The In the Red Annual Blood Drive was one of Stark Industries’ most successful and notable charity functions. Tony had sponsored it shortly after taking the reins, and it was one of the few events he took seriously year after year to the surprise and quiet admiration of his employees.
Every May 11th, the Red Cross converted the SI cafeteria and executive dining room into a vast blood donation station with cots and screens set up along the walls. The back tables were covered with catered delicacies for those who needed refreshment after donating, and every person applying to give could expect a generous contribution to any charity of their preference by Stark himself.
Tony insisted the PR for the event be toned down, and went out of his way to keep media information on the event to a minimum outside Stark Industries HQ; nevertheless, the Drive managed to grow every year, with an astonishing average of thirty-one hundred gallons of blood donated in a two-day period. Employees brought their friends and families, and Stark offered his jet fleet to the Red Cross to move the blood to wherever it was needed throughout the world.
Everyone who could, donated. Tony himself usually went first, joking and making wisecracks to Obie who went next. Pepper gave, although Tony insisted she take the day off afterwards. Hogan and Rhodey donated as well, the former with his usual stoic earnestness, and the latter with a good-natured bravado. Afterwards Tony stayed, moving around the room to speak personally to the other people-- engineers and secretaries and custodial staff; handing out chocolate chip cookies the size of manhole covers and thanking each of them for donating.
His commitment to the event left an impression on every employee of Stark Industries, and went a long way in counteracting the tabloid stories about him; the Red Cross turned to him gratefully after 9/11 and Katrina. Out of all the things Tony Stark had been called in the newspapers and television profiles, philanthropist was always there, even if only grudgingly by his critics.
The first year after his return from Afghanistan and consequential vocation as Iron Man, things changed. Tony hadn’t considered it, and went about setting up the event with his usual laser focus; it was only when Pepper put in a call to Red Cross Coordinator Harriet Delgado that he faltered.
“She says you can’t donate, Tony,” Pepper confirmed miserably, coming to stand next to his office chair. Tony looked up at her, stunned.
“The arc’s not a problem; it’s working fine. No moving particles, no contamination, Pepper.” He sounded faint; disbelieving. “And I haven’t picked up any . . . diseases.”
“Tony . . .” Pepper murmured, bending down a little, her face twisting in compassionate sympathy, “You’ve . . . been out of the country. Not just when you were held, but you’ve gone back repeatedly. Afghanistan has endemic problems with malaria, tuberculosis, charmak disease . . . Harriet’s really sorry, but according the World Health Organization, it’s on the watch list, and you . . .”
“No,” Tony protested automatically. “I’m good.”
“I know it’s hard . . .” she tried to soothe him, but Tony rose up from his chair so quickly and unexpectedly that he nearly bowled Pepper over; in a quick snag he caught her upper arms to steady her.
“But I’m fine!” he insisted, looking a little more desperate now. “The bio-filters in the Suit are top of the line; even the military don’t have my degree of screening!”
“The Red Cross can’t take the risk, Tony. You’re constantly travelling there, and they know it. You can’t donate this year,” Pepper told him, her words quiet and firm. “It’s not a permanent ban . . .”
“But that’s on the condition I stop going, isn’t it?” Tony broke in, his gaze bleak. “Stop the missions. And I can’t do that, Pepper.”
She nodded tightly. Tony tipped his head back and looked up towards the ceiling, his despair evident in the set of his jaw. Reluctantly he let go of her arms and gave a frustrated sigh.
Neither of them spoke for a moment, then Tony muttered, “That will be all, Miss Potts.”
Pepper nodded. At the office door she hesitated, but Tony didn’t look at her. He’d wandered to the window and laid one hand on it, his back to her.
The blood drive opened with a grimmer sense of purpose this time, and Tony made his rallying speech with clipped intensity, putting the right tone to the importance of the event. People came early; there were lines of employees waiting even before the start of the workday.
Tony moved around the room, remembering names, giving encouragement and acknowledgement to the people on the gurneys. Pepper could see he lacked his usual vitality; his mouth was bracketed with lines, and although he tried to smile, it seemed forced most of the time.
One of the few genuine smiles though, was for Marcus Moon.
Marcus Moon was a sweet, skinny, talkative seven-year-old, the grandson of Rochelle Moon, head of HR. Rochelle had custody of the boy who was a frequent visitor to Stark Industries, and he’d gotten to know Tony in the process. Marcus bounced over and held out a hand to Tony, shaking it hard with each word. “Good! Morning! Mr! Stark!”
Tony grinned and shook Marcus’s hand back the same way, one hard shake for each word. “Good! Morning! Mr! Moon!”
They both let go hands and went through a complicated series of palm-slaps and finger-wiggles until finally Marcus giggled and pulled back. “You made up new stuff!”
“I have to, there are spies everywhere,” Tony replied solemnly. Pepper moved back a bit and simply watched them, smiling to herself.
Marcus nodded, looking around in mock-suspicion. “Really?”
“Hand jive agents all over the place, you bet. So, your grandmother here today?”
“Un huh,” the boy nodded, pointing to a corner gurney where Rochelle was busy typing her profile on a laptop. “She’s all scared I’m going to be freaked out, but I’m not.”
“It’s a lot of blood,” Tony admitted, amused at Marcus’s matter-of-fact attitude. The two of them moved to lean up against the back wall of the room and look out over the bustle of the donation stations.
The boy gave a shrug. “Yeah, but it’s good. Grandma ‘Chelle and I talked about it, and how it’s going to people who need it bad. It’s saving people, like in the whole country and stuff.”
Tony sighed. “Yep.”
“Grandma ‘Chelle says I can do it too, in ten years,” Marcus admitted with a hint of pride. “She says Moons always go beyond, whatever that is.”
Tony smirked a little, and fished a cookie off one of the refreshment tables; Pepper shifted a little to hear his soft words to the boy as he broke the chocolate chip disc in two and handed half over.
“It’s . . . a grandmother thing. Means you do more than other people do because you can, and I can vouch that your grandmother does just that, every day,” Tony murmured.
It was the truth; Rochelle Moon was nothing short of amazing in her clear and far-seeing command over the Human Resources of Stark Industries, and Tony was grateful for her years of dedicated service.
Marcus took the cookie half and murmured a ‘thank you’ before he spoke again. “Yeah, well, she says you do too, Mr. Stark. My grandma, she says everybody at work does this blood drive thing one time a year, but that when you’re Iron Man, it’s like you’re giving blood all the time.”
“What?” Tony looked sharply at the boy. Marcus nodded and grinned; the cookie in his mouth made it a messy sight.
“Yeah. She says every time you go somewhere and fight terrorists, it’s like you’re giving blood, so that means you give more than anybody,” Marcus managed around his mouthful. “Heck, you must be all dried out inside if you give that much!”
Pepper bit her lips, feeling the rush of pride and something more in her chest as she watched Tony absorb Marcus’s words.
His shoulders rose a bit, and he cocked his head, speaking in an exaggerated tone. “Yo, Mr. Moon . . . do I look dried out to you?”
The boy laughed, a chocolate-coated giggle rising out. He reached up and lightly smacked Tony’s shoulder. “Nope. You look plenty juicy to me.”
“That’s right,” Tony nodded, a small smile on his face. “Juicier than a mushy peach.”
“Juicier than Jell-O when you swish it around in your mouth,” Marcus agreed. “Juicier than spit!”
“Marcus Moses Moon! Please get your behind over here and stop bothering Mr. Stark!” Rochelle called, shooting an apologetic glance across the room at Tony.
“Oooh. Gotta jam—“ Marcus scooted off, waving one cookie filled fist as he did so, and after a second, Pepper moved back towards Tony, her glance showing him she’d heard the entire conversation.
“I agree,” she murmured.
Tony laughed softly, handing her his section of cookie. “That I’m juicer than spit?”
“Maybe not about that part, but what Marcus said is true, Tony. We give once a year. You give . . . month after month after month. And you give more,” Pepper sighed. “A LOT more.”
“It’s not enough,” Tony murmured. “I can do more.”
“Tony,” Pepper let her voice drop lower. She toyed with the cookie a moment and took courage, speaking up. “Nothing we ever do will be enough to bring the people we love back from the dead.”
He blinked, and looked away. Pepper continued. “I know why you started this event; I recognize the date, and . . . they’d be proud of you. Very proud.”
For a quiet moment they simply stood together, leaning against the back wall of the cafeteria. Then Pepper’s hand slipped down and sought his, and Tony took it, squeezing gratefully.
“When it happened, I was too young to donate,” Tony murmured. “Not without consent. I think that was my first serious run-in with bureaucracy.”
She nodded. Tony gave a sigh that both acknowledged and dismissed the painful memory. He turned to smile at Pepper, and this time it was genuine; a soft, simple expression. “Thank you, Miss Potts.”
“You can thank me,” Pepper told him, “in another way.”
One eyebrow went up; Pepper blushed and rushed on, “by distracting me! It’s just about my turn to donate, and . . .”
“ . . . . I’m betting you pass out again,” Tony predicted confidently. “Come on, Pepper. Let’s get you on a gurney and I’ll tell you this really disgusting joke I heard about the priest, the rabbi, the stripper and the Nascar driver.”
“Tony!” she spluttered, going pink, but he was already dragging her along, smiling, as they headed for the nearest empty station.