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Happiness is a Choice

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If there was one thing Tony Stark knew with complete and utter certainty that he was woefully unsuited for, it was fatherhood. Even if his own father had been the poster boy for epic fatherhood rather than someone who forgot for weeks or even months at a time that he had a son, Tony's own personality was not suited for kids. He was erratic, subject to extreme mood swings, single-minded to the point he forgot to eat most days he was working, a heavy drinker, foul-mouthed, hedonistic, impatient with adults when they couldn't keep up with him, and so socially inept that his only friends were his butler, his business partner, and his driver.

And yes, he was aware of how sad that was. He was still seriously contemplating the fuck-it-and-build-a-robot-buddy idea he'd come up with in college, just to pad out the count.

The problem with being about as far from father material as physically possible was the fact that, thanks to his massive company and even bigger fortune, he was apparently required to have a kid. When the board of directors had laid that out to him, he'd taken a moment to mentally redefine BoD so it stood for Bag of Dicks instead. And half of them were sleazily pimping their own female relatives as vessels for his seed, which- seriously? New low there, assholes.

Sir, we're here.”

Tony pulled himself away from his own internal bitchfest against the board and looked out the car window.

The orphanage was... sad. Which, yeah, orphanage, but still. The yard was overrun with weeds and yellowing toward brown, which was probably the only reason it was just a little shaggy instead of a jungle. What few toys he could see were obviously old and in need of an upgrade or ten. There was a fence, four foot chain link with missing sections and no gate- just yet another gap big enough to drive a car through. The building itself had seen better days, probably before Tony had been born. The walls were covered in dirt and grime that nearly hid the brickwork completely. The windows were in need of a good cleaning, and a few of them were even boarded up.

The car rolled to a stop, and Happy killed the engine, glancing back at him. “Want me to wait here?” he asked, because Happy was a beautiful human being and was almost as good at anticipating Tony's thoughts as Jarvis.

Yeah,” Tony said. “In fact, go grab yourself lunch. I'll call if I need you.”

Got it, boss,” Happy said, nodding.

Tony climbed out of the car and headed for the sagging, unpainted porch while Happy backed out onto the street. He suspected this particular orphanage had special meaning to whichever secretary had slipped the address onto his desk, because it was in the middle of nowhere and kind of looked abandoned, even if he'd at least done enough research to know it was a legit operation and there were actual kids here.

He'd called ahead at least, so they should be expecting him, but he still knocked on the door and waited. Because an orphanage was a home, and barging into someone's home uninvited was a good way to get shot. Tony did not feel like getting shot again.

The girl who answered the door was petite. In the way wasps were petite, with a distinct air of 'I don't need to be big to kill you'. She had silky dark brown hair pulled into a no-nonsense tail at the nape of her neck and serious blue-gray eyes that looked way too old for her face, which was, like... four. At most.

Who are you?” she demanded. “We don't buy stuff here.”

Good, because anything people are peddling door-to-door is bound to be shit,” Tony said. “I'm looking for someone about three feet taller than you whose voice has broken. Can I come in?”

No,” she said, lifting her chin in stubborn defiance. “You're a stranger. Only stupid people let strangers inside.”

Can't argue with that, you're obviously a smart kiddo. Is there a grown-up in there I can talk to? I'm kind of expected.”

Further inside, Tony could hear the sound of voices. If he was any judge, someone was having an argument in there, and it caught the girl's attention. She turned so she was still blocking the door but not facing him anymore as the voices got nearer and Tony could make out words.

-scared Bruce!” someone yelled.

Bruce is a pansy!” another someone, older but not yet at puberty, yelled back. “He needs to man the fuck up!”

Bucky!” the little gatekeeper yelled. “Language! And let Clint go!” She abandoned the door, letting it swing open further while she hurried down the hall.

There were three kids in the hall besides the gatekeeper, all boys. The shortest of the three had sandy blond hair and a mean scowl, dressed in a purple shirt and ratty jeans that had probably belonged to at least two other kids before he got them. He had both hands hooked firmly on the arm of another boy, who towered over him by nearly a foot and had unkempt dark brown hair that hovered in the awkward twilight zone between short enough to not be a pain in the ass and long enough to be properly manageable. His right hand was tangled in the blond's shirt, and he didn't appear to have a left arm.

The last kid in the little group was almost as short as the blond, gauntly thin, with a head of dark curls. He was also crying, which was Not Okay, because Tony Stark was a lot of variations of asshole, but he was not the kind of asshole who could see a kid crying and ignore it.

He stepped inside and around the gatekeeper, ignoring the two kids fighting for the moment, since nobody was doing any punching or anything.

Hey,” Tony said, crouching down with a ruthlessly squashed groan, because his knees were not what they used to be. “You okay?”

The crying kid jumped like he'd been stung and immediately clammed up. Again- Not Okay.

It's okay, kiddo,” Tony assured him, silently thanking Jarvis for making sure there was a handkerchief in his jacket pocket as he pulled it out and shook it open. “Here, wipe your nose- you're getting your face all snotty.”

The kid stared at him like he was speaking a foreign language for a long moment before slowly taking the handkerchief, eyes never leaving Tony's face. He very carefully cleaned his face and blew his nose, then balled the cloth up in both hands.

Wow,” the gatekeeper said from right behind Tony's shoulder. He managed not to jump and scream like a little girl. Somehow. “You didn't make him bolt- that's new.”

You're a very good ninja for a four-year-old,” Tony said, straightening while his knees and ankles rejoiced. “Has anyone ever told you that?”

I'm seven,” she informed him haughtily. “And I'm not a ninja, you just don't pay attention.”

Fair point. You have a name, seven-year-old not-a-ninja?”

Maria.”

Hi, Maria, I'm Tony Stark, and I really do need to talk to someone old enough to vote.”

Steve's out back,” the boy with one arm spoke up.

Which is the only reason you thought you could get away with being a jerk to Bruce,” the kid in the purple shirt muttered, jumping back when one-arm feinted toward him.

Okay, both of you need to calm the hell down,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “Can someone please take me to Steve so I can get on with this?”

Get on with what?” a blessedly adult voice asked, and a vision of pure American Ideal stepped into the hall. He was tall, blond, broad-shouldered and beefy, with impossibly blue eyes and an aura about him that just screamed innocence and faith in mankind. “Bruce, what's wrong?”

Bucky was picking on Clint,” Maria said. “Again.”

Clint punched me!” Bucky protested.

Yeah, 'cause you yelled at Bruce!” Clint shot back.

Steve – Tony was running on the assumption that this was Steve – sighed. “Bucky, Clint, kitchen,” he said. “Separate corners. Go.” Bucky and Clint grumbled, but they went. “Bruce, sweetie, are you okay?”

Bruce solemnly held up Tony's crumpled handkerchief and sniffed quietly.

Steve took it with no sign of distaste and glanced up at Tony. “If this is yours, sir, I can wash it for you.”

He can have it,” Tony said, shrugging. “You are Steve, right? I'd hate to be calling you the wrong name in my head. I'm Tony Stark, I called earlier.”

Steve's eyes went wide. “I'm so sorry, Mr. Stark, I was sure I would have them fed by the time you got here, and I haven't even started making lunch yet. I'm so sorry about Bucky and Clint, too, usually they behave better than that, I swear-”

Hey, hey, easy, big guy,” Tony said, laughing. “It's okay. No harm done. I think I'm a bit early, anyway, so my bad there. I already sent my driver off to feed himself, but I can wait on the porch if you want me to, I'm very good at keeping myself occupied.”

No, you don't have to do that,” Steve assured him hastily. “There's room in the kitchen. I wasn't expecting company, I was planning on something simple, but I could-”

It's fine,” Tony said, because he did actually have manners and did occasionally use them. “No need to put yourself out on my account. In fact, why don't we just order in? Seems easier.”

Steve gave him a look like he wasn't sure if Tony was being a dick or was just stupid. “Ordering in is expensive, Mr. Stark.”

For you, maybe,” Tony said, shrugging. “I'll cover it. I'm offering to feed your horde. Consider it demonstrating my financial ability to care for a child.”

Steve was still giving him that look. Tony ran over what he'd just said, and heaved a purely mental sigh at himself. Had he really just called the guy poor, then referred to the kids as a horde ? Wow, Stark. Just... wow.

Fortunately they weren't exactly alone in the hallway, and Maria decided to remind them of that. “Bruce wants pizza,” she said loudly, while Bruce made a noise of dismay and ducked behind her.

That's generous of you, Mr. Stark,” Steve said. Tony could only tell from long, bitter experience that his smile was forced, the man was that good at being polite. “Thank you.”

Don't mention it. Really. Hey, Bruce, what kind of pizza do you like?”

Bruce, still hiding behind Maria, mumbled something.

He says whatever you want's fine,” Maria reported. “I like sausage. And extra cheese.”

I can do that,” Tony said. “Anything else?”

Thor likes Hawaiian. And Loki doesn't eat meat. And one with no mushrooms, Clint's allergic, and Nick likes olives 'cause he's weird, and Phil only likes cheese 'cause he's even weirder than Nick, and Bucky hates peppers, and Pepper-”

Whoa, there,” Tony interrupted. “Gimme a second to catch up. Just out of mild curiosity, is there anything you don't know?”

My times tables past three.”

Tony laughed outright. He liked this kid. “So one extra-large cheese, one large sausage with extra cheese, one large Hawaiian, one veggie, and good old-fashioned extra-large pepperoni. Think that'll feed everyone?”

You should double it.”

Are you fleecing me, kid? Because you guys are tiny, there's no way you can fit that much pizza in your stomachs.”

You've never seen Thor eat,” Steve said, his first contribution, then immediately turned red and mumbled something that was probably an excuse to escape to the kitchen, followed closely by him doing exactly that.

Tony snorted, shaking his head. “Okay, all that but double. Sound good?”

Maria nodded. “I'll go find everyone. And don't get drinks and stuff, Steve doesn't like us to drink soda.”

Understood, ma'am” Tony said, saluting her. Maria giggled, covering her mouth with both hands to hide it, and hurried up the stairs yelling for someone named Phil. He placed an order with his usual place, then ducked into the kitchen. “Lunch'll be here in about half an hour,” he reported.

Thank you, Mr. Stark,” Steve said. He was busy doctoring Bucky's face, which was starting to bruise. For such a shrimp, Clint must pack one hell of a punch. “Again, I'm very sorry about all of this.”

It's fine,” Tony said, finding an empty chair and sitting. Bruce, having followed him in from the hall, squeezed himself behind Tony and out of sight. “If everyone was behaving, I'd feel insanely out of place.”

Still.” Steve sighed, sending Bucky back to a stool in the corner by the stove and turning to face Tony. “I was hoping to make a better impression.”

If I wanted a perfect angel, I'd buy a statue,” Tony said. “Kids who don't act like kids creep me out.”

Clint, wedged in the corner by the back door, snorted.

Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, kid,” Tony told him. “So, I've met Maria and Bruce and been sort of around Clint and Bucky. Where's the rest of 'em?”