AN: Yayy, I actually did turn this into a two-shot, and it's more than double the last one's word count. This chapter is set in the future, but this time it's the normal world in the books. Hope you enjoy!


The Population Police was here, and they were after him.

Luke could see them, their uniforms emblazoned with three teardrops, as they scuttled through shadows like the very third children they hunted. He couldn't tell where they were, yet he could feel them, as though they could be hiding behind his back, ready to pounce.


It was Oscar.

The voice sent a chill down his spine and made the skin on his neck stand up. He spun, trying to find its source. Oscar was here, somewhere in the dark patches in Luke's vision. Every time Luke heard something and turned to look, the shadows seemed to deepen, blocking his sight.

"Luke Garner."

Oscar's deep voice reverberated around him, making him dizzy, messing with his head. His hands were cold and clammy, but rubbing them on his dirty jeans did no good. A flash caught his attention, and he looked up, only to freeze, blood going cold. Jen stood in front of him, eyes blank and skin pale. She gave no sign she could see him, despite the way her eyes peered straight at him.

The shadows behind her twisted, forming into a tall, muscular man with a thick neck: Oscar. He reached out to grab her, and still Jen didn't move.

"Jen! Behind you!" Luke tried to leap forward—but something was grabbing him from behind, wrapping around him, restricting him so he couldn't move, couldn't help.


His eyes snapped open. A face peered down at him, pale and wrapped in shadows.

Luke scrambled away, heart throbbing so hard it ached.

"Woah, calm down, it's just me! It's Smits." The face turned out to be a familiar looking boy in flannel attire similar to Luke's. Luke went limp with relief as he recognized him.

Smits knelt next to him, and it was only then that Luke noticed that he'd fallen off his bed. He was on the hard floor, his legs tangled in his blanket and his pillow hanging halfway off his sheets. The cold wood beneath him did nothing to ease the chill in his bones.

Smits stayed quiet next to him until the trembling went away, and Luke calmed a little as his breath became even again. After untangling himself from the blanket, Luke leaned back against the wall, his thoughts spinning.

"Are you okay?" Smits said, his small voice breaking the tense silence between them.

Luke didn't answer at first, his head foggy from the nightmare, and he slowly remembered what'd happened yesterday. He'd arrived late evening for the family's annual thanksgiving meet-up, and had fallen asleep after dinner. Luke felt his cheeks go red from guilt and embarrassment as he realized Smits now used Matthew's old room, which sat beside the room Luke was sleeping in. Smits had probably heard Luke cry out in his sleep.

Well, there went Luke's dignity as surrogate older brother.

"I'm fine," Luke said, relieved his voice didn't shake as he said it. "It was just a bad dream."

Smits narrowed his eyes. He'd grown into a fairly well built teenager the past few years, but his face still showed remnants of that snotty brat he'd been (or pretended to be?) when Luke had first met him. While Luke only looked disheveled and casual in his flannel and jeans, Smits somehow made the flannel outfit look smart and sophisticated. He appeared to have gotten better at hiding was he was thinking, though—Luke could almost feel Smits analyzing him.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Smits asked.

Luke shook his head. His thoughts were too jumbled right now to really explain, and it wasn't like the nightmares made any sense in the first place; they were just scattered memories resurfacing in randomized terror. He'd been having these dreams for years and they'd never gotten easier to understand.

Smits looked at him for a long moment, and Luke soon found himself getting uncomfortable as Smits examined him, gauging whether Luke was okay or not.

Smits shrugged. "Alright. But if you need to talk, I still kinda owe you for all the times I, er, talked your ears off at Hendrick's."

Luke blinked, caught off guard, and couldn't stop the snort that escaped him. "Thanks, Smits. I'll . . . keep that in mind."

A minute later, Smits had left, undoubtedly to get some more sleep. Luke just sat, the autumn chill seeping through his blanket, trying to escape the images that encroached the edges of his mind.


The next day was a haze. Usually Luke could shake off his nightmares during the day, but this time he couldn't stop thinking about them. Perhaps because every time he saw Smits (which was quite a bit, considering they were both staying in the same house and it wasn't exactly a large one) memories came flooding back, and so did the nightmare.

Fortunately, his parents kept them rather busy, preparing for the big family meal his mother was putting on once Mark arrived later tonight.

That morning, around when Luke had finally come downstairs to sit on his old bottom-step seat, Matthew had arrived, and brought his entourage of kids, which incited an even more festive mood as the kids ran in and out. Matthew's wife and Luke's mom bonded over what they called "mothering stories," and to Luke's dismay that somehow involved his mom sharing his most embarrassing childhood moments.

Luke found himself doing an array of trivial tasks, primarily peeling and chopping tons and tons of potatoes, which had both downsides and upsides. On one hand, it kept Smits and him from being alone; Luke's mom and step-sister were always nearby, cooking and cleaning the house till it shone. But on the other hand, peeling potatoes left him with extra thinking-space, and that was one thing Luke didn't need.

He kept imagining Oscar's voice, taunting him, or Jen's voice, muttering. Every time someone walked into the room, he had to stop himself from jumping out of his skin.

Finally, after the third time he dropped a potato in the sink as his mom passed by, she set down the spices she'd been carrying to the counter and turned her attention to him. "Luke, are you alright? You seem a bit out of it today."

"Uh . . ." He avoided eye contact by fishing his potato from the sink, and she waited patiently for him to answer. "Yeah, it's just the travelling. I usually don't sleep well first night in a different bed."

His mom raised a skeptical eyebrow, and he tried to keep his face in a reassuring smile. Fortunately, Matthew's wife, Katlyn, came swooping back in carrying the extra flour she'd gone to hunt for. This, thankfully, distracted his mom as the two woman returned to their previous conversation, so Luke found himself able to calm down again.

After several hours of hard work, the house steadily filling with warm scents, Luke found himself without a job to do, which was just as well, as his reddened hands ached from peeling and chopping. Slipping past the kids as they sprinted across the living room, Luke climbed the creaking stairs and felt the tension leave him as he reached what was currently the quietest part of the house—upstairs.

He could've just as well used the sink downstairs to wash his hands, but he didn't want to disrupt the bustle surrounding it. And in any case, he almost preferred this one; he'd grown accustomed to it during his childhood.

The cool water eased the ache in his hands, but Luke pursed his lip as he glimpsed his reflection in the mirror. The half-moon shadows under his pale eyes were all too apparent, and he now understood why his mother had given him such a doubtful look when he'd claimed he was alright.

Unfitful sleep wasn't unusual for him, but the worst nightmares had only started right before he moved away, so he didn't think his parents really knew how far it went. Besides, his old attic bedroom had made it easy for his nightmares to go unnoticed—his parents' room was far enough away from the attic they couldn't hear him.

Sadly the same wasn't true of the room Luke had been staying in last night. He sighed as the thought broke his ponderings, and, realizing that the cool water was still running over his hands, he switched the tap off and left the bathroom

Luke jumped. Smits stood in the hallway in front of him, looking a bit surprised to see Luke step out into the hallway in front of him.

"Oh! Hey, Luke." Smits smiles, recovering his wits.

"Oh," Luke said, trying to hide the slight panic that was creeping through his gut. "Hey, Smits."

Seemingly remembering why he'd come upstairs, Smits offered him a glass brimming with orange juice. "Here, mom told me to give you this."

"Thanks." Beads of chill water coated the glass's outerior, and it felt surprisingly nice against his worn hands as he took it.

They stood there for an awkward moment, both holding glasses of juice yet neither taking a sip, until Smits cleared his throat. "Hey, Luke, I was wondering. . . . would you like to just, er, sit down and talk for a moment?"

"Here?" Luke blinked, a bit startled.

"Uh, yeah." Smits gestured vaguely at the floor and shrugged a bit, looking uncomfortable yet steadfast.

Luke returned the shrug with his first real smile of the day, and they sat. The feeling of sitting on the hardwood was familiar, and Luke all too clearly remembered his mother scolding him and his brothers for setting up card games here and blocking the bathroom door. He'd never sat here with Smits, though. It was sorta nice, Luke considered, taking a sip of juice.

Despite being the one who'd offered that they talk, Smits didn't say a word, leaving them to sit in silence for another minute. Luke wasn't used to so much quiet when he was with people. He had Trey, where you'd at least hear a rustling of papers if they weren't debating books or theories. He had Nina, who chatted his ear off sometimes even when she didn't have much to talk about, and Mark and Matthew, who'd joke with him or bringing up some old memory or silly charade.

But he didn't usually find someone who'd sit with him without speaking.

He could've sworn that Smits had been the sort to chatter his ears off, too. But . . . when he didn't have his deceased brother to grieve, and parents who didn't care, perhaps Smits truly was a bit softer and calmer than he'd seemed. Or maybe he'd simply changed, the past few years that he'd spent in this old house.

Well, they couldn't sit here all day, so if Smits wanted to talk, they'd have to do it now.

"What did you want to talk about?" Luke asked.

Smits leaned against the wall and set down his glass. "Well, I guess it's less of me talking and more listening. We're probably not going to see each other much until the next family meet up comes along, so my opinions of you shouldn't affect your daily life much either way. Whatever you say here, I won't repeat. I meant what I said last night. Or you can just drink your orange juice and not say a word. Either way, I promise it won't affect how I see you, big brother."

Luke looked down at the glass in his hand, inspecting the juice as he turned Smits words over in his mind. It was tempting, to a point where it ached. He could tell Smits was telling the truth; he radiated a calm aura that surprised Luke. A few years ago, he wouldn't have expected this stuffy little kid to sit next to him and offer him a chance to talk . . . to speak without expecting an answer. It wasn't something anyone had offered Luke before, but the concept seemed so thrilling he couldn't help but take it.

"Every night, I go to sleep knowing I'll have the same nightmare," Luke said. "It's not exactly the same, at least, the order of the memories is different. But . . . it's always the worst moments, the things I hate to remember. I—I guess I should be used to it by now. But whenever the nightmares seemed to have worn the edges off a memory, my mind plays another trick, adds a little twist to it that makes it as fresh as ever.

"It's stupidly ironic. I fought for my freedom for years but I can't free myself from my own head. Heck, I fought people who were out to kill me for just existing, yet I can't get over a couple of dreams."

It was refreshing, in a horrible way, to let it out. He was rambling; his words came free in streams so easily it caught himself off guard. He'd been holding in his thoughts for as long as he could remember. He'd been . . . hiding from his thoughts for as long as he could remember.

"I'm not sure exactly what it is that scares me half the time. The population police has been gone for years, but they still show up when I fall to sleep. I mean, there are still people out there who hate third children, and I have nightmares about that too. But somehow that doesn't seem nearly as bad as remembering when I was younger, before I had even half of the basic rights I do now."

Luke fingered his half empty glass for a moment, watching the melting ice cubes as they floated in an orange lake.

"I . . . I'm tired. Tired of still being afraid. I thought when I'd become free I'd be happy, but I'm not."

Luke looked over at Smits. His head felt clear. For the first time since that morning, and perhaps for a long while, he didn't feel tired. He felt . . . good. Satisfied. At peace with himself.

"But . . . I guess that's okay. I don't need to be happy all the time to keep trying. I don't need to be afraid of fear."

Smits smiled. "Yeah. It's okay."

Luke drained the last of his glass, then smiled back at the teen who'd become a brother to him. "Thanks."

"I only did what you did for me at that school," Smits said with glint in his eye, and Luke laughed.

"I guess we all need someone sometimes," Luke said.


AN: Well, that's the end! Gotta love that brotherly bonding. Writing this made me super curious about Smits? Like it's interesting to think about how he would've grown as a character once he was with a loving family. Ahh this was fun to write, if a little intense. I've got a few more Shadow Children stories in the works, but I think I'll leave this particular piece as a two-shot.