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paying in naivety

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Awsten adjusts the mask on his face as he enters the double doors to the ballroom.

He's not sure how it's possible to feel both underdressed and overdressed, but somehow he manages. He's not used to fancy clothes; even the simple black blazer and slacks feel borderline extravagant. At the same time, save for the glittering mask, he's quite out of place. He watches a woman walk past in a massive ball gown that looks like it came straight from Victorian times. And who knows? With the guest roster of this party, maybe it did.

He can't get over how fucking cliche the whole thing is. It had been hard to believe when Geoff came home from patrol one night, reporting whispers of a masquerade ball which anyone who's anyone (at least in the vampire world) would be attending. Awsten, Geoff, and Jawn had always known that older vampires had a tendency to be bold, but they hadn’t expected them to be quite this reckless. Holding a masquerade ball just to flaunt their power seemed to be begging for some interference. They had planned the infiltration for weeks. This could be the opportunity of a lifetime for the hunters— a treasure trove of previously unattainable intel that could be used to devastate the vampire underground.

Awsten just isn't quite sure how he ended up drawing the metaphorical short straw. Or how he ended up going alone, without even a wire to let them know if he gets into trouble.

This is bound to go wrong, Awsten thinks. The red and black mask settled across his eyes is a cheap thing off the internet, the most inexpensive he could get while still passing for “real” as long as you don't look too closely. The shoddy disguise isn't quite the issue, though. No, what truly worries him is the ruby red ribbon tied delicately around his wrist.

It had been a necessity to get inside. They knew the bouncers would be vampires, clearly able to tell he was mortal. Not a major setback, but definitely a setback. Humans are only allowed into these types of parties for one purpose: to be the refreshments. Again, not a game-changer. Some people are into this sort of thing. People willing to provide so they can get off. And at events like these, they're easy to find. If you know about the existence of vampires, you know the ribbon code.

Ribbon on the left wrist means taken. Off-limits to everyone except the lucky vampire that has you marked.

Ribbon on the right? Blood bank is open for business.

Awsten is not one of these people. But humans aren't even supposed to know about this event without connections. And, well, he can't exactly march up and tell them he's a hunter there to spy on their guests. Hence, the ribbon.

He'd protested vehemently when Geoff told him to wear the ribbon on his right wrist.

“You'll be too conspicuous,” Geoff had insisted. “You know those people, they follow their masters around like lapdogs. They'll start getting suspicious if you're just hanging around by yourself.”

And as much as Awsten hated to admit it, he was right.

Now that he thinks of it, he tugs his sleeve a little further down in an effort to obscure the thing. He’s not looking to become a snack tonight, even if the immortal guests aren’t technically allowed to kill at an event like this. He trusts a bloodsucker about as far as he can throw one.

He should be moving with purpose, trying to find the best place to watch and listen unseen. But he initially finds himself wandering the ballroom, taking in the scene. This environment is strange. He’s used to seeing vampires as feral creatures, mindless monsters that will attack on sight as soon as dusk falls. The older ones are a bit more… refined. He doesn’t often see much of them. Older means harder to kill, but it also means cocky and overconfident. That’s the beauty in this plan, really; no senior vampire would anticipate any hunter being this bold.

To his mild surprise, there’s actually a buffet table, loaded down with different appetizers and drinks. Roast beef squares, deviled eggs, cheeses, nuts, chocolate-covered strawberries, brownies, and more. An odd combination for sure, but… oh. It suddenly clicks. He’s not sure whether to feel amused or sick when he connects the dots. It’s all stuff high in iron, Vitamin C, B12, all that shit. Stuff for the snacks.

“Quite the party, isn’t it?”

Awsten nearly jumps out of his skin as he whirls around. A vampire stands before him, swirling a glass full of something too thick to be wine. Shit. Awsten knows this one all too well.

Of all the vampires the hunters have taken out, Otto Wood has always evaded them. Old, but not ancient by any means, he's clever and agile in a way new vampires just aren't, and deadly to boot. He leaves a trail of bodies for the hunters to follow, only to escape them yet again. Geoff still holds a grudge over the time Otto broke his arm in the midst of a fight. The truth is that he's lucky to be alive.

Otto’s actually not dressed all too differently from Awsten tonight, in a pinstripe blazer cut low across his chest, no shirt underneath. Unlike Awsten, though, his mask is clearly of quality. It's intricately woven black metal, curling over his cheeks and up past his forehead, evoking mental images of razor-sharp teeth and demon horns. A tiny black skull with glittering eyes is fixed between his brows.

Otto could kill him right now in less than a second, and in all likelihood, nobody would bat an eye.

“A little before my time,” Awsten says tensely.

Otto hums and steps closer, taking a quick sip from his wine glass. “Mine too.”

He's too relaxed, Awsten thinks. Awsten should be dead already, bleeding out on the floor while Otto tells the vampires around him about the pathetic little hunter that's been tailing him for months. But Otto is still, eerily so, looking over at the guests dancing to their left. Awsten suddenly remembers the mask fixed across his face. He’d bought one that covered as much of his face as he could find. Could it be that Otto doesn't—

“You've always been brave, Awsten,” Otto comments. So much for that. “But even for you, this is reckless.”

Awsten does his best to calm his rapid heartbeat— he knows Otto can hear it. “So much for masks and anonymity, huh?”

“Oh, no, the mask works just fine,” Otto says. “But I'd know that scent anywhere.”

Awsten very pointedly chooses to ignore that. He doesn't want to think about why Otto has his distinct smell memorized, to such a degree that he can literally pick it out from a crowd. That's just fucking weird. It seems vamps always get off on doing creepy possessive shit like that.

Awsten eyes Otto warily. He's still too casual, refusing to even take an aggressive stance. Awsten can't even remember the last time they exchanged actual words instead of just trying to hurt each other. He takes a deep breath. Best to just get it over with.

“So, is this the part where you kill me?”

“Kill you? No, not tonight.” Otto steps over to the buffet table to set his glass down. That's definitely not wine. “I want to see where this goes.”

Awsten rolls his eyes. Their relationship has always been something akin to a cat and mouse— as much as Awsten prides himself on his hunting prowess, Otto could've killed him a few dozen times over in the past few months. It's infuriating, knowing that he refrains because he wants to, because this whole ordeal is fun for him. 

This particular instance is no different. Otto could snap his neck right here and now. If he truly thought of Awsten as a threat, that would be the only logical choice. But that's the catch: he doesn't. Awsten, and the other hunters by extension, are nothing to him but playthings. And if Awsten survives tonight, great. No harm done. If he doesn't? Well, there are two more hunters.

The ballroom goes briefly quiet as a song ends on the dance floor. As the dancers still and the next song starts up quietly, Otto hums and shifts closer to Awsten.

“Since you’re clearly not busy,” Otto says. “May I have this dance?”

Awsten snorts. Even in disguise, he would never sink so low. “No fucking way.”

Otto laughs quietly, one corner of his mouth turning up into a smirk.

“And would you change your mind,” he murmurs, “If I reminded you that just about everyone in this room would want to kill you if they knew who you were?”

Something freezes in Awsten's chest even as he narrows his eyes.

“Why would I?”

“Oh, I don't know,” Otto sighs in mock wonder. “If I shouted something about an undercover hunter, everyone would hear me, don't you think?”

Awsten swallows hard. He hopes Otto doesn't notice the way he glances warily around the room. If his cover’s blown, there’s no way he’s making it out of here alive. That's a threat and they both know it.

“You wouldn't.” Deep down he knows that's not true.

“You think so?” Otto extends a hand. His grin is so damn smug. He's got Awsten exactly where he wants him. “Dance with me.”

Awsten scowls, but he knows when he's been caught. He begrudgingly takes Otto's hand and allows himself to be led towards the people already dancing. Otto's hand is ice cold, startlingly different from a human hand, and his grip is firm.

They come to a stop close to the edge of the dancing area, and Otto turns to place a hand on Awsten's waist. Awsten doesn't really know how to dance, not like this, but it seems Otto's not doing anything particularly complex. He just wants to drag Awsten around. To show him off, even though no one else understands the significance of it. But either way, Awsten’s just along for the ride as Otto pulls him into a slow dance.

“So I take it this isn’t actually the suicide mission it appears to be, and you do have a plan,” Otto murmurs.

“Uh-huh. One that you’re majorly fucking with.” Awsten rolls his eyes.

Perhaps he should be afraid, as he’s in the arms of one of the most dangerous vampires he knows, but all he can focus on is the heat in his cheeks and the tingle in his chest. Surely that's… anger. Yeah.

“Interesting strategy,” Otto says. “You do know what the ribbon means, don't you?”

“Yes,” Awsten replies through gritted teeth. “I'm trying to stay inconspicuous. You're not helping, by the way.”

“I would have to disagree with a lot of that,” Otto says. “First of all, I am helping. I could be draining you dry, remember?”

That sends a jolt through Awsten's chest. He's not afraid, but it makes him… aware of what Otto's capable of. Not like he didn't already know.

“Thanks for the reminder.”

“And second of all,” Otto continues, ignoring the jab. “If you're going for inconspicuous, you're failing pretty miserably.”

Awsten scoffs. “What does that mean?”

“You're radiant,” Otto murmurs. “Everyone must be blind to be ignoring you.”

Awsten hopes the mask hides the way his cheeks flush red. There is no fucking way this is happening— this cocky motherfucker is not getting the better of him. Otto knows how to get to him, but Awsten swears to himself he isn't going to let him.

“Fuck off.” Awsten averts his gaze from Otto's face.

Otto just laughs. “Really, though. What is the plan?”

“Like I'd tell you.”

“Oh, please. If I was trying to stop you, I'd have killed you already,” Otto says. “I can help you— really help you.”

Awsten scoffs. “Why the fuck would you do that?”

The music briefly crescendos and Otto spins him. When they come together again, Otto's voice is significantly lower. Like he's actively trying not to be overheard.

“The host of this party and I aren't exactly best friends,” he says. “If something were to… happen to her, I wouldn't be all that torn up about it. The same goes for about half of the immortal roster at this thing.”

Their eyes meet, and Otto's gaze is piercing. It's so strange. This guy should not be so fucking intimidating. He's barely tall enough to put his head on Awsten's shoulder... and yet.

“I want them dead,” Otto hisses. “And if you're going to help with that, for the next few hours, I'm your ally.”

It's not often that Awsten's exposed to the power dynamic of the older elite. He deals almost exclusively with young vampires, too impulsive and self-romanticizing to consider any kind of order. The older ones are calculated. Territory lines are drawn. He never expected to be so impossibly entrenched in undead politics the way he is now.

“Looks like we finally have something in common,” Awsten says.

Otto nods. A deal has been struck.

“What can I do?”

“Don't let any of these bitches kill me.”

“Done.”

Awsten goes to twirl again, and halfway through, Otto pulls him back so Awsten's back is pressed against his chest. It's a bit awkward to dance like this, and Awsten opens his mouth to tell him so. But the words die in his throat as Otto snakes an arm around Awsten's torso and sinks his teeth into the side of his neck. 

Awsten gasps, his mouth dropping open and his eyes squeezing shut. His hand fumbles under his jacket for the stake hidden underneath, strapped to his chest. It seems Otto had anticipated this, because his free hand snatches Awsten's wrist and holds fast. Awsten can barely think, but what little sense he has is currently berating itself for being so stupid. He should’ve been smarter, should’ve known better than to trust a fucking vampire.

Awsten squirms against Otto's hold, but he's effectively trapped with the vampire’s strength. All he can do is wait for the inevitable moment when Otto lets go of his restraint and really rips into him. Awsten knows he wants to.

But he doesn't.

Awsten's been bitten before. Multiple times. But not… not like this. In his line of work, vampires always bite with the intent to kill. This is different. This is… gentle, still paralyzing but not nearly as painful. He'd never admit it, but it feels good. And if anyone asks somewhere down the line, Awsten will completely deny the fact that he tilts his head back against Otto's shoulder and arches into his touch. His grip on the stake most certainly does not go slack, nearly letting it clatter to the floor and giving himself away. 

And he definitely, positively, absolutely is not sporting a semi in his suddenly-too-tight slacks. 

Otto's tongue is cold as it drags across the wound, effectively sealing it shut. He lets Awsten go, and the hunter immediately stumbles away, clutching his neck.

“Always knew you’d taste good.” Otto grins, showing off his fangs. Much to Awsten’s dread, he glances down. “Don’t worry. That’s a… natural reaction. Aphrodisiacs and all.”

“You fucking bastard,” Awsten spits, rubbing his neck.

Otto scoffs and takes his arm, leading him off the dance floor. Awsten tries to jerk away from him, but his grip is as strong as it ever was.

“Don't act so indignant,” Otto says. “I did you a favor.”

“What fuckin’ favor is that?”

“Switch your ribbon. I'll cover for you.”

Awsten blinks. That, he hadn't been expecting. “ Why?

“Are we going to go through this every time I try to help you?” Otto asks. “Because I don't have to.”

“No, no, I— thank you,” Awsten stutters. “I just…”

He trails off. He's not sure what he was planning to say. He pulls his arm out of Otto's grasp. Almost numbly, he pulls the bow of his ribbon loose and wraps it around his other wrist. He works to get it tied again, but it's hard to do one-handed. He'd had Jawn tie it in the first place. That, and the blood loss isn't doing him any favors. His hands tremble, and his vision swirls when he looks down.

“Here.” Otto gently pushes his hand away and deftly finishes the knot.

“You could've just told me,” Awsten mumbles. “You didn't have to bite me.”

“I know.” Otto's hand closes around his wrist, squeezing gently. “But I wanted to.”

Awsten starts to say something, but decides it's better not to hurl insults at the guy offering to save his life. But he is definitely going to stake that fucker someday.

Otto releases his wrist and takes a full step back. “Your hair looks good.”

Awsten runs a hand through the short brown hair, caught slightly off guard. He'd nearly forgotten about it, it was still so new. It had been an impulse decision, cutting off the overgrown green locks himself late at night in his bathroom. It had worked out well, though. He’ll dye it again soon, but in the meantime, neon hair wouldn't have worked well in trying to go undercover. 

“Oh, uh— thanks.”

“I like you better blonde, though, I have to say,” Otto says.

Awsten scowls, blood rushing to his face despite his best efforts. Don't be a bitch. He could've killed you. He could've given you away.

Otto, evidently sensing his turmoil (or more accurately, the heat in his face), just chuckles. “Go eat a brownie. I'll see you on your next patrol.”

With that, Otto disappears back into the crowd, leaving Awsten more than a little flustered. He feels rooted to the spot. He's wasting time, he knows, potentially missing precious information, but he just… can't. Almost subconsciously, his hand comes up to his neck, running his fingers over the twin puncture marks.

A bite has never felt like that before.

He shouldn't think about it. He doesn't think about it. Not too much, anyway. He swallows and finds he can move again, immediately scanning the room for a convenient place to stand as he'd originally planned. Otto or no Otto, he's going to complete this mission. And if Geoff and Jawn ask about the bite?

Well, what they don't know won't kill them.