“What is it you want?” he hisses, as if he can’t believe he’s in this position again. As if her husband made everything right the day he took him home.
She smiles as she strokes the myriad tools on the table next to where he’s strapped down.
“I want what every woman wants: revenge.”
His eyes widen with something like understanding.
Her shoes are always too tight and her underwear pinches underneath her dress, but her books are solid and warm at her fingertips and she sits at her desk just like the boys do — even if she is the only woman in their chemistry tutorial that year at Oxford.
Paul’s giving her looks again and she ignores him with all the grim determination she can muster until he finally leaves off and shuffles out of the lab, thwarted. Again.
The peace and quiet of the building once everyone’s gone is her favourite; she can’t think of anywhere else she’d rather be than here, alone with her notes and equations. Esther who cleans the labs always looks the other way when she stays after hours.
But that night everything goes sideways, as if the world has suddenly shifted 180 degrees and restructured itself in front of her in a dizzying new array that would have been inconceivable even five minutes before.
Later, much later, however, all she’ll really remember is the glint of gold reflecting in the light on the window and a strange man with a promise that there is something more out there.
Something more for her.
“You’ll understand one day, why all the other girls go crazy for love, want a man to take you home and call him your own,” her mum had always confided to her with an air of absolute certainty.
She’d never really understood, though, and as she stares down at her children’s upturned faces she still isn’t sure she ever will, not truly.
The engine purrs to life under her hands and she laughs in vicious satisfaction as they careen wildly along the hairpin turns in this little stretch of the Caucasus. George is hanging out of the window and whoops as he finally hits the tyre of the car behind them, sending the KGB thugs flying into the air end over front in a rush of fire and rending metal.
Thug #2 had tried to chat her up, earlier in the day, called her a pretty thing and expected nothing more from her than vapid, useless giggling. She grins at George with her teeth as they leave the smoke behind.
He starts laughing uncontrollably until they both are, throttling around another corner, and he looks at her with such mischief and says, suddenly, “Marry me.”
So she does — what else is one supposed to do when offered moments like this?
The images flicker before her and her hands shake with rage.
George leans over all threat and excessive movement — he really never had been meant for this sort of thing, good god — and that— that charlatan stares up with huge Bambi eyes, like he’s innocent, like he’s never been complicit in any of his government’s crimes.
George waves a hammer about, not that he ever actually does anything with it, the bastard. Such a soft touch sometimes. William — because of course he confides his entire life story, this wolf in sheep’s clothing, sensing the weakness of his prey — twitches, legs falling fractionally farther apart and George stares and growls and flings the hammer down.
It’s almost as if they’re circling each other, this strange push-pull between them, taunts and threats and meandering conversation when George forgets why he’s even there. The constant thrum of tension sets her nerves on fire and the hairs along the back of her neck alight, like recognising something through the fog of a one-way mirror.
George lets him go and brings him in close, holding him—
She throws the decanter her father had sent for their wedding through the screen.
George runs a hand through his hair and shifts around like a nervous child at the adult table. It’s rather amusing considering he’s just stolen untold amounts of high-level intelligence, freed three illegally-held prisoners, and detonated an MI6 safe house into little tiny bits.
Finally he flaps a hand at the bed in the corner and says, “I’ve never… spent this much time with a woman, to be honest. Sorry. Why don’t you take the bed.”
“It’s all right, I’ve never really spent this much time with a man,” she says with a rueful quirk of her lips. Never wanted to for that matter. She thinks of her sisters’ scandalous whispers about Miss Finch down the way, and mentally amends: Not with a woman either, frankly.
Their eyes meet and for the first time in her life she experiences a moment of absolute perfect understanding with someone. She falls asleep that night content, curled into her warm duvet, and they don’t even blink at each other once across the room, George knocked out on the couch and just as happy to ignore her as well.
They may be outcasts the world has never been able to make room for, but there’s work to be done and that’s all they really need.
She stares at the broom in her hands. George’s smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes anymore when he comes through the door.
A bird chirps outside and she wonders why they seem stuck in a parody of what a marriage should be, when they’ve followed all the logical steps. She notices her notes have gathered dust where they’ve been shoved into a corner of the desk and then the kids comes tearing through and she pastes on a smile and bundles them into their jackets so they can go outside and play.
“My father was an agent, you know,” William muses — to no one, because she isn’t listening — and he’s still strapped to the goddamn table, but he seems only to have developed an ironic little smile about it, a bit of dark humour bleeding through the whole wide-eyed routine. Thank fuck for that.
“It was never really a choice, I suppose. I never was a very social child and father would turn red in the face at how I’d always hang onto my mother’s skirts, following in her wake. I was an absolute disgrace, he’d say.”
“That where you learned to steal other women’s husbands?” she grouses, flicking ineffectually at the switches of her latest creation. She smacks it and it hums to life for a second before fading back out.
“Well, sometimes I’ve been known to steal other husband’s wives — and other wives’ wives as well.”
She throws a wrench at the machine.
Thieving, blasphemous prick.
“Mummy!” Julia and George Jr cry as they fling themselves into her arms.
“I’ve missed you too, darlings, it was such a long week without you. Daddy take good care of you while we were gone?” she asks and kisses both of them on the forehead.
William tips a martini at her from the kitchen. “The best, of course. We made cake,” he says and then George comes in and lights up at him, all twinkling affection and excitement, and it’s— it’s good. Better than good, actually.
And it’s even better when William pulls her in and they both give her a kiss on the cheek. “I heard you were magnificent in Osaka, darling,” William murmurs while she wrinkles her nose at their slobber.
“I was, actually,” she says with a grin and feels lighter than air as she runs off to the laboratory they’ve built for her in the basement. She has a new idea.
“It’s not fair,” she finally screams, frustration crashing through her.
William is quiet for a moment. “No, it isn’t. None of it is, I’m sorry.”
As she stands there, panting, she seriously considers castration, but before she can decide one way or the other, he continues, “I found your notes, you know. You’re absolutely brilliant— the way your mind works...”
She pauses, limp and wrung-out. Stares.
“What is it you want, really, for yourself?”
She throws herself out an aeroplane over glittering Inca ruins and savours the wind rushing through her fingers and along her neck. Someone’s doing experiments on children high in the mountaintops and she knows exactly what needs to be done.
When she’d first come home with George and William, tentative steps as they’d sussed out the newly fragile kinship between them all, Julia had asked, blinking up at them, “What now, Mummy?”
George had looked at her then, bruised but understanding, somehow, as William wrapped an arm around him with a small smile, and said, “Yes, Victoria, what now?”
She’d grinned, slow but sure, with purpose.
“Now we change the world.”