Everybody Wins

by Artisan447 and Charlotte C. Hill
October 2009: the sporting challenge. An addition to the Tour de Seven cycling AU.

"How are you feeling today, Ezra?" Josiah asked.

Ezra offered up the truth with a cocky smile. "Invincible," he said easily.

Josiah, their team manager, wanted Ezra to win this stage, but not more than Ezra did. His focus so far--the whole team's focus--had been on keeping Chris in contention, but this stage had nothing for the GC riders. Mostly flat with a series of sweeping uphill curves in the last 5k, followed by a fast run to the line, it was a sprinter's paradise. To top it off, keeping Chris in the running had put Ezra up front, too, and now he was only 12 points out of the green jersey.

Josiah nodded, so serious about this race day, and turned his attention to Buck, Vin, and JD. "You're his lead out train, boys. JD, you get up front when we hit the 1k banner then let Buck take over."

"Wouldn't hurt if you peeled off into Gerstein's line," Chris said, a casual aside that brought chuckles from the rest of the team. Kurt Gerstein had gone into the points lead 3 days earlier, and that wasn't something Ezra, or any of them, would let go unchallenged. There was plenty of history between him and Ezra--some everyone knew, more they didn't--but enough to make Ezra's gut burn with the need to see him lose his trophy, the green jersey awarded to the most consistently strong sprinter.

Josiah ignored Chris, and Ezra couldn't decide if their manager just thought a comment like that was beneath this team, or if Josiah was giving tacit permission for the tactic. He hoped it was the latter. He'd need every inch of space his team could give him, and he wasn't against them pushing right up to the edge of the rules to get it for him.

"If Vin can get you to 200 meters, Ezra, use him. If he can't, jump on whoever's wheel you need to and go for it."

"Vin will get me there," Ezra assured. He'd developed great faith in Tanner's lead out skills. Buck's and JD's too, if truth be told; they were both strong, Buck the stronger in part because he was just bigger--more mass, and a better slipstream for Ezra to hide in and conserve his energy--but JD made up for his lack of bulk by clearing the way with the fearless enthusiasm of an overgrown puppy. Riders tended to give a lot of room to a cyclist as squirrely as JD still was. Between them, they'd get him most of the way to the finish line and Vin would do the rest--Vin had developed a little faith of his own, and more because of the friendship they'd been building off the bike rather than on it.

JD voiced the objection Ezra had been waiting for. "What about Chris?"

What about him? Ezra wanted to say. Chris had done wonders for the team early on, getting and keeping the leader's jersey for four days and in the doing putting Four Corners-Clarion on the map like no amount of stage wins could have.

"What about me?" Chris dismissed, if mildly, and Ezra bit back a chuckle.

"No need to waste energy on Chris today," Josiah added offhand. "Rick and Josef, you stay with him, keep him out of trouble, but other than that..."

"Better to get Ez across the line for us all," Chris finished.

JD might have argued, if anybody but Chris had said that, but as it was, he just made a little hrumph and leaned back against his seat with a frown. Buck laughed and slung an arm around his shoulders. "Stage has Ezra written all over it, kid, and the only way Chris'd get over the line first today is if Ezra was pushing him."

Chris grinned and flipped Buck off, and Josiah got to his feet bringing the laughter, and the meeting, to an end.

"Okay boys, go out and do something special."

"Gentlemen, I'll catch you up. I'm off to the AFLD trailer."

JD glared at no one in particular. "They tap you for urine again, Ezra?" AFLD was the French cycling organization's anti-doping squad, and they'd taken "random" testing through French races to new heights. "Geez, when are they gonna leave you alone?"

"After he stops winning or stops being American," Chris said dryly.

Buck choked on his orange juice, but he came up grinning. "That's about the size of it, kid. But he didn't get tapped. He volunteers."

"Horse crap," JD scoffed.

Ezra wondered how the younger man had missed it, then remembered that A) they'd only ridden in three French races this season, and B) off the bike, JD wasn't particularly observant anyway. "Buck's right, JD," Ezra said, and smiled. "I go over and offer to piss on them every single morning of every single race held in this country."

"Ezra," Josiah admonished, "most of 'em do speak English, you know. You've got to stop insulting them like that."

Ezra sniffed. "I'll stop insulting them when they stop casting aspersions on me every time a reporter walks within fifty feet of them."

Buck got up and slapped Ezra on the shoulder. "I'll walk over with ya, Ez." He glanced around toward Josiah and Nathan, and shrugged. "I got tagged on my way into the bus."

They filed out together, ignoring the press lines. Vin peeled off with the rest of the team with a short wave. Chris sidled closer to Buck than was strictly necessary, and grinned.

After a brief yet annoying visit to both AFLD's and WADA's trailers, where Buck peed in a cup and both of them were bled into test tubes, they picked up their bikes and joined their teammates in the crowded peloton at the start line.

"Got your lucky socks on?"

Vin slouched on his bike the way other men leaned on a bar and his teasing tone and knowing grin went a long way to calming Ezra's sudden nerves.

"I hardly think luck has a role to play," he replied, keeping his tone cool as he zipped his jersey the last inch. When he finally looked up, and their eyes met, Vin just nodded.

"Good to know," he said, smile widening, then he nudged Ezra in the ribs with his elbow right before he rolled away. Ezra blinked, his own mouth twitching into an unexpected grin. Vin Tanner, for all his silence, certainly had the knack for saying just the right thing at the right time.

After that, Ezra didn't think about much until they hit the 3k banner, and then muscle-memory kicked in and he didn't think at all.

Time slowed down, cyclists sped up--forty, fifty, sixty k an hour, and just like he always did in a sprint, he dropped into the present moment, the present second, where past and future didn't exist: just him, and the clash of bodies and clacking bikes, and a white stripe on the road, not far now.

Buck, JD, and Vin kept the line for him, even with other teams jostling to push them out. JD peeled off and Ezra registered the green-and-white-and-black blur as it appeared to race backwards, JD falling back and out of his field of vision, which was all about the square foot in front of him. He couldn't think about it, didn't even want to, as Buck took over, putting both his head and the hammer down, picking up the pace even more. One kilometer to go and it was all out, elbows and helmets and handlebars jostling and shoving, but no way was anyone going to take this chance from him. He jostled back, forcing space for himself, inches off Vin's wheel.

Buck peeled off and sat up, flashing backward just like JD, and Ezra's heart pounded that bit faster. His muscles bunched and strained from fingertips to toes as Vin's wheel jumped forward and Ezra pushed harder to keep in touch. He felt it under his skin, a second before the challenge was launched--some subtle shift in the air, some instinct for this kind of competition that's was as sly and subtle as a card shark in a high stakes poker game, and he knew Gerstein was about to make his move.

Ezra punched right, accelerating in a sudden burst, pulling out from behind Vin's slipstream and toward clear space a heartbeat ahead of his rival--big muscles of his thighs working at maximum capacity, head down and eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching white stripe across the road up ahead.

A flash of blue at his shoulder and he didn't need to turn his head to know it was Gerstein, trying to accelerate into the fast-narrowing space between Ezra's wheels and the barricades, right where they bulged out into the road. He could feel someone off his left back tire and didn't have any place to go even if he wanted to help Gerstein out--which he sure as hell didn't. He adjusted his line, claiming the narrowing space as his own and thought he heard Gerstein swear "Fuck!" over the noise of the bikes and the team radio, and his own heart pounding in his ears.

A sudden clash of shoulders, elbows, and helmets--exhilarating, loud, happening too fast to process--and he pushed back, powering the bike over the line.

He sat up, arms in the air like a god of mythology--or a really bad tent preacher--accepting the accolades of his worshippers, and smirked to himself at the idiocy of such displays. Still, the press loved it, which meant the sponsors loved it, which meant Orrin Travis loved it--which meant Ezra's life was made much more comfortable for the flourishes he came by so easily. His lungs worked like bellows and still he couldn't get enough oxygen in to compensate for that effort, but none of that mattered, because he knew that at least half his wheel went over the line first.

Wheels spinning free, gasping breaths, heart pumping so hard he felt it in his neck and wrists and thighs. He heard the crowds, and suddenly time did that unique thing it did after a sprint, where nanoseconds no longer mattered, the present moment was behind him, and time snapped.

He'd won; for himself, for his team. He'd done his job with panache, even against that bastard Gerstein who'd run into him to try and muscle him out of position at 100 meters. "Dilettante," he thought as one of the support crew herded him through the cattle gates, fences on either side to keep too many reporters or fans from knocking him over.

He stopped for a few minutes to answer shouted questions, heart still racing, adrenaline running high, feeling generous in a moment of victory. He already heard the applause of the crowd in his head when he mounted the podium, already pictured the trophy, had already decided on the exact superior smile he'd use for the cameras, when Chris Larabee, their team's leader, rolled up fast behind him.

Chris had been in the peloton with the rest of the GC contenders, hanging back out of the mess of the bunch sprint so they wouldn't come down if there was a crash, and Ezra had expected just about anything from the man but the glowering, tight-lipped look on his face.

"What happened to you?" he asked, wondering what he'd missed but refusing to give up a single micron of his victorious mood. His heart still pounded, his skin was still numb from lack of oxygen, and the glorious pleasure of victory coursed through his veins. He wasn't about to let Chris ruin that, and hadn't the slightest idea why Chris would want to.

"You're RO'd," Chris spat.

Ezra felt the smile slide off his face and a new heat bloom in his chest. "What?"

"They relegated you," Chris snapped, face white with lack of oxygen or anger--Ezra would bet on anger. "Lost your points and your stage win, you're in last place today."

Ezra almost wanted to take a step back from the rage on Chris's face, even though it was clear that Chris was angry with the race judges, and not Ezra himself.

The thought gave no comfort. "Did they say for what?"

A muscle jumped in Chris's jaw. "Irregular sprinting. Taking Gerstein's line at 100 meters out."

Ezra blinked, and the noise that had begun to register post-finish faded into the distance. "You mean, I am supposed to somehow be responsible for the fact that he tried to force his way through a non-existent gap?" he started slowly and carefully, but lost that care fast and was yelling as he finished with, "Or that incompetent fools can't erect barricades in a STRAIGHT LINE?" The sound of his own voice, loud, broke through the roar of anger in his ears, startling him enough that he grit his teeth, sucked it in, shoved it all back down somewhere deep, and pressed his lips together until they ached.

Buck, bike handed off and jersey unzipped and hanging open, came over with ground-eating strides just as JD rolled in on his bike; Ezra had no idea where Vin was, but a quick look around found him, hip parked against a barricade fence and watching Ezra.

Buck launched in as soon as he got close enough to complain without being overheard by microphones. "Those sons of bitches!" he hissed. "I cannot believe they put that on you when Gerstein started it!"

JD started in with more of the same, damning the race judges and defending Ezra not quite loudly enough for the cameras back behind the barricades to pick up on their complaints, but plenty loud enough for the fans who hovered behind those same temporary fences. Someone was bound to be catching video on a camera phone.

"Gentlemen, please," he said, holding up a calming hand. Ezra wanted to be heartened. He wanted it and he resented the need for it and no fucking way was he going to tolerate this or tolerate his team being criticized on YouTube solely for supporting him--eyes scanning wildly, he looked for any judge, any judge at all to confront, to vent his ire for the unjustness of such a call. If Gerstein wasn't relegated and Ezra was, they weren't going to hear the end of this for a long, long time.

In his manic quest, his eyes landed on Buck, who was staring at him like he'd beat the crap out of anybody who blamed Ezra for that melee. That too, was a small comfort, since Buck had just about turned himself inside out to get Ezra and Vin to the 500-meter mark. When Buck peeled off Vin had pushed himself to the limit, giving Ezra a slipstream and a shot, and he'd fought hard to leave Ezra a wide-open alley to the line. An alley that Gerstein had tried to goddamn steal and that Ezra had defended.

Nothing had mattered but winning--for himself, for his team, for vindication against every scumbag who'd ever accused him of doping or called him less than he could be. Nothing would matter but clearing his name, and he was going to--his eyes landed and stalled on Vin again, who still leaned against the barricade fence just waiting to meet his eyes. Wind picked at his sweaty hair and made tendrils of it float on the breeze, wild. His jersey was unzipped, revealing his sweaty, shining chest but already, Vin's breathing was steadying out. He looked calm, if pensive, and while Ezra stared, Vin's mouth turned up in the tiniest of grins and he shook his head, just once.

Ezra wanted to glare, but that simple gesture--of support for him but not of his anger--took the heat out of him. Besides, Vin was right. It wasn't like the judges were going to change their minds now, and if they weren't--well, there were better and far more subtle ways to start getting his revenge.

He peeled off his gloves, handed his helmet off to the mechanic who grabbed his bike, and smoothed down his jersey. No need to confront the judges when he could do better in the press, far better to channel his fury into an outlet where he'd actually be heard. Far, far better to put the judges in their place with the same panache he gave to his sprints.

The press line seemed to flow toward him, like metal shavings to a magnet, and he pasted on a calm facade.

"Clearly my only intent was to ride in the path created through the exceptional riding of my team," he said, coolly, when asked. "Which the results prove I did remarkably well," he added with a superior smile, gratified when some of the reporters snickered.

"Do you think the judges' call was fair?" one asked, predictably.

Ezra allowed a theatrical pause, then responded in flawless French because he could, and because he wasn't above using the sympathetic hearing he knew that would bring on this French soil. "Fair? That I should be penalized because another rider can't judge the gap between myself and the barrier?" he asked, refusing to even mention his rival by name. "It's dangerous riding to try and force another rider aside to create a path, and I didn't see who it was, but--" he paused as one of the media helpfully supplied Gerstein's name, "Oh, well then. I suppose that explains it." He shrugged in a knowing fashion, in no doubt that everyone there took his point. "So, I'll leave it to you to judge whether the ruling was fair. Tomorrow is another day, and another stage. And I'm certainly more motivated to win it now."

He glanced over to his teammates, where Chris grinned fiercely, JD pumped the air with his fist, and Buck just looked happy, showing all his teeth. Vin... Vin still carried that tiny grin, one that grew as Ezra watched. When Ezra wormed his way out of the reporters' gaggle a few minutes later, leaving Chris and Buck to field them for a time--Josiah had warned JD off the press lines after the very first time he'd put his inexperienced foot in his mouth--Vin finally pushed off the barricade and walked over, dropping a firm hand to his shoulder.

"You still pissed?" he asked, easy and quiet.

"Of course I am, and you should be too," he sniped. "You and Buck rode brilliantly to get me into position for that win. Even JD," he added in much quieter afterthought. It was a challenge sometimes, to compliment their youngest rider for what was at its heart a lack of experience combined with too much enthusiasm.

Vin shrugged though, and squeezed a little harder. "It worked. You got it. Don't matter what those asshole judges say, nobody can steal the fact that you crossed the line first."

"No," Ezra said, seething again. "They can just steal the podium, the trophy, the bonus money, and our endorsements."

Vin's hand slid from his shoulder to the center of his back. "Nah," Vin said easily. "Come on, Ez. Let's take a walk."

"I'd rather take a ride," Ezra admitted. He'd learned over the years that little deflated his fury better than pedaling hard, wasting energy and adrenalin until all that was left was exhaustion and peace of mind.

Vin stepped around in front of him and offered an altogether different kind of smile, one Ezra hadn't seen since they'd rolled out of their respective beds this morning and he'd once more resisted the urge to make a pass at the man.

The interest was there, for both of them, and he was starting to believe that Vin would say yes if Ezra offered--but oddly, that Vin would never make the offer himself, especially not during a race. Ezra could resist a great many impulses, and a great many expenditures of energy that could be put to better use, but the stage was over, they'd won and then had their victory snatched from them, and he'd earned some kind of compensation.

Vin was looking at him in a way that spawned all sorts of terrible ideas. Suddenly he didn't care at all about the stage, the organizers' egregious unfairness, or anything else at all. "Just exactly where were you planning on walking?" he asked, licking dry lips.

Vin's grin widened into a full-fledged smile. "Equipment truck."

Well, that narrowed the possibilities and it wasn't like there was any less public place available, if one of them was finally going to ask. And it wasn't as though there could be any other reason Vin would offer such an enclosed, dim, guarded space. Still. "Are you joking?"

Vin shook his head and poked Ezra in the side to get him moving. "Figure you could use a little quiet without everybody staring at you to blow off steam."

Blow off steam. Buck and Chris used that particular turn of phrase like it was a top-secret code instead of a woefully transparent joke--as if anyone but JD or Rick or their Columbian climbers wouldn't understand exactly what it meant. He didn't know whether to be scandalized or follow his rising erection, because when Vin put it like that... the equipment truck sounded perfect. And if he somehow had it wrong and Vin wasn't amenable to what Ezra sincerely hoped he would be, well... he'd put that frustration into his ride tomorrow, too.

They slipped past the crowds and around the big gear trucks and team buses until they reached Four Corners' truck, where Sharon Chapey was inside, going over gear. "Hey Sharon," Vin said easily. "You want to give us a couple of minutes?"

"For what?" she frowned.

"Ezra's pissed. Needs a little alone time and he sure as hell ain't gonna find it on the team bus or out there with the press and the fans."

Sharon glanced between them, the look on her face not quite suspicious, but even that look added a kick to Ezra's gut; the risk of discovery, the need to bleed off this tension in the most satisfying way that existed and damn Josiah and his rules about saving their energy for the road. He'd saved it today and wound up in last place, after all.

Sharon sighed and stepped close enough to squeeze Ezra's sweaty shoulder. "Tough break, Ezra," she said. Ezra merely nodded, awash with wonder at how little he cared just at this particular moment. Sharon cleared out with a nod when Vin said, "Fifteen minutes, just keep the mechanics out that long," and Ezra had to wonder if they were about to out themselves to the team. They'd hardly outed themselves to each other, and as he climbed into the back of the van and Vin followed, pulling the door almost to so that only a sliver of light crept in, he had to admit he wasn't even sure they were about to do that.

Still. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat had churned up such helpless frustration in him that as far as he was concerned, it was now or never. He turned on Vin and stepped up close enough to touch his chest. He pressed against hard flat muscle with the palm of his hand, moving until he felt the nub of a nipple under his palm, and said merely, "I want... Vin, I want..."

Vin closed the space between them fast enough to push Ezra back against the one bare wall inside the van, placed his hands on either side of Ezra's head and said, "God damn, Ezra, I thought you were never going to ask."

"Well, I don't know why it had to be me--" his bland, automatic reply was cut off by Vin's tongue, and really, what he had wanted to say that was worth stopping this? When Ezra had imagined this--and he had, more than once, in the privacy of the shower when Vin was, he assumed, already snuffling and dreaming of the next day's stage--he had imagined clean bodies and clean sheets, the fresh musk of the man that he'd smelled more than once as they jostled for their cycling kits of a morning. He'd imagined the feel Vin's hair, soft but with that natural wave that indicated more coarse than cornsilk, and running his fingers through the long, clean tresses. He had imagined privacy, and the smooth press of horizontal body to horizontal body.

He hadn't imagined this. That both of them would still be sweating and panting from a stage win in a European race, stinking of five hours of pedalling in a saddle on an unseasonably hot, French spring day. That their groins would reek so much of sweat and work that there wasn't enough money or glory in the world to make him drop to his knees. And he certainly hadn't imagined that they would be not-quite exposed, hiding in a gear truck that sat alongside 20 others, with team buses, press vans, and VIPs jostling around not far away and only the good will of a hopefully oblivious mechanic to maintain their privacy.

Nonetheless, now that they were pressed together, from sweaty chests to shaking thighs, he couldn't imagine a better way for this to begin. Mouth open and panting, still trying to regain the oxygen depleted at the end of the stage, didn't impede the almost violent kisses, the taste and pleasure of thick tongue into and out of his mouth. His pounding heart continued to do its job, pumping oxygen through his veins and blood to his cock, and when Vin shifted a little, pushing their groins hard together to try and overcome the thick chamois padding of their cycling shorts, he groaned and ducked his chin to break the messy kiss, panting as hard as he had been when he'd crossed the finish line.

His skin tingled, high excitement and hormones pumping just like in the race, but for much better reasons. He stopped thinking. He stopped listening to the noises outside the truck. He stopped doing anything but straining against Vin, and time slowed down, each fraction of a second the only one that mattered.

"Get--" he tried, even as Vin's mouth scraped across his cheek, aiming to find Ezra's again, "get those damned shorts out of my way," he hissed.

Soft laughter, puffs of hot air against his wet lips, and Vin's hands left his body bereft, barely long enough to do their job, strip off the jersey and shoulder out of the shorts' suspenders. Ezra did the same, urgent with need, pushing down his bib and then the shorts themselves, until the lycra gripped hard at his hips, pinching at his ass and holding snugly under his bared cock. His first look at Vin erect, and he could barely see it in the near-dark of the van's interior, could only sense it with the same heightened perception of a bunch sprint. He reached blindly, felt the hot, slick heft of it in his hand and sucked in a harsh breath.

Vin's hand reached out, fingertip barely stroking, the touch as ephemeral as the miniscule movement of air when a sprinter starts his run. Nothing he's imagined could be better, more immediate and enlivening than this reality. Even in these circumstances. With the sounds of the race outside this dim truck, and the smell of chain oil and sweat permeating his nostrils, nothing else could even come close.

Long minutes had slid by since Vin herded Ezra off somewhere. They were roommates, and so Chris figured Vin was the best of them to handle Ezra's mood right now.

Still, Buck had thrown more than one look his way and Chris took his responsibilities as the team's captain seriously. He didn't like that they'd disappeared any more than Buck did, didn't like that Ezra wasn't in the team bus with them, venting so they could all show their support. Even if his bitching might have annoyed the hell out of Chris, it was familiar and today, Ezra even deserved it.

"Think he's okay?" Buck asked as Chris pulled on black running shorts and a tee shirt, both emblazoned with Four Corners-Clarion's brands and colors. He'd showered off--taken two minutes, tops, just to get the road grime off him, and now half his mind was on Ezra while the other half focused in on Buck, who'd peeled his bib down and whose shorts hung so low on his hips that Chris could see his happy trail. Wanted to follow it, even.

But Ezra's disappearance had him worried. Who knew what the hell kind of trouble the man could get into, if he tried? If he was hunting out Gerstein to pick a fight, he'd get more than relegated; they'd kick him out of the race for that kind of shit, and publicity like that, Travis wouldn't appreciate at all.

"Couldn't have gone far," he said, dragging his gaze up from Buck's crotch to his face. "And Vin's with him."

"Vin can get a little hot under the collar too," Buck said, not quite nudging.

Chris didn't feel right not checking, so he didn't actually need a whole nudge, anyway. "I'll just..." He jerked his head at the door and Buck nodded.

As he picked his way through gear dropped in the bus's narrow aisle, Buck leaned forward enough to slap him on the ass. "I'll let Josiah know if he asks," Buck said, as Chris slipped out the door.

He found Sharon loitering with their lead mechanic not far from the vans. "You seen Ezra?" he asked her.

"Yeah," she said, frowning. "He looked pretty pissed."

"Every right to be, for that fucked-up call," Chris replied. "Where is he?"

"He's in the equipment truck," she said, pointing. A glance at the back of the van showed the door wasn't quite pulled to, and Chris could understand Ezra wanting some privacy. Like as not he wouldn't listen to a thing Chris had to say, but didn't mean Chris shouldn't say it, anyway.

"Thanks, Sharon."

He'd already taken a step when she added, "Vin, too." He stopped and looked back and she just shrugged, like it was more than her sanity was worth to question anything the team got up to, which... maybe it was. "Tell them we need to get in there," she said, not quite griping.

He nodded to her and walked on over, making his way around gear and tarps that were spread out on the ground, and when he got to the truck he reached a hand to steady the door as he stuck his head in, to keep it from swinging in and smacking his skull. After the bright sunlight it took his eyes more than a second to adjust, and he was just inhaling to call Ezra's name when he heard the sound: a groan, long and lush and in no way mistakable for anything other than what it was.

He blinked hard, opened his eyes again just to check--and as they finally adjusted to the dark interior of the van, felt his jaw drop open. Sure enough, it was Ezra in there just like Sharon had said. Vin too, though he was pretty sure she wouldn't imagine it was Vin wrenching all those noises from Ezra.

Shocked as hell, he backed away slowly, looking over his shoulder to keep from tripping over equipment. Wasn't his place to interrupt the best way to burn off steam known to man; hell, he thought with a grin, it worked for him and Buck.

Vin and Ezra shouldn't come as a surprise; didn't, really, when he took a minute to think about it. They were both loners in their own ways, the team being pretty much the closest thing either of them had to stable family--and ... wait. Ezra and Vin? Ezra and Vin were doing it? When Ezra, that sneaky little shark, had let Buck pay out on the 'Vin's straight' bet, and--Sharon stepped into his path, bringing his body and brain to an abrupt halt. "What?" he asked her.

"What, what?" she shot back. The woman had worked around men for too long. She sounded annoyed and probably was; she'd been kicked out of her own gear truck, after all. Still, he shook his head and nodded back the way they'd come.

"Give them a few minutes."

"They've already had a few minutes," she started.

Chris held up a hand to stop her before she could really get rolling. "They need a few more," he said, firmer now. "You think you could keep folks away until they come out on their own?"

"I'm not sure I'm willing to stay away," she said, peering over his shoulder and glaring at the back of the truck. "I've got bikes to take care of."

"Ezra's pissed and he's got a right to be. You never got relegated on a bad judging call when you were racing?"

That got her eyes off the van, at least, and her frown softened. "It was a bullshit call. Randy and I watched the replays, and Ezra did not start it."

Chris nodded; he'd seen the video too. "So you can afford to give them a few minutes," he said gently.

He led her away a reasonable distance and she let herself be distracted. "A few minutes," she conceded.

Chris managed to keep from smiling. The way they'd been going at it, a few minutes was all they were going to need.

He jumped back into the team bus and looked straight across to where Buck was sprawled across one of the benches.

Buck met his eyes right away. "Well?"

"Ezra's fine," he said easily.

"Where the hell are they?"

Chris raised an eyebrow and said as evenly as he could, "Vin's just helping Ezra blow off a little steam." The two of them had used that phrase often enough, Buck couldn't misunderstand what he was saying.

Buck didn't. His eyes widened perceptibly. His jaw unhinged, just enough to let his lips part. Chris shifted his gaze to the rest of the team--JD, kneeling in the narrow aisle to stretch his quads, Rick and Josef sitting on the bench seat across from Buck while Nathan checked their road rash from a crash they'd gotten mixed up in day before yesterday, Josiah standing hipshot against the table with his glasses perched on his nose, his attention shifted from their race stats to Chris himself.

They all met his eyes but nobody looked more than concerned, and by the time Chris's eyes tracked back to Buck, even he'd put a lid on his surprise "All right, then," Buck said, and he did a damned good job at sounding unconcerned.

"You sure?" JD asked? "I'd be really pissed if they'd relegated me."

"Ezra's pissed too, JD," Chris said and wandered over to the bench, shoving Buck over to make room. He snaked an arm across the seatback behind Buck's shoulders, hiding a grin when Buck sat up and crossed one leg over the other. Probably no one but Chris would know Buck was trying to hide his reaction to the news--there was nothing like the thought of other people getting it on to get Buck going, and if the bathroom on this bus wasn't smaller than an airplane john, he'd probably be trying to lure Chris in there right now. Chris resisted the urge to smirk Buck's way and give him any hope or encouragement whatsoever. Save it for the hotel room, he thought.

"He'll be all right," Buck said, somehow managing to sound disinterested, "hell, he'll win the next sprint stage for sure, just to spite the judges."

Chris snickered along with the rest of them. Looked to him like Ezra had won a hell of a lot more than that, and he couldn't begrudge either of them if it turned out to be something with some legs to it. In fact, now that he thought about it, he couldn't help but wonder if Vin and Ezra hadn't been at it a while.

But he discounted that idea pretty quick. It was hard to imagine that Buck, at least, wouldn't have picked up on it, and he sure as hell wouldn't have kept his mouth shut if he had. Buck was a little bit insecure where Chris and Vin's friendship was concerned, and knowing Vin's interest lay elsewhere wasn't something he'd be able to hide.

Chris half wished he hadn't let the cat out of the bag, just to keep Buck guessing.

Less than ten minutes later the bus door banged open and Vin swung up the steps. He barely nodded at the rest of them, just headed for the food station and loaded a plate with pasta. Chris nudged Buck with his thigh when Buck started to move and sure enough, a minute later the door opened again and Ezra sauntered in.

JD bounced to his feet before the silence could get awkward. "Hey Ezra, how're you feeling?" he asked, in an unconscious mirror of Josiah's question first thing that morning.

Ezra, to his credit, didn't miss a beat. "Invincible," he shot back, to a round of whistles and mock-cheers.

"Ez, you want some juice?" Vin held up the jug in the midst of the uproar, and just like that they were back to normal. By the time the bus rolled out of the parking area, they'd re-hashed the stage and were already planning the next.

They made the transfer to Blois, the city that tomorrow's stage started in, without even getting caught in much of a traffic jam. Buck had used the bus trip to get a shower of his own, so that when they hit their hotel room Chris barely had time to drop his bag before Buck had him pressed up against a wall.

"Tell me," he breathed against Chris's throat.

"Not--" he swallowed, working his hands under Buck's shirt and over smooth, warm skin. "Not much to tell."

"Then make something up," Buck said, his voice so filled with sexual speculation that Chris figured Buck had been making things up the whole ride over.

"I..." he blinked as Buck's hip brushed over his cock, a sway and shimmy that the man was too fucking practiced at, because two minutes ago he'd been thinking about a nap and now he could barely think at all. Hard bone, purposeful, moved gently back and forth, left then right then left again, rolling his cock between Buck's hip and Chris's belly, and he groaned.

Buck groaned too. "Tell me, Chris," he urged, damp breath right in Chris's ear.

"It was the equipment van," he said. "No lights on, dark as hell."

Another shift of hips, left to right, and Buck held still, practically daring Chris to thrust against him to get the stimulation his cock craved now.

He panted, closing his eyes to just feel it all: Buck's fingertips dragging up and down his sides, over the shirt; the smooth skin of bare calf as Buck rubbed his knee against the outside of Chris's leg; the light scratch of beard against his neck, right under his ear.

"Tell me," Buck urged. "I want to hear you say it."

Chris smiled in the darkness behind his closed eyelids. "Dark, like I said," he answered, kneading hard at Buck's back. "Vin had him pressed against that piece of wall between the bike racks."

That earned him a shift of hips, and his cock twitched in reaction. He clenched the muscles of his ass and thighs just to feel the readiness there, ordering his body not to move, not to even twitch as the flat of Buck's belly came into closer contact with his own. Any second now, any second he'd feel the hard bar of erection bump into his own, and nylon shorts and the mesh under layer tickle and tug on the hairs at his groin. "Tell me."

"Their jerseys were off," he panted, wondering exactly who was getting off on what, here. He didn't need the visual, especially not of his friends--friends whose asses he'd see tomorrow planted on bike seats as they defended him in the peloton. Buck didn't either. Not really. He just got off on talking dirty, always had. "Vin's shorts were down around his thighs, and..." he blinked, snapped out of the moment by the memory. He had no idea where Ezra's had been, only that when his eyes had finally adjusted, he'd identified Vin's pale ass before he backed hastily away.

Buck moved his hips again, and there it was, the column of hot flesh pressed right alongside his own. That was more likely to get him going than anything he'd seen his teammates getting up to 3 hours earlier, but he could still play the game for Buck.

"So were Ezra's," he said. "And they were giving each other hand jobs," he added, making shit up now. He reached for Buck's head, slid his fingers into thick hair. "One of Ezra's hands was on Vin's ass and the other in between them, jerking him off." He tugged hard, bringing Buck's head up so he could see his face, see the light of emotion that he knew fed even Buck's juvenile imagination. If his eyes said half as much as Buck's did.... "Tongues down each other's throats," he breathed, then pulled Buck's head forward and slid his tongue down Buck's. Hot breath and moist flesh, hard enamel of teeth and he licked them all, balanced on a knife-edge of stillness and desperation.

That earned him another shift of hips, another shimmy that sent a shiver through his groin and tipped the balance toward desperate. He kept one hand on Buck's head to hold him for the kiss while he used the other to start shoving the shorts down over Buck's ass, and bucked hard enough to get an inch of space between them so he could work the band down in front too.

Buck was already ahead of him, and his own shorts fell past his knees before they even broke for air. He kicked, untangling them from around his tennis shoes, even though he knew he wouldn't be going anywhere. Buck liked to fuck standing up, so much so that Chris sometimes wondered if he didn't eye off every piece of open wall the same way other people checked out beds.

Another shift and he felt Buck's weight and heat from shoulder to hip, and he let his head thud back against the wall.

"You should've heard the noises Ezra was making," he said, "put a porn start to shame."

Buck groaned into his neck, long and low, "You reckon Vin's good, then?" he asked, and only Buck would ask something like that about his teammate.

"Don't care," Chris shot back and pulled the skin at Buck's shoulder into his mouth, sucking hard. "Got better things to do than think about those two getting it on."

"I..." Buck panted into his hair, then used his chin to nuzzle Chris's head up for a kiss that was less burn than steady heat, and with more tender intent than Buck had shown so far. He pulled back far enough to focus on Chris's face, looking at him like he was trying to read a cypher or find a secret treasure. When his eyes softened and his lips twitched in just the barest hint of a smile, Chris wanted to flush, because it meant that Buck had found whatever it was he was looking for. "Still, it's hot," he said, and his smile bloomed wide now.

Chris shrugged and licked his lips, wanted to lick something else. "Maybe," he conceded, reaching between them to grip Buck's shaft and rub the tip against his own cock. "Not as hot as this," he said.

Buck's smile softened, but it didn't quite fade away. Instead Buck gathered himself; Chris could feel his muscles bunch and wondered what the hell he planned to do. But all Buck did was stand up tall and straight, grasp Chris by the elbows, and tug him toward the bed.

Chris would be blushing for real, any second now. He leaned his weight back and turned in the circle of Buck's arms, crossed his forearms against the hotel room door and rested his forehead on them. "Come on," he ordered. The urgency hadn't faded, but Buck had tempered it a little. When he heard the cut-off curse and felt cool air wash over his back when Buck rushed away, no doubt digging into his shaving kit for slick, Chris smiled.

Buck stepped back to him and just for a second, pressed his full weight onto him, hot skin and coarse groin hair, softer chest hair that tickled his shoulder blades, and two hands, one slick and one dry, cupped his shoulders. "We could do it in bed, Chris," Buck offered, and Chris had to wonder why he was wasting his breath.

"Here's good," he said, then grinned. "Up against the wall just like Vin and Ezra were."

He felt Buck's shudder through his skin, and then Buck's slick hand left his shoulder and moved unerringly to the crease in his ass. Rushed, yeah; painful, no.

Either way, Chris sure as hell wasn't going to complain.

When the last of the shudders had run their course, Chris pushed back just enough to get Buck off him and turned to stumble toward the nearest bed. He pivoted on one heel when he reached it and just fell like timber, hitting hard enough to bounce. Every inch of him was lax, loose, damp and sated, and it took a minute to register the fact that Buck hadn't fallen down beside him.

He blinked his eyes open and turned his heavy head with an effort, to find Buck half-slid down the door with a goofy look on his face, part smile and part consternation. "What?"

Buck glanced over at him and smiled, then immediately frowned. "Damned Ezra."


"He took my fifty bucks, Chris, when he knew Vin was gay."

Chris shrugged. "You care that much?"

Buck finally pushed up off the wall and to his feet, and took the two steps needed to get to the bed, falling down on his side and propping his head up on his bent arm. "No," he admitted, and frowned again. "Still don't mean he ought to get away with it. You know how Ezra is, you give him an inch and he'll take a mile."

Chris smirked at his partner and rolled onto his side, just barely biting back a yawn. "Don't worry," he said. "He won't."

Buck chuckled low and stroked a hand down Chris's side. "Don't usually see you that fired up when we don't win," he said.

Chris smirked. "Can usually count on you getting that fired up when you know somebody's gettin' it and you're not."

Buck shrugged a shoulder, unoffended. "Was good," he breathed, like that wasn't obvious to both of them.

Chris nodded, and Buck leaned in to kiss him, taking his time now like he hadn't even begun to, before. Slow slick glide of lips and tongues, bodies coming down from the hard work of the race's stage and the much more pleasant work against their bedroom door, Chris wondered what Buck was angling for.

When Buck drew away, he found out. "How much of that were you making up?" he asked, smiling.

Chris grinned back. "Everything after Vin's shorts around his thighs. Sheeit," he chuckled, "I couldn't see a damned thing, and as soon as I could I got the hell out of there, fast. Spent more time talking Sharon out of barging in on them than I did actually watching what they were doing."

Buck leaned in and kissed him again. "I figured," he said, but he wasn't holding the truth against Chris. "You did a good job," he said, huffing out a little breath of laughter. He nuzzled back in and licked the line of Chris's jugular vein, all the way up his neck to his ear. "Mmm," he breathed, chilling the damp patch of skin.

"Don't even think about another round," Chris warned him lazily.

"Too late," Buck teased. "But hell, I'm in no hurry. Nathan'll be banging on the door any second wanting us to go and ice down and then it'll be time for dinner... and in the meanwhile, you can tell me what you think they did once they got to their hotel room."

By dinnertime, Ezra was beginning to wonder if they shouldn't be saving at least a little energy for tomorrow's stage. He wasn't quite willing to say as much though, not pressed into clean linens by the equally clean weight of Vin's naked body. Where speed and haste had guided the afternoon, slow care had guided their evening. They hadn't even dived for the sheets, but unpacked as they usually did into their shared hotel room. Ezra set up his laptop and made small talk while Vin tossed their shaving kits into the tiny bathroom, and after their bags were tucked into a corner, Vin said, "I'm gonna get cleaned up," just like he always did.

Ezra tried not to speculate on how things might change for them. Tried especially hard not to speculate on how things might not change. He checked his email as he listened to the sounds of the shower running, and thought about possibly joining Vin in there.

In the end he didn't move, the uncertainty prickling over his skin and in the back of his head in an unwelcome reminder of how bad he'd always been at making things work off the bike. As a sprinter the feeling was completely foreign. Sprinters didn't hesitate. Ezra could read the closing stages of a race like an open book and choose the right line to the finish in a heartbeat. But off the bike, there was an entirely different set of risks and rewards to balance, and he'd be the first to admit that his track record there was appalling.

Annoyed by his indecision, he turned back to the computer, distilling his complaints at unjust and biased French judges into a succinct 140 characters for his Twitter account, then answering an email from his mother, trying not to be reactionary; she was siding with the judges, of course, no doubt just to annoy him. But in the doing, she was admitting that she'd actually watched him race, and Ezra Standish knew how to read between Maude's lines. Mostly.

The shower turned off and he wondered what she'd think of this--assuming there even was a 'this', even as he half-listened to the quiet sounds of Vin in the bathroom, the clatter of shaving gear and the scrub of toothbrush, the hum of hair dryer. When the bathroom door opened, Ezra looked up with a carefully neutral expression, prepared to meet Vin's eyes and smile as warmly as the man's gaze called for--prepared for anything.

Although possibly not prepared for Vin in the doorway, naked, half erect and showing none of Ezra's uncertainty.

"All yours," Vin said and Ezra felt a momentary disconnect--could it really be that simple? He wasn't even aware that he'd pushed to his feet, until Vin walked right up to him, tilted his chin and kissed him hard on the mouth.

"Go shower, Ez," Vin clarified when he pulled back, eyes twinkling as he jerked his head at the bathroom and gave Ezra a shove.

Right. Ezra blinked and cleared his throat. "Oh. Yes," he said, aware his thoughts had been all too transparent. "Quite."

It was probably the fastest shower ever he'd ever taken, but by the time he stood in front of the mirror, shaver in hand, his headlong rush had slowed. Vin Tanner was one of the most straightforward men he'd ever met but he was a good friend, too, and Ezra had made mistakes before. In fact, with respect to this particular aspect of his life it seemed that he had only made mistakes. That kiss had been hard enough, and certain enough to not leave much doubt, but he couldn't help worrying over what might come next. The team had a good thing going, they'd clicked in a way that was rare for competitive professional cyclists, and suddenly it didn't seem all that smart to jeopardize the whole package for a quick fling that might go nowhere.

He went through the motions of dragging the razor over chin and cheeks, and clearing the stubble from his neck, and was wiping the excess foam from his face--realizing he was out of delaying tactics--when the bathroom door opened.

His eyes met Vin's briefly in the mirror and a guilty flush creep up his neck. Vin could see every thought written on his face, he was sure of it, and he quickly lifted the towel in the pretence of scrubbing it through his hair. But not before he registered Vin's bare chest and the lightweight sweats that hung low on his hips.

"Let me," Vin said, and it wasn't a question. Ezra let his hands drop as Vin took over; relaxing, despite himself, into the strength of Vin's hands against his scalp and the heat from Vin's body all the way down his back.

"Second thoughts?" Vin asked into the silence.

"What? No!" Ezra jerked his head up to meet Vin's knowing smirk in the mirror. "All right, yes," he said, feeling the flush spread up his face. "I wasn't sure that you..." he waved a hand and trailed off.

Vin dropped the towel and turned Ezra with a firm hand on his hip. When they were face to face he pressed against Ezra full length, the hardness of his erection obvious through the thin barriers of his sweats and Ezra's towel.

"I'm pretty sure, Ezra," Vin said, and cupped Ezra's face with both hands. "You can stop thinking now," he added right before their lips met and Ezra could feel firsthand the grin that curved his mouth.

"Bastard," he murmured as he pressed forward and ran his hands down Vin's bare back. "You left me in here on purpose."

Vin chuckled against his neck and then his hands were at Ezra's waist and the towel fell to the floor. "Hell, Ezra, not much point trying to stop you if you're set on overthinking," he said, "thought you might as well get it out of your system."

Even Ezra was startled by the bark of his own laugh, and he leaned back and put a hand in the middle of Vin's chest, pushing him firmly backward through the door.

"Over thinking?" he queried, with a raised eyebrow and mock frown as Vin laughed and gave ground, putting both hands out in a defensive gesture. "Let's see if you're still complaining about that in an hour or two," he said as they tumbled onto Vin's bed.

It wasn't more than a few seconds work to strip off Vin's sweats, even though there seemed to be way too many hands involved. Ezra hadn't missed the condoms and lube on the bed stand and when Vin murmured "what do you want?" he just rolled to his side and pulled one leg up to his chest. He wanted to replace the frustrations of the day with something he'd still feel tomorrow; wanted it with a sudden intensity that caught his breath in his throat. "You drive," he said, unable to manage more.

Not that any more was needed. Vin was as sure and certain in his actions as he'd been earlier in the day and didn't waste any more time than he needed to getting Ezra stretched and open. When Vin finally pushed inside, Ezra groaned, long and low, feeling every bit of the stretch and burn, glad for the pressure of Vin's hands anchoring him at chest and hip.

"Vin," he managed, bracing one hand on the bed and pushing back into the pressure.

"I've got you, Ez," Vin responded, rocking into him, again and again, his breath warm on the back of Ezra's neck, and his skin smooth and powder-soft. When Vin's hand moved and started working his cock, it was all he needed to just let go. He could hardly think over the thudding of his heart and the blood racing through his veins, but he felt Vin's release as a faint echo of his own, in the shudder of the body wrapped around him and the pulsing ache where they were joined.

Now, sated and warm, muscles at least as relaxed as they would have been after the team's masseur got a hold of them, he was content to hold Vin's weight, to toy with his long hair, and to exchange much more careful kisses. Beard burn was not in his plans, and he'd said as much before he'd lost all sense an hour ago.

By dinnertime, under the circumstances, Ezra was feeling ridiculously content. "I'll meet you downstairs," he said, and reached to open the room's door for Vin. They'd completed post-race recovery in the team's make-shift medical center, doing a splendid job of acting like they would on any other race day, and come back to the room to change.

"Think we're gonna be able to keep a lid on this?" Vin asked him, his eyes crinkling with his smile as he pulled a clean shirt on over his head.

"Absolutely," he said with feeling. "I refuse to be the butt of an ongoing juvenile joke." He was referring to Buck and Chris, of course, and to the entertaining game those of them in the know had developed for needling their team captain, particularly, in the presence of those not in the know.

"Buck'll sniff it out sooner or later, Ezra," Vin said, sobering a little.

"Then let's make it 'later'." They had made no promises, after all, and in fact weren't even in a position to do so. He wasn't sure how far beyond the comfort of a friend this was going, and he knew Vin wasn't either. "Better for us to know what's going on before anyone else does, yes?" he hazarded.

Vin's smile rose again and he nodded, confident and comfortable. Really, Ezra couldn't ask for anything more. "See you downstairs," Vin said, and slipped out of their room.

Vin was sitting to Chris's right, as he usually did. Ezra took the last chair, as he usually did, and found himself between Josiah and Rick, whose English still wasn't quite strong enough to make for engaging dinner conversation. Fortunately his French was better, so they made do. Ezra didn't cast glances at Vin, covert or otherwise. Vin didn't cast glances at him. All in all, it was a normal team dinner, replete with noise and jibes, threats and catcalls and promises, and hopes for tomorrow's stage.

Ezra was feeling better by the minute, and practically serene by the time people started leaving the table for their various duties: massage, bike checks, extra stretching with the trainer, sleep. Ezra wanted sleep, but he sat at the table and watched his teammates mingle, finishing the last of his decaf before finally pushing his chair away and making to rise.

A hand landed on his shoulder, startling him badly, but it was only Chris--probably here to offer more words of support. Ezra had been truly moved by the man's faith in him, today. "You owe Buck money, Ezra," Chris said though, sounding angry.

Ezra shrugged his shoulder out from under Chris's gripping hand. "I do not!" he retorted.

"Hell, yes you do," Chris said, lowering his voice a little. Finally, he took his hand off Ezra's person and dropped into the chair Rick had abandoned moments ago. "You let him pay you off on the 'Vin's straight' bet, when you knew for goddamned certain it wasn't true."

"I..." Ezra blinked, wondering first how Chris knew, second who else knew, and third how he was going to get out of this with both his secrets and his wallet intact. "I knew no such thing," he said, recovering. "If I recall, it was you who validated that bet. Are you saying you knew different and were lying for some reason of your own?"

Chris blinked, and Ezra almost thought he was home free, but then Chris grinned like a piranha, all teeth and aggression. "Might not have known different then, but I do now."

Ezra hesitated, following each thought as it raced through his head. Only a few hours earlier he and Vin had agreed to keep this new relationship to themselves and he wasn't quite ready to give up on that yet. "That's all very easy to say, but unless you have actual evidence, I can't imagine you can 'know' anything," he bluffed.

Chris leaned an inch closer, which made Ezra want to back away, a ridiculous urge that he didn't give in to. "Oh, I have evidence, Ezra," he said. "The evidence of my own eyes."

Ezra's heart skipped a beat. Did Chris know something? He sounded so certain, but Chris could bluff almost as well as Ezra when he wanted to, and no hand was ever won by folding at the first challenge.

"I don't believe it," Ezra scoffed, doing his best to sound unconcerned. "Even if you're correct in your assertion, Vin is far too circumspect to expose himself as you suggest."

Chris's cold grin widened further. "Yeah, you'd think that. And I'd have thought his partner would be even more careful than Vin would be."

Ezra didn't even blink. He couldn't say he wasn't disappointed, that Vin had been so careless as to get caught by someone like Chris. Chris wouldn't have even been looking, after all. And he was burning, now, to know who this so-careful partner was. "I am certainly surprised," he said carefully. It's in the past, he told himself. You can't hold his past relationships against him. "But I have no idea what you're talking about, " he added simply, and waved a hand, hoping that would be an end to it.

Chris snorted and leaned back in his chair. "Don't go getting pissy," he said, tough but fond. "It was you."

Ezra blinked. "It--what?" he asked. "It was me, what?"

"You I saw," Chris said easily. He reached and picked up a discarded bread stick, munching on it happily. "And for goddamned sure, you didn't look very 'circumspect' in the equipment van today."

Ezra opened his mouth, then closed it again, and glanced around the dining room to find Buck leaning in a door way, the look on his face telling Ezra what distance hid; Buck was cackling like a hyena. Which meant that Buck knew too. Which meant that one, or both of them had, in all likelihood, been the reason Sharon hadn't stuck her head in herself at an extraordinarily inopportune moment this afternoon.

Which meant that there was no way in the world Chris was going to back away from this. Ezra reached for his wallet but paused with his hand in the pocket of his pants. "This pays for silence too," he warned.

"Who am I gonna tell?" Chris asked, dry as bone.

"I'm not talking about you," he sniped as he fished out his wallet. "I'm talking about your frat-boy lover over there."

Chris plucked Ezra's wallet out of his hand and Ezra was bemused enough at the turn the conversation had taken that he let him. Chris started counting out Euros at an alarming rate. "You settle with him on your own," Ezra," he said with a smile. "Because it's gonna take more than the cash you stole off him to do it."

Ezra stared as the pile of notes rose steadily on the table, Chris counting them out one-by-one, and visualized the endless number of ways Buck could extort the rest of his hard-earned cash, then Chris chuckled and Ezra snapped back to the present.

"Give me that," he snapped, snatching the leather out of Chris's hand, "while there's still enough left in it to keep him quiet!"

Come the end of the next day's stage and Ezra was starting to wonder if he hadn't fallen down the rabbit hole and was living out a dream.

Josiah had put him and JD into an early 12-man breakaway, made up of riders so far out of contention that no one had cared to mount a pursuit, and Ezra had taken three of the four intermediate sprints on offer. The peloton had given them as much as 8 minutes at one point which, in the end, they hadn't been able to pull back, and JD had stuck with him almost to the line.

In a moment that could have come out of a film script Ezra had gone over the line five bike lengths clear, with the crowd roaring and cameras flashing and Josiah screaming in his ear. And this time when he sat up with his arms in the air, there was nothing theatrical about it.

"You did it, Ezra!" JD shouted, not even bothering to dismount before wrapping Ezra in an exuberant hug. "You showed, 'em not to mess with us!"

"We did it together, JD," he laughed back, magnanimous in victory.

They worked their way toward the team bus, and Ezra accepted the back-slaps and accolades of the other riders as they came past. JD probably did too although Ezra was far too busy enjoying the warmth in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with revenge and everything to do with vindication and acceptance and a job well done, to check.

"Well, goddamn, Ezra," Buck's big voice boomed out over the open space to where he sat on the bus steps with JD. "You just don't know how to take anything lying down, do you?"

Ezra narrowed his eyes in suspicion as Buck, Chris, Vin and Josiah walked up together, with Rick and Josef a step behind--but decided, what the hell, and let his mouth curve into a grin. He stood up just in time to be pulled into a hug and let the approbation of his teammates wash over him.

"Wasn't that just something else?" JD babbled. "Buck, you shoulda seen the way we covered those last 3k..."

"Ezra," Nathan interrupted, tapping him on the shoulder. "You're wanted for a drug test." For a minute there was complete silence before Ezra laughed, and the others joined in.

"Of course I am, Mister Jackson," he said, extricating himself from the group. Him being drug tested again was probably the only thing in this strange afternoon that actually made sense. At least they weren't picking on him this time; all the stage winners were obliged to donate blood and urine to the anti-doping unit's perverse cache.

"I'll walk you over, Ez," Vin smiled, falling into step with him.

"Hey!" Chris called out and they both turned.

"You two stay away from the equipment van," he said, a stupid grin curving his mouth.

Ezra automatically opened his mouth to deny any impropriety but saw Vin accept the comment with a manly shrug. "Ain't no need today," Vin said, evenly enough that only Buck smiled. Everyone else on the team clearly thought the distinction was between winning and losing, rather than between, er... winning and winning. The others were already going about their business, disappearing into the bus one by one.

No one else knew, then. At least, not yet. As he and Vin walked away he couldn't help but wonder what he might have on Buck to keep it that way, make the man hold his tongue.

Surely, there had to be something he was ashamed of... leery of... something he could use....

"Thinkin' awful hard there, Ezra," Vin whispered beside him.

Ezra glanced a sideways look at Vin, and a quick look to the back of Nathan's head, four feet in front of them. "It doesn't worry you, Buck's capacity for entertainment at our expense?"

Vin just waved a hand. "Nah," he said, and grinned. "More'n one way to keep Buck quiet."

He said it with such confidence, such certainty, that Ezra felt his mouth fall open in surprise. Then he, too, grinned.

"Vin Tanner," he said, as they followed in Nathan's footsteps, "you are indeed a man after my own heart."

Vin's smile turned sly and he said, "Could be, Ezra. Could be."

Which really, put the cherry on top of Ezra's whole day.