Chapter Two: Uncertainty and Understanding

I awoke early the next morning, my eyes focusing on the unfamiliar ceiling of my new room, and I sighed, sitting up. I barely slept at all, between nearly sweating to death and the terrible dreams that plagued me the entire night. I just hoped I had managed at least enough to get me through the day.

Standing from my bed, I went and grabbed my uniform, folding it up and taking it with me to the washroom so I could shower. I'd developed a habit of sleeping in my uniform, but it seemed that wouldn't be an option here in Flamera. Just a T-shirt and pants, along with a blanket were enough to put someone into a heat coma around here – wearing a uniform to bed was just asking to have a heatstroke, and that certainly didn't seem like a pleasant idea to me.

After taking a cool, relaxing shower and dressing, I headed over to the cooking area, trying to decide what to make for breakfast. I don't even know what Patience likes, I realized, stepping into the cooling area to see what kinds of fruits and vegetables we had.

Well, let's see… Fire Tribals tend to have a bit of a sweet tooth. My gaze fell on a basket of apples. Apples can be sweet. They're healthy, too. I smiled a little. Maybe I could try that new recipe.

Nodding to myself, I grabbed a bunch of them, along with a few other ingredients from the cooling area and a couple things from the shelves in the cooking area. Cooking's a bit of a hobby of mine, in between bashing Corrupteds' heads, doing paperwork, and going to meetings, so I'm always looking for new recipes to try out. And it just so happened that I had come across a tasty-looking recipe for apple strudels not too long ago.

I grabbed my little box of recipes, pulling out the note card I'd written the strudel instructions down on, and began preparing everything for cooking. Once the ingredients were mixed and the stove was heated up to the correct temperature, I poured the batter out in strips along the stove's metal surface.

Setting the bowl in the sink, I grabbed a fan from one of the shelves, unfurling it and crouching down next to the stove, fanning the flames as the recipe instructed. Watching the strudels cook closely, I flipped them with a spatula when they were finely browned on one side.

Barely a moment after I extinguished the stove's fire with some water and placed the finished food on a serving plate, I heard a soft yawn come from the doorway to the hall. Smiling a bit, I turned to see Patience standing there, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

"Good morning," I greeted, selecting a couple plates off of a shelf. "Did you sleep well?"

She yawned again and nodded. "Good morning, Léo." Her eyes focused on the serving plate. "Did you make breakfast…? It smells nice."

I gave a nod of my own, smiling a little more. "I made some apple strudels. Let's go eat."

She followed me, as I headed to the dining area, and asked, "Stru… dels…?"

"Yep," I said, setting the table and taking a seat. "You know, pastries."

Her face lit up a bit and she climbed up into a chair of her own. "I like pastries."

I chuckled softly, placing a few strudels on each of our plates. "Well, I'm glad. I hope you enjoy them."

Patience hummed intently, lifting one up carefully and taking a small bite. Her face instantly brightened ten-fold. After chewing and swallowing, she turned her gaze to mine, smiling widely, her eyes practically sparkling. "I love them!"

I found myself laughing more, as I took a bite of one of my own. She giggled in return, nibbling a little more. "How come you never told me you can cook so well?" she wondered.

I grinned a tad at that, reaching over and messing her hair. "Maybe because you never asked?"

She giggled more. "Okaaaaayy~ I guess that's a good reason."

Shaking my head, I ate the rest of my strudels, then divided up the last of them between us, only to hear a knock sound at the door. I immediately stood, stepping into the front room and sliding the door open. "Hello?"

Vakari waved. "Good morning, Léo. I just wanted to come see how everything was going this morning."

I smirked at him, opening my mouth to reply, but Patience called over me, "Vakari!"

Vakari looked past me and smiled brightly, waving to her as well. "Good morning, Patience!"

We both watched the little Tribal grab her plate and slip out of her chair, running over to us. She held the plate up to Vakari. "Léo made breakfast! They're called apple stru… uh… stru… dels…? Yeah! Apple strudels! You should try them!"

He gave a soft laugh, accepting one. "Thank you, Patience. I appreciate it." Then, taking a bite, he paused, blinking. "Whoa."

I found myself smirking more at that. "Taste good?"

He nodded quickly, eating the rest. "I've never had a strudel like that."

I grinned, crossing my arms. "Well, I found a new recipe and decided to try it."

"No kidding," he said, grinning back. "You should show Tihara that one. She'd love it."

"I'll think about it," I returned. "By the way, though, you—"

"Hey, Vakari," Patience said, smiling widely.

We both shifted our attention to her. "Yeah?" he asked. "What is it?"

She beckoned him closer to her, so he crouched down. Then, grinning toothily, she poked his nose, proclaiming, "You forgot your mask again!"

Vakari sighed, bringing a hand to his face. "Of course I did…"

Patience giggled at that and I shook my head, grinning a little. Vakari shook his head as well, standing up straight again. "Well, I suppose it'd only be fair for me to tell you that we're going to be late if you don't hurry up, Léo."

I raised a brow. "I'm already ready."

"You aren't going to help me…?" Patience's voice questioned.

I turned my gaze back down to her, seeing a small frown on her face. "O-oh, uh, of course I am. Let's go do that. I can send the rest of the strudels with you to Taharus'."

. . .

Once Patience was situated at Taharus' hut and Vakari had retrieved his mask, he and I headed out of Flamera and towards Centra. I welcomed the much cooler temperature of Shalua's central land, breathing in the fresh air.

We walked mostly in silence, as we made our way around Centra's path, until Vakari finally spoke up, saying, "So, uh… I spoke with Taharus last night, after leaving from your hut."

I shifted my gaze to him, raising an eyebrow. "And…?"

He reflexively brought a hand to the back of his head. "And, uh… well… I didn't think it was right for me to make you be the only one to care for Patience. So, um… I told him that I'd help you whenever you needed it."

I sighed softly, shaking my head. "That's kind of you, Vakari, but you really shouldn't worry about it."

"I-I want to help, though!" he insisted, looking up at me almost pleadingly. "Please, Léo. I… I want to do something to help you, for once in my life… You've always been there for me. It's about time I do the same for you…"

I felt myself raise a brow further at that. Vakari's been there for me just as much as I have for him. In fact, he's always been my greatest support for basically everything. Something was telling me, however, that he wasn't going to take no for an answer. He'd clearly already made up his mind.

"Alright," I finally agreed. "If you really want to help, go for it."

His face instantly brightened. "R-really? You don't mind?"

I shook my head. "Of course not. I appreciate the assistance. Besides, Patience likes you. I think she'd enjoy being able to see you more often."

Vakari smiled. "It'll be nice getting to see the both of you more often."

With that statement, he and I stepped up the couple steps into the Great Temple, joining our other six friends, Etrin, Anari, Platinus, Tarja, Jhing, and Tzung.

"Hey, you're actually almost on time today," Tarja said. "What gives, Léo?"

I sighed, suddenly not feeling quite as confident as normal. "It's… a long story."

Anari frowned, looking up at Vakari and me. "Has something happened, brothers…?"

I glanced around at everyone, seeing them gazing at the both of us expectantly, and nodded, filling them in on everything that had happened the day before.

"Poor Patience…," Etrin said, once I'd finished. "We all know what it's like to lose people close to us… It must be hard on her."

"Yeah… I suppose so," I agreed, shifting my gaze to the floor of the Temple. All of us Tana and Magicians had lost at least one parent during the war with the Corrupted – Vakari, Platinus, Jhing, Tzung, and myself having lost both – but mine had passed away just barely after I was born, so I hadn't really known them. I guess that was probably what made me feel even worse about this.

"Well," Platinus said, "I presume that's why Teiju asked me to deliver this to you, then."

I looked up and over to Platinus, as he stepped towards me, holding out a scroll. My brows knitting together, I accepted it, removing the string that held it closed and unrolling it.

"Léo,

I know the passing of close friends is always difficult to move on from, and you have my deepest condolences. Kalron, Valah, and Resilience shall be greatly missed, but never forgotten.
I trust you will be able to care for young Patience plenty well. She is to be the savior of our people, after all, and I cannot think of anyone better-suited for this task than you. Take care, my friend, and give my regards to Vakari as well.

Teiju"

I closed my eyes, taking in a steadying breath in an attempt to calm the rush of emotions that just hit me, and felt a hand come to rest on my shoulder. "Is… everything alright?" I heard Vakari ask hesitantly.

I simply handed him the letter, not trusting myself to speak. I already cried yesterday. I refused to allow myself to do so again.

Just when I thought I'd be able to speak again, however, I felt a hand be placed on my other shoulder. Forcing my eyes back open, they focused on Jhing's concerned face. "I'm truly sorry for your loss, my friend, and I'm sorry none of us can do anything to help… You shouldn't blame yourself, though."

"Yeah," Etrin's voice echoed. He brought a hand to his chin. "What was that phrase you used to say, Léo? We can't control everything around us or something…?"

"Oftentimes the things that go on around us are completely out of our control," Platinus corrected him. "And he's right, Léo. There's nothing you could have done to change this. There's no sense in beating yourself up over it."

"It is my fault, though…!" I returned, my voice raising slightly. "If I'd just been on time, I could have—"

"Léo," Platinus said, cutting me off calmly. "We were all here, when Teiju warned you and Vakari of the vision he saw. And you know just as well as the rest of us that we cannot change the future. If you had been on time yesterday, it would have just happened another day. There was nothing you could do."

But I could have! Why didn't anyone understand that?! It was my fault, and I should have done something about it!

"M-maybe we should change the subject, brothers…?" Anari suggested, tentatively.

Everyone else but me gave quiet words of agreement, and we began our morning meeting.

. . .

I walked through my home village of Luminara feeling so… empty inside. It felt like, no matter what I did or said anymore, it was never going to be the right thing; like nothing would ever be the same again…

Shaking my head, I slid open the door to my cousin and mentor's hut, stepping inside and taking off my boots. "I'm here, El," I called.

"I know," she said, entering the front room from her dining area. "You aren't as quiet as you think you are."

Usually I'd have some sort of comeback for her, but… I just didn't have it in me today. So, I just kept quiet, going and sitting down on a cushion. She did the same, sitting across from me.

"Anything in particular you want me to take care of today?" I asked, my voice sounding just the slightest bit strained. "Or just patrolling for Corrupted again?"

"You tell me," she returned. "Is your pride intact enough to let you do more than just that?"

I sighed, removing my mask and bringing a hand to my face. "I'm really not in the mood today, El…"

She scoffed at that. "Not in the mood, huh? How do you think I feel? I don't care what Taharus thinks, you're the worst possible choice to take care of Patience. She needs a responsible person to care for her, and you are anything but responsible."

"Eluminia, I don't want to talk about this right now."

"I mean, seriously. You can't even make it on time for a birthday party, and he trusts you to take care of and raise a little girl? Vakari would have been the better choice. Sure, he's probably the most forgetful person on Shalua, but at least he tries to—"

"Eluminia, stop!"

She immediately went quiet, her gaze shifting back to me.

I took a moment to gather myself, taking in a shaky breath and letting it out, willing desperately for the warm liquid pooling in my eyes to go away. "Please, El… just stop. I know I messed up… I know it's my fault… I know I'm hardly the best choice to be Patience's adoptive parent… But… but I'm going to be there for her… I'm going to protect her – no matter what… I'll be there to protect her… I can't replace her family, but I can still give her the care and love she deserves… And that's what I'm going to do."

Eluminia remained silent, looking at me in surprise.

"You were younger than this, when you took me in after my parents' death… I'll… I'll be able to learn just like you did. And Vakari will be there to help me, anytime I need it." I let out another shaky breath. "I know you don't trust me to do this… but I'm going to do my best. I'll be the best parent I can for Patience. It's my responsibility, after what happened."

Before she could respond, I placed my mask back on my face and stood from my cushion, heading over to the door to grab my boots. "I'll just go do some patrols today. See you later."

And I left.