Same Time Next Year
Disclaimer: I don't own The New Avengers, nor the characters of Mike Gambit, Purdey, and John Steed. Sadly. They're the property of The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises. This story is for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement intended
Timeline: Ninth in a series. Takes place in November, 1977, a few months after the conclusion of the series in the Canadian episodes. It is strongly recommended, but not essential, that you go back and read the previous stories in the arc: Lost Boys, Anew, Aftermath, Dance With Me, The Anniversary, Merry Christmas, Mr. Gambit, Brazil, Life on Mars, and 'Til Death.
For more information about the series, please see my profile.
The back of the house had a large, unkempt lawn stretching out from the building toward the woods. Purdey surmised from the cars parked out front that attempting to enter from that end would be risky—anyone who so much as glanced out the window would spot her. The back of the house, while less likely to result in unwanted encounters, was frustratingly free of trees to climb, which had been Purdey's preferred method of getting into one of the house's upper floor windows. She bit her lip and scanned for her other break-in go-to—a drainpipe. She was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was one near one of the few windows left unbarred. The only problem was getting there from her current position. The bare lawn afforded no cover, and in the dying light Purdey knew she would present an easy target should anyone observe her approach. But there wasn't another way in that she could see, and she was wasting time—the longer she stood there, the greater the chance she'd be spotted regardless if she made the trip or not, and that wouldn't do anyone any good, least of all Gambit. Not to mention there was no way of knowing how much time Gambit had left—if any.
She swallowed the thought and forced herself to stay calm. Gambit always said she could run like the wind—now was her chance to prove him right. She took a deep breath and pelted off, as hard and as fast as she could, across the lawn, skirt whipping round her legs, breath tearing at her throat, eyes focused on the drainpipe—safe ground, away from the windows and their treacherous light.
There! Someone moving behind the curtain, silhouette inching toward the window! Purdey put on an extra burst of speed, willing her legs to propel her to the wall, where, if nothing else, she could at least press herself to one side of the window and try to avoid being seen. Come on, come on…
She made it to the wall just in time. The curtains twitched aside and the window was thrown open just as Purdey left the ground and clamoured part of the way up the drainpipe, enough to get safely above the window. Purdey clutched onto the weather-beaten metal for dear life, hoping years of neglect hadn't rusted away her makeshift ladder, and focused on calming her laboured breathing. She risked a peek below her, in time to see a dark-haired head and a pair of arms lean out of the opening—with the edge of Purdey's skirt hanging a scant six inches above. Purdey resisted the urge to swear, and instead reached a tentative hand down to hitch up the garment and tuck it into her belt. Thankfully, the person below didn't seem to notice. Purdey squinted down in the fading light and realized that, in all likelihood, the head of hair belonged to Vanessa Thyme. Purdey found herself caught between wanting to drop onto the woman's head, and praying that she didn't look up. In the end, Vanessa seemed to satisfy her need for a little night air, and went back inside. Purdey let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding, and set about climbing higher.
The unbarred window was open just a crack, but Purdey somehow managed to scrabble onto the ledge and pry it open the rest of the way. She pushed the curtains aside and felt about in the dark for anything that could be knocked over, but her hand met with only empty air. Wriggling into the dark space, she landed on plush carpet and spent a moment waiting for her eyes to adjust. The room was an office, she realised, much like an old-fashioned gentleman's study. A large stately desk, intricately carved, and leather armchair were the focal point. The wall was lined with bookshelves filled with many elegantly-bound tomes, probably antique and worth a good deal to a collector who knew his first editions. There were also the obligatory paintings, depicting some war or another, arranged on the walls to her right and behind her. There was also a filing cabinet. Purdey made for it and tugged at a drawer, but it was locked and wouldn't budge. She tapped the metal gently and the hollow sound she got in response told her there wasn't much inside to be found. It didn't worry her-that wasn't why she was here. Gambit was her first priority, and he certainly wasn't in the office. She made for the large oak door, and listened for a moment before easing it open a crack.
After the dark office, the light in the hallway was painfully bright. Purdey shut her eyes instinctively against the glare, and immediately wondered if they were betraying her. But no, when she opened them again, the hall was as she had seen it before—stark and white, from the painted walls to the tiles on the floor. It looked more like a hospital ward than a gracefully decaying manor house. Purdey looked back over her shoulder at the office, trying to persuade herself that she wasn't mad. No, she had it right: the door was oak on one side, painted plain white on the other. Even the ornate handle gave way to a plain brass knob on the other side.
"Someone's been redecorating," Purdey observed under her breath, before making her way out into the hall, closing the office door quietly behind her. The corridor itself was lined with doors, each identical to the one she had just come from, except for one small detail-the observation slats, one in each door, but omitted from her own. The type that were installed in cell doors. Purdey swallowed hard. Cells. The kind Gambit had spent those three hellish months inside. If there was one thing to be said for Vanessa Thyme, it was that she was aesthetically consistent, which Purdey supposed was all well and good if you liked the penitentiary look. Purdey gave up trying to understand the appeal of the décor, and made her way down the hall. She started investigating the line of doors, trying the slats, moving them aside as silently as possible so as not to disturb the occupants. The first three she tried revealed empty, dark rooms. The fourth, however, made her gasp. The lights were on inside, and the room had been given a makeover similar to the hall's—sterile white, tiled floors, stripped of all furniture save a table with a pitcher resting on top and a solitary chair. But it was the heap in the middle of the floor that caught her attention. A person. A man. He was sprawled more or less on his front, his face obscured by his arm, but she would have recognized the head of dark curls anywhere.
Purdey set about with her lockpick, cursing at every second that ticked by that she was unable to go to him, knowing he could very well be dying. When the lock finally gave way, she took only a moment to make sure that closing the door behind her wouldn't lock them inside, before dashing across the room and dropping to her knees beside the limp form.
It was then that she noticed the blood. Pooled by his head, it had dried by that point. Praying he wasn't seriously injured, she rolled Gambit over onto his back. He was unconscious, but at her touch he stirred, and Purdey looked into his face, gleaned what relief she could. Gambit's nose had been bloodied, and his mouth had a thick crimson line emanating from the corner. She could also make out already-purpling bruises on his bare arms where the sleeves had been rolled up. In fact, there seemed to be bruises everywhere—his cheeks, his hands, his neck, what little she could see of his chest where the shirt had been unbuttoned. All mottling into an ugly mosaic of blues and purples and greens and yellows. She had a feeling that she'd see the pattern repeated over the rest of his body, but she didn't have the heart or the time to go looking. Obviously Gambit had been serving as someone's punching bag—more than once, if the age of the bruises was anything to go by. But he wasn't dead, and it looked as though his torturer hadn't set to work using the more subtle methods that gave Gambit nightmares. Still, her heart ached at his wounds. She reached down and brushed back the now-untidy curls, trying to bite back tears of relief and hurt. "Oh, Mike," she said softly.
The move was so sudden, so unexpected, that she didn't have time to consider how to retaliate. Gambit's eyes snapped open, and without seeming to see her his hands flew up and found her wrists, gripped them firmly even as he bolted upright like a coiled spring, closing the distance between them.
"Now, look," he snarled, and Purdey emitted a small gasp at his blazing eyes, which had turned very cold and very blue. In fact, Gambit's whole face was a mask of anger. She wondered briefly if he'd been brainwashed, but no, surely not so quickly? They couldn't have worked on him long enough to turn him against her.
She knew the answer soon enough, because Gambit suddenly blinked, as though his sight was failing him. Purdey noticed for the first time that his eyes were glassy. He'd been drugged. That explained it. Now, though, he seemed to be shaking away the effects, trying to focus on the features before him. Then he smiled, a slow, sinister smile that chilled Purdey's blood. It was definitely not a welcoming smile, and she knew why soon enough.
"Oh, very good," he managed thickly, voice hoarse, as though his throat were very, very dry. "Very good. You look even more like Purdey than last time. What did you pump me full of now?" He didn't give her a chance to respond, just plowed on regardless. "Never mind. Doesn't matter. Those hallucinogens get better all the time, I'll grant you. But you must be getting desperate if you're trying the same trick again. I didn't fall for it before, and I'm not going to fall for it now. So unless you want your wrists broken-"
"Mike, it's really me," Purdey insisted, trying to keep her voice steady, to keep it from cracking with pain—or fear-as his grip tightened. No, you're not afraid of Mike. It's the drugs that have you worried.
"Funny. You sound more like her this time around," Gambit muttered, face creasing in genuine confusion, muzzy brain desperately trying to work out what was happening.
"That's because it is me," Purdey pressed, matching his slightly-random head movements with her own so she could keep holding his gaze. "Mike Gambit, you may be drugged within an inch of your life, but I'm as real as I was the night I climbed into the shower with you, fully clothed."
Gambit gaped at her dazedly. Somewhere in the depths of his foggy brain, he remembered that Vanessa couldn't have possibly known about that night they'd gone out dancing and he'd resisted telling Purdey about what had happened to him in Africa, and how she'd looked after him as he spiraled into the depths of his nightmares. Which meant… "Purdey?" he asked uncertainly.
She smiled radiantly. "Yes, I'm here."
Gambit grinned sloppily. "Purdey," he repeated, and promptly collapsed, releasing her wrists in the process.
"Mike!" she hissed as loudly as she dared, tapping his bruised cheeks. "Come on, Mike, I can't get you out of here if keep fainting."
"Not fainting," Gambit protested blearily from the floor. "Passing out."
"What's the difference?"
"Gives me a little more dignity, at least." Gambit's eyes eased open and he fought to focus on the person leaning over him, properly this time. Bright blue eyes, not cold silver ones. Blue eyes that he had lost himself in so many times he no longer kept track. And below them, that familiar nose, and a pair of lips that had returned his kisses every day for the past few months. His heart lifted hopefully. It had to be her. The drugs could never perfectly replicate the features now fixed on him with a mixture of fear and pain.
"Purdey…?" he croaked, and realized how dry his throat was. "Purdey, is it really…?" He coughed and tried again. "The drugs, they couldn't…?"
"It's me, Mike," she assured. "I may be flattering myself, but I like to think I'm one of a kind." Her voice finally allayed his fears. No one, not even Vanessa, could replicate those cut-glass tones. He felt himself relax, then noticed that her wrists had bright red marks encircling them, felt his heart sink as the realisation of what he'd done right before the world had faded in and out brought his brain into wakefulness.
"Oh, hell, Purdey, what have I…I didn't hurt you, did I?" he asked anxiously, struggling to sit up again, wincing as he did so. Purdey was rubbing the reddened marks, but quickly reached out to steady him. He let her push him so his back was braced against the wall. Only then did he take her hands again, examining them as he chided himself. "I thought you were her. She's already pretended to be you once…"
"I'm fine," Purdey reassured, resting a comforting hand against his face, and she was happy when he smiled in relief. "Which is more than I can say for you at the moment. Mike, what have they been doing to you?"
Gambit noticed how she was looking at him and touched his upper lip, regarded the dried blood on his fingertips with something approaching annoyance. "Damn, I must be a sight," he muttered, half to himself, then saw Purdey's worried look. "It's worse than it looks," he told her. "It was O'Hara—Tommy O'Hara. Thyme let him rough me up a bit—bruised and bloodied, that's all." He felt about in his mouth with his tongue. "No teeth missing, thankfully. Meant to soften me up for the next round, I suppose. Least they didn't break me nose."
"Then they haven't…?" Purdey left the other, more creative horrors unsaid.
Gambit shook his head. "No, though I'm sure they have got further activities planned for when I wake up." He eyed Purdey with interest. "You don't seem surprised. About O'Hara, I mean."
"I'm not," Purdey confirmed grimly. "Steed told me he'd escaped. We put the timing down to more than coincidence."
"Damn straight," Gambit agreed with feeling. "He's been here since he got out. I don't think he liked the accommodation we gave him very much."
"I can imagine," Purdey replied, starting to stand. Gambit reached out and grasped a handful of her dress. "I'm only going to get the pitcher," she soothed, sensing his panic at being left alone. "You need cleaning up."
"Not to mention a drink," Gambit added, licking his dry, split lips. "Half the Thames if you can manage it."
Purdey grinned, relieved to hear him joking, despite his ordeal. "I'll see what I can do."
"I'm still sorry," he told her back as she made her way to the table. "About your wrists. I don't know what she pumped into me, but it was good enough to fool me for a minute before." He managed a crooked grin that set one of his split lips bleeding again. "It doesn't help that you're the person I'm most likely to dream about, in a pinch or anywhere else."
"I see," Purdey said with a slight smile, carrying the pitcher over and setting it next to him before kneeling at his side. "Wearing nothing more than a smile, I'll bet."
Gambit grinned wickedly. "I don't need to fantasize now that I've seen the real thing."
"That makes two of us," Purdey replied pertly, eyes dancing in spite of herself. "Here, let me help you drink."
She tipped the pitcher just enough so that Gambit wouldn't end up being drowned while he drank. Eventually he made a noise that told her he'd had enough, and she set about wetting her handkerchief so she could clean off the blood caked on his face. He winced visibly at her first touch, but after awhile she found the right amount of pressure that hurt him as little as possible while still doing the job.
"Where's Steed?" he asked from behind the cloth.
"Waiting outside," Purdey replied. "If I don't get back soon, he'll come after me, and Larry and his people will be here eventually."
"Should've waited for them," Gambit objected. "I'd have been all right for a little while longer, and you would've had some back-up."
Purdey snorted. "I'm not sure I can trust the back-up," she said sharply, then elaborated at Gambit's alarmed expression. "Not Steed. Larry. He has the ridiculous idea that you've been conspiring with Thyme and O'Hara, running some sort of intelligence ring, and this is your way of getting out."
"Bloody painful way," Gambit muttered. "If I was that brilliant, I'd have found a way that didn't involve a heavy beating every few years."
"That's what I told him," Purdey informed in exasperation. "For all the good it did. I think he wants to believe you've gone over the other side. I'm sure he thinks I might redirect my affections in his direction if you're out of the way."
"What is it with you and men named Larry?" Gambit grumbled, experimentally moving the muscles in his back and grunting when they protested. "Is there some curse in the family you haven't told me about?"
"Only that the women have to have unusual names," Purdey revealed with a grin. "Although that's more of a tradition."
"You've told me that before, I think," Gambit murmured hazily, playing for time until he felt able to sit up without pitching forward. Purdey knew it and he knew she knew it, but she was too kind to mention it.
Purdey raised a finger in triumph. "Ah, but I didn't tell you that my aunt wanted to call me Charlotte—Charly for short. But my mother wouldn't hear of it."
"Just as well—you don't look like a Charlotte," Gambit replied with a fond smile. "You could only be Purdey."
"I'm glad you approve."
Gambit frowned suddenly. "Do you think it's really all down to jealousy? Larry? Could he be the one working for the other side?"
Purdey thought about it. "It's possible," she allowed, "but I don't think so. I think he wants you to be a traitor for his own ego, not because anyone's paying him to make that argument. He's biased, but I think he's clean."
"Hmph," was Gambit's eloquent reply, as Purdey dabbed the last of the blood from his face. "Anything else I should know about, besides my own side turning on me? Like how you got here."
"Steed traced a number Thyme left at the club," Purdey explained. "It led here."
"Speaking of being led. Vanessa, she sent…some heavy, to attack you. Did he…?"
Purdey nodded. "I caught him tearing your flat apart. He tossed me over the couch. I was a bit bruised, but it wasn't anything fatal."
He relaxed a little at that. "I thought as much. He came back looking a little worse for wear—I think you broke his nose."
Purdey smiled radiantly. "Did I?"
"You did. Brought me great solace when I was sitting around tied to a chair. I've never loved you more."
"The feeling's mutual." She reached out to touch his battered face. "I'd kiss you if that lip wasn't so bad," she confided.
Gambit's eyes glittered from behind the bruises. "Do it anyway. Lets me know I'm alive."
Purdey shook her head a tiny bit. "Later, when they've given you something for the pain, or at least iced it. I don't want to hurt you."
Gambit regarded her with a sincerity that made her heart ache. "Purdey, that's the last thing you could do to me."
"Still, I'm not going to risk it. Are you really all right?"
"I'm fine," was the reply, but when he saw Purdey's sceptical look, he added, "considering I've had the stuffing pounded out of me. I'm a bit dizzy, but lots of drugs pumped into your system will do that." As if to illustrate his point, the room suddenly spun a little, and Gambit slumped forward into Purdey's arms.
"A 'bit' dizzy?" she repeated.
"May have underestimated," Gambit allowed with a sheepish smile. "Anyway, at least I was the one who got kidnapped instead of you. Makes a change."
"It's not my fault the enemy is hopelessly behind in their thinking. 'Kidnap the girl.' It's becoming awfully corny, not to mention unimaginative," Purdey complained.
"Not the word I'd use for it," Gambit contradicted, sitting up on his own again, pulling back so he could look at her face. He brought a hand up to her cheek, and Purdey sank into his touch. "Now you know what it's like, trying to find someone who's been taken. Someone you care about."
"Not for much longer, I won't. We're leaving as soon as you're strong enough."
Gambit looked mildly disappointed at that suggestion. "I was thinking of having a look around first. You wouldn't happen to know whose house this is?"
"It wasn't my top priority," Purdey pointed out wryly. "Anyway, Steed probably knows. He's the one who had the address traced."
Gambit's brow furrowed suddenly. "That's odd…"
Purdey blinked. "What?"
"The drugs," Gambit explained, thinking over the past day. "They knocked me out."
Purdey looked unimpressed. "I would have thought that you'd made the connection at this point in your career."
"No, what I mean is, why? Why just knock me out? I would've thought they'd want me awake to nurse my wounds, or at the very least give me a dose of truth serum to make me more cooperative. But knocking me out? I don't see what that's supposed to accomplish. I've already established I can't get out without someone opening the door, so it can't be to keep me from escaping." Gambit worked his jaw. "It doesn't make any sense."
"Maybe," Purdey offered, "it has side-effects, and they haven't set in. How do you feel?"
"Hazy. Not much else," Gambit answered truthfully. "You know, something's wrong with this whole plot."
Purdey frowned, pulled back a little to search the blue-green eyes. "In what way?"
Gambit shook his head. "Dunno. Little things that just don't sit right. Like, if Vanessa wants me to tell her where the papers are, why is she holding off? O'Hara's been quite happy to take out his frustrations on me while I'm tied up, but she's called him off more often than she needs to, and she hasn't been using him to her full advantage."
"Not enough questions, for one. She asked me where they were first thing, then O'Hara started in. Then they left me for awhile, came back, asked again, then repeated the whole damn process. And then she drugged me and posed as you."
"It all sounds rather too much like what I expected them to do to you," Purdey managed, wincing at Gambit's description.
"Yeah, but they never stepped it up," Gambit protested. "She knows there are better ways than brute force to make me talk, but she's not using them. Trying to trick me into thinking she was you was clever, I'll give her that. But her performance was so bad I saw through it pretty fast. And even if her acting was bad, why didn't she pair her performance with something that'd make me talkative to up her chances?"
"Maybe they plan to," Purdey suggested. "Eventually."
Gambit shook his head. "No, something's wrong. This feels like the preliminaries. She's waiting for something.
"Like what?" Purdey wondered.
"We'll have to find out. I think I can stand now. If you'll give me a hand…" He reached out, and Purdey set about trying to lift him. She let him lean on her as he climbed to his feet, and thought about the best way to get him out. One look at the wat Gambit was listing told her he wasn't going to be able to crawl out the window and shimmy down a drainpipe the way she had on the way in. They were going to have to make their exit by more traditional means, but that meant fighting their way out by force, and she wasn't certain Gambit was up to that anymore than the drainpipe.
Gambit could see her casting around, regarded her quizzically. "What's wrong?"
"I'm trying to decide how to get out," Purdey explained distractedly.
"How did you get in?"
"Through the window," Purdey replied. "But you're not limber enough to do that. Not half-drugged."
Gambit groaned in reluctant agreement. "So we might have to use the door."
"Yes, sadly. I know how much you love leaping through windows."
Gambit made another noise, this one of the 'very funny' variety. "Only when I'm motivated. Is the door an option?"
"On whether you can fight your way out."
Gambit sucked his teeth. "Do you have a gun?"
"Of course I have a gun," Purdey confirmed, sounding insulted. "But that'll only get us so far against Thyme's people. How many are there?"
"Four that I've seen," Gambit told her. "Plus Thyme and O'Hara."
"Six against two?" Purdey mused, tongue-in-cheek. "That's almost a fair fight."
"They have a slight advantage," Purdey conceded casually. "If you hadn't been knocked about I'd feel sorry for them. But we ought to be able to handle that many. After all, it's 3 to 1." She grinned at him with a particularly Purdey brand of mad confidence.
"Worse than 3 to 1, no matter what the math says," Gambit corrected, finally in a position that could generously be described as 'upright'. "O'Hara's dangerous. Have to count him twice."
"Mmm," Purdey hummed thoughtfully. "Still. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Divide and conquer?" Gambit, leaning against the wall for support to take some of the burden off her, grinned slightly. "Party trick number eight?"
Purdey shook her head. "Not with the damage you've taken. How's your back?"
"It's been better," Gambit admitted, "but good enough."
"Enough for a party trick number seven?" Purdey wanted to know, eyes dancing.
"With a twenty-one to finish it off?" Gambit put in, smile wide now. "Yes, I think I can manage that. If you give me the gun."
"If you wanted the gun, you only had to say," Purdey chastised good-humoredly. "You don't need to pretend to be injured."
Gambit laughed a little in spite of himself. "I wish it was just my ego at work. Come on, let's go downstairs and get the lay of the land. If we're lucky, one or two of them will be out on a smoke break, and I won't have to waste a bullet."
Purdey's grin was a little mad. "We'll just have to make sure you don't then, won't we?"
The pair made their way down the corridor as silently as possible, Gambit doing his best not to clump along loudly enough to be heard below, his usual stealthiness hampered by his injuries and the drugs still working their way through his system. Purdey led the way, and held up a hand as she reached the entrance to the foyer. She peered around the corner, taking stock of the contingent posted at the door.
There were four men in all, huddled around a small table playing cards. Purdey recognized one as the man she'd discovered ransacking Gambit's flat, more from the plaster on his nose than anything else. She allowed herself a small smile at the purple bruise peeking out from beneath the gauze. There was no sign of Vanessa or O'Hara. She ducked back and held a quick, almost wordless conference with Gambit.
"You're a load of cheaters," one of the men announced, throwing his hand down in disgust and rising from the table.
"You can win it back next hand," came the jeering response from one of his compatriots, but the loser was undeterred, dismissing him with a gesture as he stalked toward the exit. His colleagues laughed at his retreat, then quickly returned their attention to the cards as they were reshuffled, not trusting one another as far as they could throw them. For this reason, none of them noticed the hand that shot out quickly and grabbed their sullen colleague by his shirt collar, yanking him unceremoniously into the corridor without a sound.
Purdey swung the man around and pressed him flat against the wall, held him there so Gambit could get a good, one-handed grip on the man's throat. The unfortunate struggled and clawed at his neck, but Gambit tapped into some heretofore unknown reserve of strength and concentrated on pressing down hard at a very specific point. In a matter of seconds, the man's eyes rolled back in his head and he slid silently down the wall.
"Just a little pressure, at the right point," Gambit quoted, thumb and forefinger still held just so, as he exchanged a look with Purdey. "Time for your debut, I think."
Of the three men who remained, the one with his back to the front door was the only one to notice the flickering of the shadows in the foyer entrance. He put down his cards and rose slowly, nodding at his colleagues as his hand went to the gun in his waistband. He edged forward carefully as the others got to their feet and watched him go with trepidation. No sooner had the leader rounded the corner than he was met with Purdey, smiling beatifically, hands on hips, standing protectively in front of Gambit. The man almost ran into them, took Purdey's beaming face in with an incredulous expression.
"Hello," Purdey greeted, right before Gambit looped his arms through hers and lifted her just off the ground. Both of Purdey's legs came up at once and as one hit the unfortunate man full in the chest. He staggered back, winded. Before he could recover himself, Gambit swung Purdey sideways and released her, as though completing a particularly tricky maneuver on the dance floor, using the momentum to wind up his own fist for a wicked right hook. The man went down, dead to the world. Purdey shot Gambit a congratulatory look as he flexed the fingers on his somewhat bruised fist. Then, as one, they darted out into the foyer, just in time to intercept the last two goons, who were advancing cautiously following the sudden disappearance of two of their compatriots.
Without hesitation, Purdey leaned back, looped her arms once more with Gambit's, and shot out both legs, one connecting with each man's chest. They stumbled back as Gambit set Purdey back down with the last of his strength. He drew the gun as Purdey darted forward, twisting to the side to slam a shin into the abdomen of one man, whom Gambit recognised as Vanessa's assistant Mark, swinging an elbow around to catch the chin of the other. It was then that their first attacker recovered enough to take a run at Gambit. Purdey swung around in pursuit, but Gambit squeezed the trigger of his gun, just once, and the shot shattered the relative silence of the evening. The man went down clutching the bullet wound in his shoulder. Purdey was so relieved that Gambit was all right that she let her guard down, and it was only Gambit's widened eyes and cry of alarm that made her to duck just in time to avoid a nasty blow to the head. She dodged sideways, circling around and feinting once or twice to keep her opponent on his toes, belatedly realizing it was the man whose nose she had bruised in their last encounter. He was fixing her with an ugly scowl, clearly keen to even the score. Purdey smiled back fiercely, priming herself for a rematch that she intended to win.
Gambit, strength now totally sapped, silently cursed his condition for relegating him to the sidelines, forcing him to stand by and watch Purdey fight. He knew she could handle herself, but it was always hard to watch a colleague take on an enemy without being able to help.
It was while he was watching Purdey that the fist came from nowhere, knocking him flat on his back. Gambit slammed to the floor, head spinning. Through the fog of his addled brain, he could just make out the angry visage of O'Hara looming over him
Gambit raised the gun to fire at one of the three O'Haras dancing across his vision, but the real one kicked the gun from his grasp with no small amount of satisfaction.
"Gambit!" Purdey cried in alarm, lunging forward to defend him, but abruptly coming up short as her opponent took her distraction as an opportunity to wrap an arm around her throat from behind. As Purdey reached up automatically to grip the choking forearm, she watched as O'Hara dragged Gambit bodily to his feet by his throat, and slammed him against the wall. Gambit's hands scrabbled at O'Hara's grip, but with his own strength sapped by the drugs, beatings, and the little fighting he'd already engaged in, he was completely incapable of defending himself to his full ability. Purdey watched in horror as O'Hara, grinning madly, began to squeeze the life out of Gambit.
"Oh no you don't," Purdey growled, slamming an elbow back into her opponent's stomach. She felt the arm loosen and spun in her opponent's grasp, driving a knee up into the solar plexus. The arm fell free, and Purdey delivered the coup de grace in the form of a slicing karate chop to the neck. Her man went down like a sack of potatoes, but Purdey had already whirled around and started sprinting toward Gambit and O'Hara before he hit the ground.
Still a few feet away, Purdey threw herself bodily at O'Hara, grabbing his other arm and trying to wrench him away from Gambit, but the angle made it impossible for her to attack him properly. O'Hara, endowed with super-strength born of rage, lashed out violently, sending Purdey flying backward. She hit the floor hard, felt the breath leave her body as she slid backwards across the slick surface. She rolled over with great effort, squinted through the blackening edges of her vision at the scene before her, desperately trying to coax oxygen back into her burning lungs. Even so, she could see Gambit's face turn an alarming shade of purple as O'Hara, seemingly unconcerned about killing the proverbial golden goose, attempted to throttle the life out of him. Purdey tried desperately to pick herself up, but her limbs felt slow and clumsy. She felt her alarm rise as she realised she wasn't going to be able to recover in time to save Gambit. O'Hara was going to crush his windpipe if someone didn't stop him soon.
There was a sudden, low-pitched, 'bong', that echoed throughout the foyer. Purdey froze. O'Hara froze. Even Gambit, who had been struggling futilely against being strangled to death, went stock still. Without warning, O'Hara's grip loosened and the big man toppled backward onto the floor with little grace. Gambit, finally free, gasped a ragged breath and fell bodily against the wall. Purdey, finally recovering her own composure, stared at the scene in confusion. It was then that she noticed a grey bowler hovering in the air near Gambit's head, held by a very familiar hand.
"I know I'm a tad early," Steed acknowledged, stepping out of the shadows. "But I heard the shot and thought I might look in, just in case."
Purdey's laugh was half-sob as she picked herself up. "It's always better to be early than late."
Steed turned serious. "Indubitably. It wouldn't do for a gentleman to keep a lady waiting. Whoops!" The latter was said in response to Gambit keeling forward, causing the older man to reach out and half-catch his partner before he hit the ground. "I rather think it wouldn't have done to keep you waiting, either, Gambit."
Gambit looked at Steed through eyes that clearly weren't focussing very well. "You're a sight for sore eyes, Steed," he rasped.
"Typical," Purdey pronounced, hurrying to join them. She slid an arm around Gambit's other shoulder, sharing the burden with Steed. "I do all the work, and someone else comes in and steals all the glory."
"I'll get you a plaque," Gambit managed.
"I won't accept anything less than a trophy," Purdey declared. "And a victory dinner." The banter drew her attention away from the angry red marks around Gambit's throat. She knew from experience that they'd bruise up nicely before the evening was out. She could see Steed looking at them, too, with more than a modicum of worry.
"We can have an entire trophy case put together," Steed suggested, "but let's start by finding somewhere for Gambit to sit down."
The pair of them managed to half-walk, half-carry Gambit to a small couch near the door. He settled down heavily onto it, head falling back onto the furniture and lolling dazedly. Purdey settled down beside him, undid the top button of his shirt to better assess the damage, while Steed moved to examine their handiwork. "Is Miss Thyme about?" he inquired, prodding at Mark's prone form.
"She was," Gambit croaked, as Purdey pulled the two halves of his shirt apart to reveal the already-darkening skin. He slid his eyes her way, tried his best to smile at her despite the damage. "I'm all right."
Purdey snorted. "No, you're not."
Gambit's laugh came out as a wheeze. "Okay. Let me put it another way. I'll be all right."
"You're both right," Steed chimed in, moving across the foyer and beginning to unknot the ties holding back to the curtains. Purdey and Gambit each regarded him with almost-identical quizzical expressions, and Steed had to fight the urge to smile at the unconscious synchronicity that they had developed not long after they started working together, and still seemed to be blissfully ignorant about. "Gambit's not all right, but he will be, and he's in good enough condition that I believe you can safely leave him unattended, Purdey, and help me restrain our friends before they wake up and decide to cause more trouble."
Purdey pursed her lips and looked to Gambit, who nodded ever-so-slightly, with great care. "Well, all right," she grumbled, standing and moving to the other curtain. "But I'm not leaving him alone. Now with Thyme on the loose."
"We won't venture beyond this room," Steed vowed, as both he and Purdey set about restraining the unfortunate henchman. "And you may like to know that I took the precaution of radioing Kendrick to come along before I came here. He'll have a look at Gambit when he arrives."
Gambit made a displeased noise from the couch. "I only had my last medical a few weeks ago."
"A perfect time to renew your acquaintance," Steed said cheerfully.
It was at that moment that the front door opened, and Larry arrived with the cavalry in tow, guns at ready.
Gambit groaned. "As if things couldn't get any worse."
Larry surveyed the situation, then motioned for his men to spread out. He moved to join Purdey and Steed, who were putting the finishing touches on binding their last man. "What did you think you were doing?" he said to Purdey, unwilling to try his tone on Steed. "You should have called us immediately, not gone in on your own."
"We didn't want to trouble you with a lead that might amount to nothing," Purdey replied sweetly. "By the time we knew it was something worth pursuing, it was all over. But we got you a present to make up for it." She prodded one of the unconscious men at her feet. "We've even gift-wrapped them for you."
Larry regarded the scene sourly. "I suppose it's too much to hope that Miss Thyme's trussed up somewhere like a turkey?"
"We don't know where she is," Purdey said truthfully. "But she was here. Gambit was interrogated by her."
Larry turned to regard Gambit, slumped lopsidedly on the couch. Despite his condition, Gambit managed a cocky salute. "Just like old times, eh?" Larry muttered through clenched teeth.
"Oh, come on, Larry," Purdey protested. "All you have to do is look at him to know he's telling the truth. Anyway, we got O'Hara." She pointed her chin at the unconscious Irishman. "He nearly throttled Gambit to death. I saw it with my own eyes."
Larry looked unconvinced. "What you think you saw, and what you actually saw, can be two very different things. You were the one who reported Gambit dead when he wasn't, remember? Not the most reliable witness."
Purdey opened her mouth to reply, but there was suddenly a new player on the scene in the form of Dr. James Kendrick, striding purposefully through the chaos straight toward Gambit. Larry moved to intercept him, but the good doctor shot him a dangerous look. "This is my clean-up," Larry protested indignantly.
"He's not under your jurisdiction until he's no longer my patient," Kendrick snapped back, with an expression that brooked no argument. Purdey resisted the urge to smile, and failed. "When I'm satisfied that he's physically sound, your lot can start asking your questions."
Larry's mouth was still moving, but there was no sound coming out. Kendrick was already making a beeline for Gambit, bag swinging efficiently. He crouched in front of Gambit, and set the satchel on the floor beside him. Gambit grinned at the physician. "I don't think I've ever been happier to see you," he admitted.
"I hope you remember that when it's time for your next medical," Kendrick said gruffly, pulling a small penlight from his bag. "I'm getting too old to be chasing your lot down the corridors." He shone the light into Gambit's eyes as Purdey came to crouch beside him. "Anything I should be looking out for, aside from the obvious signs of a beating?" He split the question between Purdey and Gambit, knowing that the man himself might not be fully aware of his injuries.
"He's been drugged," Purdey supplied. "Sedatives and some sort of hallucinogenic." She remembered the ache in her wrists where Gambit had grabbed her. "He didn't recognize me at first."
Kendrick nodded once, curtly. "Pupils aren't blown. No sign of a concussion." He began exploring, carefully, for broken ribs. "You'll have to stay overnight for observation," he pronounced, ignoring Gambit's groan in protest. "I know you'd rather lie somewhere on your own in agony for some ridiculous reason, but I'd rather not take any chances, especially where drugs are concerned. I want to find out what they filled you with, and whether we ought to be concerned about side-effects." He turned to Purdey. "And yes, that does mean he'll be out of Larry's reach until I'm satisfied there's nothing medically wrong with him."
Purdey didn't bother to hide her elation. "Thank you, doctor," she praised, giving him a quick peck on the cheek in gratitude. Kendrick's bushy eyebrows climbed upwards, but Purdey had to admire his ability to resist the urge to smile. "Can I ride with you back to the medical wing?"
"If you can keep him in line, be my guest," Kendrick said wryly, eyeing Gambit up with a hint of a smile. "I think you may be outnumbered this time, Gambit."
Gambit sighed and started to struggle to his feet. "Never mind. I'll come quietly. I know when I'm beaten."