Fear of Falling

Chapter One

There was something about airplanes that put Ryan Atwood in a contemplative mood. Maybe it was his fear of heights, the knowledge that a few thin pieces of metal bolted together was the only thing keeping him from tumbling thousands of feet to his death, that made him suddenly want to examine his life. Perhaps it was because he was on a late flight, the peace and quiet of the jet lulling him into a thoughtful mood where sleep was far away and his life was suddenly staring right back at him, judging his decisions. Then again, it could have just been that he was at a cross roads in his life; he could just sense that something significant was going to happen, and, when it did, he wanted to be ready for it. He just hoped this something significant would change his life for the better…..at least it couldn't really get much worse, he thought sullenly to himself as he let his eyes drift over the other passengers on the plane.

Most of them were trivial, the usual people you would see flying. Glancing around the dim business class compartment, his eyes wandered over sleeping junior executives, their hands securely fastened unto their briefcases as if they were holding the key secrets to their companies' success, elderly women, snoring softly, as they traveled together for a ladies' club weekend at a cheesy hotel, all in their matching shirts, and strong, self-assured women quietly reading how-to books for they depended upon no one to help them and refused to sleep for it would be a sign of weakness, but there was only one person who interested him at all, who made him wonder what they were like, who kept drawing his wandering gaze back towards them.

She was sitting right beside him, dreamily staring out their open window, a winsome, bemused, peaceful expression across her beautiful face. It was a face he could get lost in, a face to build a life on, a face he couldn't get enough of. While he knew he had never seen it before, it felt as if he had known her his entire life. It was the strangest feeling in the world, yet comforting at the same time, lulling his nervous mind and body into a sense of tranquility as his thoughts fluttered over his life, every so often letting his eyes glance at her again.

For one thing, he thought about his career. There was really only one thing Ryan had been interested in his whole life growing up….well beside the usual teenage obsession…girls, he chucked to himself silently. Sports. He played all through high school, and, by the time he graduated, his grades and moderate talent were good enough to get him a partial scholarship to a local college, and he went without an idea of what he'd do when he graduated. He knew he had to do something – he now had a family to support, but that was a whole other story, a whole other concern that his mind could only deal with in proper order. First, he wanted to think about the only partially decent thing in his life, perhaps because it was the only thing he was good at. Two years into his college experience, which was very a atypical one, he decided the only thing he could do was somehow be around the sporting world, so his advisor recommended journalism, telling him they always needed good sports writers for newspapers. Although he was not one for words, the short, choppy, basic style of a journalist suited him, and, because he was virtually a library of facts and figures for every sport under the sun, the job came easily to him. Five years after graduation, he had worked his way up from the local Chino newspaper, Chino being the town he had spent his teen years growing up in and the town he had been forced to remain a member of to this day, to a national sports magazine that he traveled for, giving him the perfect opportunity to be away from home. Home, now that's a laughable idea, Ryan mused to himself, rolling his crisp, blue eyes in the process, not evening noticing the slight groan that escaped his tensed lips at the sheer thought of it.

He had been sixteen when his sometimes friend other times bed buddy Theresa had told she was pregnant, staunchly Catholic and pregnant, insisting that he do the right thing by her and their unborn child and marry her. Her mother, she had claimed, would have it no other way. He wanted to laugh at her, mock her beliefs. Where the hell was her religion when she slept with him out of wedlock in the first place? Funny how she conveniently became a good, pious church mouse the instant she was afraid, but he never said a thing, never even demanded proof, and he married her. Sixteen, naïve, and jobless, Ryan Atwood had gotten married, given up his freedom, and moved in with his new wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law. A few weeks later, it became apparent that there was no baby. Whether or not she lost it or had made it up, he never knew, but eleven years later, they were still married.

Considering everything that had been stacked against them, it was amazing how well their lives turned out. They both finished high school, and while he went to college on his scholarship, working full time at night after his various sports practices were over, she worked full time in local bakeries. Her brother had gone to jail their senior year of high school, so when her Mom died when they were 21, she left them her house, and suddenly their lives were a little more secure. Theresa started selling baked goods to friends and neighbors out of their kitchen, eventually, with a loan, opening up her own bakery. They were Chino's success story; their town's version of a fairytale. Both accomplished with no criminal record, they were considered the perfect couple.

Just the year before, they had sold Theresa's Mom's house and bought a larger, family home as Theresa had referred to it, claiming she was ready to be a mom just as soon as he was ready to become a dad. The thought of having children scared the living hell out of him though, and to avoid it, he just started to travel even more for work, always jumping at the chance to fly around the country to various sporting events for his office that was based in LA. On average, he was home perhaps maybe five days a month. Theresa told her friends he was passionate about his job, working so much so that they could put money away for their children. 'He always took care of her,' she told them with a proud smile on her face never suspecting the real truth.

In all actuality though, he felt trapped in his life, trapped in his home, trapped in his marriage, and his work was the only thing that helped him escape. He was going to be 30 in less than three years, and looking at his life, there was not a single thing in it Ryan Atwood could actually claim to enjoy, even the simplest pleasures in life held no shine for him any longer. Catching his favorite movie late at night when he couldn't sleep made him merely sigh in frustration that they couldn't make movies now the way they used to, joining an impromptu game of baseball in the park as he took a walk around the cities he traveled to only made him realize that he was not good enough to be a professional athlete, having, instead, to settle for writing about the talented people in the world that he envied, and ordering his favorite food at a restaurant as he sat by himself night after night for dinner only made him realize that he didn't enjoy his food because there wasn't someone he wanted to share his meals with – all he got out of them was another reason for another late night gym session. If truth be told, the only thing that had given him the slightest glimmer of pleasure in over six months was sitting beside him totally oblivious to the fact that he even existed. But perhaps it's better that way, Ryan said to himself. This way she can remain perfect – the fantasy I can enjoy for the rest of the flight, for all future flights, forever being the phantom, the unattainable, the dream. He really had learned how to turn a phrase over the years.

Eye lids heavy, Ryan glanced down at his watch. Twenty minutes until we land, he noticed, his lack of sleep finally catching up with him as a silent yawn escaped the confines of his mouth. It had been a long day. He had been in Columbus for just the evening, flying in from another job, another event, another story, to cover the college football game that night, and had to leave again on the red eye to Seattle so he could be there the next morning for the professional football game that afternoon. He didn't mind though. The constant travel, the never-ending drone of thousands of fans screaming at the top of their voices, and the mundane routine of watching and writing, watching and writing kept him from going….back…to his reality, to his so-called home.

Snapping him out of his thoughts, the enchanting woman beside him squirmed in her seat, whimpering slightly as her cramped body protested to the tight spaces they were in. Her movements reminded him of the innocence of a child, but just looking at her let him know she was no such thing. She was everything a woman was supposed to be and more. Although she had been awake for most of the flight, she had fallen asleep for the last 40 minutes, but slowly she came back to consciousness as if she sensed it was almost time for them to land. Their eyes locked for a moment when her lids struggled open and she took in her surroundings, blue on blue, a perfect match, until he blushed slightly in his ears, gave her a small, gentle smile, and turned away, noticing they were the only two passengers awake on the tediously silent plane.

The sudden movement of the stewardesses caught both of their attention, their eyes simultaneously following the panicked, pale professionals of the air. They kept disappearing into the cockpit, one at a time, reemerging to whisper guardedly to each other, the youngest one, an obvious rookie, breaking down in terrified sobs to be led away by who one would presume was the most experienced of the group.

"Landing equipment's bad" ….. "He's looking for a safe place to land, but this is Seattle; there's only the ocean, city buildings, and trees." ….. "I wonder if he'd let us make a phone call home to our families." …. "Should we tell the passengers?"

He could have listened further, kept on eavesdropping as he realized that his irrational fear of heights he had suffered from his whole life was suddenly not so crazy, that perhaps he had been preparing himself for this day since he was little boy. Maybe all those people who said nothing was a coincidence, that everything happened for a reason were right. If only he had trusted himself and never gotten on an airplane….if only, if only, if only, Ryan's brain droned on, a constant lament of regrets assaulting his abruptly wide-awake mind.

"Oh god," the woman beside him cursed warily, the panic etched across her face, her voice snapping him out of his pity session. "This cannot be happening; I cannot die without any underwear on!"

Although she was serious, her shame over her lack of proper attire completely sincere, Ryan, in that moment, had never heard anything so funny in his entire life, and, immediately, he started laughing. Turning to her, he teased, "We're about to die, and all you can think about is what you're wearing?"

"Well….yeah," she bemoaned, her face tinged with an embarrassed blush as she buried her head in her hands, her voice muffled when she spoke again. "How would you like to be forever remembered for dying without having any underwear on? How would you like to know that your headstone read 'here lies the skank who traveled cross country without her skivvies on?' How would you like it if your little sister would have to come and identify your mangled body while the coroner snickered in the background because the deceased couldn't be bothered to put anything on underneath her pants before flying home from vacation?"

He couldn't help it. Looking at her fear filled eyes, pleading with him to make her feel better about her current predicament, he really wanted to comfort her, say something to make the gorgeous woman he had spent the entire flight admiring feel better, but the utter hilariousness of the situation wouldn't let him go, and he let out a loud, amused guffaw, only serving to further humiliate her. She's adorable when she's embarrassed, he realized, smirking to himself and deciding to have some fun with her. Hell, I might as well, Ryan realized. It'll be too late to have fun tomorrow.

Glancing around to make sure no one was paying any attention to them, he leaned over towards her seat and, in soft tone, asked, "who the hell says skivvies any more," eliciting a peal of tinkling giggles out of the bashful woman beside him.

It took her a minute to calm back down, their shared laughter easing some of the tension and fright out of her body. Turning towards Ryan, she studied his face for a moment before demanding, "tell me something about you that no one else knows. Tell me your biggest secret. I've already revealed my complete disregard of proper etiquette and dress, baring my soul of its deepest, darkest secret," she continued prompting him to smirk at her comment, "so it's only fair that you unburden your soul as well."

And she was right – it was the perfect time for him to finally admit to someone the secret he had been harboring for eleven years. It made sense to him, to tell her; it was as if she was the only person in the world he could tell his secret to. "I don't love my wife," he replied calmly, meeting her strong gaze, neither of them blinking. "I mean I love her like a man loves his childhood friend, his pet dog, his favorite family memory, but I'm not in love with her. I never have been." When she didn't say anything, when she just continued to stare at him at a loss for words, he started to become unnerved. "Say something….say anything, please," he begged her.

"I haven't had sex since I was 16," she shared with him, her eyes wide with disbelief at herself that she had confessed that embarrassing piece of information about her life. "Oh my god, why am I even talking to you," she asked herself, an anxious hand going to her forehead to scrub against it violently in an agitated fashion. Refusing to meet his eye, she rambled out an explanation so quickly he had to determinedly listen and make mental notes to understand what she was saying. "I don't even know why," she confessed bewildered. "It's not like I'm against sex; I like sex….a lot, I miss it, like…everyday, but I was just….too busy and the opportunity never really presented itself."

"What's your fantasy then," Ryan asked her, his curiosity peaked for more than one reason. "You've had eleven long years to think about this," he pushed, "so if you could have sex one last time, where would it be and with whom?"

"Underneath a magnolia tree," she answered at length, slowly, "there's always been something about the scent of magnolias that drive me crazy, in a good way, and it would be raining," she added, her eyes glazing over with imaginary temptation and lust. "Not just raining, but a thunderstorm, at night, so that the rain droplets could filter through the thick leaves of the tree and wash over our bodies." Swallowing thickly, her cheeks flushed with just the thought of her vision, she met his eyes. "As for who I would be with, I'm not sure. Just as long as I loved them and they loved me, it would be perfect." Smirking devilishly, she amended, "Oh, and he'd have to be really hot, too," making Ryan snicker softly as the plane, the other passengers, and the impending danger rapidly disappeared from their minds leaving them alone in their thoughts, together. "What about you," she finally inquired, breaking through the silence that had enfolded them after her erotic confession. "What's your ultimate fantasy?"

Ryan spoke quickly. This was something he had been planning since he was fourteen. "Me, the hottest woman imaginable, and the home plate at Wrigley Field – the lights would be on, the stadium empty, and every single pun would definitely be intended."

"You wouldn't like sports at all, would you," the bewitching woman across from teased, her eyes twinkling with mirth and delight. "And do we know who this hottest woman imaginable is?"

Looking her up and down, making his message very clear, Ryan responded, "Yeah, I might have a few ideas." Seeing her lose of composure, he chuckled once again before changing the topic. "Okay, your turn to ask a question."

"Um…..kids," she pondered out loud, her face loosing its excitement as pain flashed across her countenance once again. "Do you have any, and, if not, do you want any…..did you want any," she amended softly.

"No, I don't have any kids," Ryan told her easily, but the second part of her question was a little more difficult. "And as for whether or not I wanted them, I guess….yeah, I did,… just not with my wife." When she didn't even blink at his answer, her eyes void of judgment or scorn, he returned the question to her. "What about you?"

"I feel like I've been a Mom for years," she acknowledged softly leaving him to wonder what she meant when she just pushed on to the second part of her own question. "But I wanted to experience the whole thing, you know, the swollen belly, the cravings, sore back and feet, labor, breast feeding, the terrible two's, the first day of kindergarten, first crush, prom, graduation, first love, marriage, grandchildren, but now…."

She couldn't finish her thought though as his lips were suddenly crashed into hers, his mouth taking hers over and over again in the most passionate, sensual, tender embrace that either of them had ever had. It held all their fears, all their dreams, all their memories, a final expression of who they were as people and who they had always wanted to be. That kiss, that blissfully delicious moment where they lost themselves in each other was the most perfect moment in either of their lives. In the face of death, they had both finally opened up their hearts to someone, even if they were perfect strangers, and let them in, given all of themselves in the few minutes they had left to share.

Pulling away breathless, their foreheads resting on each others, Ryan let his hands find those of the woman's beside him, joining their fingers together in a trusting, soothing embrace, needing to feel the comfort she gave him and the reassurance he returned to her.

"Tell me your name," he asked her softly, his lips brushing against hers as he spoke.

"Marissa," she breathed out, her gasps for air still erratic from their life altering kiss. "And you?"

"Ryan."

And so they remained there, joined together as one in their fear and pain yet thankful for the few minutes they had spent with each other. Strangely, if they were going to die, neither of them could imagine wanting to spend their last moments alive with anyone else. Being with each other then, in that situation it just….fit; it just made sense. Everything else faded away: the flashing lights, the panicked cries from the now awake passengers, the pilot's instructions and updates, the crying stewardesses, the oxygen masks that had fallen free from their holding compartments, the early morning scenery flashing by their still open window at a dizzying speed – it all faded away as the two strangers lost themselves in each other.

Walking off the plane and into the middle of a meadow outside of Seattle, a suddenly clear headed, appreciative, thankful Ryan followed the quiet, shy woman in front of him as they made their way to the rescue vehicle that would take them into the city. Minutes before they had just shared the most intimate moment of either of their lives, and now, after surviving, miraculously, something that should have killed them both, they were like two inexperienced, embarrassed teenagers again after their first kiss. Neither had said anything; neither knew what to say.

Letting his eyes wander her body, he realized that he was not afraid of heights; he was afraid of falling….afraid of falling off the ladder when his wife made him clean out the eave spouts every year, afraid of falling out of a tree when he had to climb it in order to trim some errant branches, afraid of falling out of a carnival ride to the extent where he refused to step foot in a fair or an amusement park, or afraid of falling in love at the most inopportune yet perfect time with the innocent pixie of a woman he had finally, whole heartedly opened himself up to, the first person he had ever shared that level of closeness with.