Happy Birthday Baby, Or: Life Is Bleak For Butlers & The Lovelorn

I.

For Maxwell's birthday, C.C. gets two tickets to La Traviata. She's even considerate enough to get them for the night before his birthday, because she's paid enough attention to the man over the years to assume he'll want to spend his actual birthday with those children of his. (For the record, she finds his parenting approach completely off-base. He never buys them ponies or Corvettes, he's always worrying about their feelings …) When she mentions it to Maxwell a week beforehand, just to make sure he's free, he looks up from the papers on his desk and says, "Oh, C.C., you shouldn't have! That sounds lovely." She's cheerful that day. Even after Niles puts mayonnaise on her bagel at lunch instead of cream cheese.

On the designated evening, she doesn't leave her apartment until the mirror assures her that her reflection's flawless. She feels pleasantly fluttery as she rings the doorbell. The feeling dwindles right away at the look on Niles' face when he opens the door.

"Oh," he says with absolute innocence, "were you planning on going out this evening?"

God, she hates his face.

Maxwell is sitting on the sofa next to Nanny Fine, wearing a cardigan and looking very much in for the night. Nanny Fine's skirt has multicolored parrots all over it. She's stroking Maxwell's arm reassuringly. C.C.'s stomach sinks to her Louboutins.

"C.C., you look very nice," Maxwell says, distracted. C.C. can't blame him with that trollop hanging off him like an extra appendage. "Where are you off to? Did you forget something in the office?"

"We're supposed to go to the—"

To his credit, at least he realizes before she's got the whole sentence out. He explains to her that he's so sorry, that Margaret's in the middle of a bit of a personal crisis and she's been crying in her room for four hours and he can't possibly leave now, not when the poor girl is so inconsolable.

C.C. thinks about trying to argue this – what can Margaret really have to worry about? She's, what, seven? – but Maxwell's brow is rumpled with concern like it may very well freeze that way, and she knows better. He seems to find it unattractive when she points out that his children could use a bit of self-reliance.

Maxwell apologizes again and urges her to go out and have a good time without him, to find some other friend to bring along instead. Then he and Nanny Fine tromp upstairs, arms full of Hostess products and Seventeen magazines, to try to lure the girl out of her bedroom. On their way up the stairs Miss Fine stumbles and Maxwell reaches out a hand toward the small of her back to stop her from falling. Ho Hos go bouncing from his hand down the stairs. C.C. idly wishes a different ho-ho could have taken the fall instead.

Niles is in the kitchen wiping down the counter.

"You want to go watch a crusty old whore sing for two hours and then kick the bucket?" she asks, cursing her existence.

"More than anything," he answers promptly. "Since when do you sing?"

"Tell me, Niles," she says sweetly, "when was the last time you left the house for reasons other than to pick up somebody else's dry-cleaning?"

"Fair enough," he says, tossing the sponge into the sink.

She smirks her way through the whole opera. People in love are idiots. Her sympathy's limited. Niles tears up during Gran Dio! morir si giovane and spends the last ten minutes dabbing at his eyes with the corner of his sleeve. She catches him at it. He catches her catching him at it. The look on his face is one of pure, undiluted dismay. It feels like Christmas morning.

"This will no doubt be very confusing to you," he tries – pathetically – to defend himself as they step out onto the busy sidewalk afterwards. "I'll talk slowly. You see: some of us have souls."

"Oh yeah?" she says. She remembers the look on Maxwell's face last week when she asked him, his slight easy smile. "How's that working out for you?"

"Touché," Niles grumbles. She smirks as she lifts her hand to hail a cab.

II.

Over the years, Niles' brain – a rather good one back in the day – has become a receptacle for useless and unwanted information. The shoe sizes of everyone in the Sheffield family. (Plus Miss Fine.) The number of sugars to put in Mr. Sheffield's tea on a good day; the number of sugars to put in Mr. Sheffield's tea when he's fussy. The childrens' blood types. The anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Sheffield's wedding; the anniversary of Mrs. Sheffield's death; Mrs. Sheffield's birthday; the necessity that such days be quiet and unremarkable, and go by quickly. He knows so many things about the people in this house that he sometimes feels he doesn't have the room or the time to remember much of anything about himself.

When Miss Babcock breezes in on a bleak and rainy Tuesday morning with a particularly jubilant "Hello, hello!", Niles is therefore aware that it's because this is her birthday.

It becomes swiftly apparent that he is the only one who knows it.

She's looking so downtrodden by lunchtime that he almost can't bring himself to respond when she says something to Mr. Sheffield about giving an uncooperative investor, quote, 'a piece of C.C. Babcock.'

Almost.

By that evening, she has an air of abject misery about her, like a cartoon character flattened by a piano. He suspects that all taunting, teasing, and mocking would be for naught under the circumstances. He's not one to waste his talents. (So claims the over-the-hill manservant.)

When she reaches the front door, it's to find him waiting for her with her coat.

"What are you doing?" she demands suspiciously, eyeing her coat as if it might explode at any moment. "So help me God, Niles, if there's a rodent in there—"

(Ooh, good idea, he thinks.)

"Calm yourself, madwoman," he says, rolling his eyes as he holds it up. "It's a benevolent gesture."

"Since when do you do benevolent gestures?"

"Since it's someone's birthday, I suppose."

She becomes quite pliable with shock. He's able to help her into her coat without the wrestling match he'd expected.

"Your two hundredth, isn't it?" he carries on over her silence. "My, old girl, the things you've seen. And they said the telephone would never catch on!"

She recovers smoothly. "Don't you have a date? I hear Palmolive gets very prickly when you try to stand her up."

You would know, he does not say, opting for the much less predatory, "Nonsense. She's a lady, whoa-whoa-whoa. Look at these hands. Smooth as silk."

"You are," she declares, staring at his palms, "the saddest human being on this planet."

He can hear a glint of relief beneath her customary polished viciousness.

He pats her on the shoulder, an accidental flare-up of affection, then ushers her out into the rain. Her umbrella rests, forgotten, in the closet. He smirks to himself.

III.

For the little one's birthday, C.C. gives her a porcelain doll. It's eight hundred dollars, and it's got all the good stuff: real human hair curled into careful ringlets, carefully embroidered clothing, even little bloomers underneath its skirt. There's no way Maxwell won't appreciate the gesture. Why, she's practically a second mother to the kid.

At the birthday party – which C.C. pops out of Maxwell's office to survey for a few minutes – she discovers that little Tracey, eight of her closest buddies, and Nanny Fine have stripped the doll's clothes off, drawn tattoos onto its limbs with magic markers, and as for its hair – oh, God—

"We tried to give her a home perm," Tracey explains sheepishly. She's looking up at C.C. like she expects to have her head torn off at any moment. At least the kid's not stupid, C.C. thinks, and then amends the thought: Which is completely ridiculous. The little … darling.

"You think that's bad?" Nanny Fine says, waving a careless hand. "You shoulda seen Val's last home perm. Oy vey! I'm telling ya, it's a wonder she—"

C.C. decides she doesn't care, and goes into the kitchen. Niles is cutting the ends off of Red Vines and sticking them into rootbeer floats. At least someone's life is less fulfilling than hers.

"Honestly," she says, resting her elbows on the counter, "what is the matter with this family? That child looks at me like I'm Godzilla."

"C.C. smash," Niles intones, jolly. "Beware, Tokyo, beware."

"Oh, shut up," she orders, tossing a Red Vine at him. He catches it deftly and places it in the last rootbeer float.

"Damn it," she muses aloud. "How do I get that little imp to like me? She's the youngest, so I thought she'd be the easiest one to convert."

"Perhaps you would be more successful if you tried a different tactic to win Miss Grace's affections."

"Who the hell is Miss Grace?" C.C. says, frowning.

Niles sighs and pushes a rootbeer float across the counter for her. At least he's good for something.

"There's poison in that, by the way," he adds nonchalantly as he heads out to the party, tray of rootbeer floats in his hands. "Drink up."

"Har dee har," she calls after him.

The Red Vines, she privately admits, are a nice touch.

IV.

Niles has the day off for his birthday. He decides that he will spend it at home and experience the giddy thrill of actually sitting down on the furniture, or ignoring the doorbell, or telling whoever asks him for a snack to go get it themselves. Even if it's Miss Fine's mother – who, he knows, ought not to be trusted in the kitchen. Today he's living on the edge, baby.

He has an exquisite four hours. At ten o'clock, Master Brighton wakes up: at ten fifteen, he is throwing up profusely. Niles had never particularly expected a big to-do about his birthday, but the whole day very swiftly becomes a testament to Saltines and Gingerale and bed rest and wastebaskets lined with plastic bags. All butler birthdays forgotten. And the upstairs bathroom – it's nothing short of unholy. It puts The Exorcist to shame.

"Niles," Mr. Sheffield says, wincing, "you wouldn't mind, would you-?"

Niles drags himself up off the couch and listens to the sound of his dreams dying one by one, pop pop pop like bubbles. He's even begun to think in metaphorical cleaning products.

"Tough break, Niles," Miss Babcock says, appearing out of nowhere to linger in the doorframe. He's down on hands and knees scrubbing regurgitated casserole out from that tricky spot behind the toilet. (Why, why do they always miss the toilet when it truly matters?) "And on your birthday! Why, that is positively unacceptable. The next chance I get, I'll speak to Maxwell about giving you a raise."

He should know better than to fall for it, he should know better, he should know better, but damn it: "Really?"

"No," she says, and laughs. Cackles, to be more precise, like the hideous crone she is.

"Why are you here, woman?" he demands, and catches himself as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He's off his game. He hopes she won't notice.

"Woman?" No such luck.

"Well, apparently you're supposed to be one," he grumbles.

"Niles," she teases, striding across the room, her heels clicking on the tiles, "are you starting to go soft in your old age? Emotionally, I mean. Physically, I'd say you've had it covered for a long time now." She pokes him lightly in the side with the tip of her shoe and laughs some more.

"Do you know," Niles says (he cannot be blamed; she has driven him to this), "I suspect Mr. Sheffield would find it very attractive, were you to pay some attention to the boy during his illness."

God, if she were a dog her ears would perk up. "You think so?"

"Just look at Miss Fine," he replies innocently. The magic words. She positively sprints out of the bathroom.

She comes back fifteen minutes later with – oh, bless Master Brighton's heart – vomit in her hair and all down her shoulders.

"Niles," she growls, near-radiant with fury.

It is, he decides, his best birthday so far.

V.

Nanny Fine turns twenty-nine, not for the first time. (Or the second, or the third, or the eighth …) The Sheffield house becomes a den of chaos: everyone from her fluff-brained best pal to her shrunken, sparkly grandmother shows up. What's worse, everyone seems so happy about it. C.C. can't remember the last time she saw Maxwell smile this much. Even his exasperated "Miss Fine!"'s (of which there are nine in the first two hours: C.C.'s started quasi-consciously keeping track, figuring sooner or later enough will pile up that he'll get sick of her) are affectionate.

The kids, a reluctant Niles, and an even more reluctant Maxwell do a five-person reenactment of the chase scene from What's Up Doc?, a feat that C.C. firmly believes shouldn't be possible. It's mostly just a lot of running around and yelling and Maxwell fumblingly announcing, "And now we are, er, inside a Chinese dragon, and I am Ryan O'Neal and Niles is – Barbra – damn it, why couldn't we have just done a scene from Yentl," but Nanny Fine claps her hands and makes a lot of awful squawking noises that C.C. supposes express joy and insists that the whole family gather around her afterwards for a big group hug. Maxwell, C.C. notices, winds up closest to Nanny Fine's mouth. She isn't the only one who notices: the two of them seem fleetingly-but-very aware of it, too.

She crosses her arms and stares at her feet and decides not to talk to any of these people, since they're all clearly deranged. No one makes much of an effort – or any effort – to talk to her, so it's not as if that really matters, but.

When Niles takes the long way around the room for no reason other than to have the opportunity to step on her foot, she feels absurdly grateful.

To sidestep the whole number-of-candles issue, there are cupcakes instead of one big cake, each with one candle right in the middle. There are dozens and dozens of them – Niles slaved away for ages – and when everyone's ushered into the dining room, the lights are turned down low. The whole room's one big sugary, firelit shrine to the greatness of Nanny frickin' Fine. The cupcakes are arranged to spell out 'YAY!' across the table.

Before everyone digs in, Maxwell calls their attention so that he might make a toast. It goes on forever. Thankful to have her in their lives, she's certainly spiced up the Sheffield family, for better or for worse she's a part of them now and he wouldn't have it any other way, blah blah blah. C.C.'s downed her first glass of champagne by the time Maxwell is done talking and everyone finally takes a sip. Not the politest of actions, but she figures her debutante days weren't exactly in preparation for this little shindig. Besides, she's standing in the corner and doubts anyone notices.

Just as she's thinking it (and that, wouldn't you know, she could really use another glass or twenty of champagne), an arm brushes hers. She turns.

"Make a wish," Niles orders, low-voiced and wry, holding a cupcake out to her. She looks back at the table. It's the cupcake that was the dot at the bottom of the exclamation point. Now it says 'YAYI,' which just looks ridiculous. She feels a surge of savage triumph.

C.C. does make a wish, and blows the candle out. It's not even a trick one. Huh. Maybe Betty Crocker here's losing her edge.

When Nanny Fine leans across the table to kiss a blushing Maxwell on the cheek, her hair catches on fire. The room erupts into pandemonium. "DON'T PANIC, MISS FINE!" Maxwell shouts and dumps his glass of champagne over her head. Val, Nanny Fine's mother, and the littlest kid all start crying. Nanny Fine says "OH! OH! OH!" and passes out, and in the process somehow manages to catch the curtains on fire.

C.C. watches the scene and licks frosting off her fingers. God, it's magnificent.

"Demon woman," Niles murmurs as he breezes past her to get the fire extinguisher. C.C. smiles.