How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarr'd the benefit of rest?
When day's oppression is not eas'd by night,
But day by night, and night by day oppress'd,
And each, though enemies to either's reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still further off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven:
So flatter I the swart-complexion'd night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild'st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make griefs strength seem stronger.

-Sonnet XXVIII
-William Shakespeare

The One By Toil

By Richard Lawson

---

Ross Geller opened the cab door. Listlessly he slid inside and closed the door, staring out the windshield at what turned out to be a dark SUV. Kind of hard to tell what make, model, or even exact color in the dim lighting of the parking garage. Yet Ross found a strange fascination in what he could see of its dashboard.

The driver's side door opened and a tall, vivacious blonde slid into the cab with him. She slammed the door shut, jarring Ross's attention away from the darkness opposite. In a praiseworthy, efficient manner she started the cab and backed out of the parking spot. After having achieved a measurable fraction of the velocity of light, she slammed on the brakes and ground the shift selector towards "D". The cab leaped forward, the squealing of its tires providing a warning sound to pedestrians everywhere.

Ross supposed this should be causing a reaction of some sort. He should be screaming or yelling or something. But he didn't, he couldn't, all his emotions were now ten thousand feet in the air and climbing.

A line of cars led to booths that stood between the garage and the highway. The cab driver managed to beat two other cars to the end of the line, but there she had to stop and wait. After an initial minor groan of annoyance, she began humming a song. Ross found from somewhere the ability to smile. One of the things he had always admired about Phoebe Buffay-Hannigan was her unpredictability. She seemed unable to concentrate on any one thing for an extended period of time. It wasn't that she forgot, it was just that her mind often wandered and took interesting detours before returning to the subject at hand. When it did she could either offer baffling non-sequiturs or keen insights.

The booth approached more quickly than Ross had supposed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a rumpled twenty. "Here."

Phoebe barely glanced at it. "Oh no. I'll pay."

"C'mon, let me."

"No, no. You paid to take me to Boston and Philadelphia in one night. I can pay this. Next time, though, take me some place more glamorous." She rolled down the window and smiled at the attendant. "I know! Des Moines! That's like the heart of the whole country."

The attendant gave Phoebe a strange look but still managed to make change.

Ross reached around, took out the boarding passes he had stuffed into his back pocket. He stared blankly down at them. Philadelphia. Boston. Funny that Phoebe had remembered that. So much of the past couple of hours was a complete blur. Up until Phoebe screaming a name at the top of her lungs, when things had resolved themselves into an icy, painful clarity.

The car shot away from the booth. To distract himself, Ross voiced a complaint. "You know, it would really help me right now if you would... ease up a little."

"Oh?" Phoebe appeared to think that over. "Yeah, I can see that."

The car stopped accelerating and even lost a little velocity. Phoebe turned towards him. "I know it's hard. You want to pass the time singing songs together? I know some good ones."

Ross smiled. Sometimes translating Pheebspeak took monumental effort, but this was pretty clear. She was asking him if he wanted to be left alone during the drive back. "No thank you."

This didn't faze her in the least. "All right. I'll just sing to myself. But, you know, feel free to join in. If you don't know the words just use whatever ones seem right. That's what I do."

"Okay." Ross used reserves of strength he didn't know he had to look her in the eye and smile. "Thank you, Phoebe. For everything."

Her smile was wide and pretty, as always. "You're welcome."

With that, she turned her attention to the road and began singing a soft, breezy song about airport security.

Ross let the smile stay on his face for a minute before fading. He returned his attention to the boarding passes. Philadelphia. Boston.

"The job is in Paris."

The words had hit him hard. Harder than any other words. And he'd been hit with some hard ones. "Then how come it is" had been number one until now. Both phrases had denoted a sense of finality. They both represented an end to things that could never be revisited. Awful, terrible, gut-wrenching words that had no business being uttered, no business being heard. Life was not supposed to allow that to happen, life was not supposed to be that overtly cruel. Not when everything seemed to finally come together after so long a time.

Junior high had been a busy, bustling place that Ross had felt a part of. He had friends but wasn't exactly popular. He participated in some extracurricular stuff but still focused a lot of time on his studies. He was just self-confident enough to be really worried when, in his last year at junior high, his sister had entered the school as a seventh-grader. Monica was extremely shy, and people tended to avoid her because of her weight problem. Ross had tried to be her friend, join her for lunch and show her the ropes, but to his surprise Monica had adamantly refused to allow this. Whether she simply wanted to make it on her own or was too embarrassed to be seen with her big brother, Ross couldn't tell. He gave her the privacy she wanted but still tried to keep an eye on her.

Amazingly, she seemed to find a set of friends right away. At least, whenever Ross looked out over the crowd of people in the lunchroom, Monica was sitting with some other girls and chatting brightly. She seemed to be fitting in better than Ross ever had.

The familiar sibling jealousy had kicked in, and Ross found himself rushing out of class early in the semester, rushing to the lunchroom to get a seat with a good view of the table Monica and her new friends usually sat at. He propped up a math book in a probably-feeble attempt at cover while studying Monica. Ross desperately needed to know the secret to her success.

At first he was baffled. Monica had arrived and attempted a cheery greeting. This was mostly ignored by the other girls. Monica's smile had disappeared and she had begun mechanically eating, not making an effort to join in the conversation.

Ross had been aware of a figure approaching the table but had not focused on it until a girl had sat at the table next to Monica. Ross's eyes had locked on her face and his chest tightened. The girl was literally breathtaking. Certainly still in the awkward phases of adolescence, but she had lovely cheekbones, gorgeous eyes, an aquiline nose, and light brown hair falling to her shoulders. But most of all her smile, dazzling and beautiful, directed at Monica.

Monica responded, and soon the two were chatting. The rest of the table was now trying to join in, but the girl effortlessly included them all. She seemed a bright epicenter of joy, and everyone around her seemed to bask in it.

Almost without thinking, Ross found himself rising up from his chair. He moved behind his sister, still not taking his eyes off the girl sitting next to her. "Hey Mon."

Monica looked up, and her eyes took on a guarded look. "What do you want?"

"Uh, nothing, just wanted to say hey. So, who are your friends?"

Monica's eyes narrowed further. "What do you care?"

"I, I don't. I mean, I just... wanted to see if... if you were with the right... sort of people."

"And how would you know?" Monica gestured around the table. "They're all seventh-graders too."

"Uh..." Oops. "Maybe, maybe I know their family name and it's like, I know their... cool older brother."

"Well, it's not like the Gellers have one of those, do they?" Monica rolled her eyes. "Look, if it will get you out of here more quickly, let me introduce you to my friend, Rachel Green. Rachel, this is my older brother Ross."

The girl had been chatting with someone across the table and ignoring Ross, but at the mention of her name she also looked up and speared him with her smile. "Hi."

"H-hi." Oh God, one syllable and he couldn't even get that out.

Rachel turned her attention back to one of the other girls, leaving Ross with a view of the top of her head. He fought an irrational urge to lean down and smell her hair.

"And these are Henrietta, Sam, Phyllis, Diane... but you aren't even listening to me anymore, are you?"

"Huh?" Ross looked back at Monica. "Hey, if you ever need me to, like, chaperone you and your friends anywhere, you just let me know."

"We're all going to the girl's bathroom after sixth period, I'll be sure to send you a signal." Monica punched him ungently on the arm. "Go away."

"O-okay." Ross smiled down at Rachel. She was still talking with the people around her and turned her head at a question posed to her by Monica. At no time did she look at Ross.

With a sigh, Ross turned back towards his table. Yet another chapter to add to the ever-lengthening book of his social failures.

"Hey Ross."

He almost spun in place, the voice exerting such force that he was compelled to assume a kind of orbit around it. "Yeah?"

Rachel's wonderful eyes were merrily crinkled. "Like the shirt."

Almost unconsciously Ross put one hand on his chest. Frankie says relax. "Th-thanks."

Rachel smiled, then turned to respond to something Monica was urgently asking. Ross watched for a moment longer, waiting for the interaction to continue, desperately wishing he could say more than one-syllable words to her, hoping that somehow, magically, the gift for eloquent speech when dealing with girls would be bestowed upon him and he could find the words that would allow him to connect to the vision sitting next to his sister.

Instead, he had stood there feeling foolish until finally embarrassment overcame desire and he'd staggered away.

Ross looked out the cab window at the featureless concrete passing by. He hadn't gotten any better dealing with Rachel during high school and college. A few encounters over the years, some longer than others but all of them awkward. Watching her walk out the door on the way to her prom... that had been the first time he had understood what heartbreak truly was. Hope and expectation built up to a fever pitch, crushed in an instant.

That more than anything defined his relationship with Rachel - ecstasy to agony and back again, in a slowly repeating cycle that spanned decades. In the midst of the wreckage of his first marriage, a figure from the past had suddenly emerged, wearing of all things a white wedding dress and a wide but unsteady smile and a voice on the verge of breaking. Then after an Oreo, for the first time in a long while life had seemed better, and it had begun with Rachel.

Then had followed the longest, weirdest courtship ever. A year and he'd done nothing, waiting for the opportune moment that never came, cats and Italians falling from the sky.

And then Julie.

Ross squeezed his eyes shut. The first woman he had seriously dated since his marriage, a real chance at happiness with a beautiful intelligent woman who was utterly devoted to him. And he had tossed it all away at the first hint of interest from Rachel. It was the first time he had tossed away happiness just at the slightest whisper of an opportunity to get together with Rachel. It wouldn't be the last.

So easy to get angry. So easy to think of how judgmental she had turned out to be - the woman who had jumped in bed with Paolo when first confronted with Julie, the woman who had consistently undermined his relationships for years just so that she could keep him dangling. Mean and manipulative, the words were so seductive, he very much wanted to use them.

The problem was those words could rebound so easily. Sleeping with the Xerox woman - he couldn't even remember her name now amidst the sea of pain invoking her image always caused. Chandler leaping on his back, holding the door shut with his feet, the only thing that kept him from barging in on Rachel and Mark. The obsessive, mean things he had said. Couldn't help saying. Even very recently, just a few days ago. Even now, he couldn't control his feelings for her. Both the good and the bad.

Perhaps this was for the best, Paris was for the best. It hurt him to even think that, and Ross crumbled the boarding passes in his hand. But... the times he had gotten together with Rachel after that one blissful year of being her boyfriend, all of them had ended in disaster, with hurt feelings all around. The beach, the Vegas fiasco, the wedding invitations... somehow they had all seemed like the beginning of something, and had all ended so badly.

"But Ross, we are not in love. Are we?"

He had given the quick, easy, safe answer to that question. He'd had to. He'd already felt his control beginning to slip, the slide into emotional insanity, knowing the pain that would result if he gave in to the yearnings. But there had been an expression on her face, a look as she lay there on the examination table, that had been... ready to accept a different answer.

He just couldn't, they just couldn't, it had hurt too much to kneel at her feet and hug her, then let her go. It had felt so right when he had discovered they were married, he had never wanted to let that feeling go. The fights, impassioned, raw, putting out every thought and feeling he had and hearing her do the same, and knowing that meant something but unable to channel it the right way.

Finally, it had been Rachel who had punched a hole in the well-weathered wall between them. "With us... it's never off the table."

That had been a revelation. It had meant something, and Ross had spent some time trying to figure it out. It surely meant that... that despite everything, despite all the pain over the years, that there was something they were working towards. Still. That if given a little time, a little room to breathe, when everything else had settled down a bit... that maybe, there was still time to start over and begin again and make it work.

Rachel at twelve. Rachel at thirty-three. From awkward girl to beautiful woman. From scared almost-bride to confident businessperson. From his sister's friend to his daughter's mother. And he had seen much of the transition, helped shape it, watched it grow past his control, past control he wanted to maintain but couldn't, and eventually realizing that he would not have it any other way.

It was never off the table. He should have said yes, he should never have made such a big deal out of her saying yes to Joey, she was his ex-wife in a marriage that should never have happened but had felt good while it had existed and it had been her idea, he should never have gone to that bar, he should not have walked out on her before going to the bar, so many opportunities wasted over the years and then finally, maybe, things just on the beginning of crystallizing, become pure and clear and beautiful.

And then Paris.

Paris.

"They're waiting for me, Ross. I can't do this right now."

Can't you?

"...the perfect way to say goodbye."

Except it wasn't. It wasn't supposed to be an ending, it was supposed to be a beginning.

"...say goodbye."

The finality of it. Thousands of feet in the air, thousands of miles away. No way to take it back, no way to make it more. He shouldn't have had sex with her, he should have talked to her, somehow he thought he was communicating something but it had been lost in translation, like everything that had been said between them over the seven years after the breakup, things that should not have been voiced, things that should have been made clearer, too many things to sort through, to think through...

Maybe, maybe, that's why he hadn't stopped to tell her sooner, necessitating the wild ride with Phoebe. Maybe that's why she hadn't been able to respond except to say she was sorry. Too much history, too many emotional turnarounds, the pleasures and pains too intense to bear talking about, dealing with. The weight of seven years and ten years and twenty-one years too crushing, too burdensome.

"It's because you mean more to me."

More, maybe. But not... enough more.

"So, okay, we're here now."

It took Ross several seconds to realize that the words were not an echo from his past but being spoken in the present. He looked over at Phoebe. "What?"

"We're here." Phoebe pulled next to the curb. "Come on up and be with the babies for a while, they need to know their new uncle."

Ross shook his head. "I think I'd... I'd rather be alone now."

"You do?" Phoebe's sparkling eyes were unusually intense. "We want you to be with us. We all want to help you feel better. You know that."

"I... I do know that." Ross shrugged his shoulders. "But... but with the four of you, I'll just feel her absence more keenly. I need to... to get used to a world without her. When I do, I'll come seek you guys out."

"Don't wait long." Phoebe leaned across the seat and hugged him. "I love you."

Smiling, Ross hugged her back. "Thanks, Pheebs."

He tried to release the hug, but Phoebe held on to him. "Say it."

"What?"

"Say it back."

"Uh... I, I love you?"

"Okay, I'm not feeling any sincerity there and this is a really uncomfortable position."

Ross couldn't help laughing. "I love you."

"Yay!" Phoebe released him and beamed a smile in his direction. "Don't forget that, ever."

"I won't."

They each got out of the cab. Phoebe waved at him, then walked in the direction of the apartment building. The apartment building, that used to hold his sister and three of his friends and would soon only hold Joey. That was too much to think about right now and he put it out of his mind. At least Monica and Chandler would be within easy reach.

He stared up at his apartment building. The enormity of it all fell on him again. A son who spent most of his time with his mother. A daughter who would soon be living across an ocean. His friends beginning to scatter, no more daily meetings for coffee. His last, desperate attempt to hold on to the best thing that had happened to him in the last ten years a failure.

Where to go from here? Being alone and depressed didn't really appeal to him. Been there, done that. Phoebe was right, he'd have to make certain not to keep himself isolated. But he also needed to make a new start, somehow, somewhere.

He had to stop putting his life on hold in the hope that she would find him again. Because, as she had so conclusively demonstrated, they were now lost to each other forever.

Ross could see it, a path, a way beyond Rachel, accepting life without her. It appeared for a brief instant in his mind before veering sharply away. It hurt too much to contemplate, he just couldn't hold on to it. But in the hours and days ahead eventually he'd wrap his mind around it, hold it in place, and then finally take it. The struggle would be to accept it without ending up hating either Rachel or himself.

A cab began to pull up to the curb and Ross suddenly realized he'd been standing there for some minutes staring up at nothing at all. Hastily he moved into the building and took the stairs up to his apartment. He opened the door and immediately felt an absence, that Rachel had been there just a few hours before but was not now nor ever would be again. He recognized that his emotions were still wildly in flux and did his best to control them. He closed the door, not bothering to lock it, and tossed the keys onto the table next to the phone.

In passing he realized he had a message on his answering machine. Out of habit more than anything else, he sat on the couch and pressed the play button.

---

Large men were constantly moving in and out of the building. Ross watched them carrying pieces of furniture that were intimately familiar even though they were not his own. Kinda strange.

Slowly he walked up the stairs, pausing at the end of the hallway that led to apartments 19 and 20. One door was open, and two men carrying a couch walked through. Ross flattened himself against the wall as the men maneuvered the couch around the corner and down the stairs.

An amused voice spoke one soft word. "Pivot."

Ross looked down at Rachel and smiled. She smiled in return, squeezing his hand tightly. The smile was familiar and he realized it was the same one she'd had ten years ago, when she had sat on a couch in Central Perk, her wet hair resting on her shoulders. An indication of shock, displaying a fragile beauty that threatened to dissolve into hysteria.

Ross spoke in a slow, gentle voice. "So... are you ready for this?"

"Yes." Her voice was steady and even, a far cry from the trembling high-pitched voice she had used that long-ago day. "They're going to be so happy."

Ross nodded. "I just hope we will be, too." He began to move forward, but was stopped when Rachel stood her ground and pulled on his hand.

The smile was gone and she looked at Ross with a peculiar intensity. "Do you have doubts?"

"I, I didn't mean..." Dammit, foot-in-mouth syndrome again. "That wasn't how I meant it. I mean, when we go in there, they're going to... going to see us together. And they'll have all their expectations that... that we'll be adding to our own."

"I see." Rachel's nose was wrinkled just the tiniest bit, an indication that she was thinking hard. "And what, exactly, is the problem with that?"

"Well..." He could feel whatever eloquence he possessed slipping again. "When they see us, they... they'll have this sort of oh-no-not-again kind of look. And, and if it doesn't work out... I mean, I can almost hear them being disgusted at us, that we just repeated the cycle one more time."

"Ahh." Rachel nodded. "So you're afraid that they don't have faith in us anymore?"

"Something like that, yeah. We've disappointed them too many times already. I mean, it would almost be better if, if we could... just be alone for a while. Do you think?"

Rachel shook her head, a small smile on her face. "No, Ross. They are a part of this as much as we are. The only reason I'm willing to try this again is the knowledge that once they know this is something we both want, they'll fight heaven and earth for us."

Ross found a smile forming on his face that matched hers, hearing Phoebe in his head talking about phalanges. "Maybe."

"Not just maybe. Ross, without them there wouldn't be us. Without them there wouldn't be an Emma. Think about that. If this is going to work, it's going to be because of them, too."

The earnestness in her voice and eyes seemed to burn right through him. Ross's smile widened and he felt a tension leaving him, a fear he hadn't even realized was there. Until Rachel had drawn it out and made it dissipate. More than ever, he loved her.

"All right." He bent down to kiss her, meaning only to touch her lips briefly but finding himself drawn in to something deeper and longer, not certain who was sparking the passion but not really caring, either.

A discreet cough ended the kiss. Ross watched as a man carrying two large boxes walked past, his eyes studiously avoiding looking in their direction but a slight smile on his face.

Ross grinned at Rachel. She renewed her grip on his hand and indicated the hallway. "Shall we?"

"Sure." Taking a breath, he took a step forward.

"You know," Rachel said as the open doorway loomed, "I'm very happy that I grabbed a spoon."

Ross chuckled. He'd almost forgotten about that. "I'm just glad I finally got off the plane."

Rachel laughed. The sound drew the attention of four people in the nearly-empty apartment, and the noise they made in response filled Ross with hope and joy.

It had been a beginning after all.

-----

(the end)

-----

AUTHOR'S NOTES: While I have enjoyed Friends for many years, I've never liked the fact that the writers have flipped the switch on and off again on Ross and Rachel's relationship. I was afraid that the finale would just flip it back on without building any groundwork for it. In that I was mildly surprised, as they did indeed lay a foundation, first with "It's never off the table" and then with the going-away party.

Still, I wasn't satisfied that Ross could say goodbye to Rachel, then suddenly decide two minutes later that he needed to go after her. I wanted there to be more of an expressed reason for the decision. So while I'm happy with the result of the finale - Ross and Rachel together - I wasn't entirely satisfied with the journey.

So I wrote this little piece, mostly to satisfy myself. It's very stream-of-consciousness, but deliberately so, as it was meant to portray Ross's chaotic frame of mind as he thought about Rachel.

Some notes for the continuity police: The meeting of Ross and Rachel in Junior High is entirely my creation, based on "I've only been doing it since the ninth grade". Since it's established that Ross is two years older than Rachel (he's 26 in the pilot, she turns 30 in the middle of season seven, making her 24 at the time of the pilot), that should mean he met her while she was in the seventh grade and twelve years old. Okay, that's a little young, but I clearly remember when girls began turning interesting - that was in the fourth grade.

And of course Rachel wasn't present during Joey's "grab a spoon" speech, but one could easily posit that Ross told her about it while they were dating.

While I wrote this mostly for myself, I am still interested in all feedback, positive or negative. Tell me it sucks, flame me left and right for making them too talky, I can take it. =) If there are ways it could be improved I'd love to know about it.

Thanks. =)