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and now, fic! (Maggie/Sterling)

Title: as needed
Ficverse: Leverage
Series: Silver and Gold
Rating: PG
Length: 2800 ish
Characters: Sterling, Maggie
Teaser: It was all wrong, everything was wrong, everything he was doing here, today, was wrong.
–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. We're into the back half, but it's a slow burn, and I'm a slow writer.
–Massive, massive, massive love and appreciation to im_ridiculous, for everything. She is perfect, and don't let anyone tell you differently. Any blips or bloops are all mine.
–Links to the other installments are at the end.
Warnings/Spoiler: through 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....

It was all wrong, everything was wrong, everything he was doing here, today, was wrong. Sterling knew it, couldn’t excuse it or escape it for a second. Yet as she walked along the path toward him, a sheath of smoky green fabric with a splash of yellow in her hands, hair and skin blazing gold in the afternoon sun, his heart lifted anyway.

He stood up from the bench – her bench, the one she loved, under the trees with their shade and their hint of moisture and their oxygen. Where the green hillside, jagged with ornate headstones, curved and eclipsed most of the city and its brown haze, leaving only the beaten silver sky and the distant mountains and silence. The bench she had shared with him two years ago to the day, when they had embarked on their ill-fated attempt at friendship.

Maggie stopped a few paces from him, eyes blue and clear, full of light, as always, weighing, considering, as always. But not hostile, not disgusted, not yet. Which was something. More than he’d expected.

The single rose she carried, plucked from the bouquet he’d left at her son’s grave, was so far outside any expectation that he had no idea what to make of it. But a lifetime’s experience meant Sterling knew all too well he should be the first to say something: take control of the encounter, shape it, drive it to his own ends.

He opened his mouth, and couldn’t make anything come out.

She waited, composed and unassailable in her beauty. When he only stood there, still unable to speak, her expression sharpened with what looked like actual concern. Slowly she closed the distance between them; she brought her hand up, curled it over, brushed the backs of her fingers across his cheekbone.

He didn’t raise his hand to cover hers, didn’t keep it there, didn’t press it to his face like a lover’s caress. He didn’t. He balled his fists in the jacket he was carrying instead; inhaled the fresh blossom scent that had clung to her fingers, and just stared at her, wondering how she managed to wield sweetness like a stab to the heart.

She frowned. “When was the last time you got a good night’s sleep?”

He had to squeeze his eyes shut for a few seconds to even process the question. “Uhm. A while.”

Maggie nodded, completely natural, as though it had been days, not months, since she’d last seen him, or had any reason to expect she ever would again. As though he hadn’t just crashed the fourth anniversary of her son’s death, without word or warning or excuse, for entirely selfish reasons. As though she might not just turn her back on him and walk away as he deserved.

He took a quick breath. Plunged. “Back when you asked if I wanted to talk to you about ... that case I was working on. Is that still on the table?”

She grew tight at this, mouth drawn painfully, then shied her face away. “Here, James? Today?”

“Yes.” God help him, yes. “Here. Today.”

Her eyes flashed back at him, as searing as the breeze swirling up the valley. “Why?

“Because it had to be,” he blurted, helpless to keep the words coming out of his mouth, unable to make them the right ones, if they even existed. “It had to be today. So that even if you hated me for it, you’d agree. You’d listen. I need....”

This was the way it always was, with her. He could have stood everything else, even the horrifying little crush he’d somehow developed that refused to fade, even the niggling doubt that she’d never quite got over Nate, the ungrateful, undeserving sod, and the infuriating spasms of jealousy that caused at the most inopportune moments. All of that, he could have worked around.

But all it took was a word from her, sometimes only a look, and he’d find himself laying himself out, piece by piece, at her feet, hardly wanting or knowing how to stop. The day it had hit him how easily he might hand her his heart before he even noticed he’d done it was the day he’d pushed her as hard and as far away as he was capable of.

And now, craving it, he couldn’t seem to remember why he’d dreaded it so much.

She was standing right there in front of him, close enough to touch. The wry curve softening her lips. The intelligence eloquent in every line of her face. The depth of her heart, kindness and humor and strength, worn fearlessly on her skin. And eyes that rooted him in place and washed the rest of the world away.

He stopped. Just stopped, fighting, and pretending, and struggling, and let the rest of the damn world go. Let her ground him right there in front of her. It was everything he needed. It was why he’d come.

Sterling’s entire chest unknotted, expanding with what might be his first real breath in months.

“I need you. To understand. And to help me.”

Maggie was studying him, cautiously, yet the hurt was fading from her face.  “Help you?” she asked, curiosity winning out.

He met her eyes squarely. “Yes. I need your help to save my daughter’s life.”

It took several seconds for it to fully sink in, her face going slack with astonishment. She opened her mouth, then closed it with a snap. Another false start was followed by a flicker of half-buried emotions, and a shake of the head, before she drilled him with the sharpest, most ruthless scrutiny he’d ever been on the receiving end of.

It was actually remarkably sexy, not that he was stupid enough to let that sentiment out of his mouth.

Then, faster than he was ready for, she concluded it with a calm, “What is it you want me to do?”

“Only what you offered. I’m only asking to talk.”

The frown she gave him was perplexed, and possibly even disappointed. “To save your daughter’s life –” she tripped over that a tiny bit “– you just need to talk?

Just?” He laughed humorlessly. “Maggie, I’m ... I’m going out of my mind. I need – I need – everything is – the last few weeks, I can’t even think straight anymore.” All his options, all the factors, everything that could go wrong and what happened if they did circling in his head until he couldn’t keep it out and everything had collapsed into one great tangle, pulling tighter all the time. He ran his hand through his hair, a fretful gesture that had become far too habitual recently, then admitted, “I’m – terrified. I can’t get all this outside of my head, I can’t get perspective, I don’t....”

He trailed off before he started begging. Not that he was above it – Sterling didn’t think there was anything he wouldn’t try, at this stage – but because he doubted it would make a difference. Maggie would do what she would do. It was another thing about her that was always that way, another thing he couldn’t help loving, no matter how inconvenient.

“Ah,” was all she said, but it was thoughtful, and he thought there was a softness in her gaze he hadn’t seen in far too long. When she turned and stepped away, he just barely stopped himself from reaching out and grabbing her, until he realized she was seating herself on the bench. Looking up at him expectantly, the yellow rose laid carefully across her lap.

He joined her, slowly, never letting go of her eyes. Then hesitated. “I don’t even know where to –”

She smiled; quick and matter-of-fact, but it was a real, actual smile. “Start at the beginning.”

So he did. He told her everything. Olivia and her mother and Livingston; Livingston’s legal and illegal clients, and Interpol’s limitations in dealing with the latter; the car bomb; Olivia turning informant, her determination to get revenge and refusal to cooperate with any rescue attempt until she had; Kazakhstan and the unique weight they needed to develop nuclear weapons. He let Maggie coax each thread free with her shrewd questions, held nothing back, not even the occasional tremor that roughened his voice.

It was while he was telling her the details of the car bomb that she had made a little noise of dismay and put her hand in his, squeezing sympathetically, as though it were the most normal thing in the world. He waited for her to withdraw it, but when she didn’t, he clutched back, holding on as tight as he could reasonably allow himself without freaking her out.

The sun, mercifully still dappled behind thick green leaves, had begun to mellow in the sultry sky by the time they had laid everything out, methodically unsnarled. The last sour dregs of panic were draining away, leaving him clean and empty for the first time since that long-distance phone call from the hospital in Dubai. It felt like a lifetime ago.

And his hand was still twined with hers, hot and vital where the thin sheen of sweat couldn’t escape, easy as the silence they’d lapsed into.

It was a few minutes before his newly freed thought patterns brought him back to here, today, to exactly where they were; to other phone calls, other hospitals, other distraught parents, and the enormity of what he’d barged into. He straightened, turning toward her, abashed.

“Maggie, I –” He should probably let go of her hand. But he didn’t. Wouldn’t, until she did. “I’m so sorry I did this to you, like this – I never meant.... I know Sam was....”

The sigh was raw, yet it was full of warmth too. “Sam would want Olivia to be rescued,” she said simply, pride and love turning into a smile. “He’d probably want to rush in there and do it himself.”

“He was a good kid,” Sterling said, recalling the small round face sitting across from him at Ford family dinners, whip-smart and bright-eyed. Then he realized that, though he’d even accompanied Maggie here two years ago, this was the first time they’d really talked about her son. He shifted awkwardly. “I mean, he was ... I liked him.”

Her hand pressed into his, drawing some strength back in the other direction, which he gladly gave. “He was,” she agreed, and that tender, wise smile was back. “And he was also quite a handful.”

“His birthright from both parents, I’d imagine,” Sterling teased, very, very gently, and was rewarded when she turned the last lingering moments of that smile toward him.

“It’s possible,” she allowed, a ghost of teasing in return. Then she drew herself up and released him, fixing him with a purposeful look. “Now, back to saving your daughter. You are using Nate for this, right?”

The loss of her touch did hit him, but he was startled enough to be distracted. “Well, I –” – had been nowhere near equal to that chess match of wits, given the mess his head had been in, despite it otherwise being his absolute, categorical, number-one pick. “... had considered it.”

She looked at him as if he was crazy. “You have to! You know his team is the best – if they were the only ones you would rely on to rescue me in Kiev, surely –”

“I agree,” he said quickly, putting a stop to that enthusiastic preaching to the choir. He not only agreed but fully intended to, now that he could think again, half-formed ideas once more weaving themselves into real plans. He looked at her uneasily. “Just don’t ... mention it to him. Any of this. Please.”

Maggie worked that one out immediately. “You’re not going to tell him about her?”

“Right, because what I really want is to explain all my life choices to Nate while he assumes it’s his place to pass judgment on them.” It came out more acerbic than he intended, and he was about to apologize when he noticed she was suppressing a smile. “Uh, that is –”

“No, I get it,” she murmured. Her eyes dropped for a long moment, down to fingers absently stroking the petals of the flower in her lap, before considering him with a look far too complex for him to decipher. The question she asked, however, was easy. “So you’ll put him on Livingston?”

He nodded; it wasn’t the concept that was tricky, it was navigating the way Nate would plan and play it out. “He’ll get the job done. No matter what.” In particular, no matter what spanners Sterling personally threw into Nate’s works in the process of protecting and springing Olivia. There was no man alive more able to cope, and certainly no one Sterling could better anticipate and circumvent in precisely the right way to still achieve the objective. No one else to whom he’d readily assign the prevention of terrorist nuclear capacity. “But it’s for me to save my daughter.”

Once again her glance was unreadable, but she didn’t seem inclined to disagree. After a minute, Sterling cleared his throat, put his hand on his suit jacket draped over the arm of the bench. “I should ... let you go.”

She smiled, a little. “Yes.”

“Can I walk you to your car?”

She stood in wordless acceptance, remaining silent while they walked, wrapped deeply in her own thoughts. He didn’t mind, just lost himself in drinking in these last few minutes of being at her side. Which was why it took him by surprise when they reached her car and Maggie suddenly turned to him, intense and searching.

Why, James?”

He had no idea what she was asking, but he desperately wanted to answer it. “Why...?”

There was a ragged twist to her mouth, and for an awful second he revisited his horrendous insensitivity in coming today. But then it twisted further, tried to become self-effacing, to deflect from some old hidden hurt, and without effort or fanfare effectively broke his heart. “Why me?” she asked, almost steadily, a credible attempt at indifference. “Why ... explain it all to me, let me pass judgment...?”

She was actually nervous, asking that, like he’d never seen in her before and couldn’t begin to fathom. But he wouldn’t dig at her brittle veneer for the world. “You’re not Nate,” he said instead; the comparison was laughable.

It earned him a shaky smile, and, eventually, a deep breath and another question. “Yes, but – why me? Why come to me, ask for my help to – to save your daughter’s life? Is it just because....” She gestured vaguely at the cemetery, then wouldn’t look back at him.

He still wasn’t really sure what she was asking him, but the answer was clear as day. “It could only be you.”

It was unmistakeably the bare truth, and something about that made her seek his eyes. “What do you mean?”

Sterling almost didn’t know how to explain something so evident, but for her, for this aching vulnerability she wasn’t hiding at all anymore, he would damn well find a way. “I mean, who else ... there is nothing more important to me than Olivia’s life. Nothing. There is no one I could trust with her but you. I wish ... I wish I could have done this on my own, spared you all this – especially like this – but I couldn’t, and I....”

He really was terrible at this sort of thing. “I needed you,” he finished lamely, but utterly truthfully. There was nothing else to offer except, “I’m sorry?”

Her mouth was still twisting when she looked away again, but when she’d collected herself enough to look back up at him, there was real happiness tucked in the corners of her smile, and she seemed to be fighting to keep it from growing. “You’ve been saying that a lot,” she noted lightly.

It was impossible to resist the tug of her inexplicable joy. He shrugged, just as lightly. “Only to you.”

This made her smile widen even more, dimples creasing deep, so luminous in the sunshine spangling around her that it took his breath away. “I’m glad I could be of service,” he said when he got it back, no clue what he’d done but willing to do it again a hundred times over.

“And so am I,” she said, giving him one last look. “Now – go save your daughter.”

Maggie opened her car door, and he hadn’t gone many steps, when the sound of his name spun him around. “And, James – once this is done, when she’s safe ... you call me. Got that?”

You’ll be the first, he silently vowed, along with any number of other sappy, irrelevant things that had absolutely no bearing on the task ahead and needed to be firmly shelved. He only nodded, not trusting his voice for a second, and stood and watched until her car turned out of sight.

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.


( 2 speakses — have a speak )
Jul. 23rd, 2013 08:42 am (UTC)
Lovely one!!! I'm finally here!! And I LOVE it. It reads beautifully and tangibly and I love it. I love the set up, the shade and the bench and the trees and their oxygen... I just love the way you set this up because I can breathe the air they're breathing. I'm standing right there. The sense of place you always create just bowls me over. So thereyou go. :)

And the squirming and his unease.. and her kind response..... *melt*

It's wonderful. You're a star. All I do is wave pom-poms on the sidelines, it's ALL you. :) Brilliant stuff and well done you.

Jul. 24th, 2013 07:12 am (UTC)
Yay! You're here! :):)

Yes, this one was so saturated in the sense of place, I'm not sure why. Maybe because the image of them both at Sam's grave has been percolating in my head ever since I didn't include it way back in the third one, or maybe because the place is so significant to them both in this meeting. Or because the meeting is the reconnection and real turning point of their relationship. I don't know. But it felt very important! I'm so glad it works so well!

And their interactions ... I'm soooooo ready to write them beginning to align and head in the same direction. SO ready. You have no idea! :D

Thank you so much. Your pom-pom waving is superlative, and your observations invaluable! (This is the best mutual appreciation society ever, y/y?)
( 2 speakses — have a speak )

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