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When Malcolm woke, Clara was again already up, already dressed. He was alone in the warm bed. He could still smell her perfume on the pillow. Oh, sweet scent. Clara's scent. He dragged himself out of bed; he'd have cheerfully spent the entire day unconscious. Off to shower, shave, and dress. He studied his face in the bathroom mirror as he lathered himself up. Gray stubble on his chin, hair sticking up every which way, but his eyes looked fucking strange. His jaw wasn't clenched either. He felt happy, that's what he felt. Around his neck, dark and heavy, was the leather braid. He touched the medallion, flipped it so her name was against his skin and the word owned was facing out. His arse and thighs were bruised from what they'd done two nights before, when he'd-- when he'd made a tit of himself about things a grown man ought to have moved past. When he'd told her stories about himself, his childhood.

When would she want to try that business again? He had to be ready for it when she wanted it. It was what the necklace meant. He had to do whatever she wanted. It was how he proved it. He didn't much want to yet. The thought of it made his jaw tighten.

He set that aside and went back out to her. She was on the couch now, that monstrous novel in her hands once more. She was turning pages faster than he expected. Her eyes flicked around the pages. Fast reader. Fast thinker. Her brow was furrowed in concentration. Sometimes she smiled at what was on the page before her. Mostly she seemed completely absorbed in something he couldn't imagine. He watched until she noticed him and looked up. A smile on her face at the sight of him. His heart ached in that sweet pleasant way it had been aching: painful yet somehow wonderful.

She glanced up, saw him, and smiled. He went to her, bent down, kissed her forehead.

"Plans for me, you said."

"Yeah. Thought we'd have a wander if you were in the mood."

Malcolm noted she was wearing trainers and leggings. He liked the short skirts better, but the leggings were fine by him too. Anything she wore. Anything she wanted to do. She was in charge of his holiday. So far he had to admit she'd done well. Food, wine, sex, and her name on a medallion around his neck. He wouldn't tell anybody that version of the story of this holiday, not while in his right mind, but it had happened and he was in a state of grace.

So they went for a walk, all the way into the city proper this time, hand in hand, taking their time. Lunch at a cafe with a view of a city square, lingering over coffee afterward, a pastry that Clara swore she shouldn't eat but Malcolm ordered for her anyway in schoolboy French that he desperately hoped Clara wasn't laughing at. She ate it and he stole part of it and licked his fingers to get all the sticky sauce. He wished he could lick her lips, and told her so.

Afterwards they wandered back into the vineyards behind their house, back into the countryside along paths made for the likes of them. Lovers on holiday, with a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread, no deadlines, no phones, no sense of time passing. They wandered and came to rest on a log, at the top of a hill, in the winter sunshine. Clara stretched out and turned her face up into the sunlight, eyes closed. Malcolm let himself look at her. Tiny Clara Oswald. Fucking gorgeous Clara Oswald. Fucking frighteningly intelligent Clara Oswald. Screaming genius, according to Tom, who never liked a single analysis document she wrote for him, but couldn't sack her because it was impossible to argue with them. And if she was writing for the opposition instead of him, how fucked would the Party be? So very fucked. What the fuck was she doing with Malcolm Tucker? Why did she care for him? Would he ever understand? Did it matter?

"So," he said. He shifted his accent southward, toward the cadences of a TV personality he loathed more than the usual. "Clara Oswald, economic policy wonk for Labour, caught sitting on a hill with Party terrorist Malcolm the Fucker Tucker. What brings you to the south of France in the off season?"

"Thanks for asking, Gavin. I'm on holiday with my boyfriend."

Malcolm felt a little twinge in his chest at that word, a little squeak of pleasure. He lifted one corner of his mouth and shifted forward on the log.

"And what are you hoping to do on holiday?"

Clara touched a finger to her chin, the perfect picture of a politician pretending to be thoughtful mid-interview. Well-coached, that one. "Hmm, good question there, Gavin. I was hoping to eat too much good food, catch up on some reading, and have a lot of sex."

"Sounds like heaven, if you don't mind my saying so."

"I think so. And you?" She mimed holding a microphone at him, and her accent had likewise shifted. He let himself go full Weegie to match.

"Kippin' and fuckin' by turns. Sleep, wake, morning fuck. Nap, wake, evening fuck. Repeat until they haul me back to fucking London greetin' the whole way."

"And with whom will you be having all this lovely sex?"

"Brought my mistress with me. Thought if I went down on my knees and begged, she might agree to my plan."

"Your mistress, eh? Not your girlfriend?"

Malcolm shrugged. "She ties me up, so I call her whatever she wants me to."

"I think she'd prefer to be called your girlfriend." And there Clara was back to her own accent, the Blackpool that she used when she wasn't in the office fencing with the toffs.

"That's what she is, then my girlfriend." He touched his chest, where the medallion rested. Owned, he was owned, and whatever she had him call her, it was true. But it was more complicated than that, okay, fine, she wanted to be his girlfriend too. He was more than good with that. Girlfriend. He tried the word out again.

"Girlfriend," he said, again. "Yeah. Okay. I'll be your boyfriend."

She pulled him down into a kiss that he was more than happy to yield to. Sweetness on her lips, her perfume, her hand on his chest, his hands sliding around her back. Nice. Lazy kisses, no urgency behind them, satisfied contented kisses, there on the log in the afternoon sunshine, under a tree, looking down at vineyards. He was happy, that's what he was. Fucked as he was in the head, he was happy.

"Never imagined this," he said. "All the time I wanted what we've been doing, never imagined it would feel like this."

"How does it feel?"

"Good. And it's not just the sex, though that's far more fun than I'd thought it would be. I never thought being tied up for real would be better than thinking about it and wanking."

"When did you figure out you liked bondage?"

"Fucked if I have any idea. The moment I knew it was possible I knew it was what I wanted. Got so fucking hard, it was like I'd never been turned on before. Thought I was going to come just from thinking about it."

"You ever do anything with anybody at all before me?"

Malcolm shook his head. "Used to pretend I was tied up. Lie on me back, reach up, hold the headboard, not move my hands. Like you had me do this morning. Suggested it to a woman once-- was serious about her at the time. She fucking laughed. Thought I wanted to tie her up. Couldn't bring myself to set her straight."

"Ouch."

"Had to break up with her, because it like fucking lead in my stomach afterward, thinking about that laugh."

"Yeah. I know that feeling."

"You? When'd you figure it out?"

"Like you. As soon as I knew it was possible, but the other way around. Didn't meet anybody else who was interested until uni."

"How many other men have you done this with?"

"Lots." She brushed her hair away from her face. "That sounded a lot worse than I meant."

He smiled down at her. "Didn't think I was your first. Just wondering how you learned how to do it."

"Took some classes. With partners. Oh, don't look like that. It won't be in the papers tomorrow that Malcolm Tucker is dating a women who took a class in advanced flogging techniques at the age of twenty-one."

"You taking the piss? That exists?"

"No, not exactly. But I did go to a workshop on it. And no, nobody took my name down, and I had purple hair at the time."

"Fuck me, purple hair?"

"It was a phase." She grinned in a way that told him that she'd liked the phase.

"I'd like to see their faces if you tried it now."

"Can't do it and stay in politics," Clara said. "Not in the dress code."

Malcolm laughed. Clara with purple hair. Punky Clara in a leather jacket, with a nose ring, that discreet piercing at the top of her ear a recent thing. He would chase that, skirt or no. He would have fallen for Clara at any age. Something about her, the take-charge nature, the sheer brains, the complete contempt she had for idiocy. He'd have fallen for her any time he met her.

He smiled at her like the simpleton he was. He was wearing her necklace. He'd told her he loved her. She'd kissed him in response. Hadn't said it, but he was patient. She wouldn't have given that tag to any man. Just him. Only him. Oh, fuck him, but he was gone.

"Flogging," he said. "You took a workshop on flogging." His stomach got a little odd when he said that word. Desire and fear and a sick feeling, all at once.

"Yeah. Hey. Need to tell you something. It's going to be a little while before I'm ready to do that again. I messed it up. Until I am sure I won't mess it up again, I'm going to take a break." She paused. "I hope that's okay."

Malcolm looked at the ground at his feet rather than her. He ran his tongue over his lips. Okay? Yes. No. That was what he'd wanted to hear, yes, but he'd messed it up, not her. "It's okay, love. You didn't set out to do it."

"Yeah, but it happened anyway. While I had you in bondage. That means it's on me."

"Rules?"

"Sort of. It's a responsibility. You hand yourself over to me, I have to take care of you. It's the promise I make you."

"No, was on me. I didn't tell you."

Clara shook her head. "Would you ever have told me that?"

He frowned, shook his head. "Didn't remember it. Not strictly. Can't fucking describe it. Never forgot it, not really, but ask me about growing up and I'd have told a hundred other stories. About being poor, mostly."

"Deep things come up sometimes, when it gets intense."

"You said that to me once. Had no idea what you were talking about. Fucking sex. I thought it was going to be just sex, you and me."

"I did too. But--" She took his hand and squeezed it. Malcolm squeezed back and laced his fingers through hers. There was that feeling in his chest again. He'd been feeling it for days and days. Madness, almost, longing that he almost couldn't bear, longing that eased only when he had his arms around her.

"Anyway, the deal is that you have to tell me things like that. Or it isn't right. I need to know how you might react. So we need to get to a place where we talk. Properly."

"Properly," he said. He wasn't sure what the fuck that meant.

"Properly. That means we agree what I'm going to do, and you know what it's going to involve, and you tell me if any of it makes you uncomfortable. But first we take a little break to reset."

He swallowed. Yes good, no awful. He wanted her. He wanted her right now, though his middle-aged body probably couldn't manage it. He wanted to take her in the night, after dinner and a glass of wine, tumbling into bed, kicking off shoes, laughing. Was she saying she didn't want him? "If I asked, if we wanted-- no making love at all?"

She laughed and tightened her hand in his. "We can make love all we want. So odd to hear you put it that way instead of saying fucking or something even worse."

"Making love," Malcolm said, drawling it out. "Embracing you. Being one with you."

"Where is Malcolm and what have you done with him?"

"Malcolm Tucker has left the building. He's climbed the tree and found a new leaf."

Temporize. Distract. Malcolm scrambled off the log and onto his knees. He found a leaf in the litter and mould beside the log and held it up. No idea what sort of leaf it was, or from what sort of tree. The tree they were underneath, probably, whatever that was. He'd been raised in a city. Green leaf, perfectly lovely leaf. He held it up to her.

"See this? My new leaf. I'm going to read the leaf, tell my future. This fucking line here? That's the heart line. Means I'm in love with somebody. This spiky bit here? Says the woman who's fucked off with my heart is named Clara."

"Is that so." She was smiling at him and it was the most gorgeous sight.

"This bit here where it's been chewed through by something? The most obscene thing ever seen on a leaf. Means we're going to screw like rabbits tonight."

Clara began giggling.

"Yeah, you think that's funny? Won't be laughing tonight when the leaf prophecy comes true. You'll be moaning, not laughing. Begging to the leaf gods for more holes. Yeah, you'll see. I'm fucking right."

She was choking with laughter now and her dimples were showing. Malcolm couldn't look away. How the fuck had the universe colluded to give her everything? Brains, doe eyes, dimples, a body that made him weak in the head. Oh he was so fucking gone. Had been since the moment he'd listened to her very quietly taking the hide off Tom for his austerity claims. Oh, Clara, Clara.

"Malcolm, you lunatic, you are utter barking mad. Malc--" Suddenly she was serious again, gazing at him with those big eyes, so huge, swimming with something. Malcolm held her gaze, tried to remember to breathe. Her hand came to rest on his chest again, right over where the pendant lay. She said, "I don't want to mess this up. Us. This thing we have going. That's why I want us to hold off for a bit. Is that okay with you?"

He looked down at her hand, thought about the necklace he wore and wouldn't be taking off, no fucking chance of it. Thought about how tense he'd felt at the idea of being tied up again. Thought about patience. About how kissing her was as good as kissing anybody had ever been.

"I'm okay. Relieved. You got me right on that. The idea of it made me-- Yeah."

"You need to tell me things like that."

Malcolm cradled his hand over hers. "Felt like shit for not wanting it."

"Remember what I said. I'm not here just for the sex. I'm here for you."

"Okay." He thought about telling her he loved her again, but something held him back from it. She hadn't said it to him. He didn't want to say it and then have another awkward moment waiting to hear it back. She'd say it when she felt it. She would. He didn't need to sound needy by begging her for it. But fuck him, he wanted to hear it. Wanted it so badly in that moment his heart hurt.

He didn't want to sit there any more. Wanted to get back to the house. He felt tired again for reasons he couldn't fathom. He'd slept for fucking ages. He stood up and stretched out his hand for hers. She squeezed it when she took it and he felt a little better.

"Yeah. Let's get back. Need my afternoon kip, yeah?"

They walked back hand in hand, down the hilly path, through winter vineyards, down into the village and their house. Ambling more than walking, because the afternoon sun was warm and they were on holiday and for once he had nothing to run toward. The woman who held his hand wasn't going to let him run away from anything, either. He was going to have to straighten out his head if he wanted to get tied up and fucked senseless again. Which theoretically he wanted. Pity he couldn't just have Sam come in and sort out his memories and feelings. Here you are, Malcolm, your childhood in this file folder and a skinny muffin waiting on your desk. No fucking chance. He was going to have to do the work. Look inside his heart. Find what Clara needed to hear, so that they could go back to how it was before, before he'd broken down.

Back at the house, keys tossed onto the kitchen counter, jackets hung on the rack. Malcolm watched Clara, who went immediately for her gigantic hardcover novel.

She held it up and said, "I'm going to read. Need to stick to the plan."

"My bruising schedule says I'm booked for a nap right now."

"Nap on the couch with me."

It was his pleasure to do so. Shoes off, another button or two on his shirt undone, so he could touch the necklace when he needed to, and then he was on his side with his head against her thigh. She cupped a hand on his shoulder and rested her novel on the arm of the sofa. A few moment of shifting, seeking to find a comfortable arrangement on her thigh, and Malcolm let his eyes close. He wasn't sleepy, though, not after his morning nap. He wanted to think. This was his shot at it, this quiet moment in the middle of his holiday. He didn't have to worry about crying, or being so upset he was off his game at the office. Safe safe safe. He was safe with her. That was the thing. Safe with his head in her lap. If he was ever going to sort himself out, this was the place to do it.

He'd always known it, hadn't he? Some little part of him had always remembered, even as he'd heaped dead leaves over the memory of ever having had a father. He'd always said, casually, that his father hadn't been around when he'd been a wee lad. Had died, he sometimes said, to explain how skint he always was when he was in school. Had almost believed it, except he never had. He'd just chosen not to think about it, until it was gone. Told the story until he'd believed it himself.

Malcolm cursed again, under his breath. He'd known he was a mess, but he hadn't wanted to look at it. Was going to have to look at it, if Clara had her way, and she was always going to get her way with him. So look at it, Tucker. Look at his da, drunk. Hitting him. Hitting his mam. Until one day little Malc had grown up big enough to stop it.

Standing up. Getting hit, rocking back on his heels, then surging forward to grip his dad's shirt in his fists. Blood trickling from a split lip. Spitting out curses, shoving him back. Telling him who was the man of the house now.

How old had he been? Fourteen. Scrawny, no use at sport, but strong enough to stand up to a drunk man.

He didn't have words for the feeling in his stomach. He shivered. His da, shoving back at him then turning and leaving the house. His mother embracing him, tears on his shirt. Fury in his belly. Never again, never again. It ended then.

Clara stroked his face. Malcolm sucked in a deep breath, held it, let it out. Warm here, in this little sunny room, in the south of France. Nothing like the bitter Glasgow winters. He couldn't have conceived of this life now, back then. He'd known he was clever, known he was going to uni, but hadn't ever imagined a life that included bespoke suits and his head in the lap of a gorgeous, intelligent woman. Being a journalist, yeah, he'd imagined that. He'd liked being a journalist. He'd had his crusades. He'd had friends in those days. Jamie. He'd had girlfriends then. Never lived with them. Never drank with them. Got himself proper drunk once, with Jamie on his stag night, sworn never to do it again. Lived up to his oath.

Had he ever hit anybody? He'd swung his fists once or twice, in anger even, but if they'd ever connected with anybody it would have shocked him. No, wait, he'd slugged Glenn. And then almost wept he'd been so sick about it. Had to stiffen his upper lip, draw Glenn aside, and fucking grovel because fucked if he was going to hit people. Ever. Especially not harmless decent teabags like Glenn.

The idea of hitting Clara made him even sicker. How could a man do such a thing? How could he do it to a wee boy? How could his da do it to him? Fuck. Fuck.

His eyes burned. Clara's fingers moved from his forehead into his hair. She was reading, not looking at him, thank Christ.

No wonder. No wonder he hadn't let himself think about it. It hurt like fuck. Like fucking fuck fuck fuck no words. Feel it now, no choice, Tucker, you promised, you have to look at it like a man, feel it like a man, face it. His father had been shite. His mother hadn't known what to do. Had been fucking terrorized. Like everybody around him was.

Nobody was ever going to hit him again. Nobody was ever going to dare crossing him. They were all going to run away from him. He knew things about them. He could say things. The secret was that all you had to do was say what everybody knew but nobody would say, say it in the worst possible way, and they'd all crumble. Keep them terrorized, fucking terrorized because that's how you kept people in line. Like his da had done.

Oh, fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. What was he going to do with that insight?

Set it aside, that was what. Too much for right now. Later, when he was back in London, then he'd look at that. Right now he had to deal with the fact that he'd gone strange in the head again, wasn't sure where he was, what was going on. Clara's hand in his hair: that was here and now. An anchor.

"Malcolm," she said. "Hey. Sweetie."

"What?"

"You were talking. Saying fuck over and over."

"Shit."

"You okay?"

"Why does this keep happening? When I think about him?"

"Malc--"

"What the fuck is wrong with me?"

"Nothing's wrong with you. You're just feeling things you couldn't let yourself feel when you were a boy. Malc. I'm here. I've got you." She had one hand cupping his head and the other rubbing his chest, gently. It was soothing, yeah, but he shouldn't need, shouldn't care, he was forty-five fucking years old, surely a man ought to be a man by then. All he could remember was being eight, standing up and being knocked down. Shit shit shit.

"Clara."

"Malc. I'm here."

"I remember it now. I remember all of it. Me da was a drunk who beat me. Me mam tried to stop him but he only started on her."

"I'm sorry."

"Me mam blossomed when he left. Turned into her own woman. Was always a bit timid, but--"

"Yeah?"

"Did okay by me and by herself after he was gone. Never understood why she put up with him. He was okay when he was sober. I think. Can't remember properly. I told myself stories about him. Told stories to other people. No fucking earthly idea what the truth is any more. Just what comes to me in these flashes. Didn't have them until you-- until we-- the belt. Was all buried until then."

"I know. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

"It's okay. It's good. I know, remembering the things that cunt did can't be good, but I think it's good. I just figured out something."

"Yeah?"

"Can't fucking tell you. Not yet. Need to think about it."

"Plenty of time to think."

He sat up and rubbed at his face. His cheeks were wet. What a fucking wreck he was. In love with Clara. Unable to say it. No idea what was going to happen next. For some reason it didn't feel awful. It ought to, but her hand was on his shoulder and he felt as if whatever it was, she'd be with him all the way through it.