Peggy swung her oar so hard that when it connected with the thug's head, it splintered into a dozen pieces. The man spun away on his heel and collapsed in the passageway, so that the next man running up the narrow concrete corridor had to hurdle him. On either side, behind broad glass walls, exotic fish swam in great clouds of colour.
"Never mind! Plenty more where that came from," she said to the next guy. She reached up to the nautical display on the wall, grabbed another oar and readied herself, like a batter stepping up to the plate. The man slowed, remembered he had a pistol, and took a shot as Peggy swatted at him. The bullet ripped through the oar, cutting a neat but large circle through the unexpectedly brittle wood. Peggy looked at the size of the hole, saw that the man was staring too, and swiftly kicked him in the chin. Then she legged it for more open fighting ground. The corridors of the aquarium were too tight a bottleneck for a firefight, and besides, there were all of the glass tanks to consider. Those poor fish never asked to be involved in high espionage. Would she drown if those tanks shattered? What a way to go, Peggy thought as she ran, drowned in a California tourist trap, covered in exotic fish.
She emerged from the corridor into the bleachers surrounding the main display pool, where in daylight, pretty women and svelte dolphins performed acrobatics for the crowds. In moonlight, though, the place was positively eerie: rippling silver-tinted water, geometric shadows cast by the rows of seating, and dozens of statues with a nautical theme. Peggy kicked the door behind her shut, and wedged it with the wooden oar through both handles, then she leaned against a leering concrete seagull, to catch her breath.
"Hey there, Peg," said Dottie from inside the seagull, and yet somehow echoing across the bleachers. "Been a while."
Peggy leapt away in horror, then bent to look at the seagull, which, though large, could surely not accommodate Dottie's lanky form. She realised that the belly of the figurine contained a speaker – each statue did, as part of the arena's tannoy system. She followed the overhead wires from each statue to a tall tower at the edge of the pool – a commentator's box, overseeing the pool area. A light went on behind the window and seated at the microphone was Dottie. She gave Peggy a pert little wave.
"Where are the stolen plans?" Peggy cupped her hands around her mouth as she shouted. She was surprised that this operation was Dottie's: the theft of the reactor blueprints had been slick but from then on it had been something of a shambles.
Unruffled, Dottie cupped her chin in one hand and leaned over the microphone. "You've got a bogey at your seven o'clock, Carter," she said.
Peggy didn't trust Dottie enough to take her eyes off the commentator's box, but a crunch of gravel in that direction told her that Dottie wasn't lying. She drew her pistol, glanced left for a bare second to aim, and then, watching Dottie's face again, put a bullet in the man's leg. He went down with a howl.
Dottie applauded, each clap ricocheting through the arena like gunshots themselves. "Nice shooting, Peggy! You could have your own Wild West show, you'd really rake in the cash."
Peggy leapt down the stairs, skirting the edge of the pool as she bolted for the commentator's tower. The high angle meant that she'd have no chance of shooting at Dottie, but if she could keep Dottie trapped in the box – why would she have let herself be caught in such a vulnerable position? – they'd have a chance to recapture her. She put a hand on the ladder, and started to climb.
Close to the top of the tower, a pair of red leather pumps came into her line of sight: Dottie was sitting at the open door of the control box, dangling her legs over the edge.
Peggy dropped down a few rungs, in case the next thing that happened was a toe to the forehead. "Where are the plans for the reactor, Dottie?"
"Come on. Don't do that, Peg," said Dottie. "I don't want to kick you off this thing. At this height, you could break your neck." She leaned lower, close enough that Peggy could smell her perfume. "I only have your welfare at heart, darling."
Peggy bunched herself up, pushing her feet firmly into the rungs so she had a secure base to stand on. It would be a difficult jump at an awkward angle but she was willing to try. The trick to surviving was to not fall, she convinced herself.
"What are you doing?" For the first time tonight, Dottie looked doubtful.
Peggy gathered memories of her school gymnasium, and leapt upwards. She wrapped her arms around Dottie's waist, tangling her fingers in Dottie's blouse and holding tight.
The two of them teetered on the edge of the doorway to the commentator's box, and Peggy thought for a moment that they were going to overbalance and tumble to the concrete floor after all. Then Dottie thrust her arms out to either side, catching the doorframe and stopping them from toppling out. Then, using the strength in her arms, she pulled them both into the box.
Peggy collapsed on top of her, panting, but with her palms pressed against Dottie's shoulders to hold her still. Dottie sprawled out beneath her. Peggy waited for her to twist or pull a gun from somewhere, but instead, Dottie reached out with one long finger to brush Peggy's arm. There was something oddly wistful in her expression.
"I missed all this tussling," she said. "You're the best of them. Nobody matches up to you. If they put you in charge, we'd all be in a lot more trouble."
Peggy gave Dottie's shoulders a firm shake; she didn't have patience for the usual mind games. "Are we having a touching moment? Because if we're friends now, would you mind terribly giving me those stolen plans? I'd quite like to reunite with my team."
Dottie did shove Peggy then, flipping her to the side effortlessly, and scooted to the rear wall of the box. "Your team?" she said, scornfully. "They didn't even want to follow up on this lead of yours. They're still at the university, hunting a thief who left hours ago. Don't you ever get bored with being the lone wolf?"
"Don't you?" said Peggy, pointedly. "I know you've not had contact with your superiors for months. What was this mission? A kind of audition to get you home to the USSR?" She stood up, and looked down at the empty swimming pool; Sousa was neatly silhouetted in the moonlight, moving along the top row of seats, in that surprisingly swift way for a man with a limp. Dottie was wrong. Peggy had a team, and people that believed in her. She never doubted that Sousa would take her seriously.
She schooled her expression and her voice to give nothing away. "Dottie, this really isn't the most inspired plan I've seen you execute. Why are you in this ridiculous place, for heaven's sake? You could have run for the border, you could have flown those blueprints out of here." She turned to look down at Dottie, sitting on the wooden floor of the box. Behind her, she flipped the microphone on.
Dottie shrugged. "This park has a dinky miniature submarine," she said. "It doesn't go far, but I've got my rendezvous lined up." She tilted her head backwards, towards the Pacific Ocean behind them. "There's a real big bird sitting out there all quiet, waiting to take me home."
"There's a Russian sub off the coast?!" Peggy said, in a tone only slightly more hysterical than she actually felt. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sousa pull up straight, and then vanish into the tunnels. Good. Whatever was going on here with Dottie, wherever those stolen plans were, it meant little in comparison to a threat to national security. She had to keep Dottie distracted.
She sat down opposite Dottie. "So, this is your last mission on enemy soil, then? You'll be home to the Motherland in no time." She watched Dottie's face: did she seem less than thrilled by this idea?
"I sent my men already." Dottie wrapped her arms around her knees. "Why aren't I with them, Peggy? I should be in that tiny sub right now, zooming away from this wretched country."
Peggy shuffled forwards, closing the distance between them and leaning in. For whatever reason, Dottie had decided that Peggy was worth confiding in, and Peggy needed to get those plans secure. She pushed aside the guilty realisation that Dottie had probably never trusted anyone before. "Maybe you don't want to go home? You'll note I am not currently living in the country of my birth, either." She casually eyed Dottie's slender form: the blueprints, even rolled tightly in their case, were nearly a foot long. If they were secreted on Dottie's body, Peggy would have felt them while they were sprawled on the floor. She was sure Dottie had kept them, though. Even a maudlin Dottie would be loath to give up a solid asset like the secret plans for a nuclear reactor.
Dottie gave a hollow laugh, completely aware of Peggy's examination. "Good for you, Peggy. You keep working that case."
Peggy stood up, tentatively, but Dottie didn't move to stop her. "Forgive me for doing my job," she said. "I'm not exactly ready to play therapist to world-weary spies, not yet." She ran her hands along the console, past all the switches that controlled the lights and speakers for the pool, and then underneath it, her fingers brushing wires and fuses. A rustle came from behind her as Dottie stood, and Peggy scrabbled faster. Her fingers snagged on a leather strap, just as she heard the hammer of a pistol draw back. Peggy gave the leather strap one last frantic tug, then two shots barked out in the small box.
Her ears rang, but despite an instinctive shudder, she felt no pain. Instead, the wide glass window in front of her mazed and fell away, shimmering in the moonlight. Cool air moved over her and into the box. Then, silently and easily, something heavy dislodged from beneath the console. A leather case fell into her palm, as Dottie grabbed her by the hips and spun her.
Face to face, with air brushing the nape of her neck, Peggy felt the console digging into her thighs. Dottie leaned in close, lips brushing her own.
"We could rule the roost, Peggy. Think about that, will you? You and me, soaring above all the idiots in this world."
Peggy drew breath to answer, but instead, the air rushed out of her as Dottie pushed her hard in the middle with both hands. She scrabbled for a handhold on the console, and the floodlights over the pool burst into brilliance, in time to frame her fall from the commentator's box, down into the freezing water of the pool.
At least she had the plans. That was the last thought Peggy had before her body hit the water with a surprising amount of force, and she blacked out.
Peggy did find Howard's house offensively lavish, but she'd never complain about the bathing arrangements, the enormous claw-footed tubs and seemingly endless hot running water. She sunk into the warm water, tinted a milky lavender with bath salts that she didn't want to question the cost of, not when every muscle in her body was aching, and even her bruises had bruises. Falling into the pool at the aquarium rather than the concrete floor had been life-saving, but even so, hitting water at velocity was an impact akin to smashing into a brick wall. Once she'd hauled herself dripping from the pool, Peggy felt she'd been pelted all over with tiny hammers. The plans were safe, though, and only Sousa had seen her on her knees, retching her guts up and gasping for breath. Bless Sousa and his discretion.
This bathroom had tiny quilted pillows of white satin. Peggy wondered for a moment who thinks of things like pillows for bathtubs, then she tucked one behind her head and closed her eyes. Thank you, designers of quilted pillows and enormous bathtubs, she thought, and drifted off.
She wasn't sure what woke her; Dottie could break into a bathroom silently if she wanted. Still, something shifted in the room: the air, perhaps, or maybe Dottie simply wanted to announce her arrival. When Peggy opened her eyes, Dottie was perched on the edge of the tub, legs neatly crossed, not a hair out of place. Her nails were perfect, Peggy noticed, grimly. Her own were chipped and broken, and the left thumbnail would be turning black in the next couple of days.
"Are we going to fight again?" Peggy asked. All she had to hand was the quilted pillow, which she supposed could be made a weapon somehow, but the water was so warm, and she was so incredibly naked under it. She didn't think her dignity could stand another blow. Add to that a certain amount of guilt for taking advantage of Dottie at a vulnerable time, and Peggy thought she might just stay under the water for now.
Dottie trailed her fingers through the water, though she didn't touch Peggy's skin. "Oh, no. It's clear who won the last round, and I don't need to reassert myself."
Peggy pushed herself up on her elbows, enough that she could look Dottie in the face. "What put you in this mood, Dottie? I always imagined you dedicated to the cause. I certainly didn't think you'd turn down a ride home." The Soviet sub had slunk away in the night once things got busy along the coastline and it was clear that the jig was up. No plans and no agent on board – it was a triumph for the SSR and a defeat for the Soviets or Leviathan or whoever held Dottie's leash these days.
Dottie shrugged. "There's a lot you don't know," she said. "About home, I guess. The training is rigorous. I don't think you'd get through it. Not even you."
Peggy remembered the small child at the Soviet base, who had so absolutely convinced her and the Commandos. "No, I don't suppose that I would. Not to be the person I am now, anyway." She looked up at Dottie, thinking of her in a trim schoolgirl's uniform, learning to kill and kill and kill, while Peggy's greatest concern at the same age had been whether she'd grow up to be Head Girl. "Do you ever wonder what it would have been if our places to have been switched?"
"Never," said Dottie. "Everything was very clear, right up until that woman. Whitney Frost." Her posture was rigid, though her hand still trailed in the water. "I was proud of who I was. I worked hard to be the best and I was never afraid of dying. Even as a child, I expected it sooner or later, but when that stuff, that darkness was inside me – in my eyes, my throat. I swear, Peggy, it was in my veins. I could feel it moving inside my heart. I would have done anything to make it stop."
Under the water, Peggy felt the skin on her body rise up in goosebumps, not at the description of zero matter, but at Dottie's calm but puzzled description of feeling fear, fear beyond dying.
"I thought – when she was standing over me – that I didn't want to be there. Forget the mission, forget everything, I just wanted to run. For myself." Dottie's arms hung by her side, as if she didn't know what to do with her hands. "I've never felt that before and now it won't stop. I'm not sure what to do next. Maybe – maybe prison is actually not so bad? Maybe I should do something really, really stupid, like, storm the White House, or, or…" She stopped talking, utterly out of ideas and hope.
"Please don't," said Peggy. "Dying in a rain of bullets is not a sensible solution." Having said that, Peggy had no idea what was a sensible solution.
Dottie lunged forward, fast enough that Peggy set the bathwater sloshing in a reflexive jerk. "How do you do it? You lost everything, and you're still here."
Peggy reached for her robe; the water was starting to cool, and her tolerance for personal discussion while naked in a bathtub had waned. "What on earth do you mean?" she said, stepping out of the tub and reaching for her robe.
"You had this fairytale romance, picture perfect stuff. You can see it in the photos. There are movies about it. You were so gone on him, and he died. And you kept going. You're ten times the soldier of anyone in the SSR, and yet you're not valued. People give you no respect, and you keep going anyway. Why?" Dottie leaned against the bathroom door, perplexed.
Peggy sat on the edge of the tub, flummoxed. "I don't know what kind of war you had, but mine was mostly rations and paperwork, nothing you could describe as a fairytale. What I had with Steve was – well, it was gloriously imperfect. We barely got to see each other, and whenever we did, it was crowded and muddy and... No, I don't know what idea you've given yourself, but I am not defined by my tragedies." She closed her eyes a minute and sighed, letting herself remember: the sheer solidity of Steve, even before the treatment, and the knowledge that comes from trusting someone entirely. "Well, perhaps they define us a little, but not fundamentally. Not at the core." She reached out with one hand to give Dottie a soft push in the solar plexus. "Here. Here's where you exist, just for yourself. Nobody gets to choose what you feel or what you believe or even the way you think about the things that have happened to you. It's all yours."
Dottie touched the same place with her perfectly manicured fingers, her brow furrowed. "I don't understand."
Peggy wrapped her hair in a towel. "Life is hard. It never stops being hard, but you keep waking each morning and putting on your slippers. At least, that's how it is for me. Life means different things to different people. Maybe it's time you went and found out what yours is about."
Dottie's expression was somewhat sour, and Peggy laughed at it as she towelled her hair. "Oh, darling. What did you expect? I'm not a fairy godmother with a wand and three wishes. This is not your fairytale."
"Well, if your theory holds, I can make it a fairytale," Dottie said, with some of her earlier airiness. "I mean, if you're right and I get to choose."
"I suppose," said Peggy, warily.
Dottie caught her by the lapels and pulled her close. Then Dottie's lips were on hers, and Dottie's hands in her damp hair, and a leg crooked around hers. The embrace went on long enough for Peggy to thrust her hands into the pockets of the robe, hoping that she'd left a nail file or pair of scissors in them, just in case, then Dottie pushed her away.
She smoothed her skirt. "I'm kind of new to this way of thinking, but I'd call that a good start," she said, while Peggy reeled. "Oh, you're looking for this," she added, passing Peggy the nail file. "You're going to need it, hon – those nails are a nightmare." Then she stepped out of the French window again, and into the night.
"Dear God, what have I wrought?" said Peggy. She should call Sousa, but Dottie would be long gone by then, so she pushed her feet into her slippers and took herself back to bed. Before she fell asleep, cushioned by more pillows than contained in the whole of Buckingham Palace, she pictured Dottie cut free from her strings, and she smiled.