There are silences even magic cannot fill. Jay slums deep into the passenger seat of the rented car beside me, hands flying over his tablet as he pays a computer game. To human eyes, he’s a surly kid of about ten, all pouting and mopey. To a magician he would appear the same, able to hide his nature very well. But he has restarted the game twice in half an hour, and Jay doesn’t lose computer games. When you can see bindings as easily as people breathe and move faster than anything human, you’re very good at some things. Computer games are among the gentlest of the things he could be good at, so I buy him games and let him lose himself in them.
Jay is from far Outside the universe and scared all the time. You would be too if your entire life had been spent trying not to be eaten by creatures far larger than you. And he is scared of me now, and has no idea how to deal with that. And I don’t either; the bindings between us are frayed and thinned: I worked magic recently, some melding of need, of desire that is wishing and will both, and removed what I did from my memory. It is not something magicians do often, for all kinds of reasons. Even Jay seems to barely recall it, knowing only enough to be scared of me like he is of everything else.
I have an email account I never check; Jay does, and found someone asking for help in a small farmhouse north of the town we were in. The usual worries about ghosts that are probably just leaky pipes and small animals, but one never knows. The road is a logging road, and I pull over for a truck to pass and then kill the engine.
He looks up with a snap of movement, trying not to look afraid. He gulps, and I hope my face doesn’t show how much it hurts.
I take a deep breath, then let the magic out. The car doors lock, the windows hardening with a shimmer of energy. “I will not hurt you,” I say, power threaded under the words. I am a magician, and part of that is being able to speak truths that cannot be ignored.
Jay screams, hands flying up over his ears as he tries to block the words without thinking.
“We are bound together and I will not hurt you.” I raise my voice, push through his crude attempt to block the magic with his own will. “Jay, hear this: I will not hurt you,” I repeat, because repetitions have some small power to them. I wrap the binding of the words inside and outside him, in his nature and the world itself. There are banishings I have done with less power than I weave into this.
“No, no, no, no,” he says between shudders and small gasps of fear.
“I am a magician. You are bound into my service, and by that binding I end the strife between us,” I say flatly.
“Enough.” My voice causes the car to shudder, and the birds in the forest around us go silent.
Jay goes entirely still, eyes wide and unfocused, then says: “No. I’m not letting you do thith. Not to uth,” his voice pale as he stares up at me.
I smile with the second-coldest smile I have.
Jay squeezes his eyes shut, fists clenching tight, and reaches into his own nature. He can see bindings, but he’s learning to break them as well. He breaks each binding I made in the last minute perfectly, sundering them with an effort that leaves him drenched in sweat and trembling, letting out small whimpers of terror after.
I reach over and raise his chin. “Kiddo.” He cracks his eyes open. “You undid a magician’s binding. My binding.”
“You’re going to eat me now,” he says, almost a question.
“Do you want me to?”
“If you keep thinking you are food, you can’t then blame others for thinking the same,” I say softly, letting go of his chin. “You think I was holding back on that binding?”
“Not much,” he says warily.
“And yet you undid it.”
“Oh. Oh!” A grin breaks free of fear and anger both.
I grin in turn and ruffle his hair. “I can’t swear, not with words or binding, not anything that will truly hold, because sometimes I am more magician than I am me.”
“Thometimeth I’m not entirely Jay either,” he says, quite seriously.
“Of courthe you do.” He rolls his eyes.
I smack him upside the head gently in response, then undo the bindings on the car doors and windows, start it up again. “You could escape before I could eat you, Jay. If you had to. Think about that.”
He does, and the bindings between us mend a little. “I don’t want to be powerful,” he mumbles.
“I know. And you’re not. I could burn you to ashes when you ran, or banish you back Outside the universe.”
“But then I’d get mad,” he says firmly, trying to cover his fear at that idea.
“And do what?”
“I’d call Charlie. And your mom,” he adds after a pause, scared how I’ll respond.
I grin at that. “That would be rather thcary.”
Jay’s jaw drops at that. “That wath mean!”
“And calling my mother wouldn’t be?”
He lets out a giggle and relaxes visibly. I pull onto the road and he sets the tablet aside and rests his head gently against my shoulder. He believes being close helps the bindings between us; his belief is enough to mend them a little more. I wrap my right arm gently around him and he lets out happy sigh and is dead asleep a few moments later, exhausted from the effort of undoing my attempted bindings along with much else as well.
The bindings between us are not as good as they used to be, but few things seldom are. It’s different, and I like to think that different can become better at least some of the time.