It was a lovely spring in Italy that year and the con she played on a rich Italian with remotely blue blood and a truly startling love for food (which had, over the years, left its distinctive traces on his figure) and the spirit of a true art collector. The fact that he was actually interested in the pieces he invested his money in was making the idea of the actual theft harder for her, but the con itself more fun. She was posing as an art critic from America, traveling through Europe and interviewing the owners of famous paintings and sculptures. Annie Kroy was a confident woman of vast knowledge in any number of subjects and no one who knew her for an hour or more was not at all surprised that she had made a fairly successful career out of her passion.
Even though it was a risky alias, it was just the fact that she was so different than most of the demure women the Italian knew that helped her charm her way into his house. Their mutual love of art provided them with a constant topic of conversation (all the while he often told her how much he enjoyed the company of an American and how he adored her charming accent while speaking his language), but the Italian also enjoyed it immensely to introduce Annie to meals she had never tasted before and even decided (quite on his own) to give her cooking lessons as Miss Kroy had ashamedly admitted, that was the one talent she was gravely lacking.
Annie ended up enjoying herself quite a lot more than she had thought possible for this job. According to most accounts, the Italian was often in bad moods and tended to break out in violent fits, but the side she experienced was quite different and by the end of the first month of her con, she rather regretted that it was meant to end in the theft of some of his favorite paintings.
Still, such was the life of a grifter – especially so since she had a hidden agenda in this con of hers which had taken up months of previous research and planning.
Being the America-lover he was, the Italian had not spared any money in insuring his beloved paintings with a certain well regarded insurance agency overseas. The con was a long one not only because she preferred those, but also because she needed time for Mr. Ford to get wind of her presence in his client's mansion. This time she truly would stay ahead of him and it would be merely a week or two until Nate would arrive in the port of Carrara, from which it was less than a day's journey to the Italian's home in Arezzo.
After their unfortunate encounter in Paris, Sophie had found out the hotel Nate had been staying at as soon as she felt up for the task of breaking and entering again. Leaving him a small bouquet of sky-blue forget-me-nots on the nightstand, she had also written him a “Get well soon! – Sincerely, Sophie Devereaux” note in overly ornate letters that was meant mostly to convey the message of a challenge accepted, but bore also a hint of true concern from the writer.
Even though she had been far from forgiving him, she had felt (and was still feeling) just a tiny bit sorry for putting a bullet hole in his shoulder. Her own wound had, at that time, been healing quite nicely and even though they'd had to cut their vacation short, she and Tara had still reached the ocean eventually.
From the hotel Annie Kroy was staying in, it was only a short walk to the Italian's small mansion and even though he had asked her to stay in his home many times, Annie had declined every single one of them; propriety was one reason, the fact that she loved the variety of sounds produced by the main Piazza, which was merely a stone's throw away from her hotel – and then of course there was the privacy she wanted and needed to escape to, to remind herself of her plan and ultimately, to pull through with it. On the morning of her theft, her belongings were packed in various trunks which were going straight from the hotel to her next stop – Annie herself would be traveling lightly.
Provided her careful calculations would work out, she would leave Arezzo on the last train of the day – just when Nate Ford would hopefully arrive.
She acquired the paintings she had picked out quite easily, narrowing down her number from the original five pieces to just three because she did not feel like grieving the Italian unnecessarily, and so, with the paintings all safely rolled up and hidden in the single bag she was carrying, she had made her way to the train station in perfect accordance to her plans.
It was more luck (and good guessing work) than anything else, that Nate Ford was indeed on one of the trains entering the station that evening. She noticed him easily, sticking out of the busy crowd like a sore thumb in his relative stillness and confusion. The Italians were coming and going, talking loudly and gesturing wildly, but Nate looked lost among them with a suitcase in his hand, trying to figure out which way the exits were. The grifter on the other hand blended in nicely, keeping her head down and giving in to the pull of the crowd as long as it brought her closer to her target. He, of course, only noticed her when she came to a halt right in front of him.
Standing way too close to him, defying all rules of personal space, the grifter became Sophie again, smiling coyly at Nate while her free hand traveled up his lapel. “What a pleasure to see you again, Mister Ford. I trust your shoulder has healed well?”
Met with his perplexed silence, Sophie's smile only widened. “Well, I won't keep you,” she added with a shrug, patting his breast pocket softly before, quite to her own surprise, leaning in to capture his lips in a brief kiss.
“Until we meet again!” were the last words to reach Nate Ford's ears, before Sophie Devereaux once more disappeared in the crowd moving towards the various platforms of Arezzo's train station.
Only later, in his client's guest room, he would notice the card she had left in his pockets.
In Venice, she became Irina Grazinsky, who had been born to rich parents and grown up with governesses in English and French before her father had gambled their family fortune away. Since then, Irina, who had always had an affinity to languages, had picked up German as well as Italian. She had also married, but her husband had, rather unfortunately, died not long after their wedding, leaving her with a comfortable yearly sum to travel on. According to that income, Irina stayed at a hotel that was a lot plainer than what the grifter usually preferred - especially in Venice, where there were wonderful old palazzos that had been transformed into luxurious hotels of the best reputation. But the impoverished Russian alias demanded a different residence.
What the grifter was after this time was a small collection of invaluable fabregé eggs and figurines, currently on exhibition in an private little Venetian museum specialized on jewels. Her alias provided a perfect conversation starter, as some of the figurines had actually belonged to the Grazinsky family (and no one had to find out that Irina was not to be found on even the most elaborate family tree). The museum's curator was easily charmed by her tragic story, her big brown eyes and, once again, the accent of her otherwise perfect Italian and soon they were taking unchaperoned afternoon strolls through the city. She let Signore Da Campo show her Venice's hidden secrets (even though the grifter had already seen most of them), including wonderful parks as well as one or two jewelry stores that had belonged to the same family for centuries. As they grew more familiar with each other, and the good Signore more comfortable about the beautiful Russian, relieving him of his well filled keyring and making copies of those keys that mattered turned out to be a task almost unworthy of her grifting abilities.
The actual highlight of her stay in the city of water, however, was to be an elaborate costume ball to which she had managed to acquire a gold crested invitation.
For a while, the grifter contemplated staying in Venice for longer, even after the ball, but time had passed and Nate Ford still had not appeared in town. All things considered, the ball would be the one place for him to find her (despite the anonymity of the event, she trusted him to pick her out of the crowd by now – and even if not, then she would certainly know him) and so it was decided that Irina would leave town the next morning. This, of course, meant that the figurines had to be stolen earlier than she had originally planned, since she intended to stay and comfort Signore Da Campo after the theft, to avoid suspicion on her own person.
Despite getting a bit rushed, she had not only found the perfect costume, but also had the fabregé figurines in possession and averted all possible suspicion – at least where Signore Da Campo was concerned. Whether or not the carabinieri would eventually take a closer look at Miss Irina Grazinsky was up in the air, but the grifter intended to be long gone when (and if) that ever happened. A family emergency, she told the Signore, carefully dabbing the tears from the corners of her eyes. Her mother, bless her soul, had suffered from a severe heart attack and was attended to in a hospital in St. Petersburg. Since her father could not be trusted to handle anything well, it was of the utmost importance that she left beautiful, beautiful Venice on the earliest train the next morning, Irina explained woefully, the afternoon of the ball. Signore Da Campo was not only understanding, but also comforted the lady awkwardly, and let her leave only after extracting a promise of a quick return from her.
Freed from her responsibilities to the curator, the grifter made use of the remaining hours by packing Irina's belongings back into her trunks and instructing the hotel to send them ahead once more, as well as putting the finishing touches on her costume.
The character she had picked for the costume ball was, as an exception, one that already existed and that did not need the making up of an elaborate backstory. For once, she would leave the storytelling up to the costume and merely adjusted her accent a little to complete the image.
She adored costume balls because they emphasized the fun aspect of the life she had chosen for herself. Had she been born into different circumstances, she often thought, she would be giving balls like this for every occasion. Dressing up was her passion and the more elaborate and truthful her costumes were, the better; but she also loved to see how everyone else behaved behind the protection of a mask and a secret identity. The fact that grifting allowed her to hide who she really was behind well thought out characters was just one of many that made the lifestyle so appealing and only during costume balls, the rest of the population could experience the same exhilaration.
When the time had come at last, she left her hotel in the cover of dusk, wrapped tightly in a dark cloak in order to keep her costume hidden. Hurrying through the streets of Venice, her thoughts returned to Nate. Had he not realized where her train was going? She could have been more obvious, of course, but she had trusted Nate to figure out where she was going next. And then there was the hint on the calling card she had tucked into his breast pocket... Of course as Irina Grazinsky she had been rather off the radar of Venice's high society and maybe Nate had been looking for her for days already...? In any case, the costume ball was widely known and if he was using his brain at all, he should know that was where to find her, she decided upon reaching the lit up palazzo.
Quickly covering up her smile with the veil that completed her costume in the shadow of a building, before stepping back into the light and handing her invitation to the footmen placed in front of the entrance.
Once inside, she shed her cloak at last and emerged as Scheherazade: her costume in the colors of dawn complemented her skin tone had golden embroidery whose pattern was repeated in her veil as well as her (with the help of an adept chambermaid) elaborately braided hair. The fabric itself clung to her body so smoothly it was nearly considered indecent and when heads turned as she entered the ballroom, a mischievous smile reached her heavily accented eyes.
Enjoying the attention for a moment, the grifter paused to get an overview of the multitude of guests present in the great ballroom. Her eyes wandered for a moment before she focused on a certain blonde in Greek dress and then, pleasantly surprised, found her way through the crowd.
“Virgin Athena?” she asked at last with an amused twinkle in her eye, when she noticed the white costume was also accompanied by a surprisingly authentic looking toy owl on Athena's shoulder and an olive branch held loosely in her fingers. As the goddess turned, Tara's blue eyes mirrored her own and the friends embraced happily, ignoring Tara's companion, easily recognizable by the very full and very fake bright red beard, and a crown perched on his head, as Emperor Barbarossa.
“You look positively divine, my friend!” she complimented the Greek goddess of wisdom once their embrace had broken.
“And you, dearest Scheherazade, look quite ravishing yourself,” Tara returned the praise – no words needed to be exchanged for the old friends to agree on the fact that tonight, they would both address each other by who their costume was portraying to avoid complicated attempts at explaining their aliases.
“What brings you here?” Athena added eventually.
“Oh, you know. This and that... I've been here for a while, but my main objective was the ball,” Scheherazade answered. “You do know how much I love dressing up.”
Athena nodded with a smile. “I do indeed – but oh, where have I left my manners tonight? Let me introduce you to Herrn Barbarossa!”
Taking the hint at his German origin, Scheherazade's answer was “Sehr erfreut!” as she extended her hand, which the stout and quite voluminous gentleman took and kissed with pleasure.
“Sie sprechen Deutsch, meine Dame?” he asked, obviously delighted to hear words of his own language from the lips of the exotic beauty before him.
“Ein bisschen hier und da,” she answered, unduly modest about her language abilities. They went on exchanging pleasantries, switching between English and German for a while, before Athena suggested Barbarossa should get the two ladies a drink since her own glass of champagne had been emptied and her friend had not even had one to begin with. The German obliged and disappeared to look for more beverages and the two friends were by themselves at last (as much as that was possible in a room full of people).
“So, what are you really doing here? You wouldn't happen to know anything about the fabregé figurines that were stolen the other day?” Athena asked, raising a questioning eyebrow. In the business of grifting it was always a good idea to keep track of what your colleagues were doing (her friend knew that too), but instead of giving a definitive answer, Scheherazade merely tilted her head and shrugged her shoulders.
“You did take them, didn't you? I know how much you love those pretty little things with their sapphire eyes and all that!” Athena had leaned in to whisper the words that were only meant for one pair of ears in the room. “I thought it sounded like you, even before I knew you were here.”
Without really answering what Athena had asked (although there really was no need by now), Scheherazade instead asked for her friend's motives as well. “What about you? What brings you to Venice this time of year?”
“Oh, Barbarossa was invited and we were both getting terribly tired of his castle near Munich. It's only a few hours' train ride away, so we decided to make a weekend out of it,” Athena explained merrily.
“Is that right? And how did you find the good Emperor?”
They continued talking for a while, more carefully once Barbarossa had returned with flutes of champagne for the ladies, for which he got a dance with each of them, and as time passed, Scheherazade had almost forgotten that hiding behind her costume was Sophie, waiting for Nate to show up. When she was just about to give up and fully give in to the night of unbridled debauchery that Tara had suggested, she spotted him at last. Awkwardly standing close to a wall, there he was... dressed as a priest.
Making her apologies to Athena and Barbarossa, giving hugs and kisses to the former and her hand, once more, to the latter, as well as promising to meet her friend again soon (perhaps on her companion's castle, as the Emperor suggested), Scheherazade left them behind and became Sophie again, while crossing the room a second time that evening. In a situation that felt rather like a déjà-vu of the last time they had met, Nate only noticed her when she was very nearly standing on his toes.
“A priest, Mr. Ford?” she asked teasingly, smiling under her veil. “I would have thought an officer of the law would be more your thing. A sheriff perhaps? Or a soldier? Then again, I suppose a priest is as upstanding a citizen as can be...” Before Nate even had a chance to answer, Sophie took his hand and asked, almost rhetorically, for a dance. Without much of an option, Nate merely nodded and let her take the lead until they reached the dancefloor.
“Scheherazade and a priest – what an odd couple we make,” he noted softly as they fell into the rhythm of a waltz the band was playing.
“You forget, Mr. Ford, that we don't need costumes for that.” Was her reply, barely hiding a chuckle, before quietly enjoying the music and the fact that she was in his arms at last. So often since they had met she had asked herself what made him so appealing to her, even more so once she had found out who he truly was. It had to be the chase, the aspect of play in their relationship... but she had been chased before. What made him special, she mused, was that he kept resisting her, kept being so good and honest... and she just couldn't stop trying to lead him into temptation.
Almost as if to prove her point, Sophie inched closer to Nate, letting the hand that had so far chastely rested on his shoulder wander. Feeling his curls under her fingers a sigh escaped her just as the song came to an end. Using the moment of silence, Nate stepped away from her, looking as composed as ever.
“You know I haven't come here for dancing,” he said at last.
Sophie nodded. “I know. You figured out my note, then?”
Reaching into a hidden pocket of his dark costume, Nate pulled out the plain white calling card she'd left him. “I can't say I did,” he admitted, hints of a smile creeping on his face. “What are those numbers supposed to mean? They're not coordinates or I would have landed in Africa.”
She took the card from his fingers and laughed. “It's the platform, the number of my train and actually – even the number of my compartment,” she explained, amusement glinting in her eyes. “You really didn't get that?”
Nate merely shook his head and chuckled, before grabbing a dink from a waiter's tray and taking a generous sip. Taking her by the arm, he pulled her to a quiet corner and made no point of trying to beat around the bush.
“You took my client's paintings, didn't you? No, don't answer that – I know you did.”
“Me? Why would you think that?”
“You were there. At the train station. And you match the description of Miss Annie Kroy perfectly...”
“I was merely passing through,” she shrugged. “Had to change trains to get to Venice.”
Nate was quiet for a moment, looking at her intensely. “I want them back.”
“I don't have them – and even if I did I wouldn't just hand them to you!”
“You owe me for Paris!” He blurted out, rather more loudly than he had intended.
“Owe you for what? For shooting me?”
“You shot me first! And no, for letting you get away with those canvases that cost my agency several hundred thousand dollars.”
Quiet for a moment, Sophie's eyes met his. This was the first time they had actually argued like that, she realized, biting her lower lip. It had rather the opposite effect on her than he had intended...
“I left you the Rembrand, didn't I?” She retorted at last, giving him an innocent smile.
“You...! You would have taken that one too if I hadn't shot you!”
And without either of them quite knowing what was happening, Scheherazade's face was revealed at last and their lips met as soon as the last words had left Nate's mouth. Who knew he might get even more attractive when he was angry? Sophie wondered briefly, leaning into the kiss before breaking away again, ending it just as quickly as it had happened. While Nate was still flabbergasted into silence, she handed him a second calling card.
“I have to go.”
Sophie, herself still oddly thrilled by the little dance on the line between what was proper and what was definitely not, especially not in public, tucked the veil back into place. Glancing at Nate regretfully, she rose her hand in a hint of a wave before turning around and vanishing down a flight of stairs just as somewhere in the palazzo a clock began to strike midnight.
Sophie's departure that night in Venice marked the beginning of a long time the two did not see each other. This time, however, Nate had figured out the content of her calling card – a post box belonging to one Sophie Devereaux (assuredly with no trace back to the grifter behind the name) – and had made use of the new information immediately. Upon her arrival in London, a telegram repeating his words “I want them back!” with his name signed underneath was waiting for her. Even though she responded with an equally short reply, the lines of communication had been opened. His letters were rare, but always a pleasure to read. The grifter, in turn, rather enjoyed hinting at cons she had pulled off and treasures she had stolen without giving away too much, making her own letters rather more like works of fiction.
A year passed quickly, each of them busy on their own continent, though never truly far in spirits, before the war took them both rather by surprise. Nate's insurance agency, having so many business partners in Europe, immediately went into crisis mode and thus kept him and his colleagues busy with a neverending supply of paperwork, even while the United States themselves were still keeping a safe distance to the fights on the old Continent. For the grifter it was more of a nuisance at first than anything else, finding herself stuck in the United Kingdom, without her beloved freedom to travel wherever she wanted to go (and wherever there was art to steal and people to con). She attempted to pull off smaller cons within the country, but soon realized there wasn't much of a point. Even the rich men were drafted eventually and even though she had never shied from wrapping affluent women around her little finger, it did turn out to be rather difficult to do so with husbands and other male relatives getting wounded in battle and money getting lost in war investments.
She went to the sea for a while, but even there she could only busy herself by gracefully picking pockets and she soon decided that boredom was not a good enough cause to stoop down to the level of a common thief. Her work was artful, intelligent and definitely needed special talent – it was certainly not just a simple task you could teach scruffy little children (besides, they probably needed the money more than she did anyway).
When she returned to London after a rather short while away, a letter from Nate had made it through to her in her absence. The joy of this surprise was cut short when she read the content. In long, forced sentences, Nate told her about the tragic death of his young boy, following illness and a terribly rapid decline of his health. It was completely unexpected to read such a personal and sad account, but after she had read it all, the grifter immediately sat down to write a long reply – not caring whether or not the letter even made it into Nate's hands.
It was around that time the Germans sank the RMS Luisitana and the United States officially joined the war, that she gave up hope that her words would ever reach him – not to mention any reply he might have sent. It was no surprise that their contact was broken. The grifter did, however, find out eventually that her friend had been spared getting sent overseas (even though she had, for a while, harbored the irrational hope to find him at her doorstep, dressed in a soldier's uniform), but what exactly he was doing instead, her sources were unable to say.
Eventually – whether out of boredom or true conviction for her homecountry she could barely say herself – the grifter took on a job as a translator. It was mostly secretarial business, but somewhere inside it did settle her conscience a little and there was no danger of her knowledge of various languages getting rusty. At some point, she started charming people for information (not that she personally had much use for it) and it soon became a matter of pride to know what a great spy she would or could have been. Occupied as she was, time still passed awfully slowly; an end to the war did not seem in sight for a long time... but of course it did come. The Germans were defeated and a sigh of relief was felt throughout the whole country – despite the countless casualties the war had cost.
Once life had slowly settled back into its normal tracks, the grifter decided to cross the ocean again; to make her luck in America. Europe was suffering from the repercussions of the war, but the United States were practically untouched and feeling rather grand about their demonstration of global power.
As the grifter booked her one way ticket to New York harbor, her mind was made up: it would be no other embarking on this journey than a certain Miss Sophie Devereaux.
Upon arriving in America (after a thoroughly uneventful journey on the ship, save for the fact that her trunks were now a bit more richer with diamonds and other expensive jewels), the grifter was determined to truly become the Sophie Devereaux she had invented – the Sophie Devereaux Nate knew her as. Part of that process was finding a play to act in – which had been a dream of Sophie's after all – one written by Shakespeare, to be exact. That was how they had met, after all, and Sophie was sure he would find her eventually. He had found her before, so he would find her again, and this time she wanted to be found. Leaving a trail of figurative breadcrumbs for him, she had eventually found herself in Chicago.
The city had an atmosphere of danger and excitement, always rippling beneath the surface and Sophie had quickly decided to linger for a while. How different this city was to the European ones she was accustomed to, but hand in hand with danger and despair, there was also the feeling of endless possibility that seemed to run in every American's bloodstream.
Chance was on her side, as it turned out, because Sophie did find a Shakespeare role to play, in a seedy little theater, but it was Macbeth, so the less than professional stage and company would have to do. The only thing the grifter had not counted on was that despite Sophie's passion for acting, she did not actually have any talent for it...
Painfully aware of the fact that the audience numbers were dwindling with every performance, Sophie had almost given up hope that the play would last long enough (at least with her as Lady Macbeth) for Nate to find her when she stepped out into the dark little alleyway that harbored the theater's stagedoor and heard clapping. While her first thought was that she hadn't heard that sound in a while, realization followed instantly: He had found her after all.
Sophie stepped closer, a smile playing on her lips as he complimented her on her acting. “I'm a honest citizen now,” she told him in return with a similar lack of regard for the truth. He roughly explained the situation he had found himself in and made introductions to the rest of his crew. It was easy for her to go along with his banter, ignoring the suspicious looks of the other three and the fact that years had passed since they had last seen each other.
Only later, after Eliot, Parker and Hardison had disappeared into their own little rabbit holes, Nate and Sophie were left alone together, in the company of a bottle of wine.
“You found a Shakespeare play.” It was Nate who finally broke the silence, smiling at the rifter over the rim of his glass.
“Of course I did. I'm just sorry it was a tragedy. I much prefer the comedies, myself,” she replied, matching his smile with a smirk. Eight years ago she never would have thought she'd find herself sharing a drink with the only man who came that close to catching her, but she was rather glad it had turned out that way.
“I had seen you before we met on the Damascus, you know.”
“Really? When was that?”
“I saw you in Prague, two years before. I'm pretty sure you saw me too, don't you remember?”
Sophie furrowed her brow, surprised by this piece of information. Wouldn't she have remembered him? There had been a lot of people she'd met in Prague, and her memory was blurring the faces together. Blue eyes, across the room? Had that been him? she wondered, but shook her head.
“I would have recognized you on the boat,” she told him, sounding a lot surer than she really was and with it put an end to this topic of their conversation.
They both fell silent for a while, feeling the weight of too many things unsaid, before Sophie reached out and touched his hand lightly. As their fingers linked, they shared a private smile.
“To new beginnings?”
“To new beginnings.”