Nine months later
After his shower, Pascal flopped down on his bed, staring up at the ceiling for a moment. Every muscle in his body hurt, especially his calf where he’d got cut the deepest during the Tour last year. He was exhausted, yet he needed to keep training because he had a goal to ride in the next one, and at his age, even competing would be a big deal.
Sighing, he pushed back up onto his feet, then padded over to his closet. He dressed before heading out to his kitchen. His place wasn’t very big, and that was the way he liked it. He lived in the Dordogne countryside in a centuries-old farmhouse. Renovating and modernising the inside had cost a pretty penny, but it had been worth it. He hadn’t changed any of the outside, liking the way it appeared.
There was only one bedroom, which was fine because he rarely had visitors, and had never had a serious enough relationship with any man to the point where they would come live with him.
In the kitchen, he readied his after-workout snack before grabbing his phone. He carried everything out onto the small veranda he’d built off the kitchen. It was a sunny day, and he was going to allow the warmth to soak into his old bones. Once he was settled, he picked up his phone to scroll through his contacts to Laurent’s name.
Pascal rarely watched TV or listened to the radio, and when he was training, he never did. But at the market today, someone had mentioned that Laurent had got engaged to his long-time boyfriend, causing Pascal to realise he hadn’t talked to his friend in a few days.
He’d known Laurent had been heading to Germany to cover the G8 summit, and he hadn’t wanted to bother Laurent when he was doing something so important. Plus Pascal had some soul-searching to do, and some major decisions to make.
He wasn’t sure what Laurent would be doing at that moment, but at least he could leave him a message congratulating him. Pascal tapped on Laurent’s name, then waited for the man to answer.
"Bonjour, mon ami," Laurent answered.
"Bonjour, Laurent. Am I calling at a bad time?" Pascal leant back in his chair, stretching his legs out in front of him. He stared down at the scars criss-crossing his shins.
"No. I’m in a holding pattern until I can get an interview with the American president. So, actually this is the perfect time." Laurent sounded slightly annoyed.
Pascal grinned, knowing how much Laurent hated waiting around.
"Congratulations on your engagement, Laurent. I think you and Jan are perfect for each other." Not exactly true, but the right thing to say. "Have you chosen a date?"
Laurent snorted. "He just asked me right before I left for Germany. He wasn’t supposed to have announced anything until I got back, but like always, he can’t resist the spotlight."
He did know how Laurent’s partner longed to be in the middle of a whirlwind of cameras and reporters. Pascal had seen the man in several tabloids throughout the years they’d been dating, yet Laurent rarely appeared with him. There were times when Pascal didn’t understand why Laurent stayed with Jan, but at others he saw the love that was there between them. Yet Pascal had an unhappy feeling there was more on Laurent’s side than Jan’s.
It wasn’t his place to say anything, so he kept his mouth shut and supported Laurent when he needed it.
"Yes, he does. Still, I hope you would’ve told me when you had a chance to call," Pascal commented, flexing his feet to stretch his calves.
"Yes, I was planning on it, but I just haven’t had the time until just now, and I was about to dial your number when my phone rang. Great minds think alike, huh?" Laurent sounded like he was smiling.
"Well, I have a great mind to go along with my amazing body, but I’m not sure if you do. I think you’re just all fluff and no substance," he teased.
"Ass." Laurent changed the subject. "Have you been out riding?"
Pascal sighed. "Yes, and I’ll be riding in a race in Belgium and the big one in Italy. I’ve been training and it’s harder to recover from the workouts, but I’m still pulling the times I want...and I’ve been thinking..."
There was a moment of silence on the other end, then Laurent cleared his throat. "What have you been thinking about, Pascal?"
"A lot of things. I’m going to be forty-two this year, and to think about riding the Tour at that age is crazy..."
"Are you thinking of coming back for one more Tour?"
Pascal heard the shock in his friend’s voice, but there was also a hint of excitement in there as well.
"Yes. I let my team manager know that I’ll be back for this year’s Tour. I have to join the team in two weeks for my first race of the season." Pascal rested his elbows on the table, then propped his chin on his hand. "This is probably going to be the hardest season for me since I started competing."
Laurent hummed in agreement. "That’s probably true, mon ami, but if anyone can do it, you can. You have a fierce determination, and you’re one of the fittest men I know."
"Maybe, but I must admit I’m afraid of making a fool of myself. What if this turns out to be the worst decision I ever made?" Pascal closed his eyes for a moment. "This is my last chance, and I want to win that polka dot jersey. I want to be King of the Mountains."
"You don’t want to win the maillot jaune?"
Pascal chuckled. "I gave up on winning the yellow jersey several Tours ago. I’m a mountain specialist, not a speed or distance one. Hell,last year I was thirty kilometres away from winning, and a barbed wire fence took it away from me."
"Don’t remind me. I still have nightmares from the pictures and video of your accident."
He could hear the fear in Laurent’s voice, and Pascal wished he was with his friend, so he could hug him. He wanted to reassure Laurent that he was all right, but he had to be honest as well.
"I still have nightmares of being tangled up in the wire and not being able to get out. I freak out because the race isn’t just the Tour.Suddenly, if I don’t get back on my bike and start riding again, I’ll die." Pascal shuddered, remembering how he’d awoken in a cold sweat the night before from a dream like that.
"You have no one to hold and reassure you that everything is all right," Laurent murmured.
Pascal opened his eyes before turning to look back over the yard. "There hasn’t been anyone for close to a year."
He didn’t want to think about Stephen, and how the bastard had run out on him after the Tour. He’d taken one look at Pascal’s scratched and cut-up legs, then walked away. Oh, Stephen had claimed it was because he couldn’t deal anymore with how dangerous cycling was. It didn’t seem to matter that Pascal had been in a far worse wreck a couple of months before. One where he’d ended up in the hospital with cracked ribs and a sprained wrist, yet Stephen had stayed with him that time.
"Stephen was a complete bastard, Pascal. He left you because you were no longer perfect. He’s obsessed with outward looks. Thank God he did leave because you deserve better." Laurent made no bones about the fact that he’d never really liked Stephen, and unlike Pascal, Laurent didn’t keep his opinions quiet.
"I know, and to be honest, I was ready for him to go. Just not right at that moment." Pascal laughed, then returned to the previous topic. "Do you think this is a good idea?"
Laurent stayed silent, causing Pascal to start worrying about whether or not his decision was a good one. Could he be fooling himself into thinking that he had a chance at winning the mountain stage? He only had one goal for the upcoming racing season, and that was the polka dot jersey to prove he was good at something in his career.
Hell, Pascal had been a good member since he’d got on his team. He’d given up his chances at stage wins to help out the chosen cyclist to achieve his goal, as was usual and customary in team cycling.
Shouldn’t I get my shot at winning?
He winced at the rather whiny tone in that internal question.
"I think it’s a marvellous idea, Pascal. You can win the jersey and finish the entire race this time."
Laurent had never told Pascal he couldn’t do anything. Pascal believed one of the best days of his life was when he’d met Laurent at the national Sportsman of the Year ceremony ten years ago. They’d hit it off from the very beginning, and slowly over the years had developed a solid friendship where they could call each other late at night and talk about anything.
"You’re not just saying that to make me feel less like a foolish old man chasing impossible dreams?" Pascal realised he needed to hear Laurent say again that he wasn’t crazy for wanting this for himself.
"Pascal, listen to me. You’re not insane or being selfish for wanting this. It’s your dream and you’ve been working for it all of your life. Go and do this." Laurent paused for a second, then continued, "Look at this as your victory Tour, and everyone is going to cheer you on as you ride. I’m sure your teammates will feel the same."
Just hearing Laurent say again that Pascal was doing the right thing helped him feel better about his decision. He relaxed, then asked Laurent about the summit and what else was going on in the world.
* * * *
Laurent’s hired car stopped in front of his apartment building on Friday evening. He tipped the driver and made sure to gather all of his belongings. It had been a long day, but a productive one. After flying back to France, he had gone directly from Charles de Gaulle airport to his office, where he’d met with several network heads to pitch his Tour idea. They’d unanimously loved it, and the marketing division vice-president in particular had jumped right in with him and bounced ideas around about building a whole branded lead-up to the coverage.
That wasn’t Laurent’s speciality, but even so, he had been gratified that his concept had been so well received. The only caveat they’d given him was that, if anything huge and unforeseen happened that was newsworthy during the course of him being embedded with Pascal’s race team, he would of course need to bow to the greater needs of the network and be poised to depart to wherever they needed him. A fair point, seeing as he was the face of their network.
He made his way into the building, nodding at the doorman, who greeted him as he passed. "Bonjour, Monsieur Desrochers. Welcome home."
"Thank you, Michel."
In the elevator, he could barely restrain his smile at the victory today. At this point in his career, he had a lot of clout—he knew it…and so did they. Moreover, he didn’t throw his weight around, happy to accede to their wishes the majority of the time. He put his own stamp on things, of course, but he wasn’t a diva, demanding ridiculous concessions.
He walked off the lift with a spring in his step and made his way to his front door, one of only two on this floor. Sure enough, as always, the door on the other side of the landing opened a crack and Madame Perrault and her poodle peered out, looking remarkably alike with their fluffy, white up-dos.
"Bonjour, Madame. You and Brutus are looking well today."
"Oh, Monsieur Desrochers, it’s you. I had thought it might be the boy."
He raised his eyebrows. Her reference could only be to Jan, who wasn’t so young as to be called a boy anymore, though he did look young in comparison to Laurent, with his premature salt-and-pepper hair…
He sighed. Okay, so maybe mid-twenties could still be called a boy.
"Did you need Jan for something, Madame?"
She sniffed. "Only to tell him to stop slamming the door at all times of night. We haven’t had a good night’s sleep for a week. Brutus has quite a nervous constitution, you know. And he needs his rest."
Laurent repressed a smile. He wasn’t sure what she had heard, but it was doubtful that it had been Jan, especially on a weeknight. "I’ll be sure to caution him, Madame."
"See that you do." She shook her head. "You, of course, are always quite respectful of our auditory privacy."
With that she bid him good evening and closed the door firmly. Still amused, Laurent inserted his key into the lock, only to have the door wrenched open by Jan.
For a moment he looked as startled as Laurent was, then a more heated expression came over his face. He smirked as he tugged Laurent by the wrist into their apartment then moved in close. "Hello there. About time you got home."
Laurent bent to one side to set his bag and briefcase on the tiled foyer floor then gave Jan the welcoming kiss he appeared to be expecting. But when he parted his lips to take it deeper, Jan pulled back. "I thought your trip had been prolonged or something. Usually you’re like clockwork getting home after your flight gets in."
Leaving his bags for now, Laurent led the way into the living area. "It was on time, thankfully, but I had set a meeting with the network. I wanted to speak with them as soon as possible about an idea I had for a special report." He was still humming with the success of his plan being put into motion. "So, do you remember last year when—"
Jan rolled his eyes and cut him off with a see-sawing hand gesture. "You know I don’t follow all that political stuff." He ran the hand through his spiky hair then down his chest, and as Laurent’s eyes followed the movement, he noticed how his fiancé was dressed. The steel-grey shirt clung to his torso, and the jeans were tight to the point that Laurent wondered how he would be able to sit in them. Still, with the way Jan kept himself in shape, it was a good look on him.
"I like the shirt, is that new?" He took a step back as he looked Jan up and down with a smile. "This is a nice welcome home."
Jan froze for a moment before he smiled back, and Laurent’s instincts finally kicked in. Jan wasn’t dressed for a cosy night in with him—he was dressed for going out. Rather than give Jan an opening to lie to him—Laurent had caught him out more than once and the subsequent confrontations were never pretty—he just pecked Jan on the cheek. "Go have fun, Jan."
His eyes widened in surprise then narrowed suspiciously. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
Laurent felt his eyebrows rise at that. "No. But you were on your way out, yes?" He shrugged. "You’re a grown man, as am I. I’m not worried that you made plans for tonight."
…looking like that, after I’ve been gone for days…
Quit being a jealous fool, Desrochers. You have been gone for days, and you are all the time. Who can blame the guy for having other friends?
Jan still looked, ironically, a bit put out by Laurent’s understanding accommodation.
"I can come along if you’d like. Just let me get changed," he offered. Laurent really didn’t want to go to a club after travelling all day, but relationships were a two-way street.
His expression softening, Jan grasped his arm and gave it a squeeze. "You’re darling to offer, but it isn’t the sort of place you prefer. I’ll just meet my friends and see you later tonight. Hmm?"
That was code for 'don’t wait up'.
"All right. Have a nice evening." They kissed briefly then, with a glance into the hallway mirror and a run of his hand over his hair, Jan was out of the door. The slam made Laurent wince. Maybe Mrs Perrault had a point, he allowed. Funny how he hadn’t ever noticed that haste before and, though he was a light sleeper, he never seemed to hear Jan come home.
There was a brief flurry of raised voices in the hallway—his neighbour confronting Jan, he supposed. Suddenly weary, he took the coward’s way out and instead of going out to soothe the situation, he instead loosened his tie and slipped it from his collar while walking to the bedroom.
Twenty minutes later he was unpacked, showered and dressed in lounging clothes with his laptop on his lap. He reached with a blind hand for the espresso in a demicup sending curls of heavenly scented steam into the air beside him, while with the other he did some surfing for general information and past coverage of the Tour.
Trying not to think about his needy nature and how he was selfishly missing Jan’s company after his long absence, he instead refocused on his excitement over the upcoming project.
He couldn’t wait to talk to Pascal.