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11. Waves

Once the snow lost its novelty value for Adrien, he found that November in the Avallans high plains was a gloomy time of short, grey days - which would have put him in a bad mood, had he not been so wrapped in the study of magic as he was. When he'd started the study of elemental Fire magic, all he could summon had been a weak, teetering flame; in only two weeks of work, he'd learned how to produce full fireballs and how to direct them with the force of his intention.

One morning, he showed Val how he could dance around six circles in one motion and summon a fireball from each - a task that left him dizzy and short of breath, but that was perfectly within his powers to accomplish. He stumbled towards a wall to support himself against as he regained his sense of balance.

"That came out!... really well!... didn't it?", Adrien gasped between big breaths, grinning in triumph.

"It did", Val replied with a proud smile. He magicked up a full glass of water, which he shoved into Adrien's hands. "It really did. In fact, I'd say you've graduated with full marks from this course. Your love of fire and danger served you well here".

Adrien replied by laughing nervously. "I -- I guess so", he chuckled, playing with the locks of hair that had fallen in front of his face. He paused to take a gulp of water and clear his throat. "So, now -- what's next? Water magic, right?".

"Yes, that is correct", Val replied. "The usual objective of a novice-level Water magic course is to learn how to fill a glass with water".

"Oh", Adrien replied - and he startled himself with how disappointed his voice had sounded. "Um -- I mean --".

"-- You were expecting something more exciting, weren't you?", Val said with a teasing smile.

"...Yeah", Adrien chuckled. "Sorry.... Just, you know -- in comparison to fireballs, filling a cup is...".

"...perhaps not as showy, but an immensely useful thing to know", Val remarked as he cheekily refilled his glass for him. "You'll thank me when you wake up thirsty in the middle of night, when all a fireball would do for you is set you on fire".

"Hey, that would solve the problem too!", Adrien laughed.

"Yes, permanently", Val dryly replied. He sighed and hung his head, but when he continued, he was as gently smiling as always. "In any case, whether you like it or not, it's very likely that you'll be tested on this, so...".

"...Right, right. I know", Adrien agreed. He took another sip. "So, what should I do?".

"Before starting, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the element of Water", Val said.

"The element of Water", Adrien repeated. "Well, water is -- fluid, when it's liquid, so the element of Water is about flow and moving and -- all that...". He blinked slowly; he couldn't find anything intelligent to say. "...Um, to be honest, I'm not sure I really understand it... metaphysically, I mean. Can I ask you about it?".

"Of course, that's what I'm here for", Val smiled. He took in a deep breath as he collected his thoughts. "In my understanding... Water is that which bends to its surroundings to take the shape that suits them the most. Like Earth and Darkness, it is descending energy; it flows downwards and settles into its place without a struggle. Its motion is deep. That is why it relates to the sphere of emotion... Its surface conceals its depth. There is always a mystical, complex aspect to the Water element that, in my opinion, is best grasped through intuition".

Frozen on the spot in intense concentration as he was, Adrien had forgotten to fidget with his hair. When Val spoke like that, it was as if in each of his chosen words he'd imbued a universe that would need its time to bloom; and Adrien so admired him for that ability - he loved to listen to his words, even if at the moment all he could do with them was turn them around in his head in hope to get a glimpse of their inner shine. "I... I see", he eventually replied. "I hope... I'm trying to understand".

"Don't worry", Val smiled. "If you have any questions, please, as always".

Adrien tilted his head as one worry snaked through his mind. "...If it's true that I'm good at Fire magic, does that mean that I'll find Water magic difficult?".

"No, that's not how it works", Val replied, unable to restrain a little chuckle in his voice. "It's not like a seesaw. Your understanding of one element does not hinder that of its paired one".

"Even if Water is pretty much the opposite of Fire?".

"It is? How so?", Val asked, interested.

"Well, Fire is burning and intense, and Water is... flowing and quiet", Adrien ended up saying.

"That does not have to be how you see it", Val smiled warmly. "Fire can also be the heat of a fireplace - still burning, but mild and comforting... And Water, in the form of a flood, is just as destructive as a wild blaze. It all depends on the aspect you choose to explore".

Adrien meditated for a long time to reach the right state of mind to try channeling the Water element, then Val instructed him on the spell-casting motions that would best suit his task; and yet, on that day, Adrien didn't manage to summon even a single drop. He'd been trying to take his failure in stride, but he could not deny that his disappointment had been weighing on his head, so he had been discussing the matter over dinner to unload.

"I mean, I think -- now I think I get the theory", Adrien sighed, spinning his piece of bread in the fondue pot, "but -- but how do I make that work for myself? I tried, you saw that, but I didn't get the sense that I was being any more -- uh, water-like than normal".

"Don't worry", Val said. "You'll get there. It's only been one day; I'm sure you can do it if you continue practicing".

"...but, actually, the more I think about it", Adrien continued, "the more I keep coming to the conclusion that maybe it's just that I'm not a Water magic sort of person".

Val narrowed his eyes. "Why not?".

Adrien shrugged. "Well, you know, I'm hardly... mystical and flowy".

"...That does not mean that you cannot do Water magic", Val replied.

"But I was thinking about what you'd said, how you'd described the element of Water", Adrien said in a lower voice, "and that sounds... beautiful, but not very me".

Val folded his arms over the table and said nothing for a while before answering. "With elemental magic especially, what matters the most is figuring out how do you personally relate to each element", he then said. "I am sure that you can find a way to connect to the element of Water, as well. You only need to find what that way is. I will help you the best I can, but, you already know it - this is your own journey".

Adrien nodded quietly. He stared at the full cup of water in front of his plate as if it could inspire his understanding - but, no matter how much he frowned at it, his mind stayed blank. When it had been with Fire magic, he could immediately think of what emotions summoned the concept of Fire within himself; with Water, he had not the slightest clue - he did not even know where to begin or even what to ask. He sighed. "It will be alright, I hope", he said. "I'm just -- feeling a bit down about it right now".

"I understand completely", Val said. "We will be on this for as long as you need".

*****

The days passed by, and Adrien still could not find a way to cast a Water spell. He spent hours upon hours in his effort to fill that empty glass, and in the evening he'd have to leave the glass just as empty, with his goal seeming no closer than it had been before. He had been trying everything he could, but he had to acknowledge that he was running out of ideas. Adrien spent these days swinging between bouts of determination and utter self-doubt. There were many moments in which he feared that he'd never get it, and that he'd be stuck trying Water spells until his beard grew long and his bones frail.

After yet another failed spell, Adrien set down his staff in customary disappointment. Standing by the wall of the practice tower, Val had been leafing through the leatherbound notebook in which he often took notes, his gaze flickering from one page to the other and then becoming lost into something that Adrien could not see. Adrien let him do his thing, taking that opportunity to fix his hair and drink some water himself; but, even when he was ready to try again, Val had not yet lifted his head from his notebook. Adrien approached him and cautiously stood beside him for a while before Val finally turned to him.

"Oh -- sorry", was Val's hurried reply. "Is something the matter?".

"That should be my question", Adrien chuckled. "Unless it's something private...".

"No, it is about this lesson", Val said. He nodded affirmatively to himself as he appeared to be piecing together his eventual answer. "There is something that I just realized", he then said. "I just realized that, although you are struggling so much with Water spells... I am positive that you have already channeled the Water element before".

"What? I have?", Adrien gasped. "Seriously? When?".

"When we were doing defense magic", Val replied. "The first time you parried a fireball, you summoned a wave. Other times, too - I'm sure of it".

Adrien's eyes turned wide. "I remember, yes...".

"And you thought of the sea when we did abstract defense magic - although that idea did not work at that time", Val kept explaining. He let out a small, crestfallen sigh. "I did not consider... I am sorry, Adrien -- I believe that your struggles are partially my fault".

"What? Why?", Adrien gasped, taken aback.

"I have given you the wrong task to start with", Val replied, his voice bending with upset. "You come from a town by the sea... I've been asking you to fill a cup with water when I could have been asking you to summon waves and tides. If I had understood this, I would have not wasted so much of your time... I am sorry for not realizing this sooner".

Adrien smiled, touched by how much Val had wanted to help him, and how much he'd taken his troubles to heart. "So that's what you've been thinking about", he said in a low voice.

"I am really sorry", Val repeated, lowering his head. "I've failed you".

"You haven't", Adrien said. He took in a deep breath as he found the words to express himself. "It's -- it's okay. You know that this isn't always easy... And -- I'm not the only one learning here. I may be your apprentice, but that doesn't mean that you're not learning, too... And -- you've told me this -- as you learn, you have to expect and accept your failures without blaming yourself for them. I've been trying to keep that in mind in these days...".

Val's shoulders shook; when he looked up at Adrien, it was with eyes shiny with tears. "...Thank you", his voice quivered. "You're right. I'm sorry about all of this...".

"It's all good", Adrien smiled. He waited for Val to recompose himself; when his gaze did not look so sad anymore, Adrien spoke again. "I think your idea makes sense, anyway. It makes more sense to me than anything we've tried before... I should try it now".

He picked up his staff again and went to stand back in position to cast a spell. "I'll try to make a wave", he declared. "I know it's a lot to start with, but I'll be careful, I promise".

"I am not worried", Val's warm voice replied. "You should start by casting your spell in the way that comes most natural to you. We'll return to filling the cup later. And if you still need more time, if you still need to talk about it, I'm here".

"Thank you", Adrien replied with a smile.

The grip of his fingers on the staff loosened slightly as his breathing slowed down and his eyelids trembled in the white snow light. Far from the pale clouds of the high plains, he imagined his hometown of Ordly lived the approaching winter in days of clear blue skies and sunlight shimmering over the waves. He let his mind return to the smell of the sea breeze in the air, to the crying of the seagulls, to the white lilies in the golden sand by his feet. His thoughts turned turquoise and deep blue; he began to dance. It all seemed so simple now; he'd spent so much time trying to think, and yet now he only understood what he already knew - he did not seek for anything more, just as he would not seek for the sea to reveal its timeless mysteries. When he worked with Fire spells, what he tried to summon within himself were things like anger, determination, or arousal - things that had a name, things that were revealed; but Water was nameless in its ever-shifting aspects - their depths concealed in blue, their blue never made to be grasped. It was a kind of longing; an aspect of unreachable infinity.

From the lines Adrien had drawn on the floor, there rose a wave - transparent as it blinked into existence to then disappear into mist. At the other side of the room, Val smiled with joy and relief. "You did it", he said. "That was beautiful".

"Thank you", Adrien smiled. "I think I understand, now".

Val's eyes shimmered again. "You didn't even have to try twice", he remarked. "You didn't struggle at all...".

"I was only thinking of the sea", Adrien chuckled. "It wasn't difficult, once I could imagine...".

"The sea", Val repeated to himself. "It must be wonderful", he mused quietly.

"Have you never seen it?", Adrien asked.

"I've seen the sea of Thersed, but only from afar", was his reply. "Tell me... In Ordly, would you wake up and see the sea from your window?".

"Oh, no", Adrien chuckled. "All you can see from my window is my neighbor's house... But it would be a short walk to the beach, yeah".

"It must be wonderful", Val sighed again. "Your experience here is very far from mine... I did not think of this possibility at all.".

"It's alright", Adrien smiled. "And, hey -- it's not like the sea is running away", he chuckled lightly. "If you want to see it, maybe one day you can visit".

"Maybe", Val said softly. "Maybe, one day...".

Adrien stretched his back, then returned to the middle of the room, ready to cast one more spell. As he prepared himself, Val raised one hand to stop him:

"Adrien?".

"Yes?".

A long pause. "Adrien", Val then said with a bright smile, "I am very proud of you".