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Illusions of Hope

It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts...
  --Patrick Henry Speech in Virginia Convention


New York City, 1992:

Huddled in clothing little better than rags and lying among the detritus in the alleyway, he blended in with the rest of the jetsam that life had deposited there. The dirt, the filth, the lack of warmth were his staples. Loneliness had been with him so long now that it was an old friend. Solitude was the blanket that covered him during the endless days and nights. The sameness. The monotony. The lethargy. These were his companions. Nothing and no one, he fell out of touch with society.

His existence wasn't always like this. In his youth, he was popular. He had a certain wicked charm that women admired and men envied; his bed was very seldom empty. That he was a wastrel was undeniable. His behavior when well into his cups had grown legendary even before he reached full manhood. Yet, he was the warp and weft, woven firmly into the fabric of life. Laughter and revelry were his watchwords. Irresponsibility was his downfall.

Life changed dramatically on one moonlight-drenched night, in an alley not so different from the one he now occupied, but a half a world away. A moment turned to eternity, in the arms of a beautiful woman, a woman who promised to show him her world, a world which had led him through death, blood, vicious murder and torture. And for more than a hundred years, he had been a perfect demon, had been her perfect complement. He had never been so accomplished at anything in life, but he excelled in death. That night, and all the nights that followed like links in a chain, put an end to his innocence, to his ignorance of things worse than an empty bed or bottle. His family was sacrificed to the demon; their friends were fuel on the fire of his newly aroused desires. Dark desires.

On and on it went, a crimson river marking his trail, until another moment turned into a different kind of eternity. Hell on Earth. The death of hope.

Chapter 1A

She had walked this same path every night for the past eight months. Her feet knew it well. Up Avenue B past Tompkins Square Park, turn left onto E. 10th street, three blocks, then right on Second Avenue to E. 15th. She didn't even really pay much attention to her surroundings anymore. Other residents of the neighborhood waved, and she returned the greetings on automatic pilot. There was always a possibility that one of the Rough Crowd would accost her. Sometimes they mouthed off, just to unnerve the pedestrians, but Doctor Lina Russo was well-known, and mostly she was left alone.

Tonight, though, there was a spirit of restlessness in the air. Some city-born instinct whispered in the back of her mind. She should change her route. Maybe take 14th Street instead. It was better lighted, and there would still be some stores open (being so close to Stuyvesant Town) even at this late hour. The busy street was a major bus route, and there was a subway entrance on nearly every corner. She could jump on the bus, or the subway at the first sign of trouble...

Whoa, she derailed her thoughts, what brought on this bout of paranoia?

Resolutely Lina turned her feet back on her usual path, and turned the volume down on the little warning klaxons going off in her head. A certain amount of paranoia was good for city-dwellers, especially in a city as dynamic as New York, but when it turned into blind panic, you knew it was time to take a reality check. And really, that's the way fate leads you on its chosen path. A chance decision to turn or not can alter a life in ways not ever foreseen.

A slight rustling caught his attention. He was hungry and his senses were sharpened by the lack of sustenance. His last meal was a few days in the past, not that he would call a lone rat a meal, but there was little else he could bring himself to kill. Using an acute sense of smell, he cornered the rat with the skill of a hunting cat, and was soon dining on his prey. Its blood was drained quickly, and he wiped the vestiges of his meal from his lips. A distasteful grimace twisted his features. He needed something to rid his mouth of the foul taste of the rodent's blood. Rising to his feet, the vagrant made his way to the mouth of the alley. A faint scream and the sounds of a struggle turned his feet in the opposite direction. He was moving before a conscious decision was made.

Avenue B was desolate, but it often was, especially in the hours just after midnight. Dr. Russo usually avoided the shadows, but construction in and around the Park had forced her onto the opposite side of the street, and inexplicably all the streetlamps were dimmed. The sidewalk was drenched in darkness, and again that feeling of unease crowded out her thoughts. She started, just as a dirty hand reached out of the deepest shadows and pulled her roughly against the crumbling bricks of the building. Her first instinct was to scream, but that action was prevented by a large hand clamped tightly across her mouth.

A single, attractive woman living alone in a big city took certain precautions, and Dr. Russo was no exception. She had taken the self-defense courses offered at the Y; actually, she was quite accomplished in the moves that could free her from an attacker. She tried a combination of some of the easiest tactics: forcing her mouth open she bit down on the attacker's fingers while simultaneously running her thick-soled shoe roughly down his shin. An elbow to his stomach followed. The man cursed and grunted, but her struggles had no lasting effect, other than to make the man more angry.

Dr. Russo was dragged backward into the half-open doorway of an abandoned warehouse. The corrugated metal door sagged in its tracks, and rattled as she was flung against it. The scream that earlier had been prevented tore its way loose, but she knew there was no one who could hear it or would come to her aid. She swallowed, trying to marshal her fear, and assessed the situation as calmly as she could. There were three men that she could see, and at least one had a knife, gleaming large and silver in the dim moonlight filtering weakly through the filthy panes of a window set high overhead. Her mind automatically categorized her attackers: one was short and wiry with dark hair, the knife-wielder was thick-chested and tall, his face half-hidden by an unkempt beard, and the last man was thin, with a shock of red hair sticking up from his head.

Lina took a step back, but the man nearest to her grabbed her arm and flung her against the wall. "Oh, no, sister, we ain't done with you yet," the dark-haired man told her.

"Yeah. Stick around, we're gonna have some fun," another voice informed her from the shadows, the knife glinting as he cleaned his nails.

"She's a wee thing," the red-head observed dismissively, his voice thick with an Irish accent. "I'm thinking there's not enough to go around."

"What do you want?" Dr. Russo asked shakily. "I don't have any money."

"Ain't money we're looking for," the first man answered as he loosened his belt and slid his pants to his knees.

"No!" she cried. A blind panic flooded Lina, and she turned to run. She wouldn't be raped, not without a struggle. She'd rather die than submit to the filth surrounding her.

"Shit, Derek, ain't ya got no sense?" Frank cursed his partner.

The thick-chested man, moving quickly for one of his bulk, pushed Derek aside and grabbed Lina again; this time she fought him off. Her fingers found his eye and she tried to rip it out of the socket. Frank answered with a grunt of pain and swung his knife-hand in a practiced upward arc. Lina felt the slash of heat, followed by the sting of cold air, as her biceps, shoulder and clavicle were laid open and blood poured from the wounds. He slashed again and Dr. Russo threw up her hands to ward against the blow.

Help came from an unexpected quarter. She heard the blow connect, but didn't feel it. Lina chanced a look and what she saw amazed her. Another man, tall and dressed in filthy clothing, his features horribly disfigured, was fighting her three attackers. A feral growl, like a dog with distemper, issued from his throat. Blood flowed freely from his chest and as Lina watched, the man unclutched his hand from the wound and tasted his own blood. Like a berserker, he was stirred to crazed action.

Frank's arm was caught in a vice grip; the knife was ripped from his hand and flung away so hard it embedded itself in an old oil drum. Next, he was lifted like a sack of flour and tossed onto a stack of wooden pallets. The crack of bone and wood was strangely complementary and sharp. The redhead, Ian, was already postrate on the ground, his limbs flung out, his head canted at a strange angle. That confrontation had lasted only a few seconds. In the meantime, Derek had fastened his pants, and attempted to flee in the face of such savagery, but Dr. Russo's savior snagged his arm, then raised his booted heel and jammed it against the side of Derek's knee. The joint gave with a sickening pop, and Derek fell to the ground, vomiting from the pain. Another kick to his head, and Derek was unconscious or dead. The fight ended even as Dr. Russo unsteadily brought herself to her feet.

Lina had one fleeting look at the man's disfigured face before he presented his back to the feeble light. She took a few tentative steps towards him, but he flung himself away, deeper into the shadows. A sweeping desire for human blood, hot and salty, flooded his mind and clenched his stomach with a deep pang of hunger. The sensations were not a surprise, yet a long moment passed before he could force the demon aside.

Dr. Russo took another step closer to him, her hands staunching the wounds she had suffered. She was shaky from the sudden loss of blood, and a gray border was closing off her vision. Shock, was her self-diagnosis. She needed treatment, stitches and a Tetanus probably, and she needed it soon. But she couldn't leave this man, who had sustained an injury and risked his own life to save hers, without helping him in return.

The man was bent over an oil drum, obviously pained, but he straightened and glanced over his shoulder at her as she approached. Lina faltered and sank to her knees, and suddenly the man was at her side. A strong hand placed under her uninjured arm lifted her to her feet and guided her to an old chair. The upholstery was ripped, and discolored stuffing bubbled out of the hole, but the chair was still sturdy and it held her weight. As soon as she was seated, he quickly withdrew, but she could feel the lingering chill his hand had left on her arm. His body was exhibiting signs of shock, as well.

"Thank you. Thank you, again," Lina said gratefully, her contralto voice trembling slightly.

She looked up at him and gasped. She knew his face had been disfigured; she'd seen it. But now, it was -- well, she'd have to say handsome. The extended brow ridge, yellow eyes, long canines and mottled complexion had changed somehow to very pleasing features: smooth forehead, soulful brown eyes, even, white teeth and pale, unblemished skin.

Lina caught her breath. "I'm sorry. It must be the shock setting in." He remained silent, so she tried again to draw him into conversation. "Who are you? What's your name?"

After a lengthy pause, he replied in a voice made harsh by disuse, "I'm nothing and no one." He turned to go.

"Wait, please!" she called to him. "You're hurt. I'm a doctor. I can help."

"I'll be fine," he assured her, his back to her.

Lina swallowed her pride. "But I won't be. You've already helped me above and beyond what anyone could expect, but I need more. I have no car. I need medical attention." Lina waited a moment, and her patience paid off.

He turned back to face her. The struggle to decide was clearly etched on his features. "All right."

Lina lifted her good arm to him as he approached. He took it firmly and helped her to her feet. "Easy," he murmured when her knees buckled.

His hands were like ice, but they supported her easily. She took a quick glance at the wound in his chest with a doctor's practiced eye. The bleeding had stopped, which was a good sign, but his pale skin and cold flesh convinced her he had lost much blood. Her own injuries were bleeding sluggishly, and they hurt like hell, but she knew that nothing vital had been punctured. The little white lie she had told him convinced him she needed help, but really her motives were to give him the treatment he obviously needed.

He helped her out of the building, and onto the sidewalk, then stopped expectantly to await directions. Lina pointed towards the north corner. The going was slow, but he was patient, never rushing her, even though she had manipulated him into helping her back to the clinic. Walking took all her breath, so she didn't try to engage him in any more conversation, and he didn't volunteer. He didn't seem to be having any trouble walking, and that puzzled her, for his injuries seemed at least as serious as hers. After ten minutes, they rounded the corner and the clinic came into view, its doorway well-lit.

Lina gestured to the squat, whitewashed building. "This is home," she gasped out, more out of breath than she thought she'd be. He walked her to the door and Lina knew he meant to leave her there. "Please wait." She gripped his arm to keep him from moving away. "You can't just leave. You've lost a lot of blood. The doctor in me won't let you walk away without at least a bandage."

"I heal quickly."

"You're Enigma Man, aren't you?" Lina exclaimed in exasperation. "Listen, I'm sorry," she added quickly in response to his frown, "but I just want to help you like you helped me. You look like you need it."

He just stared at her for a long moment, then looked away; an expression of deep loneliness lined his face. "I'm no one you should worry about," he told her quietly.

"At least tell me your name," she insisted. She wasn't surprised when he didn't answer. The doctor introduced herself instead. "I'm Lina Russo."

He wanted to stay with her, talk with her. She was very pretty, and her soft, low voice matched his memories of his mother's. She was trim but shapely, and a magnificent crown of auburn hair capped her heart-shaped face and delicate features. Green eyes shone brightly, twin emeralds caught by the light above the door. Beneath the overpowering aroma of her blood, were the opposing scents of antiseptic and vanilla. She wore jeans and a Warner Brothers' baseball jersey, but she was undeniably feminine. He knew he shouldn't stay, shouldn't involve her in his hellish existence, but his subconscious went ahead without his conscious consent.

"Angel," he offered in return.

"You certainly were my guardian angel." Angel took a step back, and he ducked his face to hide his embarrassment. "Must be the shock, again," she told him, with a slight grin gracing her lips.

She chanced releasing his arm. Angel had the combined look of an animal about to bolt and one who was mesmerized by a bright light, though he kept his place by her side. Lina dug into her pocket and came up with a set of keys that dangled from a brass Caduceus. She fitted a key into the substantial lock and stepped over the threshold. Angel remained outside the clinic.

"I don't stand on ceremony here." She stepped aside and swung the door open.

Angel took a few tentative steps and reached out to the open doorway with his hand. He stopped when he felt the mystical resistance that prevented his kind from entering a dwelling without an invitation. He hadn't been invited, although Lina had meant the comment as such. 'This is home,' she'd said; that must be literal.

"I can't, Dr. Russo." Angel let his hand fall to his side. "I'm not what you think."

Lina studied him intently. She leaped to a ridiculous conclusion, helped along by a vivid imagination and a love of occult fiction, based on very little supporting evidence: he was very cold and pale; he had an easy strength that was not enervated by the recent blood loss; he could not enter her house; his features had turned feral, with glowing eyes and pointed canines. Vampire, her mind supplied. As their eyes met, Angel knew that she had unbelievably deduced his true nature. He broke eye contact first, and spun on his heel with incredible speed, but Lina had anticipated his escape and was moving before Angel had a chance to disappear. Forgetting her injuries for the moment, she lunged and caught his arm. She was dragged along with his movement for a few steps, until he heard her soft moan of pain and stopped. He allowed himself to be pulled back to the entrance of the clinic.

"Angel, please, you're welcome here."

His mouth opened in shock, but thinking he must look like a fool or a dead fish, he closed it. He shook his head in disbelief. "No," he mouthed. And then, as Lina sank to her knees, he told her, "You're bleeding again."

"I know. I need stitches. You're drafted as my assistant."

He closed his eyes briefly and shook his head again. "I'm not the right person for the job, Dr. Russo."

"I think you are, Angel. Please." He remained steadfastly outside. "Do I have to make the invitation more explicit? Angel, I invite you to come in."

"Are you sure about this?"

"Well, if I remember my lurid Gothic fiction correctly, it's a bit too late."

She smiled through her pain, and it was infectious; Angel gave her a lopsided smile in return, the left side of his mouth quirking upward briefly before he turned serious again. He studied her face for a moment, but he saw only pain. There was no fear in her, and that helped him overcome his. He stepped over the threshold, closing the door behind him, and dropped to his knees in front of Lina.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"I know what it's like to be alone," she told him with incredible insight. Lina pushed herself to her feet, but her arms trembled with the effort.

"Here, let me help you," Angel offered.

He gently lifted Lina and half-carried her to the room she had indicated at the back of the clinic. She stared at him until he turned his back to give her some privacy. She picked up a towel to cover herself, then struggled to remove her damaged shirt. Blood had glued the cotton to her skin, but finally she was able to peel it off and toss it on the table behind her; her bra followed. Lina wrapped the towel securely around her chest and tucked the ends down between her breasts.

"You can turn around now," she told Angel.

Angel turned, and his eyes immediately fastened on the bloody wounds. He swallowed, putting aside the fresh surge of hunger, then dragged his eyes up to meet hers. There was apology in his, yet amazingly nothing but understanding and compassion in hers.

"First things first," she began, disregarding his fascinated stare. "We both need to sterilize our hands."

After that was accomplished Lina examined her wounds as best she could, but her neck cramped up from the angle she had to hold her head. "Would you hand me that mirror, please?" she asked Angel. He reached back to the instrument table and picked up a small mirror, edged and backed in surgical steel. He offered it to Lina on an open palm. She rotated the mirror in his hand until it was at the precise angle she needed. He held it steady. "See, I told you you'd make a good assistant."

Lina cleansed the wounds thoroughly with alcohol, then closely probed them for any foreign matter. She sprayed on a local anesthetic, and counted to thirty, waiting for it to take effect. Meanwhile, she prepared a needle with silk, and swabbed the wounds with Betadine solution to prevent infection. The doctor tested the area for sensitivity with the point of the needle and feeling nothing, began to stitch. There were forty in all by the time she was finished, and her skin had become as pale as her assistant's. She applied a bandage to cover the wounds, and deemed herself done with a nod of her head.

"You okay?" she asked, looking up at Angel.

"Sure," he replied after a moment. "You?"

"I've been better." She slid carefully off the examination table and hunted around for some scrubs. She found a reasonably clean set and pulled the green cotton top over her head, wincing as she raised her left arm. Reaching underneath the top, she pulled the towel out and dumped it in the hamper. Lina prescribed herself some Motrin for the pain, and swallowed them down.

She gestured to Angel. "Take your jacket and your shirt off," the doctor directed. "I want to look at that chest wound."

"I'm fine," Angel protested.

"Oh, so you're a doctor now," Lina challenged.

She just cocked an eyebrow at him until he complied. He gave in, though not as gracefully as she would have liked. Angel shrugged out of his jacket, and pulled his sweatshirt over his head. The odor that wafted out of the discarded garments was enough to make Lina gag. She had noticed the noisome smell earlier, when he was helping her to walk, but most of her concentration went to placing one foot in front of the other, and she put the smell aside.

"Whew!" she exclaimed, waving a hand in front of her nose. "That certainly is a memorable stink."

"Sorry, but I haven't..."

She held her hands up. "No need to apologize. I didn't mean to insult you." Lina patted the examination table. "Sit up here, please."

Angel responded to her no-nonsense manner and did as he was bid. She soaked a gauze pad in alcohol and swabbed the crusted blood away, so she could better assess the wound. "Hmmmm. This is nearly healed. Wow. I wish I had some of that."

"No, you don't," Angel countered with a quiet intensity that Lina found unnerving.

She met his eyes, and what she found there -- the sadness, the pain, the loneliness -- confirmed what he said: there was little good about being a vampire. "No, I guess I don't," she agreed, somewhat embarrassed.

They both plunged into an uncomfortable silence, though each tried valiantly to find the words that would lead back to a conversation grounded in the real world, a world devoid of vampires.

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