Title: Ho Freakin' Ho
Author: Rina (Searider Falcon)
Summary: They've always been bitter together on the holidays. Written for EspoirDio's Niles/CC Advent Calendar.
Disclaimer: The Nanny and its characters are all the property of Sony Pictures, High School Sweethearts, and Sternin and Fraser's Ink, Inc. I make no profit from writing and sharing this story.
Author's Note: I'd like to thank those of you who already reviewed this story while it was only available on the calendar site. I can't stop grinning every time I think of your kind words. This was my first N/CC fic and quite probably the most fun I've ever had writing a story in over a decade of fic writing. The warm welcome you've given me and reception this piece received delights me to no end. Thank you!
1979 - The First Noel
A deep heavy snow blanketed the Upper East Side, effectively trapping C.C. in her own personal Yuletide Hell.
Upon finding out that C.C. had no holiday plans, Sara Sheffield insisted she spend Christmas Eve with her new employer's young family and no excuse she offered was deemed satisfactory enough to wiggle out of the commitment. C.C. found herself exceedingly uncomfortable with the whole affair for reasons she couldn't begin to explain. She only relented because she figured she could get away with escaping from this exercise in tolerance early in the evening.
The weather gods seemed to have other ideas, however.
As C.C. sat off in a corner trying not to sulk over being snowed in, her emotions alternated between boredom and irritation while she watched the Sheffields coo and giggle over their seven month old daughter's new-found ability to crawl. As if their precious little spawn was the first and only child to figure out the mechanics of mobility. Honestly!
She wondered why it was so damned important that she be here for this of all things if she was just going to be ignored. She much rather would have preferred to be trapped alone at her penthouse where she didn't have to feign an air of interest for the sake of her boss' family. Holiday be damned.
Would it be crass to request a shot of bourbon? It might make this undesirable experience more palatable.
C.C. admitted to herself, though, that the kid was rather adorable and even managed a small smiled as the gurgling babe crawled up to her feet...
...and promptly spit up in a most impressive fashion all over her one-of-a-kind, designer satin shoes.
"Oh, dear! C.C., I'm so sorry!" Sara cringed as she lifted her little girl from the floor to go clean her up and gestured for Maxwell to hand C.C. a napkin to clean up what landed on her foot as well. "Maggie, sweetheart, is your little tummy bothering you?"
"No, no, it's quite all right," she said through gritted teeth, trying to fake a smile and failing at it spectacularly while she swiped at the disgusting baby spew. Not that either Sara or Maxwell heard her with all their attention on back on their brat.
"Here, let's give them to Niles. Maybe he can clean them up. Niles?"
With a look of utter disgust, the butler plucked up the damaged heels from the floor and held them away from his body with hesitant fingers.
"Whew! Really, Miss Babcock, would it kill you to invest in some odor eaters?" he whispered just loud enough so that only she could hear.
"Can't possibly be any worse than the stench of your breath!" she hissed. "Go choke on a pack of Tic Tacs, Smithers."
She really didn't like the sinister look on that rat's face as he scurried away with away her shoes.
Minutes later, he returned.
"My apologies, Miss Babcock." He sounded not the least bit apologetic. "I seem to have made matters worse."
She gasped in horror as he set her pumps down in front of her. The red and white satin now bore dark stains that couldn't possibly be created by mere a mere baby's spit up or water.
"What the hell did you do to them?" she cried. "Did you try to clean them off with soy sauce?"
"Vanilla extract actually. Just a little household cleaning tip for pesky stains that I read about and thought I'd try." He tsked and shrugged. "Guess it doesn't work after all!"
Growling, she flung the sabotaged stilettos at him. "Those were a Ferragamo original! The only pair made, you jackass!"
Finally, she had all the attention she wanted earlier but at precisely the moment she didn't want it at all, her outburst capturing the attention of Max and Sara as they reentered the room with a cleaned up Maggie. They stood at the foot of the staircase and stared at her in shock.
God, she hated the holidays.
1985 - All Alone On Christmas
The lights on the tree sparkled, the fire crackled, and Judy Garland's haunting version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" filled the air.
All the signs of a typical Sheffield Christmas in place, but it was much, much too quiet. The house appeared to be deserted save for one big fat cranky butler who was not at all impressed by her arrival.
"Hello, hello. Where the hell is everyone?" she asked as she stepped into the foyer.
"Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Sheffield decided at the last minute to take Miss Margaret and Master Brighton to spend the holiday with Mrs. Sheffield's parents in Vale. They left yesterday evening."
"When we have so much work to do? Why didn't he tell me?"
"Oh..." he drawled. "My bad. I forgot to pass along the message. Sorry."
She growled and started to advance on him, but Niles shoved a glass of his homemade eggnog into her hand in response. She looked between it and him for a few seconds, debating the merits of dumping it over his head, but then until she got a good whiff of its contents and determined that doing so would be such a terrible waste of good brandy.
With a huff, she turned on her heel and took a healthy swig of the creamy, liquor-laced concoction as she crossed the living room and tossed her coat to her side while she settled on the sofa to sulk. On the television before her, James Stewart sprinted home to his family with a renewed appreciation for his life.
Meh. She changed the channel.
"I was watching that, you ill-tempered hussy." He scowled at her as he picked up her coat and, the moment he knew she wasn't paying attention, tossed it on the floor before taking a seat beside her.
"Whatever. It's practically over and it's not like you've never seen it before anyway. Everyone has."
Niles made a grab for the remote, but she was too quick for him and kept flipping through the channels until she found a movie that looked intriguing...up until the point the Santa Claus on the screen shoved a bespectacled child down a slide with his foot.
"You'll shoot your eye out!"
"Charming." She made a face. "Whatever the hell this is, it's terrible."
On the next channel, Captain Von Trapp was in the middle of breaking his engagement with Baroness Schräder.
C.C. scoffed as she took another sip of her eggnog. "Oh, please. Like any man would go for a nanny when he can have a woman of her wealth."
"You do realize The Sound of Music is based on a true story, right?"
Oh. Um, yeah.
"Yes!" She waved her hand in a dismissive fashion. "Still. A one in four billion sort of thing. Why does this get played at Christmas anyway? There's not a hint of Christmas in it at all!"
She flipped through the channels yet again.
Beside her, Niles was growing rather impatient with her channel surfing. "Honestly, is there anything you do like, Miss Scrooge?"
"How 'bout this?"
Some rather hideous creatures that looked like Hell's version of an elf ran amok on the screen.
He turned to her with an incredulous look. "Gremlins?"
"What?" She feigned shock. "You don't want to watch this fine documentary about your family? Oh, look! That ugly thing looks just like you. Is he your brother?"
"Give me that." He snarled and this time managed to snatch the remote away from her hand. "You're going senile in your old age if you can no longer recognize the creature that birthed you."
For a solid half-hour, they flipped through the channels and fought for dominance of the remote, making snide comments about the holiday films themselves or the other one's cinematic tastes the entire time.
It almost would be kinda fun if he was anyone else, she thought. Good grief. Was this what her social life had come to? Spending Christmas Eve watching television with Maxwell's sorry excuse for a lackey?
"Oh, stop! Go back! I love that one and I haven't seen it in years!"
"...really?" He seemed surprised as he flipped back to the channel where the opening credits of White Christmas played.
"Of course." She glanced at him. "Oh, good grief. Don't tell me that you refuse to watch this because you prefer Holiday Inn instead."
"No, I'm just surprised that you actually like anything at all, least of all something as warm and fuzzy as this." He handed her another glass of eggnog.
"Just shut up, Scrubbing Bubbles, and let me watch the damned movie in peace."
Settling into the cushions, C.C. let herself become lost in Berlin tunes until the warm buzz that the eggnog gave her lulled her to sleep halfway through the film.
It would be several hours later before she'd wake up, finding her cheek rested against something that felt suspiciously like a shoulder. White Christmas had long since ended, and the station airing it had replaced it with a simple looping video of a yule log burning.
For a few brief moments, she stayed there, breathing in the the spicy scent of gingerbread, brandy, and something masculine and undefinable that was distinct to Niles.
She sat up, slightly shaken to realize she just found something about this man a little bit attractive. She needed to get out of here.
"Merry Christmas, old maid," she muttered as she yanked her coat off the floor and slipped out the front door.
1988 - Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Niles trundled into the living room in his Santa attire, and for the first time in years, C.C. felt the tiniest inkling of something that maybe just might resemble genuine holiday cheer.
Merry Christmas, indeed! Oh, he looked ridiculous!
"Oh, ho, ho, Kris Cling Wrap!" she crowed as she circled around him. "You've finally discovered the one time of year all that extra padding of yours is actually of some use!"
He cringed as she laughed at her own joke, clearly not at all thrilled that she was here to bear witness to this exercise in humiliation that the Sheffields were putting him through. "Oh, God. What are you doing here? I thought you'd already flown south for the winter on your broom."
She rolled her eyes.
"The Sheffields invited me. Like they do every year." She gave him the once over again and smirked. "For once, I'm actually quite glad they did."
Maxwell appeared over at the top of the staircase before he managed to come back with a snappy retort. "Oh! C.C., I'm so glad you could join us tonight. Wonderful. We can start now. Niles, old man, are you ready for the children?"
Niles barely restrained himself from releasing a long-suffering sigh. "Yes, sir."
He trudged over to the fireplace and gave it a baleful glare.
"You're really going to pop out of the chimney?" She gave him a dubious look.
"At least this chimney is clean. Unlike like all the cobwebs in yours."
"Whatever. I don't have a fireplace in my pent-" What she intended to say became lost in her growl. That rat bastard.
He gave her a cheeky grin before adjusting his beard to cover his face and posing in such a way so as to make it appear that he was just climbing out the chimney. After a loud bellow of "Ho, ho, ho!", the two older kids ran out from their bedrooms, gasping and shouting as they raced down the staircase to greet him.
As cries of "Santa! Santa!" filled the room, Sara carried her youngest child in from the nursery, sharing a smile with her husband over their children's glee.
The oldest Sheffield child climbed up onto "Santa's" lap and giggled as he teased her about whether her behavior this year qualified her as naughty or nice. After establishing that she was indeed quite a good girl, he pulled a bright red package from his sack of gifts and presented it to her.
In a rare moment of honesty when it came to this man, she admitted to herself that he was quite wonderful with those kids.
The thought should have warmed at least some part of her heart, but instead it just left her feeling jealous and more alone than she already did as a peculiar and disquieting awareness, a certainty about herself, crept over her. She'd never develop the same sort of ease with any child, and worse yet, somehow, she just knew within her heart that she'd never experience these sort of moments with a family of her own.
Why this bothered her so much this year she didn't know. She'd been subjected to most of these gatherings for almost a decade now and most of the time she was pretty sure she didn't even want her own children. Never before had she felt a pang of regret like this, though.
Maybe she should have accepted her mother's or her sister's half-hearted, insincere invitations or perhaps begged off from any and all of it. Not that they wanted her presence anymore than she wanted to be there herself, but at least she would have been in a familiar, more comfortable environment.
It surely would have been better than sitting here watching a live production of everything she realized she really did want and would never have.
After Brighton got his own time on Santa's lap and a gift after much jesting and laughter over the boy's mischievous antics, along with a gentle admonition to not tease and torment his big sister so much, he scampered over to the sofa to sit down next to his father and tear into his present.
Sara then carried little Grace over to Santa Niles, but the moment she tried to place the child into his arms, the toddler to let loose with an ear-piercing howl of protest that made Niles visibly flinch in pain.
C.C. smiled as he scrambled to dig the child's gift out of his bag and shoved it at Sara so that she'd take the wailing banshee away. This was more like it. She'd take her holly jollies, however twisted they might be, wherever she could get them.
1989 - Blue Christmas
The Sheffield town house's halls were decked but holiday cheer seemed to be in short supply. Only through Niles insistence that the children should still have something that resembled a regular Christmas did Maxwell allow the decorations even to go up in the first place.
The atmosphere reminded C.C. a little too much of her own family's twisted Christmases; all the superficial trimmings and none of the warmth she was led to understand that a real holiday should have. The heart of the household was gone and in her absence remained a tattered shell of a family.
Though Maxwell relented to have the Christmas decorations, he insisted it go no further than the living room and then he actively avoided going anywhere near it. And as the day approached, he suddenly had important business plans for the holiday he claimed he couldn't break.
Inasmuch as she didn't care so much about the holiday herself and wished more people would adopt the same blasé attitude, it still shocked her just a bit that heof all people would accept an excuse to be gone through Christmas Day. She'd come to expect his over-enthusiastic delight with spending each Christmas with his family, obnoxious and inconvenient though it was to her.
Seeing him so broken up that he avoided it altogether was unsettling. She didn't quite know what to make of this new version of Maxwell Sheffield, and she couldn't help but sympathize with the children. Their Christmas was starting to shape up to be all too similar to the ones of her own youth. As uncomfortable as the kids always made her feel, she certainly didn't wish them the same sort of miseries.
She watched as Maxwell finished shoving the files he supposedly needed for his trip into his briefcase.
"You know, Maxwell, I could have handled this trip in your place."
"Nonsense, C.C. I couldn't have asked you to give your holiday on my account. I have this under control."
She just barely managed not to snort aloud. What holiday? The only ones she ever had were the ones that his family always wrangled her into participating in under duress.
"If you insist. But-"
"But nothing." Maxwell gave her a look that practically begged her not to push the subject any further and rushed out the door. "Niles! Is my luggage ready?
"Yes, sir. And the limo is waiting out front."
Niles' concerned expression mirrored her own as he stepped into the office.
Still unaccountably disturbed by her partner's behavior, she asked him, "He is planning to be back on Christmas Day, right?"
"No, he intends to spend the actual holiday itself in Boston. He'll return on the 28th."
"Hmph. You mean he intends to spend the actual holiday itself holed up in his hotel room with a bottle of cognac."
"Not unlike how you tend to celebrate every other day of the year. I know this may come as a shock to you, but some people actually experience a range of emotions that include grief and longing."
No, she understood perfectly well, thank you very much.
"Well, as long as I'm here, I might as well get some work done," she sighed as she settled back in her customary spot on the sofa and picked up some paperwork. "Bring me some tea, servant."
"As you wish, sir."
Fifteen minutes later he returned with the tea tray and a bag filled with packages.
"Here are you presents from the Sheffields as well, Miss Babcock." He pulled a small stack of brightly wrapped gifts from the bag and placed them on the seat next to her. "Do try not to shred them to pieces with your talons"
"You didn't slobber on them, did you?" Setting aside the paperwork she'd been reading, she plucked the envelope from the top, Maxwell's usual Christmas card with her yearly bonus check. She slipped that into her purse. Next up came a cashmere scarf and glove set. Lovely but nothing particularly special or thoughtful. Then there was an engraved pen, purportedly meant to be from the children. She owned several already.
The last gift had no tag on it. How curious. She tore away the wrapping paper and felt her heart begin to pound as she realized what it was.
Since that first Christmas when Maggie and Niles combined forces to ruin her very expensive shoes, it had become a tradition for Sara to give her a new pair as a gift each year, both as an apology and as a sort of running joke between the two of them.
C.C. had yet to cry over the passing of what may have been the closest thing she had to a best friend in her entire life. In the days and weeks since the unexpected loss, she'd been too busy handling arrangements and taking over aspects of the company that Maxwell normally might have handled himself had he not been so incapacitated with his grief. There simply hadn't been time to slow down and wallow in her own sorrow, so she repressed it for the most part. She wasn't the type to mourn openly anyway.
She brushed her fingers along this newest pair of shoes.
"This...is surprisingly very thoughtful of Maxwell." she finally manage to choke out as tears started to flood her eyes.
An indignant huff from beside her startled her out of her reverie. She'd forgotten Niles was even still there.
"Yes, it's very difficult finding a horseshoe to fit such an unnaturally large hoof like yours. How very kind of Mr. Sheffield." His eyes gone cold, he stalked out of the room.
"Bah humbug to you too," she sniffled as she looked back down at her gift. Just what the hell was his problem anyway?
1995 - Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum
Christmas Eve in an island paradise where the locals weren't too concerned with the so-called "spirit of Christmas" or any other seasonal-related drivel. No snow. No cold. No pesky bell ringers and over-crowded stores. No loud, squealing, and sometimes vomiting brats. No Nanny Fine appropriating this holiday too, since obviously eight days of Hanukkah just weren't enough for her. No putrid, sniveling Niles sabotaging what little pleasure she did get from this time of year.
Just sun warming her skin, sand between her toes, all the seafood she could stand, handsome men to ogle...and best of all, an open bar.
This had to be the greatest idea she'd had in years.
Swaying her hips to the beat of the steel drum band, she basked in the scenic atmosphere and the sweet flavor of her piña colada.
Then it happened. Of course it happened.
"Oooo! Shake it, Miss Babcock!"
She froze. If there was one thing that could crash her pleasant rum-fueled buzz in an instant, it had to be that voice.
It had to be somebody else. It just had to be.
Slowly, she turned.
No joy. There he stood, the object of her disdain.
Damn it, damn it, damn it. One thousand miles and all the islands of the Caribbean and he had to choose hers for the one vacation he ever took!
"Oh daylight come and me wan' go home." He looked just as disgusted as she felt as an unattractive, sulky pout settled on his features.
They both lifted their drinks to their lips and sighed in defeat.
"I can't believe we chose the same place for a holiday," he moaned, unwittingly echoing her thoughts.
"No kidding. Don't you think the Virgin Islands would have been a more appropriate destination?" She sneered at him before gesturing to the bartender to make her another drink. "Columbus did name them after you, ya know."
"That's quite rich coming from someone who was actually present for the very first Christmas. You shouldn't be here at all, Miss Babcock. With that drunken face so bright, you ought to be guiding Santa's sleigh tonight."
"Really, Niles? You just called me a reindeer? That's weak even by your pitiful standards of wit."
"On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner..." Niles pointed to her then. "...and Blitzed."
"I'm going to see to it that certain butler gets run over by a reindeer if he doesn't can it!"
They started to cross the length of the large cabana they were under as they volleyed insults back and forth, neither one willing to let the other one have the last word.
"I hear the native islanders here like to perform a ritual sacrifice by roasting a boar over an open fire as thanks to the gods. You'd probably better watch out, Miss Babcock, or you'll end up on a spit with an apple stuffed in your mouth."
"Oh, please. The only pig I see here is you. It's far more likely that they'll go after you."
Niles stopped and turned around to smirk at her. "Ah, but there's more of you to go around, my dear."
She opened her mouth to swing at him with yet another comeback when the delighted crow of a man standing near them interrupted her.
"Aw, look! You're under the mistletoe!" The man grinned at them and pointed upward to the thatched roof. They glanced upward to find, much to their absolute horror, a sprig of mistletoe hanging amidst the festive decorations strung onto the rafter directly above their heads.
"Oh, no, no! We aren't- I won't- I-"
"Absolutely not! She- If you think I-"
"You must, though! It's tradition!"
The man laughed as he gave Niles a good-natured slap on the back while the crowd around them started to chant "Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!"
They stared at each other wide-eyed from a moment, realizing there was no way to bow out of this gracefully without seeming like terribly bad sports. She gulped down the rest of her drink, then stared forlornly at her empty coconut glass, wondering if she could stall by requesting another one. She really wasn't drunk enough to do this right now. Neither was he for that matter.
"Oh, for heaven's sake. Can we just get this over with?" Niles muttered, and before she could even register what he was about to do, his hands clasped onto her waist to pull her against his chest.
"What the hell are y-" The crash of his lips against hers muffled the rest of her sentence, and for a moment, she struggled against him, determined not to let him get the best of her.
It was all for naught. The cheering of the crowd faded away as his lips moved against her, protests lost in a sensuous fog as an immediate heat curled and flared low in her abdomen. Her awareness narrowed down to the press of his body against hers and how his warm hands sent jolts of electricity through her body as they caressed her sides and along her back. Her hands slid around his shoulders and she moaned. A detached part of her took note of the fact that this kiss far surpassed the ones they shared just a few short months ago after way too many glasses of Johnnie Walker.
A rather loud wolf whistle cut through the moment, reminded them just who they were and where this was happening, and they suddenly and simultaneously broke apart gasping for breath as they stared at each other in awe.
"So did I win or lose the Kiss a Pig contest?" he tried to joke, his voice a little shaky.
C.C. felt like a snowplow had just flung a pile of slush on top of her, dousing the lingering fire that burned within her.
She stalked her way back to her hotel room, determined to avoid him for the rest of the week, even if it meant not leaving her room for the duration of her trip. She didn't see the look of regret on Niles' face as she fled.
1997 - You're a Mean One, Mister Grinch
She curled up on her sofa with her carton of sesame chicken and reveled in the silence of apartment. It was the first Christmas in quite a few years that she'd had completely to herself without pesky social commitments demanding her presence or unwanted menials popping up unexpectedly. She intended to enjoy it.
Inasmuch as being alone during the holidays could be enjoyable.
She was a little more okay with it this year for once, though, as she just did not have the mental fortitude deal with other people outside of work right now.
With Maxwell and Nanny Fine seeming to edge ever closer toward a real relationship without Maxwell wiggling out of it for once, and Niles developing a nasty, brittle attitude that made him nothing less than an proper ass as of late, she needed a break. Deep down she knew there wasn't anything to be done about the Maxwell situation except to suck it up and deal. It really zapped any enjoyment she took out of her ongoing battle of wits with the butler, though, when he made things a little too personal.
For a brief few days, they combined forces against Nanny Fine to teach her a lesson. For a brief few days, they were nearly friends. The experience, for the few days it lasted, had been refreshing.
Then he betrayed her.
She knew this shouldn't surprise her, that this was just par for the course when it came to their twisted relationship, but this time...this time it actually hurt when he pulled the proverbial rug out from under her.
A sudden pounding on her door startled her out of her musings.
Who the hell would be knocking on her door at this hour on Christmas night? Setting her carton down on the coffee table, she trudged to her door and yanked it open to reveal the one person that inhabited her thoughts this evening, the one person she possessed no desire to see at that moment.
So much for her dream of a butler-less holiday.
"Get the hell out of here," she hissed.
"Merry Christmas to you too, Cindy Lou Booze."
"You're interrupting my holiday, Old English."
"Oh, please. Like there's anything for you to celebrate." He barreled on into her apartment without invitation and tossed a pile of manila folders and bound scripts onto her end table.
"What are those?"
"Mr. Sheffield merely asked me to bring over these files and scripts to you for your perusal."
"He made you do this on Christmas night?" She did not bother to hide how incredulous she was at this request.
"Well, he also wanted me to bring you a plate of leftovers from dinner. He was afraid the kennel workers might be so callous as to not offer you a few extra milk bones for the holiday. Even a bad dog deserves a little gift at Christmastime." He nodded toward the Chinese cartons on her coffee table as he set a paper bag beside them. "I see this will really be at least the fifth helping for you, though."
"If you've come here just to insult me some more, then I think you better to leave right now. You've got some nerve showing up here after the way you treated me last week."
Niles was quiet for a moment. He looked her in the eyes as though searching for something. She glared back at him without wavering.
Finally, he sighed.
"Very well, Miss Babcock. I only thought that...well, never mind what I thought." He out of the apartment, slamming the door as he left.
She shuffled back to her sofa and decided to see what exactly Niles had brought her. Just because she was mad at him didn't mean she wouldn't still enjoy his gourmet cooking.
To C.C.'s surprise, she found a brightly wrapped present set on top of the foil wrapped plates. She picked it up with wary fingers to study to it. It wasn't very heavy though it did seem to have a little bit of heft to it. Then she held it up to her ear to ensure it wasn't ticking. She wouldn't put it past him to at least try to frighten her with the idea that it could be a bomb.
Well, there was only one way to find out what the hell it was. She ripped off the ribbons, tore into the paper, and carefully lifted the lid off the white box that held her apparent gift, though she half expected something nasty to pop out at her.
Her heart clenched at the sight of its contents.
Inside the box was the tissue box holder he'd crafted for her in their pottery class.
Rage surged within her. How dare he? For a moment, she considered slamming it into the nearest solid surface, even going as far as to raise it in her hand with the intent to swing it good and hard. Flinging it against the wall would be therapeutic and serve him right. Just where the hell did he get off throwing this back in her face and toying with her emotions yet again in such a cruel manner anyway?
She dropped her arm and set the tissue box on her lap as all her fury seeped out of her just as quickly as it flared up, only to be replaced with an inexplicable and incredibly annoying urge to cry.
She never knew quite what to make of that man anymore when he did stuff like this. Only a few years ago, she could have taken any and every action of his at face value. These days, she had no idea from day to day - and sometimes not even from minute to minute - what his intent might be.
Suddenly exhausted beyond measure, she decided to call it a night and trudged to her bedroom.
Not sure what to do with his gift just yet, she set on her nightstand and decided she'd figure out later whether to smash it with a hammer or actually keep the damned thing. Crawling into bed and curling up under the covers, she stared at the the ceramic creation until sleep finally claimed her.
It didn't fix everything, not by far, but it was a start.
1998 - I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
She slipped past the cluster of Sheffields unnoticed. They were too caught up in their squealing and fawning over each other to pay her any heed. Not that this surprised her at all, nor did she care all that much. At the moment, she just wanted to be inside right now and away from everything.
Next year, she was going to demand that she be allowed to have the entire month of December off. Even Hanukkahs seemed to be doomed for holiday hazard now, and it wasn't even one she celebrated.
She breathed a sigh of relief as she shut the door behind her and reveled in the blessed silence and warmth of the mansion. Even from the front door, she could feel the heat of the fireplace. Maxwell had kept the car's heater running low, which really didn't reach the back seat all that well. Even after a decidedly warmer drive home, she still felt a chill that seemed to permeate down to the very core of her bones.
She almost smiled. She could just imagine what Niles' commentary on that thought would be if he were able to read her mind.
Well, speak of the devil.
She looked up from her spot in the foyer and saw subject of her thoughts coming down the hall with an inscrutable look on his face. Without a word, he stepped forward to relieve her of her coat and hat.
As he placed everything in the closet, she couldn't help but stare at him for just a moment and relish in the fact that she was with him once again. Thoughts of how she'd longed for Niles' company during their ordeal flooded her mind.
Had he been there with her, C.C. knew their everlasting war of words would have kept her warmer than had the car's heater blasted on maximum the entire eight hours of their ordeal. She either would have been too infuriated to notice the cold...or much too turned on to feel it. Such was the affect he seemed to have on her these days.
So caught up in her thoughts and just studying his precise movements, she didn't immediately realize he addressed her.
"Miss Babcock, are you all right?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes, I'm fine. What were you saying?"
"I asked if you enjoy your trip. Such as it was."
"You mean other than the part where I believed I was going to turn into a human Popsicle?" She couldn't believe he hadn't yet tried to zing her.
"Oh, never you, Icicle Empress. That was your element." Ah, there it was. Much better.
His words lacked the usual punch, making him sound almost...dare she call it affectionate? If she didn't know him any better, she might think he actually had been worried about her too.
An unexpected yawn sneaked up on her before she could analyze that thought any further. "Oh, wow. I really need a long, hot shower and a change of clothes. And a really long nap."
"The guest room's all yours if you need it. I even cleaned the upholstery of the coffin while you were away."
She responded with a soft snort of amusement and nodded, a little too exhausted to come up with anything appropriately witty to that. Sticking her tongue out at him in what was probably her weakest retort ever, she started to climb the stairs only to halt and turn after a few steps when a particular thought occurred to her.
She raced back down the stairs to catch up with him in the hallway. From her pocket, she pulled out the Pledge-scented handkerchief he gave her before she'd left.
"I believe you lent this to me, house boy." With a shy and perhaps even grateful smile, she placed the cloth in his hand.
Before she pulled her hand away, though, his own hand clasped around hers and without a word, he tugged her forward into a warm embrace.
The unexpected and uncharacteristic action caught her off-guard, causing her to delay a moment before wrapping her own arms around his back to return his hug. As she relaxed against his body, one arm slipped more fully around her waist, pulling her tighter still to him, while his other hand came up to tangle his trembling fingers into her hair.
Her breath caught as realization struck her. He really did worry about her! The thrill she felt at this sudden awareness made her want to both laugh and cry, and she tightened her own grasp on him.
For several long moments, they simply stood there, cheek to check, holding each other in their arms, drawing strength from the simple relief of being alive and in the presence of each other again.
Slowly she pulled back just enough to look him in the eyes and the heat she found there stole her breath away. He brushed the pad of his thumb across her cheek and slowly leaned forward.
For awhile now, they'd been standing on the edge of something, and maybe now was finally the right time for them to explore that. Eyes fluttering shut in anticipation, she tilted her head to meet...
A sudden cacophony of noise filled the room as Maxwell, Nanny Fine, and Grace paraded into the house with all the quiet subtlety of a dynamite blast, and the rest of the household rushed in from their various corners of the mansion to greet them.
With some reluctance and a simultaneous quiet groan, Niles and C.C. pulled out of their embrace before the family caught sight of them. Wherever this was going, it needed to be explored without the Yenta Express barreling down on them.
Sharing the same frustrated looks and sighs with him, she started to turn away.
"Hmm?" She looked back at him.
He took her hand and slipped the handkerchief back into it. "You should keep it."
She bit her lip in an effort not to grin like an idiot. "Hate you."
She might say it, but now she knew she didn't mean it. Not even a little bit.
He grinned back at her and whispered in her ear. "Hate you more."
She shivered in a way that had nothing to do with feeling cold anymore and clasped his handkerchief to her chest as she climbed the stairs.
For the first time in hours, she finally felt warm.
1999 - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
It only vaguely registered with either of them that it was Christmas time. In the years to follow, they both agreed that the clearest memories they had of that time were all courtesy of the photographs everyone else took.
The last three weeks blended together for both of them, a jumbled blur of adjusting to a whole new way of life as they rearranged their days and nights to accommodate the demands one beautiful newborn girl, who decided to start making her grand entrance into the world a couple weeks early on the first night of Fran's Hanukkah gathering.
Had C.C. not been in so much damned pain at the time, she probably would have relished having so much attention focused her way for once. Afterward, she was too damned exhausted to appreciate anything beyond her little Natalie and the ecstatic look on her husband's face every time he looked at either one of them.
It'd been much of the same for the last few weeks, catching precious minutes of sleep in between tending to the needs of their demanding little beauty. It was satisfying beyond measure but utterly wearing. At this point, all either of them really wanted for Christmas was to sleep for at least eight hours straight.
They may very well have let Christmas slip past them with little fanfare at all if Fran and Max not begged them to share their children's first Christmas together as a group.
As the new family shuffled into the Sheffield's mansion for their holiday fiesta, C.C. did have to admit that it was nice to get out of the house for a little bit. It was also a great excuse to dress up again in regular clothes after months of tent-like maternity clothes and proudly show off Natalie in her own impossibly tiny Christmas dress.
Fran seemed to sense just how worn out the new parents still were, as it wasn't that many months ago since she experienced it herself. She took extra care to fawn over them, not letting Niles and C.C. lift so much as a finger. It was quite possibly the nicest C.C. could remember Fran ever being toward her.
Presents were passed out and everyone cheered on Eve and Jonah as they were prompted to tear into the wrapping paper, though the seven-month olds didn't quite seem to understand why the adults around them were so excited by the activity.
Fran and the older kids then snapped a few action shots of C.C. and Niles as they "helped" their own disinterested infant in opening her own presents.
Afterward, C.C. curled into her husband's side and rested her head on his shoulder, content to watch Natalie as she dozed, finally, against Niles' chest. They shared the same tired but proud smile as their eyes met for a moment.
"Merry Christmas, Mommy."
God, she'd never get tired of hearing that.
"Merry Christmas, Father Time."
"If I wasn't so afraid of waking the kid up, I'd get you back for that," he whispered.
"Later," she yawned, already half asleep herself. Not even Maxwell's pontificating in the background about the latest developments for their sitcom was enough to keep her from resisting the lure of a little shuteye. Within minutes, she drifted off and Niles soon followed her too.
"I think we should all..." Maxwell finally realized he'd lost a portion of his audience. "Niles?"
"Niles, old man?" He poked Niles in the shoulder.
"C.C.? C.C., the director called and said the entire crew of the show is demanding a raise," he teased, knowing there was a time when such a statement would have made her sit up straight, fully alert and in a proper rage.
Tonight her only response was a soft snore.
"Nope. Out for the count." Fran smiled fondly at them. "Can you believe this is really them cuddling on the couch fast asleep with a baby?"
"It'll never stop being bizarre, I think."
Grinning, Fran tiptoed around the sofa and snapped a photo of the snoozing family before handing the camera over to Max. Then, she carefully lifted Natalie out of her exhausted father's arms.
"C'mon, sweetie. Let's let your mommy and daddy get a lil' extra sleep tonight," she whispered, then nodded toward Max to dim all but the lights of the tree.
Hours later, a distant but very familiar cry tugged C.C. from her slumber, but before she could fully register why her daughter was not where she expected her to be or why that was, she heard Fran murmuring to Natalie and calming her down in the next room.
Everything was already under control. She slumped back down against Niles' shoulder and decided to accept the gift of sleep that obviously was being offered here.
It wasn't not quite what she envisioned for her family's first real Christmas together, but the fact that it happened at all was more than enough to satisfy her.
2000 - I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
It took some coaxing to convince him to do it, but Niles was a little more amiable to the idea of playing Jolly Old St. Nicholas again when doing so was partly for the benefit of his little girl and his wife. C.C. was determined to reclaim the holiday season and create years of memories for it that were actually worth having. Natalie would not grow up with unhappy memories of any major holiday if she could help it.
The problem was, it turned out that Niles still wasn't much of a hit with the toddler set.
The Sheffield twins looked on with a great deal of reluctance, curious but wary of this crimson-clad stranger who just burst through the door. It was possibly the quietest anyone had ever seen the normally exuberant tots, and while neither actually cried when placed in Santa's lap, Eve clearly was eager to be anywhere else and Jonah whimpered until Fran retrieved him.
But worse, oh so much worse, was Natalie's reaction when everyone tried to coax her into toddling her way up to Santa. The moment Grace tried to pick her up and carry her to her disguised daddy, a glass-shattering shriek of terror caused everyone in the room to wince.
Well, almost everyone.
C.C. grinned and chuckled as she snapped a photo of the moment, remembering another certain toddler's fright and how she'd thought she'd never experience these sort of moments with a child of her own. My, how far she'd come.
"Really, C.C.?" Niles sounded pained as she took yet another picture.
"You actually want to capture your daughter's trauma on film?" Fran sounded a bit horrified herself.
"No, of course not. It's the crestfallen look on Nil-, um, Santa's face I want to capture for posterity. I'm gonna be able to torture him with this for years!"
Fran shook her head as she sauntered over to the h'orderves table for something to nosh on. "Oy. Twenty years from now I bet I still won't understand those two."
This year, it was decided that everyone in the household should get a gift directly from Santa as well, and Niles, having the advantage of knowing everyone in the household better than a real Kris Kringle could ever hope, took an immense deal of glee in teasing each one of them as he passed out the gifts.
Finally, there was only one gift left in the bag.
"Alright, you." He pointed at C.C. "Don't be thinking you'll get out of this. Put the camera down and get over here."
She sauntered over to sit down on his lap and ran her hand up the fur lapel of his Santa suit.
"Hey, Santa Baby." She kept her voice low enough for only Niles to her.
"I definitely don't have to ask whether you've been good or bad this year." The cheap white beard couldn't disguise the leer he gave her. "I have a bundle of switches for a certain naughty girl on my list."
She smirked. "Oh? Is that a promise?"
"Really, you two. You're going to scar the children for life...and everyone else for that matter," Maxwell grumbled.
"Seven years of stomach-churning PDAs with Fran and he gets offended when anyone else tries to enjoy the same," C.C. muttered.
"Don't worry, he's getting a lump of coal in his stocking tonight." He held out a package with gold wrapping paper. "Now, are you going to try and actually be a good girl next year?"
"What do you think?" C.C. grabbed the present and ran before Niles could snatch it back away from her. She gave him a playful wink as she sat back down across the room.
Still laughing, she tore off the paper to reveal what appeared to be a shoe box. Eying her crimson-clad husband as a particular memory started to tickle at her consciousness, she gasped when she raised the lid and looked down to see a familiar pair of red and white satin pumps...ones she hadn't seen in twenty years.
"H-how did you...?"
He came over to the back of the sofa and leaned against the back of it. "I contacted the designer, explained the situation to him, and asked him to try and replicate them. Luckily, he was able to work it the picture I had of you wearing them shortly before they got messed up. They may not be exact, but I think they're pretty close."
She crooked her finger at him. "C'mere, Santa. I have a present for you too."
He leaned toward her, laughing as she tugged the beard down, and accepted the lingering kiss she gave him.
"I love you."
"Love you more."
Their guests finally gone home for the evening, C.C. carried her worn out little girl into her room and laid her down in the crib. Resting her arms on the railing, she then watched Natalie sleep for awhile, utterly enchanted by this child who never failed to delight her. Before long, Niles tiptoed into the room and wrapped his arms around her waist.
For a time, they stood together enjoying the quiet moment together.
"Thank you, Niles."
"For what, love?" He kissed her on the cheek.
"For Natalie, for making the last few holidays really mean something, for just...everything."
"I didn't do all of this alone, you know," he whispered against her cheek. "I had a little help in all of this."
"Hmph. You had a lot of help with certain parts of it. I mean it, though. I really thought my chance for any of this passed well over a decade ago and I'd spend the rest of my life as an outsider watching everyone else living these kind of moments. December was always a time for bitterness."
"Yes, I remember. I often felt the same way too." He turned her around in order to kiss her properly.
"Mmm..." she hummed as they separated after a long moment. "Niles? That Christmas after Sara died...that pair of shoes wasn't from Maxwell, were they?"
He nodded. "I knew that was one of the few holiday traditions you genuinely appreciated at the time and I knew how you felt about her as well. I thought I'd continue the tradition since I contributed to ruining the original pair much more than Miss Margaret did."
"I'm sorry, Niles. It never really occurred to me that you'd even think to give me a gift that wasn't really a prank at that particular point, much less something so thoughtful."
"I did overreact, to be fair."
Not wanting to them to linger on old hurts and might-have-beens, he changed the subject. "So, Mrs. Claus, I must have stepped out when Santa arrived earlier. Did he say whether I was a good boy or a bad boy this year?"
"Oh, I have it on good authority that you were a very good boy this year, and there just might be a shiny can of Pledge and some new dust rags under the tree for you tomorrow morning."
"Wretched woman. C'mon. I have a bottle of champagne chilling in our room right now." He took her by the hand and led her from Natalie's nursery "Let's go make a few more new, really good holiday memories."