9: Chasing Birds
"She's not picking up."
"I know Murphy."
The techie tapped a few keys on his keyboard. "I can't get a fix on her if she doesn't pick up."
"I know." He pressed the call button again.
"How do we even know she still has her phone?"
"Barton has it," Will said. "Picked it up when he took her."
"I don't know Murphy." His voice was long-suffering now. "Why does that crazy archer do anything?"
Murphy just gave him a look, and then turned back to his screen. The phone rang out.
From the front of the van came an impatient sigh. Keely's face appeared between the curtains that separated back from front, eyeing them both. "Do you have anything yet?" she asked. Murphy shook his head and she ran a hand through her short black hair. "I need a smoke," she declared, disappearing again.
"You're not supposed to do that in the field," Will called half-heartedly.
"Give me something to do and I'll stop," came her reply, just before she slammed the door closed. He didn't move; there was no real point in stopping her. After all, John wasn't supposed to be snoring loudly in the front seat either, and if he stopped Keely from smoking, he'd have to wake John up – and no one wanted that. John wasn't the sort of person you snuck up on if you valued your health and wellbeing.
He called Imogen again.
"How do you know she'll even pick up?" Murphy asked. "You're not exactly the number one person she's going to want to talk to right now."
"She'll pick up." His voice left no room for doubt. "I know my sister. She'll pick up."
"You sure sound confident about that."
Will shrugged. "People become predictable, once you know them well enough. Imogen works on the truth. A long as she knows she's been lied to, she'll give anything to know the real story."
"She used to be such a good kid." Murphy leant back in his chair, swinging from side to side. He'd met her once or twice, he recalled, when she'd been around to see Will or the team had been stationed at the same base as her. Then, he'd thought she was nice enough, if a little rough around the edges. And anyway, from what he'd heard, she had reason enough to be. It didn't really bother him all that much. Now she was a fugitive, an enemy of HYDRA. He was having a hard time reconciling that description with the small blonde he remembered.
Will laughed. "She was never a good kid," he corrected. "I kept her out of trouble/ Thought she'd stop being so pigheaded once she got into training, but…"
Murphy could see his thoughts written all over his face, and paused in his endless searching. "It's not your fault, you know," he told Will. "It was her choice to go and find Barton."
"Maybe you're right," the other man sighed. Nodding to himself, Murphy turned back to his computers.
The phone stopped mid-ring.
Clint turned down the radio.
Imogen glanced at him, slouched in the passenger seat inspecting the fletching of an arrow, his feet settled on the dash, and looked back to the road, trying to ignore the sudden quiet. "Why'd you join HYDRA?" he asked finally.
Her grip on the steering wheel tightened. "Why'd you join SHIELD?" she shot back, automatically shifting to defensive.
In the corner of her eye, she could see him give her a strange look. There was a long pause, and then, "I don't know if you're being serious or not." His attention moved back to his arrows.
"I'm serious," she decided firmly.
He sighed. "I'll tell you if you'll tell me?"
Another sigh, and then a shrug. The arrow in his hands rolled back and forth between his fingers. "I was working as an assassin; you know, hired to kill and all that. Made a name for myself." He held up the arrow and let out a humourless laugh, sobering quickly. "Pretty easy when you use a unique weapon. Anyway, I was camped out on a rooftop in the middle of the night somewhere in Brazil, waiting for this one drug lord to come into sight, when I see these guys in heavy combat gear lurking around. I'd been scoping this place out for days and I knew they weren't supposed to be there, so I get down off the roof and leg it. Thought I'd given them the slip, and then this one guy in a suit starts chasing me, and he's good. Kept following and following, and I couldn't shake him off."
"What'd you do?" she asked, when he descended into silence, staring at the arrow.
Clint smiled faintly, but there was a hollow, haunted look in his eyes now, a slight shake to his hands that she put down to a trick of the light. "He caught up to me when I turned into a dead end, and then tripped on a tree root and busted my ankle. There I am, limping around, and this guy in a suit appears and says, 'Clint Barton? I'd like to talk to you about conviction'."
"Conviction?" She frowned at the term.
Clint nodded. "Yeah, conviction. Coulson was pretty big on the idea."
"Sounds stupid to me."
He laughed. "Me too. Convinced me to join SHIELD though."
"So you joined because someone gave you a speech about loyalty?"
"I joined because it was better than just killing for money. Because it was a job that let me sleep at night."
"Until HYDRA came about," she added.
Clint nodded. "So?"
"Why'd you join HYDRA?"
"Because Will did," she said slowly. "And he joined because our parents filled him up with HYDRA propaganda before I was even born. He's eight years older than me, you know."
"They didn't do it to you?"
She waved him off casually. "Probably. I don't remember them."
"Do you remember them dying?"
She glanced at him sharply, then glued her eyes to the road. "What?" she asked, before remembering what she'd been saying to Will moments before Clint showed up in that street a few days ago. I watched them die! He must have heard her then.
Clint was still looking at her, waiting; she could see him in the corner of her eye, however hard she tried not to. Imogen swallowed hard, trying to get rid of the lump in her throat.
"Yeah," she admitted finally. "I remember that. I mean-" Reaching up, she pulled the neck of her shirt down low enough to reveal her collarbone, and the long, jagged scar she usually kept covered that ran above it. "-they left me enough of a reminder." She let the shirt go, covering it again. "I was five. They tried to slit my throat," she continued, just to fill the silence. "I got lucky."
"Sorry, kid." Clint fell silent.
A gas station came into view ahead, a tall sign loudly telling anyone who passed by about the newly opened McDonalds there. "You hungry?" he asked suddenly.
"Really?" she asked, not impressed.
"They have good coffee."
"What's ridiculous about coffee?"
"It's the middle of the day."
He sighed. "Just pull over."
She did as he said, then sat and waited while he refueled. "You want anything?" he asked through the window.
"No way," she replied, curling her lip. He shrugged and wandered off.
There was a faint buzzing noise coming from the back seat, only audible now that the engine was silent. Her phone again…and again, and again. Groaning, she tried to ignore it, but it was like a bug you couldn't quite pin down, making just enough noise to annoy you.
Four calls in and she was over it. Why had she made her own phone so annoying? Twisting around, she reached for Clint's bag and rummaged through it – why did he have so much stuff – almost cutting herself on a loose arrowhead as she retrieved the phone. The call rang out as she slumped back down in her seat, letting her unlock and scroll through her messages. They were all from Will, of course, the latest sent the night before.
Imogen, call me back.
I know you have your phone.
Just talk to me?
Thought we were supposed to be family.
After everything I've done for you, you can't even give me one call?
I should have-
Another call came through, and without thinking about it she punched the reject button. "Damn it," she muttered to herself a moment later, when she realised that he'd now know she was paying attention. Her phone returned to the messages.
I should have expected this from you.
You've always been a lost cause.
That one hurt the most. Will had bailed her out of a lot of trouble over the years, but that was the first time he'd given up on her.
A new message came through, pushing the old ones away. Hi Imogen. And another. We need to talk.
She hesitated, then tapped out a reply. About what?
Mum and Dad. And you.
And if I don't care anymore?
What about Item 548? I know you read the report.
She called him.
He answered on the first ring. "Hey Immy."
"Don't call me that."
"'You've always been a lost cause.' Really?"
She heard him sigh and felt a grim satisfaction at the sound. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean it."
"Yeah, whatever. What do you want?"
"Why are you doing this?" He sounded pained.
She had an answer for him this time. "Oh, I don't know, maybe because HYDRA killed our parents and then sent me out to be killed too?"
"That mission was a mistake, Imogen. No one wanted you to die."
"Yeah? And what about Mum and Dad?"
"They were traitors. Mum tried to sabotage the Soldier program, was working on something that would have crippled HYDRA for good. Dad wanted out, wanted to sell everything he knew to the highest bidder."
"Good? HYDRA is trying to build a better world, and its people like them that tear it all apart."
"HYDRA were going to kill millions of people. I've seen the news. You can't just kill people for standing up for what they believe in."
"You don't understand-"
"I do!" She smacked her fist into the seat, pushing down against the cushion.
"No you don't. You never have. And you never will." He was angry too now. "You're a puppet, a project, and you always will be."
"What the hell are you talking about?" she asked, gritting her teeth. Clint appeared outside the gas station, coffee in hand. She should hang up now, if she didn't want him to know, but she couldn't bring herself to, not without knowing just why he was saying these things.
Will laughed. "See, I told you you'd want to know. I'm talking about-" A hand grabbed her wrist, pulling the phone away from her ear and then out of her grip entirely, cancelling the call.
"Call from the enemy. Trap," Clint said, his voice dark. "Didn't we talk about this?" She shrugged. "I'm driving, by the way. Get out."
Wordlessly, Imogen slid out of the driver's seat and rounded the car, climbing back in on the other side. Clint barely gave her time to shut the door before he drove off, going faster than was probably legally allowed (not that she was going to question it).
His quiet disapproval bothered her. Usually, she didn't care if other people thought badly of her, but when it was clear that Clint didn't approve? Well, now she cared. It annoyed her too – she didn't want to care what he thought. Why would she? It made no sense.
"Sorry," she muttered eventually, if only to put her own mind to rest.
Clint nodded, just once. "What did he say?" he asked.
"Something about our parents being traitors." She shrugged, as if it were no big deal.
Imogen hesitated. "He said I was a puppet," she added finally. "And a lost cause."
Clint gave her a smile. "That's alright," he said. "I was both those things too."