14: War Path
"You need more kindling, don't you?"
Clint looked up from the fireplace at her quiet question, shifting over so that she could crouch down beside him. "No," he said, scrunching up his face. "I just need some decent matches."
"You need something that will actually catch fire," she replied, poking one of the logs he'd tossed in there.
"Oh, you're a fire expert now, are you?" he asked sarcastically.
"No," she snapped back. "Bet I know more than you though."
He stared at her for a minute, then his fireplace, and then slumped down, defeated. "I need more kindling," he admitted with a heavy sigh.
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I noticed."
"What if we put newspaper in there?" he asked.
She considered it. "Might work," she agreed with a nod. He upped and disappeared, returning a moment later with several sheets of newspaper, which he balled up and poked into the fireplace before taking up his matches once more.
Ten minutes later, he leaned back, admiring the fire now dancing in the fireplace, licking at the heavy logs that were stacked there. From her vantage point on one of the couches, Imogen gave him a short, sarcastic round of applause. "Hey Clint?" she said, once she'd finished. He hummed in reply, turning to look at her. "Can we be friends again?"
He grinned, dropping onto the other side of the couch and giving her a good-natured shove. "Always were kid," he said. "Not my fault you decided not to talk to me for a week."
"Well maybe if people decided to treat me like an adult every now and then, it wouldn't bug me so much when you all think I'm a child."
"Hey." He caught her eye, grabbed her chin gently and made her look at him. "It's just a nickname, yeah? I know you're not a kid."
She pulled out of his grip. "You lied to me like I was a little kid," she muttered unhappily. "You couldn't just tell me that Natasha didn't believe me? That she put you up to it? Warned you off trusting me?"
"And what would you have done if I did?" he asked hotly. She had no answer for him, but he had plenty for her. "You'd have run off to confront her or something, because that's the sort of person you are, Imogen."
"You still could have told me, instead of telling me you don't trust me, don't believe me. You'd have gotten the same answers."
"We're spies and assassins, Imogen. We don't trust anyone."
She sighed. "I just thought…as my friend, you'd at least realise that I have no reason to go back to HYDRA and a brother who apparently now thinks I'm nothing but a lost possession of his." A deep scowl slowly etched itself into her face as she leaned back into the couch. "Especially since you were right next to me for that whole thing."
Clint stared at her. He was silent for a long time, mulling it over, almost looking as if he was expecting her to continue. She didn't take the chance, just sat quietly and stared at his peeling floral wallpaper.
"Yeah, you're right," he admitted finally.
"I know I'm right," she replied haughtily.
"Well…" He hesitated, like he didn't know quite what to say next. "How about this? I won't lie to you again. Ever. Promise. As long as you promise not to go storming off as soon as I tell you something."
She'd heard that one before, slipping from so many mouths, right before they threw one more thing in her face. I'd never lie to you, they all said. You know that. And then they did. Every time. Even Will had promised he was telling the truth, time and time again, when really he was just spinning a web of lies around her whole life, and everything she'd thought was concrete was just a spider's silken blanket.
But this was Clint, this was different. They'd decided not to kill each other, driven across the country, fought off HYDRA. He'd been the one who first showed her the web, who'd driven her to tear it down and Will with it. If he was different than everyone else, maybe his promises would end differently too.
"Okay," she said slowly, nodding in agreement.
He leant forward and prodded the fire with a short stick. "I'd still really like to know what this Item 548 business is about," he said casually. "Since we're being honest and everything."
"You need intel if you want to learn anything," came a new voice. Natasha met Clint's eye and then ventured into the room, dropping into an armchair.
"There is none," Imogen replied. "Or at least, there wasn't any in the files that were dumped on the internet."
Natasha shrugged. "Not everything can be found in files," she said. "There's usually at least one person who remembers. Give the right person the right persuasion, and you can learn whatever you want."
Clint must have seen something in her eyes, because he suddenly looked alarmed, dropping the stick and standing. "No," he said abruptly, staring her down.
"No what?" Natasha asked innocently.
"You are not going after HYDRA for information."
"Never said I was."
He breathed a deep sigh, and then sat down again. "Good."
"Well, I think it's a great idea," Imogen interjected, leaning forward and looking at Clint. He just shook his head. "Why not?" she asked. "I know this…thing…might not exactly be at the top of your list of priorities, but it sounds pretty important to me. I'd like to know the truth, if you don't mind."
"We've got a safe place here," Clint replied. "What if they capture you? Or follow you back here and destroy everything?"
"I don't care," she replied, with such force that any doubt she'd been feeling was driven straight from her mind. "I just want to know. Don't you know like, Tony Stark and that? You're Avengers, I'm pretty sure you could find somewhere to go."
"Clint's right," Natasha said, cutting her off. "We're better off staying here, waiting it out."
She huffed a sigh and leant back again, turning away from both of them. Her eyes fell on the window, on the darkening world outside, and the car parked below the porch. An idea blossomed in her mind; immediately, she abandoned all argument in favour of the new plan.
Clint eyed her suspiciously for a moment, but eventually shrugged it off and moved on to something else. She sat quietly as he and Nat talked, staring into the fire and planning.
At midnight, she moved.
Clint didn't even stir as she crept past his room and down the stairs. There was no sound from Natasha either, situated in the room by the back door. She went the other way, to the kitchen, where she knew Clint kept a handful of coins and bank notes on top of the fridge (which turned out to be a substantial amount of money, she realised as she helped herself to his stash).
Slipping out the front door, she shut it quietly behind her and drew her coat closer, shivering in the cold night. She went as quickly as she dared to the car, footsteps muffled by the long grass underfoot, and balled herself into the driver's seat as fast as she could, turning on the heater before the frosty night had the chance to soak through to her bones.
"Thought you'd try something like this."
She jumped at the voice behind her, swore, and then turned to see Natasha sitting in the back seat, one delicate eyebrow raised at her choice of words. "Thought you were sleeping," was what Imogen came up with in reply, turning back around.
There was silence, and then a quiet rustling as Natasha climbed through to the front, sliding into the passenger's seat gracefully and adjusting the heaters. "Where are you going?"
Nowhere, she almost said, and hated herself for it. No more lying, she'd said. If only she could stick to her own ideals. "I'm going to find my brother," she said instead.
"And then what?"
"And then he'll tell me what 548 is."
"Well that sounds like a solid plan," Natasha said dryly.
"I'm working on it."
"Do you even know where he is?"
Imogen paused, sensing a trap. "Not yet," she said slowly. She could feel the redhead's disapproving stare burning through her, and fixed her eyes on the steering wheel instead. "I'm good at finding people," she mumbled, in response to an unanswered question.
"You're going to get yourself killed." The words were cold and emotionless; simple fact, the hard truth. Just as she preferred.
"Maybe," Imogen replied, trying to be just as detached. "Didn't know you cared so much."
"Why are you here then?"
Natasha didn't answer, and slowly Imogen turned to look at her. Red hair fell to hide her down-turned face, dark, looking a lot like blood in the half-light. Red was befitting of a woman such as the Black Widow, she thought, in a horrific kind of way. Was befitting of a certain archer she knew too, though unlike the Widow, he didn't wear it as a marker of who he was and what he'd done, kept far away from it. The Hawk played the fool – the Widow played nothing but danger.
"Have you ever killed someone?"
The question caught Imogen by surprise. "No," she replied after a moment. Not yet, she added in her head, because she'd been so very prepared to kill Clint, to kill the guards the night she'd left HYDRA, if she'd had to. Because someday, without a doubt, she would be a killer, whether she liked it or not.
"That's why I'm here."
Imogen frowned, confused. "You're here because I've never killed anyone?"
"I'm here because you're inexperienced."
"Yes. And for some reason, Barton has decided to hold himself responsible for you. He's been teaching you to shoot, hasn't he?" Imogen nodded. "He doesn't need another death to blame himself for."
"But this has nothing to do with him."
"He'll still hold himself responsible."
A flicker of doubt came to life. She trod on it immediately. This mission she'd appointed herself wouldn't end in death. Will wouldn't kill her, surely not. It would end in the truth, and then she'd come back. She'd barely be gone a day, if everything went right.
"I'm still going," she said decisively.
"I know." At her look, Natasha shrugged. "Clint told me you were stubborn. I know you're not going to be talked out of this."
"So I'm coming with you."
Imogen almost refused, immediately opened her mouth to tell Natasha that no, she was not coming; and then thought better of it and closed her mouth again. It could be helpful having someone else. Would be helpful. Even though she'd never seen Natasha fight, she'd heard stories. Knew not to underestimate her. There were few people better to have on your side than Natasha.
"Okay," she said finally, and started the car.
It was only once they were on the main road that either woman spoke again.
"Any improvements to that plan of yours?" Natasha asked.
The words were innocent enough, but Imogen could hear the sarcasm underneath and responded in kind. "If you've got any better ideas, don't be afraid to speak up."
"I have several ideas," Natasha said.
"Well for starters, get well away from the farm," the redhead instructed. "Then, we make them come to us."
"How're you going to do that?"
"You know your brother's phone number?" Imogen nodded, and Natasha gave her a wolf's grin, propping her feet up on the dash. "We're going to give him a call."
Several towns onward, in a dim, overcast morning, they stood in front of an old payphone. "You know what to do?" Natasha asked, to which Imogen nodded and picked up the phone. She dropped several coins into its belly and dialled.
He almost didn't pick up at all; when he did, on the final ring, she could hear the murmur of numerous conversations in the background. Will had a whole team with him still, it would seem.
"Haylock," he said in way of a greeting, all business. For now.
"Hello Will," Imogen said.
"Imogen." His voice dropped to a flat and emotionless tone. There was a scuffling sound, a muffled question, and then silence.
"Oh, you still know my name," she said dryly. "That's a nice surprise."
"What are you calling me for?" he sighed. "I thought you were off playing with the Hawk."
Her lip curled in distaste. "I want to know what Item 548 is." She glanced at Natasha, who nodded encouragement. "And don't just say it's me, or lie to me like you usually do. No avoiding the question."
He laughed. "Why would I tell you? My advantage is in your ignorance."
There was a beep and a voice in the background. "You're an idiot, Imogen," Will crowed suddenly in her ear.
She took a deep breath. "What makes you say that?"
"We had no idea where you were, you know. Now? We're coming for you. We know exactly where you are."
"Oh, you tracked a payphone. Well done."
"You're too cocky. It'll bring you down." His voice was dripping with venom, hissing down the line like a snake. "We're coming for you. You can run if you like, but you won't be able to run forever. We'll get you soon." The words sent a chill down her spine, just as the line went dead. She put the phone down, and took a step away, staring at it still.
"Did he buy it?" Natasha asked.
"Yeah," Imogen replied. "They're coming."