A/N: Whoa! Thank you for all the subscriptions and favoriting (I don't think that's a real word, but, oh well), and most importantly, for ALL the reviews! Frankly, it's a little bit overwhelming. If only I had known earlier that angst would get me so many readers... lol! :D
And I'm extremely sorry for the ridiculously long delay between updates. This chapter, for some reason, was exceptionally hard for me to write. I hope it'd at least be worth the wait.
Anyway, my huge thanks to WendyCR72 (who is now my Beta) for her help with this chapter and for encouraging me to continue. Had it not been for her advice, this chapter would still be sitting in my laptop, not yours.
Any mistakes that remain are mine and mine alone.
Disclaimer: No, I don't own the show or the lines from the show, and I don't own the song 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' – I notice that I've made a number of references to that song, and there are going to be a few more references to it, so I just wanted to say that I do not own the song, and that I just have an unhealthy obsession with it.
If it's Love
He wished he could be numb to this pain.
He threw the cab fare absently at the surly cabdriver, his whole body trembling violently as he entered his building just past midnight. He knew it wasn't from the cold.
He had left the beach house empty-handed except for his wallet, forgetting even his coat.
Placing a foot on the flight of steps, he gripped the banister tightly, closing his eyes as he stood still for a second.
But we swore it would never turn into anything more.
Her beautiful face filled with uncertainty, her blue eyes filled with tears – that was the only image his brain brought to his memory.
Tears sprang to his eyes and burned at the back of his throat. He wiped them away hastily and continued to climb up the stairs, his heart thudding dully in his chest.
He felt utterly defeated. Lost. He loved her. He knew without a doubt that she loved him, too. So why was she denying it? Why was she hell-bent on breaking his heart?
Every time he had held her in his arms, he had promised himself that he'd never let anything hurt her.
Now, she was hurting him, and he didn't know what to do.
He reached his apartment after what felt like too long a time to him. He unlocked and entered it, only to find it empty and eerily silent.
Joey had spent the night somewhere else.
'Deafening silence' was an oxymoron which he'd always thought didn't make any sense, but now he knew exactly what it meant.
He needed a cigarette; he needed it now. His hands absently felt his pockets for his pack of cigarettes, and stilled when he remembered he hadn't smoked once in the past eleven months.
She had asked him not to. At first, he'd been reluctant to quit, but when she claimed that she was 'allergic' to cigarette smoke, he'd quit, even though he knew she was lying. It's not good for you, either, she'd said, her words tentative, as if she was uncertain whether 'worrying' could come within the territory of whatever they'd had between them.
"I'm so happy I could die."
"You are the best thing in my life."
"I'd rather die than live a life without you."
Her words swirled around in his head, making his temples throb. He could feel himself starting to hyperventilate.
He had to fill this silence with something, something that would drown out his thoughts, his memories, his pain.
His head swiveled towards the radio. He crossed to it and turned it on, listening as it crackled to life.
He stared at it when Bonnie Tyler's husky voice slowly filled the room – Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I'm only falling apart.
He reached over to pick up the radio and smashed it against the wall. He watched it as it shattered to pieces, the hundreds of tiny fragments blurred by his tears.
Joey tried to unlock the door the next morning, but frowned when he found it already unlocked.
Chandler couldn't have possibly returned. He had told him that he and Monica were spending the whole weekend at her parents' beach house, which meant that they'd be returning only the next day.
"Shit, shit, shit," he muttered as he opened the door and entered the apartment. He was absolutely certain that he had locked it before he had left for his date the previous night. Had someone broke and entered? If that was the case, one thing was certain – Chandler was going to kill him.
His frown deepened when he found Chandler's door half-open. He moved towards his friend's room with a sense of foreboding, but paused when he felt something crunch under his shoe. "What the-?" he murmured in confusion as he nudged the several pieces of the broken radio together with his foot.
Something was terribly wrong and he didn't know what it was. Strengthening his resolve, he resumed his walk towards Chandler's bedroom, squaring his shoulders instinctively.
He slowly pushed the door open, but stopped in his tracks, surprised. "Chandler?"
What was he doing here now?
He was slumped on the bed sideways, asleep over the covers. When Joey moved closer to him, he shivered slightly as if the room was suddenly too cold.
"Chandler," Joey whispered, patting his arm lightly, still in shock.
Something was not right. Although Chandler hadn't explicitly stated it, he'd somehow gotten the hint that he was going to tell Monica how he felt during this weekend at the beach house. And everything should have gone smoothly, but something was telling him that it hadn't.
"Chandler," Joey raised his voice and shook him harder.
He stirred slightly, turning a little to evade the person who was incessantly shaking his arm. "Mon, I..." he mumbled in his sleep, but his words died on his lips. His brain had awoken enough to remind him that there was no 'Mon'.
"Chandler, wake up," Joey tried again.
He opened his eyes slowly, squinting at that light that poured through the huge gap between the curtains. When Joey's eyebrows rose in bewilderment, he knew his own eyes were probably bloodshot.
"Dude..." Joey trailed off before he continued in a whisper, "what happened?"
"Nothing, Joe," he mumbled, burying his face in his pillow.
It smelled like her.
"Come on," Joey sighed. "What's wrong? How come you returned so soon?" He glanced at the pieces of the broken radio in the living room, his eyebrows knitting together. He turned to Chandler again and asked him the one question that he needed an answer the most for. "Where's Monica?"
He possessed neither the strength nor the energy to answer Joey's questions. "Leave me alone, Joey," he whispered, his quiet words muffled by the pillow.
Tears threatened to fall and he tried hard to hold them back. Until the previous night, he hadn't cried once since he was nine. He was good at building walls around him to protect himself from getting hurt, but now, she had succeeded in breaking that wall. She'd broken it with relative ease.
"Dude, are you okay?" Joey sounded panicked. "What happened at the beach house?"
He could feel his temper rise. He knew it was irrational – Joey was his well-wisher. In fact, he'd even say his 'best' friend – but all he wanted now was to close his eyes and forget the world for just a second; forget her for just a second.
"Leave. Me. Alone," he gritted through clenched teeth. Just as he uttered those words, he sensed Joey backing away.
Joey, concerned and apprehensive all at once, stood still, stuck between his friend and the door. He glanced back and forth between both, and eventually turned to Chandler again. "Okay, just answer me this," he said slowly after several seconds of silence. "Did you tell Monica?"
Chandler remained unmoving for what felt like an eternity to Joey, but when he lifted his head and looked at him, Joey suddenly wished he hadn't asked the question.
He didn't need the answer now, not from Chandler. The myriad red cracks in his friend's eyes told him the answer.
"It's over, Joe," Chandler murmured, wondering for a moment whether breathing had ever been this hard before. "It's all over."
"Hey, you're back!" Ross greeted his sister as she entered her apartment the next day. "Okay, I know that um... you said that- you said 'only in case of emergency', but I-" he started stutteringly as he tried to explain the reason behind his presence in her apartment, but stopped on seeing her face.
Her face ashen, her eyes red-rimmed, she looked at him wearily.
"Mon, are you all right?" He moved closer to her in concern. "Are you not feeling well or something?"
"I'm fine, Ross," she nodded weakly as she pushed past him and dropped the bag on the couch.
"Are you sure?" he frowned, watching as she moved towards her room, unheeding him.
She stopped in her tracks and turned to look at him, her nostrils flaring. "I said I'm fine," she repeated, her voice rising considerably.
"Ok-kay," he raised his eyebrows, making a beeline for the apartment door. He knew better than to stay in the same room as 'upset Monica'. "I'm gonna go now." He opened the door to leave, but turned back again. "Oh, hey, you have that interview today, right? Good luck!" he smiled, waiting for some response.
"Yeah," she murmured without turning back as she entered her room. The door closed behind her with a soft thud.
She waited until she heard the apartment door close shut behind Ross. She collapsed on her bed, letting her tears flow freely, not knowing that he was doing the same thing.
Steve, Phoebe's massage client for whom Monica was making dinner, sat impatiently in the kitchen, rapping the kitchen table with his knuckles. "So what are you making?" he asked politely, not looking very keen on starting a conversation.
"Creamy onion tart," she replied, chopping the onions absently.
"Shouldn't you have already chopped the onions?" he arched an eyebrow, a thin smile veiling his annoyance.
The gravity of her situation was failing to settle in. The whole evening felt surreal, as if she was floating. She knew she was running behind, she knew she direly needed this job, but the determination and concentration with which she usually did her work were missing.
"Yes, I'm really sorry," she glanced behind her shoulder. "But the pastry's already in the oven. This shouldn't take more than twenty minutes."
"Twenty minutes?!" his eyebrows rose further. "You haven't really planned this at all, have-"
"Would you like some more wine?" Phoebe butted in, smiling, pouring some into his glass without waiting for his response.
He grunted in displeasure with the situation, but sipped his wine, willing to be distracted.
Satisfied with the outcome of her intervention, Phoebe moved closer to Monica. "Are you sure okay?" she whispered, concern lining her face. "You seem a little preoccupied," she touched her arm lightly, as if to comfort her.
She was not the one to wear her heart on her sleeve; she rarely cried, she never displayed her hurt, but now, it just felt like her whole world was crumbling around her.
Without him, her heart added. Your world is falling apart without him.
She didn't try to deny it. It was true, after all.
What would I do without you, Chandler? She didn't know, not anymore.
She'd be nothing without him. He was her source of strength, her source of happiness. Now he'd pulled away from her, leaving her cold and lost without him.
She wanted to sink to the ground and sob like a child.
But he didn't end it. You did. So why are you complaining now?
"Yes, yes," she nodded, forcing herself into reality. "I'm all right."
"Okay..." Phoebe trailed off, looking unconvinced.
"You should be a chef." He was the first one to tell her that. He was the only one to tell her that. She smiled at the memory of his laconic reply and his then cocky demeanor.
"You're going to be a wonderful chef." His words so sincere that they made her heart constrict with an unfamiliar emotion, he'd said that, too, just a year later, when she'd told him that she'd gotten into culinary school.
She never told him that he was the reason she wanted to be a chef.
The cool blade of the knife touched her fingertip, but she didn't register it until it was too late.
She whimpered aloud, the pain unbearable. She glanced down, tears pooling in her eyes, noticing that her blood had spurted out, leaving a thin trail of red over the onions.
"Oh, my god!" Phoebe gasped, noticing it first. "Monica, you're bleeding!"
Her finger hurt like it had been burned. "It's nothing," she whispered as she clutched it tightly in her fist, her eyes closing shut.
Steve stood up and examined the girl's finger, tut-tutting when he noticed that the cut was rather deep. "You should apply some antiseptic," he glanced at Phoebe, who promptly left to look for one in the bathroom cupboard.
When Monica finally opened her eyes and looked at him, he could see fear, and then resignation in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Steve. I really-"
She couldn't be older than her early twenties. She looked scared and genuinely contrite. He felt a sudden surge of sympathy. He cut her off, "Y'know what, why don't we try this again next week?"
She looked at him skeptically.
"I promise I won't hire anyone within that time," he smiled, picking up his coat as he started to leave. "Meanwhile, fix that finger," he pointed at it. "It needs a Band-Aid."
She stared numbly as he left through the door.
A small sense of happiness floundered somewhere in the sea of grief, but it drowned quickly.
"What if I botch up the dinner, Chandler?"
"You won't, all right? C'mon, you've been doing this for like three years now. Just because some guy was stupid enough to fire you, it doesn't mean you're bad at what you're doing."
"But what if-"
He placed a finger on her lips. "Do you trust me?"
She nodded, looking petulant.
"You won't 'botch it up', okay?" He kissed her forehead and pulled back, laughing. "Y'know, it's a positive wonder how much I like you in spite of your neurosis."
Only she hadn't known he meant 'love', not 'like'.
"Okay, this is going to burn a little," Phoebe murmured her warning, placing the antiseptic-drenched cotton ball on her skin.
She hissed as the antiseptic seeped into the cut. A second later, she felt warm tears slide down her cheeks.
She didn't know why she was crying – maybe it was the pain. Maybe it was because she knew she'd ruined this dinner. Or maybe it was her broken heart.
Four days. He hadn't seen her in four days.
He came in early to work, and left for home very late. He had seen none of them other than Joey in these four days. He knew it was only a matter of time before either Ross or Phoebe barged into his apartment, inquiring him what was wrong. When it'd come to that, he didn't know what he'd tell them.
He was sick of being depressed. He was sick of thinking where it'd all went wrong, sick of wondering how he had messed it all up. He was sick of missing her.
I cannot afford to lose you, she'd said. But didn't she realize that whatever they'd had between them, even before they became something more than 'just friends', was already lost?
"Chandler, can you get me those numbers by noon?"
He turned to see that it was his boss. "Yes, sir," he nodded.
His only distraction was his work. For the first time in his life, he welcomed it for the break that it provided from reality.
"You can have Nina assist you with it if you want," Mr. Douglas added.
Before he could protest, his boss leaned in towards Nina's cubicle. "Nina, could you help Chandler? It's a lot of work, but I really need those numbers by noon."
"Sure, Mr. Douglas," he heard her reply.
He watched as his boss exited, and a second later Nina entered, smiling at him. "Hey."
"Hi," he smiled back slightly.
For some reason, his brain reminded him that when Monica smiled, his whole world seemed to brighten up.
"Okay, let's get started then," she smiled again, pulling a chair next to him and sitting down.
Pull yourself together.
"Is he kidding?" Nina shook her head incredulously. "How the hell are we supposed to get all of this done by noon?!"
He shrugged, helpless, momentarily disconcerted when he felt her foot nudge his ankle. A second later, he concluded it must have been an accident.
"Hey, how about-" she leaned in towards him, whispering conspiratorially, "how about we postdate the Friday numbers? That would help speed up the process a little."
He considered it for a second and then shook his head. "No. No, that would just throw my WENUS out of whack," he said absently. When he turned to look at her, she was grinning. "What?" he asked, confused.
"I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt your... "WENUS"," she raised an eyebrow suggestively.
He felt his cheeks turn red as he stared back at her. "What?" he murmured again, feeling nonplussed.
"Okay, I know that was cheesy," she laughed, smoothing her hair, looking nervous, "but would you like to go out for a cup of coffee sometime?"
His heart thundered in his ears, and his mouth went dry.
This woman was kind, smart, beautiful and perfect.
She was perfect in every way other than the fact that she wasn't Monica.
"I don't- I can't- I just..." he trailed off, running his fingers through his hair in frustration.
He closed his eyes, shaking his head, his breath coming in short, irregular gasps.
He wouldn't be able to do this. He'd never be able to do this.
All of a sudden, he knew what he had to do to escape all of this.
"I'm sorry, Nina," he rose from his seat, already moving out of his cubicle. "Would you excuse me for a second?"
He could feel her eyes on his back as he moved swiftly towards his boss's office. He knocked on the door and waited outside until his boss called him in.
"Chandler?" his boss looked surprised. "Do you have the numbers already?"
"No, no," he shook his head, still breathing hard. "I just wanted to ask you something."
"Sir, that London offer that you told me about a few months back..."
He looked around, convincing himself – this is what he wanted, this is what he had to do to forget her. He had to get away from everything, everyone. From her.
He turned to his boss again. "Are they still looking for someone from our branch?"
A/N: Steve is the stoned guy from those S1 and S9 episodes. I just thought I'd make him less of a jerk, and 'un-stone' him (I'm pretty sure that that's not a real word, either).
Will be updated soon.