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a little more fic for the holidays

There are a couple of ideas swimming around in my head, not to mention unfinished projects, and there is never as much free time as a break ought to have. Regardless, this piece demanded being finished off before I turned my attention to anything else. Unfortunately for basically everyone not me, it's the continuing adventures (or conversations, at least, which I contend are just as exciting) of Maggie and Sterling.

The interesting thing in writing this series is they both seem to let their softer sides show a little more without Nate around. Sterling especially. I was a little concerned that it was bordering on OOC, but I was curious about where he was going, so I mostly let it run. I'm not so sure he knows where he's going yet, either.

Title: a question of cost
Ficverse: Leverage
Series: Silver and Gold

Rating: Gen, PG
Length: 2300 ish
Characters: Sterling, Maggie
Teaser: if he didn’t dial this time, he was a bloody coward.

Notes: Yep, Sterling and Maggie again. Their relationship continues to be interesting to me
Warnings/Spoiler: Nothing past the S1 finales, and largely based on them. Can be read on its own, but follows and builds the previous series installments (linked below).
Disclaimer: Stuff that's not mine is not mine.
Feedback: let's hear it. The good, the bad, the ugly....

Sterling looked at the phone, hating that he’d reached for it three times without picking it up. He set his mouth. In the last few months they’d already met for lunch several times, along with many incidental office meetings, in the course of attempting to untangle the layers upon layers of claims caused by the theft and return of so many pieces. Their meals together had been both civil and productive. Even cordial, at times. This was no different. And if he didn’t dial this time, he was a bloody coward.

She answered after three rings. “Hello?”

He tried not to start analyzing her tone. “Maggie? Sterling.”

“Jim. How are you?”

She sounded calm. Casual. He hoped he could manage the same. “Oh – not bad. Listen, can I grab you for lunch? I could use your input on some things.”

She paused. “Oh. I ... yes. You mean today?”

He didn’t let her hesitation put him off, although he'd have liked to. “If that’s alright with you?”

“Oh – uh, yes.... No, of course. That would be fine.”

Tension loosened its grip on him somewhat with the quick return to her customary professionalism. “I’ll meet you at the gallery. Jake’s?” he asked, refering to a local place that was decent and usually quiet.

“Sure. 12.30?”

“See you then.” He surprised himself by adding, “Thanks.”

Even though her reply was matter-of-fact, there was a friendliness in it, too. “Of course.”

Waiting in the lobby for her, he found himself running an eye over the security measures. When Maggie appeared and caught him at it, he only smirked. “I see your crack squad is hard at work.”

Their recent interactions had made Maggie an adept in countering his barbs without taking offense. “Mm, and not a single theft yet.”

Sterling’s smirk widened into a grin, and he opened the door for her with a slight bow. Jake’s was only two blocks away, but the midday heat of late summer meant he arrived there with his shirtsleeves rolled up and envious of the light, fluttery material of Maggie’s shirt. He liked her in the flowy whites and pale golds she tended to wear; sometimes he felt like he was walking next to a crisp shaft of sunlight.

She glanced over at him, and he quickly scoured that thought from his brain. Also the thought that the shape of her neck when she wore her hair up that way was very ... nice.

He busied himself with ordering, and then focused ruthlessly on the contents of the folders he’d brought with him. This had been a stupid idea. Thankfully, what he’d brought along was legitimately something he needed to go over with her. He wasn’t so idiotic as to have a cover story with no substance, certainly not with Nate Ford’s ex. He’d just get through the lunch and finish it up naturally. Gracefully. And then remember to never try this again.

Maggie took an absent bite of her salad, absorbed in the last of the documents. “This is all do-able,” she said after swallowing. “Were you worried about the cost? The gallery can arrange it easily. What sort of timeframe are you thinking?”

“Two weeks?”

“Plenty of time.” She made a few notes, then shut away her smartphone and smiled up at him, an artless smile that spoke of comfortableness, of defensive walls not held up against him. “Well, that was painless.”

It was a smile he’d do a lot to see more often. In the last year or so, a sense of the rarity and value of real friendship had begun to make itself felt. Awkward, that. Maybe he was getting old, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to squelch it like he knew he should.

Sterling raised his glass. “To painless.”

She clinked it with hers, but he couldn’t miss the sudden downturn of her expression, no matter how quickly she hid it.

“It’s today, isn’t it?” he blurted, then cursed himself.

Her startled look told him she knew exactly what he was talking about. Her mouth opened slightly, but she didn’t immediately answer, seeming not to know what to say.

“Sorry,” he said, eager to fill the silence and take it back all at once. “Sorry. I didn’t – it’s none of my business. Forget I said it. I don’t.... Sorry.”

When he finally looked at her, there was a tiny smile on her face. “I’ve never seen you this flustered,” she said, and he wondered just how cruel she was going to be to him in return.

He set his mouth against the automatic squirm her observation produced, and shoved the files back in his briefcase. Yeah. This had been a brilliant idea. Snapping the case shut, dignity demanded that he face up again. Meet her eyes. If nothing else, he was not going to leave with his tail between his legs.

Maggie’s eyes were soft and sad, and stopped him in his tracks.

She just looked at him, making no effort to disguise the heartache. “Two years ago,” she said quietly.

Sterling swallowed. “I know.”

She nodded and dropped her gaze to the napkin she was twisting slowly in her fingers.

“Are you ... okay?” he asked hesitantly, then cursed to himself again, at the same time as her pained laugh. “Sorry,” he said again, though not as self-consciously.

“No ... it’s not.... I just don’t know how to answer that question.” She looked away, out the window at the blinding sunshine. “I haven’t even gone to the – grave, yet,” she said, stumbling over the word. “I was going to go this afternoon....”

Then she looked back at him, suddenly remembering who she was with, and drew back into herself. “I’m sorry. I –” Her mouth firmed, a mask of collectedness. “You’re right. This isn’t ... business.” She drew a breath, poised, isolated. “Was there anything else you needed?”

Studying her, he took no offense this time, a little ashamed at taking it before. He didn’t speak for a moment, and when he did, it was deliberate, gentle. “I asked.” He offered a tiny smile, as honest as he dared. “I was ... er, concerned.”

Maggie frowned. “Is that why you asked to meet today?”

He bit back the instinctive denial, and eventually admitted, “In part.” He sighed. In the light of real scrutiny, all his good intentions appeared suddenly very flimsy. “Look ... I know, I way overstepped my bounds. It’s not my place, and I shouldn’t have.... It wasn’t my place.” He gave a brief laugh, and he knew it came out bitter. He hoped she didn’t read too much into that, anything that wasn’t there. “I suppose, with everything that’s happened, I didn’t know if you had anyone who ... was nearby.”

He realized anew just how idiotic he sounded, and promptly shut his mouth. He hated this. Hated, hated, hated this. This was precisely why he never walked into a situation he couldn’t command. A grieving mother? An accomplice in an art theft against him – even if that was a one-off thing – and on-going colleague? Nate Ford’s brilliant and beautiful ex-wife? Several million red flags right there, and he’d ignored them all. Well, not so much ignored as disregarded. He wondered now why that was; those intentions were getting thinner by the second.

Maggie hadn’t said anything. He fiddled with the catch on the case, preparing to stand up and put this god-awful lunch out of its misery, when once again she stopped him dead.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, and when she met his eyes he knew those weren’t just polite words. Knew she was thanking him. That she meant it.

The flush of warmth Sterling felt at that was no less frightening than the prospect of making a fool of himself; but it was very much harder to master. “Of course,” he said gruffly.

She gave him an odd smile, then shook her head. “To tell the truth, I doubt any of the people I’m currently working with even know. And I ... I just don’t want to talk about it. I wouldn’t even know what to say to them.”

He nodded. “Is there anyone around ... family?”

She shook her head. “Not really.”

On impulse, he asked, “Is there anything I can do? I mean ... do you want someone to come with you this afternoon? Or something?”

The surprise in her eyes at what he’d said couldn’t be greater than what he felt himself. Especially when, for all that he could tell, she was really considering the offer.

“No,” she said, slowly. She looked out the window again, squinting against the glare. “I mean ... I don’t....”

“It’s alright,” he reassured her honestly. The mere fact that she’d actually thought about it before refusing was beyond anything he had any reason to expect.

She bit her lip, frowning at him again with equal honesty. “Sometimes I just don’t know what to make of you, Jim.”

He took a careful breath, not entirely sure about the atmosphere of transparency they appeared to have stumbled into. “Well ... what would help with that?”

“I ... don’t know what your angle is.”

Sterling didn’t wince. Considering everything, it was a fair comment. But the puff of consternation that escaped from him wasn’t fake. Sometimes, being an enthusiastically self-serving bastard could really come back and bite you in the arse. “Yeah.” His fingers drummed an erratic rhythm on the tabletop, but, unsurprisingly, didn’t dislodge anything helpful to the situation. “Yeah,” he said again, in self-defeat. Which was just too ironic for words. All you had to do to scotch James Sterling was to be James Bloody Sterling.

He jerked to his feet, case in hand, and clamped down on his mouth a split second before those easy, corrosive words spat out at a woman whose only son had died two years ago today. Basic decency wasn’t the most laudable baseline a man could have, perhaps, but in his life it was sometimes all he’d had to cling to. And he hadn’t always succeeded. But unleashing his scathing tongue at a wounded woman was not on.

He wasn’t about to trust his mouth to say anything. He merely nodded to her, plucked the check from the table and turned for the cash register. The smothering freedom of LA’s light and heat was only a few steps away.

But by the time he’d payed, she was waiting by the door. He gritted his teeth, but she spoke.

“I don’t think I should have said that,” she said candidly.

“It’s the truth, though, isn’t it?” he asked, keeping the pained note out of his tone as much as he could. After all, it wasn’t her fault that it hurt.

“Yes,” she continued with the same frankness. “It is.”

Sterling was not going to have this conversation in the middle of a cafe diner with some slack-jawed bottle-blonde waitress gawping at them across a cash register. He opened the door for Maggie and followed her out, squinting at the brightness that hit like a migrane even after all these years. “Maggie –”

Which was a superb place to realize he had nothing he knew how to say.

“The thing is,” she said, kindly, before his pause drowned to death in itself, “I just wouldn’t feel.... I couldn’t visit Sam’s grave with anyone.... I could only go with a friend. You know?”

He did, and no one could take offense at something like that. “You don’t have to explain yourself. I get it. It’s – alright.”

She nodded, gratitude in her clear eyes. They walked a block in their own thoughts, and the silence was not nearly as awkward as it ought to have been.

Waiting at the curb for the lights to change, Maggie asked, “You drove to the gallery?”

Sterling hummed an affirmative, not quite listening, then looked up when her inquiry seemed to linger on even after he’d answered. She was looking at him, but he didn’t know how to decipher her expression. He frowned questioningly, but her attention was caught by the other pedestrians stepping out into the road, and the moment evaporated.

It wasn’t until they arrived at the path to the gallery’s entrance that she stopped and faced him again. “You could ... give me a ride,” she said, not hiding her hesitation from him, her nervousness about making the offer that signified something more. Something like genuine friendship.

She couldn’t be any more nervous than he was to receive it. “You mean – are you – sure?”

A little laugh escaped her, a bubble of escaping strain. “I actually don’t know.” The warmth of the laugh was real, though, and stayed in her smile.

An answering laugh escaped him, too, but then he sobered, shaking his head. “Perhaps you shouldn’t be. You must have noticed I’m not exactly the world’s greatest friend. I’m just not ... that kind of guy. I wouldn’t even know how, any more. It’s often seemed best that way.” He shook his head again, giving what he could in return, no matter how paltry his honesty was in comparison to her generosity. “I’d only screw it up if I tried. I don’t want to do that to you. You deserve better in a friend than me, and that’s the only person I’m ever going to be. You don’t want that. Believe me.”

She was watching him, that smile still tugging at her mouth. “What about this,” she said eventually. “You come with me this afternoon, and I don’t ask you to be anyone but yourself.”

Sterling gaped for a second, and just like that, he had nothing else to say. Nothing to dissuade her offer of friendship, as sincere as it was rare, to warn her off giving even a small corner in her life to him. Nothing to weigh against the costs and entanglements of any kind of allegiance, he who flew so fast and so alone. Nothing to stuff the treacherous, frightening hope back down into the lockbox of his heart, where it belonged.

A friend. Of Maggie Collins. Of all people.

He pulled out his keys. “I’m parked over there.”

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.


( 13 speakses — have a speak )
Dec. 26th, 2010 11:04 am (UTC)
I've probably said it before (I hope I've said it before) but I absolutely adore this series, and your characterisation of these two people and (even better) the characterisation of their interactions. Absolutely spot on every time, and beautifully constructed. It's lovely to have stories in this fandom which are just about people *being*, not stealing or hacking or fighting or scheming every moment of every day. Fantastic, I love it.
Dec. 26th, 2010 11:24 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad! Thank you. If you've said it before, I'm fine with you saying it again :)

I feel like so far I'm just skimming the surface of what's going on, suggesting rather than delving right down into it. I'm driven by that question of who ARE you people?, but it's a still-hunt, you know? And that seems to be where each next interaction in the series comes from, me waiting until I can get at their guts. They're both so freaking guarded!

... Sometimes I think the way I talk about writing characters makes me sound like a crazy person. :/

Anyway. I'm thinking that this latest development will start shaking some fun things loose. :)
Dec. 27th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC)
I love this series! Maggie is one of my favorite characters, just so warm and smart and Maggie – it's so easy to see why Nate loved her and how she kept him sane, straight and honest for all those years. And her interactions with the team are a joy.

And Sterling, well, he's a right bastard, but he's a fabulous right bastard! And I can see him being drawn to Maggie even as he doesn't want to be. (But really, who can resist the power of Maggie? *g*)

And how much do I love this show, whose supposedly "minor" characters are so much better fleshed out and so much more real than major characters on so many other shows?
Dec. 27th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Yeah, I love seeing how Maggie's generosity and warmth work on Sterling in spite of himself. There's something about her that, to borrow Nate's line, makes a guy want to be a better man. I have no doubt that a lot of Nate's success in avoiding becoming his father for so long was due to her influence.

What I'm really interested to discover is how Sterling is going to affect her.

I think major credit goes to this show in the way they make all their characters, minor or not, internally consistent and real. They're not just there to service the plot and the main characters; they have histories, motives, fears, lives. It's also a credit to them that they've created their main characters strong and interesting enough that they don't need the minor characters to be deliberately constructed to show the main ones off. They can show up and just BE THAT AWESOME.
Jan. 4th, 2011 11:01 am (UTC)
I finally got around to reading this, and I'm glad I did. Your Sterling is so well-realised - not just some ruthless bastard who serves as a foil to Nate, but a complex guy with fears and desires and depth. I like that Maggie can see past their messy past, and offer him a chance.
Jan. 5th, 2011 07:50 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'm glad you did too. :)

Mark Sheppard very subtly gives him enough nuance that it's clear there are other sides to him, even though he'd never show them to Nate or the team. I don't want to lose touch with the ruthless side of him, thoug, and I definitely can't see him getting any softer than this right here! It's just that I don't see him treating the vulnerable the way he treats the strong; he doesn't hold back with the team, but for good reason. Maggie, on the other hand – especially a grieving Maggie – that's a different thing altogether.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 1st, 2011 11:12 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much :)

Sterling is certainly not a friends kind of guy! I'm curious about whether his statement about them once being friends was what he really believed, or whether he was just saying it because he knew it would annoy Nate. Put another way, were they friendly, or friends? Personally, I like to believe they really were friends, because that's a much more interesting interpretation. But even if they were friends, their ambition and trust issues would have meant it was always conditional. I think. Beyond about the third layer of their relationship, things become a bit indistinct!

I'm definitely going to keep developing these two's relationship (within the bounds of canon, anyway). We'll see what that turns up. ;)
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 3rd, 2011 06:46 am (UTC)
Hey, don't apologise for the tldr, these are my favourite kinds of comments. :)

I agree, there's a serious connection between them, especially how well Sterling seems to know him with the picture and everything, but I really don't know how Sterling views Nate. To me, it reads like he thinks Nate's stint with the team is just a phase he's going through, following the death of Sam and his divorce. I don't think it ever occurred to him that Nate was actually changing into a different person, that he wouldn't just snap out of it sometime – which is why, I think, Sterling expected the deal to work and why when Nate announces he's a thief, Sterling admits he really doesn't know who this guy is. The Nate Sterling knew would never, ever embrace criminality. Nor fight for thieves.

The saving the other from the abyss idea is interesting, though. What sorts of things point to that for you? Personally, I don't count the letting them get out of the offices before they blew, because to me killing is a line that none of them (except on occasion Eliot) would ever contemplate crossing. And Nate interacting with the team in a "good" way – you mean like meaty conflict, or something else?

– The armchair! I always thought that was a fabulous character note for him. What kind of guy goes and puts an armchair in a truck just to create an image for one arrest? It shows his penchant for theatricality. He doesn't do mind-games like Nate, but he always has a sense for appearances and a real feel for striking the right impression. Such as climbing out of the trunk in front of reporters in Russia! The guy cracks me up.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 5th, 2011 10:38 pm (UTC)
(I haven't seen Inception, so I'll take your word for it.)

See, the other side of this (and the reason the dynamic between them is so complicated) is that there's a sense where their inherent competition with one another was let off the leash the moment they're on opposite sides of the law, or right and wrong as they see it. Where before they competed, but within the bounds that they both recognised that they were both catching thieves, doing the honourable thing. I seem to recall something (it might have been Rogers talking about it on his blog) where the drinking on the roof together ritual was a way they acknowledged who was currently "ahead" between the two of them.

So although I think Sterling has certain opinions about what Nate's doing and why, I think he's also relishing the opportunity to really go head-to-head. Probably a little more than Nate, who has other considerations, but I think it's there for Nate too. So ... I really don't know where they stand with each other right now. Like you, I want the show to get Sterling back (S3 just wasn't the same without him!) and keep exploring that.

I see what you mean with the interaction thing, now. A lot of it plays at the subtext level, of course, because Nate is not someone who openly or easily shows his affection for people. Nate being Nate, I think we may just have to take it a little bit on faith, or by the team's interpretation of what he does, I guess. Like in Beantown Bailout, I think it was, Sophie saying that he did miss them, even though that wasn't necessarily obvious from the scene.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 7th, 2011 09:34 pm (UTC)
Have you read The Ring Job (at fanfiction.net)? Lots of interesting interaction bewteen Sterling and Nate (and the team).
Feb. 5th, 2013 09:34 am (UTC)
Oh Sterling.
...Sterling. Sterling, Sterling, Sterling.


Lost cause, Sterling. You're a completely lost cause.

I love his squirming here, his self-second-guessing. I love how easy it is to retcon in his fatherhood, I love Maggie's unease, but willingness to give into an instinctive and irrational thought that maybe this is what she should be doing on this day, and with whom. This is a really lovely installment, because for two such canon-tropey, ill-defined, only-know-em-through-their-relationships-with-other-characters characters, they're both so three-dimensionally, flawed-and-believable, nuanced real people here. The easy flirty undercurrent gives way to something more fundamental, something more solid. And that's more real too, and feels like a completely natural progression, and yet still with a realistic and awkward tentativeness.

I love it. I love it so much. And I love them, and I love you for being my Leverage dealer. I love all the things. ALL OF THEM. :)
Feb. 5th, 2013 12:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Oh Sterling.
I have just sent you a STUPID LONG email, so I won't say much more here except YES and COMPLETELY and &HEARTS FOREVER. (Except my Rolo Lampkin icon REFUSES to give any credence to such a load of codswallop. Sterling doesn't know the MEANING of "lost cause"!)

<3<3<3<3<3 and you're so, so welcome. :D
Feb. 6th, 2013 10:42 am (UTC)
Re: Oh Sterling.
Snort and <3 <3 and y'think so Lampkin/Sterling, do you? Really? ... *flicks hair* *flounces off muttering* you tell yourself that if it makes you feel better sweetheart.... heh. ;)
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