Where Home Is At

by Angela B.

Seven Brothers AU

Disclaimer: Don’t own them and never will.

Note: Thanks so much to Chris for beta reading and making it better.

This AU is open to all.

Ezra made his way off the school bus. The indignity he felt at having to ride the lowly mode of transportation was showing clearly in his green eyes. It had turned out to be one of those hectic scheduled days that had lowered the fourteen-year-old to this level. JD had woken up sick this morning and had stayed home with Buck. Chris had come in to town earlier and picked Vin up for a dentist’s appointment. No matter how hard the older brothers tried they could not stop Vin’s sweet tooth from getting the better of him. Therefore, the twelve-year-old made more frequent trips to that particular professional than the rest of them.

That had left Ezra and Nathan as the last ones left in school. Normally they would have caught a ride with Josiah, the school counselor and their oldest brother but he had to attend a meeting after school. This meant the two boys would be riding the bus home together. Though, Ezra was not happy with the ride at least he would have Nathan to ride with him. That last shred of appeasement went out the window when the senior reminded the younger one that he had an online college course after school. Ezra would be riding the dismal contraption home alone. So intent on brooding about his misfortune he did not notice the white car parked along the highway up ahead of the bus as he stepped off the bus.

Ezra stopped at the silver mailbox attached to a post on the edge of the highway and plucked the envelopes from their resting spot. The brown haired boy then started to make his way down the last quarter of a mile road to the ranch house. This part was unpaved and since it had not rained recently dust rose with each step, adding to his misery.

Sifting through the bills and advertisements he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Eyes going wide he struggled for air as the world closed in around him. He would know the handwriting anywhere. He quickly scanned the top left hand corner of the envelope and realized there was no return address. Chastising himself he reminded himself there wouldn’t be one. Looking once again at the envelope he noticed it only had his name on the front in that undeniable handwriting. His mother’s.

Ezra once again started walking ever so slowly towards the house. His mind was racing in a thousand different directions. She had written. His mother had not forgotten about him. Ezra also realized she or someone she had hired to deliver the letter must be near since there was no address on it. He couldn’t believe it his mother was here. Panic, fear, love and hope all fought for dominance in his small fluttering heart. So lost in thought was he that he failed to notice he had reached the yard and Buck was standing on the porch calling out to him. Ezra’s head jerked up at the sound of his name and quickly pulling down his mask he waved back, sliding the small link to his mother into his jacket pocket.

The jovial brother watched as the younger one trotted up the steps. "Hey Ez. You make it ok?" They were all aware of how much he hated riding the school bus.

"Just dandy." The quick reply was joined by an obvious fake smile. "The joys of childhood never stop. One riotous event after another," he commented dryly, rolling his bright green eyes.

Buck laughed at his brother’s antics and followed him into the house. A thought nagged in the back of his mind that something was out of place but Buck pushed it away and followed his brother into the house. JD, sitting on the couch, called out a warm greeting that was returned by Ezra as he headed towards his upstairs room.

"Don’t forget your chores." Buck called after him.

Ezra sighed. He had lived here for almost two years and everyday after school it was the same thing. ‘Don’t forget your chores.’ Like he could really forget them. He hated mucking out the barn, feeding the animals, well he didn’t mind feeding most of them, just the pigs, and twice a week helping fix supper. Everyone had two turns in the kitchen a week, on Saturdays they usually cooked out. They were all paired up, except for him. He rotated thru the other pairs. Ezra really didn’t mind cooking but he hated clean up. His favorite chore was grooming his beloved horse.

Ezra carefully removed the letter and placed it under his mattress, then changed clothes and went to do his chores. His mind whirling with scenarios about what the letter contained.

All the brothers were there by suppertime, Josiah and Nathan getting home in time to fix an easy meal. Supper was quickly demolished and Ezra began clearing off the table. They had all noticed their normally loquacious brother’s silence throughout the meal; he appeared to be a million miles away.

Chris headed into the study with Vin to help with his homework while Nathan went upstairs to read. Since he and Josiah had fixed supped it had automatically excused them from cleaning up. Normally JD would help Ezra and Buck clear off the table and wash the dishes but Buck had excused him since he had been sick earlier.

Buck walked up next to the unusually silent brother. Having Ezra go quiet on them was a lot like having the military going to DEFCON 4, very nerve wracking. Through a lot of silent eye communication during supper, Buck had made it clear he would have a talk with the distracted sibling. Actually, they all knew it was the wisest choice. Chris’ patience with Ezra was short to say the least. Josiah would talk to the boy if he didn’t get any results and Nathan was like Chris in regards to keeping his temperament under control where Ezra was concerned. The mouth on the boy could cause the best saints to lose patience in record time.

Buck watched his brother for a few minutes before starting, "Something happen at school you want to talk about?"

"No," came the short reply. Ezra was still occupied by the letter and didn’t want to converse.

‘Ok. Something is definitely wrong,’ thought Buck. Well, he had learned a few things from his little brother since his arrival, ‘Time for a little redirection’

"So what kind of book are you reading now?" Ezra loved to read and would gladly share if invited to do so.

The thin shoulders just shrugged in response. "Nothing you’d be interested in," the voice sounding so flat. He didn’t want to talk. He just wanted to get done, escape to his room and read his letter.

"Well how do you know until you tell me? You might be surprised in what your old brother here is interested in," the jovial big brother responded lightly.

The tall dark haired man sometimes got really mad inwardly when people treated him like he was some kind of dumb buffoon. Just because he loved life, liked to laugh and acted like a kid at times didn’t mean he didn’t have a good brain. On that level he and Vin really understood and could sympathize with the other one.

Ezra took a deep breath and realized it would be futile to argue with Buck. The man was like a bull seeing red when he went after something. "OK but I warned you."

"Lay it on me." Buck answered giving the smaller boy a playful shoulder push.

Forty-five minutes later the kitchen had been cleaned, food put away, dishes done and Buck had learned more than he wanted to about the difference between Roman and Greek mythology. But, throughout the basically one-sided conversation Buck had listened intently and with interest. Throughout the history lesson the older one thought back to the last weekend and came to the conclusion he knew what was wrong with the other one. Buck figured Ezra wanted the same thing they all had wanted when they first walked through those doors into the new family. To be accepted, kept safe and mostly to be loved as is.

Buck’s mind wandered back to last Saturday. He and JD were returning from riding the fence line on the south side of their property. They had stopped and done a little fishing at the lake that was nestled on their land. After not catching anything big enough to keep they resorted to eating the sandwiches Nathan had packed for them. Ezra, being grounded, had been forced to stay home. The boy had gotten into trouble at school, which wasn’t unusual, by arguing with a teacher on a history lesson.

The two on horseback rode up alongside the house and was headed for the stables when JD had noticed Ezra leaning against the porch railing staring out across the massive yard. He was at the moment captivated by the scene before him. Chris and twelve-year-old Vin had just come out of the barn and now the older brother was chasing the younger one around in a spontaneous game of tag, the peal of laughter being heard clearly.

Ezra couldn’t tear his eyes away from the playful duo. Chris had finally caught Vin and now had the boy dangling over his shoulder spinning wildly. After the blond quit both fell to the ground in a heap laughing loudly. The thin shoulders slumped slightly. Why couldn’t he just be like the two younger boys and be loveable and not the troublesome burden he was?

JD caught the look Ezra’s face. "Buck?" he whispered, "What’s that look on Ez’s face?" The youngest had never seen such forlornness on his brother’s face.

Buck looked over to Ezra then out to where he seemed to be staring. Catching sight of Vin and Chris’ antics the black haired man looked back to the one on the porch. Shaking his head sadly he answered JD’s question best he could. "Think he’s wishing he was someone else right now."

JD threw his brother a quizzical look and seen a flash of the same look Ezra had on Buck’s face. He started to ask another question but the other horseman had already moved forwards. Ezra jerked out of his dream state and startled inwardly as he noticed the two other brother riding into the yard. He automatically slipped his blank mask over his face and turned to go inside.

Buck rested his big hands on the bony shoulders of his quiet brother and felt the minute tremble. Using his hands he guided his brother out of the kitchen and was headed for the couch. He had every intention of listening as long as his brother wanted to talk. To his surprise, though the younger one quit talking at the same time as he struggled out of the light grip and headed for the stairs.

Buck gently caught his brother’s bicep and turned him around, "Hey where you going? You can’t get me all interested and then leave me hanging, pard." The older brother had not found out the source of his brother’s silence.

Ezra looked up into those big honest blue eyes and wanted to cry, instead he said, "I’m quite tired by today’s list of events."

Stopping and looking directly at Buck, "I, therefore, would like to retire to my post and get a good nights sleep. I’m sure the educators of that establishment I’m required to attend has a full days lesson planned for me tomorrow, as boring as it will be,’" rolling his eyes.

"Goodnight." Saying with such finality as he turned and headed up the stairs that Buck knew he had been thoroughly dismissed.

Buck shook his head. He didn’t know which was worse Ezra not talking or talking far too much even for him. Not one to be dismissed so easily the tall muscular man pulled the boy back to him and wrapped his arms around the boy and gave him a bear hug. The boy may not know it, may not like it even, but its what he wanted. What he needed. Turning Ezra loose he stared down into those sad dull green eyes.

"Luv ya, kid. Goodnight." He would back off and wait. You didn’t push Ezra into something he wasn’t ready for it only backfired.

Ezra flinched inwardly which showed as a wince before heading upstairs. Buck sighed and wondered if there would ever come a time when Ezra would be able to hear those words without being caused pain.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra walked into the bathroom and got ready for bed, Buck’s words reverberating in his head. Walking into his bedroom he shared with Nathan he noticed the brother was at his desk reading. Without a word Ezra climbed into the bottom bunk and turned towards the wall.

Nathan felt a presence in the room and turned around. He was really surprised to see his roommate getting into bed. Usually it was a power struggle to get the younger sibling into bed. For reasons they had yet to learn the brown haired kid hated going to bed and would rather stay up half the night. Of course he hated getting up the next morning, too. A new rule had been invoked and a truce of some kind had finally been made, though Ezra felt he had gotten the worst end of the deal. On school nights he would go to bed at a decent hour and on weekend nights he could stay up until midnight. So far it was tentatively working out for both sides.

Getting up and moving towards the bed Nathan wondered if the kid was sick and if anyone knew he was up here in bed. "Hey Ez. You ok?"

Ezra wished his brother didn’t have such a propensity for worrying about his health. Sometimes the would-be doctor really got on his nerves. "Yes Nathan, I’m fine."

"You getting a migraine? I’ll get some of your pills." Nathan continued, ignoring the sound of annoyance in his brother’s voice. Ezra didn’t like being sick and he went to great lengths to keep them from finding out.

"NO!" commanding louder than he desired, the irritation clearly heard. Softening his voice he turned over and looked at the large warm eyes studying him.

"I’m fine Nathan. Honest. I'm just tired, ok," Ezra said plaintively, adding a smile to his features.

"Ok Ez," he said. Straightening back up, "But if you need anything tell me alright. Don’t want you to get sick." Nathan went to the desk and picked up his book, and then walked to the doorway. He turned off the light. Slipping out of the doorway he pulled the door three-fourths shut. He wanted to leave it open enough that they could hear if his brother did require help later.

Ezra lay there in the darkness thinking about his brother’s words. Both of their words had been filled with comfort, caring and worry. The idea of being worried about laid heavily on his mind. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone worried about him.

+ + + + + + +

Later when the house was completely quiet and everyone had gone to bed, Ezra slipped from his bed and dressed quietly. Removing his hidden letter he tiptoed down the stairs, grabbed a flashlight and headed outside for the tree house. He loved heights because so many people were afraid of them and so he found refuge in them. Normally he preferred the rooftop of the house but didn’t intend on taking the chance of waking anyone up. Ezra turned on the flashlight and carefully opened the envelope. Taking a deep breath he slid the single sheet of paper out and opened it up.

My dear darling boy,

My precious Ezra I have missed you terribly. I do hope you have been treated well in your placement. So sorry at the length of time that has gone by but you must understand how dangerous it was for me to come for you. You wouldn’t want to see your mother in jail, would you?

The loss of you has ripped my heart to shreds and only having you back can repair the hole in it. I have come to the decision to rectify the situation immediately, no matter the cost I must endure.

I have watched you lately and have become accustomed to your routine. After the bell rings for lunch tomorrow, I shall be awaiting you in a white car parked at the head of the street. I am counting on you, Ezra, not to be obvious in your departure my darling.

Don’t disappoint me. I am look forward to being reunited with my sweet beloved child.


Your Mother

Ezra read the letter over and over. His mother was here and she wanted him. She would be waiting for him tomorrow. Tomorrow. The thought struck him like lightening hitting tree. He had until tomorrow at lunch to be with his mother again. She had said she missed him; his mother hadn’t abandoned him after all. Thoughts swirled around in his head as he slowly made his way back into the house and back to bed. He was going home. For a fleeting moment that thought seemed incongruent. He shook his head and laid back to dream of his happy homecoming.

For the first time in several months the young brown haired boy was awaken by a nightmare. At first he tried to discern what the noise had been that had awaken him and why he was breathing so hard, a split second later Nathan was beside his bed and Chris and Josiah came careening into the room, both had a panicked face.

"It’s ok, Ez. It was just a nightmare." Nathan patted his arm trying to reassure his brother.

Nathan moved to the side as the two oldest knelt down by the bed. "Hey, kiddo. You alright?" Josiah asked softly, pushing the sweat-drenched hair from his younger brother’s wild green eyes.

Ezra could only nod. Someone older or looking in from the outside might have been able to tell the young boy the nightmare was his subconscious remembering how life had really been living with his mother, softly suggesting that he not go back. But, Ezra could not really recall anything vividly from the dream, just that it had been dark and terrifying. His young mind made no connection between the nightmare and the reentry of his mother into his life.

Chris watched the roving green eyes as the mind tried to rapidly process what had happened. They all knew each one carried deeply hidden secrets from their past and the scars to go with them. But to Chris this brother seemed to be striped with them. The blond slowly maneuvered Ezra back down to a prone position and held his hand. It was cold and clammy and he could feel the tremors still shooting through the boy’s system. All three stayed with the abnormally quiet boy until the green eyes slid shut and the rhythm of his breathing became apparent that sleep had come at last.

The next morning all of them, except for JD who slept hard, were dragging. Ezra had two more nightmares before dawn broke. Buck and Chris had alternated in getting up. Buck had missed the first one but not the second. All three had awakened Vin, being a light sleeper. The day was going to be long and tiring one for all concerned.

Ezra watched the clock, in five more minutes the lunch bell would ring and he would slip away unnoticed to his waiting mother. Vin would probably be waiting for him at their meeting spot, the water fountain. Ezra even considered Nathan might join him. They could all be a little overbearing when they were concerned for one another. He briefly thought about how he would miss that then swept that thought away. He was going home.

‘But aren’t you already at home with this family?’ The fourteen-year-old shook away the pestering voice. No. His mother was home. Wasn’t she? Ezra shook his head again as the annoying conversation continued inside his head. He felt like he had two people living inside his mind sometimes and most of the times the two sides didn’t see eye-to-eye. Ezra smirked to himself; if he ever told Josiah, the professional in him would send him to a psychiatrist. Ezra jumped when the bell rang.

Vin knew he would arrive at the fountain first and leaned up against the wall to wait. This morning at breakfast had been tense to say the least. Ezra had been too quiet yesterday and then the nightmares last night only confirmed what most of them dreaded, something was wrong in his brother’s world. Knowing Ezra it was bound to be more than just having to do the chores or getting in trouble at school. Those things happened far to regular for Ezra to concern himself with them.

Vin was looking around when he spotted his brother leaving out the side door. A puzzled look came over his face as he moved to follow. The twelve-year-old had just walked out onto the lawn sweeping his eyes over the area in search of his brother when he caught sight of the car and the woman standing beside it.

He watched with curiosity, wondering who was driving the Mercedes-Benz. The car stuck out like a sore thumb, this was heavy duty suburban or pickup country. Fancy cars were non-existent in this small ranching community. Just as he came back to his senses he saw his brother walking towards the car and the woman. Watching with detached puzzlement Vin looked on as his brother gave the woman a hesitant hug then backed away. In the next moment the women grabbed Ezra’s forearm and yanked him into the car. In a blink of an eye the car sped away and Ezra was gone.

Vin took off for Josiah’s office at a dead run. He believed he had just seen his brother being kidnapped and the thought scared the life out of him. Running down the hall he hit Josiah’s door at top momentum and nearly fell down as the door swung open under his hand.

+ + + + + + +

"Josiah! Josiah! Help!" The youngster took no notice of the people in his oldest brother’s office. If he did he would have noticed the principal, vice- principal and several teachers. Josiah jumped out of his chair and raced around the desk. Grabbing the thin shoulders he could see how scared the young one was, which scared him. Of all of them Vin was the one that didn’t get rattled very easily.

"Vin calm down and tell me what’s wrong." Trying to use his best brotherly voice.

Vin didn’t wait for a breath. "A lady, she was waiting outside at a car and she grabbed Ezra and dragged him into it. You gotta help Josiah!"

The principal ran for the phone and immediately dialed the police. Meanwhile the vice principal Miss Chote leaned down in front of the boy panting for breath. "Vin, can you describe the car for us?"

The shaking boy looked from Josiah to the woman and back to Josiah. With a nod of encouragement from his oldest brother the twelve-year-old described the fancy big white car then he described the old blond woman that had dragged his brother into the car. Josiah let out a sharp explicative that made Vin wince.

Throwing a sharp look at the counselor she demanded, "What’s the matter?"

"Maude." Josiah hissed out between his teeth. "Ezra’s mother."

Everyone in the room took in a gasp of air before the youngster, being caught off guard asked, "I thought Ezra’s mom didn’t want him anymore?"

Josiah couldn’t answer that question, right now his mind was moving at the speed of light in a thousand different directions.

"Josiah?" Vin’s voice trembled with fear, "The police will find him, right?"

Josiah gathered the slender frame into his arms and spoke softly, "We’ll find him, Vin. I promise." The oldest and guardian of the four youngest sent up an urgent silent prayer for his missing child. ‘God, watch over him and bring him back safely.’

Ezra didn’t pay attention to the direction the driver of the car was going, he was too nervous and trying to figure out why when he knew he should have been excited. Maude was prattling on about how much she missed him and what wonderful things they were going to do but he just couldn’t get the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach to go away. He chided himself; this was his mother for goodness sake not some stranger. Yes, upon arriving at the car he had second thoughts of going, had even taken a step backwards but Maude had grabbed hold of his wrist and pulled him into the car. He should be thrilled but all he felt was like he had just made a very big mistake.

That other voice in his brain was back. Telling him to slip away from mother as soon as possible and call Josiah. He would come get him in a heartbeat. The other voice was back as well, taking the opposite side. Call Josiah and tell him what? Oh by the way Maude wrote me and I left with her but now I’ve changed my mind. Yeah! That would go over real well. Besides why would Josiah or the others want him back, he had made the choice to go with Maude. What was the old saying ‘You made your bed, now lie in it.’ No, the voice spoke loud and sternly; they wouldn’t want him back knowing he had consciously chosen his mother over them. Anyhow this was his mother and she did want him. Everything would turn out for the best. The other voice quietly answered back, ‘You know better.’

+ + + + + + +

The six brothers sat around the living room in complete silence, a muffled sob would escape from the youngest every so often. Josiah had called the ranch immediately hoping against hope that Ezra had somehow escape from his mother and called for help or better yet headed for the ranch. He didn’t know why he thought the youngster would escape from his own mother. Obviously from Vin’s story Ezra had known Maude was going to be parked where she was. Maybe, it was the way Vin told the rest of the story, how Ezra had stepped back and how he had been pulled into the car and not willingly entered it that had the oldest hoping for the smallest of miracles.

Vin sat in his brother’s arms tears streaming quietly down his face. He had watched the woman take his brother and hadn’t done anything to stop it. As far as Ezra meeting his mother the young boy held no grudge against his slightly older brother and he was pretty sure none of the others did either. A mother’s love was a powerful thing. The promise and lure of it could make any kid do something he normally wouldn’t do, like leave the safety of a family.

Chris couldn’t fathom why Ezra would even contemplate going with his mother. Sure Vin said the woman dragged the boy into the car, so that had to mean he might not have gone willingly but still Ezra knew the woman was going to be there. Why not tell them? Chris puzzled over that part. The young fourteen-year-old had not had as good of a childhood as he tried to convince everyone he had. The nightmares and odd behavior was proof of that. So, why would someone voluntarily go back to a person who had abandoned them in the first place? If they ever got Ezra back he was going to knock some sense into his head. They were Ezra’s family. This was where he belonged and he was going to learn that one way or another.

The large dark haired young man sat in the rocker holding his crying little brother. Buck knew this was his fault. They all knew something was wrong last night. He had specifically opted to talk to Ezra and seek out the problem and he had failed. Instead he had let the younger brother talk about mythology and skirt around the real issue. He had seen the troubled face last weekend and he had done nothing. Ezra being grounded was no excuse for not doing something with the lonely boy, even if it was to just sit and be with him. Buck knew whose fault this was, his. He should have shown the boy more love. Well, when Ezra came home he would be inundated with it, Buck would see to it himself.

Josiah knew why Ezra would think about going with his mother. He had tried to explain it to the others. A lot of abused or neglected kids sought their parent’s love no matter what that parent did to them. The hope and need of getting that parents love and approval could become a single obsession. The child often blamed themselves for the parents’s lack of love. They condemned themselves because in their minds they hadn’t been perfect enough, or they could have done something better. Josiah, and before they died, his parents had come to this conclusion of what drove this young boy. The need to be loved was so great that the boy convinced himself if he was perfect then his mother would find him worth loving.

Ezra’s need for control and for everything to always be perfect could at times become of epic proportions. Everything had a place and there was a place for everything and heaven help anyone who messed with his stuff. His need to be always cleaned, they had guessed, came from being dirty more than just a couple of times. His lack of emotions suggested he had learned at a very early age that emotions were a bad thing, probably in all likelihood Maude’s doing.

Ezra hardly ever talked about his past but once in awhile he would let the tiniest bit of information slip and as Josiah and the family had learned if they weren’t listening they would miss it. Josiah wanted nothing more than have his loquacious brother home and listen to his complaints.

Chris and Buck felt lost. They were both the type of people of action. Sitting around just wasn’t in them. If there was a problem, well then they liked to face it head on. No lollygagging and shuffling feet trying to make a decision for them, that was for lightweights and they weren’t made that way. Now they were being forced to wait and let the problem play out and there was nothing they could do to speed it up. Buck took one look at Chris and knew the silence and sitting around wouldn’t last long. Chris was going to take some kind of action and when he did Buck planned on being right there beside him.

+ + + + + + +

The car finally stopped and Maude announced they were at their destination. Ezra had, when not conversing with his mother, been lost in his own world for the last nine hours listening to the voices argue, berate him and try to console him. Now as he looked out the back passenger window he saw the massive two-story home. He didn’t think it quite fit Maude’s definition of a mansion but knew instinctively his brothers would think so. His brothers. He would have to quit thinking about them; he was back with his mother now. He was home, but somehow that just didn’t have the same ring to it as calling the ranch home, did.

He climbed from the car and joined his impatiently waiting mother. Together they walked up the front steps and through the door being held open by the butler. Maude was explaining once again that a very nice man owned the house by the name of Mr. Greerson. They had met in the Greek isles and he invited her home. He had lamented how much he would like to settle down and have a family, especially a son. When Maude casually mentioned her own son was away living with a family while she was taking care of business, Mr. Greerson had insisted Maude bring him here to live. The light in Ezra’s brain came on like a flood lamp and the flicker of hope that his mother had come for him out of love shriveled a little along with a large piece of his heart.

The youngster followed his mother from the foyer into the open living room and gazed in silence at its size. The guys would have a stroke over it; four of the bedrooms back home would fit easily into this area. Ezra mentally slapped himself he must control his thinking. Maude turned towards her son and saw him gaping.

Reaching over she closed his mouth, "Ezra! Stop your gawking. You have seen bigger houses than this, stop acting like some country boy from the hills who’ve never seen a large home before."

Ezra obediently closed his mother and muttered an apology. He would have to concentrate on his manners and slip into one of the many personas he had acquired over the years. He wondered which one Mr. Greerson would want.

At that thought a very large older gentleman came down the stairs. "Maude, you made it back. Wonderful." Turning gray eyes onto Ezra he said, "This must be your son, Ezra?"

Sticking out his hand the man informed his newly acquired guest, "I’ve heard all about you young man. I’m glad to finally meet you." Turning his gaze around the room he continued, "If you need anything just ask the help."

Ezra nodded his head and answered back politely. "Please to make your acquaintance Mr. Greerson and I thank you for your kindness, sir."

He couldn’t help but compare this man’s eyes to that of Josiah’s and found them lacking. Josiah’s usually held amusement and…and…what was that other thing he felt when he looked into those gray eyes. Safe. Maybe, he thought. He just knew when he looked into those eyes his problems didn’t seem so big and the need to hide didn’t seem so great.

Turning his eyes back to Maude the man smiled genuinely, "I hope you had a nice visit with your friends. I trust you invited them to come visit you any time they wish."

"Of course my darling. I had an absolutely fabulous time." Maude purred.

Ezra couldn’t help but roll his eyes. This man thought she was visiting the friends he was supposedly staying with and the whole time she was casing his routine like a thief cases a bank before robbing it. Ezra told himself to shut up and stop making such horrid comparisons concerning his mother.

A maid was called to show the young brown haired boy to his room. Finally, he thought as he curled down in between the sheets, a room to himself. Oddly enough he had a hard time going to sleep, he chalked it up to the excitement of being with his mother again. ‘Liar’, the other voice whispered.

+ + + + + + +

The noise level in the kitchen was decidedly out of whack. A kitchen containing six brothers should be loud and boisterous, not so silent that the scraping of forks on plates sounded deafening. JD was the only one actually eating and that was because he had been pulled from class after the incident and then he had cried himself to sleep, missing both lunch and supper. The rest just picked at their food. Not having any word from either the police or Ezra himself had depressed the hope that Ezra would be found, if not at least heard from, by this morning.

Ezra had tossed and turned all night with dreams of the ranch and his brothers constantly plaguing his sleep. He got up in a foul mood but had his best mask on before hitting the bottom step of the winding staircase. Mother would never approve of any sign of emotion. Ezra couldn’t help but think she would really dislike Buck then. He was always laughing and cutting up. He could turn your day into something better faster than anyone Ezra knew. Another mental slap. The young man eased into his chair and started eating the breakfast placed before him. The eggs were nothing like Chris’. Slap. Oh dear this was going to be so much harder than he had thought.

One day turned into two and so forth until much to Ezra’s amazement four days had passed. To him though it seemed an eternity. That little voice that wouldn’t shut up kept popping up begging him to call the ranch and ask for retrieval. When Ezra would shut that part down it would come back with thoughts, images, and memories of his life with his brothers. Finally, Ezra figured if he just called the ranch and spoke to one of the boys and told them he was where he wanted to be then the voice would go away. Deep down though he knew it wouldn’t be that easy to shut the voice up.

He snuck into one of the maid’s room and listened for any noise that would alert him to possible danger. Maude and Mr. Greerson were downstairs discussing plans for the weekend. Since Maude had the forethought not to place a phone in his room he had to select another room with a phone. Ezra dialed the number five times before completing the call. Taking a deep breath he waited for an answer on the other end.

"Hello." Ezra couldn’t help but wonder why Chris would sound so tired.

"Hello," the voice repeated with a bit more aggravation in it.

Ezra swallowed and very timidly replied, "Chris."

"Ezra!" The blond fairly hollered. "Are you ok? Has she hurt you? Where are you? Tell me where you are and I’ll come get you."

Chris’ shout had alerted everyone in the household to the caller. All gathered around as Chris plied the missing one with questions. Not being able to take it any longer Josiah yanked the phone from his brother’s hand and took over.

"Ezra." The boy smiled at the sound of Josiah’s voice, always calming and assuring. "We miss you little brother. Just tell me where you are and we’ll come get you." Almost sensing his brother’s hesitancy through the phone line he continued. "Everything is alright, Ez. Whatever is wrong we’ll fix it. Ok?"

Josiah waited for the reply, knowing Ezra was weighing all the possibilities and outcomes. The advantages and disadvantages and problems with all of it. But, Josiah felt confident. Ezra had called and hadn’t hung up yet; there was room for lots of hope.

"I…I’m," At that moment one furious Maude strode into the room.

"What do you think you’re doing in here young man?" Without stopping for breath she yanked the phone out of the small hands, "Whom are you calling?" guessing just whom her son was talking to.

Seeing the anger on his mother’s face his brain worked fast. "I just wanted some Chinese food. I couldn’t find a phone on our floor so I came in here."

Maude hadn’t wasted her time drilling into her son the importance of a good scam. Ezra kept his mask in place and didn’t falter once on the outside but on the inside he was struggling for air.

Maude placed the phone to her ear and demanded to know who she was speaking with.

Josiah had heard the entire conversation and cringed. Ezra would never be able to hold his own with his mother for very long. He was quick enough on his feet Josiah granted, but it wouldn’t last.

When he heard the woman addressing him he replied evenly, "This is The Chinese Kitchen," earning him several odd stares from the ones surrounding him.

"Yes, well cancel the order." Maude ordered harshly and slammed the phone down.

Pointing a finger at her son, "Next time you get one of the servants to order for you."

Receiving a weak "yes ma’am" Maude placed her arm lightly around her son’s shoulders. "Its so good to have you home, darling. I missed you greatly."

The voice popped up and shouted ‘Yeah, she missed your worthiness to her plots.’

Ezra smiled back and returned the endearment, then headed for his room. Hanging his head down he silently acknowledge defeat. There was no going back now.

A little more than a week had passed, Ezra tried to adjust to the new living arrangements and to all around he seemed to be doing just that. On the inside though he was slowly shriveling up. There was no love here, no laughter, no one to joke with, to play pranks with, no Nathan sleeping in the same room. He kept to himself and ate less than usual. It wasn’t like anyone noticed; Maude and the gentleman were out most of the time and the help left him to his own devises. Ezra knew though, that even though they appeared to ignore him Maude had made it quite clear to keep an eye on him and under no circumstances was he to be near a phone. Maude may have bought her son’s lie but she didn’t trust him just yet.

At the end of the third week Ezra was summoned to his mother’s room. Seeing her packing a bag sent the alarm off in his head. Something was amiss and he wasn’t going to like the outcome.

Turning towards her son Maude inwardly sighed. No matter how hard she tried she knew he would never be completely like her, able to swindle and lie to everyone. No, there was a certain spot in him that kept him from taking from certain people. She had feared she had waited to long in getting her son back, she had fled the country after abandoning the boy and waited until she felt it was safe to reenter the country.

Now she could see that living with that family for the past two years and some months had proven her right. That small part that had smoldered under her care had grown and blossomed into a small fire. Well, fires could be extinguished and Maude planned to do just that after she sent for her son in a couple of weeks.

"Ezra darling," Maude walked over to her son and led him to the bed and sat down, pulling Ezra into a firm grasp, "Mr. Greerson and I have had a small misunderstanding. I must go away for a couple of days."

Ezra knew he should feel betrayed, disappointed, or something but all he felt was contempt for himself. He had let his mother fool him into believing she wanted him, loved him. She had conned him into leaving people behind that would never even think about doing what Maude was about to do, take him and leave him with a virtual stranger and not return. There was no doubt in his mind Maude was running out on a scam gone bad he had seen it happen before. Beside, he and the rest of the staff had heard their little disagreement last night. Mr. Greerson wanted to know when a certain stock was going to escalate on the market like Maude had promised, which would make them all very rich.

"Where am I going?" Ezra asked flatly.

"Why, darling," The tall blond woman patted her son’s cheek. "Mr. Greerson has graciously agreed to let you stay here until I return," Maude answered in her best motherly fashion.

Ezra was taken aback and grew immediately suspicious. Why would the man let him stay…unless. The thought hit so hard it knocked the air out of his lungs. Maude was more or less leaving him as collateral. Ezra’s mask held but inside a large piece of him shattered at the revelation. For three weeks he had tried to fool himself that after this small adventure with Mr. Greerson was over Maude would take him and they would go away together and become a family. The other voice came out of hiding and spoke so softly ‘So much for home and happiness’.


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