Off the Beaten Track
“Hiking?” Jason’s eyebrows raise as he takes in Hannah’s fretful expression. She is standing before them, laden with an enormous backpack and looking very, very sorry for herself.
“He’s taking you hiking on a date? That’s no way to get into a chick’s pants.”
Hannah nods miserably, apparently unconcerned that she has barrelled uninvited into Jason and Tracey’s Sunday morning breakfast at Salt. She groans, sets her bag on the floor and sits down next to Tracey who is trying unsuccessfully to hide her laughter.
“I know, I know,” Hannah says, covering her face in her hands. “I don’t even know why I agreed to it.”
“Yes, alright, shut up, I know why I agreed to it,” Hannah snaps. “Because I’m weak and he has this weird kind of force-field surrounding him that makes me forget myself, but it was stupid.” Hannah slumps over the table with a bang, hair falling over her face as she whimpers.
“It gets worse,” Tracey adds gleefully.
“Worse? What could be worse?” Jason laughs down at Hannah, who now has her head pillowed in her arms on the table, bemoaning Bonds T-shirts and Those Who Wear Them.
“Bonds T-shirts?” Jason asks curiously.
“It’s the lycra.” Tracey explains, waving an airy hand. “It adds – What was it?”
There is an embarrassed silence from Hannah, then, in a small voice, “clingy zing.”
“That’s it,” Tracey winks at Jason. “I’d forgotten.”
“Don’t forget the slight puffing effect around the biceps due to the ribbed edge of the sleeve cuff,” Hannah says from the table, turning her head so she can speak. “Keep up, Trace.”
“Well, that goes without saying,” Tracey nods seriously. “Go on Hannah; tell Jas what else you did.”
Hannah emerges out from under her hair. “I told him I’d been before.”
"Oh," Jason says. "Well that's not that ba-"
“Not just that you’d been before,” Tracey snorts around another forkful of bacon and eggs and Hannah glares at her.
“I told Troy that I go every month with my family, that we love it and that I can’t get enough of nature and being outdoors and – it is not funny Jason!”
“Sorry Han, it’s just that you’re not the most outdoorsy person I’ve ever met."
“I’ll be alright though, won’t I?” Hannah stares at them both, worry etched across her features. “I mean, I’ve brought lots of books and things with me,” she trails off, leaning over to search through the backpack. Tracey coughs slightly.
“Of course you will. Won’t she Trace? You’ll be fine, totally fine. I mean, granted, the one time we went hiking was a complete disaster because I got heatstroke and Trace had a fit over the state of the toilets along the trail-”, Jason breaks off and looks across to see Tracey frantically shaking her head at him.
Hannah is staring at him suspiciously. “Toilets?"
Jason pretends not to hear, looking vaguely around the cafe as though searching for someone.
"What is wrong with the toilets on a hiking trail Jason?” Hannah demands fiercely, brandishing the book (Born Survivor by Bear Grylls) she has taken out of her bag.
Jason closes his mouth and turns his head upwards, eyes searching the ceiling for divine inspiration.
“Um, they’re sort of. Well, you know. It’s like.”
“Just tell her,” Tracey interrupts. “It will be better if she knows.”
"Knows?" Hannah's voice is very high. "Knows what, exactly?"
Jason takes a deep breath. “The toilets are…well, they’re called ‘long drops’.”
“Long drops?” Hannah whispers, eyes glued to Jason’s face, brows furrowed. “But what does that even-” She pauses, a look of appalled comprehension dawning on her face. “Is that,” she begins uncertainly.
“Exactly what it sounds like? I’m afraid so.” Tracey pats her arm sympathetically as Hannah whimpers.
“Never mind darling. Just pinch your nose. Can I have a look at what else you’re taking?”
Hannah nods vaguely, wordlessly mouthing something that looks like long drops while staring into space looking slightly green. Tracey begins rifling through the bag, humming to herself.
“Oh awesome hiking pants!” She pulls them out, inspecting them. “But,” her brows contract. “Didn’t you just buy these?”
Hannah starts and looks at her. “What? Oh. Yes. Why? Is there-” she breaks off suddenly and lunges for the pants, cheeks colouring. “Never mind that, it’s just-”
“Hannah,” Tracey squints, “is that…Did you rub dirt on them?”
Hannah is a furious shade of red now and Tracey is laughing, shaking her head. “I cannot believe you.”
“I had to make it look as though I’d been before, didn’t I? So I couldn’t very well turn up with a pair of pants that looked new,” Hannah reasoned. “And I’ll take those, thank you, I have to go get changed. He’ll be here in a minute.”
Standing up and sniffing haughtily, Hannah turns to make her way to the toilets and Tracey mumbles under her breath that she had better make the trip count and Jason cracks up again while shovelling eggs into his face. Tracey talks about how weird it is that Hannah is going out with Troy Adams, heartthrob, personal trainer, and darling of the English department to boot, so perhaps it is not so very shocking that Hannah likes him after all. She pretended for months that she didn't, huffing that 'he might be good looking and all, but he's a complete idiot,' until she started speaking to him during her more and more frequent trips to the gym that had nothing to do with the way he looked in those bloody t-shirts, thank you very much, and found that he was as anally retentive as she was when it came to her coursework, and, well. That was that.
Jason has finished counting the freckles on Tracey’s nose when he realises Tracey has fallen silent. She is staring towards the front of the cafe with an expression on her face that Jason doesn’t like to see directed at anyone but him.
He turns and nearly swallows his fork, because Troy Adams is standing in the doorway. He is wearing a white Bonds T-shirt which seems to hug his torso in all the right places, contrasting perfectly with his tanned skin as he glances around the cafe with a thousand-yard stare.
Jason dislodges his fork from his mouth and stares. He can't help but notice that Troy is, emphatically, a Very Good Looking Man, even though, and he wants to be absolutely clear about this, Jason is straight. However, this doesn’t seem to stop words like ‘rippling muscles’ running through his mind, and he finally understands exactly why Tracey giggles every time his name is mentioned and why Hannah, the most sensible person he knows, is reduced to the sort of incoherent babbling mess who ruins new pairs of trousers and agrees to go on hikes. Troy is, Jason thinks, the sort of man that makes you want to renew your gym membership.
Across the table, Tracey is suddenly very aware of her tongue and she jumps as she feels Hannah touch her on the shoulder.
“I'm back! And, oh- bloody buggering hell, he’s here and oh. That’d be right,” Hannah mumbles savagely. “He’s wearing one of those bloody shirts.”
Troy’s face breaks into a smile as he sees Hannah and he strolls over. Hannah pastes on a bright grin and says, too cheerfully, “Well Hi! And how are you!” The exclamation marks are clearly audible and Hannah hates herself because she sounds like a pre-school teacher.
“I’m fine thanks. You look nice.” His deep voice practically caresses the air and Hannah blushes and tuts, playing idly with her hair. Beside her, Tracey swoons and Jason glares and Hannah hates them but is glad they are there because this way, she thinks, there will be someone around to witness her last words before she dies of embarrassment.
“Well! Enough lollygagging!” What? She thinks desperately, but there is no stopping herself now. “Let’s get a move on or we’ll miss the astronomical noon!” Whatwhat?
Tracey is muttering ‘ohmyGodohmyGodohmyGod’ under her breath and Jason is staring at Hannah as though he has never seen her before.
Troy, on the other hand, is looking at Hannah as though he thinks she's adorable and says, “Of course, sure, we can’t miss that," as though it is completely normal to talk about astronomical noons somewhere other than a Conference for the Very Boring.
"So let’s get going then,” Troy says, and he takes Hannah by the hand and leads her away and Jason and Tracey both let out a breath they don’t know they’ve been holding.
They sit there in shell-shocked silence for a minute, until Jason clears his throat. “I’ve been thinking.”
Tracey looks at him curiously.
“I should get one of those t-shirts.”
Without the t-shirts, she thinks, she would have been safe. She would have been sitting safe in her English Lit class, content with her un-tanned lot in life, not knowing or even caring that there were people out there who did this sort of thing for fun, the idiots, but now she is here, trudging through the scrub, sweat pouring down her face and arms and back, going through this hell and it is all because of stupid-face Troy Adams and his stupid, stupid t-shirts.
Well, if she is honest with herself, it is also because of his back. And his arms. And his bum. There had been a reason she had suggested that he walk ahead of her in the first place. There had been plenty of occasions where lunging over rocks had been rendered necessary and these moments almost (almost) made up for everything else.
Troy stops in front of her and Hannah, who hasn’t been paying attention, smacks into him. For a second it is okay because she is pressed against him and that could never be a bad thing but then she feels herself falling backwards, arms flailing uselessly in front and heavy pack pulling her into weightlessness for a moment, teetering until she gives; then she is tumbling over and over down the mountain when she falls against something, hard, and cries out as a sharp pain splits through her foot. She can hear Troy yelling her name and suddenly he is beside her and, oh my God, she is crying and she tries to hide her face in her arm but realises she can’t because her arm is stuck under her stupid, stupid backpack.
“Hannah, are you okay? Where does it hurt, what’s wrong?” Troy’s deep voice is filled with worry as he lifts the backpack gently from her shoulders and this only makes Hannah feel worse. She can’t stop crying and then she feels herself go weak and she has no control over her mouth, which is exactly how she found herself in this position in the first place and she really just needs to calm down, but-
“I don’t even like the outdoors,” Hannah wails pathetically. “It makes me itch and I’ve never even been on a hike before, I only said that because you’re so into this sort of stuff and all, ‘Mr Fit Man works-at-the-gym-gets-up-at-5am-to-do-yoga-before-making-your-own-chai-tea,’” but Troy has cut her off with his laughter and Hannah huffs angrily, “Will people just stop laughing at me today?”
He calms down enough to squeeze out three, beautiful, exquisite words which make Hannah forget all about the pain in her ankle and the fact that she feels sticky and dirty and her nose is blotchy and her eyes are red and her face is shiny with sweat.
“I hate hiking.”
Hannah blinks. “You what?”
“I hate it,” Troy shrugs. “I only suggested it because you’re always at the gym and then when I suggested it you seemed so excited that I thought, crap, well I’d better do it then, and I,” he hesitates for a moment, something that might be a blush creeping up on his cheeks but he ploughs resolutely on. “I went and bought myself a pair of hiking boots and frayed the laces with a pair of scissors so that you would think I did this sort of thing all the time."
Hannah starts laughing then, because they are both so stupid and she manages to gasp out, "You are such an idiot," followed by, "Can we please get out of here?" and Troy joins in, grinning at her, a bit sheepish. She grins back and thinks how stupid they must look, sitting there grinning at each other like a pair of idiots (which we are, she reminds herself) but she decides she doesn't care. The sun beats down and the smell of the grass is all around them while something new fizzles and shifts in the heat between them. Hannah’s not sure whether it’s the force field surrounding Troy that causes her breath to catch as he leans in with a serious look on his face, and she feels like a weak swooning heroine from one of the 'special' books her mum hid from her as a kid.
“Does this mean that you aren’t interested in seeing the astronomical noon?” He asks in a low voice, tucking a stray curl behind Hannah’s ear. She can feel her cheeks heating up as she places her arms around his neck.
“Troy,” she says solemnly, “I don’t even know what the astronomical noon is.”
“Thank God for that,” Troy laughs quietly as he covers her mouth with his, and Hannah thinks it is the best date she has ever been on.
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