AN: Fic written in 2000. Spoilers through The Fight Before Christmas; thereafter departs into AU.

A Bit of Gilt on Your Fingers

IS IT HOT OUT HERE, OR IS IT ME?

At the ring of Doctor Frasier Crane's doorbell, I looked up anxiously, expecting his brother, Niles, to walk into the room.

It didn't happen, of course. It was Roz Doyle, Doctor Crane's producer and one of my closest friends. I felt hideously guilty at the disappointment I felt, so, before she could see me, I escaped to the balcony, leaning heavily on the rail, gazing absently at Seattle's famous Space Needle.

I honestly don't know why I always expected Doctor Crane... Niles. It hadn't been Niles for weeks. And I had no bloody idea why.

Other than Mel, of course. He'd been seeing a lot of her, I knew. It didn't bother me, though.

Really, it didn't.

From the balcony, I could hear Frasier and Roz talking in the living room. Something about this morning's show. Or one of Roz's men. Arguing about something trivial, no doubt. They fool themselves, I think. I overheard Frasier the night Alice Doyle was born. He called Roz lovely. "That's exactly how you look," he said. "Lovely." Of course, then he tried to pick up her nurse. Yes, he's fooling himself. Oh well.

You know, Doctor Crane's recent behavior (Frasier, not his brother) was one thing that really made me realize the magnitude of my impending marriage. To the outsider, I suppose it wouldn't be that amazing: Frasier Crane answered his front door. Big deal. Yet only a week before, Frasier would have sat like granite on that ridiculous couch of his, sipping sherry, expecting resolutely that I would answer the bloody door for him. Now, though, so soon before my departure from my make-shift family, he's decided to start taking these things into his own hands. I'm impressed in a sort of pity-inducing way (for him, not myself).

Their voices stayed distant, but I could make them out.

"Seriously, Fras, is she okay? She's been acting strangely... She hasn't mentioned anything?" . . .

I tried to tune them out. The last thing I wanted to hear were their perceptions of my mood. As if I'd been acting strangely! Everyone acts... oddly... days before such a monumental event. Could they really expect me to handle this with absolute resolve?

They continued for awhile about me. Various suspicions about my relationship with Mr. Donald Ronald Douglas, I suppose. And then they began talking about Niles. I listened.

"So where's he been, anyway, Frasier?"

He sighed and, as I glanced into the room, he slouched down beside Roz on the sofa. He's so melodramatic when he wants to be. "He's been staying far away from here. You know how he feels about the wedding." He sighed again, and I listened even more closely. "Besides, he has this thing with Mel now."

Roz laughed a bit. "Yeah, I understand why he's not been coming around. I mean, I try to imagine how I would feel... If I had really been in love with Donny. How would I feel, watching someone I trust so much take him away?" She sighed. "I suppose it's a good thing I never really develop ties with anyone. Nothing lasting or loving, at least." She glanced up at him with amazing sincerity from where she was sitting beside him. I swear to God I think they're blind. But then again, I guess I am, too. Oh, Doctor Crane... Roz looked down again. "And this thing with Mel... He can't be serious, Frasier. He really can't be. She's a bitch." She looked up suddenly. "He's only fooling himself, you know, and I think that's the worst thing he can do."

Frasier gazed at the black tv, lost in thought. "It's better than letting himself be lost over Daphne. At least he has something to fall back on."

They were quiet for awhile, and I just wanted to be gone. It's terrible to feel like an intruder in your own home. But then again, I suppose it's not really my home anymore. It hasn't really been since I announced the engagement. Then Roz started talking. "When did you finally figure out he's in love, Frasier? All those years, you thought it was lust. You did everything you could to stop him from telling her. You've always been that way, pessimistic about love, and if I do dare to analyze you, Doctor Crane, I'd say..." She leaned back, grinning smugly. "It's because you yourself have never in your life had a relationship that wasn't based in large part on sex. You laugh at me, but you're just like me, you know." She sobered a bit. "But it'll come for you, Frasier. And it's coming for me. I feel it. And it was there, right in front of Niles. He was in love. You stopped him all those years. When did you figure it out?"

He sighed and rubbed his face. "You know, Roz, I think I've always known. I mean, in the beginning, it was ridiculous. Colitis, indeed." She looked at him strangely. I myself could only giggle slightly. "But it didn't take long." He paused. "I don't know if you remember his make-shift date with 'Da-Phyllis,' Roz, but... I'd never seen him like that before. And the Snow Ball. He never told me what happened, and neither did she. But whatever it was, Roz... I swear, he mourned." He looked up at her, forehead crinkled with worry. "Would it make me a terrible brother if I told you I think I just didn't want him to have what I knew I couldn't?"

She leaned over, resting her elbows on her knees, smiled sadly, gazing at the carpet, and shook her head. Then she turned her head toward him. "It makes you a better brother to admit it. By the way, Frasier, where's Daph?"

"I don't know, Roz. I never seem to know where she is anymore. I guess she's doing errands. Or maybe she's in her room. I think she's avoiding me."

He's right, you know. Ever since it finally hit me... the moving out part, I mean... I've been feeling less and less like family and more and more... employee. And I hate that feeling when it comes to these people. But really... I guess I've finally realized that, no matter what, that's what I am.

As luck would have it, at that point in their conversation, the ever-changing but usually bad Seattle weather began to grow quite nippy. And then downright cold. Damn balcony. Time to make my entrance. Damn it all to hell, anyway.

I walked into the room purposefully. "Hallo, Roz! I didn't hear you come in!" I think I sounded a wee bit over-anxious... or perhaps quite a bit. I've never been good in uncomfortable situations. They didn't notice, though, what with the speed they were jumping to opposite sides of the couch.

Roz grinned. She's never self-conscious about anything. Sometimes, I wish I could be Roz, just for a day or so. To have her nerve... "So, Daph, what's up?"

"Um... nothing! Nothing! Just out there admiring the Space Needle. Did you know you can see the Space Needle from the balcony? The Space Needle!" Remember what I said about uncomfortable situations? Blimey, I'm terrible.

Roz just looked at me like I was insane. I don't blame her. "Right, Daph. So I was thinking. Why don't we have a girl's night out? We could really use a good chat before the wedding."

I shifted my feet, which I was staring at intently by this point. My toenail polish seemed to be chipping a bit... Time to redo that...

"Daph?"

"Um... well, Roz, you see, I.. um... I've got some errands to run tonight."

The crazy look again. "Errands? Tonight?" This time, Frasier's expression almost mirrored Roz's.

"Um... yes. In fact, I've got to start them now." And with that, I practically ran out the door.


WHAT COULD BE WORSE THAN A HIDDEN VIDEO CAMERA, FRASIER?

Frasier glanced up at me, the reality of the situation just dawning on him. "She heard us, didn't she, Roz? She heard about Niles." He started wringing his hands in this terrible, nervous way he has. It started to bug me. Fast.

"Stop that, Frasier!" I looked pointedly at his hands.

"What?" He glanced down. "Oh." Then, that little shake he has. It's crazy how well I know him. It's like we're married or something. Scary... The little worried crease was still in his brow, though. "Seriously, Roz... She heard. Daphne heard." He jumped up and started pacing.

"So what if she did, Frasier? It's not like it's something she doesn't know." I probably sounded a little more relaxed than I was. I have a knack for handling tense situations. A knack my chum Daph obviously doesn't share.

Neither does Frasier, for that matter. When he next spoke, he positively squeaked. "What?"

"Well, I mean, she knows about how Niles feels. She might not know the extent of... the love part... and she certainly didn't know about your part in the whole fiasco, but she does know, Frasier."

His voice was still an octave higher than normal. "How? If you told her, Roz, I swear..."

"Me? You told her, you big lug."

He huffed indignantly. "I most certainly did nothing of the kind!"

"Yes, you did Frasier. The back medication... you were drugged up, she was giving you a back rub. I confirmed it when she asked me at Christmas, but you told her."

He slumped into, of all things, Martin's old recliner. It didn't last long, though. As soon as he realized what he had done, he was up again and pacing.

"What did she say when she found out, Roz?"

I didn't have to think long. I remembered that party like it was yesterday. It was utter death. I shiver at the recollection.

"Well, at first, she was creeped out. See, she thought he was going to tell her that night. He took her out onto the balcony, and she was sure he was gonna do it. She had this whole speech prepared to cut him off with, but..." I paused, remembering. "It turned out all he wanted was his Christmas present back for Mel."

He shook his head melodramatically, bald spot shining. You've gotta laugh at the man. No one has a right to take themselves as seriously as he does. It's positively funny. I had to stifle a grin.

He saw, though. "Oh, just what is so funny, Roz? I'm glad one of us finds the situation humorous!" Indignant Frasier was back again. He hates for people to laugh at his great dilemmas.

"No, Frasier, it's not the situation, it's you."

He huffed again. "Well, then!"

What he hates even more is for people to laugh at him. I giggled a bit.

"Well, ignoring you for the moment, I take it Daphne was relieved at my brother's... surprising... request?"

I shook my head, thinking. And I don't do that often. "That was the really weird part, Frasier. She acted... almost disappointed. You had to look hard for it, of course, but if there's one person on earth I know – other than your predictable self, of course – it's Daphne. She tried to hide it, but she was upset all the same. And she kept looking back at Niles and Mel the whole rest of the night. It was positively odd. I never mentioned anything, of course. That kind of thing would always upset a girl. I mean, what would I do if I woke up one morning and Noel didn't follow me around like a puppy? I would be positively insulted!"

He rubbed his chin with his hand and sat on the arm of Martin's chair. "But Roz, are you sure that's what it was?"

"I don't really know..." I arched my eyebrows at him. "I can always convince her to have that girls' night with me and can coax her into a little discussion."

"Oh, Roz, don't you think that might be a little bit, I don't know, obvious after our little overheard discussion?"

I rolled my eyes at him. "So do you want me to try or what?"

He positively danced as he ushered me out, hand on my back. "Oh, do tell me how it turns out! So long, Roz!"

He closed the door in my face before I had a chance to register what had happened.


SOMETIMES I FEEL I'VE GOT TO

My first "errand" turned out to be a walk through the park.

Some errand, I know.

For quite some time, I've known that Doctor Crane had certain feelings for me. You see, one day, when Doctor Crane's back went out, I overheard him talking about loving me. I, of course, was horrified, so I asked Mr. Crane, and he said that, yes, it had been going on for years. So when I was giving Doctor Crane a back rub – and more than a wee bit nervous about it, I might add – I asked him, and he said it was a misunderstanding. But a bit later, when Doctor Crane was drugged, you know, I asked him what Mr. Crane had meant, and he told me it was Doctor Crane who had feelings for me.

You can imagine how shocked I was.

And still am.

But I don't know that anyone can imagine the little surge of butterflies I felt when I found out it was Doctor... Niles.

It's bloody inconceivable, really. I mean, I might like to think of myself as family, but I'm really just... the help.

But it excites me.

Of course, I forced myself not to think about it.

Considering that it was so obviously a thing of the past. I mean, he has Mel now, for God's sake. The bitch. "Daphne, would you get this? Daphne, would you fetch that?" I suppose what I hate most about her is that she, more than anyone, prompted this sudden realization – or remembering – that I really am just the Crane household's housekeeper. It's her bloody fault that I'm started to think this way. I suppose it's best for everyone, though, if I remember my place. It makes the situation with Doctor Crane so much simpler – It's simply his misplaced feelings as a result of that wreck of a marriage. I should be with Donny. It's what's right. It's what's proper.

But today... today. Today, I found out the extent of Doctor Crane's former feelings. Current feelings? And it scares me. Not so much for him, but for me. I feel suddenly as if I'm making the most disastrous mistake of my life. As if I've jumped and am now falling down a dark tunnel, like Alice down the rabbit's hole, and try as I might, I can't latch hold of even a damn twig to hold myself back. At the end of the rabbit hole is marriage to Donny... wondrous, certainly, but scary nonetheless, partially because all I can think of in relation to this metaphor is growing and shrinking potions, talking caterpillars, and "Off with her head!" At the top of the tunnel were the Cranes. My old familiar life.

Plus Mel. Ick.

Wasn't there a reason Alice ran away?

Now I'm only succeeding in corrupting my memory of a classic British tale. So it goes.

Would you believe, though, that I felt it? I have an uncanny knack for sensing these things (although it sure bloody hell didn't do much to tell me he loved me those first six years). Doctor Crane might laugh and mock when I say I'm a bit psychic, but if I'm not, I have bloody strong intuition.

Lost in thought, I wandered to a bench in the park, still contemplating the situation. The conversation I had just overheard kept running through my head. "He's in love, Frasier." "I swear, he mourned." At what, my assumption that he was acting? Now that I think about it, it makes sense. "I adore you. Oh, how I've longed to hear you say that! You're a goddess. I'm a new man, Daphne." I must've hurt him so much. And how hard could it have been, really, to figure out that Phyllis was... well... me? I'm so blind. But who would've guessed? Would you have if you were in my position? What arrogance would ever lead me to even hope that someone like him... the eminent Doctor Crane... would be interested in a Cockney like me? My mother was thrilled to find out I had snagged a bloke of Donny's station, for God's sake.

But at this point, as always, I guess it's best to do what Grammy Moon always said. "Leave well enough alone, Daphne Moon!" she'd scold me. Doctor Crane is happy with Mel. The way he smiles at her... She's what's comfortable to him, and that's important for someone like him. It's right. And Donny and I... Well, we're right, too. I'm satisfied. Donny makes me happy. He's a good man, and I will always love him for loving me. Making me feel worthy of being loved. I've never really felt that before, I don't think.

That doesn't mean that I don't miss him, though.

He's my best friend, as strange as it sounds with all my talk of station. He makes me feel comfortable. For us to be friends is... is right. His dying feelings and my own hesitation about my own were no reason to dispel what we had together. What we had was good.

I glanced at my watch. Seven o'clock already! I resolved myself then and there to talk to Doctor Crane, the man who had been avoiding me for weeks.


A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM or WHEN NILES MET DAPHNE

She showed up at my door with a bottle of Jack Daniels.

May I repeat that?

She showed up at my door with a bottle of Jack Daniels.

She looked luminous.

"AH ye bisy, DO-cter Craaane?" What can I say? I adore her accent.

"Why, no, I don't believe I am, Daphne," I replied hesitantly as I ushered her inside. Not that that was much of a surprise to her based on my attire, a handsome silk evening robe which covered pajamas decorated with a design so embarrassing I dare not record it for posterity. I prayed she wouldn't notice. A gift from... my nephew, Freddie... you know. "As you must know, Mel is away at a convention."

"Um... right. Well, you see, Doctor Crane, I was thinking today about how... I haven't seen you in so long. I thought we could use a night together before the wedding." She paused, and when she began again, her voice was soft, almost timid. Most un-Daphne-like. Daphne, the least timid person I know. Except, perhaps, Roz. "It's been a while, you know."

I smiled, and my heart warmed. I found myself suddenly able to think of her as, instead of someone I had to have, someone who I loved dearly and who, I knew, loved me in friendship. And I was satisfied. Satisfied merely to know that she wanted to spend this time with me. I am someone Daphne trusts. And that thought makes me feel warm all over. "Yes, Daphne, it has been a long time. Please sit down. Would you care for something to–" I stopped myself and grinned as I remember the whiskey. Grinned! Never in my life had I felt so relaxed around this (or any) woman. "No, I suppose not. Glasses, then? Food?"

She smiled her dazzling smile. "That would be perfectly lovely, Doctor Crane." She paused. "You know, there's nothing lovelier than drinking and remembering with an old friend."

It touched me. Deeply. I repeated my mantra to myself. I am someone Daphne trusts. If nothing else, I am someone Daphne trusts. "Thank you Daphne." I paused to collect myself and realized, then, that I was leaving her simply standing in front of me. "Well, now," I rushed. "You have a seat. What to eat?"

"Well, I don't know, Doctor Crane. What do you have?"

"Oh, a bit of everything, I suspect," I replied lightly. "The refrigerator is well-stocked thanks to Mel."

She smiled tightly. "Yes, I can imagine. Does she binge on celery as well?" It was harsh, yes, but I wasn't insulted as I used to be when Frasier would say something horrid about Maris. She looked uncomfortable, though, and apologized. "I'm sorry, Doctor Crane. That was wrong of me."

I merely smiled and took the punch. "No, quite all right, Daphne. But, to correct, when Mel binges, she also eats carrots." That won me a smile. "How's this. I'll get the glasses and pour our drinks, and you dig out whatever you want in the kitchen."

"Smashing."


Sure enough, there was celery in the bottom drawer.

I don't think so.

Finally, after much scrounging, I found a couple bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies in the cupboard. I knew they weren't Mel's. Probably the remnants of a little "casual" get together she had thrown here, though. I didn't know why it should make me uncomfortable that she was already throwing her parties here or why it should make me happy that I'd found perhaps the one item in the kitchen Mel herself wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, but it did. Mint Milano, Geneva, and Brussels. My favorites.

I brought out the bags and a couple of plates. "Alcohol and Pepperidge Farm." I said slyly. "A winning combination if I ever heard one."

"Without a doubt!" he intoned, having splayed himself across the fainting couch. He raised his glass, and I did the same as I lowered myself to the floor, back resting snugly against the couch.

"What shall we drink to, Doctor Crane?"

"To friends," he said, then paused. "To friends who have been needlessly separated for too long."

I smiled and nodded, and our glasses touched.


After a couple glasses, the whiskey still scorched my throat like fire. As it loosened my tongue.

So I ate another cookie. A Mint Milano, to be precise. I'd had a number of each kind.

"No, no, Daphne. I'm serious. I'd like to know, no matter how –" I downed my shot-sized glass and shook my head as my forehead wrinkled. "–how horrid it might have been. What was your first impression?"

"All righty, then, if you insist." She paused for effect. "I thought he was pompous, vain, and rude. Not that I don't love him dearly, mind you."

I grinned. "Well, what do you know! That was my first impression of him, too!"

She smiled. "But I found Mr. Crane positively delightful, which is why I decided to stay on. I wouldn't have been working for him if it had been up to your brother, anyway."

"But surely he recognized you as the most competent in your field!" I was astonished.

"Oh, come now, Doctor Crane. 'In my field.' You make me sound like a scholar of something. And I'm sure I wasn't the most competent at all. And I'm especially certain that I scared the living daylights out of him with my talk of psychic flashes." She smiled. I love that she can laugh at herself. I think that's always been Frasier's biggest shortcoming. "But your dear father liked me. And I liked him. And that was really what was most important, after all."

"And I'm so glad for it." Probably shouldn't have said it. Just like I probably shouldn't have said what I said next. "And what about me, Daphne? You thought Frasier was arrogant, you thought Dad was delightful... What about me?"

The looked she gave me was completely sincere. Beautiful. "You were charming, Doctor Crane."

I shook my head in disagreement. "I most certainly was not. If I recall my first words to you –"

She cut me off to do an imitation. "Ahem. 'You're Daphne? When Frasier told me he had hired an Englishwoman, I imagined someone... someone... You're Daphne?' Those, Doctor Crane, were your first words to me."

I shook my head in embarrassment. "This only proves my point!" I laughed. "How on earth could that ever be construed as charming?"

She smiled the sincere smile again. The one that makes me melt. "I was totally and completely flattered. You didn't intend to flatter me. It was totally unintentional, in fact. But it was there. And that's charming."

"Then I'd like to think that my every word to you is charming, Daphne."

"I've figured that out, now. Yes."

I looked up a bit too sharply, having no clue what she meant by that comment but suspecting the worst. Figured what out, exactly? But I didn't say a word. "I suppose, then, you don't need to be told my first impression of you."

She shook her head. "I have a rough idea, I suppose, but I really don't know what your impression of me is at all. How do you see me, Doctor Crane?"

The thought of answering her saddened me a bit, so my answer held a mournful tone. "'She had wit; she had grace; she had beauty; but above all, she had truth.' I find you enchanting, Daphne."

Her blush was apparent, although she bowed her head. "Thank you, Doctor Crane."

"Daphne –" I spoke suddenly. I've always wondered, really. "Why do you call me that? I asked you so many times... in the beginning... So why do you not call me Niles?"

She looked down but didn't have to think twice. "Boundaries."

I was taken aback. "What? What do you mean?"


I looked up at him, laid my head back onto the fainting couch so that it was just beside his left knee. "You were my employer's brother. There were boundaries. There still are."

He shook his head, finished off his fourth glass, went to pour us both another, and realized the bottle was empty. He stood and walked to the wet bar. "Scotch all right?" I nodded, and he grabbed the whole bottle and brought it back to where I sat. Instead of perching himself on the fainting couch again, though, he sat beside me. "Daphne, you can't possibly think that's all you are –"

I laughed nervously, a wee bit self-conscious. Tense situations and all that. "No, of course not. I know I mean more to you three than that. But it's still there." How to explain my perception of station to a man who sees it in everyone, everything except our relationship? I struggled with a way to put it. "And you know it just as well as I do. You know that there are certain people your brother doesn't invite to his snooty parties. Like at Christmas, when he didn't bring anyone from the station. Imagine it this way. Let's say life is one of your brother's little parties. You're one of the guests. I serve the drinks."

He swung around sharply to face me and grasped my shoulders in his hands. "No, Daphne. You're so much more than that. You're everyth –"

"And then there's that, too. There had to be boundaries between us. There just had to be."

I think he realized what I was trying to say almost before I did, for he loosened his grip and looked away from me, shoulders hunched slightly. "But now there's Donny. And Mel. Isn't that boundary enough? Can't you call me Niles?"

As good as an admission. I swallowed most of my glass of scotch.

"You do have a point. I suppose I can... Niles." I smiled slightly. "Niles. You know, I've started to think of you more as Niles recently." Why did I just admit that?

"Really? Then it shouldn't be hard. I like it when you say my name. We're friends. Friends should be comfortable enough with each other for at least that."

I looked up at him. "You're my best friend, you know. If comfort is a measure of the... strength of a friendship. Then you're my best friend."

He smiled a radiant smile and looked down. "Well, Daphne, you're mine, as well."

I glanced down at the remnants of my scotch. I hate scotch. "What would you say to some daiquiris, Niles? Or a pina colada? Something tasty?" I stood slowly, wobbling slightly.

He pulled me back down. "I think perhaps we've both had enough alcohol, Daphne. I'd hate to think that I might say something terrible and inappropriate."

Blame it on the alcohol. Blame it on the closeness. Blame it on the smell of his aftershave. He still had his arms around me, and he was looking into my eyes. "How long have you loved me, Niles?"

To his credit, he didn't look half as shocked as I felt. "My whole life, Daphne. I've loved you my whole life." His answer was calm, his grip on me remained firm. But for some reason, I knew this would go nowhere. We could talk about anything we wanted to tonight with absolute ease, and it would remain just that. Talk. Not a future. Something about the air, perhaps.

I leaned into him, my head on his shoulder.

"Me too." Did I just say that?

"I didn't know that." Apparently so. "Why've you never said anything?"

"I just now realized. Why've you never said anything?"

"Because I never seem to realize that the right time has come until it's gone."

I sighed, and he held me more tightly to him. Immensely protective. Our drunken stupor was... gorgeous.

"You told me once, though. I just didn't believe you."

Now it was his turn to sigh as he reached his hand up to stroke my hair. "I've told you several times. But no, you never do." He paused. "I adore you."

"I believe you, now. Would you believe me?" I was crying now, just slightly. So much too late. We both knew it was too late. Which I suppose was why we could say it at all.

"I think I just might, you know. Not that I believe I deserve it at all." He sighed. "Why now, Daphne? Why do you believe me now if you didn't then? And why do you... feel this way now if you didn't then?" I suppose he didn't dare say I love him.

I rose slightly, indignantly. "Maybe I did then." I settled back in resignation. "I just didn't know."

"Why?"

"Because it wasn't right. You and me... How could I possibly believe you'd feel that way about someone like me? I'm nothing special, you know. Strangely, to you, I guess I am... But even that... is it real or circumstance? Everyone thinks they love what they can't have. The forbidden fruit, you know."

"That wasn't it, Daphne. I can't even explain it. You're... I can't possibly explain what you mean to me."


"You're lovely," she whispered as she kissed my cheek.

It was surreal.

How could I possibly be having this conversation?

Possibly because of my newly found resolve that this would never go anywhere. We could say anything we wanted. It would never become more.

"It's better that it's like this," she whispered. "It's better to know but never to act. Leaving it unknown... never tarnished. If we don't touch it, we'll never tarnish what we have now."

She'd read my mind. "You know, Flaubert once wrote that we must not touch our idols, for inevitably the gilt will come off on our fingers..."

The most surreal night of my life.

She coughed slightly into my shoulder. "You know, when Doctor Crane told me –" Frasier. I should have known. "– that was what I was scared of. Because it doesn't matter how you think of me. It's when we're faced with the reality that everything's always ruined." She stopped for a moment. "Why do you love me, Niles? Tell me."

I sighed. "I love your eyes. So beautiful... they bore into my soul. I love the way you look at me. I love the way you smile. You light up the world with a single grin. I love your smell. You say it's Obsession..." I paused to linger in the humor of her old double entendre. "But it's you, Daphne. It's very raw and natural. You're very natural. I love that. You've got no pretenses. You need none. I love the way you laugh. Like bells on Christmas. Your voice is running water, a trickling stream, and your laughs are the laughter of the brook as it goes over the rocks. And your accent..." I smiled a bit self-consciously. "I positively adore your accent." Here I pause. "You're exquisitely beautiful, but your soul's beautiful, too, Daphne. You love..." I stopped, trying to think of something else to say, but in the end, nothing came. "You love, Daphne." It seemed an appropriate ending.

She was crying. I could tell. She didn't move, and my shirt wasn't wet, but I could feel it deep inside. "Thank you," she barely whispered. "No one's ever... Thank you." I was horrified that no one had ever said these things to this amazing woman. But...

"What about you, Daphne? Why?"

She sighed. "You love me like I've never before dreamed of being loved. For that. And for your smiles. I always know the world is as it should be when you shoot me one of those charming grins of yours." She smiled up at me. "Your patience. Your persistence. Your drive. Your confidence and your insecurities. Your dependence when you so want to be independent. Your kindness. So... wonderful. The way you make me feel." She sighed. "I'm not much with words."

"You're perfect." I stopped to let that resound. She needed to know. "I've been thinking... that this whole conversation is utterly surreal. So I suppose it's impossible to ruin anything when everything is still... the illusion. We can only become closer." I held her more tightly. "We could..." I paused. I didn't want to alter the carefully constructed balance at hand, and I feared I might. "We could have this night, Daphne. Have one night of pure beauty that can never tarnish."

She looked up at me, her alcohol-hazed eyes boring into mine. "Our perfect night."

I stood slowly and pulled her up after me. My goddess. How extraordinary.

I led her up the stairs.

Afterward, she told me she loved me for the first time.

In the morning, she was gone.

As she had to be.

But it was a night of beauty. The most magnificent night of my life.


ANOTHER SICK DAY?

She came in at dawn. She glowed.

I lay on my ridiculously expensive couch under Egyptian cotton sheets, and I was sweltering. My room had been stifling, and now, here, with the air conditioning on and a glass of ice water beside me, I was still burning up.

Whether I was truly sick or this was a psychosomatic illness, I, the psychiatrist, had no idea.

The long and short of it, though, was that I was awake when she came in, drenched from the rain, but glowing nonetheless.

I knew she hadn't been at Roz's. Roz never found her last night.

Which means that she was either at Donny's or at my brother's.

I prayed for the prior, because I didn't think my brother's heart could handle the rejection of her leaving him at dawn.

And then I remembered Donny's business trip to California.

"Daphne."

She looked back at me, surprised. "Doctor Crane! Why are you out here?"

"Oh, I, um, think I'm developing a bit of a cold. I'm terribly hot. It's not important. Did you have a good night?"

I don't know how she construed my question. For once in my life, though, I managed to ask a question utterly devoid of sarcasm. She didn't seem offended. "It was perfect," she responded, before closing her door behind her.

I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.


AH, GOOD MY LORDS, WHAT A NOSE IS HIS

I've always fancied myself a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac – utterly in love but entirely unworthy of my love. If my life had been a play, I would have been Cyrano, and Daphne would have been the divine Roxane – "All unsuspicious – full of charms unconscious, like a sweet perfumed rose – a snare of nature, within whose petals Cupid lurks in ambush! He who has seen her smile has known perfection, –Instilling into trifles grace's essence, divinity in every careless gesture; not Venus' self can mount her conch blown sea-ward, as she can step into her chaise a porteurs, nor Dian fleet across the woods spring-flowered, light as my Lady o'er the stones of Paris!. . ."

I suppose I dressed up at that Halloween party as Cyrano for her. Ironic that as Cyrano I did tell her – rather asked her to marry me – but as Niles, I never could.

Who would have been Christian? Donny, I suppose. Bumbling but, in image, what she wanted.

But, oh, I could have wooed her as Cyrano. Enchanted her with words about herself and her beauty. I remembered an ill-fated discussion on Frasier's couch. "She has a smile that makes my knees go weak."

Always for someone else, though. I could never speak directly to her.

Until last night.

But then again, I suppose it was just Cyrano all over again. Dying, I whisper to her my love. "I feel my soul heavy with love untold. I die! No more, as in days of old, my loving, longing eyes will feast on your least gesture – ay, the least! I mind me the way you touch your cheek with your finger, softly, as you speak! Ah me! I know that gesture well! My heart cries out! – I cry 'Farewell'!... My life, my love, my jewel, my sweet, my heart has been yours in every beat!"

And Daphne loved me, too.

But now, we were both dying.

I never before thought I'd reach a point at which I was satisfied not to have her.

One perfect night in which I loved her and she loved me. And nothing was tarnished. It's still perfect, and it always will be.

I loved her then more than I ever had, but I was satisfied. She couldn't give me more than she already had. I suppose she was right in that. This is what there could be, and I was happy, joyous, with anything she could give me.

I got dressed to pick Mel up at the airport.


CAFE NERVOSA, WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME

At some ungodly hour in the morning, Frasier called me.

"Daphne was out all night!" He whispered harshly between sniffles. "She was with Niles. I just know it."

At that moment, it was fine that he called me at four fifty or five forty or whatever insane hour it was.

Now, though, as I watched Niles walk into Cafe Nervosa arm in arm with The Bitch, as I like to refer to her, my forgiveness wore thin.

"So Frasier," I whispered, intentionally louder than necessary. "If he was with Daph, how do you explain that?" I hope I embarrassed all three of them, although if the two in the doorway heard me, they didn't show it.

Frasier did a double take. "But I was sure!"

So I did the only thing I could think of. "Niles!" Just my luck. The Bitch was following.

I suppose she's really not that bad. She's not mine, so I don't know why I complain.

"Good morning, Roz!" I studied him carefully. Something was different. He was happier than I had ever seen him before.

"Niles, can I have... a word with you?" I looked at him meaningfully. Behind him, Frasier was making insane gestures. "No! No! No!" I could just see him screaming on the inside. Take this, sleep-stealer.

"But of course, Roz." He glanced at Mel. "I'll be right back, darling. Can you talk to Frasier for a bit?"

She grinned that maniacal grin of hers. "Of course! Frasier and I could talk for hours!" He grimaced. I laughed. Niles glared at us both but nodded and kissed Mel's cheek.

I wanted to vomit.

We made our way to a corner table. It was strange, really. I don't think I've ever even seen the corner tables at Cafe Nervosa. Frasier and I always tend to sit dead center. But this conversation had to be private. As soon as we sat down, I cut to the chase.

"Where's Daphne?"

He seemed a bit taken aback. "What? At home, I guess."

"And whose home would that be, Niles? Your home? My home? Frasier's home? Donny's home?" I threw the last one in to tick him off. Didn't even ruffle his feathers.

He huffed. "Well, her home, I'd suspect."

"Which is?" I felt bad for Daphne, really. She's never really had anywhere to call her own, unless you count that study. I guess that's what my question to Niles really was. What does Daphne have?

"Well... Frasier's, I'd assume."

"Why isn't she with you, Niles?"

He still wasn't bothered. "Why would she be with me?"

I shook my head. "You know, Niles, when I spend a passionate night with a man, I usually hope that he'll at least want to spend the next day with me, whether I do or not." Ick. That didn't quite come out right. Or maybe it did come out right, and that's the problem.

I can only describe his reaction to the last question as completely torn. He looked like his best friend had just punched him in the nose for no reason. Which, really, I suppose, is how he took it. "Daphne... told you?"

I covered quickly. No need to make things worse between them. This was obviously something they considered their little secret. Yeah, right. "No, Niles, of course Daphne didn't tell me. Frasier was awake when she came in this morning. He asked her how her night was, and she said something about it being perfect. We just assumed..."

He had regained his cool and was glaring at a spot just above my shoulder. "You shouldn't assume things like that, Roz. It'll only get you into trouble."

"Whatever Niles. I'm serious. Why aren't you with her? Isn't she going to call off the wedding?"

He looked straight into my eyes. "She isn't. I've really got things to do, if you don't mind."

He began to stand, but I grabbed his hand. "What? Niles, I don't understand."

He looked at me with something resembling pity. "You wouldn't, Roz. This is about love."

And he walked away.

I don't think I've ever hurt more.

So I did the only thing I knew to do.

I got up, brushed past them all (including bitchy Mel, smiling like a lunatic) without saying a word, and went to find Daphne.


DOWN IN THE PARK

She found me in the park. I guess I'm pretty predictable. When I'm upset, I can usually be found walking Eddie. Of course, today I didn't have the excuse of walking Eddie. He was with Mr. Crane somewhere, I suspected. I suppose it's one of the few things I can do to get me away from the house. And I needed to be away from the house.

I could hear her coming, so when she was a few feet behind me, I spoke up. "Hi, Roz."

She sighed and slumped down beside me on the bench where I sat. "Hi, Daphne." She paused. "Daphne, I know what happened."

My head shot up. This I didn't expect. "He told you?"

She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "No, of course he didn't tell me. I asked him about it earlier, and he wouldn't even mention it. He treats it like a sacred act that mentioning would defile or something." She sighed. "No, Daph. I know you. It wasn't hard to figure out." She grinned. "And Frasier called me this morning when you came in."

I didn't know what to say. "Oh."

She accepted that, though, and shook her head, seeming puzzled. "Why aren't you with him, Daph? Why are you here alone when you could be with him?"

I stood up suddenly, shaking my head emphatically. "Don't you see, Roz? I couldn't be with him! I've really got no bloody choice in the matter. I love him, and he loves me, and we had our one perfect night. But we can't have more. This is how it's supposed to work."

She glared at me and stood up to face me. "So what are you saying? You're basing this insane decision on... what... your visions?" To call her tone mocking would have been an understatement. It was like a slap in the face.

"No, Roz, that's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying that for us to be together isn't what's right. He belongs with someone like Mel, just like he belonged with someone like Mrs. Crane. I belong with someone like Donny, and I always have. What we had..." I sighed a bit too wistfully. "It was like a beautiful anomaly." My tone sharpened. "But to make it into more than it was would ruin it. We can't tarnish what we have."

She put her hands on her hips and nodded sarcastically, if one can nod sarcastically. "Okay, I see. So what you're saying is that what you had was so perfect that you aren't willing to risk trying? You're giving up to avoid pain in the long run? Daphne, every relationship has its share of heartache, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful. So now you're dooming him to life with Mel and you to life with Donny. You're selling you both short! Why make him be with someone he's not happy with because it seems in your warped mind more proper or something? Love happens in weird places, Daph. Very seldom is it as it should be."

I shook my head again. She just didn't understand. Or maybe she did, and that was what scared me. Maybe she was right. "No, Roz. We've done the right thing. I'm sorry if you don't think so." And I walked away.

She didn't try to follow me. She did yell at my back, though, and I stopped, back still turned, to listen.

"You're making the biggest mistake of your life, Daph. I've always looked up to you. You were the one who managed to have meaningful, lasting relationships, and I could never manage it. But if you want to know the truth, I think I understand a hell of a lot that you never could. I know how to appreciate what I have. You throw your chances away and hurt everyone in your path."

I turned around to face her. "If you know so much, Roz, if you have this amazing ability to appreciate and take advantage of what you have, then why in bloody hell aren't you with Frasier?"

I turned and walked away.

That was the last time I saw her until the day of my wedding.


YEAH, RIGHT

I frowned when I heard what Daphne said.

Roz with me?

You see, at Cafe Nervosa, Roz and my brother shared heated words at a corner table. She stormed out, not glancing at us. I glared at my brother.

"Niles, what did you say?"

He raised his chin slightly in defiance and wrapped his arm around Mel's waist. "Only what's true."

I shook my head. "If you hurt her, Niles – either of them..." I glared at him again and left.

To follow my producer and closest friend, other than my brother, who might soon find himself disowned.

I followed her to the park, where I was shocked to learn that the split between Daphne and my brother had been as much her doing as his. I'd only assumed – because of his attitude with Mel...

And then Daphne walked away with one final question to Roz: "Why aren't you with Frasier?"

Of course, her language was a good deal more British and colorful.

I approached Roz silently. Her back had been turned to me during their fight, but soon after Daphne left, she turned back toward me.

And almost ran into my chest.

"Watch where you're going, Roz. The last thing I need is..." My voice drifted off, though, as my smart remark got lost somewhere in my mind. "How are you?"

She shook her head and fell onto the bench she and Daphne had been sitting on. Her head fell into her hands as she leaned forward, her hair falling around her face. "I just don't know, Frasier. I've just had two of the most painful encounters of my life. First Niles tells me –" She shuddered and stopped, and I sat down beside her and draped my arm around her shoulders snugly.

"What did he say to you?"

She sighed. "I told him that I didn't understand his attitude about last night. And he told me –" She gulped then, as if she was holding back tears. "He told me there was no way I could understand. Because it was about love."

Suddenly, I understood. As a psychiatrist, I know that Roz has always had a fear of emotional intimacy. She's afraid of commitment. But we never spoke of it. We laugh about her preoccupation with sex, but it covers something more deeply buried. And Niles had used his insight into her against her horribly. Whatever happened the oath? "First do no harm."

I wrapped my other arm around her and held her tightly to me as she cried. I don't think I've ever seen Roz cry. Not like this. "He's wrong, honey. You know he's wrong. You know what it is to love. What you just tried to do for Daphne – that was love." I sighed. "He lashed out. I suspect he's in denial about what last night really meant to him, and he took it out on you. Just always remember, Roz, that he's wrong. You love more deeply than anyone I've ever met." I didn't know what else to say. So I stopped.

Slowly, she stopped crying. "Thanks, Frasier." She smiled up at me through her tears. Her mascara was running down her face, her nose was running a bit, and her face was blotchy, but her was were shining brightly. She looked a little bit like she had the morning Alice was born. She looked lovely. What had I said to her? That I'd never seen anyone look more completely happy. Right now, amazingly, she looked happy.

I took out my handkerchief and wiped her face off while she watched me. When her face was free of mascara and tears, I smiled and pulled her up. "C'mon, honey. Let's go back to Cafe Nervosa and have a coffee. By now, Niles and Mel are probably long gone."

She nodded, and we walked out of the park, my arm still draped around her shoulders.

We wouldn't talk about what Daphne had said today. In fact, we probably wouldn't talk about it for a long time. We're like that.

But now, it's there between us, and we both know it.

It can only make us stronger.


GOING UP, STAYING DOWN

I sighed as I walked into the Elliot Bay Towers. I was about to step into the elevator when I heard someone call out behind me. "Daph! Wait up!"

I turned around to see Mr. Crane hobbling up to join me in the elevator, Eddie in tow behind him.

"How are you, Daph? I feel like I never see you anymore." He smiled ruefully and shook his white head as the doors of the elevator closed behind us. "But I guess I'll have to get used to it, right?"

I smiled and leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. I think I shocked him and bit. "Have I told you that I'm going to miss you, you old sod?"

He smiled as the elevator doors opened in front of apartment 1901 and Eddie rushed out. "We'll miss you, too, Daphne."

We. I felt like crying. "I just stopped in to get a few things. I'm going to stay over with Donny tonight. We have some things to sort out before the wedding."

He looked at me curiously as we stepped into the apartment. "I thought Donny was out of town until next week? Didn't he have to make a business trip to California?"

How to cover this one? "Oh. He did. But he got back early, so I'm spending some time with him."

Mr. Crane nodded and took his usual seat in his old, green, striped recliner as Eddie perched himself on the arm of the chair. "All right, Daph. Whatever you say. You two kids have a good time. Say, is that where you were last night?"

I paused on my hurried way to the study – my room – and glanced back. "Why, yes. Yes, I was with him."

Mr. Crane raised his eyebrows at me but didn't say anything.

As I collected some clothes and toiletries – all that I would need for my next few lonely nights at Donny's empty apartment – I wondered if Mr. Crane knew more than he was letting on.


LE FRERES HEUREUX

"I just don't know what to do, Doctor Crane. We've never fought like this before. I mean, she's my sister, and there's always been a little sibling rivalry, but she's still my best friend. And now, you know, now it's... it's... I just don't know what to do, Doctor Crane. I thought living closer together would only bring us together."

Frasier sighed in the next booth, like he was in pain. We hadn't seen Niles in days – or Daphne, for that matter – and judging from Frasier's attitude, this was a question he wanted to answer with one of his personal anecdotes. But he was still angry with Niles. Furious, in fact. On my behalf.

"Nancy, if I may, I'll answer that question with a story of my own." He'd broken down. I knew he would. "As many of my listeners know, I moved back home to the Seattle area almost eight years ago from Boston. My brother had a thriving practice here already. We've always been rivals – I went to Harvard, he went to Yale. I went to Oxford, he to Cambridge. As children, we rivaled for our mother's attention. We fought over test scores. We even chose the same profession – to be set once again as rivals? Perhaps." He paused. "And, at times, we do horrid things to each other, whether we mean them or not."

He paused for a moment, and I knew where the story was headed. "It got to the extreme that... when I saw that my brother was in love, and had been for years, I did everything I could to prevent him from taking action... Merely because I didn't want him to have what I thought I couldn't. And, perhaps partly in retaliation, although Niles doesn't know my newly discovered subconscious motives, he recently said some terrible, hurtful things to the most important woman in my life. Even in this, we're fighting."

He sighed and buried his head in his hands. I could only smile supportively at him. "Nevertheless, he's my brother, and I love him. He's –" He glanced at me. "– one of the best friends I've ever had.

"Nancy, there will always be fights. There will always be rivalry. And living so close to your sister will increase the negative aspects of your relationship. But it will also magnify the positive aspects. When I lived in Boston, I had almost lost touch with my brother. When I moved back here, it took us some time to reestablish our relationship – which may be the phase you're going through – but the good times with my brother – the squash matches, the parties, the heart to heart discussions over a beautiful, rare filet mignon or a decaf latte, even the rough patches, even... just being able to look out for my baby brother – make all the our struggles and turmoil worthwhile. I feel like I know my brother again, and that is vitally important to me. I have a feeling, Nancy, that before long, your relationship will be back on track. And there will still be fights – but you must learn to appreciate even the fights. Simply work to appreciate your sister's presence. It's hard for her, too. She may feel at this early stage that you're encroaching on her territory. Just let her know, Nancy, every second how much you value your relationship."

He stopped and raised his head, waiting a bit. There were some sniffles on the line, but no Nancy. "Nancy?"

More sniffles. "Yes, D-D-Doctor Cr-Crane? Oh, that was touching." Frasier certainly has a way. He'd made poor Nancy cry.

"But did it help you, Nancy?" He sounded a bit desperate. I think, right now, he needed to feel that his story had helped someone, even if he felt his relationship with Niles was currently in tatters.

"Oh, yes, Doctor Crane! In fact, I think I'm going to take Samantha to dinner tonight. Maybe what we really need is good talk to... help us get reacquainted after all this time apart. Does that sound right?"

He smiled. "It sounds perfect, Nancy. And I know you'll be fine."

"You, too, Doctor Crane. Thank you."

"All right." I made a motion for him to wrap up. "It looks as though our time is up. Goodbye, Seattle. This is Doctor Frasier Crane, wishing you good mental health."

He pushed a button to send the station to a commercial break and removed the headphones. He looked up toward me, and I spoke into the microphone at him. "Looks like your show's becoming more widely received, Frasier. Look who's behind you." He turned, then, and saw who I had seen five minutes ago standing at the glass door – Niles. Frasier got up slowly and opened the door.

"What is it, Niles?"

His brother took a deep breath. "Frasier, last time I checked my calendar, it was my turn to go first." He stopped and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Frasier."

Frasier smiled. Not his cheap cheesy grin, but I real, sincere smile. "Thank you, Niles." They hugged briefly, and then Niles stepped past Frasier and came into my booth.

Frasier watched us from where he stood.

"Roz –"

I shook my head. "Niles, you don't have to say anything. It was none of my business."

He shook his head. "No, Roz, it was your business. Daphne's your friend, and you were worried about her. I don't blame you for that. It just proves how wrong I was in what I said." He looked down at his feet. "I never thought I'd say this to you, Roz Doyle, but I was terribly wrong, and I'm very sorry."

I smiled at him and gave him a small hug, at which he just stepped back and gaped at me. I laughed. "Okay, okay, no more of this mushy stuff. You're forgiven. Go talk to your brother."

He nodded and was just turning to leave when he thought of something. "Roz, how is Daphne?"

I shrugged. "I'm really not sure. We had a big fight the other day and both said some regrettable – if true – things. I haven't seen her since. She's avoiding me, I think, but then again – I'm avoiding her, too. But Martin says she's been spending her nights with Donny and only coming by for his exercises. Frasier and Martin are sort of having to make do where other areas are concerned." I grinned. "And you can imagine how tough a step this is for Frasier. He was only just learning to open the door for himself."

Niles smiled at my last comment but still looked a little puzzled. "But – never mind."

Frasier, who had wandered over toward my booth and was now leaning, arms crossed in front of him, against the doorway, smiled at his brother. "Niles, what do you say to dinner tonight? I'm sure we could squeeze our way into that fabulous new bistro on Fremont..." He raised his eyebrows alluringly. I never knew two men to be so passionate about their food. It's embarrassing, almost.

"Well, actually, Frasier –" Niles had a worried look on his face like he was deep in thought, and I could just hear the rest of the rejection forming in his mind. But it didn't come. He quickly shook himself out of his reverie and looked at his brother. "Actually, Frasier, I would love that."

They nodded together, waved their goodbyes to me, and left the studio together.

Maybe Frasier could instill Niles with the good sense I couldn't.


PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM

I sat in the dark watching the tv screen. My fourth time watching Casablanca in two days. And I'd cried each time.

Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund – the perfect couple. They have everything: passion, emotional intimacy, understanding, respect, love.

But he still makes her leave with Victor Laszlo in the end.

Why?

Because it's what's best for her. What's best for them.

We'll always have Paris.

I was looking forward to a lonely night tonight. Donny was due in sometime around mid-afternoon tomorrow. Despite the comfort of some of my girlfriends at the pub the night before, I was lonely. I missed Doctor Crane. I missed Roz. I missed Mr. Crane. I missed Eddie. And most of all, I missed him.

But I couldn't go back to the Crane's. I simply couldn't. Not after the fight with Roz, and not after the ordeal with Niles. It was supposed to make everything perfect, but all I felt was incredible discomfort.

Probably because Donny was still in California. Once he got back, things would go back to normal.

We'll always have Paris.

We didn't have, we'd lost it, until you came to Casablanca.

I glanced down in the dim light of the tv screen at the stack of books I'd read over the past several days to occupy myself. After a few hours of reading my Harlequin romances, I got sick of them, so I pulled some of my favorites out again – the ones I read again and again when I was younger but haven't touched in years.

Wuthering Heights. A beautiful leather-bound version Grammy Moon gave me. It was in a box Mum had shipped over that was stored in Donny's closet.

Heathcliff and Catherine are in love, but she goes to be with wealthy Edgar Linton. Because that's what's right.

Does that make me Heathcliff?

No, never. A horrible analogy that should have never crossed my mind.

Brideshead Revisited. An English favorite. One of my favorites as well. Charles and Julia – perhaps not as tragic as Heathcliff and Catherine, but...

And now I was a quarter of the way through a ripped and torn copy of Anna Karenina. Anna's story portrays the tragedy that must inevitably ensue when one follows her heart instead of her head.

My reading of choice had taken a decided turn, it seemed. I'd always been a sucker for these tragic romances – only recently had the adjective of choice changed from "tragic" to "trashy." I grinned. I had to admit the trashy romances were fun. But recent events seem to be bringing my old passion for tragic literature out again.

Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As Bogie and Claude Raines walked into the sunset, I turned off the tv and rewound the movie. No more Casablanca for you tonight, young lady.

I flipped on the switch of the lamp behind me, picked up Anna Karenina, curled up under the cashmere throw and against the down pillow behind me, making sure that the box of tissues was still on the floor beside me. And I began to read. The first few lines I mumbled aloud.

"Yes, there is a memory, and at one time it was a bitter one. I was in love with someone and used to sing to him. I loved him and he loved me; but his mother was against it and he married someone else. You didn't think I'd had a romance too? I'm not unhappy; on the contrary I'm very happy..."


MY DINNER WITH NILES

"What a wonderful idea, Frasier! I've never had better Indian cuisine!" Niles exclaimed brightly as we sat in the darkened restaurant working on our newly arrived hors d'oeuvre.

I nodded. "I hadn't been here before, myself, but it's gotten rave reviews." Now, to business. "Niles –"

Niles shook his head sharply. "No, Frasier. I know where you're going, and I'd prefer not to talk about it. It's a private matter."

I nodded. Reverse psychology, perhaps? "I know, Niles, and I wasn't going to ask you anything or give advice. I know my advice has gotten you into enough trouble where she's concerned. I only wanted to tell you that if you need a sounding board or someone simply to listen – I'm here. I'm your brother. That's what I'm for."

He was quiet for a little while, chewing thoughtfully on a bit of rye bread. Finally, he spoke.

His brow wrinkled as he gazed into my eyes, playing absently with the food on his appetizer plate with his fork. "She seemed so sure, Frasier. I mean about how it was to be. Sort of a Casablanca ending, you know. 'We'll always have Paris.'"

I must admit, I was a bit confused. And I'm a psychiatrist. "What do you mean? I'm not sure I understand the circumstances."

He sighed. "She came to me that night with alcohol. Liquor. We ate cookies, drank whiskey, and talked. She told me that she was in the process of remembering what she really was to us: an employee. I hastened to assure her otherwise. Then, I asked her why she never called me Niles. She said something about boundaries, that, in the beginning, I was her employer's brother, and boundaries had to be set."

"In the beginning. What about now?"

He sighed. "There had to be boundaries because of our feelings for each other." My eyebrows raised. Each other?, my expression asked. He nodded but then shook his head. "Primarily my feelings, I think, although she didn't say directly." He paused. "She asked me how long I'd loved her. She knew, Frasier." He looked up at me questioningly.

"Ahem. Yes. Well. She might have overheard a conversation or two not meant for her ears..." I cleared my throat and looked down.

"No, it's quite all right, Frasier. If she hadn't, that night never would have happened. The most extraordinary night of my life." A beat. "I told her. How long I'd loved her, I mean, and she hinted that she loved me, too, but didn't say. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that to be involved might tarnish our relationship. You know, when reality sets in. And she has some mistaken ideas about what is proper and right and what is not, about station. We decided, then, that we could have one perfect night without damaging us at all, and in the morning, we'd go back to what was proper." He paused and smiled. "Afterward, she told me she loved me, Frasier. She said, 'I love you,' didn't hedge around it. There it was. It was phenomenal. When I woke up, she was gone, as I knew she would be, and I went to pick Mel up at the airport."

I was, to say the least, shocked. "And you let this happen, Niles?"

He looked up at me, resigned. "It's what she wanted, Frasier. And if that's all that she can give me, I won't demand more. It was lovely. She was radiant. I loved her then more than I had ever loved her."

"And now?"

He looked down at his plate, where he was still stirring food around. "Nothing has changed."

My expression became pleading. "But Niles, don't you see? She may have said those things about her place and your place and propriety... but did she mean it?" I paused. "Niles, she's not so much as said a word to any of us in days. She sneaks in to work with dad, talks with him, and leaves without so much as telling me she came by. She hasn't talked to Roz at all after their fight. She's her best friend. And maybe you'll say that this is how it's meant to work, spending all her time with Donny –"

He cut me off guiltily. "She hasn't been spending any time with Donny."

I looked at him suspiciously. "And how do you know?"

"Donny's been in California for two weeks on business."

"And you know this because?"

"It's my business. It has to do with some followup with the divorce. Some property on the beach that wasn't really dealt with in the settlement. I talked to him today. He called from Maris' beach house."

I shook my head sadly. "Talk to her, Niles."

He sipped his wine. "Frasier, did you really discourage me from telling her all those years out of jealousy?"

I nodded.

"Of what?"

"Of the love you two shared that I didn't think I would ever have. Of how perfect you two are when you're together. Of how much you treasure her. Of your commitment."

He nodded thoughtfully.

"Niles, discounting what Daphne has said she wanted... When you consider the ideal, your image of a perfect future... Is she there?"

He finished his second glass of wine and poured himself a third. "Of course she's there, Frasier. She's right beside me. She's holding our child. Or maybe our grandchild."

I smiled. "Do you remember the day I had been here in Seattle a year, Niles? I asked you if you loved Daphne."

He nodded. "Yes, I remembered. I think it's the only time I've ever spewed coffee across a room."

I laughed. "You told me you didn't know. What's changed?"

He looked thoughtful. "Six years, Frasier. Six years of knowing her and learning her. Then, it was only lust. I was comfortable with Maris. You remember I told you I wanted to be with Maris and have an affair with Daphne. And then, suddenly, it wasn't Maris with whom I was comfortable."

"So now, you're comfortable with Daphne? And is that the true measure of happiness? Comfort?"

"Yes, I'm more comfortable with Daphne than with anyone. Especially the other night. After I found out she knew. The tension was gone. But is that the measure of happiness?" He paused. "Yes, it is, mostly. Comfort would encompass honesty, loyalty, trust, and Platonic love. But the other part of happiness is passion."

"You're passionate about Daphne." It wasn't a question. "You said six years ago that she stirred a passion in you that you'd never known."

"Yes. And she still does."

"So Daphne is, for you, a recipe for true happiness. What about Mel?"

This took longer. "Mel represents the kind of comfort I had with Maris."

"Can you still be comfortable with that?"

We were quiet for awhile as he pondered, during which time I chased the waiter away twice as he tried to get our entree order.

"I could be."

"You weren't happy with Maris, Niles. Never. You pretended, but you weren't."

He shook his head. "But Frasier, if my choice is to have that kind of silent comfort or to be alone, then I choose the prior."

"But what if those weren't your only choices?"

"They are, Frasier. Daphne has made it perfectly clear to me where she stands."

I cocked an eyebrow. "Has she, really, Niles? Based on what you said about her concerns for boundary and station, her feelings of being an employee. Niles, I think her attitude about your night together had far more to do with her concern for your comfort than her own. She feels for whatever reason that to be with her would be beneath you and therefore uncomfortable for you."

His eyes lit up in the way they do when he's experienced an epiphany. "Oh, my God, Frasier. How could she think such a thing?"

"That's the most important question you can ask, my dear little brother, because, if you really care about trying this, once you know why she thinks that, you'll know how to convince her you are comfortable with her and only with her."

"I know you're right. Of course your right. But I don't know that I can convince her."

I smiled. "Try, Niles. Try now."

He grinned, nodded, and stood. "I will! Thank you so much, Frasier. Sometimes your advice stinks, but I have a feeling that today you're on a roll. Oh, and Frasier?" He looked back at me.

"Yes, little brother?"

"Do you remember the question I asked you that day in Cafe Nervosa?"

"You asked me if I were happy."

He shook his head. "And you never answered. No, put that aside for awhile. Another question."

Suddenly, I knew. It had been on my mind, too. "Yes, Niles. I remember."

"You're comfortable with her, Frasier. The passion I have for Daphne is important, but really, it's the comfort that matters."

"I know, Niles. Thank you."

He simply nodded thoughtfully and walked out.

I watched him go, then pulled out my cellular phone.

Three rings, and then she answered.

"Roz, I have a wonderful table at the new Indian restaurant on Fremont and a lot of news for you. Would you join me? No, no, no. Bring Alice. I'd love to see her." And I hung up smiling.


ANNA WHO?

The Claremont wasn't Montana, but it was nice in its own way. It was less impressive and regal than the Montana, but it was more... homey. It was comfortable.

Maybe this was a mistake.

I stood in front of Donny's apartment door, terrified that he might have suddenly decided to come home, that he would answer the door.

But even more terrified that no one would.

Because if she weren't here, I didn't know where she could possibly be.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," I heard her call distantly.

And then the door was open, and there she was, tissues in hand, eyes streaming.

She stared at me, shocked. "Niles."

"I didn't knock."

She smiled through her tears. "I knew you would be there." Then, with a self-mocking tone that hurt me, "I'm psychic, remember?"

"Are you all right, Daphne? Why are you crying?"

She snapped out of the daze she had fallen into and ushered me in the doorway. "Oh, I always cry during this part."

I glanced at the tv screen. "Oh, Bogie. Here comes the best part... 'We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we'd lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.'"

She looked up at me. "'And I said I would never leave you.'"

I searched my memory to continue the banter, and managed to recite a last few last fragments with Bogie. "'And you never will. But I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going you can't follow. What I've got to do you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm not good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now..." I looked up into her eyes. "Here's looking at you, kid.'" I smiled self-consciously. "This is quite coincidental. I was discussing this film with Frasier today."

Daphne smiled and nodded. "She had to leave him. It's so sad, but it's right."

She was speaking to me, then, but I ignored it. Instead, I glanced at the coffee table. On it were strewn several thoroughly dog-eared books, among them Wuthering Heights and a Simone de Beauvoir that I vaguely remembered reading for a class in college. One in particular caught my eye. "Anna Karenina, Daphne?"

He laughed a bit, self-consciously, and nodded as she sat on the couch she had apparently been staying on. "'She had wit; she had grace; she had beauty; but above all, she had truth.'"

I nodded. "But you're not even close to that part –"

She shook her head. "I read it several times when I was a girl. I fancied myself as Anna, the girl who always followed her heart and never her head." She bowed her head, then, as I looked down at her. "That's dangerous, though."

"Daphne, I came here tonight to tell you some things."

She looked up at me pleadingly. "You shouldn't, Doctor Crane."

"Oh, but I need to, Daphne. It won't take long." The tv behind me played the closing credits of Casablanca.

She looked up at me soberly. "All right, then."

I sighed. "Daphne, I don't think I ever really loved Maris."

Whatever she'd been expecting, that wasn't it. "What?"

I paced a bit, trying to get out what I needed to say. But while I could feel her gaze trained on me, I avoided looking at her. "I don't think I loved Maris. What we had was... was a relationship of convenience. I satisfied certain needs she had, and she did the same for me. I lived a very posh lifestyle, yes, but I never really cared for her. Not in the consuming, passionate way that I need to care for someone. That I need to be cared for. I was never truly comfortable with her." I took a deep breath. "With Mel –"

She interrupted. "You're comfortable with Mel."

At that, I looked at her. "No, Daphne, I'm not." I had to look away, then. "With Mel, the pattern is the same. What we have is very appropriate. It's just as everyone would expect. But while I'm comfortable with that type of relationship because I've experienced it before, why should I put myself through that kind of unhappiness again?" I paused. "Tonight, at dinner, Frasier and I were discussing a conversation we had six years ago. I asked him that day if he were happy with his life. When he asked me the same question, I admitted to him that I wasn't. That I had never experienced a single moment of pure happiness. Maris didn't make me happy. And Mel doesn't make me happy. But you, Daphne –" I looked at her. "You make me happy. So happy. The other night was the most purely joyous night of my life. You light a spark inside me that smolders without you. I'm comfortable with you, Daphne." I paused and looked away. I couldn't bear to look at the pity I was sure would be in her eyes. "I came here tonight to tell you, Daphne, that you will always make me happy, and I would be comfortable with you for the rest of our lives, if you would let me be." I stopped a moment. "Daphne, do you remember the ordeal with Rodney?" She nodded. "And you asked me what would have happened if you and I had met in that bar." I paused again. "My name is Niles. What are you doing for the rest of your life?"

At that point, quite ironically, I began to get very uncomfortable, so I cleared my throat and headed toward the door. She didn't move to follow me, and I was still not brave enough to look at her face. But before I walked out the door, I had to say one more thing. "You know, Daphne, to be like Anna in that you follow your heart is not bad. Anna's life was in her own hands; she chose her own destiny. Her passion didn't kill her. Your passion – it won't kill you, Daphne. And to follow it won't kill you either. To be Anna to that extent – that's beautiful. After all –" I cleared my throat. "'She had wit; she had grace; she had beauty; but above all, she had truth.'"

And I left her alone.


MY DINNER WITH FRASIER

I almost split a seam laughing at Frasier's description of our waiter's attitude after being turned away nine times while I was on my way.

Until I actually saw the waiter's death stare.

Ouch. Poor Frasier.

"So he came to his senses?"

"Quite! It was wonderful! Doctor Frasier Crane's back, and he's better than ever!"

I rolled my eyes. "So what else happened? You came to this epiphany about the cause of her conditional, and –"

"And he agreed with me and went to find her."

Suddenly, his cellular phone rang.

"Frasier Crane. Oh, hello, Niles. You've already left Donny's?" He paused for a minute or two as Niles evidently explained the encounter. "Oh, you did? How poetic... So now you wait. But Niles, I'm confused about one thing. I thought she only read trashy romance novels –" He drew the phone away from his ear and stared. "He hung up on me."

"No shit, Sherlock. Insult his Intended, do you?"

"Yes, yes."

We sat in silence, eating our dinner, for the next few minutes. Then, he looked up.

"Roz, have you ever thought about... us?"

I leaned back in my chair. No sense lying, I suppose. "Well, sure, Frasier."

He looked insecure. Poor baby. "Do you think it'll ever happen for us, Roz? Are we ever meant to be?"

"What brings this up now, Frasier?"

"I told you what I told Niles... about being comfortable. Just before he left, he looked back at me and said, 'You're comfortable with Roz, Frasier. That's all that's really important.'"

No holds barred, Roz. The time has come to let it all out. I gazed at him, my best friend, who looked scared out of his mind. "I guess that I've always sort of assumed that we'd end up together, Frasier. We love each other."

He smiled and laid his hand on mine on the table. No in a creepy way, though. It was one of those reassuring, "I'm always here for you," kind of holds. "Yes, Roz, that we do."

I smiled at him and glanced down at my watch. "Should I go try to talk to Daphne?"

Frasier pinched the bridge of his nose. "She hasn't given Niles a response, her wedding's in three days, and Donny gets back tomorrow. Maybe that would be a good idea."

I smiled, stood, leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek. He really is a darling. What can I say? He's my best friend. "Bye Frasier. Thanks for dinner." I lifted Alice (who, good baby that she is, hadn't made a peep all through dinner) and turned to leave the restaurant.

From behind me, I could faintly hear his farewell: "Goodnight, honey."


BAGGAGE CLAIM

The second knock on Donny's front door the night before had echoed above the running bathwater.

I ignored it.

One life-changing visit had left me emotionally exhausted. There was no was in bloody hell I was going to answer the door again.

Now, though, was a new day. I sat patiently in the airport terminal waiting for my fiancé's plane to get in.

At exactly 1:22, his plane landed. Ten minutes later, he was coming out of it to meet me.

"Honey! I missed you so much!" He dropped his things to wrap me in a bear hug. "I'm so sorry I had to leave so soon before our wedding, Daph. Niles Crane always seems to have excellent timing." His voice dripped sarcasm. He didn't know the half of it.

I tried to smile. "What would you say to a late lunch? I've been taking care of last minute details, but there are still things we should talk about before the rehearsal dinner."

He grinned. "Anything for you, honey."

He picked up his bags and threw his free arm around my waist, and we walked out of the airport together.


JUST ICING ON THE CAKE or THE DETAILS

To say that she seemed preoccupied would have been the understatement of the year, buddy.

I'm tellin' you, there was something weird going on in that girl's head.

"Daph, are you all right?"

But she'd just snap to and say something like, "Oh, of course, Donny. All this wedding stuff, you know. Lots on my mind."

So far we'd covered a wide variety of last minute subjects. Daphne's mother, Baby Michael, and Stephen would be flying in the next morning. In fact, their plane was scheduled to leave Gatwick within the next few hours. The rest of the family was staying home. After my disaster with Simon...

Martin would give her away. We'd planned that for awhile. If his hip was bothering him too much, Frasier would.

Roz was the Maid of Honor. But when I asked Daph if they had coordinated everything, Daph mentioned something about not speaking to her in several days and changed the subject.

Great. For whatever reason, my bride and the maid of honor aren't on speaking terms.

My best man was a buddy of mine from the office, Paul. The other groomsmen, though, included the Crane brothers (as long as Martin was okay) and the two Moon brothers flying in.

The Chapel was confirmed for both rehearsal and wedding, and the parlor was reserved for both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding reception.

Daphne had picked her dress up from her seamstress this morning. She refused to say more than that it was lovely.

My tux, the result of an exhaustive search and a very good seamstress, was ready and waiting in my closet.

And Daphne was picking up the rings this afternoon.

We'd chosen to beautiful Celtic rings to symbolize our eternal bond.

In two short days, I would be married to the woman I loved.

And I couldn't be happier.


THE TIE THAT BINDS

When I walked into the jeweler's later that afternoon to pick up our wedding rings, I saw Doctor Crane – Frasier – standing over one of the glass cases.

"Doctor Crane?"

He turned around, trying to look surprised. But I doubt he truly was. Not really. "Daphne. Fancy seeing you in here. I was home today wrapping your wedding present when I decided that it was completely insufficient. How could any gift possibly express to you what you've meant to us? All of us." He grinned. "Especially Eddie. The little guy's in pieces. 'Where's Daphne?' he keeps asking me. And I have to say, 'Now, Eddie, she's leaving us.'"

I smiled at him. "You're sweet when you try, Doctor Crane. Thank you. And you know I'm going to miss you, too. I've enjoyed working for you."

He shook his head, but he was still smiling. "I hope you know how much more than that you are to us, Daphne. To me. You're a friend. Ah, hell, you're family, and you know it. You're like a little sister to me, Daph, complete with fights, insults, and all. I love you, Daphne. Never forget that. You're part of our family."

I smiled at him. "Thank you, Doctor Crane. I needed to hear that."

"And that's another thing, Daphne. We've established that you're family. The very least you could do is call me Frasier."

My smile grew. "All right, Frasier."

"So what'd you come in here for, Daphne?"

"Oh, just picking up the wedding rings." The clerk, an older man with jeweler's glasses on, came over, and I told him the name the rings were under.

Frasier looked down. "Oh."

We stood in silence until the clerk came back.

"This was a beautiful choice. The eternity ring. It's so lovely when I see two people –" He glanced between Frasier and me. "– who love each other so much that they want to commit not only their lives but their very souls forever to each other." He smiled. "That's what this ring means to me."

I started to say something in protest. "Oh, no, he –"

Frasier interrupted by throwing his arm around my shoulders. "Yes, yes. We're very happy. C'mon, honey. Let's get out of here."

I nodded, too shocked to do anything else, collected the rings, and left with him.

We were quiet for a while, his arm still wound around me as we walked down the street. "It really is a beautiful thought, Daphne." He paused. "Committing your soul to him. Forever. Completely."

And then the reality of the situation hit me.

I always thought Niles' panic attacks were sort of funny. I mean, I took care of him during them, but it didn't make them any less amusing.

Okay, so they're funny until you have one. I started hyperventilating so badly that Frasier had to help me inside the nearest store, a locally owned bookstore, so I could sit down.

"Deep breaths, Daphne. Deep breaths. Head between the knees if it gets worse. Deep breaths."

Slowly but surely, I began to calm down.

"That's right. That's right. Good girl." He looked up at me from where he was kneeling in front of me. "Forever is a long time, Daphne. I need you to be sure."

I nodded slowly, still having trouble breathing. "I've got to go, Doctor Crane," I gasped.

He looked at me like he looks at Roz when she tells him she didn't sleep with one of her dates. With the cocked eyebrow that says, "Yeah, right." "Are you sure you can make it by yourself, Daphne? Do you need help?"

"No!" I was still gasping for breath. "I can do this on my own." And I jumped up and made my way to the door. As an afterthought, I turned back to him. "Thank you for trying, Frasier, but I think it's too late." I smiled sadly.

"Daphne, I've loved three women in my life. The first left me at the altar. The second left me for an eco-pod and a man named Pascal." He looked at me for a bit. I wondered if he was psychic enough to read my death-stare. This wasn't helping. "But I've never regretted trying, Daphne. The first gave me some of the most glorious memories of my former life, if some painful ones, and the second gave me Freddie. The third – she'll be with me for the rest of my life. And I'm so happy I've had the courage to find that out. But Daphne, I tried because I loved them, not because it was right. And I've never looked back. And I never will."

He was wrong. Not about his own life, really (although I must say myself that any woman who leaves a man at the altar or causes him to jump off a building wasn't worth the time), just about how it applied to mine.

"Thank you for trying," I repeated softly and turned away from him.


MARTIN HATCHES AN EGG

The next day was pretty hectic. Daph took us to the airport with her and Donny. I guess she wanted her mother and brothers to meet her make-shift family right away. 'Cept it wasn't all of us. Just me and Fras. Niles had "things to do." Whatever. He's avoiding her. I may not know the details, but I know my boys, and I know Daph, and I know when something's up.

We took two cars. Fras and I rode in the BMW, and Daph rode with Donny.

Fras hadn't said a word since we had set out.

I was gonna get to the bottom of this.

"Spill, Fras. I know something weird's going on."

He sighed.

"It's Daphne and Niles, Dad."

I rolled my eyes. "Well, I figured that out. They spent the other night together. She's still marrying Donny?"

He looked at me suspiciously. "How'd you know that?"

Oh, yeah, I forgot. My boy Frasier couldn't deduce his way out of a paper bag. The monkey did it! What a crock. "Frasier, I was a cop my whole life. I have a way of figuring these things out."

He sighed. "She loves Niles, but yeah, she's still going through with it. And I think she's fooling herself into thinking it's for Niles' sake. Because she doesn't deserve him." He shook his head. "I can't believe it."

I was as shocked as hell. "What? Why would she think that?"

"For some reason, recently, she's been thinking that she's just an employee to us. I don't know why. We've been trying to convince her otherwise to no avail."

I shook my head. He could be so dense sometimes. "Aw, Jeez, Fras. You can't just tell her. You've got to show her."

He did that little indignant head-shake that he does. "Yeah, well, Dad, I've tried. If you'd like to give it a shot yourself, be my guest."

I leaned back in the passenger seat of Frasier's Beamer. "I think I'll do that."

My boy has a way of making like too damn complicated.

It doesn't have to be.

I smiled as I started hatching my plan.


TERMINAL WOMAN

Martin and Frasier parked beside us at the airport, and then the four of us walked into the airport together to wait on Daph's family.

Lucky for us, we didn't have to wait at all. The arrival of their flight was announced just as we walked into the airport, so Daphne, in a panic, hailed the first automatic cart she could find, shoved us all onto it, and directed the driver to go. Fast. Or she'd do something very unpleasant to the lower regions of his anatomy.

We were there before I knew we had left.

As soon as we got to the gate, Daph leapt off the cart and ran over to a short, angry woman just exiting the plane. "Mum!"

The woman shook her head. "Daphne, I think we should sue this airline. First of all, they won't let me bring me own alcohol, and then they won't even serve me breakfast bourbon! Then, they have the nerve to complain when I gave that handsome flight attendant a slap on the bum. Really, I don't know what kind of country you're living in, Daphne, where breakfast bourbon and handsome gentlemen aren't for the taking."

Dear God. This woman is going to be my mother-in-law.

Suck it up, Donald Ronald Douglas, and deal with the lemons life hands ya.

"Mum, where are Stephen and Michael?"

The robust little woman looked around, seemingly puzzled. "Oh, they're talking to the flight attendants. Must be telling them what we think of saucy Americans."

Daph nodded and grinned as her two brothers walked off the gangway. "Michael!" She hugged him and kissed his cheek, then whispered to him. I could just make it out. "Did you apologize for Mum?"

He kissed her back. "Of course, Daphne."

"Hope it wasn't too unbearable. Thank you for doing it."

Just then, the second one, Stephen, grabbed her from behind. "Hallo, my darling baby sister. Getting married!" He kissed her cheek. "So is this the lucky gent who's stealing our Daphne from us?"

And he had the nerve to point at Frasier.

Daphne just smiled. "No, Stephen, this is Doctor Frasier Crane, my employer."

Martin laughed at that. "He's the lucky gent who stole her seven years ago." He stuck out his hand. "Marty Crane. You can consider me Daphne's American dad. I certainly consider her like a daughter."

Stephen and Michael both shook his hand, then Frasier made introductions. Since no one seemed eager to introduce me, I introduced myself. "I'm the lucky gent who's stealing Daphne this time around. Donny Douglas."

Stephen, the big one with dark hair and ruddy skin, grabbed my shoulders. "So, chap, let us get a good look at the bloke who's gotten Daphne's heart."

Martin smiled as the two brothers manhandled me. "It's too bad my son Niles couldn't be here to meet you. He considers Daphne his best friend. I know he wishes he were here but he had –" He paused. "– um – a thing." He grinned again. "You'll meet him tonight. He's a groomsman."

Mama Moon looked me up and down, then turned to Daphne. "Niles. Daphne, you've told me quite a bit about him, haven't you, dear? Of course, since you call them both Doctor Crane, it's a bit hard to figure it all out. Well, I'll be glad to meet him. I know you three boys have all been very special to Daphne these past seven years. You've made America home to her."

Martin smiled again. "Well, she's home to us."

His voice sounded really determined – or something – and I tried for a moment to figure out if he had something else on his mind.

Daph interrupted my thoughts, though. "So, Mum, I thought you would ride with Donny and me, and I thought maybe you two could ride with Doctor... Frasier and Mr. Crane."

I put my arm around Daphne's waist, and we walked toward baggage claim.


CAR TROUBLE

"What did your mom pack, anyway, guys, bricks?" Stephen and Michael, both tall, dark-haired men – Stephen rugged and Michael polished – laughed at Dad's comment.

"She's always like this. Personally, I think Daph probably could have made it through the wedding without her, but she wanted us here, and there's no way in bloody hell Mum would have let us see our sister's wedding without her. Daph had sense enough to tell her she wanted her here."

Dad grinned as he looked over the back seat. "You know, we're really gonna miss her. She's family to us. Like I said, she's like a daughter to me, like a sister to Frasier, and Niles – well, that's another story."

Stephen smiled. "She's told us a lot about you all."

Michael shook his head. "That's not really quite true. She's told us quite a few things about you and your sons, but we've heard very little about Donny." His accent was much different from his brother's, different even from Daphne's. It was a very polished, received pronunciation.

Dad grinned again. Oh, God. I could see the wheels in his head spinning, and if he thought for one second he was going to play saboteur to this wedding...

Well, he could just go right ahead.

"Oh, Donny. You want to know about Donny? He's pretty ruthless. When my boy Niles was going through a hard divorce, he was tooth-and-nails as his lawyer. He was the same way about getting Daphne. He knew how Niles felt about her, but he –"

"Dad!" I interrupted on cue. "Don't give them the wrong idea about Donny." I glanced at them in the rear-view mirror. They were both slightly agape. "It was Niles' fault, really, that he didn't tell her sooner. He wanted to wait until everything was cleared up before he said anything, and he confided in Donny. But before you knew it, Donny had swooped down for the kill!" I grinned. "But there're no hard feelings. That's just the way Donny is."

"Oh, really? He doesn't sound like the kind of chap I'd have my big sister with," Michael began.

"Oh, no!" Dad cut in in the most insincere tone of worry I've ever hear. "We've given them the wrong idea, Frasier. It really was all Niles' fault, boys. No need to feel sorry for him. I always say, 'When you know who you want to spend your life with, you should tell her!' He didn't listen. Too cautious. His mother did that to him."

Stephen nodded thoughtfully. "You know, Daph's said quite a bit about your son, Martin."

Dad laughed. "We've heard a lot about you guys as well. Especially you, Michael." If he brought up the toe story, I was going to hit him, I swear. So I took over.

"What has she said about Niles?" Perhaps it was not quite as nonchalant as I was aiming, and that lilt at the end might have turned some heads, but I was too worked up to notice.

Michael grinned and elbowed Stephen. "You remember what she told us about that fancy dance he took her to, and about how he told her he adored her?"

"Oh, yeah, but what about that bloke she dated who she realized later looked exactly like him?"

"Or that single's bar."

"Or the time he proposed."

"Or when she was stranded in that mansion of his."

Dad was positively glowing. "I see she tells you a lot about him. I wonder why she hasn't said so much about Donny? Hmmmmmmmmmmmm." I've never in my life heard a more exaggerated noise. I rolled my eyes and prayed they wouldn't see in the mirror.

"But you know, boys, it's a moot point now. Daphne's marrying Donny." I sighed. "And, after all," I resumed with as much emotion as I could muster, "all Niles really wants is for Daphne to be happy."

And we left it at that for them to ponder. The rest of the conversation had to do with weather in Seattle, the apartment, where the brothers would be staying.

And I told them Niles would be quite happy to let them stay at the Montana.


MOON MEN

It took me a few seconds to place the two men standing at my door with Dad and Frasier, but then I recognized them both from the photos Daphne shows me periodically. "You're Stephen and Michael."

They grinned together.

In their features, they both resembled Daphne. Michael's hair was the same brown as Daphne's and neatly trimmed while Stephen's was a bit lighter and quite a bit shaggier. They both had her large eyes, her strong cheekbones. Stephen looked rough; he was the kind of big brother meant to intimidate potential suitors with his broad shoulders and large arms. Michael, on the other hand, was... Well, he seemed, on the exterior, at least, a lot like me. He was very clean cut and was dressed in a neat, tailored suit. I was astonished that he could look so neat after spending a dozen hours on a plane and was about to ask how he managed it before I thought better of it.

I liked them both right away.

"Please, do come in. Make yourselves at home." I gestured for them to enter, and they took their seats on my fainting couch. "Sherry?"

Dad looked at me like I was crazy (I think I caught a muttered, "Aw, Jeez"), but Frasier and Michael both nodded. "That sounds absolutely smashing. But I know my brother here would prefer –"

He glanced over at him. Stephen looked up. "Nothing for me, thanks." He studied me for a few seconds. "So you're Niles." As if this were meant to tell me something profound.

"Yes. I'm Niles."

I walked to my wet bar to pour Frasier's sherry, and my brother followed me. "Where's Mel, Niles?" I glanced up.

"She has a week-long conference across town. But never fear, she will be at the rehearsal tonight and the wedding tomorrow."

He nodded. When I glanced over at Daphne's brothers, Stephen was still staring at me. For some reason, Dad was grinning from the corner of the room.

"When Daphne described you to me, I imagined you... differently." His voice was rough with a slight Cockney flair.

His words got my attention. "How so?"

He shook his head. "Oh, no matter. My little sister can never tell it to you straight."

I probably should have dropped it there, but I was intrigued. And I feared the worst. "How did she describe me?"

He grinned. "It's just that... she called you dashing. And I mean no offense, but you're not the type Daphne usually finds dashing..."

I opened and closed my mouth several embarrassing times like a kind of codfish, but I had no idea how to respond. "Oh. That sherry." I set to work pouring Michael's drink. "Something to eat, perhaps? Cookies? Fruit?"

Frasier glanced over at me, his eyebrows twitching as if he were scheming. I'm frankly scared of that look. "Oh, by the way, Niles, I've told Michael and Stephen that since Donny doesn't have room for them at his apartment, they're welcome to stay with you for a few days here."

I almost dropped the sherry, and my mouth did the ridiculous fish-motions again. "Oh." Somehow, I found my resolve. "Well, that would be simply splendid. Here's your sherry, Michael." I looked around at my guests and rubbed my hands together anxiously. "So, what's the agenda today, my good fellows? Perhaps we could go to a late lunch?"

Michael rose from his seat. "Splendid! Where to?"

From where they stood, Frasier and Dad still wore those mysterious grins.


LET'S DO LUNCH

Lunch was going swimmingly, if I do say so myself. Stephen and Dad were immersed in a "deep" conversation about English beer, and Michael, an architect, and my brother were immersed in converse about the Gothic style of architecture.

And I was grinning like a hyena.

Except my motives were entirely altruistic.

One thing remained on my mind: the rift between Roz and Daphne which, the day before the wedding, was still not mended. I'd talked to Roz about it, but she refused to say a word to Daphne. I hadn't seen Daphne since we left the airport, but I knew she wouldn't be the first to extend the olive branch.

And the rehearsal was tonight.

My four lunch companions remained in constant conversation. That was a good thing. That was what we wanted to happen.

But why?

The tragic flaw in my plan, you see, is that I had no idea how it would resolve itself. Blindly, I had thrown some ingredients together with no real thought as to the product.

Damn. I knew it couldn't have been so easy.

So, throughout lunch, I pondered what Michael and Niles' newfound friendship could do for my brother's relationship with Daphne.

Obviously, Niles considered Michael an equal. If Daphne were to realize that...

No. I took a bite of bread. No more manipulations for me. At least not until I could come up with a "smashing" plan...


THE MISSING PIECES

I didn't see my brothers again until the rehearsal dinner.

"So, where have you boys been all afternoon?" I said in greeting.

They glanced at each other. "We sort of went our separate ways," Stephen responded.

That surprised me. The two brothers I had chosen to invite to Seattle admittedly had little in common, but my family has always had a way of sticking together.

Until I moved to America, of course.

"Oh, really? So spill. Were you with Frasier? Mr. Crane?"

We began walking toward the reception hall, Michael's arm slung around my waist. "Stephen here spent most of the afternoon learning the rules to about fifteen different American sports with Martin, and I spent the afternoon with that smashing friend of yours, Niles."

I turned to him, surprised. "Oh, really? What did you do?"

"He showed my some of Seattle's more interesting architectural styles, we discussed Greek revivalism over coffee at a charming little venture called Cafe Nervosa, and we toured a few museums."

Stephen shook his head. "Mikey, sometimes I wonder that you and I are actually related..."

Michael looked at me meaningfully. "He's a splendid fellow, Daph. Excellent."

I smiled at him. "I know he is, Michael. He's very special to me." Then, I kissed them each on the cheek and walked toward Frasier, who had just come into the hall. "Doctor Crane," I said, smiling. "Have you talked to Roz?"

She hadn't come.

She hadn't come to my rehearsal.

She's my bloody maid of honor.

And while I was very calm on the outside, I was seething inside. And I know Doctor Crane noticed. He knows me too well not to. He shook her head sympathetically and gave me a hug. "I talked to her this morning, but she didn't sat anything about this, Daphne." He paused. "I know the two of you are going through a rough patch right now, Daph, but she's not the type to hold grudges. She knows when she's wrong. She'll be here tomorrow for you, if that's what you were worried about."

Embarrassingly enough, I'd started crying slightly, so I buried my head further into his shoulder. "It's not really that, Doctor Crane. Yes, what she said hurt me, but more than that – I'm so afraid that she might have been right."

He held me tighter and spoke very deliberately. "That's something you're going to have to decide on your own, Daphne. No one can tell you what you should do. Not Roz. Not me. Not Niles. This is you, Daphne. It's your life."

I nodded into his shoulder, feeling more uncertain than ever.

"But whatever decision you make, Daphne –" He pulled back from me and looked into me leaking eyes. "– make sure it's the right one for you." Then, he kissed my forehead and wiped my tears away. He's such a good man when he wants to be. He smiled. "Now go to your dinner and savor every second. Life passes much too quickly."

I had to ask him one more thing. "Frasier, did you truly try to prevent him from telling me?"

His face fell. "I'm so, so sorry, Daphne."


LAST DANCE

Earlier in the evening, I had seen the exchange between Daphne and my brother. She had been crying. Now, shortly before the end of the festivities, I approached him. "How has your evening been, Frasier?" Mine had been droll, aside from the company of Daphne's fabulous younger brother. And Mel, of course.

He sighed. "I don't know, Niles." He wasn't looking at me, so I followed his line of sight.

To where Daphne and Donny were dancing closely together.

Frasier looked at me in sympathy. "I was so sure, Niles. I'm sorry."

I shook myself. "No, Frasier, it's quite all right. This is how it should be."

He nodded solemnly. "Will Mel be driving you and the boys to the Montana, or do you need a ride?" Mel had picked Michael and me up at the gallery after, I suppose, the last plastic surgeon had spoken.

"Actually, Frasier, she left a few minutes ago. Would it be any trouble?"

"Of course not, Niles! I'd be happy to give you and the boys a ride to the Montana. The least I can do."

I nodded and glanced over at Daphne. She was whispering something in his ear, and he was smiling. "Can we go now, Frasier?"

He looked over and nodded. "Yes, we'll go now." He looked at me. "You should tell her you're leaving. Or do you want me to tell her you had to hurry?"

I took a deep breath. "No. No, I'll tell her. You gather Stephen and Michael."

And slowly, I made my way over to where she now sat with Donny.

"Daphne."

Her head shot up at me, and she held her hand out slightly in my direction. "Doctor Crane. I haven't seen you all evening – I was wondering if maybe you'd slipped out without telling me." Her brow creased a bit at that.

"No, of course not, Daphne. But I wanted to tell you..." I smiled and took her hand. "It's been lovely." I looked down at our joined hands, a slight sadness engulfing me. "Goodbye, Daphne."

She nodded. "Goodbye, Doctor Crane."

It sounded so final.


JUST SAY "I DO"

The wedding was supposed to be at eleven o'clock. I, always prompt, came clambering up the steps of the chapel in the dress Daphne and I had chosen together at ten fifty-five.

I hadn't seen Daph in about a week and had been feeling really guilty about the things I'd said to her. I guess we'd both been right, in a way, but we sure could've found a better way to say it.

Right now, I was mostly feeling bad for skipping the rehearsal. But honestly, I thought it would break my heart to see Niles in the same room as Daphne and Donny.

Yeah, yeah. I know. Old age is making me a big sap.

Shut up.

So, anyway, I scrambled up the steps, holding up my skirt, until I got to the back of the church. Daphne was there with Martin and a couple of her girlfriends, the bridesmaids.

She saw me as soon as the door opened.

"Roz."

"Daph –" I bowed my head. I couldn't stand to look at her I felt so guilty.

I hate feeling guilty.

"I'm so sorry about the things I said, Daph. I had no right. If anyone knows what's best for you, it's you." I looked up at her a bit pleadingly. "I just hope you've thought about it enough." I looked away for a second. "This is forever, Daphne."

She nodded, and Marty walked up to her and took her arm. "You ready, Daph?"

She nodded. "Yes, Mr. Crane. I believe I am." She took a deep breath, and I took my place in the line behind the bridesmaids.

The music started, and we began to walk.

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, eh, Roz?

I felt like I was watching everything from a distance. Suddenly, I was standing in front of the guests without much of a clue how I'd gotten myself up there.

I watched Daphne walk up the aisle. She's so graceful – always a lady.

I watched Niles watch Daphne with as much passion as I'd ever seen. Yeah, he could be ridiculous sometimes in his infatuation with Daphne, but this willingness to let her slip through his fingers –. He was right. That was love. I could only wish that someone could love me so much.

I watched Mel fix her lipstick. What a witch. But Daphne says she really does care about Niles. I hope so, for his sake, or I'll kick her sorry ass. You know, it's amazing how fond of the little twerp I've gotten over the past seven years.

Martin gave Daphne away and took his seat reluctantly behind Mel. She tried to talk to him about something undoubtedly ridiculous, Daphne's dress or the like, but he ignored her. Way to go, Marty.

All of a sudden, the minister was talking, Niles was gazing at Daphne from over Donny's wiry little head, and my heart was breaking. I caught Frasier's eye from where he stood behind Niles and held it.

"Marriage is a sacred bond, a bond that will be held between these two people for the rest of their lives. They share a very special bond which will never be broken after this day. Therefore, if anyone in this room knows of any reasons why these two should not be joined in matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."

That's when I did it. I made this little, unintentional choking noise in my throat, and then I coughed.

The minister looked over at me expectantly, and I froze.

"Um – um – um." My mumbling resounded throughout the church. And just when I thought that I should say something, that I had to, I caught Niles' eye and saw him shaking his head. I whispered a hasty apology, and the minister continued.

"Do you, Donald Ronald Douglas, take Daphne Moon to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, until death do you part?"

He smiled assuredly and lovingly at Daphne. "I do." I looked up at Niles. His eyes were closed tightly.

"Do you, Daphne Moon, take Donald Ronald Douglas to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, until death do you part?"

"I –" She stopped. I watched her face carefully. She looked terrified. Then, she looked at Niles, whose eyes were still closed, his lashes wet. She glanced at Frasier. His head was bowed, his eyes trained on the floor. "I –" She looked at me, but I refused to help her with this decision. I held her gaze but didn't hint anything in either direction.

Finally, she looked at Donny. He looked as terrified as I knew she was. He knew what was happening. How could he not? "I – I'm so sorry, Donny."

And with that, she ran back down the aisle.

I looked around the room. Frasier was still looking at his feet, but he was glowing, I could tell, grinning from ear to ear. Donny just looked after her, unsure what to do, maybe even unsure what had happened. Daphne's brothers were lightly punching each other, back and forth. Hmm... They're pretty cute. Then I remembered that Michael's the one without a toe. Ick. Maris – ouch! I mean Mel – was looking at Niles rather sternly, and Marty was watching his son with a smile on his face.

And Niles?

He wasn't grinning exactly. To someone who didn't know him, his expression might not have said much. He had a sort of slow smile on his face. But someone who knew him – as Mel did, which might explain her expression of anger and pain – could tell he was happy. Blissfully, perfectly happy.

His smile spread into a grin before he caught himself and looked down.

That's when I realized that if anyone was going to go out there to her, it was going to be me.

I jumped off the raised platform mumbling apologies and ran out after her.


RUNAWAY BRIDE

I was sitting on the cement steps at the side of the church, skirt hiked up from beneath me. The last thing I wanted to do was ruin an unpaid for, unused wedding dress.

What had I just done? What had I just bloody done?

Oh, God.

I rested my elbows on my knees and buried my face in my hands. Just then, I heard footsteps from behind me. "Hey Daphne."

I sighed. "Hey Roz."

She came around in front of me. "I don't mean to rush you at this painful time, Daph, but your mom was chasing me down the aisle. Unless you want her to catch us, I say we get lost."

Oh Lord. If things couldn't get worse. "C'mon! Your place."

We ran together to Roz's car. Unfortunately, since she'd gotten there so frightfully late, she'd had to park a good two blocks away.

We must've made quite a pair, bride and maid of honor, me holding my veil and train, Roz carrying her shoes in her hand, running down the sidewalk.

The kicker, though, was the older plump woman with bright red dyed hair running about a block behind us, yelling come-ons to any biker or driver of the opposite sex.

It's certainly a good thing she bowled a biker down on the way after us or else we might never have made a clean getaway.

He was still trying to get away from her when Roz peeled out of her parking space. And we were free.

For the time being.


AND THERE'S MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM

When I looked up at my brother, he was still gazing dreamily out the door. Unfortunately, Donny wasn't having the same reaction.

There he sat, right in front of the altar where he was to be married just a few minutes hence.

I felt bad for him. Really.

But I felt wonderful for my brother.

Unfortunately, Donny chose that moment to look up at me pleadingly. "Doc, did she day anything to you? Why would she do this?" Thankfully, he missed Niles' dumb gaze, but Mel sure didn't.

"Niles, how could you do this to me?" She had run up to him and was beating his chest with her fists.

I leaned toward her. "Party face, Mel." Then, I looked down at Donny. "I'll admit that I knew she was having serious doubts. But I can say with absolute honesty that I was sure this ceremony this morning would proceed." I paused. "I think Daphne's come to some important conclusions about her life. She's still got some important things to work through, and she alone can tell us what the outcome to this little situation will be."

Now, Mel had ceased hitting Niles and had instead buried her head into his shoulder pitifully. "Nilesy, don't do this. Why did you do this?" Her head shot up. "Maris was right all along, wasn't she? Wasn't she?"

Niles whispered a few hasty things to her, and she ran out.

But that wasn't to be the end of it.

Donny looked at Niles in awe. "Maris was right, wasn't she, Niles? You're in love with Daphne."

He looked down at Donny, his smile fading. "I've been in love with Daphne for a very, very long time. Nothing has changed."

Donny shook his head. "But something has changed. Something between you two. And that's why she left."

Niles held out his hands desperately as Daphne's guests were going crazy all around. Roz had gone after Daphne, and Daphne's utterly insane mother had gone after Roz. Daphne's brothers were brawling jokingly at the corner of the room. The guests had long since begun to run about the chapel, and the minister was trying to calm them. I focused off the rest of the insanity and on my brother. "I never meant for this to happen. I never wanted it to be like this."

Donny shook his head angrily and stood up. "Are you so sure, Niles?" Then he, too, left the chapel.

I grinned. "C'mere, little brother!" He threw himself into my arms as we shared a giant bear hug. "Congratulations."

He sighed as he pulled away. "We'll see, Frasier. We'll see."


STRINGED PEAS ALL OVER MY FACE

I sat one my sofa sipping coffee, watching Daphne feed Alice. Daphne had talked briefly with Donny to cancel things once and for all, and then we had both changed into some of my clothes. I was in some frumpy sweats, and she had borrowed a nice skirt and shirt ensemble which was currently covered almost entirely by a large beach towel. It was a good thing, too, because Alice was throwing her peas and beets all over my friend.

"So why'd you do it, Daph?"

She looked up at me matter-of-factly. Despite her strange mood of past days, Daph is, on the whole, the most down-to-earth person I know.

Well, except for the psychic thing.

"I just sort of stood there, thinking to myself, 'This is forever. Forever.' I could hear my heart pounding, and I looked over and saw Niles, and I could tell he was crying a bit. I thought about everything he told me the other night – about spending the rest of our lives together. It's not that I necessarily want to dive into something right away, but I decided that I couldn't just give up the chance."

I smiled at her. "For what it's worth, Daph, I think you made the right choice."

"Thank you, Roz. I think I did, too." She looked up at me with a sly smile on her face. "And now, Donny's free..."

I smiled at her and took another sip. "You know what, Daph? I've been thinking about it, and I think I'm just fine where I am."

She looked up at me, surprised. "Roz, do you mean to tell me..."

I gave a noncommittal smile. "Maybe." Just then, there was a knock on my door, and I knew absolutely who it was. "Come on in, Frasier. It's open."

The door swung open, and there he was. "When I saw your mother assaulting that poor biker, Daphne, I assumed that she hadn't caught you, so I was sure you'd be here." He closed the door behind him. "How are you?"

She smiled at him. "I'm fine, Doctor Crane. I'm happy."

He smiled back as he sat down beside me. "So am I, Daphne. So is he."

She looked up, curiosity on her face. "Where is he?"

He sighed and leaned back into the cushions. "I'm really not sure. He said something about giving you time, and then he drove off."

"And your father?"

"If he's lucky, he's escaped Mel's party face and is safely at home."

"My brothers?"

"Touring the city. Michael's got my cell phone, though, for whenever you want to talk to them." She nodded, and I stared at him. Frasier gave up his phone? Had hell frozen over? Whatever.

"What about Mel? You mentioned her earlier."

Frasier sighed. "She found out. Or figured it out by the way Niles was gazing after you. She threw quite a fit."

Daphne cringed. "And she left?"

"Yes, Daphne, she left. He was happy to see her go, though."

Daphne grinned and nodded and then tried to get a few more mashed beets down Alice.

Frasier turned to me. "How are you, honey? The last time I saw you were running down the street in a formal dress."

I grinned. "And would you believe that the dress survived?"

"As long as we all fared better than that ill-fated biker, I'd say we're okay."

I laughed and hit him on the shoulder.

At that point, Daphne stood up and pulled off the towel, which was covered in stringed peas and beets. "I think I'd better leave you two now. There are people I... need to talk to."

And then she ran out the door.

"Maybe it's about time we started talking, Frasier."

He smiled at me. "I'm listening."


WHAT IS A BOY TO DO?

I couldn't help it. When Doctor Crane got to Roz's apartment, I decided I had to give them some much-deserved time alone.

Now, I stood in the blue foyer outside Niles' apartment, staring at the little statue that stands in the alcove on the wall. Just my luck, he chose that moment to open the door.

"Doctor – Niles."

He looked surprised. "Daphne. How long have you been standing here?"

"Oh, not long," I lied. "I just got off the elevator, in fact."

I glanced at the elevator, which was currently on the top floor. Oops.

"I was with Roz, but then Frasier showed up. I decided I should leave them alone, and I didn't know where else to go."

He pulled the door open and ushered me inside. "You're... always... welcome here, Daphne. I suppose I've made that quite clear, though, haven't I? Perhaps suffocatingly so." He smiled self-consciously as I sat down on the fainting couch. He was wearing a silk dressing gown and holding a glass of champagne.

"I thought you told me once that champagne was a drink for two."

He smiled and looked down. "I suppose I'd hoped you would come."

"So." I suddenly didn't know what to say.

"Daphne, I've got an idea." He glanced at his watch. "It's three o'clock. If you wanted to get ready now, we could go to dinner tonight."

I smiled shyly at him. "Actually, Niles, I'd thought that maybe we could just stay here this afternoon and... talk. And maybe cook dinner in." I paused. "Would that be all right?"

He poured a glass for me and sat beside me on the fainting couch. As I leaned against him, he draped his arm across my shoulders and sighed. "That sounds perfect, Daphne. Just perfect."