Sparrow

To Find An Archer

5: To Find An Archer

The thing about small bases was that they tended to run on a cycle that wasn't unlike the regular, nine-to-five business hours, except that no one actually left the building at the end of the day. During the day, the halls were a hive of activity, people going in every direction. When night fell – well, you could almost mistake the place for deserted. Lights were dimmed, agents went to sleep, and guards took up their rotations. There were always a few people in mission control, of course, but they were only there to monitor any action, as very few high-level ops ran from here.

Imogen knew the cycle well. She'd lived on a base just a little bigger than this for a good two years now. No matter how many night ops people went on, they always fell back into the same routine of rising and retiring with the sun. So, once the clock hit midnight and the base was as quiet as it would get, Imogen left her room, closing the door as softly as she could behind her and creeping away down the hall, holding her jacket close as tightly as she could. The bow and quiver were an unfamiliar weight on her back, hidden as best she could under her jacket – hopefully, the darkness would take care of the rest. She'd left her hair loose too, falling down her back in soft waves to help hide the bulk of the weapons.

If someone did notice them, there was a gun at her side, and she had a mean left hook.

The halls were deserted, letting her pass through the base like a ghost, unseen. Every room was dark, except for the empty mess hall and mission control, where a handful of people sat hunched over bright screens and mission files, their attention far away from the woman creeping past outside.

The staircase was the problem. As one of only two ways out of the bunker, there was always someone watching over it. During the day, they'd been placed above ground, in the small building that acted as a disguise for the operations below, but now there was a woman at the bottom of the stairs, leaning against the wall and looking bored. It was immediately clear that Imogen wouldn't be able to sneak past – the whole staircase was lit up like a Christmas tree – and there would be no bluffing her way out either. Her jacket didn't quite cover the bow, and there was a discernable lump under her jacket where the quiver sat. She might have gotten away with it in the dark, where it was hard to make out any proper details, but there was no way she could under the scrutiny of those bright lights.

For a moment, she fingered the gun, considering just shooting the guard and being done with it. The shot would echo though, gaining her unwanted attention from who knows how many other people. Mission control wasn't very far behind her at all. Not to mention how her hands had shaken when she'd tried to shoot Clint. There was no time for mistakes like that in this sort of environment, where she was forced to face the woman at close quarters.

Only one way to do this then.

She stepped out of the shadows. The other woman jerked upright, caught off guard by the sudden company. "What are you doing here?" she snapped, replacing surprise with anger, trying to cover up that she hadn't been paying any attention to her surroundings at all.

"Got some business upstairs," Imogen replied, gesturing at the stairs with one hand, the other stopping her jacket from moving and revealing the bow. Damn it. Why did Barton have to use a weapon that was so hard to carry discreetly? How did he pull off undercover operations with this thing anyway?

The agent's eyes narrowed. "What's that under your coat?" she asked.

Imogen frowned, feigning confusion. "What do you mean?"

"Don't play games with me, kid," the woman threatened, stepping within Imogen's reach. "That right-" Imogen cut her off, lunging forward in a tackle that drove the point of her shoulder into the guard's stomach, driving the air from her lungs. Both women went crashing to the ground, the guard struggling to push Imogen off her. One of her elbows caught the blonde in the face; growling at the sudden burst of pain in her jaw, Imogen pinned down her arms and wrapped her fingers around her throat, bearing down with all her weight.

The woman bucked and struggled, trying to throw off the smaller girl but to no effect; slowly, the lack of oxygen began to take effect, her movements becoming feebler until finally she fell still. "Not a kid," Imogen muttered under her breath, getting up and dusting herself off, touching the spot on her jaw where the woman had hit her. She'd have a bruise there, probably. Oh well.

Upstairs and through a door, and then she was in another hallway, this one wood-paneled and a great improvement on the plain concrete of the basement level. The voices of two men drifted from somewhere up ahead; relaxed, mindless chatter to keep them awake more than anything else. They'd heard none of her short battle downstairs apparently, but they were also between her and the door.

She shook her head slightly. Had she really been expecting to just walk out the front door? Silent, she crept down the hall, looking into each of the rooms that lined it until she found one with a window. The door clicked softly behind her and she darted across the room, unlocking the window and lifting up just enough for her to squeeze through. Somewhere, an alarm went off, loud enough to wake the dead and she jumped, then sped up. She could hear the voices outside getting louder. Quickly, she shed her jacket and then the bow and quiver, shoving them all through the window in one long bundle. There were footsteps in the hall, the sound of doors opening and closing nearby. Discarding any care, she went out the window headfirst, her heart thundering in her ears.

With a grunt, she pulled her legs through and landed in a crumpled heap in a garden bed. Someone entered the room she'd just left, flicking the light on and sending a wash of gold reaching for her, trying to expose her. Her breath catching in her throat, she scrambled to pull herself under a large bush to her right, shoving the weapons along in front of her, the low-lying branches of the bush parting to let her through and then falling again to cover her tracks.

It became immediately apparent that she'd climbed under a rosebush or something to that effect, thorns grabbing at her clothes as she pushed and wriggled her way under it. Gritting her teeth and mentally cursing her bad luck, she pulled herself free and continued, curling up between the bush and the wall and making herself as small as possible.

Not a moment later, a bald head protruded from the open window, carefully scanning the surrounding land. Imogen felt his eyes pass over her, imagined that they paused to scrutinize the suspicious patch of dark grey on the other side of the bush, and that his ears turned towards the sound of her shallow breaths. If he noticed, he didn't seem particularly alarmed as he disappeared, saying something to his partner as he closed the window. She counted to a rushed twenty to give them time to leave the room and then moved, pulling herself free of the bush with a string of hissed swear words that only the dark night could hear. They'd be back before long, searching for whoever had opened the window; even if they thought someone had broken in rather than out, she needed to get moving. Stepping clear of the garden (why did SHIELD have a garden anyway?), she reached down and retrieved the bow and quiver, pulling on her coat and then throwing the weapons over her shoulder. No need to hide them now; if she was caught, they wouldn't get her in any more trouble than she was already in.

Breaking into a run, she headed directly away from the building, towards the lights of a town that lay just a few kilometers away. She glanced behind her, saw the flashing light of torches being swept back and forth, and quickened her pace.

Without warning, a rock materialised in front of her foot, grabbing at her boot and bringing her crashing down into a ditch. She let out a strangled cry as she fell heavily on her right shoulder and rolled, tucking herself into a ball again. Frozen, she lay waiting for shouts and flashing lights to expose her, but they didn't come.

Calm down. She had to calm down. Forcing a few deep breaths to shudder through her frame, she slowly untangled herself and turned, crawling to the edge of the ditch. The torches were on this side of the building now, but hadn't strayed far out. Maybe they had thought someone wanted to get in rather than out. Whatever the reason, she thanked her lucky stars they hadn't seen her running.

Sliding ungracefully back into the ditch, she sat herself down in the dirt and waited a minute for her heart to slow to a more reasonable pace. She could already feel an ache setting into her shoulder and ankle, which she guessed she'd twisted when she fell. Her arms and back stung too, where the thorns from the bush had pushed through her shirt to scratch at the skin below. With one hand, she reached back and ran a hand over the ends of the arrows – they felt as tight-packed as ever. Somehow she hadn't lost any throughout the whole ordeal. That was handy.

With a groan, she picked herself up out of the dirt, testing her weight on her sore foot. The ache got worse for a moment, but it bore her weight without too much complaint. Not twisted too badly then. With some difficulty she climbed out of the ditch and headed off towards the town again.

Half an hour later and she reached the first few streets – just dusty dirt roads with a handful of houses. Huffing a sigh, she glanced at the dark windows of the houses and then went for the first car she saw, getting it up and running in seconds. She was gone before its owners could even stir in their sleep.

By some bad luck, Will had found himself in mission control at two in the morning instead of sleeping peacefully in his bed, like he should have been. Curse whoever had decided to cause such a commotion in the middle of the night, he thought as he yawned and rubbed at his eyes in a desperate attempt to keep himself awake. If they were going to wake up everyone on base, they could at least had the decency to wait until morning.

"Run me through what happened again?" he asked Murphy, more for something to focus on than because he'd forgotten any details. His eyes followed the agents bustling back and forth down the hall outside. Nothing like an emergency to get everybody moving.

Murphy sat back from his computer, swinging his chair to face Will. He liked Murphy – they were very similar in a lot of ways. They both stood at an average height with brown hair almost falling in their eyes, both were faithful members of HYDRA, both had younger sisters (Murphy hadn't seen his in ten years while Will couldn't shake Imogen, but that was beside the point). What differences they had complemented each other too; Will was more active, more suited to being a field agent, while Murphy liked to hang back and work on the technical side of things, gathering intel and guiding Will through the comm link. Murphy wasn't particularly liked by other agents, but Will was – no one would touch Murphy so long as they were friends.

"Someone broke in upstairs a couple of hours ago," he began, adjusting the glasses perched precariously on his nose. "Came in through a window, dodged the upstairs guards, tried to suffocate Agent Porter. She's still unconscious." The computer beeped, drawing his attention. "Looks like there's some stuff missing from Archives, which would explain why they bothered breaking in."

Will leant forward to better see the screen. "What was taken?" he asked. Murphy frowned, at his screen, pulling up an archive file.

"Bow," he answered, brow furrowed in confusion. "Arrows. What is this, the Hunger Games?"

Will leant back again, giving Murphy's chair a shove with one foot, a lazy grin coming over his face as the other man grabbed the desk to stop himself rolling away. "They're the weapons we took from Barton the other day, remember?"

"Oh yeah." Murphy still looked confused. "Geez Haylock. You think he came back for them?"

Will shrugged. "I wouldn't put it past him. Might sound like a crazy idea to you, but the guy's pretty unorthodox."

A young agent hurried through the door, catching Will's attention. Seeing that the rest of the room was busy, the boy approached them, wringing his hands nervously. "Agent Grace sent me," he quivered. "They did a headcount, and there's someone missing."

"Who?" Murphy asked. Will closed his eyes. He already knew the answer; no matter what you did with her, you just couldn't keep her out of trouble.

"Imogen Haylock," the kid replied, confirming his fears.

Murphy glanced at Will. "You okay there?"

He opened his eyes, looked at his friend a moment, and then nodded. "I'm going to go find the team, see if we can get any leads on Barton. He can't have gotten far."

"I'm on comms if you need me," Murphy said with a nod, which Will returned before standing and leaving the room, already outlining search plans in his head.

Dawn was just painting the horizon when Imogen finally made it back to the last place she'd seen Clint – the house he'd been hiding in when she first came to him. Parking two streets away, she donned his weapons again and walked the rest of the way, skirting around streetlights and darting from shadow to shadow. She paused across the street, watching the house for any sign of HYDRA but it was deserted – probably, they'd already gotten anything they needed from the place and gone off chasing any leads they had on Barton. That's what she would be doing, if she had any leads.

As it was, this house was the only clue she had.

She had a feeling the he hadn't quite moved on yet anyway. She didn't know why she thought this, but she did trust her instincts, and so on a whim she made her way to the tree he'd used to escape and settled in its branches to wait (if she was honest, she was a just a bit disappointed not to find the Hawk there waiting for her, but then she remembered that he didn't expect to see her ever again). Her fingers found the piece of paper in her pocket as she waited, turning it over and over to settle her mind.

The closer daylight came, the more she began to doubt herself, until she was on the verge of packing up and leaving. If she wasn't right about this, if he didn't show, then she'd have to start searching from scratch, with no information to go on. She was good at finding people, but she was not infallible, and Clint Barton was good enough to avoid any of the normal ways HYDRA would use to track people – honestly, she had no idea where she'd go from here.

She was just about to leave when he finally showed, moving like a wraith in the twilight.

Imogen snapped to attention as he slipped across the yard and disappeared into the house, pulling out her note. It was written on the back of a receipt she'd found in the car, and contained nothing more than an address and a time, which was drawing closer with every minute that ticked by. If she could just get it to him, then she could meet him on her terms, have the conversation she needed in a place where he couldn't trick or lay a trap for her. She didn't want to face him on anything but her advantage.

Pulling the bow over her head, she settled the grip in one hand and selected an arrow with the other, drawing I out and placing it on the string. Though she was in no way an archer, she knew some of the most basic technique from books and movies and hours spent mindlessly trawling the internet. Nock the arrow, turn side on (well, as much as you could while sitting in a tree), draw back the string. Keep your grip relaxed. Aim. Fire.

She angled the arrow towards the back steps and let the bowstring slip from her fingers, the arrow flying. It struck the pavers below the back steps with a shrill 'clink' and bounced into the lawn, wildly off target but still loud enough to catch his attention. The real archer appeared a moment later, moving carefully; she watched as he picked the arrow up and pulled off her note, studying it, committing it to memory. After a moment of careful reading, his eyes snapped up, searching for the person with his arrows.

Their eyes met. She stared at him like a deer caught in headlights, eyes wide, and for a moment entertained the idea of coming down to meet him. But no, that wouldn't be a good idea. More likely than not, he'd just beat her up and tie her to a chair again, take his weapons and leave her there for HYDRA. Throwing the bow back over her head to rest with the quiver, she crept backwards through the branches, out of sight, and then scurried down the tree, jumping from a low branch into the neighbour's yard. Staying low, she crept back around to the front of the house, hunkering down in the neighbour's flower bed for a while. If Barton came looking for her, he didn't find her – didn't even come out to the street. He'd left, she guessed, gotten out of there before HYDRA came back. He'd know where to find her in just a few hours anyway.

Pulling herself from the garden, she stepped out onto the sidewalk and headed for the car she'd stolen, before anyone started wondering what a strange girl was doing on the street with a bow and a couple dozen arrows on her back.

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