Pepper stands in her front doorway, looking skeptical.

"What. Is that." She says it with flat affect, the question infused with a sense of dull horror. Her arms are crossed over her chest, tightly, defensively.

Tony looks down at the terracotta pot in his hands, and then back up to her face again. "It's a cactus." He smiles, in a way that he hopes is reassuring.

"It's glowing, Tony."

"It's bioluminescent. We made them by taking modified genetic material from fireflies and luminescent marine bacterium and putting it into starter batches of E. coli. You should see all the glowing jars in the lab. Every colour of the rainbow."

He's talking fast and actually bouncing a little, on the balls of his feet; the tightness in the pit of his stomach reminds him of the last time he stood on Pepper's doorstep. He feels a bit like he's making a sales pitch, and wonders if he ought to stick his foot in the door.

"E. coli?" she echoes faintly.

He continues, "We're growing about a dozen of these little guys in the lab right now, and I convinced them it would be a good idea to put one in a natural home environment. I had the choice between green, yellow, or blue. I thought you'd like the blue." He holds it out to her. "You can keep it on your bedside table when I'm not here. So you don't miss me too much."

Pepper nods. Her eyes are wide, anxious. She doesn't move, doesn't put out her hands to take the cactus.

"So. Can I come in?"

She stands aside, and he walks into the living room and sits down on the couch, cradling the little cactus in his lap. Pepper remains standing, watching him warily.

"You can't stay long," she tells him. "I have to pack."

He remembers now—New York. A board of directors' meeting. "I'll help," he offers.

Pepper has too much class to roll her eyes at such a well-intentioned suggestion, but the look she gives him is pretty close. "I also have to take a shower. I don't need help with that either," she adds, forestalling the inevitable comment.

"Are you sure? I could scrub your back."

"Thank you for the scary cactus," she says pointedly.

"Flowers are so cliché."

"Can I get you anything?" she asks, automatically, just like before.

He smirks. "Iced tea?"

She shakes her head. "Fresh out, I'm afraid."

"So… I thought maybe you could name it after me. The cactus. Like the last time." He lifts the pot up next to his face and strokes his chin, grinning. "There are a few obvious similarities. Don't you think?"

She doesn't smile. "The last one didn't do so well," she reminds him. Her blue eyes are suddenly very clear, crystalline, her mouth compressed to a thin line. Tony has the sense of having made a large blunder, but he can't figure out how or when it might have taken place.

"It died," he says gently. "I remember. Do you want to tell me what happened?"

She doesn't answer at first, and he's on the verge of repeating the question when she says, "It was when you were... away. In Afghanistan."

He nods. Waits. She's trembling; what he wants to do, more than anything, is to put his arms around her and squeeze until it stops. But instead he locks his hands together in his lap and listens.

"After the first month, Obadiah gave us all some time off. Me, Happy—everyone that had worked closely with you. On his recommendation, SI paid to send us all to grief counselling."

Typical Obadiah, Tony thinks. Using the guise of grief counselling to quietly disabuse the stalwart few of the notion that Tony couldn't possibly still be alive, all the while cementing his own image as a caring manager. "I didn't know that. How long did you—"

"My turn to talk," she interjects.


She walks around to stand at the back of the couch, looking away from him. "The counsellor suggested that I was having a hard time accepting the loss because taking care of you was such a huge part of my routine. I didn't really have anyone or anything else in my life that fulfilled that role for me. She suggested that I get a plant, or a goldfish—something that I could care for. So I got this little cactus, and I called it Tony, and I watered it every day."

She pauses. There's clearly a significance to this, but Tony isn't sure what it's supposed to be. "You took care of it," he prompts.

Pepper shakes her head. "They're desert plants, Tony. You're not supposed to water them every day. I knew what I was doing was hurting it, but I couldn't stop. I killed it with kindness because it was what I needed. I loved it to death, even though I knew it didn't love me back—it wasn't capable of loving me back."

All the words he wants to say break like glass in his mouth. He swallows them, painfully.

She stands and stares out the window, her shoulders slightly bowed as if in defeat. "I love you too much, sometimes. More than is good for either of us. I'm still trying to find a balance. I thought maybe, if we kept it to just sex..." She gives a helpless shrug. "The physical attraction is the only thing between us that's ever been simple."

Tony turns away from her, towards the coffee table. He sets the pot down and looks at it critically. "I bet we could figure out a way to get the next generation to only glow when it needs water," he remarks. "That's actually a really good—"

He pauses as she settles her arms around his shoulders, pressing her face against the back of his neck. Her cheeks are hot, and damp. "I don't know what to do about this," she confesses.

"I was thinking we could try… dating." He isn't sure that it's the right thing to say. Her body is very still against his. "Maybe no sex though. I mean, not no sex ever, but no sex for… I don't know, a while. Until we figure this out. What do you think?"

He feels movement that he thinks might be a nod.


"It's going to take some time," she murmurs.

He closes his hand over hers. "We've got time."

They spend the rest of the afternoon in Pepper's bedroom, not having sex. Pepper packs her suitcase, while Tony investigates her comprehensive library of trashy books.

"Pretty smutty stuff, Potts," he says approvingly. He's sprawled across Pepper's bed on top of a pile of clothes, an array of books fanned out beside him on the comforter. It's surprising how many of them seem to be about rich executives having steamy affairs with their fiery assistants. "I didn't know office romance was your kink."

"It isn't. People think it's funny to give me those books as gifts. And I just ironed those shirts," she complains.

He opens the book at random and starts to read aloud: "She found herself moaning her impatience, and lifting her bottom to help him pull down her panties, as if she had been born to be seduced in the back of a sports car."

"Thank you. That's very helpful." Pepper bends down and slides her hand under his belly, and he obligingly lifts himself up onto his knees so she can take the (now slightly creased) shirts. He can't be certain, but he thinks there's something playful in the way her fingers trail over the muscles of his abdomen, lingering just a second longer than necessary.

"Parting her firm, milky thighs, he thrust into her with one long—why is this all from the guy's perspective? I thought these books were for women."

"Half of the authors are men writing under female pseudonyms." She tucks the sleeves of each shirt in, rolling them tightly before dropping them into her open suitcase.

Tony reads with renewed interest.

"Sliding his hands under her hips for better traction, he moved languorously in her honeyed warmth..." He pauses and clears his throat abruptly. In spite of the relative improbability of anyone taller than five feet being able to attain climax in the confines of a Quattro Coupe, the stupid book is actually starting to turn him on to an uncomfortable degree. Mostly because he keeps picturing Pepper sprawled in the back of a sports car, naked, pale skin braced against black leather... He shifts positions on the bed, attempting to discreetly adjust himself.

"Would you and your book like to be alone?" inquires Pepper, pointedly.

He shrugs, and makes a show of flipping the pages in a peremptory fashion. "I just wish he'd give a little more detail about the car, that's all."

Pepper rolls her dress pants the same way she did the shirts, wedging them into the bag. "I don't think Harlequin's target audience is that interested in cars. Although there is a Formula One racing series endorsed by NASCAR."

"Do you have any of those ones?"

"Sorry." She doesn't look particularly apologetic.

Tony delves into the book again: "...assailed by the amazing sensations of being slowly enveloped by her tight, ready flesh—you know, Pepper, it's funny how this book seems to fall open to this section all by itself."

"I guess that's where I usually get bored and give up." She pulls lacy underthings from a drawer—immediately piquing Tony's interest—and kneels on the floor to tuck them into the gaps between balls of clothes.

"In the middle of all this steaming hot car sex? Yeah, I bet." Tony hangs off the end of the bed and watches her, mesmerized by the swift precision of her movements. "Do you buy all your underwear in sets?"

She shrugs. "I like things to match."

"Do you ever live dangerously and wear, like, black panties with a red bra?"

"When I was a little girl, my mother used to say it was important to wear nice underwear, in case you were hit by a bus and the paramedics had to work on you in the street." She says it very matter-of-factly, like she's giving him the day's schedule.

Tony is speechless. It's the first time he's ever heard her say anything about either of her parents, and it's a little shocking: he's long since grown accustomed to the absence of them in her stories. Tony has been without immediate family for so long that he's picked up the slightly unnerving habit of assuming that everyone's parents are dead.

When the words finally do come, they are less than encouraging: "That's... kind of fucked up, Pepper."

"I'm aware." Her cheeks are suffused with colour, but her voice is very calm. "But we all have our routines, I guess. Right?"

Tony nods. He's no stranger to the strange rituals of remembrance. He vividly remembers going through a period, in his late twenties, during which he wore his father's Rolex watch every day—in spite of the fact that it lost six minutes to the hour even when he remembered to wind it, which was fairly infrequently.

He wants to ask her for more detail—wants to sit down with her and listen while she recounts the story of her life in her own dry, gently self-deprecating style.

"Who taught you to pack like that?" he asks instead.

"You can learn a lot of things from flight attendants. Especially if you actually talk to them instead of just having them serve you drinks and sit on your lap." Her smile is sharp in a way that makes his stomach tighten nervously.

"What else did you learn?" he asks, studiously nonchalant.

She gives him a long look. He buries his face between the dog-eared pages of the novel.

"Do you want to borrow that? You can read it while I'm gone."

He grins. "Better still, we could read it to each other when you get home."

"I feel it's the kind of thing that's best enjoyed privately."

A reply is already on his lips as he leans down to whisper in her ear, something hilarious and outrageous—but she turns her head at the last second, like a flower seeking the sun, and kisses him. Awkwardly at first, because of the unexpectedness and the unfamiliar angle, but then she lifts herself up on her knees and he slides his fingers through her hair and everything resolves itself.

The kiss lacks the urgency of their previous encounters, but there's something there that Tony hadn't realized was missing until now: depth. Warmth. He no longer feels the urge to devour her whole—he wants to taste, to savour. The tingling spark in his stomach flares outwards; every nerve ending is a lit fuse.

When they finally part, he smiles down at her and murmurs, "So where were you born, anyway?"

When Pepper gets back from New York, Tony is waiting on the tarmac to pick her up. He drives his own car, wears a suit, and holds up a sign with her name on it—highly unnecessary, given that it's a private airfield and she is the jet's only passenger.

She walks past him without comment, pulling her wheeled suitcase behind her; it isn't until she actually heaves the bag into the backseat that he realizes he probably should have offered to help.

They stop at a McDonald's along the highway, because Pepper loses the coin toss. She collects the food while he waits in the car; together, they are certain to be recognized. She also pays for the food, and flaps her hand dismissively when he pulls out his wallet. Which is just as well, since Tony rarely carries small bills.

They sit outside at a round concrete table, both striking in their immaculate business attire. It's a perfect cloudless afternoon—nothing but hot, blue sky and clean, hard lines for miles around. Tony digs into the brown paper sack and lines up his three cardboard burger boxes, his carton of fries, his chocolate milkshake. Surprisingly, Pepper makes no remark on any of his choices. She sits and watches him with her hands in her lap and her shoulders rolled forward: folded up into herself, guarded.

Tony does most of the talking—Pepper's been making small talk for days of endless meetings, and she isn't naturally outgoing or loquacious to begin with. It's taken him three late-night long-distance calls to New York, rife with long, uncomfortable pauses, to be able to firmly grasp this fact.

"I told Fury about us," he tells her proudly. "Not the details—I told him we were in a stable… relationship."

Pepper cracks the blue top of her bottled water and takes a sip. "Did you pause like that when you said it?" she inquires.

"A little bit, yeah."

"I think it's a bit soon to be telling people." She carefully assembles her Greek salad—using only about a third of the dressing, which strikes Tony as an exercise in frustration. However, since Pepper has refrained from comment on his lunch, he pays her the same courtesy. "Don't you?"

Tony shrugs. "I feel like everybody kind of knows anyway."

Her eyes narrow ominously. "Everybody who?"

"Rhodey and I are getting an award," he announces, blithely changing the subject. "A medal. For saving everyone at the Expo. You should come to the thing."

"The thing?"

"You know. The presentation. It's in Washington, next week. You should come."

Pepper looks distinctly nonplussed. "I'll check my schedule," she tells him.

"I'm getting a medal," he repeats, slowly, as if there's a chance she might have misunderstood. "You're my girlfriend. I'd like you to be there."

She shoots him an icy glare, and he suddenly wishes he hadn't chosen to use the word 'girlfriend,' or the possessive, and especially not both in the same statement. He crams the rest of his burger into his mouth and chews vigorously to avoid compounding the offense.

"I got everyone out of there while you guys were shooting up the place," she observes. Her tone is calm, even pleasant, but she spears a piece of lettuce on her little plastic fork with slightly more enthusiasm than necessary.

He's so relieved that she isn't angry at him that he forgets to respond to what she's actually saying. "Is that all you're going to eat?" he asks.

"Is that all you're going to eat?" she counters, indicating the neat little pile of empty cardboard boxes stacked in front of him.

Determined not to make things worse, he keeps his mouth shut, and alternates between watching her pick at her salad and gazing out at the dry chaparral.

He considers, for the first time, the kind of steel and determination it would take to coordinate an evacuation of that size—police, EMTs, event staff, presenters, tens of thousands of panicked bystanders. To stand alone on those steps, the captain going down with the ship, doing her level best to preserve his desperate last grasp at a legacy.

"I love you, you know," he says hopefully. She hasn't said it since the day he brought the cactus, and he doesn't want to push her too much, even though hearing it would be reassuring.

She doesn't say it back, but she does scoot closer to him on the concrete bench. Steals a small pile of his fries. He moves his hand over her back before anchoring it to her hip, his arm slung low around her waist. It's a scaled-down version of what he wants to do—acts which would probably get both of them arrested by the highway patrol.

He hears himself say, "Stable-ish."


"I didn't tell Fury we were stable. I told him we were stable… ish."

She pats his knee affectionately under the table. "It's honest, at least." She leaves her hand there, her soft palm cradling sinew and bone.

He nods.

"You didn't have to call me every night, you know."

"I know."

Her smile is sidelong, coy. "But it was nice that you did."

"I know," he repeats, with a cocky grin.

She gives him a look that makes it clear she does not find his overconfidence appealing.

He reaches out and brushes her cheek with his fingertips, tucks a few errant strands of hair behind her ear. Stamps a kiss onto her forehead. Closes his eyes and breathes in her perfume—Chanel No. 5, vivid and summer-bright.

Imprinted on his mind's eye are the cacti and tough desert scrub. It's the kind of landscape you could drive right through, day after day, without ever realizing its potential: deceptively humble and harmless, until a solitary spark on the wind sets the entire horizon ablaze.

"You deserve a medal," he whispers.

Their first real date happens on a Tuesday evening: an unexpected cancellation has both of them leaving work at a reasonable hour, so Pepper invites Tony over for dinner and a movie.

He arrives expecting takeout, but she opens a bottle of wine and puts him to work in the kitchen, where he is stunned to discover that Virginia Potts—feminist, career woman, high-powered executive—owns an apron. It's brown, with pink polka dots and trim, and (best of all in Tony's opinion) appears to complement the oven mitts hanging on the side of the refrigerator. It's very possibly the most incongruously adorable thing he's ever seen.

"I don't like getting food on my clothes," she says, a bit defensively, as she ties the strings around her waist.

Tony can't help smirking, because now he's imagining her wearing just the apron.

She puts both hands on his back and gives him a push in the direction of the counter. "Get your mind out of the gutter."

Tony pours the wine while Pepper rifles through a grey plastic file-card box stuffed with clipped and copied recipes. Some of the cards have food stains on them. The recipes are organized according to little manilla tabs, neatly labelled in pencil: appetizers, main courses, sides, desserts. The handwriting isn't Pepper's.

Cooking incorporates so many of the things Tony already likes—physics, chemistry, heat. Working with his hands. The only reason he doesn't bother preparing his own meals on a regular basis is because he's always seen it as a relatively pointless undertaking—something that would only take up valuable workshop time. Decent food is only a phone call away, but it's doubtful he can get someone to come to his house at 4 a.m. to help him machine-trim a turbopump impeller. Not in thirty minutes or less, anyhow.

Tony gets the hang of things pretty quickly (he is a prodigy, after all), but he doesn't let on because he loves it when Pepper bosses him around. Her kitchen is tidy and simple, everything done by hand. She doesn't even have an electric coffee-maker—just an elegant French press, which occupies a place of obvious importance at the centre of the dining table.

"I'm surrounded by machines all day long," is her response, when he remarks on the conspicuous absence of gadgetry. "It's nice to get away from it sometimes."

Tony doesn't really understand—he only ever feels at home surrounded by machines—but he nods anyway.

Pepper stands behind him as he chops and dices and grates, quietly observing, one arm curled around his waist. The skin on the back of his neck prickles every time she breathes. He knows she has to be doing it on purpose, but the truth is that Tony's not averse to a little Pavlovian conditioning.

"We should do this at my place next time," he proposes.

"I would have suggested it, but I didn't feel like having frozen waffles and creatine powder for dinner," retorts Pepper.

"I object to that. I can cook. I just choose not to."

"You can use the microwave," she corrects archly. "That's not cooking."

"Hey, don't knock it till you try it. I cook bacon in the microwave all the time."

She hums her disapproval, right next to his ear. "The only way to cook bacon is in the oven, on a baking sheet, sprinkled with cracked black pepper and brown sugar."

"That sounds amazing. Can I stay for breakfast?" The words are out of Tony's mouth before he's fully aware of the implications of his request.

Pepper doesn't answer right away. Then she hooks her chin over his shoulder and remarks, "You need to cut those onions a little smaller."

After an excellent dinner, for which Tony takes far more credit than is reasonable or fair, they pull up a romantic comedy on Netflix. Tony doesn't see a lot of movies—he frequently has the television on in the background while he tinkers, but for him to actually sit down and watch something all the way through is unusual.

Pepper can't seem to get comfortable on the couch at first, and Tony can't figure out why, until he recalls that there's a ritual in which he is supposed to participate. He drapes his arm experimentally over the back of the couch; sure enough, she settles against him, her body in the crook of his shoulder, her head resting lightly against his chest. Without taking her eyes off the television, she reaches behind her, takes his hand, and nestles it against her hip. He laces his fingers through hers.

They manage to get a third of the way through the movie before ultimately abandoning the pretense that either of them is paying attention to it. Tony is practically vibrating, desire plucking him like an open string, but he holds back, lets her take the lead. He's painfully conscious of how easy it would be to screw this up right now.

It's a relief when she finally does kiss him: slow and gentle, almost questioning. Her fingers tangle in his hair; it's both familiar and frightening, but in the best possible way.

It isn't long before he's lying on the couch with Pepper leaning insistently against his chest. She presses into him, bracketed by his knees, her belly curved against his. He runs his hands lightly up and down her bare arms; there's a faint static charge in her skin that reminds him a little of a Marshall half-stack, and a little of an active missile, but he knows better than to make either comparison aloud.

"Don't you want to know how the movie ends?" he asks instead.

She smiles against his lips. "Not really," she purrs. "You?"

She's toying with the fly button of his jeans, and it's tempting. Conversation is a bit of a minefield, but this, he knows. It takes every ounce of willpower he has left to say, "Actually... yeah. I do."

He has a plan.

The film's denouement passes without further interruptions. When the credits start to roll, Pepper gets up to go to the bathroom, and Tony seizes the chance to put his plan into effect. He's careful to avoid making any noise on the stairs.

When he gets into the bedroom, he's puzzled at first, until he spots the source of the faint blue light on the nightstand: the cactus appears to be doing well under Pepper's care. He takes it as a good sign. He's in and out in seconds.

If she's disappointed to find him standing in the front hall with his jacket on, Pepper is too polite to show it. Her good-night kiss is a little aggressive—one hand curved around the back of his neck, the other skirting over the back pocket of his jeans—and Tony falters, but keeps his resolve long enough to escape. He knows it'll be worth it when she gets upstairs and sees the box in the centre of the bed.

It's some of his finest work: waterproof, soundless, impact-resistant, long-life battery.

The next morning, Tony finds a folded note on his desk, tucked under a corner of his keyboard. It's unsigned, but he knows the handwriting as well as he knows his own.

Thank you for a very enjoyable evening.

"Very" is underlined. Twice.

The workshop is quiet, amplifying every tiny sound: the electric hum of servers, the creak of the leather couch, the rustle of clothing, her shallow breathing, his mouth moving eagerly against hers. She's seated in his lap in just the right way, rocking gently, her movements creating a highly pleasurable friction. Tony hasn't enjoyed kissing this much since he was a teenager. He reflects that clearly there's something to be said for this whole delayed gratification thing, after all.

Pepper has her eyes tightly closed. Tony knows this because his eyes are open. He observes her reaction as he kisses his way down her throat and licks a bead of perspiration from her collarbone. They've been here a while, but her crisp yellow cotton sundress is only half-unzipped, pushed down around her shoulders, the full skirt gathered modestly in her lap.

Tony's still fully dressed, right down to his scuffed and scarred workboots—he'd been tinkering with the suit when she arrived.

She's glowing: the combined result of a day at the beach and Tony's assiduous attentions. Face lightly scoured by wind and sand, freckles more prominent than ever, freshly showered but still smelling—and tasting—faintly of sunscreen. Tony had no idea before today that they even made SPF 70. Pepper doesn't tan; she simply turns increasingly vivid shades of pink.

It's fitting that they're in the workshop, because Tony has adopted a scientific method approach. He's deep in the information-gathering stage: collect, analyze, interpret, test. Test. Test. Thinking of it as an experiment with any number of possible outcomes, instead of a series of actions with a pre-determined goal, helps him to keep a firm rein on his own impulses. He can do this all night if she needs him to.

She tips her head back and sighs. He knows that this is a signal that she needs her skin lightly scratched—with fingernails, teeth, a day's growth of stubble or the manicured bristles on his chin. He gladly complies, and her breathing starts to quicken, her chest rising and falling more dramatically.

Her skin is luminous in the half-light, greenish veins fluttering at each pulse point. He thinks of the green dress. He wonders if she would wear it for him, if she would take it off for him, slowly, at the end of a long night of dancing, not tonight of course, but someday, someday, soon

She digs her nails into the back of his neck, a sudden sharp pain, a response disproportionate to anything he's done so far. Before he can find his voice—ease up, Potts, I'm not really made of iron—she gives a low gasp, terminating in a squeak so loud it echoes in the cavernous space.

Tony knows that noise, or thinks he does. He pulls away, staring up at her in disbelief.

"Did you just…?"

The tension is ebbing from her frame. Her eyes are glassy and fever-bright; colour bleeds down her throat and floods her chest, pools at the tips of her ears. Damp tendrils of strawberry-blonde hair are plastered to her cheeks, her forehead. By the time she nods, she's just confirming what he already knows.

"Seriously?" He can't quite keep the irritation out of his voice. He's envious, of course, but it isn't just that. It suddenly occurs to him that it might always be like this with Pepper—finding out how she felt about something after the fact, when it's too late for him to alter his course. That she might always keep the most important things secret.

She groans, and buries her face in his shoulder. "Sorry…" she breathes. It's hard to be angry with her when she's like this—heavy against him, pliant, boneless. Sated.

"I thought we weren't having sex," he says, plaintively.

"I know." Her voice is muffled by his shirt.

"Although, technically, I guess we didn't. You did."

She pushes away, slides off his lap and reclines on the couch, her arms hooked over the headrest. Now that the flush of her arousal is starting to fade, he can see the pale stripes of skin left on her shoulders by her bathing suit. Her freckled nose is just the tiniest bit sunburnt. "I said I was sorry," she observes.

"Don't apologize," he tells her, chuckling. "Not your fault I'm a total sex god who can bring a woman to climax with just a glance."

She covers her face with her hands. "I'm never going to live this down, am I?"

"No way. Are you kidding? I want this mentioned in my eulogy. Twice. What were you thinking about?"


Her feet are still in his lap, and he runs the palm of his hand lightly over her ankle and up along her calf. "I wasn't doing anything new or out of the usual sequence. So I want to know what it was that got you so turned on. You know, for future reference."

"I was thinking about you." Her voice is distant, dreamy.

"Obviously." He pauses momentarily at her knee before continuing upwards, skimming along the soft skin of her thigh under her dress. "But what specifically about me sent you into paroxysms of ecstasy?"

Her laughter isn't particularly flattering, but fortunately Tony's opinion of his own charms is healthy enough to take a few hits.

"Your command of the English language," she retorts.

He nods solemnly. "I suspected as much. I hope you're not done for the evening?" he inquires, exceedingly polite.

She makes an impatient noise and arches up into his touch.

"I'll take that as a no." He shifts, sliding against the glossy leather until he's poised over her, his entire body tense, coiled to strike.

"'Paroxysms of ecstasy'? Really? Really?" She tugs at the hem of his black t-shirt, lifting it up, filling her eyes with blue-white light.

"You love it," he shoots back, his fingertips grazing the hem of her underpants. Which, he's willing to bet, are yellow.

Her answering smile is radiant. "I love you." She cranes her neck and presses her lips to the flat surface of the RT, caressing it, as though it can feel her touch.

He feels his stomach drop—the same abrupt, weightless feeling he sometimes gets when he pushes the armour's propulsion system to its limits. He quickly rallies with, "Of course you do, sweetheart. I just made you come in your panties." The evidence of which is easily confirmed by his questing fingers.

To his very great delight, Pepper—who is herself a dirty-talker of rare and surpassing skill—actually blushes. "I mean," she elaborates, "that's what I was thinking. When it happened."

He continues to move his hand under her dress, stroking her through the damp cotton. "That you love me?"

Pepper nods. "And that you love me." All her coyness evaporates under the steady heat of his touch; she yanks his cargo pants and boxers down over his hips, then pulls at the full skirt of her dress, rucking it up around her waist.

"I guess I must. I'm not even that upset about the fact that you broke the rules."

"Fuck the rules," she pronounces, guiding him home.