All happy families are the same.
She remembers Tolstoy in pieces, the words coming back to her in flashes, bringing back a time when ink on a page and a ribbon around her finger was all that was holding her together. Dirt underneath her fingernails and snow in her boots, gun heavy on her back, but she might as well have been miles away in pre-Revolution Moscow, warm and safe, and that's what she'd loved most about it.
There were no books, not later, and objectively, she understands why they did it. Stories would have let her know that there's another world beyond the Red Room, would have given her something to yearn for in the dark.
It's just another grievance to add to the long list of grievances, of pains suffered that can never be repaid. If she lets herself dwell upon them for too long, she will go insane, will give into the yawning rage that still lingers deep within her, and so she chooses not to - she lets it go.
Still, some days, she finds herself missing it. Not the war, never the war, but how young she once was and how easy it used to be for her to get absorbed in a good story, to let herself get carried away.
Maria Hill has a passion for historical non-fiction. She can always be found reading on the plane on the way towards a mission, the details of Nick Fury's eponymous information files already long-since committed to memory. It starts as the best of 20th century war novels, with Stephen Ambrose classics that Natasha has no real interest in.
It becomes more varied after that. Tomes on the Golden Age of Muslim Invention and slim paperbacks on the life of Queen Elizabeth I.
"I was a history major in college," Maria admits when she catches Natasha eyeing a cover of one of her books with interest. "I know - if my family knew what I did, they would make all of the jokes about history majors never getting jobs that have anything to do with their field that they could."
Natasha shrugs noncommittally. "With SHIELD, any information could be useful at some point."
Maria smiles and returns to her book. They don't say much for the remaining flight but not long after, Maria starts passing on her books to Natasha when she's done with them, "for the sake of useful information," she says firmly before Natasha can say anything in return.
It's good for her, winding down from a mission, bruises still sore and muscles tight, to perch on the fire escape in her apartment and get lost a little. Often, she returns home in the middle of the night and reads by a single lamplight until dawn comes up. Often, it is information that she already knows, having absorbed it in one way or another over the years. Other times, it is a perspective that she was never allowed the privilege to consider during the years when the Soviet Union loomed large in her consciousness.
There are nights when, as the words swim before her eyes and exhaustion threatens to take over, she amuses herself idly by imagining what Maria the history major would have been like.
Natasha thinks that she must have been a force to reckon with, to have the kind of passion that allows her to devour so many books on the subject so many years later.
(They've always had that in common, after all).
Stark has hundreds upon hundreds of science textbooks and journals, all annotated with his furious scrawl to the point of illegibility. It explains a lot about him, a helpful note in her observation, but ultimately useless to her.
Pepper has a library crammed full of Shakespeare and Mary Shelley and so many other classics, and it is tempting to pull one down from the shelf and settle in on the comfy chair in the corner, Pepper's own private haven, but that's not what she's here for, and so Natasha moves on.
(The mission has always come first).
Clint likes trashy romance novels, the type that can be found next to the magazine stand in airport bookstores. The blush that colors his cheeks when she catches him reading one is a priceless moment, one she files away with her other favorite memories. She crosses her heart and promises not to tell anyone, a mocking smile stealing across her lips, but she means it - her good memories are few and far in between but they are hers, and she keeps them carefully close to the vest.
(Once, in the dead of night, the Winter Soldier whispered secrets into her shoulder. He spoke of a story about wizards and dwarves and journeys, enchanting details the likes of which she'd never heard. He'd said he could feel the details just beyond his consciousness, scrabbling to get closer, but there is so much that he didn't know about himself and it scared him sometimes to think of it.
This, she does not think on often, for the thought of it leaves her feeling shattered, the way the lost look in his eyes had matched the scattered pieces of her own mind and it is too much to know that she had once had so little control over her life, a jagged unhealed wound on her soul).
She keeps her own apartment in the city, regardless of Stark's clumsy but endearing attempts to invite her to join the others at Avengers Tower. She finds herself spending entirely too much time there anyways, whether it be hours in the lab listening as Bruce explains whatever his latest experiment is in that intent way of his or hours of conversation with Thor, who has a refreshingly otherworldly perspective that amuses and galls her in equal measure.
But, if she's being entirely honest with herself, it is the fledgeling friendship with the one-time Captain America that makes it easiest to keep coming back. She always knows where to find him: on the balcony, with a sketchpad, or on the mat in the training room. It is there where they spend the most time, where it is easiest for them to breathe amongst all of the madness. He was there with her on the ground and he saw what she can do against the Chitauri, and so there is none of the expected apprehension about fighting her. They speak in rarely pulled punches and well-timed tackles. She beats him three out of five tries and while she won't deny that it keeps her fighting fit, it's not why she's there, not really.
She knows that in his awkward, emotionally dysfunctional way, Stark views the Avengers as a cobbled together family of sorts. Clint has been closer than blood for years but the others are newer to her - and among them, it is with Steve that this settling, this feeling of family comes easiest.
If only her trainers at the Red Room could see her now, she thinks with more amusement than bitterness.
Today, she finds Steve out on the balcony, sans his usual sketchbook but deeply absorbed in a thick tome.
"Don't tell me, this is part of Nick Fury's infamous cultural immersion program for you."
"Nah, this one's just for me," Steve says, closing the book with a finger holding his place. Natasha catches sight of the cover and quirks an eyebrow at the title, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
"What, aliens weren't exciting enough?"
"I'm just trying to be prepared in case our next mission is dwarves," he jokes. "No, uh. We used to read The Hobbit during the war. When we could, I mean. We didn't have much time to ourselves but when we did. Well, it helped."
Natasha remembers a cold ditch, tree bark hard against her back and her knuckles red where they clutched a dead soldier's copy of Anna Karenina. "I understand."
"Yeah, I suppose you do," Steve says quietly. "You should read it, you know. I think you'd like it."
"What makes you so sure?" Natasha asks teasingly.
"Lucky guess," Steve says.
Natasha makes a thoughtful sound before pushing off from where she was leaning against the balcony railing. "I'll leave you to it, then."
The next day, Natasha walks into the training room at the Avengers Tower. She does not find Steve. She does, however, find Steve's copy of The Fellowship of the Ring sitting innocuously on the training mat.
She sits cross-legged on the ground, opens the book, and begins to read.