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. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.
Timeline: Ridiculously AU. Set sometime late in season 2. Honestly, it doesn't really matter because it's so far from being canonical.
Author's Note: Hello, there. After a very, very hectic past few months, I am trying to get back into writing again (or, more accurately, writing fic, as opposed to other things which are infinitely less exciting, but take priority). I've fallen way, way behind on ideas I want to get down, but I promise I haven't abandoned anything. So if you're wondering whether "Rough Diamond" will ever be updated again, the answer is "yes". If you're wondering about the state of the arc and if I'll ever get to the long-promised "'Til Death", the answer is also "yes". If you're wondering about the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, it's 42. If you understood that reference, award yourself 10 points.
Anyway, as I'm trying to catch up on several months of backlog in...well, pretty much everything, I thought I would post this in the interim. One of those mad ideas that tends to come to me when I'm stressed and exhausted, I just had to write it as soon as I got a spare moment. As I said above, it's ridiculously AU and silly to boot, but it was fun to write and hopefully fun to read. If you can work out the reason behind the in-jokey title, award yourself another ten points. Otherwise, it's explained at the end of the fic, to avoid spoilers.
The piece of paper Gambit slid across the coffee table when Steed turned round looked innocuous enough, but the senior agent knew better than to put much stock in appearances at that stage of his life. And it took only one glance at this particular example to know that it contained a lifetime's worth of secrets and mistakes.
"I should have thought that told you more than enough for one day," Steed murmured, returning the brandy glass he'd picked up with the intention of fixing Gambit and himself a drink to the sideboard. He'd thought there was something odd about Gambit's demeanour when he answered the door, a tightness of the jaw and intenseness of the gaze that should have told him this wasn't a social call. But Gambit was one of the few people on the planet Steed trusted enough to rule out his being "got at", so Steed had let it pass, certain in the knowledge that whatever it was would surface eventually, if it was important. Now it had. And it was definitely important.
"Where did you find that?" he inquired, more for something say, a way of delaying the inevitable, than anything else, but he was genuinely curious as well. There weren't very many places that particular document could be sourced, and none of them were very accessible, even to someone with Gambit's level of clearance.
"My personnel file," came the clipped reply, and then, when Steed looked ready to contradict, added, "the comprehensive one. The one I'm not supposed to see." That was true. There were two files on all Ministry personnel: the skeleton file, open to all operatives, recounting the pertinent vital statistics; and the comprehensive version, where every detail of an agent's life was documented and laid out for the benefit of the eyes of a few select Ministry officials, who would then comb through the myriad facts in order to determine whether or not there was a reason to question a would-be agent's loyalty. "You know Rogers used to be in the navy. I wanted to double-check my ports against his, make sure we never overlapped, so I could be sure he wouldn't recognise me when I went undercover," Gambit continued. "There's a new girl in the file room. She got her wires crossed and gave me the wrong one. And when I opened it up, I got a bit of a shock." He laughed, but there was no mirth in it. "Most people only have one birth certificate, but, lucky me, I have two. One of them I recognise, the one registered when I was just over a year old. It says my father's name was Alan Leonard Gambit. But there was another one, an older one, dated just days after I was born." Gambit swallowed hard, and Steed felt himself take an involuntary breath and hold it. "And that one said my father's name was John Steed." He met Steed's eyes, his own blazing. "So I'll say it again: Explain."
Steed leaned back against the sideboard with a sigh. There was no way of deflecting the request this time. "It's not terribly complicated," he began, passing a hand over his forehead. "It might be more palatable if it were. I wasn't much past twenty. It was the middle of the war. I was home on leave, but I'd seen too much to enjoy it. Much too much." He looked off in the distance at some long-buried, horrible memory and shuddered. "I went to a pub to drown my sorrows. Your mother was a barmaid. I was rather lost. She was very sympathetic, very kind..." Gambit's eyes squeezed shut, lips pursed in a tight grimace, and Steed paused, as though considering his next sentence carefully. "I suppose you can work it out from there."
Gambit nodded once, curtly. "I can figure it out without all the gory details." He took a moment, and Steed let him have it, let him process the enormity of it all. It really was the least he could do.
Moments, maybe minutes later—it was difficult to tell—Gambit's eyes opened again, remarkably clear despite what he'd just learned. "And you never saw her again?" he wanted to know.
Steed shook his head. "I'm afraid not, though not for lack of trying. The next time I was in the area, I stopped in at the same pub. The landlord told me she'd married in the interim, presumably to Captain Gambit. I had no desire to interfere, so that was that. Had I known there was a child involved, I certainly would have done more."
"But you didn't know." Gambit's voice had gone suddenly hoarse, as though he was swallowing tears that hadn't surfaced.
"But you know now." Gambit licked dry lips. "So what I want to know is—how long?"
Steed sucked in a deep breath. He'd known this was coming, even though he'd fervently wished it wouldn't. Still, there was no avoiding it now. "I'd no idea until McKay told me. You know as well as I that I don't have access to your comprehensive file. If he hadn't confided in me, I'd still be as ignorant as you were until today."
"How long?" Gambit pressed.
"Not right away," Steed minimised. "Not when we met, certainly. McKay bided his time. I'm sure he wanted to see how we got on before he risked it. You know Tommy. Always playing the long game."
"I don't care about McKay," Gambit cut in, patience quickly wearing thin. "Not now. All I'm asking for is a straight answer. I think I'm owed that much."
"Of course you are."
"Then tell me. How long have you known?"
The last thing Steed wanted to do was meet the younger man's eyes, but he did it anyway. Only a coward would try to hide now. "About four months after our first assignment," he said levelly. "September, 1975. Just after your clamour back over the Wall."
For the first time since he'd arrived, Gambit looked completely blind-sided. He'd presumably had enough time to get over the initial shock of the revelation on the drive out to the country, but Steed could tell he hadn't expected this. "September of '75?" he repeated, incredulous. "That long?"
Steed gifted him with a half-hearted shrug. A fact was a fact. Dressing it up wouldn't change it.
"Bloody hell." Gambit passed a hand over his face, suddenly pale. "That's—that's two years ago." He shook his head in disbelief. "And after all that time, it never occurred to you to say something?"
"Of course it did!" Steed exclaimed. "The moment I was told. But it wasn't that simple. There were extenuating circumstances."
Gambit looked sceptical. "Like what?"
"Well, you were lying unconscious in a hospital bed at the time," Steed pointed out mildly.
But Gambit was having none of it. "And what about when I woke up?"
Steed seemed alarmed at the prospect. "You'd been shot three times. I rather thought the last thing you needed at that particular point in time was another shock to the system."
"Or you were worried I'd strangle you with one of my IV tubes," Gambit shot back uncharitably. "I wondered why you were so interested in sitting at my bedside. I thought it was because we'd been partners long enough that you actually gave a damn." His mouth twisted angrily. "But you were probably taking advantage of the opportunity to stare at me without me noticing, work out where all your genes popped up."
Steed shook his head vehemently. "No, it wasn't that. I was worried. Genuinely."
"Then why didn't you tell me?" Gambit repeated. "Didn't you think I deserved to know?"
"Of course I did. But it's not the sort of thing you spring on a chap without warning. It requires careful handling."
"And you expect me to believe that you haven't been able to come up with one, not one, situation where you could have broken it to me gently?" It was Gambit's turn to shake his head. "No, no, there's something else. There always is where John Steed's involved. So come on. What was it?"
"Nothing," Steed asserted. "It wasn't the right time, and I thought you—we-were better off without me confiding. We were working well together. I was in the early stages of considering adding a third member to our team. I thought it would be an unnecessary distraction."
"No." Gambit was advancing on him with slow, deliberate steps, closing the gap between them. "No, that's not it. Not completely." He stopped inches short of where Steed still stood, rooted to the spot near the sideboard. "And I think I know what your reasoning was. And McKay's. It was never about keeping me in the dark for my own good, was it? It was because the two of you wanted to see how I'd turn out. An experiment. John Steed's genes without his background. Was there enough there to build another agent just as good, or so close it made no odds." He searched Steed's face, seeking a sign he was wrong. "Tell me there wasn't any of that. Tell me you didn't want to see what I could do under your tutelage, with you guiding me this way and that." He was getting more worked up by the moment, his shoulders heaving angrily. "Tell me you didn't bring Purdey on because you always worked best with a woman, and you wanted to see if I was the same. Tell me you weren't trying to see if you could create another Steed and Peel to live on after you were taken out of the field." His eyes were angry, but desperate. "Tell me! Tell me you didn't keep it quiet because you were curious!"
Steed was speechless for a moment. He could feel Gambit's pent-up rage radiate off of him, knew if he lied the younger man would know it in an instant. He took a deep breath, and gave the answer that he thought was the most honest, while still leaving himself some breathing space. "Not entirely..."
"Bastard!" Gambit's fist came out of nowhere, connecting with Steed's jaw hard enough to send him spinning. Steed had always assumed that, despite Gambit's extensive training in the martial arts, he would always come out on top in the unlikely event they were forced to face each other. The fact that he'd managed to incapacitate Gambit during the unfortunate series of events which followed Purdey's kidnapping had only served to reinforce that assumption. But what he'd failed to take into account at the time was that, on that previous occasion, Gambit hadn't wanted to fight. He had seen it in the younger man's eyes, the mix of guilt and shaken trust. He knew he had to stop Steed, but he didn't want to, and because his heart wasn't in it, he didn't take the precautions he might have done with an enemy he was motivated to fight. That, combined with Steed's desperation to save Purdey, had more or less settled the outcome before the blow had been dealt. But today there was no such reticence. Today Gambit wanted to hit him, wanted it to hurt, and Steed was the one who had the motive to hold back. The boot was well and truly on the other foot. It probably wasn't surprising, then, that Gambit managed the very difficult task of catching Steed unawares, and there was no question the man knew how to throw a punch...
Steed toppled backward, slamming into the sideboard and knocking one of the many crystal decanters off its perch before both of them crashed to the floor. The decanter shattered into a thousand pieces, brandy spattering up the wall and across the floor, finely misting Steed's face in the process. Steed himself lay immobile for a moment, collecting his thoughts and his breath in turn, then used his right elbow to prop himself partly upright, back braced against the sideboard for support. He cast a wary eye toward the younger man, but he hadn't moved. Gambit's fists were clenching and unclenching angrily, and his jaw was working like mad, but he didn't seem inclined to follow his initial blow with another attack. Steed took that as a good sign, though he wasn't deluded enough to think they were out of the woods-they weren't, not by a long shot.
If the mood had been light enough to invite levity, Steed would have quipped that, strictly speaking, Gambit was the one who had been born out of wedlock, before allowing that, since Steed himself had to take more than a modicum of responsibility for that state of affairs, perhaps he ought to share the moniker as well. But they were miles away from light-hearted banter at that particular moment, so instead he inquired, "Feel better?"
"Not really," Gambit growled, though his honesty took Steed by surprise. Some of the fire had died in Gambit's eyes, and Steed thought he could detect a tinge of regret for his actions. Not enough that Gambit was going to apologise or help him up, though, so Steed set about picking himself up, fairly certain in the knowledge that Gambit wouldn't try to knock him down again.
"I trusted you," Gambit growled, watching Steed pull himself upright. "I told you I wouldn't play games. I told you I'd been screwed around before, and I wasn't looking to repeat that experience. I—" The words caught in his throat, and he took a moment to regain his composure. "Damn it, I told you about Africa, Steed. And you know better than anyone that that wasn't easy. So for you to hide this, knowing that." He shook his head, still disbelieving, still floored by the sheer enormity of the betrayal. "I don't know how you did it, and I don't think I want to."
"It was wrong," Steed said flatly, straightening his cuffs, but not attempting to minimise the issue. "I knew it then as I do now. It was a mistake."
"Damn straight," Gambit snapped back. "It's bad enough on its own, but there's more, isn't there?" Steed clearly didn't follow, so Gambit elaborated. "I'm not like you, Steed. I didn't have your background. I had to work for what I got. All of it. I was never anyone's charity case. Or at least I thought I wasn't." He smiled crookedly, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I thought when the Ministry accepted me, it was down to my resume, that someone thought I had the makings of a halfway decent agent. I thought I earned my way in, and up. I thought I was inching my way up the ranks on my own merit, but it wasn't that, was it? It was my damn pedigree. McKay took one look at that-" He gestured angrily at the birth certificate, still resting innocently on the coffee table. "-and he let me in without a second thought, made sure I was put in all the right classes, nudged me along. Until he was ready to hand me off to you, and then you picked up where he left off." He shook his head one final time. "Well, I'd rather go where I know the promotions haven't been preordained, and I definitely don't want to stick around to be lied to anymore. You'll have my resignation by the end of the week." With that, he turned on his heel and started out of the room with a purposeful stride.
Steed hadn't been certain any protestations on his part would even be acknowledged by the younger man, and he was visibly relieved when Gambit stopped in his tracks, though he didn't turn round. He didn't think for a moment that Gambit was making idle threats, and he knew the next few minutes would be crucial if he was going to persuade him to stay. Gambit had flown under the radar long before his Ministry career, and Steed knew he'd now be even more skilled at keeping his whereabouts unknown given his training. If Gambit left and didn't want to be found, it was entirely likely he'd never see or hear from him again. He couldn't let that happen.
"While I can't fault your reasons for wanting to leave," Steed began, "and, quite honestly, I don't believe anyone could, I think you should reconsider before you do anything rash."
"Oh yes?" Gambit's laugh was scornful, but he still didn't turn around. "Give me one good reason."
"Well, the first one that comes to mind is Purdey," Steed began, making his way slowly toward Gambit. "It's rather unfair to her if she turns up to work in a few days' time and you've disappeared without a word to anyone."
Gambit whirled around angrily. "Don't you dare," he warned. "Don't you dare use Purdey as leverage against me. She's not a bloody bargaining chip. She deserves better than that."
"She does," Steed agreed levelly, stopping a few short steps away, but just out of punching range. He wasn't going to make that mistake again. "From both of us. I think I can safely say that's one thing we can agree on."
Gambit didn't have an answer to that, so Steed went on. "I know that you have no reason to trust a word I say at the moment, but you should know that I appreciate what it cost you to trust me. To tell me about Africa." Gambit closed his eyes, and Steed knew he was reliving unpleasant memories behind his eyelids. "And I never intended to betray the trust you placed in me. My intention in keeping this quiet was never to retain an upper hand, I promise you. I thought we had a good working relationship, and perhaps the makings of a friendship. Those are rare and precious commodities in this business, and I didn't want to risk them. It was selfish and it was wrong, I know, but then I never claimed I was a saint." Gambit actually smirked at that, and Steed, encouraged by the reaction, went on. "And as for earning your way, you should know better than anyone the requirements of the job. The Ministry is the last employer willing to put family ties above competence. If McKay hadn't thought you were agent material, he would never have let you anywhere near the field, regardless of your pedigree. And I certainly wouldn't have trusted you with my life in the field. Genetics are interesting and informative, but if I'm about to leap into the line of fire, I'd much rather the man covering me be one I can trust as opposed to one from my family tree. If anything, McKay and myself have held you to a higher standard when deciding whether to advance your career, not a lower one. I won't claim we weren't curious, but I had no intention of allowing it to turn me into the proverbial late cat."
Gambit regarded him expectantly. "Is that it?"
"No, as it happens. If it makes any difference at all, I want you to stay."
"As your son?"
Steed shook his head. "As my friend. I've lost more than my share over the years. I'd rather not add you to the pile."
"A friend? Is that even possible?"
"Gambit..." Steed thought it was safe to smile now, and he did. The crisis period was over. "By the time we met, we had led separate existences for more than thirty years. The time when I could have acted as your father in any meaningful capacity passed us by long ago. I've no idea whether that's a blessing or a curse, but there's nothing to be done about it now, so there's little point in dwelling on it. I fail to see how I can be anything more than a mentor at this stage. I don't deny blood counts for something, but I've known for a long time that you're more your mother's son than mine."
Gambit looked surprised at that, and somewhat hopeful. "Do you think so?"
"Unquestionably. Your loyalty, your honesty, your stubborn streak..." Steed paused, then added, with a small smile. "Your capacity to love, even in the face of somewhat adverse circumstances and rather mixed signals from the other side." Much to his amusement, Gambit flushed and ducked his head. "And while we're on that topic, even if you won't stay for my sake, do you think you're capable of walking away from Purdey?"
Gambit cleared his throat, but touches of scarlet lingered on his cheeks. "Speaking of Purdey, what do we tell her?" he asked, dodging the question, and given the circumstances, Steed thought it was prurient not to pursue it.
"We don't have to tell her anything at all," Steed replied, crossing to the living room mirror to examine his chin. "I'll leave that decision entirely to you. I promise not to breathe a word to anyone."
"Oh." Gambit looked surprised at that. "I thought..."
Steed turned away from the mirror and shook his head. "No one else knows this conversation took place. Nothing has to change."
"Yeah." Gambit stuck his hands in his pockets. "But it already has, hasn't it?"
Steed sighed and passed a hand over his forehead irritably. "I suppose it is a bit much to hope for, isn't it?"
Gambit's grin was perhaps the most welcome thing Steed had seen in years. "Just a bit," he agreed, humour bleeding through the understatement.
Steed chuckled a little in return. "Well, then, what do you propose?"
"A few things," Gambit began, smile fading as he turned serious. "First off, I'm not changing my name. I'm not a Steed. I wasn't born one, I wasn't raised one, and I won't die one. As far as I'm concerned, Alan Gambit was my father, and I'm not going to push him aside just because someone new turned up."
Steed nodded. "I understand. I would never ask you to discard the man who raised you."
"And I'm definitely not calling you 'dad,'" Gambit went on, wryly. "Not unless you're on your deathbed, anyway, and I'm not even sure about that."
Steed shuddered melodramatically. "Perish the thought. Is that all?"
"Just about." Gambit's expression turned grave. "One more thing. Seeing as I'm your long-lost heir, I figure I'm owed a pretty sizeable trust fund. And since I turned twenty-one thirteen years ago, there should be one hell of a lot of back-dated interest owed on the principal, so I hope you've been saving."
Steed's jaw dropped at the request, and his eyebrows shot upward in shock. Of all the ways he'd imagined this conversation unfolding, he'd never once pegged Gambit as the sort to go after his money. He was rather disappointed in spite of himself. But then Gambit's stoic face crumpled as the younger man broke into peals of uncontrollable laughter, and Steed realised he'd been well and truly had.
"I can't believe you fell for that!" Gambit roared, bent double, hands braced on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. There was a slightly manic quality to his laughter, as though he was releasing some of the pent-up tension he'd accumulated throughout the day. "Steed, your face!"
Steed joined in, his laughter just a touch manic as well, and for a minute or two the big house echoed with gales of laughter as the absurdity of it all settled upon the two men within its walls. By the time they'd both managed to catch their breaths, the moment for grudges and ill-will had passed, and both men straightened up from clutching their sides, and regarded one another with something approaching their usual mixture of camaraderie and mutual respect.
"Well," Steed began, when he could trust his voice, "are you going to tell Purdey?"
Gambit wiped away tears of mirth and shrugged. "I don't know. I'll have to think on it. It could go two ways with Purdey. Either she'll throw a fit, and won't speak to either of us for a week..." He met Steed's eyes, inviting him to complete the thought.
"Or she'll claim she's known all along, and chastise us for not working it out sooner," Steed finished, and the two men exchanged knowing glances. Never mind the shared genes. Negotiating the inner workings of Purdey's mind had probably forged a stronger bond between them than could ever be cultivated by a lifetime of father-son outings.
Gambit indicated Steed's chin, by this point darkening into one livid purple bruise. "You should ice that."
Steed probed the injured area gingerly, and winced. "I think you're right."
So it was that, when Purdey arrived at the stud farm ten minutes later, noticed the XJS in the front drive, and let herself in, she was amazed to find Steed reclining in an armchair, holding an icepack to his chin, and Gambit on his hands and knees cleaning up the remains of a shattered decanter from the floor. She looked from to the other in bemusement. "What on earth have you two been up to?"
"Oh, this and that," Steed said cheerfully. "What brings you here, Purdey?"
Purdey crossed her arms in annoyance. "Gambit and I were supposed to be researching our current assignment today," she informed. "Only he never turned up, and then I heard he'd left looking rather pale." She shot a look at Gambit, as though chastising him for looking entirely too healthy for his own good. "And when I went to his flat, he was nowhere to be found. I checked the local hospital before it occurred to me he may have come here." She nodded at the ice pack. "What happened to your chin?" she wanted to know.
"Oh, this?" Steed's expression was one of studied, cheerful nonchalance. "I'm afraid one the horses brought his head up unexpectedly during grooming. Terribly careless of me. I should have been paying closer attention."
"Mmm-hmm," Purdey replied, unconvinced. She turned to Gambit, who had just finished picking all the shards of glass up off the floor. "And I suppose you punched that decanter in a fit of rage?" She was eyeing the reddening bruise on Gambit's knuckles appraisingly.
"Er, something like that," Gambit managed, picking up the bin in which he'd been depositing the glass as he stood up. "Sorry to leave you in the lurch. Something came up, and I needed to consult Steed."
"I see. And I suppose you can't tell me what it's about?"
Gambit and Steed exchanged glances, before Gambit returned his attention to her. "Well, we talked about it, and it turns out it's not something we need to worry about after all."
Purdey was getting annoyed now. "Mike Gambit, if you think that's going to put me off..."
"Sorry, Purdey, no time to chat. It'll be my fault if I leave that brandy there long enough to stain." And with that, Gambit beat a hasty retreat for the kitchen. Purdey's eyes flashed dangerously as she turned to Steed.
"Sometimes," she said angrily, "I think the pair of you really are the most infuriating men on the planet," she snapped, then stalked off to where Gambit was no doubt making a show of trying to find a mop. "Mike Gambit!"
Steed held the icepack away from his chin, and probed the bruise. "Well, perhaps it's a family trait," he murmured to himself, and grinned.
Author's Note: In the seventies, a British band called Chicory Tip had a hit called "Son of My Father," hence the title. It seemed really clever when I thought of it at three in the morning...