C.C. didn't know how long it had been since she'd locked herself in the bathroom. An hour? Two, perhaps? She didn't know, and she really didn't care. She'd curled up inside the bathtub as soon as her parents and Niles had walked away from the bathroom door – she felt safe in there, and there were no unwanted hands on her body.
Though, if she was being honest, she felt awful about having reacted like she did. She hadn't meant to lash out at her parents, but the thought of anyone touching her back… it was simply too much to bear. The mere idea was enough to send her head reeling and for her heart to pound against her chest. It wasn't something she could control or even explain…
Well, maybe she could explain it. Whenever the…events had happened, Thomas would force her face down on the bed, climb on her and he'd keep her in place by pressing down on her upper back. There had been exceptions, but more often than not that's how it had happened.
She didn't think she could tell this to her parents or Niles. Hell, she wasn't even sure she could face them, after her outburst. She was ashamed of her behaviour – it certainly would have gotten her a correction, had she done that to Thomas.
She curled up even tighter, wishing that the whole world could just go away. Or disappear. Or maybe that she would do one of those things, and never have to get hurt or hurt anybody else with her own words again...
The thought sent tears welling up and flooding out of her eyes, and they dripped onto the cool acrylic of the bathtub.
She closed her eyes, trying to shut out everything.
But she couldn't. There was something disturbing that attempt – a small noise, coming from just outside the doorway.
It sounded like something padding along, little claws tip-tapping on the flooring, stopping once every so often before it would start again. She let her eyes drift in the direction of the door, the closer it got. Eventually, she'd sat up in the bath, letting her entire line of sight go to the door.
And then, it was there. A tiny shadow under the doorframe. And the shadow was accompanied by a not-all unfamiliar noise.
C.C. began to stand up out of the bath, her face frozen halfway to a smile.
It...it sounded like–
A tiny orange snout poked its way under the crack momentarily, then disappeared again, to be replaced by whines and scratching.
Her face thawed, and the smile burst through like spring did after winter.
She scrambled the rest of the way out of the bath, for the moment no longer caring about anything but throwing open the door to an excitable little Pomeranian, who yelped and barked and whined at the sight of his owner, circling her until she managed to reach down and scoop him up in her arms.
Her face was immediately assaulted by a warm, impossibly little tongue, and she started to beam even as more tears fell.
Her Chester. Her little dog, who'd clearly missed her just as much as she'd been longing for him!
"I missed you too, oh, my baby...!"
She could barely believe it! What had been happening while she was gone? Had somebody been taking care of her dog for her...?
Somebody must have – he looked well-fed, happy, lively, his coat was in good condition and his eyes were bright. Although that might have been because his owner had just come back...
And all from a place he'd never know or understand.
But now wasn't the time to get into that! Somebody had to have brought him there – he hadn't been indoors when they'd come, and nobody had brought him with them in the limo!
"Where did you come from...?" she crooned, hugging her dog close and not minding his wet tongue or cold nose on her cheek. "Huh? Where have you been...?!"
A loud, nasal voice coming from the direction of the living area told her every answer she needed to know.
Nanny Fine and the Sheffields. Of course, they had played their part in helping where they could! They clearly hadn't been about to let her down, even if the worst thing they could imagine had come to life.
She grinned down at Chester, "Looks like we've got company, little guy..."
She didn't know if she was ready to see anybody else yet, though. It was overwhelming enough, with the doctors and nurses and other people she'd made herself be around that day!
Not to mention that, if she walked into the living room, she'd have to face her parents and Niles – three people whom she'd hurt and had probably made worried sick. She had heard her mother cry when she'd locked herself in the bathroom…
God, Thomas had been right about her! She was a selfish bitch…
A horrible, selfish bitch that hurt everyone around her.
She didn't want them to be hurt by her. Even if it was an accident and she hadn't meant to lash out, she'd still been the one to cause the damage. That alone was enough to warrant the name.
It was best that she just...went away. She avoided using the word "disappeared" that time, because it was the word they'd used to describe her being trapped at Thomas' house.
That was the absolute last place on Earth she wanted to go. But that didn't mean she couldn't think of anywhere else that would take her away from everybody she might hurt, or disappoint, or make angry. She wasn't without those sorts of means, and she knew how to put them into practice.
But a realisation hit her stomach the moment she tuned her ears back into the quiet murmuring of discussion, coming from the living area.
They - everybody who'd come with her to the penthouse, as well as her brother and the Sheffields - weren't going to let her do that, were they? Her father had specifically chosen the building for its security, they'd all agreed to visit and come hang out with her, and they had police protection in the building around the clock.
They'd all said all along that they'd keep her safe. That this was what this new arrangement would do...
It was as if, the moment she'd returned, they'd built a wall around her - huge and strong, and warm inside from love and welcoming she didn't deserve.
But that was just it. She didn't deserve any of it, no matter how much they tried to tell her that she did. That they were her family, were there for her, loved her...
She didn't see how, or why. Obviously, she understood the whole "We're your family" thing, but that was just obligation on their part. Of course you'll put up with whatever mess your relatives have made of their lives, if they're close enough!
If she wasn't their daughter, she'd be on her own. Just as broken, and filthy, and worthless as she was, only that time without the excuse of a surname to make herself a burden to them.
That was all she was, and all she would ever be. Each and every single ugly thing Thomas had said, as painful as it all was combined, had been the truth. And now, it was all she could hear in her head, all at once.
She'd been nothing but a stupid, useless idiot, in running back to the people she knew wouldn't want or need her. Not really. Whatever would they need an unloveable, broken fuck toy for? She couldn't do anything for them that they didn't have already anyway, and they'd be carrying her for the rest of their lives, even as they grew older and more feeble and frail...
She was going to be a baggage to them, forever.
A weight on their shoulders. A problem. A fucked-up waste of space that shouldn't have ever come back in the first place...
The last one stung, filling her eyes with more tears, but she knew it was true - just like everything else the monster had said. She could've gone anywhere once she'd left the house, but she'd chosen to come running back to the people who would have been doing just fine without her? To do what? Intrude on their lives and make her the focus of all their attention?
That wasn't fair. And it just went to show how selfish she really was. Just as selfish as Thomas had spat at her every time he'd needed to "correct" her.
There was only one thing she could think to do, to make it right. To not be selfish anymore. She had to leave, right away, and never come back. Find somewhere else and start over, where none of them would ever be burdened or hurt by her, ever again.
So, taking Chester in her arms and whispering to him to be quiet – of course, she would bring her dog with her; she wouldn't force them to look after him anymore – she began to sneak along through the penthouse.
There had to be a fire escape somewhere...
The closer she got to the living room, the louder she could hear them all, obviously discussing her.
"I really don't know what could've happened to her – one minute, I was asking about coffee or tea, the next, she was just...screaming...!" her father sighed.
Somebody settled a cup down on the coffee table.
"It has to be trauma of some kind," Niles piped up gravely, sounding lower than he ever had in his entire life. "We don't know what...happened, in that place..."
And they never would, either, C.C. thought to herself, blocking out the sound of their talk. She didn't need to hear them chatting so casually about how fucked up she was – she already knew that. It also hurt too badly to have to hear them confirm that she was a problem, and had shown herself up that way earlier.
But that didn't mean that they were wrong, which was the most painful part of all.
It needed to be said, though. It was a wake-up call. And it meant they were practically giving her the green light to go, in confirming how much of a burden and a bother she would be to them.
She also tried desperately not to hear the sniffles coming from her mother, who was still struggling with tears.
Once she was gone, there wouldn't be a need for anymore tears. She wouldn't be able to hurt them enough (at all) to make them happen.
She turned off silently into the dining room, where she also happened to spot her mother's purse on the table.
She bit her lip, considering. She didn't have access to her own funds right then, but she was going to need money. And it wasn't as though her parents were tight for cash, was it?
They could track the credit card movements, if they wanted to know she was alright. But they wouldn't have to bother with looking after her themselves anymore.
She grabbed the purse, clutching it tightly in her hands and Chester in her arms as she hurried through the kitchen and headed straight for the back stairs - the fire exit.
She was through in an instant.
She eventually heard a voice in her head - an echo of both Thomas' anger and her own frustration and despair - snap at her louder than the wind whistling around the buildings.
"Just pick one, you stupid, worthless piece of crap!"
That sent her running, picking a direction aimlessly but setting out, nonetheless.
As long as she went, leaving behind anybody who she might demand from, or scream at, or leave broken-hearted, it didn't matter which direction she headed in, anyway.
"Miss Babcock? Miss Babcock, are you alright in there?"
Niles had been knocking on the bathroom door for the past fifteen minutes to no avail. It had been well over two hours since Miss Babcock had first locked herself in there – more than enough time for her to calm down. They didn't want to pressure her into coming out, but she was still fragile; spending two hours inside a cold bathroom after a hospital stay was, at best, a questionable idea and a ticket back to the ER at worst.
"Miss Babcock, please open up," he pleaded with her when he still got no answer. "We are sorry for what happened, and I promise you that you won't have to talk about it if you do not wish to…"
Niles waited for an answer, ear pressed to the door and heart nearly skipping a beat. He got nothing. Nothing at all.
"Miss Babcock, please," he insisted, a sinking feeling in his stomach. "I promise you we–"
Having accidentally leaned too heavily against the bathroom door, Niles suddenly found himself falling through it, stumbling with a yelp when the thing opened up without a hint of resistance.
The door wasn't locked, and the room was empty.
"Miss Babcock...?" he tried again anyway, weakly as he regained his composure, just in case she had unlocked the door but not left.
Perhaps she'd curled up in the bath and fallen asleep? A quick check proved his theory incorrect. The shower, maybe? Again, opening the doors showed him he was wrong.
He felt dread creeping into the bottom of his stomach, ready to take root and sprout upwards. The room had been vacated, and he had no idea when.
That meant he had no idea where Miss Babcock had gone, for potentially hours.
"Miss Babcock!" he cried out, letting his voice reverberate off the tiled walls. "Miss Babcock, where are you?!"
There was no answer, even when he dashed out into the corridor to hear better, there was no answer from that familiar, deep voice.
There was, however, an answer from a different voice, as Maxwell, Fran, Stewart and B.B. all came hurrying over. Their friends had come over to bring Chester back, and had stayed to hear more of what had been going on.
And all they found was their former butler turning to and fro, panicking and trying to search at the same time, but ultimately getting nowhere.
"What the Devil are you shouting about, Niles?" Maxwell asked, looking into the bathroom where the others had explained she'd been. "Where's C.C.?"
"I don't know!" Niles replied, the answer feeling like some horrible confession.
A collective, panicked gasp went up among the group, their eyes widening and jaws dropping open. How could he not know? He'd been explaining only moments ago that she had locked herself in after some sort of panic, and they hadn't heard from her since!
She had to still be there, didn't she...?!
"Whaddya mean, ya don't know?!" Fran exclaimed. "Wasn't she in the bathroom?!"
In his own despair, their friend started to rake through his own hair, feeling like he could tear clumps of it out.
"She was, but I went to check on her and the door was unlocked, and I couldn't find her anywhere in there–"
"My baby is missing again!" B.B. wailed, bursting into fresh tears as she became overwhelmed by everyone else's panic.
Trying to keep some sense of order and reason, even with his own fear creeping up inside, Stewart stepped in, his hand out in a halting motion.
"Now, let's all just hang on a second!" he managed to attract their attention. "She can't be far – she probably went to one of the bedrooms to calm down and fell asleep! If we search the penthouse, I'm sure we'll find her!"
He wasn't actually sure at all, but he'd had to say something. Especially when he'd seen B.B. start to have what could become the equal-for-worst day of her life.
Their little girl had been so terrified when they'd touched her back, spoken to her...he didn't want to think that she'd meant it when she'd said "Leave me alone".
Soon, everybody was searching the entire apartment, from top to toe, frantic and calling out her name to warn her if they were coming into a room. They left the living area – they would've noticed if she'd been that way. But all the bedrooms and other bathrooms were thrown into chaos as people looked; under beds, in wardrobes (ripping through the clothes already stored away) and showers, under tables and behind sofas. The kitchen came up empty, and so did the dining room.
Even though it shouldn't have. But B.B. noticed that her purse was missing from where she'd left it on the table, and Fran – who'd been yelling out all over the house – found that Chester hadn't come running to see what all the noise was about in the meantime.
When the entire penthouse had been thoroughly turned over, and the only three things found to be missing were B.B.'s purse, Chester, and C.C. herself, that was when Stewart let the fear take over.
It was a panic that spread across the group like wildfire.
C.C. had gone missing, again! Right from under all their very noses, this time! From her own apartment, where she should've been surrounded by other people!
They had to start looking for her outside. But how? She could've been gone for hours before they'd even realised and with another hour or so on top of that from where they'd looked, the city-wide search they'd have to organise could turn up nothing!
Though how else were they supposed to find her? It hadn't worked before but they had a time advantage on their side now, didn't they? They knew she'd gone and it hadn't been a whole day without anybody realising, this time!
The dark cloud of remembering Thomas was still out there somewhere put a damp shadow over that ray of hope. The monster could've been anywhere, still lurking and waiting for a chance to strike. What if he found her simply by bad luck, or what if somebody had tipped him off about where she might be found?
It was hard to imagine someone doing something so vile as pointing a kidnapper and rapist in the direction of his victim, but it wasn't impossible. Especially if under bribe or threat...
It didn't bear thinking about! They had to do something, right away – to get there before anybody else could!
To get C.C. back, before she was gone for good, this time.
"What do we do now?!" Fran said.
"Maybe we should split – go out and look for her," suggested Maxwell. "She can't be far away."
"How do you know that?!" said B.B.. "You have no way to know–"
"Yes I do," Maxwell cut her off. "We brought Chester around half and hour ago. Since Chester isn't here, that means C.C. took him, which would suggest she left between our arrival and now. She can't have gone too far in barely thirty minutes."
There was a thoughtful lull in the conversation then. Maxwell's reasoning made a lot of sense. C.C. had taken Chester, and the Sheffields hadn't arrived too long ago. Considering the former producer's frail state of mind, she probably wouldn't have taken a bus or a cab – the only thing she seemed to hate more than crowded spaces these days, was being in a car with a stranger.
It brought back too many bad memories…
That, of course, meant that she had to be travelling by foot. And, if she was travelling by foot, she couldn't be far away. Not when she was so weak still.
"You are right…you are right…" Stewart said, raking his hair, just like Niles had been doing a few moments ago. "Then we need to split and–"
"No! No, we need to call Lane first," Niles said. "She has men outside the building – one might have seen something."
That all made more sense than anything else had ever since they'd arrived, and nobody had any objections to it. How could they? The police could find C.C. in no time at all - better than any of them ever could!
It even made Stewart look up from the start of his anxiety attack.
"Niles, my boy, you might just be the smartest person in this room," he said, looking like he was holding back from tears. "Call Lane right away – the phone's by the front door. Speed dial one."
The former butler did exactly as he was asked, punching in the single digit and waiting with baited breath, everyone around him staring hopefully as the dial tone buzzed on and off.
He nearly shouted out in surprise when somebody picked up the receiver on the other end.
The police officer sounded just as ready for action as always, which was fortunate, because she'd really need to be for this.
"Detective Lane?" Niles gripped the phone tighter. "We need your help. Miss Babcock has disappeared...of her own accord, this time…"