Red Magic Marker
The object rolling around on the floor of the silver Audi is approximately the size and shape of a bullet. Tony knows this because he’s put his foot on it twice now. The second time, it actually got between the pedal and the metal, which is why it is a dangerous object to have on the floor of the car even if it isn’t a live round.
He pulls into the parking lot of a McDonald’s, and it takes a few minutes of searching under the seats before he finds it. He actually has to open the car door and get down on his knees on the tarmac. It’s a hot, cloudless July afternoon, and opening the door lets all the AC out in a single icy puff. By the time he does manage to put his hand on the object, there’s a stripe of sweat down the back of his t-shirt. He’s irritated; it’s not that Tony is averse to a protracted and sticky session of groping in the car, but he’s used to experiencing a greater depth of satisfaction at the end. He also prefers to have a companion.
It’s not a bullet; it’s a tube of lipstick. He can see through the clear plastic top that the shade inside is the exact colour of a fresh raspberry. He pictures it on a pair of ripe, dewy lips. Now he’s unexpectedly and inconveniently turned on, which makes him even more annoyed because he can’t remember who could possibly have dropped this in his car.
Tony has a perfect, eidetic memory for faces. He’s not always as good with names, mainly because he doesn’t really care what their names are, but he knows the precise shade of the lips of every girl he’s kissed. He figures he can rule out a couple of potential matches (that girl in the moon bounce at the carnival when he was twelve, a pair of girls he knew at MIT who were roommates and shared more than their makeup stash). It has to have been someone in the past three weeks, because that was the last time the car went in to be cleaned. He hasn’t even had a girl in the Audi in the past three weeks—he picked up his most recent conquest (a dancer who wouldn’t stop extolling the virtues of hot yoga—he’d kissed her mostly to shut her up) in the Jag.
He sits in his car in the parking lot for almost five full minutes, trying to figure it out. The lipstick is cradled in his palm like a glass slipper.
He figures the best way of getting at the truth is an ambush, so he strikes fast and he strikes hard. “How long have you been joyriding with your girlfriends in my car, Happy?” he asks, in an avuncular manner, one hand on the driver’s shoulder.
Happy looks startled, then bewildered. “What?”
He dangles the gold tube in front of Happy’s face, a bit like a fishing lure. Happy’s face does look remarkably trout-like—it’s the mouth hanging open.
“I never did anything like that, I swear.”
“You mean to tell me that you haven’t had any girls in this car in the past, oh, three weeks or so?”
“No girls, boss. No one at all except you. And Pepper.”
Tony snaps his fingers. Pepper. Of course. Occam's razor strikes again.
He grins. Adopting a confidential tone, he remarks, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Pepper is a girl. The legs are a dead giveaway.”
To Tony’s very great amusement, the ex-boxer actually blushes. He’s noticed, all right.
As Pepper enters the workshop, Tony pitches the lipstick at her. He means to toss it in a cavalier sort of way, but he underestimates the force of his throw, turning the little gold tube into a projectile.
To her credit, Pepper doesn’t flinch, but merely steps aside as it whizzes past her head. “What was that?” she asks, mildly, as though he’s just said something she didn’t quite hear. The only thing on her lips is a gloss with a faint pinkish stain. Appropriate and professional.
“Is that yours?” he asks, pointing to the tube, which is slowly rolling to a stop after having bounced off the plexiglass door.
Pepper prods the lipstick with the pointed cap of her shoe. “Not my shade. It’s cheap,” she observes disdainfully. He’s not sure whether she means financially or philosophically. Probably both.
“You left it in my car.”
She shakes her head, then reaches past him and picks up a sheaf of documents that he vaguely remembers her dropping off the day before. Every page has at least one black thumbprint in a crucial spot. “Did you actually sign any of these, or did you just wipe your hands on them?”
“Aren’t you going to at least pick it up?” he demands. He’s being irrational because he hates being wrong. And because he’s quite certain he’s not wrong.
“You dropped it,” she reminds him, pointedly. “One of your ‘friends’ must have left it here.” She doesn’t actually make the air quotes with her fingers, but her voice does it clearly enough.
He smiles winningly. “You’re my only friend, Pepper.”
She rolls her eyes. Then she clamps her teeth down on her lower lip, which is a tactical error. It’s one of her tells—lying is so contrary to Pepper’s nature that she literally has to bite back the words.
“What do you think about Happy?” Tony asks, just out of curiosity.
“Happy?” she shrugs. “I don’t think it’s his shade either.”
The lipstick stays on the floor of the workshop for another couple of weeks, and then one day, it disappears out of Tony’s life as mysteriously as it appeared. He notices its absence almost immediately, and for several days afterwards manages to work himself into a priapic frenzy, imagining what Pepper’s next move might be. Maybe she would show up one day wearing it. Maybe she would show up wearing it, and nothing else. Maybe—and so on in a similar vein.
None of these events ever actually occur, of course, and gradually his preoccupation with the raspberry red lipstick fades into the background noise of his mind—subdued, but not quite forgotten.
Two weeks later, he’s pulling an all-nighter; full overhaul on the suit. The disembodied torso is draped across the worktable, eviscerated.
Pepper stops in to bring him dinner, or maybe breakfast, he isn’t certain. It’s 6:25 by the analog clock on the wall, so really, it could be either, and omlettes are relatively ubiquitous.
Tony examines her, trying to determine whether she’s been at the house all day or has just arrived. It’s no use; she always cuts an impeccable figure in her smart little tailored suits.
He doesn’t pay her much attention as she moves around the workshop, picking up abandoned crockery and cold mugs of coffee. It’s not in her job description to clean up after him (literally, anyway—metaphorically is another matter) but he doesn’t allow the cleaning service into the workshop. If she didn’t do a quick sweep every few days, the plates and cups would invariably wind up as makeshift clay pigeons, sacrificed to test the accuracy of some new repulsor setting.
“I’m going home,” she reports, which means it’s probably evening. Her hip is cocked, a stack of plates and cutlery balanced in the hollow with the ease of extensive practice.
He’s elbow-deep in the guts of the suit. She won’t look directly at it when it’s laid out like this, Frankenstein’s-monster-style. He isn’t sure why, although he has his suspicions. She’s biting her lip, even though he hasn’t asked her anything.
“Do you need anything before I leave?” she asks.
The number of vulgar responses that spring to mind actually causes a little bit of a stack overflow in Tony’s brain, which is how he knows he’s overtired.
“I got it,” he says finally. He has absolutely no idea whether this is an acceptable response or not, but it seems to satisfy her, and she leaves.
It isn’t until some time later, when he’s reattaching the torso to the rest of the suit, that he notices it: a clear, defined, raspberry-red kissprint on the gold faceplate of his helmet.
Tony experiences a moment of something very like panic.
The lip-mark gives the Iron Man a slightly flirtatious look—Tony is reminded of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, where Bugs Bunny would don the exaggerated markers of femininity in order to pull one over on the opposition. Iron Maiden, he thinks, in a random-synapse-firing moment. He’s definitely overtired. Maybe this is just a dream.
He touches the kiss; the heat of his fingertips melt the wax, marring the perfect outline. Lost in thought, he absently presses his pink-stained fingers to his own lips before he quite realizes what he’s doing. He has no idea what this means—if it means anything at all.
He studies the print for a moment longer before rubbing at it with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. He knows there’s oil in lipstick, and alcohol, things that could potentially damage the finish. Things that, if left unchecked, could eventually result in a catastrophe. It takes him a little while, but eventually he wipes it all away.
He knows the raspberry kiss is already permanently etched into his memory—filed away neatly beside the moon bounce girl, and the hot yoga enthusiast, and all the ones in between.