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Peter Parker doesn’t like coffee. It’s dark and bitter and tastes like spite. It doesn’t matter how much ice or milk or sugar he drowns it in, it tastes just as awful. So yes, Peter Parker is not a fan of coffee, which is kind of ironic, considering he’s standing in a coffee shop, desperate for energy, free wifi, and a place to work.

He’s been standing in front of the cash register for at least five minutes. Thankfully, there’s no one in line behind him, but there is a cute barista watching him with an annoyed expression. “You going to order any time soon?”

“I don’t like coffee,” he blurts out, and the barista, Harley as his name tag reads, raises an eyebrow.

“We have tea. And smoothies. And hot chocolate, but if you order that in the middle of summer, I won’t hesitate to call the psych ward.”

“Do they even have a psych ward in Rose Hill?”

Harley smirks, and Peter’s heart rate picks up, which is stupid because, well, this whole situation is stupid if he’s being honest. He hates coffee, he’s in a coffee shop, and he has a crush on the barista, whom he’s known for all of the seven minutes he’s spent at the cash register. “Of course not, but the offer still stands.”

“You’re right. No hot chocolate. I need caffeine. Lots of it. What do you have to offer?”

“Coffee.” Peter rolls his eyes, and Harley tries to hide a smile. He looks constipated. Peter wants to see him smile. “I literally don’t know what to tell you.”

“Surprise me,” Peter sighs, handing the boy a five dollar bill. “Keep the change.”

Harley grins as he taps something on the screen in front of him. “What’s the name for the order?”

“Peter.”

“One caffeinated surprise for Peter coming right up.”

Peter, in all horrible awkwardness, shoots finger guns at Harley as he walks away. He regrets it immediately. He has a lot of regrets in life. Finger guns were at the top; letting a blowdart decide where he was going to spend his summer was a close second.

With a sigh, he sets his bag down at an empty table by the window and flips open his laptop. It’s his third year of doing this, this whole ‘move somewhere for the summer and try to finish this goddamn project’ thing. He’s made progress, but he’s still not finished, and he wonders how many summers spent in blowdart-chosen places it will take. Probably a lifetime. Writing Tony Stark’s biography isn’t easy.

Pepper had brought it up to him the summer before his freshman year in college. She was being hounded by people wanting the rights to write Tony’s life, and she hated every single offer. They were all fusty historians or vitriolic reporters or crazy fanatics. “Peter, please do it,” she had begged him, and foolishly, he had taken the offer, bought the rights to write about Tony’s life for Pepper’s adamant offer of fifty cents, and moved to Malibu to begin his work.

Three years later he is still on the first chapter.

“One caffeinated surprise for Peter?” Startled, he slams his laptop screen closed and meets the bewildered blue eyes of Harley, holding out something in a plastic cup with a straw.

“Oh, thanks.” Peter takes the cup and sets it down, propping his laptop screen back open. Harley doesn’t leave.

“Do you mind?” Harley asks, gesturing at the chair opposite Peter. At Peter’s nod, he sits, gesturing at the cup. “Try it. I want to see what you think.”

Peter picks up the cup and stares at it for a moment too long. Harley probably thinks he’s the weirdest damn person on the planet, but Peter can already feel the salty bitterness of the coffee on his tongue, and he’s kind of regretting the past twenty minutes or so of his life.

“Peter. Please drink the goddamn thing.”

“Yeah, sorry. Sorry.” Peter smiles nervously at the boy, who rolls his eyes. There’s a smile playing at the corner of his lips though, and it gives Peter enough confidence to take a gulp of the thing in the cup.

Instinctively, he grimaces and swallows it down as fast as he can, not letting the taste of it linger on his tongue. It’s how he’s always drank his coffee. As always though, some of it touches his taste buds, and just that hint of it is enough to make his eyes widen. He takes another sip and savors it this time.

“What the hell did you put in this?” Harley is leaning back in his chair with a smirk. Peter wants to kiss it off his face (which is a completely inappropriate thought, God, Peter, what is wrong with you). “Cocaine?”

That gets a laugh out of the other boy. “We’re not Coca-Cola, and that’s just a little bit illegal. Take another guess.”

“Weed.” Harley shakes his head, holding back a laugh. Peter can’t stop his own smile. “Vodka?”

“Honey.”

“Yes?” Harley bursts into laughter, and Peter blushes furiously as he realizes his mistake. “Shit, sorry. I mean, yeah, okay. Honey is what makes this so good?”

“Yup. What you’re drinking is my signature Honey Iced Coffee. With oat milk, since I wasn’t sure if you had any dairy or nut allergies. Guess I could have asked, but in my opinion, oat milk is the superior milk anyway.”

“You’re a genius.”

“You’re flattering me.”

“Maybe.” Peter smiles coyly - or at least in an attempt to be coy. “Maybe I’m just being honest.”

Harley stares for a moment, his expression unreadable. It’s a long enough moment for Peter to begin feeling uncomfortable, so he clears his throat and returns to his work, digging through his worn leather bag -- a gift from Happy that makes him feel pleasantly pretentious -- to pull out a stack of photocopied letters between Howard Stark and Maria Carbonell. Harley finally asks, “What are you working on?”

“A biography.” A look from Harley compels him to continue and say, “Of Tony Stark.”

Something dark and pained flashes across Harley’s eyes before he shuts them. When he opens them, his expression is even more unreadable than before. “What did you say your name was again?”

“Peter. Peter Parker.”

“I see.” Harley stands suddenly, the ugly screech of his chair against the floor piercing the ambient bustle of the coffee shop. “It was nice meeting you, Peter Parker.”

Before Peter can think of a response, an apology, or anything at all to say, Harley’s back behind the counter, taking an order from a frazzled man in a three-piece suit and a cowboy hat tucked under his arm, wiping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief -- apparently a common sight in Rose Hill. With a sigh, he turns back to his work, sipping periodically from his Honey Iced Coffee. Harley really is a genius, Peter thinks, draining his cup. By the time he leaves the coffee shop, he’s written a page of notes about the late Stark-Carbonell couple, truly a feat considering his past productivity record. As he goes to leave, he looks behind the counter, maybe to wave goodbye or say a quick thank you to Harley, but the barista is busy at the blender. Peter pushes his way out the door and pushes down his disappointment, bitter as black coffee.

 

The next time Peter enters the coffee shop is nearly a week later, in the midst of a summer monsoon. He had run in the rain from his rental house a block away, foolishly lacking an umbrella but bursting at the seams with a newfound determination. The past week had been spent elbow-deep in research on Maria Carbonell, the charming and plucky woman in whom Howard Stark had met his match. People often compared Tony to Howard. Peter rather thought that Tony was more like Maria, though Howard had left an undeniable mark on Tony, who, decades after his father’s death, had still been plagued by his abuse.

These were the thoughts Peter had written out well into the night. He’d woken up only moments before, sprawled on the couch in his kitchen with a pen still dangling between his fingers. Half an hour later, armed with pages of notes but plagued by the ceaseless fatigue of a lack of a proper sleeping schedule, he bursts into Harley’s coffee shop, flimsy rain jacket nearly soaked through.

Harley once again is the only one behind the counter of the relatively unbusy coffee shop. He looks up at the commotion of Peter’s entrance and watches with a hint of delight written on his face as Peter struggles out of his dripping jacket and hangs it on the antique coat rack.

“Morning,” Peter greets, coming up to the counter. At the sight of Harley’s barely-concealed amusement, he sighs. “You’re going to call me a fool for walking in the rain, aren’t you?”

Harley sniffs. “I was going to do no such thing. Now, may I take you order, Mr. Parker.”

“A large Honey Iced Coffee with oat milk, please.”

Harley’s pleased smile is enough to light up the room (though the sudden burst of light may have also resulted from the bright flash of a lightning bolt). “Coming right up.”

Peter nods his thanks and takes a seat in the corner, his back to the window and the howling storm. A Led Zeppelin song is playing, the traces of which Peter can hardly hear over the pounding rain. It brings a faint smile to his lips nonetheless as he flips open his notebook and his laptop and begins writing.

Tony used to tease him for drawing out blueprints and taking lab notes on paper, but Peter alwares bore it with a roll of his eyes. He had grown up using paper, even to write major assignments. His old computer was cobbled together from dumpster-dive finds, and one too many times a part had suddenly failed, erasing Peter’s hard work or data, had taught him to always keep a paper copy.

Harley comes over moments later with a cup in his hand. “You still working on that biography?” he asks, though Peter notes a hint of hesitancy.

"Thanks," Peter says first, taking the cup and drinking from it luxuriously. Harley's still a genius. "And yeah, I am. It's slow going, but it's going. Faster going here, for some reason. I think I've written more in these past two weeks I've been here than I have in the past three years I've had the rights."

Harley smiles, strained. Peter pretends not to notice. "How long did you say you've been in Rose Hill again?"

"Two weeks, just about. I'll be here for a couple of months then go back to Malibu."

"What brought you here anyway? All the way from Malibu?"

Peter shrugs. "A blowdart. It landed on the tiniest fucking dot in Tennessee. I was about to throw again, but Pepper said a small town might be a good place for the summer."

"Why'd she say that?" Harley's tone is one of growing anticipation, like a dam about to burst, and Peter can't help but be suspicious. He pushes it down. He's probably just being paranoid.

"She didn't say. I think it's because I'm a city boy. I grew up in Queens -- New York City, that is. Then I moved to Malibu. Pepper was a city girl too until Tony bought a cabin in Georgia."

"Well," Harley says, voice stilted. "Maybe a change will do you good. Rose Hill's pretty darn small, especially compared to your big cities."

"It's already done me some good," Peter says with a smile, relaxing a little bit. "There's not really much to see unless you count the one bookstore and the seventeen bars. I don't drink, you see, so I'm sort of forced to work. No offense, of course. I think that's the charm of a small town like this. You can't really be a tourist. You've got to have some sort of work, or you'll go crazy."

Harley barks out a laugh, seeming surprised by his own reaction. Peter grins. "You're right, to an extent. You really haven't seen much of Rose Hill, have you? Not if 'one bookstore and seventeen bars' is your idea of the place."

"No, not really," Peter kindly. "I'd love to see more, if you think it's got more to offer."

"Oh, it does. When are you free? I can take you on a tour of Rose Hill -- Harley Keener edition, aka the best damn locally-guided tour you ever did see."

"I'm always free. The joys of being a freelance writer."

"Perfect," Harley said, standing up. "I'm off at 10, but in this weather, I might close up a little early and clean up. Meet me here at 10?"

Peter attempts to hide his surprise at the ease with which that plan was made. "Good deal," he says because there's really no other appropriate response. "I'll see you here at ten."

"Good deal," Harley echoes. "I'll let you get back to your work. And your coffee."

Peter smiles his thanks, lifting the cup again to his mouth in a futile attempt to hide his blush. Why is he blusing? This is ridiculous. He clears his throat, shakes his head, and buries himself as best he can in his work.

 

Four hours later, he sighs with finality and closes both his laptop and notebook. A glance up at the counter tells him that Harley is busy dealing with the afternoon rush, so he leaves without much ado, waving as he exits the coffee shop. The bell above the door catches Harley's attention, so Peter smiles and mouths "I'll be back." He's not sure if Harley understands, but the boy shoots a thumbs up as he finishes writing a customer's order down and handing the cup to his fellow barista, in for the busy afternoon shift.

The rain isn't as bad anymore, so Peter flips up the hood of his rain jacket and takes his time walking back to the rental house. It's only a block, which of course takes no time at all to traverse, and for a moment, Peter entertains the idea of walking more. Walking until he forgot everything: his pain, his past, and even his own name. A crash of thunder startles him out of that thought. He unlocks the door.

The waves of despair don't come all that often anymore. It's a good thing, of course, but it means that when they do come, they hurt more.

The rain seeps into everything in Rose Hill, gives everything that damp, slippery feeling that Peter quickly finds out he hates. As much as he wants to change out of his clothes, wet enough to cling uncomfortably to his skin, it wouldn't be any use since he still would be going out later that night. With a sigh, he dumps his bag on the counter in his kitchen and goes out to the back porch.

He checks his watch -- a habit he picked up from Mr. Stark in the few months they had together. Sometimes, the simple action of a flick of his wrist is enough to make him choke back tears. Today's not one of those days, but it's damn close.

In New York, it's just past 5 o'clock. May, he knows, will be getting ready for a fundraising event she has, but Pepper will be getting off from work. At least, she should be. She had the tendency to throw herself into running the business her husband left her. His legacy. That thought does make Peter choke back tears, and so he calls Pepper in an attempt to push it away.

And to feel less lonely.

She picks up after the third ring, and they go through the usual round of small talk. "How are you liking Rose Hill?" she asks, at last getting down to business.

"It's nice," Peter admits. "You were right. I've been more productive here than in the past three years."

"That's good, Peter. That's great."

"Thanks! I also met a guy."

There's a beat of silence, and Peter can almost imagine her face. It makes him smile. "Oh yeah? Tell me about him."

"He works at a coffee shop. I hate coffee, you know, but I thought I'd go in. He makes this really great drink, finally got me to drink coffee. Name's Harley Keener. You ever heard of him?"

"Yeah," Pepper says eventually, and Peter knows her well enough now to recognize that she sounds choked up. "Uh, I've heard of him, at least."

"He knew Mr. Stark," Peter replies, and it's not even a question anymore. "How?"

Pepper is quiet, probably deciding what to tell him. "He met Tony a while back, when he was really just a kid. They've stayed in touch a bit, though not as much as either of them would have liked, I imagine. He was snapped, and, well, you know what happened after that."

All too well, Peter thinks. "Is that why you wanted me to go to Rose Hill? To meet Harley?"

"A little bit of the reason. I wasn't sure if you'd actually run into him, but it's a small town."

"Yeah," Peter says with a shaky laugh. "He's actually taking me out later tonight, after he closes up the coffee shop. Said he'd give me the grand tour of Rose Hill."

"You should ask him about Tony," Pepper replies gently.

"Okay," Peter says. "Maybe I will."

 

He decides he won't. Not that night, at least, because he's decided he's filled his grief quota for the day, and he just wants to have a nice night out on the town.

At five minutes to ten, Peter leaves the house, equipped this time with an umbrella and rain boots he found in a corner of the rental house's garage that surprisingly fit him. He doesn't really need them, as it turns out. The rain stopped an hour ago.

Harley's leaning against the wall by the door to the coffee shop. Peter can't help himself. He stops a bit away, where Harley won't be able to see him, and stares for a moment, blown away.

The one street lamp nearby and the light drizzle of rain creates a halo out of Harley's hair, who, in his leather jacket and black skinny dreams, looks like an absolute dream. He'd look straight out of a movie if he'd been smoking a cigarette, but Peter's glad he's not. He used to have asthma, which was fun for a boy growing up in New York City, and besides, he'd probably run away from his good luck if Harley looked like that.

After a deep breath, Peter keeps walking and steps into the light of the lamp. Harley looks up, and an easy grin breaks across his face. Just like that, the tension of Peter's afternoon melts away. "Hey," he says, hands in the pocket of his flimsy raincoat.

"Hey yourself." Harley pushes himself off the wall. "Ready for your grand tour?"

"Ready as I'll ever be." Harley takes them to the parking lot in the back, opens the passenger door of his pick-up for Peter, and Peter wonders if that's Southern hospitality or a subtle reference to the fact that this is a date.

The hope that this is a date, Peter reminds himself. Times might be changing, but it's still a small Southern town, and he doesn't know how socially acceptable dating another boy is here.

He's getting ahead of himself. Harley starts the truck.

"Anywhere in particular you wanted to go?" Harley asks, putting his hand on the back of Peter's seat as he backs out.

And, oh God, Peter can't trust himself to speak. He shakes his head. "Not really. Lead the way."

Harley nods, and off they go into the Tennessee night.

Peter doesn't really know what he expected. A jaunt into one of the bars that spread across the town like moss, maybe. Then he remembers that he told Harley he doesn't drink, and he sighs something like relief because it's always a pain to make up something for why he can't get drunk despite looking like a lightweight.

Then again, if Harley knew Tony, and he did recognize Peter's name that first day, then he probably knows about Spider-Man.

The thought isn't as scary as it once was.

Harley seems to recognize that Peter is lost in thought because he doesn't try to make small talk as they drive down one of the half-dozen roads in Rose Hill. Instead, he sings along lightly to whatever country song is on the radio, and it's comforting enough to pull him out of his reverie anyway.

They end up parking about a half-mile from the edge of the town, on the side of the road by the woods. Peter's glad that he's wearing rain boots because Harley takes him on a walk through the woods, where it's muddy as hell from all the rain.

"You know, this suspiciously feels like you're dragging me out into the middle of the woods to kill me," Peter says at last, after they've walked for about five minutes.

Harley laughs. "I'm not, I promise. I wouldn't dare try Pepper Potts like that."

Peter's satisfied with that answer, but he still doesn't know what they're doing, and he kind of wants to know. "So what is this?"

Harley stops. "A date, I guess. If you're into that kind of thing. I've heard that walks through the woods are the new movie and dinner."

"Oh," Peter says, and he can't really stop the half-hysterical laugh that bubbles out of him. "Sounds good."

Harley smiles at him, self-deprecating, and takes Peter's hand. They keep walking.

Eventually, they stop at a clearing, a mess of mud that looks indistinguishable from the rest of the woods but must have some sort of significance if Harley led him here and is looking at it with that slightly pinched expression. "Here we are."

He says nothing else, and Peter has to prod. "What's here?"

"This is where the great Tony Stark crashed after the Mandarin attack that blew up his Malibu house in 2012."

All of a sudden, Peter can't breathe. It's been a damn long time since he's had two waves of despair in one day.

"I'm sorry," Harley says softly, lightly squeezing Peter's hand that's still intertwined with his. It brings Peter back closer to earth. "I know how much you meant to him, and I thought, I don't know, that we could have a nice trip down memory lane."

"It is nice," Peter replies because, despite the mini breakdown he just had, this feels a little bit like letting go and grieving all at once. He smiles, lopsided and twisted, but there all the same. "You'll have to tell me about it, one day. For the biography."

"Okay," Harley says, and then they're silent, standing in the clearing, looking at the ground like it contains the answers to questions they don't even know how to ask.

They walk back after that, a silent trek through the muddy woods. The rain has finally stopped, and the Southern humidity comes. Harley had stripped off his jacket, holding it over his shoulder with a lazy grip, the other hand still gripping Peter's. His hair curls where it touches his neck, and Peter has a strange urge to run his fingers through it.

When they get to the truck, Harley opens the door for Peter again, and he climbs in. Harley starts the truck as soon as he gets in, and the soft country music from the radio eases the remaining tension in Peter's shoulders. He melts into the seat, gaze still tracing Harley's profile. He's beautiful, Peter realizes, and he's so far gone. The thought doesn't scare him as much as it used to.

Harley looks at him, a layer of amusement masking whatever emotional turmoil he's going through. Peter doesn't ask about it. There's only so much he can take in one day, and once the flood starts, it'll never stop. "What?" he asks instead, letting the corner of his mouth quirk up in a sort of half-smile.

"You're staring," Harley says.

"You're pretty. I can't help it."

Harley's answering laugh is a little wobbly, but he's laughing anyway, and Peter thinks it's his new favorite sound.

"I want to kiss you," Peter says, a thought he hadn't meant to let slip past his lips. Harley stops laughing, but he doesn't tense up, and Peter thinks that's maybe a good sign.

"Okay," Harley says instead plainly, and Peter wishes life and love could always be this simple. A smirk graces Harley's lips. "I dare you to, Parker."

And Peter has never been able to back down from a challenge like that. He leans over the console, cups Harley's cheek in a hand that's surprisingly steady, closes his eyes. His lips find Harley's and the rest of the world falls away.

Moments later, the world comes back into focus. Harley's face, really, is all that his world narrows down to as they press their foreheads together. Peter's hand is still on Harley's face. Harley has a hand on his neck, finger curling around a lock of hair. It's a little distracting, but nothing really could distract him from the glow of Harley's eyes, full of some emotion that makes Peter's heart feel something overwhelming. "You know, Peter Parker. I quite like you."

Peter's too out of it to laugh properly, but he huffs a little bit and lets an easy smile fall on his face. "Good," he says, "because I quite like you too."

 

Later, Harley idles his truck on Peter's driveway, and Peter doesn't really want to step out quite yet, doesn't want to let go of Harley's hand. "You want to come in? I refuse to have coffee in my house, but I can make some tea."

"Okay," Harley says. They stand too long on the porch as Peter fumbles with his keys, and Harley, graciously, doesn't laugh.

"Make yourself at home," Peter says, pulling his electric kettle out of a cupboard. it's a little redundant, since Harley is already hanging his jacket by the door and collapsing into a barstool in the kitchen like it's where he belongs. The thought is kind of nice. "You have a preference?"

"Boys with brown eyes and pretty hair."

Peter tries very hard not to blush. He isn't in middle school anymore, for god's sake. "Of tea, Harley."

"Oolong, if you have any. If not, earl grey or something is fine. Honey, if you have any."

"You and your honey," Peter murmurs. It makes Harley smile. "You need to be home anytime soon?"

It's only 11:30, and Harley shakes his head with a bit of a laugh. "I'm nineteen. I don't have a curfew."

"You live with anyone?" Peter asks. He's trying for small talk. It comes out vaguely threatening.

"Now who sounds like the creepy one who's going to kill me and leave my body in the woods," Harley points out. Peter cracks a smile. "Yeah, I live with my Ma and my little sister. Well, I guess she's not so little. I was snapped. She wasn't. She's nineteen now, same as me."

"That's got to be weird."

"You have no idea."

They lapse into a sort of comfortable silence as the kettle goes off, and Peter pours them both tea. He puts honey in Harley's and a splash of milk in his then settles down in a barstool next to Harley. On an impulse, he kicks his socked feet up into the other boy's lap, who takes it with a smile.

"What about you, Peter Parker? You live alone?"

"Obviously," he says, gesturing at the rental house. It was scary the first time he lived alone. Seventeen, fresh out of high school in a world that had moved on for five years without him. He'd stayed in Montana -- another blow dart location -- in a one-bedroom cottage in East Helena. "I spend my summers alone, but I'm in Malibu during the year. Pepper rebuilt the house, so that's where I live with her, the kid, and my aunt. It's abandoned in the summers though. Pepper and Morgan go to the Georgia cabin, and I think May goes to New York."

"College?"

"Nah. Didn't feel worth it. World ends and they want you to go to school? No thanks. I like learning, but my priorities sort of reboot themselves when I die and come back to life. You?"

Harley laughs. "Same. Abbie -- my sister, that is -- goes to Vanderbilt. Real smart kid. I preferred to stay home. I took over the coffee shop from my Ma, and that's that."

The night passes like that, their barstools moving closer and closer, limbs intertwined as they talk about everything and anything and nothing all at once. They finish one kettle of tea then finish another one full of chamomile. When Peter next looks up at the clock, it's just past three in the morning.

"You sure you have no curfew?" he asks. Harley looks at the clock.

"Well, if I did, I just broke it, probably about ten times over." There's an unspoken question there. Do you want me to go?

No. "Stay the night," Peter says, bold in a way he had almost forgotten how to be. "It's late. You can take the spare bedroom, if you want. I've upgraded since Montana. Two bedrooms now! I just -- I just don't want you to go."

Harley stares at him for a heartbeat or two. "Okay," he says. "But you're a fool if you think I'm taking the spare bedroom."

"Okay," Peter says with a sigh. "I'm warning you though: I cuddle."

"Good. I do too."

Harley ends up in a pair of Peter's sweatpants, smelling like Peter's vanilla shampoo, curled up in Peter's bed with his forehead touching Peter's. It's nice. It's overwhelmingly nice. Peter touches his lips to Harley's forehead, feels the other boy smile, and sighs. He closes his eyes and prays to whoever is listening that life will always be this simple.

 

When Peter wakes up, the bed is empty. He's filled with anxiety until he sees the note on his bedside table, hastily scrawled in what Harley calls his barista handwriting. "Had to go to work. Didn't want to wake you up. Pop in sometime? There's a Honey Iced Coffee calling your name."

Peter smiles. He gets dressed. He goes to get his Honey Iced Coffee.

As he walks, he thinks about Harley Keener. He thinks about Tony Stark. He thinks about Pepper Potts. The beginning, he realizes, is not always the best place to begin.

He gets his Honey Iced Coffee from Harley, who draws a heart on his receipt, and gets to work.

In December 2012, Tony Stark crash landed in Rose Hill, Tennessee. This small town, with the help of a small boy, took in a broken man larger than life and helped make him whole again.

This boy was Harley Keener. There's a hundred things I could say about him, some of those I will, as this story unfolds, but here's one thing you should know about him: he makes a mean cup of coffee.

Peter has a feeling that bit is going to be taken out of the book later on, when the first draft finally makes it to whatever editor Pepper has on speed dial for him. For now, though, it serves as a launching point as Peter finally dives in.

He realizes, now, why Pepper wanted him to write. Maybe it's a little arrogant to say that, but Peter lets himself indulge in it, the same way he indulges in the coffee Harley keeps bringing over.

 

When Peter finally looks up from his notebook, it's mid-afternoon, and the coffee shop is quiet. Harley's wiping down tables. Peter waves him over. "Want to get lunch?"

"I've got to keep the shop open," Harley replies, dropping into the seat across from Peter. It's not an outright no.

"When do you get off work?" Peter pushes. He's hungry. He wants to spend more time with Harley.

"Now. My replacement's late."

"As soon as they get here, we're going out to get something to eat."

"Okay." Harley stands up, twists his rag in his hands like he's nervous. "You're invited to dinner, by the way. At my place."

"With your mom and sister?"

"Yeah. They might've asked where I was last night. I might have told them all about you."

It's Peter's turn to say, "Okay." It's Peter's turn to leave it at that, make life as simple as possible because what other choice does he have?

Harley's face breaks out in something like relief. "Okay. I'll let you know when my replacement gets in. I could eat."

They leave the coffee shop twenty minutes later and walk two blocks past Peter's house to place that Harley calls "The Country Cottage Cafe." It, like nearly every building in Rose Hill it seems, has no signs designating it as such, but the locals seem to know it.

Inside is basically a small, one-story house in which every room but the kitchen and the bathroom has been turned into a seating area. It's nearly empty at such a late hour for lunch, and Harley and Peter get their pick of table. Harley chooses one in what should be a closet. There's a window in it, but from the rough edges and uneven shape, Peter thinks it was a makeshift one that didn't come with the house.

It's nice, though. Peter orders pancakes and Harley orders an omelet, and they drink sweet tea. Peter thinks that if he ever moves away from Malibu, it'll be to somewhere in the South, if only for their sweet tea.

"You New Yorkers think putting sugar in iced tea will do the trick," Harley says. "Well, ya wrong."

"Fuck yeah," Peter says, a little too loudly. The waiter bringing their food frowns, and when he leaves, they burst into laughter.

"You're such a New Yorker," Harley says, digging in.

"I don't know. I think I could get used to the country lifestyle."

Harley walks Peter home after their late lunch because he's a gentleman like that. They spend some time sitting on the front porch, and Peter thinks he definitely could get used to this. "Dinner's at 6:30," Harley says after a break in the conversation. "If you're late it won't kill you though. Nobody ever arrives on time in Rose Hill."

"What should I know before meeting your family?" Peter asks, because he hasn't done the whole meet-the-parents thing since, well, Liz. That was just in passing, really, and look how that turned out. He highly doubts Harley's mom will turn out to be a super villain, but he's still nervous.

Harley let out a breath, long and slow. "There's Ma. Call her Mrs. Keener when you first meet her because that's manners, but then she'll insist you call her Macy because she's not Mrs. Keener anymore. That's my dad's name. If you show up on time, she'll rope you into helping set the table or put the finishing touches on the food, depending on how useless you are in the kitchen."

"I'm not useless in the kitchen," Peter interrupts, mock-offended. He's not useless per se. He's just not very useful.

"Never said you were. You give off those vibes though. Genius who can't feed himself type vibes."

Peter doesn't comment on that. They both know who they're thinking of who was the same way.

"We're having a crawfish boil tonight. Figured I should warn you in case you've never had crawfish before. Figure out how to eat it before you come unless you want Abbie making fun of you the whole time we're eating."

Peter actually has never had crawfish before. He's grateful already that he asked.

"Abbie, my sister, she's kind of a little shit. I love her to pieces, obviously, but she's wittier than I am, and it bugs me. You gotta watch out for her."

"I like her already," Peter decides.

"You might change your mind once you meet her."

"We'll see. I'll see you tonight." Peter presses a kiss to Harley's cheek, to hell with whoever sees them and has a problem with it. It's worth it for the pretty way Harley smiles, a flush creeping up his cheeks despite the way he clearly doesn't want it to. With that, he leaps down the porch steps and walks away. Peter catches his whistling on the breeze with a smile.

 

Peter, in fact, does not change his mind about Abbie Keener. When he arrives at the Keeners at 6:30 on the dot with a bouquet of yellow tulips, Abbie's the one who opens the door. She takes one look at Peter, who's probably wearing some dopey, nervous expression, and a shit-eatng grin appears on her face. "Harley! Your boyfriend's here!"

Harley appears at the door behind her, lightly slapping the back of her head. "That would've embarrassed me in like, tenth grade. Doesn't work anymore."

She shrugs. "Worth a shot." She turns back to Peter with a smile. "Hi, Harley's boyfriend. I'm Abbie. Wanna come inside?"

Before Peter has a chance to respond, she's breezing back into the house, leaving Harley and Peter halfway through the door. Harley looks as nervous as Peter feels. "You coming in?"

"Yeah," Peter replies softly. Harley closes the door behind him. "Um..."

"You can give those to Mama. Come on, I'll take you to the kitchen." Peter breathes a small smile of relief as Harley takes the lead, his Southern hospitality kicking in.

The kitchen is a bustling hub of spices, pots, and pans. Abbie, her curly blonde hair pulled into a knot at the top of her head, is carrying a giant pot. Peter wants to help her, but Harley's already introducing him to his mom.

Mrs. Keener -- Macy, Peter reminds himself -- is one of those women who's younger than she looks. Her face is worn with grief, probably from the Blip, but she also has laugh lines, and she's wearing a smile that's so kind it almost makes Peter choke up. He kind of misses his aunt. He'll have to call her later.

"Hi, Mrs. Keener," Peter greets, sticking out his right hand. "I'm Peter. Peter Parker."

Macy ignores Peter's outstretched hand and sweeps him right into a hug. Peter melts into it. He's not ashamed to take comfort from other people anymore. "Hi, Peter," she says, pulling away but keeping her hands on his shoulders. "And please, call me Macy. Harley's told me all about you."

"Good things, I hope. I brought these for you," he replies, holding out the bouquet.

"He's such a cliche," Peter hears Abbie whisper to Harley. Despite his best efforts, he blushes. Harley pokes her aggressively, and Peter tries to hold back a grin.

"Aren't you a dear? Harley will get you a vase. I've just got to finish up the corn, and then we'll be all set to go."

"Anything I can do to help?"

"You boys help Abbie with the crawfish and set the table, please."

"I can carry the crawfish!" Abbie yelps, shifting the massive pot in her hands. She reminds Peter oddly of Pepper, and he wonders if the two women have ever met each other.

Peter sets the table as Harley and Abbie squabble over who carries the rest of the food to the patio table. He gets distracted by a gray cat winding around his ankles. Harley didn't mention a cat.

"That's Horsefly," Abbie explains. "She's scared of the dark and drives people mad."

Peter doesn't really know what to say about that. He scratches Horsefly's head, which seems to make her happy.

When they're all finally seated around the table and Harley's Ma has said grace, they dig in. Peter's glad he took Harley's advice and figured out how to eat crawfish because he really would have made a massive fool of himself.

The meal is messy and eaten with hands. The heat and humidity of the South after a day of rain is oppressive. The neighbors are playing country music from a speaker on their porch. The sound of bugs is enough to drive anyone crazy. Peter loves it. He loves all of it. He lifts his head to grin at Harley, and Harley grins back.

Abbie starts talking about her day, and Peter melts into the story. She has a summer job at a roadside diner in a nearby town, and they get all sorts of weird customers passing by. She's talking about a regular though, who's about to have his sixth nephew. Harley raises an eyebrow. Macy sighs.

"I've delivered every single one of those Miller kids," she explains, for Peter's benefit probably. "Richard Miller is the most enthusiastic uncle I have ever met. He's the type who doesn't want kids of his own, but instead he declares himself the fun uncle."

"He brought in the oldest one yesterday," Abbie muses, a smile on her face. "The kid looked smitten. I think he's definitely living up to his title as the fun uncle."

"He's their only uncle." She smiles as she says it though, with fond exasperation. "You have any uncles, Peter?"

"Mama," Harley breathes beside her.

Peter nudges his ankle under the table. It's okay. "I used to. He died when I was fourteen. Armed robbery."

Macy's smile softens into something sad, small, comforting. "I'm sorry, dear."

Peter lets the warmth of it all wrap around him like May's favorite blanket in their apartment in Queens. "It's okay," he says, with a smile of his own. He means it.

The conversation moves to easier topics then. Peter finds that he has his own stories to tell: the growing pile of romance paperbacks by his bedside table from the bookstore by his rental house, the robot back in Malibu he made to keep Dum-E and company happy (he named it Two-Knee, and it made Pepper cry and then laugh until she was crying again), May and MJ bonding over a new obsession with collecting vinyl records. Many of them are sad, or bittersweet, but they always end well.

Life, Peter thinks, ought to be like that.

Harley walks Peter back to his house when it's gotten late. Macy has an early shift at the hospital where she works as a nurse, and Abbie's diner opens at five in the morning. Harley's arm is looped around Peter's waist, fingers tucked through the belt loop of Peter's jeans. Peter would mirror him if it wouldn't make walking so awkward. Besides, he's carrying glass containers of leftovers. It's precious cargo.

Macy makes a mean peach cobbler. He's already dreading the day that his supply will run out. He tells that to Harley.

"You can always come back for more."

He might just do that.

Harley invites himself in when they get to Peter's house. Peter wants to ask if Harley has to go to work as early as his mom and sister tomorrow, but he also doesn't want to kick him out. He makes tea quietly instead, and Harley packs the leftovers in the fridge.

"I can't stay too long. I've got an afternoon-slash-evening shift at the coffee shop, but I think Ma would like it if I spent the night at home. Besides, Abbie would make fun of me," Harley says. It's a good enough answer to the questions Peter doesn't ask.

"But you'll stay for a little bit?"

"I'll stay for a little bit."

A little bit turns out to be two hours. They dance to Frank Sinatra from the ancient CD player that they drag out of the closet in the spare bedroom. They drink a kettle-and-a-half of chamomile tea.

And then Harley stays an hour more when, at midnight, they decide to bake cookies. "Why do you have chocolate chips in your pantry if you can't even figure out how to turn on an oven to bake?" Harley asks from the pantry.

"I like to eat them straight out of the bag." Peter's cry of triumph when the oven turns on drowns out Harley's noise of disgust.

"You're weird," Harley tells him, matter-of-fact.

"I'm your weird."

"That statement makes no sense."

"You make no sense."

"You have the comeback game of a third-grader."

Peter doesn't have a comeback for that, so he shoves a few chocolate chips in Harley's mouth instead.

They narrowly avoid a food fight, and it's only because the oven beeps at them, already preheated. They've barely begun mixing. They get to work.

Frank Sinatra sings in the background.

Peter has to intervene when Harley starts pouring chocolate chips into a measuring cup. "What are you doing?"

"Measuring the chocolate chips?"

"Fuck that." Peter grabs the bag. "You measure that shit with your heart."

"Vulgar," Harley replies mildly. He lets Peter take over the chocolate chips.

They end up using all three bags of chocolate chips that Peter has in his house.

"Three bags? For you to eat? You're obscene," Harley tells him, once the first batch is in the oven.

"My metabolism is fucked," Peter replies. "Forget about my chocolate chips. Come dance with me."

They dance to Etta James in between putting batches of cookies in the oven. Peter only has one baking tray. It's a crime.

In the end, they stand over a collection of roughly seventy cookies in various stages of cooling. They stopped counting after the third tray. They had doubled the recipe, but how did they end up with seventy cookies?

"The recipe was for thirty-six cookies before we doubled it," Peter says, after pulling up the recipe again.

"Dear God." Harley nearly collapses onto the sofa. "What are we going to do with seventy-something cookies?"

Peter shrugs. "Eat them?"

Harley eats two cookies. Peter eats six. They still have over sixty cookies.

"I guess I can take some to the coffee shop tomorrow and sell them."

"Do I get some of the profit?"

"Thirty percent."

"Sixty?"

"Forty."

"Fifty."

"Forty-five. That's final."

"Forty-eight?" Peter tries again. At Harley's glare, he wilts. "Fine. Forty-five it is."

They shake on it.

It's nearly two in the morning when Harley finally goes home, carrying fifty cookies. Peter still has eighteen left. He eats one more as he gets ready for bed, Etta James still singing from the kitchen.

He forgets to turn the CD player off by the time he goes to bed.

 

The CD player is out of batteries in the morning, and Peter doesn't know where to get more.

He eats a cookie, eats some leftovers, then eats another cookie. Then, he goes to see the Keeners' house, where Abbie will be coming home from her shift at the diner and Harley will be just leaving. One of them will know where he can get batteries.

Abbie's home when Peter rings the doorbell. "You again? Harley's not here."

It's cute how she acts tough. She's barely even five feet. "That's okay. I came to see you."

She looks at him hard for a minute or two, and it makes her decidedly less cute. She reminds him of Pepper, yet again. Relatively unassuming at first glance but with a killer glare. Abbie invites him in and hands him a glass of sweet tea. "So, what's up?"

"You know where I can buy batteries? Your town doesn't label any buildings. It's slightly problematic."

"It's a locals only area," she quips. "You could probably buy some at the gas station by the woods, but that's a bit of a walk, and you'd have better luck in the next town over. There's a hardware shop near the diner. I can take you, if you'd like?"

"Yes, please," Peter says. It comes out in a sigh of relief.

Abbie nods. "I'm gonna go grab my keys. You finish that tea then come out to the garage."

Peter does as he's asked. He finds Abbie sitting on the hood of a Ford that would look old enough to be vintage. Maybe it is vintage. It's clearly been upgraded and well taken care of. "Nice ride."

"Tony Stark gave it to Harley. Harley was twelve at the time. Couldn't even drive."

Despite himself, Peter huffs out a laugh. "Sounds like him. Never did know where the line was. Or how to deal with kids."

She peers at him for a moment, like she can see right through him. "He did a good job with you. And Harley."

Then she gets in the car, and Peter has only half-second to gape and try not to cry before he gets in after her.

They drive in silence for ten minutes before, softly, he whispers, "Thanks."

"No problem." She turns the radio on and sings along to the same country station Harley plays. Peter wonders if it's the only station the little town gets.

He'd never tell Harley, but Abbie has a better voice.

 

"So you're writing a biography about Tony Stark?" Abbie asks him casually as they stroll through the aisles of the well-stocked local hardware shop. They came for batteries, but somehow, Peter ended up holding a basket full of bits and bobs. He's not sure how much of it is Abbie's and how much of it is his.

"Yup. Have been for three years now. It's slow going."

"It's nice to know you're taking your time with it, at least. It'll be well written. You'll send us a signed copy, of course. Won't you?"

"Of course."

"Great. I can sell it on e-Bay and make major bank.

Peter pays for the lot at the cash register and figures they'll just sort it all out later.

"Can you drive?" Abbie asks as they walk to the car

Peter grimaces. "Yes? Pepper made me learn, and you kind of have to in Malibu. I never did in New York. I'm bad at it."

Abbie nods. Then she throws him the keys. "Let's see it then."

Thankfully, they don't crash. It's kind of hard in a small town like Rose Hill, where practically no one is on the roads. Abbie rolls down the passenger window and sticks her head out into the sun.

"Harley doesn't like driving with the windows down," she explains, pulling herself back into the car. "I don't get to do that often enough. You like the car?"

"Of course." It's Tony Stark's handiwork alright, recognizable even after more than a decade has passed.

 

When they get back to the Keeners' house, Abbie tells him to park outside of the garage. Inside, they set up camp on the floor by the couches and sort out their things. Abbie brings them a pitcher full of sweet tea and lets him try out Harley's lab.

"He won't mind?" Peter asks. His fingers are already twitching.

"Of course not. It's you." There's a lot behind that statement, but Peter doesn't question it. He trusts Abbie.

The thing is, Peter hardly knows where to begin. He stares at it all for a minute before Abbie sighs and stands up from the floor. She perches herself on a stool across the table from him, picks up what looks like a half-finished 3D printer, and gets to work.

By the time the sun sets, he has a proposal for a motor oil that will be more environmentally friendly, and Abbie has fixed the 3D printer. Macy comes and knocks on the garage door.

"Hey, kids. Peter, it's lovely to see you again, honey. Staying for dinner?"

The offer is tempting. Macy is a great cook.

"Nah, it's alright. Thank you for the offer though. And for letting me play around in your garage. And for taking me to the hardware store." The last couple of sentences he directs at Abbie.

She beams. "Anytime."

"If you're sure, darling," Macy says with a smile. "You're welcome any time."

After a round of goodbyes and assurances that he'll be okay getting a late dinner for himself, Peter finally escapes with a spring in his step.

He eats a quick dinner at the hamburger place a couple of blocks away and makes it to the coffee shop an hour before closing. Harley's behind the counter of the nearly empty shop, looking bored. He brightens when the bell above the door announces Peter's arrival. "Bit late for a coffee, ain't it?"

"I'll take a tea, though. And a cookie if you've still got some of them." Harley nods and gets them.

"There's not enough people in this town to eat fifty cookies in a day."

"What a shame. I am so looking forward to my share of the profits. Fifty-five percent, wasn't it?"

Harley laughs. It's a beautiful sound. "Forty-five, dork. Your order's on the house."

Because there's only one other person in the coffee shop, Harley comes out from behind the counter and sits with Peter at his usual table. "I hung out with Abbie today."

Harley makes a face. "That gremlin bother you any?"

"Not at all," Peter says with a smile, then launches into the story of his day. Harley listens attentively, making the occasional snarky comment.

"You don't actually mind that I used your garage set up, do you?" Peter asks because by the end of his story, Harley has fallen quiet.

"Of course not." Peter isn't sure if he's imagining the tightness around Harley's eyes and the line between his eyebrows.

"Are you sure? It's just, you got kind of quiet."

"Yeah. Just tired."

Peter looks at his watch. It's five minutes past ten. The other customer has long since disappeared. "Sorry. Want me to help you close up?"

Harley shakes his head. "Nah. It's alright. Good night, Peter."

"'Night, Harley." Peter knows a dismissal when he hears one. He spends the walk home chewing at the inside of his mouth in worry.

When he unlocks his door and sees his CD player sitting on the kitchen table, he realizes he left his batteries in the Keeners' garage. "Dammit," he mutters. He puts it away on a shelf by the TV. He washes his dishes. He gets ready for bed and tries not to worry.

It's hard.

At midnight, Peter gives up on sleeping. He's had too many late nights in a row, and his body got used to it. He picks up his computer and loses himself in reading about Obadiah Stane.

It doesn't really help his nervous energy, just redirects it. He wants to punch Stane in the eye. He settles for writing a clever quip about the Biblical Book of Obadiah.

It's about retribution. Stane got his just deserts. That's one more thing to thank Pepper Potts for.

When the sun rises, Peter closes his laptop and walks to the Keeners' house. He catches Abbie as she's about to leave for work. "Can I go into the garage?"

She looks at him with an unreadable expression, which is never a good sign. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Right. The eyebrow crease on Harley's face and his curt dismissal come to mind. "I just need to get the batteries for my CD player. I left them here last night."

Abbie nods with a sigh and lets him in. Peter, true to his word, pops in to grab the batteries and pops back out, but not before he sees the set of shattered Erlenmeyer flasks on one of the tables.

Abbie smiles tiredly as Peter emerges. "I'm sorry about that. Him. He can be unpredictable, sometimes. That's what grief does to you, I guess."

"Sounds about right." Peter wants to say more, but his chest is too tight, and all he can choke out is a strangled "Thanks."

"Of course." Abbie watches Peter walk away. Peter pretends not to notice the curtains in one of the upstairs windows shift, tries his hardest not to look at Harley peeking out.

The walk back home is exhausting after an all nighter. The sun shines right in his eyes.

When he gets home, he changes the batteries of the CD player and falls asleep on the couch to a sad, soulful song by Al Green.

 

Peter spends three days in a weird, silent standoff with Harley. In the meantime, he learns how to make the perfect sweet tea, writes the biography, and finishes the leftover peach cobbler.

He wants to go back for more, but he's not stupid.

On the fourth day, just after ten o'clock at night, Peter's doorbell rings. Harley stands there, with a bag of chocolate chips. "Still want to interview me for the biography?"

Maybe it's an apology. Maybe it's not. Peter's not sure what Harley has to apologize for. Maybe Peter's the one who should be apologizing. They don't talk about it. Peter lets Harley in and makes them tea.

"Do you mind if I record this?" Peter asks, once Harley is settled on the armchair by the couch and has a mug of earl grey in his hands. Harley nods. Peter goes into his bedroom to retrieve his recording device and a notebook.

"And we're live," Peter says, once he's situated. He presses the record button. "You want me to ask questions, or do you want to start just talking?"

Harley shrugs. "I met Tony Stark when I was twelve years old. He crash landed in a clearing in the woods on the city limits, and he dragged his suit all the way to my garage. I shot at him with a potato gun. He dodged it, of course, and then he critiqued it, in true Tony Stark fashion."

Peter let out a quiet huff. Mr. Stark had done the same thing with his first spider-suit when he met him. The memory hits him like a truck, but gently. He focuses on Harley.

Harley's face, however, provides no comfort. The dazed look on his face crumples into something more like grief. "He was supposed to be dead, but then he wasn't. For a month after I was told for the second time that he died, I slept in the garage. I thought he'd just show up in my backyard again like last time, and it would all be okay."

"Oh, Harley." The words slip out of Peter's mouth before he can stop them. When Harley lifts his eyes from where they've been focusing on his twitching hands, his clear blue eyes are shining with a thin layer of tears. He hadn't watched Mr. Stark like Peter had. In some ways, it was a mercy. In others, it was torture because he hadn't been quite sure. "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault the good guys always die before their time." A watery laugh bubbles out of Harley. "That's the thing about Tony. He wasn't always a good guy. Some people would say he never was a good guy in his entire life, until maybe the day he died for the universe. But I knew. And you did too. He might've done some fucked up stuff. He had a sketchy past. But he tried to be good, to the best of his ability, and that makes him the best of men."

Harley looks into his mug for a long minute. Peter spends it trying to compose himself. He doesn't want to hear his own watery voice when he plays back this recording. He clears his throat, about to speak, but Harley beats him to the punch without even meeting his eyes. "I'm sorry about freaking out at you earlier. A while back."

Peter doesn't want this on the recording either, but he also doesn't want to break this moment by reaching over to the device. "It's okay. Grief makes us..." He trails off. He doesn't know how to end that. Angry, maybe. Overwhelmingly sad. He'd say stupid, but that just seems mean.

"Sick," Harley whispers. "Grief makes us sick."

"It's okay." The words sound hollow. They always have. "You just gotta find the people who will put up with it. And you make them stay. You make them stick around."

"And if they don't?" Harley looks up.

Peter swallows hard. "Then they don't. C'est la fucking vie."

It makes Harley smile. He looks slightly less watery. "Will you stick around, Peter Parker?"

"Of course," Peter replies. "Always."

His summer ends in eight weeks. He plans on making those eight weeks last forever.

 

The next morning, Peter hurriedly packs his bag and runs all the way to the coffee shop. Harley's behind the counter, and although he looks tired, he smiles brightly when he sees Peter. Peter smiles back. "You owe me a coffee."

"I don't owe you anything," Harley sniffs. He doesn't make Peter pay.

(Peter pays anyway before he leaves.)

"Wanna go for another round?" Harley's face twists into a weird expression. Peter chokes on his own words. "Of interviewing, I mean!"

"At least let me take you out to dinner, first," Harley quips, and that's how Peter knows that they're going to be alright.

Peter smiles. "Then take me out to dinner."

 

Harley pulls up in Peter's driveway at 6 o'clock on the dot. Peter gives up any attempt he was making at looking casual on his front porch steps. He springs up as Harley approaches and lets the other boy kiss his cheek in greeting. It's all very gentlemanly.

"Ready to go?" Harley asks.

Peter grins. "Of course."

Harley blasts country music as they speed down the highway. Peter loves it.

The place they end up at is a small, family-owned Italian restaurant two towns over. The tables are covered in white paper, and Harley asks for crayons. The hostess brings them two sets, unfazed.

"I like it here already," Peter declares.

Harley looks up from where he's drawing Horsefly in yellow and green. "Wait till you try their tiramisu."

Harley's right. It's fucking heavenly.

"God, I feel like I'm going to vomit," Peter says as they walk back to the parking lot.

"Not in my goddamn truck."

The night's still young when they get back to Rose Hill. Harley takes them to a bar called Walker's.

"We're not legal."

"No one cares in Rose Hill. Let's spend at least one night not curled up with our mugs of tea like grandpas, yeah?"

"I like my tea. Fuck if it makes me grandpa-like."

"Come on, Parker. One night."

Peter doesn't really know why he's arguing. It's not like he'd ever say no to spending time with Harley.

"I got something to show you first," Harley says quietly, once they've parked on the street outside the bar.

Peter looks at his face. He's wearing that eyebrow crease of grief again. "It's gotta do with Mr. Stark, doesn't it?"

"Yeah." Harley lets out a breath, slowly. "That alright with you?"

"Okay," Peter says. They get out of the car and walk.

"I brought Tony here when he crashed. He was investigating the whole Extremis thing, asked the wrong people some wrong questions, fought some people like a badass, and risked his own life to save a kid's."

"Best of men," Peter whispers, almost to himself.

Harley smiles. "I'll drink to that."

Peter drinks a Coke while Harley orders a whiskey from a bartender who knows him by name with a smile. They toast to Tony Stark.

When it's quiet in the bar, empty except for the two of them and the bartender, he hands Harley the keys to the bar and a bottle of whiskey. "I'll add it to your tab, son. Stay here as long as you want."

"Thanks, Bill," Harley says with a smile. When the bar door shuts behind him, Peter leans back in his bar stool and puts his feet up in Harley's lap. "You're a heathen."

"No one's around to see it, so why should I care?"

"Just because people ain't around don't mean you get to lose all your manners. Heathen."

"Shut up."

"Comeback queen of the year."

Peter laughs and starts to move his feet, but Harley places a hand on his ankles with a look that says he doesn't really mind. Later, Peter will wonder when exactly they started being able to speak without any words.

Eventually, Harley locks up the bar, hides the keys where the bartender asked him to, and climbs into the car. He lets Peter drive, but they don't even make it out of the parking lot for another hour. Instead, they make out in his backseat like they're high schoolers again.

Peter has to admit it's kind of nice. Not the backseat part, since they're both entirely way too tall for that to be comfortable, but the acting like kids again part. It's nice, it's normal, and it's everything he's ever dreamed of.

 

Harley's still asleep when Peter wakes up. The sight of him -- sleep-rumpled hair spread across the pillow like a halo, eyebrow crease smooth, a hint of a smile that plays across his face like he's having a good dream -- is enough to make Peter's heart do all sorts of weird things.

He's not sixteen anymore. He knows what that means.

He refuses to think about it. It's too early in the morning for feelings. He starts the kettle and calls Pepper.

She picks up on the fourth ring. "Hey, Peter, sweetheart. How are you? Sorry, I can't talk for long. I have a meeting in about five minutes."

"Hey, Pepper. I'm good! I just had a quick question."

"Fire away."

"Would it be possible to buy the house I'm staying at in Rose Hill? You can, like, take it out of my salary. If I have a salary? I'm sorry, I've sort of just been mooching off you. But if I could, can I ask this favor?"

Pepper cuts him off. "We already sort of own the house."

Peter stops babbling. "Sort of?"

"Tony bought a house in Rose Hill during the Blip. We were going to move there, but he couldn't deal with it, you know, with Harley being gone, so he bought the cabin in Georgia and we've been renting out the house. So. It's yours, if you want it, for as long as you want it. Rent free, of course. You haven't really been paying rent for it anyway since it all comes through me and SI."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Peter asks softly.

He can hear her smile through the call. "I told myself it was because I knew you had some pride and wouldn't just not pay rent, but that's sort of a stupid answer, really. The real reason is that I couldn't bring myself to think about it."

Peter thinks about asking what's changed. He doesn't. "Oh. Thank you, Pepper."

"Of course, Peter, dear. May wants you to call her, by the way, so do that soon, okay?"

"Sure thing. Bye, Pepper."

When the call ends, Peter has to take a moment to look around the house. His house, if he wants it, for as long as he wants it.

Of course he wants it. He likes Rose Hill. He likes the people in it.

He loves Harley.

Peter pours two mugs of tea and brings them to his room. Harley's laying on his back with his eyes closed, but he's not asleep. Peter flings the curtains open. "Rise and shine, honey bear."

Harley cracks his eyelids open and winces at the light. "Can I put in a request for a different pet name?"

"Nope," Peter says, popping his p. He settles into bed next to Harley. "Here's your tea. With honey. Because you're a honey bear."

"I hate you," Harley grumbles. He drinks his tea anyway. "Who were you on the phone with?"

"Pepper." Peter starts to tell Harley what about, but he stops. He kind of wants it to be a surprise. "Just checking in on my progress."

Harley nods. "Wanna get breakfast at the Country Cafe?"

Peter sighs, sliding down to rest his head on Harley's shoulder. "Sure. In a minute."

A minute turns into an hour. Harley wears yesterday's jeans and Peter's t-shirt that he stole from Pepper, who stole it from Tony. There's something poetic about that. Peter stores the thought in his head for the biography.

"How's the biography going?" Harley asks once they're seated. Peter has a giant glass of sweet tea in front of him, and Harley has his coffee.

"It's going," Peter says with a shrug, "which is better than it usually is. You've helped a lot. Being here has helped a lot. Might say fuck Malibu and move here."

He says it like a joke. It's not really.

"Not a bad idea," Harley replies. Peter can tell he's hiding a smile behind that mug of coffee.

"You think so?"

"I wouldn't mind. Not one bit."

Peter stares for a moment, and Harley looks away. "I'll keep that in mind."

The food blessedly arrives, and they use eating as an excuse for their loaded silence.

Peter walks Harley home afterwards, where Abbie greets them before Harley even pulls his keys out. "Nice night, lover boy?"

"Shut up," Harley grumbles back. "Peter, you coming in?"

Peter shakes his head. "I'll leave you to it. I've got a book to write."

Abbie gives a melodramatic sigh. "We love a working man in this house."

Harley pulls the front door shut, leaving him and Peter on the porch. Abbie's laugh can still be heard through the door. "Give me a call if you need anything for the book, alright? Or if you just wanna talk. I like talking to you."

Through the door, Abbie calls, "Sap!"

Peter, graciously, ignores her. "Sure thing."

With a smile, Harley pulls him in and kisses him. Peter walks home like he's bouncing on the moon.

 

Later, just before midnight, Peter calls Harley and hopes he's still awake. Harley answers on the second ring. "Hey, coffee-hater."

"Hey, honey bear." Peter smiles and relaxes back into the couch where he's been sitting all day writing. "I've got something to tell you."

There's a crash and a loud bang over the phone. Peter gets a little nervous, but then he hears Harley cursing. Lab malfunction, or, in this case, workshop malfunction. "Son of a bitch," Harley yells in the distance before coming back to the phone. "Sorry. Dropped a wrench on my foot."

"What are you up to?" Peter asks.

There's a long pause. "Your motor oil."

"My what now?"

Harley sighs. "You made a motor oil when you worked in the garage with Abbie, and I know I was kind of mad about it at first, which, by the way, I'm sorry. I don't think I ever apologized."

"It's okay."

"I put it into the car," Harley says. Peter feels a little overwhelmed by the thought of a car touched by Tony, Harley, and himself in its making. "It's brilliant. You're brilliant."

"Oh," Peter says. He has never been great at taking compliments. "Thanks."

Harley laughs. "Sorry for derailing us. What did you want to tell me?"

Peter takes a deep breath. "Yeah, about that. I think I want to move to Rose Hill."

The response is immediate. "Really?" Harley sounds excited. Peter takes that as a good sign.

"Really. Pepper says she owns the house, so she's letting me have it. I'm getting a lot done here, much more than I get done in Malibu or anywhere else I've been, really, and I think it would just be great."

"So free living and productivity. Those are the only good things about Rose Hill?"

Peter hums like he's thinking. "Oh! And Macy's peach cobbler."

"Fuck you, Peter Parker." Peter bursts into laughter. "I can't believe you like my mom's peach cobbler more than you like me."

"What can I say? Your mom makes a mean peach cobbler."

When their laughter dies down, Harley asks a question. "What about Spider-Man?"

So he did know. Peter's not surprised. "I think," Peter says slowly, "that it's time for another sticky teenaged superhero to step in."

Harley exhales loudly. "That's that then," he says. "You wanna come over? We got a lot to celebrate."

"I'll be there in a bit."

 

Three years later, Miles Morales swings from Brooklyn to Manhattan and takes off his mask in an alleyway to stand in line for a book written by a man he's never met. He knows that name on the cover though. It appeared on a sticky note on a brown paper bag with a custom-made spider-suit three years ago.

From Malibu, May sends her nephew a selfie in front of a bookstore with his book cover blown up to gigantic proportions on a poster in the window. Morgan, Pepper, and Abbie, who started working for Pepper right after graduation, stand in front of it, pointing eagerly at it with wide grins. Aristos Andron: The Story of Tony Stark, the Best of Men.

In Rose Hill, Tennessee, Harley Keener closes up his coffee shop and drives to the bookstore by his boyfriend's house. There, Peter Parker stands behind the counter with a name tag on as he signs a free copy of his book for the girl who lives across the street from Harley. She sneaks into his garage at night, and he pretends he doesn't notice. To Riri Williams, Peter writes.

When Riri leaves the store, Peter turns to Harley and smiles. He steps out from behind the counter of the bookstore he now works at. He watches as Harley drops to one knee and opens up his palm.

Tomorrow, Peter will take the ring off to bake a batch of cookies, and he'll see the inscription on the inside of the ring in Harley's chicken scratch. To summers full of blow dart adventures with you.

For right now though, Peter tries his very hardest not to cry when Harley asks in a shaking voice, "Peter Benjamin Parker, will you marry me?"

Peter takes an unsteady breath. "Yes," he says, and the old lady who owns the bookstore claps very loudly. She videoed it, of course. The video goes straight to Macy Keener, who sends it to their family in Malibu.

Later, as Harley drives them to dinner, Peter twirls the ring around his finger. "You know," he says with a smile, "if you wanted to guarantee that I'd say yes, you should have proposed with a Honey Iced Coffee."

Harley's laugh fills every last hole in his heart.