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Title: of twos and threes
Ficverse: Leverage
Series: Silver and Gold
Rating: PG
Length: 4500 ish
Characters: Maggie/Sterling, Olivia
Teaser: Sterling opened the door of his condo and leaned against it. “Hi,” he said, in undisguised relief.
–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.
im_ridiculous continues simply amazing. bitterlimetwist and lmx_v3point3 are consultants of the first order. 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....

Sterling opened the door of his condo and leaned against it. “Hi,” he said, in undisguised relief.

Maggie didn’t bother to hide her amusement either. “Hi.”

He didn’t seem to mind. “Come in.”

She did, finding a clear space amongst the half-finished dinner sitting on the dining table for the shopping bags she’d brought, before turning to openly assess him. It had been nearly two months since she had last seen him, when she’d leaped at the chance to pick him and his freshly rescued daughter up from LAX. They’d barely spoken at the time; the pair of them had been bone-tired, Olivia dozing off in the backseat and Sterling not far off, the tension visibly draining from him only a few minutes after getting in the passenger seat.

He seemed to have mostly recovered. Gone was the exhaustion, the anxiety that had driven him ruthlessly while Olivia had been in danger, working himself into the ground for months.

Also gone was the forgot-to-shave-for-a-week stubble. Maggie tilted her head. “You lost the beard.”

He raised his hand to his smooth chin, and frowned. “Well – yes.”

She shrugged. “I liked it, that’s all. Suited you.” So did the jeans that she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him wear before, but she wasn’t going to go there. He looked bewildered enough. She smiled, enjoying that a little too long, before changing tack. “Where is she?”

Brought back to the point at hand, he nodded toward the bathroom. “She locked herself in there an hour ago. I think we’ve stopped arguing, but she doesn’t want to talk to me.”

Maggie nodded, picked out a shopping bag, and went over and knocked on the door. “Olivia, honey? It’s Maggie. I drove you and your dad home from the airport, you remember me? Can I come in?”

After about half a minute, the door unlocked and cracked open enough for the girl to inspect her, before standing back to let her in. The ingrained caution of it, however mild, was not lost on Maggie. Nor were the red eyes and half-embarrassed, half-sullen, all-teenaged set of her mouth.

Maggie went in and closed the door after herself, then held out the bag matter-of-factly. Considering all Olivia had done and gone through in the last year, she probably wouldn’t take well to fussing. And the last thing Maggie wanted to do was carelessly touch on the loss of the mother who should’ve been the one doing this for her daughter.

She suppressed a sharp pang at that. “Here. I got you a few different products. This is your first period?”

Olivia blushed, then almost defiantly nodded.

Maggie grinned, warm and reassuring. “Welcome to womankind. It can suck.”

This surprised a laugh out of her, clearing the air quite a lot. Maggie didn’t waste it. “But a lot of it doesn’t,” she continued more gently. She indicated the bag in Olivia’s hands. “For now, I suggest starting simple and working out the rest when you’re ready. Do you need help figuring anything out?”

“No,” Olivia said quickly, the defensive streak of self-reliance hardly surprising. “I’ll be fine.”

Maggie nodded easily, falling back on something more indirect. “Okay. I usually like to take a shower, it makes me feel better. And then mooch around in my pajamas as much as I can. Watching movies, if possible. I also got chocolate, heat pack, and Midol for you. Do you want something to change into?”

Olivia bit her lip. “Pajamas sound nice,” she said hesitantly.

“They do,” Maggie agreed. “Your dad will know where to find them?”

This was received with averted eyes, and a pause, before she admitted, “I shouted at him.”

Maggie’s snort made her look back up. “Your father is a big boy, he can handle it. That’s his job.” Maggie waited until Olivia seemed to accept this, then, judging it carefully, gave her shoulder a casual, comforting touch. “You’re doing just fine, honey. I’ll get your pajamas.”

“Okay.” She looked shy, but a little less uncertain. “Thanks.”

Maggie stopped then, caught by a wistfulness buried in the girl that struck far too close to home. It was largely on instinct that she was moving to meet Olivia in a hug, the sting of tears behind her eyes taking her by surprise. Maggie blinked them back, and repeated, “You’re doing just fine.” When she felt Olivia’s little nod and her grip loosen, she drew back, giving her shoulder one last squeeze before slipping out the door.

Once the change of clothes had been delivered and the door locked again, Maggie joined Sterling in clearing away the dinner.

“So.” He cleared his throat, then nodded toward the bathroom. “Is she ... okay?”

Maggie looked at him sidelong, eyebrows raised, a twitch to her lips. “You do know that this is normal for women, right?”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, thank you. I just meant ... her age, is this a bit – late?”

Watching Sterling be an awkward dad could be very entertaining, she decided, but the hint of real worry made her soften. She handed him the plates to scrape, and shrugged reassuringly. “Everyone’s different. It’s not that late. And she’s been under a lot of stress for the last year, our bodies react to that. It might have delayed her a bit, but that’s not a big deal.”

“Ah. Okay. Good.”

As it turned out, seeing him loosen with relief was a lot more gratifying than making him uncomfortable. She leaned against the counter, watching him. “So. You’re okay?”

He shrugged. “Yes?”

“Very convincing.”

His mouth quirked at this, but he finished loading up the dishwasher before facing her properly. “Mm. You mean okay by way of dealing with everything she’s gone through, and how the last time I tried to juggle work and family I was so bad at it that her mother left me before Olivia even had any memories of us all together, and adding to that how she’s now taken to screaming at me about it all and hiding in the bathroom?”

Maggie mostly succeeded in not grinning at the ruefulness of his expression. “Sure, that can be the question, if you like.”

“All things considered? I think we’re figuring it out. There’s a lot she hasn’t really processed yet, but I think the reality of being secure is beginning to sink in. She even said she might try that therapist you suggested. But, within reason, I want her to be able to go at the pace she’s comfortable with. I don’t intend to push her unless I have to.”

“But you won’t give up.”

He was almost shocked. “No! Never again.”

She took a moment to smile, let him see all the warmth of her confidence in him. “No, I know you won’t, James Sterling who never loses.”

His eyes locked with hers, his slow answering smile producing a different kind of warmth in her, new and oddly sweet. The moment drew long, and longer, until something hidden deep beneath began to simmer. Before Maggie could make sense of it, Sterling recalled himself and his manners and cleared his throat. “Can I get you anything? Water, juice? Something hot?”

His politeness broke the moment very effectively, and it took her a second to return to reality. “Actually, some tea would be nice. I can get it myself if –”

He dismissed this with a wave and set to it, getting out a mug for himself as well.

Reminded of something else, she gave it a minute, then opened with, “Oh – I talked to Nate.”

She watched the predictable tensing of Sterling’s back with a little smirk. “Oh?” he asked, not turning around.

She hopped up on the black stone counter, next to where he’d put the mugs, crossing her legs modestly and settling herself. “Yes, he wanted to tell me all about how you had a daughter and never, ever told us.”

“Ah.” He relaxed a bit, finished putting on the kettle and faced her, lounging against the cabinetry behind him, his slate gray shirt against the dark wood setting him off to best advantage. She wondered, not for the first time, how much of his knack for striking the perfect dramatic note was intentional or instinctive. Either way, it was unexpectedly flattering the way his eyes quickly roved over her, too. “And how did that go?”

“One-sidedly. It sounds like you boys had quite an adventure. And apparently you again have Eliot swearing to kill you?”

Sterling’s shrug was remarkably cavalier. “He’s a rather excitable fellow, that one.”

Maggie’s eyebrows rose, but she let it go. “Well, anyway. Exciting as all that was, I have to say the point I really found things becoming interesting was when Nate mentioned the deal you tried to make two years ago to keep him out of prison.”

His mouth opened, and then there was a thoughtful pause in which the look he gave her was equal parts appreciation for the way she’d sprung that, and chagrin.

“You know,” she prompted, turning the screw before he worked out what to say for himself, “the one with the weapons smuggling in Boston. When he got himself shot, running around playing hero? And then you arrested him, but let his team go?”

He was sticking with his tactic of saying nothing, clearly biding his time to see if and when the mildly teasing note would drop, where she was taking them with this.

She leaned forward. “The one you encouraged me to believe was all about you catching him and putting him away for the crimes he’d committed? But as it turns out you were trying to save him from?”

This time she waited him out, and Sterling’s eyes narrowed, the barest flicker of expression. “I remember,” he said eventually, drily as only he could.

He didn’t volunteer anything more. Only a few months ago, he was pouring out half his life story to her, absolutely raw with honesty. At breaking point, with the safety of his daughter on the line, and she was the one he’d sought out, trusted, needed. He’d insisted it could only be her, the words still ringing through her with all their searing conviction.

For a few hours that day, Sterling hadn’t withheld from her even his deepest fears and failures as a father. Whatever was making him resist now, she could give him the courtesy of not just forcing an explanation from him, regardless of whether he owed it to her. Or how very much she wanted it.

Their impasse was interrupted by the whistle of the kettle. He brought it over, making the tea while studiously ignoring their overlapping personal space, even when he nearly brushed against her knee. Maggie could have scooted down, given him more room. Instead, she twisted enough to watch him, his head bent over the sure movements of his arms, sleeves rolled back, bare wrists with light fine hair, so different to Nate. The short, sleekly no-nonsense haircut, the thinning at the crown, the warm halogen lights catching the few bright strands of silver that had only come in over the last year.

“I was the one who accused you of going after him, not helping him, first,” she offered suddenly. This, more than anything he’d done, or not done, was what wouldn’t stop bugging her since hearing the real story. It was skating too close to too much that was still uneasy, never quite resolved, but it was something she needed to say. “I just – assumed. I didn’t give you even the tiniest benefit of the doubt ... even though we were friends, and I should have.”

He was near enough for her to sense as much as hear his quiet sigh. Then he raised his head and handed her her tea, looked steadily up into her face, a wry cast to his own. “From what I recall, you apologized for that immediately. Or tried to. I was the one who was the complete bastard. Okay?”

Maggie only half-heard him, because it was actually dizzying how those few inches closer made his gaze so much more intense. And he wasn’t even trying. Just standing there, hedging in the heat of the mug in her hands, conciliatory words and dark hazel eyes and that damnably unreadable half-curl of his mouth.

That little crook of his lips was dangerous. She’d known it from the very start. It didn’t matter how reserved, smug, or infuriating he was being – and over all the years she’d known him, he’d had plenty of occasions – it had always hooked her. It had long been second nature to push her fascination with it out to the edges of whatever was appropriate for the prevailing relationship, and, whenever possible, pretend it didn’t exist.

Now she couldn’t stop staring at it. With the scent and steam of the tea he’d made her suffusing the space between their bodies, it dawned on her that all those restrictions there had been with this man had become just about as substantial. The realization dragged her eyes back up to his, hot and sharp watching her studying his mouth, and the resulting charge burned away any last inhibitions she might have to say or do anything she wanted.

She paused, deliberately, then curled her mouth in echo of his, relishing the feel of it there. His instant recognition of it. Not breaking eye contact for a second, she picked up the thread of their conversation again with, “The complete bastard who went to remarkable lengths to walk a man back from his crimes, just because that man used to be a friend? And maybe because said complete bastard could sympathize with what his friend had gone through, to push him so far off course?”

Sterling arched a sardonic eyebrow, but couldn’t hope to hide the way his face lit up at such a direct shot. It came rushing back over her how much fun it had always been it to spar with him like this. Now, with all they’d been through and everything they could bring to bear on one another, the prospect should have been daunting, but it wasn’t. It felt only fitting, as though they were finally punching at the right weight class.

“A charming picture, love,” he countered coolly, but with that old, wonderfully familiar rasp of mirth lurking under every word. “But don’t accuse me of trying too hard. All I did was offer him one chance.”

Maggie tilted her head to the side at this denial that was, when you paid attention past the deliberate obnoxiousness, really no denial at all; and if doing so happened to bring her a bit closer to him, then that was a nice little bonus. His eyes flickered down to her smirk, the curl of his mouth deepening.

Before he could say anything more, the sound of the bathroom door unlocking snapped his attention away. He gave their conversation a puckish parting grin, and then he was striding across the living space and wrapping Olivia up in a hug.

The abrupt break unsettled Maggie, but seeing Sterling’s protective hand on Olivia’s hair, their affectionate, murmured exchange, his chuckle and her laughter, she could hardly begrudge his priorities. The crackle and hum of once more flirting with him – yes, flirting, she thought firmly, there was no reason to deny it – subsided into something more mellow as she watched this side of him open up with his little girl. Remembering how he’d talked about her that day, the emotion that had shaken him, Maggie’s heart squeezed painfully, but not in a bad way.

They were coming back to the kitchen area, and suddenly she was very aware of being an intruder in their little partnership of a family. She got down from the counter and sipped awkwardly at her tea, not sure whether to excuse herself and leave them to it. But then Sterling was saying, “We made tea, you want some?” to Olivia, who gave Maggie a bright, fresh-faced smile and the reminder, “I believe chocolate was mentioned?” and just like that, Maggie found herself woven into a cosy three-person bustle around the kitchen, ransacking it with impressive efficiency for comfort food.

“Peanut butter with chocolate?” Sterling asked doubtfully, as he fetched it from the pantry.

“Oh – apples!” added Maggie.

“Ooh!” Olivia nearly clapped. “And we have bananas, too.”

“Fruit?” Sterling was getting more confused, then made the connection when Maggie flourished the jar he’d just passed her. “Peanut butter with fruit?”

“Don’t knock it ’til you try it, Dad.”

“This is an American thing, isn’t it?”

Maggie set a handful of apples on the cutting board next to him firmly. “Into eighths. So,” she turned to Olivia, “you grew up here?”

“Yeah, mostly, until Robert moved us away.” Her pretty, expressive face scrunched with disgust until Sterling soothed it away with a kiss on the top of her head. “That’s why Dad brought me back here, instead of his place in London, he thought I’d adjust better. But I like traveling. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to backpack through Asia.”

“Yes, along with three Interpol agents and a satellite phone.”

Olivia rolled her eyes. “Daaad.”

“I’m a reasonable man, darling. You could probably bargain me down to two.”

Maggie got out a plate for the apple slices, then pointed Olivia vaguely at the silverware draw. “Teaspoons?... Oh, I brought something else, too –” she said, pulling out a few dvds from one of the bags, and swapping them with Olivia for the spoons. “If you want them.”

Olivia surveyed the variety Maggie had provided. “What’s this one?”

“A couple of black and white musicals from the ’30s. I love curling up on the sofa with them at ... times like this. The dance numbers are exquisite, and the clothes are amazing. The comedy holds up pretty well, too. And in between I can yell at the sexist attitudes of the day. It’s enormously theraputic.” She glanced at Sterling. “Are you laughing at me?”

“No,” he lied.

She poked him, hard.

“He’s kind of funny looking,” Olivia said, dubiously inspecting the front cover.

“That’s Fred Astaire. And just wait ’til you see him dance.”

Olivia accepted this with a shrug. “Okay. Dad?” She handed him the dvd.

“You’re right, he is funny looking,” he said with teasing misinterpretation, handing it back.

She had no patience for that. “No, we should watch it, you have to watch it with us.”

Sterling’s eyes immediately found Maggie’s, question and answer coursing between them in an instant. “Yes, we should,” he agreed for them both, pleasure crinkling the smile lines of his face in a way that didn’t really seem to have anything to do with watching musicals. “And here are your apples, you strange, strange women.”

Moving now with more purpose, it didn’t take the three of them long to settle on the sofa, shunting the beautiful chess set with its in-progress game off to the side of the coffee table to make room for several generous piles of snacks. Once the movie started, it wasn’t at all surprising to discover Olivia was as quick-witted as her father, but eager and spirited to his bone-dry and acerbic. Having crossed swords enough with Sterling, Maggie found it easy to jump in here, too, holding her own in the back-and-forth, and very soon she was having more fun booing, cheering, and analyzing the events of the movie as they unfolded than she ever had before.

It also made it seem perfectly normal that, by halfway through the movie, Olivia was sitting in front of her and a hairbrush, letting her put braids in her lovely long hair while it was still a little bit damp so that it would be wavy in the morning.

They had both paused, watching a dance number with rapt attention. When it ended, Olivia tilted her head, only for Maggie to tilt it back to keep the braid she was working on even. “So, wait – this movie is kind of just a bunch of excuses to get them to dance, isn’t it?”

Maggie laughed. “And sing songs, too, don’t forget that. But yes, really the dancing’s the whole point. That’s where the real romance is. The plot’s just window-dressing, even the love story, because it’s when they dance they just become magic. Why not seize every opportunity to let that happen?”

Maggie glanced over at Sterling at this, ready to grin, but found his eyes already on her. She swallowed, not at all sure what she was seeing in them, and Olivia’s question was quite welcome to pull Maggie’s attention back to her. “Are all their movies that way?”

“Some more thinly disguised than others. Fred Astaire even said that after a while Ginger Rogers made everyone else who danced with him just look wrong.”

“Really? He said that?” Olivia craned to catch Maggie’s nod. “Wow,” she breathed, starry-eyed, returning to the screen with redoubled interest.

Maggie echoed Olivia’s sigh happily, keeping her attention firmly forward, not at all wanting to know if there would be mockery in that look of Sterling’s. She did not want to know what his views on romance, on the entwining of two souls, were. Fred and Ginger were much more pleasant to contemplate. “Right? They were just ... perfectly equal and perfectly matched. They’re iconic for a reason.”

“Still think he looks funny?” Sterling asked Olivia, snagging the last piece of apple on the plate and loading it up with a shamelessly large dollop of peanut butter.

“No! – Well, maybe, I guess. But not like I thought. She’s so pretty, and he’s not really handsome at all, but it just –” Olivia waved her hands at the screen expressively. “They’re amazing.”

“There,” said Maggie, doing up the final braid. “Voilà. Crimpy wavy hair tomorrow.”

Olivia turned and gave her a big bright pixie smile before scrambling back up onto the sofa and preening at Sterling. He laughed and tweaked one of the braids. “Magnifique, button.”

Maggie’s attempts not to giggle at how weird and adorable it was hearing endearments come so casually from Sterling’s mouth was interrupted by his sudden inspiration. “Ah! If we’re talking about iconic perfection, you know who else you need to see?” he asked his daughter excitedly, while Maggie just stared at him over her head. “Torvill and Dean!”

And that was how they spent an additional half hour once the movie ended looking up clips online, until it was determined they were mostly terrible video quality, that it was Olivia’s bedtime, and also time to let Maggie go home considering she had work in the morning. After a promise that Olivia would send Maggie a picture of how her hair turned out, as well as to call if she ever needed to talk, they went their respective ways, with Sterling walking Maggie to her car.

As soon as they’d shut the front door behind them, Sterling sighed deeply. “Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure,” she said warmly. “Honestly, that was great fun. Plus, now I know you’re a closet figure skating fan.”

“Nothing closet about it, thank you. There wasn’t a dry eye in the whole of Britain that day. I still remember the pub I was at when they got the gold.”

Maggie was a little relieved that the elevator arrived then. The delighted sparkle in his eyes should, logically, be hard to reconcile to the cold burn of cruelty from that still-unexplained day at her home. Telling her he’d put Nate away. Telling her the friendship she had been learning to treasure with him was a burden to be dumped in favor of his career. She should find it mystifying, incompatible in this man. Not a natural counterpart.

Not sexy.

“She’s a great kid,” she said, since that was much more relevant, here.

He looked so pleased and proud she couldn’t help but laugh. “She is. And you were great with her. Not that I should be surprised, from what I saw of you with Sam.”

There was no sting. Only his simple respect, a shade of tenderness, wrapping around her in the fleeting privacy of the elevator.

He didn’t leave her to have to figure out what to say to that. “And I think she needed this tonight, something really good. I haven’t seen her so happy in a long time.”

“Any time. Parenting’s supposed to be a two-person gig. It’s not wrong to need help.”

The uncertain look he gave her, feeling this out, reminded her that things were a whole lot more complicated for both of them than her impulsive offer had been. But then, on the other side of all those complications, there was Olivia. Maggie put her hand on Sterling’s arm. “I mean it, James.”

When he silently looked down at her hand, covered it with his, she knew Olivia wasn’t the only one she’d done it for. The elevator doors opened, and he tucked her hand into his arm as they stepped out into the foyer. They had walked like this once before, years ago; a late-night riverside stroll in Kiev, tipsy from celebrating her freedom, his promotion, and a new-forged old friendship. Maybe that was why she hadn’t remembered how confidently he fit their strides together, without any of the adjustment bumps that always secretly annoyed her when men escorted her.

Maybe that was why she hadn’t remembered the subtle, spicy scent he wore, that absolutely did not make her momentarily want to press her nose to his shirt at his shoulder and just breathe it in.

It didn’t take them nearly long enough to reach her car. When she went to release his arm, his free hand came back up onto hers, stopping her. She looked up at him, surprised, then robbed of breath by the fierce emotion written all across his face.

She didn’t know what it might make her do, being the focus of that confusing, heating look for too long. Her hand under his clutched convulsively around his arm, and then his hand tightened too, a drawstring pulling closed, tilting his lips to her cheek.

He held the kiss to her just long enough for her to lean into the press of him, then withdrew so slowly that for a second she almost felt he might lean in, too. But he didn’t. He straightened and let her hand drop from his arm, giving her a look searching in its need for her to see his earnestness. “I’m grateful,” he finally managed to get out, huskily.

Maggie stared up at him, aching to say something and having no idea what that something was. In the end she could only smile, nod, but it was honest and somehow that was enough. He stepped back, but didn’t turn to go inside yet, staying in her rearview mirror until she took the corner.

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.

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January 2016
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