I've eaten my black-eyed peas (which took forever to make, since I couldn't get the pressure cooker to shut), baked some eggless cranberry-almond-orange loaf, shelled and eaten two lovely pomegranates, made a good start on reorganizing my kitchen, and caught up with a few friends over texts, emails, and phone calls. And so now it is time to talk about Yuletide.
I received a smart and sharp gift in the Kings fandom:
Summoned (1092 words) by faithful4you
Fandom: Kings (TV 2009)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Characters: Jack Benjamin
Post-"The New King". Jack is summoned.
I would still like to write my own Jack-centric fic one of these days, but there are several epics in my head that have not yet made it to my laptop, so we'll have to see.
And I wrote four fics for Yuletide this year - only one for my matched recipient, since it was the only fandom of hers that I knew. She asked for Niles from The Nanny, and I'd often thought, idly, that it would be fun to introduce Niles and C.C. to BtVS, as sort of off-verse versions of Giles and Buffy (prompted by a demon masquerading as Sylvia Fine). And I finally got a chance to write it! It didn't come out nearly as riotous or hilarious as it was in my head, and the undercurrent of Niles's dissatisfaction with his life and Mr. Sheffield in particular surprised me, but my recipient seems to like it, and some other people said nice things too.
All hell broke loose when the cloud of sulfur shaped like Miss Babcock manifested at the front door.
Correction. All hell should have broken loose, since the devil appeared on his doorstep, cloven hooves shoved willy-nilly into expensive leather heels, but in fact the sun continued to shine and a few brave birds even dared to chirp.
"Hello, hello," C.C. said cheerfully. The hair-dye must have gone to her head. Either that, or she had a particularly juicy insect caught in her web at home. Niles tried and failed to keep himself from picturing whatever squalid lair she called home as he neatly caught the thousand-dollar coat she tossed in his general direction. Damn his razor-sharp reflexes.
"Repeating things only makes you seem senile," he noted helpfully as he shook out the coat, a rather nice perfume wafting up from its luxurious folds.
"Thank you for the insight, Mary Blobbins," she snapped, and took off for the office.
With a sigh, he hung up her coat and then went to fetch the mop to erase the minute traces of mud she had left on the floor. There had to be more to his life than wiping Sheffield noses and sparring with a witless crone.
At least he had his stories; some of those scripts that playwrights sent were real page-turners, and of course he'd confiscated the baskets of chocolates and pastries sent by obsequious directors and had himself a nice little nosh while perusing. Andrew Lloyd Webber would probably make another fortune off of any of the scripts stacked by his bed, which he'd set aside for rereading. Niles gathered the rest and arranged them, all their edges nicely aligned, on a silver platter with the best on top and the worst on the bottom, where it was soaking in some of the silver polish.
"Your scripts, sir," he said, walking into the office and startling C.C., who had been trying to drape herself seductively across the desk, though the effect was that of a Brobdingnagian who had no idea why she failed to fit into any Lilliputian furnishings.
"You opened them?" C.C. asked. "These scripts are for our eyes only, Niles! Maxwell, what is the point of having a dogsbody who doesn't know his place?"
"If anyone in this room's a dogsbody –" he started, just loud enough for her to hear. She tossed back a curtain of butter-yellow hair to narrow her eyes threateningly at him, but he knew she had no ammunition. "Sir, may I assist you with anything else?"
"No, old man, that'll be all. Tea on the verandah today, I think."
"Very good, sir," he said, backing out of the room as he curled his hand like a paw and mimed barking at Miss Babcock, who looked apoplectic. It was rather a good look for her.
"You know Imogene's allergic to hazelnuts!" Grace shrieked disconsolately, and Niles heaved a sigh that was supposed to be far more silent and began picking the freshly shelled nuts out of his batter. Why had Nanny Boxington-Babbage quit in high dudgeon? She'd been no Clara, of course, and she'd been as sociable as a stone, but it had helped not to be the only adult left in charge of three children, each of whom was difficult in a distinct way.
Brighton, who'd been on his last nerve all week, strolled into the kitchen with his usual impeccable timing. "Nice one, Niles. I could hear Wittle Baby crying all the way upstairs." With characteristic boorishness, he stuck his tongue out at his little sister and poked her hard on his way to the fridge. She sniffed but didn't cry out.
"Can I get you anything, Master Brighton?" Niles inquired politely, praying that that the little blighter wouldn't start tossing the shells around his nicely scrubbed kitchen or, worse, leaving a trail of them to be ground into the hardwood by his inept skateboarding.
"Get yourself a real life first, then we'll talk," Brighton tossed over his shoulder, dripping apple juice as he went. He looked like he had an incontinence issue, Niles mused as he popped the last hazelnut into his mouth before giving his batter a brisk stir. Grace, pacified that her imaginary friend would suffer no adverse consequences from his cream puffs, gave him a wan smile like a screen siren of old, wasting gracefully away.
The child was a touch overdramatic.
Niles groaned at the last page of the script in his hands, only slightly placated by the strawberry crème bonbon he popped in his mouth. Jekyll and Hyde was a good story, but hardly needed retelling twice a season. The playwright behind this version seemed to think he was doing something blazingly original and shockingly revelatory by making the good doctor a woman and the monstrous figure another woman. As for casting, the playwright simply had not considered that it would be no mean feat to find two actresses with the appropriate vocal range who so closely resembled each other as to convincingly play different aspects of the same character.
He plucked a praline from its gold wrapper and sucked on it, the rush of sweetness reminding him of Jocelyn, who'd always favored pralines. If Joss were Jekyll, Miss Babcock – who had, he was convinced, dyed her hair to match Sarah's platinum but had ended up with a hue far closer to Joss's ash-blonde, in her most spectacular failure to date to gain Mr. Sheffield's interest – could certainly play Ms. Hyde, though she'd hardly be stretching her range if she went lumbering around the stage like a malevolent golem.
An unexpected coconut cluster made him sit up and spit up, and he closed the script decisively. This one would never see the light of Mr. Sheffield's office. It was far too silly, and no one had a taste for the supernatural these days anyway.
It was like some beautiful dream when Miss Fine arrived. Suddenly there was color and laughter – braying and honking, true, but laughter all the same – in the house. Niles for one found himself eagerly anticipating not only which skin-tight ensemble she would wear when perching – as perching was meant to be done – on Mr. Sheffield's desk, but even which gaudy, oversized robe she would sport while buttering her breakfast muffins and layering her morning meats. She was a feast for the eyes, and he noted with no small satisfaction that Mr. Sheffield's morning newspaper went unread until the children were packed off to school.
Even Margaret, their very own silent Boo Radley, reacted to Miss Fine's presence, displaying actual signs of a personality, which he for one had not been expecting. No one would ever accuse Margaret of having a rapier wit, true, but she mustered up enough backbone to defend herself against Brighton. Which made the boy sputter and fall silent, which was its own reward. Really, Miss Fine was a benefactress of the highest order.
With Miss Fine came her mother. That was an unexpected wrinkle, though Sylvia Fine, in all her brassy glory, did make Miss Babcock's eye twitch alarmingly.
"Sir, if I may," he said, feather duster in hand, looking down at the white streak in Mr. Sheffield's curls. It made him nostalgic for Bright Young Spark Max Sheffield – back when he'd been Max, not Maxwell, riotous in fishnets and garters as he won over an entire tarts-and-vicars party, hungover and demanding death the next day. Perhaps nostalgic was the wrong word. Disbelieving was probably closer to it. That was the person whose Lalique and Sèvres he kept free of dust and whom he called "sir" without a trace of irony.
"Yes, what is it, Niles?"
"The household funds have been very low for the past few months, sir, and I was hoping you might increase them accordingly." The butcher's bill in particular had been shockingly high. The butcher smiled these days when he saw Niles coming, and openly wondered what kind of dogs had been added to the household.
"You really should budget better, old man," Mr. Sheffield said sanctimoniously.
"We have had fairly extensive meals as of late, sir," he reminded the oaf, poisonously sweet.
"Miss Fine?" Mr. Sheffield protested. "But she's so . . ." his hands sketched an hourglass shape in the air. "So slender."
"One of her appendages is not, sir," Niles said, pretending to straighten up while actually rearranging all of the piles on the desk; it served the fussbudget right for doubting him, when he'd given the best years of his life in service.
"Oh, you mean her mother," Mr. Sheffield said, looking pleased to have cracked the code, as if that made him James Bond.
"Indeed, sir," Niles said, like the driest martini, still waiting.
"Do what must be done, then. I trust you."
It should have felt good to hear those words from the man whose constant companion he'd been all their lives. But it didn't, quite.
Usually a change in genre was as crashing as a key change in a pop song, something irritating and to be avoided at all costs. But somehow, this script, prosaically titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which he'd set aside only because he needed to know who on earth would name a defenseless non-English child "Buffy," raced through genres – horror, coming-of-age, comedy, adventure, romance, melodrama – and made the shifts appear seamless. He'd have to read it again to see how the author pulled that little trick off.
In the meantime, the kettle was calling him; tea with honey and lemon would ensure that he had the wherewithal to battle Miss Babcock and Brighton, as the flu shot he'd gotten appeared to be from a dud batch. Perhaps tea with brandy. Or, really, just brandy.
Tying his thick plaid robe around his waist more firmly, he stepped quietly down the back stairs, stopping short at the sight of Sylvia Fine demolishing the roast capon he'd tucked in the back of the refrigerator. Miss Fine herself was visible only from a limited angle – that of her rear end, swathed in the lemon-yellow terrycloth of her fluffiest robe, peeking out from between the fridge and freezer doors, opened as widely as if she had been Moses parting the Red Sea. What she could be looking for he had no idea, as nearly all of the prepared foods were already arrayed in front of her mother.
"Hi, Niles," Miss Fine said. "Ma likes meat 24/7, but I only want what'll go right to my thighs for my midnight noshes. We got any cheesecake left?"
"There's a frozen Sara Lee under the fish sticks," he answered, surprised into honesty. He had planned to have a slice of Sara Lee after he'd finished the capon for his lunch, but this incipient cold meant he probably wouldn't have tasted much of it anyway.
"You're the greatest," she said, deftly extracting the cheesecake and closing the fridge and freezer doors with saucy bumps of her hip. "You want?"
He probably ought to test his tastebuds, just to make sure he wasn't so ill as to be contagious. "Twist my arm," he said, shooting her a smile, and she went left to fetch forks and he went right to find mugs.
"So," Miss Fine said, and he turned from the stove to see her spearing her first bite of cheesecake and gesticulating with it. "Does that Brighton got an attitude up to here, or what? Ma, you should see this kid, he acts like such a little fershtinkiner, but he obviously just wants his father's attention. And considering Mr. Sheffield works from home, you would think he could spare fifteen minutes for him."
"Darling," Sylvia said, through a mouthful of capon, "don't make yourself the family therapist. Bad enough you're already the help. This meat is very dry."
Niles couldn't help the stiffening of his spine at that last shot, and Miss Fine must have seen it, because she hastened to say, "Well, who asked you to fress? Take a breath, Ma, before you choke, and use a fork."
He sat and helped himself to a bite of cheesecake while the tea steeped, eyeing the capon. It looked moist enough to him, and he'd roasted it with plenty of butter. "You're missing the sauce," he said, realizing that he saw no ruby gleam at Sylvia's elbow. "Let me," he started, reaching out to take the bird back and heat it properly with the red-currant jelly.
Her fingernails were in his hand immediately. "Leave the bird," Sylvia commanded with a quelling glare even Mr. Sheffield the Elder, outraged to discover the butler's boy smoking one of his finest cigars, would never have been able to match, so Niles relinquished his grip on the platter. Miss Fine simply rolled her eyes and took another bite of cheesecake. Niles got up to fetch the tea, poured a generous splash of brandy into his mug, and settled back down within easy forking distance of the Sara Lee.
"That one girl in all the world who's called upon to fight the powers of darkness? Is a blonde," Miss Babcock said decisively, as if her word should be enough to quash his doubts about her heroism. He studied her as she twirled a lock around one crimson-tipped finger. Something was definitely wrong, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
At least the wrongness hanging about like an aura wasn't affecting his rapier wit. "That disqualifies you on two counts, then, I'm afraid." He knew her real age, after all, and it was hardly a secret that she was a bottle-blonde.
"Quiet, minion! What, you think you're Giles?"
He smirked a little at her; he'd liked Giles, who was suave and yet had an appealingly hard edge to his character. "If the accent and erudition fit . . ."
"I honestly can't tell which is more demeaning, being a school librarian or having to buttle. Maybe you are Giles."
"That's 'Ripper' to you, and as your Watcher, I am assigning you your next mission. Try to complete it before menopause strikes."
Her eyes flashed. The barb had been below the belt, perhaps, but not out of line with her taunts about his socio-economic status. In any case, it had made him feel better, and that was what mattered. "I'm already working on it."
"Really?" He'd certainly never seen her interact with Sylvia. "You're already hot on the trail – oh, damn, another dog metaphor – of Mrs. Fine?"
"Shut up with the damn dogs. Nanny Fine is the demon!"
"No, her mother is the incarnation of Lurconis, Demon of Gluttony. Lurcona, we should call her." He paused, because the Latin conjugation didn't sound quite right, but then pressed on. "She's already attacked once – look!" He held up his hand, the whitish indentations from Lurcona's talons still evident.
C.C. snorted derisively. "Some demon – she didn't even break the skin! I'm telling you, Giles, I mean, Niles, it's Nanny Fine in whom all the evil lies."
"The evil being that she has round-the-clock access to Mr. Sheffield?"
"Angel," Miss Babcock sighed dreamily, evidently thinking only of his employer, who, incidentally, was an absolute monster in the mornings. She pulled herself together eventually. "But yes, it's her, and I need to slay her good."
She scoffed. "Hello, super-strength?"
"How will you eliminate the threat in a way that does not prompt Mr. Sheffield to seek some overwrought revenge?"
Her face fell. "I should – I should get an award just for ridding the earth of that voice," she said, gamely.
"Yes, yes," he soothed. "You go and have a nice little think and come back when you've hit upon a plan. Though that timeline I mentioned earlier is still, of course, in play."
C.C. opened her mouth but all he heard was the discordant electronic shrieking of his alarm clock. He slapped it off with a hand still marked by Sylvia's nails, both irritated that it was already dawn and satisfied by the timing of the alarm, which had enabled him to get in the last word.
He had been the one who'd been at Mr. Sheffield's side when he was reading Literature at university, sweating out irredeemable nonsense on mystery plays and tableaux, and yet his counsel counted for naught; Margaret, who'd found a closer relationship with her father thanks to Miss Fine's benevolent meddling, had said, "Vampires are sooooo cool!" and suddenly Sheffield Productions was busily casting Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
He sighed and brought the tea tray into Mr. Sheffield's office. Miss Fine was a pearl among women, but he still harbored doubts about that mother of hers.
"Maxwell, you must tell me who our new investor is! You know, I have so many contacts from boarding school that we never touch – can it, Niles – and I probably know this one anyway! So, spill." Miss Babcock put on a beseeching look positively unbecoming of a woman her age.
Mr. Sheffield removed his spectacles in that way he did when he wanted to emphasize a point. While the gesture might have set Miss Babcock's heart fluttering, it merely irritated Niles, who knew he'd be called upon to locate the missing glasses in an hour. "New money."
C.C.'s tone got a touch frostier. "How new?"
"Very new. It's our butcher." Niles nearly baptized the saucer with a stray drop of tea, but he was a professional, and he could pour blindfolded and hungover. Ah, the heady days of his youth. "It seems he's always felt a yen to be in the arts, but was told the family profession would be the more lucrative option. Apparently, his father was correct. Ah, thank you, old man."
Niles nodded, setting out the Jammie Dodgers just as Mr. Sheffield liked, just as he had always done, and stalked back to the kitchen. Not all family professions turned out to be gold mines.
He did already know the part of Giles, and surely he could pull enough strings to get an audition. Or – or he could remain where he was, with the family he'd been part of for as long as he'd understood the concept, and watch Miss Babcock's slow descent into madness as Miss Fine drew sparks from Mr. Sheffield. That would be a show worth watching, he thought as he prepared a pair of roasts for that evening's dinner and Sylvia's midnight snack.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/456677.html.