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Almost Strangers

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"Hey there, stranger!"

Ten years. Ten years since he'd written that recommendation. Ten years since they'd last sat on a plane waiting impatiently for take off.

"Natalie. How have you been?"

She turns slightly in her seat to face more towards him. Somehow this tiny gesture is comforting.

"Busy. You?"

"What do you expect?"

She rolls her eyes. "More miles, huh?"

He shrugs. "So what has you back up in the air?"

"Just leaving a roundtable about successful business practices in Seattle, overnight in Chicago, and then I'm headed back to Cornell for alumni weekend for some networking, that sort of thing. You?"

For some reason, he's impressed with this. Her poise now has the undercurrent of maturity, which, he supposes, gives it the authority that it once lacked. But he's no philosopher, at least not anymore, and the familiar impatient angle of her eyebrows reminds him that there's a question to answer.

"Same old. Same old."

"So the teleconferencing thing didn't work out?"

She looks at him nonchalantly, though perhaps there's a glimmer of hope in her eye.

"No, teleconferencing works just fine for the common rabble."

Her head tilts. "And you..."

"I get to fire the uncommon rabble - upper middle management types. Too low to be vital but too high to be let go by someone sitting at a computer screen thousands of miles away."

She smirks. "I see." A pause. "So it's a win-win for everyone, then."

"I guess you could say that."

At some point as they sail over a nation just getting ready for bed, Natalie pulls out her laptop. Her typing has grown less purposeful over the years. He wonders what else had changed.

The in-flight magazine he is idly flicking through catches his attention. An advert for airport stroller rental. He takes a long look at the page and then a long look at Natalie. His mind spins. He clears his throat. "Natalie."

Her head jerks up. "Yes."

"Just wondering how, you know, that non-business side of life was going..."

"Ah." She smiles slightly. "Well, now that you ask, I am still single and non-pulsed about it."

"That's quite a change."

If glares could kill, he would be dead. "People change, Ryan." A beat. "Let me guess, you are still renting a dreadfully sparse efficiency in Wichita and taking joy in your empty-backpack philosophy."

"Actually, I gave up motivational speaking a while ago."

Her lips form a perfect "o." "I see."

A pause.

He tries a new direction. "So you still haven't found the one, eh? No outdoorsy, brown haired, golden retriever loving men knocking at your door?"

"How do you even remember that?"

He shrugs.

She continues. "But, to answer your question, no, I have not found the one. Dated around for a while, nothing really clicked. I guess Alex was right, your standards lessen over time... I take it you and Alex didn't work out."

"No. No, it didn't."

"That's too bad. I was convinced you two had everything - had life - figured out. I was so naive then..."

"Tell me about it."

"Hey!"

"I speak only the truth."

She turns back to her laptop screen. Not wanting to loose this connection, what ever it is, he continues: "You staying at the Marriott near ORD?"

"Of course. Where else?"

A smile sneaks onto Ryan's face. I trained her well. "You up for drinks?"

"Sure thing."

They both smile. Happier than they've been in months.