Title: Blue Moon Rising
Author: Harrigan

Beta work extraordinaire by: quellefromage, shallowz and miz24601

Warnings/Spoilers: No spoilers (it's pre-series; Sam's a senior in high school), but it's been totally Kripke'd by 'Heart' !

Disclaimer: oh Kripke! You own us, not the other way around.

(Credit also to the brilliant Maurice Sendak, whose classic book "Where the Wild Things Are" is quoted in this story.)

Authors note: This story is complete and runs between 25,000-26,000 words. Rumor has it some folks actually prefer to have something that length split into shorter chapters, so as an experiment I am breaking it up and will post it in 4 sections over the next week.

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Part 1 of 4

(Tuesday October 30, 2001)

There are some things Dean Winchester knows deep in his bones, no book learning required.

He knows the sky – and what's hidden there. Even when the clouds roll in and cover everything like a cheap army blanket, Dean knows if the moon is creeping across the night sky behind those clouds; knows whether it's a crescent sliver rising high overhead, or a fat shining softball sinking toward the horizon.

He knows his place in the world - always knows where he is. Some of that knowledge is ingrained from a lifetime of traveling across truck stop America, and some is due to an exceptional memory for places he has been or passed. But more than that, he has an instinctive sense of direction, always knows where true north lies. His brain's just wired that way.

He knows right now, too. Dean could wake up in the dark from a sound sleep and know within five minutes what time it is. He might not have much insight into any future that could be different than here-and-now, but he knows right now.

And he knows his brother and his father. He knows the tension between them lately is drawing tighter than the trip wire to a claymore landmine.

What he doesn't know is how to stop the imminent explosion. Not for sure. But he's developing a plan.

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Dean emerged from the shower less bleary-eyed but more confused.

The Winchester family had spent most of his lifetime in pretty tight quarters, and the current trailer was no exception. It was second nature by now to be aware of who was home and who wasn't, even when they were out of sight.

Walking into the kitchen, pulling on clothes that he'd snagged from the dryer, Dean felt it. That tickling sense of unease that told him he was alone. It was barely dawn - and he had no idea where his father and brother were.

He'd staggered in before first light, oblivious to whether or not Dad's truck was parked outside, still basking in the scent of an amorous little co-ed named Marcy. Or Margie. Whatever. He hadn't written her name on the note he'd left her. He hoped.

Now she was a fading memory as the silence of his surroundings sank in. It wasn't the silence of a sleeping household. It was something more ominous than that.

A chill brushed the still-damp hair on the back of his neck.

Where were Sam and Dad?

A hunt, maybe?

No, no way.

Dad didn't always come back when he said he would, but he never left on a case without telling him. Never. And besides - Dad and Sam on a hunt together, without him? No way that could end well. They'd end up battling each other, instead of taking down whatever evil they were stalking.

So – what was going on?

The answering machine held one new message, but not from either of them. The call was an hour old – so they'd been gone longer than that.

What could make them leave before the crack of dawn?

Dean stood stock still, eyes raking the empty room. The kitchen table held nothing but an empty Pabst Blue Ribbon, surrounded by a wide scattering of drops. He glanced up. Someone had hammered the bottle against the table like a gavel, pounding it with enough violence to spray the ceiling.

The air in the room felt heavy, thrumming with the echoes of harsh words, bitter and angry, clashing like broadswords.

His shoulders twitched, coming down a notch from a state of alert, exchanging one kind of tension for another. The threat hadn't come from outside.

Dean checked the room he shared with Sam next, looking for any signs of what had prompted the argument or where Sam had gone.

His brother's side of the room was as orderly as his giant geek brain. It only took a glance to determine that Sam's meager possessions were still there, and Dean huffed a small sigh of relief. But whatever had happened, Sam had reacted by slamming the bedroom door hard enough to crack the frame.

A wad of paper caught his eye, fiercely crumpled into a tight ball, but flattened by a high velocity impact against the wall. Dean smoothed it out; saw the letterhead of a prestigious law firm. It was addressed to Sam and began:

Our firm selects only the most focused, dynamic, and high-energy students with exceptional research and communication abilities. Responsibilities for this internship will include web research, writing, clerical and administrative tasks….

Part-time starting next semester, followed by a full-time job offer in the summer. And it paid.

Mystery solved.

Dad had obviously said no. He had his reasons; always did. Probably planning to pull up stakes soon, moving yet again to follow another cryptic trail of mutilations and mysterious deaths.

It was pretty much the only life he and Sam had ever known. It fit Dean, settled comfortably on his shoulders like a well-worn leather jacket. But Sammy? He just wouldn't quit growing, straining at the seams lately, tugging at the fabric of a life that was too confining. Sometimes Sam could swallow his frustration and put it behind him. But when it was still festering hours later, he would wake early, restless, and take off on a run. Grueling seven-minute miles down rural county roads until he was too exhausted to be pissed any more.

The fact that Sam was still out there meant he was plenty pissed this time.

But - where was Dad?

Dean stuck his head out the front door, found the rain coming down in sheets, gusts of wind driving icy needles against his exposed face and neck. The truck must have pulled out hours ago, he realized, before the rain had turned the dirt-packed drive to mud. All that was left in its spot was an empty whiskey bottle.

Dean knew what that meant. Subconsciously, he'd probably been expecting it.

This didn't have anything to do with Sam.

When it came to the cusp of days between October and November… if John Winchester didn't have a supernatural demon to pursue, then it was inner demons that pursued him instead. Escape was usually sought in the bottom of a bottle. As many bottles as it took to forget the pain of what he had lost; the guilt at having been unable to save Mary.

Dean was drawing back inside when he saw a lanky figure jogging up the road. In his head, he'd known Sam would be back, but his heart? It unclenched a little at the sight of his brother returning home, safe. Dean waited there, propping the door open when Sam finally stumbled in, drenched.

"You get enough of a cool-down?" Dean asked.

Sam bent over, breathing hard, hands on knees, water dripping from his saturated bangs and sliding down the ski jump slope of his broad nose. He shrugged a slight affirmative to the double entendre, then straightened. "Dad didn't come back?"

Dean swallowed his anger – mad at Sam for being mad at Dad - and just shook his head. Their father faced pain like a wounded animal that crawls off to suffer alone. He'd be gone for days. Sam knew that, and why, just as plainly as Dean did.

Dean was good at giving his dad space when he demanded it. He was good at meeting all of his father's demands. Always had been.

Unlike Sammy.

In the last few months, it seemed like nothing Sam did satisfied their dad. Or vice versa. And it was getting worse. It was time, Dean thought, to get Sam with the program. Before someone started hurling bottles at the walls instead of paper. Before the door frame that splintered was the front door slamming shut, and before the footsteps fading in the distance disappeared for good, instead of turning around and coming back.

And suddenly, staring absently at the answering machine, Dean felt the knot in his gut ease a little.

He had an idea.

"Got us a job," he said when Sam joined him in the kitchen, wearing frayed jeans, and buttoning a faded denim shirt. Sam opened the refrigerator and slaked his thirst with orange juice straight from the carton. "A hunt," Dean clarified when Sam raised an inquiring brow.

"Dad left us coordinates?"

Dean could hear the surprise and rising hope in Sam's voice. And how fucked up was that? Dad missing wasn't unusual, but they were more relieved if he was risking his life on a hunt, than if he was just safely passed out in an alley or locked up in a drunk tank somewhere again.

"Nope – there's a voice mail from Duck. He needs help with a case up in Wisconsin."

"Duck?" Sam's eyes sparked, and dimples flashed from a pleased grin. "We haven't heard from him in months!"

"It's a full moon this week. Probably some kind of werewolf, Sammy," Dean added, waggling his eyebrows invitingly. "Wanna go?"

Sam sighed, his grin fading. "It's the middle of the week, Dean." He tossed the empty carton in the trash and reached for the backpack propped on a cracked vinyl kitchen chair. "School? Remember that?"

"Think of it like a vacation! Just a couple days." One shoulder lifted in a shrug. "What could it hurt? I used to blow off a couple days of school all the time and it never made any difference."

Sam gnawed his lip. Seeing Duck again was tempting; Dean knew it would be.

"But - I've got exams next week. And I'm supposed to meet with the guidance counselor tomorrow," Sam said finally. "About those career aptitude test results."

"We'll be back by the weekend. Plenty of study time - no sweat. And that appointment? Skip it." Dean's eyebrows scrunched in disdain. "You wanna sit in some stuffy office with your hands tucked between your knees while some old broad tells you that you should become a librarian?" Dean put out a hand, stopped his brother from slinging the books over his shoulder. "We already have our jobs carved out for us – you know that. Our family business wasn't on that stupid test, but that's your career aptitude, Sammy."

"I don't think Dad would agree with you about the aptitude," Sam said, scowling.

And damn, Dean thought, if that just wasn't the whole problem in nutshell. Why couldn't Sam enjoy hunting the way he did? When their father was there, inevitably it became a battle of wills, Sam challenging John's decisions, John finding fault with Sam's actions. If he could get Sam on a hunt without their dad around, without the tension, Dean was sure Sam would relax into it. Hell, get the same high from it that Dean did. The Winchester family would finally become the well-oiled fighting machine John expected. Demanded. Together.

So he pulled out the big guns. Metaphorically speaking.

"C'mon Sam," he said. "It's Duck. Dude, you know him. When has he ever asked us for anything? Listen." He reached over to the answering machine on the counter; hit play.

"John? It's Duck. I hope to God this finds you. Listen. I need … well, I need your help." The deep voice on the other end was hoarse, desperate. "I know I don't have any right to ask this. It's been almost 30 years since Quang Nam, and I swore I'd spend the rest of my life trying to pay you back. God knows, this is a piss-poor way to repay a debt like that. But – "

Dean watched Sam's expression transform, his frustrations forgotten, his eyes growing wide and worried while the caller struggled to get out the next words. Sam had been 13 or 14 the last time they'd actually lived with Duck, about the same time Sam began to think his dad didn't know everything after all - and sometimes even dared to voice that opinion. Duck had been a safe haven in more ways than one back then, especially for Sam.

"I know now what it's going to take, and I can't do it alone. You're the only man I know who can help me with this." There was a ragged sigh. "Tell the boys.…" A long stretch of silence followed. Then the message just cut off.

"But - what about Dad?"

Yes! Dean had him in his pocket; his little brother was gonna play hooky after all. "Dad doesn't want us. Doesn't want anyone around right now," Dean said. "You know that. We can leave him a note, just in case, but we'll back before he is."

"That's not what I meant."

Oh. Yeah, Sam had already decided that helping Duck was worth giving up his own plans. This reluctance was rooted somewhere else.

When Sam was five years old, he'd started asking Dean where Dad had gone, when he'd be back, was he okay? The fact that sometimes Dad came home more than a little worse for wear didn't help. Sammy had grown up a worrier, and that hadn't changed just because he and their dad started fighting all the time. If Dad was off, alone on a hunt - Sam imagined the worst. If Dad was gone, alone with a bottle - Sam imagined the worst.

Kid always did have too much imagination.

"He's indestructible, Sam. You know that," Dean said. Well, not that there hadn't been plenty of blood mopped up over the years. But John Winchester was a survivor. Dean wouldn't leave if he had the slightest doubt about that. Dad was okay. He'd promised long ago – the first time he'd left them on their own – that he would always be okay; would always come back.

And Dad always kept his promises.

Sam's mouth tightened and he set the backpack down and nodded. "Okay. Yeah. For Duck. I'll go."

Dean grabbed the keys to the Impala, unholy glee lighting up his face, and led the way out. Sammy was gonna have fun this time, he swore. Helping people; hunting down the supernatural and killing it. It was what being a Winchester was all about. It was a perfect plan.

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A closed fist hammered on the heavy door and Duck O'Malley shut his journal, middle-aged joints creaking as he climbed to his feet, bad knee stiff. He pulled the cabin door open, flinched against the howling of the wind, looked up, and froze.

It wasn't John.

All his careful plans were whisked away like the broken pinecones and dry leaves that scattered across the warped porch step. Before he could react, it was too late – Sam was smiling broadly and crowding his personal space like he couldn't decide whether to shake his hand or wrap him in a manly hug. Dean shouldered past him toward the crackling fire inside, rubbing his hands together, and bitching about the cold.

Duck stared at the boys as they shrugged off their jackets and headed for the coffeepot on the ancient stove as if they lived there. Which they had, off and on, over the years. Ever since he'd moved to up north, his cabin had become a refuge, a place for the Winchester family to withdraw until they could get their bearings and move on. Debt collectors or eviction notices, overzealous agents of Child Protection Services - whatever made John pack up everything they owned and disappear into the night, Duck didn't need an explanation. He always had room for them until John could figure out where to settle next.

The thing of it was - it was their father who was supposed to be there this time. Without the boys.

"Where's John?" he asked, taking a steaming mug from Dean and settling into an old Naugahyde chair by the fireplace, keeping the dismay out of his voice as carefully as he blew across the surface of the black coffee.

The brothers sat too, straddling a pair of hard wooden chairs. They didn't answer right away. Just exchanged glances. A flash of emotion darted across Sam's face – annoyance? Concern? Whatever it had been, it was quickly erased. Something equally enigmatic flickered in Dean's eyes before it, too, was suppressed.

And then Duck knew exactly why John hadn't come.

He was like family – as much family as the Winchester clan had left. The boys were as close to sons as he would ever have. He knew they wouldn't lie to him. But Dean – he still couldn't talk about losing his mom without the words coming out raw, like they were dragged out over broken glass. And he wouldn't admit to any weakness in his dad, would never admit that John usually disappeared for a few days around the anniversary of Mary's death.

Dean didn't have to admit to anything though. Duck understood. He held up a hand. "I get it. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have called him. I should have remembered." He stared into his mug.

But Duck needed John on this case. "Look," he said, setting down his coffee and standing. "I'm sorry you boys came all this way. But this isn't a job for you. And you probably knew I'd say that, or else you'd have called first."

Dean stood then too, looming over Duck - who, to be honest, was built like a pugnacious little Irishman. "Duck, look at us. We aren't scrawny kids any more. And you know I've been hunting with Dad since before I finished school. We can help."

Looking up at him, Duck realized it was true. Dean wasn't that wiry, freckle-faced adolescent he was remembering, a kid interested in nothing more than classic rock and tinkering with cars. When he swept away the haze of nostalgia, he found sharper mental snapshots of Dean as a young teenager, watching their backs on a hunt – stealthy, alert, and a crack shot.

The boy had carried that responsibility too young, but he'd grown into it – shoulders broad enough now to support his burdens, worry lines around his eyes revealing a new maturity underneath that cocky, devil-may-care façade. Dean was a hunter now. But - Duck couldn't ask him to do this.

And what about Sam?

When he'd opened the door Duck had been stunned at how tall Sam had grown. He wouldn't be wearing Dean's hand-me-downs ever again. But there was something in Sam's young face, eyes bright and challenging, hair decidedly unmilitary in length, that suggested Sam still clung to a certain innocence that Dean had shed long ago.

"Aren't you still in school?" Duck asked the younger brother, who hadn't moved and was still draped across the back of his chair, all gangly arms and legs.

Sam nodded, with a look that Duck read as both confident and conflicted. "Senior. But I go where he goes," he said, jerking his chin toward Dean. "I can miss a couple days and catch up easily enough." He straightened. "So - what is it? It's a full moon tomorrow night – is it werewolves? Dad always said you were the man to talk to if we needed to know anything about werewolf lore."

Duck sighed. He needed time to think. John had suffered enough, and Duck wouldn't risk adding the loss of his sons to the debt. But - maybe he could at least feed them, put them up for the night, and let them help with some of the tasks that would be safe.

Hell, it would be like old times.

And damn – but he'd missed having them around. "You're right, Sam. Since I retired a couple years ago, I guess I've been specializing in that." He tapped his leather bound journal. "Everything I've learned about werewolves – theories on origins, how to kill, how to cure, proven or unproven, is in here. You boys have any experience with werewolves, yourselves?"

Dean nodded, self-assured. "Yeah. When I was 18, the summer after we left here. We tracked a loublin to a cemetery in Iowa. Killed and torched that sucker." There was an unmistakable note of pride in his voice. Sam was staring at the floor, mouth drawn in a tight line, and Duck wondered about the story behind that.

"Loublin, huh? That's one of the more rare breeds. They feed on fresh corpses instead of the living. If you've run across loublin, you already know there's different kinds of werewolf." Duck picked up his journal and motioned them to follow him. "And then there's the whole full moon mythology. Some sub-species are tied to the lunar cycle. Some aren't."

The room he led them to had changed since the last time the Winchesters had stayed at the cabin. Now, a big scarred desk was the most prominent piece of furniture in the room, covered with dusty tomes. Loose papers were tacked haphazardly to three of the walls.

"Duck?" Sam gestured at the corner, an incredulous look on his face. An afghan in variegated hues of camouflage green was draped across the top of a rocking chair. On the floor beside it was a wicker basket filled with balls of yarn, a pair of knitting needles embedded in one.

Duck shrugged. "Man's gotta keep busy, you know. I've got so many pairs of socks now I hardly ever have to do laundry."

Dean snorted, and stepped closer to examine the maps on the wall. Sam stood at his shoulder; his attention turned to the sketches of medieval woodcuts, showing villagers fleeing in terror from unnatural creatures.

After a moment they pivoted to see the rest of the room. A typical file cabinet, some bookcases, and there, behind them, stood pair of bunk beds, stripped down and long disused. Dean and Sam snuck glances at each other and then couldn't hold back the broad grins.

"You boys aren't going to fight over the top bunk again, are you?" Duck shook his head. "I never did understand why you both wanted it."

"You never had a ladder for it. We liked to climb." Sam walked up to the bunk beds; peered down over the top mattress. "I remember it being a lot higher though."

"I bet it seemed plenty high enough that morning the alarm went off for school and you fell off the top bunk," Dean snickered.

Sam groaned. "It wasn't the floor that hurt; it was landing on your damn boots."

"Boys…!" The syllable came out on an exasperated sigh. It really was like old times. Duck steered them back to the maps and the lesson at hand. "I think you wanted to know about werewolves, right?"

They nodded, back to business.

"The loublin originated in Romania," Duck began. "They're active during full moons. But there are many more breeds of werewolf - each different. For example, the loup garou came this way from France." Duck slid his finger from Europe across the ocean to Quebec, and down along the routes that French Canadian fur trappers left descendents. "The loup garou aren't affected by the lunar cycle," he added. "They take the form of a wolf for 101 consecutive nights after being bitten."

"So - what are we hunting here?" Dean asked. He wasn't interested in a zoology lesson. He wanted intel on their target.

Duck turned back from the maps on the wall to face them. "Blue Moon werewolves."

"Blue Moon?" Dean laughed. "What are they? Werewolf Elvis impersonators?"

Sam sniggered.

Even Duck started to smile. He'd almost forgotten what it was like having Dean's smart mouth around. Then he remembered what they were up against, and he looked pained. "No. These victims transform into actual wolves. Only larger and even more vicious." His face darkened, and his hands balled into fists, until he realized it and uncurled his fingers, wiping his sweaty palms against his jeans. "It lasts just a few hours each night, spanning the night before and after the full moon at its peak. But this breed has a unique trait or two. For starters, they don't turn every month. Just once in a blue moon."

Sam's expression registered interest at Duck's choice of the word 'victim', but before he could react, Dean was saying "And a blue moon is – whenever there are two full moons in the same month?"

Duck nodded. "I was tracking what I thought was your common garden variety werewolf back in September of '93. In the Upper Peninsula. This attack occurred at a campground – not a lot of tourists left at the end of September. Just four families had booked RV sites. On the first night of the full moon, a toddler vanished. They found her …" Duck grimaced at the memory, "remains in the morning. Animal attack, the authorities said. The campground shut down after that; all four families left. I tracked them down. Put word out in the hunter community to watch them at the next full moon – to let me know where the next killing occurred. But the next full moon – there weren't any attacks near any of those families."

He perched on the edge of his desk and rubbed one knee. "Nothing for three years," he went on. "And then in July of '96 – the summer just before you boys moved in here – it happened again. At Cedar Breaks, out in Utah, and it turned out one of those four families was vacationing there. The Harper family. I couldn't make it out there before the end of the full moon, but that's when I started looking into lore about werewolves that only turn every two to three years."

"Once in a blue moon."

"Right." Duck gestured at a wobbly stack of Farmers' Almanacs balanced precariously on the floor. "I put together a list of all the full moons over the last twenty-five years. Cross-referenced it at the library with microfiche newspaper reports of animal attacks in the general vicinity of the Harper clan."

"You found a pattern."

"I found a pattern," Duck echoed. "The first attack I found was in Indiana, in 1985. Five-year-old Melanie Harper was killed and her father David was bitten, but survived. Since then more attacks in their vicinity – the next in '88 and again in '90, '93, '96 … always on a month with two full moons, and always on the second one."

"Blue Moon werewolves," Dean repeated, still shaking his head at the mental picture of furry creatures in white sequined jumpsuits, playing guitar. "So – you found the pattern after the attack in '96. What happened in '98 or '99?"

"Both husband and wife were affected by then. David and Marie Harper. I killed Marie in March of '99, in Minnesota."

"But David?"

"Was too strong; too fast. He got away."

"That was two and a half years ago. He's due to turn again. That's why you called Dad."

"Not exactly." Duck turned away, unable to look the boys in the eye. Outside the window, the edge of the woods loomed menacingly closer than he remembered. "I called your Dad," he admitted with a shuddering sigh, "because I think now Harper may be hunting me. I think he's headed here."

There was no stunned silence, no hesitation. "Let us help." The words came in tandem chorus from both brothers.

Duck stood still, studying the young men in front of him – strong, eager, trained, unafraid. Finally, he nodded, though the conflict was still etched in his face. "Need a hot meal in us before we hit the woods for a little scouting party," he said. "Bring in your gear while I heat us up some lunch. You boys still like my venison goulash, right?" Duck headed for the kitchen without waiting for an answer.

Sam winced. "Damn. That stuff always makes me sneeze."

"It's the paprika," Dean said, laughing, loose-limbed and relaxed now that his plan was coming together. "Duck's always been a little heavy-handed with the spices."

Sam poked Dean. "And you always pick out the green peppers."

"What can I say? They're green. If God had intended man to eat green stuff, he wouldn't have made mold green."

Sam rolled his eyes. "You're unbelievable," he said. "C'mon. Let's get our stuff."

They didn't have much to bring in. They dumped their kits on the beds and Dean frowned when he saw Sam plop his heavy AP Calculus book on the bunk too.

"Dude! You didn't!"

"I need to keep up, Dean."

"Then why didn't you stay home?"

Sam just gave him a belligerent stare. There was no way he could admit to Dean the fear that gnawed at his gut every time their dad left. Didn't matter if it was for a hunt or on the rare bender. Each time, there was a cold clammy fear deep inside that maybe this time Dad wouldn't come back. Dean never seemed worried about it. And he'd be damned if he let Dean know he was. Sometimes it was all Sam could do to try to mask that fear as resentment. He'd rather Dean thought he was a sullen teenager than a scared little boy.

The idea of Dean leaving him too, though - of going off on a hunt while Sam sat safely in class … that thought scraped him raw and hollow inside. What if something happened to Dean?

The only way he could deal with that was to ditch school and come along.

"I can cut a day or two of school and catch up in everything else," he explained, "but this is more than just reading and memorizing." He drummed his fingers on the thick math book. "It's not so easy."

Dean sighed. "Sammy, why even take AP classes? They aren't going to help on a hunt."

"I just –" Sam floundered for an excuse Dean would understand. He knew college wasn't an option. That appointment with the school's guidance counselor? He didn't really mind missing that. What was the point really? They couldn't afford college. And even with the possibility of financial aid, he knew his father would never agree. Dad was just waiting for him to finish school and finally start pulling his weight, like Dean did.

He had responsibilities, not choices.

But schools kept putting him in the gifted track, and he'd be damned if he'd back down from that challenge either. Truth be told, he even liked the courses. But he could never admit that to Dean. That was just an invitation for geek-ribbing on a massive scale.

Dean wasn't waiting for an answer anyway. He was rummaging in the closet where he remembered linens were stored, and his boot connected with a plastic crate on the floor. "Hey, what's this?" Dumping a pile of plaid wool blankets on the top bunk, he pulled out the crate and sank down to sit on the bottom bunk. The mattress gave as Sam settled beside him.

At first glance, it was a pile of – well, junk really. At the top there were old comic books, covers creased, and a manila envelope stuffed with old baseball cards. Dean reached deeper and picked up a Rubik's cube, and Sam felt the years sifting away like loose dirt swept aside to reveal skeletal remains.

Once they'd stayed with Duck for a whole school year, when Dad had fractured his pelvis getting thrown against a granite tombstone. Dean had called the nearest hunter still on speaking terms with John. It wasn't a long list.

Duck O'Malley had gone back to school after his tour in 'Nam and become an ER nurse, bucking the stereotype with his gray crew cut and ropy muscles and steely blue eyes. So when the boys asked for help, Duck had taken charge, getting John transferred to Mercy Hospital where he worked. The boys had stayed at the cabin with Duck and gone to school in town. When John was released from the hospital, but still needed a few more months of bed rest and rehab, Duck put him in his own room and slept on the couch. They'd stayed till summer, even after John was up and around again.

It had meant a lot to Sam to feel like he had roots then. Especially at 13. Sitting on the familiar bunk now, he wasn't sure he'd ever really thought about the fact that his dad had tried to give him that. Without his sons, he'd have been on the road constantly. Pastor Jim had even suggested John home-school the boys if he was so reluctant to settle down. He could have, too; Sam had no doubts he could have gotten an education from books alone, without any help from a teacher. But he'd wanted classmates. Normal.

He didn't think that Dad 'got' that, but looking back now, he realized the truth. Whenever they stayed in one place, set down roots for a semester or a year, John Winchester was putting his sons first.

Sam palmed a deflated soccer ball to lift it out of the crate and felt his heart hammer with mixed emotions. Then his eyes lit up as he found a pile of favorite dog-eared paperbacks underneath. He and Duck had shared a passion for reading that Dad and Dean never understood.

He couldn't believe Duck had kept all this stuff. The sentimental old coot. He cast a glance at Dean, who was rubbing a thumb pensively along the edge of a plastic-sleeved Jim Abbott rookie card.

"Mint condition?" Sam grinned. "Are we rich?"

"Oh yeah. Worth eight bucks, at least!" Dean answered, his voice quiet. "Guess Dad can retire now."

"Right." Sam reluctantly put the books back. "Hey, Dean? Do you know what Duck meant on the phone, about owing Dad a debt?"

Dean shook his head. "They were both in 'Nam. But Duck was an Army medic and Dad was in the Corps, so I don't know if they saw any action together. You know they won't talk about it."

Sam shoved the crate back in the closet and nodded. Didn't matter. Over the years, debt or not, the man had become a friend. For the Winchesters, that was something in short supply.

Duck came in, waving an apron to dispel the smoke that followed him out of the kitchen. "You boys remember where everything is?" Sotto voce, he embarked on the chorus to a song he had mangled the first time Dean played it and every time since –

"Don't go around tonight,
Well, it's bound to take your life,
There's a bathroom on the right…"

"He hasn't changed a bit since we last saw him," Dean said, rolling his eyes, as Duck wandered off again. "But I don't think he can say the same about us."

"He didn't have that limp the last time we were here," Sam pointed out, heading toward the door.

"I guess he didn't knit back then either. But he always was a big softie."

"Just because he liked research more than killing doesn't make him soft, Dean."

"And you're just like him, Sammy," Dean smirked. "You gonna learn to knit too?"

"Shut up!" Sam clocked him with a ball of khaki-colored yarn.

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After lunch Duck led the brothers on a scouting foray deep into the woods behind the cabin. As the trees closed in around them, he felt John's specter over his shoulder, turning the excursion into another training exercise. He suspected Dean and Sam felt it too. They followed, silent as the fog.

He'd practically watched those boys grow up. He remembered the first time John had brought the boys to the cabin for a few days, when Child Protective Services had gotten a little too curious. John took Dean out back to shoot at bottles, and damned if the little guy couldn't knock an Old Milwaukee Beer off a fence at 6 or 7 years old. Duck never saw anyone take to something so natural. Never saw John so proud either.

Duck's task that afternoon had been to keep Sammy occupied safely indoors, because the 3-year-old always wanted to be wherever Dean was, doing whatever his big brother was doing. Duck offered to read to Sam from an Early Reader that Dean had in his backpack, and Sam had happily crawled into his lap and opened the book. Then he began reading it aloud to his astonished babysitter.

Later, Duck asked John if he'd taught Sammy, but the boy's father didn't have a clue. They'd gone looking for Dean; found the two kids curled up together over a comic book.

"Dean, did you teach Sammy to read?" John had demanded.

"We didn't mean to," Dean had answered plaintively, not sure who was in more trouble. "It was a accident!"

Dean had simply been reading aloud, fingers tracing the words, sounding them out, and Sammy, glued to his side, absorbed it all. Those were good times, Duck reflected. He'd tried not to look forward to their visits, because chances were, it meant the Winchester family was in trouble. But he had to admit, he'd missed them.

As the boys got older, John needed him less. Didn't have social service agencies breathing down his neck any more. Dean finished school and found work wherever John moved them, so they weren't on the run from debt collectors lately either.

It had been years since he'd helped John put the boys through their paces here in the woods. But it was all coming back to him now.

"Sam asked why I'd started to specialize in werewolves," he said, one hand on the bark of a tree for balance as he navigated down a steep slope. "But it's complicated." He paused, thinking how John would respond to such a question. John tended toward terse answers, not explanations. Maybe that was his military background. But maybe it was because he knew how bright his boys were and wanted them to work at finding the answers, and the reasons behind them. "Why werewolves, and not zombies or poltergeists or banshees?" Duck continued. "Well, what's one thing that all known werewolf breeds have in common?"

"Transmogrification," Dean piped up right away. "Shape shifting."

Duck stumbled in his haste to turn around and stare.

"What?" Dean's expression was pure innocence. "I read Calvin and Hobbes."

Sam snorted, and Duck was reminded that while Dean liked to play dumb, he was anything but. His act might fool strangers, but he couldn't fool John or Sam. Or Duck.

Sam took his turn to expound on the answer. "Transmogrification," he repeated, elbowing Dean, "and more specifically, lycanthropy. Unlike, say, the Slavic kresniki, or the Navajo skin walkers that can choose different animal skins, werewolves always take the form, or nature, of a wolf."

Dean suddenly shot out an arm to stop Duck from moving on. Wordlessly, he gestured to the brush along the stream bank a few feet from where they stood, and then picked up a fallen limb to poke away the natural cover. No longer hidden, they saw a steel-jawed trap, anchored by a heavy chain.

Duck frowned. "Looks like there's trappers in these woods again." He looked around, saw nothing but trees. "I could never bring myself to use traps, though I considered it. I've been working on a plan to capture a werewolf alive, see if the legends on how to cure one have any basis in fact."

"Cure one? Are you kidding?" Dean's eyes flashed. Monsters are monsters. If it's supernatural, you kill it. Rule Number One in the John Winchester playbook.

"I know. I know." Duck held up a hand, asking for a chance to explain. "I'm not saying you shouldn't hunt them. The world is safer without them. But for me, well, this is all tied into why I served as a medic in 'Nam."

He took a deep breath, held it. Released it with a heavy sigh. "It was a war over there, no matter what some folks call it. It was a war, and we had enemies who'd stop at nothing to kill us. It was kill them, or be killed. Or worse, watch your buddy die. Your daddy understood that. That's what makes him so good at what he does. But me?" Duck studied his cold-reddened fingers, and then thrust his hands in his pockets. "Even though I knew it was a war, I couldn't help seeing the faces above the uniforms. Teenagers and young women and old men - people who just believed in a cause. They were just trying to protect their neighbors and their families and friends." Duck's voice caught and he faltered for a moment.

Then he collected himself and continued. "So – I became a medic," he explained. "Someone has to do the killing. I just didn't want it to be me. Not if I can try to save lives, instead. You asked me why I decided to specialize in werewolves. Well, same thinking. Because in a way, you can think of werewolves as victims too. And of all the things we've hunted over the years, your father and I and other hunters like us, these are only ones that maybe I can try to save instead of destroy."

"But, can you?" Sam asked. "Does the folklore say there's a cure?"

"I've heard of one," Duck said. "If you treat someone who's been bitten, before the next moonrise. But after the poison's taken hold – after they've turned?" He shook his head. "I've been tracking down rumors, but I haven't seen proof. Not yet anyway."

He pushed off again, away from the stream and deeper into the woods. "There's a legend that says recognizing a loup garou, calling it by name, will make it turn human again. Some say you need iron and the blood of the werewolf to complete the charm." He was breathing harder as they were moving uphill now. "I tried that whole formula over in Minnesota. Set a trap with iron nails. Caught Marie Harper in it, and I followed her bloody paw prints till I had her cornered. I knew who she was; called her by name." Duck leaned over, rubbed his knee. "But I guess the spell was specific to loup garou. It didn't work on her. Had to put her down."

"Silver bullet?" Dean asked.

Duck nodded. "Yeah. They say iron rounds to the heart'll kill 'em too."

An owl hooted over head, and Duck glanced up. Above them, the moon was beginning to rise, low on the horizon - a plump jack-o-lantern, bright yellow-orange as it floated lazily up the sky. But there was nothing so pleasant or cheery in Duck's tone. "We need to turn back. Now," Duck urged, moving faster than the boys would have imagined with his gimpy leg. They followed, alert and grimly silent.

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