Merritt’s that uncle, the one who no one acknowledge exists until family gatherings no one wants to go to, every other Christmas or Thanksgiving. It’s not that he gets drunk, or gets drunk and makes passes at female relatives he’s not related to; he’s much worse. He tells stories, family secrets that shouldn’t be spoken out loud but he does anyway, because uncle Merritt has no boundaries.
No one likes uncle Merritt.
“Excuse me?” Daniel sounds more indignant than he actually is - it’s not the content of the statement that concerns him, it’s the fact that Merritt thinks that he can assert his dominance in this way, that he acts like he’s better than you because he’s gleaned information through observation and guesswork. Mentalism isn’t skill, it’s luck, and Daniel has an excellent poker face.
Merritt seems to get a kick out of this reaction, because he guffaws and leans back in his seat, stretching his legs until he’s sure the personal space bubble between himself and Daniel is breached. “I don’t mean sexually- sexually you’re definitely a prude, I’m guessing virgin until 22, no, 23-” (Henley tries unsuccessfully to mask a laugh, or maybe she’s not trying to mask it at all, Daniel can’t really tell.) “- you’re just an open book, Jay Dee. I’ve seen plenty like you.”
Henley clasps her hands together before Daniel can retort. “Ohh, do him,” she says gleefully, and Jack laughs at her choice of words, though he nods as well, eager to see his idol deconstructed, no doubt.
Daniel scowls, and folds his arms across his chest. Mentalism is a lot about facial tics and body language, this he knows; it doesn’t take a ‘professional’ to see how annoyed he is. “Fine,” he says, and his tongue clicks quietly in the back of his throat. “Hypnotise me or whatever it is you do.”
“Danny,” Merritt also clicks his tongue, “I don’t do that shit on the people I work with.”
“Oh, didn’t take you for a man of principle,” Daniel sneers. “Don’t worry, I never agreed to work with you anyway.”
The air around them seems to cool. Merritt no longer has the smirk on his face, and Jack is suddenly extremely interested in a crease on the leather couch. Daniel doesn’t back down, he has no reason to trust the set-up, nor any of the people present. (Other than Henley, despite their friction.)
Predictably, it’s Henley who breaks the tension, by punching Daniel in the arm.
“Don’t be a baby, I barely tapped you." She rolls her eyes, pre-empting his complaint, adding, “and don’t be a dick.”
His words still hang in the air, but whatever magic (ha ha) Henley performs works, because the next moment Merritt is literally shrugging it off, chuckling in a way Daniel finds condescending. He holds his tongue, though, catching the glint in Henley’s eye - and the way her fingers flex then curl, as if they’re itching to hit him again.
This is the story that Merritt starts to tell:
It’s a charmed life, there’s mom, dad, sister named Leanne? No, Lea, older than Daniel by four years, better than him at everything, including being their parents’ favourite. He grows up with a chip on his shoulder, the world to prove. Magic is something he’s finally good at, and he hopes that maybe, maybe this time, his parents will pay attention to him.
“Well?” Jack asks, the first to speak up after Merritt finishes. Henley is quiet; there are some things she knows, some things she doesn’t, but she also knows they’re Daniel’s to share.
It's not quite the story that he remembers, but, “Close enough,” Daniel says. He’s not sure if that can be classified as a lie, but he sees Merritt seeing through it.
As Jack exclaims, “haha, no way,” and slaps him on the back, Merritt’s looking at Daniel until they both look away at the same time. “Tip your waitresses,” Merritt says softly.
Merritt deals in truths.
Jack’s the younger brother he never wanted or needed, and told his parents as such, loudly, and at every opportunity. Why did they have to share a room? There’s hardly enough space for one, let alone everything that came with the extra person. Jack doesn’t even do anything, he’s basically decoration.
It takes a long time to catch Arthur Tressler’s attention, but when they do, things start to fall into place. They no longer need to pull little tricks, their time consumed by other things; blueprints, intricate models, plans. Old habits die hard – some people say magic is an addiction, one they don’t make patches for – and after days of what Henley would call ‘samey-samey’, they’re back on the street, doing what they do best.
(Some of them more legal than others. Jack almost reluctantly promises to keep a low profile and stay off the radar.)
They sometimes work in pairs, but Merritt is always alone. (Unless the night is slow, then either Jack or Henley will be the plant, and their ‘tragic past’ will draw curious, vaguely schadenfreude onlookers. They don’t ask Daniel, and he never volunteers.) When Daniel works with Henley it’s familiar and comfortable. His observation about it being like riding a bike, however, is taken entirely the wrong way, and his partner in crime becomes Jack, more often than not. It’s almost cute, how he looks up to Daniel as what a good magician should be, until it becomes annoying.
That’s certainly not why the chest lid lands heavily on Jack’s knuckles near the end of the night, Daniel thinks, it’s certainly just an accident. It doesn’t change the fact that his fingers swell up to twice their size, and after a brief examination, Merritt announces they might be broken.
Jack’s sweating from the pain and the panic. “I don’t have insurance.”
It’s amazing that in the world they occupy, something this mundane is what gives them pause. They drive to the closest emergency room, because there really is no other choice. Daniel opts to stay outside, kicking up dirt and scruffing the soles of his shoes, ignoring the unimpressed look that Merritt shoots him. Henley comes back outside after a while with an update: they’re not broken, but Jack’s going to have to take it easy for a while, and will Daniel please just man up and go talk to him?
They’re back home and the painkillers they prescribed don’t work as well as advertised, so Jack’s in front of the TV for a distraction at 3am, and changes the channel clumsily by tapping the remote with his thumb. Daniel sits next to him and takes over remote duties, flipping every few minutes, unless it lands on some absurd informercial, when they’re obligated to see the entire ridiculous thing through.
“Hey man,” Daniel starts to say in the middle of a commercial, for a juicer of some sort, “I’m,” he clears his throat over the next word, which may have been ‘sorry’, but it’s hard to tell, “about tonight. Last night.” (He doesn’t know why it’s so important to qualify, but he getting the details right seems to help him get everything else right, too.)
Jack doesn’t speak, so Daniel clears his throat again and ploughs on. “I have an issue with hospitals. My sister had a-- thing, a congenital heart thing, so she was always in one, or seeing doctors. We always had to stay with her, well, either my mom or dad had to, and they weren’t-- I just don’t like hospitals.”
He thinks he’s forgotten something, so he says, “Sorry,” and then he waits for a response that doesn’t come. He turns and Jack is asleep with his mouth wide open, a small line of dribble starting to slide down his chin.
“Okay.” Daniel pats his thighs and stares at the TV for a while, before standing up to leave. He feels lighter. “Okay.”
From the couch, Jack mumbles something he doesn’t catch.
Jack hears everything.
“Il est mon petit frère.”
Daniel has to remember to send a card to Mr Kline from high school, because the French lessons are paying off. “Little brother?” He hisses at Henley, once their waiter is out of earshot. “Out of all the things you could’ve said, you go with little brother?”
Henley simply shrugs and spreads her arms outwards in a very French way. “Mon dieu!” She starts saying nonsense phrases, because she knows this will wind him up. “Mon chat est une gare! Sacrebleu!”
Jack’s laughing, and Merritt joins in, “¿Que pasa? Los pantalones son una biblioteca. ¡Ándele!”
“Okay,” Daniel holds up his hands, which only makes them worse. “Your pants are not a library, that makes sub-zero sense.”
“You walked right into that one, Danny.” Henley’s giving him a look, and sure enough, after he chomps down on his pastry, Merritt says with his mouth full, “You could do with some help, I’ll lend you some instruction manuals.”
They’re in Paris for work, but it feels like a holiday. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves when they’re so far from what they have come to know as the norm, the high stakes of their actions. Merritt thinks the food helps – no one has pegged him for a gourmand, but apparently he has a very discerning palate; Jack soaks up the scenery and he sketches, better than anyone could’ve imagined; Henley is in love with the language and the culture, and feels strangely, at home and away from it, all at once. Daniel supposes it’s his job to bring everyone back to reality, remind them why they’re here. His efforts are not always appreciated.
“All work and no play makes Danny a very, very sober boy,” Merritt says to him just before disappearing into his hotel room, alcohol on his breath. During the day, their scouting has been successful, whether it was the change in scenery that prompts everything to go smoothly, is debatable; Daniel keeps expecting something to go wrong.
“I prefer to remain professional,” he retorts, but it lands on a closed door. And I’m still jetlagged, is what he doesn’t say. A drink would probably help with that.
“C’mon,” Henley’s voice comes out of nowhere to echo what he’s thinking, “I’ll buy you something French.”
A Kir is a basic white wine cocktail, Daniel is learning, and it’s delicious. He clinks his glass against Henley’s similarly-coloured drink, and they both sip, enjoying the taste, and each other’s company. Henley puts down her glass first. “You need to relax.”
Daniel doesn’t do anything other than raise his eyebrows, but Henley’s not done. “I know, I know, it’s useless to ask you of all people to relax. Can’t you be, I dunno, a bit less you? At least for the next week.”
It’s not an unreasonable request, Daniel supposes. They’ve marked Étienne, and their guy inside the bank has touched base, everything was slotting into place. Statistically, their success rate is high, and he can afford to let his guard down for a day or two. The moment this thought crosses his mind, his shoulder tenses.
Henley notices, even though he tries to pass it off as a shrug. She doesn’t say a thing, just pats his face, and orders another round.
By the time the bar closes, they’re both a little tipsy, and Henley announces loudly that she thinks a walk would be an excellent idea. Daniel agrees, although, he adds, also loudly, he wishes Paris would smell a little less like pee.
“Just like home, then,” Henley says, then giggles, her breath misting in the air.
“Speak for yourself.” Daniel holds out his arm at an angle, and is relieved when she takes it. “I’m from New Jersey.”
He expects ribbing, an almost obligatory teasing whenever his hometown comes up in conversation with a native New Yorker, but Henley just laughs and grips his arm tighter. “You don’t think about going back sometimes?”
The deflection is automatic. Daniel wrinkles his nose and does the best imitation of the old women in his neighbourhood. “You don’t call, Danny, you don’t write.” He breathes out heavily through his nose. “They don’t really miss me.”
There’s a pause in Henley’s step, and in their conversation. “They miss you,” she says with conviction. “You’re all they have left.”
She’s careful with her words, it’s something Daniel has always liked about Henley, that for all of their bickering and casually-flung insults, she knows how to talk to him. And she knows, about his family (the parents who were so worn out with one child’s illness, that they couldn’t split their attention for the other), about Lea (not four years older, three, and now, younger), about why he got into magic in the first place (it’s something he’s finally good at, and he hopes that maybe, maybe this time, he’s found something to hide behind).
“It’s almost Christmas,” Daniel says finally. He won’t be spending it with his parents, but he won’t be alone. “Maybe I’ll call.”