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Play for me

Posted on Sun Feb 11th, 2024 @ 12:10 by Alastair Temple & Liana Zhao

Chapter: Winter's Crest Festival
Location: New Cresthill
Timeline: 6:00pm, Friday, 11th December
3431 words - 6.9 OF Standard Post Measure

And just like that, nearly a week had passed.

Liana wasn't surprised by how quickly time had flown, it had a tendency to do such when there was a mountain of priorities all vying for top of the heap. What had caught her perhaps a little unawares was how quickly Avalon had felt not only familiar, but comforting. Up until the point of Claire's request, the psychiatrist would have considered herself fairly content with the preoccupations of her career but it had taken removal from the faster pace of a city, and a return to something with a little bit more personal investment, for her to realize how close she'd come to grinding herself into ash. Passion was all well and good but an over-abundance of it, without the interjection of distractions along the way, was a perfect recipe for burn-out and what bothered her the most was that she should have known that; did know that. Hypocrisy was a hard trap to avoid at times but it was all the more annoying when it wasn't a conscious choice. Avalon was already doing her good, which was fortunate given her commitment to returning the favor.

As she waited on the front steps, predictably rugged up against the elements, it was anticipation of the night's activities that stuck out as one of the most notable deviations from her normal routine. There was no doubt that residing on-site alongside other professionals created camaraderie that was harder to foster when you traveled back and forth between an office and a small yet well-appointed apartment, and Liana had become quite an expert at disappearing into her private space and remaining there, mostly because she didn't often give herself more than the bare minimum amount of time before returning to work. Avalon had supported her extroversion outside of the rigors of work and that was important in itself, but wouldn't have been half as profound without the very specific development that bore the moniker of Alastair Temple. It had been a great many years since anyone had been the sole recipient of her distraction and despite the reservoir of hesitation that harkened back to past complications, there was defiance too, mingled with a hint of self-denial. She couldn't avoid him, and thus welcoming his companionship was easily the better option, and it absolutely mattered not that it was entirely her preference. Permission, such as it was currently required, took the guise of practical necessity and though a pragmatic dissemination of her motives was eventually going to be on the cards, Liana took some relief from the quite valid point that there was nothing to be gained from pretending she didn't thoroughly enjoy his company. The world was complicated enough without failing to feign indifference.

Gloved hands cupped and pressed against her lips, she blew warm air against them and waited, as had been his offer. At least the snow had stopped.

The snarl of the two-liter inline six heralded Al's arrival at the agreed-upon location of 'right in front of the castle', only a minute or two late. A quick flash of the lights as he pulled up next to her and leaned over the passenger side seat to open the door for her, welcoming her inside. His time over the past week had been a whirlwind of priorities and preoccupations, as had hers been, though he was used more to a life like that and he had to admit, he enjoyed it. It kept him busy, kept him from 'getting into trouble', as he'd explain, though mostly that meant, it had kept him from being alone with his own thoughts too much. Avalon had given him a purpose. Teaching had given him a purpose.

Liana had given him a pur - no. No, it was just a professional relationship. A friendship. Camaraderie. Nothing more, right?

"Hey," he called out to her as she moved to get into the car. "Sorry I'm late, just went out to gas Omen up, get some new wiper fluid while I was at the gas station," he himself was wearing much the same as he had been the last time they'd gone out to town, a black wool greatcoat, military style, and a black seaman's cap, struggling to contain his mass of glorious hair.

The faintest smile of approval wouldn't have been easy to admit to but Liana instinctively admired the way he looked the part, for all it could be argued to be a little over-the-top for a trip to a small Scottish town halfway up a mountain. On the matter of meticulous appearances, she could hardly point the finger; she didn't seem to own clothing that wasn't part of some predetermined ensemble that fitted together right down to the accessories. Even dressed with warmth as a priority, she'd already revealed at least three different woollen jackets of various colours, today's being a shade of russet offset by the darker brown ankle boots she attempted to shake free of detritus before swivelling into the car properly. Anyone watching would accuse the pair of being dressed for an evening of high class entertainment and not a simple jaunt into town to lay plans for another horror movie session over the weekend.

"Not late at all, I just wanted to make sure I didn't leave you waiting." With the door closed behind her, Liana paused a moment to appreciate the change in temperature and then pulled her seatbelt on, easing her gloves off by each finger once she was done so that she could lay them over her knee and hold her fingers up to the heating vent. "At least it's a clear night, the stars made for a pretty distraction." And would ensure that the frost overnight left her entirely unexcited about rising at her usual time.

Al turned the radio down a bit when she climbed into the car, the dark tones of his chosen soundtrack for the day fading somewhat to the background. It was metal, through and through, but where his own band Somnium Tenebris had a dark and melancholy mood to it, this had a slightly more dreamy, fantasy character to it. Slightly. "This is that CD I bought, last time we were out," he explained. "The Gathering, good stuff. I quite like it, gonna see if I can go to one of their gigs some time maybe," A smile in her direction, his eyes lingering on her a slight moment longer, even as he turned Omen around and drove back towards town.

"So how've you been today?" he asked as he drove.

"A little stunned still by how quickly it went but that's to be expected. Claire was never one to allow a list to run short of priorities for very long." The counsellor's tone sounded fond, less of an aggravation at her friend for having her bounce all around the place and more a deep gratitude for being entrusted with the responsibilities that were slowly coming together to form her official duties. It was a genuine response but a distracted one, Liana's attention was diverted towards trying to make out the music now that it had been turned low enough to sit beneath the conversation. The harsh vocals were a standout but she found her ear naturally tuning to the melodic line that ran under it, trying to place the instrument. Her slightly mystified expression softened to a smile once she realised, with her head turned as it was, she was practically poised to stare at him. "I can see the appeal of this live."

"You're welcome to come with if the opportunity presents," Al smiled, glancing over at her for a moment again before turning his attention back to the road. It wouldn't do to crash his car, and with these road conditions considerably attentiveness was required to keep the car he'd put so much money into restoring to near showroom condition safely on the road. That didn't mean he didn't drive in a playful manner, employing the slippery conditions to spin out the wheels under gas and kick the rear out a bit when taking sharp corners, but that was all done in good fun. At least, he was having fun doing it, and he figured as long as she didn't reach for the panic hold, screaming, she wasn't doing too badly either.

"So, I've been thinking about something," he eventually ventured. She could tell that it was something important by how he much calmer he drove; this thought of his required - well, thought. "I still have some unfinished, unreleased music that Robert wrote before he passed. I've been sitting on it, unsure what to do with it. But I think I wanna finish it, record it and release it. And I want you to be part of that."

It was difficult sometimes to recall that this was a man she had known for less than a week. Her return to Avalon had, in general, very swiftly swamped Liana in enough nostalgia to make it almost feel as if she'd never left, but this was different, sharper somehow. She had been blessed throughout her career with a number of associations that she treasured; she was now working alongside a young psychologist who had very quickly become a firm friend and this sojourn to the wintery delights of the Scottish highlands had brought her back into the company of a woman Liana held in very high esteem. Nevertheless, the ease of her friendships with Jessica and Claire didn't feel quite the same as the startling synergy that had sparked almost instantly with the music teacher, who perhaps held the distinction of being the first person in a very long time that Liana had connected with on a personal level before her professional capacity could kick in. What they had in common had nothing to do with their careers and that was unusual. Invigorating.

In this particular instance, flabbergasting.

It was because she'd managed to understand so quickly what his previous career, and the people he'd shared it with, meant to Alastair that Liana was able to conceptualise the significance of what he was considering. Even removing the invitation to participate, this was a profound step forward in the acceptance aspect of grieving and would likely become important for his long-term coping strategies when processing the loss of his friends and his creative outlet. That much she could deal with and felt a gracious impulse to encourage. His desire to include her was unexpected, however, a privilege and an honour that translated as poignantly intimate even if you needed to be of a certain disposition to truly understand why. It took the flutter of her eyelashes as her tongue dipped out to wet her bottom lip for her to realise she was simply staring at him and, in an effort to restore her composure, Liana found voice enough to quietly reply, "What do you mean?"

"Well, I figured that I could write you a few solos to play and record on the album," Al admitted, glancing over at her, unable to resist a smile. "I've never written for violin before, but I think that in context, the character of a violin isn't that different from a solo guitar. Like, mid to high notes that cut through and sit above the rhythm section and add interest and melody. And I've written all the guitar solos for Somnium Tenebris," the music teacher elaborated, paying attention to the road as well, turning off the main through road and towards the town proper. "Plus, when I let you hear one of our songs, it seemed your fingers were playing along with the melodic through-lines, like they were participating, playing variations. I'm kinda curious to see what you could come up with, with the harmonies present. Layers are never a bad thing."

The silence that followed was not an awkward one. There was need, Liana felt, to consider the proposal in at least some depth before committing one way or another, no matter how instantly tempting it was or significantly flattering it came across. From a creative standpoint, the idea was fascinating and definitely worth pursuing, but this was emotional territory and she didn't want to stray several months into a project only to realise too late that impulsiveness had left Alistair with some regret. What she gathered, at the very least, was that there had been a shift in energy levels regarding the next stage of his life and that was a good thing, if she'd properly understood what his last couple of years had been like. Wanting to push forward, to make music again, to finish pieces as a commitment to his deceased friends, all pointed to signs of acceptance and healing and that, at the very least, she could happily encourage. Including her in it all, however...

Tentative excitement was balanced by a hefty amount of professional caution. He needed space to adjust his willingness once speculation became developing reality. Permission to change his mind, without fear of insult or offense. She smiled warmly, encouragement softening her features, and Liana nodded slowly. "Your music is very similar to styles my father prefers. He and I have loosely messed around in the past with ways to overlay violin accompaniment, more as a bit of rebellious fun than anything else. I'd be happy to play anything you wrote and, if it turned out well enough, and you wanted to use it, we could look into it then."

"Ah, you're giving me an out in case I change my mind," Al chuckled. It was a friendly chuckle though. "I appreciate the thought," he added with all honesty. Slowing down now as they entered city limits - or what passed as such, he maneuvered the car towards a space to park it. "I'm not sure what I'm gonna call the project though. I mean, it's not Somnium Tenebris, not really. Because that was Robert and Sylvain, with some of my input. I'm thinking Somnum Exterreri, meaning 'Nightmare'. It's obviously related, but different. What do you think?"

"Sounds ominous," Liana joked, though the idea was still too novel for her to have any firm opinions one way or the other. "Though it pays homage and I understand the significance of that." Starting to pull her gloves back on again, she peeked out of the window at what to expect from the weather and then glanced back to tease. "I shouldn't expect any upbeat shanties, I take it." Currently absent of any preference, Liana found herself more intrigued by what he would fashion if left to his own sensibilities than particularly keen about having any kind of heavy influence.

"No, I'm thinking I'm leaning more towards Doom metal. Slower, heavier. Just as atmospheric, just - different," Al explained as he backed in to his chosen parking spot and put the parking brake on. "I'm very aware that even though Robert wrote the basic structure of these songs to various extent, with me finishing them they won't be Somnium Tenebris. The sound will be different. The mood will be different," he concluded, shutting off the engine and exiting the car.

"I'd be honoured to help you, Alastair."

The deviation towards a direct approach was accompanied by a gentle tone that did its best to convey an understanding of significance. Though the verbal banter was something she'd already grown fond of, Liana saw value in not drawing out an acceptance, or convoluting it too much with additional commentary. They could work out the specifics once they actually started; for now, the better intention was to address the trust he was placing in her.

"Yeah, it's gonna be fun," Al smiled. Gloomy, heavy, atmospheric metal, fun? Well, if you were Alastair Temple, sure. He was already looking forward to recording, and he hadn't written a single note or harmony yet. And with the festival right around the corner it would be at least a few days before he could really sit down to do so to begin with. "The rental store is this way," he offered, motioning towards some of the back-alleys, right off the center of town. Graeme's Garage was off the other way, but he didn't need to go there today. If he had, he might've seen the sorry state the hooligans had left Charlie in. "We should go straight there, they close soon."

Having made her way to the front of the car to wait for him to lock up, Liana eventually fell into step easily enough as the occasional drifting snowflake made getting undercover immediately desirable. The staccato of her heels scraped intermittently and she transferred her hands from her pockets to tuck beneath her arms as she watched her breath curl into tendrilled vapor. Moving quickly through the cold made conversation difficult, every lungful burned the back of the throat and prompted the diaphragm to constrict, but once they were between the buildings and navigating the alleyway, she risked the chatter of teeth to remark, "I've been meaning to ask..."

The question hung, unfinished, cut off by the sudden interruption of a loud crash from further ahead.

Though the cause of the disturbance was currently out of sight, it remained in earshot of the tirade of foul language that accompanied what appeared to be a rather mindless assault of a trash can. Liana took in her surroundings then, having placed the entirety of her trust in Alastair's navigation, and realised for the first time that the laneways that ran behind some of these older buildings were not only a lot more narrow than some of the more centralised pathways but also not particularly well-lit. A glance sideways caught Al's gaze, the hitch of her eyebrows asking a silent question that neither of them had an answer to. Whatever the reason for the ruckus, it was clearly around the upcoming corner, which placed it directly in their intended path.

"Uh ..." Al halted at the sound and Liana's glance. He contemplated the VHS tape in his hand, then looked back in the direction of the sound. The rental store was in that direction. And would close soon. Various things flashed through his mind. Trouble. He knew he could avoid it if needed; just change into a large raven and fly over the rowdy youth up ahead. He was confident he could carry the VHS box - it wouldn't be easy, but he could do it, he was sure. Of course, that would leave Li all by herself. He could suggest she go back to the car, give her the keys so she could get in to wait for him, but that wasn't really his choice to make. They could just go ahead and face whatever was out there, the two of them, but he wasn't one to want to confront people who thought no ill of beating up defenseless trash cans. So instead he turned to her. "Now what? What do you want to do?" Giving her a choice, agency, was never a bad thing he figured.

"Is there another access?" Though she could see it probably wouldn't help, Liana felt like it needed to be asked. Whilst she was no keener than Alastair to invite trouble, she did have a work history riddled with interactions with mutants living it rough and wasn't quite as immediately willing to perceive the cacophony as a threat. If there was a way to see what was happening without landing themselves right in the middle of it, she'd have preferred at least to make sure nobody was in trouble.

"No, not really," Al tried to remember the setting and couldn't think of an alternative approach. "... I'm sure it'll be fine, though. I mean, we're two adults, I'm sure it's just some bored youth. It'll be fine," he was less assured of this than he sounded, but a large part of him didn't want to divert plans at the first sign of potential trouble, plus he wanted to do his best to carry himself with a brave and confident face, because of the company present.

Locking gazes with him for a moment, Liana allowed hers to drift towards the dimly-lit corner that would become their intended exit point and nodded slowly. "Yes, you're right." Squaring her shoulders, she flashed him a brief smile to marshal her composure. "It'll be just fine."

(To be continued)


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