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Parker hates it when IYS sends Nate Ford after her. Not because he’s the most likely person to catch her—though he definitely is—but because she always feels kind of bad for trying to get away from him. The same way she feels kind of bad when she’s at a movie theater and she goes straight from one movie to another without buying a second ticket. Because she can run rings around David Alexander without feeling anything but glee and she once broke into Janice Stillburn’s hotel room and stole her luggage out from under her just out of spite, but going against Nate Ford feels like a moral failure.

Nate was the first person who ever caught her. She was twenty years old. She’d just stolen a nice little Monet and taken it to the pre-arranged fence, who had given her $20,000 as a deposit, kept the Monet to verify its authenticity, and told her to come back the next day for the remaining $480,000, which he’d shown her in a wonderfully spy-like black briefcase. So she was feeling pretty good about things. She went out for dinner at a cute little café and splurged and got dessert. 

When she got back to her hotel room about an hour after meeting with the fence, she found a man sitting on her bed, the Monet lying on one side of him, the surprisingly spy-like briefcase full of money on the other.

“Hi there,” he said.

Her first instinct, of course, was to hate him. Not only had he caught her on her very first job, taking both the painting and her beautiful money, but considering his age and build he looked just like all those male authority figures—her father, foster father #1, foster father #2, foster father #4 (FF3 was okay, but his wife was a real piece of work), a couple of priests—who had tried to tell her how to live her life, often enforcing those lessons with the back of their hand. She was relieved that he didn’t appear to be armed, at least.

“My name is Nathan Ford,” the man went on, tapping his fingers against his crossed legs. "And you are?”

She edged back towards the door. “Why are you in my room?”

“I work for IYS.” At her blank look he explained, “The insurance company for this lovely painting.”

“Oh,” she said. She frowned. “Insurance companies send people after thieves?”

He blinked slowly. His lips twitched, apparently against his will because he smoothed his hand over them and assumed a neutral expression. “I’m what’s called an insurance investigator. My job is to locate stolen property so the insurance company won’t have to pay for it.”

Parker sighed. “I guess that means you’re taking the painting.”

“That is what that means,” he agreed.

“Are you calling the cops on me?”

“I don’t like to deal with the police when it’s not necessary,” he said, his blue eyes intent on her face. He thought for a minute or so. “In this case, I don’t think it’s necessary. After all, you were already gone when I reached your hotel room.”

“I was?” She blinked, comprehension dawning. “Oh, right. I was.”

“Just tell me one thing. How did you get into the museum?”

She shrugged, seeing no reason not to tell him. “I went in while it was open, snuck onto the roof, waited until the museum closed, and came in through a window.”

“I checked the roof. There was no indication any rappelling tools had been used.”

“Tools?” she said blankly. “I don’t use tools.”

He gave her that look that her foster fathers usually accompanied with the question, “What the hell is wrong with you?” That’s not what he said, though. "I don’t care how talented you are, you shouldn’t be climbing down the sides of buildings without any kind of gear. You’ll get yourself killed that way. Harnesses and ropes are your friend. Learn to use them.”

She mulled that over and thought maybe he was right. “Okay.”

“Something else to keep in mind: when you’re with a fence—even one you trust—never let your merchandise out of sight. Mr. Grey was packing to catch the next flight out of Rome when I caught up to him. He was going to hang you out to dry.”

Her eyes narrowed. In her mind an explosion went off. “He wasn’t going to give me my money?”

He smiled. “You pulled off a brilliant heist, so you’ve successfully entered the world of thieves, regardless of the fact that I caught you. There are certain sacrifices you make as a thief. One is that you can’t trust anyone.”

“Yeah? Then why should I trust you?”

He stood and lifted the Monet carefully by the frame. “I’m not on your side. You definitely shouldn’t trust me. If you’re smart, you’ll get out of town the minute I leave, just in case I did call the cops.”

Still carrying the painting, he strode to the door. She stood aside to let him pass. He set the painting on the floor as he turned the knob and pulled it open.

“Parker,” she told him.

He glanced at her over his shoulder. “Hmm?”

“My name. Parker.”

He nodded, smiled. She decided it was a nice smile, like the ones in commercials. Not at all like the mean little smiles her father used to make. “I’ll see you around, Parker.”

It wasn’t until he’d gone that she realized he’d left the money on the bed.

***

Sophie loves being pursued by Nate Ford. He’s married now—at least as far as she knows; most marriages, unfortunately, don’t survive the death of a child, so maybe he and Maggie have gone their separate ways—and she knows he isn’t the kind of guy who’d ever consider cheating on his wife, so it’s not for the sexual thrill of it. Though she does still get a certain delight just from looking at him, with his lovely, mussed hair, piercing blue eyes, and slender build. 

No, mostly she loves being pursued by Nate because he’s the only opponent she’s ever met who can consistently outthink her, because if he were a criminal he’d be almost as good a grifter as she is, and because he’s got a devilish sense of humor and one of the best smiles she’s ever seen.

They were lovers, once, before Maggie had entered the picture. He caught up to her in Prague two weeks after she stole a rather enormous diamond. He held her at gunpoint, took the diamond, turned to go. She asked him to stay. He gazed at her for a long time, his expression inscrutable. He stayed.

He stayed for three months, on leave from IYS. They traveled Europe, visited museums just for the hell of it (she barely even cased them when she was inside), went to the theater, learned to dance together. She was the one who decided to go her own way—she couldn’t settle down, not yet, and Nate could never remain with a thief. She let him keep the diamond, though.

***

Eliot has a lot of respect for Nate Ford. In another life, maybe Eliot would have been like him. He can imagine himself as a crusader for the good guys, maybe designing security systems, protecting people instead of hurting them. It’s a painful fantasy.

Nate’s a good man, a genuinely good man, and Eliot doesn’t say that about many people. Doesn’t say that about anyone other than Nate and a few guys from his hometown, actually. But it’s easy to be a good man in Nowheresville and significantly harder when one’s part of the world of international crime. Most insurance guys are either so tough they’re brutal or so weak they can be bribed. Nate’s the rarest kind, though. He’s an honest man.

He’s an honest man Eliot wouldn’t hesitate to trust with his life. Eliot doesn’t say such things lightly, but Nate earned it. Four years ago, in Berlin.

Eliot had just stolen a couple million dollars worth of diamonds from a business tycoon who was knee-deep in organized crime. The tycoon had turned around and asked IYS for his money while at the same time sending his own goons after Eliot.

Nate caught up to him before the goons did.

“Hello, Eliot,” Nate said, holding a gun on him from a safe distance away—far enough that Eliot couldn’t possibly reach him before Nate could shoot.

Eliot sighed. “Hello, Nate.”

“I’m going to need you to toss me the diamonds, please.”

Eliot pulled the diamonds from his pocket slowly enough that Nate could see they weren’t a knife. Growling under his breath, he tossed them underhanded to the older man, who caught them with his free hand.

“I appreciate your making this easy,” Nate said, pocketing the diamonds.

“It seemed rude to make you shoot me,” Eliot replied, strolling closer with his hands in his pockets. Nate watched him warily but lowered his gun. Eliot wondered how he could possibly be certain that Eliot wasn’t going to attack him to get the diamonds back. Eliot had a pretty vicious reputation, after all. “Why aren’t you afraid of me?”

Nate tucked the gun into a shoulder holster. “I don’t believe that you’d attack a man who didn’t mean you any harm.”

“You just took a couple of million dollars from me. You don’t call that harm?”

Nate smiled and ran a hand through his messy hair. “Not by your definition. And not by mine.”

Eliot laughed, most of his annoyance flowing out of him. “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.”

“I usually am.”

With that, Eliot was ready to make his escape, but when he turned to go a man shouted, in a rough German accent, “Mr. Spencer!”

He turned slowly, Nate turning with him, to see three large thugs pointing guns at him. “Oh, great,” he muttered.

“Let me take care of this,” Nate said, stepping forward. He raised his voice. “Gentlemen!  My name is Nate Ford, I’m the insurance guy. I’ve already gotten the diamonds back for Mr. Kroll, so there’s no need for you to do anything violent.”

Evil Henchman #1 sneered. “Mr. Kroll has decided that Mr. Spencer needs to suffer some painful consequences for his actions.”

“You need to back off,” Nate told him, his voice firm and cold. “It’s within my power to terminate IYS’s contract with Mr. Kroll if you do anything illegal in his name.”

Evil Henchman #1 laughed. “Mr. Kroll has determined that this is an acceptable risk. It would not do for his business partners to believe that he is becoming weak. No, I’m afraid that Mr. Spencer must die.”

Eliot slid a knife down his sleeve into his waiting palm. If only there weren’t three of them…but there was no way he could take down all three from a distance without at least one getting off a shot. Normally he wouldn’t hesitate, but things were different with Nate there as a semi-innocent bystander.

Evil Henchman #1 adjusted his aim to point straight at Eliot’s heart. That was enough. Eliot wasn’t going to just stand there waiting to be murdered. In a flash he threw the knife end over end to sink deep into Evil Henchman #1’s shoulder. A second knife disposed of Evil Henchman #2 before he could react. Evil Henchman #3 got off a shot before a final knife took care of him.

Eliot didn’t register the sound of the gunshot until after something had slammed into him from the side, knocking him down. His ears rang for a moment. He blinked and registered that the dead weight on top of him was Nate’s body. Then he realized that blood was seeping steadily from Nate’s shoulder. He pushed himself into a sitting position, cradling the injured man in his arms.

“What the hell, Nate?” he snarled. “What the hell?”

Nate grimaced. “Yeah, don’t know why I did that,” he muttered, and passed out.

After that—after getting Nate to a hospital (and leaving the diamonds with him), after hearing that Nate would be fine, after getting the hell out of Germany—Eliot didn’t go after IYS clients any more. He just didn’t.

***

Hardison has never met Nate Ford. He’s never seen him in person. Everything he knows about Nate Ford he knows from other criminals and his own hacking. He knows that Nate is incredibly intelligent, both from his school grades and his impeccable record as an insurance investigator. He knows that Nate tried to become a priest but dropped out of seminary school. He knows that Nate is the one who intercepted Hardison’s online auction of some intellectual property he’d stolen from a computer software company and who somehow managed to hack Hardison’s own hard drive to steal the property back.

Thieves talk about Nate Ford with a kind of hushed reverence. He’s the bogeyman to them, the one who never lets a case go.  He’s put countless thieves behind bars. The really mean ones he destroys completely—finds their hideouts, empties out their stashes, outs them to their families and loved ones. There’s never been a thief he couldn’t catch.

It was Damien Cartwright, the pompous English prick who’d introduced Hardison to the world of hard-core criminal hacking, who taught him the most important rule in dealing with Nate Ford.

“Never do anything you can’t take back,” Damien said, hacking into IYS’s mainframe and pulling up Nate’s picture. “Steal something, fine. Con someone, great. But don’t kill anyone. Don’t hurt a child. Don’t betray your partner.”

“Not that I’d do those things anyway,” young Hardison said, watching in awe as Damien’s fingers flew across the keyboard, “but how come?”

“Because if you do any of those things, and this man finds out about it—” he tilted his head at the picture of Nate “—and he will find out about it—when he catches you—and he will catch you, sooner or later—he’ll crush you. But if you don’t—if he thinks you’re an honest sort of thief, just trying to make your way in a cruel world—he’ll be gentle with you. He might even let you go.”

“Why are you so scared of this dude?” Hardison asked. “He’s just one man. Does he even know anything about computers?”

“Doesn’t matter if he knows computers,” Damien replied. “He knows people. He knows crime. And, yeah, he’s smart enough that he probably knows more about computers than he lets on. Nate Ford is the best there is. If he were a thief—" he shook his head wistfully "—the criminal world would be a very different place.”