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A Winter's Nocturne, part 1

Posted on Thu Dec 28th, 2023 @ 11:17 by Liana Zhao & Alastair Temple
Edited on on Sun Feb 4th, 2024 @ 12:39

Chapter: Winter's Crest Festival
Timeline: Wednesday, 9th December (Evening)
4325 words - 8.7 OF Standard Post Measure

Despite what had felt like an overriding priority the night before, Liana had managed to lose herself in work the moment her feet had hit the cold floor and sent her dashing for the shower before she succumbed to the urge to bury back under the covers and wait winter out. As hectic as it had been, she preferred it that way, not one to relish being idle when there was clearly so much to achieve in what she now understood to be a relatively short planning window. Breakfast with Claire had set the agenda for the day but had also brought to the counsellor's attention her friend's entire plans for this upcoming festival, which at least clarified Alastair's comment about her playing for it. What she had first assumed was just to be a tour of the grounds and meal to follow was apparently a fully-fledged showcase of student learning, one that had necessitated a refitting of the auditorium with concert-standard sound and lights. It was ambitious but then Claire always had been.

The whole castle was in an uproar as a result.

Which was to say, there was a lot of distraction and redirected productivity. From Liana's standpoint, this seemed to be a good thing, most of the students she'd spoken with seemed enthusiastic about the festivities even if a decent amount of them were expressing trepidation about allowing the general public access to their safe haven. That had formed the bulk of her work for the day, getting down beside students as they worked on their various projects, helping where it was warranted, but mostly listening to them navigate the emotion this holiday season was provoking. Somewhere amidst it all, she had managed lunch, but it was late enough that dinner became a consideration for much later once she finally returned to quarters to gather her violin case. As much as she had been diligent in working down her list in order, it had taken a pause to consider herself in the mirror beside the bedroom door for her to admit that one particular task held the bulk of her anticipation. Scrutinising herself for a moment, the counsellor then pulled a face, pronounced herself ridiculous and went in search of her intended company.

She found him, eventually, after several false starts had lead her to the newly-updated auditorium. Judging by the trickle of remaining students out the double doors, she had arrived just in time to miss a rehearsal, which might have been a disappointment had she not been quite a fan of retaining a few surprises on the playbill. Liana smiled warmly as a couple of the teens greeted her, stepping sideways once she was inside the doors to clasp the case in both hands and simply watch, for a moment, the man who moments previously had clearly been in full choir-master mode. She might have been tempted to savour the opportunity had it not gone significantly against her personal code to spy on others.

"So, what's the verdict," she called out. "Should I call the London Palladium and book out a season?"

Alastair, for his part, was gathering up sheet music from the various stands, as Liana entered. Wearing his standard go-to of black and maroon, gothic victorian inspired clothes over heavy leather boots. At her calling out he held up a hand to her, as if to - suggest a little bit of patience, as he called out to one of the students before the latter could fully leave the auditorium.


"... Yes, Mister Temple?" the youth halted, glancing over, then making his way towards Al when the latter beckoned him, meeting him halfway.

"About your shoulders, try to relax more. I recommend some breathing exercises before the show, like I showed the class," Al explained, his voice warm and calm, offering an encouraging smile. "You're still a bit tense, in the shoulders, in your gut. You're one of the best voices here, that's why I gave you the part of Enjolras."

For Ben's part, he listened intently, the youth wanting to do his best, make a good impression. "I'll try, Mister Temple."

Al smiled, placing a hand on the youth's shoulder. "Take it from me, Ben. The best way to make a song work when you're out there performing is to just give it your all. Never half-ass a performance, always whole-ass it. Off you go now, get some rest, do some breathing exercises, ok?"

Ben chuckled at Al's comment, but gave a quick nod and a smile. "I will, Mister Temple," before he turned and jogged out the auditorium.

"Sorry about that, Liana," Al made sure that all the students had left, then made his way over towards the woman he'd grown quite fond of, stack of sheet music under his arm. "Never played at the Palladium. Sold out The Underworld though. Multiple times," he smiled. "What can I do for you?"

Though it was only the second opportunity she'd had, Liana found herself once more swept up in the act of watching the music teacher interact with his students. After several conversations had gifted her a better perspective of the man, it struck Liana as all the more profound that he took the time that he did to convey his passion alongside the obvious wealth of practical knowledge he possessed. Not for the first time, she felt compelled to challenge his assertion that he wasn't very good with people but she tucked it away for later, nestled amongst several other things that kept occurring to her at random times to tell him. In response to his query, she held up her violin case and hid her appreciation for his appearance behind a warm smile.

"I've come to realise my assumptions about this festival fell a little short of Claire's vision. I'm here to offer my services if you have a place on the program." It was, as it happened, the very least of her list of reasons for being there but felt like a good place to start. Twinkling eyes, barely translating the day's fatigue, held his as she added, "Though I'm open to suggestions regarding the arrangement."

"Place on the program?" Al furrowed his brows. "Oh, I'm just in charge of this one performance. No idea what anyone else is doing. Probably not going to be much music though I think," The man rubbed his beard, considering. "I'm sure you could do something though. Like, accompaniment on this performance? I'll be doing keys, could always use violin. Or did you have something more - front and center in mind?"

A gentle laugh relieved him of the pressure of direction. "I've already spoken with Claire, she hasn't requested anything in particular. If you have need for me in accompaniment, then of course I'll assist. Beyond that, I was hoping we might do something together." It was bold honesty but Liana had learned a little from her previous attempts at diplomatic insinuation. Besides, it was the truth. She had no issue with getting up and performing by herself, even though she tended to limit those appearances to charity work simply because of workload pressures. There was still every possibility that Claire would put in a request and the brunette would find herself on stage for several numbers but in terms of her actual motivation, not to mention her current enthusiasm, her intention was to make good on the previous night's suggestions.

"I would like that very much," he smiled, arguably the most honest and warmest smile she'd seen of him yet. He placed his stack of papers down on a nearby table before sitting on the edge of it. "You've come prepared, I see. We could do Chopin, nocturne in C# minor. I tracked down the sheet music for the piano accompaniment part, I can play that. You'd have the spotlight, being the lead. Or maybe Storm, from Vivaldi's Summer? Like we played first time we met?" First time we met. It sounded like such a long time ago. Not the barely-a-few-days it had been.

"Why not both?" Having committed to a hint of daring, there was a vivaciousness in Liana's eyes that suggested this was, in fact, something she was very capable of when she allowed herself some liberation from professional restraint. Lifting her chin just a little to match, her pursed lips attempt to suppress a grin as the quirk of a single eyebrow did its best to entice. "Start with the classic interpretation and then leave them with something to think about." Though she managed to contain it, there was a rush of exhilaration that caught Liana by surprise, arriving unexpectedly as a result of his own immediate enthusiasm for the idea. She'd already decided that she wasn't going to back down from the idea easily but the fact that there was no resistance, coupled with what read as no small amount of forethought on Alastair's part, provoked a buoyancy of mood that suddenly made the day's stresses melt away to nothing.

It pained him to try to curb Liana's enthusiasm, but he felt he had to at least honor try to the spirit of the festival. "Claire told me that the festival is mostly a vehicle for the students to show to the world what they can do, you know, as kids growing up. Adding a faculty performance at all already kind of goes against that," Al was surprised to realize that he cared a lot more about not trying to steal the kids' thunder than anything Claire had said. He cared more about the students - his students, than he'd ever though possible before taking this job. And he'd only been here a few weeks, to begin with. The thought sobered him. "I think it's better if we kept it to just one performance. This is their festival, after all," he smiled a soft smile. "Though we don't necessarily need an audience of townspeople to play something together, do we?"

The faintest flicker of a frown was not an indication of offense but did suggest the hesitation of slight confusion. Though she enjoyed playing for people, Liana typically didn't crave the spotlight, not at the expense of others in any case. Her participation in this stemmed from invitations, and it took her a moment to process what constituted enough willingness to accept without being perceived as an attention-grab. His final statement earned a smile and she brushed the impression that she'd just been gently rebuked aside to shake her head in agreement. "My intent is only to help and find a way to honour a friend's request. If you'd prefer, we can keep to the background accompaniment and save the rest for whenever we have time to ourselves."

"Ok, let's - ... let's take a small step back," He'd caught her confusion, trying to figure out where that stemmed from. It was all part of that critical thinking he believed he was trying to teach his students. "The festival is for the students. You're welcome to help me accompany the piece I'm practicing with them, for their performance. Beyond that I'm already planning to do a thing myself, just because I'm me and that's what I do. I'd very much like to do that with you, though. One faculty performance should be alright. And if it isn't, Claire can come complain to me and I'll pretend to be sorry," he smiled mischievously. "I would very much like to do that one faculty performance with you, if you want. Either accompanying you, or share the spotlight for that one piece. Beyond that, you're always welcome if you want to play with me in private," Beat. "Uh - you know what I mean. Music. Like, on instruments."

It seemed impolite to be thoroughly amused but Liana, who was becoming increasingly more distracted by a sense of endearment, lost control over the slow upturn of her mouth before the silent engagement of her diaphragm did very little to hide her laughter. "Firstly, I don't think Claire is going to mind. She's the one who asked me to play in the first place, or at least suggested that I might. Secondly, I don't mind what we play, or when we play it, or who we play it to. When I agreed last night to collaborate again, I didn't even realise the festival contained a musical component so it certainly wasn't on my radar as an appropriate vehicle for it. Thirdly..."

Her eyes sparkled as she failed to complete her third retort, though the purse of her lips around a twitching reattempt to control her mirth betrayed her understanding, at least, of where his mind had drifted. Spoken inelegance was never something that Liana would have teased someone about, she spent her entire life dedicated to helping people voice their inner-thoughts, after all. There was just something utterly bewitching about a grown man scrambling to regain appropriate footing. "Thirdly," she repeated as she changed tact, "This is your domain, Mr. Temple. The final decision is yours."

He simply regarded her, one brow slightly raised, a rogueish smile on moustached (and very bearded) features, though his mind was going many miles a minute. She handled his awkward slip with utter grace, and her reply seemed geared to make him feel comfortable - which it did. Of course, this was by design - she was a counselor after all, with the background and training to make something like this second nature to her, but he did appreciate. "Well, in that case, my intention is to give one performance. One that will have them talking for a while to come. And I would very much like that performance to include you. As for what, I would actually like you to pick. Storm and Nocturne we can do without much practice, which makes them shortlist favorites, with how near the deadline is. Other pieces are negotiable."

"One of them relegates our resident rock star to the role of accompanist again though," Liana pointed out. As much as she was distracted by undertones that had nothing to do with song selection, there was still a small voice of reticence attempting to gain some traction in the back of the counselor's mind. Chopin was the more traditional choice, it would come across as a recital entirely reminiscent of countless others she had performed in her lifetime and, since she trusted without having a whole heap of tangible proof that Alastair would handle the piano part just fine, there was safety in knowing that it was a piece that would be well-received. Whatever it was they had started to explore with Vivaldi's work was different music entirely, certainly experimental from Liana's point of view and would pair her on stage in front of many to engage in a reimagining of the composer's genius. There was no getting around the fact that her mother would view it as an affront, harmonic debauchery that declared the Institute's music teacher an unhealthy influence over her daughter. What she was left to figure out was, did that make it more appealing or not?

In many ways, the answer was closer to 'yes' than Liana could explain.

"I think we may face an dissatisfied crowd if we don't get you on your guitar," became her reason for an implied choice.

"Part of being successful in a band or any sort of musical company is knowing when to just be the accompaniment and letting someone else take center stage," Al calmly replied, without a negative tone to his words. He enjoyed being the center of attention when plying his trade of couse and relished the energy the audience gave him, but he could also be satisfied just laying a foundation for someone else to shine. Still, once again he appreciated something she said, something she did; allowing him the chance to be that rock star. "But, I get what you're saying. Summer it is," as he hopped down from the table he'd been sitting on and offered his hand. Not that he figured she needed it, but simple because he wanted to. "Wanna run through it once as practice? I've got my guitar and amp over in the back."

In what was fast becoming a comical mistranslation of intent, Liana took the outstretched arm as an invitation to step ahead and did just that, moving past her partner in crime to step close enough to the stage that she could consider it thoughtfully for a moment. A degree of calculation followed, a slight narrowing of her eyes as she set down her violin case and moved to the area typically set aside as the orchestra pit to place her hands on the edge of the stage and lean forward, just a little, to peer towards the left wing. As she straightened again, she turned, her expression once again rife with vivacious whimsy.

"Do we want to practise where prying ears might overhear ahead of schedule or do you fancy dragging your equipment up a few flights of stairs for a more secluded option?" It was a genuine question, since the prospect sounded about as strenuous as it would be. "There's an old recital room close to my personal quarters, it's the entire reason Claire graciously sets the room aside for my visits." And it was strange to contemplate that, usually, she would have been tucked away inside it practising rather than out in the commons as she had been the night they'd met. That had been the allure of an uncommonly clear night, and the space's aspect allowing it to make the most of the moon's vibrancy. A few extra clouds and that chance encounter may not have even occurred.

To be fair, they'd probably have met some other way, some other time. It was a big castle, but not that big, and their areas of expertise had some minor overlap - him in teaching students, her in counseling students. But if you were to ask Al, he was glad they'd met when and how they had. For now though, the man lowered his hand as shoulders fell slightly, but he kept the look of disappointment from becoming too obvious. Instead he simply watched Li as she appraised the stage, though not expecting the whimsy, especially with that liveliness and energy.

"Uh - sure I could, I don't mind. Sounds good," he answered with a shrug, puzzled expression making way for that roguish smile, even as he moved past her and climbed the stage to get his equipment. Guitar set aside at first, gently placed on the stage, as he rolled up his cables and hoisted them over a shoulder. Guitar then over his other shoulder by way of the attached sling, and finally the amp, carried in his left hand by the faux-leather carrying strap atop the unit. "Lead the way, Miss Zhao," he smiled, motioning broadly towards the exit again.

It wasn't bad manners that lead Liana to avoid offering to assist but more a musician's understanding that a fellow artist's gear was an extension of being and she would no more presume to interfere with it than she would offer to piggyback the man himself. She did adjust her pace out of courtesy, and took the least convoluted route that made use of the lower floor corridors first before involving the flight of stairs that brought her closest to her room. They moved right past it, in fact, though there was no need for her to point it out and thus it fell to perhaps the vague hint from a door hanging that looked festive enough but contained phrases written in a decidedly-Asian script to single it out. The brunette spared a glance for the excessively large painting that dominated what was a natural focal point at the end of one of the connecting corridors, and admired not for the first time the effort Claire had gone to in protecting the property's historical significance.

"I can't help but feel a little envious of these students," she observed as they moved on. "The sheer scope for exploration that Avalon offers would have kept my smaller self easily too preoccupied for homework."

He did note the writing on the door and idly wondered to himself whether that door was hers, and what the writing meant. He couldn't think off the top of his head who else could lay claim to that particular door, but seeing as she didn't deem it necessary to point out her room, he didn't deem it appropriate to ask. Instead he followed her, having shifted the amp to his right hand by now - the weighty bastard. A similar glanced spared at the same large painting, a low whistle in appreciation of the piece. He was no art connoisseur, but recognized that it was at least a visually impressive piece.

"Yeah, legit," he replied to her comment. "Little Al would've explored every nook and cranny and pretended to be a rich lord all day, every day," he chuckled.

"He may have found himself with a scrawny accomplice," Liana joked, a tease at her younger counterpart's stature. Though arguably taller than one half of her family typically produced, that hadn't always been the case and, even now, though she had filled out an unmistakably feminine shapeliness, there was still the threat of a disappearing waist if she didn't watch her weight. Rounding a corner, which took them into a decidedly darker section of the castle not often used, the brunette lead the way directly to the third door on the left and held it open so that Alastair could step in first and set down his load.

It was a smallish room, as had been typical of these kind of set-ups. As much as the housekeeping staff did a sterling job of maintaining the property, there was a slight mustiness to the disused areas that Liana simply thought added to the charm. Certainly the upholstery on the rows of chairs was overdue for dust extraction, and the piano housed to one side of the performance area was coated in a layer of the stuff that was easy testament to the fact that nobody seemed to spend much time here. To be fair, with the way the interior had been redesigned to suit the purposes of the school, it was easy to assume these were just more private bedrooms set aside for guests. Liana herself had only discovered the recital space through a misjudgment of where her own bedroom was. It was dark at first, of course, though having set her violin case just inside the door, the mutant made short work of that by employing a smoldering finger to turn on the lamps that lined the sides of the room. As the ambience improved, she took a moment to pause in appreciation, the crowning glory of the room being the stained glass window that dominated the back of the stage.

"I should have thought to mention this to you sooner," she apologised as she returned to retrieve her violin. As much as this had become a private oasis during her stays, there was no arguing that this represented a space that the music department had every right to claim.

Truth be told he'd have been perfectly happy to walk behind her for a good time longer, enjoying the way her hips swayed with every step, her skirt following the movements. Though at one point he realized that maybe next time he should lead the way, up the stairs at least, as following a skirted lady up the stairs might not come across as very polite. Still, she didn't seem to mind, so he put that thought aside for now.

"That makes three music rooms in this castle, and two pianos, that I know of," Meaning of course his classroom which had had a piano in it when he first came and had obviously at some point been used as a music room, this room Liana was showing him and the auditorium. "This'll do, though," he mused as he ran a finger across one of the dusty chairs, smiling softly to himself at the feeling. There was a sense of familiarity to old, dusty spaces that he couldn't quite place, a sense of comfort - until it struck him, those years he'd spent homeless. For much of that time he'd been a bird, living in old, dusty sheds and garages. As far cry from a space like this of course in terms of luxury, but it was a much simpler time. And part of him didn't hate living like that. He had been free.

"The acoustics bring me back, even if the housekeeping leaves something to be desired." Liana didn't mind the faint disrepair either, though in her case it was more a sense of affinity for anything that radiated a sense of historical narrative. Growing up, she'd always favoured trips to the museum and maintained a preference for scoping out reservoirs of nostalgia whenever she visited a new place. Avalon ticked a lot of boxes as a place of residence that could hold the artistic woman's attention longer than more modern buildings.

Turning properly to watch him settle in, Liana tilted her head to the side to observe, with proper attention to detail for the first time, just how much went into the music he played. Of particular interest was the peripheral gear, recognisable at least though she couldn't profess a lot of expertise in the utilisation of them. A random flutter of inspiration struck her, a phenomenon she was starting to notice was more common in the man's presence than might have been considered normal, and the brunette frowned faintly, an expression of consideration rather than consternation.

To be continued ....


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