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This has been sitting around for ages. It was started before the beginning of S4, and now S5 has started, so I figured I should post this now before any more revelations come out.


Title: onwards and upwards
Ficverse: Leverage
Series: Silver and Gold

Rating: Gen, PG
Length: 3000 ish
Characters: Sterling, Maggie
Teaser:
He raised an eyebrow at her in that way he had to know was so annoying, just in case she’d missed his point. “Now that that’s out of the way – what is it?”
Notes: The continuing interactions of Maggie and Sterling. Links to the previous series installments are at the end, but all you really need to know is that I decided to explore what would happen if they slowly became friends in the aftermath of the S1 finale.
Warnings/Spoiler: Set immediately after The Zanzibar Marketplace Job (2.12).
Disclaimer: Stuff that's not mine is not mine.
Feedback: let's hear it. The good, the bad, the ugly....




Maggie looked around the restaurant, firmly squelching the sudden qualm of uneasiness. It was ridiculous. This was an up-scale establishment – warmly lit, public, perfectly safe – where she’d dined many times in the past month in Kiev. Hindbrain spasms to the contrary, there were no taser-armed thugs lurking nearby; she was being paranoid and she needed to stop. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever that she would be abducted again.

She lifted her head higher and followed the waiter to the table. The decor made use of glass and mirrors, artfully frosted and gilt-edged and arranged to create the illusion of both privacy and space. To anyone who’d picked up a few tricks here and there, they also opened up a range of irregular sightlines on anyone attempting to approach. Which she didn’t need, she reminded herself, but not before she’d checked her bearings in them.

“Maggie.”

Her eyes snapped to her table; Sterling was already here. He was quickly on his feet, pulling out her chair. She felt her spine relax all by itself. It was strange that she felt safer at the sight of him, but she gave him a smile for it as he seated her smoothly. “Thank you.”

He returned to his chair, studying her openly. “What is it?”

“Oh!” She laughed, startled. “So much for small talk.”

He gave her a narrow look. “Hello, Maggie. You look lovely. Hasn’t it turned into a beautiful evening? You barely even need a jacket. It’s as though the city saved it up specially for your last night here. So glad we could find a time to catch up before you head back to the States.” He raised an eyebrow at her in that way he had to know was so annoying, just in case she’d missed his point. “Now that that’s out of the way – what is it?” he continued more seriously.

She opened her mouth to say “nothing”, but found herself shrugging instead. He waited patiently. James Sterling was nothing if not patient. Also relentless, she reminded herself, although that was a quality he usually reserved for the criminals he hunted; apart from her brief stint in that demographic, he’d always treated her with respect.

“Just – nerves. I’m fine, I really am. But every now and then –”

He nodded, his matter-of-factness putting her at ease. “People have strange reactions to stress. It happens.”

“I suppose. It’s funny, with everything going on – it didn’t even hit me until this morning. I’ve been in dangerous situations before, but I don’t remember it being like this.”

“Ah, well. First time being tased is always special. Not to mention Ukranian incarceration, being taken hostage, snogging your ex because you thought you were about to be blown to kingdom come....”

Her mouth dropped open. “How –”

“His team gets rather chatty over those earpieces of theirs. Hardison’s reaction was particularly amusing.”

She felt her cheeks grow hot before she noticed the twinkle in his eye. If his intention was to distract her from her irrational anxiety, he was doing an excellent job. She gave him a look to say she was onto his little game, but it only seemed to encourage him.

“What’s interesting is that your boyfriend was also locked in there with you and the bomb, and yet you went for Nate. What happened? Was your current squeeze out of range?”

“Oh please,” she said, choosing her line of retort easily. “One – he wasn’t my boyfriend; we just went out. Two, after all of his lying – and then the begging and whimpering – just about anyone was going to get kissed before him.” She pursed her mouth playfully. “If it had been you there instead of Nate, Jim, you’d be remembering my lips to your dying day.”

His eyes widened and it was his turn to blush (score one for her), but he recovered quickly. “I’ll have a word with the hostage takers next time.”

She laughed, the last of her disquiet dispelled. “Since when did you become such a flirt?” she asked. Honestly, these days half the time they spoke they ended up in some kind of teasing exchange like this, and she never knew quite how they got there. It reminded her of years ago, when Nate first started bringing Sterling around after work – when he hadn’t yet learned to veil the danger in his eyes. Not that he had flirted with her back then, but whether it was light pre-dinner conversation or catching violent thieves, he approached everything with a mixture of heat and distance that she could never decipher, though goodness knew she would have liked to. The passing years had only made him harder to read, and long ago taught her not to think about him that way. James Sterling did not belong under her skin.

He busied himself with the menu. “I’ve always been a charming bloke. You were always just too sickeningly in love with your husband to notice.” A thought struck him. “Wait, whimpering? Lundy was whimpering?”

“And begging,” she repeated, opening her own menu, happy to steer for safer ground. “I’ve never seen a jaw so square quiver so much.”

That drew a laugh, one of those open, relaxed laughs of his that marked this new phase of their acquaintance, one that still surprised her – pleased her – every time she achieved it.

This time, unfortunately, that thought dislodged another, one that had been mostly buried under stress and paperwork and deadlines and the ever-complicating presence of Nate; he’d only just flown home with his team yesterday, at her absolute insistence, and only on the condition that she fly back via Boston. She had gladly agreed, if it meant getting him and the others out of her hair for even a day while she finished up here.

“So,” she said, scanning her menu in an attempt at seeming casual, “I heard an interesting rumor. About you.”

He looked up, then set his menu aside, face suddenly guarded. “Ah. – You know, I keep telling people I’m not Thatcher’s love child, but salacious gossip does get traction.”

Maggie knew how to read that, at least. It stung more than she thought it would. “It’s true then. Interpol.”

He shrugged. “It’s not official yet....”

They were interrupted by the waiter, and she studied Sterling while he ordered his meal along with both their drink orders. He didn’t have to do more than check her assent with a glance, and she could have done without another reminder of how they’d got to know each other through their periodic meetings over the last year or so. She gave her meal order too, then found herself frowning.

“Congratulations.” She said it sincerely; otherwise it would just be mean. Then she shook her head, not quite concealing her hurt. “When were you going to tell me?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again. The neutral mask dropped. “I should have. I – you were busy, and ... Nate was here....” If it weren’t Sterling and if she didn’t know better, she’d say he was apprehensive. “You disapprove?”

“No – no, I don’t disapprove. Of course not! It’s a great opportunity, I’m – I’m proud of you.” It surprised her as she said it, but even though she’d only learned about his career promotion through office gossip, it was true. It just felt strange to say the kind of thing to Sterling that she’d once have said to Sam – or Nate. She shifted uncomfortably. “Not that you need me to be – I mean, surely you don’t need my approval, do you?”

He had an odd look on his face. “No.”

“I didn’t mean you had to.... I guess I just – I don’t know. It was silly.”

“Maggie.”

His tone caught her, cutting through awkwardness and flippancy alike, soft and serious and just a tiny, tiny bit pleading. James Sterling did not plead. She couldn’t keep from staring openly at him, but he held her gaze without backpedaling.

It made it impossible to deny him. “I – I just ... it felt like you were moving on, somehow. Always onwards and upwards on that path of ambition – leaving all your old friends behind.” She laughed nervously, very aware she had not succeeded in passing that off as a light joke.

He cleared his throat. “You might not know this, Maggie – given my fun-loving personality and command of small talk – but there aren’t all that many people I call friend. I’m ... not planning to leave them behind.”

The arrival of their drinks startled them both. He waited until the waiter left, then met her eyes squarely. “You’re my friend. I should have told you. I’m sorry.”

She smiled ruefully. “I shouldn’t have got weird about it. I’m sorry. It’s just – Nate turns up, and despite my best efforts, he sort of takes over my whole life and everything suddenly becomes chaos. It takes a while to get things back on track. But that’s just Nate, I suppose.”

“Ah.” Now he looked down, and once again she couldn’t decipher him at all. “Being falsely accused and imprisoned wasn’t enough?”

“Well – I was innocent.”

“You were –? You have got to be joking. Innocent? Maggie, that didn’t matter to anyone!”

She frowned. “It mattered to me.”

He looked like he wanted to shake her. “Do you even understand – if I hadn’t – you would still be in that cell right now! If you’ve never dealt with the US State Department, you can take my word for it, you could have been there for months, if not years – if not the rest of your life! You were very convincingly set up, I had nothing – no way to clear your name. I am sorry that your feelings for your ex are still so complicated for you, but Nate’s team were the only ones I could absolutely count on to get you back, and I’m not going to apologize for getting him involved!” He looked away. “Besides, in the original plan, you wouldn’t even have known we were there.”

She felt like he had shaken her. She tried to regroup. “And the egg.”

“What?”

“The egg, the Fabergé egg. The one whose retrieval got you into Interpol? The other job you had Nate’s team working for you? – The one they’d never have had anything to do with if it hadn’t also been about rescuing me?”

“Yes, the egg. Of course the bloody egg. That’s my job.”

“Yes! And that’s fine!”

He did a double-take. “What do you – what are you talking about?”

“Look, Nate told me all about it, and it’s fine. It really is. A nine million dollar pay out? I was married to Nate for twenty years, I know the job. I do understand – how important this is to you. I don’t need you to pretend this was about me to be my friend, Jim. I just need you to be honest with me.”

He fixed her with a long look. “Tell me something, Maggie. Does Nate know your last night in Kiev is being spent having dinner with me?”

She didn’t answer; he knew Nate didn’t.

“Mm. And is it a coincidence that we didn’t meet up until after he left the country?”

“I....”

“No. You may not have put much thought into it, not planned it per se, but it’s not a coincidence.”

“No – that’s not –”

“It all gets just a bit too tricky, being friends with me, doesn’t it? It’s alright. I understand too.” She didn’t know what to do with the set, calm expression on his face, but it made her chest ache. “I let it stay simple.”

Their food arrived into the silence that followed, and did little to alleviate it. She picked at hers for a few minutes, then looked up, to where he was making methodical inroads into his.

“What did you tell him?” she asked quietly.

“The truth,” Sterling answered, not skipping a beat with his eating. “That I came straight here to clear your name, but couldn’t.”

“But he said –”

At this, he looked up, obviously knowing exactly what Nate had said. “What I say and what Nate chooses to believe are two different things.” He took a sip of his Scotch, movements quick and deliberate, eyes burning with that familiar iron control of his. The ache in her chest intensified.

“James.” She let his full name linger quietly on her tongue; she couldn’t say why she used it, and didn’t want to analyze why Jim or Sterling in her head had become James over the last year, nor why she had never used it out loud until now. But it felt good to say it, and it certainly succeeded in getting his attention. He stiffened, waiting out her pause. She thought for a few seconds before speaking, trying to make sure she did not hurt him further.

“Before last week, I hadn’t spoken to Nate for a long time. Not since – I think I’ve spoken to him once, maybe twice, since Blackpoole and the Davids.” He was listening intently; she thought his mouth might be softening. “And it’s true, I haven’t told him about being friends with you. Partly because we didn’t spend much time talking; partly, yes, because I really didn’t want to have to deal with his reaction – but mostly because it’s just none of his business.”

His eyebrow quirked, conceding the point.

“Nate was a big part of my life, and that will always be the case. But he’s my past. Not my present, and not my future. I care about him. But that doesn’t mean I want him in my life.” An impulse, born of nothing more than wanting to soothe the unhappiness she felt lurking under his impassive mask, moved her hand across the small table to cover the back of his. “I’m not ashamed of being friends with you, James. My life’s simpler without Nate nosing around, but I’m not ashamed of you – and we can call him right now if it means you’ll believe me.”

He had frozen at her touch, eyes widening. Now his thumb twitched up over her hand, holding it in place, his response painfully unguarded as he searched her. She didn’t draw back; it was the least she could do. It might be an odd and sometimes prickly friendship, one that kept her on her toes as a matter of course, but this was a man who had come with her to her son’s grave; gentle, silent, and steady at her shoulder when she needed it. He was her friend. No friend of hers should be made to feel like that, no matter what.

When his hand turned under hers and replied to her grasp, she knew he believed her. A little smile played around his lips like he couldn’t help it, and the light in his eyes warmed her all the way through. “Let’s not,” he said, unable to keep his grin from widening. It made him look ten years younger. “I don’t particularly want to be checking over my shoulder for the rest of my life that Eliot Spencer’s been sent after me, either.”

She laughed in sympathy, and the last of the tension washed away. But before she could draw back, he quickly raised her hand; the briefest touch of his lips to her knuckles, and he released her. It was a gesture for a gesture, done without any self-consciousness. And just like that, the phantom pain of Nate in their friendship faded as if he had never been there. She breathed and found she liked the freedom.

A thought occurred to her. “And thank you for rescuing me,” she said, eyes dancing. “I guess I should have said that earlier.”

He made a teasing face, but didn’t hide the sincerity of his answer. “Any time. If possible, I’ll try not to involve your ex. Or thieves.”

“I’d appreciate it.” She grinned. “Speaking of which, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you –”

“I really did bring him on as a consultant. It was legit.”

Maggie twisted her lips. “You also said he’d been rehabilitated.”

He paused, not completely sure if he was being teased back. “Ahh. Well, technically, for that job –”

She let him off the hook. “Anyway, that’s not what I was going to ask. I was thinking about the exchange – the hotel, the elevators, everything – and I was wondering how you got from the twentieth floor with the egg to the car trunk in time. The elevator went down, exploded, and they said Phillips went straight to his car and drove off. So how...?”

He grimaced. “Fire stairs. Ran like buggery.”

“I’m impressed.”

“I had some lead time before Spencer sent the case down, and Phillips and his guys were pretty shaken up by the explosion, but it was a close finish.”

“But what would have happened if you hadn’t made it?”

He shook his head. “Never considered the possibility. Make your plan, make it work. No what-ifs. Backup plans are for people afraid of failure – the day you start thinking about losing rather than winning is the day you let losing in.”

Maggie frowned, bemused. “I – James, I’m not sure that’s the way life works.”

He shrugged. “It does for me.” He gestured at her plate. “Think you’ll have room for dessert?”

“Women always have room for dessert. What did you have in mind?”

“It’s your last night in Kiev, a walk along the Dnieper is practically mandatory. I thought we could pick something up at one of the stalls.”

She tilted her head, gave him a brilliant smile that she knew would coax an answering one from him; the man definitely needed to smile more. “I think that is an excellent plan.”





Silver and Gold series:
lit up by the skylightWatching her, he remembered the first time she became Maggie.
overture in the aftermathShe took a patient breath. “Jim, why did you send me flowers?”
a question of costif he didn’t dial this time, he was a bloody coward.
onwards and upwardsHe raised an eyebrow at her in that way he had to know was so annoying, just in case she’d missed his point. “Now that that’s out of the way – what is it?”
this kind of liabilityShe’d started calling him James and so help him but he loved the way that sounded. He held onto that, the all-of one second of it, even as her expression changed when she noticed his.
concerns of contactHe’s free, currently not wanted. Make no contact.
measuring precautionSterling strode down the gallery’s familiar corridors, forcing himself not to break into a run.
hold and releaseSitting out on the balcony of James Sterling’s LA condo for the fourth day of being stashed away to keep her from being possibly abducted by some psychotic international crimelord Nate had openly declared war on, Maggie once again concluded that, all things considered, she was glad she hadn’t argued.
as neededIt was all wrong, everything was wrong, everything he was doing here, today, was wrong.
of twos and threesSterling opened the door of his condo and leaned against it. “Hi,” he said, in undisguised relief.
confessions“Hey,” Maggie said softly, with a welcoming smile so natural that he had to remind himself, again, that he was not coming home. He was just coming to collect his daughter. Blame it on jetlag.

Comments

( 3 speakses — have a speak )
im_ridiculous
Feb. 5th, 2013 09:49 am (UTC)
OK, this is becoming problematic... I'm going to leave it here for the night... because, seriously? The only response I can formulate here is:

**SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE**

...

Ahem.

I love everything this chooses to be. And that they are. And that you make them. :D
themonkeytwin
Feb. 5th, 2013 12:34 pm (UTC)
... And now I want to know why it is that this comment, after everything else, should make the final connections meet and the lightbulb come on, to make me FINALLY GET what was going on to make Sterling so upset that he couldn't hide it from her. I mean, the jealousy thread – from her kissing Nate, even though he also thought it was funny and didn't mean THAT much, to hearing the effect Nate has on her life – is right there on the surface (or "surface", since this is Sterling). But the hurt, and the hesitancy, and the unfounded belief that she's ashamed of their friendship, and the all-round bug up his butt and shade of resentment toward Maggie during the ep, beyond the fact that she's going out with this tallhandsomerich scumbag (which she is obviously ENTIRELY ENTITLED TO DO, regardless of his opinion of her "continued poor taste in men")....

*breath* Is that he went to Nate and tells him "It's Maggie!", and that gut-punch sting that came the moment when it was clear that Nate had no concept that Sterling would be genuinely concerned for Maggie because he had no idea that they'd become friends. That he dismisses any concern Sterling might have for her with an immediate "Please", because such a thing simply isn't even in the realm of possibility. And no matter how unreasonable it is to have expected Maggie to have mentioned it, and how little he might even have wanted her to, the fact that she hadn't stung. Hence the relish of letting Nate discover she's dating Lundy (his own opinions aside), and his less-than-immediate concern that something might have gone wrong when they discovered Nate and Maggie hadn't checked in. He was sulking.

AND all that stuff he told her is still the truth, because once he realised she hadn't told Nate, he did the right thing by her and kept it that way, and it really was the decision of a friend, even while being complicated by the rest. That she might not have done entirely the right thing by him, but he'd do the right thing by her. DAMN, STERLING. BE MORE COMPLICATED WHY DON'T YOU.


And all that in a comment reply which just needed to be I LOVE THIS ONE TOO SOO MUCH NGHN. I WANT TO GET THEM BACK TO SWEET LIGHT ROMANTIC TEASING. ALSO TOUCHING. THESE TWOOOOOO.

:)
im_ridiculous
Feb. 6th, 2013 10:44 am (UTC)
:O....... *blink blink*

YES WOMAN. ... YEEEEEESSSSSSSS!!!!!!

Seriously, I should just squee incoherently at you more often, apparently it's helpful!! :D :D :D hehe
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