Chapter 5

Author's Note: Well, here it is, the end of another story. It may seem a bit abrupt, but I don't want to get involved in trying to integrate and make sense of the foolish subplots that infest Season 7, or have to deal with the nearest thing Rachel has to a relationship after Ross, i.e. Tag. I have taken them both beyond that level, I hope. My thanks to Jana for her beta work and enthusiastic response; I hope you like it.

Various things said below derive from dialogue in Episodes 7,1 and 7,4.

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Rachel sat opposite Ross, admiring the deftness with which he handled his chopsticks. There was no denying, sometimes Ross was a total klutz, but he had certainly mastered this skill. Of course, Julie had been the one to teach him, but that was so long in the past, the memories of the pain that relationship caused her no longer had power to hurt. She and Ross had been through so much since then, and that time, at least, he had no idea that he was hurting her. Unconsciously, she sighed, as she remembered the time when they were first dating and had eaten in Chinese restaurants several times, and always she loved to watch him use chopsticks.

Ross looked up. "Everything okay, Rachel?"

She smiled at him. "Oh, sure. I was just ... remembering something."

"How did you like the movie?" he asked, with a little grin.

"It was ... interesting," she said. "I kind of liked it. Of course, I was ready for subtitles this time."

He grinned again and nodded, recognising the reference to their first date.

A sudden thought came to her. "You know, Ross, we've been through so much together, I think it would make quite a movie."

He looked at her seriously, saying nothing for a moment as he chewed. After swallowing, he took a drink of beer, and then said, "But there's a difficulty here, don't you think? There's no ending."

She considered that. Yes, you couldn't have a love story, a romance, without an ending. It might be happy, or sad, or even tragic, but it shouldn't just ... fizzle out. She felt a keen pang of pain in her heart as the thought struck her that this was what the story of herself and Ross might well do, had even given every sign of doing more than once. Suddenly she found that thought almost unbearable. The time when they were dating had been the happiest time of her life, at least until Ross got all paranoid over Mark. She realised, she had never come close to feeling as happy since. More satisfied with her life as her career began to develop, yes – but not as happy. She sighed again. Was there no way to combine the two?

"Something's on your mind," Ross observed, and she saw that he had been watching her.

She was beginning to feel more and more that she really needed to talk about all this with him, but still she hesitated, and searched round for another topic to divert them.

"Say there was a movie of our lives," she said. "You know a lot about the movies. Who do you think should play us?"

He looked a little surprised, then intrigued. "Um ... interesting. Well, despite the way it starts, I don't think you should be played by Julia Roberts like in The Runaway Bride." He was grinning in the way he did when he thought he had made a successful joke.

She offered him a token laugh, but did not quite like this teasing reference, though that particular episode in her life was long ago. In a moment she had an answer.

"Well, I don't think you should be played by that guy in Jurassic Park, either."

He acknowledged this with a little grin. "Sam Neill," he said. "Okay, why don't you pick the actress you'd like to play you?"

"Natalie Wood, like in West Side Story," she said, naming a performance she had always thought wonderfully romantic.

He put on a judging expression. "Mmm, no," he said. "For one thing, she's dead, and for another, I'd think someone like Natalie Portman would be a better choice, or ... or Courteney Cox, maybe."

"They look nothing like me," she protested.

"Well, neither did Natalie Wood," he pointed out. "Hey, if she doesn't have to look like you, how about someone really hot, like Angelina Jolie?" He was smirking.

She shook her head decisively. "She's not my style at all, and as an actress she's far too intense. Look at those performances in Gia and Girl, Interrupted." She thought again, struggling to recall the leads in movies she had seen recently.

"Hey, I have someone who even looks a bit like you," he said. "Reese Witherspoon – or ... yeah, how about Goldie Hawn?"

She considered. "Goldie when she was at her best, maybe, but I'd prefer Reese. Now, how about you?" Suddenly she had an inspiration for a dig at him. "What about Walter Matthau?" she said, with a mischievous look.

He laughed, but it seemed a little forced. "I'm not that grouchy, am I? And not that wrinkly, either."

She shook her head. "It was just a joke."

Now he was looking thoughtful. "You know, maybe we're going about this the wrong way. What we need to pick is a couple, like in some of those classic movies – like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, say."

"I'd rather be Audrey Hepburn," she said.

"Then I could be Gregory Peck," he said, puffing up a little in pride. "Of course, for real classic romance you can't beat Casablanca."

"Yeah," she said uncertainly, "but that ends sadly, and it's all so serious." She put her finger on what was bothering her. "Okay, we had sad moments, really sad, but if you think about it, in some ways the story of you and me is more like a comedy."

He looked taken aback.

"Oh, come on, Ross!" she said a little impatiently. "That first night, when I couldn't stop myself giggling. The beach house thing, when I expected you to read an eighteen page letter at five thirty in the morning. The whole Vegas thing. Okay, these could make us mad at the time, but looking back,. don't you think they were kinda funny?"

"Mmm." Ross nodded slowly, looking thoughtful. "Yeah, I guess. Okay, comedies ... Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine in the Apartment? But that had a very serious side." Then it was as if he'd had a flash of inspiration. "I have it – only one of the funniest movies ever." He spread his hands as if making an offering to her. "Some Like It Hot, with Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis." He was grinning all over his face.

She burst out laughing, enjoying the joke. Yes, they really had liked it hot when they were in the mood. Ross laughed with her, looking pleased.

"And it has one of the best payoff lines in the entire history of movies," he said.

She tried to remember, and shook her head. "Remind me."

"It's when Jack Lemmon's character finally tells this rich guy Osgood who's been romancing him when he was in drag, and it had gone so far that they got engaged, that he can't marry him because he's a man. Joe E. Brown, who plays Osgood, just smiles and says, 'Well, nobody's perfect'."

Rachel laughed even harder than before, now remembering the scene more clearly. Ross laughed too. Their eyes met, and for a moment it was as if they had never broken up. There was that sense of intimacy. Then Ross calmed down and looked at her intently.

"What?" she said.

"You know, Rachel, that's something we could take right to heart," he said seriously. "Nobody's perfect."

"Yeah," she said uncertainly.

"When I had that high school crush on you, I thought you were perfect – " he began.

"I was a bitch," she interrupted. "A real high school princess. I hope I'm better now."

"You could be mean," he said, "but you stayed loyal to Monica, when most high school princesses would never have stayed friends with a fat girl. Anyway, my point is, I've learned a lot about you since, and ... well, okay, you're not perfect, but I still think very highly of you." He was looking a little embarrassed. "I have to say, I'm impressed by how you've gotten yourself a career. I'll be honest: I never thought you could do it."

"Why, thank you, Ross," she said, smiling because she knew he was trying to pay her a sincere compliment. "Now, I always knew you were really smart, so it doesn't surprise me that you've made dinosaurs into such a successful career. It's not what many men would want, but it fits you. You wouldn't be happy as some lawyer, or management guy, or even a doctor. I ... I'm glad you've made a success of it."

He smiled at her, one of those heart-stopping smiles he used to give her. "So, maybe we can respect each other's careers."

She nodded. "The world has a place for dinosaur experts ... and fashion experts."

"Yeah," he said. "That job is kinda made for you, too."

There was a little silence as they gazed at each other with real sympathy, their food forgotten. Rachel could see that Ross wanted to say something, guessed what it was, and decided he might need a little help.

"Ross, I am really enjoying tonight," she said, her voice a little unsteady.

"Me too," he said, and paused. Then his face took on a look of determination.

"Would you maybe like ... other nights like this?" he offered.

Slowly she nodded. "I think I would."

He smiled, less intensely, almost tenderly. "You know what? I think we should take it slow. Like, get used to each other again."

"Oh yeah," she said, quick to agree. "And, and maybe we should keep it from the others?"

"Yeah," he said decisively. "They wouldn't mean to, but they'd create a lot of pressure, getting all excited about us being together again, and that's just something we don't need. So, why don't we sneak around on them?"

Rachel giggled. "It could be fun. We'll have to come up with lots of cover stories."

"We can have planning meetings," he said, grinning. "Now, enough serious stuff. I aim to eat the rest of my food before it gets completely cold."

"Good idea," she said, digging into a heap of vegetables.

Ross walked her back to her apartment block later. They talked easily, speculating how manic Monica might become over wedding preparations and how Chandler would handle it, and what effect the two of them getting married would have on the whole group. When they reached the block entrance, Ross seemed to become nervous.

Rachel had already made a decision. "I don't want you to come in, Ross," she said in as kind a voice as she could manage. "I don't think we're there again, yet, and anyway it might tip off Joey."

"Oh yeah, it might," he said, in a way that suggested he hadn't thought of that. "But, well, uh, do I at least get a kiss?"

"Sure, Ross," she said affectionately, holding her arms open. "You get the end-of-date kiss."

It was a good kiss, so good that Rachel momentarily regretted not inviting Ross in. But she knew that this way was better, that as Ross said they should take it slow. There was a lot of ground to make up. That was the mistake she had made at the beach house, though it was understandable, because their relationship had broken so abruptly, leaving her, and surely Ross too, still mentally attuned to being together.

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And so Ross and Rachel began to go on dates secretly, visits to movies and plays, meals, even simple meetings for a drink or coffee. They were helped in keeping their secret by the fact that Monica's plans for the wedding were inevitably dominating the group's attention, not least through Monica's behaviour, even more manic at times than they had suspected. They kept to the ritual of an end-of-date kiss only, although more and more Rachel felt herself wanting to go further, and she knew perfectly well that this was what Ross wanted too. But he showed admirable restraint, which pleased her, because she saw it as indicating that he was so serious about wanting to get back together that he would do nothing that might upset the feelings of trust between them that were beginning to develop again.

Rachel spent a lot of time thinking about whether, after everything they'd been through, they could make it work this time. On the plus side, they knew each other very well, they had both matured a little and had each shown readiness to accept what was important to the other. On the minus side ... well, there were the memories of all the pain they had caused each other, intentionally or not. Would they really be able to put all that behind them? More and more she was beginning to feel that they could, that in fact they were already doing so. But still she hesitated on the brink, not totally sure. She felt she needed a sign, something to show that what she wanted was actually right for her.

Then, as so often happens, fate took a hand. To her delight, Ralph Lauren himself came to her office one day, praised her work, and offered her promotion to the post of merchandising manager for Polo Retail. This meant that she would be entitled to her own assistant, and at the suggestion of her old boss Kim she first interviewed Hilda, an older woman with much experience and a nice manner who seemed perfect for the job. She felt that she could work well with her, and was just wondering whether she really had to go through the hassle of interviewing anyone else, when there was a knock at the door and a gorgeous young man walked in, saying, "Hello?"

For a moment she was stunned, then recovered sufficiently to realise that he must be a model and tell him that their place was down the hall. But he said that he was there about the assistant job and handed her a resumé. Still in something of a daze, she managed to get his name, Tag Jones, and tried to take in the resumé, which seemed very skimpy.

"I know I haven't worked in an office before," Tag said apologetically, "and I really don't have a lot of experience, but I'm a goal-oriented person, very eager to learn ..."

"Uh huh," she said. She had to admit, his innocent enthusiasm was really adorable. If she had been five years younger, she would have done almost anything to get a date with him. But while it would be great to have such eye-candy around the office, she would find it distracting, and she could do without that, in a new job. She gave a little sigh.

"I'm sorry, honey," she said, "but you're just too late."

"You've chosen someone already?" he said in surprise.

"Ah ... no," she said, a little off balance. She had not meant to say that. "I, uh, I was thinking of ... something else. But, what it is, well," she gave him her best sympathetic smile, "this is a job in which experience is gonna count."

He put a brave face on it. "Oh well," he said, "it was worth a try."

"Yeah, sure," she said. "Keep trying, Tag. Hey, if you want a job in fashion, why don't you try your luck down the hall? I bet they'd hire you."

He shook his head. "I don't want to be a model, " he said a little petulantly. "Well ... thanks anyway."

He left, looking crestfallen, and she sighed again. She hated making such a pretty boy look sad. But she bet herself he wouldn't get out of the building without someone taking an interest. At least he might get offers of dates, for the Ralph Lauren girls were fairly upfront about asking guys out, figuring it was the quickest way to find out if someone was gay, as they so often were in the fashion industry.

As she went to meet Ross that evening, she felt surprisingly light-hearted, and for a moment wondered why. Then she knew: she had done the right thing. She had acted like an adult. And there it was, a good reason for rejecting Tag. He could only be in his early twenties, not long out of college. He looked like a boy still. But she was a grown woman, approaching thirty. And that, she decided, was why it would be right to get back with Ross. He was a man, not a boy, with responsibilities beyond himself.

Feeling even better, she quickened her pace, suddenly feeling eager to see him.

Later, as they came to the end of a very animated dinner, Ross said rather diffidently, "Rachel, how about we go back to my place for coffee? I can make it as good as anything we're likely to get here."

She could see the hope in his eyes. They had shared many intimate glances in the course of the meal, and obviously he hoped that they had reached a point where he could invite her in.

She smiled and said cheerfully, "Sure, why not?"

Later still, she lay in his arms, feeling utterly relaxed. Ross had not lost his touch.

"You always were great at the stuff, you old professor you," she said lovingly, turning her head to give him a little kiss on the neck.

He chuckled happily. "You inspire me," he said. "Of course, you're great at it too."

"Of course," she said, and snuggled against him, relishing all the sensations of being in bed with him that she had gone without for so long.

"Uh, Rachel," he said a little while later, "did something happen? I mean, up until now you've kept me at arms' length – "

"And you've respected that," she broke in, "which I've been very happy about. Yeah, you could say something happened ..."

She told him about Tag, commenting lightly at the end, "And I realised, since I can't seem to get over you, it just makes sense to get back with you."

He seemed to stiffen just slightly, and when she turned to him, he looked a little unhappy.

"Just a joke, honey," she said, kissing him rather more firmly at the corner of his mouth. "I've actually been wanting this for weeks; I just needed something to, to push me."

He pulled her round into his arms. "Are we back, then?" he said, his voice seeming to tremble a little.

"Yeah," she said. "Welcome back, Ross."

His arms tightened round her, and before she knew it she was being kissed very eagerly. With a chuckle of delight, she threw herself into more wild lovemaking, this time ending up lying on top of him, gazing lovingly into his eyes, in which she was happy to see equal love reflected back.

"Should we ... tell the others?" he said in a while.

She thought about that. "I'm actually getting quite a bang out of keeping it hidden," she said. "I think I understand why Chandler and Monica found it so exciting. And, you know, if we tell, all the attention will be on us, and that will piss Monica off, more than likely, and I don't want that. She deserves to have the attention on her."

"Yeah," he said, "I agree on both counts. So, let's see how long we can keep it hidden, shall we?"

"Yeah, let's," she said, then, "Wow – Roooss!!!"

"We have a lot of lost time to make up for," he said, in a voice full of happiness, as his hands once again began to squeeze her ass and caress her hips excitingly, "and now I have you here, I'm not gonna let you go until we've made a really good start on that."

"Fine with me, professor," she said, feeling so light-hearted she might float away at any moment. "That's absolutely fine with me."