17: 548

Her fingers traced the ugly scar from neck to shoulder, trailing softly over skin that had never quite managed to go back to the way it used to be, despite all the years that had passed. They paused about halfway along, pressing down against the line of scar tissue. This was the place where the damage had been worst, they'd told her, where the knife had dug deepest and where the scar was most raised. It was also, she realised now, the spot her mother had touched in her last moments.

It all had to mean something. The scar, her mother, the information HYDRA wanted. She had her suspicions about it all. Now, she just needed confirmation.

It was barely dawn outside, pale first light reaching through the windows of the house to light her way downstairs. Imogen had heard Clint rise just minutes earlier, but the house seemed deserted – as usual, there was no sign of Natasha, who moved like a ghost and would not be found unless she wanted you to. She breathed a little easier without their presence, without anyone to stop her as she pulled a knife from the drawer and sat down at the table, tugging the neck of her tank top out of the way.

She could barely bring herself to raise the knife, so strong was her repulsion to the very thought of it near her neck. No, not repulsion. Fear. A fear that had stayed with her throughout her entire life, from the moment a knife was first put to her throat. It was her greatest weakness, her fatal flaw, the one thing her enemies could use against her, if they knew about it.

She'd only ever told one person about it. The one person who was now her enemy. Which meant she'd have to fight it, have to teach herself to push through it. Before she could change her mind, she pressed the tip of the knife to her bare flesh. Flinching away, she took a breath and pulled it close again, ignoring the gut-wrenching fear that shuddered through her at the blade's feather touch, the speeding beat of her heart, the prickling pins-and-needles sensation that erupted from the cold steel. Her skin crawled and her stomach twisted, a shiver running down her spine at the thought of what she was about to do.

The knife almost dropped again. She felt sick, holding it to her own throat. Slowly, softly, she took a deep breath and tried to steady her hands. The last thing she needed was more scars. The barest amount of pressure was enough to draw blood, pain blooming almost immediately. She dug it deeper with a gasp of pain, until she felt the tip press against something hard and unyielding, too close to the skin to be a bone. Breathless, she widened the cut and then dropped the knife, barely hearing it clatter to the floor, or feeling the pain at her neck. It was there! Whatever it was, it was there, hiding beneath the scar, all this time.

She didn't hear the door creak open and closed, or the footsteps in the hall, but she did see Clint appear in the doorway, a question dying on his lips as his eyes widened in alarm. He was at her side in seconds, fingers pressing down on the fresh wound at her neck, trying to stop the bleeding.

"What the hell are you doing?!" he asked, glancing around in search of something – the first aid kit, probably.

Imogen tried to push his fingers away, but succeeded only in spreading the blood around a little more. "There's something there," she gasped. "Something in me. Just let me get it out."

He eyed her sceptically. "This isn't a time for paranoia."

"I'm not being paranoid," she snapped almost instantly, surprising him. Clint stared at her for a moment, searching her face for something, and then sighed, releasing the pressure on the wound and reaching for whatever was inside of it. As he did, she grit her teeth at the fresh, stabbing pains rolling through her neck and shoulder, eyes focused on the faded floral wallpaper opposite. He froze, and she knew he'd found it. A few seconds later, he dug it from her flesh and removed it entirely, blood dripping from his fingers.

It was long and thin, glinting silver in the lamp-light. "What is that?" she asked, exhaling slowly.

"Put pressure on that cut," he replied sharply. "It's rude to bleed out in other people's kitchens." She rolled her eyes but did as he instructed, closing the wound as best she could.

Putting the…thing down on the table, he went and washed his hands and then returned with the first aid kit. "Stitches again?" she asked in an exasperated voice as he pulled out a needle and thread.

"You made the cut," he reminded her, readying the needle. "Would've needed stitches the first time anyway, right?"

"I was half dead then," she muttered, wincing when he pulled the first stitch through. "And they had really good drugs."

"You'd think half dead would put you off doing something stupid like this."

"Doesn't seem stupid to me."

"Why are you stitching her up again?" Natasha entered the kitchen, eyes flicking between them in search of an explanation. Not intimidated in the slightest, Clint just shrugged and continued stitching. Imogen, seeing something in Natasha's eyes that said she wouldn't suffer through any kind of argument or misinformation, pointed to the silver thing they had found. The redhead didn't hesitate to pick it up and examine it, despite the blood that still clung to it, or dripped down to slowly stain the table.

"YYou cut this out of your neck?" she asked, turning it over.

Imogen went to nod, but thought better of it when Clint hissed at her to keep still. "My mother put it there, I think," she said instead.

"Looks like something Stark would make."

"Nah," Clint interjected. "Not flashy enough for Stark."

"Any idea what it is?"

"Her research," Imogen replied as Clint finished stitching. "That's what they all want from me. I guess it's like a memory card or something."

Natasha hummed in reply, turning it over and over like it might reveal its secrets to her. "You should take it to Tony," she said finally, dropping it back on the table.

"What, all the way to New York?" Clint paused to give Natasha a look, to which she shrugged and his eyes narrowed. "We barely got here alive, let alone New York."

"Stop being dramatic. You got here just fine."

"I think we should go to New York," Imogen added.

"Kid, you're in no shape to be going anywhere," Clint told her.

"Not a kid," she told him in return.

"What of someone comes after us? You're gonna fight?"

"Yes," she replied defiantly, looking him straight in the eye. He turned away from her and started packing up the medical supplies, refusing to admit defeat.

Natasha walked over and put a hand on his shoulder, turning him to face her. "Go to New York Clint," she said firmly.

"Nat, I don't like it." He was quieter now, softer, more reasonably. The change was so sudden it caught Imogen off guard for a moment, making her forget the throbbing in her shoulder for a minute as she listened.

"Would you rather Stark came out here?"

Clint looked offended at the very idea. "No."

Natasha nodded. "Exactly."

"This place is so safe though. Why leave?"

"Are you telling me you'd rather sit around in a safe house than help bring down HYDRA?" Clint was silent. "You're an asshole, Barton."

"I know." Finally, he turned back to his task. "So?" Imogen asked.

There was a long silence. Finally, Clint sighed. "We're going to New York," he agreed.

Natasha just smiled.

"Aren't you coming?" Imogen asked her later, as she threw her belongings into the car.

Natasha shook her head. "I've got some other people to check up on."

"Other people?"

"Steve…Captain America. He's chasing Soviet assassins."

"Sounds like fun." Natasha shrugged, eyes wandering away. Clint slammed the house door and clumped his way down the stairs in heavy boot, pausing to give Lucky ne last pat. "Ready to go?" he asked Imogen, to which she nodded. Abruptly, he drew Natasha into a tight hug, and she gave him a kiss on the cheek, and then they were climbing into the car, aware of the long drive that awaited them.

The farm disappeared behind them in a cloud of dust.

"Kid, wake up. C'mon Imogen. Get up."

Clint was shaking her shoulder urgently, glancing between her and the road. Confused, Imogen blinked several times and rubbed at her eyes, trying to wake up faster. Outside the car, the world was pitch black, without even a single star, just the headlights of the car to light up the world.

She turned to Clint, illuminated by the blue lights on the dashboard. "What's going on?" she asked groggily, resting her cheek against the set.

"We've got a tail," he said.

Imogen sat up a little straighter. "Will?"


She sighed. "What do you want me to do about it?"

"You've been practising shooting, right?" She nodded. "There's a gun in the glove box. If they get too close, shoot them down."

As it turned out, she didn't have to shoot them at all. Just outside of New York, they dropped back, and Clint took the opportunity to stop and swap with her. As she drove into the city, he pulled out a phone (unfamiliar; he must have bought it sometime before they left the farm) and tapped away at it for a few minutes.

She glanced in the mirror. "Clint?" she said when she recognised one of the cars behind them.

"Yeah?" he replied, eyes not leaving the screen.

"They're back. He looked up then, glancing behind them and then reaching for the gun on the dash.

"Black vans," he muttered as he checked the weapon. "What is it with secret organisations and black vans?"

Imogen just shrugged and turned onto a mostly empty freeway, heading towards the city centre. The van followed them, and suddenly there were no cars between the two, and the van accelerated, closing in.

"Clint," she said again, tightly, accelerating in turn.

"I know, I know," he replied, winding down the window and firing off a few shots.

He ducked back inside as bullets rained down on them in return. There was a bang and the car skewed to the left. Swearing, Clint reached over and grabbed the wheel, keeping her driving straight. "Keep going!" he shouted as more shots peppered the back of the car. Leaning out again, he emptied the rest of his bullets into the van. It kept coming.

There was another bang, and this time Imogen couldn't do anything as they slipped to the right this time, throwing Clint back into the car, and kept going. Suddenly, the car was turning, rolling over and over again before finally leaning upside down, rocking slight.

Groaning, Imogen fumbled to release her seatbelt and then slumped on the roof of the car, gasping for breath. Beside her, she could hear Clint moving too, pulling himself free of the seat. "Imogen?" he asked.

"I'm okay, she gasped back. Outside, there was the sound of a vehicle pulling up. Through the cracked glass of the window, she could see the wheels of the van, and a moment later, three pairs of boots.

"We need to get out of here," she said. Clint was already kicking at the glass on his window, grunting with the effort it took. He pulled himself out, and then reached back to help her. Before she went, she reached into the back seat and retrieved his bow and arrows, dragging them out with her.

"Good thinking kid," he whispered, taking them from her. As she handed them over, she spotted several cuts on his arms – and some on her own, not to mention the throbbing in her ankle and blood creeping from the cut on her neck, where she'd popped a few stitches.

Clint stood and fired. A gargled scream followed, and several bullets. He shot down again, sheltering behind the car. They were closing in; through the windows of the car, Imogen could see boots slowly treading closer. They'd have to move, have to get to a more defensible location, had to hide the chip somewhere-

"Where's the chip?" she hissed at Clint over the sound of gunfire.

"Under the seat," he replied, trying to fire without leaving cover. Trusting him to keep them busy, she scrambled back into the wreck and reached p under the driver's seat, ignoring the broken glass that pressed into her legs. Finally, her fingers found it, just as rough hands pulled her from the car, not caring it her flesh caught on glass as they did.

Not Clint then. Her mind moved fast as they dragged her 0 she couldn't let them have the chip.

Her sleeve. She'd borrowed a jacket from Natasha, whose clothes had multiple pockets and folds sewn into them to accommodate weapons and suck. There was one in her sleeve, small and thin, but big enough to hold the chip. With one hand, she pushed it into the pocket, and prayed it would not fall out.

Not a moment later, she was pulled to her feet next to Clint, who gave her a look of pure annoyance as two big guys restrained him. She would have laughed, if it weren't for the cold night and the six or so people surrounding them, and the battering her body had taken in the last few minutes. Instead, she scanned the faces, looking for her brother.

He wasn't there.

Where was he then? Surely there were his people, at the very least. No one else would follow them across the country.

A woman swaggered up, tall and striking, with short brown hair and numerous tattoos. She pulled out a gun, help it to Clint's head, and put a finger on the trigger. "Hawkeye," she said, sounding victorious. "Clint Barton. I've caught an Avenger."

"Hello," Clint replied, sounding either bored or fed up.

She glanced at Imogen. "And…what? An accomplice? A daughter?"

"No," Imogen spat venomously.

"The woman shrugged and turned away again. "It doesn't matter."

"You'll have no problems letting her go them," Clint said calmly.

The woman smiled coldly. "Maybe. Once you're dead."

"Leave him alone," Imogen said through gritted teeth. The finger on the trigger twitched. A roaring filled their ears.

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