He doesn’t see them on his walk to work, but does immediately on his way home. He assumes they’re new in town, like new by a few hours, because he definitely would have noticed them before now.
Not the guy, probably. The guy looks like it’s for sure not his first alleyway in for sure not his first new town – he sits against the wall like he might become one of the bricks with very little effort on anyone’s part, but also like he could be standing and sprinting with very little provocation. It’s a practiced slump, something Clint’s hardly going to judge him for; he’s been homeless more than once, a few handfuls of times in the years between the circus and the coffee shop. He gets it. And this guy is for sure homeless. His face is the closed off that means he’s probably fighting some internal battle, as well as the entire fucking world, and his hair is the long length of neglect. His clothes are uniformly the nondescript brown color that means they probably originally weren’t, soaking up all the dirt and the rust and the walls he slumps against, and when he reaches his arm – his only, Clint realizes, an empty sleeve flapping in the breeze along his left side – from out beneath his coat, his wrists are too bony to be intentional.
The dog, though? The dog looks like it’s spun from gold.
Sure, it’s a golden retriever, it’s meant to be that burnished copper penny color, but this dog… This dog looks like the heavens have opened up and blessed it, like the sun has reached down one finger of flame to press its light into fuzzy, four-legged form.
Clint’s not a poet. He just really likes dogs, and this? This is a beautiful fucking dog.
“Hey,” he trips over a trashcan and his own tennis shoes to get to them, already drunk on the idea of a new dog to befriend, “Hey man. Hey. Please, can I pet your dog?”
The man looks at him with a face crinkled in confusion. Looks down at the dog seated unleashed beside him. Looks back up, this time with drawn eyebrows and dry lips that slowly form the words back at him. Dog, he mouths, tasting it like he’s not sure exactly what it means, can I pet your dog and then he just glances forward, helpless. “Dog,” he says in a voice as cracked as his lips, over-emphasizing and caught up on the vowel like it’s something he’s never encountered before, and Clint feels like an asshole for just assuming the dude needs to speak English.
“Dog,” he points, and he knows the word in twenty-three languages but he doesn’t know which one to use. “I,” and he points back at himself, then again at the dog, and finally just thrusts his hands forward. “I touch?” He mimes a sort of stroking motion, and it’s right around then that he remembers that he does, actually, sign fluently, and that he’s resorted to basically flailing his limbs and hoping there’s meaning to be found. He shrugs, and holds up a finger. “One time?”
The man watches his lips, not his hands, and then he meets his gaze with a cracked, crooked smile. “Sure man, you can pet my dog,” he drawls in the lazy tones of pure New York. Clint might be seeing red except that he takes that moment to finally look up and meet his gaze and his eyes are like, unfairly blue, and instead Clint ends up seeing a little bit purple (it’s fine, it’s his favorite color, his shoes and his shirt are purple today, and his aids are always purple, and purple is fine) but mostly just blue, like maybe the sun touched the dog but the whole fucking sky touched this guy’s eyes. Still not a poet.
“Thank you,” he drops to his knees, not even caring that the street is filthy and that he had planned on wearing these same pants to work the next day. The dog stares at him, not afraid so much as assessing, and his tail does not wag at the attention. He does, however, lean his head into Clint’s palms when he rubs behind his ears. “Who’s a good fucking dog?” he asks, even though they all know the answer. It’s this dog.
“Not him,” the man says, and tugs the tip of the dog’s golden tail fondly.
Clint is so stunned that he actually releases the dog and turns his attention away entirely. “He’s a good dog,” he hisses, offended on the dog’s behalf, and then turns back to address the dog, very seriously, face to face. “All dogs are good dogs.”
The man doesn’t respond but his mouth cracks open and his throat moves like there’s something caught in it, and it looks exactly like someone who has never laughed before but is trying to copy the motions they’ve seen. “All dogs are good dogs,” he finally says, and his voice is still the creak of a hinge in desperate need of some oil, but the words sound like they’re coming out a bit easier now. “But he’s not. He’s a piece of shit.”
The dog’s tail thwaps against the ground and his tongue lolls out in a happy doggy grin, and Clint can’t bring himself to argue when there’s so much soft fur to dig his fingers into. “He’s not,” he coos, “you’re not. You’re a good dog,” and the dog doesn’t pay any attention to the words but his tail keeps time on the pavement.
He thinks he loses time somewhere among the really fucking distractingly gold strands of fur, but eventually he realizes that he’s been burying his face in some homeless guy’s dog for the better part of five minutes (ten minutes? Longer?). And that maybe, just maybe, that’s some form of not nice or not normal or not whatever he’s supposed to be aiming to be nowadays. “Thanks,” he finally says to the dog, and stands. Then he turns and says it again to the man, because he might have been raised in the circus but he wasn’t raised in a barn. He has manners.
“No problem,” the man says, but it clearly is a problem because he hasn’t taken that intense, intensely blue gaze off of Clint since he touched the dog. Like maybe he thinks Clint is going to steal him, or just maybe like he’s pissed that Clint has ignored him, a person, entirely in favor of a dog (which, okay, but could anyone blame him? It’s a dog.)
Shuffling awkwardly, cold in the suddenly evening air and the suspicious damp at the knees of his jeans, Clint gestures at the fast food restaurant across the street. “Buy you dinner?” The man doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no either, and Clint figures it’s just a matter of pride; there’s no sign asking for money, and the man hasn’t yet, but he doesn’t even have a backpack with him so he’s clearly travelling dangerously light. “Maybe just a coffee?”
There’s another bout of that strange, silent, parroted laughing motion. “Oh shit, you meant me?” The man grins again, crooked like the turn of his eye teeth. “I thought you were talking to the mutt.”
The dog barks again, happily, and this time when his tail keeps an eager beat it’s against the man’s leg; Clint likes the man just a little bit for how much his dog clearly adores him, because dogs are always the best judge of character. “Well,” he stuffs his hands in his pockets, mostly to keep him from rubbing the spun-gold softness of the dog’s ears again, “that’s because I was. But I guess you’re invited too.”
The man glances at the crayon-like shades of red and yellow that wait across the street, and then he drops his gaze. “Nah man, we’re good.” The dog disagrees with a low whuffling noise from the back of his throat, but he makes those same noises while trying to burrow beneath the man’s one good arm so it’s obvious whose side he’s going to be on. Clint’s no stranger to pride, so he lets it go.
He’s also no stranger to hunger, so he drops off a bag of burgers and fries as he walks by.
He passes them again on his way to work the following day. They’re sitting in the same spot, still with a lack of belongings or bags, but there’s no trace of the food from the night before so Clint assumes it’s been eaten.
“Good morning,” he greets as warmly as he can at nine in the morning; he’s figuring the guy’s a vet of some kind, what with the arm, and there’s a whole lot he’d like to say about the government (or rather, there’s very little he’d like to say about the government beyond a heartfelt fuck it) but the fact that he’s seen more military veterans living on the street than anywhere else is pretty near the top of his list. He figures the least he can do is a few meals when the guy allows it and a few kind words when he doesn’t.
The guy doesn’t respond, and then he does. “Oh, me?” That crooked smile is back, and those too blue eyes, and his voice sounds slightly less like it’s about to fall apart from disuse. “I thought you meant him,” he jerks his chin at the golden retriever, who is sprawled in the patch of sunlight beside him and looking goddamn radiant.
Clint itches to pet him again. “I did,” he says around a smile of his own, because politeness says there a script he has to follow before he can ask.
The man’s smile turns into a grin, like he knows, and he tugs the dog’s tail lightly. “Wake up, Princey-paws. Your boyfriend’s back.” The dog jerks awake with a start, toes twitching away the last of his dreams, and his nose shakes with the multitude of smells he takes in in those short seconds before his eyes open; he doesn’t relax until he meet’s the man’s eyes, and then his stern doggy face breaks into a wide doggy smile. “Go on,” the man says, this time to Clint. “I know you want to.”
He does. “Hey buddy,” he drops to his knees again, forgetting that he’s on his way to work instead of his way home, and ruffles the fur at the dog’s shoulders. “So your name’s Prince?” It’s fitting. Clint would go to great lengths for any dog alive, but he would probably follow this one to the ends of the earth if it led him there – there’s just something about him, when he meets Clint’s eyes and loses a bit of the dopiness from his expression, that makes Clint want to earn this dog’s respect. The dog – Prince – ruffs softly at the words, probably a response to his name, and Clint is thrilled. “My name’s Clint,” he introduces himself with a scratch behind Prince’s ear in the spot that makes him whuffle his nose happily.
“I’m James,” the man says from somewhere behind him, creaky voice gone creakier with amusement, “if it matters.”
It matters. See, the guy – James – loves dogs and has eyes so blue they make Clint wish he was a poet, or at least that he hadn’t dropped out the tenth grade, and he’s just the sort of asshole that doesn’t make Clint feel like a bad person for being exactly the same sort. He’s pretty much the most interesting part of Clint’s day, and he has a dog (and his dog is like, seriously the world’s most beautiful dog with the world’s most softest fur). It’s basically the best thing ever. “It doesn’t,” Clint says instead, because that’s what their sort of asshole would say, “but nice to meet you anyway.”
He leaves them a few minutes later with the full breakfast he’d packed before leaving his apartment, and then he goes to work.
That evening, after work, he leaves them with dinner as well.
The pattern continues for the next few days of Clint’s work week: he passes them twice a day, pretends to stop and talk with James while actually stopping to pet Prince and coo over how wonderful he is, and he leaves them food before rushing off to somewhere he claims to be late to (and most of the time, actually is) before they can protest. In his mind, it’s less of a good deed and more of basic capitalism. Food can be exchanged for continuous access to awesome dogs.
On Sunday, when he stops by to drop off dinners and lean in for a rub at Prince’s ears, James’s hand reaches out to grab at his wrist before he can go; it’s the first time they’ve made any motion toward touching, and it freezes him. “Here,” he says, and it’s still obvious that he doesn’t speak much beyond his few minute conversations with Clint – his voice still sounds a little bit like a door rusted shut, and a whole lot like one finally cracking open. He turns Clint’s hand over and presses a coin into the center of his palm, digging an imprint deep with his thumb. It’s larger than a half dollar and scalloped around the edges, and there’s a small oval cutout in the center. “A thanks,” he explains in a way that doesn’t, “for the sandwiches.”
“Oh,” Clint thinks about refusing. “No worries, man.”
James closes his fingers into a fist around the coin, squeezing three times until Clint gets the idea and holds it tightly, before his arm retreats back to vanish into the filthy jacket that drapes across him like a cape. “Charge it overnight under the full moon,” he doesn’t whisper. “And it will grant you three wishes.”
“Okay,” Clint agrees, definitely wanting to refuse now. “Cool. Thanks.”
(He does, however, leave the coin in the sliver of moonlight that creeps around his curtains that night. He figures it would be rude not to.)
Clint doesn’t work Mondays.
He never works Mondays. He hasn’t worked a Monday in like, eight years, and he has literally no reason to walk downtown on a Monday except—
Except for the fact that on Sunday, the day before Monday, the homeless vet he’s been feeding for the past six days gave him a fucking weird coin with some fucking weird writing on it and told him to put in the light of a full moon for three fucking wishes and—
And really, he’s not going to find any explanations anywhere but at the source, crazy as that source might have turned out to be, so here he is. Walking the path to work.
On a Monday.
He doesn’t bring anything to eat this time, and he doesn’t reach down to pet Prince. In fact, he doesn’t even greet them at all. He gets about ten feet away before the lump of fabric and fur unfolds into the individual forms of Prince and James, and James stares sightlessly across the street and smiles. “You charged the coin,” he says when Clint gets about eight feet away, thought he hasn’t looked over yet. All he’s done is stretched and breathed and smiled, and somehow he just knows.
“No I didn’t,” Clint lies. He’s actually a great liar, except when he doesn’t need to be, and James grins a little bit like he can tell the difference.
“Yeah you did.”
“Yeah,” Clint agrees, “I did.”
There’s an awkward minute or two, where James is the same sort of serene silence he’s been since Clint walked up but usually isn’t, and where Clint is waiting for his feet to catch the fuck up with his brain and get him the hell out of there but they just aren’t, and where Prince watches them both with his serious, somewhat un-doggylike eyes. It’s a lifetime’s longest minute, and then it’s over too soon. “Well,” James says. His voice is just as rough and ragged as it usually is, but there’s just a touch of confidence that hadn’t been there the entire week before. It’s like he’s comfortable with what’s about to be said. Like he knows. “Go on then.”
Clint manages a grin, still cursing his feet for standing in one spot, and reaches down to pet Prince.
“You and the damn mutt,” James doesn’t sound angry, but he does sound a little bit urgent. “I meant the coin.”
Right. The coin. With the moonlight. And the wishes. It’s heavy in his pocket, the coin, like maybe that’s the anchor that’s kept him rooted to the spot. Heavier still in his hand, warm from the long walk over. When Clint finally stops staring at it like he expects to find any answers, he finds both James and Prince staring him; he almost cuts and runs right there.
Only, for reasons he still can’t quite figure out, he doesn’t.
Instead, with the coin clutched tightly in his left hand (“It has to be the left hand,” James tells him for the fourth time in under a minute, “or the wishes come out backwards.”), Clint wracks his brain for just enough faith in anything at all to believe that James isn’t entirely a crazy person. Never trust a person who hates dogs, he reminds himself firmly, and watches the way the two lean into each other, but always trust a dog who hates a person. “I wish—”
His tiny, miniscule, scraped together act of faith is cut even shorter and smaller by James’ snort. “You don’t,” and he gestures vaguely, waving his arm and shrugging the opposite shoulder, like this is all common knowledge. “You can just wish for the things. You don’t need to say ‘I wish.’”
It’s an exercise in sainthood to keep from snapping at him, from throwing the coin as far away as he can, at the way James acts like Clint’s the odd one here for not knowing the etiquette of magic wishes. “Pizza?” He doesn’t wish, or maybe he does. He always sort of wishes that he were eating pizza when he’s not, so he’s not sure how strong the wishing but not wishing for it might actually be, only then there’s a sudden knock knock knock from the back of the dumpster and when he looks behind it there’s a clean box with a fresh from the oven pie in it. Okay, he thinks, okay. “Beer?” His halfway wish yields another knocking, this time from under a discarded box, and a curious check finds him a fresh from the fridge frosty six pack.
Okay, he doesn’t think this time, because it’s really fucking not.
James is grinning now a little bit like he’s forgotten how to and a whole lot like a feral animal, and Prince is staring at him like he’s got a whole lot he would be saying if he weren’t, you know, a dog, and Clint has a pizza and some beers and apparently one more wish. He wishes none of this was happening to him. He wishes he’d never stopped to talk to them. He wishes he’d never pet the damn dog. He wishes that his next wish would come true and find him back in a world that made any lick of sense, however that might translate to for a magic coin. He wishes for so many ways that he might never know how to properly wish for things, he starts to say, but before he can find the words he catches Prince’s determined, desperate stare and for just a moment he wishes he knew what the fuck the dog was trying to tell him.
A moment is all it takes.
“Three wishes. Three magic, nearly infinite wishes, and you waste it on a single pizza and a six pack of beer??” The voice is definitely in his head but is definitely not his or James’, and Prince rolls his doggy eyes to the heavens and sighs a sarcastic doggy sigh. “What the fuck, Clint.”
“What the fuck, Prince,” Clint echoes, because in the moment where his brain and his body finally catch up to each other it’s the only thing that makes any sense. Prince’s eyes snap to him, surprised, and then it doesn’t. “What the fuck,” he looks at the dog, and then the man, both of whom are staring at him in open-mouthed shock that looks exactly as alarmed as he feels. “What the fuck??”