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Skybird

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Airports are one of the best places for thieves. Everyone there is in a hurry, bustling about and smacking into each other. There are the tired businessmen just wanting to get home; harried mothers trying to corral their kids. So many distractions and concerns keep most people from paying too close attention to the fact they’ve just had their wallet lifted.

Most people.

Neal was thirteen years old, the best teenage pickpocket this side of the Hudson and totally, completely fucked.

“Hey now,” said the man who held his wrist in an unbreakable grip. His accent was British, and his eyes were laughing as Neal tried to squirm away. “Only one man is allowed in my trousers, and you are not him.”

One of Neal’s favorite haunts were the New York Sports Bars at La Guardia airport: they were pre-security with open fronts, and family-friendly enough that he wasn’t too out of place there. The bar meant alcohol, and alcohol meant people getting drunk—which usually led to said people being relieved of their belongings.

Neal grimaced as the very thick, very expensive leather wallet was plucked from his hand and tucked back into the man’s pocket. He was wearing a rather faded grey suit: a pinstriped wool jacket unbuttoned over a coral-colored shirt. It fit well, tailored to the powerful lines of his body, but the fraying at the cuffs spoke of fondness and long usage. Neal had chosen the man because of his easy demeanor and slightly shabby appearance—it should have been an easy lift.

“Never underestimate your mark,” the Brit chided, as though reading his thoughts. “Some people purposefully set out to have others misjudge them.”

“People like you?” Neal grumbled, half-heartedly trying to regain possession of his hand. Despite the warning bells and firmly-entrenched instincts that came from living a life on the streets, he found himself helplessly intrigued. The man still hadn’t let him go, but he hadn’t reacted to the attempted pilfering with anything other than amusement—possibly even professional amusement. When he chuckled, the sound was deep and warm.

“And people like you, from the looks of things.” He gave Neal a meaningful once-over, piercing eyes picking up on the blue jeans and old sneakers, baseball cap and worn backpack completing the image of an innocent kid. The getup had scored Neal many a wallet before.

The man finally let go of his wrist, and Neal snatched his hand back. Logic smacked him over the head, telling him to scram, but something in the Brit’s eyes kept him held fast. After a moment Neal slid onto the stool next to him, and what might have been approval flickered in the man’s gaze. He made a motion at the bartender and after a few seconds a glass of water and a basket of fries appeared on the bar in front of Neal. He stared at them, and then back at the Brit.

“Who are you?”

The man laughed. He turned his stool so he was facing Neal, resting his elbow on the bar and propping his chin in his hand, watching with amusement as Neal hesitantly poked at the fries.

“My name is Eames.” His eyes twinkled. “I’m a thief.”

 


 

An hour later, Neal had told Eames almost every detail about his life. He talked about his parents dying when he was six, about bouncing around between foster homes until he was eleven, and his recent crash-landing at a group home in Brooklyn. He griped about the homes that had been out of New York proper and away from civilization, confided the best places to pick pockets, expressed his disdain of the NYPD and proudly displayed the collection of stolen goods he’d acquired that night.

In that same hour, Neal learned that Eames grew up London, had been stealing—nicking—things since he was a teenager, and had just returned on a flight from Brazil.

He still wasn’t entirely sure how that disparity of information had occurred.

“So where do you stay, then?” Eames asked after Neal had finished grumbling about the chaos of living in the group home. He shrugged, swirling his straw through the ice at the bottom of his glass.

“Different places around the city. They’re pretty strict on curfew, so I just don’t bother going back at night.”

He glanced at Eames askance, waiting for the inevitable pity. Yet the Brit surprised him, merely nodding in agreement and sipping at the half-empty glass of scotch he’d been nursing the entire time they’d been talking. After a moment he reached into his jacket pocket and fished out a pen, snagging one of the napkins on the bar. He scribbled on it for a moment before passing it over to Neal.

“You should come to my place.”

Neal stared at him, horrified. Eames grimaced and reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose.

“Bloody hell, not like that. All I meant was, if you need a place to stay—or if you ever want some tips on proper pickpocketing—I should be around for the next month or so.”

Neal looked down at the napkin, committing the address to memory before carefully folding it into quarters and tucking it in his pocket.

“Where do you go after that?”

Eames waved a vague hand. “Jobs. Places to go, people to see; stuff to nick. But when I’m in the States, I’ll be there.”

“What’s there?”

Eames’ smile was soft, fond.

“Home. A place I’ve been away from for far too long.”

Neal watched with a touch of wistfulness as the Brit finished off his glass of scotch and slipped off his barstool. He stood there for a moment, looking at Neal with that unnervingly penetrating gaze. The easygoing man was replaced, for a moment, by someone sharp and calculating—but after a heartbeat the expression was gone, and the casual smile returned.

“Take care of yourself, Neal,” Eames said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Talent like yours shouldn’t go to waste.”

Neal blinked at the man, bemused.

“But you caught me.”

Eames chuckled, glancing over his shoulder as he walked away, his eyes amused.

“And you’re the only one who’s ever managed to get my wallet out of my pocket before I noticed.”

It was two hours later before Neal found the fifty dollar bill tucked into his back pocket, along with another napkin. He hadn’t noticed Eames writing it, and it had only two words in a loopy scrawl:

‘Dream bigger.’

 


 

Neal stood on the sidewalk on 59th Street, gaping up at the luxurious apartment complex in front of him. The lobby behind crystal-clear glass doors looked opulent, oozing class, and he felt suddenly very self-conscious about the torn jeans and ratty t-shirt he was wearing—never mind the split lip and black eye that had brought him there in the first place.

When Eames had given him the address, the man hadn’t mentioned he lived off of freaking Central Park.

Neal hitched his backpack up his shoulder, combing his fingers distractedly through his hair. It had been two weeks since he’d met the enigmatic thief at La Guardia. He’d already lost the napkin to the washing machine at the laundromat, but he’d always had a good memory. He didn’t know if the offer still stood, or if Eames had even been serious—but he had nowhere else to go.

He took a deep breath, gathering the necessary nerve, and pushed open the door of the building.

The concierge looked at Neal like he was something sticky scraped off the bottom of his shoe. Neal quailed inwardly, but he hadn’t lived in New York his whole life without acquiring some acting skills. He threw on a casual grin and forced his features into something resembling ease.

“I’m here to see Eames. Fifteenth floor, apartment 1507. Tell him it’s Neal.”

The man slanted him a suspicious look. Nevertheless, he picked up the phone behind the counter, dialing a number.

“Mr. Eames? I’m sorry to disturb you, sir, but there is a…young man who says he’s here to see you. He says his name is Neal.”

There was a brief pause. When a flicker of surprise crossed the concierge’s face, Neal felt something unknot in his stomach. He shot back a smug look when the man glanced over at him with a sour expression.

“Of course, sir. I’ll send him right up.”

The concierge hung up the phone and pressed a button on the keypad on his desk, opening one of the elevators to the side of the lobby. Neal passed by him breezily, stepping into the bronze-plated elevator and turning around. Right before the doors closed, he stuck his tongue out.

Then he broke into helpless laughter at the sight of the concierge’s scandalized face.

There was no laughter when he knocked on Eames’ door, however. The man opened it with that same easy smile—which vanished the instant he caught sight of Neal. Eames was barefoot, wearing a pair of black sweatpants and a worn grey t-shirt, and Neal was surprised to see tendrils of black ink licking out from beneath the material.

Careful hands cupped his chin, tilting his face up as he was gently steered inside.

“Fucking hell, Neal, what happened?”

Neal opened his mouth to reply, but he found the words disappearing from his mind as he was ushered further into the apartment. Eames drew him into a gorgeous sitting room that had two floor-to-ceiling glass doors which opened out onto a balcony. Beyond that was the whole of Central Park, majestic and sweeping beneath them. The room itself was sleek, modern, with a slew of mahogany bookshelves and tasteful artwork decorating the walls. He couldn’t help but stare as Eames sat him down on a tremendously comfortable suede loveseat, dropping his backpack onto the floor next to a glass-topped coffee table, his head on a swivel.

He barely noticed that Eames had gone before the man was back, opening a first aid kit on the coffee table and pulling up a chair next to him.

“You live here?”

“I do,” Eames replied, a touch of amusement coloring his voice. He seemed willing to allow Neal to avoid the subject for now, busying himself with assaulting him with stinging antiseptic instead. Neal let his eyes wander, raking over the paintings hung on the walls. He blinked.

“…is that a Francis Bacon?”

Eames glanced over his shoulder at the portrait of a man’s face in profile, the line of the man’s mouth a sweeping gash that the Joker would envy; splotches of bright yellow and orange laid over dark tones of grey and black. The thief wrinkled his nose.

“Oh, that dreadful picture. I got it for Arthur; the man has awful taste in art.”

Neal looked around the room again, as if searching for signs of said man. The apartment was oddly bare of personal touches: there were no photo frames on the walls or propped up on the bookshelves. The sitting room led into the kitchen, and he saw no magnets or adornments tacked to the fridge.

“Arthur works with the CIA,” Eames said with a slight smile, reading Neal’s mind in that uncanny way of his again. “He’s always careful about not being compromised. This is mostly his apartment, anyway—he works out of New York, while I work wherever the jobs take me.”

Neal’s stomach flipped instinctively at the mention of the CIA. Any kind of government body unnerved him; made him wary. Life as a pickpocket and thief generally tended to have one steer clear of anyone with a badge. Especially now.

Eames cast him a sharp look, catching the sudden tension in his shoulders.

“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Something happened that has you scared.”

Neal ducked his head, hunching his shoulders. He nodded silently.

“Well, come on, then,” Eames said gently, smoothing a band-aid over the cut above Neal’s left temple. “Out with it.”

Neal twisted his hands together in his lap, unable to look Eames in the eye. Unable to erase the smell of blood and the image imprinted in his brain of of red splattered across grey concrete.

“It was at one of the warehouses down by the Hudson. I sleep there sometimes; so do a bunch of other kids. There were—these guys. Gang members; Trinitario, I think. They had a guy on his knees behind some of the shipping crates. They were yelling…”

He shook his head, shuddering.

“They shot him,” he said, voice soft. “Shot him in the back of the head. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran… They saw me. Chased me. Got a look at my face. One of them managed to catch up—I got away, barely.” He touched the bruised skin around his eye. “I know they’ll ask around. They’ll find out where I go. This was the only place I could think of that they wouldn’t know I’d be.”

Silence stretched between them for a few moments, but to Neal it felt like decades. He flinched at the sudden ‘click’ of the first aid kit being shut. It wasn’t right, to bring this to Eames’ doorstep; not when the man had been so kind to him. He trembled as a gentle hand laid on his shoulder.

“It’s okay, Neal,” Eames said softly. “You’re safe here, I promise you that. We’ll sort this out. Okay?”

Neal finally chanced a glance up. The firm confidence in Eames’ voice, the steely glint in his eyes—something made Neal believe him, wholly and completely, and he managed a small, honest smile.

“Okay.”

 


 

“That’s not spelled right.”

Eames raised an eyebrow as Neal pointed at the Scrabble board between them, a perplexed look on the boy’s face. ‘COLOUR’ intersected with ‘RADAR’ and ‘QUELL’, tucked between a pair of double-letter markers and evilly taking Neal’s spot. The Brit laughed.

“That’s the Queen’s proper English, I’ll have you know.”

“It’s wrong,” Neal muttered. He was more put out over the fact he had to use a backup word—which would garner considerably fewer points—than Eames’ bending of the rules. He scratched at the side of his jaw, contemplating the new layout of the board.

After checking to make sure Neal didn’t have any serious injuries—the worst was some bruising over his ribs in the form of bootprints—Eames had very firmly pointed him in the direction of the bathroom. The water was hot and there were some ridiculously expensive-looking shampoos and soaps in the walk-in shower, so Neal took his time washing up. He felt grimy enough, sitting in the midst of all that luxury, and it was a relief to wash out the filth and blood that came from getting the shit kicked out of you.

He’d eventually stepped out of the shower to find his clothes missing: replaced with a neat pile of high-quality garments, the tags still attached. He’d checked the bathroom door—still innocently locked—and shook his head with a grin. He wasn’t surprised that the clothes all fit him perfectly.

When he’d emerged from the bathroom at last, he was greeted with a plate of finger sandwiches and scones, a cup of tea and a rather restless Eames. Neal had nearly tripped over himself thanking the man, but Eames had waved it off and told him to repay him with a Scrabble match. Apparently, all of the games he played against Arthur ended in semantic arguments.

As if summoned by Neal’s wandering thoughts, the sound of the apartment door being opened sent an unexpected jolt of fear down the boy’s spine. He sat up sharply, looking at Eames with wide eyes. The thief shook his head easily.

“In here, Arthur.”

The footsteps against the hardwood floor stopped suddenly, a heavy silence weighing in the room. Neal barely dared to turn around.

Arthur looked younger than Neal expected him to be. He was in his early twenties, built slim and lithe. Black hair was immaculately slicked back, and he wore a sharp three-piece suit in light grey, a subdued tie done in a Windsor knot at his throat. He had a thin black briefcase in one hand and a quizzical, calculating look in his eyes. They had that same intense quality that was present in Eames’.

“What’s going on?”

“Give us a moment, Neal, will you?” Eames murmured, rising from his seat. He crossed the room to Arthur’s side, tucking a hand around the shorter man’s hip and steering him in the direction of the kitchen. The intimate gesture did not pass by Neal, who twisted his hands together in his lap and tried to ignore the fact he was horribly, terribly out of place.

The problem with adult-types was that they often underestimated the hearing of those younger than them. Neal picked at the scrapes on his palms, trying to ignore the quiet voices from the other room.

“What is this?” Arthur asked, low and a little confused.

“That’s the boy I was telling you about. The one from La Guardia.”

“Alright, so I know where you found him. But why is he here?”

Neal levered himself off the couch, wandering across the sitting room in an attempt to distance himself from the conversation. He didn’t feel offended, really. Just resigned, and that he was intruding on lives he was not meant to be involved in. He shoved his hands into the pockets of the soft sweatpants Eames had procured for him.

“He’s in trouble. I told him that if he ever needed anything he could come here.”

The Bacon painting from before looked even more striking in the fading light that shone through the windows. Neal stood in front of it, studying the details; the attention to the brush strokes and color. It was an incredibly good copy.

“Eames.” Arthur’s voice was gentle, patient. “I know you like him. But however much of yourself you see there, whatever you’re thinking—you can’t keep him.”

“Arthur!” Eames exclaimed, chiding and exasperated. “He doesn’t have anywhere else to go. He saw a Trinitario gang hit, and they know who he is. It isn’t safe for him to be on the street right now.”

Neal blinked as a bit of fading at the corner of the painting caught his attention. He leaned in, eyes growing huge as he saw the cracked paint and remnants of aging.

“Holy crap.”

The words had the effect of silencing all sound in the room. Neal hardly noticed, unable to contain his glee as he looked over his shoulder at the two men.

“This is an original, isn’t it? This is an actual Francis Bacon painting.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. The tense set of his shoulders relaxed, just a fraction, and Neal caught Eames glancing at the other man.

“You know your post-war British painters.”

Neal nodded, ducking his head, suddenly shy. “Yeah. I…I go to the art museums a lot.”

There were a few moments of quiet. Eames murmured, “Arthur,” and Arthur sighed, abruptly rubbing his hand over his face.

“Well, I’m making dinner anyway, so you may as well stay for that. Besides, I always make too much pasta.”

Looking at Arthur, Neal couldn’t believe for a second that the man did many things that weren’t carefully calculated out. He stammered his thanks, watching as a rakish grin curled Eames’ lips. The thief leaned over, pressing a quick kiss to the side of Arthur’s mouth, and the fond eye-roll he garnered in response spoke of a long familiarity.

Glancing over at Neal as Arthur loosened his tie and went about preparing dinner, Eames winked.

 


 

Dinner was chicken parmigiana served over fettuccine, and it was quite possibly the most delicious thing Neal had ever tasted. There was also a loaf of freshly-warmed focaccia, a mix of grilled vegetables, and slices of pear served up in a dish. It was beautifully prepared, and he didn’t even bother trying to hide his awe when Arthur waved them over to the table.

Neal did, however, watch. He’d never eaten such a meal before. So he studied Arthur, who ate his meal with concise motions, cutting his piece of chicken with sharp, precise strokes. He studied Eames, who seemed to have some kind of proper upbringing drilled into him: napkin folded carefully in his lap, elbows off the table. Neal tried to mimic them as much as possible while still enjoying the incredible spread of food, adjusting his grip on his knife to mirror Arthur; holding his forearms just above the table like Eames.

Surprisingly, conversation was not as uncomfortable as he’d thought it would be.

“So, Bacon, hm?”

Neal nodded, taking the time to swallow his food and wipe his mouth as he’d seen Eames do before replying. He couldn’t help the feeling of inferiority that plagued him, sitting between two obviously brilliant people. Something drove him to prove himself—to Arthur in particular. And if there was something that Neal paid any attention to at all, it was art.

“The Met had an exhibit of British painters from the 1900s a couple months ago. They had Bacon, Freud, Auerbach—a few lesser-known artists like David Carr, too. I didn’t really like most of Bacon’s work, but he has a distinctive style.”

Eames raised an eyebrow, swirling the wine in his glass. He and Arthur were sharing a bottle of Chianti.

“Why did you think that’s an original?”

The question was honestly curious, but Neal sensed some kind of deeper reason. There was something between Arthur and Eames, some unspoken messages conveyed through look and body language alone. It was a dialect Neal wasn’t yet able to translate.

“The cracking of the paint near the edges of the frame, and the weathering of the canvas beneath. It—” he hesitated, suddenly unsure. “Is it just a copy?”

There was something like triumph in Eames’ eyes when he leaned back in his chair, sipping his wine. He shook his head.

“No, it isn’t. It’s the original.”

Neal cast an awestruck glance at the painting hanging in the sitting room, visible from the kitchen table. “Some of the pieces at the Met were for sale. I don’t think any of the Bacons went for less than thirty million.”

Across from him, Arthur snorted.

“They’re only expensive if you actually buy them.”

Neal blinked. He turned to Eames, mouth gaping open. The man had a smug smirk on his face that said everything that needed to be before Neal even asked.

“You didn’t,” he blurted, caught somewhere between wonder and horror. On the one hand, Eames had stolen a work of art. On the other hand—Eames had stolen a work of art. The idea of actually owning something so precious made a spark of envious admiration kindle in Neal’s chest. He’d stolen things before, but to steal something so grand was like the holiest form of sacrilege.

Eames grinned, eyes dancing.

“It was Arthur’s birthday.”

“Which I spent avoiding Interpol agents,” Arthur added pointedly. His tone was tart but the look in his eyes was fond, the exchange clearly a familiar one as Eames turned to him in mock-resentment.

“I could always take it back, if you don’t like it.”

“Touch my painting and die, Mr. Eames.”

Eames’ grin widened. His fingertips brushed the backs of Arthur’s knuckles in an easy, affectionate gesture. Neal tilted his head at the two of them, the CIA agent and the thief.

“How did you meet?” he asked. The question seemed safe enough, according to all the television shows Neal had been stuck watching at the various homes he’d been assigned. The meal was mostly over, plates pushed back, so Neal propped his elbow on the table, resting his cheek in his hand.

Eames chuckled. “I wasn’t always a thief, you know.”

“Yes, you were,” Arthur said.

“Alright, I was,” Eames admitted. “But in a more proper fashion. I worked with the British Special Forces; we were doing a joint operation with the CIA involving new training technology.” He cast Arthur a fond look. “Arthur swept me off my feet.”

Arthur raised his eyebrows.

“I shot you.”

“Well, yes. But only in—” An odd look flitted across Eames’ face, barely there long enough for Neal to catch it, “—the training exercise. It wasn’t permanent.”

“He was wearing six-inch heels and an evening gown at the time,” Arthur confided. Neal blinked, trying to imagine Eames in a dress and heels. His brain seemed to be working in slow motion, his stomach full and body warm and relaxed for the first time in what seemed like years. He listened to the two men bicker, sleepy and sated and content.

“And I looked bloody amazing in them, I’ll have you know.”

“You looked like my high school guidance counselor.”

“That was the point, wasn’t it?”

There were more words, quiet laughter and the clink of wine glasses, low voices speaking. Neal tried to follow the conversation, but the feeling of comfortable safety beckoned him toward slumber. After a time he felt gentle hands lifting him from the table—when did he slump over?—and carrying him from the kitchen.

“I suppose he can stay the night,” Arthur’s voice murmured from above his head. Neal mumbled incoherently as he was laid gently onto the couch, a soft blanket draped over his shoulders.

“You like him.”

“Don’t start.”

Careful fingers smoothed the hair away from Neal’s eyes, comforting and kind, and that was the last thing he remembered before sleep claimed him.

 


 

Mashed strawberries spread on a silver platter. Dark wine staining oyster-colored carpet. Lipstick smeared on an ash-grey collar; tomatoes strewn on a slab of steel.

A man’s face exploding outward, bone and brain matter splattering all over, body hitting the concrete with a sickeningly wet thud; blood pooling in a puddle that spread outward like a wave, washing over Neal, drowning him, choking him in red and—

“Neal!”

Neal awoke with a strangled cry.

A careful hand caught the instinctive swing he lashed out with, fingers curling around his wrist. His t-shirt clung to his back, adrenalin pounding through his veins as he stared up at Arthur’s worried face.

“Neal?”

Neal sucked in air like he was drowning, choking on oxygen as the nightmare faded. He snatched his hand back, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them, huddling in the corner of the couch.

“I’m okay,” he said hoarsely. “Just a dream.”

The apartment was still dark, the edging of sunrise just barely creeping in through the window curtains. It made the quiet oppressive, stifling, and Neal was pathetically grateful when Arthur reached over to turn on the lamp near the coffee table. A gentle hand rested on his back.

“Tell me about it?”

Neal inhaled a shaky breath, trying to even out his breathing. “It’s not—” he struggled, “I just—I keep seeing it happen. Over and over. There was all that blood, all the—the pieces…”

He pressed his face against his arm, swallowing back bile. He’d seen countless movies, gore and blood and violence galore, and nothing had brought up this reaction in him before.

“This is stupid,” he muttered. “I’m being stupid. Overreacting.”

“You’re not,” Arthur said, his voice firm and kind. “Death is never an easy thing to deal with, Neal.”

Neal snorted. “My parents died when I was six.”

“But were you there to see it?”

He paused. “I…I guess not. I was with the babysitter. Their car crashed.”

Arthur nodded, understanding. “Seeing someone die in front of you is very different from knowing death happens. And the first time is always the hardest. Hopefully, it’ll also be your last.”

Neal picked at the corner of the blanket, staring at the floor. After a while, he glanced up.

“When did you..?”

Arthur hesitated, the compulsion to be truthful fighting a clear war with his desire to not alarm Neal further. But Neal was far from a child, having left his innocence behind on the streets years ago—and Arthur seemed to respect that.

“When I was in the Army,” he said eventually. “Before I was recruited by the CIA. My unit was deployed to Kosovo as part of an effort to keep order, settle things down in the region. It was supposed to be a bloodless operation, but there were still landmines…” He glanced away. “One of my squadmates stepped on one. It…wasn’t pretty.”

Neal nodded, silent. He looked up at Arthur with tired eyes.

“Does it ever get easier?”

Arthur looked back at him with a small, sad smile.

“No, it doesn’t.”

He reached for the edge of the blanket, tucking it under Neal’s chin as he settled back down on the couch.

“Try to sleep some more. Eames won’t be awake for a few more hours at least, and we can have breakfast then.”

Neal nodded, curling up on the soft cushions. He looked up at Arthur with a serious expression on his face.

“I’m sorry your friend died.”

A flicker of surprise flitted across Arthur’s features. His eyes softened, a gentle smile curling his lips as he reached over to turn off the lamp.

“Go to sleep, Neal.”

 


 

“You’re cheating.”

“Yes, I am.”

Neal glared at Eames, frustrated. The thief’s expression was amused—but not in any way malicious. It took a bit of the wind out of Neal’s sails.

Three cards lay on the coffee table between them, one of them face-up. There were two aces and one queen: Eames would flip them over, shuffle the cards, and tell Neal to find the queen. So far he’d picked out nothing but aces.

“Alright,” Eames allowed, gathering the cards back up. He turned the queen over to face Neal. “Watch.”

Neal wasn’t going to lose track a second time. He kept his eyes intently on the queen, ignoring all else. Eames shuffled the cards, queen tucked behind ace tucked behind ace tucked behind queen tucked behind—

The card slipped up Eames’ sleeve.

Neal’s jaw dropped.

“You—!” He spluttered, infuriated. “It was never there!”

“That’s right!” Eames looked so delighted that Neal couldn’t help but deflate a little. The thief wasn’t pleased about deceiving him—he was pleased Neal had gotten the trick.

“I don’t understand,” Neal said lamely.

Eames chuckled.

“The point is to control the game. Your opponent is never able to win because there is never a chance for him to win. If it makes you feel better,” he added, “It took Arthur five tries to get it.”

“You distracted me with your tongue,” came a sharp call from the bedroom, where Arthur had been holed up all day. “Four tries.”

“All’s fair in love and war! Five.”

Four, and could you come here and stop yelling? I think I’ve found what we need.”

Eames raised an eyebrow at Neal, then shrugged, climbing to his feet and heading toward the bedroom. Neal hesitated only a moment before grabbing the four cards and trotting after him.

Like the rest of the apartment, Eames’ and Arthur’s bedroom was tastefully decorated. The walls were painted a warm beige, the room dominated by a large four-post bed and a sturdy oak desk in the corner. Assorted paintings and prints hung around the room: Neal had spent much of the morning guessing which pieces of art in the apartment were real and which were fake. He’d gotten all but three right—one of which was a forgery by Eames himself.

After breakfast, Arthur had retreated to the bedroom to go through the CIA archives and dossiers on the Trinitario gang. Eames was around for a while, but had slipped out for a few hours in order to ‘hear the word on the streets’. He’d returned with disheveled hair, mussed clothes and dirt on his face—the very picture of a common street thug, with a thick New York accent to go with it. After his Arthur-mandated shower he’d taken mercy on Neal’s boredom and pulled out a deck of cards.

“Felipe Prieto,” Arthur announced as they walked into the bedroom. He held out a slim folder, which Eames took and began leafing through. “Current leader of the Trinitarios. He’s the person we need to deal with. The police or the FBI wouldn’t be able to help in this case; they wouldn’t be able to take down a whole gang. The man Neal saw—José Alvarez—is small-time; and just taking him out wouldn’t erase the hit on Neal.”

He cast Neal an apologetic look, seeming to understand the sudden fear that raced down the boy’s spine. The fact that there were people who wanted him dead was laid out, flat and cold and simple, and hearing it in such honest terms chilled him.

Eames flipped through the files as Neal slumped on the end of the bed. He absently reached out to tousle Neal’s hair comfortingly.

“Looks like Prieto fancies himself a bit of a high roller now: only associates with the upper echelon, keeps things clean and neat. You think he’d be open to a deal?”

“You have an idea already?” Arthur didn’t sound too surprised. Eames nodded, laying the folder back on the desk and going over to the walk-in closet. He began rummaging through the hanging clothes.

“What if,” he said, voice muffled, “A very wealthy, very powerful crime lord came to him with sincere apologies that their dealings had crossed? That one of his street runners—a favorite, a protégé even—had just happened to see a Trinitario dealing, but surely something could be arranged to be mutually beneficial without bloodshed?”

Arthur tapped his pen against his jaw, considering.

“You want to pull a Mechane? Do you have an alias that’s well-established enough for that?”

Eames stuck his head out of the closet long enough to shoot Arthur a scathingly insulted look. Arthur’s lips quirked up in a smile, and he raised his hands in a placating gesture.

“Right. Shouldn’t have asked.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Eames sniffed. He made a low noise of accomplishment as he found what he’d been looking for, pulling a garment bag from the closet and laying it on the bed. Neal scooted over curiously as he unzipped the front, pulling out a fine-looking suit of dark grey twill. From the desk, Arthur made an embarrassingly high-pitched noise.

“Is that a Caraceni?” Arthur choked, voice strangled. He left his laptop in favor of going over to the bed, fingering the fabric of the jacket cuff with something akin to awe as Eames shot him an amused smile.

“You are not allowed to do filthy things to my suit.”

“Don’t be blasphemous,” Arthur said absently. He glanced at Eames, then back at the suit. “This is bespoke, isn’t it? How in hell did you manage to pull off a hand-tailored Caraceni suit? You couldn’t have stolen it.”

“Won a poker bet,” Eames replied with a shrug. “He had an appointment and a one-pair; I had a Titian and two aces up my sleeve.”

Arthur stared at him for a long moment.

“I hate you.”

“You adore me,” Eames corrected. Arthur made a face.

“I tolerate you, at best.”

Eames let out a sad noise, pressing his hand to his heart. Both Neal and Arthur rolled their eyes.

“Can you take care of Neal while I set things up?” Eames asked, back from teasing to serious in the blink of an eye. “I need to get word to Prieto, and finish putting together my own costume. We have a few days, but I’ll be busy for the majority of them.”

Neal blinked as two intent sets of eyes fell on him. He shifted nervously as a slow smile curved Arthur’s lips.

“He’ll need a suit.”

 


 

Neal officially hated suits.

They were tight and itchy and hot, and the elderly man who measured him had gotten far too touchy with his inseam. Arthur picked something off the rack for him and had it tailored while they waited at the café around the corner. The shirt was a subdued blue; the pants and two-button jacket an austere black.

“I don’t understand how you wear these,” Neal complained, tugging at the collar of his crisp new shirt. One of Arthur’s hands absently reached over to catch his wrist as they walked up the steps of the Met.

“Ready-to-wear will never be as good as custom-made; unfortunately, we don’t have the time to have you fitted bespoke. Now, come on, I told you it would be worth it.”

Neal followed Arthur dubiously beneath the large banners announcing the Met’s latest exhibition: a showing of impressionist works brought over from Europe. The exhibit wasn’t public yet, held back for private viewings before being released to the rabble. Neal knew they didn’t have invitations because Arthur only decided to go while they were on the way back from the tailor’s.

The Met was dim inside, light filtering through thick glass meant to protect centuries-old works of art. It had the quiet air that seemed intrinsic to all museums—and to Neal it felt like home. Central Park and the New York Library were all well and good, but whenever Neal wanted calm, wanted peace, his feet would always take him to the Met.

Used to the thrill that came with sneaking past security—he was thirteen, and the Met’s free entrance cut off at twelve—Neal was a little disoriented as Arthur led him right through the milling crowds of people. A crisp nod and Arthur’s sure steps brought them through the doors, past reception and up the grand stairs to the second floor. A whole section of galleries were cordoned off, with a lone greeter acting as security.

Arthur strolled right up to the man, calm and confident, and Neal did his best to mimic.

“Good afternoon, sirs,” the man said politely. It was the most respectful someone had ever been to Neal. “You’re here for the impressionism exhibit?”

Arthur nodded briefly as the man opened up his guest list.

“Ethan Vauclain. The reservation is for three, but my wife is unable to make it today.”

Neal kept his face carefully schooled into a mask of idle aristocratic boredom. He couldn’t help but smirk a little at the idea of Eames as Arthur’s wife, however.

The greeter cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Ah, Mr. Vauclain, I’m afraid your name isn’t on the guest list.”

A frown creased Arthur’s forehead.

“I know we made the booking a bit late, but it should have been processed by now. Are you sure?”

The man checked through the book again, shaking his head slowly.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

Arthur let out a quiet breath of air, tapping his fingertips contemplatively against the desk.

“I do realize the importance of doing things by the book—” Arthur paused as he caught the eye of a well-dressed woman in the gallery ahead. He smiled, waving to her; she offered him a pretty smile and a wave of her own. He dropped his voice, continuing, “But I would rather not have this become a scene. I have some good friends I’m supposed to be meeting, and I am a man who is never late.”

The greeter glanced back at the woman, then at Arthur again. After a heartbeat, he nodded.

“It was probably just a glitch in the computer system. Go right on in, Mr. Vauclain. Enjoy the exhibition.”

Arthur smiled brilliantly, clapping the man on the shoulder. He steered a rather dumbstruck Neal past the cordon and into the gallery.

“How did you do that?” Neal hissed as soon as they were out of earshot. “Who is Ethan Vauclain? And who was that woman?”

Arthur laughed, guiding him further into the crowd of rich, well-dressed people. Neal’s fingers itched.

“A suit, Neal,” he said, “Is a statement. It’s power and prestige, wealth and confidence. People assume you know what you’re doing if you’re wearing the right clothing: from a police uniform to a valet jacket to a suit. As for Ethan—” he shrugged. “I just made him up.”

Neal stared at him. “And the woman?”

Arthur chuckled, glancing over his shoulder at said lady.

“No idea. But it’s terribly impolite to not respond when someone waves at you.”

Neal couldn’t help it then, bursting out into laughter. The brilliance of the idea was astonishingly simple, to play on social expectations and standards, and it’s delightfully devious. He grinned up at Arthur as the man ruffled his hair affectionately, ignoring the rather bemused looks from their high-class companions at his outburst. When Arthur’s phone buzzed in his pocket he turned Neal around, motioning him away toward the display of paintings with a smile still on his lips.

Neal was instantly captivated.

“Yes?”

Raindrops pattered softly on a slow-flowing stream. The smell of loam was rich in the air, the damp earth soft and malleable, soon soaking into mud.

“Didn’t you get the message I left? I need to take the next few days off. Since we weren’t planning on going under this week—”

Reflections glittered off the water’s surface like crystal, like diamonds; a mirror of reality but somehow better. The circles in the stream made by raindrops spread outward, bouncing off each other in a nonsensical pattern that was still connected together.

“I realize that, Cobb. I’ll be back next Monday. I just have something I need to take care of first. And don’t even try that with me—you just took two months off to help Mal settle in with Phillipa.”

Across the creek was an embankment lined with trees, leaves swaying gently beneath the weight of the rain. A fallen log was wedged beneath the piles of silt, one end bobbing in the water.

“Of course not, I haven’t seen Eames in months.”

Neal tore his gaze away from the painting, the familiar name a sharp jab at his attention. He found Arthur standing a few paces away with his phone pressed to his ear, a mildly annoyed look on the man’s face.

It was only after a few seconds that Neal’s brain processed the lie.

“Just because we used to see each other doesn’t mean I keep track of his current whereabouts. So, no, he’s not here, and no, that’s not why I’m missing work. I’ll see you on Monday, alright? Give Mal my best.”

Neal tilted his head curiously to the side as Arthur slipped the phone back into his pocket. A wry smile curved Arthur’s mouth, and he answered before Neal could ask.

“That was my boss. He’s the one who first recruited me into…the CIA. He and his wife just had their first child.”

“He doesn’t know about you and Eames?”

Arthur’s hand settled on Neal’s shoulder as they continued through the gallery—which was a good thing, because Neal was hopelessly distracted and would have run into things otherwise. Impressionism was about capturing the moment, putting the essence of a feeling onto canvas rather than a picture, and it was something he’d never seen before. He couldn’t help but stare.

“Cobb likes to do things by the book, and he likes to make sure the people he cares about are safe. He takes his job very seriously, and Eames…well, we both knew Eames before he became a full-time thief. But he is a thief now, and wanted in several countries, and if Cobb knew he was here…” Arthur shrugged. “I figure he doesn’t need to know any details about my personal life. It’s better for everyone involved.”

Neal nodded. Admittedly, he was only half paying attention, enraptured by the portrait of a delicately graceful ballerina in pink.

Arthur made polite chatter with the assembled guests, obviously indulgent as he followed Neal from room to room. People—especially women—swooned over the well-dressed boy with the bright blue eyes, but Neal hardly heard them, floating in a world of quick brush strokes and ambient lighting.

That was the day Neal fell in love with the Impressionist movement.

And perhaps, a little, with suits.

 


 

Clark Tabernackle was a dark-eyed, stern-faced Englishman who ran one of the most high-profile fencing rings along the Atlantic Ocean. His hair was black, slicked back, and he walked with the air of a man well-aware of his own power. He had a cherrywood walking cane inscribed with silver: a concession to his one weakness, the limp from an old bullet wound in his thigh.

Neal was impressed.

“That’s amazing,” he murmured reverently as ‘Clark’ took a turn around the apartment, moving with the slow gait of a man who never hurried for anyone. He received a quickly flashed grin in reply, the mask falling away for an instant to reveal a pleased Eames beneath.

“It’s all in the mannerisms. Different looks mean nothing if you still act the same. Granted, the costume helps a great deal.”

“I never have liked you in black,” Arthur murmured, emerging from the study with a slim gun in his hand. He held it out to Eames, who dutifully tucked it into a holster at his ankle.

His second night in the apartment, Neal had been moved from the couch in the sitting room to the futon in the study. The room was neatly divided between shelves of books and a row of locked file cabinets—Arthur’s files from work, which Neal politely refrained from picking the locks of and resolutely Did Not Touch—and an array of neatly-stored art supplies belonging to Eames. There were packages of clay, rows upon rows of paints and brushes, canvases and frames and what looked to be a half-finished replica of Bruegel’s ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’. There was also an array of different clothing in the closet, from a woman’s burqa to the richly-colored robes of a Buddhist monk.

“Do you think there’s going to be trouble tonight?” Neal asked, something clenching in his stomach as he watched Eames hide the pistol away. The thief shook his head.

“Things will have to have gotten pretty badly pear-shaped if I end up actually needing this. The best con is one where force isn’t necessary. But if it is,” he shrugged, “I’ll take care of things. And Arthur will be there to back us up.”

Arthur was dressed in a sleek tuxedo for the evening, a hat tucked under his arm completing the image of a limo driver. Neal and Eames both had one-way radios fitted beneath the collars of their dress shirts, which Arthur would monitor over the course of their dinner meeting.

Eames checked the expensive probably-real Breguet watch on his wrist, running his fingers through his recently-dyed hair. He also had a pocket watch chain clipped to his belt, something that Neal found odd but didn’t try to question.

“We’ll need to leave soon if we want to make it on time through traffic. Any final thoughts?”

Arthur nodded. He reached out, hand tucking behind Eames’ neck, pulling him close and pressing their foreheads together.

“Be careful.”

Eames smiled, something soft and fond in his eyes.

“I always am.”

Neal studied his shiny new black shoes, feeling like he was intruding. He almost yelped in surprise when Arthur’s arm tucked around his shoulders, pulling him into a hug. It was only then he realized the tension in the man’s shoulders, the anxiety thrumming through him.

“Eames will keep you safe,” Arthur said, quiet and reassuring. “So you make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid, alright?”

Neal smiled up at him as Eames made a disgruntled sound of protest.

“Alright.”

The Kurumazushi was a fantastically expensive Japanese restaurant just down the way from Central Park. It was small, exclusive, and ready to cater to private business meetings between two very powerful crime lords. Neal’s stomach tied itself into an elaborate knot as they drove down 47th, twisting his hands together. This was it. The continuation of his breathing all depended on tonight.

Arthur pulled the limo up to the curb, eyes watching them intently in the rearview mirror.

“Good luck.”

 


 

The food was eccentric and foreign, the room was stiflingly small, there were two well-armed Trinitario thugs standing right outside the door and Neal was quickly approaching the kind of nervousness that contributed toward puking all over the table.

Felipe Prieto was an older man with greying brown hair and darkly intent eyes. He wore an expensive suit that didn’t nearly cover all his gang tattoos—most noticeably the ‘DPL’ on the middle fingers of his left hand, and the ‘3NI’ on his right—and held himself with the air of someone trying to appear well-mannered. An expensive pen was tucked in his front shirt pocket, visible when he unbuttoned his suit jacket.

“So, this is your protégé? It seems he knows the value of silence.”

Neal hesitated with a piece of nigiri halfway to his mouth. The night’s conversation had been mostly between Prieto and Eames, Neal offering the occasional insight when they chatted about art. Eames’ first impression of the gang leader had been correct: Prieto was dying to be recognized as one of the elite. He chose the head of the table, seating Eames and Neal on either side of himself, and spoke to great length about certain highbrow areas he’d obviously researched in depth. Eames indulged him, letting Prieto rave about the latest operas showing at the Dicapo and the recent rising Broadway stars, but there was an amused glint in his eyes.

A small smile quirked Eames’ lips. He dabbed at his mouth with a cloth napkin.

“Indeed he does. I only discovered Stephen a few months ago, but he already has a good grasp of what it takes to make it in the world.”

Prieto’s eyes were sharp, calculating, and Neal forced himself to continue chewing the bits of rice and salmon in his mouth. He barely tasted it, focusing all his attention on appearing nonchalant even as his stomach did somersaults.

“You know, I was told his name was Neal.”

Eames waved an easy hand even as Neal’s heart skipped a couple of terrified beats.

“That is his middle name; the one he uses while running business for me.” Eames smiled, “But there should be no facades between men like us, yes?”

“No,” Prieto agreed, some of the suspicion fading from his eyes. “There should not.”

“He’s still a little raw,” Eames explained, sounding faintly apologetic. For once, Neal didn’t mind being talked about as though he wasn’t present. “But the potential is there. Barring any inopportune circumstances, I expect he’ll take over the business eventually.”

“It would certainly be a tragedy to lose such a promising young man,” Prieto mused, his tone sharp-edged. He looked at Neal. “Tell me, young Stephen, is there anyone out there who could replace you?”

Neal paused. He took a few moments, carefully considering the man in front of him: Prieto with his delusions of grandeur, his arrogance and his desire to be surprised.

“No.”

Prieto’s eyebrows rose. He chuckled, turning toward Eames as he poured himself some more sake. The front of his suit jacket fell open as he shifted.

“And why do you think that?”

As the man’s fingers closed around the flask of sake, his attention absent and diverted, Neal leaned forward. He slipped his hand around the table, out of Prieto’s peripheral vision—and, as careful as a surgeon, lifted the pen from the gang leader’s pocket. It took only an instant and for a few breathless moments he was sure he was going to be caught, but as Prieto poured he gave no indication of having sensed the theft. Neal’s heart pounded in his chest, the thrill of a successful heist under such duress singing through him.

Even Eames’ slightly wide-eyed look at him was unable to douse the sense of accomplishment.

Neal waited until Prieto turned back before deliberately holding the pen up between them. He set it down on the table next to Prieto’s hand, looking into the man’s startled gaze.

“Because I’m the best.”

For a few seconds, there was silence. Neal’s heartbeat pounded in his ears.

And then Prieto laughed.

It was a delighted, honest sound, and the gang leader was unabashedly grinning as he picked up the pen. He looked down at it, shaking his head ruefully, and glanced at Eames with a broad smile.

“Talent like his should definitely not be wasted, Mr. Tabernackle.”

“No,” Eames agreed, something unreadable in his eyes when he looked at Neal. “It shouldn’t be.”

Still chuckling, Prieto reached over to press the pen into Neal’s hand. The boy looked up at him in surprise, stilling when he caught sight of the intensity behind Prieto’s amused demeanor.

“You can keep it.”

He wasn’t talking about the pen.

Neal smiled woodenly and sat back, light-headed and dizzy, to finish his meal.

 


 

Something was different.

Neal noticed it first at breakfast, when he emerged bleary-eyed and bedraggled from the study. He’d fallen asleep curled against Eames in the limo the previous night, the nerve-wracking nature of the evening taking its toll. The knotted tangle of anxiety in his chest was finally lifted, leaving him drained and exhausted and relieved.

He noticed it in the serious sets of Eames’ and Arthur’s faces when he wandered out, the two of them talking quietly over eggs and toast. When they saw him the expressions instantly vanished, replaced with smiles that seemed too much like masks for Neal’s comfort.

“How does it feel to be a free man again?” Eames asked, eyes light as he laid a plate of food on the table in front of Neal. The boy blinked at him, sleepy and bemused.

“Nice.”

Eames chuckled and sat back, allowing him more time to wake up. The thief reached over to steal the Arts section of the Times from Arthur, their fingers brushing against each other. Arthur gave it up with a modicum of grace, though he did murmur that the Arts section was not a ‘To Steal’ list.

He also glanced over at Neal and exchanged a brief, significant look with Eames, and that was when the unease clawed its way back into Neal’s chest.

He tried to make himself scarce, wondering if he’d done something wrong, but the attempt didn’t work. Arthur dragged him out of the study for a game of chess, which Neal admittedly fell instantly in love with. Eames puttered about with his Bruegel forgery, paint smeared on his hands as he pointed out the importance of reproducing the imperfections as well as the perfections. Lunch was delivery, take-out from the Thai restaurant they’d ordered from a few nights ago, and without asking, Neal’s favorite dish appeared in the bag.

It was mundane. It was wonderful: new experiences joined with old comforts; but Neal couldn’t help but feel as though he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. The quiet conversations—low enough that even he couldn’t hear, quickly ceased when he wandered over—and the odd looks exchanged between Arthur and Eames continued throughout the day. And if they refused to acknowledge it, despite the regret that coiled in his stomach, Neal was clinical enough to do so. He knew what was wrong.

His time was up.

He wasn’t supposed to be there anymore.

The two men had done everything for him. They had quite literally saved his life, allowing him into their home and their lives; risking themselves to help him. They’d fed him and clothed him, showed him a glimpse into a life beyond petty thievery, and now that same generosity was crippling them. The kindness that led them to take him in was the same compassion that kept them from kicking him out.

And Neal was many things, but he would never let himself be seen as ungrateful.

The next day, the sixth since he’d first thrown himself at Eames’ mercy, Neal made sure to wake up early. He moved quietly around the study, arranging things the way they had been before; taking nothing that wasn’t his to begin with. He folded the clothes neatly, leaving them on the futon, and pulled on what he’d been wearing when he arrived. The ratty old t-shirt and torn jeans felt foreign after the fine clothing he’d been given during the week. Neal laid the suit atop the pile with no small amount of regret.

Then he grabbed a medium-sized canvas, an array of oil paint and brushes, and got to work.

The sun was just rising outside, the sky tinted blue-pink and the air crisp when Neal quietly pulled the balcony doors open. He worked fast: capturing the gradient hues in the sky, laying down the lush greenery of Central Park below. He didn’t bother mixing colors beforehand, just applying them directly to the canvas and letting the eye blend them together. The balcony balustrade and set of chairs came last, a personal touch that made the image more than a painting of Central Park: made it personal, from their perspective, from their lives.

It was nearly seven by the time Neal finished, close to when Arthur would wake up. He hastily put the supplies back, leaving the painting still-drying on the easel. He didn’t sign it, but he did leave a message scrawled on the back of the canvas before slipping quietly from the apartment, trying to ignore the tight knot in his throat.

‘Thank you, for everything.’

It was the first and last original painting Neal ever did.

 


 

It didn’t take long for them to find him.

In fact, it took Eames and Arthur just three hours, twenty-seven minutes and two subway stops to find him.

Neal sat on one of the gallery benches at the Brooklyn Museum, quietly considering one of the paintings on the wall. It was a beach scene of Long Island, families wading into the water in early 1900s garments, long dresses and bonnets and barely any skin showing. The colors were vivid, capturing the image and tones without sharp outlining.

“Glackens, hm?”

Neal looked up, not terribly surprised by the familiar presence that sat down on the bench next to him. The hope that the Brooklyn wasn’t as obvious of a choice as the Met or the Guggenheim hadn’t detracted from the fact that Arthur was CIA—and if the agency did nothing else well, they at least knew how to track a person down.

A glance over his shoulder revealed Eames standing at the entrance of the room, leaning against the wall. There was something tense in the set of his shoulders, the knit of his brows, and Neal looked quickly away.

“For a realism painter, I always thought he had rather distinctive impressionist leanings,” Arthur commented. “A lot of Renoir in his style.”

Neal shrugged.

“That’s why I like it.”

A brief smile touched Arthur’s lips. Neal wondered when he had become so predictable.

They sat in silence for a while, Neal staring at his hands while Arthur studied the painting. The uncertainty from the previous day sat low in the pit of his stomach, gnawing at him like an unfilled hunger. He didn’t know what Arthur wanted. Neal had left, he hadn’t taken anything, and he’d tried to leave them something for their troubles. It wasn’t as though he had anything of true value to offer.

“We were worried about you.”

Neal twitched in surprise. He shot Arthur a quick look, but he couldn’t read the expression on the man’s face. He dropped his gaze back to his fingers, slotting them together.

“I’ve lived on my own for a long time, you know.”

“We do know that,” Arthur acknowledged, calm and gentle. “It doesn’t change the fact.”

Neal ducked his head. He hadn’t wanted to make anyone worry.

“Now that the Trinitario thing is over, after all you did for me, I figured…”

“You figured what?”

Neal let out a low breath of air, a lick of anger coiling in his belly as he turned to face Arthur fully. His lips twisted.

“I’m not an idiot, Arthur. All day yesterday, you—I could tell you wanted me to leave. It’s okay. I’ll be okay. You don’t have to worry about me.”

Arthur looked genuinely surprised, his forehead furrowing in a frown.

“You thought we wanted you to go?”

Neal blinked. He stared at Arthur, lamely, all of his built-up defenses and rationalizations of his feelings from the last twenty-four hours crumbling into pieces around him. He hadn’t been unwanted. He’d misunderstood.

“Wasn’t that…” he stammered, “The way you both were acting, I thought…”

“You git.”

Neal looked up as Eames appeared at Arthur’s side. The Brit’s arms were folded across his chest, and the anger Neal had thought he’d seen there wasn’t anger at all—it was fear, only now starting to fade. Something like guilt kicked low in his gut.

“Eames,” Arthur warned, without heat and without looking up. He offered Neal a rather rueful smile, his voice kind. “Neal, we didn’t want you to leave. We were trying to figure out how to ask you to stay.”

And, just like that, all of the oxygen in the room seemed to disappear.

“You—What?” Neal choked, feeling suddenly dizzy. He stared at Arthur in helpless confusion. “You do? Why?”

Arthur’s smile widened, quirking up at the corners. “It isn’t enough that you’re an incredibly intelligent, talented young man?”

“The apartment felt empty.”

Both Neal and Arthur blinked, looking up at Eames’ sudden input. The Brit frowned.

“Without you,” he clarified in a low mutter. “The apartment feels empty without you.”

Neal stared at him for a beat longer, and after a few seconds the stiffness in Eames’ posture faded. The fear and worry was gone, replaced with something wistful and almost sad. He moved to the front of the bench, crouching in front of Neal.

“We know you can take care of yourself,” he said softly. “You’ve done it for years, and that’s no small feat. You’re bright, intelligent, and you have the potential to accomplish anything you set your mind to. We know you have the capability to do all of this on your own.” Eames glanced away, briefly, before looking back. His eyes were soft and unguarded, and it made Neal catch his breath. “But what we’re saying is, if you want it, you don’t have to.”

Neal swallowed hard, struggling to fight the heat welling behind his eyes. He looked between the two, blinking fast and trying hard to keep from falling apart in front of them. It didn’t particularly work that well.

“You really want me to stay?” he asked, hating the tremor that ran through his voice.

Arthur smiled in response, and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“We want you to come home."