Fresh Snow

Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor any of the associated characters. They belong to The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. Sara Lynley is mine, and may not be used without permission. This story is written for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.

Timeline: Pre-series. Set on January 2, 1973.

Author's Note: A winter fic I thought I'd post given the season. A bit of a prequel to the series, it fills in a few of the blanks regarding the "wilderness years" between the original series and TNA. I recommend reading it with a hot beverage to hand.

Lots of writing going on, and I've set myself the goal of starting to post the next installation of my arc in the New Year. Until then, I hope you enjoy this.

It was snowing gently outside, but when Mike Gambit sat bolt upright in his bed, it may as well have been as hot as the Sahara. His heaving chest glistened with sweat, trickling into the hollow of his throat, and forming a pool deep enough to submerge the St. Christopher that rested there. Gambit's eyes flicked around the room erratically for a moment of two, before he recovered the presence of mind to try and slow the lightning quick pace of his breathing by cataloguing the contents of the room. Dresser, with an untidy scattering of shaving implements, change, and whatever else found its way into his pockets in the course of a day. Sink, slightly cracked mirror hanging above, and a hand towel draped untidily half-in, half-out of the basin. Table, small and accompanied by two mismatched chairs. Closet, door partly open, just enough to give him a glimpse of his overcoat and a pair of trousers that made up a large part of his currently-paltry wardrobe. Perhaps not the most auspicious of surroundings, but streets ahead of a hospital room, and definitely better than...well, his last "permanent residence," if it could be called that. And even if it could, he didn't particularly want to. It was the reason for the nightmares, after all.

Having convinced his heart to stay its attempts to burst forth from his chest, Gambit let out the breath he'd been holding in a long, slightly tremulous sigh, and set about trying to disentangle his pajama-bottom-clad legs from the sheets that had wound around them in the course of yet another restless night. Soon his bare feet were seeking the reassuring solidness of the floor, and he made quickly for the sink, wrenched the cold tap as far as it would go, and bent over to splash frigid water onto his face, washing away the sweat in the process. That wasn't enough to send his body temperature plummeting, so he scrubbed some onto his arms and chest as well, even wetting his hair, until, finally, he no longer felt as though he was living in a sauna, and he turned off the tap and faced the mirror, as he did every morning, with trepidation.

He still couldn't help the involuntary wince whenever he caught sight of his visage. Three months with no way of checking his appearance had let him in for a nasty shock when he'd awoken in the hospital bed, and asked the nurse on duty if she would let him see the damage for himself. Things had improved since then, but not by much. The dark smudges below the eyes were still in evidence, and his cheekbones looked almost sharp beneath the thin layer of skin. A few days outside in the British winter hadn't done anything for his complexion—he was still as ghastly pale as he'd been when he left the hospital. He ran his hand through the painfully-short, now-damp, black hair ruefully. At least it was starting to grow back. It'd probably look human before the rest of him.

He turned his attention to his torso, and did a quick mental inventory of the scars marring it. Most of them were healing up nicely, but almost all of them were still visible enough to serve as reminders as to just where, and how, he'd gotten them, and the last thing he needed just now was a way to jog his memory. He would have quite happily traded a few of them for some selective amnesia, but unfortunately life didn't offer those sorts of exchanges.

He looked over at the calendar pinned up next to the mirror, the one he'd bought yesterday at the one shop he'd found open in his little corner of the world, without caring a jot that all the pictures were of wildflowers, and probably not really aimed at his demographic. But it was a way of keeping track of the time, and as long as he remembered to cross off each day when it ended, he'd know where he stood in the grand scheme of things. Today it read January 2, 1973. He closed his eyes and committed it to memory, before chancing a glance out the window, at the falling snow, just to remind himself that he was here, in this rented room, in London. England. Britain. Nowhere else. Nowhere but here. Now. Despite what his mind tried to tell him as he slept...

There was a knock on the door, and Gambit started violently, splashing some of the water collected in the sink onto the floor in the process. He stood for a moment, rooted to the spot, temporarily unsure of how to proceed. The knock repeated itself, and then was quickly followed by a voice. "Michael? Michael, it's me."

Gambit relaxed visibly, and started for the door. He knew who it was now, and wasn't surprised when he opened it to find his cousin, Sara Lynley, on the other side. Her face fell noticeably the second she laid eyes on him.

"Michael, what happened?" she asked concernedly, stepping over the threshold and putting a hand to his forehead. "You're burning up. Don't tell me you have a fever."

Gambit grasped her wrist and gently removed her hand. "No fever," he promised, smiling weakly. "I just...I woke up with a start, that's all."

Sara's face melted into a knowing expression. "I thought you said you weren't having the nightmares every night anymore."

"I'm not," Gambit confirmed, ushering her inside and closing the door behind them. "Every other night, now. That's progress, isn't it?"

"If that's what you're telling yourself, I don't suppose I'm in a position to argue," Sara said with a sigh, watching him make his way back to the bed. She could tell by the hunch of his shoulders he needed to sit down, and soon. She held up the paper bag she had clutched in her hand. "I brought you breakfast," she told him. "Bacon butty. Probably not the healthiest choice, but heaven knows you need to put some weight on somehow. You were never bulky, but I shouldn't be able to see that many of your ribs." She eyed up Gambit's chest diagnostically, and he crossed his arms self-consciously under her gaze, ducking his head.

"Thanks, but I'm not hungry," he murmured.

Sara's next sigh was in exasperation. "Of course you're not," she said knowingly. "Stupid of me to think you would be." She went over to the table and deposited the bag on the tabletop. Maybe he'd eat it after she left. At this point, it was all she could hope for. "Any plans for the day?" she asked conversationally, pulling her gloves off as she spoke.

Gambit's shrug was noncommittal. "Not really. Might go for a walk later. Or just back to bed. Hadn't really thought about it."

"Bed?" Sara repeated, one eyebrow canting upward in surprise. "If you're still that tired, maybe you ought to still be in hospital."

"No!" Gambit's voice had the first bit of strength behind it that she'd heard in a very long time. "I'm not going back to the bloody hospital. I just managed to get out of the damn place."

"Yes, because you said you were feeling much better," Sara said patiently. "But if you're going to spend the day lying about in bed, then clearly you're not."

"Never said it'd be all day," Gambit muttered, shooting her a poisonous glare. "Anyway, why do you care what I do all day?"

Sara looked heavenward in search of patience, because it was still close enough to the festive season that it would be seen as very, very uncharitable to deck her convalescing cousin in the jaw, then continued. "I made an appointment with an estate agent," she said carefully. "I thought you might want to have a look at some flats."

"Flats?" Gambit pulled a face. "Sara, I'm not in any shape to look at flats. I don't even need a flat."

Sara glanced around the rented room, unimpressed. "Why, because you're ever so happy here?"

"It's everything I need."

"Minus your own loo," Sara said dryly. "And any sense of permanence. Really, Michael. Another rented room? Is that as far as your aspirations go?"

"I didn't say it was forever," Gambit shot back. "Just until I work out my next move."

"And when's that going to be?" Sara exclaimed, unable to restrain her impatience any longer. "Honestly, Michael, I'm trying to be understanding. You've been through hell! We all thought you were dead! And you're not going to get over it any time soon. I can accept that. But you have to admit you're stuck. You wanted out of the hospital because it felt like being cooped up in another cell, but ever since you've been out, all you've done is take a few turns around the block and huddled up in here. You're not moving on. You're not getting past it. And I can't stand by and watch it any longer." She bit back tears. "I can't. It hurts too much."

Gambit, to his credit, looked suitably chastened. "Sorry," he said gruffly. "I know I should be doing something, but I...well, the motivation's not there."

"That's why I made the appointment," Sara explained, glad she was finally getting through to him. "I know it'll probably be exhausting, but I'm not asking you to marry the woman, or even to choose one of the flats. Just follow her around for the afternoon and let her point out how lovely the view is from the window. Just do something, Michael. You're going to be thirty next month. You need a life, something of your own. You've spent the better part of 15 years wandering around the world with nothing but a battered suitcase to your name. Time you put down roots, preferably where someone knows you exist." She paused as a thought occurred to her. "Wait. You are...staying, aren't you?"

Gambit smiled weakly. "I haven't really thought about it."

"Michael..." Sara rounded the bed and sank onto the mattress beside him. "This is home. Every time you've been lost or in trouble, you've come back here. There must be a reason."

Gambit scrubbed his face. "I honestly don't know what I'm doing, or why," he admitted. "But you're right. I don't really have anywhere else to go. All right," he relented, and when he looked at her, Sara's smile was broad. "I'll look at the flats."

"Try to understand, mum!" Purdey exclaimed, long blonde hair falling untidily around her face as she whirled round to confront her mother, blue eyes flashing.

"I am trying! Very hard, I assure you!" her mother shot back. "You said you needed to leave England for a time, and didn't returning to the Sorbonne to finish your degree accomplish that?"

"I thought it would," Purdey tried to explain. "But it's not enough. I'm still too close to everything, and I come back every holiday, so I'm never away for more than a few weeks. It's not far enough away from-"

"From Larry?" her mother cut in knowingly. "Purdey, it's been nearly two and a half years. You must have moved on by now."

"It's not Larry!" Purdey shot back, the name alone enough to almost bring her to tears, but she wasn't going to make this worse by crying. "I mean, it's not only about Larry. It's dad, and the ballet, and, and...oh, I don't know. But I feel as though I've built up too much history here in too short a time, and I need to break free of it."

"By travelling clear across the continent?" Purdey's mother asked incredulously. "If you want to take a holiday once your last term has finished—"

"I don't need a holiday," Purdey interrupted. "I need to take my time, drift from place to place without a plan, or a goal, or anyone asking me what I'm going to do with my life. I need to get away, mum. From everything."

"It's madness," her mother pronounced. "And I won't hear of it." She looked to her brother, who, until this point, had been staying out of the confrontation, seeking shelter behind his newspaper. "Elroyd, talk some sense into her."

"No one's going to talk me into anything," Purdey snapped, even as her uncle peered over the top of the broadsheet at her. "That's what Larry did, and I'm not letting it happen again. This is my decision, and I'm taking it with or without your approval."

"But we hardly see you as it is! You've only been here since Christmas, and we won't see you again until you graduate. How long are you planning to be gone on this…adventure, or whatever it is?"

"I don't know," Purdey said truthfully, shrugging on her winter coat. "But I'm going to have one of dad's colleagues put my papers together. I'll need them to be fairly comprehensive in case I end up in a country I hadn't planned on visiting."

"Purdey, listen to yourself," her mother pleaded. "A young woman, wandering through the whole of Europe and Asia without the slightest idea where she's going. Nothing good can come of it."

"Maybe not," Purdey agreed, opening the front door, "but if I stay here, I really will go mad, and nothing good will come of that, either." She slammed the door behind her, and retreated out into the snow.

John Steed stood in the middle of the flat found at 9 Primrose Crescent, and cast one last look around the now-empty interior, just to ensure that he hadn't forgotten anything. Tara had left him in charge of tying up the loose ends regarding her flat, having flown out of London the day before to step into her new position as an international interdepartmental liaison, and he was determined to do said tying to the best of his ability. The movers had carried the last of the boxes off to storage not a quarter of an hour earlier, and Steed had spent the period that followed carefully checking each room for any odds and ends that may have been forgotten in the rush. Tara had thrown a very raucous combination New Years' Eve/farewell party just two days before, taking advantage of the empty rooms to cram in as many guests as was physically possible, then spent the morning after hurriedly boxing up the dishes and cooking implements she'd needed for the party, while Steed obliged by disposing of the decorations. Now there was nothing left of her, no trace except for the shining brass of the firepole, and Steed felt the cold, impersonal emptiness of the flat seep into his bones. It was Tara's presence, her love of life and energy, that gave this place its warm, cheerful atmosphere. Now only memories remained. Fond memories, happy memories, but with Tara gone, that was all they were-memories. There was nothing else for him here.

He hadn't really decided what his next move would be as of yet. Tara's departure had left a void that was proving more difficult to fill than it had on previous occasions. The Ministry's policy change had made recruiting amateurs strictly off-limits, and Steed wasn't looking forward to sourcing someone from within the current rank and file. Steed sighed and scuffed the stubborn bloodstain in the carpet, courtesy of particularly hardheaded enemy agent who only went down when he had a bottle of champagne smashed over his cranium, and which Tara had given up trying to scrub out and settled a chair on top of instead. He'd have to choose someone eventually. It wasn't as though he had a say in the matter.

"Mr. Steed?" A high-pitched female voice reached his ears, and Steed glanced up to see a petite, blonde woman leaning over the railing at the top of Tara's precipitous staircase, identified her as Clara Mayhew, the estate agent whom Tara had engaged to shift her flat. "I'm terribly sorry to rush you, but I have a client here for a showing, and, well, I think he'd prefer it to be private."

"Not at all," Steed replied cheerfully, forcing a smile onto his face, putting his bowler on his head and setting it in place with a jaunty tap. "I'll let myself out the front."

Ms. Mayhew smiled in relief. "Oh, thank you, Mr. Steed. I wouldn't rush you normally, but—"

"But you've a job to do," Steed finished. "I understand, and I won't keep you. Good-bye, Ms Mayhew."

"Good-bye, Mr. Steed." Clara watched him leave, then waited a suitable interval to ensure that he hadn't forgotten anything. Only when he showed no signs of returning did she turn and open the door at the top of the stairs. "All right, Mr. Gambit. You can come in now."

Gambit stepped inside and nodded at the woman. She was nice enough, he supposed, though rather officious and a bit high-strung, but he was willing to admit that some of that may have been due to the dark glasses he was wearing. The sunlight still hurt his sensitive eyes on bright days. They'd had kept his hospital room fairly dark to accommodate him, but the outside world couldn't be expected to do the same.

He glanced round the flat, taking in the high ceiling and brightly-painted walls, before being immediately drawn to a feature to his right.

"I realise the living area is rather small," Ms. Mayhew was saying, already beginning her descent down Tara's sweeping staircase. "But the master bedroom and ensuite more than make up for it, and the kitchen is very well-equipped. I—" She broke off at the sudden rushing noise behind her, and whirled round just in time to catch the tail-end of Gambit's descent down the firepole. He landed and tapped the metal hard enough to send a brassy 'ting' back up to her, then grinned cheekily.

"Makes a change from the stairs," he commented. "Was the last owner a fireman?"

Clara, who had never trusted the pole herself, struggled for the right response, and decided to stick with what she knew. "She wasn't to my knowledge, Mr. Gambit."

"Firewoman? Even better," Gambit quipped, knowing he really shouldn't be having fun at the woman's expense, but then again, Sara had wanted him to get out and interact with the world, so really, it was his choice as to how he went about it, and this was the most entertaining. He made his way into the centre of the main room, glanced idly at the footboards beneath the stairs, and counted a couple of phonejacks before focussing on the small, rust-coloured stain on the carpet. He wandered over to inspect it, just as Clara reached the bottom of the stairs.

"Ah, yes, that," she said unhappily, clearly aware it was a mark against the flat's sale prospects. "A bit unsightly, I know, but I can assure you the price has been adjusted to take into account the necessity of recarpeting. Apparently it's very stubborn, and simply won't come out." Gambit crouched down to get a better look and ran his hand over the fibres. "I imagine it's red wine or something," she went on, but Gambit was regarding it with an expert's eye.

"Or blood," he said flatly.

Clara tittered, somewhat hysterically. "Oh, Mr. Gambit, what an imagination you must have! I'm sure it's something quite innocuous, not—"

"Blood," Gambit repeated firmly, straightening up and shooting her a look that told her he spoke from experience. "Maybe our firewoman had an interesting side-job."

"Um..." Ms. Mayhew didn't have a response, but Gambit had already picked out two more phonejacks. How many phones did this woman have? he wondered. Must have led to one hell of a phone bill. He cast a weary eye at Ms. Mayhew, who really was looking spooked now. She probably thought he was the one with an interesting side-job, and the sad thing was, she was almost right. He really hadn't meant to frighten her, but that definitely was blood on the carpet, and he wasn't entirely certain he wanted to live anywhere where someone may have died, at least not at the moment.

"Would you mind showing me the rest of the flat?" he asked her, as cheerfully as he could manage. "Even money she has spots for at least three more phones."

"You're absolutely certain you're going to need papers for all these countries?" Geoff Adams asked incredulously, but the blonde seated across from him was adamant.

"I told you," Purdey said. "I don't know where I'm going to end up, so I need to be prepared for every eventuality."

"You sound like a Boy Scout," Adams quipped. "Only much more attractive."

Purdey smirked. "I haven't a badge to my name."

"Somehow, I think I'd be able to overlook that." Geoff looked her over with approval, then realised he was meant to be doing something approaching work, and returned his gaze to the papers on his desk. "Well, I ought to be able to put everything together in time for the end of your term, but you might want to ring me halfway through February, just to be sure."

"Thanks, Geoff. I knew you'd come through," Purdey said gratefully, rising from her seat and shrugging on her coat. "I know you have a lot on your plate at the moment."

"No trouble at all," Geoff assured. "What good is it to be the daughter of one the best agents in the service if you can't ask the odd favour?" He took the hand she offered and clasped it tightly. "Take care, Purdey."

"I will," Purdey promised, leaning forward to bestow a kiss on his cheek. "And thank you again."

Geoff watched her go with fond expression. No sooner had the front door of his office closed behind her, but the side door opened, and John Steed entered, bowler and brolly in hand. "Adams? I'm not intruding, I hope."

"No, no," Geoff assured, beckoning Steed to enter. "Just doing a favour for the daughter of one of our old guard. Jonathan Bryde. Would have been about your era. Ever cross paths with him?"

"No, unfortunately," Steed lamented, moving to occupy the seat recently vacated by Purdey. "I heard the name, but never met the man. He was killed in action, wasn't he?"

"Mmm," Geoff confirmed. "Must be six or seven years ago now. But that's beside the point. Not often we see you around these parts. What can I do for you?"

"I came for an address," Steed explained. "Miss King's posting was through your department, but there was a last-minute mix-up with her accommodation in Paris, and I was hoping you might have the name of the hotel where she was finally installed. I thought she ought to know that all her belongings have safely made their way into storage, and that there's already been some interest in her flat. The staff downstairs seemed a trifle overburdened, so I hoped I could impose."

"Not at all. Shouldn't be too difficult to find out." Geoff pulled open a drawer in a filing cabinet just behind his right shoulder, and extracted a thin file, updated daily, filled with pertinent contact information. He flicked it open, and had just begun to rifle through the pages when the phone on his desk rang. "Excuse me," Geoff muttered, lifting the receiver.

"Of course," Steed agreed good-naturedly, letting his gaze drift idly over the non-descript office.

"Hello? What? Oh, yes, he's here." Geoff extended the receiver to Steed. "For you. Does the Ministry know you're here?"

"They do, but I can't imagine what couldn't wait for my return," Steed admitted, eyebrows knitted in bemusement, but he took the receiver nonetheless. "Thanks. Hello?"

"Steed? Jenkins here." Steed felt his puzzlement increase. Jenkins was Steed's solicitor, part of an old firm that had handled the Steed family's matters for centuries. His discretion in dealing with Steed's affairs, which demanded more than the usual requirements of solicitor-client privilege, had led the senior agent to recommend him to many of his fellow operatives, with the result that Jenkins was one of the few civilians to whom the Ministry would be willing to confide an agent's whereabouts. "I'm glad I caught you. I've just finished the reading of your Aunt Penelope's will."

"Ah, yes." Steed felt mildly guilty about missing it, but he'd only just managed the funeral in the midst of Tara's imminent departure, and he really hadn't felt up to confronting the whole of the Steed clan twice in one week. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to attend. Anything I should know about?"

"Well, yes, that's rather the reason I called," Jenkins confirmed. "Your aunt was very fond of you, Steed."

Steed chuckled. "I think it was all down to my graceful acceptance of her rock cakes."

"Mmm." Jenkins' response made it quite clear that he was very familiar with Aunt Penelope's rock cakes. "Well, she's rewarded your forbearance, and bequeathed you a rather significant legacy."

"Did she?" Steed was surprised. He knew his aunt was fond of him, and suspected he'd be left something, but nothing he would have described as 'significant.' "What is it?"

"Well, I could tell you," Jenkins said mysteriously. "But I think it would be easier to show you. Could we meet this afternoon?"

Steed, who hadn't planned his day much beyond giving Tara her update, knew he could. At the very least it would banish the sense of ennui that was in danger of setting in for a few short hours. "Yes, I think I can manage that," he told Jenkins. "What time?"

Meanwhile, Purdey had left the department's building, and was hurrying across the street to where she'd parked her car. As she passed a small shop, she suddenly remembered she'd meant to buy herself a paper before she returned home. She doubled back and entered the shop, letting the door swing shut behind her with a resounding 'bang.'

The customer at the counter, a man with short black hair and dark glasses, started noticeably, and dropped the bag containing his purchase as a result. He glanced around sheepishly, muttered a 'sorry' to no one in particular, and bent to retrieve the bag with hands Purdey could see were shaking, before brushing past her and hurrying out into the street. Purdey watched him go with more than a little sympathy, wondering just what had happened to the stranger to strain his nerves so badly that a slamming door would set him off. "Poor man," she lamented, before continuing on to buy her paper.

Gambit was still chastising himself for acting like, in his eyes, a complete fool in the shop. His appetite had reasserted itself during the first flat-viewing, and he'd bought some peanuts to at least get a little protein into his bloodstream, but the slamming door meant his hands shook so much, it was difficult to eat them. Ms. Mayhew watched him out of the corner of his eye, still highly-strung, and he felt a bit bad for taking the mickey out of her earlier. He could tell he made her nervous, and he hadn't meant to be cruel. She'd seemed to take her job a little too seriously, that was all, and her manner had seemed a little overdone for someone whose job it was to take people from house to house and point out the view a few dozen times. She needed to relax, in his opinion, but he hadn't meant to frighten her. Standing in the next flat, he shot her a friendly smile, and saw her relax a tiny fraction, before he turned his attention back to the task at hand.

It was a basement flat, with all that entailed. Fairly large, almost completely open concept. The small kitchen near the front door was the only part of the room that was obviously designated for one purpose, the rest of the main living area stretching out before him with no real demarcation to mark out separate rooms. Off to the left, two short walls acted to slightly separate another, smaller room, just as open-concept as the first. Gambit didn't mind the lack of divisors, but he was less-than-keen on being below street-level. After his time in confinement, he wanted a window that looked onto something more than a windowbox and a backlot, something that gave him a glimpse of the outside world. This reminded him a little too much of his cell. It was cold, too, though Gambit was finding that preferable to the choking heat of his nightmares, but the idea of having to trudge up and down those 21 steps to the front door every time he went out was less than appealing. The snow had made a real mess of them, and combined with the ice, he'd nearly fallen and snapped his neck twice on the way down. He shook his head at Clara, who looked despondent. "Only one more," she informed, and Gambit honestly didn't know whether he was disappointed or glad. "It's just around the corner."

"Your aunt had the house shut up when she moved to the city for her health, as you know," Jenkins was saying, as Steed pulled a dropcloth off a beautiful oak table. "No one's been in for a year."

"And you're certain she left it all to me?" Steed inquired, surveying the army of covered furniture in the living area, amazed at how much of the house he still recalled from his childhood visits.

"Everything," Jenkins assured, consulting some paperwork. "The house, all the contents, the grounds, which are extensive, and the stables."

"Stables?" Steed arched a surprised eyebrow. He'd forgotten all about them.

"Yes. Also shut up, I'm told."

"They have been for years," Steed replied knowingly. Auntie Penelope had never cared for horses, so had no reason to house the beasts, and closed up the stables well before Steed was born. As children, they'd been warned to stay away from them, and they were in such a poor state of repair, they'd actually bothered to listen for once.

Stables. He'd promised himself stables once upon a time, as a retirement present. He'd always wanted to keep horses, even if Auntie Penelope hadn't, but when he was in the city all the time, it simply wasn't convenient to commute to the country every time he fancied a ride. He always thought he'd have time for it one day, but lately he was becoming more and more aware of just how uncertain the prospect of retirement was in his line of work. And it would be nice to have a bit more space than the Mews flat when it came to entertaining. He could only accommodate small parties now. And with Tara gone, heaven knew he could use a project to distract himself, and there would be plenty of distraction involved in restoring the house and its grounds to their former glory. What was he waiting for?

"How soon can you have the paperwork in order?" he asked Jenkins.

"Very soon," the solicitor replied. "If you'd like."

Steed nodded. "I would."

"I'm told this one has more of a view," Clara was saying, as she led Gambit down the carpeted corridor of a block of flats. There were pictures hanging on the walls, and the odd potted plant dotted along the way. Clara took him straight to the end of the line, unlocking the last door and gesturing for him to go inside. Gambit did so, unoptimistic about his prospects. If he was going to have a permanent residence, he was going to have to really like it. Otherwise sticking with the rented rooms was going to seem preferable by comparison. But the instant he stepped inside the flat, he knew something was different.

Clara's spiel was more than a little deflated by this point, but she soldiered on in spite of it. "As you can see, there's a rather large window in the main room, and another in the bedroom, which is off down the hall." She gestured listlessly toward a hallway just visible past the kitchen. "The bathroom's down there as well, and a rather large closet, so you'd have plenty of storage..."

But Gambit was hardly listening at this point, because his brain was filling in the details with minimal effort. He took in the nicely-sized living area, the shelves he could fill with the books he'd always been meaning to buy, the little alcove in the corner that could just about accommodate a drafting board, and maybe a display case for the handful of old weapons he'd found himself accumulating throughout his travels. There was another door in the same wall as the entrance, and he moved to open it and investigate, only to find a sizeable closet. Dark-room his brained supplied, automatically. And when he went to window, there was a view. He could see the street, the cars, and the city beyond, and the window let in plenty of light. Suddenly, the prospect of a fixed abode seemed appealing. He turned back to Clara, who was still listing off the flat's attributes in an unenthusiastic monotone. "How much?" he asked, and had to keep the grin off his face when she went from wilted to perky in a millisecond.

Purdey was seated on the porch swing outside her mother's cottage, tracing patterns in the snow with the toe of her boot, when her uncle stepped out the front door to join her. She hadn't dared to go back inside and confront her mother, not when she'd just come back from fixing her paperwork, but her uncle was clearly willing to weather his sister's wrath to keep his niece company. He settled down onto the seat beside her, and wasted no time at all in broaching the issue. "You did it, then?" he asked frankly, meeting Purdey's eyes when she looked up at him. "Applied for the papers?"

Purdey nodded, very gently. "I had to, Uncle Elly," she said softly. "I know you don't understand, but I can't be here. There are simply too many memories. I can't think straight." She looked out over the snow-covered hills surrounding her mother's cottage. "I feel as though I've been in stasis ever since I left Larry. I'm not certain what I want, or if I ever wanted what I thought I wanted, or even who I am and what I'm meant to be doing. And I know I won't ever work it out unless I get away from everything and everyone." She winced when she realised how that sounded. "That doesn't mean I want to be away from you, Uncle Elly. Or mum. But I—"

Her uncle covered her hand with his and smiled reassuringly. "I understand, my dear. And so does your mother, no matter what she says. She's worried about you, that's all. But I know you're a girl who can look after herself, just as I know that you need to go away to put your head on straight. Soon as you manage that, I know you'll come back here."

"How?" Purdey wanted to know. Despite being certain that she needed to get away, she still worried about where her travels would lead her. "How do you know? What if I go away and end up wandering forever? What if I never find out where I'm meant to be?"

"You already know where you're meant to be," Elroyd said firmly. "Here. This is home, no matter where you go. You haven't worked out why you need to be here, that's all. As soon as you've found the answer, you'll be back here again, no matter how long it takes. You mark my words."

Purdey fixed him with wide blue eyes. "Do you think so?"

"I know it. No matter where I was stationed, all over the world, for years at a time, I always knew I was meant to come back here in the end. Being needed elsewhere for a time didn't change that, and it'll be the same for you. We're a restless family on the Foster side. Your mother was always the odd one out, but luckily you took after me."

Purdey couldn't suppress a giggle. "I'm not sure mum will see it that way."

"She'll have to," Elroyd declared. "I'll talk to her myself. I'm sure the pair of us can bring her around to the idea before you go back to France."

"Oh, Uncle Elly, that would be wonderful!" Purdey exclaimed, throwing her arms around the older man's neck and hugging him tightly. "Thank you. Thank you for understanding."

"What are uncles for?" Elroyd said fondly, hugging his niece back. "Happy New Year, my dear."

"Happy New Year, Uncle Elly."

"Not bad. Not bad at all," were Sara's first words when she stepped inside the flat. She got her bearings, then cocked her head to one side, and held out her hands a foot or so apart. "A couch would sit over there quite nicely," she opined.

"It might," Gambit agreed, a wicked grin on his lips. "But it'd be a tight squeeze to get it behind the bar."

"Bar?" Sara shot him an incredulous look. "Really, Michael?"

Gambit was undeterred. "Always wanted my own bar. You're just jealous because you didn't think of it first."

Sara shook her head in mild disbelief. "Whatever you say. Where's the bedroom? Down that end?" She pointed off down the hall.

"That," Gambit told her with relish, "is the guest room."

"Guest room?" Sara looked around in confusion. "This flat isn't big enough for two bedrooms, is it?"

"No," Gambit teased. "It isn't."

Sara pulled a face. "Don't be tiresome, Michael. I'm not in the mood. If you're not using the bedroom, where are you going to sleep?"

"Right where you're standing."

Sara looked down. She was smack in the middle of the living room. "I hate to burst your bubble," she said dryly. "But I think even the girls you bring home might take it the wrong way if the first thing they see when they come into your flat is a bed. You might want to build up to that point."

"I don't like what you're implying about my taste in women," Gambit replied, but there was a glimmer in his eye. "But it wasn't a bed I had in my mind. At least, not a proper one."

"Don't tell me it's a hammock? I thought we'd cured you of that after the Navy."

It was Gambit's turn to pull a face. "A retractable bed," he explained. "It'll be a couch during the day, and then I can pull it out at night."

Sara's expression was nondescript. "I wish I could say I was surprised, but somehow that sounds exactly like you."

"Are you going to criticise all my ideas, or do I need to remind you where the door is?"

"All right, all right. It's painfully obvious you've never had a place of your own, that's all." She cast around for something else to comment on. "What about over here? Sideboard."


"The alcove. Statuary?"

"Drafting board."

Sara was getting impatient. "And I suppose over here—" She gestured at the kitchen counter. "—will be the sauna to go with the bar?"

"Don't be silly, Sara," Gambit said, as though talking to a very small child who was having trouble following the rules of a very simple game. "That's the kitchen."

Sara cast around for something to throw, but the flat was empty, and completely lacking in anything hefty enough to aim at her cousin's head. She was past caring about the rules of the festive season. Foiled, she clenched her teeth, and settled with, "Well, I'm glad you found something in the end. Maybe now you'll finally grow up a little. Get a proper job. Buy a car. Cut your hair-" She broke off when she saw the painfully-short curls, remembered his last haircut had been forced on him, and bit her lip in regret at calling the memory up again. Gambit, to his credit, just smiled weakly.

"I'm thinking of growing it out, actually," he murmured, and Sara swallowed around the lump in her throat before she smiled back.

"It'd be more in fashion," she agreed, desperate to change the subject. "At this rate, you might actually pass as an adult. Maybe you could even find a girl..."

The glimmer was back in his eye. "Or several."

Sara threw up her hands in exasperation. "Do you know, if that's what you need to do, I honestly don't care. Just don't tell me about it. I don't need the pictures in my mind's eye."

Gambit just grinned at her, and for the first time since he'd returned to England, she noticed he had some colour in his cheeks. "Michael," she murmured, with something like wonder in her voice. "You look...happy."

He shrugged, and it was a carefree shrug, the best kind, because this time his shoulders weren't so slumped that he couldn't manage it. "I guess you were right. I have always wanted a place of my own. It just never seemed like the right time, or the right place, or maybe it felt like too much to hope for. Something I was never meant to have." He moved to join her where she stood by the window. "But I think I always wanted it. A place. A life. At some level. Just needed something to force me to slow down and bring me back here. And now I'm finally going to get it."

Sara bit back tears. She'd never hear the end of it if she cried. "Can you afford it?" she wanted to know, realising for the first time that this place was streets away from where they'd grown up, and the price tag was probably sizeable. It would be a shame if, after finally finding a place to put down roots, Gambit was deprived of a home because of something as stupid as money.

But Gambit simply nodded. "I've got savings. Not a lot to spend your money on in the jungle, and they paid me off pretty well when I was discharged. Time something good came out of it." The smile turned rueful, just for a second. "I'll be all right. But I'll need a job at some point."

Sara smiled mysteriously. "I think I might be able to help you with that," she confided. "But I think we've done enough for one day. Plenty of time for the rest. The new year's only two days old, after all."

"Yeah," Gambit agreed, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. "But after today, I think it might actually be a good one."