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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.

Chapter Text

1. Genealogy

“Genealogy is the study of families, family history, and the tracing of their lineages.”

Friday, 13th November 2015

It was a universally acknowledged fact that Friday afternoons were the favorite part of the week for most of the population but certainly for high schoolers, because it meant that the school week was over, and the well-deserved weekend was upon them. There was of course homework to do and tests and assignments to worry about during the weekend, but few ever thought about them until at least Saturday afternoon. In Peter’s previous schools he was certain his classmates rarely bothered thinking about school until Monday morning when they were forced to get up.

His high school, Midtown was different in many ways. Having attended Midtown for months now, Peter was sometimes still stunned by how dedicated everyone seemed to science and he found that very few students were uncaring about their studies in general which was a nice change. Having been labelled a nerd his whole life it felt great being just one of many, one in a whole school of them pretty much. He leaned against his locker and watched as another girl passed him with a complicated-looking model that she obviously spent many hours building.

Being a high school freshman was sadly not as different from all the soap opera-like TV dramas he had seen as he would have wished, the biggest difference seemed to be that in real life fourteen-year-olds rarely looked like they were in their thirties, but now that he was attending a STEM school he felt much more at ease than ever before in his school career. He was still an awkward fourteen-year-old with asthma and glasses having recently joined clubs such as the marching band, so he certainly was not considered someone popular and cool even in his new school, yet for the first time he found that he was not the only teenager who loved building machines from scraps he found or who was interested in Legos. It was refreshing feeling like he belonged and not being considered a complete weirdo.

While waiting for his best friend he started aimlessly scrolling first his Facebook feed, but he quickly got bored of it because most of the stuff he saw was posted by previous classmates he cared little for and instead he opened his Twitter app. He followed various famous people and fandom accounts on Twitter so of course there were more fun stuff there. What caught his eyes automatically was from his favorite Tony Stark fan account.

Stark Updates @TonyStarkUpdates 1 h

2 teens are claiming to be #PeterPotts – this time from NYC and LA. Sources say that the genetic testing will soon prove or discard the claims.

It was not exactly big news, because ever since last August when Tony Stark officially verified that he was the biological father of the missing son of Pepper Potts every other week there were some kids claiming to be related to the famous couple. Since Miss Potts became the CEO of Stark Industries and the two started dating there have been a few claims, but they certainly got much more frequent in the last year.

Every guy around fourteen who wished for a better life hoped that he was the son of a billionaire superhero and his company’s CEO, wishing for a Cinderella-like ending, Peter supposed. Yet, one of them could really turn out to be the missing kid and that thought always excited him. He was just about to check out the comments thread when he caught a glimpse of Ned. So instead he closed the app and put his mobile back in his pocket.

He couldn’t help, but beam when he saw Ned hurrying towards him on the corridor. Ned was far from athletic though so by the time he reached Peter, he was panting hard. Their lack of physical abilities was one of the many common features they bonded over from the first day of freshman year. Ned grinned when he reached Peter, and they did their recently developed bro-handshake. It was still a bit wobbly, this time Peter messing it up at one of the last steps, but they were getting better in it.

“We still need to work on this, man,” Ned said with an even wider grin obviously finding it somewhat funny how even though they were attending a STEM school they still couldn’t do a handshake without one of them messing it up. It was usually Ned, so he always seemed proud of himself when he did it well while Peter made a mistake. Peter was just happy that he found a best friend to do a secret handshake with. While he had some friends in his previous schools none were close enough for something like this.

“We have the whole night,” Peter replied enthusiastically, but then a thought occurred to him. “Okay, maybe not – let’s just focus on the Armada, it’s gonna be epic. I still can’t believe you got not only the core game but so many of the expansion packs of Wave 1 as well for your birthday. I’m so jealous right now. Can’t wait to try it out.”

He started gushing about everything he has read about the board game while preparing for the showdown between them as they began walking out of the school. Most of the students have already left right after the final bell rang, so there were only a few still lingering on the corridors probably waiting for friends or some club meeting though the ones happening on Friday afternoon were rarely popular. Just as Peter started on describing the video, he saw about the CR90 Corellian Corvette Expansion Pack, Ned suddenly interrupted him looking like he was about to explode from pent-up frustration.

“Dude, as much as I can’t wait to fight against you for the fate of the galaxy, you won’t believe what I’ve heard in the changing room.”

Ned had P.E. as his last class while Peter had Biology hence having to wait for his friend who was always a slow changer. Peter suspected that it might have to do with the fact that Ned didn’t want to change in front of all their classmates as he was a bit overweight and he might not be comfortable with all the attention, however he never questioned his friend instead he waited for him dutifully. They were just heading down the stairs and as much as Peter enjoyed attending Midtown, he was ready for the weekend to begin, so he gestured to Ned to tell what he heard while continuing walking.

“Sorry for interrupting, but this is like the biggest piece of news I’ve ever heard. I thought I could share it with you once we were already at my place, you know, I don’t want to be overheard and I shouldn’t really know about this, but I just have to tell it right now or I’ll explode – like literally.”

Peter thought that he had already seen Ned at his most excited state just a few days ago, when he arrived to school on his birthday with the widest grin he could sport telling Peter all about the Star Wars: Armada board game he got with a ton of expansion packs, but now Ned seemed on edge as well. His eyes were wide, and he was shaking like a leaf during a big wind.

“You know Jeff Andrews from English and Chem, right?” Ned asked suddenly and Peter automatically agreed remembering the guy they shared their classes with.

“Of course, you know him, everyone does,” Ned then added.

Peter had to agree with Ned’s comment. Jeff was easy to notice, because he obviously liked to be in the center of attention. He was a freshman just like them, but he was already popular having friends from the sophomore and junior classes as well and having joined more than one of the sport teams. He was laidback, but still smart, the casual type who didn’t seem to care about school yet still achieved good grades. Peter didn’t really know him, but had nothing against him either, because Jeff was not the bullying type. He just didn’t seem to care much about the uncool kids probably hardly noticing that he had classmates like Peter or Ned. Peter had no idea what Jeff Andrews could have said or done that excited Ned more than the best Star Wars board game ever made, but he had to admit he was curious.

“Well, I was still in the changing room when he and his friend Chaz, the big buff guy he always hangs with, came in probably to change for their practice and they passed me… and you’ll never guess what Jeff said!”

From the way Ned practically shouted and gestured with his hands erratically it had to be something huge, though Ned war right, Peter didn’t have any clue at all. Ned didn’t seem to expect him to guess either, because he continued just as enthusiastically.

“He told Chaz that he believes he is Tony Stark’s missing son and that he contacted Stark Industries and he’s doing the DNA testing today.” Peter stopped at the last step of the staircase and Ned must have noticed because he didn’t continue walking either. Peter looked at Ned blankly.

“Jeff Andrews claims he is Peter Potts?” Peter asked slowly and much more calmly than he felt.

“Yeah, how awesome is that? Imagine if he really turned out to be a Stark – and we know him! He attends our school, shares our classes. I mean Pepper Potts and Tony Stark would attend our graduation, how cool it that? Sweet, right?”

Ned started walking again practically skipping as he gushed about what having Tony Stark’s son in their class would mean. Peter didn’t want to ruin Ned’s good mood, but the first thought he had when Ned shared his news was simply ‘No way’, and the reason for that was simple.

“Ned… I’m actually not sure how to form this question without sounding rather discriminating or something, you know I want to be politically correct, but isn’t Jeff… African American?” he asked rather awkwardly.

Jeff’s skin color was only a shade or two darker than Peter’s so based on just his skin, he seemed white, but his features most certainly suggested at least some black heritage. While Peter didn’t think he ever saw Jeff’s parents he would have guessed that they were a mixed couple. Ned looked at Peter with even wider eyes if that was possible just as they reached the front gate of the school and left the building. The door closed with a bang behind them.

“Well, I guess he does look like it, but maybe some ancestor on either side was and it has just skipped a generation or two?” Ned guessed and Peter looked at him blankly.

While of course it was a possibility, because genetics was complicated and there were always stories of twins from mixed couples looking nothing alike or some family secret coming to light after generations thanks to a grandchild looking anything but like the rest of the family, he still wouldn’t have ever guessed that Jeff was Peter Potts. From what he knew of Tony Stark he only had some Italian heritage other than American and while he didn’t know much about Pepper Potts’s family tree, with her very light skin, strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes it was hard to imagine that Jeff could inherit that from her side either.

After Tony Stark’s latest infamous press conference there have been many pictures about how Peter Potts might look as a teenager based on the age progression of the newborn baby’s pictures and the features of the known family members and none looked anything like Jeff. According to the official age progression picture provided by the authorities the boy had brown eyes much like Tony Stark’s, dark slightly curly hair, light skin and a mix of features from both sides. Many commented that the kid based on this probably looked a lot like his father at the same age.

“I guess,” he shrugged not knowing what to say.

Obviously, Ned was enthusiastic about the idea and Peter didn’t want to ruin his mood. Plus, he supposed when it came to genetics, pretty much nothing was impossible. When he was younger he once overheard two girls asking their biology teacher in a break about how eye color was inherited because they were arguing if the official family tree in a book series was possible or if one of the characters was a love child from an affair. He wasn’t sure where the question came from, because he would have just assumed that the writer didn’t know enough of eye color inheritance if he stumbled across something like that, but instead he was surprised to learn that nothing was like it seemed with DNA, the variety of not only phenotypes and genotypes but all the in-between loopholes was astonishing – it was then that he became a big fan of genetics and biology. Thanks to science the world was an endless pool of possibilities.

“In Blood & Iron it was stated that every claim would be throughout investigated. Jeff might even meet Iron Man no matter if he is the missing kid or not,” Ned continued enthusiastically. Ned lived closer to the school than Peter did so they decided previously to just walk to his apartment instead of taking public transport. As they left the school property, he was still rambling about the Netflix docuseries.

“It must be exhausting for Mr. Stark and Miss Potts – so many kids claiming that they are Peter, so they must be always hoping and then being disappointed,” Peter replied eventually thinking about how many news articles he had read in just the last year about boys his age believing they were the kidnapped heir of Stark Industries. Ned didn’t seem as sad about the idea as he was.

“I mean, yeah, sure it sucks for them, but on the other side… Come on, if you suspected you might be Peter Potts instead of Parker, don’t tell me you wouldn’t be curious to know for certain,” Ned stated and Peter had to agree that his friend had a point. “Meeting the Avengers and inheriting a multibillion-dollar company would be just one of the many perks after all. Just imagine that! Of course, anyone who is even a bit suspicious of their origins contacts the Starks.”

“We’re talking about Tony Stark though. I kind of feel that most of these guys just hope for five minutes of fame and don’t even really believe their own claim. I’m sure if there was any trace of Peter Potts, Mr. Stark would’ve found it by now,” Peter insisted, but Ned didn’t seem that convinced, which was weird because Ned was a huge fan of Tony Stark too and he always gushed about the brilliance of the tech mogul.

“I agree, but come on, any kid might overhear a conversation between his parents or find a piece of letter in the closet or something that even Tony Stark couldn’t have picked up on. The guy is a literal genius, but even he isn’t omniscient. I believe if Peter Potts was ever found it would be through his own investigation and not the Starks’ or the police’s.”

Peter supposed Ned was right, and his new best friend’s line of thought reminded him of something his Uncle Ben often told him. Still, he couldn’t imagine what life could be for the missing boy’s parents with kids popping up left and right claiming to be their son. He just wished that one day one of those boys were proven to be their son – after so many years of never giving up searching for him and looking into all these claims, Miss Potts and Mr. Stark certainly deserved their happy ending.

It was a bittersweet thought to know that Tony Stark as a billionaire genius on the surface had everything in the entire world, yet even after saving the planet countless times as a literal superhero he was still unaware of his only son’s fate. It was the type of cautionary story that was perfect to teach children that money and power was not everything and if there was love and family there could be happiness except for the part where even his good deeds didn’t warrant him a happy ending. It was just rather depressing that life didn’t seem to be a Disney fairytale, or a Hallmark movie and the boy was still missing. Peter wondered if the boy was living a Harry Potter type of life being mistreated and hoping one day someone would come and yell at him “You’re a wizard,” or if he was just an everyday teenager much like him.

Both Peter and Ned have watched countless YouTube videos and read articles on the board game. However, neither of them started learning the precise rules, so once they were faced with the million pieces of the spaceship models after they arrived to Ned’s place and started to set up the game on floor of Ned’s room they quickly realized that they had much to still learn before they could start their galactical war. Reading the rules was never very exciting even if the prospect of playing the game was so after a bit of silence only broken by the sound of turning pages and some of the pieces being moved, they naturally drifted into another conversation. At first only about what they have read so far prompted by a section of moving the spaceships that Ned didn’t understand, but soon another topic came up.

“Imagine how many of these Tony Stark’s son could buy,” Ned pointed at one of the expansion packs with excitement shining in his dark eyes and Peter couldn’t help but grin as well at the thought.

He supposed this was exactly the reason why the whole Peter Potts story has suddenly grabbed so many people’s attention in the last year. Everyone has imagined before what it would be like to be a billionaire but so few ever accidentally acquired so much money – there were only so many people who won the lottery after all. The idea of a kid just learning that he was to inherit the majority shares of a Fortune 500 company was something out of a movie or a book and then the whole being related to a literal superhero part was not even added yet. He was certain many writers were already typing quickly thanks to being inspired by this true story.

“It’d be so weird – suddenly being a billionaire after growing up as a normal kid. You know, private jets, limousines, luxury yachts, summer homes all around the world. I guess no one would complain though,” Peter replied.

He could certainly see why so many kids decided to try their luck and put on Cinderella’s glass slipper, but he couldn’t imagine what it would be like if the shoe fit. He suspected that only a few truly believed they were Peter Potts and he guessed even they would be stunned if the test proved they were, because it would be an unimaginable change for anyone. The whole world would be watching the boy and judging while he would have to deal with the fact that his whole life was a lie. Honestly, all the billions of dollars might not be enough to compensate that though for those who feel like there was nothing to lose in their current lives it made sense to try. Peter wasn’t one of those though, he was satisfied enough with his life and he believed the same was true for Ned so for them it was nothing more than a game of ‘Imagine that…’ It was always fun to wonder.

“Dude, remember when in one of the last episodes of Blood & Iron they listed some of the stuff Tony Stark owns? It’s insane – can’t even imagine what inheriting any of that would feel like,” Ned exclaimed. Peter felt a bit awkward, because they truth was, he certainly didn’t remember and reason for that was simple.

“I actually haven’t seen the series yet. It came out just a few days after my uncle had died and I was just too caught up in grief to watch it and since then it always reminded me of him because we were planning to watch it together,” he explained. Ned’s expression softened. He put down a piece of what was to be a spaceship on rug next to him.

Netflix was fast to develop its projects and what has already been in the work as a true crime cold case docuseries suddenly didn’t only get green light but probably a lot of resources once Tony Stark’s exact connection to the missing child was revealed. It was always a well-known case because of Tony Stark’s unknown involvement in the investigation and later his financial support not to mention growing relationship with the mother, but it became probably the most infamous abduction story only after the superhero billionaire was revealed as the child’s father. Until then most of the articles and videos were just guessing what his involvement was. The fate of the baby didn’t seem to interest most of the people, they were just curious if the billionaire was involved in something shady.

Now after being revealed as the Stark fortune’s sole heir suddenly everyone was on the lookout to find Peter Potts. So, on the first anniversary of the announcement which was the fourteenth anniversary of the baby having been kidnapped an eight episode-long documentary was released and since then it had been certainly the most watched true crime series. By now it wasn’t just American teens who insisted on being the victims of the kidnapping, but there were kids all around the globe who believed they were taken from a hospital in San Francisco out of the cot labelled as ‘Peter Potts’. There were just too many fourteen-year-old boys in the world to check all of them...

“I’m sorry man, I didn’t know. In the usual Netflix style it’s for those as well who have hardly ever heard about the case, so I don’t think you’ve missed much, though you probably should binge it once, because it’s a pretty good summary of everything that has happened in the last fourteen years plus has some sweet theories that we must discuss,” Ned stated with what was obviously pity in his voice. Peter was used to recognizing it after all he grew up with dead parents, and now he lost his last biological parent figure, his uncle. However, while he was thankful for others realizing what pain it was, sometimes he wished he wasn’t constantly pitied.

As a big fan of not only Iron Man, but Tony Stark as well Peter had been following the developments of the case for as long as he could remember, so he supposed Ned was right, he didn’t believe the Netflix docuseries provided much new information, but now he felt ready to watch it. His uncle’s death on most days still felt like a fresh wound, but slowly it was getting better. It didn’t feel like a betrayal to watch it without him anymore as it felt those first days.

***

Saturday, 14th November 2015

Aunt May had the day off so Peter left the Leeds’s apartment not long after breakfast as he had promised his aunt that they would spend the day together just hanging out because ever since his uncle’s death his aunt has been working much more shifts, so they didn’t get to have much time together. When he arrived home, he found his aunt in the kitchen working on what he supposed was the planned lunch but based on the deadly look she gave the stove he had a feeling they would once again end up with takeaway. Not that he minded, because while he loved his aunt, her cooking was rarely to his taste and they always had great time eating something Asian with chopsticks out of boxes while watching some random funny show on TV.

However, ever since his uncle’s death May has been insisting on cooking their meals. She said she read about the importance of home cooking in some life magazine. She insisted that according to the article it was better for both the health and soul, but Peter suspected that the truth was that she was worried about the money. Buying the ingredients cost less than getting prepared dishes, so she has been spending much of her free time in the kitchen for the last few months, but often the result was not what she had planned. May’s frustration seemed to have melted away just by his arrival. She hugged him, hardly letting him go afterwards.

“So, tell me all about your great galactical wars, but try to use a language I might even understand without researching all the Star Wars universe,” she joked. Peter enthusiastically started detailing the game they played.

“Okay-okay, so who won then?” May asked with confusion and Peter started laughing having been talking about the exact topic for the last ten minutes. Then again, he supposed he might have got carried away even though she warned him about it and got into a bit too many details losing his aunt who, while always happy to watch the movies with him, was certainly not a big Star Wars expert.

“Once Ned and twice I did – we switched roles that’s why you got confused. It was epic though, probably the best game I’ve ever played,” he said enthusiastically.

“I have an idea for our movie afternoon, but it’s actually a series,” he changed the topic thinking that May had enough of the Armada, just as she opened the stove carefully after congratulating him on his success at the game. He couldn’t catch a glimpse of what she was baking but the smell was surprisingly good so she might have prepared something edible just now. He supposed that the months she has spent reading cookbooks might have some results after all.

“Something sci-fi then, I suppose. Should I be prepared for even more epic galactical fights I hardly understand?” she asked turning around with a teasing smile. She put down the dish she got out of the stove on to the counter and now Peter could see that it was a fried chicken. It looked surprisingly good and even though he had breakfast not long ago, his mouth watered.

“Nope, I got the idea from Ned, yes, but not from the game. He heard one of our classmates saying that he was to be tested to see if he was Peter Potts, so we started talking about the Potts kidnapping. I thought we could watch the Netflix series about it.” His aunt just rolled her eyes good-naturedly.

“Haven’t you seen like a billion videos already and even read a book about the case?” she asked, and he shrugged, because she already knew he did. She knew perfectly well how interested he was about anything that had Tony Stark involved. Still, from what he had heard about the show it was pretty good for a true crime docuseries.

“I haven’t seen this one,” he pointed it out and she chuckled.

“True, which is surprising as it’s about Tony Stark,” then she paused. She pressed her lips together. “Ah, I remember. You were to watch it with Ben.”

May looked pensive for a moment leaning against the counter playing with the hem of the ‘Best Cook in Town’ apron she was wearing that Peter’s uncle bought for her as a joke for Christmas last year. The Uncle Ben-shaped hole in their lives at times like this was so obvious that Peter often wondered how they could just continue with their days without him. It felt like missing some essential organ. There were times when even breathing didn’t seem to come automatically anymore, but then other times life went on without a hitch. Grief was disorientating coming in waves but always there as a keynote.

“I miss him so much, May,” he muttered and felt traitorous tears escaping his eyes. He angrily wiped them off which was a complicated task thanks to his glasses. He had to take them off to be able to get rid of all the salty tears. He nearly missed his aunt’s echoed sentiment. He closed the space between them and this time he initiated the hug.

“Talking yesterday with Ned about the Potts-Stark case reminded me of what Uncle Ben always said, how the world would be a better place with less crimes, discrimination and lies if only we were all a bit more interested in our history and took the time to get to know our families,” Peter said after a moment of peaceful silence after he let go of his aunt and copied her leaning against the counter as well facing the living-room. The prepared chicken was right next to him and up this close it seemed to be a bit too well-fried, but it still seemed edible.

“He always insisted that everyone would be humbler if they understood where they came from,” she remembered with a soft smile. “I just joked that I married an old man because I never met anyone else under fifty interested in genealogy.” Peter nodded thoughtfully.

“I never quite understood what he meant you know, but yesterday Ned told me that he believes that Peter Potts will be found through his own research into his past and family, not by the police investigation or even by Tony Stark. It got me thinking that Uncle Ben might have been right, so I decided to continue his research into our family history and to do that GenomicsDNA test that you’ve order for him…” But which he could never do because he had died before the package arrived, was left unsaid hanging in the air. His aunt smiled tearfully at him and ran her hand through his hair messing up his curls even more.

Peter could hardly sleep at the apartment of the Leeds family last night, because after the rush of the galactical battles he was too excited to fall asleep. He had trouble tuning down his thoughts. First, he came up with possible tactics to win the next games, but after a while all he could think about was his conversation with Ned about the baby abduction and how it reminded him of what his uncle always said. Uncle Ben’s words haunted him for the rest of the night hence coming up with the idea of following in his footsteps. He didn’t think that his research would result in anything life-changing or even useful, but his uncle believed that it might give him a better perspective on life and make him appreciate it more, so he was ready to dive right into it just to make his uncle proud.

“That’s great Peter, I’m sure Ben would love that. He always hoped that you’d one day get interested in his research, he wanted it to be a ‘guy thing’ between you too that I just couldn’t understand.” Peter beamed at her for praising his plan.

“He should be here now and be enthusiastic about telling me all about his fourth cousins and whatnot,” he said with a sigh thinking about how unfair the world was that it took away his uncle after robbing him of his parents as well. He supposed maybe finding some long-lost cousins might even be fun, because currently his family was tiny – all he had left was his aunt. Of course, Aunt May had some relatives that he supposed considered him one as well, because they knew she cared about him, but he still lacked many family members.

“He is here with us always, you know, because our memories of him influence every decision we make. He’d be so proud that you want to get into genealogy just because he loved it, but you know that you don’t need to like it just because he did. Let me tell you, he certainly approves of you already,” she said with a soft smile, her eyes lighting up giving her an even more youthful appearance. He had Aunt May and while he would have loved to have more relatives and have his uncle back at that moment, he knew that was all he needed. He was loved.

Chapter Text

2. Genomics

“Genomics is an interdisciplinary field of biology focusing on the structure, function, evolution, mapping, and editing of genomes. A genome is an organism's complete set of DNA, including all of its genes.”

Tuesday, 2nd February 2016

Tony finished building Mark XLVI back in June not long after the Ultron Offensive but ever since then he always got back to upgrading it. He was never quite satisfied with it even though he promised Pepper that he was done with being an Avenger. He told her that he only needed the suit for world-ending emergencies to save her or his life. Even back then Pepper didn’t seem to accept his explanation. The mistrust for his words was evident in her clear light eyes that always seemed to pierce his soul whenever he made a promise to her that she felt he wasn’t going to keep. After years of repeating the same cycle, Tony couldn’t even be mad at Pepper for not trusting him. Hell, she was simply too smart to trust him and knew him for far too long.

Yes, Pepper once again seemed to be right. By this point, the Iron Man armor was once more his obsession just as it happened after the Battle of New York when he started mass producing the suits. However, he learned a lesson when Ultron was able to control his entire Iron Legion. So this time he focused on perfecting just this one model and decided against a wall of Iron Man suits. It seemed that whenever he felt lost, he could only soothe the chaos in his mind by building versions of the technology that could rival even the power of aliens or super soldiers. He supposed that if he ever went to a psychologist, they would say that he did this to make himself feel safe and useful. He never cared for psychology though.

The newest feature he was currently working on was making the helmet collapsible. It was just one of the many new features though because he has spent most of his waking hours working on Mark XLVI in the last month. Ever since his break-up with Pepper at the beginning of January, he didn’t do much else. He kept away from the New Avengers Facility trying to prove to Pepper and himself as well that he could live without being a superhero. He also decided against getting too involved in the Stark Industries business, because he knew full well that Pepper was capable of handling it herself. He was also willing to give her the space she asked for, but this left him with lots of time alone in his lab.

“Boss?” FRIDAY’s clear high voice cut through the rock music and then she turned his music off as if suspecting that he would pretend not to hear her with the song continuing. Her suspicions were correct, he was planning on ignoring her, but it still irritated Tony. As pretty much his only companion for the last month Tony’s was losing his patience with the young A.I. who was simply not JARVIS. She certainly couldn’t substitute Pepper either. No, in many ways she was a constant reminder of everything that had gone wrong in the last year.

“FRI, turn my music back this instant!” he practically shouted. His voice echoed in his spacious lab even though there were many machines in it. The room remained silent because his A.I. didn’t turn the music back on or even answer him. His mood soured at the disobedience his A.I. was showing. It was nothing new and certainly not worse than anything JARVIS had ever done, but after the Ultron debacle anytime she didn’t follow closely his orders he felt a certain unease. After a long moment of silence, she spoke up.

“Boss, you should satisfy your human needs. You have only ingested caffeine in the last twenty-four hours and have slept an average of three hours and nineteen minutes in the last week.” No matter her distinctive Irish accent and the non-human wording FRIDAY used while expressing her worry for him, it reminded Tony so much of Pepper that he barked at the AI.

“FRI, mute yourself! I don’t want to hear from you a word unless I directly ask a question from you.”

His anger died down quickly and only the feeling of loss remained when he thought of Pepper and how she always worried for him. He was not ready to face the reality of only having FRIDAY thinking of him though and decided against withdrawing his order. He turned back the music he was previously listening to. He made sure it was even louder so the quietness of his lab would not ruin his mood even further. It was about an hour later that he first noticed one of the screens behind him flashing with a red text saying ‘ALERT’. He was immediately alarmed.

“FRIDAY, what is this alert?” he asked jumping up already thinking how to get the rest of the Avengers.

“Ah, boss – I just wanted your attention because I thought you might want to know…” the A.I. started. Tony glared at the screen as if it was that simple display’s fault that his invention didn’t seem to follow instructions too well.

“So, there is no emergency?” he questioned the A.I. angrily.

“No, but…” she started but Tony shut her up once again rather effectively.

Working without FRIDAY was much harder than with the help of his A.I. Plus the young A.I. hadn’t done anything wrong other than having found her voice but for the first time, he felt like his anger and resentment had a recipient. FRIDAY was not Ultron, but she wasn’t JARVIS either. He missed his original A.I. just as he missed Pepper scolding him instead of FRIDAY for not taking care of himself.

He hadn’t moved in the next few hours other than to get up to make a coffee. He didn’t even ask FRIDAY to start the machine instead opted to take a few steps and turn it on himself. He was making yet another cup when he noticed a person coming closer to the lab. As the Tower was Pepper’s baby he often wondered over the years if it was a conscious decision on her part to have his private labs separated from the rest of the building by glass walls. He would tease her that she wanted to keep an eye on him just to make sure he didn’t blow up the entire Tower. While he loved the mysterious smile and the flirty answers he received whenever he asked that question, he was pretty sure that he knew the answer. Especially now as she was approaching him with her eyes constantly on him.

“Miss Potts,” he called out and took a step towards the door leaving the cup on the desk. “Turn the music down, FRI.”

Pepper stopped in front of him but left some distance between them as if he needed a reminder that she wasn’t his anymore. Having her so close yet so far away felt like absolute torture but he suspected that she wouldn’t want him to close the space between them. She looked like the perfect businesswoman just as always in a dark blue pantsuit, and with her vivid strawberry blonde hair in a tight bun. However, he noticed worriedly that even the concealer couldn’t completely hide the dark circles under her bright eyes.

“Mr. Stark,” she replied with the hint of a smile on her lips.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you, Pep?” he asked curiously leaning a bit forward. Ever since that awful day in January he only ever caught a glimpse of her in the Tower. This was the first day she sought him out and he felt his pulse quicken just from having her in his proximity.

“Well, FRIDAY bullied me to come here. After I refused to leave my work, she messed with my mobile. I was awaiting an important call, Tony.”

Pepper took out her mobile from one of the pockets of her blazer and turned the sleek device towards Tony. Tony was just about to start picking a fight with the A.I. again and threaten to destroy her for disobedience when he read what was written on Pepper’s mobile. Its black screen had bright red text much like the alert he received previously. His A.I. had certainly learned her lesson and this time she specified what was going on.

THE BIG HAPPY FAMILY PROTOCOL HAS BEEN ACTIVATED. BOSS NEEDS TO BE ALERTED.

“FRI, forget about anything I told you today and speak up – now,” Tony said impatiently and he could see that it confused Pepper. She chewed on her lips as she often did when she was nervous. She sensed that there was a reason for FRIDAY’s erratic behavior, but Tony was certain he had never mentioned this specific protocol to her simply because he didn’t believe in it, he just set it up to soothe his soul, to come up with yet another idea.

“What’s the Big Happy Family protocol, Tony? And why did FRIDAY order me here?” she asked curiously. “Please tell me the world is not ending again,” she practically begged him.

“Certainly, Boss. I was trying to get your attention with the alert, sorry for alarming you earlier. It’s not an emergency of course. However, I thought that you and Miss Potts would like to know that around one p.m. today the Big Happy Family protocol was activated.” FRIDAY's voice sounded somewhat giddy and nervous at the same time, and Tony felt like he couldn't breathe.

It must be just a bug, he told himself trying not to get too hopeful after all the disappointment they had to go through recently. Ever since the press conference where his connection to Peter had been revealed, they faced many trials, and he was beginning to lose hope. He suspected that another false alarm would destroy them if they were to believe it without any evidence. No, it was better to remain cautious and have reservations. After all, the chances of the protocol ever working were very slim. He didn't expect it to be activated especially until Peter came of age. Teenagers rarely spent their saved money on doing a commercial DNA test after all and minors even needed parental permission to get tested.

“Tony, what’s this protocol?” Pepper repeated this time more impatiently crossing her arms. She seemed somewhat relaxed though, as her nerves were trained by Tony’s erratic and dangerous behavior. So she wasn't easily fazed, and FRIDAY has already said that it was not an emergency. Tony opened his mouth to answer but found no words.

“The Boss has been monitoring the DNA matches of Celia Carbonell-Bellini and Morgan Miller on the Genomics genealogy site for about two years now. Today the protocol has been activated, which means that Ms. Carbonell-Bellini and Mr. Miller got a common match,” FRIDAY explained. Tony watched Pepper as the realization hit her. Her eyes widened and she looked like a deer caught in headlights.

“Mo-Morgan Mi-Miller, Tony?” she asked stumbling over her own words.

Morgan Miller was Pepper’s eccentric uncle, her mother’s older brother. He gave Tony the idea to set up the Big Happy Family protocol. During the last Christmas party, they met at the man talked for like three hours about the ancestry research he was doing. Her Uncle Morgan was weird, he was a bit of a drunk plus he was estranged from his children. However, if the protocol getting activated was not caused by a bug then from this day on Tony would only ever refer to him as a saint. If he got his hopes up for no reason at all then he would have some choice words with the man. He was yet to decide what he thought of genealogy after all.

“Yeah, your eccentric uncle Morgan is a big fan of genealogy, I’m sure you remember. Convincing my second cousin, Celia to register to the site and take the test was not hard either just cost me quite a bit of money. She certainly has an expensive taste,” he explained casually focusing on the facts rather than what FRIDAY was implying. He had way too many enemies to risk putting his DNA data on a public site but luckily his mother’s cousin’s daughter could be bought.

Pepper paled, her color could compete with a ghost’s and she seemed to lose her posture, so Tony reached for her. He put his arms around her pulling her up. Having her so close to him once again felt like heaven and hell at the same time.  He loved being able to feel her smooth skin on his and breathe in her perfume's dizzying scent. On the other hand, he hated knowing that she didn’t want him – them – anymore.

“Pep, you okay?” he muttered into her hair. She nodded weakly.

“Yeah… FRIDAY, pull up everything you have on the match,” she ordered the A.I. as if only a minute ago she wasn’t about to collapse. He always greatly admired her strength and decorum, but at that moment he felt he never wanted to let her go.

“Peter Benjamin Parker. His test was activated by Maybelle Parker née Reilly. Based on the family tree he uploaded he was born on 31st July 2001 in San Francisco. His parents, Richard Parker and Mary Parker née Fitzpatrick both died on 7th August 2006.” Tony felt Pepper straighten herself in his arms and he loosened his grip on her. She stepped away from him and their eyes met.

“San Francisco, summer of 2001 – everything fits Tony. This… this could be Peter… Our Peter,” she muttered barely loud enough for him to hear but he understood exactly what she meant. There was, of course, a small chance that his second cousin and her uncle could have a common relative other than their son. Still, the chances of the boy being the same age as their Peter were very slim, so most probably they found their missing son.

It felt like an impossible thought. Over the years he often imagined, of course, what Peter might be like. He spent hours sometimes wondering what his son’s interests might be, what he liked to eat, or what his friends were like. The idea that he might learn all these pieces of information about Peter directly from him was hard to comprehend after fourteen years of wondering.

“FRIDAY call Agent Bramwell,” Tony ordered. Agent Bramwell was the current FBI responsible for the investigation for Peter. So he had to be informed about this turn of events as soon as possible if they wanted to be reunited with their son.

“No, FRIDAY, don’t,” Pepper said automatically. Tony was puzzled by her reaction. “I don’t want you to explain to the FBI that you hacked the DNA test profile of a minor, especially if we are wrong and this is not our Peter. I’ll just call my uncle and convince him to report it to the FBI that he got a DNA match that seems suspicious. They’ll certainly look into it.”

Tony was often amazed by Pepper and how effectively she could handle any situation. At that moment he was once again not only impressed by her logic but grateful to fate that she was the one to ruin his childless state. He couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone but her.

***

As Peter opened the door of the apartment, he was pleasantly surprised to hear his aunt singing along to a song loudly as he expected her to still be at work. Since his uncle’s death, his aunt rarely was at home during the afternoons as she now undertook more shifts at the hospital than before. After a few seconds, he recognized the tune even if he found ABBA rather outdated and simply old. Still, many of the band’s songs were very well-known and his aunt has made him watch the Mamma Mia movie quite a few times as she was a big fan of Meryl Streep for some reason he never quite understood. It was a fun movie he had to admit even if a bit cliché for his taste.

She was singing ‘Money, Money, Money’, and he frowned sensing that the song selection might have been for a reason. He especially felt guilty then for losing his backpack in a dark alley – again. He should work out a system so he wouldn’t lose a perfectly good bag every time he patrolled.

“May?” he called out just as his aunt was singing ‘All the things I could do if I had a little money’. She was in the kitchen dancing along with a big red bowl that she was stirring diligently. She seemed to be in a rather good mood based on the wide grin on her face even though her song selection was rather depressing in Peter’s opinion. Even if she was in an ABBA mood there were so many more upbeat and fun songs to choose from.

“Ah, Pete, hi – It's a rich man's world!” she continued singing while she acknowledged him.

She put down the bowl on the counter behind her and held her right hand out for him as if inviting him to join the dancing. Since losing her husband, Aunt May rarely was in the singing and dancing mood. So Peter took her hand with a grin not letting his dark thoughts about money ruining her joyful afternoon. His aunt was always a cheerful person until she became a widow way too soon, so he had many fond memories like this one from his childhood. Probably this was the reason why while many teenage boys would certainly scoff at the idea of dancing to ABBA with their aunts in the kitchen, he couldn’t help but smile and twirl May around. It was nice to see this side of her again after months of dark frowns and veiled sadness. When the song ended his aunt theatrically bowed and he clapped while laughing at her overdone performance. She switched off the music coming from her mobile just as the next song started.

“Should I expect another rerun of Mamma Mia then?” he asked. He crossed his arms and leaned against the kitchen counter just as she picked up the discarded bowl again.

“Oh, you bet I’m planning to watch it tonight, but I think you’ll have something better to do. I received an email from GenomicsDNA today, your results are finally ready,” she said with much more enthusiasm than he would have expected from her knowing that she always made fun of his uncle for his genealogy mania.

He stared at her for a moment realizing that he had completely forgotten about the ancestry test he had done ages ago back in November. He had done it just a few days after Ned’s birthday when he got inspired to continue his uncle’s research thanks to the Peter Potts case they discussed. The company’s advertisements promised that they would have the results in six weeks, but with the holiday season in-between it became much longer than that. So much had happened with Peter since then. His life (and most probably his DNA as well) changed drastically thanks to a spider bite he received in December, so all of this seemed rather irrelevant now.

He now had real power to help people and change the world, he was certain that any second spent on being a superhero would be much more well-spent than doing family trees, but he made a decision back in November and he couldn’t revoke it. He did the test to honor his late uncle’s memory and his aunt certainly appreciated the idea back then, so he was not about to reveal the truth that he didn’t care much about it anymore. His aunt wouldn’t understand if he suddenly claimed he had no interest in the results. He had to pretend interest in continuing his uncle’s research for a little while then he could move on from it after with the simple excuse of being a teenager far too young to be invested in genealogy.

“Sweet, I was starting to think that the post has lost my sample or something,” he replied with an easy smile. He felt somewhat guilty that he was playing his aunt, but he knew that this was the only way to keep his promise and secret.

Plus, he wasn’t lying that much, because as a fan of science he was interested in his DNA result. It was just the family tree and history research he was not looking forward to doing more of. Honestly, he didn’t care much when his great-great-great-grandparents were born or what their names were, but he certainly was curious where his genes came from and what he could learn from the test about his genetical make-up before the spider bite. Plus now that he had a document about his genes from just before the mutation happened, he would be able to compare it with his new DNA and see what changes caused the superpowers. So, it was certainly a good idea to do the test when he did it because he could learn much from it.

“Great, how about you set it up and look through it while I make us some dinner and then you tell me all about what it says?” she recommended enthusiastically and Peter accepted it readily. He kissed the cheeks of his aunt then he left the kitchen and entered his bedroom. He changed into more comfortable clothes and then he sat down in front of his desk. He turned on the PC he had just recently finished upgrading with the parts he found previously.

As he was a minor, Aunt May as his legal guardian had to activate the test and she was the one to receive the updates about it as well. However, the results were now linked to his profile that he had set up back in November with the help of his aunt who had to make an account herself to authorize his settings just after he mailed the test tube with his saliva. While she was only needed for the official parts, she ended up helping him with going through his uncle’s research as well.

His uncle had many folders full of documents about the Parker family and to his surprise going through them with Aunt May was much more fun than he ever expected. He felt much remorse because he never did the same with his uncle always telling him that he was not interested in history just science. Uncle Ben was on the other hand very passionate about genealogy and perhaps hoped that one day his nephew would change his mind and share this interest too because it was not even just the Parker family he has researched but May’s (the Reilly) as well and even Peter’s mother’s (the Fitzpatrick) family.

So, all Peter had to do when his account was set up was to enter the family tree data his uncle collected. Of course, his uncle had the most information on his own family.

However, once Peter had finished uploading his family tree, he had to admit that Uncle Ben made sure it wasn’t just the Parker line Peter would get to know if he ever got interested in family history. On his mother’s side, there were many ancestors listed as well. Looking at the wide tree diagram with many branches Peter for the first time understood his uncle’s obsession with it – it felt nice to see his name under all the others and be part of something huge. Having lost most of his family at a very young age, it brought him some joy to see that there were still many people left even if most were not close relations. At that moment he felt like he had a family.

However, so much had happened since November that he felt somewhat uncertain as he opened his profile page on Genomics as it felt like a lifetime ago. He had looked it up back in November what was he supposed to do once the result was ready, so he confidently clicked on the ‘DNA’ menu item and he first downloaded the autosomal DNA test data. He then opened the other genealogy site he registered back in November, MatchGED and uploaded the data there. He decided to start the analysis on Genomics though where he clicked on ‘Your DNA Result’ and closed MatchGED. A summary page came up and he chose the ‘Ethnicity Estimate’ option first. The well-known map picture appeared with a list of ethnicities and percentages that comes to mind to everyone who ever heard about these ethnicity DNA tests.

He frowned when he studied the colorful map and the descriptions next to it. He was far from surprised that the colored regions were in Europe. Even without his uncle’s passion for family history he would have said he was of European American descent if he had to guess. However, the regions listed surprised him. According to the research, Uncle Ben had done, the Parker family was from Great Britain and his mother’s family was from Ireland. There were to be some more ethnicities mixed, but for the most part, only these two were supposed to be significant. Great Britain was indeed significant, but Ireland was not even among the regions listed. Instead, there were two other regions with very high percentage: Europe West and Italy/Greece.

 He decided that he would just show the map and the ethnicities to his aunt and the two of them could work out where the differences to what he expected came from. So he went back to the summary page and clicked on the other main menu item, ‘DNA Matches’. A list of people immediately popped up who shared some of his DNA. What caught his attention was that none of the surnames was familiar to him from his uncle’s research. Also, the system didn’t find any common ancestor on his family tree with any of the matches. Even though all of them had their trees linked to their profile and the site showed that he could view them.

He wasn’t surprised that the closest relation the system found was labelled 1st cousin.

As his parents and all his grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as his only uncle, were dead, he didn’t expect anyone under the Close Family label. However, he was puzzled by the closest relation the site found among its members. Under the 1st cousin label, the name Morgan Miller was written and apparently, the two of them had a shared DNA of 1,165 cM across 44 segments even though Peter was sure that this person never came up in any of his uncle’s research.

He clicked on the family tree of Morgan Miller but still, none of the names there meant anything for him. The only information the site revealed about living people was the gender of the person, so he learned Morgan Miller was male, but he couldn’t see when his supposed relative was born. However, both of Morgan’s parents were dead, so much more information was shown about them than about their son. This way Peter could learn that both were born around 1915 which meant that this man had to be born probably around the 1940s making him something between sixty and seventy years old. This piece of information certainly narrowed down the list of relations they could have. He found it strange though that both of Morgan’s parents lived and died in California as he knew that his father’s family has been living in New York for a few generations while his mother’s family was from Massachusetts.

He clicked on the information button next to the ‘1st cousin: possible range: 1st-2nd cousins’ title and after a brief description it said what type of family relationships would fall under this category. It said: first cousins, great-great-grandparents and great-great-grandchildren, great-aunts and uncles and great-nieces and nephews, and half aunts and uncles and half nieces and nephews.

This guy was too old probably to be Peter’s first cousin, but not old enough to be his great-great-grandfather. Peter certainly didn’t have any great-great-grandchild and was too young to have a great-nephew either, he suspected. He supposed he could have a half-uncle but based on this man's age he believed Morgan Miller was his great-uncle. While that was one puzzle solved, it certainly did not explain how come the site didn’t find any common ancestors for them and why this guy didn’t fit in his family tree. The only scenarios that came to his mind were that this Morgan was either adopted, or he was a secret love child.

Another interesting relation he found was in the 3rd cousin category. Her name was Celia Carbonell-Bellini and they shared 168 CM across 6 segments. What caught his attention automatically was the very Italian sounding name.  Firstly because nowhere in his uncle’s works had he found any Italian relations and secondly because the ethnicity test said that a large percentage of his DNA came from the Italy/Greece region.

He opened this Celia’s family tree and frowned at all the Italian sounding names. The last few generations of her late relatives had the state of New York named as either place of death or birth, but even then, he noticed that everyone seemed to have gravitated towards people of similar ethnic background. Being related to this family would certainly explain that huge percentage of Southern European DNA segments, but these relations just didn’t seem to fit the big picture his uncle so passionately worked on. Was maybe all this due to a lie? Did one of his grandmothers cheat on her husband with one of Celia’s Italian relatives?

“Pete, how is it going? The dinner is in the oven already so I thought I might check on your research. Did you find anything scandalous?” His aunt appeared in the doorframe of his opened door. He turned towards her with a frown.

“It’s just scandal I have found so far. Nothing fits Uncle Ben’s research. It seems to me that the Parker family had its fair share of soap opera-like love triangles and secret children,” he explained somewhat tensely. He didn’t expect these results to upset him when he opened them, he thought it would just bore him, so he wasn’t prepared for this awkward situation.

A disturbing thought then occurred to Peter – what if it wasn’t some grandmother that cheated on her husband, but his very mother? It would explain many of the inconsistencies found in the results as his uncle focused his research on the Parker family so the odd relatives and the lack of common ancestors could easily be the consequence of much missing information. The easy smile May had sported since his arrival from school disappeared and worry traced her features instead probably noticing his distress. Peter felt some guilt for ruining his aunt’s good mood that she so rarely had these days. She closed the space between them as she crossed his tiny bedroom and looked at his screen studying the matches he had.

“Well, you know how my guilty pleasure is Paternity Court.  I have long learned from Judge Lauren Lake’s show that families are often full of secrets especially when it comes to the question of paternity,” she answered with a shrug and Peter pressed his lips together. His aunt must have thought that her answer would ease his worry, but instead, it just fueled it. What she said certainly proved that no matter that he thought all his life that Richard Parker was his biological father, it could have all been a simple lie his mother crafted taking the truth to the grave with her.

“Aunt May – do you… do you think my Mom could have cheated on my Dad?” he asked softly not trusting his voice.

He watched his aunt’s reaction to his words. She opened her mouth automatically as in shock then closed it only to repeat the same cycle probably trying to find the right words to reply. He knew that she didn’t have an easy time answering him just as it was hard to even ask the question. He hardly remembered his parents who didn’t even live long enough to escort him to his first school day yet the idea was heart-breaking that the happy family picture his Uncle Ben always painted about the three of them was just a lie.

From his uncle’s stories, he knew that by the time he was born his parents have been married for three years – supposedly happily, so if his theory was right and Richard Parker was not his biological father then his mother must have cheated on him. Suddenly May sat down on the edge of his bed as close to the computer and his chair as possible. She turned towards him and remained silent for a long moment.

“Sweetie, I know you don’t remember your parents that well, but I can tell you that they loved each other very much from what I could see. Your mother also told me that they longed for a baby for years before your arrival. Honestly, I don’t know the exact details, because as you know I only met Ben after you were born, but maybe it’s all a lot more innocent than you think. Maybe one of them couldn’t have a child so they had to look for alternative solutions,” she replied gently. Peter nodded accepting her words.

“I hate that they are not here so I can’t ask them – and I… I hate that even Uncle Ben isn’t here… he should be,” he replied so taken by emotions that he stumbled over his own words a few times.

The grief and the feeling of loss came in waves Peter already knew that. It was always there in the back of his mind, the knowledge that his loved ones other than May had left him alone, but in moments like this, the wave was like a tsunami that washed everything else away leaving him drowned under the heavy high waters. He felt like his breath was taken away, he was trying and failing to breathe even though his asthma was cured by the miraculous spider bite just as he didn’t need glasses anymore. At least his aunt was always there to calm him down.

“Hey, maybe this was a bad idea. How about you turn off the computer now and we enjoy a quiet night in instead?” she proposed with a smile as she put her arms around him and pulled him close to her. At fourteen he felt somewhat awkward for losing his decorum and breaking down in front of his aunt once again, but at the same time Peter knew that few of the boys his age knew what a heartbreak it was to lose everyone close to you, so he had a reason for it, an excuse.

“Yeah, I’ve had enough of genealogy already,” he only half-joked. “Would love to see a good movie though. Just please not Mamma Mia – again!” His aunt pretended to be very thoughtful for a second but then she grinned.

“You can choose – but only today! I need to check on the dinner anyway.”

Peter settled in the living-room getting comfortable on the couch while May went to the kitchen. Just as he was about to open the Netflix app on the TV someone ranged the doorbell.

“Pete, could you get the door? It’s probably Mrs. Winters again. Fluffy has been wandering further and further away recently and she is anxious.”

“Sure, Aunt May,” Peter replied thoughtlessly.

Mrs. Winters was a small old lady with strong Southern accent whose husband died nearly thirty years ago and whose only daughter lived in Europe. So Fluffy the cat has been her only companion for quite a while. Fluffy was a menace though that could never be found, and Mrs. Winters spent much of her days visiting from neighbor to neighbor looking for the cat.

He got up from the couch and put the remote controller down. He went to the door and opened it with a smile on his face reserved for poor lonely Mrs. Winters. To his surprise what awaited him was certainly not the wrinkly face of their cat-losing neighbor. Instead a serious looking man and woman around their thirties were standing in front of him. The man wore a black suit with white shirt and black tie while the woman was wearing black pantsuit with a light blue blouse.

“Um, hello,” Peter said somewhat nervously. He wasn’t exactly alarmed by the pair in front of him, he didn’t think they posed a danger to him, but they looked like they meant business. Serious business.

“Hello, I am Special Agent Jack Bramwell from the FBI, and this is my partner Agent Abbott. We are looking for Peter and Maybelle Parker,” the man said, and he raised an FBI badge just like it happened in the movies. Peter froze. This was either a dream or his career as a vigilante was very short-lived. He couldn’t think of any other possible explanation to this scene than that his superpowers were discovered.

“I-I’m Peter Parker and my aunt is inside,” he replied still dazed by FBI agents turning up at their door instead of the old lady from next door or maybe the young couple from a few apartments down the corridor who always asked for some sugar or milk. The view from the kitchen was somewhat blocked by a wide pillar so May couldn’t see who he was talking to.

“Peter is it Mrs. Winters?” she called out.

Before he could even answer her, the FBI agents walked into the apartment purposefully. They didn’t seem to care that Peter hadn’t invited them in. He closed the door then followed the pair of agents inside. Agent Bramwell crossed the living-room and stepped right into the kitchen only stopping in front of Aunt May while his partner followed closely by.

“Mrs. Parker, I’m Special Agent Bramwell from the FBI and I have to ask you and your nephew to come with us.” Peter was on Agent Bramwell’s left side while Agent Abbott was on her colleague’s right side. His aunt stilled and their eyes met, but Peter quickly looked away feeling guilty that the FBI would investigate his aunt because of his misdoings.

“I’m sorry Agent Bramwell, but why?” May asked cautiously.

“We are investigating a case and believe that you might provide us with some information. Please follow us to the car with your nephew, ma’am,” Agent Abbott answered politely. If this was a dream, then Peter wanted to wake up instantly. If this wasn’t he had no idea what he was going to do, but he was certainly in trouble – a lot of them.

Chapter Text

3. Ancestry

“Ancestry refers to lineage or descent, especially when it is ancient, noble, or distinguished.”

Tuesday, 2nd February 2016              

Pepper had gone back to her office to continue her duties as CEO after she convinced her uncle to call the FBI. Truthfully, it was in vain, as her mind was elsewhere. She couldn’t concentrate on the proposals laying on her desk. Instead, she checked her mobile every other second awaiting a message from either FRIDAY, Tony, or Agent Bramwell. Whenever she looked at the clock it seemed like no time has passed, the hours dragged on. The moment her official work hours were over she jumped up, ready to stop working, probably a first for her.

“Are you feeling well, Miss Potts?” her secretary, Mrs. Arbogast asked Pepper who hurriedly packed her stuff. She looked up and met the worried eyes of the older woman and smiled at her.

“Yes, thank you. I’m just in a bit of a hurry, some family issues,” she said off-handedly, but then winced realizing what she has just said. 

Her secretary knew well that Pepper didn’t have much family left, her closest relation other than Peter being her eccentric uncle. Mrs. Arbogast didn’t ask further questions just smiled at her all-knowingly. Pepper wondered if her secretary realized that there were some developments in Peter’s case, or she thought Pepper’s absentmindedness was caused by romantic relationship drama. She didn’t dwell on the topic for long instead, she dashed towards the closest elevator. 

Unsurprisingly she found Tony exactly where she left him – in his lab. It was eerily silent in there though because Tony was not listening to his usual rock music. Also, instead of tinkering, was sitting on an office chair and was staring at a screen in front of him. He didn't even notice her approaching.

“Tony?” she called out to him, and he slowly turned around with the chair. His dark eyes were distant, and his eyebrows were furrowed. He looked like he was miles away, not unlike what she probably looked like as she was trying to concentrate on her work fruitlessly.

“I downloaded his DNA report and then compared it to Peter’s, Pep. It’s a perfect match,” he said lowly. “I didn’t believe it, so I did a comparison with our DNA’s as well just to double-check and still no doubt.” The disbelief was evident in his voice.

She needed a moment to comprehend what he was saying. She needed another minute to start believing that it was even a possibility, though because the whole afternoon since FRIDAY’s hack attack on her phone seemed like a dream. The idea of having found Peter was hard to even imagine let alone accept after all the disappointment they had to go through. 

The realization that this was Peter – really, finally – hit her like a tidal wave. Tony obviously sensed the change in her demeanor because he abruptly stood up and stepped before her. She fell into his arms without a thought of it being improper after having broken up with him. His arms snaked around her just as she started sobbing into his old T-shirt. She was overwhelmed by all the feelings she felt at the same time. He was muttering soothing words into her ears while stroking her back with one of his hands.

“W-we found Pe-Peter,” she tried to form the words between sniffles.

“We found Peter,” Tony repeated much more calmly, but even through her tears, Pepper saw the raw emotions on his face.

He was just as taken by the news as she was, he was just trying to keep it together unlike her. He buried his face into her neck which was a much more intimate movement than a friendly hug would warrant, but instead of pushing him away, she ran a hand through his hair. She didn’t let her mind wander what this meant for them as this was not about them, but about Peter. No one could ever understand their pain, and now it was just them who could ever comprehend what it was like to find their son after fourteen years.

“Boss, Special Agent Bramwell is calling you. Should I put him on the speaker?” FRIDAY’s Irish voice ruined the moment. Pepper took a step backwards abruptly, and Tony let go of her.

“Yes, FRI,” Tony answered somewhat distractedly.

“Mr. Stark, as I’m sure you already know Mr. Miller had reported today that a certain Peter Parker was his DNA match. We think that he might be potentially your missing son. We are going to question him and his legal guardian. Please stay put, I will contact you again as soon as I have more information.” The familiar voice of the agent who has been responsible for Peter’s case for a few years now rang through the speakers.

She was so overwhelmed with emotions that she nearly laughed at what the agent said as she felt giddy that the FBI was finally doing something. Only a second later she wanted to cry. Waiting around some more was certainly not what she had in mind. No, she wanted to rush to the Parker’s apartment, embrace Peter and never let him go again. Based on the scowl on Tony’s face he certainly agreed with her. She thanked the agent and asked him to call as soon as possible, and then he hung up.

“Bloody FBI,” she heard Tony muttering, and she couldn’t help, but agree. 

“Can’t we just get Peter now before they do?” Tony suddenly asked her. He looked at her with the puppy dog eyes that he knew she had a hard time resisting except when his ideas were simply crazy. Honestly, this time she wished to do the same as he proposed, but she was always a no-nonsense type of person, and most of the time her logic won the battle against her heart.

“As much as I would love to do that, Tony, we can’t be selfish. We must think about Peter. We can’t just march to his apartment and tell him we are his real parents. We have to let the FBI do their jobs,” she replied sadly knowing that it might even take another day to see her son again.

She got so distracted by that thought that she didn’t even notice at first that Tony picked up what looked like a tablet from the desk he was sitting by previously. Nevertheless, Pepper knew Tony well enough that it was much more than a tablet. She couldn’t see what he was looking at or doing exactly, but he looked like he was typing. Only a second later a wide grin appeared on his face which then softened until it was a warm smile.

“Our son, Pep,” he said suddenly and then he passed the tablet to Pepper who froze instantly when she comprehended what she was looking at.

She supposed it was a yearbook school picture based on the blue background that reminded her of her own officially taken photos from high school. Unsurprisingly Peter got his father’s coloring. He had the same shade of dark brown somewhat curly hair and the same doe eyes Tony had. Then she noticed that many of his features were very similar to her father’s even though she took after her mother. Seeing the family resemblance to both her family and Tony’s made her watery smile widen even more. She couldn’t help but laugh when she noticed that Peter’s smile was just as awkward as hers on the school photos.

“He is… amazing Tony,” she said breathlessly. Her hands were shaking so badly that she nearly dropped the tablet. Tony stepped right next to her and took it away from her hand but held it out so she could still see the screen and admire their son.

“Well, he looks like me, so of course. Nonetheless, as he is your baby, I think you deserve some credit as well,” Tony stated, and Pepper turned towards him. She raised her eyebrows and tilted her head.

“Let me guess – twelve percent?” she asked him with a teasing grin. Tony looked thoughtful.

“An argument can be made for fifteen. I guess, maybe even twenty as you did all the heavy lifting with him for nine months,” he said seriously. 

However, after a moment of silence both started laughing. Pepper was sure that the last time she felt so overwhelmed with emotions and was giddy with euphoria was when she held her son in her arms for the first time. She knew that this time when she could hug her son again it would feel even more amazing.

***

While Peter was never interested in law, as far as he knew his aunt and he had the right to refuse to go with the FBI agents. However, Aunt May just nodded and then she wordlessly followed the suit-clad pair after putting on a coat. Peter didn’t dare to even speak up instead he just followed his aunt’s unspoken directives, doing the same as she did. While he often told his aunt how he wasn’t a kid anymore, in moments like this he looked at her for guidance without a thought. 

The ride in the elevator was probably the most awkward one Peter has ever endured because he couldn’t even bear meeting his aunt’s eyes let alone the agents’. Once outside of the building Agent Bramwell led them to a black SUV parking only a few meters away which kind of explained why the agents weren’t wearing winter coats in February. The agents sat in the front while Aunt May and he took place behind them. 

Peter knew that the FBI had a resident agency nearby. It was located near to the Kew Gardens station. As a kid whenever he passed by the building of the Brooklyn-Queens resident agency with his uncle he would tell Peter an adventurous FBI story. As a little boy he loved these stories and often told his uncle that one day he would be a special agent too and that he would be working right in that building, so he had fond memories of the place. He never expected to enter the glass tower as an accused criminal though and shuddered at the idea of what Uncle Ben would think if he were here to witness this.

Peter anticipated an only few minutes long ride as the resident agency was close by. However, once he realized that they were going in the general direction of Manhattan, it became obvious to him that it would be a much longer ride. The agents were taking them to the main New York office of the FBI, and the realization made him even more nervous. Surely, he was in serious trouble if the agents were ready to drive through half of New York City just to take him in for a query when they had a building only a few minutes away. He just wasn’t sure what this trouble meant. Was he going to be thrown into jail? Or maybe sent to juvie? Would he be forced to stop being Spider-Man? His imagination soon ran even wilder with images of dark gloomy labs where he was experimented on by crazy scientists with thick glasses and frenzied hair. He shuddered. His head was not a good place to be that moment, he decided. He tried to get distracted by the never-ending life he could witness through the car window, but even the thousand sounds and colors of the city couldn’t capture his attention.

“Can you please tell us what this is about?” his aunt asked after about ten minutes of the silent car ride.

Peter gave up on watching the scenery instead, he turned back and eyed the reaction of the agents to his aunt’s question. Special Agent Bramwell who was driving remained silent. Agent Abbott didn’t turn around either to meet their eyes. Nevertheless, she probably understood how bad it was to know absolutely nothing of what was going on because after a moment she answered Aunt May.

“We received a call today with some information that might mean a breakthrough in a cold case. This piece of information has led to your nephew, ma’am, so we need to interview both of you. Of course, you have the right to deny answering our questions and seek legal advice, but I advise you to help our investigation,” she said rather seriously but then after a short pause, she added much kindlier. “Thank you for your cooperation so far.”

Peter froze when the agent said that he was in the focus of the investigation. He was puzzled by something she said though. He noticed that she called it a cold case even though it hasn’t even been two months since he was bitten by a radioactive spider, so his vigilante career was quite new.

“You are investigating Peter?” Aunt May incredulously which made Peter feel even guiltier.

She automatically turned towards him, and instead of facing her, he decided to turn towards the car window again. He watched as they left the familiarity of Queens behind and with every unknown street Agent Bramwell took it felt harder and harder to breathe for Peter. He felt like a caged animal, and he itched to open the door and just jump out of the moving car. He didn’t have his web-shooters on him, but with his new abilities such as enhanced healing, even that wouldn’t be a problem. He had Aunt May to consider though, he couldn’t just run away from the FBI and leave her behind. Still, it was a tempting idea.

May’s tone made it obvious that she found the idea of the FBI investigating him rather hilarious. He loathed that she was mistaken. He hated that her never-ending trust in him was misplaced. He wished then that he were a completely innocent fourteen-year-old who had no reason to be questioned by federal agents, just as she thought. He supposed that with all the anti-superhero movements since the Battle of Sokovia he should have realized that some might not be happy about another vigilante appearing. He understood on some level why many people questioned the Avengers, though he didn’t agree with the criticism. Nonetheless, what he was doing was not the same as what they did. 

So, he certainly didn’t anticipate being taken to the FBI HQ of New York with his aunt in tow after less than two of months swinging around in New York. He rarely did more than get down a cat from the tree, save a dog from being hit by a car or get an old lady’s purse back from a thief. He never thought that he was causing any trouble to the law enforcement or damage to the city. He thought that he was being a hero, doing good by helping everyday people. All in all, he decided, this was unexpected and rather disheartening. 

“We are not accusing your nephew with anything, ma’am. Instead, we believe that a serious crime might have been committed against him. However, I think it will be better to discuss the details once we arrive because it’s a rather complicated case,” after long minutes of silence Agent Abbott answered his aunt’s question. He noticed May’s relief at the response, her posture became much more relaxed in a second.

On the other hand, Peter didn’t know what to think or feel, he froze but his mind was once again running wild with thoughts. Even if an investigation against him was unexpected it seemed rather logical. After all, superpowered individuals could pose danger no matter what they did with their powers. Plus what she said made no sense. He didn’t know of any crime that had been committed against him other than his backpacks being taken, but even with his limited knowledge of federal investigations, he was sure that the FBI wouldn’t look for those especially, as he never reported the thefts. Only one serious incident came to his mind and that was the school field trip where he got bitten by a radioactive spider, but he was certain that not even the scientists of the company realized what had happened. No, he didn’t know of any crime that he had been the victim of, so it made no sense that the FBI would know of something like that.

“I’m sorry Agent Abbott, erm… ma’am,” he started awkwardly not knowing how to address the FBI agent. “But I’ve never been seriously wronged by anyone. So, I think you must be mistaken,” he insisted. He couldn’t see her facial expression as she still faced the windshield, but her posture didn’t change. She didn’t show any sign of reaction so, he thought that she might not have heard him. However, a minute later, she replied.

“Have you received a DNA test’s result today?” she asked, and he felt puzzled. 

For the first time since he opened the front door and was met by the FBI, he faced his aunt willingly. Based on her wide eyes and raised eyebrows, she seemed just as surprised about the question as he was. Honestly, from all the movies, TV shows, books and articles that had portrayed FBI agents at work he was certainly not surprised that the feds knew about his test results. Nevertheless, how some genealogy tests a random teenager from Queens did could be interesting for the FBI was certainly incomprehensible. If he did it right after being bit, but before he knew he had powers and the test showed that his DNA was mutated he could understand it. However, the Peter Parker that did the test was completely normal, boringly so according to his previous classmates.

“Yes,” he answered her though it probably sounded more like a question.

For the first time since they got into the car, Agent Abbott turned around. She started at him for a moment, and her poker face slipped. Gone was the emotionless blank expression and something he saw in her light eyes reminded Peter of how people always looked at the disabled or those who were obviously very sick. He needed only a second to realize that it was badly disguised pity as he had personal experience of it as well, he often got the same look from adults whenever they learned that he was orphaned.

“Then there is no mistake,” she simply said as if his answer would have ruled out any doubt, and then she turned back. No more words were exchanged between them during the ride because Peter didn’t want to know more. Simply, because Agent Abbott’s sure answer and the obvious pity, she felt for him frightened him. Her answers at least seemed to temporarily soothe May’s curiosity as well because she also remained silent.

He had no idea why the FBI thought he was the victim of a crime, but he was getting the feeling that he liked not knowing what had been done against him. The situation was not unlike the DNA test, he supposed. Before having seen the results, he easily accepted his uncle’s words about his parents’ marriage, but now he couldn’t help but question everything about it. It hurt that he wasn’t living in the same fairytale world anymore. He had a feeling that once he was told what was going on it, would hurt as well.

Once inside of the tower building in Manhattan after another awkward elevator ride, Peter was asked to sit down on a chair inside of a spacious office while May was escorted away by Agent Bramwell. Peter took off his winter coat sensing whatever was to happen, it would take some time. A young woman with her dark hair down and in dangerously high heels then came in. Peter thought that it was unlikely that she was an agent as well looking way too feminine for fieldwork, so he decided that she had to be some sort of secretary. She asked what he wanted to eat for dinner then left abruptly, which proved to Peter that his assumptions were correct. He was going to have a long evening inside the FBI tower.

About fifteen minutes later which he spent with playing a mobile game where he had to eliminate all bunch of enemies as a chosen Avenger, killing them mindlessly really, the same secretary-looking woman entered the office again. She told him this time that he could call her Angela and she had a bottle of Coca Cola with her for him. Angela told him that his dinner was going to arrive soon, and then she smiled at him, but not unlike the Mona Lisa’s smile, it seemed a bit untrue. After studying her for a moment Peter saw that her dark eyes held the same pity as Agent Abbott’s had. He realized that whatever he was there for must have been bad and the FBI was certain of it that he was some type of victim.

On one hand, it was nice that they treated him kindly. Plus, the pizza Angela got him about another ten minutes later was delicious. On the other hand with minutes slipping by as he was sitting on the padded chair, he couldn’t help but become anxious. The way everyone was behaving around him set him on the edge. When he was faced with the FBI agents back home, he was certain they would treat him as a criminal. So, while he enjoyed not being the bad guy, getting the exact opposite treatment was disconcerting even if he had already been told that he was not in trouble. It was hard to comprehend it though, as he had no idea what he was the victim of. He didn’t feel like one.

He was mostly left alone after he finished his dinner, though Angela sometimes came in to check on him. It was about another hour later when his dinner had been long cleaned up. He even finished off a hot chocolate he got from her from a vending machine when Agent Abbott walked in looking just a severe as she did the first time, he saw her. He then wondered if all FBI agents were like that in real life or it was the Parker luck. After all, in TV many of them were quite fun, not that he believed everything he saw in movies or series. Having grown tired of only chatting with Angela who answered all his questions about the investigation with a simple “I don’t know,” he decided to try his luck with the blonde special agent.

“Where’s been my aunt taken? I thought we are going to be questioned together.” The agent picked up a folder from the desk then she looked at him.

“If you insist on having your guardian with you during the interrogation then, of course, we can arrange it, but we are asking her some questions directly so then you would have to wait some more. Do you need to have her with you, or would you agree to be questioned without her? We could start right now.” 

Peter was about to say that obviously, he didn’t want to be alone, but just as he opened his mouth, he closed it. They told him that he wasn’t in trouble, they treated him like a poor defenseless victim, and they just wanted to ask some questions to make sure that nothing bad had happened to him, which didn’t sound too bad.

“No, it’ll be okay without May,” he replied then. He just wanted to go home as soon as possible, curl into his bed and forgot this day had even happened. Agent Abbott seemed satisfied with his answer. She told him to wait for a few minutes and then she left the office. 

She came back with another woman, but this lady was older and less stern-looking. Just like Angela, she didn’t look like an FBI agent. Her dishwater blonde hair was in a simple bob which was speckled with grey, she was wearing thick round glasses and a brown skirt with a white blouse. Peter noted that she was now holding the folder Agent Abbott previously left with.

“Peter, my name is Diana Reed, I’m a social worker,” she introduced herself, and while she had an all-around kind aura Peter couldn’t really smile back when he heard what she did for a living. The FBI not wanting May to attend his interview and instead of asking a social worker to come to him were all worrying signs, he decided. When added up, it seemed like the feds foolishly believed that his aunt had done something against him. It was simply insane because the worst thing she has probably ever done was travelling without a ticket or cheat at exams back when she was at school.

He awkwardly greeted the social worker, and then they asked him to follow them. It seemed that after about two hours of just sitting around, finally, he would get closer to getting home or at least getting some information. He thought he was going to be led to a dark interrogation room like in the movies with a great opaque window, behind of which others could analyze everything he said. Instead of following the pair of adults, he entered another spacious light room painted bright yellow with nice paintings and lots of sitting opportunities. In its right corner, there was a cupboard full of books and what looked like toys, and he even noticed a few stuffed animals lying around in some armchairs. He then realized this room was for children hence the pleasant atmosphere. He hoped his aunt was not getting a much worse treatment with gloomy interrogators and room.

He was led to a table on the far end of the room which he didn’t even notice at first. There were four chairs, two on both long sides of it. He took place, and the two women sat in front of him, which unnerved him a bit. It felt a lot like attending an exam he didn’t study for.

“There is no need to be nervous Peter, we just want to ask a few questions from you. Please tell us about how it was to grow up with your uncle and aunt first,” Ms. Reed asked him. He was surprised that she took part in the questioning. He thought that she would only join them for official moral support and to make sure he was treated well as he was a minor. It was a simple enough question, and her tone was warm and friendly, but Peter was getting even more suspicious that the FBI was investigating his aunt. So, he decided to make sure they knew what he thought of his aunt.

“Aunt May and Uncle Ben were the best guardians I could’ve asked for after my parents’ death. Thanks to them, I had the opportunity to grow up in a loving family. Losing my uncle was really hard, but my aunt’s been my rock ever since.” He beamed, and Ms. Reed smiled at him as if she were touched by his words.

“Tell us about your parents. Do you remember them? Do you miss them?” Agent Abbott asked, her voice lacking the same warmth Ms. Reed’s held. 

He may have been quick to assume that being asked how it was to live with his uncle and aunt meant that May was in trouble. These questions about his family might be just some warming up ones to make sure he was comfortable with being questioned. Otherwise, he had no idea why they would be interested in his relationship with his parents, who had died nearly ten years ago.

“Well, yeah, I miss them,” he said simply as he always did, though sometimes he wondered how truthful he was. He knew that people expected that answer from him. However, he probably missed the idea of having his parents around more than the actual people who he could hardly remember. Also, thanks to the love he got from his aunt and uncle, even that yearning wasn’t usually too strong. Unlike Harry Potter, who had to grow up being abused after the death of his parents, Peter had a happy childhood with supportive parental figures. He sometimes even felt guilty that he missed Uncle Ben much more than his parents, though he supposed that wound was much fresher.

“It was just after my fifth birthday that they died in a plane crash, so I admit I don’t remember too much of them. I remember my Mom singing me a lullaby, baking cookies with her. Plus doing some kid stuff experiments with my Dad and him teaching me how to ride a bike, but that’s about it. They were scientists, bioengineers, they met at college, then got married a couple of years later. I was a very welcomed surprise according to my aunt because they struggled to have a child.” 

He wasn’t sure what they wanted to hear exactly, so he just said random facts that came to his mind about his parents. The last sentence he only added because it was fresh on his mind, his aunt telling him that only a few hours earlier. They probably expected something different, and he wanted to ask if he said something bad because, at his last sentence, both adults practically froze.

“Were your parents close with your uncle and aunt?” the agent asked the next question after a long moment of awkward silence, and Peter made a face. This was a way too specific question just to be a random warm-up question. Oddly, it seemed that the focus of their interrogation was not simply his aunt, but his entire family, including his long-dead parents.

“Well, I don’t know,” he answered honestly. 

“I mean my aunt and uncle never wanted to take my parents’ place, so my Uncle Ben always told me lots of stories about my parents. Though I sometimes sensed that my uncle and my father had a bit of sibling rivalry going on when they were younger, but I never asked how serious it was. Aunt May only started dating my uncle after I was born, so she only knew them for a couple of years, but she always had only good things to tell about my parents as well.” It was seriously weird to analyze his parental figures’ relationship to each other to an FBI agent and a social worker. He was getting extremely curious why they wanted to know such stuff.

“Do you remember ever feeling like your parents or uncle or aunt were secretive? Behaved strangely?” Peter this time just looked at the interrogator like she was crazy. He was five when his parents died, of course, they were secretive, they were keeping secrets as all parents did like how Santa was not real. Parents were expected to lie to their small children sometimes.

“As I said I don’t remember much about my parents. My aunt is a very straightforward and open person, so no, I’ve never felt like she kept anything from me, and I was very close to my uncle. I don’t think he’s ever lied to me about anything that can’t be considered usual adult stuff,” he replied. Ms. Reed nodded as if everything he said made sense and smiled at him. He tried to reciprocate the smile, but it seemed an impossible task after the last hours he had as he felt utterly exhausted mentally.

“Let’s talk about the commercial DNA test you had done. Why did you decide to do it?” The change of topic surprised Peter though he expected to be asked about the test at one point. The agent had already mentioned that it had something to do with why he was here.

“Uncle Ben was a big genealogy enthusiast, so my aunt ordered him the test for his birthday as a surprise present… he died in a robbery before the kit could arrive,” he explained. He noticed that both women looked at him in pity when he mentioned his uncle’s death. While he was used to this reaction when it came to the death of a parental figure (he lost three after all), he was getting fed up with everyone constantly pitying him this evening. It seemed people working at the FBI couldn’t show any other emotion.

“We forgot all about it. Then a conversation with my best friend reminded me of how my uncle always insisted that it was important for everyone to know where they came from. I never really appreciated genealogy but, at that moment, I felt like I finally understood what Uncle Ben meant and I thought that he would like if I continued his research. So, as the only Parker left, I did the test,” he explained. The quick look the two exchanged didn’t escape his notice.

“Did you see the results?”

He simply nodded as an answer. He didn’t trust his voice, because he was starting to outline the big picture in his head. The FBI thought that he was a victim of a cold case just after doing a genealogy test that had wonky results and being questioned about his family all pointed in one direction. He was just not sure he was ready to face the big picture.

“Were you surprised by anything you have seen?” Agent Abbott pressed her lips together and leaned a bit forward as if she were awaiting something specific from Peter.

“I was somewhat surprised by the ethnicity estimate because the regions didn’t fit my uncle’s research. Plus, I found it strange that the server didn’t find common ancestors with any of my DNA matches,” he replied honestly, though he left out the mystery of his Italian third cousin and his should-not-exist great-uncle. 

Ms. Reed looked away, not unlike when he didn’t want to meet his aunt’s eyes. This reaction told Peter that whatever he said was important. Everything that has been happening was linked to the results not being aligned with Uncle Ben’s research. It also confirmed to him that by now everyone knew what was going on except him. He was getting very tired of being in the dark.

“Can you please now tell me what’s going?” he asked. 

It surprised him how serious and confident he sounded. It contrasted with how he felt. He wanted to break down and sob because it seemed that his uncle was right, and it scared him. Uncle Ben specifically stated that among other good consequences there would be fewer crimes if people got more interested in their family history and researched where they came from. Peter thought that his uncle meant that the number of hate crimes would be reduced as people would be more willing to accept the others because they would realize that everyone was a mixture of many ethnicities. However, if this wasn’t just a bad joke or a mistake and based on the looks that he had been getting all night, sadly it didn’t seem so, then another crime has just been solved. His DNA test solving a cold case meant that there would be one less unsolved mystery, but unlike how his uncle made it sound like a good thing, Peter hated it all.

Ms. Reed and Agent Abbott once again shared a look, and then the agent nodded.

“Peter, I’m sorry about all the secrecy. I’m sure you had a long day already and you are feeling overwhelmed by today’s events. The FBI just needed some time to speak with your aunt and check everything before you were told what is going on. I think you will have a hard time accepting what we are to tell you, but I’m afraid it’s true,” Ms. Reed started and Peter already a feeling he knew where this speech was going. 

In the car, Agent Abbott already said so that he was here because of the test he had done. There was something in his DNA that made him stand out to the FBI even before the spider bite. His DNA was the missing piece to solve a cold case that he was the victim of supposedly. The FBI also wanted to know everything about his family, treating his aunt like a suspect. Had he not watched only a few months ago an entire TV series about such a scenario, maybe it wouldn’t have occurred to him. Nevertheless, the moment the idea first crossed his mind, the pieces suddenly all fit together.

“Are y-you telling me that you believe m-my parents weren’t really my parents?” he asked softly.

It sounded absurd saying out loud, but the look of defeat on Ms. Reed’s face and the lack of automatic vehement denial certainly confirmed his theory. He looked down, crossed his arms while pulling them closer to his chest as if making himself smaller. It was the closest he supposed that he could get to the fetal pose while sitting through an interrogation. He felt traitorous tears escaping his eyes and running down his cheeks.

“I’m sorry Peter, but you are right. Your aunt provided us with the DNA report, and it had been compared to a missing child’s sample, and it’s a match. We checked with the lab that made the report, and they insist the results are not mistaken. Sadly, it all means that you were kidnapped fourteen years ago.” 

With just a few sentences uttered by a lady Peter had known for less than an hour, his entire life had changed and suddenly nothing made sense. He wasn’t Peter Parker, not really. His parents weren’t his parents. His Uncle Ben was not related to him by blood. Everything he knew about himself was based on a lie.

“How?” he muttered more to himself, but Agent Abbott obviously thought it was her time to shine.

“This is where things get murky because a certain Peter Benjamin Parker was indeed born in San Francisco on 31st July 2001, we have checked with the named hospital. There is further proof of it as Mrs. Parker also insists that the birth certificate of Peter Parker is real. When Richard and Mary Parker died, it was needed for the court proceedings to name her and Benjamin Parker your legal guardians. So, then there is another missing child.”

Peter raised his head and felt something akin hope. For a second, he thought that maybe he was just mixed up with another baby, but then he realized that no child switching could have occurred if somehow one of the babies got taken. He was taken from his real biological parents, and the son of the people he thought were his parents just vanished. The chances of him getting switched with the son of the Parkers and then that boy getting kidnapped were probably impossibly small. He knew from the media that both incidents were rare after all, so the two happening together seemed unbelievable sadly. No, this sounded a lot like a baby replacement abduction.

“We wanted to run a DNA test on the blood sample of Peter Parker as well, but there is no need, because we checked, and your blood type is O+. I know that you’re attending a STEM school, so I’m sure you won’t need more explanation than that Mary Parker’s blood type was AB+. The real Peter Parker’s was B+.”

Indeed he didn’t need an explanation, because he knew full well that someone with AB could never have a child with O blood type. Simply he had to have inherited from both of his parents an O allele and who he considered his mother only had A and B ones. He also was sure about having O+ blood type as it was only a few weeks ago that during biology class they did blood type testing.

“But my blood type matches the missing child’s and the other set of parents’, I’m guessing,” he said thoughtfully focusing on the facts rather than what they added up to. This was science. Biology made sense even when life didn’t.

“Yes, your real biological father actually has the same blood type.” He automatically noticed the present tense the agent used when she mentioned his biological parents.

“M-my biological parents are alive?” he asked somewhat stunned.

It didn’t even occur to him until now that Mary and Richard Parker not being his real parents meant that the people responsible for his existence might still be alive. Hell, he had lots of relatives he didn’t know about, maybe even siblings or half-siblings. Suddenly what Agent Abbott in the car said made a lot more sense. He supposed one of his DNA matches called the FBI because he or she realized Peter could be their missing relative.

“Yes, Peter, your mother and father had been looking for you for over fourteen years,” Ms. Reed answered him. 

Peter closed his eyes suddenly feeling that the room was just too bright. He tried to focus on his breathing because he once again felt like he couldn’t get enough oxygen into his body, his head felt too light. He couldn’t help but remember the pity he felt for Tony Stark and Pepper Potts for relentlessly looking for their son and never finding him. It hurt to know that his biological parents had to go through the same experience and that he caused them this type of pain even if it was unintentional.

“Ca-can I go home now?” he muttered feeling completely overwhelmed. 

It was one thing to learn that the people he thought were his parents were probably some type of kidnappers. It certainly ruined the picture he built of them over the years, but the Parkers were just distant memories anyways. Being told that he had living parents who spent over a decade looking for him was harder to grasp. He had an entire life and family he had missed out on even if he was satisfied with growing up with Uncle Ben and Aunt May and loved them. Still, it was not really the life he was supposed to have. He was living the life of a kid who had disappeared into the thin air.

Ms. Reed reached out for his right hand and put hers over it. This type of contact he knew was supposed to be motherly and calming, but he felt uncomfortable with a stranger touching him like that. He pulled his hand away automatically and felt even worse when he noticed her expression souring. It seemed he could only ruin everyone’s mood.

“The FBI still needs Mrs. Parker, but I don’t think you should be alone tonight at home. Is there anyone you could stay the night with? A family friend maybe? If not, then you could stay the night at a short-term foster parent’s home.” 

Honestly, if it were up to Peter he would just go home to the empty apartment. May was an emergency room nurse which meant that she often had to work night shifts, so it would certainly not be the first night he spent alone, but he was certain they wouldn’t let him do that. Though, he kind of understood why the FBI wanted him under the supervision of adults after what he had been just told.

“My friend’s, Ned’s parents wouldn’t mind if I stayed over, I think,” he told them. 

He was asked to call Ned right in front of them. Ned agreed to have him over for the night without a question, and through the mobile, Peter heard him asking his parents if it was okay with them. The Leeds parents seemed to be rather permissive about Ned having friends over even for school nights. They didn’t even ask why Peter so desperately wanted to randomly stay over on a Tuesday night, they just said yes.

It was a random agent to his surprise who then was tasked with taking him to the Leeds’s, who was waiting for him right outside of the room. Agent Abbott introduced the tall dirty blonde guy as Agent Jennings, but he shook Peter’s hand then enthusiastically and told Peter to simply call him Tom. While Peter couldn’t reciprocate the grin he received, he offered a shaky smile to Tom, because he seemed like a nice and easy-going guy. Tom was wearing a suit, not unlike all the other male agents but on him, it looked much more casual probably thanks to his colorful crooked tie and vibrantly patterned socks. 

He escorted Peter out of the building and led him to another black car. Tom was apparently a big fan of football so during the entire ride to Leeds’s apartment he was talking about the upcoming Super Bowl final which was happening on Sunday. Peter appreciated the chattiness of the guy because it was much easier to wonder about whether the Denver Broncos would defeat the Carolina Panthers or not than to think about getting abducted as a baby.

He first took Peter to his apartment to pack an overnight bag going upstairs with him. He then drove to Leeds’s even though Peter insisted that he could easily go over to his friend’s place on his own. While Tom was a cheerful guy, he was certainly stubborn and told Peter that he had to do his job. Honestly, if Peter was tasked with babysitting and transporting a teenager in his position, he would be glad to be over with it, but it seemed that beyond the external casualness of Tom, lay much professionalism, so he took his job seriously.

“Hey, Peter, I’m going to be here at seven-thirty to take you back,” Tom rolled down the window on the passenger seat side and called out from the car just as Peter got out of it in front of the apartment building where Ned was living. Peter made a face.

“I have school,” he argued, crossing his arms.

“Kid, missing a day from school won’t kill you. Don’t be late, good night,” Tom said while the window was already being pulled up and then he drove off. Peter watched the black car disappearing.

Staying over at Leeds’s apartment was always fun because Ned’s parents were just as friendly as their son. He joined their dinner, given generous helpings of the delicious macaroni, while Ned’s parents asked Ned and him about school mostly. Afterwards, they went to Ned’s room and watched a few episodes from The Clone Wars. While preparing for bed, Peter knew that no matter how exhausted he felt, sleep wouldn’t come easily. Sadly, he was right, he noted as he was laying on the couch in Ned’s dark room trying to fall asleep even though he couldn’t silence his thoughts.

“Bro, you can bullshit to my parents all you want about made-up English projects, but you can’t fool me. I mean you can come anytime here, but why are you here now exactly? Did something happen with May?” Ned asked curiously. Thanks to his enhanced sight not only did Peter didn’t need glasses anymore, but he could see in the dark as well, so he noted that Ned sat up in his bed leaning against the wall.

“It’s a complicated story, and I still miss some details. The gist of it is that the FBI paid a visit today to our apartment, and we were instructed to go with them. Apparently, I was a victim of a cold case as they had learned just today thanks to a tip,” he said lowly.

“WHAT?” Ned shouted so loudly that his parents must have heard it. However, it didn’t surprise them, because while Peter heard some movement from the other side of the apartment, they didn’t come to check upon them.

“Sadly, I’m not kidding. Child abduction. Richard and Mary Parker were not my parents, probably kidnapped me instead. May is still being questioned by the FBI and after dropping this bomb on me they didn’t want me to be alone for the night. Probably thought I would run away or drink myself into a stupor,” he explained with something akin dark humor or sarcasm.

“Dude, like what?” Ned learned to control his loudness.

“I wish it were a bad joke, Ned – so much. I… I don’t know what to do. I mean they told me that my biological parents have been looking for me since my… abduction, and I feel sorry for them, but they aren’t really my parents, are they? If I ever had those it was Ben and May,” he explained nearly choking while trying to stop himself from sobbing.

“You’ll always have May though. It sounds like your real parents desperately wanted to find you, so they are probably nice. You know, the Sunday family dinner type of nice. It might be cool to get to know them and get some new relatives. Peter, maybe you have this really hot cousin, and you could introduce her to me.” Ned’s enthusiasm was so infectious that through his tears, Peter couldn’t help but chuckle.

“I swear to you Ned if I have a hot cousin, I’ll introduce her, but I warn you that little sisters are off-limits,” he stated with a small smile. 

He loved how Ned could cheer him up with only a few sentences. He knew that nothing could silence his mind and stop the turmoil of emotions swirling inside of him. At least he was feeling a tiny bit better because he had someone to discuss this impossible situation with.

“It’s actually pretty cool that you might have sisters,” Ned replied casually, and Peter had to agree with him.

It was going to be strange to get to know his new relatives after fourteen years. Nevertheless, just like he felt happy when he realized he had a family when he looked at the Parker family tree while doing the genealogy research, he knew that meeting an entire arsenal of new relatives was going to be a nice after some initial awkwardness. He liked the idea of having lots of relatives. It was just having a new set of parents he wasn’t sure he could handle.

“Good night, Ned – and thank you."

***

After Agent Bramwell’s call, Pepper supposed there was a wordless mutual understanding between Tony and her that they would be waiting for more information from the FBI together. Neither even brought it up as a possibility, but they left the lab together and relocated to the penthouse of the Tower where Tony was living alone now. After a break-up and hardly even seeing Tony for a month, spending hours with him should have been awkward. However, to her surprise, it wasn’t. She supposed that the reason for it was that she had known him for more than fifteen years by now plus the extraordinary situation helped as well.

They watched random documentaries about nature mindlessly. It was Pepper’s suggestion after Tony told her to choose something to watch. After being faced with the unlimited catalog of the Stark household’s show selection she realized that she currently had the attention span of a goldfish. So she found it fitting to watch casually some animals trying to live their lives. It might not have been her greatest idea though. She should have chosen some house building or decorating show probably instead as she was very emotional. Every time some baby animal was shown with its mother she started weeping.

It was after about the third episode of the docuseries – this one was about the wildlife of the Galapagos islands – when FRIDAY muted the TV. She told them that they had another incoming call from Agent Bramwell. Pepper trusted Tony’s research immensely as few had more experience with his capabilities than she had. However, the idea of having found Peter was so foreign that she knew unless she heard it directly from an official responsible, she could never accept it. So, this call meant everything to her. FRIDAY automatically put the agent on speaker when neither reacted, frozen in their seats.

“Miss Potts, Mr. Stark while the investigation is still underway, I can say with great confidence that we have found your son.” 

Pepper often heard these words in her dreams, but for a while now she honestly has lost hope that she would hear them while awake as well. Until now Tony and she were sitting on the two ends of the couch. She closed the space between them and buried her face into his chest, and he put his arms around her. He pulled her even closer to him which resulted in her half-sitting on his lap. After all the ugly crying she had done, this time her tears silently ran down her cheeks.

“When can we meet him?” Tony asked much more calmly than she had expected from him, especially as a few hours before he literally planned to just appear at Peter’s home. She supposed that unlike her Tony had already accepted the reality that this time it wasn’t just another fluke.

“We are still questioning Mrs. Parker, so an agent took Peter to his best friend’s apartment for the night. He will be escorted back to the Bureau tomorrow morning. You should be here by eight. You can meet him then.” At 8 o’clock tomorrow after fourteen years, Pepper was to meet her son again. It was an impossible thought, and it made her cry even harder. She was shaking in Tony’s arms, who soothingly caressed her back.

“Th-Thank you, Agent Bramwell. We’ll be there,” she said forcing the words out knowing that Tony usually forgot about the basic forms of courtesy.

The awkwardness she expected started after ending the call and calming a bit down. She noticed the position they were in before but on the highest point of the emotional roller coaster she didn’t care much of it, she just needed Tony’s reassurance. Once she was aware of her surroundings getting out of Tony’s lap proved to be just as embarrassing as she expected this situation to be.

The uncomfortable moment was soon interrupted though, with their dinner arriving. They got the food from the same Chinese place they have been ordering from ever since moving to New York, and they also settled with the boxes on the couch just as they often did. It could have been like any of the nights they spent together in the apartment over the years. The familiarity of the situation was not lost on Pepper. It prompted her to want to leave the penthouse where she has been living for years but moved out from only a month ago the moment she finished eating.

“I should be going,” she told Tony after she put down the box with the chopsticks. 

“It’s late, Pep. Come on, stay. You know there are many guestrooms. We can then go to the FBI together in the morning,” Tony proposed and looked at her again with puppy eyes. The first thought that ran through her mind was whether Peter would look at her the same way as his father did whenever he wanted something as he had inherited the same eyes. It was that thought that prompted her to give in to Tony’s nagging after a few minutes of being unsure if it was proper.

“Screw propriety,” was Tony’s response. “We found Peter, Pep.” She couldn’t argue with that.

***

Wednesday, 3rd February 2016         

He deceived Ned’s parents by pretending to be going to school with Ned. While Ned started walking in the direction of Midtown High after saying good-bye to him, Peter stayed in front of the building waiting for Tom. He didn’t need to wait for long, in a few minutes they were already driving towards Manhattan. Tom was just as cheerful as the night before, but this time he tried to involve Peter in the conversation. However, Peter was certainly not in the mood, so he only answered with single words. 

Peter hated the idea of going back to the FBI building, but he was certain that at least he could be reunited with his aunt. With Tom’s loud booming voice as constant background noise, the ride seemed much quicker than the day before when Peter was sitting in the car of the two silent agents.

He was still treated with kid gloves. The moment he stepped out of the elevator on the floor where he spent last night, Angela appeared and offered him multiple options for beverages. He then was escorted to the same office which he now learned belonged to Agent Bramwell, though the man wasn’t there, Agent Abbott and Ms. Reed were.

“Peter, I hope you got some sleep,” Ms. Reed said with a motherly smile after some less than enthusiastic greetings from Peter’s side. He nodded wordlessly though the truth was he didn’t think he slept even blink as there was simply too much on his mind the night before. He felt the type of exhaustion he only ever felt before when he had a high fever.

“We are still investigating the exact circumstances of your abduction and Mrs. Parker’s involvement in the case. However, we believe that she is of no danger to you, so you will get to see her again today,” Agent Abbott said in a formal tone. Peter noticed that underneath her forced blank expression, which was probably a must in her job, there was a touch of concern. She had to be around his aunt’s age or maybe a bit younger, and he wondered if maybe, she even had kids or nieces or nephews herself. 

“First, though, I would like to ask Peter if you would be willing to meet your parents. We would understand of course if you needed some more time to cope with everything that you had learned, but they are very impatient to see you,” Ms. Reed stated, and Peter winced. 

It didn’t even occur to him that he would be meeting the people who were his real parents as soon as this morning. He knew that it would have to happen eventually, but he didn’t expect it right away, certainly not before he could even speak with his aunt. Nevertheless, he understood that they were impatient to meet him after all they had been looking for him for over a decade. It must be just as hard for them to know that he was found but not being able to see him, as it was for him to learn that he was abducted and being forced to cope with having a new set of parents.

“They are here?” he asked so softly he was surprised that they heard him, but both ladies nodded. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to concentrate on his other senses. The morning bustle of the office was too big, and he had no idea what his parents were like at all.

“Yes, but I’m sure they would understand if you weren’t ready to meet them,” Ms. Reed once again emphasized that he didn’t have to do it. 

He wasn’t sure waiting some more would help though as this whole situation was so absurd, he would need more than a few days to wrap his head around it. He understood that as a baby he wasn’t responsible for being abducted and he couldn’t have prevented it. However, his existence had already caused so much sadness and worry for these people that he felt making them wait more would be cruel.

“No, it’s okay. I can meet them,” he stated as surely as he could, though he was sure that both women could see right through his façade of confidence based on their expressions.

“I’m sure your decision will delight them,” Ms. Reed said and smiled in a rather patronizing manner. 

Agent Abbott stayed in the office while Ms. Reed told him that she was going to be with him through the entire meeting. She said that probably to calm him down, but instead it caused him to panic even more. It was bad enough to embarrass himself in front of his parents but even worse if they had an audience. As they were walking down the corridor, he wondered if May had to spend the entire night in one of the rooms being interrogated by Agent Bramwell. He hoped that she wasn’t treated unfairly and badly just because she was connected to him. He was certain she was just as clueless about the abduction as he had been, so he wished the FBI would just give up on their crusade against her already.

Ms. Reed abruptly stopped in front of a door Peter recognized as he was questioned there last night, it was the room that was set up for children. She looked at Peter with a sad smile.

“You should take a deep breath, and you shouldn’t worry because they already love you. Also, I think I should warn you that you might recognize them.” She then opened the door without even giving a chance to Peter to comprehend what her last sentence could mean. He was a bit preoccupied with following her advice of focusing on his breathing.

This early the room was lit by natural light provided by big windows. It seemed even friendlier this way, much nicer than the sterile office-look the rest of the floor that he had seen had. His attention was soon caught by the movement because the door opening alerted the people inside, and they stood up from the armchairs they were sitting in. In the last two months, he got bit by a radioactive spider, developed superhuman abilities and became a vigilante. Plus he also learned that he was abducted as a baby, and his entire life had been a lie. So, he thought nothing could surprise him anymore, but the sight of the room’s occupants certainly did. This couldn’t be the room where his parents were waiting for him, Ms. Reed must have been misinformed, he thought.

Standing in the jungle of sitting opportunities, beanbags, sofas, and armchairs, all in various colors were two people Peter recognized automatically, just as probably everyone would have, who has ever turned on a TV read a newspaper or magazine or surfed the internet. Had it been just one of them with a stranger, Peter would have dismissed the similarity as a coincidence or his mind playing tricks on him. However, with them standing next to each other, it was hard to not jump to conclusions about their identity.

“T-Tony Stark,” he muttered in absolute amazement. 

His childhood hero was standing only a few meters away and was beaming at Peter like he was the most amazing sight he had ever seen. Mr. Stark was wearing a dark blue suit jacket, but it was not buttoned up nor was he wearing a tie. Next to him stood a woman just as recognizable with her strawberry blonde hair. Pepper Potts seemed to get the memo of having to dress up for the occasion too. Sadly, Peter obviously missed it as he was wearing his worn sneakers while she had a fancy blue dress with high-heeled shoes that seemed like a bold choice in February. Thanks to his enhanced sight, he saw the tears running down her cheeks. As stunned as he was by the illustrious company, their reactions to him certainly indicated that he was in the right room.

“Peter,” Miss Potts called out to him as she took a few steps forward while maneuvering between the bean bags.

“Peter, these are your parents,” Ms. Reed suddenly announced though, it was certainly not needed. It was enough that Mr. Stark started walking towards Peter as well still beaming at him as he had just won the lottery for him.

Looking between the couple, Peter felt that this had to be a dream because no way were his parents Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. He knew that babies being kidnapped by strangers were rare thanks to having read much about the couple’s missing son. It still didn’t even occur to him once that he might be the missing Peter Potts since he learned that it happened to him. He was boringly normal until he went on that field trip in December unlike what he expected the son of Iron Man to be like. He remembered reading about all the boys his age doing a DNA test to prove they were the missing son of the billionaire power couple. He always wished then for the couple that it would be a match one day. He had never thought he would get to see their reactions to the news and be part of the reunion.

“Hi,” he muttered awkwardly looking down at his shoes that he deeply regretted putting on.

He thought that the last day was hard and long, but now he knew this one is going to be much worse. He wasn’t sure he was prepared to face what this newest revelation meant. It was one thing to be a victim of an abduction. It was a completely different to be the sufferer of the most famous one.