The rain started soon after she left the house, just a light patter of drops on the windscreen at first, but before long it had built into a proper deluge. The day was grey and gloomy, thunder rumbling in the distance; she sat in her car, parked on a quiet corner, and watched the rain slide down the windows for hours, waiting for the time she would meet Barton again. Imogen could feel weariness setting in, slowing her mind and exaggerating her aches and pains. It had been at least 24 hours since she had last slept. For a time, she tried to doze off right there in the car, but her mind refused to be quiet. What would she say to him, it asked. What would he say back? Could she still have her choice?
Would he even come?
No, of course he would come. There was no doubt of that. He would want the bow back, and now he knew that it was in her possession. After all, what was Hawkeye without his weapons?
He would come.
It was close enough to the time she'd specified. Flipping up the hood of her jacket, she left the warmth and safety of the car for the rain outside, reaching for the bow and arrows at the last second. They would attract attention, but if he was watching her, she wanted her bargaining chips where she could see them, not sitting there in a car where he could take them at his leisure.
The small coffee shop she'd given him the address to was only a block or two from the car, though it might as well have been five miles for the soaking she got. She caught sight of herself in the window as she sat down at a table outside, wet hair sticking to her forehead and dripping down her back, dirt still smeared on her face, a lovely bruise blooming on her jaw. Her clothes were cleaner now, though still torn and dirty-looking, from climbing under thorny bushes and rolling around in ditches. Displeased, she turned away and resolved not to look again.
Her eyes turned to the people around her instead. She'd placed herself in plain view, sitting outside the shop, but with the unusual weapons half-hidden behind her leg most people treated her like any other customer, giving her no more than a precursory glance. None of them looked like HYDRA, not that she was really expecting them to crash the party just yet. Surely even they couldn't track her that fast.
Clint saw her, without doubt, but she would have missed him completely if it weren't for the dog (it was almost embarrassing, being out-played by a dog). She turned to look down the street just in time to see him crouch down and scratch behind the ears of some big black dog. Not for the first time, she found herself wondering how this man was one of SHIELD's top agents, as she pulled in a deep breath and stood, throwing his weapons over her shoulder.
He saw her coming out of the corner of his eye, instantly recognising his bow slung across her back and rose, casting on last, regretful look after the dog. "Imogen," he greeted her, rubbing the back of his neck. His eyes drifted to the coffee shop behind her, and the cup clutched in a recent customer's hand as they walked past the pair. "We need coffee," he decided abruptly. "Can't do anything without coffee."
A demand for caffeine wasn't what Imogen was expecting but she hid any surprise and shrugged, motioning for him to lead the way. He did so, looking almost casual – she would have believed it, had she not seen the tension building in his muscles, changing the way he held himself, the way he walked and moved about, ready for a fight. Whatever else he was, Clint Barton was not stupid.
She waited patiently just out of arm's reach as he ordered and paid for his coffee, then followed him to a table by the window. His drink came a moment later, and he gulped down half of it (or thereabouts) in the blink of an eye.
"What happened to your face?" he asked as he set the mug down, gesturing to a spot on his jaw.
"I left HYDRA," she replied bluntly.
He paused, raised an eyebrow. "Made your choice then?"
"So you'll go back."
"Why'd you leave then?"
"A lot of people have been lying to me," she snapped.
He chuckled, gulping down coffee. "The whole organization is built on lies, kid. You better get used to it."
"Not a kid," she insisted.
"You look like a kid."
"You need to get your eyes checked."
"You need your brain checked. My eyes are fine."
Imogen shrugged, watching Clint down the last of his coffee with an appreciative sigh. He waved the waitress over, asking for more. "So are you planning to give me my stuff back, or did you break out of HYDRA with it just to keep it as a souvenir?"
"Don't know yet." Her eyes drifted to the window. "Depends."
"On HYDRA?" She hummed in reply, earning a sigh from Clint. The waitress returned, steam curling from the mug in her shaking hands. In an aside, Imogen wondered why. Was it really so nerve-wracking carrying a cup of coffee? "I don't know much about HYDRA," he continued once she was gone. "But they don't seem like the type to take back deserters."
She took in a deep, controlled breath. He'd hit the nail on the head, of course. HYDRA didn't take kindly to people who left them; deserters or otherwise. She could easily have signed her death warrant the moment she climbed out of that window, and she'd have no way of knowing until they caught up with her, or she turned herself in. That was her choice now, she realised. That was her choice, and both could end with a bullet in her head.
When she didn't answer, Clint laughed,, a short, humourless bark spat out between sips of coffee as he lifted his mug to his lips.
"Why'd you give me a choice anyway?" she asked. Behind her, the door opened, a wave of cold air reaching for the back of her neck and sending shivers down her spine. She saw Clint's eyes dart over the newcomer but kept her own focused on him, acting casual. She saw the man's back as he walked past a moment later – heavily built, wrapped in a thick jacket, bald head, the acrid smell of cigarette smoke following him through the room.
Clint sighed, mug clinking back down onto the table. "Told you. I didn't want to kill you. Don't like killing kids."
"But I'm HYDRA."
A smile broke over his face. "I can fix that. Could have fixed that. Kids are always the easiest to fix."
"I'm not broken," she said indignantly.
"No," he agreed, letting silence fall. "Chipped and cracked maybe. But not broken," he added as an afterthought.
She thought about it, let it sit in her mind. Chipped. Cracked. Imperfect. Perhaps not broken now, but likely to break sometime in the future. "What makes you think that?" she asked.
He shrugged. "I've known a few broken people," he said around his coffee. "Known plenty who were headed that way."
"Yeah, you seem real popular," she remarked dryly. "So popular that the only people who want to hang out with you now are the ones that are trying to kill you."
"You still want to kill me, Imogen?" She shrugged. "Well, at least I don't do HYDRA's dirty work without knowing why," he shot back casually.
"Actually, you've been doing it for years, idiot," she said. "Everything SHIELD is HYDRA, remember? You've been working for them all this time, you just didn't know it."
His jaw locked, grip on his mug tightened. "I think we're done here," he ground out. "You gonna give me my stuff, or do I have to get that for myself too?"
One of her hands dropped to the bow. "I'm not giving it to you."
For a moment, he looked like he'd attack her right then and there. He was thinking about it. But then, his eyes drifted over the rest of the shop, bustling with people, and he thought better of it. He stood, digging money out of his pocket to pay for his coffee. "Watch yourself, kid," he said, dropping a note on the table.
She let him leave.
Waited five minutes.
Someone stood to leave at the same time she did. She threw a quick glance in that direction as she set the quiver on her back; it was the guy from before, the one that smelled of cigarettes and bad life choices. He almost caught her eye – a creeping feeling made its way across her neck.
Shaking it off, she turned and hurried out the door.
The cold wind hit her before she even closed the door, ripping straight through her shirt and jacket to sink its teeth into the skin below, sucking the warmth from her body. Rain splashed into her face, thrown by the wind before she could draw up her hood, and puddles soaked her shoes in minutes as she splashed through them on her path down the street. She was cold to the bone before she reached the end of the block, not dressed for the weather (she'd opted for light and flexible over warm when deciding what to take with her), her steps growing faster at the thought of the car that was waiting for her, with its dry interior and promise of escape from the archer and the cigarette man following her. Clint had disappeared from sight, no doubt hiding in shadows and tracking her movements, waiting for her to let her guard down. The man from the coffee shop though, he wasn't so covert, following her doggedly just ten or so metres back, undeterred by the rain and the wind.
Out of nowhere, something heavy crashed into her shoulder – the one that was already bruised, of course – sending her reeling sideways trying desperately to regain her balance. Arms grabbed at her and feet kicked at her legs in a desperate scramble to bring her to the ground. For a moment, she thought it was the man following her, and that he'd caught up without her noticing, but the smell was missing, as was the body mass. This man was thinner (though still thick-set, like his companion) and much cleaner, with big, meaty hands and steel-capped boots that were currently trying to break her leg or something. Grunting, she twisted free of the grip he'd managed to gain on her arm, lashing out with both fists until he gave her room to move, to get out of his reach and regain her balance.
Almost immediately, he was advancing again, driving her backwards into a small street with a toothless grin. The cigarette man caught up to them then, coming up beside his friend and blocking any chance of exit. She glanced down the street; there were two more waiting at the other end. No escape.
The first man lunged forward, sweeping at her feet. Imogen jumped it, blocked his left fist, ducked under another. Delivered a swift upper-cut as she straightened, with all the power of her body behind it, and his head snapped back painfully. The cigarette man appeared as he stumbled backwards, getting much too close for comfort and filling her lungs with his stink. He buried his knee in her stomach, driving all the air from her body, then gave her a shove and a trip, sending her falling backwards.
Her head cracked painfully against the pavement, sending stars dancing across her vision and a wave of pain rolling through her brain, and the quiver both broke her fall and twisted her back awkwardly as she landed on it. Trying desperately to suck in a breath, her heart beating way too fast as her whole body went into overdrive, she forced herself to roll over onto her hands and knees, trying to get back on her feet. She really hoped Clint was still watching her. She'd take the angry archer over these guys any day. A boot buried itself in her stomach as she choked on her own breath, throwing her sideways; a gun pressed against her leg, reminding her it was there, waiting. She rolled again, pulled it out, aimed in the direction of her attackers, and pulled the trigger.
The cigarette man let out a strangled cry as the shot echoed and went down, clutching at his leg. Crimson began to drop from the hole the bullet had ripped in his pants, staining the grey material an even darker colour. The other one, the one she'd given a solid blow to the jaw rallied, leaping and grabbing at her hand, twisting. She let out a loud cry in protest as a hot, knife-like pain shot through her wrist and the gun fell from her fingers, skittering away out of reach. He kept twisting, making the pain worse. She clenched her teeth, refusing to scream.
"Stop!" A familiar voice saved her, its owner appearing at the end of the street. Her attacker listened, dropping her wrist and retreating, grabbing the gun as he did. Cradling her arm and breathing in short, hard gasps, she stared at this newcomer, blinking spots from her vision.
There were lines in her brother's face, like he wasn't happy, like he didn't understand. "I told you not to hurt her," he said to the man who didn't have a hole in his leg. He sounded…angry?
The oaf just shrugged. "She didn't stop like you said she would. Had to stop her somehow."
Will's focus turned from the idiots to her. "Imogen?" he asked, sounding for all the world like he was talking to a five year old. He'd never talked to her like that before. Or maybe he had. Her mind was so foggy that she couldn't remember. She didn't like it when people talked to her like that; did she let him talk to her like that?
Thinking about it hurt, so she stopped thinking, focusing on the thing that she did remember, the thought that didn't hurt to think. He was a liar. He'd lied to her, all this time. Slowly, she pulled the bow over her head, setting it in the hand that hurt the most (it hurt even more to wrap her fingers around the bow, but she grit her teeth and pushed past it).
"What are you doing?" Will asked. A shadow passed over his face. "Did Barton put you up to this?"
She shook her head, searching for her tongue. "No one put me up to anything," she said slowly. "No one except HYDRA, when they told me to kill."
"You're delirious," her brother decided, a pleading note in his voice.
"I'm fine," she snapped. Her other hand reached back behind her, fingers brushing the ends of the arrows.
"Look, I don't know what Barton did to you," Will tried. "But we can help you. I won't let him hurt you, Imogen, I promise."
"You promise?" she sputtered, hand dropping from the arrows in the wake of her anger. "You can help?" She had the sudden urge to laugh, but she bit it back. "Like when you helped me after they died by lying to me? When you promised you'd find the people that did it?"
His brow furrowed again. "Mum and Dad? But I-"
"I read the file," she cut him off. "It wasn't SHIELD's enemies. That was all a story you made up to make me feel better. It was HYDRA. It was always HYDRA. You knew that too, didn't you? But you never made good on that promise."
"It was a stupid thing I said when we were little! You weren't even supposed to remember it!"
"Okay, so I wasn't supposed to remember the promise you made. Whatever." She stopped to suck in a deep breath and clear her head, glaring daggers at him. "Why didn't you at least tell me how they died; why they died?"
"Yes, you could!" Her voice rose to a shout, though the effort of it made her head pound.
"No, I couldn't!" His voice matched hers, sending pain shooting through her brain. "You were too young," he continued in a quieter voice, taking a deep breath. "You wouldn't have understood."
"I'm twenty three, Will. I think that's old enough to know the truth."
"I know, I know," he huffed over her, stopping her. "It just never came up." His eyes ran over her, assessing every inch of her. "Look, you're tired, and hurt, and probably concussed," he pleaded with her. "Just come with me and we can talk about this when you're in a better state of mind."
"We're talking about it now," she replied stubbornly, making him sigh and pinch the bridge of his nose.
"Why does it even matter?" he asked. "They're dead. The details aren't going to change that."
"It matters because they're our parents, Will," she said through gritted teeth, hardly believing what she was hearing.
"You didn't even know them-"
"I watched them die!" she all but screamed at him. Silence fell over the street; her, standing, panting, alone, the five HYDRA agents staring at her. She could feel their eyes burning into her skin, marking her, branding her. She'd never be able to wash away their scrutiny, she felt in that moment, though the thought didn't bother her like it usually would. All she wanted right now was the chance to lie down and let the throbbing in her head calm and dissipate, let her wrist fall prone somewhere where stabbing pains couldn't run up and down her arm when she moved.
She was letting the pain get away with her, but she didn't care about that either.
Imogen was so distracted, she missed the fleeting glimpse she could have had of the seventh member of their party, missed him vaulting lightly over the front gate of a house nearby and walking casually up the road behind her. She noticed Will grow stiff, noticed his eyes move to something behind her, and only then did she turn to see Clint sauntering up the street to join her, like he hadn't just placed at least five HYDRA agents between himself and his freedom.
"Barton." Will spat the word out like it left a bad taste in his mouth.
"I'm guessing this is your brother?" Clint commented casually, eyeing Will.
"What are you doing here?" Imogen asked whirling to face him with a scowl on her face.
"Even better; what did you do to my sister?" Will added.
"Your brother sucks," Clint continued, ignoring both of them. "You really wanna hang out with him?"
"Will…" Imogen grit her teeth. Her head was pounding, from confusion just as much as the knock it had taken. She needed to lie down, or crawl into a quiet corner until it stopped, or something. Instead, she was surrounded by idiots.
Will turned to his remaining muscle man. "Get him," he hissed. The man who'd careened into her shoulder earlier stepped forwards menacingly. Clint's eyes widened at the sight of him.
"Could really use my bow right about now, kid," he muttered to her.
She looked down at the weapon in her hands.
"Last chance," he added lightly. She thought about it, swallowed hard, and then turned to Will.
"Tell me," she said. "Did they leave you anything? When they died?"
He looked confused, but shook his head anyway. "Nothing. You know that. What is wrong with you?"
"Nothing's wrong with me," she snapped, turning to Clint. Offering him the bow.
"Don't do this, Imogen," Will warned her. "He's only going to use you to do his dirty work."
"Yeah, because no one's done that before," she replied icily.
Clint took the bow, a grin splitting his previously impassive face wide open at the feeling of the familiar weapon in his hand. "Knew you were better than that," he said, reaching over her shoulder and plucking an arrow from the quiver. It sprouted from the stomach of Will's henchman a second later, and he fell with a surprised grunt, hand wrapped around the arrow.
Will looked murderous as he watched his second agent fall, but still he hung back. She wondered why. He wasn't one to let others do all the work for him. Usually, he'd be right in the middle of things, like the good leader he was.
His eyes flicked over her head, at the same time as Clint pivoted and fired behind. She turned – and barely caught a glimpse of her attacker before something heavy caught her in the side of the head.