[A/N: My sincerest apologies. The holidays caught up with me and I hadn't managed to finish this yet. However! I got inspiration for at least two new stories, so hopefully that will slightly make up for it. This is the last chapter-please read and review!]
And my reflection shows
We're clinging to dear life
But I won't let us go
We'll make it through all right
CC returned to the table in time for the keynote speaker to begin his speech. Moments later, she felt Niles slide into his seat next to her.
"CC," Niles said softly. CC shook her head. Niles sighed and leaned back in his seat.
At the end of his speech, the content of which neither Niles nor CC could recall, the crowd stood to give him a standing ovation and then slowly dispersed. As Max and CC stood reviewing the evening, Fran walked over to Niles.
"Niles, d'ya want to come over for some ice cream?" Fran asked. Niles elected not to remind her that they'd already had dessert, knowing her invitation was an inevitable reaction to her learning that he was staying with a friend.
"No, thank you," Niles replied. It took less than a second for him to decide to add, "I'm going back with CC."
CC paused mid-sentence, cocking her head to look at Niles. "Excuse me?"
Niles smiled benevolently at her.
CC ignored him and finished her discussion with Maxwell in a matter of moments. "Goodnight, Maxwell. 'Night, Fran." CC grabbed her clutch and walked off, stopping frequently to say goodbye to other members of the Broadway community. All the while, Niles remained quietly at her heels.
When CC was outside and out of earshot of anyone else, she spun around so fast that Niles bumped into her. While he was still regaining his balance, she pushed him slightly.
"What are you doing?" she asked accusingly.
"I'm coming home with you," he said lightly.
"This isn't a joke!" she exclaimed angrily. "Stop treating it like it's…it's…"
"Like it's nothing?" Niles guessed. "Like the way you're treating it?"
"You think it's nothing to me, Niles?" CC asked.
"I'm not going to try to guess what's going on through your mind because I'm willing to bet you can't even make sense of it," Niles replied. "This is my last effort, CC. I'm putting myself out here and offering to try for both of us, to prove to you there's something worth saving."
CC spluttered a few times before she turned and stalked off toward the car, frustrated. Her hurried footsteps slowed to a lumbering gait when she remembered.
Niles stopped next to her and smirked, jingling the keys next to her ear. "Just remember that I drove?"
CC closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "Just drive me home, Niles."
"That's where we're going!" Niles called out happily, trotting to the car and holding CC's door open for her. His use of the word we rankled her, but she had precious little choices in terms of a ride home and the temperature was quickly dropping. She ignored his continued smirk as she slid into the car, the leather cold against her skin.
Niles lightly pressed the brakes as the townhouse came into view; he was lucky enough to find a spot not far from the front door.
"Thanks for the ride," CC muttered as she reached for the door handle.
"CC—" Niles began, gently touching her left arm.
"Niles, don't," CC said. "It's late and I'm tired. Just let me go."
Niles couldn't say what it was, but in the same way that he knew that sunlight meant warmth and that Sylvia would always come over hungry, he knew that things between them would become heavily irreparable if he let her go that night. And so he shook his head adamantly. "No."
"Why?" CC asked, defeated. She slumped against the seat and propped her head against the headrest.
"Because I love you," he said simply. He saw a look of sadness sweep over her face and, hours later, he still wouldn't understand why. When she didn't say anything in response, Niles continued. "CC, tell me what you're thinking."
He'd said that to her often in their time together, and each time it jarred her. It wasn't the question itself—enough men had requested the same thing of her throughout her life—but rather the sincerity in his voice as he said it. Niles never said anything to her because he felt he ought to, as too many men did, but only because he genuinely meant it. He wanted to know what she was thinking.
But that didn't mean CC always acquiesced. She didn't know how to say to him that it was all her fault and she knew it, but that didn't mean she knew how to fix it. The fear she felt at their relationship had grown from a nagging feeling in her stomach to something that gripped her thoughts at all hours.
She was afraid to lose him, to hurt him, but she was irrationally afraid that he'd do it to her first. She was afraid of wrecking their relationship and it never occurred to her that she'd been acting in ways that would lead to their demise anyhow—she closed herself off, she stopped communicating with him, and she'd eventually told him to leave in the middle of a heated argument that had initially begun because he'd wanted to know why she'd been acting that way.
Niles brought her more love and intimacy than she'd ever known before, so it logically followed that she realized how afraid she was of intimacy. She'd worried her whole life that she wasn't good enough—it was why she'd become a businesswoman after all, to prove to her father that she was—and it utterly terrified her that one day Niles would realize it, too.
It was a huge, jumbled mess and she had no idea how to voice any of it to Niles. She had insanely wished, on more than one occasion, that he'd be able to read her mind but even Niles wasn't that good.
"Babcock? You still with me?" Niles asked, concerned. Her face had been the most fascinating kaleidoscope of emotions over the past two minutes, but she'd remained silent.
CC cleared her throat and sat up fully. "Sorry. I should go."
"CC," Niles said. The firmness in his voice caught her off guard; she turned to face him. "I've been willing to let you test me for however long you've needed to. I know it's hard for you to trust people. So I've done whatever it was I thought I needed to do. But I can't do it forever. I miss you, and I want things to work out, but I don't know what you want. I can't wait forever, CC."
Tears made her eyes sheen, but she still said nothing. She raised her hand halfway between them, as though to touch him, but she let it drop listlessly into her lap. "Goodnight, Niles," she said softly.
She climbed out of the car and shut the door, walking briskly up the steps to the front door. Without looking back, she unlocked and entered the townhouse.
Niles gripped the steering wheel tightly, setting his mouth in a firm line. He didn't want to give in to her stubbornness and everyone else's grim predictions, but when she acted like this, he had no idea what to do.
CC rubbed at her face as she shuffled down the stairs in her fluffy slippers, her cotton robe falling off one shoulder. After she'd left Niles' car, she'd tried fruitlessly to sleep for thirty minutes before getting back out of bed. She straightened her glasses with one hand as she used the other to propel herself around the bottom step to land in the hallway. She continued into the kitchen, grabbing a mug and a packet of hot chocolate.
For a few moments, CC smiled as she remembered Niles' disgust at the powdered drink, loudly proclaiming that his homemade hot chocolate was far superior and that he'd considered it base treachery that CC could even think to drink the other stuff. He'd nearly fainted when CC innocently pointed out that his hot chocolate didn't come with mini-marshmallows.
As she watched the mug spin around the microwave, she found herself once again wishing she'd thought to say at least one of the things that had stormed through her head in his car. She wished they could bypass the present awkwardness and return to the warm, happy life they'd so carefully cultivated at this townhouse. Was she going to punish him for being unable to read her mind for the rest of her life?
The microwave beeped and she carefully pulled the mug out. She poured the powdered drink into the water and stirred it vigorously, watching as the steam let off curlicues of chocolate-y aroma. It occurred to her that she could read the newspaper while she drank her hot chocolate at the same moment that she'd remembered she hadn't grabbed it that morning.
Wrapping her light gray robe tightly around her and dreading the bitter cold she was about to encounter, CC walked down the hallway and jumped when she reached the front door. She was startled to see someone sitting on her stoop and was just as shocked to realize it was Niles.
"What the hell is he doing?" she muttered to herself. As soon as she voiced the question aloud, she realized the answer. He was doing what he said he wasn't going to do: he was waiting for her.
The snarky butler was sitting on her stoop in the freezing cold, the Christmas lights from the neighbor's front door twinkling off his hair, because he was waiting for her.
Before she talked herself out of it, CC unchained and unlocked the front door. She leaned against it as she looked down at his hunched shoulders, knowing how long he'd been sitting out there.
"What are you doing?" she asked him.
He started and jumped up, spinning around. His cheeks were adorably reddened by the chill, and the meek wind had slightly mussed his hair. "I…I…" He puffed up his chest and stood tall. "I'm doing what I need to do."
"What, catch pneumonia?" CC asked rhetorically. "Come inside, Niles."
"If you insist," he said haughtily, though she'd never seem him move as quickly as he did then.
She shut the door and locked it up. "I made some hot chocolate, if you're interested."
Niles narrowed his eyes and slid out of his coat, draping it over the stair railing. "You wouldn't dare." He spun and stalked into the kitchen. "You would! Babcock, how can you stomach this rubbish?"
CC shrugged. "It only takes 30 seconds."
Niles glowered at her. "I would have thought you, of all people, would know that good things take more than 30 seconds."
Her cheeks reddened as much as his had been and she quelled any reply she might have had. She cleared her throat as he took out a pan and cocoa powder. "What were you doing outside, Niles?"
"I already told you," Niles muttered, moving masterfully through the kitchen. Within minutes, he was stirring a concoction that smelled a thousand times better than hers had.
Still, CC clutched her own hot chocolate to her chest. "I don't see how freezing your ass off is going to fix anything."
Niles turned to look at her. With her blue flannel pants, white t-shirt, gray robe, and messy bun atop her head, Niles thought she'd never looked so beautiful. "It isn't about fixing anything with one fell swoop. It's more of a…concentrated effort."
"Effort to achieve what?" CC wanted to know.
"To prove to you that you're worth it," Niles tossed over his shoulder. He reached into a cabinet and pulled out another mug, carefully pouring the contents of the pan into it. "Here, drink this."
CC complied, setting her mug down and grabbing the one he offered. She took a tentative sip and felt her taste buds explode. "That's delicious."
"Thank you," Niles said, setting the pan in the sink. He put the other tools away and by the time he'd cleaned out the pan, she'd finished her mug.
"Thank you," CC echoed, setting her mug next to the discarded one.
The two stood uncomfortably in the kitchen, the air heavy with the complications they carried with them.
"You know what I want, CC," Niles blurted out. "But I said earlier that I don't know what you want. I need to know that what I'm trying to accomplish is something that you actually want to happen. Otherwise I just risked hypothermia for nothing other than to make me look foolish. So what do you want?"
CC stared at a spot on the island. "I want…to watch a movie."
Niles allowed that, whatever else, this woman never failed to surprise him. "A movie," he echoed.
She looked up at him, her eyes briefly hidden by the glare of the kitchen light off her glasses. She shifted her head slightly and he could see her deep blues watching him intensely. "Don't you remember? We'd rent a movie and make popcorn and…and cuddle on the couch."
"So that's what you want?"
"I…it was just easy. I just…in times like that, everything made sense, I guess." CC shifted uncomfortably and pushed the empty mug further from her. "I don't know."
"And things don't make sense now," Niles said. CC shook her head. "You know that things won't make sense again if you don't start talking to me and telling me things like you did just now."
CC nodded carefully.
"So…want to run to Blockbuster?" Niles joked.
CC looked at him balefully.
"Come on, CC," Niles said. "We joke. We tease. It's how we interact. That hasn't changed."
"Everything's changed," CC responded. "How do you not see that?"
"I don't know how you do see it that way," Niles replied. "We hit a rough patch. That's all."
"But that's what happens. You hit a rough patch, you grow apart, you fall out of love, and you end up alone."
"Wow. A lot happens in two weeks, then," Niles remarked. CC glared at him again and he held up his hands in surrender. "I'm sorry. Just because it's happened before, CC, doesn't mean it's happening now."
"Maybe not now, but it could happen," CC pointed out.
"Not if we don't let it."
"You can't always let things happen, sometimes they just happen, and…"
"And when they do, I sit on a porch in below freezing temperatures to prove to you how much I hate that it's happening," Niles said.
"And what happens when you stop doing that? When you stop fighting because you realize that I'm just not—" CC began.
"Stop it," Niles interrupted forcefully. "I can guarantee that whatever it was you were about to say would never happen."
"You can't guarantee—"
"I can," Niles interrupted again. "I've been waiting for you for twelve years, CC. I've seen you at your absolute worst and I can tell you that I loved you every moment."
She looked at him dubiously, her hand still pushing the mug away for want of something to do.
"You don't have to believe me right now. I can't undo the years of harsh treatment you've subjected yourself to. But you have to at least start listening," Niles said. "I can't carry the weight of our relationship entirely on my own. I need to know you want this, too."
"I…I do," she said in a small voice.
Niles stepped forward and cupped her face in both of his hands. "I've missed you so much, sweetheart."
And then she saw it. His eyes softened and he looked at her lovingly, as though she were something precious and secret that was solely his.
She stepped even closer and rested her head on his shoulder, fully enjoying how easily she fit there and how naturally he slid his arm around her waist. Inching her face forward, CC pressed her lips gently to his throat and felt his pulse quicken. "I love you," she breathed against his ear.
Niles hugged her more tightly than he'd ever done before and held on a fraction too long, unwilling to let her go. "I know. I love you, too."
CC lifted up her head to face him as much as his close embrace would allow. She splayed her fingers over his back. "Do you? You do know, right?"
"I know, love," Niles answered. He kissed her forehead lightly.
She leaned forward again and this time pushed her cheek against his. "I'm just…afraid, sometimes."
Niles squeezed her tighter, appreciating how difficult the confession was, however obvious it might be. He kissed her forehead again, then her cheek, and finally her lips, kissing her properly as he'd ached to do for the past three weeks.
She molded herself against him, fully wrapping her arms around his torso and eagerly accepting his kiss. She disengaged from the kiss moments later and braced herself with her hands against his chest. "Come upstairs," she requested.
Niles smiled roguishly. "I don't know, my pajamas are at Craig's and he's got the most comfortable air mattress in his spare room…"
CC smiled brilliantly at him, her face so returned to its playful, wicked happiness that it almost took his breath away. "I'll just have to convince you, then." She grabbed his head and crashed it down to her lips in a kiss that did leave him breathless. She walked into him until he was pressed up against the counter; she grinned against his lips as his hands traveled from her back to her rear.
"Well, I suppose…" Niles said in an attempt to be blasé, although the attempt was admittedly weakened by his inability to catch his breath or tear his eyes away from her face. CC twined her fingers in his and hurried up the front stairs, Niles chuckling at her excitement.
They entered their bedroom again and just as Niles made a move toward her, CC stopped. "Wait! Wait…"
She hurried over to the sequined clutch she'd carried that evening and walked back over to Niles, who'd pasted a confused look to his face. Grinning sheepishly, CC pulled open the bag and rooted in it for a moment before she unearthed what she was looking for.
Niles smiled sadly when she showed him her engagement ring. "I thought you'd left it here."
"I carried it with me wherever I went," CC admitted. "I felt like the biggest ass after I'd taken it off."
Niles nodded as he took the ring from her. "Going to make me propose again?"
CC grasped both of his hands in hers and looked at him, feeling slightly foolish. "Marry me?"
"Ah, who could say no to such an adorable face?" Niles replied. He slipped the emerald-cut diamond back on her finger and wrapped both arms around her again. "Yes, love, of course I'll marry you."
CC preened and kissed him soundly, and for the first time in a long time, she didn't feel any doubt. Only Niles.
I'll make this right
And wait all night
If that's what it takes