Not so long ago, in a much sexier reality, two stubborn and competitive men stood at the base of a ski slope. Ichigo had only wished to give his boyfriend a nice day in the snow. Toshiro had seen the entire idea as silly and a waste of time, yet he was not able to resist when the invitation became a dare. Thus, the first bet was made and a tradition was born.
Need for Speed
"How do you even know that?"
"I read the manual. Didn't you? It is a common complaint and an easy fix on the S1000RR."
"You read the manual." I stared, incredulous. "And you learned how to adjust ... what is it you're adjusting?"
"The play in the clutch cable. It loosens as it warms up. Don't you feel the difference? Honestly, Ichigo, I thought you knew what you were doing with these machines."
"I don't know whether I should be pissed off or turned on right now."
"You want me to pull the slack for you?"
"No, I had you by 5 seconds. I'm doing just fine."
"Just being helpful. Tighten down and you'll be able to short shift on that long turn."
"Fuck off, tensai."
"Fine. But when my time on the next heat is 2.7 minutes faster, you'll know I was right."
"2.7 minutes! Not possible. Tell you what. You beat me and I swear by the old man's beard I will do anything you say on this bike."
"Deal. But if you want to keep up you really need to keep your head lower. If your pride will let you, you should follow my line on a few turns. You were so close, but not quite hitting the apex."
I growled. Toshiro wasn't trying to show off, and that made it twice as infuriating.
"I said if you can beat me. Shut it until then."
He was quiet, and I started to worry that I had hurt his feelings. I could let the competition get under my skin. There we were, a beautiful day, an open track, and we were together. We were doing something I had always dreamed of since Chad taught me how to ride his beat up old Yamaha. And Toshiro was in close fitting black leather . . . Yum. Nothing should be able to knock me off cloud nine.
I looked over sheepishly, prepared to apologize, and met the wide, heart-stopping smile so few ever were blessed to witness.
"Before I forget to say it, Ichigo, thanks for this. I'm really enjoying myself."
He slid his visor down and started his bike as I blushed. I could really be a dick sometimes.
The two guys on Ducatis had been listening in. We'd planned on swapping bikes with them after a few rounds, and they were getting a good laugh at my expense.
"Your buddy really knows his shit. How long's he been racing?"
"About 30 fucking minutes," I spat and slammed down my visor.
Because it's There
"Let me know when you get to where I am. There's a good rest point coming on the right."
"Oh, thank god. This is a lot fucking harder than the last one."
"That was just practice. We are over three quarters of the way to the top. It will be worth it, trust me."
"With my life, such as it is."
One of the only rules for our adventures in the living world was that we stayed in gigai. It did take a bit of the sting out of the risk, knowing that we couldn't really die from something like wrecking a race-car or falling off a mountain. But loss of the gigai meant losing the bet. And we'd been doing this long enough that we could fool ourselves into fear of mortality, just a little bit.
Toshiro didn't often select the activities for our adventures, so when he did I never turned them down. My choices were mostly high speed, rushes of adrenaline, or centered around the energy of crowds and cities. His tended to be just the opposite, but only on the surface. With his challenges, the reward took a lot more effort, but it was always worth it. Take this for example. We'd been training off and on for months just for today. Starting before dawn, we hiked two more hours from camp and were now fuck-knows-how-long into this climb. Normally, I would call that a recipe for epic boredom.
But Toshiro's challenges were never that simple. No ropes, no water beneath us to break a fall, just a whole lot of rock. When I reached the rest and took the time to look, the adrenaline rush was very, very intense. I felt like a bug on a wall, a few inches of ledge the only thing between me and hundreds of feet of empty air and granite. The view was astounding, dark trees like toothpicks below, the wide river we had boated in on yesterday nothing more than a delicate, silvery chain winding through the green.
My entire body was aching pleasantly from the exertion. Craning my head upward, I could see that we were close. But I certainly needed a rest to make it the last leg.
"Not a bad view."
I grinned at my darling love and took in an even better view. He was gorgeous every day, but when he was in his element he was beyond stunning. The close-fitting outfit hid nothing of his physique, lean muscles and golden skin glowing with sweat and sunshine, beautiful face alight with sheer joy as he carefully stretched and flexed his arms.
"Wait until you see the view from the top, Ichigo. If you manage not to fall, that is."
"Oh, I'm not falling today. I've lost the last three, it's my turn to use you as a target."
"All about the bet, beloved. You are missing the spirit."
"No." I looked slowly out at the vast wilderness and took a slow, deep breath. "No, I don't think I am."
I nearly did fall when his rough, chalk covered hand pulled my head to the side and his lips pressed to mine. It took me a moment to respond, my heart in my throat from the sudden feeling of being off balance, the automatic response to turn and embrace him nearly ending our little adventure. He chuckled against my lips, no doubt feeling the moment of panic. But I had recovered, and carefully moved my hand to the back of his neck to hold him close until I had him moaning into my mouth. When we parted, we were both panting harder than we stopped to rest.
"Trying to cheat, my love?"
"Not at all. Just getting a little advance on my only reward since it looks like I'll be losing the bet. You know, there is not a single soul within a hundred miles of that plateau."
That was the other thrill when Toshiro picked the adventure. Nothing turned him on quite like a serious physical challenge, and this one would be followed by total isolation. We had enough supplies for three nights. I couldn't be sure I would survive three nights of him in this mood, but I was certainly willing to try.
"And that was the easy section?"
"What's wrong, beloved? Too much for you?"
I gave him a hand up onto the shore and spun him into my embrace before he caught his balance. He laughed along with me between playful kisses.
"Shit!" And he was back knee deep in the Pecuare to catch his kayak and toss it up on the bank.
By the time he was out of the river again I had found the perfect shaded spot. I sprawled, resting on my elbows, watching intently as he peeled off the top of his suit.
Once I had been to this country alone, on duty, temporarily separated from him. Usually I preferred fierce landscapes, high mountains, cold winds. To my surprise, I had completely fallen for this tropical place with it's cool forests, hot sands, and welcoming community. I had tormented myself with fantasies of his face and body kissed by these strong rays. The vision before me put those dreams to shame. I stared unabashedly at the glistening streams of water running down bronze muscles, glimmering diamonds dangling from orange hair even brighter in the intense equatorial light. The Ichigo-loving sun always did fascinating things with his coloring, and only I loved him more.
He smirked, catching my expression of adoration and desire. Plans to get some physical rest before the next set of rapids were happily discarded.
I knew it. I knew once I got him to Costa Rica I would not be able to keep my hands off him. It had started on arrival, I hadn't even been able to wait for him to drop his bag before I tackled him on the hotel bed. Now I had every intention of taking him here on the forest floor, or maybe up against this tree. Why not both?
"I don't think that last flip should count. That means a tie."
"Oh, and what is your reason?"
"You know perfectly well what my reason is, my love."
"No, I can't imagine what possible excuse you could have this time."
My tone was flat and serious while my beloved was starting to get worked up. I resisted the urge to laugh. He was so competitive! So was I, but I won these little bets so often that I could take it a little less seriously. I also didn't mind losing. Being his 'target' for training was exhilarating, and I learned nearly as much defending against him as I did when the roles were reversed.
"Listen, you damn cheater, you want to try that last run again? This time I get to fuck you senseless before we launch and you see if that affects your response time."
I leaned in and kissed the frown right off his disgruntled, gorgeous face.
A Bit Off Trail
"This is not a race. Just a successful ride makes it a win. If we both wipe out, the one with the most wrecks loses. Okay?"
I was a bit worried about this one. Toshiro quickly mastered any sport that involved strategy, physics, and predictable outcomes. But you can't rely on knowing what the trail will present around the next turn. You can't predict every rock, ridge, and sudden patch of sand or gravel. From this angle, the trail looked like it plummeted straight into a pile of boulders and pine trees, but that was barely the beginning as the trail turns and winds down the mountain, alongside deep gorges and a raging river. I watched him take in the view of the range and then look down, lips pursed.
"You sure? We can practice another week."
"Backing out? I win by default."
"Hell no, I can't take another beating. I still have frostbite from last time."
He snickered and flashed that wicked grin that was usually the last thing I saw before finding myself under 8 feet of snow.
"Alright. Ready position, neutral position, brake before turns with weight on heels and hips, don't lock joints, yield to uphill."
"Highly unlikely we'll run into anyone coming up this route, at least. Toshiro, we can just take it slow. You've never even practiced a trail like this one."
"Dammit, I said I'm fine. It's just a fucking hill, so go."
Well, he'd proven me wrong 9 times out of 10. The speed with which he picked up new skills was frightening, and I usually ended up eating my words at the end of the day.
"See you at the bottom, love."
I told the young couple for the third time that everything was cool. My friend was fine, he was new at this and just lost control. Yes, I just got a text, he went off trail a bit and is hiking his bike up. No, they didn't need to wait with me. No, it wasn't their fault at all, just a noob mistake, a lesson we all learn along the way.
When they finally left, continuing up the trail, I took a long look at my boyfriend. He stood at the edge of the cliff nearby, arms tucked in the sleeves of his shihakusho looking extremely pissed. He had heard every word as I had apologized for his lack of skill and made it sound like he was an imbecile. Approaching with reasonable caution, I took in the scene.
"How the hell did you manage that?"
Turquoise eyes glared at me, then looked down to the broad canopy 100 feet below and nearly as far away on the opposite cliff face. There, dangling precariously from thin, leafy branches was a silver and green mountain bike with barely a scratch on it.
"Honestly, Ichigo, I haven't the faintest idea."
I whistled as I leaned over the edge.
"What about the body?"
"Do you have your cell phone?"
I dug around and handed it over. "Ah, you going to call your phone and follow the ringing?"
He had been pecking away at the screen and raised the phone as he walked back toward the trail.
"Urahara, it's Hitsugaya. I'm going to need a new gigai next week."
. . .
"No idea. It is not likely in good shape. What? Somewhere in the Blue Ridge, Virginia, USA."
I stared, mouth hanging open. I could hear Urahara yelling in a tone that would have made me find a good hiding place. But my dragon didn't hide from anyone. A look of disdain and irritation flashed across Toshiro's face. His voice suddenly changed to pure, cold Hitsugaya-taicho. Poor Hat-and-Clogs had met his match.
"No," he hissed into the phone, "I most certainly do not have time to get it myself. If you want it, you find it. Now if you don't mind I lost a bet and I have to go get beaten up by my boyfriend."
With the wisdom of experience, I suppressed the laughter that was trying to escape and stayed silent and calm. His beautiful face was completely serene once more as he handed back my phone. Later, when Toshiro wasn't around, I would send Urahara the coordinates. He sighed as he looked back over the cliff.
"Ichigo, when I went over the edge I panicked. I dumped the gigai almost immediately."
"Well, anyone would if they could, love. If you were human that surely would have killed you. Definitely put you in a wheelchair."
He turned back and quickly stepped close, staring straight into my eyes with an air of excitement.
"Exactly. I was afraid to fall. Me. How ludicrous is that?"
My head cocked to the side. Where was that genius brain heading with this one?
Aha! I grinned. "So, skydiving?"
Into the Void
Science had a name or it, and something of an explanation for the odd psychological phenomenon that makes standing at a great height so dangerous. Science always did, and usually I paid attention. But at that moment the last thing I was interested in was reason. No, what I was fascinated with was the unfocused and imprecise desire to jump, no, to fall. Why?
The skies were my second home, where I dominated my enemies and flaunted my power. Never in my life had I felt out of place in the cold expanses of the heavens. Never had I looked at the earth so far below with even a sliver of fear. This false body could be hurt, could be 'killed' in a manner of speaking. I could only feel its pain if I chose to remain through an injury. But I could not die. The fall posed no risk whatsoever to my soul. It did not make any sense, then, that when I had fallen I experienced both a thrill of excitement and a thrill of terror when I should feel nothing at all.
Science did not have a grasp on my rather unusual circumstances.
"You know that look drives me crazy."
My beloved's breath on my neck was the only warmth as freezing winds invaded the open bay of the plane. He had told me that when I was thinking intently it looked as if I was seeing another reality, and a big part of him hated the thought that I was somewhere else and he could not follow. My precious idiot did not understand that he was everywhere, always, there was no thought or feeling that did not come to my mind through the love I held so close in my heart.
Leaning back slightly, I turned my head and captured his lips. I would happily have turned into his arms and deepened the kiss, but he pulled back, glancing around to see if we were noticed. Chuckling at his timidity, I gave him a playful smack and turned back to watch the nebulous clouds swirling so close, reforming after being shredded by this hideously ugly and exquisitely beautiful metal marvel of human ingenuity.
"How much longer?"
"Shouldn't be another 2 minutes."
"You are not backing out?"
"I think we both knew no one would win this bet, my love."
He was right. Not only would neither of us back down from a challenge, we both were eager to do this. I decided to stop trying to understand, and just enjoy. It was silly, really, pretending to be mortal and allowing human feelings to govern my actions. But for me especially, this was new and far beyond rare. Ichigo, at least, remembered living a true human life and understood the fear of death. I had never lived such a life.
Hoping Ichigo didn't notice me jump a little when a loud buzzer went off, the red light by the bay doors changing to yellow, I flashed him a wide grin and he grinned back. I could feel his excitement, my own adrenaline picking up as we went through a final safety check.
The crew had gathered to watch our exit. We had lied, of course, with perfectly forged documentation to prove our non-existent expertise. We had both done our research, and we did not want to mess with the safety requirements placed on beginners. It wasn't exactly a kind thing to do. After all, if one of us 'died' it would reflect poorly on the company and the crew. Well, we would just have to survive.
My beloved waved a thumbs up overhead and I mimicked his action, crouching slightly in anticipation. The green light was a blur as I ran for the sky, leaving only my whooping shout behind.
My arm was as heavy as lead. I stared at it in concentration, forcing it up. It took ages to move the sluggish limb enough to lay my hand where I wanted it, palm over bronze-covered clavicle, fingers curling to fit the curve of his shoulder. I sighed as I finally succeeded in this simple task, and relaxed again. Everything was now perfect.
"So, did you actually feel fear?"
"Did you wait to ask me that until we were alone on purpose? Trying to protect my dignity, beloved?"
"Trying to protect my chances of getting laid."
I snickered against his chest. It had been terrible, all the gear, the ground crew, the ride back with others in the vehicle. So many fucking obstacles to fucking. And all we had both wanted from the moment the chutes opened was to tear into each other. He could have told me he hated me and that he was sleeping with Kurotsuchi, I still would have begged for it.
"Yes, I think I did. Despite all the reasons not to be afraid, and even though I know I will feel no fear in the air when it is my power that holds me up, somehow I still did feel it."
It was the point of these reckless adventures of ours, to push ourselves in one way or another. This one had been a particularly rewarding challenge, as it gave me a taste of mortality. Yes, I could fall in battle, and I did not want to die. But a soul that has been reborn countless times has a different perspective on fear of death. Quite like the perspective I now had, a creature that thrives in the air being able to explore the fear of falling.
"Did it live up to your expectations?"
Oh, my darling was clever, deliberately pushing my buttons, reawakening the thrill. He was nearly as sharp now as I, and how I adored him for it. I scooted in closer, draped half over him now and nuzzling the scar on his neck.
"Ichigo," I let my lips move close against his skin as I spoke, "are you terribly exhausted?"
A deep chuckle answered me as his hand pulled gently on my hair, moving my head back so that his lips could reach mine. Mmm, yes, remind me of the thrill of life, beloved. Walk with me as we discover every truth, every fear, every delight. And then hold me close to give the discoveries meaning.
"Ichigo," I whispered against his lips as I moved to straddle his hips, "next can we try base-jumping?"
"Whatever you want, you sexy thing."