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Skin-Walker

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The Fall leaves crunched beneath his bare feet as Jack made his way back to where he had hidden his clothing. His senses were still sharp, his preternatural night vision penetrating the dark shadows beneath the trees, relieved to know the final night of the full moon had passed. He could taste blood on his lips and could only hope he had hunted down a rabbit or a small deer rather than caught the scent of a human, but he wouldn't know for certain until someone was reported missing or injured.

God, he hoped he had not hurt anyone. He had deliberately headed deep into the forest surrounding Eureka hours before the rising of the full moon these past three nights for this very reason.

He reached his clothes, finding them lying undisturbed, hidden beneath a fallen tree. Shaking out each item in turn he dressed quickly, eventually sitting on the downed tree to pull on his boots. Jack took a hand mirror out of his bag and inspected his face, grimacing at the dried blood caked around his mouth that had run down his neck. He dug deeper into the bag for water and a washcloth, wiping away the dried blood before swilling some of the water around his mouth and spitting it out.

Please don't be human, he silently prayed.

It had been 17 years since he last had to conceal a crime of his own making but, fortunately for Jack, his victim then had survived his attack, managing to reach the safety of a Ranger's shack with only the rake of Jack's claws against his back rather than suffer a bite. The man had been camping in a remote area within the Angeles National Forest and had no true recollection of what had attacked him just before dawn or how he had managed to outrun it; it was put down to a bear attack, and Jack had breathed a sigh of relief as he read the incident report a few days later.

Claws left scars skin deep but a bite left its mark every full moon as the surviving victim became just like him, a predator, transforming into something not quite human, not quite ursine, yet filled with a bear's instinct to hunt and kill. That was how he had become a shapeshifter, a skin-walker, mauled and bitten while hunting down a fugitive, and only surviving by killing the creature attacking him. He recalled the pain, and so much blood, his blood and the skin-walker's, but the wounds from claws and teeth had disappeared by the time he reached civilization.

Over the years Jack had learned to control the urges on a normal full moon, letting what remained of the human override the instincts of the bear, and locking himself away each night until it was over. Abby had once called him out on his full moon phobia, but he never let on his secret. It all changed when the full moon occurred around All Hallow's Eve - Samhain. At this time of year the thin veil between the natural and supernatural worlds strengthened the pull of the full moon, far too strong to resist for any creature straddling both worlds.

Too strong for him to resist.

At least no one would have suspected anything strange about him over the past few days as, weeks earlier, he had organized a trip to Portland to coincide with this full moon, pretending he would be staying in a hotel in Portland for three nights just to cover his tracks. Instead he had found a small, no-questions-asked motel backing onto the forest ten miles north of Eureka. Deputy Andy was on duty so no one had a need to call him to confirm his whereabouts. He hadn't even had to lie to Allison as their marriage had not survived the first year. She had left Eureka for a lucrative position at Area 51 taking the kids with her. Normally Jack hated not being able to hug them every single day and he had made it part of his routine to video call them every evening before Allison put them to bed. Today he was glad he wouldn't need to head home to Allison and the kids, and pretend nothing was wrong.

God, he hoped it was a deer.

Jack made his way back to the motel, slipping in quietly and heading straight for the shower. He was so tired, drained by the transformation and the long walk for a third night. He fell into bed and was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow, dreaming fitfully of charging through the trees on all fours, the scent of prey just ahead.

He awoke hours later, unrefreshed by the deep sleep, and turned on the local news channel, feeling his gut clench when the anchor spoke of a bear attack. His heart sank when he learned it was a fatal attack on a human, then he froze when a familiar figure was seen hovering in the background. Taggart. The man might act like a buffoon but he was a highly skilled tracker. What if he followed the bear tracks and found where they became human? Any one else would dismiss the notion but Taggart was a cryptozoologist. He believed in Big Foot and the Yeti. He would follow the human trail to where Jack had hidden his clothes, then follow the boot prints right to Jack's motel door.

His heart sank even further when another familiar figure appeared next to Taggart; the recently retrieved-from-oblivion Nathan Stark.

"I should have headed out of state," Jack murmured fearfully, already sick to the stomach from knowing he was responsible for someone's death but just as scared of ending up being dissected in a laboratory inside Global Dynamics.

He dressed quickly, wishing he had put stolen plates on his hire car. He had chosen this place due to the lack of security cameras but he had noticed the manager taking down his license plate number even though Jack paid for his room in cash. He huffed in self-derision because his DNA was all over this room anyway. Jack stuffed his few possessions into his bag and opened the door, coming to an abrupt halt when he almost plowed straight into Nathan Stark.

"Jack! Surprise."

Taggart stood a little way behind Stark, and Jack sighed as any hope of escaping undetected disappeared completely. He should have realized the news report was a few hours old.

"Taggart! Take Carter's hire car back. Carter's coming with me."

Jack bristled with anger at being ordered about, but it defused quickly when he realized he had no choice. What did surprise him was the lack of Global security guards when he stepped outside the motel room. He thought Stark would have had the place surrounded, ready to take him out if he so much as twitched. Except Stark had been different since his return, no longer grinding his teeth at any mention of Jack and Allison in the same breath, and not actively seeking her out despite his intention of re-marrying Allison before he got himself deleted from the universe by Weinbrenner's failed experiment. Since his return he had actually been pleasant to Jack, even sociable. He called him Jack rather than Carter, or Mayberry, Andy Griffith, or any other derisory law enforcement name, and he had insisted on Jack calling him Nathan. Henry just shook his head and walked away when Jack suggested someone look for a pod in Stark's basement.

They were becoming friends, which was not a great idea as Jack's feelings towards Nathan Stark were a little too friendly, and always had been. Nathan challenged him in a good way, and everything about him was... perfection, apart from the enormous ego, but even that sent a spark of pleasure through Jack, especially when Nathan used it against others. Just like Allison, Nathan was the full package, pressing every one of Jack's buttons, perhaps even more than Allison. If he had come across Nathan before meeting her then things would have been very different, but that first meeting alone where Nathan warned him to back off from Allison had set the pattern of their relationship... until that fateful day in Weinbrenner's laboratory.

Jack still wanted Nathan, but he couldn't afford to have all of that laser-bright intellect focused on discovering his terrible secret. It was the kind of curiosity that would get Nathan killed... by him.

"Get in the car, Jack," Nathan ordered gently, waiting until Jack had climbed into the BMW's passenger seat before heading round to the driver's seat. He pulled away in silence, waiting until they were on the highway before speaking, and Jack could hear the smirk in his voice. "We've had you under surveillance since you came to Eureka. I know what you are, Jack. It's part of the reason why I made you sheriff and brought you to Eureka."

"You made me sheriff?" Jack was confused and now angry. "You weren't even the Director when I came here."

"Not the first time, no, but they made me Director as soon as they arrested Warren King... and I wanted to know all about you." He creased his brow. "Didn't anyone ever mention there were parts of your personnel file even you weren't cleared to read?"

"And you are, obviously," Jack stated sourly. "But how did they find out-?"

"1997. You were hunting a fugitive at the wrong time of the lunar cycle. Greystock was a skin-walker on Taggart's radar. He attacked you and you shot him, and yet there wasn't a mark on you even though he was covered in your blood. Taggart took an interest in you." He paused, started to say something then changed his mind. "I suspect you recall Halloween 2001. Angeles National Forest? Matt Balkins didn't escape you, Jack. Taggart stopped you with a tranquilizer dart and left you there to sleep it off until the full moon had passed. He's been tracking you for the last few nights, reporting back to me."

Jack rarely retained any memory of when he was a bear, just impressions, flashes of moments. It explained a lot of the mystery surrounding that event, of how the guy had managed to outrun him.

"So what happens now?"

"We stop pretending we don't know what you are, and you can continue to lock yourself up in the Bunker every full moon... until the next time it coincides with Halloween. Or you can let us help you." He glanced across. "Let me help you," Nathan stressed.

"Does Allison know?"

"No. And don't worry, Jack, we checked out Zoe and Carter Junior. Neither of them inherited your Therianthropic genes."

"My therum... what?"

"Shapeshifting abilities, Carter."

Jack straightened in shock. It had never occurred to him that he could have passed on this curse to his kids as he thought it could only be transferred in a bite, like a virus. The very thought of them going through this every full moon, terrified of hurting someone left him feeling cold inside. Thankfully he could push that fear aside.

"Why are you doing this, Nathan? If it was just for scientific curiosity then you wouldn't have been waiting outside my motel door offering a ride back to town."

Nathan sighed heavily, pulling over to the side of the road. He turned in his seat, holding Jack's eyes with his own.

"Jack, I've not done a lot of things I regret in my life but by far the biggest regret was realizing how much you meant to me when I was about to die. I'm not pushing you away anymore, Jack. I want you... and I know you want me," he added with a toothy grin. "And if a tendency to turn into a bear at the full moon is part of the package then we'll just have to figure it out."

He smiled brightly, reaching across to stroke the side of Jack's face, leaning in to kiss him but pulling away at the last moment. Jack felt elated and dismayed at the same time. Nathan was offering him everything he wanted just when it was too late.

"I killed a man last night," he stated solemnly, feeling tears prickle his eyes.

Nathan smiled and pulled away, heading towards Eureka.

"You didn't kill him, Jack. It was a bear." Nathan glanced across at him quickly before turning his attention back to the road.

"Is this a cover up? Let's just pretend I didn't hunt down and maul a man to death?"

"Strangely, no. It was a real bear, Jack. She had a cub, and he got too close to it."

Jack blinked, stunned. "Really? A real bear?" Relief flooded through him.

Nathan screwed up his face in disgust. "Hope you enjoyed eating Bambi last night... and forgive me if I don't kiss you until you've thoroughly rinsed your mouth out."

Jack groaned, annoyed and yet relieved at the same time. He hadn't killed anyone after all, and maybe with Nathan by his side he might never face that possibility.

END

Inspiration image:

Spook Me 2018 - ken_the_bear_by_velinovd7zpj52-vi.jpg