She was Item 548. Whatever that meant, apart from being a possession of HYDRA and one that that wanted back.
Something to do with her parents, from the things she'd read on Will's laptop all those days ago. Something that had brought every important person she'd ever had to her life, and then ripped them away again. All except Will, from whom she'd ripped herself, once she'd had enough. And all except Clint. If he counted as important, which, she grudgingly admitted, he just might.
Imogen looked at him now, slouched in his seat as he drove past a pale sunset, his eye slowly swelling up. There was still blood on his lip from where he'd cut it, dried now, and light bruising on the cheek turned away from her. His dark blonde hair was more ruffled than usual, sticking out in all directions. She suspected he had bruising somewhere on his midriff too – every movement he made was stiff and uncomfortable, though he was unusually quiet about it and not stopping.
This was all her fault, it dawned on her slowly. Even though she'd denied it in the hotel, this was her fault. If she'd just kept to herself, just found it in herself to ignore her brother's taunts, or just thrown the stupid phone out of the window, then Clint wouldn't be blackened and bloodied, or staring at the road in stony, wearied silence.
Throwing it out the window. The idea wasn't unappealing. The bag was at her feet, as was everything else, and the phone was tucked in an outer pocket, mercifully silent now that it had run out of battery. She stopped, looked at it for a moment – she'd saved for months to buy one of these things – then caught Clint's questioning eyes and berated herself. It was a stupid thing to get sentimental about, especially when she could buy a thousand others that were exactly the same, minus her brother's influence. Was he still ringing, she wondered idly, or did he know that she would not answer, would never answer again so long as it was him that was calling. She would never know the answer (so of course it itched at her even more, as all unanswered questions did).
The window wound down at the press of a button, letting a freezing wind inside to snatch any warmth from the heaters and carry it away, snapping blonde curls across her face as it went. She shoved them out of her eyes, shivering in the cold wind, and flung the phone out without a second thought. She didn't see it land, didn't see it bounce and shatter and roll away into the bushes. She didn't even see it fly – one moment it was there, the next it was gone. Clint wound up the window.
The radio wasn't playing, so she cleared her throat to grab his attention instead, already feeling thoroughly uncomfortable with the situation. "Clint…" she began, trailing off.
"You didn't have to do that," he said, speaking for the first time since stealing the car.
"I wanted to,' she replied. "Sorry…about, well, everything."
"It's okay. I get it." He shrugged. "It's hard to give up family."
For the first time since meeting him, Imogen wondered what kind of family Clint had. Just from his voice, the way his fingers tightened on the steering wheel, she could tell that he had some, but didn't want to talk about it any further. She decided not to press.
The day passed.
At some point in the afternoon, Clint turned away from the cities and into the wide, rolling hills of the countryside. She didn't ask, just stared out the window as hour after hour rolled away with the hills.
In the golden light of the day's sunset, they finally arrived.
Clint, as it turned out, had been heading for his personal bolt hole the whole time – she'd just been caught up in his flight. Turned out he owned a big old ranch house in the middle of nowhere (well, not the middle of nowhere, he corrected her later; apparently it was only twenty minutes further to actual civilization), complete with barns and stock yards just metres from the house. Cattle grazed peacefully out the other side, and she even spotted a horse or two out along the road as they approached.
Their conversation from the pool the other night came to mind. "You really are a farmer," she said, eyes on the window, drinking it all in.
"Don't sound so surprised," Clint said, looking offended. "I'm great at farming." He pulled up in front of the house and killed the engine. Almost immediately, a brown dog came streaking out from under the house, jumping up to look through the window at him with a lolling grin on its face. A smile breaking out over his otherwise grim face, Clint shoved the door open and climbed out, crouching down to wrap his arms around the dog. "Hey Lucky."
Rolling her eyes, Imogen climbed out as well, bundling bows and arrows and bags in her arms (because there was obviously no way Clint was going to bring it all in while that dog was around to distract him). She dumped it all on the top step of the house, sitting herself down next to it and resting her chin in her hands, watching the archer and his dog. A moment later, the screen door behind her slammed, making her jump and turn – only to come face to face with two bare feet and the bottom of a pair of black sweats. Looking up, she found herself staring straight into the eyes of a fierce redhead – boldly, she did not turn her eyes away. Her instinct told her she would regret it later.
"Who are you?" the woman asked, looming over her.
"Imogen Haylock," she said, in a tone that was as pleasant as it was sarcastic. "Who are you?"
"None of your business," came the clipped reply. "What are you doing here?"
"No idea," Imogen sighed, pointing to Clint. "That idiot kidnapped me."
"Did he force you to wear that shirt as well?" The question was meant to be sarcastic. She had to nod.
"Nat!" Clint came striding up to them, the dog bounding ahead of him to sniff at Imogen. Giving up on the redhead, she turned to face Clint instead, reaching out to pet the dog – Lucky, he'd called it – as she did. The other woman was quick to descend the few porch steps to meet him, promptly smacking him upside the head. "Ow," he complained, backpedalling and rubbing his head. "What was that for?"
"For disappearing, you idiot," she just about growled. "Where the hell have you been?"
"…busy?" he tried hopefully. She didn't buy it. His whole body sagged in a quick defeat. "Fine. I wasn't busy."
"Just one phone call would have been enough, Clint…"
"Hey, I could say the same thing. I was undercover. In Poland. Do you know how hard it is to get from Poland to America without being spotted by HYDRA or one of the millions of people who saw your face online?"
"Why didn't you just stay in Poland?" Imogen asked, interrupting his building rant before it could reach it's peak.
"And then, just when I think I'm off the grid, they send this snarky little kid to kill me."
"She's HYDRA?" The redhead's eyes narrowed as she glanced sharply at Imogen. Clint's gaze followed soon after; suddenly, with these two people staring at her, she felt very exposed. Sensing it, the dog pressed in against her side, licking her cheek with a rough, wet tongue. Making a noise of disgust, he pushed him away before he could further cover her in slobber. He didn't seem fazed. It only had one eye, she saw now; she'd ask Clint about that later, maybe.
"Not anymore," the archer said finally, with a decisive nod.
"Alright then." She didn't sound convinced. Still, her eyes turned away from Imogen, focusing back in on Clint. "What happened to you?"
"We ran into HYDRA earlier this morning," Imogen interjected when Clint hesitated. The redhead smacked him again; gentler though, her cold features slowly melting. "So who are you?"
"Imogen," Clint sighed, before composing himself again. "This is Natasha Romanoff, otherwise known as the Black Widow."
"Oh," was all she could manage in reply. The dog licked her again.
"Anyway. Got any coffee?" he asked Natasha, stifling a yawn as he did.
"It's your house Barton," she reminded him.
"Oh." He thought about it a minute. "Did you drink all my coffee?"
Rolling her eyes, Imogen left them to it, wandering into the house with the dog hot on her heels, wheedling his way through the door just before it closed. She found the kitchen almost immediately and set a battered old kettle to boil, searching out what was left of Clint's coffee supply and setting it on the counter too. She pulled herself up to sit on the bench then, Lucky dropping to the floor right under her feet. Golden sunlight burst through the window to set the room on fire, turning the few loose strands of hair in front of her eyes into liquid gold. Outside, gentle green hills rose into the sunset in a view some people would kill for. She leant back, and let a smile creep onto her face. They had been right to come here. This was a good place.
She looked up, blinking against the full force of the freshly risen sun to see Clint beckoning from the barn, motioning for her to come to him. With a sigh, she put down the book she'd been reading and wandered over. As she approached, she noticed the bow in his hand and a quiver half-filled with arrows at his side. "You better not have called me over here to be a moving target or something," she said dryly.
"Now why would I do that?" Clint replied with a grin, leading her around the side of the barn, where she discovered a makeshift shooting range made of large roll bales of hay, set at various distances, and a few crude lines in the dirt. A small cluster of arrows sat in the very centre of each roll, evidence of Clint's flawless shooting.
Before she could say anything snappy, he held the bow out to her. She glanced between him and the weapon, confused. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Well, you keep taking my bow," he said. "Thought I should at least teach you how to use it."
"Oh." Slowly, she reached out and took it from him; as always, it was a comfortable weight in her hand, even if she had no idea how to utilise it the way it was designed for. "So you're a farmer and an archery teacher? It's like all your dreams are coming true."
"Hey, at least I know what I want to do with my life." He handed her an arrow, nodding his approval as she easily nocked it. "You didn't even have a decent answer."
At a motion from Clint, she lifted the bow and drew back, earning a frown from her instructor. "What?" she asked, slowly releasing the tension in the bow.
"Use your shoulders to draw back," he said, miming pulling back a bowstring. "You won't get anywhere near a full draw just using your arms. He chuckled. "Never get full draw anyway with that bow; you're nowhere near strong enough."
She made a noise of protest as she drew again, trying to use her shoulders as he'd said, and getting further as a result. She glanced at him, expecting the smug grin most people she knew would have worn at that, but he was stoic, with nothing but a quiet nod as he assessed her position.
For a moment, he buzzed around her, correcting the way she stood and the way she was handling the weapon. When he was happy with what he saw, he pointed to the nearest bale. "That one," he instructed. "As close to the centre as you can get."
She adjusted her aim, and let the bowstring slip from her fingers. The arrow shot straight past the hay. "Again," Clint said immediately, handing her another arrow and repeating the process. It fell harmlessly in the dirt just like the first one, well away from any kind of target. So did the next four.
She dropped her bow hand, shoving the other one in her pocket. "This is stupid," she muttered unhappily, kicking at a tuft of grass and eyeing his perfect spreads. "I suck at this."
He fixed her with a steely glare. "Are you quitting on me?"
"Never said I wanted to do this in the first place," she bit back.
"Didn't think you were a quitter," he mused, ignoring her. "Took you for a fighter. Maybe I was wrong."
"Teach me to fight then. I'm useless at archery."
"Don't be dumb Imogen. You know how to fight. Eventually you'll know how to shoot." A hint of mischief flickered to life in his eyes. "Even if you're only ever average." He held out another arrow and, sullenly, she took it. The shot she took was angry and poorly set up – and so, of course, it went skidding into the dirt just like all the others.
Clint was unimpressed. "Well if you're going to shoot like that from now on then yeah, I give up," he said. At the unimpressed look on her face, he sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Look, just calm down. It'll take some practice, yeah, but you'll get there eventually."
She stared at him for a moment, and then reached over and plucked an arrow from the quiver by his side, nocking and drawing with slow, smooth movements that weren't quite learned yet. A deep breath passed through her, her first finger reaching out to touch the corner of her mouth as she turned the arrowhead towards the bullseye. When she was good and ready, the string slipped from her fingers, the arrow jumping from the bow, and she stood frozen to watch its flight.
It buried itself in the hay, nowhere near the centre, but still a hit. She looked at Clint, grinning suddenly, and he smiled back, nodding. He held out his quiver. She took it. "Keep practicing," he told her, before wandering away.
She drew another arrow.