"Such a pretty lady."
The words were slurred, barely recognisable. Urs ignored them, as she'd ignored every other attempt to pick her up that night and so very many nights before.
"Pretty, pretty lady."
Staring down at her wine glass, she considered how to react. Once she would have gone with him, believing herself unworthy of anything better, but no longer. Javier had taught her that much.
"Beautiful lady." He clamped a hand down on her shoulder and pressed his front against her back. "She needs company tonight."
A smile curving her lips, Urs reached up and clasped his hand. Then she squeezed. With enough strength to make his bones creak.
"The lady," she said, "requires no company. Not tonight, nor any other night, and definitely not from you."
"Bitch." He stepped away and tried to yank his hand back.
One, two, three, and a few more seconds. Then, when the air moved in exactly the way she expected, warning her of his next move, she twisted his hand until something broke. "Go. Away," she ordered, not bothering to put the least hint of power behind the words.
That he did was a relief and, almost, a disappointment. After all, he could have dropped his bottle of beer and used his other hand. Most drunks were even dumber than she was.
Once again, Urs was as alone as she ever was in The Raven. She sipped the mixture of blood and merlot and continued waiting. She wasn't sure what for, until the air shifted again, and the three mortals who'd spent the past hour with their backs to her moved away. Her nostrils flared at the unmistakeable combination of scents: vampire, gun metal and oil, old blood, and a very faint odour from the city morgue.
"Urs," he greeted her.
Before she could respond, the bartender thunked a goblet on the bar in front of Nick. "On the house," he said. "No point turning it down either. The boss said you're to have it. Fuck knows why you'd want that cow shit, but there's no arguing with the man." Then he stomped away.
The odour from the glass made Urs's nose wrinkle. She brought her own glass up, holding it just in front of her mouth as she'd once held a clove orange to mask the stench of New Orleans. She didn't say anything, though. Commenting on Nick Knight's predilection for carouche fare was a dangerous move for any vampire to make in Toronto, never mind in The Raven. The last vampire to do so had left Toronto and his belongings behind without so much as a fare-thee-well to his friends. At least that was Lacroix's story, and no one had dared to contradict him. Whatever the truth, Urs had no desire to leave Toronto in a shower of dust.
Her glass rattled against her teeth, and she blinked. She'd wanted death for so long. Held the desire for that eternal peace so close to her heart. How could that have changed? Then again, she'd never again given up as completely as she'd done the night Javier had brought her across, nor had she ever taken the sun up on its promise of a final—
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Automatically, Urs gave him the same answer she gave everyone, "Oh. They're never worth that much."
"Isn't that my job to decide?" Nick smiled at her. "You defended yourself quite well against the mortal, if that's what you're worrying about."
More than happy to deceive him about the reason she was so distracted, she shrugged. "I'm trying something new. Saying no. There's time enough to change my mind if it doesn't work."
"There's always time," he agreed. The shadow of an old pain crossed behind his eyes, one that she recognised.
Before she could think of what to say in response, the light over the Nightcrawler's booth pinged from red to green, and the curtains over the stage were whisked open to the cheers of the audience. Averting her eyes, Urs dipped her finger in her blood wine and watched the drops fall back down.
"Don't," he said, and she watched his pain return. He took her glass out of her hand and placed it on the bar, out of the way, before taking her hand and bringing it close to his cheek. His skin was a degree or two warmer than hers. Not enough for his mortal friends to notice, but Urs was drawn to his warmth, found herself leaning towards him and remembering the hug he'd given her.
"This place. It's not..." He closed his eyes. When he reopened them, the pain was hidden again. "I can't stay here. Not when it's like this. Are you—" He gestured at the stage where Penny was gyrating to the catcalls of the audience.
"Not tonight," Urs said.
"Would you like to get out of here? With me?"
Urs nodded in agreement. Grabbing her jacket off the back of the stool, she allowed him to guide her through the crowds towards the door, because she understood. Lacroix might be Nick's sire, but she was far more comfortable in The Raven, under Lacroix's thumb, than Nick would ever be.
Nick's impulsiveness lasted through the silent drive in his Cadillac and the clanking ride up to his loft. Once there, he abandoned her on the main floor to take a phone call from someone at the police station. A few minutes later, after answering Captain Reese's questions about the witness interview he'd done the previous night, and being reassured that he didn't have to go in on his night off, Nick hung up the phone. He wasn't quite disappointed to lose the easy excuse for changing his mind about bringing Urs into his home.
The sounds of something that was almost music drew him to the railing. He rested his forearms on the upper bar and looked down. A flash of white by the window had him looking for Erica, an ache in his heart, but then he blinked and realised it was only Urs's cream-coloured leather jacket, tossed across the chair next to the table that held Erica's doll.
An atonal plink brought his attention to where Urs was sitting at his piano. The piano lid was open, and she was randomly pressing keys. As he watched, her shoulders tightened and the odd notes merged into a song that Nick remembered hearing in the music halls almost a hundred years earlier. She hummed along, murmuring a word here and there, as if she were hesitant to actually sing the entire piece.
There was a story in that reluctance, tied up with a host of memories that were better forgotten, the kind of memories that survived while others, of happier times, faded in the wake of too many mortal lifetimes.
Nick was staring at the doll, wondering why he kept it on display instead of locking it away in storage with the other mementos he'd neither wanted to keep nor let go, when the music ended. He glanced back at Urs and found her looking up at him. The moment stretched and lengthened, pulling taut until Nick had to break it. Nothing else came to him, so he asked, "Why doesn't Lacroix make you sing for him?"
"He might, if he knew I had a voice."
"He knows." Nick went down the stairs and perched on the end of the bench next to her, sliding over when she made room for him. "Don't fool yourself into believing that he isn't aware of the slightest detail about every vampire who steps foot into his club."
Averting her eyes, making it impossible for Nick to see her reaction, Urs played a few bars of another vaguely familiar song from the same era.
When she didn't respond, Nick said. "He'll only permit you to leave your past behind if it suits him." He could hear the bitterness that lay thick under his own voice.
Her smile was sad, but reassuring. Her hand was cool and small against his cheek. "I wish you were right. That it was that easy, simply to make the decision and be able to leave our past behind."
The words spilled out before Nick could stop them. "There was a woman, she said she could do that. Take the killer, take that one part of my past, of my soul, and allow me to live without it."
Urs stared at him, clearly confused. "But we're vampires. How can the killer be separated from what we are?"
Her question echoed in his mind, dragging similar words out of the past. He began to play, tried to ground himself in the sound, in her presence, in her nearness, but the memories came anyway.
1250 ~ Aigues-Mortes, France
The wind blowing in from the water brought the stench of the port and the surrounding swamps and sent debris scuttling around the streets. Light from the torches flickered and flared, making it difficult for even vampire eyes to distinguish objects from shadows.
Janette swore as a gust caught at her veil and almost tore it from her fillet. She had to jump to avoid tripping over an unconscious drunk as she fought to anchor the linen. "Plus rapide," she ordered Nick. "Or I shall find my own route to the ship."
The vibration of heavy wheels was barely enough warning for Nick to catch her around the waist and pull her into a nearby alley before a cart, almost too wide for the narrow street, bearing barrels of salt from the Salins de l'Abbé went rumbling past.
"Cochon." Janette wrenched herself out of his grasp and straightened her clothing. "Do you forget where we dine tonight? Our illustrious Queen and Regent, Blanche, has little patience at the best of times, but now, waiting for Charles to return from the Holy Land with Alphonse's body—"
"And yet she continues to pillage France's treasury and to turn her sons into killers."
"We all kill, Nicolas. It is one of the minor consequences of living."
"But some of us don't wish to succumb to the temptation of the killer inside."
"You talk as if the killer is a separate being." A man limped into the dim light that came from the street, leaning on a crude, cloth wrapped crutch. A sword scar bisected his face. Part of the thumb and two fingers were missing from his right hand. "As if the death rattle doesn't sear into your soul, making you feel that much more alive as you step over the bodies on the battlefield."
A growl escaped Nick before he could restrain it, and he moved to stand between Janette and the mortal. He could feel her amusement at this remnant of his mortal days.
"You don't deny it," said the man.
"Mortels meurent." Janette came around to stand next to Nicholas. "Or so my father tells me."
"And some of us are forced to live after the killing is done. Driven into battle at our Lord's behest, and then cast aside when we can no longer serve at his whim. Not that you'd know about that, would you?" A sneer twisted the man's face. "How many men have breathed their last in the suffocating heat of the desert while you remain at home and dine off their deaths?"
Rage gathered inside Nick as memories flashed hot and sere through his mind. He could feel his eyes change, the points of his fangs bite into his lower lip. "You presume—"
Janette placed her hand on Nick's arm. "There have been many crusades and many more battles. Not merely the one that cost you the life you mourn."
"And you claim that you, in your silks and furs, your gold and jewels, your unblemished bodies fought in that honourable fight?" The man spat on the ground, just missing the pointed toes of Nick's shoes. "Bah."
Before Nick could think about what he was doing, he'd shook off Janette's hand and flown behind the man. He held him tight, but did nothing more. His anger and the urge to kill had faded in the steady beat of the man's heart.
"Nicolas, we cannot be much later."
"Consider yourself lucky." Nick released the man gently enough that he regained his balance without a stumble. As he walked back to Janette, he turned to flick a coin that was snatched out of the air. "And buy yourself a bath. You cannot find your way back to life when you reek of the streets."
When the man stumbled out to the street, Nick wrapped his arms around Janette and they took to the skies.
"I wanted to believe that the killer was a separate beast, that it could be excised from my soul and leave me unblemished." Nick banged his hands down to create a jangle of sound that assaulted Urs's ears. "That Marian truly could take that burden from me forever."
Everything she could imagine saying seemed trite and stupid, so she remained silent.
"I felt so light. As if a dark, heavy weight had truly been taken away from me." He sighed. "I don't know if I was really that one step closer, or if I was just deluding myself."
As he kept rambling on, trying over and over again to describe how he'd felt, how he'd been so sure that he was no longer a killer, obsessing over minute details, she understood why Janette had left without telling him how to find her. Finally, when he seemed to be slowing down, she asked, "What about Marian?"
"Marian?" Nick's face fell. The joy that had radiated from him dimmed into melancholy. "She's gone, and I took the killer back, or it came back to me. I couldn't let her go with my sins bound to her soul."
Unable to sit still, Urs got up and went over to the fridge. Cow blood and a green sludge that she didn't even want to contemplate. She closed the door, rested her back against it, and wished that she'd stayed at The Raven.
"You could go back." Concern etched Nick's face, as if the self-obsession of a few minutes earlier had been an illusion.
Shaking her head, she wrapped her arms around her torso. Questions spun through her mind, one after the other, along with more faces than she could identify. Some whose names she'd never known. Given the chance — the choice — she'd turned her back on death only to end up delivering it to others.
Kill to live, Vachon had said, correcting her even as she'd been hoping that he really did live to kill.
Something in Urs's expression, a lost look, drew Nick to her, made him want to fold her in his arms and protect her. Although he wasn't sure from what.
"Did you ever want to die? Just walk into the sun and end it all?"
Her questions reverberated inside Nick, drew up memories of Erica. Once again, white flashed in the edges of his vision. Instinctively, he started to deny it, to protest that he couldn't — wouldn't. Not by his own hand.
Before he could find enough words to construct an answer, she continued, "I don't understand why I haven't. If I truly want to die."
He offered her the truth that he clung to. "I've never completely given up hope."
She stared at him, seeming to expect to find the solution to her problem in him. Her eyes were so blue that he thought he could become lost in them. She reached out, placed a hand on his chest, and asked, "Why not?"
His grief for Erica seized him briefly, before he was able to say, "I had a friend. She did that, decided one day that she was a burden and walked into the sun. I kept seeing her. Here. In my car. In a hospital where a doctor had been murdered."
"She tempted you? Death tempted you?"
"But I couldn't. I didn't." The urge to touch her was strong, but Nick's arms felt heavy at his sides, too cumbersome to lift.
Urs came nearer, close enough that he could feel her breath against his skin. "Sometimes I'm consumed by the idea of dying. Some nights I can't bear the idea of getting up and putting one foot in front of the other. But I keep on living, even when I'm not sure why."
"What else can we do?" Nick offered her the only words that he had, words that meant everything and nothing. Then, feeling lighter, freer, he raised his hands and cradled her face. He swept his thumbs over her cheeks, jaw, and mouth. "We offer the world the best of ourselves, whatever that is and whether to mortals or vampires. We do our best to restrain our killers, and we live."
Nick's touch was so warm, so comforting that Urs slipped her hands around his waist. When his thumbs lingered on her lips, she kissed them. He tasted different, unlike any other man she'd known.
He was lonely in all the ways that she was lonely. She could feel that, even without his blood. And he was hopeful in ways that she had never been. She wanted that hope, craved it more than she'd ever craved anything else. Lifting her face to his, she licked his thumbs again and put all of her acceptance, her desire, into her eyes.
"If we do this," he said and then hesitated.
"Everything changes," she agreed. Javier would have to understand, because she wanted this, needed Nick.
His silence extended. His eyes closed, and she waited for him to let go of whatever — whoever — would have led him down a different path.
Her breath left her in a sigh as he opened his eyes and looked into hers, truly seeing her.
Then he lowered his head, and he kissed her.
Kissing him back, feeling his lips and his hands and his tongue and his teeth, hope spread inside her, and she wondered how Janette could possibly have walked away from that, could ever have left him.