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Niles’ relationship with Maris had been largely one-sided and described by Frasier at some point as “Reminiscent of a leech sucking at a bone.” At the time the comment had struck too close to home and so (in fear of having an actual conversation with his brother) he’d redirected the subject to Lilith and rumors that she would be at the most recent family gathering.

Maris wasn’t a bone, that would imply some sort of...decay. Maris was a perfect, beautiful empty glass and Niles was a hapless bird smashing himself against it again and again. She was bright in a white way. No sun, just shine all the way down. It was odd when she was home. She seemed not to belong anywhere but in bed, resting, recuperating from something. She was always either ill or on the cusp of it and though everyone thought Niles was a complete idiot he knew she was a handful at times when she could...stand not to be. But he didn’t know what he’d do in a relationship like that. If Maris were to walk across the hall to his room, throw the door open (if she were capable of such a feat) and tell him “Niles Crane, you are perfect as you are!” He would...He would…

If Maris were to tell him “Niles Crane, don’t you ever change, you’re perfect as you are!” He would...cease. He would stop.

Maris was a creature of need and he was one of provision, both endless.
One night, early in their relationship, he was massaging Maris’ wrist after she’d waved too hard to catch her valet’s attention (the valet was promptly fired of course) and she’d said that she loved him. Niles had felt his heart skip a beat the way it used to during P.E when he’d be hidden away in the bathrooms or an empty storage closet and hear someone call his name. “I love you too.” He responded, smiling at her. She had not been smiling, instead contemplating him as she usually did. Her eyelid twitched a few times before she shut them both and brought her free hand up to her face.

“I know you do, more than anyone.” She said, voice taking on a heavy tone that even then he’d recognized as a derailing one. “No one loves me like you do, Niles.” The words had weighed on him, a gentle but ever-present push that became more forceful as the years went on until it became a part of him, a badge of honor that he clung to whenever things got bad - not bad not- not...just rocky.

Like when he’d told her that he was going out to dinner with some of the other men at the country club Maris had introduced him to, thinking she’d be glad he was making friends as opposed to embarrassing her as she’d hinted he might due to his lack of understanding of ‘her lifestyle’ and ‘the standards of her circle.’ Instead of being pleased she’d immediately gone into hysterics (or as far into hysterics that her near-perpetual lethargy would allow) paling and going limp at the table as she groaned inconsolably for a full minute. He’d asked what was wrong but only received mumbled insults until she finally lifted her head, eyes red and a small bruise on her forehead where her fragile skin had been pressed against the surface of the table (he’d be blamed for that of course).

“They’re all...going...to laugh...at me…” She’d moaned, slowly sinking back down to the table which Niles stopped by gently guiding her backwards so that she was in her preferred position, draped over something. “They’re...oh Niles...they’re so cruel…”

“I don’t think they have any ill intentions toward me.” Niles explained, touched at his wife’s approximate care about his well being. “I believe they-”

“You believe? You be-lieve? I know. I have been a member of that club since I was born. Your belief could never compare!” She’d reached out for him then, cupping his face in both her trembling hands. “I just don’t want you to...disappoint. I’d be absolutely crushed, really. I’d be heartbroken. It’d send me spiraling into fever, I might develop something nasty. Do you want that? Do you want that for me?”

“I don’t but-”
“You do!” She’d screeched then, digging her nails into his skin as she hoisted herself up higher to meet his eyes with hers. “You’re not listening to me, you’re going to go aren’t you? You always do this always why do you never listen to me? I am trying so hard.” She continued through clenched teeth. Niles focused on her jaw, the tightening of the muscle there. Her dimpled chin looked cute, he’d come to find the wobble of her lower lip attractive even though it filled him with dread. Every interaction with her filled him with dread and...love, probably. Yes. Love. Affection. He felt great affection for her.

“I am trying and you don’t- you don’t even care!” And with that she burst into tears, leaning against him as her strength drained from her. He carefully sat her back in her chair and knelt beside her, fussing for the sake of it. He pushed back her hair so it wouldn’t get in her face and irritate her eyes.

“I do care honey, I was just trying not to disappoint you. Don’t you want me to- no, no, I do care. I care. Please, I won’t go. Alright? I won’t go, I’ll make an excuse. I’ll let you make an excuse.”

“I’m too tired to make an excuse.” She’d whispered, tilting her head back towards the ceiling.
“I’ll have Marta make an excuse.” He’d amended, resting his hand on top of hers. After a moment he felt a faint tugging and lifted it so she could pull her own back into her lap.

“You tire me.” She’d told him. “All this unnecessary drama.”
“I’m sorry.” He’d said, without knowing he’d said anything. Making up with Maris was an arduous process that sometimes took weeks and he couldn’t be present for all of it. It was muscle-memory at that point. “I love you.” He’d added and was met with an exhausted sigh.

Maris was a paranoid woman but it was fine, for the most part he wasn’t an enemy to her. It was all of them out there who would laugh or know or conspire or gossip. After meeting her for the third time his father had pulled him aside.

“She’s a little...kinda...kooky, ain’t she?”
“She’s perfectly fine, she’s been feeling a bit under the weather lately that’s all.”
“She said she didn’t like the ‘derision held within’ the painting of your mom’s eyes.”
“Maybe the artist should have painted mom’s eyes with a touch less derision.”

She held him back from doing things for his own good and away from her for failing not to recognize that.
He wondered if he was the bone.
He felt like it sometimes.
Empty.
Unable.

He’d always tried very hard in contrast to his brother’s effortless affability. In school it had earned Frasier the same treatment as Niles, in the larger world it had earned him prestige and a large circle of friends. Frasier could do anything with the conceit that everything would work itself out. He could decide to throw caution to the wind and marry a hippie his first year of medical school (sending their mother into a fit). He could waste his days and nights at a bar full of degenerates he called ‘friends’ and get hitched to a barmaid (sending their mother into a fit). He could essentially toss his degree into a fire to make it big as a Radio Host dishing out pseudo-psychological ‘advice’ to any Tom Dick or Harry with a phone and no sense of privacy (Which, were she alive, would have sent their mother into a fit). And he would still always land on his feet. Like an awful, balding cat that couldn’t decide whether to eat canary or tuna.

“I do not think like that Niles, I am a very logical and determined man. When I decide on something I decide on it after extensive forethought.”

“Oh please if you were any more wishy-washy they’d stock you on the shelves next to Dawn.”

Niles didn’t need friends.

“I have a large circle.”

“...Of friends?”

“Dad, it doesn’t matter what you label them. They are vast. They are mine. They have the tickets to that ball game you want so I don’t want to hear any more about it, thank you.”

Niles didn’t want friends.
When Maris told him she wanted him to be better he heard that she wanted him.
That she saw something in him.
That she needed him.
That she expected more, that she thought he could deliver.

If Maris didn’t want him to change then she wouldn’t want him.
If she burst into his room and announced that she thought he’d reached something then she’d toss him to the curb. He’d heard somewhere that the chase was the best part of love.

He was tired.
But it meant that he was in the running.

Maris hated animals because they were un-self-conscious in their love of all things, it unnerved her.

“You can’t leave me.” She’d hiss or screech or cry, clawing at him or curling herself away. “No one loves me like you do, no one will love you like I do.”

______

“You can’t leave me.” Gertrude told her daughter, despite the latter’s bags and plane ticket and resolute expression. She said it as if stating a fact, the way she always did. It made arguing with her seem silly. “Who would want someone like you as a housekeeper? Should I send them pictures of this pigsty?”

Daphne was ten years old again, her suitcases transformed into the dinky red wagon she’d take with her when she wanted to run away. She always got a few blocks before turning back, sometimes her mother was waiting for her with a back-already grin a touch too sharp to be playful. “It’s a mess because Simon and Peter-”

“There you go blaming others again, I swear. How are you ever going to find someone to put up with you? I certainly wouldn’t if I weren’t your mother. If I didn’t love you so much Daphne - first off I wouldn’t be telling you this, I’d just let you live in your own little world like y’want to. Secondly, I don’t think I could stand living with you. Not as you are anyway.”

“I’m going.”
“Fine, leave me. Leave your poor mother alone here.”
“You’re not alone, ask the boys to help.”
“Your father certainly can’t be trusted to look after things and your brothers, bless them, but they don’t know how.”
“Teach them.”
“They won’t understand, you’re the only one who understands.”

Daphne always woke up then, sweat causing her pajamas to cling to her, surprised she wasn’t standing in the living room. She always felt sick after she dreamed about her mother and the sickness made her feel guilty.

She always felt guilty when she didn’t appreciate her, even when she knew she wasn’t being reasonable. She picked apart every insult to find the advice hidden within. When she was younger she’d look for warmth, her mother said it was there but Daphne never felt it. She only felt hurt and ungrateful. It felt as if her mother was hurling stones at her - it was her fault for not being able to catch them.

“I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t know you could take it-”
“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love you-”
“I wouldn’t have to say this if you’d just-”

Her brothers were all too soft to take it.
Her brothers were all too stupid to understand.
Her brothers were all excellent men.
Daphne was growing into a subpar woman.

If she picked her mother’s words apart she got that she was special.
She was a psychic like all Moon women.
She was put-upon like all Moon women.
She, like all Moon women, was strong.
She wouldn’t break.
Couldn’t.

Her brothers used to play a game where they jumped from the roof into a neighbor’s inflatable pool. She watched them from below in her bathing suit, sitting in the grass because their friends weren’t interested enough in girls yet to want her there. She prayed with every hoot or holler to hear the roar of pain that would put an end to it. She didn’t want her brothers to be hurt but she knew she couldn’t stop them and the anxiety gave her a stomach ache that her mother screamed at her for when she finally got home to see Nigel on the front steps screaming and Daphne lying next to him with her body curled tight as a pillbug. “You’re complaining about a stomach ache at a time like this? How selfish can you be, your poor brother! Nigel! Oh poor baby, poor baby it’s okay, I’m calling- did you even call someone!? Daphne! Daphne, answer me!

Her mother said she’d complain about anything given the chance, a very unattractive quality in a girl like her. “It’s not like you can make up for it with your looks.” She’d told her, peering down at her as Daphne did the dishes. She’d just had a fight with her boyfriend and ran to her mother about it, she knew she would rant and rage against him and she did. “Men are all the same, all they care about is finding a new skirt to chase.” It made Daphne feel good, reassured. Even the inevitable turn towards the insulting felt reassuring in a way.

“We’re nothing to men like your father.” Her mother had slurred once, leaning against the lamp post outside their house. She’d gone to the bar to fetch him and he’d come in to say hello to Daphne, pressing a tenner into his daughter’s palm before walking back the way he’d come, past his drunk wife who Daphne came out to tend to. “They just use us until we’ve got nothin’ left to give. You think I’m tough? Oh don’t give me that look, I know. I see you feeling sorry for yourself when I tell you the truth. Just you wait until you land a husband missy. You’ll call me up to thank me, I can’t wait. I can’t wait to say I told you so.”

She felt like she had nothing left to give at sixteen.
By the time she got on a plane to America she felt like an outline of a person.

Niles was an odd little man, but kind. Much easier to please than his brother. She could tell that Mr.Crane had raised him despite how different they seemed to think they were. They had the same kindness to them that they hid from others beneath a thin layer of bluster.

When Niles spoke to her he was all compliments.
She loved him.
She was frightened to death of it.

He’s too good to be true. She thought, lying in bed or the floor or staring out her window down at the busy street. I don’t want him to change. She thought, hugging herself as the chill blew in and the buzzing chatter sharpened into an argument in the alleyway. She’d seen her brothers be all compliments and charm and turn sour and disinterested the moment they got a girl to bed. She’d seen her mother tut over this, exasperated but fond. “Boys.” She’d smile. Daphne was terrified of the moment Niles realized she was his and dried up.

But he hadn’t. He’d only grown more enamored with her. He acted like a boy with a crush more than a man sometimes, being hesitant to take her hand and blushing when she kissed his cheek. He felt different from the other men she’d been with - even the good ones had a confidence to them that Niles lacked. He was a confident person - prideful, a bit egotistical at times but when it came to her he faltered and grew nervous.

“I’m worried he doesn’t like me and this is his own way of showing it.” She’d confided in Roz during one of their talks. Roz had been complaining about her own troubles with work and a disastrous date with an olympic gold medalist who’d failed to specify that he’d won the gold in 1948.

“Niles? If he didn’t like you he’d show it, trust me. He wouldn’t be able to contain himself.” Roz grumbled. Daphne smiled for a second before worry overwhelmed her again as she fiddled with the t.v remote. Some trashy-fun show about couples in peril was on because Roz and Frasier had been guests. Frasier as the expert and Roz because Frasier could bring a guest and she thought the show’s host was charming.

“He just seems so hesitant you know? It’s not like he isn’t affectionate, God, sometimes I think he’s too affectionate. He dotes on me in a weird way and I don’t...gah, do you ever get that?”

“Oh yeah, last time a guy was like that I caught him cheating. He asked me to marry him.”

“Darryl? I told you Darryl was no good from the beginning. I had a sense about it.”

“Guess I like tempting fate.” Roz joked with a sharp grin. She was a sharp woman but not in the way Daphne’s mother was. Roz was warm, comforting.

“Just talk to him about it if you’re worried. Or I can help you spy on him, that’d be fun! Actually it’s Niles so it’ll be boring as hell but I’d do it for you.” Daphne laughed, patting Roz’s knee.

“I think I’ll go with option A.”
“Suit yourself, let me know if you need any spy gear.” On the television Frasier was making eyes at the woman he was supposed to be diagnosing, causing her jealous boyfriend to color a spectacular shade of red.

____

Daphne was a kind, exciting woman. She made Niles feel like he was walking on air, like he could do anything.

He couldn’t figure out what she wanted in return.

She accepted gifts with unmitigated joy and appreciation, she gave them with equal frequency, she only ever reacted to plans of his with encouragement and she called him every night before going to bed ‘just to hear his voice.’ He felt like he was going to suffocate from holding his breath so long, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It felt good but he didn’t trust how good it felt.
It was aimless.
He’d wanted this so badly but didn’t know how to handle it now (like Maris had said like she’d said like she’d said-) maybe he’d simply grown used to Maris and couldn’t yet read Daphne. He tried his best to fulfil all the desires she expressed but the knot of anxiety in his chest only grew at her uncomplicated accepting of it all. Of him.

When she’d called and said she wanted to talk about something important he’d felt his heart skip a beat. It was familiar, the fear-anticipation. He was relieved and nervous. He’d said he was free whenever she wanted to come over and paced around his apartment until she arrived.

“You answered that quick!” She remarked, bringing a hand to her heart. “Christ, scared me!”

“I’m so sorry, do you need to lie down?” He asked, only for her to laugh and kiss his cheek as if he’d been joking.

“Are you going to offer a foot rub next?”

“Do you want one? I can - I have a masseuse I can convince to make a house call.” Niles stammered. Daphne shot him a look. “Or I can...not do that. Whichever you prefer!” He tried to smile naturally, what did he look like when he smiled?

“...Niles, is something wrong?”
“Why, is something wrong?”
“That’s what I’m- Niles.” Daphne sighed and took his hands (shestouchinghim!touching!holdinghishand!bothhands!) as she pulled them both onto Niles’ couch. He did his best not to stare at the point of contact between them, he was still unused to the easy affection she gave him.

“I’m worried, do you think I’m angry with you?”
“No, not at all. Why? Did I do something to-”
“Niles.” Daphne said, stern but blunt, nothing sharp or tricky. “I’m not angry with you, I love you. I just want to know what you’re thinking.”

Niles blinked. He felt something odd press against his chest. He squeezed their hands and was dully amazed that she only squeezed back.

“Why do you think I think you’re angry with me?” He asked. Daphne smiled despite her previously serious tone. It was still surreal to him, that arguments could be over so quickly. Was that an argument? Were they currently arguing? The first time they’d argued he’d sent her a dozen roses as the first step in his usual twenty step forgive-me routine and she’d called him absolutely elated, shouting that she forgave and loved him. It’d felt like a trick. It’d felt magical.

“You’re just...you’re always showering me with so many things but I feel like when we’re together you’re so nervous.” She said. Niles tilted his head and Daphne thought it was adorable. Her heart ached. She prayed that he wasn’t cheating on her. If he’s cheating on me I’ll kill him. She thought, knowing that if he was she’d burst into tears. If he breaks up with me I’ll...I’ll...oh please don’t, please... She remembered her mother saying that men are only nice when they want something just you wait just you wait just you wait. Niles had sent her flowers once after hurting her feelings, the note had read ‘A knave’s apology to his princess.’ and she’d found it so soppy and romantic that she’d forgiven him instantly. She didn’t like that, knowing he had that power over her. He’d use it for something.

“I can stop if you don’t want-”
“What do you want?” She’d interrupted, scooting closer. “Do you want to touch me?”
“We’re,” He laughed nervously. “We’re already touching. Do you-” Daphne groaned and flopped against him, mumbling something into his shoulder until she noticed he’d frozen. She looked up to see his face had paled and when he noticed her gaze he smiled thinly, beginning to shake.

“Niles?”
“Hm?”
“Are you okay?” He nodded too fast, making a jerky movement with his hand that was either a thumbs up or meant to brush away her concern.

“Just, I- please tell me what you want from me.”
“I don’t want anything from you but the truth.” She insisted. He made a noise that was nothing like his laugh, eyes widening.

“I don’t know what the truth is! I’m sorry, I can’t take- I don’t know what- Just tell me and I’ll do it, I promise!” Daphne let go of his hands to help steady him and they immediately shot up to hug himself as his breath became high and shallow. Daphne felt her own heart pick up as she frantically racked her brain - she had training for this.

“Niles I’m not angry with you okay? I need you to breathe, just focus on breathing, nothing else.”
“I can’t-I can’t breathe-”
“It’s alright, I’m right here. I’m not angry with you. I want you to breathe, okay? I want you to breathe.”

By the time Niles calmed down he was lying on the couch with Daphne’s arms wrapped tightly around him. He could vaguely remember telling her that he was floating away, he felt embarrassed about it. She must have been disgusted by his weakness, that’s what she was saying earlier. He’d decoded it, she wanted him to be more manly, take charge. He could do that. He’d do anything for her.

“Terribly sorry about that.” He said, coughing into his sleeve. “I panicked a bit.”
“Niles!” Daphne cried, hug becoming impossibly tighter. “You’re alright, I was so worried!”

“I’m sorry for worrying you, it wasn’t my intention.”
“I know that you dummy!” Niles frowned at being called a dummy but it was quickly forgotten when she kissed him and the joy of that was quickly forgotten when he saw that she’d been crying.

“Daphne!” He cried, cupping her face gently, eyebrows knitted in concern. (madehercrymadehercrymadehercry) He could feel her smiling against his hand as she leaned into the touch.

“I’m fine, I was just scared for you.” Niles nodded, he understood.

“I wouldn’t- well I might do that in public but I assure you I would keep you from being associated with it.” Daphne looked distraught and confused. “...And any other embarrassing outbursts.”

“I don’t care about what other people think!” She exclaimed, frustration bleeding into her tone. “I just care about you. If anyone should be embarrassed it’s you besides.” She laughed softly, shrugging her shoulders and pulling away from Niles’ touch to sit up on the couch. Niles had lit a fire and it was still crackling as it ate up whatever he’d fed it.

“You could never embarrass me.” He assured her, attempting to sit up but feeling woozy so settling for lying his head in her lap. He buzzed as she reached down to run fingers through his hair. She was a goddess.

“I love you with all my heart, Daphne. I promise.” He reached up to take her other hand and kissed it gently. “I’m not lying. And whatever it takes to prove that to you I will do.”

Daphne’s grin was hypnotizing. Niles wanted to stare at it forever. “Oh Niles, I love you too. You’re so perfect.” She felt him freeze again and brought him up to her, leaning down to meet him halfway. They were wrapped around each other, surrounded by one another.

“You don’t have to do anything for me. I love you for you.” Niles felt something in his chest crack. The center of that anxiety knot, perhaps it was older than he thought. Daphne’s words warmed him to the core and without his permission he began to cry. Daphne held him close and kissed him, squeezed his hand. She loved him the same way he loved her. She loved him. She thought he was enough and him being enough wasn’t a dismissal - it felt too good to be true. It felt too good. It felt…

It felt damn good.
He’d never felt so tired.
So relieved.
Daphne was beside him.
The race was over.

“What did I do to deserve the most wonderful girlfriend on the planet?” Niles asked, kissing her.

Daphne grinned. “Be yourself.” She answered.

“Funny,” He remarked. “That’s how I fell in love with you.”