the grizzly bear,” Flash tells them.

“Woah, wait, hold on,” Mr. Stark says, putting a hand in the air. “You got to pick last time, let’s let Peter have a turn.”

“It’s okay, Mr. Stark,” Peter assures him. “We can go see the grizzly bear first.”

“Nonsense,” he replies. “I wanna know what you want to see, kid.”

Trying to hide his rising blush, Peter mumbles, “Well, I kinda wanted to visit the penguins…”

Mr. Stark smiles at him—not his press smile, but a real one. “Wonderful! Let’s go see the penguins.”

As he puts a hand on the boys’ shoulders and begins steering them toward the Polar Circle exhibit, Peter resolutely ignores Flash’s almost murderous glare directed at him and focuses instead on the signs pointing them in the right direction.

The penguins are adorable and without a doubt his favorite animal of the day. They arrive just in time to feed them, much to Peter’s delight. With a fascinated gleam in his eyes, he watches the penguins snap at the fish people throw to them. Mr. Stark pats him on the back when he manages to toss a fish right into a penguin’s mouth; when Flash does the same thing, he gets a tight-lipped smile. Peter’s positively beaming by the time they leave to head to the grizzly bears, and when Mr. Stark wraps an arm around his shoulders, he thinks he might actually die of happiness.

Of course, Flash just has to ruin it.

They’re waiting for Mr. Stark on a bench outside the bathrooms at the end of the day when Flash casually leans over to him. “So, Parker, how much did it cost you?”

“How much did what cost me?” Peter asks, bewildered.

“The actor,” he says. “How much did you pay him to pretend to be Tony Stark?”

Huffing in annoyance, Peter crosses his arms over his chest and tells him, “I didn’t pay anyone, Flash.”

“Sure you didn’t,” Flash says with a smug grin.

“No, seriously, I didn’t,” Peter insists. “That’s actually Mr. Stark, I swear.”

“Oh, yeah, and I’m actually Captain America.”

Peter stiffens a little, but Flash doesn’t notice. It’s a very good thing Mr. Stark isn’t around to hear this conversation.

“Be real, Parker,” Flash says. “Even if you were really Tony Stark’s intern—which you’re obviously not—why the hell would he agree to go on a school field trip with you of all people?”

Peter doesn’t know how to respond to that, because really, why would Mr. Stark want to go on a field trip with him? He knows pretty much everything about Peter. Maybe he feels sorry for him because it’s just him and May now. Peter’s well used to people’s pity because of Ben and his parents. Is Mr. Stark just like everyone else? Just tolerating him because he’s a charity case?

He’s saved from trying to come up with a reply.

“Maybe,” says a voice to their left, “it’s because I enjoy Peter’s company, which is more than I can say for you.”

The boys turn to see Mr. Stark standing at the other end of the bench, looking down at them through his sunglasses.

Flash sputters, trying to lessen the blow. “M-Mr. Stark, I didn’t—I didn’t see you there.”

“Obviously,” Mr. Stark says with an eye roll, “or you would have kept your mouth shut and not harassed my intern. Although, honestly, I’m kinda glad you did. Because that just confirms how much of a jerk I thought you were.”

The expression painting Flash’s face is priceless. Abject terror mixed with shame and just a dash of irritation at being caught. It makes up for every bad thing that happened that day.

Mr. Stark pushes his sunglasses back up his nose and sniffs. “So, Mr. Thompson, I would suggest you apologize to Peter--and you better mean it--and walk your little butt back to the bus. And you should probably wait for me so the two of us can have a word with your teacher.”

After a very forced apology, Flash picks himself up off the bench and trudges over to the exit. Before he gets very far though, Mr. Starks calls after him, “And Flash?”

The teen glances back over his shoulder.

“You can rest assured that I am very much the real Tony Stark,” he finishes, flashing his press smile. Then, turning to Peter, he asks, “You good, kid?”

Peter, who’s been a silent observer this whole time, has to physically stop himself from tackling the man.

“Are you kidding?” he says. “That was the best thing I’ve ever seen! You totally tore Flash apart! I’ve never seen him so scared in my life!”

“Yeah, well, I’m just glad he decided to keep his mouth shut and not try to lie his way out.” Mr. Stark meets Peter’s eyes. “Does that happen a lot?”

Rubbing the back of his neck, Peter responds, “Well, yeah, I guess. But I can handle Flash on my own, you don’t have to worry about it. He’s a bully to everyone, and I’m kinda used to it, so I’ve got a thick skin.”

“If you say so, kid,” Mr. Stark says. There’s a small pause before he speaks again. “I’m allowed to worry, you know.”

“What?”

“I’m allowed to worry about you,” he explains. “Yeah, you’re Spider-Man and you stop crime every night and you’ve got freaky spider powers, but all that doesn’t change the fact that you’re a kid. And more than that… you’re my kid.”

Peter stares at him wide-eyed, not daring to speak.

“I know I’m not the most responsible person in the world,” Mr. Stark says. “I’m a terrible influence on you, and really, I’m surprised your aunt even lets me near you, but—” he takes a deep breath—“I’m trying. I’m new to the whole ‘co-parenting/mentor’ thing and there’s no doubt I’m gonna have many f—mess ups in the future, but I wanna do right by you and May. And if that means worrying about you every once in a while when you’re not parading around in spandex, then you gotta let me worry a bit.”

For a long second, there’s silence between them. Then, before he can help himself, Peter jumps up and wraps his arms around Mr. Stark. There’s only a slight moment of hesitation before Mr. Stark hugs him back.

“Thank you, Mr. Stark,” Peter says, pulling away. “For everything. Today was awesome.”

“Even with Mr. Rain Cloud?”

“Totally.”

With an arm slung over Peter’s shoulder, Mr. Stark leads the two of them to the bus, where the rest of the class is waiting.

“Hey, Pete?”

“Yeah, Mr. Stark?” Peter answers, gazing up at the man next to him.

“You wanna have a movie night tonight?” he proposes. “You get to pick the movie, so long as it’s not Star Wars or anything Disney—God knows we’ve watched them enough times. I’ll even see if Pepper’s free. We can make popcorn and eat whatever flavor of ice cream you want. What do you say?”

Peter’s practically bouncing alongside him as his head bobs up and down. “That would be totally awesome, Mr. Stark! Don’t worry, I’ll pick a good movie, I promise.”

And together they rejoin Peter’s classmates, playfully debating whether The Godfather is really an appropriate movie for a sixteen-year-old.