The convention centre is a small affair, the kind of place suited to large weddings and craft fairs. Locals are wandering about it in a daze as Klingons and Wookies exchange greetings in faux-alien tongues and people in blue paint and almost no clothing use any excuse they can to practise nudism. Jay is wandering the convention trying to find a hobbit because he wants to be one when he grows up. That, or Sauron. He marched off in a huff after I pointed out it’s rather hard to be someone you can’t say properly and muttering about being a Dalek then because I’d ruined his entire joke.
I’m wandering it trying to find out what a Dalek even is when I take the wrong corner and run into them. One table, two people in black hats doing card tricks for younger kids. The younger one is in his late teens, the kind of kid who spent his time at home learning magic tricks in his bedroom while other kids had lives, the older is stern and cold, the kind who believes magic is an Art and probably belongs to some magic circle dedicated to keeping their secrets private from the world when they can probably be summed up as misdirection and mirrors.
I’ve moonlighted as one once or twice, mostly for money and to bring a little real magic into lives. The one conjurer is rattling off his spiel seriously as he shuffles cards in and out of his hands with the skill of a surgeon performing an operation. The older spots me and goes still. Sometimes they know a real magician when they see it, though I’m not sure how. Or why they’d want to.
I walk past quickly but the magic finds its way out anyway. The younger conjurer lets out a small gasp at whatever he sees on some of the cards but doesn’t flatter at all. The older one follows me down the hallway, righteous fury radiating from him to empty it as he grabs my arm.
“Why are you here?” he demands. He doesn’t let go of my arm, which is mildly impressive.
“Oh,” I say lightly, “I’ve been roaming the earth, going back and forth on it.”
He gets the reference, even if I might have mangled it a little. “Your kind are not welcome here.”
“I am just passing through with a friend; I didn’t expect to find any conjurers in a convention this small.” I spread my hands; he tries not to flinch. “I’ll try to keep away from you but I can make no guarantees if you start using tarot cards. Magic gets downright sarcastic over those.”
His lips twitch almost into a reluctant smile as he lets go of my arm. “Joe doesn’t even know real magic exists, magician. What if he wants to become one?”
“You know, David,” I say, and he starts that I know his name, but names are easy to pull out of the air as most people scream theirs to the world unknowing. “I think that you wouldn’t have an apprentice who is that stupid.”
He lets out a sigh. “This is really a coincidence then?”
“Oh, no. I’m not sure anything is where magic is concerned. Is there a Lord of the Rings exhibit here?”
“No,” David says. “Please don’t tell me some of those actors –.”
I snort at that. “No. I’m just travelling with someone who is getting obsessed over the movies.”
He pauses, then decides not to ask questions. “I’ll send Joe to talk to you. He’s going to want to.”
I nod and wait as he goes back. He doesn’t look back once, trusting me to remain. His apprentice comes down the hallway a minute later, all pale and shaky but trying to hide it. “Joe, is it?”
A nod. Crooked teeth dig deep into his lower lip for a moment. “I saw things in the cards,” he stammers, all the patter gone from his voice.
“It doesn’t have to happen.” I don’t know what he saw; I could, but I choose not to. The look of relief on his face says I guessed correctly. “Magic can change the world, but that is not what it is for.”
Joe is smart enough not to ask what it is for, or too scared to. He licks his lips. “I saw fire in my hands.”
“And you think the magic wouldn’t burn your hands?” I have no scars on my hands. He stares at them and then up at me and waits, almost meeting my gaze. “Magic is change, and change is never welcomed nor wanted, Joe. There is no one, no matter how badly they need my help, who is not glad to see me leave. Magicians are necessary to guard this world against things that live outside the darkness, beyond the rational boundaries people build. But there will come a day when it will be too hard, when the costs will be more than I can force myself to pay and I will let go of the magic and walk away.
“I may die before that moment; many others have. And all I will leave behind is stories that will, if I am very lucky, convince others to not become a magician. You, conjurer, you will leave behind laughing children, baffled adults, apprentices, friends. Sometimes, when it comes upon you, the magic cannot be refused, but that does not mean it should be sought.”
“But you’re still a magician. Still – more,” he whispers, and there is a yearning in him for more than cards and tricks.
“Do you know what a Dalek is?”
Joe blinks. Almost opens his mouth, snaps it shut. He nods, finally, looking lost.
“I don’t. Magicians don’t use the internet or watch too much television; magic answers need and we might – do unwise things.” His eyes widen. All my talk of prices and if it comes to no televison or internet, it finally makes sense to him. “I am travelling with a kid who is threatening to be one: I need ammunition.”
Joe tells me about how Daleks are pepper pots, how Doctor Who was revamped, about Skarro where they came from, how Davros made them and other details off the top of his head. I try not to think of that as a king of magic and thank him.
“Magician.” I wait. “My –. I –. I can’t make them laugh, like other conjurers do,” he whispers. “They smile.” I wait and he finally meets my gaze, his smile a twisting of lips, forced and gone between moments. “Can you fix my teeth?”
“I can. So could a dentist.” He says nothing to that. “Would you still be you if I did it?”
Joe pauses. The pause lengthens and he finally says: “I don’t know,” proving David picked the right apprentice after all.
“Do you want to be you?”
He nods, takes a deep breath and tries on a smile. “Thank you.”
I walk away before he can question himself again and find Jay munching on a hot dog while watching people play act while wearing blue paint over their bodies. I’m pretty sure it’s not smurfs.
“Hey, kiddo.” He grins and makes room on the bench for me. “You know you can’t be a Dalek, either? They’re from Skarro.”
Jay start, staring up at me in shock. “Is there a reason you don’t want to be Jay,” I add before he can speak.
“I don’t know. It’th hard,” he mumbles.
“I imagine so. You’re not human at all. Being Jay is far harder than being a hobbit.”
“But they had to throw the ring in mount doom.”
“You have Charlie and I as friends, even if she isn’t around right now.”
He giggles at that. “Tho I win?”
“I wouldn’t call being friends with Charlie or me winning.”
Jay grins at that and lets out a happy sigh, resting his head against my arm. His right hand trembles a little.
“It’s okay,” I say, softly enough that he doesn’t have to hear it if he doesn’t want to.
Jay doesn’t move for a long moment, and then just watches people play games of magic and sucks his thumb, ignoring any stares he attracts entirely. Being Jay, as he has become. It’s not healing, not yet, but he can’t hate me for changing him and he’s trying not to hurt himself. It’s enough.