The Alchemist's Fortune

by Kay

I've been wanting to try writing an E/B fic ever since Lumina helped open my eyes to the wonder of that pairing. I'd sit with my eyes closed and wait for a bunny to leap out at me and give me the chance to write them.

The bunny that ended up making the leap was wearing green tights, had a bow strapped to his back and laughed an awful lot like Errol Flynn. Think of this as a sort of Robin Hood-flavored AU. I'm throwing it out there as an open AU, which feels like an enormous act of hubris, but if this bunny gets anyone else to write more fic, then hey, it's worth it. <g>

Gripping his horse's reins a little more tightly, Lord Richmond tried not to look at the trees that pressed in close to the narrow path he and his men followed. This forest had an ominous reputation and he could understand why. The sunlight barely penetrated the canopy of leaves overhead, leaving them in perpetual shadow as they slowly rode through the trees. Richmond did not like taking this path, but the road that cut through the forest led to the easiest pass through the mountains. For a person wishing to travel from the Perien duchy to the Lanceton duchy on the other side of the mountains, the forest was the best route to take.

Even if it was somewhat off-putting. Richmond dealt with the strange atmosphere by surrounding himself with three guards. Their presence made him feel safer and made the ride through the woods bearable.

One of his men dropped back to ride beside him. "My lord, I can see flames up ahead and I smell smoke. Thomas has ridden on to see what it is."

Richmond nodded and reined in his horse. He was not going to move any further until he knew what was coming. He had never heard reports of bandits operating in the forest but there was always a first time for everything. He had no intention of riding blindly into a trap.

Thomas rode back to join them after a few minutes. "It is just one man, my lord. He seems addled in the head, but he is nothing to concern yourself with."

"You are certain?" Richmond asked.

"Yes, my lord."

Richmond hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Ride on." He sat up straighter in the saddle, not wanting any of them to realize how nervous he had been. He was not a coward. There was just something about these trees... It did not take long to reach the fire and he looked at the man who was sitting near the flames. What kind of a person would linger in this forest any longer than he absolutely had to?

The man by the fire was wearing good, simple clothing. The light from the flames caught elusive auburn highlights in his shoulder length hair and in the short beard and mustache that framed his mouth. The stranger did not look up when Thomas rode past him. Instead, he sat on a stump and stared into the flames, utterly focused on the fire.

Richmond's curiosity was aroused. What on earth could hold his attention so strongly? Giving over to the wonder that filled him, he reined in his mount. "You there. What are you doing?"

The man looked up and Richmond was immediately caught by the green eyes that regarded him with distracted interest. "Forgive me," the man said, voice low and pleasant. "I did not quite hear you. What did you ask?"

"My lord," Thomas said reprovingly.

The man nodded amiably. "What did you ask, my lord?"

"What are you doing?"

"Finding answers to ancient questions," the stranger said with a sudden grin.

Richmond was about to agree with Thomas's assessment of the man as being addled when he caught sight of something sparkling in the seated man's smile. It looked almost like - "Gold?" A tooth made out of gold? How could this man afford such a thing?

"You have good eyes, my lord." The man's grin grew wider, revealing that he did indeed have a gold tooth. He reached into a sack that sat on the ground at his feet beside a pail of water and pulled out a handful of leaves. As he bent forward, Richmond could see he had a small pouch suspended around his neck by a thin leather thong. He threw the leaves onto the fire. Blue smoke rose up from the flames immediately, thick and sweet smelling.

"My God," Richmond said as his horse shied. "You dare to practice magic?"

"No! No, on my soul, I do not." The stranger reached into the fire with a pair of tongs and pulled something from it. "Not magic, my lord. Science." A single bar of gold shone in the tong's grasp as he twisted so it caught the fire's light.

"Alchemy?" Richmond asked.

"You are a wise man, I see." The green-eyed man place the gold in the pail of water where it steamed while it cooled.

Richmond encouraged his horse to go closer to the fire. "You claim that you can make gold?"

"I did not claim anything about making gold, my lord." The stranger grinned again. "I just went ahead and did it." He peered into the pail through the steam that was still just barely rising from the surface of the water.

"Could you do it again?"

"Of course."

"Now?" To be able to create gold!

The stranger shook his head. "I have used up the last of some of the ingredients. It will take a little time and money to get more."

Richmond dropped his voice. "How much time? And how much money?"

Green eyes studied him with genial understanding. "You seem interested, my lord."

"I am."

"Perhaps this is something we should discuss." There was an invitation in his voice.

Richmond looked at Thomas. "Ride ahead and give us some privacy. I shall call you when I need you."

"My lord," Thomas protested.

"Go." Richmond dismounted, keeping the reins gripped in his fist. After his men had left them, he returned to the subject at hand. "What do you need in order to make more?"

"This secret took me years of study to discover. I will not tell you the ingredients."

"I do not care about the ingredients." He cared about the gold. "Again, how much time and how much money?"

"Two weeks, perhaps a few days more."

"And the money?"

"A negligible amount, my lord." He glanced back down at the bucket. "I dare not use this for fear of drawing too much attention to myself."

Richmond grew tired of the man dancing around the subject. He pulled out his money purse and poured the contents out into the palm of his hand. He was carrying quite a bit of money since he had days of travel awaiting him. "How much do you require?"

"Oh, my lord, not nearly so much. You are too generous. Perhaps two gold pieces?"

Two gold pieces? That was more than a small investment. His eyes on the now quiet pail of water, he remembered the gold that had come out of the fire. His gold would return to him, and bring more besides. He kept out the two gold pieces and poured the rest of the money back into his purse. He offered the money to the green-eyed man. "Here."

"My lord, again, you are far too generous. I will not take your money without having anything to give you in return." The stranger held up his hands, refusing the coins. "You are obviously a man of honor. I will borrow the money I need against the expectation of those two coins. I will meet you in this same place..." he let his voice trail off questioningly.

"Six weeks from now." That was when Richmond would return from Lanceton.

"Six weeks from now," the stranger repeated. He rose to his feet, smiling. "Thank you, my lord. This will be profitable venture for both of us." He bent down and picked up the pail and the sack that had lain at his feet. "I will see you here in six weeks." He moved to step onto the path, but the weight of the pail surprised him and he staggered, dropping the sack and almost running into Richmond.

The nobleman backed away, but not before the stranger brushed against him. "Watch yourself!"

"I am so sorry!" The stranger bowed low, gathering up the sack and backing away. "So very sorry, my lord."

Richmond considered calling his men back to teach the man to be more careful around his betters, but decided against it. It would not be worth losing the chance to see him create gold again. "Six weeks," he said.

"Yes, my lord. Thank you, my lord." The man hurried away down the path.

Richmond watched him go for a moment, then remounted his horse and rejoined his men.

"Is all well?" Thomas asked.

"Very well," Richmond said. "Let us continue." In six weeks he would be a richer man. Everything was most definitely very well.


Once the sound of hoof beats died away, Ezra stepped off the path and walked over to the hollowed out tree that served as his hiding place. He placed sack inside, then tipped the pail over and emptied the water out onto the dark soil that covered the ground. He reached inside and pulled out the now cooled lump of metal, then placed the pail in the tree with the sack.

He turned the damp metal over in his hands. "One of my best investments," he murmured to himself. The lump was brass, covered with the thinnest layer of gold, perhaps the same amount found in two gold pieces. It worked every time, and when it was coupled with his gold tooth - his other great investment - it convinced people that he really was pulling solid gold from the fire.

Sliding the metal into a pouch inside his robes, he removed a second item from the same hidden pocket: the nobleman's purse. Fat and heavy, it felt good in his hands. "Fool. There are only three ways for a man to get gold in this world: earn it, extort it, or steal it." Ezra grinned to himself. Stealing it was so much more entertaining than earning it.

The trick was remarkably easy to play. There was something about the forest that made it easy to fool people into believing the most impossible things as they rode through it. Ezra used that to his advantage, playing at alchemy while rich men rode past. The greedy stopped and the foolish were drawn into his weaving of lies. They showed him their wealth and let him get close enough to stumble against them. They were so affronted by his closeness that they never notice when he stole their purses, making their wealth his own.

Deciding to stay off the path, just in case his latest victim noticed his loss, Ezra cut through the trees in order to reach his destination. He knew this forest well, could find paths through the thick trees with little effort and without getting lost. As he walked, he reached out and ran his palms over the rough bark and velvety leaves that he passed. He lived in a town, but there was something about this forest that called to him, making him feel at home while he was hidden in its shade.

An hour's walk brought him out of the forest and to the town he called home. Vierecken wasn't a large town, but as the last outpost of civilization before the forest and the border crossing into Lanceton, it received quite a bit of traffic and more trade than its size warranted.

Ezra walked down the wide main street, then down one of the side alleys until he reached the house where he rented a room. He quickly climbed the back stairs and unlocked the door to his room. He knew the other people in Vierecken thought he was strange for insisting on that security in a town where everyone knew one another, but then, he was a thief. How many others might be lurking in the small town?

His room was small; there was not room in it for much more than his bed, a chest, and a large trunk. He immediately dropped to his knees in front of the trunk and opened it. He smiled to himself as he reached up for the lid. He had encountered trunks with false bottoms many times, but this was the only one with a secret compartment in the lid that he had ever come across. He applied pressure to the three necessary points and the lid came loose in his hands. He put it down to the side and opened up the purse he had stolen that afternoon. He pulled out a handful of copper coins, then added the purse to the collection of money hidden there. He pushed the lid back into place, hiding everything away all over again.

He started to close the lid of the trunk, then paused, his gaze resting on the objects that filled the bottom of the trunk. Books and rolled maps filled the bottom of it, all organized and stored with care. He reached in and pulled out one of the maps, pulling the ribbon off of it and unrolling it across his lap. He looked down at the continents and oceans inked on the parchment, fingertip hovering just over the surface. He did not want to damage it so he did not dare to touch.

Someday he was going to take his ill-gotten gains and leave Vierecken. He would make his way to the sea and then buy a portion of the speculative capital in a cargo vessel. He closed his eyes, imagining what it would be like to be aboard the ship. He would have to work on board, of that he had no doubt, but he would have salt breezes running over his skin and the sun on his back while the ship took him to far off places who's names he had only heard from his own lips as he read books and maps to himself. He had dreamed of joining such a ship since he was a small boy and any amount of work would be worth that.

He opened his eyes and rolled up the map with gentle fingers. He put it away, then closed and locked the trunk, his fingers trailing over the lid. The dream of escape and adventure was still strong in his heart, revealing enticing images every time he closed his eyes. The hope of finding a ship and buying a portion on it haunted his dreams at night and drove him to take the chances that he did, fooling the rich and unwary out of their own ill-gotten gains for his own profit.

Well, mostly for his own profit. He looked down at the pile of copper on the floor and scooped it into his own purse. Ezra told himself that copper was too bulky and awkward and there was no use in saving it when he was also bringing in silver and gold. It was a clumsy explanation and he didn't really believe it, but he would pretend to.

He had never been good at lying to himself, he acknowledged with a rueful grin. He stood up and left his room, locking the door once more and walking back to the main street, the grin still on his face as he looked over the old stone buildings, small and poor even in the bright light of the sun. His mother would no doubt hate Vierecken. If she had lived to see him living here, she would have given him absolute hell before forcibly dragging him out of town. He was certain that she would have also been scandalized by his dreams of become a merchant aboard a ship, but even that would be better than lingering in a quiet border town.

Sometimes Ezra could not quite believe that he was still in town. He had ridden through two years ago and had stayed after his horse had thrown a shoe. He did not have any money to pay for lodging, but he had remembered the stories about the forest that lay just beyond the town's edge and had managed to quickly swindle a few travelers out of the money he needed. He had been ready to move on when the shoe had been replaced and his lodging paid, but instead he had stayed.

The sound of a hammer ringing against an anvil carried to his ears and Ezra forced the smile from his lips, afraid it would turn wistful and give his hidden heart away. It was the ring of the hammer that had led him to stop in Vierecken, the ring of the hammer that had drawn him to the blacksmith forge in search of help.

It was the ring of the hammer that had led him to the blacksmith and lost his heart for him.

Ezra slowed down as he walked to the smithy: it would do him no good to appear too eager. He let the sound of men working hard draw him closer as he moved at a stately pace down the street. His heart was leaping inside of his chest but he did not let any sign of it show on his face.

He felt the heat of the forge hit him before he even reached the door. "Hello?" he called.

The hammers stopped ringing and when he walked inside, Buck was looking toward the door, an anticipatory smile on his face. "Ezra!"

"Good afternoon," Ezra said. "You are looking well." He glanced at Buck's apprentice. "John."

"Hey, Ezra!" John pushed his hair back out of his face with his forearm. "How are you?"

"I am well, thank you. Yourself?"

"Besides being worked to death?" John laughed when Buck scowled at him.

Buck shook his head. "You are still too soft, boy."

Ezra let laughter escape him. Neither of them was at all soft. Although he was still relatively new to the forge, John's arms were beginning to show the powerful muscles so characteristic to blacksmiths. His long dark hair was tied back, but tendrils still came loose and fell into his dark eyes. Despite the heat of the smithy and the hard work he was doing, the grin never quite left his eyes and almost never left his lips. He was open and pleasant, just like his clean-shaven face, and according to Buck he learned quickly. Ezra enjoyed his company, liked listening to him talk and share his pleasure in the world around him.

Of their own volition, his eyes turned to Buck. His hair was not quite so dark as John's and it was shorter. The dark mustache that graced his upper lip did nothing to hide the smile on his lips that echoed the warmth in his eyes. He had the body of a blacksmith, heavy with muscle on an impressively tall frame.

Ezra forced his gaze back to glowing coals in the forge. He could not let himself look too long out of fear that his feelings might show and all his secrets would be given away. He'd been struck by Buck's handsome features the first time he saw him. It was his spirit that made Ezra choose to stay in Vierecken, though. The man had a heart as large as the sky and a laughing spirit to match. He could laugh at himself and the people around him and he had no hesitation to share his good humor. It made him a popular man and Ezra had not been able to resist his charisma.

He had been immediately attracted and a few days in Buck's company convinced him to linger in town. After a few weeks had passed he had found himself more than attracted: he had fallen in love. He kept all of that hidden, though. He had been gifted with Buck's friendship and there was no way he was going to jeopardize that privilege. He visited the forge and met Buck for meals and watched as the taller man gave his love to the young women in the town.

He was not ashamed of how he felt. He had known himself to be different as long as desire had stirred in his veins, known it when he had first learned that there was pleasure to be found in his body and those of others. The sight of a woman's bared arm or the slope of a man's back both could heat his blood and he accepted this part of his nature. He understood the world in which he lived well enough to keep it hidden.

Sometimes he ached with the pressure of secrets concealed. Buck was so generous with his affection and love when he was around women, but all he ever gave Ezra was friendship and he burned for so much more...but he had known that nothing would come of his love in the same moment that he had recognized its existence. He had the choice every day to ride on and seek the sea, to leave behind the loneliness and hopelessness and marginalized life he led here.

"Ezra?" Buck's voice broke into his thoughts. "Are you all right?" Concern touched his eyes.

"Fine," Ezra said reassuringly. "I had some good luck today and I came to share it with you." He hefted the purse full of coppers in his hands. "A nobleman wanted to spread some of his generosity here and charged me with the dispersal."

Buck grinned at him. "You mean you talked to him and fooled him into thinking that you were somehow in charge of this town, so he gave you money, but you do not know what to do with it."

The warmth of his smile washed over Ezra, reminding him why he stayed. "Something like that," he agreed. He tossed the bag into a counter. Buck had appointed himself unofficial protector of the people of Vierecken. His size and strength no doubt had something to do with it, but he also sincerely cared about the people in town. Ezra knew that the coppers would be dispersed to the people who needed them most. He liked being able to help, but he admitted to himself that he gave the coins to Buck because he knew how much pleasure it would bring the blacksmith to be able to help his neighbors. He would do almost anything to see Buck smile.

Glancing over his shoulder, Ezra took a look at the sky. It was almost time for noon meal. Perhaps he could persuade Buck and John to join him and steal a few more moments in his secret love's company.

Buck looked at the small purse lying in the corner, then transferred his attention to John. The younger man was watching him with undisguised hope.

"Lunch?" John asked.

Buck glanced at Ezra. "Lunch?"

"Lunch," Ezra agreed. He reached up to touch his forehead, grimacing a little when his fingertips came away damp. "I'll await you outside." He turned and left the inside of the smithy.

Buck watched him go, shaking his head a little as he did. Ezra was a good friend, one of Buck's best. It was strange that they had come to be as close as they were. Ezra was...different. He did not work with his hands - Buck knew that much, even if his friend refused to go into detail about how he made his money. He feared that it might be something illegal, but he could nott really make himself care. No one in Vierecken ever complained about Ezra taking anything from them so Buck figured it was none of his business. Add in the fact that Ezra sometimes managed to talk rich men into donating some of their money to the needy people here, and Buck was grateful for his presence in town.

He understood the need to keep secrets. Buck really was not one for talking too much about the past, himself, so he could respect the silences that fell in between the other man's long stories. Sometimes he wished he knew more, though. Ezra did not belong in a small town like this, not with his fancy manners and talk of far away places. Buck wanted to know what brought him to Vierecken and why he stayed, but he did not want to pry and so he bit back his questions and enjoyed Ezra's company while he could. He knew that some day Ezra would be moving on. He would leave Buck behind and take his smile and too handsome face and the thoughts Buck didn't understand so he ignored with him. Buck just hoped that time was far away in the future.

Shaking himself out of his reverie, Buck began work on damping the coals. "If you want to eat, you will have to work," he told John.

His apprentice leapt to work, moving quickly to finish all the tasks necessary for them to leave for a little while.

Buck watched him with a grin. He had forgotten what it was like to be young and growing and working hard. John acted like he was hungry all the time, and he probably was. He kept moving quickly until they were finished and forge could be left for a while. He could not starve his apprentice, who was also his friend.

They walked down the street together, easy in each other's company thanks to the understanding that came from working so closely together. It helped that he liked John, enjoyed his enthusiasm and wonder at everything he was learning to do.

Buck scanned the street until he found Ezra. He was easy to find, light hair shining a bit in the sun as he talked idly with the proprietor of tavern. Buck raised his hand in greeting and was rewarded with a brilliant smile. Gold flashed in the sunlight and Buck found himself laughing a bit. He had thought Ezra was mad when the man had come to him, asking him to create a gold tooth, but damn if it did not look somehow right on him. Only Ezra could pull something like that off without looking like a fool. With all that hair and his beard, the gold tooth made Ezra look a little like a pirate or a bandit.

As they came up even with Ezra, Buck nodded to him and the tavern keeper. "Good day, Aaron. Is Ezra telling you about how he is going to buy us lunch?"

"He might have mentioned something like that," Aaron said, smiling.

"I most certainly did not," Ezra objected, but he still followed them into the tavern and joined them at their usual table. Aaron disappeared into the back to fetch their meals.

"What have you been doing today?" John asked, looking at Ezra.

"I went for a walk in the woods."

"That is all?"

"I find the woods inspiring." There was a strange smile on Ezra's face as he said that, secretive and pleased.

Buck knew there was more to the story than that. Perhaps Ezra was some kind of poet? The man did have a gift for words. But then why would he be so secretive about it?

Before he could pursue John's question, one of Aaron's sons ran into the tavern. "Father!" he shouted. "Father, a messenger!"

Aaron appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, carrying plates in his arms as he made his way over to the table. "A messenger?"

"Yes," the boy said, nodding so hard his hair bounced. "A messenger from the Duke."

All of them stopped moving.

"The Duke?" Ezra asked quietly.

"From the castle!" The boy drew in a deep breath and continued speaking. "He came to announce that there will be a tourney held here in two months time. A real tourney, right here in Vierecken!"

Buck leaned back in his chair. A tourney here? On the very edges of the duke's domain? It did not make any sense, but he had long given up on understanding how the minds of the nobility worked.

" I have never seen a real tourney," John said. "Will it be like in the tales, with knights and ladies and lots of fighting?"

Buck shook his head. "I have never been to one, either. Ezra, have you?"

"There will be many people," Ezra said. His voice was soft and he stared down at his hands, long hair falling forward to hide his eyes. "No one really grand. The high lords and ladies will not disrupt their lives to come so far to attend one here. The streets will be crowded with people looking to make money or take money, shouting and laughing and celebrating in this town that they will leave behind without a second glance."

"Oh. That does not sound at all like the stories."

Ezra looked up. There was a faraway expression in his eyes that faded as he focused on John's unhappiness. "I am sorry," he said, gaze becoming clear. "I was a little lost in my own thoughts. There will be knights and ladies here, John, sweeping down our little main street just like it was a grand avenue in a city. They will not be covered in jewels, but the ladies will be dressed beautifully, more elegantly than anyone you have ever seen. When they talk to each other, they will use courtly manners unknown to this town. There will be many matches, on horseback and on the ground and men will fight until one is declared champion. You will see them use swords and lances, maces and perhaps even staffs or bows, depending on how many arrive to compete. Merchants will be following the tourney as it moves so you will see new goods and trinkets and food unlike those you know. They will line the streets and the area surrounding the tourney grounds, shouting at passersby to come and see their wares. There will be a hundred things to see and a thousand things to hear and if you are quick and lively, you will not miss a moment of it." He raised his eyebrows and smiled. "Vierecken is about to get very crowded."

"Really?" The enthusiasm was back in John's voice.

"Really." Ezra looked over at Buck and they shared an indulgent look, enjoying the other man's enthusiasm. "It will bring many people in town, most of whom will have money to spend."

Buck's worry over Ezra's strange reaction retreated. "Money?"

"A new trinket, an interesting item...tourney days are holidays and people like to spend money on holidays."

Buck sat up straighter. "You could be on to something there." He had been a soldier before becoming a blacksmith, full of his strength and power and the fierce joy that could only be found in testing himself against death and coming out the victor by virtue of being alive at the end of the day. Young and foolish, but he had learned that he was not beating death, he was serving it and he had left that life behind. He had always liked the area around Vierecken; the forest did not bother him and the people were welcoming toward strangers, willing to let them make a new home among them.

He did not miss the blood and the pain - he had never been that foolish. He missed the camaraderie sometimes, the connection that grew between men who fought and killed and died for each other. He also missed the money. Soldiering paid more than blacksmithing, especially in a town as small as this one. He missed ready funds at his fingertips, missed having the freedom to buy what he wanted and give what he wished. There were no opportunities to take on large jobs here. Perhaps he could make up for some of this by bringing in money from strangers who came to town to watch the tourney. "Horses will need shoes," he murmured, speaking his thoughts aloud.

"Most definitely," Ezra agreed. "After such a long journey to come here, they will no doubt seek you out first thing."

"Might be a knight with armor in need of repair," Buck continued.

"Could you do that?" John asked.

"I could figure something out." He had not had much contact with armor, but some of the mercenaries he had fought beside liked it and he had learned his way around it. He glanced at John and took in the questions in his eyes. He had not told John much about his past, not wanting the younger man to believe that fighting was too glamorous to resist. He realized he might have to change that policy now.

"There are other possibilities as well," Ezra said.

"Like what?"

"A year ago, you and John crafted a gift for the lady minstrel who was passing through town."

"That flower?" It had been a bit of a joke, a bit of a challenge for himself. He had wanted to impress her and he had done so by creating a small flower out of the scrap metal he had lying around the smithy. It had taken concentration and a little extra time to get all the details right, but the minstrel had been most impressed by the tiny gift when he had given it to her...impressed and appreciative. "How did you know about it?"

Ezra glanced down at his plate for a moment. "I saw you working on it. She liked it, did she not?"

"Yes. She said something about carrying it always." Not that he had believed she would. They had shared a couple of nights together, not a grand passion. "You think other people would really like it?"

Ezra had to muffle a brief coughing fit behind one hand before he could answer. "I think it would be an interesting trinket, a unique remembrance. Many people would be interested in buy them, I think."

Feeling a sudden surge of hope for the future, Buck began eating. "John, you can have the rest of the day to yourself."

"Really?" The young man shot him a suspicious look. "Why?"

"I am going to need this afternoon to plan. If you come up with any ideas about things we can sell, share with me."

"I will."

"Ezra, if you keep coming up with ideas -"

"I will share them with you."

Buck began to eat, feeling very pleased with the way the day had gone. This tourney could be the very thing he and Vierecken needed. An influx of visitors would give the people who lived here a chance to make money that was badly needed. He had been trying to think of a way to earn more money that wouldn't involve leaving town and this could be perfect.

Maybe a few new ladies would be coming to town...ladies who were willing to be less than lady-like. Lately, Buck had found himself losing interest in the women in town. There were not very many women here who were available as companions for a single man who had no interest in marriage. He was acquainted with all of them, was friends and sometimes more with them, but not recently. For the past few months, he just had not been drawn to any of them. He was not sure what it was. He just felt as though they were not...right, anymore. Perhaps a new face would reawaken his interest. This just was not like him.

Lost in his thoughts, Buck barely noticed when Ezra finished eating and left the table. Trying to think of goods to sell and doing his best to figure out what was wrong with his flagging interest in the fairer sex, he did not see John get up a few moments later and follow after the green-eyed man.

Ezra had crossed half the distance to his room before he realized that John was following him. "Is there something you need?" he asked. He had been hoping to go to his room and spend some time in quiet contemplation, gathering his thoughts in private. This tourney would bring excitement and opportunity to Vierecken, but it would almost certainly bring trouble as well. Ezra needed to consider the possible ramifications and decide how he was going to compensate and react.

"No," John said, falling into step with him. "I just wanted to talk to you a little."

"You could have done that in the tavern."

"No," John disagreed. "Not in the tavern. Not on the street either."

Ezra shot him a sharp glance. What on earth could John wish to talk about that required such privacy? "My room?"

"Would that be all right?"

For a moment, Ezra was tempted to refuse. He could; John was not so sure of himself that he would persist in the face of Ezra's strong disinterest. He glanced over at his friend's earnest expression and sighed. "That would be fine." How could he refuse to be an ear if John needed one? The other man was young, but he was also a good friend. Ezra led the way to his room, waiting for John to join him inside his room before spreading his hands and waiting for the other man to talk. "Yes?" He waited for John to ask him more questions about the upcoming tourney.

"You are never going to be able to make enough money to leave Vierecken if you keep giving it to Buck."

That was unexpected. "I beg your pardon?"

"There was no noblemen giving you money for the poor, was there? Those coppers you gave Buck came from you."

"John, I do assure you that money came directly from a nobleman."

The younger man did not really look as though he believed him. "You do not talk about leaving much anymore. You have hardly mentioned it even as a joke for the past few months." He tilted his head to the side. "Do you really still want to leave Vierecken?"

Where was this coming from? Ezra wanted to leave...but he wanted to leave Buck even less and so he was still in town, caught in limbo by his inability to give up on love.

Sudden fear coursed through him. If John had seen through his faade of looking for a chance to leave, what else had he seen? "John..."

"You did not see me and Buck working on the flower. I hated working on it - an entire day spent just being careful and watching the coals and listening to Buck gloat...I was desperate for a distraction. If you had been watching us, I would have remembered because I would have used you to get out of the work. Well, I would have tried, anyway. You were not there. So how did you know about the flower?"

Ezra was not sure how he managed to keep his feet. His knees were weak and he was tempted to collapse onto his simple bed and let the shock course through him. John knew too much. This line of questioning was dangerous. What if John was leading him toward a confession that could get him thrown out of town? That could lose him Buck's friendship, the most precious thing he had in this life. "John, do you know what you are doing?"

"I am upsetting you," John said. "I am sorry. I did not want to do that." He took a hesitant step toward Ezra and touched his shoulder. "I just wanted to let you know that..." he shook his head, a helpless expression on his face. "I do not know. That I am glad you are here, that I am grateful that you have stayed."

"I do not understand," Ezra admitted, too frightened to say anything else.

"But I do," John said, sympathy clear on his face. "And I think it is all going to be fine in the end. You will see."

He could not be saying what Ezra was thinking. It was madness. If John knew about his feelings for Buck, he would not be expressing support, no matter how inarticulately. Would he? "I believe I am even more confused now."

"I sometimes do that that to people." John patted his shoulder. "Buck says he thinks my mouth moves faster than my mind."

"But not your heart?" Ezra ventured. He would prefer to pretend this conversation never happened, but he had to be sure of what John was hinting.

"Sometimes my heart," John admitted. "But not yours. I do not think your heart or your mind ever get a chance at controlling your mouth. Maybe that is for the best, though." He took a step toward the door. "It really is not my concern. I just wanted to let you know that I hope everything works out for you."

"Works out for me," Ezra echoed.

"For you and Buck. Maybe the tourney will help."

"Me and Buck?" Ezra felt his stomach twist and turn to ice. "John, I do not know what you think you are talking about-"

"No, I know. It is not my concern, but you are my friend and I would like you to be happy. I think you and Buck could be happy." With a nervous smile, John was gone.

Ezra gave in to weakness and sank down onto his bed. John knew. It did not matter how much he had skirted around actually coming out saying the words: he knew that Ezra had feelings for Buck. There was no other explanation that made sense of his cryptic words.

Closing his eyes, Ezra sank back on the bed and groaned. At least John seemed fairly accepting of the situation: supportive, even. It was strange; beyond anything Ezra would have dared to dream. Of course, John was not the one that he wanted to accept him...Ezra determinedly turned his thoughts away from might have beens and wishes. Those types of thoughts would get him nowhere. He had a mystery to solve.

How had John figured it out? How had he learned of Ezra's feelings? He had been so careful, so certain that he had been discreet.

Perhaps it was the flower that had given him away. John was right. He had not seen the two men working on its creation. He had learned of its existence when he had seen Buck give it to the female minstrel in the tavern's common room. The firelight had shone on its surface and Ezra had not been able to look away from its alluring curves and shine...until he had looked at Buck. He had seen the pride on Buck's face and the care in his hands as he gave it to her and had known right away that the flower was the product of Buck's labor and creativity.

He had wanted it. His fingers had itched to pass by their table and take it, make it is own. He could pretend that it had been meant for him from the start, a gift from a man who returned his love and desire. He had least until the next morning and the woman was ready to continue on her journey.

Ezra had waited for her in the forest. She had been startled when she encountered him among the trees, but he had soon been able to put her at ease with a genial line of chatter. They had walked down the path together for a few minutes. After a little while, she relaxed enough to start idly shifting a shiny object from hand to the other.

It was the flower.

Ezra had commented on the trinket and she had shown it to him, displaying it and inviting his admiration. He had admired it...then he had offered to buy it. At first she had refused, but he had persisted and eventually she had named a price that he was more than happy to meet.

Of their own volition, his fingers crept to the small pouch that hung from the thong around his neck. They quickly undid the knot and opened the pouch, dipping in and pulling out the small flower. He did not need to open his eyes; he had played with the trinket often enough that he had its every curve memorized. If only Buck had truly made it for him. If only....

With a tired sigh, Ezra put the flower back inside its pouch and tied the knot around it once more. If onlys could not solve any of his problems. He needed to get up and moving if he was going to take control of the situation.

The privacy of his room was usually conducive to concentration, but in the mood he was caught in, he would do nothing but brood. He had to get out and moving and assess the situation without letting his heart take over.

Walking out the door, he made his way down to the street. He considered heading out into the woods. The quiet of the forest was soothing. It would calm him if nothing else. It was often his refuge when he was in a mood like this one and he hoped it would help him once again.


The sound of his name being called distracted him and he turned from his path. It only took a moment to find the man who had hailed him. "Vincent," he said, crossing the street to greet him. "When did you arrive in town?"

Vincent smiled at him, blue eyes crinkling at the corners. "Just a few minutes ago. I was on my way to the tavern to break my fast. Would you join me?"

"For a drink, certainly." Ezra walked with him back to the tavern, eyeing the other man as they went. Vincent had not been in Vierecken for months, but he had not changed. Perhaps his brown hair was a little longer, his frame a little leaner, but he still looked much the same. "You have been gone for some time."

"Were you worried?"

"I would not say worried. Concerned, perhaps." Although worried would be accurate as well. Vincent had been a reeve in a nearby parish until his fellows had framed him for their own misdeeds, escaping punishment by making him seem guilty. Vincent had fled, choosing to become a fugitive rather than be hung for crimes not his own. He stayed close to his old parish, though, hoping to find evidence to clear his name and bring down those who had harried him from his home. He had found a bit of a refuge in Vierecken, becoming friends with first Ezra, then Buck and John. It had taken a while for him to feel comfortable enough to relate his story, but he eventually shared his history with Ezra, Buck and John. Ezra had decided to try to make Vierecken a sanctuary for him. After all, he himself had found a sort of peace here; who was he to deny it to someone else?

Aaron nodded to them as they came in. "Hungry again, Ezra?"

"I work so hard," Ezra said piously, sitting at a table across from Vincent. "I build up quite an appetite." He smiled as Vincent and Aaron both laughed. When Aaron disappeared in the back to fetch Vincent's meal, Ezra lowered his voice. "Did you have any success?"

Vincent shook his head. "None. They were watching for me this time. I spent most of my time hiding. I learned nothing."

"You will find the truth," Ezra said.

"I begin to doubt it," Vincent confessed.

"Do not." Ezra saw Aaron returning and shifted topics, not wanting to expose Vincent's secret to anyone else. "There has been news here."


"A tourney has been announced."

"All the way out here?" Vincent raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps with the border so near the hope is to attract people from Lanceton?"

"That could well be it. Will you stay for it?"

"Why not? I have to stay away from my parish for a while. This could be interesting."

"Excellent." Not only would Vincent be safer in Vierecken, but also his presence would give Ezra an excuse to spend less time with Buck without having his withdrawal being noticed. This situation would work out for everyone.

Talking idly while Vincent ate, Ezra let his thoughts wander just a bit. Vincent appreciated silence, so he was not under any pressure to fill the gaps with conversation.

Would the duke come to the tourney? It was unlikely that Lord Perien would journey so far to the outskirts of his realm, but then, it was also just as unlikely that a tourney would be held here, so Ezra could not discount the possibility.

He fought down feelings of possessiveness. Vierecken was not his town. He had no hold on the town or its people, but at the same time he felt more at home here than he had in any of the many others through which he passed. It was not all due to Buck's presence. He rather thought it was because this town had been forgotten by its lord. Tax collectors rarely passed through and Ezra had never seen soldiers or other officials. Vierecken was a community contained soley within itself, a place where strangers were a major source of excitement and a topic of conversation for days. Not even the traffic of people traveling to and from Lanceton changed that. This was a small town, a private place.

Nodding to himself, Ezra decided that was probably why he had been able to settle so easily here. This town had been forgotten by the duke, just like Ezra himself had been. If only the absent lord could allow them both to remain forgotten.

The tourney could ruin everything.

Stretching carefully, Buck tried to work out the kinks in his back, easing the protests of abused muscles. He had spent the past couple of hours rummaging around in the smithy, examining the scrap material he had and deciding how many trinkets he would be able to make. Ezra's idea had been a good one. He thought people might buy a little flower or even a sword or shield as a souvenir of the tourney and their visit to Vierecken. He thought he had enough scrap to begin working on making the trinkets. Since he had two months he believed that he would be able to produce enough to turn a tidy profit when people began to filter into town for the tourney.

Feeling rather pleased with himself, he left the forge and stepped out into the street. It was not fully dark yet; he had time to visit the tavern and indulge in a drink before he would need to seek his own bed. Good mood growing, he started walking down the dark street, feeling very much like the master of the world.

That all disappeared when the blade of sword nicked his throat. He froze immediately, stopping all movement as he pulled his thoughts in order so he could assess the situation.

"You have gotten careless," judged a quiet voice. "Soft."

Careless, perhaps. But soft? Buck could not allow himself to be called that. Besides, he was fairly certain that he recognized the voice. He lunged backwards, moving his throat out of danger and then he twisted to the side, slamming his attacker into the wall. "Soft?" he asked, pressing his forearm into the throat of the man in front of him, pinning him in place. "Soft?" he repeated.

Chris bared his teeth in his version of a smile. "Perhaps that is not the right word," he choked out.

"Damn right it is not. I have not gotten soft. You have gotten arrogant." Buck let him go and stepped back, watching the other man rub at his throat. "What are you doing in town?"

"My last contract ran out. I am still recovering from our last skirmish." Chris rotated his left shoulder carefully, wincing a bit as he did. "I decided not to renew and take a few months off to finish healing. I remembered that you were holed up here in a little town where there is nothing to but heal."

"Sometimes we get excitement," Buck said defensively.

"Try to convince me on the way to the tavern?"

Buck started walking, leading Chris as he continued to speak. "In a couple of months, we are going to have a tourney here."

"A tourney? In the middle of nowhere?"

"The town is called Vierecken," Buck said with narrowed eyes.

"Pretty fancy name for nowhere," Chris said, stepping past Buck to open the door to the tavern. He squinted in the sudden light, blinking rapidly to get his eyes used to the interior. His pale eyes were the same, his features still sharp and thin. There were more lines at his eyes and near his mouth, but he still moved with the deadly grace and power of a man who fought for a living.

Buck had fought beside him for years, serving in the same mercenary company and shedding blood in the same fields and towns. Chris was hard and driven and had become more so after his wife and child died in a house fire while he was on campaign. Buck had stayed beside him as long as he could, watching his friend carefully as fury threatened to consume him. Finally, the demons of grief receded and Buck was able to walk away from the fighting knowing that Chris would be all right without him. He had not been able to persuade Chris to leave the life behind, but he had at least known that Chris was able to think and reason once more.

Inside the tavern, Buck led the way over to the long table he preferred. He raised his hand in greeting to the townspeople he passed, but did not stop to talk. He wanted to focus on Chris. If his friend had decided to forgo renewing his contract and was looking for a quiet place, he must still have been hurting quite a bit. If he was seeking a place to rest, then Buck wanted Vierecken to be it. He had missed his friend. He also had vague hopes that he would be able to persuade Chris to think about staying. He was getting older and fighting would surely end his life soon. War was a fool's game, and Chris had long outgrown the age of foolishness.

After ordering ale, Buck quickly told Chris what he knew of the tourney. "This is my chance to build my wealth without having to leave town."

"What is wrong with leaving town?"

"I want to stay," Buck said firmly. "I would appreciate it if you would stay for a little while. I could use some help." He told Chris about the trinkets he wanted to make.

"I am no blacksmith," Chris said. "No metal worker." He touched his sword hilt. "This is all I know."

"I could use another pair of eyes to watch my goods when I am selling them."

"That will be months from now."

"You are looking for a place to heal, aren't you?" Buck leaned back in his chair. "I am sure I can find ways for you to be useful in the meantime."

Chris sipped his ale and looked around the quiet tavern. Men talked and laughed with each other. There were no arguments, no fighting. "If you need me..."

"I would appreciate the help."

"Then I will stay."

Buck grinned, not bothering to conceal his pleasure. It had been too long since he had last seen Chris. Two months would give them time to get caught up and allow Chris enough time to heal. It would also give him a real chance to convince Chris to leave the life of a mercenary behind.

The sound of the door opening drew his attention and he looked up to see JD, Ezra, and Vincent walk into the room. He raised a hand in greeting and the three men walked over to join them. "Vincent, when did you get into town?" He had not seen the former reeve in a long time, and had been beginning to worry about him. What if he had been caught in his former jurisdiction?

"Earlier today," Vincent said. He hesitated near a chair, looking at Chris.

Buck hurried with introductions. "Chris, this is Ezra, Vincent, and John. John is my apprentice. This is Chris. We served together when we were both young and foolish."

"And now that you are old and foolish?" Ezra asked.

"Chris is going to be in town for a little while. He is staying to see the tourney."

"So is Vin," John said with a grin as he sat down.

"Ezra talked me into it," Vincent said.

"I did not have to try very hard," Ezra said.

"I have not seen one in a long time." Vincent grinned at Ezra.

The five men sat around the table and talked for a bit. Chris and Vincent felt each other out a bit and seemed to enjoy each other's company. Most of the conversation focused on speculating about the upcoming tourney. John again began to ask about the lords and ladies that might come. Chris had some experience with seeing members of the nobility, so he described them as best he could for the younger man.

Ezra pushed his chair back from the table. "I must take my leave of you. I find myself uncommonly tired."

"You sure, Ezra?" Buck was disappointed. He would have preferred for Ezra to stay longer. He was sure that he knew a few good stories about lords and ladies, and John was not the only one who would like to hear them.

"I am." Ezra rose to his feet and nodded toward them. "Have a good night."

The seated men wished him a good night and then Ezra was gone.

"He is a good man," Vincent said, watching him go.

"He is," John agreed. He looked at Buck. "I think he is lonely, sometimes."

"That is a shame," Vincent said before Buck could make a comment. "He is good company." He looked at John and met his gaze. After a moment, he nodded and smiled just a bit. John returned the smile with a small one of his own.

Buck was not sure what was happening here, although he was certain that he had missed something. He found himself suddenly irritated by Vincent's interest in Ezra, even jealous. He supposed he did not like the thought of anyone taking up his friend's time, but he was certain that was true. He settled for knowing that the blue-eyed man was paying too much attention to Ezra and not liking that at all.

He decided to keep an eye on Vincent while he was in town. "Vincent, since you will be in town, you should make yourself useful."

"I am guessing you mean useful to you," Vincent said, that small smile still on his lips.

"Yes," Buck agreed without any embarrassment. "What else are you going to do?"

Vincent hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. "Why not?"

Buck nodded and immediately began drafting Vincent into the plans he and Chris had begun to lay out.

Ezra ducked around the side of an outlying building, hiding himself from the eyes of anyone who might be looking for him. He then walked quickly into the cover of the trees, losing himself in the forest. The cool shade welcomed him and he felt its serenity slowly seep into him. He kept moving, walking further into the forest until he could no longer hear any sounds from Vierecken. Surrounded by silence, he made his way to one of the older trees. Pausing to pat the weathered bark fondly, he looked the tree over before pulling himself up into its branches.

He doubted very much that any of the men in town would believe their eyes if they saw him climbing a tree. It was an activity his mother had tried very hard to train and discipline out of him since he was a small boy. She had failed; no amount of confinement in his room or even straps with a belt ever made him give up this activity. There was something about being able to leave the earth behind and hide himself in soft breezes and gently swaying branches that he was entirely unable to resist. As a child he had often pretended the trees he climbed were masts of great ships; as an adult, he occasionally closed his eyes and imagined the same thing.

He climbed up higher until he reached his favorite perch in this tree, a perfectly sloped branched that cradled his body as he reclined amidst the leaves. Safe in his most secret hiding place, Ezra set himself to the task he'd been avoiding for the past two weeks: thinking seriously about the upcoming tourney.

Buck had already gone far past the planning stage: he had designed trinkets and mementos that he would sell to the expected crowds in addition to hopefully drumming up more traditional work from the visitors to Vierecken. Christopher and Vincent had been drafted into helping him, charged with making sure the fire in the forge was going strong and fetching supplies for John and Buck. Buck and his apprentice had already produced several flowers and a couple miniature sword and shield sets. They were not the small delicate decorations that a jeweler might produce, but Ezra believed those who followed the tourney would still appreciate them. Christopher and Vincent had also begun talking about building a stall or a stand from which Buck could sell his wares. All four men were working well together and had made good progress in getting ready for the tourney.

Ezra needed to follow their example. He had spent the past two weeks occasionally helping out at the smithy, but his heart had not been in it. He had been trying to avoid thinking too hard about how the tourney could affect him and the time had come to change that. He was too old to think that ignoring a problem would make it go away.

The tourney coming to town meant that people who had passed through Vierecken in the past could be returning in order to enjoy the festivities. There was a chance that some of those people returning would be people whose purses Ezra had stolen. Oh, there was no proof that it was he who had done so, but he was the natural one for them to suspect: they had shown him their money and while they were distracted he had taken it. If they recognized him he could find himself in quite a lot of trouble.

There was no help for it; he was going to have to alter his appearance. He usually avoided newcomers to Vierecken. The richer they looked, the more he hid from them. That had saved him from running into any of his former victims in the past, but he doubted it would save him this time.

There were risks in what he was going to do, of course. He had grown out his hair and worn a beard in order to hide his face from someone else. Hopefully, the years that had passed had changed him enough so that baring his face to the sun again would not draw any unwanted attention. It was a risk, but his life had always been about taking calculated risks and he did not think that was going to change any time soon.

Ezra was not going to try to make any money during the tourney. He would leave that Buck. After it was all over he might try to fool a few of the stragglers out of their last few coins on their way out of town, but he would not do anything while so many people were in town. He had never learned to make money legally and it was a little late for him to try to start now. He would settle for taking what he could get when it was safer. There would be too many eyes in town during the tourney, too many guards and men wise to the tricks of the world who could recognize him for what he was.

If Lord Perien came to the tourney, there might even be eyes there that would know who he was...

He shook his head. He was not going to worry about that. There was almost no chance that the duke would come to Vierecken and even less that he would bring a sizable retinue with him. Ezra was not going to make himself crazy with fear over something that probably would not happen and he could not control anyway.

Ezra would focus on helping Buck and the others during the tourney. That way, the only thing he had to worry about was being too close to Buck. He had not been hiding his feelings very well before; after all, John had noticed how he felt. Vincent was far from unobservant and from what he had seen, Chris was a man who noticed things as well. Ezra did not want to lose Buck's friendship over his damned foolish heart's refusal to listen to reason. He believed that he would be able to keep his emotions hidden far more effectively if he just focused on monitoring his own behavior.

He had to.

Decisions made, he climbed down the trunk of the tree, landing easily on his feet and making his way back to the path that led back to town. He paused before stepping onto it and leaving the cover of the trees, his ears catching a sound foreign to the forest: hoof beats. A couple of horses were walking down the path. Ezra decided to stay hidden for the time being, waiting to see who was coming before revealing himself.

It did not take long for the horses and their riders to come into view. One of the horses was massive, but that made since: the man who was riding it was a rival for Buck in size. His hair and beard were gray, but his eyes were full of energy and he moved easily in the saddle. The man riding beside him was a startling sight when taken in for the first time: his skin was dark, darker than any other man's in Vierecken or the whole of the duchy. His dark hair was cropped close to his skull. His eyes were warm, though, taking in every sight that passed before them with interest and appreciation.

Ezra grinned and stepped onto the path, waiting for them to approach. "I did not know that they allowed wandering miscreants in these woods," he said, his hands planted on his hips as he blocked the way.

"Are you daring to call a man of God a 'miscreant'?" The older man reined in his horse and stared down his nose at Ezra.

Ezra nodded. "Yes."

The dark man laughed. "Of course he dares. How are you, Ezra?"

"I am well, Nathan. How are you? And Josiah?"

"Before a ruffian began harassing us, our day was going quite well," Josiah said, tall and imposing even on horseback.

Ezra laughed at that. "Ruffian? Rogue, I might give you. Perhaps even devilishly handsome fellow. But ruffian?" He drew a hand down the length of his sleeve. "Surely you jest."

Josiah broke down and smiled. "You are well, I hope?"

"I am." Ezra fell into step between the two men's horses. "And if I was not, you two would be the ones to fix that, would you not?" He walked utterly at ease between them. It had been a long time since the two men had passed this way; nearly a year had passed since he had last seen them. Josiah was a wandering preacher, although he did precious little preaching. He seemed more interested in being useful in physical ways in the villages he passed through, working to rebuild old or damaged houses, harvesting fields, whatever needed to be done. He had the soul of a philosopher and the heart of a poet and Ezra enjoyed speaking to him immensely.

Nathan was quieter, but that was understandable. He was a very long way from home and that could make a man draw in to himself. Brought to their country as a hostage during a war, he had been stranded when he was released without any money or a way home. He had met Josiah and the two men had struck up a connection, an immediate friendship that had only grown over time. They traveled together now, slowly crisscrossing their way through the land, saving up money from their labors to send Nathan home. While Josiah worried about the well being of people's souls, Nathan was more concerned with their bodies. He had an interesting collection of medical knowledge hidden away inside his head. Much of it was very different from what Ezra had seen during his life and he constantly questioned Nathan, wanting to learn more.

He caught them up on news as they made their way to Vierecken, ending his report with the announcement of the tourney.

"I have never seen a tourney," Nathan said quietly. "Is it as violent as I have heard?"

"Probably," Ezra said. "It is rare for someone to die, but no one who competes escapes without injury."


"I know that hmm," Josiah said. "You want to see the tourney."

"I would like to," Nathan admitted.

The tourney had not come yet and already the town was becoming crowded. Ezra could not really complain, though. He sincerely enjoyed these men's company, and he could use a few more people in town to act as a distraction to keep him from getting too close to Buck and destroying the happiness he did have in town.

Once they reached town, Ezra stepped away from the horses. "You will no doubt find Buck and John in the smithy," he said. "I have to take my leave of you now, but I will look for you this evening."

"What takes you away from us?" Josiah asked. "Are you going to spend some quiet time in prayer and contemplation?"

"I will return a changed man," Ezra promised with a deliberately mysterious air. He left them to the task of finding lodging and walked through town, heading for his room. He passed the smithy on his way and stopped to watch Christopher and Vincent carry blocks of wood over to the building and place them under its sheltering eaves. They worked together easily, moving in near silence yet still in harmony, Vincent moving to automatically to compensate for Christopher's injured shoulder.

Ezra paused to watch them with a certain amount of fascination. He had never experienced a partnership like that, although he had seen them before. He could understand how it had come to be, though. He had gotten to know Christopher a bit over the past couple of weeks and had found him to be a quiet, solid man, much like Vincent. Christopher's silence was more ominous, a thing of darkness and pain while Vincent's was a result of a solitary spirit, but it was enough of a similarity to begin to build a friendship between them. That friendship had grown and solidified as time passed and now Ezra believed that Vincent had found another friend and a potentially valuable ally.

"Are you going to watch, or are you going to help?" Christopher's voice broke into his thoughts.

"Neither," Ezra answered easily. "I am going to continue on with my errand."

"What errand?" Vin asked.

"You shall have to wait and see." Grinning, he walked back to the lodging house where he lived. Instead of going to his room, he went to the main door downstairs and knocked once before entering.

The woman who lived in the house walked out of her kitchen. "Ezra? What do you want?"

"I've come to ask a favor of you, Gloria." He quickly explained what he wanted.

"Are you sure?" Gloria asked.

"I am placing all my trust in you, dear lady."

She nodded. "I will do my best. Sit down here, please."

Ezra forced himself to remain relaxed as Gloria approached him with her scissors. He reminded himself that her children always appeared well groomed and that she was a good woman. He closed his eyes as she began to snip away at his hair. Time seemed to crawl by, but he appreciated the fact that she was being careful and he stifled his impatience.

After an eternity, she stepped away from him. "There."

"You are finished?"

"Yes." She cocked her head to the side and looked at him closely. "Who would have though there was a handsome man hiding under all that hair?"

He looked at her carefully, reading her expression and her stance. She was not lying or covering up a mistake; she really liked the result she had produced. He smiled at her. "You are too kind." He raised his hand to his hair, feeling the now short strands brush against his fingertips. "I have a second favor to ask of you. May I have some hot water from your kitchen?"

"You are going to shave as well?" She headed for the kitchen. "You are going to look like an entirely different person."

That was the idea. Ezra thanked her again for her kindness when she handed him the bowl of hot water, then retreated to the privacy of his own room in order to shave. He had almost made it when a whistle caught his attention. He turned on the stairs to find Vincent staring at him. "Yes?"

"I was not certain it was you," Vincent said, grinning as he shaded his eyes to look up at him. "What happened?"

"I got my hair cut," Ezra said patiently.

"So that was your mysterious errand. What are you planning on now?"

Holding up the bowl of hot water in his hands, Ezra said, "Shaving."

"How long has it been?"

"Years," Ezra admitted.

"Perhaps it would be best if you let an expert help with it, then." Vincent gestured for him to come back down the stairs. "Here in the sun, so I can see properly."

"You are serious?"

"Let me help," Vincent said persuasively.

Ezra was not actually looking forward to peeling his own face; he worried about cutting himself. Vincent was clean-shaven; he would no doubt do a better job than Ezra himself. With a small sigh, Ezra walked down the stairs. "You have a razor?"

"I will fetch it," Vincent said. "Wait for me here?"

Waving his hand at the blue-eyed man to tell him to be on his way, Ezra settled down on the steps that lead to his room in order to wait for him to return. He felt a bit foolish; he was a grown man and he could not shave himself? Still, feeling a fool for a short time would be worth it if he lost his beard without losing too much of his face.

It did not take long for Vincent to return. He held up his hand and the razor in his grasp flashed in the sun. "You sure about this?"

"If I change my mind, I can grow it back."

"Tilt your head back a bit." Vincent used gentle fingers to position Ezra's head the way he wanted it. "Here we go." He began to scrape the razor over Ezra's cheeks.

Ezra forced himself to hold still. He trusted Vincent; after all, the other man had told him about being a wanted man. Ezra could have turned him in at any time and that showed that Vincent trusted him as well. He closed his eyes and focused on the feeling of the razor scraping over his skin, the way the sharp metal touched his skin with a sensation that came close to burning but never quite crossed the line into pain. The sun was warm on his face and Vincent's hands were gentle.

An errant thought crossed his mind. What if it had been Buck who was shaving him? Buck's large hands cupping his face, Buck's capable hands controlling the razor? The tall man would be standing close to him, his scent filling Ezra's senses as the heat of his body warmed more than the sun ever could. Maybe he would talk while working. Maybe he would hum quietly. When finished, he might stroke his fingers down Ezra's cheek, testing the texture of the smooth skin before leaning in to claim a kiss. Ezra's lips parted at the thought.

"Are you all right?" Vincent asked.

His voice pulled Ezra back to reality. "Fine." He just hoped that Vincent would blame the scrape of the razor for the flush on his cheeks. He needed to be stronger than this!

Vincent kept working steadily. "Almost done." A few more strokes of the razor and he stepped back. "Finished."

Ezra raised his hand and ran his fingertips over his tingling cheeks and chin. They were smooth like they had not been in years. "How do I look?"

"Different," Vincent said. He cocked his head to the side. "Younger, I think."

"Hmm." He was not sure if younger was good or not. Different was something, at least. Perhaps this change would be enough to make sure he remained anonymous throughout the course of the tourney.

"I like it," Vincent said.

Ezra looked at him sharply. Vincent had been a little over solicitous toward him for the past couple of weeks, giving him more attention than was usual. There was nothing more than friendly interest in his eyes, but his words and manner were almost coy, flirtatious. "Do you?"

Buck's voice broke into the slightly tense moment. "It might take some getting used to."

Ezra twisted to look at the taller man, his heart suddenly thundering in his chest. This was the one thing that had worried him most when he had decided on this course of action: how would Buck react to his changed appearance? It was foolish and childish and still the fear refused to go away. What did Buck think of his newly revealed face?

Buck stared at Ezra's face, learning it all over again. He knew that he was going to have to say something soon and give an opinion on Ezra's changed appearance, but he could not do so just yet. He needed a few minutes more to adjust to the sight before him. He settled for crossing his arms over his chest and cocking his head to the side, acting as though he was taking his time coming up with an answer as he tried to figure out what he had just seen, and what the hell he was feeling.

He had been taking a quick walk around town, looking in on a few neighbors and doing some visiting when he had run into Josiah and Nathan as the two men were settling into town. They had told him about walking in with Ezra and he had felt an urge to see if Ezra was about. The other man had been making himself scarce lately, spending too damned much time in the woods on his own, or talking with Vincent. Buck had just about all the help he could use with Vincent and Christopher pitching in, but he still missed Ezra's presence around the smithy. He had made his way to the lodging house where Ezra lived, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

He had gotten more than a glimpse.

Ezra had been seated on the stairs that led up to his room, head tilted back and face turned upwards to the sun. Buck had noticed his short hair first and wondered why Ezra had himself shorn. He liked it, though. It was still the same color, that odd mix of blond and auburn that seemed to catch the sunlight and hold it. Now that it was short it would stay out of his face instead of falling into it all the time, hiding his eyes and his features.

His was then that Buck realized what Vincent was doing standing so close to Ezra: he was shaving him. He had been half-hypnotized by the sure strokes of the razor over Ezra's skin, the way the tool reflected the sunlight as it bared Ezra's face. He had felt a rush of heat, sudden and unexpected and undeniable. Some of that heat was anger over how close Vincent was to Ezra; did he really need to stand between his legs like that in order to reach his face? His arms were not short, after all. Some of it was also jealousy, which he hastened to attribute to the fact that Ezra had gone to Vincent for help instead of coming to him. He had not even known that Ezra was thinking of getting rid of his beard.

He should have been the one to tilt Ezra's head back, turning his head from side to side as he stood so close. He should have been the one to feel all that warm skin being revealed as he took exquisite care not to hurt him, taking his time with his task. He should have...Buck shoved those thoughts away. Those were thoughts and feelings that belonged to his youth, when he had been young and lust had led him to take his pleasure where he could find it, sometimes with his fellow fighters. That was all in the past, though. He had not had urges like that for years. He must have gone too long without female companionship for them to be reemerging now. He should not be noticing the way Ezra's features seemed more delicate with his eyes closed, or lovely way his lips parted as his cheeks flushed from the scrape of the razor. He told himself that all these odd thoughts were no doubt caused by jealousy over the way Vincent was encroaching where he was not needed.

Buck pushed away his confusion and distracting thoughts. Ezra was staring at him with undisguised anticipation and a little worry, waiting for him to react. "It is different," he said.

Ezra's face immediately fell and he looked down at his hands. "That is only to be expected," he said in a neutral voice.

With a sudden flash of insight, Buck realized that Ezra had been using his beard to hide his facial expressions, relying on his facial hair to make him difficult to read. That protective barrier was gone now. He took advantage of being able to tell for once that Ezra's feelings did not match his words. "But I like it." It was true. Ezra was a good-looking man with the beard; he was even more handsome without it. The lines of his face were clean and classic, pale in the sunlight but Buck knew that would change. Who would have guessed that the smile lines around his mouth framed his lips so well? Or that the hidden skin would be so smooth and look so soft? He looked a bit younger now and somehow more approachable.

Ezra's gaze stuttered up to meet Buck's. "You do?"

"Yes." He grinned, trying to jolly Ezra out of the odd nervousness that seemed to have taken care of him. "Who knew that you were hiding a good looking man under all that fur?"

Ezra flushed, but he laughed. "I did not want to be too much competition for you."

"Ah, do not worry about that. I can hold my own." He shifted his attention to Vincent. "So Ezra asked you to help him? I thought you and Christopher were building a booth." He thought he managed to keep his tone even.

The smile in Vincent's eyes made Buck wonder if he had really been successful in controlling his voice; the other man's smile did not match their conversation. It was too large, too gleeful. "We paused to eat. I wanted to see if Ezra was hungry and I interrupted him starting on this project. I offered to help."

That made Buck feel a little better. If he had found Ezra shaving, then he could have been the one helping him. The idea that Ezra had sought out Vincent's help over his own had hurt. He had thought they were better friends than that. He figured that was why he was feeling jealousy, just like it was curiosity that was giving him the urge to run his fingertips over Ezra's cheek and test the skin's texture there.

"Are you still going to get a meal?" he asked Vincent.

"I am. Ezra?"

"Let me return this bowl to its owner and I will join you." Ezra rose to his feet quickly and disappeared around the corner.

"You did not think he could shave himself?" Buck asked.

"He is out of practice," Vincent said easily. "It was better for me to do it then for him to cut his face to ribbons."

Buck could not really argue with that. He walked with Vincent to the front of the house and met Ezra coming out the door. "Aaron's?" he suggested.

"Where else?" Ezra rubbed his hand over his face.

"Does it feel strange?"

"It does. Naked, somehow." Ezra laughed. "Even though I am fully clothed."

Buck's conscience pricked him. "Not so fully clothed."

Ezra made an elaborate show of looking himself over. "I do not seem to be missing any garments."

"Your beard. You used to hide behind it." If Ezra really was involved in illegal activities, revealing his every thought through his expressions could be dangerous. "You are going to have to learn how to keep your feelings hidden without relying on all the hair that used to cover your face."

Ezra blinked, gaze turning inward as he considered Buck's words. "I had no idea. Am I truly...obvious?"

"I am certain you will get it under control," Buck said. He was not sure that he wanted him to, though. It was interesting, being able to read Ezra so easily. He had not realized how much Ezra had been hiding before.

"Thank you for the warning," Ezra said as they walked into the tavern.

Buck looked over the room, hoping to see Josiah and Nathan there. He wanted to talk to them more. He also wanted some people to act as a buffer between him and Vincent. He was feeling irritable toward the longhaired man and he did not want to ruin a friendship over irrational feelings.

His luck was strong that day. Nathan and Josiah were inside, as were John and Chris. They were all at one of the larger table. Buck walked over to them, grateful to have them all there. "Am I mistaken? I believed that you two were supposed to be working."

"A man must eat," Chris said.

"So then what is John's excuse?"

"Hey!" John glared at him. "I was trying to talk Josiah and Nathan into helping us get ready for the tourney. That is work."

Buck pulled out a chair for Ezra and one for Vin, then sat down himself. "We could always use more pairs of hands."

"I think we could find some time to be helpful," Nathan said.

"Excellent." Buck waved his hand at Aaron, catching his attention. "Three more here," he called.

Aaron nodded and disappeared back into the kitchen.

Josiah was grinning at Ezra. "Is that what you meant by being a changed man when we next met? Somehow I hoped for something more fundamental."

Ezra ran his hand over his cheek. "I think this is all the change I can handle at the moment."

"You look different," John said.

"That was rather the idea." Ezra's voice was kind, taking any potential sting out of the teasing words.

Food soon arrived and the seven men spoke idly as they ate, catching up on news of each other and becoming acquainted if they had not before met.

John and Ezra both finished eating quickly, before the other men. "Do you want to see what we have been working on?" John asked, shifting restlessly in his seat as he caught Ezra's gaze.

"Is this some kind of ploy to get me to help with that work?" Ezra asked with a grin.

"You will have to come along to find out."

Ezra laughed. "Lead on, my friend."

Together, the two men stood up and walked out the door.

Buck lingered at the table, listening in the conversations that sprung up and slowly died. Vincent had met Josiah and Nathan before: they traveled through his parish before he was forced to leave and they had run into each other after he had gone on the run. He could tell Christopher was a bit taken aback by Nathan's foreignness, but he could also see that he was slowly warming to the man, to him and Josiah both. Good. He preferred it when all his friends got along.

In the back of his mind, the thought that these men would be good protection for Vierecken made itself known. It was not that he expected there to be trouble during the tourney; it was more that he had no wish to be caught by surprise if there were any. There was no law in town: it was too small and close-knit for there to be much opportunity for one of Vierecken's people to wrong another. The tourney would bring strangers and crowds to town, strangers who might not be honest, crowds that could be dangerous. He would do his best to protect his neighbors, but he would be more confident doing so if he had men like these backing him up.

He was not quite sure how to bring the subject up, though. He could not just ask them if they wanted to protect the law, not when he was already trying to convince them to help him with smithy work. That could be pushing the bounds of friendship so he had to work his way up to it. He cleared his throat. "This tourney could bring a lot of people to town."

"That is what you are hoping for," Christopher said patiently. "Remember all the work you have convinced us to do?"

"A lot of people could mean a lot of trouble."

"Worried about the town?" Vincent asked.

"And the people," he admitted.

"I thought you could handle a crowd of rowdies all on your own," Chris said.

"I can. I just would not wish you to become bored." He glanced around the table, meeting their eyes. "If there is trouble..."

"If there is trouble, you can count on us," Josiah assured him.

"All of us," Nathan seconded.

Buck smiled, not bothering to try to hide his pleasure. "Thank you."

"This is a nice place," Chris said. "I would not want to see it spoiled."

"You are getting old," Buck accused.

Chris narrowed his eyes, but he did not reply.

Buck decided to get going while he was ahead. "I am going back to the smithy. I want to check on a few things there." He rose from the table. "I will see all of you later?"

"In a town this small, you can hardly miss us," Josiah said.

Buck waved off the gentle barb and left the tavern. The sunshine felt good on his shoulders and he walked slowly to the smithy, not wanting to rush when being outside felt so good. As he approached the forge, he could hear Ezra and John talking and laughing together. He slowed down even more, enjoying the sounds of their pleasure.

"You do look very different," John said.

"Thank you," Ezra said questioningly, laughing.

"I did not mean that it looks bad...or that you looked bad before. Just different." John sighed. "You are going to leave soon, are you not?"

Leave? Buck stopped walking and started listening even harder. Ezra was not leaving Vierecken, was he?

"What makes you say that?"

"You cut your hair and shaved off your beard. Before, Buck sometimes teased you that looked like a pirate. You did, a bit. You changed how you looked so you can join a ship's crew without them thinking that you might be a pirate. That is why you did it, and that means you are leaving."

Buck was utterly confused. Ezra had no desire to leave town. He had never said anything about it, and Buck would know if he was not happy here. At least, he had always believed that he would.

"I cut my hair because it was time to change my appearance," Ezra said quietly. "I will not be leaving town any time soon."

"But someday you will?"

"Someday I will have to, and then I will go to the sea and do my best not to be confused with a pirate. But I will stay through the tourney. I can promise you that much."

"I guess that will be enough for now," John said quietly. "I do not want you to leave."

"Thank you," Ezra said. "You know that if I could stay...well. It does not matter. What did you want me to polish?"

Buck turned and walked away, not ready to go into the smithy yet. He was not ready to face Ezra. Ezra was thinking of leaving Vierecken. He had more than thought about it; he had discussed it John, even. Why with John and not Buck? He thought they were friends. Had he been mistaken? Why had Ezra not come to him with this? Why keep him in the dark about his desire to leave?

He had always known that Ezra really did not belong in this small town. There was something in his eyes and the way he spoke that told Buck he was meant for more than slowly pottering his days away in a place where nothing much ever happened. Ezra had seemed happy here, though, and Buck had thought he had found a home, much like Buck himself had.

He did not want Ezra to leave. He did not like thinking about getting up every day and knowing that he was not going to see him again. The thought did odd things to his gut, making it knot up and go cold. He told himself it was because he did not have so many friends that he could easily think of losing one of them.

Well, he was not losing this one at least not without a fight. Ezra had promised to stay through the tourney and no matter how flexible he liked to claim his morals were, Ezra was not one to break a promise. That gave Buck just over a month to find out why Ezra wanted to leave.

Then all he would have to do was convince him to stay.

Lounging on the top of the table Christopher and Vincent had built, Ezra propped himself up on his elbows and watched as John struggled to hold a horse steady while Buck tried to check the condition of its shoes.

"Damnation," John muttered as the horse tossed its head again.

"Language," Ezra called warningly.

"I will give you language," Buck threatened, looking over at him. "I thought you came out here to help."

"I am helping by staying out of the way," Ezra said easily. He banged one fist on the countertop. "I am also testing the strength of this structure. It would be tragic if it were to collapse during the tourney. That would surely frightened away customers, and you do not wish that to happen, do you?"

"I think I would like to see it collapse right now," John said. He was smiling, though, obviously teasing.

"You are doomed to disappointment," Ezra replied, enjoying the banter. "It is too soundly constructed."

As if to give lie to his words, the table began to shake beneath him. Ezra clutched the sides tightly, fighting to keep his balance and not fall off. What the devil? He turned his head to the side and looked into Vincent's laughing blue eyes. "I should have known."

Vincent let go of the booth and stepped around to the side so Ezra could see him more easily. "This is not the purpose for which we built this table."

"It is good to be adaptable." Ezra relaxed back onto the countertop. It took some effort, though: he could feel Buck's stare on him like a tangible thing and he had no idea what he had done to warrant such intense attention.

Vincent shook his head, then glanced over at John. "Could you use some help?"

"Yes," Buck said firmly. "Help John hold this horse still, would you?"

By way of answer, Vincent walked over to the horse and started to work on soothing the animal, calming it down so it would be more manageable. It took little time after that for Buck to finish inspecting the shoes and pronounce everything to be just fine.

"Good," John said. "I am going to get rid of this beast." He grabbed the reins and led the horse away, scolding it as he walked.

"He is a good man," Vincent said.

"He is," Buck agreed. "Was there something you needed?"

"No," Vincent said. "I came to see what tasks you had for me today."

Buck stared at him for a moment. "I need a moment to think." He disappeared into the smithy.

Ezra watched him go, trying to ignore the worry that was building within him. Buck had been acting oddly for the past few days. He was just as likely to snap at his friends as joke with them and that was not like him. He was usually full of good humor and appreciation for company and help. This was unlike him.

It might have been his imagination, but Ezra thought that Buck had been watching him during those past days. He could not think of a reason why, except perhaps his changed appearance. It was possible that Buck was still growing accustomed to his bare face and short hair. His heart tried to whisper about other possibilities, but that was foolishness in which Ezra refused to indulge.

"Are you all right?" Vincent asked quietly.

Ezra looked at him for a moment, taking his turn before answering. Vincent was also acting somewhat strangely, although Ezra did not know him well enough to be certain. The blue-eyed man was still focusing more on Ezra than was normal, going out of his way to pay attention to him, talk to him and tease him. Ezra enjoyed his company and the attention, but he was still confused by it. There had been no harm in it so far, so Ezra was going to let it be and see what developed. "I am well," he said.

"You looked sad."

"Sad?" Ezra leaned back on the table. "Why in this world would I be sad? You and Christopher have taken over the menial labor and Josiah and Nathan are more then willing to take care of anything you miss." He cocked his head to the side and grinned.

"You have not moved," John observed as he returned.

"Did you expect me to?"

"No. Where is Buck?"

"He went inside," Vincent answered. He and John exchanged a glace that Ezra could not interpret. It was full of unspoken significance, though.

Ezra began to sit up, wanting to demand an explanation, then relaxed. It was too soon. If he pushed them for answers now, they would deny that anything had happened and claim ignorance. Far better to watch and wait. He could figure this out on his own. He just neeed more evidence with which to work.

John shot him a sour look. "The temptation to knock you off that thing is terrible."

"Be strong, my son. Resisting temptation will only strengthen your faith." He waved one hand in a vague gesture of benediction.

Josiah's rich laugh sounded behind him. "You are giving spiritual advice?"

"The boy needs guidance."

"Hey! I am not a boy," John objected.

"Yes, you are," Josiah said.

"I am as much a boy as Ezra is a priest!"

Ezra lay back on the table and gave himself over to laughter. When was the last time he had laughed this much? The past few weeks had been filled with more amusement and companionship then he could ever remember knowing in the past. Buck and John were excellent men to have as friends and the people of Vierecken were pleasant, but there was something about the way these men came together that felt very right to him. He wanted to enjoy it while it lasted, knowing that the end of the tourney would send them all off on their different paths again.

Cracking one eye open, he looked at John. "I have worn the robes before, boy."

"You have not!" John looked at him uncertainly. "Have you?"

"There are all sorts of interesting opportunities available to wandering men of the cloth, are there not, Josiah?"

"Ezra..." The older man glared down at him, but there was no heat in the look. "You would not stoop so low."

Well, yes, he had in the past. It had not been entirely by choice, of course, but he and his mother had been in quite a bit of trouble and pretending to be a priest had given him the chance to both hide and recoup their losses. He decided not to explain that to Josiah, though. He believed that Josiah would understand, but only after much explanation and the day was too fine to spend it arguing.

He watched as Buck walked back out of the smithy. He most definitely was not going to comment now. He would rather not do anything to cause Buck to lose any respect for him. He decided to ignore the implied question, instead closing his eyes and rocking a bit on the countertop. "A most sound structure," he said approvingly.

"Do that mean you will be getting off of it sometime soon?" Vincent asked.

"It is surprisingly comfortable for a table." He wriggled a little in a display of getting even more comfortable.

The table lurched treacherously beneath him. "Vincent!"

"No." Ezra opened his eyes and found Christopher staring down at him. "I did not make this to be a bed for you."

Ezra was a little intimidated by that cool glare, but he refused to let it show. "Versatility is a virtue." He relaxed once more.

Christopher's eyes crinkled at the corners with a hidden smile. "I never claimed to be a virtuous man."

His smile was Ezra's only warning before Chris grabbed the table's edge and upended it. He was not completely unprepared, so he managed to roll a bit and almost land on his feet. He staggered and would have fallen if not for strong hands that caught him by the shoulders and held him upright.

"You all right?" Buck asked, holding him steady.

Ezra relaxed back into his hands for a moment, caught up in the sensation of firm warm hands closed about his arms, holding him up, holding him safe. As soon as he realized what he was doing, he forced himself to stand upright. "Nothing is damaged except my pride," he said. He turned and glared at Christopher. "Very uncouth," he scolded.

"I made the table," Christopher said. "I can decide what goes on it." There was a definitely smile on his face now.

"I thought it was Buck's table," Nathan said quietly, walking up to join the group.

"Finally decided to join us?" Josiah asked.

"Thomas's youngest son broke his arm," Nathan said. "I wanted to make sure it was splinted correctly so it would heal straight."

"Thank you," Buck said gratefully.

Nathan bowed a little. "I am happy to help. You know that."

"What are we doing now?" John asked.

"Polishing," Buck decided. "If there are going to be ladies in town, they will like things that are shining and clean. I want these trinkets to shine like stars."

"Polishing," Christopher said, disdain clear in his voice.

"I could use some more fuel for the smithy."

"Polishing," Christopher repeated, this time with resignation in his tone.

Ezra tried without success to hide his grin. Christopher was an intimidating man, but there was a delightful sense of humor lurking beneath his grim exterior, one that had been slowly revealing itself more and more over the past days. Ezra looked forward to seeing more of it over the next month and during the tourney.

Hoping that he was reading Christopher correctly, he walked over to the table and sat on it.

"Ezra, you do not look like a fool," the blond man said with disappointment.

"If I am to polish, I need a place to sit."

"But not on my table." Christopher took a step toward him.

Buck stopped his friend's forward movement with a hand on his shoulder. "Let him be. You built the table for me. He can sit on it."

"Does this mean we can sell him, too?" Josiah asked hopefully.

"How much do you think he would bring?" John asked.

"Enough," Buck said quellingly. He grabbed John's shoulder and pulled him into the smithy. After a few moments, they returned holding small metal flowers and soft cloths. Buck handed Ezra a handful of the flowers and one of the clothes. "Thank you," he said.

"My pleasure," Ezra said, caught by Buck's dark eyes and the warmth he could see there. After a few moments he realized he was staring and he immediately dropped his gaze, silently cursing his inattention. To cover his reaction, he began polishing immediately, paying more attention to the task then it really deserved. From under his lashes, he watched as Buck handed out trinkets and cloths until he was empty handed. "You are not going to polish?"

"When I have so many willing thralls?" Buck's eyes were wide with exaggerated innocence. He was immediately pelted with trinkets from the other six men. "Ow! Hey!"

"You asked for it," Christopher said.

"Perhaps," Buck said, squatting down and gathering the small flowers. He hesitated, then dropped down to sit on the ground there, his back against the wall of the smithy.

Christopher moved to sit near him, companionable in the soft warmth of the sun. Vin sat down a short distance from them, as did John. Nathan sat down on the ground near the booth. Josiah claimed a place next to Ezra on the booth.

"Are you certain this will hold you?" Ezra asked, eying the larger man. "I would hate to break Christopher's table."

"My table," Buck said.

"It will hold," Josiah said, holding up a trinket and beginning to polish it. "Or it will fall."

Nathan groaned. "One of these moods?"

"What mood?" John asked.

"You will see," Nathan said darkly.

Ezra smiled a little to himself. There was a deep well of affection hidden under that exasperation. No matter how much Nathan might like to pretend that Josiah irritated him, he knew that the two men were more brothers than they were friends. Sitting in between them, he could pretend that he was a part of the warmth they shared. "So the table will either stand or fall according to what it is fated to do?"

"It is an interesting way of viewing of the world, you must admit." Josiah kept his gaze on his work.

"But are all things predestined? Or just finely crafted furniture?"

"All things, perhaps."

Ezra held up the trinket he had been polishing, admiring the way it flashed in the sun. It would never be mistaken for a jeweler's work: it was nowhere near that fine. Still, it was lovely in its own rough-hewn way, ready to be made into a necklace or kept as an interesting decoration. He hid a smile as he reminded himself that he had the original hidden in the pouch around his neck. It was more than worth the money he had paid for it. "Even men?" he asked, a part of his mind still on the conversation.

"What if I said men most of all?" Josiah countered.

"Wait." John looked at them with a puzzled frown. "I do not understand."

"Josiah is suggesting that all things that happen, happen because they are fated to. That every action you take, every word you say, you were meant to do and say."

"No one is meant to do anything," Christopher objected. "A man has a choice. Sometimes it is all that he has. A man always has a choice."

"But what if we do not?" Josiah put down the flower he was working on and moved onto a sword crossed over a shield. "What if choice is but an illusion, and we are merely following the path that was laid down for us before we were born?"

Ezra personally thought that if God or some other power had laid down his path, that he would want to have a long talk with the path maker. This was the best that could be devised? He did not give any credence to the idea himself, but it was an interesting concept to discuss, a amusing theory with which to play.

He glanced at the other five men, wondering how they would react to Josiah's suggestion. Christopher looked unconvinced while John's puzzlement was disappearing. Vincent seemed amused and Nathan was still pretending disgust.

Buck was grinning, wide and delighted. "So if that idea is true, then anything I do is supposed to happen, right? It is beyond my control because fate controls all?"

"Essentially, yes," Josiah confirmed.

Buck nodded, then turned and shoved Christopher, hard, knocking the blond man to the ground.

"Damnation, Buck!" Christopher glared at him as he picked himself up.

"I was meant to do that," Buck said piously. "It was not my choice."

"So I guess I am meant to retaliate, then," Chris said, his eyes dangerous. "Forgive me for your missing teeth, old friend, but you are just fated to lose them."

Buck held up his hands peaceably. "You would not really do that, would you?"

"Watch me."

"Enough," Vincent said. "If you knock out his teeth, he will have a hard time charming people into buying these trinkets, and then all our hard work will be for nothing."

Christopher transferred his glare to the former reeve, then slowly relaxed. "After the tourney, then."

Buck sighed with exaggerated relief. "I will be sure to flee this town on the last day of the tourney."

"You may run. You will not be able to hide." Christopher settled back down on the ground and returned to polishing.

Twisting a little, Ezra moved so he was leaning against Josiah. The other man gave him a look of mock-irritation, but did not actually say anything. Ezra took his silence as assent and continued on his work, now in a more comfortable position. He kept his face turned to the sunshine, hoping to get some color into his skin. He would rather not look as though he had recently shaved and wanted the lighter patches on his jaw gone. With a little luck and some effort, by the time strangers began to enter Vierecken no one would be able to tell that he had altered his appearance, and so he hoped no one would give him a second glance.

He was a little surprised by how peaceful he felt as he sat and worked. True, there was no great effort to polishing metal, but it was more than that. In a normal week, he retreated to the forest once or twice, seeking solitude and a quiet place to think. It was not that he needed to escape from the people of Vierecken; he quite liked them and they were quite capable of giving him the space he needed when he was in town without seeming resentful of it. They were good people, understanding of a man's need to be alone. It was something inside of him, something that he could not quite explain but was helpless to deny. He craved the sensations that he had only found in the forest. It was as if by sitting there quietly, for a short time he could become a part of the woods, just another small part of a greater whole. For a man who had been an outsider his entire life, that feeling was rare and precious and he indulged himself whenever he was able.

He had not felt the urge to venture out into the woods since Nathan and Josiah had arrived. With the four extra visitors to the town, Ezra had felt more content, more at home then he could ever remember. He had laughed more and worried less as well, despite the inherent dangers of the upcoming tourney. There was something about the way the seven of them interacted that just felt right to him. Not usually a superstitious man, he still refused to think too much about it and was never going to say anything about it, for fear of something destroying the wonderful balance they had found. Besides, he knew that Josiah, Nathan, Christopher and Vincent would be moving on after the tourney was finished. He should give serious thought to moving on as well...but he was thankful for the opportunity to experience this unique blend of friendships before leaving.

Listening to the ebb and flow of conversation around him, he concentrated on polishing his share of trinkets, making sure Buck's work shone in the sunlight. He laughed and teased the others, and if he still was not quite sure why Buck's gaze rested on him as often as he did, he refused to let it destroy his enjoyment of the moment.

It was all coming together. The tourney was still a month away, but Buck knew that everything was going to work out just as he hoped. Things had been going far too well for it to be any different. He and John had been working hard and had produced a goodly number of small trinkets to sell: flowers, swords crossed over shields, even a couple of trees for the forest that bordered Vierecken.

Lying back on his bed, getting ready to start a new day, Buck admitted to himself that he was no fine craftsman. He was a blacksmith and proud of his abilities so the knowledge that he would never be a jeweler did not upset him. He had some skill with decorative work, though. It had enabled him to create the gold cover for Ezra's tooth and the flower that had been the inspiration for all these trinkets. He was pleased with how well they had turned out; even when he tried to be unbiased he thought they were good work and likely to sell well.

He had not been sure that they would be able to make this work. He had known he could count on John and Ezra to try, of course, but it was a lot of work for three men who had to continue with their normal activities at the same time. With four additional sets of hands, though, the work had been finished quickly and easily. He was still a little amazed by how well they all worked together. He and Christopher were old comrades, so it had only been natural for the two of them to fall back into the patterns of cooperation. He had not expected everyone else to be able to do the same.

Christopher and Vincent had formed an instant bond. Buck almost wanted to be jealous of it - it was strange to see an old friend working so well with someone he had just met. The respect and enjoyment between the two men was clear, though, and Buck could not begrudge either of them the pleasure of finding a new source of friendship: both of them had far too few.

That bond was extended to a lesser extent to the rest of their oddly assorted little group. Some of them naturally gravitated more toward each other than the others, but they all got along and were friendly. Buck was grateful for that; having friends was wonderful, but having them all get along was even better. He liked the feeling of belonging to a group. It was one of the things he had missed most when he had given up soldiering to settle down, but he had it again now.

He did not want to give it up. He knew he would have to once the tourney was over. After that, there would be nothing holding Josiah and Nathan in town, no reason for Christopher or Vincent to linger. Hell, even Ezra was thinking of leaving.

Ezra. Buck shifted irritably. He did not like thinking about him leaving; it made him uncomfortable and restless, giving him the urge to seek out Ezra and make sure that he was still in town. He had never understood why Ezra had stayed in Vierecken as long as he had, but he had grown used to the other man's presence and had come to rely on his friendship. He did not know what his life would be like without Ezra in it: the green-eyed man made him laugh and made him think and he would miss him if he left.

If he left. Buck still had a month to work on him and convince him to stay. He did not want Ezra to leave and he was not going to just stand idly by and watch it happen. He liked Ezra, like his humor and his fancy way of acting and the way he looked at the world sideways.

He thought he had a good chance of convincing Ezra if he just kept working at it. The other man had certainly seemed happier over the course of the past month. He laughed more and easier and seemed more sociable and at ease. He had disappeared into the woods fewer times recently as well. Buck had noticed that Ezra seemed to need to escape to the forest from time to time, but that need had not been driving him and he had spent more time in town. Buck was certain the friendship among the seven of them was what had changed for him.

Ezra had always been friendly with Josiah and Nathan, happily battling verbally with Josiah over philosophical and religious questions long after everyone else had lost interest. Ezra could spend hours questioning Nathan about his homeland and the other countries he had seen and what traveling was like. He had extended some of that questioning to Christopher, asking him about the different duchies he had passed through and fought in. He was able to push Christopher off balance, to irritate and aggravate him, but he also could make the other man laugh and that had sealed friendship between them. Ezra and Vincent had been friends from the beginning.

Vincent...Buck was not quite sure what the other man was doing. Vincent was still a good man, a friend willing to help out any way he could, be it doing work or providing company. Buck had no complaints about that. He was concerned about the way Vincent was continuing to act around Ezra, though. He was still very focused on Ezra, going out of his way to make the other man laugh and do other things to catch his attention. He was the first to greet Ezra, and he was constantly offering to go with him to get a meal or help him with simple tasks. Vincent had not acted like that the last time he was in Vierecken and Buck could not understand what had changed. A dark, jealous part of Buck whispered that perhaps Vincent knew that Ezra was thinking about leaving town and was somehow trying to convince Ezra to leave with him after the tourney.

Thinking of that possibility made Buck restless enough to push himself up from the bed. He was not going to lie about in bed and let Vincent have extra time to work on Ezra. He would just have to work a little harder to keep the two of them apart until he figured out what exactly Vincent was trying to accomplish.

He dressed quickly and was soon out the door, walking through the pale morning light to reach the smithy. He was getting a later start than usual and Vierecken had already come to life, people moving about their business. He waved and nodded to those he passed, greeting them with true pleasure. He liked his neighbors, enjoyed their friendship and their acceptance.

John was waiting for him, the smithy already prepared for the day thanks to his ministrations. He was a fine apprentice and a good man and Buck was grateful all over again for the chance to be the one to train him. He learned quickly and brought a lot of joy to the work they did together.

"Good morning," Buck said. "You have gotten to a good start."

"I have a good teacher," John countered. "A teacher who has not told me what we will be doing today, but he is still a good teacher."

Buck cuffed him lightly, play tussling with him for a few moments before releasing him. "Today we will be returning to our usual tasks. For this morning, at least."

John nodded, settling down and getting right to work. Fixing broken plowshares, drawing nails, and repairing wagon parts might not have the same excitement attached to them as creating objects for the tourney, but it was what paid the bills and helped their neighbors and it could not be put off. These were simple, familiar tasks and Buck was able to work at them with only half his attention focused on them. It helped that he could trust John with the majority of the work, knowing that John would do good work.

The morning drifted by while he worked and soon it was time for a break for noon meal. He and John cleaned up the smithy, getting ready to take a deserved break.

The sound of raised voices distracted them from their work. "What is that?" John asked, cocking his head to the side. Fighting was rare in Vierecken; the locals were too close knit, too dependent on each other for survival to waste time with arguments or physical altercations.

"I do not know." Catching up a medium-sized hammer, Buck walked over to the door. He could feel his blood running faster, the way it always did just before battle. "Stay inside."

He stepped out into the daylight, squinting a little bit in the bright light. It only took him a few moments to find the source of the noise: a group of men at arms were standing around Nathan in a semi-circle. They were casting insults at him, asking what he was doing in their country and threatening him with physical violence.

Buck had seen this before: it was in the nature of bullies to single out someone who was different and then attack. These eight men were no different. No doubt passing through Vierecken while escorting a merchant to Lanceton, they had seen Nathan and believed he was easy prey.

They were about to find out differently.

Buck began walking down the street toward them, but before he could call out and gain their attention, Christopher was there, Josiah at his side.

"What is going on here?" Christopher's voice was soft, dangerous.

"Nothing of your concern," said one of the soldiers.

"Ah," said Ezra, walking up behind Buck, as Vincent and John appeared on the other side of him. "Then you will have no problem with our friend joining us for noon meal. Nathan, are you hungered?"

"I could eat," Nathan answered. His voice was steady, controlled. He was not showing any fear, despite the number of men close to him. He stepped off to the side, trying to circle around the men at arms.

The soldiers were not willing to give up on their fun so easily. Their leader moved to step in front of Nathan. "I did not say you could go."

"You are finished with him," Buck said, moving closer, Ezra and John at his side. "No one in this town wants any trouble. Do not give us any."

"Big talk for a man without a sword." The leader did not sneer, exactly, but his tone was definitely provocative.

Too bad for him Christopher very rarely needed any sort of provocation to start a fight, especially when someone threatened a person he called friend. "Last warning," Christopher said.

If the soldier was stupid enough not to realize how dangerous a hammer could be, then Buck doubted he would be smart enough to recognize the danger presented by Christopher. He was not surprised; the leader turned his disdain toward Christopher and that was all it took to begin the brawl.

Christopher moved forward quickly, slamming his fist into the leader's belly, then kneeing him in the face when the man doubled over in pain. Not pausing for a moment, Christopher moved on to the next man closest to him. Nearby, Josiah was using his strength against a third man, slamming him repeatedly into the wall until he was limp and unresisting. Buck had always suspected the traveling preacher had a more violent past then he let on and this looked to be proof of that.

Buck wasted no time joining the fray; he had friends in danger and he could not just stand by and watch. A few quick running steps put him right in the middle of it. He lay about with his hammer, aiming for soft bellies and padded shoulders. Doing serious damage to the soldiers could bring trouble on the town from unhappy merchants, but that did not mean he could not hurt them at all. So long as they were able to ride out of Vierecken and do their jobs, he, and the town, would be safe. The soldiers were playing by the same rules; they had swords, but they were not drawing them.

His old skill returned to him as if it had never left and perhaps it had not. He was able to concentrate on protecting himself and still keep an eye on the other men around him, just as he had when he was a mercenary. He saw that Vincent was accounting for himself well and knew he did not have to worry for him. He reserved his concern for Ezra, John, and Nathan: none of them were fighters.

He discovered that he needed not to worry about Nathan. Apparently learning how to heal people also taught a person how to hurt them. Nathan was mostly concentrating on staying out of the soldiers' way, but when he had no choice and had to defend himself, he made every blow count.

Ezra and John were revelations. Buck had expected to need to scramble to save them, but they were holding their own as they fought side by side. Ezra fought dirty, quick and hard and devastating in his own way, flicking dirt toward eyes one moment and slamming his knee into an unprotected crotch the next. He still threw punches, but only he didn't have an opportunity to pull something sneaky. Ezra had apparently been giving John lessons when Buck was not paying attention. His apprentice was showing the definite influence of Ezra's tutelage.

Making a note to ask John about his secret lessons - and to find out how he made a couple of moves - Buck did his best to stay near Ezra, just in case the other man needed him. Ezra was not a fighter, no matter how well he handled himself and Buck did not want him to be injured because of a stranger's stupidity.

After a few more minutes it was all over. The soldiers were in full retreat, beaten but able to move enough to retreat, to do their jobs. Christopher looked as though he would like to follow them and continue the lesson.

"Christopher!" Buck waited until he had his friend's attention. "Let them go."

Christopher held his gaze for a moment, then nodded reluctantly.

"Nathan, are you all right?" Josiah was immediately by the other man's side.

"I am. Thank you. Thank all of you." Nathan drew in a deep breath. "That was unpleasant."

"Most unpleasant," Ezra agreed. "Somehow, I do not think it will happen again."

"Not unless they want to get beaten again," John said cockily.

"Watch yourself," Buck said. He did not want the younger man to get overconfident and get hurt. "You are a blacksmith, not a fighter."

John scowled at him.

Ezra reached out and touched the dark-haired man's shoulder. "You did well."

"Did I?" John forgot his irritation with Buck. "I tried to remember what you taught me, but it was not easy when there were people all around."

"You remembered enough to keep yourself and the rest of us whole and healthy. That is all you have to do."

Now it was Buck's turn to scowl. "I want to hear about that soon."

"About what?" Vincent asked.

"It seems these two have been practicing behind my back. I did not know my apprentice was learning a second craft." He pinned Ezra with his gaze. "Or that you were a fighter."

"I am not a fighter," Ezra said quietly. "I am a survivor. I want John to be one, too."

Buck nodded, all teasing accusation disappearing as he reached out to grip Ezra's shoulder. "Thank you." He appreciated Ezra trying to protect John, teaching him to defend himself. That was the action of a good friend. A friend Buck did not want to lose, refused to lose without a fight. He squeezed Ezra's shoulder, then carefully looked him over, searching for sign of any hurt that Ezra might have taken and tried to conceal.

"I am fine," Ezra said.

Buck grinned and lifted his gaze back to Ezra's face. "Just making certain."

Ezra smiled up at him, green eyes warm and endless. The moment between them stretched and Buck found that he did not want it to end. There was something so comfortable, so right. It was almost as if...

"You mentioned a meal?" Nathan asked.

The moment was broken and Ezra looked down and away from Buck, taking a few steps back. "That I did, Nathan. Come."

Buck caught Vincent and John glaring at Nathan and he felt like joining them. He had felt like he was on the edge of realizing something important, something he had not even realized was wrong in his life, but the chance had passed and he was not going to call it back by staring a hole between Nathan's shoulder blades.

He followed the rest of the group into Aaron's tavern. He would figure this out. He still a month before the tourney, a month to convince Ezra to stay. He would do it. He had to.

Leaning against the wall of one of the last buildings on Vierecken's main street, Ezra watched as Christopher stood tall in the sunshine, arms crossed over his chest and legs spread in a combative stance as he dared anyone to approach him. He looked dangerous and intimidating and so far no one had tried to come close.

"Are you just going to stare at Christopher all day? Or are you going to help us?" John asked. He panted a little in between words, but that was only natural: he and Buck were carrying the table Christopher and Vincent had built.

"I think that I will watch him so long as he remains entertaining," Ezra replied. "And I shall help." He stepped over to the side. "There. I am now fully out of your way."

Buck snarled at him as he staggered past him. "Thank you."

"Why, you are welcome." Ezra smiled widely at him and went so far as to bow a bit. What was the point of having friends if you could not tease them?

Buck and John carried the heavy wide table to where Christopher was standing, setting it down just in front of him. "Thank you for holding my place," Buck said.

"Welcome," Christopher said, relaxing into a more natural posture.

"Did you have any trouble?" John asked.

"Not at all."

It was true. Ezra had been watching Christopher as he stood guard over the space where Buck wanted to set up his wares for the tourney and no one had come close to trying to take the space. The guardianship had been necessary; the tourney was but two weeks away and people had begun arriving in Vierecken in preparation for it. Men had begun to construct a dais from which the highborn would be able to spectate and they would soon begin to set up the lists for jousting.

Merchants had also begun to trickle into town, searching for places near the tourney area where they could set up their booths and display their wares. Buck had realized that he needed to claim his own space if he wanted to have a good area. Christopher had volunteered to stand guard while John and Buck fetched the table and it had worked out well. Buck's booth would be near the action, but not so close that it would be lost in the crowds that milled about the lists and other areas of interest.

Ezra walked over to join them, instead of listening from afar. "Well done," he congratulated them. "An excellent location. I believe it will bring you much wealth."

"It better," John muttered.

"What was that?" Buck asked.

"After carrying this table and spending months and weeks making pretties for the gentry, I think we deserve to get wealth."

"We?" Buck teased.

"We," John said firmly. He grinned and looked over at Christopher. "I am sure you will share your profits with everyone who helped with the work."

"Buck is a good man," Christopher said with a straight face. "I am certain he will."

"This tourney will put me in debt by the time you are through!" Buck protested.

"You did not intend to pay your friends?" Ezra asked. "Did you think they were helping out of the kindness of their hearts?"

"I suppose you wish to be paid as well?"

"Of course not." He crossed his arms over his chest. "My services are far too expensive for you to afford."

Buck raised his had as though to swat at him and Ezra ducked out of the way, laughing at the friendly outrage directed toward him. After a moment Buck began laughing as well, eyes shining in the sun. He lunged forward, but Ezra was too quick for him and he stared at Buck from the other side of the table.

Buck leaned forward to plant his fists on the table. "Do you really think you can get away from me?"

"I just did," Ezra pointed out.

"What is this?" Vincent asked, walking over with Josiah and Nathan close behind him. He had a sack cradled in his hands, as did the other two men. Josiah also had a cloth slung over his shoulder.

Ezra felt a little flair of disappointment as their game was brought to an end by the interruption. It was rare for him and Buck to play like that and he treasure those rare occasions when he could indulge in acting like a child...or a man in love. It was risky, so he tried to resist the urge to initiate a game like this to protect himself from discovery. It was for the best that they stop, but he could not help but wish it could have lasted a little longer.

"Are those my trinkets?" Buck asked, momentarily distracted.

"Yes," Vincent answered, hefting the sack in his hands.

"It is a little early to be putting them out."

"It was my idea," Ezra said.

"You want to try selling them now?"

"Not exactly." Still keeping an eye on Buck's movements in case he wanted to continue the chase, Ezra held out his hand. "The cloth, if you would, Josiah?"

Josiah handed it to him. "I admit I do not quite understand myself."

Ezra unfolded the cloth and slowly spread it over the surface of the table. "I thought it would be best to have a trial of sorts. Gentlemen, if you would now bring the trinkets to me?"

Vincent was the first to move, stepping close to Ezra and placing his sack on the table. "Do you want to see how it will look when there are people here to buy them?"

"Exactly," Ezra answered. He was still confused by Vincent's attentiveness. There was absolutely nothing in his eyes except friendly affection and if it were not for his consistency in always being the first to volunteer to help him and being more physically friendly Ezra might not have noticed anything. He had no idea what Vincent was up to, but the man had trusted him with the secret of the fact that he was a sought after criminal. Ezra could trust him even though he acted a little oddly.

He turned his attention back to the matter at hand. "I thought perhaps attempting to display these wares would be easiest if we first tried it without a crowd or an audience with which to contend."

"That is actually a really good idea," Buck said. "It will make things much easier." His smile was appreciative.

Ezra smiled back at him until he realized that he was holding Buck's gaze for longer than was proper. He jerked his gaze down to the table and he focused on arranging the trinkets from the sacks on the bright blue cloth. "There may be a second benefit as well."

"What is it?" asked Buck, gathering up some trinkets and began placing them on the cloth.

"Let me see if this works and then I will tell you." He continued his work, quickly fanning the trinkets out until with Buck's help they were spread across the cloth. Highly polished, the small metal figures shone in the sun, easily catching the eye. "Step away from the table," he requested.

"Why?" John asked.

"You are blocking the view of the table from our onlookers." Ezra himself took a step back, not wanting his own body to interfere. He was aware of the fact that the six men were looking at him in puzzlement, but he could not spare any of his attention for them. Instead, he was focusing on the men who were taking a break from building the dais and the lists and the merchants who were nearby.

The strangers looked over at the table curiously, their attention caught by the darts of light that the trinkets reflected back at the sun. It did not take long for them to begin to drift over to walk past the table, their faces revealing curiosity and interest.

"Those for sale?" asked one of the merchants who approached.

"They will be," Ezra answered quickly.

"You have them laid out now," the man pointed out.

"A test viewing," Ezra explained.

The merchant looked at him with appreciation. "Clever."

Ezra inclined his head, but did not reply. He watched as the people who wandered by looked at the contents of the table. Many of them seemed interested and he could hear snatches of conversation as they left, most of which were about the small items Buck and John had made.

Satisfaction filled him. Excellent. This had worked exactly as he had hoped. "I think that will do it." He began gathering up the trinkets and placing them back in the sacks.

"Is the over, then?" a second merchant asked.

"Until the tourney starts, yes." Ezra glanced up and met his eyes. "We have all been working quite hard for the tourney. We would all be quite upset if anything should happen to this table or its placement. Christopher especially, I believe."

On cue, Christopher crossed his arms over his chest. "Very upset."

"I see," the merchant said, understanding clear on his face. "I am sure the table will be undisturbed."

"How wonderful to hear," Ezra said. "Thank you."

The merchant smiled a little, then walked back over to mind his own wares.

"Nicely done," Ezra said to Christopher, and was rewarded with a smile.

"I think some of them would have bought today," Buck said. "Why did you stop me from trying to sell?"

"These men are not the ones you want to sell to," Ezra said. "You want the nobility and wealthy people who follow them to buy."

"Then why the preview?"

"Because these men will talk and it is very likely that some of the people you wish to attract will overhear them. They will no doubt be looking forward to seeing what you have. Also, only a very few of the merchants saw your goods and they will no doubt discuss them with those who missed them. They will be especially curious to see what will be competing with their goods. When you finally lay out the trinkets when the tourney has begun, they will hurry over to see what you have. People will notice that the merchants are curious and will want to see what they are looking at, and that will created even more interest in your trinkets."

Buck nodded his understanding. "Word of mouth. Do you really think it will work?" He began putting trinkets away as well.

"I do," Ezra said. "This is for the best. Trust in me."

"I do."

Ezra's fingers stopped moving and looked up and met Buck's gaze. "Thank you," he said quietly.

"No, thank you," Buck countered.

Feeling a blush threaten, Ezra directed his attention back down to his hands, bending his head a little more than necessary in order to hide his face. He really had to gain control of himself. Even if by some chance Buck did not notice his behavior, one of the others most certainly would. John had already guessed; how many more people did he want to know his secret? He was already going too far. He had put quite a bit of thought into how he could help Buck with small things like this preview and he feared that someone could guess that his motives went beyond friendship.

It did not take long to gather up the rest of the trinkets and the cloth. Ezra was fairly sure that the threat of Christopher's displeasure would prevent any enterprising person from touching the table. The location was exactly what they needed and Ezra would hate to lose it. "Food?" he suggested. It was already well passed the afternoon.

"I could eat," Vincent said, grinning at Ezra.

One day Ezra was going to corner him and ask exactly what he thought he was doing. He wanted to do so while they were alone, however, and that rarely seemed to happen.

"Sounds good to me," Buck seconded.

Like just now. All seven of them were soon on their way to Aaron's tavern, where they claimed what had become their usual table. It was one of the few that was still open; the tavern was crowded with regulars and strangers both. Ezra found himself sitting beside Buck, closer than usual because of the crowd. Aaron walked over to greet them, smiling broadly. "Good evening."

"You look to be in a good mood," Buck commented.

"I am. The tourney has not even arrived and already it has brought me much business. I cannot imagine what it will be like when the tourney is actually here." He looked over his full dining room with satisfaction.

"I am pleased for you," Ezra said. "Congratulations." He was pleased to see that the tourney was bringing wealth for townspeople already.

"Thank you. What can I bring you tonight?"

"Whatever you have plenty of!" Buck laughed.

"I will be right back," Aaron promised. He walked back into his kitchen.

Conversation started slowly, rolling around the table as they relaxed and waited for their food. John began asking Josiah and Nathan about the other places they had journeyed through during their travels. Smiling, the two men were indulging him, with Christopher occasionally chiming in with his opinions and observances.

"Sometimes I wish I could see all those places," John said. "I like hearing stories, but I wonder what it would be like to see it with my own eyes."

Buck shook his head. "No, you do not."

John shot him a protesting look. "I do!"

"Traveling is not everything you might think." Buck leaned forward across the table, his voice earnest. "Unless you are rich, then traveling is often a cold dirty business. The people in the towns you go to will not be friends or neighbors, so you cannot trust them to help you if you are in need."

"That is often true," Nathan admitted. "But it is one of the best ways I know for a man to learn about the world."

"And one of the most dangerous."

"It can be, yes," Josiah said. "But John is a man who is capable of taking care of himself."

"It is lonely," Buck said.

"A man is often lonely," Christopher countered. "I remember you doing your share of traveling, Buck. Why be so against it now?"

"My views have changed." Buck leaned back. "I just want him to know everything about traveling before he starts to think about it."

"Him?" Vincent asked. "You mean John?"

Buck shot him a searching look. "Of course."

"Ah." Vincent nodded, but there was something strange about the smile that quirked the corners of his mouth.

Ezra suppressed a sigh. He really was going to have to corner Vincent at the first opportunity that arose and force him to explain his actions. So long as he was just confusing Ezra, there was no pressing need to understand exactly what he thought he was up to, but if he was going to take to needling Buck, then Ezra was going to step in. Buck was under enough stress with the tourney fast approaching; there was no need for Vincent to add to it.

He would also have to speak to Buck. Christopher was right; Buck had never spoken out against traveling before. Was he afraid to lose a gifted apprentice? Ezra doubted that John would leave Vierecken; he seemed happy here and he really wanted to impress Buck with how fast he could learn and how well he could work. There was no reason for Buck to be working so hard to dissuade him.

That could wait, though. For the moment, Ezra was going to sit and enjoy the knowledge that this had been a day well spent. He had given Buck a strong measure of hope for his chances at the tourney and he truly believed that he had laid the groundwork for strong interest in Buck's trinkets. Word of mouth could be a very powerful tool. Ezra was going to reward himself, just a little. He was going to sit next to Buck and listen to him talk. If he concentrated, he could almost feel the big man's words rumbling up out of him, could almost feel the heat of his body.

It could not hurt to indulge, just a little. He would be leaving Vierecken soon, doing some of that traveling Buck was so against. He might as well store up some memories to keep him warm while he was doing some of that cold and lonely travelling Buck disliked so much.

Standing behind the table Christopher and Vincent had constructed, Buck grinned widely, feeling like the absolute master of his domain. He had a perfectly located table, a large supply of trinkets to sell, and he could feel that today was going to be grand.

"It is a little early for a smile that large," a passing man said.

Buck's grin just grew. The sun had just barely risen, but he already knew it was going to be a fine day. After all, there were no clouds in the sky, the air smelled fresh and sweet, and it was the first day of the tourney. How could a day be any finer?

He glanced down at the small trinkets that were strewn artfully across the length of bright blue cloth. There really were not all that many there; Ezra had forbidden him to reveal the total extent of his inventory on the first day. Buck had disagreed, but the shorter man had stood firm, going so far as to choose which ones should be displayed. Mostly flowers, there were a few shields mixed in and an even lower number of swords.

Buck reached out and touched one of the flowers. He had argued with Ezra, but in the end he had given in. Ezra had refused to back down, insisting that his plan would bring Buck the most interest and the most wealth. He had been very earnest, green eyes bright with insistence and hope. After that, Buck had realized how much it meant to Ezra for him to believe him and trust in him. He had put on a show of resistance but had acceded to Ezra's wishes. Time would tell if that had been the best choice for business, but he knew that he had made the right choice for his friend. Ezra had grinned at him, unselfconscious and true when he had realized he had won.

Buck shook his head, forcing his attention back to the present. The first event would be starting in little more than an hour and people were beginning to move toward the lists, eager to find a place from which to watch. The early arrivals took their time, walking past the merchants who had also risen before the dawn, inspecting their tables as they passed. Buck did his best to look approachable, just like Ezra had told him. He smiled at the people who walked by, nodding in greeting as they passed.

Many of the people who caught sight of his wares came to his table, moving in for a closer look. Buck resisted the urge to talk to them, to try to make them stay through conversation. Ezra's cautions against doing so rang in his ears. The younger man had given him explicit instructions about how to act. Buck had suggested that Ezra rise early and join him at the table, in order to make sure that all went well, but his friend had laughed at him and promised to see him at a more reasonable hour.

Instead of talking, Buck smiled a lot and answered questions when people asked him about the trinkets, explaining that he was the one who had made them and no, he had never seen anything like them, either. Some of the people who stopped by to talk were his friends and neighbors, and all of them wished him luck. Strangers stopped by as well, and he sold his first trinket early, and sold a few more before the crowds began to arrive in earnest.

Many of the people in the crowd were from Vierecken, but there were a good number of strangers as well. All of them kept moving steadily toward the lists, ready for the jousting and contests of arms to begin. Buck had to resist the temptation to turn and watch the action. He did not want his trinkets or his money disappearing because of his inattention.

"Buck!" John waved at him over the heads of the people in the crowd in front of him.

"I left you in charge at the forge," Buck said as soon as the younger man came closer. He had left John behind at the smithy, but he had fully expected his apprentice to find a way to come to the tourney.

John grinned, recognizing his teasing for what it was. "I know. But there is no one there right now, no work waiting to be done. Ezra said that he had seen tourneys before, so he said I could come and see the first few matches and he would keep watch over the forge." John bounced a little on the balls of his feet, taking in the sights around him with quick, eager glances.

Buck could not summon the will to scold him. When he had been John's age, he would have found any excuse to stop working and view a tourney himself. "Ezra?" He had not thought the other man would be awake for hours yet.

"I was surprised to see him, but he said that he had a feeling that I would not want to miss this and he told me to go ahead and come."

"That was kind of him."

"It was. I just hope he is not lonely there on his own." John's eyes widened. "I think they are going to get started. Are you all right on your own?"

"I am fine. Get going." Buck waved him on his way.

Grinning widely, John waved at him and made his way deeper into the crowd.

Buck watched him go, pleased to see him so happy. He sensed a presence near the table and turned to find Josiah looking at him, with Christopher and Nathan a short distance away. "Looking to buy a souvenir, Josiah?"

Josiah looked over the table. "Not just yet. It looks as though you have been selling some."

"A few," Buck said modestly. "Are you here to visit me?"

Josiah shook his head. "You are a big boy, more than capable of taking care of himself. Christopher and I are here to ensure that Nathan enjoys the tourney unmolested."

"Good thinking." Buck nodded at Christopher and exchanged smiles with Nathan. "Vincent decided not to join you?"

"I saw him walking toward the smithy on our way over here," Christopher said.

The smithy. And Ezra. Jealousy flared through Buck. The smithy was his place. Vincent had no reason to be there. "Oh."

Christopher watched him closely, but did not say anything more.

Josiah looked over the crowd. "There are certainly quite a few people here. I am not really in the mood to battle a crowd."

Nathan looked over at the milling people with apprehension in his eyes. "If you do not want to be here..." He let his voice trail away.

"I want to see this," Christopher said, his voice low. "I like watching the great warriors battle each other." He met Buck's gaze with a sardonic smile.

Buck returned the smile. He understood how Chris was feeling. The knights who competed against each other in tourneys were hailed as skilled warriors and great fighters. Few of them ever faced real battle, with its heat and fury and bloody reality of fighting for their lives against men who were just as intent on ensuring their own survival. These knights were revered, while the mercenaries who fought for money and their lives were looked upon with suspicion and a little fear. It was strange to watch mock battles and see people care more about them and be more impressed by them then they were by real battles.

Josiah sighed. "I am not in the mood for watching men bloody each other. Buck, if you would like to join them in viewing the tourney, I would be happy to watch over your goods for you."


"I would not have offered if I was not serious."

"I should really look in on the forge, just to be sure that there is no one there who needs work done."

Josiah smiled. "Of course. How much have you been charging?"

Buck quickly explained how he had been pricing the trinkets. "Christopher, Nathan, enjoy the tourney. I will doubtless see you later."

"Enjoy yourself, as well," Christopher said. "Nathan, come. Let us see these fearsome fighters."

Nathan grinned as he followed the thin man into the crowd.

Buck waved at Josiah and started walking toward the smithy. He should check on it, after all. John was not there and if anyone arrived looking for a blacksmith, Ezra was not going to be able to help them. Although if he talked fast enough, the green-eyed man could no doubt convince any visitor that he could. Walking quickly, it did not take Buck long to reach the forge. He walked inside.

Ezra looked up from the stool on which he was sitting. "Buck! I did not expect to see you so soon. Did you sell your entire inventory?"

"No, not yet. I have sold some, though." He looked around the smithy. "Where is Vincent?"

"I do not know. He stopped by earlier, but left soon after. I thought he had gone to the tourney."

Buck relaxed. Vincent had not lingered. Good.

Ezra rose from his stool. "What brings you back?"

The simple question made Buck feel a surge of confusion and shame. Why had he hurried back? Vincent was a friend, a good friend. There was no reason for him to be so territorial about him being in the forge. "I thought that someone might come in looking for a smith. I could not tell John to stay here, so I returned when Josiah offered to watch over my table."

"Josiah is a good man."

"Yes." He looked Ezra over carefully, surprised to see him awake so early. He seemed to be in a good mood, but there were smudges under his eyes and he did not look rested. "You are awake and about early."

"Excitement over the tourney, no doubt. Perhaps John's enthusiasm somehow infected me." He smiled brightly.

"Perhaps." Buck knew Ezra was not telling him the truth. He had shown no excitement about the tourney in the two months leading up to this day. What was more, Buck could see a leaf half-hidden in his hair. That told him that Ezra had been out in the forest this morning. If he had gone out there so early, then something was most definitely preying on his mind. Buck knew that no amount of cajoling could make him talk if he did not wish to, so he settled for telling himself that he would keep an eye on Ezra. He owed the other man for his friendship and guidance and he would do what he could to help him with whatever problem he was facing.

Ezra stretched lingeringly, groaning a little bit as he did so. "Since you are here now, I am going to venture forth in search of a morning meal."

"Will you come back?"

"If you wish me to." Ezra blinked and then looked down. "I will need to select your next batch of trinkets, after all." He walked toward Buck, heading for the door.

As Ezra walked past him, Buck reached out and plucked the leaf from his hair. "Here," he said, holding it out to him.

"Thank you." Ezra flushed, took the leaf and quickly left.

Buck watched him go, smiling a little. When Ezra blushed, it did amazing things to his eyes, making them even more vivid than usual. Even when he was flustered, he was still a damn handsome man.

Wait. Buck realized where his thoughts were leading him and he knew that he had to stop them before they went any further. He could not do this to Ezra. When he had been a mercenary, young and certain of his immortality, he had done some very dangerous things. On occasion he had had lain with men, finding joy in the hard muscles and flat planes of the male body. If the wrong people had discovered him, he could have been in quite a lot of trouble. He had given that up when he had given up fighting and there was no reason for it to be resurfacing now.

That old attraction would explain some of what he had been feeling. If he was attracted to Ezra, that could be the reason he was feeling so territorial toward Vincent. Vincent had been spending more time with Ezra than was usual for him and that was most likely what had been making him so irritable and angry. Buck knew he had to get himself under control. He had no right to resurrect these old desires and involve Ezra, or anyone else, in it. The other man had been too good a friend for that, as had Vincent.

Buck needed to get himself under control and learn to leave the past in the past. No matter how handsome Ezra might be, how intelligent or amusing...Buck shook his head. He had to stop thinking like that. He needed to get his head on straight and stop acting like a fool. All his friends deserved better than that -- especially Ezra. He just had to find a way to forget how good it felt to make Ezra smile, the feeling of Ezra's hair soft on his fingertips...

With a sigh, Buck sat down on the stool Ezra had just vacated. This was not going to be easy.

Ducking his head outside his door, Ezra evaluated the sky above him. The sun had not quite set and shadows had grown long between the buildings of Vierecken. He could still hear noise from the direction of the tourney; no doubt there would be people there long after dark.

He sighed. He would rather wait until all the strangers had sought their beds before venturing forth, but he knew he had to be realistic. The tourney would last for a week and he could not spend the entire time hiding in his room. He had tried to do so today and he knew that he could not do it for a week. Instead of looking for food when he left the smithy, he had instead returned to his room. He was now starving and almost out of his head with boredom. He would go mad if he tried to do this for another day.

His stomach rumbled and Ezra gave up on brooding. That could wait until after he had eaten. He left his room and walked down the stairs, keeping to the shadows as he walked through the streets. He walked past the forge, but it was dark and silent, so there was no one there. Ezra knew there was a good chance that the others would still be at the tourney, but he had hoped for some friendly company while he ate. Without much hope, he entered Aaron's tavern.

For a moment he was frozen, utterly taken aback by the crowd he found inside. The tables were filled to overflowing by men and women both, laughing, talking, their conversation taking up all the space not taken up by their bodies. He'd never seen that many people in Aaron's in all the years he'd been in Vierecken.

Aaron's oldest son walked over to him. "Hello, Ezra."

"Mark." Ezra's gaze swept the room.

"It is hard to believe, is it not?" Mark looked over the room himself. "At first I thought there were more people in here then live in town, but I counted and I know that is not right."

"Are there no open seats?"

"No, I am sorry. I could get you a plate from the kitchen that you could take with you."

That would not do anything to solve the problem of his loneliness, but at least he would no longer be hungry. "I would be very grateful."

"I will fetch it right away," Mark promised, before disappearing back into the kitchen.

Not wanting to draw too much attention to himself, Ezra moved outside. If he continued to linger in the doorway someone would no doubt notice him and that was exactly what he wished to avoid. He inhaled deeply; the evening breeze was coming from the direction of the forest and he could smell the fresh scent of leaves and life.

"Ezra?" John peered at him through the darkness as he moved closer. "What are you doing out here?"

"Waiting to get something to eat."

"Me, too!" John looked toward the lit up doorway. "I cannot believe how many people are in there. We had to ask Aaron to let us take something away with us." He turned his attention back to Ezra. "You should join us."

"I will, thank you for the invitation."

Mark poked his head out the door. "I thought I heard you, John. Ezra, are you going with him?"

"I am."

Mark nodded and ducked back into the tavern. A few moments later, he appeared with his arms laden with a basket from which tempting aromas arose. "There is enough in here for all of you," he said, handing it over to John.

"Thank you," Ezra said. "Give your father my thanks."

"I will." Mark grinned. "When I have time!" He disappeared from the doorway once more.

John led Ezra through the streets of Vierecken until they reached the small house he shared with Buck. "I did not see you at the tourney today."

"I did not spend much time there. Did you enjoy yourself?"

"It was very interesting. I did not understand everything I saw, though." He cast a sidelong glance at Ezra. "I was hoping that you might be willing to go with me and explain some it?"

Ezra drew in a deep breath. He did not want to spend time at the tourney itself; that would be the most dangerous place for him to be if he did not want to chance being recognized. At the same time, he knew he could not hide in his room until the tourney and its participants left. He also did not want to arouse suspicion from his friends by hiding and he did not want to disappoint John. Perhaps spending one day with his young friend at the tourney would not pose too great a risk. "How about tomorrow?"

"That sounds great. Thank you, Ezra."

They reached the house. There was light showing through the windows and Ezra could hear voices and laughter coming from inside.

John opened up the door. "Food has arrived! And I found Ezra."

"Get them both in here," Vincent called cheerfully.

Ezra followed John into the house, glancing around the rooms quickly. He had not often been inside this place. It was not that he was unwelcome; indeed, he often turned down invitations to come here. It somehow felt far too intimate to be here, where Buck slept and dreamed and occasionally brought his woman. Ezra knew it would be far too easy to build all sorts of fantasies about being the one Buck took home. He tried to avoid the temptation; it felt a little too much like using his friend and he did not want that. Sometimes he could not help himself, but he did try to resist.

Inside the main room, Vincent, Buck and Christopher sat on the rough furniture. They each greeted both him and John before falling on the basket, eager to find out what was hidden inside.

Having grabbed his share of food, Vincent sat back on the chair he had chosen. "I did not see much of you today," he said, glancing up at Ezra.

"I was not out and about very much." Ezra moved forward, taking dinner from the basket and claiming a chair for himself.

"You do not like tourneys?"

"I have seen them before." Ezra did not want to explain. He knew he could trust these men, but telling them his troubles could drag them in to them and he had no wish to do so. By keeping his silence he could protect them and understanding that made it easier for him to hold his tongue.

"He is going to go with me," John said.

Buck looked up from his food. "How did you talk him into that?"

"I asked."

Buck transferred his glance to Ezra. "So if I asked, you would man the table for me?"

"Ah, John asked me to walk about the tourney and talk to him. You are asking me to work. That is a very different thing."

"I could pay you."

"So I may be labeled a menial laborer? I think not."

Buck laughed and Ezra let the warm sound rush over him. He grinned at Buck and was surprised when he received an open grin in return. There was heat in that grin and Buck was meeting his eyes with more than his usual boldness.

Ezra snapped his own gaze down to his food. Buck had to be reacting to something he was doing - in some way Ezra must be giving away his interest to the man. He had probably been flirting without realizing he was doing so and Buck had reacted without thought. So long as he kept control of himself, Buck would probably not notice what had just happened.

He was slipping, slipping badly. This was just one more sign that he needed to get out of town, leave Vierecken and Buck in peace before he did something they all would regret. He did not want to leave, but it would be far better to go and have the memory of Buck's friendship to keep him company on his travels than to be forced to leave Vierecken when Buck realized the attraction he was hiding. He did not think the Buck would react with violence, but he would be uncomfortable and their friendship would likely be destroyed. Ezra did not want that.

As soon as the tourney was over, he was going to leave. If he had not promised John that he would remain in town through the next week, he would begin making preparations to slip away now.

Keeping his head down as he ate, Ezra listened to the conversations that swirled around him, hearing John and the others discuss what they had seen at the tourney. It sounded much like ever other tourney he had ever attended: contests of arms and rowdy crowds and sharp-eyed merchants all mixed together in a noisy colorful spectacle. John sounded as though he had enjoyed himself immensely; he was still talking about the fighters he'd seen and the rich men and ladies who had watched them do battle. Christopher and Vincent had not been nearly so impressed, but they seemed to have enjoyed themselves just the same.


Ezra forced himself to look up and meet Buck's gaze. "Yes?

"I am going to need more trinkets to sell tomorrow. My table was starting to look a little bare by the end of the day."

One thing more for which he deserved recrimination. He had taken over Buck's inventory, insisting that he had a plan that would help Buck sell more of the trinkets. Instead of monitoring the sales and sticking to his plan, he had hidden away in his room like a coward, abandoning his friend when he had put his trust in him. "Buck, I am so sorry."

Buck's look became puzzled. "Sorry for what? I did not run out of trinkets. I just need more to sell tomorrow."

"And you shall have them. As soon as I finish eating I will fetch the portion you should attempt to sell tomorrow."

"There is no rush. Tomorrow is still a long way off."

"Still, I owe you an apology. I allowed my concentration to waver. I promise you that it shall not happen again."

"Ezra, you have nothing to apologize for. The trinkets were your idea in the first place. I sold more of them today than I believed I would." Buck looked at him steadily. "Are you feeling right?"

"I am fine," Ezra assured him. "Perhaps a little tired from rising so early."

"That was early?" Vincent asked.

"For me, it was." Ezra placed the remains of his meal in the basket.

"Are you leaving us?" Vincent asked.

"He cannot," Christopher pointed out. "He still has to choose what Buck is going to sell tomorrow."

"Very true," Ezra said. "Where are the rest of the trinkets?"

John got up from his seat. "I will get them." He disappeared into another room, then returned with the two familiar canvas bags. He placed them on the floor in front of Ezra. "Here they are."

"Thank you." Ezra opened them both and began to pick through the trinkets that remained, pulling out more shields and sword sets than he had chosen for the first day. The selection was still dominated by flowers, but there was definitely a more martial theme to the trinkets.

"I assume there is a method to how you are choosing these," Christopher said.

"Yes." Ezra concealed a smile as he continued pulling out trinkets, deliberately not answering the implied question.

Christopher inhaled deeply, ill concealing his irritation.

Not wanting to push the mercenary too far, Ezra gave him an explanation. "Today, these trinkets were a curiosity, and the flowers are good quality and interesting. Tomorrow, they will still be a curiosity but people will be more drawn into the events in the tourney. Flowers will still be purchased; women will want them and men will want to please them. But people will also have decided on participants in the tourney that they favor and they will want to by tokens that will remind them of their preferred champion."

"So you want me to have more swords and shields on display." Buck leaned forward in his chair. "Very clever, Ezra."

Glowing a little inside from the praise, Ezra smiled at him. "Thank you. I just hope it will work."

"It will," Buck said. "You are an intelligent man, Ezra, and you understand people. These will sell just as well tomorrow, perhaps even better."

"And if they do not?" Christopher asked.

"Then I shall blame you for you for producing a shoddy table that frightened away my customers with its instability."

Christopher narrowed his eyes at him. "You walk a dangerous path."

"It gives my life some spice."

Letting the friendly banter flow around him, Ezra finished selecting the items he thought would sell best coming tomorrow. He laid them out on the floor, tucking them back out of the way a bit to ensure that no one accidentally destroyed them by stepping on them. That finished, he could feel the effects of a large meal and a long day combining, making him sleepy.

After closing the canvas bags once more, Ezra rose to his feet. "I fear I am not going to be awake much longer. I shall take my leave of you."

"Are you certain?" Buck asked.

"I have no wish to sleep on your floor." In his bed, yes, cradling Buck's large body close, but not on his floor. He kept his gaze on his hands, not wanting his eyes to give away his thoughts.

"Ezra?" John's voice broke through his embarrassment. "Will you walk through the tourney with me tomorrow?"

Best to get it over with. "Yes."

"When should I meet you?"

"I will find you," Ezra said. "And I can assure you that I will seek you out at a reasonable hour."

John grinned at him. "Thank you."

"My pleasure." It was not, but a white lie could not hurt, not when John looked so pleased to hear it. "Good night."

"Sleep well," Vincent said warmly.

"Dream well," Buck added, glancing suspiciously at Vincent.

Ezra raised his hand in farewell, then left the house. It did not take him long to reach the safety of his own room. Once inside, he quickly stripped out of his clothing and lay down in his bed. Despite the way he had teased John, he had no intention of lying in bed too late. The people he wanted to avoid would most likely go to the tourney later in the afternoon, so it would be better for him to walk through it earlier.

He closed his eyes, but sleep eluded him. His thoughts returned again and again to the heated smile Buck had gifted him with not too long before. The way his lovely dark eyes had fixed on him, the way his lips had parted as they quirked upwards at the corners...he could not stop thinking about it.

His thoughts soon left the way of memory and began to wander down the path of fantasy. What might have happened if he and Buck had been alone in the house and Buck had returned his love? He would not have looked away then; instead, he would have slid off his chair to his knees, leaning forward to place his hands on Buck's thighs. He would rise up on his knees and press his mouth to Buck's. The delightful scratch of Buck's mustache on his still sensitive skin would be a sharp counterpoint to Buck's soft, talented mouth.

His breath coming faster, Ezra slid his hand down his bare chest, skating it down over his stomach and curling his fingers around his growing erection.

He wanted to spend hours kissing Buck, learning every trick that would bring him pleasure and discover for himself the talent that made him so very popular with women. After feasting on Buck's mouth, he would rise to his feet and catch Buck's hands in his own, pulling him into Buck's bedroom. There, he could strip away Buck's clothing, finally seeing him utterly natural, clothed only in his lovely skin. Ezra had seen him without his shirt before, his muscled body marked by scars that only accentuated his strength and power, the experiences in his life that had shaped him into the man he was today.

Catching his lower lip between his teeth, Ezra slid his hand up and down the length of his cock, his breath stuttering in and out as his skin slicked with sweat.

He would strip his own clothing away and leave it on the floor; how could it matter when he had Buck naked and willing before him? Buck would lie down on the bed and then Ezra would be able to straddle his waist, giving himself access to Buck's chest. He would bend and taste him, licking and kissing his way down the hard planes of his torso. He bet himself that Buck had sensitive nipples and he would do his best to discover if that theory was true. Once he had Buck hard and needy beneath him, he would continue his journey downward, backing up until he could see the proud rise of Buck's erection. He had no doubt his cock would be as handsome as the rest of him.

His breath coming faster, Ezra increased the pace of his strokes.

He would lean down and take the head of Buck's cock in his mouth, learning his taste and the feel of him on his tongue. Just a taste only, a tease for him and Buck both. Then he would move back upwards, blanketing Buck's body with his own. He knew Buck would be a generous lover; how could he be anything else? This way, Buck would be able to touch him as well as they thrust against each other and exchanged long, wet kisses. The heat between them would build until they were both lost in it.

Gasping, Ezra came, coating his hand with the evidence of his own pleasure. He lay still for a few moments, panting lightly. After a few moments he rose from his bed and cleaned himself up, then returned to his bed, which seemed far too large and empty with just him in it. Curling in on himself, Ezra wrapped his arms around himself and let lethargy seep through him.

Sleep was still a long time coming.

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