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Taking the Prize

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The wine had had barely any time to set by the time that Ootengu fetched it out, assessing its readiness as he tilted the weight carefully in his arms. He couldn't remember exactly how many months it had been. Five? Six? Humans had more fragile stomachs than most spirits; they would care more, complain more if he mistimed it. The fruit pulp was long gone, and he'd made several passes at separating out the sediment, so the wine was at a palatable stage of aging: drinkable, but potentially not at its highest peak of flavor.

He hefted the jar into the crook of his elbow while mentally counting back through days and months of preparation. The liquid inside its cool belly sloshed back and forth. Seven months. No. He'd made sure to pick the grapes as early as possible last year. At least eight, then. Close enough to be safe.

It had been a conspiracy of other errands that had caused Ootengu to forget that today was the appointed time for their regular visit. In truth, he had expected Hiromasa to similarly forget. The man had made an idle comment back in autumn about a set of ridiculous human tournaments that would be arriving on the heels of spring, when nobles would all get together and parade around like mating birds trying to out-strut one another's plumage, dressed up in formal layers that would be far too impractical to take onto the field, let alone actually shoot an arrow with. Ootengu knew the type. Human power games, threats uttered from behind the protection of painted fans, couched in the disguise of poetry. By the time Hiromasa could extricate himself from that, it would be far too late to ride out to a remote mountain range. He wouldn't be free for days, either caught up in congratulating the victors, or unlucky enough to have taken the prize himself -- and then be forced to endure the pandering as other nobles cozied up to him and invited him to various afternoon affairs.

But -- despite all reasons to the contrary -- it had been Hiromasa's horse that Ootengu had spotted winding its way up the trail. He'd been lucky enough to have been out scouting that afternoon, which was the only reason he'd caught sight of the nobleman's red and gold clothes far in the distance, standing out like birds against the greener leaves. Otherwise, Hiromasa would have had to spend the rest of the day alone in the clearing they normally met in, playing his flute by himself while Ootengu was off doing errands or something equally mundane in his negligence.

And good riddance, if Hiromasa had been left on his own. He would have deserved it. He would have deserved waiting until the sun went down, hoping for the honor of being visited even briefly by a tengu. For all the nobleman's bravado, he still was a mere mortal petitioner who enjoyed pestering spirits with actual responsibilities, like taking care of entire mountains and quelling hostile yōkai who liked to pick needless fights eating travelers. Hiromasa should be the one inconvenienced. Hiromasa should know his place.

Ootengu wrestled the jar more firmly into his grip and steadied his fan, pushing himself airborne and beating his wings hard enough to begin a storm.

The wine, thankfully, would not be harmed by the speed of its trip. There would almost certainly be sediment stirred up -- there wasn't enough time to give it another pass -- but the heart of the vintage should be stable. Each grape had been picked and scrutinized by Ootengu's own hands. He'd had no peace while preparing it, using the roost's kitchen in hopes of having clean tables and cleaner water to work with; the younger tengu had been insatiably curious, tempted by the fresh grapes. They had snuck in every time his back was turned, getting sticky fingers everywhere as they stole fruit by the handfuls. Ootengu had had to keep them out of mischief by flinging any imperfect grapes into their midst so that they could squabble over the treats, and then yelled at the rest until they finally left him alone.

The jar was heavy and cold. Ootengu didn't risk carrying it solely by the rope wound around the rim; he'd had containers slip free like that before, and there'd been no time to rig a carrying net. He cursed Hiromasa with every wingbeat he took. He had more than enough of a list to keep him occupied for the flight: Hiromasa's braying laugh, Hiromasa's infuriating habit of trying to lead during musical duets, Hiromasa's continued belief that he could outrun a bear. Hiromasa's excessive height. The impeccable control of Hiromasa's breathing as he dropped into a meditative trance while aiming his bow. The ridiculous way that the sunlight would catch Hiromasa's eyes in the evenings when the noble would yawn and tilt his head up towards the clouds, exposing his throat like an offering, his skin like a scroll to read his pulse upon.

Ridiculous, ridiculous, and Ootengu shifted the wine jar in his arms and nearly dropped it anyway.

He made it to the clearing just moments before the nobleman arrived, trying to calm his breathing and shake out his feathers so that he wouldn't look as if he'd just flung himself down half a mountain. A twig had wedged itself in his robes; he plucked it up and flicked it away, frantically checking for any bark left behind. It was too awkward to stand there simply holding the jar. Ootengu hefted it from arm to arm, grimacing inwardly, and finally plunked it down on the ground.

That was even worse. He nudged it with his foot, trying to figure out how to make the wine jug look as if it was naturally part of the landscape, and then finally shoved it into the shadow of the nearest tree, where it did a poor job of imitating a boulder.

Typically enough, Hiromasa was already grinning by the time his horse picked its way through the forest, sliding off its back and tying it up so that it wouldn't wander. The horse snorted at his efforts, already beginning to forage at the grasses. Hiromasa paid it no mind; he strode eagerly forward towards Ootengu, triumph already apparent from the joy shining on his face.

"Guess who beat every single archer they could find to throw at him, and then half of them a second time?" he crowed, spreading his arms wide.

"Good afternoon to you as well," Ootengu replied back pointedly, as if he didn't care about the results of a paltry mortal competition. He didn't. Of course he didn't. But he cared about how success puffed out Hiromasa's chest and made him insufferable, so that gave him reason to prod further. "If it was that magnificent a victory, shouldn't you still be celebrating with all your noble friends? I'm certain they would wish to curry the favor of such a potent marksman."

It came out with a pettier edge than he expected -- petty with jealousy, Ootengu realized with a chill of horror -- but Hiromasa thankfully didn't seem to notice. "Why would I want to be there, when I could celebrate with you instead?" was the man's easy answer, dropping his arms at last as he picked his way up the gentle slope of the fields. "I'd rather spend my hours here any day, instead of being dragged to the parties at the capital."

The faint flush of pleasure that heated Ootengu's face was almost as humiliating as his own initial question had been: revealing too much, and none of it worthwhile. Hiromasa means nothing by it, he reminded himself. He simply dislikes the court. Aloud, he said, "Perhaps it's a good thing that I prepared a drink in advance, just in case. I thought I would be viewing the flowers all by myself today, but you've given me enough reason to share. It's not a particularly outstanding batch," he added, just in case the man would start to get ideas that would bloat his self-importance. "I wanted to test the grapes from that side of the mountain anyway, and you were simply convenient."

He couldn't tell if Hiromasa was disappointed or not; the man made a single, enthusiastic clap of his hands, and unslung his bow and quiver. "I can't wait," he grinned, laying both down carefully on the grasses. "Have you already laid into it? Or are we going to try it out together?"

Faced with such aggressive cheer, Ootengu had no choice but to haul the jar into view, feeling the cool weight of the contents slosh around reassuringly inside; it hadn't leaked at all despite the whirlwind of its journey. Hiromasa was already shaking out a blanket from his horse's packs, a lightweight weave that would protect them from grass stains and mud. With a flick of his hands, the nobleman had the cloth neatly upon the ground, smoothing down the corners, and then he flung himself down in an easy sprawl that took up most of the space anyway.

Wishing he had had the time to prepare a table -- a table, a tray, an entire pavilion for them to lounge underneath instead, rather than with their knees bumping together on the thin fabric of the blanket -- Ootengu fished out the cups from their pouch and sat, back straight and formal, wings high and arched. He poured for Hiromasa neatly without spilling a drop, and offered the cup to him, trying to pretend he wasn't watching the nobleman's responses with the same keen hunger as a hawk waiting for a mouse to stir.

Hiromasa gave the cup an experimental swirl, and then didn't hesitate to take a deep sip, pausing once only to allow the flavor to settle across his tongue before promptly taking another. "It's good!" he exclaimed, eyebrows lifted in surprise.

"Of course it's good, idiot," Ootengu retorted stiffly. "I made it."

Hiromasa beamed and promptly downed the rest of the cup, holding it out to be filled again. "I didn't know winemaking was a duty for tengu. With vintages as delicious as this, I'm surprised any of you can fly straight each day."

"It's not," Ootengu admitted. The compliment squirmed in his chest; he tried to ignore it. "But I thought it would be a suitable token for your success, since you could bring some back with you."

The nobleman's chuckle was as warm as the afternoon sun. He leaned over to clap Ootengu on the shoulder, the easy gesture stinging with careless force. His arms were still sleeved, but his chest was left completely bare save for a pair of leather straps, showing muscles as dense as stones, testament to hours of combat practice. "I might drink it all first, at this rate. There's nothing in the capital that can compare. Here, you should have some too! Have you tasted it yet?"

Ootengu, still attempting to keep the proper degree of composure befitting of a spirit with his responsibilities, made a brief shake of his head. "I've brewed grapes before, but you've had the first cup from this batch," he admitted, trying to shrug the matter away; his wings rustled, an unconscious flick of their tips as if he could shake off Hiromasa's words like a clinging insect.

But Hiromasa would have none of it. "A victory isn't a victory unless I share it with you," the nobleman declared -- and as Ootengu was trying to regather his dignity from that, the nobleman caught up one of the spare cups and tipped the jug to fill it, thrusting the brew directly at Ootengu's face. There was no other option but to take it.

After that, the only way to stop Hiromasa from eagerly staring at him was to drink.

It was good. The time Ootengu had spent in finding better grapes paid off in the cleanness of flavor, a richness that had yet to take on a tart note. Not so superior that Ootengu would go through the same effort again without sufficient reason -- it had taken him a full day of harvesting before he'd been satisfied, and then he'd had to hurry before the fruit started to spoil -- but worthy of being presented as a gift. "Your victories are your own," he announced at last as he finished his cup, trying to regain his aloofness properly in the face of Hiromasa's cheer. "They have nothing to do with me."

Hiromasa grinned. "Then why did you make me something to celebrate with? Or," he added, with a contemplative tilt of his head, a gesture that caused his long hair to whisper over the rough blanket, "maybe what we're actually celebrating is meeting here like this, and seeing each other again?"

Every response the nobleman made was a terrible one. There was still a simmering warmth in Ootengu's chest that was refusing to be silenced and sent away, and it threatened to overflow and make him stupid with unfounded delight. Hiromasa had no idea of what he was saying; Ootengu couldn't imagine that he did, not with how readily he was saying it. He needed Hiromasa to shut up so that he could pack it all back down again, and comport himself with proper dignity.

He turned his head away, pretending to study the clouds instead. "Is today so important to you?"

He could hear Hiromasa's snort. The nobleman stretched his legs further out; one of his boots entered Ootengu's field of vision, which ruined that attempt to ignore him. "Every time I see you is something special, isn't it? Here, pour for me again! Ahhh, I wish I had something suitable to eat this with. It's not a flower viewing party without good food. What do you think?"

Ootengu risked a glance back, trying to ignore the way that Hiromasa was offering up his cup; he refilled it anyway, making an exaggerated sigh at the effort. The sun overhead was lazily flirting with the clouds, leisurely warming the cooler mountain air that snaked through the trees. "Will your family allow you to enter another competition?" he asked instead, seeking to divert the conversation onto safer, less ebullient matters. "What will you do if you fail that one?"

Mention of the Minamoto clan had the desired effect of dimming Hiromasa's enthusiasm. Even so, Ootengu suppressed a twinge of reluctance as he saw the man's expression turn crestfallen. "It'll be an argument either way. I'll just have to win the next bout -- and keep winning until they stop complaining," Hiromasa decided at last, resolutely. The seriousness didn't last nearly long enough; he lifted the cup in a salute, and a smile blossomed across his face as his gaze sought out Ootengu over the rim. "But if you're waiting at the end for me like this, then there's no competition I can't beat."

Ootengu's mouth was dry. It was dry and laced with wine and longing, and he found himself opening it to whisper, "You have no taste."

Hiromasa snorted again, downed the cup again, and then contemplated the glistening emptiness of its bowl. "I have very good taste," he argued back. "Here, let me show you."

Ootengu had enough time to blink, registering how Hiromasa was setting aside the cup and gathering himself onto one knee -- and then the nobleman lunged forward, tackling him squarely with his arms, his full mass ramming into Ootengu's ribs. Ootengu flailed, all his attention spent on not spilling backwards onto his wings and damaging his feathers -- but Hiromasa deftly rolled, flipping both of their weights, one arm around Ootengu's waist to both guide and catch him.

The world spun. Ootengu's wings stretched open automatically to try and stabilize his balance, and he had a moment of panic as he tried to reorient himself around where the wine jug was -- to the left, to the right, he didn't dare knock it over, not because of some prank of Hiromasa's making. He managed to get his knees on the blanket, Hiromasa spread out beneath him, but then he overbalanced precariously to the right and almost fell. He flapped a wing hard, instinctively; the air snapped in a gust, and Ootengu thought he saw his feathers skim dangerously close to the wine.

And in that moment -- just as Ootengu went limp enough not to struggle, concentrating only on not accidentally knocking anything over -- Hiromasa pulled him the rest of the way down and kissed him.

It was rough, clumsy. Their teeth bumped, Ootengu still trying to figure out how to not fall onto Hiromasa's face while keeping his balance -- but then Hiromasa shifted, one hand coming up to grip Ootengu under the shoulder, his archer's strength unhesitating. His other arm had wrapped itself around Ootengu's waist, pulling him close and keeping him from sliding off. Their hips were pinned together. Ootengu's wings spread wide like a black canopy above them both, shielding them from the watch of the sun.

Hiromasa's mouth was sweet and sticky from the wine. It was as hot as a summer flight, branding Ootengu's nerves the same way as if he had flown higher than the mountain peaks, above the clouds until the air was robbed from his lungs and each wingbeat strained his muscles to screaming. But he was grounded here, pinned and sprawled across Hiromasa's body; he was in no danger of tumbling off, not with the way that his knees were spread on either side of the man's thighs. He braced his arms on the blanket as he tried to regather his wits, even while the kiss continued: hungry and relentless, smoother now as Hiromasa found the right angle to match him, his teeth a momentary gentle pressure on Ootengu's lower lip.

Ootengu's wings shivered. At the motion, both of Hiromasa's hands slid upwards, traveling to the undersides of his wings, sliding carefully through the smaller feathers. The sensation felt like skimming a storm: a crackle that ran along all of Ootengu's nerves, magnified a thousand times until it threatened to overwhelm him entirely. He closed his eyes to better drown in the pleasure of it, feeling his wings stretch even wider all on their own accord as they accepted the touch, instinctively begging for it, basking under the feel of Hiromasa's hands upon him.

He broke off before he lost self-control entirely, gasping, pushing away to balance deftly across Hiromasa's hips. "Do you even know what you're doing?" he blurted, horror barely overriding lust.

At the first flinch, Hiromasa had instantly withdrawn his hands from Ootengu's feathers. Now they were strong and steady on Ootengu's waist. "We can stop if you don't want to," he suggested, clearly thinking only about the simplest details, of coupling for a moment's pleasure and nothing more. "Did I hurt you?"

Yes, Ootengu wanted to insist: a pain that had nothing to do with his body and everything to do with his fears. Instead, he said aloud, "If you wanted to celebrate your afternoon by rutting, then I'd imagine any number of your fellow human nobles would have been happy to serve."

"To hell with all of them," Hiromasa replied automatically, blankly, without any fire in it; he could have been commenting on the weather, or a stone in his shoe. He was still staring up at Ootengu, eyes wide and guileless. "You're better than all of them together. Haven't I said that all along?"

The palms on Ootengu's waist moved down to his thighs. Hiromasa shifted his weight, which caused his body to rock, and Ootengu with it. The motion suddenly reminded Ootengu of the difference in their builds; Hiromasa could heft him as easily as lifting a sack. Lift him, and then pull him down again, guiding him over and over -- and Ootengu swallowed hard, trying not to let his imagination continue to present an image of him braced in place, his wings swaying with the motion as Hiromasa's grip carried him along. "You haven't bedded me yet to know the truth of that."

"I don't need to," Hiromasa parried, still missing the point entirely, plowing forward on sheer blind stubbornness. "It's you."

With that, he sat up, shifting one hand to brace it firmly in the small of Ootengu's back, so that it was impossible not to lean into the warmth while Hiromasa pulled him close against him. Ootengu's wings fanned wide again to try and keep his balance, knees shifting as he slid into Hiromasa's lap, and then he -- then he bent his head back down, and was kissing Hiromasa again even as the nobleman tilted his face up in welcome for it, and Ootengu was rocking against Hiromasa, hips shifting against the thick braided rope of the man's belt, a delicious pressure that rolled with him like the best of summer winds.

"I'm not a passing dalliance," he protested as soon as he had the breath for it, finding the remains of his pride weakening. "Don't think you can ask such things of me as if you were asking for a new string on your bow."

"I have a million spare strings." Point and protest missed again, and Hiromasa was still looking up at Ootengu as if there was nothing else in the world that was more important than this: than watching every inflection of Ootengu's expression like a treasure that would never come again. "But there's only one you. There's nothing that could even come close. So whatever it is you want to do, or not do -- anything you want, just tell me."

Too blunt. Too much meaning inferred from words too easily delivered. Surely, Ootengu could only be misinterpreting the nobleman's affection. Hiromasa treated everything with an equal lack of forethought; he made promises quickly, and only afterwards took the time to consider if he could even carry them out. There was nothing serious about it, nothing at all, and Ootengu could dismiss Hiromasa's claims as not even being worth the shallow breath it took to utter them.

But even as Ootengu tried to convince himself, he felt the effort failing. He did not live by Hiromasa's standards. He was not mortal, with a human's fleeting attention; he never would be.

Attachments could never be minor for Ootengu. He had so much more to lose.

"You're a fool," he said, breathlessly. Simple words that did nothing to encompass exactly how much Hiromasa was promising, how much he was neglecting in his bravado. "Have you even considered the consequences?"

Of course not. Hiromasa merely grinned through the mess of his hair, bangs clustered and tangled together in a cataclysm of crimson and black. "I can be late going home," he suggested with easy indifference for propriety, and then untangled one of his hands to reach carefully back up, navigating around Ootengu's feathers and resting on the muscles leading into the shoulderblade. "They won't even notice, I promise."

The assumption was impossibly shortsighted. Ootengu opened his mouth to protest again -- but then Hiromasa was leaning back down once more, and he found himself following along. Hiromasa's calloused fingers were sliding through his hair. Hiromasa's mouth was warm on his, and Ootengu let him, he let him, he let Hiromasa distract him away from the very real dangers of what they were tempting, and he allowed it to happen anyway.

And the worst part was that Hiromasa wasn't even aware of it. He might be promising everything his mortal body could hold -- or he might simply be offering the fare of most humans, which was the scant indulgence of only a few years before they found another hobby to pursue. A decade was as good as forever to their brief lives. It wouldn't be malice, but sheer carelessness that might lead to Hiromasa offering a promise with one breath, and having to break it with the next. It wouldn't be malice. It would be Hiromasa not thinking ahead, as always, with his impulsiveness and bravado, jumping forward into battle and not realizing the price of committing himself to the fray.

Hiromasa's clan would never tolerate it. The Minamoto would want him to find a human partner, to produce more heirs for their legacy -- not to become attached to a yōkai. Their pride as onmyōji would never allow it. An enraged clan would have no remorse in punishing those who insulted them; the manipulations and pressure that could be brought to bear could scourge Hiromasa's spirit without ever leaving a mark on his body. This was not a game hunt, or a competition; this was a defiance of all the boundaries laid between spirits and mortals, and Ootengu did not want to let himself think about the possibility that this was what Hiromasa meant, that Hiromasa might be willing to go to war on the side of spirits rather than his family, because Ootengu would not accept anything less.

And if this was only a passing distraction for Hiromasa, then Ootengu would lose even more. Hiromasa was not rude enough to treat yōkai as lesser, as the rest of his clan was prone; he wouldn't intentionally use Ootengu and discard him simply because he was a spirit. But he was thoughtless enough not to think about problems until he ran into them facefirst -- and it might be only a matter of time before Hiromasa found another face to pursue, another human or spirit who might capture his flickering interest. Spirits were meant to love for centuries. Humans were meant to die.

Because that's how it would end, either way. Even if Hiromasa was sincere -- even if he somehow escaped his clan's anger -- the difference in their natures would still have the final word. Mortality would take Hiromasa forever away, and Ootengu would have only a memory to haunt him: a memory of this mortal smile, this mortal warmth, to carry around for the rest of his long existence like a curse seared deep into his soul.

Because that was what Hiromasa was asking of him: for Ootengu to allow a part of himself to die as well, rotting away in a slow gangrene of his soul, where every recollection would only spread the poison rather than heal it. That was what it was to mourn. To have the part of yourself that lived for them, loved for them, finally perish as well, embers starved of anything to feed them, gnawing holes through your heart in search of the sparsest memories for fuel.

That was what loving a mortal meant. That was what grief entailed. Ootengu would be left dying eternally while unable to die, and his suffering would only end when every last shred of yearning finally rotted away. He would have to endure his own withering, feeling the decay of his heart as it begged helplessly for Hiromasa's touch, and crumbled away in silence. The balance of his life would skew and then fall. Every other empty day would simply be another sunrise spent waiting for the nobleman to return, a colorless limbo that held no value without Hiromasa there to bring it to life.

He knew what that would feel like. He knew exactly what it would feel like to have his thoughts kindle in Hiromasa's presence -- and to ache whenever the man was away.

"You fool," Ootengu whispered again, this time to himself as he realized the truth unfolding slowly inside him: a final breath slipping from cooling lips, the deathrattle whisper of his soul coming early, but with no less finality.

It was already too late for him.

He was already lost.

He kissed Hiromasa again, this time desperately, as if he could steal back the portion of his heart that he had lost the same way in which he might steal the nobleman's breath. The only possible escape would be if Hiromasa left the mountain now and went back to his squalid human city with its squalid human affairs, and never gave Ootengu cause to think there might have been a chance for more. Even then, Ootengu needed to start preparing himself for the inevitable -- he had to minimize the damage ahead of time, to section out his soul like a farmer seeing the glow of crop fires in the distance, and digging trenches to contain the burn.

Just one more touch, then. One more kiss. One more moment of Ootengu's hand sliding along the tantalizingly warm skin of Hiromasa's waist, and then he would be done. He would have his fill at last and never want more, his appetite free to move onto other things: free to cut the parts out of himself that were made mortal now, before they infected the whole.

"It'll be okay," Hiromasa promised, his brow furrowing even as Ootengu's wings made an unconscious shiver of agitation. "Whatever you're worried about -- it'll be fine."

"It won't," Ootengu murmured, refusing to elaborate; if Hiromasa chose blindness willingly, there was no way to make him see reason. He yanked at one of Hiromasa's sleeves, cursing now the thick muscles of the man's arms; it was impossible to disrobe him without effort.

But Hiromasa paused and wrestled him back, bracing Ootengu's weight as he gave him a firm shake. "It will. You'll always have me there with you if you need it. Don't you get it?"

There was no reason for Ootengu to be swayed by sheer confidence. He had to reject Hiromasa. There was no reason to believe that things could be that simple -- as if they were only two people beyond the concerns of humans and yōkai, and they could find a way to be together as long as they had the desire for it. As if Hiromasa could will himself back to life again and again with all his memories intact, or better yet, never die in the first place: as if Hiromasa was offering to become a spirit instead and leave his humanity behind, outside the reach of seasons. That Hiromasa wasn't concerned because he had already committed himself, even if he didn't know the full shape of the path yet. He would jump in headfirst. He would treat death as another competition, and beat it too, and then come back to Ootengu again at the end, riding up the mountain with laughter in his eyes and in his mouth.

Maybe it really was that simple.

Maybe Hiromasa was willing to let it be that simple, for him.

Ootengu felt his breath twist into a stone in his lungs, in his throat, blocking out whatever denial he might have made next. It was too much to consider -- too much to hope for, even as Ootengu felt his resistance crumple the rest of the way. The sincerity of Hiromasa's promise felt like molten fingers prying delicately into his chest, curling around his ribs, carrying the insidious whispers of a foolish, foolish maybe.

"How dare you," he whispered, tracing the line of Hiromasa's jaw and meaning it a thousand ways. How dare Hiromasa lay hands on a noble tengu like this. How dare Hiromasa stake everything on a flimsy promise of hope. How dare Hiromasa encourage the possibility of a dream, luring Ootengu down the same path that had trapped so many foolish, forlorn spirits in the past, spirits that Ootengu had always prided himself on being better than, stronger than: how dare Hiromasa do this to him. "How could you presume to present me with such a thing?"

Hiromasa squinted up at him, his expression finally losing its hopeful tinge. "Am I that bad at this?" he asked, a wounded note creeping into his voice.

"You're terrible," Ootengu replied automatically, a verdict he instantly contradicted by leaning down again and claiming Hiromasa's mouth with his own. The sputter of the man's protest went unheard; Ootengu was the one to swallow his words for him, leaning hungrily into Hiromasa's body. Hiromasa's hand faltered, and then pressed hard against his back as they arched together, slow stretches of motion as their clothes rubbed with agonizingly teasing friction against Ootengu's skin.

Hiromasa groaned, a low rumble that turned into a laugh. Ootengu sat back on his knees triumphantly, his hands splayed across Hiromasa's chest. His wings were spread full and wide. He could see the length of his shadow rippling out beneath him, licking across Hiromasa's belly, the echo of his presence painted on Hiromasa's skin.

"I'm not some token or victory reward," he declared out loud. "No matter how many competitions you win. I won't be here at your beck and call every time you happen to land a fortunate shot. But that doesn't mean you have an excuse to lose, either," he warned, narrowing his eyes. "I won't tolerate underachievers."

Hiromasa watched him without protest, lying conquered beneath the pressure of Ootengu's fingertips. His grin, however, defied any hint of surrender. "Does that make it the other way around, then? Am I your prize instead?"

"Only if you let me have you," Ootengu answered, and bent down again, whispering the words into Hiromasa's throat even as his hands found Hiromasa's belt and began to pull it loose. "Only if you mean it when you say you're mine."