Across town, a warehouse near Baltimore’s waterfront burns clear into the night. Sophie looks out the window of the hotel, the sky long-since blackened by nightfall, and sees the smoke billow for miles, the amber light of fire sparkling in the distance. Her hands still shake, just barely as she breathes and turns her neck to watch the gentle rise and fall of Nate’s chest as he sleeps, as she counts his breaths one by one just to make sure he is still half-alive. They couldn’t start the journey back to Boston after the explosion. Not with Nate in the condition he was in. Not with the lot of them still clearly wracked with shock. In the morning they will start over once more, devise yet another plan to take down Dubenich when their heads are little clearer, when Nate has managed to regain his foothold in this world that has always been crueler to him than most.
Her phone vibrates on the table next to her, and she reaches for it immediately, silencing it before the noise can wake Nate. It’s Eliot, again, the text consisting of only two words: any change? Sophie’s thumb fumbles over the keyboard as she types her single, two-letter word reply: No.
On the streets below there is a siren, some commotion a block over. Wincing at the intrusion of sound, Sophie moves to pull the window shut before climbing out of her perch on the windowsill. Her head pounds something fierce, her eyes heavy with sleep that won’t claim her no matter how much she may want it to. Not tonight. When she turns back around, she realizes her actions to preserve the quiet were to no avail – Nate is awake, watching her every move, and she stills when his eyes catch hers, when she sees the bits of dried blood in the hair at his temples.
“How long have I been out?” he asks, pushing himself upwards on unsteady hands. The mattress creaks with the movement. She sighs heavily and reaches into her bag for the bottle of aspirin she keeps there out of habit. Slowly, she moves towards the bed.
Nate holds his hand out expectantly and she twists the top off with a little effort, drops three of the tiny pills into his palm. He tosses them back without water, wincing slightly as he swallows. His eyes are red, his ears probably still ringing from the blast of the explosion. Sophie wanted him to see a doctor, borderline insisted, but Eliot said he was fine. Eliot promised her he would be fine, and Sophie trusted him to know. Still, she reaches for Nate out of what is slowly becoming something akin to habit, her fingers smoothing the curls at his temples, picking at the dried blood there. He reaches for her hand in an instant, shielding himself from her touch. This too is habit and the tiny part of her she tries so often to bury would have been offended if his fingers had not wrapped around hers for just a moment before letting go.
“We need to get back,” he says hoarsely. “We need to get home.” He winces at the sound of his own voice, the roughness around the edges, and she slides into her place on the bed beside him as he struggles to sit up straighter, the mattress giving under their combined weight.
“We will. Tomorrow.”
Pushing himself off the bed, Nate heads straight for the mini-bar. Sophie sighs a little as his feet shuffle against the carpet, his gait unsteady, and she knows his world is completely off-kilter. When he reaches the far side of the room, he has to use his left hand as leverage to hold himself upright as he bends, plucking three tiny bottles of whiskey out of the refrigerator and pouring them all into a paper cup with the hotel’s emblem splattered across the front. She raises an eyebrow as he turns around, and he catches it easily, pausing with the rim of the cup resting on his bottom lip.
“Choose your battles,” he warns and sounds older, harder. His voice is still rough, filled to the brim with grief and anger and all the things he started to bury with alcohol years before she knew him. “My father is dead, Sophie. I think I’m allowed.”
Still, he waits for the shrug of her shoulders, her version of practiced indifference masked as permission, before taking a sip. He finishes the contents in two solid swigs, the flimsy paper of the cup crumbling between his fingers as he searches for another bottle.
His feet are still unsteady as they carry him across the room once again. He falls into a seat next to the windowsill where she had spent the last three hours keeping vigil, places the unopened bottle of something amber and cheap on the table next to her phone. Sophie watches him unashamedly, follows the line of his shoulders as they start to crumble, as he heaves a shaky sigh and lets his head fall into his hands. Sophie watches and says nothing because she knows Nate and recognizes the stages of grief as he plows through them. Sophie knows what he feels now is a fine, dangerous mixture of depression and anger – two things he is intimately familiar with. His shoulders start to move softly and she stands on reflex, making her way over to him. When she’s before him, when she is so close to him she can hear his sharp intake of breath as she runs her hands through his hair, he looks up at her and leans into her touch as much as he will allow himself to.
Still, now, in moments like this, he holds himself back with her out of sheer instinct. It breaks her heart even as she welcomes the familiarity.
“Did you know your father?” Nate asks softly, almost out of nowhere.
There are things they don’t talk about, as a rule, and her history is one of them. A long time ago, Nate learned that there are questions that are better left unasked, topics that are better to never be broached. Her past has always been one of them. Sophie’s first impulse is, and probably always will be, to lie to him. It takes every trained fiber of her being to resist the urge.
Nodding, she murmurs, “Once.”
“Did you love him or hate him?”
Her fingers never stop moving, the tips of them running through his hair over and over. Sophie isn’t sure if it is for him or simply to give her hands something to do. “I walked a fine line between both. Most children do, I think,” she muses.
“Was he a good man?”
She pauses. It is a rare moment when she allows herself to think of her family, when she allows herself to remember the people she left behind all those years ago. These moments never fail to leave a bitter taste in the back of her mouth, a mixture of equal part guilt and regret, and she swallows around the acridness now as Nate glances upwards expectantly. These moments also never fail to unleash a spiral of memories that leave her both wounded and nostalgic, that haunt her for days, weeks afterwards. She fights against them now, uses the movement of her hands, the sound of their breathing to focus her energy, to fight the ghosts of her past.
“Not really, no,” she replies too quietly. Her voice gets caught in her throat and her fingers fall from his hair to his shoulders, nails sinking into the skin there slightly. “He was instrumental in making me the person I am today,” she tells Nate, a secret she’s never shared with anyone before. She laughs a little after the words fall out of her mouth at the irony of saying them now, to him. “You and I are very similar in that regard.”
“I’m sorry,” he says and the depth of sincerity behind the words takes the breath right out of her.
Out of instinct and habit alike, she pulls back, distancing herself from being the topic at hand. Because Sophie can see the wheels turning in his head, can read the flickers of emotion on his face, she knows what he is thinking, what he needs to hear. So she says, “It’s okay to still hate him, Nate. It’s okay to love him in spite of everything, too. It doesn’t maker you a lesser man. It only makes you human.”
As soon as the words leave her mouth, he pulls away from her almost completely. He reaches for the bottle he’d discarded minutes before. His fingers fumble with the cap and the liquid slides down his throat easily as she watches, as he refuses to look at her. Nate pulls away, distancing himself from her and this conversation as fast as he can because he doesn’t know how to talk about these things. He doesn’t know how to talk to people when it isn’t about a con or a mark. He stands, his shoulder brushing hers as he moves past her and back towards the fridge, yet another bottle plucked from obscurity in the process.
When he nears her again, he’s struggling with the top, all thumbs as he tries to twist this one off. When he finally unscrews it completely, he tosses it onto the floor, looks right at her as he takes a long, slow swig from the bottle.
“Nate.” Her voice is calm and soothing out of practice. At the sound of it, his eyes widen and flick towards hers accusingly. He shakes his head and takes a step back and away from her.
“Don’t,” he breathes. His voice is like steel, his fingers tight around the tiny bottle in his hand. He looks at her and she sees his anger simmering below the surface, feels herself prepare for it, her shoulders tensing, the breath she inhales a sharp hiss. She reaches for him, but he swats her hand away. His voice is near yelling when he says, “Don’t handle me, Sophie. Don’t you dare.”
She doesn’t back down. “Then don’t shut me out,” she replies, her voice still even and calm, her lips pressed into the thinnest line. “This team needs you, Nate. I need you.” Her voice breaks, just slightly around the words as his eyes meet hers. Sophie watches the anger ebb out of him in an instant, his fingers unclenching at his sides. “And you need us. You can’t do this on your own. You don’t have to do this on your own. That’s the whole point of being a team.”
He deflates, falling back into the chair, his hands immediately reaching for her and settling on her hips as he pulls her towards him. She stills, not sure of what he wants from her and what she is willing to give, her breath leaving her mouth in a whoosh as he rests his forehead against her stomach. His shoulders move with a sob that shakes his entire body before choking off into a twisted, gut-wrenching laugh. She watches, concerned, her hands unsure of where to fall at first, before finding home once more between the curls on his head.
“I’ve spent so much of my life hating him. I’ve dedicated so much of my life trying not to become him and now that he’s dead I…it’s like this weight has been lifted but I don’t know how to be without it. I don’t know how to stop myself from becoming a man like him… ” He trails off, and she feels the twitch of his cheek, watches his shoulders tense. She knows he is fighting back tears.
“You aren’t your father,” she tells him softly, and just like that, he allows himself to break before her.
They stay like that for a long while, Sophie silent as Nate grieves for a father he both wishes he knew better and wishes he could forget.
When they return to Boston, she goes with him as he buries an empty casket into the ground next to his mother’s grave. She stands close, just within arms reach as the heels of her stilettos sink down into the earth beneath her feet. Nate mumbles a prayer from memory and crouches down, pressing his fingers first to his mouth and then to the granite, tips tracing the slopes and curves of his mother’s name. Sophie stands there and watches him mourn all the people who have left him behind, all the ones that he couldn’t save. She wishes so badly to be able to help him, to mend the parts of him that were broken long before she ever knew him.
It would be to no avail, of course, so she helps him plan his revenge instead.
The thing about people, Sophie knows, is that they are all fractured. Some are born that way, carrying their fault lines since birth. Others have the fine, hairline cracks forced upon them by happenstance; they are made imperfect by the hard-fought trials of life. If one took the time to look closely enough, they would find that everyone has points of weakness. Everyone has a single spot where all it takes is just the slightest amount of pressure to break them completely in half.
Sophie has always been better at hiding hers than most.
She was born in the midst of the coldest spring on record in Chelmsford. Her father was an entrepreneur of sorts – she wouldn’t understand everything this entailed until much, much later in life. Her mother was a seamstress, excellent with her hands, and possessed a gentle touch and warm smile that was blissfully ignorant to all that she refused to see. She spent her early years carefree, happy, horribly impressionable and naive. Her mother taught her how to sew, her strong, nimble fingers fitting so over her smaller ones as they threaded the needle and guided it through cloth. Her mother also taught her how to appreciate art. Countless afternoons were spent by the fire, her short, dirty hands turning the worn pages of book after book on famous artists. Her mother’s voice was smooth and enthralled as she spoke of the way Monet manipulated color or the painfully gentle strokes of Degas’ exquisite ballerinas. Her mother loved Degas. She adored the breathtaking beauty of all art, but she loved Degas above all the rest.
This, too, she passed down to her daughter.
Her father taught her how to hunt on the weekends, how to choose her prey carefully by weighing the risks and benefits, how to spread her feet shoulder-width apart, to brace for the recoil, and most importantly, how to shoot and make it count. They were poorer than dirt, she would realize years later when she had perspective and distance, but she never wanted for anything, never yearned for a different life during those early years because she simply didn’t know any better. Her mother never allowed her to know any better. She would hold her tight and never tired of whispering I love you into the soft curls at the crown of her head, never stopped murmuring over and over, you are going to do great things, darling. Great, amazing things.
She was the oldest of six children – four brothers and a sister, but despite being outnumbered, despite being gangly and awkward with too-long legs and a crooked smile, when her mother died just shortly after her sister’s birth, she was the toughest, the rock, the foundation her family needed to survive upon. She was the one to hold her family together when her father couldn’t, when he lost the battle with the bottle and a broken heart. When he became reckless in every aspect of his life.
Her family buried her mother on a warm, sunny day in the middle of the summer. Her youngest brother fisted his tiny fingers in the fabric of a black dress that hung too loosely on her frame – the dress that belonged to her mother six children ago. His cheeks were stained with tears, his throat hoarse from crying. Her baby sister was cradled in her arms, swaddled in the blanket she had crafted with her very own hands; the baby’s eyes were wide and bright, her smile so achingly familiar. Her own chin was proud, her eyes hidden behind tinted glasses that blocked the sun and shielded her away from the world. As she listened to the priest speak so eloquently of her mother, as the congregation of their tiny, worn-down church prayed for her mother’s soul, her own Amen arrived a beat after everyone else’s.
She was barely eleven then.
It was in the aftermath of her mother’s death that she learned who her father truly was. There were always rumblings, of course. Aunt Emily never did look at her brother-in-law fondly, always made snide comments and jokes that fell flat, that made everyone shift awkwardly in their seats and avoid eye contact at holiday meals. She couldn’t understand it all then, but soon after her mother’s death, her father started piling them all into the beat-up, rusted station wagon on the weekends. They would trek all the way to Aunt Emily’s, her brothers and sisters always dropped off in a rush, the youngest ones always clinging to her, crying fiercely as she whispered goodbye before she and her father continued on to London without them.
During those long drives she would roll the windows down, allow the wind to drag through her fingers as they drove through the endless countryside, and smile as the sun warmed her face. Her father liked American country music of all things and the sounds of it resonating within their beat-up station wagon made her miss her mother, made her long for the beautiful and soothing sounds of Beethoven and Vivaldi, the warm tones of the blues.
On the radio a man with a gravelly voice sang, If you’re gonna play the game, ya gotta learn to play it right, and her father turned to her, every single time, his fingers thumping out the beat to the song on the steering wheel and said gleefully, “Listen closely, love. This song contains everything you need to know about life.”
He taught her many things during those weekends: the art of the two-finger pick-pocket, how to read a situation like a novice, how to survey her surroundings in a short time span and take in everything they had to offer – the people, their positions, their mannerisms. He taught her when to push forward and, most importantly, when to walk away.
It was her father who taught her how to spin the truth.
On her twelfth birthday, he decided she was ready. They sat in a café near Buckingham Palace, dressed in their Sunday best, fitting in amongst the classy, beautiful people surrounding them, but not so much as to make a lasting impression on any onlookers. This, her father taught her during their very weekend in London, was the art of blending in. Her father scanned the crowd, his fingers tight around the teacup in his hands. He reached into his jacket and pulled out his flask, pouring a bit of amber liquid into the contents of his cup. She could smell it from all the way across the table and her face must have given away her disapproval because he caught her attention with a smile, nodded to an older man across the way – his version of an expertly placed distraction.
“Now,” he began, his voice warm, his smile stretched too tight. “I want you to go over there and bring me back that man’s wallet. Just like we’ve been practicing.”
She preened, her neck craning just slightly to get a look, but not in an obvious, overt way. She shook her head as she settled back in her seat. “But isn’t that dishonest?”
His laugh was both simultaneously crooked and warm. “It isn’t dishonest if it’s how you make a living.”
There was a moment where she reconsidered, where she shook her head and adamantly refused, but then his smile started to falter, his eyes hardening, and she didn’t want to disappoint him. After a moment, she rose from her chair and made her way over to where the older man was now sitting. She waited in the shadows for the waiter to pass by, for the exact right moment, planning it all out in her head: the faltering step, the gentle push, the fall of the tea against the man’s crisp, white jacket, and, as a result, his indignation and distraction. All of which gave her the smallest, most fragile time frame for her to reach in and claim his wallet as her own.
She executed it flawlessly.
On a side street a few blocks over she met up with her father and passed him the heavy, leather wallet with excitement. He pocketed the abundant notes and tossed the rest in a nearby trashcan. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close to him. She breathed in his warmth, allowed it to envelop her completely. She was so excited she could barely stand still. The intoxicating thrill of adrenaline settled in the base of her spine and lingered, setting her nerves and fingertips on fire.
That feeling didn’t fade for a long, long time.
At the airport bar in O’Hare, she sits on a stool next to Nate. The glass of water between her hands is cold and sweating all over her fingers. Nate’s drink sits off to the side, untouched for now, his eyes wild, fingers twisting around the napkin crumbled in the palm of his hand. His hands are shaking, only slightly, and he covers the movement by folding his fingers into a fist, by reaching for his whiskey and curling them tight around the tumbler. He steels himself by taking a long, thick swallow and motions towards the bartender for another when the glass turns up empty.
Sophie watches him closely, sees the wheels turning over and over in his head. She knows he’s plotting and planning and devising plans A through Z without nearly enough information and too much emotional investment. It never leads anywhere good. Firsthand experience has taught her this.
On instinct and without thought she reaches for him, her fingers brushing against his shoulder barely. He recoils out of impulse, pulls into himself, and Sophie sighs heavily, almost too tired to begin the daunting task of pulling him back out, to keep him from retreating fully.
“Nate,” she starts softly, just the one syllable of his name because she hasn’t quite figured out what to say to him yet. She hasn’t quite figured out how to fix this yet. He turns to look at her just as the bartender replaces the whiskey in front of him. His eyes are open and honest, red with grief and it’s taken them so long to get here, to get to the place where they are starting to let the other in, where they don’t trust each other fully out of instict and reflex, but the foundation is there – even if it is shaky at best. She doesn’t want to backtrack, to push too hard, so she opens her mouth to speak and is not at all surprised when nothing comes out. After a moment, she tries again. Says, “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Nate turns his attention to his hands, to the tumbler full of amber liquid between them. He raises the glass, takes a smaller sip. “I want him dead,” he tells her, voice steady. If Sophie were a better person, if she weren’t a liar and a thief, she would be scared for Dubenich’s safety. But then she remembers that Dubenich tried to kill her friends, he tried to kill her family, and if life has taught her anything it is that everything evens out in the long run.
Still, the way Nate laughs after the words leave his mouth – cold and maniacal – makes her skin crawl.
Her drink continues to sweat all over her fingers, but she doesn’t let go of the glass. She doesn’t want to show him the slight shake of her own hands, the weakness it signifies. “Do you honestly think that will make you feel better? Do you think that will solve all of your problems?”
“Probably not.” He finishes yet another drink, winces, and turns to face her. “But it might make me feel better.”
“I can assure you that feeling does not last long.”
The look he gives her is pointed, full of question. Sophie stiffens on reflex, shifts in her seat to get more comfortable, to hide how unnerved she is under his watchful gaze.
“Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.”
“Perhaps I am.” The bartender makes his way over to them once more, another drink of whiskey in hand, but Sophie cuts him off with a look. The younger man stops dead in his tracks and re-considers; Sophie is more than thankful. “Still, Nate, there are better, different ways. I don’t care who you may think you are. You are not that man.”
Nate actively refuses to look at her as he says, “You don’t know that.”
It’s Sophie’s turn to laugh and she does, the sound short, without mirth, and borderline annoyed. She shifts in her seat, rests her weight on the back of the stool. She’s tired today. Her bones are tired. Her reserves are beyond exhausted and she honestly cannot remember ever feeling this old before, this so incredibly worn down by the world around her. This isn’t the time to have this conversation; she knows this. Nate is angry, grasping at straws, trying to push her away and test her loyalties all in one breath because that is how he copes, that is how he blindly navigates the five steps of grief.
Sophie doesn’t allow it, but she is too incredibly exhausted to argue with him about the misplaced ideologies behind seeking revenge for any and all wrongdoings.
So instead, she merely takes a long sip of her now lukewarm water and says, “I do. I do know you, Nate. I know that right now, in this moment, you want nothing more than to be that guy because you think that guy has all the answers.” She reaches for him again, her fingers solid, certain against the crook of his arm, lingering over the bone of his elbow. Her fingers leave damp spots in their wake. He doesn’t recoil, but instead leans into her touch, just a fraction of an inch. Sophie takes it as a personal victory. “But you aren’t. You never have been.”
Overhead their flight is called. Nate moves to stand, throwing a few bills on the bar top and pushing his stool in with the toe of his foot. She watches as he stills, as he turns to face her, his face ashen and stoic.
“You’re either with me or you’re not,” he says, and his tone is curt, clipped, but his eyes give him away.
It says entirely way too much about who they are to one another that she doesn’t hesitate before nodding, before moving to stand and following him back to Boston.
School was easy. Lies were easier.
With time, effort, and experience she learned how to invent a version of herself that almost everyone found irresistible – she was smart, talented, revered. She had a gift for reading people, for knowing the intention, the truth behind every quirk of an eyebrow, every shift of fingers, and every single word chosen to speak aloud. She had an even greater gift for categorizing and compartmentalizing every thing she read, every thing she saw. She was beyond brilliant, but she never allowed it to show. Nobody, she quickly discovered, liked a know-it-all, a show off, so instead she played her card close to her vest. She toned down her brilliance for those who needed to feel superior, and used it to command attention from those who would appreciate it, who would understand it.
Most of all, however, she was a wonderful artist. The feel of the paintbrush in her hand reminded her of her mother. The soft, barely-there sound of the bristles sliding across canvas reminded her of the way her mother would whisper I love you over and over, and how deeply she felt the truth in the words. How much she missed the affirmation now that her mother was gone.
Her life as a con artist started with a Degas, of course. It was only fitting. She spent an entire evening, from dusk to dawn, replicating every stroke, every color, every slope and curve of the ballerina’s stature. The replication was so utterly flawless that to the untrained eye, to even some of the better-trained eyes, it could have passed as the real thing. Her father, of course, saw this as an opportunity, and as she watched gleefully as he stared at the painting the next morning, she saw the emotions flicker across his usually guarded face – the excitement, the indecision, the awe.
And then, of course, she saw the plan forming, the caveats coming together perfectly.
It all started simply enough. Her father would scope out a target – a target so wealthy he probably wouldn’t even bat an eye at a missing masterpiece – with an exquisite art collection and she would replicate whatever piece from the collection that caught her father’s attention, a piece that wasn’t the most expensive, but, instead, just expensive enough. Her father would make the switch using means she was not privy to, and then he would pass the original to a trustworthy fence, and pocket quite a bit of money. The plan was practically foolproof. They repeated it so often and so well that it became routine and with that routine, with the success, her father changed into a different man – he became greedy, careless and because of it, because of his recklessness and his obsession with the bottle it all took a turn the day before her sixteenth birthday.
Long gone were the weekends spent in London with her father. Now, she only found her way to the city on Friday afternoons. She spent her time in museums, cafés, collecting wallets and appreciating art, admiring the masterpieces of others, tracing lines and colors and shapes with her eyes, categorizing them for future use. After, she usually found her way to that very same café, the one her father took her to years before. She drank tea paid for with money that belonged to somebody else, a book on Matisse or Rousseau spread out before her, fingers turning the page meticulously.
It was on one of those afternoons that she met Gabrielle – young, beautiful, elegant Gabrielle. She was older, of course. She was the picture of class with a Parisian accent that was both practiced and impeccable, her blonde hair long and full of waves. Gabrielle smiled through her teeth in lieu of a greeting, the curl of her lips worn and dangerous but her tone was smooth, like money. The creases that were just barely beginning to form at the corners of her mouth and the center of her forehead gave her away, however. Her life had not always been easy, was definitely not the picture of perfection she tried so hard to exude, but she wore the reminders proudly, and made them work to her advantage.
One afternoon just before her sixteenth birthday, Gabrielle noiselessly slid into a seat across from her at the café and did not hesitate to tell her a story about how somebody had stolen her newly acquired La Fougere Noire while she was out of town and replaced it with a remarkable forgery. A forgery, she said, that probably would have made Matisse proud. At first, the woman explained, she was angry. Absolutely livid. The woman didn’t take kindly to being stolen from and she definitely didn’t take kindly to being fooled. Then, after she had taken a step back and reevaluated the situation, she realized there was a greater matter at hand: somebody had managed to fool her, even if it was just for a little while, and she just had to meet that person, had to compliment them on a job well done.
“Don’t bother to deny it, dear,” Gabrielle said, lips quirking upwards slightly. “The twitch of your mouth when I complimented your work gave you away,” she explained. “Besides, I am not here to question you. I’m not even here to turn you into the police – especially since the painting wasn’t exactly in my lawful possession. I am here to offer you a job.”
Gabrielle laughed, her shoulders shaking just slightly with the movement. “Yes. You see, I am what you could call… an expert at persuasion. My friend over there,” she pointed somewhere in the back of the café where a man sat comfortably, his nose was buried in a paper, “Is a retrieval expert. I need somebody who excels in replications. It’s a very big job and it means a very large amount of money.” She paused, waiting a calculated beat before continuing, “You could buy a pair of these shoes that you’ve been eyeing since you noticed I was sitting across from you.”
She shifted in her seat and wished her father was there. It was easier when it was him calling the shots. It was easier when she didn’t know the sordid details, when all she had to do was paint, blending colors and recreating slopes and curves and angles until they formed something beautiful. She trusted her father. She trusted that her father would do right by her no matter what – even if that trust was naively misplaced. Still, as she glanced at the woman sitting across the table in her expensive shoes and suit and wide-rimmed sunglasses, she couldn’t help but envy the grace and elegance she possessed. She couldn’t help but yearn for that thrill of the chase, that rush of adrenaline that came after a good lift, or a seamless bait-and-switch.
She just couldn’t help but want more.
“What would this job entail?” she asked quietly. She reached for her cup of tea to busy her hands.
Shaking her head, Gabrielle’s lips curled. She slid her sunglasses off her face and placed them to the side. It was the first time she was able to meet her eyes, was able to read the inferences between the words. There was the tiniest bit of honesty there that absolutely floored her.
“I can’t tell you that. Not until you’ve agreed.”
Years down the line, she still wouldn’t understand why she did it, why she decided to trust this woman she knew nothing about, to trust this woman that seems too exuberant, too dangerous. Still, the okay slid out of her mouth so easily it nearly surprised both of them. Only one of them, however, allowed it to show.
“Okay,” the woman said slowly. “But just so you are aware, just so you are absolutely certain, this agreement right here, right now, is as good as a binding contract. There are absolutely no defaults.”
Nodding, she cocked her head to the side and raised her cup of tea in a mock toast, exhibiting an amount of confidence no sixteen year old had a right to have. “Okay,” she repeated firmly. The woman just smiled an amused, predatory smile that set her nerve endings on edge.
“What should I call you?”
She thought of her mother then for some inexplicable reason, her father, too. Random memories flowed back in spurts – her mother’s smile, her mother’s laugh, her father’s fingers against her cheek, his touch warm and tender, his voice thick with cheap whisky as he murmured hopelessly, you look just like my Sophia, my perfect, lovely Sophia.
Clearing her throat, she set her cup to the side and sat up straighter, squaring her shoulders and pressing her lips into a thin line.
“Sophie,” she lied. “You can call me Sophie.”
This is how the team decides to relocate to Portland:
Back at the cave, Eliot, Parker, and Hardison huddle around the table in the center of the room as they argue endlessly over the implausibility of an Eliot Signal. Eliot still doesn’t understand how he would be able to see it in broad daylight, Hardison assures him he’ll come up with a proper answer because he’s Hardison, and Parker is stuck on whether or not his signature should be a wolf or a knife.
Eliot prefers the knife, Parker the wolf. Before Parker can begin a whole other conversation about what her own call signal would be and how if they took out the north wall and built an elevator, they would be able to fit their own personalized cars in the cave, Sophie decides it is time to intervene. Also, she hears Nate’s footsteps in the distance, the shuffle of his gait closing in. After they both spent the entire trip back listening to the very detailed, very well thought out pro and con list entitled Why We Should Keep the Batcave, Sophie figures one more mention of it would probably put Nate even further over the edge.
After the day he’s had, he really doesn’t need any help in that regard.
So, she cuts off whatever Parker was going to say by offering: “How about a wolf with a knife in its mouth?” as a plausible alternative. “Or, just, you know, a fist getting ready to hit something. Like a punch. Like a punching fist. What describes Eliot better than that?” Sophie makes the motion with her arm, her fingers curled tightly inward as she thrusts her fist upward.
Eliot grins in appreciation and mutters in Hardison’s general direction: “Now that’s what I’m talking about. See? She gets it, man.”
Parker merely laughs.
“Sophie,” Nate says, now within earshot. His tone is a cross between annoyance and amusement and she looks over to see him stalking towards them, some sort of map under his uninjured arm. He’s trying very hard not to smile. “Don’t encourage them.” He moves some things out the way and unfolds the large map across the table, using a rock and a taser of all things to keep the edges from curling under. He looks at Sophie and cocks his head towards the map of the continental United States. She glances at him, then the map, and doesn’t quite understand why he’s looking at her as if she should be able to read his mind. When she just continues to stare at him blankly, he says, “Close your eyes and point,” as if it explains everything.
She arches an eyebrow. “And what?”
“And then we’ll now where we’re headed.”
Sophie laughs. She simply can’t help it. Here he is in the same clothes he’s been wearing for days, staring at her as if she, of all people, holds all the answers and she just has to laugh because this has to be a joke, it just has to be – except Nate Ford doesn’t know how to joke. Any other reaction seems wildly inappropriate and she reaches for him, placing the back of her hand flat against his forehead. “Are you feeling alright?” she asks. “I think we should take you to the hospital, I really do. I know I said you’d be fine, but I’m not a doctor. I did pretend to be one once, but as you would be quick to point out that means absolutely nothing.”
Shrugging her off, Nate merely motions to the map with a look that clearly reads: get on with it already.
“Seriously?” She looks at him incredulously. “Seriously? This is what your big plans involved? Are you insane? Wait,” Sophie holds up a hand to stop whatever is about to come out of his mouth. “Do not bother to answer that. I already know the answer.”
Nate shrugs. “The plans are a work in progress.”
“Well just for future clarification, Nate, when you tell somebody I have big plans you should probably specify that such plans have not been properly flushed out yet, nor even really been thought all the way through, and therefore people should think twice before blindly trusting them.”
“Blindly trusting? Sophie that’s a little –”
It is at that exact moment when Hardison cuts in: “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Let us just slow this train down for a hot minute. Why does Sophie get to choose?”
“I don’t want to choose. You do it.”
“I don’t understand why we have to go anywhere,” Parker says and Sophie turns her head to glance in her direction. Parker is doing this thing with her face that makes Sophie both sad and happy at the same time because it means Parker is having an emotion, but she’s not sure whether or not she should show it because she doesn’t really understand what it is. “I was just starting to like Boston.”
Eliot, to his credit, does not roll his eyes, but when he speaks his tone is harsher than necessary. “Think about it, okay? After the last few weeks we could use a change of scenery. It’s in our best interest to move on and set up shop elsewhere.”
They’re all quiet for a moment, the five of them standing around the large table, the map spread out between them. Nate looks at Sophie and Sophie looks at Nate and after a moment of careful consideration and rationalization along the lines of what could we possible have left to lose? she merely shrugs her approval, arms crossing in an act of acceptance.
The rest follow. They usually do.
Except Hardison who says, “I still don’t understand why Sophie gets to choose. I object to the blatant display of favoritism.”
“Oh, for chrissakes, Hardison, if it means that much to you, why don’t you just do it?”
“Fine,” he makes a show out of stretching his arms and cracking his fingers. Sophie can’t decide whether or not she wants to laugh or roll her eyes. The latter wins out. “I will.”
“Well thank god for that,” Nate deadpans. “It’s settled then.” He motions towards Hardison. “You’ll pick and no matter what the outcome is, no matter how much somebody may dislike it, there will be no further objections, okay? End of discussion.” Nate takes a moment to look at every single one of them before continuing, “We are moving on.”
After they all agree Hardison makes a huge display out of rolling up his nonexistent sleeves and closing his eyes, exaggeratedly moving his index finger around and around in circles. But before he can actually point, Parker interrupts him.
“Choose someplace warm –”
“–And with good shopping–”
“–And someplace near water –”
Hardison glances towards Nate, waiting for him to interject. In typical Nate fashion, however, he simply says, “Just get on with it, Hardison.”
With a thud, the tip of his index finger lands on the far left corner of the map. They all lean in carefully to see it covering a tiny dot labeled Portland.
Eliot is the first to speak: “Damn it, Hardison.”
It didn’t stop with one job. She, Gabrielle, and the man Sophie only knew only as Anthony formed something akin to a team over the following year. They spent weeks planning an extraction and always executed it without fault, robbing the ridiculously wealthy of some of their most prized possessions and pocketing the money from the resulting sale. She never told her father, but she suspects he knew. Sophie spread herself thin working both sides and taking care of her brothers and sisters – teaching them how to tie their shoes and the art of arithmetic – but the money Gabrielle provided her with after was more than worth it. Sophie kept it hidden in between the fading pages of Tolstoy and Dickens and under her mattress. Her father spent his money on cheap whiskey. She spent hers on groceries and electric, transitioning into the role as mother, of caretaker for her siblings that had already lost one parent and were quick on their way to losing another.
Like her father before them, Gabrielle and Anthony kept Sophie on the sidelines. Only instead of painting forgeries of masterpieces, she studied materials on sculptures and priceless antiquities until her eyes bled and then replicated them impeccably.
It took time and more than a little effort on Sophie’s behalf, but after careful planning and strategy, Gabrielle, in turn, started to accept Sophie for what she was – a protégé, a valuable asset. Sophie soaked up all the knowledge the surrounding world had to offer and Gabrielle, well, Gabrielle quite liked having somebody to bestow all of her own personal knowledge on, she liked being able to mold Sophie – young, still horribly impressionable Sophie – into a perfect, indestructible thief.
In another life, maybe, Sophie could have gained admittance into Oxford or Cambridge. She maybe could have studied art the respectable way and become something honest, something that would have made her mother proud. But the life of thief, of a liar, while dishonest, was an alluring one. Deep down, under all the lies and facades she had molded and perfected so early on, she had known, since that very first day in the café near Buckingham with that tantalizing thrill running up her spine, with her father’s warm, proud smile beaming down at her as encouragement that for better or worse this was the life she was meant to lead.
It would have been all too easy to blame her father for forcing her down this path, for planting the seed that grew and blossomed inside of her, pushing her towards a life of crime. But Sophie has always been smarter than most and she knows she was not forced into this life. She chose it. Some people are born to be mothers, inventors, doctors. Sophie was born to be an artist – just not in the most conventional way.
It was on her seventeenth birthday that she left England to travel Europe against both her father and Aunt Emily’s wishes. There was a conversation, of course, a long weekend spent in the country with her aunt while her father found solace back home in the bottom of a bottle. Upstairs, her brothers and sisters slept soundly, and Sophie fidgeted in her seat under Emily’s watchful gaze, but her fingers were steady as they wrapped around her glass of water.
“I’m going to go away for a little while,” she said. Her voice was smooth and certain and filled with practiced confidence. “I need you to promise me that you’ll take care of them. I need you to promise me that they’ll be okay.”
Emily reached out, covering one of Sophie’s hands with her own. “I promise,” the older woman said and because Sophie had long since developed the keen ability to read people, to distinguish lies from the truth, she sighed, breathed, and knew her family would be all right.
Sophie left in the dead of night, made her rounds to her siblings’ rooms and kissed each of their foreheads, murmuring her goodbyes into the darkness. Sophie placed all the money she had collected over the years on her aunt’s nightstand with a note for her father telling him not to worry and reminding him that her mother had taught her to be strong and that she would be fine.
Everything was left behind – her clothes, her jewelry, and the pair of gorgeous, leather boots she had bought after her very first job with Gabrielle. The only thing she took with her were the clothes on her back and her mother’s old, worn book of art with the pages wrinkled by time, the spine cracked right down the middle.
There was regret and guilt stuck in the back of her throat, the taste so bitter she nearly choked on it, but she swallowed around it and shoved it deep down. She buried it in the place where she kept memories of her mother, of those early years with her fingers warm and solid over Sophie’s as they traced the outlines of ballerinas and landscapes. She buried it in the place where she hid all the things she wished she could forget.
To say she never looked back would be a lie, but Sophie was nothing if not an excellent liar, so nobody ever suspected otherwise.
It was during this time that Gabrielle taught her the art of the perfect con.
Her father laid the groundwork, of course, by spending hours and days and long weekends teaching Sophie how to read people, how to look into every movement and word, how nothing was a coincidence or chance. It was Gabrielle that taught her how to use all of that to her advantage. The art of grifting, Gabrielle explained during those first few months together, was a complicated, but beautiful mess and there were only two rules one must remember at all times.
Rule number one: trust no one and protect yourself at all costs.
Rule number two: if you respect rule number one, Gabrielle explained, you will never need rule number two.
They started in Paris. Sophie watched with keen interest as Gabrielle used her wits and beauty to manipulate a billionaire into handing over the combination to his vault, leaving all of his jewels and money vulnerable to the very person he least suspected of debauchery. After, Gabrielle took Sophie on her very first trip to the States, to Boston, where they grifted their way past security at the Gardner with nothing but a distraction, a smile, and a police uniform that hugged in all the right places. They proceeded to steal Vermeer’s The Concert, three Rembrandts, and a finial in the shape of an eagle from the Napoleonic flag that Sophie simply could not resist.
The grift, Gabrielle explained, always started with a lie that was cultivated and strengthened until it formed the perfect truth.
Gabrielle taught Sophie how to create aliases – people who were facets of herself, that possessed a history with just the right amount of truth so Sophie would never forget the intricate details. Sophie spent a bitter winter in Moscow inventing Annie Kroy. Later, she spent a warm spring in Prague inventing Isobel and a summer in Berlin concocting the long, sordid history of Katherine. It was in London, as she buried old ghosts, that she started the long, painstaking process of breathing life into Charlotte. Sophie gave these women families, histories, birthdays and anniversaries. She gave them pasts, presents, and futures. She perfected accents, picked up languages along the way.
She used all the lies she spun to con both women and men out of their priceless antiques and art, out of millions of dollars again and again and never once felt guilty about it. Never once looked back.
Sophie fell in love over and over again with that spark, that thrill that coursed through her during every lie, after every job well done.
Most of Sophie’s early twenties were spent traipsing across Europe, conning wealthy businessmen and the descendents of royals out of their fortunes and prized possessions. Anthony came and went, a few other retrieval experts as well, and after a couple of years it was just Gabrielle and Sophie, reinventing the art of grifting one con at a time. Their relationship, the trust between them cemented after every score, every mark successfully taken. Sophie trusted Gabrielle and Gabrielle trusted Sophie, although, years later, they both would see the faultiness in their line of thinking.
At twenty-one Sophie was an heiress to an oil fortune in Saudi Arabia who left a wealthy young sheik with nothing but a penny to his name. Later, she was the long lost descendant of the Bourbon Dynasty in France that destroyed a marriage by swiping sfamily heirlooms and jewels and bedding the handsome young royal. She spent her twenty-third birthday on a yacht in Greece, seducing a man with little effort and manipulating him into handing over his entire fortune worth millions without a second thought. They took a long vacation after that success, the two of them traveling east, to Dubai, conning their way into a suite in the Burj Khalifa.
This was where they met Jeremy.
This was also where the whole façade came to a screeching halt.
Jeremy was a tall, dark and smooth-talking American. He found them, their names synonymous with success and fortune even a world over. Sophie immediately distrusted him. She saw the dishonesty in his eyes and in the way he carried himself. Gabrielle made the fatal mistake of falling for him instantly. Sophie’s concerns were voiced, but Gabrielle insisted that he could be trusted, insisted that she trusted him and that meant that Sophie should too. There was a certain amount of truth in that, and against her better judgment, against every fiber in her being that said not to, Sophie decided to trust Gabrielle, and by default, Jeremy.
With Jeremy in tow, the cons they performed became grander, increasingly complex. He was always pushing the limits, pushing them just to the point of breaking. Gabrielle faltered just slightly under the strain, but Sophie adapted easily by becoming whoever she was needed to be, by playing the roles she was dealt with ease. For a while things went smoothly, for a brief span of time Sophie started to ignore that feeling in the pit of her gut that told her this guy was trouble, that this situation was going to lead nowhere good.
Just as she began to forget, there were rumors, strange men in dark corners, an unmarked van consistently parked down the street from their loft in Versailles.
As soon as Sophie began to let her guard down, Interpol started to close in.
“It’s him,” Sophie told Gabrielle. They were knee-deep in a con that was too big, too grand to be controlled by just three people. “It has to be him. The authorities aren’t closing in because we made a mistake. We don’t make mistakes, Gabrielle. They’re closing in because somebody betrayed us and if it wasn’t me and if it wasn’t you then that only leaves him.”
Gabrielle’s defense of Jeremy was vehement, brutal. She was blinded by lust, her judgment clouded by love and Sophie almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation, right there, right in the middle of a Parisian café with onlookers – some of whom she could only assume carried a badge and a gun under their tweed coats. The Gabrielle she met at a café in London all those years ago would never have allowed this situation to occur. The Gabrielle Sophie met when she was sixteen never would have gone this soft. The battle could not be won; Sophie saw that and accepted it, so instead she moved on, tried to convince Gabrielle to pull back, to shut the con down before it was too late. She took the argument to Jeremy as well, carefully leaving out her suspicions concerning his loyalties. It came as no surprise that both adamantly refused.
In the end, Sophie rationalized that they really left her no choice. While her father taught her how to lie and Gabrielle taught her how to con, it was Sophie that taught herself how to be ruthless.
Once more she found herself leaving in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on her back and the book that once belonged to her mother under her arm. That time, however, she didn’t leave behind money and decided to take her fair share of the cut for her efforts. She cleaned out her half of the storage container she and Gabrielle kept in Paris, shipping the art, jewels, and sculptures to an untraceable location in London. Sophie quickly followed suit.
Gabrielle and Jeremy were picked up a week later in Brussels, or so Sophie heard through the grapevine. She could only imagine the look on Gabrielle’s face when she woke the morning after Sophie’s departure, when she noticed the storage container half-empty. If Sophie closed her eyes she could picture the emotions that flickered across the woman’s face – the confusion, the anger, the betrayal, and then, finally the understanding.
Rule number one, she had told Sophie all those years ago, trust no one and protect yourself at all costs.
Sophie was not foolish enough to make the same mistake twice.
As a whole, the team decides to take a vacation both from conning – so they say, anyway – and each other.
It is Nate who suggests it despite having no plans to do the same himself. The others agree readily because the lull after San Lorenzo was meant to last much, much longer until Nate called upon them so they could steal a mountain, again, and afterwards everything just became more and more complicated as the weeks and months went by.
Parker decides on Madrid because the Prado has just implemented some very intimidating security upgrades and Parker likes to challenge herself whilst proving she is still the best. Eliot doesn’t tell anyone where he is going, but Sophie imagines it involves solitude, fishing, and beautiful women who inexplicably like those sorts of things. She also knows that he will stay close, constantly resisting the urge to go completely underground, making it easy to find him if they look hard enough. And Hardison, well, Hardison doesn’t exactly say where he’s going, or if he is even going anywhere, but Sophie suspects Madrid is definitely on his itinerary.
Nate is expectant when he looks at her then, as the conversation unfolds around them. It’s a look she knows too well, a look she loathes – it is one that clearly gives the indication that even now, even after all the ways she has proven her loyalty to both him and their team, he still doesn’t trust her fully. Nate holds onto old betrayals, is better at grudges than all of them combined, and is waiting for Sophie to uproot their lives again by leaving. Eliot and Hardison argue over something menial and rather insignificant and all Sophie can do is laugh, really, at the look on Nate’s face because she simply cannot wrap her head around the fact that he still doesn’t fully trust her. She simply can’t understand how after everything they’ve been through together, after everything they’ve been through together in the past week alone, they are still constantly on the cusp of trusting each other, but never quite there, never willing to commit fully to the action.
It’s just as much her fault as his, this distance that is constantly between them. They are first and foremost creatures of habit, people that avoid change at all costs. Nate may have stood before her, bloody and broken but mending no less than two hours before and said that he was going to make some changes, that he had plans, but they both know saying the words and meaning them is completely separate from actually following through. Still, Sophie swallows around the slight bitterness in the back of her throat and lets it go in the hopes that one day it won’t be so difficult. In hopes that since now some of his ghosts have been buried they can move on together as a collective unit instead of two separate entities that just happen to be on the same trajectory.
So when Hardison calls over his shoulder to ask her where she will be headed so he can make the arrangements, Sophie merely mumbles something about Portland, shrugging in Nate’s direction as if to say what did you expect? His smile twists at the corner of his mouth for just a moment, but Sophie catches it easily, more in tune to Nate than most people are to themselves.
After the others head in their mostly separate directions, Sophie sets about packing what little they brought with them into boxes, and making the arrangements to have it taken above ground and shipped to Portland via the few acquaintances she still keeps in New York. Nate tries his best to help, but his shoulder protests every time he moves to lift something. Sophie catches the grimace every time because even her most worthy opponents were never able to hide anything from her and Nate has history working against him. She mentions the doctor tirelessly, but he stubbornly refuses.
So, mostly Sophie packs and Nate plots, researching ideal locations for future offices and apartments in the downtown Portland area. She packs the fragments of their lives gingerly into boxes and it is as she carefully places the portrait of Old Nate into a crate that she remembers a time, not too long ago, when she found herself at a crossroads of sorts, much like now. She remembers how difficult it had been to exist in a world she and Nate used to share without his presence bleeding into every aspect of her life. How even after she returned home from trying to find all those pieces of herself that she’d lost along the way, she realized she was no closer to discovering the truth of who she was under the lies and facades than she had been before she left.
It had surprised her then how much easier it was to accept the unknown with her team by her side. How even without Nate there to support her in ways only he could, she still kept him close – slept in his bed, drank his coffee, used his mug every morning out of spite even though he would never know the difference.
She wonders if he is privy to that. If when he returned home he could still smell her perfume on his pillows, if he noticed the faint stain of lipstick along the rim of his favorite mug or the slight flecks of make-up and mascara on the porcelain of his bathroom sink that she didn’t have time to clean up. She wonders if he knows all of that, if he realized how much she missed him, how much she needed him both now and then, if he would still look at her the way he did earlier – vulnerable and full of distrust, waiting for her to run out at any moment.
Mostly Sophie wonders if he, too, has stopped considering home as just a location, a place with four walls and a bed to rest and started attributing it to people again, to their team like she has.
On the plane to Portland Nate grumbles about the sling that she’s making him wear on his arm well into take-off. His mutterings only decrease when Sophie finally flags down a stewardess and asks her to bring him a glass of vodka with a splash of orange juice so her sanity could be spared. Some time into hour two, when she’s finished flipping through both her magazines and the ones compliments of the airline, she pulls out a copy of The New York Times and passes him the Sports pages without a mere thought.
When Sophie is halfway through the first section, Nate says, “You could have gone to Paris, you know. Or anywhere, really. I would have been fine.”
She pauses for only a moment, her eyes scanning the last line of the article twice before she moves on. As she turns the page, careful not to dirty her fingers with the ink, she merely replies quietly, “I know.”
“I mean –”
“I know what you mean. And if I wanted to go to Paris, I would be in Paris right now. You of all people should know that.”
Nodding, Nate turns back to his portion of the paper. “Okay.”
By default, Nate is a terrible conversationalist. Even before, even when their relationship was in its infancy and they were running and chasing each other around Europe, it took a large amount of coaxing, conning, and whiskey to get him to open up to her. Even then the outcomes were minimal at best, both of them working overtime to keep the other at arms length, only letting them close when it was strategic, when it would garner them that elusive upper hand. History makes Sophie privy to the knowledge that there is a very small window of time where one can easily segue from something he specifically wanted to talk about and onto something altogether different without Nate shutting the conversation down.
Therefore, Sophie has learned that the window she has is miniscule at best, so before it can close completely she says, “We need to get better at this, Nate. We need to learn how to communicate with one another outside of work.” She has to stop herself from adding, and by we I mean you, because it isn’t entirely fair and he wouldn’t hesitate on calling her on it.
He surprises her completely by replying, “I know,” so quietly she has to strain to hear him over the hum of conversations surrounding them and the faint roar of the jet’s engine in the distance.
It’s more of a response than she expected, than she ever could have hoped for, really, so she takes it and holds on. Starts thumbing through the next section of the paper, passing him the one she previously finished for when he’s ready, and focuses on the weight of his breaths as she reads. Sophie falls asleep sometime after with her head on his shoulder, her body curled into his around the armrest between them.
When she wakes hours later, the first thing she notices is his ink-stained fingers wrapped securely around hers.
While Sophie was constantly evolving, scattering pieces of herself as she made her way through Europe, London, she found, remained stagnant, unchanged by time.
Sophie returned there older, wiser, any soft edges she may have had once upon a time turned hard and angular with experience. She returned as Charlotte – young, beautiful Charlotte who had a penchant for expensive wine and an aspiration to be a Shakespearian actress. As Charlotte, she found home with the family she began conning years before, with the man she began conning years before. She fooled William into falling in love with her and his family into accepting her. It didn’t take long – Sophie had long since mastered the art of using a single look, the softest touch to portray her intentions, for baiting a man until he was undoubtedly wrapped around her finger.
Lies were easy to sell, she knew, and love easier because it wasn’t real, because it was an emotion and emotions were easily formed and manipulated. By this point in her life, Sophie had developed the frightening capability of being able to bend everything and everyone to her will.
At first, she decided she wasn’t going to swindle them out of their jewels or fortune and instead focused on developing an alias that would be able to give her admittance past doors that seemed too difficult to open before. So, you see, she married William because she liked him, of course, but mostly because as Lady Charlotte Prentice people would give her access to all sorts of lovely and expensive things that were just begging to be stolen without so much of a second thought. Being Lady Charlotte Prentice made life easier and Sophie appreciated convenience. It was as Charlotte that Sophie acquired the infamous Raphael and the Antioch manuscripts. It was also, most importantly, through Charlotte’s connections that Sophie was able to gain access into the Vatican and swipe the second statue of David – the pride and joy of her stolen collection.
It was also as Charlotte that Sophie discovered the largest issue regarding the long con – it was entirely too easy to become lost in the façade, to start finding the tiniest bit of truth in the lies. As time weaned on she started to appreciate the people she surrounded herself with, started to feel at home with the family she had conned into accepting her. At night, William returned home to her, settled into their bed and whispered I love you as she curled into him, pressing a leg between his. She said it back every single time out of routine, kissed his mouth, molded her body against his, and eventually started to see the lines between lies and truth blur almost completely.
When scandal broke of William’s infidelities, Sophie took it as her opportunity to flee. She had known, of course, before everyone. She recognized the floral perfume that lingered on his clothes, the bouts of inattention, the lipstick smudged on his collar. Sophie could recognize a liar from a distance because she was one, and if she had been able to maintain any impartiality at all, she would have been proud of his attempt to con her. But instead his lies and indiscretions had wounded her profoundly, and she couldn’t distinguish between whether or not she was upset that he had the audacity to lie or the fact that she had allowed him to get so close that those lies were able to make such an impact.
So, instead of taking the time to figure out what that meant, she ran.
She met Marcus Starke in Barcelona and slept with him first just to prove that she could, just to prove that William’s effect on her wasn’t lasting, that she had just been confused and mistaken. It was only later that she recruited Marcus for his skills in forgery to help her steal the Sancy diamond from the Louvre and a Manet from Berlin.
Starke had a world-class mind that could rival most everyone she had ever met, but Sophie was better, brighter, more ruthless and cunning. She took point and he mostly followed her lead and while they formed a shaky alliance, while he lusted after her and she indulged in said lust every once in a while, she never allowed him to get too close, never allowed herself to become a permanent fixture in his revolving door of teams. Sophie didn’t trust Starke, but he respected her and she respected him. So while she mostly worked alone, there was always a job that was too big for just one person, so she called on him when she felt it was appropriate and always answered the phone when he reached out to her to say he needed her help.
Mostly, Sophie just preferred it when people owed her things. It meant that she had sole possession of the upper hand. It meant that she was in complete control of any given situation.
They had a spectacular run together in the late nineties – Copenhagen, Berlin, and a glorious, profitable three-month run in Moscow that was cut short by some hot shot insurance agent who didn’t know when to quit.
It was around this time, after Starke had left the cold for a yacht in the South of France, that Annie Kroy met Tara Cole at the Russian boarder. Sophie was using her alias to swindle money and a few priceless antiques out of a wealthy businessman. Said businessman had some very lucrative side businesses that consisted of gunrunning, money laundering, and, unfortunately for her, murder.
Of course, Sophie wasn’t aware of that at the time she had committed to the con. Some people just knew how to hide their secrets better than others.
The deal went south quickly. Apparently, what Sophie saw as an easy mark was a mark with some very serious internal issues regarding the trust and loyalty of his subordinates. He suspected Interpol had infiltrated his inner circle and before Sophie could think of a proper exit plan guns were firing, creating mayhem with muzzle flare and bullets. Bodies were dropping left and right, and the mark had the audacity to accuse her and a fellow prospective buyer of being undercover agents for Interpol because they somehow managed to be the last ones standing.
The other buyer – a woman who was just tall and blonde enough to be the German she was claiming to be, but had an accent that was too thick to be completely authentic – tried to talk her way out of the situation whilst still closing the deal. Sophie recognized the name she used. It was an alias she had heard in passing, a fellow grifter she had heard stories about, whose work Sophie had almost admired. Sophie made it a point to have knowledge of everyone who was anyone and while the other woman was trying to save the deal, Sophie recognized the look in the mark’s eyes, the way his index finger flexed over the trigger of the gun he was pointing at the both of them. Mostly, though, she recognized the way he shifted his weight evenly, bracing himself in advance for the recoil of the gun.
In an instant, the blonde lunged forward and wrestled with the man for the gun. A stray shot went off to the right and another into the floor. Instead of waiting to catch a bullet, Sophie abandoned all hope of keeping her hands clean and reached for the gun located on the dead body lying next to her, diving down in one fluid motion as a distraction.
Sophie put a bullet in the mark’s head before he could even react, before he ever even realized she had the gun in her hands.
After a moment, she crouched down next to his body and checked for a pulse, bloodying her hands in the process. She breathed a sigh of relief when she felt nothing under her fingertips except for skin that was still warm. The other buyer followed her out into the cold, helped her dispose of the gun, and removed any and all evidence that they were ever in the warehouse, city, or even country for that matter. They stuck together not out of necessity but because they simply didn’t trust one another. It wasn’t personal, merely business – Sophie didn’t want to take the chance that this woman would get left behind and picked up by the authorities, leaving her no other choice but to burn Sophie’s rock solid alias in an effort to save herself.
Instead, they flirted their way past border control together with short skirts and a bottle of whiskey, and when they finally made it safely past said border, the other woman was the first one to speak.
“I guess this would be the appropriate time for me to say thank you,” she muttered, dropping the German accent for an American one. Her tone was clipped, and Sophie recognized the unleashed anger underneath her words before she continued, “Although I would just like to point out that I had the situation completely under control and if you had given me five more seconds your intervention would have been completely unnecessary.”
“Oh?” Sophie didn’t let Annie Kroy fade away as easily, she maintained the harshness in her tone and in her body language. Didn’t give any part of herself away to this woman she barely knew. “He was planning to shoot us the moment we walked into that room. Nothing you said was going to stop him.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do know that.”
She seemed to mull that over for a little bit as they walked through a wooded area in search of anything but wilderness. Sophie knew she was more than likely retracing her footsteps, going back over their conversation until she saw the clues she missed, making mental notes so she didn’t miss the signs again.
“Thank you,” the woman tried again, a little more honestly this time, but Sophie could tell the words were forced, as if she was still, even now, trying to con her way into something. Sophie appreciated the motivation, but didn’t allow it show. “You can call me Tara, by the way –”
Sophie made a ‘tsk’ sound with her teeth and laughed shortly. The sound wasn’t kind, void of any and all mirth. “You shouldn’t have done that,” she singsonged. “Because now I know your name. And now I know how to find you if and when I ever need a favor.” Stopping mid-step, Sophie turned to face Tara. “Don’t mistake my actions as kindness. I can assure you kindness had nothing to do with what transpired back there.”
Tara scoffed. “You’re a little full of yourself aren’t you?”
“Not without reason.”
Tara grinned, flashing her teeth. It was appreciative almost, respectful even. There was noise in the distance – the rumble of an engine, the sound of tires moving over asphalt. They were getting close to civilization again and Sophie sighed with relief because her pantyhose had runs and her feet were killing her and she had actual dirt under her fingernails.
“I think I’m going to like you. In fact,” Tara continued, “I think this might just be the start of a very lucrative friendship.”
Sophie opened her mouth to make a snide comment about Americans and their awful puns, but instead merely raised an eyebrow and corrected, “Alliance. I don’t have friends.”
Tara shrugged as she stalked ahead, taking the lead. “I can work with that.”
There was the smallest smile playing at the corners of Sophie’s mouth as she followed.
The air in Portland is thick with humidity, Spring segueing quickly into summer, and exactly seventy-two hours after Nate cons Latimer and Dubenich into plunging to their deaths the bodies wash ashore somewhere in upstate New York. The news breaks on CNN and plays softly in the lobby of the hotel as she and Nate check-in. The front desk clerk pauses every so often to listen to the report, reaching for the remote to raise the volume, and Sophie watches as Nate’s back stiffens, the line of his shoulders hardening. One of her hands fists tightly around the handle of her carryon, the other lingers against the crook of his arm, the pressure slight, mean to be reassuring. She does not ask are you okay? but the sentiment is there, Nate knows it is there, and the smile he gives her – small and tight, just barely lifting the corner of his mouth – reassures her.
In the elevator, Sophie files in behind him. She glances at him via the steel of the doors as he stares upwards, watching the red numbers climbing higher and higher as they approach their floor. Some moments before, he had shoved a keycard in her hand, his fingers grazing hers softly, lingering with intent. It is routine, really, having separate rooms. They are together, the team knows they are together, but there are lines they like to remain intact, lines they don’t dare cross. There was a promise early on, after they finally admitted to themselves after San Lorenzo what they had always known – that whatever was between them wasn’t going anywhere, hard as they may try to prove otherwise – that work remained separate from whatever this is. Even though they have spread themselves in a completely opposite direction from Eliot, Parker, and Hardison, the routine sticks.
Still, she isn’t exactly surprised to find him following closely behind her as they make their way down the hall to their rooms. He passes his own and crowds her door as she slides the card into the lock and listens for the click of it sliding out of place. She pushes the door open with her foot and allows him to enter first, watching as he disappears inside the suite in the direction of the bedroom. Sophie leaves her luggage near the door, engages the deadbolt, and fumbles for her cell phone, clicking it back on for the first time since their plane took off hours before. It starts to ding repeatedly almost immediately, noting the arrival of various text messages and voicemails. There is one from Hardison and quite a few from Parker, all containing some varying degrees of here or made it and she smiles immediately, reaches up to fiddle with the earbud in her ear only to remember it isn’t there.
Now, with the five of the separated by miles and continents, Sophie misses them. She misses the sound of Hardison and Eliot arguing in the background. Sophie misses Parker’s mere presence, the delightful sound of her off-key laugh. She actually misses the subtle weight of the earbud in her ear and has to curl her hand into a tight fist to stop her fingers from reaching to fiddle with it once more just out of sheer habit.
She responds to them in kind, her own version of here or made it condensed into less than a hundred characters. She sends a quick message to Tara to let her know that she is alive and well and to expect a phone call in a few days with explanations. She sends one to Maggie as well just because it feels like the right thing to do, because Sophie knows that is what friends do. She isn’t exactly sure when or even how it happened, but Maggie has long since been added to the very short list of people Sophie would do anything to protect.
Thieves are solitary creatures by nature, out of the desperate need for self-preservation. Those two things have all but defined Sophie’s life for as long as she can remember, but she knows now what she could not even fathom before. She knows that while being alone and trusting no one may ensure survival, it is no way to live. As she switches the phone over to silent and places it to the side, Sophie takes a moment to reflect back on her time away from the team. She remembers all those months that she spent traveling the world, trying to put her life back together all the while trying to figure out just who she was. It feels like a lifetime ago, really, but she can still remember how she thought of her team every day, how she traveled from London to Istanbul and all the way to Beijing and back again, picking up knickknacks for them, tiny little keepsakes that reminded her of them, of the family she never thought she would have again.
She was always going to return to Boston, to the team, to wherever they may have ended up in the meantime. She knows that now, understands that she left so she could return on her terms, not Nate’s, not because of some wistful fantasy she had for the two of them that could never be reality because they were no longer those people. She’s still not entirely sure if happened that way, if Tara’s intervention and Nate’s selfishly placed I need you didn’t sway her resolve, but she does know that it doesn’t matter in the general scheme of things. She would do it again, she would protect her team, no questions asked, at any moment in time. It is who she is now.
Wandering further into the suite, she finds Nate sprawled out on her bed, his feet crossed at the ankles, his good arm folded underneath his head and the other curled into a fist atop his stomach. She leans against the doorway, following his line of sight to see the TV on mute and set to CNN. The scroll along the bottom is relaying facts and theories regarding Dubenich and Latimer’s demise.
“Admiring your handiwork?” she asks before she can stop herself and his eyes flick to hers sullenly. The surprise, the regret is evident in the way he looks at her and Sophie regrets her words immediately.
“I didn’t kill them,” he says softly, clicking the TV off.
“No,” she nods, pressing her lips into a thin line. “You’re right, you didn’t.”
“Their greed and desperate need for self-preservation killed them,” he clarifies and she knows it is for his own benefit and not hers. “I –”
She cuts off his reply. “Just provided the leverage?”
Nate doesn’t respond and she doesn’t exactly expect him to. The guilt over what happened near that dam will come and go because Nate excels at self-deprecation and holds on to every mistake, every single thing that could be used for self-destruction later on down the road. Sophie doesn’t like what happened, she doesn’t like the man she saw there, the man that conned two men into their deaths, but she can begin to understand it. She knows Dubenich, she knows he would have searched to the ends of the earth to find the five of them and destroyed them in whatever way he saw fit. She understands Nate’s need for revenge more than ever now because they are a team; they are a family. While she doesn’t agree with it, there is a part of her she doesn’t like to admit exists that might do the same given the right situation. She is just better at hiding it than him.
She meanders further into the room, kicking off her shoes one by one when she has reached the foot of the bed. “I heard from the others,” she tells him.
Nate raises an eyebrow. “They get in okay?”
Sophie nods, the mattress dipping under her weight as she crawls over the comforter and towards him. She twists onto her back when she’s finally in her position beside him, her lungs heaving a sigh as the mattress molds around her, her body shifting until it is comfortable. She doesn’t move into Nate, just lays there beside him, her own legs crossing at the ankles. She flattens her palms against the mattress, curls them into fists before allowing them to just lay there, still.
“Hardison and Parker are probably stealing security plans and hacking their way into the Prado as we speak.” At Nate’s look she further clarifies, “Don’t worry. I told them they had to put everything back after they were done.”
Turning her head to face him, she smiles. “You know Eliot. He’ll reach out when he’s ready.”
Nodding, Nate starts to shift closer to her, wincing when he puts too much pressure on his injured shoulder. When she reaches for him it is to work at the buttons of his shirt, but only so she can slip her fingers inside and check the bandage and wound underneath. When she’s satisfied by its appearance, she runs her index finger along the edge of the tape, securing the dressing once more as she makes a mental note to change it again before bed.
“Admiring your handiwork?” he asks, almost teasing, and she looks up to find him smiling at her.
“You’re going to have a quite a scar.” She moves to rest fully on her side, using an arm for support as the other travels to his stomach, to the bit of flesh that stretches between his shirt and the waist of his pants. She slips her fingers underneath, to the puckering of skin she knows is there, and traces the ridges of the scar from memory. He hisses a sigh and Sophie smiles as she watches his eyes fall closed. “You seem to get shot quite a bit.”
“Always in the right place at the wrong time, I guess.”
“I’m actually more inclined to think it’s that good old Catholic guilt working against you,” she murmurs quietly.
Sophie shrugs softly, her eyesight slipping up to his. “You think you deserve to be shot; you put yourself in situations where you may be shot, so you get shot. It’s almost an inevitability with you.”
Humming something noncommittal in the back of his throat, Nate shifts closer to her still. Sophie’s fingers stop their gentle movements, her palm flatting against the smooth skin of his belly, rising and falling as he breathes.
“It’s self destructive,” she tells him. She stares at her hand against his skin as she talks. “I’m going to need you to work on that, Nate.”
There is a short span of time where she doesn’t breathe as she waits for his response, where she tries to conjure up in her mind how he may respond before the words leave his mouth. She almost doesn’t realize he is talking until she feels the vibrations against the bones of her hand.
“I am.” He pauses and clears his throat. “I will,” he says quietly and she turns to look at him then, sees him looking at her with such affection and love and a smile that she almost only sees when he has let his carefully placed guard down and regales her with stories of Sam.
“Okay,” she sighs after a long moment. Her fingers start to move again, drawing patterns against where they rest on his stomach, her eyes moving from his to watch the rise and fall of his chest.
After a moment, his hand reaches for hers, his fingers weaving their way through her own. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says, and she smiles a little on reflex, feels herself moving into him fully and without thought, her body molding and curling around his. Nate shifts to accommodate her, allows her to rest against his good shoulder, his good arm wrapping around her tightly, pulling her close. His fingers slip under the neck of her shirt to search for the small, nearly faded scar he’d put there years before.
His touch settles at the base of her spine and Sophie sighs, sated and suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion, her body and bones giving in under the enormous weight of the past few weeks. She feels as if she could sleep for days, her eyes heavy, lashes slipping against her cheeks as his fingers tighten and loosen around hers.
“Wake me when you do?” she murmurs, another habit of theirs.
“Yeah,” Nate says, humming something affirmative in the back of his throat. Sophie finally allows her eyes to close, the weight of her breaths evening as she falls asleep.
Sophie Devereaux met Nathan Ford on a warm night in Prague some time in the very beginning of that glorious run she had with Marcus. The air was so warm and humid that sweat pooled at the small of her back, lingering with the adrenaline that she tasted in the back of her throat the moment she laid eyes on the painting. The heat made her hands slippery, fingers sliding awkwardly as she ever so carefully rolled the canvas into the hollow crutches under her arms – the crutches that matched the fake cast on her left foot. Not the most original idea, she knew, but it worked, never failing to open doors she would have otherwise had to pick.
It was important to know that the Degas was not her original goal. In the beginning, when the heist was in the tender planning stages, she had no idea the mark even had a Degas, but once she slipped past security and onto the upper levels of the mark’s home, there it was, the center of his collection, taunting her. Sophie’s carefully planned escape route was botched the moment she decided to go back for it, the moment she decided to get greedy, so instead she had to make her way back through the party, smiling her way past the mark and all of his party goers and right out the front door.
Her eyes found Nate first because it was her job to survey her surroundings, because she had an innate ability to read body language, to see through the words that filled the space around her. She knew how to identify a potential threat by glancing at the way a person held their glass of champagne – too loosely and they were uncomfortable, out of place; tightly meant they felt anchored, at ease – and Nathan Ford held his tumbler of whiskey as if he could drop it at a moment’s notice. She passed by him and bumped his shoulder on purpose. Felt a spark of electricity settle in the base of her stomach as he glanced in her direction, as she mumbled her so sorry, monsieur with a loose smile, and picked his wallet right out of his jacket pocket just because she could.
Five more steps and she would have had a clear getaway, would have slipped right out the front door and into the streets, but something lingered – a feeling she had trouble burying right away, that didn’t seem to want to be buried – and she turned, just at the last moment, for one final look.
He was watching her, of course. His hair was slicked back, tumbler gone from his fingers, his mouth set into a firm line. He was watching her, waiting to pounce because he knew. Knew who she was. What she was. What she was there to do. What she had already done. But there was a room full of people and noise and conversations between them and she had too much of a head start. He would never make it. She knew it and he knew it, too, so instead Sophie merely paused in the doorway, cocked her head to the side. Her smile was both dangerous and worn, a challenge of sorts, before she slipped into the darkness and warmth of the night.
She ran. He chased.
It was a game Sophie loved to play and Nathan Ford was more than a worthy opponent. She taunted him, teased him, tricked him, but he never failed to see through every con, every lie; he never failed to be just a mere step behind her at all times. There were close calls – Venice, Amsterdam, those wonderful, profitable three months in Moscow where she slipped up just to allow him to get close, just so she could feel the rush of knowing he was closing in before she slipped past the border in the middle of the night with Tara in tow.
Eventually she stopped stealing on a whim, stopped stealing whatever simply caught her eye. Eventually she started stealing things she knew his company insured just to mess with him, just to tangle the web that much more.
Sophie started to leave him notes and clues, her scrawl hasty but precise, her words always carefully chosen. She left treasure maps to lead him to things she had stolen and he wanted back. After a misstep on both their parts that almost landed them both in a Uzbekistan prison, she left a sixty-year-old bottle of bourbon – her favorite, not his – in his hotel room with a note that read: Think of me when you drink this, darling. Better luck next time.
When he finally caught up with her in Damascus, she wasn’t quite sure it was because she allowed him to or if he was simply that good. Still, she didn’t even see him, didn’t even think to look for him while she made her way out of the house of the woman she had just spent weeks conning, another tiny Fabergé egg hidden in the lining of her jacket to add to her collection.
Nate spoke, his tone low and just for her just as the door shut behind her. “You are just borrowing that, right?”
Sophie stopped dead in her tracks, tried to devise an exit strategy on reflex, but all of her escape routes were too lengthy – her car was too far away, the subway was six blocks over, and she was surely not going to try to make a run for it in her brand new Jimmy Choo boots. So instead, she turned on her heel, the smile curling around her mouth practiced and learned as she faced him.
“I don’t believe we’ve formally met,” she said, voice smooth, smile dangerous. She started to cross the distance to him, her heels clicking against the concrete as she did so, but he shifted his weight, fidgeted with his jacket in just the right way. His gun gleamed proudly under the bright sun. Sophie took another step closer, unfazed. “Tell me, Mr. Ford, does my reputation precede me?”
“It brought me here,” he started; he bit the inside of his cheek in an effort to contain the smile she knew was just twitching to cross his mouth. “To you. To that Fabergé egg you have in your inner coat pocket.”
There was a pair of handcuffs in his back pocket, she could tell by the way he carried his weight, and that should have scared her, it should have made her take a step back and flee. Instead, she decided to test the waters: she took one last step forward, watched him smile, blush, and falter so quickly, so slightly that somebody who was not as skilled at surveying human behavior would have missed it altogether. His smile widened; her own grew brazen.
“She practically gave it to me,” Sophie pointed out. “She just left it right there in a safe that I cracked in less than five minutes. Honestly, Nathan, you really need to teach your clients about proper security. Otherwise they’re basically doing my job for me.”
Stepping closer to her, he grinned. He looked handsome, she thought, there in the sun, his eyes solely on her. She stepped closer to him, crowding his personal space entirely, not about to give away the upper hand so quickly. “So,” he broached, “you were just, I don’t know, testing the security system for weaknesses. Helping me do my job?”
Slanting his head towards hers, he whispered conspiratorially, “So, I guess we can call it even, yeah?” And suddenly he leaned in so close that she could smell his aftershave, the subtle hint of honey in the cheap hotel shampoo, count the freckles along his nose. It caught her off the guard – him, the moment, the closeness.
She breathed, “That sounds about right.” With a smirk, Sophie regained her wits and pressed her palms flat on the lapels of his cotton jacket, fingers curling just slightly before releasing, before leaning in more closely, her lips a hair away from his ear as she said, “What kind of person would I be, after all, if I didn’t help a friend in need?”
The closing of Nate’s eyes coincided with a sharp inhale, a shaky breath, and she knew it was her opportunity to flee, so she did just that – pivoted on her heel, began to glide quietly in the opposite direction.
“Sophie.” He called for her when she was a few yards away and she stopped mid step because his tone was not that of the frazzled, jaw-slacken insurance investigator she thought she was leaving behind. His tone was entirely way too smug for her liking. She turned to face him, anger thrumming under skin when she saw the beautiful, elegant Fabergé egg dangling from his fingers. “Forget something?”
She was shocked, livid, her mind already playing back the last five minutes to decipher the exact moment when he made the lift. Trying to rationalize how she possibly could have missed it. Ultimately, Sophie decided she’d rather not know. Instead, she merely smiled coldly, nodding appreciatively at her opponent that was proving to be entirely too inconvenient.
“Until next time,” she said at last, her version of goodbye. The way he smiled then – wide, teeth bare, smug reminded her entirely too much of her own.
Just then, a car alarm blared in the distance, a horn beeped loudly down the street and Nate turned to look, his attention waning. Sophie had always been able to admit when she had lost, so she finally made her escape.
She ran. He chased.
The cycle continued, Nate tracing her footsteps across Europe carefully, but this time Sophie didn’t allow him to get close, didn’t linger in cities long after a con was complete. She amassed information concerning all things Nathan Ford from various sources – fellow grifters, thieves, other men and women he had pursued. She had a hacker ally break into IYS’ mainframe and make her a copy of his file. Sophie tried to learn more about her opponent in an effort to outwit him, but all she had were facts and statistics, how much money he had saved the company, the name of his wife, his son, his address. She knew that his father was an ex-con, his mother a schoolteacher. Sophie knew that he hailed from Boston, but the accent had all but disappeared from his voice – more than likely due to a lifetime of practice because Nate Ford was not a man who was proud of his roots, of his history.
When he found her in Madrid some time later but only bothered to leave a replica of that damn Fabergé egg at the front desk for her, she decided she may never truly understand him. She may never understand his motivations, or just why he hadn’t done his job and arrested her yet.
They didn’t meet again until Paris, nearly a year later. She was stealing an entire art collection, pressed for time and committing a cardinal sin by painstakingly cutting the art out of the frames. He burst into the room, yielding a gun, and Sophie acted on instinct, on pure reflex: she grabbed the gun she had lifted from the mark’s office, pulled the trigger, and turned to run.
Sophie never expected him to shoot her back. She definitely didn’t expect him to allow her to escape after he did so.
There was a doctor in Lyon that didn’t ask questions and Sophie went to him instead of stitching herself back together because she didn’t want the scar the bullet hole left behind to be any messier than necessary. After, she started to feel guilty – the feeling foreign, biting as it lingered in the back of her throat, so she went to the hospital she knew the emergency services personnel would have taken Nate. Flirted her way past the doctors, smiled her way past the nurses, and waited until he came to.
It was late – or early depending on the perspective – and the sun was just starting to graze the horizon, turning the room a gentle hue of oranges and reds when he stirred. Sophie had spent the better part of the night in and out of consciousness, the painkillers she was given effectively doing their job, and his voice startled her when he spoke.
"You could have killed me.” His voice wasn’t kind, but it wasn’t angry either. She thought she heard a smile in there somewhere, so she opened her eyes to look at him. She was right. Of course she was right. That insufferable smile was twisting at the corners of his mouth. Her own mouth tried to do the same, but she withheld the inclination.
"If I wanted you to be dead, you would be dead," she told him softly.
There was an edge to her tone she used on purpose and he heard it, she knew he did – his brow furrowed, his mouth pressed into a thin line. There was a certain amount of truth behind her words, and he saw that, too. Sophie wondered if she was killing the fantasy he had of her then. The fantasy of the thief that really wasn’t all that terrible, that he moralized in an effort to make himself feel better about this game of cat and mouse that could have ended by now if either one of them had really wanted it to. Sophie wondered if she did it on purpose, if she steeled herself and shared a tiniest bit of truth with him to provide them with some much-needed distance, to draw the line more boldly and clearly between them.
Still, after all this time, Sophie heard Gabrielle’s voice in her ear: Trust no one.
"You aren't a murderer."
"Perhaps, not," she replied. She shifted in her seat, crossing and recrossing her legs to get comfortable. She hated how he unhinged her, how his mere presence set her nerves on fire. "But I am a thief and not a very nice one at that."
For a while, Nate just looked at her, scrutinizing every aspect of her. She hated when he did that, when he looked as though he could see right through her and narrow in right on all the lies she had carefully spun. There was no need to worry, of course. Sophie was the best liar one could ever meet, and there was no way he, of all people, was capable of discerning the truth, but still she looked away.
After a moment he said, "Maggie... she's, uh, she's on her way." Sophie's eyes darted back to his and she saw something unsettling there, something she couldn’t quite place. "My wife, I mean. They called her," he clarified, and she couldn’t help but wonder if the correction was for her benefit or his.
Sophie smiled carefully. "I should probably go then."
"Yeah," he murmured quietly with a slight nod of his head and Sophie didn’t need to be told twice, so she stood, smoothing some wrinkles out of her clothes and making her way to the door. "You ruined a perfectly good jacket, by the way," Nate said in parting, and she lingered in the doorway for a moment before turning her head to glance at him.
"You ruined a perfectly good exit strategy," she told him, a hint of teasing in her voice. "Call it even?"
Nate smiled and suddenly there was a nurse trying to shuffle her way past Sophie. "Not even close," he replied and it sounded like a threat with a just a subtle hint of promise.
Waiting a beat, she chose the exact moment he became distracted by the nurse at his bedside to disappear down the hallway.
Sophie didn’t expect to hear from him after that and she didn’t for a long while. After Paris, she headed to the South of France, after that it was the Caymans, and later, South America. There were men, of course. Lovely, handsome, very rich men who Sophie spent her time both seducing and stealing precious art and money from. She enjoyed nearly every second of it – the planning, the attention, that same thrill of adrenaline that settled at the base of her spine when she pulled off the plan perfectly. But it was different. It felt different.
For the first time since she was eleven years-old, the whole routine was starting to feel worn. For the first time since she met Gabrielle, her life was starting to feel dull, trite. The cons were too easy, the marks all the same in one way or another.
She was in Panama when she heard about William.
Sophie stayed in contact out of necessity to keep up Charlotte's appearances. There were letters here and there, strategically planned phone calls that was always placed when she knew the family would be out and never lasted more than thirty seconds. Except one day his mother picked up the phone and Sophie was so startled she stuttered, the Latina dropping from her accent, her shoulders squaring until she was Charlotte again, until she felt confident enough to speak without giving anything away. Sophie could barely make out the words behind the tears of the other woman that started as soon as Sophie uttered a quiet hello, but she picked up enough to understand the severity of the situation: William wrapped his car around a tree in Nottingham two days ago. The funeral was on Sunday. Everyone had been desperately trying to contact her. They were anxious to know if she was coming home.
Abandoning the con she was just a day away from completing, Sophie returned to Europe a year after leaving Nate in a French hospital.
She returned to London and the flat she still kept there in Charlotte's name instead of Istanbul with Tara or India with Marcus – both of whom were knee deep in two separate cons and had asked for her help, and both of whom she had denied. Sophie dug out the wedding band she buried in the back of her safe years before and wore black to the funeral. She sat numbly between Charlotte’s mother-in-law and William's favorite aunt, her legs crossed at the ankles, her hands tightly wound in her lap. She tried not to feel guilty over so many things and was surprised at how much she missed William when she allowed herself to. She was even more surprised that the tears that stung her eyes and wet her cheeks were genuine.
Days later, after she had grieved and mourned the loss of a man who, Sophie mused, she probably would have loved had she been a different woman, William’s mother begrudgingly informed her that he had left her everything. Sophie's fingers tightened around the porcelain cup of tea in her hands, her eyes widening slightly.
"Oh, don't look so surprised, dear," his mother bristled. Her tone wasn’t kind and it wasn’t grief-stricken, either. Sophie knew enough about this family to realize the glare, the coldness most definitely meant that they blamed her and her departure for William drinking himself into an early grave. "He loved you very much."
There was a beat, a pull of silence that lasted too long and stretched Sophie’s nerves too thin. She painstakingly planned her next words before she spoke them.
"Then why did he stray, Mama? Why did he lie?" she asked because it was something Charlotte needed to know, because it was something Sophie wanted to know. She just was not sure which was more pressing in that moment.
William's mother bit the inside of her cheek the way William used to when he was mulling something over, when he was choosing the exact right thing to say. He was always best at that – saying exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. Sophie and he were alike in that way. The only difference was that for William it was an art, an innate gift. With Sophie it was just an act, an ability she had spent years perfecting and tailoring to her specific needs so she could manipulate and bend people to her will.
"Why did you not stay and try to mend your marriage? Why were you so quick to abandon your vows? We could play this game for hours and still have no answers, Charlotte. And don't scowl like that. Your guilt is pointless now."
Erasing all emotion from her face, Sophie just breathed and sipped her tea, planned an exit strategy in the back of her mind. It would be all too easy to take William’s family for everything they were worth or to just simply take her fair share, really, but instead she did nothing. Slipped out of their lives, and back into her own. Ignored the guilt and heartbreak, the way her gut twisted every time she thought of William, of what she did to him, of what she drove him to do.
It didn’t take her long to leave London for places abroad. She spent weeks wandering the streets of Paris that she had inhabited a dozen times over years before. One afternoon Sophie found herself returning to the building that once housed the flat she had shared with Gabrielle all those years ago. Now it was only a crumbling structure filled with vacant offices. It was a rare moment, as she stood on the cobblestones and stared upwards at the fifth floor, that she remembered her old friend. She remembered how much fun they had together, and thought, not for the first time, what may have happened to her after Sophie disappeared in the middle of the night. There were a million possibilities and they all passed before Sophie’s eyes in a gray haze, each one more horrible than the one before.
Of course, Annie Kroy had friends in high places, Charlotte, too, and it would be relatively easy for Sophie to find out the truth if she cared to look hard enough.
But the thought of Gabrielle rotting away in some French prison turns her stomach even more than the thought of William drinking himself to death because his Charlotte didn't love him enough to stay.
Sophie was not sure what that meant, wasn’t accustomed to feeling guilt over the things she did or left undone, so she buried the feelings the best she could. Celebrated Tara's biggest payday to date in Morocco. Runs The Mona Lisa Variant with Marcus in Poland. For the first time in years she picked up a paintbrush and constructed a replication of Degas' The Bellelli Family; she used it to swipe the original from a museum in Paris, and started to feel a little bit more like herself.
Of course, that was the exact moment that Nathan Ford decided to re-enter her life.
He found her at a cafe a few blocks away from the hotel she was currently residing in, sliding into the seat across from her as if he had a right, as if he belonged there.
"Somebody stole a Degas last week. You wouldn't know anything about that would you?" Nate asked in lieu of a greeting. Sophie smiled around the rim of her teacup.
"Of course not. What do you take me for?"
Nate chuckled, settling back in his seat. "A thief."
"Well," she grinned, and quite liked how easily they fell back into old patterns. "There is that."
"If you hand it over, I won't arrest you right here and now."
Leaning forward, she set her cup to the side, used her index finger to slide her sunglasses to the tip of her nose. "What makes you so sure I have it?"
"It's how I found you."
Her eyebrow raised in challenge. "So you admit you were looking?"
Nate didn’t take the bait. He almost never did. "It's my job to look for you, Sophie."
The smile spreading across his mouth was smug because he thought he had her cornered even though he didn’t. Even though all it would take was a simple distraction, a small twist of her mouth just the right way to cause him to break eye contact by looking down or away, and she would have been gone in a blink of the eye. She remained still. Sophie listened as he presented the terms of the deal he came to broker: Sophie would hand over the painting, naturally, and instead of Nate dragging her off to prison, she flew to Tuscany with him. There, they would run a con on a man he suspected was committing insurance fraud by staging thefts of his art, and then auctioning them off to the highest bidder on the black market.
It could be a trap for all she knew. It could be a ploy at getting her to break the law one more time just so he could swoop in at the right moment and pin something on her that would stick a little longer in a court of law. While she didn’t trust Nate enough to say that his intentions were purely genuine, she did trust her own instincts. She trusted in the fact that he had plenty of opportunities to turn her in – including that time almost two years ago when she shot him without a second thought – and never had. So, instead of arguing with him, instead of wasting her time by trying to make an escape, she reached for her cup of tea, smiled over the rim, and shrugged carelessly as if to say why not?
In Tuscany they spent days doing recon. They spent a week convincing the mark that Sophie was interested in paying more than generously for a painting of his, and another week waiting for him to stage the robbery, submit the insurance claim, and try to sell the painting. As far as jobs went, it was one of the easiest cons she had participated in recently. It did little to challenge her, but she was in Tuscany and Nate, she found, wasn’t terrible company when he was not trying to catch her for a silly little crime like art theft, so she made do with the cards she was dealt, and gave a more than worthy performance.
Nate had Interpol apprehend the mark on a Friday afternoon, saving IYS millions of dollars in the process. By Friday evening, she was plying him with some very expensive whiskey at a very nice restaurant she practically had to drag him to while working very hard to convince him to spin her around the dance floor at least once. Eventually he conceded grudgingly, but Sophie was not deterred and led him in a subtle dance under the stars, the Tuscan heat still warming her skin so late into the night. She was wearing a green dress that fit tightly, her hair pulled back, her smile genuine. After a while of growing accustomed to each other, Nate’s fingers felt right on the bare skin of her back, his breath brushing her face as he leaned in too closely.
He smelt like whiskey – warm, thick, burning – and she mused he probably tasted like it too.
“This was fun,” she murmured. The stereo blared an Italian song about finding love in all the wrong places, the voice beautiful, the lyrics heartbreaking. Sophie found herself smiling at the irony. Nate made an appreciative sound in the back of his throat and they were so close she could feel the vibrations sink into her skin.
“This was a one time deal,” he told her. His voice was businesslike, but he didn’t pull away. The smooth tips of his fingers danced along her spine. She idly wondered if he realized he was only lying to himself. “Don’t mistake this for something it isn’t.”
As she pulled back to glance at him, Sophie found herself chuckling softly. “Of course not,” she said innocently, shaking her head in a way that made him aware she didn’t believe him in the slightest. Nate’s gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth and back again and it made her smile, really, because she was not even trying. She hardly ever had to try with him.
Out of all the things she liked about Nathan Ford, of all the things she liked about this arrangement they seemed to have, that was what she appreciated the most.
Before they parted ways, Sophie stole the painting back from him. She rationalized that it was his fault for not hiding it properly from her in the first place. Whether it was out of spite or just simply to give him another reason to chase her, she didn’t know.
When he contacted her a few weeks later with a note that simply read: I need a favor. Berlin, she found she didn’t much care.
Despite choosing the first apartment he stumbles upon, Nate still finds himself in her hotel room for dinner almost every night, his feet propped up on the coffee table, prospective client files spread between them on the couch. Sophie sips wine, and Nate’s glass of whiskey is balanced annoyingly on the edge of the white couch, leaving a faint brown circle as a reminder. Sophie would say something snide just to goad him into an argument if she wasn’t on her fourth glass of Merlot. If they hadn’t been celebrating finally finding an appropriate office space that fit all five of their personalities, that was smack dab in the center of the city so no matter where the others ended up, they would all be equal distance from their home base.
She definitely would have bitten out a soft, half-irritated do you mind? if his left arm wasn’t resting comfortably behind her shoulders, his fingers drawing tiny circles into the skin at the nape of her neck. Instead, she leans slightly into his touch, sighing something content as he flips through yet another file and she folds the corner of one of the pages in her magazine before tossing it to the side and reaching for another.
Nate reaches for her with his other hand, skimming along the slender line of her foot for a moment before allowing it to fall to his lap. “Planning a vacation?”
“Not exactly,” she murmurs, the words sounding like a gentle hum in the back of her throat. She sips her wine quietly, reaching forward to pour herself another glass. On the TV, The Thin Man plays softly. Nick is telling Nora that his only type is lanky brunettes with wicked jaws; she and Nate glance at each other for a long moment, their mouths curling at the corners on cue, before he reaches forward to the magazine she discarded earlier, flipping through the pages she earmarked.
“Burundi, Mauritania, Nepal,” Nate mumbles as he turns the pages. Sophie lingers on a picture in her own magazine with a sandy beach and water as blue as the sky. She earmarks that as well before moving on.
“All places without extradition treaties,” she supplies and his fingers still against the skin of her neck as he regards her softly.
“You have something you’d like to share?”
“No. Just…” She pauses and considers. Starts again with, “Just thinking about the future, I guess.”
“Exit strategies?” he asks and Sophie knows that the bite behind his words is instinctive. She doesn’t take offense to it now even though the Sophie of yesteryears would have let the words, the anger and disappointment laced between the lines drive them even farther apart. Now laughter bubbles in the back of her throat.
“Contingency plans,” she corrects with a crooked smile.
He calms a little bit at that, his fingers returning to the soft skin of her neck, the circles small and deliberate. “We’re a little too young to be thinking about retirement, don’t you think?” he asks after a long moment and she tosses the magazine to the side and takes another long swallow of her wine.
Sophie isn’t exactly sure how to explain it to him – mostly because she isn’t exactly sure what she’s feeling. She’s happy here, with him, with the job, with the team. Despite being halfway across the world, Parker and Hardison still send her texts filled with pictures of diamonds and pearls and all the art they steal and then, mournfully and reluctantly, put back. This morning she woke to an email from Eliot. It was short, to the point, but the sentiment behind his just checking in resonated. She’s antsy for their return, to dive back into the work. This is what she does. This is what she is good at and that will never change. She’s a grifter, for better for worse.
Still, she glances towards her bedroom, her suitcases still mostly packed and standing upright near the door. Nate chose the first place he laid eyes on, bought new furniture, appliances, hung Sam’s drawing and dug his heels in, readied himself for the long haul. Sophie’s finding the adjustment a little tough to swallow, goes through the motions of looking at the classifieds, circling prospective homes, but never following through.
Spring in Portland brings rain, dense early morning fog and it reminds her too much of London, of the life she had once upon of time, of all the things she’s spent a lifetime trying to forget. Less than a month ago she helped Nate bury his father, parts of his past he’s been carrying with him as a reminder, and she couldn’t help but realize, now after the dust has settled and they’re surviving the aftermath, that this can’t go on forever.
This, too, will come to an end. It’s inevitable. She’s always been the more practical of the two. She just hides it with distraction – a disarming smile, a flash of teeth, a well-tuned accent.
“We’re not nearly as young as we think we are, Nate,” she says at last, her smile tight, horribly wistful as she glances at him. Sophie thinks about the beginnings of things more than she used to – theirs, hers, Sophie Devereaux’s. It leaves something bitter in the back of her throat. She smiles wider around it. “And this is not going to last forever.”
She fully expects him to pull away at that, to ask her if she’s ready to quit, if she wants to be here, if she’s committed. But instead he nods, the fingers at the nape of neck dropping to her side, skimming her legs until they stumble upon the jut of bone at her ankle. He understands the validity of her words now more than ever.
For the first time since San Lorenzo, since he leaned in to kiss her and nothing outside of his lips on hers and his hands fisted in her hair existed, they’re on the same page in all aspects of their lives. It excites her just as much as his hands on her and the way he looks at her now with parted lips and dark eyes, like he can’t wait to get her out of her clothes and into bed.
“What do you got?” he asks and she stares at his hands on her skin for a long moment before turning her attention to his face, smiling as his fingers slip under her jeans, tracing the slender line of her calf, the tender skin behind her knee. The shiver is an involuntary response and she hides it the best she can. The way his mouth tugs upward smugly tells her she didn’t do a very good job.
“Too cold,” he replies, making a face. His fingers skim down until they encircle her ankle again and linger. “Saudi Arabia?”
“Not a good idea,” she tells him, her smile guilty but proud. “There was a sheik and, well,” she pauses, reaches for her wine again and takes a long sip. “It’s best if we just stay away from there. In fact, it’s probably best if we stay away from the Middle East in general.” Nate is smiling at her again and she hides her own behind the glass between her fingers. “Cote?”
“Because we’d fit so well in the heart of Africa?” He chuckles, eyebrow raised. His hands leave her legs to reach for his drink. She misses the weight of his touch almost immediately. “There’s always San Lorenzo.”
There is a shared smile and a memory flows through her mind, blurred around the edges, hazy with tacky technicolor. It’s a good memory. “We do have some friends there,” she concurs conspiratorially. “It’s a shame they named a girls’ school after me –”
“And put your name on the royal note,” he added, raising his glass to her in a mock salute. He buries his grin behind his glass, the whiskey coating his lips. “We’ve managed with less.”
“Rebecca could have a long-lost twin sister…”
“It is a small world.”
They laugh softly together, the sound gradually fading and lapsing into silence as the movie continues to play in the background. He’s watching her and she’s acutely aware, her hands tightening and releasing at her sides before reaching for his drink, her fingers brushing his as she takes it from him and he allows her. It bites and burns on the way down and she winces and tries not to hate the smug, self-satisfied smirk that tugs at his mouth in response. It falls shortly there after, and she rises in her seat in an effort to set the glass to the side as his lips press into a thin line.
“You’ll let me know when you’re ready?” he says and she knows he means it as a statement, but the question, the uncertainty lingers between the words.
Nate’s not looking at her then and she hates that more than the doubt, so she reaches for him, her palm flattening against his cheek, her smile warm and certain enough for the both of them.
“Of course,” she breathes softly, and before the words are even finished leaving her mouth he’s leaning in, his lips brushing against hers, his fingers tangling in her hair.
His kiss is soft, learned, easy, but his fingers tighten and pull as if he’s trying to anchor himself, as if he’s afraid to let her go. There is a sigh that he swallows whole. It is soft and content because she loves this; she loves him – even if she isn’t ready to admit such things aloud quite yet. Even if she knows he isn’t ready to hear them. The way he kisses her like he’s drinking her in, like he’s been thinking about this and her all day, takes the breath right out of her.
In the beginning, she made him work for it, drew out the moment until he was just on the verge of begging, but today, here and now, she’s scrambling over him with every bit of elegance and grace she possess, a jean-clad thigh on either one of his. She kisses him soundly, the mere flick of her tongue telling him everything she wants and needs, her teeth biting on his bottom lip until she elicits a moan that causes arousal to coil and ignite dangerously inside her. His hands slip under cotton, skim the bone of her ribs, the underside of her breast. She moans and sighs at once, her lips slipping to his cheek, to the soft skin where slight bone meets neck.
“Tell me you want me,” she says, just a breath of words near his ear then and he buries his face in her hair, his fingers working steadily on the button of her jeans, slipping inside without any preamble. When she pulls back he’s looking at her openly, wantonly, and the angle is awkward, his shoulder still in repair, but he manages to slip his hands between her thighs, under the cotton of her panties.
Nate’s thumb brushes against her clit the exact moment he murmurs, “I’ve always wanted you, Soph,” and it’s too much all at once.
It is almost always too much with him.
She loses herself in him completely and after they lay there for a long time, curled around each other on the couch, joking about how they’re getting entirely too old for such things. She’s straddling the line between sleep and consciousness. He’s talking to her about football or some sport-like thing she couldn’t care less about because their movie has ended and he has a late-night ESPN ritual just like almost every other American male she’s known. She remembers, then, as the sportscasters argue about something incredibly insignificant, that her birthday is tomorrow.
Hers. Not Sophie’s or Charlotte’s or Annie’s. Hers.
There is a quiet moment, with Nate’s palm splayed against her hip, his lips pressing against her forehead as he curls into her more closely, as he presses his body to hers so every single piece of them is touching, where she thinks about telling him.
She doesn’t, of course. There will always be parts of her, secrets she’s spent a lifetime burying, that she will never feel comfortable sharing.
Sophie thinks he of all people would understand.
After Berlin there was Belize, after that it was Argentina. Later, there was Paris, again, Mumbai, St. Petersburg. She and Nate fell into a routine that was inexplicably unshakeable. She still ran and he still chased, but somewhere along the way the line that separated right from wrong, the line that defined them as two completely separate entities grew dim, blurry even. Eventually, Sophie was toeing it from muscle memory alone because she could barely see it, found herself constantly questioning whether it even existed any longer. He would contact her when he needed her help, always seeming to know exactly where she was at any given time. She would never admit to anyone but herself, but she quite liked the idea of him keeping track of her. Liked to imagine him mapping out her locations by marking pinpoints on a map he kept on his office wall or folded in a briefcase. She liked the idea of him keeping her close.
When he called, she went to him because, well, there were a variety of reasons, but mostly she played along with his games because it was fun. Because running cons with Nate replicated the exhilarating thrill she felt in that café near Buckingham Palace all those years ago, the one that had since faded over the years as the cons became tired, as her way of life became surprisingly dull.
By the time Sophie had met Nate she had more money than she knew what to do with. There were storage lockers strategically placed all over the world and filled to the brim with all the things she had stolen over the years. She had a collection of priceless art and antiquities that she could not ever put on display and fully admire because then people would know she had them and that posed all sorts of problems.
Sophie also helped Nate con petty criminals into making stupid mistakes because it gave her a newfound sense of purpose. She helped Nate because after a job well done he always poured her a drink of something that still burned on the way down after all these years, and told her some very true things about himself – things about Maggie, about Sam, about his father, about who he was way back when. Things she already knew, had already guessed, but had greater meaning as they passed his mouth and fell between them, as she watched him talk of the things he loved most.
There are some very true things she told him during their time together, too. About jobs she had allegedly completed, people she had allegedly scammed. She left times, places, and names out of the equation, though. She didn’t mention Tara or Marcus. She definitely didn’t tell Nate anything real about herself, about the family she left behind, about her father and Gabrielle, how they aided her in becoming the person she was. Sophie didn’t mention to Nate how often she wondered if she was simply a product of her environment or if her natural ability to lie, cheat, and steal her way through life was something that had been ingrained within her since birth.
Sophie thought about mentioning William once, on the second anniversary of his death, but the timing wasn’t right, the guilt still tasted bitter on the back of her throat when she thought of him. Mostly, Sophie knew speaking the truth regarding that one, single lie amongst so many would reveal too much.
Somewhere in the midst of all the running and chasing and conning, Sophie fell for Nate and suspected that he fell for her a little bit too. But that wasn’t who they were, that wasn’t what they were meant to be to each other, so she turned the lies on herself and locked the feelings away, meant to be forgotten and remain untouched. Sophie only allowed herself to play the torturous game of what if during lonely nights. During those long stretches of time when she didn’t hear from him, when life slowed down to a near halt and all she was left with were the lies she had told, the personas she had created, and no idea who she truly was underneath it all.
The last con they ran together brought them back to Damascus.
Nate called and she packed her bag and took the first flight out, smiling when she found him just outside the airport, his weight supported against the taxi as he waited for her. He smiled back, but the lines forming at the corners of his mouth and across his forehead told her that something was wrong. Over the years, as they had grown to know one another, Sophie had come to the conclusion that Nate was a better liar and thief than he knew, than most people even realized, but now she knew him too well for him to be able to hide even the littlest thing from her.
As they slid into the back seat of the taxi, he sat too far away, his fingers avoiding hers as he passed her a file. Nate explained the details of the job ahead in clipped, quiet tones. He removed his sunglasses and rubbed at the bridge of his nose as he talked, as he explained the intricate details of his plan to her. As far as cons went, it was probably the least complicated scam they had ever run, and as the taxi took a left turn and their hotel loomed in the distance, she wondered why he had called her, why he hadn’t just run this one of his own.
She said nothing, however; she didn’t dare question him or his methods when he was completely closed off to her. Only mumbled her thanks as he held the door for her, as he checked them into the hotel and followed her into the elevator. His hands ghosted the small of her back, out of appearances’ sake for the smallest moment before she watched him pull back in the reflection of the elevator doors so quickly, as if he had been stung.
They spent a total of four days in Damascus. She would barely be able to remember the intricate details of the con years later except for the fact that they pulled it off – Nate was good at what he did, Sophie better, and neither of them ever lost unless they were playing each other. Even then, she mused, it wasn’t even entirely fair or honest, so she wasn’t sure it truly counted.
Years down the line, Sophie wouldn’t remember the con or the mark – two things she was notorious about filing away as keepsakes, as reminders of her victories.
No, instead all she would remember would be the after, that final night they spent together.
Over the years, the chase between Sophie and Nate became something akin to a routine, the cons they ran together a respite, just another tiny detail in a very complex, never-ending cycle. Buried in the details was a tradition that started after that very first job in Tuscany – a celebratory dinner afterwards. Drinks. A dance or two. They joked. They laughed. They enjoyed each other’s company. They argued over their favorite cons – Nate had a soft spot for The Wire because of the intensity of it, because it pushed the limits; Sophie’s favorite was The Nigerian because she loved to watch somebody drown in their own greed – their favorite artists, their mutual affinity for black and white films even though Casablanca always left a sour taste in their mouths. They talked about everything except the lives they led separately from each other, from here and now.
It was a cardinal rule that remained unspoken between them.
Damascus was no different, really, except it almost entirely was. When Sophie found him in the hotel’s restaurant that last night he was mostly drunk, his fingers curled tightly around the glass in his hands as if it were his anchor, his lifeline. She made a joke, but it fell flat, and she watched as he motioned for another drink without turning his head towards the bartender, his eyes focused solely on her.
For the first time in all the years she had known him he didn’t bother to mask his emotions. His face was a crystal clear picture of lust, want, and, most of all, need.
It left her breathless. Sophie’s hands tightened and released into fists at her sides, but she didn’t falter, didn’t give in. Instead, she raised a hand and allowed her fingertips to draw softly over the strong line of his shoulders as she moved into a seat next to him at the bar, watched as his eyes fell closed, as he leaned into her touch for the smallest moment.
Sophie should have liked him like that – open, honest, raw – but she didn’t. This was not the Nate she knew. This was not the Nate she had grown to love in her own twisted, manipulative way. She grabbed the drink he had set to the side and finished it in a single, solitary gulp just so she had something to do with her mouth and hands.
During dinner, Nate broke their rule and pressed her for information he knew she wasn’t willing to offer. Not about the heists she was known for a world over or past indiscretions, but about her family. He asked about the father she had only mentioned one, the mother she had never mentioned at all, and the siblings she remembered, but wished she didn’t because remembering hurt too much. The less she offered him in the way of the truth, the angrier he became, and when they danced he held her at arms length, but the fingers of his left hand dug into the fabric at her hip and lingered.
Eventually he either gave up or realized the battle could not be won, not that night, and after a song or two he loosened his hold and pulled her closer. The song ended, the beat switching to something softer, simpler, and Nate acknowledged the transition, tilted his head downwards, into the crook of her neck. Sophie swore she felt his lips brush against skin, just once, just for the briefest of moments, before he pulled back up to look at her.
“This is probably going to be the last time you see me for a while,” he murmured.
Around them couples were dancing, kissing; husbands and boyfriends alike leaned in to whisper sweet nothings into their woman’s ears. Sophie focused solely on Nate and understood what that night was, finally, and hated herself for missing the signs, for feeling blindsided as Nate looked at her, his mouth twisting into a smile that was both kind and sad.
This was their goodbye.
The knowledge hit her like a storm, but she didn’t show it. Sophie didn’t allow the confusion to set in or the heartbreak either, merely held his eye contact and allowed her mouth to quirk upwards and around her quiet, “Oh?”
There was more he wanted to say, things he wanted to tell her. Sophie could see it on his face, in his eyes, in the way his mouth opened and closed before his hand left hers and reached for a stray piece of hair, tucking it gingerly behind her ear. He wanted to kiss her then. She could see that too. She had seen the look on his face many times before, but Nate was usually very good at reining in his emotions, only allowing them to flicker before shutting them down completely. Nate was a good man underneath the rough exterior, usually honest when it counted the most. That night he failed to do it, to strictly adhere to his moral compass. His fingers grazed her cheek, the curve of her jaw; his eyes flicked towards her mouth every single chance he had. He made a noise in the back of his throat that turned her insides out, unnerved her and set her on edge.
Sophie wanted to kiss him too, reached up and covered the hand resting against her cheek with her own, leaned into his touch completely. Nate shuddered at the contact of her skin against his. His sharp intake of breath was audible even over the conversation and music and the sound of her heart drumming in her ears.
It would have been so easy to just lean in, to kiss him, to feel his mouth move under hers, but she didn’t. Sophie didn’t kiss him because there was a finality in that moment, in that night, in the entire past four days they had spent together and she didn’t want to ruin the idea she had of him in her mind, the one of the honest man who did the right thing.
Mostly, though, Sophie didn’t want to turn him into this sort of liar. She didn’t kiss him because she knew he would kiss her back – she could already feel the weight of his mouth against hers, could already taste the bit of whiskey on his lips– and she didn’t want him to have to carry the weight of his actions. She also didn’t want to be the woman who turned him into the type of man who disobeyed vows and broke promises he’d had every intention of keeping until he met her.
Sophie didn’t kiss him because if she crossed that line, if she pushed him past that line, she didn’t want to know what type of person that made her. For better or worse, Sophie was a thief and a liar, always would be, but she never wanted to be that woman. She didn’t want to be that woman to him.
Nate pulled away at just the right moment, his fingers dropping from her face to skim the soft skin at her shoulder, the line of her arm before coming to rest once more on her hip. His touch set her skin on fire, ignited something deep within her that had remain untouched for so very long. At her hips, his fingers dug in so deeply she wondered if she would come away with reminders, faint bruises in the shapes of his fingertips. A part of her hoped she did.
“I love my wife, Sophie. I love my son, my family,” he told her quietly, his version of an apology, of an excuse. Sophie couldn’t help but laugh – the sound soft and broken, getting stuck as it bubbled in the back of her throat.
“I know,” she replied because she did, she always had, and never once doubted it. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Leaning forward, she acted for the first time in a very long while without any thought, and kissed him – soft, fleeting, her lips curled into a worn, tragic smile as she pressed them to the corner of his mouth.
The moment passed in the blink of an eye.
The next morning, he finds her at the museum.
Sophie had woken before him, slipped out of bed and the hotel before the sun was even grazing the horizon. Most of the morning had been spent wandering aimlessly, looking for direction, trying to shake the exhaustion from the sleepless night before. She ended up at the museum by sheer happenstance, and Sophie hears Nate before she ever lays eyes on him – knows the sound of his gait, recognizes the rustle of fabric as he approaches. He’s curling the exhibit’s program between his fingers, his fist crinkling the edges. He’s in jeans today, she can tell from the sounds he makes as he nears her, probably a t-shirt too. It’s warmer here than it is in Boston and Sophie’s hot under her sweater and jacket, but doesn’t allow it to show. She misses Boston, too, but doesn’t allow that to show either.
Birthdays make her nostalgic, close to melancholy. They always have. She tries to do what she has always done and buries it.
“How did you find me?” she asks quietly, her eyes never leaving the painting before her. He settles easily into the space beside her, evens his weight on his heels.
With a shrug he murmurs, “I know you,” a little too confidently for her liking. Sophie raises an eyebrow in his direction, sees the smile curling at the corner of his mouth and after a moment of silence he relents. Nate tells her, “You have a tell.”
Sophie laughs, loudly, and rolls her eyes at the sheer ridiculousness of that statement. “Please, Nate,” she says, drawing out the words with a click of her tongue. “I most certainly do not have a tell.”
“You do,” he insists. “Don’t worry, I’m probably the only one that knows – in all fairness I have known you the longest – but you definitely, definitely have a tell.”
“Oh, alright then.” She chuckles, amused. “Care to enlighten me?”
Nate stares at her for a moment, considering. He rocks back and forth on his heels, his smile barely there, but twisting at the corners and she recognizes the motions, knows he is choosing his words carefully. Still, now, they constantly fumble for common ground, still struggling to trust, to truly know one another. They’re careful, treading the line that exists between them, their history an undercurrent pulsating between them, a constant reminder that they are liars and thieves, and the truth does not ever come naturally to either of them.
After a moment, Nate glances away from her and focuses on the painting, motions towards it with the curled program in his hands. “Degas.”
Sophie chuckles as she watches him. “Degas is my tell?”
Nodding, he smiles – that rare, beautiful, blinding smile that is so unlike Nathan Ford that it almost completely unhinges her. “The first time I saw you in Prague thirteen years ago you were swiping a Degas.”
Smiling fondly at the memory she mumbles, “I remember. I ran. You chased,” and tries not to think about how far they’ve come from that moment and how far they still have yet to go.
“It wasn’t your initial mark. The Raphael was. You came back for the Degas. I know this because the client at the time had literally just acquired the Degas and there was no possible way for you to have known it was in his possession.”
“Maybe my intel just happened to be better than yours.”
Chuckling, Nate ducks his head. “Maybe. Or maybe you saw it, couldn’t resist, and compromised your escape plan to come back and take it.” His recount of events is strikingly accurate, but Sophie does not give him any indication of it. That does nothing to slow Nate down, however. “Amsterdam, Moscow, Denmark – all close calls, all Degas. You simply don’t know how to resist.”
“Interesting theory,” she says. She motions to the program in his hands. “Or you saw that at the desk in the hotel, noticed the advertisement of the Degas on loan from Paris, put two and two together, and wound up here.”
“Well, there is that too.”
Silence falls between them for a span of time that lasts too long. Sophie avoids eye contact and instead avidly studies the brushwork of the Ende der Arabeske before her, appreciates the colors and exquisiteness. She glances around and makes mental notes of the weaknesses in security, counts the guards, designs plans of entries and exits out of habit and for practice. And, mostly, she thinks of her mother. Sophie remembers her lovely, loving mother who taught her how to appreciate the beauty of art. She remembers her mother’s strong hands guiding Sophie’s smaller ones as they turned page after page in the book Sophie carried with her for decades across the world, the book that burned to a crisp when her apartment exploded back in Boston and nearly took her along with it.
Sophie wonders, too, in that moment, what her mother would think of her now, what she would say if she knew the type of person Sophie has become. That thought is fleeting, however, passing in the blink of an eye because Sophie knows better than to allow herself to become maudlin.
She definitely knows better than to ask questions she already knows the answers to.
The truth of the matter is that Nate is right and she knows it. He knows it too and Sophie isn’t quite sure what bothers her more – the smug look on his face or the fact that even back then, in the very beginning, he knew her. She had begun walking this morning with no idea where she was headed, no inclination as to where she would end up. Nate found her effortlessly. It says too many things about who they are, who she is, how well he knows her. It frightens and excites her all at once – the intimate knowledge he has of her.
When she takes a moment to be truly honest with herself, Sophie is able to admit that she has been in love with Nate in some way for a very long time. She loved the man he was back then and loves the man he is now, the man his is trying to be even more, but that doesn’t mean she is good at this. That doesn’t mean that she likes being vulnerable, likes having people too close. Nate doesn’t like it either. He resists at every twist and turn, closes himself off to the world, and off to her in an attempt to escape it, in an attempt to shield himself from any further damage.
But they are trying to be better about these things. They are trying to be better at this.
That’s why she murmurs, “My mother,” so softly anyone else besides Nate would have probably missed it. She clears her throat, doesn’t dare look at him as she tries again, “My mother loved Degas. She appreciated all art. She taught me how to appreciate all art, but she loved Degas,” she tells him, the smile on her face wistful and fleeting. “She died when I was young and I don’t think of her often. I don’t allow myself to think of her often, but whenever I see a Degas, I remember her and the world… I don’t know, Nate, the world just gets a little bit brighter and makes a little bit more sense. Even if it is only for a moment.”
Any other person would have pressed further, prodded her with questions, but Nate allows the window of opportunity to close seamlessly. He merely stands tall and silent next to her, his arms resting at his sides, his fingers brushing against hers and intertwining for a moment before letting go. He knows her, knows this is all she is willing to share and more than he should ever expect. Mostly he knows not to push too far or too soon – even if he doesn’t always adhere to that knowledge.
“Everybody has their skeletons, I guess,” he mumbles and the irony behind those words falling out of his mouth is not lost on either of them. Sophie supposes he says it to make her feel better, because he foolishly believes his words might do something to qualm the cold feeling in her gut, the bitter, foreign taste of regret on the tip of her tongue. It is so inherently Nate that she has to smile – always saying the wrong thing at the right time.
Nate interprets the soft curl of her smile the wrong way, and his fingers find home at the small of her back, his touch light with just the right amount of pressure. She allows herself to lean into it, allows him to carry some of her weight for now.
Humming a sound of affirmation in the back of her throat, Sophie chuckles softly and muses, “Some are just easier to navigate than others.”
They stand there, shoulder to shoulder, until she is ready to move on.
In the end, neither of them bothered with saying any actual goodbyes. They weren’t those people and they definitely weren’t very good at those sorts of things, so Sophie simply disappeared into the night after he walked her to her hotel room.
All she left behind was a note at the desk for him, her scrawl hasty around the until next time.
After Damascus, Sophie found herself perpetually traveling. She met up with Tara at the Chinese border for a vacation and to help with some recon; she found Marcus in Florence and pulled off a heist that put her in possession of a Matisse, van Gogh, and a Cézanne. She conned a sheik in Jordan out of his newly acquired Kandinsky, a Japanese diplomat out of his Derain and a pouch full of jewels worth millions. When she returned to London after months abroad, she didn’t go back to the flat Charlotte kept there, she didn’t touch base with William’s family after all the time that had passed since his death.
Instead, she rented out a room on the outskirts of the city and passed her time picking pockets in Trafalgar square and drinking tea at the very café near Buckingham Palace where her father had taught her the art of the two-finger lift a lifetime ago. Sophie wasn’t sure why she went back then, after years of avoiding the same streets she used to haunt when she was younger, but she imagined it had something to do with the guilt and loneliness she didn’t like to admit had been eating away at her since she left Nate in Damascus.
She thought she saw him once – her father. There was a man in her periphery one afternoon. He was an older man with gray hair and worn edges; his mouth turned upward just like her father’s used to. But it was in the height of the afternoon, the sun was too bright, and she hadn’t slept properly in weeks, hadn’t been thinking clearly as of late. So she hid behind her sunglasses and held the porcelain teacup steadily between her fingers, watched him, but didn’t make a move. There was a point, she thought, where he saw her, where the man’s face registered both surprise and recognition for the briefest of moments, but he turned away almost immediately afterwards, disappearing into a street full of tourists. Sophie went back day after day, sat at the very same table, drank her tea and waited, but she never saw the man again.
A few days after, she headed east to Chelmsford, not really knowing her intended destination until she was already behind the wheel and twenty kilometers outside of the city. She drove without directions, turning and merging onto roads from memory. Over the years she had made a point to keep track of her family from afar, not getting too close, not wanting to know the minute details to keep the unbearable weight of guilt crushing down around her shoulders. It was how she knew her Aunt still resided in the very same worn-down house at the end of a long stretch of barren land. As Sophie pulled up, placing the car into park, the house looked exactly the same – the paint fading and peeling, the foundation of the front porch cracked – but the world around it had risen and blossomed. The structure was surrounded by rows of tiny, identical houses that made Aunt Emily’s three-story farmhouse scream with character.
Smiling tightly, she fumbled her way out of her car and cautiously made her way towards the front door. Her thumbnail was between her teeth in an instant, an old habit she thought she had broken decades ago. Aunt Emily opened the door, still the same after all the time that had passed, albeit graying and wrinkled along the edges. The sight of Sophie stunned her, the emotions on her face flickering from shock to anger in less than a millisecond. Still, she allowed Sophie to step inside and fixed her tea as Sophie sat at the very same table and in the very seat she had all those years ago when she had told her Aunt that she was leaving. When she made promises of returning that she had every intention of keeping in the beginning.
Reaching out to trace the scratch marks on the wooden table, Sophie took in her surroundings – the pictures, the family photos, the trinkets and antiques she remembered fiddling with as a young girl. Her aunt sat a steaming cup of tea down in front of her before sliding into a chair across the way. She didn’t touch her own, merely stared at Sophie, hard, her spine ramrod straight, almost as if she were preparing for battle.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Aunt Emily said. These were the first words spoken between them.
Sophie sighed and nodded, bringing the cup of tea to her lips to sip it gingerly. She had sent money every year that she had been gone – always in the form of unmarked bills, not checks – in an envelope with no return address. Always, Sophie had attached a short, to the point letter that boiled down to: I am fine. I love you. Please don’t look for me. In the beginning, she had consistently wondered what her family thought of her absence, if they thought of her at all, if they missed her like she missed them. Then Gabrielle had taught her to ignore those feelings. She had told Sophie that the guilt would consume her, that it would ruin her if she allowed it. So Sophie had become very good at hiding it, at forgetting it existed altogether.
And it had worked until she turned left onto the familiar street, until she sat down at the familiar table, in the familiar house with its familiar walls and saw all the pictures of her brothers and sister glancing back at her, their faces aged with time, but smiling widely. It worked until Aunt Emily informed her that the family buried her in the ground next to her mother and father who had died not long before. It would be five years ago next Christmas, she said.
The guilt and regret and broken promises itched at the back of her throat as she imagined her family grieving for her while she was grifting her way through Europe.
“We had to move on. They had to move on. It was devastating watching your brothers believe that you were coming back. It was ruining them and I,” Aunt Emily stopped short and looked away. “And I didn’t know how to explain to them that their older sister was nothing but selfish. Nothing but a common thief. A liar that wasn’t worth their pain and longing.”
Sophie’s fingers shook as she set her teacup to the side, as she met her aunt’s eyes. She could ask how she knew, how she put the pieces together, if it was her father who spilled her secrets, but deep down she already knew the answer.
“I raised them,” she reminded her aunt. The usual smooth, calm exterior of Sophie Devereaux was long gone, and her voice cracked along the edges, so unlike her own, the words choked out between a sob that burned the back of her throat, threatening to escape. “I loved them –”
“And then you left them, dear. That erases any good will you may have stored up.”
The tears fell silently, and Sophie reached to push them away angrily, willed them to stop altogether. Off to the side there was a photo hanging proudly in the center of the wall. It was a portrait of the youngest member of their family, of Sophie’s baby sister – the one she taught how to walk, how to sing her alphabet, how to read and tie her shoes. All Sophie could think about in that moment as her baby sister’s face smiled at her was how much she looked like their mother.
“And Amelia? Does she ask about me?”
Aunt Emily chewed on the inside of her cheek, her face hardened by time and betrayal. “She barely remembers you. And she’s better for it.” There was long span of silence where Sophie regained her composure, where the tears stopped falling and her voice lost the thick country accent she had worked so hard to erase all those years ago, but slipped back in the moment she stepped foot in this old house.
“I think I should go,” she said with a nod, moving to stand. Her palms flatten against the wrinkles of her skirt. “I’m going to go,” Sophie repeated, and her aunt moved to stand as well, following her to the door not out of kindness, Sophie knew, but because she wanted to make certain she was actually leaving.
“Don’t come back here again,” she said. “You aren’t welcome here. It would only hurt them further.”
All Sophie could do was nod and during the long car ride back to the city, she cried, her hand fisted tightly around the steering wheel, her fingers reaching up angrily every so often to wipe at the tears stinging her eyes. She wept for the person she once was, the family she once had, the person she would never be again. She mourned the loss of her father who died while Sophie was lying and conning her way across Europe, who died without her even knowing.
When she returned to London it was as Charlotte simply so she could use the name and the contacts associated with it to auction a Picasso at Claridge’s. William had given it to her as a wedding gift years before. As a parting gift, she sent the proceeds to her aunt in a manila envelope with no return address. It was filled with details of a trust set up anonymously in her family’s name, enough for her siblings and their families to live comfortably. Inside there was a story about a long lost relative, a figment of her imagination that would hold some sort of relationship to her father, a far away removed aunt or uncle that no one would question because her father was such a private man.
Sophie scribbles a note, her letters neat and tidy as they formed the words I keep my promises. Thank you for taking care of my family. She hid it amongst the legal documents.
Deciding to leave Europe for the States had everything to do with a long con involving the dagger of Aqu’Abi, and nothing to do with the vast continent she had called home for years having suddenly become too small and cluttered with too many ghosts.
Four months were spent in Boston planning and acting out what should have been the ideal heist only to have it fall apart at the very last minute. It was the first time in over a decade that things didn’t go her way, and the loss nearly crushed her.
Sophie spent months licking her wounds by traveling America – New York, D.C., Philadelphia. All cities with culture she easily immersed herself in, picking up accents and languages, adapting like the chameleon she was. All cities with excellent museums full of art and antiquities she spent copious amounts of time admiring and planning to steal. But she never did, not once.
There was a painting at the Met she kept her eye on for weeks. She made plans, devised a con, and almost acted, but decided not to at the very last moment. It felt different, somehow. Sophie felt different and she couldn’t explain it, couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment things started to change, couldn’t quite wrap her head around the moment when she started to change. All she knew was that one day she woke up, looked in the mirror, and realized scamming people out of their precious arts and fortunes didn’t suffice any longer.
In Rio, she stole a Dalí and Picasso just to prove to herself that she still could, that she hadn’t lost her touch.
She met up with Tara a week later in Miami. Sophie spent a days by the beach basking in the glory of her latest heist and tried to ignore the fact that the thrill she used to get, the spark of adrenaline that drove her to act, to con, and steal had dimmed substantially over the years. She had barely felt it in Rio. She missed it, missed the weight of it on her spine, the taste of adrenaline in her mouth, but she didn’t quite know how to steal it back.
After a few days of exchanging stories and catching up, Tara started to get antsy, borderline suspicious. “Why are you here?” she asked. Where Sophie was elegance and grace, Tara was swift and to the point. Together, Sophie thought, they would probably make an indestructible team, but Sophie wasn’t sure their friendship could handle working together. Or, rather, Sophie was not quite sure she wanted to find out if their friendship could handle working together.
Shrugging, Sophie sipped on her champagne and shifted in her seat. The sun was warm against her skin. “I like the beach.”
“Okay, sure, but Miami? Really? This place is the epitome of tawdry and cliché. You, Sophie Devereaux are neither cliché nor tawdry. You could have picked a better beach to celebrate. Besides, you’re missing the bigger question.”
“I didn’t miss the bigger question. I am simply choosing to ignore it. There’s a difference.”
Sophie didn’t need to look at Tara to know she was rolling her eyes. She could have lied. She should have lied, really, because admitting the truth made you soft, made you appear weak. Sophie didn’t want to give any part of herself away by appearing as either. Instead of relying on old habits, though, she tried honesty. “I’m thinking about making some plans,” she told Tara softly.
Tara grabbed another champagne glass off of a passing tray and smiled at a man across the pool with practiced ease. “What kind of plans are you talking about?”
“Life plans. Possible retirement plans. This is Florida, isn’t it? Isn’t this where aging Americans go when they retire?”
“You aren’t aging. Nor are you American. And if you retire – which is the most absurd idea you’ve ever had, mind you, and that includes that time in South America – what do you suppose you’ll do with your time? Take up knitting? Read a book? Go to the movies?”
“I could learn how to knit and I always wished I had the opportunity to read more.”
“You’re being facetious.”
“And you aren’t being kind.” Sophie’s tone was more pointed than she meant it to be. She didn’t need Tara’s approval, nor did she want it. But Tara was her friend, her confidant. Sophie couldn’t explain how Tara came to be those two things, but she was, and Sophie just wanted her friend to understand her. She just wanted somebody to understand her. “I’m not saying it would be easy. It wouldn’t. I sit here right now, with you, and all I can think about is the twenty different ways I could rob and con each and every single person here. I walk into a building and devise entry plans and exit strategies. I meet somebody new and I memorize their tells and devise the easiest way possible to swindle them out of their fortune within five minutes. It’s what I do. It’s how I think, but it just doesn’t…” She paused, searching for the right words. They never found her, but that doesn’t falter her. Sophie never had a problem with improvisation. She continued, “It doesn’t feel the same anymore. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, Tara.” Sophie sighed and she hated how honest it sounded, the sadness falling between them loudly. “You’ll get here, too. You’ll see.”
“Jesus,” Tara breathed after a long pause, as if the fate Sophie described was something equivalent to death. “I sincerely hope not.” She stopped and sipped her champagne, appraising Sophie from afar. The moment she decided to give up hope of winning the argument was clear – she smiled around the rim of her glass and leaned in conspiratorially. “So, do tell me, what do you plan to do when you retire? You are going to have an awful lot of spare time. Honest people don’t participate in any of your favorite extra curricular activities.”
“I could act. Charlotte loved to act. I’ve always imagined that is what I probably would have done if I hadn’t… you know… turned to a life of crime.”
Tara laughed loudly, her head tilting back as her shoulders shook with the sound. “You are a terrible actress.”
Bristling at the insult, Sophie corrected primly: “I am a brilliant actress.”
It was back in New York that she learned about Sam. There was an acquaintance, a man she had come to know because he was probably the best forger this side of the Atlantic and she had been thinking about using him for the Met job she never went through with. He was laughing as he relayed the story of how hotshot insurance agent Nathan Ford lost his job after drinking himself into a stupor over the loss of his son. He laughed, his lips curling, his eyes dancing with sheer joy, and it took every trained instinct inside of Sophie to not reach across the table and smack him so hard he bruised.
Sophie’s first instinct was to go to Nate. To reach out to him, to tell him how truly and deeply sorry she was for his loss. To tell him that she was there for him in whatever way he needed.
Somehow she managed to suppress the urge, constantly reminded herself that they weren’t friends, confidants, lovers. They never were those people to each other and what he meant when he told her this is probably the last time you’ll see me around for a while was most definitely goodbye. Sophie had accepted that. She was trying to move on, still, after all this time. Going to him would be backtracking, would lead to a mess she didn’t know how to clean up because surely her presence in his already complicated life would be unwelcome. Surely if he needed her, he would reach out to her.
He knew where she was. He always did.
So instead she kept her distance. Donated a more than gracious endowment to the research fund set up in Sam’s name, opened an email every once in a while, typed a few lines only to erase them a moment later. She auditioned for play after play on Broadway – even a few off Broadway as well – before she decided New Yorkers were too rude for her liking, the traffic too horrible. She made the choice to leave New York in search of something bigger and better in LA.
LA brought a few attempts at local commercials that never got aired and a lot of rejections. There was a play in Burbank that ran for a few weeks. It was an awful rendition of Taming of the Shrew but it was a job and a start all rolled into one, and she found she quite liked the routine of it all: the process of memorizing lines, practicing cues, performing each night. She liked being somebody else – never quite as comfortable in her own skin as she would have liked – always had, and acting, she found, was just an honest way of hiding herself from the world.
On closing night, she looked up into the bright lights, delivered her lines, and swore she saw Nate there in the crowd – his smile tight, but present, his hair unruly, longer, his edges hardened by time and grief. She flubbed her line because she was so sure it was him. The actor next to her on stage hissed at her mistake, drawing her attention from the crowd to the cue she missed, and when she turned back, when she searched for him amongst a sea of blank faces, Nate was gone.
After the play wrapped she decided LA was too bright and sunny for her liking, so she moved on to Seattle for a while. After Seattle there was Portland, then Albuquerque, then Dallas. There was Atlanta, Raleigh, even New Orleans for a few short weeks in-between. Each one didn’t quite fit for some reason or another – Seattle too rainy, Albuquerque too boring, and Raleigh didn’t have nearly enough proper shoe stores.
In the end, she settled on Chicago because she quite liked the way the moonlight reflected over the river at night, because the bitter winters and gray skies reminded her of all those years she spent in London. In Chicago, she felt a bit more like herself, like Sophie – or, at least the Sophie she once was. She moved into a large flat with a view overlooking the river, and spent too much time picking out china patterns and paint colors, reading books on how to refurnish her wooden floors without professional help. She tried silly little things like exercising and pottery class, but gave up pretty quickly because she didn’t perceive sweating to be something a lady did and she certainly didn’t enjoy having her hands dirty. Eventually she took up knitting just to spite Tara, even joined a book club. Long Monday afternoons were spent with ordinary women who led ordinary lives and spent entirely way too much time talking about extraordinary women leading extraordinary lives.
Sophie basked in the simplicity of all. On Sundays, she visited the Art Institute and admired masterpieces from afar like a proper citizen. After, she went home and poured herself a large glass of Boudreaux, picked up a brush and just breathed.
During one particular Sunday night, on the stereo in the corner of her loft a CD played endlessly, a man’s thick, gravelly voice sang, I’ve made my life out of readin’ people’s faces, and knowin’ what their cards were by the way they held their eyes. And she involuntarily thought of her father then, during those very first moments when the guitar and bass flow through the speaker. Sophie remembered those sunny afternoons spent in the car, and how he was right when he told her the song held all the answers she was too young and too naive to realize she needed.
Laughing, she allowed her mind to become clear of any and all nonsense as she spent hours upon hours painting a replication of whatever had stood out to her that day. It all felt oddly familiar and foreign at once – this time the paintings were for her and her alone, not to be used for profit. That wasn’t to say, though, that while she was at the museum she wasn’t also planning a heist in the back of her mind out of sheer habit. That didn’t mean she no longer internally ranked routes of entry and exit based on plausibility and ease of access. That definitely didn’t mean that she didn’t flirt with the curator or security agents because she could, because it was practice just in case.
For better or worse, Sophie was a grifter, a liar and a thief.
She was just trying to be better about controlling her impulses.
Nate found his way back to her after she had been in Chicago for almost a year. She was Macbeth for the night in a theatre in the outskirts of the city and unlike LA all that time before, she knew he was there – Sophie could see him clearly through the haze and lights, could make out the angles of his face, the hard line of his shoulders. Afterwards, she allowed him to corner her in the alley, smiled at the sight of him and tried not to mark the differences between the man she once knew and the man standing in front of her. He was thinner than the last time she had seen him and for just a brief moment she allowed herself to remember Damascus, the feel of him against her, her lips against the corner of his mouth.
“I’m a citizen now. Honest,” she told him and it was, surprisingly, mostly the truth.
“You’re playing my side now?”
His team stood behind him unsurely, eyeing her closely. She had heard about the Pierson job from an acquaintance of an acquaintance that kept an ear to the ground for people like her, people who were out but might one day be persuaded to look for trouble. When she heard Nate was a part of the team involved, she had laughed until it hurt.
“I always thought you had it in you.”
Nate looked at her and she looked at him and while she was still mostly the same person she was then, he wasn’t, he wasn’t by a long shot, and she was not quite sure where that left them.
Except, he asked, Are you in? with a balanced mixture of apprehension and certainty, and she realized she didn’t have to think twice. She realized that still, after all this time, after all the distance that had come between them, she unashamedly trusted him despite all that she had ingrained within herself that said not to.
In the morning before she was set to corner and bait Dubenich, Nate spent needless time prepping her. He went over their strategy backwards and forwards until she was annoyed, ready to roll her eyes and give him that look, the one that said: I have done this before, you know. He must have seen it, must have read the tension in her shoulders, in the line of her mouth because he relented, followed her out of the loft and to the elevator as she warmed up her accent and twisted her neck to work out the kink.
There something encouraging that left his mouth, she thought, possibly even a smile too, but Sophie was already so far into the mindset of Anna Gunstott that it didn’t even register.
It was later, in the midst of the con, in the midst of running a con with Nate, his voice smooth and calm in her ear with Dubenich exactly where she wanted him, that she felt that exhilarating, elusive thrill travel like a spark down her spine and settle comfortably at the base. back of her throat. She reveled in the feel of excitement spreading from her head to her toes, igniting everywhere in between.
It felt like coming home.