Notes: Hello, all. I'm a longtime Frasier fan. Like... for my entire life. I've been entertaining the idea of writing a Frasier fanfiction for a while, and I've finally talked myself into it. As much as I love "Goodnight, Seattle", I've never been crazy about Frasier ending up with Charlotte. I didn't think they were a good fit, for many reasons. Therefore I have decided to pair him with (gasp!) an original character. But first, I think we'd all agree that he needs to work on some issues.

Table for Two

Chapter One: The Rain in Crane

The day Frasier Crane returned to Seattle, it was raining. His brother Niles had assured him that the entire first few weeks of September had been warm, sunny, and delightful. But as the plane passed over the Cascade Range and began to make its final descent toward its destination, Frasier lifted the window shade to see rain lashing against the pane, the wing of the aircraft obscured by fog. It was only fitting, he mused, that the weather should be miserable; it was a perfect match for his mood.

He glanced over at the woman in the seat next to him, fast asleep. She was young, perhaps in her early twenties. For the first hour of the flight, she had nearly talked his ear off. With absolutely no prompting on his part, she had told him that she was going to Seattle to visit her long-distance boyfriend. She was so optimistic, so full of excitement and anticipation. He vaguely recalled the last time he had felt like that.

Three months ago. It was not a long time, relatively speaking. And yet it was long enough to pull his entire world crashing down around him.

He gazed out the window again. Dimly, through the fog, he could start to make out the outline of distant skyscrapers, the distinctive silhouette of the Space Needle. For once, even the familiar sight failed to cheer him. To his eyes, it was a symbol of failure.

The plane touched down on the runway with more than a little bumping and skidding. Shockingly, the young woman beside him slept through the entire proceedings. It was not until the aircraft had come to a complete halt and the seatbelt light had turned off that she opened her eyes and reluctantly sat upright in her seat.

"Have we landed already?" she asked, stifling a yawn.

"Indeed we have," he replied.

"Damn," she muttered, unbuckling her seatbelt. "I missed seeing that famous Seattle skyline."

"You didn't miss much," Frasier told her. "I'm afraid there's a bit too much fog blowing in from the Sound today."

She sighed. "Yeah, my boyfriend warned me that the weather here can be kind of temperamental. Still, I doubt it can compete with Chicago's winters." She paused in thought. "Although last year wasn't so bad. The water in the toilets only froze once."

He offered to retrieve the woman's luggage from the overhead compartment, for which she thanked him effusively. "Goodbye, Dr. Crane," she said, shaking his hand. "I'll have to tell my boyfriend's grandmother that I met you. She used to listen to your show all the time."

Frasier bestowed upon her an indulgent smile. "Yes, yes. Run along now."

Exiting the plane and making his way up the jet bridge, he emerged in the terminal of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and fought through the crowds until he arrived at the baggage claim area. For once, both pieces of his luggage were present and accounted for. The rest of his things were scheduled to be shipped later. Not that he had many — he had sold or given away most of his possessions shortly before he had moved to Chicago. Just another mistake in a neverending series of mistakes.

Outside the baggage claim, a row of cars and taxis were waiting to pick up passengers. Frasier scanned the vehicles before spotting a familiar black BMW idling near the front of the line. Familiar, in fact, because not that long ago, it had belonged to him.

As he hurried toward the car, the driver's door opened and an older man climbed out, moving quickly in spite of his limp and his cane. In a few short seconds, Martin Crane was embracing his son tightly.

Frasier's throat closed up as he returned his hug. "Hi, Dad," he said, when he was able to speak.

"Hey, Fras," Martin replied, his gravelly voice rough with emotion. "Welcome home, son."

"Thanks." He pulled away, wiping quickly at the corners of his eyes. "Where's Ronee?" he asked, referring to Martin's wife.

"She had some errands to run. She's gonna meet us at Niles and Daphne's tonight."

Frasier nodded. For the time being, he was going to be staying in the guest room at his brother and his wife's condo at the Montana, until he could find a place of his own. His old apartment at Elliot Bay Towers had been rented to someone else. Besides, it felt like too much space for him now.

Martin popped the trunk open, and Frasier stowed his luggage and shut the lid. He climbed into the car, and his father stared at him pointedly until he buckled his seatbelt. Once a policeman, always a policeman.

"How was your flight?" Martin asked as he pulled away from the curb.

"Oh, not too bad," said Frasier, rubbing his tired eyes. "I sat next to a delightful young lady who passed the time by regaling me with stories about her boyfriend, who apparently enjoys frisbee golf and misquoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That is, when she wasn't fast asleep against my shoulder and drooling on my jacket."

As if on cue, he felt the weight of a pair of eyes on him, and turned to find a white-muzzled Jack Russell terrier staring at him from his position half-perched on the center console, his tongue protruding slightly from his mouth. "Speaking of drool," he said wryly. "Hello, Eddie."

"I hope you don't mind, but we've got to make a stop first," said Martin, gently shoving the dog back into his place in the back seat. "I got Eddie in for a last-minute appointment at the V-E-T."

Now it was Frasier's turn to stare. "Do you really need to spell it out? It's not like he's going to physically wrench open the door and hurl himself into oncoming traffic."

"I still don't want to spook him," his father insisted. "I've been kind of worried about him lately. He's been drinking like Bogey in The African Queen. It's a good thing Ronee and I got that little house with the fenced yard, or I'd be taking him outside all day. I'll tell you, I thought my bladder was—"

"Dad." Frasier cut him off, disinclined to hear how that particular sentence ended. Truth be told, the last thing he wanted to do was sit in a lobby that smelled like animal urine, disinfectant, and fear, surrounded by barking dogs and elderly ladies festooned with cat hair. He was jet-lagged, physically exhausted, and emotionally drained. All he wanted was to take a hot shower and crawl into bed. But he was far too tired to argue.

"You know, Eddie is getting up there," he remarked after a moment. "How old is he now, thirteen? Some health problems are to be expected at his age."

"I know, I know." Martin's voice became deliberately casual, his gaze steadfastly fixed on the road. "I just want to make sure it's nothing serious. I worry about my boys, you know?"

Despite himself, Frasier smiled. "I know, Dad."

Taking his hand off the wheel, Martin reached over and patted his son's shoulder. "It's gonna be okay, Fras."

To his annoyance, Frasier felt his eyes begin to sting, yet again. "Is it?" he murmured, partly to himself. "I really thought this time would be different. God, I feel like such a fool."

"Hey, none of that," Martin said firmly. "This wasn't your fault, all right? No one can say you didn't do everything you could to make it work. Some things just aren't meant to be."

Frasier shook his head wearily. "That sounds a little too much like Fate for my tastes."

"All right," his father conceded. "Then let's just say that... some people don't know a good thing when they have it. Anyway, it's her loss."

Frasier took a deep breath that hitched in his throat. "Can we talk about something else, Dad?"

"Oh. Oh, yeah. Sure." There was a moment's awkward silence as they both stared out the rain-spattered windshield. "Boy, this weather is something."

Frasier smiled again. It was ironic that, even after all these years, the father of two therapists would still have such a hard time offering sympathy and comfort. On the other hand, at least he tried. That meant everything.

At length, they pulled into the parking lot of a building which announced itself as the "Belltown Animal Hospital" in large letters over the double doors. Martin managed to wrangle Eddie and attach his leash to his collar, to the latter's intense disapproval. Then he noticed that Frasier was still sitting in the front seat. "Aren't you coming in?" he asked. "We might be here a while."

"No, I think I'll just wait out here," he replied.

"Oh, come on," Martin persisted. "I've been taking Eddie here for a few months. It's a nice place. And there's this really cute vet tech who works here. She's probably here today."

Frasier rolled his eyes. "Dad, I just had my heart ripped from my chest and fed through a pasta maker. I'm not the least bit interested in meeting any 'cute vet techs'."

"I wasn't suggesting you ask her out," his father retorted, in a horrified manner which Frasier found mildly insulting. "She's too young for you, anyway."

"Oh, that's rich, coming from you," he muttered. "Did I ever tell you about all the times Ronee invited her boyfriend over to the house while she was babysitting for Niles and me?"

"All right, that's enough of that..."

"I seem to remember one occasion, in particular, when they were making out on top of your pool table—"

Martin yanked the passenger door open. "Get out," he growled.

With a put-upon sigh, Frasier heaved himself out of the car. The rain pelted down on him, seeping through his raincoat to his skin, permeating him, becoming him. Pulling his coat tighter around himself, he followed his father and his dog into the animal hospital. To his surprise, the interior was clean, the colors subdued and inviting. As Martin went to the front desk to inform the receptionist of their arrival, Frasier took in the modern chairs that lined the waiting room, the tasteful decor, the orderly display of pet-related products. They didn't have to wait long before they were being summoned. Well, not them, exactly.

"Eddie?" a voice called.

"That's us," said Martin, getting to his feet. "Hey, Moira! Great to see you!"

A short, boyishly thin woman of indeterminate age came forward, shaking Martin's hand. She had a small, pointy nose, a sharp chin, and a dusting of freckles across her face, and her copper-colored hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She was wearing a set of scrubs which sported a cartoon dog motif. "You, too, Mr. Crane," she replied amiably in a low contralto. She knelt down to greet Eddie, whose stump of a tail had started wagging the second he saw her. "Well, hello, Eddie," she crooned, scratching him behind the ears. "How's my favorite boy?"

Martin chuckled. "I'd like you to meet my son, Frasier," he told her. "Frasier, this is Moira, the world's best veterinary technician."

The woman gave a good-natured snort at his comment as she stood up. "Pleased to meet you," she said to Frasier, extending her hand.

Reluctantly, he took it, trying not to think about all the places it might have been that day. "Likewise, I'm sure."

She glanced sharply up at him. "Wait, Frasier Crane?" She rounded on Martin, her green eyes wide with surprise. "You didn't tell me your son was Dr. Frasier Crane, from the radio!" She turned back to Frasier. "I loved your show, Dr. Crane. I was so sad when it went off the air."

"Thank you," he said, unexpectedly touched. "That's kind of you to say."

"Not at all. Well, why don't we go into Exam Room Three?" she said briskly, gesturing for them to follow her. "Right this way, please."

She led them into a small room, equipped with counter and sink, a cupboard, a small couch, and a metal examination table which was attached to the wall and unfolded like an ironing board. They watched as she lifted Eddie onto the table and began taking his temperature, pulse, and respiratory rate, and wrote them down on a clipboard. Amazingly, the dog submitted to this rather invasive procedure with little protest.

"So, Mr. Crane," the woman named Moira said at last. "Tell me how Eddie's been doing lately. How are his energy levels?"

"He sleeps more than he did when he was younger, but he's still pretty spry," replied Martin. "I'm mainly worried about his water intake. He's thirsty all the time. And he's going to the bathroom a lot; sometimes as many as ten times a day."

Moira raised her eyebrows. "Is he urinating in the house?"

Martin shook his head. "No, he's been good about that."

"How's his appetite?"

"Good." He paused. "Although now that I think about it, he seems hungrier, too."

The technician scribbled something on the clipboard. "Any vomiting or diarrhea?" she asked.

"No, no problems there."

More scribbles. "When you take him outside, does he seem to be straining to urinate?"


Frasier suppressed a sigh, letting his attention wander as the woman continued to ask his father about Eddie's habits and bodily functions. He wondered how many times a day she had to ask these questions. Assuming she worked a normal shift, and saw an appointment every half hour, and allowing an hour for the clinic to close for lunch, then that added up to a total of sixteen times a day. What a life, he mused.

"Any other issues you can think of?" Moira was saying. "Has Eddie been scratching or biting himself?"

"No, nothing like that," Martin answered. "He's just been drinking a lot."

Moira quirked a wry smile. "You haven't been reading him Steinbeck, have you?"

Caught off guard by the comment, Frasier let out a chuckle before he could stop himself. "That's a good one," he had to admit.

"Don't you dare laugh, that was terrible," she said jokingly. She finished writing on her clipboard and shoved her pen into one of the many pockets on her scrubs. "It sounds like it could be a kidney or thyroid issue, but we won't know more without blood work. I'll just fill in Dr. Nomura on what's going on."

She lifted Eddie off the exam table and placed him gently on the floor. Reaching into another pocket, she retrieved a dog treat and handed it to him before bestowing a final pat on his head. "The doctor will be right in to talk to you," she said, straightening again.

"Thanks, Moira," said Martin, as she left through the rear door with her clipboard. "Boy, I like that little gal," he told Frasier after she'd gone. "Eddie likes her, too. She's the only tech in this place who can get close enough to trim his claws."

"A rare distinction indeed," Frasier drawled. "But yes, Eddie certainly did seem taken with her. He wasn't nearly as happy to see me."

"That's because Moira has never threatened to chuck him off any balconies," his father groused.

Presently the red-haired tech returned with the veterinarian, an older man who introduced himself to Frasier as Dr. Craig Nomura. Once again, Moira placed Eddie on the table and held him still while the vet gave him a more thorough examination, looking at his eyes, ears, and teeth, palpating his organs, testing his limbs for any sign of pain or weakness. Finally, after a few more questions, he confirmed that a blood test would be necessary, as well as a urinalysis to rule out an infection.

"The tests take about twenty minutes," said Dr. Nomura. "You can wait here, if you like. Or if you prefer, we can call you later with the results."

"We can wait," said Martin, much to Frasier's exasperation.

"Of course. Make yourself comfortable." He turned to his tech. "Moira, take Eddie in the back and get those samples, please."

"Right. Come with me, handsome." She scooped the terrier up in her arms. "Why don't I trim his nails while I'm at it, Mr. Crane?"

"That'd be great, thanks," he told her.

She shot him a grin as she followed the doctor out of the room. With another weary sigh, Frasier sank into the sofa against the wall and prepared himself for a long wait.

"Need any help?"

Moira Maguire sat on a swivel stool in the main treatment area with Eddie in her lap, absorbed in the task of clipping and rounding his toenails. She had already collected blood and urine samples, and was currently waiting for the results of the analyses. The sound of her fellow technician's voice made her look up. "Sorry?" she said, blinking.

"I say, do you need any help?" Drew reiterated.

"Oh, no, thanks," she replied. "He's usually pretty good with me."

He arched a pierced eyebrow as he watched. "That is highly unusual for a Jack Russell," he remarked skeptically. "I'd say about sixty percent of the scars on my arms are from those guys."

Moira shrugged. "Eddie is an unusual specimen. He never squirms or tries to nip at me. He just sort of... stares up at me with a mixture of disapprobation and betrayal. It's more than a little unsettling, to be honest."

Sure enough, as she spoke, the wizened old terrier twisted his neck around to watch her. She shook her head and moved on to the next paw, trying to ignore his unwavering gaze.

"Hey, Mo." She swiveled on her stool in an about-face to see Sharon, the receptionist on duty, peeking into the treatment area. "Those men you showed into Room Three. Was one of them Frasier Crane from the radio?"

Moira nodded with a smile. "It was. His father, Martin, is Eddie's owner." When she saw Dr. Frasier Crane standing in the lobby, she hadn't immediately recognized him. She had a bad habit of noticing pets before their owners, and therefore had not realized who he was at first. In her defense, she had only seen his face a handful of times on television; she could still recall his hilariously disastrous appearance on a PBS pledge drive. As soon as he had spoken, however, there had been no doubt. She would know that distinctive rich baritone anywhere.

The receptionist placed both of her hands over her chest. "I love him."

"I know," she agreed. "He's a sweet old guy, isn't he?"

"Not him. Dr. Crane." Sharon heaved a rapturous sigh. "Man, I miss his show. I used to tape it just so I could listen to his voice."

Drew snorted to himself. "Now that is unsettling," he muttered.

Moira disregarded his side commentary. "I miss his show, too," she said, and meant it. She hadn't always been able to catch Dr. Crane's show, but she had listened when she could, and enjoyed it. He was witty and erudite and always had a clever literary or psychological pun in his back pocket. And she'd loved all the times he would get into tiffs with his producer, Roz. They had been quite a pair. But what she had admired about him the most was the way he had been able to put his callers at ease, despite his obvious education and breeding. His famous slogan wasn't just a meaningless catchphrase. He really did listen to people.

It was a shame he hadn't been on the air a couple months ago. She might have been tempted to call in.

He was certainly different than she thought he would be, she mused. He'd hardly said more than a few words during Eddie's exam. Of course, he couldn't very well be expected to contribute to a conversation about his father's dog. Still, he had always come across to Moira as a man who was rather fond of the sound of his own voice, and had sometimes had a tendency to ramble on his show. But he had been rather quiet and withdrawn in the exam room, and his eyes had held a somber quality that hinted of some inner pain.

"I wonder if he misses it," she said, before realizing she had spoken aloud. "His show, I mean. He seemed kind of sad when I met him."

"He probably misses the fame," said Drew, rolling his eyes. "Nearly all celebrities are narcissists. It's why they get into show business in the first place. They crave attention, they live for being recognized and fawned over. That's probably why he's depressed now. Nobody is making a fuss over him anymore."

Moira, who had become increasingly annoyed while he was talking, suddenly snapped. "Oh, shut up," she told him angrily. "You should be grateful you don't even know what a narcissist is."

Drew held up his hands in a placating manner. "Yes, ma'am," he murmured.

She exhaled slowly, attempting to regain her composure. "Anyway," she went on more calmly, finishing the last of Eddie's toenails, "Dr. Crane was a psychiatrist long before he was a celebrity. So it's not like he got into it for the fame."

"I thought he moved away," said Sharon. "That's why he left the show, isn't it? What's he doing back in Seattle?"

Moira shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe he's just here visiting his dad." She looked down at the dog on her lap. "Come on, Eddie. Spill the beans."

"You're wasting your time," Drew told her. "He'll never talk." He turned and went into the lab, and came back out carrying a sheaf of papers. "Your blood work is done."

She reached out and took the papers from him, skimming her eyes over the contents. As she did so, she felt a pang of dismay. "Damn," she murmured. "I was afraid of that. Look at his BUN and creatinine values. Kidney failure."

"Still in the early stages, though," Drew pointed out.

"Yeah. I'd better show Dr. Nomura." She sighed and kissed the top of Eddie's head. "Come on, sweet boy."

Tucking the lab results under her arm, she set off in search of the veterinarian, bringing the dog along with her. She found Nomura in his office, sending off an email to a client. "Eddie's blood work," she said, passing him the papers.

The doctor winced. "Ooh. Those levels are a little high. But not too bad. Let's go talk to, umm..." He snapped his fingers.

"Martin," she reminded him.


He stood up, and Moira followed him out of his office and back into the exam room, where Mr. Crane and his son were still waiting. They both stood up as they entered.

"Thanks for sticking around, gentlemen," Nomura told them. "We've got Eddie's results back, and I'm afraid his creatinine and blood urea nitrogen levels are a bit elevated. What that means in layman's terms is that his kidneys aren't working at one hundred percent efficiency."

Moira watched as Mr. Crane's face fell. "Kidney failure," he said in a low voice. Beside him, Frasier Crane put a supportive hand on his father's shoulder.

"The very early stages of kidney failure," said Nomura. "With the right medications and a modified diet, Eddie can enjoy a normal lifestyle for many months or even years."

He went on to explain that the first step in treating the condition was to give Eddie high doses of intravenous fluids to flush out the kidneys. The process would require him to stay in the hospital for a full day. Mr. Crane agreed to make an appointment for the following morning.

"If you have any questions, give me a call," said Nomura.

The two men thanked the doctor, and he left through the rear door.

"Try not to worry, Mr. Crane," said Moira as she placed Eddie on the floor and handed his leash to his owner. "His prognosis is a lot better than it sounds. We have another patient here, an Italian greyhound. She's had kidney failure for years, and she's still going strong at fifteen. And Eddie is in much better shape than she's ever been."

Mr. Crane gave a half-hearted smile. "Thanks, Moira," he replied in his gruff voice. "I guess it's not the best news, but to tell you the truth, I was expecting something like this." He seemed to hesitate a moment before continuing. "Uhh, listen, I'm glad you happened to be working today. I actually had something I wanted to ask you."

Suddenly, a shrill tone went off in the small room, startling everyone. Dr. Crane patted his pockets for a moment before pulling a cell phone from his coat and looking at the caller ID. Whatever he saw on the screen made his expression darken. "It's Charlotte," he said quietly. "I'm sorry, I have to take this. Please excuse me."

Looking grim, he stepped out of the exam room, closing the door softly behind him. Nonplussed, Moira shook her head and turned to his father. "What was it you wanted to ask me, Mr. Crane?" she inquired.

The older man rubbed the back of his neck, visibly uncomfortable. "Uhh... Right. The thing is, my wife and I are going out of town this weekend, and I was wondering if you would be able to watch Eddie at our place."

At Moira's surprised expression, he went on hastily to explain. "I know it's kind of last minute, but I don't know who else to ask. I was going to ask Frasier, but he's got enough on his plate right now, poor guy. My other son Niles has a new baby, and he's allergic to everything. And you're just so good with Eddie. We have a fenced-in yard and a doggy door, so you wouldn't have to be there the whole time. And I'd pay you for your trouble, of course."

Moira was flattered that he would trust her enough to look after his beloved dog. "It would be no trouble at all," she said with a smile. "I'd love to stay with Eddie."

"Oh, great!" He was clearly relieved. "You're a life saver, Moira. Why don't you give me a call later, and we'll go over the details? You have my number in your files, right?"

"Yes, we do," she assured him. "I'll call you after I get off work."

The door opened again, and Dr. Crane stepped back inside. "Sorry about that," he said lightly. "Dad, we'd better go. You know how Niles gets when he's cooking. If we make him wait any longer, he'll probably over-braise the pheasant just to spite us."

"Ah, geez," his father muttered, rolling his eyes. "Why can't that boy just make a pot of chili once in a while?"

Moira was watching Dr. Crane carefully. Despite his nonchalant tone, there was off about his manner. His insouciance had a forced air about it, and his blue eyes once again had that haunted look in them. It was a look Moira knew well. She saw it whenever she met her own gaze in a mirror.

Martin Crane spoke again, interrupting her thoughts. "Thanks again for everything, Moira."

She managed to muster a smile. "Happy to help, Mr. Crane," she replied. "I'll talk to you soon."

She turned to his son and held out her hand without thinking. "It was great meeting you, Dr. Crane. I hope..." She hesitated, feeling an inexplicable urge to comfort him but not wanting to appear intrusive. "I hope you have a nice evening," she finished, rather lamely.

But Dr. Crane seemed to divine her intent, and appeared to appreciate it. "Thank you," he said sincerely, taking her hand in his. "It was lovely to meet you, too. Goodbye."

Moira bade them both farewell and watched them leave, Eddie trotting along after them. For some reason, there was a tight, uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She realized to her surprise that it was worry. She had no idea why she was experiencing so much worry over a total stranger, but there it was. Frasier Crane, the eminent radio psychiatrist who had helped countless people through their various issues, neuroses, and phobias, was clearly going through his own personal crisis. She strongly suspected that it had something to do with the woman who had called him.

What was it his father had said? "He's got enough on his plate right now, poor guy."

She hoped there was someone in his life who could help him.

She began cleaning and disinfecting the exam room for the next appointment, trying to put the matter out of her mind. The rear door opened and Dr. Nomura peeked his head in. "Cleo's litter of puppies are here for their first checkup," he told her. "Can you show them in for me?"

Moira heaved a sigh. "That... sounds... horrible."

After making a small detour to drop Eddie off at Martin and Ronee's little house in the Cherry Hill neighborhood, they drove to Pioneer Square, the location of the Beaux-Arts style luxury apartment building known as the Montana. The doorman, who lived at Martin and Frasier's former residence, the Elliott Bay Towers, expressed delight at seeing Frasier again, and waved them both through the gleaming, opulent lobby. The elevator deposited them in a dark-panelled hallway, and a short walk brought them to their destination. Martin rang the bell, and a moment later, the door opened. A tall, dark-haired woman stood in the doorway, beaming from ear to ear.

"Oh, Frasier," she exclaimed in her northern English accent, grabbing his hand and pulling him into the apartment. "Come here, you."

Frasier set down his suitcases and hugged his sister-in-law tightly. "Hey, Daph," he said.

"What about me?" Martin protested with feigned indignation. "Where's my hug?"

Daphne reached over and slapped him playfully on the arm. "What do you mean, 'Where's my hug?' You're here almost every day, you greedy old sod."

They stepped into the enormous living room. Once the very picture of stuffy sophistication, the place was now strewn with bottles, blankets, and stuffed animals. Frankly, Frasier found it a welcome change. It finally looked like a home.

Shortly, they were joined by Ronee, who came into the room bouncing a chubby baby in her arms. "Hey, Fras, give your old mom some sugar," she demanded.

"Wonderful to see you, Ronee," he greeted her pointedly, kissing her cheek. "And how's my adorable nephew?" he added, shaking the infant's little fist.

Ronee snorted a laugh. "Taking after his grandpa more every day," she replied. "This kid just loves to suck on my earlobes."

Her remark was met by a chorus of groans. "Oh, who needs you people?" she said sourly. "David and I are going to take our act on the road."

"How splendid," came a voice from the kitchen doorway. "Baby Crane and the Amazing Reverse-Aging Woman. By the end of the act, they're both in diapers."

Frasier smiled at his younger brother. "Hello, Niles."

Without a word, Niles Crane came forward and embraced him with a strength one would hardly expect of someone of his light build. For a long time, Frasier simply returned his hug just as fiercely.

"It's good to have you back, brother," Niles said at last.

"Thank you," said Frasier. "I'd like to say it's good to be back, but—"

"I know." Niles finally stepped back. "Well, now that everyone is here, let's eat. I've prepared a succulent braised pheasant with wild mushroom risotto and a squash blossom salad. Daphne helped."

"I opened the wine," his wife told Frasier dryly as they moved to the dinner table. "Which I can't even drink until I'm through with breastfeeding. Miracle of life, my arse." He made a commiserating noise as he pulled out her chair for her.

Ronee put the baby in his crib, and they all sat down to dinner. As they ate, they made small talk about inconsequential matters: the beginning of the opera season, Ronee's job as a lounge singer at the Wellington Hotel, the latest antics of Daphne's numerous brothers. Everyone was careful to avoid speaking of Frasier and his all-too-brief time in Chicago.

Although he knew they were trying to spare his feelings, it annoyed him. It was obvious by the looks they kept sending him across the table that they pitied him. Everyone did. Even that little veterinary technician at the animal hospital had felt sorry for him; he had seen it in her ridiculously large green eyes. He must have looked truly pathetic, if the sight of him inspired pity in a woman whose job consisted of collecting stool samples and cleaning up vomit all day.

After dinner, everyone began to disperse, to Frasier's relief. As glad as he was to be with his family again, he was still on Central time and was exhausted. Martin and Ronee went home, promising to come by in a few days. Daphne retired early, explaining that the baby had kept her up the night before, but not before giving him another hug.

He took his bags to the guest room and unpacked his pajamas. As he prepared to take a shower, he heard a light knock at the door and Niles came in, holding two small glasses of amber liquid.

"Just wondering if you'd care for a little sherry before turning in," he said.

"Please." Frasier took one of the glasses. "I want to thank you and Daphne for your hospitality. Rest assured, you won't have to put up with me for long. I have no intention of wallowing in self-pity, like I may have done in the past. Tomorrow, I'm meeting Roz for breakfast, and then I plan to start looking at apartments."

"Well, there's no rush," Niles assured him. "You're more than welcome to stay as long as you want. In fact, the longer you're here, the longer we can claim there's no room for Daphne's mother."

Frasier chuckled and sipped his sherry.

Niles hesitated for a moment. "Look, I understand if you don't want to talk about what happened just yet," he said. "But whenever you're ready, I'm here. And I'll even give you the family discount."

Frasier nodded minutely. "Thanks, Niles."

His brother cleared his throat. "Well... I'll leave you to get settled in."

As he turned to leave, Frasier found himself blurting out, "Why didn't I see it coming?"

Niles turned back, and he went on, unable to stop his sudden flood of words. "I claim to be an expert on human behavior," he said, gripping his glass tightly. "I should have noticed that Charlotte had a pattern of developing feelings for other men while she was already in a relationship. She was seeing someone else when we met, and it didn't take long for her to transfer her affections to me. And before that, she was in a relationship when she met Frank. And yet somehow I convinced myself that our situation was different. What made me think that I stood out from all the others?"

Slowly, Niles crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. "You were in love," he said. "For the first time in years. It was only natural that you should feel secure in your relationship. Your feelings were reciprocated, after all."

"For a while, perhaps," Frasier said bitterly. "Until someone new came along. By then my novelty had worn off."

He sighed and sank down onto the bed. "You know, it's ironic. For as long as I can remember, I've had the same problem. Every time I have a chance at finding happiness with someone, I sabotage it because I'm afraid I might be missing out on someone even better. Someone who's usually completely wrong for me. Then I finally find a woman who makes me truly happy, and she gives me a taste of my own medicine." He rubbed his face tiredly. "Hell, I can't even claim the right to be upset. I've had it coming for a long time."

Niles shook his head. "I know you thought she was the one, Frasier, but—"

"No, no," he interrupted, holding up a hand. "I've given up on that kind of thinking. No two people can ever be completely perfect for each other. That's not to say a lasting relationship isn't possible, of course, when there's love, respect, and open communication. But it doesn't work if the effort is all on one side." He swallowed. "And I realized I was doing all the work, long after she had checked out."

"I'm so sorry, Frasier," Niles said quietly. "I hope someday you find someone who deserves you."

Frasier gave a humorless laugh. "Oh, I'm afraid that ship has sailed," he replied. "In any case, I don't think I'll be looking for a good long while. For now, I'd like to learn how to be content on my own."

Niles reached over and patted his arm. "Whatever you decide, know that you have my full support," he told him.

Frasier smiled wanly. "Thank you, Niles."

The younger man stood up. "I'm off to bed. Good night, Frasier."

"Good night."

Frasier watched his brother leave the room, closing the door after him. For some time he sat staring at the opposite wall. Before long, he realized he had finished his sherry without even tasting it. Sighing, he set the empty glass aside. He looked over at his pajamas, which still lay folded on top of the bedclothes. Then, kicking off his shoes and tossing his shirt on the floor, he switched off the light and crawled under the covers.

The bed felt terribly empty.

He lay there a while, listening to the rain still falling outside. It felt like was drumming on his skull, seeping into his bones. Unwillingly, his mind went back to the call he'd received from Charlotte at the animal hospital. She had wanted to make sure his plane had landed safely. And she had apologized again, for the hundredth time. Her voice had been full of sorrow and guilt, and every word had cut through him like a knife. At last he couldn't take anymore, and had given her some flimsy excuse and hung up.

He had loved her so much, it hurt. Now it hurt just to think about her.

How many times had he told people that love was worth the risk? That it was the most awesome power in the universe, and once experienced, it was impossible to resist? How many times had he quoted Lord Tennyson's famous words, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"? What the hell did he know?

He took a deep breath and set his jaw. Well, no more. He had learned his lesson. Love was undoubtedly an awesome force for some, yes. It had brought Niles and Daphne together, and he was truly happy for them. But for him, love was a cruel, destructive thing that had never brought him anything but heartache and grief. And he was damned if he was going to let it sink its greedy talons into him again.

Frasier Crane had fallen in love for the last time.