The Body

Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor the characters of Mike Gambit, Purdey, and John Steed. They're the property of The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.

Timeline: Takes place post-series and post-Arc story "'Til Death", in October, 1977.

Author's Note: The third of three stories, the other two being "The Offer" and "The Caper", that feed into my next Arc story. This story can also be read as a standalone, but there are several threads here that will be picked up later on.

For more information about the Arc, please see my profile.


Purdey's lips were very close to Gambit's ear. "Mike, take your clothes off."

Gambit looked up from pouring himself a glass of Scotch, keeping his gaze steadfastly pointed straight ahead at the piece of abstract art hanging on the wall behind his bar, and said, "Do you know something? That would be a very appealing proposal—if you weren't holding a first aid kit."

He heard Purdey sniff just before she pulled away. "I'm surprised you didn't make a terrible joke about playing doctor."

"I might have," Gambit allowed, lifting the glass to his lips and letting the amber liquid do its job, trickling a warm path down his throat and into his stomach. "If I didn't know that I'd get a disappointing response."

"All the same," Purdey went on, prodding his arm accusingly. "You'll say just about anything to avoid talking about the matter at hand."

"Which is?" Gambit deftly flicked his wrist and watched the liquor swirl in his glass, still pointedly not looking at Purdey.

"Case in point," Purdey said dryly. "But you're still avoiding the issue. Which is the fact that you had a knife pressed against the back of your neck not an hour earlier."

"It's just a nick," Gambit dismissed, taking another sip of Scotch.

"He was going to push it straight through your throat and out the other side!" Purdey exclaimed with irritable anxiety.

"But he didn't," Gambit pointed out. "So it's just a nick."

"It might surprise you to learn, Mike Gambit, that there's rather a large spectrum between a nick and having your throat sliced open, and I'm not going to be able to work out where you are on it unless I have a look."

"It'll keep," Gambit temporised. "I'm okay, Purdey."

Purdey arched an eyebrow. "That's an amazing diagnosis given that you can't possibly see what it looks like for yourself. Or have you suddenly sprouted eyes at the back of your head?"

"Might be useful in this line of work."

"Gambit."

Gambit sighed and finally turned to face her. He'd been resisting looking Purdey in the eye since the ordeal, because he knew it had shaken her. If he was honest, it had shaken him as well, not that he wanted Purdey to know that. He hated it when Purdey was worried, and he especially hated it when he was the one making her worry. He'd already done enough of that recently, with the whole 'everyone thinking he was dead' fiasco, and he'd been hoping to give her a break from grief and its associated emotions for awhile. He'd actually been succeeding at that particular task for the past week, ever since they'd finally taken the plunge and started dating, or whatever they wanted to call it—the word felt too casual for the act. But since they'd become involved, they'd had seven days of bliss in compensation for the very fraught week or two that had led them here. But where their job was concerned, one couldn't take anything for granted. They were bound to have their first work-related close call as a couple eventually, and now they had. Gambit only wished it didn't remind him so much of being nearly beheaded by Soo Choy—maybe he'd have been able to shake it off a little better otherwise. "Sorry," he apologised, setting his glass down on the bar and laying a hand aside Purdey's cheek. "I don't want to worry you, that's all."

She leaned into his touch, but her blue eyes had found his and weren't about to let him look away anytime soon. "You could do that by letting me look you over," she said so softly, so tenderly, that it almost brought Gambit to his knees right then and there. It used to be that Purdey's built-in defences prevented her from letting the waters get too deep and, as a side-effect, Gambit supposed that they'd protected him on occasion as well. After a normal assignment, if Gambit wanted to hide how badly he'd been hurt, physically or emotionally, it had been easy to beg off going out for a drink. Then he could drag himself home to his flat, where he could lick his wounds in private, without having to make an effort to convince anyone else that he was all right. But now he and Purdey hadn't so much waded into the emotional depths as leapt into them feet first. There was no fobbing her off now, no barrier to keep her at arm's length. They were wandering in and out of one another's flats with more impunity than ever these days, and Gambit knew the number of excuses that could reasonably be used to keep Purdey out of his domain were few and far between. Assuming he wanted to keep her out. Much as he didn't want to worry Purdey, there was something liberating about not having to be strong all the time, about being able to be vulnerable, really vulnerable, rather than putting on a brave front. So it was with a certain amount of relief that Gambit acquiesced to Purdey's request. "Where do you want me?" he queried, starting to shrug his jacket off.

Purdey's face relaxed noticeably, which made Gambit feel better in turn. "On the bed," she informed, moving to touch the button to activate the mechanism that retracted the bed from the couch.

Gambit tossed his jacket on a nearby chair impudently. "Purdey, if that's what you had in mind, all you had to do was say."

"Not that," Purdey tsked, resting the first aid kit on the bed and rummaging around inside. "Business before pleasure."

"It never hurts to have an incentive," Gambit teased, pulling his shirt from his trousers as he moved to the bed. She turned to face him as he reached her, tried and failed to not smile at the ridiculous way his eyebrows were waggling.

"Mike Gambit, you really are incorrigible, aren't you?" she sighed with a shake of her head.

"Wouldn't want to be corriged," Gambit quipped, undoing his cuffs. "Have to keep the mood light somehow. It's all getting very serious." He tipped his head forward so his forehead touched hers. "We've had too much serious lately. We're due some fun."

"We've been having lots of fun recently," Purdey reminded pertly, tipping her head back in turn. "We do have to take some things seriously, you know."

"I take being with you very, very seriously," Gambit murmured, ducking down to seek her lips, in a slow, gentle kiss. He tried to deepen it, but Purdey had other ideas, breaking away to give him a look.

"Mike Gambit, are you really trying to seduce me to get out of having your wound looked at?" Purdey's words were outraged, but her tone was amused.

"That depends," Gambit temporised, pecking the corner of her lips. "Is it working?"

Purdey extricated her mouth from his with great regret. "You have no shame," she pronounced, gripping great handfuls of his shirt before commencing to undo the buttons.

"Luckily." Gambit watched her fingers work with delighted surprise. "Things are looking up."

"It's not what you think," Purdey advised, working her way down the shirt with great efficiency. "I need this off if I'm going to look you over properly.'

Gambit was watching her progress with that look in his eye, the one that made her heart do a complicated dance and her blood heat. "I don't mind being looked over," he said, voice dropping an octave, sending an involuntary shudder of delight through her. "Not by you, anyway.'

"You are not smooth-talking your way out of this one," Purdey asserted, pushing the garment off his shoulders.

"Is that a challenge?"

"It's a warning," Purdey shot back, inching the cloth down his arms.

"Well, I did ask for an incentive," Gambit mused, with a resigned sigh. "And I suppose watching you undress me is a bonus, no matter what the reason."

"If it makes you keep still, it's all to the good," Purdey opined, frowning slightly as she worked the shirt off one of Gambit's shoulders, a difficult manoeuvre at the best of times. In the process, she reached out and rested her other hand, quite squarely, on Gambit's bare chest, to brace herself. Gambit felt the press of flesh to his and glanced down at her hand with obvious delight. Purdey froze, looked at where her hand had ended up, then slowly, inexorably, rose her eyes to meet Gambit's. With very deliberate movements, she let go of his shirt, letting it dangle limply from his other arm, in favour of putting her other hand next to the first on his chest. They stood there for a moment, just savouring her touch and the sensation of his chest swelling beneath her palms with each breath, and the thrum of life through his body that they'd both vowed they wouldn't—not now, not ever—take for granted. Purdey felt herself relax, felt a wave of calm wash over her. That was something that she hadn't anticipated when she'd finally acted on her feelings for Gambit. She'd thought it would make her feel more exposed, more vulnerable. But it had actually made her feel safer, more secure, as though she'd been whipped around by the winds of fortune for centuries, and suddenly she'd found a safe haven, a port in the storm, that was hers for as long as fate determined. And even if she lost it, heaven forbid, as she almost had not long ago, she knew she'd be better for having had it.

Her eyes rose to meet Gambit's, and she could see the serenity she felt reflected in his gaze. They shared a long moment, before Purdey finally whispered, "I'm allowed an incentive as well."

Gambit laughed at that, and she could actually feel his laugh, the way it vibrated up through his chest before it tumbled from between his lips. And then she was overcome by the overwhelming need to kiss those lips. So she did.

Purdey was perfectly aware, as she devoured Gambit's mouth, that she was being a hypocrite, effectively seducing Gambit and preventing herself from properly examining him for injuries when she'd only just finished chiding him for doing the same. But somehow, she was willing to allow herself that luxury that she'd denied him, and now Gambit's hands were on her waist and his lips were wrapped around hers. She might have carried on like that, tumbled back onto the retracted bed and let the first aid kit be knocked away by an errant foot, being sensible be damned, if she hadn't wended her hands around his neck and come up against something warm and sticky. She pulled away with a start, eyes fixed on her fingers.

They were painted red.

"Gambit!" Purdey exclaimed in alarm, snatching at the shirt dangling from his arm. There was a thin red trail all down the back of the immaculate white linen. She grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, was met with a long, uneven red streak dividing his back in two. Purdey followed it to its source, wasn't surprised to find that it was a cut near the base of his neck, just below his hairline. "A nick," she muttered reproachfully, letting Gambit turn back to face her. "That's what you called it. And now I find blood halfway down your back." She was as angry with herself for not noticing it earlier as she was with him for not mentioning it. If he'd only taken his jacket off when he'd come home, she would have seen it right away. "Couldn't you feel it?" she demanded in exasperation.

"Well, yes," Gambit admitted, sending his own hand exploring and wincing when it came back red. "But I thought I'd take care of it later."

"Take care of it later?" Purdey repeated incredulously, already making her way toward the kitchen. She filled a bowl with water, found a wash cloth while the tap ran. "How were you going to manage that? You still don't have those eyes in the back of your head."

Gambit sighed as she brought the cloth and bowl over to set on his side table. "I would have managed. I didn't want to worry you."

"Did you really think I was going to let you fob me off? After what happened?" Purdey asked incredulously. She moved to the bar and snagged the bottle of vodka off the top, returned to Gambit and brandished it angrily. "Do you know, your first aid kit sees so much service, there's nothing left in it to use for sterilisation?"

Gambit smiled weakly. "You're not up for mixing up another batch of Purdkas, then?"

"Gambit." Purdey set the bottle on the bed and rested her hands on either side of his face. "Haven't you worked out by now that protecting me from things like this doesn't stop me worrying? Being able to do something about them, or even just knowing what's happening—that's what I need to set my mind at ease." She stroked his cheek, smiled to take some of the sting away. "We're in this together now. You don't always have to protect me. I want to help you to face these things."

Gambit swallowed hard, studied his shoes sheepishly. "I know, I know. I'm just—I've had to face things on my own for a long time." He raised his eyes to meet hers, gifted her with a crooked little smile. "I'm still working out how to let someone else share the load."

"We both are," Purdey said truthfully, stroking his hair back from where some of the curls were tumbling onto his forehead. "Early days. But you can start by letting me have a look at that." She pointed her chin at his neck. "Okay?"

Gambit's smile evened out a little. "Okay. On the bed, then?"

"On the bed," Purdey pronounced briskly, then shot him a look. "And not a word out of you."

"I don't know what you mean," Gambit protested, but his eyes were dancing, and Purdey was grateful for the spark of levity. She settled for pushing downward on his shoulders, encouraging him to sit. He did, perching on the edge of the mattress, and she made sure that he was going to stay put before climbing onto the bed herself and crawling around behind him.

"Let's see how deep this goes," she murmured, dipping the cloth into the bowl of water and squeezing out the excess. She started by cleaning up the streak on his back, sponging away the dividing line between his shoulders before soaking the cloth once more and wringing it out. "This might sting," she warned, tipping some of the vodka onto the fabric.

"What, the sterilization or the fact that you're wasting a good bottle of Stoli on first aid—ow!" Gambit cringed as the alcohol touched his wound, and Purdey winced in sympathy.

"Sorry," she apologised, cleaning away the blood to reveal the break in the skin. "If it's any consolation, it doesn't look deep."

"I did tell you," Gambit reminded, sucking his teeth as the alcohol stung its way through his flesh.

"I wouldn't remind me of that if I were you," Purdey warned, rinsing the cloth and trying not to notice that Gambit's blood had dyed the water dark red. She averted her eyes and focussed on soaking the cloth in vodka again. "It's deep enough that you'll need to keep it clean. And it's definitely going to need to be dressed."

"Nothing new there," Gambit sighed, suddenly feeling very tired, the trials of the day catching up with him.

"Mmm." Purdey was so engrossed in her work that she barely heard him. "I hope it doesn't scar."

"I doubt it will," Gambit opined, scrubbing his face and earning a reproving tsk from Purdey for moving while she tried to work. "If there's one thing I've learned in my life, after all my exploits, it's that I heal well. I don't end up with a scar half the time, and when I do it's so faint you wouldn't know it was there unless you went looking."

"What a pity you couldn't learn something else, instead," Purdey opined, blotting the wound dry with a sterile pad, again infused with vodka, before seeking out some lint and tape in the kit to cover it. "Like how to duck." She regarded the wound with a critical eye. "But at least you won't have to start wearing higher collars." She taped the lint in place, then assessed her work before nodding in satisfaction. "That should be all right," she decided.

Gambit chanced a glance over his shoulder at her. "Do you think I'll live, then?"

"Yes, in spite of yourself," Purdey said pointedly, closing the first aid kit. She surveyed Gambit's infuriating expression with a certain amount of sourness. "I can't decide if the fact that you have so many scars is a sign that you're lucky or cursed."

"Who's indulging in negative thinking now?" Gambit opined, and Purdey didn't need to look at him to know that he was grinning.

"I'm being realistic, as you're so fond of telling me whenever I use that line." She touched a barely-discernable mark on his shoulder blade. "Take this one here. I remember when you got it. If you hadn't twisted when you did, it might have been really nasty."

"It wasn't exactly a joy as it was," Gambit replied dryly.

"But it could have been worse," Purdey reiterated, letting her hand slide off his shoulder in favour of slipping it around his waist. She found the spot on his rib cage from memory, drew a small circle around the circumference with her fingertip, chin resting on his shoulder. "Berlin, of course," she identified. She'd known about that scar even before she started sleeping with Gambit, identified by the various whispered mentions of the infamous three bullets that had followed Gambit over the Berlin Wall that she'd heard around the Ministry, a story that had later been confirmed by Gambit himself; for that reason, she'd been sure to look for it whenever she'd managed to catch Gambit with his shirt off. She'd tried to convince herself that was her only reason for looking. Unsuccessfully.

"That really was lucky," Gambit opined, hand covering hers as he turned his head to brush his lips against her cheek. "If I hadn't survived that, I never would have met you."

"If you had met me, you wouldn't have been shot three times in the first place. I would've seen to that," Purdey declared, with a touch of hubris.

"Why? Because you would've saved them the trouble and done the honours yourself?"

"Possibly," Purdey said pertly, hand drifting down his body. She found another small scar on his side, just above his hip. "Here's where you were stabbed."

"Which time?" Gambit's eyes were closed and he was leaning against Purdey, savouring her touch.

"That's not a very encouraging thing to say," Purdey opined.

"No, but the direction you're heading is." Gambit's eyes were still closed, but his lips were curled into a small smile, one that Purdey found herself mirroring in spite of her best efforts to keep a straight face.

She leaned in closer, lips kissing his ear. "Shall I continue my inventory?"

"Well, it is a good way for us to get to know one another even better," Gambit said reasonably.

"I thought you'd say that." Gambit could feel her grin against his skin. She curled her other arm around him, so that both hands were free to explore his torso. "Let's see. Where shall I go next? Here?" She caressed a gentle curve along the line of his pectoral with her left hand. "Or here?" She ran her right hand over the flat of his stomach, felt the muscles tense and then relax under her fingertips. "Do you have a preference?"

"I'll be happy wherever you care to go," Gambit murmured, head still turned, nose nuzzling up against hers. "I'm just waiting to be explored."

"Mmm, I'm sure," Purdey said knowingly, letting her hands drift lower. She craned her neck over his shoulder so she could better survey the expanse of his body offered to her, waiting to receive her touch wherever she wanted to go, wherever she dared to venture. He was offering her complete access based on a bond of absolute trust, as open and vulnerable to her as she was to him. It was flattering, elating, intoxicating, romantic, erotic—and it made her sublimely happy. This, being here, with him, lifted her soul in ways that she'd never known it could be, that even her ballet hadn't. The connection between them, always tangible, was expanding and blossoming every day, strengthening to its full potential. If their first week together was any indication, they were going to enjoy each other for many days to come, and Purdey couldn't wait to see what they'd bring.

As she indulged herself in surveying his physique, her eyes fell on a scar she hadn't noticed before, peeking just over the waist of his trousers toward the back of his left hip. She withdrew her arm from around his waist, sent her left hand down to touch the newly-discovered, albeit faint, blemish. "What about this one?"

The instant she made contact with the edge of the scar, Gambit stiffened. "Which one?" he demanded, tone suddenly terse and clipped.

Purdey frowned and leaned away from him a little, taken aback by the sudden shift in mood. "This one around the back of your hip. What—?"

"I don't want to talk about that one," Gambit cut in quickly.

"But Mike—"

"I don't want to talk about it," Gambit repeated, breaking bodily free from her embrace and standing up in the process. He moved quickly away from her, into the kitchen, putting as much distance between them as possible.

"Gambit!" Purdey exclaimed, confused and concerned. "What is it? What's happened?"

"Nothing," Gambit said shortly, bracing himself against the counter, his back to her.

Purdey scrambled off the bed, intending to go to his side. A moment ago, he'd been relaxed and open. Now, just like that, he was closed off, the door swinging shut and bolting behind him. The transformation was so sudden that Purdey was left reeling. Gambit wasn't the type to be quite so abrupt, so curt, with people he knew well. Usually he'd find a gentler way to fob someone off if he didn't want to talk about something, normally by inventing an excuse to withdraw and be elsewhere, where he could process whatever he needed to in private. And he was rarely so terse with Purdey herself, unless something was really wrong. Which meant something was really wrong.

Purdey approached him slowly, tentatively, as though he were a particularly skittish animal. He hadn't moved, was still looking down at the kitchen counter, palms pressed flat against the surface. As she got closer, she could see his eyes were squeezed shut against whatever demons were haunting him. With his head bowed, she could see the dressing at the base of his neck, how the white of the tape almost blended in with his skin, as though all the colour had been drained from his body. Purdey reached a tentative hand out to gently touch his bare arm, softly saying his name as she did so. "Mike…"

Her fingertips had barely grazed his forearm before he jerked away from her like he'd been burned, flinging himself backward into the corner of the kitchen, hands seeking purchase on the counter on either side of him. Purdey herself leapt back as well, as surprised by his reaction as he had been by her, but she was quicker to recover her wits, unwilling to let him pull away when she instinctively knew he clearly needed to be comforted, not isolated.

"Mike," she repeated, joining him in the corner, pressing a hand to his cheek. "What is it? What's wrong? What did I do?"

"It's not you. It's me," he said, voice bitter with self-recrimination. "It's always me. I—"

"Slow down," Purdey soothed, turning his head so he had to look in her eyes. "Tell me what's wrong. I want to help."

Gambit took a deep breath, and let it out through his nose. "That's just it," he murmured, looking angry with himself. "I'm not sure you can."

Purdey felt her frown deepen, this time in confusion rather than concern. "What do you mean?"

Gambit was working his jaw now, in that way he did when he was worried. "There are some stories," he began, "that are too hard to tell. No matter how much you might want to tell them." He eyed her cautiously, gauging how she was reacting. "Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes," Purdey sighed, dropping her hand from his cheek to his chest. "Unfortunately, the difference is you've already been tangled up in some of mine, but I'm still in the dark about yours."

Gambit smiled weakly. "Are you saying you want to me to return the favour? Get you enmired in some of my skeletons?"

Purdey shrugged in that carefree way of hers. "Well, you've helped me through some very difficult times. I think it's only fair that I return the favour." She paused and bit her lip. "But it all depends on whether you'll let me. Whether you can let me. And I know from experience that can be a very, very hard thing to ask from someone." She fingered the St. Christopher around his neck, almost in a daze, a world of her own. Then, just as quickly, she snapped back to reality, to the present day, with a determined look in her eye. "But whatever it is, I promise you this, Mike Gambit." Her hand dropped from the St. Christopher, slid down his chest to his trousers, and undid the button.

Gambit was taken aback, in spite of himself, not expecting this new development. "Purdey, what-?" he sputtered.

"Just listen," Purdey interrupted, unzipping his trousers very deliberately, but still holding his gaze. "I know it's early days between us, and we can't possibly hope to completely unburden ourselves about every dark corner and unfortunate happening right away. But this—" She slid her hand beneath the trouser fabric, so her fingers brushed tenderly against the scar that had frightened him away from her the first time she'd touched it, creating a new protective barrier between Gambit and whatever pain it held, one for which she was the gatekeeper. "—whatever this is, I promise you, it won't change what we have. If you tell me—and I hope you will tell me, one day—I promise I'll help you to face it. And I'll wait as long as I have to for you to tell it." She looked him hard in the eye, wanting, needing him to know how she felt. "Do you understand?"

They stared at each other for a long moment, locked in that strange embrace, with Purdey's hand covering his hip, as though trying to draw the bad memories up and out of his skin like the poison they were, providing a balm for his soul, should he ever be able to conjure up the courage to bare it to her.

"I don't know how long it'll be before I can talk about it. I might not be able to tell you anytime soon," he warned, fearing that he'd feel her pull away from him, even as the words left his mouth, but knowing he needed to be straight with her from the start of their relationship, before the waters got any deeper. They both had things in their past that they hadn't told one another about, Gambit knew, but he wasn't keen to add to the list now that they were together. "If ever. It's one of those things that would rather stay buried, if you know what I mean."

He waited for her to withdraw, for the sensation of her fingers on his flesh to fade, for her to avert her eyes and turn away from him in disappointment. For her to leave him all alone with the ghosts of his past, to realise he was a burden that no one with any sense would throw their lot in with if she could help it.

But there was no sudden withdrawal, no desire to disentangle herself from him as quickly as possible. All Purdey did was smile a little broader, completely unfazed by the prospect, and stroke the scar with one hand, and his cheek with the other, and say, "I know. But if—when—you do decide that you're ready to talk about it, I'll be here to listen. And to help with it, if I can." She leaned in and nuzzled him gently. "But I know what these things are like all too well, and how hard it can be talk about them. Which is why I'm willing to forgo my usual impatience." She laughed a little at the admission of her own flaws, inviting him to laugh, too, and he did, in spite of his own misery. "I can't begin to guess how long it might take you, but I do know that I'll be there when you're ready."

"Oh, Purdey, Purdey." Her name came out in a long, relieved exhale, as though he'd been holding his breath in anticipation of her reaction, and Purdey could feel tense muscles relax beneath her fingertips. His hand found her cheek, thumb stroking it gratefully. "What would I do without you?"

"I intend to make sure that you never find out," Purdey said firmly. "Someone has to look after you, Mike Gambit, because you're certainly not equal to the job."

Gambit laughed again, this time more freely. "I might have to take you up on that offer, Purdey-girl. Because a few decades from now my body might be held together with nothing but grit and sticky-tape."

"I don't think so," Purdey said coyly, drawing a little pattern on his chest with her finger-tip. "I think you've kept it in quite good shape-considering what you put it through, of course. And anyway, I've had my share of scrapes. But I'm willing to take care of you as you deteriorate into wrack and ruin if you'll do the same for me."

"I might," Gambit murmured, small smile twitching his lips. "But it all depends."

"On what?" Purdey wanted to know.

"On whether we're too stubborn or masochistic to admit we need help before we break our necks," Gambit joked, and Purdey joined him in the laughter that rumbled up through both of them.

"I'm willing to try if you are," Purdey conceded when she could talk again without laughing.

"You and me both," Gambit chuckled, brushing away his tears of mirth. "Thanks, Purdey-girl."

"For what? Pointing out our mutual personality flaws?"

"For understanding," Gambit clarified, brushing a lock of hair aside affectionately, regarding her with unabashed awe.

"I may not claim to always understand you, Mike Gambit," Purdey said wryly, burying both hands in his dark curls. "But I do know what sort of man you are. And I know that you wouldn't keep something from me without a very, very good reason." She stroked his scalp and he was instantly infused with calmness, serenity, bliss. "I only hope that, one day, you have an equally good reason to tell me."

"Me, too," Gambit murmured, "but until then, you are a very brilliant, very understanding woman."

"Yes, I know," Purdey preened. "You're very lucky."

Gambit didn't even bother to tease her, so relieved and grateful was he to just have Purdey in his life, to have her love and understanding. "I am."

"You are," Purdey repeated, teasingly, but her expression was fond. "But then, so am I."

That undid him right there, and Gambit could no longer resist the urge to kiss her that had been building over the past few minutes, nurtured by the tenderness of her tone, her words, and her sentiments. He bent his head to meet her lips, but she was already on her way up, and they met with the sort of glorious, devoted passion born of love that Gambit hadn't been entirely certain he'd ever get a chance to experience in his lifetime, let alone with Purdey, the woman who had brought him to his knees what seemed like an eternity ago, and kept him there in a sort of exquisite agony offset with darts of pleasure, a state that had only been broken a week ago by the sudden break of their detent to embark on what, for Gambit, had been a week of bliss and promise.

They parted, and Purdey was still looking up at him with love in her eyes, eliciting a small, hopeful smile from him in spite of himself. "Now then," she began, finally unwinding her fingers from his hair. "I think we've both earned our dinner. Takeaway?"

Gambit grinned a little, both at Purdey's seemingly never-ending well of optimism, and her boundless enthusiasm for food. "Suits me. I'll let you decide."

"Clever boy," Purdey praised, rising up on tiptoe to give him one more quick kiss before breaking away to set her dinner plans in motion. "Indian, perhaps," he could hear her saying to herself, as she started clearing up the mess she'd left behind by fixing him up. "Or Chinese…"

Gambit looked down at his still-unzipped trousers and sighed, moved to do them up, but was stopped by the sight of the scar that had initiated their impromptu heart to heart. He touched it gingerly, his fingertips rough where Purdey's had been soothing. He'd warned Purdey that he might not ever be able to bring himself to tell her about that horrifying chapter of his life, but what she didn't understand was that it was going to come out whether he wanted it to or not. The only question was whether he'd be able to protect her from it, whether he should, whether he could let her in on his private hell, whether she'd be so willing to stay by his side when she'd seen and heard the evidence for herself. Gambit swallowed hard at the thought, both of his suffering and Purdey's reaction to it. Purdey said something to him suddenly, and he smiled at her without really hearing, not wanting to betray his unease. When she turned away once more, he did his trousers up hurriedly, hiding the scar and burying the past, at least for the moment. He checked his watch, noticed the date. Whatever he decided, the clock was ticking. He'd have to work out what to do and how to let Purdey in on it all—or keep her out of it for her own good—before the decision was made for him. Because he could feel it in his body, deep in his bones.

The countdown had begun.

End

The New Avengers will return in "Same Time Next Year".