Title: The Afterlife of Harry Houdini

Rating: PG

Characters: Just everyone's favourite crazy pilot.

Summary: "Used to be I made the world what I wanted. I can't do that anymore." Several weeks after "Without Reservations", Murdock muses on a life newly grounded in Reality.

Disclaimer: I own nothing. Mr. Cannell owns all, and I am but a lowly Textual Poacher.

Real magic. That's what I used to be able to do. Used to be I made the world what I wanted it to be. Closed my eyes and fixed what I didn't like, opened them up and all's well.

But then one day things went bad and badder, and suddenly the magic wasn't working. Closed my eyes, opened my mouth, made up a whole story that made me a murderer, sure, a commando, yeah, a single-handed guilty party, yessir! But along came Reality and popped that magic bubble, and suddenly I realized things weren't gonna be that easy this time around. It was time for some real magic, none of this kid's stuff with words and stories, not just what usually worked for me. Time for the big guns.

So I killed three men, my best friends, a shower of bullets and a flight of birds, ladies and gentlemen, absolutely nothing up his sleeves, put your hands together for the amazing resurrectionist Nighthawk Commando priest . . . . and I brought 'em back to life, nothing to it, easy as kissin' your sister.

But Reality, the big bully, the heckler who knows all the tricks, the one guy in the front row you just can't impress, bounced right back at me. One-upped me, that's what Reality did. Clapped his hands, presto-changeo -- and they ain't just dead, they're disappeared. Top that, commando!

I knew right then and there what the truth was. Reality'd called my bluff, pulled the one trick I'd never mastered, changed the one thing I never could, never would, and magicked the A-Team out of my life. No way to top that, nossir. Reality, sir, I shake you by the hand (only to keep from kickin' you in the teeth), and if you can't beat 'em, best join' 'em.

So I traded in my top hat and magic rings, snapped my wand clean in two, hollered 'Geronimo!' and bailed out over Reality at thirty thousand feet, cannonballing my way down towards the no-magic-allowed zones where Reality had hidden my team. I hit the ground hard, shocked more than a few on my way down to earth, but any landing you walk away from . . . .

Reality kicked me once or twice when I land, just to make sure I'd remember that I'm no magician now. Had to find a job (not a Nighthawk Commando) and a place to live (no bars no meds but also no hot water on Thursday). Had to face the people Reality has set up, and they've got it a lot worse than the ones I used to conjure.

Like the Cuban girl in the apartment downstairs, twenty-one years old, two little girls and another one on the way, all of them in a one-bedroom apartment and "I'll be in deep if the housing department finds out, yeah?" Married exactly twenty minutes before INS broke in and deported her husband, alone now except for the girls. Reality, you are a hard man indeed.

The girls, seven and four, wide-eyed quiet types who didn't know what to make of me until the first card trick set them giggling. I wanted to tell them, that's nothing. I used to be a real magician. Made a whole country disappear, swallowed it whole and then coughed it back up in my dreams. Invented dogs, talking socks, channeled dead writers into cockroach bodies, all of this without the use of mirrors!

Instead I did another trick and they warmed up more and clapped their hands and chattered in broken English until they found out I speak Spanish and then they chattered in that. Their Mama smiled warm at me, tired and grateful for one white guy who's not coming on to her.

If I was still a magician I'd make her a princess – no, a queen, the little ones princesses, the bun-in-the-oven a prince-to-be – and conjure up Billy to dance for all of 'em while the Nighthawk Commandos went off to rescue the husband in Cuba. But I'm not a real magician, not anymore, so what I do instead is carry her groceries upstairs for her when she gets home from work and keep an eye on the girls when she goes to the free clinic for checkups. Thank you, Reality, I believe I take your point; but parachutes don't work backwards, no going back. I'm down to earth now and like it or no, here I am.

Time went by and one night Reality decided it was time for a test, time to see how reformed I really am, see what I'd do in a pinch without magic to fall back on.

One night and one shot and everything went bad again, and even while Face was bleeding all over my hands I could see Reality lurking, smirking, just out of reach. Waiting. Waiting for me to go back and try those old tricks that didn't work at the trial, waiting for the magician to retake the stage and make the world what it should be.

But I know better now, and I may be crazy (never did doubt it) but I'm not insane. Insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different consequences, and I'm not insane, got the papers to prove that, so no magic for me that night. I set Frankie to keeping Face alive (oh God can't someone magic away this blood, there's so much blood) and set myself to getting-us-out-of-this (where's a chopper when you need one, 'cause we need one) and set my teeth and stared Reality right in his ugly face. Okay, sir, you win, do your worst.

It was somewhere later in the night when I was washing Face's blood off of my hands I realize things all worked out, just like they used to when I was a magician. The night's over, the curtain's down and Face's still alive, we're all alive and out of it, even the target, and no magic involved, ladies and gentlemen can you believe it, and a round of applause if you please, for it seems this Reality fella isn't all bad after all . . . .

More time passes by, days full of worry that fades into weeks of slowly regaining ground; and some part of my brain that has been fuzzy longer than I can recall is suddenly clear again, all the way clear. I wonder if it was the magic that kept it fuzzy all those years. I wonder if Reality knew that all along. I wonder what I missed.

Comes a night we all sit out on the deck at Stockwell's place, and things are clear and shiny in a way they used to be only when I was flying or working magic. The evening is warm and clear and quiet except for the traffic and somewhere far off a radio playing. There's barbecue on the picnic table (Frankie's too-wide grin, "It's an authentic Puerto Rican recipe!" and BA, gruffly; "Taste more like Chicago t'me.") and Face looking better, finally, looking like himself; and Hannibal's cigar smoke sweetening the air while the two of them play cards. One of those moments so clear and right you want to hold onto it, reach out and grab it like a brass ring.

And I didn't even magic it, it just is this way, all Reality's doing.

I used to be a real magician, once upon a time; used to be I made the world what I wanted it to be. Closed my eyes and fixed what I didn't like, opened them up and all was well. I can't do that anymore. I'm not sorry for those years I spent working magic – but I'm not sorry they're gone, either.

The world just isn't what I want it to be anymore. But it turns out that's okay.

Because it turns out Reality works some pretty fine magic on its own.

The End