It had only ever been a matter of time before Mother pulled the wrong scam with the wrong people and had bigger problems than the police. Ezra hadn't counted on being left with a New Jersey casino boss as collateral, but he wasn't terribly surprised when it happened, either. He didn't allow hurt to figure into the equation. It was never worthwhile when it came to Mother.
Ezra thought it might have been fine if he hadn't followed years of training by picking the locks on the handcuffs and then the door to the room he was being held in. He missed one of the security cameras—sloppy—and they caught him. They were less hospitable after that.
Ezra counted the days he was locked in the vault by how many bathroom breaks he was allowed—one a day. Mother was supposed to reclaim him after a week, but it was hardly a surprise when seven days came and went. After thirteen, Ezra began to wonder what they were going to do with him when they realized she wasn't coming. He turned off everything but his survival mechanisms and laid on the charm with the one guard who brought him protein bars and water.
He had known it probably wouldn't get him anywhere, so he wasn't that disappointed when it didn't. Still, having a hood placed over his head and being bound almost to the point of being mummified caused him to panic. It was stupid. Mother had made it exceedingly clear that panic only ever caused mistakes.
He couldn't help it. It was dark and breathing was hard and he had no idea where they were taking him. Of course, when they all-but threw him down on a carpet somewhere and pulled the bag off, holding his face up for inspection, he kind of wished he'd spent longer in transit. He knew he was in serious trouble even before the man hovering above him looked him over like a horse or a breeding dog and said, "Let's talk price, gentlemen."
His new purchaser stuck Ezra in a pitch-black closet with no lock to even mess with on the inside. It was wide enough for Ezra to sit with his legs out straight, but not for him to lie down without curling up, and it didn't leave much room to pace.
He lost track of time in the dark. All there really was to mark it were the reactions of his body. When he lost control of his bladder, he figured it had been over 12 hours, since he'd learned to hold it that long in the vault. The waves of hunger rolled in and out, he thought the spacing was about three to four hours.
It didn't really matter, he supposed. By the time they dragged him out he was partially covered in his own filth and so desperate for water he didn't even think before begging. They put him in a cold shower and left him alone in the small bathroom. He looked, but there was no window, and they were clearly just outside the single exit.
He drank from the water pouring down on him, then, a few seconds later, brought it back up. After that, he tried again, this time more slowly. He debated, but took off the clothes that were now soaked. He used the bar of soap to wash his hair and his body, and tried to launder what he'd been wearing. When he got out and huddled into the towel they'd left, he was so cold his teeth and jaw hurt from chattering. The rest of him was numb.
One of the guards came back in and threw a pair of sweats and a t-shirt at him. Both were too big, but they were better than nothing, or the filthy clothing he'd been wearing. Still, Mother had always taught him that impressions defined interaction and clothing, more than most things, affected impressions. Still disoriented from the hunger, he felt defenseless.
He firmly reminded himself that was not true. His mind was his foremost weapon. Once he'd drilled the thought into his brain, he came up with a short-term strategy and opened his mouth to start in on it. He'd barely made a sound when the bigger guard cuffed him on the head hard enough for Ezra to see stars and said, "Nobody cares."
Ezra would have said, "Tell me something else I've not learned, good sir," but he didn't care to get hit again.
He was corralled into a room with other children. Most of them were younger than Ezra, if not all. None of them spoke to each other, all huddled in on themselves.
Ezra found out why at "dinnertime." The guards came in with what would have been barely enough food for all of them anyway, and made it into a contest of who could grovel the most, crawl the fastest, be the strongest. Ezra considered that he might win the first, but he would never manage the second or third.
He needed a plan that didn't involve starving to death. His eye caught on the one other kid not even putting on a show. Curled in a ball, it was if the boy didn't even realize the guards were there. When they'd left, Ezra went and sat by him. He said softly, "Ezra Paris Standish at your service."
The other boy blinked over at him as if he was speaking ancient Greek. Slowly, he answered, "Vin. Vin Tanner."
"Do you not enjoy eating, Vin?" Ezra asked.
"Not…not when the hungrier ones are looking. I won a few times, at first, but I couldn't eat, really, with them watching. Hoping."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "A humanitarian."
Vin's expression was puzzled. "I jus' didn't like it when my grandpa did it to me."
Ezra couldn't claim an idyllic childhood, by any means, and there had been lean times, but Mother had never eaten in front of him as he starved. He knew, in the part of his mind where he hid things that wouldn't help him, that she had just gone elsewhere. Somehow that was better, leaving him that small bit of comfort. Ezra said, "Would you help, if I said I had a plan to get all of us some food?"
Vin didn't seem to be too hopeful, but he shrugged. "Sure, I guess."
That was how Ezra and Vin organized six strays, plus the two of them, to have a rotation of winners with shared earnings once the guards had gone. It wasn't much, certainly not enough to keep any of them from constantly feeling the pulse of hunger at their core, the whir of dizziness in their brain, but it was better than it had been before.
More importantly, if confusingly, it seemed to have gained Ezra a friend in Vin. He'd never had one before, but he'd heard of them, of course. He'd read a few novels in which friendships played a significant part. It scared Ezra, but he thought he might give up his own food for quite a while if it meant he got to keep Vin.
Ezra was never entirely sure what happened, but somewhere around the seventh day—when another kid had been added to their number the day before—the guards came in with guns, forced them into the crawlspace under the floor and warned them in graphic, terrifying terms what would happen if they made noise. For himself, Ezra would have risked it. For the others, he didn't have the right, particularly not with Vin's life on the line.
They were packed in two across, head to foot, with no room to stretch or move. The space smelled of animal waste and within the first hour there were rats moving in to check out their new meals. Vin said,
"Move as much as you can. Yer bigger. They don't like that."
The younger ones were crying, so Ezra did his best to come up with stories that would distract them a bit, if not actually calm them. He spoke until his throat wouldn't bring up anymore sound, and then fell into an awful, nightmare-filled sleep, interrupted again and again by rats.
When he woke, he felt a drop of something on his forehead. Cautiously, he craned his neck up and stuck his tongue out. He sighed in relief. Finally, something was on their side. The surface was dirty and rank tasting, but Ezra tongued up as much of the water as he could and said, "Con—condensation."
"Huh?" Vin asked groggily.
"Water, above us. Lick as much of it as you can, all of you."
Later, Ezra would wonder if it might have been kinder to have not pointed this out.
The hunger cramps stopped fading in and out some indeterminate amount of time later and just stayed, making Ezra want to try and claw his way out of here. One of the girls had already tried. She wasn't responding to anyone's calls anymore. Ezra wasn't sure whether to hope she was simply unconscious, or if it would be more merciful for her to have passed away.
Vin was still breathing beside him. It kept Ezra grounded, kept him from expending energy he didn't have in useless tasks.
Ezra tried to tell a story now and then, make sure the others were still there, still able to listen. He faded in and out of sleep until the hunger pains went away entirely, leaving him feeling empty and confused.
At one point, he kept calling out to one of the kids who had died at some point earlier, he knew that, but he couldn't stop. Eventually Vin managed to hook his hand over Ezra's arm in the scant space and dig his fingernails in until the pain brought the hysteria under control. Ezra forced himself not to cry. He didn't have the liquids to waste. "Sorry. I—sorry."
"'S'okay," Vin said sounding distant. Ezra wanted to yell for him to come back, but didn't have the power left to do so.
The police report would say the kids had been found close to the fifth day under the floor. The hospital records would detail the condition of the only two survivors as including infected rat bites, "bedsores" from having lain in what little waste they could manage, severe dehydration and malnutrition. Ezra didn't know any of this. He knew that something warm wrapped him up and he thought he was dead for a moment, then panicked at leaving Vin.
For the rest of his life, Ezra would remember the deep rumble of Buck telling him it was all right, he was going to be fine. He would remember his own voice cracking over Vin's name and being put in the same ambulance as Vin, despite there not being enough room, because both of them became frenzied when the EMTs tried to separate them again.
He'd remember the nightmares brought on by fever and infection-based delirium, and always, always being woken by someone murmuring, "You're safe, Vin is safe, you're both safe."
He'd remember surfacing from the worst of the sickness and weakness and seeing Buck at his bedside, red-eyed with exhaustion, but grinning as he said, "Well, hey there, little buddy."
It was Sara who noticed that Ezra was hoarding food. Mother would have approved of Sarah, Ezra thought. She was sleek, polished, and clever.
Why Buck wanted Ezra around was, in some ways, easy to understand. Buck was something of a gentle giant, and he'd been at the rescue site, seen Ezra at his worst. The shine would wear off certainly, as would the notion of wanting a son, or rather, wanting Ezra as a son. No doubt Buck did wish to have some strapping, all-American lad with Sara one of these days. Ezra, however, was not anyone's ideal of a male child, not even Mother's.
Why Sara was willing to have him around, let alone act as though she wanted him there, was a mystery; one that preyed on Ezra. He was careful, so very careful around her. In retrospect, he knew that was how he'd gotten caught. There was such a thing as too careful, Mother had always warned him.
He had told Buck he would make a taped statement if they left Vin out of it. Buck hadn't been thrilled, but he'd read Ezra's desperation correctly and given in. Chris had been thrilled. Vin didn't know anything about it.
A week after Ezra had gotten out of the hospital Buck took him into the station to get it all recorded. It took three hours. Every time Ezra couldn't help the shaking of his voice or the need to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from either hyperventilating or sobbing, Buck turned off the recorder. He sat quietly with him, sometimes bringing a soda, or just clasping Ezra's hands gently in his own until Ezra nodded that he was ready to continue.
Buck took him for sandwiches afterward and ate with him, then drove Ezra over to Chris and Mary's so he could spend the rest of the day with Vin. He swung by and picked him up after work. The effort was touching, but kind of hilarious, since Buck and Sara lived two blocks over.
That evening, after dinner, when Ezra had tucked himself into the corner on his bed—they'd let him move it so he could do exactly that—reading a book, Sara knocked on his doorframe and asked, "May I come in?"
The question was laughable, since Ezra was just a temporary fixture, and Sara co-owned the condo with Buck. It was polite, though, and Ezra valued politeness. He said, "Please."
She rubbed her arms and didn't look at him and Ezra swallowed. "If I've done something wrong, I apologize most—"
"No," she said, shaking her head and looking at him. "No, Ez, it's not that."
Whatever it was, she was upset. Reading people was a necessary practice in the life of a conwoman's son. He offered, "Would you like to sit?"
Absently, she took him up on the offer, perching on the bed. "Thank you."
After a moment she said, "I work white collar crimes, you know?"
Slowly, Ezra nodded, unsure of where this was going. She smiled a little nervously. "Art theft and mortgage fraud and crimes where there's a lot of money at stake, but not usually human life."
Ah. Ezra said, "You needn't worry about—"
She shook her head. "Let me finish, okay?"
Ezra shut his mouth. She said, "I don't have Buck's resilience, to see what he sees day in and day out and go on, I know that. But I'm not blind and I'm not unfeeling."
Ezra frowned. He hadn't defined her by either of those terms, even in his mind. She smiled, but it was sad. "We—we're not going to take food away from you. Not ever. In fact, if you were willing to tell us your favorite snacks, we'd keep them stocked so whenever you were hungry you could just pop into the kitchen and grab something."
Ezra's chest felt tight. She must have seen something, because she winced. "I'm sorry. I bought you some socks and underwear. I was putting them in your drawer and I—I'd thought something was off, but I hadn't figured it out until then."
Quietly, he said, "I tried not to."
Sara's lower lip wobbled. She sucked in a breath and said, "C'mon, put on your shoes."
Ezra blinked. He was already in his pajamas. He'd even brushed his teeth. "Um."
"Family outing to the all-night grocery. We'll get you a mini-fridge for your room tomorrow, but until then we can make a food shelf in here. That way, you don't even have to go as far as the kitchen. We'll put some of the stuff in there, too, though, just in case that's closer at the time you get hungry."
"Sara," Ezra forced his tone to be calm, collected. "You and Buck have provided me with more than enough."
"It's adorable and heart-breaking that you feel that way, buster, but I've good reason to believe your expectations are devastatingly low."
For a moment, Ezra wasn't sure how to respond to that. In the end, he couldn't help smiling a bit. "Not entirely impossible, I must admit."
She grinned in response and called, "Buck! Midnight brownie run!"
"It is nine in the evening," Ezra pointed out.
Sara shrugged. "That one never fails to get him up and moving."
Ezra, without realizing he was going to do so, or being able to remember the last time he had, laughed.