I don't own Leverage... I wish. :)

Nate rubbed his jaw. God Sophie was strong. And quite willing to pull a con when the upside was hitting him.

"Oh come on, I didn't hit you that hard."

"Tell that to my jaw." He decided he preferred her slapping him to her punching him.

"Well really, you were the one that suggested it."

"Yeah. But haven't you ever heard of pulling a punch?" He still hadn't forgotten her knocking Hardison out that time with Verdagra. He'd thought it was funny at the time; now he realised he felt a vague sympathy for the hacker in retrospect. Sophie certainly didn't look like she could hit that hard.

She sighed. "Nate, there's a certain sound and a certain reaction that occurs when you actually hit someone versus if you just pretend to. Would you rather I'd blown the con because it didn't look real?"

He considered for a moment and decided that he'd allow her that one. This was definitely a job he didn't want to have to do over. He had to ask though. Couldn't resist, even though he might not like the answer. "So you found no pleasure in it, huh?"

She raised an eyebrow. "I never said that."

He'd been right: he didn't really want to hear that. "Why?"

"Why did you enjoy slapping my ass that time when we were playing Penzer?"

He did his best to keep his face blank. "I told you, Soph, that was to sell the play. Besides, you paid me back for that one. My balls still remember." It had been all he could do to keep focused on stalling Penzer instead of collapsing onto the ground. She definitely hadn't pulled that one.

She shrugged. "Have it your way. That's all it was today too then. Just me selling the bit." She was watching his eyes, saw the moment that the scales tipped and he decided to be honest.

"Okay so if I say that I enjoyed slapping your ass are you going to tell me why you like hitting me?"

"No. I know for a fact that you enjoyed it. I want to know if you know why you enjoyed doing it Nate." She already knew the answer to that one, probably better than he did. She just wanted to see how much he understood it.

"Maybe I just like touching your ass."

"Hmm. Well, since you spend a not inconsiderable amount of our time in bed together either looking at it or touching it, I'd say that's probably the truth. But not the whole truth. Try again."

"Uh... I don't know, maybe I wanted to see if that skirt you were wearing was as thin as it looked."


He sighed. "If I say it will you let up?"

"Possibly. If it's the truth."

"Alright, so I liked the sound it made. I liked the feeling. And maybe I liked it a little bit when you jumped."

"And therefore you liked the fact that it hurt. At least somewhat. Nate, I'm not sure if you've noticed, but you have a bit of a sadistic streak in you."

"Gee thanks, Soph."

"You do. It's strange, but at times you seem to genuinely like hurting people. Mostly you keep it confined to the marks, which is fine, since they tend to deserve the worst we can do. But every once in a while you'll do or say something to one of us, one of the team, and it seems like there really isn't a purpose to it except to cause pain."

"Great. Glad we had this talk." Nate stood up to walk away, pissed off at the thought that Sophie thought he enjoyed hurting her, but even more pissed that she may have had a point.

"Don't you want to know the answer to your question?"

He stopped. "After I jump through how many more hoops? I'm not a fucking animal Sophie. I don't take well to training."

She filed that one away for later. No wonder his marriage had failed. "You want to know how I know so much about you Nate? Because in a lot of ways you and I are alike. I know about sadism. I should, since part of being a good grifter is knowing that you're going to hurt the person you're playing. Grifters either learn to find a way to enjoy that or they give it up. I like watching our marks suffer just as much as you do. And the truth is at times I'm guilty of doing the same thing you do: lashing out at my friends. Thing is, I mostly confine that to one particular person."

"What, so I'm like your personal punching bag?"

She winced. "More like a receptacle for unfocused but entirely real anger. And by the way, you're partially responsible for that anger so I think you deserve some of the result."

"Exactly how am I responsible for your anger Sophie?"

She looked at him, appraising. She wasn't sure he was ready for this conversation, but he had been the one to start it. Maybe his subconscious needed to know more than his conscious needed to avoid it. "Are you sure you want a real, no bullshit answer to that Nate? Because I have one, but you probably won't like it."

He swallowed. He'd seen that look before. And it hadn't ended well for the person on the receiving end. He was well aware that Sophie saw things about him he was blind to. Usually a personal blind spot was there for a reason. It protected you from the (often horrible or disturbing) truth. But he had to know. So he nodded.

She looked down. She wasn't sure she wanted to be looking in his eyes when she said this. Aside from the fact that she was nervous as hell, she wasn't sure that she wanted to see the response that her words would have. But she'd never been a coward. She wasn't about to start now. She looked up. "I love you." He started, almost like he'd been shocked. "I've loved you for more than ten years Nate. I could have avoided you so many of those times in Paris, London, all over Europe. I could have, but I didn't. I wanted to see you. Needed to see you. Back then it wasn't so bad. Well, it was, but I was able to convince myself otherwise because you were married and while that hadn't stopped me in the past, I liked you too much to do anything to damage your happiness. I convinced myself that it wouldn't have worked anyway. So I stole my paintings and I traveled the world and everywhere I went I saw you. I'd hear what I thought was your voice and I'd tell myself not to turn around, that it couldn't be you, you were home in the States, happy with Maggie and Sam. And yet I couldn't stop myself from turning around." He was watching her, unblinking, those blue, blue eyes burning into hers. She took a deep breath and forced herself to go on.

"I don't know when I finally figured out that I was in love with you. I mean, you'd think I'd know right? I'm one of the best grifters in the world. And yet I couldn't see it. I remember the day I figured it out though. I stopped outside my flat in London and just stood there. Key in the lock, rain pouring down, and I stood there. Not moving. I don't know how long I was there before a passerby noticed I was soaked and asked if I was okay. I mumbled something, to this day I can't remember what, and I walked inside and sat down. That was nine AM. And I was still sitting there when it got dark." He got up and started to move away, and her heart seized. What if she'd ruined it? Their relationship had always been such a balancing act. Something like this could ruin that balance forever. She felt an almost physical sense of relief when she saw him turn left towards the kitchen, and not right towards the staircase. He pulled a bottle of wine off the rack and grabbed two glasses from the cupboard. And came back.

She watched him pour the wine and took a drink as soon as he was finished. She hadn't realised how dry her throat was. She wasn't used to it. Usually she could talk all day and still not be tired at the end of it. Probably something to do with the subject matter, she thought wryly. Taking another sip of her wine, she continued.

"Then I heard you were separated from your wife. You'd think I'd have been happy, but all I could think about was how you must be hurting. Then you got back together, and I was happy and heartbroken. I resigned to having lost you. I thought I was losing sleep over that fact until I realised what lost sleep truly was. Until I heard about your son. I'm not much for praying, since I doubt Thou Shalt Not Steal was meant to be a suggestion. But I prayed Nate. Prayed and cried. Asked God to heal your little boy. I couldn't bear the thought of you suffering through losing him. You always had so much pride in your eyes when you said his name. And then it happened. And you disappeared. I looked for you, hoped you'd find a way through. But you didn't. And so I resigned myself to the fact that I truly had lost you. Moved to Chicago, went straight. Mostly. And slept alone. I thought it was my choice, told myself it was just that I hadn't met the right person. I was an idiot. I knew who the right person was all along." She looked down at the glass in her hand and was shocked to find it empty. When had she finished it? Nate's was still half full, and he hadn't even taken as much as he'd given her. He poured for her again without comment.

"Then came what was probably one of the happiest nights of my life. The night you came and found me. Saved me." He raised an eyebrow at this, but said nothing. She noticed for the first time that he hadn't spoken in what had to be at least fifteen minutes. "I thought I had a chance. Hoped that maybe you coming to find me was a sign that you were ready to heal. Then I watched you. Watched as you tortured yourself with your son's memory, your guilt, your broken marriage. Watched you drinking and knew that sooner or later if you didn't find a way out you'd kill yourself, either by accident or by intent. And still I couldn't walk away. I was trapped." She looked at him and saw the dawning recognition in his eyes. He was, bar none, the smartest man she'd ever known. "I asked you once Nate if you knew how hard it was to wait for someone. I'd been waiting for you for more than ten years. One way or another. And finally, I could have you. And yet I couldn't. Because you wouldn't let me." She was horrified to feel tears starting in her eyes. She'd always been able to keep it together. She might cry, but she'd do it when she found the right moment. But this was Nathan Ford. He always tipped the scales.

"You want to know why I find some sort of satisfaction in hitting you? Because you've been hurting me, one way or another, for what for me seems like forever. And you're still doing it. I don't expect you to love me, or to say it. That's not what this is about. But you asked. I'm so sick of lying." With that last, she couldn't stop the tears anymore. So she put her head down on her arms on the table and cried. Like a little kid.

Some time later (Sophie couldn't have said how long, could've been ten minutes or ten decades) she became aware of two things. The first was Nate Ford's arms around her, holding her close. This in and of itself was nothing unusual; they'd been sleeping together for a while and she'd sort of gotten used to it. The second thing however, was entirely new: Nate Ford was crying. Not loudly, but not just tears. She could feel his body shaking from the sobs. She pushed herself up off the table and turning, embraced him. He clung to her like a drowning man holds on to the last remnants of a shipwreck. She stayed there, holding him and not saying anything, until his shaking ceased and he pulled away.

He wouldn't meet her eyes. "Nate," she said softly. "It's okay."

"No, it isn't."

"You have every right to cry Nate."

"Pot and kettle? Besides, that's not what I was referring to Sophie."

She furrowed her brow. "What then?"

He looked up. "It's not okay that I hurt you. That I still am. The worst part is I think I knew it and I still didn't stop it. What kind of monster does that make me?" His eyes were filled with self loathing.

She wasn't sure how to respond to that so she tried for humour. "The human kind? Unless you're one of those weird aliens Hardison enjoys watching so much."

He ignored the joke. "Why did you come back Sophie? You must have known somewhere inside that I was going to let you down again. I always do. So why?"

She didn't like his words. There was too much bitterness, too much acceptance that he could never change. It pissed her off that he was so willing to blame himself instead of just fixing the problem. Not that fixing the problems with your own head was easy to do. She knew that first hand. But they had to be fixed sooner or later.

Sophie decided this conversation needed a little lightening up. "Well actually, I really came back for Parker. You know, relationship advice for that guy I was seeing."

That did it. No matter how somber he was it would be extremely difficult for Nate not to respond to the words "Parker" and "relationship advice" in the same sentence. He tried to stop it, but a smirk made it out. Not much of one, true, but it was there. "What, you needed advice on how to stab someone with a fork?" He finished his wine. She was shocked it had lasted him that long.

She shrugged. "Never know when the use of sharp implements could come in handy."

"Yeah or you might decide to carry a gun again. I remember the last time we met and you were carrying. Vividly. As in the vivid red colour of my blood all over the place."

"Hey, you startled me."

"Yeah right."

"No, you did though. I was sure no one was on that floor. I still have no idea how you got past that trap I set in the hall without making any noise."

"Brilliance." She raised an eyebrow. "Okay luck. But it would have been brilliant if I'd planned it ahead of time."

"You did shoot me back, Nate."

"Yep, I do that when people shoot me. Actually though, I didn't really mean to. My training kicked in before I could stop it."

Oh. "Um, Nate? Please tell me your training was to shoot me in the shoulder." He said nothing. Fuck. "Well that takes some of the romance out of that particular memory. While I enjoy death scenes, I also enjoy being alive afterward."

"Yep, because then you can come to your own funeral. Tom Sawyer." He looked down and then met her eyes again. Full on, not hiding a thing. "Sophie I'm sorry."

"I know."

They sat like that for a few minutes, not talking, just being there with each other. She looked down and realised she was holding his hand. When had that happened? He brought her fingers to his lips and kissed them gently. He uttered one word. "Stay."

She smiled. "I wasn't planning on leaving."

"Good." He led her up the stairs.

The Next Day

Sophie yawned as she came down the stairs. It wasn't that she hadn't slept last night, she had, and very well. She just hadn't really wanted to get up. But she could hear the TV going downstairs and knew from the channel who it was. Besides, she was starving.

"Hey Parker," she said as she grabbed a glass of juice from the fridge. Parker turned.

"Hey Sophie. Wow, your hair is kinda messy."

"Yes thanks for asking Parker, I'm fine, how are you. Jeez, haven't I taught you anything?"

"Oh." Parker paused for a second. "Hey Sophie, how are you and by the way your hair is a mess?" She ended the sentence on a question, as if to say 'did I do it right'.

Sophie briefly covered her eyes. Hopeless. "Parker I know my hair is a mess: I didn't brush it yet. I was hoping for something to eat first. I'm hungry."

"That's what sex does." Sophie dropped the spoon she'd just gotten from the drawer, intent on snagging some of Parker's Cheerios. She looked at Parker. Parker stared back. "What? It does." Sophie continued to look at her. Parker fidgeted. After a long moment Sophie turned back to the cupboard, grabbing another spoon and a bowl. "You know Sophie sex makes your hair messy too." This time Nate's cookware suffered the damage: Sophie dropped the bowl and it shattered. Parker smirked. She hadn't known Sophie could curse fluently in that many languages.

"Parker, I love you dearly but you are potentially shortening your lifespan." Sophie cleaned up the broken bowl (mentally reminding herself to vacuum later; brooms only go so far) and for the third time went to the cupboard. She got the cereal in the bowl (finally) and set it on the table. Putting the milk back in the fridge, she sat down. Just as she took the first bite of her cereal Parker said "You know you and Nate make a lot of noise when you have sex." Needless to say, Sophie found out what it felt like to have milk come out of her nose. "Jesus Parker!" Obviously this was the desired reaction. Parker was now literally doubled over laughing. "Out," said Sophie, (pointing not at the door but the window). Still snickering, Parker left. Only after the girl was gone did Sophie laugh quietly and admit to herself that she was sort of proud.

Nate smiled from his own position on the stairs. He'd been hungry himself and was heading down when he heard the antics below him. He figured he'd watch instead of getting involved. Once Parker was gone he continued down the stairs.

"Uh, be careful over there. I need to take the vacuum to your floor. One of your bowls met an unfortunate end," Sophie said as he walked past her in his bare feet. She had finally managed to dig in to her cereal and figured she'd finish it before anything else interrupted her.

"I'm suprised you're not trying to con me into doing it." Sophie hated housework. He shrugged. "Besides, it wouldn't be the first time I've had glass in my feet. Remind me later to tell you about the time Sam set out the Christmas ornaments on his floor as an "anti-invasion" measure." He smiled at the memory. "I think being shot hurt less."

Sophie was staring at him, looking for something, but he had no idea what. "What?"

She turned her eyes back to her cereal, effectively hiding whatever it was from him. "Nothing."

Finishing her breakfast, she rinsed the bowl and put it in the dishwasher. "I'm going to have a shower. See you in a bit."

It was at least ten minutes later, in the middle of his coffee, before it hit home. He'd thought of Sam and it hadn't hurt. He raised his eyes towards the sound of he shower in amazement. She'd noticed, and not reacted at all. Letting him figure it out. Trusting him to figure it out. Giving him space. Again.

He went and got the vacuum.