Same Time Next Year
Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor the characters of Mike Gambit, Purdey, and John Steed. Sadly. They're the property of The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. This story is for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended
Timeline: Ninth in a series. Takes place in November, 1977, a few months after the conclusion of the series in the Canadian episodes. It is strongly recommended, but not essential, that you go back and read the previous stories in the arc: Lost Boys, Anew, Aftermath, Dance With Me, The Anniversary, Merry Christmas, Mr. Gambit, Brazil, Life on Mars, and 'Til Death.
For more information about the series, please see my profile.
Author's Note: A story that's been a long time in the offing. The basic plot's been in my head for years, but undergone a lot of writing and rewriting in the interim. For those that have read the previous instalments in the Arc, this one will finally tie up a thread that's been referenced in many of the stories, most notably "The Anniversary" and "Lost Boys". It's also one of my longest stories to date, so there will be many more chapters to come. I hope you enjoy them!
John Steed could still hear the crack of Dr. David Keel's fist making contact with his jaw, sixteen years later. He remembered spitting blood on the floor, and the dark, florid bruise that he'd explained away to One-Ten as an encounter with a drunk at a pub who had a bone to pick and a particularly lethal right hook. His superior didn't believe it, and Steed knew it, but the older man didn't press the issue, and that was all that mattered. He also didn't bother to make the connection between the injury and Steed's casual comment that he wouldn't be calling on the good doctor for his latest assignment.
Steed's memory was good, and long. Always had been. A useful asset in the trade, although it could sometimes be a curse as much as a blessing. There were things he wished he could forget- awful, unpleasant things-but it was equally important for him to remember that he had lived through them, just in case he found himself repeating the experience and needed something to hang onto in the wee hours.
He remembered what they were arguing about, Keel and him, and why the good doctor finally broke his vow to 'do no harm' and let loose with his fists in the way he had almost done countless times before. And because he was David Keel, he remembered the doctor wound up patching him up in his surgery afterwards. Because he was a good man who inevitably got angry with himself for getting angry at someone else; one who waited until Carol Wilson had left for the evening before bringing Steed inside, because he was too ashamed to tell her what had happened.
Memory aside, Steed was also good at reading people, but that particular skill had been harder-won, the product of many years of experience, and more than a few mistakes. If asked, Steed would describe himself as a people person, but not in the way the term was usually bandied around. It was more a matter of him figuring out how people worked and pushing the right buttons than just being naturally gregarious and outgoing, though Steed had always been able to play those roles with aplomb. He'd always been good at a party or over dinner, charming and full of bonhomie. But something changed after the War. He changed. He wasn't entirely certain what it was—he'd never been a misanthrope, or a sadist, or a troublemaker for its own sake. But he developed a habit, a need, call it what you will, to push people-to see how far he could push them. Perhaps it was a coping mechanism—the War, followed by a career in espionage, does not fill one with trust in other people and their motives. So Steed pushed and pushed and pushed, seeing how far he could go, how loyal people really were, how much they'd take, how many liberties their goodwill would allow. It was a good way to divine someone's mettle. It was also a good way to alienate them. And alienate Steed did. Keel. Dr. King. Venus. Cathy. They'd all been friends to him, in one way or another. He couldn't fault them for their loyalty or willingness to come to his aid in a pinch. But neither could he fault them for walking away when they felt ill-used one time too many. And Steed had ill-used them. He'd pushed them that little bit too far, just to see if they'd crack. And they had cracked.
Steed knew he was as good at using people as he was at reading them, but no one liked being used. When he met Emma, he'd tried to use her as he'd used the others, but when she reacted with anger, he felt fear, real fear-for the first time in much too long-that she, too, would leave. That was when he realised that he desperately didn't want to alienate Emma, would do almost anything to prevent it. That their bond had extended past the professional, past even friendship, into something much more precious. Something it would be tantamount to criminal to throw away due to his callous behaviour. So he started to reconsider his methods. He changed. Changed for the better. Changed for Emma. The fact that she left him for something beyond his control was perhaps the cruellest blow fate ever dealt him.
Then Tara came around, and Steed found himself in a new position. Tara was a subordinate, not a talented amateur or a fellow agent of equal standing. Using her would be tantamount to bullying, and anyway, Steed had learned his lesson well from Emma. That ruthless streak that the job entailed would always remain, for his own good as much as his partner's, but he was more careful now in how he used it. He was no longer eager to test the limits of Tara's patience. His reward had been an amiable partnership, and an equally amiable parting. Steed was still in touch with Tara, who had yet to let more than a few months pass without at the very least a call or a letter, regardless of where she was in the world. Steed was quite proud of that—how he'd handled that relationship, how it had evolved, and how it continued, despite the end of their professional bond. He'd known when to keep Tara close, and when to let her go. His reward had been someone he knew he could call on in a pinch—and had—without worrying about the weight of history hanging over them, or how she would react. She'd gone on to other, better things, and Steed flattered himself that he had had a hand in that. But he was also humble enough to know that Tara had helped him just as much as he had her, if not more, and he owed her a great deal for guiding him through what had been an admittedly difficult part of his life.
That brought him to his current partners, Purdey and Gambit. Steed was very fond of Purdey. He also knew she was beautiful. It would have been a lie to deny it—Steed had eyes, and knew a beautiful woman when he saw one. But he didn't look at her the way he had Emma, or even Cathy. It was a sort of academic assessment, as though he were looking at her in a textbook, and she met the definition of 'beautiful' that he'd written for himself. But Steed had never felt any desire to chase her, as charming as she was. If he was brutally honest with himself—and Steed often was at this stage in his life-he wanted friends, good friends, the kind he could rely on, not just on the job but in life. And Purdey had been a good friend to him. Smart, sharp, funny, lively, engaging, and more than a little eccentric, she was never anything but good company, guaranteed to brighten up the dullest day. But Steed had seen the glint of hero worship in Purdey's eyes from the beginning, and he'd been well-schooled in that particular phenomenon with Tara. He knew that it was the idea of him that fascinated Purdey, more than the man himself, and he knew how insubstantial a relationship of any kind was when built on an illusion. The longer Steed had worked with her, the more Purdey had figured out that he was flesh and blood—a legend perhaps, but a man all the same. Steed had felt relief every time another scale fell from her eyes, until they'd all gone, and he'd been laid bare to her as a person. A person who was really, truly her friend now, after all they'd gone through in the roughly two years since they'd become acquainted. There was a frankness between them now, a candidness that had developed in tandem with their comfort level with one another, and the result was a solid friendship, umblemished by romance, that he treasured. Steed considered himself lucky to have someone as incisive yet sympathetic as Purdey in his corner at this stage of his life.
Now, Gambit—Gambit had always been the complete opposite of Purdey when it came to his relationship with Steed. He saw through the inflated, living legend stories instantly, and he knew exactly who, and what, Steed was the second he laid eyes on him. He reminded Steed of David Keel in that way. The difference was that Gambit has become a friend: a solid, loyal friend who hadn't walked away as Keel had, in spite of that stark, clear-eyed assessment. Steed valued that more than Gambit probably knew. Just as he valued the unvarnished honesty between them. Purdey often accused Steed and Gambit of practising 'telepathy', but Steed knew their wordless exchanges were the product of complete honesty coupled with absolute trust. Steed knew Gambit wouldn't tolerate games or being spun a yarn, and Steed found it something of a relief to forgo the dressing up of the truth in favour of giving it to him straight. It was so refreshingly freeing to be able to cut through all the noise and go right to the heart of the matter. And once all of that nonsense was stripped away, Steed could rely on Gambit, and his hard-won worldly wisdom, to understand whatever Steed conveyed with a look or a few words, and trust Gambit to know how to respond or what to do. Gambit hadn't let him down yet, and Steed didn't suspect he would any time soon.
But Steed knew Gambit in ways that went beyond his personality and modus operandi. There were things behind the curtain that Gambit had deftly draped in front of his past that went beyond the thin personnel file that the people in records would permit Steed to see, as per departmental rules. Steed knew that Gambit had seen and experienced things that he didn't talk about, mostly because he was the same. For that reason, Steed always knew something was very wrong when Gambit started turning down one too many invitations for drinks or dinner, or even a quick friendly chat in the hallway, without the excuse of a date with an attractive women to call him away. Some people sought out distractions when they were struggling, but Gambit shut down and withdrew when he was in distress. Not completely, because that would attract attention. The jokes would still come easily to his lips, but the smile when he told them wouldn't reach his eyes, and he would slowly, silently, start to drift away—a cancelled evening out here, a solo assignment there. It had happened after Spence, and it happened again after Larry Doomer. Each time, Purdey either didn't notice or didn't want to notice, possibly unaware of his personal crisis because she was, in each case, dealing with one of her own, great or small. Steed couldn't blame her, but he also knew that if the team was to survive, there were some realities that Purdey was going to have to face, eventually, and that Gambit was going to have to let her face them. One of those realities was fast-approaching, and taking its toll on Gambit, whether he wanted to admit it or not. And Steed was determined that, this year, the younger man was not going to get away without providing his female partner with a more thorough explanation.
That was why Steed was sitting in his car outside Gambit's block of flats in the dying light of a chill autumn day, waiting for the younger man to return from his brief sojourn to Scotland on a research and recce assignment tangentially related to one of their cases. There were half a dozen other, more-junior agents under Steed's authority who he could have, and would have, selected for that particular task under normal circumstances. An agent of Gambit's skill and capability was better used elsewhere, and Steed knew it. But Gambit had volunteered, and Steed had accepted his offer, where normally he wouldn't have even considered it. Under any other circumstances, Gambit probably wouldn't have been quite so eager to disappear up north to the Highlands, where no one knew him from Adam. But at this time of year, Steed knew it was a place Gambit could hide, could retreat as the dark currents of anxiety and shadows of fear began to overwhelm him, neither of which he could control. At least if he was alone, he didn't have to exhaust himself further by putting on a brave front for any concerned observers in the process.
But now the few days of private, tortured anticipation were up, and the main event loomed large on both Gambit's and Steed's mental calendars. Steed knew and accepted that Gambit would never be able to bear nearly a whole week of someone looking over his shoulder, wringing her hands over his mental state. But Steed had experienced enough of his own personal traumas to know that, on the darkest of days, it was best to have someone with full knowledge of the facts by one's side to lead one back into the daylight, and he was determined to ensure Gambit had that advantage this time around, even if the one holding his hand in the walk through the shadows wasn't his.
A sudden flash of headlights wreaked temporary havoc with Steed's nightvision, but when his eyes cleared he saw Gambit alight from the XJS across the street. Steed waited until he'd ducked inside his building before getting out of his own car. He reached the front door just as the lift doors closed, timing it perfectly to ensure that Gambit wouldn't see him as he entered the building, but so that he could call the lift back as quickly as possible. He arrived in the corridor of Gambit's floor and rounded the corner just as Gambit was unlocking his door. "Ah, Gambit, I'm glad I caught you!" he exclaimed jovially, even though he could have easily waited by the flat door, if not inside, for Gambit to arrive. But Steed was keen to not let Gambit know what his intentions were, at least not right away, and taking up residence in Gambit's flat when the man himself hadn't even returned home was a definite red flag. By the same token, it was more difficult for a homeowner to fob someone off when he intercepted him just as he was crossing his own threshold than waiting until said homeowner was already inside and only had to not answer the door to avoid any unwanted visitors. Steed's plan required perfect timing to be executed properly, but fortunately for him, perfect timing was part of Steed's stock and trade.
Gambit's head whipped around in surprise at Steed's greeting, and Steed was momentarily taken aback at how starkly the harsh overhead lights picked out the too-prominent cheekbones in the noticeably thinner face, and accentuated the loose draping of his suit on his decidedly slimmer frame. Knowing what he did about Gambit's response to personal stress, Steed had been expecting some signs of distress, but Gambit's time away meant that Steed was seeing the changes in his appearance all at once, rather than gradually, over a longer period of time. Gambit looked as though he'd lived on nothing but coffee since he left London, and Steed had the awful feeling that that particular scenario wasn't far from the truth.
Old pro that he was, Steed quickly concealed his distress at Gambit's appearance. If Gambit knew Steed was there out of concern, he'd claim to be all right, beg off letting him in with the excuse that he was tired after a long day of travelling, and steadfastly refuse to discuss the most pertinent issue Steed wanted to broach until long after the proverbial deadline had passed. So Steed rearranged his features into his most cheerful smile, and carried on as if it were just an ordinary evening, and Gambit was his ordinary self. "How was the train ride back from Scotland?"
"Nothing to write home about." Gambit's eyes were weary, and it was clear he was keeping his long face from getting longer out of sheer force of will, with neither the desire nor the ability to engage in small talk.
"Really? I've always found it lovely this time of year."
"I didn't have much time to look at the scenery." Steed noted that Gambit didn't specify what had been distracting him for enjoying the view, but he could make a good guess. "Did you want something?"
"Oh, yes. I have this file on the Jarvis assignment." Steed plucked the file, which he'd brought along as a prop more than anything, out from under his arm. "I was passing by and thought I might drop in and give it to you, in case you want to get a head start on it for tomorrow."
"Oh." Gambit looked nonplussed by Steed's supposed motivation. He stared uncomprehendingly at the file in Steed's outstretched hand for an uncomfortably long time. Suddenly, he seemed to remember himself, and the niceties of social interaction, and took it with a weak smile. "Thanks, Steed. I appreciate it."
"My pleasure." Steed's now-empty hand joined its umbrella-holding mate behind his back, and he rocked jauntily back on his heels as he waited expectantly for Gambit to finish unlocking his flat door. Gambit did so with one eye still on Steed, popped the door open an inch and assessed the older man's body language for any tell-tale signs of imminent departure. There weren't any. When he met Steed's eyes, all he got in return was a disingenuous smile.
There was a moment where Gambit seemed to debate whether or not he could just slip inside his flat with a quick 'good night' and leave Steed stranded on the doorstep. But Gambit knew Steed, and he knew his modus operandi was such that that course of action would only lead to an umbrella thrust across the threshold and a nasty chip out of his door. Steed waited patiently for the fight to leave his colleague's body, until Gambit sagged resignedly. "Would you like to come in for a drink?" he sighed, without much enthusiasm. Gambit really wasn't up for company, but Steed was making it infinitely clear in that infuriatingly polite, mannered way of his, that he wasn't going to go away without an invitation to come in. It was Steed's secret weapon—to make even the most diabolical mastermind feel like a heel for being rude to him, even if being polite put his plot at risk. It was just as effective when Steed employed it against his friends, perhaps more so. After all, his friends had more to lose—John Steed was a good man to have in your corner.
"That's extraordinarily kind of you," Steed enthused, as though Gambit's invitation had been completely unexpected. "I'll take you up on that, if you don't mind."
"Pleasure," Gambit replied, with just a hint of sarcasm, gesturing for Steed to go in ahead of him with a wry knowingness. Gambit was onto Steed, and Steed knew he was onto him, but that was all part of the dance, and Gambit knew the steps better than most. What he was counting on, once he'd given Steed the admission to his inner sanctum that he so obviously craved, was that Steed would put his cards on the table and come clean about his true intentions for insinuating his way into Gambit's evening. "No games." That had been the deal Gambit had struck with his boss-cum-mentor back in 1975, and for the most part, Steed had held to it, with one or two egregious exceptions. Steed had to know that if he didn't cut to the chase soon, Gambit was going to pin him down on the issue himself, and all of Steed's manoeuvring would be naught.
Steed was setting his bowler and brolly on the dining room table when Gambit closed the door behind them, indicating he meant to stay for longer than a quick drink and a chat. Gambit wondered what he'd done—or someone else had done—to warrant this personal intervention. It made him vaguely uneasy, which, given his already not insubstantial personal unease, was not particularly welcome. But Steed usually had a good reason for putting a word in his ear, so he wasn't about to fob him off without hearing him out. "Scotch?" he offered, crossing to the bar.
"That'll be fine," Steed agreed, moving to the window to look out across the city. Gambit glanced at the elegant back as he poured two glasses, then moved to join him. Steed took the glass graciously. "Cheers."
"Cheers," Gambit echoed, and sipped his drink without taking his eyes off Steed. The man was cool as the proverbial cucumber, damn him, leaving Gambit both infuriated and impressed. Those emotions often came in tandem where Steed was concerned. They stood and watched the city dissolve into darkness gradually. Eventually, Gambit said, "Why are you here, Steed?"
"Without getting into specifics, my parents took a rather invigorating holiday in Scotland in 1921…"
Gambit laughed in spite of himself, shaking his head in disbelief at Steed's cheek. "Fine, I'll be more specific. Why are you here, in my flat? And don't say it's just because of that file." He pointed accusingly at the folder he'd left resting on the bar. "You know I won't get a chance to look at it before we start work tomorrow."
"Surely a man can share a drink with a friend without having his motives questioned?" Steed suggested, feigning offence, then added, carefully and calmly, "Especially on the eve of a day of some personal significance."
Ah. There it was. "You mean my unhappy anniversary," Gambit murmured, gazing down into the amber depths of his glass to avoid looking Steed in the eye. "I didn't think you'd remember."
Steed shook his head. "Africa? A cell? A cruel captor?" Gambit cringed involuntarily, but Steed carried on. "It's not the sort of thing I'm likely to forget. I didn't last year, if you recall. I would have paid you a visit then, but you wound up leaning on Purdey. A task she rose to admirably, as I recall. Even if she wasn't privy to the specifics." He trailed off meaningfully, let the words hang in the air between them.
"Ah," Gambit said with dawning realisation. "You think I should tell Purdey what happened to me."
"She did you no end of good last year," Steed pointed out. "At least as far as I was given to understand. I imagine she'd not be unwilling to help you through the darker hours again, but she'll want to know the full story if she does, and so she should. I think after all you've been through together, she'd understand and be sympathetic. But she needs you to let her in. I think it rather frustrates her that you haven't."
"You're right," Gambit sighed, the admission coming easily. "On all counts. And I have been thinking about telling her." That was the truth, and not just because of the reasons Steed had given, either. Gambit did know that Purdey was curious about that chapter of his life, was owed an explanation after the catastrophic end to their evening out the previous year. But he also felt that, now that they were involved, these were the sorts of secrets that he wanted—needed—should—open up to his lover about. Indeed, it was the lack of that additional level of intimacy that had caused him to hold back the previous year, had prevented him from telling all. The extra layer of defences that had been stripped away when they became lovers was exactly the sort of thing that needed to happen if he was going to engage in that sort of soul-baring, raw vulnerability. Steed had only been brought into his confidence because of extenuating circumstances, and because Gambit knew that the man had suffered more than his share of similar ordeals. And if Steed knew, then Purdey had even more of a right to know, and he really did want to tell her. But… "It's hard," he said finally, looking Steed in the eye for the first time. "It's not something I like to talk about at the best of times. But by the time tomorrow rolls around, I'll be a wreck."
"All the more reason to tell her," Steed said flatly. "You're going to wind up reliving that night regardless of whether you tell her or not. You may as well make it a less lonely journey and bring her along."
Gambit shuddered. "It would be nice to have her with me again, but how do I know if it's a journey she wants to go on?"
"You know that she cares about you," Steed said simply. "By default, that means she wants to know how you were hurt and how she can help you recover from it."
Gambit was starting to look a bit sick. "But it's not nice to hear about. You know that. I don't wish it on anyone, even second-hand."
"Purdey's made of stern stuff," Steed said optimistically, clapping him on the shoulder. "I don't disagree that she'll find it upsetting, but she won't faint, either."
"I know she won't," Gambit sighed again. Steed kept making good points, and he was too tired to counter them properly. "But what I worry about is whether she'll ever look at me the same way again. I can't take any more people looking at me like I'm a basketcase. After I got out of hospital, I didn't want anyone to ask me how I was for ages. Even the man on the street."
Steeed nodded in understanding. "It's quite common to crave normality, particularly if you're not the sort of person to make a fuss. I'd say we're both rather prone to minimising the shape we're in, more than is probably good for us." He treated Gambit to a conspiratorial smile. "Unless we're liable to get some sympathy from an appealing source, and we're not too incapacitated to take advantage of it." Gambit laughed a little at that. "But this is too serious an event to play for sympathy. In fact, I suspect there's going to be no space for play at all."
"Or ever again," Gambit said grimly, laughter fading away as quickly as it had come. "I know Purdey's not the fainting kind, but I don't want to scare her away because all she can see when she looks at me is some broken shell." His mouth turned down at the ends like a small child's, conveying innocent, helpless despair. "After everything we've built together, between us, for me to ruin it by throwing a grenade like that in the middle of it all…" He shook his head sadly. "I don't know if I could bear that, having my past be the end of us. Of the team."
"Ah, but we all have pasts," Steed reminded. "Pasts that have implications for the present. Purdey had Larry Doomer. She didn't tell us who he was, or what he'd done, until the eleventh hour. And even when she did, she sabotaged my attempts to stop him. Seen objectively, she betrayed us both. Betrayed our trust."
"That was different!" Gambit exclaimed, shaken out his gloom by the fierceness of his tone, almost taken aback by it. "She used to trust Doomer. She didn't think he could be involved, and when she did work it out, she did try to stop him."
"Tried, yes. But not as she should have. She was emotional," Steed said calmly, coldly, grey eyes suddenly devoid of feeling. "No, it was worse than that. She was irrational. Incapacitated."
"No." Gambit shook his head, edging away, but Steed was relentless, following him, meeting him stride for stride, backing him into a corner. "No, that's not fair."
"Fair isn't in it," Steed said sharply, eyes burning into Gambit's, so ruthless, so steely. "She acted as she did because of what Doomer did to her. And there are words to describe what happened to her. Unpleasant words."
"Stop!" Gambit demanded, voice hoarse, eyes desperate.
"Abuse." Steed bit the words off one at a time. "Trauma." More words. More steps. Gambit slammed back into the bar in an effort to escape, but there was no escape from John Steed, not when he had you in his sights. "Victim."
"Shut up!" Gambit, nerves ragged, temper fraught, grabbed a handful of Steed's jacket and yanked forcefully. "Not one more word, you hear me?" he ordered, accent fraying toward the cockney of his youth, teeth bared like a feral animal's. "Not one!"
Much to his surprise, Steed smiled, the warmth flooding his features just as quickly as it had been extinguished. "I must say, I admire your restraint. I half-expected you to take a swing at me. But, uh-" He cast a look down at the distressed fabric at his chest. "—do you mind? It's rather hard on the tailoring."
All of the tension instantly drained from the room, and from Gambit's face. He looked down at his fist bunching up Steed's jacket as though seeing it for the first time, and released it like he'd been burned. "Steed, I, I…" he stammered, edging away, trying to put as much distance between them as possible. "John, I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me."
"Purdey did," Steed said simply, tugging at the hem of his jacket to smooth out the creases. "As usual."
Gambit turned away, tears pricking at his eyes, leaned on the bar, and choked back a sob. Purdey had given Steed the Cliff's Notes of what had happened between her and Doomer, but since she'd gotten romantically involved with Gambit, she'd given him a much more detailed version, one that still made Gambit's blood boil and stomach churn in equal measure. Steed couldn't have known how hard his words would hit home, but he had known they would find their target. Which, Gambit realised, was rather the point. Another of Steed's teachable moments, albeit perhaps a more brutal one than even the senior agent realised.
"Gambit." Steed's hand was on Gambit's shaking shoulder, forcing him to turn around, even though every fibre of his being resisted it. But turn he did, facing Steed with red eyes and wet cheeks, like a small child who had fallen down and hurt himself in the schoolyard. But all Steed did was smile in that kindly way of his, and continue his lesson. "Purdey's situation with Doomer wasn't all that different from your own. She was hurt, badly, in her past. She didn't tell us about it until late in the day, probably because she was worried that it would change how we thought of her. As a result, that day—the day Doomer died-could have been the end of our team. In some ways it very nearly was. But it wasn't." He cocked his head inquisitively at Gambit. "But in spite of it all, did Doomer irretrievably change the way you saw Purdey?"
Gambit wiped his nose with his sleeve and stared at the floor for inspiration. "It made me understand her better," he said eventually, between shaky breaths. "Why she did the things she did, made the choices she did." He raised his eyes to meet Steed's, finally, and added, firmly, "But at the end of the say, she was still Purdey."
"She was still Purdey," Steed echoed. "You rejected those words I just used to describe her, because your perception of her has never changed. You've refused to let that knowledge determine who she is in your eyes." He looked hard at Gambit, trying to make him see. "And at the end of your tale, to Purdey, you'll still be Gambit. I'm not going to deny it may rattle her, just as what she told us rattled you. But these sorts of things should rattle people—it'd be the sign of a very deficient psyche if they didn't. It means that Purdey cares, just as your reaction to Doomer signalled the same. And it's because she cares that she won't let it cloud her vision and become all she sees when she looks at you. She's built up too much of a picture of you as a man, made up of too many other variables, too many memories, for this to become the overriding one." He paused and considered. "Which I suppose is why you wanted to wait until you knew each other better before you told her. Not so early in your partnership that it became the lens through which she subsequently viewed everything else about you."
Gambit smiled weakly. "See, I'm not completely mad."
"I never said you were," Steed replied mildly. "And I don't think you're mad to have trepidation about telling her. But if I may, I'd like to offer one final piece of advice before you make your decision."
Gambit regarded him expectantly, taking a deep, cleansing breath. "Go on."
"You may worry about driving Purdey away by telling her. But you may do that just as easily by keeping her in the dark. If she thinks that you're keeping things from her, that you won't let her in, that you don't trust her, that can be just as damaging as keeping quiet. More so, I'd wager."
Gambit swallowed hard and nodded. "I want to tell her," he admitted. "But I think I needed a final push to do it." He looked gratefully at his boss and friend. "Thanks, Steed."
"My pleasure," Steed replied, releasing his shoulder and turning back to the window. "Now, then, let's finish our Scotch, and then I'll be on my way. I think you ought to have an early night. That train ride took more out of you than I thought."
It was a weak offering by Steed's standards, but Gambit laughed, in relief, as though it were the funniest thing in the world, for much longer than it warranted. Steed, being Steed, simply sipped his Scotch and smiled.
Later that evening, after Steed was safely ensconced in his home in the country, with the gentle sounds of horses substituting for the rush of London traffic, he pondered the conversation he'd had with Gambit, and the events that he anticipated would unfold the next day. Steed had long suspected that Gambit wanted to unburden himself to Purdey about that particularly dark chapter of his life, but it hadn't hurt to give him a little encouragement, and Steed didn't think he was flattering himself by believing he'd been responsible for nudging Gambit to the point where he'd actually take the plunge. All the same, Steed thought it wouldn't hurt to lay the groundwork on Purdey's end, as well, particularly if she failed to recall the exact date of her last encounter with a distraught Gambit. It wasn't exactly the type of thing one put in one's calendar. Steed knew Gambit wasn't the type to lose his nerve once he'd made his mind up to do something, no matter how unpleasant, but all the same, if Purdey was in the picture to encourage him, everything would run much more smoothly. It would be good for both of them, Steed decided. Purdey had been the one doing the unburdening in the past several months, and Gambit had been the willing confidante, supporter, and defender as required. It would be a refreshing change of pace, a rebalancing of their relationship, for Gambit to be the vulnerable one, and Purdey the sympathetic ear, pillar of strength, and fellow warrior standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her colleague against his demons.
Steed nodded to himself in resolution, and reached over to switch off the living room lamp. He'd need to turn in early if he was to rise in time to catch Purdey before she left for work.
Purdey, as it happened, wasn't asleep when Steed called, but had risen early, ostensibly so she could complete some early morning exercises before she got ready for the day. The other reason for her to be up with the larks, which she was trying not to admit to herself, was that the bed felt rather cold and empty without Gambit beside her, as it had the past few nights since he'd been away. Purdey was not the sort of woman to fall apart the second her man was away for any extended period. Indeed, it wasn't uncommon for her and Gambit not to share a bed for a day or two, lives and work schedules often making it inconvenient not to return to their own flats. And Purdey rather enjoyed sleeping on her own when she was exhausted and wanted to stretch out with the whole bed herself. So she was quite capable of getting on with things, and living her life on her own terms, without Gambit there to hold her hand. But four days was the longest period of time that they'd been apart since the start of their romance, and coupled with the fact that Gambit's time in Scotland had meant Purdey hadn't even seen him at work, she was starting to feel his absence, in more ways than one. The bed had started to feel increasingly cold and empty. Her flat had seemed far less lively. Her days seemed to be sapped of a certain amount of levity, joy, and warmth. And, if she were brutally honest with herself, which she couldn't quite manage at that time of the morning, she was rather missing the sex as well. Despite years of voluntary celibacy after breaking up with Larry, her sex drive had returned in force since she started sleeping with Gambit, and four days without the sensation of his body moulding to hers, without his lips on her flesh and his hands touching her in the most intimate ways he knew how, was starting to build up inside her into an unpleasant tension, a burning need that she herself couldn't satisfy. Not that she'd tell Gambit that when she saw him, of course. His ego, among other things, would inflate immediately. Although Purdey wasn't entirely certain that would be as much of a disadvantage as she believed…
Purdey was dragged away from that train of thought with a blush and a start when the phone rang. She moved gracefully over to the side table and picked up the receiver, banishing thoughts of Gambit whispering sweet nothings in her ear. "Hello?"
"Purdey? I sincerely hope I didn't wake you." It was Steed's voice. Given that Purdey had elected not to tell anyone, even their partner and close friend, about her involvement with Gambit, she knew she had to be exceptionally diligent about not allowing her daydreams to reveal themselves in her tone of voice. Steed could pick up on just about anything, and Purdey was only half as sure as she wanted to be that he was still in the dark about what she and Gambit were up to.
"Steed? You're giving the early bird something to worry about," Purdey opined, using the sleeve of the sweatshirt she'd tied around her shoulders to delicately dab away the sweat beaded on her top lip from her workout—well, mostly from her workout. Maybe her thoughts about Gambit were affecting more than she wanted to admit. "No, I was doing my early morning exercises," she said crisply, leaning and squinting through the beaded curtains that served as her bedroom door to check the clock on the bedside table. "I'm not late, am I? I thought we were meeting at nine."
Steed chuckled. "No, no, you're not late at all. I was wondering, have you heard from Gambit at all?"
Purdey steeled herself, hoping that anything she said wouldn't sound odd. No matter how innocuous the topic, talking about Gambit with Steed always felt as though she was taking a test she was never entirely certain she could pass. "Not since before he left for his train. He knew he was going to get in late, so he wasn't going to ring me when he arrived. I'm going to see him this morning, so it hardly matters." She felt a sliver of anxiety wedge itself into her mind. "Steed, is there something wrong? Is Gambit all right?" Concern, at least, was always a fairly innocuous emotion, especially where Gambit was concerned. The man had a habit of making people worry after him, just by being the self-sacrificing idiot he was. Steed wouldn't think twice about her worrying after Gambit's well-being, and in any case, if something serious was going on, she hardly cared about keeping secrets. Gambit's well-being was more important.
"No, no," Steed soothed, undoubtedly detecting the note of panic in her voice. "But I thought that you might drop in on Gambit on your way in to the Ministry this morning, perhaps offer to drive him in. You could update each other on the progress you've made since Gambit went to Scotland."
Purdey's eyebrow climbed higher. "I should think Gambit's quite capable of driving himself in. Or has he finally crashed the XJS while reliving his racing days?" Steed's laugh was merry, but there was something Purdey couldn't quite put her finger on behind it. "All right," Purdey said carefully, not entirely sure how to construe Steed's reaction. "I'll ring him, and—"
"All things considered, perhaps it's better if you go straight to the source," Steed cut in, in a way that was meant to be construed as a suggestion, but Purdey knew it was an order. "He has had a long trip, and got in very late last night, as you said. He might appreciate being ferried in this morning, although as you know, he'll hardly accept an offer for help unless it's waiting for him on his doorstep."
That sent alarm bells ringing more than anything Steed had said thus far. Gambit liked driving—he'd pursued it briefly as a career, after all. And she didn't think the train had been so desperately late that he'd feel he wasn't capable of being behind the wheel. Whatever Steed said, something was wrong with Gambit, and he wanted Purdey there with him.
Purdey was now feeling very uneasy. "Steed," she said seriously, "has something important happened that I should know about?"
"If it has, I'm sure Gambit will be happy to tell you all about it," Steed sidestepped, tone permanently upbeat. "That's settled then. I'll let you get back to your workout."
Purdey knew that was all she was going to get from Steed at this stage, but she was now so concerned that she didn't need to be persuaded further. She needed to see Gambit for herself, and soon. "I'd better get ready then, hadn't I?"
Steed, uncharacteristically, sounded relieved. "Excellent. I'll see you shortly."
Purdey rang off and practically dashed for the bathroom. Whatever was going on, she felt there wasn't any time to waste.