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Conversation over coffee

Posted on Sat Dec 23rd, 2023 @ 23:26 by Liana Zhao & Alastair Temple
Edited on on Sun Feb 4th, 2024 @ 12:37

Chapter: Winter's Crest Festival
Location: Coffee House
Timeline: Monday, 7th December (Afternoon) - Follows "Lesson Three: Critical Thinking"
3524 words - 7 OF Standard Post Measure

In many ways, the car ride in had set the pace for the initial aspects of Liana's whirlwind retail exploration.

It had been a while now since she'd spent any time in New Cresthill, having always found it quite a charming town for all it lacked the constant ebb and flow of the larger cities she was far more accustomed to. Having an opportunity to poke her nose into all the locally-run stores was a welcome byproduct of a more clinical intent to gauge just how much recent events had altered the overall mood of the place, particularly in regards to the flavour of sentiment being directed at their mutant neighbours. It had never been perfect but Liana had often reassured Claire that there was actually a good amount of solid foundation to be built on, a healthy amount of support and, where it was lacking, at least a reasonable amount of uncertainty that lead to a lot of fence-sitters. If what was pumping out of media outlets was anything to go by, she expected to encounter more resistance this time around, but she'd never been one to plan her response on assumption alone. Long-term residents would recognise her enough to know her affiliation, even if Liana couldn't recall actually confirming if she was a mutant herself to any local. 'Ducking in' to say hello and see what was on offer was tantamount to dangling herself as bait but, after leaving the bookstore with several purchases, the counselor had started to build a picture.

She had also started to lose the feeling in her fingers.

The bell over the door into the cafe rang obnoxiously as she slipped inside, having decided that even without potential frostbite, she had left her chauffeur waiting long enough. An arrangement to meet back in time for a hot drink before returning had seemed the best way to avoid dragging Alastair around on a merry goose chase, particularly as Liana hadn't really planned any of her movements beyond a simple desire to scope out how much things had changed. She was marginally surprised to find him already inside, and instantly concerned that she'd left him waiting for far longer than was polite. Slipping into the seat opposite, already pulling her gloves off to knead some feeling back into her fingertips, Liana nestled her shopping under her chair and pulled her slightly-damp hat off to shake out and then attempt to balance on the corner of the table. "I think it might actually snow tonight."

"Best make it back then before that begins," Al mused, rising from his chair as Liana approached. He hadn't been waiting too long before she'd arrived, just a few minutes. Though he'd argue that even an hour wouldn't be too long to wait for her; he'd much rather he had to wait for her than making her wait for him. For his part Al had managed to find a few small things to buy as well, as evidenced by the two small plastic bags on his side of the table, one from the local book store and one from the local record store. A steaming cup of coffee also there. "Did you manage to find what you were looking for?" he asked, sitting back down only when she was seated.

Having glanced across to confirm he'd already ordered, Liana then continued her careful disrobing by shrugging off her jacket to hang on the back of her chair and unwinding her scarf to tuck into one of the pockets before she picked up the menu and considered his question. "I'm not altogether sure I was looking for anything in particular," she confessed. "Though I've managed to maintain standards and failed to walk away empty-handed." She smiled at her own expense and took her leave only for as long as required to order her own drink. Upon return, she settled somewhat, weight balanced on the perch of her forearms against the edge of the table to avoid elbows. "On the other hand, I did make some progress towards my primary motivation." Studying the mutant sat across from her for a moment, Liana's expression softened to permit an explanation. "Claire is concerned local sentiment is strained to breaking point. Understandably, perhaps." It never helped, Liana argued, to pretend all concerns were invalid.

"Very understandable," Al agreed, taking a sip of his coffee, though making a face and putting it down again. "Ow. Still too hot," he really hadn't been there that long before she'd come in. "But, yeah. It's understandable that sentiments are strained. When you think about what some can do - it's like people who've been given a potential weapon and don't always know how to use it responsibly," the man frowned, realizing the truth of what he was saying. He sounded almost like an anti-mutant activist, he knew, but they were legitimate concerns. "Thing is though, you can't take those weapons away from them. And you can't take away their freedom either. You can only offer them a safe place and somewhere where they can learn about their powers, train them, learn how to use them safely."

Though not far from her own sentiments, Liana nevertheless smiled ruefully at Alastair's analysis. "Which is the crux of the problem, of course. It's not easy to legislate and control a populace that carry their weaponry intrinsically. Apart from that, there are plenty of cases where the capabilities of mutants aren't that far removed from what humans are already capable of." An old, tired argument from her personal perspective. It wasn't that she couldn't appreciate how extreme her situation was but the concept of setting things on fire was hardly a novel one. Propping her chin up on the back of her knuckles, the brunette paused for a moment before her features relaxed into a warmer smile. "Present company exempt, of course. Your situation is a perfect example of a mutation that defies duplication."

"Yeah, being able to fly is pretty sweet," he chuckled. "Still though, I rather leave such questions for politicians to ponder. And people like Claire. I know my own beliefs and stand by them, but I also know I'd not be much good at debating them or convincing people to follow them. Claire's the people-person. I'm not," he tried his coffee again, finding the temperature more palatable this time around. "And you, of course. I mean, your job is to deal with people. Help them find their way. I could never do that."

An arched eyebrow revealed muscle control that only came out when necessary. "That's not the impression I got from your theory lesson today. Believe it or not, a lot of what I do is exactly what you did; provoke thought, engage with interests, pay attention and listen. I have psychiatry accreditation but I prefer not to wield it unless absolutely necessary. A lot of these kids are ordinary teenagers with extraordinary gifts, and a lifetime supply of emotional baggage already strapped to their back. I can think of plenty who would prefer your methods and your company to mine." Liana smiled faintly. "I think you're underselling yourself."

"Bah," Al waved dismissively. "I'm only 'good' with people as long as I'm the smartest and most interesting person in the room," he joked, humor in his eyes. "Seriously though, as long as I feel in control and feel like I can teach them something, I'm alright. Still very different from what you do. Besides, I get to wax poetic about my passion. That helps a lot too," he paused a moment, regarding her, that soft smile never leaving his features. "What got you in to counseling? Tell me about you."

"Oh God, how long have you got?"

The arrival of her hot chocolate was enough of an interruption to allow Liana to gather some semblance of a measured response, caught as always between a current philosophy of honesty and a personal reluctance to over-share her more vulnerable moments. Picking up a spoon, she dropped one of the supplied marshmallows into the froth and pressed it under whilst she considered a reasonable starting point. "Social work became a passion once I allowed myself to embrace the mutant community," she arrived at. Lifting her gaze to meet Alastair's, Liana set aside the spoon and wrapped both hands around the mug. "Which wasn't always the case, just as psychology wasn't my first choice of degree." She smiled faintly. "I'll give you one guess what I spent most of my childhood preparing for."

"Chess?" Al replied, acting dramatically pensive as he pretended to consider. "No. No, not chess. Tae-kwan-do, that gentle eastern art of folding clothes while people are still wearing them? Hmm, no .. " The man smiled, leaning back in his chair, simply being comfortable and content in the moment. "I'm kidding, of course. You play the violin with the passion and skill of someone who's been learning since a very young age, and probably wanted to play in an orchestra. Tell you this, any orchestra would be lucky to have you. But I suspect there's a story there, and I'm willing to listen if you're wanting to tell."

His teasing had earned a level of appreciation, curbed though it was by an attempt to blow the steam from the top of her drink. From an objective point of view, Liana spent most of her career offering a sympathetic ear, and an accompanying shoulder if required, to those with a story to disclose. Reciprocated divulgence wasn't necessarily obligatory but she did strive, where possible, not to be a hypocrite. The trick was knowing how much was enough without straying into over-familiarity. "I was a year into my musical degree when it became very apparent the world stage was not ready for a performer capable of burning it to the ground." Aware that it was the first time she'd mentioned being a mutant, let alone given any hint at her powers, Liana smiled softly and hunched both shoulders, her hands still pressed to both sides of the mug. "I didn't really have the connections back then to know how to fight it and so I didn't."

Al took a moment to parse what had just been said. "Well, that answers one question I had. You do have abilities, and they're fire based?" the man smiled. He didn't want to call her mutant to her face, there was still a negative connotation to the word and he rather enjoyed her company, he'd decided. It wouldn't do to accidentally be rude. Not if he wanted to enjoy her company more in the future. "What happened? If - it's something you don't want to talk about that's alright, I respect that," he offered what he hoped was a soft smile as he reached his hand out in her direction, resting it on the table near hers.

It was the physical gesture more than anything that gave Liana pause, despite a refusal to let go of her drink having rendered both her hands occupied. It struck her, having just witnessed him professing not to be very good at her kind of work, that Alastair had perhaps more of an instinct for it than he gave himself credit. "It's not necessarily a secret," she started, suddenly aware of how long it had been since she'd tried to explain her childhood to anyone. "I just don't know that it makes for a very interesting story. I was encouraged, at least by one parent, to treat my mutation as a private matter that didn't warrant public disclosure. The unfortunate thing about that, other than my initial belief that it was for the best, was that it proves to be nearly impossible and credibility is difficult to regain once lost." Lifting the drink to finally take a sip, Liana nodded slowly. "But yes, I have fire-based abilities. And yet, I still feel the cold," she joked, pulling her hands away from the drink long enough to offer her slender fingers as evidence. "That's unfairness right there."

Al nodded. "Sure is," Well, this was awkward. He figured he looked like a bit of a loon with his hand out like that, so feeling a bit embarrassed, he gave Liana a thumbs up with aforementioned hand before drawing it back. Another sip taken of his coffee, which by now had reached a very comfortable temperature. It was obvious to him - or so he imagined - that she wasn't comfortable talking about her mutation and past, so he wasn't going to push the line of inquiry any further. Looking for another subject he landed on the reason they were here, to begin with, in New Cresthill. "So, watcha buy?"

If she was taken aback by the change in subject, Liana didn't show it. Instead, she glanced towards her feet and laughed. "More than I intended, as always. I promised Jess I would pick up some of the local sweets and then wound up spending far too much time in the bookstore. Their secondhand section is compelling." She regarded the man opposite her for a moment, an evaluative gaze as if taking her time to arrive at some sort of internal conclusion, before she reached down to drag one of the bags up into her lap. "Though, between you and I, I went in because I hoped they had this in stock." Drawn from the bag was a brand new book, with the title etched in rather garish red lettering. There was something almost conspiratorial about the revelation, possibly because Liana had enough self-awareness to realise she didn't immediately present as the type to favour Stephen King. "A guilty pleasure, this only came out last month."

Al quirked a brow at sight of the book, then burst out laughing, even as he reached for his own bookstore bag and reached in, pulling out the very same book as her. "Seems like we must've just missed each other," he snickered. "I do like me a good horror story. I'd been wanting this book ever since I heard about it, so figured I'd take the opportunity when in town. Also got this," the man now reached for the small bag with the local music store logo on it, reached in and placed down a CD, the cover a blue background with a stark white mountainside, with a black clothed lady standing front and center, pensively looking into the distance. "New metal band from the Netherlands, called The Gathering, just released this album, Always, a few months ago. I hear good things, so had to get myself a copy."

Initial astonishment had given way to a peel of appreciative laughter. King was a popular author, finding someone else who kept up with his releases wasn't necessarily an unusual thing, but it seemed overly serendipitous in a way that filled Liana with warmth. Certainly settling in long-term to life in such a rural setting would be far easier if she found ways to connect with the other faculty, she just hadn't expected to find an Alastair Temple-size gap in her friendship list. Turning her head to get a better look at the CD, the counsellor considered it over a long sip of hot chocolate and then lifted her gaze to meet his.

"You'll have to let me know what you think."

Gentle scrutiny followed, a lingering, quizzical anticipation. Though she didn't often find the time to indulge anymore, Liana was quite a fan of puzzles, enjoyed the process of sorting the pieces and figuring out how they fit together. As an analogy for her work, the comparison was obvious, but it was less common for her to be so swiftly intrigued on a personal level. "So, what about you?" The fact that she was willing to twist the conversation back at all in the direction it had been was promising. "What brings a rock star to the Scottish highlands?"

Al let out a breath as he leaned back in the chair, contemplating her question. Where to begin? He took another, longer, sip of his coffee, thinking of what to say. "Two years ago, my best friends and the other two members of Somnium Tenebris, Robert and Sylvain, died in a car crash. We'd just been in the middle of writing a new album - I still have some unrefined, unpublished, raw work that Robert wrote, never had the heart to complete and publish it." He put the CD and book back in their respective bags.

"I fell into a depression, lost my way. Secluded myself in my home, became a recluse. A hermit. Time passes, and I hear of this institute that got attacked," he continued, resting his hands on his lap, slouching a bit in the chair. "Turns out, this institute claims to be a haven for mutants. So, I decide to - sell my house with everything in it, sell my second car, keep just a few things that are dear to me, loaded up Omen and set out for Avalon. That was just a few weeks ago. Thinking back I'm not even sure what my plan was, what I would've done if Claire hadn't offered me a job. I'm sure I would've figured something out though. But I'm glad she did. And I'm glad I took the chance. Teaching at Avalon has given me a semblance of purpose again."

There was something naturally unhurried about the way Liana absorbed the information, soaking in not just his words but the nuances of expression and posture as the explanation unfolded. It was the part of the job she found the most difficult to explain, the aspect that she felt unable to convey accurately to the likes of Jessica, who wanted to learn how to step away from her books and engage effectively. Listening with intent involved removing oneself, at least by several degrees, so that rather than a series of reflections that prompted memories of personal experience, you were left only with pure empathy. The perspective of the sufferer. It took practise, she wasn't always perfect at it herself, but she always strived nonetheless to focus on the story being told rather than adding to it herself.

At least, if she was trying to be professional about it.

It didn't feel entirely appropriate to treat Alastair like a patient, however. A faint flicker that knitted her brow was more indecision over limitations of additional inquiry than it was concern for how much she'd already been gifted. If he was comfortable with her knowing, she was more than willing to acknowledge his burden. It left her feeling slightly awkward at her own evasiveness but rectifying that would have to wait. "You lost quite a lot all at once. You've done remarkably well to bring yourself this far," she added with genuine admiration.

It wasn't so much that he was comfortable telling her all this, as it was that much of it was common knowledge for anyone doing even the most basic research into his band. Such was the fate of living life in the eye of the public. Plus, it mattered to how he got to be where he was. At her compliment though, "Thank you," he smiled, regarding her. Taking in her features. Her eyes, nose, cheekbones. He sat up more straight, pulling his chair in closer towards the table. "I've learned from early on that this isn't a kind world, and you have to look out for yourself. I forgot about that for a few years but, well, I remembered in time to make my way to Avalon and meet you."

It wasn't a response she'd anticipated, though careful examination of observable traits certainly gifted the musician enough mischief to pull off the unexpected. Alastair had done a sterling job of hiding himself behind what was still immaculately cultivated facial hair but Liana had long ago learned to seek the eyes first. It helped when it came to dealing with mutants who, for better or worse, had a tendency to come in a multitude of shapes, colours and dispositions. His reflected the depth of experience she would have expected given what she already knew about him but it was the twinkle, the merriment amongst the sobriety, that drew an elegantly pointed smirk. It was, after all, a masterful attempt at deflecting a compliment. Wrestling with her desire to grin, Liana closed her eyes briefly to marshal her mirth, and then took up her spoon again, pausing before using it to scoop up the last mush of marshmallow to point it at him, playfully.

"You, finish your coffee."

For the briefest of moments he thought he'd done something wrong, but the expression on her face didn't quite fit with that. So his quirked brow and amused smile took him perhaps a moment longer to appear than she might have expected. But appear it did. He quickly finished his coffee, as instructed, and rose to his feet, offering her a hand up as well. "As you wish, ma'am." It was probably getting late, time to head back to Avalon.


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