The first time Eames saw Ariadne, he thought she was a trophy wife.
Arthur had been working his case for about six months at that point, and he’d come annoyingly close a handful of times, so Eames decided that it was high past time to get a closer look at the agent who was currently making life difficult for him. He managed to get in as a waiter and circulated with trays for a while, carefully on the wrong side of the room from Arthur and his cop friends, and then ditched both the tray and the uniform the moment it became expedient and made for the balconies. When possible, it was best to get up close and personal with the mark, but failing that, a bird’s-eye view was always best.
He spotted Arthur immediately, of course. Even in a crowd of serious, dark-haired young men, Arthur stood out. The crisp lines of his suit belied the wiry strength of the body underneath, and he moved through the crowd with a kind of loose-limbed grace that breathed the possibility of violence at a moment’s notice. Eames had seen Arthur before, of course, but only in surveillance footage. The real thing was much, much more impressive.
Ariadne showed a little later, after Arthur made one precise circuit of the room. His timing was impeccable, and at first Eames thought that it was planned, but upon closer inspection he began to think that Arthur was just that good. Ariadne clearly talked a good game and held her own among the officers and dignitaries populating the little shindig, but while her dress was gorgeous and the height of couture, she wore it comfortably, slouched into its rigid lines of tailoring like she was wearing a track suit on her couch at home. Once Eames noticed that he began to reevaluate her entry into the ballroom, which in retrospect had been the breathless rush of the perpetually tardy. Arthur had been expecting her to be late and had planned accordingly; Eames concluded that she must habitually forget about events in favor of something she deemed more important.
Not a trophy wife, then, which was unusual for one of the rising stars in the Bureau. Eames watched the way that she fit herself comfortably against Arthur’s side, the way that his arm automatically came up to wrap around her shoulders, the casual flick of fingers that Arthur uses to knock her hair back off her shoulders, a habitual gesture that spoke of years of practice. There was intimacy there, and affection. Arthur loved his wife, and to all appearances she loved him back.
Eames had never allowed for the possibility that the hotshot agent on his tail would be a closet romantic. There was nothing about Arthur that spoke of romance, so Eames wasn’t feeling too bad for having missed it.
Still, though, it made things more interesting. He’d already known that Arthur was almost fearfully intelligent, but finding out that he had imagination only served to up the stakes a bit. Eames loved clever people, but people with dreams were his favorite, and tonight he’d had a chance to take a look at one of Arthur’s.
Game on, Eames thought, and made sure to leave a calling card for Arthur when he lifted what he’d come for out of its case. Arthur, he thought, would appreciate it, and Eames did so like to be appreciated.
Ariadne, being not a complete idiot, knew something was wrong when Arthur started bringing work home with him.
That had always been their cardinal rule. Work stayed at work, except when one or both of them needed to talk their way through a tricky project. Arthur knew very little about architecture but quite a bit about security systems, and even if what she knew about law enforcement would fit in a thimble she was pretty good at finding the weak spots in a logical argument, thanks to a history professor and a lawyer for her parents. Arthur wasn’t talking about whatever case he was working this time, though, which was worrying in and of itself, even before the little file box started appearing on the coffee table.
Arthur apologized, the first few times it happened, only went through it after dinner when they were catching up on the last few nights of the Daily Show, nothing too serious except that the files were there at all. But then the apologies tapered off, and the files came out earlier and earlier, and Ariadne watched it all happen silently because she didn’t want it to turn into a fight about breaking some petty rules. She didn’t even care if his attention was taken up by a case, because it had happened before and it wasn’t like she didn’t have work she could do, as well. But the thing was, something was wrong, and he wasn’t working this like he normally worked a case.
No one had died. Arthur always came home and compulsively made pancakes for dinner when someone died on one of his cases, and she’d eaten a lot of pancakes when they were dating and in the early days of their marriage, but there hadn’t been any since he left the Marshals for White Collar. It wasn’t someone really bad or he would have come to her about it, she was sure of that, which meant that it was someone interesting, which Ariadne knew better than anyone was significantly more dangerous for Arthur.
She finally put her foot down one day when Arthur wouldn’t even stop for dinner, just shoved some of his files around and kept reading around his plate of spaghetti. Ariadne watched him for a while, sipping her wine and choosing her words carefully.
He got up to take his plate to the sink, Mordred winding his way between his angles and trilling hopefully, and over the sound of the running water, Ariadne looked at the tense line of his back and said, “Don’t you think maybe you should tell me about him?”
Arthur froze. “Tell you about who?” he said, but he didn’t turn around to face her, which was a sure sign that he was lying.
“Whoever it is that you’re thinking about right now.”
Arthur took a deep breath and turned around. “It’s just a case,” he said, and his expression was reassuring, which- what? What did he think she meant- oh.
“Honey, I wasn’t trying to accuse you of cheating on me,” she said, biting her lip on a totally inappropriate strain of amusement. Arthur’s face just collapsed with relief, and she arched an eyebrow. “Though now I’m wondering if maybe I should. Who exactly is it that you’re chasing?”
“Eames,” Arthur says, in the way most people say “cancer,” “plague,” and “Hannah Montana.” “He’s an art thief, and I got the case after he hit a few museums too many.”
“I bet he’s good,” Ariadne said, as if that wasn’t self-evident from the months of working himself into the ground. Arthur was one of the best in the business, and if he couldn’t catch this guy, then there was a damn good reason for that. “What’s his scam?”
Arthur snagged a towel and came to sit down at the table, drying his hands off. “Forgery’s the name of the game,” he said, and his face was lighting up for the first time in months. It was all Ariadne could do not to beam at him like a proud parent. “The guys who worked the case before me thought that he was just doing the lift and outsourcing the copy, but I don’t think so. I think he’s painting them himself.”
“What makes you think that?” Ariadne prompted. Just like they used to, lay out the case, walk it through, find the weak spot. Ariadne remembered how to do this.
“Couple of things. First, he’s selling all his own work instead of going through a fence, so if he doesn’t trust a middleman for that, why would he be willing to outsource the forge?”
“Could be he’s got someone he trusts,” Ariadne speculated. “Maybe a silent partner that he’s protecting?”
“I thought of that, yeah, but it’s not his style. His only regular contact that we can find is this watchmaker named Yusuf who is, as far as the Bureau can determine, clean. Hard to believe that a guy like that would travel with a partner.”
“It doesn’t have to be an all-the-time deal,” she pointed out. She knew that Arthur would have thought of all of this, of course he would have, but it helped him to talk it through, and he’d never do this with the probies Dom foisted on him, which meant it was down to her. “Whoever it is could keep a permanent address, make Eames bring the work to them.”
Arthur shook his head. “Too fast a turnaround, on at least a handful of the jobs. And yeah, I know that he could plan his jobs enough in advance that he could have the forger fly out ahead of him, set up a studio before he even pulls the job, but…”
He trailed off, and Arthur waited for him to finish before prompting, “But?”
Arthur exhaled a harsh breath and slumped back in his seat. “I can’t prove it.”
She gave him an exasperated look. “We’re not in court, honey. We’re in the kitchen.”
A rueful smile tugged at one corner of his mouth in response, and she smiled back at him. He wasn’t always the most expressive man, her Arthur, but she never had any trouble reading him.
“Fair enough. Okay, so it’s like this.” His hands, normally so still, began to move as he talked, the surest sign of relaxation she’d yet to see from him. “There’s this painter, S. E. Sinclair, pretty big in the New York art scene, right? Extremely private, no one’s ever seen him, all of his work is handled anonymously through a very discreet auction service. Everyone assumes it’s an affectation, because the reclusive artist thing adds mystique and that adds zeroes on the price tag, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s Eames.”
That was… a leap, when Arthur’s conclusions usually had an unbreakable chain of logic behind them. “Why? If he’s usually doing forgeries, it’s not like you can identify his style.”
“I know, I know,” Arthur sighed. “You’re not saying anything I haven’t heard from Dom. But every single time Sinclair sells a painting, Eames makes contact with Yusuf the week before. And his last painting…”
Ariadne looked closer at her normally self-contained husband, and realized that he looked almost embarrassed. “Honey?”
“He painted me.”
Arthur was actually blushing, which prompted Ariadne to ask, “Were you naked?”
“What? No!” Arthur sat up straight in his chair and stared at her. “Why would you even ask that?”
“Arthur, you should see your face,” she said, and then succumbed to giggles when he narrowed his eyes at her. “Okay, I’m sorry, you weren’t naked. What were you wearing?”
Arthur had that expression that said that he was sort of regretting getting married to a crazy person. “A suit.”
She was shocked. “Which suit?”
“One of the Devores, I don’t remember which one exactly.”
That was a lie- Arthur’s attention to detail was infamous- but she was willing to let it rest. “What expression did he paint for you?”
Arthur sighed. “Do you want me to just show you?”
“You bought it?”
“No, I took a picture,” Arthur said, with the kind of heavy patience he usually reserved for his probies and baristas who got his coffee wrong. “Just… here.”
He got up, and returned with his laptop bag, booting it up and shoving it across the table to her. The painting was full-screen on the monitor, all sharp black lines and smoke-gray curves. The Devore that painting-Arthur was wearing was the one he’d worn to the FBI award dinner, where she’d showed up late with charcoal still under her nails and someone had stolen the ten-year pin meant for Arthur. Ariadne remembered Arthur after the dinner, furious and contained. The deputy director had offered to have a new one made for him, but Arthur had unsmilingly refused. He’d told them that he’d wait till he could retrieve the original.
“That’s what the ring is on my finger,” Arthur said, apparently following her thought-process. He nodded at the laptop. “Most agents have it made into one. I suspected that it was Eames that night, but there wasn’t any evidence.”
Painting-Arthur’s suit was half-wrecked, the waistcoat unfastened and the tie tugged loose, the top buttons of his shirt undone. He looked the way he did that night, later, when they got home and Arthur, wordlessly, had walked her backwards into the living room and then proceeded to fuck the daylights out of her right there on the couch. Afterwards, he’d tugged down her dress and done up his pants and then collapsed into her arms, where she’d held him, stroking the disordered mess of his hair, rubbing the pads of her fingers against the back of his neck. She hadn’t said anything either. It would be another six months before she first heard Eames’ name.
The Arthur in the painting was a version of himself that Ariadne and only a few others ever got to see, and that would be bad enough, but there was one more thing that she couldn’t help but notice. Arthur was wearing a hat in the painting, which Arthur in real life did on the cold side of never, and the brim was pulled low over his face, obscuring all but a faint gleam of his eyes. In a monochrome painting the only splashes of color were the dark brown of his eyes, only noticeable when you looked closely, the faint blush pink of his mouth, and the blood-red of his pocket square, folded in such a way as to suggest the petals of a flower.
“You see what I mean,” Arthur said, and Ariadne nodded faintly, still captured by the image on her screen.
It wasn’t that the painting is an exact replica of Arthur. Someone who didn’t know him well probably wouldn’t recognize him; the proportions were off from Arthur’s whipcord-lean body, and half of his face was either directly obscured or in shadow. But the artist (and it had to be Eames, it couldn’t possibly be anyone else) had managed to capture something of Arthur’s fierce intelligence in the angle of the head; his hands in his pockets and the lines of his shoulder suggested movement contained into studied stillness. And the most telling of all: the triumphant smile on his face, just below the edge of the shadow cast by the brim of his hat, had the same half-smile that Arthur always used when he got something he really wanted, like the position on Dom’s team or very fine clothing or clever criminals or her.
“He’s daring you to catch him,” Ariadne said finally, and when she managed to tear her eyes away from the painting and look up Arthur was nodding.
“Yeah, he’s a cocky bastard.”
Cocky, certainly, but there was something else in his art. He wasn’t just sending a message to Arthur, if Arthur was clever enough to read it; this portrait was a note of appreciation. Someone who hated or resented Arthur could have painted him almost like this, but only fondness would reproduce Arthur’s smile so exactly. As obsessed with Eames as Arthur may have been, Eames was apparently equally fascinated by Arthur.
“You’re going to catch him, though,” Ariadne continued, because there wasn’t any other option. Arthur was incapable of leaving business unfinished. He’d decided that he wanted her when he first met her and courted her relentlessly until she loved him back; that was not the kind of a man who’d just give up on a criminal that was playing the game right back at him.
Arthur exhaled a long, slow breath, and his hands were still on the table when he looked at her with absolute determination in his eyes. “Ariadne, I’m going to catch him, throw him in jail, and make sure that he knows that I’m the one that beat him.”
Sometimes Ariadne loved her husband so much that it just hurt. “Well, then, I guess you’ll need my help,” she said, and was rewarded when Arthur smiled at her, slow and thoughtful and just a little terrifying.
Dom was worried. This was a familiar state of mind, because he was the father of two and ran a division of agents responsible for billions of dollars worth of stolen and fraudulent goods, but the last few months he’d started to feel like one enormous exposed nerve. Just this morning, he’d checked the mirror for gray hairs and found three. That’s how stressful things had gotten.
First of all, it was winter, which meant that his household was just one long illness, as James and Phillipa got cold after cold after flu from the virus incubator known as the New York public school system. Mal was stressing out about the Proculus Global contract, and more than once he’d gotten up in the morning to find her still in her office from the night before, the coffee pot half-empty and her just staring at her computer screen, her hands trembling faintly and a lost look in her eyes. Phillipa was beginning to ask why Mommy never played with her anymore, and James would sit in his high-chair over dinner, sucking his thumb and staring at Mal ceaselessly.
And then there was Arthur, who was losing as just as much sleep in his pursuit of Eames. Dom had known Arthur for a long, long time, ever since both of them teamed up to raise hell at Quantico and break all the records, and Dom had known when he’d headhunted Arthur back from the Marshalls that Arthur was single-minded to the point of madness when he was involved in a pursuit. It made him an excellent agent, one of the best, but it also made him act like a horse running with blinders on. Dom had always thought that Ariadne had to be about the most patient woman on Earth- this time, though, it was actually so much worse than that.
“I want my security consultant back,” Mal sulked, one evening when he’d managed to coax her away from her office with a glass of her favorite wine and a plate of cupcakes. (Mal was more of a sugar fiend than James, and Dom was not above taking ruthless advantage of that weakness.) “When is she going to be done with Arthur’s little project? She does still have a job, you know.”
There were a lot of things that Dom could point out to his wife, starting with the fact that Ariadne was an independent contractor and that Mal had signed off on Ari’s finished portion of the project two months ago, and finishing with the fact that if Dom had any control over the situation, Ariadne wouldn’t be working Arthur’s case with him in the first place. However, voicing any of these opinions seemed likely to end badly for everyone, so he just cleared his throat and said carefully, “He’s not exactly keeping me apprised of his progress.” Or he had been, until a few weeks ago, a situation that Dom found mildly alarming due to the number of afternoons that Ari was spending in Arthur’s office. And not for a post-lunch quickie, which at this point Dom would actually find something of a relief.
Mal rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. “Can you at least talk to him?”
Dom honestly thought that this would accomplish exactly nothing, but Mal tilted her head back to look up at him and her narrowed eyes convinced him that this would be an extremely unwise thing to say. He sighed. “I’ll try.”
Which was how he found himself in Arthur’s office just the next day, squaring off with Ariadne across the desk. “… and she’s just a little stressed out about the contract.”
“I finished my work on that contract two months ago,” Ariadne told him flatly. “Which Mal knows, because she signed off on it. Until she’s done with that project I don’t have any more work to do for her firm, so why are you bothering me about it?”
“Because Mal is bothering me about it, and I have to do what she tells me to do, Ari. It was in the wedding vows.”
Arthur, slouching against the wall over by the window, snorted. “You think he’s joking, but they actually were.”
Arthur had been there because Arthur had been his best man, and it had been because of him that the entire thing hadn’t collapsed into a puddle of chaos and champagne. Dom had married into a family of architects and still never met anyone as ruthlessly organized as Arthur. “Come on, Ari, just check in with Mal, okay? I think she just wants a final check before she submits to the client, and you know she values your input for more than just the security work.”
Ariadne’s narrow-eyed look told him that flattery was going to get him precisely nowhere, but she did let her arms drop from their pugnacious cross over her chest, and she sighed as she leaned back in Arthur’s desk chair. “Okay, fine, for the health of your children I will give her a call as soon as I leave here, okay? I just want to finish up what we’re working on right now.”
Mission accomplished, Dom allowed himself a big sigh of relief that nobody had started yelling. Dom came from a family of yellers, and the fact that Mal and her father tended to express their displeasure in terms of icy sarcasm had actually been a huge relief.
“What are you working on, anyway?” The desk was covered in blueprints that seemed to be for some kind of gallery, now that Dom was looking at them more closely. “Is this an Eames job? Holy fuck, Arthur, did Eames pull another job and you forgot to tell me?”
“Relax,” Arthur said dismissively. He unfolded from his corner and came over to the desk, tugging one of the blueprints free of the stack until Dom could see the name of the gallery that Miles had designed two years back. “It’s not an Eames job.”
“Or rather,” Ariadne said, her lips curving into a predatory smile, “it’s not an Eames job yet.”
Dom stared at them both. They stared back at him, proud and a little defiant. This boded well for exactly nobody.
“I really hope that you’re not saying what I think you’re saying,” Dom said, and Arthur grinned at him lazily, the way he always did when he knew he was going to talk Dom into something and get his way.
“It’s going to work, Dom,” he said. “Ari and I, we’ve finally got it. We’re going to catch Eames.”
Dom stared at them some more, then sighed and took one of the guest seats across from them. “Walk me through it,” he said, and they did.
When Eames was arrested, after two and a half years of concentrated FBI pursuit, he didn’t really believe it was happening at first. He made it safely out of the building and his getaway car was waiting for him just like expected, and so when he saw the FBI jacket on the man standing next to the van his first thought was that Yusuf was playing some kind of prank on him. He’d always had a bit of a dodgy sense of humor, and God knew he’d posed as a Fed more times that Eames could count, and it would be just like him to show up at Eames’ job and fuck with him, just to keep him from being too cocky.
By the time he realized that the man standing there was far too tall and thin to be Yusuf, not to mention hailing from parts entirely more Northern, it was too late to run, and the next thing he knew he was absolutely surrounded by an FBI strike team and the not-Yusuf man was taking his lovely painting away and handing it to someone just out of Eames’ line of sight.
“Thought you’d want to do it yourself, Agent Lake,” the thin man said, and from behind him Eames heard a familiar voice drawl, “You’ve got that right, Agent Nash.”
“Arthur, darling,” Eames said, not bothering to raise his voice, and not bothering to hide the shake in it, either. “I feel congratulations are in order.”
“Oh, you have no idea,” Arthur said, and then there were cool, strong hands wrapping around his wrists, pulling his arms behind his back. “I’ve been waiting to do this for a very, very long time.”
The click of the handcuffs around his wrists was loud in his ears, even over the hubbub of a half-dozen jubilant federal agents. The metal wasn’t as cold as he expected, and he realized that they must have been kept in Arthur’s pocket. Eames imagined Arthur sitting in the FBI van on the way to the scene, his hand tucked away in his pocket, rubbing one thumb over the curved metal like a talisman. His hands curled into fists under Arthur’s grip.
“This way,” Arthur said in his ear, still an invisible presence looming behind him, and pushed him gently towards the prisoner transport van that had pulled into the alley. Eames went where he was guided, numbly climbing into the van when Arthur nudged. Arthur climbed in behind him and the door was shut, leaving them alone in the dim cool interior of the little cell-on-wheels.
Arthur unlocked one cuff and rearranged Eames’ hands in front of him before fastening them tight once more; the key vanished somewhere into his hands and Eames didn’t bother to track where on his person he’d stashed it. He didn’t move, except to test the feeling of the cuffs against the jut of his wristbone.
“I know you can get out of those,” Arthur said. He’d taken the seat across from Eames, and he was leaning forward, his posture easy, his arms propped on his thighs and his hands dangling in the space between them. Eames found himself staring at those hands rather than meeting Arthur’s eyes. “It wouldn’t take more than a few seconds, probably, but you’re not going to because there’s no point. Even if you get your hands free, you can’t take me and you know it. So you’re going to leave them on.”
Eames found that he had it in him to lift his head and smirk at Arthur, after all. “I won’t be in your hands forever, Arthur darling. There’s always someone who’s just a little less capable.”
“Maybe,” Arthur said, unruffled, “but that’s why we’re replacing the cuffs with zip-strips that even you can’t break, as soon as I leave this van.”
Eames was a bit taken aback, though he didn’t want to show it. “So why bother to use the cuffs in the first place, then?”
“Because I wanted to,” Arthur said peaceably. “You appreciate the classics, right, Mr. Eames? I wanted to put those cuffs on you and take you into custody, and the zip-strips just wouldn’t have been as satisfying.”
Eames looked across the gloom of the van and directly into the darkling gleam of Arthur’s eyes. “Well, you’ve caught me,” he said, just the slightest shake in his voice. “Well done, you. So now what do you intend to do with me?”
“Do?” Arthur sounded honestly surprised. “I’m not going to do anything with you, Eames. I’m going to go home to my wife, break open a very expensive bottle of champagne, and then tomorrow I’ll come back into work and I’ll start all over again with someone else.”
“I feel so cheapened,” Eames joked. Arthur leaned forward, and Eames was caught, suddenly, in the intensity of his gaze.
“You don’t get it yet, do you? Nobody cares about the after. After doesn’t count for shit. It’s just the chase. You should get that better than anybody.”
And the thing was, Eames did. He’d known from the start that Arthur was dangerous to him, because at the heart of things they were just a bit too similar under the skin. “And you caught me,” Eames said softly.
Arthur leaned back and nodded. “I caught you,” he agreed. He smiled at Eames, languid and triumphant. It was the same smile Eames had painted, all those months ago. Some part of him had always known that he’d get a chance to see it on Arthur’s face, just like this. “Remember that, Mr. Eames. You’re good, you’re the best, but I caught you.”
“That you did, pet,” Eames said, too soft. “That you did.”
Arthur nodded once more and then got up. There wasn’t anything more to be said.
On his way out of the way, Arthur paused just once, just for a moment, next to Eames. He cupped Eames’ jaw in one hand, pale and long-fingered and graceful like he was the painter instead of Eames, and Eames, despite himself, leaned into it. Arthur’s thumb came up to trace thoughtfully along the lower line of Eames’ mouth, and the expression in his eyes wasn’t triumphant anymore, it was disappointed and just a little bit wistful.
And then his hand dropped and he was out of the van and gone.
Eames thought about that fleeting touch for a long time. He thought about it during the long, tedious trip in the back of the van, and he thought about it while he slipped the cuffs that the erstwhile Agent Nash forgot to switch out. He thought about it when he ruthlessly knocked out the security officer that they sent to retrieve him from the van, and he thought about it while he legged it out of there, while he went to ground using every trick he knew.
He thought about it, most of all, while he waited in some crummy little fleabag motel two hundred miles away, waiting for Yusuf to send him the papers he’d set up in case of this eventuality. It took two days, and Eames had nothing to do but think, and in between wondering where the fuck he went wrong with the job and why the hell nobody told him he was hitting a place with that kind of security, he mostly thought about Arthur, who had to be the best because he was better than Eames, Arthur who smiled like he was post-coital when he put his handcuffs on Eames after two and a half years of foreplay. Arthur, who was a romantic and loved his wife but still placed his thumb on Eames’ lower lip, like maybe he knew that the chase wasn’t, actually, over yet.