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This Girl is on Fire (Pt 3)

Posted on Tue May 14th, 2024 @ 21:30 by Alastair Temple & Liana Zhao

Chapter: Winter's Crest Festival
Location: Loch-side, Avalon Institute
Timeline: Evening of 16th December
2996 words - 6 OF Standard Post Measure

A hand in aid re-extended, to offer some guidance and support for her descent from a rock never intended for this purpose. "I have so many questions, just - not sure how appropriate they are, in nature and timing," he confessed, even as he braced his arm for her to balance herself against. Now that he'd seen the power of the transformation, and how much effort it seemingly took to get or keep it under control, he also better understood the need for a big rock with little in the way of vegetation around it, for the transformation to take place. Not that he didn't believe her when she'd said that was what she ideally needed, but respecting someone saying they need something and seeing it for yourself are not necessarily the same thing.

"You can always ask." The clutch of Liana's hand was a little stronger than her usual grip, and she wobbled just a little as she stepped down to more solid ground. From there, without letting go, she used her other hand to gently pluck her woollen hat from atop his curls and tucked it into her coat pocket, the faint breeze already picking up strands of long, dark hair. "We have the walk back and then I think I'd like to hunt down some tea."

"Tea sounds good. I've got some things I'd like to discuss with you as well, so that works," He let her dictate the pace of their walk, simply falling in line with his longer and heavier strides, keeping his arm available for her should she want for its stability. "So, as I understand you could take any form you want, right? Long as it's made of fire? So what made you choose a bird, a phoenix?" he asked, out of genuine interest.

A thoughtful silence followed as Liana hooked her arm back through Alastair's and gave his understandable question the due consideration it deserved. It was, in many ways, both a complex and very simple matter, depending on how much anyone wanted to buy into esoteric spirituality and the validity of preordained fate. "The point of a focal form," she eventually began, "is refinement. Since my main goal has always been to maintain equilibrium without intent, most of my training centred around the establishment of a common, predictable transformation. I suppose it's not that much different to an athlete's training, the end goal is to achieve instinctual proficiency."

She stepped carefully over a half-obscured branch and continued.

"If I'm honest, I never really considered a form that wasn't naturally airborne. Staying off the ground seemed a priority and whilst the shape isn't really pivotal to that, I'm afraid my younger self was far too keen to cling to logic where perhaps none existed. I did attempt a butterfly at first," Liana confessed with a soft huff. "Then a tapestry in my grandmother's house took me down a different route."

Alastair was listening so attentively that he failed to notice the half-obscured branch and he nearly tripped over it even as she stepped over it. "I see," he offered, letting the silence hang for a moment as he considered her answer. There was no symbolic reason to it really, it seemed, rather just a practical one combined with a bit of 'hey this is near' upon hppening across a tapestry. He wasn't sure what he expected, but it was an answer, he supposed.

"How much - ... 'you' does it feel?" He ventured, trying to find he words. "Like, when I change it almost feels more natural for me, as if this - human form, is the alternate form. I've spent months at a time, just living as a bird. It felt - .. natural. Comfortable. Almost more so than this," he explained his thought process.

With more time to recover and time to choose her words a little more carefully, Liana might have been tempted to give voice to the spiritual side of her transformation. As it stood, and as seemed to be the case a lot of the time, the more practical aspects became the easiest to talk about, since they had at least some logical foundation upon which to build a reasonable explanation. It wasn't that she thought Alastair would scoff at the more whimsical nature of her decisions over the years, there just wasn't really any adequate way to explain the fractured dreams and deep affinity that had lead to her seeing representations of vermillion everywhere back in the day. Liana had never really figured out how much stock she put in the notion of destiny, being more inclined to enjoy the study of its potential than making any attempt at arriving at a conclusion. She did have some experience, however, with the phenomenon Alastair was referencing; it was the part of her transformation that intimidated her the most.

"The part of me shared between both aspects doesn't find it easy to maintain a strong sense of the other," she explained quietly. "When I am like this, my memory of transformation is a little distant, and missing a lot of the nuance. In elemental form..." Liana drew in a deep breath. "It can be a struggle to keep a decent grasp on who I am. It's why it is usually best I don't try to spend too long in the form without something to coax me back."

"D'you think you might lose yourself, if you stayed in elemental form too long?" Al asked. It was honestly not a nice thing to think about, and part of him felt he understood, though on a different level entirely. He'd felt hesitant to change back to his human self, at times, though he never felt close to losing himself. "What kind of things help - coax you back, so to say?"

"Good company." It was a direct compliment, and a reason to afford him a warm smile, which in itself was a diversionary tactic. Liana was well-aware of her own limitations when it came to this particular subject and how much her professional knowledge didn't really seem to help her find the words to discuss the isolation that came from having a power that, by its very nature, separated you from everyone else. "For the longest time, this felt like something I needed to handle on my own, privately. I've come to realise that I'm much better off being beholden to another person's expectation that I return."

This was a nice moment, so he elected not to make the 'I'll let you know when I've found you some' joke that was on his lips. Instead he answered her smile with one of his own, as they continued to walk, slowly, just enjoying the scene. After another moment of silence he spoke again though. "So, I've been thinking about music. D'you wanna be an actual part of the band with me, or more a guest musician? Do you have a preference?"

The change in topic took Liana by surprise. "I hadn't thought about it," she replied honestly. "Though that's mostly because I didn't presume this to be more than a one-off collaboration." She had been very careful about cultivating a sense of expectation and excitement regarding the project, not because she felt no temptation to get lost in either but because there seemed some merit in getting through the festival before she allowed herself to become completely distracted by a personal project. Never in a thousand guesses would she have expected Alastair to consider this a permanent partnership, however, and the prospect was enough to tempt Liana into reflecting on the possibility. "Perhaps you should share with me what your vision for this project is. In layman's terms," she added with a soft chuckle, "for the novices involved."

"My vision, huh ... " It was a fair and honest question, and to be fairly honest, not one that Al had considered. At least, not in actual words. He was flying by the seat of his pants in this, but Liana deserved an honest and fair answer. His thoughts were interrupted as they reached the spot they'd set out from, and for a split second he considered his options, settling on inviting Liana to go for a walk with him by motioning in another direction across the castle grounds.

"This - ... will be a side project for me. At least for one album, but probably more. My primary job will still be teaching here, I'm confident I can combine the two. It's - " he trailed off for a moment, even as they walked. Words were hard. "It's a distraction. An outlet. The things I see here, the emotions, they're hard to deal with. Having an outlet like this helps in that. Will help me through normal every day life as well. Emotions and feelings need to be expressed, you know? And by writing down and recording the sad, melancholy ones, well, that's a way of dealing with them." And he wanted her to be a distinct, included part in that. "As a member of the band, you'd have more of an input as well. You'd put more of a stamp on the music before it's recorded."

It was far more than she'd expected, if Liana was honest. When Alastair had first mentioned the idea, she had seen it more as a desire to collaborate because that's what he was used to, mixed in with the curiosity of what might come of adding a violin to his usual repertoire. It had never resembled anything permanent, however, at least not the way she had anticipated his intention and it was more than her professional zeal could manage not to treat the far more extensive invitation with a degree of sensitivity. She didn't doubt his fascination for the final product but Liana also got the feeling that there was a healthy dose of fear, mingled with the last hurdles of grief, behind Alastair's motives.

"You mentioned completing some unfinished works," she broached gently. "Would it be easier, I wonder, if we consider the first venture more as a tribute to the original band. I'm just as happy to help regardless of official status, it would give both of us an opportunity to gauge if it's going to work or not before we commit." Liana gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "I think you need to give yourself the space to be a little selfish this time around, at least until you settle on what you're comfortable with."

The answer, honest as it was, seemed to low key frustrate Alastair. Though he did his best to hide said frustration. Instead he walked along in silence for a moment or two before speaking. "I suppose that would be the wise thing to do. Step by step, easing in. Which - is not something I'm used to," he admitted. "Normally I just - dive headlong into a thing, without having all the details settled and planned out. Something comes up, I figure it out on the spot. It keeps things interesting," he added with a soft chuckle. "It's worked out for me so far."

For all he had taken care with his words, something of Alastair's impatience translated through his posture. It provoked a pang of guilt that very swiftly left Liana feeling like she owed the man a little more effort in putting her hesitation into words that better expressed the difference between caution and reluctance. "A little impulsivity at times is perfectly acceptable," she assured him. "There is a chance I am overthinking things, of course, because that is always a fairly likely thing but I hope you don't think I'm not eager to see what this might become. I haven't been able to pursue my music for a long time, and in many ways never expected to do much more than occasionally play for charity benefits. I don't think I've fully conceptualised what working alongside a verified success story will be like but I'm intrigued to see what will come of it. I'm looking forward to collaborating on this, Alastair. Please don't think otherwise."

There was a pause then, where the inevitable 'but' lingered. Liana lifted her gaze to the clear skies overhead and exhaled as a soft sigh. "I just think this is an emotionally complicated situation, not just for you but the fans who have grieved alongside you. Whatever comes after this first attempt, this will appear to be a tribute, a final closure as you manage to complete the music that could otherwise have been taken to the grave. I am flattered as hell," she dipped into rare candidness, "that you've asked for my support, I just think some sensitivity in how I'm introduced wouldn't go astray."

"It is an emotionally complex situation. But I wouldn't ask you if I weren't sure I'm good and prepared, though. I wouldn't lay that burden on you," Al smiled, her more elaborate answer having seemed to please him. He gave her hand a little squeeze as they walked. "And, I'm glad you gave the good friend and fellow musician a chance to answer, after letting the counselor take the lead," he added with a sense of amusement in his voice, before turning more serious again.

"The whole project is still evolving in my mind. I'm not sure there's enough material left by Robert to base a full album on, so it'll likely be a few bonus tracks on my own debut album," he explained. "Speaking of which, part of me is really wanting to call the project Temple of Zhao."

Though she was often careful with her words, it wasn't often that Liana was rendered entirely speechless. For a split second, the wordplay was lost on her, not an uncommon muddle-headedness so soon after a transformation, and she missed the inclusion of his own surname along with her own. Once clarity dawned, and the title became more a symbol of collaboration than something that singled her out, her shoulders relaxed a little and she let out a huff of laughter. "You know," she decided to be utterly honest, "that took me a moment."

"I'm just workshopping it, keeping it on the short list until something better comes around," he explained with a bit of a shrug. "Though, it including your name and implicitly linking you to the project, it would all depend on how you feel about it," Beat. "I mean the good friend and fellow musician, more than the counselor."

The clarification immediately turned a look of impending thoughtfulness into a sheepish smile. Several chuckles prompted Liana to jostle sideways slowly, just a gentle bump to let him know that his point was taken. "If it winds up being what you want, I don't think I have much of an objection. It's not ever something I've had to consider before, being associated with celebrity." The flash of an impish glance sideways rode the residual vivacity that usually followed transformation and made the most of the woman's oft-neglected playful side. "I hope there aren't any angry hordes to contend with, there are quite enough of them already."

"There probably will be," Alastair shrugged a bit. "It's the price of fame. Most fans by far are just people who enjoy the music, but there's always a small percentage who feel that I 'owe' them, you know? That they have some sort of ownership over the music. I'm sure there'll be some who won't approve of what I do with what Robert left behind, but then, that'll happen regardless of what I do with it, including nothing," the tall man sighed softly.

"Well, as a friend and fellow musician, my advice would be to worry about the afterwards once we're a bit closer to it." It was something of a hypocritical suggestion, given her own capacity to dwell and over-prepare, but Liana was also aware that it was emotionally sensible and at least tried, on occasion, to follow through with something similar. "Also, as a friend specifically, I would like to request that we head inside very soon." A twitch of her shoulders gave some indication of the reason. "One of the side effects of heating up very quickly is not getting to enjoy the after-effects nearly as long as I'd like in this kind of weather. I should get inside," she explained quietly, "before my thermostat remembers what being cold is like."

Without hesitation and without missing a beat Al took off his dramatic wool greatcoat and hung it over her shoulders, with a smile. He'd always wanted to do that. Though he was now presented with the drawback of such a gesture: the cold. A moment's hesitation along with a "Hrm," before he took a step back, closed his eyes in concentration and with a poof of slightly iridescent black feathers he changed into his alternate form, the large raven. A flap of the wings as he took flight and moved to land on one of Liana's shoulders, balancing. "All good," he cawed, looking pleased with himself.

Coupled with her own coat, the additional weight had been surprise enough. The sudden transformation had been caught initially in Liana's peripheral as she struggled to deal with the size of Alastair's jacket and she startled, tensing momentarily at the perceived flutter of frenzied activity right beside her. Once she realised what he'd done, she stopped moving entirely, shot him a sideways look that was a mixture of incredulity, amusement and slight awe, and then shook her head gently as she began to laugh. Turning, her steps retraced the path back towards the front entrance.

"I need tea. And possibly some popcorn." Her lips twitched. "Is sir allowed to partake or do I need to find a suitable alternative?"

"Tea. Good," Alastair-raven croaked, mimicing the human words. He couldn't really speak in this form, other than mimicing human words, a few at a time. Usually it was enough to get a meaning across.


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