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Illusions of Hope

Chapter 3

That statement reawakened her curiosity about Angel and his life. There were so many questions Lina wanted to ask him. Again, the sorrow in his eyes stopped the questions in her throat. She didn't need to know the answers enough to cause him further pain, so she kept her curiosity in tight check.

Lina made her way to the desk and began to dig around under the piles of magazines. She came across a sticky note with that day's date and the name and number of a repair service. "Oh, boy," she mumbled under her breath.

Angel joined her, bemused at her search and subsequent halt. "Problem?"

"No. This little note," and Lina waved the sticky around a few times, before tacking the note to the tambour, "reminded me that the serviceman is coming later today." He lifted a shoulder in question. "The refrigerator in the clinic ground to a spectacular halt -- and on delivery day, to boot."

Angel's eyes widened in realization, and he spoke without thinking. "So that's why you have blood up here?"

"Convenient, huh? I'm like a vampire 7-11." Lina clapped a hand over her mouth, mortified, and shook her head. "Oh, Angel, I didn't mean..."

"I don't mind being teased," he quickly reassured her.

"If it's any consolation, I only tease people I like," she admitted shyly.

An evanescent smile brightened his face before he turned back to the window. Angel heard a soft "Aha!" of triumph and Lina joined him a moment later. A flat, circular object and a penlight were in her hands.

"There's a better view from the roof," she informed him eagerly.

Lina turned away without waiting for a response, confident Angel would follow. When he reached the door, she was already pushing her feet into a pair of battered Keds, with strange curly laces that didn't appear to need tying. Angel had barely laced up his boots by the time Lina had climbed the short staircase to the roof and pushed open the door. He caught up to her as she stepped out. Looking down at her feet, Angel couldn't help the bewildered grin.

"Yeah, I get that reaction all the time. They're called Stretchies. Product of the year, or so the package insert proudly states." Lina rested her foot against the side of the roof hatch to demonstrate. "See, you just pull and they tighten up. Cool, huh?" And her eyes sparkled with a child- like joy.

She'd seen his expression before from other adults: a begrudging echo of her joy mixed with doubt or perhaps dismissal. "I get that reaction, too. Yes, I really am a doctor, but I'm a pediatrician. My patients feel safer if they think I'm not one of the grown-ups."

"They're lucky to have you, Doctor Lina."

"I'm lucky to have them, too."

Lina left the shadows of the roof access and Angel tagged along. He took a moment to admire the nightscape. The East River was a hazy reflection in the distance and, although trees and taller buildings obstructed much of the spectacular view, the very tops of the Empire State Building, its white spire piercing the dark sky, and the Chrysler Building, crenellated in gleaming silver Deco arches, could be seen to the northwest. Angel would never grow tired of New York City, especially at night. He admired daylight pictures of the striking skyline, but it was nighttime that best showed off the beauty of the city, its vibrancy a song heard in the bones.

"Nice," was all he said.

"Tourist," she gently mocked him, a wide grin in place. "It gets better. Come on."

Lina led Angel across the wide roof. A high-powered telescope was fastened to the chimney there, protected by a heavy, clear plastic cover. She handed him the disc and the penlight for safe-keeping, then proceeded to uncover the telescope and adjust the eyepieces for optimum viewing of a constellation she knew the location of by heart. Taking the penlight from Angel, she turned it on and stuck the non- working end in her mouth, the intense beam of light aimed at the disc still in his hands. A quick glance at the moon with a practiced eye told her the approximate time, and she rotated the star chart correctly according to the date. A quarter circle window mapped out several major constellations, and Lina pointed these out to Angel by tracing a finger along the surface of the chart. Orion was her favorite, one of the easiest to locate, and she directed his attention to the eastern horizon where its five major stars shone brightly.

"Take a look," she prompted, after removing the penlight from her mouth.

Angel stepped up to the telescope and bent to look through the view-finder. He made a small sound of awe, and it pleased Lina to have affected him. She loved star-gazing and she was glad she could share one of her hobbies with him.

After a few minutes, he politely backed away to allow Lina a turn at the telescope. She took his place and gazed at Orion and its neighbor Taurus, then repositioned the instrument north and west to focus on M31 in Andromeda and the W-pattern of Cassiopeia.

They were on the roof the better part of an hour and just like the meal and chores they had shared the week before, this was a quiet time, punctuated only by distant traffic sounds drifting over from the FDR Drive, or their little exclamations of pleasure at picking out a new constellation. Angel and Lina didn't say much, but their silence was comfortable and it had a familiar feel. Lina and Lif would spend hours on the roof, alone with a picnic basket, a bottle of wine from an Upstate vineyard and the fitting strains of Holst's The Planets.

The dropping temperature and rising chill wind became an issue for Lina as the clock stuck two. She shivered in the insubstantial sweatshirt and hugged her arms around herself, trying to retain some of her body heat.

"We need to get you warm," Angel observed attentively. "Come on."

As Lina bent to retrieve the plastic tarp, the wind tangled it around her legs. Pulling on it as she tried to step free put her off-balance and she stumbled, nearly careening into the chimney. Angel caught her about the waist and steadied her until she felt secure on her feet, yet he didn't release her. His arms held her closely, and they stood intimately face-to-face.

Familiar stars looked down upon them, the equally familiar feel of the sweatshirt beneath her hands, the strong arms around her, all conspired to set up a perfect moment. Angel gazed down at Lina, and their eyes met and held, the green of a restless sea against the brown of a muddy bank.

The first tentative touch of lips was awkward and quick, yet gentle and sweet, and suffused with an overwhelming desire. Each one reached hungrily for that closeness -- as one who recently lost it and one who recently rediscovered it. The kiss was magical, but frightening on so many levels. The chill of his lips was alien and strange, and part of Lina's mind balked at the contact. Her warmth was a flame to his moth, and he longed to stay within that circle of light.

She pulled back, her fingers touching her own lips with an odd mix of wonderment and diffidence. Angel gazed deeply into her eyes, trying to gauge her reaction. The kiss was a shock, and the surprise was reflected in both pairs of eyes. Neither one knew what exactly to do. Lina hadn't consciously taken Angel to the roof in order to kiss him, and Angel had no plans to embrace Lina as she stumbled, but the kiss happened and they could deny it and the feelings it engendered, or they could relax and enjoy it.

Angel stammered out the beginnings of an apology, but Lina would hear none of it. She quieted him with the initiation of another kiss. Where the first was tentative and fleeting, this one was deep and certain, as Angel gained confidence and Lina let herself be seduced by a measure of his old finesse. Abandoning themselves to the embrace, they clung to each other in the eye of a storm full of mutual longing and need. The heat of their ardor banished the cold from Lina, and soon his lips felt like thin lines of fire and the chill wind was no more than a tropical breeze. Angel's arms tightened about her, one hand pressed to the small of her back while the other cradled the nape of her neck. His fingers toyed with the gold chain hanging there, moving slowly upward to tangle in the wisps of hair the wind had pulled from her ponytail. Angel tugged at the fancy elastic and her hair spilled free, the scent of chamomile carried on the wind, the moonlight captured in its highlights. Soft and light, it floated around her face and his, a curtain of living copper. His tongue sought entrance to her mouth, and her lips parted in response. Opening his eyes for a moment, Angel drank in the sight of Lina as he had once drowned himself in blood; he bathed in her warmth and the demon wanted more, wanted it all. A dark desire nearly overpowered him, but he mastered the hunger and transformed it into passion and an emotion bordering on love. Lost in the moment, the only sound Lina heard was the pounding of her heart, a drum beating for them both. Her world became his mouth, his questing tongue dancing with hers and the length of his body pressed against hers.

Within that private world, Lina dreamed.

The feel of supportive arms around her evoked memories of her husband and, with her eyes closed, she could almost believe she stood within the shelter of his embrace once more. The kiss had stolen her breath and Lina broke free with a sigh of pleasure. The quick intake of air was released, formed into one word: "Lif." The face that met her opening eyes was nothing like her husband's and the realization that she stood within another's embrace filled her veins with a river formed of ice. Sound rushed back to her ears, forced upon her by the bitter wind. For just a moment Lina thought she had found perfection: a man she could have who would never die. Perfection was unreachable; Lina merely traded loving one dead man for another, ghost for vampire.

"I can't -- I can't do this," she cried plaintively.

Putting her hands against his chest, Lina desperately pushed away from Angel and propelled herself blindly to the access door. She nearly fell but caught her balance on the doorframe before plunging down the stairs in a barely controlled descent. Angel listened to her frantic footfalls as she made her way to the loft, and the slight creak of the hinges as the door swung open. He wished his ears were less sensitive, for then he wouldn't hear her crying.

Angel stood silently berating himself, cursing himself for a fool and a churl, but her audible pain pulled him back to himself. Closing the distance to the roof access with a burst of inhuman speed, he took the stairs in two giant leaps, his feet barely touching the steps. The door to the loft gaped open like a wound and he was loathe to step inside, but he had to be sure Lina was all right. He had caused this pain and he somehow had to make amends.

Taking a deep breath he didn't need, Angel slipped into the loft on silent feet. Lina stood with her back to him, staring unseeing out the window. She was folded into herself, shoulders hunched and arms wrapped around her stomach. Angel could hear her soft sobs, though the sound was nearly lost beneath the music that still played, unheeded. He approached, watchful, uncertain of his welcome. Each sob twisted his gut with a matching pain, and it was all he could do not to rush to her side and enfold her in his arms yet again. He settled for lacing his fingers between hers and tugging gently. Lina let herself be led to the sofa, as she had once led Angel. He guided her down to the cushions and took a seat beside her, the fingers of his left hand still entwined with hers.

With his other hand, Angel slowly reached across the short space between them and wiped the tears from her eyes. Her face was ravaged by sorrow and confusion, though somewhat abated by a lingering desire. His eyes evinced a matching passion, but it was all but buried beneath the remorse. He wanted to wipe away her pain as he had wiped away her tears; he knew there was no easy way out, yet he had to offer comfort. Angel tenderly slid his thumb across her lips and his fingertips traced the outline of her ear; his palm was pressed to her cheek, flesh sealed to flesh by tears.

"No one has touched me in so very long," Lina admitted at last, her voice barely audible and still thick with tears.

Angel understood. "Me neither."

He tried to apologize again, but a finger placed gently against his lips stopped the words. Lina shook her head ruefully. "Are you really sorry you kissed me?" Her expression was bruised and vulnerable.

"No, not about that," he quickly assured her. "I made you cry again."

Angel reluctantly began to pull away, suddenly conscious of his cold hand, but Lina captured his wrist in a surprisingly strong grip. She laid her hand over his and pressed her cheek more closely to his palm. "It wasn't you, Angel," she began shakily. "I thought I was--" She shook her head once. "It doesn't matter. Please don't think I'm rejecting you. The way I felt in your arms -- I haven't had that level of intimacy, that sense of safety, as if nothing in this world could harm me -- in a long, long time."

Lina dropped her hand to her lap, dragging his along as well. Angel drew his hand out of hers with a last gentle squeeze; he felt the loss of warmth keenly. Their eyes met, and his look of compassion tugged at her heart. Fresh tears welled up and she brushed at them almost angrily. She used to be so strong, but grief had robbed her of her strength.

Lina was tired, so very tired. Glancing up at the carriage clock on the mantel, she groaned. "Ugh. I have to be up for rounds in a few hours."

"I should go," Angel told her regretfully as he made to rise.

She gripped his forearm so tightly he could feel her pulse, slowly marking the tide of her blood. "Don't move -- um, I mean, of course you can move, just don't go." A tremulous smile brushed across her lips as she tried to regain her equilibrium. "I won't attack you again," she promised with just a touch of self-deprecating humor.

"Can you sleep with me here?" he asked after nearly a minute of silence.

"I could sleep on a roller coaster right about now."

A chuckle escaped him, but he sobered rapidly. "You called me Lif," he said quietly. When she offered no response, Angel confessed, "I can't be him, Lina, as much as I want to be."

"I hurt every man I meet lately," she admitted in a voice barely above a whisper.

"There were two of us on the roof," he reminded her. Lina shook her head sadly, denying his words. "Kissing you was wonderful." She raised limpid eyes, washed clear by tears, to gaze directly at him. "You make me forget I'm not human." Angel swallowed the lump in his throat and he had to stop speaking for fear that horrible grief would rush out again. Lina needed comforting now; this was his turn to give.

"You make me remember that I am."

Lost in the recriminations, Angel would not accept that he could affect another person so profoundly, and that disbelief was evident in his eyes and frown.

"You deserve to love and be loved, Angel, never doubt that. I'm so sorry it can't be me -- at least not that way." Lina let out a weary sigh. "What a pair we are, huh?"

Since Angel couldn't deny that sentiment, he remained silent. The years of isolation had rendered him taciturn and, though he had opened up to Lina in ways nearly forgotten, he still clung to the silence as a means of self- defense. Besides, words were unnecessary; Lina and Angel seemed to share one thought, one mind, joined as they were by experience, solitude and the very real touch of her hand on his arm.

The release of such intense emotions was physically draining and Lina could barely keep her eyes open. She brushed her bangs from her eyes but they fell swiftly back into place. Her hand relaxed its grip, Angel nearly forgotten with the onset of sleep. She snuggled into the cushions but couldn't remain upright. Sinking lower and lower, Lina migrated into Angel's arms, and he welcomed her. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath and drifted off, her hair a veil masking her features.

Her presence in his arms was negligible yet weighty at the same time. Angel cradled Lina against his chest, the top of her head placed just below his chin. Smoothing the hair from her forehead, he studied her face. Sleep had stolen the tension away, along with the years, and her expression was open, unguarded, vulnerable. Absolute trust painted her features. Without warning, the demon rose up within him, a malevolent force searching for an easy death. Angel fought against it, but he was slowly losing the battle. His features morphed, revealing the demon within, fangs long and feral, eyes fey and gleaming with hunger. A snarl twisted his lips and a low growl rumbled in his throat. The vampire's hands spasmed, tightening on Lina's upper arm, but Angel managed to temper the crushing grip, still struggling with the demon for control. Fear, fear of allowing the demon to kill again, gave him added strength. Closing his eyes, he blocked out the sight of Lina's face. When the demon compelled him to breathe, Angel concentrated only on the scent of the candles. He forced himself to listen only to the crackle of the fire, the wind whistling through the trees, the music playing in the loft -- anything but her blood, a river raging in veins so close to the surface of her warm skin.

The music saved her, saved him. It impinged on his awareness, grabbed his attention and wouldn't let go. The Gaelic words resolved themselves into English, words that enjoined him to make amends, assured him that it was never too late to try to save himself. Anam. Soul. Drawing strength from the soul the song reminded him he still possessed, Angel forced the demon down and away, swallowed the hunger that was all of want and none of need.

Lina stirred restlessly and whimpered, his struggle perhaps penetrating her very dreams; her brow puckered with worry and her lips moved soundlessly. The vampiric features dissolved and he was once again human in aspect if not in fact. Angel couldn't help the instinctive intake of breath as he brought in her unique scent; it lingered in the back of his throat and he swallowed, savoring her, reveling in her warmth. He tightened his arms around her protectively, this time gauging his inhuman strength to her more fragile bones. Shifting slightly, he touched his lips to her ear and whispered, "Shhh. It's all right. You're safe now. Nothing can harm you." Angel nuzzled at her throat, the pulse beneath his cheek ponderous with sleep. In the language of his people, his voice a soft caress of sound that soothed her, he murmured, "Mo cridhe."

Angel brushed the hair from her brow and kissed her forehead tenderly, smoothing away the lines of worry. Stroking his hair was a comfort to him in his childhood and Angel offered this same comfort to the woman lying in his arms, until she quieted. Lina released a contented sigh and slipped into a profound slumber, her breathing growing even and measured. Although Angel was closer to waking than sleep, he closed his eyes and let himself drift, lost in a dream of impossibilities, a dream where this was not merely one moment in time but a lifetime full of possibilities.

The city hospital was choked with people: bustling nurses, doctors rushing to emergencies, policemen bringing in felons for treatment. Two extra bodies in the corridors brought little or no notice. Security was minimal -- few funds were allocated -- and walking out of even the secure ward was relatively easy for Derek and Frank.

Ian was left behind; Frank saw to that. The fool woke up screaming to high heaven about demons or leprechauns or whatever the hell he called the crazed attacker that landed them in the hospital in the first place. Making the sign of the cross and rattling out prayers, Ian had brought the police down on their heads. Frank hated all that noise and fuss.

Derek was a card-carrying moron, but at least he knew how to keep his mouth shut. Frank could deal with him, even if his bum leg made their escape harder. Really, Frank didn't do much; he didn't have to after that maniac was done with Ian. Frank just finished the job good and proper, before the police showed up. There were no weapons to be found. Frank had managed to ditch his shiv in a vat of old engine oil where none of them dumb-ass cops would think to look. So what if they thought they heard screaming? Frank and Derek were two clams. They stuck to their story about coming in from the cold and getting attacked. All the cops could get them for was B & E or trespassing. Frank had the money to pay the fine for that in his pocket.

He overheard a couple of the doctors talking; they were getting out of the hospital after a psych evaluation the next day, but no way was Frank sticking around for that. No. Frank held a grudge. He had a major score to settle, and he always paid his debts. It was payback time. Demon or PCP addict, Frank didn't give a shit which, that bastard was going down. All they had to do was find him -- him and that bitch.

Accustomed as she was to rising early, Lina's body clock woke her just before dawn. Never a morning person, she gained awareness slowly and with a certain amount of confusion. She was lying atop an unyielding surface which was at the same time soft. Oh, no, not again," she groaned to herself, thinking she had fallen asleep on the window seat; it had become something of a weekly ritual. She was definitely cold enough to have slept there all night. Cracking open one eye, she took in the limited surroundings. Her confusion only grew. The fabric beneath her face was a red jersey, not the green silk brocade of the window seat cushion. Her other eye popped open abruptly when she realized that the red cloth was a sweatshirt, Angel's sweatshirt, and that in order to have such an intimate view of the material, she'd have to be laying atop his chest.

Lina blinked a few times, trying to clear her vision. Thoughts chased themselves around her sleep-fogged brain before resolving into memories, sharp and clear, of the events of earlier that morning. A heated flush crept up her neck to her face, tinting her skin scarlet. She raised up a bit and found his eyes open, intent on her face, a soft smile on his lips.

"Morning," he greeted amiably.

Lina yawned into her open hand. "Mmmm, hi," she responded somewhat self-consciously. Lina drifted off again, caught in a backwash of sleep, but Angel nudged her gently and her eyes fluttered open and focused on his. She got her bearings more quickly this time. "I'm sorry I fell asleep on you."

"I'm not." Angel helped her to sit up. "Did you sleep well?"

"Best in months." Her eyes lit with that sparkle Angel had noticed prefaced a round of teasing. "You make a great pillow." They shared a fleeting grin of pleasure, but her expression turned serious. "Thank you for being so kind to me, Angel, and for taking such good care of me."

"Just returning the favor, Lina."

One glance at the clock told Lina she'd be late for rounds if she didn't get a move on. Both Lina and Angel were loathe to leave the circle of fire they had built together, but she reluctantly stood, with an equally reluctant assist from him, and had to turn her back to him in order to collect herself. Several joints popped as she stretched; a fleeting thought of her usual morning tai-chi was quashed by the lingering stiffness she felt.

Turning back to face Angel, she looked down at him and asked, "Did you sleep well?"

"I'm a night owl," he pointedly reminded her.

Lina made a standing leap to a conclusion. She exclaimed, "Oh, the sun!"

Rushing around, Lina closed the verticals that were rarely adjusted. Angel watched as she checked for the third time that no sunlight penetrated the blinds. After tugging the curtains closed for good measure, Lina returned to the living room. Angel sat up as she came to stand before him, though he was sluggish with the approach of dawn and he seemed only half-aware.

"Angel, I have rounds in less than an hour, but you're welcome to stay for as long as you want. I won't be home until late this afternoon, so the loft is all yours."

Lina took the few steps to the fireplace and, standing on tiptoe, reached into a small blown-glass basket which sat on the mantel. The shiny object jangled against the sides as she drew it free. Turning, she playfully tossed the item to Angel and he scrambled to catch it. A perplexed expression resolved into recognition as he identified the object in his hand as a key. His eyes widened questioningly.

"In case you ever need a place to stay," she explained in a tone meant to convey her certainty that he'd be gone by the time she returned home. "Excuse me while I get dressed."

Moving at double speed to make up for lost time, Lina entered her bedroom and dressed quickly in the scrubs that she reserved for her hospital rounds. Her pants were a cherry red and the top was white and printed with Pooh Bears, honey pots and bees. The children loved Pooh, and her outfit made them smile. She sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled on her socks and duty shoes, which also sported a pair of stretchy laces in a matching red. Lina gave her hair a quick brush and pulled it back, but had to let it cascade down when she couldn't find the matching scrunchy. She tore through her drawers to no avail. Muttering to herself, she walked back into the living room. Angel was dozing, but he jerked awake as she came to stand over him. Lina lifted a couple of the cushions, still searching for her missing scrunchy. She knew she had worn it last night, but couldn't quite remember how it had gotten out of her hair.

Angel regarded her curiously. He asked groggily, "What's wrong?"

"Have you seen my scrunchy?" she responded, pointing to her hair when he made a confused face.

Angel patted his sweats, then rose to his feet and dug his hand into the pocket. He pulled the scrunchy free and tossed it to her a bit sheepishly. Lina plucked it out of the air and bound up her hair with a few efficient movements. Angel absently scratched his leg while he observed her.

"Very elegant, Doctor Russo," he teased lightly.

"My patients seem to think so." She leaned forward, so much like a little girl with a secret to share. A grin brightened her eyes and it was so infectious that Angel had to join in. She whispered conspiratorially, "I like Pooh, too."

Lina glanced at the clock again, and sighed inwardly. Time to be an adult again. She had stalled as much as possible, but their separation was inevitable. The doctor had responsibilities and, as much as she wanted to stay with Angel, she needed to leave.

"I've closed out as much light as I could, but be careful in the kitchen. It's safe right now, but in less than an hour it'll be a death trap." Stabbing a finger upright, she clarified, "Skylights."

Angel nodded. "Don't worry about me, Lina. I'll be fine."

Lina studied him for a moment, head tilted to the side. "Yeah, I think you will," she agreed.

"We both will."

The minutes stretched out, only the pop and hiss of the fire broke the silence. Their eyes met and held, the deep, abiding emotions unexpressed and words unspoken, too large to be made concrete by giving them voice. Yet, Lina couldn't just leave without at least trying to tell Angel just how much he meant to her. She could only think to demonstrate her feelings in one way. Stepping close to him, she looked up at him expectantly. Angel must have had the same need to reveal his feelings, for he simply opened his arms to her and wrapped them around her back when she moved even closer. She laid her cheek against his shoulder and closed her eyes. Even though the cold of his flesh penetrated the sweatshirt, the hug warmed her, filled those little gaps inside her that only Lif, or her father before him, could fill. Last night's passion became compassion, sensuality turned to support. They stood in each other's embrace for five long minutes, but Lina willed herself to put her hands on his waist and push slightly. They shared a last meaningful look, then Angel released her. The separation was bittersweet. They both took a step back, emotionally as well as physically.

"See ya," she said hopefully, though they both knew it was a lie.

Lina whirled away quickly, stopping only for a sweater and her messenger bag before practically running from the loft.

"See ya," he echoed, but the door had already clicked shut.

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