There was no point to being here. It was too early in the quarter to be doing this amount of work, especially since the two students asking for the help didn’t even need it, and the students that needed the help definitely weren’t paying attention. The multitude of things Shireen could be doing right now just ate at her the entire time. A new workload had just been dumped on her, she got this assignment last minute and was thoroughly unprepared for it, and now she had to create lesson plans for a subject she was mostly unfamiliar with just to get through the mandatory teacher’s assistant position for her graduate school stipend. It was too much.
The students were no help. Multiplying in her head, Shireen tried not to bang her head against the chalkboard as she figured out what seven to the fourth power was. She should never go anywhere without her graphing calculator. Mathematics was impossible to teach without it, and most professors required students to use them anyway. Still, her students just had to ask for the manual method of solving and Shireen cursed this category of overachiever that she once fell into.
“So it’s… log base seven of two thousand four hundred one,” Shireen said, scowling at the board as she wrote it out. She slumped back down to her seat, glancing around at all the students simply scribbling down whatever she wrote on the board. “Without a calculator, you’ll have to multiply out all the sevens individually and one at a time until you reach the other number.”
“Is that the exponent?” someone shouted out.
Shireen opened her mouth, ready to simply say the inverse function and how they related. However, someone beat her to it. “Yeah, log base b of y equals x is the same thing as b to the x equals y.”
Shireen just nodded along, turning around to write what the student just said on the board. There was no purpose to her being here. It was day two of the semester. Most of the students had likely ditched the first day of class, disregarding it as a syllabus day. Shireen almost wished they could move past this review, especially since they quickly needed to move to second derivatives and the rest of calculus if these students were truly Pre-Med as she had been.
“Any questions?” Shireen asked, wondering if she should have done a medical school program instead of a doctorate one to avoid this responsibility that she definitely wasn’t being paid enough for.
Someone slid closer around to her edge of the table, and it took everything Shireen had in her to just purse her lips and not snap at him to move away. Instead she just sighed softly and mustered out a small, “Yes?”
“Do you want to see a magic trick?” he asked. He was shuffling a deck of cards in his hands, his long fingers easily manipulating the deck and splitting it several times. He glanced up through his shaggy, ruddy hair that was falling into his eyes. Shaking his head roughly, he moved forward, fanning out the cards in front of her.
Shireen briefly wondered what he was even doing here. Either way, she didn’t have time for this. There were other things to do. As flippantly as she could manage, she said, “Sure.” Then, she addressed the other students in the discussion, “Anyone else?”
Someone actually raised a hand and waited for Shireen’s acknowledgement before asking, “And the properties of logarithms still apply to exponents after the base of the log?”
“Um.” Shireen closed her eyes, trying to remember the properties of logarithms that she hadn’t reviewed in literal years.
During her pause, the boy with the cards nudged her arm. “Pick a card,” he whispered, gesturing down with his chin toward the cards.
Blindly, Shireen reached for the deck. She grabbed a card at random, gave it the briefest of glances, and went to write on the board. “Yes, if you have log base b of x to the y power, then that is equivalent to y times the log of base b of x.”
Lifting her hand to write the power property of logarithms on the board, Shireen remembered the card in her hand. She shoved it back at the other student.
“Did you memorize it?” he asked, taking it slowly.
Rolling her eyes slightly, Shireen took the card back for a quick examination. Seven of clubs. Then, she handed it back. She properly labeled the properties of the logarithms, adding on the product property and quotient property while she was at it.
“Is the deck shuffled enough?” the distracted magician asked her. “How many more times should I shuffle it?”
“Ten,” Shireen said, waving him away as she finished writing on the board. Her fingers were getting extremely dusty from the chalk, and she was a little thankful that she hadn’t finished painting her nails the other day. Now, she couldn’t see just how messy everything was getting. Still, it was difficult to resist the urge to wipe her hands off on her jeans. “Any other questions?”
“Okay,” the magician said, sliding forward. “Ten shuffles. I promise that the deck was in a completely random order when we started. And now…” He snapped his fingers. Then, spread out the deck to revel that one card was now face-down. With a grandiose gesture, he pulled it out and displayed the seven of clubs. “Is this your card?”
“Yes,” Shireen said quickly. She ignored the small spattering of applause to call out, “Any other questions about math?”
“When shifting to the exponential, where do we put the vertical asymptote?” someone called out. They weren’t even holding a pencil, and a notebook was nowhere in sight.
Shireen closed her eyes, trying to flip the graph of a logarithmic function in her head. It was tedious, unnecessary, and more difficult than it should have been only because of the list that was forming of all the other things she needed to accomplish.
Turning to the call, Shireen incorrectly expected assistance for the problem at hand. However, it was only the magician, finished shuffling his deck of cards yet again.
“Pick a card,” he urged, holding out the fanned cards to her. “And it’s a horizontal asymptote. Y equals zero.”
Blinking at him, Shireen slowly took another card. “Right,” she said. She glanced down at her card, taking a bit more time to remember that it was the two of hearts. Handing it back slowly, she slid the card facedown onto the top of the offered deck. “Thanks.”
He smiled at her, sliding his fingers over the edges of the cards and aligning them fully. Holding up a finger as a sign to wait, Shireen returned to the board and quickly sketched out the graphs of the two functions, making sure to label the line of symmetry. She settled back into her seat. This time, she turned just slightly to the magician that was waiting for her attention.
“So your card is on top,” he told her. He held out the deck again, “Would you like to check?”
Hesitantly, Shireen reached for the card, seeing that it was still the two of hearts. She put it back gently.
He nodded at her. Then, he squared up the deck again, running his fingers smoothly along the edges. Very deliberately, he removed the top card and slid it randomly into the deck. He snapped his fingers, wiggling them over the deck just slightly. Pulling off the new top card, he held it out to her. “Is this your card?”
Shireen looked a bit confusedly at the two of hearts. While she always had a mild appreciation for the mystic, it was never anything she had given any sort of prolonged thought. Her concerns had always been more strongly placed in the sciences, in which she had just the right amount of aptitude, having always preferred a challenge when learning new material. After a pause longer than she intended, and noticing that the student was looking concerned that he had made an error, she said, “Yes, it is.”
His face slowly lit up into a smile, and he slowly set about to reshuffling his deck of cards.
“We’re nearly out of time,” Shireen announced to the room. “Is there anything else?”
“Do we need to know the trig laws?” someone asked.
Shireen shook her head. The last thing she wanted to force herself to remember was the full proof of the law of sines and cosines. Instead, she simply took a deep breath. “Only in so much as that you know them,” she said. “I can assure you that no one will ask for a full proof of why the laws exist.”
Looking around, Shireen met the eyes of the magician yet again. She now felt rather awkward for not remembering his name. Then again, there was no one in the room that she knew the name of. He was looking rather expectantly at her, and this time she knew what he was going to ask.
“Can I show you another trick?” he asked leadingly. Already, he was pulling two cards from the deck and scooting closer to her.
Seeing that most of the other students were already packing up, Shireen nodded. She slid her chair forward. Then, a thought struck her again. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know your name.”
“Oh,” he quickly dropped the cards. Ignoring them entirely, he put a hand forward for her to shake. “Rickon.”
“Shireen,” she replied, taking his hand and giving it a firm shake. She felt like she was positively dwarfed by his height, even though they were both sitting. Just from holding his hand, she could tell that he was significantly taller than her.
He held up a thumb to her. “Hold out your hand just like this,” he said, only going so far as to retrieve two cards from the floor. He flipped them over in his hands as he named them, showing them all to her. “These are the ace of hearts and ace of diamonds, just so we can tell them apart.”
Shireen nodded, trying to pay close attention. “Okay.”
“I’m going to slide the ace of hearts into your hand,” he said, placing the card under her thumb facedown. He carefully added the other in the same way saying, “Now, I’m going to put the ace of diamonds right on top. What do you have in your hand?”
“The two red aces?” Shireen guessed.
“Are you sure?” Rickon asked. He stooped down to quickly stack up the fallen cards, holding them in his hand loosely.
Shireen looked around at the slowly disappearing students. “Yes?”
“You can check,” he encouraged, gesturing to her hands.
Shireen slowly twisted her hand around, checking that the cards were still the same. She nodded to herself. “Alright then.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to switch the cards around.” Slowly, he pulled out the bottom card and put it on top. “Where’s the heart?”
“On top,” Shireen said firmly.
“And now again,” he said. This time, he took the heart and placed it on the deck. “Which card do you have?”
“The diamond,” Shireen said.
Sliding the card on top slowly, he pulled out the bottom card. “And now?”
“I have the heart,” Shireen said. “You have the diamond.”
“Once more,” he said. Rickon quickly slid a card between her thumb and the card, pulling it out quickly. “I switched them.”
Shireen blinked at him. She had never released the card. That simply wasn’t possible. “No, you didn’t,” she said. “I still have the heart.”
“Do you?” he asked.
“Yes,” Shireen said.
He shrugged, sliding his card back on top. “Then, which card is now on top?”
“The diamond,” Shireen said. She was certainly that she had seen through this guise. There was no way for him to have properly switched the cards when she had never released them.
“Why don’t you check?” he asked. There was another easy smile on his face.
Shireen was more than ready to prove him wrong. She quickly turned over the cards, but she was left staring at them in confusion.
“Well?” he prompted.
Looking down at the cards, Shireen flipped over the two black aces in her hands. “That’s not possible,” she said. “You never switched them.”
“That’s because it’s magic,” he said, leaning back in his chair. Then, he quickly sat forward. “Do you want me to teach you?”
Waving her hands slightly, Shireen handed the cards back. “No, that’s okay,” she said. “I’ll likely be horrible at it, and I think I’ll enjoy believing in the magic left in this world.”
“If you say so,” he conceded. “But how about another one? Really fast?”
Shireen glanced at the clock. She scarcely had any time to spare, and she certainly wasn’t going to gain anything from staying another minute. However, the hopeful look in Rickon’s expression was so genuine that she felt gutted at saying no, so she settled in for another round. “Quickly then.”
He lit up with his smile and dug in his pocket for a black permanent marker. “It’ll come off, I promise,” he said, drawing a small x on the back of his right hand. “I’m going to put this little x on your hand. Are you right-handed or left?”
“Right?” Shireen said, holding out her hand to him. Seeing that her hands were still dusty, she quickly wiped them off before presenting it again.
He quickly put it palm down, bringing it just a bit closer to himself. Then, he started wrapping her fingers up into a fist. Nervously, Shireen reached up with her free hand to push her hair behind her ear. He glanced up to the motion, and she quickly undid it. Of course, it wouldn’t do well for this encounter to end with him realizing that she was entirely unpleasant to look at. He was likely just using her attention as practice for his craft.
“Are you ready?” he asked, licking his left thumb.
“Sure,” Shireen said.
He carefully fisted up his own hand, aligning the small mark over the flat of hers. Then, he meticulously worked at rubbing away the mark. “The saliva just makes it go faster,” he explained. “But once we get it off enough, it’ll be on your hand.”
The whole idea of it seemed rather absurd to her, but Shireen just nodded along. Maybe the attention he gave her wasn’t well-deserved or simply just as practice for a real performance. All the skin contact involved was far more intimate than she was entirely comfortable with, but his disregard for her appearance made her feel rather appreciated for her attention.
“There we go,” he announced, leaving only a smudge of black on the back of his hand. He scowled at it before waving it away. “It’ll wash off later… But the mark is now on your hand.”
Holding her right hand in his left, he pulled away his other hand to reveal that the back of her hand was entirely blank. Shireen quickly stifled a giggle.
“Well,” he said slowly, nudging his fingers under hers and loosening her fist. Then, he nodded. “I know,” he said. “It went too far.”
Shireen leaned her head slightly to the side, letting him turn her hand over and reveal a small black x in the exact center of her palm.
Slowly, Shireen pulled her hand away. She carefully examined the small black mark. “How did you…?”
Rickon simply grinned at her, not even letting the comment about magic move past his lips. However, he did quickly wink at her, before moving to pack up his things.
To distract herself, Shireen looked over to the clock. Only seeing that it was, indeed, five past two made her realize that she needed to be on the other side of campus in about ten minutes for a meeting. She quickly jolted away from the table and started gathering her things.
“I’m sorry,” she said, zipping up her bag. She shot a few looks over to Rickon, trying not to seem entirely preoccupied with a new circumstance. “I only just realized the time, and I have a meeting to get to.”
“Of course,” he said, standing up himself. Rickon had no materials on him to speak of, but he did walk the edge of the room and retrieve a few pencils that Shireen had loaned out earlier. Returning, he held them out to her. “Don’t be late.”
“Thank you,” she said, shoving the pencils back into her bag. Then, she looked up at him, realizing that he could definitely see clear over the top of her head. “For the magic tricks,” she quickly added on. “They were amazing, and it was nice to not be doing work.”
“Anytime,” he said, going to open the door for her.
Shireen hurried out of the room, making for the elevator immediately to get to her destination sooner. It hadn’t even occurred to her that Rickon likely had to leave the building as well, and she wondered if he lingered on the other floor just to make her escape that much less awkward. Still, Shireen finally had a moment to get her bearings and become a bit more prepared for the remainder of the day. She knew that she owed some of that to Rickon, and she was very glad that one of the students who didn’t need help at least tried to make her time better during her mandatory time in discussion.
It was a full week later that Shireen finally felt comfortable again. The workloads of scheduling assignments, managing her calendar, going to her own classes, meeting with her professors, and somehow managing to find time to sleep every day had someone gotten done. She couldn’t say the same for eating. When busy with her work, Shireen often forgot to eat. Then again, even a good book could do that to her from a very young age. Finding the time in her day to absently complete her readings while eating definitely meant that she finally settled into the school year.
Twisting about in her seat, Shireen grabbed another slice of her apple. She scooped up some peanut butter with it before settling back to finish the last five pages of her reading. Her feet were already propped up on the other armrest, bouncing about to the cadence of her reading. Someone walked into the lounge as she turned to the last page, and she glanced up at them before going back to the reading.
“Did you finish up the assignment for Cressen?” Sam called out, settling into the seat across from her.
Swinging her legs down, Shireen turned around to face Sam. He was such a genuinely kind person that she always wanted to give her full attention to him whenever they spoke. “Just got to the end of the reading, actually,” she told him. “Yourself?”
He shook his head, leaning over to rub at his eyes. “Trying to get some time away to write out my response,” he sighed out. “There’s nowhere to work at home.”
“That’s what the library’s for, right?” she laughed, going to fetch another apple. “Want one?”
Sam waved her off. “Gilly packed for me,” he told her. “She’s likely the only one who thinks I don’t eat enough.”
Biting into her apple, Shireen found her tongue stuck with peanut butter. Still, she tried to ask, “What class are you—”
“Is you finger okay?” Sam blurted out. He was leaning forward over the table at her, holding out a hand.
Luckily, Shireen knew this behavior. Sam was incredible at spotting minor injuries, and he always had advice for them. She placed her hand in his, trying to recall a time she injured herself. “It should be,” she mumbled out. “Why?”
Sam blinked down at her hand. “It just looked like you smashed it,” he said. “I’m sorry. You were saying?”
Shireen shook her head, trying to recall. “I was just wondering what class you got for your TA assignment.”
“Biology,” Sam told her. “So mostly vocabulary right now.”
“Lucky,” Shireen said. She quickly examined her hand, trying to find the spot that worried Sam. “Two of my students insisted on a review of logarithms because it was on the list of topics they should already know. And you know what I haven’t thought about in literal years? Logarithms.”
“At least you’ll never have to teach the Krebs Cycle,” Sam offered. “I’m not looking forward to it.
Shireen nodded. “You have my sympathies there,” she said, trailing off as she found a mark on the nail of her right hand.
“Also, you have five minutes,” Sam said. “Isn’t your discussion at one?”
“Shoot.” Shireen turned to the clock and quickly gathered up her things. It was a quick, messy process, and she ended up nearly crashing into the door as she waved goodbye to Sam. Again, she only got a small break in the elevator that she used to continue examining the mark on her finger. It was a dark purplish-blue color, easily mistaken for a bruise at a glance. It took her a long moment to realize that it wasn’t actually a bruise, and that the color was only stained onto her clear nail polish.
Shireen continued staring absently at it until she was properly situated in her discussion room. Watching the students trickle in, Shireen waited for the familiar face that never came. It was enough so that she was somewhat disappointed that it never appeared. She started the lesson half-heartedly, not that she or anyone else in the room thought that a discussion preparing them for calculus would be particularly exciting.
The weight of the mark on her nail wouldn’t leave her, though. Shireen felt herself bubbling over to say something and let someone know that there was a trace of magic still left on her from an encounter a week ago. Truly, she expected it to be chalk dust, particularly as it seemed like it was omnipresent the instant she wrote anything on the board. Instead, Shireen spent the hour being mostly annoyed at everything, even though she found herself smiling every time she caught a glimpse of her marked finger.
Even as the students left after a full hour of going over math, Shireen had a lingering suspicion that there was a very good reason why she hadn’t seen a certain student today. Swallowing it down, Shireen just packed up and headed out. Maybe it wasn’t worth keeping magic alive to leave this mark on her finger. She’d have to find a way to get it out of her sights tomorrow.
As she exited the building, Shireen crashed into someone. She was so preoccupied in her thoughts that she hadn’t been paying any attention to where she was going.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, stepping back to check that nothing had fallen. This only gave her vision of familiar auburn curls, and she knew who they belonged to. Very quickly, she decided to ignore that she recognized Rickon.
“Oh,” he breathed out. “Hi. I was just getting to discussion…”
“For?” Shireen prompted.
“Um, math,” he said sheepishly.
Shireen nodded, moving out of the way. “Right,” she said. She tried not to take it as a personal slight. There was no point in trying to ignore what this obviously sounded like. “Don’t be late.”
Rickon’s eyes went wide. “Oh, not that,” he said. His hands started fidgeting as he looked around. “Your discussion was great, and I loved it. But my professor’s office hours were at the same time, and I need to go to those, too. I asked to switch, but it wasn’t because of you. Gosh… Um, can I show you a magic trick?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Shireen said, likely much shorter than she wanted. “No harm, no foul.”
Quickly, she stepped around him, trying to make for the exit even faster. Sound as his logic was, Shireen still couldn’t quite tamp down the feeling that this was probably about how pleasing she was to look at. After all, she wouldn’t have chosen her own discussion had she known what she looked like. Shireen shook her head at the thought, trying to physically remove herself from this situation.
“What if it was, though?” Rickon called out.
Shireen froze, turning slowly to look him in the eye. She was more than used to being purposefully ignored and bypassed whenever possible. Almost rarely did anyone actually own up to it, and never did they let her know that she had caused them such unpleasantness. “What?”
“What if it was because of you?” he asked again, leaning against the closest wall.
In the distance, the chiming bells of the library started ringing. He was now late for his discussion, and she was now completely done with this conversation. Rolling her eyes, she turned away. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Quickly, Shireen hurried down the steps. She lifted her bag higher onto her shoulder, trying to get more comfortable as she walked as briskly as she could. There wasn’t even a destination for this. She simply needed to move.
“Okay, wait,” a panting voice said behind her. Rickon stepped in front of her, stopping her altogether. “You’re misunderstanding.”
“No, I think I get it,” she said sharply, trying to shove past him. “Believe it or not, this is common. It’s not at all surprising for me.”
Rickon looked confused, holding up his hands. “This is not going the way I thought it would.”
Resisting the urge to roll her eyes again, Shireen shot back, “And how did you think it was going to happen?”
He shrugged, and his face tinged red. “In my head, it ended with us on a date.”
Shireen narrowed her eyes at him. Now, she was certain that he was crazy. “What?”
“Well, it’d be weird to ask your TA out, right?” Rickon asked, weighing the options in his hands. “Like, it makes more sense to not have them grading your work? Because that sounds a little illegal… But I had a plan… I was going to ask to show you a magic trick, and pull out this card…”
He slid a card from his sleeve, and Shireen twisted around to read a small note that said ‘Dinner?’, followed by his phone number. Taking the card from his hand, Shireen scowled at it. The pieces weren’t quite clicking together, and she wasn’t entirely sure what just happened. Closing her eyes for a long time, Shireen decided to ask.
“What is actually happening?”
“Since my plan to ask you out didn’t go as planned,” Rickon started slowly, “do you want to see a magic trick?”
Shaking her head, Shireen finally let herself smile. Nothing about this situation quite made sense, and she needed a while to figure this out. “I think you’re late for your discussion,” she told him evenly. Then, she held up the card between two fingers. “But how about I keep this, and we’ll see what happens?”
“Can you give me a hint?” Rickon asked.
“Why don’t you leave it to magic?” she suggested. Tucking the card into her pocket, she remembered the mark left on her finger. Smiling down at the mark on her finger, Shireen held out her hand for Rickon to examine. “There might still be a little bit of magic on me.”
Laughing, Rickon took a few steps away. He gave her a small, sheepish wave before turning completely and heading back into the building he left. The discussion started quite some time ago, but from what Shireen knew of him, he wouldn’t need that much help anyway. After all, he was quite skilled at both math and magic, but he still needed a lot of work on his timing and delivery. They’d have to talk about that later.