Well my dears, this is the end. I know I've said that before, but I think I'm right this time. Deepest thanks to everyone who has reviewed, everyone who has left kudos, and everyone who has read this story. You are an excellent lot, and I apologise for putting you through chapter six. I realise it was evil of me, but I hope this makes up for it.

The chapter title belongs to the very brilliant Yvette Cooper.

Thank you again. T x


8.

"Call us hopeless romantics, call it the triumph of hope over experience."

Malcolm Tucker is explicitly banned from working once he is released from hospital. The order does not come from his nurses, surgeon, or doctors, but rather is issued by one of very few people at his firm who outrank him. Of course the idea of sitting at home and twiddling his thumbs for nearly three weeks is just about enough to drive Malcolm certifiably insane, but he is threatened with being immediately sacked and not being able to work potentially for months if he disagrees. So Malcolm is forced to heed Jacqueline Mahrling's warning and stay away from all things work related. The phones in his office are not answered when he calls with brilliant ideas that occur to him while watching the evening news, nor are his emails. Needless to say, it takes some getting used to for the Scot.

Eventually, while whining to his sister about the sheer cruelty of his pseudo incarceration, Wendy tells him to come to Scotland and stop fucking complaining. For once in his life Malcolm obliges his annoying little sister without complaint.

It is Chloé who meets him when he arrives. "Mam and Dad're at work." She announces, slinging her arms around her uncle.

"Course they are." Malcolm mumbles darkly, resenting anyone permitted to exercise their mind in an occupational sense who isn't him at this moment.

"Oi, yeh're no' allowed to grump. That's the whole point of us draggin' yer arse up here."

"Are yeh allowed to talk like that, miss? Because if y'are I'm going to stop censoring myself."

"Yeah, 'cause I've never heard yeh swear before."

"You're getting insolent, Chloé." Malcolm remarks, but there is a slight glimmer of pride in his tone. "So, are we cabbing or - "

Chloé dangles a set of car keys from her fingers. "I drove."

"Jesus fucken Christ, Chlo, can you stop growin' up? Yeh're makin' me feel old."

"Yeh're gettin' old."

Malcolm spends two weeks with Wendy, Brian and Chloé, and on one hand he is sure that spending time with his family has diffused him somewhat, has helped restore him to a healthier, slightly saner version of himself. Contrarily, however, the lack of work has been driving him steadily mad. Malcolm is a workaholic at the best of times, but the issue now is not even the simple fact of him lacking work to occupy him. He has been often left to his own devices while Brian and Wendy have been at work and Chloé has been at university. He has visited his mother as often as possible in these periods, but in the spare hours, Malcolm finds himself haunted by memories of Nicola. It's been some time since he's been quite so plagued by her.

It's the nearness of her at the hospital; her bloody maddening refusal to give him space and the resulting memories that have flooded his mind since. She had smelt so fantastically of herself, that sweet and spicy fragrance that seems to be nowhere anymore. His brain supplies little scenes of her, mere seconds long, that serve only to twist the knife he was sure he had managed to remove from his abdomen. Nicola rolling her eyes at him. Nicola fluffing her hair. Nicola running her fingers down the pleat at the front of her dress. Nicola. Nicola not taking his shit and Nicola not running from him no matter how hard he tried to make her. Nicola fighting him still to this fucking day. And for some reason, he keeps thinking she kissed him at the hospital, but he has no real recollection of any such thing happening.

Frustratingly for the Scot, Nicola is in many ways still a presence in his sister's house, even more so that she is in his own. Chloé wears the ring he and Nicola chose for her eighteenth Birthday still. Malcolm had chosen her something else after he and Nicola had broken up, had ignored her text to please give the ring to Chloé anyway, and had instead walked into Tiffany's, arbitrarily bought a silver key on a chain and given that to his niece instead, sending the ring to Nicola with the rest of her things.

Evidently Nicola had taken it upon herself to give Chloé the ring anyway, because now it seems to be permanently on her finger, while the necklace he chose is nowhere to be seen. He will not admit that maybe Nicola has a better sense for what Chloé likes and wears than he does.

Malcolm knows he should not be driven slightly mad by the fact of the words 'Happy 18th love M & N' on the inside of the band, pressing against his niece's finger. Things like this would never have happened when she was a child. Back when she was all about dinosaurs and poo jokes Malcolm was the star of her world. He doesn't miss it, per se, because he loves having grown up Chloé to trade barbs and world views with, but he does miss being the person who best knew what she wanted. Even now he would happily settle for being the person who knows what she wants better than Nicola fucking Murray, who swanned in an out of their lives as fast as her trainers and yoga-toned arse could carry her.

"What's on yer mind Uncle Malc?" Chloé queries, breaking Malcolm out of his ever spiralling thoughts that will inevitably lead to the movie in his mind playing Nicola Murray's greatest hits. He keeps thinking this should have ended by now, after all these years.

"Yer eighteenth." He answers honestly, holding out an arm and waiting for Chloé to curl into his side.

Chloé touches her ring instinctively, and with insight that is unfair from a twenty one year old asks him gently, "You still thinkin' 'bout Stevie Nicks?" His mind instantly sails back to his mother's Birthday at his niece's use of the almost-forgotten term of endearment.

"Can I help you with the cake, Stevie Nicks?"

"Of course, my darling. You can scrape the bowl if you like, too."

"I've said I don't want a cake at least six times." Isabelle had said. Her long silver hair was pulled into an effortlessly glamorous bun at the back of her head.

"Well that's a shame, because the options at this point are either I put the mixture in the oven, or Chloé and I eat all of it raw."

Malcolm's lips had quirked with the kind of respect he reserved for people who know the right tone to take with his mother.

"I don't mind eatin' it raw. Just in case it becomes an issue."

Malcolm groans, deciding not to lie to Chloé; at this age she would call him out anyway. "I'm always fucken thinkin' about Nic'la."

"You're no' perfect, Uncle M."

"Oh, what's that supposed to mean, missy?" His query is teasing, but he is genuinely intrigued by her assertion.

"It means tha' at this point by still hatin' her yeh're punishing yerself more than you're punishing Nic'la."

He lets her words sink in. She is, of course, correct. He has spent years denying himself the only woman who has ever seemed to be, however inexplicably, right for him. It's not doing him any good. "When did you get so much like yer mother, Chlo?"

"I was born with half her genes. Pro'bly somewhere around conception."

"Are you tormentin' yer uncle, Chlo?" Wendy asks, walking in with a plate of oatcakes.

"Not in any way that's unjustified?"

"Well tha's fine, then."

If Malcolm didn't feel like the women in his life ganged up on him before this holiday, he certainly does now.

Malcolm's return to work is an enormous relief to the Scot. As he is straightening his tailored suit in the mirror, Malcolm realises how much he needs the release of working, how much he relies on the chance to exercise his typically racing mind.

Although Malcolm will not acknowledge it, his addiction to work had been somewhat under control during the years he spent with Nicola. Before his hospitalisation, he was close to the level of fanaticism of his final few days in government, and close to the degradation in judgement that had accompanied it. In years gone by if Nicola had been privy to him approaching this level she would have pulled him back from the brink. He's not even certain of how she used to do it, but he is aware that the task fell to her, rested upon her ability snap his laptop shut on his fingers, switch his phone off and march him towards the bathtub. For the first time in a very long time, Malcolm allows himself to admit that he misses this.

x

His assistant welcomes him back to work with a cupcake. The majority of his co-workers skirt around him as per usual; at one point he catches a group of them dividing up money from a pool on when he would return to work. One of the bets, he discovers over lunch, is that he would top himself before the three weeks were up. Malcolm is unimpressed with his colleagues, but this is nothing new.

While he may be unimpressed with his colleagues, Malcolm is delighted to be back at work, and much to his surprise, some of his clients are glad to have him back too. One confesses that she performs better when he is bollocking her, and before he can catch himself he notes that he should relay all this to Nicola when he gets home. It hurts.

His PA is on strict orders to keep him working at a moderate level, so she begins hassling him to wrap things up at quarter past five. It annoys the Scot, but he would be stupid if he didn't give some small concession to complying with his firm's directives.

"Do you have your dry cleaning?" Sarah, his assistant, asks, knowing that it's not been done for more than a fortnight before he was taken to hospital.

"In the corner." He says, gesturing vaguely to the navy blue bag that his dry cleaning gets transported in. He is bent over his desk selecting the items that need to come home with him, glasses perched haphazardly on his nose. Sarah collects the bag and turns, querying "Have you checked the pockets?"

"Have I checked the pockets. Of course I've checked the fucking pockets, Sarah. How many times have we gone through this routine. Shit, if yeh didn't have a PhD in communications I'd swear you were simple."

"And another routine we go through every other week." The woman replies drily.

Ignoring Malcolm's protestations, Sarah dumps the contents of the bag on a nearby chair and begins sifting through each of his pockets. She removes tissues and receipts from virtually every garment, a Curly Wurly wrapper from one jacket, and a photograph from another. Deliberately she clips across the room and dumps the pile on his desk in front of his face.

"Checked the pockets, eh, Malc?" She quips as she returns to the clothing to repack it in its bag.

"Where did you get this?" He asks, his tone sharp, almost dangerous.

"Your navy jacket. Why do you sound so shitty? You must have put it there."

"I did no such thing." The same tone, the same dangerous edge. She's not phased, even if he decides to direct it at her she is at no fault and she knows it. When she turns back to him he is ghost white, and she worries he may be having some kind or relapse.

"Malcolm? What's wrong?"

"I don't know when she..."

"Malcolm?" Sarah asks again, tone becoming slightly more urgent at his ever deepening pallor.

"How did she...?"

"Malcolm what the fuck are you talking about!" Sarah demands, half worried and half annoyed.

"The photograph! The fucking photo!"

"Why are you - "

Before she can even complete her question, Malcolm is throwing his overcoat on and striding to the door. "I have to go." Sarah is completely bemused by his actions. She is left standing blankly in the middle of the room, considering the stack of documents he has abandoned in order to leave so hastily. This is the first time she recalls him ever leaving work without taking more work with him. Sarah is unsure of what to read into the afternoon's events, and resolves to simply take his clothes to the dry cleaner without further consideration.

x

In some ways Nicola Murray is relived she allowed herself to barge into her ex lover's life three weeks ago. Given, being away from him again has been hard, but she has taken some solace in them parting civilly. Perhaps not friends, but with a lesser degree of enmity than their last parting. Nicola mulls on this as she runs her pen through her fingers, bouncing each end of the object on her desk to reverse its direction. She is staring at her computer, but the information is not penetrating her consciousness. The brief her advisers have prepared for her is of course tightly written and relevant to the speech she's been attempting to draft with Cathy and Mitchell for the past week. Her face is resting against the heel of her hand, cheek squashed up against her palm. She looks dejected, but in reality she is merely a little tired and a little distracted.

She has spoken with Wendy several times over the past few weeks, and has been assured that he is his normal, miserable old self. Nicola would be lying if she said she wasn't relieved. She and Chloé have organised for Chloé to spend a few days in London with her erstwhile aunt when she's finished exams and Parliamentary has risen for the session. Apparently Chloé still has twenty-first Birthday money she is in need of spending, and Oxford Street is one of her destinations of choice. Nicola is more than happy to oblige her.

As Nicola is pondering this, Gilly bursts through her office door, hands remaining on the edge of the door and the doorjamb respectively. Her body language is hassled, and before Nicola notes that she seems to be blocking someone's entrance before her eyes find that person.

"Nicola, I'm so sorry for interrupting you - "

"Jesus, woman, I'm already in the fucking office." A Scottish voice grumbles loudly, and Nicola's head lifts from her hand.

"He didn't really give me a choice and I wanted to check with you before I called security."

"That's fine, Gilly." She says kindly before turning to her ex. "Malcolm, what can I do for you?" Even Nicola is impressed that she has managed to keep the slight note of hope and intrigue from her voice.

Gilly retreats, sensing there will be warfare within Nicola's office in the near future, and leaves the pair to their inevitable combat.

"Where did you get this?" He demands, offering her no preamble and slapping the photograph onto her desk.

"It's nice to see you too, Malcolm. You're looking slightly less like a reanimated corpse than the last time I saw you." Her observation is dry, but correct. She had instructed Wendy to feed him up while he was in Scotland, and she is pleased to see her instructions have been heeded. He looks less skeletal, more like the man she used to know.

"Answer the fucking question, Nicola." His tone is soft and even despite the harshness of his words. He annunciates so carefully that he does not drop the 'o' from her name.

Nicola glances down and studies the image, although she has no need of doing so. She knows it will behold her and Malcolm sharing a glance so fleeting that she almost struggles to remember such moments of warmth and intimacy even existed.

"It was at the house." She replies, voice soft but definitive all at once.

When she finally looks away from the photo and up to meet his eyes again, Malcolm is staring at her, looking like he wants to yell but can't quite decide what he would be yelling about. Tension is rolling off him like a downpour off a windowpane, and before they've even really begun anything, they are at an impasse.

Nicola glances down and unconsciously runs a finger over Malcolm's face, staring so contentedly at her own. Malcolm wants to rip it away from her hand, scrunch it back into his pocket, but he can't seem to find it in him to move. This is the first time he's been in the Department since their breakup, and Malcolm is reminded of the first time he returned to Parliament after his incarceration. It had been like returning o a house he had known and loved but had no longer owned. Had he been there to visit Nicola, back in the days that was a positive thin;, he's not sure he would have coped with the visit without her presence. He thinks he would have returned to his home and downed a considerable amount of alcohol. Instead he had been greeted by his magnificent heap of frump, and suddenly it hadn't seemed quite so daunting to sit in one of the Opposition offices and have a cup of tea. Suddenly he'd not felt so anxious, like he should have been shouting at someone and hounding a journalist and writing a speech all at once. Suddenly he had just felt like he should be having a quiet moment with an old friend.

This feels like the exact situation all over again, but without the comfort of Nicola. There is the memory of his sense of possession of this space, however he knows he is no longer entitled to it. This no longer feels like the office where he and Nicola would share late night take away Chinese or Indian food because she was drowning under the volume of work, but he had known she'd needed his company. This no longer feels like the room where sometimes they could simply not keep their hands off each other and they would shag on the desk or against the wall. This feels like he has walked into enemy territory. Her presence is tumultuous to him, and he is left wanting to rail against her and just fucking forgive her all at once because he is simply too exhausted to fight anymore.

While Nicola is oblivious to all this, she is not oblivious to the little huddle of her staff forming outside of her office. She can see them debating what exactly this means, and whether or not they should actually be calling security or whether they should just let her be. Turning his head to see what's caught her attention and finding the huddle of her staff, Malcolm finally gathers himself enough to utter "Can we go for a walk?"

Nicola's mouth quirks almost imperceptibly. "A walk?"

"Oh for fuck's sake, why does everyone in my life struggle with the concept of me going fer a walk? Jesus Christ, can we just go f'r a fucking walk without the third degree?"

Nicola holds up her hands in surrender and mumbles the word 'fine', rising from her chair to slide on her coat. When she stands Malcolm sees that she is wearing a watermelon coloured pencil skirt. While she is slipping on her sensible black heels, she glances up and catches him fighting a smile.

"What?" She demands.

Malcolm manages to conceal the fact that he is absolutely overwhelmed with affection for the maddening woman before him. After an uncomfortable beat he mutters "That skirt is way too fucking loud."

Nicola buttons her coat huffily. Totally missing the softness in his tone, she bites back "So is you fucking mouth."

Emerging from the office, Nicola says "Everyone, I'm going for a walk with Thoroughly Monstrous Malcolm. I'll be back soon. If I'm not, send a search party."

"A walk?" Cathy queries with a frown. The look Nicola shoots her in return is enough to silence everyone, and she and Malcolm make it out of the building without him setting fire to anyone with the power of his tongue.

Malcolm strides out of Richmond House, taking in the cold London air like it's curing him of a terminal illness. Nicola considers the action without commenting on it, clipping beside him down Victoria Embankment.

"Are you actually going to say anything to me, or are we just going to walk?" Nicola barbs. Malcolm does not respond to her, but continues until they have reached the approximate middle of Westminster Bridge. Malcolm leans against the green railing, staring out at the Palace of Westminster. The sky is a violent pink as the sun drops, and Malcolm wonders how the sky can be so lovely when the air is so cold.

"What did yeh mean, Nic'la?" Malcolm asks after a long silence.

"Excuse me?" She frowns, genuinely uncertain of what he's talking about. Malcolm extracts the photograph from his coat pocket again, passing it to her. She's not sure when he collected it from her desk; probably as she was putting on her shoes.

He has handed her the photo to her upside down, so this time her eyes fall on her handwriting rather than their faces.

Because I still feel like this.

"You asked me why I came to the hospital." The brunette replies. She sounds as battle-worn as Malcolm feels.

"I asked you why yeh came to the hospital." It's as if he's trying to process the sentence in his mind. His tone is distant, and for no real reason it reminds her of the far-off way he had rolled the idea of her Fourth Sector launch around in his mind; as if something about it simply didn't compute. "I don't remember askin' why yeh came t'the hospital." His accent is thick tonight; it has the unfortunate consequence of making Nicola want to touch him. Just gently. Just reach out and settle her hand on his back.

Her breath is beginning to cloud the air, but this is the only sign she notes of the ever dropping evening temperature.

"You were on quite a lot of painkillers at that point."

Malcolm is not looking at her; she's unconvinced he's really looking at Parliament either.

"My PA found it in my pocket today."

"Right. Right. I just... assumed that you'd seen it. I thought maybe. I'm not sure what I thought. I thought it was a run of the mill rejection, not a failure to communicate." She pauses to take a steadying breath. "I thought you just didn't want to speak to me still."

"Is this one of your fucking panic reactions, or do you mean that?"

"What exactly does that mean?" Nicola is bristling with the injustice of his comment, and he can all but feel the temperature of her blood increasing. Malcolm is not about to let her hog the anger.

"It means was this you flyin' off the fucking handle because you thought I was about to shuffle off this mortal wanking coil or did you actually fucking mean this?" For the first time he is facing her, and they are squaring off like they used to back in his political heyday. Malcolm refuses to admit that he's a little turned on by it.

"Of course I fucking meant it you absolute fucking arsehole! How could you even ask me that at this point? I sat in that fucking hospital room with you for hours with you abusing me at every turn and you have the fucking temerity to ask me if I meant that I still love you?"

"Yeah well maybe that's because you went and fucked someone else!" If the people around them are beginning to stare, neither member of the couple takes notice.

"Shitting Christ, Malcolm it's been years! And can you disabuse yourself of the notion that you're the only one of us who's ever been wronged by the other? You almost destroyed my entire fucking career and I still showed up to pick up your pieces when your life was falling apart so why don't you sing from a new fucking song sheet!"

"How dare you." Malcolm's voice has dropped to that deliciously dangerous little growl. Nicola refuses to acknowledge that she likes it just a bit. "How fucking dare you compare work to this."

"Oh come on, Malcolm. Neither of us is naive enough to think there wasn't something deeply fucking personal about the way you took me down in front of the whole fucking Kingdom! That was all about your issues with me, because if it was just about the good of the Party then you would have done it privately and you fucking know it."

"Yeah well darlin' I don't think the woman who let Andrew fucking Watckins tinker around her twat is the best judge of what's public and what's personal."

Before she can stop herself, Nicola strikes him. She hits him for everything he's put her through as long as she's known him, and she hits him for being so fucking hateful and she hits him because some deranged part of her thinks that maybe she can beat him into remembering that he does, actually, still love her.

"Don't you ever fucking speak to me like that again. Okay? I've apologised to you enough. It's been years, and if you can't move on from this then I'm going back to my office and I actually am going to call security. And this time you won't be able to sweet talk your fucking way in because Gary on reception remembers that you used to always just pop in to see Claire."

Malcolm's cheek is stinging. He has never really thought she had it in her to hit him, and part of him is grudgingly impressed.

"That was a solid fucking slap, pet." He mutters, hand covering the mark hers has left.

"Have you been listening to me?" She retorts, voice still too loud for the public setting. "Because you know I have actually survived without you and, alright, it's not always been easy but I'll fucking do it again if you keep refusing to - "

Before Nicola can truly work to the full fever pitch that her tirade warrants, Malcolm has taken her face in his hands and is kissing her hard. He is fast and demanding like a man who has been starved of water for a week and has stumbled on a waterfall. The first time Malcolm Tucker kisses Nicola Murray since their breakup she tastes like fruit salad and Lemon Zinger, and home. She tastes like the most perfectly omnishambolic thing on the face of the Earth, and Jesus fucking Christ, Malcolm has missed the taste of her.

His tongue invades her mouth before she even has a chance to process what is happening, but god, even if she can't quite work out the implications of it she inexpressibly glad to have his mouth on hers again. She knots her hand through ever greying hair and pulls him closer to her by the collar of his coat, wanting to get as much of him as she can before he inevitably remembers himself and returns to hating her. Nicola keeps him to her until her brain is screaming her need for oxygen at her and she is genuinely concerned that she may faint. Much to her surprise, when they break away, Malcolm's lips find her cheek, her jawbone, her earlobe. His hands do not leave her body. Nicola resists the urge to draw conclusions from this action.

"There's no one else, yeh know." Malcolm mumbles, and while he sounds breathless, Nicola doesn't think he sounds like he's hallucinating.

"What?" Is all she seems to be able to muster. Between his hands gripping onto her and the frigid air cooling the patches of her skin his lips have warmed and his fucking voice vibrating against her she is impressed she's managed it at all.

"The enduring fact of my cluster-fuck of a life, Nicola Murray, is it seems I am fucking doomed to you."

"Don't say that if you don't mean it, Malcolm. I won't fucking cope." There is a catch in her voice, and she hates that her eyes are moistening ever so slightly.

"D'yeh think my life wouldn't be a whole metric fuckton easier if I didn't?"

Nicola frowns but doesn't pull away from him, still more than a little worried that if she does he may totally change his mind. "There were way too many negatives in that sentence."

"See? You're already correcting my fucking syntax and we've only been on proper speaking terms for ten minutes."

"I love you." Nicola mumbles against his chest, inhaling the intoxicating smell of dry-cleaned wool that's had clementines eaten in it.

Malcolm pulls back from her, holding her gently by her shoulders and seeking out her eyes. "Unfortunately darlin', I fucking love you too."

The first time Nicola kisses Malcolm (while he is conscious) since their breakup, she resolves to never let him deprive her of the many talents of his mouth ever again.