Luke wasn't surprised when Helen walked into his office around lunchtime, this was becoming a regular event. They headed to the secluded bistro together and were seated in their favourite table, tucked in the corner. They chatted idly while waiting for their meals. They weren't long in coming, the two of them soon found out that regulars got special treatment at this eating place.
Luke could see Helen was worried. He had a fair idea why. Thomas had returned to work after his day off two weeks previously much better than he had been for months. Luke had seen to that in part, but the morningsong had been kinder to him for several days after that as well. That was the way of things, a hard morningsong was often followed by a softer one and vice versa. Still, the reprieve had only lasted several days. The signs of the morningsong were starting to show through the camouflage they were both so vigilant in maintaining.
"So what the hell is wrong with that brother of mine?" Helen had blurted the question out with no warning. Luke had a mouthful of food which he chewed deliberately, giving himself time to think.
Should he tell her? Was Thomas right? If he wasn't it could spell disaster. Luke decided it was worth the risk. Over the next half hour, they finished their meals, had a dessert each followed by a drink and Luke told her all. He explained about the pain of red hot pokers ramming through his eyelids, the fire running up each and every nerve fibre in his body until it reached his brain where the fire exploded to sear his consciousness. He told her about the waves of intense shame and guilt which he bore each morning. He told her about what caused it, how he went about preventing it from getting worse. He told her about the facade he presented to the world so it didn't suspect anything, how his high standards of work and dress were a camouflage to keep others distant from him. Then he told her that her brother was the only person he had ever met who also endured the morningsong.
Helen sat stunned for some time after Luke had finished. He had expected her to. Even to someone such as her, this would be a lot to take in, if she was capable of it at all. "No wonder you two look like strung out drug addicts in the morning. When you said before that you can't let your pasts be an excuse, you're saying that you meant it literally? That falling back on it only makes things worse for you?"
Luke let out the breath he had not realised he had been holding. She understood. Against all his instincts, he had told her and she had understood. "Exactly. That would only create two matters to deal with in the morningsong, not one."
"Have either of you tried to get help?"
Luke laughed. "What help is there? The best help we have is our own willingness to fight each morning." Helen had to concede that point. Luke continued. "Besides, who would believe something like this?"
"I know. I wasn't sure you would." Luke noticed the hurt cross Helen's face as he said it.
"What is it about me that you distrust so much, Luke? What is it I have done to you?"
Luke sighed. "Nothing, I guess. It's just that after seeing your face every morning..."
This caught Helen's attention. She demanded to know why she would feature in his morningsong. He reminded her of the night all those months ago where he woke up alone in a bed he had not gone to alone. As he spoke, he saw Helen go pale. "Oh my God, Luke." She spoke after he had finished his account. "It wasn't like that at all. I'm not sorry for what happened that night. It was the most beautiful..." She began to choke on the tears welling up in her eyes.
"Then why did you leave like that?" There was no malice in Luke's voice, just the sincere request of someone in pain and wanting to know why.
"I thought you wouldn't want me there. I thought I'd taken advantage of how much you had drunk and that you would be embarrassed if I was there when you woke up. I wanted to stay." Luke saw irony in the situation. In trying to make things easier for him, she had made them much worse. He burst out laughing. She joined in moments later.
When things had subsided, he spoke to her with a serious tone. "Next time, stick around to ask. Believe me, a little communication can make things much easier on me, not to mention your brother."
The mention of Thomas sobered Helen. "He's not well, is he?"
"No." Luke decided that hiding the truth now after telling her so much would be cruel. Moreover, it would be dangerous if she tried to help him in the wrong ways. "The morningsong has hit him badly over the last couple of months. I know he's been letting his image slip lately, believe me when I say things have to be bad for that to happen."
"What can I do to help?"
"Honestly, Helen, I don't think there is anything you can do. This is his fight, just as each morning I have my own. We each face it alone, it's the only way. One thing though, there are things you shouldn't do." Helen asked what they were as if on queue. Luke continued. "Don't mention any of those ideas of yours about inner peace or a world without pain. These are very dangerous concepts to us."
Helen considered this. "I guess they would be. You said once that you needed your pain. If you look upon the morningsong as a fight, your pain would be what spurs you on to victory each morning." She gave him a consoling look. "It still must be a difficult way to live, I wish I could spare you from it."
Luke let the irritation flash across his face. He noticed the shock register on Helen's visage before he spoke. "What have I just said? That's exactly the sort of attitude that will bring nothing but trouble for either Thomas or myself. Maybe it is a difficult way to live, but for us it's the only way to live. Sparing us from it would kill us, can't you see that?"
"I'm sorry, Luke. I only meant that..."
"Look Helen, I understand that you meant well. Even so, you spoke from a perspective you take for granted, but that we can never know. The day we wake free from the pains of our past, we will die. We will not have earned that day of life. Above all else I have told you, you must accept this as the rule of our existence. Please, don't wish our pain away, we both want to live to see another day." Luke studied Helen's reactions for signs of recognition. She was still a little shocked at his outburst, that was understandable. He hadn't intended to scare her, but he knew he had to make their predicament clear to her now. It wouldn't do for her to be spreading any liberal ideas around Thomas while he was as vulnerable as he was. As he watched, he saw the shock make way for a smile on her face.
"You are right of course, I should not have said what I did."
"Why, you wouldn't be able to."
"Probably not, but at least you understand that now. Believe me, all is forgiven."
"Thank you." She rose to leave. "Look, I have to get back to work, can we meet again tomorrow?"
Luke smiled. "I'll look forward to it."
"Great. I'll see you then." Helen turned and took several paces from the table before turning back towards Luke as if an afterthought had come to her. "Remember, sweet dreams and wake up fighting." She was smiling as she strode out. Luke noticed it was that same smile she wore that evening they were together. It was a playful, feline smile. Luke wondered how on earth they had let themselves fall in love with each other as he finished the drink in front of him.
"Your sister is an interesting character deep down." Luke's comment was mis-timed. Thomas gasped in surprise at the same time he was swallowing a mouthful of coffee. He coughed for a second or two.
They were both recovering from the morningsong at their favourite coffee shop. Thomas wasn't sure he had heard correctly as a result. "You mean Helen?"
"You have another sister you've been hiding from me perhaps?"
"Of course not. It's just that I never thought you would say anything like that. Did you tell her about the morningsong?"
"Yes. Two days ago at lunch. She took it well."
Thomas was relieved. He had faith in both of them, but it was good to have a hunch work out. "I told you she would." Thomas sipped at his coffee.
Luke studied his friend. He looked better this morning than he had in months. It appeared his morningsong was returning to normal. About time, Luke thought. Thomas would not have held out much longer if the morningsong had maintained it's level of severity. Luke thought about his own morningsong. A hard fight, true. Still, at least Helen's face had deserted the sea of tormentors over recent mornings. It wasn't that the negative feelings he had endured that morning had ceased to exist, it was that he could no longer see her and feel badly. Whatever part of him that was responsible for the morningsong must have recognised this. In any event, the only time he saw her face now was when he was sitting across from her, usually at lunch. Their lunches were becoming a very regular habit. Deep down, it concerned Luke. Trusting her with his feelings could lead to big trouble. Trusting anyone with his feelings could lead to big trouble. Both he and Thomas had realised that a long time ago.
"You pair still dating?"
Luke looked at his friend. "What are you talking about?" Surely Thomas didn't know about that night after all...
I'm talking about my sister and you. Lunch and stuff."
Oh, that. Yes, that is still happening. But it's hardly what you would call dating."
"Thomas roared out in laughter. "Just who are you trying to kid?" He was right of course.
Spiro had geared his restaurant to cater for the lunch trade first and foremost. The evenings were usually quiet, not many about. It stood to reason, Luke and Thomas held private functions in the evenings. Spiro had been to several of their gatherings, they were excellent events. No-one would pop in on the off chance of seeing them in the evening. Everyone knew they were creatures of habit. It was this fact which made Spiro a little uneasy about seeing Luke and Helen sitting at a table for two in his restaurant tonight. It spelt change. He liked things the way they were. He had no way to be sure, but his instincts told him that the changes would not be for the better.
He had personally brought them both their meals as was his custom. There had been no deep discussion in progress between them, just the banter of two people falling in love. This in itself did not surprise him, he had noticed that happening for many months now. The most concerning aspect of the evening was the look Helen had given him. She was always so unconcerned about his presence around them. To be honest, Spiro thought, she hardly ever even acknowledged his presence. Even at the evenings Luke and Thomas threw they rarely spoke and when they did it was not for long. It was different this evening. He had felt her eyes on him, her sight burning into the side of his skull as he had put down Luke's plate. Extracting his thoughts through his own eyes as he presented her plate. Boring into the back of his head as he returned to his other guests. Yes, something was definitely going to change. Soon.
He cleared some dirty plates from the table near the kitchen entrance and headed for it. just before he went through, he glanced over at the pair. They were both absorbed in their own conversation. Maybe he was mistaken, he told himself. Somehow, he couldn't make himself believe it.
Spiro busied himself with running his restaurant. The time passed quickly. Several hours later the place had almost cleared. Not many were still eating and those remaining were talking among themselves. Spiro prided himself on the fact that this was one restaurant in town where the customers were not encouraged to leave after they had finished eating, they were free to remain as long as they wished. One of the benefits of specialising in lunch.
Helen and Luke were still seated. They spoke together in hushed tones with smiles on their faces which occasionally erupted in laughter. Spiro noted as he had on other occasions that Helen was an obvious morning person. He could see her fatigue building as Luke's was shedding away. As usual, he hid the glee he felt at seeing a morning person winding down at night deep inside himself. He could not understand how people could take mornings so well.
Spiro noticed the concern flicker across Luke's face. He had noticed Helen's tiredness as well. It was barely moments later that the two of them stood to leave. Luke left the money to cover the bill, even from his distance away Spiro noticed he had left a generous bonus. As usual. Luke smiled and nodded at him as they stood, Spiro acknowledged the gesture with a smile and a short bow. As Luke was doing this Spiro watched Helen slip a small envelope under the cash Luke had placed on the bill. Luke had obviously not noticed her do this. Spiro did not let his visage give up Helen, but the act did worry him. It wasn't easy to get things done under the noses of either of his favourite customers; Helen had obviously gone to great pains to do this. The question was why.
The pair ambled out of his restaurant arm in arm. They were careful not to give any signs out as to where they were headed. Luke would be too much the gentleman to do otherwise Spiro realised. Nevertheless, Spiro's trained eyes told him exactly what their evening would entail. He waited until they were well clear before heading over to their table. He picked up the bill, the money and the envelope and headed over to the till after waving over some staff to clear the table. He had them trained well. They would never have dared to go near that table until he had given the order to do so, dirty and vacant or not.
Spiro pocketed the tip, put the remainder through the register and stared at the envelope. He wasn't sure he should open it. It had become the embodiment of his fears this night. Helen had acted out of character just by leaving it, let alone the manner in which she did so. He decided the sooner he knew why the better. He pulled out the antique letter opener he kept under the front desk and slid it along the top fold. The sound of the paper yielding to the blade was muted by the sounds coming from the main dining hall but they were loud enough to fill Spiro with uneasiness.
He slipped the note from the envelope. It was written on paper from a personalised memo pad, folded once. The five words on the page were written in a neat and pretty hand. "We have much to discuss." It would appear so, he thought.
So this is what it feels like to have gone completely insane, thought Luke. It didn't feel any different to sanity. He had to be crazy though. It was the only way he could explain his actions over the evening. Maybe it was a dream. He slid his had over the back of the beautiful woman lying in his arms as he lay in his bed. He looked at her face as she dozed, she still had a smile across her face. He felt her warmth as she lay against her. He felt the lack of tension within his body, the tingling sensation that had been sweeping through him since the evening's crescendo had swept through them both half an hour ago. No, he definitely was not dreaming.
Helen snuggled closer. The movement brought her back to a hazy state of consciousness. The smile on her face broadened. She reached forward and kissed Luke slowly. "There. I told you that there was nothing to worry about." Luke had to agree. It didn't necessarily prove he was still sane, though.
Luke savoured every sensation that coursed through him. The serenity, the quiet voice of his inner hunger, his need returning after being satisfied so recently. Most of all he savoured the warmth of Helen's body lying next to his. He could get used to this he realised. Even though she would be tired when he was awake and awake when he was...
The shock of the thought pulsed through him like a bolt of electricity. Helen was rocked by the force. She looked up at him. "What's wrong? You just jumped."
Luke buried the fear of Helen having to watch him go through the morningsong as deeply as he could. He smiled back at her. "Nothing. It was just a chill."
Helen's face developed a wicked grin. "Oh really? Perhaps I need to warm you up again."
Luke was tempted. Very tempted. What the hell, why not...
They kissed slowly. Slowly the fire between them grew once more.
Luke was exhausted when he found himself lying calmly with Helen in his arms once more. He found his thoughts wandering aimlessly without his usual tight rein over them. He found he had no desire to focus his thoughts in any case. He felt Helen squirming against him. It was not an unpleasant sensation.
Helen leant over him to stare at his bedside clock. It was late. Very late by her standards. "Luke, this was a wonderful evening. I wish I could stay the night."
"You mean you have to go?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, but I have a very early meeting to attend tomorrow. I'd never make it if I stayed. I wouldn't want to leave you at all in the morning."
Luke understood. She was right of course, if she stayed she would help him through the morningsong, or at least try. In either case she would be held up. He told her he understood.
"Are you sure? I mean I don't want to..."
"Helen trust me, it's fine. Just one thing though. Promise me we'll have lunch together tomorrow."
Helen smiled as she leaned over to kiss him. "It's a date."
Luke felt terrible as usual. He sipped his coffee as he sat across from his friend. Against all the sensations still flowing through him from the morningsong, despite the pains and taunts, despite the fact the coffee was threatening to come back up as it always did, he couldn't help smiling.
"So what's the joke? You'll excuse me if I don't get it this morning." Thomas was particularly surly this morning. He was not looking very well at all. He had taken little care in dressing this morning. His hair was barely combed. Luke was worried for him. If this didn't let up soon, the morningsong could take Thomas. His second recess had been as brief as the first and his downhill slide had commenced again a week ago.
That fact alone was reason enough not to tell Thomas what had happened last night. Still, to evade the question or even to lie to his best friend was inconceivable. He was going to have to know soon anyway. "I had a visitor last night."
Thomas was smiling himself. "Good. It's about time you pair sorted things out. Especially after that night you left my party together." Despite his poor spirits, Thomas could not help but smile as he noticed Luke trying to stifle a choke as his coffee went down the wrong way.
"You knew about that?"
"Luke, who are you talking to?"
"You're right of course, stupid question. Why didn't you say anything before?"
"You should know that better than I do. This was between you and her. It was a matter affecting your fire. If I had interfered, it could have spelt disaster."
Thomas was right. Luke knew that. It relieved him that the matter had been dealt with that simply. It was good to see Thomas smiling again too. It was becoming a rare sight, even in the evenings.
"I hope you two are having lunch together."
"Yes. You want to join us?"
Thomas made a grimace. "Somehow I don't think it would be my style of conversation." He reflected on something and continued. "You two take care of each other."
"Of course we will Thomas. This doesn't mean either of us will have less time for you though."
"No, of course not. Listen, I've got to go." Thomas stood to leave.
"Okay. How about we get together this evening, do something?"
"Sorry, I've got a brief I have to go over tonight. We'll organise something soon though. Good-bye Luke." Thomas turned and walked towards the door. Luke stared after him. The ice cold fingers of fear played over him, he felt paralysed. For the first time ever, as Thomas had turned away, Luke couldn't see the fire behind his eyes.
Thomas' consciousness swam gracefully to the surface of his mind. Thomas opened his eyes. There was no pain. His thoughts were close to blank. Nothing pounced at him, taunting him, accusing him. He felt peace. A glorious, tranquil peace. So this is what it feels like when the fire goes out he thought.
Luke felt groggy as he sat in the coffee shop waiting for Thomas. The morningsong had not been at all kind this morning. He sipped at an espresso slowly. He was not sure it would stay down if he drank it any faster. He was not sure it would stay down now.
Thomas was late. That was not surprising lately. A rough patch like Thomas' and I'd be late quite often as well, Luke thought. He was lost in thought, lost in concern for his friend as Helen approached with another man. He didn't notice them until they were at his table.
"Helen, good morning."
Helen looked down at him. "Morning. Thank you for lunch yesterday, and especially the flowers..." She looked closer at him. "Sweet Jesus, Luke! What the hell happened this morning?"
Luke smiled. "Same as always. Just a little worse today is all." He noticed the other person who had arrived with her was still standing beside her. It was Spiro. "Good morning Spiro."
"Good morning to you Luke." Spiro looked a little worse for wear himself.
"Actually, I brought Mister Theopoulos with me to meet with you and Thomas this morning."
"Please, both of you, sit down. I'm sure Thomas will be along shortly." They sat down on either side of him, leaving Thomas' usual place vacant for him. "So, what brings you both to me so early this morning?"
Helen replied. "For one thing I thought you should know I quit the job at the prison."
Helen laughed. "Why Luke, I thought you would be pleased. You hated the fact that I held that job."
"I am. I did. What made you give it up? What are you going to do?"
Helen was still smiling. "Don't worry. I'll still be contributing when I move in with you." She smiled wider as she watched Luke's eyebrows rise. "The local university gave me research funds for a project I intend to take up. Officially, I will be studying the psychological effects of long term sleep disorders."
"Officially? That doesn't sound as clear cut as I would have expected."
"You're right of course. I've done some discreet checking. My real project is going to be finding ways to help you, Thomas and others like you. Spiro, for instance."
Luke felt like he should have been surprised. He wasn't. It seemed that lately so many surprises were confronting him they were becoming commonplace. "You, Spiro?"
"It would appear so, Luke. I did not believe your young lady's story at first, but her description of how I felt each morning was too accurate to have been a guess. I must say I always suspected there was something special about you and your friend but I never suspected that it would be the same thing that drives me. This gives me new hope, my friend."
"I'm glad to hear that. Tell me, how do you build your fire? How do you defend yourself, push yourself past the morningsong each time you wake?"
Spiro looked perplexed. "I don't know, Luke. I've never seen this condition in quite the same light as you have. Besides, my wife, she is good to me. Every morning she brings me fresh coffee as I wake. If I am having more trouble than most days, she will hold me. Just knowing she is there helps me ride the storm. That is the answer for me, Luke. My family is the reason I get through."
Luke smiled. "Then you have something very precious my friend. Hold on to it with all you are."
"I always will my friend." Spiro grabbed the coffee of the waitress as she brought more over.
As they spoke together, Luke began to feel less and less at ease. It was not the conversation, the revelations coming forth worked against his unease. It was Thomas. Last time he had been this late Luke had found quite a mess waiting for him when he got to Thomas' home. It was looking more like he would find something similar today.
Luke watched as Spiro drained his cup. "I really must be going, my friends. I am honoured to have been welcomed into your group."
"It is our good fortune to have found you Spiro."
"I thank you. Still, I must go. Please give my regards to Thomas when he arrives."
"I will." Luke watched as Spiro rose and left. Helen was about to speak as Luke turned but he cut her off. "We have to get to Thomas' place. Fast."
Thomas found the sensation a curious one. He felt at peace. There was no turmoil within him and this was utterly alien to him. It did not scare him nor trouble him in any way. If he was to remain here he would have studied it, savoured it. That was not for him, though. He finished dressing. He had donned his best set of clothes for this occasion, it was a special moment. Many things had happened to him this morning already to prove that. He now knew what the normal people felt like in the morning. Thomas thought back to it. No pain. No torture. Nothing. That void did not even bring pleasure. One moment he was asleep, and the next he was not. The transition was one he had wished for all his life. At least now he knew why it was an empty wish. It wasn't the opposite of what he knew, he hadn't woken feeling the intense waves of pleasure and contentment he had always thought would greet him. He wondered. If he wasn't already about to die, how on earth could he continue to live like this? The question brought a brief smile to his lips.
He finished doing up the button on his suit. He checked himself in the mirror one last time just to be sure. Everything was in place. His tie was knotted perfectly and sat well against his shirt. He was especially glad of this, he had tied it three times this morning. His shirt was wrinkle free, his suit was immaculate. It felt good to see himself like this in the mirror again. Luke hadn't said anything, but they both knew he had let his standard drop lately. But not today.
Satisfied that everything was correct, he walked over to his bedside drawer. Everything was ready. He was ready. He opened the drawer and removed the pistol. He stared at it for several seconds before he heard his front door fly open followed by the stampede of feet through the house. He held the pistol aimed at the bedroom door.
Helen was scared. Luke had told her everything about what had been happening with Thomas over the last few months. She knew her brother would never do anything stupid, but this level of sustained agony could drive anyone insane. Even a member of the IQ court.
She was driving. She could see Luke's knuckles turning white as he held on to his seat. He didn't say anything. Helen guessed he was happy enough to let her drive like this if it meant getting there sooner. He had a bad feeling about what they'd find, he had told her that much. He hadn't been necessary, she could see it in his face as he sat beside her.
Parking neatly wasn't one of her top priorities this morning. He hit the curb and skidded to a halt on Thomas' front lawn. It was a good thing he didn't have a fence she thought. Both of them had their doors open and were alighting before the car stopped. Luke was already digging out his key.
They burst through the door as he opened it. They crashed through the house looking for Thomas. After Luke's story about his unannounced visit several weeks back she expected the worst. They both entered the bedroom together. What Helen saw chilled her.
She had never seen her brother with a handgun before. She wondered where he had got it. He was sitting in his best clothes on the side of his bed, nursing the gun casually, as if it was an extension of himself. Helen found the picture incongruous with what she knew of her brother. It made her wonder whether she knew him as well as she thought she did.
"Good morning Luke, Helen." Thomas spoke as if all was normal. Helen thought she could sense something different in her brother, something that frightened her. She could not figure out what it was.
Luke got to the business at hand. "Thomas, what do you think you're doing..."
Thomas looked shocked. He interrupted his friend. "Luke, you know I could never hurt either one of..."
"That's not what I'm worried about and you know it. What's going on? You weren't at the coffee shop this morning, and then I find you here dressed like this." Luke had a sinking feeling building up in the pit of his stomach. One look at the visage Thomas was wearing told him how this would end.
Thomas laughed. "You're not bad at this. You know the rules. 'Do not draw attention to the gun.' 'Try to find out all you can in a calm manner.' I won't put down the gun, Luke. You know I can't do that, my friend. You know the rules." Thomas seemed unconcerned by the presence of his friend and sister. He could see the next minute of time with total clarity. Nothing was hidden from him now.
"Yes I know the rules. I also know that this is one decision the morningsong has not made for you. The rules are null and void. This is about your fire."
"My fire is gone. I cannot stay."
"What about me? Do you know what you are doing to me?"
Thomas smiled. "You'll be okay. I know." He turned to his sister. "Take care of each other. Good-bye." The pistol began climbing upward.
To Helen it seemed that time slowed for the next few seconds. She felt her mind separate from her body. It observed the situation in a way the cold intellect can only when separated from the body. She heard herself scream. She saw Luke change into something more primal than she had ever thought possible. he sprung like a wild animal at Thomas with a howl of desperation and rage. She saw despite his animal ferocity, he would be too late. Then she heard the whiplash crack.
Helen showed the last of the police officers out the front door. There had been wave after wave of emergency personnel through the house. Helen had begun to wonder just how many people it took to work out what her brother had done. She shut the door but not before noticing the small crowd outside on the pavement, ghoulishly looking for clues as to who's body had been removed. The sight sickened her. She walked back into the lounge where Luke sat quietly.
He had been reticent ever since Thomas died. Helen wondered whether he blamed himself. "There was nothing you could have done, you know."
"Maybe not. It's only an academic question now in any event."
"Don't blame yourself. You didn't pull the trigger."
"It's not as simple as that, Helen. I may as well have."
Helen felt a chill pass through her. Something was very wrong. "Just what does that mean."
Luke turned in the armchair to face her. "You understand as much about the morningsong as anyone who has not experienced it does. Usually, it's an evil thing. It does more than make you sick or torture you, it tries to take you down with it, it tries make you never wake up again. That's what it's usually like."
"And the other times?"
"Well, the other times are the problem. Every weapon needs ammunition, Helen. The morningsong is no different. That's why we who endure it go out of our way to avoid the pains and fears that would be taken for granted by other people."
"You've told me this already." Helen was impatient. Luke was avoiding something.
"I shouldn't bother you with it. Your brother has just taken his own life for heaven's sake."
"As I remember, he was also your best friend. Please. Bother me."
"Until recently, I could barely stand the sight of you during the day because of the pain it caused me to see you during the morningsong over a simple misunderstanding. Just how am I to defend against the amplified effect of seeing my best friend, the person who endured beside me, take his own life?"
Helen considered the question. What was he saying? It wasn't his fault. He couldn't have stopped it. Guilt wouldn't be an issue. She couldn't think clearly now in any case. The grief was overwhelming. Grief. The pieces fell together. The picture in her mind shocked her. In her current state it threatened to overwhelm her. She could feel herself sinking into oblivion for a second before a single word struck her mind with brutal force. Fight. It was a trigger which provoked an incredible force to lash out. Soon the despair was washed away in the primal surge which erupted in a single word from her mouth. "No!"
The word struck Luke like a physical blow. She saw his reaction as the flow continued. "I won't let you do it. I won't lose you both within a day. You will fight!"
"Of course I will. It's just that..."
"No. No excuses. You will fight and you will win. I will be there to make sure you do."
"Oh? And just what will you do to fight this fight for me?"
"Whatever it takes. I told you, I won't lose you. I damn well mean it." The force behind her words surprised her. By the look on his face, they had shocked Luke as well. There was more there though. He believed her.
"Do you have any idea what you're letting yourself in for? Any at all?"
"It doesn't matter. I've made up my mind."
Luke studied her face. That she had, he thought. He wondered if she would regret it in the morning. "Are the crowds still outside?"
"Well then, if we're going to do this, I would suggest we stay here tonight. Facing those ghouls will only make us both feel worse."
Helen felt a surge of panic. "Here?"
"Guest room of course."
Helen sighed. "Of course. Done."
Luke's consciousness crept back to him. As he became self aware once more the pain returned as it always did. The pain was intimate and familiar and held all the fire and torment he thought it was possible to bear. The familiarity did not dull it. His stomach was being torn inside by broken glass, all his limbs were being ground up and his brain was on fire. This was the worst of it; the fire in his head. His resurrection to life each day was a struggle, a torment, but this was the worst it had been for many years.
The mental images swam in to view for several moments only to be drowned in the maelstrom of the next wave. Each image was different. The image which stung most of all was that of his friend. His wonderful friend putting a gun to his own head and pulling the trigger as he watched on. Other images swam past and struck with their own brutal force, but the image of Thomas lay like a blanket over him. The pain was intense. He realised he was screaming. He could feel his skin being peeled away and his nerves being extracted one by one. He could feel the pain of a bullet shredding his own brain, just as one had shredded his friend's brain. His stomach made him feel as if someone had bundled him into a sack and was hurling him in great circles. He could taste the sour bile that proved to him he had nothing left in his stomach to make him feel this way, but the feeling did not stop.
Time passed. He wept. He endured. He fought. He felt the pain. His mind had given way to something more primal, something he had not glimpsed in himself until yesterday. The heart of a creature. The heart of a hunter. It was what had goaded him to fight all this time. It was what had leapt at Thomas yesterday. It was what kept him alive. Luke embraced this spirit inside him. It was the one thing which truly defined him. He gave it free reign.
Luke's normal consciousness dragged itself to the surface. The effect was triggered by familiar things. The first thing he noticed was the smell. It was strong and rich, the smell of roasted beans. Coffee. Underneath that smell was the sour acrid odor which permeated the room. Luke realised he had been very sick in this room. He would have to get out.
He went to stand before realising just how weak his ordeal had left him. A pair of strong arms caught him.
"Easy, my love. It will be okay." Helen. So she had stayed through all this. She was stronger than he had credited her for. He realised she must have been the one to put the coffee on. He wondered where she had found the time.
He was still aware of the need his empty stomach had of voiding itself. He was careful about opening his mouth. Despite this, he managed to get the words out for Helen. "Got to get out of here."
She understood. She helped him out into the lounge. She had already placed several buckets around the room in strategic positions for him. She had been very busy. She sat him down on the lounge and brought a cup of coffee to him. He didn't notice as he had dozed off, exhausted after his ordeal. Even after he woke several minutes later he decided to hold off on the coffee until his stomach had calmed.
As Luke began to feel better they chatted between cups of coffee in the lounge. Luke was still shaky after the experience. Helen looked haggard. She had prepared herself for the worst, but she hadn't realised just how bad that could be. She watched Luke take another sip of his coffee, his hands still shaking. He was as white as a sheet and she had no idea what to do about it.
Luke looked up and smiled. She realised he had noticed the concern on her face. She never could keep secrets from him. Maybe that was why she loved him.
"How was your first day?"
Helen reflected on the morning. She could not stop her hands from shaking as she sipped her coffee. "My God, Luke. If there is a hell you've just been through it."
Of all the things Luke could do, Helen heard him laugh. "It'll be worse tomorrow. I'll still be weak from today. Still want to be a part of all this?" They both had several days off. They had already agreed to spend them together.
Helen flinched. She could not conceive a morning worse than this one had been. She made a mental note to cook him a clear soup for his evening meal before answering the question. "Yes. I signed on long term. I won't walk away now."
Luke smiled. Helen realised he was getting better. He wouldn't be his usual self today, probably not tomorrow, but it would return. He would survive this. She had a question which had been eating at her since yesterday. She knew that there would not be a good time to ask, so she voiced it now.
"Luke, do you blame me for Thomas' death?"
Luke put his mug down. "Why would I?"
"You once told me how dangerous those 'liberal notions' of mine were. I just thought that you might think I drove him to it."
"No. You didn't pull the trigger of that gun. He did. Remember our old argument? Remember how I always used to say that each person should be held accountable for his own actions, not rely on excuses or blame the actions of others? This is such a case. I can't blame you because you are not to blame. Thomas made the decision to do what he did. Thomas, not you. We both know, or at least knew, that we are responsible for our own actions. The morningsong teaches you that."
"No. No buts. That is the lesson of the morningsong, remember. No excuses."
Helen walked over to the lounge and hugged him. She hadn't realised that she needed his comfort as much as he had needed her help this morning. Luke returned the embrace.
Luke lay there with Helen in his arms, thinking about the quirks of fate. It was a fact that making up with Helen and the two of them falling for each other had quite literally saved his life. Would it be enough tomorrow? Probably. Somewhere within his mind he pictured two fires. As one was dying out, a third started, growing stronger, finally merging with the remaining fire, lending it it's strength.
Luke was not a fool. He did not delude himself into thinking that this would last forever, that the two of them would live happily ever after. The morningsong was his fight and only a fool would guarantee another's loyalty at a fight that was not hers. Still, Spiro had been fortunate. Luke decided to take it one day at a time. Who knew what lay ahead. The morningsong only granted one day of life. Better to plan for what you had earned than what you hoped for. Thomas had told him that once.
"Why do you think he did it?"
The question took Luke by surprise. He had expected Helen to ask it before now. "I honestly don't know."
"But you know something you haven't told me."
She hadn't lost her keen edge. So much the better, Luke thought. He knew he would need someone beside him whom he could look upon as a peer, someone who would spur him to greater effort, someone whom clashing against would give him the sharper, keener edge Thomas always had. "It was the look on his face which gave it away. I thought you would have noticed yourself."
"As he held the gun to his head, as he pulled the trigger, he had a grace about him. A look of such profound peace with himself and the world. It was chilling."
So that was it. Helen had known there was something wrong with the image of her brother. She had replayed the incident over and over, trying to place the difference. That was it. She had never seen her brother so at peace. He was a fighter. She had always seen the turmoil in his eyes, the same turmoil she saw in Luke's. She now saw that turmoil for what it was: their fire. Without it, Luke would take the same path as her brother did. "Promise me you will never find peace like that. Ever."
"I can't make a promise like that. I don't know the future any more than you do. I will say this, though. I am alive this morning because of you. More than that though, I'm alive because of the fire inside me. If that fire, if that spirit did not exist inside me nothing you did would have made the difference. I can tell you that fire still lives. If we work together to build it up, it will be enough to survive tomorrow. Beyond that, I can't say."
He was right of course. Helen realised that the morningsong took things a day at a time. So would Luke. She had also seen Luke reflect on what he had seen in Thomas' eyes yesterday. It wouldn't be tomorrow, it wouldn't be next week, it wouldn't be next year. One day though, that peace would intrude on Luke's fire. It would try to put him out the way it had put her brother out. It would not succeed though. She would be ready for it.
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