Okay… clearly, there had been some sort of a mix-up.
Alice Ripley and Bruce Banner stood side-by-side on the front porch of the beach hut, staring blankly through the open door at a spacious and fully furnished interior, complete with tiki wood furniture, woven bamboo mats, and what looked like the latest in indoor plumbing.
And one bed.
Granted, it was a large bed, king-sized at least, but that did not actually negate the fact that there was only one bed.
The ocean lapped quietly on the white shore behind them, but Alice could barely hear it over the pounding of her heart against her rib cage. There'd been a misunderstanding somewhere, somehow. In between the rush of their reunion after the battle of New York and being thrown on a plane to Bora Bora, someone had gotten the wrong idea. They just needed to… what exactly? What could be done about it now? Tony and his girlfriend/assistant/CEO/babysitter Pepper Potts had already settled into the hut just down the beach quite comfortably. They couldn't exactly bust in and demand more accommodating sleeping arrangements. They were in the middle of nowhere, on some private island in the Pacific that Alice wasn't even sure was on a map. It wasn't like they could just switch rooms.
Alice looked at Bruce. The breeze off the water ruffled his graying brown curls and tugged at the hem of his wrinkled, white button-down. He was gripping the strap of the faded duffel bag slung across his chest with stiff fingers. And he didn't turn to meet her eyes. He just kept staring into the room with a look of furrowed concentration, as if he could wish away the circumstances with nothing more than the power of his brilliant intellect. He was smart. He was very smart. But Alice didn't think he was quite that smart.
Alice looked back at the room. She knew she should probably say something, try to break the silence that was stretching into awkwardness between them before it snapped back into their faces. But honestly, she had no words. They hadn't discussed this, hadn't planned it, hell they barely even knew what they were doing! Were they in an official relationship? Were they dating? Was this their "first date"? It didn't feel like it. What kind of terms should they use to define this? Friends? Lovers? Girlfriend/Boyfriend? Oh god, was she officially the girlfriend of a man who had just saved New York City, and the world, from an alien invasion? What were the requirements of said girlfriend, if that was her role? How did… that… even work for him? Did it work? Did he want it to work?
Lacking answers to all of these questions, or the courage to even begin to voice them, Alice decided that in the interim she would concentrate all her nervous energy into blaming and absolutely loathing Anthony Edward Stark. He'd made the arrangements. This was completely his fault. In fact, so many things were Tony Stark's fault she was having trouble processing them all. It was his fault that she hadn't known what had become of Bruce for three agonizing days. It was his fault that they hadn't had barely three seconds together to breathe or talk or anything, because he'd had a private jet waiting to take them to this blissful vacation spot, "to relax", he'd said. Relax! Hah! How were they supposed to do that now? Oh god, Alice was pretty sure if she didn't do something soon she was gonna throw up from the tension. So she did the only thing she could do.
Alice strode into the room with all the confidence she could muster, tossed her duffel bag into one of the wicker chairs and hopped up onto the bed, settling in at the foot with her legs crossed and pretending to inspect the pattern of the comforter with great interest. It was a very tasteful brown leaf pattern, like the palm fronds waving gently outside. She felt the mattress dip and looked up. Bruce had sat down at the head of the bed, carefully pulling the strap of his bag over his head and setting it on the floor before he moved so that he was mirroring her cross-legged posture, gripping his ankles and tapping his fingers nervously.
They sat there, on opposite ends of the bed, and stared at each other for a good ten seconds. Then, almost as if on cue, they both began to laugh.
They laughed and laughed until tears came to their eyes and Alice almost fell backwards off the end of the bed.
"What…?" Alice gasped, trying to get a hold of herself, "What the hell, Bruce?"
He shook his head, wiping the corner of his eye.
"I… I have no idea."
And for no reason at all, that started them both laughing again. It took a few minutes, but they finally got themselves under control, though Alice was having to work really hard to suppress the occasional giggle.
"I… I swear, Alice, I didn't know," Bruce said finally, still sounding breathless, "Tony didn't say, he never asked…"
"I know," Alice said, waving that away, "I know. He's an ass."
"He means well, I think," Bruce said, with only the slightest hint of defensiveness that Alice wasn't even sure he recognized, glancing around the room absently, "He just doesn't get… well, a lot of things."
"You like him," Alice said, and Bruce's eyes focused back on her. She smiled, "I get it. He's your friend. I didn't mean that I don't like him, just that he's an ass. Like one of those miniature donkeys that you keep in the house and treat like a dog, and it's super cute and you love it, but it's still an ass."
Bruce snorted and it took another few minutes before they got control of themselves again.
"Ow," Alice said, "Ow, my side hurts, we have got to stop this."
"Trauma," Bruce wheezed, "It's shock release, we've barely had five minutes to process everything."
He leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes, his chest heaving as he got his breath back.
"I'm… I'm sorry."
Alice stared at him, still clutching the stitch in her side.
He opened his eyes and waved a hand around the room.
"For this, for… god, everything. Everything is gonna change now and we… You never asked for any of this. You don't have to…"
He trailed off, covering his eyes with one of his hands, then running his fingers through his curls with a frustrated sigh. Alice watched him, considering. He was right, of course, she hadn't asked for any of this. But she hadn't asked for a lot of things in her life. Her fingers fiddled absently with the leather thong braided around the wedding bands on her wrist. Her fingers traced the rings of gold, following the familiar pattern in the unfamiliar place. Until recently she had worn these symbols around her neck, keeping her anchored to her guilt and her past. They still anchored her to the past, but now they were memories, reminders that she had changed. And even if that change wasn't something she'd asked for, that didn't mean it was unwelcome.
"Hey," she said, reaching out and gripping Bruce's khaki-clad knee, "I'm not going anywhere. Remember when you decided to stay in Kolkata?"
Bruce looked up and smiled, a little half hitch of his lips.
"Yeah, well, I told you I was prepared to follow you around until you agreed, right? That still stands. So if you'd planned to get rid of me, good luck, because now you're really stuck."
She smirked and Bruce's smile widened. He took her hand in both of his and raised it to his lips, pressing a kiss to her knuckles.
"No," he said, "I meant what I said before. I plan to keep you in sight as much as possible from now on."
Alice's stomach flipped and she tried to hide it with a decisive nod.
"Well, good then. Glad we've got that figured out."
There was another pause that Alice could feel edging toward that dangerously awkward territory. God, what now?
Suddenly, Bruce released her hand and swung his legs off the bed.
"I'll take the floor," he said, gathering his duffel bag.
"What? Don't be stupid, there's no need for that!"
Bruce paused, his back to her, his shoulders stiff. Alice plunged on, despite a little voice in her head whispering that she should tread lightly.
"Look at this thing, it's huge!" she exclaimed, flopping over on her back and stretching the full length of her body over the behemoth mattress width-wise to demonstrate her point, "And we are two fully grown adults. If we can't share this much space between us, well, that's just dumb."
She sat up on her elbows, expecting a reaction. But Bruce hadn't moved. His back was still to her, bent over his duffel bag, his shoulders tense. Alice waited, a gnawing feeling of doubt and nerves in her gut.
"Alice…" Bruce said, finally after several seconds of tense silence, "I… We… What this is, whatever it turns out to be, it won't be like…"
He trailed off again. Alice sat up further, tucking her legs up cross-legged again.
"Wow," she said finally, when it became clear that Bruce wasn't going to finish his thought, "You must think I'm pretty stupid if you think I'm expecting this to be… well, normal or easy."
That got him moving. He spun around so fast he was almost a blur, his jaw set stubbornly and his eyes narrowed.
"I do not think you're stupid," he said, "Reckless, stubborn maybe, but not stupid."
"Then give me some credit," Alice said, gently, carefully, "I'm not expecting… anything from you. I mean, come on, the only time we were ever really in danger of losing each other was when one of us-" She gave Bruce a pointed look and he dropped his eyes, "-asked for more than the other was willing to give. I don't plan to make that same mistake. I trust you to know yourself well enough to know how far you can go. I will never push you for more. Ever."
"So if I say I want to take the floor…?"
"Then we will both be sleeping on the floor and this perfectly wonderful bed will go unused for the entire week," Alice said, smoothing her hand over the comforter with mock disappointment, "I mean, it's a shame, but I'm not gonna get any sleep on it knowing you're down there…"
Bruce rolled his eyes, but he was grinning.
"That sounds like coercion if ever I heard it."
"Not at all," Alice assured him, "It is a statement of fact. You can choose to sleep on the floor, but I'll be there too. We should have brought sleeping bags, we could have had a camp out! Ooh, or maybe we can strip the covers and make a couple of nests…!"
"Alright, alright!" Bruce said, holding up a hand, "I get it. The bed is big, no pressure, we're both adults, you've made your point."
"Yay!" Alice exclaimed, flinging herself across the bed and grabbing one of the big fluffy pillows, tossing it at him, "Now, pillow fight!"
Bruce caught the pillow and blocked her strike from the second pillow she had grabbed.
"What was that you said about being grown-ass adults?" he asked, as he bopped her over the head with the pillow in his hand, making her short hair stand up at all angles.
"This is a perfectly acceptable adult activity," Alice answered with mock seriousness before she whacked him squarely in the face and squealed as he launched himself across the bed to retaliate.
Ten minutes later, they were both spread eagled, gasping and giggling helplessly, pillows and covers tossed about haphazardly.
"You were right," Bruce wheezed, "Perfectly acceptable adult activity."
Alice curled up in a ball on her side and started giggling helplessly.
"God, stop talking, I'm gonna bruise a rib," she gasped, trying to catch her breath, "We are… the most… ridiculous human beings… on the entire planet!"
"I won't argue with that," Bruce said, shrugging, "But then again I just helped save the planet, so I think I'm allowed a little bit of ridiculousness."
"For sure," Alice agreed, wiping her eyes and sitting up on her elbow to look at him properly. He turned to grin up at her and Alice felt her stomach flip again. Bruce's eyes softened and…
Alice flipped over and swung out of bed.
"I'm gonna go take a shower," she said, tossing an easy smile over her shoulder as she grabbed her bag and strode through the door into the other room that she hoped was a bathroom.
It was. She shut the door and leaned against it, letting her bag slide out of her hand and thump softly to the floor. God, this was hard. Harder than she had expected it to be. She wasn't used to this, letting someone else in, letting them make her feel like… whatever this was. She couldn't even say it. She knew what it was, but she couldn't say it, not even to herself. It was too… close. She was still so scared of hurting him, of her guilt and her past catching up to her someday and…
She opened her eyes and figured out how to run the shower. It took more effort than she might have expected. The shower stall had more settings than just hot and cold (which was all she was used to) and it took several tries before she finally got the steady stream of hot water she was looking for. She pointedly ignored the huge jet tub in the corner. There would be no using that this trip, at least, not for what it had most likely been intended. And that was okay, actually. She wasn't all that experienced herself and honestly, she'd never really understood the appeal. Sex was okay, she enjoyed it, but it wasn't something she couldn't live without.
She stepped into the hot water and let it run down her back, breathing in the hot steam. She thought of Kolkata, the humidity that felt like breathing steam some days. She'd finally been allowed to call the Takeris after the fight in New York was over, while she'd been waiting to see what SHIELD would do with her next. They'd been frantic, of course, and she'd assured them that she was fine and apologized profusely for her disappearance. She hadn't been able to tell them why she'd disappeared, but that didn't seem to matter too much, at least not to Ambi.
"We always knew you would leave us, Alice," she had said, with a soft gentleness, "We only thought we'd get to say goodbye."
They had put Mika on the phone for a few minutes and Halim had wished her the best.
"Take care of your doctor, Alice," he had said, "He's a good man."
Alice agreed. She had told Mika that she hoped they could visit, but she wasn't sure. She wasn't sure she even wanted to go back. It was bad enough that she had Bruce, to let anyone else in…
She flipped the water off and stepped out, rummaging in her bag for fresh clothes. Bruce was strong, used to being alone. If Death came to collect his well-past due from her, she thought Bruce would be alright. She wanted to live. But she didn't expect Death to be so understanding when it came time. Bruce was special though. He was made of tougher stuff. He'd be alright.
She toweled her short hair one more time and stepped out of the bathroom, a cloud of steam following her out into the main room. She was alone. Bruce was missing. She padded across the room in bare feet and, after a moment's hesitation, pushed open the door and stepped outside.
Bruce stood leaning against the porch railing, staring out at the gently lapping surf. It was dark now, stars glimmering in the cloudless sky, a bright half-moon swaying on the water. She approached cautiously and leaned against the railing next to him. He didn't look at her, keeping his eyes fixed on the horizon. Alice relaxed against the rail a little and took a breath of the salt air.
"I don't want to push you either," Bruce said, "You know that, don't you?"
"Yeah," she said, and she felt lighter for it, even though she really had already known, "Yeah, I know."
He stopped and Alice turned around, leaning back on her elbows against the railing.
"Say it," she said, "Just say it."
Bruce looked up at her, his eyes deep and dark in the night.
"I love you."
There it was. The thing he had been trying to tell her on the phone in New York, the thing she hadn't let him say because she was scared she would never see him again and she didn't want those words to be the last words between them, didn't want them to be words that could have been said out of fear or desperation or regret. They were quiet, calm, true words.
"I know," she said, the same thing she'd said on the phone, because she had known, she just hadn't been able to hear it, not then, not until this moment actually.
She might have said more, but Bruce pressed his lips to hers, softly, kindly, just enough to stop whatever she'd been about to say.
"Not now," he whispered, his breath brushing her lips, "Not tonight. When you're really ready."
She could have said it right then, could easily have let the words slip past her lips, but he wouldn't have believed them. And that was more important. The words would still be there, later, when they were truly her words and not just an echo.
Bruce took a shower of his own and they spent the rest of the night sitting on the bed, just talking. They exchanged travel stories, Bruce finally telling her the whole story of what had happened in Brazil and what was now called "the Culver incident", how he had ended up in Canada, then Africa, then Russia, before finally hitching a ride on a container ship and ending up on the docks of Kolkata, desperate for work.
Alice told Bruce what had really happened to her after that terrible afternoon when she was fifteen, how an aunt had taken her in, but a year later, once she had a driver's license, she had run away. Not because her aunt was all that terrible (she wasn't), but because she didn't want to feel attached to anyone, didn't want anyone to hurt the way she did, when Death finally came for her. She told him about her two years on the streets of New York, learning to work odd jobs that didn't ask pesky questions like "why aren't you in school?" and "where are your parents?", about being mugged and realizing that feeling of euphoria when it looked like Death had come.
But it didn't. Somehow, miraculously, she survived long enough to become a legal adult and get a passport. Then she started traveling. Quebec first, then London, but it was hard to get jobs in places like that, societies that took things like work visas seriously. So she went all the way to Sydney, mostly because if you're looking for Death, there's plenty of things in Australia willing to make introductions. She spent a few years hopping around the outback as a ranch hand, hired for cash. Plenty of ranchers were willing to overlook the fact that she wasn't technically papered to work in Australia, especially when she was willing to do just about anything. It was here that Alice had her first experience with attachment and the disappointment that came with it. An old woman, the wife of a rancher, who was kind to her and made her feel safe and loved for the first time in a long time. One night Alice had confessed some of her innermost thoughts to her and at first it had been alright. Until it turned out that the woman had called some church people and they came out to the ranch to talk about her "suicidal tendencies". Alice had left Australia the next day and never looked back. It had been the first step toward building the reef around the deserted island of her life, to keep people from trying to save her.
After that she only stayed in one place long enough to make enough money to move on to the next: the gondolas of Venice, the factory in Brazil, the vineyards of France, running with the bulls in Madrid. She'd had a few more close calls with attachments, a few partings made more painful by the other party's reluctance to accept that it was over, but each encounter hit a little further from the mark, until she became an expert in keeping herself distant, in spotting problems before they ever began, in keeping her guard up.
She had failed in Kolkata. She recognized that now. She had gotten too confident in her abilities, had underestimated the power of a child's innocence, of a family's desperation, had failed to recognize the impact such a thing might have on her otherwise impeccable judgment. Until it was too late.
"If we had met anywhere else," Alice said, "At any other time in my life…"
"We would never have met," Bruce finished for her, "We would neither of us have seen the other. Hell, we worked in the same factory for months in Brazil and never knew it."
A smile twitched her lips at that.
"You wouldn't have liked me very much then," she said sleepily, her eyelids heavy, brushing her fingers over the back of his hand absently.
He turned his hand over and gripped her fingers firmly.
"You wouldn't have liked me very much either," he said.
They fell asleep that way, hand in hand, the gentle sound of water lapping in Alice's dreams.
She woke the next morning to find that somehow in the night she had nestled in next to Bruce and his arm had slung around her shoulders, pulling her into his side. She let out a contented breath, and tried not to move, but he must have sense the change in her breathing or some small change in her posture, because he shifted slightly and she knew that he was awake. Reluctantly, Alice opened her eyes, blinking against the soft sunlight filtering through the gauzy curtains on the windows. Bruce was looking down at her, rumpled and his eyes crinkling slightly as he smiled.
"You have nice bed head," Alice mumbled drowsily, reaching up to ruffle a hand through his messy curls, "I'm jealous."
"And that wins the award for best early morning compliment," he said, leaning down to press a kiss to the top of Alice's head, "And your bed head is just fine."
Alice rolled her eyes and ran her fingers through the tangle of snarls and weird angles that her short, straight hair fell into during the night.
"I look like a kookaburra decided to nest on my head," she muttered, before reciting in sing-song, "Laugh, kookaburra, laugh! Kookaburra, don't you laugh at me!"
"I would never dare," Bruce said, though his smile and his mischievous eyes said otherwise.
Realizing that they were not going to get any more sleep, Alice rolled over onto her back and stretched.
"So, do you think there's any food on this island, or are we expected to forage for coconuts?"
"I expect we'll have to forage," Bruce said, swinging his legs out of bed and fumbling on the floor for his shoes, "But if I know Tony, we won't have to go much farther than one hut over. And I seriously doubt we'll be relegated to coconuts, unless they're hollow and filled with an alcoholic beverage. Colorful umbrella optional."
Alice snorted and went searching for her own shoes, finally shoving her bare feet into a pair of flip flops that had been forced upon her in the airport souvenir shop when it was discovered that she actually did not own any. Tony had thought this a crime against beaches and bought her, not just one pair, but five, in varying bright colors. The ones she was currently sporting were an eye-searing pattern of yellow and pink.
Bruce was right, of course. Tony had a table spread out in front of the hut he was sharing with Pepper, complete with pristine white table cloth (weighted to keep it from blowing away in the sea breeze) and laden with all manner of breakfast foods, from bagels, to waffles, to toast, to English muffins, with various fruit and toppings, and a large pitcher of juice that Alice highly suspected to be spiked with something.
Tony looked up from his bagel as they approached and grinned, waving his long stemmed flute of "juice" genially in the air.
"Morning!" he chirped with a look on his face that told Alice he had known exactly what he was doing with the bedding arrangements, and was not in any way sorry about it, "Sleep well?"
Alice crossed her arms and glared at him. Bruce glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Fine," he answered, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a smile, "Just… fine."
Tony's grin widened, clearly misinterpreting Bruce's poorly concealed amusement. He shoved Pepper's arm playfully.
"See, didn't I tell you? It's fine!"
But Pepper had caught Alice's glare and was looking decidedly sheepish. At least she wasn't a complete idiot. Alice decided grudgingly that she might like Pepper Potts, despite her taste in man-children.
Instead of making comment, Alice grabbed one of the wicker chairs and swiped an English muffin off the table, slathering it with butter and jam. It wasn't worth starting an argument over, especially one that she wouldn't win. After all, it had turned out alright, hadn't it? She glanced over at Bruce, who had grabbed the other available chair and was graciously accepting the platter of toast from Pepper. She let a smile play at the corners of her lips. No, it wasn't worth arguing with Tony over. He was still a mini-donkey, but he was Bruce's mini-donkey and that meant he would get away with quite a bit more than most mini-donkeys, Alice supposed.
She snorted at the unbidden image of Tony, braying obnoxiously with donkey ears sprouting from his head, and shoved a mouthful of muffin into her face to cover it up.
Three weeks later, they were back in New York and Alice was bringing home coffee. There were plenty of coffee makers in the Tower (god, did Tony ever love his coffee), but Alice enjoyed the walk. New York felt like a familiar old coat, even after so many years away, and she liked being able to slip into it every morning, even if only for a couple of blocks. She turned through the revolving glass doors of what had formerly been Stark Tower (currently in the process of being remodeled, repurposed, and renamed Avengers Tower), and strode across the marble floor of the lobby, not even glancing up when the scanners flipped on and processed her identity, blinking green with cheery confirmation.
"Welcome back, Miss Ripley," JARVIS, Tony's AI butler, intoned pleasantly, his soft accented voice echoing against the tiles, "You'll find Doctor Banner in Lab 3C this morning, Floor 32."
An elevator door on the far side of the room slid open, and Alice stepped inside.
"My pleasure, Miss Ripley, as always."
The door to the elevator slid shut and the digital display began to count up, though Alice couldn't feel any sensation of movement at all. She'd found that unnerving at first, but after over a week of wandering the many tower floors, you got used to it. With Tony and Pepper both returned to their now shared residence in Malibu, Bruce and Alice had the place to themselves, but most days Bruce was tucked away in one of the many labs (six whole floors worth!), working on things that Alice could only vaguely sketch the outline of in her mind. Whatever it was, it was exciting, or so it sounded when Bruce talked about it, and she let him have at it, partly because wild horses couldn't have pulled him away, but mostly because she'd never seen him as happy as when he was working. She often spent the better part of her mornings just sitting in the labs and watching him work, sipping her coffee until it was gone and Bruce's was cold, before wandering away to explore.
The metal door of the elevator slid open and Alice stepped out into the familiar white hallway, familiar because it was exactly the same as at least three other white hallways on three other floors. Across from the elevator was a pane of glass, floor to ceiling, and beyond the glass she could see Bruce in his white lab coat, his glasses perched on his nose, tapping away on one of three different semi-transparent computer panels. He was facing the elevator, but he wouldn't have noticed if Albert Einstein had just walked in and started giving a lecture on the theory of relativity. He was too deep in his own mind, and Alice smiled despite herself. She liked Bruce like this, liked to see his mind working.
She stepped out of the elevator and walked across the hallway, the glass sliding back to allow her entrance into the lab. She set her grande mocha on the far corner of a table that looked safely out of the way, and approached Bruce with his venti black coffee, watching his brow furrow as he moved numbers around the screen in front of him, swiping equations to the side and enlarging others quicker than Alice could interpret them. She stepped softly until she was right next to him and took his free hand (which had just reached up as if to run through his hair), easily placing the cup of coffee into it. His fingers closed around it automatically and he lifted it to his lips, taking a sip without a word, his eyes still fixed on the screen. It wasn't out of rudeness. He genuinely had not yet realized that she was even there yet. In a minute, or ten, or thirty, he might solve this current dilemma and emerge to realize he was holding a cold cup of half-drunk coffee and Alice was sitting in the room with him. Or he might not. Alice didn't mind either way. She had discovered that, as much as she liked watching him, she also liked that she could slip out of the room and he would never know the difference, it would not bother him one way or the other. It was nice, not having to worry about things like that. It was nice. All of it.
Impulsively, she bounced up on her toes and pressed a kiss to Bruce's temple.
"I love you."
The words felt so natural that she almost didn't realize they had left her lips. She hadn't meant to say it. She had been waiting, ever since Bora Bora, waiting for the right time, the perfect moment. This hadn't been that moment, with Bruce in his science daze, completely unaware of the world around him. He probably hadn't even heard her. She dropped back and started to slip around behind him, back to her corner and her mocha, to wait for him to come back to her…
A hand took her wrist and stopped her. She looked back. Bruce was smiling at her, his eyes dancing over the rims of his glasses.
"I love you too," he said, his voice light and airy and so completely happy that Alice felt her stomach flip and flop and flip again.
He lifted her palm to his lips, just briefly, then let her go. Alice sat in her corner and sipped her mocha. Bruce went back to his numbers. Alice smiled.