There are things even a magician cannot avoid forever, powers which even magic cannot bind or loose. I try, but it is me against the world and the world wins out. There are so few places in the world I could escape to with Jay and he would ask questions about why we had gone to them, why we’re just upped and left North America when I have friends and responsibilities I cannot simply abandon. Jay is slowly learning about this universe, being from far outside it, but one thing he understands better than I ever could is bindings.
Which is why, despite my efforts and tricks, he drags me into a mall in a small town two days before Christmas with frantic comments about bindings falling apart. Jay is small and thin, looks to be about ten and can pass for younger. The lisp helps with that, and the fact that he is very young by the standards of creatures from Outside the universe. He is afraid all the time, but you would be too if you’d fled into the universe because every single thing you met wanted to eat you. Fleeing into the universe had damaged him, with the lisp being an outward sign of damage even a magician cannot fix. Jay looks like a little kid, I’m a magician. I don’t look like whatever you expect. Appearing ordinary and unremarkable is a skill few people bother to acquire, magician or not. People just think twenty-something with nephew and never think further about me.
He stops. “Every binding here ith breaking down,” he hisses, practically hopping from foot to foot, gaze darting from person to person frantically. The mall isn’t much to speak of but is still jammed with last minute shoppers with scowls and lists, the Christmas music playing in the background sounding like nothing so much as irony.
“Fix it,” he pleads, because his trust in me has never wavered. I’ve damaged the binding between us at least once, forced him to call up his potential self and damaged him further and he still trusts me.
There are things even magic cannot fix. I reach down, wrap his hand in mine and start walking.
“Honcho?” he says in a small voice. I don’t like using my name in public, he doesn’t like trying to say the word magician. I can feel him pushing at the bindings between us like a sore tooth, trying to understand. “You were hiding thith from me?”
“I’ve hurt you enough the past few weeks.”
“Charlie isn’t travelling with us, and that is my fault.” I don’t say why. Jay forgave me for using him; Charlie couldn’t do that. “This is a bad time of yearn to be a magician,” I add as we wind our way between shoppers. “Magic answers need, bends it to give people what they want. But this time of year there is nothing but needs. Christmas is about making the transient last: gifts of presents are an echof of deeper and older powers, the shifting of the seasons. The war against entropy.”
“I don’t like it,” he mumbles.
“You don’t like entropy?”
“No, the – the other word.”
“Christmas.” He nods. I find a bench and sit. “Read up on it on your phone.”
He does so for a good ten minutes, focused on nothing else, then looks up. “I thought the lightth were to hold back the dark?”
“They are. Everything changes, rituals become traditions but do not lose their power.” He says nothing. “All right, I’ll bite: why don’t you like it?”
“It ith really hard to thay,” he says, and breaks out into a huge grin at whatever he sees on my face.
“I see.” I stand and grin in turn. “We’re doing this, then. Come.”
Jay blinks but follows me through the crowd until we reach Santa’s grotto. It isn’t big, consisting of one styrofoam reindeer, one sour kid in an elf costume and an older man with a false beard who is trying to smile in the face of terror and crying children. All children instinctively fear Santa Claus; so many adults forget to wonder why. Jay trembles slightly, fingers tight in my grip. He can see the threads that bind people together easier than we see colours; I can barely imagine what this might be like. But he says nothing, so I keep silent as we reach the front of the line.
“You’re old,” Jay says. He has no power to put into his voice, but he knows things nothing human can, and the awful certainty of his words causes the costumed man to pause. “All that need, all that power, and humanity turned it into a game. Took the dark and bound it to the light. A gift, a present, a giving: a bargain with the world that is old enough to not be a bargain at all but the way of it.
“They can’t even imagine the awful thing you’ve bound with thethe ritualth,” he adds, softer, his gaze turning to me. “And I think you don’t know either?” For a moment he looks so small and scared I think he’s going to start sucking on his thumband not stop, but Jay pulls himself out of the seeing, back into the world, reaches for strength from me and then for magic.
A magician cannot work magic in this place and not become trapped in the myth of it. There are stories so powerful that no magic can break them, and no way to know why we still tell them. I give him strength and power and wait, feeling the energies of the world twist in unfamiliar ways. I don’t know what Jay is doing; I’m almost certain he doesn’t either.
“All they want,” Jay says, and my power threads through his voice, binding the old man in a costume and the elf, reaching out to other grottos, other places, “is to not be afraid. Because it is cold and dark and the light seems far away in a world that is half-dying in ice. They want family to be family and friends to be friends; you don’t have to be small that the gifts you give no matter at all.” He smiles at the Santa then, and whispers a wish so soft I don’t catch it at all save to know it is entirely in his own voice.
Jay snags my hand a moment later and pulls me away from the grotto. “You can get your family gifth now,” he says proudly.
I pause, stop dead, stare down at him. The crowds seem less frentic, the children in line for Santa more curious than terrified and the world is – I turn then, in a slow circle, and see people and nothing more. “That was all a trick.”
“Yup! I needed your voithe to not thound thilly,” he grumbles, then grins again. “And I helped them and you and it wath a very good binding.”
“Yes.” I can feel my magic, deep and quiet, bound under the power of the season and Jay’s will. To be a magician without magic for one even a few hours was a gift, though not one I imagine Jay would be able to pull off again. “You could have used that moment to say the word Christmas.”
He rolls his eyes and just grins, pulling me toward a store. “It’th your turn to come!”
“Uh huh.” I let go of his hand and walk slowly. “And if I was to ask how much of this was so that I’d get you presents, Jay?”
“I do need a new phone,” he says in a tone so serious it almost throws me until he sticks out his tongue and half-skips into a store.
I shake my head and follow. A small part of me is horrified he bound my power so easily but I take it as a gift of the season along with a desire to never find out what creature Jay is certain humanity bound with Christmas. I buy him gifts, and give him money to buy me a few with, shock my family by calling them on Jay’s phone.
I wait until my magic frees itself from his binding before we have a snow ball fight.