Failing his final year at Harlington’s Magical Academy was the worst thing that had ever happened to Jon. His entire family, from his parents to his eighth cousin twice removed, were magicians. At this point, it wasn’t a hope he would qualify; it was a base expectation. The moment his father found out that he would not be graduating was a moment that would be forever burned into the corners of his mind.
He was, however, uniquely privileged in that his father was a High Sorcerer and a golf buddy of the headmaster. Where hard work and determination failed, nepotism and bribes usually succeeded.
Unfortunately, this time his father had only been half successful. The biggest stumbling block to him passing the year was his lack of familiar. He had failed in many areas - transmogrification, alchemy, necromancy - but not by much and not in an obvious way. These were all things that could be learned through a private tutor or blustered through in interviews. But every magician had a soul-bonded animal and, without one, it would be obvious that he was not up to snuff. The headmaster had agreed to give him his certificate on two conditions: firstly, that the library should receive an anonymous donation large enough to refurbish and secondly, that Jon linked with a familiar so obviously magical that nobody could mistake it for a normal, mortal pet.
He had tried, he had explained defensively to his father, who was caught between deep disappointment and incandescent rage. He had spent the expected level of time communing with nature and summoning forth the soul bond that would forever connect you to your familiar. He’d even gotten pretty close. But there were some things beyond his control and the ridiculously unpredictable temperament of animals was one such thing.
His father’s familiar, a hauntingly beautiful albino peacock, had taken offence at this and pecked his foot so hard that it had bled. Jon used this as proof of what he was saying, in between hops and yelps. He asked if perhaps they could just buy a very affectionate cat for him. People didn’t interact with other magician’s familiars unless they were family so it would fool most. They’d need to make sure the cat was a common breed with common markings, of course, so that they could switch for a new one when the old one died. Familiars had the same lifespan as their humans and that would be the one main giveaway.
There would be no compromise on this, his father had replied, utterly appalled at the lack of moral fibre shown (his dad didn’t see the irony of lecturing him about this mere hours after returning from bribing a school official). He would not embarrass the family by taking a regular pet and pretending. The shame, should that get out, would be crushing. No, he must go and find a familiar the way that every magician in the history of magicians had.
Jon had grumbled but not for too long - there was a deadline. He had until the day before graduation to find and link with an animal and that prestigious ceremony was a mere four days away.
He packed a picnic hamper and a warm jacket and set off. Most magicians did this on school grounds, where the extensive gardens housed a wide variety of creatures. Jon, naturally, didn’t have to worry about travelling there though; his family’s estate was nearly as large and definitely more biodiverse. His great-grandfather had built quite the menagerie, having not believed that exotic animal trafficking was an actual crime.
It took longer than expected to find a nice spot and get settled as he’d taken a circuitous route through the strawberry patch. Once seated, fully warded and with a full belly, he began the process of relaxing the mental barriers he kept up at all times.
The summoning wasn’t a formal spell as such - more of a laying down an invitation and seeing what accepted. The wards, therefore, were extremely important. Neglectful magicians had found themselves permanently bonded to imps and demons and Jon thought that the shame of that might outweigh coming back without a familiar at all.
Jon sat for nearly an hour before he felt its presence. He kept his eyes closed, sensing the animal nosing around the circle. Once it breached the barrier, they would be bonded but it knew that and stayed on the outside.
“I know you know I’m here,” it said. Jon opened his eyes slowly. The squirrel sat on its hind legs, beady black eyes boring a hole into him. “You came,” Jon said.
“I didn’t think you would.”
The squirrel tilted it’s head. “Me either.”
The two regarded each other for a moment. Jon looked away first, bowing his head, the picture of sincerity.
“I wanted to say sorry.” The words tasted bitter in his mouth but he was on a schedule and this was the fastest way.
There was a long silence. The squirrel continued to look at him and Jon struggled to not fill the silence. He failed at that, too.
“I didn’t pass in the end,” he said to the unblinking stare. “Hazel - I told you about Hazel - was a bit of a distraction. I know you told me to focus on my studies but if a sexy squirrel shimmied in front of you, you’d find it difficult to concentrate too.” The squirrel made no comment but gave every impression that if it could raise an eyebrow, it would. I told you so vibes rolled off of it in waves.
“By the time Hazel dumped me, it was too late to do the catch-up study. And then, of course, I also didn’t have a familiar. You really need one if you want to be taken seriously, it seems.” He looked pointedly at the squirrel.
The squirrel narrowed its eyes. “You suggested getting a cat, didn’t you?”
“No! How could you think that?”
“I can’t believe you’d get a cat.”
“I didn’t suggest a cat!”
“Your left eye twitches when you’re lying.”
Jon hesitated. “Really? Did it do it just then?”
The squirrel looked as triumphant as one can be with the facial range of a squirrel. “No but I knew you were lying!”
Jon made a sound of disgust. He knew he didn’t have a tell that obvious. Lying under pressure was somewhat of a family speciality and he would’ve been told by now if he was letting them down on that front as well.
“This is why you don't have a familiar yet. You need to be honest with them. You’re just afraid to be open with another creature.” The squirrel looked at him, eyes shining with fervour and, Jon thought, a hint of self-righteousness as well. This did not make him feel particularly good, especially as this was the squirrel’s fault and it was just spouting rubbish psychobabble to cover itself. He glared.
“I am not! The reason I don’t have a familiar yet is because you’re so damned sensitive! If you weren’t such a big baby, we would’ve been bonded three months ago! If anyone is to blame, it’s you!”
The squirrel sniffed sharply and snapped its front legs apart, revealing a thin membrane that connected limbs to body. It scurried up a tree and flung itself out, using the air currents to fly away. A soft “Screw you!” floated back on the breeze.
Jon sighed. This is what he’d tried to tell his dad about animal temperaments. Completely out of his control.
The next day, Jon trudged back to the same spot. He had stayed until well past dark but no other animals had come close. Maybe they were as crazy as the squirrel. But his dad had been cross at the lack of results and had personally turfed him out of bed that morning. Jon was used to breakfast in bed delivered by the butler so a hasty bowl of Cheerios in the kitchen as he pulled on his socks had put him in somewhat of a bad mood.
By midday though, he was fuming. He’d been sitting, sending out mental invites all morning and he was sure that animals were giving him a wide berth on purpose. Even insects seemed to have vacated his little circle. At this point, luck normally would have snagged a companion - a bird would’ve flown through the circle or a carelessly curious bunny would’ve ventured too close. When he felt the squirrel’s approach in the early afternoon, he knew the cause.
“This is your doing, isn’t it?” he snapped. The squirrel did an excellent impression of a shrug.
“Hey, I just put the word out that you were moody and mean. No animal in their right mind is going to go near you. But that’s on you, amigo.”
If Jon left the circle, he’d have to spend the time starting from scratch. But, my goodness, he wanted to strangle the little tree rat. It knew, too, and he could swear that it’s tiny face was wearing a smirk.
“I’m so glad we didn’t bond already,” he snarled. “I can’t imagine being stuck with your vindictive arse for the rest of my life. God, how do the other animals stand you?”
The squirrel twitched. It looked like it was going to say something back but then it seemed to deflate. A twinge of regret spiked through Jon but before he could say anything, it had darted up a tree and was soaring away.
Jon shifted uncomfortably. Maybe he had been a bit harsh. The squirrel might not have deserved that. He‘d had a while to mull over what it had said about being vulnerable and he was starting to think that perhaps it had a point. It wasn’t like he‘d had much practice; his family weren’t big on hugs or introspection.
It took a long time to bond with a familiar. Sure, some magicians had animals that wandered into their circles and they had to figure it out as they went but, if it was done properly, it was a lot like a courtship. You met, figured each other out and then decided if you wanted to stay together for the long run.
Jon had been almost at the end of the process with the squirrel three months prior. Thinking back on it, he might have said something similarly unkind back then when the squirrel’s advice on Hazel and his studies had hit a little too close to home. The furry bugger had been right, too, which was annoying.
The thing was, they actually got on very well. Not all familiars talked, though they could all communicate in a way. Jon had felt very lucky when the talking squirrel had first approached; it was quite a prestigious breed of familiar and it would impress his dad. The squirrel was pretty clever too. It had even helped with some of his homework when it had involved more instinctual magic. He’d even missed being able to talk to his little companion when Hazel had called it off.
Jon sighed. He only had one day left and, truth be told, he liked the fuzzy critter. Other animals seemed like they’d be boring; at least the squirrel would challenge him. If he was being perfectly honest with himself, he didn’t want a different familiar. He made his decision, stood up and broke the circle.
He spent the next hour preparing his apology before setting up the circle again. This time it was a while before the squirrel approached and, when it did, it stayed at the edges of Jon’s consciousness.
“I know you’re there,” Jon said quietly. “I really am sorry. You were right.” The squirrel came closer, still watching him carefully. “I was moody and mean. I could say that my dad is putting me under a lot of pressure but that’s no reason to take it out on you.” It came closer. “You said some things - today and before - that hit a bit close to home but I think that just means you know me really well.”
Jon had laid out a collection of nuts, mushrooms and strawberries. “I didn’t know which you preferred so I just found some of everything,” he said. “I also have some of the things that you could have if you were to forgive me and become my familiar.”
The squirrel picked up a nut and tucked it in its cheek. Next to the pile of food was what looked like a bit of sheepskin and a bowl of water. “That’s what you’d be sleeping on,” Jon explained and the squirrel poked it curiously. “And that’s triple filtered mineral water. You don’t have to drink it out of a bowl though - I just didn’t know how else to show you.” The squirrel took a cautious sip and then a longer, more appreciative one. “You would also travel the world, or, at least, England, with me. You would meet other familiars and make friends with them. You’d help me work my way through life and I promise I’ll listen to your advice. I’m really sorry for the things I said and I promise to never react so badly to what you say again.”
The squirrel sat back on its haunches and sized him up. It seemed like an eternity before it said anything else.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” it said and took a deliberate step over the circle’s boundary.