Illusions of Hope
The human blood the vampire had drunk at the clinic sustained him for many days, sustained his body, but his mind yearned for that contact so tenuously established. He could feel the loss of her in his flesh, like a warm blanket pulled from the bed in the middle of a cold winter's night. A vision of her face -- eyes alight with laughter, the nimbus of her hair dancing like a sheaf of wheat in a summer's breeze, her pink lips curved in a puckish grin as she teased him -- filled his inner sight. His ears rung with the specter of her voice, a voice that called up pain and joy together. His daytime rest held pleasant dreams as it had not since before his humanity had been drained away.
For the dozenth time, he wandered towards the clinic, but caught himself before he approached too closely. He was a damned thing, a creature of the shadows; he couldn't taint her. In a mix of black and white paints, light always lost its identity to dark. In the end he was weak, and his need for that warmth, however fleeting, overpowered his will. His loneliness choked him, filled his mouth with the taste of ashes.
A week after leaving the clinic, Angel waited on E. 10th Street, in the dark expanse of sidewalk between two streetlamps. Lina was walking towards him, her face a study in melancholy and an echo of his own terrible loneliness. He stepped out of the shadows as she passed, close enough to touch. Her gasp of fear jolted him, and a sharp tremor cut through to his heart.
"Lina, it's Angel."
She jumped back as he approached her, limbs visibly trembling with reaction. "Oh! You startled me."
"I'd never hurt you," he assured her despondently.
Lina drew in a shaky breath, and willed herself calm. She'd stepped away from Angel, an insult she didn't mean. "Oh, God, I know," she vowed. Lina made herself reclaim that step, and several more after that, until they were nearly touching again. "I'm just a little jumpy. Every silhouette is a maniac with a knife."
"I--I can walk you home," Angel stammered uncertainly.
She couldn't crush the hope that enlivened his face. "I'd like that."
The short walk to Lina's house was filled only by street sounds. Angel was quiet, almost reticent, afraid to shatter the peaceful connection between them. A wonderful and alien and frightening contentment filled him, robbed him of his voice. If his heart still moved, it would have beat its way out of his chest. He stole a glimpse at her face, and that sadness tugged at him, called up a fierce protectiveness he didn't know he still possessed. Angel had to shove his hands into his pockets to keep from touching her, comforting her.
Lina kept her thoughts to herself, but her heart pounded unreasonably and her mouth had gone strangely dry. She glanced up at him from the corner of her eye, a quick sideways look that didn't move her head, to confirm he was really by her side. She thought she'd imagined him, remnants of her last novel swimming to the surface of her dreams, a dark, beguiling creature come out of her fantasies to seduce her. She hastily buried those thoughts as she felt heat climbing up her throat to redden her face. Lina huddled into her Irish wool sweater, though her body was far from cold.
As they turned the corner and the clinic came into view, a moment of déjà vu caught her unawares. She dug her keys out of the leather messenger bag she'd slung across her chest, and stuck a key in the lock. The door opened with a whoosh and she stepped inside.
Angel hesitated on the doorstep, clearly troubled. "May I come in?" he asked at last, when he could find his voice.
"You'll always be welcome here, Angel," Lina promised warmly.
Sensing his hesitation and uncertainty, Lina impulsively grabbed his arm and tugged him inside, self-consciously releasing him a moment later. She leaned back against the door to close it behind them and locked it, flipping on the interior lights at the same time. Lina had the idea that he'd disappear if she took her eyes away or turned her back to him, so she remained just as she was, staring almost rudely at him.
She blinked once, then shook her head slightly. "Sorry, Angel." Lina gestured towards the back of the clinic. "You remember the way."
This time, Angel led the way to her loft apartment and she trailed at his back. He stepped aside at the top of the staircase and gave her access to the door. Not waiting for her to set the example, Angel kicked off his shoes and toed them neatly into place by the side of the door. Lina's eyes widened in surprise that he would remember that, but she said nothing and left her shoes to keep his company. She opened the door and beckoned to him as she stepped in. He took the door in his hand and raised an eyebrow in question; Lina nodded and he closed it behind them, twisting the lock.
The Tiffany lamp was already burning in the corner, and light spilled from under the kitchen door. The streetlamp outside the window threw squared-off shadows from the mullions onto the hardwood floor. Lina backed up until she stood in a box of light. She studied Angel with frank curiosity naked in her eyes, curiosity and something close to fear.
Angel stirred beneath that steady regard. "Lina, are you afraid of me?"
She let out a breath, releasing the word "No." Lina shook her head, then took a few steps towards him. "No, Angel," she assured him.
"Then what's wrong?"
Lina bit her lower lip and tried to explain. "I've been jumpy since the attack. Antsy. It's not you." She closed the distance between them, so she was standing near enough for Angel to feel the warmth of her body. "I trust you, Angel."
She spun on her heel, presenting her back to him for the first time. Angel didn't realize how tense she had been and how much influence her emotions had on his. He let himself relax and advanced further into the loft. Lina was struggling with the heavy bag that was slung across her chest, so Angel stepped up behind her to help. She stiffened at his approach but didn't move away, so he took the leather strap in hand and lifted the bag over her head. She turned and a tentative smile graced her lips, growing stronger with gratitude with each passing second.
"Thanks." She plopped down onto the window seat and patted the cushion. This time Angel took a seat next to her. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
Angel took a shot in the dark. "Something is bothering you."
"I've had the feeling someone's been following me," she explained.
"Have you told the police?" he asked shortly.
And Lina knew he didn't mean because of her leery feelings. She hesitated before responding. "I didn't need to. It was in the local paper yesterday."
She dug through her bag and handed the paper over to him in silence. He scanned the sensational headline and the related story. "One Dead, Two Injured," the headline read. Angel focused on the "one dead." The words pulsed in his eyes. A car running below the window chanted the phrase, one dead, one dead, onedead, onedead, onedead. He closed his eyes and raised his hands to his ears, dropping the paper in scattering waves to the floor. No wonder Lina was afraid.
Lina gripped his wrists and tugged, but he was like a statue and she couldn't budge him. She spoke his name softly once and then again. Slowly, he lost that forced rigidity and dropped his hands to his lap, but he couldn't meet her eyes, wouldn't look at her for fear of what he'd see there. Whether revulsion or rejection, Angel couldn't bear either. Yet when Lina finally coaxed him into meeting her eyes, there was no disfavor or ill-will evident, only a sympathy bordering on pity. Angel didn't know if that was worse. He should be reviled not pitied.
"Angel, those men would have raped and killed me," she told him quietly. "I'm not glad one of them is dead, but I'm not sorry either." Lina knew she hadn't reached him yet. "I wouldn't sacrifice you for their sake. You're my friend." His mouth parted in shock, but he said nothing. "They had rap sheets a mile long, according to the paper, and everyone thinks they're crazy. They actually admitted their attacker was some kind of...demon.
"I think he's some kind of hero."
Angel snorted in disbelief. "Hero," he repeated harshly. "Killer."
"Hero," she emphasized. "Savior."
Angel flung himself off the window seat and simply appeared at the door a second later. His movements were just that fast. Lina was stunned, but got her legs under her and quickly followed him to the door. She wouldn't lose him again so soon, especially in this dejected mood. He had his forehead against the door, and Lina could tell he was trying not to cry. His jaw was tightly clenched, his throat worked convulsively and his eyes were wide to keep the tears from spilling. She leaned on the door beside him, as close as she could get and not touch him. Instinctively she knew her touch might send him running again, this time never to return.
Lina didn't know how long they stood there, frozen into place like twin monoliths. Finally, Angel pivoted slightly and looked at her in sheer amazement, as if she'd just fallen from the sky or grown from roots at his feet. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a part of her was screaming, a part of her cowered and whimpered, but she didn't let that part out. Angel had saved her life; she had to return the favor.
"I'm here," she whispered. "Tell me."
He drew strength from her voice, a voice his memories linked to childhood comfort and safety. "I try so hard to control it. So hard." He was withdrawing from her little by little, and she didn't know how to stop it. "Just one moment of weakness -- and it's all gone. The demon is right below the surface, biding its time, waiting for an opening. And I gave it one."
"Yes! I wanted to kill, to taste their blood in my mouth." He watched as his words hit home. "Don't you see? Saving you was secondary." Angel let his face reflect the demon within, but buried it once more when Lina recoiled. "This is what I am."
Lina bottled her fear, afraid it would overwhelm her if she let even the barest amount escape. She had to swallow twice before she found her voice. "Angel, I don't care who you were before. That's not important to me. I only know that when I needed someone, you were there. You saved my life. That's not the work of a killer, no matter what you think you are.
"You were hungry, and I could have been food," she continued brutally, "but you were gentle and solicitous and you sat through my pain even though yours was greater.
"Don't you understand? I don't see a vampire when I look at you, I see only a person in need of healing."
He wanted to believe her, wanted to believe what he felt from her weren't phantom emotions or carefully built lies or illusions of hope, but truth, pure and simple. Lina had no words left with which to convince him, to prove her trust, so she did what came naturally, what she had done countless times for her patients, her family and that small circle of friends she kept around her like a life preserver. She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him. Angel was stunned into inaction, but after a few precious seconds he enfolded her into his arms and buried his face in her unbound hair. His body was wracked with bone-deep sobbing, the release of the anguish a surprise to both of them, sudden and unexpected. Lina held him tightly, her arms a haven of safety. She was peripherally aware of his body, the play of his muscles below her hands, the familiar softness of the gray fleece, but the embrace wasn't sexual. She held him as a mother would, and he clung to her as though he were a lost child. Many long minutes passed. The trembling had lessened, but a fine tremor still rippled through his limbs and he was shaky. Angel let himself be led to the sofa, and he sat when Lina dropped to the cushions.
She smoothed the hair from his forehead, and wiped the pink-tinged tears from his cheeks. "Better?"
Angel could only nod at first but his voice returned eventually, and he admitted, "I don't know what happened."
"You've been holding this grief in for a long time, Angel. It needed to come out."
"I didn't want--"
"We never do," she cut him off, "but the body and mind have ways of forcing you to release things that are bad for you."
"Did this happen to you, too?"
Lina didn't want to talk about it, but she owed him an answer. "I was a basket case," she confessed with a humorless laugh. "But I can function now. I actually look forward to getting up some mornings, and breathing doesn't hurt as much. It helps to have friends."
"I know that now."
They were still sitting very close and he just reached for her hand with no conscious thought guiding the action. Lina flinched at his cold touch and Angel pulled his hand back, rebuffed. With a look of apology, Lina took his hand and gripped it tightly, keeping it captive in her lap.
"I didn't mean to frighten you."
"Sure you did," she countered. "You didn't want to face this and you thought if you frightened me away you wouldn't have to." His protests died on his lips as he realized she was right. "Been there, done that, starred in the video."
The humor was unexpected but it had the right effect. Angel had regrouped but some of his protective walls remained unbuilt. Lina was more relaxed now than Angel had ever seen her. Helping him over this rough spot seemed to put her own pain in perspective.
She released his hand after one last comforting squeeze, then bounced to her feet, alive with pent-up energy. "You hungry? I'm starved -- but what else is new?" Lina looked down at Angel with a new awareness. "Um, I'll wait out here if you don't want an audience. Glasses are over the stove and I know you can find what you need in the fridge." She didn't wait for his answer. "I want to take a shower anyway. Help yourself."
Lina paused at the door to her bedroom and glanced over her shoulder at her new friend. "I'm glad you came back."
"So am I," he whispered, as she disappeared into her room and closed the door softly behind her. "So am I."
Angel kept his gaze locked on the closed door for several minutes before rising from the sofa and heading into the kitchen. A certain reluctance to feed warred with a gnawing hunger. Ultimately the demon required sustenance, and drinking cold blood was the safest way to satisfy the demands it placed on Angel. That Lina accepted his unnatural appetites made this capitulation to the demon easier, but each drink cost him a tiny bit of his spirit. At least there was little guilt associated with this sterile, packaged blood. It barely tasted human after six days in plastic.
He put all the rationalizations aside. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, the fact remained that he was a vampire and vampires drank blood or they went into a coma. That was that. Taking a glass down from the cabinet, Angel made himself walk to the refrigerator and pull the handle. About twenty packages of blood were precariously piled onto the second shelf, crowding into fruits and vegetables. The blood was dark and deep, the rich color of a fine burgundy. Before he could think about the act, Angel had emptied a pouch into the glass and forced himself to close the door, cutting off his view of the largesse. The blood stared up at him like a drunkard's eye, and he lost himself in the scent. Even blood this old called to the demon. Steeling himself with one hand splayed on the countertop, Angel upended the glass and drank the contents down in two gulps. The blood hit his stomach like strong alcohol, but no wine could taste as fine. In moments, his strength returned and with it, his control. It was strange how something as unnatural as drinking blood could make him feel more human.
He disposed of the blood bag and washed out the glass, leaving it to dry in the drainboard. As used to blood as Lina was, it wouldn't do to leave the crimson-stained glass in the sink. That small task complete, Angel drifted out into the living room. He could hear the water running and Lina humming, and he paused to listen to her for a moment, but that wall of books called to him. He spied a book apart, perched atop the litter of magazines on the desk, and walked over to examine it. The cover was a uniform pale yellow, with bold block print listing the working title and the author's name. He'd never seen a book like that before, and curiosity compelled him to open it. The light was better at the window, so he settled down onto the wide, padded seat and started to read. His eyes tracked rapidly, and soon he was pulled down into the story, enrapt.
Lina emerged from her bedroom unnoticed, and she took full advantage of the opportunity to study him without being studied in return. It was amazing how human he looked. Years of reading vampire stories had built a false image in her mind, and she couldn't quite reconcile the creature curled up on her window seat with her ideas of what he should be like. She must have made some involuntary sound, for Angel looked up and straight into her eyes. The direct contact was brief, but nearly blinding in its intensity. Lina swallowed a giggle, nearly choking with the need to release it, but she wouldn't give in to the nerves.
"Interesting book," he opened neutrally, sensing her unease.
She came closer in order to see the cover. "Oh, um." Hell, she thought, why be embarrassed? "It's a galley." Angel tilted his head to the side, curious. "It's an advance editor's copy of a book," she explained. "My husband was a publisher and I still have friends in the industry. They send me things they think I'd like."
"Oh," he responded noncommittally as he put the book aside.
Lina approached him and dropped tiredly beside him on the window seat. The movement jarred the wound in her shoulder and she winced, an involuntary "Ow" being forced from her.
Angel reached across the short space between them and ran a soothing hand over the wound. Lina accepted the touch, drank it in like rain in the desert. His hands were large but gentle, and the chill of his flesh took away some of the heat that enflamed the injury.
"How does this feel?" Angel asked solicitously.
"Sore," she responded a bit grumpily. "I just had the stitches out." Her healing instincts kicked in, then, and she turned her attention to his injury. "How about you? I should check. Stab wounds are tricky."
Angel avoided her touch in return, but came to a sudden halt when his back hit the wall. "I'm fine, Lina."
"Prove it," she challenged, eyebrow cocked.
Angel sighed. He recognized that look. She was determined to play doctor. "Okay." He tugged the fleece shirt up and over his head, crumpling it in his lap.
Lina gripped his opposite shoulder and pulled Angel around until light hit the wound. Or rather, where the wound should have been. Lina felt her jaw drop open in amazement. There wasn't a mark on him; Angel was completely healed. "This is an un-doctor-like comment but, wow."
"I heal fast," he reminded her, some humor evident in his tone.
Lina couldn't take offense at the good-natured teasing. Those that dish, have to eat, or something to that effect. "I'm glad you're all right. I was having a case of the guilts."
"Nothing to feel guilty about," Angel reassured Lina, the slight smile on his lips reaching his eyes.
He edged away from her to give himself room to pull the shirt over his head, but she stopped him with a fleeting touch on his arm.
"There's still plenty of hot water," she hinted. "I washed the clothes you were wearing when we met, but they're pretty unsalvageable."
"You actually saved them?" Disbelief colored his voice.
There was no way Lina wanted to admit that she couldn't part with evidence that he had ever visited her home. Without the clothes to prove his existence, Lina might have doubted her sanity or her memory of that night's events, at the very least. They were a token of his startling appearance in her life. Truly, though, the clothes did rightfully belong to Angel and as bad a condition as they were in, she couldn't discard them. They appeared to be his sole possessions.
Finally, she settled on an explanation that didn't expose too much of her thoughts. "Well, they didn't belong to me."
Angel's only response was a distracted "Hmmmm."
"Weren't you cold?"
It took him a few seconds to work out the connection: he had left his jacket behind. "I like being warm but the cold doesn't affect me all that much. These clothes you gave me kept me warm enough." The clothes and the memory of your kindness, he added silently.
"They're yours, if you want them," Lina offered generously.
"Please, Angel. You need them, and they fit you."
He nodded gratefully. "Thank you, Li."
Lina froze, all motion suddenly drained from her like water through a funnel. A look of sharp pain contorted her features, and tears welled up in her eyes. The rush of emotion caught her unawares, and she could do nothing but sit and cry.
Angel took her hand and asked worriedly, "Are you all right?"
Lina sniffled, but she managed to answer in fits and starts. "My husband, Lif, he was the only person who called me that."
"Oh, God, no." Lina closed her eyes briefly and a clear vision of Lif, Nick riding his shoulders piggyback and giggling for all he was worth, filled her mind's eye. "Good memories, just still painful ones."
"I didn't mean to make you sad," Angel apologized.
Lina pulled a tissue out of her sweats and blew her nose. "Grief is like that sometimes. It's mostly silent and heavy, like the first fall of snow, and eventually it leaves you, but not before eroding parts of your spirit that may never grow back." Lina looked over at Angel; there was sympathy in his brown eyes, and a grief that matched and far surpassed hers. "I'm guessing you know all that, huh?"
They shared a moment of perfect understanding, but that moment was shattered by the wail of an ambulance heading to a nearby hospital. Grief spread so much faster in the modern world. Angel reluctantly released Lina's hand and rose to his feet, the fleece shirt still clutched in his fist. Touching her was like warming his hands over an open flame. He moved a few steps away, but even from a distance he was drawn to that warmth, a dangerous drug to which he was rapidly becoming addicted.
"That -uh- hot water sounds good."
Lina didn't try to recapture that fleeting connection. "Sure. Your old clothes are folded on the bureau, but I moved most of Lif's clothes into the guest room this week. I've been meaning to do it, but..." She trailed off, lost in the memories again for just a moment. "So help yourself."
As Angel turned towards the bedroom, the large tattoo on his right shoulder blade came into view. Lina couldn't help making a comment. "That's some tattoo. A griffin?"
The haunted look that Angel offered over his shoulder held two words: "Don't ask." Lina wisely held her tongue as Angel entered the guest room and closed the door firmly behind him.
When the bedroom door opened twenty minutes later, Lina was curled up on the sofa with the galley in her hands. A fire burned weakly behind the safety curtain and a Clannad CD spun in the changer. Candles flickered in the slight draft that came from the old windows, wafting a scent of the ocean through the room.
Her eyes tracked across the loft and she took in the sight of Angel in a single, all-encompassing glance. He was dressed much as she was, in black sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt in a faded red. His sweeping glance in return didn't miss much either, taking in her appearance from fuzzy socks to the Pooh Bear scrunchy that bound up her hair. Lina realized she was staring again, so she dropped her eyes back to the page she'd been reading.
Angel was twitchy. He wasn't used to being indoors for such a long period of time, and any house seemed more like a cage. He paced a couple of times before the hearth, examining the collectibles arranged on the mantel, then knelt to tend the fire. He had it blazing away in a few minutes, and he rose satisfied with his accomplishment. Lina looked up expectantly, but Angel still had energy to spare. He walked over to the bookshelves and spent quite a while reading the many and varied titles, spotting several he'd like to borrow, but he was too jittery to sit still and read. He was distracting her and Lina had to give up the pretense of reading. She watched him prowl, like some captive jaguar, quiet power and danger in a sleek package. His restless circuit took him back to the window, and he just stood and looked out at the intermittent traffic, a stray dog hunting for a little meat, and the stars. But mostly at the stars. At least he knew there was something in the universe older than he was. The years pressed down on him, and lately only the stars offered solace.
Lina padded up behind her house guest, the fuzzy socks making a soft susurration as she slid her feet along. They stood in comfortable silence for a time, just communing with the heavens.
"What do you see?" she asked in a hushed voice.
"Something older than myself."
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