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Musings at Midnight

Posted on Mon Dec 25th, 2023 @ 13:48 by Liana Zhao & Alastair Temple
Edited on on Sun Feb 4th, 2024 @ 12:38

Chapter: Winter's Crest Festival
Location: Teacher's Lounge, Avalon Institute
Timeline: Tuesday, 8th December (Evening)
4736 words - 9.5 OF Standard Post Measure

One of the aspects Liana was least fond of when changing locations was how long it took her to find her natural rhythm again. Establishing routine was vital, especially when it came to managing her time and sharing it, if not equally, then at least efficiently between her professional obligations and personal downtime. It was a philosophy she was currently trying to impart on her younger counterpart, recognising in Jessica the same youthful exuberance that had caused her to come close to burnout only a few years previous, but it wasn't always easy to adhere to when mind and body refused to synergise.

She couldn't sleep.

Which was to say, she'd tried to sleep and failed. Part of it was adjusting to the climate, having a ridiculous aversion to the cold for someone inherently made of fire if she chose to transform. Liana had never understood the quirks of her biology in that regard, though it had become noticeably worse since the surge that had been powerful enough to affect mutants well beyond the blast radius. A portion of it could be attributed to the weather itself, most notably the adjustment it was going to take to get used to the wind and how it encouraged the branches right outside her window to add a percussive element to her nightly repose. Mostly, however, it was due to her mind's inability to seek peace and the rampant cacophony of thoughts that sought to pin her attention to everything from outstanding paperwork to overdue personal correspondence and the niggling thread of an over-arching preoccupation with a half-finished conversation. The counsellor tried very hard not to get herself stuck in unproductive emotional loops, recognising the impotence that came from fretting too much about what had already been versus what could be feasibly managed in the future. In this particular instance, the persistence of regret had won.

As a child, whenever she'd had similar problems sleeping, her father's response had always been an extension of his usual love language; food. Now, reputedly a grown adult, Liana didn't often indulge in what was likely an unhelpful amount of sugar given her intended goal but there was sense, she'd determined, in changing the landscape for a while. A long, knee-length cardigan pulled over her admittedly-inadvisably-satin pyjamas did a decent job of staving off the castle's pervasive chill, though she was relieved she'd taken the time to pull her fur-lined boots on instead of relying on slippers. Indulging in a rare moment of self-sufficiency had gifted her light enough by the ignition of a single index finger into a flickering flame and thus, under guidance of her own biological candle, she had just about managed not to succumb to excessive imagination and located the teacher's lounge without incident.

Thankfully, there was plenty of milk in the fridge.

To be fair, Alastair hadn't expected anyone to be here at this time of night. Had he, he would've dressed better. Perhaps he should from now on, he mused to himself as he realized the place wasn't empty. Dressed in a luxurious black bathrobe - similar to the ones that were dotted all around the castle by now, feet shod in black bear paw slippers. His hair a mess, only matched by his beard. Sleepy look on the tall man's features, he nevertheless ventured inside, despite the company.

Or, considering who it was, because of the company. If he were to be honest with himself, he'd taken a serious liking to the woman after just a few meetings. Here was someone who matched him in his passion for music, who enjoyed horror stories just like he did, and who even surpassed him in skill with an instrument. Who saw him for who he really was, rather than what he did. And she was beautiful too. A winning combination. A combination that caused him pause. He didn't want to mess anything up.

"Hey you," he smiled tiredly as he made his way into the space. "Couldn't sleep either?"

Startled just enough to jump slightly, Liana turned quickly, hand pressed to her sternum. "Alastair." A breathy relief was quickly followed by a soft laugh. The castle's ambience was really quite delicious, especially in the aptly-named dead of night, but it did provoke a mild sense of alarm if one allowed the shadows to spin their own narrative. As someone who purposefully spooked herself from time to time, Liana wasn't about to complain, but it would also take a moment for her heart-rate to settle down. "Not in the slightest," she replied, halting her quest to find a saucepan to answer his question. "Though that's not unusual, I'm afraid, at least not the first few nights in this place." The admission lingered, as did her gaze, reminiscent still of a slight bewilderment that one of the preoccupations of her unruly mind had materialised in the midst of her trying to reconcile their earlier conversation. A suspicious mind might have accused him of telepathy on top of everything else but it didn't occur to Liana to treat the moment as anything more than serendipitous fortune.

Her eyelashes fluttered in a series of rapid blinks as she realised she was staring.

Returning to her task, she located what she was after and set both pot and milk carton on the bench before pulling a small spice shaker from her pocket, holding it up in offering. "Warm milk?"

"Uh - sure," to be honestly he didn't like warm milk much. He didn't hate it either, it just wasn't his favorite. But he figured she was polite in offering and he wasn't going to tell her no. So, warm milk it was. With those thoughts he approached, his large slippers making flip flop noises on the floor as he did. "Had a bad dream, woke up. Figured I'd get something to drink," he stifled a yawn, before attempting to lean against the counter in a way that was intended to be elegant, though he misjudged the distance and almost stumbled before catching himself. "So how you doing?"

It took self-control honed from years of professional application for Liana to control the impulse to laugh, the mixture of noticing his footwear for the first time and his casual clumsiness creating the perfect combination to test her mettle. Measuring out two mugs-worth of milk into the pan, she set it to simmer and then turned to lean her weight on folded arms, braced against the countertop.

"You know," she replied after a minute, having arrived at a point where pragmatism mingled with sentimentality to urge her forward, "Quite a deal better now that you're here." It sounded overly bold as a statement on its own, enough that she averted her eyes briefly before regathering her wits to reconnect eye contact and smile. "I've..." She paused and started over. "A certain amount of over-thinking has made me realise that I wasn't very fair to you earlier. You trusted me with personal information and I really didn't give you very much in return." A faint smile of apology was sincere enough to reach her eyes. "Habits of the trade, I'm afraid. I spend so much time trying to be present for others that I've somewhat trained myself out of inserting personal anecdotes."

His soft smile brightened considerably at her bold statement and he nodded in thanks. Though at the rest of her words he furrowed his brows, becoming more serious. "I just kinda figured it wasn't something you wanted to talk about, so I changed the subject," he shrugged, tilting his head a bit. "Which is fine. Much of what I told you is public knowledge anyways," He paused a moment, considering his words carefully, before continuing. "I don't want you to feel pressured, Liana. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want. I'd rather anything you tell me is because you want to. Because you feel comfortable enough to."

"Well, that would be the issue," she replied, turning to pull a wooden spoon from the cannister of utensils so that she could stir the milk. "One that's bothered me ever since our chat. I don't have any reason not to be honest with you, Alastair." If anything, it went against her own advice, or at least the standards she'd set herself since emerging from the repeatedly failed attempts at juggling secrets. "Quite apart from the fact that you were willing to trust me with your own recount," her eyes lifted to meet his briefly as she redefined his gesture as something more significant than what he was trying to pass it off as, "I've come to Avalon for a far more extended stay than my previous visits. Remaining closed off to others doesn't really appeal, even if I am a little rusty at rehashing my life story."

She lost herself in drink preparation for a moment, setting the heated milk to the side to rummage for the last of the ingredients. Each was added methodically, the exacting precision of a family recipe coming together from memory alone. Once both mugs were full, the room smelled faintly of nutmeg and vanilla, with a hint of cinnamon and ginger for added frivolity. Setting one in front of her fellow musician, Liana then adopted what was fast becoming an obvious habit and curled her hands around the warm ceramic. "Why don't we try again?," she offered with a smile. "If you're still interested, that is."

"I'd be happy to," he took the offered mug and motioned to a nearby table for them to occupy. Again, waiting for her to sit before taking his own, he simply cupped his drink and resolved to listen patiently.

As she settled in to a chair opposite, Liana pulled her cardigan tightly around her and sat comfortably hunched to preserve her core heat. Now that she was experiencing winter for the first time since the surge had exacerbated her thermostat fluctuations, it occurred to her that it might actually be time to check in with the network of fellow elemental casters to see if anyone else was noticing similar issues. The most likely was Jon, though she had also heard the staff had picked up an ice-weaver since she'd last visited. The warm milk helped, at least, and she turned her mind to what would satisfy her as a re-do of her earlier efforts.

"Well, Alastair Temple." Her features relaxed into a warm smile. "Though all the framed documents hanging over my desk identify me as Liana Zhao, my birth certificate actually reads Liana Schultz. My father is German," she explained, "Currently residing in Berlin. My mother's side is a blend of Chinese and Korean, one branch for each grandparent. My brother, Kai, and I are third generation Brits, which really isn't nearly enough distance culturally speaking to escape certain expectations." Liana paused, aware that her fresh attempt was now running the risk of being too detail-oriented. How long had it been since she'd tried to dilute her entire identity for someone else's consumption? "To cut a long story short, despite me uncovering a history of elemental mutations down my grandmother's side of the family tree, my grandparents' current philosophy is to praise the Gods very quietly for the honour of such a blessed grandchild whilst making sure the general public never catches wind. Popular opinion would make it bad for business, apparently. I didn't know I was a mutant until I was about 10." At this, her tone softened considerably, a faint frown tugging at her brow. "And once it became obvious that I was, all hell broke lose."

Al listened with an intent normally reserved for the most important of matters. Still, he couldn't help but admire the way her jaw moved as she spoke, the way the muscles in her cheeks worked. At first he was a little bit confused about why she told him about her heritage, though it clicked when he remembered that she was an extraordinary violin player, and that Asian parents had a reputation - whether undeserved or not - to push their children hard where it came to succeeding. His suspicions confirmed when she mentioned expectations. It would make sense that something as big as a mutation emerging would get in the way of that. He took a sip of his drink as he listened, and had to admit that the way she had prepared it made it considerably better than any warm milk he'd ever had. The spices - he still wasn't sure what she'd put in - added to the flavor, enriching it.

"I see," he replied, his voice calm, his eyes kind. "You'd been learning the violin for a few years already, by then. The fire ability thing made that difficult enough that you had to take a step back from that career path? Probably against your parents' vision for your future?"

"My mother's," Liana agreed. "It's been...hard for her." It was still a difficult situation to distill into an explanation that could be easily consumed by an outsider. Her relationship with her mother was constantly evolving, which was different to suggesting that it was improving with age. There were times when Liana wasn't sure she could claim that but it was certainly the case that the dynamic was perpetually in motion. "My career was a replacement for hers, cut short for medical reasons." The details here weren't so much a secret as they were not really hers to tell. "And with the additional pressure from her parents and family, we did what seemed right at the time." A ruefully smile was angled downwards into her milk. "I spent ten years pretending I wasn't a mutant, but I suppose that's the thing about secrets. When something is so fundamental to your daily reality, it'll eventually get in the way."

There was a lot more to it, so many more stories, an entire childhood spent confused and scared of being discovered. The heartache of abandoning a life's passion, the rush of empathy it had gifted her for her mother's similar grief, and the lack of direction that had lead to wandering around Europe and flinging herself into a marriage doomed to failure from the start. None of that seemed appropriate to this retelling, however, and certainly didn't represent a side of herself that she'd prefer Alastair got to know first. Mollified, at least, that she had better explained her earlier statements, Liana took a long sip of her drink and then rallied her good humour as a grin as the mug settled back on the table. "As for my powers, I've felt guilty all night that I didn't properly 'fess up to them given how much I've seen of yours. I can't easily demonstrate inside, for obvious reasons." Nevertheless, she held up a hand and, with an ounce of concentration, performed her earlier trick that rendered the tip of an index finger a flickering flame. "We have transformation in common, at least."

The next part of her tale was a rollercoaster to be sure, and the man did little to hide his reaction to any of it, his thoughts easily readable on tired features. Disappointment, disapproval at the idea of her mother pushing her own failed career expectations on her daughter. And then the mention of spending a childhood hiding who she was, though he understood it as well, and honestly, deep down had to admit that he'd done similar. "At least they kept you around," he quietly ventured, almost immediately regretting the crudeness of that remark. "They never stopped loving you, in their own way, at least." That was better. Somewhat. Another sip of the drink as she demonstrated her powers with a finger of flame, and a smile. "You seem pretty good at controlling it."

As determined as she'd been to be Liana Zhao the mutant in that moment, and not Liana Zhao, accredited psychiatrist, it was a little hard to switch the professional radar off and Alastair's stumbled choice of initial response didn't go unconsidered. Just as important was the fact that he swiftly moved on from it, however, and much like he had professed to do earlier in the day, Liana found herself inclined to follow his lead a little rather than probe into a topic that might make him uncomfortable. Extinguishing her finger, she managed a half-smile as well as a hunched shoulder. "If there's one thing that becomes very apparent, very early on with elemental powers, it's that you better get them under control quickly. I was allowed, at least, to seek help with that from the start."

"That is very true," Part of him was curious if she'd ever burned anything down by accident, but he figured it wouldn't be appropriate to ask about that. "How'd you do that? Find help, I mean?" She got her powers at age 10, which must've been at least 20 years ago. Late 60s, ealy 70s. He wasn't sure there'd been many publicly available institutions to help with that. But then, that would've been around the time he was creating a very localized legend about a large, black bird-like cryptid in the woods near his best friend's home town, so he honestly wouldn't know.

"Family connections." The counsellor's expression was riddled with wry humour. "I learnt a lot about my family that first year, and the extraordinary stories of certain members of it. None of it properly documented, of course." Liana sat back in her chair then, taking her mug with her as she folded one leg across her knee. "I was one of the fortunate ones who found a mentor early on." Her dark eyes, a warm chestnut despite the poor lighting, studied the man opposite. As much as this had started as a way to compensate for perceived unfriendliness earlier, the appeal of remaining the focus of the entire conversation was already fading fast. "Not everyone manages that."

There was a knowingness to Liana that sometimes mislead people into thinking her skills were more psionic-based. In truth, she was simply good at reading people, particularly the analysis of language and what people's choice of expression said about their thought processes. As unwilling as she was to press for personal information he might have deemed her undeserving of, and understandably so having just met her, Liana couldn't ignore the significance of his omittance of elaboration. The remark about parental love was pivotal, and since she was relatively sure she had been careful not to convey any expectation of reciprocated disclosure, the fact that he'd chosen to verbalise it meant something. Tilting her head to the side, Liana's features softened as she regarded him. "It must have been hard to find someone who could teach you much about feathered life."

"In some ways, yes. But necessity made it - ... necessary, to learn how to do it reliably," he shrugged a bit, sort of staring off into the distance as he took another long sip of his drink before continuing. It wasn't that this was uncomfortable for him to speak of - he'd long decided that he wasn't going to hide his history from any who asked, and Liana as very easy to talk to. It was just that he was looking for the right words.

"My family was - .. is, very religious. Roman catholic. I was raised as such as well. Went to a catholic school. Then when one day at school my powers came out, I got kicked out of school and my parents' house both. Spent a few years fending or myself, until I could move in with Robert, my best friend. He helped me out a lot, taught me how to play the guitar. We founded Somnium Tenebris together. I really owe him my life, I think," Alastair explained, his words quiet. "I spent weeks at a time in raven form, turns out a coat of feathers works wonders against the cold. And I'm sure there are more than a few stories of a large bird stealing clothes, generally being seen here and there." He chuckled softly. "Heh, I might even be a local cryptid."

Silence lingered. It wasn't particularly uncomfortable or strained, mostly because it was very obvious from her expression that Liana was simply taking the time to process the information, both spoken and all the in-between bits. The tapestry of a person unraveled one thread at a time and it took her a moment to regrasp what she'd already been able to glean from previous discussions. Whilst she deliberated, her eyes didn't leave his, struck not for the first time by the gentle turmoil he seemed to tuck behind equal layers of mischief and kindness. He spoke with a brand of honesty that was overly familiar, reminiscent of her own tendency to focus on the factual whilst maintaining careful control over the emotional reality of memories that weren't always rational. It seemed obvious to her that his life had been peppered with much darker moments than he was describing with a simple retelling and the other mutant sat for a moment in her empathy as she chose her response carefully.

"A hefty debt," became the eventual start of it. She didn't smile, because it wasn't a happy topic, but her expression remained placid and compassionate. "He is not easily grieved." It was a statement, not a question, and though a little cryptic was offered gently. "How long did you say he's been gone?"

"Two years last week," was his reply, quick enough that she knew the answer had been living rent free in his mind without needing to think about it. "Drunk driver. Bob and Sylvain - our bass player and vocalist - were out getting snacks for movie night when someone swerved and rammed their car off the road and into a tree." He heaved a sigh, now focusing his eyes on hers again for a moment before burying himself in what was left of his drink.

"And just like that..."

One of the things about offering comfort, particularly from a professional standpoint, was that there was a time for advice and practical attempts at paving a healthy path forward, and a time for just staying in the moment with the person and allowing them to feel. The proximity to an unhappy anniversary mattered, especially in the approach to the holidays, and Liana doubted that the man really wanted a therapist's opinion of what he should do next in any case. Instead, she sat with him, didn't avert her eyes but also gave him space, uncomplicated and without expectation. When enough time had passed, Liana had used the interlude to arrive at a question that both honoured his loss but offered relief from the emotional grit that was likely still too fresh and personal for a conversation with a virtual stranger.

"Tell me about the band." Her features broke into a smile finally. "You said you toured?"

"Yeah, we did," Al smiled. He enjoyed this topic, though it also made him sad, remembering the good times. "Robert wrote most of the music, Sylvain the lyrics. I refined the guitar parts, wrote the solos. We started out small of course, as an indie band. Got signed, our first album we just toured the UK. Then Europe. Eventually the US as well. South America, mostly - metal isn't very big in mainland United States," He placed his hand down near hers again, much like earlier that day (or the previous afternoon, as it was well beyond midnight by now). "A world tour is - an amazing time. Traveling on a tour bus, checking in to a hotel, preparing for the night, performing, packing up, traveling. It's hard work but very rewarding."

There was fluidity to the interplay, the timing of her unraveling her leg to sit forward again and place her mostly-empty mug on the table as it coincided with what could have passed as an accidental placement of his hand. Unlike earlier, Liana was more aware of it this time, though still didn't read any intent into it. Instead, she was struck by the recognition of a musician's hands and smiled, using the admiration of his artistic fingers to imagine a life where performance was central. It wouldn't have been quite the same but she'd got close to experiencing it for herself. "And always the same style?" With her weight rested against her forearms, the brunette lifted her gaze to meet his, quizzically.

"Yeah. Well, mostly," he shrugged a bit, non-committedly. "We evolved our sound of course, but remained true to our genre. We took influences from classical, Albinoni's Adagio was a favorite of Bob's. Also Chopin's Funeral March. He'd listen to those on repeat when composing, looking for inspiration in the chord progression and the moods," A chuckle then, as he remembered their first meeting. She'd been playing Chopin, and had referenced Chopin after hearing Somnium Tenebris' music. Now it had clicked why. "Sylvain wrote the lyrics. We all loved horror stories, he took inspiration from those. Death, dreams and nightmares, things like that. And, well, a sound is born."

"A memorable one, at that." It was a direct compliment and intended as such. "As a genre, I would say I have some exposure." Having already referenced the reason in the past, Liana simply laughed. "Though my father is repeatedly disheartened by my struggles to keep track of his musical tastes." Pausing thoughtfully, there was an entire deliberation taking place behind her eyes that eventually culminated in, "I'd love to hear more of it some time."

"Well, my door is always open. You're always welcome to borrow a CD," He'd offer to play it for her some time, but without the rest of the band she'd be missing out on much of the experience. This again brought him back to their first meeting, where she was playing Chopin to a piano backing track on a tape. "And I'd love to play Chopin with you, some time. I played the keyboards for our studio recordings, though we had session musicians on keys on tour."

The matter became a moment's reflection and, in the peacefulness of consideration, the encroaching effectiveness of her father's home remedy and subsequent company settled as contented weariness on Liana's face. As much as it threatened to cut the conversation short, she was relieved because her mornings started around 6:00am and trying to function on only a few hours sleep was a challenge she never relished. She offered Alastair a sleepy smile. "I'd like that." With an effort, she roused herself with a deep breath and sat up. "But I think, right now, the time has come to attempt sleep again."

Placing her hands on the table, she rose carefully and crossed to quickly clean up the mess she'd made. Leaving the washing up water for Alastair to manage his own mug, Liana searched for a clean tea towel and dried her hands thoroughly before addressing a sense of vague reluctance by hesitating to ask, "Are you going to be okay to sleep?"

He'd joined her to clean his own mug, politely awaiting his turn at the sink. "Yeah, I should be ok to try again." Beat. "Was very nice talking with you."

It earned him a wide smile. "I'm glad I had a chance to make up for being such a bore earlier." Reaching out, she touched her fingertips to his upper-arm. "I hope you find some peace, Alastair. See you at breakfast." It seemed important, though Liana wasn't sure why, that she retreat then, leave him with some space and solitude to process their conversation. Perhaps it was simply a reflection of her own need, but she swept from the room with arguably more to dwell on than when she'd first arrived. At least this time, it was without the discomfort of regret.

A smile at the touch, a gentle gesture of - he hoped - affection, though her carefully orchestrated efforts to leave him with time and space to contemplate their discussion didn't perhaps find the conclusion she was hoping for. Because when all was said and done, when their goodnights had been said, when she left for her own room, what was going through his mind was that while he hated seeing her leave, he loved watching her go.


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