The room was grey.
So far as she'd seen, the whole base was grey, from floor to ceiling. It hadn't been a particularly important base, so no one had bothered giving it any kind of colour. Even the clothes they'd given her were grey. The only colour she'd seen in the whole base was the HYDRA logo someone had painted over SHIELD's eagle near mission control. It had still been drying as she walked past, paint looking like blood in the harsh light of the hallway. Drops of paint had rolled down the wall from the skull and tentacles to pool on the floor below; like the eagle was bleeding, she'd thought in passing, an involuntary shiver running down her spine.
This place, the HYDRA base where Will lived, was little more than an oversized bunker, built for functionality over comfort. Most everyone who walked down its halls was suited up and carrying an array of weapons, on their way to and from missions. There were no offices here, no places to relax after a hard training session or a long stint in the field. There was debrief and mission control and training and really not much else.
Imogen had been given a quick tour. Command, gun range, weapons storage, mess hall, living quarters. They'd directed her to a room and told her on no uncertain terms to stay put. Impressively, she'd listened, and as a result had wasted away hours upon hours just lying on the bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. In the first few hours, she'd drifted in and out of sleep, but sleep was long gone now and instead she lay wide awake, staring at the ceiling and rolling the same three words over and over in her head.
SHIELD or HYDRA?
It bugged her that the question was still there, looming, unanswered. That Will had interrupted before she'd had time to choose. That she hadn't had the guts to lift up her chin and proudly tell him that HYDRA was her choice, her world, her backbone. Most of all, it bugged her that it bugged her. Anyone else would just let it go, move on, leave him for the wolves of HYDRA to feast on (this whole base was focused on the death of Clint Barton, so far as she knew. He wouldn't be alive long). But here she was, comatose, as he wound his way into her head and set up camp, making her question her every loyalty.
She needed to get out.
As soon as the temptation found her, Imogen couldn't lie still any longer. It was a miracle she had lasted this long at all; patience was a virtue flung far out of reach of her mind. With a deep sigh, she sat up, and then stood, stretching out muscles that were still aching from their abuse the day before. It was a satisfying feeling. She slipped through the door like a wraith, though there was no one outside to sneak past, making it all too easy to wind her way through to a main thoroughfare and blend into the small crowd walking back and forth.
Where to go? To Will? She didn't know or recognise anyone else on this base, nor did she want to. Anyone who knew her would screw up their nose and move quickly in the other direction. People found her repulsive like that; no one had ever really taken a shine to her (her parents were a possible exception, but she had no memories to compare). She'd been born to turn people away.
She shook her head, just a little. To Will, then.
Her brother was in the mess hall, surrounded by the small team he'd led against Clint. As soon as he saw her, he excused her and crossed the room to meet her in the middle, pulling her over to the wall, out of the main thoroughfare. "What are you doing, Imogen?" he asked with a frown.
She shrugged. "I'm bored, Will. I can't sit in that room all day; you know that."
"You're just going to have to," he said with a sigh.
"We've all got things to do, Imogen. Besides, I haven't even talked to the commander about you being here; technically, you're still under Ferson's command."
"Go and talk to him then. I can help you."
He shook his head. "You can help me by staying out of the way."
Frustrated, she gritted her teeth and balled her hands up into fists, nails pressing painfully into her palms. "Fine," she replied finally, not bothering to hide her displeasure. She turned to leave but didn't quite escape before Will caught her shoulder, turning her back to him. "What?"
He pressed a keycard into her hand. "My room's just down the hall from yours. Go and find something to do; read a book, play a game, I don't care as long as you stay put."
Taking the card, she threw him another filthy look and escaped the mess hall as fast as she could. Fuming quietly, she let her feet carry her back to the living quarters of the base without really thinking about it, finding her way to Will's room. It was identical to hers – same bed, same desk, same endless grey. Will had more possessions than she did though; a neat stack of books on the desk, a bar of chocolate, clothes scattered here and there.
It was the grey laptop on his bed that caught her attention though.
Shoving the keycard in her pocket, she flopped down onto the bed and opened the computer. The screen blinked on, asking her for a password, and without pause she tapped in the ID number from his keycard, unlocking the device. It was the password he used for everything, she knew, which also happened to be the reason she'd memorised the sequence of letters and numbers unique to her brother. You never knew when access to a higher clearance level could come in handy (even if that access was limited – SHIELD wasn't much of a fan of passwords these days).
The laptop opened to one of the standard programs installed by SHIELD, a system that monitored news feeds and media from all over the world for whatever it was you wanted information on. Currently, Will had it searching for information on SHIELD and HYDRA, and the results were pouring in. The whole thing with the helicarriers in DC had gone viral the minute someone noticed it was happening, and the file dump had followed soon after. The whole world was talking about it, and with good reason. She threw a precursory glance over the latest feeds, intending to shut the program down, but one caught her eye and she stopped. She picked it from the crowd, enlarging it. Grainy, unprofessional footage of a highway shooting started playing – the imposing form of Captain America was easy to pick out, the bright shield on his arm setting him apart from his companions. That wasn't what had caught her attention though – no, she was interested in the captain's opponent, the one whose left arm was fully exposed and glinted a bright metallic colour in the sun, only better highlighting the deep red star residing on his shoulder. There wasn't much footage of him, compared to what was shown of the captain and his allies. Someone didn't want this guy seen.
HYDRA? Probably. Curiousity piqued, she minimised the program and opened another one, finding her way into several fragmented copies of the file dump within minutes. HYDRA was doing its best to pull all the information back under cover, but they had acted too slowly; there was at least one copy of everything to be found somewhere, and if there was one thing she excelled at, it was finding what she wanted. It was a skill she'd honed through years of lies, bullying, and burning curiousity over withheld information, until it was something to be proud of, even if no one would let her use it for anything useful.
Even with her considerable skill and stockpile of leaked files, there was precious little information on Captain America's new nemesis. What she could find was hidden under layers and layers of useless SHIELD information and protocol, piggybacked onto the system in places where no one would think to look for it. A few mission reports, health evaluations, some other documents that made little sense to her, most of them written in languages that were definitely not English, though she had no idea further than that. She wasn't a linguist. There was a name though, a name that was consistent with each report. The Winter Soldier.
She kept digging, but little else appeared.
Eventually, she turned back to what she'd already found. There was a mention of cryogenics, a reference to another report. That file was SHIELD property, easy to find compared to the HYDRA files. She only skimmed it, not in the mood to decipher the scientific jargon that filled the report. The name at the bottom would be the most interesting part of the paper anyway. A name could be traced to an employee record and to further reports.
Any plans on digging for more information on the soldier fell from her mind at the name though, thoughts turning to other things. Kathleen Haylock was typed out at the bottom, marking the report as one her mother had written. Imogen shoved the laptop away from her for a moment, sucking in a deep breath. Really, she should have expected something like this. She knew her mother worked for HYDRA, knew she'd had an interest in cryogenics and done a lot of research on the subject. Somewhere in SHIELD's archives there was a whole box dedicated to her theories. But she'd never actually carried out any of her research, not for SHIELD anyway.
Now she was curious.
Sending a copy of the cryo report to her phone for later reference, she closed it and went searching for anything related to her mother. A SHIELD employee file came up, but didn't tell her much, as well as several mission and injury reports and a few more reports on a cryogenics project SHEILD didn't know she'd worked on.
There was a picture in one – a man, frozen. Imogen shivered and clicked away from the report as fast as she could, trying not to think about her mother experimenting on people. It was a lot to swallow.
Right at the very bottom, there was a mission report that wasn't marked by SHIELD and until recently had been heavily encrypted – HYDRA. It didn't even look like a report really; it lacked the formality and utter disinterest of any other paperwork she'd ever encountered.
Targets: Agent Michael Haylock; Agent Kathleen Haylock.
She sucked in a breath, staring at the screen, confused. Her parents shouldn't be listed as HYDRA targets. They'd been killed by enemies of SHIELD looking for retribution, not HYDRA. Or at least, that's what Will had told her.
He wouldn't lie to her. Not about this. He knew how much it meant to her, how everything that happened to her, everything she did, had revolved around their deaths.
She read on. Slowly, she began to doubt her faith in Will.
Written at the bottom of the report: Agent Cassandra Brady to continue surveillance of Item 548.
The name started a fire in her that was unlike any other. She hated that woman. Cassandra Brady, the woman (and apparently also HYDRA agent) who had adopted both Haylock children when their parents died, had taken everything they had and given them nothing in return. She'd been hard and uncompromising, angry when Imogen got into fights and arguments at school and ignorant of anything either child did the rest of the time. When Will joined SHIELD before he'd even finished school, she didn't even seem to notice. And then, she'd barely lasted three years of waiting for Imogen to leave before disappearing entirely just before her fifteenth birthday.
She'd joined HYDRA for that birthday. It was her only choice.
The thought of that woman being on the same side as her parents – as her – repulsed her. The fact that Brady had been involved in her parent's deaths only made her angrier. And Item 548 confused her. It was something that her parents had been in possession of, that much was apparent, but she had no idea what exactly. Everything the family had owned was claimed and either sold or trashed by that woman. If two children couldn't escape that fate (and she might as well have thrown them out with all the family photos, because Imogen was certain nothing was the same as it could have been), then how could any random item?
So Cassandra Brady had lied to her every day for the ten years she'd acted as 'mother'. She was not the next door neighbour, not her old babysitter from the days when she had a family, but a HYDRA agent, involved in the assassination of the people she had dared to call friends and then sent to watch over their children and whatever Item 548 was.
Within the next twenty minutes, Imogen found numerous missions completed by a younger Agent Brady, and just one by the woman as Imogen had known her. Item 548 came up again. So did Brady's death.
She couldn't say she felt anything but hate.
There was something still bothering her about the file on her parent's death. Trawling through the mess of files, she pulled up Will's. Immediately, a note on an ongoing mission caught her attention, bringing her to mission details.
It was simple.
Protect Item 548.
The mission dated back years; he'd had it before she'd even joined SHIELD. She couldn't, in all those years, ever remember him mentioning it though, not once in the hundreds of times she'd asked him if he had anything from their parents. But this mission, this item being passed down from her parents, to Brady, to Will, this said differently.
He'd been lying, she realised suddenly. For as long as she could remember, someone had been lying to her; first Brady, and then Will. There was no doubt about it. She couldn't tell herself anything different, not unless she wanted to be a liar as well. The seed of doubt in her mind bloomed like a rose in the spring. If he'd lied about this, who knew what else he'd kept from her. Maybe everything was a lie. Maybe he'd never said a true thing in his life.
And why had he lied to her? Because HYDRA had told him to, probably. They liked to lie, she'd discovered as she read, just like SHIELD had.
She was so sick of it. All her life, she'd followed lie after lie after lie, built herself around beliefs that were just someone's idea of a joke. She wanted to scream and rage and break something.
She sat. Silent.
Her thoughts drifted back to Barton. Back to the things he'd said. I don't want to kill you.
You were sent here to die, you just haven't accepted it yet.
SHIELD or HYDRA?
Her fingers found the card in her pocket, a key to the rest of the base. She knew what to do now. Abandoning the laptop and the room, she entered the concrete maze that was the base, striding with a confidence she didn't really have. No one questioned her. They barely even looked at her, all too confident themselves. The hall leading to the archives was completely deserted. No one here was interested in paperwork and artifacts, apparently; not that there would be anything very interesting kept here.
She found it dumped on a shelf right in the very back, amid a myriad of other seized weapons that no one knew how to use. They probably didn't work anyway, probably never had a chance to; created by some half-baked evil scientist in the back of his garage. The bow didn't look right, thrown uncaringly on top of a pile of science experiments gone wrong – it was too sleek, too dark, like it belonged to another world. The quiver was there too, and she snatched up both, bundling them up in a blanket she'd borrowed from Will's room.
Her trip back to her room lacked the confidence she'd feigned earlier – she tried, but her heart was beating in double time and her steps quickened to match. Every time she passed someone it leapt into her throat, then fell back into her chest with a dull thud. Surely they could hear it. No one stopped her though.
The door clicked shut behind her and she breathed sigh of relief, slumping against it, her prize in her arms. After a moment, she forced herself to move, stashing it in a corner of the wardrobe and knocking over a stack of SHIELD-issue clothing to cover it. Just as she finished, there was a knock at the door; she checked once more that the bow was out of sight and then answered it.
It was Will, of course. No one else would have any reason to knock on her door. "I need my key back," he said, holding out his hand.
She dug the card out of her pocket and handed it to him. "Thanks," she muttered, not really paying attention to what she was saying.
He frowned. "Are you okay?" he asked, stopping her from closing the door with one hand.
"Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"
"You just said thanks. Since when do you have manners?"
"Funny," she snapped, shoving the door closed. For a moment, she waited, expecting him to force his way back in and demand to know why she was acting weird, only relaxing when she heard his footsteps walking away.
She slumped onto her bed, staring at her hands. She had to find a way out, and soon.