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Pallbearers

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“Stark died as he wished.”

 

Peter leaned forward and pressed his hands against his eyes. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. Just a few hours ago - no, Dr. Strange said it was five years, but it didn’t feel like years - Mr. Stark was arguing with that Star-Lord guy about their plan of engagement, and he was fine

 

Well, okay, he was annoyed, but that wasn’t so unusual. Mr. Stark got annoyed all the time  - especially when he was stressed out about Avengers stuff. 

 

Like that one Friday afternoon early on: Peter had shown up for one of their semi-regular weekend appointments - this time for a few suit repairs - but almost as soon as he walked through the door, out of nowhere, Mr. Stark snapped at him to “go the hell home.” That hurt. That hurt a lot - until Rhodey explained what was up.

 

“He didn’t really mean that,” he said. “He always gets like this after he meets with Secretary Ross. We just need to wait him out.” A beat. “You got your homework with you?”

 

Peter adjusted the backpack that was slung over his shoulder. “No. There’s a teacher workday Monday, so I was gonna do it then.”

 

“Then why don’t you grab something to eat out of the fridge, and I’ll go tell Tony to pull his head out of his ass and mind his manners.”

 

Then Rhodey wheeled out of the room and, Peter guessed, did exactly that - because twenty minutes later, as Peter was inhaling a bag of chips and his second ham-and-cheese sandwich, Mr. Stark slunk into the kitchen and, leaning against the island, cleared his throat. “Kid, I’m sorry,” he sighed, scratching the back of his neck and then folding his arms. “I shouldn’t have yelled. That wasn’t fair to you.”

 

“It’s okay, Mr. Stark. I get it. You’ve got a lot on your mind.”

 

Mr. Stark smiled sadly and shook his head. “Nope. I’m the adult. Taking my crap out on you is the sort of BS my dad would pull. I don’t want to do that. Don’t ever let me do that. Capiche?”

 

Back then, there were a lot of apologies like this - and a lot of awkwardness. Mr. Stark didn’t seem to know what to do with Peter - or what to say. In fact, half of his advice didn’t even make sense. And for each time Mr. Stark reached out to Peter with an encouraging word, there was another time he held Peter at arm’s length. It was like he was fighting some internal war.

 

“He’s afraid he’s gonna screw you up.” That’s what everyone said during the rough patches when Mr. Stark was especially gruff and distant. And honestly? Peter didn’t quite understand how that was possible. Mr. Stark always tried so hard to do the right thing. 

 

But they worked things out eventually, didn’t they? Sure: Peter always sensed there were certain boundaries that were Never To Be Crossed when it came to Mr. Stark. And sure: there were still bad days. Days when Mr. Stark was in a Mood with a capital M. Or days when he was down from lack of sleep or a throbbing tension headache. 

 

But - things did get more comfortable with time. And often? They even had fun. The regional robotics competition? The Stark International Science Fair? The many, many afternoons spent in Mr. Stark’s lab? Peter wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world. 

 

How - how - could Mr. Stark be gone? Somehow, it didn’t feel real. None of the past day felt real. One second, he was looking up into Mr. Stark’s horrified eyes - and the next, he was being hustled into hell. One second, he was lying on the sands of Titan - and the next, he was back on Earth fighting an alien army with people he’d never met. One second, Mr. Stark was alive (if not exactly whole) - and the next? Everyone else on the Quinjet seemed to know exactly what was happening, but Peter? Peter was utterly lost.

 

His mind, for the moment, was refusing to process the truth - even though he’d witnessed it with his own two eyes. For some reason, all he could think about was the past. For some reason, all he could think about were the plans he and Mr. Stark had made days before they ended up in space. 

 

“We were going to visit MIT.” The words left Peter’s mouth before he could stop them, and he immediately hated how stupid they sounded.

 

But before Peter could apologize, Ms. Potts cupped his face with her two hands and pulled him close until their foreheads touched. “He really adored you. Did you know that?” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “For the past few years, when we thought you were - he never stopped missing you. He always said he regretted never telling you how he really felt.”

 

Peter’s thoughts then turned to the very last time he spoke to Mr. Stark before the end, and his eyes filled with new tears - because he suddenly remembered. He remembered that Mr. Stark said nothing at all - that he simply stared, his eyes telling a story of their own. 

 

Peter had seen it. The sorrow. The hopelessness. The years of grief and guilt. Every new wrinkle and gray hair had made those plain. And Peter remembered too the emotions that passed over Mr. Stark’s face in that moment. He remembered the affection, the relief, and the overwhelming joy - like Mr. Stark had found something precious he’d thought permanently lost.

 

Peter remembered all of that and more - and he realized that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if Mr. Stark never expressed his love in words. It was there in the way he watched over Peter and fixed his suits and tried to protect him. It was there every time Mr. Stark scolded him for doing something reckless. It was there in the tight and desperate hug they shared in the midst of the chaos of Mr. Stark’s last battle.

 

Mr. Stark never needed to say it. Peter already knew. He knew .