As soon as she got inside her apartment she called him, her heart pounding.
"Hi," he answered right away. The tone of his voice was soft, but abrupt. She couldn't put her finger on it.
There was a long pause on her end.
"Are you there?" he asked.
She cleared her throat. "Yeah," she said, trying to mask the astonishment in her voice. She chose her words carefully. "So...you must have called me by mistake."
"Uh, no, actually. I wanted to call you, because...I want to see you. Tonight."
"What?" she said, almost dropping the phone. He sounded somewhat desperate. "Can you meet me somewhere? I want to talk to you."
She thought he must have been crazy for calling her up like this, and at that time of night. Yet she couldn't deny the blood pumping rapidly through her veins when he said he wanted to see her.
"Ross, I...but what about--"
"Don't worry about Julie. It's not a big deal. We're friends."
She felt her face begin to harden. "Are we?"
He didn't say anything for several moments. She could hear the sadness in his voice when he finally spoke. "Meet me at Central Perk in half an hour." After a pause, "Please."
So maybe he was ready to play nice. Dinner wasn't quite nice enough for her, though--he'd have to do better than that. "Ok," she conceded, finally. "I'll be there."
Her heart was pounding with anticipation as she approached the doors to Central Perk. If asked, she'd deny there were butterflies in her stomach at the thought of meeting up with him like this, discreetly, separate from the gang, separate from his wife, most notably.
He was already there, sitting at a table in the corner, far removed from where they normally gathered on the big orange couch.
She smiled weakly when she sat down across from him, then quickly looked away. She intended to proceed with caution.
"Thanks for coming," he said, smiling warmly.
She shrugged, maintaining her cool demeanor. "Don't mention it."
"Would you like some coffee?"
"Sure." She then noted the late hour and asked Gunther to bring her a cup of tea instead.
"So..." he said.
She looked him straight in eye, her expression blank. "So what?"
He chuckled nervously.
"So I guess the ball's in my court, huh?"
She didn't crack a smile. "I wasn't aware that we were playing a game."
They held each other's eyes rather intensely before either of them spoke up again. If this was a game, perhaps the playing field was now leveled, and they both begin to meet each other where they were at.
"Look Rach. The reason I asked you here is to apologize for my behavior. I know we haven't been close in...well, since you moved to the city."
She chuckled, but it sounded more like a scoff. "Yeah," she said, looking down. "Well I guess you've got your own life now." She looked at him. "We both do."
He put his head in his hands and sighed, exasperated. "I want you in my life, Rachel. I want us to be friends. I just...it's so hard."
She felt her temper mounting hotly. He wasn't making this any easier on her.
"I never asked you for anything, Ross," she said, her voice full of hurt. "If it's too damn hard for you, then fine, just keep ignoring me out of spite. You're good at it."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Oh please, Ross. I know this is about you getting your revenge for all those years I ignored you in high school. Well, you've made your point. But you know what? I was just a spoiled little girl back then, I didn't know any better." She folded her arms across her chest and pierced him with her deep blue eyes. "But I would never treat you that way now."
Ross' jaw hung open. Rachel's words were harsh, but he couldn't fault her for it. She was hurting...he'd been hurting her.
"Rach, I am very sorry that you feel that way. But please understand, that was not my intention at all, to ignore you out of spite, or anything like that." He looked down and began to shake his head sadly. "I never wanted it to be like this."
Rachel's hardened demeanor began to soften up slightly. He looked so genuinely sad. For a moment she began to wonder if he was truly happy...with anything. She folded her arms even tighter across her chest, though, refusing to let her guard down just yet.
"I don't know what to say to you, Ross," she said softly.
He took a deep breath and braced himself, knowing he needed to confront this head-on. "Rachel, I feel like I need to avoid you, because it's the best thing for both of us. When you first moved to the city to live with Monica, I was scared. I mean...I couldn't believe you had actually come back. I didn't think I'd...well, I just wasn't expecting to see you." He paused before continuing. The next part was difficult for him to say. "I wanted to be your friend, because that's what you deserve. But Rachel...God, you can't imagine what goes through my head when I look at you."
She felt herself shifting uncomfortably in her chair. What he'd said was jarring. She didn't know how to take it.
"I didn't come here to ruin your marriage, Ross," she said. Her voice was full of complicated emotions. "I was miserable after my divorce, and I felt so trapped. I needed to gain my independence, for the first time in my life. When I came to city I did it for me."
She found herself fighting back tears now, and was forced to look down. "I knew I could count on Monica to help me out, even though we'd lost touch for many years." She looked up at him. "I figured you had moved on...from us."
That hit him like a ton of bricks. It was the first time either of them had acknowledged the romantic history they shared, ancient as it was. Over the years, there had been times when he wondered if it had all been a dream.
In fact, sometimes it even began to feel like she was a dream...that perhaps he'd fantasized her entire existence. He recalled writing letters to her--the ones she never responded to--and thinking maybe she wasn't even there. As time went on, he still wrote her letters, but stopped sending them.
But her using the word "us" just now was his confirmation that it was real. There had been an "us." There had been a "them."
"Oh God, Rach..."
He looked down at his hands, unable to face her anymore. She knew she'd undone him. He'd undone her too, and she was crying softly now.
A little embarrassed, she dug into her purse for some tissues and wiped her eyes and face. "Ross...look at me, please."
She had to brace herself to say what she was about to say, her lip quivering. "I want you to do what you need to do to be happy. If that means continuing to avoid me...then so be it. And maybe the two of us will never be friends." She sighed. "But I just hate that I'm making you feel so awkward and uncomfortable. I feel like I'm...like I'm putting a strain on your life, just by being here."
"Hey, hey," he said. He reached across the table and took one of her hands in his. "Do not feel that way, Rachel. Because it's nothing you did. It's me." His expression was so full of pain, because it killed him to hear her say those things. "This isn't fair to you. And that's why I'm thinking..."
He trailed off.
"Thinking what?" she asked.
"That Julie and I should just leave New York. At least for a while."
"What?" she gasped.
"It would be for the best," he continued. "You'd see."
"Ross, no, you can't. You can't leave because of me."
He was shaking his head. "It's not that, Rach. Julie and I have been wanting to go to Cairo so she can work on her P.H.D., and--"
"No," she cut him off urgently. "That's not it. I don't believe you. You're leaving because of me, because I'm ruining your goddamn perfect life."
She'd already gotten up from her chair, almost knocking it over in the process. In an aggravated fury she grabbed her coat and purse and got ready to storm out the door.
"Rach, wait! Please." He tried taking her arm, but she jerked it away.
"It doesn't matter what you say, Ross. I already told you to do whatever the hell you need to do." She hesitated at first, but said it anyway. "Leave if you want to."
They looked into each other's eyes intensely for a brief moment before Rachel threw her purse over her shoulder and walked out.
As soon as her feet hit the pavement she was sobbing. She couldn't hold it in any longer. It hurt.
She didn't care for the onlookers who turned their heads to witness her in her moment of distress. This was New York, and she could cry all over it if she wanted to.
"What's the matter, baby? Need a shoulder to cry on?" slurred an eerie-looking drunk who lay slumped against a building.
She shuddered and picked up her pace, knowing she'd need to collect herself before going home to face Monica.
Suddenly she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. It should've startled her, but it didn't.
"Let me walk you home," he said warmly.
The sound of his voice was so comforting on a street full of dark strangers. She was too stubborn, though, to turn around and have him see how upset she was.
"I think I can manage," she said with as much confidence in her voice as she could muster.
He was more persistent this time, and actually stepped in front of her so they were face to face. She tried to wipe her tears away before he saw them, but there were a few too many.
"Rach, please look at me."
She finally did.
"I want you to be happy."
She looked at him and her bottom lip began to quiver all over again. "Then don't leave."
He smiled weakly, and slowly pulled her into him. She hugged him back, crying softly. She knew it was dangerous for them to be doing this, and that maybe this was one of the many reasons Ross had avoided her for so long.
After hugging him tight for several moments, she slowly pulled away. There were some things she wanted to say to him, and she knew this might be her only chance.
"Wait," he said, afraid she was going to end things right there.
She reassured him with a smile. "Ross, I need to tell you something."
He nodded, looking eager. "Ok."
She took a deep breath and continued. "That summer you and I had together...it was very...well, I enjoyed it very much. It was really special to me. And I want you to know that I really did..."
She trailed off, finding it difficult to finish. Words failed her anyhow when Ross suddenly leaned in and kissed her. It was gentle at first, but quickly grew into something more aggressive and passionate...a passion that was mutual.
There was little glamour in the lonely romance they shared beneath the burnt-out streetlights. It was too sloppy for Hollywood. Too unscripted and wrong...so very wrong indeed.
She was the one who broke the kiss, knowing they couldn't take it home with them. They'd have to leave it on the streets and say Goodnight to it forever.
"I'm sorry," he said breathlessly. He hung his head and stepped back.
Both maintained their distance for several moments, as if some kind of lengthy recuperation period was warranted after sharing such a passionate encounter. Finally, she closed the gap between them, taking hold of his hand.
"I'm sorry too," she told him softly.
He looked down at their hands which were entwined at his side. Then he looked up, into her eyes. They were full of sadness, and that saddened him. God she was beautiful. That much was obvious to anyone with eyes, naturally, but she had always been a special kind of beautiful to him. Somewhere in the dark corners of his mind, he thought, 'I wonder if I'll ever get over her'.
"I should go," she said.
He nodded. "Yeah...me too."
It was silently understood between them that they would never speak of this again. Despite her lukewarm feelings toward Julie, Rachel knew she never wanted to come between a marriage, or corrupt the stability, and the life that two people had created together. Having come from a broken home herself, the thought actually sickened her.
There was just one more thing she needed to say to him, though. "Ross, you know...you were wrong to think the two of us could never be friends. Because when we were together, you were one of the best friends I'd ever had."
Ross smiled. It warmed his heart to hear her say that--it truly did.
And he knew she was right.
I'm a little iffy about this chapter...felt like the ending was kind of anti-climatic. But there WILL be more drama and Ross and Rachel action to come. (Hint: Reviews make me write faster ;) Thanks so much for reading...xoxo