Disclaimer: Anything and everything used in this story-including the characters and the world in which they live-belongs to Darren Shan. Any logical fallacies in this story that accidentally do not comply with the original are my own.

A/N: After a year of terminal writer's block, I am *so* excited to be able to post a new story :D (In fact, this particular story idea has been in my head ever since "Birth of a Killer" first came out in fall 2010, waiting for me to figure out how to put it together in a coherent way :P) I adored Vur's character in the original book, and I felt as though his story ended too soon, which is why I wanted to write a fanfic centered around his and Larten's cute best-friend relationship :) (Also, I'm pretty sure that this is the first Larten-Vur fanfic on here, so I'm especially proud of it :P)

Originally, this story was going to be a songfic to "Hard Knock Life" from Annie (because I totally see parallels in the plights between orange-haired, red-loving Larten and the little redheaded orphan in the red dress :P). However, I eventually decided against that idea and just wrote this story on its own.

Enjoy! :)

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"Larten! Vur! If you two don't get down here this instant--"

Before Mrs. Crepsley could finish her threat, she was interrupted by the sound of thumping footsteps running down the rickety staircase. A pair of young boys promptly appeared at the foot of the stairs in front of her, the shorter of the two still trying to hop his way into one of his pant legs.

"Sorry, ma'am," Vur panted as he finally wriggled on his pants and hastily buttoned them shut. "It's my fault. I-"

He felt the sharp pain of Mrs. Crepsley's belt slapping his side before he could explain the situation further. For good measure, the no-nonsense woman turned her belt on Larten as well. She felt no guilt as she struck the boys-only annoyance at their inexcusable tardiness.

"Don't let it happen again," she warned roughly, putting her disciplinary weapon of choice away and heading back to the tiny wooden-paneled kitchen to resume her place at the cooking fire.

Vur sniffled as he watched his foster mother-who was also his aunt-leave the room. He wasn't crying; due to nearly constant exposure to the belt, Mrs. Crepsley's wrath no longer elicited much of a reaction from him-or any of the Crepsley children, for that matter. He sniffled only because he had contracted a nasty virus earlier in the week, and he wasn't over it quite yet.

Vur had suffered the worst of the virus' symptoms last night, spending the majority of his few hours in bed muffling coughs and sneezes into his straw mattress so as to not wake his six cousins who shared the bedroom with him. Vur's body had refused to sleep until it had been rid of a good amount of mucus, and by that point it was nearly time for him and the rest of the children to get up. Taking pity on his sick best friend, Larten had told Vur to lie in bed for a few extra minutes and that he would wake him right before Mrs. Crepsley would expect them downstairs. Unfortunately, it had taken some unexpected shaking and pleading on Larten's part to rouse the groggy Vur, resulting in their lack of promptness this morning.

Of course, Mrs. Crepsley hadn't bothered to give either of the boys a chance to explain all this. In her eyes, being late was being late-no matter the circumstances.

Angrily rubbing the spot on his leg where the the belt had whipped him, Larten turned to his cousin and watched as the younger boy's nose continued to drip.

"I can't believe her," he growled just quietly enough for only Vur-and not everyone in the kitchen (the next room over)-to hear his words. "You're sick. She shouldn't slap you around like that, especially not when you feel bad!"

"It's okay, Larten," Vur said, quickly scrubbing the back of his hand across his face to clear away the evidences of his virus. "I'm fine."

"But I'm not," Larten countered, glaring at Mrs. Crepsley's back from where she stood in the kitchen down the hallway. "I'd rather have anyone else for a mother. She's nothing but a-"

"At least you have a mother," Vur quietly interrupted Larten's tirade.

One look at his cousin's sad face, and Larten regretted his tactless comments at once. He realized that Vur, who had never truly known his deceased parents, would have loved to have any kind of mother at all, whether she was strict or not.

With the awkward subject of Vur's status as an orphan hanging in the air, Larten looked sideways at his cousin, his eyes full of apology. As he did, he noticed just how obvious it would seem to the outside world that Vur was not a Crepsley. The two boys looked almost nothing alike: Larten was tall for his age, with bright green eyes and a head of thick chestnut-colored hair; Vur, with his brown eyes and dark blond hair, was short and scrawny, making him appear to be slightly younger than he actually was.

As much as they regarded each other as such, the two cousins could never be mistaken for brothers.

Vur smiled sadly and shrugged to show that there was no need for Larten to feel sorry, then doubled over to cough into his fist. When his throat finally cleared again, Vur straightened up and nudged Larten in the shoulder.

"Come on, we should go into the kitchen and eat," he suggested, stepping ahead of Larten to lead the way. "The food will all be gone if we don't hurry, and besides-" he paused just long enough to grin bitterly, "-we're late enough as it is."

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Just as Vur had predicted, the morning's breakfast was in short supply by the time he and Larten sauntered into the kitchen. They were careful to keep their eyes to the floor as they made their way to the counter, salvaged whatever scraps of food were left, and carried their nearly empty plates towards the table that was not nearly big enough to accommodate all seven of the children that used it. Try as he might to ignore them, Larten couldn't help but feel the stares of eight adolescent eyes trained on his and Vur's every movements; his siblings were no doubt amused by the partners in crime that had suffered Mrs. Crepsley's earlier retribution.

The only person not indulging in Larten and Vur's misery was Larten's oldest sister, who was kept busy by dreamily swirling her spoon through her chunky oatmeal, a goofy grin playing on her face. Larten couldn't understand why she was so giddy. After all, she was just as poor as the rest of the Crepsleys; what did she have to be so happy about?

Larten didn't spare much time to dwell on his sister's quirkiness. Finally arriving at the table, he suddenly felt very hot, but he couldn't tell if it was from his embarrassment and anger or from the unbearable amount of heat that was suffocating the room.

Whether from the cooking fire or the body heat emanating from all the people cramped so closely together, it was always hot in the Crepsley kitchen-so much so that every morning, even in the dead of winter, Mrs. Crepsley opened the singular kitchen window to let in some fresh air. This morning, an unusually chilly breeze swept through the room, turning the faces of the children who were sitting right in front of the window a faint shade of red.

Vur, instead of taking up his usual chair next to Larten, chose a seat a safe distance away from the chill, so as to not worsen his virus. Larten didn't take much notice of his best friend's absence next to him; he was too busy trying to take in as much of the cold as he could from his own seat. At the feel of the icy wind, he immediately found himself pleasantly cooled inside and out.

Feeling better than he knew he could feel after having been whipped by his mother in the early hours of the morning, Larten began to eat his food before the cold could freeze it beyond edibility. Because he had gotten a small portion, and because he was practically starving, he had devoured every last bit of his food before he knew it. With nothing else to do but sit and look around, Larten watched as his siblings and Vur finished their own breakfasts. One of Larten's older brothers caught the hungry boy looking longingly at the food on his plate, and with a taunting smirk, he started taking extra care to relish each bite. In that moment, Larten would have liked nothing more than to ask-or rather, demand-that his brother spare some food for him, but in the end, his pride sang louder than his rumbling stomach.

Larten was poor, but he did not beg.

As the last bits of food were being consumed, a small flock of birds emerged from its nest on a high tree branch and greeted the approaching morning with its usual round of shrill chirps. The chilly, late autumn air carried this sound all throughout the surrounding neighborhood of tiny but well-kept houses, where it gradually drifted right through the open kitchen window of the Crepsley home. Most of the house's residents-especially the younger children-were unperturbed by the noise; they thought it was a lovely little tune with which to start the otherwise dull morning.

Some people, however, were not so charmed by the aviary songs.

"Damn birds," Mrs. Crepsley growled under her breath, cutting across the kitchen to yank the window shut. She sighed with aggravation and massaged her forehead before returning to her spot at the counter. To her, enduring the heat was worth it if it meant not having to listen to the incessant twittering of those birds.

The children were unhappy that the window had been shut, evidenced by the way most of them were now looking out of its glass to the world beyond, clearly wishing they could feel the wind on their faces or the birds' songs in their ears again. However, as much as they wanted to, they didn't dare re-open the window.

Mrs. Crepsley noticed her children staring and clapped once-loudly-to startle them out of their trance and bring their eyes to her instead of the window.

"Hey! I'm not about to watch you all sit around on your backsides when there's work to be done!" She stabbed her finger at the door leading into the backyard. "Move with some haste about you!"

The rest of the morning passed by in a rush. At Mrs. Crepsley's command, Larten's siblings jumped up from the table and quickly dumped their remaining crumbs in the trash before leaving their dirty, chipped plates on the counter to be washed later. Except for Larten and Vur, all of the other children darted through the house to grab everything they would need for the day. Within a few minutes, a steady trickle of children was flowing out the door, including Larten's carefree sister, who literally skipped her way over the door's threshold and to the dirt road outside.

The last to leave was Mrs. Crepsley, who always forced herself to scrub the plates clean before going to work every morning. As much as it needed to be done, she hated the job; she already had to spend the majority of her days cleaning the inn suites of strangers, so she detested feeling like a maid in her own house.

Which is why she left the task to Larten and Vur, two of the three of her children that were unemployed and had more than ample time on their hands to devote to domestic maintenance. (The third unemployed child, Larten's youngest sister, didn't stay at home with her brother and cousin. Instead, she accompanied her mother to her job so someone more capable than a pair of eight-year-old boys could look after her.)

With Larten's baby sister in tow, Mrs. Crepsley hastily tied her apron behind her back as she headed out the door. Not bothering to turn around to acknowledge the boys face-to-face, she called out, "I expect this house to be spotless when I get back!"

"Yes, ma'am," Larten and Vur promised in unison as Mrs. Crepsley slammed the door behind her.

Larten rushed to the kitchen window as soon as the door was shut to watch his mother and sister head away from the house and to the road. Not liking the feeling that Mrs. Crepsley could sense his every movement even with her back to him, Larten didn't relax his tense posture until she had walked out of his line of vision.

"Well, I guess we better get started," Vur wearily suggested, turning to the corner of the kitchen, the designated spot where the family's spindly broom was kept. He was about to go retrieve it and begin sweeping, but Larten grabbed his arm before he could.

"Don't worry about it, I can do that for you," Larten insisted. "You're still really tired. You should go back upstairs and sleep some more, since you weren't able to last night." He stole a watchful glance out the window. "Seriously, do it now while she's gone and you can get away with it."

"No, Larten, I can't let you clean this whole house by your..."-Vur paused to let out a sneeze-"...by yourself."

"I'll be fine." As if to prove it, Larten went over to the broom and snatched it from the floor, holding it carefully so as to not get any splinters from its rough handle. "Go. If I need your help-or if she gets back early-I'll come get you."

Vur, knowing it was futile to go against his best friend's stubborn resolve, finally sighed and swallowed his argumentative words before they could form on his tongue. "Okay," he agreed, stifling a cough as he walked out of the room to go up the stairs. Before ascending them, he paused to flash Larten as much of a smile as he could muster to show his gratitude. Larten smiled back, then left his cousin to go catch some much-needed rest.

With the morning to himself, Larten worked at his own pace, first sweeping the entire kitchen before seeing to the rest of the downstairs floorboards. When that was done, he gratefully set the broom aside and went back to the kitchen for a break. With no one there to forbid him from doing so, Larten climbed over the table and wrenched the window open. The birds' chirping was still going strong, and Larten looked up into the tree and squinted so he could see the flashy glimpse of their feathers illuminated by the early morning sunlight.

Having never been formally educated, Larten and Vur had had to learn about the world through experience and observation instead of textual facts. After watching the birds come and go for years, the two curious boys had eventually picked up on a pattern: the birds would usually keep a nest nearby for most of the year, but as soon as winter would roll around, they would take flight and not return until the cold weather had passed once again. Neither of the boys knew where the birds went when they weren't taking residence in the tree outside their home, but Larten guessed it was somewhere warmer. Somewhere happier.

In accordance with the pattern, he had expected these birds to have left by now, but there they were, stubbornly belting their twittery tunes outside his window. The birds' voices showed no signs of letting up; they seemed determined to stay in their tree and sing all winter long. Larten couldn't understand why the birds were still here, why they had given up their opportunity to seek out a better place to live. If he were in their position, he wouldn't think twice about spreading his wings and leaving his hometown behind.

As much as he fantasized about leaving, he knew that it was out of the question, at least for now. He was only eight, after all, and soon-any day now-he and Vur (who had turned eight a month after Larten) would be put to work to earn money for their family. Of course, he could never be (nor did he want to be) a seamstress's apprentice like his dreamy sister or an inn maid like his mother-those were jobs reserved for women-but he began to consider all the options that were available to him. Maybe he'd end up working in a shipyard like two of his older brothers. That wouldn't be so bad, Larten thought. Sure, from what he'd heard from his brothers, the job would entail having to lift cargo five times his weight and being constantly surrounded by the nauseating smell of fish, but he wouldn't mind too much.

Any job had to be better than working at this place called home.

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It was late in the afternoon by the time Vur had finally woken from his long nap. As it turned out, a sufficient amount of sleeping had done wonders for his health; he felt ten times better than he had since becoming sick. He got out of bed and went downstairs to see if Larten still needed his help, but his cousin had already finished everything that needed to be done. Because the house was still empty except for them, and because all the chores were completed, the boys were able to spend the rest of their indefinite free time-a rare opportunity-however they wanted. Larten suggested they go outside for a little while, figuring that they would be contained inside for the rest of the day once Mrs. Crepsley came home. Vur liked the idea, and soon they had both pulled on their scratchy, slightly torn wool sweaters and gone into the yard.

The chilly air swirled around Larten and Vur as they walked over to the lone tree in the yard. Underneath it was a huge pile of crunchy, reddened leaves, still accumulating by the minute. With a wickedly playful gleam in his eyes, Larten gathered a big armful of the leaves and tossed them at Vur, who laughed and responded with his own leafy ammunition. The two boys carried on like that for some time, gleefully wading through the waist-high pile as they threw leaves and pushed each other down under the soft, cushiony bunch. It made no difference that the more they played, the messier the yard became; no one in their family bothered to clean the yard during autumn, since the leaves would just fall again and the work would be wasted.

When they had finally decided to call it quits on their playtime, both boys' clothes and hair were encrusted with leafy bits, but they were grinning from ear to ear as they dusted themselves off and went back inside. After putting their dirtied sweaters back inside the lone wardrobe in their room, Larten and Vur had nothing left to do but wait for the rest of their family to come home from their respective jobs.

To Larten's dismay, the first to come through the door was Mrs. Crepsley, who practically dragged her exhausted young daughter into the house after her. The girl stumbled upstairs to go rest herself while Mrs. Crepsley hung up her apron and inspected the quality of Larten's work around the house. After finding nothing that was outrageously uncleaned, she looked at Larten and grunted in approval. Larten didn't mind that his mother barely found his hard work satisfactory, just as long as she didn't find it dissatisfactory enough to punish him.

One by one, Larten's siblings also came home, each feeling as tired and grumpy as the rest (except for Larten's oldest sister, of course; upon her arrival, she still was still wearing the mysteriously happy expression she had been wearing all morning). Though some of them had been employed for a few years and had grown accustomed to the hardships, they all had some sort of complaint to make about their workday. Larten and Vur kept a distance from the angry children, preferring not to listen in on the rants of their troubles.

The last to return from work was Larten's father, who, instead of slumping exhaustedly in a chair, set his things down and went to help Mrs. Crepsley cook a dinner sufficient enough to feed eight people. Larten had always been amazed by his father's strength of will; he was always the first to leave in the morning and the last to come back, yet he never complained about his own workload.

With both of Larten's parents cooking diligently, they soon had dinner on the table, and the children stopped complaining long enough to fill their mouths with the warm food. Mrs. Crepsley and her husband ate alongside them, relishing the food as much as the ravenous children did. The heat from the kitchen was strong but somehow pleasant; no one wanted to open the window now.

Dinner was a quick affair, and soon the children were stacking up their used plates and heading to the sitting room to gather on the floor in front of the small stone fireplace. As per usual during the chilly autumn nights, Mrs. Crepsley used spark rocks to set the logs inside aflame. With the sun going down and the cold becoming colder, the fire was much appreciated among the shivering children, who huddled around it as they had the window earlier in the morning.

While the children were preoccupied with warming themselves, Larten's father pulled Mrs. Crepsley aside and said something quietly to her. He sounded upset. Larten, who was sitting nearby and could hear what was being said, would've paid their conversation no heed if he hadn't heard his and Vur's name mentioned. Larten's father caught the spike in his son's curiosity and gestured for his wife to follow him into the hallway, where their conversation could continue in private. Larten didn't normally like to eavesdrop, but he wanted to know what was going on with him and Vur that seemed to have his father so concerned. He got up from the floor unnoticed and made his way over to the threshold of the hallway, where he was able to intently listened to his parents' discussion.

"So, as you were saying...?" Mrs. Crepsley impatiently pressed.

Larten's father sighed. "I did find two open positions, but-"

"But nothing! You know we cannot afford to be choosy about where we send them! We need the extra income now; we can't wait for something better to come around. They'll have to take what they can get."

"But dear, that place... it's so..." Larten's father couldn't even find the words to describe his frustrations.

For the first time in his life, Larten heard his mother's voice lower with a hint of compassion. "I know how you feel about your old job, how much you hated it there. I know you want better for your boys. But if the foreman is willing to hire them with sufficient pay, we'd be fools not to take advantage of the opportunity."

Larten's father sighed, defeated but resolute. "I suppose you're right."

With the decision finally made, Mrs. Crepsley asked, "How early can they start?"

"As soon as possible." Larten's father didn't sound happy about the fact.

Mrs. Crepsley nodded to herself. "It's settled, then. Larten and Vur go to work tomorrow."

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Larten returned to his spot on the floor, practically bursting with the information he had just amassed. He and Vur were going to work tomorrow! He didn't know where or what his job was, but in less than twenty-four hours, he and his cousin would be out of the house, finally earning a living for their family. The prospect was strangely exciting.

Larten was about to tell Vur about their upcoming future as workers, but before he could, his parents returned from the hallway and his father beat him to the punch.

"Larten? Vur? Could I see you for a moment?" he asked, gesturing to the kitchen.

Vur, caught totally unaware by the request, followed Larten into the kitchen, where Larten's father closed the door and bent down to speak eye-to-eye with his son and nephew. He clearly went over all the things that Larten already knew: that they were at the age when children normally went to work; that he had found two jobs at the same location them; that they were able to start tomorrow. He also told them things that were new to Larten: that they'd be working as "cocooners" at a factory that made rugs and silk clothes; that he himself had worked there as a cargo boy and knew what it was like there. While he avoided telling them how terrible he thought the place was-he didn't want to scare them before they had even started-he vaguely told them that working every day would take some getting used to.

"It'll be hard at first," Larten's father told them honestly, placing one hand on Larten's left shoulder and his other hand on Vur's right shoulder. "I know from experience that working at that factory is no easy task. But in time, I promise you'll begin to adjust." His gaze shifted from one boy to the other, and he smiled slightly. "It reassures me to know that, no matter what, you'll both look after each other." Larten and Vur nodded, a silent vow to do just that.

Giving another small, sad smile, Larten's father squeezed each boy's shoulder and stood up. "Be sure to get a good night's sleep tonight; you'll need energy for tomorrow." Larten and Vur both left the kitchen then, their heads swimming with all they had heard about their jobs.

Though Larten's father had meant well by telling them what they were about to be getting into, by doing so he had pushed away any hopes of Larten and Vur sleeping that night. They whispered to each other all night long, verbally crossing the distance of their straw mattresses with their guesses at every aspect of life at the factory.

"What do you think a cocooner is?" Larten asked long after his siblings had all fallen asleep around him. He knew that Vur was more interested in definitive knowledge than him and might have the answer.

Larten didn't have to see clearly in the darkness to know that Vur was putting his hand to his chin, considering. "I don't know," he finally said. "It sounds interesting, though."

Larten nodded even though Vur couldn't see him do it. Phrased that way, the job didn't seem so intimidating. Ever since overhearing his father's true feelings about the factory-but not knowing why those feelings had been formed-Larten had hoped that he would never personally find out the seeds of his father's hatred. He hoped for his and Vur's sakes that being a cargo boy was a particularly awful job and that they would fare better as cocooners, whatever that was.

Their discussion continued well into the morning hours, a time that snuck up on the boys before either of them knew it. Talking about their job had been sort of entertaining when the actual task had seemed so far away; now, with their first shift creeping nearer every minute, Larten and Vur didn't know how to contain their anxieties.

Tired as they were from lack of sleep, Larten and Vur threw on their everyday clothes-they would get proper work clothes later-and got downstairs before anyone else, not wanting to have a repeat of yesterday's tardiness. To both boys' great surprise, Larten's father was waiting for them by the back door in the kitchen.

"Shouldn't you have left for work by now?" Larten perplexedly asked his father, who almost always left for his own job long before the children were even awake.

"Normally, I would have," Larten's father replied, "but today, I wanted to make sure you two made it to the factory all right. It wouldn't do either of you good to be late on your first day." He smiled briefly, then added, "Besides, you don't know how to get there yet."

Larten and Vur smiled back, grateful that he had prioritized their situation over making it to his own job on time. The two boys each grabbed a bruised apple to eat on the way as they followed Larten's father out the door and down the dirt road to the heart of the nearby city. Although it was considerably early in the morning, the vendors in the marketplace alley had already set up shop, and Larten and Vur enjoyed looking at all the wares for sale (even though they couldn't afford to buy anything). Larten in particular fantasized receiving a salary that was so big, he could buy any and all of the novelties he saw in the stalls. Of course, he knew he was only humoring himself, that the tiny amount of money he would make would go straight to his mother, who would then use it to buy things the whole family needed. He knew that, like the other working children, he would have no money left over for himself. Still, the prospect was fun to imagine.

Once they were through the alley, it didn't take long to reach the factory. The building was among a cluster of others in the bustling city, and even though Larten and Vur couldn't read the sign above the main door, they immediately knew they were at the right place-Larten's father's sudden anxiety confirmed it. The boys could tell it was hard for him to return to a place that had apparently caused him so much pain as a child.

"Well, this is it," Larten's father sighed uneasily. "You boys just wait out here. I'm sure the foreman"-he almost spat the word-"will tell you where to go soon enough." He sighed again, then sadly ruffled Larten's hair before turning away and leaving the boys on their own.

Larten and Vur looked at each other uncertainly, wondering what they were supposed to do while they waited. Looking around, Larten spotted one of the factory's floor-level windows and gestured for Vur to follow him over to it. With their hands against the windowsill, the two boys peered inside to get a preview of what they were about to experience.

As they had expected, the large room was filled with hardworking children their age or a little older, all methodically producing silk at different stations. What they hadn't expected was the way all the children looked: all of them had horrifically bizarre appearances. The weary-looking girls who were weaving silk all had short, royal blue hair-a color that clashed with the dark blue bruises than ran down several of their arms and legs. One child with unusually bright yellow hair was missing a hand, and Larten and Vur suspected he hadn't been born that way.

"Well, well, if it isn't the next generation of Crepsley brats."

Larten and Vur both jumped at the voice directly behind them and spun around to see who had approached them while they had been engrossed in the activity of the workroom. Towering over them was the muscliest and meanest-looking gorilla of a man either of them had ever seen.

Larten and Vur had no idea who he was, but they could tell just by looking at him that he oozed authority.

"Are-are you the foreman, sir?" Larten stuttered, hating that he sounded so ignorant and weak.

The man just laughed in response-and it wasn't a pleasant sound. "Who else would I be, boy? Didn't your jelly-boned father tell you anything about working here under old Traz?" Larten shook his head, and the man-apparently called Traz-feigned shock. "Amazing. Simply amazing. I'd hoped to make a better, more memorable impression on him than that. But no matter." His eyes took on a wicked gleam as he cracked his knuckles. "There's more than enough time to work a lasting impression into the pair of you."

As soon as Traz had gotten the words out, Vur sneezed. He hadn't meant to, but it was conspicuous all the same, and he inwardly cursed his fading sickness for creeping up on him at the worst possible moment.

Traz glared at the sniveling boy, angry that he had diverted attention away from the verbal threat. As he scrutinized him from head to toe, his eyes widened in interest-he had obviously noticed that Vur could not be Larten's biological brother. Puzzled, Traz extended his arm to jab a meaty finger into Vur's chest. "Where did this one come from?"

"Vur's my cousin, sir," Larten spoke up, knowing that Vur was not bold enough to explain himself while an intimidating man was singling him out. "He came to live with us after his parents died."

"Really." Traz took another disdainful look at Vur and withdrew his finger with a sneer. "How noble of your parents to take in the little street vermin."

Vur winced at the foreman's words. They brought back painful memories of hatefully being called Vurmin by his less-than-welcoming cousins at the time of his orphanage. Traz, of course, knew nothing about that and thought that he had effectively stung the boy with his own clever cruelty. Puffing up even more, Traz addressed Vur as he said, "Yes, how noble indeed. Any sensible person would've just left a scrawny runt like you to meet the same fate as your dearly departed mother and father. Why bother wasting effort on a useless orph-"

"Leave him alone!"

Pausing only to acknowledge whoever had the audacity to challenge him, Traz turned around to see little Larten balling his fists at his sides and narrowing his eyes in defense of his best friend. Traz furiously shifted his focus from Vur to Larten, advancing towards the boy who began to wish he'd held his tongue. Vur gasped and cried out as Traz bent down and grabbed a fistful of Larten's hair, yanking him forward by the roots.

"Listen here, Crepsley," Traz growled into Larten's face. "Being the fresh meat that you are, you obviously don't know how things are run around here. So let me make it perfectly clear." He pulled Larten even closer to him, staring the scared but determined boy straight in the eye. "I don't take orders, especially not from the likes of you. I give them." With that, he released his grip on Larten's hair and roughly shoved him forward.

"Move it!" he barked, pointing to the main door of the factory. The two boys, shaken as they already were, obeyed so as to not further anger the foreman. When they reached the door, they saw a row of wooden buckets and brushes lined up in front of it, each one containing a different color chemical.

"What's that used for?" Vur asked timidly, afraid of the answer-he thought it was some kind of poison.

"Haven't you snoops caught on yet?" Traz asked angrily. "We can't have you or any of the other brats wandering around as you please, so we have a nice little system in place that makes it easy to know when one of you has snuck your way into another station."

Larten and Vur suddenly realized the origins of the other children's strange hair color, and how they were next in line to undergo the procedure.

Taking pleasure in knowing that the boys had guessed what they were in for, Traz slapped the rim of a bucket and flashed an evil-looking grin. "Who's first?"

Larten traded glances with Vur and saw immediately how terrified his cousin already was of the foreman. Even though he was plenty frightened of the fierce-looking man himself, and even though his head was still sore from his hair being pulled, Larten put his own fears aside for Vur's sake and bravely took a step forward, signaling to Traz that he was ready.

Traz grabbed Larten's shirt with one hand and dragged him the distance to the bucket. Once there, he let go of Larten's shirt to grab his neck and roughly force him over the bucket. With his other hand, Traz he picked up a coarse brush and dipped it in the dye. Looking into the contents of the bucket, Larten caught one last reflected glimpse of his light brown hair before it was forever drowned out by artificial coloring.

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"Look at their hair! It's orange!"

Larten's siblings howled with cruel delight as he and Vur self-consciously walked into the house after their first day of work. It had been a long, hard twelve hours full of dunking their hands into boiling hot water to untangle threads of raw silk from sorted cocoons (so much for "cocooning" being a cushiony position). To make matters worse, neither of the boys had anything to show for his efforts but callused hands, orange hair, and empty pockets-they wouldn't be paid until the end of the week. Coming home to such an unwelcoming reception was the icing on the cake of their horrible first shift.

Vur blushed in shame and kept his head down in an attempt to avoid the verbal blows, whereas Larten-head held high despite his own shame-glared viciously at his siblings, daring them to continue. Usually, the sharpness of Larten's gaze could make even his oldest brother look away; but now, the combination of his narrowed eyes and newly orange hair only produced a funnier effect. No one could take his anger seriously anymore.

Giving up, Larten groaned in frustration and averted his furious, useless gaze. "Come on, Vur," he muttered, taking his cousin's hand and leading the embarrassed boy upstairs, away from the laughter. Larten forced himself to keep walking even as the jeers followed him and Vur all the way down the hall and up to the top step.

The two boys stayed upstairs and didn't emerge until the middle of dinnertime, hoping that by then Larten's siblings would've gotten over their laughing fit. To their relief, they were met with no teases when they sat down at the table, but Larten had a sinking feeling his siblings weren't through with him and Vur yet; they were just getting started.

Larten's suspicions proved to be right. By the end of that night, the bolder of Larten's brothers had taken to calling him and Vur "Pumpkin Head"-not a very intelligent insult, but a stinging one nonetheless-and the rest of the children had eagerly caught on. Since Larten and Vur knew it was pointless to try and get them to stop-Vur had talked Larten out of knocking his siblings into silence-the two boys tried their best to tune the other children out altogether. It didn't always work, but it was all they could do to combat the nonstop mocking.

With all the ridicule he and Vur had to endure at home, Larten was almost glad to go to the factory every day-the one place he didn't have to put up with his siblings.

Almost.

It was nearly the end of their first week as working boys, but the job was still grueling, the water was still painfully boiling, and Traz was still a bastard. That much, Larten feared, would never change, despite what his father had said.

What could change is how he and Vur were treated at home, especially by Mrs. Crepsley. Since they'd started working, the gruff woman hadn't regarded Larten or Vur with any more appreciation than she had when they'd been unemployed at home, perhaps because she felt they hadn't truly earned their keep yet. Maybe after she got that first week's earnings from them, Larten and Vur hoped, she might start to be a little nicer.

At long last, the day came when the boys' seventh shift was over and Traz finally thrusted a few dollars into their newly callused hands. Larten in particular relished the money, even though it really wasn't much and it seemed silly to have worked so hard all week just to wind up with a few pieces of paper. Vur was just as excited as Larten to be able to prove his worth, and for once the two boys walked home from the factory wearing smiles instead of grimaces of pain.

As was usual now, the two boys walked into the house to a chorus of jeers from the other children who had already returned from their jobs, but neither Larten nor Vur paid them any heed. Instead, they headed straight for the living room where Mrs. Crepsley was straightening up (she'd had to pitch in with household chores herself after Larten and Vur had started their jobs and were no longer around to clean during the day). She was cleaning a tabletop and had her back to the boys, so Larten cleared his throat to get her attention.

"What is it?" she practically growled, turning around to see whatever it was that her son wanted. Almost shyly, Larten and Vur held out their dollars to give to her. When she saw the money, Mrs. Crepsley huffed out a sigh of relief.

"It's about time," she said, snatching the dollars and stuffing them in her dress pockets. With that, she turned around to continue cleaning the table. Vur was disappointed, but he knew his aunt's reaction had stung Larten more. Sure enough, Larten stood there for a few seconds, his hand unconsciously still stretched out, waiting for his mother to say something-anything-to him. When it became clear that she wasn't going to comment any further, his face fell.

Larten didn't care about the completion of his chores going unappreciated, but this was different. He had (quite literally) gone through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make this money, and he had expected his mother to thank him in some way for his hard-earned income. He felt used, like the silkworms in the factory that spun their precious cocoons only to be burned to death once they had fulfilled their purpose.

Larten would've stood there numbly for some time had Vur not walked over to him and gently nudged him towards the hallway. "It's all right, Larten. Don't worry about it too much," Vur whispered, trying his best to make his cousin feel better. He was going to lead Larten to their room, but they had to walk through the kitchen to get to the stairs, and who was waiting for them but Larten's bullying siblings.

"Well, look who it is," Larten's oldest brother remarked, walking towards the downtrodden, orange-haired pair. He was about to deliver his usual teasing, but he stopped when he saw Larten's unusually depressed expression. He had no idea what had just happened in the next room over, but he decided to have some fun with Larten's misery. Pulling a high-pitched, mock-sympathetic voice, he bent down, got in Larten's face, and asked, "What's got the rotting pumpkin so sad?"

The combination of his mother's ingratitude followed quickly by his brother's teasing proved to be too much for Larten to handle, and something emotional inside of him snapped. In that moment, he decided that he had had enough of the ridicule from his siblings. He had developed a tough skin-what with all physical abuse he suffered at home and at the factory-but verbal insults still managed to find a way to get under it.

Rather than acting on his instincts to punch someone, he pushed past his offender and, without any sufficiently warm clothes, stomped outside the back door, through the frosted yard and over to the barrel of water that was intended only for washing. It wasn't cold enough yet for the water to freeze over completely, but its surface was covered with a fine sheet of ice surrounded by slushy chunks floating around the barrel's rim. Without a second thought, Larten slammed his fist though the thin layer of ice and dunked his head in the underlying water. He scrubbed furiously at his hair, trying his best to rid himself of that hideous dye. After a few seconds, he resurfaced only to find that, though tiny swirls of dye had seeped into the water, his hair was still as vibrantly orange as it had been before.

"It won't come out!" Larten cried out in frustration, then dunked his head again.

Vur, who had been standing on the doorstep and numbly watching the scene, suddenly rushed out into the yard to stand next to Larten as he tried in vain to restore his natural hair color. If he could do nothing else to help, he at least wanted Larten to know that he was there for him.

When Larten came back up, he grabbed both sides of the barrel to steady himself and catch his breath. Water trickled down both sides of his face as he trembled helplessly from the cold and the pain. He didn't even notice Vur was right beside him until his cousin put a hand on his back to try and calm him down.

Vur hated to see Larten so upset, but he was at a loss for what to do. He stared into the water, trying to think of something helpful to say, when his eyes suddenly and unexpectedly lit up with excitement.

"Hey, Larten..." Vur said, shaking his cousin's shoulder as an epiphany suddenly struck him.

"What?" Angry as he was, Larten turned his head to acknowledge his best friend.

"Look." Vur pointed into the ripply water, where a distorted reflection of him and Larten was staring back at them. Larten narrowed his eyes as he made out the image: a ridiculously lanky boy with an even more ridiculous head of orange hair.

"I know, I see it," Larten growled, splashing the water where the face of his mirrored counterpart was. He didn't appreciate this reminder of his abnormality.

"No, really look," Vur implored, and this time he waited for the water-and Larten-to settle down before attempting to make his point.

To humor his cousin, Larten reluctantly peered into the water again. At first, he only saw the same repulsive image he'd seen before. However, at closer inspection, he noticed something interesting: for once, he and Vur looked alike. Same raggedy work clothes, same battered bodies, same vividly orange hair.

Larten's eyes widened in amazement as Vur smiled up at him and said, "We look like brothers now."

That simple revelation made all the difference to Larten. He had thought there could be no silver lining to his working life, and it made him feel elated that one had finally been unearthed. So what if his mother was a bitter old woman who never properly appreciated him? So what if he spent twelve hours a day at a factory where the foreman abused him mercilessly? So what if he looked like a pumpkin head? All those things had once positive constant: Vur was with him every step of the way.

Returning Vur's smile, Larten realized that he could endure any of the hardships thrown at him as long as he had his cousin-his brother-by his side.

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A/N: Well, there you have it! (I had been planning that last backyard scene for a very long time, and it's still my favorite aspect of this whole story ^-^) I know this was incredibly lengthy for a one-shot, so I really appreciate readers for making it this far :) Also, if you liked-or didn't like-what you just read, please take the time to review! It really helps my writing creativity to hear what readers think :)