This isn't the first time Sophie has run this particular con. This much, Nate knows.
She plays the loving girlfriend of some rich guy to be invited to a ball hosted by someone even richer. He had not expected to see her here (—last time he checked, she was in Sicily—), but he's not exactly surprised.
What he does not know, however, is what in particular she's after. There aren't many choices, seeing as this is just a ball, but several paintings were sponsored by various guests for decoration. None of them seem quite her style, though, so maybe it's about something else entirely. Tonight, he doesn't officially have to care. He's not here to arrest her, to catch her, but instead he was sent to attract possible future IYS clients.
He watches her stop in front of one of the large windows to either side of the hall. Her boyfriend hands her a glass of champagne and continues on towards who Nate guesses are his business partners, leaving Sophie standing with her drink and a fake smile that quickly fades.
Her eyes sweep across the room, but she doesn't see him. Instead, she slowly sips the amber liquid, looking serene as ever. It gives him a chance to study her appearance more closely. She's wearing a light blue evening gown that clings to her upper body like a second skin. Her hair is tied into an elegant knot, and the few strands that have fallen out look too perfect to be accidental.
She acts casual, calm, but since it's not him that she's trying to con (this time), he can see right through her and realises she's bored. He considers walking up to her with another drink and asking her whether the thrill's gone, but she would probably run before he got to the end of his question. No, he thinks, this way he can see her in action, without having to try to stop her. Just this once, he'll lean back and enjoy the show. (Being on the wrong side of her grifts has its thrills, too, but watching her like this is utterly fascinating to him.)
A tall man approaches her; dark, handsome, and exactly her type, as far as Nate can tell (and he hasn't been paying much attention to her past conquests—no, really, he hasn't). Nate can't hear them, but he reads people well, and knows exactly what's happening. The guy is hitting on her, and she's going to turn him down any second no— she finishes the rest of her champagne and, to Nate's utter surprise, allows the stranger to lead her to the dance floor. He's not the mark she's after, that much Nate can tell, but he can't help but wonder why Sophie would dance with someone she's not trying to play.
He watches them (her) sway to a slow waltz, her gown fluttering over the floor. Out of nowhere his mind conjures up the fleeting image of him, Nate, dancing with her instead. He wonders what she would feel like when he'd guide her through the room, what she would look like, this up close. What she'd sound like, her silent laughter in his ear, her cheek barely touching his. From there, it's only a short jump to smell and taste, and it takes all his strength not to cross the space between them and ask her for a dance.
He drags his eyes away from her for the amount of time it takes to order another scotch, but he finds himself unable to stop staring altogether. She's laughing now, the sound trickling over to his table, and he's absolutely sure the guy thinks it's genuine, that he honestly made her laugh, and Nate almost scoffs at the idea.
The music slows down, and before he realises it, the song has come to an end. He tries to turn away, but he's not quick enough, and suddenly, her eyes are fixed on his. He sees a flash of panic that satisfies him more than it probably should, but more than anything, he sees desire. He knows she knows there is no danger, not tonight; otherwise, he'd have her already, and so she uses the opportunity to study him for a change. (She finds this game of theirs just as captivating as he does.)
She's still looking him directly in the eye when he raises his glass an inch and slightly nods his head, just once. She smiles at him then, and goes back to her mark, leaving Nate to wonder when they might meet again like this. No running, no chasing, and maybe even a dance.
It doesn't happen the next time they see each other (—she's jumping into a car, the stolen statue still in her hand, escaping only by a hair's breadth—), but the time after that.
Cairo has always been among her favourite cities, so when he hears his company has insured a painting there that is finally about to be shown to the public, he requests the assignment to guard it at the accompanying ceremony. His superiors are surprised, but he blames it on his gut, and they let him go.
(It is the perfect city for thieves and grifters, he thinks. With many corners just shady enough not to attract attention, but not too shady, so as to not put con-artists themselves into any kind of danger.)
His suit is similar enough to the last one he wore, plain old black, but the tie is different. He knew she'd never wear the same dress twice (didn't have to, really, with an income like hers), but he had still picked a tie that matched the dress she'd worn in Stockholm. If anything, it would make her smile.
And he's right; this time, her dress is red, a dark crimson, that showcases almost her entire back. It's only been a year since their little incident in Paris, but to anyone else, the faint scar right under her left shoulder blade is impossible to make out. Even Nate has to squint to see it. But then again, she's always been good at hiding the truth from others. She had gotten shot. (The truth.) It had been Nate Ford who had shot her. (The truth.) Nate Ford had shot Sophie Devereaux. (A lie, but he doesn't know it yet.)
It's summer in Egypt, and everyone is hot. Nate doesn't mind the heat much, but he knows Sophie would prefer a cooler venue to the old, non-air-conditioned gallery. (He's amazed at all the little things he knows about her, and wonders if she has picked up just as much about him.)
He sees her not long before she sees him, spotting him near the bar and walking right towards him. She's here alone, an invited guest (undoubtedly under a fake name), so an abrupt departure would cause too big a scene to go unnoticed. Instead, she walks up to Nate, a confident smile on her face. After all, she hasn't stolen anything. Yet.
"Mister Ford! I didn't expect to find you here."
"I'm afraid I can't say the same about you," he replies, tilting his head towards the painting on the wall.
Sophie feigns a shocked expression. "I would never!"
He laughs at that, and it's like someone has taken every remaining bit of hostility out of their conversation.
"How have you been, Nate?"
His laugh turns into an easy smile and he orders her a glass of bourbon.
"Can't complain. IYS has kept me busy. Or should I say, people like you have kept me busy?"
She flashes him a hint of a grin.
"And you, Soph? I see your shoulder's healed nicely."
Unable to resist, Sophie turns slightly to look at the almost invisible scar, treating him to a view she knew would get his attention. And—mission accomplished, she thinks as she catches him staring. He quickly schools his features back into a neutral expression, but he knows it's too late. Her knowing smirk is proof enough.
"It has. What about your chest? Did I leave any scars on you?"
Oh yeah. They've played this game before, so often he knows her tactics almost as well as his own.
"Just one," he simply says, not giving her the satisfaction of any kind of reaction.
"So you're still catching thieves, are you?"
He laughs again, watching her take a sip of her drink.
"Yep. Always have and always will."
His confidence would be annoying, but it's her, and this is part of their game, too.
"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure of that." She moves a small step closer. "Maybe you'd feel right at home in bed with thieves."
It's only thanks to his iron resolve that he doesn't choke on his drink.
She smiles that smile again, three parts teasing and one part honest affection. (There's almost nothing that amazes him as much as the fact that he can be friends with this woman, despite everything between them.)
The sudden touch of her hand on his arm startles him.
"Come dance with me, Nate."
Before he has a chance to respond, she's dragging him to the middle of the room to where a few other couples are already dancing. It's more a reflex than anything else that his hand lands on her hip, gripping a little more tightly than necessary, maybe, but he's still too stunned for conscious thought.
What starts out as a harmless dance quickly turns into something much more dangerous. Her hands loop behind his neck and his arms go around her waist. She's looking at him from those dark, dark eyes and he just can't look away.
The beats of the song fade into something slower, more sensual, and they gravitate towards each other, bodies glued together. He still hasn't stopped staring, and the heady smell of her perfume registers in his mind, catalogued and archived like everything else about her.
She makes a move as if to rest her head on his shoulder, but all it does it bring her even closer, her mouth right beside his ear as she speaks.
"Why did they sent you?"
He considers not answering, but then does it anyway.
"They didn't. I wanted to come, to see you."
Sophie is almost shocked at his honest admission. Drawing her head back to look him in the eye again, she asks: "Why?"
This time, he doesn't reply, just looks at her, his eyes overflowing with emotion and secrets untold. This isn't love, they both know that, but it's not only lust either. And that they have more than enough of. He's never felt an attraction quite like this to anyone else before.
She whispers "Oh, Nate," and is suddenly so close that he can feel the breathy syllable of his name on his lips, her mouth hovering less than an inch in front of him. He doesn't close the gap, not yet; he wants to draw this out, like everything between them always has been.
Now it seems to be her who can't break the gaze, and he can feel her breathing speed up. He brings his hand up slowly, purposely letting it slide over her entire back, and then tangles his fingers in her hair.
There's a harsh flash of gold, and some tiny part of his brain must still be functioning, because even though it takes a while, the thought suddenly registers, the realisation that the flash is his wedding ring, that he is married and has a son. That he is happy with his family.
He turns his head to the side, avoiding her mouth by mere millimetres.
He only watches her out of the corner of his eyes, which is why he's not sure that short burst of pain he thinks he saw isn't only disappointment at a failed con, or maybe even relief. (If he is honest with himself, he doesn't even want to know.)
Nate barely has time to pull away from her and collect himself before she's gone.
In the end, she doesn't steal the painting, and he has to explain to his supervisors that he was wrong. (He can still smell her even days later.)
He catches her in Barcelona. Unbelievably, suddenly catches her, without warning, without so much as a plan.
His report will be severely lacking in detail, vague to the point that his boss will be annoyed, but he can't even really say how it all happened.
Nate had been there on an assignment, and before rounding a corner in the local art gallery had heard her voice (—he'd recognise it anywhere, even with the fake German accent). He'd stopped dead in his tracks, gotten out his handcuffs on autopilot, and waited. And the moment she ran right into him, he'd had her.
To say she was shocked would be the understatement of the year; he doesn't think he's seen her this surprised since he shot her in the back. (To be fair, though, she had shot him first.)
"Nate?" she gasps.
"Miss Devereaux? You're arrested." His grin is wide and arrogant, but he has every reason to be proud. He finally caught the great Sophie Devereaux.
"Nate, let me go."
She tries to struggle, flexes her muscles against the cuffs and his hold, but he is strong, too strong, and gets them out of the building to avoid unwanted attention.
He knows the smart thing to do would be to cuff her to something solid and call the police, but he can't quite bring himself to do that after everything they've been through. Some twisted part of him, the honourable side, feels like he owes her at least some measure of dignity. So he decides to take her to the nearest police station himself, knowing full well the risks involved.
And not one to disappoint, she stops in the next deserted alley, causing him to lurch a little when his arm is jerked back, his hand still cuffed to hers. He's wary, but to his surprise, she keeps her hands still, held out in front of her, his own hanging loosely at her side.
"Why are you doing this, Nate? I didn't steal anything!"
"This time," Nate adds, and Sophie nods.
"You've always played fair, but this? This is below you."
There's venom in her voice, but he can't help but smile at that.
"Oh, Sophie. I don't care if it's below me or if it's fair. I caught you. You're a thief. And now you're going to jail."
He tries to take off again, but she holds against it with the weight of her entire body. "Wait!" He could probably make her follow, drag her along if he had to, even throw her over his shoulder and carry her, but if there's one thing he doesn't want, it's to hurt her.
"What? What is it, Sophie? What do you want?"
She moves quickly, almost too much so, pulls him forward by the lapel of his jacket, and the "You" that is her reply nearly gets lost between their touching lips.
He'd known all along that they'd be explosive together, but he hadn't known just how much. If he'd imagined what exactly it would be like to kiss her (and he had, on more occasions than he was willing to admit), he would not have expected this.
His free hand is in her hair, angling her head for better access, and the other is hanging uselessly between them as she lets her fingers roam over every part of him that she can reach. There are sounds around them, cars passing the street nearby, a helicopter overhead, a dog barking in the background. None of this gets through to him; he's still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he is kissing Sophie Devereaux. And she is kissing him back.
Nothing about this kiss could ever be called friendly or chaste. It's pure anger, pent up frustration, and more than enough heat to ignite everything that gets too close.
When his brain finally catches up, it doesn't tell him to stop. He struggles to get his thoughts (feelings) under control, but her tongue is sliding against his and this battle had been lost the moment he'd let her stop him in the street.
He gives in eventually, pulling her even closer and leaning in, pouring everything he has and more into the contact of their lips. His entire world is reduced to this, to her, to them, and he's never been as utterly possessed as he is at this very moment. He doesn't even realise the slight change in her demeanour, the slow retreat of her mouth and lips and tongue.
Sophie needs twenty seconds to get the keys, unlock the cuffs, and steal his wallet (—just for good measure). The kiss lasts more than three minutes.
He always knows more or less exactly where she is at any given time.
Even when he's not chasing her, her location is branded into his mind. It's not hard, really. Her cons usually only take a few days, during which she often completely disappears, but the rest of the year, she's surprisingly easy to find. She is an actress, after all, and while the aliases she picks surely are diverse, she can't change her appearance enough for him not to recognise her instantly from the posters advertising her most recent play.
And he's seen them all. Whenever she stars in a new play, he goes to see it at least once. (Depending on how far away it is, he occasionally sees it more often than that, but he makes it a point to always be there for the premiere.)
He's never shown himself to her. He always buys a ticket in one of the back rows so she won't be able to make out his face among the crowd.
She's horrible at acting, he realised that long ago, but that's not why he comes. That's not why he lies to Maggie about going out for drinks with the guys from work. No, he does it because he enjoys the thrill of being the only one who's ever seen her act properly. The only one that is intimately familiar with the beauty of Sophie Devereaux's secret skill.
This is how it's always been, and how he had expected it to always be. But then his world came crashing down around him with a drawn-out beeping sound and the smell of antiseptic.
He isn't sure why he is here now. He should be at home with his wife. Or he should at least be home. (Maggie has her own pain to deal with, and he's so not ready to help her in any way.) But instead, he bought a ticket and got onto a place as soon as he'd seen the newest poster.
This is the first time he doesn't really pay attention. He watches Sophie, but doesn't see her. His mind is too far away, jumping from his son (—his dead son, his dead son that he had failed, and how would he ever be able to forgive himself?—) to his wife and then to the woman in front of him (—his rock, his guide).
Nate has never told Maggie about Sophie. He usually shares whatever he's allowed to with her about his cases, but he's never shared Sophie. He keeps her hidden from his wife, hidden from the world, his favourite secret. Even if it makes him less of an honest man that he'd like to be.
And now, there's nothing he wants more than walk up to the state, take her away from here, and forget. Forget the pain, the hospital smell, the bright lights that had danced before his eyes when he'd held his little boy's dead body.
The only thing that holds him back, the only thing that stops him, is fear. Fear of himself, for her. He wants to make someone pay, anyone (—it might as well be her—), and even if everything's been irrevocably and irreversibly damaged, one constant remains: He loves Sophie. And he'd never do anything to risk hurting her.
So he hurls himself out of the theatre before the final act, before he loses all control.
The night for him ends in a bar where he drowns himself in alcohol.
Sophie is staring at his lips.
She's been staring at his lips whenever he talks for a few weeks now, and it's extremely distracting. He tries not to look at her much anymore when the others are around, at least not when he briefs them about a mark. But he can still feel her eyes on him like a physical touch, and it slowly but surely drives him insane.
The team haven't picked up on it yet, or so he hopes, even though he stutters more often than ever before. It's only a matter of time, however; after all, they are the best. He's actually astounded that nobody's picked up on the tension yet, especially since Sophie seems to have taken to making sure she's always in the same room with him.
If he's entirely truthful, he enjoys it, too. Enjoy the attention, enjoys knowing she still wants him after all this time. Some things never change. (His love for her certainly hasn't.) (Other things, however, do. (He hasn't had a drink in months.))
They always camp out at his apartment, having turned it into their makeshift headquarters, and he pretends to be more annoyed than he really is. These days, there's always someone sitting at his table, drinking his coffee or eating his food. At least he still has his bedroom to himself; that's the only room they haven't invaded. Yet.
So it doesn't come as a surprise to find Sophie sitting on the couch when he walks down the stairs one morning. She's already sipping tea, and he chalks it up to having been in the shower that he didn't hear her arrive. (The alternative would be admitting how comfortable he really is around his team, and that would just be weird.)
She's gazing straight ahead, apparently lost in thought, and jumps a little when he puts his hand on her shoulder.
"Bloody hell, Nate! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
He chuckles, taking a seat right next to her.
"You know, technically, this is my apartment. Shouldn't you be the one to announce yourself?"
Breathing back under control, she says: "Sorry, I was early."
He shakes his head with a hint of a smile.
"What were you thinking about?" He can't not ask, has to know what put that nostalgic expression on her face.
After a moment's hesitation, she answers "Paris", drawing another chuckle from him.
"Oh, so we're ready to talk about that now?"
For whatever reason, they'd both mutually decided, without such a conversation ever occurring, never to bring up the incident that involved them shooting at each other, at least not directly. Some teasing remarks here and there, allusions, but never direct confrontation. He liked it this way.
It's her turn to shake her head.
"No, not that. I was thinking about the days before that, when you had no idea what I was up to yet. Especially that one afternoon when we took a long walk through the city, telling each other everything we knew about the churches and cathedrals."
That walk. The walk that had ended with them on either side of a door, his hands pressed against the wood, her whole body leaning on it for support.
He'd almost slept with her that night. The walk had been followed by coffee, then dinner and later drinks, and because they'd agreed to play fair, they'd even been able to enjoy the day. (In retrospect, he's not sure what is more insane; that he made an honest agreement with a grifter, or that she'd actually kept her end of the deal by not running.)
In the end, they'd been stopped by her hotel's concierge whose disapproving look at the lack of a matching wedding band on her finger had been more than enough to kill the mood. He'd offered to walk her to her room, and that was that. He'd regretted that missed chance for a long, long time.
"Eight years ago…" The wistful smile is back, and he's not sure he likes it.
"Has it really been this long?" His question is rhetorical, of course, because he can't even remember what life was like before her.
"It's weird to see how far we've come, isn't it?"
Nate only nods.
"What was your favourite part about chasing me?"
The question takes him by surprise. They're reaching dangerous territory. Not that they haven't been here before, but that was with the safety net of his marriage and their respective jobs, and now his resolve crumbles a little more each time they come back. He looks at her, and thinks about his answer.
"The… thrill it gave me. The thrill of never knowing what you'd planned. What was in store for me this time around. Wondering if you'd run as soon as you saw me, or if you'd stay and try to play me. If you'd kiss me." She's staring at his lips again, eyes dark and huge.
"Do you miss it?" he asks, shaking her from her reverie.
No hesitation this time: "A little… maybe. But not really."
He understands. This, what they have now, is perfect. No more hostility, but still the same passion whenever they fight, and he swears if she doesn't stop looking at his lips, he's going to—
She gets up, suddenly, and he's ready to throw his hands up in frustration. He follows her into the kitchen, where she pours herself another cup of tea, leaning against the counter. Her next question is quiet, and he thinks he hears a hint of fear in it.
"Would you want to go back?"
Go back… He'd had a son, back then. The thought makes him turn around, away from her, pretending to be looking out the window. (She's not the only one who hides things.) His son. Of course he wants to go back. But then he thinks of her, and Parker and Hardison and Eliot, of all the people they've helped, of all the lives they've saved. And no matter what he'd give, he would never get his son back, and maybe, just maybe, he'll learn to live with the guilt one day. As long as he has people who care for him. He's learned to live without his son, but he doesn't know how he'd ever go on without Sophie, so he says "no", the word nothing but a broken whisper.
She's standing right behind him now, mirroring his earlier movement of putting her hand on his shoulder. He turns toward her to say something, but she's looking at him like that, gaze flickering between his eyes and mouth. The hand that had been on his shoulder runs down his arm, and her fingers lace with his. He squeezes without thinking, and the shiver that goes through her at the contact quickly eradicates all coherent thought. And yet, he just keeps looking.
"What's holding you back, Nate?" she asks finally, the same question he was just about to ask himself. "You're not married anymore."
She's right, but that has never been the only thing holding him back. He'd always been afraid to get closer to her because he'd always feared he might lose her. Now that she's standing right in front of him, still staring at his lips, the idea seems almost ridiculous. She's seen him through hell —Sam's death, the divorce, his drinking—, and she's still here, right here.
It doesn't take him long to make his decision.
"Soph… As tempted as I am right now, the guys are going to come marching in here any second."
She swallows and he'll be damned if that doesn't make her even harder to resist.
Apparently satisfied with his answer (for now), she shakes her head to clear her thoughts and takes a step back. "Okay."
They both know that this discussion won't be avoided anymore, only postponed. And, surely enough, the door opens and the rest of the team comes striding in.
"So, what's up, boss?" Parker greets him.
"New case! Go sit down."
He and Sophie are the last ones left, and he smiles at her before gesturing for her to take the lead. She smiles back, then joins the others, and stares at his mouth through the length of his entire presentation.
Deleted Scene: Boston;
Nathan Ford is drunk.
That, in itself, is nothing new. He was sober for a while, but then he'd been driven back to drink. It's not nearly as bad as it used to be, but he misses Sophie, and that's as good a reason as any.
She has only been gone a few weeks, but even though she's now sent Tara, it's not the same without her. He'd tried to make himself believe he doesn't need her. That she's a friend and nothing more, just a member of his crew. That they'd be just as effective with a different grifter. And they are effective, but Parker has withdrawn a little, Eliot doesn't smile as much, and Hardison no longer cracks jokes.
Sophie took those things with her, and more, when she'd wandered off to Europe or Asia or wherever she is now.
To find herself, she'd said, her real self. The irony is that without her, now they have lost themselves. Another part of him just… gone. (He'd trade everything to get his son back, but he'd give almost as much to have her walk through his door right now.)
The phone next to him looks more appealing with every minute that passes, but he's not drink enough yet to do anything stupid. Two or three more drinks should do the trick, he figures.
So he swears to himself to stop after the next. He'd promised her all the time she'd need, and calling her for something as mundane as saying hi does not fall under the category of giving her the needed space. Especially not while he's drunk.
He doesn't have to imagine her reaction to know the only two ways the conversation could end; either in anger because he'd gotten drunk and called her, or in worry that he's not taking care of himself. He wants neither. He's fought so much with her already, and if she ever looked at him with pity, he'd have to drink himself to death.
No, he decides, pushing the phone away. He won't call her.
One more drink, and then he'll pass out on his bed. And maybe things will look better when he wakes up in the morning. Hangover be damned. Sophie loves them. She can't (won't) stay away forever.
"we only part to meet again.
change, as ye list, ye winds; my heart shall be
the faithful compass that still points to thee."