Summary: Niles and Daphne return from the Snow Ball, but their night is not quite over yet…
Setting: Set after "Moon Dance" but taking things in a slightly different direction to canon.
Genre: Angst/Romance. (Really, are these two anything but?)
Disclaimer: Property of Paramount, and I haven't borrowed them in nearly 15 years.
Author's Notes: My other half and I are currently working our way through all eleven seasons of "Frasier", as we've never really seen it from start to finish. Midway through season 3, I realised "Moon Dance" (one of my favourite episodes) was swiftly approaching, and a germ of an idea began to form in my brain. I told myself I wouldn't write the story until we'd actually watched the episode; unfortunately, the story had other ideas, and with the assistance of online transcripts and videos, it came to me in a flurry of unexpected productivity.
This is basically an AU continuation of the episode, a little extra something I would have liked to see, and based in part on the lyrics to the song of the same name. It's not the first "Frasier" story I've written, but it's the first I've ever felt comfortable enough to publish. Hope you enjoy. :)
ONE MORE DANCE
They drive back in silence – not entirely awkward, and not quite comfortable, either. The streets are practically deserted at this late hour, but Niles is a careful driver – never reckless even on an empty road. Daphne sits quietly in the passenger seat beside him, staring at the shop-fronts and tree-lined pavements of the district, and her face is a mask of contemplation. He wishes he had the courage to offer a penny for her thoughts, or even a dollar – a thousand of them – just to sate his curiosity.
They pull up at a red light, though there's barely any traffic to speak of. Niles finds his Mercedes in a Mexican stand-off with the truck on the other side of the cross-walk. Perhaps a rasher man might ignore the rules of the road and opt to run through the red light – but he is not rash in any usual circumstances, and his earlier display of outspoken courage has left him rather drained of spare bravado at present. So instead he waits his turn, grasping the opportunity to spend a few more precious seconds, silent though they may be, with Daphne.
She has still not spoken, but her muteness is not too alarming. It is late, after all, and she must be exhausted – running around after his father all day, undertaking Frasier's housework as though she were his live-in maid, then dancing the evening to a close with barely a pause. If she is aware of Niles gazing at her, she does not indicate it. An earlier smattering of rain whilst they were at the Ball has left tiny droplets on the window: they sparkle white and red and orange, blurring the greater detail of the backdrop and bringing her profile into sharper focus. The light of the streetlamps creates a halo around her head, illuminating the rusty highlights in her hair, which are all the brighter for the scarlet of her dress.
Niles finds himself staring unabashedly – it has become something of a habit lately – and as the light turns green and he refocuses his attention on the road, he remembers the business card he was given at the end of their evening. It seems to burn through the fabric of his pocket, mocking his complete inability to move on from the impossible situation he has trapped himself in, despite the conscious decision to try.
When they arrive at Elliott Bay Towers, he pulls up directly outside the front door and leaves the engine idling. Daphne does not immediately react to their arrival, staring distractedly out of the window, and he clears his throat a little too clumsily to be entirely nonchalant.
"We're here, Daphne."
She loosens up – he only now realises how she had barely moved a muscle for the entire journey – and turns to look at him with a smile.
"So we are. Thank you for the ride home. It's been a wonderful evening."
"Indeed it has," he agrees, returning her smile a little sadly, though she does not notice. "And thank you, for all your hard work these past few days. You were really a very good teacher."
It's a minor compliment, all things considered, but she averts her gaze in embarrassment nonetheless. "You were a pretty good student."
A comment nearly slips out about his being a fast learner, but he manages to keep it at bay, fearing it would come out more flirtatious than ironic. Instead, he allows his genuine concern for her welfare to take precedence.
"Well, don't let me keep you up. You must be exhausted."
"Actually," she says, "I'm not tired at all. Must be all the excitement."
She ponders her next words, hesitating as she chews anxiously on her lip. A deep-rooted sense of propriety almost stops her from speaking, from giving the suggestion in her brain any outlet, but since he has made absolutely no move to hurry her from the car and is gazing at her so patiently, she finds herself saying it anyway.
"I'm not sure I'm ready to finish this lovely night just yet. Would you care to come up for a drink? I think Dr. Crane mentioned something about a new bottle of sherry…"
He falters before answering, and Daphne thinks something alters in his face, but it's gone before she can analyse it.
"Are you sure? It's very late, after all…"
"Just some tea, then. I could do with something to help me wind down, and a bit of company certainly wouldn't go amiss."
After a moment's pause, Niles reaches to turn off the engine. She feels a strange sense of relief, but cannot quite identify its cause.
"I'd love to, Daphne."
They enter the apartment quietly. Niles is more relieved than he can even begin to express to find that Frasier and his father have not waited up. After their earlier departure and his brother's incredulous reaction, Niles had already been expecting an interrogation at Café Nervosa in the morning: a spot of sibling disapproval to enjoy alongside his non-fat latte, which no amount of cinnamon could hope to sweeten. The place is thankfully deserted, though that makes every noise twice as noticeable, from the soft click of the door to Daphne's heels on the parquet floor.
She winces, both at the disturbance and the discomfort, and reaches to pull off the shoes. Niles moves towards the cabinet – Frasier's stash of fine wines and liquors – as Daphne pads barefoot towards the kitchen, flicking on a lamp as she goes, her shoes dangling from one hand. Even three inches shorter, she is taller than him by the smallest of margins. He had never really noticed that until their dancing lessons. A lifetime of being picked on for his stature should have engendered him to find her threatening, but instead he finds it charming: another item on the ever-increasing list of reasons he has to justify his feelings. It occurs to him suddenly that she certainly requires no pedestal – though doubtless Frasier would accuse him of creating one for her anyway.
"I'll just put the kettle on," she tells him quietly. "I hope you don't mind, but I simply have to get out of this dress. It itches in all the wrong places."
"I, er… no… I mean, yes, that's fine. Whatever makes you comfortable." As she disappears down the corridor, he curses himself for stammering so uselessly. One could never accuse Niles Crane of being ineloquent, yet both his verbosity and his wit perpetually abandon him in Daphne's presence, reducing him to the clumsy, wordless teenager he had hoped was long-abandoned.
In her absence, he remembers her suggestion of sherry, and a brief appraisal of the drinks cabinet reveals the fresh bottle she had hinted of. It is indeed a very fine specimen, but so new as to be unopened. He decides against it – after all, he still has to drive home – and instead settles on the sofa to await the tea. Besides, explaining the absence of a serving to Frasier – and indeed the broken seal on the bottle – does not sound terribly appealing in addition to whatever else might await him tomorrow.
A short time later, Daphne re-appears – no longer a goddess in crimson, but no less radiant in plain cotton pyjamas, a bathrobe that has seen better days, and a pair of fuzzy slippers. She approaches the sofa, her face now free of make-up – only a subtle change, but he notices nonetheless – and his heartbeat speeds up momentarily as she flops down beside him, inelegant but clearly relieved.
"Ah, that's better," she announces. "As nice as it is to get all dressed up, it's a bloody relief to come home and scrub all the war-paint off." When he doesn't respond, she worries she might have over-shared; she feels so comfortable around him that she sometimes forgets their respective stations. "Oh, listen to me going on. You must think I'm barmy – or else deathly boring."
"You are most definitely not 'barmy', as you put it. I should certainly be the one to tell you if you were – it's something of my forté…" She smiles at his poor attempt at humour. "And as for boring? Far from it – I could listen to you for hours." Then, he quickly adds: "After all, listening is my… other forté."
She gives him an eye-roll and a click of her tongue. "You sound like your brother." Then, rising as the water finishes boiling on the other side of the apartment and she heads towards the kitchen: "Ah, that'll be the kettle. Any preference on your tea?"
"No, whatever you're having will be fine."
The tea-making process, from selecting the blend to letting it brew, gives Daphne a few moments to gather herself and her thoughts. Her earlier invitation to the younger Dr. Crane came as something of a surprise even to her own ears, and she had not really expected him to accept. He didn't even have to drive her home – it was early enough that she could have caught a cab – let alone drop her right outside the front door. Remembering the silent journey home, she considers that she should really have attempted to engage him in conversation, rather than staring dumbly out of the window. After the magical evening they've spent together, he must surely think her quite ignorant.
Something else is niggling at her: a memory of the expression on his face as she praised him for his acting abilities. A fleeting look of disappointment, replaced just as quickly by a smile of agreement as she explained herself. Daphne knows what it meant – she knew at the time, though she did not allow herself to acknowledge it – and the realisation is terrifying, exhilarating… and confusing, for the most part. She barely knows what to think any more; then a pang of guilt accompanies her uncertainty, as she remembers the kiss: false on her part, but now she wonders how that must have seemed to him. False, yes… but perhaps with a small amount of truth behind it, and that thought scares her even more.
She heaves a sigh, bringing herself back to reality and the nearly stewed tea on the counter. Disposing of the teabags, she carries the mugs through to the lounge. Niles looks askance at her vessel of choice as he takes it from her – a mug is a peculiarly English way of serving the beverage, and she realises she was working mostly on auto-pilot, falling back into old habits as her mind was elsewhere.
"Thank you," he says, and she rejoins him on the sofa.
They sip the tea in silence. Again.
Daphne is surprised that the noise and activity have not woken her employer, or his father, and she remains somewhat wary of either of them entering the room to find this decidedly curious scene. Mr. Crane had already stated his intention to wait up for her – as if she were his teenage daughter, going on a first date with a boy, though of course none of those things are true – and she had been relieved to find the place deserted on their arrival. Of course, she reminds herself, they are not doing anything wrong – just two friends enjoying a nightcap – but she knows how it would appear to the elder Dr. Crane, and how her companion would inevitably fall over his words to explain and only make things worse.
When Niles finishes his tea, he nurses the empty mug for a while, enjoying the warmth it has retained. A cup and saucer does not produce the same effect, and he quietly marvels at this small cultural difference suddenly becoming clear. A sidelong glance establishes that Daphne's tea remains unfinished, and she appears more tired than she was letting on: she stares into space with the glazed expression of a sleep-walker. Placing the mug on a coaster, he nods decisively and stands to leave.
"Well, I'll call it a night."
"Do you want another cuppa?" she asks, seeming more alert again as she stands up to either make a second batch of tea or see him out.
He smirks in amusement at her wording – can one really call it a 'cuppa' if it comes presented in a mug? That aside, he does not wish to outstay his welcome. "Thanks, but no."
"All right, if you're sure."
He nods and turns to leave. Then Frasier's balcony catches his eye, the scenery beyond its balustrade, and something makes him hesitate.
He falters, the idea already firmly entrenched in his mind, but inherent cowardice almost silencing him from expressing it. He buys himself an extra breath by taking a step towards the balcony doors, and the idea grips tighter. "It's a beautiful night – a full moon out, clear sky. It seems a shame to waste it. What do you say, Daphne?"
She places her half-finished tea down carefully, cautiously, but does not make any step closer. "What do I say to what?"
He searches deep for courage, takes another few steps, and quietly unlocks the balcony doors.
She stares at his outstretched hand in astonishment, but a smile forms before she can stop it. "But I'm in my pyjamas!"
"We're on the nineteenth floor," he points out. "Nobody will see you except me, and I think it's a little late now to be embarrassed."
"Dr. Crane…" she protests.
"And you promised to call me 'Niles'," he reminds her, "just for tonight. The night's not over yet."
There is a slightly mischievous twinkle to his eye, and Daphne's feet take her forward of their own volition, her hand dropping into his as she allows him to lead her out into the cool night air.
"If you insist… Niles."
He begins to regret the idea when he assesses the space left available between Frasier's furniture. There is no room for the elaborate steps they've been mastering, and certainly not enough for another tango, but they can make do. They assume the position – falling together easily after the days of practice – but before he can take the lead, she notices another obvious flaw in his plan.
"We don't have any music."
"Oh. Yes, you're right."
And yet, she does not let go. "I don't suppose that matters now, though, does it?"
"No, Daphne. It doesn't matter at all."
With that, he sets off – they manoeuvre a little awkwardly in the confined space, only a few steps one way before turning back the other, and he cannot tell if his giddiness is from vertigo (the nineteenth floor, indeed!), from the constant spinning, or from the presence of Daphne so close in his arms. In the chill of the night air, she suppresses a shiver and moves in closer for warmth. Niles momentarily loses his footing, whilst simultaneously forgetting how to breathe normally. Daphne blames her slippers for tripping him up, and he does not correct her.
Distant noises arise out of the silence: the murmur of traffic (as sparse as it is), the low hum of passing aircraft, the barks of neighbouring dogs… Seattle is a city that never really sleeps, which is hardly surprising given the amount of coffee it consumes. Niles smirks to himself at the thought, but doesn't voice it, instead turning his musings into something he hopes is more enigmatic.
"The city has a music all of its own, wouldn't you say?"
In the pause that follows he can practically feel her listening. "Well, now that you come to mention it…" There is amusement in her tone, but it quickly dissipates. "I used to think the same thing about home," she says. "Manchester's not so different, you know. Lots of rain." Her voice takes on a more nostalgic, melancholic air. "I miss it sometimes – lying awake at night when I couldn't sleep, listening to the pitter-patter at the window. When I could hear it over the arguing, that is…"
"You have a large family?" He's certain he's heard her mention a brother or five. She nods in acknowledgement, and unconsciously he squeezes her a little tighter. "You must miss them terribly."
"Oh, yes," she says, "but it's not just that. Things were so much simpler there. Life was slower. Everyone in America always seems in such a hurry, rushing all over the place."
"I suppose it might be nice to slow down occasionally." He cannot suppress his sad sigh. "You're not too unhappy here, are you?"
She stops, pulling back to face him. "I never said anything about being unhappy. You and your brother have been more than kind to me, and as for your father… he may be a grumpy old sod, but I couldn't ask for a nicer client. Besides, Seattle is my home now. I think Manchester would seem awfully small after this."
"I'm so glad you feel that way, Daphne. Honestly, I don't know what we would do without you. You've been so good for m… my dad." He catches himself at the very last moment, correcting the slip-up. For a Jungian, he is terribly prone to Freudian slips.
She smiles warmly at his words, though he is certain she does not understand the deeper meaning of them. For some reason, despite the fact they have been dancing in such a confined space for some time now, it only just occurs to him how very close they are: her hand clasped in his as the other grips his shoulder, his palm pressed gently to the small of her back. So close, he can see the starlight reflected in her eyes.
Then he remembers the kiss from only hours before, and his head reels anew from the exhilaration of that first surprising contact. If her grip was not so confident he would worry about his shaking hands; as it is, he frets instead about his newly erratic heartbeat, which only increases as the crazy notion arrives to kiss her again – and this time, for it to mean something, so that she finally understands.
He swallows nervously and grasps for a tenuous shred of sanity before he can act on the feeling. Instead, he leads her gently back into their dance. Her movements are timid, however, and she does not fall so easily back into step with him. He can no longer read the expression on her face, and that worries him. Taking her by surprise, he spins her out; she almost collides with the balcony wall but he compensates by taking a step back. He bumps into the patio chair, which scrapes noisily across the concrete, and they both flinch before descending into laughter. Just as suddenly, he pulls her back and she lands flush against him, breathless and slightly dizzy.
Daphne cannot move; her surprised chuckle dwindles into silence. Niles meets her gaze as he holds her firmly, and that same, familiar feeling of confusing, terrifying elation returns, with the realisation of what she can see in his eyes. She has seen that look before, on countless occasions, without ever really acknowledging it for what it is. Now she wonders how she could have ignored it for this long.
Their dancing stance has slowly dissolved – their joined hands drifting apart, her grip on his shoulder loosening until her palm rests against the lapel of his tuxedo – but if anything, his arm around her waist has tightened.
When he finally speaks again, it is with none of his usual confidence.
"Daphne… I have something of a confession to make."
He reaches up to brush a tendril of wind-swept hair behind her ear; he allows his hand to linger on her face, his thumb unconsciously caressing the skin of her cheekbone. Her breath catches in her throat, and although she wants to speak – to interrupt him and stop this moment from becoming anything more than it already is – she finds her voice is frozen.
"I'm actually a terrible actor."
With that, he bridges the remaining few inches, and kisses her. She knows how much courage it must have taken, because beneath her palm his heart is hammering mercilessly. Of course, she understands perfectly well what he meant by his cryptic comment, and the knowledge of truth behind the gesture momentarily causes her head to reel. It feels different, this time, and she loses herself for a few glorious seconds.
Then reality hits with a thump; she breaks the contact, pushing him away with a light yet insistent pressure of her hand. He complies without question, but does not release his hold on her just yet, except to place his hand over hers where it still rests lightly against his heart. She stares at him dazedly, noting that the familiar look on his face has not altered, except perhaps in its intensity. She has a thousand questions and cannot identify any one of them.
He silences her with a finger on her lips, which he withdraws again just as quickly. "You promised, Daphne…"
She gives him a weak nod. "I know I did, but… I'm sorry." She averts her gaze, feeling tears well up beyond her control as the gravity of the situation finally dawns. She feels responsible for what has happened, but fails utterly to pinpoint how she could have prevented it. The kiss at the Snow Ball was an obvious mistake, but perhaps it was something prior to that – the suggestion of the tango, or offering to take the place of his date, or even the dance lessons…
Her obvious distress concerns him, but he hesitates to comfort her, realising she would prefer some space to breathe and gather her thoughts. He releases her a little reluctantly from his embrace, allowing her to take a step back, as he himself is trapped by Frasier's patio chair.
"Forgive me," he says. "I didn't mean to kiss you like that. It wasn't why I suggested we come out here. But you should know that everything I said tonight was true." On this last word his voice hitches in his throat, as the realisation hits of just how close he has come to finally saying the words to her aloud.
She lifts her face again, willing the tears to subside. "In the excitement of the moment, maybe, but—"
"No, not just that. I… I've wanted to tell you for so long."
Daphne turns away, taking the final few steps towards the balcony's edge, where she steadies herself and takes a deep, calming breath. The city spreads out beneath her, the familiar lights of the Space Needle flashing in the distance, and the moon shines brightly overhead, almost as bright as day. The view is perfect, and everything she could have wished for.
Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine living in a place like this. Of course, it is not her home, and she is only a guest in the elder Dr. Crane's luxurious apartment, but there are worse places she could have ended up. And now, a handsome and charming gentleman has given her a beautiful evening: a party (no, a ball, she mentally corrects herself) far too posh for the likes of a Northern working-class girl; a moonlit waltz beneath the stars; a kiss that leaves her in no doubt as to how he feels about her; and something close enough to being a confession that she almost forgets he has not actually said the words.
Suddenly, she remembers that they are no longer out to impress Niles's snooty society acquaintances (she hesitates to refer to them as 'friends' after how they treated him), and that she is no longer enrobed in her glamorous, over-priced dress. She is merely a simple girl from Manchester in her comfy pyjamas and dressing-gown, and with that realisation comes a sudden sense of embarrassment. Alongside Dr. Niles Crane, eminent psychiatrist, in his tailored suit and designer shoes, she feels horribly underdressed and alarmingly self-conscious, now that the lingering excitement of their date has worn off. She has always felt comfortable with him, otherwise she would not have dreamt of presenting herself in such a state – but now, with the weight of his still-unspoken feelings heavy in the air, she feels that comfort evaporate. Their respective social standings become an insurmountable obstacle.
The silence has become too penetrating, and Daphne has never liked being alone with her thoughts; she grew up surrounded by noise and voices. Despite his quiet patience, she knows she must respond; but she cannot bring herself to turn around and face him just yet.
"You shouldn't say such things." The words sound feeble, but they are the best she can manage.
He suppresses an ironic laugh at how often he has heard that. "Frasier thinks that as well. He's always putting me off. Dad, too. I suppose they—"
She spins around, cutting him off. "Wait – you mean everyone knows?"
"Roz? Does she know?"
"Actually, I'm not sure. Frasier is a blabber-mouth, but—"
"And your wife?"
He falters, her words hitting him right in the chest: a painful reality check.
"No," he admits. "Maris has no idea. If you think that's why we separated…"
"No, of course not." The tears return and she sighs in defeat. "But tonight was a way of getting back at her, wasn't it?"
The truth is the very least he can offer her now. "At first, yes. But when my date cancelled on me, and you offered to go in her place… Daphne, Maris was the furthest thing from my mind." He cannot tell if she believes him or not, and in the brief silence that follows, the words begin to pour forth beyond his control. "The past few days have been some of the best of my life. Just to spend time with you, to be able to hold you so close while we danced. And if you could only have seen yourself tonight – you were stunning. God, you were magnificent. I felt so honoured to be the one on your arm."
Her frustration finally bubbles over. "For God's sake, can't you see it was all an illusion? Anyone can look magnificent in the right outfit. But if you take away all the glitz and the glamour and the stupid bloody itchy dress, you're just left with me." She gestures expansively towards herself, indicating her none-too-flattering get-up. "I'm just ordinary. I'm not rich or sophisticated like you or your brother. I'm not even all that pretty, by this country's ridiculous standards. I'm much too tall and far too thin, and…" She gives up berating herself, hearing her brothers' childhood taunts ringing in her ears, but also because the crux of the matter is clear to her now. "And all my life I've wanted someone to look at me the way you are now. But you're married, Dr. Crane, and I can't be the reason for you to throw that away."
When she speaks so poorly of herself, his first instinct is to shower her with praise until words run dry… but he tries to approach things sensibly.
"None of those things matter to me. When I called you a goddess, it wasn't because of the dress, or because of the heat of the moment. The truth is… from the very first second, I knew. You stole my heart the day Frasier hired you." He takes a step closer, sensing that some of the wall has crumbled. "He thought I was crazy – that it was nothing more than a simple, schoolboy crush, a reaction to some latent unhappiness in my marriage. He may well have been right about the last part, but… but he's never really understood." He reaches for her hands, seeking strength from the contact. "I love you, Daphne."
She nods, the final puzzle piece slotting neatly into place. "But… your wife, Dr. Crane. Surely you still love her?"
It pains him to admit it, but she is right. "Yes, I do… but it's different."
He thinks of Maris, and his heart is warmed by the embers of the good times they shared; warmed enough that he wonders if there might be a chance of salvaging things. But Daphne… the love he feels for Daphne is an all-consuming fire – she is life, and hope, and everything in between. He cannot remember feeling this way before; he can barely even remember his life before she was in it. He could answer her question in a million ways, but none of them would even approach this one simple truth:
"She's not you."
Daphne is in no doubt as to the depth of his feelings for her, but she is not willing to embark on a journey that will cause heartache for all involved. She has principles, and one of them is that she will not become involved with married men. She has never met Mrs. Crane, but she has heard Niles speak of her often, describing her strange habits and foibles with an undeniable fondness. Like his brother, she too felt angry on his behalf when Mrs. Crane disappeared without a word, leaving him worried sick whilst she gallivanted around Manhattan on a shopping spree; and during their separation she has felt nothing but sympathy for him. No matter how hard it has hit him, if there is even the slightest chance of a resolution, she will not be the one to deny him that.
Before tonight, she did not think of him as anything other than a good friend. He is easy to talk to, eager to listen; more patient than his brother and kinder in many ways. She has never considered that their relationship might alter, and one magical evening is not enough to suddenly change the nature of it. Except her memory has helpfully returned the moments she had not been consciously aware of before now, when the look in his eyes should have been obvious, if only she had been looking for it.
She senses he will speak before he actually does: he links his fingers through hers but cannot meet her gaze.
"Do you think… under different circumstances…"
"If you weren't married, you mean?" she challenges.
He nods, and perseveres. "Do you think things might be different? What I mean is, do you… could you ever feel the same way about me?"
When he finally looks up again there is an expression of grasping hope in his face, and something within her melts, causing her to take a step forward and wrap him in a hug. He relaxes against her in relief, returning the gesture strongly.
"I don't know," she tells him honestly. "You've always been such a good friend to me, and I do care for you deeply, but…"
He tries to quell his rising disappointment, but it is impossible. "But it's not enough, is it?"
"I'm sorry, Dr. Crane. I had no idea you felt this way, and now…" She fails to find the right words. "This is such a mess."
"We can fix it, Daphne. It's not impossible."
She pulls out of the hug, her expression firm. "No. We're not fixing anything. You have a marriage to save."
"And if I can't?"
"If you can't, at least you'll have tried."
"No, I mean… what about us, Daphne? You and I?"
His persistence around that subject is both endearing and incredibly frustrating, but she understands what he is suggesting. If he and Mrs. Crane do eventually break apart again – perhaps even permanently – he will still feel the same way. She wonders how he can remain so sure of that.
"That's a bridge we'll have to cross when we come to it, I suppose."
He gives her a curious smile. "Are you saying you would wait?"
"I don't know, but… it's not like we can go back to how things were, now that you've told me."
"I'm sorry to have put you in this position."
She pulls him into her arms again, offering reassurance. "That doesn't mean I'm not glad you did."
He clutches her possessively, and cannot think of what to say in response to that. They have reached an agreement, of sorts, and although he did not anticipate the evening to end like this, a more positive outcome could not have been pre-determined. The night could easily have become a disaster, and tacit acceptance is better than outright rejection. Daphne's logic is sound, and her heart is in the right place. She does not feel the same way – he stops himself from adding, "not yet" – but there is a tiny chance that things might change in the future.
At the very least, she does not hate him for his cowardice up until this point, nor for his clumsy approach to wooing her. Niles is grateful for her level-headedness, as his own judgement is far too clouded now to be sensible. He is aware, however, of how long they have been outdoors, and the medical practitioner within him overrides his selfish desire to remain in her arms. He draws back, a little reluctantly, and reaches for her hand.
"Come on. We should go back inside."
She complies with a nod, and together they head back into the warmth of Frasier's living room.
The doors secure once more – Niles gives them a gentle, experimental rattle just to be sure – he steals a quick glance at the clock, which informs him just how long they've been outside.
"Oh, dear; it's nearly two o'clock. I shouldn't have kept you up so late."
"I don't mind. I couldn't have slept anyway." For a moment they stand there in silence, the atmosphere changed, but no less charged. "I… I'll see you out."
He nods his assent and together they walk the remaining few steps towards the door, but just before she can open it, he steps in front of it, blocking her.
"What is it?"
"Nothing, I just…" He sighs, giving up. "You're right: I did make a terrible mess of things tonight. I ruined our perfectly respectable evening with the way I acted. But… but I don't regret it."
"Neither do I," she admits. "Besides, I don't think I handled things very well either."
"I hope this doesn't change things too badly. More than anything else, I value our friendship."
"Of course it doesn't change anything," she assures him, though she worries about how truthful that assurance really is.
"Thank you. That means a lot." He feels a little better about things, and is glad not to have ruined things irrevocably between them. He reaches for the door-latch to see himself out, and steps out into the corridor. The elevator remains on the 19th floor, waiting for him to descend, and Daphne fills the space of the half-open apartment door.
"Goodnight, Daphne." He reaches for her hand and places a kiss to her knuckles, more gentlemanly than affectionate, but nevertheless her heart melts at the gesture, and she instinctively tugs on his hand to pull him closer.
"Goodnight, Niles." She kisses him gently on the cheek, and then disappears back into the apartment.
Somewhat dazed, one hand pressed to the spot where her lips touched mere seconds before, Niles turns slowly and presses the call button for the elevator. The doors slide open with a silent motion, and he steps over the threshold of the car, pushing the button for the lobby.
Before the doors can fully close, a hand appears in the gap to force them open again. Daphne steps inside silently, and stares at him until the car begins to drop. Then she suddenly reaches for his lapels, simultaneously pulling him towards her and crushing him against the wall, as she drags him into another kiss. He is too surprised, too overjoyed, too everything, to react at first. Then, as her arms snake up over his shoulders, he pulls her even closer; he cannot tell if the sensation of falling is from the elevator's descent, or from sheer euphoria.
Somewhere around the eleventh floor, they pause for breath, and Niles wonders if one of them should have hit the emergency stop button; but Daphne's expression is urgent, and he realises this is a fleeting chance – a moment of madness, perhaps – that she has taken before she could think about the consequences. He knows this, because he would have done exactly the same.
She steps back, freeing up his personal space, and the chill he experiences is not just from losing her warmth.
"You really don't need to apologise."
A smile graces her features, at least; she can see the humour in the situation, despite herself. "My answer is 'yes'. I will wait."
"But I thought—"
"I haven't changed my mind, either," she adds. "You need to give your marriage a chance. But if it doesn't work out… Well, you know where to find me."
He is so stunned that he can do nothing except stare at her. The elevator car bumps slightly as it reaches the lobby, the doors slide open with a 'ping', and the harsh overhead lights pour into the small space, illuminating Daphne's pale features.
"You are truly an angel." The thought slips out before he can stop it, but she doesn't seem to mind.
"And you, Niles Crane, are a bloody idiot… but something tells me you might be worth it."
Noticing that the doors are about to close again, he steps into the gap himself to prolong the moment – and to avoid the temptation that the newly-enclosed space would provide.
"I long for the time when I'm free to tell you this whenever I want… every day, for the rest of your life. But until then, Daphne – I love you."
She gives him a sad and wistful smile, and nods.
"Oh," he adds as an afterthought, "and if you could not mention any of this to Frasier or Dad, I would very much appreciate it."
"It'll be our secret."
"I like the sound of that." He presses the '19' button decisively, then steps out into the lobby. "Goodnight again, Daphne."
The doors close, and he watches the numbers overhead count slowly upwards. When they show no signs of reversing again, he quells his disappointment – though really, he does not know what else to hope for, given she has already chased after him once already tonight – and steps back into the cold night air and his awaiting vehicle. As he turns the ignition and the engine purrs to life, and he begins the drive home, he tries to identify the strange feeling coursing through his veins.
Daphne's words repeat themselves in his head – "I will wait…" – and he realises what it is. It is an alien sensation, something he has never truly experienced.
For the first time in all of his 38 years of life, he has hope.
- fin -
A/N: Well, there it is. This is my first proper foray into this fandom so I'd love to know what you thought. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it – please leave a review if you did. Thank you.