Chapter 3

Hello again. Thanks for your ongoing interest. Chapter 3 is up. Hope you enjoy and don't forget to drop a line. Feedback lets me know I'm on the right track ;)

Awareness was slow in coming. For a long time – or, at least, what seemed like a long time to him – Sam had no idea where he was. He had only vague ideas of who he was, too, only that his head felt like somebody was banging a sledgehammer against it, and that meant something was wrong. He was lying down somewhere, that was his next thought, only, that was wrong too. He had vague recollections of being in an alley, but this did not feel like an alley. There was soft earth under his hands instead of the hard stone of the sidewalk and that unmistakable grassy smell was in his nostrils. He couldn't hear any cars around him, either. Just birds and insects.

Sam managed to lift his head, blinking dazedly in the thin shafts of sunlight making their way through the tree branches. Wait…tree branches? Those shouldn't have been there. In fact, Sam shouldn't have been there. He was in a forest, that much he could finally determine, and he had absolutely no idea how he had gotten there.

Panic swept over him. He never liked it when he woke up like this, disoriented, not knowing where he was – not knowing where Dean was. It reminded him of too many other instances when he had no idea what was real or not, of Hell, of the time with Toni Bevell, of a lot of things he tried to bury but were always there in the back of his mind.

Sam struggled to get a hold of himself. He had to do what he always did. Burry the fear and find a solution. That was the only way one stayed alive in his business. He needed to get out of the forest and back to Dean. That much was certain. That was step one.

He staggered upwards, leaning heavily against the tree. For a while, he fought with the dizziness. He checked his phone and snorted. No signal. Of course. Why would there be? There was nothing for it, then. He had to find his own way out of this. After all, he had found his way out of more dire situations when he had been much worse. He could do this.

Sam began his steady walk towards what he hoped was the way out of the forest. He could not shake off the feeling of being watched, of something trailing him and following his progress. He turned around several times but there was nothing behind him. Only trees and silence.

xxxXXXXXXXxx

Dean was seriously considering buying Sam one of those T-shirts with If found, please return to Dean Winchester. That would decrease at least 89% of his worries. The only problem was, Sam would refuse to wear it. The phone tracker should have worked, only for some reason it wasn't on. Dean wondered briefly if Sam had not disabled it himself, then dismissed the idea. The two of them were good, and Sam was fine. Not keeping any secrets, not riding any crazy trains – at least, Dean hoped he wasn't, there had been a lot of things keen on reminding Sam of past trauma. But no, there had to be other reasons why the phone tracker was not working. Maybe Dean should make things simpler and just put a tracker in Sam next time. One of those chips you used on dogs to prevent them from getting lost. That would work, wouldn't it?

Dean resumed his pacing of the room, frustrated with the current situation. Sam had not been there when he arrived at Hal's Diner, although he should have finished going through the alley by then. After ten minutes of impatient waiting and one Dude, where are you? message to Sam, Dean headed for the alley himself. He could not find anything there – no Sam, no traces he had ever been there, no traces of anything untoward at all. His next move was to comb the neighborhood for witnesses. People remembered Sam all right – but they had no idea where he had gone after talking to them.

Next came the panicked phone calls. Dean figured Sam probably had about thirty missed calls from him in the last hour alone. Finally, because he was really out of options, Dean doubled back to the motel. He had a fleeting hope that Sam had not gotten his first message and had headed back to their room instead, but that died as soon as Dean was inside. It was clear no one had been in the room since the two of them had left that morning.

Dean looked at his phone and debated calling their mother. Surely she would want to know Sam was missing? But maybe it was a bit premature to make that phone call. Dean wouldn't want to worry her needlessly. More than that, he did not want to find out that she actually wasn't worried and would tell Dean something along the lines of Sam being an adult and able to take care of himself. Mary did not know Sam as well as Dean did.

He was on his own with finding Sam, then. He switched on Sam's laptop thinking about searching some maps of the area to figure out where Sam had been taken to. Of course, if they were dealing with their kind of weird, Sam could have been blasted to the opposite side of the world. But Dean decided not to borrow trouble. Whatever they were dealing with was in Gatlinburg. So Sam had to be still in town, or at least close to it. He had to be alive, too. If that thing, it would have left his body somewhere people would find it quickly.

Like Brad Sniders, a treacherous voice in his head said. Dean clenched his teeth and told himself to get a grip. He would not be finding Sam like that. He would see the world burn before it happened.

xxxXXxxxx

Sam had been walking for what felt like hours. It didn't make sense. He was still dizzy and slow, but he couldn't have been that slow. Either he had been transported to a world where there were only trees – or something else was wrong.

He stopped in a clearing and leaned against a tree to catch his breath. Suddenly, he frowned. The place looked familiar. He was sure it was where he had woken up. He had been walking in circles.

"I can't have. I know I was heading South. I can't have gotten back."

Not unless he had missed something. Not unless something had made him turn back. Now that he thought better of it, there had been plenty other spots that had looked familiar. Almost like he was not following a straight road.

"It's a maze," he discovered. "A puzzle set for me. I'm supposed to find my way back somehow."

He did not want to think what would happen to him if he wasn't able to do this. Well, two could play this game. Sam had been taught tracking and finding his way in the wilderness since he was barely able to walk. This maze couldn't have been more difficult than the many obstacle courses John Winchester would set up for him and Dean when they were kids.

"Fine," Sam nodded, trying to sound unafraid. "Fine. Challenge accepted."

Now that he knew the situation, he believed he could find his way out.

xxxxxxXXXXXxxxxxxx

Some two hours later, Sam had finally found a road that made sense and was sticking to it. He was convinced now that he was being followed. He had not been stopped in any way, which reinforced the idea that nothing would happen to him if he managed to find the way out of the maze. He still did not know what the purpose of the exercise was, or why he had been taken in the first place. But he figured he would get his answers once he was safely back at the motel with Dean. His brother was probably turning Gatlinburg inside out searching for him.

Finally, his ears picked up something. Cars. The sound of cars speeding by somewhere in the distance. He had to be close to the highway, then. He fought with his exhaustion and pressed on. The last lap, he told himself. Once he was on the highway, he could flag a car heading towards the town town.

It took another half hour. By now he was sure he had left the maze behind him. Sam wondered if he had left his pursuer behind, too, or if it was still following him, with more tests in tow. Well, he had passed the first one. He could pass the others, too – he hoped.

When Sam reached the highway, his strength was almost spent. His legs were shaking and the pounding in his head reminded him sharply that he had been hit pretty hard before waking up in the forest. He wondered if he looked presentable enough to drivers. No car that passed him seemed inclined to stop. Sam shook his head. There were so few good Samaritans nowadays.

Then Sam spotted something that had his heart leaping with relief. There was a car speeding towards him, coming from the direction of Gatlinburg. Sam would have recognized the car anywhere. It spoke of the days and nights of his childhood, of a feeling of safety he could not recapture, not even in the bunker. The Impala. And Dean was driving it.

Sam took a step closer to the road, waving his arms. He needn't have bothered, though. Dean had a sixth sense when it came to him. He was already stopped and out of the car before Sam could process it.

"Sam!" Dean shouted making his way towards him. "What the hell happened to you, man? You alright?"

He grabbed Sam's shoulder and looked him up and down with that intensity that made Sam feel like he was the safest, most taken care of person in the world.

"Where did you go?" Dean demanded sharply, and anyone else would have thought he was angry at Sam. "Your tracker only turned on about half an hour ago, but by then I had already figured out you had to be somewhere in the woods. I was on my way to find you."

"I think I was supposed to find the way out on my own first," Sam said.

Dean frowned in confusion.

"What? Why? What do you mean?"

He was already leading Sam towards the car, and Sam was glad to allow him to take charge for once.

"It was a test, Dean. Something to prove I'm worthy."

"Like a game of riddles," Dean repeated darkly.

Sam decided he'd ask Dean later what he meant by that.

"Anyway, I won, obviously."

He did not add that, if he had lost, Dean would have probably found him in the same state as Brad Sniders.

xxxxxXXXXXXXXXXXxxxxxxx

Back in Gatlinbug, Alan Sniders was on his way home. He knew his mother would arrive that evening and his in-laws were flying in and would get there in the morning, in time for Brad's funeral. Aunt Clarice was already there, of course, pretending to comfort Alan's wife, all the while hinting that it was actually Alan's job to be with the mother of his dead son.

Alan knew he wasn't a good person. No good person visited his secretary two days in a row so soon after the death of his youngest son. A good person would have stayed home, trying to offer comfort to his remaining family. A good person would vow to turn over a new leaf and let go of the secretary altogether.

He could not help it, though. Kelly understood him. She had been his rock since Brad's death, simply because she did not offer to talk about Brad. She seemed to know Alan needed to deal by forgetting everything for a while – Brad's death, his wife's sorrow, Ken's accusations. His oldest son seemed to think it was somehow Alan's fault Brad was dead.

"How the bloody hell is it my fault?" Alan had shouted that morning, after the two FBI agents had left. "I didn't kill him, did I?"

"How should I know?" Ken asked. "You were late for dinner, weren't you? Arrived soon after I raised the alarm about Brad. Anyway, you don't seem too hung up about it. Don't think I don't know where you're going. Brad knew too. About your little escapades. Why do you think he was failing school? Why do you think he'd been acting so erratically lately? You're bound to go off the rails when you know your father's off with someone old enough to be your sister."

The worst part was, Ken was right. Alan must have lost interest in his family a long time ago, but he was the one who had started pulling the rest of them apart. Maybe he had been doing it long before his affair with Kelly.

As he turned a corner, he nearly crashed into a man coming from the opposite direction. Alan laughed nervously.

"Didn't see you there, pal. Sorry."

He made to keep going but the other blocked his way. Alan frowned.

"Look, I don't want any trouble."

The man grinned. He was handsome, Alan noticed, but there was something repulsive in the way he looked at him.

"You don't want any trouble," the man replied in an accent that Alan could not place. "None of you do. But you still bring trouble wherever you go."

He reached out. Alan felt a wall of ice surround him. He wondered briefly if that was Brad had felt, too, in his last moments.

TBC

I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to really enjoy writing this. Have fun reading :)