Tuning out the muffled sounds of Frasier's Christmas Eve party, Niles wracked his brain to find the right words when he had what was sure to be an uncomfortable conversation with Daphne. He stared unseeingly at the lights of the city and sighed heavily.

How could he ask for the gift back without hurting Daphne? She had accepted it with sincerity, not knowing it had been meant for someone else. Niles knew it wasn't the gift itself she'd mind losing—Daphne wasn't that kind of woman—but what must have looked to her like taking back a gesture of friendship.

I'll explain what happened to her own gift, and promise her I'll make it up to her. I can't hide that I gave her what was meant for Mel, but at least it'll assure her I'm still her friend.

Niles felt like a fool. If he hadn't listened to Frasier, all of this could have been avoided. He'd still be with Mel, and he wouldn't have to explain to Daphne that the gift hadn't been meant for her…

"Dr. Crane?"

"Daphne," Niles answered, praying he didn't sound as nervous as he felt.

He turned to her, and they were now face to face; Niles steeled himself to speak.

"There's no easy way to say this…" he began, silently cursing himself as he fumbled.

Daphne raised a hand to stall Niles' words.

"Wait," she said. "Let me speak first. I have something to tell you, too. You see, I know that—"

Her words were cut off when an icy winter breeze chilled her skin and cut through the filmy material of her dress. As she crossed her arms against the cold, an expression of concern replaced the nervous look on Niles' face.

Slipping out of his jacket, he draped it over Daphne's shoulders, with no regard for his own comfort, and suddenly Daphne found herself looking at Niles as if truly 'seeing' him for the first time. Something changed in that one moment, and she found she couldn't keep her eyes off of Niles. What was this strange new feeling?

New? Or have you finally allowed your heart to feel something for him?

Where had THAT come from? Daphne startled. Never in all her days could she have consciously thought those words—it as if they'd come from another part of her, a part she had refused to acknowledge. Feeling strangely frightened, she spoke again.

"Dr. Crane, I know about…"

Once again she couldn't finish, though perhaps for a different reason this time.

I'll let Niles tell me how he feels, Daphne conceded to herself. Maybe it will be a little easier for both of us if he finally says it after all this time.

Or maybe it's that you WANT to hear him say it, that strange little voice in the back of her mind spoke up again. This was insane. It had to be the tension between them tonight—she couldn't have felt this way about Dr. Crane all along. She would know, wouldn't she?

Out of nowhere, something Frasier had once said to a distraught caller came to her.

"Sometimes the biggest lies are the ones we tell ourselves."

The revelation made Daphne draw a sharp breath, but Niles seemed too preoccupied to notice.

"We both seem to be getting nowhere," he said with a weak laugh. "All right, Daphne. I need you to—."

Something in her gaze made him pause.

God, she's beautiful. Niles found himself thinking. There's something different about her tonight. That look in her eyes...I've never seen that in anyone. Not even Mel.

The thought shocked him. Here he was caught in her spell again. But that's ridiculous. I love Mel. I've moved past Daphne.

Have you?

Niles finally spoke; he'd been stalling long enough.

"I love you…Daphne."

The words Niles had meant to say, explaining the whole mixup that had transpired that evening, somehow got lost on his lips and this had come out instead. It wasn't as if he hadn't let that particular secret slip before, but this was different. Back at that bittersweet night at the Snow Ball, Niles been madly in love with Daphne. But it was four years later, and now he had Mel; surely he was over that enchanting Englishwoman.

But his heart had made him speak what his mind had denied too insistently. It's just like Frasier said. The heart never lies. I'm not in love with Mel, I'm in love with Daphne.

It felt like hours before Daphne spoke.

"Dr. Crane, you don't really mean that."

She knew better now, of course, but hoped to draw him out.

Niles prepared to finally admit what he'd held in for seven long years. In any other situation, Daphne's words would have felt like a punch to the gut, just like the night they'd danced the tango. But it was different tonight. Her tone was cautious, instead of dismissive. He sensed that she was knew he wasn't acting, but she wanted confirmation.

"It's true," Niles said desperately. "Daphne, I know you're engaged and this is the worst possible time to say anything, but I love you. After I thought I lost you, I tried to get over you by getting together with Mel. But I still keep thinking of you. It's never going to stop. And whatever your answer is, I have to tell you this. I've kept this in for so long."

Daphne smiled as she felt an unexpected flash of courage.

"I'm glad you said something. I love you, too," she said frankly.

"Y-you do?" Niles looked as if he was going to faint; Daphne steadied him.

"I know this is sudden, but something happened recently that made me realize I had long-denied feelings for you," she answered.

"How long?"

Daphne smiled slyly. "Well, maybe not seven years, but longer than I want to admit."

"Seven years!" Niles gasped. "How did you…"

"I'll explain later," Daphne said hastily. "Meanwhile, we'd better get back in

before anyone gets suspicious."

Then she added, teasing, "I should thank Mel for breaking up with you tonight."

A bolt of panic shot through Niles. Mel! She could be here any moment!

"Damn. Mel! I forgot about her!" he exclaimed, while fishing for way to stall Mel. He found one. "I forgot she has an extra key to my apartment. I'll call tell her to leave it with the doorman. I imagine she doesn't want to see my face again."

Daphne slipped out of Niles' jacket and returned it to him, and then they left the balcony.

While Daphne returned to the party, Niles ducked into the hall to call Mel, praying he could contact her before she returned to the nineteenth floor. Luck was with him; Mel said she had just come into the lobby.

"Why are you calling me now?" she said tartly. "It's exactly the time I told you I'd be here. Did you think I'd be late? Have you ever known me to be late? Or did you forget to sync your watch again?"

"The reason I called you was to tell you not to bother coming up," Niles said more frankly than he'd intended.

Then told her it was over between them for good. The enraged shriek coming from the other end startled him, as Mel usually acted with excessive poise in public.

Meanwhile, Daphne was pretending her world hadn't been turned upside-down in the span of ten minutes. Oh, she'd have to end things with Donny, of course, but Christmas was certainly not the time to do it. After the holidays were over, she'd call off the wedding. Daphne didn't want to hurt her fiance—but it wouldn't be fair to him to go into their marriage without her heart in it, either.

Roz grabbed Daphne's arm just as Frasier proposed yet another dull game.

"All right, tell me everything!" she hissed, nearly dragging her friend to a quiet corner of Frasier's apartment. "What did he say?"

"He told me that he's in love with me, not Mel," Daphne replied.

"How'd he take it, when you said you didn't feel the same way?" Roz pushed.

"It was a very odd conversation," Daphne said cagily.

"Just admit that he's crushed," Roz said. "I know you didn't mean to hurt him. I guess that's why he just left. I suppose he'll need time to process it, but at least he knows."

To Roz's dismay, Daphne smiled widely and shrugged as if the whole conversation had been nothing. Roz was surprised at her dismissive attitude of her usually empathetic friend. Then again, with her back to the door, she hadn't seen a broadly smiling Niles come in.

"Daphne, it's not like you to be so brutal," she said in her blunt way. She had never gotten along with Niles, but she couldn't imagine how hurt he must be feeling now, turned down—as far as she knew, anyway—by the woman he'd adored for so long.

"I'm sorry, Roz. It's not what you think," Daphne said flippantly. "Niles just walked in, and I'm trying to figure out how to act normally until I find the right time to tell Donny that the wedding's off…especially since I have half a mind to snog Niles until he can't breathe. And to think that not even half an hour ago I was going to tell him I don't feel the same way."

"What? Daphne, what the hell do you mean? Daphne? Hey, get back here!"

Daphne, laughing wickedly at the look on Roz Doyle's face, was already sailing toward Donny, and she stayed by his side through the rest of the party. If anyone suspected that she was no longer the enthusiastic bride-to-be, they didn't let on. Everyone, that is, except Roz, who kept making frantic "come here and tell me what's going on!" gestures until giving up in frustration.

(Nile's POV)

"Frasier, can I see you in the kitchen?" Niles said. It wasn't a question.

Frasier had just started another game was leaving his guests 'bored stupid'.

"Now?"

"Yes, now," Nile said firmly.

"All right, all right," Frasier said "Do excuse me for a moment, everyone. Don't go anywhere! We'll resume when we get back!"

Everyone in the gathering exchanged looks of mutual annoyance as Frasier sullenly followed Niles into the kitchen.

"Niles! You're interrupting my party! If this is about me blabbing to Mel, I'm sorry! How much more can I say? And where is she, anyway?"

"It's over between us. For good," Niles announced.

"She changed her mind? Why?" Frasier gave his brother a look of pity.

"I called it off, Frasier. When I went to ask Daphne for Mel's gift, I looked in her eyes and and…something changed. Not only did I realize I'm not really over Daphne, but that being with Mel was a terrible decision. Yes, I was wrong to lie to Mel, but tonight she showed me how spiteful she can be."

Frasier stared at his brother.

"Niles, we tried to tell you Mel was a rebound," he said his bossiest voice. "Maybe it's time you got counseling to help you move past Daphne."

"Frasier, spare me your advice," Niles said sharply. "I don't need counseling. I told Daphne how I feel."

"Niles…"

"And she said she loves me, too."

"What?"

"So, here's what I need you to do. You are going to keep your big bazoo shut and not let it slip that I almost got back together with Mel or that the earrings weren't meant for Daphne. She's the one who really deserves them, anyway. And…" Niles paused and studied Frasier's outraged expression. "I'm not going to listen to a lecture."

"Are you sure it's just not Daphne's nerves over her wedding?" Frasier said suspiciously. "It seems too sudden."

Did Frasier have to pick everything apart? Niles checked his desire to tell his brother just what he thought about his nosy behavior.

"Daphne hinted that someone let it slip about my feelings for her, and she said she felt something for me, too, but denied it to herself."

Frasier chuckled. "I bet Roz blabbed. Well, I'm not going to try to analyze this. It's between you and Daphne. Just as long as you're sure about this."

"I'm sure," Niles said stoutly. "Believe me, I'm sure. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to update Dad on the situation."

(Daphne's POV, later that night)

The rush to leave Frasier's apartment when the party finally drew to a close was not lost on its unfortunate host, who responded with forced cheer at the equally forced thanks for the invitation. He faintly heard laughter and enthusiastic singing from the apartment above. Cam Winston's apartment. No doubt would he hear his neighbor bragging about his party. They seemed to be having a good time up there.

Donny was the last to depart.

"Well, honey, I hate to run off, but I have a huge court case tomorrow," he said. "My client's husband is an absolute loon, and I know he'll put up a huge fight."

"Good luck," was all Daphne could say, and when her fiancé leaned in for a casual kiss, she found she couldn't reciprocate. Donny, not being particularly observant, didn't notice.

"Goodnight to the rest of you," he said, waving his hand toward Frasier, Niles, and Martin. "Niles, don't let what happened with Mel get you down. There's someone out there for you."

Niles smiled uncomfortably.

"Thanks, Donny. I'll survive."

When the Crane men and Daphne were finally by themselves, the tension dissolved.

"I'm proud of you, son," Martin said brightly to Niles. "I'm glad that snippet is out of your life. You made a good choice tonight. Well, two good choices."

He smiled approvingly at Daphne, who smiled shyly.

"Well, I'm off to bed. I want to look alert for our Christmas photos tomorrow."

Frasier also parted to his room, still in high dudgeon about his unsuccessful soiree. Now alone with each other, Niles and Daphne settled onto the sofa, not speaking, simply enjoying each other's company as they nestled close to each other. Niles wished they could stay like this all night, but after some time, he bade a reluctant goodbye.

"Do you think it would be too soon to kiss you?" he asked Daphne as they stood by the front door.

"We were standing under the mistletoe when we were singing carols earlier," Daphne said craftily, "and it is considered bad luck not to kiss in that situation."

"You're right," Niles answered with a playful grin, and then pressed his lips to Daphne's.

The kiss was soft and chaste, much like the one at the Snow Ball, but behind it was a promise of so much more between Niles Crane and Daphne Moon.

The End


A/N: The ending of "The Fight Before Christmas" had me in tears at the end because I thought it was the perfect moment for Niles to finally confess his feelings to Daphne. Plus I just can't stand Mel! SB/SB was a great episode but I still think getting them together at Christmas would have been sooo romantic.

I wanted to post this by Christmas but it was trickier to write than I'd expected. Well, at least it's still December.

P.S.: If you want to read a better A/U fic for "FBC", check out Kristen3's "A Difficult Choice."