Five Things That Never Happened to The New Avengers...and One That Did
Didn't No. 1: Strangers
by J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel
Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor the characters of John Steed, Mike Gambit, Purdey, and Thomas McKay. They belong to The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's Note: A bit of an experiment, I got the idea for this from a similar series of vignettes written for Cathy Gale a few years back, and thought I'd try it for TNA. It consists of a number of short stories, each set in a different alternate universe where events have taken place outside the established timeline. It'll be capped off by one "canonical," non-AU story. The brilliant thing about it is that it allowed me to play with lots of little ideas I've had over the years, but which I didn't have an inclination to develop a whole plot around. So I got to play in a lot of different AU universes. I'll be posting a new one every few days. Hopefully you'll enjoy the results.
I'll just add that a lot of these turned out to be at the sadder/bittersweet end of the spectrum. I've no idea why, but there it is. Just a warning.
They sat, the three of them, around the unadorned, black topped table that was standard in all Ministry interrogation rooms. Though they were technically there to be debriefed, Gambit suspected McKay's questioning would be no less intense.
They sat in silence, their usual easy banter not forthcoming after so long apart. Only quiet breathing, and the squeak of the cheap chairs when someone moved, punctuated the quiet.
For Gambit, it felt like a lifetime since he'd been able to look at both his colleagues at once. And yet the memory of the charred, black hole in the side of the building where his flat used to be was so vivid, it might have happened yesterday. So was the frantic drive to Purdey's, only to find her standing stock still on the pavement, watching the firemen douse the last of the flames that flickered at the bottom of the 21 steps. From there, it hadn't taken a great leap of imagination to guess that events had repeated themselves at the stud farm, and by the time they reconvened in McKay's office, they all knew, before the lab boys produced their report, that there was a vendetta against them, and only their long, leisurely evening meal at one of their favourite restaurants had saved them. The note sent to the Ministry a few hours later told them nothing about who their attacker was—though the list of suspects was long—but made it crystal clear that where one attack failed, another would follow, and another, until all three of them became the latest occupants of Dr. James Kendricks' morgue.
McKay did the best he could, offered them protection from Ministry security, to pull the best agents off their assignments and have them investigate. The three of them barely needed to convene to arrive at an alternative. They knew security wouldn't save them. Someone, somewhere would find a way to get around it, eventually, especially if there was a leak. They also knew no one was better equipped to find their would-be murderer than they were. That meant their only option was to...disappear.
Arrangements were made for drop boxes. Overnight bags were packed with essentials, and enough money to carry them through the first month, if they were mean enough. Then the long drive in the dark, in the non-descript car, to the quiet alley, and the good-byes. Splitting up seemed the sensible thing to do, as opposed to presenting one big target for persons unknown. Gambit had plenty of experience living on the fringes of society, and he knew Steed was more than capable of taking care of himself, but he worried after Purdey, well-aware that, in the less-civilised corners of the world, being a woman was more of a liability than an asset. He implied as much, but she'd simply flashed that classic, carefree Purdey grin, and assured him that she was much less innocent than she let on, and was more than capable of taking care of herself. That smile would carry him through many a dark night, lying awake, waiting for the knives to come out.
He wouldn't see her again for another six weeks.
They met at irregular intervals, only ever two at a time, so that even if they were caught, the third would live to fight another day. They formed a little chain: Steed would meet Gambit, Gambit would meet Purdey, Purdey would meet Steed, and so on. Each time passing on anything they had discovered in the interim, each time hoping this meeting would be the last, that they would be able to come out of hiding and resume their lives. Each time fearing that the other person would never arrive, and all that would imply. To a certain degree they always lived this way, with the sense that they should check over their shoulders, and the knowledge that each day could be their last. But it was never this extreme, this intense, for so long. No one knew how long it would take to unmask their opponents, but Gambit doubted that any of them had expected it to drag on for six months.
Six months. Even now, with it all over, it seemed impossible, an absolute age. A whole half a year, living in secret, following leads, checking and filling drop boxes, wondering where Purdey and Steed were, what they were doing, if they were still alive. On top of it all, they had to survive. The money McKay had provided had only stretched so far—Gambit doubted even their department head had expected his best agents to go underground for so long. Bank accounts and safety deposit boxes were unsafe, off-limits. Gambit took a job at the docks, where his rocking gait and naval experience would help him blend in with the host of others doing the grunt work of loading and unloading ships. He bunked aboardship with a dozen others, and walked the fine line between overly friendly and suspiciously withdrawn. He cut his hair to a painfully short length his old captain would have approved of, let his accent deteriorate to the cockney of his youth, quit shaving regularly, and at night prayed it would be enough to let him pass in a crowd, all the while sleeping with a knife under his pillow, just in case the latest lodger was more than he seemed.
He glanced across the table at Purdey, who was distractedly examining her brightly-painted pink fingernails. She, too, had cut her hair, even though her bob hadn't provided much to work with. It was a pixie cut, and even though he found her attractive no matter what she did to herself, he didn't think it flattered her. But it helped. She'd dyed it, too—the first time he met her, it was black. Now it was a mousey brown, which he hadn't seen before. She'd taken to wearing too much make-up as well, in an attempt to alter or disguise her features. Gambit had a barely controllable urge to scrub the layers off and see the real girl again, but knew she'd do it herself in short order. The one feature she couldn't disguise were her eyes-big, bright pools peering out from beneath the mask. They were alive with anxiety, wide and perpetually moving, scanning her surroundings every few seconds. He recognised the hunted look from his own visage, wondered if she slept armed, too. Probably. More worrisome was the thinness of her frame. Purdey had always been slim, but whatever reserves she'd had had been whittled away, and the result was unsettling. Even Purdey's notoriously insatiable appetite had been quelled by their ordeal. He made a mental note to take her out for dinner just as soon as they were cleaned up.
He didn't know what Purdey had been doing to survive all this time, hadn't asked because they'd thought it better they didn't know, just in case they were caught. He wasn't certain he wanted to know, either, though he suspected most of his fears were unfounded. Purdey may not have spent as much time in society's grittier corners as he had, but she was tough as nails and knew how to handle herself, and giving her the impression he thought otherwise would get him a tongue-lashing he wouldn't forget.
Purdey glanced his way, and Gambit averted his eyes before she caught him staring at her. He turned his gaze to Steed. The senior agent was staring thoughtfully into the middle distance, hands resting on the tabletop, fingers laced. The wrinkled mac he wore somehow draped over his broad shoulders just as beautifully as the most expensive topcoat from Saville Row, and Gambit would have been surprised at how comfortable he looked in it had he not made a hobby of trawling through Steed's old case files. It was from those that Gambit had learned about Steed's earliest days as a spy, scrubbing away at the lower echelons of society, chain-smoking in seedy clubs, having shady meetings in alleyways with unscrupulous characters, and manipulating unwitting nightclub singers to do his dirty work for him. It was grittier, less sophisticated work, but it also revealed the true John Steed, at his most basic, ruthless, driven level. All the polish and refinement that had glossed over the rough edges was mostly just that—gloss—and there was something strangely comforting about knowing that Steed, if he had to, could revert back to his previous existence, that the clothes, and cars, and champagne were perks, not crutches. It was what made him unbribable, why the enemy had tried and failed to turn him to the other side. Because John Steed job lived to serve his country, and the people in it, and he did so with a drive that was almost frightening, and would have continued to do so even if he'd never ascended the Ministry ranks, even if he'd occupied that mac for the whole of the past seventeen years.
Gambit didn't know what Steed had done to survive, either. Somehow, he doubted Steed had been working—knowing him, he probably had caches of money, passports, and heaven knew what else stashed all over the country that he could tap into if the need arose. But even if he knew how to live, and had funds to back him up, that didn't mean that their ordeal had left him unaffected. He had creases in his face that were as deep as the cracks in Gambit's weather-beaten leather jacket, and the well-fitting mac only served to emphasise his noticeably thinner frame. He'd grayed his hair, or let it go gray, Gambit didn't know which, realising that he'd never thought to question whether the jet black waves were art or nature. Maybe the past six months had actually grayed him. Heaven knew the stress had been intense enough. There was no sign of the bowler or brolly, either, both ditched for deep cover, and Gambit wondered if he felt naked without them.
Steed shifted, as though he meant to speak, and Gambit snapped from his thoughts with a jolt. Purdey glanced up at them expectantly, but if Steed had meant to say something, the words died on his lips, and the blip of activity gave way once more to an uncomfortable silence. Gambit's mouth twisted in frustration. They'd forgotten how to have a real conversation, that was the problem. They'd become too used to having frantic, whispered exchanges in dingy flats and grotty alleys, about leads, and dark shadows, and suspicious faces. Pleasantries were a luxury they couldn't afford, as was a sense of humour. Now that the pressure was off, and they could interact freely, they didn't know how. Heaven knew how long it would be before their old group dynamic would reassert itself.
Gambit crossed his arms.
Purdey examined her nails.
Steed sucked his teeth
Gambit looked at Purdey.
Purdey said, "You look terrible with short hair."
From anyone else, it would be the most hurtful comment one could make after all they'd gone through. From Purdey, it was classic. The affectionate put-down repurposed as an icebreaker. Gambit felt his mouth quirk up at the sides in spite of himself. To his left, he could hear Steed's chuckle, which was soon joined by Purdey's own, and soon all three had dissolved in full-blown, borderline-hysterical, laughter, as all the fear, tension, stress, and uncertainty flowed out of the three agents, decompression writ large as it echoed down the hall. When McKay arrived for the debriefing, it took a full ten minutes to settle them down again. It was then that Gambit knew they were going to be just fine.