Natasha threw her covers off and leaped to a standing position before she was fully conscious. She lunged at the window and grabbed the frame, forcing her eyes to adjust—
And trying desperately not to be dazzled by the blinding explosion that had just slammed through the woods.
"That was a bomb," she hissed.
She whirled around. Clint stood in the doorway wearing only pajama pants and boots, but he held his quiver and bow, his eyes bright and alert.
"Where are you going?" she pressed.
"To see what that was. Not too close, though," he said, slinging his quiver across him. "Someone might have tailed me—tripped one of the booby traps I have around the perimeter. Could have just been a deer or something, but I'm not willing to take chances, so I need you here. Laura and Jason have locked themselves in their rooms—that's protocol if something goes wrong."
"Understood," Natasha nodded.
"You keep an eye on them," he ordered. "I'll be right back."
With that, he dashed down the stairs. Natasha hopped after him and grabbed the doorframe, grudgingly admitting that the guy moved about as silent as death. That's why she hadn't heard him come home.
For an irritatingly-long time, she stayed right where she was, keenly aware that Jason's room was only just down the hall to her left. Laura's bedroom was on the main floor, through the living room…
The brush of cloth against the vase in the hall table.
A footstep. Another one.
Way too silent to be Barton's if he was returning because a deer tripped a wire.
Natasha set her teeth.
With silence just as deadly as Barton's, she reached into the closet, and grasped Jason's junior-sized bow. Luckily, he had been playing with it a few days ago and forgotten to loose the string. She took it in her left hand, and put her fingertips on the one arrow in the quiver. He had left the other ones down in the side yard.
She grasped it, and slowly drew it loose.
It sounded like the ring of crystal.
Taking them both firmly in hand, she limped out the door and into the hallway.
She couldn't put any weight on her foot—even though the boot bound it, she knew it would buckle right away. So, she gingerly lowered herself all the way down to the ground, and crawled forward, Army-style, sliding soundlessly along the wood floor to the very edge of the staircase.
And here came the fun part.
She got her good leg under her, slowly raised up, and secured her hold on her weapons. She leaned her rear end against the left hand bannister, took a single breath…
Hopped up, and sat on it.
Instantly, she leaned her upper body sideways, toward upstairs—
She slid, air rushing past her face, flying into the first floor—
She hit the end of the rail, threw her weight—
Spun mid-air, and landed with a ballerina's grace on her left foot. Bent her leg, absorbed the impact…straightened up…
And made no noise at all.
The next second, she had raised the bow, notched the arrow, and sighted down its shaft…
A woman stood in the middle of the living room, all garbed in black. A knife gleamed in her left hand. She walked with purpose, and the tread of a cat.
And in that moment, as this woman edged her way toward Laura's bedroom, Natasha Romanoff's vision turned red.
She drew back the bow. It did not creak.
What a lovely weapon. As secret and stealthy as she.
Took half a breath.
The arrow flashed through moonlight and into darkness.
The woman's arms flung out. She thudded to her knees. The arrow in her back trembled.
Natasha, keeping hold of her bow, smoothly grabbed a kitchen stool and flung it out in of her like a long, swinging cane—she leaped across the distance between them and reached out to grab the woman's shoulder—
The woman spun, lashed out and snatched Natasha's wrist.
And for just one instant, Natasha stared into the ice-gray eyes of her Uchitelnica. The Headmistress of the Krasnaya Komnata.
Natasha's master and owner. Ever since she was born.
Her disdain, her condescension—her relentless, ruthless, dogged persistence. Her heartless methods of training, the pre-dawn exercises in the snow and frost, the initiations, the hooded executions, the broken bones, the burns, the brands, the scars…the graduation ceremony…
It all flashed in front of Natasha, brighter than daylight…
And then it bled through with vivid, living images of gold and lavender, soap suds and Transformers and nightmares and pies and sunrises and sparrows and the laughing eyes of a particularly dear six-year old—
It slashed the air right in front of Natasha's face. She leaped back. Madam bared her teeth, her blonde hair mussed, as she forced herself to her feet and lunged at her.
Natasha picked up the stool in one hand, balanced and swung. Madam knocked it out of the way, but yelped—then stabbed at Natasha.
Natasha dodged. Her hip throbbed in warning.
"My sources told me you had betrayed me," Madam rasped, adjusting her grip on her knife. "I didn't want to believe it. But this…this is proof enough."
"Why are you here?" Natasha bit back.
"I came to rescue you and kill your captors," Madam seethed, eyes blazing. "To save the one I would have called my daughter. But you…you have become weak. Weak—if you would protect this worthless woman and her children."
Natasha's mind staggered. Madam shook her head.
"On second thought," she muttered. "I will kill you first. And then them."
She threw her knife.
Natasha whirled—and fell.
She crashed to the floor, the ghost of the knife whizzing past her hair.
She grimaced, pain shooting all down her side.
"Ha," Madam spat, stalwartly ignoring the arrow sticking out from between her shoulder blades. "Look at you. Look at that leg! Ech, that leg. What good is it now? I didn't know it was this bad, but Natalia, really." She prodded Natasha's hurt leg with her toe. "You should have just killed yourself and been done with it. Then these stupid people would have been safe from you." Madam shook her head. "Ty byla moyei luchshey uchinitcey."
Natasha went still. Stared up at that woman's face. That face which seemed, all at once, like someone she'd never seen in her life. She took a breath. And answered.
Natasha swung her bow.
Struck the back of Madam's knees.
She toppled backward—
Natasha kicked off with her good leg and leaped on top of Madam, throwing all of her weight straight down on her—
They slammed into the floor.
The arrow went all the way through.
Natasha, her whole body shaking, the shaft of the arrow touching her shoulder as she lay on top of Madam, her face inches from hers, bared her teeth.
"You…" she choked, tightening her iron grip. "Will not…touch them."
Madam stared at the ceiling, her mouth gapped open. Seeing nothing.
It took several seconds for Natasha to realize that she wasn't breathing.
Her stomach turning over, Natasha clambered up, grabbing that stool and setting it upright, and sitting down on it, sucking in one desperate breath, then another. Then another.
Staring down at her dead headmistress. The woman who had nursed her, raised her, trained her and taught her everything she knew.
And feeling nothing at all.
Natasha looked over her shoulder—to see Barton charge in, fully intact. The next second, Laura burst out of her bedroom, cast a quick look over the dead body on the floor, grabbed a pillow and threw it over Madam's face, and then found Barton.
"Diversion," he panted. "That explosion out there in the woods—yeah, I was supposed to go after that, apparently. But…" He swiped sweat off his face, and gazed starkly at Natasha. "Looks like my second line of defense was pretty good."
"Yeah, no worries," Natasha waved it off, feeling faint. "I've got it covered. No problem."
Barton didn't tear his eyes from her. And the longer she looked back at him, the more she knew he saw.
But this time, she could see into him, too.
And what she saw made her heart hurt.
She twitched, and glimpsed Jason halfway down the stairs, clutching a teddy bear.
"Don't come down any further, honey," Laura urged, stepping in front of Madam. "There's some broken glass down here. I don't want you cutting your feet."
"What's going on?"
"Some work stuff," Natasha told him, mustering a smile. "Like I said. Just killing the monsters in your dreams."
"Oh," he said, then halfway smiled. "Okay."
Natasha gave him a better smile, then glanced over at Barton.
He was still looking at her, in a way she decided she could get used to. A smile of his own flickered across his face—knowing, grateful, and meant only for her. She returned it, and slowly ducked her head, a light guttering to life in her chest.
Such was the nature of grace.