Natasha knows her life is over. She had sighted down a weapon with that same expression on her face countless times. Now it's aimed at her. And yet, instead of Death, it's a warm bed. Painkillers. And the wide eyes of a six year old boy.
SAFE AND SOUND
Just close your eyes
The sun is going down.
You'll be all right.
No one can hurt you now.
Come morning light
You and I will be
Safe and sound.
-Safe and Sound, Taylor Swift
The remark echoed through Natasha's head like a bullet through a cave. It never failed. Even in the midst of blistering pain and humiliation, the Direktrisa's scorn always cut through. Especially when she wasn't there to shoot the assailant in the back of the head herself.
A bone-shaking shudder wracked Natasha's frame and she choked. Her stomach muscles contracted, pulling her body into a fetal position. The ice-cold of the wet stone seeped through her whole right side.
Just seconds ago, she'd hurriedly jumped from one slick roof to another, her sopping hair slapping her face. She hadn't slowed down as she raced across the tiles—instead, she'd picked up her pace, arms pumping, and readied to fly across to the next roof through the sheets of pouring rain. She could hear him back there, his feet swift as a cat's, his breath silent…
She had neared the edge, coiled her muscles, jumped—
Her toe had snagged on a low rail.
She'd flipped end over end, lashing out to claw for a window ledge or a gutter—
Right at this moment, now, lying with her face in the mud in the alley, the memory of that landing snap made her gut turn violently. Now, all the muscles in her right leg spasmed, and her vision flickered. She didn't dare peer through the torrents to see at what angle it was folded underneath her…
Bootsteps. No longer trying to be quiet. Sloshing through the puddles toward her.
She twitched, but all she could do was tighten her arms around her chest and break out into fits of shivering. She stared at those boots—they had stopped about ten feet in front of her. She blinked away the water running into her eyes…
Dragged her gaze up to take in the full height of the man who'd been chasing her. The one who'd been inches behind her for a month now.
Finally caught. Just because she hadn't figured out how to jump yet.
He stood completely still. He wore all utility—dark, sleek and functional. Short, dark hair; blunt, unreadable features, and bright eyes that cut right through her. His stance mirrored the blade of a knife, an elegant recurve bow held loosely in his right hand. Part of his body. A quiver of arrows had his back like a quality partner.
For a long time, she didn't think he even breathed.
Then, finally, he reached up, and slid an arrow free.
It sounded like the ring of crystal. It sang harmony with the rush of the rain. He lifted his bow, and set the graceful shaft against it. He drew the bow back. The wood creaked. Sighed.
Natasha lay her head down on the stone again, gulping.
Ow. That hurt. Her face twisted. Her vision blurred.
He aimed at her. Straight at her heart.
Everything went dark, then way too bright again, then fuzzy. The whole world started to tilt…
Images rolled in front of her, mixing together like spilled paint in a river…
A winter morning outside of St. Petersburg. Fields covered in blinding white snow. A towering mansion with gray bricks and frozen pipes…A small, plain white room flooded with light. Another girl, one with bright blue eyes and gold hair. She smiled…
"Katya…" Natasha whispered, her tongue feeling thick. Her mouth kept moving, her voice roughly working, but she lost what she was saying as the arrowhead gleamed silver, winking at her.
"Sloppy, Romanoff. Sloppy."
Her mouth went numb.
His bright eyes saw through her.
The bow creaked again.
And everything went black.
Slurred hissing. It was running water. Or…no. No. Wind through trees…?
No, that wasn't right, either…
Swish, swish, swish…
A reaper through a wheat field…maybe…
She tried to open her eyes.
Nothing happened. Deep inside, she frowned. Tried again.
Nothing. Like they were sealed shut. Like she didn't even have eyes. In fact, her whole head felt like rock. The rest of her body…
Not even there. Couldn't feel a thing. But her head seemed to be resting sideways on something. Something rounded and firm. It jostled her. The bumps thudded through her brain—a bat hitting the wall of a sewer far below…
She drifted in and out of complete blackness and vacuum, but strangely, that alien noise started to sharpen. Her molasses brain took three eternities to identify it, though.
Grass. Someone trudging through high grass.
All right, then. Grab hold of that and pull yourself out of this. Come on, Natasha. Breathe—one, two, three. Breathe—one, two, three…
She focused. Hard. But reality meandered, shifting and swamp-like.
Why wasn't this method working? It always had before—it was her go-to after any head injury or drug…
But she'd never been dead before.
What were the protocols for that?
That question suspended in the air. Sat still. It turned over in her mind…
And all of a sudden, a dart of uncontrollable terror shot through her.
No rational thought came with it. It bashed through her head, shrieking, but it flailed against the walls and couldn't find a way out—
Her eyes stayed sealed, her body insensate, even as she started hearing labored breathing in both ears…the twittering of night birds…the rustle of cottonwood leaves…
A shift. Some sort of dull light against the corner of her consciousness.
Her heart screamed to take off and start crashing against her breastbone, but everything below her collarbone seemed to be missing…
The light solidified in her mind's eye. Pulled closer.
Black, dead trees huddled overhead and grasped each other's knotted hands—and in between them, right in front of her, lurked a low house. A house with two leering windows that spilled sinister orange flamelight. A house whose walls, door and thatch were entirely made of bones.
Dry bones, gnawed by dull teeth and stacked to form frames, support and insulation, gleaming by lamplight, the human skulls grinning as they perched upon corners and posts.
And at the doorstep of this horrific shack waited a hag with blazing yellow eyes and a long hooked nose, draped in rags and skins. She smiled. Her fangs glistened.
"Baba Yaga," Natasha wanted to gasp—but she couldn't pull in enough air.
"Hello, dear! You finally came," the witch's voice, like dead wood rubbing together, sent ice shooting down Natasha's spine. She advanced, cocking her head unnaturally far to the right.
"I'm not coming inside." Natasha still couldn't make her mouth work—but she willed that hag to understand her.
Baba Yaga's eyes widened and her mouth shrank so she looked like a fiendish owl.
"What? Why not? This is your house! You've worked so hard on it! Do come see!" Baba Yaga grasped Natasha's upper arm. Her wiry iron grip tightened, and she dragged her toward the door. With every step, the house seemed to grow, until it loomed over her, the hellish light filling her vision.
I'm dead, Natasha realized. I'm dead, and this is what it's like—this is what's going to happen to me…
"You've done such good work," Baba Yaga praised. "You're one of us now—one of the Widow Witches. And a fine place it is." She leaned closer to Natasha's right ear. Her breath reeked of death. "I will give you a hint, though. The bones are so much better if you crack them and suck out the marrow."
Natasha's skin turned to frost—
Just as the walls began to writhe.
The skulls turned toward her, peering without eyes down at her…
And she knew them.
They had no flesh, no muscle, but she recognized every single one of them. She could list their names.
They all had bullet holes straight through them.
But she made no sound—none at all.
The arm bones broke loose—stretched toward her. The finger bones clattered and hissed as they lashed out, catching her by the arms, the hair, the front of her shirt—
Thud, thud, thud.
Boots on wooden steps. Jostling through her head.
The screech of a screen door swinging open.
The bones, the house, the witch—vanished.
What? A woman! A woman's voice. An American…
"What…What's going on? What happened?"
"Another agent," came the man's voice—hoarse. Completely out of breath. Right above her head—and infinitely more real than that witch's.
"Name's Natalie. She was with me in the field, and it was raining out. She slipped off a roof. Right leg's broken."
"Oh, my—You were able to set it?"
The air changed. Stilled. Jostled again. The door squeaked shut and slapped against the frame.
"Yep, found a quick-fix bunker close by. That brace ought to hold it," he huffed.
More steps. Up. Inside ones…?
"Did she hit her head?" the woman asked, rustling up from behind.
"Nope, I've got her pumped full of some pretty hefty painkillers. Had to, or she would have taken my head off when I tried to set that thing."
They evened out, and he kept walking. They turned…
"She's got to stay here for a while, Laura."
Another shift. The jostling stopped…
Replaced by a deep, soft sinking…
"We'll keep an eye on her. For now, anyway."
Natasha raged against this blindness, against this fog in her brain, against her lead-filled muscles. She had to open her eyes, she had to wake up, she had to get up…
But she sank. Further and further down. Until the voices turned into babble, and fell into silence, leaving two facts standing alone in her head.
I'm not dead.
He saved me.
To be continued…