Man's Best Friend

12: Man's Best Friend

She stood and shot for hours, until her shoulders started burning with ever pull on the bowstring, not used to this kind of exercise. It was well into the afternoon when she finally collected Clint's arrows for the last time and returned to the house, leaving the bow and quiver by the door. Natasha was in the living room, curled up in an armchair with a book in her lap. Imogen passed her by, heading straight for the fridge in search of food. Clint had precious little at the moment – apparently he hadn't been here in a while, and Natasha had only brought field essentials with her – non-perishables, mainly, all bland and tasteless.

Where was Clint anyway? He'd taught her how to shoot and then promptly disappeared. Maybe he knew that he had no food and was avoiding anyone who noticed, she thought as she closed the fridge. Or maybe Natasha knew, if she dared to ask the red-head. She'd been avoiding contact with the other woman since their introduction yesterday, knowing that Natasha didn't trust her; which was fair enough considering the circumstances.

Come on, she chided herself. She can't be that scary. How she face off against HYDRA, yet not even ask this new woman one question? Oh, right. Because she was Agent Romanoff, the famed Black Widow. Except that was still a stupid excuse because she'd agreed to kill Hawkeye without a second thought, and he was just as dangerous as the Widow (no matter how goofy he was the rest of the time).

Sighing, she tugged at the hem of her disgusting Hawkeye shirt, trying to make it fit more comfortably (she didn't like things touching her neck, like the shirt currently was). Why had she gotten tangled up in superheroes and deadly assassins? She was way out of her depth, much as she acted like she wasn't – technically, she was and unemployed criminal with no particular skillset other than an aptitude for starting things she couldn't finish. Certainly someone who wasn't Avengers caliber.

Lucky came padding into the room and sat, looking up at her with one intelligent brown eye. "Do you know where Clint is? She asked him. His head tilted to one side. "Yeah, didn't think so," she muttered, giving a pat as she walked past.

"Natasha?" she asked tentatively at the living room door, leaning on the frame. The redhead looked up sharply, b. "Know where Clint is?"

"He drove off about an hour ago," Natasha replied. "Why?"

"There's no food in his fridge." She shrugged.

"There's never any food at his place. He eats it all as soon as he gets it."

Imogen found herself smiling at the Widow. "Any idea where he went?"

"Town, probably."

"Oh." At a lack of anything to say, she pushed off the door frame and went back outside, the dog following her out. There was an old tennis ball lying abandoned next to a hand-crafted wooden rocking chair on the porch, thread-bare and grimy, and at Lucky's longing whine, she picked it up with two fingers and threw it as far as she could, slumping down on the front steps. With a happy bark, he sped off across the yard, pursuing his disgusting toy. A few seconds later he was back again, dropping it right in her lap and looking at her expectantly with a lolling grin.

"Ew," she said, throwing it again. Her whole hand felt like it was covered in dog slobber already. It was this kind of thing that made her reluctant to go anywhere near farms and animals. Slobber was disgusting.

On the fourth or fifth throw, she was caught off guard as two more dogs came dashing out from the direction of the barns to join the game, trying to outrun Lucky as he made a dash for the ball. The one-eyed dog got there first, and trotted back to her with his head held high, the other two trailing along behind.

As Lucky dropped the ball (at her feet this time mercifully), a black kelpie bounded up the taps and straight into her lap. She was too big to fit into anyone's lap but tried her hardest anyway, front end splayed across her Imogen's knees as she panted happily. "How many dogs does Barton have?" she asked the kelpie, scratching its head and leaning around it to reach the ball. The bog barked loudly in reply and then leapt off her again, bounding back down the stairs. She threw the ball again, and Lucky and the kelpie zoomed away, competing fiercely for the honour of returning it to her.

Only one dog remained, hunched warily at the bottom of the stairs. It was black and white, distinctly reminding her of a border collie, and not very old, still small and fluffy, though also scared out of its wits, cowering at the bottom of the stairs.

Not really feeling like risking a dog bite, she left it alone, taking the ball from the kelpie and tossing it in a different direction, watching the dogs scramble to retrieve it with a vindictive grin.

The growl of a car engine brought her eyes to the driveway, easily spotting the car she and Clint had stolen a few days ago (she still kind of missed their original car, she realised suddenly). The dogs were back then, but she let the ball roll away across the porch and watched Clint approach. The kelpie, still full of energy, raced past her and after it – Lucky dropped to the step below her feet, watching the puppy at the bottom of the stairs.

"Help me out?" Clint asked as he got out of the car, reaching into the back seat. She traipsed over to the car, taking a couple of shopping bags and following him into the house. The pup, she noticed, skittered away as they climbed the stairs, only creeping back as Clint struggled to open the front door. Eventually, Natasha put him out of his misery, and then all three were in the kitchen, sorting through groceries.

"You have a lot of dogs," Imogen commented as she stacked various items in the fridge.

"Only three," he replied, looking disgruntled. "Three's not many."

"Three?" Natasha put in. "You didn't get another one did you?"

Clint froze. "'s just a puppy," he argued. "Guy was going to drown it."

Natasha muttered something about dogs, but continued unpacking. Clint relaxed, like he'd just gotten out of some kind of punishment. "You saw the collie?" he asked.

Imogen nodded. "Didn't come any closer than the stairs though," she said, snagging a bag of chips and retreating to the other side of the kitchen.

"Doesn't usually even get that close."

"Are they all rescue dogs?"

Clint nodded. "Lucky was beaten up by some tracksuit guys and hit by a car. Found Blackie at an animal shelter, going crazy because there wasn't enough room for her to run around. And my neighbour brought me the pup after taking it from his neighbour, who wanted to drown it." He glanced at her. "Stop eating that. We're having pizza."

Rolling her eyes, she put down the chips and pulled herself up onto the bench. "I haven't had anything to eat all day."

"It's only three o'clock." He threw back.

"Why do you want to have pizza in the middle of the day anyway?"

"Because." He looked at her like he was trying to figure out if she was stupid or not. "Pizza."" She gave up.

"I put some cloths in the bathroom for you," Natasha said after a moment, her eyes on Imogen's disgusting (and ridiculous) shirt. "Figured Clint wouldn't have bothered getting anything more than what you're wearing."

"He didn't," she affirmed over his offended 'hey!', slipping off the bench. Looking down at the shirt, she realised just how disgusting it really was (at this point, she'd just gotten used to it, not that she'd ever been bothered by how she looked anyway). Leaving them to it, she wandered down the hall and locked herself in the bathroom. As promised, there were clothes – all black, and all plain, except for the SHIELD logo on the shirt.

One quick shower later, and she stood dressed in clothes that were perhaps a little too big for her, but clean enough that she didn't care. Nat was waiting for her on the other side of the door. "Want me to get rid of that?" she asked, looking pointedly at the Hawkeye shirt.

Imogen thought about it for a moment, and then shook her head. "It's not that bad. Though I don't know if I'll be wearing it in public again."

"I wouldn't blame you."

Grinning, she left the clothes in the bathroom and followed Natasha back to the kitchen, where Clint and Lucky were peering into the oven, watching two frozen pizzas cooking. Imogen picked up one of the boxes that had been left on the bench. "Did you get anything other than meatlovers?" she asked.

He looked up from the oven. "Meatlovers is good," he told her, before returning to his pizza watch. Lucky woofed his agreement, tail sweeping the floor happily. "Good Pizza Dog."

"Even the dog's against me?" Imogen sighed.

"Lucky's against everyone," Natasha said. "Don't take it personally."

"Stupid dog," Clint mumbled, patting Lucky.

"That can't be good for him," Imogen said forty minutes later, watching Clint feed Lucky his fourth piece of pizza.

"It's pizza," the archer replied. "How could it be bad?"

"Do all your dogs eat pizza?"

"He tries to give them all pizza," Natasha said. "Most of them don't like it though."

"They all like pizza," he argued. Natasha just smiled and reached for another slice.

"What are we doing out here?" Imogen asked as she followed Clint out to one of the back barns, blind except for the light of a weak torch in the dark, moonless night.

"Going to find the dogs," he grunted in reply, pushing open the barn door and switching on the lights, flooding the building with light. Immediately, Blackie was upon them, jumping all over the place. The pup, who it seemed was always near her, was hiding behind the open door of a stall more suited for a horse than a dog.

There were three stalls actually, all empty but recently used, presumably by the horses she'd seen grazing nearby every now and then. Hay was stacked in one corner, spilling out everywhere, and opposite it was some kind of workshop (she hadn't taken Barton for someone who liked to tinker, but perhaps she'd been wrong). The other end of the barn was a mess of assorted dog beds and kennels. She spotted at least two cats curled up on the bedding, apparently unbothered by the kelpie who was still bounding around all over the place.

"For a SHIELD agent, you sure have a lot of animals," she commented dryly, looking around.

Clint shrugged, opening up a bag of dog food. "I've had a lot of free time lately. And some great neighbours."

"Still. Not many agents have this kind of life."

"Not many agents are good enough at their jobs to take holidays. Some don't even like holidays." His hand slipped and biscuits scattered everywhere. "Aw, biscuits," he mumbled, scooping up even more. Blackie was there immediately to clean up his mess, chasing biscuits across the barn floor.

The pup peeked out from his hiding place at the sound of Clint pouring food into a bowl, though still he didn't approach. "What are you going to do about that one?" she asked, gesturing at the collie.

Clint glanced between her and the dog, then handed her the bowl. "Seems to like you," he said. "Go on." With trepidation, she took the bowl and inched closer to the pup, stopping when he retreated further into the stall. The bowl in front of her, she sat down on the cold, dusty floor of the barn and waited.

A moment later, a black and white nose appeared around the corner, followed by a set of wide brown eyes. She rolled a few biscuits across the floor to him, tempting him out of his hiding place. Slowly, slowly, he came creeping out to snatch them up, always with one eye trained on her.

Clint sat down next to her and the dog disappeared again. "Smooth," she said sarcastically.

"He'll come back," Clint replied calmly; sure enough, the nose appeared again, and those wary, wary eyes.

"So," he said as she rolled another biscuit across the floor. "You wanna talk about what happened to other night?"

"No," she said firmly, watching the pup sneak out to eat.

"Imogen," he said, in that kind of disapproving, controlling tone she'd heard so many times before. She scowled at the sound of it.

"Don't," she said suddenly, surprising him.

"Don't what?"

"Say my name like that. You sound like Will."

"Sorry." He paused, watching the pup with her. "Were you stubborn to him to?" She punched him in the arm. He just grinned at her, rubbing the spot where she'd hit him. "C'mon kid. What's this Item 548 thing?"

"No idea," she said with a shrug. "Why do you think I asked you about it that one time?"


She snapped round to look at him with wide, fierce eyes. "You don't trust me," she said finally. "You think I'm lying?"

"I don't trust many people," he replied, calm and quiet.

She looked down at the bowl of dog food. "You trust Natasha."



He hesitated. "Because she'd saved my life more times than I can count. Because I've saved her."

"You saved me."

"Sort of," he agreed.

A pause. "Will you ever trust me?"

A small smile touched his face. "Maybe."

She nodded, setting the biscuits out in front of them and standing up. There was no sign of the dog now; no reason to be there. "I don't know anything about 548," she said, almost as an afterthought. "It was…something…to do with my parents. With my mum. I don't know anything else." She took a few steps, then stopped again. "It's okay, by the way. That you don't trust me. I wouldn't trust me either."

She walked back to the house, alone.

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