Mistrust didn't come naturally to Neal. It was something he had to learn, something that took practice. He worked at it the same way he worked at lifting wallets and copying the masters of the art world: not so gracefully at first, but he got better every time he tried. The trick of it was in reserving your trust while making people think you were still handing it over, and Neal's smile was one thing that came off perfect and guileless without any practice at all whether he meant it or not.
It helped that he was young still. People expected teenagers to be naive. Neal hadn't been able to afford to be naive since he was fifteen. Okay, so that was only two years-- almost three, that was nearly a sixth of his life he'd been slowly divorcing himself from the habit of believing the best of the people he met. Most people didn't automatically think about how best to take advantage of you, but if you assumed that was what they were thinking, you wouldn't be the one ending up screwed over.
Of course, there was a difference between mistrusting a foster family and mistrusting the entire world with nobody at your back. Neal had a few friends, but when he finally couldn't take one more day of living with the foster parents, he found himself living out of a backpack, sneaking into university dorms to sleep on common room couches and picking pockets on the street as a survival tactic, not just to hone his skills. After getting kicked out of Goddard Hall after barely six hours, Neal was a little less than at his best when Emily, who was in the class on postmodern literature that he sat in on every Tuesday and Thursday, dragged him to a cafe just west of Washington Square, to meet someone she swore up and down he'd get along with.
The first thing Neal did was shake the guy's hand. The second thing he did was steal the guy's wallet. That's how he discovered that "Mozzie" was actually short for Moses, something he had a feeling he wouldn't have found out except by underhanded tactics. They started out talking about Burroughs and Stoppard and Vonnegut, carrying on the discussion from that day's lecture, Mozzie neatly picking up the threads of the conversation and yanking them to the left when he mentioned his first-edition copy of Naked Lunch sharing shelf space with a signed copy of Slaughterhouse Five. Tired as he was, Neal perked right up at the offer to see the books.
"You've got that look," Mozzie said, "I can tell someone who treats books right. The worthy ones, you know."
"A subset of the starving artist type, you mean," Emily said with a laugh. "Neal fits that to a T."
"You're a bit young to be trying on that lifestyle, aren't you?" Neal shot Mozzie an unimpressed look, and the older man lifted both hands placatingly. "Far be it from me to judge. Do what makes you happy, I say."
"Freedom makes me happy," Neal said, and from the way Mozzie's face lit up he knew he'd just said something very right.
He gave Mozzie his wallet back as they walked to Mozzie's apartment. Mozzie was more shocked that he hadn't noticed when it happened than at the fact that Neal had lifted it in the first place. Neal, beyond pleased with the admiration of his skills, picked up three more wallets in the four blocks between cafe and apartment just to show off. By the time Mozzie unlocked his front door, he'd offered Neal a few tips to firm up his technique, and Neal had made the decision that his mistrust would be misplaced on this man.
Somehow the invitation to look at Mozzie's books evolved into permission to crash on his couch for a few days, somewhere in between Neal pulling out his sketchbook and Mozzie telling him about a con job he pulled when he was seventeen. For the first time in a couple of weeks, Neal had a place to sleep without worrying about when he'd be rudely awoken and evicted from his makeshift bed. Mozzie was interesting to talk to, held strong opinions on art and music and literature and especially politics, and he didn't seem to mind too much when Neal helped him with the crossword in the Times over breakfast. He knew a lot about everything Neal only had a vague idea yet that he wanted to do, and he wasn't shy about detailing his past exploits-- art he'd forged, rare papers he'd stolen, cons he'd pulled. He got a certain light in his eyes when he talked about crime, and Neal liked it.
Three days into his stay, Neal woke up with the pigeons and decided that he couldn't just occupy Mozzie's couch without doing something to earn his keep. He'd been eyeing the breakfast nook since day one, imagining what could be done with the plain white space to make it more interesting, and there were art deco shapes just crying out to be inscribed on that bare ceiling. Neal moved the stepladder from against one tall bookshelf to over by the table, fished out a charcoal pencil from his backpack, and climbed up there with a purpose.
"What do you think you're doing?" By the time Mozzie's sleepy voice startled him, Neal was getting a crick in his neck from looking up. He clung to the ladder and offered Mozzie a smile. "I just thought I'd help you decorate. It's a little... depressing in here. The books are cool, though." He glanced up at the shapes and back down at Mozzie, hoping that his impromptu art session didn't piss off the owner of the apartment. "I figured I'd lift some paints this afternoon to color it in, if you liked it. Otherwise I can wash it off."
"Ah, thank you." Mozzie tipped his head to one side, blinking behind his thick glasses like some exotic book-loving specimen of owl, then looked at it the other way. "Very... creative of you."
"I just wanted to do something for you, you know, to show my gratitude." Neal beamed and tucked the pencil behind his ear before sliding down the stepladder. "You've really saved my life here. I appreciate it."
"Don't mention it. I've had worse houseguests." Mozzie looked away and Neal stepped closer.
"I haven't had a better host." Three whole days and Mozzie had never once touched Neal. Neal was a very tactile person, too aware of the absence of even the most casual contact, and he slipped his arms around Mozzie and bent his head to the older man's shoulder, breathing in warmth and laundry soap and deodorant-- scents that reminded him he hadn't bothered to put on a shirt before engaging in spontaneous acts of art. He sighed gently against Mozzie's neck and then pulled back far enough to look him in the eyes. "If there's anything else I can do for you, you know, don't hesitate."
Mozzie apparently didn't have any suggestions, or at least, he didn't say anything as Neal went digging through his backpack to find a clean shirt. He was speechless until Neal asked him which store would be best to steal some paint from, and then the moment of awkwardness passed.
Neal couldn't make a habit of trusting people. It seemed like Mozzie was trustworthy enough for Neal to let his guard down around him a little. Whether Mozzie would ever let his guard down remained to be seen.