What Purdey Saw
by J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel
Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor the characters of Mike Gambit, Purdey, and John Steed. Sadly. They're the property of The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. This story is for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended
Timeline: Fall, 1976, late in season one.
Author's Note: A little character piece for Purdey I wrote a couple of months back. Way back when I first watched the series, I noticed she seemed to have a certain blind spot, or lack of insight, when it came to her relationship with Gambit, and I can't help but wonder what would happen if her bubble was actually burst, as opposed to just being prodded a little. Won't say much more than that, but I hope you enjoy it.
Purdey sat rigidly in Steed's office, her body refusing to mould to the contours of the chair. The man himself had departed in search of some erstwhile paperwork they were meant to finish up just as soon as Gambit arrived. That left Purdey alone to stew, relieving her of the burden of keeping the mask of normality in place. With Steed gone, her hands betrayed her, nervous fingers gently rolling a pen between them, while her teeth dug into the hard plastic at the top, hard enough to leave marks. It was an old habit from her school days, something she had more or less conquered in her adult life, but when she was distracted, her self-discipline flitted away with her mind, and the old neuroses reasserted themselves. She didn't care about it just now. She had more important things to which to turn her mental energy. Namely what she had seen not an hour before. What she seemingly could not unsee. The scene replayed itself over and over in her brain, ad nauseum, and no matter what she did, she couldn't seem to shake it. Because it bothered her. And it bothered her that it bothered her.
It had started out as a perfectly ordinary day. A perfectly ordinary day that hadn't involved much in the way of work. Even spies had slow days, days when the diabolical masterminds just weren't biting, and no one seemed intent on taking over the world, or even prodding it a little. When there were no crises, the Ministry more or less gave its agents free rein, provided they were only a phone call away should something come up, and all their outstanding paperwork had been filed away. Their little team had fallen into the later category, with some minor loose ends needing tidying up. It really wasn't more than fifteen minutes' work, twenty tops, but it had to be done all the same, and as there was no excuse for not doing it, Steed had suggested they come in shortly after lunch to attend to it, and then depart to enjoy the rest of the day in peace. For Purdey, that meant a wonderfully indulgent lie-in, followed by an invigorating morning workout, and then a leisurely breakfast. She made a half-hearted attempt to catch up on her reading, but even fashion magazines failed to hold her interest, so at half past eleven she decided to make a trip to the grocers' to pick up a few essentials before going in.
The local Tesco was only a quick drive away, and soon enough she was trundling down the aisles, basket in hand, picking up what, for her, constituted essentials, including several bags of marshmallows. It was just as she was about to exit the aisle that she caught sight of Gambit.
This was not in itself a strange occurrence. After all, Purdey and Gambit lived only a few minutes from one another, and despite keeping sometimes wildly divergent schedules, it wasn't unheard of for them to cross paths in the most mundane of settings, even the grocer. Bachelor or not, Mike Gambit still had to eat, and the corn flakes he favoured for his morning meal didn't buy themselves. So the sight of her partner-in-crime-fighting standing in the butcher's section, eyeing up the options, while not exactly expected, was not completely out of the realm of possibility, either, and once Purdey had gotten over her initial surprise, she lifted a hand with the intention of catching his eye with a cheery wave. Her hand had made it to shoulder-level when someone else emerged from an aisle to Purdey's left, and made a beeline for Gambit. The someone was girl.
Purdey lowered her hand instinctively and ducked back into the shelter of the aisle, though she wasn't entirely certain why she felt the need to hide. What did it matter if Gambit saw her? She had every right to be here. She had every right to go and talk to him. And yet, something held her back, made her reluctant to make her presence known. Well, she called it 'something,' but in reality knew the reason in less-vague terms. If the someone had been a man, she would have joined them without question. But this was a girl, and as a woman herself, Purdey chose discretion. She would not show her hand too soon. If at all.
The girl—slim, red-haired, medium height-strode over to Gambit, bold as brass. She was holding a loaf of French bread, and when she was close enough, she tapped Gambit playfully on the shoulder with it. He glanced over his shoulder at her and smiled, then turned away from the butcher's wares to face her, said a few words in what was no doubt some form of greeting. Purdey, peering through the gap in the shelf, could see their mouths move, but couldn't make out what they were saying. Instead, she had to settled for body language, and somehow that made it worse. The girl was regarding him with a coy, knowing smile, and Gambit, in return, was bestowing her with a subtle little pleased grin of his own. Purdey knew it well. She'd seen it many times before. Only it was usually aimed at her.
Gambit indicated the meat on display, clearly asking for the girl's take on it. She took a step forward to see it better, and as she did so, Gambit turned and rested one hand, quite casually, on the girl's lower back. Purdey, against all her better instincts, felt her mouth go dry at the gesture. She wasn't quite sure what it was about it that rubbed her the wrong way. Perhaps it was the ease with which he did it. There was no pause, no sign of a calculation as to whether or not it would be well-received. He had done it automatically, without plans or hopes or ulterior motives. It was obviously something he had done before, dozens of times, and judging by the way the girl glanced at him, and then back at the meat, she had been the recipient just as often. Which meant they'd known each other for at least a little while. And if they had known each other for awhile, and Gambit was being, well, Gambit, and she was receptive, that meant they had...
Purdey shook her head to clear it. She was being ridiculous. None of this should have come as a surprise. Of course Gambit was with a woman. It was no secret that he had a fondness for the opposite sex. She'd heard the rumours even before she met the man himself, typing pool affair and all. And she'd received more than her share of insights into how he worked since they'd begun their partnership. The infamous little black book. The references to 'hot dates' for the weekend. He'd even flirted with women right in front of her, though she'd gotten her own back on more than one occasion. She'd even walked in on him posing nude for sculptor Helen McKay only a few months ago. None of that left much to the imagination. Mike Gambit was a ladies' man. A swinging bachelor. A womaniser, if one was feeling particularly uncharitable. She knew it. Steed knew it. Everyone in the Ministry knew it. Seeing him with a girl just reaffirmed it.
And yet...Purdey didn't know why, but in spite of it all, at some level, she hadn't quite believed it. Logically her brain knew what must go on, that there must be dinners and dancing and night caps and...well, all that that entailed. But at the same time, she'd somehow managed to tune it out, put it aside. Because at the end of the day, she'd never actually seen Gambit with a woman in that way. Yes, she'd seen him flirt, but that wasn't the same thing. Most men flirted, but often it didn't go further than that, and Gambit had never crossed that particular line in her presence. For someone who talked about his love life at work, he'd always been very careful about keeping the two worlds separate. She'd never actually seen him kiss a girl, let alone touch her in a way that was less than innocent. Never caught a woman coming out of his flat looking dishevelled. He'd never come in for work in the morning smelling of perfume, or with lipstick on his collar. There were never feminine things lying about in his flat or in the medicine cabinet. No evidence in the Range Rover or the Jaguar. No one called him at the Ministry, let alone turned up at the door looking for him. So it was very easy to forget, as she spent her days with him in the strange little world that was the Ministry, that there was, or could be, anyone else. Because the only girl he was ever with in any sort of close, intimate way that she knew of, was her. And somehow, she'd come to believe that was the case. There was just her. Only her. And he was hers alone.
Purdey felt her lips purse as the girl laid a hand on his arm, at the easy intimacy between them. What did he see in her? This woman must know nothing about him. No one could know him as well as Purdey herself. She was the only one who'd worked with him on the training course. Heard every one of his terrible jokes. Put his karate lessons into practice. Gone for late-night Chinese take-away after a stake-out. She was the only one who knew the story behind half the scars that traced his torso. She was the only one who had seen him truly afraid, truly brave, truly...him. The field did that, let you see people with all the layers stripped away. No other woman in his history could possibly have shared the experiences they had. She was the only one who knew all the in-jokes, the hidden references. Purdey bristled as she watched. How could anyone else hold a candle? She was the only true friend. The only partner.
The only one he hadn't slept with.
Purdey felt her confidence ebb away as the thought hung there, in the recesses on her mind, and refused to leave. It was an integral part of their relationship, as much as any of the other things. From day one she had drawn the imaginary line in the sand, and Gambit, despite his protestations, was a gentleman, and had never crossed it. It hadn't stopped him broadcasting his willingness to do so at every opportunity. How much of their playful banter had danced around the old refrain? "I'm looking forward to it." And yet, all these months later, Purdey was still successfully holding him at arm's length, with no surrender in sight. Oh, she dropped in a tease once in awhile. A word here, a gesture there, a cosier dance at the disco. It kept the game alive, maintained the tension, the spark. At some level she'd naively thought it would be enough, that she would be enough, that facing danger and death together would solidify the bond. Between that and all the little intimacies between them, she had herself down as irreplaceable. No one could match her point for point. But now, with the evidence right in front of her, the proverbial scales had fallen from her eyes. At the end of the day, Gambit had needs, and she was fulfilling all but one of them. Of course, she didn't expect this particular woman to last. None of them ever did. There was a reason Gambit had that little black book, and Purdey didn't think for a moment it only had one name in it. No, she would move on, and Purdey would still be there. But that didn't change the fact that each and every one of those women that had gone before knew Mike Gambit in a way that she never had, and never would, so long as her vow to never let herself or her heart become vulnerable again remained unbroken.
The girl looked as happy as Purdey felt wretched, and it was only made worse when she leaned in and pressed her lips against his. Gambit's eyebrows shot up in surprise, almost in unison with Purdey's. She hadn't imagined him to be the sort who indulged in public displays of affection, but then what did she know? When it came to Mike Gambit on a date, she was completely clueless. It was a whole part of him she knew nothing about. She watched him recover, kiss her back, one hand resting on her waist. Purdey found herself wondering what it felt like to have him touch her in quite that way. Every time he tried to do the same to her, she pulled away automatically, before she could feel it properly. She wondered what he tasted like. She'd kissed him once, briefly, the night before the S-95 gas had put everyone to sleep, but it had been on impulse and he hadn't had a chance to reciprocate before she pulled away. She'd had more than her share of opportunities since then, had no one to blame but herself for not taking advantage of them, but the pang of jealousy cut through her nonetheless.
They broke apart when the butcher returned with their selection, wrapped in brown paper. Gambit accepted the package, and they made for the tills. Dinner, Purdey inferred. It had to be for dinner. Between that and the bread what else could it be? She found herself following them automatically, staying hidden behind the shelves, never getting too close. Espionage did teach one to follow people without their knowing, but on the other hand, it also taught one to sense when one was being followed, and at any moment Gambit's sixth sense was liable to kick in and make a fool out of her. Fortunately for her, but much to her annoyance, he was too enraptured by the girl to notice his tail. Purdey watched them pass through the check-out, then leave the store. Only then did she break her cover, hurrying to the store window just in time to see them climb into the Jaguar XJS. Purdey clenched her jaw. He even squired her around in his car, his pride and joy. Last week he'd taken her out in the Range Rover. She hadn't ridden in the XJS in a little over three weeks. Was it because of the red-head?
She hadn't had time to dwell on that thought, because it was then that one of the clerks had approached her and asked if she planned to pay for her marshmallows, which she hadn't let go the entire time she'd been spying. Uncharacteristically, she handed them over. Her appetite for them had faded.
The past hour had been absolute agony. Her mind was alive with possibilities as to how Gambit and the mystery woman had spent the time. Had he taken her back to his flat? What had they done there? Purdey felt herself tense in her chair. All she could see was them, her and Gambit. Kissing. Touching. Bodies entwined.
Purdey put a hand to her forehead, as though she could physically push the mental images away. It didn't matter. It shouldn't matter. He'd done this loads of times since he'd known her, unquestionably. She must have known at some level that this was going on. Why did seeing the evidence make it worse?
Worst of all, she couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to trade places with the girl. Those hands. Good hands. Strong hands. On her. Her body. Waist. Hips. Thighs.
Purdey shook her head in mild despair. How was she ever going to look at him again without wondering where he'd been, what he'd done, and who he'd been doing it with? Her eyes would be alive for telltale smells, signs, evidence. She was already dreading his arrival, wondering how she would maintain her composure in the face of an overactive imagination.
It was then that Steed returned, and Purdey did her best to adopt a nondescript expression. He settled into the chair opposite, opened the file he'd brought along, and regarded her with interest.
"Yes?" Her voice didn't waver at all, and she mentally congratulated herself for pulling herself together on such short notice.
Steed laced his fingers. "Is everything all right? You seem miles away."
Purdey gave him the world's most careful carefree shrug. "Bored, I suppose. There's a lovely, sunny afternoon waiting for me out there, and I'm cooped up in here with nothing but a T-35 for company."
Steed smiled, accepting the excuse, at least for the moment. He had a habit of circling back to these things long after people thought they'd been put to bed. She'd have to watch herself.
"I can understand that," he replied, turning back to the file. "If Gambit doesn't keep us waiting, we can liberate you sooner rather than later."
"Sooner." The new voice made her freeze, but Steed turned toward the door to acknowledge the new arrival.
"Ah, Gambit. We were about to give up hope."
Mike Gambit pushed away from the doorframe and glanced at the watch face on the inside of his wrist. "I'm not late," he defended.
"No, but with your driving one never knows." Steed indicated the empty chair between the two of them.
"I'll have you know I haven't run a red light all week," Gambit retorted in mock indignation, but moved to the chair anyway. Purdey had been able to avoid looking at him until now, but as soon as he took a seat he was right in her line of vision, and she was left with no option but to meet his eyes.
It wasn't quite as bad as she had imagined. The way she'd been thinking, she'd expected him to arrive positively reeking of sex. As it was, his clothes seemed to be undisturbed. They didn't look as though they'd been torn off and then hurriedly put on again. There was no waft of perfume, no smear of lipstick on his face, no tousled hair. He certainly didn't look like a man who'd just, well...
On the other hand, he was almost painfully cheerful. He had that trademark jauntiness that surfaced whenever he was particularly pleased with himself. Sometimes it came from a particularly satisfying break in a case, or a good workout. Today Purdey's mind conjured up ulterior motives. He was here to do paperwork of all things, a task he loathed almost as much as his regular physical, and it didn't seem to so much as dent his cheerful demeanour. If this was how he looked every time after he did the deed, she was going to have to go back and reinterpret countless past exchanges.
Gambit noticed her staring at him, and winked. Purdey's heart fell into her stomach. If something hadn't happened at the flat, it sure as hell was going to once he went back. After dinner, no doubt. Funny how the thought of food made her feel sick.
"Going a bit stir-crazy in here, Purdey-girl?" he inquired, and she tried not to physically wince at the endearment. She used to think it was specific to her, but maybe he called all the girls something similar. Maybe he was just very, very good at making women feel like they were the only ones in the world. If that was the case, it was no wonder he had no problem filling up that little black book.
"A little," she replied, her voice sounding strange to her own ears. It must have sounded much the same to his, because Gambit cocked his head, and a tiny crease formed between his eyebrows.
"You okay?" he asked, with genuine concern.
Purdey straightened up. "Fine. Why?"
Gambit arched an eyebrow. "You seem a little tense."
"If you offer me a backrub, Mike Gambit, I think I shall scream."
"She sounds perfectly all right to me," Steed commented mildly, shuffling some papers irritably. "If you two don't mind, there are other people who would like to enjoy the sunshine before it goes..."
Gambit dragged his gaze away from her with difficulty, but did as he was asked, and Purdey breathed a sigh of relief. They filled the paperwork out quickly and efficiently, only speaking when it was necessary to point out some detail or other to the rest. Purdey took every opportunity to look at Gambit when he wasn't looking at her, his eyes turned downward to look at the forms. When she didn't have to worry about keeping up a brave front, other emotions bubbled up to take the place of the anxiety, one eclipsing the next just as quickly.
She wanted to throttle him. Curse him and his tedious, self-indulgent love affairs. When was he going to grow up?
And at the same time, she wanted to cry into his shoulder. She wanted to mourn what she had lost, even if she had never had it to begin with. She wanted him to understand it, to feel her strange, unexplainable pain.
But the feeling that settled over her in the end and refused to budge was that of disconnect. It was as though she didn't know him, as though it was a stranger she had seen in the grocer's, and he had stepped in and taken over her Gambit. Only he wasn't her Gambit anymore. Not hers and hers alone.
He was so close, close enough to touch, and yet he seemed miles away, distant and inaccessible. She felt as though she was struggling to reconnect, but every time she did, the image of him and the girl appeared in her mind's eye, creating a strange sort of interference—emotional static. And no matter what she did, she couldn't break through.
Suddenly, he was standing, saying words she didn't hear. As unbearable as it was to be in the same room with him, having seen what she had seen, she also didn't want him to leave. If he left, that meant he'd go away from her and to the girl. She couldn't let that happen.
Gambit exchanged pleasantries with Steed, then looked to her. "You're a free woman now, Purdey-girl. Get out and get some fresh air. You look like you could use it." He nodded at the senior agent. "Bye, Steed."
"Good-bye, Gambit," Steed returned, already gathering up the papers. "And now, Purdey, I really must insist that you—"
"Sorry, Steed. There's something I have to do." Purdey launched herself out of her chair and hurried after Gambit, leaving a very bemused Steed in her wake. He shook his head and let her go. There'd be plenty of time to glean an explanation later. For the moment, it seemed best to let her go. Getting between Purdey and her goal could prove very dangerous indeed.
Purdey dashed into the hall, looking up and down in frantically for her quarry. She spotted Gambit halfway down the corridor to her left, moving with quick, easy strides. "Gambit!" she called, and he stopped and turned to face her. When he saw who it was, he started back toward her. She started moving, too, falling into a brisk jog. They met in the middle, and she could see Gambit's face was creased with concern.
"I knew there had to be something," he murmured, searching her face for clues. "What's happened, Purdey? What's wrong?"
Purdey opened her mouth to reply, then realised that she had no idea what to say, a rare occurrence for her. But at the end of the day, what could she say? Don't go? Don't see her? Don't see any other women? But the problem was that, strictly speaking, he wasn't 'seeing' Purdey, either. Because she wouldn't let him. And for the first time, Purdey realised no matter how unfair she thought he was being, she was no better. Because Mike Gambit had given her more than her share of chances to make the move. He could be 'only' her Gambit so easily. Even if she hadn't thought about his love life properly until now, she knew without a doubt that if he was with her, he would forsake all others. And he let her know it at every opportunity. But she'd never accepted, never thought she needed to. She was beginning to realise that she might have gotten it wrong. How long was he going to keep trying? What happened if he met someone who he liked as more than a fling? And Purdey was still holding firm? Would he be content to stand by her as a friend and partner? Or would it start to hurt too much? Would he slip away from her day by day, until she didn't have him at all?
She wondered what would happen if she kissed him. He might kiss back, once he got over the initial shock. Might put his arms around her, hold her tight. The idea of it made her heart ache. It was so tempting, and he was so close. But then what would happen when they parted? He'd want to know what it was about, and if she told him, he'd want to know what it meant. And the trouble was, Purdey wasn't sure about that herself. She wanted him—she could admit that to herself now, here, with all the layers and defences stripped away. But she was also still afraid. Afraid of what would come of a serious romance. Her last one had ended so badly, so terribly, she still couldn't think of it without crumbling inside. It had almost been her undoing. She had fought so hard to build herself back up again, was proud of what she had achieved. But she didn't know if she was strong enough to do it again. She couldn't imagine Gambit ever hurting her on purpose. But things happened—unpredictable, awful things—and she couldn't take the chance. Not right now. Here. In the hall.
"Purdey?" Gambit looked very worried now. He reached out and touched her arm. "Do you feel all right? Do you want me to call someone?"
Purdey smiled. It took every ounce of energy in her body to do it, but she did. For him. Because that touch alone had made everything a little more bearable, just for an instant. "No," she told him. "I'm all right. I just..." She paused, searched for the words that wouldn't make her sound mad, but at this point she didn't think they existed, so she said what she wanted, what she could. "I just wanted you to know that I...I do appreciate you, Mike Gambit. More than you know."
Gambit's face cleared somewhat, and the side of his mouth quirked up. "Thank you," he said sincerely, then grinned a little broader. "I didn't know you cared."
"I know," Purdey said softly. "That's why I said it." She reached out and covered his hand, still resting on her arm, with her own, and squeezed gently. "I'll let you get on with whatever you plan on doing now."
"You're sure?" Gambit queried. "Because if you need to talk..."
"I know where to find you," Purdey reassured, releasing him, and he did the same. They stood there, regarding one another. She knew he wasn't fooled for an instant, knew perfectly well something else was going on, but she also knew he wouldn't push her on it, not unless she did something particularly worrisome. It was one of his best qualities, knowing where the line was. And she loved him for it.
"Well, if you're sure, I do have somewhere I need to be."
"Go." Purdey ushered him off down the hall. "I'll see you on Friday."
"Only if you're paying."
He grinned at her over his shoulder. "No reason to break with tradition." And then he was gone, off around the corner and to the woman. Purdey turned and started back the way she had come. Maybe that woman had him for now, but things wouldn't always be that way. She'd made up her mind about that.
"One of these days, Mike Gambit..."