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Blood & Iron

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Prologue

Monday, 11th August 2014

WHIH News @WHIHOfficialNews 20 h

#BREAKING: Tony Stark’s secret dealings – The truth behind the disappearance of Peter Potts finally revealed? For more: WATCH NOW #JusticeForPeter

Pepper was sure that the video would not reveal any new information as she has already watched and read twenty different takes on the same story that broke the day before. Instead she clicked on the hashtag to read the public opinion in response to these new allegations. She was unsure of what she would see, but she knew that she had to read it herself, not just PR’s report on this situation. She had to be prepared for what the media and the public had for her now.

She should have selected the most popular tweets option, but instead she started reading the newest ones, simply because she wasn’t sure if she was prepared for what the majority really thought. If she were to read something awful among the most popular tweets, she was sure it would hurt even more knowing how many people shared the opinion.

mel. @melisme 2 s

13 years + millions of dollars = no kid :(

#JusticeForPeter

Just Another Avenger Fan @litAvengers 2 s

it’s all bullsh*t AGAIN – Tony Stark had nothing to do with the disappearance of #peterpotts, he’s a billionaire superhero, not a child trafficker #JusticeForPeter

the truth hurts @whatislife 3 s

srry, but PP is long dead – probably’s been for 13 years… #JusticeForPeter

Thor is my God @hammerofthor 3 s

#JusticeForPeter is trending #1 worldwide! @AvengersFanclub

Stark is a kidnapper @sonotheroes 3 s

Stark has money, so their wont be justice #JusticeForPeter

Enough. Her son was not dead. Tony was not responsible for his disappearance. She had enough of all the idiocy already. She couldn’t read more. She should have, but she just couldn’t. Pepper closed the app with a deep sigh and put down the mobile on the coffee table with shaking hands. This was the day of grief, but she didn’t even have the privilege to just sit back, be sad and mourn her loss like everyone else would have. Instead she had to be the perfect collected businesswoman once again and stop another PR catastrophe. Sometimes it was just too much. She had enough – it was more than enough. She wanted to breath – she needed to breath…

“Pep?”

Tony’s familiar voice was uncertain as he approached her, and a ghost of a smile appeared on her face, suddenly feeling less lost and drowned by loss and grief. He was already dressed in his best, the suit a brand new black one she chose for him and it was fitted to him perfectly, not even his tie was crooked. His tie also matched the gray of her own business pantsuit. He looked like he stepped out of a fashion magazine, but he was still missing his iconic sunglasses, so she saw the lingering pain in his eyes. His smile was just a shadow of his usual smirk as well.

“Wow look at you, you can actually dress yourself!” she teased him automatically, but her voice lacked the usual mirth. It was forced, but if he noticed it, he didn’t hold it against her.

“I could tie my shoelaces as well without your help, Miss Potts, imagine that.”

He smirked, and she chuckled. The running joke between them, the light teasing was a beam of sunlight in the completely overcast cloudy sky that was her day. He sat down next to her onto the white couch in their penthouse without any of his usual theatrical nonsense, he was instead rather cautious as if he were afraid, he would spook her with any swift movement. She leaned against him, needing to feel close to him and his arms automatically snaked around her pulling her even closer.

“I looked up Twitter, but I just… I couldn’t really read any of it. It’s just – it’s too much, Tony.”

He didn’t answer for a long time, just held her close. His cologne was the same musky scent he had been wearing for as long as she had known him and the familiarity of it was soothing. They had sat like this so many times before, it was all comforting and familiar. She had Tony so she wasn’t alone. They had each other even if Peter was still not there with them.

“They just want Peter back home, safe and sound, you know. Some might not express it the best way, but everyone just wishes him happiness.”

The best thing about Tony was that while he hid behind this confident larger than life persona who did what he wanted and cared about nothing – the truth couldn’t have been further away. He was not only caring, but sweet as well, and sometimes he knew exactly what she needed to hear. It was only the other ninety percent of his gibberish that drove her crazy. She loved the whole package though. He was a real mess, but her mess.

“It’s just hard… I feel like too much of my time and energy is wasted on fighting the public opinion instead of searching for Peter,” she muttered with heavy heart.

Tony was right, she knew that even those who didn’t like anything that Stark Industries or the Avengers represented didn’t have any real ill feelings when it came to Peter. He was just a child that had been kidnapped, an innocent baby who disappeared into thin air without any real lead. Still, it didn’t make things easier.

There was always another stupid story that had the public imagination running wild. The world still was caught up in loving and hating her boyfriend instead of trying to find her son. Plus everyone judged every breath she took. It was hard enough to live her life in the spotlight but even harder to bear her grief in front of everyone. Peter was still missing. She didn’t know if her son was alright, so she was constantly living the worst nightmare of any mother.

“Pep, we are going to find him. I don’t know if it will happen tomorrow or maybe two years from now, but one day, soon I’m sure, we’ll have him back with us and we can be a real family.”

This was the Tony Stark very few ever could get even a glimpse of, so she felt lucky for knowing that underneath all the flashy suits and ridiculous sports cars this was the real deal. The rest of the world might not believe it, but she knew that he shared her grief, he understood her in a way she was certain even their closest friends couldn’t.

Even with her Tony rarely opened up so much and let his guard down completely, but she could always count on him on the anniversary of Peter’s disappearance. He was always super understanding with her on this day. Knowing that the entire world watched and judged her while not expecting the same grief from him, he decided to be strong for her. She knew well that he had his own ritual of mourning for the loss of Peter that usually involved disappearing for days into his lab with way too much alcohol, but when she needed him, he was there for her.

“Everyone always keeps insisting that as it was an infant abduction, the chances that he is well is high. Does it make me an awful mother that I hate the thought of my son calling another woman his mother even if it means that he is living a happy life not even realizing that he was kidnapped? There have been some miraculous stories of abducted newborns finding their real families in ten or twenty years, but most of them don’t really have a happy end…” Her voice was barely a whisper, but she was so close to Tony that she wasn’t surprised that he heard her.

“Well, let’s be honest, we are much cooler than those parents. I’m sure Peter would be happy to have us as his parents.” Pepper couldn’t help but roll her eyes and smile a bit. Tony seemed pleased with the result, but his expression then became serious.

“Honey, I can’t promise you that it’ll be easy, nor that we’ll ever be the most traditional family. I’m not really the white fence type of guy. Remember, I told you that as you're in a relationship with me, nothing is ever going to be alright. However, I can promise you that we’ll get to know our son – hey, we can always bribe him if nothing else works.”

“Tony, bribing people is not the ultimate solution to everything,” Pepper said with a sigh having told him the same in some forms at least a thousand times. Tony pretended to be deeply shocked by her words.

“Of course it isn’t – that’s why I’m Iron Man, the ultimate answer is my repulsor. Money is simply the easiest solution.” He shrugged and she just shook her head already over his stupid logic. “Not that the repulsor would ever come up as a method when it comes to Peter,” he added probably realizing that they were originally talking about their son.

“Honey, please just shut up,” she said sweetly running her hand through his hair. He stroked her cheeks with the back of his hand.

“You are an amazing mother, it’s me who has failed him. It’s all my fault, you did everything well, baby.” She froze, her right hand entangled in his hair. She fixed her eyes on his and saw the raw pain in his eyes that mirrored her own.

“Tony, don’t,” she muttered.

Tony often blamed himself for everything wrong in the world. Ever since Stane sold weapons to terrorists endangering countless American soldiers’ life with weapons Tony designed, he always felt that he was the one that had to stop every bad thing happening hence not being able to give up being Iron Man. Even before Afghanistan Tony felt some guilt about the abduction of Peter, but ever since it, Pepper knew full well that he silently agreed with all those who blamed him even if they had no idea of the real story. While the FBI was certain that Stane or the Ten Rings had nothing to do with the disappearance of Peter instead it was what was considered a typical infant abduction, Tony still believed he failed the baby.

“But it’s the truth. If only I wasn’t a coward who feared his easy life would be ruined by the responsibility of being a father, Peter would still be here with us,” he said with conviction.

She frowned, because she knew how Tony was suffering, as getting through the guilt was something she still often struggled with. While she had been told a thousand times that she hadn’t done anything wrong a tiny voice always reminded her that she could have prevented it somehow. She should’ve recognized the signs, she should’ve paid more attention, she should’ve been more prepared and so on.

“You can’t know that,” she repeated what had been told to her countless times whenever she voiced her own doubts. She felt immediately bad because her voice sounded hollow not that all convincing. She didn’t blame Tony, not at all. However, just as part of her still thought it was her fault that Peter was taken, she couldn’t help but imagine what could have happened if Tony were around.

“Come on, Pep, you know me well enough to know that I do everything in style – child-birth certainly wouldn’t have been the exception. If I didn’t leave you alone then you would have given birth to Pete in a private hospital rented out just for you with about a hundred security guards around, Happy at your door – with me by your bedside.” He grimaced.

“So, yeah, all my fault.” Pepper tried to imagine the picture Tony painted because it was everything she wished for when she realized she was carrying his baby but it was now a bittersweet idea tainted by the knowledge of the fate of the squishy wiggling newborn she gave birth to.

“I would’ve died of embarrassment if I knew Happy was by the door,” she replied. She was to hold a press conference in less than an hour, so she needed to collect herself. This was a conversation that needed to happen when they had the time to just grief, now both had to be strong, it wasn’t the right moment. Tony seemed to understand her unsaid thoughts because he smirked.

“Come on, you would’ve never realized it,” he replied swiftly with a grin.

“Pep, people will always blame me even after they learn the truth. Hell, I think most of them already know it, we’ll just officially confirm it today and yet I’m still the scapegoat – and it’s okay, I don’t care. You shouldn’t get riled up about it either.” She pressed her lips together and looked away.

“Part of me of course is upset that they are causing you pain, because while you are used to bad public opinion, I know it hurts when it’s about Peter. However, mostly I’m upset because if everyone is focusing on blaming you, we’ll never find the real culprit.” Tony kissed her slowly pulling away way too early for her taste. She needed to feel him as close to her as possible, she needed all the comfort he could provide.

“We will, honey, we will. During the press conference just think about one thing, okay? Peter will probably see it in some form. He won’t know that we’re talking about him, but still, he’ll hear us.”

Even without the abduction case, they lived a very public life with Tony being an Avenger and with her being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and his girlfriend meaning that Peter most certainly have at least heard about them. It was always a strange thought that Peter knew them from the news and magazines, but he had no idea that they were his parents.

This time she initiated the kiss and it was not as innocent as the one Tony gave her, but she leaned back breathing heavily before it could have escalated. They had a job to do after all. This day was about Peter and while Tony was a comfort, her focus had to be on Peter and the media.

They were to hold the press conference in the conference room that Pepper had labelled Press Hall a long time ago though officially it was called 3B Conference room. However, thanks to SI’s close association with the Avengers, Tony’s lack of filter and the company’s known connection to Peter’s abduction case they had to hold way too many press events than was usual for an enterprise. They probably should pay more to everyone at PR, it had to be one of their busiest departments.

She was certain that she would never get used to the flashing lights and the room full of reporters whose job was to make a big story of every word she said and all the mistakes she made. Tony was holding her hand as they entered the room and walked with his usual confidence showing that he literally owned the place, but his ever-present smirk was missing. He looked somber and she couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in that brilliant mind of his.

The reporters were less loud than usual probably out of respect, and all sitting at their designated places in the audience, though even with the more respectful set-up, she didn’t think they understood at all what this day meant for her. Still, at least it was quiet in the room. The spokesman of SI announced them and the rules of the event and the two of them approached the podium, Tony still holding her hand. He only let go of it when she stepped up in front of the microphone. He remained standing right by her side though.

“Thank you all for coming here today,” she started with the formalities that couldn’t have been skipped. “I know that some had been surprised by the chosen venue seeing as the topic today is my son, Peter Potts and not the future of Stark Industries. However, over the years Stark Industries have become more and more associated with the case of my son’s abduction because of Mr. Stark’s generosity and my own involvement within the company. Today I’m here as Pepper Potts, mother of a missing child, but I must acknowledge that some of the accusations directly affect the company I represent outside of my private life. So, I’m here to address the public.”

There were some plans to hold the press conference in a natural setting far away from the Avengers Tower, but in the end, it was decided that the accusations against Tony were considered a company issue as it directly affected SI through the public opinion as he was the face of it.

“Every day has been hard since my son has been taken away from me and it hasn’t got any easier with time. However, the anniversary of his disappearance is always the hardest day knowing that another year has passed, and he is still not home. Not to mention that if he weren’t kidnapped, yesterday we would have been holding a big party in honor of his birthday. It’s a thought that has been plaguing my mind a lot recently, even though as he is a thirteen-year-old teenager now I’m sure I wouldn’t have been welcomed just the food I could provide.” There was some chuckling and the mood was lifted a bit.

“It’s been thirteen years since I’ve lost him, but there has never been a single day in my life when I didn’t think about Peter and I didn’t immensely miss him. By now it’s a constant ache in my heart that just won’t cease until I have my baby back. So, once again here I’m pleading for any information about his whereabouts. I just want my baby at home, please help if you can. Please – I need to know if Peter is well, I would give anything in the world just to hold him in my arms once again. As another year has passed, I believe it is important to thank once again everyone who is still looking for Peter. I’m thankful for each and every person who reached out and helped searching for him over the years. Thank you for never giving up on finding Peter – it means the world to me.”

She paused for the moment knowing that now that she had addressed the obligatory pleasantries, she had to bring up the current topics. She glanced at Tony who looked at her intensely probably trying to decide if he had to take over already or if she could continue talking. She let out a shaky breath and decided to continue it. The sooner they were over this, the better.

“We are here today not only to honor the anniversary of Peter’s disappearance, but to shed some light on the allegations against Tony Stark in connection of my son’s abduction.”

There was a quiet murmur going around among the reporters and she noticed that many of them had their pens ready and others were now sitting with straighter backs. Obviously, they thought that they were getting their story and Pepper knew that she wasn’t about to disappoint them. While Tony was right, many had suspected the truth for a while, just as many had thought, that it was only a conspiracy theory.

“First of all I would like to say that I believe Mr. Stark had nothing to do with Peter’s abduction. I know that the idea of his involvement has been around from the very first days of Peter’s disappearance and occasionally popped up since that. As I’m sure you all know, the origin of this allegation is the fact that one of the first people who was questioned was Mr. Stark and this information was leaked to the public. However, the investigators in charge ruled out his possible involvement very early on as the public had been told already. However, today we are here to inform you why Mr. Stark was involved in the case in the first place.” She looked at Tony who smiled at her encouragingly.

“From the very first moment Peter’s disappearance was handled as a case of baby replacement or as more commonly known infant abduction, because he was just a day old and kidnapped from a hospital with witnesses seeing a woman of child-bearing age dressed in scrubs behaving suspiciously, so all the facts pointed towards this scenario. However, even though there are more than three hundred documented cases of infant abduction in the US from the recent decades, statistics still show that family abduction is the most common form of child abduction with more than ninety percent of the children being taken by a family member.”

Pepper noticed that countless reporters were already furiously writing or hitting the keyboard of their laptops obviously anticipating what she was to confirm. Having brought up family abduction in connection of Tony after all meant that he was somehow related to Peter and there was only one obvious conclusion to draw from that.

“So, when I was first interrogated right after Peter’s abduction was reported the questions were about my time in the hospital and the reactions to my pregnancy announcement of the people closest to me. As I already filled out the hospital documents in concern of Peter’s birth, the investigators also learned that I didn’t name Peter’s biological father so many of their questions were focused on my relationship with him, because he was automatically considered a suspect. So, I confirm now that the reason for Tony Stark’s involvement in the investigation is because he is my son’s biological father, just as many have already theorized over the years.”

As soon as she finished her sentence many reporters started talking loudly at the same time some even jumping up from their seats. Once again, the cameras were flashing immortalizing the moment of confirmation. She had a few more words to say before Tony could take over though.

“We were told by the experts in charge not to share this information with the media and the public because of Mr. Stark's influential status. As they thought that Peter was a randomly selected baby kidnapped to be raised, they feared that the kidnapper would be spooked and flee the country with Peter or worse when Peter’s legacy is confirmed. However, over the years Mr. Stark’s generous contribution to the search for Peter was widely reported just as my new position as CEO and later my relationship with Mr. Stark, so the situation has changed and it is not considered a piece of information that could potentially harm Peter anymore. Mr. Stark and I hope that now that his link to Peter had been revealed the attention of the public would shift from him to the actual kidnapper and we could welcome our son home and become a family as we have been wishing for a long time.” She was grateful when Tony decided that it was his time to speak up. He gently took her hand and pulled her away from the microphone then swiftly took her place.

“Right, I know, I know – big news and all, but come on! Are you really surprised?” Tony started in his usual style and Pepper couldn’t help but roll her eyes. She crossed her arms and watched as her boyfriend handled the media.

“Before I answer some questions, I would like to say a few words. Miss Potts and I were not in a committed relationship back then, the pregnancy came as a surprise to both of us. She has already resigned from her position as my PA when we had sex, so there is no steamy office hook-up story to share, I’m sorry. She informed me of her pregnancy right away and as Miss Potts wished to raise our son away from the spotlight, we worked out a child support system between us agreeing to keep me off the birth record because of California’s public record regulations. I didn’t wish to be a father back then and I admit I didn’t want to be involved in Peter’s life. However, I learned the hard lesson of only appreciating what you had once you’ve lost it.” Even with the inappropriate bits about the office hook-up Pepper was surprised by how serious Tony sounded.

“Now some questions – guy in Harry Potter glasses,” Tony pointed to one of the reporters in the first row who raised his hand. “Yes you, Potter.”

“Was the paternity ever confirmed through testing?” the reporter asked after introducing himself though Pepper didn’t pay any attention to who the guy was.

“Yes, in California blood is drawn from newborns for various testing not much after birth, so paternity was tested right away after Peter’s abduction.” Everyone once again sounded rather excited about that confirmation though Pepper was sure some would have found it more of a story if there was any lingering doubt.

“You miss there who made a questionable fashion choice this morning.” He pointed to a woman who unlike the rest in business suits in either black, gray, or dark blue, wore a maroon sweater.

“You said you didn’t want to be a father. Did you insist on terminating the pregnancy?” she asked, and Pepper had to look down to her carefully selected heels before someone took a picture of her with murderous expression. She knew well that the entire world for a long time was going to be analyzing every movement they make just now.

“No, I just didn’t want to be directly involved. Miss Potts told me that she made the decision of keeping the baby because she wanted to be a mother, but she believes that the father had the same choice. I agreed with her sentiment and made my decision, that’s all.”

Tony’s careful reply surprised Pepper. They discussed before that there would be probably some insensitive questions and Tony insisted that he could deal with them, but honestly, she didn’t expect him to do it this well. As she looked across the room, she noticed that the representatives of the media were just as surprised.

Obviously, they were anticipating a less civil response. Any press conference that involved Tony Stark turned into less than professional so many were probably disappointed that they couldn’t report on another scandal, just inform the public of the official story. Apparently, his answer was a challenge to some reporters to see who could break Tony Stark, because the questions became even more ridiculous afterwards.

“Do you have any more concealed biological children?” asked the next reporter. Pepper couldn’t help but roll her eyes at the stupidity of that one, but Tony seemed to have found it entertaining instead.

“Sure, Pepper and I have a farm full of children in South Dakota,” he said in his usual snarky way. Okay, so his maturity lasted for ten whole minutes. Pepper was already drawing up an official statement in her mind to refuse that piece of information. She was certain of the upcoming headlines referencing this though.

“Have you ever dealt with child trafficking?” another questioned Tony and Pepper prayed to every deity she has ever heard of that Tony wouldn’t say something ridiculous to that question. She wasn’t sure why she ever accepted his proposal of taking the questions. She was present at enough of his press conferences to know it was never a good idea to let Tony answer reporters’ questions.

“I kind of expected something stupid from you, you look like you are not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, but you exceeded my expectations, so congrats. No, I haven’t – I’m a billionaire superhero, remember? I’m not exactly in need of money and like to get the bad guys behind bars.” Well, not as bad as Tony could get, but she decided this was probably a good place to end it, so she gestured to Tony to move away from the microphone and she took back the speaker’s place.

“Thank you, Mr. Stark for your contribution and thank you again all of you for coming here. We ask you to give us some privacy in these dark days. This was it for today. Good-bye.”

She left the podium with straight back and blank expression with Tony trailing after her even as all the reporters jumped up and started shouting more questions and hoping for some extreme reaction from one of them. Happy as always was there to control the crowd and he smiled at Pepper which was a rare gift from the head of security but was much appreciated.

She also caught a glimpse of Nat who she was surprised to see just now because she didn’t notice before, though knowing the super spy it shouldn’t have surprised her. Pepper knew that some of the Avengers wanted to be there as moral support, but she told them that it was probably for the better if they weren’t around because keeping the Avengers and SI business and the abduction case separate was already too hard. Probably Nat took her request to heart, but still wanted to make sure things were under control, so she disappeared into the crowd. Pepper appreciated all the people in her life who were looking out for them.

Her ears were ringing, and she was seeing black spots in her vision even minutes after leaving the conference room, but with every second she felt better. They were standing in the private elevator, she leaned against Tony and his arm was around her waist.

“So, I know for certain it’s not my children you hide away in South Dakota, so care to explain the situation to me?” she teased him feeling a lot lighter now that the press conference was over and it wasn’t a complete catastrophe.

“Well, then I must have dreamed it, because I wouldn’t have a house full of children with anyone but you,” he replied immediately, and she beamed at him. He was such a loveable idiot. “You are the strongest and sweetest woman I’ve ever met,” he said just before capturing her lips.

“I love you Tony,” she muttered against his lips. He swept away a lock of her hair from her face that came out of the low bun and caressed her cheeks as he leaned back from the kiss.

“We are going to be a family,” he promised.