Space






Space.

She knows it’s defined as the area between one point and another; a fixed and knowable distance to be maintained. In American culture, personal space stands at about two feet; in European and other cultures it can come in as close at eight inches, but all in all, space is there.

Space, Pepper realizes belatedly, can shrink.

***

It began with the Arc. The very act of reaching INTO Tony’s chest had been horrific and mind-boggling and Pepper still can’t figure out how she did it because she isn’t the brave type at all. She hates spiders and snails and worms; hates the sight of blood. The realization that she has been within a finger’s reach of his physical HEART is still something that sends a shudder through her when she thinks back on the memory.

And yet he trusted her. Tony called her down, guided her through it, tried to calm her and made light of what she realizes now could have been a highly dangerous situation. He’d invited her into his space, and she’d gone in. Literally. Even now, Pepper can’t believe she did it.

*** *** ***

Tony understands space. Space is an element that the smart and the dominant use to establish themselves and their intentions. Obadiah was a master of using space, moving in to create false intimacy, pulling back to show disdain. Space is fluid, changing with need. Any contraction of space, as in sex, requires an expansion of space later, as in abandonment.

Space is power.

Lonely, lonely power.

***

The distance between two people is proportional to their rank and circumstances, Tony knows, and in the flux of situations, space becomes either a buffer or a bond. When he was captured, Tony learned that. Yinsen was above him, then next to him, then under him. The space between them went from distant and formal to that of equals, and finally, in those sorrow-filled moments, Tony could feel the man’s dying breath against his face in the intimacy of that last anguished exchange.

Tony Stark knows that he doesn’t want to keep the people he loves out of his space. Not anymore.

*** *** ***

Pepper can’t say when space began to change, exactly. She only knows that it has and is, changing. For years she’s been at arm’s length from her boss in more ways than one. She and Tony used to travel in cars and planes; move through crowds and hallways without ever touching.

But not now.

***

She’s in the habit of checking his tie; brushing his shoulders and making sure Tony’s presentable before heading out for his day. Pepper isn’t sure when this became part of her duties, but she thinks it might be just after he returned from Afghanistan, when her need to touch him and make sure he was real was nearly overwhelming.

Light, quick touches. Just to be sure. Just to know.

*** *** ***

He deliberately skews his collar, or leaves a smudge of shaving cream along his jaw. Tony doesn’t think about it; he just does it, knowing full well that Pepper will fix whatever is wrong, and that the touch of her cool fingers will unknot the tension in his stomach. To make him tidy, she has to move closer, into his space.

This is something he needs.

Tony doesn’t know if Pepper realizes that, but each time he turns to be inspected, he holds his breath, hoping for her touch just one more time.

***

Sometimes Tony wonders if he’s a masochist. He takes on impossible odds; gets into battles that would leave another person little more than a smoking hole in the ground, and when damage does get through the armor, a small, gleeful part of him knows that it means Pepper will be nursing him.

He doesn’t choose to get injured; he’s too smart to do that. But some little, twisted part of him glories in cuts and bumps and bruises, because they will translate into her cool fingers against his bare flesh.

If that’s what it takes to get it, Tony does.

*** *** ***

Pepper finds herself next to Tony more often. Not two steps behind, like a good, unobtrusive assistant. Not off to the side, like a PA should be, or across the room. No, more and more often she finds herself keeping pace with Tony, standing at his side.

She can’t figure out if he’s begun walking slower, or if she’s begun walking faster. Tony himself isn’t any slower, certainly, but his habit of standing alone . . . that seems to be a thing of the past. He looks at her, and that melancholy glance makes it clear that the space next to him needs to be filled.

So Pepper fills it.

***

Tony pitches his voice low when he speaks to her, and Pepper has to lean in to catch his words. She used to ask him to repeat things, but after all these years Pepper knows that irritates him, so she’s taken to leaning in to hear what he says. She doesn’t mind.

The intimate space around Tony—the one that used to be so intimidating to her—isn’t anymore. Now it’s a place where his dark eyes lock onto hers, and for a moment or two, the rest of the world blurs out.

*** *** ***

The announcement to the world that he is Iron Man has shifted the paradigm, and Tony finds that despite his increased exposure to the public eye, he still has long stretches of time with nobody else close by but Pepper.

He likes this. Pepper is at her best when feeling protective and slightly possessive. Tony admires the arch of her spine; the stiffening of her posture when she runs interference for him. There is something comforting and tenderly amusing to watch this graceful, gentle woman go lioness on his behalf.

***

When she cleans up his wounds, she’s quiet, and Tony savors the touch of Pepper’s fingers, even when they apply stinging antiseptics. He used to look away, but now he watches her, studying her profile; her fleeting expressions. Her tempting lips. To take the pain away, Tony pretends she’ll kiss his boo-boos when she’s done bandaging them. It’s silly and childish, and is never going to happen, which is why he toys with the fantasy.

*** *** ***

The turning point is this wound.

Crouching, Pepper presses gauze to the scrape along his inner thigh, aware of the muscle under her fingertips, of the vulnerability here in the florescent light and quiet of the workshop. Tony, sitting on the table, flinches at her touch.

She looks up, gaze sliding from the injury to his groin; his torso, his tense shoulders to his wide unblinking eyes. Pepper is suddenly aware of how defenseless Tony is out of his armor, both physically and emotionally. His hair is messy and pain is deepening the brackets along his mouth, but his eyes are wide and dark and full of something Pepper recognizes even as heat and fear mingle in her stomach.

* * *

Pepper sees a need, and moves to fill it; feed it; what she’s not completely sure of is whether this compelling need is Tony’s—

--Or hers.

*** *** ***

Tony is afraid, and fights the tremble that started in his thigh and is now rising relentlessly through his entire aching, exhausted body. He’s faced madmen, monsters and machines, but this strange melancholy yearning for Pepper has hit a point of no return, ignited by her light caress.

Not a word. He forces himself to stay silent as she moves up, drawn to him as clearly and smoothly as the tide to the moon. Tony holds very, very still, wanting more, feeling the strength of his desire as a tangible line pulling Pepper ever closer.

***

Those cornflower blue eyes, pellucid and honest meet his; Tony forgets to breathe when Pepper gazes into his soul this way.

*** *** ***

There comes a point were two auras meet, like surfaces of a soap bubble. It’s a delicate barrier; more than simple personal space, the light tension there has the capacity to repel or absorb, depending on the people involved. Pepper knows she and Tony have been moving through that insubstantial line for a while now; that tacit permission to bridge that border has been given on both sides.

Now she senses invitation drawing her in.

***

Pepper lets her breath warm Tony’s lips; lets the heat of her soft, soft sigh mingle with his.

*** *** ***

For a man used to living life at Mach speeds, this agonizingly sweet hesitation has Tony quivering. The better test of love, patience, honesty and need is just this: waiting. Tantalizing is the warmth of Pepper’s mouth hovering over his, close but not a kiss.

***

There is no space. There is only the edge of Pepper melding with the edge of him, and two lonely colors blending to fill in their emptinesses with glow and life and heat. Tony feels his pulse calling to hers now as he closes his eyes.

*** *** ***

Space.

She knows it’s defined as the area between one point and another; a fixed and knowable distance to be maintained.

Space, Pepper realizes belatedly, is conquerable by love.


End.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              



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