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From Chance to Choice

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1. San Francisco, 1897

"Nicely built and all, I'll grant you, but she's a bit of trouble and strife, that one." Screed tilted his head towards Urs. "You sure we wanna be runnin' with that gooseberry puddin'?"

"I'm sure," Vachon said without turning to look and see what Urs was doing this time. There was likely a method in her madness, some kind of message that he didn't know how to interpret, but he was willing to wait until she found the words to tell him.

At least Urs stayed with him, following along as they moved from place to place. She and Screed were the only ones who never wandered off on their own. Unlike Bourbon and some of the others, she never complained that it was too soon when Vachon declared that it was time to leave. She simply packed her clothes into trunks and waited for him to tell them where they were going and how they were traveling.

When they arrived, she searched out a place like this: a concert-saloon stinking of tobacco, whiskey, money, and desperation. Then she persuaded the owner — or the madam — to let her sing. Sometimes, Vachon wished that she would...

"She's layin' all over that one," Screed said, interrupting Vachon's thoughts. "If you ask me, it's only goin' to lead to a dust up."

A glance showed that "laying all over" meant that Urs was leaning against the mahogany and brass bar, next to a boy in man's clothing. When the boy made a point of peering down Urs's décolletage, Vachon tightened his grip on his glass and braced himself for her reaction, only to relax as Urs began to sing.

Her voice twined around him, soft and sweet. Her words felt as if they were directed to him, even though she was facing — teasing and flirting with — the boy next to her. Vachon couldn't look away.

"Closely cling, for winds drive fast." Urs ran her fan down the front of her dress, fluttering it lightly. "Blossoms perish in the blast."

The boy smiled at her, and his friend shoved at his shoulder and gave him a knowing wink. A growl rose in Vachon's throat, and he swallowed it down with a mouthful of blood-soaked wine. Urs would not welcome his interference.

"Love alone will last." She moved around the boy, swaying her hips, neatly dodging him as he reached for her.

"Easy, mate," Screed whispered, putting his hand on Vachon's arm.

The pianist played while Urs circled the room. She moved from table to table, from man to man, flicking her fan at some, smiling at others, teasing them with glimpses of her ankles and breasts. It was what she did, Vachon knew although he didn't understand why.

"Closely let me hold thy hand," she sang as she rested a hip against the table next to Vachon's. The older man at the table had greying hair, a top hat, expensive clothes, and a gold watch fob. He smelled of the kind of money that would keep him safe in a place like this. He looked far too much like the man Vachon had killed in New Orleans for Vachon's comfort.

Urs ran a gloved hand over the man's fingers. Cheers and whistles erupted, and Urs's lips curved up into a rare smile, before she continued with, "Storms are sweeping sea and land. Love alone will stand."

The man tipped his hat back on his head and adjusted his seat to allow Urs to move between him and the table. She placed her foot on the chair between his spread legs and leaned forward. "Kiss my lips, and softly say."

"Do it," someone yelled and was quickly hushed.

The man pursed his lips and made a smacking sound. Urs merely snapped her fan closed and tapped his chin with it. Then she trailed the fan down his neck.

"Joy may go," her voice lowered enough that people pressed forward, "and sunlit day. Love alone will stay."

Urs drew out the last note, sliding her foot off the chair slowly, brushing the man's inner thigh in a way that no one else probably saw. The man's arousal spiked, scenting the air, and Vachon stood up. The scrape of his chair against the scuffed wooden floor was lost beneath the renewed hum of conversation and the argument that was brewing between the boy at the bar and his friend.

Knowing how this was going to end and having no desire to watch it again, Vachon strode out of the saloon and into the badly lit night. The fog was starting to roll in, making it easier for men and women to hide in the shadows from humans. The breeze brought the stink of the bay and the trenches that lined the street.

"Where's Bourbon?" he asked Screed.

"In the club room up the street, flashing the cards around." Screed rubbed his fingers together. "Trying to earn a bit of bread and honey."

A muffled sound came from the depths of an unmarked alley as they walked past it, but Vachon didn't stop. "I'm going back to our hotel," he said.

"Not too much for me to eat in that hoity-toity place. Keep it cleaner than a Captain's cabin, they do."

Vachon gave Screed a sharp look. "We don't dine where we sleep."

"Aye, aye, Captain." Screed sketched a salute that was more insult than anything else. "It's not for the likes of me to disagree with you. I'll just have to find something to eat on the way home."

A thin smile on his face, Vachon stepped around a barely breathing body, forcing Screed to move into the opening of a narrow alley. The reaction was as immediate as it was expected. A scantily dressed woman came out of the shadows deeper inside and sidled up to Screed.

"Looking for someone, sailor?" She ran a hand down Screed's arm. "I can help you with that."

"Can ye now?" Screed's accent deepened.

"I've got a place. It's not much, but we can be alone there. And there's drink and food and something a little extra if you've got the money."

Screed's smile was as filthy as Vachon had ever seen it. "Lead on, me lovely," he said. "It's been a long voyage, and I'm starving," he slid a hand around her waist and pinched her bottom, "for all sorts of things."

The woman's giggle was high-pitched and annoying, but Vachon gave Screed the signal to go along with her. He let the darkness hide him as she took Screed deeper into the alley to a one-story, narrow wooden building with a barred window in the door. She fumbled the door open and held a hand out to Screed.

"You want me to come in there?"

"Of course. You and anyone else who's got the money is welcome to join me."

"All righty, then." Screed crowded into her, kissing her and pushing her into house. The flimsy door banged noisily, but didn't close all the way.

The combined scents of opium and alcohol weren't quite strong enough to cover the smell of unwashed bodies. Two hearts beat rabbit-fast inside the building. Vachon flipped a coin into the room and stepped over the threshold. His eyes gleaming gold, his hunger rising, he went in search of those who'd dare to shanghai one of his crew.

^V^

Much of the Palace Hotel was sleeping when Vachon walked through the Grand Court to the front doors. The hustle and bustle of the early evening was long gone. A young boy sat, half-asleep, on a stool, his shovel close at hand, waiting for horses and carriages and the inevitable need to clean up after them.

"Evening, sir." A uniformed footman opened the door for him.

Vachon nodded and entered the hotel. The clack of his boot heels on gold-veined marble echoed around the cavernous space. Ignoring the chorus of greetings and offers of assistance, he made his way through the ornately decorated Office and went up to their suite.

The rooms were empty. Bourbon, Screed, even Urs were clearly still out in the night. Tossing his hat and his coat on an overstuffed chair by the door, Vachon went over and opened one of the bay windows. Piece by piece, he stripped off the formal dress required of a gentleman in this era, until he was in a collarless shirt and trousers. Then he walked back over to the window and listened.

The sky was still dark, although dawn was close enough to feel, when Urs came to hover outside the window. As soon as she was inside, he locked the window and closed the three layers of heavy curtains that he'd requested be hung in their rooms, sealing out the night and the encroaching day.

As they did every night, Vachon joined her in her bedroom and acted the part of the maid they didn't dare hire. He undid her dress and unlaced her corset, running his hands over the red marks it had left on her back as she took a deep breath. Her skin was warm and slightly flushed, and he nuzzled the curve of muscle where her neck joined her shoulder.

"How was he?"

"Is that all you think about, Javier?" Urs pulled away from him. "He was soaked in whiskey and cigars, filled with life, and mere months from death. Is this what you wish to know? That I sent him into the darkness with a smile on his lips?"

Stung, Vachon took a step back. "Do you think that little of me?"

"I don't know. Tonight, perhaps, but not always," she said, going to sit in front of the dressing table. Her hair, freed from its constraints, fell down past her waist. She began to brush her hair.

After watching for as long as he could, Vachon went to kneel next to her. He reached out and took the hairbrush from her. He kissed her cheek before moving behind her so he could brush her hair. Each long stroke made the white-blonde tresses gleam in the light from the chandelier and drew a sigh from Urs.

"You left me," she said, her voice almost too quiet for a human to hear. "Without so much as a word of goodbye. Did you stop to think that I might not want to be alone with that one?"

Vachon paused mid-stroke, his hand and his thoughts stuttering to a halt, because she was right. "No," he admitted, then distracted himself by disentangling the brush from her hair.

When the brush was free, she turned around, cupped his face in her hands, and looked directly into his eyes. "Why not?"

"You didn't need me." The confession felt like it had been dragged out from deep inside Vachon, painful and honest, and something that he didn't want to look at in the light. He bit down on the rest of it, on his jealousy, and turned the conversation around. "Two nights ago and all those nights before, you told me I was hovering. That you could take care of yourself. How was I to know that this night was different?"

Disappointment and hurt shuttered her usually open expression, and Urs pulled away from him. "The sun will be here soon," she said, taking the brush from him and turning back to the mirror.

After a moment, Vachon rose to his feet. This was, as his capitán had once taught him, one of those times when the only thing to do was to make a strategic retreat. He made it to the door before Urs spoke.

"Javier? Sleep with me today?"

Guilt stabbed Vachon in the heart like a stake. He nodded. "Of course."

Later, after he'd drawn the curtains across all the windows and changed into his nightclothes, Vachon slipped into Urs's bed. She shifted over, curling up, so her back was against his front. He wrapped an arm around her waist and laced their fingers together. Her grip on his fingers was almost painfully tight.

Without having to ask, Vachon knew that her nightmares were back. She'd never explained what they were, just let him hold her in the aftermath and occasionally asked him to sleep with her because that sometimes helped keep them at bay.

Long minutes passed, but Urs didn't seem to relax or to fall asleep. Not knowing what else to do, and needing to help, to take care of her, Vachon began to murmur a lullaby his niñera had once sung to him. "A la puerta del cielo, venden zapatos, para los angelitos, que andan descalzos."

As he sang the last "Duérmete niño," Urs's muscles tightened even further, her body jolted, and then she eased into sleep with a sigh.

Vachon pressed a kiss to the back of her head. "Sleep, mi reina," he whispered, "and I'll guard your dreams."

^V^

2. Toronto, 1996

The Raven was dark; the first time Vachon had ever seen it like that. Even the neon sign had been turned off. A piece of paper tacked to the door announced that it was closed for a family matter but would reopen the next night. The door wasn't locked. It opened easily to Knight's touch.

Inside, the club was lit for vampire eyes. Vachon followed Knight on a winding path through the tables and chairs, dodging the chains without touching them. Three men looked up from their card game as they passed. Knight lifted the bag in his hand, apparently as much an explanation as he was willing to give. One nodded to him, but no one said a word. They looked vaguely familiar, but Vachon wasn't interested in trying to remember who they were.

He took the stairs into the cellar two at a time. Lacroix was there, waiting with his usual lack of patience.

"There are faster ways to get here," Lacroix said.

"Syringes take time to fill," Knight said, lifting the bag onto the table and opening it, "and I had a place to go before coming here."

"What could be more important than saving my children?"

"These are not the only vampires in Toronto."

Lacroix gave Vachon a dismissive glance, clearly aware of where Knight had been, and moved toward the table.

Before Lacroix could touch a syringe, Vachon picked one up. "Urs is mine," he said, looking directly into Lacroix's eyes, daring him to disagree.

Vachon would lose, there was no doubt about that, but he'd try anyway. Urs would always be part of his crew, his friend, his responsibility, no matter how many centuries passed.

"As you will," Lacroix said. "She's hardly worth fighting over."

Before Vachon could reply, Knight handed him a syringe. "Go. Find her. We'll help the others."

Sketching a salute that was almost as insulting as Screed's best, Vachon strode down the aisle toward the little room that Urs called home.

She was lying in her narrow bed, not much bigger than a coffin, curled up on her side with her back to the entrance. "Not hungry," Urs whispered, without looking to see who it was.

"It's me." Vachon sat down on the edge of the bed. He placed a hand on her shoulder, wincing at the heat of her fever and the awfully familiar smell of the sickness. "Roll over."

"Leave me alone, Javier."

For a moment, he considered doing what she asked, not forcing her back into a life that she had wanted to leave so many years ago. But he couldn't do that. He had to at least offer her a chance at life.

"Urs, mi tesoro, look at me." He paused and then added, "Please?"

She did as he'd asked, but her sigh of pain made him wince in sympathy. She was pale, her skin grey, and Vachon wanted nothing more than to sweep her into his arms and save her from death once again. "I've got something for you," he said, holding out the syringe where she could see it.

"You escaped death once again?" Urs found a smile for him.

"It's a cure," Vachon said. "Courtesy of one of Knight's human friends."

Urs's Oh was little more than a breath. It called to Vachon, had him pulling her gently into his arms, getting behind her so she was lying on him and not the bed.

"You must make the choice," he said, resting his cheek against her hair. "Tell me, Urs. Do you want to live?"

Turning her face into Vachon's chest, Urs remained silent for so long that his heart turned to lead. "Maybe I..." he trailed off because he had no idea how to end that sentence. Shouldn't have offered you the choice? Shouldn't want you to live so badly?

"Yes," she said. Then, she cleared her throat and said, "I want to live. I want you to give me that."

She didn't sound as sure, as convinced as Vachon wanted, but he didn't argue. He flicked the cap off the needle, heard it clatter against the wall and then the floor. He slid one hand under her arm and laid the needle against her skin.

"Do it," she said.

And he pushed the tip into the vein and pressed the plunger down.

Her muscles convulsing, Urs bit back a cry of pain.

Remembering how it had felt to have that cold dead blood running through his overheated veins, blasting through his heart and brain, Vachon threw away the needle and wrapped her in his arms. He murmured endearments to her, in Spanish, French, and English, and brushed away her tears when she finally relaxed and opened her eyes.

He'd tell her that he loved her, that he'd take care of her forever, but he was sure that she knew it already.