John, I'm Only Dancing
By J. Ferguson a.k.a. Timeless A-Peel
Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor any of the associated characters. They belong to The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. I don't own The Avengers, either, or any of its characters. They belong to Canal+ (Image) International. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's Note: This is all Dandy's fault.
Chatting about the finale of Ashes to Ashes on The Avengers Fan Forum, member Dandy Forsdyke posed an interesting theory about Avengerland and its possible similarities to the world featured in the TV series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. This got me thinking about what that universe would mean for the series' characters, and as is so often the case with these ideas, once I get stuck on something, it's hard for me to let it go until I've written a story for it. One month later, I ended up with a fairly long, slightly strange character piece, which I finally feel ready to post. No prizes for realising it's meant to be very AU, but it provided me with yet another opportunity to look at the series through a different lens. It's also possibly the most Steedcentric piece I've ever written, after years of focussing on Purdey and Gambit, which made it challenging in itself. All in all, it's been a fun experiment.
The story is too long to post in one go, so I shall try to update in a timely fashion.
Credit for the original idea goes to Dandy Forsdyke. I hope both he and you enjoy it.
Mild Spoiler Warning: For those who have yet to see the final episode of Ashes to Ashes. This story gives away the final twist. The title is from another Bowie track, naturally.
The scream was piercing. Gambit, just in the front door, bolted for the source without a moment's thought, drawing his gun in the process. Steed's study door barely put up a fight against his booted foot as it slammed into the woodwork, and he was inside in seconds, gun seeking a target, eyes alert for an intruder. But all he could see was the end of a piece of film being whipped round and round as it turned uselessly in a film projector, and Purdey crumpled on the floor, weeping.
"Purdey!" Gambit exclaimed, moving to her side, eyes still scanning for a trap. He dropped into a crouch beside her, rested a hand on her quivering shoulder. The room wasn't overly large, and there was no place to hide, no way to escape without running into him on the way out. He relaxed, slightly, and eased the safety back into place on his gun, returned it to the shoulder holster. It was only then, with both hands free, that he took Purdey by the shoulders, gently lifted her until he could see her face. "Purdey," he repeated, quieter this time, faced etched with concern. "Purdey, what happened? What's wrong?"
She was looking at him, but her eyes weren't seeing. They stared beyond him at some horror he couldn't comprehend. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, and her lips quivered soundlessly. Gambit was deeply concerned. Never in all the days he had known her had he seen her quite like this. Purdey was made of stern stuff, and the few times something had managed to crack the facade, she may have screamed, or cried, or raved at the world, but he'd never seen her reduced to this, a mute, trembling shell of a woman, incapable of hearing, seeing, connecting with the world in any way. "Purdey..." he tried again, stroking her hair, willing her to connect with him, feeling helpless in the face of terror and fear and hating it immensely. "Oh, Purdey, what's happened to you?"
Her eyes flickered, just slightly, and suddenly she seemed to realise he was there, and her hand shot out and gripped his arm. "He killed me," she whispered.
Gambit felt his brown furrow in confusion. "What? Killed you? Purdey, you're not making sense. You're here. You're alive."
"No," Purdey sobbed, head shaking from side to side frantically. "No, I'm not. I'm dead, and he killed me."
"Who killed you? Purdey, you're not making sense."
"He did." Purdey pointed an accusing finger at the film projector. "He did it. You watch. You'll see."
Gambit looked over his shoulder at the projector, still turning uselessly, the film flapping with each rotation. "You watched a film?" he queried, returning his attention to her. "Purdey, whatever it was, it wasn't real."
"It is real," Purdey hissed, grabbing a handful of his lapel and pulling him close. "I know it is. Watch it and you'll know it is, too."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea. Here, we'll get you something to drink, and then you can have a lie down until you calm—"
"Watch it!" Purdey ordered, pulling away and standing, staggering over to brace herself against the wall. "Watch it and you'll see."
He could tell she wasn't going to cooperate until he did, so he backed away carefully, keeping one eye on her while using the other to set the projector back up again. It took a moment, but when he finished, she was showing no sign of changing her mind, so he switched it on, and let the film play.
It opened on a flat, or at least he thought it was a flat. The view he was getting didn't make it clear. What was clear was the identity of the single occupant: Purdey. But not his Purdey, not the woman standing in the room with him, watching this unfold for the second time. No, this was a younger Purdey, early twenties at the oldest. She was still beautiful, though he thought the years had allowed her to blossom to her full potential. Her face was softer, more youthful, her hair grown long and lightly curled. She was packing a pair of suitcases with the frantic, desperate movements of someone who wanted to run away and hoped the world never caught up with her. She was clearly distraught, sobbing and periodically scrubbing at her tear-stained cheeks. Despite her unfamiliar appearance, Gambit was still entranced by her, instinctively wanted to draw her close and ask her what was wrong, just as he had moments earlier.
A door banged open and broke the spell, and young Purdey's head snapped up in surprise. Gambit recognised the visitor, too, felt his eyes narrow automatically.
"Doomer," he spat, and behind him Purdey made a little noise. He meant to ask her if he should stop the film, but he was already too deeply invested in what was going on to quit now, and Purdey didn't ask. Instead, her younger self positively identified the man framed in her doorway with a startled gasp.
Larry closed the door behind him, stalked toward her. Purdey was shaking, but she held her ground, clutching the shirt she had been taking to the suitcase in a white-knuckled fist. Doomer stopped a few paces from her, trembling with rage. "You've ruined everything!" he bellowed, pointing an accusing finger at her. "I had a clear shot! That was my only chance, and you took it away from me."
"I saved you!" Purdey shot back. "If you killed him, his security would have been on you in an instant. You would have ended up in prison. I couldn't let that happen."
"I knew the risks!" Larry bellowed. "I had an escape route planned. They never would have caught me. We would have been married, and you would never have been the wiser. But no, you had to put your oar in. I may never have another chance."
Married? Gambit realised for the first time that the hand clutching the shirt had a ring on it. Purdey was engaged? To Doomer of all people? She'd never mentioned it before. Then again, he didn't have any reason to think this was real, whatever it was, though it certainly seemed genuine...
"That's just as well," Purdey declared, then softened, seemed to change her approach. "Larry, I know how you feel. My father was shot and killed four years ago. I know how much it hurts, how you want to do something, anything, to make the pain go away, no matter how irrational. But it doesn't solve anything. I have no idea who killed my father, but killing him wouldn't bring that wonderful man back. And the same goes for the Emir. Larry, your father wouldn't have wanted you to get yourself in trouble because of what happened to him."
Larry shook his head. "You didn't know my father, Purdey. Not like I did. And you had no right to stop me. Do you hear me? NO RIGHT!"
Purdey took a step back. Run, Gambit mentally urged. Run before he drags you to hell with him.
"You're not thinking clearly," Purdey said calmly, but Gambit could hear the tremor in her voice. She edged over to her suitcase, put the shirt she was holding in it. "You need some time. You're angry, and I understand that. I'm going to my mother's, and when you're ready, we can talk about what happened."
Larry was gaping at her in disbelief. "You're leaving me?"
"We need some time apart," Purdey said sensibly, closing the suitcase and snapping the latches shut. "We can't discuss anything properly until we've both calmed down."
"You can't leave me," Larry growled at her. "No one leaves me. Not unless I say so."
"No! You ruined everything, and now you're going to walk away? No, you're not going anywhere." Larry clawed at the hem of his jacket, and Gambit's instincts kicked into high gear. Get out, get out, GET OUT!
Purdey's eyes widened when she saw the gun. She stumbled back into the wall, desperately trying to get as far away from the weapon as she could, but there was nowhere for her to go. She was trapped.
Larry was holding the weapon with a surety that was terrifying. "No one leaves me," he said quite calmly. "Least of all you."
The gun went off, and Purdey screamed, and Gambit didn't know if it was the Purdey on the film or the one in the room with him, or both, because it seemed to come from everywhere. And then he could see the bullet hole in her chest, close to her heart. Could see that it was fatal. Could see the blood. All the blood. Flowing out onto her blouse, turning white to red. And then she was sinking, falling, sliding down the wall to slump to the floor, blue eyes wide with shock and disbelief, and still fixed on Larry. Her arms fell limply to her sides, legs sprawling untidily over the floor. Her lips moved wordlessly in a plea for help, but the breath had been chased from her body, and she was mute. Gambit could feel his heart racing, felt as though his very soul had been ripped from his body, and torn to shreds before his very eyes. This was impossible, and terrible, and heart-breaking, and everything that shouldn't be. Purdey, young and beautiful and dying before his eyes. And the blood. So much blood. He reached out a hand to wipe it away, willing it to be untrue. But the light was dying in Purdey's eyes, along with the rest of her, and Gambit watched it fade, watched it go out, watched her crumple to one side like a discarded rag doll. Watched Larry lower the gun with trembling hands, tears in his eyes. Watched him turn it on himself, pull the trigger...
Gambit squeezed his eyes shut and recoiled bodily as the gun fired for the second, and last, time. He hated Doomer more than ever now, but after what he'd just seen, he didn't need to watch another bloody end to a life.
The film ended abruptly, and Gambit heard the projector roll on with the loose end flapping freely once more. He reached out and switched it off automatically, unsure of what to do. What he'd just seen was impossible, and yet, it was so vividly real that he believed it. He knew it was true, somewhere deep down in his soul, no matter how much he tried to fight it. He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. He wanted to be violently sick. The last one was seeming more and more like the most likely option. He wondered absently if he'd be able to find Steed's wastepaper basket in time.
"I found it in here." Purdey's words startled him out of his thoughts, and he turned to her with haunted eyes, half-expecting her dress to be stained crimson. She was still braced against the wall, arms hugged across her chest.
"The film?" he rasped, mouth suddenly dry.
She nodded. "I was looking for Steed, but he wasn't in. He had a box." She pointed at the desk with her chin. "That box, sitting open on the surface. I looked inside. I thought it might be to do with our latest assignment. But it was filled with film canisters, and they were all labelled with names. One of them was labelled with mine."
"So you watched it," Gambit finished. "Purdey, what the hell is it? And why does Steed have it?"
"I don't know," Purdey confessed. "But whatever it is, I know that everything it showed happened. I can feel it. And what's worse, I can remember it, Mike." She bit her lip, and fresh tears started flowing. "I remember it as though it happened yesterday. I know Larry killed me. And that means I'm dead and some sort of...ghost. Or I don't know what. But that happened. I can't deny it."
Gambit was breathing hard. None of this made sense, but he knew Purdey wouldn't make this sort of thing up. If she said she remembered, he believed her. The question was, where did that leave them?
"Steed'll have answers," he murmured, locking eyes with her. "He has to. They're his films."
"You would hope so," Purdey agreed, without much enthusiasm. "Though it hardly matters at this point. I'm already dead."
"Purdey, don't say that..."
"Why? It's true," she said sadly. "And what's worse..." She trailed off, shook her head. "No, never mind."
Gambit felt his eyes narrow. "What?"
"Purdey, what are you keeping from me? Whatever it is, it can't be worse than what we've just seen!"
"I think it may be," Purdey murmured.
"I'll decide that for myself," Gambit declared. "Purdey, I think we're past secrets at this point."
Purdey sighed, then nodded. "You have a right to know, I suppose."
"A right to know what?" Gambit was getting impatient now.
Purdey met his eyes, and her voice trembled as she spoke. "There's another film in that box, Mike. And it has your name on it."
Gambit froze, felt the box on the desk draw his gaze. "In there?" he murmured, eyeing it uneasily.
"Yes," Purdey confirmed. "I was going to look at it after I watched mine, before I knew what it was."
Gambit rummaged in the box, extracted the canister. It looked innocuous enough—plain and gray, with the name 'GAMBIT' scrawled in felt tip across a piece of masking tape. Heart pounding, he opened it, removed the film. Purdey watched his warily.
"Are you going to watch it?" she wanted to know.
"I think I have to," Gambit confirmed, going to the projector and carefully removing Purdey's film from the machine. "Even if I don't, I'll end up imagining the worst, and my imagination is pretty damn vivid."
"Do you want me to leave?" she offered, voice hoarse from crying. "If you don't want me to see it, I understand."
"No, you can stay," Gambit said flatly. "You showed me yours. It's only fair. Anyway, I could probably use a friend when it's all over." He glanced over his shoulder at her. "Unless you think you've seen enough for one day."
Purdey shook her head, wiped her eyes on her sleeve. "No, I'll stay."
Gambit nodded once, curtly, then turned back to put the finishing touches on the film. When he finished, he started the projector up once more, stepped back, and watched.
The screen flickered, then resolved into an image. It was him. Or him as he had been a million years ago. Young, barely 21, and fresh from the Navy, unsure of what to do next. Ducking through dark side streets he remembered from his youth, on his way back to the grotty little room he was renting. And suddenly there was a scream, and he knew somewhere in the back of his mind that it was a girl's scream, and that she was being mugged and heaven knew what else if someone didn't help her. There was no one else nearby, no one who would rush to her aid. He knew that. He knew it then and he knew it now. What choice did he have but to help her?
Gambit watched events unfold with a grim resignation, mentally retrieving each frame a fraction of a second before it flashed onscreen. And so he remembered that there were three of them, remembered the fight that ensued, remembered the girl scrabbling away. And then suddenly the glint of a knife appeared onscreen, and he watched it connect with his side, watched it withdraw, and saw—
The blood. Warm and sticky and slick on his fingers as he pressed a hand to the wound, felt his legs give out, heard the laughter of his assailants as they left him to his fate. He could smell the night air, unusually hot and humid, even for this time of year. Could taste the beer on his lips that he'd drunk only a quarter of an hour before. Could hear the distant whoosh of late night London traffic. He wanted to call for help, but there was no one to hear him, he knew. No one knew to help the girl, except himself. And there was no way he could ride to his own rescue.
The weakness was setting in, and with it his ability to crawl somewhere, anywhere, for help. He didn't want to die. He really didn't. He was scared. The tears running down his cheeks were testament to that, and the strange, strangled noises his throat was making. But he also was smart enough to know when he was beat, when the odds were against him. And he wanted to sleep. More than he'd ever wanted in his life. So he let his eyes slide closed. Saw the world fade to black, heard the sounds of the traffic grow ever more distant, until they were so far away that he stopped feeling the blood and the pain and the fear, until he knew nothing. Nothing at all...
"Is it...?" Purdey's voice came to him as if through a dream.
"Yes," he confirmed automatically.
"Remember? Yes." He stood stiff and unmoving, locked in place, unable to break the hold the screen had over him, even if it had finished giving up its dark secrets. He felt a strange disconnect between his mind and his body, the former reeling from the sheer enormity of the revelations, the latter seemingly in stasis, resigned to immobility until he chose to engage it once more. "I wanted to do the right thing," he whispered, suddenly aware of Purdey by his side. He turned childlike eyes on her—serious, sombre, earnest-trying to make her understand. "I wasn't trying to be a hero," he said with feeling, desperate to explain the actions of his younger self for reasons he didn't even understand. "I thought someone should help her. I was the only one there. That's all. That's all I was trying to do."
Purdey nodded. "I know," she said softly, laying a hand on his arm. "I know. What do we do now?"
The sound of a door slamming had them both looking at the study door. Gambit pulled away from her, moved to collect the pair of film canisters lying discarded on the desk. "We get answers," he said grimly, striding purposefully out of the room. Purdey drifted in his wake, feeling like the ghost she was as they travelled down the silent halls.
Steed was depositing his bowler and brolly on the dining room table when they entered. He looked up, flashed them a cheery smile. "Ah, Purdey, Gambit, I didn't expect you until tomorrow. Your enthusiasm knows no bounds."
"Today it does," Gambit snapped back, tossing the canisters on the coffee table with barely-contained ire. "What the hell are these?"
For perhaps the first time since they had become acquainted, Steed looked genuinely flustered. His gaze settled on the canisters, and his mouth pressed into a thin line. Gambit thought the man looked stricken at the sight of them, but was somehow unable to take any pleasure from having the upper hand for once. This wasn't an advantage anyone would relish.
"Where did you find those?" Steed asked carefully.
"Your study," Gambit replied.
"Did you watch them? Yes, of course you did." Steed rubbed his hands together distractedly, expression one of self-chastisement. "I suppose you'd like an explanation."
"It would help," Gambit said curtly. "Not every day you stumble across your own personal snuff film."
"No, indeed. I expect you'll want to know where I got them," Steed said with a sigh.
"And why we remember them." The two men had almost forgotten about Purdey, huddled near the fireplace, still hugging herself as though trying to ward off a chill she couldn't shake. "Why I remember Larry killing me, even though I wouldn't have an hour ago."
"There are answers to all of those questions, and I'll gladly give them," Steed promised, crossing into the living room and gesturing to the furniture. "You should sit down."
Purdey and Gambit exchanged glances, but did as they were told. Purdey half-sat, half-collapsed onto the couch. Gambit opted for one of the armchairs, leaving Steed to take the other. He sat for a moment, trying to work out how best to begin, but finally settled on a straightforward approach. They'd seen the films, after all. There was very little he could say to top them.
"You remember what happened in those films because those events happened," Steed explained sadly.
Purdey looked at him uncomprehendingly. "But...but we died in them. How can that be? We're not dead!" She looked from Steed to Gambit and back again. "Are we?"
"I'm afraid so," Steed confirmed. He heard Gambit's sharp intake of breath, saw Purdey's white knuckles as she clenched the couch cushions in an iron grip, and yet felt strangely detached from the situation. He'd done this heaven knew how many times. Adding Purdey and Gambit to the list was something he'd resigned himself to ages ago, but he hadn't expected to do the deed so soon. If he let himself feel what he ought to be feeling just now, he knew he wouldn't be in any state to answer the questions he knew were coming.
"If we're dead," Gambit said slowly, eyes on a patch of the floor a few feet from where he sat, breaking Steed's train of thought and jerking Purdey out of her nearly catatonic state, "does that make this place...heaven?"
The word was almost childlike, and Steed realised Gambit sounded painfully young all of the sudden, was reminded of how old Gambit had been when he died. 21. Barely older than Steed himself. "Not exactly," he contradicted gently. "Heaven, or whatever you may wish to call it, is another plane of existence beyond what we have here. One needs to cross over to reach it. This place is a stopping point along the way, a place for people with unfinished business to live the lives and make the choices they were deprived the chance to make."
"So it's not real?" Purdey murmured. "None of it."
"It's very real," Steed said seriously. "Perhaps more so than the place we were born. Everything is significant here. Everything matters. Every choice. Every action. And especially death."
Purdey's eyes widened. "What could possibly happen the second time around that didn't the first?"
"I'd rather not explain when you're still in shock," Steed said darkly. "All you need know at this juncture is that, while it may not be the original England, it still needs protecting, still needs people like you to fight for the right side, keep other, less honourably intentioned souls from causing chaos."
Gambit's jaw was working anxiously. "Does that mean everyone else here is...?"
"Dead," Steed confirmed. "Yes."
Purdey's eyes were tearing up again. "Even you?"
Steed smiled at her, but there was no joy in it. "Even me, my dear."
Gambit took the news with much more equanimity. "And how did that happen, if you're in a sharing mood?"
"1942," came the blunt reply. "I was 20. The war, you know. I was promoted to Major post-humously."
"Right. I should have seen that coming." Behind the impassive exterior, Steed could see the cracks forming, and he knew Gambit was going to need a moment to absorb it all. And Purdey. Well, Purdey was going to need more than a moment, that much was certain.
As if to prove his point, the girl flung herself off the couch and started to pace the room. "How can you two be so sanguine about it all? Everyone's dead? Everyone?"
"As far as I know," Steed confirmed.
Purdey stopped, eyes locked on her own reflection in the mirror above the mantelpiece. "Even my mother?" she asked, in a heartbreakingly small voice.
Gambit's head snapped up in concern, and Steed felt a knot form in his stomach. "I...suppose so. She must be."
"And Uncle Elly? And my step-father?" Purdey went on, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
"I'm afraid so."
"That I don't know. I never had occasion to find out."
She turned to face him, crossed her arms tightly over her chest. "And my father?"
Steed sighed. "He's certainly not here any longer. I presume he crossed over a long time ago."
"Suppose that goes for my parents, too," Gambit mused, shifting to rest his elbows on his knees. "They're not here, and neither is Gran. Just my aunt." He scrubbed his face with his hands. "That means she's dead, too."
"Why didn't I remember it?" Purdey wanted to know. "Dying. It seems so clear now. How could I possibly forget that until now?"
Steed shrugged. "The memories fade the longer you stay. For a short period, you're very confused, incapable of accepting what's happened. Then, slowly, you begin to forget, to reconcile your last life with this one. You form a chain of events in your mind that makes sense to you. Two to three years seems to be the length of time needed to make a full conversion. The mind is very good at papering over the cracks. Only evidence of your untimely demise will reveal the cracks for what they are."
"How do you remember, then?" Purdey pushed. "And how do you know what happened to us? And why on earth didn't you tell us?"
"Because you chose to stay, didn't you?" Gambit cut in, levelling his gaze at Steed. "That bloody-mindedness and sense of duty of yours wouldn't let you go quietly."
Steed smirked at the incisiveness of the younger man's remarks. "I've taught you well, Gambit."
"Don't get smug. I know you is all," Gambit shot back. "Including what a stubborn bastard you can be. Even death wasn't going to keep you from your job."
Steed grinned in spite of himself. "Yes, I suppose there was a measure of stubbornness to it. Or a sense of responsibility. Hardly matters at this stage. The point is that my unfinished business was to serve my country, and I was going to stay on to do it. There are others like me. They have sources, ways of accessing the films. Strictly speaking they're the property of the other side, but we find a way to liberate them." His face turned serious. "In the wrong hands they can be very dangerous. They can be used to lead people to some very dark places. I view my own to remind myself why I'm here." He paused, and Gambit could see that even the admission was costing him, knew that Steed was seeing his own death flash before his mind's eye. "We're allowed to stay on, allowed recruit other people to keep things in order. But eventually everyone has to be given the option to leave. Part of my job is to send the people I use on. Before someone else does. And that requires having the films, and watching them. And sometimes passing them on to their rightful owners."
"Which we are," Purdey asserted, hurt etched across her features. "You had those, you watched them, you knew about Larry, and you had me face him anyway?"
"I had to," Steed murmured. "Purdey, you must understand—Larry was part of your unfinished business. Part of the reason you were here. I could help you, but I couldn't interfere, not until it put lives at risk. If I'd told you, if I'd kept you from Larry, I'd have been going against the rules."
"You always go against the rules!" Purdey screamed. "That's what you do!"
"Not that rule," Steed said sharply. "Never that rule."
"Heard that before," Gambit muttered, and Steed turned his penetrating gaze on him.
"There are powers beyond me, Gambit. Powers that even I don't dare trifle with. Ministry guidelines are one thing. The very laws of the universe are quite another."
Gambit's mouth twisted. "Did the universe tell you when to let us in on the secret?" he shot back. "Or were you planning on sitting on it until we outlived our usefulness?"
"I wanted you to say," Steed admitted, voice level. "I planned on your staying here, working with me, for at least another year or two. Then I was going to let you leave, live your lives as you saw fit, until it became too risky. That's when I would have told you. After you'd had a chance to live, for at least a little longer." He settled back in his armchair with a sigh. "I thought you deserved that much. Everyone does."
Gambit pursed his lips, but didn't answer, shamed slightly by the senior agent's words.
"But now that you know, I have to offer you the choice to leave, of course," Steed went on. "It's only fair. It's a difficult decision, not one to be taken lightly." He glanced at the clock. "I have to go soon. The reason the films were out to begin with was because I have a meeting with another person who needs to be told the truth. And given the choice." He looked back at his two colleagues. "I'll be back later this evening. And if you want to cross over then, I'll take you where you need to be."
Gambit nodded once, curtly, in understanding, stood, and crossed to where Purdey was still standing, looking lost. "Come on, Purdey," he said quietly, taking her elbow. "We're going."
Purdey blinked as though coming out of a daze. "Going? Going where?"
"For a drive. The hell away from here," Gambit replied, steering her toward the door.
"But...but all of this, it's—"
"It'll be easier to digest if we get out of here and get some air," Gambit cut in. "Clear our heads." He glanced over his shoulder at Steed. "We'll be back when we have an answer."
Steed inclined his head. "Take your time."
Gambit laughed, one staccato burst. "We will. We've got plenty of it." And then they were gone.
Steed stood and retrieved his bowler and brolly from the dining room table. "But never quite enough in the end," he said softly to himself. "Never enough."