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30 June 2012 @ 01:42 am
Timeless Part I  

Fandom: Leverage
Rating: PG 13
Words: 12,000
Spoilers: -
Disclaimer: I don't own anything.
A/N: 1900s historical AU, hypothetically pre-show Sophie and Nate. I take full responsibility for any historical inacuracies.



"[...] then she had had her equal consciousness that, within five minutes, something between them had - well, she couldn't call it anything but come. It was nothing, but it was somehow everything - it was that something for each of them had happened."

Henry James – The Wings of the Dove

Boston, May 1910

Tugging the belt around her waist in place, the dark eyed grifter took in her reflection carefully. Out of the mirror, Angelique Delacroix was staring at her, face framed with a handful of escaped curls and showing a subtle hint of mischief in her smile. While her names and personalities were slipped on and discarded like the many cloves in her possession, her face always stayed the same: high cheek bones, dark, mysterious eyes rimmed with naturally long and dark lashes and a complexion that was just a hint too dark for the fashionable pale white most women were wearing these days (most rich women, that was). Others might have let themselves get discouraged by this flaw, if one wanted to call it that, but Angelique carried herself with confidence and turned her complexion into an advantage. Many of her other personas did as well, appearing exotic and carrying an air of mystery around; in different situations it came in handy to pose as a low born girl, although she had always preferred to avoid those characters. After all, money was her game and unless she needed to be a damsel in distress, ready to be saved by her knight in shining armor, those girls rarely came in handy anymore. They had, however, been what saved her many times, years ago on the Continent.

Angelique's eyes clouded with the memory of other girls and women she had been, but before the reminiscing could take her even further away from Boston, she pulled herself back into the here and now.

She had been spending quite some time here in America. It hadn't been her first time, but with all those fast changes on the new continent it only took a year or two to make it a completely different experience. While she enjoyed the general industriousness and the spirit that everyone could make something out of himself here, she knew that hear heart would always belong to Europe. Nothing could replace the decade old culture and the history of certain places and, after months in America, she longed for the Parisian opera and French fashion. Her con in Boston was almost finished – if everything went according to plan, she'd be on her way to New York by the end of the week and on an ocean liner back to London within the following days.

If everything went according to plan. She knew all too well that with her charms and good looks, she always needed a good portion of luck for everything to work out. So far, in all those years of being a grifter, she had had more luck than she probably deserved, but wherever she went, it was always painfully clear to her that it could run out any second. She took a breath so deep that her ribs strained against the corset she was wearing, and held it for a moment. Everything would be alright. Harold had been eating out of Angelique's hand since the moment he had laid eyes on her at one of those big Boston society balls (truth be told, she could have picked nearly any man out of the crowd that night, throwing them a coquettish smile and asking silly questions in broken and heavily accented English) and while she knew he was carefully planning his proposal to her, she was carefully planning how to alleviate him of a few well chosen pieces of his art collection.

Harold wouldn't even miss them. He had made his fortune in trade and hardly knew where to put all his money. To her own benefit, he had generously decided to invest chunks of it in expensive jewelry for Angelique, who enjoyed anything that shone and glittered and had cost a pretty penny that wasn't her own. The gems would add a nice sum to her own fortune if she sold them, but she hadn't quite decided yet. If she got her hands on the Vermeer and a few other, only slightly less famous Dutch painters' works like she planned to, selling those on the European black market would provide a more than comfortable cushion for her until her next adventure started. Harold, the old fool, had told her he had bought the lot of those paintings at an auction a few years ago. He paid a fortune for them, but he couldn't bother to remember their names. No one with such disregard for art should own any of those paintings, she thought spitefully, but lightened up again immediately; she was freeing them from his possession after all.

All things considered, Harold really was a good guy – she just couldn't respect anyone who didn't appreciate art. He had been the perfect gentleman the whole time she knew him, and she knew all too well how proud he was to have made a catch like Angelique. She chuckled slightly as she recalled how his face had lit up like a little boy's at the sight of his Christmas stockings when she had agreed to let him take her out for tea. Any other woman should have considered herself lucky with him, but even in his fifties he still hadn't married. All the questions she had – quite carefully – asked him about the topic he had evaded and left unanswered, which only made her mind race. Had he been jilted by a sweetheart back in his days? Or did women simply not like him? She could hardly believe that they weren't interested in him, after all he was swimming in money. Just not interested in climbing the social ladder, but the right woman would help with that. He had been incredibly shy, despite all her encouragement, when he asked her out the first few times; maybe that was the problem. Still, she had managed to get him out of his shell and she certainly wasn't going to complain about the way she had him wrapped around her finger by now. It would make her job quite easy, but she knew her betrayal would hurt him. She hadn't quite decided yet whether she would leave him a note, telling him an imaginary old lover had surprised her and swept her off her feet (and away from Harold) and she was sorry to disappoint him – or whether she should simply disappear. Usually she chose the latter, but all those times she couldn't have cared less about her marks.

Again she took a breath in an attempt to clear her mind. Harold was supposed to be picking her up to take her to dinner and then the theater in a few minutes. In fact, Angelique had told him she would wait outside her hotel for him and she was still in her room, staring at herself in the floor length mirror. She briefly rested her fingers on her belt, feeling her small waist beneath it, before smoothing out the skirt of her dress. Eyes still focused on the mirror, she reached for the hat she had already laid out earlier and carefully fixed it in her hair. The hat itself was dark, but there was a large red rose tied to its side that made her outfit just daring enough for Angelique, the mysterious French woman. Tugging at her curls one last time, she turned away at last and put on her coat, before she left her room and with it her worries and doubts behind.

.

Angelique made her mind up that night: Harold deserved some sort of closure and she would forget her grifter professionalism this one time. Well, not forget it completely, but it was going to be a risk nonetheless. She realized getting emotionally involved in her cons was a weakness, but this weakness of hers also made the characters she played more accessible and real for her (or so she liked to tell herself).

Only a few days later, she set her plan in action.

The paintings she had planned on stealing were even more easily obtained than she had thought. A big padlock secured the entrance to the storage, but all she had needed was the key. No one guarded the place and there were no other safety measures installed. Finding the big, heavy key had been the only real obstacle Angelique had faced, but even that had been a piece of cake. Harold had practically volunteered any information she had wanted out of him, and so the key had soon left a clear imprint in a bar of soap, during a venture to the powder room.

As soon as the paintings were in Angelique's possession, she dropped the forged key into the nearest river. It would be days, weeks even, until someone noticed the absence of the art she had acquired and even longer until anyone might suspect her. When that happened, Angelique would have disappeared and the grifter would be well on her way to Europe.

Mere hours later, a distraught Angelique visited Harold to tell him about Pierre, her French lover, who had come all the way across the pond to find her and beg her to marry him. How could she have refused when her heart still belonged to him? she asked with tears in her eyes, before she broke out in dramatic sobs, repeating her apology to Harold over and over again. Her confused suitor had no idea what to do and so he settled for awkwardly patting her back and telling her everything was going to be alright. When she offered to return to him the jewels he had given her during the past few weeks he refused quite gentlemanly. They had been a present after all and he wanted her to keep them as a souvenir.

Just as sudden as Angelique had appeared at Harold's doorstep, she vanished again, with tears and kisses, leaving Harold quite dumbstruck in a cloud of her rose perfume. When he called her hotel at the end of the day, she was long gone.

.

The grifter rid herself of Angelique as soon as she left Boston – partly to cover up any trace of where her path might have led her and partly because, as much as she liked the characters she thought up in her mind and gave life to, they also became rather stifling after weeks and months of being the same person. It was strange, how that happened, when everybody else was only one person all their lives, the grifter thought while watching the landscape rush by from the window of her train department. After a long con, removing the mask of her persona was always a relief; at the same time, however, she always felt like plunging into darkness. So many years of wearing masks had made her forget who she really was and so she spent those days and weeks in between personalities as Anonymous (which, of course, also had advantages).

She loved leaving places and names behind by train. The monotonous sounds and movements made it easier for the remnants of whoever she had been in the previous city to fall away from her. They left her feeling naked and vulnerable, but she was also alone in her compartment and had time to reacquaint herself with who she was and who she might become next.

This time she had already laid out her next personality like a dress on the night before it was supposed to be worn: she would exit the train and start her journey back to Europe as Sophie Devereaux, the same woman who had come to America months earlier, to visit a distant relative. The relative had unfortunately become sick, so Sophie had decided to stay longer than she had originally planned and had only left his residence after his death (which had conveniently provided her with a considerable inheritance in form of jewelry and paintings). When the grifter tried on the personality that was Sophie on the train, it felt like she was slipping on a pair of gloves – not quite new, but not properly worn in either, but she would use the days in New York to do just that: let the glove get used to her hands again, smooth itself against her fingers while still remaining a quite distinctive leather glove.

Sophie Devereaux was an aspiring actress. She had a steady income funded by her family – money that she liked to use to travel through Europe and spend on new dresses or champagne – but her real passion was acting. She devoured written plays and learned all the lines of the female heroins by heart, but at the end of the day she always had to admit that she had never actually set foot on stage. Despite her big efforts, and natural affinity to drama she had never gotten a role and yet she remained confident in her skills. Sophie was quite different from Angelique – fun loving and almost a little careless as opposed to mysterious and grave; but most importantly, she spoke perfect British English, which made the act a lot more effortless for the grifter.

.

RSS Damascus (New York – London), 1910

The days in New York had passed quickly and the grifter – or rather Ms. Devereaux – had not only been able to find a new wardrobe in record time, but also a chamber maid to employ for the journey to Europe. In fact, she had offered the young girl the ship's fare in return for very light service. For the most part, she only needed a maid so she would not be traveling on her own. Normally, the grifter wasn't one to mind the rules of society very much (and neither was Sophie Devereaux), but traveling first class on an oceanliner would always provide her with endless opportunity in the form of the many rich men on it. It was mostly for them that she had decided to keep up appearances and the girl seemed nice enough company for the weeks she would spend crossing the pond.

It was a grey and rainy day when the ship departed from New York harbor at last and the grifter allowed herself a moment of sentimentality as she watched the coast disappear into the distance as the ship started its journey across the ocean. America truly was a land of opportunity and despite her unrivaled love for the old continent, she had to admit there were many good and exciting things about it. Sophie Devereaux had left her maid and her belongings at her compartment and had escaped into fresh air to indulge in a cigarette. The rain seemed to keep most of her fellow passengers inside, but Sophie stood under cover and took pleasure in the dark and foaming waves. There was something especially enjoyable about watching the ocean on the very first day of a sea voyage – something magical and mystical the grifter could never really put in words, but it had somehow become a ritual of hers to stand outside and smoke a cigarette whenever she began a journey on a ship.

Sophie remained outside for a while, breathing in the salty air and getting used to the steady hum of the engines beneath her feet. Only when she was starting to get cold, she stepped back inside. On her way down the stairs, a man crossed her path. She instantly took in his appearance and had quickly noted that he did not look as if he belonged to first class (he was handsomely dressed, but his shoes and coat had a worn look to them that could never compete with the glossy brilliance of the usual first class passenger) and she was about to lose interest when her gaze met his striking blue eyes. For a moment, they remained still; then he tipped his hat and wished her a good day. She in turn rewarded him with a smile and nodded her head slightly before resuming her steps.

Her attention was soon otherwise occupied: getting ready for dinner in a beautiful forest green dress and one of the more simple diamond necklaces that Harold had given her (first impressions are the ones that count, after all) and then scouting the crowd for more interesting prospects (of which there are many on the ship). During the elaborate courses of the meal, tentative acquaintances were formed between Sophie and the other travelers at her table; holding back on information about herself, she focused more on collecting as many facts about her company and eventually exited the illustrious dining hall with quite a lot of useful information stored safely in her memory (which had a practically superhuman capacity for the kind of facts she collected on possible marks).

Back in her room, however, sitting in front of her mirror in only her undergarments and a loosened corset while she brushed out her long, dark tresses, the image of those brilliant blue eyes returned to her. Just as she had done hours before, she froze for a moment, trying to come up with a reason why she should have taken a particular interest in the man who quite obviously seemed to be so much less attractive for her intents and purposes as all the rest of her dinner company. When the grifter found herself unable to find an answer to her question, she continued brushing and tried to focus on the information she had gathered over her evening meal. Mr. Bloom, a rich banker with a weakness for food that was rather noticeable around his middle; Mr. Jenkins, a widower who had not only collected on his late wife's life insurance, but had also quite cleverly invested most of it; Mr. Allan, a rather plain looking bachelor, presumably in his early twenties, who was the heir to an enormous fortune (but then again heir was always a word of warning to her because if the money did not technically belong to a mark they were usually a lot less liberal in spending it) ...

In the dim light of her room, the grifter repeated the names and numbers she had learned earlier and silently weighed each prospect against the other, trying to decide on a first target. If she was subtle enough, she would have not just one, but several men dancing for her like puppets on a string, the grifter thought while a satisfied grin spread across her lips. It would only take a day or two to come up with a good enough plan to play them all – but the fact that all of them were confined on the ship meant that she was taking more of a risk than usual. For a moment, she wondered if it wasn't a better idea to simply rest and not stress her luck again within such a short period, but she quickly threw her doubts aside. What fun would the passage be for her if she didn't have anyone to play with?

.

The blue-eyed stranger was not easy to forget.

While she had successfully managed to ban him from her mind over night and did not spare him any thoughts over breakfast, her peace did not last long.

Sophie was strolling on deck, a parasol in one hand (it might have been a little bold to take it, as the sky was still overcast with thick, grey clouds, but it had stopped raining over night and she was feeling optimistic) and a book in the other. She did not know if she really intended to read, but whatever situation she might find herself in, the little cloth bound volume she held in her hand would always come in handy. If she meant to attract a certain gentleman's attraction, for example, she could drop it and let him gallantly pick it up and hand it back to her; it was an ancient trick, but it did work nearly every time she used it. Or, if the gentleman was already paying his attention to her, she could start a conversation about the contents of the book.

This thought in mind, she cast down her eyes and read the title again, planning to silently go over the things she knew about the writing and the writer. It was, true to her character, a collection of Shakespeare plays. The grifter smiled to herself. Of course Sophie Devereaux hardly had the need to carry those around – she'd know most of the words by heart. The woman behind the mask, however, could use a brushing up of the Bard's lines.

Careless of where she was going, she spontaneously opened the book at random and read the lines out softly:

'Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white

Nature's own sweet and cunning hand laid on.

Lady, you are the cruellest she alive,

If you will lead these graces to the grave,

And leave the world no copy.”

As she spoke the last line, her body collided with another and she dropped the book – truly by accident this time. The man, who had been standing with his back to Sophie, gazing out onto the sea, had not seen her coming and therefore was as surprised as she was when he was nearly knocked off his feet. Scrambling first to get his own balance back, he then turned to help the lady, who had quite inelegantly fallen on her behind.

“Oh, I am so sorry!” Sophie, getting lifted back onto her own two feet by the stranger she had run into, was rather flustered and embarrassed. What a mistake to make by a grifter! It was essential to always be on guard for her, that every single one of her actions were planned and deliberate. Landing gracelessly on her bottom was certainly not either and her embarrassment and anger just grew as she found herself staring into the same, startling blue eyes that she had met the previous day. Him. It wasn't even one of her possible prospects with whom even such a terrible blunder could have been used as introduction – no, it had to be the one man who hadn't even bothered to buy a new suit for his first class journey to Europe.

Actress that she was, the grifter hid her disdain professionally and Sophie flashed her savior a shy and apologetic, yet completely charming smile. “I really am terribly sorry,” she repeated, still holding his strong hand tightly in her own fingers. “What an awful blunder.”

“Don't worry about it, miss,” was the stranger's kind reply. “Are you hurt?”

Quickly, Sophie checked her limbs for any apparent injuries, carefully took a step and then winced. “I'm afraid I might have twisted my ankle,” she admitted, letting go of his hand at last to hold on to the railing and redistribute her weight to spare her throbbing ankle.

Just as soon as she had let go of the stranger's arm, he had caught a glimpse of her book and bent down to retrieve it for her. “I believe this is yours?” he asked, holding it out to her after swiftly reading its title.

“Yes, thank you. You are too kind, Mr. ...”

As the book exchanged hands, both parties flushed slightly with the embarrassment of having forgotten to introduce themselves (although there couldn't have been a proper moment in a situation like this).

“Ford,” the stranger quickly supplied. “Nathan Ford.”

Sophie nodded, noting the name, and then extended her free hand. “Sophie Devereaux. I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Ford – despite the unfortunate circumstances.” Apology again present in her tone, she smiled at him, before awkwardly reaching down to her parasol which was lying forgotten on the wooden planks. “I really must apologize again, Mr. Ford. I have no idea what's gotten into me today. I don't suppose we can blame the sea?” she continued talking, trying to find Sophie's voice and attitude and make her her own.

“Please, don't mention it again, Miss Devereaux,” he replied in turn, smiling back at her. “We shall pretend this never happened.” Adding this, his smile changed to a concerned frown. “What about your ankle, though? Do you think you can walk?”

Letting go of the railing to test her footing again, Sophie nodded tensely. “Yes, I do think so. I will put it up at once when I'm back in my room, and put some ice on it – that will hopefully be enough.”

Mr. Ford nodded, frown still in place. “Well, I'd better make sure you get there in one piece,” he told her, sounding truly concerned about her welfare. “May I offer you my arm, Miss Devereaux, and accompany you to your door?”

Accepting the offer, Sophie's hand found a comfortable place in the crook of Mr. Ford's arm and slowly they made their way back inside. The conversation was sparse, but Sophie felt surprisingly at ease with the man she had just met – despite her reservations about his person – and so she agreed almost instantly when, having reached her room, he asked for her company at the dinner table later that day. As second thoughts were creeping into her mind, he smiled at her and said: “Twelfth Night. That's what you were reading, wasn't it?”

.

During the dinner that followed later, Mr. Ford proved to be unexpectedly pleasant company to Sophie. They spoke about art and literature and traveling, and while Sophie always had to be careful about letting slip any sort of information about what it was that got her so interested in art and traveling, Mr. Ford talked freely of his wife and young boy back home. Usually the men she talked to, married or not, were always more interested in ways to get her into their bed than actual conversation, but this one was different. Sophie was surprised at how his eyes lit up when he started telling her about his life back home and could not quite decide whether she found it appealing or annoying, since he was so obviously an honest and decent man that she realized she would hardly have a chance with him.

Now and then, she reminded herself that she wasn't dining with the guy to have a chance with him. Nothing whatsoever led her to believe that he was a wealthy man (Sophie could usually tell with her eyes closed, whether or not a person had a fortune in the bank or not) and even though she knew she could easily con working men, she refrained from it unless it was an absolute emergency. And still...

There was something about the man. Sophie couldn't tell what it was, but his honesty was charming and she enjoyed his company more than she knew she should, and when she ventured out on her usual walk the next morning, she made sure they crossed paths.

Her steps were quite secure and purposeful this time – under no circumstances she wanted to repeat the embarrassment of their first meeting on deck – and she had soon reached the lonely figure of Mr. Ford leaning on the railing. Quiet and unnoticed, she took her place next to him and fixed her eyes on the horizon for a while. Then, turning her head to smile at her newest acquaintance, she wished spoke at last.

“Good morning, Mr. Ford.”

Mr. Ford moved his head ever so slightly to share the smile, looking not the least bit surprised. “And what a magnificent morning it is, Miss Devereaux,” he motioned his hand towards the clear blue sky before reaching for hers and placing a gallant kiss on it. “Sea and sky are all you can see for miles...”

Sophie waited for a compliment to follow, which she was rather used to, but Mr. Ford fell quiet. “It is beautiful,” she agreed eventually, “although it's getting rather cold, don't you think?” To support her argument, she tugged on her shawl a little before crossing her arms in front of her chest. She was highly dissatisfied at his seeming lack of regard for her, and she later realized it was that missing compliment (and general disinterested attitude) that made him even more of a challenge for her to crack than extracting money and jewels from any other first class passenger on the ship. And Sophie could never resist a good challenge.

Soon, her other plans were forgotten and she focused her energy on Mr. Ford. Having only a handful of days left on the ship, she knew she had to work hard to get him where she wanted to have. She trusted her talents well enough, but the man just continued refuting her expectations.

This, of course, merely made the game more fun for her.

.

Her charm and experience eventually did get the better of Mr. Ford (or rather Nate, as he eventually offered his first name to her). Sophie could feel him teetering on the edge, but also knew that he was still holding on too tightly to fall. Despite realizing this, she continued and enjoyed the effect her lingering touches and close dances had on him. By the the time they had reached the coast of France and there was barely a day's journey left ahead of them, she knew that he had won this round – had done so rather without knowledge of anything – and she respected his decency. Nonetheless she ended up tempting him to a private drink at her suite. In the spirit of their last night on the ship, they danced, once more, to a record playing quietly on the record and Sophie found herself wondering if she would ever see him again after they'd left the ship. He had gotten to her, no doubt about it, and their metaphorical dance during the past week had been more enjoyable than she had originally imagined.

Of course, at the end of the day he was simply another man, and one without a thick wallet or expensive shoes, so she vowed to forget him as soon as her feet touched solid ground again.

Standing on deck along with most of the other first class passengers, looking out to watch how the enormous ship maneuvered into port, Sophie had already prepared her goodbyes carefully, but it was Nate who turned to her first.

“You're her, aren't you?” he asked quietly.

Before Sophie could ask for more details, he again beat her to it.

“You're Angelique Delacroix.”

.

Sophie could hardly recollect anything that happened after Nate had dropped this on her. Her mind had started racing (as had her heartbeat), and since he made no attempt at arresting her, she had mumbled a quick “I have to go” before disappearing in the crowd. She didn't remember how she had gotten off the ship and into the motorcar she was currently sitting in. Her eyes searched the crowd for Nate frantically, but he had been lost among the masses of people and she was sure that it was better that way.

What did he want from her? How did he know about Angelique? Had he known all along?

The questions kept flooding her mind and there was no way to answer them. Not now, anyway. Maybe once she had reached London, the sanctuary of her apartment – the one place she could truly call home – and the comfort of knowing Sophie Devereaux had disappeared again, maybe then she could question her usual informants and find out about Nathan Ford, who had apparently been playing her all this time while she had not had a clue about any of it.

How could this have happened?

Her heart was still thumping in her throat and her fingers still shaking suspiciously. She did not get caught. Ever.

How could she have let this happen?

.

They met again in London, some days after Sophie had made her hurried disappearing act.

When they saw each other in a full car of the public underground, Sophie did not exist anymore. The grifter had shrugged off the name again and had become Anonymous once more, which was an easy thing to do in a city as big as London. She usually knew how to avoid possible acquaintances of her other personas, but Nate caught her by surprise.

Just as it had happened the very first time they saw each other, their eyes locked across the crowded space and practically on instinct, Sophie made her way to the grifter's surface again. She stared, puzzled and surprised, for a moment, wondering if Nate's look meant anything – anything but I am going to get you; if there was a chance he wasn't really chasing her after all, but the determination was plain in his face. Since Sophie had seen him the last time, she had made inquiries and found out as much as she could about the mysterious Mr. Ford. Everything he had told her had been true – he had not been lying about his family – but they had never really spoken about his work. His work which had turned out to be chasing people like her to retrieve expensively insured paintings.

As she escaped his startling blue eyes into the shelter of the crowd for the second time in their brief acquaintance, a smile was playing on her lips. He was not going to give up on her any time soon, but now that the grifter knew, she could plan ahead.

.

Paris, 1911

New city, new name – the grifter was completely in her element and the fact that she was in Paris was merely the cherry on top. Her con was running smoothly and nearing its end and once she had relieved her mark of certain canvases, Tara would be waiting for her at the little mansard apartment (the view over the rooftops of Paris was breathtaking) that had become their shared get away place whenever they were in Paris and needed to escape their marks or even just wanted a moment of peace or a good night's sleep.

At the thought of the secret little hide away, a smile crept into her face and the grifter stopped working for a moment. Their further plans, spending some time by the sea somewhere in the south of France were even better. Tara was the only good friend she had (if grifters could ever truly call each other that) and the person she trusted most (though still not completely) in the world, but their encounters were usually marked by a ticking clock in some shape or other.

Dreams of the ocean, however, were out of place right now, the grifter reminded herself before focusing her attention on the task at hand again. Cutting canvasses out of their frames was a very delicate work and she rather disliked slicing her little scalpel through the fabric. Alas – making a quick escape with several frames tucked under her arm was next to impossible and the rolled up canvasses made the whole aftermath of the theft a lot less conspicuous.

Bent over the last painting she was planning on taking, the sound of a door opening barely registered. Only when the word “Freeze!” spoken in a very distinctive American accent, reached her ears, it was again Sophie getting caught off guard and completely by surprise.

While she had known that the paintings most likely were insured by Nate's company (the owner himself having brought them from America to Paris for a very hushed up deal with a museum), she had also known that Nate was still in the States. At least she had assumed she had known...

Cursing her informants and the slow traveling of news by letter, she reached for the small hand-gun she had brought just in case, turned around and pulled the trigger.

Just as the first shot rang through the air and surprisingly hit Nate in the shoulder (shooting had never been her strong suit and she thanked God – or whoever else was out there – that it had only been his shoulder), a second one was fired.

The grifter's eyes widened as the pain started spreading through her own body. The bastard had shot back!

A very surprised and very unladylike “You wanker!” fell from her lips before she reached for the already prepared roll of canvasses and clutched it close to her body while the wound on her back brought tears to her eyes. Jaw muscles clenched and posture straightened, she slowly walked towards Nate, her own gun still pointed at him. A silent understanding passed between them as he lowered his revolver and stepped aside to let her through; she took the opportunity without looking back (after all, who knew how quickly he would change his mind?) and hurried down the stairs while trying her best to ignore the pain.

Next time...” was a warning as well as a promise when Nate's words of parting reached her ears through the staircase. Yes, next time... Next time she would be prepared.

.

Escaping into the open air, rain greeted her. Still shocked from what had just happened – pain nearly blocked out completely, safe for a steady throbbing in the area of her ribs that ached terribly when she breathed in too deeply – Sophie stood still for a moment, letting herself get drenched. Just like Nate the rain had caught her by surprise, she thought, and resented the weather for what seemed like taking sides with her enemy. Enemy... No, he was not a true enemy. She'd had her fair share of those, mostly professional ones, but none of them would have gentlemanly stepped aside and let her take away the priceless canvasses she was still clutching under her cloak (though she could not tell why exactly he had done it). More for the sake of the paintings than her own, she resumed motion and hurried down the street to find a taxicab.

It was a miracle, or sheer determination that Sophie reached her sanctuary in one piece. The dark material of her cloak, soaked by the rain, had covered up any blood that might have seeped through the wound. Even in the safety of dark dark motorcar, she didn't dare to check how extensive the injury was. For now, the only thing that mattered was getting the paintings home – losing them along the way or getting caught by Nate (or worse – the police) would be a terrible outcome for her and she had almost instantly decided that she did not get shot in vain.

She arrived at her destination, at last, but climbing the stairs towards the apartment proved to be the hardest feat yet. The rush she had experienced before was fading and she had started feeling quite faint. The staircase seemed endless and each step proved to be a challenge of its own – weak feet catching in the long wet skirts were not making matters easy.

In the end, she made it – forever grateful that Tara was there, waiting to catch her friend when her legs finally did give in.

.

Their vacation had to be postponed for a few days, but Sophie recovered fairly quickly. The bullet had not punctuated any vital organs and a mutual acquaintance of hers and Tara's had been able to stitch her up rather professionally, but even as her flesh healed, her wounded pride was not so quick to get back on its feet.




[Part II]