Push Into the Sky
Merritt plopped down onto the worn bench beside Dylan, holding out a bottle of cheap Tequila. "So, you ever gonna tell us, or should we just sit back and wait for the mystery man to pull back another curtain?"
Dylan took a swig, swallowed past the burn in his throat. "Would you believe me if I told you?" he asked.
Merritt chuckled. "Probably not, but maybe you'd sell me on it."
"You don't seem that bothered either way," Dylan pointed out lazily.
"Half of one, six of the other. The show's over, and the whole world knows our faces now. The mystery's what we have going. Guess I'm not in that big of a hurry to see the towel thrown in on it," Merritt admitted.
Dylan felt himself smile and wasn't sure if it was deliberate or not. "And you want to see if you can figure it out on your own."
Merritt smirked. "I do like a challenge, Agent Rhodes." Dylan took another pull from the bottle and passed it over, watching Henley and Jack cheating one another over a hand of cards. Merritt followed his gaze and then shook his head. "Something just not right about a woman and kid fleecing each other over Gin Rummy. It lacks elegance."
"You are all about the elegance," Dylan answered, earning an amused bark of laughter from Merritt. "So what's your read on me?" He watched Henley sleeve a seven, and then turned back to Merritt. "Your first read was wrong. Don't tell me you haven't been itching to try again."
Merritt shrugged. "Not sure I'd do any better this time." He leaned in though, studying Dylan's face. "Only child," he said. "Tanlines, pores big enough to drive through, so skin cancer's not a concern. Don't think you were much concerned with a long life. This was your big show, you weren't worried so much about an encore."
"Sister. Lives in Bombay with her girlfriend," Dylan answered. His smile ticked a shade too tight, his hand tilted in toward his stomach.
Merritt watched the offered tells and then laughed. "Brother, you've been lying so long you don't even know anymore, do you? Sir, I salute you. The longest of long cons, dead center through Fed territory.
"My father's son," Dylan said, light and even, his father's face still clear and worn past his age in Dylan's mind's eye. "Same as you."
Merritt snorted. "Don't give me your horseshit. My old man was dumb as a brick and drunk as soon as he came off the road."
"But he was good. A good guy." Dylan leaned back, slipping a coin from his pocket and twirling it between his fingers. "My dad tried hard. He was on the road all the time, but he was there when it mattered. School play, birthdays, Christmas. He might be between gigs and dirt poor, but somehow I'd get a bike for Christmas. He played around, it was hard on my mom. But he was a good guy. A good dad."
Merritt's face softened, eyes distant. "He drove the long hauls, but when he was home, he was always out throwing the ball around, fixing the house up. He tried. Didn't matter to him what the hell I did, he was always there, right up until the end." Merritt shrugged. "I probably could have been a damn bank robber and he'd have been proud." He grinned at Dylan. "Oh wait, I am."
"He ever see your show?" Dylan asked.
Merritt looked at him, suspicious Dylan already knew the answer. But he smiled. "Before it went bust. I was just starting to get steady work. Bought me dinner and told me I always was the best little liar he'd ever met."
"He never met me," Dylan said dryly. Merritt laughed and Dylan smiled. It still felt almost genuine. "He'd have been proud of you."
"He'd have been in an FBI cell with your pretty Interpol partner, swearing up and down he didn't know what I was up to, or where I'd gone."
"But proud while he was doing it."
Merritt shrugged and Dylan stood. Before he could walk away, Merritt caught him by the wrist. "You believe in magic, Rhodes?"
Dylan twisted his wrist free and didn't answer. He flipped the coin in his hand into Merritt's, and Merritt started to laugh as he recognized the weighted coin he kept in his own wallet.
There's a fine line between good enough and stardom, and Dylan had practiced walking precisely along it since the day they put up the stone with his father's name chiseled into the gray face. It took time to master. In ninth grade his teachers were gently concerned. Dylan listened from the hallway when his mother, tired and quiet, listened as one teacher after another told her it wasn't that he was doing badly, it was just that he wasn't doing as well as they'd expected. Advancing him so early may have been a mistake, Mr. Arbol had said gravely.
Later his mother twisted her hands together from the worn floral fabric of the sofa and asked him if he wanted to go back to his old class. Maybe it's better, he'd told her.
The year before he'd confounded his teachers by vanishing every pencil in the sixth grade hallway on standardized testing day. They'd run to find more and Dylan had doodled on the booklet until the last minutes of every section and then colored in circles in a rush of adrenaline that was more interesting than anything they tried to teach during the days.
He scored in the top percentiles and was sent for testing. Nothing held his attention because nothing was difficult. They skipped him ahead to high school, a baby-faced freshmen years younger than anyone else. The textbooks were no harder than they had been in middle school. It could have been easy for him. But his dad died, his mother didn't tell anyone, and Dylan had a plan.
He went back to seventh grade. His tests were still in the highest ranges, and his grades were A's. But the pencils never vanished and word puzzles didn't appear on the blackboards, and by the time he was a freshman proper, the teachers didn't think to wonder when he'd slipped from star to the better side of average, and they weren't interested enough to care.
Good, but not too good. He played sports enough that he was a member of the team, but never the standout. He did volunteer work and his college essays talked about being a cop, like his father. By that time, the records backed up the story. He was good with puzzles and bad with people. He had good hands, but he remembered to fumble the ball or miss a shot on the range, sometimes.
He went to Rutgers, double majored in Criminal Justice and Sociology, minored in accounting. He missed Salutatorian by a deliberate fraction and spent two years looking harried and worn down by design. He palmed wallets and slipped them into other hands. His second year the school's buses vanished and reappeared at the Newark campus. He saw his mother twice a year, but on paper his mother died years ago.
He was one of 210 at Quantico, when he got there. He'd underestimated by a little, and was just a shade lower than the lower end of the top of the pack he'd been aiming for. They told them he lacked imagination and creativity. Two days from the finish line he sat for a written, and watched the room full of trainees squirm as they frantically searched for a pen. Dylan filled in his name with the only pen in the room, and then reached into his briefcase and produced a box for everyone else. He attached a copy of his sixth grade disciplinary report to the top of his exam and winked across the room at Fuller, the only man laughing. Written across the copied report were two words. Imagine that.
Dylan was assigned to Major Crimes within two years.
"It's beautiful," Henley said, and leaned against the railing as she looked out over the grounds. The walkway hadn't been fixed yet and it swayed with the slight press of her weight. She watched Dylan from the corner of her eye, waiting to see if he tried to pull her back. He didn't. Henley knows every inch of her body, every shift of her weight, exactly how much pressure the aged wood can take. She never puts a step wrong, and Dylan knew that. He recognized tests when he saw them.
Instead he climbed over the railing, crossing the lowest part of the room to sit on the edge, legs dangling, acres of grass and greenery stretched out in front of him. He felt her follow, settle against his side, but didn't look at her. "I used to stay here as a kid," he said.
"No you didn't," Henley answered.
He looked at her finally. She'd cut her hair short, and the sunset turned it into a glowing halo. It made her look beautiful only because Henley was beautiful. The setting sun just backlit her into something sharply defined and steely. It wasn't flattering like a movie shot or a photo, but it made her look more like truest version of herself, much as any of them had such a thing She'd looked like that backstage, too, before she smiled for the stage lights. "My initials are carved into a tree just there." Dylan lifted a hand and pointed to a copse of trees south of the sprawling old house.
She didn't even look toward it. "Someone's initials are," she said. "I lived in a house like this, once. Falling apart worse than this one. We had to sell it when I was a kid. It was beautiful, too."
"My dad used to sit in the kitchen, planning his act. He had an office, but he liked the dining room table. He'd get up, go get a scotch and I'd look over his notes and try to memorize them while he wasn't looking, so I could impress him later when I knew how it worked." Dylan smiled tightly, shrugging ruefully. "He always knew."
"Not in this kitchen," Henley insisted. He didn't argue and she shifted, dangling closer to the edge of the roof, pointed toes of her flat shoes nudging against his calf. "Did he teach you, when he knew you were looking?"
Dylan watched the press of her toes instead of her face, rounded his shoulders down in reluctant confession. "My father didn't talk to me, if he could help it."
Henley's fingers curled around his wrist, squeezing once, carefully, letting go just as quickly. "Mine used to look right through us. He married my mother, had three kids. I think he did everything his father ever told him to do. Then he lost his father, and his money, and no one expected anything from him, anymore. I went to thirteen different schools before I finished high school. I spent more time living out of boxes than I ever did in that big house." She kicked her foot and pointed her toes, one shoe than the other dropping to clunk softly against the porch below. Her toenails were bare, and Dylan had expected color to bloom there. It'd been a long time since anything surprised him, before the four of them. "My initials are carved onto a tree there too, somewhere." She smiled. "But you already knew that."
Dylan shrugged, and she laughed. "Was there even a house?" she asked.
"Would you believe me if I told you?" Dylan countered. Her eyebrows quirked and she shrugged. "There was a table," Dylan admitted, sitting back, letting his shoulders settle as his mouth pulled into a smile. "Three decades and more dead, and I'm still trying to impress him. He never saw me, either."
"So you learned to be invisible," Henley said. "It's a nice story. But it would be, wouldn't it? That's what we do. We invent the truth, and figure out how to make people see it that way."
"Not how I would have put it," Dylan said.
"Isn't that what you're doing? You made your Horsemen, and then gave them a race to run. Now we won the prize, and you're still trying to sell us on what it is."
Henley stood, balanced on the edge of the roof. Dylan looked up at her, backlit by sun and shimmering with it, her face impossible to see and read. "If that's what you think, why are you still here?"
"I didn't say I minded. I want to see what you come up with. Sell me the show," Henley told him. She flipped backwards off the roof, landing neat and athletic on the ground below him, looking up and shading her eyes against the sun. "Jack's making pancakes."
She didn't look at all surprised when Dylan leapt down after her. He picked up her shoes and handed them to her. She dangled them from her fingertips and led him inside.
It's harder once he's in the Bureau. Not because he sees any less clearly, but because Dylan sees it all, and he can't show it.
The secret of magic is that there is no secret. At its core, magic is the knowledge that people want to believe, if you give them reason enough. You only have to confound them enough that they can't see the strings holding it all together. Magicians learn to always see the strings instead of the intent. FBI agents try to see the strings. Sometimes, it was hard to choose which strings he cut, and which he let play out.
He was a junior agent fresh out of the academy with a background in finance and sociology that made him a natural fit for the division. Bureaucracy being what it was, that naturally meant he was bounced elsewhere first, and then ricocheted between major theft and violent crimes.
Thieves were almost astoundingly stupid, most of the time. Dylan took credit for some of the crimes, let a few others go. His first high profile bust was a CEO who bankrupted on the stock market and then stole from his employees with a plan to take the money and run. The senior agent on the case missed it, and Dylan didn't know how.
His first case on violent crimes was a white collar serial killer with a high powered lawyer and a paid for alibi. The agent in charge missed the details, and catching it would have guaranteed Dylan a job in violent crimes that he didn't want.
He palmed a cell phone, planted a number and gave the bust to someone else. Dylan tried not to think about the botched trial and the house arrest verdict.
He pulled some strings, let others spool themselves out. He went for drinks with his new partner one night while an elaborate illusion circled its way around Malibu, exposing the secrets of half a dozen high society criminals he'd seen slip through the feds' fingers and funneled millions of dollars into dozens of accounts, impossible to trace and waiting for Dylan to move and invest and prepare it.
The card he chose for himself. Justice. Dylan began to search for names to carry it out.
"I didn't sign up to play happy families in the buttcrack of no where," Daniel announced. He was wearing a shirt with a patch Jack had stitched. It smelled like Henley's perfume. Merritt's phone was in the shirt pocket because Atlas had said he was on technology blackout until he turned off the sounds on Tetris when he played. Which just meant Daniel's phone was probably stuffed in Merritt's drawer and Henley had given hers to Jack because no one could pick his pockets unnoticed.
Or so they assumed. Dylan hadn't tried since he slipped Jack his card, and he wasn't sure if he could manage these days. He wasn't sure he wanted to try, either. "Why did you sign up?" Dylan asked, leaning back, legs tilted and head back, voice lazy and disinterested.
Atlas snorted, dropping down next to him. "You gave me a magic card and a light show out of Star Trek."
"You believed it was magic?"
Daniel hesitated. "No," he said, tone a mimic of Dylan's affected, lazy drawl.
Dylan smiled. "But you wanted to."
Daniel tipped his head back against the worn sofa's back. "I wanted to see how you pulled it off."
"You figured that part out after the first Horsemen show," Dylan said. "You wanted to be proved wrong. You wanted magic to be real, and someone to have been watching you all along."
"Someone was watching," Atlas said. "You were." He gave up the mimic of Dylan's pose, sitting up again, hands twisting together.
"I wasn't what you expected."
"I didn't know what to expect. That was the appeal, as you well know." Daniel turned his head, canny gaze sliding over Dylan's face. "I don't know anything about you. Except you burned the world down for paybacks. You're good, I'm not going to lie and say otherwise, because I'd look like an idiot, and I'm not an idiot."
There was a but written somewhere in there, but Dylan ignored it. "It wasn't payback," he said instead. "It was justice."
"Don't patronize me. You know it wasn't about righteousness, not for you. You don't play a con that long without it being personal." Daniel unlaced his fingers, spreading his hands. "Your dad must have been a hell of a guy."
"Beat the shit out of me," Dylan said easily, as if it were obvious. As if it were fact.
Atlas's eyes sharpened, and he looked at Dylan again. "Just like mine, right?"
"Medical records are never that well locked."
"If the old bastard had dropped dead when I was a kid, I wouldn't have done anything. I wouldn't have cared," Daniel said.
He was still a kid, sometimes. Other times, none of them seemed that young to Dylan. They felt like they'd been in his life for years. In a way, they had. "Yes, you would have," Dylan told him. Daniel would have cared. He still cared. Some things couldn't really ever quite be left behind.
Daniel's mouth quirked. "I wouldn't have turned Fed," he said. "You just needed an excuse." He might not be wrong. Dylan wasn't sure. He woke up in a new bed in an old house with four people held hostage to a fiction that might be true. He'd never been less sure of anything since the day he set out to change who he was. He thought he liked the feeling, but he'd forgotten how to feel anything for himself without a purpose and a lie behind it. "Are you ever going to tell the truth?" he asked.
"Would you believe it if I did? If you believed it, would you really want to lose the possibility that there's something you don't know?" Dylan leaned up, taking on Daniel's pose, pressed into his space and dropped his hands atop Daniel's. "You wanted to believe, Danny." He felt the same smile tugging at his mouth when Daniel's nose wrinkled in distaste from the nickname. "So believe."
Atlas pulled his hands away. "My dad's dead," he said.
No he wasn't. He lived in Boca in retirement, and he was miserable with it. "I know," Dylan said.
"You're good," Atlas said. "But I don't think it's all that fictional. You just don't have a clue who you were before this."
"Maybe," Dylan admitted. They stared at one another until Merritt's phone jangled, ringtone obnoxious and ringing again as soon as Daniel hit silence. He rolled his eyes and looked away. Dylan snagged the phone neatly from his pocket and turned it off.
The plan began in a middle school classroom. It was never static, it evolved as Dylan grew, changed as the world changed around him. When he was thirteen and stupid, he thought it could all come down to him. When he was fourteen, still stupid, but wiser, he knew it couldn't have anything to do with him. It settled somewhere in the middle. He'd set the stage, play his part, duck out before the curtains.
In the early stages, Dylan thought he only needed two. He searched through FBI databases, through cheap theater bills and crowded town squares. He looked for a duo at first. He watched their acts from the fringes, his head down and his shoulders hunched to vanish into the crowd. There was a gleaming couple from Bombay who worked a crowd like it was a dinner table. After the show they were missing rings and 20's from their wallets and still laughing. She vanished on and off stage without missing a beat and cold read the volunteers while he slipped out of handcuffs and through locked safes. Dylan saw all the strings, and he still wanted to believe.
He fell a little in love with the way she tilted her head while she read someone, the purse of his lips while he worked with a lock, and the idea that they were good enough, but that he could teach them to be better. It felt a little like what he imagined heartbreak must feel like, when he planted clues they couldn't quite figure out, and missed the beats of the test he set for them.
The plan evolved again, and Dylan changed his mind. Two couldn't be enough. It became three, and then four. There was a bureau agent with long hair and cunning eyes who never missed her shots, and Dylan thought about what might happen if he had someone else on the inside, and how the plan might change. In the end, it mattered more how many more ways it could go wrong.
He stopped looking for teams, and that became part of the test -- whether or not they could learn to work together.
His colleagues thought he was married to the job, or a secret drunk on his off hours. Dylan had a dozen passports and names and traveled the world in secret. When he was on a case, he watched footage of shows and people and scrubbed his computers afterward.
When he found the four of them, it seemed oddly like fate. Dylan didn't think he believed in fate, but he was a magic-man too, at heart. He'd never quite shaken the need to believe in something, no matter what his eyes could see. He saw Jack's file run through someone else's case while he was at their station -- just a former juvie pickpocket someone caught who slipped right back out of lockup with the keys to every jail cell on the block, just because he could.
Henley worked a decent show in substandard theaters before she broke out on her own. Catching her work was like watching a thoroughbred race against farm horses -- she was in another league. He looked into her background and found Atlas, showy and smug and smarter than everyone he'd ever met, but not by as much as he assumed. And Merritt pulled his act on a retired agent who raised pointless hell about it and led Dylan right to him.
He'd rooted for all of them, the almost-rans he picked out and started to guide, but who let him down. Dylan knew almost from the start that it would be different this time. He picked their cards and waited for the seeds he'd planted to sprout. For the first time, he let himself picture past the end game and the reveal, and wonder what happened next.
"Dad was on the road, all the time. I don't think he ever wanted a family. He tried, but-"
Dylan stopped as Jack started to laugh, broad and loud, smile wide and infectious. "Give it up, man." Jack flipped the band of the watch in his hand, turning it over and over smoothly.
Dylan lifted an eyebrow and Jack shrugged. "Your dad was a saint, he was an asshole, he wasn't there, he didn't want you -- we talk, you know."
Compare notes, Dylan supposed. He could usually read when they'd been talking about him, but he wasn't always there. Maybe he was slipping. Maybe he wasn't always looking. Maybe he didn't want to see what truths they'd end up with. "Nothing better to do?" he asked.
"Daniel's going to go out of his mind if we don't get him something to do. Figuring you out is his hobby."
"Not really his area, is it?" Dylan asked.
"He's Atlas. He thinks everything's his area. Merritt's got a better idea, I think, but he's not talking. Henley thinks you're waiting for something."
Dylan watched Jack's hands move. "What do you think?"
"I'm not the thinker of the bunch."
He looked up from the sure-moving fingers. "I'm still asking."
Jack cocked his head. His hair was growing out and he had a new scar at the corner of his eyebrow. Dylan thought he might have given it to him. Somehow, they just made him look younger. "I don't think we even know your name."
Dylan stopped, swallowing. He remembered his mother's face, suddenly, the last time he'd seen her. I don't even know what to call you anymore, she'd said. He never thought she knew, but somehow she had. "No one's asked."
"Sometimes they're so smart, they forget the really obvious things," Jack said, admiration obvious in the tilt of his smile and the tone of his voice. "If I asked, would you tell me?"
"Would you believe me if I did?" Dylan countered, the same question he'd thrown at the others.
Jack shrugged. "I'd believe it was what you wanted me to know."
"And google it later."
"Hey, I'm not an idiot," Jack said, laughing again. "Dylan suits you anyway, right? You've been Dylan for longer than whoever you were before you were him."
"Can't be him anymore either," Dylan said. "None of us can."
"You can with us," Jack countered.
"Do you believe in the Eye?" Dylan asked.
Jack stilled for a moment, and then he smiled. "If it doesn't exist, we can make it real."
"There's only four Horsemen," Dylan said. That had been the plan. Four faces to do the job, and him behind the scenes to get it done. He should have thought more of after.
"Yeah. But you can ride with me," Jack said, winking.
Dylan laughed, eyes rolling, and Jack bounced to his feet, offering him a hand up. "As good a job for Atlas as anything, I guess."
"As long as he's not in charge," Jack said. "We'd have to kill him. It would free up a horse, anyway."
Dylan laughed again. He couldn't have stopped it if he tried, and he felt lighter than he could remember every feeling. He hadn't planned ahead. He hadn't really thought they'd stay. Maybe it was better without a plan, just this once.
Alma's blonde hair had been dyed a carroty red. It made her face sharper, her eyes brighter. Dylan liked it because he felt like it was his fault, and just this once, he wanted to be able to see the impact he'd made instead of slip into the shadows and vanish afterward. Alma wore loose sweats and her right arm hid behind the doorframe, probably hiding the gun she held. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again," she told him.
"I didn't plan on it," Dylan admitted. "But I'm running out of plans these days."
She stepped back. The gun was in her hand, but it wasn't aimed at him. Her sweatshirt slipped down her slim shoulder. She was beautiful, and she was bright. "If I'd found you earlier, I would have tried to make your life end up differently."
Alma lifted still blonde eyebrows. "You think you could have just waved a wand and changed me?"
"Only amateurs and Harry Potter use wands," Dylan said. She just waited. "I changed a lot of lives."
"You would not have changed mine. I've always known what I wanted," Alma told him.
He reached out slowly, brushing a hand through the new red of her hair. "You're not so sure anymore."
"Stop it. Don't read me. I know what you do, now."
She knew, and she hadn't turned him in. She could have buried him, but she'd left it. To the Bureau, he was just a disgraced agent who'd limped away from his last chase. Dylan didn't know why she'd done that. But he wanted to believe that he could find out.
Dylan palmed the card, slipped it beneath the waist of her sweatpants. Alma felt the chill of the card's plastic against her skin, but didn't move until he'd stepped back. The tarot symbol flashed at him as she pulled it free and looked. "The Judgement?" she said, eyes narrowing. She read the address on the back. "You expect me to go here?"
"No," Dylan answered honestly. "But I want to believe you will."
"You want me to come rob banks with you?" she asked, small smile fighting to curve up her lips, but she forced it away, Dylan could read the battle in the tic of her mouth, the dart of her eyes.
"I want to teach you to see."
She rolled her eyes. "I see just fine."
"That's why I want to teach you." In another life, she could have been like Henley, like Merritt. Or maybe like Jack, who trusted when he didn't have to. The rest of them needed that, because they rarely managed. "If you're sure, then don't come. Stay. You'll be Interpol's top agent by the time you're 35. But if you want to know, then come." His eyes dropped to the gun and Dylan smiled at her. "Try not to shoot me when I leave, okay?"
The smile she'd been fighting broke through. "I make no promises."
"I'll take it on faith," Dylan said. He touched her hair again and then turned to slip away. "We'll be waiting for you."