"Rankled with a Chance of Coffee Stains" by Straw

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I'm sorry! I went about twice as long as I was supposed to. I started writing during my writing retreat break and I didn't have a way to check my word count. I hope that's all right.

Straw owns nothing!

“Hey, Bruce, come on! We’re loading up!”

Tony’s voice carried across the dark gravel parking lot. When Bruce turned slightly, he could see him standing expectantly underneath the white glow of the streetlamp above his head. The rest of the group was already trying to jam themselves into Tony’s slinky car. Clint’s yelp as the heel of Natasha’s shoe jammed into his thigh rose above the rest of the clamor.

With a sigh and one final glance toward the still-black horizon, Bruce began his walk over. Tony grinned and made his way to the driver’s seat door. Bruce didn’t smile back. He was tired: tired of long hours in the car, tired of trying to get up early enough to snag a cup of the remaining motel coffee, and tired of the bickering that erupted every day on their way to the next location.

It wasn’t that Tony’s “authentic American road trip” had been a bad idea. Far from it. Bruce enjoyed getting to know the rest of the team better, but without fail, Steve and Tony fought, Clint egged them on, and Natasha had no interest in mediating. The more tired Bruce became, the more frazzled. He was afraid that that day he might finally snap and rip the roof off Tony’s Audi.

Trudging toward the parked vehicle, thoughts of nerves mixed with daydreams of proper naps filled Bruce’s mind. He found them so distracting that they only grinded to a halt when he careened into someone else’s shoulder. Hot liquid splashed onto the front of his shirt.

As he stumbled backward, Bruce felt his pulse ratchet upward. Heat flared in his chest. He tried to push away the anger, but the exhaustion of the two week trip only heightened his emotions.

“Oh, man! I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”

Once he caught your face, however, all of Bruce’s anger drained away, only to be replaced with a numb so chill it made his bone marrow ache. You continued to blink nervously up at him, one hand wrapped around a now empty Styrofoam cup, the other plucking at the scarf loosely wrapped about your neck to ward off the early desert cold.

“I–” Bruce began, then his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. “You–”

“I’m really sorry,” you said. “I’ll give you money for a new shirt.”

“No,” he managed at last. “I’m fine. Sorry I ran into you.”

You opened your mouth as though to respond, and Bruce’s stomach filled with butterflies. Then your lips clamped shut and you smiled, bobbed your head once, then bustled past.

He couldn’t let you go.

“[Name].” You froze, back toward him. A moment later and you whirled around, face pale, boots slipping on the chipping pavement. “What are you doing here?”

You neared warily. “Do I kn–Bruce?”

He couldn’t tell by your tone what you felt at the reunion, but whatever it was, you didn’t run.

“Hi,” he said, and then again: “What are you doing here?”

A pale band of pink had climbed just high enough to run along the edge of sky and flat ground. He could see the color of your clothes now, but not the structure of your expression.

“I’m on a trip,” you answered. “Just driving around. Picking up ideas for settings. How about you?”

“I’m on a trip, too.”

“On the run?”

“No, with friends.” In answer to your incredulous stare, he pointed at the car behind you. You turned back to see all of Bruce’s friends staring at you, half out of the Audi, waiting for any sign of trouble. Bruce waved his hands, a motion for them to stand down. You looked at Bruce again.

“Just for fun?”

“I’m not sure about ‘fun.’” He rubbed one eye absently. “It’s a lot of people.”

“Less than India.”

A smile twisted up one corner of Bruce’s mouth. “True.”

In the growing light, Bruce started to see you better. Your cheeks held high color, but your eyes were shining.

“Are you back permanently?”

He shrugged.

“Well, I hope so,” you said. “You deserve it.”

Bruce could only stare. You smiled back, shifting uncomfortably as the silence drew on. He wanted to say so many things, but how to even start? And the rest of the team remained watching from the car. At last your expression twitched, you nodded, and started to walk away.

In the sunrise, he saw it at last, not entirely hidden by your scarf: the discolored blob on your skin that started on your neck and reached red tendrils up just above your jawline. His hand shot out and grabbed your wrist without Bruce forming any coherent thought, and only after touching you did he realize you probably would not want to be.

He dropped your wrist as though your skin burned him and reached the hand up to the back of his head. You stopped and gazed steadily at him and for a second time, Bruce had no idea what to do. All he did was gaze back; the two of you remained as still as statues.

“Something wrong, Bruce?” you asked after a minute or so had passed. Bruce blinked to find himself staring at his shoes. When he looked up, he felt his entire face scrunch up.

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize.”

“No, not about–not about running into you this time.”

Your expression did not grow grave exactly, just…dimmer. Without thinking again, Bruce lifted his hand. His fingers brushed softly against the scar tissue on the side of your neck. You didn’t even flinch, and he could remember a time when resting his hand there was natural. He left his hand next to your face, hovering above the skin.

“About that,” he whispered.

Bruce thought he caught tears in your eyes, but before you answered, you smiled. “You don’t have to apologize for that. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I have to take responsibility.”

“I know,” you said. “But you need to learn to forgive yourself for the other guy. I’ve learned to.”

Bruce’s mind went blank. In the background, he could hear the scene playing, that moment when he saw them coming, when he felt that sudden rush of fear and anger that he couldn’t control well enough, when you ended up in front of him and he couldn’t stop, when he woke up and saw you nearly broken on the street. Forgive himself for that? He couldn’t. He shouldn’t have even talked to you in front of the motel.

Suddenly he came back to reality. You were kissing him, slowly and gently, first at the corner of his lips, and then full-on. His arms wrapped around you and you got closer and Bruce felt a longing that he couldn’t identify, whether it was a longing to run and never look back or a longing to stay there in that moment for the rest of his life with the morning heat making his hair stick to the back of his neck.

You broke away with a wider smile than he’d seen in years. Bruce felt full and empty at the same time. Before he could speak or say anything in response to that, you flicked him a wave.

“See you around, Bruce. Have fun with your friends.”

The sun shone brightly on gleaming fender of your car as you skipped off and jumped inside. As though in a trance, Bruce followed, but only until he made it to the rest of his group.

“Who was that?” Tony asked as Bruce crammed himself into the backseat with Natasha and Clint. Bruce gazed out the window to watch as you pulled away, onto the highway, and drove off in the direction opposite of where Bruce was headed.

“Just an old friend,” said Bruce.

He remained quiet as Tony drove out of the lot. Behind the Audi, the blue neon sign’s “no vacancy” light flickered and sputtered, barely noticeable once the day had arrived. Bruce’s eyelids began to droop.

“Are you all right?” Steve asked from the front passenger seat. Bruce smiled sleepily.

“I will be.”

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