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Pallbearers

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Stark never addressed Nebula by her true name - not even after they’d been formally introduced. That had agitated her at first. But then she started listening to the stories Stark would tell about his home planet to fill the silence - stories populated by a host of bizarre and improbable characters - and she realized he coined new monikers for everyone he met. And if he liked you? You’d get more than one.

 

To Stark, Nebula was “Blue Meanie,” “Scary,” or “Space Lady” - among other sobriquets. That meant he approved of her. Why? By the time she’d been given all of these names, they’d known each other for mere days. Stark’s trust should not have come so quickly. 

 

He was obviously delirious, Nebula concluded then - an assessment that was initially confirmed when, on the fourth Terran cycle after leaving Titan, Stark finally collapsed from his wounds.

 

This was something Nebula had anticipated. Indeed, she was surprised Stark had lasted as long as he did. He stopped eating and drinking during the second cycle and was shaking with chills and vomiting bile by the third. But he was focused, single-mindedly, on his attempts to repair the ship and repeatedly waved off Nebula’s offers of medical aid.

 

Stiff-necked to the core. That was Stark. 

 

But there was a kindness in him as well. Once the worst of his illness had passed and his eyes had cleared, Stark persisted in showering Nebula with endearments. Thus, his easy affability couldn’t be dismissed as a consequence of his injuries. Evidently, he was disconcertingly naive even when his mind was perfectly sound.  

 

“You think you’re the only one with a past, Blue?” Stark asked when Nebula confronted him, scolding him for his foolishness. “Got my billions blowing stuff up. Been trying to make up for that for years.” Shivering, he tightened the blanket that was draped around his shoulders and leaned his head back against the bulkhead. “Hell, half the people I know in this superhero business are running away from something they regret. ‘S probably a job requirement.”

 

After that conversation, Stark proceeded as if absolutely nothing had changed. He continued to include Nebula in all the alien and seemingly pointless things he did to pass the time. Nebula drew the line at dancing to Quill’s music, but when Stark came across a deck of playing cards, she agreed to learn the rules of “gin,” “blackjack,” “poker,” and several other games just to keep her strange shipmate’s busy mind distracted.

 

Eventually, Nebula was forced to accept the truth: Stark didn’t care who she was or where she came from or what she'd done. To him, she was simply a friend.

 

And eventually, Nebula found that she enjoyed making Stark happy.

 

It was a peculiar sensation. Thanos had trained Nebula to fight and to kill without remorse. He had never taught her how to care. Yet it hurt, somehow, to listen to Stark record halting messages to people he'd left behind on Terra. It hurt to hear the choked sobs Stark tried but failed to hide each time he was jolted awake by his own nightmares.

 

And it angered her when, on cycle sixteen, Stark proposed she smother him in his sleep.

 

He’d done the math, he said. “If no one answers our distress beacon, we have a week at most. But you - you’d last longer.”

 

It was a plan Nebula normally would’ve executed without hesitation. Stark’s fever had broken cycles before, but he was still frail, and he struggled to finish his meager rations at every meal. He was, as he put it, “dead weight.” It would be simple enough to put the Terran out of his misery and continue on alone.

 

But something stayed her hand.

 

“If any of the Avengers are left,” Stark continued, “ you have information they can use.”

 

“And you,” Nebula replied, “have people who would miss you.” For some reason she couldn’t identify, that mattered a great deal. “No. We survive or die together.”

 

But Stark, deaf to the word “no,” refused to yield. He continued to quarrel with her for several minutes - until Nebula at last lost her patience and slapped him hard across the mouth. Stark stared at her in offended shock for a long moment - but seeing that she was quite decided, he sighed and slunk off to bed. 

 

Wisely, Stark never asked to die again. But on cycle eighteen, as their chances for rescue grew increasingly slim, he pled for something else: “If I don’t make it, just make sure I’m sitting up. Make sure I go with some dignity. Please?”

 

That, at least, was a request Nebula could fulfill.

 

But miraculously, they both escaped what seemed to be their certain demise. Though he was disheveled and skeletally thin, Stark was returned safely to his home and his beloved. And Nebula? After the Asgardian beheaded her father in one fruitless stroke, Nebula suddenly found herself without a family and without a purpose to drive her.

 

It was Stark who ultimately filled that void. 

 

“You’ll always have a place here,” he told her, wrapping his hands around hers. They were alone in the Avengers' primitive medical bay at the time, Stark propped up in his bed with pillows and attached to several monitors and intravenous lines. “Pep and I are leaving soon, but with the whole universe going to shit, I’m sure the others will need an extra hand.”

 

“Will they want my help?”

 

Stark chuckled weakly. “You’re a little intense, Meanie, I gotta say. But they’ll get used to it. I did.” With that, he brooked no further argument. In his eyes, Nebula was a full-fledged Avenger. And true to his word, he always welcomed her into his cabin each time she visited in the long Terran years that followed.

 

That was why, though her sister had been returned to her, she felt obligated to honor Stark in his death. But for Stark, she would be rootless. But for Stark, she would never have known how it felt to be loved without conditions.

 

Just let me die sitting up.

 

Nebula broke the heavy silence with one simple declaration: “Stark died as he wished.”