by J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel
Beta by rabidsamfan, Khell, and Zircon.
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, and this story is for entertainment purposes only.
Timeline: Fourth in a series. Takes place in November, 1976, shortly after the end of season one ("Dirtier by the Dozen"). It is strongly recommended, but not essential, that you go back and read the previous stories in the arc, Aftermath and Dance With Me.
Author's Note: This story is one of the oldest, written a few years back and then rewritten a couple of years back. I always thought that Gambit must have had something traumatic happen to him in his past to be able to switch off and get as grim as he sometimes does. The events alluded to here are a bit of a recurring theme in the arc, and also serve to flesh out some of Gambit's army stint as mentioned in TNA press releases. As time goes on, more will be revealed.
This story has been revised slightly in some places, so you may want to give it a reread.
For more information about the series, please see my profile.
Mike Gambit was in the dark. It didn't matter much. There wasn't anything to see. Just the concrete walls of the cell, and the bars over the window. The hole in the corner that was easy enough to locate by smell, and the big iron door, solid and unforgiving to the fists, the looming silhouette only broken by the outlines of the openings for the food tray, which wasn't utilised often, and the observation slat which was utilised more than enough. And there was his body, but he was glad to remain ignorant on that front. He didn't need to see the damage. He could feel it. Every bruise, every gash, mapping the course of their work. He reached up to run a hand over his head. The hair was starting to grow back; short, but there. He wondered how long they'd wait before they cut it again.
He wondered if anyone even thought he was still alive.
Or had everyone—friends, family, the rest of the unit--given up hope long ago? Not that he knew how long it had been. The stifling heat didn't betray the passage of time. Always the heat, and smell of stale sweat, mixed with other unmentionable scents to create a sickly aroma. But at least he hadn't told them anything. And he could get out. He knew it. Somehow, his mind was still capable of devising a plan. All he needed was the right opportunity. But that was a small comfort as he heard the footsteps in the distance, echoing from the other end of the corridor. He braced himself. But it would do no good. He could feel the icy hand of fear down his throat, up his back, over his shoulder.
They were coming.
The door swung open, and he saw the boots. Several pairs, one set taking the lead. The dominant pair walked right up to him, and stood there, waiting for Gambit to look their owner in the eye. He didn't.
"Feeling cooperative today, Captain?"
Gambit set his jaw, and finally raised his head to fix the person in the boots with a sharp glare.
"About the same as yesterday," he replied. There was a frown.
"Then we'll just have to be more persuasive. Take him!"
Gambit could feel the hands seize him underneath his armpits, pulling him up. They were going to do it again. And again. And again.
Mike Gambit sat bolt upright, chest pounding, eyes wide with fright. It took him a moment to recognize his flat in the dim light, filtering through the crack in the curtains. He gulped a few breaths, and tried to calm down. Sweat trickled off his forehead, down his cheek, and dripped onto his bare chest, melding with the other damp patches surrounding the St. Christopher. He rubbed a hand over his face, wiping some of it away, subconsciously continuing the motion over the top of his head, checking that the thick curly hair was there.
It had happened again. Never failed. Every year, on this day, the old memories resurfaced, no matter how deeply buried, the cobwebs and dust blown away violently. Usually he could keep them from interfering, from defining his life. But today it was different. It was always different. It was as though his mind had a time lock—it knew when the anniversary was, and it aired its contents on that fateful day: the day that they caught him. The day after which everything had been just that much different.
The phone rang.
Gambit nearly fell out of bed, his nerves were so raw, so on edge. Somehow, he managed to gather the sheet around his waist, and made his way toward the instrument. Picking up, he managed a strained "Gambit."
"Mike?" came Steed's voice cheerfully. "Sorry, did I wake you?"
"No," Gambit assured, his voice cracking a little. He tried again. "No."
The voice lost a little of its joviality. "Is everything all right?"
"No—I mean, yes, but--," he sighed, and gave up deception. "John," he said finally, almost hearing Steed snap to attention at the sound of his Christian name, "remember Nee San?"
There was a long pause at the other end as Steed pondered the significance of that particular chapter of his life. Finally, he spoke. "It's that time of year again, isn't it? I'd forgotten."
"So had I—at least, I thought I had. Then I went to sleep." Gambit's voice had a slight tremor in it, and he knew it. And he knew Steed could hear it, too. Somehow, he didn't care. If anyone understood the significance of the anniversary, it was Steed.
"I know," the man sympathized. "As much as anyone can. I called because the Minister wanted to meet with us today, at the farm. But I can make excuses for you, if you're not up to it."
"No, I'll come." Anything to stay occupied. "But John—Purdey, she'll be there?"
"Don't say anything about—you know. Please. It'll only upset her." Gambit knew he was almost pleading, but didn't care.
Steed was silent for a moment before he replied. "I won't," he said finally, and Gambit could hear the reluctance in his voice. But Steed had given Mike his word, and that was one of the few sure things in their business. "Take care, Mike. The meeting's in an hour."
"Right. Bye Steed."
He hung up, and after a deep breath, made his way to the bathroom. He turned the shower to cold, stepped in, and waited for his body to numb.
Anything to stop the heat.
Purdey pulled her TR7 into Steed's driveway, expertly flicking the wheel to park it neatly in front of the large, white house. Rising gracefully from the vehicle, she strode up to the front door and let herself in. She nearly collided with Steed while making her way to the living room.
"I'm sorry, Purdey," Steed apologized, "I was on my way to let you in."
Purdey smiled sweetly. "No harm done," she demurred, following the senior agent to the living area and seating herself on the leather sofa. "I seem to be early. Where's Gambit?"
"On his way," Steed told her, taking a seat in a large armchair across the coffee table from her. "I called him just before you."
"Before me?" Purdey frowned. There was something about the way Steed mentioned the call that put her on edge, a distracted note to the voice that implied something much more serious than a routine reminder of a meeting. Steed didn't upset easily, or for no reason. Suddenly Gambit's tardiness was cause for concern. "And he still hasn't arrived?" she said incredulously. "With his driving?"
"Perhaps he minded the traffic laws," Steed offered. There was a stack of files on the coffee table, required for the meeting. He started to rifle through them.
"But it's odd. I mean, Gambit doesn't take nearly as much time to get ready as I do, and our flats are close enough that we have virtually the same starting point." The more she thought about it, the odder, and more worrisome, it seemed.
"He's running late, then. Any number of things can happen to slow one down." Steed smiled at her, but it wasn't a carefree smile, despite what he may have been trying to convey. For Purdey, that was the last straw.
"Steed? Is something wrong?" she asked.
Steed was back to the files, pushing a few across to her end in hopes that they would divert her attention. "No. Why do you ask?"
"Well, for one thing, you've reordered the papers on the Lynch assignment three times." Purdey pointed to the file Steed currently had open.
"Ah, silly me," he commented light-heartedly.
"And second, every time I mention Mike, you look shifty."
"Shifty?" Steed repeated, all innocence.
"Shifty. Really, Steed, do you think I haven't figured you out at all?"
"I do my best to remain enigmatic." He flashed her one of his smiles, and Purdey couldn't help but return it.
"I noticed, but that still doesn't explain why you won't tell me about Mike."
"What about him?"
Purdey was getting frustrated now. "Steed, is there something I should know about? Is there something wrong with Mike?" Subconsciously, she heard the approaching footsteps that betrayed the slightly rocking gait of one who had spent years at sea, immediately recognizable to Steed and Purdey, as it would to anyone on the intimate terms required for the business. But it wasn't until she heard the voice from behind her that she was fully aware of his presence, and turned to look his way.
"What's wrong with Mike?" Gambit asked, with only a fraction of his usual spark.
Purdey's mouth dropped open. Gambit, quite frankly, looked like hell. Oh, the suit was pressed and cleaned, and the dark curls were in place, but the face was pale and drawn, there were dark circles under the eyes, and there was a small gash on his right cheek where the owner had obviously used a razor with an unsteady hand. The usually lithe and agile frame looked a little less lithe and agile than normal. Plus, he looked exhausted, as though he were ready to pitch forward at any moment, weighed down by some monumental burden. The blue eyes looked faint and haunted. The lips were tight, the jaw, clenched. Purdey had seen Gambit bloody, bruised, battered, shot, stabbed, hungover, up nearly 48 hours straight, and with clogged sinuses after they'd all caught that cold in September at the same time, but somehow this was the worst she'd ever seen him. He looked, well, weak. Purdey could feel her stomach tightening at the adjective. Certainly, nobody could accuse Mike of being a morning person, but he'd never trotted in looking quite like this.
Gambit's gaze hovered on her, and Purdey realized she was still gaping at him. Through great effort, she managed to remedy her slack jaw and go about forming an answer.
"Besides the obvious?" she told him, and immediately felt bad for it. Gambit drooped a little. No quip, no grimace, just resignation. If he couldn't even shake off her words, something was terribly wrong. Eventually she did get an answer, but it wasn't the one she'd expected.
"You really know how to cheer up a guy, don't you?" he almost snapped. Purdey blinked. Gambit was rarely that gruff with anyone, other than the enemy, and especially not with her. Not unless she was trying to get a rise out of him by making exceptionally flattering comments about other male agents. She was too stunned to form a response, but Gambit had already turned his attention to Steed, and Purdey sensed that unspoken bond between them, when words were substituted by what she still swore was some sort of telepathy. She'd never been able to totally decipher it, and Steed and Gambit had yet to make her privy to their little code. But even she could tell that Gambit was asking an unspoken question, and Steed was answering in the negative. Gambit relaxed a little. "Sorry I'm not Mr. Brightside this morning," he said by way of apology to the room in general. "I shouldn't have skipped the coffee."
"Ah, I can remedy that," Steed said brightly, and his manner suggested somehow that his whole demeanour was for Purdey's benefit alone. "It's in the kitchen. I'll fetch it."
"Don't bother." Gambit's voice was so low, it was almost a growl. "I know where to find it." He turned on his heel, and made his way off to the kitchen.
Purdey shot a worried look at Steed. His expression reflected hers, but the difference came from his inside knowledge of Gambit's condition. And he wasn't about to enlighten her, either. Purdey rose.
"Where are you going?" Steed's tone asked more than the actual question.
"I thought I'd have some coffee myself," she replied, her expression challenging Steed to stop her.
"You don't drink coffee."
"A girl can change her mind." The stubborn set of the jaw told Steed he would get nowhere. Gambit would have to deal with her himself.
"Just see to it that you don't get burned," Steed told her. Purdey nodded, and made after Gambit.
She entered the room just in time to see the subject of her worries pick up a cup and saucer. It trembled so violently in his grasp that he was forced to set it down again. Gambit put his palms flat on the counter and braced himself for a moment, head down. Purdey bit her lip. She had never, ever seen her colleague like this. She stood there for a moment, watching him, listening to the heavy, almost laboured, breathing before working up the courage to approach him. Creeping up, she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. His head snapped up in surprise, and he wheeled around to face her. There was a brief flash of fear before he realized who she was.
"Oh, Purdey," he muttered, a little sheepishly. "Sorry. You startled me."
Purdey blinked. She was rarely able to catch her colleague unawares. She'd tried—and failed—countless times. If she was able to sneak up on him--at Steed's of all places-- whatever was bothering him was all-encompassing.
"Mike, what's wrong?" she asked softly.
"Nothing," he replied stubbornly, making another go at picking up the cup and saucer. It didn't shake this time. He poured the dark, hot liquid while trying to avoid her eyes, and took a sip. From his unchanged demeanour, she deduced it hadn't helped much.
"You'll have to do better than that, Mike Gambit. You're a wreck. What happened?" She lay a hand on his arm, and could feel the tensed muscles beneath his jacket.
"Nothing," Gambit insisted, facing her this time. "I just—I didn't sleep well last night." He felt her hand tighten. She didn't believe him, not that he was terribly surprised. The blue eyes bore into his soul, could read him better than anyone he knew. But he couldn't tell her the truth, even if he wanted to. She'd never look at him the same. Would she? Tell her, he thought, Get it off your chest. She'll understand. If you don't, she'll figure it out anyway. Somehow. But he couldn't. So he lied.
"I'm a little edgy because of it," he told her. "I'll be fine." Coward, a little voice told him. "Really." He made a half-hearted attempt at a smile. Purdey would've responded, but Steed chose that moment to come in. "Sorry I snapped," he told them both. "One of those mornings."
"I know the feeling," Steed sympathized. "Why don't you look over the files for a moment before the meeting. Purdey and I will join you in a moment." Another of those unspoken communiqués. Purdey could've throttled both of them. Gambit left, her hand sliding off his arm as he went. When he was gone, she turned to Steed.
"He claims he didn't sleep well. Apparently it's put him on edge," Purdey told him crisply, pouring herself a cup of the brew.
" 'Apparently'? 'Claims'? You sound as though you don't believe him," Steed commented.
"I don't," Purdey retorted, punctuating the words by plopping two cubes of sugar into her cup. "And I think you know more than you're letting on."
"Let's not start that again. Steed, I'm worried. He was shaking when I came in." There was a catch in her voice, and she knew it. "Do you think it's overwork? Did our last assignment affect him more than we think? Should we get Kendrick to have a look at him?"
"Purdey, if Gambit had a problem, I'm sure he'd seek help."
Purdey snorted. "It is Gambit we're talking about? The day that man admits he needs help, barring life and death and situations, will live in infamy, and even then he's more likely to wait for you to take the initiative."
Steed put a hand on her shoulder. "Purdey, I know you're worried, but let's give Gambit the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he is tired. Maybe he did have a bad night. Give him a day or two. If it keeps up, we'll do something. Until then, give him time. All right?" Steed was looking at her very seriously. Purdey felt compelled to agree.
"All right," she agreed resignedly. "A day or two. And if he's not himself again, I'll take him to Kendrick if I have to drag him feet first."
Steed smiled a little at the mental imagery. "I sincerely hope not," he murmured. It was at that point that the subject of the conversation popped his head round the door.
"The Minister's here," Gambit told the pair. "Steed, he asked for a word before we start."
"I'll be right there." Steed shot a glance at Purdey, who smiled innocently, before quitting the room. As soon as he was gone, Purdey caught Gambit's arm, pulling him back in the kitchen.
"We are still going to the disco tonight, aren't we?" she said in that no-nonsense, defy-me-at-your-own-risk voice. Gambit paused. He'd completely forgotten about their engagement for that evening. He had made the date without realizing the date it would fall on. Today of all days. He only wanted to go to a pub somewhere, have some supper, try to delay the nightmares as long as possible. But to cancel would elicit suspicion, and the girl would surely pry even more. Besides, a night with Purdey could potentially lift his spirits.
"Of course. I'll be at your flat at—"
"—8:30?" she finished. "So we have time for dinner?"
He nodded, managing a small smile at her forth-rightness. She was wonderful. "All right," he agreed, "8:30."
"Good." And she swept past, leaving him to follow.
Gambit sat stonily through the meaning with the Minister, occasionally giving Purdey a half-hearted smile when she looked his way. He knew it wouldn't do much to allay her suspicions, but it was all he could manage. Nevertheless, Purdey's antenna was well and truly up, as evidenced later on their way to their cars. Purdey caught his arm as he unlocked the Jag.
"8:30," she reminded. "Don't forget, or you'll have a few extra bruises after our next karate session." He grinned. Only Purdey could threaten one with grievous bodily harm with a sweet smile that made it seem appealing.
"I wouldn't dream of it," he told her, "although you've always seemed like one of those girls that doesn't like it rough."
"Don't tempt me," she warned, then her expression turned serious. "But Mike, really, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. I told you. Sleep loss caught up with me."
"So you said," she retorted, unconvinced. She was about to go on, when she caught sight of Steed, watching them from the front door of the house. He shook his head almost imperceptibly. She added anyway, "Anything I can do?"
Gambit chuckled a little. "There's lots you can do for me, Purdey, but I don't think any of it is quite what you had in mind."
Purdey threw up her hands in exaggerated exasperation. "I give up on you, Mike Gambit." This time it was Gambit who caught her arm.
"Don't," he said, very seriously, and the tension in his face seemed to increase. He actually looked worried. "Please don't ever give up on me, Purdey."
Her brow furrowed. "Mike, I was only joking. I would never--"
"I know," he said quickly, flushing with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. I don't know where that came from." He opened the car door quickly, and got in. "I've got to go," he told her distractedly, and soon the Jag was off down the road. Purdey was left watching him speed away, feeling at once helpless and worried. What had she said? She turned to look at Steed. He fixed her with a 'don't-say-I-didn't-warn-you' expression, and went inside. Purdey made her way to her own car in a daze.
Gambit took a turn around the park on the way home, hoping to clear his head before the date with Purdey. It did no good. By the time he was finished, he was more worked up about what to do than before. He gave up and returned to his flat.
The phone was ringing as he let himself in, and he made his way over in quick strides to answer it. Steed was on the other end.
"I've been trying to reach you for the better part of an hour," the senior agent told him.
"I was out for a walk," Gambit explained. "Clear the cobwebs."
"It didn't help." It was a statement, not a question.
"No. Did you want something?"
"So do I. Get in line."
"I mean," Steed said with exasperation, "she's worried about you, and she wants in on your secret. Now, I assure you she won't get anything out of me—not without your permission, anyway. But she's smart, and she'll poke and pry and ask any number of seemingly innocent questions."
Gambit sighed. He was well aware of Purdey's hard-headed persistence, and tendency to not let things drop. It had gotten her in trouble more than a few times. "I'm not underestimating her, Steed. If anyone knows what Purdey's capable of, I do. But she doesn't have clearance for the files she'd need, and not many people in the Ministry are privy to that dark corner of my past. You, McKay—I hardly think she'll get too far."
"No, I don't doubt she'll hit a wall. But she'll keep going to the source—you. Mike, she knows something's wrong. She wants to help. I don't see the harm in telling her."
"Enlighten me," Steed challenged. "You were quite willing to confide in me."
Gambit sighed. "That was different."
"For one thing, I didn't expect any long-term consequences. I thought we were going to die."
"Did you? I said I had a plan."
Gambit smiled. "I know, and I also knew you were lying through your teeth to keep up the spirits of the new lad, only at 32 I was hardly that."
"I see." Steed sounded vaguely put out that Gambit had read him so well. And Purdey had seen through him earlier. Tsk, tsk. Was he losing his touch?
"But it was the setting, too," Gambit went on. "The cell. All sorts of reminders. And then I knew about Nee San, from all those days in files, so I knew you'd understand, at least. Someone to relate to. And it helped keep the flashbacks down."
"And none of those circumstances apply to Purdey?" Steed voiced the implied thought.
"Not only that," Gambit protested. "Steed, I've known her less than a year, but we…clicked, I suppose. She's this wonderful girl and I don't want to muck things up—our work relationship, our friendship..." He left the third, potential option unsaid, but he knew Steed would fill it in. "I can picture the possible scenarios, and none of them look too promising."
"And you think if you tell her, that'll all be lost. I think you underestimate Purdey."
"Not lost so much as changed," Gambit clarified. "If I did tell her, how would she react? Would she distance herself, maybe even push to be reassigned because she couldn't stand the sight of me, day in and day out, knowing what happened? Or worse, would she try to go on as normal, offering tea and sympathy?" He sighed, and rubbed his temples. "Other than today, I can move past it, more or less. Forget it. But Purdey—these things impact her more than she likes to admit. Would she ever look at me the same, as anything more than a victim, martyr, tortured soul, whatever?"
"I think so, yes," Steed replied. "She's seen you pretty battered up before."
"I know. And sometimes she fusses. Not that I mind it really, but sometimes I'm not entirely sure where exactly we are. Purdey seems to make things up as she goes along. What if she heard and took things up a peg or two?"
Gambit nodded, then realized Steed couldn't see him. "I don't want her to come to me out of pity, because she thinks she can fill some void. I want her to look at me the same way. And when it comes right down to it, I'm scared." It felt good to admit it. "I don't want to dig it up again. I already do it every time she goes missing, every time she's captured. I can't help but wonder what they could be doing to her. I can handle it—I have handled it, and so have you. But Purdey—she's a girl, Steed. That makes a difference. And she's still got a sliver of innocence left, which is more than you can say for most of the Ministry. I only barely pulled through with my sanity intact. I don't know if I could do the same if I had to be the one to find her, had to pick up the pieces, I don't know…"
Steed sighed. Obviously he had no more idea than Mike about how he'd deal with that situation, should it raise it's ugly head. "But that doesn't change the fact that she'll push," he pointed out.
"I know. But I can't do anything until we're on a surer footing. Maybe she'll let it drop when it all clears up. Maybe I can change her mind tonight."
"The disco. I promised I'd take her dancing awhile back. I can't back out—she'd only push harder."
"I see. I'd better let you go, then. But Mike, I don't think Purdey'd react any of those ways at all. I expect she'd be much the same as me."
"But can I risk it?" Gambit wanted to know.
Steed didn't have an answer for that.
At 8:30, Gambit was at Purdey's door with two drinks in him and a shaky grasp on his composure. He took a deep breath before he rang the bell. Purdey answered quickly in a strappy yellow dress. Despite his distracted state, he took her in appreciatively.
"You're beautiful," he told her quite frankly.
She smiled at the compliment. "Rested enough to notice, I see. I'll bet you say that to all the girls."
"Only the ones with lethal high kicks." Even with the quip, she could still tell he was tired. Purdey put a hand on his arm.
"How are you feeling?"
"Much better." A lie.
"Good. I'm feeling very energetic and I need you to keep up."
They exchanged smiles. Gambit knew about Purdey's stamina on the dance floor better than anyone. It was in other areas that he had yet to be educated.
"Let's go." And he led her up to the car.
Dancing with Purdey was usually a source of pleasure, but that night even she could not chase the images from his mind. So, in an attempt to stay the course, he stopped for a drink, leaving Purdey to take on a different partner. He returned to her quickly enough, but soon found that one hadn't been quite enough. So he took a break to have another, and another, and another…
It was ten minutes past midnight, and Gambit was at the disco's bar, draining drink number five. It went down easily—easier than the last. He could feel the warmth burn down his esophagus into his stomach, washing away the pain—and the memories. Yes, he mentally pleaded, the memories. Drown the memories.
He was about to signal for drink number six when a hand clamped onto his wrist, forcing his raised arm back onto the bar. He turned to face the owner of the hand, and found himself looking into a pair of flashing blue eyes.
"I think," Purdey said with conviction, "that you've had quite enough."
"Do you?" Gambit muttered, a little thickly, and rose, striding, a little unsteadily, away from her. He felt a little dizzy, but didn't let that stop him. He hoped Purdey wouldn't pursue the matter of his getting sloshed, that they could just go on dancing. It was a hope that would not be fulfilled. She hurried after him, got a good handful of his jacket's lapel, and dragged him past the dance floor and through a swinging door that he belatedly realized led to the men's lavatory. Inside, a young man combing his hair watched them disbelievingly in the mirror as Purdey pressed Gambit back against the wall.
"Yes, I do," she retorted, "and I also think that you don't take someone out for the evening—dancing, of all things—and get yourself plastered."
A lover's tiff, thought the young man, and tried to get the girl's attention. "Miss?"
The blue eyes fixed him with a steely gaze. "Yes? Is there a problem?"
"Uh, well, Miss, this is, I mean, you're not really supposed..." He could feel himself wilting under the unrelenting stare, and gave up. "No, Miss. No problem." He quit the room as quickly as possible, the door swinging shut behind him, muffling the energetic music and voices out in the disco.
Purdey returned her gaze to Gambit. He blinked at her. "I know that look," he observed.
"You had better. I don't believe you, Mike Gambit. I've tried hard to be understanding, offered to help. But you seem determined to suffer in silence and drown your sorrows, and you have the nerve to do it right in front of me, as though I wouldn't notice your little breaks every few songs." She was wildly indignant. "I think after all I've done, I deserve more than that from you."
He gave her a sloppy grin. "I'd give it to you, but every time I make the offer, you turn me down. However, if you've changed your mind…" He gave her a quick once-over.
Purdey sniffed. "Well, I can read yours, and if you think anything remotely resembling that is going to happen, you're more compromised than I thought," she snapped. She didn't show it, but her anger was mixed with fear. Not of Gambit himself—she had been around Mike and Steed when they had been sloshed before, and while she was in a similar state, and she knew he wouldn't try anything. But she was afraid for Gambit, and because she didn't know what to do, how to help, what to say. She was Purdey. She always knew what to say. But tonight she took one look at Gambit's glassy, haunted eyes, and felt anger melt to compassion. "What am I going to do with you, Mike Gambit?" she said softly, reaching out to place the back of her hand against his cheek. She was surprised to feel how warm his flesh was to the touch, as though he were running a high fever. "Gambit, you're burning up." She put her other hand to her own forehead, and could feel the difference in temperatures. Already sweat was beading on Gambit's brow. She could feel her own pulse quicken as anxiety washed over her. "Mike, I don't like this. Tell me what's going on."
"Can't." He shook his head against her worried face, the edge of panic in the voice.
"Then I'm calling Steed," Purdey told him, making for the door, hoping the elder man would know what to do. "Wait here." And she opened it, the sounds from the disco amplifying as she did so. The noise. The beats, like footsteps in a corridor…
"No!" Gambit called after her frantically, and when she turned his eyes were screwed shut, as though against visions only he could see. "Don't leave." She rushed back over to him and grasped his hand, putting the other on his shoulder, the tension palpable under the jacket. "Don't leave me alone with them."
"Them?" Purdey's brows knitted in puzzlement. "Mike, you're not making any sense. I don't know what to do for you."
The eyes open again, and she swore there were unshed tears along with the glassiness. "Help me," he said simply.
"I don't know how," she repeated, tears welling in her own eyes. "Mike, I'm scared."
That admission seemed to do something. He searched her face, and she felt him relax a little. He didn't want to frighten her. He shook away the visions as best he could. "Don't be," he croaked, and the eyes cleared for a moment. "I'm sorry, Purdey. I—just take me home." He dug in his pocket and extracted the keys to the Jag, placed them in her open palm. "I just need to go home." And the eyes went glassy again. He slumped resignedly against the wall with a sigh.
Purdey, confused and worried, lapsed into business-like scolding. It was easier to be indignant than to worry. "I should think you'd get me to take you home. You're obviously in no condition to drive, and it's up to me to keep you out of trouble, as usual…" And she started to steer him out the door, her chiding remarks a steady stream, keeping her brain busy. It kept her from other thoughts, like what she was going to do with Gambit for the night.
Gambit was quiet on the drive back to his flat. By the time Purdey helped him out of the car, and struggled beneath his weight to get him in the lift, he was already half-asleep.
Staggering into his flat ahead of her, he somehow managed to struggle out of his jacket and boots while Purdey hit the button on the couch that activated the bed. He gave her a weak half-smile before collapsing on the bed, and instantly entered the land of the unconscious. Purdey watched his now-composed face for a moment, before brushing a stray curl from his forehead. She looked around the flat vaguely, as though hoping it would provide some answers. Should she call Steed? No, he knew what Gambit was going on about, and he was obviously sworn to secrecy. He'd be over there in an instant and have her out the door before she knew what was happening. And she couldn't leave Gambit alone, either—she wouldn't get any sleep for worrying. The best option was to take advantage of Gambit's guest room—only Mike would camp out on the couch while putting visitors up in a proper bed. She could take the Jag to her flat, pick up a few things for the night, and be back in no time at all. Then she could keep an eye on him for the night. Purdey nodded to herself. Yes, that would do. She leaned over her sleeping colleague.
"Sit tight," she told him. "I'll be back soon."
"Why do you continue to be so stubborn, Captain? You have been betrayed by your own people. They have stopped searching for you. Everyone has left you for dead, and yet still you make things unpleasant for yourself. Why?"
"Because," Gambit croaked through his dry throat. "Because of things you—people like you--could never understand."
She laughed unpleasantly. And there was the heat. Gambit's eyes snapped open. The heat…
Purdey entered Gambit's flat, and immediately noticed the absence of the owner. Mike's couch was empty, covers thrown back in a tangle. Purdey put down her overnight bag and looked over the darkened room worriedly. "Mike?" she called. No answer. Had he gone? The Range Rover was still parked outside, but Gambit could have easily wandered off on foot. In his state, that wasn't a good thing. He could be anywhere, and could easily do himself a damage—unintentionally or not. Purdey swallowed and tried not to think that way. She noticed a bottle and a glass on the bar, and made her way over to read the label. Just carbonated water, for drink-mixing. Well, at least Mike wasn't getting even more plastered, wherever he was. She went over to the bed and put a hand to the mattress. Still warm. He couldn't have been gone long. And his boots were still where he had left them. But that still didn't tell her where he was. Purdey crossed her arms and shivered, feeling for him—all alone, out there, in the rain, with who knew what on his mind. She looked out at the precipitation pattering against the window. Rain. Something didn't fit. The rain sounded much louder than it should have in his flat. After all, this wasn't the top floor, so it couldn't be heard on the roof, and there was no balcony. The sound of water against the windows was the only possible source of the pattering sound that filled the flat. Unless it wasn't rain…
Purdey moved quickly toward the bathroom. The rain got louder. She let out a relieved sigh. The shower. Mike was in the shower. That was a huge step up from lost out in the rain. Cautiously, she prodded open the bathroom door.
The room was empty, but the curtain drawn across the bath was a fairly good indicator of where Gambit had gone. There was something wrong, though. No steam, no condensation of any kind, as one would expect from a shower running in an enclosed space. She'd have to investigate the shower itself to find out why. Tentatively, she pushed the curtain aside ever so slightly, ready to look away if her colleague was in there, and suitably unattired.
She needn't have worried. One look made her thrust the curtain aside completely. There, seated on the floor of the bathtub, was Gambit, still clad in his shirt and trousers, eyes closed, head leaning back against the wall directly under the spray. The long legs stretched out as far as they could go, an elbow on each knee, so his hands hung limply in-between. His breathing was slow and rhythmic, as though he were in some sort of altered state. The dark hair was flattened to his head, and a stray curl had found its way onto his forehead. It would have been endearing if she hadn't been so worried about him.
"Mike!" she exclaimed. "What on earth are you doing?"
He opened one eye to look at her before closing it again. "Cooling off," he said simply, his voice almost a whisper.
"Cooling?" Purdey passed a hand under the spray, and pulled it back quickly when it came in contact with ice-cold water. No wonder there hadn't been any steam. "If you keep up like that, Mike Gambit, you'll catch your death," she muttered, and reached out to turn off the flow. A hand flew up and caught her wrist. She looked down at him in surprise. Plastered or not, his reflexes were razor-sharp.
"Leave it," he said sharply, without opening his eyes. Every muscle in his body was tensed.
"Please," he pleaded, his voice losing its edge as his eyes opened to look up at her, "leave it." And the blue eyes looked so haunted, she couldn't help but nod. He released her wrist in relief, his whole body slackening once again. The eyes slid closed once more. "Thank you."
Purdey sighed. "I suppose asking you to get out is futile?"
There was a slight nod.
Purdey considered her options. It was uncomfortable kneeling by the tub, not just because the tiles dug into her knees. From out here, getting him out again was going to put all the burden on her arms, and she knew that Mike Gambit plus a large quantity of water was more than enough to pop her arms from their sockets reaching across the tub for him. One course of action presented itself.
"If you won't come out, do you mind if I come in?"
"Suit yourself," he told her, eyes never opening. Purdey nodded, and kicked off her heels. It wouldn't do for them to get wet. They were her favourites for dancing. But the dress—well, there were worse things than a wet dress. Taking a deep breath to brace herself against the cold, she stepped over the side of the bathtub and managed to kneel down in front of him. The cold water pounded her immediately, and Purdey realized for the first time that Gambit had one of those powerful showers that just about stripped the skin off the body. Her short hair was immediately flattened to her head. She didn't notice. She was watching him.
"Mike," she ventured after a moment. "What are you doing here?"
"Cooling," he repeated. "The heat. Always the heat."
Purdey frowned. "What heat?"
"In the cell," he managed, half-delirious.
That got her attention. "Cell? What cell?" When had Gambit been in prison? He'd never mentioned it. She ran through every conversation she'd ever had with the man. One instance came to mind. "Brandon's?" she ventured, although she doubted it.
"What cell, then?"
"Can't tell you."
The blue eyes opened again, and Purdey could see the pain in them. She felt helpless to alleviate it. How could she help when Gambit wouldn't tell her what was wrong? She swore she saw tears again, in his eyes, but with the water coming down from the shower, it was impossible to tell.
"Because." He swallowed. "Because I can't. Not the right time."
"When will it be the right time?" she wanted to know.
"Dunno," he slurred. He was going to shut down again, she could feel it. So she put a hand on either side of his face, and held him so he had to meet her gaze.
"I don't know what this is about, Mike Gambit, or why you won't tell me. But you must know that, whatever it is that's bothering you, I'll help. In any way I can. You don't have to face this on your own. I'm here, and I won't judge you. Do you know why? Because I've faced things like this myself." She closed her eyes against the memories, against Larry, against watching her father's coffin being lowered into the ground. "Believe me. I know what it's like. Do you understand that?"
Gambit blinked and watched Purdey's face, filled with worry as she watched him anxiously. He was vaguely aware of her hands on his own face, steadying him. And for a brief moment, there was a flash of what he was feeling reflected on her own visage. Somehow, that brief connection, along with her touch, calmed him a bit. Deep down, the part of his mind that wasn't fuzzy from drink and nightmares realized that he had finally found someone he could tell that was…different. Not his cousin, or Steed, but Purdey. One day, when he was ready, he could confide in Purdey, and when he did, he felt that it would be the final step, the closing act in this drama that replayed itself with startling accuracy every year. Because only she could ever be all of the people he needed to understand—the spy, the friend, and the lover. He nodded. "Yeah."
Purdey sighed. "Now, could we please come in from the cold? It is what we're paid for."
Gambit looked uncertain, the quip going straight over his addled head. "The heat…"
She gave him a reassuring smile. "I'll help you with the heat. Okay?"
He was like a little boy. "Okay," he agreed reluctantly. Purdey reached up and turned the shower off. He quavered a little, but didn't try to stop her.
"Now, let's get you and the three tons of water you've soaked up back to bed." She helped him stand, and guided him out the door and back to the couch. Drunk or not, he was surprised when she started unbuttoning his shirt.
"Must be dreaming," he muttered, swaying a little.
"You can't sleep in these wet things. If you get sick, I'll be the one left with all the paperwork. Off with the trousers, too."
He smiled giddily. "Been waiting to hear that for a long time."
"Wrong context. Off, off, while I go and wring this out." She held up the shirt. Secretly, she was glad he was back to flirting. It meant he was approaching normal, and that was a good sign.
By the time she was back, Gambit had already climbed into bed, the sheet pulled over him, the trousers an untidy heap on the floor. "Promised you'd do something about the heat," he reminded her from the pillow.
"I did." She went to the small fridge and retrieved some ice cubes, wrapping them in a tea towel, which she then put to his forehead. He looked relieved.
"Now get some sleep," she told him. "For both our sakes'." He nodded, and settled in. As Purdey settled into a chair to wait him out, she heard him clear his throat.
She smiled. "You're welcome." A few minutes later, he was out.
Mike Gambit awoke the next morning to the sound of cheerful humming. He could remember very little of the night before, except…Purdey. Purdey had played a large part in it. Something about that made him feel better, even though the nightmares were still etched in his memory. Groaning, he sat up, despite the protestations of his head. Turning, he managed to get a look at the kitchen, and identified the source of the humming. Purdey was there, looking fresh and beautiful in a blue long-sleeved shirt and trousers, a plethora of ingredients spread out on the counter, all of which obviously contributed to the ugly-looking concoction she was currently mixing up. She looked up from her stirring, caught sight of him, and gave him a cheery smile.
"Awake, are we?" she commented. Gambit started to get up, then realized he wasn't wearing much beneath the sheet that was draped over his tall frame. Wrapping a sheet round himself best he could, he made his way over to where Purdey stood expectantly. "How are you feeling?"
"As though I'm sprouting two heads," Gambit told her truthfully.
"Well, you have to come up with the other one somehow. I already told you I'm not buying it." She held up the glass with the evil-looking drink. "But I thought as much, so I made you this."
Gambit eyed it suspiciously. "I don't want to die."
Purdey sighed. "It's my Uncle Elly's hang-over cure," she explained, "good for peasants and polar bears alike, and nowhere near as ghastly as Steed's 'National Anthem.' It'll do you good." She handed Gambit the glass. He still looked dubious, but raised it anyway.
"Cheers," he said reluctantly, and downed it.
She watched him in amusement as his face contorted, and he let out a bit of a wheeze. "Well?"
"Bit strong for first thing in the morning, but I'll survive. Thanks." He gave her an appreciative smile. "You must have been up at the crack of dawn to get ready, come over, and mix that up at this hour."
"I spent the night."
Gambit's eyes widened. Surely he wouldn't have forgotten that, no matter how knackered he had been? "You what?" he choked. "Don't tell me you and I…?"
"Certainly not," Purdey interrupted. "I simply thought that, after the way you were acting last night, I should keep an eye on you. You know, to make sure you didn't do anything…rash."
Gambit raised an eyebrow. "Rash?"
"Oh, you know," Purdey sputtered. "Something…harmful. To yourself."
"What, like pitch myself into the Thames?" Gambit offered.
"How should I know what goes on in that mind of yours?" she snapped, clearly embarrassed for her worry being exposed.
"I could tell you," he almost purred. "But I'd rather you tell me what went on last night."
Purdey regarded him with a mischievous look. "You don't remember?"
He shifted uncomfortably. "No."
"I'm not surprised. You had at least five drinks."
Gambit looked uncomfortable. It had been more like seven, actually, counting the two from before he left to pick Purdey up. And there was the wine at dinner. But he certainly wasn't going to correct her. Another thought came to mind. He grimaced. "I didn't try anything, er, indecent on you, did I?"
Purdey smirked. "If you had, certain other parts of your anatomy would hurt more than your head."
He looked relieved. "So, what did happen?"
Purdey cast her mind back. "I presume you at least remember dinner. You were sane enough then, a bit distracted, maybe, but nothing too terrible. The problems started when we went dancing, and I gave you a piece of my mind over your attachment to the bar. Then you started burning up. There was something about a 'them,'" Gambit winced at that, "and then you asked for help, and got me to take you home. After that—"
Gambit was massaging his temples, and looked up mournfully. "Bloody hell, there's an 'after'?"
"It was an eventful evening," Purdey told him.
"I'm already sorry."
"You said that, too. The second act started when I came back from my flat. You'd somehow gotten yourself into the shower—fully clothed." Gambit was looking more than a little embarrassed by this point. "Your explanation was something to do with cooling." She shivered involuntarily. "And it was pretty cold in there."
Gambit's eyes widened. "You climbed in?" he asked in disbelief.
Purdey shrugged. "You weren't coming out. And before you get any ideas, I only took off my shoes."
"Ah, well, at least I didn't miss too much. Still, you must have been wet."
"Soaked. Why do you think I had to get you out of your shirt?"
"My shirt?" Gambit almost moaned.
"You dealt with the trousers yourself."
He was back to rubbing his skull. "I can't believe I don't remember this. I would've thought something like that would be seared in my memory for eternity."
"Yes, well, you also mentioned a cell, but wouldn't tell me any more, even though I offered to be your confidant, to help in any way I could. That offer still stands, by the way."
"In any way?" Gambit asked hopefully.
"Any way that doesn't involve what is no doubt going through that mind of yours."
"Maybe some other time, then."
"The right time? That's what you told me."
"Sounds about right."
"Yes, but when is it, exactly?" Purdey asked impatiently.
"We'll know when it comes," Gambit told her cryptically
"Steed knows." Purdey sulked.
"That was the right time in that case, too. Chin up, Purdey-girl. I'll let you know one of these days." He headed for the bathroom. "I'm going to have a shower. A hot one. Without my shirt."
Purdey waited a moment, and he returned.
"There are stockings drying," he told her, a little dazedly, "over the curtain rod."
Purdey grinned. "I told you."
"I can't believe it," Gambit lamented. "You. Me. A shower. And I don't remember a minute of it. If this isn't a vote for prohibition, I don't know what is."
"I'll go and retrieve them," Purdey told him, and started for the bathroom. Gambit caught her arm as she passed.
"Purdey. I don't know if I told you this but, thanks," he said sincerely. "For everything."
"You did," she assured. "And you're welcome." And went on with one of her secretive smiles.
Author's Notes: Based upon one throwaway reference in "Trap"—Purdey's "five drinks after midnight at the discotheque, sometimes I can tell what you're thinking." And Gambit looks a little uncomfortable about it. Ever since I deciphered the line, I've wondered just why Gambit would go quite that far overboard that night. Throw in my view that Gambit's past must have some dark patches to it, and you get this.
I do think that Gambit must be pretty good at getting past his experiences to have his sort of life, but I can see him having maybe one day where he lets it all out; to decompress, so to speak, especially with an experience like this one.
If you've never seen "Room Without a View," you won't pick up the references, but Nee San was a concentration camp, and the way Steed talks about it one gets the feeling that he's had some first-hand experience at the place. Plus, there was his stint with Bill Basset, as mentioned in "Take-Over," a highly recommended episode. So I thought Gambit might be likely to confide in Steed after reading those little tidbits.