He's sitting beside a fire that is hardly more than embers when she finds him.
"You're a difficult man to track down," she says, and sits beside him. "Aaron."
He tilts his head to look up at her. "Judith."
"Do you mind if I sit?"
She sits, and looks at him appraisingly. He's thin -- too thin -- and despite the cold, he's wearing only a thin shirt and tattered linen pants, no shoes or coat. If she squints, she can see the magic rippling around him, a fine glow that covers him in multicolored lights that remind her of the iridescence of a soap bubble: fragile, ever-changing, liable to break at any moment.
"A heat spell?"
"Only enough to keep the cold off," he says. "It's hard going, otherwise."
It's December, and the temperature even during the day rarely rises above freezing. She's wearing a heavy coat herself, her hands encased in mittens. The heat spell on her own boots keeps her feet warm and dry, and without it she's sure she'd be miserable. It's taken longer -- much, much longer -- than she thought it would, to find him, and every day upon waking she is struck by the thought that she should have packed better, she should have thought ahead, she should have...
If I'd known... she starts to think, and stops herself. If she'd known, she would have done enough differently that she never would have ended up here, with him.
He hunches forward, toward the remains of the fire, and puts another log on. She can feel him cast something silently, without so much as moving his lips, and the fire flares up again. The heat it throws is fierce, defying the chill of the evening, and for the first time since she left the last inn, she's warm enough.
"I know why you've come," he says. "But let me warm up first."
"Of course. Take all the time you need."
He laughs a little, without bitterness. "You always were patient."
"Yes," she agrees. "I was."
It's a stretch to say that they grew up together, but that's how it felt.
They were mages. They met at the school for magic, in the capital, when they were both twelve. He was an Evoker, and she was...something else.
The mages never gave her gift a name. If he was an Evoker, she was the one who was able to dismiss whatever it was that was brought forth. He created; she destroyed.
She knew her limits. She wasn't sure he ever did. She didn't care. They loved one another -- not as partners, but as siblings, or closer than. Whatever he started, she would finish.
"The dark to my light," he called her, because the books of spells all called creation light, but never gave a name to destruction.
"The left hand to your right," she said, because she didn't like the analogy of light and dark, and she wanted something else. She was left-handed, too, and he was right-handed, and she could tell, whenever she dismissed one of his spells, the way that handedness affected what they did. She was a mirror to him, and she knew it, but she knew also the power of being so -- not creating, destroying, but doing so quietly, elegantly, always -- like closing a book once the story was finished.
He opened doors, and she closed them.
Both were necessary, but at different times. This was how they saw themselves, and how others in the mage's school saw them.
"How did you find me?" he finally asks, breaking the silence. "I thought..."
"I followed you," she says simply. "I did what I've always done. You left tracks; I followed those."
"I could feel you behind me, tailing me." He stares into the fire. "I was running from you."
"I know." Two words, said with nothing but kindness, but they're still enough to bring the sting of tears to her eyes and an ache to her throat. I know you were running from me. I know exactly what you were running from, what you expect.
"I missed you," he says. Unexpected, it disarms her completely.
She isn't sure when he stopped being her friend.
Perhaps it was when he learned how to bring forth permanent creations. He no longer had need of her to dismiss things, to clap her hands and send whatever it was he had made cheerfully back into the aether. He had no need of her services; no reason to seek her out. The sacrifice involved in creating things permanently was always uncomfortable -- more of himself went into each piece than he was willing to admit, and he would not bring more than one per month -- but he no longer needed her. He could create without her.
If not then, maybe later, when she realized that she could create, too. Her creations were imperfect, compared to his, but she can still remember the first time she brought a light forward without his hands around her -- the soft white glow of a tiny hovering sphere, one that she could dismiss with a clap of her hands.
She was not the talent that he was, at evocation, but she could still do it. No matter how excellent his gift grew, no matter how many creations he was able to bring forward permanently, he was never able to dismiss them. Did he begin to resent her then, or did it happen later? Was not when he thought he did not need her, but when he realized that she did not need him, that he turned from her?
"I missed you," he repeats, drawing her out of her thoughts. "I...it's been a long time, Judith."
"Two years," she agrees. "Were you ever planning to return?"
He flinches as she asks. "No."
"Did they send you to bring me back?"
She laughs, almost without meaning to. "No."
As time went on, she became better at bringing forward her own creations, and he began to pointedly ignore her. Where there had once been friendship, there was nothing.
The masters at the school saw, tried to tell her to be more pliant, tried to tell him to be less stubborn and more welcoming of magic that differed from his own.
Neither of them listened. She knows that she tried, but when he ignored her once again -- pretending as though she wasn't there as he strode through the dining hall, pointedly ignoring the empty seat she had saved for him and instead choosing to stand against a far wall, pretending that there were no seats available -- well, pride had gotten the better of her, then.
She'd managed to keep herself from shouting at him, but she didn't speak to him again, not willingly.
Aaron flinches again when she laughs. "Do you think so little of me, then?"
She sobers in an instant. "Not at all."
"If they didn't send you, did you come simply to laugh? To rub it in, how far I've fallen?"
"No," she says. "They didn't send me, and I didn't come to laugh at you."
She tilts her head back, looks up at the sky. The stars are coming out, and it's a lovely night, clear and cold. She traces out the pattern of familiar constellations while brooding over what to say, how to explain what it is that she came here to do.
"I came because I love you."
She says it, and it's his turn to laugh.
He began pushing himself. Without her to ground him, he began trying to do things that were beyond his skill. He tried summoning forward different things, all permanent, creating things that did not need to be destroyed. He ignored the toll on his body, on his mind, and pressed ahead anyway.
The consequences were not so bad, at least not at first. The mages were always able to help him, to prop him up and help him stabilize whatever it was that required his attention. They warned him not to repeat what it was that had led to trouble in the first place, but they did not punish him in any other way. They thought that the exhaustion, the burns on his hands and lips, were deterrent enough, and anyway there was nothing they could have done to punish him, really. He was a grown man by that point, and his place in the college was secured. So long as he did not cross any lines best left uncrossed, they would not judge him too harshly, would not forbid him from performing the experiments he wished to perform, pushing the boundaries of magical theory.
They would not punish him, and they would not force her to work with him. Even though it might have made both of their jobs easier.
Even though it would have made what he did that much safer.
They thought he was wiser than he was, and they left him to his own devices.
She bristles at the sound of his laughter, though she tries not to show it. Two years, she thinks. Two years of following the faintest signs in hope of finding him, two years of making my way north, picking my way through the wastes, returning to town only to resupply, never speaking to anyone else, and now...
He catches himself, and she realizes the last sound was not of laughter, but of a man trying not to break.
"I came because I love you," she says. "They didn't send me, I volunteered. I came because you needed me to come."
"I don't need you." She can almost taste the bitterness as he says it. "I don't need anyone, but least of all you. I'm safe here. It's better this way."
She reaches a hand forward, touches his cheek.
"If you don't need me, why are you crying?"
She blamed the mages for a long time, for trusting him. He'd proven, again and again, that he didn't know his own limits, that he could not be allowed to practice alone, and yet they insisted on leaving him to his own devices.
"It's the only way he'll learn," said her former teacher. "The only way either of you will learn."
When the inevitable happened, and Aaron brought forward something he could not control -- could not control and could not dismiss -- he had come to her for help before he had gone to anyone else in the college.
"Judith," he said, his lips and fingers streaked with blood. "I need your help."
He had not apologized, acknowledged the rift that had grown between them. He had simply said, I need you, and she, in her pride, had said no.
"Find someone else," she said. "Or learn to do it yourself."
She did not understand the gravity of what he'd done, and he did not explain himself.
He lost control of the shape of the summoning. Two students were injured, grievously, before the mages managed to track her down and have her send it back.
By the time everything was taken care of, by the time the mages were beginning to heal the hurt and begin repairing what had once been the west wing of the evocation building, he had gone -- fled, fearing what would come next.
She used to blame the mages.
Now she blames him as well as herself. Him for pushing past his own limits; her for refusing to let go of her pride.
Two students had nearly died. Part of the college had been destroyed.
He had started it, but she had finished it, and they both bore the weight of his actions, her refusal.
When he doesn't say anything, she speaks.
"You may think you're safer here, in the wastes, but the college was -- is -- the best place for you. You know it, I know it. You harbor the guilt of what you did, but what has been done may always be undone."
It's the prepared speech she has been practicing in her head, trudging through the wastes, looking for any sign of him, any sign of his magic, for over two years now.
"The two students didn't die. Louisa lost a hand, but the mages were able to construct her a new one. Ben was badly burned, but he healed and there's almost no scarring now. The west wing has been rebuilt entirely. I've stayed in touch with everyone at the college through letters, over the last two years." She stops for a moment, staring into the fire as she wonders how to say what it is that has to come next. "They want you to come back. They've forgiven you."
She can hear his breath hitch in his chest. "And you?"
"I understood what I'd done as soon as I saw the wreckage. They've forgiven me, too."
He shakes his head. That's not what I was asking, the gesture says. "Have you forgiven me, Judith?"
The mages never blamed her for her role in what had happened. She was painstakingly honest in her recounting of what happened, just how she had failed, but they did not blame her.
She helped them dismiss whatever it was that he had tried to create, the vestiges of some primitive magic that he could not control. She could not heal the wounded with magic, but she could hand over bandages and help in preparing the herbal tonics that were needed. For the more complicated rituals, she could help by supplying them with food and drink when they were locked away in the infirmary and could not leave lest they lose the shape of the spell.
She could help, so she did.
They did not blame her.
They did not need to.
When talk began, of finding where Aaron had fled to, of offering him the same healing that been given to the students he had injured, a place in the college and the chance for redemption and forgiveness in full, she was the first to volunteer.
No one asked why. They didn't need to.
"I forgave you a long time ago," she says frankly. "Once I stopped being angry with myself, I forgave both of us. I never stopped loving you, Aaron."
"I thought you had." He shivers, and she can see the edge of the heat spell beginning to dissipate. "It was easier to run, to turn my back on everything I'd known and go somewhere I could be alone with my thoughts and the weight of my guilt, and dwell on nothing but the past and the question of my own survival."
She puts out a hand, ends the fraying heat spell, then slips out of her heavy coat and places it over his shoulders.
"I thought you were my enemy for a long time," she says, beginning to weave together the threads of another spell -- this one for shelter and warmth. "I was wrong."
She throws the shape of the spell over them, and the small circle of firelight is suddenly quiet, shielded from the wind, and warm.
"They didn't send me. I volunteered to come, because I wanted to see you again. I've missed you, Aaron. Come home."
He straightens where he sits, looks up at her. "Do you still have a place for me? Do you still have need of me, or have you grown beyond our friendship?"
"I've grown," she says, "but in doing so, I've realized that I need you. I will always have need of friends. Will you come back with me?"
He does not hesitate.
"Yes," he says.