The Question

by J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel

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

Timeline: Takes place from the end of the final season one episode, "Dirtier by the Dozen," all the way through the entirety of season 2.

Author's Note: Okay, this is a bit of a strange one. Technically it's not AU--it's completely canonical, meaning I've stuck within the parameters of the series. But it is meant to exist seperately from my story arc, which is meant to be an "official" continuation of the events of the series. So this is just another take on it.

I got the idea for this one day and it wouldn't leave me alone until I wrote it. It's experimental on a few levels, and, like most AU-ish stories, stemmed from a "what if?" that came to mind. I seem to get one of these every summer. This time proved no different.

I will warn you that this fic relies heavily on references to episodes of the series, so if you're not familiar with all of them, particularly season 2, some of this might be a bit confusing. If you need to rewatch the series, I'm not going to stop you. ;-)

Also a note that there will be a few slightly dark bits in later chapters. Nothing too terrible, though.

Anyway, hope you enjoy it. There are further chapters to come, which I hope to upload on a fairly timely basis. Feedback is always appreciated.

A big thank you to rabidsamfan for betaing this fic and encouraging me to post it on here. I owe her for feedback a lot of fics, and this one is no different. Thank you!

I couldn't tell you how it happened. I mean, I could. I can. It just seemed so…sudden. And I still don't know what triggered it.

But I'll start at the beginning.

I'll be honest. I've always been interested in Purdey. Understatement of the century. Every man in the Ministry is "interested," and they make sure she knows it. But I get to work with her every day. You'd think that would give me an unfair advantage.


Good one.

Well, all right, it did. I mean, I ended up closer to Purdey than anyone. You risk life and limb with a person day in and day out, you can't help but get closer. Death has a way of stripping away all the layers and making you admit things you never would under any other circumstances. That's the job, for better or worse, and I know that, of all the people in the world, Purdey and Steed are the only two I know as well as I know myself. That doesn't mean we know every little background detail. I don't know where Steed had his sixth birthday party, or the name of Purdey's next door neighbour's cat. But I know the really important things. They've got secrets. We all do. I know I've got a list a mile long and I'd have to go on a three-day bender before I even thought about mentioning item one. But I know who they are, underneath it all, where it counts. And they know me. No one else could ever understand what we've seen together, what we've done.

Maybe that's it. Maybe that's why.

But I'm going on tangents again, aren't I? I'm getting as bad as Purdey. That's the other side effect. You start picking up each other's habits. One of these days I swear we'll wake up and it won't be "Gambit, Purdey, and Steed" anymore, just…"Gampureed." Or something. Hell, I hope not. Sounds like a noxious weed. Purdey'd be able to come up with something better. I'll ask.

More tangents. Bloody hell.

I remember when Purdey and I met. Much what you'd expect. I liked what I saw, and I don't think I'm over-extending my ego if I say that she had the same opinion. But there was always something different about Purdey, and not just because she turned me down flat. She did it with a smile, for one, which meant she wasn't necessarily offended—maybe even interested--but she also wanted me at arm's length. Bit of a dichotomy. And so began the mixed messages…

At first I thought she wanted to be chased. Some girls do. Just to draw things out a little, have some fun. But then there were the days when one of the others would try his luck, and I think I was the only one to see the weary look in her eyes. The chase wasn't her game. I'm good at respecting boundaries, and there were days I knew she wasn't up for it. I was always all right with that. If she pulled away, I wouldn't push. Pushing isn't fun for anyone. It takes two to play, and I don't mind being friends most of the day. Good friends…

I'm not saying we never had our moments, though. There were days…The doppelganger assignment comes to mind. Purdey nearly pushed me through a door when she found out "Terry Walton" was just Mike Gambit with an accent and a shaving phobia. I teased and she did her best to piece her pride back together, but at the end of the day we had both been terrified, and we knew it. She was sure I'd been murdered, and I was sure "Lolita" was going to drop by Purdey's at any time and return the favour. If I hadn't been so exhausted after supervising the Mission shutdown, and Steed hadn't sent her off to handle the admissions paperwork for Praetor…well, sometimes I wonder what the fallout of Terry and Lo would have been. But we were both too well-rested when we saw each other again.

The curare was another close call. There are dozens when you think about it, lots of opportunities. Was there ever going to be a particular time that had all the right ingredients? Something intangibly different that made it "right"? That's what puzzles me. Always has. Because we've had lots of close calls. But there was that day…

The 19th Special Commando. I was in under cover. It was all going pretty well. Maybe I'd have been able to call in and sabotage their planes if I hadn't heard the whistling. My favourite bird call—the yellow-crested Purdey. Maybe it was a bad idea to send Purdey in to that pub to begin with, when she was already known to some of the men. But Steed did, and it wasn't her fault they recognised her and dragged her off to the cells. I'm just thankful they never got a chance to start in on her. All those mercenaries…I know men like that, and I know what they do to prisoners. It still makes my skin crawl.

But I got Purdey out. And then she got me out. Of trouble, that is. Three on one is never a good situation at the best of times, less so when they're all commandos. Good thing Purdey has the kick of a mule, because we actually got out and made a run for it. I don't think I ever told Purdey I actually was in the army at one point, that the "major" title was genuine, not just cooked up for the files. But she seemed to know to let me lead, anyway. She was wearing red, of course—a worse colour for camouflage she couldn't have chosen. But we did pretty well for ourselves. I kept us out of the 19th's way, and she stayed behind me. I can still feel her hand on my back. We're not a hand-holding bunch, but that was just as good. She was always touching, probably to let me know she was there, still behind me. But when I'd stop, and she'd just about slam into me… Was that when it was? I can still feel her fingers tangled up in the sweater, hanging on. There was something surprisingly intimate about it. And it wasn't just because she somehow managed to get her bra off in record time and offer it up for the armoury.

Double-barrelled slingshot. The woman's a genius. So why the hell did she decide to play distraction? That was the other hint. I mean, I know why she rolled me over—to distract me. She knew Mike Gambit was a sucker when it came to her no matter what was going on, and if she gave me a bit of a shove and leaned over me, she knew my brain would stop working long enough for her to make a run for it. But she could have done it a few ways. Hell, she probably could have pointed the other way and said "Look! Over there!" and I'd have fallen for it. But she didn't. And she wasn't willing to stand by while I went in. I know Purdey's capable, but if it's a choice between me or her going into the fray, I'll put my hand up every time. I don't know if she wanted to prove herself after letting me be in charge all afternoon, or if she just couldn't stand sitting by and watching me, let's face it, probably get shot full of holes, or at least get captured and put through the gun cannon treatment. But whatever was going on in that brain of hers, she ran for it.

And ended up in that damned mine field.

I can still see her. Little red slip against all that green, jogging toward me. I know she must have had a few words to say about me when I started shooting at her, but I was desperate, and when the mine went off I swear my heart jumped up my throat. And when Miller offered a deal: Purdey's life in exchange for the rifle, and, in turn, the right to go on instigating World War Three…Well, it was probably the wrong decision as far as the world was concerned, but it was Purdey. Huddled out there, pulling her skirt in, as if that would help. I could have wept. But I couldn't just leave her there…

Thank goodness Steed showed up when he did. Steed's always been good with timing. I think he does it to show off a little. He knows just when to ride to the rescue in a blaze of glory. I don't mind. He came up aces that time, and I was glad to see him lift Purdey out. The champagne was just showing off, though. And I have to admit it rankled a little. I mean, I kept us alive for quite a while. Steed showed up at the end and stole the glory—and the girl. I know, I know. Chauvinistic. But there she was, dangling from the helicopter like it was the most natural thing in the world, like some sort of red-clad angel from heaven, and I was stuck on the ground with a bunch of crooked soldiers. I felt shafted. I'll be honest. But life goes on. We rounded up the soldiers. There was no World War Three—not that time, anyway. And at the end of the day, Purdey offered me a lift home in her car.

That should have seemed weird at the time. Or not. I don't know. It's all been coloured because of what happened later. I mean, we don't live too far from each other. And we give each other rides all the time. For that matter, we offer each other a drink each time, too. But we don't usually ask the host for it first. And Purdey asked. So I offered.

We got upstairs, and she had Scotch, oddly enough. Purdey's more of a gin lover, with a splash of bitters and ginger ale if you can manage it. Scotch is my tipple. But we cracked open the new bottle together. Maybe she wanted my drink before she had my…

No, that's stupid.

Is it?

Doesn't matter now, does it? I know she must have made a decision when she mentioned the beating I'd taken earlier. Well, three blokes on one doesn't do much for your chances, particularly when two hold you down and the third does the fun stuff. But I've been hurt lots of times, and sometimes she tells me to find someone else to play nurse, and sometimes she does it if I really make a nuisance of myself. But this time she actually offered. Before I'd had a chance to grunt and groan. And I wasn't really feeling it just then, so I hadn't had a chance to play wounded hero. But I wasn't going to complain, was I? Particularly when she started to undress me…

Well, that makes it sound more romantic than it was, because that sweater put up a fight. She pulled and I struggled, and one of my arms got tangled at one point. Army sweaters are officially the hardest things to take off I've ever come across. It made me look more helpless than anything. She laughed. I remember that. I could hear it through the wool. And then, naturally, there's another shirt underneath, but she was pretty quick with that one. All those buttons. I think that's when I knew that she knew what she was going to do.

I suppose it could have been spontaneous, her reasoning. It could have been the Scotch, although she'd only had half a glass. Could have been the uniform, but that would be corny, and Purdey hates being corny. Could have been my poor battered torso, which was bruising rather nicely by that point, but Purdey's seen worse battle scars than that in the line of duty. So something else must have been going on in her mind when she kissed me.

I know she kissed me. It wasn't the other way around, or both at once. I wouldn't have dared, not even at that point, shirtless or not. I've been that way around her before, and it hasn't gotten me particularly far. But when she pulled away and turned those big blue eyes up at me, I knew I'd just been given a go-ahead, even if I didn't have the foggiest idea why. So I kissed back. And it sort of went from there.

I'm human, so I'll take a moment to brag. It was fantastic. I can't deny it. I don't think she could deny it, either, and she sure as hell didn't to me. I know. I was there.

Just to rub it in.

Maybe it was the threat of World War Three that got her going. Or maybe she felt safe following me around on the field and wanted to recapture that. I certainly didn't hear say anything like "My hero" in the process, but then I was saying a few things of my own, and maybe I drowned her out. All I know is what she did, and that when we fell asleep she was curled up so close she was nearly on top of me.

She was gone the next morning. I was ready to put it down to the best dream ever, but she had left the coffee on, and she fed Charlie so he wouldn't wake me up. And her lipstick was still on the Scotch glass. I looked at it for a long time, reassuring myself it was her shade. I'm surprised I didn't bag it for evidence. Probably because she left a note.

"I took my slingshot back."

I smiled.

Naturally, we had to work that day, so I didn't know quite what to expect when I got in. Steed was in fine form, chatting away to Prentice about toy soldiers in his office when I'm sure they were both meant to be doing something important. And Purdey was there, too. Because Steed was there, and I doubted she'd told him, I sort of looked her way for some sort of clue, anything that would tell me how to act. But she just smiled that secretive little smile of hers, and went back to her report. When I finally caught up to her at lunch, it was business as usual. Sure, she flirted a little, but we always flirt a little, particularly at lunch. I know we were at the Ministry, and we had to be discrete, but she could have said something, anything to acknowledge what we'd done, because we'd done quite a lot, if you catch my meaning. But no, flirt, flirt, flirt. And then she went home. On her own.

Well, I thought. That's interesting. I went home and went through it all again, to see what I could have missed, but nothing came to mind. I finally decided that Purdey had decided to sate her curiosity. Maybe she'd heard something really exciting from the typing pool about me and decided it sounded too good to miss, in which case I hoped I'd delivered. After all, it was just a matter of time, wasn't it? We had to have our turn at some point. I'd always hoped it would be a little bit more…permanent. But I wasn't going to push. I don't push. Definitely not with Purdey. So I figured that was that. And it was.

Until Spelman.

The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, to be honest. I have no idea how long they held her without feeding her, but it must have been awhile. That made me angry enough, that and the fact that they'd been using her to get to Steed. But Steed made me even angrier. Because the bastard didn't tell me someone had Purdey. He told me that he was instructed not to, because I'd "rush in and get her killed." I could have hit something. I could have hit him. After all, he'd already done me that favour. He'd tried to tell me at the end, true, but by then, with all the evidence stacking up, it just looked desperate. But he could have told me from the start. If anyone wasn't going to get Purdey into trouble, it was me. I can be discrete. But no, he had to do it all on his bloody own, and after I had six kinds of stuffing kicked out of me to "get back my confidence," he was the one who got the hug, too. So I was a bit miffed with Purdey as well. But Purdey's one person I can't stay mad at for long. Particularly when she smiles at me that way. And she got Suzy or whatever her name was all placated, so all's well that ends well.

And I got to take Purdey home.

To be fair, I offered to take her back to her place, but mine was a bit closer, and she said she wanted to call her mother, let her know everything was all right after I explained I'd checked in. And that phone at Spelman's had konked out not long after Suzy had hung up. So she phoned and I went grocery shopping, because if I know one thing about Purdey, it's her appetite, and after being starved for who knows how long, I knew my larder couldn't take it.

I was right, because by the time I got back she was already raiding the fridge, not too successfully from the looks of things, and she just about attacked me when she saw the bags. We made something between the two of us. Don't remember what it was. Does it matter? All I know is the saying stops at "Kiss the cook." I don't remember any aprons embellished with the follow-up parts.

This time I made sure to wake up before her, but it didn't matter much, because she seemed to want to stay that time, anyway. She told me what Spelman and his goons had said, what they'd done to make Steed out to be the traitor. She also told me she hadn't lost hope, not in me, not in Steed, because we had a habit of coming through in the end. She couldn't quite believe I'd accepted Steed had turned, but when I told her how things looked from my end, she seemed to understand. Wish I did. We didn't really talk about the fact that we were having this conversation in bed. We could have had it at the pub, or at the kitchen table. But we didn't. And she didn't leave until noon, and only then because her mother was coming down to see her. I didn't ask if there was going to be a next time, and she didn't tell. But I hoped.

Hope must work, because Kane came back from the dead. Not that I was glad. Steed told me he was ready to finish Purdey just when he got in, and that made me walk a little unsteadily for a bit. And when Steed had Kane lifted out, he went with him, and left me with Purdey. I think that was the first time we actually both planned for it to happen. We didn't say it, not out loud, but her place was trashed, and I don't think she wanted to be alone. I watched her pack, and halfway through she started to shake. I couldn't blame her.

I held her. She stopped, eventually, or maybe because I was shaking, too, we cancelled each other out. And that time I kissed her.

And then I took her home.

It occurred to me after she'd fallen asleep that things had been a little different ever since the whole hostage incident. And by "things" I mean Purdey, of course. Looking back over the past few weeks after Steed's birthday, there'd been little signs that things had shifted. The first that sprang to mind was when she was tending my poor bruised and broken hand, the one I'd made the mistake of trying a chop on a cybernaut with. For one thing, she offered to tend to it, just the way she did with my war wounds from the Special 19th. But she'd been extra tender this time round. "Poor clever little fist," she cooed, and kissed it. That was two strange things—first, Purdey doesn't "coo," except when imitating a dove, and second, before our pair of liaisons, she certainly hadn't made a practice of kissing anything of mine. Ever. Well, except that night when we dropped her off before the S-95 incident, which kept me grinning for a month. But other than that, never. And here she was fussing over me and praising my efforts in the fight—"You dented him, Mike. You actually dented him!"—and offering up kisses. And of course, I didn't appreciate it at the time—in fact, I was downright chippy with her, and she didn't even bother being acerbic back. Well, except for that dig about my piano playing, but that's mild for Purdey. No, she just kissed and cooed and tended and bandaged me up. I would have noticed it earlier if my thoughts at the time hadn't consisted of "Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! I hate my job. I hate my job. Hate, hate, hate."

I know. Ingrate.

But the more I thought about it, the more I noticed. Or at least, the more I analyzed. When she caught me "lurking" outside for Steed, and said I was looking for a massage, was she offering? And when I said there were others who would be happy to do the job, well, she said they didn't have her "agreeable nature." Did that mean she was jealous, or hinting that I could get something more from her? Did she think I was hanging about because I was hoping she'd invite me inside for go number three? And when she found out I wasn't wearing pajamas, what did that smile mean? "Oh, how cute, you still care. You know I've seen the important bits?" Or was she remembering the last two nights fondly? Or am I just reading too much into…everything? Wouldn't be the first time.

I started torturing myself with the guessing game pretty regularly after that. Was that a suggestion or just a casual quip, was she flirting or signalling? It's always hard to know with Purdey, but this just made things harder. All I wanted to know was why, why she'd chosen to start this up when she had, and why she only wanted to indulge occasionally. What was it all supposed to mean? She seemed to treat me differently sometimes, other times it was like the old days. She flirted with the other Ministry boys, too, and after a pretty healthy debate, and no more action on the Purdey front, I decided this meant we weren't exclusive. So when Penny Redfern happened by, well, I wasn't going to say no, was I? Besides, Penny was a great girl. A lot like Purdey in some ways, which probably explains a lot, but she was wonderful on her own terms. In fact, if there hadn't been a Purdey, I think I would have spent a lot more time with Penny. If there are alternate universes, Penny and I have probably been going strong for a year now, and she's got me taking her out for end-of-term dances. But there is a Purdey, and I couldn't just focus on Penny, and I think she knew that. Well, it would be hard not to. Before I met her, I'd been teasing Purdey a little during our bout in the gym, telling her about the date I had that night, which was pretty inconsequential, actually, but I wanted to see how she'd react. Well, all that about womanhood and purity—was that disgust or was she actually jealous? She didn't seem too annoyed when I got her between my legs—there's a sentence I don't get to say very often—but then she'd just been telling me about how she'd invited herself into Steed's for a nightcap, and I'd already gotten the feeling she was cozying up to Steed that night, right up until they found out his place had been trashed. That hurt a little, I'll admit, but I'm a big boy. Three times doesn't mean much, and I hadn't exactly been a good boy—when Mulford called us up and sent us off on that damned plane, I wasn't alone, and it wasn't the first time, either. But Purdey had always had a thing about Steed, and that made him harder to compete with than any random Ministry boy. I think that's half the reason I turned down her offer of another Purdka (the other half being that I don't want my liver to fail just yet, and I actually was thinking about Steed and the vandalism). But I don't think my attaching myself to Penny wasn't totally unrelated to what was going on with Purdey and Steed.

Which turned out to be nothing, in the end. Strange, but true. But I didn't know that, not at the time, so you can imagine how surprised I was when Purdey burst in unannounced. "Gambit, I need to talk to you—" That was as far as she got. Let me rephrase that last sentence. We were all surprised—me, Purdey, and Penny. Purdey figured out two things in record time—one, we definitely weren't exclusive, and two, she needed to learn how to knock. Because Penny and I were in a pretty compromising position. One that didn't leave much to the imagination. You know that old fib about "getting a splinter out of a girl's eye"? That works for stolen kisses in the corner. At no point does splinter removal also necessitate the removal of any article of clothing. If you know a way, I'll be glad to hear it for future reference.

So there we were—me, Purdey, and Penny, who of course had no idea who the mad blonde woman staring at us was. She'd heard me talk about Purdey, of course—in fact, sometimes Purdey would phone me in the middle of the night when Penny was there, and, well, I had to tell her she was my coworker, at the very least. I think Penny always knew there was more than that, though, because every time I'd hear Purdey's voice I'd scramble out of bed in record time, as though I was guilty of something. Which I wasn't. I mean, I couldn't be, could I? But the way Purdey was looking at us, I sure felt like it.

And the odd thing was, Purdey didn't make a quip, or scream, or laugh, or cry, or do much of everything, except say "Oh," and close the door as quickly as she'd opened it. This left me in a bit of a pickle. If I left Penny halfway through to chase another woman, that looked bad, not to mention really bloody insensitive, and I don't think I'm that much of a bastard. But on the other hand, it was Purdey, and everything else aside, I have to work with her every day.

And, on top of that, Penny told me to go.

I caught up to Purdey in the hall. I expected her to scream at me, or something. But she didn't. She was completely calm, and that was even worse. "It's none of my business, Gambit," she said, and kept saying it no matter how many times I tried to get a word in edgewise. The most unPurdeylike phrase in the entire English language. "None of my business." Everything's Purdey's business. It's one of her best and worst qualities. But she kept saying it until she backed into the lift and the doors closed. I should have been glad she was respecting my privacy, but it only made it worse.

By then all the neighbours in the other flats had come out to see what the fuss was about, and when they saw Penny waiting by the door, they drew their own conclusions, not unjustified by what they'd seen before, nor what they'd seen just now. Two girls, one big mess. They didn't need the details to get the picture. I slouched back inside to apologise to Penny.

She was waiting for me on the couch, wrapped up in my sheet. Against all odds, she smiled at me. I don't know what I would have done in her place, but it would have been a hell of a lot ruder than that.

"So that's Purdey?" she said, as though we'd run into her at the store or something else inane.

"That's Purdey."

"She's pretty."

"So are you."

She smiled, but I meant it. I really did. Penny Redfern is pretty much everything I could ask for in a girl--beautiful, smart as a whip, compassionate, wicked sense of humour, just as happy to stay in as go out, not needy. In fact, if she has any failing, it's one that can't be helped.

She's not Purdey.

And she knows it.

"She's your colleague, isn't she?" Penny asked, as I went over to sit beside her on the couch.

"Yes," I said. "And friend." It sounded so pathetic saying it that way. We both knew that I wouldn't have chased Purdey down the hall if we were just good mates. But I couldn't bring myself to go any farther, because I'm still not certain what we are. How many times do you have to sleep together before you're actually lovers? And don't you have to actually acknowledge it in-between? "Close friends," I modified.

"I can tell," Penny said with a smirk, and I winced. She reached out and took my hand. "Mike, there's no point in dancing around it. I know you'd never set out to hurt anyone, and I certainly don't think you meant for us to end up this way."

"I'm sorry." There wasn't much else to say.

"You can't help how you feel," Penny said with a sigh. "I won't say I'm not disappointed. I don't know about you, but I enjoyed every minute. I haven't had this much fun with anyone in a very long time." She leaned in. "But all good things come to an end."

I think I'll always be thankful to Penny, because she seemed to understand, and pretty much told me to go after Purdey. She understood. I knew she would, somehow. Like I said, Penny's a great girl. She deserves better than me, someone not in my business, someone without a complicated relationship with someone else.

So I dressed, and I left. And I haven't seen Penny since. I knew I wouldn't. And the thing is, that made me sad.

But the idea of not going to see Purdey made me sadder.

Author's Note: I'll leave it there. This fic is very hard to break up because it's one long stream-of-consciousness narrative from Gambit. I just wanted to say that I wrote this fic because, surprisingly enough, I have read comments from people who were absolutely convinced Purdey and Gambit were sleeping together during the series. Since their relationship is so much about "One of these days...," and therefore more "When will they get around to it?" as opposed to "Have they?" I decided to see if I could build a plausible series of events that could imply this based on what we see onscreen. The more I thought about it, the less implausible it seemed. It was actually a lot of fun to build it up--I half-convinced myself! Maybe by the end of this fic you'll be convinced, too! Anyway, this also gave me a chance to try first-person perspective, and to write a fic that revolved around Gambit's point of view. He's still my favourite character, but I always seem to end up writing Purdey's thoughts for some strange reason. So it was a real treat to get in his head and write from there.

Anyway, there are quite a few chapters left to come, so stay tuned for what happens between Purdey and Gambit next...