by J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel
Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor the characters of Steed, Gambit, and Purdey. They belong to The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.
Timeline: Second in a series. Takes place from February 6-8, 1976, around the pre-credits events of "Last of the Cybernauts...?"
Note: I'm sort of "republishing" this one so I can use it to introduce the story "arc" I've been writing. Meant to flesh out events before, during, and after the show, it focuses on the Purdey/Gambit relationship, and how it develops. As I've yet to write episodes 0 and 1, we'll have to start here, so there will be one or two references to past events, but hopefully nothing that'll hamper your enjoyment of the story. It's recommended that you read these in order, but it's not necessary. I am planning to start posting the next story in the series soon, though, so you may want to give this a quick glance even if you've already read it. There have been a few minor changes in phrasing, but nothing too revolutionary.
For more information about the series, please see my profile.
Gambit poured himself a cup of coffee, winced as he tasted it. It had obviously been the redhead from accounts' turn to brew it—it had the same slightly metallic taste she had coaxed from his own machine the morning after. He wasn't entirely certain how she managed it. He regarded the brew mournfully—he hadn't had time to make his own this morning, but his caffeine habit was crying out for a fix. He set his jaw and made another attempt, just about gagged, and poured it down the sink, resigning himself to a half-alert state for the day. It wasn't as though he had an assignment lined up.
Faint voices reached his ears through the open door of the break room. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but there were two. The first was male, but it was the second that made his ears prick up. Even at this distance, the cut-glass accent and crisp phrases could only belong to one woman. Perfect. He made his way over to the door, waiting for her to get nearer.
"…but I haven't seen Terry about," the voice was saying. Gambit realized he'd missed those polished tones, although last time he'd heard them, they'd been lacking a little of that polish.
"He's on assignment. Some top hush thing. Steed's been very closed mouthed about it." The other voice was George Meyers, Gambit realized. Slightly after his time, but a bit before hers. But it wasn't surprising that he'd spotted her—most of the men in the Ministry had by this point, if talk was anything to go by. But Gambit hadn't been around her for over a month now, so he couldn't confirm. It wasn't that he was avoiding her. Her training was priority, and that was fairly all-encompassing. He remembered.
But he'd needed to be away from her, just for a bit, to try and sort of his thoughts. And his feelings. And he thought he had. And now Steed had given him a reason to reconnect.
He poked his head out the door as the pair passed. "Purdey?"
She stopped, turned to look his way. The standard trainee black skirt and white blouse had been traded for a pair of blue trousers, a leather jacket, and matching boots. She still had her helmet on, and a pair of long, black gloves was just visible poking out of her pocket.
"Gambit." Purdey lifted her goggles and fixed him with those impossibly huge, impossibly blue, eyes. "I haven't seen you since New Year's."
There was no malice in the voice. Then again, there was no suggestion of anything else, either—sadness, shyness, even a hint of a tease. Just a simple factual statement. She hadn't seen him since New Year's. Gambit was at once relieved and disappointed. And a little hurt.
"You've been busy. I thought I'd let you get on with things," he said by way of an explanation. "Hello, George." He nodded to the man.
"Hello, Mike. Purdey and I were just heading down to the gym. I told her I'd show her a few things." He raised an eyebrow suggestively.
"I'd watch how you go. Purdey's likely to return the favour." The girl grinned at the complement. Gambit grinned back at her, and went on. "Do you mind if I borrow her for a minute?"
"You never just 'borrow,' Mike," George pointed out. Purdey shook her head.
"I'll be along later," she told George. "Make use of the extra time. Put some practice in. You may need it."
George chuckled a little, and went on his way. Purdey followed Gambit back into the break room.
"Took the bike out?" he commented. Purdey nodded.
"I thought, why not? It was one of those perfect mornings, and there's nothing like an early morning ride."
"No, there isn't," Gambit agreed.
"What did you want to see me about? An assignment?"
"Pleasure, not business," Gambit contradicted. "An invitation."
Purdey raised an eyebrow suspiciously, or at least she seemed to. It was hard to tell with the helmet on. "What sort of invitation?"
"Not that sort, although it's always open," Gambit said with a grin. "No, it's to Steed's 54th. At the moment it's him, me, and the delectable Tricia. His words, not mine," he added before Purdey could say anything. "So I've been invited to bring a date. Care to oblige?"
Purdey shook her head. "You'll try anything, won't you, Mike Gambit?"
"Until something works," Gambit agreed cheerfully, the banter relaxing him considerably.
Purdey tugged at her helmet. "What time?"
"Five, at his place. Then we'll go out later on," Gambit informed, watching as Purdey lifted off the headgear, preparing for the spill of blonde hair. "I could pick you up at your flat, and—" The words died on his lips. Purdey had pulled the helmet clear, but instead of the long wash of gold, there was a clean, smooth-as-glass mushroom bob, complete with bangs cut to fall in the eyes instead of untamable strands that found their way there by accident. Gambit gaped at her.
Purdey looked at him oddly. "What?"
"Your hair…" Gambit managed faintly.
Purdey touched it. "Yes, I do have some. What about it?"
"Oh, yes. I cut it a few weeks back. Well, all that leaping about. It never stayed put. Wasn't practical to always be brushing it aside. So I decided to get something a bit more suitable for the job." She frowned. "Don't you like it?"
"It's a change," Gambit allowed, trying to recover his wits. "Sorry, can you make it?"
Purdey tapped her helmet thoughtfully. "What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing," Gambit insisted. "But you can't spring something like that on a chap and expect no reaction."
"You act as though I had a head transplant," Purdey muttered. "It was always in my face, that's all."
"But you made it work," Gambit told her. "Not every girl can look beautiful after crawling through a vent and being rolled down a hill."
Purdey preened. "You're just saying that…"
"I never use compliments like that lightly," Gambit assured. "Should I tell Steed to plan for four?"
Purdey sighed melodramatically. "I couldn't let Steed down. Not on his birthday. I suppose I'll have to go."
"What about me?"
"I'll just have to suffer through, won't I?" She dug in her pocket, and frowned. "Blast!"
Gambit blinked at the exclamation. "What?"
"I brought the wrong one." She held up an ID badge for him to see, very much like his own, now pinned on his lapel. Gambit read it, noticed the hair was still long, and the holder identified as 'Bryde, Purdey E.' "I was so keen to get out this morning I grabbed my old one by mistake. And I'd only just gotten the others to stop the wedding jokes."
"You got it struck, then? Your last name?" Gambit knew she'd been planning on it, but Ministry regulations were such that it was next to impossible.
Purdey looked up from pinning it on. "Steed saw to it," she confirmed. "Oh, they made a production out of it. 'How is anyone meant to identify her in the field?' and so on. But really, they didn't have a leg to stand on. With a name like Purdey I'm not likely to get confused with Jane Smith from Croydon. And Steed does have an awful lot of influence." The last bit was said with a touch of admiration, and Gambit felt his insides twist a little. It didn't take long for a girl to succumb to the John Steed brand of magic, and once she did, it was damn near impossible to wean her off. Purdey was like any young agent who revered Steed, but the difference was most of them weren't female. Gambit had rather been hoping that Purdey would enjoy his company at the party, but it looked as though the delectable Tricia would have to share. Ah well, she couldn't stop him trying. But he was surprising himself. There were lots of other girls about.
But only one Purdey.
"Anyway," Purdey was saying, and Gambit dragged himself back to the present, "when they issued the new badges after exams, I got my change. And a new picture. For the hair which you've been staring at for the past five minutes."
"I haven't," Gambit said quickly.
"I hope you bluff better with the enemy," Purdey replied, unconvinced. "Although the photographers manage to make everyone look grim."
"We're not in one of those 'service with a smile,' professions," Gambit pointed out. "The happy killers tend to get sent in for psychiatric evaluations."
"How did you turn out?" Purdey wanted to know, leaning forward and squinting at Gambit's badge. "Not badly," she decided after a moment. "'Gambit, Michael A.' What does the 'A' stand for?"
"Whatever you want it to," Gambit said with eyebrows waggling.
"Don't tempt me. I've a book of names at home." Purdey frowned, and sniffed the air. "What's that smell?" she asked, with faint distaste.
Gambit, sinuses long acclimatized to the room's pungent aroma, remembered his reason for venturing into the break room in the first place. "That's the coffee," he explained.
Purdey frowned, shook her head. "No, it can't be. It smells like the stuff you use to strip paint."
"Coffee," Gambit repeated, and something about his expression told her it was true.
"Oh," Purdey, murmured, "I see. And you wonder why I avoid it."
"Smart girl. You said you were finished exams?"
Purdey grabbed a bagel out of the basket of baked goods on the counter, took a bite before answering. "That's right."
"Does that mean you're on solos now?" Gambit wanted to know, remembering his time in training. All agents received around two years of training, both practical and theory. The first part was basics—every agent learned each regulation, protocol, and procedure, every rule and form, every line of required paperwork. There were whole texts of the stuff, and Gambit remembered poring over them long after most people in his apartment block had gone to bed. He still had them, piled on the other practical texts on lock-picking and other topics he'd already been familiar with long before he joined the Ministry. At the same time, they put you through your paces, getting you in shape, teaching you to fight, climb, run, move without a sound. At the end you wrote exams on the texts regarding procedure, and there were several practical exams as well. If you passed all of them, you were let out on what was known among the young agents as "solos," basically small assignments done on one's own. They were usually fairly simple, but intended to weed out the agents who were too damn cocky and impetuous for their own good, or at least to knock some sense into them. The reasoning was that if an agent could pull off a fairly mindless assignment without letting boredom distract him, or trying to show off, he was a good candidate for field work. It was only after you'd run your solos that they'd let you have a partner, and there was an exam for that, too. Sometimes Gambit was surprised that anyone made it through at all.
Purdey nodded. "Just this past week. Surveillance, that sort of thing." She scrunched up her face. "But after working with somebody, I find I don't like it much. I mean, partners do split up to get things done, but they always meet up again. This way it's just you, in a car, all on your own. Not pleasant."
"You're the dead opposite of me, then," Gambit revealed. "I liked solos. Gave you time to think. And there's something about running the show on your own…" Gambit looked slightly wistful. "Bit asocial of me, eh? Sometimes I still run things solo. Steed's learned to let me go." Purdey felt oddly hurt by that. Did Gambit want her out of the way? He seemed to read her mind, shook his head. "But there's always the exception," he added, gave her one of his grins.
Purdey grinned back, took another bite of bagel. "I'd better get to work, then."
"No time for breakfast?" Gambit nodded at the baked good.
Purdey frowned at what she obviously thought was a silly question. "Of course not."
Gambit nodded. "Of course." He'd forgotten about Purdey's infamous appetite. No wonder she accepted all those dinner dates—it must have saved her loads in snacking. He wouldn't put it past her to schedule them back to back to get her through the evening.
Purdey was already on her way out the door. "What time will you pick me up?"
"Four?" Gambit suggested. She waved.
"I'll see you then."
Gambit stood in front of the mirror, fiddling with his tie. No matter what he did, he couldn't seem to set it straight. His hands seemed stripped of all dexterity and grace. He sighed, and rubbed his temples. It was then that he heard the soft voice behind him.
Gambit turned, and Purdey's hands brushed over his chest as she set about her task, just as she had that night, already more than a month ago. Gambit watched her lowered eyes, the slightly parted lips twitching slightly with each practiced movement. If only he had more than her touch from which to seek solace.
"There," she said finally, and Gambit turned to inspect himself in the mirror. Purdey had done him proud. "Thanks," he told her with a ghost of a smile, digging in his pocket to extract the strip of black fabric. "Would you mind?"
Purdey took it wordlessly, and wrapped it around Gambit's arm just as Steed entered.
"Ready?" he asked the young pair of agents.
"Just about," Gambit told him, as Purdey finished tying off the band. She shook her head.
"I still don't understand. It's only been two days."
"Two days too long, as far as the Ministry is concerned," Steed told her. "Funerals are devastating to morale. Too strong a reminder about what can happen in this line of work." He adjusted a cuff. "The longer it's drawn out, the better chance someone will take it too hard. Resign. Or get careless. And then the cycle repeats itself. So as long as the cause of death wasn't mysterious, things are hurried along."
Purdey nodded quietly. "Still seems a bit unfeeling."
"It does," Gambit agreed gruffly. "Shouldn't we be going?"
Steed took his keys wordlessly, and Purdey and Gambit followed him out.
Purdey stood in the graveyard, wind flicking strands of her hair back, interrupting the smooth line of the bob, soundlessly blowing the bottom of her long dark coat open, tugging at her black skirt. She concentrated on the priest's words, trying desperately to block out the memories that threatened to overtake her, of an 18-year-old girl, on holidays from Sorbonne, hearing the doorbell ring. Of the two grim-faced men who told her mother that her father was never coming home. Of running. Of her ballet instructor finding her in the studio, curled up beneath the barre hours later. Of the same two men at her father's funeral, wordlessly standing near the back of the crowd of mourners, while her uncle tried to comfort both her and her mother simultaneously. She remembered feeling a deep dislike, maybe even hatred for those two men, those men that represented everything that had taken her father from her. How dare they show their faces there, after bringing such horrible news?
She couldn't even recall their faces, now. Or their names, although they must have had some, must have introduced themselves before they said the words that made the world spin. But they were gone now--or blocked out. Because it was easier to be angry at faceless people. People who weren't even really people, if they had chosen a job like that. Even if her father had been one of them. She remembered wondering why they had bothered to come to that dark windy day, why anyone from that cold, calculating place would.
Now she was one of them, standing there in mourning black, away from the family, near the back, because the Ministry made a point of interfering as little as possible with the families. Now she understood that those men had probably known her father in ways she never had. Now she had an inkling of how much sadness had been behind those faceless visages. She looked to Gambit and Steed, bracketing her on either side, marveled at how much they resembled those same men. To someone who didn't know them, they were the faceless ones. To Terry's lovely blonde sister, and the woman she presumed was his mother. Steed. And Gambit. And her. Representatives from the Ministry, ones that had fed them the "official" version of the events that had led them here. Purdey thought about that, on occasion. About how she likely only knew half the story about how her father had died. And now she was one of the protectors of the secret for Terry. Did they hate her? They had no way of knowing she used to flirt with Terry, that it had been across Gambit's lap that he had finally collapsed, that Steed's birthday party had been his final destination. That the three of them had set out the next day to hunt down Terry's murderer. They couldn't know that the man responsible for their pain was dead, burnt up in the quasi-funeral pyre of his car before he could be brought to justice. They hadn't seen the thick clouds of smoke, curling up into the sky. They hadn't felt the numbness Purdey had as she watched the flames flicker and burn, seen Steed's grim face and Gambit's dark visage. She hadn't been happy. But she hadn't been sad, either. She was reminded of Gambit's words to her, about how the most frightening thing of all about his first kill, although there were many things, had been how easily he had been able to switch himself off, so that he felt nothing. Afterwards was a different matter, but the actual act he could do cleanly and efficiently, and that had kept him up nights. Now she knew what he meant, that horrifying numbness, even though none of them had directly caused Kane's death. And it wasn't as though they could have helped him. The explosion would've killed anyone almost instantly. The double agent was gone. They'd done their job.
She looked at Gambit again, remembering his incompetence with his tie. His face was a grim mask, but there were no tears. Somehow, it made it worse. She couldn't seem to cry, either. They all had taken a blow, but somehow Gambit seemed the worst for it.
Gambit was watching the proceedings, trying not to think about how familiar the spiel was getting. How many in his class, now? How many from his time? He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Had it only been a few weeks back he had been assigned a bout with Terry by Spence? And they'd had a drink at the pub afterwards when Mike had beaten him. And now he was gone, and Gambit was still here. Not surprising, he mused. He had a knack for being left behind.
There was a sudden gentle, comforting sensation, and Gambit looked to his right to see Purdey's hand, gloved to keep out the chill of the February air, curl around his elbow, never taking her eyes off the proceedings. He wasn't entirely certain whose benefit it was for—hers or his. He settled on both, didn't comment. The hand lasted the service, tucked into the crook of his elbow. When it ended, Gambit was slightly disappointed that Purdey let go on their walk back to Steed's Jaguar.
"We'll have to make up for it," Purdey said so suddenly that Gambit and Steed were jerked violently from their musings.
"What?" Gambit queried.
"This week—Steed's birthday," Purdey explained. "The festivities were cut short this time around. We'll have to make up for it next time."
"Next time?" Gambit asked.
Purdey nodded. "Next special event, we'll make an extra effort," she said with conviction. "It's the only way to move forward." She pondered the calendar for a moment. "Although there's not much between now and my birthday in May."
"Valentine's," Gambit pointed out with a slight smile, "is next week."
Purdey snorted. "Nice try, but we can't exactly celebrate that one all together."
"What about just two?" Gambit hinted.
Purdey grinned wickedly. "I had no idea you and Steed were so close," she quipped, "but I'll be glad to stay out of your way."
Steed chuckled at that, while Gambit looked mildly embarrassed. Purdey was glad to have distracted them, if only temporarily, from the dark cloud that had been following them around all day. "What about you?" she asked Gambit, whose ears were still a little red. "When's your birthday? That could be next."
Gambit's expression darkened, and Purdey wondered what she had said wrong. "It's passed," he told her.
Purdey blinked. "Already? You didn't mention it. How did you celebrate?"
"Pursued a double agent," Gambit said pointedly, and Purdey felt her heart stop.
"You don't mean…?"
"February seventh," Gambit confirmed. "Yesterday."
Purdey looked at her shoes. "I didn't know," she said quietly. "Not the most pleasant celebration I could've imagined. How old?"
"Thirty-three," Gambit replied, casting a backward glance at the gravesite. "Same as Terry." Purdey couldn't miss the implications of that statement.
"Why didn't you say anything?" she asked.
"Not in the most festive of spirits. Anyway, I'm used to letting it pass. Just another year."
Purdey frowned. That wasn't right. She was quiet all the way back home in Steed's car.
Gambit was slouched at his drafting board, still in his mourning suit, grimly pondering the wall with a Scotch in one hand and a pencil in another, when he heard the buzzer. "It's open," he called, not bothering to confirm the visitor's identity. He had his revolver in his holster. If it was trouble, he was prepared.
Purdey's blonde head poked in the door. It was still a bit odd to see her with the bob. He'd gotten used to the long, blonde tresses, the stray lock that seemed to end up in her eyes no matter how hard she tried to pin it back. It was endearing, sexy. But the new style was growing on him.
"Purdey," he greeted, turning his chair to face her, noticed she had changed out of her somber black, and was wearing a fetching blue dress under the similarly coloured overcoat. "What brings you here?"
"A mission," she told him, climbing the stairs to the little alcove.
"An assignment?" He raised an eyebrow. "Steed didn't—"
"Nothing to do with Steed. I said we were going to make up for Steed's birthday. You and I are going out to celebrate your 33rd—in years if not maturity."
He shook his head even as he smiled at the jab. "Purdey, I'm not really up to it."
"Yes, you are. You're not going to get anywhere sipping--" She took his glass from him and tasted it. "—Scotch and pondering your own mortality."
"Lots of people celebrate their birthday that way."
"You're not that old. It'll do you good. And I'm determined not to leave until I've cheered you up."
"I can think of one way," Gambit told her, looking her up and down, "that doesn't require going anywhere."
"I'm not going anywhere near that couch after what happened last time," Purdey cut in quickly. "I'm on to you. Now put down the pencil--" She extracted the instrument from Gambit's grasp, set in on the board. "--and go change." She held the hand that had held the instrument, noticed the metallic smudges decorating his fingers. "And wash your hands while you're at it," she added, as though he were all of six.
"You're not going to let it alone, are you?'
He sighed, stood up so she had to tip her head back to look at his face. "What did you have in mind?"
"Dinner. You did say you wanted to go out. But we never got to it after New Year's."
"No, we didn't," Gambit agreed, but something in his eyes told Purdey he was talking about something else. He smiled slightly. "Are you always this stubborn?"
"Yes," she said cheerfully. "Come on, Mike Gambit. We haven't got all day." She eyed his hands again. "What have you been up to?"
"Just sketches," Gambit muttered, hurriedly closing his portfolio before Purdey could think to peek.
"I didn't know you could draw," Purdey said, sounding impressed.
"Not many do. For all I know, I can't. But it was a way to kill time during long nights in the Navy." Gambit was already down the short flight of stairs. Purdey watched his retreating back thoughtfully. Navy. It explained the rocking gait she had noticed when they had first met.
Gambit turned and eyed her. "Don't go poking about while I'm gone," he instructed.
Purdey widened her eyes in a "who, me?" gesture of innocence. Gambit shook his head. "I'm on to that trick. You'll be giving me that big helpless smile next."
Purdey frowned in defeat. "What does work, then?"
Purdey gave him an icy glare.
"Well, you did ask. What were you expecting?"
"Go. Change. Before I change my mind." Gambit disappeared around the corner to the bathroom.
Purdey eyed the portfolio, but somehow couldn't bring herself to violate Gambit's privacy. Maybe one day, when they knew each other better. She went over and looked at his weapon collection instead.
"One thing," she said when Gambit reemerged changed. "It's quite the coincidence, you and Steed having birthdays right next to each other."
"Just coincidence," Gambit clarified.
"I don't know. Rumour in the department is that you're the next Steed."
"I don't think I fit the profile. No headgear, for one."
Purdey put her head to one side. "Maybe," she allowed, with one of those secretive smiles. "Ready?"
"Ready. That hair's starting to grow on me, by the way."
"Very funny," she retorted, but she could detect the compliment behind the pun.
"No, really. I'll bet it catches on," Gambit insisted. "If anyone can pull it off, you're the girl for the job."
Purdey smiled. Gambit smiled back. "Come on, then," he said finally. "You can tell me how your solos have been going."