Hello, Hello and Merry Christmas!:) Finally, now that it is the 24th, I present my Christmas story. I am very happy with it so I'm hoping you will be too!;) Leave me a review, please and make me happy! I will now go and watch "The Hanukkah Story" and hope to escape the madness!;) This is dedicated to all you readers who have shown their support over the past 7 months. I'm so glad I started writing in this category!:D

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters, only the storyline!

When The Clock Is Striking Twelve

In a small country cottage the warm flames of a fire were slowly licking on hard, perfectly chopped wood, causing it to creak and moan. The room was lit by the fire and shadows flickered across the wall. In the next room an opened suitcase lay on a neatly made double bed. Eventually a man appeared and placed a towel inside the suitcase. He was in his mid-fifties with dark-blonde hair that was greying at his temples. His movements were calm and organised, suggesting that he was used to packing his belongings together. But, in fact, Niles Brightmore wasn't as calm as he appeared, nor as accustomed to travelling. So far in his life, not counting holiday trips, he had only moved twice. Firstly, when he was approaching 30 he had left his home country behind to move to New York City with one Maxwell Sheffield, a producer. And then, secondly, 4 years ago when he had fled said city due to heartbreak and an inability to face the woman in question on a daily basis. The trip he was currently packing for would bring him back to America and reunite him with his good friends. He would spend Christmas and New Year's Eve with them and then catch the earliest flight home. Checking again that his passport was safely stored in his hand luggage he walked into the living room and extinguished the fire. Then he closed his suitcase and shouldering his bag, he carried both downstairs. The wind outside was blowing sharply and Niles wrapped his burgundy scarf tightly around his neck and zipped up his coat, before adding a pair of gloves, still vividly remembering how the cold had burnt his skin in the morning when he had shovelled snow off his drive. Fawkham Green was a small town outside of London and Niles hardly encountered anyone on his way to the train station. The wind roughly swept through his hair and thick snowflakes got tangled in it. The platform was slippery and Niles feared to fall down, unbalanced as he was with his luggage. As the minutes slipped past, his thoughts kept drifting off. He couldn't wait to see his old friend and his wife again, as well as their twins whose birth he hadn't witnessed. Fran had sent him pictures over the years, keeping him up to date with their rapid development. The oldest Sheffield kid, Maggie, married to her Jewish boyfriend Michael would catch a flight to New York from Italy one day later. Brighton had changed and matured a lot after his year in Europe and was now in his 2nd year at Harvard University. Fran, once again, was the person to bring everyone together especially now that young Grace was about to leave for Australia. No-one had mentioned C.C. Babcock, however, and maybe it was for the best that they wouldn't see each other, considering how things had ended. The warm steam of the train as it screeched to a halt drew Niles from his reverie.

Upon his arrival in London Niles first headed to his hotel, where he dropped off his luggage, before braving the cold again. The lights of the Piccadilly Circus adverts were blinding him and he hurried down Regent Street, unable to appreciate the Christmas decorations as he was pushed through the crowd of people. Granted, Christmas shopping at Oxford Street on 20th December was akin to committing suicide, but it was also the location that offered the most opportunities. He spent several hours gift shopping and was so tired that he immediately fell asleep in his hotel room while the news presenter on TV was talking about the latest economical high.

His flight left late the next evening and Niles soon dozed off, dreaming about a blonde woman with light-blue eyes who was dancing with him in front of a fireplace. Niles awoke to an air hostess tapping on his shoulder, telling him to put on his seatbelt as they were preparing for landing. He yawned and stretched his tired limbs, before looking out of the window. The skies had cleared allowing Niles a beautiful view of the sparkling city that was New York. He smiled, feeling oddly moved at the first sight of a city he had once called home. The airport was busy and with all the security measures that were in place after 9/11 it took him over an hour to leave. He was just crossing the street towards the bus stop, when suddenly a limo approached and a window was rolled down.

"Where do ya think ya going, mistah?" a familiar nasal voice called.

"I thought Max had this party tonight?" he replied, surprised.

"Well, he doesn't need the limo then, does he?" Fran said, winking at him.

Niles finally broke into a smile and joined her in the back of the car.

C.C. Babcock was standing by the window of her Park Avenue penthouse and watched the snowflakes dancing in the soft glow of the street lights. Her fluffy white bathrobe felt soft against her naked skin and her long, blonde hair was swept up and held in place by a pin. Niles was coming to New York and she was expected to spend Christmas with him. Ever since Maxwell had informed her of that were her thoughts revolving around it. Her business partner had looked scared but with a barely disguised excitement, knowing that for everyone else this was good news, whereas for her...hell, she didn't even know the answer to that herself.

"Hey babe," a deep voice whispered and warm lips pressed against her neck "whatcha doing out here? Come back to bed."

C.C. smiled and turned around, finding the green eyes of her lover, Antony.

"I couldn't sleep." she explained and he nodded, pulling her against him and gently swaying their bodies.

"Relax! The show ended with the party tonight, now we'll have a much deserved break."

C.C. wanted to point out that he had nothing to do at all with the theatre business, that he couldn't possibly understand the pressure, but she kept quiet. Antony wasn't like that, their whole relationship, in fact, was completely different. They hadn't fought once, it was calm and safe and romantic, almost to the point of sickening. He had tamed her, somehow, without force but instead with guilt. She should count herself lucky to have him by her side, he had brought her back to life and yet somewhere in the recesses of her mind she could hear her old self screaming for help. When she would meet Niles again she could demonstrate to have proven him wrong. She wasn't alone at all, but with a partner, but the victory tasted bitter and it certainly hadn't stopped her from wondering what might have been.

The crisp white linen felt a little rough beneath his skin, but the smell was still the same. The Sheffields' new butler seemed to take his job very seriously, for the entire house was spotless. He was different though than Niles had been, more detached and less a part of the family. Niles hadn't seen Maxwell at all really, nor the kids who had already been in bed by the time Fran and he had come home. He smiled to himself, fully acknowledging how good it felt to be home and at the same time sad that his visit was limited. But for now, with no duties to attend to and all the Christmas presents bought he decided to be happy, it was such a fleeting emotion in general. He turned to lie on his back and looked out at the white sky, when suddenly someone knocked on the door.

"Come in!" he called, pushing himself up on his elbows.

"Excuse me, Mr. Brightmore," the butler said, entering the room "but Mr. Sheffield wants to know if you'd like to join him for breakfast and a walk in Central Park?"

"Yes, I'd love to. Tell him that I'll be down in 20 minutes!"

"Very good, Sir." The butler said, inclined his head and exited the room again.

Niles extracted a pair of jeans and beige, woollen sweater from his suitcase and headed into the bathroom to shower. Afterwards when he was refreshed and clean shaven he walked downstairs where he found Maxwell in the dining room.

"How are you, old man?" he was greeted warmly when his former employer rose to his feet and pulled him into a hug.

"Glad to be back." Niles replied, smiling.

"Fran's missed you terribly... I think we all have, especially in those first few months."

"So where's Fran?" Niles asked after he had settled down at the table and helped himself to some bacon.

"The twins were up early, so she took them shopping. At their age they're growing so rapidly that we need new clothes quite often."

"I'm sure Fran doesn't mind that though, does she?" Niles asked, grinning while putting scrambled eggs on his plate.

"No, of course not, you know what she's like." Max agreed, laughing.

Over breakfast he continued to tell funny little stories about the young children, as well as Brighton's adventures at University and Gracie's desire to live abroad.

"But she says that it puts her in a moral conflict, because she feels guilty for leaving us behind, you know, without being able to help us anymore." he concluded a little while later, just as they were entering Central Park.

"Well, she has always been close to the family and especially close to Fran, it's only normal." Niles replied.

Ice was glistening on the bare trees, decorating their small branches, and their shoes made sucking sounds as they marched through the snow.

"What's the weather like back in England?"

"Well, I was about ankle deep in snow the other day, but with my book finished I could just stay inside for a while."

"Oh yes, how are the sales going?"

"Pretty good, not earning loads but enough to live off it. I'm actually travelling to Italy in January to collect recipes."

"That sounds marvellous! I wish I could spend these cold months in the south."

"Just think about it, I'd certainly be happy to see you. But you're always working so much..."

"You're right, though I did take Christmas off. I have done so since I married Fran. She just showed me how important it is to be with family at this time of year and while I'm glad to pass this on to Jonah and Eve, I do feel guilty for not being there when Maggie, Brighton and Grace were young."

Niles smiled, feeling quite emotional all of a sudden and patted his friend's back.

"We had beautiful Christmases when Sara was alive." he quietly said.

"Yes and after the accident I buried myself in work. And with a business partner like C.C. by my side it was difficult to realise my mistakes." Maxwell chattered on.

It took him a while to realise that he had broken the unspoken rule by mentioning C.C.

"How is the old witch?" Niles asked, in an attempt to sound light-hearted.

"She's well, as far as I can tell. Working hard, frightening actors and choreographers..."

Niles chuckled softly, remembering her intimidating nature very well.

"She has a partner," Maxwell said, his voice sombre and quiet; it was as if he was bearing news of bereavement. And to Niles the effect was painfully similar.

"Does he make her happy?" he finally asked, looking tired and resigned.

"I think so but Fran says she isn't buying it. How about you, old boy, anyone you're interested in?" Maxwell asked, obviously trying to steer away from the awkward topic.

"No, there isn't... there hasn't been one since C.C..."

And in the silence that followed both men knew what Niles didn't mention: that it was unlikely that he'd ever love someone like that again. Right then a snowball hit Maxwell's back with a loud thud. He cried out in pain but his face eased into a smile when children's laughter sounded.

"I got ya, daddy!" Jonah Sheffield exclaimed, jumping out from behind a tree.

"Just wait till I get you!" Max threatened playfully and tore off after his son with youthful ease.

Niles smiled, but with the recent news it wasn't a happy one. Slowly he walked over to a bench and wiped off the snow with one of his gloved hands. The cool white glistened and sparkled in the sunlight, beautiful and scathing like the Ice queen herself.

"Hello!" a little voice said and Niles turned around.

In front of him stood a small girl, wrapped up in a warm coat but a mass of brown curly hair was sticking out from under her hat.

"My brother can't behave sometimes and it doesn't help that Ma is always encouraging it." she complained, her big brown eyes expressing dislike.

"Your father seems to enjoy it though. I'm Niles, by the way."

"I know," she replied calmly "you're the man who is going to make aunty C.C. happy again!"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, mummy always says that."

"Then she's telling stories. I've never made C.C. happy."

"But mummy says aunty C.C. was happier when you were the butler and that she withdrew when you left."

"But she has a partner now, doesn't she?"

"Yes, but I don't like him. When I was little, aunty C.C. talked to me, I think she really wants children, but Antony won't let her see me now. I overheard them once and he said that she doesn't need children and that it would make her happier if she stopped chasing a pointless dream."

"How did C.C. respond?" Niles asked, clenching his fists.

"She just agreed. Will you come and build a snowman with me now?"

"Of course," Niles promised and smiled warmly at her, despite the anger that was raging inside him.

Even in the evening when Jonah and Eve had been put to bed and Fran and Max had left to pick up Maggie at the airport, Niles couldn't stop thinking about C.C. and the odd relationship she seemed to be in.

One day before Christmas Brighton arrived and the house was filled with laughter and stories, but Niles felt increasingly nervous. He spent a lot of time with the older Sheffield children or was found playing with Eve, often in the company of Grace. And then finally Christmas day had arrived. Jonah was more hyper than ever and all the adults had to keep an eye on the Christmas tree to ensure that no presents were stolen. Even Eve was getting excited and kept nicking cookies from the kitchen. Niles who had trouble losing old habits helped the Sheffields' butler by preparing the evening meal, so he could go home early. Around 4 o'clock the doorbell rang and Niles' heart stopped for a second. But then he heard the unmistakable voices of the Fine clan and emerged from his hiding place. He watched how Sylvia hugged each and every member of the family fiercely, as if she hadn't seen them in a very long time. Morty settled down on the sofa straight away and Yetta and Sammy slowly made their way into the den. Niles stood in the background and observed it all until Fran's mother spotted him and also pulled him into a bone crushing hug.

"Hello, Sylvia!" he greeted politely.

"You are a schmuck for leaving," she exclaimed, slapping his chest "you left us with that old butler who doesn't even cook with real butter!"

"On that note: would you like some Stollen?"

"What's that?"

"Oh...a German speciality I made, very buttery." he promised and disappeared into the kitchen to retrieve the plate with the baked goods.

Whistling to himself he returned to the living room and nearly dropped the plate when he caught sight of blonde hair. C.C. stood rooted to the spot, her lips slightly parted and the "Hello, Hello!" unspoken upon having seen Niles. Their eyes locked and completely silent it took a while before anyone else noticed.

"C.C., hello!" Maxwell beamed and she slowly moved out of her stupor.

"Maxwell," she replied, nodding and turned around startled when the door closed behind her.

It was almost as if she had forgotten that Antony had come with her and the kiss she placed on his lips was brief. While greetings were exchanged Niles busied himself by giving the Fines a piece of cake each and filling up their drinks.

"Serving still, are we?" C.C.'s haughty voice could be heard, but he continued undeterred.

After everyone's needs were satisfied Niles smoothly turned around to her and said: "Well, I had to give the others a chance, with you here all the liquor will be gone in a second."

"Are you accusing my girlfriend of being a drunk?" Antony asked angrily.

Niles' lips curled in disdain at the world "girlfriend" while he noticed that C.C. curiously looked ashamed.

"No, it's just their thing," Grace interrupted to everyone's surprise "you wouldn't understand."

"Whatever the reason, my C.C. is an angel, she doesn't drink and she certainly never talks like that."

"Do you know the woman?" Niles asked incredulously.

"Well, of course I do. We have been together for over a year." he replied perplexed.

"Is this a joke? Did you pay him?" Niles questioned, addressing solely C.C. now.

"I wouldn't pay for such drivel." Was the answer that made it to her lips but no further. Antony was right, she was different and Niles only brought out her bad qualities.

"I think it's presents time!" Fran loudly exclaimed before the situation could escalate.

The kids didn't need to be asked twice and immediately ran to sit by the tree to rip open their gifts while the adults gathered around them. After the excitement had died down a little and the twins were happily playing with their toys, the older children opened their gifts. Everyone became a little emotional when Grace unwrapped a photo album of her childhood that she could take with her on her trip to Australia, so that she'd never forget where her home was.

"Well, Fran, this one's for you," Niles said and handed her a small box " and this one's for you, Maxwell."

And he gave him a big parcel. Fran's box contained the most beautiful silver necklace with a single gem as its charm.

"Oh Niles, how could you afford that, you silly man?" she said, playfully slapping him.

"My cookery books are quite successful." he answered, winking at her.

"And all my favourite British things," Max chimed in and pulled him into a hug "thank you, old man."

"Niles, can you help me for a second?" Eve called and he gave her a radiant smile and a nod and walked over to join her on the floor.

"How can I help you?"

"I wanna build this race track and then you can compete against me," she explained, trying to tear open the big box.

A couple of minutes later the track was established and Niles was getting the cars out.

"Oh Miss Babcock, look, there's another gift for you." Fran pointed out, crouching down to pick up the present that had been moved very close to the trunk of the tree.

"Thank you," she said surprised and took it from the brunette to turn it over.

No name, that was strange. Unwrapping it she found that it contained a CD. "Ella Fitzgerald- Love is here to stay" she read, crinkling her eyebrows in confusion. Then she felt something else against her hand, something made out of paper. Turning the CD around she saw that attached to it was a patched up cheque, one that had been torn into many small pieces. It was only when she read "$250" that a memory began to stir in her.

"What makes you think I'd be caught dead at an awards ceremony with you?"

"250 bucks?"

The banquet, their dance, the song. She stared at the gift for another moment, before she opened the CD. Inside it was a small card that read:

"In case my temper gets the better of me again I just want you to know I missed you. Merry Christmas, N"

With tears in her eyes she glanced over at him but he was completely absorbed in his game with Eve. The laugh lines were becoming more pronounced and despite the grey that was mixing into his hair he still looked youthful and, dare she admit it, terribly handsome. Strong arms snaked around her body and she found herself pressed against a firm chest.

"What's that?" Antony asked, peeking over her shoulder.

C.C. snapped the CD shut so quickly that painfully a piece of skin got caught. She pulled a face and freed it, before answering: "A present from Fran."

A couple of minutes in the house with Niles and she had already forgotten about her boyfriend twice. It wasn't fair and she did feel quite guilty. And because of that she spent the next hour trying to make up for it. She lavished such affection on him that not only surprised Niles and Maxwell, but the entire Fine clan who all responded with slight disdain, apart from Yetta who commented by asking if anyone else was as turned on. C.C. tried to ignore the murmurs that were going on behind her back and instead persuaded herself of feeling a thrill whenever she pulled Antony close for a kiss.

"Hey Succubus, move your hooves, we're going to church now!" Niles rudely interrupted when everyone but them had risen from the couch to put on their coats.

"What's your rush?" she snapped back, kissing Antony languidly again on purpose.

"Oh you know, the sooner we get to church the sooner your skin will burn and you'll shrivel into ashes." he tossed out easily and buttoned up his coat.

C.C. was dying to respond but couldn't because she had to stop Antony from leaping at Niles.

The church they went to was also where Maxwell and Sara had got married and everyone present who knew of this teared up instantly. It was a beautiful place, now completely darkened and sparsely illuminated by candles. A choir was singing carols and C.C. extracted herself from the crowd, feeling overwhelmed by emotions. Her heels clicked on the stone floor and the sound echoed throughout the quieter part she was retreating to. When she was certain that no-one was watching her she breathed deeply and wiped her eyes.

"Why are you crying, aunty C.C.?" Eve asked, who had silently followed her.

"Oh I'm not, sweety, I just have something in my eye." she lied, turning around to give the child a watery smile and found to her surprise that Niles was standing next to her.

"Eve was worried." he simply said and she nodded "Why don't we light a candle?"

"Oooh, can we?" Eve exclaimed excitedly "Isn't that dangerous?"

"No, you can do it in church as long as you're with a grown-up. It's done to keep the memory alive of someone who's passed on. I'm sure C.C. will help you."

His voice was quiet and gentle and she turned her back on them as fresh tears were welling up in her eyes and she busied herself putting a coin into the box and retrieving a candle. She handed it to Eve and guiding her they both lit the candle and put it in a space.

"It's so plain but really pretty." The child commented and Niles placed his hand on C.C.'s back.

She smiled through her tears because such a simple gesture could bring such comfort. Then the warmth was gone and before she could really question why, Antony said: "There you are, babe. The service is about to begin!"

Once they were back at the house Niles excused himself to go to the kitchen and warm up food.

"Wouldn't want it to go to waste, eh? Miss Babcock is chunky as it is." he commented, grinning at his own joke.

"Look who's talking: Butler Clause!" she shot back.

"C.C." Antony said scolding "don't stoop down to his level."

Once again Niles observed how the blond clearly wanted to snap back but instead swallowed her anger.

"For God's sake, woman, why do you let him control you?" he asked angrily, having run out of patience, before he disappeared into the kitchen.

He was only alone for mere seconds when the door was flung open and hit the wall with a bang.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" C.C. yelled, eyes blazing.

"Oh, Babs, welcome back!" Niles replied, amusement drenching every word.

"Antony is a good man and you have no right to-"

"Stop deluding yourself!" he cut her off, his voice rising in volume as he stepped closer until their bodies were nearly touching "He's controlling you and suppressing your fire. How can you stand for it?"

"It's none of your business!"

"Just answer that question. Why, C.C.? Do you love him?"

She averted her eyes, opening her mouth but no sound came out.

"Are you allowing this because you love him?" Niles repeated, his tone quieter, but his voice hadn't lost its urgency.

"No, of course not, don't be stupid!" she finally hissed and Niles' eyes flashed triumphantly.

"Thanks for your honesty." An icy voice behind her said and she flinched.

"Antony, wait, I can explain!" she attempted, registering that it all sounded horribly fake like in a bad movie.

"I guess I won't be needing this then," he said, ignoring her and extracted a jewellery box from his pocket which he handed her.

C.C. sighed and opened it to find a beautiful ring inside it, when she looked up Antony was gone.

"Are you happy now?" she asked quietly, turning around to face Niles again.

"You don't love him," he stated, shrugging slightly.

"Of course I don't but you knew he was standing there. You saw him! Will you be completely satisfied when you have utterly destroyed me?"

"It's a ring from a man you don't love, would you have really married him?" Niles pressed, trying not to deal with his own hurt.

"I don't know, but don't you think I deserve to be happy? Maybe I could've been happy with him..."

"Of course I want you to be happy," he softly said "but not with him. Not with a man who restricts your nature...your passion..." his voice trailed off, agony growing with every word.

"Then who, Niles, who? You?" she spat out mockingly, setting the jewellery box down on the counter.

"Yes," he said, more determined than he felt and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

"You are insane! You are the most infuriating man I've met! You tease me, you prank me and you have the gall to say that you would make me happy?"

It hurt him but they had been here so often that Niles could almost predict what would come next.

"Your eyes, C.C., they're alive again." he carefully pointed out.

"You are unbelievable!" she screeched, a sign of the complete fury she had worked herself into "I hate you! And now I've lost Antony..."

"Good riddance," Niles muttered under his breath.

C.C.'s eyes focused on him as quickly as her hand was heading for his cheek. But he caught her and instead pulled her roughly against him, capturing her lips. At the first touch C.C. went completely numb in his arms and then, as if the spark he felt was shooting straight through her body, her arms flew around his neck and she pressed herself against him. Niles moaned at the softness of her skin and dragged his teeth over her bottom lip. He had brought her back again, his C.C., the bossy, proud socialite he fell in love with. But right after the kiss ended and before he had a chance to explain himself, C.C. fled. That too had been predictable; he had known it when the "deer caught in the headlights" look had first appeared in her eyes. And he felt the bitter disappointment that would grow worse as slowly the after-effects of their intoxicating kiss were fading. Niles felt as if the world around him suddenly got slower and slower, its pace having been altered, just like his life after the kiss. He didn't have much time to ponder about his special ability to completely screw things up with C.C., because Fran appeared at the door.

"Ya wanna tell me what happened?" she asked, cutting straight to the chase.

"The inevitable," he replied, shrugging.

"If ya mean Miss Babcock running out of the house in a furious state- I agree. But care to explain why her boyfriend left beforehand without a word? Why Miss Babcock had tears in hers eyes? And why there's a jewellery box resting on my kitchen counter? Ya didn't propose again, did ya?"

"No," Niles replied a little grumpily at the constant reminder of his previous failed attempts "nobody did, though Antony seemingly had every intention to."

"Why was she crying though?" Fran pressed which was a valid point, considering the several reasons to explain this.

"You old Yenta," Niles scolded, though not unfriendly.

"Come on upstairs with me," Fran continued, obviously having taken his response as a compliment "I'll get some nosh and then we talk."

Niles couldn't really resist, considering it had been so long since he was given the opportunity to share moments with his best friend and also because he really needed someone to give him advice. Soon both of them were settled on a large double bed in one of the guestrooms at the Sheffield mansion. A napkin in both their laps, each of them kept taking cookies out of the jar Fran had brought along.

"Well, I went to the kitchen and Miss Babcock followed me, completely aggravated." he began to explain.

"Can ya blame her? That was one mean insult, mistah!" Fran said, stabbing his chest with her finger.

Niles took a moment to brush the crumbs from his shirt and smiled despite himself when Fran gave him an apologetic look.

"And then I told her that I was annoyed at her choice in men because...well, you saw how he was treating her!"

"Nicely?" Fran asked and Niles rolled his eyes.

"This is not a question of jealousy." But under her stern gaze he eventually crumbled "Well, maybe a little. But Miss Babcock's completely changed...so I asked her if it was because she loves him. And...she said no."


"I may have timed that question so that Antony would hear her answer..."

"Oh Niles, you crushed that man's heart!"

"Why is everybody talking about him? Don't you think it's important that Miss Babcock doesn't love him?What about her?"

"Yes, what about her?" Fran asked, one hand suspended in mid-air "Did ya consider her at all when you timed that question?"

"She's better off without him," Niles muttered, miserably gnawing on another cookie.

"Yes but sweetie, they were together for a year, 12 months of her life. Oy...how can I make you men understand? No wonder she was crying...poor woman."

"That's not all," Niles added timidly "I also kissed her..."

"You did what?"

"She kissed back though!" Niles tried to defend himself "She always does. We can't talk...when we try to talk it never works...her guard is up, I start insulting her and everything ends in a mess. But when we're kissing I know, Fran, I know...and she does too...that's why she ran away."

"Are you sure, Scarecrow?" she asked, gently placing a hand on his arm.

"Yes," he replied firmly.

"But why, sweetie? After everything that happened she might have been confused, she certainly was vulnerable. Why are you so sure?"

"Because I have to be, Fran," he quietly said, avoiding her eyes "because if I'm wrong everything will collapse and no geographical distance will be able to make that right again."

His words were so frank yet full of heartache that tears were beginning to pool in her eyes. And for once the talkative woman was at a loss for words...

The holiday celebrations continued, everyone's spirit still intact apart from Niles' and C.C.'s. As he was playing with Jonah and Eve though, he couldn't help but think that C.C. was worse off, at least he had the Sheffields to distract him. She, however, was probably trying to patch things up with Antony and without the warmth of a caring family, she most likely was alone. That thought in itself nearly carried him to her doorstep several times, but Fran's voice rang in his ears, understanding yet begging for his caution. He had put his heart on the line once before for this woman, only to have it crushed and not even an ocean away had he managed to forget her. The way he looked at it, things could just turn out to his disadvantage if he approached her now. She was most likely going to be furious with him, ending in another fight and possibly another heated kiss. Or she would simply crumble and Niles could never be sure that her affections were real or merely created out of loneliness. But as the days slipped past and his departure was slowly approaching, his resolve was dwindling. He had hoped that she would return, if also just to scream at him but she hadn't, yet he knew that he had to see her one last time before he returned to Europe.

It was New Year's Eve and C.C. sat on her white couch in her neat apartment that hadn't seemed more empty than it was doing right now. Alone like a dog. At that particular moment she would've given anything for the comfort of Chester's furry body, but the little Pomeranian wasn't there anymore, given away because of Antony's allergies. He was with Noel though and C.C. had already decided to pick him up first thing in the New Year. The faint pop of fireworks could be heard in the distance and she lifted a mug of tea to her lips. No alcohol, not since Niles had made that remark four years ago. She had always done her best to defy him and his predictions but now she couldn't help but feel that they had come full circle. Back alone and frustrated with herself and her apparent inability to love, after harsh words had been exchanged with the butler. She had tried to contact Antony, resignedly begged for his forgiveness yet a small part of her had been relieved when he had denied her pleas. It was probably for the best. Once alone, always alone.

10 minutes to midnight.

She thought of all the couples, kissing and hugging outside in Times Square, their cheeks flushed with excitement and the cold. She thought of her mother who was probably in some holiday resort, sipping one cocktail after another. And her father, out on some business trip, probably working through midnight. Maybe it was the Babcocks' fate to be different.

Five minutes to midnight.

She sighed, rising to her feet and adjusted the pin that held her hair up if only in a tangled mess. Pinching the bridge of her nose she pushed her reading glasses up to rest on the crown of her head, before tiredly rubbing her eyes. C.C. was in her pyjamas already, what else would she wear? She wasn't really expecting someone... The red silk loosely fitted her curves and her bare feet softly padded over the carpeted floor. Rich with all the goods in the world, but still alone. She silently mouthed along to the countdown on the radio as she stood by the window, ready to see fireworks. A New Year, new possibilities.

Rack 'em up, let's play again.

His voice, always his voice: mocking, teasing, gentle, hopeful, a constant reminder of how she loathed him and ached for him at the same time. The first few rockets spiralled into the sky, exploding with booming noise and illuminating the sky. They painted her white apartment walls in a multitude of colours and made the tears on her cheeks seem unreal. Like in a fairy-tale where the tears of the heroine are enough to make you cry while you know that the prince is just around the corner. The difference being that she wasn't and had never been the princess, only the witch and the villain. She took another sip of her tea, hoping that the spicy flavour would calm her and eventually the tears subsided. All emotion invisible once again, as if celebrating the rebirth of the Bitch of Broadway. Suddenly a sharp knock on her door made her whirl around. The clock read 00.30 and she wondered who would come to see her now. Maybe the neighbours, pity was always high on the holidays... Niles stood waiting for her to open the door, knowing that he would only get one shot at this. He wanted to tell her how he had longed to see her over these past few days, how he had realised at midnight that no familiar comfort could make up for the fact that she wasn't there. That he was meant to be with her...but the strong likelihood was that she would throw the door in his face, if he even attempted this. So instead when C.C. finally answered the door and her light-blue eyes widened in surprise, he did the following.

"Happy New Year!" he greeted her cheerfully and, with a bottle of champagne in hand, walked straight past her and into the apartment.

C.C. blankly stared at the spot he had been standing at mere seconds ago before her temper flared up once more.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Celebrating New Year," he replied happily, opening the bottle and grabbing two glasses from her kitchen.

He wasn't sure if she could tell how nervous he really was, but knew that he had to appear as confident as possible to get through with this. She closed the door and walked over to him, mouth agape as she watched him fill their glasses, comfortably seated on the floor, his back leaning against the couch. He held out a glass for her with a brazen smile and her hands mechanically reached for it.

"I expected to see more empty bottles here already." h confessed as she slowly settled down next to him.

"I don't drink anymore," she said, the statement losing all its effect as she took a hearty sip of the champagne.

"Antony?" he asked, daring to bring up the sensitive topic.

"No, you." she said accusingly.

"I never thought you'd listen to me." he commented.

"I didn't, I'm just proving you wrong." she contradicted.

"I brought you your gift," he quietly said, extracting the CD from his jacket pocket "you forgot it the other day."

He put it in the space between them and C.C. placed her right hand on top of it, tracing the edges with her finger.

"I hated you for leaving, Niles." she admitted.

"You just left everyone...Fran, Maxwell...me. You didn't even give me a chance to..."

"Torture me?" he asked, knowing very well the importance of what she had been about to admit.

"Yes," she agreed, chuckling, even though it hadn't been it at all.

"I was heartbroken." he tried to explain, gently stopping her fidgeting hands.

"Well, so was I." she shot back and saw him shaking his head.

"Do you always have to have the last word, Babcock?" he asked, looking at her directly.

"Yes," she stated firmly, amusement making her eyes shine and her lips curve into a smile.

"Happy New Year, C.C." he softly said, drawing closer until their lips touched.

Her eyes fluttered shut as the sensations took over and she was only capable of squeezing his hand.

"Happy New Year, Niles."