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Three Card Monte

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                Abellona and Aspen Starr know absolutely everything there is to know about each other. Abellona knows all of Aspen’s fears, his most impossible dreams, what he thinks about when he’s alone. Aspen knows all of Abellona’s favorite pizza toppings, her favorite television shows, what songs make tears come to her eyes. This depth of knowledge about another person is a natural side effect of navigating a turbulent and dangerous world with them for your whole life. Yes, Aspen and Abellona can practically read each other’s minds.

                That being said, Abellona still doesn’t have a clue where Aspen sneaks off to some nights. The two of them are sitting in comfortable silence, with Abellona intently focused on a dust-covered tome with a faded cover and missing pages, and Aspen browsing Instagram on his cellphone. They’re in Mattie’s cozy living room and at some point Abellona turns to ask Aspen about some blurry memory they must share, and her twin’s spot in his favorite chair is empty.  Mattie eventually walks in and asks where ‘The Other One’ is and Abellona has to cover her idiot brother’s ass once again. Abellona questions him about it in the morning- or sometimes in the afternoon- after, when she finds him, smudged eyeliner, mussed hair, bloodshot eyes, bruises poking out where his clothing doesn’t quite cover them, standing in the kitchen drinking milk directly out of the jug like he never left.

                “Where the Hell have you been?” Abellona always sneers.

                “Feeling nosy today, are we Abby?” Aspen sometimes responds, eyes lighting up with a challenge that Abellona is normally too tired to take him up on.

                Sometimes he says, “You’re not my mother, sister dearest, why do you give a fuck?” And Abellona throws whatever object she can get her hands on towards her brother’s head.

                Aspen loves his sister, he truly does, but even he needs a night to himself every now and then. Well, not exactly to himself, just without Abellona. Sometimes Aspen feels as if when they’re together for too long, neither of them exists at all.

                Two’s company and Aspen severely doubts that Lucian would let Aspen turn their little get-togethers into crowds.

                So Abellona doesn’t know about Aspen’s occasional rendezvous with his new vampiric frenemy. Where’s the harm in that? She’s not the only one Aspen decides to keep in the dark. The only people who know are Hasani and Philippe, and Aspen intends to keep it that way. Lucien helps Aspen feel something, anything, every once in a while and all Aspen has to do is provide a little entertainment and buy a tonic every once and awhile. It’s actually a very good deal, if you ask Aspen, but he does enough gambling to know the odds of his lovely sister asking questions first and threatening later are astronomically low.

                Aspen waits until the summer sky melts from powder blue, to burnt orange, to a dull, inky black peppered with the hints of stars starting to appear. Abellona loves the stars out where Mattie’s neat little cabin stands in stark contrast to the wild and ominous seeming forest surrounding it. Every now and then Abellona tells Aspen all about the constellations and their meanings and how far away they actually are. Aspen tries to remember her fading words as he successfully sneaks out of the back door and feels his way through the warm and darkened woods that seem to whisper and attempt to pull him back to the cabin. Back to Abellona. Back home. Not tonight.

                He takes this path so often, he should know it by heart. He always feels the same buzzing energy and anticipation under his skin when he sets his first step on the now empty road. After that it’s just a short trek to the nearest bus station.

                Lucien never looks happy to see Aspen at first. If Aspen were a lesser man, it would bother him, or make him feel dreadfully insecure, but Aspen is Aspen, so he tells himself he doesn’t care either way.

                Aspen never knows what to expect when he knocks on the thick, dark, and foreboding wooden door to Lucian’s apartments. Most of the time, a short, underwhelming woman with a black dress and a tired stare cracks open the door before silently pulling Aspen inside. She looks human, but Aspen has made enough bad judgments in his life time to keep himself from labeling her as such. Aspen keeps reminding himself to ask Lucien about her, but every time the words are heavy on the tip of his tongue they seem to be replaced with something much more real and pertinent.

                This time is different, and Aspen is pleased, because Lucien answers the door himself. On this night, he looks to Aspen to have just woken himself up. Lucien’s colorful button ups and shoes appear hastily put on, there are dark circles under Lucien’s eyes that Aspen has often attributed to the undead, his face is rough and unshaven with a blonde 3 o’ clock shadow, and his glossy hair is thrown into a messy braid. Lucien’s fangs glint in the moonlight in a way that Aspen believes must be on purpose, and he swallows thickly.

                “Again, Aspen? This is the third night this week.” Lucien’s voice is the same as usual: rough, unrefined, cold, with a hint of a Romanian accent that bleeds through his words like blood through the cheap bandages Aspen buys to cover the scabbed bite and claw marks with. Lucien’s voice always makes Aspen feel more real.

                “I know, Lucy. I Know,” Aspen dutifully ignores the way Lucien’s thick, dark eyebrows furrow at the nickname, choosing to focus on matching Lucien’s glare. One of his hands comes up to rub under the collar of his turtleneck at the partially healed marks on his neck, “but I think we still have some unfinished business.”

                “Only if that business is me wringing your insolent throat,” Lucien growls. He still hasn’t moved to allow Aspen entry, and Aspen has to work to keep the smirk he feels from appearing on his lips. “And if I continuously allow a young cambion access to my quarters at all hours of the night, imagine the rumors they’ll come up with. You’re very lucky I haven’t solved this little issue permanently.”

                This game that they play is constant. They are both too good at gambling, too good at betting, too good at playing for the game to actually end. Aspen thinks that neither of them will ever lose, and neither of them will ever win. Lucien curses, bites and scratches. He hits and he hits hard; all brawn but there’s brain there too, and that’s where the thrill comes from.

                One minute Lucien’s only hand is pressed against Aspen’s throat just hard enough to leave bruises, and the next Aspen kick’s the vampire’s legs out from underneath him, relishing the solid thud of Lucien’s body hitting the floor.

                One minute they’re sparring violently, the next they’re arguing, the next they’re kissing, and the next they’re playing chess.

                “Checkmate.” Aspen gives a Cheshire grin and Lucien actually laughs.

                It’s a rough, turbulent friendship, but it’s a friendship nonetheless.

***

                Aspen often thinks about when they first began to see each other.

                It had been a calm, warm night, and Aspen remembered that because he had gone to the club wearing a light tunic and high-waisted shorts and he hadn’t been cold until he’d had Lucien’s intense gaze running through him and freezing him from the inside out.                              

                “I just wanted to see you again,” Aspen smirked in response to the question in Lucien’s eyes before he remembered what Philippe had told him about talking with vampires. He bowed, and glanced up at Lucien through his eyelashes. “I mean, I would like to request an audience with you.”

                Lucien had given Aspen a dubious look, but scribbled down his address and pressed it into Aspen’s stunned hand.

***

                The wine glass is cool and damp against the warm, dry, skin of Aspen’s hand and he tilts it back none too gently to drain it’s mysterious contents between his lips. He feels comfortable and cozy inside the black turtleneck sweater he stole from his sister but it’s been a long time since he felt warm on the inside and he hopes that whatever kind of alcohol is passing from the delicate wine glass to his gullet will help him in that regard. The thick burning in his throat is unexpected but not unappreciated.

                “Fuck, dude,” Aspen gasps after he drains the glass and sets it down beside his hip. “Who drinks straight vodka out of a wine glass?”

                “You wanted a drink.” Lucien points out. Aspen can’t argue with that, so he folds his hands behind his head and gazes at the stars. The pool water lapping at Aspen’s legs is surprisingly calming and the concrete under Aspen’s back has chilled in the night air but not to the point of being uncomfortable. Lucien is sitting just feet away and Aspen can hear his feet move in the water and the occasional turning of the page of a book, probably something older than Aspen himself.

                These quiet moments are rare between Aspen and Lucien, and Aspen wants to milk it for all it’s worth, though Abellona will surely notice how tired Aspen looks the next day and question him about it until he eventually caves and admits he was with someone. Abellona has always had a stronger will than her brother and Aspen would be lying to himself if he said he wasn’t a little jealous. Spending nights with Lucien Maior makes Aspen feel mysterious and willful and good.

                About two hours ago they were at each other’s throats over some pointless debate about vampire politics until Lucien had his only hand pressed into Aspen’s neck and Aspen had a knife flush against Lucien’s side and Aspen had laughed and muttered, “I could use a drink.” And now they’re sitting beside Lucien’s pool in the dark and Aspen is officially on his third inappropriately glassed vodka and still doesn’t feel warm. Aspen sometimes feels as though Lucien is toying with him like a cat toys with a mouse before it decapitates it.

                “Lucien?” Aspen is surprised how quiet his own voice sounds and he inwardly curses himself as he tilts his head up to get a good view of Lucien, who lets out a questioning hum in response. Aspen will never get used to how intense Lucien’s eyes are. Striking green that contrasts his olive skin and blond plaited hair and white fangs. “You hit me really hard earlier.” Aspen runs his tongue over his swollen lip and sees green irises track the movement.

                “You’re being overdramatic.” Lucien waves Aspen off and returns to his book, leaving Aspen to release an annoyed huff.

                “I’m being serious, asshole. Look.” Aspen emphasizes the last word by scooting along the edge of the pool until his knee bumps into Lucien’s, which is much larger by comparison. Lucien sighs and leans over to investigate Aspen’s bared face. “See?” Aspen continues, voice dropping into a low murmur and gently picking up Lucien’s hand with two of his own to remove it from his book and place it so Lucien’s fingertips are brushing Aspen’s bruised lower lip.

                “Aspen-“ Lucien starts but doesn’t get to finish because Aspen is pressing light kisses along Lucien’s fingertips and knuckles and palm and it is unexpected but not unappreciated in the same way that the burn of vodka from a wine glass is unexpected but not unappreciated.

                “Do you love me?” Aspen asks between touching his lips and tongue to Lucien’s calloused hand.

                “No.” Lucien says rigidly. His Romanian accent is beginning to thicken in a way that reveals how affected he is even if he insists on keeping his true self hidden. Aspen closes his eyes and relishes in the sensation of his own tender lips against Lucien.

                “Good. I don’t love you either.” Neither of them are allowed time to consider whether the statement is a lie or not because Lucien is removing his legs from the water and easing Aspen down until his head thumps against cool concrete.

                “You’re drunk.” Lucien frowns as Aspen begins to fumble with the buttons on Lucien’s shirt.

                “I’m no fucking lightweight.” Aspen smirks. He wraps his fingers around Lucien’s lapels and tugs him down for a heated kiss. This is not gentle, it’s a challenge and Lucien accepts, pushing Aspen back down onto the ground hard and hurriedly pressing his tongue into Aspen’s mouth.

                “You kiss like a teenager.” Lucien growls when they stop for air, punctuating his words by letting his hand slip under Aspen’s shirt and run over the expanse of warmth hidden there. Aspen gasps at the cold intrusion and moves a hand to feel where Lucien’s is rubbing circles into his hip.

                “I’m twenty years old, jerk.” Aspen breathes and struggles to pull his sweater over his head while Lucien moves down to drag his lips across each newly revealed inch of skin. When Aspen successfully removes his own shirt, he renews work on Lucien’s. After what feels like an eternity, they’re both shirtless, Lucien leaning over Aspen and Aspen wondering how strong Lucien has to be to keep himself up with one arm. “Here.” Aspen pushes on Lucien’s shoulders until the other man gets the hint and lies back, letting Aspen climb over him.

                “God, you’re so fucking hot.” Aspen whispers reverently, running his hands over Lucien’s cold abdomen. The muscles from Lucien’s past manual labor have softened somewhat, and Aspen hums happily before peppering Lucien’s soft stomach with light kisses. It’s not enough for Lucien, who growls and grips Aspen’s hair hard and pushes him down down until Aspen is unbuttoning Lucien’s trousers and pulling them down to his knees to run his mouth over the outline of Lucien’s cock through his briefs. Aspen forgot how much he loved this, a hand in his hair and his tongue laving over cloth covering someone’s sex but he can still taste it through the fabric and he wants, badly.

                “So good for me, Lucien. “ Aspen breathes against the wet patch spreading on Lucien’s underwear and Aspen is expecting some sort of smart comeback or insult but Lucien just whines and grinds his hips up against Aspen’s face.  Aspen dips his fingers into Lucien’s waistband and wraps his hand around his prize. “You’re so hard already, baby.” Aspen has more practice with oral sex than some would assume. Giving his partners pleasure has always been something Aspen’s been into, and judging by the sounds Lucien makes when Aspen takes his cock into his mouth, he’s doing just that. He can’t help it, Aspen slips his unoccupied hand into his leather pants and touches himself to the sound of Lucien moaning his name and the feeling of Lucien’s heavy cock breaching his throat.

                The next morning, Aspen wakes up alone on Lucien’s couch. He gathers his belongings and walks home. Aspen wins this round.

***

                “You’re an idiot.” Abellona sneers dully, feigning interest in the scattered novels and instructional guides making contrast with her primly made bed to obtusely avoid meeting her brother’s eyes. Arguing with Aspen is always much easier when you’re not looking into his eyes. Aspen himself takes a deep breath in an impatient response, as if hoping to inhale Abellona’s disapproval and exhale a peaceful conclusion to the issue.

                “I’m just thinking realistically, Sister Dearest,” Aspen sighs. He is sitting on the edge of his own mattress, across from his sister’s on the other, messier, side of the room. Mattie’s discreet cabin has been the twins’ only home in which they have been granted separate bedrooms, but Aspen dragged his mattress across the hall after only three days. The extra bedroom is shared between them for “special occasions”, and both of them are contemplating retreating there now.

                “Becoming a fucking vampire is considered ‘realistic’ now? Are you even thinking about the consequences this decision could have? How all of us will be affected?” Abellona picks up a particular half-read Shakespearean tragedy and flips through the pages while she speaks.

                “I know I’ll get a pair of dope ass fangs,” Aspen lets out a mock hiss and it bubbles into a laugh that Abellona recognizes immediately, because they usually share it. It’s the laugh that the two of them break into when they’re telling the rest of the world to get fucked, and Abellona decides she doesn’t like being on the receiving end, so she makes quick work of throwing the heavy book in her hands in the vague direction of Aspen’s head. The solid mass barely misses Aspen’s smirking face and slams into the wall with a dull thunk before bouncing off and sticking a landing on the comic books sharing space on Aspen’s wrinkled comforter. They both hear Mattie’s muffled voice telling them to stop throwing things. The smile melts from Aspen’s face almost theatrically and he continues, “That’s your fucking problem, Abby. You’re no fun anymore. Maybe you should go play fucking cards with Mattie or whatever the fuck she does.”

                “This isn’t fun, Aspen. This isn’t a stupid game anymore. I wish you could take it seriously.” Abellona sighs, becoming frustrated. Aspen runs a hand through his hair. There’s a moment of silence, and Abellona begins to think that she’s won.

                “I think you’re the one not taking it seriously.” Aspen mutters after some time has passed. His sister is massaging her temples with a vague desperation.

                “What makes you say that, asshole?”

                “Abby… We’re being given the opportunity to cheat death here. Why not take it?”

                “We can die peacefully as real people or be hunted to death eventually and live like fucking monsters, Aspen. We’d never be able to feel sunshine again. We’d have to drink fucking blood. Denise told m-“

                “Who’s Denise?” Aspen’s body suddenly perks up from where it had been hunched on his bed and his piercing gaze is locked onto Abellona, who finally gives in to looking her brother in the face. Abellona takes a steadying breath.

                “She told me about how a couple of the vampires she meets are just… resigned to being hunted.”

                “Abby, holy shit. You’re chummy with a fucking Hunter? Are you insane?”

                “She’s fine with us Aspen, I already made su-“

                “And I’m the one who’s not taking shit seriously? Fuck you.” This makes Abellona lean forward from where she’s sitting, face tight with intent and annoyance.

                “Oh yeah, I imagine being fuck buddies with a douchebag vampire is so much better, Aspen. Isn’t there a rumor that he was involved with the high class elitists once? You know if Dad found out-“

                “Dad won’t find out.”

                “You seem pretty fucking confident, Brother Dear.”

                “Because it would be a shame if Father also found out about your Hunter tryst, Sister Dear.” Aspen and Abellona rise from their beds at the same moment and stalk across the room with angered purpose until they’re about a foot away from each other.

                “You always were a dirty fucking rat.” Abellona spits.

                “You always were a bitter megabitch.” Aspen hisses.

                “I brought Girl Scout cookies!” Mattie yells triumphantly as she opens the door, boxes being held precariously in both arms. She takes in the scene in front of her: Aspen and Abellona face to face, nose to nose, glaring daggers into each other’s eyes. Abellona’s fists are curled tightly, brass knuckles glinting on one hand, while Aspen has both hands in his favorite trench coat’s pockets, fingers wrapped around his two favorite knives. “Kids,” She says authoritively, “I got you assholes tag-a-longs so you’d better eat them.” And at these words both twins snap their heads to look in Mattie’s direction. They quietly munch the cookies and don’t say another word, because as much as they argue they would never snitch on each other.

                Aspen shoves an entire tag-a-long into his mouth and gives Abellona a look that says I won at the same time that Abellona pops two cookies between her lips in a way that suggests she’s saying you wish.

***