Beta: The fabulous "9Tiptoes"

Genre(s): Historical AU; Angst; H/C; Drama; Gen.

Rating: R (For violence and adult themes.)

Spoilers: N/A

Disclaimer: If you recognize them, they are not mine. The SPN characters are Kripke's…I'm just borrowing them …for fun, not profit…Many of the characters are based on characters from Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist…elements of the plot are borrowed from Oliver Twist too.

Characters: Dean Winchester, Sam Winchester, Beadle Zachariah, Julian Reaper (AKA Grim Reaper, AKA Death), Rufus Turner, Daniel Elkins, Pastor Jim Murphy, Artful Andy Gallagher, Azazel Se'irim, Ansem Gallagher, Alastair von Damon, Gordon Walker, Ellen Harvelle, Jo Harvelle, Cassie Robinson, Jessica Moore, Miles Ashfield (AKA Ash), Ruby Cassidy, Chief of Police Michael Angelides, Castiel Novak, Pamela Barnes, Jake Talley, Ava Wilson, Uriel Wisdom, Bobby Singer, Karen Singer, John Winchester, Sarah Blake, Lisa Braden, Ben Braden, OMCs, OFCs.

Warnings: Swearing, adult themes, violence, assault, child abuse, substance abuse, underage drinking, references to underage sex, references to prostitution, references to dub con, references to and the depiction of the aftermath of bdsm, references to slavery (the historical kind), references to and some depictions of racism, canon character deaths (not Sam or Dean), verbal anachronisms, possible minor historical and geographical inaccuracies…

Full Summary: In late1864 John Winchester left his sons in the boarding house where they were staying and rode out of town, following yet another lead on the men who'd murdered his wife. Six months later he still hadn't returned and his sons were declared abandoned children and taken into the custody of the Kansas City Poorhouse. Several twists of fate later the boys run away to New York City—and find themselves on a collision course with the Unholy Trinity; Azazel Se'irim, who runs a gang of youthful pick pockets; Gordon Walker, a violent armed robber who selects his apprentices from among Azazel's boys; and Alastair von Damon who runs the notorious Hellfire Club. Will Dean and Sam's free will, strength of character and the deep brotherly love they have for one another help them rise above their situation and find their father? Or will they be used, corrupted and destroyed by sinister men of evil?

Notes: Written for LiveJournal's SPN_Gen_BigBang. Comments, concrit most welcome.

May 1867

Dean Winchester trudged into the Dining Hall of the Kansas City Poorhouse in a state of near exhaustion. He was twelve years old now and that meant he was old enough to work full time, grueling ten hour days spent crushing bones by hand to make fertilizer. Dean's hands were always red raw and bruised these days, but as jobs went, crushing bone wasn't bad. Sometimes the old bones still had a few scraps of flesh on them and as Dean was always starving, he never missed an opportunity to pick those scraps off the bones and eat them.

'You do know them's not always animal bones,' one of the overseers had cackled the first time he'd caught Dean tearing off a thin, fatty sliver of meat, 'You're as likely eatin' a piece o' the late Widow Sowbury as you are eatin' a piece of sow!'

Dean had shrugged and kept chewing. He'd been soundly beaten for his cheek, of course, but that was nothing out of the ordinary.

Dean glanced around the dining hall. As always, despite his exhaustion, his eyes immediately searched out Sammy. At only eight, Sammy wasn't supposed to work at all, but Beadle Zachariah, Master of the Kansas City Poorhouse, was a firm believer in the old adage that the devil made work for idle hands and he insisted that even the youngest inmates spent a part of their day oakum picking.

Oakum picking—unraveling short pieces of rope—had always seemed rather pointless to Dean, but his was not to reason why; not if he wanted to eat the meager rations that the Poorhouse saw fit to provide anyway.

Dean spotted Sammy sitting with a bunch of younger boys and made eye contact. His little brother gave him a small grin and Dean returned it with one of his own.

Now that he was an older lad and being sent out to work, Dean was housed in a different dormitory to Sammy and he didn't get much opportunity to spend time with him. He hated not being able to look out for him all the time, but Sammy seemed to be holding his own. He was a tough kid; tougher than Dean in a lot of ways, not that Dean would ever tell his little brother that!

Dean collected his plate and stood in line for his supper; a lump of bread and a chunk of cheese; and then took it back to his table, his stomach growling with hunger. In accordance with the rules, he stood to attention in front of his place at the older boys' long, wooden table and waited until Beadle Zachariah banged his cane against the floor three times.

'Let us pray,' the Master intoned in his pompous voice. The Poorhouse inmates all bowed their heads, 'Dear Lord,' Zachariah sing-songed sanctimoniously, 'may these undeserving wretches, these pitiful, unworthy recipients of our selfless Christian charity, be forever grateful for this magnificent bounty, fruits of the Lord our God's fine lands, delivered unto them by the bountiful benevolence of the munificent and compassionate Good Christian Gentlemen of the Kansas City Parish. Amen.'

'Amen,' chorused the inmates.

'You may sit,' the Master allowed generously.

Dean waited, his body coiled, ready to snatch up his bread and cheese the minute permission was given.

'You may eat,' Zachariah permitted magnanimously.

Dean snatched up his bread and cheese and ate both in barely more than a heartbeat. Around him, everyone else was doing the same. He glanced towards his brother quickly, hoping that Sammy had eaten fast and not allowed anyone to steal his supper, and his heart skipped a beat when he realized that Sammy was no longer seated. His plate in his hands, Dean's baby brother was making his way determinedly towards the Master of the House.

Dean groaned. What the hell was the kid thinking? There was no way this was going to end well.

Sammy stopped in front of Beadle Zachariah, and cleared his throat, attracting the attention of the plump man. The man's eyes bulged in disbelief.

'Please, Sir,' Sammy said firmly, 'I want some more.'

The Master's eyes widened in shock and his expression would've been comical if it hadn't been so frightening.

Every eye in the place was glued to Sammy and Dean used the general distraction to slip out of his seat and edge quietly around the side of the room, until he was behind the Master.

'What?' the Master bellowed.

'Please sir,' Sammy repeated, 'I want some more.'

'MORE?' roared Zachariah. He hefted his cane, swinging it back across his shoulders as he prepared to beat some respect into the greedy brat at his feet. Instead the cane was snatched from his hands and thrown away.

'You leave my brother alone, you bastard!' Dean snarled at him.

'You DARE attack a parochial officer!' Zachariah screamed, spittle spraying from his mouth in his rage. 'Bring them both to my office!' he shouted to the dinner wardens.

Dean grabbed Sammy's hand and ran. They had no chance, not really, but Dean intended to give the bastards a good run for their money. He and Sam weaved in and out of tables, up over the tops of tables, around their pursuer's ankles, and under tables, but eventually, the wardens got them cornered. They went down amid a flurry of slaps and blows and were then dragged, kicking and shouting, out of the Dining Hall and into the Master's office. Zachariah had retrieved his cane and Dean cursed himself for not snapping it in two when he'd had the chance.

The wardens held Dean and Sam tightly, their arms pinned behind their backs, and Beadle Zachariah peered self-righteously down at them from behind his ornately carved wooden desk, his cane swinging lightly but menacingly from his hand.

'Two greedier, more undeserving wretches it has never been my misfortune to have before me,' he intoned pompously. 'You, Boy,' he pointed his cane at Sam, 'have asked for more; having already eaten the supper allotted by the Dietary!' He clicked his tongue in outraged disapproval. 'And you,' the tip of the cane moved towards Dean, 'have assaulted a senior parochial officer in the course of attending to his duties.' He eyed the brothers malevolently and then shook his head sadly. 'I was never more convinced of anything in my life, than I am that you wretched boys shall come to be hanged one day. Stretched by the neck until dead,' he nodded sagely. 'You mark my words.'

Zachariah reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a worn, black leather tome, with the words Punishment Book embossed in gold on the front.

'In the meantime, it is my Christian duty to cure you of your sinful ways. The devil is in you boys and that's no mistake. But never fear; I shall beat him out of you.'

Dean watched as the Beadle dipped his feather quill into his ink pot and scribed a careful entry in the Punishment Book:

6th May 1867 – Dean Winchester (orphan) – 1 doz. strokes of the cane.

The Beadle would have been surprised to learn that the Winchester brothers could read; it was something their father had taught them before he went missing. Zachariah would have been even more astonished to learn that they could read upside down—their father had taught them that too, and a great many other skills that would have shocked the Master of the Poorhouse.

Zachariah indulged in a small, self-satisfied smirk as he instructed the wardens to let go of Dean. The boy shrugged them off, raised his chin defiantly, and treated Zachariah to an insolent grin which the Beadle was thoroughly looking forward to wiping from his face: All in the name of Christian duty, of course. Zachariah licked his lips at the thought of the firm, young buttocks that would soon be bent over his desk; he did so enjoy delivering a good thrashing. Not that the brats didn't deserve it. He was just doing his duty; if he happened to be a man who enjoyed his work, then surely God was smiling on him!

Zachariah smiled broadly and came around to the front of his desk. He tapped it with his cane, motioning Dean forward.

Dean knew the drill; it wasn't the first time he'd been sent to the Master's office for a caning. Every fiber of his being told Dean to fight, but he'd long since learned that resisting was pointless. Maintaining his cocky smirk, because screw Beadle Zachariah, Dean moved to the edge of the desk, dropped his trousers and bent over the desk. The swish of the cane had Dean tensing in anticipation and the thwack against his bare skin sounded a fraction of a second before the searing pain hit. Dean squeezed his eyes shut and gasped.

Swish, thwack! Swish, thwack! Swish, thwack! Swish, thwack! Swish, thwack!

Dean always promised himself that he wouldn't cry; wouldn't make any noise at all, but it was never a promise he was able to keep. By the time he'd taken his designated twelve strokes, Dean was sobbing hard, his face streaked with tears. And Zachariah didn't stop! Dean knew his numbers; could read them, could write them and he for sure knew how to count. And he knew full well that even though Zachariah had written '1 doz strokes' in the Punishment Book, he didn't stop the caning until he'd delivered twice that many strokes to Dean's upturned backside, no matter how much Dean pleaded for mercy. When he was finally allowed up, Dean could barely stand and he winced in pain when the rough material of his trousers dragged against his abused flesh.

Zachariah nodded to the two wardens who'd been holding Dean earlier and they took hold of him again, restraining him firmly while the Beadle wrote in the Punishment Book:

6th May 1867 – Samuel Winchester (orphan) – 6 strokes of the cane.

For Dean, watching his little brother take a caning was much more difficult than being punished himself, and he cried just as hard during Sammy's caning as he'd done during his own. Nor did it escape his attention that the Beadle had given Sammy twelve strokes of the cane, not the six he'd written in the Punishment Book. Just as he'd done with Dean, Beadle Zachariah had doubled the maximum number of strokes allowed for a child of his age; a clear breach of the rules. No doubt he assumed that neither Sam nor Dean could read or count, but Dean doubted it would've made a difference even if he had known; who would ever believe the word of a couple of orphans over the word of the Master of the Poorhouse?

'Take them to the coal cellar and lock them in,' Zachariah said when he'd finished with Sammy, and the wardens dragged the weeping boys from the Beadle's office and threw them unceremoniously down the rough, uneven, stone steps and into the cold blackness of the coal cellar.

Sammy had cried throughout his punishment, of course he had, but it wasn't until he was alone in the dark with his big brother that he allowed himself to really fall apart. Dean threw his arms around the distressed little boy and held onto him tightly, running a hand lightly up and down his back and making soothing noises. Eventually Sammy quieted enough for Dean to make out that in among his brother's sobs was a litany of: sorry, sorry, sorry.

'Shh,' he comforted, 'You ain't got nothin' to be sorry for, little brother.'

'S'my fault!' Sammy hiccoughed, 'I got you in trouble!'

Dean brushed Sammy's bangs away from his eyes and stared intently into the gold-flecked hazel pools. Sammy's soulful eyes were red-rimmed and brimming with tears and his dirty face now had clean streaks where his tears had washed away the grime.

'It's not your fault, Sammy,' he avowed. 'It's my job to look after you, no matter what.'

Sammy choked out a sob and buried his face in his brother's shirt.

'But,' Dean added gently, 'what the hell were you thinkin', askin' for more?'

Sammy made a low growl.

'I saw them today,' he spat, 'the Parochial Board. Having dinner in the Board Dining Room. They had a whole roast pig on the table. With an apple in its mouth! They had hot sausage, and mustard, and pease pudding, and saveloys. And pies; so many pies! And jelly and custard and oh my God! Dean! You've never seen so much food! And they give us stale bread and cheese! It's not fair!'

And the boy promptly burst into tears again.

'Shh,' Dean hushed him. 'You know what else they prob'ly had? Indigestion! Least we never get that, eh?'

The little boy shuddered and shook in his arms.

'No, we get hunger pains instead. It's not fair,' he wept. 'All I want is a normal life. I want a Mommy and a Daddy; I want to have a full tummy; I want to go to school; I want the beatings to stop. Is that really too much to ask?'

Dean didn't say anything, just hugged his brother tighter, because in all honesty, he had a sneaking suspicion that for Winchesters, a normal life was too much to ask for.

Later, when it seemed like it might be okay to let go of Sammy, Dean collected an armful of hessian sacks and created a makeshift bed for them on the floor. The brothers lay side by side on their stomachs, one of Dean's arms wrapped comfortingly around Sammy's shoulders.

'Tell me about Mommy?' Sammy murmured sleepily.

Dean's heart clenched. Talking about Mom hurt, but he was painfully aware that she had died when Sammy was too young to remember her; that his little brother had never known a mother's love or had the comfort of a normal family life.

Dean sighed. 'Mom was beautiful. She had long, blonde hair and soft green eyes. She sang, all the time, and she was the best cook ever. She loved to bake; especially pies. Her pies were awesome!'

Dean's stomach rumbled loudly and he figured, somewhat ruefully, that he should probably stop reminiscing about pie.

'Tell me about the fire?'

Dean's stomach churned, just as it did every time Sam asked him to talk about the day that had spelled the beginning of the end.

'Some bad men filled a bottle with kerosene, stuffed a rag in it, set fire to the rag, and then threw it through the window of our farm house,' Dean recited in the dull monotone the story deserved. 'It landed in your nursery and you started crying. Mom was in bed and she heard you cry so she went in to check on you,' Dean swallowed. 'She found the room on fire and called out for Dad to come and help—Dad had been working on the accounts and he'd fallen asleep at the kitchen table downstairs. By the time he woke up and made it into your nursery, the whole room was on fire and...' Dean's breathing hitched, '…and so was Mom. Her nightgown had caught fire while she was trying to fight the flames. I woke up because Mommy and Daddy were screaming and I ran to the door of your nursery. Dad grabbed you out of your cot and put you in my arms. "Dean," he said, "take your brother and run. As fast as you can. Don't look back." So that's what I did. I held you tight and I ran and ran, downstairs and out the front door. I didn't know where to go next though, so I just went over to our wagon and climbed into it. I sat there, rocking you in my arms until Dad came out. There was nothing he could do for Mom; he couldn't save her. And he knew if he stayed any longer we'd lose him too so he came out. The three of us sat in the wagon and watched the house burn down.'

'What about the bad men?' Sammy asked.

Dean shrugged. 'By that time, they were long gone. Dad's been hunting for them ever since.'

'Dean?' Sammy said after a long pause, 'Do you think Dad's dead?'

Dean shook his head. 'No way. Dad's tough. He left because he had a real good lead on the bad guys; tracked 'em all the way to New York City. Maybe he found 'em. Maybe now he has to lie low for a while, but he'll come back for us, Sammy, I know he will.'

Sammy didn't reply. It had been just over two years since their father had ridden out from the Boarding House where they'd been staying, paying board up front for four months and giving Dean extra money for food. Six months later, despite Dean's best efforts to keep them fed and housed and away from the attention of the authorities, they'd been declared abandoned children and taken into the custody of the Kansas City Poorhouse.

Sam had been six years old the last time he'd seen his father; in all honesty, he could barely remember him; and he certainly didn't have the faith in him that Dean seemed to have.

-X-

The day following Samuel Winchester's audacious request for more, Beadle Zachariah solemnly reported the child's impropriety to the Board. The Good Christian Gentlemen of the Board were duly horrified by the child's display of wanton greed, and outraged by his older brother's interference in Zachariah's initial discipline attempt. Over a sumptuous luncheon of roast duck with all the trimmings they agreed between them that an example must be made. It would not do at all to have other inmates becoming free spirited enough to question the rations allocated by the dietary; it would not do at all to have them thinking for themselves and taking action as they saw fit. That would lead to chaos! To Hell on Earth! And it had to be stopped; nipped in the bud.

As the Board tucked in with gusto to their apple and custard pie, they agreed unanimously that the wayward orphans should be dealt with as follows: Firstly, they would immediately be put on half rations; secondly, they would be caned again, this time in the dining hall, in front of the other inmates, and thirdly, their corrupting influence must be removed, as soon as possible from the Poorhouse.

Beadle Zachariah was instructed to immediately offer the boys out as bonded apprentices, with five dollars offered to whoever would take them. Zachariah schooled his features into a suitably serious expression, but inside he was delighted. There were always master tradesmen looking for boys and if you knew the right people—and Zachariah always did—then there were healthy kickbacks to be made. If he played his cards right, not only would Zachariah get a healthy finder's fee, he'd get to keep the Board's five dollars too.

-X-

Dean and Sam awoke with a start when the cellar door opened. They were stiff and sore from the previous day's caning and from sleeping all night on the cold cellar floor. Their stomachs growled and ached from emptiness and they ate with relish their meager breakfast—3 oz of bread; half the usual allotment—as soon as it was thrown at them by the warden who'd opened the door.

'Straighten up lads,' he said gruffly, 'I'm to take you to see the Beadle.'

Beadle Zachariah took great joy in informing the Winchester brothers that they were on half rations until further notice; that they were to receive another caning, this one in front of all the inmates; followed by which, they'd be offered up as bonded 'prentices, and not necessarily kept together. Dean heard Sam's sharp intake of breath and looked at him quickly, expecting tears. Instead, his little brother was looking at Zachariah with cold rage.

'You son of a bitch,' Sam snarled.

Zachariah raised his eyebrows incredulously and then, with a smug smile, he took Sam by the arm, spun him around and delivered half a dozen hard swats to his backside.

'I'm going to enjoy putting you boys in your place,' he said haughtily.

'Gloat all you want, you dick,' Dean spat back, 'you're still bald!'

The Beadle laughed. 'I've got the perfect Master in mind for you, boy. Someone who'll put that impertinent mouth of yours to a much better use!'

Dean had no idea what Zachariah meant by that but he inferred from the Beadle's tone that it was something dirty and he flushed a deep red, right to the roots of his hair.

Satisfied that he'd stunned the insolent orphan into silence, Zachariah had four wardens escort the Winchester boys out to the Dining Hall where they were bent over a table at the head of the room and summarily caned. This time, though, Dean noted bitterly, the Master of the Poorhouse followed the rules and they only received the maximum number of strokes allowed for boys of their age. Following their public thrashing the boys were treated briefly in the infirmary and then returned to the coal cellar, where they clung to each other and cried until they fell asleep again.

-X-

The boys were awakened from their sleep once more by the cellar door opening. The usual dinner ration was 4oz bacon and 3 oz of potato. Today, Dean and Sam were simply given potato. They were then taken to a disused office, given a basket of rope and told that if they wanted any supper they'd make sure to have all the oakum unpicked by suppertime.

'Are you alright, Sammy? Dean asked, as he put the basket of rope up on top of the desk.

Sam nodded. 'Don't think I'm gonna be able to sit down for a week, but, yeah. I'm okay. How 'bout you?'

Dean shrugged. 'That salve helped a bit, I think, but…nope, not gonna be sitting down for a while,' he indicated the basket of rope, 'C'mon, let's get this done. Cuz if I don't get any supper I'm gonna start thinkin' the 'roaches look good.'

Dean made a game out of unpicking the oakum and soon had his little brother suckered in and entertained. The fact that it was just the two of them, with no cruel, teasing boys to bother them and no cane-happy overseers urging them to work faster meant that the afternoon passed by quite pleasantly—or at least what passed for pleasantly when you were an orphan with a sore ass living in the Poorhouse. When the office door was suddenly thrust open Dean and Sam were instantly fearful.

Beadle Zachariah and another man stood in the door way.

'Well?' the Beadle addressed the other man, 'What do you think?'

The man—an ugly brute with the most villainous countenance that Dean had ever seen—leered at the boys.

'Are they both available?' he rasped.

Zachariah frowned.

'I assumed you'd only be interested in the older boy.'

The brute wriggled his eyebrows suggestively and Dean thought he saw Zachariah repress a look of revulsion. This distressed him greatly because if Zachariah thought this man was repugnant then he must be truly evil.

'They're both available,' Zachariah sighed, 'but if you want the younger one too then it's triple the usual finder's fee.'

'Triple!' the brute cried. 'Daylight robbery! Forget it!'

Zachariah shrugged.

'Then forget the younger boy.'

The brute scowled and harrumphed and eventually agreed.

'Excellent,' Zachariah beamed. 'Then we'll go before the magistrate first thing in the morning and have their indenture to you approved and their papers drawn up.'

The brute rubbed his groin.

'Don't suppose you'd let me try before I buy?' he asked.

This time Zachariah didn't bother to hide his look of disgust.

'Certainly not!' he admonished, his voice quivering with rage. 'What you do with your 'prentices is your business and good luck to you. What you do with my orphans is very much my business and that, I will not allow, you lecherous fool!'

And with that he hustled the brute from the room, banging the door shut ferociously and snicking the lock with more force than necessary.

Dean and Sam stared at each other in horror.

'We are so screwed, Sammy,' Dean said at last.

-X-

The very next morning it was Beadle Zachariah himself who woke the boys up. He brought them a holiday allowance—twice the normal breakfast ration of bread and a bowl of gruel! Sammy immediately began to cry, certain that the only reason Zachariah was fattening them up like this was because the ugly man from yesterday was going to kill them for some useful purpose and needed them to be fat.

'Hush, child,' the Beadle said pompously, 'don't make your eyes all red when you're going before the magistrate! He might suspect you of a guilty conscience and have you hanged by accident!'

Sammy gulped at once and tried to stop crying.

'After you've eaten,' Zachariah instructed, 'wash your hands and face in this basin, and then put on these clean shirts. You're going to be 'prenticed today! This'll set you up for life and make men of you and no mistake. You're two very lucky boys.'

Dean ate his bread and gruel quickly, sparing Zachariah only the briefest of glances. He didn't believe a word that came out of the man's mouth, but he was glad of the extra food.

It was only a short walk from the Poorhouse to the Magistrate's Office. As soon as they arrived, Dean and Sam were locked in a small room by themselves to await their fate. The boys stood in the dank little room for half an hour, their hearts nearly beating out of their chests with anxiety, until suddenly the door was thrust open by Beadle Zachariah.

'Come now boys!' he said with faux heartiness. 'Time for you to go before the Magistrate,' he lowered his voice. 'The Magistrate will ask you if you want to be apprenticed, and you must say 'yes'. You understand, boys?'

'What if we say 'no'?' Dean asked.

Zachariah glowered.

'You will say 'yes',' he rejoined coldly, 'or you will make an enemy of me. And the last person you want as your enemy is me. Other men may be stronger, but I'm petty! And there is no end to the suffering I can cause you.'

Dean didn't reply just gripped Sammy's hand tighter and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

The Magistrate was a kindly looking old man, with wispy grey hair and pince nez spectacles perched on the end of his rather bulbous nose. He looked up from the parchment he was reviewing when the boys entered the room and smiled.

'Ah, good. Are these the boys?'

'They are your worship. Bow to the Magistrate, boys,'

The boys obediently did as they were told.

'So,' said the Magistrate, peered over his spectacles at the Winchester brothers. 'I hear that you want to be 'prentice Blacksmiths. Is that correct?'

Dean glanced at his little brother who was staring at his feet in terror. He turned slightly and looked at the ugly man from yesterday; the man he now knew was a Master Blacksmith. The Beadle dug his fingers insistently into Dean's side, reminding Dean to hurry up and give the 'yes' that was expected of him. Dean opened his mouth but the word died before it could get to his lips. In part, he was a little overcome by the formality of the situation, but in addition, he couldn't help noticing the obscene bulge in the Master Blacksmith's pants and he couldn't help remembering how the man had wanted to "try before he bought." Zachariah had called him lecherous and Dean knew what that meant but…it didn't make sense…why would he want them? They weren't girls…how could—

'Son?' the Magistrate prompted.

'I…uh…'

Suddenly Sammy threw himself to the floor.

'Please sir,' he begged, 'don't make us go with that man! He looks at us funny!'

The Magistrate may have been old and half blind but he wasn't stupid. He was an Englishman by birth, educated at Eton and Cambridge and he'd already noticed the tent in the Blacksmith's pants and the way he licked his lips whenever he looked at the boys. The Magistrate knew what it meant when a grown man looked at young boys that way; knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Blacksmith planned to use the smithing techniques of bending and hammering not just to iron and steel but to his two young 'prentice boys as well. The Magistrate had already been wavering about this apprenticeship and Sammy's desperate plea was the final straw. He couldn't, in all good conscience, approve this.

Picking up the piece of parchment from his desk, the Magistrate tore it in two.

'I will not be sanctioning these indentures,' he said firmly. 'Beadle, take the boys back to the Poorhouse.'

'I hope you have not formed the opinion that the Poorhouse has been guilty of any improper conduct on the unsupported testimony of a mere child!' Zachariah blustered.

'I am not required to form any opinion on the matter,' the Magistrate rejoined sharply. 'I am sure you review potential Masters for your wards with great care, don't you, Good Sir?'

The Magistrate fixed his gaze on Zachariah and the Beadle felt the weight of the older man's expectations.
'Of course, Your Honor,' he nodded vigorously. 'And will take even greater care in the future!'

The Magistrate smiled and banged his gavel.

'Next!'

Outside of the Magistrate's office, Zachariah seized Sam by the ear.

'Just you wait, boy,' he sneered. 'I'm going to make you suffer like you've never suffered before!'

Dean's hand was moving towards the Beadle, preparing to lash out and protect his brother, when he had the sudden, unsettling feeling that he was being watched. He looked up nervously and noted the alarming figure of the County undertaker standing next to his hearse in front of the Poorhouse gates. He was watching the scene playing out before him intently, his silver topped black cane held loosely in his hand. Zachariah too, seemed to sense the man's stare and let go of Sammy abruptly before turning to scowl at the undertaker, who nodded his head and indicated that he was waiting to speak with the Beadle.

'Hurry up,' Zachariah admonished the boys, grasping them both firmly by the arm and dragging them across the road, toward the waiting man.

Julian Reaper had been the parish undertaker since God was in short pants. A gaunt man, with slicked-back gray hair and obsidian eyes which just didn't seem to blink enough, his appearance had fanned the fires of every childish imagination in the Poorhouse. In the fevered imaginings of the Poorhouse children, the undertaker was Death himself and his unfortunate surname did little to dissuade this fantasy from taking root. In the corridors of the Poorhouse, Mr Julian Reaper was better known by his nickname: Grim Reaper.

'Reaper,' Zachariah said with a nod.

'Beadle,' Death's voice rasped like a snake shedding skin and Dean shuddered, 'I've collected your dead. The two from the women's section. Your lackeys told me I'd need to find you for my payment,' the Grim Reaper smiled. 'And here you are.'

'Here I am indeed,' the Beadle replied glumly. 'Well come on, man. The safe's in my office.'

Reaper held his gaze for a long moment and then turned to study the boys.

'Aren't you a beautifully melancholy pair,' he said at last.

He focused on Sam. 'What soulful eyes you have; I can see through them to your wounded core.' He shifted his attention to Dean. 'And you. Your face is so very expressive,' he ran a thumb gently over Dean's jaw. 'So much pain,' he murmured, 'so much loss,' Reaper sighed. 'You boys were made to mourn.'

Zachariah harrumphed irritably. 'Well they certainly make me mourn,' he declared. 'This one,' he thumped Sammy on the back, 'just lost them a perfectly good apprenticeship with his weeping and wailing and carrying on! You don't know anyone who wants a boy do you, Reaper? At present these boys are nothing but a dead weight! A millstone around the parochial neck! And the Board is willing to give three dollars to anyone prepared to take them on.'

Reaper stroked his chin. 'Three dollars, you say?' He eyed the boys again. 'They would make fine Mutes,' he mused. 'I could use them for children's funerals,' he nodded. 'Yes indeed. Those mournful little faces would be just the thing!'

And so it came to pass that on the 9th day of May, in the year 1867 Dean and Sam Winchester were apprenticed to Julian Reaper, the undertaker, and left the Poorhouse which had been their home for two years with nothing but a small bundle each.

To say that Mrs Reaper was less than impressed to have two parish children land on her doorstep would most certainly be an understatement. A most vicious argument followed the Winchesters' arrival at their new home and the boys cowered in the corner of the parlor while their new 'parents' almost came to blows.

'They'll eat us outta house and home!' Mrs Reaper screeched. 'Grow fat on our victuals and our drink! And you never get a decent day's work out of a Poorhouse brat! Lazy, good-for-nothings, the lot of 'em! But I'm sure you know best, dear! Men always know best! So why should you consult me! I'm a nobody in my own home!' And with that she swept upstairs with a disdainful parting look at the boys.

'Never would've thought,' Dean whispered in Sammy's ear, 'that the Grim Reaper's wife would be scarier than the Reaper himself!'

-X-

If the Winchester brothers were hoping to find a motherly figure in Mrs Reaper, then they were doomed to be sorely disappointed. Death did eventually persuade his wife to come back downstairs for dinner and she saw to the boys with about the same amount of enthusiasm as Dean evidenced when reporting to Beadle Zachariah's office.

'Don't expect to be treated like family,' Mrs Reaper admonished. 'I'm your Mistress, not your mother. You'll mind your manners and you'll work hard or you'll be thrashed. You'll eat with the Help and you'll sleep in the Master's workrooms!'

And with that kind pronouncement she led them to the kitchen, a dark, stone room dominated by a large hearth in which sat a simmering orange fire. A soot-smudged, blonde-haired girl, just a few years older than Dean, stood stirring at a large cast iron pot which hung from the hearth rail.

'Lizzy,' Mrs Reaper said sharply, attracting the girl's attention.

'Ma'am,' she bobbed a quick curtsey.

'These here are our new parish boys. 'Prentices to Mr Reaper. Give them a ladle of stew. From the bottom of the pot, mind!'

Lizzy dutifully slopped some pork stew onto two square wooden plates and dumped them on the floor, in the corner next to the hearth. Dean and Sam immediately threw themselves to the floor and used their hands to shovel the stew into their mouths. The dogs stuck their noses in to see if they could wrest some extra food from the boys but Dean growled at them so ferociously that they soon slunk away with their tails between their legs.

'Dear me,' Mrs Reaper said faintly, both she and Lizzy having watched the boys eat in silent horror, 'what savages you boys are.'

She gave Lizzy some brief instruction regarding her afternoon's work and then swept from the room, throwing a final look of disgust at the boys as she left.

Dean treated Lizzy to his very best 'how you doin'?' smile and received a delicately raised eyebrow for his troubles.

'Scullery's through there, Work'us,' she said.

'I'm Dean. That's my brother, Sam.'

Lizzy shrugged. 'You parish brats is all the same to me. Go on and wash up or the Mistress'll come after you with a broom!'

Dean and Sam did as they were bid and then sat quietly in the corner by the fire and watched Lizzy go about her work while they waited for further instruction.

'D'you need a hand?' Dean asked when Lizzy struggled to move a large pot by herself.

She looked sharply at him and for a moment he thought she would refuse his help, but then she nodded curtly.

'How long have you worked for the Reapers?' he asked as they moved the heavy pot together.

'Since I was twelve,' she replied.

'How old are you now?' Dean asked, and received another sharp look.

'Older than you! So mind your manners!'

'Fourteen? Fifteen?' Dean's smile was flirtatious by nature, without any intent on his part, and Lizzy couldn't help responding to it.

'Fourteen,' she sighed, 'and you best be careful who you flash that smile at Dean. You're way too pretty for a boy.'

Dean frowned. 'What does that mean?'

But Lizzy just shook her head.

Any further enquiry on Dean's part, if indeed he would have pursued the matter further, was forestalled by the Grim Reaper sticking his head around the kitchen door and summoning the boys to follow him.

That very day the boys began to learn their new trade. Their initial duties involved the knocking together of cheap paupers' coffins and washing the dead. Mr. Reaper had an older 'prentice, Jack Wetherby, who made the better quality coffins for the wealthy folk and who assisted him with the embalming process. Much like the mistress of the house, Jack was, in many ways, less than impressed to find himself saddled with two younger 'prentices. In one small measure however, he was delighted. He could now fob off all of his more unpleasant duties onto one of the Work'us brats, and, as he was no longer low man on the pole, he could point the finger of scorn at the two young orphans, taunt them with ignominious nicknames and speak to them with derision! Fortunately, the Winchester brothers were quite used to such treatment and being both quick with their tongues and their fists, they were able to hold their own quite successfully against young Mr Wetherby, much to the older 'prentice's chagrin.

The end of the day saw the brothers given an armful of blankets and instructed to make up the small cot in the corner of the work room. The cot held plenty of room for two young boys who didn't mind in the least cuddling up together for warmth and reassurance, and in truth their sleeping conditions were much more comfortable than they'd ever been at the Poorhouse: except for the minor matter of the dead, laid out for embalming on the work tables, and the large number of finished and unfinished coffins which stood gloomily about the place. In the dim evening light of the work room, the coffins loomed grotesquely and the cutout of a hearse drawn by four black horses which adorned the wall behind the counter took on a ghostly shimmer not apparent during the day, and seemingly moved of its own accord.

The brothers had only been in bed a little while when Dean felt Sammy begin to shake.

'You cold?' he enquired.

'Nnnooo,' stuttered Sammy.

'You sick?' Dean put a hand to his little brother's forehead but he was neither clammy nor feverish.

'It's just...' Sammy began after a moment. 'There's dead bodies here!'

Dean sucked in a breath. In truth he was just as unhappy as his little brother about the presence of two dead women in their sleeping quarters, but for Sammy's sake, he needed to appear unaffected.

'The dead can't hurt you, Sammy,' he replied, 'you just go to sleep, okay.'

'But…but…what if they turn into vampires? Or zombies? What if their ghosts turn up to haunt us?'

Dean sighed. 'You think too much, Sammy. And you've got way too much imagination.'

Dean frowned. Actually, Sam's imagination was something that could help him out here.

'And anyway,' he said, 'so what if they did turn into vampires or zombies? We know how to handle those!'

Sammy frowned and turned to face Dean so quickly that his cold nose bumped against his brother's cheek.

'What do you mean? No we don't!'

'Sure we do,' Dean rejoined. 'Don't tell me you've forgotten what Dad taught us?'

Dean was employing his own imagination at this point, but he figured that if Sam's imagination could conjure endless horror, then it could conjure the solution to that horror just as easily.

Sam shook his head. 'I don't remember much about Dad, you know that.'

'Well,' Dean started out slowly, thinking back to all the ghost and horror stories he'd ever heard tell. 'If they move fast then we know they're vampires and we have to stab them through the heart with a wooden stake. And if they move slow then we know they're zombies. And then we have to bash their heads in. And the really great thing? We've got everything we need right here in the work room. We've got off-cuts of wood that we can sharpen into stakes; we've got hammers, and knives, and all sorts of tools that could be real dangerous! We're set, Sammy. With all this stuff we could be proper Monster Hunters for sure!'

Sammy nodded, his eyes shining with admiration for his big brother.

'Should we make some stakes now?' he asked.

Dean considered the question.

'No need,' he said finally, 'you only turn into a vampire if you got bit by one. And we didn't see no bite marks on those women, did we?'

'Yeah, but—' Sammy began, but Dean cut him off.

'We don't need to make stakes right now, Sammy. Those women died of being in the Poorhouse, not cuz of vampires. Besides, do you really wanna risk waking the Reapers up? You miss getting your ass beat or something?'

Sam sighed, one of his loud, long suffering sighs.

'Yeah. Okay. They're prob'ly not gonna turn into something nasty. But what about if they come back as ghosts?'

Dean shrugged. 'Then they're more likely to haunt Zachariah than us. But just in case…' Dean slipped out of bed and edged into the center of the workshop. Flat-headed nails, wood chips and shreds of black material littered the floor so he trod carefully; and steadfastly avoided letting his eyes linger on the stiff, white corpses which lay atop the work tables. He cast around for something that he could convince Sammy was a weapon against ghosts and his eyes finally lit upon an iron crow bar that their new master used for prying open coffins, should the need to do so every arise. Dean swallowed at the thought and hefted the heavy tool. He remembered Miss Nettie from the boarding house telling him tales of the Faerie folk in her rich Irish brogue. One of the many tales she'd spun for him had told how faeries were deadly allergic to iron. Maybe he could convince Sammy that ghosts were allergic to it too? Dean took the crowbar back to their cot and, mustering all the conviction he could manage, he explained to his little brother that all you had to do with a ghost was hit it with something made of iron and it would lose its grip on the mortal plane and go straight to heaven. Sammy listened, wide-eyed and attentive and never once doubted that his big brother knew what he was talking about. He fell asleep almost immediately, feeling safer than he'd felt in a long while. Dean took a lot longer to drift off. Despite his reassurances to Sammy, he was none too sanguine about sleeping in a room with dead bodies in it and unlike his little brother Dean didn't have an older sibling looking out for him.

-X-

Days soon turned into weeks and all too quickly the Winchester brothers had been with the Reapers for a month. They were both happier than they'd been in a long while and Dean had finally started to think that maybe, just maybe, their luck had finally changed. They neither of them much enjoyed dressing up like toffs and walking solemnly in front of funeral processions, which was the primary function of an undertaker's mute; and they didn't much like washing dead bodies either. But Dean found that he enjoyed making coffins and he really enjoyed washing, polishing and waxing the hearse carriage. Sammy had become quite proficient at coffin making, but didn't seem to get much pleasure from the activity. He truly loved caring for the horses though; would've spent all day in the stables if he was allowed; and watching him play with the dogs was a sight to behold!

Mistress Reaper may not have accepted the boys as family, but the dogs had. It hadn't taken the boys long to establish with the dogs that they ranked higher in the pack they did, and the dogs were now as friendly and protective of them as they were of the Reapers. Jack, they still growled at, much to Dean's delight.

The boys were much better fed than they'd been at the Poorhouse, despite Mistress Reaper's insistence that they be fed the scraps, leftovers and bottom of the pot scrapings. They still had to sleep in the work room, which frequently meant sharing their space with the dead, but they were more or less used to it now and thanks to Dean's imaginative intervention, Sammy didn't fret over it like he had. All in all things were going extremely well, which meant, Dean reflected later, he really should have known that all hell was about to break loose, because when did Winchesters ever get a lucky break?

It was Sammy who started it (and Dean shied away from thinking about just how often that was the case.) He was washing a body when he gasped suddenly and called Dean over. Dean had been working on a coffin with Jack and Jack was none too pleased when the younger 'prentice left his work to go and see what his little brother wanted.

'Look, Dean!' Sammy pointed frantically at a large hickey on the neck of the corpse. 'He got bit! He might turn into a vampire!'

Dean snorted and shook his head.

'It's just a hickey, dude. Just means this guy got lucky before he died.'

'But Dean—'

'It's not a vampire bite!' Dean exclaimed, a little too loudly.

'D'you say 'vampire,' Work'us?' Jack demanded, looming up suddenly behind them.

Before Dean could deny it, Sammy piped up excitedly:

'Yes, Jack! This man got bit by a vampire! Look at his neck!'

Jack brushed past Dean and peered at the corpse.

He turned to Dean and raised an eyebrow and Dean smiled helplessly. Kids and their imaginations. What can you do, right?

Jack wheeled on Sam.

'There's no such thing as vampires,' he stated.

'Yes there are,' Sammy nodded vigorously. 'Tell him Dean! Tell him how our Dad taught us how to fight them!'

Dean rubbed the back of his neck and chewed briefly on his bottom lip, but before he could say anything, Jack erupted scornfully.

'My eye!' he exclaimed. 'Are you soft in the head, kid? There's no such thing as vampires. And anyone who told you there was, well, they're soft in the head too!'

Sammy's hands clenched into fists and his eyes narrowed.

'You take that back!' he spat.

'Take it easy, Sammy,' Dean intervened, wanting to keep the peace.

'Yeah, Sammy,' Jack taunted, 'take it easy. Wouldn't want ya to start foaming at the mouth; ya might end up in the lunatic asylum with all the other head cases what believe in monsters!'

'Okay, back off Jack Sprat,' Dean growled, forcibly holding back his brother as the younger boy strained to claw the senior 'prentice's eyes out.

'Tell him, Dean!' Sam panted.

Dean grimaced. 'Yeah, uh. Some things it's better to keep to ourselves bro.'

Jack laughed cruelly.

'Don't tell me you believe in monsters too! The whole family's soft in the head! No wonder you ended up in the Poorhouse! Your parents howl at the full moon! Stark raving loonies, the pair of them!'

'Okay, that's enough!' Dean snarled. 'Don't you talk about our parents like that!'

'Loonies! Loonies!' Jack taunted. 'Your Momma was a Loony!'

'You shut up about our Mom!'

'Is she in the nut house? Is that why they took you away from her?'

For one brief moment Dean couldn't figure out why his hand was hurting. And then he saw Jack sprawled on the floor—on top of the splintered remnants of the polished wooden coffin they'd been working on. He had blood pouring from his nose and was wild-eyed with fear.

Before Dean even had time to think oh crap, the door from the master's office opened and the Grim Reaper appeared at the threshold. He surveyed the scene before him with a grim gravity that made him worthy of his nickname, and then turned at last to Dean, his face betraying no emotion.

'Join me in my office, Dean,' he said evenly, before turning his back and returning to his desk.

Dean's eyes flicked from Death to Jack (now looking smug) and back again.

'Now, Dean,' Death re-iterated from the depths of his office.

Dean drew a very surreptitious deep breath and walked slowly and reluctantly to meet his fate, with Sammy following determinedly behind him.

Dean stopped in Death's office door way and waited to be given further instruction.

'Have a seat,' the Grim Reaper gestured.

Dean moved forwards nervously and sat cautiously opposite Death, conscious that Sammy had moved quietly to stand behind him. Death glanced briefly at the younger boy but allowed him to stay.

'Tell me what happened,' the master undertaker ordered, returning his gaze to the older boy.

Dean wet his lips anxiously, 'I hit Jack, sir,' he admitted.

'Did he hit you?'

Dean shook his head.

'Why did you hit him?'

'He was teasing Sammy. Saying stuff about our parents.'

Death regarded him silently for a moment.

'Dean,' he said finally, 'you are a Poorhouse orphan. I invite you to contemplate just how insignificant you are to the majority of society. I doubt this is the first time you have heard unpleasant things said about your parents; it will certainly not be the last. You cannot afford to get into a fist fight every time this happens or you will soon find yourself imprisoned. Do you understand?'

'Yes, sir.'

Death nodded.

'Very good. Now. What are we going to do about the coffin that you destroyed?'

'Dean didn't destroy it, Jack did!' Sammy contradicted.

Death quelled him with a look and then returned his gaze to the older boy. Dean sighed and resigned himself to an unpleasant—and probably painful—outcome.

-X-

The Reapers' wood shed was a lot more comfortable than the coal cellar at the Poorhouse. Well, it was warmer anyway. And Dean was a lot more comfortable here than he'd ever been in the coal cellar, because the Grim Reaper hadn't whipped or beaten him. Dean hadn't quite processed that yet; he was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. He'd spent his first few hours in the wood shed in a lather of distress; sure that every creak and groan of timber he heard was the master undertaker coming back with a switch to mark him up good. Lizzy had brought him half a bowl of stew at supper time and Dean's anxiety had ratcheted up a notch. Surely the master would come and beat him before bed time? But so far he'd been left alone and it was now so late in the evening that the Reapers must certainly be in bed themselves. Dean counted himself very lucky. Compared to some of the punishments he'd suffered in the Poorhouse, three days confined to the wood shed on half rations was nothing. He wriggled a bit and wrapped his blanket around himself even tighter. It wasn't as cold here as it had been in the coal cellar, but it was still cold, and he'd had Sammy to help keep him warm before. Dean's mouth pulled into a grim line as he thought of his little brother, alone in the work room with a dead body he was convinced would turn into a vampire. The only reason his banishment to the wood shed bothered him at all was because of the impact it would have on Sammy. He was supposed to look out for the kid, and the idea of him all alone, shivering in fear amongst the coffins and the corpses was almost enough to bring tears to his eyes. Not that Dean would ever admit that. To anyone. Ever. Getting all emotional and wanting to talk about feelings, that was Sammy's thing, not his.

A sudden rattling had him jerking upright. He clutched his blanket to himself protectively and stared at the door waiting for the Grim Reaper to burst through it, switch in hand.

The rattling sounded again and Dean frowned, turning his head and cocking his ear. The noise wasn't coming from the door. It was coming from the back of the shed. He got to his feet silently and crept deeper into the shed, wondering what manner of critter he was going to have to deal with. The wooden shutters on the back window burst open abruptly and Dean lunged for a small log, certain that a bear at the very least was trying to break in. A shadowy shape loomed at the window, huge in the moonlight, as it reared forward and attempted to enter the shed. Dean swung the log in his hands, breaking off his swing with a curse when he realized that the shadowy shape shimmering in through the small window was his brother.

'Jeez, Sammy!' he growled. 'I nearly whacked you!'

'Sorry,' Sam said breathlessly, as he dumped both his own and his brother's swags on the floor.

'What's this?' Dean asked, a sense of foreboding settling in his gut. 'Why've you brought our stuff out here? What's going on?'

'You know the guy what got bit by the vampire?' Sam began, and Dean's stomach churned.

'Uh, yeah?'

'Turns out he was the deputy mayor. I heard a man in the office telling Death that some Lady of the Night bit him and they didn't want the bite mark to show at the viewing cuz that'd be unbecoming to his office, whatever that means. So you see, I was right! A Lady of the Night…that's gotta be a vampire, right?'

Dean ran a hand across his eyes.

'Uh, not exactly, Sammy. That's a girl who does stuff with guys for money.'

'Stuff?' Sam frowned.

Dean nodded and made a crude hand gesture.

'Huh?' Sam just looked puzzled.

Dean sighed. 'Never mind, Sammy. It's not a vampire. Just take my word for it.'

'So why'd she bite him?'

Dean glowered.

'Some people like how it feels. Rest assured, the deputy mayor is not gonna turn into a vampire…you're quite safe to go back to bed, okay? I don't want you gettin' in trouble for sneakin' out.'

Sam shuffled uncomfortably.

'Yeah, about that. I sorta…staked the guy already.'

Dean's mouth fell open.

'You did WHAT?'

'Well I thought he was a vampire, didn't I?' Sam retorted defensively, 'I made a wooden stake and stuck it through his heart.'

Bile rose in Dean's throat and he looked at his little brother in horror.

'You stuck a stake in the chest of the deputy mayor?'

Sam nodded.

'And then I tried to cut his head off. You know, better safe than sorry. But the knife wasn't very sharp and his neck was kinda tough and…Dean? Are you feeling okay?'

'We have to leave town,' Dean's voice was a strangled whisper. 'Now.'

Sam nodded affably.

'That's why I got our stuff, dude. I did what I had to do, but most people wouldn't understand. Most people don't know about vampires.'

'He wasn't gonna turn into a vampire!' Dean hissed, 'All you did was mess up the corpse of the deputy mayor! You're lucky you're only eight, Sammy. If you were my age they'd probl'y hang you for that!'

Sam turned big, tear-filled, puppy dog eyes on his brother.

'Well I didn't know!' he said plaintively. 'I was just trying to save people's lives!'

Dean pulled his little brother into a hug.

'It's okay, Sammy,' he reassured. 'I'm never gonna let anything bad happen to you, alright? We'll leave now. By sunup we should be far enough away that they won't bother to come after us. The whole thing'll just be one giant embarrassment and they'll just hush it up.'

Sam pulled out of his brother's embrace.

'Where should we go Dean?'

Dean thought for a moment and then nodded to himself. 'We'll go and look for Dad. He went to New York City. So that's where we're gonna go.'