Crossing Lines

By Laura Schiller

Based on: The Nanny

CC Babcock slipped into the Sheffield mansion as quietly as she could, took off her clicking high heels and padded down the hallway on pantyhosed feet. She kept one hand on the wall, not only because it was dark, but because an extended session with her old friend Jack Daniels rather impaired her balance. Her other hand held an envelope. She had assured Maxwell that her resignation letter would be on his desk by morning; it was two a.m. now, and she must not fail to deliver it.

She stepped into the kitchen, grimacing at the coldness of the tiles. This bright, warm room in which she had drunk so many cups of coffee; devoured Maxwell with her eyes as he ate his lunch across from her; sat gossiping with Nanny Fine and that silly blonde friend of hers; bickered endlessly with the butler who had ruined her life – this room was now dark and uncanny, and she was afraid to take a step for fear of bumping into something. Where were the stairs? She swore under her breath and groped for the light switch. Better to hurt her eyes than break her leg.

"Did you forget something, Miss Babcock?"

She gasped. The blinding flash of the electric light revealed a stocky, middle-aged man in a black bathrobe, holding a snifter of brandy. His pose – head bowed, elbows on the table, cupping the glass in both hands – was as familiar to her as her own reflection.

"Drinking in the dark, Niles?" she said, forcing a laugh. "That's - " – pathetic even for you, she was about to say.

He looked up. His eyes, glazed and empty as a dying animal's, silenced her more effectively than any sharp retort could have done.

"I … I just came by to drop off my resignation letter," she murmured, waving the envelope. "I'll just … "

She edged around the counter towards the stairs, feeling every bit as clumsy as if the kitchen were still dark. What was wrong with her? For that matter, what was wrong with Niles? His silence was so thick, so unrelenting, CC wished for a megaphone to scream into. After twenty years of verbal fencing as their only link, it was more than she could bear.

"Oh for God's sake, Niles, stop pretending I don't exist," she exclaimed, whirling around at the foot of the staircase. His back was to her; he did not turn around.

"Since we're both here," CC continued, with a sigh of something like defeat, "We might as well talk. Just tell me one thing, Niles … one true thing, and I'll be out of your hair forever." Alone in her apartment, she had rehearsed dozens of arguments with Niles she had no intention of having. Now that he was here with her, however, only one word came into her mind. One word, throbbing as painfully as the hangover she'd have tomorrow.

"Why?"

At that, slowly, Niles stood up and turned around.

"Why … what?" he asked, his dry British voice drier than ever.

Hearing him sound like some appoximation of his old self was a relief. CC drew herself up in her red trenchcoat, looked him squarely in the eye, and prepared for what she sensed might be the most important battle they'd ever have.

"Why did you spend twenty years making my life miserable, and then expect me to marry you?"

The fire came back into his eyes. "I made your life miserable? Now, you listen to me, Babcock – "

"No. You listen. You drew a mustache on me while I was sleeping – on a date night. You deliberately waxed the floor so I would trip in front of Maxwell. You drugged my coffee. You impersonated Maxwell and made me cluck like a chicken. Every day you insult my weight, my age, my personal life, my femininity. Every chance you get, you make me look like an idiot in front of the man I used to – "

"Used to?" Niles raised an eyebrow.

"Never mind." The fact was, she hadn't been in love with Maxwell for a long time now; her behavior for the last few months, especially after The Place, had been more a force of habit than anything else. Or possibly a defense tactic: better to flirt with a man who politely ignored it than a man who could crush her heart in one oven-gloved hand.

"My point is," CC wound up, "You despise me, Niles. You told me so. What on Earth posessed you to propose? Was it another of your jokes? Because if it is, I'm warning you, you finally crossed the line."

Niles took a step forward, shaking his head. His eyes softened; his shoulders relaxed. "My God, woman … you didn't actually believe those things I said?"

It was CC's turn to be stunned.

Of course she had known that their sparring was more or less a game. She could even smile at some of his more creative zingers. But on a certain level, she had believed that Niles found her disagreeable; so did most people, after all. Growing up with divorced, repressed, snobbish socialites for parents, then watching your first love marry your best friend, did not encourage learning how to be likable.

"Then why did you say them?" she asked.

He frowned and shook his head again, as if in utter dismay at her cluelessness. "Miss Babcock … do you remember the first day we met?"

"What does that have to – "

"Do you?"

She closed her eyes. She could certainly remember meeting Maxwell. She had minutely described his tweed coat, his accent, his aftershave etc. in her diary that night, already resolving that her new employer would make an ideal husband. What had Niles worn that day? What had he said? The fact that she couldn't remember made her unaccountably guilty.

"I suppose … it must have been when I came here for my job interview with Maxwell," she said finally. "You answered the door, didn't you? I remember being impressed that such a young man could afford to hire a butler."

Niles' expression turned grim. "Well, I remember. I remember opening that door to to the most beautiful woman – "

"Oh, please! I was a size fourteen with coke-bottle glasses and hair the color of New York sludge."

"You were beautiful," he repeated, in a tone which brooked no contradiction. "And you swept right past me in your scarlet coat as if I were part of the furniture."

CC winced. That explained the gaps in her memory.

"I'm a Babcock. You're a butler," she argued, holding up her hands defensively. "What did you expect?"

"A little common decency would have been nice."

"You mean like you showed me? At Maxwell and Sarah's wedding?"

"There!" Niles took another step closer, grinning with fierce triumph. "So you do remember the first time I insulted you!"

How could she forget? Sitting alone at a corner table, staring into her drink, wondering how introducing Maxwell to her roommate from finishing school had ended in such a cheerful, lace-covered disaster, she had jumped at the sound of a wry voice from behind her. All alone, Miss Babcock? What a pity.

"You made some quip about me being all alone at a wedding," she said through gritted teeth. "You're lucky I didn't smash your hors d'oevre tray over your smug British head."

"If you must know, Miss Babcock … that was not a quip."

"Wh – what?"

"I was trying to show sympathy – and you threatened to have me fired. Still, I prefer that to being furniture. I would have said anything, at that point, to get you to look me in the eye."

CC knew her social skills were not the best, but to realize that all the twenty years of her feud with Niles were rooted in such a basic misunderstanding was a little too much for her. She stumbled over to the table and collapsed into a chair, which Niles pulled out for her with professional courtesy. It was the same chair in which she had wept over Niles' feather duster on the morning after his heart attack. She might have realized earlier what it meant.

"So you're saying it's my fault?" she squeaked.

"No … no, that's not what I meant. We were both to blame. We let the game go too far."

Glancing up, she could tell by the set of his lips that he was struggling to hold back a zinger.

"Out with it, Butler Boy."

"Out with what?"

"Whatever you're about to say. Let me guess – you're worried about the chair holding up? Or is it the fact that I'm too screwed up to recognize real kindness when I see it?"

"All right, that's it!" Niles, who had been speaking in a hush all along for the benefit of the sleeping Sheffields upstairs, slapped the table with his palms. "CC Babcock, of all the exasperating women – you want to know why I proposed? It's because I love you. I love the way you sweep into a room, your wicked laugh, your devastating wit. I love dancing with you, watching cheesy telenovelas, playing pranks, trading zingers. I love you for being the driving force behind Mr. Sheffield's success and never letting him forget it. I love your tenacity, even when your goals are completely wrong. I love you even when I hate you. I have for twenty years, and always will.

"Now, when you leave, would you be so kind as to remember that?"

So it wasn't a zinger. She really did need to pay more attention in conversations.

Somebody loved her. Niles loved her. He'd loved her all along, before she started struggling through the Weight Watchers program, before she bleached her hair. Despite the class barrier, her well-earned reputation as the Bitch of Broadway, and his own nurturing personality that was so much the opposite of hers. It was an incredible concept, as if someone had told her the Earth was flat after all. Still, what with the way his eyes shone down at her … how could she not believe him?

"Niles?"

"Yes?"

"There's something I want you to know."

He maintained eye contact, something she'd always found uncomfortable during conversation, but which now made it almost impossible to break their gaze. She reached into her coat pocket (oddly enough, she hadn't even noticed how hot it was now) and held up the tape.

Will you marry me? asked Niles' recorded voice. The real Niles looked as if he had been slapped.

"I would never have shown that tape to anyone," she told him vehemently. "You have to believe me. I would never – I was just messing with Nanny Fine and Val. They expect it from me. The reason I kept it was … well … "

She blushed, and not because of her coat. Emotional honesty scared the hell out of her.

"To pretend it could be real," she confessed, lowering her eyes. "Your proposal, I mean … to pretend it wasn't so … so wrong to accept it. I'm not the marrying type, you know. I can't do housework to save my life – "

"I can," Niles interrupted.

"I don't even like children – "

"I've had my fill raising the Sheffields."

"My mother would kill me if she found out - "

"You hardly talk to her anyway."

"I'm the Bitch of Broadway!"

"And I'm the Merry Maid – so what?"

"Well!" CC laughed breathlessly. "You've got an answer for everything, don't you?"

"There's one answer I'm still waiting for, Miss Babcock."

From that meaningful emphasis, she was pretty certain of what it was, but decided to ask just to be certain. She replayed the tape.

Will you marry me?

"Exactly," said Niles. "Only please stop playing that, it's embarrassing."

"Not … yet," was her answer.

"Not yet?"

The hope that bloomed in Niles' middle-aged face made him look twenty years younger. She could see it now, how he must have looked when she walked past him for the first time. How she wished she could have seen him, truly seen him, back then.

"Let's date," she suggested. "Let's go out to movies, have dinner … do all the things that normal people do for once. And tonight … " She smiled, leaned forward and batted her eyelashes. "Tonight, how about a trial run?"

CC was not a competent flirt. When she really wanted a man, her social problems tended to get the better of her, and she came across as either cold or desperate. Thankfully, Niles was not particular about her style as long as her message came across. He smiled back, smirked rather, and she felt herself on familiar ground at last.

"Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting, Babs?"

"Mmm-hmm. After tonight, you'll never call me a man again."

"So which side of the sponge should it be, darling?" He gestured towards the sink, where the same sponge and some Chinese almond cookies had once led to a very interesting moment.

CC giggled. "Oh my God, you remember that? The rough side, of course."

"I expected nothing less."

Niles stood up, rounded the table with the smooth walk of a confident predator, lifted CC out of her chair and (without a single comment about her weight) carried her bridal-style up the stairs.

Meanwhile the Sheffields slept the sleep of the just, undisturbed by any nightly noises, and CC's resignation letter lay forgotten on the kitchen counter until she threw it away the next morning.