From the Cradle to the Grave

By NiteSkyStar

-:-

Author's Notes: HELLO READERS! I'm alive. And yes, I am fully aware that at least 75% of you want to kill me (possibly more). I first want to sincerely apologize for taking so long to post this chapter. Contrary to popular belief, I have not abandoned or forgotten this story... not in the slightest. Unfortunately, real life has been kicking my butt lately. I've been traveling, working crazy hours, blah blah blah, the list goes on... leaving me either without time or just too drained to write.

I know some of you are wondering "If you're just EDITING, why is it taking so darn long?" I understand your frustration... however, I will say that I've found editing to be even more difficult than writing new material. This chapter (and the next couple) in particular are ones that never felt fully satisfied with... believe it or not, it's hard work trying to nuance complex emotions exactly to your liking, especially ones as complex and multi-layered as this (aka Meredith's reaction to seeing Chris again). So this one has a great deal of changes... subtle, but they're there, and they add up.

Anyhow, again, I do sincerely apologize. I'm trying my best. I promise it's not my intention to drive you crazy. But without further ado, here's Chapter 21. And THANK YOU so much again for all your continued support... I mean it. Couldn't do it without you, really. Enjoy!


Chapter 21 – Reunited

"Meredith? Is that really you...?"

Meredith sat there, jaw on the floor, eyes wide, entire body frozen in shock.

Chris Shumway.

Here. In the flesh.

Head swimming, she managed to regain her composure just enough to practically fall off of the bar stool, having to grip the edge of the bar for support, her knees threatening to buckle beneath her at any moment as if she were a newborn baby calf. She stared up at him with wide, stunned eyes, still unable to process what she was seeing. "C-Chris...?" she finally managed to blurt out.

All the while, millions of questions began whirring around in her mind at lightspeed. How was this possible? What was he doing here? She wanted to faint. She couldn't even believe it, her faith in her own eyesight suddenly rapidly fading. It couldn't be him. It just couldn't...

But sure enough, it was.

Chris strode up to her, a hopeful, yet tentative grin beginning to spread across his handsome face as he looked her up and down, clearly still in disbelief. She found herself subconsciously taking a small step back, instantly feeling dwarfed by his imposing stature as she always had. Finally seemingly convinced his eyes weren't deceiving him, his entire face seemed to light up. "Wow... it really is you! I can't even believe this!" he cried, throwing up his hands, beaming down at her. "What... what are you even doing here...?"

"I'm... I'm eating lunch here! What are you doing here?" she exclaimed, still struggling to get her words out. "You... you work here?"

"Yeah! I have been for a while now. Jesus, I mean, so much has changed since we last saw each other..." He paused for a moment, gazing down at her from his towering height in joyous disbelief, a certain tenderness and warmth welling up in those beautiful pale blue eyes that made her heart ache. "Wow. I... I still can't believe it's you..." he murmured, his voice softening. "God, it really has been too long..."

And before she even had time to react, he reached down and scooped her into a big bear hug, wrapping those strong arms around her and pulling her close to him fiercely without even a trace of hesitation in his grip.

Caught off guard by his forwardness, Meredith felt her entire body go rigid in surprise at first, her forearms and hands suddenly squashed between his torso and hers. Her cheeks reddened as she realized how keenly aware she was of the ridges and contours of his muscular chest beneath her fingertips. Gulping, she reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck in response, hugging him back slowly, timidly, hesitantly.

In spite of herself, she allowed her eyes to slip shut, discreetly nuzzling her nose into his shirt, inhaling deeply. He smelled just as she remembered... clean, rugged, strong, comforting, warm, his natural scent mingling with the delicious food smells from the kitchen. She wanted to faint at the sheer intensity of all the memories associated with that smell that instantly came rushing back: the first time she had laid eyes on him at Starbucks, him showing up unexpectedly at her door, falling asleep on each other's shoulders on the couch after that night of drunken karaoke, their hours and hours of talking and laughing together during their tutoring sessions, the feel of his lips on hers and of his weight bearing down on her as they finally gave in to months of pent-up desires... and, of course, their final tragic, heartbreaking confrontation in the courtyard of Lincoln Center...

That old light-headed feeling beginning to overtake her, she felt her body begin to relax. Head still swimming with nostalgia, she quietly basked in his embrace, finding herself not wanting to let go...

Finally, she felt him begin to reluctantly pull back. Snapped out of her momentary wistful haze, she practically jumped backwards, almost recoiling, immediately putting what she deemed to be a proper distance between them. Even so, she couldn't help but feel a shudder of pleasure course down her spine as his strong fingers sensually grazed her waist as he moved his hands away...

Clearing her throat uncomfortably, she looked up and forced a slightly awkward smile. She prayed he couldn't hear the sound of her heart throbbing in her chest.

Chris stepped back and surveyed her up and down again, as if to make sure she was still standing in front of him, that she was more than a fleeting, ephemeral apparition. She felt herself squirm under his penetrating ice blue stare. "Wow. I still can't believe this! This is so surreal. It really is so great to see you," he said, that infectious, eager grin seemingly plastered on his face.

"Uh... yeah! Definitely," she stammered, still feeling out of sorts. She paused as a sudden realization dawned on her, everything suddenly clicking into place inside of her head. "Wait a minute..." She stared up at him in complete and total disbelief, eyes wide and full of confusion. "You're the sous chef?"

No. That couldn't be right.

...could it?

But all Chris did was nod, suddenly beaming with pride. "Yeah. Yeah, I am, actually. Have been for about a year now." He chuckled, as if still in disbelief himself as his eyes flew to the chef's jacket he had slung over his shoulder. "Crazy, right?"

All Meredith could do was nod wordlessly in response, still unable to quite process everything she was hearing.

Chris Shumway?

Bigwig ad man turned professional chef?

She couldn't quite wrap her brain around it. Her mind was in utter turmoil, still sluggish from the shock of seeing him and overwhelmed with this flood of new information. What the hell had happened in the past few years?

Before she could even form a coherent thought, he made a sweeping gesture towards her, clearly just as curious about her whereabouts as she was about his. "And what about you? How... how are you? What have you been up to for these past... god, how long has it been now? At least three or four years...?"

"I... I should be asking you the same thing!" was all she could say, still fighting to make sense of her racing thoughts. "I mean... you're a chef now? I just... what... how...?"

"I know, I know," he cut her off with a quiet laugh. "My life's been completely turned upside down and inside out these past couple of years. Not that I'm complaining... it was definitely in need of an overhaul."

He paused for a moment, looking thoughtful. Finally, he jerked his thumb in the direction of the door. "This is kind of spur of the moment, but there's a coffee place right next door. Would you... like to grab a cup of coffee? You know, catch up?" He chuckled sheepishly, suddenly looking embarrassed at his own presumption. "...If you have the time, that is. It's just... been so long. I'd love to hear about how everything's been going with you."

In that moment, Meredith may as well have been a deer caught in headlights. "Um... yeah, sure!" she heard herself blurt without even thinking, out of almost automatic politeness. She felt herself instantly regret her decision. Oh, god. What was she doing? Why did she say yes? What had she gotten herself into? As she looked up into those piercing, piercing turquoise eyes, she felt a wave of terror inexplicably seize her. She suddenly felt the urge to run... run far away, as fast as her feet would carry her, back into a safe, predictable world where Chris Shumway was nothing more than a distant, intangible figure from her past, never to return to her present...

But it was too late. "Great," Chris responded, sounding genuinely enthused. He gestured towards the door, looking down at her expectantly, warmth in his eyes. "Well, shall we?"

No getting out of it now. Meredith smiled politely at him, doing everything in her power to look as calm and nonplussed as possible.

But inside... inside, she didn't know how to feel. This was all happening far too quickly for her to even process what was happening. She felt her heart throbbing in her chest, still in disbelief at this strange and bizarre twist of fate. All she could do was take a deep breath and start heading towards the exit, only too aware of his strong, magnetic, radiating presence behind her.

-:-

Ten minutes later, a decidedly frazzled Meredith stood in the tiny bathroom of the neighboring coffee shop, frantically rummaging through her purse, tossing crumpled up old receipts and gum wrappers and pens carelessly to the side, casualties of her frenzied search.

As soon as they had set foot in the quaint little cafe, she had excused herself to go to the restroom, leaving Chris to deal with their coffee order. And now, here she was, rifling through her bag in a desperate attempt to find her make-up. She couldn't go out there looking as disarrayed as she felt inside, after all.

Finally, she triumphantly produced her compact. Hands trembling slightly, she began hastily touching up her face, taking deep breaths as she desperately tried to slow her pounding heart, feeling positively jittery with nerves.

She couldn't believe this was happening. Over the years, she had thought about this moment time and time again, idly rewriting the scenario in her head over and over and over... and here it was, actually playing out in real life much to her utter astonishment. She resisted the urge to pinch herself to make sure it wasn't just a dream... a fleeting, passing, completely surreal dream just like their encounter in her sleep only several short weeks ago. The blonde took several deep breaths, still trying to wrap her head around the events that were unfolding at that very moment.

No, it wasn't a dream.

Chris Shumway was actually here, standing right outside of the door, most likely waiting for her with a cup of coffee in hand.

Meredith gulped, nervously surveying her reflection for what must have been the dozenth time. She closed her eyes for a moment, taking several deep breaths, suddenly painfully aware of the fact that her head was swimming, her stomach churning, her heart racing. Letting out a quiet moan of anxiety, the girl abruptly fell forward, gripping the porcelain sides of the sink for support as she desperately tried to regain her composure.

Chris.

Here.

She still couldn't even fully grasp it; she certainly hadn't been prepared for something like this to happen that day, for the infinitely confusing hand of fate to plant him squarely in front of her face. He'd been on her mind for weeks now, an ever-present specter from her past stubbornly refusing to leave her head... and lo and behold, here he was, walking back into her life as quickly as he had left it. Of course, as much as she hated to admit it, she couldn't deny that small, but stubborn part of her that had secretly hoped to cross paths with him again... out of curiosity, out of a need for closure, out of... who knew what.

But now that it was finally happening, she wasn't sure if she was ready. It was all so... unexpected. Overwhelming. Totally surreal.

And yet, so real.

So painfully real. That million-dollar smile, those adorable dimples, his deep baritone voice, his comforting, clean smell, the way he said her name... all of it still seemed so familiar in spite of all the time that had passed, as fresh in her mind as if it were yesterday. One look into those perfect turquoise eyes and, in spite of herself, she could feel herself reeling all over again, her heart in her throat, a thousand brilliant fireworks shooting off and exploding in the sky somewhere inside of her.

She didn't like it. Not one little bit.

She took another deep breath, reaching down to wipe her clammy, sweaty palms off on her dress as darker, decidedly more unpleasant memories began to enter her mind. Even now the thought of it still stung violently: their last meeting in the majestic courtyard of Lincoln Center. The details were just as sharp in her mind as they had always been; her tears, the torn, agonized, tortured look in his eyes, the way he had shaken his head at her in defeat as she had clutched his shirt, pleading with him to tell her how he truly felt about her...

She felt her teeth clench as the heartache and anger and disappointment of the memory came crashing back into her consciousness, barreling right through the walls she had built around her heart. Suddenly, the pain was just as raw and sharp as though it had happened yesterday, long-dormant feelings abruptly awakened.

He hadn't wanted her.

He had picked Evelyn Blake... that frigid, condescending, controlling bitch... over her. Even now, over four years later, that thought still made her normally fairly healthy self-esteem waver. She squeezed her eyes shut tight and took several deep breaths, doing her best quell the age-old anger beginning to well up inside of her.

Keep it together, she thought fiercely to herself as she forced the more rational side of her mind to push its way past her emotions. What was she getting so worked up about, anyway? Coffee with her teenage crush? Scoffing, she inwardly chided herself, refusing to validate any residual heartache.

He had been nothing to her, really, she reminded herself for what felt like the thousandth time. She knew what true love was now... the sacrifice, the commitment, the intimacy, the selflessness of it all. On the other hand, her so-called "love" for Chris; the burning connection that she had most likely dreamed up in her delusional, lovesick mind... surely it had been nothing more than a product of her raging teenage hormones, his striking good looks, and his oh-so-tantalizing unattainability.

A lethal combination, really. But it hadn't been real. Nothing worth pining over. Nothing... substantial or truly meaningful. Mere lust... certainly not love, or anything even remotely close.

...right?

No, she thought fiercely to herself, abruptly halting her train of thought and refusing to allow it to go any further. Don't even GO there. She heard herself laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. This is just silly. So what if he 'broke your heart' back in high school? You've come so far since then. You're not that immature, insecure, lovesick little girl anymore. You're a smart, together, successful young woman with a loving boyfriend and a bright future. You've moved on. It's all in the past...

The girl stood there for another long minute or two, breathing deeply as she tried to fully compose herself, silently repeating comforting mantras of confidence in her head over and over. Finally satisfied, her eyes snapped back open, a new fire of determination burning within them. She took a minute to survey her reflection in the mirror... cool, calm, collected, guard built back up like an wall of steel around her heart, any feelings of sadness, anger, and excitement having been pushed back down to where they belonged.

It's just coffee, she told herself again. Just coffee. And he's just some guy you had a stupid schoolgirl crush on once. No one special. No reason to be nervous. You can do this...

Brow furrowing in determination, Meredith nodded grimly to herself in the mirror, as if to say, Let's do this. And with one last deep breath, she turned on her heel, and strode confidently out of the bathroom.

For as put together as she had felt mere seconds prior, the sight of him still gave her a jolt.

There he was.

Sitting at one of the small bistro tables, two cups of coffee in front of him. His blue eyes wandered aimlessly around the shop as he sat there waiting for her to emerge, blissfully oblivious to all of the women (and gay men) in the place ogling him shamelessly.

Typical.

She had been so stunned to see him in the restaurant she hadn't even gotten the chance to really look him over. Swallowing hard, she took a moment to study him.

In spite of herself, she immediately felt her skin begin to tingle. God, he looked good, she couldn't help but think to herself guiltily as she surveyed him up and down. Just as the photograph in the People article had promised, he hadn't aged a day. Same head of short, perpetually messy dark brown hair, tall, broad-shouldered physique, chiseled, masculine jaw, and deep-set, startlingly beautiful pale blue eyes; all of the physical characteristics that had so abruptly turned her head senior year. If anything, the years had only added to his sex appeal, his very being exuding an unmistakable aura of seasoned maturity, confidence, and experience that the "men" her age very much lacked. Chris wasn't some childish, juvenile little boy in a grown man's body running around New York chasing skirts and wasting all of his newly acquired disposable income on booze like most of her peers... he was all man; in his prime.

Meredith instantly felt her heartbeat quicken again, her nerves grabbing a hold of her once more with their grip of steel. She froze in her tracks, her feet suddenly full of lead, unable to bring herself to move forward. Dear god, what was she doing here? Why was she putting herself through this all over again? Excitement, happiness, sadness, giddiness, anger, disbelief, nervousness, apprehension, guilt... a million confusing, conflicting emotions suddenly flashed through her consciousness.

An image of Trent's smiling face came to her mind, before she immediately guiltily suppressed it, her palms beginning to sweat profusely once more. She strained to remember the calm, cool, and collected girl who had been staring back at her in the mirror several moments before, desperately trying to recapture her poise.

Come on! Get it together. You'll be fine. It's just coffee. IT'S JUST COFFEE...

"Meredith!"

She immediately snapped to attention as she heard that deep, off-putting deep voice call her name. She looked up to see Chris waving at her, eyebrows raised, that adorable little half-smile she had used to love so much playing on his handsome face.

Clearing her throat, she spoke, doing her best to keep her voice steady. "Hey!" she managed finally, doing her best to smile at him confidently as she strode over to him and sat down, her heels clicking on the hard wood floors.

Chris grinned back, pushing the cardboard coffee cup across the table towards her. "Here you go. Vanilla latte, right?"

She nodded. "Right." She reached down for her purse, beginning to fish around for her wallet. "How much do I owe you...?"

He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. "Don't worry about it."

"Oh... no," she insisted with a weak laugh, continuing her search. "You really don't need to do that..."

"But I want to," he said with a smirk, reaching across the tiny table and placing a gentle hand on her arm to stop her. "I was the one to ask you out for coffee, after all. I insist. My treat."

Meredith felt her skin prickle at his warm touch, and immediately withdrew her arm, as if his hand were searing hot. She smiled awkwardly, not quite sure of what to say. "Oh. Well... thank you."

"No problem," he replied kindly.

Several moments of uncomfortable silence.

The blonde gulped, nervously shifting her weight back and forth in her seat as she pretended to be intently interested in her coffee, her eyes remaining stubbornly glued to the cardboard cup sitting on the table before her. She was only too aware of his presence sitting mere inches away, his entire being radiating scalding heat, magnetic allure, that certain special, irresistible something that had once drawn her to him so intensely. She couldn't even bring herself to look up into those beautiful eyes of his for fear of falling... tumbling head-first into their azure depths like she had such a very long time ago.

She quietly sucked in her breath, silently pleading with her heart to stop racing. God, what was wrong with her? Why, even after all these years, did the mere sight of him cause her body to react like this?

"So," Chris began finally, breaking the ice. "Meredith Cable." He pronounced her name slowly, deliberately, as if it were rusty from misuse, rolling the words around on his tongue like they had a pleasant taste. He paused, sighing, shaking his head in disbelief. "I still can't believe we ran into each other like this. This is crazy."

"I know. In a city as big as New York, too," she replied as coolly as possible, nodding.

"Yeah, what are the odds? It really has been so long," he said, smiling warmly at her. "Too long."

"It has," she said nervously, awkwardly returning the grin. "It's been... well, years, now, hasn't it?"

"Yeah. I mean, jeez, where to even begin? I have so many questions," he said, chuckling. "How have you been? What have you been up to all this time? Are you still at UVA?"

"I've been good, thanks. And actually, I just graduated, so I'm all done with school as of a couple of months ago," she replied pleasantly.

"Really? Wow, it's been that long, huh? Jeez, where does the time go?" He smiled kindly at her, genuine warmth and fondness in his eyes. "That's awesome, though. Congratulations. Are you going to miss it?"

"Yeah," she said, smiling at him weakly. "It was a great college experience."

"You were playing field hockey, right?"

"Yup. All four years."

He grinned, winking at her. "I'm impressed. I could tell... look at those guns. You're totally ripped."

Letting out a slightly embarrassed laugh, Meredith self-consciously covered her bar arms with her hands, feeling her face flush. "Uh... thanks?"

"No, toned arms are sexy. No worries," he replied, chuckling. He paused for a moment, studying her carefully, his eyes traveling over her from head to toe, as if still trying to fully process what he was seeing. "So, what's next for you then?"

"Um... well, I'm actually going to physical therapy school at NYU in the fall," she said, smiling modestly.

"Oh wow, really? That's great!" he exclaimed, nodding approvingly. "I can definitely picture that. A smart girl like you... always interesting to see where they'll go." He smiled warmly at her. "Are you excited?"

"Yeah. Excited, but nervous, too."

"I wouldn't worry about it," he said kindly. "You'll do great, I'm sure. I'm jealous. Science was never my strong suit... I always wished I was better at it. What was your major?"

"Bio, actually."

He rolled his eyes, chuckling light-heartedly. "Of course, Smarty Pants. Very impressive. Dissecting dead cats and all that? Don't know how you did it. I probably would've fainted, no joke. I'm any science buff's nightmare lab partner."

All Meredith could do was let out an awkward giggle in response, feeling herself getting slightly flustered as a myriad of confusing emotions began to spread throughout her body. How could he just... joke so casually like this with her? As if nothing had happened between them? Like he had gotten amnesia and magically forgotten all about their last heartbreaking meeting in the courtyard of Lincoln Center?

"So where are you living now?" Chris began again. "In the city? Or are you commuting from Silver Springs?"

"In the city," she replied stiffly.

"That's cool. In an apartment, or...?"

"Yes. I actually just recently moved into my new place."

Chris's eyes widened. "Oh, really? That's exciting. Congratulations. Where are you living?"

"Thanks. In Chelsea on West 21st."

"By yourself? Or do you have roommates?"

"Well, I'm actually living with my friend Paige, if you remember her."

Eyes lighting up in recognition, he threw back his head and let out a hearty laugh. "Oh, Paige... of course I remember her. How could I not? She was a total nut... in a good way of course. She was hilarious. How's she doing these days?"

"Well, she's still a total nut, of course," Meredith said, giving a half-hearted giggle. "But she's doing well. She actually just started working at Edelman, if you've ever heard of it."

"Oh yeah, the PR firm. That's one of the biggest in the country, right? Well, good for her. That sounds great," he replied, smiling kindly.

An awkward temporary lull in conversation. The two of them sat there, smiling at each other a uncomfortably, sipping on their coffees. Meredith could feel his eyes on her, burning holes through her body, trying to read her. She didn't know what exactly it was he was searching for or what kind of reaction he was hoping to receive; all she knew was that she could not bring herself to look up and meet his stare.

She knew how short she was being with him... her responses clipped and curt, her voice stiff and robotic, devoid of any genuine warmth. But she couldn't help herself. How else was she supposed to act after everything that had happened between them, after all the time that had passed? What, was she just supposed to treat him like he were any other old, long-lost friend? She could hear the genuine interest and enthusiasm in his voice, the curiosity about her whereabouts, his attempts at coaxing out longer answers and drawing her into the conversation glaringly obvious. But even so... she found herself fighting the urge to shrink back inside her protective shell, to wither away without a trace, her inherent shyness suddenly coming back with a vengeance.

She cleared her throat, taking yet another deep breath as she willed her rigid shoulders to relax, trying desperately to release the tension from her body. Breathe, Meredith she thought to herself determinedly. He was nothing to you, remember? Just a dumb teenage crush. Why are you going to let him throw you off like this? Just relax... smile... be confident. Show him how well you're doing... WITHOUT him. Turn on the charm! Doing her best to purge all negative thoughts and feelings from her mind, she finally mustered up the courage to look him square in the face and put on her best and brightest megawatt smile.

"Enough about me. What about you?" she began. "You're... a chef, now? I certainly wasn't... expecting that, to say the least."

Understatement of the century.

He nodded, shaking his head and letting out a little laugh. "I know. Who would've thought?"

"So... what's the story behind that, if I may ask?" she asked, leaning forward, her curiosity whetted in spite of herself.

He chuckled, balking at the sheer amount of time they had to cover. "Let's see. Where to even begin? The owner of the restaurant is an old friend of mine, and he was kind enough to take a chance on me. I've been working there for about a year now. Started off as a line cook, busted my ass, and worked my way up to sous chef from there."

"Wow..." She raised a quizzical eyebrow, still very confused. "So needless to say, you don't work at the ad agency anymore...?"

"Nope," he replied, nodding resolutely. "I quit a long time ago. It had actually been a long time coming."

Meredith stared at him, wide-eyed, intrigued in spite of herself "Really? Wow. That's... quite a leap."

He grinned at her, clearly long since familiar with this type of reaction. "I know. It sounds crazy, right?"

"No..." she replied slowly, still turning the idea over and over in her head. "Not crazy, just..."

"Shocking," he cut her off knowingly. "I know, I know. Trust me, sometimes I still can't even believe it. It still kind of feels like a dream." He chuckled sheepishly, his voice taking on a slightly biting, self-deprecating tone. "Who would've thought? Chris Shumway, going against the grain for once in his life."

He hesitated for a moment, looking pensive, before opening his mouth once more, knowing she was seeking some sort of explanation. "To be honest, I just... realized how unhappy I was doing what I was doing. I realized I didn't want to sit in an office behind a desk for the rest of my life working on the 9 to 5 grind, kiss-assing clients and trying to figure out the best possible way to dupe people out of their money. So... about three years ago, I started going to culinary school at night on a whim."

He paused, a satisfied smile creeping onto his lips as he remembered, his voice suddenly getting quiet. "It started off innocently enough... just a few classes here and there. But I started going more and more, and suddenly, I was going full-time and... I don't know. I mean, I always knew I loved to cook, but it really just... solidified everything in my mind, I guess. So when I graduated, I put in my two weeks notice at my old job."

"And then you started working at the restaurant...?"

He shook his head. "Actually, I took some time off and spent the next half a year traveling." He chuckled sheepishly. "Do some soul searching, you know?"

Meredith's eyes widened in surprise. "Really? Where...?"

Chris sat back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head, a faraway look in his eye. "Oh, man. Everywhere. Backpacked through Europe, Asia, South America... stayed in hostels and camped out, mostly. I just wanted to get away, you know? Truly get out of my comfort zone for once. It was something I'd always wanted to do and that gap between jobs proved to be the perfect time." He heaved a satisfied sigh, his face lit up. "Best money I've ever spent for sure."

The girl leaned forward, finding herself completely engrossed in spite of herself. She was having a difficult time picturing the buttoned-up, change-averse yuppie she used to know backpacking through the wilderness. "Wow..."

He smiled a smile both proud and wistful. "Yeah. It was awesome. When I got back, Dave—that's the owner—hooked me up with the line cook job at Mahogany, and I've never looked back. The rest is history."

Meredith stared at him with wide, stunned eyes, finding herself finally loosening up a little as she allowed herself to get wrapped up in his story, surprised, spellbound, and touched by it all at the same time.

Chris Shumway? Abruptly quitting his cushy, high-paying, prestigious job for culinary school, traveling around the world alone with nothing but a single backpack to his name, and lastly, starting out at the bottom of the ladder all over again, working his way up to sous chef without even so much as a glance back? This sounded nothing like the predictable, dutiful, and ultimately spineless son hell-bent on pleasing his parents and maintaining the status quo she used to know.

She couldn't even believe it. Something had clearly shifted in him. Even his energy felt different... more daring, confident, uninhibited. Perhaps Chris really had changed... maybe even evolved into something else entirely. But what? She couldn't be entirely sure. The very idea of it sent a strange thrill coursing down her spine.

"Wow," she exclaimed yet again for what felt like the thousandth time as she fought to get her shock under control. "That's... awesome. Congratulations." She smiled genuinely at him for the first time all day, suddenly feeling a very warm feeling in the pit of her stomach. "You finally followed your dream after all. I'm very happy for you."

He chuckled quietly, looking thoughtful. "Thank you. I'm finally doing what I love for a career, and I can't tell you how good it feels. Sure, the hours are long, and the money's not great by any means, but I have more than enough saved up... hopefully to last me for a while. It's worth it."

Meredith raised an eyebrow at him as a sudden thought dawned on her. "I'm guessing your parents were absolutely thrilled when they heard, right?"

Chris rolled his eyes. "Oh, yeah, they were ecstatic," he deadpanned. Letting out an amused laugh, he shook his head slowly. "Not gonna lie... for a while, I thought my dad was going to disown me. But there was no turning back at that point. I stood my ground. It's been an uphill battle... but it's fine." He gave a nonchalant shrug, his lips twisting upwards into an unconcerned smirk. "They'll get over it. I'd like to think they're slowly but surely getting used to the idea of their only son working as a lowly chef."

Clearing her throat loudly, Meredith leaned across the table as a sudden idea came to her mind, doing her best to keep her voice as nonchalant and casual as possible. She fixed him with an even, cool stare, before opening her mouth, feigning ignorance with all of her might. "And what about... Evelyn? What does she think about all of this?"

Chris stared at her for a moment, looking very confused. Finally, after several long seconds, he laughed. "Jeez, it really has been a long time since I've seen you. Well... Evelyn and I actually broke up a long time ago. Called off the engagement and everything." He paused, eyes flying to the ceiling as he strained to remember. "It's been... oh, I don't know. A year? A year and a half? Hard to keep it straight." He smiled, not a single trace of wistfulness or regret in his eyes.

Doing her best to look completely shocked, Meredith's mouth dropped open in false surprise. "Really? Oh, wow, I had no idea. I'm sorry to hear that..."

Yeah. Sorry I'm NOT sorry.

Even as she feigned disbelief, she felt herself smile inwardly as that smug, triumphant sense of satisfaction began spreading throughout her entire body. Sure, this was old news to her, but oh, to hear it from Chris's own sweet lips was absolute music to her ears...

Ding, dong, the witch is dead.

He waved her away with his hand, shrugging indifferently. "Don't be. It was a long time coming." He paused for a moment, a pensive, serious expression appearing on his handsome face. "I guess sometimes when you've been with someone for so long, it becomes hard to distinguish between what you think you want and what you actually want. You know what I mean?"

Meredith nodded, her jaw clenching, those words suddenly ringing truer to her than they ever had before. "Yeah. I do."

He smiled sheepishly. "Anyways, so yeah. I'm a bachelor now. Just living the single life... and it's been good for me. Hell, made me completely turn my whole life around, as you can see. For once, I don't have anything—or anyone—holding me back."

In spite of herself, she felt a chill course down her spine at these words, but took several deep breaths and kept calm.

He was single.

Single. No Evelyn, no new girlfriend or fiancée. For the first time since she'd known him, Chris was on the market. She flashed him a cool, neutral smile, even as she felt her heart skip a beat. "Well, it sounds like you made the right decision then. I'm... glad you're happy."

Chris nodded nonchalantly. "Yeah. Haven't lost very much sleep over it, that's for sure. Although I will say this: she didn't exactly approve when I started going to culinary school, but I don't think she thought I'd ever actually quit my job at the ad agency and pursue it seriously. Needless to say, I think she would have flipped a shit about the career change had we still been together."

He chuckled softly to himself, before pausing and staring at her for a long moment, his eyes suddenly focused on her more carefully than ever. He spoke, his tone perfectly even... but even so, Meredith couldn't help but notice a subtle undercurrent of intent interest in his seemingly calm voice. "But enough about me. What about you, Meredith? How's your love life going these days?"

Meredith grimaced. Her love life. Her absolute favorite topic of conversation. She opened her mouth to speak. "Well, I..."

But nothing came out, the words suddenly sticking her throat. Trent's name was on the tip of her tongue, but somehow, she just couldn't bring herself to say it out loud, as if held back by an invisible force. She felt her heartbeat begin to quicken, her stomach lurching nervously, her palms abruptly sweating bullets all over again, the hand holding her coffee cup trembling slightly.

As Chris stared expectantly at her from across the table, his eyes full of curiosity, she suddenly felt a slight twinge of shame. "Well, I'm actually back with my horrid ex-boyfriend who cheated on me back in high school. You know, the one who you saw me with at the ballet?" she imagined herself saying cheerily. "Only this time, he's different, I promise... minus the fact that now I never see him anymore because he works 24/7, and by 'works' I mean probably canoodling with some bimbo co-worker named Courtney. So who knows... maybe he's not that different, after all. In fact, the whole reason I was at your restaurant eating lunch all alone is because he stood me up for what must have been the thousandth time. So yeah, the love life's going just great!"

She inwardly groaned, squirming uncomfortably under the scrutiny of his intense blue stare. Her cheeks began to flush, the embarrassment rising inside of her in a wave of unpleasantness. She had been humiliated enough by Trent for one day; the last thing she wanted was to have Chris sit there and judge her, looking on with both stern disapproval and pity, thinking to himself what a fool she was for getting back together with a cheating sleazeball like him. Trent had done nothing but let her down and disappoint her lately... all she wanted was to forget him for once, to not have to say his name out loud, to pretend for just a moment that her boyfriend was in fact some faceless, nameless, perfect male specimen who catered to her every whim and desire...

"The love life is going fine," she finally replied confidently, forcing the cheeriest smile she could possibly muster. "I've been dating a... great guy for a while now. He's... the best! I've never been happier."

Leaving things out wasn't exactly lying...

...was it?

Chris's eyes widened slightly. "Oh..." If she hadn't been staring at his handsome visage with rapt attention, she would have missed the fleeting look of disappointment that flickered across his face. In mere milliseconds, however, it was gone again, replaced by his usual charismatic grin. "Well, that's great, Meredith. I'm very happy for you. You deserve it. How long have you two been together?"

"Oh, I don't know... a few years now," she heard herself reply vaguely.

Try almost four years.

"Wow... so it's pretty serious, then. That's great," he said, with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "How did you two meet? Down at UVA I'm assuming?"

She sighed. Details, details. Why did he keep having to ask all these damn questions? Couldn't he just drop it? "Well..."

She was saved by her own clumsiness, because suddenly, before she knew it, her coffee cup had turned over on the table, the brown liquid spilling everywhere.

"Oh, shit!" she exclaimed, scrambling to pick up her cup and mop up the mess with the few thin napkins she had.

Chris immediately jumped up to grab a thick stack of napkins, before jogging over to help her clean up the spilled coffee.

"I'm so sorry... I'm so clumsy," she said shamefully, her face burning with embarrassment.

"No, no, not a big deal at all," he said kindly as he continued to try and mop up the piping hot liquid from the table and the floor.

Several minutes later, the mess finally cleaned up, Meredith repositioned herself in her seat, staring across the table at him with wide, flustered eyes. "So... where were we?"

"Well, we were talking about—"

"Oh, right. We were talking about your new career. That's so great!" she cut him off over-enthusiastically before he could finish, noting with a sinking sense of self-loathing how desperate she was to change the subject. She fiercely pushed the guilt that was beginning to seep into her consciousness away, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it for the time being.

Much to her chagrin, Chris looked as though he were about to speak up and correct her calculated misstep for a moment, before finally just deciding to let it rest. "Thanks. Glad you think so. Of course I have to ask... what did you think of your lunch?" He smiled at her kindly. "If I'd known it was you I was cooking for, I would've stepped up my game."

"Oh, no," she replied quickly, feeling her face getting hot. "It was delicious. My compliments to the chef."

He lowered his eyes modestly. "Thank you. That means a lot... really."

A pause in the conversation... a slightly more comfortable one this time, her initial stiffness having dissipated for the time being.

Meredith sat there in silence for a moment, taking the time to study the handsome man sitting across from her. So different, yet so the same. Almost five whole years and a risky career change later. Just as kind, gentle, and sweet as she remembered, but... stronger. Bolder, somehow... in his own quiet way. In spite of herself, she felt unexpected tenderness suddenly well up from deep inside of her, momentarily spilling over the walls she'd so carefully built around heart. "I really am very happy for you, Chris," she heard herself saying, her voice low and filled with a quiet awe. "Quitting your cushy job to do what you love. Standing up to your parents. That... must have taken a lot of guts."

Chris chuckled softly, modestly lowering his eyes for a moment. "Thanks, Meredith. But I can't take all the credit." He raised his gaze to look at her again, and their eyes met for one startling, electric moment. His eyes were strikingly, vibrantly blue. He spoke again, his voice holding an emotion she couldn't quite identify. "Someone very wise beyond their years once told me that life's too short to let other people's opinions dictate your decisions." He paused, looking slightly embarrassed, before giving her a meaningful, knowing smile. "That always stuck with me."

She froze, her heart suddenly in her throat. Those words struck a chord deep in her memory, and suddenly, she knew.

She had been the one to say that to him all those years ago.

In the courtyard of Lincoln Center, tears streaming down her face, as her younger, naive, hopelessly in love self so desperately tried to convince him that they belonged together.

And not only had he remembered her words... but he had acted on them.

Suddenly, she felt herself overwhelmed with emotion, touched beyond measure, that same burning, warm sensation in the pit of her stomach spreading throughout her entire body like wildfire. To her complete shock, she could feel hot tears abruptly beginning to sting at her eyes. But just as quickly as it had come, the warmth vanished, her defenses came flying back up, and she felt herself retreat back inside of her herself like a shrinking violet, shutting down completely. What was happening? All she knew was that she wanted to run, run far away, far away from him and his kind smile and his comforting scent and the pain... the sharp, excruciating, very sudden stab of pain she felt in her chest.

Unable to meet his eyes, she forced an uncomfortable smile. "Well, I should probably get going."

Chris stared at her, face falling, surprised at her sudden shift in demeanor. "Oh..." he said, not even bothering to hide his disappointment, sounding slightly caught off-guard. "Well... OK. Got somewhere to be?"

"Yeah. I have... dinner plans," she replied, blurting the first excuse that came to her mind. "It's just... starting to get late. I really should be heading back." She quickly rose to her feet, awkwardly clearing her throat as she smoothed out the wrinkles in her dress and shouldered her purse.

"Oh... OK." Chris reluctantly began to follow suit, still looking confused at the abrupt end.

Meredith could feel his eyes lingering on her as she went and threw their coffee cups away, his piercing gaze continuing to bore holes in her back as he followed her out of the cafe and into the sunlight.

The sweltering afternoon heat hit them in a massive wave; thick, hazy, enveloping, a stark contrast from the air conditioned haven of the coffee shop. She whirled around to face Chris, shielding her eyes from the piercing sun beating down on them from above. Doing her best to ignore the bizarre, off-putting feeling in her gut, she smiled a polite, but distant smile. "Thanks again for the coffee."

"Oh... of course," he replied, clearing his throat. After momentarily hesitating, he jerked his thumb behind him. "You said your apartment was on West 21st, right? That's not too far from my apartment. Can I at least... walk you home?"

"Oh, no," she replied a little too quickly, tone overly cheerful, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. "It's fine. I can manage, I promise."

His face fell. Tentatively, he tried again. "Are you sure? It really wouldn't be a problem at all..."

"No, no, it's OK. Seriously, don't worry about it," she cut him off, forcing a tight-lipped smile. "Really. But... thanks."

Chris studied her for a long moment, his expression serious and unreadable, clearly still trying to get a handle on what she was thinking. Finally, he merely shrugged, giving up. "Well, alright then."

A long, slightly awkward pause followed, neither of them quite sure of how to act.

"Thanks for getting coffee with me," Chris spoke up again, giving a small, albeit slightly unsure smile. "It was fun. It's really so great to see you after all these years. I'm... glad you're doing well."

"Oh... sure! Same to you," she replied as chipperly as possible. "It was nice to catch up."

"Come by Mahogany any time," he said, his voice completely sincere. "I mean it. I'll whip you up something special... on the house, of course."

She laughed weakly. "Oh, thanks. I... definitely will."

More uncomfortable silence.

Meredith felt her heartbeat suddenly begin to quicken again in her chest, her throat thickening, her stomach twisting itself into knots as her nerves began to overwhelm her once more.

The dreaded moment had finally arrived: The Goodbye.

What now? she couldn't help but think frantically to herself as anxiety began to seize her. What was the protocol? Were they supposed to hug? Shake hands? Was this it? Would she ever see him again? Did she even want to see him again...? A million questions whizzing through her mind, she took a deep breath and looked up into his handsome face, searching for cues.

And there he was, staring down at her with those eyes... and oh, those eyes. The color of a cloudless, vibrant summer sky, of crystal clear tropical waters, of two twin perfect aquamarine gem stones sparkling and glittering in the sunlight; just as hypnotizing, dazzling, and brutally intense as she remembered. The eyes that she always felt could penetrate down into the deepest chasms of her soul, the eyes that had cast such a powerful spell on her all those years ago...

Feeling her knees suddenly get weak, she quickly averted her gaze, clearing her throat loudly as she tried to shake off the nostalgia. "Well, I really should be going," she said briskly, giving him an uneasy smile.

Chris returned her smile reluctantly, looking wistful. "Yeah, I should too. Lots of errands I should probably be running right now." He gave a weak chuckle.

Yet another pause.

She could tell he was trying to stall. She suddenly felt like she was being smothered to death... stifled by her constricting dress, by breathing the same air as him, by age-old, strange emotions welling up in her throat. Giving him one last slightly strained smile, she was about to turn on her heels when...

Chris visibly gulped, opening his mouth slowly, looking like he was about to say something. Meredith perked up immediately. For as hell-bent on getting out of there as she had been mere moments before, she suddenly felt overwhelmed with curiosity. She didn't exactly know what it was that she wanted to hear in that instant, but for some reason, she found herself inexplicably sucking in her breath in anticipation...

And, just like that, he closed his mouth again, flashing her a defeated, frustrated smile. "Well, bye, Meredith. Take care."

So this was it, after all. For reasons unknown to her, to her utter surprise, she felt her heart sink a little. She cracked a small smirk. "Yeah, you too. Bye Chris."

As soon as the words escaped her lips, she whirled around and began walking purposefully away from him, unsure of how to feel.

This was it. Just as quickly as Chris Shumway had walked back into her life, here he was, leaving it yet again. This is probably for the better, she thought to herself matter-of-factly. Nothing could have ever come of it anyway... The blonde swallowed hard, her guard immediately flying back up even as her guilt flooded her consciousness, surprised at her own reaction.

...not that you even WANTED anything to come of it.

She was just about to round the corner when the sound of that all-too-familiar deep voice coming from behind her stopped her in her tracks.

"Meredith. Wait."

She whirled around to stare at him, heartbeat quickening, eyes filled with both confusion and a sort of dim hope. Chris was standing there on the sidewalk, exactly where she'd left him, a new fire of determination burning in his beautiful blue eyes.

"Yes...?" she spoke slowly, still completely unsure of herself.

"Well... um..." He hesitated for a moment, scratching the back of his head sheepishly, before his face broke into a slightly idiotic grin. "Forgive me if this is too forward, but would you like to go out to dinner tomorrow night?" He paused, suddenly looking slightly embarrassed. "You know... to finish catching up. It's been almost five years... somehow, I have a feeling we barely had time to even scratch the surface." He chuckled weakly.

Her eyes widened in surprise, balking at the question. "Uh..." In spite of how strangely disappointed she had felt only seconds before, doubt suddenly began spreading throughout her entire body like poison as the more rational side of her began to take over, questions filling her mind.

What was she doing? She couldn't be going out to dinner with him! She had a boyfriend, for crying out loud. And not only that, but this was Chris Shumway... the man who had hurt her beyond measure, who had broken her heart into a million little pieces all those years ago, who she had spent nights upon nights sobbing over until she didn't have a single tear left inside of her. Why on earth would she ever want to strike up any kind of friendship with him after all this time?

"Um, well, I'd love to, I really would, but I... actually already have plans," she heard herself lie, giving him a weak smile and a shrug.

Chris's face fell. "Oh..." He let out a sheepish chuckle and shook his head, suddenly looking extremely embarrassed. "Yeah, of course you do. I totally understand. OK, well, in that case... see you around?" Even in spite of the bright smile he flashed her, she could see the disappointment in his eyes.

She felt a strange ache in her chest, but nodded her head resolutely, forcing an awkward half-smile. "Sure."

He cracked her a half-hearted grin. "Alright, well... bye Meredith. Take care."

Meredith stared after him as he turned and began walking down the sidewalk, suddenly feeling a bizarre, overwhelming, unidentifiable emotion grab hold of her...

Maybe it was naive of her, maybe it was just plain wrong, but one look into those perfect blue eyes and all the anger, all the sadness, all the memories of heartache and pain at his expense, all of the practical knowledge that this was, without a doubt, a bad idea just dissipated into thin air for the time being. Inside, her head was still screaming at her to be careful, to watch herself, to keep her guard up and her emotions in check, to really think long and hard about this...

But her heart... her heart was saying something else entirely.

She didn't know what she was doing. She didn't know why she was doing it or how she was feeling about it. But suddenly, words came tumbling out of her lips from somewhere deep down inside of her, and she felt powerless to stop them. "Chris, wait!" she called before she could stop herself.

He halted in his tracks and turned his head slowly, his gaze full of anticipation. She felt her knees go weak.

"Dinner... sounds great," she heard herself reply, flashing him a sheepish smile.

What are you DOING? her mind screamed inwardly, the rational side of her looking on in horror. Stop! NOTHING good can come of this...!

But it was too late. There was no going back now.

His handsome face immediately broke into a broad grin, his eyes widening in both happiness, surprise, and relief. "Awesome. How about we go around... say, 7? How does that sound?"

"That works," she said faintly, summoning up all the control she could muster to prevent her voice from shaking.

"Great. I'll give you a call tomorrow and we can sort out the details." He glanced down quickly at his beat up old cell phone. "Any chance you still have the same phone number after all these years?"

Meredith laughed weakly, nodding. "Yup, same number."

"Believe it or not, I think I still have it. I'm not much of a technology guy." He grinned at her, eyes sparkling like he couldn't believe his luck. "See you tomorrow. Looking forward to it."

"Yeah, see you then."

And with that, he turned on his heel and strode off, a new spring in his step. If you had passed him on the street, you would have seen a permanent, infectiously happy smile plastered on his face.

Meredith stood there dumbly for a moment, eyes wide, completely surprised at herself. What have I done? She felt overwhelmed, confused at her own actions, apprehensive, a little angry at herself...

...and maybe, just maybe... a teeny, tiny bit excited.

Swallowing hard, unable to sort out the utterly perplexing maelstrom of emotions swirling around inside of her, she turned around and began sauntering down the sidewalk, suddenly feeling more lost than ever.


Author's Notes: Well, what did you think? My main grievance with this chapter (and the next couple, like I said) in the old version was getting Meredith's emotional reaction just right. At first I made her too happy to see him, then less happy (but still too happy, I think), and now, hopefully, I think I got it to my liking. She's older and wiser now. She's successfully convinced herself (whether true or not) that what she had with Chris was ultimately meaningless, superficial fluff. Deep down, she still feels that same connection with him and that same attraction. HOWEVER, it's not that simple. Her guard is completely up and she's torn between her more rational, cold, calculating side and, of course, succumbing to those old feelings. All her emotions are completely conflicting and definitely impossible for her to figure out at this point. Worming his way past that emotional wall and back onto her good side isn't going to be easy for Chris. Anyhow, I hope that came across.

Thank you SO much again for all your reviews! I can't tell you how much they mean to me. I read each and every single one, even if I don't always have the time to respond. I promise I will do my best to be faster with the next chapter. Hope you enjoyed! :)