Ezra was not surprised to hear her voice. He wanted to be surprised, but mostly, he was just numb. Sara and Buck had never been his to keep. Once a thieving street rat, always one, unless, you know, you were Neal, who did things like cut himself open and bleed himself dry for everyone but himself. Ezra supposed that choice changed things.
But Ezra, well, he was just Ezra, son of Maude, who was currently asking, "Well, well, what have we here?"
Vin hadn't been feeling well that morning, and it was Wednesday, which meant most people had extracurricular activities through lunch. Ezra wasn't much of a joiner though, and most of the time it was enough of a challenge getting himself academically caught up again and again.
He'd gone outside to get himself a little air, moving along the edges of the school's land, allowing himself the freedom of knowing he could leave if he needed to. It had clearly been a mistake.
He forced himself not to tense up. He'd been taught by the best, after all. "In the neighborhood?"
"Aw, now, don't be like that, Ez. You know how it is, doll."
"Maybe I knew three years ago," he said softly. "No more."
"Mm," she said, equally soft. "You know it don't work like that."
Rage brewed in his stomach, warm and painful like a fever. "They adopted me, Maude. A judge said you've got no rights to me, you understand that?"
Maude looked unimpressed. "You really have forgotten how this game is played, haven't you?"
She reached up and he ducked, quick enough to avoid her grabbing him, not enough to evade the shove she followed up with. He looked up, surprised. She'd never hesitated to hurt him, but brute strength was not her normal go to. His mind whispered, desperation.
She said, "How's it gonna look to your perfect little Brady Bunch rescuers when they know exactly all the things you've done, hm?"
"They know." It was a lie and she would know it. She always did.
She raised an eyebrow. "Oh they do, yes? Then how come you've got your hands in your belt loops? Just like when you're fibbing?"
"One last score, baby. That's all. Then I leave you alone with your milksop family."
It was a lie, he knew it, but he wanted it to be true so badly. He'd do it and she'd leave and he'd have Sara and Buck to himself, and maybe, maybe things would be okay. It was possibly the worst lie he's ever told himself. "Just one."
Maude smiled beatifically. "That's my boy."
But no, he wasn't leaving it at that. "And you swear to leave me and them alone and never bother us again."
Maude held a hand to her heart. "As G-d is my witness."
Ezra was pretty sure G-d wasn't anyone's witness.
The desperation made more sense when Ezra met with Maude the next day. He begged off going out to the ranch--even though there was nothing he wanted to do more--on account of a report he was working on. Buck watched him closely for a few minutes, but evidently decided he was either telling the truth or moody, and Buck wasn't interested in dealing with more of Ezra's ever-present issues.
As soon as everyone was gone, Ezra made his way to the place Maude had given him the address to; a weirdly innocuous looking Victorian in a suburb about twenty minutes by bus to the north. He almost couldn't go in. His skin was crawling and he felt on the verge of dry-heaving. He hadn't been able to eat all day.
Worse than the thought of going in that house, though, worse than any thought, was Maude coming to his house, literally or figuratively. He had already decided he would do anything to keep Buck and Sara, already recognized he was willing to hurt and be hurt to keep this one thing. He wasn't a good person, he knew that. He just sort of wished he didn't have to keep being reminded.
He rang the doorbell.
The guy who answered was average looking, but Ezra knew where to look and for what, and he was definitely armed. Suddenly, Maude's desperation was making a sick type of sense. He had to swallow back even more nausea. He could do this, though. Buck and Sara.
The guy said, "You must be Maude's kid."
Ezra pulled himself to his full height and said, "My reputation precedes me."
The guy rolled his eyes. "Sure, kid. Get in here."
The house looked like any other house: flowers in the entry way, a nice den with sun streaming in, nothing too messy, but not sparkling clean, either. His greeter, whose dark hair needed a cut, took him to the basement. Down there was another man, someone who looked like he could be door guy's cousin or maybe even brother. They both had the slightly bronzed skin of families of Greek or Italian origin, dark brown eyes, biceps that told Ezra not to even think about messing with them.
The guy downstairs asked, "How old are you, kid?"
Ezra's been telling guys like this, "Eighteen," since he was twelve.
"Then get out. Maude said you'd just turned sixteen."
Fuck. Why the fuck couldn't Maude ever just tell him important details? Ezra sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, "She wasn't lying."
"Then you were?"
Ezra glared. "Professional precaution."
After a moment, the guy laughed. "Definitely Maude's kid."
He gestured behind Ezra. Ezra let his eyes flick over and noticed a photo studio, like the one Buck and Sara had taken pictures at with the three of them a few days after they'd gotten Maude declared no longer his legal guardian. They'd done it again when he'd started looking better after the cages. That photo studio'd had backgrounds with fake leaves, and cute props.
Ezra wasn't dumb. He hadn't been brought here to take family pictures. They'd wanted him to be under eighteen. He breathed through his nose, but it wasn't enough. "Where's the bathroom?"
When they gestured, he had to force himself not to run. He was just able to get some water down his throat before he was puking, bringing up water and then nothing, when he ran out of that. Eventually, he managed to pull himself together. He rinsed out his mouth and splashed his face. He rested his head against the wall for a moment, trying to make a decision.
He could leave Maude to these people. He could. They'd kill her, he didn't doubt it. She obviously owed them and they were unquestionably organized crime. That wasn't the kind of thing anyone, even Maude, walked away from. He could do it. And maybe Maude would get to Sara and Buck before they got to her, and maybe Ezra would be homeless again. But he could do it.
Or he could go out there and let them take pictures of him for old men to jack off to in the privacy of their homes. He almost gagged again, but he kept it down this time. Neal had done worse. Sure Neal had done it to get him and kids just like him free. It had meant something. But maybe this did, too.
He could walk out. He could. He probably should. There was a good chance Buck and Sara would believe him, and keep him safe. Maybe. No, they would. They--
He bit his lip. Maybe they would. And maybe he wouldn't have killed Maude. But probably he would be a mother-killer. And he would know. Even if Buck and Sara didn't find out. Which they would. They would. And then--
Ezra closed his eyes and stripped off his shirt to make sure he wouldn't wuss out, and opened the door to step out.
It wasn't bad. It wasn't. Nothing like...nothing like Neal. (He made himself think it, face it, because Neal had done it for him and the others, and Ezra wasn't going to pretend it had never happened.) It wasn't like that. They just wanted him to touch himself. They wanted him to get hard and that was more complicated. He didn't want to think about anything good, not now, not here. But there was nothing fun or sexy about this, about the room being cold, the lights flashing on him, the pop of the camera making him jump.
After about fifteen minutes, the camera guy--Dave--sighed and said, "Kid, we can do this the easy way or the hard way."
Ezra didn't want to know what the hard way was, so he closed his eyes, bit his bottom cheek, and betrayed one of the only people he'd ever called friend. It was just, well, Neal was so effortlessly beautiful. And he shouldn't have been a jot better than Ezra, not really, but he was anyway. When he drew his hands moved in a fluid way that reminded Ezra of horses running. He was gone on Neal, had been for a while, before the cages, even.
It did the job. He was sixteen, just barely, so despite the circumstances, it wasn't the most difficult thing he'd ever done. No, it was fine.
He opened his eyes. "Are we done here?"
Dave gave him an unimpressed look. "You really think that's all your dear ma stole from the boss?"
Ezra forced himself not to shrink in on himself. Hope springs eternal? "Well, then?"
They didn't touch him. He couldn't say why, but he wasn't going to put his damn head in the gift horse's mouth. They didn't touch him. He reminded himself of that over and over while scrubbing off their spunk, coating him from head to toe.
He scrubbed and scrubbed and if by the time he put his clothes back on and headed home, it hurt to feel the cotton against his skin, well, at least he'd gotten some of it off. A little.
Ezra was careful for the next few weeks to make sure someone was around unless he was safely in his bedroom, or somewhere else where Maude had no chance of getting to him. Vin and Neal definitely knew something was up. Vin had tried prodding Ezra into telling him what was going on, but Ezra'd redirected like the professional con he was. Neal wasn't fooledEzra suspected Vin wasn't either—but both of them were at least holding off for the moment.
Even Parker was being unusually cautious around him, like one of the others had told her to be on her best behavior. Ezra hated it, even as he knew it was necessary. If someone touched him without telegraphing it right now, he wasn't sure what he'd do.
After about three weeks, he'd started letting his guard down, even if he was still quick to shutter back up at the slightest hint of danger. Of course, no sooner had he stopped being on guard every damned minute, Maude wiggled into the small cracks in his defenses. He was sitting on his own porch, spring starting to struggle its way past winter and although Ezra would miss the frost and the almost-too-much bite of riding in the winter's cold, spring definitely brought its own pleasures.
She slipped up there with him, silent and elegant and endlessly Maude, and he shook his head. "You said no more. You said that was it."
"Baby," Maude started.
Ezra was having none of it. He still couldn't take a shower any cooler than volcanic, and he had yet to feel clean. "You sold me once and I wasn't your property then. No more."
"Have you forgotten--"
"So tell them, Ma." Ezra was exhausted. He missed the days when he didn't have to force himself not to flinch at touches he'd trusted, when nightmares had settled down into a once or twice a week routine, not once or twice a night. "Tell them whatever you want and have them toss me and maybe next time you need me I'll be desperate enough to say yes and hope it benefits me somehow. But it will not make me yours. You're too late for that."
Maude watched him for a long moment, before saying, "Take care of yourself, Ez," and disappearing to wherever she'd come from in the first place.
For two, three, four months, Ezra waited for the other shoe to fall. He was slowly easing back into his skin. Riding helped. Talking with Neal, who would pretend to believe Ezra when he said he was talking about something before Buck and Sara, helped. Focusing on school and cheering Parker on at LaCrosse, which she was terrifyingly good at, helped.
Everything still came crashing to the ground with the force of a meteorite in the fifth month, but not how Ezra had been expecting. No, it was far, far worse.
The problem with having a cop for a dad and a Fed for a mom was that they knew everyone. And it had only gotten worse when they began associating with Harvey and Dr. McCoy and all the other parents. You did one tiny thing wrong and there was no question they'd find out about it.
In this instance, one of Sara's friends who worked on child prostitution and pornography rings found the pictures. And showed them to her. (Ezra was so, so very glad he hadn't been there for that.)
Instead he found out by way of Sara showing up at his school. She had two milkshakes with her from the diner by her workplace, his was strawberry banana, which was his favorite. They went into one of the private rooms the office had for administrative meetings and whatnot. Immediately, he panicked. "Is Buck--"
"Buck's fine, kid. He's gonna be here in a few."
Which only made Ezra freak out more. "Did I--"
Sara ran her free hand through her hair, something she almost never did, it was too revealing. "Honey, can we--I think we're all gonna need to only do this once, okay? We love you, you love us, and everything else can be worked through."
She sounded like she was working to convince herself. Just then, thankfully, Buck joined them. He kissed Sara hello, said, "What, no milkshake for me?"
Sara gave him hers. Ezra's stomach hurt, so he set his on the table. Sara said, "I have a friend who works down in--well, stuff I don't handle. And she's been going through evidence on a case and she, uh. She found some pictures. And they--"
Ezra closed his eyes, because he could admit to this, but he couldn't see their faces. "They're me."
"Yeah, honey, I know they are," Sara said, and her voice managed to be even until she went on, "but...but they look like they're from recently."
Ezra didn't understand. "Not...not so long ago. Does it matter? I did it. I put myself on display for a bunch of perverts and I let them--"
"Whoa, whoa there," Buck said. His hand shook when he made a stopping sign. "Just hold up. Is this something you wanted to do?"
Ezra blinked. "What?"
Surprisingly calmly, given that he was the color of the whitewashed walls, Buck asked, "Those pictures. Did you want to take them?"
Ezra imagined he should be able to lie, to make it sound like this was all him, but at that moment, for the first time in so, so long, all he wanted was for Buck to hold him, and promise things would be all right. And if he got that by lying, it wouldn't be the same. He whispered. "No. No, I-- No."
Both Buck and Sara looked as though he'd kicked them in the teeth. He said, "I'm sorry? I didn't--"
"Why, Ez? If you didn't want to, why'd you do it?" Sara asked softly.
He weighed his options, but in the end, there was no real heft to Maude's side. To her, he'd always been a convenience. And even if Sara and Buck cared less for him after this, at least they'd taken him in when he'd most needed it. "Maude got herself in trouble and I, she," he shook his head, "I was stupid."
Something cold and deadly settled in both Sara and Buck's expressions. Ezra said, "I really am sorry, I just, I thought if I didn't--"
"Don't you apologize, don't you ever apologize for just trying your best Ezra Ellis-Wilmington," Sara said. "We're not mad at you. We--we love you, and you love us, you do, and nothing else matters. Hear me?"
Ezra kept his gaze on her even though it made him want to sob. "Had to be pretty embarrassing, your colleague seeing your street-trash kid kneeling under a bunch of spunk."
"It was terrifying, Ez. Something happened to you and we didn't even know. We just thought you were having a rough time of it. We—you seem like you're a little hung up on Neal and we thought maybe you were afraid to come out to us, or just worried about him, with all he's going through. We didn't want to pry. You were still eating, we figured....fuck, Ez. We screwed up, okay?"
He blinked at her again, he couldn't help it. "What are you talking about?"
Buck took a deep breath and said, "Enough, enough for the moment. We're going home, and spending the afternoon watching stupid television and talking and working this out, at least some. But for now, we table it until we get home. All right?"
Sara asked, "Who d'you want to ride with, Ez?"
And since he couldn't choose both, and she'd borne the brunt of this fuck up on his part, he went with her.
To Ezra's surprise, they didn't ask for more information. In the car, Sara said, "I'll support you whether you decide to make a formal statement or not. That's up to you."
And that was that. They watched "Parent Trap," because Ezra had a stupid fondness for it. Buck said, "Can I?" before tucking Ezra into his side and keeping him there for the rest of the film. Sara held his feet in her lap.
Afterward, Buck grilled up hamburgers and fried some potatoes, and despite his having had a mid-day milkshake, they made s'mores over the gas stove for dessert. Ezra was afraid they'd leave him after that, let him go to his room and struggle to sleep.
Instead they put on one of the John Wayne movies Buck liked and curled up together again, the three of them against the world. While he was slipping between waking and the undertow of sleep, while he could, Ezra said, "Love you."
Buck murmured back, "Love you, too, kid. It'll be okay, you'll see."
It was stupid, but at that moment, Ezra believed him.