epilogue [10/07/19]

Monday morning dawned and practicalities surfaced.

Niles and Mel hadn't been in Seattle two hours when she once again brought up their living together.

"I'm getting tired of this stalling," she complained as they settled onto the fainting couch for a glass of wine after a long drive back.

Niles had hoped she'd back off of that matter; he'd told her they needed to have a talk, but she had brushed off his request. At a gentle reminder, she brushed Niles off dismissively yet again.

"Mel, I said there's something we need to talk about," Niles stated.

"We need to talk about this first," Mel said. "You need to stop being so cautious! I know living in your brother's shadow makes you timid, but this is out of hand!"

A familiar but deeply suppressed resentment came to the surface again. Just like when she'd pushed Niles to run for Corkmaster, Mel was using his familial insecurities to get what she wanted. It had been all for appearances, though she'd claimed it was for his own self-esteem. Mel had manipulated him, not encouraged, even negating what he'd chosen to wear that night. Despite feeling as if he'd been treated like a child, Niles had chosen to obey Mel rather than face her icy anger.

Just like with Maris.

"No," Niles said firmly, fixing Mel with an unwavering gaze. "I-I can't do this anymore."

"Are you—breaking up with me?" Mel yelped.

Niles sighed heavily, pausing before confirming her words. For all of Mel's shortcomings, she was still human and he knew she would be, understandably, hurt.

"Mel, you value honesty, so I'll be direct. I realize now why I've been so reluctant about living with you—I didn't mean for us to get this far in the first place."

For the first time, Niles saw a vulnerable Mel, saw hurt anger. Regret filled him, but this was the only way. He couldn't lead her on anymore. He loved Mel in a detached, fond way, as he had told Daphne last night, but had never considered the consequences of getting so serious with her.

All Niles had wanted was a way to move past the woman who'd captured his heart for seven years. If only he'd acknowledged sooner than he was deceiving both himself and Mel, and that he'd blinded himself to Mel's vices as well.

"I'm sorry," he said solemnly. "I've led you on and been unfair to you, but you deserve someone who will truly want to spend the rest of his life with you."

He took a deep breath and went on.

"When I met you, I was hurting because I had lost my chance with…someone," Niles began cautiously, preferring to explain the situation before revealing who that 'someone' was. Better coming from him, as Mel would inevitably learn at some point, anyway. "There was something about you that was familiar, so I thought if I put all my time and effort into you, I'd forget her. But I wasn't ready."

"Is that why Frasier sent Daphne to the cabin—to tell you our being together would be a big mistake?" Mel said. "This is suspiciously sudden, Niles Crane!"

"I do have a mind of my own, Mel," Niles said coldly. "And Daphne came on her own."

At Mel's look of horror, he realized he'd given himself away.

"She's the one you tried to forget?" Mel shouted as realization hit her. "And you're ready to jump at her the minute she says she wants you?!"

"Mel, listen…even if she'd never said anything, we couldn't have lasted. The inevitable just happened sooner than it would have."

He thought briefly of how much his relationship with Mel was like his relationship with Maris, of how it had taken fifteen years of cowardice and denial before its explosive end.

"I can't be the man you expect me to be," Niles told her, trying to assure her that this was all on him.

"I should have known there was someone else when you kept balking at moving in together," Mel echoed his earlier words.

"It's not your fault, Mel. You couldn't have known," Niles admitted.

Mel raged on and Niles listened patiently as she called him every name he knew (none of them complimentary) and then some. Mel's anger was usually cold and biting, but now she was like a blizzard unleashed.

"And of all the women I'm a replacement for, it had to be Frasier's ambitionless maid?"

A dangerous look came into Niles' eyes and his next words were laced with anger.

"Mel, you can say anything to and of me, because I wronged you. But you have no right to mock Daphne."

Mel was silent as conflict raged upon her face. Niles looked away to give her time to process everything he'd told her. When he dared to look up, he was surprised to see that her expression had softened, though the anger was still there.

"What do you see in Daphne that would make you go to such lengths to forget her?" she asked, her curiosity surprising Niles.

What indeed? There were so many reasons, from her kindness to the way she made him unafraid to be his own imperfect self. Niles settled on what had drawn him to Daphne from the beginning.

"She makes me feel…alive. Daphne is like the sun rising," Niles confessed.

Mel rose stiffly.

"I understand," she said bitterly. "I guess it wasn't just cowardice that kept you from going further with me. But…que sera, sera, right?"

With those last words, the anger left her face and her expression became impassive.

"I can't say I'm forgiving you, Niles Crane, and I can't say I'm not hurt and angry," she explained, "but maybe you were right. Maybe we wouldn't have worked out in the long run. It's been very difficult to get you to be the man you should be. I suppose you'll have an easier time with…her."

Niles choked back a laugh. Even at a time like this, Mel had to remind him that he'd sold her short.

"Goodbye, Niles," Mel said, and left the apartment before he could respond.

The door slammed behind her, and the tension from their discussion melted away. Soon he would be free to cherish the woman he truly loved—as soon as she ended things with Donny.

Daphne had hoped to drive to Donny's place on Sunday morning (she returned to Seattle the day before Niles and Mel did), but he had been called out of town on a family emergency and did not return until Monday morning. It wasn't until the evening that Daphne went to his office, however; his demanding work began the moment he set foot in the door of his office, and she knew it would be in bad form to interrupt him.

Especially for an announcement like this, she thought as his secretary ushered her in.

"Hey, Daph'!" Donny said enthusiastically. "Taking a break from the wedding planning?"

"About that…" Daphne began hesitantly.

"Is it about the bachelor party? I was wrong. I cancelled it," Donny apologized.

Daphne felt a flicker of anger at the mention of the bachelor party, but it was tempered by the sincerity of his apology. There was no point in lingering on the incident, anyway, not with the bombshell she was about to drop.

"No, it's not the bachelor party," Daphne answered, sinking wearily into the chair in front of Donny's desk. The bliss of the previous night had worn off—for now, anyway—in light of more practical matters.

"Donny, sit down. I need to tell you something."

"Well, all right," he said cordially. "What's on your mind?"

During the long drive back to Seattle, Daphne had mentally rehearsed the many ways in which she could explain herself. There was no easy way to do this, so she decided to be frank.

"I can't marry you," she announced directly but gently.

The reaction to her words was an amused chuckle and she gazed somberly at the man she'd was fond of, yet had 'settled' for. Didn't he realize she was serious? Surely a man who saw through lies every day in court couldn't mistake her sincerity.

On the other hand, how many people called off a wedding so late?

If only she'd ignored the Drs. Crane and followed her vision—or at least waited. Jumping into a deeper commitment after three months of dating was rather hasty, in retrospect.

"I'm not joking, Donny," she said quietly.

Donny paled.

"Daphne—you can't mean it—not now—not three days before our wedding!"

"I do mean it," she said miserably. "I didn't mean to mislead you. I know this is terrible of me, but I can't lie to you."

The man who could win the toughest cases and would fight for his clients without mercy suddenly looked worn and tired, his air of unwavering confidence gone. He stared at Daphne in shock, clutching the arms of his chair until his knuckles turned white.

Daphne had a fleeting thought of what a strange situation this was. The lawyer who'd freed Niles from the clutches of the merciless urinal cake heiress was going to lose her to him. But there was no other way, and she had to make him see that.

"Is there someone else?"

"No!" Daphne exclaimed. "I mean, yes, but I didn't make this decision lightly. There's someone I care about. Very deeply, in fact, but I didn't think there was a chance for us, so I denied it. Then I found out that he loves me."

"Is it Niles Crane?" Donny said suddenly.

Daphne stared.

"How do you…"

"Remember during his divorce proceedings? Maris accused him of being in love with someone else—which Maris claimed was you. Now I realize why Frasier didn't want to testify," Donny said all in one breath.

Daphne had forgotten that little incident. The accusation had come out of an account of the Snow Ball. It had been given to Maris by one of her snooty friends, who'd been attending that night. Knowing that this could make or break Niles' case, Daphne had been quick to assure Donny that Maris was dead wrong. It had all been an act, she'd insisted, and Niles had been playing along.

Or so she'd thought at the time…

"Daphne?" Donny prodded.

"Yes. It's Niles," she said.

Then, feeling that she should be open, she added, "we admitted our feelings for each other last night. A-and we kissed. But that's all, I swear," she ended delicately.

"I'd never accuse either of you of—anything more," Donny replied, somewhat awkwardly. "But Daphne—why did it take so long for you to realize your feelings?"

"Well, it's a long story…" she hesitated.

"Daph', I'm a lawyer," Donny said. "It's my job to listen to long stories."

The story came pouring forth, from Frasier's accidental revelation to her and Niles' mutual confession the previous night. There was something oddly freeing in recounting the events and emotions that had set everything into motion. She'd explained everything. All there was to face now was Donny's reaction.

Donny studied Daphne for a long moment before rising from his chair and taking her hands in his. He gave her a watery smile.

"I wish it didn't have to be this way," Donny said sadly, "but I want you to be happy, and if Niles Crane is the one to make you happy, then I have no right to hold onto you."

Daphne slipped the ring off of her finger and returned it to him. He accepted without comment.

"You're being very gracious about this," she said with a grateful smile.

"Hey, I don't want you to think you have to marry me out of obligation," he said with surprising cheer. "This'll be good for Crane, anyway. I never liked that Karnofsky woman. Reminds me too much of his horrid ex-wife."

Then he pulled Daphne into a friendly hug.

"I wish you two all the best."

Daphne stood on the balcony of Frasier's apartment, looking into Niles' eyes and seeing nothing but love in their blue depths. They hadn't been together on the balcony since…

"This seems too good to be real," she marveled, more to herself than to Niles.

Niles smiled tenderly before drawing Daphne into a deep kiss that sent electricity through her entire body.

"Now do you believe it's real?" Niles said after several moments of keeping her snug in his arms.

"Yes," Daphne breathed, and then looked at him flirtatiously. Before he could comprehend the look in her eyes, she gave him a fiery kiss.

Niles' head spun as if he'd drunk an entire bottle of sherry. Daphne's kiss was breathtaking, going far beyond his imagination. He gave in to her loving gesture, savoring every sensation.

"Daphne," Niles panted. "Oh, Daphne…"

"I love you, Niles," she whispered against his lips.

"I love you, too," Niles assured her. "I've never stopped loving you, as much as I told myself otherwise."

After a few more moments in each other's arms, Niles and Daphne went back into Frasier's apartment to join him and Martin for a gourmet meal.

When dessert was finished, Martin stood and cleared his throat to get the attention of the others. They looked up curiously, wondering what he had to say.

"I propose a toast," Martin said directly, "to my son and the woman who finally knocked some sense into him."

"Eloquently put, Dad," Frasier said dryly. "But I concur!"

Martin raised his can of Ballantine's and Frasier raised his glass of wine to the happy couple.

When night drew close, Niles reluctantly took his leave. They had just found each other, in a sense, and it was hard to tear himself away from Daphne's parting hug.

"I wish I could stay here," he told her regretfully.

Daphne's response nearly knocked the breath out of him.

"Maybe…you could stay with me for the night."

Niles could only stare at her, stunned. Oh, how he wanted what she was proposing (or what he thought she was proposing, rather), but…

"I'd love to," he gasped, fighting his body's instinctive responses. "Believe me, there's nothing I want more than to take you in my arms and show you how much I love you. But I think we should take things slowly."

Daphne burst into laughter, giving Niles a moment to collect himself.

"Silly!" she teased, playfully swatting his arm. "I really meant just staying with me, that's all. We'll know when we're ready to take things further."

Nile smiled.

"Then I accept, Daphne Moon. I'll stay with you tonight."

After borrowing a robe from Frasier (who was surprisingly calm about Niles staying the night with Daphne), Niles followed the woman he truly loved into her bedroom. Moments later she coaxed him into her bed and then into her arms.

Though this night was a chaste affair, it was no less fulfilling and romantic to be so close to Daphne and the gentle kisses she gave him told Niles that she was just as pleased. The whirlwind events of the past two days caught up with them, and they were soon asleep.

Tomorrow, their future together would begin in earnest, but for now they were content to lie together in each other's embrace.

The End (again. :p )

A/N: I really hadn't considered writing further in this story, but I kept wondering how Niles' and Daphne's conversations with their respective partners might have gone and then I just had to write...heh. I decided to put it as a final chapter instead of making it a separate story.

The conversation with Mel was the hardest to write. I had to balance between writing her as the pushy jerk she was and the fact that she'd naturally be emotional over the breakup. :P