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“The first thing I need to ask you,” Nicola's solicitor Anne asks, peering at Nicola over her wire-rimmed glasses, “--is if you're sure that you want a divorce from your husband. Have you considered counseling?”

Nicola keeps her voice steady, her hands loosely folded in her lap as she says, “I'm very sure. Divorce is the only option.”

“All right, then,” Anne says, and they get down to brass tacks. They go over financials, custody arrangements for the children, property--and then Anne looks up and asks, “So, just how acrimonious do you believe this can get? And before you answer, let me tell you--for every client I have, I always tell them to multiply their response by a factor of five before answering.”

Nicola takes a breath. “I don't think it'll be a walk in the park, if that's what you're asking. James..." she pauses, before powering on, “James didn't take it well, when I asked him for a divorce. But with my position and his, he's got too much sense to turn this into an all-out war. We do that, it lands in the press and out of our control, and nobody wants that.”

“Any secrets he's hiding?” Anne prods.

Nicola lifts an eyebrow. “I'm fairly sure he's sleeping with his secretary, if that's what you mean.”

Anne lifts her own eyebrow. “Legally, that won’t have much bearing, but as a practical matter we can use it as leverage. Do you want to use it?”

“Only if it becomes necessary,” Nicola says after a brief pause. “I suppose you'll be using a, well, a private investigator, then?” That feels so odd to say, as if Nicola’s stepped onto a drama on ITV or something.

“We've got someone in-house,” Anne confirms. “Very discreet, I can assure you.”

“Okay, good,” Nicola says. “Good.”

After the meeting, once she's outside, Nicola takes several deep breaths, gulping in the crisp autumn air. The breeze feels good against her flushed face, at least that's the excuse she gives herself for why she's not moving just yet.

It will be fine. She'll get through this.

And if Nicola tells herself this enough times, it'll eventually become true.

*

It's both gratifying and depressing how no one in the department seems to have an inkling of what's going on with Nicola personally. When Nicola looks at herself in the mirror, she looks tired and miserable, stretched too thin, every inch the Glummy Mummy the press have labeled her. And yet no one has looked at her sideways, which either means she's doing a decent job at faking it, or that nobody gives enough of a damn to notice.

Probably the latter. It's an oddly soothing thought; her personal life might be in flames, but the narcissism and self-absorption of her staff is forever guaranteed.

"Nicola?" Terri prods, and from the overly patient tone it's clear this isn't the first time Nicola has failed to respond.

"Yes," Nicola says, jerking herself back to attention. "Sorry, I'm with you."

"As I was saying," Terri goes on, and Nicola focuses on her job, because with the way things are right now, it would be nice if at least one part of her life wasn't a total disaster.

As the briefing finishes up, Terri glances at her watch and clicks her tongue in dismay. “Oh Lord, I’ve got to head over to Number 10. Robin and I have a meeting with Malcolm, and what a barrel of fun that will be.”

“Mm,” Nicola says, not trusting her voice with more at first. ‘Is any meeting with Malcolm enjoyable, though?”

“Oh definitely not, but he’s been in an absolutely foul mood these last few weeks, just impossible to deal with--”

Nicola’s face goes hot when she hears this, but thankfully Terri’s still occupied with packing up her papers, and so she doesn’t see the brief, no doubt unsightly flush to Nicola’s cheeks.

“And now he’s spreading the misery about,” Nicola says, making her voice sympathetic. “Rather rough on you.”

“It is,” Terri says with a heavy, put-upon sigh, “--but I manage well enough.”

By the time Terri's left, Nicola's cheeks are cool once more, and she's gotten ahold of herself, mostly.

The last few weeks, Terri had said. Which means Malcolm's been in a terrible temper since--

Nicola wrenches herself away from that train of thought. Malcolm doesn't matter here. Nothing matters now other than Nicola keeping her head down and getting her life in order.

*

"Are you having me on?"

Nicola barely holds back the sigh. "No, Olivia, I'm not. James and I are really divorcing."

"Jesus, Nic, I can't believe it." Nicola had put off having this conversation with her sister until she'd already talked to their mum, as she was sure it would be somewhat less emotionally taxing. She wasn't counting on Olivia being this gobsmacked, though.

So Nicola says, "I have to say, I'm surprised it's such a shock. You knew we were having problems."

"Of course I knew you were miserable," Olivia says immediately, and Nicola winces; trust her sister to go the route of brutal honesty, every time. "But after you went into politics, I thought, 'right, that's it, she'll never leave the bastard now.' And now here you are, telling me you've chucked him at last!"

"I did not chuck anything," Nicola says, although that's a lie. She did chuck James, and their farce of a marriage. "It wasn't working. We just...decided to face the music."

"We or you?" Olivia prods. "Because if you're telling me that James Murray would be the first to suggest something as undignified and tawdry as divorce--"

"Okay, me," Nicola says, trying and failing to keep the impatience out of her voice. "I faced the music and realized I couldn't stay married to him anymore. Does that satisfy you?"

"Well, bravo, pet," Olivia says. "High time you were done with him. Is he giving you hell?"

"No, not yet at least. I'm counting on him realizing that if this gets too acrimonious, we'll end up in the papers and that's not good for anyone, including the kids."

"Right, right. Christ, how are the kids taking it? Holding up okay?"

"They're doing okay, so far. At least I think so. No tantrums yet, just...a group of sad kids, wandering about like someone died."

She can hear the sadness in her words, and Olivia can too; she says over the line. "Cheer up, darling. You'll all be better off once the dust settles."

"I know, Nicola says. “Hope so, anyway.”

*

Over the last few weeks, work has become something of a refuge. Thank Christ, there have been no embarrassing public gaffes from her or her department lately, which means that there's no reason for Malcolm to come storming into DoSAC, terrifying everyone into submission.

No reason for Malcolm to show up at all, and he hasn't, and Nicola is grateful for that. It gives her space to do her job, to just--to just fucking breathe and take stock of what's happened.

It's good, Nicola's grateful for it, so of course right after a cabinet meeting at Number 10, Nicola catches sight of Malcolm in one of the hallways, talking to an aide, hands slicing through the air as he talks.

Every ounce of hard-won calm leaves Nicola in that second, and she just stands there, rooted to the carpet. Her face is hot, her skin is prickling from agitation, and she--

She absolutely has to get out of here, right this fucking second. And so Nicola goes, making her way through the corridor, her legs unsteady but still moving, because she has to move, because she cannot be this stupid yet again and hope to get away with it.

“How was the cabinet meeting?” Glenn asks her later, once Nicola's back in the office.

“Just fine,” Nicola lies with a smile.

*

The problem with work is that while it might be a refuge, Nicola simply can't stay there all the time.

The kids are coping fairly well, Nicola thinks. No tantrums so far, even if Kate and Ella are quite snappish with each other, Ben keeps holing up in his room, and Josh sticks to her like a very small shadow the second Nicola walks in the door. Nicola loves every last one of her children, she just wishes that so often, motherhood didn't feel so, so incomprehensible to her. Like a test written entirely in Ancient Greek.

On the worst days, Nicola feels as though that that other mothers--any other mother--would be doing a far better job than her.

Still, she's what these kids have got, and so her job is to muddle along the best she can, hoping she'll get it right as she goes along.

If only James were making it easier. They've worked out a temporary schedule for now, with James in his new flat, getting the children every other weekend. This weekend, James shows up an hour late than planned, and when Nicola opens the door, he sulkily asks her, “Where are the kids?”

“Upstairs, waiting for you,” Nicola says, determined not to rise to the bait. “I'll call them down.”

“Just a second, I want to speak to you first.” James says, determined, and Nicola lifts her eyebrows. “Oh? Should I have my solicitor on standby, then?”

“Very funny,” James mutters darkly as he strides past her into the study, clearly expecting her to follow.

She won't rise to the fucking bait. She won't. The kids are likely in earshot, and she won't give James the satisfaction.

Once they're in the study, door safely closed behind them, James asks, “Have you got a plan for dealing with the press?”

"The plan is to give them nothing to write about," Nicola says immediately. "We'll get divorced quietly, release a brief statement to the media and that'll be the end of it. No scandal and no fuss."

James chews this over for a moment, then he looks at her. "Just what are you doing with this divorce, Nicola? What the hell are you thinking?"

There's a baffled tone to the question that has Nicola feeling a spark of sympathy, despite herself. "I wasn't happy, James. I haven't been happy for a long time."

James scoffs, brushing aside years of quiet misery with a flip of his hand. "For God's sake, Nicola. This isn't a romance novel, it's not some drama on the BBC. We had a partnership, a marriage, children. You don't throw that all away because of boredom."

"It wasn't boredom," Nicola says, as steadily as she can manage. "We don't work, James. We haven't for a long time. And I think you know that. You're just...angry that I did something about it first, that's all." James looks like he's about to protest, but Nicola cuts him off. "I'll get the kids. They'll be glad to see you."

Nicola's not sorry she's divorcing James. She hasn't loved her husband for years, and hasn't liked him for longer than that.

She's doing her best not to be cruel, though, or at least not any crueler than she has to be. James is wrong about many things, but he's right to say they're getting divorced because of her. He's more right about that than even he knows.

But Nicola knows it. She can't forget that for a second.

*

Nicola's brilliant plan for managing to keep her disintegrating marriage out of the press goes up in smoke on a Tuesday.

She comes up the stairs into the department to find everyone either studiously avoiding looking at her, or watching her like she's a bearer of the bubonic plague.

Terri, Glenn and Ollie are lined up in front of her office like the would-be victims of a firing squad, and Nicola's stomach is sinking before any of them have uttered a word. "Oh God. What now."

They all look at each other before Terri steps forward. "It could be nothing," she starts, which is as good as a guarantee that it is in fact something huge, like the iceberg that sank the fucking Titanic, "but er, let's just have you take a look at this first."

Nicola takes the paper Terri's holding out with a sinking stomach. It's the Standard, the article not on the front page but close to it, with a photo of her outside her solicitor's firm, looking tense and unhappy.

It could almost be impressive, how quickly the article begins speculating on the reason for her making multiple visits there, and oh yes, there's the word 'divorce', right on time, with the usual unnamed sources talking about the tension between her and James at public events, the old PFI scandal--

"Rank speculation, obviously," Glenn says, breaking into the silence. "It'll be easy enough to offer a rebuttal if you, er, were there for another reason. Like dealing with your will or something."

Nicola carefully folds the paper back up and hands it to Terri. "We can't send a rebuttal."

She walks into her office, her aides right on her heels, and Terri's the one who asks the obvious question. "And why is that?"

It's almost strange, how calm you can feel, once the ax has finally fallen. "Because it's true," Nicola says. "I am divorcing my husband."

"Oh, holy fuck," Ollie utters after a moment of aghast silence. "Did you just...do this without telling anyone first?"

Nicola glares at him, ignoring the creeping flush to her cheeks and the back of her neck. "Given that it's entirely a personal matter and has nothing to do with this department, no, Ollie, I did not put the state of my marriage in front of a fucking committee."

Her entirely reasonable, if sarcastically-delivered, response does nothing to drive the appalled looks off their faces, as Terri asks next, "Did you have a plan? Any kind of plan, Nicola?"

"Please God, tell us there was a plan," Glenn mutters, hand over his face.

"James and I would quietly divorce and once it was finalized, we'd release a brief statement. I wasn't planning on being stalked by the fucking Standard outside of the law firm!"

"Well for God's sake, why not?" Terri demands, looking as exasperated as Nicola has ever seen her. "You're a public figure and this is the British press, all they need is one slow news day and they could turn the color of your shoes into a front-page story if they liked.”

"This isn't a matter for fucking public consumption, Terri, and I refuse to pander to--"

Terri's phone goes off and she glances at the screen. "It's Malcolm," she says, alarmed. "What do I tell him?"

"Nothing," Nicola snaps immediately and Terri just stares at her, before turning to Glenn and Ollie. "Please, will you two just, just talk to her while I deal with this?"

"Nicola," Glenn begins as Terri goes off to, from the sound of it, try and placate an infuriated Malcolm. Nicola only half-listens to Glenn's gentle speech about how she's a minister and a public figure and can't expect any sort of privacy, her thoughts still whirling between the article, her family, Christ, her kids, how James could respond, and then there's Malcolm--

"Well, Malcolm's on his way," Terri says once she's off the phone.

"Rather upset, was he?" Ollie tosses at her, to which Terri replies, sounding a bit like someone who's lived through a hurricane, "A bit peeved, yes."

"Well, until Malcolm comes here to rip my head off," Nicola says, barely managing to keep a lid on her temper, "is there any reason for any of you to be in my office right now?"

They all stare at her, startled, and Nicola says tightly, "That was an invitation for you to leave. Now."

Another shared glance between the three of them, and Ollie says, deferential and placating, "Yes, of course, right away, Minister..."

They all scuttle out, Glenn the only one looking like he wants to possibly try and linger, speak to her just a moment more, but Nicola is far, far beyond wanting to hear it, and so he exits, closing the door behind him.

Nicola wants to do a lot of things right now. She wants to collapse in her chair, lay her head down on her desk and indulge in a good wallow. Or maybe just get out of the office, out of the building, and just leave this entire fucking mess behind her.

She doesn't get that luxury, she knows that, she has always known that, she just wants--

She wants it to be different than this.

Not that she'll get that wish, of course. Nicola's got this hand to play, rotten though it might be, and she'll manage the best she can, somehow.

*

For all of Nicola's mantras and silent admonitions, the minute that Malcolm walks into her office, Nicola's heart begins to pound in her ears, louder than a drum. He's wearing a charcoal grey suit and he looks--he looks good, if also totally infuriated. He's always looked good, and Nicola can't believe it took so long for her to realize how much she always noticed that.

Malcolm stops the second he's through the door, stares right at her before demanding, "Am I going to enjoy hearing your explanation for how you've lost your fucking mind?"

"Yes," Nicola says, the bitterness rising in her throat, ignoring Terri standing right behind Malcolm, able to hear every word. "Because clearly that's what happened, I decided to end a twenty year marriage to the father of my kids on a whim. Got me all figured out, haven't you." She wants, so badly, for her voice to stay hard and dismissive, but despite Nicola's best efforts, a wobble slips through right at the very end.

Malcolm turns to Terri and says, almost politely for him under the circumstances, "Right, Terri, can you kindly fuck off for a moment?"

"I'll just be outside," Terri promises, and quickly flees.

The second the door shuts, Malcolm whirls around to face her, but before he can say a word Nicola warns, “Keep your voice down and keep calm, this office isn't soundproof.”

Malcolm absorbs that, jaw working, and then he finally snaps out, albeit in a moderate volume, “Just what the fuck are you doing? Divorce, Nicola?”

“You can't honestly be surprised that I'm doing this,” Nicola says right back at him, amazed. “Jesus, Malcolm, you know--” She stops, face flushing, and gets out, “You know what's really going on here.”

“No, I don't,” Malcolm immediately retorts, stepping forward. “I don't know because no other minister would be stupid enough to do this. Jesus Christ, it was one--” His voice rises and Nicola gives him a warning look, and Malcolm scowls but amends in a quieter tone, “It was one night. Don't blow this all up because you think you need to make amends or be punished--”

“I think that I cheated on my husband,” Nicola says, voice somehow level. “I think that I slept with you in a hotel room during a party conference less than a month ago, and that I can't stay married to him after doing that.”

“Well, why the fuck not?” Malcolm demands, and Nicola stares at him, stunned.

“Why--did you not hear a single word of what I just said?”

“Yes, all right, you cheated,” Malcolm says. “So what? Do you know how many ministers have cheated on their spouses? Prostitutes, rentboys, second families stashed quietly away in Majorca--”

“Oh my God,” Nicola groans, sitting back down in her seat, but Malcolm's not nearly finished.

“You know Andrew, down in Culture? You know the number of times I've had to hush up his nights with rentboys, the hotel employees I've had to interview--or Siobhan from Transport! Now she's had some very inappropriate relations with one of her aides, let me tell you--”

“Don't tell me that!” Nicola insists. “My God, Malcolm, I don't care, I don't care about the other ministers! I care about me, Malcolm. This is about what I did, how I blew up--" Nicola stops, swallows and goes on. "I did this thing. No one else knows it, but I can't simply go back and pretend it didn't happen."

"It was just one night in a hotel--"

And with that, it clicks. "Ohh," Nicola breathes out, half-laughing from disbelief. "Oh, I see what this is about for you now."

“Yeah, you being an idiot!” Malcolm retorts, but she can see the defensiveness now, the too-eager protests. How uneasy he is at even being in the same room as her now.

“Do you really think I'm doing this because of you?” Nicola asks him. “Because of one night in a hotel room?” Malcolm's face shifts, just a little bit, and Nicola feels a cold, tight smile coming onto her lips. “I see. Well, you can relax, Malcolm. No matter what you might believe, darling, this actually has nothing to do with you at all. My marriage was already a disaster. That night just gave me the push I needed to leave at last.”

Malcolm opens his mouth, but Nicola rolls right over him, “And as far as I'm concerned, the only role you have to play here is as Director of Communications for this government. Now, are you going to bring Terri back in here so we can start managing this, or aren't you?”

Malcolm holds her gaze, and after what feels like an eternity, a corner of his mouth goes up and he says, sardonic, “As you wish, Minister.”

It's not until he's turned to poke his head out the door that Nicola lets herself take a quick, shuddering breath to brace herself for everything that's about to happen, right now and for the rest of the day.

The whole day is in fact every bit as much of a nightmare as Nicola feared it would be, as news outlet after news outlet picks up the story, as she gets calls from James, her mother, her sister, friends and family across the country. Terri gets on the task of crafting a dignified statement confirming the divorce and asking for privacy during this difficult time, as if asking the press to act like actual humans instead of ravenous velociraptors has ever done Nicola a bit of good.

And Malcolm is there for all of it, arms folded, face hard and impersonal, every bit the terrifying legend everyone knows him as.

It's a good reminder of what he really is, not that Nicola ever needed one in the first place. She wasn't lying when she'd told Malcolm this wasn't about him at all, it wasn't. That night had been an aberration, a mistake, and the only net positive, if you could call it that, was Nicola finally realizing that she couldn't stay in her marriage anymore.

The adultery is the point. The necessary divorce is the point. Who she was with in that hotel room is irrelevant. Malcolm, outside of his job and how it relates to her, is irrelevant.

So Nicola keeps telling herself, until she can finally believe it.

*

Glenn catches her halfway down the stairs as she's heading out at the end of a very long, miserable, drawn-out day. “Nicola, hang on.”

“Oh God, Glenn, what now,” she asks, weary.

“I just--I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry.” Nicola blinks at him in shock, and Glenn clarifies, “About the divorce. I was sorry to hear that you and your husband are divorcing. I mean, I was stunned, of course, and I still think you should've have told us well before--”

“Glenn,” Nicola says, and Glenn shakes his head, getting back on track.

“Right, anyway. But after all of that, I was also sorry to hear it. And I wanted to say that, well, as someone who has been there myself...it does in fact get better, eventually. No matter how impossible that seems right now.”

Nicola is silent at first, then says, quietly. “Thank you, that...that is the first human response I've gotten to this news all fucking day.”

Glenn gives her a tentative little smile. “Well. I do try sometimes.”

Nicola smiles back at him. “Yes, I suppose you do. Goodnight, Glenn.”

*

The next few days are bad.

What seems like every news outlet in Britain is reporting on her divorce, from the openly prurient speculation in the Sun and Daily Mail, to the hypocritical highbrow articles in the Guardian asking if media attention on Nicola's personal life is fair play, if it can really be considered to be in the public interest. Lovely maneuver from them, getting to report on her divorce while pretending not to. If Nicola weren't so livid, she could almost respect the slickness of it.

James, of course, is both furious at the media attention and convinced it's all her fault, which has made their recent divorce negotiations crawl to a standstill. Nicola's mother keeps fretting over her and the children, the kids themselves are taking it hard, and Nicola feels so horribly, horribly guilty over all of it that sometimes she forgets what it's like to wake up in the mornings without this awful weight in the pit of her stomach.

And yet Nicola can't make herself regret the divorce. She can't regret leaving James. In the midst of so much uncertainty, it's the one thing she has to cling to--remembering that morning in the hotel, walking up alone and naked under the sheets, alone and with that terrible brilliant clarity of knowing exactly what she had to do next.

She clings to that moment, through everything, because that moment, as painful and as terrible as it was, was also so beautifully simple, the solution to her problem, all laid out for her.

So much simpler than what's come since, or what happened right before.

Not that Nicola thinks about that night. The aftermath is more than enough for her to handle as is.

*

The only option Nicola has in the midst of all this is to put her head down and work, and so that's what she does. She meets with her solicitor, she goes to Richmond Terrace, she takes care of her kids, she puts her head down and keeps moving in the hope that things will, at some point, get better.

They don't.

It's early in the morning when Terri comes rushing into Nicola's office, where she's working out a new policy with Glenn, her cell phone in her hand and a concerned look on her face. “Nicola, have you spoken to James lately?”

“I've had my solicitor speak to his solicitor recently,” Nicola says, narrowing her eyes. “Why?”

“There's a new story emerging,” Terri starts carefully, and Nicola sits back in her seat. “Oh, fucking fuck me.”

James, as it turns out, decided last weekend to go out on the town with some of his Albany coworkers during a business trip to Blackpool, and the night ended in a mess of alcohol, lap-dancers, and several of James' colleagues saying some very, very offensive things about women, immigrants, the working-class, and minorities. By the time Terri's finished, Nicola has her face in her hands as she says, “Terri, please, please tell me my soon-to-be ex-husband was not stupid enough to say any of this filth out loud. Please.”

“From what I'm hearing so far, no,” Terri says, but still in that careful manner that tips Nicola off that there's worse coming. “However, I'm hearing that the Mail has some...very awkward photographs.”

“Well, of fucking course they do!” Nicola says in disgust, lifting her head back up. “Because that's exactly what we need right now, visual proof of my husband acting like a fucking wanker.” A horrible thought occurs to her, and she turns to Terri. “Terri, tell me he's not...not naked in any of the photos.”

“No, Nicola,” Terri assures her. “But it still looks very, very bad. And seeing as how you two are still married, you'll have to release some sort of statement.”

Nicola stares at her. “Just what the hell kind of statement could I make?”

“The kind of statement that Malcolm will dictate for you,” Terri says. “Did I mention he's on his way over here now?”

Nicola stares at her. “No,” she says after a long moment of aghast silence. “No, you failed to mention that bit of terrible news.”

*

“Your husband,” Malcolm says, staring at her with baleful eyes, “--is a fucking idiot.”

“Ex-husband,” Nicola retorts, just barely restraining herself from the foolish urge to wave her bare left hand in his face.

Malcolm ignores this and plows straight on, snapping out, “He had one fucking job, didn't he? Keep a low fucking profile until the damn divorce was final. The Invisible Man, that's what we wanted, and instead he goes and pulls a fucking brain-dead, moronic stunt like this! Goes off and gets himself fucking photographed at some orgy, hip-deep in prostitutes--”

“None of the women there were prostitutes, Malcolm,” Nicola says. “Probably.”

Still Malcolm ignores her, continuing with his rant, “And those fucking coworkers of his, oh, what a lovely bunch of bigoted pricks they are, did you see that one quote that girl gave? About that stupid accountant and his jokes about the plebs--”

“I was briefed while you were on the way here, Malcolm,” Nicola says. “Now if you've quite done with the theatrics, can we get started on crafting a response to this fiasco?”

And that finally gets Malcolm to pull up, as he stares at her for a second, eyes narrowed, before asking, “All right, what's wrong with you? Where's all the lamenting and caterwauling gone?”

Nicola lifts an eyebrow. “Should I be looking more distraught?”

Malcolm lifts a shoulder. “Now that you mention it, yeah, I was expecting a bit more emotion. But you're just sitting there, looking as if this is nothing more than a slice of burned toast in the morning.”

“You think this is indifference?” Nicola laughs. “Malcolm, I'm too exhausted by this whole sorry affair to get worked up about this latest mess now. And I can't--” She stops, and says tightly, “James and I are separated, I don't have the right to comment on his personal life except for how it affects the kids and my political career.”

Malcolm lifts an eyebrow at her, commenting dryly, “Oh, you're neck-deep in the martyr routine then, aren't you?”

“Oh, fuck off,” Nicola spits at him before she can think twice. “Are you just going to sit there and toss off your snide comments, or are you going to do your fucking job and handle this for me already?”

She doesn't normally talk to Malcolm like that. Hell, she never talks to Malcolm like that, nobody does, that's the whole point of Malcolm Tucker--he goes in where angels fear to tread, while literally everyone else tiptoes around him, hoping not to get smashed.

Instead of reaching across her desk and ripping her head off, Malcolm just stares at her, disbelieving. “Oh, yeah? And just how do you think I should handle your soon-to-be former husband going out into the village square and taking a massive public dump, then?”

Nicola gestures with her hands helplessly, saying, “I don't know, just--just keep me out of it, just tell them--” She cuts herself off, thinking furiously, before saying, “Tell them our divorce is still a private matter, and I won't comment on gossip in the media. For the rest, you can just point them to Albany's public relations department, I'm sure.”

Malcolm sits back in his seat, saying nothing at first, and then asks with a raised eyebrow, “What, that's it? That's all you want to say?”

“Yes.”

“Your ex-husband goes out and makes a fool of himself with girls half his age, lands on the front page of every newspaper in the country--and your public response to all this is just “it's a private matter”?”

His flat, incredulous tone is enough to make Nicola's cheeks go hot, but she still says, stubborn, “Yes, that's all I want to say.”

He gives her an odd little glance and asks next, “So you’re not going for the jugular?”

It's the studiously mild tone that sets Nicola off, even more than the question. “Yes, because that is exactly what I want, getting into a nasty public war with the father of my kids, in my fucking glass house--” Nicola stops with an effort, reeling herself back in.

Malcolm doesn't react to that, he just watches her and waits.

“I won't play the vindictive ex-wife for the press,” Nicola says. “And I can't cast any stones, even if nobody else knows that. I know that.”

He's still watching her. Face hot--Jesus Christ, why won't he say anything--Nicola says, “This is the angle I want to go with. Can you make that happen, or can't you?”

For the life of her, Nicola can't place the look on Malcolm's face--and then suddenly she can. It's the look Malcolm gets when someone has managed to actually surprise him. Nicola's seen that look a handful of times, and each time Nicola’s seen that look, been the cause of that look, she has never known what to do about it.

That doesn't change now, as Malcolm's gaze drops, and he sits back in his chair once more. “We can go with that line, if you like.”

Nicola squares her shoulders as best as she can. “I do, thank you.”

And then her cheeks, still warm, flame bright red as Malcolm looks her over again, before giving her another smirk. “I'll give you this much--you aren't boring at all, are you?”

Nicola shuts her mouth on the half-dozen retorts she could say to that, nearly all of them wildly inappropriate, and just says, her voice a little faint, “I'm going to go and get Terri, then.”

“Yeah,” Malcolm says, still watching her. “You do that.”

*

That night in the hotel room could’ve been explained if they’d been drunk. If they’d gotten totally pissed on the drinks in the minibar in her hotel room, then maybe that night, as insane as it was, would make at least a little bit more sense.

But they hadn’t been drunk. No, they’d been completely sober, with Malcolm rushing into her room to argue with her, yet again, about her speech, which apparently trode on the heels of Nick in Health. Nicola had been determined to stand up for herself and not see a repeat of the Julie Price fiasco, so she’d gone toe-to-toe with Malcolm, at first refusing point-blank to do what he asked.

That had turned into a battle royale, and Nicola still can’t remember half of what they’d shouted at each other, but she remembers the pivotal moment, remembers marching right into Malcolm’s personal space and poking him in the chest with her index finger, spitting out, “Nyet, Malcolm. Nyet, nien, and in plain English, no, now fuck off!”

She'd braced herself for the explosion, for Malcolm to tear her to shreds, but he hadn't, he'd just stared down at her, face unreadable, and Nicola froze, her fingertips still resting on his tie.

The next part Nicola remembered clearly, it was too unbelievable for her brain to have dreamed up. They'd stayed frozen like that, neither one of them moving, and then they were kissing. The second it happened Nicola should've put a stop to it, and she didn't.

She didn't stop, not even when Malcolm's hands were on her hips, not even when she tentatively touched his hair, finding it to be even softer than it looked.

She hadn't stopped, hadn't even thought of stopping, because she'd wanted it, with a ferocity that stunned her, then and now. She wanted it all to happen, wanted his hands on her body, his mouth on hers, wanted the weight of him on her as they lay down on her hotel bed.

It was shocking and scandalous and everything Nicola wasn't, and she had...she had honestly loved it, loved the hungry look on Malcolm's face as she peeled out of her sensible dress, loved how they'd been so in sync, both so eager for it.

They'd had sex twice, Nicola coming the first time with Malcolm's head between her legs, his tongue on her clit, helpless moans caught in her throat.

She'd been on top the second time, straddling him, Malcolm staring up at her the entire time, his hands brutally tight on her hips as they fucked.

Once they were done, she'd expected Malcolm to make a speedy exit, but he'd just stayed there, next to her, the two of them carefully not touching.

"If you start panicking while I'm in this bed," Malcolm started to warn her, and Nicola found the hoarseness in his voice to be oddly satisfying to hear.

"If I promise to postpone any breakdowns about our behavior tonight until after you're gone, will that be good enough?" Nicola asked.

Malcolm hadn’t responded at first, then said quietly, "It'll do."

She'd felt oddly calm in the moment, had chalked it up to a mix of shock and post-sex endorphins, and didn’t remember falling asleep.

Nicola isn’t proud of that night. She’s not proud of herself for committing adultery, she’s not proud that it took committing adultery to finally admit to herself that her marriage was past saving. She’s not proud of the pain this has caused her family, and every single time she looks at her kids she feels a horrible twist of guilt in her stomach.

But that night--Nicola can’t remember the last time she’d wanted something that much. She can’t remember the last time she wanted something so badly that it pushed past all her inhibitions, past her common sense, past her careful plans for how her life should go.

Nicola hadn’t lied to Malcolm when she’d said the divorce wasn’t about him. But it’s also true that every time she looks at him now, she remembers that night, remembers looking at him and wanting him badly enough to take an action that smashed her ordinary life into sheer chaos.

Not that it matters, or that Nicola’s prepared to do anything about it. It’s just that it’s still there, lurking in the back of her mind, and so far she’s been unable to shake it.

She’s sure she will, though. She’s had her fill of reckless decisions, anyway.

*

When Malcolm calls her into his office at Number 10, Nicola has no reason to think it will be anything other than more bad news. Which is why she’s totally unprepared when, upon arriving, Malcolm says in a tone that’s actually mild for him, “Ah, Nicola. Close the door and take a seat, will you?”

Nicola stares at him, wondering if this is some sort of new tactic from him--is he now thinking that the bollockings will be more effective if the victim is caught unawares?

Malcolm, of course, notices her hesitation and scoffs. “For Christ’s sake, woman, stop looking at me like I’m going to eat you. Cannibalism is not one of my vices, thank you very much. Just sit down already.”

Nicola warily takes her seat, and asks straight away, “Malcolm, what is it?”

“It’s about your husband,” Malcolm says, settling back in his chair as he watches her.

“Oh, God,” Nicola says in dismay. “Are there more strippers or something? Christ, I’ll kill him--”

“No no,” Malcolm says, waving a hand. “If it had been that, I’d have just hired some Eastern European gangsters to dump his mangled corpse in the Thames. No, this about is the response we’ve had to your husband.”

Nicola takes a deep breath, trying to center herself. She’s tried, best as she can, to deal fairly with James--it’s what she owes him, really, even if only she knows it--but Christ, if this stupid orgy of his ends up hurting her political career, she’ll be the one dumping bodies in the Thames.

“To be more precise,” Malcolm says, his hand resting on a folder on his desk, “--this is about the response to your statement, and to the,” he clears his throat at this part, “--fortuitous timing of you having already chucked your turd of a husband before he got caught with a pile of underage hookers.”

“They weren’t underage or prostitutes,” Nicola corrects him. “And wait a minute, what response? I thought the media attention was focused more on Albany, you know, the big corporation whose executives are out of control, all while the country goes into an economic tailspin.”

“Well, if you’d let me fucking finish,” Malcolm says, exasperated. “I mean, Christ, enough with the fucking interruptions already, I’m getting to it.” Nicola nods meekly, and Malcolm sighs before continuing, “As it turns out, when you decided to take the high road and not throw this idiot under a fleet of buses, the public were impressed.”

Nicola blinks. “Wait, really?”

“Mm,” Malcolm confirms, not quite looking at her. “People responded well to it, stiff upper lip, brave mother trying to shield her kids, all that rot. It certainly helped that you’d already chucked him before the story broke, kept you clear of the muck. Long story short, thanks to this debacle, your approval ratings are the highest they’ve ever been.”

“That’s…”

“Incredible?” Malcolm finishes for her, eyebrow raised.

“I was going to say insane,” Nicola says, stunned. “Because it is. I mean, all these months of me at this department, and the public finally start to like me just because my soon-to-be ex can’t keep his trousers on?”

“Yeah, isn’t it funny how these things work,” Malcolm says. “Of course, we want to take advantage of this, so I’ve booked you an appearance on Newsnight.”

Nicola has to take a second to process that, and another second before she can finally speak over the sudden white noise in her ears. “I--I’m sorry. Newsnight?”

“Yeah,” Malcolm says. “The way I figure it, any presenter there will treat you with kid gloves. They come at you too hard right now, with the mess your personal life is, they’ll be the ones looking like a bully. Gives us a chance to control the message, and Christ knows we don’t have too many opportunities these days to do that.”

“Ah, I see,” Nicola says, voice faint with panic. “Can I ask when this appearance will occur?”

“Thursday.”

“That's in three days. You want me appearing on Newsnight in three days?”

“I figure that’ll give you enough time to prepare and not enough time to panic yourself into a lather,” Malcolm says. “And you will prepare for this, Nicola. When you show up on that screen, I want you calm, I want you collected, and by God, I want you to be coherent.”

Nicola stares at him, mute with astonishment, as Malcolm finishes with, “Now, can you fucking handle it, or can't you?”

There's really only one answer she can give, even if at the moment Nicola's not at all sure it's true. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, I can.”

“Good girl,” Malcolm says, ushering her out of his offices before she can say much else, or more to the point, before Nicola can gather her wits and protest to being thrown out onto Newsnight like this.

In the general haze of astonishment and panic over a public appearance, it's not until Nicola's in the car that she realizes that was perhaps the most normal--by their standards--interaction she's had with Malcolm in weeks now. No awkwardness, no pauses while they attempted to ignore the elephant in the room, no, both of them were focused on their jobs and nothing more. Nicola’s given up ever trying to understand Malcolm, or predict what he’ll do next, but it’s still a shock.

Really, just give it a little more time, and soon it would be as if that night in the hotel never happened at all.

Nicola ignores the odd rush of emotion she feels at that. Useless to worry about it, or focus on it at all, really--she’s got much bigger things on her plate now.

Like this television appearance. On Newsnight. Oh Christ.

*

“Do we even know who the presenter's going to be?” Glenn asks her later during their first of what will be as many prep sessions as possible over the next three days.

“Well, it's not Paxman,” Nicola says. “Malcolm would've warned me if it were Paxman, Christ, at least I hope he would've.”

“It's Emily Maitlis, I believe,” Terri says, looking up from her phone. “Which is good, she won't have that dour Scot angle that you get with Kristy, and it'll be far easier than if you were against Paxman.”

Nicola blinks at Terri actually offering some serviceable input at this session, but it's Glenn who actually brings it up, saying in an incredulous tone, “What, Terri, have you decided to go ahead and be useful for once?”

It's not the first time Nicola's heard someone disparage Terri, and to Terri's face, but this time, Terri's shoulders actually go back, and she looks at Glenn for a moment, narrow-eyed, before turning back to Nicola. “Right, then. If you want some useful advice, Nicola, I suggest using first names with the presenter, as quickly as you can, and as often as you can, it puts you both on an even footing. Keep your hands in your lap, and only use them to gesture when you want to make a particular point. Flap them about too much, and you'll look flighty or neurotic. And if you really want to hammer a point home, lean forward. Again, not too much, or else it'll look staged.”

While Nicola blinks at this, Terri turns back to Glenn and asks, waspish, “Was that useful enough for you?”

Glenn's eyebrows are raised sky-high, and Nicola says quickly, “I think I'm going to start taking some notes.”

The prep sessions aren't easy, and this sort of thing will probably never come naturally to Nicola, but she thinks she's slowly getting the trick of it at last, how to project a sense of calm, how to get one's point across as succinctly as possible without appearing either smug or dull. Terri and Glenn have decided to compete to see which one of them can be the most useful adviser for this, and while Nicola's still rather astonished at having competent help for once, she'll be damned before looking this particular gift horse in the mouth.

And, in what seems as quick as the blink of an eye, it's Thursday, and Nicola's about to appear on Newsnight, where--please God--she won't end up making a total fool of herself.

*

Nicola perhaps shouldn't be surprised that when her car rolls around to drive her to the BBC studios, Malcolm's already waiting inside, but she jumps at the sight of him anyway.

“Jesus, Malcolm, a little warning would've been nice,” she grumbles as she gets in. The plan had originally been for Terri or Glenn to accompany her, but somehow that had been nixed without Nicola quite understanding how or why, and now it's just her and Malcolm going to the studios tonight, while Terri, Ollie, and Glenn meet them there.

“Have you got your lines down?” Malcolm asks her, not even bothering to look up from his Blackberry at first. Once he does finally tear his eyes away from his mobile, he stares at her for a long moment, ominously silent before asking, “Is that what you're wearing?”

“Yes, what's wrong with it?” Nicola asked, nervously running her palms along her skirt. Terri had convinced her to go with the dark green dress instead of her usual suit, and Nicola had liked it, but--

“Nothing, it's fine,” Malcolm says, abruptly, and turns his attention back onto his phone.

Thank Christ, the car is dark enough that nobody can really see the flush to Nicola's cheeks at the moment. She won't let herself dwell on it, of course, as she's still determined that attempting to analyze whatever's happening in Malcolm's head is the quickest route to madness. Odds are he didn't mean for it to sound...however it sounded, anyway.

From the second Nicola gets into the BBC studios, she doesn't have a moment to breathe, being rushed into hair and makeup, and then she gets five minutes to breathe while waiting in the green room, where everyone is waiting, Terri gives her last-minute tips and Glenn does his best to give her a pep talk.

“Well, at least you can't do worse than Ben Swain, anyhow,” Ollie offers, and Nicola gives him the eye at this.

“What a high bar,” she murmurs. “I can't do worse than Blinky Ben Swain.”

It's not until she gets the cue to come onto the set that Nicola really starts to feel the panic building. She tries not to give it away, but she catches Malcolm giving her a sharp look, before telling the others, “Stay here, I'll walk down there with her.”

“I'm fine,” Nicola tries to insist as they make their way to the stage. It looks larger than she expected, larger and a thousand more times imposing.

“You are fine,” Malcolm agrees. “Do you know why? Because you have no other option than to be fine right now, do you understand me?” He puts a hand on her shoulder, turning her around to face him square on, look him dead in the eyes. “This is your job right now. Through some miracle, you've managed to land on your feet with this scandal, now get out there and fucking do something with it.”

Nicola breathes in and out, once, twice. “Okay,” she says, and this time when she says it, it sounds real. “Okay, I can do this.”

She tries to hang onto that belief as she settles into her chair, shaking hands with Emily, getting the microphone placed, waiting for the countdown to let them know they're live on air, with thousands, millions of people watching. She has to do this, and so she can do this.

And after all, she's fucked Malcolm Tucker and lived to tell the tale, this should be a cakewalk in comparison.

Nicola barely stifles a giggle at that totally inappropriate thought, but amazingly, it comes at the exact right moment to calm her nerves, because the lights are on her, the cameras are rolling, and Nicola has no time to think of anything except for what she's about to say.

*

Looking back, Nicola would like to be able to say that she can remember her first Newsnight appearance with total clarity, but that would be a lie. She remembers parts of it, remembers responding to Emily's delicate query about the recent media attention with a composed, “Well, it's always difficult, I think, when the press start focusing on personal matters, but you have to try and deal with it the best you can.”

“Do you think the attention from the press has been out of line then, Minister?”

“I won't pretend it's been easy for me or for my family, but it's nothing I haven't expected, truthfully,” Nicola says diplomatically, remembering Terri's talking points, and keeping her hands carefully folded in her lap. “In the end, I think the press have a job to do, and I think I have a job to do as well.”

She remembers only drinking the water sparingly, remembers correcting Emily on some figures, remembers leaning forward and gesturing when making a response to the Opposition's latest statement, but in truth, the whole thing is a blur in her mind, until the lights are dimming, the mic is coming off, and she's getting out of her chair on wobbly legs while shaking hands with Emily one last time.

“Nicola, that was simply fantastic,” Glenn enthuses the second Nicola reaches them, after getting most of the stage makeup off.

“Was it?” Nicola asks, trying to steady her breathing. “Jesus Christ, I feel as though I've been on a fucking roller coaster, I couldn't repeat what happened out there if you paid me to.”

“It went really well,” Ollie agrees, and Terri chimes in with, “You were wonderful, truly, I was worried about that glass of water, people can go for it too often when they're nervous, just chug the entire bloody thing down, but you--”

“Right, that's enough gushing,” Malcolm says, cutting in. “Come on, we've got to discuss a few things.”

Surprised, Nicola follows him down the stairs and towards the exit. “I thought that went well,” she starts, wondering where this is going, he can't possibly expect her to do anything else, given the late hour.

“It did,” Malcolm says, curt, ushering her outside to where the car is waiting.

“Well, don't smother me with compliments,” Nicola replies, climbing in. Malcolm follows her, shutting the car door. He calls out to her driver, “We're good, let's go.”

Nicola's eyebrows shoot up. “We aren't waiting for the others, then?”

Malcolm gives her the eye. “What, do you think they'll get lost between here and Richmond Terrace?”

“It's the polite thing to do,” Nicola replies, but lets it go at that. She's in the sort of mood where she wants quiet rathter than having a crowd around her; she just wants to breathe for a moment, let the whole experience sink in.

“I'm not imagining it, that did go really well, didn't it?” she asks Malcolm suddenly.

“And now you're fishing for compliments, I see,” Malcolm says, but wonder of wonders, actually puts down his Blackberry as he says, “That went well. You were coherent, you were calm--for once. Did you take some diazapam before going up there?”

“Hah fucking hah,” Nicola replies, and if that had been all, she would've left it at that, turned away to look out the window and bask in a job well done, at something finally going her way for once.

But her gaze flicks back to Malcolm, and he's...he's still watching her. Nicola knows that look, she's caused that look enough times by now to know what it means, even if she's done her level best to try and forget it.

And they're alone now, in this car, the tinted divider safely up between them and the driver and--and he must have arranged this, Nicola realizes in a rush. Malcolm had arranged it so they'd be the only ones in this car tonight, because he must have wanted--

Nicola presses her lips together, composing herself. If she were smart, if she were sensible, she'd leave it alone, let it rest.

But tonight, wearing this dress, with the adrenaline from tonight's appearance still fizzing in her veins, and with Malcolm sitting next to her, looking at her like that--letting it rest is exactly what she doesn't want to do.

She'd wanted him that night. She'd wanted him so badly that even now, she can’t regret it, even with everything that’s happened since.

She had wanted him that night, in that hotel room, and the truth that Nicola has tried so hard to bury is that she still wants him, even now. Especially now.

So she opens her mouth, and she speaks. “Malcolm, I won't pretend to be a mind reader, or to ever understand the way your mind works--”

“As if you could,” Malcolm tosses back immediately, but there's a carefulness to his voice, to the way he's watching her now. As if he's waiting to see what she'll do next.

“--but you keep looking at me as though you want something,” Nicola says, looking at him squarely, chin lifted.

Malcolm doesn't say anything at first, and then he asks, very deliberate, “And if I did?”

This cannot be happening. This actually can't be happening, except that it is, and she's the one that led them here, again. And just like the last time, Nicola appears to have no intention of stopping herself.

"I would say, then, that if you wanted something from me, you'd have to ask for it."

There. Nicola holds herself very still, waiting for his response. A beat, and then Malcolm's hand moves to rest on her thigh, his thumb rubbing at the thin material of her skirt.

Nicola's breath catches, but Malcolm's not watching her face now. Instead, his gaze is resting on where his hand is on her leg, and Malcolm's voice is very low as he says, “This is me asking.”

Nicola watches him, and then, very deliberately, lets her legs fall apart.

Malcolm's hand is very warm as it slips under her skirt and curves around the inside of her thigh. And this time when he leans in to kiss her, Nicola knows exactly how they ended up where they are now, and she's not sorry for any of it.

epilogue:

Malcolm’s eviscerated people for displaying less stupidity than this. He has destroyed fucking careers over decisions that were less idiotic than what he’s doing right now. He’s always been baffled by people who’ve done this, made decisions they knew full well could ruin them, and then kept on repeating those mistakes, like a botched CD.

And now here he is, doing the exact same damned thing. Jesus fucking Christ.

If there is any saving grace in this madness, it’s that her divorce to the wanker is finalized at last. It won’t save them should the press ever get a hold of this, but it’s something, that the tan lines from her wedding ring have disappeared, that the ink is dry on the divorce settlement.

All the same, Malcolm should’ve ended it fucking months ago. Gathered his wits and called a halt to it and in the process, verbally ripped her to shreds until she wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of him, until she hated him, until she’d rather cut off her hand before ever wanting to touch him again.

He could’ve done it, easily. Even now he can think of half a dozen ways to end it, clean and smooth, so that nobody will ever know. Except for him, and except for her.

He hasn’t done that though, and as time passes and they still keep on doing whatever the hell this is, Malcolm finds it harder and harder to convince himself that he will.

Christ, even this internal lambasting of his has become routine, his usual self-flagellation on the way to the flat that’s not in his name, or hers, and that he refuses to ever, ever think of as ‘theirs’. The flat he’d acquired through various means, because it was one thing to have a potentially ruinous affair, but he’d be damned before entrusting his political career to luck and whichever hotel employees would be less likely to expose them to the fucking News of the World.

He takes the lift up to the third floor--he’d found a place that wasn’t too high up, because God knew she’d never get in the lift--uses his key, and comes in without a word.

Nicola’s already there, of course, like Malcolm knew she would be. Still dressed and sitting at the tiny table in one of the two chairs, going over her briefings, with her heels kicked off and her stockinged feet delicately crossed at the ankle. She’s looking up at him, reading glasses perched on her nose, and she looks--

She looks pleased to see him. Just like she’s always looked at him, in these moments, going on three months now. Three months of coming into this flat to find her here, waiting for him, her face brightening when he walks in, like his presence is something to look forward to.

And as always, something in Malcolm twists, hard, at the sight of her.

“Malcolm?” Nicola presses when he doesn’t speak, doesn’t even move to take off his overcoat. “Do you plan on moving at some point, or do you just intend to stand there like a statue for the rest of the evening?”

“Yeah,” Malcolm says, and if his voice sounds a little off, a little hoarse, well, it is cold outside. “Yeah, I’ll move.”

He shrugs out of his coat, putting it to the side, and goes to her. Nicola tilts her head up, waiting--and there’s that twist in his gut again, fuck--and Malcolm slides the glasses off her face, setting them down on top of her papers before he bends down to kiss her, his chilled fingers resting on her cheek, slowly starting to warm as they linger.