Story Notes:

This is a seriously AU pre-series story that deals with a very dark "what if?". The basic premise is this: sometime in 1988 John Winchester is arrested after he takes out a pack of werewolves (and is naturally considered a 'serial killer' by the local authorities). The boys are put in separate foster homes and grow up in very different lifestyles. The point at which this story begins, the boys have already been separated for five years. Their struggles living apart, and their fateful reunion will be the however many hours' traffic of our stage.

WARNING: There are graphic scenes of violence, child abuse (both physical and sexual) in the first few chapters. They are not intended to titillate, but rather to be brutally horrible. I'm not writing the violence or abuse for the sake of having violence and abuse: I believe it's necessary to set the stage and to give proper context. Rest assured, though, that the violence does end. This isn't just a catalogue of torture -- there's a light at the end of the tunnel that will result in some great brotherly bonding and healing. At least, that's the plan!

For those of you who have been reading this from the beginning, I am editing some earlier chapters for content, as I feel it would be more appropriate with a bit of censorship, considering the sensitive nature of the material. In essentials the text is the same, but the sexual content has been seriously toned down.

And so without further ado, I give you "In Shadow."


April, 1993

This wasn't where he wanted to be. He didn't bother wiping the sleep from his eyes, instead opting to revel in the darkness behind his eyelids so that he could imagine a morning much brighter than this one. He saw himself at home, his real home, in Lawrence, sleeping in his own bed in his own bedroom, enjoying the extra hours afforded on a Saturday morning without the annoying alarm waking him for school. In this vision he was a normal fourteen year-old boy sleeping in, and already he could smell pancakes and bacon and eggs downstairs. And Mom was still alive, of course, and she'd be peeking her head through his bedroom door any minute now to wake him up to come down for breakfast. And Dad would be waiting at the table, sipping his morning coffee with a scowl and telling him to get off his butt and get out and mow the lawn. And Sammy would be bouncing around with too much energy, talking about how Thomas Wolby down the street has a trampoline and can he go play later? Dean found himself grinning as he pictured the bright sunlight filtering through the kitchen window. He could taste the eggs, could smell the burnt toast, could feel his father's fingers ruffling his hair...

But those weren't his father's fingers in his hair. And that wasn't his father's breath on the back of his neck, either. Definitely not his father's arm draped possessively across him. And just like that the illusion was shattered. He blinked his eyes open and refused to allow himself to sigh in disappointment. This was his life. It was what it was.

"Mmmm..." Vinnie's voice rumbled against his neck. "You awake?"

Dean tried to slow his breathing to mimic the rhythm of sleep, but Vinnie wasn't fooled.

"Hey," he called sharply, giving Dean a sharp smack on the thigh through the blankets. "You know what I want first thing in the morning, boy. Go brush your teeth and get your ass back in here."

Now Dean did sigh.

"Yeah," he replied, peeling himself out from under the arm, hating how skinny his legs looked when they kicked free from the blankets. "Be back in a sec."

He took his time getting to the bathroom and brushing his teeth, enjoying the ritual of brushing, rinsing, flossing, gargling. He thought he actually had nice teeth, all things considered, and went out of his way to take care of them. It was a quirk that had earned him more than a sideways glance on more than one occasion, but whatever. He wasn't the one who had a sick thing for teenaged boys.

"Dean, don't you fuck around with me, boy!" Vinnie's voice called from the bedroom.

"You'll thank me when you're enjoying my fresh, minty mouth," Dean quipped, but hastened back to the bedroom all the same.

He tried not to shudder when Vinnie tossed the blanket aside for him to return to bed. He should be fucking used to this by now. But the sight of the man's rounded belly and the trail of wiry black hair cresting it from the waistline of his boxers up to his navel stood out so starkly against the too white flesh. The man had been athletic once, but had gone to seed sometime in his early 40s. Even if Dean's natural inclination had been for the XY persuasion, which it wasn't, this guy wouldn't turn a blind person's eye. And booze and drugs didn't make him any prettier. Dean had tried.

Schooling his gag reflex into submission, Dean lowered himself to the bed and eased his way back under the covers. Vinnie's mouth was suffocating him greedily before he'd even got himself settled.

"You're right," the man practically hummed with a grin. "Minty."

Dean nodded, trying to recover from the kiss. He hated it when Vinnie kissed him on the mouth. It was too personal, too invasive. It made him feel owned and bought somehow more than being fucked ever did. It was too... intimate.

"Love that mouth, pretty boy," Vincent said, sighing in contentment as Dean lowered himself beneath the blankets. "Better than mornin' coffee, that's for damned sure."

888

"We're outta milk," Dean called as he rummaged through the fridge for something to eat.

"Write it on the list then," Vinnie replied absent-mindedly as he pored over the classifieds in the newspaper. "I'll pick some up when I head out later."

Dean nabbed the grocery list from its spot on the fridge and added milk to the bottom of it, tacking it back on with the ladybug magnet.

"You want grilled cheese?" Dean called again.

"Huh?"

"I'm makin' grilled cheese," Dean shouted. "You want any?"

"Yeah," Vinnie said. "And a glass of milk, too."

Dean heaved an angry sigh and retrieved the frying pan from under the cupboard.

"Jesus, I just said we're outta milk!" he growled and set the pan on the counter. "Don't you fuckin' listen?"

The angry squeak of Vincent's chair scraping against the tarnished hardwood floor in the dining room was all the warning Dean needed to know he'd gone too far. It was his stupid, stubborn-ass Winchester pride that made him shoot off at the mouth, and it had gotten him into trouble too many times already in his young life. Vincent's anger was palpable as he thundered into the kitchen in thumping loud strides.

"Vinnie, I'm sorry!" Dean began, but was laid flat on the ground with one merciless punch. Everything went white and then black, bright stars flashing behind his eyes as he shifted his weight on the floor, trying to lever himself up. Rough hands at the collar of his shirt yanked him almost weightlessly off the ground, and in a blink he was slammed into the kitchen counter, his hip cracking against the countertop and his back arching painfully backward as Vinnie pushed him back further than nature allowed.

"You watch your fuckin' mouth!" Vinnie hissed in his ear, and he was so close Dean had to squint to see him.

"'m sorry," Dean muttered, trying to catch his breath at the suddenness and sheer violence of the attack.

"You know where you'd be without me?" the man roared, shoving Dean again so that his bruised hip reconnected with the countertop. "Huh?"

Dean mumbled something incoherent, which earned him a backhand across his already stinging cheekbone.

"Spread-eagled down some back-alley!" Vinnie spat with disgust. "Gettin' porked by some John for five bucks a fuck! You're lucky I feed you you little piece of shit!"

The hands at his collar jerked him away from the counter and shoved him forcefully to the floor, his knees hitting with a crack that elicited an unwilling cry of pain. Dean bit his lip and breathed deep through his nose, trying to fight back tears of pain. He would not fucking cry.

"I should throw you back out on the street," Vinnie threatened. "Would serve you right, you ungrateful whore!"

It wasn't the first time Vinnie had threatened him with eviction, but it didn't scare him any less for its lack of originality. Much as Dean hated being kept by the man, life on the streets was so, so, so much worse. At least with Vinnie he had a warm bed, regular meals, hot and cold running water, showers whenever he wanted them, and even TV. On the streets there was hunger, and cold, and rain, and danger. There were beatings and rapes and cops and fucking rats... No, Dean figured he would put up with just about anything from Vinnie if it meant he didn't have to sleep a single night on the streets again.

"Please, Vinnie," Dean begged, his hands raised defensively in front of his face. "You've been real good to me, Vin... I don't know why I say the things I say sometimes."

Anything less than complete submission would make the beating continue, or worse. Dean really was worried that Vinnie would throw him out: the threats were becoming more frequent, which meant he'd thought about it often enough. And since they'd cut back Vinnie's hours bouncing at the club, having the extra mouth to feed was probably looking like an unnecessary expense, even if it meant he woke up every morning to a fresh-mouthed blow job.

"Because you've got a big mouth, that's why," Vinnie growled.

Dean tried for his most coy look, hating himself for the lack of shame.

"What, this mouth?" Cocking an eyebrow, quirking a grin, licking his lips delicately. He inched his way closer on his throbbing knees. "I thought you liked my mouth. Isn't that what you said this morning?"

Vincent's anger made way for new emotions at the memory of the kid's warm lips around his shaft, and especially at the sight of his frightened, hopeful eyes looking up at him from the bulge of his jeans. A tremor ran through the kid's frame, whether of fear or anticipation, Vincent didn't know. But it made him aching hard. Quick like lightening he whipped a hand out and fisted a handful of short-cropped sandy blonde locks, twisting the boy's head back and smiling at the twinge of pain that flashed in those mossy green eyes.

"You want it?" he asked, practically snarling.

Oh hell no!, Dean thought, wanting to struggle. But struggling really would get him kicked out.

"Yeah," he panted instead and he saw Vincent's pupils dilate with desire, mistaking Dean's breathlessness for want and need rather than the fear it actually signified.

And then he was being dragged by his hair to the dining room, shoved face first onto the table with one arm twisted tightly behind his back, the strain nearly pulling his shoulder out of the socket. He couldn't help but squirm: his shoulder burned so hot he thought he might scream.

He was barely aware of the hand at his belt releasing him from his jeans until he felt the warmth of skin against his thighs and felt Vincent's flesh brush against an exposed cheek.

"You like it rough?" Vincent growled, twisting his arm tighter and eliciting a hiss of pain.

"Yeah," Dean ground out, biting his lip and squinting his eyes shut tight in anticipation. Playing along would make Vincent happy, which meant he'd be less likely to get bored with him and toss him out on his ass. No Dean didn't fucking like it rough. He didn't like it at all. But he knew what Vincent liked and if giving it to him kept him off the streets then he'd suck up his pride and fear and play along.

Fuck it hurt. Most of the time Vincent was at least decent to Dean when he fucked him. It wasn't good: it was never good. But at least he took the time to prepare and stretch him. Not this time, though. This time he barreled ahead, forcing his way through the tight space with brute force. Dean listened to the usual litany of grunts and moans of 'Feels so good,' and 'So fucking tight' with a rare sense of detachment. It was good to drift away when he was in the moment like this, and the wrenching pain in his shoulder as Vinnie tightened his grip and twisted it higher, higher, higher still until he cried out in pain was plenty distraction from other unpleasant things.

He kept his eyes squeezed shut as tightly as he could, trying to ignore the pain that was building in his shoulder as Vincent wrenched his arm mercilessly behind his back. It was too much. He could feel his arm coming apart at the shoulder as the man behind him lost himself in his animalistic fantasy.

"Ow! Vin, you're hurting me!" Dean cried, trying to inch sideways to relieve the pressure in his shoulder. "My arm... stop!"

"You like that?" the man panted, picking up the pace and gripping his arm tighter.

Oh God, he was tearing his arm off! White hot pain exploded in his shoulder with a sickening pop, and Dean nearly passed out at the feeling of grinding bone and muscle. He screamed.

"STOP!" begging in desperation. "Please, my fucking arm... STOP!"

Instantly his arm was released, falling like a dead weight against his side. He panted in agony as Vincent reached his climax and exploded in a rush of dirty expletives that would have made him blush if he wasn't what he was. Then he was cradling his ruined arm against his chest, his forehead pressed into the table as he panted through the pain. Vincent shifted behind him, tender now, spent.

"You okay?" he asked, running a hand fondly through the boy's hair and brushing a chaste kiss on the back of his head. "God... you just drive me crazy, kid."

He was sated now, content, all his anger burned away through his exertion. It was like he finally noticed that Dean wasn't getting up, was still slumped over the table breathing heavily as though he'd just run a marathon.

"Hey," he called. "Dean, did I hurt you?"

"Yes, you fucking hurt me!" Dean cried, gasping as the limb tucked beneath his chest throbbed with blinding intensity. And he hated himself because he wasn't just crying now, he was sobbing. He had tried so hard to give Vinnie everything he wanted and most of the time the guy seemed like he was even happy having Dean around. They'd fallen into a routine that was almost... comfortable. He'd even come to trust the guy. Though Vinnie had hit him before, he'd never really hurt him. Not like this.

Now he felt like he was truly stuck between a rock and a hard place: because Vinnie had just brutalized him, hadn't he? And if he was capable of that, he might do worse. Or he might not hesitate to throw Dean back on the streets. Dean would take Vinnie at his darkest if it meant it was just Vinnie. He couldn't go back to the streets. He just couldn't.

"Oh baby," Vinnie whispered, all tenderness now. "I'm sorry. You just... you don't know what you do to me. Get me all turned around, askin' for it like that, all hot and sweet and makin' those sounds I love just for me..." He laid a reassuring hand on Dean's injured shoulder. "I guess I just got a little carried away."

Dean nodded that he understood, even though he really didn't, and sniffed back his tears, trying to stifle his sobs. He was grateful when the man helped him with his jeans because his left arm was useless. Righted at last, he saw that Vinnie was looking at him, holding him at arm's length as though appraising him.

"We good?" Vinnie asked him, a small shy smile playing at his lips.

Dean nodded again, his breath hitching. Rough fingers brushed the tears off his cheeks and then he was pulled in for a tight hug.

"I'm sorry, Dean," Vinnie whispered. "You know I didn't meant to hurt you, right?"

"Yeah," Dean admitted quietly, wishing to God Vincent would just let go because the hug was putting pressure on his murderous shoulder.

"You just drive me crazy," the man repeated.

It was starting to make sense: Vincent's mood swings, his outbursts, his violence. With less money coming in it was likely he'd had to cut back on some of his recreational habits. He always got edgy and pissy when his drug supply ran low, and in all likelihood it had run out by now. Dean knew that if it was between him and the drugs, Vinnie would choose the drugs in a heartbeat.

"I'm okay," Dean managed at last, gulping past the agony blooming through his shoulder and putting on a brave face. "You want that grilled cheese now?"

Vincent patted his head affectionately, running a hand along the side of his face.

"You're so beautiful," he whispered, almost in awe. "You just got the face of an angel... such a pretty, pretty boy."

The well-intended compliment made Dean's blood run ice cold but he tried to keep it from his eyes. Being beautiful is what got him into this mess in the first place.

888

"Five more minutes..."

It was the awesomest dream he'd ever had, though as consciousness crept back it was getting harder and harder to hold onto it. He'd been some kind of superhero, fighting monsters with two other superheroes, and they'd been driving around in a cool black vintage car. He couldn't really remember their faces, but in the dream he'd known them well, as though they were family or something. And it was weird because they weren't his family – they weren't his mom or dad or even his little sister. They were strangers, but in his dream it was as if he'd known them his entire life.

"Sam!" his mother's voice called again, more sternly this time. "Five minutes or I'm coming in there with a hose. I mean it!"

"But it's Saturday!" he groaned, thinking how cosmically unfair it was to be dragged out of bed at 8:30 on a Saturday morning when every other kid he knew would be lounging in bed until at least 10. His family officially sucked.

"And your grandparents expect us at 9:30!" his mother reminded him sternly. "That means I want to see your butt out of bed and in the shower in the next five minutes, mister!"

"You want to see my butt in the shower?" Sam teased, which earned him an angry scowl as his mother poked her head through his slightly-ajar door.

"Don't be cute," she warned, but he could see she was trying to stop from grinning.

Sam stretched leisurely and peeled himself out of bed with a heavy sigh. Breakfasts with grandma and grandpa were boring and lasted for hours. He wished he didn't have to go, but Mom and Dad insisted that as long as he lived under their roof he'd be going to family functions. Period. It wasn't so bad sometimes, especially when the gatherings were bigger and his cousins were there. But Saturdays were just his family and the grandparents, no other grandkids to keep him or Suzy company. And they didn't like it when Sam read at the table, even though they had a huge library. So more often than not he was bored half to death.

Once he was showered and dressed, he found his parents and Suzy already waiting for him in the foyer. Suzy's hair was in pigtails and she was grinning a gap-toothed grin at her big brother that made him very suspicious.

"Daddy says I get to pick where we go after breakfast," she beamed.

Sam glared up at his Dad.

"That's not fair!" he whined. "She always picks stupid Princess World!"

"Sam..." his father warned, running a hand over his slightly chubby face and sighing heavily. "It's too early to start with this this morning."

"But you always let her pick!" Sam fumed. "You always let her pick and we always end up going to stupid Princess World!"

"Really?" Dad countered. "And where did we go last weekend?"

Sam opened his mouth to retort and then paused. He'd walked into a trap.

"What's that, Sam?"

"Science Centre," he muttered.

Dad grinned.

"That's right. We went to the Science Centre last weekend because you picked. Now it's Susan's turn."

"But Princess World is for girls!" Sam countered. "And it's stupid!"

"Is not stupid!" his seven year-old sister retorted, giving him an angry swat on the arm. "You're stupid!"

"No you're stupid!"

"No you're stupid!"

"Guys!" Mom shouted, silencing both of them. "Seriously?"

Sam had the grace to look sheepish, though he was silently raging against the injustice of being forced to do what his annoying little sister wanted to do all the time. He loved her, there was no mistake about that, but there were times when he resented her a little bit, too. She was the baby and was pretty high maintenance for a little girl. She cried a lot, especially if she didn't get her own way, and she liked to spend more time with Sam than he was entirely comfortable with. She was one nosy little sister, always getting into his things and violating his privacy when his friends were around.

But it was more than that, though. He couldn't remember much about before, but Sam was pretty sure that he had a brother somewhere. Mom and Dad wouldn't talk to him about it – they said that he'd be ready to know the truth when he was older, when he was more mature. Sam wasn't sure what that meant, but he thought it was stupid. He remembered a brother, maybe an older one, but he couldn't remember his name or his face. It was more like a feeling, of being cared for, of being together through shared nightmares and shared fears. And at night he'd lie awake thinking about that brother, wondering where he was now and if he had an annoying little sister too. He hoped so. It was only fair.

888

The nurse at the free clinic kept giving him these pitying, sad looks that made him want to scream or cry or maybe even throw up. It was as if she could read all over his face what had happened to him, how he'd ended up here with a busted arm and bruised face. He watched as her eyes trailed over the angry red bruise on his cheek, purpling his eye, saw her inwardly tut at whatever her imagination conjured up as the cause for his injuries.

"Did you put any ice on that?" she asked him as she wiped gently at his face with an antiseptic swab.

"Yeah, earlier."

"Hmm..." She eyed him warily. "Care to tell me how this happened?"

"Walked into a door," Dean replied cheekily, grinning in spite of the twinge of pain lancing through his eye when he smiled. "Twice."

"You're cute," she said dryly. "The door nearly took your arm off, too?"

Dean nodded emphatically.

"It was vicious," he conceded. "I think it might have had rabies."

She sighed.

"I hear there's a lot of going around these days. Among other things."

Of course she knew what he was. He'd been here before to be treated for some of the more rigorous beatings he'd taken when he was on the streets, not to mention to get a few nasty infections treated. All the rent boys came here because no one asked any questions, or if they did, they didn't bother with the answers. He didn't remember having seen her before, but she was looking at him as if she'd seen him. Maybe it was more a matter of knowing what he was, than who he was. Oh yeah, she had his number all right.

"The doctor will be with you soon," she said conversationally, still eying him with that cautious scrutiny that showed she was working things out in her head. Maybe calculating the best way to approach him.

"You know there's a shelter down on 5th. If someone's bothering you, maybe you could lay low there for a little while..."

Dean would have laughed if he didn't feel so damned hollow.

"Been there, done that," he said instead. "Got a concussion and head lice for my troubles."

She didn't make any further attempts to 'save him' after that. He could see from the look on her face that she wanted to, but they both knew it was a lost cause. When he was 16 he'd get himself a real fucking job and leave this sleazeball existence far behind him. He didn't care if it was slinging hamburgers or cleaning up trash – so long as it paid real money for honest work and didn't allow anyone to put their fucking hands on him ever. He still didn't know what he'd do about an apartment: they didn't let you rent if you were under 18. But he'd work something out. He had to.

If you'd asked him at age nine what he'd be doing when he was fourteen, whoring, homeless, and alone would have been the last answer he'd ever have been able to conjure up. His answer would have been simple and two-fold: hunting and looking after Sammy. But that was before the bottom dropped out, before Dad got arrested for taking down a pack of werewolves. Serial murderer, they called him. Sentenced him to death, though as far as Dean knew he was still on death row. Probably would never see the bad side of a lethal injection if the bleeding heart public defenders had their way, what with the insanity pleas they kept trying to push. Fact was John Winchester did come across as more than a little nutty.

But Dad's arrest had been like a nuclear blast, Hiroshima, to the Winchester family unit. Dean and Sam lost in the system like discarded pieces of trash, inevitably separated and placed in foster homes. Dean couldn't stay in any one place for long, his need to find Sammy was so strong. The separation had been soul-crushing, cleaving his heart cleanly in two, where it hemorrhaged until he was little more than an empty shell. Every new home he came to brought new opportunities to make his escape and find Sam. He'd run away but never got very far. Turns out it was hard to get around when you were only nine, even when you were resourceful like a fox. Even when you were Dean Winchester.

When he was eleven he'd gotten really desperate. An angry foster-father with eager fists and a quick temper had driven him to run again, hoping against hope that this time he'd finally find Sammy. Instead he'd found the bowels of New York City's night life, lost, frightened and alone. And then someone who worked in the trade had found him.

'Hey kid! Anyone ever tell you you got the face of an angel?'

They say no one chooses this life. Circumstances force you into it, one way or another. There had definitely been no choice for Dean. No door number one or number two. No options at all. He'd been eleven. He'd been frightened. And he'd been pretty. Those factors combined made him easy prey, and he'd been preyed upon by human monsters with voracious appetites. Used, abused, traded, shared... He'd been a party favour. The pretty little boy with blonde hair and the face of an angel. The pretty little boy with the cock-sucking mouth.

His mouth was now infamous, both for what he could do with it and for the things he was known to have said. For no matter how many times they tried to beat him down, they could not staunch the fire inside him. He was a defiant, mouthy kid – invited a beating with every syllable he uttered. He could throw a punch too, and if you were off your guard he'd take you down. See, his Dad had taught him a few things before he got arrested.

But again, in combination his fire, his mouthiness, and his willingness to fight back were a dangerous mix. Got him into trouble even on quick jobs. Made the streets especially dangerous, and they were dangerous enough without him inviting trouble.

So he'd shacked up with Vincent. It was a safe option. A smart option. It kept him out of trouble. And he'd learned when to lie down and just take it, when fighting back would just make things worse. There was no room for pride in this miserable existence, so Dean tucked it away and locked it in a box somewhere deep inside his soul. When he was older and he was free from all this, he'd bring that box back out into the light, dust it off, and let his pride back out. Then maybe he'd be able to look at his face in the mirror without hating what he saw. Maybe he'd be able to face his own reflection and not flinch away in revulsion.

When he'd accepted his life as a gutter rat whore, he'd stopped looking for Sammy.

"Alrighty then," a male voice suddenly cut into his thoughts, startling him with a jolt. "What seems to be the problem, Dean?"

Dean sighed in relief. It was Dr. Morgan. He'd already been to see this guy a few times and knew he could trust him.

"My shoulder," Dean confessed. "I think I dislocated it."

He didn't even flinch when the doctor moved in closer to begin his examination.

888

Jason Kitts was a liar. Sam watched him with narrowed eyes as he fiddled with his Gameboy console, convinced that his best friend had broken the thing and lied about it. It was working just fine this morning.

"Hey Sam," Jason said conversationally, "You wanna play Mario Cart?"

"That's boring!" Sam huffed. Jason was always wanting to come over and play with Sam's stuff, but they'd already beaten all the levels in Mario Cart and it really wasn't fun anymore. Even the Rainbow Road stuff was easy now.

"You wanna work on our fort?" Jason suggested.

That was what Sam was hoping he would suggest, and was the reason he'd invited him over in the first place.

"Mom says you can stay for dinner, if you want," he offered.

Jason shrugged. No commitment either way.

Working on the fort was great fun. The Wesleys had a huge yard and the woods out back were the perfect place to build a fort. Of course, the fort so far consisted of a few unused scrap pieces of 2x4 scattered on the mossy forest floor, with some rotted planks of pressed wood from the old Baby Barn nailed to a couple of scraggly birch trees. It wasn't a fort so much as a disaster of engineering, but neither boy really knew how to use a hammer, they only had a handful of discarded nails that Jason had snuck from his father's tool shed, and the basics of construction were completely missing from the boys' lists of acquired skills. Working on the fort usually degenerated into huddling together on a log and eating snacks and talking about school or TV or whatever was on their minds.

"Shelly says that her friend Trina's house is haunted," Jason said in all seriousness.

Sam was skeptical. Shelly was Jason's older sister and she had a very active imagination. Last year she told Sam that she had super powers like Kitty Pride and that when she became a teenager she'd be able to walk through walls. He might be gullible and naive, but he wasn't that gullible. So if she said someone's house was haunted, she was probably lying.

Still, ghosts kinda freaked him out. It brought back vague memories of salt lines and shotguns and a deep gravelly voice chanting in Latin.

"Shelly's a liar," Sam said sullenly. "Just like you're a liar. You broke my Gameboy, admit it."

Jason paused mid-chew on a mouthful of chips and grimaced.

"'mm shor Sham," he offered weakly by way of apology, then finished his chewing in a rush and swallowed. "Sorry. But your Mom and Dad are loaded. They can buy you another one."

"Doesn't mean they will," Sam sulked. "And anyway, you shoulda just told me when you did it."

"I know."

He really did look sorry so Sam decided that he forgave him.

"How come Trina thinks her house is haunted?"

Jason grinned, his brown eyes lighting up.

"She said that, at night, she can sometimes see a girl standing in her doorway, and the girl's all pale and bloody and stuff, and the lights will flicker and the room will get real cold and then the girl just disappears!"

That did sound freaky. Sam didn't know what he'd do if he saw a pale bloody ghostly figure standing in his doorway. He gulped reflexively.

"Did it... say anything?"

Jason shook his head no.

"Just stands there sometimes," he intoned. "Like it's lost or waiting or something."

"Have you seen it?" Sam asked breathlessly.

"No way," Jason said. "I want to, though. You think she'd let us come over and see it?"

"Are you nuts?" Sam exclaimed. "She's your sister's friend! We don't wanna go over there! Besides, if it's a ghost maybe we should stay away."

He still wasn't sure if he believed in ghosts, but if they were real and one was nearby, he was pretty sure he wanted to stay as far away from it as possible.

"But it'd be cool, wouldn't it?" Jason said earnestly. "To see a real ghost?"

Sam was quite glad that the woods were close to his house, and that he could see his house from here, because talking about ghosts was starting to freak him out a little bit. Not that he was scared – because he wasn't. Nuh-uh. He wasn't scared. But it was awfully quiet in the woods. And every now and then he'd hear a twig snapping and it would make him feel maybe a little bit nervous. And okay, it was getting dark out and there could be coyotes or wolves or bears and maybe he was getting hungry too.

"You wanna go in for supper now?" Sam asked.

Jason shrugged.

"Sure."

Later that evening they had a marathon of Mario World and Mom said Jason could stay the night. It was fun to sit around with Jason and play games and talk about how they were going to have a microwave in their fort and about how Ellen Myers at school was a bitch (though only Jason would say the word out loud) because she told on Jason for chewing gum in class.

"Sam, is it hard being adopted?" Jason asked all of a sudden, taking Sam completely by surprise.

"Huh?"

Jason furrowed his brow in thought and bit his bottom lip.

"It's just I was wondering... do you ever wonder about your real family?"

"Mom and Dad and Suzie are my real family," Sam replied defensively.

"I know," Jason insisted. "But I mean..." he shrugged. "Your Mom that gave birth to you, and your Dad-dad. And maybe brothers and sisters... Do you ever wonder about them?"

Of course he did. He didn't like to, because he loved his family very much and couldn't imagine life without them. But he hadn't been born with them – hadn't even lived the first four years of his life with them – and there were vague memories of another life buried inside him somewhere that he wished he could understand. So he did wonder. A lot. He remembered green eyes and long lashes and wondered who they belonged to. Probably his real mom.

"Sometimes," Sam admitted. The truth was he'd recently tried asking his parents about it and again they'd said no. They said he wasn't ready yet, that they'd tell him when he was older. He wondered how old was old enough. Practically ten apparently wasn't. They were probably waiting until he was eighteen. He really didn't want to wait that long.

"But I s'pose it's okay," he said, not really believing it in his heart. "I got all the family I need right here. I can wait 'til I'm older, I guess."

But he didn't want to wait. There was this part of him, like a secret part, that felt kind of empty, like there was a hole where something was missing. And sometimes he'd wake up at night with a really bad feeling and think something was wrong, but couldn't say for sure what it was, except that maybe somebody needed him and was missing him. And if his parents were dead, which he guessed they were (because otherwise why would he have been adopted by the Wesleys when he was four?), then it must be that brother.

Deep in his heart he knew that he was needed. So when they'd finally turned the lights out and Jason had finally succumbed to sleep in his sleeping bag on Sam's floor, Sam Wesley decided that he was going to ask again to know about his family. Just one more time.