War is not to be avoided, and can be deferred only to the advantage of the other side.
- Niccolò Machiavelli
Nicola's feeling peculiarly calm. Her people have long since vanished to Number 10 or choir practice or fuck knows where else; alone, she pads around the offices in stocking feet, nursing a cup of tea and absently rummaging through her staffers' desk drawers. She sporadically refreshes the Guardian's homepage on her computer to see the mildly-hysterical journalism piling up on top of itself, and her phone buzzes, unanswered, nearly every fifteen minutes. Great Britain is electric with news, but the DoSAC offices are quiet. Peaceful, even.
Every so often, Nicola pokes curiously at the bubble of massive self-denial that seems to have magically descended around her, tempting her mind with visions of throwing up on Jeremy Paxman or falling off a platform in front of all the cameras in the country. Nothing seems to lure the panic that she knows is in there. Somewhere.
(It's about not being able to get out, you see.)
She had once managed to get herself locked in the university library the night before exams, and had to hoist herself through an open window to escape. The quad had been eerie, lamp-lit and silent as she dashed across it, clutching her books and feeling like she just pulled off a bank robbery. Anticipation thrummed in the air around her, the collective nerves of a thousand people on the last night before the reckoning.
You're going to fail all your exams, Nicola tells herself.
Even that doesn't work. Christ, there must really be something wrong with her. She ought to go home.
Instead, she makes another cup of tea, wanders with it back to her office. A flicker of movement makes her shift the curtain to peer out the window, and she sees a cluster of people milling about at the entrance to the building.
Journalists. Nicola inhales sharply, suddenly finding it rather difficult to move. Perhaps she'll just stay here until it's all over, watch the whole fucking war from the window. She'll be the lady in the tower. No soldier, her.
"Listen, I don't fucking care how many heads you have to rip off at the printer's, I don't care how much spatter and gore ends up on the fucking walls, I don't care how much piss you have to fucking spray down their ragged, bleeding throats, I want those leaflets out tomorrow morning. Yes, morning. Yes, the time when the fucking sun is present in the sky but has yet to reach the fucking zenith. All right? Fuck off."
The problem, thinks Malcolm, with having a fucking genius plan to save the government is that other people have to be involved in the fucking execution of the fucking genius plan. Consider the number of people involved in staging a general election and the number of likely and confirmed tossers, morons, scum-suckers, and other general fucking detritus of the Earth that comprise the former group and what you have is complete and total fucking anarchy, a herd of lemmings with spastic disorders teetering on the edge of the fucking Dover cliffs.
Malcolm dodges a pair of staffers who look like they've just shit themselves (par exemple), while simultaneously striding across the street and punching numbers into his mobile.
The truth is, while calling a snap election may have been a brilliant strategic move, it's opened up enough tactical cans of worms to infect every mangy dog in London, problems which are his fucking responsibility to solve, on account of being the only person around not pissing themselves in fear.
His mobile beeps while he's pushing past a huddled group of people on the corner. "Sam, still here? Get into my left desk drawer, there's a number for PSB in there somewhere. Text me when you find it. And then leave. I've fucking told you twice already, petal, don't argue."
Malcolm hangs up. His to-do list is whistling 'round his brain like the wind that's picking up as the sun sets, but even the fucking plate-spinner in chief can bunk off for five minutes for a bit of personal business. Which involves not sleep nor food but retrieving the computer tower he'd been using that day, lest it fall into the clutches of Who-The-Fuck-Knows-But-It's-Best-To-Be-Careful.
Just outside the building, Malcolm runs into some fucking journalists.*
"Malcolm! How's the mood at Number 10?" asks one, a tiny little thing whose lipstick matches her bright red coat.
"Oh, you know, we're all fucking ecstatic, weeping tears of joy," he says, without stopping or looking at her. "And never mind that, what the fuck are you doing out here? Turning to whoring and knife crime to supplement your salaries, are you?"
"Well," she says, breaking into a trot to keep up with him, "there's still some lights on up there. Figured we might get lucky."
He chuckles dryly, and then looks up at the scattered windows that are still lit, making a few quick, simple mental calculations. He rolls his eyes, mutters, "Christ, Nicola," under his breath, and pushes his way into the building.
* In the adjectival sense, although fuck knows he wouldn't be surprised. Fucking degenerates.
Nicola has absolutely no desire to speak to Malcolm, the fucking manipulative bastard, but at least he's heralded by half of a blustery, argumentative phone conversation, which drops to a whisper level and then ends with a hissed expletive as he's a couple feet from her office door. She doesn't think she could manage being surprised by him right now.*
And maybe he knows, because he raps loudly on her door to announce himself. "Nicola."
"Malcolm," she greets him. She's perched on the file cabinet by the window, which is open slightly.
"The fuck are you still doing here?"
She smiles, bleakly. "I could ask you the same."
He shifts the computer tower he's got tucked under one arm. "Had an errand."
Instead of making some kind of derisive comment, starting an argument, or getting up to leave, Nicola simply inclines her head, noting that this non-response seems to confuse Malcolm more than almost anything else she's ever done. After a pause, he shakes his head. "Go home, Nicola. Get some rest, kiss your kids goodbye. And take that fucking…what the fuck is that thing on your desk? Take that with you as well."
"The fruit basket?" Nicola stands up, goes to her desk. "It's not mine." There's a small crinkling plastic sound as she reads the card, "Who sends a fruit basket to someone whose mother's just died? Fucking hell. Anyway, it's Harry's, apparently, only he's left it and he won't be back for a while, so, well, I nicked it." She pokes at the plastic. "It's quite nice, actually. Do you want a satsuma?"
She looks up at Malcolm with a brisk smile that he finds in no way, shape, or form convincing. "Are you a Minister or a fucking greengrocer? Get the fuck out of here, Nicola, I need you at fighting weight tomorrow, and you sitting here pretending to be the fucking Easter bunny is not exactly fucking conducive to that."
"Fighting," echoes Nicola, her smile vanishing. She plucks the satsuma from the basket and retreats to her perch on the filing cabinet. She feels on the verge of something, but whether it's anger or panic or a good cry, she doesn't know, and the way that Malcolm's eyes are carefully tracking her every move like she's a rabid animal in an open cage isn't helping.
Possibly he's concerned. Possibly he believes the dirigible filled with hot air he thinks of as her brain has finally snapped all of its moorings. Possibly he thinks she may throw herself out of the window, through which the faint sound of journalists shouting is drifting, the pack having cornered some unfortunate sod leaving the building. Nicola pulls the curtain back and watches, barely registering Malcolm carefully propping his computer up against her door and moving to stand over her shoulder. Whatever bright, unnamed thing she'd been feeling drains away, replaced only by dull exhaustion.
"Christ, Malcolm," she says quietly. "Look what you've done." Her eyes are dim with fatigue. "You've got your war, now, haven't you?"
"No, no. I mean, it's all right for you, isn't it - fire and brimstone everywhere, beheadings for all, it'll be like a trip to fucking Euro Disney for you - but I'm…well." She drops the curtain. "Honestly, I've got no fucking idea anymore." She finally looks over at Malcolm, and maybe she does have a death wish, because the next words come tumbling out. "I've gotta say, as mid-life crises go, this is definitely one of the more impressive ones I've seen, which I suppose suits your massive fucking ego!"
She stands up, as his expression, which had up to this point been somewhat sympathetic, completely shuts down and is replaced by one of barely-constrained rage.
"Let me tell you something," he begins, very quietly. "Let me try to explain this so some shred of enlightenment makes its way past your fucking skull, yeah? This is not a game, to me. It's not a game, and it's not a fucking child's plaything, and it's not something I fucking decide to walk away from because I think it's gotten too difficult, all right?"
Nicola opens her mouth to protest, but Malcolm holds up a hand. "I am willing to make allowances for the fact that you've had a hard day, Nicola. But," and he gets very, very close to her. "Do not question my loyalty. Do not ever fucking do that again, or I swear to fucking God, I will make your life a living hell. I will end you so thoroughly that not even some backwater, cow-fuck Yankee university will want you, you fucking, addle-minded twat of a girl. Do you honestly think--an election, right now, is the best chance of keeping us fucking alive. And if you had even an ounce of fucking political instinct, you would fucking know that already!"
Nicola makes several belated connections at once. "The cabal."
"The fucking cabal."
She sinks back down onto the filing cabinet. "Fuck. Fuck. Malcolm, you know I - America - you know it wasn't about-"
"Oh, I know, believe me, that sort of thing's several levels above your typical fucking operational capacity."
He sits down next to her on the cabinet. Nicola wordlessly hands him the satsuma, feeling oddly relieved that he should think her an idiot, but not a traitor.
"Fleming?" she asks.
"Fucking dealt with," he says, with venom. A tiny, fierce flame of gratitude blossoms in her chest. She extinguishes it before he can notice.
Malcolm tosses the now slightly-dented satsuma in the air and catches it. "Christ, you did a number on this thing."
"Yeah, well, I can see why you like them," she says. "Stress relief." Her mobile buzzes on her desk. She looks at it with a measure of guilt, but doesn't move to answer it. Malcolm clears his throat.
"Your family, I take it you haven't-"
"No, I haven't told them. I'm sure they've figured it out by now." Nicola slumps a little. "Not exactly a conversation I'm looking forward to: 'Sorry, loves, turns out we're not moving to America, instead, you get to watch Mummy make a complete arse out of herself in the press, and then most likely lose her fucking job.'"
Malcolm gives her a look she translates as: you and sanity are not even passing acquaintances, are you?
She rolls her eyes at him. The wind is picking up again and Nicola chances another look outside, where the pack has cornered someone who looks like they're on the janitorial staff.
She sighs. "It's not like I get much decent press anyways. That one photo a few weeks ago.* I'm like the mad aunt you keep in your attic, to that lot."
"Well," says Malcolm, "it's quite alright keeping a mad aunt locked in your attic. I mean, they can be quite fun at parties. But during an election, no, no, no no no. You will fucking be normal, or I will fucking straitjacket you and keep you in my fucking closet."
Nicola sighs. "I suppose in an optimal situation-"
"You don't have the luxury of imagining what the optimal situation is! There is no fucking optimal situation!"
"Oh, believe me, you're not fucking special. Or in any fucking sense qualified for your position. You're not particularly clever, and you've certainly not coasted through life on your looks, darling. But you have to believe me when I fucking say this to you, Nicola," and his index finger is in her face. "You are all there fucking is. This department, cesspool of irrelevance that it is, is your territory, your fucking responsibility. So shut the fuck up, have it out with your family, and do your fucking job."
In anyone else, the sheer force of the collision between what Malcolm's just said and the vanity of the person it's just been said to would be enough to make their head explode.
Nicola just breathes. From the open window, the sound of journalists' questions drifts in, a shouting, wordless noise. She shuts her eyes, drops her head.
Beside her, Malcolm's Blackberry chirps. She hears him stand up, and when she lifts her head, he's checking the screen, with furrowed brow. "Fuck," he says.
"Problem?" asks Nicola.
"Don't even fucking start. C'mon, I'll walk you out."
Nicola collects her coat and her mobile and slips her shoes on. At the door, Malcolm waits for her impatiently, his computer under one arm.
"All right?" he asks, as she juggles her things into some semblance of order. She nods. He scrutinizes her for a moment, and, almost as an afterthought, reaches out and straightens the collar of her coat.
She raises an eyebrow.
"Devil's in the fucking details, Nicola," he says, steering her out of the office with a hand at her back.
"I'm going to be hearing that a lot, aren't I," she murmurs.
"Well, that depends," says Malcolm, shutting off the lights as they leave. "Is it in your capacity to go five minutes without stepping on a fucking land mine of human shit?"
"Five minutes! I'm sure I can manage at least twenty."
"There you go. Always good to have a sense of humour about these things."
"I take it that was sarcasm."
"Jesus fucking Christ, mind like a twenty-four-fucking-carat diamond on you, Nicola. Would have been a shame to have wasted that brilliance on those think-tank fuckers."
"You know, Malcolm, I can't even imagine why I would've wanted to leave."
* Nicola, as a rule, does not like being snuck up on. To his mild credit, James figured this out after only once being accidentally punched in the face by his wife.
* The picture, taken during a fire evacuation some three weeks ago, had been of Malcolm gesticulating towards the building while in the middle of an extended hypothetical involving Fatty spitting and roasting a whole pig in his office. Nicola was next to him, smiling, with one of her dispatch boxes propped against her feet.
The other was being used by Malcolm as an emphatic device.
("You know, said Olly to Glenn, later."It's not a bad picture. She doesn't look incompetent; he's not, you know, raping her or anything. Really, they both come off quite well.")
The photo subsequently went uncommented on, but earned a positive blue flag in Nicola's file, and a yellow flag in the file, kept in a safe with three locks beneath the floor of his study, that Malcolm meticulously kept on himself.