Toby hesitated as he came to a fork in the road; he couldn't remember which way he'd come, exactly, and he wasn't sure how to make a temporary mark that would remind him in case he circled around unknowingly. Finally, he settled on ripping a bit of cloth from his shirt-hat and tying it to a branch, then determinedly started walking again.
Approximately forty minutes later, according to his watch, Toby was tired, his clothing soaked with sweat, his mouth dry and parched, and he still had not crested a hill. He was beginning to envision having to learn how to survive in the wilderness, trapping rabbits with string and making clothes out of regional florae. Wait, there was a bit of white, up ahead. Terrific, he thought. I've gone in a circle. Or I'm hallucinating. It didn't seem that he had circled round because the bit of white had started to move, but before Toby could call out, it disappeared from view. Shit. It was probably just a bird.
Toby closed his eyes against the glare of the sun and kept walking: one foot, then the other foot, plodding along. This road had to lead to somewhere, eventually, and the first thing he wanted was two gallons of ice-cold water, and then he'd sue the cell phone people, he'd eat a pint of butter pecan, he'd sue the car manufacturers, and then – Toby stumbled as he ran into something.
His eyes popped open. Okay, make that someone. He backed up a few steps; the effect of having had his eyes closed made the world swim slowly back into view, blues and greens tingeing the edges of the picture before him. A man: a dark-haired man, in a white wife-beater and jeans and boots, holding a shovel and a water bottle and smirking. At him. Toby coughed, trying to clear his throat so he could speak, or beg for a drink of water and directions, and also more water, please.
Before he could get any words out, the man stepped closer to him and drawled, "Nice hat."
Toby blushed, his already flushed skin becoming hotter, his hands automatically reaching up and unwinding the shirt from his head. "I didn't want to peel," he stammered out, feeling ridiculous as soon as the words had left his mouth.
"Right," the other man replied, "Because skin cancer is dangerous."
Toby took another look. The man seemed familiar, but he couldn't place him and he was pretty sure he was being mocked, but he didn't want to drive – haha – the other man away before he could figure out where he was – and oh, yes, the water. His eyes fell to the bottle in the man's hand, drops of condensation sliding down the sides. Toby licked his lips unconsciously. The other man made an odd noise in his throat and lifted his arm so that he was holding the bottle out between them. "Want some?" he asked huskily.
"Yes, please." Toby grabbed for the bottle and nearly ripped off the cap in his haste to have a mouthful of the liquid. He gulped down three large swallows before stopping, moaning quietly in disappointment when he realized he'd finished all there was in the container.
Still, the water had soothed his aching throat, and he smiled sheepishly as he handed the empty bottle back to the dark-haired man. "Sorry. I was thirsty."
"I noticed," the man replied. "I'm Chris."
"Toby," he responded reflexively, feeling better already. His vision had cleared and he studied the other man's features, wondering why he felt like he already knew this other person.
"What?" Chris's voice jolted him from his appraisal.
"No… just thought you looked familiar, s'all," Toby said, not even completely sure where that phrase had come from, but the other man said nothing and Toby tried to cover his gaffe. "Of course, I'm thrilled to see anyone out here, because I… don't know where I am, and-" he cut himself off, as some instinctual self-preservation mode kicked in.
Straightening his shoulders, he tried again. "My car broke down. I need to get someplace that I can use my phone. Do you know where the nearest town is, and can you take me there?"
Chris smiled, his eyes lighting up with humor and – something else – and said, "Yeah, okay Toby. I can take you there."
Toby fought down the urge to blush again; the inflection in Chris's tone suddenly made him think of hot kisses and skinny-dipping. Of course, that could just be the heatstroke.
Chris stepped even closer, and Toby noticed how blue his eyes were. They stared at one another for a very long moment; Toby broke the gaze and his eyes flicked down to the curve of Chris's mouth before he quickly stepped back, eyes firmly on Chris's boots, feeling even more light-headed than before he'd bolted the water.
"Well, you're not going to get anywhere going that way," Chris said, and Toby looked up at him again. The tension was broken and he managed a smile.
"Okay, where to, then?"
Chris motioned to follow him into the underbrush on the side of the road. "I know a shortcut."
Toby took a deep breath and fumbled with the shirt in his hands, ripping off another piece of cloth, stepping forward to tie it onto another branch. Chris quirked an eyebrow at him. "Don't tell me – Boy Scout?"
Toby managed a wide smile this time along with a chuckle. "Well, I thought it would come in handy for the tow-truck people."
Chris just nodded, then disappeared into the foliage by the roadside. Hesitantly, Toby went after him.
Fifteen minutes later, Toby tried to take stock of his situation. He was trudging after a stranger on what could have been a path, (but probably wasn't), tree roots and pine needles covering the forest floor. He still had no idea where he was, and he kept getting distracted – first by the glint of the sun on the shovel Chris carried, and alternately by the long black tattoo that ran up most of Chris's upper arm. He was thirsty again, and though the trees provided a much-needed buffer between the sun and his body, he was still hot and sticky with sweat. Just as he was about to question the sanity of this trek, Chris swung around, flashed a brilliant smile at him and said, "Just a few more minutes, Tobe. Think you can make it, or will I need to carry you?"
Toby's breath caught as he imagined being cradled in Chris's muscular arms, and without warning he tripped on a root and face-planted in the dirt. The wind was knocked out of him; he coughed and gasped uselessly. Toby tried to concentrate on the simple act of breathing and was only dimly aware of Chris's footsteps as he returned to Toby's side. Chris crouched down and smoothed his hand over Toby's hair.
"It's okay, just relax, breathe, you're fine, you'll be okay," he murmured and for some reason Toby felt himself focusing on the repetitive rub of Chris's hand across his shoulders and hair. His lungs started to work again and then he heard Chris step back and say, "Not that I'd mind carrying you, but it really is only a little further."
Toby pulled himself up so he was sitting on the ground, already crazily missing the feel of the other man's hand on him. Okay, something to think about later, he mused. "Where - where are we going, anyway?" he rasped out.
Chris smiled down at him. "My truck. You need a ride, right?"
A truck! There's that tone again. Toby shivered a little despite the heat. He opened his mouth and chose his next words carefully. "Yes, Chris, I do need a-" his body betrayed him as he nearly coughed out the next word "-ride. Yes."
Chris looked at him again as if Toby was a little crazy, but then his whole demeanor shifted, his feet planted solidly and his whole body taking on a sort of look – well, he looked like he was about to go hunting for the person who kicked his dog, or get into a bar fight. His voice had lowered about three octaves when he rumbled out, "Toby, you really are lost, aren't you?" The gleam in his eyes told Toby that he was teasing… still, there was another emotion there that Toby couldn't quite read.
After helping Toby to his feet, and making sure that he would stay upright, Chris started walking again. He talked to Toby the whole time, promising him cold water and a place to sit down, asking after his last name, his job and his family. Toby concentrated on his answers; his last name was easy enough, then lawyer, then – none, really. His younger brother was still in college, his parents on a tour of Europe, and Genevieve – well, she was… also absent from his life, now. Toby found himself spilling the embarrassing tale of the night of the botched proposal and his drunken encounter with one of New York's finest – and was so busy shaking his head at his actions that he bumped into Chris's back.
"Are we there?"
"Almost, Tobe. So, you dig chicks in uniform, huh?"
Which led to the revelation that it was a man in uniform, except he'd been undercover, or maybe FBI – after all, they certainly hadn't gone up to Toby's hotel room to discuss the finer points of each other's chosen professions. Also, Toby was really, really drunk… to which Chris said, "So Toby, you're gay?" but it was totally different than how Genevieve had made it sound, and Toby found himself saying, "Maybe. Sometimes," and Chris seemed to be all right with that.
Except now there was a bit of tension between them, so Toby asked politely, "And what do you do, Chris?"
"Hmmm… whatever I want, Toby." Was the answer, and Toby blushed again, and then Chris said, "We're here."