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in spite of all the danger

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I.
They had been watching the ducks. It had been calm, a truly calm morning with their hands full of warm muffins straight from Pepper’s oven and thermos bottles of hot chocolate, sitting at the edge of The Pond in Central Park and letting the rising sun color everything around them in shades of orange and ochre.

Peter and Harley were elbow to elbow, wool hats pulled low over their foreheads, stiff-shouldered from the thick layers of sweaters and jackets Tony had shoved them into before they were allowed to venture out on their Wintery Quest for Fun.

“So you’re telling me that you and May aren’t blood related?”

“Harley, are you kidding me? You’ve thought May and I were related for three entire months?”

“You guys are really similar!” Harley protested, nose pink from a combination of cold and embarrassment. “You both have brown hair and brown eyes-”

“As do most people on Earth, but I didn’t hear you assuming that I’m related to Oprah Winfrey or John Lennon-”

“And you guys get along so easily that it would just make sense if you shared blood. I never really thought it through, I guess.”

“Harley, she’s Italian. I’m ethnically Jewish. There’s a difference.”

“You’re Jewish?”

“Harley!” Peter exclaimed, breaking out in a laugh that came straight from the deepest pit of his stomach and floated out like butterflies into the chilled December air.

A goofy grin spread across Harley’s face in turn and he buried himself behind his thermos to mask it. The sweet scent of the hot chocolate filled him up. It was the most natural of creature comforts.

“Pete, why haven’t the ducks migrated away for winter? Aren’t they cold? I sure am. My ass is gonna fall off if we sit in the grass much longer, and, frankly, I doubt you want to add ‘friends with no-cheeks-Keener’ to the laundry list of reasons that you get teased at school.”

Peter choked out a laugh, breathless as he wheezed, “no-cheeks-Keener,” clutching at his stomach and tilting over sideways into Harley’s shoulder.

Harley gave a self-satisfied smirk. “Geez. I love being funny. For some reason it seems like I’m a lot funnier here than I ever was in Rose Hill and I am enjoying that.”

Peter swiped a tear of mirth away from the corner of his eye and rose unceremoniously to his feet. “If you keep it up,” he said through the errant giggles that shook through him like the aftershock of an earthquake, “you can be a bonafide comedian before the summer. Your friends in Tennessee won’t know what hit them.” He held out a gloved hand to Harley and pulled him up off the earth.

Harley swallowed down the spiteful retort of what friends? that popped into his mind. It was not something he was proud of, but he had found himself thinking rather jealously upon Peter and his easy friendships on more than one occasion: though they were far from popular at Midtown, they were so happy just to be friends with each other that they were seemingly desensitized to the taunting they bore.

The kind of life Harley lead back in Tennessee was not the type that easily allowed friends in. When he wasn’t in class he had his sister to care for. There wasn’t time for sports, or clubs, or going to movies, and there certainly wasn’t money for going shopping or out to dinner. It had never bothered Harley before; it wasn’t a source of frustration because it was unavoidable. It wasn’t something that made Harley feel sorry for himself because it just was: it just was his situation, and he loved Poppy with all of his heart, so he learned to braid hair and make excellent grilled cheese sandwiches and made sure to always read her a story before bed. She was his world when he was home.

But now, in New York, he could see that he had been missing out after all. He had been forced to grow up too early, and maybe that’s why he never felt quite natural in his glasses and still built with Legos while also being able to properly budget $500 to cover his family’s expenses for a month and how to coax a car’s engine to life even when it was far past its expiration date.

Harley was trapped in limbo, being yanked one way towards board games and Poppy’s gap-toothed grin and the other way by Tony’s nonchalant talk of college and internships and applications and future and Harley dreaded the day that one of his shoulders would finally pop out of its socket and leave him lying in a crumpled heap on the ground, just as lost as before but broken on top of it all.

He knew Peter was his best friend. And he was friends with Ned and MJ, too. But there was something off-putting about being the last friend to join a group and it made Harley feel about as useful as an extra toe.

Harley despised himself for a moment as he shook himself from his reverie and noticed Peter’s brows knit together in worry. His silence had gone on too long. Leave it to him to bum himself out while in the middle of having a good day. Peter didn’t deserve having to put up with that.

So he forced a grin onto his quivering lips and clapped both of his hands over his own rear before breathing an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Still there. Two-cheeks-Keener is still kicking for the time being. Tune in next week for an update, seeing as New York winters seem to be the absolute pits.”

The crease across Peter’s forehead did not disappear but he played along with the farce, knowing that Harley would come to him of his own accord if there was something he wanted help carrying. Harley, Peter had learned quickly, was not the type who needed coddling when he was upset. So long as he was (quietly, unassumingly, reservedly, never imposing, more a presence than a confidant) there for Harley if Harley needed him, he was doing the best he could.

Harley was unsure whether he was relieved that Peter didn’t push it, or butthurt for the same. He didn’t need Peter’s attention, nor his pity, but it was strange for Peter to drop his concerns so quickly. Perhaps Peter, too, didn’t want to be bothered by Harley’s qualms. Not while they were having a good day.

Harley wouldn’t blame him if that were the case.

Peter rolled his eyes and bumped Harley’s shoulder with his own. “Mister Stark told you to wear another layer, but no, Harley knows better and now Harley is cheekless and shivering and has resorted to beseeching the ducks for answers.” Boots making unappealing suckling noises where they sunk into the mud, Peter moved closer to the edge of The Pond, squatting down so that he could grab some pictures of the ducks as they swam.

Harley crossed forward and squatted beside him, squinting at the ducks and trying- really, truly trying- to understand through the disconnected haze in his mind what was so special about them that made Peter feel the need to snap no less than seventeen pictures as they floated there, still and lifeless as buoys in a calm sea.

The clicking of Peter’s camera kept him grounded.

Until it was turned towards him, a cheekily grinning Peter behind it and crowing, “smile, Harley!” in his cheery little voice and Harley was so surprised that he instinctively did as Peter said, his lips quirking up and his eyes squishing with piles of wrinkles at each corner, his glasses sliding down his nose.

“Adorable!” Peter cried, clicking through the pictures he had taken. Harley grumbled a bit under his breath because he was, first and foremost, an angsty teen ogre who did not take compliments well and mourned every second wherein a shred of his face touched the unholy grounds of social media.

He rolled off of his toes and sat upon the squishy earth, savoring the feeling of grass beneath his fingers and the scent of sour lake water. It had been a long few months since moving to New York, and Harley was beginning to miss the raw, underdeveloped natural lands of his Tennessee town though he was wont to admit it. He had traded the beating, bleeding heart of the outdoors for the shrill symphony of car horns and chatter, and that was something he would have to live with.

But while he could, he would enjoy the stillness of the park under the early morning sun.

He listened for the wind as it whistled and moaned between the bare branches of the trees; he closed his eyes and tilted his head back and let the breeze bite at the tip of his nose, dance through his hair, raise goosebumps along the exposed skin of his throat; he revelled in the stillness that came with being away from the roaring streets; he planted himself in the soggy soil and anchored himself there, stretching out his roots like fingers in the morning after a long rest, letting himself become one with flora.

It was peaceful. Until.

“Jeez,” Harley marveled, popping an eye open to look for the source of the sudden choked squawking noise. “That duck has got anxiety.”

Peter glanced up from his camera screen to observe the duck as it flailed in the water for a moment. His face fell from its signature crooked grin to something darker. He squinted at it for a moment longer before something in his face shifted entirely. He was no longer confused, his jaw clenching and his eyes widening a fraction and if Harley didn’t know any better he would say Peter looked afraid.

Peter whipped around to look over Harley’s shoulder. Harley shot a glance behind him as well, steel-cold fear of what he would find at the forefront of his brain.

But there was nothing.

Harley frowned back at the duck and Peter in turn. Both still seemed on edge, Peter squatted low but on his toes as if he were tensed for flight. Peter muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like a string of Italian curse words before sharply standing and saying, “IhavetogopeeI’llberightbackdon’tmove,” and taking off down a trail that Harley didn’t recognize, his backpack bouncing against his back as his feet pounded against the packed dirt.

“What the fresh heck, Parker,” Harley shouted at his retreating form, shaking his head.

Pulling in deep, soothing breaths, he massaged his tight chest with one hand and pulled out his phone with the other. Count on Peter to make a dramatic exit. I wonder if he really did have to pee. Is he that much of an infant that he held it until the last second? Wouldn’t put it past him.

Harley opened to his most recent text-train with MJ, the only person other than Peter that he ever texted for they seemed to get each other, strangely enough— their verbal sparring unrivaled and their mutual love for literature the source of many a spit-fire debate that would only come to an end with a ceremonious fist-bump when Peter would tear up in fear that their argument was real and friendship-damagingly grave.

the only ten-i-see

are there bathrooms in central park ??

His phone vibrated with the response almost immediately.

scary michael jackson

What am I, Google? Just piss on a tree, Keener.

Harley snorted a laugh, wincing at the image of what the cold might do to him if he were to try that. Though the answer did absolutely nothing for his anxiety, it was comforting at least to know MJ was still… MJ. Not everyone had gone mental.

Only Peter had.

With a heaving sigh Harley pulled his backpack onto his lap and rummaged through it for his leather-bound notebook. The binding of it was frayed and softened and the pages just beginning to yellow with age, but it was his most treasured possession despite that. It was almost completely filled, each page coated from top to bottom, corner to corner in meticulous, tiny lettering. He flipped open to the first clean page, marked with a strip of paper onto which Peter had drawn a dinosaur so that he could use it to hold his place. Peter, you’re a child. A bookmark, really? No, no, don’t take it, it’s mine. Give it back. Don’t touch my bookmark.

He began to churn out a few lines about the frozen dew and the amber dawn and the frosted boughs in his typical curly scrawl before he found himself clicking the pen incessantly against his thumb with no words to write.

That was when the worry really started to kick in. It had to have been at least ten minutes since Peter had left him there, alone and cold in an unfamiliar park, and that was very much unlike Peter. They had been going on about their plans for the day since the weekend before, praying upon every star in every galaxy that the sun would burn like a gentle giant above them and the earth would be soft underfoot so that they could explore the entirety of Central Park- from end to end- the best they could, and document it through Peter’s pictures and Harley’s poems and perhaps even make a video out of it all later that night once they were back in the Tower and curled up beside the fire to fill their lungs with must and chase away the cold that would creep into their bones. There was simply no way that Peter would say screw all! to the plan and set off without Harley.

Right?

Right, Harley assured himself, though he felt far from sure.

His nerves were compounding in the pit of his stomach like live wires that trailed alongside his veins and down from his elbows into his fingers, from his knees to his feet, making them shake with electricity.

There was just something unsettling about Peter’s sudden departure. No one, not even Peter Parker, could get that shaken by a need to pee. There had to be something more. And if Peter was in trouble, well. Harley certainly wasn’t going to sit around and let him go at it alone.

So Harley lifted himself out of the mud, wiping the loose dirt off of his corduroy pants, shoved his notebook back into his backpack, and set off down the trail that Peter had taken with a fresh determination.

After all of three minutes of sure marching, Harley conceded to the fact that he was lost. Every twist and turn looked the same. The trees were identically albeit artfully gnarled, the expanse of the grass soft and muddled by footprints. The park was still silent, the combination of the early hour and December’s frosty breath dissuading the crowds from leaving their apartments. Before, it had been peaceful. Now, it just felt eerie.

Harley hardly had time to dwell upon that thought when all at once he was surrounded on all sides by a sight he never thought he would see and hoped with a wild desperation to never see again.

Around him in all of their festive glory stood four Salvation Army donation-collector-Santa-Clauses, each with a mostly-empty metal pail in one hand and a handgun in the other, their beards and suits in various states of disarray but all with a hard, manic glint in their eyes as they stared at Harley as if he were a hunk of meat.

Harley was overwhelmed with an urge to simultaneously laugh and cry.

“Put your hands up and your bag on the ground,” one of the Santa’s said gruffly, gesturing with his gun towards Harley’s feet.

“What, is all you know about crime what you’ve seen in crime TV shows? Because that was a pretty lame way to start,” Harley jabbed, his voice strained as he struggled to speak around the lump of nerves in his throat. Thank God Pete got away before this.

“Just shut up and let’s get this over with quick, alright, kid? We need your money or we’ll shoot you and, frankly, that is not the preferable case scenario,” sighed the Santa to his left, exhaustion clear in the lines that carved through the parts of his face that weren’t hidden behind large bunches of fake whiskers.

Harley gulped. He knew he had a few choices: put his bag down and grab his wallet to give to them (it only had a few dollars of spare change and some frequent-shopper rewards cards but it was the principle of the matter more than anything else), make a run for it (he was never the fastest runner but he figured outrunning four drained Santas wouldn’t require too much of him), fight his way out (he could throw a solid punch, as he had proved on more than one occasion, but what these guys would lack in agility they would make up for in sheer size, their stature posing a challenge for Harley, who was wiry and narrow and hyper-aware of that fact), or scream and hope for someone to hear him (somehow, the least likely of all of his options to succeed).

“Kid, c’mon, we haven’t got all day,” right-side Santa whined, looking dangerously close to stomping his foot in frustration.

Harley worried on his lower lip for a moment before deciding that giving up the mostly empty wallet in exchange for not getting shot was a pretty good bargain. He slipped one shoulder out of his straps, then the other. He noticed with surprise that, for the first time since the strange duck occurrence, his hands had stopped trembling. Instead, he was filled with a strange, heavy resolve, knowing that at least he would be safe as long as he cooperated with the Washed-Up Santa Brigade. Just as his fingers brushed against his wallet, another noise began rustling nearby.

Harley’s gaze shot up, instantly on alert and, more than that, frustrated that everything always had to get complicated. At the very moment when he was sure he would escape unscathed, more issues had to come running in.

Literally.

Spider-Man himself was running towards Harley and the Santa Squadron in all of his red-and-blue Spandexed glory.

The image of Spider-Man running across Central Park in front of a pink-and-orange sunrise was so absurd that Harley found himself choking down laughter. I’ve really lost it now, he thought. Held at gunpoint and robbed and laughing over how majestic Spider-Man looks while running towards me. Peter is gonna be so sad that he missed this.

It was another thirty seconds until Spider-Man got close enough to speak to them— thirty seconds that were passed in silence as they all shared an intense out-of-body experience as a result of seeing the infamous webslinger booking it along the paths of the park. The hero’s wheezed breaths as he ran were the first thing that Harley heard of him and he suppressed a smirk at his struggle.

“What… and- wooo, long run, sorry, came from another fight, nothing to swing from- and what-” Spider-Man hunched over and wheezed another breath- “do we have here?”

“Frankie Valli and the Four Santas,” Harley deadpanned.

Spider-Man gave a snort of laughter, the sound impaired by his sharp gasps.

Harley watched as the masked man’s shoulders shrugged from the weight of bearing his breathing. He was utterly shocked to see the man was shorter and thinner than he ever had appeared in pictures, with lanky limbs and rather knobby knees on full display in his tight costume. There was something undeniably youthful and playful about the man that had Harley wondering how old the person under the mask truly was.

In their shock and confusion, it seemed that the Santas had completely forgotten their original mission (to steal Harley’s money). In the face of Queens's own big-hearted vigilante himself, however, everything seemed to come back to them.

“Alright, Spider-Man, you can have your friend and go but we’re taking his wallet. A fair trade, yeah? We won’t blow his brains out, he won’t get his brains blown out. Just costs a couple bucks,” behind-Harley Santa said.

“Uh. I’m really confused,” Spider-Man said, his breathing evening out. He scratched at his nose through his mask as he asked, “why exactly do you need to steal this kid’s money? And why are you all Santa? If you really wanted to steal money then wouldn’t it have made more sense to just take it from your collection bucket? Sure would’ve saved me a lot of energy but no, no one cares about Spider-Man running two miles to a crime scene and back every time the Looter remembers Christmas and— well, I don’t know if you’ve seen this really old movie, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but that’s what he’s like,” Spider-Man grumbled.

He unceremoniously shot a web at left-side Santa, wrapping him up like a caterpillar in a cocoon. “Nope, Spider-Man can handle it. Well, Spider-Man is getting old. He already has bad knees,” the word was punctuated with the shot of a web around the second Santa, “No more running,” and the third was webbed. “Be nice. It’s Christmas, for God’s sake, you’d think Santa of all people could respect that.”

Once again, Harley found himself choking back a laugh at the words against all odds. Maybe Spider-Man had been doing this job for so long that it was second-nature for him to chatter easily with the criminals. All Harley knew was that focusing on Spider-Man’s complaints rather than his own stress was doing wonders for the knot in his chest.

The final Santa stood looking solemnly at Spider-Man, regret in his eyes. “Can you just do my wrists or something? I don’t want to look like a corndog like those three.”

Spider-Man pinched the bridge of his nose through his mask. “Yeah, alright, dude,” he muttered, and shot the wrists of the villain together without sparing so much as a look in his direction.

Once all four men were tied up and writhing on the ground like overgrown larvae, only then did Spider-Man look in the direction of Harley. The hero cleared his throat and gave him a little wave.

“Are you, uh, okay, dude? Are you. Are you here alone?”

There was something oddly comforting in Spider-Man’s light, stuttering voice. It made him seem human. Not that Harley was star-struck, per se. He had caught glimpses of some of the Avengers as they dropped into the tower now and then. It sort of ruined your opinion of a hero when you watched them throwing chips into each other’s hair and dropping from the vents to scare each other.

“I was here with a friend but he booked it to the bathroom a while ago. Actually,” Harley scratched his nose, “I’m new here. To the city. To New York. Where. Is there…” Harley leaned forward conspiratorially, “is there actually a bathroom in Central Park? Or was he pulling my leg?”

Spider-Man took a beat to answer. “There’s a bathroom over by the Zoo entrance. I could, uh, show you, if you want. Or you could follow the signs.”

Harley squinted at the nearest sign. “Oh, cool. I can go myself. Are we leaving these guys here, then?” He added, poking the nearest Santa with the toe of his shoe.

Spider-Man sounded confused and almost offended by the question. “We can’t just leave them there. It’s cold! I’ll call a friend to pick them up.”

Spider-Man tweaked around with his mask, pulling it straighter on his head and tapping his left temple twice. After a pregnant silence, the guy spoke aloud as if into a phone. “Hi, Mister Barnes, sir! Yes, I’m aware that it’s early on a Saturday but— they’re already webbed up— four Santas, Mister Barnes. Four. I know! Yeah, just transport.” Spider-Man nearly choked at whatever ‘Mister Barnes’ had responded to him with. “Oh, please don’t do that. That would be mortifying. Tell Sam I said no, that’s too mean. A drone, Mister Barnes? All the way across Central Park? Yes, I have a sense of humor, no, it’s not one that derives pleasure from the pain of others.” Spider-Man sighed. “Yup. I’ll talk to you later. Thank you so much!” the hero chirped before hanging up.

He caught Harley’s curious eyebrows and Harley noticed his shoulders rising up towards his ears, as if he were embarrassed. “That was Bucky Barnes. He’s a good friend and for some reason he has a pick-up truck even though we live in an actual real-life city so he’s gonna come cart them off for us.”

Harley frowned, then nodded.

He had an itch in his bones. Peter had been gone for nearly twenty minutes now and he was truly worried about him. So, he gave Spider-Man a little, unceremonious salute, hoisted his bag back onto his back, and set off down the trail that the signs pointed to.

Before he was completely out of ear-shot, he heard Spider-Man mutter, “shitshitshit,” to himself and take off like a shot down a different path. Harley snorted and shook his head lightly in disbelief.

It was an interesting concept, he thought as he walked, to have hero dynamics, especially since the whole point of The Hero’s Journey was to be a symbol of goodness that anyone could follow in order to be their best self and inspire them to traverse through the hills and valleys of life in pursuit of their Elysium. People had a tendency to heighten things they wanted to achieve, to shove them further out of their own grasp— sometimes, as an excuse for why they never pulled up the nerve or drive to set out and achieve their dreams, but also in order to give themselves something to look up to for inspiration. That was the whole point of superheroes: to have a seemingly perfect example to imitate in order to be better. But these superheroes, below the spiderweb powers and the thunder-summoning and the metal arms, had stutters and tended to gardens and painted sunrises and burned brownies just like everyone else. And maybe, Harley thought, knowing that we are all similarly imperfect is more comforting than having something to look up to.

We really are our own worst enemies, Harley mused, humming to himself a bit as he followed the signs, trying with all of his might not to imagine finding a mangled, bloody Peter with a Santa-bullet in his gut or- arguably worse- a Peter who had forgotten all about him by the time he arrived.

When he reached the brick structure of the zoo entrance, the knot of anxiety in his throat was near-choking. He was yanking obsessively on the zipper of his jacket, the sharp swhip it made as it opened and closed the soundtrack to his fears.

“Pete?” he called hoarsely, leaning around corners and walking down hallways in his search. “Come on, Peter,” he mumbled. Shwip, shwip. Shwip, shwip.

“Harley?” came a call from one hallway over.

The two syllables washed over him like a tidal swell, relief spreading through him from the very ends of his hair to the tips of his toes like a shock of cold water. He found himself running toward the voice before he could stop himself and when he saw Peter standing there with his camera clutched between wildly shaking fingers and his hat pulled low over his eyes, he wasn’t sure if his body intended to hug him til he asphyxiated or knock him one right one the nose.

He settled for a little of both, tugging Peter into his chest so desperately that he bit down on his own tongue and thwapping Peter over the back of the head with one of his hands as they clutched at each other. “Screw you, Parker, count on you to run away just in time for me to almost get mugged-”

“Mugged?” Peter squeaked, pulling away from Harley to look into his eyes nervously. But Harley had momentarily forgotten the emotional trauma of the past half hour as he took in the blue and green bruise blooming along the edge of Peter’s jaw.

“What happened to you?” he demanded, grabbing Peter’s face by the chin and tilting it so he could get a better look at the bruise. The sun hitting it did nothing to make it look better, only accenting the variegated tones of it. It looked almost like a Gauguin, the colors shockingly visceral and seeming to swirl on the canvas of Peter’s skin.

Peter shook himself out of Harley’s grasp and clapped a hand over the mark. “I, uh, fell. That’s why I took so long, yeah. I fell and tried to fix it but. Obviously couldn’t, cuz it’s a bruise,” he said with a tremulous sort of laugh. He looked near breaking.

“Parker, don’t lie to me. You’re a shit liar. Did you get into a fight?” Harley’s jaw clenched. “Did you bump into Flash or some other prick?”

“No, no, it’s the truth,” Peter whined, but his eyes shone with a frenzied panic that made Harley back off for now. After all, he had all the time in the world to get the story out of Peter.

“Okay, whatever. You missed the coolest thing, though,” he said, slinging an arm over Peter’s shoulders and steering him out of the hallway and back towards the park’s heart, vowing to himself to grill Peter about his injury later but spend the rest of their day according to plan, enjoying winter’s magic while they still could, “these four guys dressed as Santa tried to rob me for my practically empty wallet but Spider-Man showed up- straight from another fight, he had to run all the way, he was hilariously winded when he showed up and I kinda thought really? but then he tied them all up in webs real nice, like Christmas presents. Best part, though? Spider-Man was a total nerd, stuttering and laughing at my jokes, you guys would really hit it off, I bet…”

II.

Midtown School of Science and Technology was unlike other high schools in that instead of having events like dances or movie nights, they had geography bees and science fairs— and the annual winter science fair was coming up hot and fast.

Harley, for one, was looking forward to it. Living with Tony Stark had to have its perks eventually and it seemed like this was the time of all times to finally take advantage of his admittedly advantageous situation.

The tower was a science-themed wet dream. There was lab upon shining lab, all glass-walled and chrome-instrument filled. There were shards of old Iron Man marks, pieces of literal alien technology, computers with the capacity to run programs that could build and destroy and recreate and even make you a smoothie at the same time.

Best of all, however, there were two incredible genius men (famous scientists, he was friends with famous scientists friggin’ Bruce friggin’ Banner lived in his house) and his genius best friend who knew very well how to build an impressive science project.

So, yes. Harley was excited for the science fair.

Until-

“What do you mean you’re working with Ned?” Harley howled, throwing his arms out as if beseeching the heavens to open up and unleash a power that could convince Peter that he had to he simply had to work with Harley for their science fair project. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise. It wouldn’t be fun, otherwise. If Peter worked with Ned then they couldn’t have bonding time with Tony in the labs, the two of them working side-by-side like the arms of a well-oiled machine built with the sole purpose of functioning together, creating one whole. Then they would be in competition with each other, and God only knew that would create more tension than even the Avengers Tower- the unofficial home of dysfunctional team tension- could hold.

“I’m sorry, Harls,” Peter said, and he really did seem it. “Ned and I always team up and I’m afraid I’ll hurt his feelings if we don’t. Besides, now you can make your project something you’re really interested in instead of having to compromise with me!”

What Harley didn’t say was that he had been looking forward to creating a hybrid of him and Peter; a combination of the strengths of the two of them; a physical incarnation of their bond that cemented their friendship and made it more than something Harley simply assumed (felt? hoped? dreamed? imagined?) was there.

He surely thought it, though.

So when the weekend before the science fair came, Harley choked down his pride and went to Tony alone.

He knew, really, that Peter didn’t think of him as second-best, nor did he ever treat Harley that way. But he couldn’t help but feel that way in that moment. Perhaps it was because he was so unfamiliar with how true, real friendships worked, or just because Peter was so deeply likable that Harley had imprinted on him like a handprint in wet sand.

To him, the impression was meant to be everlasting. But for Peter? Even a small surge from the surf would wipe it away as if it had never been there at all. Ephemeral. A spark destined to go out.

Tony was hunched over a long table in the lab, the lights bright and artificial (brighter than when Peter was in there; Tony always turned the lights down for Peter because they hurt his eyes or something) and buzzing. His sock-clad feet rested on the metal bar of the stool he sat on. For the first time, Harley felt that Tony looked small.

Tony typically effused such a boundless presence that he seemed twice his height— seemed immeasurable, as if he could adhere to no scale. His laugh was loud and his eyes danced a mischievous swing and he spoke with his hands like he was a conductor and the world his orchestra. His heart pounded instead of beating; his blood roared instead of flowing; his happiness was rivers and waterfalls; his sadness was ravines and canyons.

But the way he sat then- leaned so close to the surface of the table that his nose practically brushed the metal scraps around him, his glasses slipping off and curly hair tumbling into his eyes, trembling fingers wielding a screwdriver as delicately as if he were pulling glass- he looked real, and human, and small.

It made Harley feel ancient. Older than he had ever been.

Perhaps it had something to do with spending his entire childhood looking up to the man, but Tony had always been an unattainable level of power and prowess to him, somewhere up with Alexander the Great and Shakespeare and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was other, and extraordinary, and bigger than his circumstances, and that was what made him a hero to a boy who was trapped in Bum-Fuck, Tennessee, who’s future was destined to consist of shoveling cowpie from dawn to dusk and then mixing drinks til the sun crested the horizon again.

But now, without the suits, without the metal exoskeleton or artificial intelligence, Tony just looked like a man.

A worn man. Like a footpath trodden for years until the Earth was raw, bleeding, could never scab over or heal again.

Harley approached him, keeping his steps slow and muffled against the linoleum floor. He clasped his hands together in front of him just so they would have something to do.

“Hey, old man,” he said softly.

Tony gave a start, but once he recognized the voice, it seemed that a layer of tension melted from his shoulders easy as ice cream over apple pie. Like the warm sun on cool snow: they balanced each other’s extremes.

“What’s up, kiddo?” Tony asked, not turning around to look at Harley.

“Well, I was wondering if we could talk for a minute. When you’ve got a chance.” Harley picked at the skin at the corner of his thumb nail. Rubbed his nose. Yanked on the strings of his sweatshirt.

Anything to keep moving. To keep moving meant to be moving forward, and moving forward meant getting past the sticky discomfort of asking for help and getting to the actual helping part.

At that, Tony looked up immediately. Harley couldn’t help but feel a rush of affection for him as he noticed the concern in Tony’s eyes, even clouded with exhaustion as they were.

“Sure, buddy. What’s up?”

Instead of answering, Harley walked over to the couch that Tony had tucked away into the corner of the lab— appropriately dubbed “Nap Couch for the Babies,” only there to serve the purpose of providing a spot for Peter and Harley to doze while staying close to Tony. He flung himself down onto the soft suede unceremoniously, slumping down until his chin was almost level with his knees. Tony gave a huff of a laugh and rose from his stool, wiping his hands on his sweatpants and crossing to sit next to Harley. He groaned as he sat, his joints creaking.

“Need some grease for those squeaky gears?” Harley jabbed, looking up at Tony through his lashes.

Tony poked him in the stomach. “I hope that you didn’t just come here to mock me for my age. Is that why you distracted me from my very important, world-changing work?”

“What exactly were you working on?”

“...A machine that generates smoothie combinations so Dum-E can stop serving me motor oil and calling it a nutritious meal.”

“I hate you.”

Tu mi ami.”

“You know you can’t pull that Italian shit with me. Only Peter gets that.”

One more thing he has that you don’t. He has a real connection with Tony, and I’m just the charity case.

He couldn’t even bring himself to be hurt. It was indisputable to him. Tony only had him in the city, in his home, as the return of a favor. Peter, however, was here because Tony loved him for him. And that was what hurt: that Harley couldn’t be loved the same way, because there were other circumstances.

The same type of circumstances that left Harley fatherless and essentially motherless, raising Poppy and himself while juggling school work on top of it all. The circumstances that landed Harley in Rose Hill instead of a place with opportunity, a place like Queens, a place near Tony, because, sure, he was there now, but it was all coincidence. Harley’s whole life had become a product of coincidence. No longer did the universe choose with unwavering intention the paths upon which Harley was supposed to trod, but left him to wander and scour until he found a trail and had to determine for himself whether or not it was the one he was to follow.

“-hey, come back to me,” Tony’s voice cut through his reverie. “We’re here, in the lab, on your Nap Couch, just you and me. And Dum-E, but he doesn’t count.”

An affronted whirring sounded out across the lab.

Harley sucked in a breath. He noticed idly Tony had seized his chin in a firm grip, turning it to face him. He couldn’t really feel his fingers there- though they were certainly present- just the disconcerting pins-and-needles that made him wonder if he were made entirely of TV static.

Ah. Must be dissociating. Harley was no stranger to the disconnect (he remembered Peter’s quiet, stunned you too? the first time he had seen the curtain fall behind Harley’s eyes, the momentary sensation of being caught rather than falling, of safety and comfort and you too you too you too I’m not crazy because it’s you too). The proverbial snipping of the wire, the floating away above his body until his limbs were numb and his eyes stuck wide and unseeing, time roaring past around him where he sat, unmoving and unaware of it, like cotton and stone and stars and ash and a million things that could not not not be rounded back up into Harley.

Fractured.

“Sorry,” Harley muttered, clumsy-lipped.

“None of that. No sorry’s. Just fixing it. How do we fix it?”

Harley went to pinch the skin of his wrist. Tony gently smacked his hand away, pulling it into his own until it was swallowed in the cradle Tony’s calloused, dirty skin. Tony rubbed a thumb across Harley’s knuckles. He could see it moving. If he tried really, really hard, he thought he might be able to feel it.

“Harley?” Tony prompted again.

Right. Tony had asked him a question. “Uh… just gotta… wake up.”

“Right,” Tony agreed patiently. “How can I help you do that?”

Harley rose from the couch silently, relieved when his legs stayed steady beneath him. He had feared for a moment that they would have stayed on the couch while his torso rose. Two halves. Splintered. Pieces.

Was he ever whole?

He sat down on the ground, then slid so he was laying down, head thumping slightly against the linoleum, pressing the exposed skin of his arms to the ground. Palms flat down. Errant hair fluttering down over his face.

Tony did not question it, simply laying down on the floor next to Harley.

“Do you want to work on my science fair project with me?” Harley asked after a moment. He wiggled his fingers against the floor to make sure they were still there.

Tony turned his head against the tile to look at him. There was something positively, heartbreakingly gentle in his eyes. That. That was what cracked Harley, and he came rushing back into himself as if a tourniquet had been untied. It knocked the breath from his lungs and he clapped a hand heavily onto his chest to try and steady it.

Tony was real. He was real. Tony was alive, he was life, the pounding of feet on pavement and burning your tongue on too-sweet coffee and rain splashing into your eyes and the scrape of a stool against linoleum floors. He was raw. He was here. So, Harley was too.

Tony reached out and placed one concerned hand over Harley’s. “You back with me, buddy?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m back. That was a real short one.” Harley turned to face Tony. “Thanks. Sorry.”

“What for?” Tony was frowning.

“Being annoying. Didn’t mean to fade out on you.”

“Harley, that was the farthest thing from annoying. And you know I never say not annoying and Harley in the same sentence.” Tony had a sober seriousness in his eyes. It was unnerving. “If you ever feel something like that coming on, you know you can call me, right? Whether you need me to help you out, or just want someone to be with. I’m here for you, Harley.”

The words slipped out before Harley could stop them. “I usually tell Peter but I can’t.”

Tony gave a little hmph. “Why can’t you?”

He has better things to do. He has better friends to worry about. I bother him frequently with things like this. He’s going to get tired of me, and then I’ll be back to having no one. I can’t lose him. “He’s busy.”

“Too busy for you?” Tony regarded Harley evenly. “I don’t think Peter is ever too busy for you.”

Harley simply shrugged. Seeing a way to explain his predicament to Tony: “Probably working on his science fair project with Ned. Don’t want to distract him.”

It clicked behind Tony’s eyes so obviously that harley could watch it happen with his own eyes. “So you’re afraid Peter is going to forget you because he’s working with Ned. That sound right?”

Harley shrugged again, his shoulders sliding against the floor.

“Oh, Harley,” Tony said. He squeezed Harley’s hand in his. “You know Peter loves you. He loves you so much. Just because he has other friends doesn’t mean he loves you less-”

“I know,” Harley said sharply. He sucked in a breath. “I know,” he repeated, more calmly.

“But it still hurts,” Tony said softly.

“Course it does.”

“Did you tell him?”

Harley paused. “No. Can’t. He’ll feel bad.”

“If you tell him then you can fix it and then neither of you will feel bad.”

Harley shrugged again. It seemed he shrugged a lot when he talked to Tony.

There was a discomfort beginning to fester in his gut. He wanted it gone. He considered, for a moment, dissociating it away, but he knew Tony would be sad if he did, so he didn’t.

He turned to look back up at the ceiling. Perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing to tell Peter how he felt. Fixing things sounded good. That sounded like he could stop feeling like his stomach was caught in the washing machine, tossed around with the suds. He wanted to be clean. The jealousy (for that’s what it was, no matter how much Harley wanted to deny it) was dirty. He wanted to wash, scrub it away til his skin was raw raw raw and every hint of it was long removed.

“You’re right,” he said faintly to Tony.

The corner of Tony’s lip quirked up. “I usually am, if you ever care to listen.”

“I listen. I just don’t always hear you.”

The joke wrought a laugh from Tony, and Harley felt a small hint of pride at that. Then he sobered. “You never answered my question, you know.”

“Ah. I thought my reaction spoke enough for it. Of course I’ll help you out, buddy. You have a plan?”

And the next four hours were spent sipping on root beers, wincing at the sickly carbonation, and fiddling with wires and metals and electric screwdrivers and soldering guns until Harley had a fully-coded robot that could analyze a piece of literature and create entirely new scripture in the voice of the author.

Harley was near-buzzing with excitement, cheeks glowing and eyes wide and hopped up on sugar and the thrill of creation. And feeling like this- feeling at all, really- was one of the greatest sources of elation Harley had ever experienced.

Harley had tested the bot with a piece of Keats poetry. With Ginsberg’s “Howl.” With a page of a science textbook. And, as Tony watched on with pride, a piece of his own work scanned from the pages of his journal.

“We just might win this yet,” he said, his voice reverent as he stared up at Tony.

“Sure might, kid. This is excellent work you did here,” Tony said. Even a blind man could see the affection with which he regarded Harley.

Harley held out his fist to Tony. They tapped knuckles, grinning like fools.

The goofy relief carried on in Harley into the night as he drifted to an easy sleep, knotted in his sheets with a contented grin on his face.

It was not until Monday that Harley saw Peter. They met at Peter’s locker like they always did, but something about it was off. Harley’s heart was in his throat the whole time. His plan was to talk to Peter during lunch- maybe pull him off to walk around the grounds instead of sitting in the lunchroom- and the imminence of it was paralyzing. He knew he just knew that expressing to Peter how he felt would hurt Peter, would upset their dynamic, would put everyone in an awkward situation.

But the one, small glimmer of hope Tony had promised him was what made him stick headstrong to the plan.

When Harley had asked Peter if they could walk, voice thin and shaky, Peter had frowned, nudging Harley with his elbow and immediately following him out of the lunchroom. Always ready to help. Always right at Harley’s side. Except not really, because it didn’t always feel that way.

They sat cross-legged, knee-to-knee on the floor in the empty band room, a strange sense of depaysement like rot in his stomach despite being with the one person who had always made him feel at home.

“Harley,” Peter said softly. He tapped a finger on one of Harley’s knees. “Tell me what’s wrong. You’ve been acting weird since- since…” Peter frowned, then started in shock. As if he had somehow, without any sort of lead by Harley, figured it all out. “It’s because of the science fair, isn’t it?” He said quietly, but there was something hard in his voice. He raked a hand through his hair and continued to speak before Harley could answer. “I really am sorry, Harley, but I couldn’t do that to Ned, I couldn’t, and I wish I could do a project with both of you but I can’t and I promised-”

“Peter,” Harley interrupted, voice scratchy. He cleared his throat. “I know. It’s not your fault. It’s just me being stupid and jealous.” He gave a bitter laugh that was so completely out of character that it made Peter nervous. “I don’t want you to apologize because it’s not your fault. I just. Thought you should know. Because maybe. I don’t know. Sorry. I thought we could, I don’t know, fix it.”

Harley was rambling. He felt like Peter.

Peter, on the other hand, was as collected and eloquent as Harley usually was. “That’s okay. We can fix this, then. Thank you for telling me. It means a lot to me that you trust me enough to tell me the truth, how you feel.” There was a sweet sincerity in those doe-eyes and it made Harley soften. Made him believe they could fix it.

“Okay,” he answered.

“Okay,” Peter agreed with a small grin.

And so they came up with a plan. A simple, silly one, Harley might say. A great one, Peter would correct, thwapping Harley on the back of the head.

The plan was as such:

1. Harley would tell Peter if he felt left out, or far away, or needed him.

2. Peter would be there for Harley and vice-versa (no matter what! he had chirped) because they were brothers, truly, down to the bone, even if their blood was different. They were the same inside. They needed each other.

That was it, really.

And it seemed to work.

For the rest of the week, Peter took special care to make Harley feel included in conversations, to listen to every word he said as if it were scripture and he was searching for salvation.

As much as Harley appreciated the gesture, it choked him. Guilt wrapped itself between his ribs like grapevines, anchoring itself, becoming a part of him. It took up the space his lungs were supposed to fill. He ached.

Friday came slowly. Friday passed quickly. It was 6 pm before Harley could register time had passed, and he was standing at a table on the stage of the auditorium with his Replicating Robot before him, speaking words he couldn’t hear or taste or feel as they left his mouth because his tongue was numb as he stared at Peter and Ned across the room, arm in arm and gushing about their prototype hoverboard that functioned on completely renewable energy.

It was a great invention. Harley was proud of them.

Harley wanted to crawl out of his skin and collapse to the ground in a heap of blood and tissue and sob until he was part of the puddle.

But he couldn’t.

Because in the middle of his speech, someone’s prototype lightsaber exploded.

Because the auditorium was on fire.

Because students and parents and teachers were flocking towards the exits of the auditorium in a frenzied clump, shouts of fear and pain rising above the ravenous crackling of the flames.

Because Harley couldn’t find Peter anywhere.

His heart pounded so hard that he could feel it in his fingertips as he muscled against the tide of the crowd. “Peter?” he called desperately, smoke filling his mouth with an ashy film. He hacked a cough. “Peter, please!”

Even Ned was filing out of the room. No Peter at his side.

The crowd was becoming too thick for Harley to resist. He let it carry him. Peter must have gotten out already. That was the only explanation, he assured himself manically.

He remembered idly the watch Tony had constructed for him after the Santa Quartet— the one that would send a distress signal straight to Tony if the correct button was pressed.

Did Iron Man deal with fires?

No, probably not.

Did he deal with missing Peter Parkers?

All too often.

Harley slammed a hand down onto the button.

The smoke was pouring into his nose unhaltingly. It stung as if he was inhaling still-smoldering embers, which, in all likelihood, he was.

The stage was completely alight, the fire beginning to spread rapidly as it kissed the stage curtains, racing up them in an orange blur, pouring out over the edge of the stage and inching towards the rows of seats. Ever closer to the crowd, to the exits.

Sweat was beginning to pour into Harley’s eyes and he swiped it away furiously. He needed Peter he needed Peter he needed to find Peter and make sure he was okay.

He couldn’t breathe. Every breath was a wheeze. Every step was agony as his nerves fought to stop him, to stop him from moving when there was no oxygen in his muscles, when he was choking, dying.

Harley had just cleared the door when he collapsed to his knees, retching against the locker-lined wall, gulping huge breaths of the slightly fresher air. The temperature difference between the air in the auditorium and the air in the hall was such that it stung, burned to breathe in the cool air.

As the retching ended and Harley’s airways had cleared slightly, a firm hand wrapped around his bicep.

“Come on,” said a familiar and commanding voice. “We have to get out.” Harley looked up, his vision blurred by a layer of wetness.

Of damn course. He could never escape that godforsaken vigilante.

Spider-Man wrenched him to his feet. “Was there anyone else in the theater when you left?”

“Yes,” Harley croaked.

“Go,” the masked man commanded, giving Harley a shove forward. “Go, get out of here before you turn into Tennessee barbecue, for Christ’s sake.”

Harley didn’t have the time to notice the oddness of that specific taunt. After all, how would Spider-Man know where he was from?

Harley ran, heaving, following the crowd, leaving the vigilante behind to run head on into the flaming theater as if he had no qualms.

The night air was painfully cold, biting at Harley’s nose, his throat, his chest. His teeth chattered.

Firemen were hosing down the school. An EMT grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him towards an ambulance with its back doors thrown open, speaking quickly as she did.

“I’m Adara, I’ll be checking your vitals if I have your consent,” she said, dark skin shining in the silver light of the moon.

“Yeah. Yeah,” Harley repeated, nodding. The movement was a mistake. Another round of nausea struck him and he keeled over, pulling Adara to a stop as he retched up sour smoke and bile and tears squeezed out of the corners of his eyes as he puked until he was sure there was nothing left in his body— no smoke, no remnants of food, no organs, no blood, no bones. An empty shell.

Adara sat him in the open doorway of the ambulance, taking record his vitals and smacking an oxygen mask over his face for good measure. She wrapped a shock blanket around his shoulders and he held it tight around him as he sat and waited as she tended to other students.

Parents were arriving in swarms, crying out and holding their children to their breasts, feeling their hearts pound.

No May. No Tony. No Pepper.

Just waiting.

Where the hell was Peter?

His answer came stumbling out of the building two entire minutes later, a long, shiny burn across his cheek and smoke coming from his hair in a stream. Harley let out a cry of raw relief, tearing the mask off of his face and dropping the blanket and sprinting to meet Peter as if his lungs were whole, unburdened by a cloud of smoke.

He grabbed Peter by the face, his hands wrapping around his jaw, and twisted it, searching for injuries.

“Where are you hurt? What’s wrong? Where were you-?”

Before Peter could say a word, he was wrenched from Harley’s grip by an EMT. His entire body was shuddering and he was coughing as if there was something large and corporeal lodged in his throat rather than the cloud that was killing him from the inside out.

This time, it was Peter wrapped in a shock blanket and pressing the oxygen mask closer to his face as he gratefully sucked in borrowed breaths.

Harley had wedged himself next to Peter, clasping one of Peter’s hands in both of his and squeezing as if his grip slackened then Peter would disappear.

Peter is here he’s alive you’re okay he’s okay Ned’s okay we’re all okay-

“There was a girl in the auditorium,” Peter’s croaky voice broke through his mantra. Harley turned to see Peter holding the mask away from his mouth so he could speak.

Without a word he pressed the mask back down, shielding Peter’s lips.

“Did you get her?” Harley whispered through his raw throat.

Peter paused a beat. Nodded.

Harley let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding and squeezed Peter’s hand again. “That was stupid of you. So stupid, Pete. The fireman could have saved her-”

Peter shook his head wildly.

“They wouldn’t have made it on time?” Harley deduced.

Peter nodded.

“You’re a hero, Peter Parker,” Harley said solemnly. Reverently. “A damn idiot, but a hero.”

“Harley? Peter?” The frantic voice came not a second later, Peter’s lips still in the process of stretching into a bashful smile beneath the mask.

Harley frowned but breathed a silent sigh of relief. “Took you long enough, old man. Pete and I could have been Kentucky fried by now and you wouldn’t have known any better.”

Tony’s hands flitted onto each of their faces, their shoulders, shaking wildly, unsure of where to touch only knowing that he needed to see it to believe it to feel his boys his boys alive still here.

He wrapped his arms around them both and pressed a firm kiss into the top of each of their heads. “We okay?” he asked, voice strained.

“Yup. Peter saved someone’s life.”

“What else is new,” grumbled Tony, pulling away to look Peter in the eyes. “Stupido. Ho un bambino stupido. Però… anche ho un uomo bravissimo.”

Peter’s eyes gleamed.

Tony kissed them each once more for good measure, looking as if he were about to collapse at their feet.

Harley remembered suddenly someone he hadn’t seen escape the fire. “Oh my god, I forgot,” he muttered into Tony’s shoulder. “Spider-Man was here. He lead me out of the theater kinda. I puked in front of him. I’m really zero-for-two on being cool in front of that guy.”

“Spider-Man helped you, huh?” Tony repeated, a strange smugness in his tone. “Well, that’s. That’s really something.” Harley could feel him shaking his head. “You’ll have to give that guy a proper thank you one day, I think.”

“Hmph,” agreed Harley.

“Hmph,” seconded Peter.

There was silence for a moment.

Peter shifted the mask away once more, to the annoyance of Harley and Tony.

“No, no-! Let me say this!” he whined, his voice husky. Tony and Harley paused in trying to shove the mask back on his face, fearing whatever he had to say would be something horribly sentimental and heart-felt. “Mister Stark, would you believe me if I said we didn’t start the fire?” Peter quipped, singing the last line in a very poor Billy Joel impression.

Harley couldn’t hold in his snort of laughter. Call it relief. Maybe it was the softness of the eye contact he made with Peter and the strange feeling of absolution that came with it. We good? Of course. Always. You and me. They didn’t need to speak to forgive.

They touched knuckles in celebration. Treaty? Signed.

Anticlimactic, but that was the best way for it to go.

Tony looked to the sky as if asking it how the hell he got stuck with those two for kids.

Harley looked up and wondered something along the same lines, with just as much affection softening his eyes.

III.

“Peter Parker you cannot strip in an alley, what the hell is going on right now? Put your pants back on, Peter, or so help me God. I’m gonna call Tony. Did you hit your head while we were running or- Peter, you are a hopelessly abominable crap monkey, get your clothes on.”

Peter was hopping on one foot, pulling off his socks, his jeans and flannel shirt already dropped unceremoniously into Harley’s outstretched arms as if he were some sort of human-coat-rack hybrid. He rummaged in his backpack with a steady sort of ferocity, tossing out books and folders until the torn-up gravel at their feet was littered with spanish worksheets and pages upon pages of complicated equations, the blue ink bleeding in the grimy puddles underfoot.

Peter wholeheartedly ignored Harley’s words and continued to rummage, his head and arms up to the elbows entirely inside of the bag.

The sound of gunshots rang out in the street behind them, each echoing bang and scream of terror making Harley’s throat close tighter. His heart was stomping in his chest like the hooves of a stag as it bounded through the undergrowth, each stutter of his breath as if he was snagging on gnarled roots. Every breath ached and he could feel the walls of panic closing in upon him, the reality of his impending demise weighing upon him like bricks and he was caving in beneath the weight.

As the screams of fear from behind them turned into screams of pain, Harley felt himself turn green, his vision spinning so violently that he felt seasick, the gravel tilting and tossing beneath his feet.

For the first time, Harley was encountering a situation that tested his mortality. And he was not handling it particularly well.

God, people are dying and we’re gonna die too and Peter is gonna die in his boxers and that is gonna be so hard to explain to the police— “Mister Tony Stark, does this match the description of your sons? One was found dead of a heart attack, didn’t even live to get shot, and the other was bare-ass naked and singing Kumbaya to try and make friends with the friggin' criminals-”

Peter made a grunt of satisfaction and pulled a suspiciously red-and blue bundle of fabric out of his backpack. At that, he finally turned to Harley, their gazes locking- Harley, panicked, and Peter, chagrined but serious- and seemed to realize all at once that perhaps Harley was not quite as emotionally prepared for this type of situation as he was.

After all, Peter had been face-to-face with death more times than he could count. He had been bullet-riddled, squashed beneath buildings, locked in trucks with his hands tied behind his back; he had been interrogated and beaten to a pulp and had his will stretched so thin as to be pellucid, like papyrus held up to the sun, too easy to punch through. Though he would never become numb to the adrenaline of a mission, he had become more adept at choking it down like a pill and swallowing it, letting it fester in his stomach until the deed was done and only then would he let the fear hit him in waves like a relentless sea crashing over him as he shuddered and sobbed and retched the last sour remnants of terror from his blood.

He took a step forward and grabbed Harley by the shoulders, staring hard into his eyes. It hit him like a truck, then: this was the first time he had to go actively into battle with someone he cared for immensely to protect at the same time. “Harley,” his voice was sharp, “I wanted to tell you another way, another time, but I can’t. You’ll understand in a minute. But I need you to listen to me now. Okay?”

Harley nodded wildly, already having connected the dots in his mind (the suit, the bruises, he’s always hurt, always tired, never has time for homework, the dreams, no wonder he met Stark, this explains how he’s always saving me, internship my ass those dirty liars I’m gonna get them back for this so hard I swear) and ready to follow Peter to the ends of the Earth blindly if Peter was sure he could get them out alive on the other side.

“You need to stay here-”

No-”

“Harley, stay here or I’ll knock you out and make you stay. Hide. Don’t move until I come back to get you,” Peter’s voice cracked a bit, the flaw in his otherwise seamless facade, “please, Harley. Be safe. I’ll be back. If I get hit, call Mister Stark, but only if I’m down. I can handle this.”

“You can handle this,” Harley repeated, eyes like saucers and lips trembling. He shoved Peter a little as a fresh wave of screams rang out behind them. “Go, Peter, I’ll be fine. God, be careful or I’ll kill you.”

Peter gave Harley a wry smile. “However bad this looks, I’ve survived worse.”

And in a blur of limbs Peter slipped into the suit, running towards the chaos before it had even fitted to his body, shoving the mask over his head as he threw out an arm and shot a stream of webbing onto a street-light, his cheeky shout of, “You must have the wrong address, buddy: the Mass-Murder-and-Terrorism-Enthusiasts Expo is over on 94th ave!” the last glimpse of him that Harley had before his tiny silhouette swung around the street corner and out of sight.

Harley doubled over, his elbows pressing into his knees, and heaved a few deep breaths, swallowing hard against the bile rising in his throat.

Peter was out there. His Peter was out there getting shot at and putting himself in danger in order to save people like a martyr.

And Harley was just supposed to wait there like some sick housewife awaiting her husband’s return from the War?

Harley had never loved and hated anyone as much as he did Peter Parker in that moment.

He found his feet moving of their own accord, carrying him closer to the street corner, his heart wild and quick and unsteady in his throat and he felt alive, could feel the blood roar through his veins and every neuron fire in his brain and he was afraid that it was because his body knew it knew that maybe these were his last few seconds alive and was crying, mourning what would be lost before it was gone. Hands trembling like leaves- still clinging to Peter’s clothes- Harley peeked a head around the corner cautiously.

Peter was at the end of the street, on his feet in the middle of a lane of traffic that was blocked off by an overturned taxi cab, smoke pouring down every side-street and alley for at least three blocks in every direction. Small fires were burning in the gutters as oil and alcohol and piss and whatever else dribbled along the New York streets caught alight, sending the flames down the avenues like lifesblood pumping from the heart of the battle: Peter, Spider-Man, and a gaggle of people in all-black with red details on the arm and guns blazing in a constant stream towards Peter’s lithely tumbling form or whatever they could hit behind him. Namely, innocent civilians, a weary and retreating police task force, and the glass windows of buildings that came weeping down from the sky in clouds of silvery sharp edges.

Harley watched, frozen in horror as Peter landed jaw-shattering punches and kicked ribs out of place, wrapping body after body in a shroud of webbing as they fell like marionettes with snipped strings. Bullets were flying, words being shouted in a sharp, throaty language that Harley couldn’t understand, and he felt a buzzing in his very fingertips that urged him to help somehow, to protect Peter or the civilians where they bawled and made to run away but found themselves trapped by abandoned cars, large pieces of concrete and glass and twisted metal that had crumbled off of buildings, and winding strings of fire that flickered like sadistic birthday candles in the biting winter wind.

It all happened very quickly. One second, Harley was standing stock-still and hidden from the trajectory of the battle and the next he was booking it to the people behind the car-barricade, pulling them out one by one and shushing them, leading them in a hunched-over sprint from the barricade to the alleyway he had been hiding in.

The bodies were warm. They trembled under the wrap of his shoulder. He could hardly hear the screams over the throbbing of blood in his own ears. He pointed them down streets, in directions they would be able to take in order to get far as flying fuck away from here and into a safer zone.

The only reason he noticed what happened at all was because the woman and small boy he had been leading towards the alley stopped dead in the center of the street, slipping out from under his shoulder as they did. Their eyes were wide with panic, their ars extended towards something they could never reach. Straining against space and time. Harley was so startled that he looked up, his pulse wild and dancing in his wrists, on his neck. Bile was burning the back of his throat. Every breath was heaved.

Until he saw. And then he feared he would never breathe again.

Peter, swinging from a street light as it tipped over, bullets flying at him from no less than six different guns, a blur of crimson and cobalt, whooping and hollering and radiating an aura of absolute reckless abandon.

And then he wasn’t. Because a bullet had found a home in the center of Peter’s stomach, nestling its way into the soft area between his navel and the bottom of his ribs.

He fell from the sky like a stone from the hand of a disinterested god.

A guttural cry echoed between the narrow walls of the alleyway. Harley couldn’t tell if it had been him or not.

Screams poured out like holy wine, roaring in waves through the alley, down the street, christblood, sacred. Fear and mourning and panic in burgundy, berry, and maroon. A cocktail of perfect chaos.

It was deafening.

Harley felt nothing.

It was like tunnel vision. There was Peter, and there was him, as if they were at opposite ends of an endless hallway. His knees were stuck stiff as tree trunks. His eyes burned.

And then as if a spell had broken, Peter sat up, and absolute pandemonium ensued.

Harley let out a sob of relief, collapsing to his knees. He raised one trembling wrist and smacked the face of his watch with his free hand, choking out Tony’s name between panicked gasps of breath.

Hey, kid. What’s up? Lose Peter in the bathrooms again?” Tony’s voice came through.

“Spider-Man was shot,” Harley wheezed without preamble, his words blurring together with urgency. “Iron Man needs to get here now before Pete- uh, Spider-Man- bleeds to death.”

Shit. Shit. Shit. Got your location. I’m coming. Keep an eye on him and stay the hell out of the way, Harley, for Christ’s sake.”

The connection cut off just as the hissing sound of a repulsor firing up filled Harley’s ears.

“Okay, Harley,” he breathed to himself. He swallowed hard once, twice, three times. His pulled in a breath that filled his lungs and puffed out his chest and then held it until his head started to swim before blowing it out in a gust and sucking in another lungful. “Okay, Harley,” he repeated, his voice steadier.

He pushed himself up off of the gravel of the alley and ran out into the street.

Peter was still swinging but it was obvious that he was injured, his body curled like the weight at the end of the pendulum on a metronome.

There was blood on the ground where he had fallen, and more of it dripped steadily from him as he swung like paint from a brush swirled in the practiced hand of an artist.

Harley’s heart convulsed. Pressure on a wound, he needs pressure on the wound, he can’t bleed he can’t swing he can’t, he’ll get hurt, that idiot that absolute idiot if he dies I don’t know what I’ll do-

Maybe if I stop standing here like a schmuck and actually help then that won’t be an issue.

So Harley ran, closing the distance to the intersection in the middle of which the fight had centered itself. There were web-wrapped bodies and broken weapons littering the street like malapropos presents. The air was thick with smoke from the fires that continued to smolder in the gutters. It looked like Armageddon, with Peter playing the role of the archangel and Hydra the army of fallen seraphs, black and cardinal red with anger hot in their eyes and poison in their teeth-clenched grins.

Harley skidded to a stop ten feet from the skirmish, a showdown between Spider-Man and the final two Hydra agents. The vigilante was sloppy, his movements lethargic. With every swing he held on too long and swung too far. He never touched the ground, attempting swinging kicks and shooting bundles of webs that ran with electricity and formed nets. But the injury had affected his aim. Almost nothing hit its intended target. There was no witty banter, only shouts of pain and grunts from the effort of the fight.

Harley worried on his lower lip and scanned the area urgently for something he could do, something he could use, to help Peter. He was ready to yank out chunks of his own hair in frustration. Uselessness was not something Harley Keener handled well. If he took much longer… he feared he would be returning to a much quieter tower.

At his feet was a gun.

He bent over mechanically and picked it up. Weighed it in his hand. Held it out in front of him. Closed one eye and squinted the other to near shut. Chose his target. Placed his fingers. Sucked in a deep breath.

And chucked the gun with all the strength he had.

It hit one of the agents smack in the head.

It did no damage, but it did a damn good job of distracting them from Peter.

“Hey, Octopussies!” Harley shouted, referring to the terrifying sea-demon logo on their sleeves. “Why don’t you pick on another city, huh? This one is a little busy!”

Both black-eyed gazes zeroed in on him. Him, where he stood with exactly no super powers, no protection, no tricks left. Just Harley, a burning street block, and a bleeding mutant spider-boy swinging above him like a torn flag.

The Hydra agents began to advance towards Harley. He steeled his nerve, shifting to stand with his feet spread wide and his shoulders back. He lifted his chin. If I’m going to die today, at least it will be to protect this city, these people. To protect innocent lives.

To protect Peter.

They raised their guns together, opposite gun arms side to side, and Harley found it to be strangely poetic. Him and his right hand man would both be shot that day. He would lay down his life for his hero, for his Peter, and they would wear matching scars.

At least Peter would heal from his.

If his hearing was better then he would’ve heard the bullet enter the chamber of the gun.

If his vision was better then he would’ve seen the finger press down onto the trigger.

He sucked in a deep breath, let his eyes find Peter as he struggled to lower himself onto the pavement, heard his distorted, desperate screams, his pleading as if he were underwater and Peter was shouting at him from a distant shore.

He shut his eyes.

And he waited.

And waited.

And wondered if perhaps death had come for him so swiftly that he never had a chance to feel the pain. That would be a relief. The scariest part of death to Harley had always been imagining the pain, trying to suck a last breath into collapsed lungs or coax a final beat out of an exhausted heart. He frowned a bit. Peeked an eye open. Searched for an explanation.

“Ah,” he said. “Iron Man.”

The soaring tin can had taken it upon himself to land directly in front of Harley, planting a rather unwieldy obstacle for the Hydra agents to overcome.

Harley, grab the Spider-Kid and get the hell out of here.” Tony’s disembodied voice was cool and collected, but Harley could hear the strain beneath it all. It sounded as if Tony’s vocal chords were fit to snap.

Harley could only imagine how Tony must have felt, landing there in the middle of a gunfight and finding his two kids smack in the middle of it on the precipice of dying. It must have seemed like a nightmare scape, all ash and hellfire and pools of blood and the biting wind tearing through like the ghosts of the angels come to collect their wayward souls.

Harley’s heart gave an almighty thrum, so real and solid that it hurt and startled him out of his stupor so instantaneously that it was as if Tony had shut off the TV off in the middle of a movie.

Oh my god, I’m alive,” Harley muttered. He waited not even long enough for the relief in that realization to flow through his veins as sweet and light as champagne bubbles before he tore off around Tony’s Leviathan-esque suit and met Peter’s figure where it was still struggling to stagger over to him, half-hunched over with one hand pressed against his gut and tears across the fabric of his mask revealing purple bruises blooming on his nose.

Their bodies collided head-on as if neither of their brains had retained enough function to remind them that they would be okay they were both alive and they would be safe they just needed to get out of the way and Tony would finish it and they were safe they were together and breathing and bleeding but safe.

“You better be okay or I’ll fucking kill you dead,” Harley gasped, catching Peter under his arms to prop him up.

“Booboo,” Peter said, his voice far away. “Got a little booboo, Harls.”

“I know, Pete, I know,” Harley said, keeping one arm below Peter’s and laying the other on Peter’s chest to steady him. “We gotta move, buddy, we gotta get out of the way so Iron Man can kick some ass and we can go home and fix you up nice, okay? Can you do that?”

“Iron Man always kicks ass,” Peter grumbled, already seeming more lucid as the eyes of the mask blinked aggressively and squinted at Harley. “And you don’t need to baby me. I’ve been shot before. I can handle this.”

Just after he had said it, his gaze whipped up to lock on Harley’s profile, mask-eyes nearly perfect circles in pure panic. “Harley,” he breathed. “You. You ran into the street. Into the street.”

His fingers knitted into the fabric of Harley’s jacket as he spoke, grasping the fabric in a trembling fist. Harley pulled them along more quickly as if it would help him escape this conversation.

“You could’ve died, Harley, you just stood there and waited.” Peter’s breath was picking up, wild and detached. “What the fuck, Harley? Are you stupid? You were gonna- you were gonna let yourself get shot-“ his voice broke and he shook his head sharply- “for what, Harley? What could have possibly possessed you to make you think for even a second that running into the street in the middle of a shoot-out with a handful of literal assassins was a good idea?”

They finally rounded the corner into the- now empty- alley. Harley ignored Peter’s words for the moment in favor of shoving the smaller boy onto the ground so he could look at the gaping wound in his stomach.

Harley was no doctor. Not even close. Blood made him so woozy that he had to skip the first aid unit in health class at his high school in Rose Hill.

But Peter had a bullet in his stomach.

So he bit down hard on his tongue and found the torn edges of Peter's suit, sliding his fingers into the rips, slick with blood (Peter’s blood on my hands Peter bleeding with a bullet in his stomach Peter slumping against the wall because he’s lost so much blood Peter with ashen skin and his eyes closing-)

“Open your eyes,” he snapped as he tore the already-existing holes wider in one sharp motion. The movement jarred the wound and Peter hissed out a breath through clenched teeth.

“Sorry, sorry,” Harley muttered. He swiped his hands across the legs of his pants, hoping to get rid of the coating of cherry wine and failing miserably. Coated in Peter’s blood for the indeterminable future. He looked back at Peter.

Peter lifted one trembling hand to his face and slipped his fingers beneath the edge of his mask where it circumvented his neck. He yanked the mask off, struggling to slide it over his blatantly broken nose. His hair fell down onto his forehead in a sweaty, matted puff. Blood from his nose had smeared inside of the mask and now his cheeks and the corner of his lips were stained a sickly shade of burgundy.

“I’m tired, Harley,” Peter’s voice came quietly, resignedly.

Harley’s heart constricted. “I know, Pete, but you’ve gotta stay awake until we get you to the tower, til you get to the Medbay-“

“Jus’ gotta get the bullet out,” Peter mumbled. “Have super… healing. Speedy healing. Gotta take out… take it out… before it gets healed into me.” He looked up at Harley through bloodshot, half-opened eyes. “Don’t wanna beep,” he said.

“‘Don’t wanna beep’?” Harley repeated, pausing from rubbing away the blood Peter’s blood with the sleeve of his jacket.

“In airports,” Peter said. “Don’t wanna beep metal detectors.”

Harley had to take a deep breath to stop himself from punching Peter in the face.

As Harley continued to blot at the blood in order to reveal the wound better, he wanted to vomit, to scream, to sob, to shake and let his bones rattle and let his tears fall so slick and fast that they would pool into his mouth and drown him in a sea of salt. Peter, hurt. Too much. Too much.

He silently, desperately begged and pleaded for Tony to hurry up. He couldn’t remove a bullet. Not from Peter, whose blood was under his fingernails like paint and caked in the skin of his knuckles and seeping into the fabric of his jacket, of his pants.

It took almost five minutes. Five minutes of Peter sucking in sharp breaths and clenching his fingers into tight fists (Harley had tried to hold his hand but Peter had pulled away immediately, I don’t want to break your fingers, Harls. I have super strength too. To which Harley could only ask, what superpowers don’t you have? And Peter had replied well, I’m not bulletproof, and Harley had to take a lap in the alleyway to walk off the frustrated nausea that locked his throat shut in response). Five minutes that Harley spent counting seconds, tracing drawings onto the pavement with his shaking fingertips, blinking hard against a barrage of tears that were building behind his eyes but he refused to allow to fall because he had to be brave, he had to be the strong one while Peter laid there bleeding (dying dying he’s dying and then this technicolor world he brought to you will go back to being black and white and you’ll have to learn how to survive all over again).

But he wasn’t strong, and he never had been. Not really. He could put on a tough-boy act and saunter around the school with one cocked eyebrow and his hands deep in his pockets and a crooked smirk, but that wasn’t him. It was as much of an act as Tony’s public persona. They were more alike than either had expected. The universe must have brought them together because of it. To help them both learn to knock down their walls with their own sledgehammers and let their souls shout, sing into the sky.

Maybe that was why they had both been brought to Peter, with his dumb brown doe-eyes and his easy grin and a mind that never stopped whirring. Peter had always been the kind of kid to refuse to sacrifice his identity for the betterment of others. That was why it was so easy to admire Peter. It was their lesson. That was how Peter had weaseled his way into their lives, had snooped around a bit and then chosen a spot to rest leaning right against the practiced muscle of their hearts and lowered himself there, hands laced behind his neck, calling it his home.

Maybe that was why it was ripping them both apart at the seams to see their boy sitting white-lipped and red-eyed, slumped on death’s goddamn doorstep.

Tony had stumbled when he landed in the suit— something Harley had never seen before. When Tony was Iron Man, it seemed that he had never been anything but graceful, purposeful, deadly. Now, he was breaking.

Hey, Pete. What’s the status, kid? Are we movable?” he said very fast. The faceplate of the mask retracted, revealing a blissfully unscathed but wild-eyed Tony, alight with fear.

Peter looked up at Tony, his head rolling on his neck, too weak to support it. “Hey, Iron Man. Gotta get… bullet out. Then I can-” Peter made a woosh sound effect- “the hole in my belly away.”

Tony dropped to his knees in front of Peter, frowning. “You’re really out of it, buddy. How much blood do you think you lost?”

Peter began to count on his fingers.

Then, realizing the kid was not a good source of an estimate, Tony added, “Karen? Give me a scan.”

Harley stood a good five feet away and watched in horror, silent, allowing the panic of the afternoon wash over him. He lowered himself to the ground on shaking knees, one hand pressed over his mouth and the other tugging on the ends of his hair. Every breath came with a small whimper, his chest hot as if it had been kissed by the flames from the street.

Peter is okay.

He could’ve died. You could’ve died.

You couldn’t save him.

Maybe I’m dying now. Sure feels like it. Can’t breathe.

Wouldn’t want to if Peter isn’t.

“-ley, come on, you need to breathe, kid. You need to pull yourself together, breathe with me.” The words were said in a deadly calm voice. An unfamiliar one. If Harley had enough emotional leeway to be frightened, his alarm bells would be singing like it was noon on Sunday.

He looked up from his lap and found himself eye to eye with the most stunningly intimidating woman he had ever met. Even scarier than Aunt May when she had been mad that one time (for, truly, that was the only time Harley had ever seen her angry). This woman had heavily-lidded eyes that smoldered and skin that was smooth and pale as the surface of a pearl. She had a hand clasped around each of Harley’s shoulders, seemingly ready to shake him if need be.

When she registered that Harley had responded to her presence, she slid one of her hands off of his shoulder and used it to raise one of his hands over her heart. It beat steadily, slowly. Almost like a waltz.

“Breathe at the same time as me,” the woman commanded. Harley tried. He did. But it seared in his chest and in his throat and he wanted to make it stop, make it stop maybe hold his breath until he fainted and then it would end-

“Hey,” the woman said sharply. Harley flinched and tried once more to suck in a breath. It was small. Didn’t soothe the pain in his lungs, or stop the trembling in his legs where they lay useless on the ground before him or make the bile stop blistering his throat like poison. But it did seem to make the woman happier. The corner of her lips turned up. “There you go. So you haven’t forgotten how to breathe. Just do that again. You know you can,” she said, and her voice was sweeter then. Harley imagined it like a river of honey and let it carry him away.

“I’m Natasha,” the woman said, gently.

Ah. The Black Widow. What a lovely way to meet her for the first time: crumpled in a heap on the ground, having a meltdown because he was scared. Like a child.

At least it was a memorable first impression to leave.

“Harley,” he offered back, his breath steadying slightly as he focused on the conversation rather than letting himself sink back into the wild, angry tide that had been swallowing him.

The panic was replaced in equal parts by embarrassment, potent and red-hot in his cheeks.

There came the familiar whirring of the repulsors and Harley saw Tony taking off in the suit, Peter thrown over his shoulder, streaking off towards the smoke-streaked horizon.

His heart thumped. He turned back to Natasha, dread like bitter copper on his tongue. “Is he-?”

“Spider-Man will be fine,” Natasha said evenly. “Bucky got the bullet out in about ten seconds. He’ll just need to take a nap. Maybe drink some juice.”

At the name Bucky, Harley started. He gave the alleyway a quick once-over, shaking his hands to try and rid them of the last remaining tremors from his panic attack. Peter will be okay. The Black Widow says so and I doubt Peter would disobey the Black Widow so you can calm your shit now. He’s okay and so are you. And so is Tony. We’re all okay.

A few feet away sat a slightly stocky man, cross-legged and fumbling around with the strings of the bulky sweatshirt he wore. His hands were encased in a pair of thick, knit mittens, but Harley knew that if they weren’t there then the man’s left hand would catch the dying light like a beacon, metal instead of flesh.

James Barnes shot him a half-grin, dimples pressing into the stubbly skin of his cheeks and smile-lines creasing the corners of his steely eyes. God, I am so bisexual, Harley couldn’t help think, mourning the fact that the two most badass, acclaimed, talented, well-trained, put-together, pretty assassins in the world had just watched him have a panic attack.

He heaved a sigh and gave the man a small wave back, flushing.

“If you think you’re up to it, we can bring you back to the tower now so you can check on Peter,” Natasha said, standing up. She offered a hand to Harley, wrinkling her nose slightly but not pulling away when she saw his was covered in dry blood.

“You know-?” Harley asked, finding it extremely difficult to form even that incoherent question.

“Yes. That’s why we knew to come. We were out for our traditional Saturday pancakes,” Natasha shot a glance at Bucky, who gave Harley a sheepish shrug in turn, “and saw you running around. Figured Spider-Kid was playing the hero and we were right, of course.” There was a strange fondness in her look, mirrored on the face of Bucky. Typical Peter, endearing assassins with his childlike charm.

Harley looked from her to Bucky and knew he should feel some semblance of trepidation over allowing two trained killers to help him out, but something- perhaps the ragged state of his emotions after watching Peter almost die, almost dying himself, watching Peter bleed out in front of him, and then having a panic attack- actually, yes, it was almost definitely that- sucked every ounce of fight from him until he was listless as a stringless balloon. He nodded.

And that was how he ended up sitting in the back seat of the Winter Soldier’s 2007 Ford F-150, listening in complete, silent shock as he and Natasha Romanova debated the pros and cons of NSYNC versus the Backstreet Boys and their influence on boyband culture.

He couldn’t wait to tell Peter.

It took seventeen minutes from the moment they left the alley until the second Harley was at Peter’s bedside in the Medbay, Tony sat in the bedside chair and May cross-legged at the foot of the bed with Peter’s feet in her lap and her nose in a book.

Harley felt frozen where he stood, his eyes meeting Peter’s and a thousand words being communicated in that moment alone. I’m sorry I scared you. I’m sorry I almost got shot trying to save you. I’m sorry I couldn’t help more. I’m so, so happy you’re okay. I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t.

Peter scooted over in the sheets, making room for Harley to squish in between his side and the metal bar on the edge of the bed.

No one spoke. They didn’t have to. Their relief was palpable. Unspoken, but perhaps louder this way than if they had said it.

Harley crawled into the open space and slid down on the pillow so that he and Peter were practically nose to nose, their breath hitting each other’s skin. Harley didn’t even have it in him to make one of his characteristic jabs about Peter breathing down his neck, or criticizing the smell his breath (for it smelled sharp and coppery and Harley knew then that the wound had been as bad as he feared, bad enough for Peter to be coughing up blood).

Peter’s hand searched across the sheets for Harley’s. When they met, they laced together and Harley gripped onto Peter so tight that he was almost afraid he would snap the smaller boy’s fingers.

All he could feel was sweet relief coursing through him, hot and mawkish and melting the ice from his veins. Peter was here, beside him, breathing and living and with an entire pint of orange juice on his bedside table and that meant that everything was right in the world.

Except-

“So I guess I’ve gotta come out to you know,” Peter said. “Harley… I hope this doesn’t change how you see me-”

“You’re a drama queen.”

“But I need to get this off my chest. It’s just been bugging me. I feel like I’ve been trapped in this web of lies for so long, it’s really biting me in the a- uh, butt.”

“I hate you.”

“Don’t ruin this for me!” Peter whined, wrinkling his bruised nose. “Harley…” he put on a dramatic voice and threw his free hand over his forehead. “I’m Spider-Man.”

Harley let a begrudging grin spread across his face.

Peter was here. Beside him. Joking.

“Well, I already knew you were my hero as Peter. Now you’re just… double-hero,” Harley said, his voice soft with the unrelenting wonderment that he held like a bouquet of flowers to his chest in having Peter here, with him, so close, so alive.

Harley felt more than saw Tony and May shoot mushy grins his way. He knew they agreed. Anyone would.

Peter swiped away a tear that tumbled from his eye and nudged his face into Harley’s shoulder, the outline of Peter’s watery grin pressing into his skin. Harley let a hand fall onto the back of Peter’s head and knot into his mussed curls.

They would be okay.

IV.

Harley Keener was not clingy, thank you very much.

If he liked to text Peter Parker every hour, on the hour throughout the day to make sure that he was still kicking (swinging?) and wrote a few lines of specially designed code that allowed him access to Peter’s comms while he was vigilante-ing so that they could talk the whole time, then that was his prerogative and no one else had a right to comment on it.

After all, no one else had to deal with their best friend tally-ho-ing into the sunset towards a happily-ever-after of ass-whooping every night. They had school the next day. If Harley didn’t remind him of the time, keep him on track (because that was definitely the only reason for the calls; Harley didn’t worry, he never worried about Parker a day in his life)… who was to say Peter would ever do anything punctually ever again?

Harley, that’s who.

It was obvious as anything that Peter didn’t mind the company. He seemed to enjoy it, really, blabbering on about everything from the plot of the last episode of the TV show they watched together (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) to the differences between dill pickles and bread and butter pickles.

The problems only arose when Peter insisted on carrying on through his tangents while fighting criminals no matter how Harley insisted he focus on the task at hand lest he get injured or so help me God I will dismantle this connection before Tony finds out and merks us both.

Peter would grumble a bit. Harley would huff.

Peter would continue to talk. Harley, too enraptured by the sounds of the combat, would never disconnect, preferring to sit at the dining table by the window in a blanket cocoon and stare out at the corporate monoliths slicing across the horizon and imagine what buildings Peter could be whipping between at that moment.

It was a pretty good system.

It was a Wednesday. Usually a low-crime day— one that would have Peter swinging into the tower by 11 pm, two packets of gummy worms in hand and five new stories to relay to Harley, who would grouse about Peter’s aversion to amicable silence, and Tony, who would look on with unmistakable affection in his eyes as he sipped on a cup of coffee.

Harley liked Wednesdays. They were the eye of the storm, surrounded on either side by days that were almost always plagued by sloppy robberies and small-scale alley-scraps. Those days were always longer, tenser. Peter would still talk, but his jokes would be directed towards the criminals rather than Harley.

So, relieved that Peter had passed a Tuesday unscathed and by all counts successful, when Peter pressed on about the Goofy Movie, Harley allowed it.

“No, but the chorus of After Today slaps way harder than Eye to Eye!” Peter insisted, punctuating the sentence with a soft grunt as he caught himself with a web mid-swing.

“But After Today is so one-dimensional. I’ll admit that it’s fun to sing it and do all of the different voices for all of the characters but Eye to Eye is just. Better! And has way more emotional meaning!”

“There you go again with the ‘emotional meaning,’ ugh, my name is Harley Keener and I use a thesaurus as a pillow and know the difference between the symbolic meaning of a duck and a goose in literature-”

“Have I ever told you that I hate you?”

Peter scoffed. “You could never hate me. I’m too cute to be hated. MJ told me that I’m the ‘I’m baby’ meme incarnate and I’m not going to pretend to know what that meme really means but I think it’s relevant here.”

Harley stayed silent as if contemplating the accusation.

“Hey,” Peter jabbed.

Harley didn’t answer, biting his lip to hold in a snort of laughter.

Harley… Harley. Harley. Come back, I’m sorry-”

“Oh my god, stop whining, Spider-Boy. I’m not going anywhere. Just teasing. Fine. I don’t hate you,” Harley huffed. “Happy?”

“Very,” Peter quipped and Harley could picture the crinkle-eyed smile Peter was wearing beneath his mask. Mask.

“Hey, Pete. Weird question that I am just now realizing I’ve never asked you.”

“Hit me with it!” There was a scraping noise from Peter’s end of the call and then a small exhale of air and a thump, which Harley took to mean Peter had stopped swinging and sat on the edge of some roof somewhere.

“The mask.”

“Hmph.”

“Why?”

Harley could hear Peter scratching the back of his neck. “Well. Mostly to hide my identity. Like, 70% to hide my identity. Then 10% because it has special features that make vigilante-ing easier.”

“Like what?”

“Well, Mister Stark put some filters in it for smoke and poison and dust so I can’t breathe them in when I wear the mask. But in my original pajama suit- you know, the ‘Underoos!’ one- I built the mask so I could use these special goggles. They, uh, were for my sensory overloads because certain light gives me migraines and blocking out my periphery a little bit helped me focus better on the fight. I got distracted less. So, yeah, this mask has that, plus some extra muffling for my ears because sound is another thing that gives me migraines. Basically everything gives me migraines.”

Harley chuckled. “So the sensory stuff started at the same time you got your powers?”

“Yup,” Peter said, popping the ‘p.’ “It makes everything a million times worse but it sure is great for when we practice mission protocol in training with everyone because Clint’s heartbeat echoes like crazy in the vents-”

“He really hides in the vents? I thought that was a joke this whole time,” Harley snorted.

“Oh, it’s very real,” Peter deadpanned. “And it’s the only place he hides, too, so I always find him in about ten seconds. I think he does it purposely— hiding where I can find him, I mean. It’s, like, a dad complex.”

“Hmph,” Harley agreed. “What’s the other twenty percent then? If seventy is for your identity and ten is because you’re a sensitive baby-”

Hey-”

“Then what’s the rest?”

Peter was quiet for a moment. “Well. Honest? Because I didn’t want the criminals to be able to, uh, see when I’m nervous. Which is most of the time.”

Harley started in surprise. “You, scared? I thought you were entirely fearless, Peter Parker.”

Peter gave a hard laugh. “No. No, definitely not. Not fearless.” He sighed heavily. “Pretty much the farthest thing from fearless, actually. I’m scared of everything. I am the Supreme Lord of Anxiety.”

“Well,” Harley started, then stopped. He felt like he was short-circuiting. Peter, scared? If anyone had the right to be scared, it was Peter. But every time Harley had seen him in a fight or heard his witty banter through the comms, Peter seemed almost serene— as if there was no place he belonged more truly than he did in a battle.

Harley wondered if it was something Peter got used to. If, at first, it had been worse, every fight sending him into one of his panic attacks or over the edge of reality into that distant place that Peter sometimes got caught in, buried underneath his bedsheets with wide-open eyes staring blankly onto a scene that no one else could see for entire days at a time. If every fight got easier to fight, easier to win, easier to justify. After all, it was one thing to stop someone stealing a bike and web them to a wall until the police could come, but it was a different beast entirely when Peter had to injure a criminal for the sake of someone else’s- or his- survival. Especially for Peter, Harley could imagine the rationalization to be the most difficult part of the job. Worse than any snapped rib or bloody knuckle; worse than broken web shooters or lungs so full of carbon monoxide that every breath stung and wheezed and he suffocated for the long minutes until his advanced healing shoved the toxins out. Because Peter, well. Peter was Peter, and always would be, and thus he was softer than Coney Island cotton candy and sweeter than the same; brighter and louder than fourth of July fireworks; kinder than a quickly-passing rainstorm on a hot and humid day— the type that left the sky powder blue and the air dry and cool.

“Well,” he tried again. “Being scared is part of the job. It doesn’t make you unworthy, or cowardly. It just means that you’ve got a couple strands of human DNA left even after the spider DNA started changing you up,” Harley jabbed. “I bet Tony is scared all the time.”

“Mister Stark gets scared,” Peter agreed. Harley could hear him getting up from his seat, heard the quiet thwap of a web sticking to something close by; the tell-tale crackling of the comms as Peter swung, the friction of the air on his suit echoing in Harley’s ears. “But he ignores his afraidness-”

“Afraidness? Peter. The word is ‘fear.’”

“Shut up, Harley, I’m bad at English,” Peter grumped. “And distracted. I see someone being really shifty down there. There’s a big black van, license plate is ‘STN-7334.’ Karen, could you write that down? In case I get snatched.” Peter whispered to his AI. “Time for me to ignore my afraidness,” he muttered, and Harley heard the thump of his feet hitting the ground.

Immediately he was nervous for Peter. A van? Shifty people? Not cool.

Harley liked it when Peter saved cats that were stuck in strange places, or caught accidentally defenestrated construction-workers. Those were fun types of missions.

But people who had guns, or crazy alien tech like the type of shit Peter had captured during his Sophomore year? That seemed, to borrow a line from Tony, a little above Peter’s paygrade (I don’t get paid, Peter had huffed. And I don’t think for a second that you would accept the money if you were paid. Well, you have a point there.)

So Harley didn’t want to say I told you so when Peter got his comeuppance- for tying down two men, breaking the arm of a third, and tripping the fourth and fifth into the brick wall- by getting himself knocked out by a well-timed thwap to the back of the head, but the phrase definitely shot through his mind.

“Shit,” Harley breathed. “Shit. Peter, wake up. Get up, Peter,” Harley said, loud into the comms, fruitlessly attempting to wake him up. “Peter, if you got another concussion then Tony is going to kill you. Please, get up. This is going to go so wrong if you don’t wake up now.”

Harley rose from his seat anxiously, electricity buzzing through his veins as if each and every one of his nerve endings were a live wire, passing a single spark along until his entire being was alight. His chair scraped along the floor, the sound echoing into the silent tower— reminding him once more that Pepper and Tony were at a business gala. The night that Peter was truly in trouble, both Iron Man and Rescue were off-duty. Great. Cool. Excellent. So manageable. The best possible case scenario to ever case scenario..

Harley paced over to the window, stupidly hoping that if he pressed close enough to the glass, squinted hard enough, wished desperately and unreservedly upon each of the four and a half stars visible through the thick layer of city smog for Peter to get up and get the hell out of there, that he would see Peter swinging towards the tower, towards Harley towards safety here with me far from the crime and the stupid cloak of death and despair that follows Peter like a curse-

“I have to fix this,” Harley said to himself. “I have to fix this. Okay, Harley, you’re going to fix this.”

He walked back over to the dining table, whipping his laptop open and furiously thinking, thinking with every cell in his brain, of how on Earth he could save Peter while he was here and Peter was there and Peter was unconscious.

“I need to wake him up. Okay. How do I do that? Uh, splash of water won’t work. Loud noise?” He winced. “No, definitely no. No giving your best friend sensory overloads. Maybe a small electric shock? I mean, I’m no doctor but I figure if it’s, like, gentle enough…?” Harley trailed off.

Electric shock was something he could do. He could do that with just the suit and some coding.

He would just have to make absolutely certain that the shock would be gentle enough to wake Peter without frying him.

Easy. Right?

So Harley set to typing, listening intently into his comm all the while in case one of the van guys started attacking Peter, but it seemed impossibly complicated to maintain the shock to one area of the suit. If he wanted to shock the suit, it would shock Peter’s entire body. And that, undoubtedly, would be too much of a shock.

But if there were a way to hack just a singular part of the suit, one aspect of it. If there was something unattached to the rest of the suit- not the mask, he didn’t want to shock Peter’s head- but a piece that would insulate the rest of the suit from carrying the charge-

“The drone,” Harley breathed. Then louder, “the drone, hack the drone! It’s separate from the suit, different electrical mechanisms.” Harley’s fingers flew across the keyboard, his lips forming silent strings of numbers, reciting strains of code and passwords and keys that he had memorized as a result of hearing Tony mutter them to himself as he tinkered with Peter’s suits.

His heart was in his throat. How long had it been since Peter fell? Thirty seconds? Fourty? Far too long to be safe. Too long for the criminals to have done nothing. Too long for Peter, with advanced fucking healing, to still be unconscious from a knock to the head. If he dies, or gets beat to shit, or abducted, it’s your fault for being so damn slow.

God, I do not need these self-deprecating thoughts right now. Maybe Pete is right; I need therapy.

If I can get him out of this, I’ll go to a hundred hours of therapy. Two hundred, even, if it means Peter will make it to see me to the end.

Finally he completed the line of code, pressing it as he said, “hey, Pete, this is gonna twinge a bit but it should wake you up nice. Count of three, buddy. Three!”

And the small shock hit Peter straight in the chest before the drone short-circuited and tumbled out of its slot in his chest-plate. Peter’s back arched against the ground for a short, tense moment before he shot up to a sitting position, wild-eyed and heavy-breathed.

Harley let out a sigh of relief. “Stop getting hit in the head, Parker. Jesus fuck. Gonna give me premature grey hair.”

“Ouch,” Peter said. A hand went to his head, probing his scalp on top of the mask for a moment before he said, “oh, crap!” and shot out a web from his sitting position.

In a thin voice, with none of his usual wit and grandeur, Peter said, “Yoink!” as the web caught a gun out of the hands of one of the injured-but-still-standing creepy van men.

He let the gun slide across the concrete and come to a stop behind his body, still sitting on the ground.

“Harley, my mouth tastes like burnt cardboard,” he grumbled, shooting another web. This one caught around the legs of one of the other creepy van men, knocking him to his knees and tying him down.

“Pete. No offense but I will mute you so fast if you don’t pay some attention right now and finish off those last guys.”

Peter continued to bellyache for the remaining minutes of the fight, eventually peeling himself off of the ground so that he could improve his aim but finding himself extremely dizzy and bearing a pounding, spinning head. “Concussed,” he slurred to Harley as he webbed up the last criminal. “Crispy concussed Spider.”

“You sure are, Pete. Now, you’re done for the night. No more patrol.”

It was a sign of how sick Peter must have felt that he did not complain.

“How far from the tower are you, dude? Should I come get you? Should I call Bucky?”

“Um.” Peter scanned around him. “Can’t tell. Too spinny. Karen?”

Harley could hear the soft, kind voice of Peter’s AI as clearly as if she were in the tower rather than in Peter’s suit. “Peter is only two blocks north of the tower, but I do not advise he swings alone or walks all the way just as a safety precaution.”

“Karen, should I go pick up Peter?” Harley asked, already shutting his computer and rushing to grab a jacket and hat for both him and Peter, and some warm shoes.

“No,” said Peter.

Yes,” said Karen.

“Traitor.”

I have your best interest in mind, Peter.”

Me, too, Harley thought.

Harley paused in pulling on his left boot, that sentence sparking a worry in him. “Karen, you’re not gonna tell Tony that I regularly hack Peter’s multi-million dollar, technologically unmatched suit in order to gossip- uh, emotionally support him- while he’s on patrol, right?”

Do you want me to tell him?”

“Karen, I would literally rather you stuck a cactus up my left nostril than tell Tony about this.”

Okay, I will not tell Mister Stark about this. Harley, you’re funny. I’m glad you and Peter are friends.”

Harley felt warmth in his chest. “Me too, Karen. Let Peter know I’ll be there in three minutes, will ya?”

Sure thing, Harley.”

Harley disconnected the comm and walked the two blocks faster than he had ever walked before, the extra clothes for Peter bundled in his arms and spilling over.

When Harley found Peter sitting in an alleyway, leaning against the wall and reciting the Noble Gases to himself in fake voices of various pitches, he knew undoubtedly that Peter would be okay, and that was the greatest comfort he could ever have.

He squatted down in front of Peter, pulling the mask off his face and replacing it with a knit hat. “Hey, buddy,” he offered. “Feeling okay?”

Peter hummed.

Harley grabbed him by the chin and tilted his face to get a better look at him in the crooked amber light of the streetlamps. Peter’s eyes were glazed, pupils blown to different sizes. He was clenching his teeth, presumably in pain. Harley clucked his tongue. “You’re a doofus. A concussed, impulsive, crispy doofus.”

“You could slather me in ranch and put me in a McDonald’s snack wrap right now,” Peter deadpanned.

Harley choked out a laugh. He shook his head. “Come on, Spider-Boy. Let’s get you home.”

By the time they had hobbled back to the tower (which took twice the length it normally would’ve between Peter’s stumbling gait and his unfortunate inability to remember what the hell was happening every thirty seconds), they both had icy fingers and pink noses, both shivering in the cold.

Harley deposited Peter onto the couch, still suited but with a sweatshirt pulled on over top, and dropped three blankets on his lap with orders to “stay down, soldier,” and “bundle up, buttercup.”

When he returned a handful of minutes later, he had a steaming mug of hot chocolate in each hand. Peter gave him a grateful smile.

“F.R.I.? Turn down the lights a bit,” Harley asked softly.

So they sat for a long moment in silence, sipping their cocoa and relishing in the warmth of it.

“I can’t believe you got knocked out,” Harley eventually said, unable to avoid the topic any longer.

“Thank you for saving me,” Peter responded solemnly. “I should’ve said it earlier but frankly my head is just now starting to clear up so I forgot that I need to vocally show my appreciation or you’ll never know that I am thankful.”

Harley cracked a smile. “Any time, Pete. I’m just so friggin' glad I was there to help. But, next time, let’s make sure that it’s a little easier for me to actually provide the help, yeah? So I don’t have to hack through Tony’s firewalls with a time limit? Something simpler, more succinct? Less… I don’t know… unconsciousness? Less pizzazz?”

“Nothing too… shocking,” Peter agreed ruefully.

A moment of intense silence.

Broken by Peter groaning as Harley wrapped an arm tight around his shoulders and smacked a kiss firm on his temple (but smiling his basset-hound, wide-eyed and toothy grin the whole while, for he knew he was safe so safe forever safe so long as he had Harley at his side).