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Introduction to Western Literature

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1.
When Natasha is finally free of Red Room, she reads. The Americans don’t think ‘killing people’ and ‘cleaning weapons’ are suitable hobbies, and neither does the SHIELD psychiatrist. The problem, according to them, is that a hobby is something you do when you’re not doing your job. Also, she’s not supposed to enjoy killing people, even if it is her job and even though she’s ninety-five percent sure that SHIELD sends her to kill people who genuinely deserve to die. None of this makes sense, but Natasha indulges them anyway; her aliases had all had hobbies, so she ought to be able to find one for herself. Natalie Rushman was a Scrabble champion, and Natasha Romanov could be -- if she could find a worthy opponent. Coulson can’t spell, and the other agents are afraid to beat her. Nancy Rosenbaum could make a mean matzoh ball soup, but Natasha doesn’t like matzoh balls. Or cooking. Nadezda Radecki slept with oil tycoons and bought Dior with their credit cards, but rich men are rarely good in bed and Natasha’s tastes are too simple for designer clothes.

So she picks up a book at the library and reads it in the locker room when sparring is done and her guns are clean.

“You know, I think you’re supposed to check these out,” Barton says, flicking open the cover and tapping the blank spot where the due date should be stamped.

“I suppose,” Natasha says. She doesn't feel much need to explain herself. Checking out a book creates a record, and she prefers to move through the world without a trace.

“It’s really annoying when the card catalogue says a book is on the shelf and it’s actually gone,” Clint says.

Natasha doesn’t reply to that. She always returns the books on time, and if annoying people is her greatest crime, she’s really moving up in the world.

Lolita,” Clint says, running his fingers along the faded gold lettering on the spine. “You’ve read this three times this week.”

“You’re spying on me,” Natasha says. She isn’t angry; it’s a simple statement of fact.

Clint grins. “Yup. And I’ll bet you can tell me what I had for breakfast the last three days.”

“You don’t get up in time for breakfast.” Half the time Clint doesn’t get up early enough for a shower either, and he comes to their morning briefings smelling of sleep.

“True.” Clint picks up the book and taps it on the tile countertop, and Natasha knows he won’t be diverted easily. He never is, when he’s genuinely interested in a question. “You’ve been here six weeks and all you ever do is spar and clean your guns. Now you can’t put this book down. What gives?”

Natasha surveys the empty locker room. She doesn’t know why she reads here. The main door is the only exit, and Clint is standing right in front of it. But maybe it’s better that she can’t escape. Truth will cement her place here. With Clint.

“It’s about a girl who was taken when she was young,” she says, making sure she looks Clint in the eye. Red Room had taught her that showed sincerity. “Humbert Humbert said she was old enough, that she wanted it. He took her identity, and she never really got it back.”

Clint can hold her gaze, unlike most people here. “You got away, Nat. This book isn't your story.”

He doesn’t stay long enough to make her respond, which Natasha appreciates. What could she have said? If Lolita isn’t her story, she doesn’t know what is.

2.
There's no library at mission HQ in the Taklamakan Desert, so Natasha helps herself to the other agents' books instead.

"Wasn't Hill reading this on the plane?" Clint asks, plucking The Handmaid's Tale from the makeshift table next to her cot.

Natasha shrugs. "She's read it before. See how the spine is creased?" Hill also dog ears the pages, which Natasha thinks is an unpardonable sin.

"Do you have any idea how annoying it isto steal someone's book while they're reading it?" Clint asks. "I'm taking this back."

Natasha trips him and snatches the book back from his hands. "You lost my place," she says. She curls on the bed, ignoring Clint's wounded look. "I need to know what happens to Offred. I'll bring it back first thing in the morning."

***

Natasha flings the book onto Hill's desk promptly at eight. "I don't like the ending," she snaps.

“I don’t like that you stole my book out of my bag,” Hill counters. Her expression is half exhaustion and half are you fucking kidding me, a combination that reminds Natasha of Mother Russia.

“Borrowed,” Natasha corrects. “Now I’m giving it back.” SHIELD searches her bag before every field mission -- as if she’d be stupid enough to smuggle secrets among her underthings -- so Natasha doesn’t think Hill has much right to protest.

Something like a smile flickers on Hill's tired face, and she says, "Alright, I'll bite. Are you pissed because you don't really know what happened to Offred?"

"No." Requiring a definite ending is childish; real stories aren't that neat. "I'm angry with the professor. The way he spoke about her...it was like she was a thing to be dissected."

Hill is really smiling now. "You sound like my roommate at Sarah Lawrence. She thought it symbolized how women's stories are appropriated and debated by men." Three of the six phones on Hill's desk ring all at once, and she winces at Natasha. "Some other time, okay?"

Clint follows Natasha out of the tent. When they're out of earshot, he says, "I know you want to know what happened to Offred. She got away."

Natasha stops in the middle of the path, and little clouds of dust rise up around her black boots. "There is absolutely no textual evidence to support that, Barton."

Clint stops too. "Her mind was free. Everyone with power tried to make her a tool, and she kept being a person. She kept hoping and living. That's freedom."

***

When they get back to New York HQ, Hill hands her a book called Alias Grace. Natasha hasn't heard of it, but it's by the same woman who wrote The Handmaid's Tale. She reads it in the canteen at lunch, and Hill sits next to her and asks what she thinks. It's the first time she's looked at Natasha like she's more than a weapon.

3.
Natasha raids Clint's bookshelves on Tuesdays. Sometimes he's home, sometimes he's not. Today he's sitting on the couch, feet propped on the milk crate coffee table, drinking a beer and watching her. As if seeing her choose a new book is a spectator sport.

Her hand pauses at an unfamiliar red cover. She drags the book off the shelf.

"The Hunger Games? Seriously, Clint? This is for sixteen-year-old girls." Last week he'd been reading Gravity's Rainbow. She feels betrayed.

"It's about a girl who kills things with a bow and arrow. You're surprised I want to read it?" Clint takes a drink of his beer, and Natasha watches his Adam's apple bob up and down. "There's lots of violence and death. You'd like it."

"I would not like it," Natasha says, slotting the book back into the shelf. "I don't read children's books."

Clint snorts. "When did you become a high and mighty professor of literature? Look, I'll make you a bet. You read it, and if you like it, you have to read Twilight."

Natasha raises an eyebrow. "What's in it for me?"

"I'll read all the Russian literature you want."

"Without complaint?"

"Not even if it's a thousand pages long."

"Done," Natasha says. She can read one children's book in exchange for a good conversation about The Brothers Karamazov. She hasn't had a good discussion of Russian literature since she was Nadezda Radecki fucking oil tycoons.

***

Coulson plucks a copy of Mockingjay from her gym bag three days later.

"Barton has you reading this shit?" he asks, eyebrows raised.

"It's not shit," Natasha says. She frowns. "Well, not completely."

Coulson shakes his head. "No, this book is total shit. The first book was brilliant, I'll give you that. The second one was alright. This one though" -- he tosses the book onto her gym socks with a look of disgust" -- "is a complete train wreck."

Natasha frowns. President Snow's weaponry was one step above sharks with laser beams on their heads, but that hardly invalidated the whole book. "You don't know what you're talking about. This book is true." She shifts the book to a cleaner corner of her bag, making sure the bookmark is still in the right place. "People want these neat heroic stories with happy endings, but revolution isn't like that. It takes sacrifice. People do things they regret, things they can't be forgiven for, and they have to live with them for the rest of their lives. I'm surprised an American children's writer had the courage to admit that."

Clint steps out a darkened corner of the locker room, holding a camera phone in front of him. Natasha looks from him to Phil and back again, understanding slowly dawning.

"You set me up," she says. "Bastards."

Phil is smiling. "Yup. And we got your impassioned defense on video, by the way."

Clint hands her a copy of Twilight with a flourish. It's a collector's edition, adorned with a larger-than-life illustration of Edward's sparkling face. "Read it and weep," he says.

"And throw up in your mouth a little," Phil adds.

Clint passes her the camera phone. "Make sure you get your reaction on tape."

4.
Natasha reads Code Name Verity two days after Budapest. In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Clint awakens with a start when she pads into the bedroom she and Cilnt have only just begun to share.

"It's me," she murmurs, and Clintt loosens his grip on something under his pillow.

"Sorry," he mutters. "It was only a knife."

Natasha smiles faintly. "No loaded guns in the bedroom." She perches on the edge of the bed.

"What's wrong?" Clint asks, his voice still thick with sleep.

"In Budapest, if Red Room had taken me, would you have killed me?" she asks.

Clint rolls over onto his side, propping himself up with an elbow. "They didn't take you, Nat. You got away."

"I know. Best fight of my life." She smiles in the dark, her tongue probing the gap where two of her teeth used to be. But she isn't ready to be happy yet. "If they had taken me, would you have killed me?"

The streetlights shining through their bedroom window are dim, but she can see Clint grimace in their dull yellow light. He pulls himself up beside her, wraps his hands around her upper arms. She counts the callouses against her bare skin.

"Nat, I -- No. Absolutely not."

Wrong answer. Natasha jerks back.

"Promise me, Clint." Her eyes are fire. "If Red Room ever takes me, you shoot me. I will not be their slave again. Not even for an hour."

Clint tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. "How about this? I promise you will die a free woman."

5.
"This job is destroying my literary taste," Natasha says, taking the book from Phil's outstretched hand. Okay, maybe she actually snatches it. It's not that she actually likes Harry Potter, or that she's stayed up the past five nights reading the first six books (although Red Room's sleep deprivation training had certainly come in handy). It's just that it's impossible to read a story that long without wanting to know the end.

"It's sort of Russian when you think about it," Phil says. "You know, long and tragic."

"It was the fifth book that hooked her," Clint says. "Pages upon pages of misery."

"Shut up." Natasha flicks the book open right where she's standing. "I'm trying to read."

***

"I cried when Hermione died," Hill tells her.

"Fuck you," Natasha says. When Hill is gone, she flips frantically through the pages, making sure that she can see Hermione's name right up to the end. That's when she discovers that pages 324 to 559 are missing.

Hill looks gratifyingly terrified when Natasha drops from the ceiling of the fourth floor ladies' room. Well, for a second anyway. Her poker face is as smooth as ever by the time she speaks.

"What the fuck, Romanov? If you need a target to stalk, we've got a whole practice gym set up in the basement."

"I know. I don't need it." She takes a step closer to Hill. "Mutilating my books is dangerous, Agent Hill."

Hill doesn't step back. "Are you threatening a superior officer? Because I thought we went over this six months ago. You said you understood."

"I did," Natasha says evenly. "That was before someone stole two hundred pages of my Harry Potter book."

Natasha has never seen Agent Hill laugh. Smirk, maybe, or even snicker, but she's never seen anything like this -- doubled over, helpless, in danger of tears pouring downn her cheeks. Quite vulnerable to an assassination attempt, if Natasha weren't so shocked. Or so desperate to get the missing pages back.

"Wasn't me," Hill says, gasping. "But I wish it were."

***

She finds the missing pages in Fury's trash can two hours later, so she takes them to the break room to read. Revenge can wait.

She's stirring a little spoonful of raspberry jam into her tea when Kristen from statistics comes in to rinse a coffee cup.

"Wasn't it sad when Snape got cancer?" she sighs. Then she covers her mouth with her hand. "Oh shit, were you not there yet?"

Natasha doesn't even dignify that with a response. There's no way Snape got cancer. She reads a little faster just in case.

***

Clint finds her in his usual hiding place, a corner of the ventilation shaft where you can feel the warmth rising from SHIELD's laundry room.

"What are you doing up here?" he asks.

"Everyone was trying to ruin the ending." She traces her fingers over the cover and considers how much she doesn't want to believe that everyone at SHIELD dislikes and mistrusts her. It's not like her to care what other people think. "Why did they do that? Even the epilogue is missing."

Clint snorts. "I did that. Trust me, you're better off without it."

"That's a lot of trust," Natasha says. Trusting Clint with her life is one thing; trusting him so much she skips the last chapter of a book is another. "Now really tell me why everyone was trying to ruin the book."

"They weren't trying to ruin it," Clint says. His voice is slow and patient, like he's explaining something to a child or a new recruit. "They were welcoming you to the team. Fucking with you is how they say you're one of them."

Natasha raises her eyebrows. "And now I fuck with them to say I accept my position?"

"Pretty much," Clint says. "So do you want to talk about Harry Potter or plan an elaborate prank?"

"Harry Potter," she says, leaning against Clint. The ventilation shaft is tight, not really meant for two, but then, Clint had been sleeping in a twin bed when she met him -- they were good at fitting into small spaces together.

"All right. Who's your favorite character?" Clint asks.

"Snape," Natasha says. Of course the spy was her favorite; she'd read seven books about obnoxious teenagers to find out what happened to him. "He was reprehensible, but he was good in the end."

Their eyes meet. Clint's smile is soft. "And it was love that saved him in the end."

"Love is for children," Natasha says.

Clint tightens his arm around her. "I know," he says. "So was the Hunger Games, but you liked it in the end."