15: Learning Curves
Natasha taped her shoulder, and Imogen sat up straighter, turning to look at the redhead. "There," she said, nodding at the payphone. A man stood there, receiver held to his ear but his mouth unmoving, eyes scanning the street. The girls faded back farther around their corner as his sweeping eyes passed their way, out of his line of sight and hidden under the long branches of several trees.
"Just the one?" Imogen asked.
Natasha shook her head. "There'll be at least one sniper somewhere high. Pity our own wouldn't come." She felt a flash of guilt for that, and stored it away for later. "I'd say three to four somewhere on the street too, possibly more. They still think you're with Clint after all."
"Is Will in range yet?"
Natasha pulled out her phone, checking the tracking software that was another part of SHIELD's hacking database. It traced phone calls and radio signals and several other things (Imogen wasn't really sure; she was just a field agent, not one of the hackers that created it) within a limited range, and had been searching for Will's phone since they'd made the call.
"I've got him. And he's close."
"Not yet." Imogen glanced at the Widow, a question in her eyes. "You know what to do?" Natasha asked.
The blonde shook her head, and earned a wry smile from her partner. "I'll just have to teach you then." She drew a hood up over her deep red curls, hiding them from plain sight, and started walking, pulling Imogen along with her. "Rule one; don't give him anything until you've got him pinned. No standing and asking, like you did with the phone call. Get him up against a wall or something, put a knife to his throat, and demand."
The image of a sharp silver blade flashed through Imogen's mind, blurred with time but still powerful enough to send a shiver down her spine and set her heart racing. If she thought about it, reached back to that night, she could still feel it pressed against her throat, tearing at her flesh…
She found herself rubbing at her neck, running her fingers along the line of raised scar tissue on her collarbone, and forced her hand to drop. The memory faded as she zeroed in on Natasha. "Not to the throat," she said, in a voice that left no room for argument.
Natasha searched her eyes, and then shrugged. "His heart then. Or a gun to his head. Whatever is most effective."
Imogen nodded, and the redhead held out a knife.
She took it.
Natasha spotted the black van first, two streets on, and dragged Imogen back into the shadow of a building just in time. There were two people outside the van, and once she looked hard enough, Imogen recognised them both. One was Will, who would know her face in a heartbeat if he caught sight of it. The other was the man from the hotel, the one with glasses, who was unsuited for field work. They looked to be arguing, the second one quailing under Will's hard glare. As she watched, he got back into the van, and Will stormed off in the other direction.
"Your brother?" Natasha asked quietly.
"The one that walked off," Imogen affirmed.
She took two steps and then stopped, turning towards the van thoughtfully. "That one knows too," she said.
"How much?" Natasha replied, drawing even with her.
Imogen shrugged. "Don't know. Maybe not everything, but he definitely knows something. He'll be more willing to talk than Will."
"It's your choice."
She only took a moment to consider before turning towards the van. Natasha didn't waste any time catching up to her again, pulling the door open so that Imogen could climb in and knock the man to the ground fast. The redhead herself was there a second later, playing with the bank of computers pressed up against one side of the vehicle.
The man struggled to free himself and rise, almost managing to push her off. She slapped him hard across the cheek, shocking him into submission, and then pulled him up and pinned him back against the wall. The knife, held tight in her right hand, found his ribcage, found the spot where it would slide neatly between the fingers of bone that were meant to protect him, and pierce his heart.
He was smart enough to freeze then, staring at her with wide eyes. She could see his whole body shaking and forgot for a moment that she could not feel his heartbeat, so fast was her own.
"Who are you?" Natasha asked, coming up behind her.
"Murphy," he gasped. "A-Alex Murphy."
"You a technician? For HYDRA?"
"You know my brother," Imogen said. His eyes widened. "Has he been telling you nasty things about me?"
Her knife pressed against Murphy's ribs, poking through his shirt to the soft skin below. He gasped, and flattened himself further against the wall. "Better start talking," she warned him. "Or this is going to hurt. A lot."
"What-what do you want to know?" he stammered and stuttered, glasses slipping down his nose.
She glanced at Natasha out of the corner of her eye, saw her nod. "Item 548," she said. "What is it?"
"Y-you are," he replied, face scrunched up in confusion.
"Yeah, you said that already. But what does that mean?"
His eyes flicked from one woman to the other, and found no pity in either's eyes. "Your mother," he said finally, dragging the words out. "S-she made it. She was a…a scientist, and, uh…" He took a deep breath to steady himself, glancing down at the knife. "Look, I uh…c-can you just move that knife? I can't – I can't think-"
Imogen glanced at Natasha, who just shrugged, and then slowly moved the knife away from his chest, giving him just a little room to move. He sagged in relief, almost falling; his whole body was visibly shaking, she realised suddenly. "Th-thanks," he said, daring to raise a hand and push his glasses back up his nose.
"Now. Tell me."
"R-right. So uh…she worked on the-the Soldier program, the Asset, maintaining the uh, the cryogen pods and researching memory."
Imogen frowned. "Why would she be researching that? She was never interested in memory."
"They wipe the Soldier's memory after every mission," Natasha spoke up. "She might have just been assigned the research."
Murphy nodded eagerly. "She was the leading scientist in that area. Made a lot of progress for HYDRA."
"Great." Imogen gritted her teeth. "What does any of this have to do with me?"
His eyes flew down to the knife. "Well she-she found a way to store memories, and to fabricate them. And then she tried to leave, so she was killed. But all-all of her research, and some intel she'd stolen, it all disappeared. Eventually, they realised that she left it with you."
"No," Imogen said firmly, pressing the knife to his chest again. "She didn't leave me anything."
"Will's pretty certain she did," he breathed carefully. "The whole of HYDRA is. And even if not…"
He screwed up his face, looking disgusted at the very thought of what he was about to say. "There are rumours that she uh…used you in some of her experiments."
She let the knife slacken a little, disgusted herself. "What the hell?" she muttered to no one in particular. "Anything else?"
"No!" he gasped.
"Knock him out," Natasha said behind her. She did so, moving the knife away from his chest and hitting him solidly in the head. He swayed eyes gazing over, but didn't quite drop, so she hit him again. This time, he dropped like a stone, crumpling to the ground. Imogen watched him for a second, ensuring he was well and truly out of it, and then stepped over him, opening the van.
Three HYDRA agents greeted her with pointed guns. "Oh," she said as Natasha joined her, scanning the faces. No Will. Yet. She had no doubt that he would be close, on his way to catch her.
The three of them were no match for Natasha. At the very sight of her, at least one started shaking, his gun moving wildly off target. With practiced ease, she took the first one down, then pulled Imogen to the ground as the other two fired, bullets whizzing through the space their heads had just occupied. She swept the legs out from underneath the next one, and then leapt with deadly grace at the last one. Imogen was not so graceful, scrambling to find her balance and get away from them as Natasha finished her work.
"Move!" Natasha told her and she did, running down the street towards their car, and away from the tangle of bodies that they'd left. Natasha caught up with her before she reached the end of the street and took charge taking her on a round-about route to avoid the rest of the HYDRA team.
"Get in," the redhead instructed unnecessarily as they reached the car; Imogen already had the door open, was climbing inside-
There was a shot, and then something heavy slammed into her arm, high up by the shoulder. With a gasp, she pitched forward, caught herself on that arm, and fell again as it failed to hold her weight. "Imogen!" Natasha called, more urgently, and somehow her brain kicked into gear, dragging her upright and into the car with her good arm, slamming the door closed just in time for it to catch a second bullet.
As Natasha took off, she turned to see her shooter, and recognised the face immediately. His gun lowered as they drove away, but his eyes, his eyes followed until they were out of sight, and perhaps even longer.
It was Will.
"What happened?" Natasha asked, muck too calmly considering the situation. Imogen was lost for words for a moment, still staring out behind them though her brother was no longer there. White-hot pain was beginning to set into her arm, forcing her to face forward again and inspect the damage. There was a clean bullet hole in her arm, in and out, bleeding slowly and steadily. For a moment, she could only stare at it. He'd shot her. Will. She had betrayed and deserted him, maybe given him hell every now and then, and he had put a bullet in her for it.
Natasha wasn't so quiet or shocked when she noticed; rather, she swore in a variety of different languages, and sped up, still continuing her angry muttering. Imogen noticed English and German (the only languages she spoke), but wasn't in the right kind of mind to decipher the rest. Anyway, she had a feeling she didn't really want to know.
On a dusty back road in the middle of nowhere, Natasha stopped and pulled out a first aid kit, bandaging her arm tight and giving her a makeshift sling as a final touch. "Don't bleed out," she instructed with a voice of steel, before driving hell-for-leather back to the farm.
Imogen hissed as the needle passed through her skin one last time and pulled the stitch tight. Natasha took no notice of her discomfort. Clint continued to make coffee.
"They didn't catch me?" she offered to him, though it didn't at all appease the feeling deep in her gut that something was very wrong.
He left the room.
She looked to Natasha helplessly. "He'll come around," the redhead said. "Sometimes he forgets he can't keep people from themselves."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Imogen asked, indignant.
Natasha helped her arm back into the sling, and then looked her straight in the eye. "Don't go running off again," she answered.
"Wasn't planning to."
"Good." The spy busied herself putting away her medical supplies. "The bullet won't be for your arm next time."
Imogen already knew it. She'd seen it in Will's face. There was only so much trouble he would go to, to take back whatever information he thought she had, and every day, his anger and hatred festered like an infected wound.
His next bullet would be for her heart, or her head.