A/N: If losing most everything has taught me one thing, it's not to sit on what you do have. That, and back-up everything. And ain't that just a lesson for life?


Our Boots Ain't Muddy
Sam is lost…and running. Sprinting through endless dark trees, his compass, and pack, and hell, everything lost somewhere between here and the car. His feet sink into snow with each leap, grabbing and releasing his boots, like angry, icy teeth. The forest bobs at the edges of his vision, silent save his own breath, still save for the wind he creates.

"SAM!"

Stop.

Breathe.

Sam turns around, looking, looking, for the origin of Dean's voice. It was in front of him, he was sure about that, but just now, now it seems to be from back the other way. The forest, the hardwood trees serve as the rackets in which Dean's voice is the ball.

There isn't enough time to really think about it and the more he does think about which way, the more he confuses himself. It was this way. It was that way. He turns around again, dark eyes scanning darker land, suddenly unsure of from which way he had come.

No, no, he couldn't possibly be this lost. Sam turns again, wiping a hand across his forehead and taking a breath, letting it out slowly, the white puff blurring his vision for a second.

There in the snow, thank God for that God-awful snow, is a long line of widely spaced footprints, already softened by the snow that continues to fall and fill them in.

He takes off again, deeper into the trees.

It was supposed to be simple, but then again, everything sounds simple to Sam when laid out on paper in black and white, when he can study it and see everything and smooth out the little details. But therein lies the difference between looking at blueprints and finding a bathroom when dropped into the middle of a building. The difference, if you will, between the forest and the trees.

There was a ghost of a man that haunted these woods. Lived out here and somehow still managed to get lost one day and never, ever find his way home. They'd come to burn his bones and when they were almost finished, when this was about to truly be filed away as a simple job, the man had shown up in all his ghastly glory.

Still, all Dean needed was a few seconds of distraction to set the bones afire. But there was some confusion, Sam still wouldn't understand unless, until he talked it over with Dean, about who was supposed to do the distracting, and who was supposed to do the burning. And in the midst of fire and thick snow and darkness, they'd gotten separated.

Simple, Sam reflects wryly. It would be simple if they were in a shopping mall, but no, they were in thick woods, where even the most experienced hikers had gotten lost...and died. No cell service, no compass, no nothing but the occasional faint yell from Dean. For all Sam knew, they were widening the gap, not coming closer.

It would help if you'd stop running around like a goddamn gazelle.

Sam hears his brother's voice in his head and stops again, suddenly, instantly, feet sinking into the icy snow, certain for a second that Dean really was standing right next to him. But there's nothing and no one, just a dog barking somewhere way off to his right. Or maybe that's the echo, and the dog is somewhere to his left.

Sam rubs a hand over his mouth, desperate now, and thirsty, lungs aching from the biting, cold air. Now that he's stopped again, he can feel the burn in his legs and the pounding of his heart in his neck.

It only hurts when you stop.

Dean, again. If it were any other time, Sam would laugh at how ingrained Dean's words are in his brain, but now he can only swallow bitterly. That was something Dean had always said, to get Sam through Dad's "training" runs, to get him moving when injured, to get him moving at all. It was a bitter sort of rally, and Dean, the adrenaline junkie that he is, had meant it in the sincerest of ways.

But Sam could see the big picture, could see the blueprints for the bathroom, and had always had suspicion that Dean's words held other meanings, too. There was a reason, after all, that they were always on the road, and it didn't have everything to do with the job.

"SAH-UM!"

Sam stiffens at the sound of his brother's voice, long and deep, and somewhere too far away. He turns around. Was that the call or the echo?

Call...

...or echo?

Nearly panicky with frustration, Sam takes the deepest breath of air possible and releases it from his diaphragm, bellowing into the darkness, "DEAN!"

He holds his breath in the moments after, almost certain he can hear the muffled mush of snowflakes falling to Earth, but there is no reply. There is no sound at all.

"DEAN!" he tries again, unable this time to keep the weak, pleading note out of his voice. Because he's lost, and it's cold, and it's dark, and he just wants to be sitting in the Impala right now, with the heater cranked up to stifling levels, listening to whatever crazy music Dean wants, as loud as he wants it.

"SAM!"

Sam lets out a choking laugh. Dean heard him; he was nearby.

Or was he? The seeds of doubt filter through Sam's brain. Had Dean been replying to his shout, or merely yelling again? No, no. Sam reaches up a red, cold hand to tug at the ends of his hair. He glances around and makes a decision.

He takes off running again in what he hopes is the right direction, long legs eating up land. Left around a cluster of trees, hurdle over a fallen log, slipping and stuttering over a particularly icy spot. He regains his footing, settles out his pace in a blistering sprint. The trees blend into long, dark lines and the snow bites at his face, cold and sharp. He runs and runs, turns...and stops short.

The air rushes from Sam's already starved lungs in a whoosh and he freezes.

Not three feet in front of him is a deer.

And not just a deer, but also a buck Sam realizes, and if he had any idea what a ten-point buck really looked like, he'd guess that this animal was it.

The animal stares at him, frozen just as he is, eyes dark. His crown of antlers is tall and menacingly wide, glinting in the moonlight like sharpened sticks.

Sam dares not move.

A wild thought flies through his head, a statistic, something about deer killing more people per year than plane crashes, but, no, no, that can't be right.

The buck lowers his head and snorts, exhaling his own puff of foggy air.

Sam takes a slow step backward.

The deer steps forward, stomps a hoof into the snow angrily and raises his head, seemingly straightening his shoulders and neck and spine, in order to appear at his full size.

And he is huge.

The animal, including antlers, nearly matches Sam's own height and Sam can see the thick, dense muscle that lies beneath his skin.

With ghosts, Sam thinks, you're not supposed to run. With wendigos, you probably should run. With zombies, you had better run. But with deer...who knows?

Sam takes a careful breath, trying to restrain the movement of his chest, trying to be as still as possible.

The buck seems to take notice of it and pauses as well, like a statue, perfectly postured, eyes focused and cold. Only the small puffs of white air from his snout giving away life.

Sam can't move, literally, can't move. He would never be able to outrun this animal or duck away from it. But as he stands there in the middle of the dark, locked into this frozen dance, he realizes, maybe he doesn't need to.

For one long moment neither of them blink nor breathe.

Sam feels the hammering of his heart in his head, a steady whooshing of blood past his eardrums.

He breathes in and out.

The deer ducks his head, in what's almost a nod, and then turns and is gone in one massive spring of muscle. His trampling steps disappear almost immediately and Sam is alone again.

He turns around slowly, blinking and rubbing his eyes.

There, ahead of him in the snow, is a long line of deep, hoof-shaped footprints. He could follow that animal for days if he wanted.

Sam studies his own footprints, widely spaced by his running stride. All he'd have to do, really, is follow them back as far as they go. He'd have to come across the car at some point. Unless this really was some kind of twisted, ghostly maze of trees, in which east was not always the opposite of west.

He starts back the way he'd come from, slowly now, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his Carhart jacket, collar flipped up against the cold.

If Dean hadn't managed to burn the bones, and Sam suspects that he hadn't, he really could be lost here forever. He hadn't seen any sign of the actual spirit though, which leads him to believe that Dean may have been doing some unexpected entertaining.

Was he okay?

Was he just as lost as Sam?

Was he hurt?

Stopping again and taking an achingly, deep breath, Sam releases it with a yell, "DEAN!"

"What?"

The voice is unerringly calm and collected, soft and muted by the trees. Sam turns around.

"Sammy?" Dean stands a car's length away, in a small clearing, brow furrowed. "What are you...how did...where were you?" he finishes.

Sam stares at him, working his jaw up and down. "I don' t know," he finally says, taking long strides towards his brother. "Jesus, I don't know." He stops short in front of Dean, instinctively wanting to hug him, but Dean seems to recognize the intention and rocks backward, boots crunching in the snow. Sam reaches out and shoves his shoulder instead. It's just the same, feeling the bone and muscle, the solidness that is Dean under his jacket, knowing that he is really there. "Where were you?"

"Right here," Dean says coldly. "I was right here. Burned the thing's bones, turned around and you were gone, man. What was that? Where'd you go?"

"I guess…I got lost." Sam shrugs, really unable to piece together those seconds after the spirit had appeared.

"Lost? You got lost? Where's your stuff? Where's your bag and your compass? You can't get lost out here, Sammy." Dean's words are angry and Sam opens his mouth to comeback with his own defensive retort, but then Dean blinks and looks away.

Sam can recognize that anger for what it really is; worry.

"Sorry," he says quietly. "I think he was messing with my head."

The corner of Dean's mouth turns up hesitantly. "It's always somebody messing with your head, isn't it? Always got somebody to blame there, don't you?"

Sam watches him, trying to gauge the tone of his words. "I thought..." he starts to say, maybe ready to confess his fear. He's ready to sit down and talk the whole thing out, find out what happened, what might have happened, smooth out those wrinkles, but his brother has found a way out of the emotion and the worry and he's running with it.

"You get lost in the woods, it's somebody messing with your head. You shoot me, its 'I was possessed, I didn't mean it.'" Dean puts on a ridiculous girly tone for Sam's part. "What next? You forget to fill up the gas tank, you're going to blame it on...gasoline pixies messing with the gauge."

Sam snorts at this. "Gasoline pixies?"

"Yeah, man. Them and the, uh, air filter fairies. They'll get you every time."

"I guess so." Sam nods extra seriously, trying not to grin.

Dean watches him for a minute and then carefully, deliberately reaches over and grabs his shoulder, squeezing gently and turning him around. "It's cold," he says. "Car's this way."

"I guess that didn't go as well as it could have," Sam mutters, trying to broach the subject as they trudge through the snow. This is how he deals with the hunt, trying to make sense of ghosts and monsters and divine intervention, things that can't rightly be explained with words. He shakes his head. "I thought, I kept hearing you and...there was this deer. A big deer."

"A deer?" Dean asks with wide eyes. "In the Pennsylvania woods?" He whistles. "Man, now that's weird."

Sam smiles. "It was. It was...staring at me...and..." He stops. These things never sound as good when he tries to explain them out loud. "I don't know," he finishes and shakes his head.

"You are so eloquent, little brother."

"Do you even know what eloquent means?"

Dean glares. "Anyway, this wasn't so bad. Things could have been worse."

Ahead, the Impala looms into view, parked crookedly on the side of the path, moonlight reflected in the black paint.

"How's that?" Sam asks, not even realizing how off track Dean has led him.

"Nobody's dead," Dean says. "Nobody's bleeding. And…" He grins and lifts one foot up for Sam to see. "Our boots ain't muddy."

Sam smirks, standing next to the car as Dean crosses to the driver's side and climbs in. Maybe, he considers, he doesn't need a reason for everything and doesn't need to understand every last detail. Maybe, it's enough to just make it out alive and with a smile on your face.


end...

(please feel free to point out any mistakes or criticisms. won't hurt my feelings.)