" Malcolm?" The spin-doctor didn't even glance up from his smartphone. Nicola cleared her throat loudly to divert his attention.
"Do ye need a cough drop?"
"Er…no. I wanted to…to tell you something."
The spin-doctor's fingers continued to dance rapidly over the keys of his Blackberry. "Well, make it quick. The PM's somehow managed to get himself more screwed than an Amsterdam tart on Valentine's Day."
"It's not yere fault. Tom's a grown man; he should know that he's to do his shitting on the toilet and not in front of a BBC news camera."
" I didn't mean for that." The DoSAC secretary of state took a deep, calming breath before continuing. " I'm sorry for always managing to fuck something up no matter how carefully you drill me. I'm sorry for…for talking back to you when you need me to be quiet and docile. I'm sorry…that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try…it's never good enough—I'm never good enough. I'm sorry for everything."
Malcolm finally placed his phone on the floor of the lift and gave Nicola an irritated look. "Now, what's this all about?"
"You've…you've done so much for me—helped me clean up all my messes. I just want you to know that I really appreciate it and that I'm sorry for making them. Seeing as I'm probably going to die in here…well, it's just something I wanted to get out there before I go."
"Go? Now Nic'la, be reasonable," the spin-doctor replied, rolling his eyes at his companion for the umpteenth time.
"I am being reasonable. 'You should know what you're capable of.' Isn't that what you're always telling me? Well, I know that I'm not capable of surviving in here much longer."
"We've been over this; ye're gonna be fine. Really."
"Will you please just shut the fuck up and accept my apology?"
Her irate tone took him aback. God, she really must've been worried if she was shouting over a little thing like that. "Fine, I accept—all except the bit about you being quiet and docile. That bit's absolute rubbish. Even if you were physically capable of being either of those things—which ye're not—I wouldn't want it. In spite of everything, I like it when ye talk back to me. I fucking like the fact that someone actually has a second opinion—even if it is a complete shit one—and isn't afraid to share it."
"Good, I suppose I can die in peace now." Her voice didn't have an iota of sarcasm in it, which disturbed him. Surely, she didn't actually believe that this was the end?
Tired of listening to his companion lament her "inevitable" demise, Malcolm decided to try a new technique. "Have ye ever considered that part of the problem is that ye know exactly where ye are right now? Maybe if ye were to…pretend we're somewhere else…"
She looked at him as though he had just suggested drinking his own piss." I can't pretend we're anywhere else. We're in a tiny, enclosed space with a limited supply of air inside, and that air is going to run out soon!"
"You say that, lass, because ye can physically see it—even if the lighting in here is still pretty bad. Why don't ye close yere eyes for a bit? It might help."
Nicola shook her head rigorously. " No, that'll make it worse. Looking at you is the only thing that's making me feel any better." She suddenly realised how that must've sounded and made to remedy the situation, momentarily grateful for the dim light—as it prevented her companion from seeing her flushing cheeks. " That is…I mean to say… I'm scared, Malcolm—more scared than I've been in a very long time. And the only thing that's keeping me from spontaneously combusting right here and now is knowing that I'm not alone—that I've got you with me."
"I'm not going to disappear if ye close yere eyes, Nicky. We're both trapped in here until someone fixes the power. I couldn't leave ye even if I wanted to."
She let the "Nicky" slide, which surprised him a little. However, this small shock paled in comparison to his next realisation.
'I couldn't leave you even if I wanted to.'
Had he really said that? And more importantly, had he really meant it? Malcolm had a disturbing feeling that the answer to both questions was "yes."
"In any case, go ahead and close yere eyes. I'll still be here when ye open them again, I promise."
" Good, I'll have to hold you to that promise." Nicola scooted closer to him, and—before he could say another word—had settled her frizzy head against his shoulder. Malcolm was about to protest, but something in him softened when he glanced back down at her. He tried to think of something to say—something that would distract Nicola from her claustrophobia and himself from the uncomfortable feeling in his own stomach.
"Have ye…have ye ever been to the Scottish highlands?"
She closed her eyes and nestled against the soft fabric of his jacket. Malcolm Tucker spared no expenses when it came to his suits, something for which Nicola was now extraordinarily grateful. " Once, when I was a kid. Why?"
"Just curious. Do ye…do ye remember anything about it?" Nicola shook her head slightly and Malcolm continued. "We used to go there to visit my grandparents. 'Gorgeous' doesn't even begin to describe it. It's exactly the way I imagine Heaven looks—not that I'll ever get the chance to compare."
"I can believe that; I've seen pictures…"
"Pictures don't do it justice: the way the water sparkles like diamonds even on a cloudy day, the moment ye look down from the mountains, and the sheep look just like wee cotton balls. And the air... so fresh and sweet and pure—like the breath of an angel. It's…. it's indescribable."
"You're doing a pretty good job so far," Nicola said, allowing him to continue painting an irresistible scene in her mind.
Malcolm finally shook her head off his shoulder. "Nah, I can't even skim the surface, and I don't often have any trouble expressing my thoughts."
"No you don't—do you?"
" One of these days, I'd love to just tell the PM to sod off, and I'll go back there." He sighed. "Not that I'd ever do it."
Nicola finally re-opened her eyes and glanced curiously at her companion. "Why not?"
"Ye know perfectly well why not. Cause I'm the safety pin holding the whole fucking government together. Ye lot wouldn't last one day without me there, pullin' all yere little puppet strings…."
"Making sure this Pinocchio doesn't make a literal ass of herself yet again?"
"Exactly," he said, nodding vigorously. Then, he let out an involuntary sigh. "Ah, but it's more than that—innit? This job is everything I am—everything I ever will be. I can't take a holiday from that; it'd be like taking a holiday from meself."
Nicola contemplated this for a moment, and then returned the subject to its original topic." Well, if you ever change your mind and decide to go back to the Highlands, take me with you."
He rose to his feet and walked over to the other side of the lift, keeping his back to her. "Even you'd have to admit, it would look a bit dodgy. A married cabinet minister running away to Scotland with her ne'er-do-well colleague? The press will have us in a warm Gretna Green bed before we've even packed our suitcases."
" Well, naturally, I wasn't planning on going alone" Her tone seemed oddly defensive for some reason. "I'd take the whole family with me. This might be just what we need—a nice, relaxing trip to a beautiful, quiet place."
"If I'm around it would be anything but quiet," Malcolm pointed out, feeling a slight smile play on his lips.
"True. Maybe it is best if we leave you behind. I don't need my five-year-old picking up any more swear words, and I'm still not sure if you'd get along with James."
The spin-doctor didn't answer. He already knew how he'd get on with Nicola's husband—about as well as Captain Ahab and Moby- fucking- Dick.
"Of course, that's assuming James would even be there in the first place. He never seems to have any time for us nowadays. One of these days, he's gonna go off to work and never come home—not to me at any rate. He'll find a younger, thinner, prettier model—trade the old station wagon in for a flashy sports car." The cabinet minister felt moisture building up in her eyes again, and mentally cursed herself for yet another embarrassing display of vulnerability.
Malcolm walked back over to his companion, sat down beside Nicola, and placed a steadying hand on the minister's back. "If he ever does that, ye'd be well shot of him. Jimmy's not fit to make yere bed, let alone to share it."
"Maybe you're right."
"Of course, I'm fucking right, and don't ye ever forget that for even a fucking moment." His voice currently had the same force and volume that it did whenever he lectured her about her political blunders.
She sniffled slightly. "That still doesn't change the fact that I love him."
"I know it doesn't, Nicky. And the bastard doesn't know how lucky he is to have that much." He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze and then released it.
"What about you? I mean…I can't help but notice your ring…."
The soft, gentle look in his eyes instantly grew hostile. "That is none of yere fucking business."
"Alright, I'm sorry I asked," the DoSAC secretary of state replied, throwing up her hands in defence.
"You should be. Don't do it again."
They sat in silence for a time, until Nicola finally spoke up. " At any rate…well, at least, we've…we've got each other, Malcolm."
He studied her appraisingly for a minute. "Suppose we do. I've got yere back, and I'd like to think ye've got mine."
" I do."
" Small comfort, but it's something."
Nicola leaned her head back against Malcolm's shoulder. " Yeah, it is. Malc?"
"I'm glad it was you."
"I'm glad it was you that I got stuck in here with—and not Glenn or Terri or Ollie."
"Me too, lass; me too."
All of a sudden, the room was flooded with light.
"Does that mean what I think it does?" the DoSAC secretary of state asked, sitting up straight and giving her first genuine smile since she'd entered the dreaded lift.
Malcolm picked his Blackberry up from off the floor and carefully stood up."If the power's back on, it's only a matter of time before the lift starts moving again. We should be out of here in no time." He returned his attention to Nicola, held out his hands and gently helped his companion get back on her feet, mere moments before the lift resumed its steady ascent.
Once they'd arrived at their destination a few seconds later, Malcolm finally noticed that he still hadn't let go of Nicola's hands. He did so immediately afterwards and instinctively wiped his palms on the leg of his trousers. The spin-doctor told himself he was getting rid of germs. After all, he had no idea of exactly where Glummy Mummy's hands had been recently, and he had no real desire to find out.
However, he knew deep down that his fear had nothing whatsoever to do with hygiene and everything to do with the fact that Nicola Murray's hands were much smaller and much softer than he'd previously assumed.
As the doors opened, Malcolm turned back to his companion. "Nic'la…about what's happened here … between us…."
" We got caught in a lift together, and we sat around and waited for the power to come back on. That's the long and the short of it, from what I recall."
"So…ye won't say anything…about…well…."
Nicola shook her head. "Not unless you want me to. And you won't say anything about me?"
He gave her a broad grin. "Not on yere fucking life, sweetheart. Not on yere fucking life."
Thank you to all who have read/reviewed/favorited/ alerted. I've very much enjoyed writing this, and I appreciated all who have taken the time to look this over. Best wishes :)