Title: That Was Real
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: Not mine; just borrowing.
Notes: Young!Kate and Sam Austen. Just a short little experimental thing.

My dad was in the army. Ranger Battalion. He was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington State. We'd go hiking together. One day we spent eight hours tracking deer. Being in the woods, it was like...it was like his religion. That was real.
--Kate, All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

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Katie is tired. She's tired and cold and her feet are sore and it's been a long time since lunch. But she would never say so to her dad. No, she knows you don't complain in the woods with Sam Austen, just like she knows you don't interrupt the priest while he's praying. You just don't do it. This is sacred; this is the way her father prays.

Except they're hiking now into a denser part of the woods, and she can't help puffing out a frustrated breath of air. The deer tracks they'd been following for a better part of an hour are lost in the thick underbrush. "The trail's gone."

Her father stops, turns, crouches in front of her so they're eye to eye. "The trail never disappears, Katie. The only thing that disappears is your skill." He nods to the forest around them. "Keep looking. Deer leave more than tracks." He stands then, moving to the side. She knows what this means – he's waiting for her.

She bites her upper lip, tongue sticking out slightly as she concentrates. Everything he's taught her, all she's watched him look for today, she turns it around in her mind. She keeps looking, unconsciously striking poses similar to his, crouched on the ground, gently turning over leaves, nose wrinkled as she tries to decide if a disturbance in the undergrowth is a deer's lay or another animal's wallow.

Forgetting for the moment about being tired and cold and hungry, she moves slowly and deliberately, barely hearing her father's footsteps as he follows her, his murmured sounds of approval when she correctly identifies a pile of scat. Evidence of browsing on the white pines, the torn ends of spruces where the deer have recently eaten. She can do this, she thinks, and the knowledge that her father is letting her lead spurs her on.

Suddenly, and she can't even tell how much time has passed, he breaks into a wide grin. He stoops down quietly, turns her by the shoulders, gently. "There you go, Katie. There they are."

She clings to his gloved hand and holds her breath, her gaze following his outstretched arm down into the valley. And yes, there they are, necks sloped to drink from the creek running through the ravine. They're beautiful, they're perfect, and she watches until all at once, by an unseen signal, a flick of the tail or a twitch of the ear, they're bounding away. Gone. She lets out her breath.

"Well done, Katie. You did it."

She lets herself grin then, beaming up at him. She's done it, she's made him proud. Maybe this time, she won't have to go back, back to Iowa, to Wayne, back to doing nothing to be proud of.

Maybe this time, he'll tell her she can stay.

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fin

Note: I can't take credit for the line "The trail never disappears. The only thing that disappears is your skill." That line is attributed to Tom Brown Jr., tracking/wilderness survival guru.