When Harley first started to cough, he brushed it off.
It was the middle of November, so a cold was not all that suspicious at that point in the year. Harley could deal with a cold, especially if it was only in this throat and not clogging up his nose or gunking up his eyes.
The problem was, though, it was a really aggressive cough. Harley’s throat was tickling constantly, but he didn’t have the time to go out and get some cough drops or anything like that, so he just kept drinking water and doing his best to ignore it. After only a few hours, however, Harley is forced to set down his screwdriver and cover his mouth with his elbow as he was sent into a coughing fit that lasted for over a minute. He felt something coming up his throat as he coughed, and when it landed on his tongue Harley almost put it down to something he ate, but he couldn’t remember if he had eaten breakfast that morning.
Still, he forced himself to spit it out. When he finally did and the tickle in his throat was quelled, Harley could only stare in shock at what looked like a scrap of a flower petal. Light pink and only as big as his fingernail, but definitely there. It was slimy and slick with saliva from where it had been stuck on his tongue, and Harley’s free hand came to rest his throat as he stared at the petal.
He had no idea when he could have swallowed something like this. There was nothing pink growing in or around Harley’s garage, Harley knew this for certain. The only flowers that grow around his house were toadflax and normal, everyday dandelions.
He tossed the petal aside and continued working, tightening the wrench around the bolt maybe a little more aggressively than usual, just to. Probably just something in the air, nothing to worry about.
The next day, it happened again. Harley gripped the side of the table as he began wheezing, coughing, spitting. He didn’t even bother to cover his mouth this time, and soon another scrap of petal was spat out of his mouth onto the table. Harley eyed it warily and didn’t touch it. This time, as Harley stared at the pink petal piece, a pit of anxiety started to grow in his stomach. This petal was bigger, and Harley could see dark pink markings on it, streaking up the middle.
“It’s nothing,” he spoke to himself out loud, because somehow that was more convincing to him and it was louder than his thoughts anyways. “It’s just a weird cold.”
He continued working until late into the night, and he didn’t cough again. He kept it down, constantly swallowing water and cough drops and distracting himself in whatever way possible to ignore the tickle in his throat.
Soon, as the afternoon sunlight faded into dusk, Harley could hear his computer ringing from the second floor of his garage. He smiled, problems immediately forgotten as he dropped his tools and rushed to the second floor of his garage.
He hit “accept” without looking at the person calling because there was only ever one person who called him from the computer.
“Hey, Harley!” Peter waved at him from the other side of the screen.
A wide smile grew on his face, and Harley was sure he looked stupid but he couldn’t find it within him to care. “Hey, Peter,” he said softly, a warmth blossoming within him.
“What’d you do today?” Peter asked, pulling a plate onto his lap. It was piled high with a hamburger and fries and broccoli and Harley’s stomach was growling.
“Just work, nothin’ special,” he said, and Peter looked at him with a sharp expression.
“I can hear your stomach growling, you know. Go get something to eat. I’ll set up the movie.”
Harley shook his head in disbelief, though he knew he should be used to it by now. “I still can’t get over the fact that you can hear my stomach through the computer.”
“What can I say?” Peter made a show of pretending to toss his hair back, and Harley could only watch his brown curls bounce back in place, falling perfectly atop his head and across his forehead. “It’s a gift. Or, well, spider bite, but same thing, right?”
“Right,” Harley said, snickering. His stomach growled again.
Peter narrowed his eyes at him. “If you don’t go get some food right now, I’ll swing down to Rose Hill and kick your ass.”
Harley laughed as he headed for the stairs. “Like you remembered to get food without prompting from FRIDAY today.”
“That’s beside the point!” Peter yelled playfully as Harley left. Judging by the scandalized gasp, he’d say Peter didn’t miss the finger he rose.
When Harley entered the house, no one was home. Abbie was at softball practice, and he knew his Ma was working until late with her shift at the bar. Harley grabbed a saran-wrapped plate from the fridge and stuck it in their rickety microwave.
As he watched the plate spin around and around the buzzing device, Harley’s mind drifted back to the first time he had seen those curls, the first time he had caught Peter’s eye.
See, the two of them had yet to officially meet in real life. A thousand-mile difference was in their way, as well as the fact that neither of them really had the time to travel to another state.
They had actually met accidentally, only a few months ago. Harley was on one of his video calls with Tony talking about some upgrades to one of Tony’s new suits when a guy with light brown curls and a vibrant smile came sprinting into the lab like he was running late, papers flying out of his open backpack and a red and blue onesie in his hand.
“Hey, Pete,” Tony said, waving dismissively over his shoulder. “Give me a few minutes, and I’ll join you in the lab. Keep working on those, uh, taser web upgrades.”
The teen stared at the screen for a few minutes before nodding determinedly and dashing off again, just as fervent as before.
“Sorry about that,” Tony said, but Harley had never seen his eyes so fond. “That was Peter. He’s an… intern of mine.”
Harley remembered stammering something and didn’t miss the way Tony’s eyes suddenly began twinkling with mischief.
They ended the call a little bit later, and Harley would have thought nothing of the earlier encounter except later that night when his phone lit up with a string of texts from an unfamiliar number.
Figured you might want to talk to someone a little closer in age about all the geeky stuff you like. This is my intern’s number, Peter Park
oh jeez. i’m sorry
mr. stark took my phone and i don’t know who he’s texting?
this is harley keener
are you the guy from this afternoon?
ffglkdls that was you???
uh yeah. i’m peter btw. Parker
The microwave beeped, and Harley blinked away the memory, hurrying to take the warm plate out.
His feet were loud as he made his way up the metal steps to his computer, and when he sat down, he noticed that the amount of food on Peter’s plate had hardly changed. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“I was waiting for you!” Peter smiled a million-watt smile, and Harley felt warm all the way through his bones.
He set the plate down at his desk, and Peter started the movie, just like they did every Sunday night. Harley tried to pay attention to Howl’s Moving Castle , but it was normal for the both of them to keep up a running commentary, and Harley was having a hard time looking anywhere except at Peter as he rambled on and on.
“Okay, but like-” Peter swallowed the last mouthful of food, and his fork clattered as he set the plate aside. “Who’s hotter? Howl with the black hair or with the blond hair? Ned can’t answer because he’s straight, MJ just won’t give me an answer, and I only have three friends total so you’re all that’s left.”
Harley huffed out a laugh, but the answer got stuck in his throat along with something else.
“Blond,” he mumbled, because that was what was on screen at the moment. He clenched his throat, trying to keep down the sudden tickle burning through his chest.
“Yeah, I like blonds too,” Peter said, a little dreamily. Harley felt a flutter in his stomach, but it was soon overwhelmed.
“Harley, are you doing alright?”
As if triggered by those five words, the tickling in his chest that had previously slowed to a manageable constant suddenly flared into motion again, scratching up his neck and through his insides. Harley turned his head away from the computer as he coughed, forcing the presence inching up his throat to come out into his hand.
It was another piece of pink petal, the same kind as before with darker pink flecks on it. Beside it rested a dark green leaf, which was new. Harley stared at it with a horror that had started growing familiar, the pounding in his head momentarily drowning out any sound around him.
Harley’s head jerked up, and his fingers closed around the petals. They still felt soft against his fingers, and he shivered against it. “Huh?”
“Maybe we should end the call now. You don’t… you look kind of sick, Harls.”
“Nah, I’m fine. I might be catching a cold, but it’s all good,” Harley insisted, his hand crossing behind him to dispose of the petals on the metal floor. They fluttered, unseen, through the grating and onto the ground floor below. “Seriously. Let’s finish this up. Hey, how’s MJ? Have you gotten any closer to asking her out yet?” He pushed away from it, pushed away from any topic that was too close to his actual feelings.
Peter squinted his eyes at him like he was trying to detect something with his enhanced senses. His nose wrinkled at Harley’s words, but he eventually responded. “No, but the three of us are talking about maybe going to see this play they’re putting on in Washington Park- it's based off a book she just finished reading.”
Harley didn’t cough up anything else for the rest of the movie, thankfully, and tried to ignore the ever-growing worry in the back of his head as the movie continued. Instead, he focused on Peter. There were bags under his eyes, no worse than normal, and the bruises on his cheeks weren’t too out of place either. Regardless of how normal these markings were, they still filled Harley with extreme concern. He sighed, relieved when there was no rattling in his chest, and imagined being there, on the bed next to Peter watching the movie instead of a thousand miles away. He imagined Peter curled up against his chest, imagined the feeling of his fingers running through those beautiful brown curls, kissing each and every bruise and scrape on his face until it was all healed.
None of that was likely to happen any time soon, so Harley dug his fingernails into his palm until it stung as they finished out the movie.
By next week, the strange cough had gotten no better. In fact, it was only getting worse. At first Harley was coughing once, maybe twice a day. But by the end of the week, not only were the flower petals increasing in number, they were increasing in frequency as well, to the point where the bottom of the messenger bag where he held all his schoolwork was littered with scraps of pink petal that were turning brown around the edges. His coat pocket, too, became a home for it, and Harley hated the way they tended to stick to his gloves whenever he put his hands in his pockets.
He did his best to keep it from his mom, though he’s not entirely sure why. She’d been taking on extra shifts as the holidays come around, and he didn’t want to burden her. He didn’t want to go to the doctor, their insurance was shit as it is and-
And most of all, Harley was scared. Coughing up pink flower petals wasn’t exactly a common cold, it wasn’t something Harley was able to fix with cough drops or cough medicine no matter how hard he tried. All it did was make him sleepy in class, and it actually made it harder to force the petals out through his throat, leaving him choking and gasping for air as the syrup stuck the petals to his tongue, forcing him to reach into his mouth with two fingers to draw out the petals, sticky from the honey-lemon drops.
how’s the mj situation ;)
hey why do
sorry. didnt mean to send
anyways how was ur day!! get any new cars in? beat up any homophobes this week?
peter i swear that was One Time and it was an Accident
whatever u say man!!
He texted Peter periodically throughout the week. It felt comforting to text Peter, something normal to keep him grounded while this crazy cough took ahold of the rest of it. He didn’t tell Peter either- what for? He didn’t want to bother him with any of that. The two of them were just friends, maybe not even that, and no matter how badly Harley wanted something more he knew it’ll never happen.
After all, Harley has never even met Peter in person. There was no reason to tell him about an illness that could still go away at any time.
Another half a week passed, another movie night where Harley spent too much time staring at the way Peter’s lips move and not enough on the movie, only having to break twice to cough out petal pieces. The second time he coughed something up it took him much longer. When it came out of his throat Harley could feel it expand in his mouth and began to panic, because it felt like it was filling his entire mouth in a way the previous petals hadn’t. When he pried it out with two fingers, he found himself shocked in a different way, because no longer was it just ragged scraps, this was a whole piece as big as his tongue; Harley can see every edge and point where it begins and ends. He gags slightly, trying to force anything left in his throat to come up, but there’s nothing. A new type of fear started to grow in his stomach, apprehension and revulsion.
He hid his panic behind a smile and a snarky comment, and they were back to the movie without another word on the subject, though Harley could see Peter eyeing him worriedly. It made him even more nervous than before, anxiety squashing the butterflies previously fluttering in his stomach
It was only another day before his mother found out, but that was more on accident than anything else. Harley was back in his lab after school, tinkering with the microwave to see if he could stop the door from springing open when he set the time for longer than thirty seconds. Just as the door to his workshop opened, a coughing attack overtook Harley and he doubled over in front of his mom, multiple pieces of petals fluttering from his mouth before he could cover them with his hand.
“Ma,” he choked out as she rushed toward him, bending down to pick up the petals brushing the stone floor with worry creased in her eyes and trembling fingers. They walked back to the house together, and once inside she forced Harley to lay down on the couch before explaining anything.
To her credit, she took it relatively in stride and didn’t require much proof beyond the petals in her hands and in Harley’s coat pockets.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me before?”
“Didn’t-” Harley’s chest seized with a wheeze, but nothing came out. “Didn’t want you to worry ‘bout me.”
“You don’t have to handle everything alone, honey. Especially something like this…” he could see the grimace on her face and closed his eyes to stop seeing the fear in her eyes. “I don’t think there’s anything quite like it.”
Harley didn’t go to school the next day. Instead, the two of them were stepping out of his mom’s rusty old truck and walking toward the office of the same pediatrician that Harley had been seeing since he was a baby the next morning. Once in the examining room, though, there wasn’t much progress.
“You say he’s been… coughing up flower petals.”
“I know it sounds crazy,” his mom said again, her tone patient with just a little bit of an edge to it. “But I swear to you, all of these-” she held up the withering petal piece that Harley had fished out from his coat pocket. He could see some pocket lint in there. “It’s real. It’s real, I swear to you.”
“Listen Ms. Keener,” the doctor said softly, patting her on the arm in a familiar manner as everyone did to each other, the familiarity of a small town. “I know you’ve been working at Benny’s every night. Why don’t you take a night off, it’ll do you good. Doctor’s orders.”
“What- no, Harley, sweetheart, can you show him?”
Harley forced a cough, but the universe had apparently decided to shit on him today because he found himself unable to cough up even the tiniest scrap of a petal.
The doctor felt his chest with a stethoscope regardless. “Your chest does feel pretty rattly,” he remarked. “Keep taking cough medicine, and come see me again in a week if it hasn’t cleared up.”
“She ain’t lyin’,” Harley grunted. “I really am coughing up these damn petals.”
“I’m sure you are, son. Get some rest, and keep taking that medicine.” The doctor nodded and smiled, but it was placating and pitying, and Harley knew nothing would convince this doctor unless he actually coughed up some petals.
“Sorry, Ma,” he said as they exit the building. “I don’t know what’s up with that.”
“It’s not your fault, honey,” she replied as she started the car. “Whatever’s inside you, whatever’s causin’ this, we’ll find a way to get it out.”
Harley vocalized agreement, but inside, he wasn’t so sure.
“You’ve looked it up online?” she asked as they pull into the driveway.
“Uh-huh,” Harley said. “There ain’t much online about hackin’ up flowers, though.”
“Hm. Well, you’re clearly not going back to school today, so just take it easy, honey.”
Harley tinkered around the rest of Friday, woke up in the middle of the night to another clump of petals bursting from his chest, and got up to keep working Saturday morning.
Harley sighed as he shut the door behind him, slumping into his chair. Almost immediately, his chest began to rattle with one breath, which led to him doubled over again, wheezing. His phone fell out of his pocket, ringing, but Harley hardly paid any mind to it.
Because now it felt like something was stuck in his throat, and while Harley had unfortunately gotten used to the feeling of petals coming up and out his mouth, this was the first time that it truly felt like he couldn’t breathe. He clawed at his neck with one hand, pitching forward to the ground. His hand stretched out to the vibrating phone, partially out of instinct, partially to shut the damn thing off. However, though he managed to stop the noise, it opened the phone to something that, in Harley’s opinion, couldn’t have had worse timing.
“Harley? Why am I looking up at the ceiling?”
Harley opened his mouth to speak but found himself unable to breathe , so he forced a wheeze again to try and dislodge whatever was clogging up his throat. It was almost painful in his chest now, a squeezing, burning sensation as he tried to force the thing out. He managed to grab the phone with one hand, tilting it up to see Tony.
“Kid, your face is turning purple. What the hell is going on?”
Harley managed to get out a whine before coughing again. The thing in his throat dislodged slightly, enough that he was able to suck in a desperate mouthful of air. The inhale only pulled the thing further into his throat though, sending him pitching forward again.
“Are you choking? Do I need to call an ambulance for Rose Hill? I don’t know what-”
Harley used the weak stream of air he had taken in to give another loud, harsh cough. There was a snapping sound deep in his chest, reverberating like a broken guitar string, then Harley could finally feel the object completely dislodge, and it came flying out of his mouth with another intense cough.
Harley’s eyes widened, and he scrambled to pull himself in a sitting position as Tony said, “Was that- am I going senile or did you just cough up a flower?”
“Going senile doesn’t give you hallucinations, old man.” Harley’s voice was wrecked and ragged from choking and coughing, but he still managed to put some snark into his voice. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the flower though, and he was sure Tony could see exactly how wide and frightened they are.
“Was that some type of practical joke? Because that- kid, it looked like you were about to die. And for what? A prank where you put a flower in your mouth and inhale it?”
“Not a prank.” Harley was still a little dizzy, both from the air loss and the fact that the flower in front of him is completely whole in a way he’s never seen it before.
Instead of scraps of petal or even whole petals, it was entirely bloomed. Harley reached forward with a trembling hand and picked up the object. It held two different petal designs, half of the six petals were pointed at the end with the darker markings Harley had seen before, and the other half was rounder, and without those markings. Below the petals there was stem, but it was broken and stringy. Harley dropped the flower, touching his chest with his free hand like he’d be able to feel the stem underneath his skin and muscle and bone.
“...Harley? Harley. This…” Tony’s voice chilled with fear, and he peered over the top of his glasses. “This isn’t a prank, is it.”
“Gosh, I sure wish it was,” Harley whispered hoarsely. “I don’t know-” His chest seized in a familiar way as he coughed up a small shower of petal scraps. He held the phone with one shaking hand as he caught the petals in the other. “I don’t know what’s going on, Tony. I couldn’t breathe, there was a fucking flower in my chest, what the fuck is going on.” He continued babbling, shaking and frightened like he’s rarely been before. Tony watched him ramble while simultaneously calling orders to FRIDAY, his words leaving his mouth in a nearly frantic tone.
“I don’t know what’s going on either.” Harley thought Tony was trying to be soothing with his words, but it just scared him all over again, because if Tony didn’t know what’s going on, he didn’t know who would. “But I’ve sent a jet down your way. Happy’s piloting it. Get some clothes together, I don’t know, but you’re coming back to the Tower. We’re gonna figure this out, okay kid?”
“Okay,” Harley said shakily, eyes still stuck on the pink flower at his feet. “Why is this happening to me?” he asked sorrowfully.
“We’ll figure it out. I’m calling Bruce right now, and if he can’t figure it out I’ll try and wrangle Strange into it.”
Harley nodded. “I’ll get some clothes together.” He chuckled weakly. “This is not how I wanted my first visit to New York to go.”
“Me neither, but hey. Maybe when we fix you up, you can convince your mom to let you stick around a few more days so I can show you the sights.”
When, not if. Harley clung to that. “You mean your lab, the only place you ever go in that Tower?” Harley deadpanned.
“Hey, I resent that. I’ll have you know that sometimes, Pepper makes me go to meetings on other floors.”
“Sure she does,” Harley remarked. His chest rattled with a shaky breath as he stood up, but he was determined not to cough anything out again. “How far away is the plane?”
“The jet’s gonna be a bit over an hour. You’ll be okay until then?”
Harley chuckled dryly. “I’ve lasted nearly two weeks with this shit, I can manage a little longer.”
“Two weeks? What the hell- why didn’t you call me?”
Harley meant to hang up the phone, but Tony’s voice had grown agitated, confused. “I dunno,” he said. “I just figured, y’know, it’d clear up on its own.”
“You thought that the fact that you were coughing flowers straight from your lungs would just magically clear up?”
“Well, it did magically start. And besides, today was the first day I’ve coughed out a whole flower,” Harley said, wincing at the sore reminder when he swallowed. “It’s a good thing you called when you did.”
“It’s a good thing today it’s a Saturday,” Tony replied. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have heard from me for a few days.”
Harley smiled, but it was weak. He could see it wobbling on the screen. “Yeah. That’s true.”
“See you in a few hours, Harley,” Tony said, voice tight with worry. Then the call was disconnected.
Fear gripped Harley again as the call ended, but he forced himself to take a deep breath and headed for the house.
His mom was just leaving through the front door as he approached it, and as soon as she saw him she rushed over to him.
“I couldn’t find a single damn thing online,” she said. “I am so sorry, but I’ve got to go to work now. I really am just at a loss.”
“It’s okay, Ma. I’m leaving.” Harley realized how abrupt he sounded about two seconds after he said those words, and quickly clarified when panic flickered over his mom’s face. “I answered Tony’s call- he saw me cough up this.” He holds up the flower, twirling the stem in his fingers, trying to stop his fingers from shaking. “He’s sending a jet to take me up to New York, I guess.”
“He’ll probably be able to help you more than any doctor down here could, no matter how much evidence you show them.” With that, his mom tugged Harley close, drawing him into a deep hug. He sunk against her chest, squeezing her tight, holding back what almost felt like tears. “Be safe, Harley. I love you.”
“I love you too, Ma.” He reached up to kiss her on the cheek, taking a deep breath to quell the nausea and fear in his stomach.
Harley took a short hike to the empty field just outside the town, pausing only once to cough up some petals, which he left on the ground to wither and die. A sleek jet with “Stark Industries” emblazoned on the side hovered just above the field. As Harley got closer, the side of it opens to a staircase, and a portly bearded man stepped out.
“Are you Harley?” he yelled over the jet engine.
Harley stepped closer. “Yep,”
“Great. I’m Happy Hogan. You should probably get on the plane, kid.”
Harley nodded, shifting his bag higher up on his shoulder as he made his way up the staircase. A familiar rattling feeling seized his chest, and he barely made it to the plush seats on the plane before he collapsed in a fit of cough as a full petal rose its way through his throat before being forced out into his hand.
Happy stared at the item with undisguised disgust. “That, uh, doesn’t look normal.”
“I’m assuming it’s not,” Harley said dryly. “That’s sort of the whole reason why I’m heading to New York in the first place.”
“That makes sense, at least. Alright, settle in. It’ll be a few hours till we get back to New York. Are you going to be alright until then?”
Harley shrugged. “I don’t really have another option.” The reality of what was going on sunk in around him, and he found himself tightly gripping the plush armrests of the seat as the plane rose into the air.
The plane ride was only an hour, but that was all Harley needed to fall down a spiral of his own thoughts. He stared out the window, at the thick layer of clouds below him, and wondered if he would vomit up flowers if he threw up right now. He sort of felt like he was going to throw up, his stomach was churning and he felt a little unsteady. Multiple times Harley found himself nearly unable to breathe, and he was forced to hack up what felt like a whole lung to draw the flower up through his mouth.
He hated it. He hated it more than anything in the world. He hated the feeling of suffocating, he hated the flowers the instant they exited his mouth into his palm. The slight vindication he felt from crushing them in his fist was nothing compared to the distress and despair he felt about this affliction.
As the plane began to descend, and Harley could see the New York skyline out his window, his thoughts turned to Tony. And then to Peter. He frowned, looking down at the small spread of petals and flowers at his feet. His heart instantly started pounding at the thought of the brown-haired boy, the image of his blinding smiles and bright eyes.
A singular petal left his mouth with a slight cough, and Harley wondered when he started getting used to that.
“You doing okay back there, kid?” It’s the fifth time Happy has asked that. Harley sent him a thumbs up, not sure what else to say. “We’re almost at the Tower.”
Harley nodded and sunk deeper into his seat, looking out the window through half-open eyes. The landing was smooth, smoother than Harley expected from a plane.
Happy grabbed his bag before Harley could and motioned for the blond boy to follow him off the plane. Tony was waiting there when they exit, dressed in his normal suit with his sunglasses on. Harley saw the tick in his leg, watched Tony shift back and forth on his feet like he couldn’t keep still, and suddenly felt a little guilty.
“Sorry old man,” is the first thing he said when he gets on solid ground. He tried for snark, but instead genuine apologies began to pour out. “Sorry for makin’ you worry, sorry for-” he held back a cough as his chest rattled with every intake of air.
Tony shook his head and slung an arm around his shoulders as they started walking into the building. “What’s important now is figuring out exactly what the hell is going on that’s making you cough up flowers.”
“Okay,” Harley mumbled. They stepped through a doorway, and Tony directed him into an elevator. A disembodied voice asked for their floor, Tony answered, and they started to move.
“So, I had FRIDAY - that’s her, by the way - to scan the flower you coughed up. Turns out you’re coughing up small alstroemeria flowers, which is really weird because they’re actually native to the Andes Mountains. Only other place I’ve seen them is a greenhouse in the city, but they’re not common around Tennessee at all unless you’re intentionally growing them.”
Harley grunted. “Even if I was growing them, that doesn’t explain why I’m coughing them up. It’s not like I’m eating them or somethin’.”
“That’s true, but I guess we’ll know more once we do a scan. C’mon, Bruce is just through here.”
Harley followed the older man through a set of doors where Dr. Banner is waiting for them, tablet in hand. The man looked up, and a nervous smile touched his features. “Hey, you must be Harley. I’m Dr. Banner, and you’re, uh, you’re coughing up flower petals.”
Harley coughed lightly as he reached out to shake the doctor’s hand, and a petal flew past his lips. The other two men in the room stared at it as it fluttered to the ground.
“Holy shit,” Bruce slowly said in wonderment. “Yeah, let’s scan your chest. Come on.”
A half-hour later - no thanks to Harley’s continuous coughing - Bruce was able to get a full scan of Harley’s chest.
“Are they…” Tony peered over the top of his sunglasses to look closer at the scan. “Are they growing in your lungs?”
Bruce zoomed in on Harley’s lungs, eyes widening as he let out a low breath. “I don’t… I don’t know how it’s possible, but you have stems growing in your lungs that are blooming these- these alstroemeria flowers. Flowers can’t even bloom in these conditions, what on earth-”
“Right, so it’s definitely magic. I’m calling Strange over,” Tony snapped. “I’m not letting this go on any longer than it has to. FRIDAY?”
“Calling Stephen Strange, boss.”
Harley nodded, letting out a weary breath. He found himself unable to tear himself away from the model of his lungs in front of him, the way the flowers forced up his throat and stuck to the inside of him.
Tony pressed his phone to his ear, and Harley could hear him describing what was happening to him. He felt a sharp pain in his throat, felt his airway closing off again, and he began to cough, to force the flower out. There was a tearing sound that Harley recognized as a stem ripping, and then he was doubling over, tears in his eyes as he forced the flower out. This one was bigger, bigger than the budding flowers or petals before it, and Harley wiped frightened tears from his face as he forced himself back to his feet.
“‘S bigger,” Harley mumbled as Bruce reached out to steady him. The fear gripping his heart only intensified as he looked up to meet Bruce’s equally frightened eyes. “Am I gonna die?”
“No,” Tony said firmly, interrupting Bruce. “No, we’re not pulling that kind of talk in this house. I get enough of that from Peter, I don’t need it from you, too. Strange is on his way,” he said to Bruce before Harley could process the first sentence.
“What about Peter?” he said. Then, “Is he here?” Harley realized with a jolt that he doesn’t know if he wants to see him or not. For all of the times he imagined them meeting, he never thought it would be because he was coughing up flowers. He didn’t want it to be because this was happening.
He’d always thought that he might come down for spring break, or maybe in the summer. He’s pictured getting ice cream with Peter, going to Coney Island, maybe kissing him on top of the Ferris wheel.
“No, he’s got a decathlon meet today. He’ll be done around five, but he might- he might be doing stuff afterward. I’ll let him know you’re here though.”
“No!” Harley blurted. “No, I mean, I don’t want him to see me coughing up flowers, I want to figure out what the hell’s going on first.”
There was a crackling, and then orange sparks began to swirl in a circle. A portal opened, the other side revealing what looked like a library. A bearded man with a rippling red cloak stepped through the portal snapping shut behind him.
“Dr. Stephen Strange has entered the tower,” FRIDAY kindly informed them, a bit redundantly.
“Out.” He said curtly. “Both of you, out. I’ll talk to you in a minute. You’re Harley? Stay there.” At his insistence, Tony and Bruce slipped out of the room, the door shutting behind them.
“So what’s the diagnosis, doc?” Harley says dryly, sitting on the hospital bed. It’s a nice bed, but sharp with antiseptic and the smell of linen.
“Give me a minute, I’m hoping this isn’t as bad as I think it is.” Those words alone filled Harley with another cold rush of fear, and he adjusted himself to sit up straighter.
Strange clicked his tongue, the movement of his cloak disturbing a few petals on the ground. “They’re alstroemeria flowers.”
Harley tilted his head. “Is that the name of this condition, or whatever?”
“No, it’s the name of the flowers. I believe the exact name for what you’re experiencing is called Hanahaki Disease.”
“I’ve never even heard of that.”
“There’s no reason for you to have heard of it, even I thought it was a myth until I took on my duties as the Sorcerer Supreme.” Harley coughed up another petal. Strange looked at him sideways and continued. “Hanahaki Disease is actually a little bit of a misnomer. It’s actually a curse, and it affects those who believe that their love for someone is unrequited.”
Harley inhaled deeply, chest rattling as he tried to breathe. “Oh.” Then, “So I’m growing flowers in my lungs because the person I love doesn’t love me back?” Peter flashed in his mind, and he felt sick to his stomach
“No, you just believe they don’t love you back. There are a few ways of breaking this curse, however.”
“Yeah?” Harley said breathlessly before tensing at the sudden lack of air. He bent forward, elbow covering his mouth as he hacked and spat in an effort to pull the flower from his lungs.
“Harley,” Strange said in an elevated tone of alarm. He pulled Harley’s arm away from his mouth and grabbed something from a side table. “Harley, I’m going to extract the flower from our trachea so you don’t bruise your lungs, alright? But I need you to keep still.” Strange clenched his fists for a moment, then held Harley’s jaw open with one hand while sticking a thin instrument down his throat. There was a snip that Harley could feel deep inside of him, which almost caused him to flinch before he remembered the doctor’s words. A few seconds later, Strange pulled a fully-bloomed flower from his throat, pinching the snipped stem with the instrument he held in his hands.
Harley closed his now-sore jaw, rubbing the side of it with his fingers.
“I could hardly get it down there,” Dr. Strange said, alarm clear on his face. “These are big flowers, which is especially dangerous for you.”
Harley nodded, wheezing as he worked to get air back into his lungs. “You said there are ways to cure it?”
“Right. The first one, and perhaps the most straightforward one, is that you tell the person that you love how you feel.”
Harley laughed bitterly. “Great. That simple, huh? What if they don’t-” he pressed his lips together, giving his head one sharp shake. “What if they don’t love me back?”
“Well, that’s when I could try the other option. There is a surgery to get rid of it, but it comes with some unfortunate side effects. By doing this surgery, I’d be forcing a break in the curse. You’d lose all feelings for this person.”
Harley swallowed roughly. “So I wouldn’t love him anymore?” His voice cracked as he spoke, maybe from emotion, maybe from a dry throat. He decided it was the latter.
Strange shook his head. “No, you’d never be able to love him again,” he corrected. “You would never feel anything for him, ever.”
“Nothing?” Harley’s heart leaped into his throat, or maybe it was just another flower.
“Are there any other options?” Harley asked quietly.
“The third option isn’t even really an option- if we do nothing, then the flowers will eventually grow so big that they will completely close up your trachea and lungs. You will suffocate on those flowers, Harley.”
Harley blinked at his hands
Never feeling anything for Peter again. Never getting those flutters in his stomach when Peter talked, never feeling that warmth he feels when Peter smiled brightly. No more movie nights, no texting, no feeling .
“Who is it? Stark’s got a billion resources, I’m sure he could find him in a second.”
Harley laughed bitterly, knowing exactly how true that was. “No, I don’t… I don’t know. How long do I have to think about it?”
What if he didn’t feel the same? What if he laughed at Harley, what if disgust grew on his face until Harley couldn’t find the light behind the boy’s eyes?
Dr. Strange’s lips pressed in a thin line. “Not long. Maybe a day, maybe less.”
Harley lay down on the bed and looked at the diagram of his chest. He watched the simulation run, watched the flowers bloom in his chest until they grew so large that a fatal gray shade fell over his body.
“You said it was a curse, right? So who cursed me? I live in nowhere, Tennessee.”
Strange frowned. “I guess I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Well, maybe if you find the person who cursed me, they could break it, yeah?”
Strange shrugged. “Listen, even if I did, casters don’t usually like to break their own curses.”
“But will you see what you can do?” Harley begged. “I really don’t want to make either choice.”
“Who’s the guy, Harley?” Strange pressed. But Harley only shook his head.
“Please,” he asked.
He could tell Strange was annoyed, but the sorcerer didn’t show it, only turned on his heel and exited the room.
Harley littered the floor by his bed with petals in the hours that followed. Strange didn’t come back, but Tony and Bruce popped in periodically, helping him extract flowers from his lungs and giving him water to help soothe his ragged throat. He could see the worry on Bruce’s face, and Tony didn’t take off his sunglasses once in all the time that he was in there with Harley. He could tell Tony was trying to take his mind off things, he asked him about school, his job, his sister. Harley answered them all best he could, but when his throat began to sound like he had been smoking for sixty years Tony started to bid him a quiet farewell.
It was interrupted by FRIDAY’s soft voice. “Peter is entering the Tower, boss. I sent him to your location.”
“No!” Harley rasped. At Tony’s sharp look, he hurried on. “I don’t- don’t want Peter to meet me like this. It’s- this isn’t- ugh.”
Tony nodded like he understood Harley’s jumbled mess of a sentence. “I’ll tell him to stay out of the hospital wing.”
“Thanks,” Harley whispered, and Tony just nodded as he left the room.
Harley was left in silence.
The walls weren’t thick enough to keep him from hearing outside.
“Is Harley really in there?”
“Yeah. C’mon, let’s go down to the lab. You can visit him when he’s not feeling as sick.”
“No, I need to see him now.” Peter’s voice was insistent against Tony’s tired tone, and Harley shrunk into the bed. He didn’t want to see Peter. Not like this.
He did want to see Peter, wanted to see that face for the first time in front of his own eyes, but he also wanted to kiss him, wanted him to lay down next to Harley, and he knew none of that would ever happen.
“Peter, Harley doesn’t- he can’t have people in there right now.”
“You were just in there.”
“What, so he doesn’t want to see me?” Harley had rarely heard Peter’s voice so hard, so angry. “That’s not true, that can’t be true.”
“Besides, I have to see him. Dr. Strange - the guy with the big red cloak? - he told me to come here and find Harley.”
“Yeah, well Harley said he doesn’t want to see people right now, so let’s just wait until Strange actually gets back, and-”
“No, he said I need to see him now and if I don’t then he could-” Peter’s voice was cut off, and for a second Harley wondered if he had choked on his own spit as sputtering coughs began resounding outside his room.
There was a silence, deafening to Harley’s ears. Then Tony’s voice, so quiet that Harley had to strain to hear him. “Why didn’t you tell me.”
“I was trying to solve it on my own! Plus, this had only happened like once or twice a day since that rogue sorceress got me. I was going to tell you if it got worse, I swear , but I think my super-healing is helping me, so-”
“Peter.” Tony’s voice was hollow, shaken. “You need to go in there right now.”
“What? But you said-”
“Harley!” Tony yelled, the door sliding open. Harley began to protest, but Tony waved his hand to silence him. “This trumps what you want. Peter-”
Peter was standing in the doorway, frozen staring across the room at Harley. He heard a quiet “Fuck,” leave Peter’s mouth before his head flicked to the floor and then back up, like he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
“Peter, Harley. Harley, Peter. Great. Now you two have had an actual introduction, and now I need to call Strange and tell him we have two kids coughing up flowers.”
“What?” Peter squawked, Harley’s expression mirroring his but without sound because he could feel the strain of a blooming flower closing off his airway. He leaned forward, throat screaming as he forced the bud out of his throat. Tony closed the door with one last nervous look, and Peter was moving, rushing over to Harley’s side.
“Fuck,” Harley said after the budding blossom hit the ground, laying his head back against the pillow. “This wasn’t how I wanted to meet you.”
“No?” Peter laughed, a little wetly. “How did you want to meet me?”
Harley shook his head, his thoughts a little too private to share with the person he considered his closest friend. “Honestly? Any other way ‘sides this.”
Peter nodded. “Makes sense. I had always sort of hoped you’d just randomly decide to show up and surprise Mr. Stark and me, but this wasn’t really how I imagined it either.”
Harley exhaled a long, wavering breath, shifting over in the hospital bed, sitting up so he could look at Peter, see his hair with his own eyes for the first time. He resisted the urge to reach out and comb his fingers through it. “So how long have you been dealing with this?”
Peter sat against the edge of the bed gingerly, like he was afraid of scooting any closer. “Like a week and a half, maybe? I didn’t really keep track, to be honest.”
“Same,” Harley huffed. “I’m apparently coughing up alstroemeria flowers, whatever the hell those are. What about you?”
Peter’s eyes were soft, a little misty. “Alstroemeria?” he asked. He laughed, but it was tinged with sorrow. “Those were the kind of flowers Ben used to buy May on special occasions. I loved the way they bloomed in our kitchen window.” Harley hummed, a little smile on his lips as he tried to envision that scene. “Uncle Ben told me once that they represented friendship and devotion.” Peter opened his palm, holding out the petal in his hand. “I don’t really know what I’m coughing up though, to be honest. I’ve never seen these flowers before.”
They were tiny petals, all of them no bigger than a fingernail and all the same light indigo color. Harley traced one with one finger, the tip pressing into Peter’s palm slightly. “These are blue toadflax,” he whispered. “They grow in the field outside my house.”
“Huh,” Peter said. “That’s kind of funny, don’t you think?” Peter met his eyes, and Harley’s breath caught in his throat
“What?” Harley asked breathlessly, three pink petals falling from his lips.
“That we’re both coughing up each other’s favorite flowers.” Peter reached his hand out and caught the fluttering, falling petals. Harley could feel the pads of his fingers just barely touch his chin, and suddenly it was hard to breathe for a whole other reason.
“How’d you know to come and find me?”
“I ran into Dr. Strange, and he told me that I had been cursed which- yeah, I was sort of starting to figure that out by now - and he told me that I wasn’t the only one she had cursed.”
“So that led you to me,” Harley said.
“Mhm.” The pink petals in Peter’s hands were covered in purple petals after a moment of coughing. Peter began to lean back, but just as quickly sat back up. Harley’s heart skipped a beat, his stomach fluttered, and he knew at that moment that it was impossible to deny how in love he was with Peter Parker.
“Oh my god.” Realization crashed over Harley in waves, and Peter tilted his head slightly as he turned to look at him.
“What is it?”
Harley couldn’t possibly voice those thoughts out loud and, like it wasn’t a coincidence, his airway was blocked with the blooming of a flower. “Fuck,” he grunted, twisting to sit on the side of the bed and lean over. Peter scampered off the bed as he hacked up the flower, lungs burning and twisting in his chest. His heartbeat sped up, and he hated the growing panic on Peter’s face.
He coughed again, stumbling to his feet, barely feeling the thread fray in his throat. Peter took a step toward him but didn’t move much further. There was fear etched clear on his face, and so Harley forced another loud cough, but panic was beginning to well up as tears in his eyes. It wasn’t budging, he couldn’t feel the string snap, and every weak inhale dragged the flower to press further into his throat.
He could feel petals coating his tongue, the blooming flower was filling up his entire mouth, crushing him, suffocating him. His head was pounding in rhythm to his quickening heartbeat, drowning out Peter’s concern.
“C’mon,” he wheezed, nearly soundlessly. Something snapped, and brief relief washed over Harley. But he didn’t have much strength left to cough, he was growing dizzy from the lack of air. Black spots hovered in his vision, but he could see Peter’s glassy eyes, his unsteady stance, and he took what breath he could and gagged, coughed, spat out the flower. It landed in his shaking hand, speckled with bright red flecks of blood. He looked up across the spinning room, blinking the spot from his vision as he sucked in breath after breath, relishing in the fresh air he could get. “Oh, god,” he groaned, touching his sternum. “Ow.”
Petals dropped from Peter’s lips with a soft cough, and Harley numbly watched them fall to the ground, hardly aware of Peter moving across the room until arms wrapped around his middle and a face pressed into his shoulder.
Peter was shaking, fingers gripping hard at Harley’s back and fisting into his shirt. Harley stared past blankly, hardly registering the contact over his slowly receding heartbeat. When he did, Harley gasped, took a larger inhale, and his hands found their way around Peter just as frantically.
“Harley,” Peter said shakily. “Harley, how do we fix this? I don’t want you to die, you can’t die.”
Harley fleetingly remembered Strange’s words, and he closed his eyes, taking in a shuddering breath against Peter’s shoulder. “Are you in love with someone, Peter?”
“What?” Peter’s voice cracked, jumped an octave. He didn’t move from against Harley’s shoulder, still gripping Harley’s shirt. “Wh- what are you talking about?”
“Is it- um, is it MJ? The girl from your decathlon?” Harley was coming to a decision, and it hurt his heart but he knew it was the right one. “You should tell her. That’s how you break this curse, you have to confess to the person you’re in love with.”
Peter stilled. “Who are you going to confess to?”
“Strange said I could get surgery. There are just… consequences.” Harley blinked back tears so Peter wouldn’t feel them. “But hey, y- he’d be happy, and that’s what matters, right?”
“What are the consequences?”
“I wouldn’t ever be able to love him again.” He whispered numbly. He tried to pull away, but Peter’s hands kept him still. Harley took a long breath, counting the seconds. “Peter, let me go, I need to tell Strange.”
“Why won't you try?” Peter’s hand flattened against his back, rubbing soft circles into it. Harley couldn’t help but relax against his chest, a slight cough muffling the soft noise that nearly left his mouth.
“I can’t, sweetheart.” Harley closed his eyes and inwardly flinched, because though those nicknames felt as natural on his tongue as anything, calling Peter that when he knew he could never have him soured the words. “He loves someone else, I’m sure of it.”
“How do you know?” Petals flew past Harley’s lips with a slight cough, rolling down Peter’s back. Peter pulled away slightly, and Harley didn’t do anything to stop Peter’s hand from lifting his chin up and meeting his eyes.
Harley chose his words carefully, tiptoeing around clues. “Whenever we talk, he’s always talking about her.”
“Is he the one bringing her up, or is it you?” Peter’s eyes sparkled with mischief, with knowledge.
“What?” Harley asked, suddenly on edge. “What do you mean?”
“Harley,” Peter said, the name barely a whisper, spoken like a prayer. “I don’t love MJ.”
“You don't?” Harley asked, furrowing his brow. “But then- who-“
“Harley,” Peter said again, a little sadly, but with a smile on his face. “Come on. I know I didn’t fall in love with an idiot.”
“What?” Harley asked in a breathy exhale. Then, a spark of realization. “Oh.”
“You know why I like this type of flower? The alstroemeria ones?” Peter asked. He was barely a breath away from Harley, so close that he could feel Peter’s breath on his cheek. “They make me think of you.”
“Don’t let me be wrong about this,” Peter begged.
Then Peter kissed him.
It felt like falling, it felt like flying. Harley soared and dived in Peter’s arms, held him tight against his chest as Peter’s hands held them closer.
“I love you,” Harley said. He breathed it against Peter’s mouth, not caring whether his words were even comprehensible. “I love you, Peter Parker.” He tasted salt on his lips and blinked back his tears.
“I love you too, Harley,” Peter pulled back, wiping at the tears trickling down his face. Harley sniffled and kissed him again because he was pretty sure he could. Peter returned the kiss with a peck on Harley’s nose. Harley began to laugh and was quickly followed by Peter. Soon the two of them could hardly contain their bubbly laughter between kisses.
“So that… that’s it, right?” Peter asked, finger lightly poking Harley’s chest. “They’re gone now, right?” Harley looked at him with wide eyes and a hope growing in his chest. “Because Dr. Strange said that to break the curse you had to- uh, confess your love to the other person, right? And I love you, and you love me so it should all be fine, right?” His smile was only slightly nervous, but he was still smiling.
Harley smiled, and felt a slight fizzle and pop in his chest behind his ribs. “I think so,” he said quietly, throat still sore from constant coughing. “Did you feel that? The pop?”
“Mhm,” Peter said, leaning his forehead against Harley’s. “I felt it. The whole thing was apparently magic, anyways.”
“So the sorceress you fought is really is the meanest matchmaker ever, huh?” Harley wondered. “I mean, the consequences are life or death, basically.”
“Or you live without loving that person,” Peter said quietly. “Which almost seems as bad as death to me. I can’t believe you were going to do that, Harley.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve had a history of people abandoning me,” Harley replied, a little dryly. “I didn’t want to take a chance on something like this.”
“Good thing I did, then.” Peter sighed, leaning into peck Harley’s lips once, then kissed them again softer, slower. “Besides, I don’t think I could ever leave you. Not after-” he gestured to the flowers at their feet. “Not after all this. I love you, Harley, and you’re definitely stuck with me, no matter what.”
“No place else I’d rather be,” Harley replied cheerfully, leaning in to kiss the one he loved again.
There was a sizzling sound, and Harley looked behind Peter to see the sorcerer step back into the infirmary, orange sparks closing the portal behind him. There was blood on his tunic and a cut across his cheek. The surprise on his face was fleeting, quickly settling back into his normal serious expression. “Harley I- oh, good. This was the better outcome than finding you dead on the floor.”
Harley snickered. “I think most outcomes would be better than finding me dead on the floor if I’m honest.”
“I guess that’s true. I should probably let Stark know he can stop pacing a hole outside the infirmary. Spider-Man, that sorceress shouldn’t bother you again. She’s locked up in the Sanctum until we figure out a more permanent living solution for her.”
“So she can’t curse people like me again?” Peter asked nervously.
“No, not anymore, or ever again.”
“Oh good.” Peter breathed a sigh of relief. “No one else will need to go through this, then.”
“That is good.” Strange gave a nod and disappeared the same way he came. Harley touched his throat, felt the roughness when he swallowed; his throat was still raw from the hacking and coughing he had been doing as of just an hour ago. He shuddered, and Peter gripped his shoulders, eyes forming a question.
“Just sore,” he grunted. “But it’s over now. I’ll be okay.”
“Yeah.” Peter smiled. “We’ll be okay.”
“What about you?” Harley asked, fingers fluttering over the smooth skin stretching over Peter’s throat, feeling his pulse flutter underneath his hand. “How’s your throat, darlin’?”
Peter shrugged. “A little sore, I guess. It’s fine, though.” He smiled.
Harley frowned, watching him wince when he swallowed. “We could go see if Tony has any tea or something, if you wanted. Besides, I kind of want to get out of here, and we should probably explain what happened to us anyways before Tony comes flying down here expecting one of us to be dead too.”
Peter laughed, shoulders shaking. He turned so he was by Harley’s side, and their fingers easily interlaced. Peter squeezed his hand, and Harley squeezed back.
Behind them, unseen, the flowers swirled as if caught by a breeze, and dissipated into the now sweet-smelling air with a slight pop. Neither boy saw it happen as they exited the infirmary, but Harley did look back, once, at the now bare floor. He smiled and was quickly pulled along by Peter’s insistent movements.
Tony caught them immediately outside the door, flickering emotions of panic and restraint crossing his face. “Harley! Are you- I mean, Strange said you were all good, but I have a hard time believing a man who does magic, I mean what does he know besides how to pull a rabbit out of a hat-”
“We’re all good, Mr. Stark!” Peter was nearly bouncing on his toes, clearing his throat only slightly. Harley nodded at Tony, unable to keep the smile off his face.
“So what happened?” Tony asked skeptically, looking between the two of them. He had yet to notice their joined hands. “What was the cure?”
Harley shrugged. “Me getting my shit together, probably.”
“You can’t even say that,” Peter complained lightly. “I had to spell it out for you. I’m definitely the hero this round.”
Harley turned and leaned down only slightly to press a kiss to Peter’s cheek. “You’re my hero, Spider-Man.”
It was very hard to keep a straight face then. Peter turned bright red, and Tony’s face crossed a thousand emotions. Harley watched his eyes flick down, then back up. “Um.”
“Sorry, but we came out here to get tea, so if you’ll excuse us while you try to wrap your mind around two guys kissing-” Harley pulled Peter past the gaping Tony, who blinked, turned, and began to yell.
“I was kissing boys before you two were even born!” He yelled down the hallway.
“Gross!” Harley yelled back. He turned to Peter, seeing a matching smile on the brunette’s face. “So what’s your favorite kind of tea?” Harley asked, steering the conversation away from Tony’s flabbergasted yelling.
“Hm… I like berry teas. Pretty much anything except peppermint tea, if I’m honest.”
“What? That’s my favorite kind!” Harley said, pushing Peter’s shoulder slightly with his free hand. They both held each other’s hand tightly though, so Peter didn’t stray further than a few inches.
Peter made a face. “Guess I’m won’t kiss you until you wash your mouth out then. Peppermint tastes awful!”
“No it does not, you just haven’t had the right kinds of peppermint!”
“And how many kinds of peppermint are there, really?”
Harley frowned until Peter’s withering stare. “Maybe I’ll try some berry tea this time,” he hummed. “Might be time for a change.” As Peter laughed, he continued resolutely. “Whatever it is though, it’s gotta have honey in it. That’s the only way to soothe a sore throat, sweetheart. Lots of honey.”
“Whatever you say, honey,” Peter said between snickers. Harley couldn’t keep his laughter in either, and though it hurt his throat to let his voice carry up and down the halls, it filled the walls with the sound of their voices unhindered, unblocked, free to breathe and speak and laugh and exist together.