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more Maggie and Sterling

Yeah, so, it seems that these two are quietly becoming my favourite pair to write in Leverage. I can't tell you why, other than there's a level of adult-ness to them and their relationship(s) that the team don't have so much? I don't know. Anyway. This little interaction has been in the back of my head since at least the third installment; I wasn't entirely sure where it would take them but by the end it became pretty definite.

Title: this kind of liability
Ficverse: Leverage
Series: Silver and Gold

Rating: Gen, PG
Length: 2600 ish
Characters: Sterling, Maggie
She’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.
Notes: The continuing interactions of Maggie and Sterling. Links to the previous series installments are at the end, but they're designed to be self-contained within the conceit of exploring what would happen if they slowly became friends in the aftermath of the S1 finale.
Warnings/Spoiler: Set immediately after The Maltese Falcon Job (2.15).
Disclaimer: Stuff that's not mine is not mine.
Feedback: let's hear it. The good, the bad, the ugly....

Sterling stood at her door, thinking very hard about calling. The problem with that, of course, was that every time he’d had his phone in hand in the last two days to do that, he’d only been able to think very hard about going to her door, to do it in person. And that was why he hadn’t let himself think of anything at all until after he’d knocked.

The door opened, and Maggie Collins’s face lit up when she saw him. Maggie Collins smiled when she saw him. She’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.

“James – what is it?”

No hesitation, he couldn’t afford it. “Maggie, I need to talk to you. About Nate.”

She went pale, clutched at the door, no mistaking of his tone. “What happened?”

“He’s been shot. – He’s stable, don’t worry, the surgeon says he should recover within the month.” He took a deep breath, watching her worry subside slightly. “At which point he’ll be transferred to a supermax prison to await trial.”

She stared at him, still holding onto her front door, and he found it hard to meet her eyes.

“I think you’d better come inside,” she said eventually, chin rising with that steel of hers, steel that he’d seen carry her through more things in the last four years than most people endured in a lifetime.

He obeyed, inexplicably feeling his heart drop. He should be glad she was taking this calmly – any straight man in his right mind thanked heaven for a female friend who didn’t fall apart weeping at this kind of news. Which meant he was glad. Even so, he found himself hovering behind her, unsure what to do about it.

She led him into the living area, and he couldn’t help but draw a deep breath at the familiarity of the wide open room. Years of history bound up in these walls and the Fords’ hospitality, drinking whiskey with Nate after dinner, while Maggie put their son to bed and did domestic things in the background or retired to her office to work late. But there were changes too, as he ran his eyes hungrily over the space, taking in a subtle but profound sense of a home governed by Maggie’s sensibilities alone. The deep, full colours were as he remembered but less restrained, more casually used, paired with much softer neutral tones. It was airy and conveyed an unabashed, comfortable sensuality he could never picture Nate inhabiting. He liked it.

Maggie had come to a stop at the service window into the kitchen, hand resting on the counter’s edge like she had with the door, seeking something solid. Looking at him as if he was the one who’d know what came next.

He wracked his brain. “Are you – do you need something?” The kitchen gave him an idea. “A cup of tea?”

That seemed to pull her out of her daze a little, and she nodded. He went around, into the kitchen, and put on the kettle, feeling the strange tug where memory and reality no longer overlapped after – three years? four? He found the mugs after the second try, and the tea things after the third. Thumbing through the teas, it seemed she still preferred the strong black ones. With milk, no sugar, if he remembered aright. He checked anyway.

“Just milk,” she confirmed. “James, please. Tell me what happened.”

He opened his mouth, paused, and was saved by the boiling of the kettle. But he could only fuss over that convincingly for so long. He set her mug on her side of the counter, met her eyes, and then found it necessary to buy a few more seconds by coming out to join her on the living room side.

“Just – can we sit down, please?” He could hear the concern in his own voice, just another of those dangerous little tells that gave away power advantage in any relationship; over the last year, he’d noticed himself become more and more open around her. And it bothered him that it didn’t bother him more.

She merely pulled out the barstool under the counter, and sat with a hard, impatient set to her mouth. He settled himself on its twin, then curled his hand around his mug, drawing on the age-old panacea of tea to brace himself. He looked up.

“He got himself mixed up with an international gunrunning organization.”

She blinked several times, assimilating this, then gave a pained huff. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” she said. “Why were you there? I mean, you were there, weren’t you?”

Her speed on the uptake was still unnerving sometimes. “I was there. I was chasing the gunrunner, an Albanian. Kadjic.”

“Before or after you knew Nate was involved?” There was an edge growing in her tone, and he resisted the unfamiliar urge to start lying.

“A little of both.”

“Pardon me?”

“I keep tabs on Nate.” It annoyed him, peversely, that he had to explain this. For all the time she spent adjacent to his world – Nate’s world – she remained astonishingly naive about it in some ways. How could she not understand that he would track the potential danger her ex-husband posed? “Not close enough to trip any alarms, just an ear to the ground. The arms-dealing flagged a possible ingress location near Boston, and not much later a photo of Nate turned up in FBI files connected to the case.”

“I see.” Those rich blue eyes of hers, normally so warm and open, drilled into him in that way that he had always found so amusing when she did it to Nate. This felt very much worse, and Sterling had more sympathy for Nate’s half-baked babbling explanations. But for himself, it only had the effect of making his annoyance sharper. He bit it back; it couldn’t help anything.

Abruptly she stood, leaving the tea untouched. She strode to the glass doors, opened out to the back porch, and stood in the doorway, breathing the outside air, hard. Following her didn’t seem like a good idea, so he just sat where he was and tried to ignore the way the late afternoon sun caught at her. The way it brought out her golden beauty, on top of everything else. It felt like he’d spent half his life trying not to notice the way she glowed, and he was sick of it.

It took her a few minutes before she asked, without turning around, “Are you going to tell me you got into this in order to help him?”

The question jerked him to his feet, and he had to force his hands to unclench. Took a few breaths, which didn’t really help. “What are you really asking me?”

She faced him now, as angry as he was. “You know what I’m asking!”

He found himself pacing toward her. As he got closer, he could see her hurt as well as anger. “Then say it! Don’t get cowardly on me now, Margaret Collins.”

The look she gave him froze him in his tracks; it made him want to hold her. Why would he want to hold her?

“Is this what it takes, James? To beat him? Nate shot and arrested – have you finally won?”

He sneered. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d turned such an expression on her, if he ever had, but he was good at it – and it was ever so much easier than acknowledging the frightening need to bring her into his arms, to make it all better somehow, to wipe away the tears he could see gathering in her eyes.

Kiss away. He wanted to kiss closed eyelids and blot away the tears, shelter her body close with his.

He rocked back, away from her, clinging to the shield of his well-practiced sneer. “Oh – that’s – what you think this –” He shook his head to clear it, not bothering to finish the banality.

“– Is about? You and Nate’s stupid pissing contest? Yes!” She came forward, and even incensed and spitting crudities at him, her grace never deserted her. His body wanted to both recoil and meet her halfway, and as a result stayed rooted to the spot. He’d never known quite what to do with Maggie Collins, and he was dismayed to think he might be discovering the reason why.

No. He just needed to regain control; he’d just left too much of the situation out of his hands for far too long. Too much of the relationship. He shoved the whole emerging mess back down to wherever it had come from, met her eyes fearlessly, voice cold, measured.

“Shot and imprisoned. That’s how I wanted to beat Nate? My goodness, Maggie, that is quite a vindictive picture you draw of me.” She opened her mouth, but he was not about to relinquish the initiative yet. He closed the last of the space between them, eyes boring into hers. “What next? Another oblique question, which will turn out to suggest that getting the best of Nate is the only reason I’d befriend you either?”

The shock on her face told him she hadn’t even considered the possibility, and he stamped on a surge of shame. It didn’t help to be reminded that one reason he always came out on top was that he could, when push came to shove, out-bastard everyone else in the room.

But come to think of it, it didn’t hurt either.

Once again she was opening her mouth, and he could see it all on her face. She had made no attempt to hide the pain and the courage to ask him if that was true; and there went that advantage. He’d never be able to lie directly to her like this, and who knew what humiliating sentiment would come out of his mouth if she pressed the matter?

I never really believed you’d be friends with me. I knew it wouldn’t last. But I couldn’t pass the chance up.

I wish I’d dared ask you to dance to that band playing by the river.

You are the most magnificent woman I have ever known. You were always out of my league.

The admissions swarmed the tip of his tongue; he choked them back, mortified, and tightened his grip on the upper hand. This proximity was deadly. Distance, he needed distance, just needed her to hate him for a second. Which was not an emotion he usually had trouble provoking. “What did you expect? Where did you think Nate’s crusade would get him? It was his choice to become a criminal. It was his choice to get involved in this case. Don’t put this on me because it makes you feel better about what your ex has become.”

She’d squeezed her eyes shut, swiped away tears with elegant fingers, and when she met his gaze again she was apologetic and so, so open. Just his luck to have somehow made a friend of a genuinely good, honest woman. He should have known that putting her in the wrong wouldn’t make her push back defensively – it would only make her try to put it right. She never reacted the way a normal person would, which might have been why he’d never managed to formulate a plan when it came to her. Yet it had always seemed worth the risk. It made the desire to touch her, hold her, nearly overwhelming, and she was standing right there, right in reach. He could only imagine her horror, her gentle let down, if he tried.

It was better than a bucket of icewater.

“I’m sorry, James – you’re right, that was unworthy, I shouldn’t –”

In the clarity afforded by the idea of her pitying face, he realized how to get the space he desperately needed from her, to regain any kind of self-possession. He would have to be the one in the wrong, and that was always depressingly easy. All he’d have to do is state enough of the bald truth, and let her preconceptions of him do the rest.

“I don’t know what I expected, really,” he opened with, caustic and arrogant. “Of course I went there because of Nate. His little caper might actually have succeeded, and then where would my first case be? No collar, no credit, and that is simply not an acceptable way to begin my time at Interpol. Not to mention Nate’s involvement made everything easier. I know him, know his style, his team, his pressure points. I know where to squeeze to get what I want out of him. Bringing an end to his criminal career was the cherry on top, and if that’s what it took, I can live with that.”

Nate laughing on the deck of the freighter, half-hysterical, half-relieved, came back to mind, painfully stark; the declaration My name’s Nate Ford. And I am a thief. Sterling refocused on Maggie, on her eyes that were confused, sad – questioning. Not angry. And far too close to his. For one wild moment, he found himself hoping she saw right through him, through this tactic of his he’d once even pointed out to her. But the moment passed; he could not risk her seeing anything if he could possibly help it.

His mouth thinned. “He’s a thief, Maggie. Maybe he always has been. Like father, like son, hm? Once upon a time, right from wrong was important to you. But evidently all it takes is blind affection for your ex to override that.”

“James....” She shook her head, grieved, drawing him in. And still not nearly angry enough. “Why – what are you –”

He stiffened, stepped back. Pulled out his most cutting tone. “You’ll understand if I want to keep my distance from that kind of thinking. I have a career path to climb.” He was faltering, he could feel it. He dug deep for the right truth, resolutely blocking out the sense of burning every precious bridge he’d managed to build with her. He’d come too far; one way or another, he could no longer deny to himself that he would never be able to be mere friends with her, and that could only end in humiliation. All that was left was to exit on his own terms. He added as much condescension he could muster. “It’s a weakness. I can’t keep pretending I can afford this kind of liability in a friend.”

Her mouth fell open, with all the shock and anger he could hope for, along with all too much hurt. He should turn, walk away, never look back – but he couldn’t move. A thousand apologies and explanations bubbled up, anything to make her stop looking at him like that, to assure her that she was one of the most pure and treasured things in his life and he never wanted to give up the friendship she had so unstintingly offered him. He was about two seconds from promising to do anything he had to, to prove it to her.

The slap was loud, sharp, and snapped him out of it. His hand came up to cover the smart of it, unable to look away just yet. “Thanks,” he said quietly.

“Leave my house,” she said, all that beautiful steel of hers directed straight at him. He smiled, and felt the bitterness in it, before easing away from her and doing just that.

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.


( 4 speakses — have a speak )
Aug. 15th, 2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
This was lovely and thoughtful, really delving into Sterling's vulnerability and bastardiness both. Great fic.
Aug. 16th, 2012 12:48 am (UTC)
Thank you! I love digging at Sterling, there's so much more going on in there than what he shows to the team. And Maggie is the perfect foil, so. :)
Feb. 24th, 2013 03:58 am (UTC)
OK. Resuming regular programming with the re-read, and you know what I love about this installment? Many things, for example, the follwing:

The whole exchange is fabulous. The shift in their relationship (and of course Nate is the catalyst for that shift... of course he is. heh.) is really nicely done; the off-balance-ness of both of them throughout the exchange (coming from very different places of course), which throws them off balance too. Love it.

I love being inside Sterling's head. I love the self-doubt, because it's such a rare emotion for canon Sterling, self-doubt (what am I feeling/shit that can't be what's going on here/her reaction to that would be horror/I need to scare her the hell off now ... all that well-realised equivocation, all that grey, in such and outwardly self-assured character. Woot!) is the last thing he would normally project, would ever want to project, and seeing inside his head makes him so much more three-dimensional (and all totally in character, too, btw. I buy all it, completely).

I love that the bastardry here is a conscious and considered choice. Again, fits in beautifully with this character you've drawn who's more three-dimensional. He's not A Bastard, Full Stop. He's more complex, he knows what he's doing, he adopts that posture knowingly and for his own ends. I like the self-awareness of it.

And ... I love that Maggie's not perfect here. She's great and I love her, but she's a little cruel to our boy here, with the whole Nate stuff. He pushes her by the end, of course, and she's just had a shock, but I really love that you have her as capable of more than complete, total and constant moral perfection, if you see what I'm getting at. Again: more three-dimensional. More real.

Also, way to drive a wedge :D
Mar. 1st, 2013 08:47 am (UTC)
AUGH, I'm so sorry it took so long to get back to you. But YAYNESS for us anyway :):)

and of course Nate is the catalyst for that shift... of course he is. heh.

Right? I love it. The poor dears.
/not that sympathetic really

I think I'm a pretty sadistic writer, actually. I love sticking in the knife and twisting it a little. And a little more. Aaaaaand ... a little more. I love seeing Sterling blindsided and flailing as you describe, HATING being out of control and potentially at the mercy of another, even if it's another that (as it turns out) he loves, and doing whatever he has to to get that control back. And I LOVE that there's a person in his world that can do that to him.

And I find the idea that he's self-aware so intriguing, so I'm glad you like the way I write it! I feel like you can see him in the show, tuning it up or down to what his goals require. He's so flexible with it! Sure, there's a solid basis of bastard underneath, but there's still more going on than that.

Also yay for Maggie being more than complete, total and constant moral perfection, which, yes, exactly. I love her, she's awesome and extraordinary, but she's still human. Nate might put her on a pedestal, both in their marriage and his memory, but with Sterling in the picture, from a narrative perspective, she's able to be human, both the good and the bad. And he calls her on things, which I also love about them together.

Also, way to drive a wedge :D

Hee, thanks. It was all getting so cosy and understanding there, something had to happen! So something DID. Hehehehe.
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