Sorry for the delay, there were some awful months to deal with and with so much going on I nearly forgot about this. So I dedicate this part to Mrs. Niles Crane, who wouldn't let me.

Dedicated as well to the memory of Emily. I miss you every single day.

Away from it All (part 10)

Everything changed after that.

Of course he expected it to, but it changed in a way very different from what he had anticipated. He thought that a session of soul baring and rejection would have made it impossible for them to ever look each other in the eye again, let alone stay in the cottage a moment longer. Instead, the nighttime confessions had forged a bond of deep trust. Not the kind of trust that allowed them to speak further about what had happened, but trust that there was someone to run to when they needed to escape their personal knife-wielding demons.

Like children, they comforted and sought refuge in one another, knowing arms would open unquestioning and immediate. Time after time, Daphne would drop whatever she was doing and come to rest against him with a shaky sigh. It was hit and miss whether she would reach him before tears started streaming.

If he was less aware of when he needed her, Daphne's psychic powers had never been more perfectly tuned. When she came to him, not to bury herself but to hold him, only then would he realise that there had in fact been a shift in his breathing, the start of a rising panic when the impending loss of Daphne crept beyond the borders of his subconscious.

He had no idea how he would have survived, how he would survive in the future, without Daphne by his side, tenderly smoothing out his breaths, reminding him that for the time being at least, she was there.

Never had he felt so loved.

Never had he felt so wretched.

He could not stop loving her. He did not even know how to begin to want to. Through Maris, Mel and Daphne's countless (nine) gentlemen friends, he had not been able to stop. "Why do you and your brother always think so much?" she had laughed at him countless times in the past. "Don't you ever just know something is right?"

Not until he met her, he hadn't. Although it did take him a while to acknowledge that the feeling was love and even longer to realize it was a divine message that he and Daphne were meant for one another. Pity that his cosmically-tuned seraph had not received the same message. He loved her, she loved him not.

Alarmed by the increasing number of heavy breathing incidences, Daphne tried to insist they go see a doctor. In order to protect both her from the truth and him from losing a second of their precious and finite time together, he led her to believe that hay fever (a rare type most malignant during winter months) was a troublesome but expected occurrence whenever he came to Shady Glenn. He was then forced to add nosebleeds were a further complication of the hay fever but Daphne accepted his lie with visible relief that they could finish out their week.

Their week. He kept calling it a week even as minute after minute fell away. He had not meant to sleep at all but last night he and Daphne were working on the new puzzle and somehow... he had no idea how it had happened but suddenly it was morning. Someone – he preferred to think it was elves as an alternative to the only logical explanation – had removed his sweater, shoes and belt (belt!) and had undone the buttons on his cuffs and collar. She had also lifted his feet onto the couch and covered him with a blanket.

"It's part of my job," she had said harmlessly, years ago during dinner at Frasier's. "I bathe and dress people who are too feeble to do it for themselves."

"I look forward to the day I'm so lucky," Dad had said sarcastically.

"So do I," Niles said before a swift under-the-table kick from Frasier forced him to amend: "That's quite a skill, Daphne."

"I'll say," Daphne agreed. "How much do you want to bet I could have any one of you undressed and in bed within five minutes?"

"One million dollars," the fevered words were followed by a sharp blow to the chest as Frasier backhanded him, knocking his breath out and preventing him from saying anything further.

Well, it seemed he now owed her a million dollars. Or about 250 thousand, if one were going to pay by removed article of clothing. Should she be penalised or recompensed for managing to do what she did without waking him? Penalised, he decided. He definitely would have wanted to be conscious for the demonstration of this particular ability.

His slick-fingered elf had fallen asleep in one of the armchairs, a tight fit, but he was happy she had made that choice. So happy to wake up to the vision he loved most until a glance at his watch told him that one night had made vanish six full hours of their time left together.

Their week had been whittled down to merely three more days.

His gasp had Daphne awake, out of her chair and at his side within an instant.

The warmth of her body along his outer thigh. One hand on his chest, the other on his arm or gently in his hair. Moving. They had dispensed with paper bags when they discovered Daphne could calm him without. It was not difficult to convince his body to breathe when the air carried the scent of Daphne.

He had memorised the flow of her expressions during these small crises: First the steady calm, with only the slightest edge of worry clipping her voice as she encouraged him to take a breath; eventually the softness of slightly lower lashes when both their breathing returned to normal. After a few moments of relief, the strange, flitting frown that dashed a quick mark between her eyebrows, as if she had been struck. Then that too evaporated and she waited with him the required forty to fifty seconds (he counted silently in Latin, French or Italian to take his mind off the closeness of her lips, the lingering hands...) to make certain he was really all right.

This morning, after the worst attack, cinquanta had become sessanta, then settanta... ottanta... and her eyes had filled. He had pulled her into his arms. He did not know what was going through her mind but it was perhaps best that he did not. In a way he envied her: They might both be mourning the loss of the one they loved but at least Daphne could be open about it.

Three more days. That had been this morning. Now it was afternoon. Pressed tighter than ever against the gates of hell, waiting for them to fall open. He could either not think about it and save himself some agony, or he choke on the thought and let Daphne's arms surround him, seeping out some of the pain.

His heart. His heart ached. Three more days. He tried to see the brighter side, the silver lining, the bigger picture, but when he tilted his half-full cup he saw that it contained not water but bitter poison.

A sharp glance from Daphne, a quick hand on his knee. The acrid fumes of the venom had made him wheeze. The women from the inn had left a gift of home-made soaps with their last delivery. Today Daphne's hair smelled of cucumber, strawberry and peppermint and the perfume wove through the toxins, neutralizing and dissipating.

They were building the rooftops of London. It was how they filled in time between meals. They made no ambitious plans, did nothing special. Nothing more than what let them be together and, just as importantly, make time move slowly.

He had not counted the pieces this time. They had completed less than a tenth of the puzzle, not even all sides. They worked without looking at the cover picture. Anything to slow it down even further.

Daphne had put together another steeple. Their arms brushed often when they reached forward. From the moment Niles had first met Daphne he had automatically measured space between them, longingly mapping the easiest way to close that gap. Of course, the gap always remained.

Six years later reaching out to touch Daphne was no longer the problem. The problem now was letting go.

You have to, he told himself. His psychiatrist's mind tried to make him feel better: At least you know now how she feels. At least you can stop wondering and one day get on with your life.

Daphne was now trying to match a red piece to a completed red section. She conceded defeat and tossed the piece back into the orphan pile. Niles' breath staggered in his throat as she fell against him with a tired, frustrated sigh.

"Love is a complicated thing, isn't it?" she asked. It was her first full sentence in over an hour. "Uh," Niles squeaked, wondering if she could hear as well as feel the loud beating inside his chest.

"Psychiatrists study this sort of thing, don't they? Don't they have some simple, stuffed-shirt explanation?" Her summer garden hair billowed against his neck and face.

"This may not be the most popular theory among professional psychiatrists but I, for one believe that love is ruled by the heart and that it is circumstances, not the heart that makes things complicated." "Oh." Daphne breathed the sound out like fire, angrily, as if were the last thing she wanted to hear. "It is difficult, or else impossible to dissect attraction," Niles tried to concentrate on his own words. "My colleagues have been trying for over a century, yet have never come as close to understanding love as, say, Shakespeare." "The course of love never did run smooth, and all that?"

"A Midsummer Night's Dream," Niles said in surprise.

"I did go to school, you know," Daphne sat up, but she looked amused rather than offended.

Marry me. Niles bit down on his lip to keep wild words caged. He was, in fact, one of the stuffed shirts who once tried to interpret the whys and wherefores of love for his patients. For himself as well and, during his early years of marriage to Maris, so he would have something to tell his mother when she so often asked, "But in god's name, why her?" It had been an epiphany when all his rationalization and theories stopped being relevant or even believable. Ever since he had met and fallen incongruously, yet deeply, in love with Daphne. Being a condemned man did have the advantage of making one bold. Niles brushed scented wisps back from his beloved's cheek. He tried to look as brotherly as possible as Daphne's eyes searched his, maybe looking for evidence of more. He smiled fondly but innocently, determined not to scare her away, and they both returned to the safety of the skies and chimneys of London.

He supposed it should concern him that Mel was retreating further and further into his memory. The ring was still in his pocket, with him like a curse. The only times it saw daylight now was when he transferred it to the day's new attire. It belonged to a different reality but a reality nonetheless. He carried it and clutched it when he needed that dose of reality. To prevent him from saying something incredibly stupid. Like the truth.

##

The sun went down but Daphne told herself that as long as they were still awake the day was not truly over.

Although the night air was chilly, it was warmer than it had been and March was finally starting to feel less like February. It reassured Daphne that neither love nor misery quashed her need to spend a bit of each day out doors. It made her believe that after this weekend a bit of her would still remain. Even if it was just a little bit.

To Daphne, spring had always been the real start of the New Year. March had a freshness and optimism January merely waited for and Daphne knew she would need both to cope with what was almost her first year as a married woman.

Remorse over what she had done to Donny continued to bite deep with sharp fangs. She supposed she would suffer that for the rest of her life and certainly she deserved to. It helped a little to know that she had done the right thing. Very late in the game and breaking Donny's heart in the process, but it was the right thing. It felt even more right, being here. She knew – or wanted to believe – that she would have never been able to come here if she were still engaged to Donny. Calling off the engagement made it possible for her now to be with the one she loved.

A lifetime traded in for a single week.

Stars glittered around a pale sliver of moon. Moments like these it seemed like a bargain. Most bad decisions do, before consequences catch up with you. She would need springtime later on when she was alone. She would need beauty and newness and the comfort of friends. For now, this lovely evening was almost wasted on her; she would not mind being in a blizzard or even at the opera. Being in love had a way of making anywhere seem ideal.

Since yesterday, she had not been a few feet away from Dr. Crane for more than the time it took to shower or change. And if she were to talk about the times she felt most empty it would in fact be the time it took for her to shower or change. She could not explain it. It was as if her insides were a giant magnet like the ones they had in science lab at school. The force of the pull had always fascinated her, especially when she held it near something large and heavy enough to drag the magnet in Daphne's hand towards it. There was something magical about invisible powers, like magnetic force. Like psychic ability. Like love.

Dr Crane had not disappeared into his study today. Every night he had excused himself for about half an hour after dinner. That would make it about 10 or 11pm in Atlanta, wouldn't it? Not that she ever asked out loud. She knew he was going into his study to call Mel and she had to give him that. Just as she had to give him the odd moment when his eyes would look nowhere in particular and his hand would absently but automatically delve into a pocket searching for the ring he did not know she knew was there. If she made any sudden move or if he remembered her presence he immediately pulled his hand out as quickly and guiltily as if had been raiding a cookie jar. While choosing clothes after her shower she thought about her own rings and wondered whether it would make her feel better to carry one of those around, just to even out the playing field. It was a stupid thought. His ring was real, hers a mistake.

What would their lives be like after this week? What had they been like before. She could barely remember. Before was such a long time ago. It was not just before this weekend, it was before Mel, before Daphne found out about his feelings for her. Before Donny? Or just before Donny's proposal? If he still loved her, it must have broken his heart to hear him say she would marry someone else. "He's crazy about you," her drug-ridden boss had said. He had used the present tense but Dr. Crane was already with Mel at the time. These were the kinds of circles that could drive a person mad, a one hundred thousand piece puzzle that made the rooftops of London seem like – in the words of Mr. Crane – chickenfeed.

So, what was it like before? She had noticed only gradually that he had stopped coming by as often, but of course never connected that to her engagement. She had been so busy with work and wedding plans, it had been a bit of a shock when she finally figured out that the reason she was lonely when alone was because she missed her boss' brother. She had called him and asked him to join her and Donny for dinner. He had seemed so surprised to hear from her and thanked her for the invitation but he had other plans. Daphne had promised herself once all the wedding and honeymoon business was over, she would make a greater effort. Even with all the millions of things going on it was perplexing how much she missed her friend.

Shortly after she had found out he was in love with her.

So, what was it like before? He used to come over quite frequently, after squash or some event with his brother. For dinner, of course, and sometimes for breakfast or to watch a movie with the family. Often, though, he came over and stayed even if neither his brother nor father were at home. He helped or kept her company when she ran errands or walked Eddie or did housework. She used to tease him about that. He had a housekeeper for his grand apartment yet traveled all the way to his brother's just to find himself folding laundry.

They used to talk quite a bit. Nothing deep, just this and that. They laughed – he could be very funny. They used to sing. How could she have forgotten about that? Maybe because its one of those things that one doesn't think about, just something they did. After all, it wasn't as if they gathered round the piano and worked on some aria or something. They just sang. Daphne had been told in her boss' complaining tones that she often hummed or broke into song when she worked. She supposed that's how it got started.

When she and Dr. Niles Crane where alone in the house, him waiting for his brother or father to come home, she would only realise she had been singing when he joined in with his voice and sometimes the piano. With time a little game had evolved; one of them changed songs in midstream and challenged the other to follow. Over the years they had refined the game until they could stick to songs which shared similar themes or titles. She was quite proud of what a good team they made.

Dr. Crane pulled out his handkerchief and held it out to her. Daphne took it silently. She used to burst into song without realising it. Now it was just tears.

She tried to remember the last time they had played their singing game. It was a late afternoon and he was helping her set the table for dinner. Was that the time they were singing songs with the word summer or.... No, it was 'dream'. She was singing 'All I have to do is dream,' and he joined in. Then she moved on to Mr. Sandman and Dream Lover. Goodness, they had gone on forever. He had added a couple of his own but she could not remember them all. Dream a little dream, A dream is a wish your heart makes, Once upon a dream... Somehow the key word had changed which may have been Daphne's doing or maybe his and she didn't' notice. The new word was kiss; Kisses sweeter than wine, Sealed with a kiss, Kiss me, and such. It had gotten silly at the end, both cheating with made-up lyrics, singing things like the Magical Mr. Kisstoffoles. As often happened, they had both finally collapsed with laughter.

Would he join in if she started singing now? Would they spend the last of their three days singing songs about tears? About heartbreak?

About friendship?

"Are you alright?" he asked.

"Just thinking about Donny." Now what had made her say that? Perhaps the fact that she should be thinking about Donny. Returning to the real world would not only mean the final loss of the man she was in love with, it would be to a dozen loose ends still dangling from the hatchet job she had done on her ex-fiancé. As far as most people were concerned, the wedding was still on. Letters would have to be written, phone calls made, catering, flowers, musicians, hotel reservations and flight tickets cancelled. Family faced.

She would never hear the end of it from Mum. Or her brothers.

She glanced at Dr. Crane but for a change he was not looking at her. He was staring at the lake, his hand deep in his pocket. With the ring.

She had once described Dr. Niles Crane as sort of like an older brother. To Annie, most likely. One of those storybook older brothers, nothing like her real brothers. In her family it had not so much been everyone for himself as everyone see what you can do to torment everyone else. In her family no one had had the time or inclination to complain which was why complaints of others were not tolerated. The only one she ever talked to about anything of importance was her brother Steven. Not for sympathy, but always good for a cheering up.

Stephen was the only brother she called personally to tell about her engagement.

"Duck?" Stephen's had shouted incredulously over the phone. It was a very bad connection.

"Doug! Doug-las!" Daphne had shouted back. "Donny Douglas!"

"Donny as in Donald? Donald Duck?" Steven burst out laughing. "Donald and Daphy Duck?"

Daphne had started laughing too. She always did once Stephen got started. Donald and Daphne Duck. When she thought about it, it was quite hilarious.

"Something funny?" Dr. Crane asked. She must have chuckled at the memory. She could still feel her lips stretched into a smile.

"Just thinking about names," she said. "Did you know, Mum never let me forget I had a heathen name? She had always wanted a girl named for royalty, but by the time I came around she'd given up on having a girl and had used up all the queens' names up on pets. The way Dad tells the story is, he was having a drink at the pub when I was born and right about that time someone told him about a decent bit of skirt he'd met once. That's who I'm named after, a decent bit of skirt."

"Beautiful Daphne, daughter of a river god." Dr. Crane corrected. "Rejected every suitor, including the god Apollo." "Rejected every suitor," Daphne repeated sadly. The nymph Daphne had lived out the end of her days as a tree. By choice. Dr. Crane moved to the stair above hers and arms slid around in a brotherly, protective manner.

"Thy name is like the prayer an angel whispers." he said.

"That's Dulcinea."

"Daphne," he insisted gently. "Daphne." And it did indeed sound like the whisper of an angel.

She thought sometimes she would like him to stop being so nice. If only he were impatient or stubborn or unreasonable or selfish, just once. Or even if he would stop putting her first as he was so obviously doing and had done all week. If he were to do something outside the marvelous maybe she could... but then she realised she had tried this all before. Weeks ago, when she was still trying to sort out her feelings she had made a mental list of everything wonderful about Donny and everything not wonderful about Dr. Crane. One by one she had fixed upon Dr. Crane's nervous habits, the way he always tried to impress his father or compete with his brother (all they really had to compete about was which of the two was more insecure and pretentious), his bizarre mistrust of anything with dust, fur or, well, a surface.

The list could have gone on forever but in the end stayed quite short. Whatever she came up with did not feel important. Worse still, not only did the items not bother her, all they really did successfully was plant him more firmly in her mind, taking up space which rightfully belonged to her fiancé. Besides, he could be a serial murderer for all her ridiculous heart cared.

Daphne snuggled closer to the married man. Hoping he would not notice, she kissed her fingertips then reached back over her shoulder to touch his face. As she did, the now familiar but no less frightening shift in his breathing started again.

Not moving from her warm nest, placed her palm flat against his cheek, caressing it. She pressed her body back a bit to better feel when his lungs were taking more natural breaths.

Dr. Crane took hand and pressed it tightly to his cheek. With his other arm around her body it was impossible now to turn around. He gasped a couple of times, gave a choke, but just as Daphne was growing truly frightened, he led her hand to his lips and kissed her palm. Then he returned her hand to her and used both his arms to hug her twice as tightly as before.

Now it was Daphne who had stopped breathing. The fear she felt for his life, the need with which he held her hand and held her, not to mention the feel of his lips, so alive and intense she felt she could burst into flame right there. If she curled her fingers into her palm their kisses would meet. If she loved him even the slightest bit more she would explode, she just knew it.

"We should go inside," he said a million years later.

"If we must." But she held onto his arms knowing how she would miss them when they were gone. It was like pulling off a plaster, every time. Best to do it fast, but it was going to hurt either way. She did not budge and with her leaning against him and holding his arms to her, he could not move either.

A star streaked across the sky.

"This is my favourite place in the world," she said.

"I'd like it if you thought of it as your home," he answered. "Anytime you need it."

It was a lovely and generous offer and Daphne thanked him. It did not matter that he did not know that she was not talking about the cottage. She was talking about his arms. He was her favourite place in the world.

Better do it quickly. She let go and moved enough for him to stand. She stayed seated, her blood and muscle draining out as he left her. As if understanding that she needed a minute, Dr. Crane took a few steps down the path, looking out towards the lake, his hands stuffed hard into his jacket pockets.

The stair creaked as Daphne shifted to stand and he turned immediately, remembering himself. He whipped his hands out to help her up and as he did, that same flash of gold Daphne had seen twice before and never forgotten flew into the air, soaring, arcing, falling, clinking and dancing prettily as it hit the pebbles of path until it finally came to a glittering rest in the moonlight.

They stood facing each other but staring at the ring, her hands still holding his as tightly as he held hers. Their eyes met and they gazed at each other helplessly.

The secret was out.

...

[Home stretch, people. Only one more chapter to go.]