Her chest tightened with the realization, and Monica forced herself into motion. She got out of bed, put a bathrobe on over her pajamas, her mind already racing with thoughts of work. The restaurant was pushing turkey burgers for some odd reason, making them the lunchtime special, and Monica would be in charge of getting the patties ready for the hoped-for rush. That meant grinding a lot of turkey as soon as she got in.
Feeling more in control, she opened the bedroom door and blinked. Chandler and Joey were sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper and drinking coffee. While they had a standing invitation to come over and fix themselves food, Chandler usually fixed breakfast in his own apartment, and Joey rarely got up before noon. Seeing both of them for breakfast was almost unprecedented.
They were affecting not to notice her. Monica studied them for a moment before offering, "Morning."
"Hey." Joey looked up and smiled his charming smile. "You feeling all right?"
Chandler sighed and looked at Joey. "Subtle, remember? We were going for subtle."
"Oh yeah. So, Mon, what you fixing us for breakfast?"
Chandler shook his head. "Subtle does not mean treating her like your servant."
"Hey, she likes to cook, what's wrong with asking her to do stuff she likes?"
"And that's your entire motivation, is it?"
"Well, if what she likes means I get a decent omelet out of the deal, then everyone wins."
"How altruistic of you. I guess you're just lucky she's not a proctologist."
Monica grinned. "I don't mind fixing omelets. Just give me a minute."
She fixed breakfast as Joey and Chandler continued trading good-natured insults. Chandler was better at it, of course, but Joey was doing surprisingly well in rebuttal. Monica considered him for a moment as she whipped the eggs. It had been a few months and she just couldn't get a handle on him. He had obviously not done well at school; he said an awful lot of dumb things. But she wasn't certain whether that was because he simply didn't care. He spoke well, and Monica had always equated a good sense of humor with intelligence, and Joey could be hilarious at times.
The omelets were soon ready and being eaten with gusto. Monica separated the yolks from two eggs and made an omelet for herself as well, somewhat of a rarity as she wasn't much a fan of big breakfasts.
Chandler, meanwhile, was looking at the headlines. "So, our new President gave a speech on the economy."
"Oh?" Monica usually didn't keep up much of an interest in politics. "And?"
Chandler made a pretense of reading the article carefully. "Apparently we have one."
"No, no," Joey said sternly. "It was all about NASA."
Frowning, Chandler looked at the paper again. "NAFTA?"
"Er, yeah, that too. Evidently we're going to eliminate sheriffs-"
"-between us, Canada, and New Mexico."
"Because cheap labor from Albuquerque has been killing our trade."
"Right." Joey looked uncertain for a minute, then shrugged slightly. "So, Mon, I had a date tonight with this total babe named Bitsy but she had to postpone for Friday. Wanna head out and do something instead? Maybe hit a movie?"
Monica had been sharing an amused smile with Chandler but now pointed it at Joey. "That's sweet, but Ross is coming over for dinner. Why don't you and Chandler join us? Maybe we could play a game or something afterwards."
Joey and Chandler looked at each other, confirming Monica's suspicion that Bitsy had not been the one to postpone the date with Joey. "Sure, sounds great," he said after a second. "Rehearsal will be done at six if that's not too late."
"Not at all." Monica stood up and began clearing the table. "Fold up your napkin before you put it on your plate, Chandler, I don't want you spilling crumbs on the floor."
"Righty-o." Chandler rose with a heavy sigh. "Joe, wanna switch jobs for a day? One of us will have to act like a wooden automaton struggling to find a way to become human, and the other will be appearing in a children's play called Pinnochio."
"Ha. I can't today, it's all this dancing stuff, it's complicated. You can maybe help me practice later."
"It will be the highlight of my day, trust me." Chandler led Joey towards the front door."
Monica paused in the act of picking up their plates. "Hey, guys."
They stopped and looked over at her.
She smiled. "Thanks."
Joey grinned and Chandler nodded, then they left.
Monica continued cleaning up, and already felt a vacuum forming. The guys had done her a favor by showing up, but they couldn't stay forever. Monica stood in the kitchen after finishing the dishes, staring out at the living room, feeling the emptiness intensely. A dull ache knotted the pit of her stomach despite breakfast, a blackness that wanted to suck the life right out of her.
She needed brightness. The light and intensity of a toothful smile, of soft blue eyes shining above pretty cheeks.
Monica grabbed the phone. She began dialing numbers written hastily on the back of an envelope. She listened intently as she heard buzzing once, twice, then suddenly a familiar voice was saying, "Hello?"
"Phoebe!" Monica felt a foolish grin as the pain in her stomach lessened. "You all moved in?"
"Monica, hi! Yes, mostly, the room is narrow, it's small, smaller than the room I had there, so I have to twist everything around, but it's full of my grandmother's aura so it doesn't mind, it's making me so welcome."
The grin widened. A typical Phoebe response. "Good. So, anyway, everyone's coming to dinner tonight, a little after six when Joey's audition is done. Why don't you come on over?"
"Oh." Phoebe's voice went flat. "I, I can't tonight, me, my grandmother is taking me out."
The pain in her stomach suddenly became more intense. "I understand, it's your first night with her. How about tomorrow night?"
"I, that, that's Friday, I have kind of a date."
"Oh yeah, Joey probably will too. What about lunch on Saturday?"
"I, I have work then, Mrs. Atherton made a special appointment, her daughter is getting married Sunday and she wants her aura to be as clear as possible."
Monica grimaced. "Sunday night, then. We can all watch Simpsons together so we can understand Chandler's jokes on Monday."
Silence greeted this. Monica frowned, wondering if she'd lost the connection until she heard the sound of Phoebe moving the phone from one ear to the other. It was something Phoebe did often, as she had never fully readjusted to using phones after a several-year absence and had often expressed dismay at being unable to see people as she talked to them.
Monica could appreciate that. Right now she'd give anything to see the expression on Phoebe's face.
"All right." The sound was so loud and abrupt that Monica almost dropped the phone. "All right, I'll come over tonight. Just for dinner."
"Oh? What about your grandmother?"
"We'll do it some other time, I think she might have to work tonight anyway."
"Great." The smile found its way back to Monica's lips. "So, dinner at sixish like I said, but come over any time you like."
"Okay." Phoebe sounded a little more relaxed. "Buh-bye then."
Monica gently hung up the phone, feeling a lot more mellow. She began getting ready for work, already planning the meal she'd make for Phoebe tonight.
Carefully Monica arranged the crackers on the plate around the central dish. It looked uniform and orderly when she was done, and she took a step back, admiring her handiwork. It was almost a shame that people would be eating this.
Almost on cue, the door opened behind her. "Hey Mon."
"Hey Ross." She took a moment to try and gauge her brother's mood, and decided he was more-or-less normal. "Dinner probably won't be for half an hour or so, but I made an appetizer."
Ross hung up his coat and stepped up beside her. "What is it? Pâté?"
"Yup. Use the little plates."
"Or risk certain death, I know, I know." Ross picked up a plate, destroyed the pattern of crackers by selecting two, and spread a generous portion of pâté over both of them. Monica closely monitored the process, then judged that Ross was taking sufficient care. She went back to dinner preparations.
Ross was strolling around the apartment. "What happened to the couch?"
"Phoebe took one of the cushions to be cleaned."
"Oh. Gosh, the window looks empty without the plants."
"You never thought so before in all the years it didn't have plants."
"Well, that was because we were distracted by Ugly Naked Man. Whom, I might add, seems to have gotten a cat."
"I hope for his sake he's gotten it declawed."
Ross laughed. "You seem to be taking this well."
Monica paused in the process of putting a handful of asparagus into the steamer. "I... it's too soon to tell. Ask me in a week."
Ross nodded and, thankfully, didn't press the matter. "Are you planning on getting another roommate?"
"No!" Monica blinked at herself; that had come out more strongly than she'd intended. "Not right now, and maybe not for a while. I, I just want to be by myself."
"Hmm." Ross put his now-empty plate on the coffee table. "Can you afford that?"
"I... yeah, I have a little reserve built up, and I can volunteer for more days. They're actually a little short-staffed at the moment."
"Remember how much that wore you out last time."
"Well, last time I wasn't making as much as I am now. I can probably do it working six days a week. And I work the lunch shift now, so it's not like I'll be working odd hours."
"Well, if you're sure," Ross said dubiously. "Let me know if I can kick in a little help."
"That won't be necessary," Monica replied firmly. "I can manage."
"I've never doubted that, Mon."
She was spared the necessity of a reply by the arrival of Chandler and, surprisingly, Joey. Monica raised her eyebrows. "I thought you had rehearsal until six, Joey."
"Well, the dancing didn't go so well, so they ended it early so they could rework some of the stuff." Joey wandered over to the kitchen table. "What's this? Cream cheese?"
"In part, yeah. Try it." Monica turned up the temperature on the asparagus; dinner was going to be sooner than expected.
"Hey, this is good." Joey grinned his appreciation as he prepared a second helping. "You gotta try this, Chandler."
"No thanks." Chandler had also taken a stroll around the apartment - it was as if everyone needed to reacquaint themselves with the place - and now sat at the kitchen table. "I'm not much of a liver fan."
"Liver?" Joey made a face. "I'm eating liver?"
"It's good for you. I thought you said you liked it."
"Well... I did." Joey seemed to be flailing for a reply. "I mean, before I found it was made of icky stuff."
"Oh?" Chandler looked up at Joey. "Are you aware exactly what a hot dog is made of?"
Joey frowned. "Okay, okay, I'll eat this if you promise to never tell me."
Chandler chuckled. "Deal."
The door flew open. "Hello everyone!"
"Hi Pheebs." Monica felt a surge of joy at seeing Phoebe walk in, guitar strapped over one shoulder, her very large purse strapped over the other, a little frizzy at the end of a long day but still cheerful. For some reason Monica had never fully appreciated how much she enjoyed seeing Phoebe like that before. "Dinner will be ready soon."
"Hi Mon, Hi Chandler, ooh, what are you eating Joey?" Phoebe walked up, took the pâté-covered cracker from Joey's plate and, before Monica could react, took a big bite. "Ooh, this is nummy. What is it?"
Monica froze. She wanted Phoebe to feel comfortable in this, her first visit back to the apartment after moving out. And letting her know that she'd just unknowingly eaten goose liver was not a good start. "It's, it's a vegetable paste."
Joey looked puzzled. He opened his mouth to say something just as Chandler practically shouted, "So, Pheebs, play us something on your guitar. It's been ages."
"Hmm?" Phoebe finished her cracker as she regarded Chandler. Joey, thankfully, had enough sense to close his mouth. "You sure?"
"Of course I am!"
"You won't make any funny faces?"
"Not, not any funnier than usual."
"Okay, then." Phoebe set down her guitar and purse and took off her coat. "After dinner. Smells good, Monica."
"Thanks. Everyone sit and we'll get started." Monica shared a grateful look with Chandler. He could be remarkably gifted when the occasion warranted.
Dinner was quick and pleasant, with everyone asking about Phoebe's new living arrangements. At first she was cautious in replying, but Monica kept up a cheerful mien and soon Phoebe's enthusiasm shone through as she blathered on about how neat her grandmother was.
Monica cleaned up after dinner as everyone else moved to the living room. Chandler suggested Pictionary and everyone agreed. Ross immediately suggested boys versus girls, which Phoebe accepted with enthusiasm. Monica appreciated what Ross was trying to do but had her own reservations; Phoebe often drew very esoteric images that were often difficult to decipher. Of them all, Joey had the best drawing skills.
The game proceeded. Monica and Phoebe got off to a strong start but stalled when Phoebe drew a picture of a smiling woman for "Sistine Chapel" - her logic being that the smiling woman was the Mona Lisa which was in the Louvre which also housed works of art by the guy who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Monica thinned her lips but was able to refrain from saying anything too snide. Eventually Chandler and Joey pulled ahead and won easily, to Monica's annoyance. Next time she'd suggest that Ross be on her team as well to offset the handicap of Phoebe.
While Monica put the game away, Phoebe wandered over to the bay window. "I wonder if Ugly Naked Guy ever has friends over to play games?"
"Dunno; he seems content to just sit there and watch television." Joey sidled up next to Phoebe, looking out the window. He winced. "Man, how could stand living across from that? I'd paint my windows black."
"Aw, c'mon, it's cute." Phoebe grinned. "He likes being naked and he doesn't care if anyone else knows it. You should try it some time."
"Hey, I tried it once already in this apartment and that was enough." Joey shuddered.
Monica flashed him a grin. "Trust me, you have nothing to be ashamed about."
Chandler groaned. "Oh man, now I have something new to feel inadequate about."
"Oh, don't." Phoebe bounced over to him, patted him on the top of his head. "You're sweet, and that's more important than anything else."
"Sweet? Sweet? I just don't see that working." He walked over to Monica, held out his hand, and spoke in a deep tone of voice. "Hi, I'm Chandler, I'm sweeter than sugar. Want a taste?"
Monica chuckled. "She said you were sweet. She didn't say you were attractive."
"Oh!" Chandler touched his lips with his fingertips and then stared at them. "Am I bleeding? Monica tagged me good."
"Man, I keep telling you." Joey came up, punched Chandler lightly on the shoulder. "You could get all the women you wanted if only you took a few lessons from the Joey School of Charm."
"Thanks, but I prefer the Chandler School of Witty Repartee."
"That been working for you?"
"It might have if I hadn't dropped out after the first week."
Monica shook her head. "Stop it. You'll find someone, Chandler, don't worry."
Chandler gave her a half-smile. "You promise?"
"I guarantee it. If you'd just stop feeling sorry for yourself."
"Oh, but I do so enjoy wallowing in self-pity. Still, you may have a point." Chandler glanced at his watch. "Gotta get to bed, early-morning staff meeting tomorrow. I need to be well-rested so that I can yawn throughout the meeting without opening my mouth."
Joey blinked. "Is that possible?"
"Absolutely. I've had long practice at it, trust me."
"I, I should get back, too." Phoebe walked over to the counter by the front door and began digging through her purse. "I, I, I wanted to give these back to you, Monica." She turned around with her hand held out.
Monica glanced down, saw two keys in Phoebe's palm. "Oh no, you keep them."
"But, but I don't-"
"For whenever you come over, so we don't have to buzz you in, or if you want to just hang out when I'm not here." Monica smiled. "Ross has a set of keys, why shouldn't you?"
Phoebe looked at Monica, then down at the keys in her hand, her expression blank.
Monica plunged ahead. "I mean, you're still coming over Sunday, right? You'll need the keys then."
A kind of half-smile formed on Phoebe's face. Phoebe had all sorts of smiles, but this was the first time Monica had seen this one. It was a kind of introverted smile, as if she was smiling to herself.
After a few seconds, Phoebe lifted her head and her smile widened. "I guess I will need them, won't I?"
Monica nodded firmly, relief percolating through her. "That's settled then. See you Sunday."
"Okay." Phoebe put the keys back in her purse, then unexpectedly reached over and hugged Monica. She released the hug quickly, grabbed her guitar and coat, and left the apartment.
Joey and Chandler also took off, leaving Monica once again alone with Ross. He put on his coat but looked at Monica. "You did that well."
She looked back at him. "Did what well?"
Ross smiled slightly. "As you like. See you later."
Monica smiled back, glad for his discretion. "See you."
Ross left, and Monica looked out over the apartment. The last of the depression over Phoebe's moving out left her. The apartment no longer felt empty; it was just waiting for everyone to come back.
Humming to herself, Monica prepared for bed.
(to be continued)