THE LAST DANCE
A/N: I should be working on Out Of Breath, but I felt like writing something (very vaguely) Christmassy. This is a standalone AU piece – Monica and Chandler were childhood friends (yes, I know it's hard to imagine the Gellers and the Bings being family friends, but try to stretch your mind!). They grew apart when they were younger and have since had a few (mainly physical, if you know what I mean) liaisons. And then they bump into each other one Christmas Eve… enjoy, and please review (it can be my Christmas present)!
Christmas Eve, 1986
The little girl stared plainly at him, her eyes open and blue like the puddles he had spent his childhood stamping and stomping and playing in. He shifted uncomfortably under her gaze – although two years his junior, and only a child herself, he felt somehow as if – ridiculous as it sounded, even in his head – as if she could see him. As if she could really see into him, not through him. It was an unusual sensation, and one that sent a shiver down his spine. He was used to being transparent – it was comfortable and secure. He wasn't ready to become opaque just yet.
She smiled briefly, and held out her hand to him. After a minute of bewildered staring, he realized the expectations, and tentatively reached his out, his fingers entwined with hers. "Happy Christmas, Chandler," she told him, a crooked smile playing on her lips. "I hope Santa brings you everythin' you want."
Chandler frowned and pulled his hand away slightly. "Santa don't exist, Monica! My Mom said!"
She chose to ignore him entirely. He was exciting and fresh and, in her mind, grown up so much further than her. He was a plant reaching, triumphant, high into the sunlight, while she struggled to emerge from the dirty mud. He was perfect. "Chandler?"
"When we grow up, will you – will you-" She giggled. "Will you marry me?"
He blushed furiously. "Um… okay. I guess. If you want."
He would remember, she promised herself silently. However hard he tried to forget, she would make him remember. Both of them realised, in the sparkling glow of the nightlight, that this was not a promise to be taken lightly.
Neither of them forgot.
Christmas Eve, 2004
The snow was falling quickly now, thickly compressed ice covering every spot of black on the ground until everything around her was white as a blinding light. A new beginning, she thought to herself. A blank canvas. Yes – but by the morning, the snow would have melted, and the gray monotony of the ground it had covered would return. Nothing was permanent – and nothing could change. It didn't stop her from hoping.
There was a figure, she noticed, on the street corner ahead of her, tall and thin and draped in a long black trench coat, and silhouetted by the moonlight against the white eternity stretching out behind him. Strands of hair flying wildly in the wind, he held a cigarette in one hand, and fumbled in his pocket with the other. He pulled a lighter out and, with a trembling hand, inclined his thumb slightly, causing a small flame to erupt from the device. Crimson light illuminated his pale face.
Her face exploded into a grin – stupid, she thought, that after all these years, he could still affect her like this – and, on impulse, she ran towards him, the snow impeding her laboured movement. "Chandler!" she cried, her voice muffled by the scarf wrapped twice around her throat. She pulled it away slightly, and called again. "Chandler! Chandler Bing!"
The man turned around slowly and frowned at her, flicking a strand of sandy brown hair out of his eye before folding his arms uncertainly and letting his cigarette drop to the white of the ground, where it melted a small circle of snow around it. "Yes? Do I know you?"
Her face fell visibly, and she began to shiver slightly – whether from the snow or as a reaction to seeing him again, she did not know. "Mon – Monica Geller. We used to hang out as kids – I…"
He grinned at her, his face lighting up. "I was kidding! Kidding! Of course I remember you." He paused. "So, apparently we don't hug each other any more…?"
She flung himself into her arms, and he wrapped himself around her, barely noticing how cold he was any more. She could keep him warm again just like she used to. "It's been a long time, Bing…" she murmured into the flannel of his coat.
"Yeah." His voice was serious again, and he rubbed his arm up and down her back slowly. "Yeah… I know."
"Years," she observed.
"Yep," he agreed, with forced cheer. "Loads of 'em!"
"How old were we back then, anyway?"
"Considerably younger than we are now, I'd say… you were, what, seven? Eight? I was nine or ten, I think…" He winked. "The older man, you know?"
"D'you remember what we said – what we promised?"
His pulse increased significantly – he pulled away slightly, hoping that she wasn't able to hear his speeding heartbeat. "Of course! Of course I remember! I promised, didn't I? Pinky swear." He leaned towards her. "You can't break them, you know," he whispered conspiratorially. "The question is, Miss Highflying Businesswoman – do you remember?"
She snorted. "I'm hardly a businesswoman, Chandler! I'm a chef!"
"You always were good at baking." He paused. "Of course, it was always hard to tell… I don't think you ever actually let me eat any of your food myself – you always ate it for me, remember?"
She shrugged. "I told you what it tasted like afterwards!"
"You didn't answer my question, by the way." He paused for a second. "Do you remember?"
"Yeah… I remember – I mean… you know… we were just kids back then, though – it didn't actually, I mean, you didn't… right?"
"Monica? Do you realise that you didn't actually ask me anything then?"
She grinned. "What I mean is… well, I don't actually know what I mean, but… I mean… um…"
"You mean…?" he prompted, suddenly realising that his arms were still wrapped tightly around her, but unwilling to step backwards. As long as she stayed still, he vowed, he would not move even a centimeter.
"I mean that I'm married, Chandler." She pulled backwards away from him, shivering involuntarily at the sharp blast of cold air that attacked her suddenly, and waved a large gold wedding ring in his face.
He blinked, and shattered into ten thousand shards scattered onto the street and buried quickly by the falling snow. Pull yourself together, he warned himself sternly, hugging his arms tightly around his chest in a hope of holding the pieces together. He smiled brightly – an intricate act. "Really? Is that what the ring on your finger means? And there was me thinking that you were just showing off a bit of the ol' bling bling…" He winked. Be resilient. Don't let her watch you fall apart.
"Did anyone ever tell you that you are a huge dork?" she asked, smiling faintly, and wishing, wishing that he had shown some sort of disappointment at her marriage. Wishing that he cared. Yes, the façade of indifference that he held up so unrelentingly had always been able to fool her. She would never know.
"The lady flatters me," he joked. "Seriously, though – married. Can't say I'm surprised – you are gorgeous… who's the lucky guy?"
She flushed. "Uh… who?"
He rolled his eyes. "Your husband!"
"Oh. Oh! Oh, him… his name's Richard."
"He sounds… nice…" Chandler muttered, his voice slightly strangled.
She didn't notice, raising an eyebrow. "Seriously? You can tell what a person's like just from their name?"
"Oh, yeah! Totally! I mean, your name tells volumes about you – you know, as a person, and… stuff…"
"What does 'Chandler Bing' say about you then, mister?" She coughed. "Anyway, yeah… my husband… you remember Richard Burke, right? Doctor Richard Burke?"
"Ooh, a doctor!" he said, clapping his hands together in mock excitement and jumping up and down on the spot. Idiot, he cursed himself silently. And now she thinks you're gay… "Your parents will be so – hang on… Doctor Richard Burke as in that Doctor Richard Burke?"
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah – because there are that many of them running around the Village… Yes, that Richard Burke! Stop staring at me! Close your mouth!"
"But he's so incredibly -" He winced under her glare, and gave a false smile. Everything was false, really. "So incredibly nice," he finished. "That must be pretty weird for your parents, though… especially your Mom…"
"What? Why especially for Mom?"
"Because she and Richard had that thing back in-" He trailed off, grinning sheepishly. "Yeah. You didn't know about that, did you?" Monica shook her head slowly. "So I pretty much stuck my big foot into it?" She nodded. "Yep – thought as much… Hey! Look! It's snowing!"
"Seriously? You just noticed that? Chandler, it's been snowing for, like, three whole days!"
He smiled. "Yes, but I only just started developing frostbite… Look, d'you want to come up to my apartment? I'm not propositioning you or anything… it's just that, if we stay outside, I might actually die. No, seriously! Don't laugh! Do you want to have to circumnavigate my corpse?"
"Oh, you put it so nicely," she smiled. "I'm not coming to your apartment, though – sorry."
He looked hurt. "Way to kick a man when he's… covered in snow…"
"It's just – I – it's too – look, my car's just down the street. Let's drive, okay?"
"Do I get a choice?"
She grinned, tugging on the loose sleeve of his coat. "Of course not. When did you ever get a choice? Now come on!"
"Never could say no, that's my problem…" he muttered to no one in particular, closing his eyes partially as she manoeuvred him towards an old, peeling black, vehicle with a missing wing mirror and a long, snakelike, crack crawling up the windshield. They threw open the doors and collapsed, giggling, onto the leather seats (which, unsurprisingly, were immaculately clean).
"Nice car," he muttered. "Where'd you find it? A skip?"
She walloped him over the arm. "It was a wedding present from Richard, thank you very much…"
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, it's hardly a Porsche, is it?"
She smiled. "No. I save the Porsche for when I'm picking up guys, y'know?"
"Am I not a guy?"
She pretended to examine him. "Sorry – easy mistake to make…"
There was silence as she rummaged in her purse to find the car keys. It was not an awkward silence, but a mutual agreement of comfort.It made sense. Neither of them had experienced that kind of an understanding for so long. It was unfamiliar and alien to them, and Chandler coughed nervously, trying beyond anything else to fill up the space in the vacuum where their voices had once been. Relieved, Monica found the keys and stuck them hastily into the ignition, drowning the car in engine noise, and saving them both from having to confront any kind of truth.
"Where d'you want to go?" She leaned back lazily in her seat.
"Anywhere." He waved his arm in the air. "Anywhere – I don't care! Take me anywhere!"
"To be honest, I don't really know anywhere around here," she confessed. "I don't even live near here – my – our – house is way upstate."
"O-kay." He was confused. "Not to put too fine a point on it… uh… why are you here and not with the old – uh, young – man?"
"I have to get away sometimes… I mean, our life is great – seriously great, but… it's just that his ex-wife is there, and his children and our children, and his –" She shuddered. "Grandchildren. Who, by the way, are my step-grandchildren. Seriously, Chandler, I'm not even thirty yet and I have freaking grandchildren!"
"And I love him so much, but… I just can't stand the noise in that damn house! And everything's so messy! I mean, seriously! Would it kill them to put a coaster down once in a while?" She shuddered. "I had to get out! It was killing me in there!"
"Calm down, seriously! They're just coasters…"
She sighed. "You really don't know me at all, do you?"
"Well, no. But considering the last time we actually talked was about twenty years ago, it's hardly surprising, is it?"
She smiled. "That wasn't the last time we met though, was it?"
"It's probably best if we don't mention that," he said, grinning. "I mean, we were both drunk-"
"Yep. And stupid-"
He leaned back and sighed. "Oh, but it was a good night, though, wasn't it?"
He paused, playing back their conversation so far in his head; rewinding until he found the phrase that was causing a faint buzzing sound in his mind. Children. "Hang on a minute – our children?"
"Not yours! Mine and Richard's!"
"Yes. Surprisingly enough, I did work that one out… I didn't know you had kids…"
"I'm sorry – I should have said…"
"Don't be stupid – it's just that… I don't know, I… it just got so complicated, didn't it? It didn't used to be this complicated…"
"Yeah, but I would have been surprised if, at eight, I was married with kids, you know? We grew up, Chandler – that's all."
He frowned. "Growing up sucks!"
"Okay – correction. I grew up."
He grinned. "I missed you."
"Yeah… you too…"
"I need to pee!" Monica announced, bouncing up and down on the seat and braking suddenly.
"You sure know how to ruin a moment, don't you?"
"Would you rather I just… did it in here?"
"Okay… get out, get out, get out! There's a bar across the road – you can… do your business… there…"
"You put it very nicely, Mr Bing."
"Thank you." He smiled. "I do try."
She opened the door, stepped outside, frowned, and poked her head back into the car. "Aren't you coming in with me?"
"What – into the bathroom? Monica, there are laws against that kind of thing…"
"Into the bar, you loser!"
"No. I have no desire to become a living snowman again… go!"
She went. As soon as she had been immersed by the colors and noise, he reached into the glove compartment of the car and fumbled around for some sort of paper. He found nothing but the car manual, and, closing his eyes in fear of how Monica would react to such reckless behaviour, ripped a page out, laid it down on the dashboard and searched the car for some sort of writing implement.
Under Monica's seat, he found a long forgotten blue Biro bathed in dust and, pulling it out with relish, scribbled quickly four words onto the slip of paper before throwing everything back into the compartment and slamming it shut just as Monica reached the car.
Climbing in and closing the door behind her, she raised an eyebrow. "What are you doing? If you've messed up my car in any way, I'll – I'll-" She broke off, unable to invent a just punishment for such an unthinkable crime.
"Shut up and drive, woman."
There was silence for a few minutes as the car sped along the backstreets. Monica peered out of the windscreen, and frowned. "Hey, look! It's stopped snowing!"
"How long were we driving for?" He smiled. "Hey – let's get some air, okay?"
She shuddered. "It's dirty out there!"
"Nah – the snow cleaned everything. Clean slate. Come on!" His enthusiasm was contagious, and they leapt out of the car, beaming at one another. "It's quite pretty, really," mused Chandler, pulling Monica closer to him.
"Okay… is insanity a symptom of pneumonia?" she asked, trying to conceal the excitement that was coursing through her veins at the prospect of such close contact with him. Him.
Chandler reached into the car and, turning the radio on, allowed the music to seep through the doors and into their cores. He smiled. "One last dance?"
Their bodies shook in time to the rhythm of the music, pressed so tightly together that neither was certain of where his contours began and hers ended. Their skin prickled with sweat and longing, and their limbs ached with the effort of standing upright. It used to come so easily to them, but now it was all that they could do to stop themselves from dissolving into the wet snow.
He grabbed her face with his rough hands, turning it to meet his, and embracing her dry crimson mouth with his own, joining them together in a moment of infatuation and desire. She did not pull away – could not pull away – she had neither the energy nor the will. Instead, she pushed herself further forwards, wishing, as she had done so many countless times before, that she could melt into him like the sun into the sleeping ocean, and become a part of him. So that nothing could separate them – and so that he could never forget.
As always, the vehemence of her passion terrified her. The fear did not stem from surprise – she had known for as long as she could drag her mind to that she was in love with Chandler Bing; it had long been a fact of life – but from the acceptance that she would never feel this sort of flagrant desire for her husband. Their relationship was strictly platonic – "good morning, dear" as the sun rose, and a few mumbled niceties before a peck on the cheek and separate beds when it set. She felt nothing for that well worn routine – no, the tribal beat that blazed through her eyes and kept her dancing was fuelled by brief snatched seconds like this with Chandler, not a lifetime of tedium with Richard.
If it weren't for her children, there would be no ropes to tie her down, and she would be free to drive away with him in this car, with the bass of the radio thumping her farewells. As it was, she was dripping in an infinite number of thick iron chains, binding her to this existence.
She clung tighter to Chandler, closing her eyes as the song drew to an end. "That's it, then, I guess," she whispered, taking a step away from him and praying that some sort of physical distance would help to ease the burning in her chest.
"Yep. The last dance… pretty final, isn't it?"
"It doesn't have to be." There was a note of wild desperation in her voice.
"Except that it does, doesn't it?" He glanced at his watch. "Look at that – midnight. Merry Christmas, Miss Gell- Mrs Burke."
"Merry Christmas, Chandler," she reciprocated quietly, trembling as he gave her a brief kiss on the cheek. "Look – let me give you a lift back to your place, at least," she offered pleadingly, her blue eyes pained and beseeching.
He smiled. "It's okay. I can walk from here."
"I know you can walk, but I just thought-"
"'Bye, Monica," he whispered, letting his hand rest briefly on her cheek before pulling it away. It burned him even to touch her.
She nodded, focusing determinedly on the slush that had formed on their feet and doggedly refusing to watch him walk away. She had done that enough times before to know what it looked like already. And in that moment, it hurt her more than anything she had ever known before – the sting was deep and unrelenting, and she wept in an attempt to dull the pain, throwing herself into the car and switching on the engine, vainly attempting to mask the sounds of her sobs.
Remembering suddenly, and with the hope of one who has been given a new lease of life, she reached into the glove compartment and groped in the darkness until her fingers clasped around the torn scrap of paper she had seen him hastily shove back in. It had been hurriedly scrawled on in slanted, block capital letters.
SAME PLACE NEXT YEAR?