I get Jay a new cell phone a day before I said he’d get one. His squeal and hug are worth it all before the kid bounces back to his hotel bed and begins talking commands to it and his tablet, using his talent for bindings to make it understand him faster and finding good apps for people who can’t see in a state of happy bliss. Enough that it doesn’t even occur to him to question why I got him the phone early or barely notice when I slip out and say I’m going to go talk to some local gods.
I’m a god-eater. It’s part of what I am, and I make a point of trying to talk to a god, though the god at the one corner store hides the moment it senses me. It’s enough so that I didn’t lie to Jay. I walk on, covering four blocks before I find a working pay phone. I dial the wandering magician. He doesn’t like cell phones, even though he no longer thinks there is an actual threat from Outside the universe lurking inside the internet, but he doesn’t have one from habit. He answers when I call, because magic answers need and I damn well have need. I can eat things other than gods, but I’m not stupid enough to try and eat the desire of a magician to not answer a phone. Not yet.
I don’t think it’s that bad yet. Part of me thinks that, by the time I do, it will be too late.
He answers on the second ring. I don’t give him a chance to speak. “You left six days ago, magician. Jay is coping with having become blind rather well. I imagine not being human has helped a lot. Also being Jay. He is not coping with the fact that you left him regardless if you felt you needed to. He bound himself into your service, Nathen,” I say, leveraging his name like a weapon. “I’m his friend, and we share bindings because of that, but it’s nothing like what he has with you. I understand why you left. Jay won’t. I don’t think he can.”
“I know.” He says it as a statement of fact, as magicians can. “He didn’t get it when you left us earlier, Charlie. He won’t get it that I did at all. I used him. I used both of you, but him worst of all. He can’t see anymore because of me, and I can’t – I couldn’t –.” He lets out a sound that might be a laugh if I don’t listen too hard to it. “I’m not that strong.”
“I never expected you to be. I couldn’t have been, in your shoes.” I don’t point out I left the magician and Jay months ago over smaller matters; no point in saying history we both know. I drum plastic with my fingers. “I’d have thought less of you if you had been able to stay after doing that to Jay. But Jay senses the world as bindings and you’re making the ones between the both of you bend and he can’t cope with that. If I told him he cound travel with me or you, he would choose you. He’d pick you over me, magician, as much as he might not want to do that at all.”
He sighs over the phone, and the sound carries far more of the human than the magician in it. “Jay bound himself into my service; this is nothing I don’t know.”
I bite down words one might say to a magician, but not to a friend. “You’re not getting it, magician. He is your servant. That’s what Jay bound himself to you to be so that you would protect him. That’s the core of the bindings, and to him it means you can use him – you can cause him to have to suck his thumb in stress, can even remove his lisp and burn away his vision and it is still okay. Because you did it, and you’re Honcho and his master and that’s simply how it is.”
The magician’s silence has edges, followed by: “This is the only way to break it, for Jay to define himself outside of me.”
“He might surprise you; he’s stronger than he knows.”
“So?” I travelled with the wandering magician long enough to throw magician-speak back at him:
“Everyone is stronger than they know; if they’re lucky, they never have to find out how strong.”
He lets out a small, tired laugh at that. “I know this as well, Charlie. Everything you told me, everything you’re going to say. I know it,” and there is nothing but truth to the words.
“Then why did you go?” I snarl.
“Because –.” And he falls silent, the magician, into a pause like anyone else would. “Because I have to believe that there is more than what I know. You went away. You changed, and learning that – being with that – I have to hope it will help him. I’m tired, Charlie. Tired of being a magician, of making choices when there are no easy ones. Of always making the hard choices so that others don’t have to. Tired of knowing I help hold the world together against forces from Outside. I’m tired, so tired and I didn’t dare let Jay know that, not how deep my exhaustion truly goes, because there was no one he would have blamed beside himself.”
I swear softly. Not at him. Not at me. It feels like a reflex, even thought it’s not.
“I’m not going to say I know that,” the magician says, and the joke is flat but works a little bit.
“Call him. At least once a week. Coping with being blind is helping him forget you left us, but it won’t last. I think – I think Jay has it in him to lose the magician like this, but not his friend. You need to call and talk more often. Please.”
“I will,” he says quietly, and hangs up with no other words. I wonder if I’m the only one of us who thinks he was going to say ‘I will try’ and make it a question.
I hang up and walk back to the hotel, bringing subs from subway as I come. Jay is sitting on his bed, poking at the phone with a frown. “I can’t get them to sync properly at all, charlie!”
“Things can always be worse kiddo,” I say dryly.
“Honcho ithn’t here, Charlie. That’s the worst thing out of lots of worst things and it doesn’t get worse than that.”
“Being eaten might be worse,” I say, almost steadily, because he’s always been terrified of being cast back Outside the universe and eaten by the terrible things that would hunt him.
Jay looks up, damaged eyes wide behind dark glasses. “Not even that,” he says firmly. “He went away and it hurts and you’re my friend too and it hurts that you can’t be enough to fix that hurt because it means I’m not being – I’m not being enough to you and I’m mad inside all the time even when I’m not I think and it feels like I want to scream so loud that he would have to hear and come back but that would hurt him and I don’t want to hurt him and I don’t want to hurt you and you don’t want me to hurt me and it’s all like that!”
“Jay.” I sit beside him on the bed. He pushes the phone and tablet aside and sits beside me, head resting against my shoulder. “It’s like the tablet and phone: sometimes things don’t sync together even when they should.”
Jay is quiet for almost a minute, then says slowly: “What generation of phone and tablet?”
“Does it matter?”
“I think so. If Honcho is an iphone it would explain a lot of things.”
I glance over; Jay feels as much as senses the moment and looks up. His grin is a bit forced, but still his. I ruffle his hair gently. “You’re a good kid, Jay.”
“It will turn out okay.”
“If it doesn’t, I will personally hunt down the magician and make certain it does.”
“Okay,” he says, with a complete and total trust that isn’t human at all.
We eat subs and I try as hard as I can not to think about the future.