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Yaaaaay, this installment got finished fiiiiinally. Maybe the next ones won't take as long? Let's not hold our breaths.


Title: hold and release
Ficverse: Leverage
Series: Silver and Gold
Rating: Gen, PG
Length: 3600 ish
Characters: Sterling, Maggie
Teaser: Sitting 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.
Notes:
–This is a series focused on a slowly-evolving relationship between Maggie and Sterling in the aftermath of the S1 finale, tying it to recognisable events in the show's canon and how that might impact them. It is a vignette-style series (so far), designed to contain enough context that each be able to be read on its own, although they do build together.
–The series is intended to remain canon-compliant, so I've been dawdling along the journey until I knew I can give them some kind of not-ruled-out-by-canon resolution together. I like the slow burn. Also, I'm a slow writer.
–On that note, massive, massive, massive love and appreciation to im_ridiculous. There is not space to list all her accomplishments, but without her cheerleading, above-and-beyond dedication to long rambling headcanon conversations, prodding and poking, and beta-ing, this series would be near-terminally stalled. (My dear, I am honoured to have been your gateway drug.) Any blips or bloops are totally mine.
–Links to the other installments are at the end.
Warnings/Spoiler: Set amidst The San Lorenzo Job (3.16). Also alludes to backstory from The Queen's Gambit Job (4.10).
Disclaimer: Stuff that's not mine is not mine.
Feedback: let's hear it. The good, the bad, the ugly....




Sitting 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.

Not that being stuck in Sterling’s home was any fun at all. It would have been much less awkward if she’d stayed in a hotel, which he had offered as an alternative to his spare room. But the thought of being stranded alone in a hotel room, waiting for days on end for word that Nate was either successful or dead so that she could resume her life, was completely unbearable.

And Sterling had hardly been around at all. He usually didn’t get home from work until eight or nine in the evening. In the brief periods he was home, he was distant – distracted, it seemed, but polite, and she couldn’t tell if he was avoiding her on purpose or not.

Not that they’d had any real reason to talk, beyond the status of the team and their mark.

It had got to the point where she couldn’t tell which was tying her stomach in knots more, the prospect of Nate’s death or the turmoil Sterling dredged up in her. She wondered if that made her a terrible person. But then, there was nothing she could do about Nate, in more ways than one. Nate had chosen his path. Sterling himself had pointed that out to her a year ago, right before telling her that she was a liability to him and he didn’t want to know her any more.

Sterling, who had asked her to put her life in his hands based on little more than his say-so, right after admitting that he’d once used Nate’s love for her and Sam to trap and imprison him. And she had. Without question. In spite of everything, she still trusted him implicitly to keep her safe.

She told herself that she was just counting on the fact that he hated the very idea of losing with a passion, nothing more. Depending on Sterling not to lose was the furthest thing from gambling there was.

And if only he hadn’t grabbed her with that raw fear on his face, if only he hadn’t yelled at her about that car-bombed family, about all the things this kind of criminal would do to innocent people like her – if he hadn’t looked so nakedly desperate – she could keep comfortably believing that not losing was all he cared about. She could keep from feeling his hands around her wrists, implacable but not harsh, the suggestion of thumbs smoothing over pulse points....

Maggie shook her head, refocusing furiously on her work, as she had every time she found herself obsessing over this, trying to make sense of it. It wouldn’t change anything. She had mostly let go of Sterling and all associated issues in the intervening year, she really had, and as soon as this was all over, she could go back to mostly letting it go again.

She managed for about five minutes before shivering, setting aside her laptop, and pulling her jacket closer around her. The winter sunlight wasn’t really warm enough against the cold breeze, but she’d spent her days out here as much as she could. It made her feel less cooped up – less conscious of being in Sterling’s home.

Because inside, it was impossible to get away from him. He didn’t have to be home for her eyes to find him everywhere she looked; occupational hazard of living and working in the art world. There was no denying the excellence of the design, and a year ago she would have reveled in it.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised by it all, the man had a penchant for quality and a flair for the dramatic. There was a visceral pleasure in how boldly the dark swathes of stone and wood played with the open layout of the space. It was balanced perfectly – how perfectly, few would ever notice – with ash and earth tones, with spare touches of deep color and silver accent serving as punctuation, the palette flirting with seeming monochromatic while being anything but. Her avid eyes had even picked out the tints of color buried deep in the black stone. The overall effect was intense but not heavy-handed, while the sturdy furnishing made the place feel comfortable, just slightly worn and lived-in. Potent. And ... inviting.

And the art – well. That was just too perfect. He even had a Turner, and two Whistlers, a story of nostalgia and national pride played out right there (no Constable, though; probably far too pastoral for him). Then, there was the sculpture: a tall ship, about three feet long, twisted out of steel rods welded together. Its sails and hull strained to the wind, scribbled in metal through air, heavy and elegant and proud. It had been expertly positioned as the focal point for the whole space, properly mounted and lit to capture and enhance its contours rather than flatten them, making fingers itch to touch – just as they ought to.

She was really beginning to want to ask Sterling for the name of the decorator; he or she was ingenious.

She shivered again. The cold wind was getting stronger, and it looked like it would rain later. Meanwhile, the deep leather sofa in there looked welcoming – and warm – and practically begging for a blanket and a mug of coffee to make it into a very cosy little nest.

She looked around herself, at the uncomfortable little makeshift-in-exile office she’d assembled out here, and it dawned on her just how stupid this was. She was being stupid, and more than that, she was being cowardly. She’d let herself hide out here, miserable and cold and worried, for days on end. No matter how clever the design, it was just a room, just a home. The sofa was just a sofa. She may never get to the point of being able to say that anything was “just” James Sterling, but letting his home get the better of her was pathetic, and she had no intention of letting it continue.

She stood, then looked through the glass door and hesitated, wrapping her arms around herself. If she were really going to be honest with herself, she wasn’t quite sure if the problem was that she found being inside Sterling’s home uncomfortable – or if she was afraid that she would find it far too comfortable, far too easily.

And wasn’t that the problem? She still – still! – couldn’t reconcile the friend he’d been, the man who she was now trusting to keep her safe, and who had a home that looked like that – and the way he’d ended things, the contempt he’d shown for her. It wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay, and try as she might she couldn’t make sense of it. She was beginning to want to scream with the frustration of it all.

Maggie set her jaw suddenly, and marched inside, slamming the door closed behind her. She didn’t stop until she stood right in the middle of the space, glaring around at the decor that evoked him so inescapably well. She glared, and glared, letting the frustration build to the right pitch.

It’s not okay!” she yelled once she was ready, fists balled at her sides. “It is not okay, James Sterling! I don’t get it! I don’t get why you did it!” She was breathing heavily with the exertion, but it felt amazing to just let loose, here, like this, at the top of her voice. “It’s not okay what you did to me, and you are an asshole!

I trusted you. I let you into my life, into my pain – into Sam’s graveside, for God’s sake! I loved getting to know you, I felt special that you let me see below that smug, harsh, brilliant outside of yours. I liked you. I cared about you. And then you ripped it away. You made me feel like I was nothing but a speed bump in your path.

You made me feel like a fool.


She stopped and pressed a hand to her chest, above the ache, and caught her breath. Then wiped away the wetness in her eyes, glad that she could make a spectacle of herself at him without him actually witnessing it.

The strangest thing was it seemed to have helped. She looked around herself, feeling the tension of the last four days fade away. She was still unhappy, and hurt, and anxious about Nate, and the whole situation was still fundamentally awkward. Nor had the space lost any of its Sterling-ness; if anything, confronting it like this made it even more obvious. But now it felt like she could hold her head up and look it in the eye, straight and unafraid. And, oddly, could appreciate its appeal without feeling self-conscious about it.

Briskly she moved her things inside, and put on a fresh pot of coffee.

By the time the man himself arrived home that evening, rain was pouring down outside, and she was curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and a book from his study. She watched him putting away his briefcase and coat, then said calmly, “There’s a casserole warming in the oven, if you want some.”

Sterling paused. She didn’t blame him, considering that the first, and pretty much only, exchange between them was always any news of Nate? But if he had anything new, he’d tell her, and meanwhile she was just happy that the reprieve was holding up even in his actual presence.

She should have shouted at imaginary-him months ago.

“Thank you,” he said, taking a cue from her casualness, before shedding his jacket and tie in his bedroom and heading to the kitchen. “Smells good,” he offered, and the routine nature of it hit her, the reserved courtesy he’d never deviated from for all those family dinners where he’d been Nate Ford’s friend, and she’d been Nate Ford’s wife. For years they’d never made any attempt to be anything else, anything more. And now....

Maggie stood, unhurried, bringing her half-finished wine with her – it was something to have in her hand, and why not top it up, while she was there? At the click of it on the granite counter beside him, Sterling glanced up, startled, but only passed the wine over in silence.

She felt like she was testing herself, for whether the tension was really gone, for what it would feel like to stand next to him now. The first thing she noticed was the height he had on her with her in her socks; she’d never thought of Sterling as tall, before. It was making her oddly aware of the few square feet shared between them, the interplay of bodies and tasks, drawers and cabinets, hedged in together by counters. She lost a few seconds watching his hands, then put it down to how living alone for a few years rearranged someone’s concept of intimate space.

For that matter, how long had he lived alone? Had he ever lived with someone? She’d known him for over a decade, and yet she had no idea. It stole over her, with something like shock, how much she’d taken for granted even when they’d been friends. How little effort she’d ever made to seek out anything beyond the here-and-now he had given of himself.

Not that it excused what he did; nor did she think it was the reason he’d done it. But the regret of it – regret that she’d neglected her chance to know who James Sterling really was – was much deeper than she would have thought. And in that was another revelation: she had missed him, missed what he had given her. The unexpected warmth and humor and sly compassion of him, his keen wit and keener eye. She missed his voice in her life, teasing her, and challenging her, the way he made the simplest conversation something unique and exhilerating.

She looked over at him, really looked, and was struck by how tired he seemed. Lines drew creases around his mouth, and circles under his eyes. Several days’ stubble shaded his normally clean-shaven face, smattered with gray – matching strands in his hair that she didn’t remember from a year ago. She frowned, a little disturbed that she’d ignored all these signs of overwork, along with anything else that wasn’t directly about Nate or the position she was in because of him.

Without asking, she got a wine glass out for him, poured and put it next to the plate he had just finished loading. Then she waited until she caught his eye.

Once she did, she said quietly, “It’s not okay.”

The flicker of surprise on his face turned into grim resignation, but he didn’t look away. She took that as allowance for her to continue, so she took the opportunity, even if there wasn’t much more she felt like saying at this stage. “The way you did it? We don’t have to – if you can’t be my friend, then that’s the way it is, but how you did it ... it’s not okay.”

Sterling held her gaze, braced so steadily she might have missed the exhaustion if she hadn’t already seen it. “I know,” he said simply, a ghost of sadness in it.

She nodded; it was more than she’d expected. “Now that’s out of the way – are you alright?”

He’d been stoic before; now he froze, staring at her like he couldn’t believe his ears. It was kind of hilarious, and kind of heartbreaking, that the only thing to blindside him was a basic expression of concern. He opened his mouth, but it took a few seconds before he could respond.

“Of course,” he lied.

There was a laugh in her soft snort, but no affront. Then, instinct choosing the way to make her point, she raised her hand. Surprisingly, Sterling didn’t pull away; he just stood still, dazedly watching her as she traced fingers over the frown lines etched on his forehead.

“James,” she chided, letting her thumb sweep lightly across the shadows under his eyes, feeling a peculiar bolt of power through her at the way his eyes nearly fluttered closed at it. Mesmerized, the brush of cheekbone and stubble was under her palm before she realized this was the same hand-to-cheek with which she’d slapped him a year ago. She dropped her hand, tingling to the fingertips.

He exhaled, deep, like he’d been steeling himself at her touch, but he’d permitted it, so she supposed that meant one way or another she hadn’t transgressed too far. She shook her head, returning to her point. “Don’t lie outright. You’re not very good at it.”

“Working on that,” he muttered, wry enough to get a tiny smile out of her. “I didn’t – wouldn’t think it mattered.”

Maggie arched her eyebrows at him. “Why? Because if we stop being friends, I’ll stop caring about you? I’m angry, and hurt, not ...” she searched for the right word, “not hateful.”

And more than capable of dealing with difficult men, at that. While there had been times when she’d deliberately sought and enjoyed simplicity in her social life – this past year, for example – it didn’t mean her a-game was rusty.

Unlike his, apparently. And, because she knew well enough that “not hateful” was a question of what choices she made as much as anything else, she took mercy on him. “Your food is going to get cold. And I’m going to turn in. If you do want to talk about whatever’s got you so stressed out, then – well, I’m around. For now, at least.” She smiled a little, to take the back-handed sting out of that.

He just looked at her, for what felt like a long time, although strangely even that didn’t make her uncomfortable. In the end, he acknowledged her making the offer with a blank, “Okay.”

“Okay.” She retrieved her wine and her book and went to bed.

The next few days settled into a distant kind of comfortableness. Overlap in the kitchen and unavoidably shared meals over the weekend led to something like light conversation becoming possible, even spontaneous. It wasn’t the steady civility of their pre-friendship acquaintance. It certainly wasn’t the warm, flickering banter they’d fallen into later. It wasn’t the jarring utility of their exchanges since then. It still had its share of awkwardness, and caution on both sides; they never returned to the topic of what happened a year ago, nor did he bring up what was going on with him now, yet strangely the air between them still felt more honest. At the very least it was an improvement.

He didn’t stay as late at work, either, and Maggie was almost beginning to look forward to dinner with him each evening. But she didn’t expect it, didn’t think of it as a regular thing. So a few nights later, when he didn’t get home until 11, there was no good reason for her to still be waiting up. There wasn’t much cause for concern, either, other than the worry that had been simmering away for over a week now over whether her ex-husband was alive or dead.

The moment Sterling walked in the door, his eyes found her balled on the sofa, took in at a glance the book discarded off to the side, her hands conspicuously empty and anxious. She flushed to see him notice, the understanding on his face, but he strode straight over before she could do anything to correct any conclusions he might draw.

He hunkered down on the coffee table, leaned forward, and began without preamble, “I got a call from Spencer today. They’re all fine, and Moreau is taken care of. You’re in the clear.”

Maggie could only stare at him, breath frozen in her throat until she remembered she needed it. Once she’d caught it, she asked, “You – you’re sure? I mean, it’s really...?”

“Over. Yes. We’ve been checking into it. It took a while, but I didn’t want to leave before we’d confirmed it. You’re free.”

He watched her register the relief for a minute, before adding, “If you want, I can take you home tonight. Or in the morning. Whichever you prefer.”

“I – oh. Yes. Um – tonight, please?”

He nodded. “As soon as you’re ready to go.”

She stared at him for a second, while her brain completed its u-turn, then scrambled up off the sofa. She was at the door of the spare room before she stopped and looked back; Sterling hadn’t moved, staring tiredly down at his hands.

He looked up when she called his name, then stood when he saw she’d come back toward him.

“I just – thank you. So much. For ... keeping me safe. Having me here.” For still caring that much, at least. “I know ... I can see you have far too much on your plate already. I know you didn’t want to have to, ah, have to deal with me, and Nate’s –”

A shake of the head, a gesture, stopped her. “It was the least I could do,” he said quietly.

He didn’t look away, but when he didn’t say anything else, she nodded. “Well, thank you, anyway,” she said, and turned to get on with packing up.

“Maggie –”

Surprised, she turned again, to find him still watching her. After a moment, he walked over to her, his agitation obvious in contrast with his usual insouciance. She frowned, opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, ridiculous, half-formed fears springing up again, but he cut across it all with an abrupt, “I’m sorry.”

He studied her for a second, while her confusion replaced fear, and softened his second, “I’m sorry.” When he saw that she still wasn’t getting it, he elaborated, “For what I said to you. That day. I know it was – I knew it was an awful thing to say. You’re not –” He stopped himself there, a shake of the head for whatever he was going to say. “I can’t.... I’m sorry. That’s all.”

Held by those dark hazel eyes that locked away so much, Maggie was seized once more by the desire to raise her hand to his face, to draw him out with a touch; turn him inside out. She didn’t know if she’d succeed, but she wanted to try.

She didn’t move. He wasn’t offering anything but his apology, and she wasn’t a thief.

“Okay,” she said finally, with an odd, sinking feeling that the last loose end – the last connecting thread of their old relationship, however painful – had just been severed and tied off, leaving the expanse between them utterly empty. It was a little frightening to feel how vast the difference between just one thread and nothing felt.

Sterling smiled, a tight little twitch of the lips, sardonic and gentle at the same time. “Don’t worry, Maggie. It really is alright, it’s over, I promise. Provided Nate confines himself to his usual marks in the future, you won’t have to go through this ever again.” His hand raised, as if to touch her, and was just as suddenly checked. “Come on. Get your things, and I’ll take you home.”





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
Mar. 6th, 2013 12:05 pm (UTC)
YAY. YAY YOU, WOMAN I AM SO PROUD OF YOU, THIS IS FREAKIN BEAUTIFUL.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This turned out so well - SO well - and knowing the background thinking that went into it... I'm so pleased for you that it's come together as beautifully as it has :) Because at the same time, you've created this chapter that isn't weighed down by all the thinking you had to do,if that makes sense. It reads like it was meant to be all along :D

I LOVE Maggie yelling at the room/stand-in-Sterling so much. It's perfect because I want her to have to outburst, but I don't want her to have it at him. I love all their interactions, and the physicality of those interactions - they feel so real. I've said it to you, but I love that thanks to what's gone before, we know exactly what her actions are doing to him in this chapter, even if she doesn't yet... I I just... I I love it all!

Well done you :) Now pour yourself a glass of your favourite beverage, sit back and enjoy the satisfaction. ... And then hit me up any old time re:9 too, because I will bring all the enablement. For both of us.

**APPLAUSE** WELL DONE AND THANKYOU FOR BRINGING ME ALONG FOR THE RIDE!!! :D :D :D

Edited at 2013-03-07 03:31 am (UTC)
themonkeytwin
Mar. 7th, 2013 06:49 am (UTC)
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D

I mean, I know you were along for the ride and everything, but I'm SO glad you love it.

this chapter that isn't weighed down by all the thinking you had to do,if that makes sense. It reads like it was meant to be all along

Boy howdy! Here's to both of us not having to go through that process again as intensely as that! For myself, I can mostly feel it works, but it'll probably take a while before I can stop seeing all the seams still. But I'm happy to take your word for it. And just glad it's done!

I want her to have to outburst, but I don't want her to have it at him.

Yes, it was exactly what she needed. And as soon as I let her have it, the story started actually taking the shape it needed to. Funny that!

what her actions are doing to him in this chapter

Hehehe, that one moment? Definitely my favourite of this story. The yelling is great too, and I'm so glad you sanctioned indulging in the description, but that moment? Oh, Sterling. Trying so very hard to pretend he hasn't lost, that he didn't lose this game the moment he decided to play, way back then.

I SHALL ENJOY MY BEVERAGE OF SATISFACTION. And you know you'll hear about it the moment I've got anything worth telling :)
im_ridiculous
Mar. 9th, 2013 03:20 am (UTC)
I don't really have anything else useful to say, except 'don't worry, the seams are totes invisible', and 'no rush, because you really deserve a break after this effort'... but really, I just wanted you to know that I'm still squeeing. Because I am.

SQUEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!

:D
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