We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.-Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

***

Sophie was raised to love travel (of course). It is as natural for her to travel as it is for most women to flirt.

Her parents were cosmopolitan and carried dog-eared passports and she'd never in her life really been afraid to fly. "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God," Kurt Vonnegut said once, and her mother cited it over and over. Her parents appreciated this sense of the world and they took her wherever the cheapest airfares went, whenever she could afford to leave school.

Her father was an art dealer and he flew a great deal for business, a man of power in his tiny circle of clients and associates. So she began joining him on his work trips as she got older, old enough to take care of herself by her mother's standards. By then all those summers and winter breaks abroad had already brought significant gains in her language skills, and Europe was a kind of sandbox for her then, porous and welcoming, full of hospitable strangers and incredible things waiting to be discovered. As a small child she thought her father knew everyone. As it turned out he only knew a fraction of the rich and powerful and the rest was there for her to find like a treasure hunt.

She hung out in museums and at cafes. She shopped, played soccer, went swimming, learned to sail and to dance. She first seduced her father's business associates casually, sometimes meeting one businessman for lunch and then that same company's accountant's son later that night for drinks (Switzerland); but she soon branched out and left his friends behind. Once she even slept with a gallery buyer's twenty-year-old daughter, a chic androgynous girl who reminded her of a runway model (Paris).

They bought her drinks (everywhere) and took her on yachts (Dubrovnik) and bought her dresses (Milan); she even very nearly once got engaged (Morocco) and managed to narrowly avoid it on religious grounds (Paris, again). People seemed to believe everything that eighteen-year-old Sophie said, including her parents, which amazed her. There were times when she didn't even believe herself. People seemed to think she was beautiful, which amazed her as well, since she still saw a bit of the ugly duckling in the mirror, at that age.

This was the beginning of her career as a grifter; after all, she was only interested in doing something in life that she was good at, and this was it. But she knew that sex wouldn't sell forever, and so she went to university, studied art and business, became fluent in the culture and mannerisms of the elite, read about their lives as studiously as she led her own, tried to understand as hard as she could.

She knew that there would be men (and women) who would look her up and down and remember her for her legs and her mouth, and there would be men (and probably women) who would remember her instead for her mind and her cleverness. Leave nothing out, she thought: the whole package. Her mother thought she wanted to run an art gallery, and supported without reserve any foray she'd make into the art world, helped her pay for her degree and get jobs, gave her cash to travel with sometimes, when she was in between jobs.

Gradually Sophie lost touch with family and disappeared into Europe, into her work which was at that point becoming more like a job as Leverage called it – away from the phone calls and the shiny exhibitions, and deeper into riskier and more criminal ventures.

Eventually her parents assumed she'd disappeared. Her father heard plenty of industry grapevine tales about a female thief, lots of names, lots of stories: but none of them Sophie's given name, not even close, so none of them her stories, they assumed.

They thought she'd been kidnapped, taken somewhere. They feared for her but for a time they hoped.

Time crawled along and eventually they thought she was dead.

***

There were a few gleaming gems of memory buried in Nate's time with Sophie during the years of the chase, as Sophie called them in her mind, but the one that stood out the most was that big favor he did for her in the fourth year.

He was still married to Maggie, of course, and Sam was there, in Nate's life, certainly always in the periphery of his travels. But Nate and Sophie had kissed once. To each other they were incentives in the chase, a carrot at the end of endless flights and paperwork and lies and seductions. It was a true rest for Nate to be with Sophie, even if he told himself he was only spending time with her in order to get intelligence about more heists. She felt good being with him even if she told herself she was just researching the enemy, so to speak. They always managed to avoid the topics of arrest and guilt when they were together.

So when she heard that her parents had some kind of quasi-memorial ceremony for her on her birthday in London, figuring she'd been killed—they'd buried an empty casket, for Christ's sake—Nate was the first person she had told, and the only person, she later noted. When she was done crying into his shoulder and mourning her misspent twenties growing apart from her parents and how much they probably loved her, while she was busy turning into a criminal, he offered to relay a message.

"I'll tell them you're okay," he'd said. "Just let me take your picture, a current picture of you, and bring it to them—as proof that you're okay. I'll tell them just enough, but not anything that would get you in trouble."

"I've been afraid to contact them my whole life," Sophie admitted. "Because some of the people whose things I've taken—whose lives I've gotten mixed up in, I mean, you know, they'd have no trouble killing my parents as collateral, trying to put a little pressure on me."

"I know," Nate said. "I know all these people too, you know."

She wondered if that was the reason they were such good friends.

That night he bought Polaroid film and they went to a little bar in the basement of a bookshop and she sat under the gleaming lights of their booth and smiled as wide as she could, pushed her hair out of her face, beamed. She tried to channel all her love to her parents into the camera's little lens, and Nate got shivers down his spine peering at her through the viewfinder. She was a truly beautiful woman.

He took a photo, his hands perfectly still, and pretended as if the film had jammed, fumbling with the camera while he slipped the first shot into his coat's inner pocket.

"Ah, it didn't work," he lied. She was too nervous to notice he was lying. "One more, just one more." The second one came out, and that was the one he left with Sophie's mother later that month. Sophie gave him an address. It was not her home address. It was the address of a bakery. She said to avoid names, which he raised an eyebrow at, so she added, "just go there, tell them, my mother'll be speechless, let her be speechless, and rush out."

"Okay," Nate had replied. "Sounds like a plan."

Later in the year, in England, Nate went to the bakery and there was one person there behind the counter, matching the description, so he figured it would be straightforward. He bought a coffee, then went round to the counter again and started to explain. In the middle of it he told her mother: "No, no, don't tell me her name."

"What's going on?" She had demanded, confused, hysterical. "I thought you said you knew her!"

"I do know her, but I know her by an alias and that's all I want to know. Please, don't tell me your name either."

"What is going on?"

"Your daughter is okay. She is in danger, and may be for some time, but she is okay. She's alive and working and trying to figure this entire thing out. Don't try to contact her. Don't try to contact me after this either. You'll put us all in danger, including yourself."

He paused, and peered out the window. "I just came to give that message but it's best if there's as little information as possible changing hands. For now, don't do anything, but relax, because she can take care of herself—better than any woman I know. You must have raised her to be tough."

"Yes," Sophie's mother said, with feeling, and grinned through a faceful of tears.

"One day she will probably contact you herself," Nate added, hoping for some kind of consolation, putting down his coffee. He gave her the second photograph and shook her hand before he excused himself and left through the front door. "She's strong enough to make it through all of this," he called out over his should as he left, which he really believed.

He never got rid of that Polaroid. He still has it. It's sitting in the safe of his condo right now, in fact, wrapped in an archival grade envelope which is wrapped in another plastic casing, half-buried under some financial papers and his gun case and a box of cash. He considers it to be a valuable thing, because Sophie has told him little else about her real past.

***

Nate knew (based on the favor in the fourth year and on other information) that Sophie valued family in a way she never let on. Deprivation breeds want. He tried to find ways to be her surrogate family.

Between the two of them they established weird little holiday rituals to make the holidays bearable for Sophie in general, and more bearable for Nate when he was away from his family. They took to mailing each other's P.O. boxes travel sized Christmas presents (travel sized cognac and travel sized chocolate for Nate, and travel sized Escada perfume for Sophie).

One year Nate followed Sophie to her hotel in Naples, unseen, and left a pumpkin cream cake with the front desk for her, just a little one with a chubby marzipan pumpkin perched atop its orange frosting, bearing a note on the box that said "In America we always do something for Thanksgiving."

That was the same year he left Sophie a voicemail on one of her slew of cell phones where he sang "White Christmas" for two minutes, gloriously silly and off-key, which made her both cry and laugh, three time zones away, alone in another hotel room overlooking the river.

She gave Nate little gifts for Sam's birthdays, which he always brought back to Sam belatedly on his way home from work trips, saying they were from his travel agent. The agent was one of those family acquaintances that Maggie didn't know back then and was unlikely to call up out of the blue to verify.

Sophie knew Sam loved her gifts. She listened closely to anything Nate said about him, because Sam was the person Nate loved most in the world, and Sophie wanted to love what Nate loved, if she couldn't just love Nate himself. She envied him his family.

Nates thought of ridiculous and mainly symbolic things to do for Sophie's birthday, amid the rush of jewels and perfume and expensive bribery she would be getting from old work associates and from marks each year.

One year they went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, sneaking in, around the middle of the night, and just screamed down at Paris. Sophie had wanted to scream her real, given name over and over at that moment. She stared down at the city realizing that Nate would be the first person she would tell, if she ever spoke it again, but had resisted the urge, and settled for nonsense angry noise instead.

They paused. "So, what are you screaming about?" She asked Nate.

"This stupid Sanderenson thing," he replied, referring to a retrieval case he was working on at the moment. "What about you?"

She leaned forward, resting her forearms on the rail and avoided his eyes.

"Oh, everything," she answered him, gazing out at the stars, blinking back tears.

They made their way down breathlessly, went to a café for a hot coffee (it was a cold night) and ended up splitting a bottle of champagne and a thin but decadent sheet of dark chocolate studded with toffee and sea salt. That was the night he'd kissed her, just before leaving, under the protective and shadowy eaves above the café's door. Although it had been such a wonderful moment, it had incited such guilt in him that she didn't see him or hear from him very much for another month or two.

When he finally reappeared, their paths crossing in Damascus, he said to her straightaway: "I'm not going to kiss you again."

Both of them thought of the taste of that first kiss, their eyes now locked nervously like two predators facing each other. She was wearing a gauzy blue linen wrap dress and the top was open in a loose v, prompting Nate to concentrate very hard on her eyes, lest he be tempted.

"I know you're not," she replied, evenly, deceptively calm. "I think about the first time you did quite a lot, though, because I don't want to forget it if you don't have a repeat performance planned for me."

That stopped him cold. He had not expected her to be honest. How appropriate that she would answer him honestly as he lied to her face: in every lie, just a tiny grain of truth. Did not again mean never again, he wondered?

An alternative universe flashed through Nate's mind at that moment: in it he was helping her out of her dress and kissing her neck in a hotel room just up the way and he didn't have a wedding band or a tan mark from a ring on his finger. He blinked.

"Sophie," he began, thinking, I'll talk myself through this if I have to! "I can't do anything more, I'm—"

"I know, you're married, Nate," Sophie replied. "Relax." She took a step away from him, a preventative measure, because she wanted to throw herself at him instead of watch him apologize and the oppressive Damascus heat was doing nothing for her normally ironclad self-control.

"Yes," Nate finished, deflated. And suddenly sad. "Right."

Home seemed so far away, then, for Sophie, right before she reminded herself that home was also, at that point, largely a fictional place. Imagined. Daydreamed.

They went for a drink, and Sophie tied her dress closed a bit more tightly and kicked off her sandals under the table and rolled her eyes, thinking, here I am, the rich and skilled thief, and the one thing in the world I want I can't even try to steal.

***

Fortunately life has twisted and turned. It does that. Just as soon as you think something will never happen, it does.

And now: she is in Portland, with Nate, in his house, (is it their house?) with their family (her family?) of sorts, Parker sprawled on the couch like a bored teenage daughter and Hardison punching away at the keys at his desk, deep in some MMPORG project of his, just like a teenage son. Eliot's out running someplace in Portland, or maybe at the studio, beating the crap out of someone, as he often is. Sometimes he is like a brother to Sophie, sometimes an uncle, sometimes a son. Eliot is complicated, but in an honest way, not complicated because he lies himself into knots like the complicated people Sophie was used to. She just knows that he has never made her feel afraid, which, since he trades in violence, is a gift she'll take.

Nate takes the first Polaroid out of the safe and silently puts it in his jacket pocket and comes into the kitchen and tells her he has something for her, and she realizes her birthday is actually later that week, but usually he runs late with these things, not early.

They go out on the balcony anyway, despite the chill, and Nate kisses her on the mouth and says: "Honey, close your eyes."

So she does, expecting a box of chocolate or a piece of jewelry or something.

And she opens them a few moments later, and he is holding that Polaroid, waving it a bit at her, holding it up alongside a smile on his face that says: so this is what it is like, the love I waited years for.

"That! You still have that!" she screams, happily, amazed.

She throws her arms around him and buries her face in his neck and he grips her back tightly, kisses the side of her head, peering at the photo over her shoulder because it is still in his hand. They pull apart after a long moment and she smiles at him, eyes wide and wet.

He holds it up and compares it side by side to her face, announcing, "you haven't aged a day," and kisses her again, which seems to make her happy judging by the little noise she's making in her throat just now.

"Let's go buy wine or something. I know it's not till Saturday but I feel like doing something tonight," Sophie says, her arms wrapped around his waist. "Wine. Food. Something. Let's go to Andina!"

They've become regulars at Andina, a romantic Peruvian restaurant in Portland, since the South America job in Lima, because Sophie has a bit of an addiction to ceviche. Nate likes it too because the bartender keeps interesting nonalcoholic drinks around for them, little cans of nonalcoholic chicha morada he serves spiked with seltzer and lime.

"Okay," Nate agrees, and they make their way back inside and Parker narrows her eyes knowingly at them when they come in. Sophie glows like a hundred watt lamp. She slips one arm free from around Nate's waist and practically dances into the kitchen. She looks in the entryway for her high heels.

Hardison cracks a joke about Nate being such a smooth operator, predictably, which Nate finds ironic given all the trials and relocations that Polaroid—not to mention he and Sophie—have endured over the years. Hardison has no idea, he thinks. Smooth is the furthest thing from it.

***

For small creatures such as we the vastness [of the universe] is bearable only through love.-Carl Sagan