« He is so small. Is he supposed to be this small? »
« He’s a baby. »
« Yes, but. He’s just so small. »
There’s an hint of genuine concern in his husband’s voice as he peaks one more time at the baby, blissfully asleep in his crib. Their baby.
« Babies are supposed to be small. »
Arthur is thorn between the consosolidated impulse to mock him and his own traitorous heart, currently busy fluttering in his chest like it’s nobody’s business, just because his husband gawking at their baby looks so fucking adorable.
« I know, darling, but couldn’t we, like, just give Cobb a call and check whether his kids were this small when he got them? »
« I didn’t get them- » Arthur takes a deep breath « No, we can’t, because I promised, remember? You made me promise. »
« You never listen to me and you decide to start, what, now? »
« You made me promise to train you from day one so you won’t turn into a psychotic overprotective ever-worried father by the end of the month. And for once, I agree. »
Eames is about to protest, when Neil makes a sound – nothing alarming, just a baby-like sound – and then yawns, and Arthur witnesses his husband turning into a pile of mush there and then.
This isn’t going to be an easy mission.
« Eames, is that a ruler? »
« What ruler? »
« The one you’re hiding behind your back. »
« Oh, that. No, that’s not a ruler. »
« Eames. Did you just Google ‘average baby size’ and now you’re going to measure our son with the ruler you’re not hiding behind your back? »
« There are too many mixed negatives in that question, I don’t feel comfortable answering. »
Arthur sets a good example and it doesn’t take long before his positive influence shows his beneficial effects. The first month is, of course, a bit bumpy, but Arthur doesn’t give up and eventually they manage to get almost a full night of sleep without him crying from separation anxiety or simply tossing around for hours, unable to sleep. His peaceful, sleepy figure makes Arthur very weak.
The baby is also fine.
Unlike his husband, Neil is good with rules. He cries the right amount for a baby his age, but he picks up on the routine so quickly he ends up staring pointedly at his parents to remind them of meal times more often than actually crying when he is hungry.
He is not even freaked out when Phillipa screams – quite literally – and tears him from Eames’s arms. She spends a whole day with baby Neil in her arms, explaining all that matters in this world, from puppy dogs to One Direction. Eames is mildly horrified as he watches his precious baby from afar. Arthur is also horrified, of the One Direction thing, so he makes sure to have some Edith Piaf playing in Neil’s room for the rest of the week.
When Neil is six years old, he sets a chair on fire.
Which is like Eames like to tell the story and it doesn’t make sense, because he sounds ridiculously proud of their son as he speaks. The things is, Neil watches every Science program he is allowed to and reads Scientific magazines over his dad’s shoulder (and if Arthur takes triple the time before turning a page, well, Neil doesn’t need to know).
His first obsession involves lens and plastic and the sun. He sets a lens, angled a certain way, just like in the picture of the magazine he is ‘studying’, and leaves it there. There is nothing much to be noted by his parents, until one day, almost a week later, Arthur is woken up by the smell of something burning, not very compatible with the usual breakfast smell, first of all because his annoying amazing overdramatic gorgeous husband has never burnt a single piece of toast in his life, and secondly, because the smell is coming from the terrace.
Arthur runs out to find a hole in one of their plastic chairs (cheap choice, Eames’s fault) and a suspicious lens. Neil is over the moon for his first successful experiment; Eames is so proud he almost cries; Arthur needs so much coffee.
The Adventures of Little Neil in the Realm of Science are countless.
He launches himself down the main staircase with the mini sledge he received for Christmas and, while he manages to get the U turn just right, he completely forgets there is a door facing the end of the staircase, and that he was supposed to open that door before. Eames has the gutts to comment it is actually good to know the door was lame and needed to be replaced, since a simple child on a sledge could run through it so easily.
Then, Neil goes through that phase when he needs to prove the Bible is scientifically wrong. Understandable phase, his parents agree. He forces Arthur to film his numerous attempts at walking across the swimming pool. He gives Jesus the benefit of doubt and tries to walk on the water again, but this time on a swimming board. He manages to aim at the small plastic rectangle as he dives into the pool, but he lands on it with such force that it breaks right in the middle and, following some physical laws Neil has yet to discover, the boy is catapulted on the other side of the pool, inches from the poolside. Arthur is paralyzed throughout the whole process, wondering if he is about to film his son’s premature departure. As Neil triumphantly emerges from the water after proving Jesus is fake one more time, Arthur glances at the camera’s screen only to find out he has also filmed Eames’ reaction in the process. The day feels suddenly brighter, but he might need to perform CPR on his husband before showing him the new blackmailing material.
Then there’s a time Neil tries to use a slide backwards, almost reaches the top, falls back and breaks an arm. He climbs on top of the tallest bookcase to verify whether it would be really necessary to secure it to the wall. (Spoiler alert: yes). Eames catches him on time when he is wondering whether to cut his index with a rock to see how I look on the inside. But he does succeed in sticking a finger inside the humidifier to check if it the water is boiling just yet.
Neil might be adopted, biologically speaking, but he couldn’t be more of a perfect mix of his parents if Mother Nature herself had intervened.
His manners are impressive for a 12-years-old, he’s uncanny to the point one might be scared of his plots, but hopelessly good and kind and all things Hufflepuff. (Phillipa loves to joke about that, the little Gryffindor, but she knits him a scarf for Christmas, yellow and dark grey stripes, and Neil loves it so much he goes to bed with it all winter).
Neil looks completely at ease with himself, either when he is rolling in the mud observing worms or all dressed up to have dinner in a fancy place with his parents. He goes shopping with Arthur, and his favourite thing in the world (explosions aside) is when he needs a new school uniform, and there comes the trip to the tailor. (Eames knows when to pick his fights.)
And yet, anyone who knows his dads can tell Neil is much more than just a nicer version of Arthur (because Eames refuse to accept this might be due to his young age; in his head, he has a very clear picture of his husband, when he was a kid on the outside, but the same old grump on the inside). He is charming, a word that might seem out of place for a kid, but undeniably true after meeting this kid. Neil cracks a smile and his dimples tell a whole story.
In other words, Neil is a little Eames, but styled and trained as an Arthur.
When they all look at their kids, it is a monumental collective effort not to project and imagine them as an extraction team – although they have all agreed there is so not going to be a second generation in that field.
Neil, though, really is a forger by nature. Whoever the people around him expect him to be, want him to be, need him to, Neil can mold himself into, shaping and reshaping his persona until everyobody in the room is in love with him, his crooked smile the only constant in his otherwise chameleonic demeanour.
Not that Neil is fake or that he lies. He is just that good at adapting. His real smile is the the most genuine, warmest thing both his parents have ever seen. His hugs are the only parental rewards they could possibly want. And when he makes the long-feared transition into adolescence, Neil doesn’t spare his affection: when he is sixteen, he still dispenses hugs and kisses to his family members, and none of his friends – who would refuse a ride to school or force their parents to drop them off at the previous block – never dare to mock him for it.
They might be the only parents in the world who can finally relax when their son reaches puberty. Neil has gotten way better at not trying to kill himself for the sake of Science and his interest in teenage drama is moderate.
There is one challenging week when he and Phillipa have a crush on the same girl, during that one amazing holiday in Greece. The tension is palpable, because, in spite of the little age gap, they have always been all over each other - James is mildly terrified of their energy and the generally weird stuff they are always up to, so he mostly loves them from afar – and they are used to be a team.
Arthur and Eames exchange worried looks, and they have almost decided to ask Neil if he is okay, when they see a pretty obvious change in his demeanour.
« So. » Eames, the Brave Parent, asks casually, while Neil is swallowing half a bottle of juice « All good with Phil? »
« What? »
« You know » Eames signals to his husbands for help, but all he gets is a deadly stare and lips forming the sentence I told you not to bring it up « with that girl and all that...stuff. »
« Oh, that. » Neil makes a non-committal sound, usually described as a “pfff” « Old story. Her family from the US just got here. Her cousin is so hot. »
The only joy in Eames’ life, at the present, is the knowledge Arthur is probably trying to disappear to avoid more teen-romance talk.
« Speaking of, he invited me to this party. You guys don’t mind if I skip dinner, right? »
« Of course, darling. Is Phil coming with you? »
Neil takes a moment.
« Let’s say, if you ask me, not really. But if Dom asks you, absolutely yes. »
Arthur physically turns his back on the conversation.
Looking back at the holiday, Arthur probably remembers it as slightly more traumatic than Eames. But Neil is fifteen, Phillipa is basically and adult, and the seaside is traditionally a place for young people to fall in love and embarrass their parents.
Eames has one favourite memory and he hates that Arthur made him promise never to mention it again. They catch a glimpse of Neil and Phillipa sitting over the rocks, at the beach, talking excitedly as they always do, and Eames feels suddenly nostalgic, thinking about when they were small enough he could carriy both of them, plus James, and run into the ocean, the kids screaming in both terror and delight. Neil would hold on to his dad’s arm, but gently, and Eames could tell he felt completely safe, as if he knew his dad would never let go of him.
Arthur and Eames can’t help but catching a couple of sentences, as they walk by, that shatter all the poetry in Eames’ head, but make him giggle nonetheless.
‘I think I’m entering a new phase, Phil, when I am more mature and less superficial. I’m done with exterior beauty, I want to focus on what really matters to me.’
‘We are talking about dicks, right?’
‘Yes Phil, we’re talking about dicks, but you can still make it sound nice.’
Eames covers his beloved husband’s ears and gently leads him away.
« So, when are we meeting this very lucky guy? »
Eames is beaming. Neil raises an eyebrow.
« This would be my boss, dad. »
« Oh. I mean, the way you were talking about him, I thought- Sorry darling, I thought this was the guy you are seeing. »
« Am I seeing someone? » Neil laughs « Well, nobody told me. »
« Arthur? » Eames pleads. « Why do you enjoy torturing me, darling? »
« ‘Bit too late for that question, isn’t it dad? »
Neil is in an awfully good mood, and Arthur joins in mocking his husband, just a little.
« And here I thought you liked it. »
« Okay, that already feels like too much information for me. »
« Arthur, you filthy liar, you did tell me Neil said something about a guy. »
« I did? » Neil stares at his father in confusion.
« Well, Neil, you did mention this guy you are working on a project with. How smart he is. How funny. How amazing. Lots of hyperboles, overall. »
Arthur accompanies his words with a gesture and a typical eye roll.
« Uhm, that guy. » judging by the colour of his cheeks, Neil is close to spontaneous combustion « That would still be my boss. »
There is a moment of silence, when the three of them just look at each other, letting the awkwardness of the situation sink in; but together with the reassuring feeling they are home, they re happy, they are a family, and being awkward and embarrassing is just one of the many things they love about it.
« I’ll change my question, then. » Eames takes over « So, when are we meeting your boss, darling? »