James steps out of Russell Square station and checks his watch, squinting at it in the bright sunshine.
He has twenty minutes – twenty peaceful, simple minutes to sit in the park outside the office, and rehearse the presentation in his head. Dundy is going to meet him there, bringing along the laptop and all the graphs and charts that they’ve prepared. Everything will be fine.
James will sit in the park and breathe and rehearse his presentation, and everything will be fine.
There aren’t many people wandering around Russell Square at this time in the afternoon, save a few tourists, and the odd commuter passing through. James sits down on a bench by the fountain and allows himself some time to blankly watch them, to watch a pigeon sedately strolling through the grass. He tries to force himself to relax, conscious of the anxious racing of his heart.
He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and starts going over his speech in his head. He tries not to think about the raise he might get if it all goes well today, he tries not to think about the holiday he and Dundy have planned to take if they get that raise.
He is about halfway through, just getting into his stride, when he feels something land on his knee.
It is, as he discovers when he opens his eyes, a dog – the largest dog he thinks he has ever seen – a shaggy, black Newfoundland, resting its chin on his knee and looking up at him with doleful eyes.
“I – hello,” James says, reaching a tentative hand out to pat its head. He doesn’t think it’s the type to suddenly bite off an appendage, but one can never be too sure. “Where did you come from?”
The dog sits down, its tail thumping happily on the floor. James strokes one of its velvety ears before looking around for an owner, trying to find anyone looking vaguely confused, and he finds him before long; a fair-haired man already making his way towards James, looking harried and flushed.
“Neptune,” the man snaps as he approaches, shooting a glare at the dog. “What d’you think you’re doing?”
The dog does not respond, though its tail wagging reaches a new level of enthusiasm.
James snatches his hand away from the dog’s head like he has just been caught touching a sculpture in a museum. Best to stay on the man’s good side; he seems to be having a bad enough day as it is.
“Sorry,” James says, more out of politeness than anything else. “He just came up to me…”
“No, it’s fine,” the man says with a sigh, taking hold of the dog’s collar and attaching a lead. “It’s my fault. I turned my back on him for five minutes to make a phone call, and he decides to abandon me for someone else.”
James laughs, and the man gives a half-hearted smile. The dog – Neptune – trots to the fountain for a drink of water, and James gets to his feet.
“Well,” he says. “No harm done.”
The man seems to look James up and down, as if to verify this, as if to check for damage. He is handsome, in a rugged sort of way. Northern Irish, by the sounds of it. He is shorter than James by a few inches but broader, sturdier; he looks as if he has spent years working outdoors, rough and ready, good with his hands. He has lovely blue eyes, James notices, framed by lovely pale lashes, and –
“He’s drooled on you.”
The man is staring at James with an expression that suggests he would very much like the earth to swallow him up, right now. “On – on your knee. Jesus. Sorry.”
“Oh.” James blinks and looks down. The man is right, there it is, on his left knee. James should have foreseen this – Newfoundlands are prone to this sort of thing, aren’t they? He isn’t really sure.
He feels a vague irritation wash over him; this suit is practically new, he only wears it for important occasions. He suddenly remembers his meeting, the reason he put the suit on at all. The irritation vanishes, quickly replaced by panic. “Oh. I – do you have a tissue?”
“Yes, here,” the man says, digging around in his pocket. “Let me. I’m Francis, by the way. Thought I should introduce myself before I wipe dog saliva off your leg.”
“James,” says James, wondering if this isn’t actually some bizarre stress dream.
Francis produces a tissue from his coat and takes a step closer, and Neptune goes with him, his nose down to the ground, snuffling along at a leisurely pace, right past James – but then he changes his mind, changes course, appears on James’ other side and keeps going, past Francis and on, still–
– and James starts to realise – too late really – that the lead – the lead is wrapped around his legs and Francis’ too, and Francis seems to realise it at the same time, because they stare at each other with growing apprehension as the lead digs into James’ legs and he is forced to take a step forwards, he tries to move away, starts to lose his balance – automatically grabs onto Francis’ shoulders, but that won’t do much good – the lead is tight around their knees now, he becomes aware of Francis saying careful! –
In retrospect, James supposes that one positive aspect of the park being mostly deserted is that there are not many people around to stare at the two grown men who have just fallen into the fountain.
James sits on the ground, faintly stunned, still faintly hoping that this is some horrible dream, praying that he might suddenly hear the violently chipper tones of his alarm to rescue him from this hell and deliver him back to the real world.
He becomes more and more aware that he is soaked to the skin, that his hair is plastered to his face, his legs still tangled up with – with this man, this idiot man whose bloody dog has just ruined his suit and cost him the promotion he’s been working towards for months, because what will Barrow and the rest think of him if he turns up like this, he can’t turn up like this, but there’s no time to do anything else, and –
“Jesus Christ,” Francis is saying. “Fucking hell, I’m so sorry, are you alright–”
“No, I’m not alright!” James snaps, because he really isn’t. “I’m drenched, and I’m going to be late – this is a fucking nightmare!”
Francis gapes at him like a fish, and he’s gone quite pale with horror. “He’s never done anything like this before, the stupid animal, I’m so sorry–” Francis gets to his feet, holding his hands out to help James up. “I – I’ll pay for the dry cleaning, for your suit, and – and if you need a taxi, to get somewhere–”
“No,” James says, pressing his hands to his face. “No point. It’s too late now.”
He snatches the tissue from Francis’ hand, intent on at least drying his face, but as it sits wetly in his hand, a damp, disintegrating lump, he realises that it is quite beyond being of any use. James feels like he might laugh, or cry, or both.
When he looks up again, Francis is actually smiling.
“What? What could possibly be funny?”
“You’ve–” Francis reaches out with his hand. His voice sounds strained, like he’s holding back a laugh and failing. “You’ve got leaves in your hair.”
For a moment, James thinks very seriously about punching Francis in the face.
He then notices that Francis has leaves in his hair too, notices that there’s a leaf plastered right to the middle of his forehead, and he can’t say why, but it’s really rather amusing.
James smiles and it makes Francis laugh, and that makes James laugh too – and if his laughter has a slightly hysterical edge to it, Francis does not comment – and they are still laughing as they stagger back over to the bench and sit down.
“Christ alive,” Francis says. “And I thought my week couldn’t get any worse.” But he’s smiling, anyway. “And I’m sorry that you’ll be late. Was it important?”
James takes his jacket off to try and wring it out, and suddenly thinks to check his phone. It is miraculously undamaged, and there’s a text from Dundy: Something came up Barrow rescheduled for next week but forgot to tell us until now bloody pisstake honestly :/
Suddenly everything is a lot funnier. Relief courses through James’ veins with such intensity that he worries he might have a heart attack.
“No,” he says with a grin. “No, it wasn’t. It’s fine.”
There is silence for a while, save for the water dripping off the ends of James’ hair, landing with small damp thuds on his shoulders. The dog has wandered over to a sunny patch of grass, lying there without a care in the world. James can’t even feel annoyed with it anymore. This has been perhaps the most surreal day of his life; he isn’t feeling any of the things he’s supposed to.
“I really do feel bad,” Francis says at length. “And I will pay for your dry cleaning. And – and can I buy you a drink sometime, to make up for it?”
“Yes,” James says, and laughs. “Yes, alright. On one condition.”
Francis raises an eyebrow. It would have been a slightly daunting expression, were it not for the damp golden hair plastered to his forehead, the ends curling slightly. Oh, James cannot be annoyed at all.
“Leave that bloody dog at home.”
This Francis agrees to, quite without a second thought.