It was probably going to be another day of nothing but hoping, but that didn't make it any less fervent. Stewart Babcock wasn't one to give up just because he'd failed a few times – he wouldn't have ever become the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit if he hadn't worked hard and pushed.
He wouldn't consider this pushing, though. Not in the same hard, traditional sense of the word, anyway. It was gentler than that, and yet far more important at the same time.
He'd been writing a letter to his C.C. – his Kitten, his baby girl – every week since she had come back from her honeymoon.
It was all he had been able to think to do – had apparently been allowed to do, considering the fact that he'd been given no warning before the newlyweds had come back from their vacation and then moved off to God only knows where. They hadn't given him or B.B. an address, a phone number, or anything else that would indicate where they were living after that. What other choice had he had but to write, when calling was unlikely and visiting was impossible?
The one address they had been allowed to use was Chandler's office, so as much as it frustrated Stewart to have to try and correspond with his daughter through her middleman husband, all the letters went there. Had always gone there, and had seemed to pay off at least once, at first – he'd been over the moon when, on one occasion, a single letter had arrived. It was typed up, so he hadn't been sure who it was from at first, but as soon as he'd read "Daddy" in the opening, he'd felt his lungs breathe a sigh of relief even as his heart jumped into his throat.
Not that a single response letter (with no return address) telling him and B.B. to stay away because they clearly didn't like Chandler, and that he was her husband, her new family and came first in her mind, was the reply he had been hoping for. In fact, it had been crushing at first. He'd written back desperately, asking – pleading, begging – her to reconsider. To give them a chance, to sit down and have a real talk about everything, like adults who were members of a loving family.
But that letter hadn't been replied to. And neither had any of the others he'd sent since.
But he wouldn't let any of that put him off now, even if he only ever heard back simply to be told to go away again. If every letter represented a chance at hearing something – anything – from C.C., then he'd send as many letters as it took. Even if she had told them in the last one – only one – she'd sent back that she "never wanted to see them ever again", he'd still send them just in case she changed her mind.
He wasn't convinced she'd written it in the first place. Something about this whole setup felt like his bastard of a son-in-law had had more than his fair share of a say in the matter. Why would all the letters have to be addressed to his office, otherwise? Apart from wanting to keep him and B.B. away from their house, of course. The man was probably reading the letters before handing them over to C.C., but what was he doing with them in the meantime? Doctoring parts? Rewriting them?
Stewart really didn't know, but something didn't feel right. It'd felt that way ever since that letter had arrived, when the contents had made no sense at all. Their little girl had never argued with them over anything major before, and had certainly never decided to stop talking to them without everyone sitting down and having a rational discussion!
Her husband probably had had something to do with that, too. Probably "taking her away from her awful, evil family". If they even counted as that anymore.
Not that trying to deny them contact, or even their apparent disownment, was going to stop him from heading to the post office – he could see it now, just at the end of the street as he walked – and dropping off the latest letter.
He knew it was a long shot really, but maybe it would finally be the day. The day she'd finally get her hands on the letter before Chandler did, and read it with no interference.
He kept that thought in mind as he got closer to his destination. It was directly across the street from the hospital, and he often watched the people walking in and out as he went; it gave him some kind of peace, thinking about other people's lives instead of potentially losing part of his own. Especially when they were coming out – he liked to think that they'd been cured of something, or were well on their way to recovery after a battle with a long illness, or had been told some wonderful news.
But he didn't have time to slow down; he didn't want to slow down, either, when he was so close to his destination.
He always thought he got across the street to the post office in record-time, but that day he might've actually done it for real. The line to see the clerk wasn't long, and he was only waiting for a few minutes before he got to the counter. And, as he did, he came face-to-face with the man who served him most often – a kind fellow named George, who was only a few years younger than him and had nearly-adult children of his own.
They'd chatted enough over the weeks Stewart had been coming, and he knew practically everything the judge did, at this point.
And, had anybody asked, they would've found out that George couldn't feel any more sorry for the guy than he did. But somehow, he didn't think he could admire him any more than he did, either. It was clear that Stewart wasn't getting anywhere with his daughter, but he just kept on trying anyway.
George was almost sure it would've killed him, never hearing from his children again. He wasn't sure how Stewart found the strength to keep on going, simply by imagining that one day he would finally get a letter back.
He never told him this, though. If the guy had hope, he didn't want to interfere with that.
"Hey, Mr Babcock," he said instead as the man himself came forward. He tried to offer a smile that didn't tell his loyal customer he was hurting for him. "Here for your usual?"
The words stung in Stewart's chest, but he matched the smile on George's face anyway. It wasn't the clerk's fault there hadn't been any reply, or change in circumstances.
"Yeah, please," he said, slightly muttering the words as he slipped the envelope across the counter. "Same as usual..."
After chatting a little and getting the letter paid for and handed over, Stewart said goodbye to his friend and left in the direction he had come. He went back past the hospital, and he began his usual routine of people-watching as he strolled. But it didn't last long.
He was quickly distracted by a family directly ahead of him – a sandy-haired father, a golden-blonde mother in a wheelchair and a little baby peeking out from over her arm. He couldn't see the parents' faces (they had their backs turned to him), but they were chatting animatedly about something, between each other and to the little one, too.
They clearly loved their child a lot, including him or her in the conversation and making the baby laugh. Stewart could hear the soft squeals of delight coming from the baby, and he felt his heart get squeezed.
He remembered that sound so well, from the first months and years he had spent with B.B. and C.C.. Anything and everything had made their Kitten smile when she'd been that age, and it didn't take much beyond that to make her laugh as well. A feather tickling her chin, a funny face or voice, the splashing of the water in her bath...
Heart cracking (as it so often did nowadays), he crossed the street again to take a different route back to the car before he could accidentally catch up to the family. He didn't want to stumble in on their moment and ruin it by mistake with his suddenly less-than-optimistic mood. Those memories did too much to him these days, and he knew it could get worse if he thought about them for too long.
It reminded him of what he'd had before, and what everything seemed to be telling him he'd lost. He just didn't want to think he'd lost it for good, and he could only pray that the letter he'd just sent off wouldn't be met by cold, unfeeling silence…
C.C. almost couldn't believe her own good mood as she and Niles (with Rory tucked into her arms) started to leave the hospital. They'd just come from her latest appointment and things couldn't have gone better than they had!
Well, maybe they could've if there had been some sort of miracle and everything had healed up, but considering how she had been, she was more than happy with what she had now. Her doctor had been so pleased for her; he'd told her that she was making excellent progress and that she was finally ready to start using crutches!
She almost couldn't believe it – crutches! She'd reached the next stage in her treatment, and that meant taking one step closer to walking again! She'd soon be rid of the chair entirely, and be as free as she wanted to be...!
Of course she'd need plenty of practice before she started moving around with them, but she preferred to focus on the positives of it all – one of her legs was all fixed up, and even if her femur still needed some more time to finish mending, she was moving in the right direction already.
Niles had been so happy for her too, and the mood even appeared to be rubbing off on Rory, who had been babbling excitedly from the moment they got out the doors and had turned to head down the street.
"That's right, Miss Aurora," Niles answered, pushing her chair along and probably giving the baby that soft grin of his. "Your mother has been doing so very well! And her hard work is coming shining through...!"
For some reason, the way he said that made the baby laugh. He might have switched from the grin and pulled a face alongside it that C.C. couldn't see.
She couldn't help but start to grin herself, either, cheeks faintly warm, "I still can't entirely believe I made it this far! There were days I thought I'd never leave this thing!"
She used the hand not holding Rory to tap the arm of the chair. It came out more like softly hitting it with her palm; her entire body was clearly ready to go!
"But you will," her butler replied, soft and happy sounding. "And, if it is my place to say so, I think it calls for celebration."
C.C. took stock of what that meant. Probably a nice, quiet lunch at home that he had prepared himself. Maybe with more of that cake that she loved so much, before spending the rest of the day doing whatever she wanted.
It was...a good idea. Maybe a little underwhelming, compared to the news, but good nonetheless. Peaceful.
"It certainly does," she said, turning her eyes off in the direction they'd parked the car. "Time to go home, get settled and have a nice, celebratory lunch."
Just the way she said that made Niles frown. It actually caught him to the point where he almost stopped her chair!
Her tone had changed so much between talking about her rehab and healing, to the idea of going home – she was enjoying the day they were having out in the city, and the thought of going back was clearly as bland, uninteresting and same-old that it just couldn't live up to what she was currently doing.
She hardly ever left home, and when she did she had to turn around and go right back again. That wasn't fair, or just. She deserved some time out to celebrate her good news.
Maybe...no, not "maybe". He was going do take a decisive action here!
"Actually, ma'am, what would you say to us...staying out a little longer and having lunch in the city?" he had to push past the sudden hesitation that he was going too far. "My treat, of course."
C.C. felt herself halting, despite the fact that she wasn't exactly moving in her chair. The thought of the first two questions echoed in her head as she decided what to do about them. Staying out longer in the city than necessary? Not going home for lunch? Since when did she ever do either of those? She knew when she had to be home by and she knew that they had plenty of food in the kitchen that Niles or the cook could easily make into something delicious. She knew she was liking it outside, away from the house, but they had to get home, didn't they? It wasn't at all their usual routine – Chandler would expect...
That immediately stopped her with the heat of anger starting to flare up a little in her chest. She hadn't thought about her husband all day, and hadn't intended on thinking about him until she'd thought about staying out. Going out and having lunch, like any other grown woman her age would be allowed to do if their husbands weren't complete and utter bastards who hated the idea of letting them do anything they might like...!
But Chandler wasn't there, so who cared what he thought? She was having a nice time out with Niles and Rory, and she didn't want it to end just because she'd had a thought she'd practically been trained into!
But she did have to wonder why the butler thought he would be paying. She was his employer; she had far more money at her disposal than he did at his. As generous (and, dare she say, sweet) as his offer was, he didn't need to do such a thing! She could easily pay for the finest restaurant in town with the money she had in her purse, and he wouldn't have to spend even a little of his hard-earned savings!
"That sounds like a lovely idea, Niles, but you don't need to spend your money––"
"Madam, please," he cut her off, clearly not wanting to hear any of her complaints. "I know I don't have to – I want to. I would love to treat you and Miss Aurora to a nice lunch out. It's the least I can do, and I can certainly afford to buy us a meal!"
"Oh…well, if you are sure about this…" she said.
"I'm positively certain," he replied, smiling. "Now, I have to ask – are you open to experiencing a kind of lunch you are probably unfamiliar with?"
"Now what is it that you have in that twisted mind of yours?" said C.C.. "Should I be worried?"
"You offend me, ma'am!" Niles said in mock indignation. "Have I ever betrayed your trust?"
C.C. pretended to think long and hard about that, humming in thought and making several noises like she was considering her options, before she finally answered.
She knew what the answer really was, but she wanted to tease him a little.
"Well, I suppose not..." she grinned up at him just as he started to get that faux offended look on his face even more. "Alright, we'll take your suggestion for lunch, whatever it happens to be."
Niles matched her countenance with ease, slipping comfortably into a smile as he prepared to take the wheelchair to the crosswalk. Luckily, the exact place he had in mind wasn't that far.
"Excellent! And I certainly hope you won't be disappointed. I don't think you will be, at any rate..."
He let that trail off before he started rambling; the place he was thinking about for an unconventional lunch wasn't exactly what his mistress would be used to. She had spent her whole life surrounded by luxurious things and this was...well, a lot less refined. He personally loved it (it was practically the only place around that knew how to serve a proper full English breakfast), but who knew what she would think?
He really hoped it would open her eyes to a new world of possibilities, and let her live a little. He didn't know if that was what would happen, of course, but he thought he could give it a go. And she trusted him with it, even if she had no idea what he was thinking. That probably felt just as good as knowing that she would be moving onto practicing with crutches, soon enough.
He kept that thought in mind as he pushed her wheelchair down New York's bustling streets. Although teeming with busy commuters, they weren't so bad that manoeuvring her chair would be a challenge. It was lucky, really – as much as he liked urban life, Niles wasn't a fan of big crowds, especially when little Miss Aurora had fallen asleep in her mother's arms.
Their destination wasn't far away – the tiny diner was only seven or so blocks away from the hospital, nestled in between two humongous apartment buildings. Niles had found it almost by accident when he'd first arrived in New York. He'd been weary from a long trip from Illinois (he'd gotten a short gig for a few months there) and the only thing he'd wanted, had been a warm cup of tea and some breakfast. The diner – Sal's Classic American – had looked clean and fairly cheap, which at the time had ended up sealing the deal for Niles.
He couldn't have picked a better place if he'd tried! Sal's had the best English Breakfast he'd had in years, so Niles had instantly become a regular and would religiously have breakfast there until he got the job at the Graves' manor. Naturally, now that he lived away from the city, the frequency of his visits to Sal's had decreased considerably, but he still liked to go there on his days off, often for some breakfast and a nice chat.
Sal and his wife managed the business: he was the cook and she managed front of the house. They were a lovely couple, and Niles had befriended them without really trying. Those things sort of happen over one too many cups of coffee on quiet Sunday mornings, Niles had always thought.
It was a quaint, little place – far removed from what Mrs Graves frequented, that was for certain, but it might just be what she needed: some good food and company.
"Here we are," Niles said proudly when they eventually got to the little diner. "Sal's Classic American – the best diner in the whole of New York City, if I do say so myself."
C.C. looked up at the restaurant, practically holding down an eyebrow which wanted to spring up by itself. She read the name on the sign overhead, and through the glass of the huge windows saw customers enjoying hot cups of coffee out of plain white mugs, and digging into enormous plates of bacon and eggs, pancakes, burgers and hotdogs, slurping at milkshakes and laughing loudly at the things their companions said...
A diner? The polished, preened and polite English butler had brought them to a diner for lunch? How did he even know about a place like this to begin with, let alone apparently know that it was the best one around?
"You come here often?" she asked as he started to wheel them towards the door. "Forgive me for saying so, but I don't normally associate British butlers with diners in the middle of New York City..."
She thought she heard Niles chuckle.
"What can I say, ma'am, other than that I am full of surprises?" he sounded quite proud of that fact. And a fact it was certainly turning out to be! "And I used to come here a lot more, but I still make it to breakfast whenever I can."
He got them in through the door, where they were immediately met by a petite, pretty waitress with perfectly set black curls and a pearly white smile.
"Hi, welcome to Sal's! I'm Jeannette," she had directed the start of her speech at C.C. because she was the first through the door, but appeared to change direction as soon as she noticed Niles walking the chair in. "But you already know that! Hi, Mr Brightmore – you're in late! Lookin' for lunch instead of breakfast for once?"
Before Niles could even finish chuckling and give his answer, Jeannette had turned her attention back to C.C. and Miss Aurora with a surprised grin.
"And with a plus one, plus extra babe in arms, this time! I gotta tell ya, I'm a little impressed – I thought you'd never bring anybody at all by this place," she turned to the station she'd been manning when they'd come in and grabbed a couple of menus, quickly adding on to her chat. "Not that I didn't think ya had it in ya, or anythin' like that – I just always assumed you preferred a quiet breakfast on those occasions."
"Nice save, Jeannette," Niles just about managed to get out. "Could we maybe have—"
He was cut off as the waitress waved one of the menus at him dismissively, shushing him quickly.
"Gimme just one second, pal – ya haven't even introduced me properly to yer...friend over here. The waitress spiel is all well and good when it's an ordinary customer, but any mystery guest of yours deserves a little somethin' extra!"
Niles felt his insides clench, and he partially wondered if it was hot enough in the diner to blame his rapidly reddening cheeks on the kitchen. Jeannette was good at what she did, and she was a good friend if you liked to chat and to share the gossip (something Niles couldn't always help himself with), but she did have an awful habit of prying too much
"So, what's yer name, honey?" the waitress asked, beaming between C.C. and Rory. "And who is this little sweetie, if you don't mind my askin'?"
C.C., who was thoroughly amused both by Jeannette's antics and by just how flustered they were making Niles, smiled at the waitress and angled her sleeping daughter in the older woman's direction, so she could see her better.
"This is Aurora, my daughter," C.C. said, smiling adoringly at her girl. "And I'm Chastity-Claire Gr—Babcock. I usually go by C.C."
Both Jeannette and Niles' eyebrows shot upwards, but for two very different reasons. The former, being the perennial gossip, immediately assumed that this new client's surname slip could probably be explained by an impending divorce – she'd known plenty of women who'd stopped using their married names when their marriages broke down. The latter, knowing his mistress' actual marital status, was currently at a loss.
And a massive loss, at that.
Still, to his credit, he kept it cool – there would be an opportunity to ask her mistress about this unexpected name change, but it wasn't then. Not around Jeannette – he liked the woman, but as he'd mentioned, she was too much of a gossip for her own good sometimes.
"My, what unusual names you two have!" the waitress said, grinning. "Lovely, too – I'm surprised Niles here never mentioned you two before! Where did you guys meet?"
Just when it hasn't seemed as though the embarrassment and worry could get any worse, Niles felt the weight of that question get suddenly thrust upon him. How could he possibly explain that he was out with his mistress and her daughter for a lunch, at a diner his employer clearly stood out in, with Mrs Graves suddenly changing her surname just to top it all off? How was it going to look?
But before he could just let his mouth ad lib and stammer out the first excuse it thought up, Mrs Graves answered for herself.
"We met through his work," she said, never dropping her smile for an instant as she brought Miss Aurora back in. "It didn't take long for us to become firm friends, either."
The butler stiffened, but tried not to make it obvious. That was easier said than done when Jeannette looked back up at him and smirked. Only he seemed to register it as a smirk, though. To everyone else, it probably looked like a friendly smile.
"Oh yeah? Friends, huh?" she asked.
Looking back and forth between his mistress and the waitress, Niles eventually just nodded. He had nothing else to go by and clearly Mrs Graves had something in mind that he wasn't privy to. So, this was his best option.
"Yes, friends. We're friends," he replied, probably a little quickly. "Would it be possible for myself and my friend and her daughter to get my usual table, Jeannette?"
"It sure is, darlin'," the waitress replied, her knowing smirk growing even larger (so much so it briefly reminded Niles of the Cheshire Cat). "Do ya need me to show you to your table?"
Niles shook his head.
"That won't be necessary, Jeannette – we can make our way," he said.
"Alrighty then. Ya two get comfortable and when ya done picking your meal, I'll come take your order," said the waitress.
With that (and after giving Niles a not-at-all-subtle wink), she handed them their menus and hurried back to the kitchen, where (judging by Sal's screamed "order up!") she was clearly needed. Niles watched her go in a mixture of shock and annoyance, cheeks bright red and practically burning!
"Well, that was lovely," C.C. declared, putting an end to the short lull in their awkward conversation. "Now, what do you say if we get going to our table? I'm starving here!"
Grateful for the distraction, Niles nodded and brought her through the diner, towards his usual table. It wasn't unusual compared to any of the others in the place – it was an ordinary booth with the same red, curved vinyl covered seat, bottles of ketchup and mustard lined up next to the napkin dispenser on the table – but he preferred it. He supposed it must have been the view from the window just across from it; he could sit there quite happily for hours, watching the world go by as his breakfast slowly disappeared from his plate and Jeannette or one of the other waitresses brought him refills for his coffee. It was peaceful.
And it was ideal for Mrs Graves. She needed all the peace she could currently get.
After helping her make the transition from wheelchair to booth seat, he took his own and began to study the menu. At least, that was what it looked as though he was doing. In his mind, he was still going over everything that had been said at the door and he was trying to work out a way to pluck up the courage and ask just what was going on.
Because something really did have to be going on, didn't it? One didn't just change one's surname out of the blue like that – especially not to a maiden name when the person had previously gone by a married one!
He wanted to know her thoughts. Specifically, had she decided something he should know about that bastard she – presumably – still called her husband?
But how could he bring it up without making it seem odd that he'd asked? Was it even his business to know? It would explain why she'd answered everything by herself so quickly, if it wasn't. He was technically only employed by her; maybe the answer just wasn't for him to know? Even if he wanted to?
But how would he ever find out if he didn't try? Strictly speaking, he'd learned a lot more about Mrs Graves as a person than any butler ever should in the first place. Hell, even being out like this – taking her to lunch – was beyond the appropriate level someone of his position would normally be allowed. They were already through the looking glass, technically speaking. Perhaps he could...delicately work it into a conversation?
He mentally kicked himself for his hesitation and for still being a coward. He'd been far more open with her before now, he could do it again – granted, those other times had been outbursts, but all the more reason to treat them as practices. Actually planning on being frank about something should have been easy.
And he could always apologise if it went too far.
Taking in a silent breath, he flattened his menu against the table and looked at her to speak.
"I couldn't help but notice something, when we were talking to Jeannette just now."
Mrs Graves quirked an eyebrow up at him from her own menu, "What did you notice?"
Here came the difficult part. Trying to explain just exactly what he'd noticed, and (maybe) what he'd thought it meant as well. But that would only come up if she mentioned it first – as hopeful as he was, he didn't want to be presumptuous!
But he had to start somewhere, "That you...chose your maiden name to be addressed by, rather than your married one..."
"I was wondering how long it would take you to bring that up," she said, going back to reading the menu. "Must have been what, two minutes?"
Niles' face fell, and he felt his stomach drop right alongside it, shame and embarrassment taking over like storm clouds took over the sky. Oh God, she really was right! It hadn't taken him long at all to stray from the rules he'd promised to follow and start asking questions that were none of his business whatsoever!
What had he even been thinking, imagining that she might tell him what was going on if he simply tried to ask? He'd known his answer from the start and yet he'd ignored it to just...do what he wanted!
His eyes dropped like stones to his menu, his cheeks reddening – he was all the more humiliated for that, too, and they weren't even close enough for him to blame it on the heat of the kitchen!
"Um, well...i-it was playing on my mind, you see," he stammered out a pathetic explanation, not even able to look up at her as his words sped up in a rush to get them all out. "I didn't mean for it to be so impertinent, though! The last thing I would ever want to do was pry, but—"
"Oh relax, would you?"
That loud request made his head snap back up, and he turned to Mrs Graves once more. She was busy grinning all over her face like she had just witnessed the funniest thing mankind had ever done.
But...why? Hadn't she just been annoyed that it hadn't taken him five minutes to start poking his nose in where it didn't belong?
"Ma'am?" he asked quietly, unsure of what else to say. He would have finished his apology but it didn't look as though his employer wanted that...
She leaned over the table as much she could, her voice lowered, "I'm just messing with you, Niles! It doesn't take a genius to work out that you need gossip like you need air; I've seen you and Margaret at the kitchen table with your cups of tea and the papers or the magazines. You're like two little old ladies sat under the dryers at the salon!"
It took a moment for Niles' mind to process that he was off the hook. But the moment it went through, his middle unclenched and his heart started to return to its resting beat.
And as it did, the relief that came over him made him start to laugh himself. Mrs Graves wasn't angry – if anything, she looked happier than Niles had ever seen her before!
He'd never known her to tease; was it something she would normally do often, if she felt comfortable? Make fun and play games with the people she considered her friends?
He...rather liked it, actually, and it was making him think that they should come out for a break and a lunch outside the house more often.
It made him want to make her smile and laugh more, too.
"We are not like two little old ladies!" he retorted to her comment, straightening himself up and pretending to run a hand through his hair. "One of us is young, good-looking, witty..."
"And the other is a tubby British butler who loves chocolate gâteau just a little bit too much," C.C. quickly replied, smirk stretching into a mocking smile.
"Tubby?! I'm not tubby!" Niles immediately replied, straightening in his seat (and sucking his slight paunch in – although he would never admit to it). "I'm…stocky. Manual labour does that to people."
"Oh, really? I wasn't aware that manual labour was also the reason our seamstress has had to let out your pants twice since you started working for us…"
"How did you find ou–– I mean, that's the result of being provided with three nutritious meals a day. Unfortunately, I didn't always have that privilege in the past," Niles said.
He immediately wished he hadn't, though – his mistress' face fell faster than a summer thunderstorm, shame quickly taking over.
"Oh… I'm… I'm sorry, Niles – I was out of line…" C.C. said putting down her menu. "I shouldn't have gone there…"
"No, please – you don't have to do that," Niles reached out right away, as if to put a reassuring hand on her arm, but then held back from letting it happen. He couldn't do that, especially not right then. "I was the one who brought it up, after all, and there wasn't any harm in it. It was all in good fun..."
He wasn't going to let her blame herself for something he had mentioned in the first place. Especially not when they had been having such a nice time and could still have been having a laugh and mucking about as they chose their lunches, rather than her thinking she had to apologise over what he'd said...
But...maybe it could be turned around? He didn't want the fun to end on a note like this, especially not when they still had to eat and go home – she deserved to have a fully nice day out that she could remember without any sad moments whatsoever.
He was her butler, after all. He was supposed to make sure she was happy and comfortable, no matter where they were. He thought he knew how to do just that, too. Mrs Graves had loved his stories before now, and another could just be the ticket to get their afternoon back on track.
"Besides, it wasn't always so bad," he started. "We might not have always eaten well when we were making our way further into France, but sometimes the villages we went through held small parties for us. Let us share their bread and wine, played a little music if there were instruments, or if they were lucky enough to still have a wireless..."
He sat back a little in his chair, smiling in spite of himself. It might not have been a happy time in anybody's life, but they'd all made the best of what they'd had in the moment.
But being stood in the middle of a frozen square of a half-burned out village he hadn't even caught the name of, gnawing on stale bread and forcing down wine, had often made him long for his childhood and the days where he'd always had enough to eat.
"They'd played some of the same songs my own parents had, on the old wireless my father must've put back together about a hundred times," he then said. "They always used to dance together, after we'd had dinner in the evenings."
"That's a lovely image," replied C.C., smiling softly – she couldn't help it, Niles' parents' love story always made her happy. "My parents used to dance, too, you know? It wasn't a regular thing, but whenever they hosted soirees at our house, they'd dance the night away. They were both excellent dancers, so seeing them dance was magical…"
"Oh, the Sheffields loved to offer parties, too. The invitations were coveted by the entire British aristocracy! Anyone who was anyone was bound to be there so, naturally, everybody wished to be in attendance," Niles said, smirking. "Maxwell – Mr Sheffield's son – and I would always sneak into the kitchens to nick some of the goodies the cooks had prepared for the party!"
"My, weren't you a naughty kid, Niles!" C.C. said, teasingly swatting at his forearms with her menu. "Well, I really shouldn't be one to talk – my brother Noel and I always sneaked into the kitchens and raided the pantry. It drove Mother nuts, because we were never hungry at dinner…"
Niles' eyebrows shot up in (extremely pleasant) surprise. The image of a laughing, little blonde lass running out of the kitchens with the pockets of her fine dress filled with treats was both endearing and incredibly unlike the woman he'd come to know as his employer and newfound friend. She was always so calm and dignified in her manners – so measured! To think she'd once been a devious and carefree child was…outlandish.
And yet, the more time they spent around each other without her husband around, the more her real personality showed. It wasn't demure and reserved – no, it was lively and witty! It had character and charm…
It spoke volumes of the kind of person she'd been before she'd married her monster of a husband.
It spoke – much, much more quietly, as though trying to keep it hidden in case the wrong people heard, but also hoping that the right people would pick up on the signals – of the kind of person she still wished she was. But Niles could see it clearly; how happy it made her to be able to talk about her past, and all of the things that she had done in the years before.
He half wanted to ask if her bastard of a husband ever asked about any of it, but he held his tongue. He thought he could probably guess the answer to that one. And besides, it wasn't as though he wanted to spoil the atmosphere completely by mentioning the bastard in the first place.
No, just letting her open herself up was best. Letting her be herself, and allowing her to be happy in her memories. It would be like offering her a calm space she could go to whenever she needed one.
She'd certainly been in desperate need of one for a long time, by the looks of things.
"Well, I certainly never would've thought I'd be hearing this!" he cried out, his surprise somehow both teasing back but still real at the same time. "Coming from you? It's almost like hearing that the Crown Princess herself liked to steal sweets!"
C.C. barked out a laugh in return, eyes shining as nostalgia took over, "Oh, that would have nothing on some of the other things my brother and I used to do – the jokes and pranks we used to play on everybody! We had this tremendously old, cranky aunt when we were little, and we'd sometimes hide her purse or her hat when she came over...it drove her and our parents crazy whenever it happened."
Niles' look of half-feigned, half-real scandalised shock stretched out into a beaming smile. He was starting to almost not believe just how much they had in common with one another – he had just the story to pair with hers!
"You truly are an enigma; I never would've imagined that you'd delve into such antics," he said. "The young Mr Sheffield and I did exactly the same thing and more to the elderly housekeeper when we were children!"
C.C. looked as happy as he felt, leaning on the table some more in her interest, balancing Rory carefully in her other arm.
"Really? What kind of mischief did you two get up to?"
The butler nearly started laughing just remembering.
"Salt instead of sugar in cups of tea, moving bookmarks around in her books, that sort of thing," his chest swelled with pride – he'd been a genius at small pranks, even when a boy. "We even let a pigeon into her room once; the mess was tremendous!"
C.C.'s jaw dropped, eyes still sparkling in clear delight, "And you were never caught?!"
"Oh, on near enough every occasion," Niles replied with a grin. "But my father never punished me that much for any of it. He always hated the old crone more than anybody!"
His mistress burst out laughing, and the butler felt himself warmed over fully. She looked...so natural, like this was how she should normally look. Should normally be, if it weren't for a bastard of a husband who took all the fun and happiness out of her days.
Took the spark and colour of joy out of them.
She looked like she'd recovered enough to counter his story with one of her own, when a click-clacking approach of heels told them that Jeannette was heading back in their direction. She was carrying a tray with two tall glasses of water in one hand, both of which she set down in front of them.
"Sorry to interrupt this obviously sparklin' conversation, but I thought I'd better bring ya these," she said with a smile. Then, holding the empty tray under one arm, she whipped her notepad off her apron and took a pencil from its pocket. "And you're probably both starving, so why don't I take yer order while I'm here?"
Niles wondered if that was entirely the reason she'd chosen to turn up at the exact moment they appeared to be having the most fun, but he just gave her a knowing look. He wasn't going to have that conversation with her while C.C. was there.
Besides, C.C. was apparently already ready to answer.
"I'll have the biggest hamburger you've got on the menu," she said confidently.
Jeannette's eyebrow raised, and Niles was in full agreement with it. The absolute biggest? That was almost certainly going to be greasy beyond all belief, and not at all what Mrs Graves' stomach would be used to!
"Are ya sure about that, honey? It's kinda big, fer a little—"
"I have a big appetite; don't worry," C.C. waved her concerns away. "Besides, this is a treat I don't get very often."
There was a meaning behind her tone that wasn't displayed in her smile, and Niles thought he knew exactly what it was. Most meals at the house were smaller, vegetable-laden affairs alongside the meats, and were only followed up by perfectly proportioned pieces of whichever dessert they were having.
More than enough to live well, with exercise, but not huge. And certainly not enough to put on excess weight. Most likely exactly to Mr Graves' instructions.
It made Niles wonder if the bastard ordered for them both, when they went out to eat at any restaurant, picking whatever he felt was just right on the menu to keep her exactly the way he wanted. As though she didn't even get a say in what she wanted to eat.
It was almost impressive, how much his mistress was turning this afternoon out into an opportunity to rebel. He liked it a lot – she was getting to enjoy herself with no consequences whatsoever, and he was helping.
Even Jeannette looked like she admired C.C.'s moxie, before she scribbled the order down on her notepad.
"Anythin' to wash that down with, honey? Apart from the water – we do have other drinks in this place."
C.C. apparently thought about it for a moment, casting her eye across the other tables. Niles didn't know which table she'd found her inspiration on, but she suddenly grinned and turned back to the waitress.
"A chocolate milkshake. Again, the tallest one you've got."
Niles nearly laughed out loud; he just about managed to bottle it up inside so it didn't accidentally escape. This truly was turning into "Screw You, Chandler Graves" Day and he was certainly more than up for it!
"Comin' right up!" Jeanette said, before turning to address Niles. "And for you…lemme guess – your usual?"
"Yes ma'am!" he replied happily as he collected their menus and gave them back to Jeannette.
"Gosh, you are unbelievable! You've been comin' here for months now and ya keep ordering the same dang thing over and over!" the waitress said, rolling her eyes at him. "We have a lotta other stuff on the menu, ya know?"
"What can I say, Jeannette? I'm a creature of habit!" Niles replied. "Plus, you can't get a decent full English breakfast anywhere else in this bloody city…"
Jeannette pulled a face that suggested she didn't entirely believe her patron but didn't comment on his suggestion again. She simply closed her little notepad and went back to the kitchen to get their order started up, menus safely tucked between her body and her right arm.
"Creature of habit, eh?" C.C. piped up, smirking. "That's a new one!"
"Why, it is not! I'm a very predictable man, ma'a––"
"Call me C.C., Niles," she cut him off. "I mean, friends are usually on a first name basis, aren't they?"
Niles started a little in his seat, his hand suddenly twitching and smacking into the glass of water next to his hand. He steadied it immediately, only a little of the contents sloshing over the side as the ice cubes rattled.
She...she really wanted him to call her by her first name? But...but that was a level of familiarity that servants never achieved with their employers! Not the most senior ranking members of the house, anyway – Miss Aurora, for instance, he would of course use her first name, but only ever with the word "Miss" in front of it! This had nothing – this was purely name-to-name, with no titles or formalities in between!
No barriers. No separation. Just two friends, on an equal footing with each other as they shared a meal out and a laugh over childhood stories!
The butler's heart made itself known to him again as the pounding in his chest started to hammer ever harder. He tried to calm it by taking in a breath without her seeing – the absolute last thing he wanted was for her to start asking questions about why his face was going red.
And it had to be, didn't it? He felt even hotter than before now, alongside an unusual weightlessness he was trying to ignore...
He had to shake it off; he had to keep his composure! They were friends and that delighted him to the point of distraction for a brief moment, but he was still a butler and a gentleman who never appeared flustered!
"C.C.," he echoed, mentally patting himself on the back for not choking. It turned into mental applause when he picked up his water without his hand shaking. "Y-Yes, of course."
The glass felt reassuringly solid against his lips, and the water had to have done something to cool off the heat building in his cheeks. He probably drank a lot more of it than he might have originally, though, because the ice had sunk a significant way into the glass by the time he was done.
Mrs— C.C., he reminded himself, his mind suddenly developing a blip like a skip or twist in the celluloid of a projector at the cinema, was looking at him with an eyebrow delicately – and amusedly – poised.
"Feeling a little thirsty, were we?" she asked.
Niles replaced his glass on the table, careful not to knock it any more than he already had. He wasn't sure he could afford another embarrassment.
"Well, it is rather warm in here and I haven't had anything since...since this morning," he said, carefully avoiding saying the words "left the house".
He didn't want to bring up going back. Not when they were barely having lunch yet. And he certainly didn't want to bring up his awkward behaviour only moments before, so he quickly turned back towards where Jeannette had disappeared into the kitchen.
"It's certainly made me hungry, too. And Sal knows exactly what to do in that kitchen..."
"To make your perfect English breakfast?" he heard the grin in C.C.'s voice. "A little spot of home right here in New York?"
Niles cocked his head from side to side, considering, "Well, home as in my country. I didn't really start eating them until I made them myself, when I started at the Butler College..."
"Butler college?" replied his mistress, sounding both amused and surprised in equal amounts. "There's a university for butlers in the UK?"
"Oh, God no!" Niles said, laughing. "I should have minded my words – for us, college does not equal university. I was trained on a trade, I didn't get a bachelor's degree."
"So it's like a community college qualification?" asked C.C..
"Something like that, yes," Niles replied. "Though, if I'm being honest with you, I did get to go to university after I'd finished my education as a butler, but I never completed my course. Mr Sheffield Sr funded it – he'd promised my father he'd do everything in his power to ensure I became a successful man…"
Niles felt his smile faltering as he spoke. He didn't like to think much about his current position in life, but it was obvious that things hadn't quite worked out as he'd wanted them to. He wasn't successful by any stretch of the imagination, but what saddened him the most was that his reality wasn't so much his fault but rather the consequence of unfortunate circumstances.
It hadn't always been that way. There had been a time when the future had actually looked promising. Happy, even…
Back when Niles had been born, Mr Sheffield Sr had promised Joseph that his son would be given the same opportunities as any children of his own. Thanks to this very promise, Niles had been able to attend the finest schools in the world, starting with Eton and ending with Oxford University. He'd been educated alongside the Sheffields' son, Maxwell, who Niles considered his best and truest friend. They'd grown up as thick as thieves, sharing an undoubtedly brotherly bond that had continued well into adulthood.
The plan had always been for them to attend university together, but upon Joseph's insistence, Niles had had to push back starting at Oxford for one year, until he'd finished his butler training. While Joseph had greatly appreciated the Sheffields' kindness, he'd still wanted his son to have a trade, if things went south.
Both Mr Sheffield Sr and Maxwell had been both understanding and respectful of the Brightmore patriarch's decision. Not only that, but in order for the two boys to still get the opportunity to go to Oxford together, Maxwell had been allowed to take a gap year, which he'd used to travel the world and make up his mind about what course he actually wanted to enrol in.
And so, once Niles had finished his apprenticeship, he and Maxwell had finally started at Oxford in September 1938 – the latter chose to study a combined degree in Fine Arts and Humanities Studies, while the former decided on a Civil Law degree, all in hopes of someday becoming a successful barrister.
"But, well, Maxwell and I enlisted just a few weeks before we were due to start our third year at Oxford University," Niles continued, not wanting an uncomfortable lull in the conversation. "When the war was done, Maxwell did get to finish his studies, but I never went back. I mean…the offer was still there, but I needed a job more than I needed a degree, with my father gone and all that…"
He failed at his own attempt to keep the conversation going then, as he trailed off and let his eyes wander to the table. His finger tapped gently and absentmindedly at his glass, though the feeling of having it there wasn't very comforting anymore.
He only looked up when something moved in his peripheral vision, and he realised it was C.C.'s hand reaching out towards him across the table. She looked near-heartbroken on his behalf, all happiness and previous delight in his stories washed away by his sudden mentioning of the war and his father...
"Oh, Niles, I...I'm sorry, I didn't mean to let that get brought up again...!"
"No...C.C., please," his hand twitched in the direction of hers, but he held back. They were now already on a first-name basis; what else could he possibly want or be hoping for? "It was my fault completely. I didn't have to bring it up, and yet I did. We were only talking about education at first, after all...! I could've left it whenever I'd wanted, so please don't think you somehow forced me to steer the conversation in this direction..."
He could feel his stomach sinking even at the idea of her thinking she'd upset him. This was supposed to be a wonderful day out that took her away from the idea of blaming herself, for anything!
So, he tried to put things back on track, "I did have a good time while I was at university, but it simply wasn't meant to be."
He tried not to frown as C.C.'s own gaze dropped to the table. In fact, he was rapidly becoming so sad and so desperate to see her smile again that he continued to say the first positive thoughts and feelings that came into his mind.
"I-in fact, in some ways, I am actually quite blessed to have not finished. Some good truly did come out of it."
C.C. looked back up at him as though he'd lost his mind, and she didn't understand how he didn't realise it himself because it was so obvious, but also in a way which suggested she was too polite and tactful to blatantly point it out.
"Really?" she asked carefully instead.
Niles smiled, giving a small shrug, "I mean, I never would have met you or Miss Aurora, had I not chosen the life of a butler."
C.C. seemed to stare at him for a moment, then the same heat from the kitchens which had gotten to him suddenly struck her as well, as her cheeks started to flush pink. She quickly moved back in her seat, eyes rapidly focusing on the one thing that could bring relief: her own glass of water.
She still seemed slightly unable to concentrate, though, even when she replied.
"No...no, you certainly wouldn't have...! I just...well, I suppose I have concerns that you might've missed out on greater things. An even better time," she picked up her glass. "I wouldn't have missed any of my college years for anything!"
The sentence hit Niles like a wake-up slap, or with the force of a morning alarm clock going off.
C.C. had attended university? Why had she never mentioned that before now? At her age, she could've only attended within the last few years – how come he hadn't heard a single thing about it, from her or from anybody else in the house, for that matter? Who knew, if anybody?
How come she had gone from a university degree to being married to a monster?
Suddenly, his mind was starting to fill up with more questions than he could have imagined, and they all revolved around this apparently recent past that he'd never once heard his mistress talk about.
"You went to university?" he immediately regretted how the question had come out. "N-not that I think it an impossibility or anything! It's just that you have never mentioned it before..."
Once again (and much to the butler's chagrin) sadness took hold of C.C.'s features. But it wasn't the same kind of sadness as before – no, it was a deep-rooted kind of sadness. The kind of sadness that has been around for so long it's become a bit of a habit.
"It's alright, Niles, I know what you meant," she said. "And you are right, I've never mentioned before. No one in the household knows I am college-educated apart from you…"
"Might…might I ask why?" asked Niles.
A part of him wanted to kick himself for prying, but another part of him simply needed the answers, even if his curiosity came off as impertinent and intrusive.
"Chandler. That's why," she replied matter-of-factly, eyes darkening at the mention of her husband's name. "He's always disliked the fact that I have a degree, and when we got married, he absolutely forbade me from working or even mentioning my education to anyone else. He thinks it reflects poorly on him as my husband – after all, why would a woman need to work if she is married to a man who can keep her in as good a life as he can keep me? Besides, he thinks my degree isn't fit for women. I graduated from Columbia Business School, and in his eyes, business is a field exclusively for men."
Niles felt his fist starting to close up, so he slipped it off the table and onto the seat beside him. C.C. didn't have to see – need to see – any signs that what she'd just said had annoyed him. Angered him, even. She might take it as her fault again, when the blame was reserved entirely for the bastard she'd married.
Just who the hell did he think he was, getting to decide who studied business? And what kind of a supposedly loving and supportive husband just decided all of a sudden that his wife wasn't allowed to pursue an ambition just because it "reflected poorly" on him?! What kind of an arsehole cared more about his own perceived reputation than what his wife wanted to do in life?!
Did he not care at all about her feelings on the matter?
Niles thought he probably already knew the answer to that, really, but the question came anyway. Not that he was going to ask it out loud, because he'd nearly ruined the day enough times already and there'd certainly be no going back from that one.
But maybe he could keep the subject matter, while turning her away from the miserable thought that had to appear in her head like a looming storm cloud whenever her husband was mentioned?
"I see," he said instead, keeping his tone level. "What would you have done with the degree? I mean, did you have a job in mind when you set out to study it?"
"I was going to go into the family business, with my uncle and Grandpappy," she said. "They were the ones who encouraged me to study business in the first place – Dad wanted me to go to Law School, like him, but he never stood a chance…"
C.C. couldn't help the happy (if nostalgic) smile spreading across her features at the mention of her mentors. They'd encouraged her to push the limits – to always look for excellency, both in herself and her projects. They'd shaped her into a woman C.C. had been proud of…
A woman she no longer was, if she was being honest with herself…
The old C.C. would have never taken any shit, especially not from a man like her husband – she'd had to deal with plenty of those when she'd been a student, and she'd cut them down to size without so much as a second thought. She'd fought her way up and earned the respect of her peers and professors in the process, and somehow, that strong young woman who'd bowed to no one had kowtowed to a bastard after a few sweet words and a shiny diamond ring.
It was pathetic. She felt pathetic. She'd turned her back on her family and betrayed her principles for the illusion of love. She'd given up everything for a man who wouldn't do the same for her. Hadn't done the same for her, when it came right down to it – if he had, he'd have been there with her, helping her through her recovery, instead of Niles.
And speaking of the man, he was looking at her with such sweetness – such softness in his eyes, she felt her heart skip a beat or two. He was listening to her (actually listening to her!), paying attention to what she had to say, and not because he had to. He was doing it because he wanted to. Chandler had never done that. Not even before all the…abuse…had started. He loved the sound of his own voice too much to give her the space to share her own thoughts. Besides, he considered the latter both stupid and unimportant, he'd said so before.
In the few months Niles had been around, he'd been a better man to her than her own husband had ever been. More importantly, he'd opened her eyes to the reality she'd been trying to ignore for so long.
He'd been the first to tell her – even if he wasn't the first to see, as heartbreaking as that was – how awful Chandler was. And he'd been the first to even suggest that something should be done about it. Him and his story of how his parents had loved one another, and treated each other with kindness and respect...it had made her look harder, and notice all the things that she was missing.
Things that she could have, if she were free of Chandler. If she were living the life that Niles said he'd assist her in setting up somewhere far away, where she could be free to speak her mind and be listened to, where she would be able to have a job as she wanted, and where she could be loved without being held under any kind of duress brought by duty. And no one would ever raise a hand to her, or insult her baby again.
She could have it all, as long as Niles helped her.
Not that she should really be thinking about that right at that moment! After all, she was meant to be enjoying a lunch out with a friend – a friend who'd been a bigger help to her than he probably even knew – and the last thing she wanted was to think about things that would have to happen later, on a day that would probably be a lot more stressful than this one.
She didn't want to think about that, because that meant thinking about leaving to go back to the house sometime soon. And she was enjoying the freedom she currently had too much to want to go back to the cage just yet
Besides, Niles looked like he was listening so intently to what she had to say, she couldn't help continuing! He just had such an ease to him, and a warmth that made her feel so comfortable, that she felt she could with no trouble.
Part of her felt that, maybe, she could tell him anything.
"He was disappointed at first, but got more used to it when he realised I had my heart set on following the family tradition," she carried on. "He could never deny me anything, once he understood it was what I really wanted..."
Part of her bitterly wondered if he should've tried harder to deny her one awful thing she'd really wanted at the time, but she pushed the thought away. Her father hadn't been to blame for her own stupid mistake in that regard; and even if he had told her what to do, she probably wouldn't have listened.
Niles must've mistaken the downturn in her features for sadness over missing out on using her degree. Either that, or he really knew what she was sad about but didn't want to go back to that subject right there at the table, because he immediately tried to comfort her.
"Well, if you still want it, then there's no reason you shouldn't be able to pick up where you left off when...when things move forward," he said quietly. "When you and Miss Aurora get the freedom you deserve."
C.C. felt her cheeks warming again, and she cast her eyes down to where Rory was cuddled up safely next to her. She didn't particularly feel like she was deserving of much herself (she'd have to train herself back into that mindset), but her little girl deserved the world. It would be nice, to be able to have a job and to provide for her baby. To go through a work day and to come home to a place which felt welcoming and safe. Maybe, if Niles didn't mind sticking around for a while, he'd be the one to help her make it feel safe. For her and for Rory.
Of course, they had to actually get there first. They still hadn't even left her...current situation behind yet. The storm was still raging, but she liked Niles' optimism and the promise of clear skies ahead, even if she couldn't always see them yet herself.
"That would be something..." she murmured quietly. "I'll have to see."
She didn't know if he was thinking as he did it or not, because there was a hesitant pause in the seconds before, but Niles suddenly placed a hand on her wrist and squeezed it lightly.
"It will be something," he reassured. "And you'll get to make all of the decisions this time."
C.C. could only nod, as the touch which ended as soon as his little speech was over (and not a second after) had left a strange lump in her throat that she couldn't quite swallow. She knew he'd only meant it as a friendly gesture, but she couldn't help it; she'd never been touched in such a...familiar way by a servant before, even one she considered a friend...
It was fortunate that Jeannette soon arrived with a coffee for Niles and the tallest chocolate milkshake C.C. had ever seen (it was bigger than Rory!), because that meant she could distract herself with the thick, creamy delight of a drink. Their meals – huge, greasy and oh-so-delicious-looking as they were – followed soon after, and conversation turned fast to what she thought of Hal's recipes instead.
She was more than happy to talk about lighter, more trivial things like that. They were still on their fun lunch out in a tiny diner in the city, and him knowing what she thought of the food he was making her try was all part of the experience, after all.
It was refreshing, compared to the idea of big changes that had to be coming soon.
Changes that would lead to her freedom and a new life with her daughter.
But in the back of her mind, she was still replaying the moment his hand touched her wrist, and thinking about the lump in her throat that she still hadn't fully managed to swallow.