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It’s Carol that comes to him first.

“Jess sent me,” she says as a form of greeting when Clint opens the door, scratching the side of his head (and a bandage), blinking through a stupor that’s half sleep and half hangover, and everything feels like a strange dream that he’s having trouble comprehending.

“Jess?”

“Jessica Drew, you idiot. Your former girlfriend.”

If that isn’t enough to snap Clint awake, the sight of the scowling cat hissing from her crate (looking, Clint notes, otherwise strangely serene aside from her annoyed expression) causes him to jolt, his eyes widening as he takes in the blonde’s hard face.

“And what did Jess tell you?” he asks finally, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck.

“She said that apparently, you’re good with pets. I’ve got to take care of some stuff and my usual sitter is unavailable. I trust my friends, even if I don’t trust their relationships.”

“Aw, that’s rude,” Clint mutters, squinting at the cat. “I see where you get your winning personality from.”

Carol rolls her eyes. “I’d say I see where you get yours from, but I’ve heard too much. Anyway. Look, I’m in a bind, and I’d really at least like to leave Chewie with someone who knows what they’re doing.”

“Chewie? You named your cat Chewie?” Clint glances down at the cat that seems to be looking angrier by the second, and Carol sighs.

“If you have a problem with that, I can arrange for a short lesson –”

“Chewie’s a great name,” Clint interrupts, holding the door open, because he may not be the smartest person but he’s well aware that being hoisted into the sky with a hangover isn’t the best idea to tempt. “And I’d be happy to watch him for you, okay?”

Carol smiles, handing the crate over with a flourish.

“I knew I could count on you, Barton.”

 

***

 

Natasha comes second, hiding behind sunglasses too big for her face, juggling a small black ball of fur in one hand and a suitcase in the other. She doesn’t bother to knock and enters with her own key, waking him up by clearing her throat in front of his couch.

“I need a favor.”

“Christ, it’s seven on a Saturday,” Clint says when he opens his eyes, after getting over his initial shock, because Natasha showing up in his apartment unannounced isn’t entirely unusual but Natasha showing up in his apartment with her cat on a weekend is.

“I’m well aware of what time and what day it is,” she replies, watching him pull a pillow over his face. “I need a favor.”

“Fuck,” he mutters from underneath the pillow, his voice barely audible. “Did Jess talk to you?”

“What?” Natasha sounds so genuinely confused that Clint actually believes her and groans, sitting up.

“Nevermind. Let me guess – you need me to watch your cat.”

“Her name is Liho, and I got called for an assignment that could take a few days. It’s supposed to storm this weekend, and I don’t want to leave her unattended.”

“She’s not even your goddamn cat,” Clint complains, and Natasha glares.

“I feed her and she sleeps in my bed, so, yes, she’s my cat and now she’s yours. And if you do anything to make her upset, I’ll make sure you’re never allowed in Avengers Tower again.”

Liho turns her head, as if she can sense her kind-of-but-not-really owner’s rising annoyance, and stares pointedly at Clint who falls back onto the couch as Natasha deposits the cat onto his stomach.

“Great,” Clint mutters as Liho bends into a spot on his chest, and he closes his eyes against Natasha’s tight lipped grin.

 

***

 

Kate is third, and unlike Chewie and Liho, Lucky is at least rather happy to see his owner, although that’s about the only positive thing Clint can think of.

“You were supposed to have him for another week,” Clint says as Lucky more or less barrels towards Clint, nearly knocking him over as he attempts to paw at his shoulders. Kate shrugs.

“I gotta get away for a few days. You know how it is. Secret type stuff.”

“Yeah, normally that would be fine and all, but…” Clint trails off and Kate raises an eyebrow.

“But?”

As if in response, Liho peeks out from behind the counter and Chewie hisses from the bed and Kate turns around, throwing up her hands.

“Jesus, Barton. Are you running a damn pet motel?”

“So it would seem,” Clint says through gritted teeth as Chewie makes another noise. Kate turns around and smiles, holding out her hand.

“I like that one. Danvers’ cat, right? She’s a tough cookie, like her mama.”

Clint furrows his brow as Lucky nuzzles against his shins, watching Kate scratch Chewie under her chin.

“Wait a minute. How is it that you know Captain Marvel’s cat, and I don’t? I’m the Avenger here.”

“Because being friends with awesome people has its advantages,” Kate replies with a small smile, before straightening up. “Come on, Lucky’s actually yours in this situation, so you kind of can’t say no. And you’ve had Liho over before…you know he gets along great with cats. I bet him and Chewie will be friends in no time.”

“I don’t think a dog that eats pizza and watches cop shows is going to have a lot in common with a feline that belongs to a super-powered being,” Clint grunts, shifting his gaze, and Kate snorts.

“Contrary to popular belief, not everyone is as bad at adapting to people as you are, Barton. I think you’d be surprised.”

 

***

 

The next day, Clint Barton wakes up with a cramped arm, a headache, and two cats stretched across the length of his face.

It’s not the most absurd thing that’s happened to him, but he definitely ranks it pretty high, and definitely above “strip club undercover cross dressing” and “aliens that invade New York City through an intergalactic portal.”

 

***

 

Jess has a bird, and Clint finds that he has a harder time wrapping his mind around this than the fact that his ex-girlfriend is standing outside his apartment door.

“Let me get this straight.” Clint squints at the cage, where a small yellow mass is jumping around, similar to the way he’s seen Jess do when she’s leaping across buildings. “Spider Woman has a bird? A little flappy thing that makes a lot of noise and flutters around in a crate?”

“Kira is not a little flappy thing,” Jess says shortly. “Do you call your dog a clumsy, pizza-eating mutt?”

“Of course not!” Clint suddenly looks horrified and steps outside, closing the door quickly, as if he’s afraid that Lucky will hear.

“Well, then, don’t imply that my bird is any less deserving of respect than a human is,” Jess replies, before pausing. “By the way, did Carol bring Chewie over?”

“What, you can’t sense the attitude from here?” Clint asks a little sarcastically. “Yeah, about two days ago.”

Jess cracks a smile. “I thought so. Anyway…”

Clint shoves his hands into his pockets. “Please tell me that you’re not going to ask me –”

“I’d like to think I have better things to do than ask my ex-boyfriend to take care of important things for me, but I gotta admit, Barton…you’re great at pets.”

 

***

 

“I never pegged you for a cat lady,” Simone notes when she stops by to drop off some movies that she’s borrowed. “Should I bring my babies over?”

“I’m not a cat lady! Person,” Clint corrects, cursing silently. “I’m just pet-sitting for a few days.”

“You ever hear of So Many Cats?’” Simone asks, raising an eyebrow as she hands over a bag of DVDs.

“Huh?” Clint startles, and Simone smiles.

So Many Cats. It’s a children’s book. Used to read it to my kids all the time.”

“I’m not –” Clint stops. “There’s a dog, too,” he insists lamely as Lucky trots out to greet his visitor. “And a bird.”

Simone crouches down, ruffling the fur at Lucky’s neck, before straightening up.

“Well, if you ever wanna bring these guys around for a barbeque, lemme know. My kids could use some amusement that doesn’t involve sitting in front of the television and watching mindless cartoons.”

Clint sighs. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he says tiredly as Simone squeezes his shoulder, giving him a knowing grin.

 

***

 

The knocking that has been going on for near a minute soon becomes incessant as Clint stumbles out of the bathroom, nearly tripping over Chewie’s prone form, as the cat has taken to sleeping in front of the door for a reason he quite can’t understand.

“Jesus Christ!”

He straightens up as Chewie turns, snarling moodily, and Clint continues to grumble under his breath as he makes way across the apartment.

“Barton, what the hell?”

“Nice to see you too,” Clint says sarcastically when he opens the door in greeting, and Maria Hill pauses with her lips locked around her coffee cup, looking more shocked than she’s ever looked in her life.

“Just how many pets are currently running around in your apartment?”

“Natasha’s cat, Carol’s cat, my dog, and Jess’ bird,” Clint counts off on his fingers, before shrugging. “Apparently, I’m good at pets.”

“Apparently,” Maria says dryly, crossing her arms. “Should I add that to your S.H.I.E.L.D. dossier? Maybe we can open a daycare for the times when you want to put off paperwork.”

“Aw, daycare, no,” Clint says, and the paleness on his face is so sudden that Maria bites back a laugh, before shoving a file into his hands and walking back down the stairs.

 

***

 

“Barton’s harboring pets,” Maria says as soon as Pepper picks up the phone. “A lot of them.”

“Hmmm.” Pepper makes a noise as Maria glances towards the street before crossing. “Is that anything new?”

“I didn’t know the guy could take care of his own dog, let alone three other animals, to be honest,” Maria admits. “But I suppose stranger things have happened.”

“Yeah, you didn’t hear about Captain America and the pig.”

Maria stops in the middle of the sidewalk, committing what she knows is her own pet peeve, and clutches the phone tighter. “Excuse me?”

“I’m kidding,” Pepper continues lightly, and Maria can hear quiet ding of the microwave followed by a clattering of silverware. “You know what, maybe I’ll have Tony bring over another dog to even it out.”

“Not a bad idea,” Maria muses, checking her watch. Fifteen minutes until her lunch break is up and ten minutes back to midtown, including a stop at Starbucks. She starts walking a little more briskly towards the subway.

“Think we could get Stark to champion a superhero pet sitting service?”

The next sound is of Pepper’s fingernails clicking against the keys of her computer, and when she speaks again, her voice sounds a little too thoughtful.

“I’ll put it in the memo.”

 

***

 

from: n_romanoff@shield.gov <encryptedemail_id73>

to: c_barton@shield.gov <encryptedemail_id505>

just checking in to see if my cat’s okay. sometimes she gets restless so you can let her outside on the fire escape or something as long as you’re sure she remembers her surroundings well enough.

 

from: c_barton@shield.gov <encryptedemail_id505>

to: n_romanoff@shield.gov <encryptedemail_id73>

she’s fine. lucky’s really taken to her. i let her out to roam around the other day…she didn't kill anyone that i know of. ha. by the way, where the hell are you?

 

from: n_romanoff@shield.gov <encryptedemail_id73>

to: c_barton@shield.gov <encryptedemail_id505>

classified. be home in 48 hours.

 

from: c_barton@shield.gov <encryptedemail_id505>

to: n_romanoff@shield.gov <encryptedemail_id73>

oh, good, an exact time frame. because that always bodes well.

 

***

 

When Natasha returns, Clint’s pretty sure that Liho has never been happier to see a human in his life.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw you so maternal,” he observes, watching Natasha stroke the cat’s spine and the way she seemingly curls in on herself. It’s meant to come out as sarcastic and a bit amused, but instead, he finds his words catching in his throat.

After all, he gets it. He gets what having another creature means when you’re the only one fending for yourself, when you don’t exactly know who you can trust. Clint clears his throat, gesturing in her direction

“I’m just going to go out on a limb here, but I think she missed you a little bit.”

“Yeah,” Natasha agrees, hoisting Liho more securely into her arms, and catching his eye. “Well, she’ll be back to wandering around outside my window soon enough. Which, strangely, she seems to prefer sometimes.”

“She’s a cat,” Clint says as Natasha hides a smile, slipping on her sunglasses.

“I know. Thanks for watching her, by the way.”

Clint reaches out, brushing his palms against soft, black fuzz.

“Anytime, Nat.”

 

***

 

A week and half later, Clint is left with one dog, one very irritated cat, and an apartment that’s messy as all hell.

Carol remains M.I.A., but a bag of cat food shows up with Jess when she comes to pick up her bird, and he finds himself buying extra bowls, and at the end of another week Chewie’s actually rubbing up against his leg rather than scowling angrily – and when the door is shut and the apartment is quiet again, he thinks maybe that people are right, and maybe he’s good at pets after all.

 

***

 

“So what did Maria say?” Carol deposits Chewie onto the floor, watching her dart into the living room she opens the fridge.

“It was Pepper, actually,” Jess replies into the phone. “Something about possibly instituting a sort of pet daycare.” She pauses briefly. “Think Barton would be up for that?”

“You tell me, you’re the one that dated him.”

“Well.” Carol can practically hear her friend shrug over the phone. “To be honest, there were always things that surprised me about him, even after I thought I had it all figured out.”

“Yeah,” Carol muses, sitting down at the table and running a hand through her hair. “I have to admit, though…he’s great at pets.”