The shot from the Glock echoed off the garage wall behind Jensen, starting the race.
Live ammo and standing starts, this was no fucking way to start anything except a war, in Jensen's opinion, as the pack hurtled down the narrow road.
Jensen dodged rocks and potholes on the gravel track as best he could mid pack, keeping his focus on the riders in front of him, in case any of them lost traction on the shitty, shitty La Paz roads.
The pack made it around the first tight right hand corner with no falls, and on to the first incline, a baby 7 per center
Jensen went up two cogs on his cassette and by force of habit glanced down at his bars, where a head unit display for his power meter would be mounted if he had one. Except he was in La Paz, on a shitty Frankensteined bike built by Pooch, taking part in an illegal street race, and he had no power meter.
300. It felt like he was putting out 300 watts, going up the slope. Heart rate rising. Leg muscles heating up. First sweat slid down his forehead in the sticky late afternoon heat.
Over the top, past the school and a skittering left-hander that claimed a couple of the riders, and down to the fountain in front of the church. Jensen flicked to the smallest front chain ring and tucked himself in tight to barrel down the slope. He pulled out past the rider in front, willing to sacrifice the drafting advantage for the tactical gain of being first around the tight circuit of the fountain.
The square in front of the church was crowded with market stalls. People milled around, dogs and children running loose.
Jensen had done this before, he knew to trust that the crowd would part, clearing a way for the race as they hurtled down the hill on the rough gravel road.
A roar went up from the crowd, and Jensen braked hard and late, into the church square, slithering around the fountain with his front wheel locked. His leg muscles were ready for the climb back up the hill, he just needed the sign…
Pooch was standing in the crowd at the exit from the square, beer in one hand and cap in the other, cheering them on.
Cap off. Win the race.
Jensen felt a surge of joy as he changed to the middle chain ring. He hated the races where he had to lose, even if Clay and Roque did know exactly what they were doing with their shady betting deals.
The stragglers were still coming down the hill to the church square, which added a certain additional challenge to the ascent, but Jensen tucked his elbows in and glanced at his non-existent power meter again.
400. He could put out 400 watts up a hill of moderate incline pretty much indefinitely. Keep the cadence going, push the watts up. Change to a larger cog at the rear. Hold at 400.
His lungs and heart were working, sweat soaked his t-shirt, and the shouts of bystanders turned to ringing in his ears. Jensen felt fucking fantastic, leading the pack up the hill.
The route twisted over the hill, turning down a busy street and toward the markets. Jensen slammed back to the small chain ring and let fly through the traffic, swerving through the gaps between cars and zooming past buses. The UCI could learn something about enriching the race experience from watching La Paz street racing, Jensen reckoned.
400 watts. 400 watts. He was still putting out 400 watts.
He flung his bike past a truck blocking most of the road, and the finish of the race was in sight, past the police station and down a road lined with crumbling apartments.
750 meters to go. Jensen went full gas, maxing out his non-existent power meter, unleashing all of the power in his legs and hips in one final surge of acceleration, up another cog, head down to minimize his drag.
At 300 meters, his heart was about to fry, and he veered right slightly.
Cougar exploded past him in a glorious blitz of anaerobic speed, hurtling to the finish line at the entry to the markets.
Jensen followed in second place, legs burning with lactic acid, deeply satisfied with a good race.
* * *
"This is not like foreboding at all," Jensen said, propping his bike against a brick wall and looking up at the snow clad mountain top looming above them. "Meet us at the bottom of a mountain. Don't suppose we're going to have to ride up it, do you?"
"Why?" Pooch asked. "What for?"
"What do you know about her?" Clay asked Jensen.
"Apart from the fact the pair of you banged last night, then burned down a hotel?" Jensen asked. "How do you even do that?"
Clay shrugged and rubbed at his scorched eyebrow. "Aisha?"
"Aisha al-Fadhil," Jensen said, reading from his notepad. "UCI registered directeur sportif, former assistant sports director with Italian pro team ERG Mobile. Coached the Bolivian track team for the last Olympics. Former Bolivian National Road champion. Raced with European pro team Damovo a decade and a half ago as a sprinter. Retired from racing after a nasty fall. Very fast girl."
A van pulled up alongside Clay's truck, as Jensen finished, and a hot, slightly scorched, woman slid out of the driver's side. "It's been a long time since anyone called me a girl."
Clay said, "Jensen, Pooch, Cougar, and Clay."
Aisha nodded. "Gentlemen. I'd like to see you all ride."
"Why?" Pooch asked.
Aisha pulled out her wallet and took out 5 hundred-dollar bills. "Will that do?"
"Yep," Pooch said, reaching out and taking one of the bills. Jensen and Cougar took theirs as well.
"Me too?" Clay asked.
Aisha raised an eyebrow at him. "Sure. And Roque."
Roque shook his head and crossed his arms across his chest.
Jensen had seen Roque ride, but could remember nothing about Roque's style or speed.
The hundred dollar bills fluttered in the wind coming down the mountain, and Clay sighed and took his bill too.
Roque muttered and reached for the final bill.
"No bike," Roque said. "I'll have to ride Pooch's."
"Or mine," Aisha said, and she turned around and slid open the side door of her van. Inside, bikes stood secured in a rack.
Real bikes, with matching components. And bar tape. And decent brakes.
Pooch made a delirious gurgling sound.
"Go on," Aisha said to him. "Get everyone's seats and headsets adjusted to suit them. Clay, hand out the heart rate monitors."
Jensen helped Pooch lift the bikes out of the van and line them up beside the road. Five beautiful Colnago road bikes, with carbon frames and Shimano Di2 shifters. Jensen could smell the marginal gains dripping off the bikes.
Behind him, as he handed Pooch the toolkit from Clay's truck, he heard Clay ask "Why Roque and I as well? Is this revenge for the fire?"
Aisha chuckled. "No. This is because a decade ago you won a stack of the Ardennes classics, and because Roque went to FSU on a cycling scholarship, and had a promising career as a puncheur until he blew out his knee at the Winston-Salem crit. I reckon you can both still ride."
Jensen glanced across at Roque, who looked even more unhappy than usual.
Aisha turned to Jensen, where he was measuring saddle posts with Pooch. "Jensen, of course, was a shining GC rider on the American circuit until he failed a drug test and was banned from UCI racing for a year. Pooch? A rouleur from the American circuit hiding in Bolivia to avoid doing jail time for unpaid federal taxes."
Pooch flinched. Jensen knew how much Pooch missed his family, but he'd miss them just as much if he was in jail, and at least this way he was free.
Aisha pointed at Cougar, who was testing the brakes on one of Aisha's bikes. "You, Cougar, I have no idea about."
Cougar adjusted the hat he wore whenever he wasn't riding. "Mexico."
"Street racing?" Aisha asked, and Cougar nodded again.
Aisha looked impressed. She should be, because Mexican street racers were the fastest, meanest and best riders in Jensen's experience, and he'd raced at UCI elite level against the most juiced and amped riders in the world.
"Bikes are ready," Pooch said. "What are we doing?"
"Riding," Aisha said. "Show me what you can do."
"Speed? Endurance or watts?" Jensen asked.
"All of it," Aisha said. "Go up the mountain, and back down again. I'll have a look at the data in your power meters later."
Jensen reverently touched the power meter on the bike Pooch had adjusted for him.
"But why?" Roque asked. "Why do you want our data enough to pay for it?"
Jensen looked at the identical carbon framed bikes, lined up beside the deserted road at the bottom of a Bolivian mountain, and then at Aisha. "It's an audition," he said, and Aisha smiled at him.
"Ride," she said.
Jensen and Cougar took off up the mountain road, Cougar drafting behind Jensen as usual. It pleased Jensen to imagine he could feel the tiny pull of Cougar's presence in the back of his mind, like magnetic north tugging at his consciousness.
Pooch was behind them, a little slower but making happy noises at the bike he was riding. "Electronic shifting," Jensen heard him say. "And I think this is a Deda stem, to match the bars."
Roque and Clay were behind Pooch, toiling away at the beginning of the incline. Jensen knew Clay still rode all the time, but that wasn't the same as being race ready. Roque possibly hadn't been on a serious bike in years. Jensen approved the two of them having to haul themselves up a mountain for a change, instead of just Cougar and himself doing all the training to keep the team in cash.
Jensen flicked his elbow, signaling to Cougar, and then dropped back behind, glad to draft for a minute or two. Also, Cougar had one fine ass, in his black jeans, and it was not hurting Jensen to watch the muscles flexing in each buttock as Cougar peddled.
A flick of the elbow from Cougar, and Jensen was back in front. His head unit display for the power meter, the actual power meter, was showing him solidly in the high 300s, and he was feeling good. Training for illegal street racing by screaming around La Paz on a seventeen-speed monstrosity of a bike had not cost him much power. He was about to find out how much endurance he still had, though, with the road up the mountain picking up in incline as it began to twist and turn as it gained altitude.
Up to 900 meters in elevation, and Jensen was in the 400s on the power meter display, with his cadence steady. Cougar wasn't showing any sign of slowing, though Cougar's turns on the front were shorter than Jensen's.
Another ten minutes, and sweat was streaming down Jensen's face and soaking into his t-shirt. His heart rate, on his head unit display, was up above his 85% mark, and he was starting to feel the cost of the effort in his thigh muscles.
A hundred dollars. They were doing this for a hundred bucks each, up front. He was willing to suffer a lot more than this for that kind of cash.
1400 meters elevation. When Jensen checked for Cougar by glancing down between his knees, time trial style, Cougar had dropped back a dozen meters and was faltering.
There couldn't be much more sealed road left up the mountain, could there?
The road was still solidly surrounded by trees, so Jensen couldn't see up ahead, to where the switchback road went, or behind, to where Pooch, Clay and Roque were struggling away. It was just him and Cougar in the cool damp forest, going on forever.
Around another bend, and the incline steepened more. Jensen was out of cogs and cadence, so he got up out of his seat and began to grind the pedals, pushing out as much power as he could. They would have to stop soon, right?
Aisha's van sounded loud in the alpine forest, chugging up the slope behind them, but not as loud as her voice over the loudhailer. "Losers!" Aisha shouted. "Congratulations on getting this far. Want to turn around now? Show me how you descend?"
Jensen almost fell off in his eagerness to turn his bike around on the steep mountain road.
He loved to descend. All that acceleration for free!
Up to a big cog, down to a small chain ring, and he was off, flying past Cougar, crouched over the bars. Brake into each bend, push out.
Cougar zoomed past him, a glorious streak of speed, a couple of minutes later, and Jensen mentally shook his head. Cougar was perched on the top tube, same as Jensen, but was still pedaling like fuck, even around the tight bends. Cougar had mad bike handling skills, mad skills.
Pooch was still slugging his way up the mountain when Cougar streaked past him, Jensen chasing. Jensen heard Aisha shouting, "Keep going until you're cooked, then turn around!" at Pooch.
Clay was next, up off the saddle, bright red-faced, and Jensen caught a glimpse of something like joy on Clay's face, under the sweat and suffering. Jensen felt it too, the wild delight at being on a fast bike and open road.
Roque swore at Jensen as Jensen roared past him, but Jensen didn't care. He didn't care about anything right at that moment, except possibly not falling off on the poor road surface on the final corner down to where Pooch's truck was parked.
Cougar was waiting for Jensen, when Jensen pulled his bike up beside the truck and unclipped, then swung a weary leg off.
When Jensen had propped the bike against the truck, Cougar launched himself at Jensen in a full hug, making Jensen "Oof," then hug him back hard.
Yeah, Jensen felt the same way after that ride too.
"Can we go for another ride? Before the others get back?" Cougar asked, letting go of Jensen and touching the bike frame reverently. "Would Aisha mind?"
Jensen wanted to. He really did.
"The bikes cost about twenty grand each, at least," Jensen said. "We probably can't ride off on them without permission."
"Twenty thousand?" Cougar asked. "What the fuck?"
"Carbon fiber frame and wheel rims. Aero frames. Those are racing tires, with latex tubes, I think. Headset, bars, drive chain, bottom bracket, head units and power meters. Might even be thirty grand."
Cougar looked at Jensen with big, sad eyes, and Jensen's heart almost broke. If he could have given one of the bikes to Cougar right at that moment, he would have. He was a big, ole softy when Cougar was involved.
Pooch roared down the last of the hill and slid to a halt beside them.
"Fucking awesome!" Pooch gasped. "I want to steal one of these and sell it to clear my tax debt."
"It's got a Bluetooth locator on it," Jensen said. "But we could find that and remove it, right?"
Pooch grinned. "Yeah."
Cougar stroked the saddle of the bike he'd been riding. "Don't sell this one."
Jensen patted his arm. "I cried when I had to give my racing road bike back. I understand."
Aisha's van pulled up alongside them, and Aisha climbed out.
"Clay and Rogue are still descending," she said. "Thought I should head back before you stole all of my bikes."
"And that's it?" Pooch asked. "We ride, you take the data and bikes and go?"
"Yes, as soon as Roque and Clay make it back down the mountain."
* * *
The ride left Jensen unsettled, even after he and Cougar had gone for their regular evening thrash around the city streets on their shit bikes. He wasn't prone to nostalgia or regrets, but right at that moment he really fucking missed the life he'd had elite racing. Not the stress, not the injuries, and not the ridiculous pressure to amp up with weird pills. The long training rides, the fast bikes, the stage races? Those he missed so much his heart hurt.
Clay was sitting on Jensen's couch, when Jensen let himself back into his room after the ride. Jensen had given up arguing with Clay about doors, locks and waiting some time ago.
Jensen hung his bike off the hook on the wall beside the door, and took the beer that Clay held out to him.
Cold beer? Clay wanted something bad.
"Do you know anything more about Aisha," Clay asked. "Did you hear back from your contacts on the American circuit?"
"A couple of people were willing to talk to me," Jensen said. "Owed me favors."
"What did they say?"
Jensen downed half his beer. "You still banging her? Am I going to cause trouble?"
Clay smiled, and it looked weird with one eyebrow missing. "Tell me."
"They said she was rich, but it was bad money."
Clay contemplated his empty beer bottle. "How bad?"
"Are you taking money from her?" Jensen asked. "Is that why you want to know?"
"Drug money, and I don't mean selling EPO to cycling teams," Jensen said.
Jensen had feelings about EPO, having lost his career because his sports director pressured him into using it and then failed to adequately protect him from testing.
"Why is a UCI accredited directeur sportif running drugs?" Clay asked.
"Family business, not her directly. Daddy funds her expensive cycling hobby. Suddenly those beautiful carbon-framed Colnagos we rode make so much more sense."
"Where are you at ethically, if she offered you one of those bikes?" Clay asked.
The faucet over Jensen's sink dripped loudly in the sudden silence in his room, and Jensen thought.
"Is second hand drug money worse than, say, running an illegal betting racket by throwing street races and tampering with the other racers' bikes?" Jensen wondered out loud. "Or than taking performance enhancing drugs to cheat at an elite sport which has a significant professional betting industry attached? Ethically?"
"I've been trying to work this out too," Clay said. "If it was first hand drug money, it would be easier to make the call."
"Hang on," Jensen said. "She's really offering us money?"
"I think she's going to," Clay said. "And we need to think about this in advance so we have a clear answer."
"Pooch is going to say yes."
Clay nodded. "I know."
"And Cougar. So that leaves me and Roque?"
"Where are you at?" Clay asked.
Jensen knew what Clay was asking. Was Jensen fucking tired of living in La Paz? Jensen asked himself this question reasonably often, and the answer was complex and involved too much soul searching about lost chances and beautiful Mexican street bike racers.
Jensen shook his head, and Clay patted his shoulder sympathetically, though Jensen wasn't sure why.
"Might never happen," Clay said. "But if it does, let's have a consensus answer?"
Clay left, and Jensen downed the last of his beer and threw himself back on his couch.
Might never happen. Might all turn to dust and slip away, leaving him with only lingering regrets about Cougar.
Jensen wanted absolutely nothing about his life to change. That was his answer.
* * *
Aisha's office was a garage and storage unit behind a tall apartment block. Pooch made appreciative noises at the security system while Clay buzzed Aisha on the intercom beside the garage door.
The door whirred and lifted, and the five of them stepped into the gloom of the garage, under the door.
Roque and Clay had hands on their concealed carries. It's possible Cougar also had a weapon on him too, but Jensen didn't ask that kind of question.
When the door had whirred closed again, the lights flicked on in the garage, and Aisha turned from the lighting control panel to face them.
Behind her, a row of road bikes and time trial bikes gleamed, and the wall was hung with spare tires. A workbench held toolkits and a stack of helmets. This garage held everything needed for a well-equipped service course for a racing team.
"Welcome," Aisha said. "I'm glad you all accepted my invitation. As you can see, I'm in the process of putting together the resources for a team."
"Go on, Pooch," Aisha said. "You can look. I checked out the power meter data from your test rides. I want to recruit Jensen and Cougar for my new team."
Beside Jensen, Cougar moved fractionally, and that counted as an extravagant bound of joy in Cougar-speak.
"The two of you are the best raw talent sprint lead out pair I've seen in a decade," Aisha continued. "Clay has already explained to me that I am looking at a package deal, and that the five of you are a team. Luckily I'm looking for a team."
From the workbench, where he was examining a drawer of spare headsets, Pooch asked, "You're hiring all of us?"
Aisha waved a hand. "Sure. You're not in too bad a condition, Pooch, and will return to form easily. Clay and Roque…"
Aisha made an 'eh' hand movement.
Roque straightened his spine and pulled his stomach in.
"Training," Aisha said. "And lots of it."
"I'm still suspended," Jensen said.
"By the time we've been through training camp and moved base, you will be able to be UCI registered again," Aisha said.
"Where are we going to?" Pooch asked.
"Somewhere that enforces its extradition treaty with the US," Aisha said. "So I will have to make your small legal problem go away, but that's minor. I've bought a UCI Continental Road Team based in Spain. Working your way up through the UCI license categories will be an excellent way of gaining form for all of you, even Clay and Roque."
Jensen grimaced. That was a lot of road races to win, to move from Category 5 to Cat 1, then Pro. He'd made that progression gradually last time, not as part of an intensive process.
Clay said, "I have a question, and I suspect the others want to know too. Why us?"
Aisha pointed at Cougar and Jensen. "It's possible you all don't appreciate exactly how good at their jobs Cougar and Jensen are, on their shitty bikes in ridiculous La Paz traffic. Put these two on good bikes and closed roads, and they are going to tear the field apart. And I need domestiques who will really work for them, with huge dedicated hearts. The kind of people who care enough to bring Berettas to business meetings."
Clay coughed and pulled his jacket forward to hide his weapon.
"You can have some time to talk this through," Aisha said.
She stepped out of the garage through a side door, and they heard her walking up stairs beside the building.
Pooch said, "Yes. Let's do this. I want to see my family, and I don't care if I have to train like crazy and live in Spain to make it happen."
Cougar nodded. "I'm in if Jensen is."
Jensen grinned. "I'm in if Cougar is."
Clay asked, "Roque?"
"I can lose forty pounds of muscle and get fit," Roque said. "For money and a decent life."
Clay nodded. "Then let's do it. Let's fucking go to Spain and ride bikes for a living."
Clay turned and waved his arms at one of the security cams that were blinking at them. "Hire us!" he shouted at the cam.
* * *
Aisha's tame doctor took blood from them all, as they sat on folding chairs in Aisha's garage.
"Don't worry if you're using," the doc said, filling vial after vial with blood. "This is not a screening for anything. I need baselines for all of you before Aisha starts your training."
Aisha nodded. "Doc and I have been talking about doping options, and we've made a strategic decision."
Jensen looked up from where the doc was taking gallons of his blood.
"Doping?" Jensen asked.
"I can't afford to either buy the undetectable performance enhancers, or to bribe the right people adequately, so we think our best option is to race clean," Aisha said. "If it's clear team policy, then none of you should feel pressured to dope solo."
"So we're going to lose?" Clay asked.
"A bit," Aisha said. "And win sometimes. But we won't have to pay any bribes or fines or handle suspensions, or buy any drugs, so it will be much cheaper. I want us to have a clean image."
Jensen looked at the astonishingly beautiful bikes at the back of the garage, all bought with cocaine money, and mentally shrugged. It made a certain kind of sense, really.
The doc put tape across the hole in Jensen's arm and bagged the vials. "I'll run these, Aisha, then come back for the FTP and VO2 tests."
"What's an FTP and VO2 test?" Cougar asked.
Jensen leaned against Cougar, on the folding chair beside him. "Like riding up to Mirador Killi Killi really fast, for an hour."
Cougar nodded. "Is that all? Thought it was something bad."
Cougar was a tough bastard. Jensen adored him.
The doc nodded approvingly, and Aisha said, "If you can ride like that, we'll be at la Vuelta a Espana in three years."
The doc left with a bag of their blood, and Clay asked, "Do we have corporate sponsorship? Or are we riding entirely as a private team?"
Aisha grinned, and it troubled Jensen. He didn't like to when directeurs sportif were that pleased. Bad shit usually followed.
"As soon as you had all signed your contracts, I was able to move forward with a corporate sponsorship and branding deal. It's looking good. We'll have branded kit by the time we reach Spain," Aisha said.
* * *
The five of them met at Clay's local bar, as usual, but instead of beer, Jensen found himself holding a bottle of mineral water. Mineral water, beetroot juice and carb tracking were going to be his life again.
"Is it confirmed?" Clay asked Pooch, who was grinning widely.
"Yes!" Pooch said. "I had a phone call from my lawyer, who said the warrant had been returned unexecuted and had been cancelled by a Federal judge. The IRS has issued an installment plan for my outstanding taxes. My lawyer says she has no idea what anyone did, and it has all happened magically."
After a burst of backslapping and congratulations, Roque said, "Is anyone else uneasy about this? We've contracted ourselves to someone who can make Federal warrants go away."
"Fuck no!" Pooch said. "The Pooch is delighted! I'm gonna see my wife next week."
Clay shrugged. "So we work for someone who could crush us under her stiletto heels? No different from riding for a pro cycling team with a huge corporate sponsor."
Jensen nodded. Like Clay, he'd ridden for a mega-corp owned team. Super-creepy criminal villainesses with great taste in shoes were no different.
Cougar nudged Jensen. "You said that out loud," Cougar hissed.
"So let's go to Spain and ride our asses off," Jensen said. "I'm 100% confident our Bolivian accented Spanish will delight everyone."
Cougar slung an arm around Jensen's shoulders. "Or we could be going to Basque country," Cougar said.
"Please teach me to speak Basque," Jensen said. "I will, um, always be your lead-out train in exchange."
Cougar kissed Jensen's cheek. "Sure."
It was all going to be okay, even if Jensen suspected Cougar didn't actually speak Basque.
* * *
The training started immediately.
Aisha provided plain black training kit, and wouldn't tell them what color their corporate kit would be, so Jensen figured it was going to be shit brown or puke green, or something.
He was happy just to slather on the chamois cream and pull on the lycra again.
Seeing Roque in lycra was fucking hilarious, and Jensen would treasure the memory forever. Roque loomed. Roque menaced. Roque skulked. Roque did not wear lycra that was a little too tight with any kind of grace.
Pooch and Clay looked like the classic riders they'd been before, if rounder.
And Cougar, sweet deities, Cougar looked like someone had spray painted black lacquer on to him. There was no way Cougar could go out in public in lycra. There'd be fucking riots.
Cougar dipped the brim of his hat at Jensen, and said, "You planning on scaring people with that?"
Lycra. Left no secrets.
Aisha pushed the control to lift the garage door, and as it whirred open said, "Could you all restrict your bizarre mating rituals to when you're not on company time? Pooch, Clay, let's get the bikes out?"
The five of them wheeled road bikes out, and Pooch spent a happy few minutes making final adjustments to the seat heights while they clip clopped around in their new cleated shoes.
"Have you used clipless pedals before?" Jensen asked Cougar, as Cougar reluctantly swapped his hat for a helmet.
Cougar did his best 'duh' face at Jensen. "Mountain bike pedals."
Jensen nodded. "Right. These cleats only clip in on one side, not both."
"Shit," Cougar said, lifting his foot up to peer at the underside of his shoe. "Why?"
"No idea," Jensen said. "Added difficulty?"
Aisha wheeled her pace bike, a Vespa, out of the garage and propped it on the road beside their bikes and started giggling.
"Sorry," she said. "It's the hairy legs on all of you, beside the bikes."
Clay waved his leg around, so the calf covered in fur was visible. "Personally, I was holding out for either my signing bonus or first pay check to clear, then I was going to pay someone very pretty to pluck my leg hairs out one at a time."
"Point," Aisha said. "Once you're paid, I expect you all to look like pro cyclists, not woolly mammoths in spandex."
Cougar rolled his bike over beside Jensen, where Jensen was fiddling with the caliper bolts on his rear disk brake.
"Shave legs?" Cougar asked.
"Sure," Jensen said. "It's part of the job. I'll give you a hand the first time, if you want."
Cougar nodded, and Jensen hated himself quite a bit for having offered.
"Trick is working out where to stop," Jensen said. "Above the knee, and it looks like we're wearing hamster pants when we take our kit off. Any higher, and our masculinity is in doubt. The eternal cyclist's question."
"I thought that was 'where am I?' and 'Why don't I have a puncture repair kit on me?'" Aisha said, behind Jensen.
"Three questions," Jensen corrected. "None of which I ever know the answer to."
* * *
Cougar followed Jensen back to his room, after the training ride. Jensen wasn't sure if it was force of habit, after Cougar following him for much of the four hour ride, or if it was leg shaving time. Either way, Cougar could follow Jensen anywhere, with his tiny telepathic pull on Jensen's mind.
"Legs," Cougar said, creaking up the stairs to Jensen's room. Jensen was pretty creaky too. Riding his own hack bike to Aisha's place for training had been a shit decision, because it meant he had to ride it home again.
When Jensen let Cougar in, Cougar threw himself on Jensen's couch, which was still folded out as a bed.
"Ooof," Cougar said. "Also, problem?"
Jensen slumped down beside Cougar. "Sure, tell me about your problem?"
Yep, Jensen's did too. Adjusting to a new saddle, even a classy ergonomic one, involved suffering.
"And numb nuts," Cougar added.
Whoa, right into more information that Jensen expected.
"You must have had perineal nerve compression from riding before," Jensen said.
Cougar nodded. "What do you do about it?"
Jensen sighed. "Be sad. Get a better saddle. Check the bike fit is right, and move the seat backward and forward slightly until things improve. What do Mexican street racers do?"
Cougar slid his hat forward slightly. "Massage after a ride."
Jensen was flummoxed. Bamboozled. Fucking lost.
Cougar nudged Jensen in the ribs. "Wanna shave my legs and rub my balls?"
Praise the gods of spandex and carbon frames. Yes. Yes, Jensen did, very much.
Jensen stood Cougar on a towel in his kitchen alcove, because his bathroom was too small for Jensen, never mind Jensen and a friend. Cougar casually peeled off his training kit, jacket and vest first, and then rolled down his bib shorts.
Kneeling reverently at Cougar's feet was entirely the right thing to be doing. Jensen might have made some kind of appreciative sigh, because Cougar settled his hat back on and patted Jensen's head fondly.
"Shave?" Cougar asked.
Right. Jensen wasn't only there to worship at Cougar's sweaty feet.
"How high do you want me to shave you?" Jensen asked, testing the bowl of warm water he'd filled and starting to lather up the foam. "Hamster pants? Porn star? Completely bald?"
Cougar ran experimental fingers through his own pubic hair. "Porn star?" Cougar suggested.
Yes, yes Cougar could be.
Cougar nudged Jensen with a big toe. "Out loud again."
"Sorry," Jensen muttered, and started lathering soap up on Cougar's calf.
Jensen lathered and shaved Cougar's legs, back and front, scraping gently across Cougar's skin, then rinsing the razor in the basin beside him. Cougar's legs were thickly corded with muscle, with solid quads and bulging gastrocnemius. His biceps femoris was a long, ropey ridge down the outside of his leg.
And Cougar's glutes were glorious, filling the curve of Jensen's palm when Jensen cupped Cougar's ass in his hands.
"Porn star," Cougar said, and Jensen nodded.
"Yep, still shaving. Haven't forgotten."
Jensen carefully, meticulously, shaved the tops of Cougar's thighs and the edges of his pubic hair, then switched the razor for a pair of scissors, and began to clip Cougar's dark, thick pubic hair.
"This will make me ride faster?" Cougar asked.
"Definitely," Jensen said. "Will make you a mighty road warrior, and all will fear you and you will vanquish your foes."
Cougar giggled and petted Jensen's head.
Jensen brushed chunks of loose hair away and nodded. "Porn star. Let me wipe you down now."
Cougar held still while Jensen carefully wiped his legs down with a warm cloth, removing the last of the lather and loose hairs.
"Oh yes," Jensen said, sitting back on his heels. "Now you look even hotter."
Cougar grinned at Jensen. "Really?"
"Smolderingly so," Jensen said. "Wanna lie down and let me massage your perineal nerve?"
"Is it going to be dirty?" Cougar asked.
"Fuck, I hope so," Jensen said. "Because I want to blow you too."
Cougar bounded across to Jensen's bed and sprawled across it, legs spread. Jensen followed, peeling his own cycling kit off as he went.
"Can I shave you?" Cougar asked, looking at Jensen's pelt of fur.
"Later," Jensen said, settling on the bed, tube of chamois cream in his hands. "Let's fix this problem of yours first?"
The cream smelled faintly antiseptic, and was pleasantly cool in Jensen's experience. He squeezed a dollop on to his fingers and then rubbed the cream on Cougar's perineum, right where the pressure from the bike seat had irritated the nerve.
Cougar made a gurgling noise of encouragement, and Jensen crawled closer, so his face was right next to Cougar's crotch and he could rest his elbow between Cougar's thighs.
"There?" Jensen asked, and Cougar nodded.
Jensen rolled the pad of his thumb slowly across the skin behind Cougar's balls, feeling the ligaments shifting under the pressure. That would help, get the blood flowing again, maybe even get feeling back.
Cougar groaned, and it wasn't a sound of pain.
"Yeah?" Jensen asked, looking up at Cougar's expression of bliss.
A twitch of Cougar's cock, where it lay across his thigh, was an excellent sign. Jensen squirted more chamois cream on both hands and propped himself up more. He gently rubbed the cream over Cougar's ball sack and let the fingers of his other hand drift lower, to Cougar's ass.
"Still numb?" Jensen asked.
"Feeling is coming back," Cougar said. "Don't stop."
How much feeling?
Jensen leaned forward and slid Cougar's half-hard cock into his mouth.
Cougar's cock stiffened in Jensen's mouth, and Jensen would have danced jubilantly around the room except for the bit where he was kneeling on the bed sucking cock. Take that, erectile dysfunction! Fuck you, perineal nerve compression!
"Why are you shouting at my dick?" Cougar asked. "What are you saying?"
Jensen mumbled an apology and concentrated on what he was doing.
Because what he was doing was sucking Cougar's dick, which was something he had spent far too much time thinking about during his sojourn in Bolivia, when he should have been paying attention to Clay's detailed instructions about the race, or trying not to fall off his bike.
Cougar made a grunting noise and nudged Jensen solidly in the shoulder.
Yes, Jensen would like to lie back on the bed and hand the chamois cream to Cougar, thank you very much. Yes, Jensen was feeling very good about several of his life decisions, right at that moment.
He was a very lucky person. And Cougar was extremely good at giving head.
"Cougar," Jensen said. "Nghh. If you do that…"
Cougar did it again, slippery finger in just the right place.
"I'm gonna come," Jensen finished.
Cougar chuckled, around Jensen's cock. And kept on doing it.
"Gonna come," Jensen said.
Cougar stopped sucking and wrapped a hand slippery with cream around Jensen's dick, and jerked him firmly and slowly.
It felt unbelievably good, and looked even better.
When Jensen had stopped swearing and shaking, Cougar said, "Me now?"
"Yes," Jensen said, reaching for the tube of cream again. "You now."
Afterward, Jensen said, "How are your balls? Still numb?"
Cougar patted his own scrotum carefully. "All feels good."
Jensen rolled on to his side, on the catastrophically messy bed. "I like your way of dealing with numb nuts better than mine."
"My way is always better," Cougar said. "Ride fast, win races, suck dick. How to have a happy life."
"Yep," Jensen said contentedly.
* * *
The taxis pulled up outside their new headquarters, in Southern Spain. The weather was gloriously warm and dry, the sun golden on the worn stone buildings. Jensen was inclined to approve of everything, and that included Spain. Spain looked fucking fine.
Aisha's team purchase had included taking over the existing service course of the purchased team, so their new headquarters still wore the corporate branding of a Spanish bank.
Aisha opened the sliding garage doors while Clay and Jensen were hauling the suitcase out of the back of the taxis.
Jensen only had one case, because he'd just left everything behind in his shabby room. Whoever rented it next would inherit dented saucepans, chipped plates and a saggy mattress, and Jensen was okay about that.
Pooch dragged a case of gear up the ramp to the sliding doors and disappeared into the darkness inside.
"This is awesome!" he called out. "You have got to see this!"
Aisha looked smug, in the doorway. "It is awesome."
"We aren't staying here?" Clay asked her, and she shook her head.
"We're booked in to the hotel in the town, until we all find places."
Jensen followed Pooch in to the garage. Their bikes, road, time trial and aero, were all lined up on racks. Spare wheels hung from brackets, filling one wall. Workbenches ran the length of the garage. It looked sleek and professional.
Aisha opened a door off the garage, into a large office. "Rest of the gear is in here. I've not unpacked and sorted yet, but you've got recovery drinks, gels and bars, as well as bidons and musettes."
All the supplies they needed for fuelling themselves through a race, as long as someone made a stack of sandwiches and cake as well.
Jensen had firm ideas about eating during long distance races.
"Your new racing kit has arrived," Aisha said, dragging one of the boxes to the middle of the office. "Want to see?"
Shit brown. Puke green. Which was it going to be?
"Our corporate partner is Petunias Laundry Detergent," Aisha said, lifting a pair of bib shorts out of the box. "You're going to be the Petunias."
The kit was candy pink.
"Here's the jersey," Aisha said, holding up a candy pink jacket, with a flower on the front, and Petunias written in darker pink letters.
This was the funniest thing Jensen had ever seen, and he couldn't stop laughing, not even when Aisha shouted at him.
The fucking Petunias. He was going to be part of the lead out train for the Petunias.
Cougar settled his hat more firmly on his head and said, "Cool."