When life smacked Natasha Romanova down, she bounced—with a steely-eyed determination that had seen her through ballet school, through the physical therapy after a drunken idiot ran her over and smashed that dream, through the extra English lessons and the twelve hour shifts after she won the green-card lottery to get enough money to actually make it to the States.
A job in a retirement home was not the high-flying American career her friends had fantasised about. But she was a realist, and Shield Retirement and Nursing offered her a permanent job at more than minimum wage, with health insurance. She wasn’t going to turn something that good down, and it didn’t stop her planning for the future (college? Her own business?). She was going to be excellent at her job and have excellent references for the next one, whatever that happened to be.
So she arrived at the corporate training dressed to impress, smile plastered on (apparently, Americans liked that sort of thing), determined to excel.
At the end of the first day she was called out of the training, up to an office high in the building, and introduced to Mr. Fury, one of the directors.
“Miss Romanova. How are you finding the States?”
“Former ballet dancer. Good academic record. Good references.” He put the papers down, and stared at her with his good eye. “One question: don’t you consider this sort of work…beneath you?”
She paused. This was a test. Everything was a test. “Why should I?”
Fury smiled and pushed a piece of paper across the desk to her. She read it—a standard confidentiality agreement. Nothing that triggered any warning signals. Fury passed her a pen, and she signed the agreement.
“I presume that Tony Stark makes the news in Russia as well.”
She smiled. “Of course he does.”
“You’ll be aware that he’s getting…older. There is a house in upstate New York, half of which is a retirement and nursing facility for hand-picked individuals. The other half is one of Mr. Stark’s residences. The staff are chosen with care, Miss Romanova, and only with Mr. Stark’s approval. Mr. Stark approves of you.”
She had a very good idea of the implications behind that, so she smiled neutrally.
The house was apparently far enough away from other towns that the staff had on-site accommodation (a ten minutes’ walk across the grounds from the main house, because she knew rich people needed to think that staff appeared and disappeared magically, and didn’t need to eat or sleep or have any bodily functions). So she packed her bags, said goodbye to the housemates she’d barely just met, and headed upstate.
The bus stop she got off at was in the middle of a forest in the middle of nowhere, but there was a car parked and a man leaning on the hood, a dog seated obediently by his side.
“Yes.” The dog came and sniffed at her, then looked expectant. She scritched it behind the ears, and it started doing circuits around her legs as the man spoke again.
“That’s Lucky. Lucky, here boy!” The dog looked at him, then went back to sniffing and circling her with increasing excitement. “Uh, he likes you. He’s a good judge of character. I’m here to take you to the Stark Estate. I’m Clint Barton, I look after the garden, and no, I have no idea why Stark hired me either; I think he must have done it hungover.”
She couldn’t help but smile at that. “Perhaps he was impressed by your excellent gardening skills.”
“When he could have had a girl who didn’t know one end of a spade from the other bending over his flowerbeds? Nah, I’m a mistake.”
“So is that a warning?”
“About Stark? Nah, Ms. Potts tamed the wandering hands years ago. It’s just the wandering eyes these days. Anyway, I’m supposed to be driving you there, not standing around talking.”
She threw her bags in the trunk and took the passenger seat. Lucky attempted to sit on her knee, then on the gearshift, then on Clint’s knee, and was finally persuaded to sit in the back, leaning intently forward between the two of them.
A friendly dog was a good sign, she thought.
They’d driven for a few minutes before Clint said, “Uh, I’m not good at small talk, sorry.”
“It’s fine. I’m enjoying the view.”
“Really? It’s just trees.”
“Different trees from home.”
“Where’s home, then?”
“Originally? A chemical waste dump that claimed to be a town in a part of Russia you’ve never heard of. You?”
“Iowa. But I moved around a lot.”
It was a long drive, and night by the time Clint turned through a formal gate, down a narrow lane, and pulled up in front of a collection of low buildings. He showed Natasha her room, then the shared kitchen and bathrooms. It was all neat and clean enough, not luxurious—but better than she’d been expecting. She unpacked and went to sleep, having been told that Sharon, another member of the staff, would show her over to the main house in the morning.
At first glance, Sharon was the epitome of everything she had expected of a young American woman, from the makeup to the smile, and even to the way she walked. But under that, Natasha recognised something of herself, the steel under the silk. As they walked over to the main building, she explained that she was temporary staff, working during her college breaks to cover other staff members going on leave.
“I should probably tell you a little about our residents. Mr. Stark is—pretty much as you think he’d be if you’ve seen or read the news. He’s here a few days at a time, then off to other places. We rarely know in advance when he’s going to be here. He’s slowing down as he gets older, and Ms. Potts keeps him in order. Only staff who have been here for at least six months and have been approved have access to his half of the house, so you’re not going to see that, but he spends time in the other half as well. The others—actually, they’re all here, so I’ll give you the rundown as we meet them.”
They turned a corner around a formal hedge, and she got her first look at the house. It was three storeys, neo-Classical, and this was very obviously the back of it, with large windowed doors leading onto beautifully manicured lawns edged by flower beds (beautiful enough that Clint must not be the only gardener on the staff).
An older man—one of the residents, she’d guess—was walking along one of the paths, his mind seeming completely elsewhere. Sharon changed course to walk over to him.
“Dr. Banner?” He was seemingly startled by the intrusion into his reverie but smiled at the two of them. “This is Natasha Romanova, our new member of staff.”
She shook hands with him, and he said, “Please, call me Bruce.”
“Dr. Banner is a noted physicist, and when he talks to Mr. Stark, it’s all in math.”
“I don’t suppose theoretical physics is an interest of yours?”
“I’m afraid I went to ballet school; we didn’t entirely neglect our academic side, but it wasn’t the highest priority. I’m always keen to learn, though.”
“I’m not a great teacher. Got a reputation for reducing students to tears.”
“Really?” Natasha couldn’t square that with the man in front of her, who seemed so gentle.
“I used to have a terrible temper. It’s much better for being retired and out of the academic pressure-cooker, I promise you.”
“I’ll show you the rest of the building.” said Sharon. They gave their goodbyes to Dr. Banner and headed for the main building.
The inside was just as impressive as the outside, complete with works of art and sculpture as the main focus of decor. Once Natasha had her eye in, the adaptations for its residents became more obvious, though; elegant mouldings were actually grab-rails, and there were discreet buttons to call for attention and elevators that were certainly not part of the original design.
Sharon opened a door into one of the rooms that looked out onto the garden. There were three extremely old men asleep in large leather chairs, all in patches of sunlight, facing out into the garden.
She whispered, “Colonel Steven Rogers, Major James Barnes, Oberst Thorvald Odinsen—he’s Norwegian. Probably the greatest concentration of Second World War military honors in one room anywhere. Colonel Rogers and Oberst Odinsen often have their children and grandchildren visiting. Major Barnes doesn’t have any children, but he’s basically uncle to Colonel Rogers’ children anyway.” Sharon smiled at Natasha. “Colonel Rogers is my great-uncle, and Major Barnes is practically family, just so you know it’s only me that calls them Uncle Steve and Uncle Bucky.”
“Should I call them by their rank?”
“Beautiful women can call me whatever the hell they want.” She looked over to find that the three men were now awake and the man she’d been told was Major Barnes was smiling at her.
“Bucky,” said Colonel Rogers in a warning tone. He turned and smiled at her, “Sorry, Miss—?”
“Romanova. Natasha Romanova.”
“We’re too old for formality, Miss Romanova. Steve, Bucky, and Thor are just fine.”
“You’re Russian?” said Major Barnes—Bucky—and Natasha nodded. His smile came back, and she was fairly sure that smile had been aimed at every pretty girl for decades. “Real nice sounding language. You should teach me.”
“Do not be afeared, Miss Romanova. Bucky is long past the time when he could make good on any of his flirtations.”
Bucky gave an exaggeratedly grumpy scowl at Thor. “At least I made good on them for a very long time. Had a damn good run, and it doesn’t stop me appreciating the view now.”
Steve rolled his eyes, “If you tell him to back off, he will.”
“He can be a gentleman if he wishes it.”
“I have always been a complete gentleman to the dames.”
Natasha couldn’t help smiling. She wondered how long the three of them had known each other, because it seemed like each was anticipating the others’ reactions perfectly. She also wondered where on earth Thor had learned English, because she’d been in contact with people of all nationalities over the past few weeks, and no one had spoken quite like this. It was like he’d learned it entirely from a slightly overwrought Shakespeare production.
There was a commotion from the corridor, and Bucky yelled at a volume that made Natasha jump. “STARK! You’d better have the new chairs.”
Tony Stark himself walked into the room, looking sprightly though he walked with a stick. He was followed by two people she recognised as Virginia Potts and Colonel James Rhodes. Colonel Rhodes was as old as Tony, and also used a stick, but he had a military uprightness to his posture that Stark did not.
“Hey, patience—” said Stark.
“Tony,” said Steve, ”the grim reaper isn’t knocking on my door; he’s wiping his feet and admiring the furniture. I’m seeing less of a virtue in patience.”
Sharon leaned into Natasha and said, “You’re looking at a room of frustrated speed freaks. They all had to give up their bikes years ago. Then a couple of months ago, they ended up having a conversation about powered wheelchairs, and they started making these comments around Tony that an engineering genius could surely build a chair that went at a decent speed.”
“... racing wheelchairs?”
She was interrupted by Stark driving three powered wheelchairs into the room, looking a lot more sleek than any she’d seen before. He parked one by each of the three men and stepped back.
Natasha and Sharon helped each of them into their new wheelchairs. Their frailty was obvious, but under that papery skin was the bone structure that showed each of them had been big, muscular guys in their youth.
As soon as he was in his wheelchair, Bucky took her hand and kissed it before she had a chance to step back, and winked at her.
“So,” said Tony, “Two settings, red for ‘not wrecking the house’, green for ‘racing mode, outside only’. Pepper is holding a remote shutdown, and she isn’t afraid to use it—”
The three men were already heading towards the door when Sharon said, “Dr. Banner,” and ran out of the door. Natasha ran after her, because she’d seen the excitement on the new wheelchair racers’ faces, and she didn’t doubt there was a real risk of Dr. Banner being run over.
They found him heading back to the house anyway, and escorted him to the patio chairs that Mr. Stark, Colonel Rhodes, and Ms. Potts were making themselves comfortable in. The extremely elderly racers were testing the maneuverability of their new machines on the patio, and Mr. Stark waved Natasha to a seat.
“So, Natasha, how are you finding our happy family?”
“Interesting.” She couldn’t help her gaze slipping to the racers. “Are they going to be okay?”
Colonel Rhodes grinned at that, “They’re in their nineties, they don’t care. I think the only reason they’re all still with us is that if one of them dies, the others win.” Natasha smiled at that, and he held out his hand to her for a shake. “Call me Rhodey. I’m here when Tony hasn’t got a great idea he needs another pair of hands for on the other side of the country.”
Ms. Potts handed over a folder, “This is the essentials of your induction including certain…quirks of how things are run here. Any questions, Sharon will be admirably able to answer, as will Maria, our manager who you’ll meet tomorrow. For the first four days, you will shadow Sharon.”
Ms. Potts was the picture of smart, businesslike elegance, and Natasha knew her reputation. Now she was the sort of American woman Natasha could model herself on.
She smiled the winning American smile she had been practicing. “Thank you.”
“SHARON!” Natasha jumped again as Bucky shouted. In her opinion, someone that old should not be able to be so loud.
Rhodey said, “Can you tell he started out as a sergeant?”
Well, that explained that.
There was a conversation between the three men in the wheelchairs and Sharon. Then they lined themselves up by one of the statues, and Sharon held up an arm. “On your marks! Get set! Go!”
The three of them set off at a speed that Natasha was definitely not happy with seeing ninety-plus year old men travelling at in exposed wheelchairs. Sharon walked up to where they were sitting.
“They’ve agreed on one lap around the house. Winner is the first past the line of this table, and the winner gets to pick tonight’s TV.”
“Should one of us be following them?” asked Natasha.
Ms. Potts indicated a tablet on the table, which was showing views which were obviously from security cameras around the buildings. “We can keep an eye on them from here.”
There was a lot of weaving and jockeying for position, because of course, if all three chairs were the same, then they’d go at the same speed, wouldn’t they?
“Who are we betting on?” said Rhodey.
“Thor,” said Sharon and Ms. Potts, almost in unison.
Natasha raised an eyebrow quizzically.
“Steve and Bucky have known each other since they were children,” said Ms Potts, “So if either of them has an opportunity to impede any other racer, they’ll go for each other, which leaves Thor free to win.”
Natasha was about to ask if two retired senior military officers really would act like that when she saw on the tablet that Bucky had indeed just attempted to sideswipe Steve.
“Don’t go thinking they were always like this,” said Stark. “It’s a second childhood thing.”
“Or possibly,” said Bruce, “if you take into account what they went through as children, a first childhood. Just a little, uh, delayed.”
“That reminds me,” said Sharon. “Topics of conversation to be avoided—I know I said they were all decorated war heroes, but don’t ask about it. If they want to talk about it, fine; be interested, but there’s cans of worms there you don’t want to open. Bucky was taken prisoner behind enemy lines and tortured by the Gestapo as a spy. Steve was on a transport plane that went down in the North Sea. Both of them were missing long enough to be listed as dead. Thor fought with the resistance in Norway, but his brother,” she sighed at that, “his brother joined the SS. Thor will say that his brother was young and misguided—”
“But everyone else says nutty Nazi war criminal,” said Stark, who ignored the harsh look Ms Potts shot at him.
“What happened to him? I mean, his brother.”
“Died fighting on the Eastern Front.”
“Trying to work out if killing him was a family affair?” said Stark.
Natasha shrugged. Most Americans seemed to have a less personal relationship with the Great Patriotic War than most Russians, so she didn’t say that it wasn’t just both her grandfathers who had been out killing fascists, but both her grandmothers as well. “Wondering if it was anywhere I’d lived. Don’t worry, I won’t start asking questions.”
Pepper nodded at the tablet. “They should be coming around the corner any moment.”
They did indeed come around the corner, still going at full speed, with Thor clearly in the lead at this stage. Thor crossed the nominal finish line a few seconds in front of the other two and then drove his chair up to where they were sitting. Steve and Bucky followed.
“A noble race, and I am fortunate in victory. But I wager we will have many more such contests.” He turned to Natasha and smiled. “I believe it is traditional to favor the victor with a kiss?”
It was asked with such charm that Natasha thought, why the hell not?, stood up, and kissed him on the forehead.
“Just so you know, before the next race, I am slashing both of your tyres,” said Bucky.
“It doesn’t count if you cheat,” Natasha replied.
“I’m not sure whether to say that you’re fitting in well here, or that you’re bringing them too close to a heart attack,” said Stark.
“Christina Hendricks is bringing them at least that close to a heart attack,” said Rhodey.
Natasha stifled a genuine laugh. It was the strangest morning she’d had in a very long time, but the genuine affection that all these people had for each other, the fact that it really did seem like a big family—she loved that. Natasha couldn’t have wished for a better start in this country.
Over the next eighteen happy months, no one got a post-race kiss, because all three of the boys (and it didn’t matter that they were old enough to be her grandfathers; they acted like boys and so boys they were) decided that cheating outrageously was far more fun than racing fairly. Tony and Rhodey of course thoroughly encouraged this, including a long debate on the practicalities of scythed wheels. Bruce quietly observed, and he occasionally contributed a suggestion seemingly out of nowhere that was deviously brilliant.
Then Steve, Bucky, and Thor all died within two days of each other. Once one link was broken, the chain fell apart. Everyone had known how frail they were, but somehow she had never thought of them dying. It was only after the undertaker had driven away for the third time and she’d walked into the very empty garden room, with the three chairs still in their accustomed places, that Natasha realised she’d unconsciously assumed that they’d still be there whenever she ended up leaving this place, still acting like big kids.
Two days after that, while she was still numb and still hadn’t cried, Natasha was called to a meeting with a lawyer. She was told she was the sole beneficiary of Bucky’s will and now quite a wealthy woman. The lawyer gave her an envelope addressed to her in Bucky’s shaky but neat handwriting. Inside was a letter and a very old photograph.
Use the money to go to college. I always regretted not going. But if you decide to spend the lot on drink and dancing, I won’t mind either, because if I still looked like I did in this photo I’d have taken you out dancing every night.
I never regretted not settling down, and Steve never regretted marrying. Do whatever is right for you. But if you’re interested in Clint, you’re going to have to ask him, because he’s too much of an idiot to ask.
I’ve met a hell of a lot of beautiful, interesting, wonderful women in my life. You’ve been one of the best, and I’m just glad you were there to close out this wild ride on a high note.
She sat with the letter and photograph in her hand with tears streaming down her face, looking out across the garden but not seeing it, for a very long time. Eventually Natasha stood up, put both the letter and photograph into her purse, and walked out to meet the rest of her life.