Chapter 1: Pod People

Day -10

The first time I saw Alysson Eden, she was naked.

A lightweight blue uniform was crumpled on the floor beside her, and a powerful man with cropped black hair and black beard was dropping her bra onto the pile. She and the man kissed with apparent passion, then he tossed her onto an oddly-shaped bed, and climbed up after her. The young woman groaned and reached for him. Then...

"Cut!" yelled a harsh alto voice, and the man moved aside. He and the girl on the bed both looked a little self-conscious. The woman who'd shouted supervised the rearranging of cameras. She positioned the man back on top of the girl, shot a few minutes of them moving, then had them change positions for a few more minutes. For the most part, the cameras focused on the couple's faces, but there were shots of their upper torsos with the girl's breasts mostly hidden against the man's chest, or obscured by his arms or her own.

Their lips met again as they moved, but the kisses ended without apparent emotion when each take was done.

"I told you it would be an interesting visit," murmured Jack, one of the production assistants, to me. "I didn't realize it would be quite this interesting."

I had to listen carefully to hear him. Like everyone else in the room, except for the couple on the bed, he was wearing a face mask. "This doesn't happen every day?" I asked, keeping my voice low.

"Far as I recall, this is only the second love scene they've shot."

When the last take was called, the actress slipped a lightweight robe over ample breasts with wide tan nipples, fastening the robe as Jack approached to take everyone's order for pizza.

I had seen Alysson before in a TV movie, and in a minor supporting screen role. I'd certainly never seen her naked. She was a co-star of this streaming series, being produced by a cable company that had a reputation for eroticism in their dramas. She was playing the commander of a space warship. Her love interest's name was Tony, if I recalled correctly, her XO on the show.

Later in the day I watched another scene between the two of them. This time Alysson was clearly in charge. Both were in uniform, both angry, Tony's character clearly swallowing insubordinate comments and Alysson's equally clearly being competent and demanding. She was taller than him by at least an inch, with a lean, athlete's torso and narrow hips, and she used her height to intimidating advantage.

This was my first day in the pod, and it was important that I get familiar with what was happening. It was part of my job.


The more sociable part of my work began that evening.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the bar is open!" I cried to the small group of interested crew members, who responded with applause.

The gathering didn't stay small for long. I figured that most of the staff had arrived at the bar within the next hour. I was busy serving drinks and calling in orders to a nearby grill. Center management had negotiated a delivery arrangement with the restaurant, and were working with other local restaurants to provide different menus each day.

After a couple of hours, the crowd began to thin. Most everyone who wanted to eat had picked up their food, and I had a few minutes to relax, standing at the far end of the bar from most of the patrons.

While I was there, two girls detached themselves from the throng and moved to sit at the end of the bar before me. The shorter one, herself about five-eight, had long dark brown hair and dark eyes. The taller one's hair was a lighter brown worn in loose curls. She wore silver-framed glasses over pale blue eyes. Both wore masks, of course. The first looked like she had a negligee over her lower face. It was hot pink lace over a skin-toned mask. The second wore a plain black mask with fitted side panels that seemed designed to work with her glasses.

"Hello, ladies," I said. "What's your pleasure?"

The darker-haired girl raised her eyebrows, but just said "Chablis."

"House red, please," added the other.

"How come we suddenly have a bar?" the first said as I poured the drinks.

"Center management felt that having a normal social outlet would make the production feel less constricting," I said.

"Center?" asked the girl in glasses.

"The studio - slash - hotel complex," I said.

I slid the glasses across, then excused myself to attend another patron at the bar.

"I think it's a good idea," said the long-haired girl when I returned to my place. "Especially given the eye candy." Her eyes traversed my body. Briefly, but with enough deliberation that I was clearly intended to understand that I was the eye candy to which she referred. "I'm Ryan Gail," she said, not giving me a chance to react to her comment.

I recognized her name as one of the actresses, though not a top-billed one, I believed. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Gail," I said.

"Ryan, please," she said, and lifted her arm for an elbow bump. "And this is Alysson."

I am sure my surprise showed on my face, even with my mask. I'm sure I blinked. "Alysson Eden? I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you. You looked so different, earlier."

"Naked," offered Ryan, helpfully.

"Well, yes..." I felt my face warm. "But I meant the metallic blonde hair, and your eyes were... hmm..."

"Green contacts," she said. "Call me Alysson." She raised her elbow, and I traded a bump. "Ry's right. This is a good idea. But you haven't introduced yourself yet."

"Right," I said. "I got sidetracked. I'm Nate. Nate Garcia, if you need to find me, and I'm also here to liaise with the production staff for the Center. So if you have any suggestions at all to make your time more comfortable, please bring them to me."

Ryan gave a quick snort. "I think my suggestion might be more than your Center would agree to." Her eyes flicked over my body - six-two, with sandy curls and amber eyes. "Though maybe we could come to a private arrangement."

"Ry!" said Alysson, with a chuckle.

When they left for the evening, Ryan tried to pay.

"It's covered," I said. "Food and drink is part of the deal. It helps to make staying here more attractive than breaking pod rules."

Alysson was halfway to the door, but Ryan hadn't put her wallet away. She took out a fifty and laid it on the bar. "Then let me leave a tip for brightening up the bar," she said.

"It's really not necessary," I said, not reaching for the note. She wasn't the first to tip, though, and I had already learned not to be ungracious about it. "But if you really want to, I'll put it to good use. Promise me that you won't tip again, though, because I'd hate to think you might both avoid coming to see me."

She grinned. "No worries. You made the evening more pleasant, especially for Alysson."

I think I blinked at that comment.

Ryan lowered her voice, then continued. "She's more shy than she seems, but it was her idea to come talk to you," she said. "I thought you should know."

"Thank you," I said, bewildered.

I waited until she'd left before picking up the fifty and adding it to the quite sizable collection in the tip jar. I was considering using the tips to give back to the crew at some point.


Even though liaising was my main purpose, I didn't spend much time on the various sets. I checked in with Jen, the Production Manager, every day, and publicized my email address for anyone to contact me. Picking up feedback by email would work better than getting in the way when the production was in progress.

Alysson and Ryan were regulars at the bar, though they didn't visit me every day. They did make eye contact and give me a friendly nod whenever they saw me, and I caught Alysson watching me from time to time. As much fun as the vivacious Ryan was, I found Alysson the more interesting of the pair, and felt a small jolt whenever I caught her gaze.

Not all of my job was about facilitating communications. I was also there to solve problems. Such as the one day the Center's renovations cut the internet fiber.

The production was being shot almost entirely indoors, using spacecraft sets and green screen. There would be some outdoor shooting locally, and we had a sanitized bus standing by for that, but computer-generated imagery was going to be the backbone of the show, and without high-speed internet the effects crew couldn't work with their image processing systems and staff in California. So losing the fiber was a disaster.

I spent the day on the phone with the service provider and our own contactors trying to get service restored, which finally happened around seven o'clock that evening. The effects technicians were not at the bar that day. After clearing it with Jen, I personally delivered local craft beer to their workshop.


The Center facilities had once been a suite of movie studios and hotel. Originally, the hotel was a convenient but optional place for out-of-town staff to stay, in the days when the studios had been intended as a satellite facility for a Hollywood unit. Hollywood proved more convenient, and Canada less costly, so the studios hadn't succeeded in the long-term, but they had never been torn down. Now the complex was perfect as a Covid-pod. The hotel was connected to the studios by a walkway to protect from weather, which also made the buildings completely self-contained.

The hotel itself had a full range of facilities. The restaurant had a full breakfast, but otherwise a very limited menu, because of the small number of staff we could keep within the pod. Hence the arrangements with local restaurants. There was a large indoor pool and a gym, which I visited every morning, and which was busier than I'd expected. I occasionally saw Alysson there, working out. I had figured her physique wasn't purely down to genetics.


Day 0

Ten days after my entry into the pod, I found Alysson waiting for me after my workout.

"Hey," she said. "Want coffee?"

"Sure," I agreed, and we went to the breakfast area.

"So," she said, "you were surprised at how different I look on set. Today's my last day shooting for a while, and I thought you might like to see the transformation at my makeup session."

"I'd like that," I said. "Why the last day? I thought shooting was continuous."

"They're breaking down the set and working with the flagship for the next couple of weeks," she said. "I don't get called over there this episode, so my part's over until the next. We shoot by set availability rather than chronological."

"Makes sense," I said. "Where should I go?"

"Come to makeup room three in an hour," she said.

"Okay," I agreed.


I showed up at the suggested time. The makeup room was small. Alysson was lying on a reclining chair, in her commander's uniform. She was unmasked. A short woman with blond hair tied back was working on her. In common with other makeup artists and costumiers who had to work closely with unmasked actors, she wore both a mask and face shield, and her hands were covered by latex gloves.

"Hey Nate, this is Ellen," Alysson said, without turning her head. She'd already turned her eyes green with the contacts.

The face mask dipped briefly. As I watched, the woman took a silvery wig from a head stand and drew it into place over Alysson's hair. The wig looked out of place, but after a little shaping and touching up the incongruity faded, and it was no longer Alysson in the chair, but the woman I'd seen on the bridge of her ship. Arrogant and dominant, except when she was being seduced.

The work continued for another twenty minutes or so, then the face shield bobbed once. Ellen said something that I couldn't hear, and Alysson smiled and eased herself out of the chair.

"I feel like I should salute," I said to her, quietly.

"You should," she said, with a grin.


I stayed around for some of the shooting.

Alysson conveyed a barely-controlled anger to a superior's orders as her character took steps to prepare for disaster. There was another confrontation with Tony's character. If this was the last chronological scene for the set, then the episode would have to be ending on a cliff-hanger. But maybe a resolution scene had been shot earlier.

The director backed up to reshoot a scene from a different angle, and I left as they were setting up. I had time to catch up with schoolwork, since there were no active panics. Then I did a quick inventory check at the bar.

I was still there when I got a call from Jen. "I need to see you. Come to the cafeteria."

That was unusual. Jen normally texted unless a situation was critical. I closed up the bar and headed immediately to the cafeteria.

To my surprise, Alysson was there already, sitting across from Jen at a table. She wore her glasses and face mask. Jen motioned to the chair beside Alysson, and I drew it out and sat.

Jen looked grim. Her assistant, standing beside her, but strangely far back, seemed nervous.

Jen didn't keep us waiting. "You two have been exposed to Covid," she said. "Ellen just tested positive."

"Oh, no," said Alysson. "How is she?"

"No symptoms," said Jen. "She's left the pod. She got a call from her sister that her mother just became sick. She's local, and her mother broke isolation a few days ago to bring cookies. She's been avoiding people just in case, but when she got the call she took an antigen test which came up positive. She's gone to her mother's to look after her while she quarantines. But we're going to need both of you to quarantine."

"Crap," I said. "Center's been focused on incoming isolation and keeping the accommodation clean. The cleaning crew sanitized the old family suite for quarantine, but I'm pretty sure they haven't opened up any other rooms yet. You should move Ms. Eden to the suite, and I'll quarantine off-site. I'm not part of the crew."

"I don't like that," said Jen. "The effects team claims you saved the whole production. I'm sure they're overstating the case, but if you hadn't stayed on top of the network outage we'd have blown our budget big-time for this episode. I'd like you nearby, even if you're not on the set. How long would it take to sanitize another room?"

"If it's a suite, there are multiple rooms, right?" Alysson interjected.

"Yeah, that's why they opened it up first. You could put two or three people in there, and there's a living room and kitchen so they won't feel they're in a cell."

"Then we'll quarantine together," Alysson said. "We were exposed together and our quarantine time will be the same. You can have the cleaning crew sanitize another room or two for backup."

"Well, we could do that," I said, frowning at Alysson, "but..."

"Good," interrupted Jen. "Do that. Move in tonight."

"Okay," said Alysson. "I need to talk to the director about schedules. I won't be infectious yet, will I?"

Jen shrugged. "Probably not. You probably didn't even catch it, if Ellen was conscientious about her equipment. But who knows? The sooner you get there, the better."

"Right," she said. "I'll text Ryan to get my clothes together while I see the director."

"I can be packed and there in a half-hour," I added. "No bar tonight, though."

"No bar until you're out of quarantine, I think," said Jen. "Until we're sure there's no spread we need to avoid large groups. We'll be stepping up screening tests for the next ten days."


I didn't dawdle. I packed my clothes and toiletries, then threw in the power cord, interface cables and controller for my PS4. Stopping by the game room, I stole a second PS4 controller. I'd email Center admin to let them know it had been reassigned to quarantine. Then I took my suitcase and the PlayStation to the suite, and unpacked in the smaller bedroom.

I was hooking up the game console when Ryan showed up with two suitcases for Alysson.

"I only brought the basics," she said as I showed her to the master bedroom. "Since she isn't going to be going out."

"Right," I said. "I'm sure she'll be fine. If there's anything else she needs, I'll have someone pick it up. We have protocols for deliveries, food, laundry. Everything but boredom."

Ryan looked at me with raised eyebrows. "I don't think she'll be bored," she said, "and if you're bored, I'm disappointed in you."

"You implied something the first day," I said. "I figured you meant she might be interested in me. You think she might still be?"

"I take it back," she said. "I am disappointed in you. You're not as smart as you look."

I sighed. "That may be true, but I guess I've avoided thinking about it. I have a girlfriend."

Ryan shrugged. "And? You'd pass that up?"

"She probably has boyfriends from here to Hollywood," I said. "Should I give up a relationship for the few days I'd hold her interest?"

Ryan glared at me. "You probably should stop talking," she said. "You have no idea." She turned on her heel and strode out. I closed the door to the master bedroom, my eyes following her until she left the apartment. Her anger accentuated the tightly-controlled motion of her hips.


Alysson arrived a few minutes later. I was testing the PS4 by loading my game save of The Witcher 3.

"Hey Nate," she said. "Can we talk?"

"Sure," I said, pausing the game.

"We're going to be stuck here for ten days," Alysson said. "We should figure out how this will work."

"In what way?" I asked.

"Seems to me," Alysson said, "that both of us were exposed. Probably either we're both infected or neither of us is. So do we have to isolate from each other? Do we have to stay in our own rooms, or can we share the rest of the suite? Do we have to keep these damn masks on?"

"That's a fair point," I replied, "but there's still a chance only one of us caught the bug. If you're infected and I'm not, I wouldn't especially care about myself. I'm not in a high risk group. If I have caught it and could infect you, though, I'd feel very responsible."

"Ellen was working on me," Alysson said. "It's unlikely you'd be infected and not me."

"True," I said, "but you have a lot more invested in staying well. And if the star of the show catches it from me, I'd get fired by the Center or removed from the studios by Jen."

"So what should we do?"

"I don't think we need to avoid each other," I said. "We can share the whole place, but let's try to keep our masks on except in our rooms., or if we're eating."

Alysson's eyebrows lowered. "If I wasn't wearing the mask, you'd see I was pouting."

"I wish I could see that," I said. "I'm sure you have a very expressive pout. Why?"

"I want to see you without your mask," she said.

"Really?" I responded. "I could take it off for a few seconds, if it's important to you."

"Sure," she said.

I shrugged, then unhooked the mask, lowered it and smiled at her. "Hi Alysson, I'm Nate," I said.

"Yes!" Alysson yelled, punching the air. I frowned at her in surprise. "I win!" she said. "Wait! Don't put it back on yet. You don't mind if I get a photo, do you?"

I shrugged. She snapped a picture with her phone. "Alright, you can put it back on," she said.

"What do you mean, you win?"

She'd pulled up the photo she'd taken and was looking at her phone. "I bet Ryan that you'd have a beard."

"It used to go all the way around," I said, twirling a finger before my chin. "I shaped it into a Dr. Strange goatee to make the mask fit more snugly."

She raised her eyebrows, still looking at her phone. "I'd have said Tony Stark."

"Definitely Dr. Strange," I retorted. "It used to be more Thor."

At that, she lifted her eyes from her phone to mine. "Really?"

"Just the beard. Not the hair. Without the hair, Thor's beard looks normal."

"Old Thor, then, not Fat Thor?"

I grinned, though I didn't know if she'd be able to tell. "Yeah. Not as thick as Cap's. New Cap, not Old Cap."

"Right," she said. "So I learned that you have a beard and you're a Marvel fan. I approve, but I don't approve of the beard staying hidden."

"Yeah, well," I said. "We're going to start getting antigen tests in a few days. The recommendation is to test five days after exposure. Why don't we say if we test negative at five days we'll skip the masks?"

"I'm pouting again," Alysson said, "but okay. It's better than hiding for ten days."

"Of course I've seen you without a mask already," I said. "You look good. I'll be glad when five days are up."

"Mr. Nathaniel, dear," Alysson said, her voice heavily ironic, "you've seen me without a whole lot more than a mask."

"True enough," I said. "I remember how good you looked then, too."

"I'm sure you do," she muttered.

"Though I prefer the real hair to that wig," I said. "And your eyes. And I like your glasses. Really, I guess in a way I haven't seen your face before, except on TV.

"Just everything else," she said, drily.

"And it's Natanael," I said. "If you want the long version."

"It is?" Alysson said. "Why didn't I know that? I like the way that sounds."

"You can use it if you want," I said. "Nate's easier."

"You can call me Ali, if you like," she said. "My real name's spelled A-L-I-S-O-N, but it sounds the same. Alison Jones. I feel like a fraud going by my stage name with friends. Because I am a fraud, I guess. That's what being an actor is."

"Your secret is safe with me," I said.

"Which secret? Being a fraud, or being a Jones?"

"Both," I said. "I need to order groceries. Anything you want?"

"Milk, coffee," she said. Then she looked up in surprise. "Wait - you mean you cook?"

"I can cook," I said. "I'll trade with you if you want to."

"Oh God, no," she said. "I can set the kitchen on fire boiling an egg. Don't laugh!" she said, as I chuckled. "I've almost done it."

"I won't be offended if you prefer to have food delivered," I said, "but I prefer not to eat restaurant food all the time."

"No, I'll be happy to try your cooking," she said. "We should order out tonight. It's been a long day and your groceries aren't here yet."

"True enough," I said.

We ordered pizza. After we'd eaten, I stashed the leftovers in the fridge with the newly-arrived groceries and spent the rest of the evening in my room.


Day 1

The kitchen had a small oven. I mixed up baking powder biscuits and set them to cook. Then bacon. crisping it up nicely before reducing the heat and making gravy with the fat. Coffee, then eggs. I knocked on Alysson's door and asked if she wanted to come through for coffee, or wanted me to bring it in.

She told me to come in, blinking at me while I set the coffee down.

"It smells like there's more than coffee cooking," she said.

I agreed, and told her to bring the coffee through as soon as she could.

"One egg or two?" I asked as she came into the kitchen, wearing tan shorts and a pale green tee, her hair tousled from sleep. She'd never been so informal on the set, or even in the bar, and it pleased me that she felt comfortable enough with me to let me see her so laid-back.

"Just one," she said.

"I'm just going to put a little gravy on everything, okay?" I asked, as she sat at the kitchen table.

"Gravy?" She shook her head, looking in bemusement at the plate that held bacon, an egg and a split biscuit. "Sure. But what the fuck? Real food?"

I laughed and set the plate before her, then finished preparing my own.

"It isn't like I have a lot to do today," I said. "I can spare the time to cook, and I don't often get the chance. Cooking for myself at my apartment seems excessive when I can pick up breakfast tacos."

I set my mask aside to eat. Alysson glanced up at me, over the frame of her glasses, then gave me a small grin and returned to crunching a piece of bacon. After swallowing, she said, "I'd say, 'marry me,' but I'm afraid I might mean it."

I laughed.

"Shall I wash the dishes?" Alysson asked when she was finishing up.

"No need," I said, "I'm just going to throw everything in the dishwasher. You could brew us some more coffee."

"I can do that without burning the kitchen down," she said.


I spent the morning talking to the Center admin and to Jen from my room. Center had resisted making access too restrictive, because we didn't want the production crew to feel too heavily confined. That had been a mistake. Ellen's mom had walked right past the hotel receptionist, who thought she must belong, then spent an hour in Ellen's room before her daughter could persuade her to leave.

To prevent a repeat, we were putting the hotel on permanent night service. All doors would be locked and would require a room card to pass. Jen would ensure that the crew was aware.

Two of the loading bays had manual overhead doors, and she wanted those changing to electronic keypad entry. It would take a few days to get the system installed, since they'd have to close off access to the bay while the work was done, so I helped in coordinating that.

Lunch was the remainder of last night's pizza.

I'd intended to hold the mornings for school work. Since I'd been busy in the morning, I spent the afternoon reading books and preparing an essay for my MBA program.

Dinner was a chicken and rice casserole, which didn't take long to prepare, but which seemed to impress Alysson more than it should have done. We had drinks sent to the suite - a bottle of Merlot for Alysson and craft beer for me, the same that I'd taken to the effects team. Jen had set up a delivery service using the PAs, since the bar wasn't available, and there was an email address that they monitored to send requests.

"Did you know there's a whirlpool bath in my room?" Alysson asked.

"I did," I said. "It's one of the listed features from the original family room, and I saw it when I showed Ryan where to leave your things."

"You were in my bedroom with Ryan?" Alysson asked, in feigned outrage. "I'm going to have to kill her, now."

"Not for another nine days," I said.

"True," Alysson said, with a sigh. "So, I thought I'd go soak for a time. Would you like to watch a movie afterwards?"

"Sure," I said.

She took her wine bottle and glass with her.


When Alysson returned from her bath I was on my third glass of beer. I'd taken the chair beside the coffee table, leaving the couch for her. She brought the wine and glass, set it down on the coffee table and left again.

She was wearing a light robe - possibly the same one she'd put on after the nude scene, the first day I saw her. She might be wearing as little underneath it as that day. That thought made my belly tingle

Alysson came back into the living room carrying a sheet and a couple of pillows. She took a seat on the far end of the couch. Then she frowned at me, and pointed to the right side of the couch. "Sit there," she instructed.

"Distance, remember?" I objected.

"Trust me," she said. Puzzled, I moved over to the couch.

Alysson put a pillow against the left arm of the couch, then swiveled, lifting her feet and plopping them back down over my legs. She lay back against the pillow, then tossed me one end of the sheet to pull over her and myself while she curled up on the couch, her bare feet in my lap.

It may not have been a full six feet, but I figured she was right. It was sufficiently socially distant, while still feeling comfortably intimate.

"Can you pass me my glass?" Alysson asked. Her position didn't give her quite the flexibility of mine. I leaned forward, her toes digging into my belly, as I picked up the glass, then passed it to her.

Lowering her mask one-handed while holding wine in the other hand and lying down was complicated. Especially while wearing glasses. It took her a full minute.

"Maybe we should find you a straw," I suggested.

"I'm already buzzed," she said. "If I start drinking through the straw, you'll probably have to carry me to bed." She grinned, which for once I could see, since her mask was lowered. "When you carry me to bed, I want to remember."

Alysson passed the glass back to me, then began to flip through channels. We had subscriptions to all of the major streaming services throughout the hotel. She picked a rom-com, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which was both funny and sexy. She occasionally asked for her wine, and I topped it up for her once.

I enjoyed not only the movie, but the feel of her feet in my lap. It felt intimate without being overtly sexual. I touched her calves from time to time. That also felt pleasantly familiar without being too flirtatious. At least, that's what I thought at the time.

"You like playing with my legs," Alysson said, after the movie was over.

"They're so smooth," I said.

"I'm glad you noticed the hard work," she said, drily. "Did you also notice that you were stroking them during the romantic scenes?"

"I... really?"

She laughed. "Really."

"Well, damn," I said. "I thought I was just appreciating the way they felt."

"I'm sure you were," Alysson said. "Don't worry, I'm not offended. A hot guy likes to touch me when he's having romantic thoughts. I'm not going to complain."

"Hot? Really?"

"Am I making you forget how to English?" she asked. "That's even better. There are other words in the language than 'really', you know?"

"Really?" I asked, on cue, and she laughed.

"Really, though," she said. "Do you not know that I think you're hot? Maybe you're as clueless as Ryan claims."

"Aww, she didn't tell you that," I said.

"Obviously, she did," Alysson countered. She pressed her heels into my thighs and drew herself slightly closer. "I want to make it completely clear where I stand on the matter. Unless you shut me down, I would like to see if anything could happen between us. The masks and distance make it hard to be subtle, so if I have to tell you I'd like for us to get closer, well, I'm telling you. And, for the record, I don't have a boyfriend here, or in L.A., or anywhere else."

"I see," I said. "But I do have a girlfriend."

"Which isn't shutting me down, or saying no, you're not allowed to flirt with me," Alysson said.

"No," I said, slowly. "I guess it isn't exactly that."


Day 2

The next day, I made pancakes. And coffee, of course.

As the smell of coffee began to permeate the suite, Alysson emerged from her room, yawning. She wore a baby blue silk camisole pajama top with matching shorts. I wasn't sure whether her lean, long, bare legs or the way she filled out the top were more physically appealing, but her eyes behind her glasses - alarmingly intelligent, even right after a yawn - made it easy to focus on her face.

I tossed ice into a glass, filled it with water, handing it to her when she came up to me.

"Are you a mind reader now?" she asked.

"I figured you might want to counter the last of the wine's effects," I replied.

"Good call," Alysson said. "I'll trade sexual favors for coffee, though."

I grinned. "I wasn't sure if you'd make good on your intention to flirt in the sober light of day."

"Flirt?" Alysson responded. "No, you just don't understand how desperately I need coffee." She stepped back, lowering her mask to drink several mouthfuls of the iced water.

"Then you're in luck," I said. I found two mugs and added milk to one. I'd learned how she took coffee the previous day. "Is that about right?" I asked.

Alysson glanced down at the mug. "That looks good," she said. Then she looked up. "And you're making pancakes? Seriously? If you're trying to persuade me that I shouldn't hope to get closer to you, you're failing badly."

The coffee maker started making spitting noises. I didn't wait for it to finish. I took the pot out from under the filter and poured both mugs. "So," I said, "I guess the flirting plan's active, and it wasn't just the wine."

With her face lowered to sip the coffee, Alysson raised her eyes to mine, over the delicate wire frame of her glasses. "It wasn't just the wine," she said. She lowered her mask and slurped her coffee loudly, managing to consume a fair amount of the hot liquid, then looked up, her expression beatific. "Ahhhh...."

"See, I was just wondering," I began, glancing down briefly, then back up to her eyes, "if the PJs are part of the flirting process."

She smirked, then glanced down at herself and back up to me. "No comment," she said. "But from the question, I would guess they're working."

I returned her grin. "No comment."

Her expression was amused. "To be honest," she said, "they were in the minimal wardrobe that Ryan packed for me." She raised her eyebrows. "Make of that what you will."

Shaking my head, I replied "I have no idea what to make of that." Then, after I'd spent a moment in consideration, "Of course, she packed your bags before she decided I was a loser."

"She doesn't think that," Alysson said. "We've been friends for a long time. She just wants everyone to think as highly of me as she does. Under that criterion, I think I'm a loser, too."


I spent the morning in my online class and follow-up study. Then I checked in with Jen. She'd scheduled screening tests for the makeup team and for Alysson and me starting on the third day after exposure - two days hence - then on day five, then twice more, ending at the tenth day, when our quarantine would be over. All schedules assuming negative results, that is. Then we could assume the integrity of the pod was good, and drop back to weekly tests.

There were no urgent logistical issues. Shooting on the flagship was proceeding well, and they'd decided to re-prioritize some scenes at Fleet HQ, which would delay the need for Alysson's return for a few days further. Fleet shots required more interaction with CGI to be sure they were seamless.

I passed this all on to Alysson, when I saw her in the living room a little after noon, dressed now in a bright yellow tee and shorts. She was pleased about the rescheduling plans, having been concerned that she might be needed before quarantine was up, which might have changed the story to accommodate her absence.

"What do you do after this series?" I asked her. We were eating sandwiches sent up from production.

"A lot depends on whether the series is renewed," she said. "We won't know until it's shown. If it is, I won't have long to work on anything else before we're shooting season two. I have a longshot chance at an action role, but while I can't travel I can't read for the part in person, so my agent is trying to get a remote reading arranged. Even if he can, it will be hard to compete, but the buzz from the series is a positive."

"What would you be playing?" I asked.

She grinned at me and shot me with a finger gun. "An assassin," she said.

"I'd watch that," I said, returning her grin. "Would you want to do a rom-com, like we watched last night?"

"Hell, yes," she said.

"Doesn't it bother you, being nude for a role?" I asked.

Alysson shrugged. "If it makes my character come to life, it's worth being uncomfortable. You already saw me shoot the one scene."

"I did. You didn't seem uncomfortable while the cameras were rolling."

"I was," she admitted, "but I keep it very deep. Like any part of me while I'm acting."

"Ryan said you were shy," I said. "I don't see how you can be."

"Did she?" Alysson turned to look up at me, which brought her face close to mine. The pale blue eyes studied me through her glasses. "When did she say that?"

I realized I shouldn't have mentioned Ryan's comment. It was a private comment to me when Alysson wasn't nearby.

"Oh, early, not long after I met you. Is it true?"

"Yeah, some," Alysson said. She took a sip of her drink, then pulled her mask back into place. "Though I think she may be thinking about how I try to avoid getting close to other actors. But all acting is stressful for me. I'm not much more uncomfortable going to bed with Tony when the script calls for it than staring him down for insubordination. The hard part is embedding myself in the character. My shyness makes me feel that people can see right through my performance to me, so I have to try doubly hard to be her."

I nodded.

"It has been tough," she said, "being in the pod. I need to de-stress after acting, and I can't do it because everyone is stressed about the disease and avoiding outside contact. Maybe I can unwind some after day five. Assuming I'm negative."

"Doesn't doing a love scene mess with your feelings?" I asked. "I mean, what I saw that first day didn't look fun, at all, even if you were both nude. But the kissing looked real."

"It was supposed to," Alysson said. "That's the point. I guarantee that Tony wouldn't have thought I was into him." She frowned, and her expression seemed pensive. "Sometimes, if it's a long take, and you're trying to make it look real, your body tries to take over, and you start to react. That's confusing. Some actors like there to be emotion. I think that's more confusing, and it's one reason I won't date actors, especially ones I might work with. If I'm with him in the script, it would be hard not to feel, and if I'm with someone else it would be hard to avoid being jealous."

"Isn't that true with anyone you date?"

"Maybe. I guess that can be a problem," Alysson admitted. "But if I have a history of not falling for my co-star, maybe he can trust me. That means I can't let feelings intrude. Tony knows that. His wife is an actor, but he's with her, not me, even while we're making out on set. In the show we're having an affair, and it's against regs, and it's screwing up our working relationship. And that's kinda what can happen in real life."

"Okay," I said. "It makes sense. What does happen to you both on the show?"

"In the plot, you mean?" Alysson asked. "No idea," she said, when I nodded. "The producers want us both to keep our schedules clear for a renewal, is all I know. Renewal talks won't happen until we see the ratings, but it means they're planning on being renewed, and there's a good chance neither of us is written out of the series. So I guess I'm not sending him off to a heroic death to solve our relationship problems. Of course, telling us that might only mean they don't want spoilers to leak out based on contract renewal talks. And producers are not above deliberately seeding false rumors."

"I don't think you're likely to be written out," I said. "You're the new rising star."

"Maybe. So much can change, especially after the first ratings. There won't be any changes this season from ratings, but there might be next." She frowned. "So, you've given me an idea. I'll tell you about it later."


"Don't ask how I got this," said Alysson. She had brought her notebook through to the living room, and was waiting for me when I awoke from an afternoon nap.

"What is it?" I asked.

"You'll see," she said. She double-clicked an icon, and a video player started.

There was a countdown on the video, then there was Alysson, with metallic blonde hair and a disheveled uniform. Tony and she were kissing, then undressing, their movements becoming frantic, uniform shirt hitting the floor, bra sliding free...

Then he was on her, her body moving under his. Fade into Alysson riding him, her face alight with pleasure. God, I knew they were acting, but it was turning me on. The scene faded, and she started it over.

"I thought you'd like to see what they did with the scene," she said. "There's no music or foley yet, and they'll clean up the sound some more, but you can get an idea."

"As hot as that is," I said, "I'm surprised how little you actually see. It's mostly hidden, after the glimpse of... well, after your bra came off. After that, your... breasts" - it was surprisingly uncomfortable to talk about, sitting just a few feet from her - "are hidden by his body or by your arm. The camera travels over your whole body, but we don't see anything else. But God, that's sexy."

"Glad you liked it," Alysson said. "But you know now it's completely fake. There was no passion. We weren't having sex. So, does it make a difference that it's me? How would you feel if it was, say, Ryan?"

Frowning, I glanced at her. "That sounds like a 'gotcha' question. I'm damned, however I answer."

"No, really," she said. "Ryan has a great body. Wouldn't you find it just as hot?"

"Not exactly," I said, carefully. "Don't get me wrong. I'd not pass up the chance to see Ryan in a nude scene. I haven't really seen her act, so it's unfair of me to say this, but you make me believe in your character, in a way I don't think any but the best actors can. I believe that the captain and the commander have a very powerful thing going, which makes the scene very sexy, even though I know that you and Tony don't. And then, I'm drawn to you in a way that I'm not to Ryan, much as I like her."

"You are?" Alysson was carefully watching the notebook screen, not me.

"Maybe it's saying more than I should, especially if there's a flirting campaign going on here, but I think you know I am," I said. Then I sighed. "Let me watch it again, then I'll start work on dinner."

"I promised I'd delete it today," she said, "so, okay, one last time."

I tried to watch the clip without connecting it to Alysson, as simply the two characters in serious lust, and found that I could believe it completely. And also that I could see some stress in their relationship that I hadn't noticed before. There wasn't only lust. There was some resentment. Some hostility. Some aggression that could only be played out during sex, as if it had to be held in check at other times.

"Christ," I said, when the clip ended. "That isn't really a love scene, is it?"

Alysson raised her eyebrows. "Interesting," she said. "You're really not as blind to nuance as you pretend to be, are you?"

"You could do anything," I said. "When this show's released you're going to be huge. And Tony's a lot more than a pretty face, isn't he?"

"He is," Alysson confirmed. "I really hope I don't have to send him to a heroic death. Not until his career has taken off."

I sighed. "I guess you should delete the video. Dinner in an hour. Oh, I should ask, do you like garlic?"

"Very much," she said, "as long as we're both eating it."


There was no mallet to flatten the chicken breasts, so I sliced them instead. Which wasn't easy, since the knives weren't especially sharp. I sautéed them in butter with garlic, and made up a sauce based on a jar or marinara and some extra spices, plus mozzarella and parmesan. I sliced the sautéed chicken while the pasta was cooking, and mixed everything together to meld the flavors before serving.

Alysson pronounced it quite edible, and quite worthy of matrimony. We split a bottle of chianti with the meal, though neither of us drank more than a glass.

She vanished to her whirlpool bath while I loaded and started the dishwasher. Then I consulted the streaming guides.

Alysson wore the silk PJs this time, when she returned from her bath. The sheet and pillows were still scattered from the previous evening, so she made herself comfortable and pulled the sheet into place as she had then. Instead of letting her rest her feet in my lap again, though, I shifted slightly towards her and turned, to my left so that she could rest her knees on my thigh, her feet to my right. I leaned back against the corner of the couch to preserve the distance between us.

"Have you chosen a movie?" Alysson asked.

"I thought 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'," I said. "I wasn't quite old enough to catch it in the movies."

"What year was it released?" Alysson asked.

"2011," I said. "I would have been fourteen or fifteen."

"That would make you two years older than me?" Alysson suggested.

"Mmhmm," I said. I already knew she'd just turned twenty-two, while I'd been twenty-four for a little longer.

I caressed Alysson's legs again as they rested on me. Both her calf and her thigh, though only close to her knee. I monitored myself to be sure I wasn't only touching during sex scenes.

Toward the end of the movie I felt Alysson's hand take mine and move it to her belly. I didn't resist, but I was careful not to let my fingers stray too high or low.

"What did you think?" Alysson asked when the movie was over.

"It was good," I said, "but I thought the story was a little hard to believe in places. And I really don't understand her infatuation with him. Opposites attract, maybe? And she seems entirely too sane to have been abused as badly as she was."

"Yeah, I'm not sure," Alysson said. "The story may be a little off, but it was a great portrayal. Craig, too. He's so much more than Bond. Though he's a damn good Bond."

Alysson's hand covered mine and she ran her fingers over mine.

"You don't mind this, do you?" she asked.

I shook my head. "It's not uncomfortable."

"I may be stretching your permission to flirt," she said, "but I miss being touched." She laughed, then squelched the sound.

"What's funny?" I asked.

"When Lisbeth said, 'Put your hand back in my shirt,' I was thinking I should say the same."

"My hand has never been in your shirt, though," I said.

Alysson held my hand in place, slipped her tee shirt out from beneath my fingers, and then tugged it back down over them. "Now it has."

I chuckled. "I guess it has."

"Well, no one else's has, in... umm. Almost two years," she said.

"Really?" I asked, surprised.

Her expression turned pensive. "I've been working so hard," she said, "and there just hasn't been time for anyone."

"Even if you've been working, there must have been opportunities," I said. "Actor doesn't seem like a lonely occupation."

"It can be," Alysson said, seriously. "Especially if you're trying to avoid getting close to other actors." She was silent for a moment. "I've had... opportunities." The word had a rough edge. "I might have even taken one or two, if I hadn't thought it would fuck up a good working relationship, but as much as I'd like to feel close to someone, that's always been a concern."

I lightly ran my fingers around her navel, where she'd left them. "Yeah, I see."

Her eyes held mine for a time, then she hoisted herself back. I withdrew my hand quickly, to avoid its sliding onto her pajama pants. Her voice seemed melancholy as she bade me goodnight.


Day 3

I woke the next day to a knock at my door. I called "Come in," hunting quickly for my mask, hooking it over my ears as Alysson entered with coffee. I took the coffee gratefully, smiling (pointlessly) up at her.

"I feel guilty having you make breakfast every morning," she said. "Would you be okay with toast? I can do that."

"I'd love some toast," I said. "Especially if I can come through and ogle you while you work."

"Huh," she said, but she didn't sound displeased, so I brushed my teeth and ran a comb through my hair and was sitting at the table as Alysson figured out how to work the toaster.

"If you want to boil an egg, too," I said, "I can keep my eye on it to be sure it doesn't catch fire."

"Okay," she said.

Of course the toast was cold by the time the eggs were cooked, but that was okay. I suggested she run cold water through the boiling pan to cool the eggs so we could peel them. Alysson nodded and did that, then we patted the eggshells dry with paper towels and ate them.

"Nate?" Alysson said, after we were done eating. She had her mask back in place, though unhooked it occasionally to drink coffee. "How long have you and your girlfriend been together?"

I did some mental arithmetic. "A little under a year."

"What's her name?" she asked.

"Mary," I replied.

"Do you live together?"

"No," I said. "We have barely even seen each other since the pandemic started. She's moved back in with her parents, while I've been mostly confined to my apartment. We've had a couple of outdoor dates since February. That's it."

"And you won't be leaving the pod for another four months, right? You are staying to the end?"

"Right," I agreed.

"I guess she must be worth waiting for," Alysson said.

"That's not it, exactly," I replied, then sighed. "Have you really been single for two years?"

"Changing the subject?" Alysson asked, raising her eyebrows.

"Yeah," I said. "For now, at least. And I'm interested, since you are such a smart, beautiful woman. You have to have some non-actor friends who've wanted something more."

"Not really," she said. She set her coffee down, and her eyes seemed to study the surface of the liquid. "I may have been a little wild in high school. I'm lucky I didn't end up pregnant or sick."

She paused for a long while, still studying her coffee. Finally, she continued. "Then I met my one true love at nineteen. He moved in with me. A year later we had a bad, bad breakup. Because I didn't see it coming I went from having a perfect, constant companion to nothing in a matter of days. No one to touch. No one to touch me. I certainly never had that closeness before I met him. And after him I had none, and wanted nothing to do with boys for a year or so. Having no trust and no desire to be close helped me grow as an actor, I think. That, and the therapy it took to get past it.

"Then, when I began to realize how lonely I'd become, I didn't really have a circle of friends. Just actors and movie people I worked with."

I reached out to take her hand. She looked up, startled, then turned hers over so that I could hold it.

"I didn't realize how sad you were," I said. "You seem so full of life."

"I'm not sad, usually," Alysson said. "Just when I think over how things were."

"What did you fight about? If I may ask," I added, quickly.

She shook her head, her eyes holding mine now. "The usual," she said. "A perfect cliché. I came home early from a location shoot to find him fucking a good friend of mine. In my house. In my bed. He'd moved in with me, so the place was mine, which made it feel worse. He tried to tell me he'd been lonely and weak while I was away, and I almost believed him, but my friend admitted they'd been fucking for half of the time that we were together. I'd introduced them, at a party! So I know when it started."

"Aww, shit," I breathed.

"Yah," Alysson said. "And I had just completely missed it. I'd been so self-absorbed, thinking about my career and only caring that my bed would be warm when I got home. We had a huge fight. It got physical. I had to go to the ER, so the cops got involved... I couldn't trust for a long time. Didn't have any interest in being taken like that."

"I understand," I said.

"I'm over him," she said. "And I'm over feeling used, and avoiding people. I'm in a good place, now. But he was a good kisser. When he kissed me, he made me feel. When he touched me, I didn't care about casting calls and readings and jealousies on set. Having that taken away was devastating. Worse still to know that I hadn't really had it for months, only the illusion."

I squeezed her hand. "Yeah," I said. "I understand."

"Thanks, Nate," she said, disentangling her hand from mine. She stood and opened the dishwasher to begin to load it.

"I can do that," I offered.

"You've done it so far," she said, "and there isn't much. I'll take care of it."

Given that I got to watch her bending to load the machine in those silk shorts, the loose cami giving me a great side view when she stood, I didn't object further. I just watched.


In the afternoon we had our first antigen tests. It was too early to be certain that a negative result was meaningful, but everyone who'd been potentially exposed to Ellen was receiving them, because a single positive test would show a problem.

The negative results came back in a half hour. I confirmed later with Jen that no one had tested positive.


Alysson suggested ordering out, so that I could avoid cooking again. I asked if she was tired of my cooking. She said no, far from it, but she didn't want to abuse our friendship.

"You don't mind if I make pancakes again tomorrow?" I asked.

"Not at all," she said. "I'd like that."

We ordered sushi from a newly added delivery restaurant, and a bottle of chablis to share.


Alysson wore the PJs again after her bath.

"I don't know why you change out of those," I said. "You could just keep them on all day long."

"You'd like that, would you?" she asked.

"I would," I said, trying to sound light-hearted, since she wouldn't be able to see my grin.

She sighed. "Unfortunately, I'm not a girl who can go without a bra for an extended time," she said. "And if I'm going to wear a bra, I'm going to change. And speaking of not wearing a bra, I thought we'd watch 'Blue is the Warmest Color'."

"I've heard of that. It's an erotic movie, isn't it?"

"It is," she said. "I haven't seen it."

"Why the sexy movies?" I asked. "Are you looking for pointers?"

"I like the intimate feeling of sharing a sexy movie," she said. "And don't tell me you don't"

"I won't," I agreed. "Though if it's steamy, we might not need the sheet to stay warm.

She moved my hand to her belly after the movie started, her fingers laced with mine.

The movie was definitely steamy. Awkward straight sex scenes followed by long, explicit lesbian sex. I regretted making the comment about Alysson's pajamas, because it occasioned her casual remark about having no bra under the thin silk cami. Seeing breasts on the screen being touched and kissed and bringing such pleasure, I felt the desire to touch Alysson's, to feel them through the silk, to kiss them and taste them with or without the silk. I couldn't drive the fantasy away, and became hard. Having to focus on the subtitles made it difficult to avoid the effect of the eroticism.

Then I was worried that she'd move her foot and encounter my erection, so I moved my right hand to her calf, stroking it and holding it lightly so that I could guide it away from me if I were to need to.

Fortunately my arousal became manageable even before the most explicit sex scenes ended. That didn't diminish my desire for the woman I was touching, but I was no longer in an awkward state from it.

The sex scenes ended. The pair parted, not to reunite, and the movie ended ambiguously. I was fully in control of myself by then.

"Did you like that?" Alysson asked.

I shrugged. "It was very erotic, but in the end I didn't think the story supported the sex sufficiently. It seemed more of an excuse."

"I don't know," Alysson said. "Maybe we just don't understand French cinema."

"Would you act in a movie like that?"

She frowned. Her fingers were still holding mine to her belly. "I don't think I would. I think there would be a danger of being typecast as 'that actress who makes pornos'. Some indie films are almost as explicit. I think I'd have to have a long talk with my agent before taking them."

"Did you enjoy watching it?" I asked. "Isn't girl-on-girl sex more of a guy thing? There wasn't a lot of romance."

"I disagree with you there," Alysson said. "There was a lot of emotion between them. A lot of romance. In the sex, too. A rom-com might need a happy-ever-after for the couple, but romance isn't confined to rom-coms. And it felt good to have you touch me during the erotic scenes."

"For me, too," I admitted. Though I didn't say how much the movie made me want to touch a lot more of her.

"Two days from now, we're dropping all distancing rules, not just masks, right?" Alysson asked.

"As long as we're still clear," I said. "I don't see how partial distancing makes any sense at all."

"So I'll be able to sit in your lap, and touch you anywhere I want, and however I want?"

Her eyes and the tone of her voice indicated that she was speaking in jest.

"You do know how to take no for an answer, right?" I asked.

"Sure," Alysson replied. "You can say no to anything you like, once we're done making out."

"Hey, now," I said, "I don't think that's an option."

"I guess we'll have to wait and see," she said.


Day 4

"May I come in?" I called through the door. "I bear coffee."

The grunt from inside sounded like an affirmative, so I opened the door and looked around. Alysson had lifted her head up and was blinking at me. "Coffee," she groaned as I set it down.

She picked up the cup, sipped some of the coffee, then moaned in pleasure. I think the moan was a sign of her acting ability. If coffee really affected her that way, her coffee addiction must bring her better rewards than it did for normal people.

"Pancakes are cooking," I said. "Come through."

Alysson gave me a huge smile, then muttered something I couldn't hear. Maybe something I shouldn't hear, so I headed back to the kitchen.


Alysson's coffee cup was almost empty when she came through to eat. I'd just served the last pancake and put the syrup on the table. Fake syrup, not maple, but as good as we'd get from a hotel breakfast, and the pancakes were better.

I took my time appreciating the sight as Alysson sat, the cami top formed to her shape, shorts not obscuring her lean thighs. Her eyes caught mine, but I couldn't tell her reaction, since she hadn't yet taken off her mask to eat.

"I think I'll get strawberries with the next grocery order," I said. "Think that would improve the pancakes?"

"I don't think they need improving," Alysson said, removing her mask and taking a drink of coffee. "They didn't the other day." She cut off a piece of pancake and chewed thoughtfully. "They don't need improving, but you're right, strawberries would be good."

"I need to order a few things today, anyway," I said.

"Oh, that reminds me, we have laundry pickup, you said?" Alysson asked.

"There should be bags in one of your drawers," I said. "I have extra if not. Just bag up your clothes, set them outside the door, and I'll email to have it picked up. I need to have mine done, too."

"Don't get them mixed up," Alysson said. "I don't think you'd look good in these PJs." Then she let her eyes rove. "Though, I don't know..."

I shook my head. "No, I wouldn't want you to be without them." As Alysson raised her eyebrows, I added, "And have to use others, I mean. I like them."

Alysson reached up to take one of the thin straps of her silk top. She drew it over her shoulder. "You wouldn't want to see me without my PJs?" she asked. "Why? Do you think I'm hideous? You didn't seem to mind last time..."

The fact that I knew she was teasing - well, I was pretty sure of it - didn't prevent my shorts from becoming too tight. Fortunately, the kitchen table was between them and Alysson's field of view.

"You know that's not what I meant," I griped.

"Oh, so you do want to see the PJs come off?" She let the strap slide down her arm, but not far enough to dislodge her top. Still, I couldn't tear my eyes away. She grinned and lifted the strap back into place. "I don't think that's likely to happen if you won't even make out with me, is it?"

"Probably not," I said, sighing.

"I've been thinking about that," she said.

"I haven't," I said. "Not even a little bit. Certainly not lying awake wondering if I'm being dumb. No sirree ma'am, I haven't."

Alysson laughed. "Right. So, maybe the flirting protocol is too lethargic. Maybe it needs revitalizing."

"What do you have in mind?" I asked.

"I'll tell you when I've finished eating, since I shouldn't really talk so much without my mask," she said.

I nodded, and worked on my own small stack. When I was done, I drank more coffee, fastened my mask back in place, and put my plate and the pancake pan in the dishwasher. Alysson was done by then, so I added her plate and sat again.

"How busy are you today?" Alysson asked.

"I have a zoom conference scheduled with my school project team," I said. "Ten to eleven, but more likely ten to noon or later. Nothing this afternoon."

Alysson's foot brushed my calf as she swung her leg. "So, I was thinking. We should play a 'get to know each other' game."

"What would that be, exactly?" I asked, warily.

"I found these questions online," she said. "Sexy couples questions. Just words, though, not truth or dare."

"That sounds intimidating," I said. "Maybe fun, but what happens if there's a question I don't want to answer?"

"We stop the game. It's only a fun way to learn about each other. The questions are 'what do you think I would think about...' to see how we come across to each other. They didn't seem, like, excessively intense, but definitely flirty."

"You've been planning this for a while?" I asked.

"Just since last night," she said. "While you were lying awake wondering whether to change your mind, I was on the web figuring out how to make it happen."

"Questioning my life choices isn't the same as considering whether to abandon them," I said, piously. "Besides, I lied. I got to sleep just fine."

"It's settled, then," Alysson said. "Socially distanced mischief this afternoon, preparing for cozier mischief tomorrow."

"Maybe," I said, then I started the dishwasher and headed to my room.

Alysson's bag of laundry was waiting outside the room when I added my own.


Alysson had brought her notebook through to the living room and set it on the coffee table. We'd had sandwiches for lunch, and I'd set the trash out and brewed coffee. She took the sofa, and I sat on the chair beside the coffee table.

Alysson pulled up a bookmark. There was a large red push button on her screen.

"You can refuse to answer any question, and the game ends," she said. "Push the button for questions to ask me, and I'll push it to ask you. You have to look at me for the whole question and answer duration. No glancing at the table to hide your embarrassment."

"Who starts?" I asked.

"Rock, paper, scissors," she stated. She chose rock, and I chose scissors.


"As I said, most of these questions seemed to ask for mind reading," Alysson said. "One of us guesses about the other, then the other sets them straight. So I get to find out what you think about me, and you learn something, and so on."

"Alright," I said, dubiously.

She leaned forward and pushed the touch screen of her notebook.

"First question," she said. Then she looked up at me. "How old was I when I lost my virginity?"

"How would I know that?" I asked. "I guess that's the point, isn't it. What I guess tells you something about what I think about you. So I have to be careful."

Alysson shook her head. "No, just be honest," she said. "I want to know how I come across to you. It doesn't matter if it's wrong."

"Well, you said you were a terror in high school," I said, "and that you're surprised you didn't become pregnant. I'll say seventeen."

"What if I told you I went on the pill at sixteen?" she asked.

"You could still be at risk afterward," I replied. "But okay, I'll say sixteen."

"And if I tell you I was at even more risk for two years when I started the pill?"

"Fourteen? Okay, that surprises me," I said, "but I don't think it's especially unusual, and it doesn't change the way I see you. Just glad, like you said, that you made it through okay."

"Why does it surprise you?" Alysson asked.

"You seem very level-headed," I said. "I'm surprised that you didn't at least start birth control."

"I've changed since then," she said. "Grown, I hope. I was scared a lot then. Believe it or not, I was shy, even though I had boyfriends. Too shy to see an adult who could prescribe anything for me."

"What changed you?" I asked.

"I'm still shy," she said. "I know it doesn't seem so, but you don't know how much effort goes into my confidence. As for growing up, falling in love made a big difference. Not wanting to take risks for him - and then when I found out that he was using me, I guess I didn't even want to take the risk of getting involved. I'm happy to leave the hazards of fourteen to nineteen in the past."

"Yeah, I understand," I said.

"Can I try guessing for you?" Alysson asked.

I shrugged. "Sure," I said. "I don't really know what the game's rules are anyway."

"Seventeen," she said. "Same as you guessed."

"Off by one year," I countered.


"Wrong way," I replied. "Eighteen. Which I think means you've been having sex for a year longer than me, even though I'm two years older. Some shyness."

Her ears seemed to turn a little red. "Selective shyness, maybe," Alysson said. She pushed the notebook around to face me. "Your turn."

I pushed the button. "Oh. Wow. Umm..."

"You have to look at me," Alysson chided.

"Oh, right." I looked into her eyes. "Umm. Do I want you to go down on me, and how highly would I rate the experience."

"The answer to the first half is duh," Alysson said. "You might not let me, but of course you want me to. And... I think you'd be happy with the outcome."

I tried to take calming breaths and ignore the tingle in my groin.

"Your turn to answer," Alysson said.

"We don't have to answer each other's questions, do we?" I objected.

"No, but I'd like you to," she replied.

"Well, yeah, then," I said. "I think you want me to. And yes. I think you'd rate it as pretty good. So I've been told. And I've been told that the beard helps."

"Oh, my," Alysson said. She sounded like she was trying to be sardonic, but her voice was rough. She looked like she was going to say something else, but then she shook her head and turned the notebook toward her.

She read the screen, then looked up at me. "Do I think that kissing is cheating?"

"That's a little too indirect, I think," I said. "I can try to create a fantasy of what you might do, but not what you might think. Ummm," she kept studying me as I pondered. "Let's say we were dating, and I told you I kissed someone else. I think you'd be jealous. So yeah, you think that kissing is cheating."

"But you didn't say why you kissed her," Alysson argued, "or why you felt the need to tell me. If the kiss was innocent, you probably wouldn't have."

"Can it be innocent?" I asked. "I guess that's the point."

"If it's friends sharing a positive experience," Alysson said, "or letting off steam, maybe. And of course it isn't cheating if you're not in a relationship, so no, it certainly isn't always cheating. I guess the real question is, if you are in a relationship and a kiss is just naughty enough to feel good, but doesn't go further - I don't know. If you hide it, yes. If you don't, maybe not."

"So you won't get jealous when I tell you I kissed someone else?" I suggested.

"I would try not to, I think," she said.

"If I told you it was Ryan?"

"I'll kill both of you," she said, casually. "I told you, my agent wants me to be an assassin. I'll practise with you."

I laughed. "Let me ask a question. I don't think I have anything to add to that if you turn it around."

I pushed the button. I read the question through a couple of times to be sure I had all of the pronouns correct. "The next time we have sex," I said, looking into the pale blue eyes behind her glasses, "which would be the first time, and the never time..."

"Stop mangling the words." Alysson interrupted me. "Just ask me what the card says."

"The next time we have sex, how would I like for you to make me come?" I asked.

"Oh, wow," she said. "I don't know. I think I could answer if it wasn't the first time, because I think you'd know what you like and what to expect. But if I had to choose what I think you'd like most... cowgirl style. Because you could watch while I'm riding you, and feel yourself deep inside. I think I just keep going until you can't hold back."

"Oh God," I said. "Now I probably am going to lie awake."

"You have to let me ask the same," Alysson said. "How would I like for you to make me come?"

"I think you'd like for me to go down on you," I said, "like we already talked about. And make it last a very long time."

Alysson shivered, and her voice rasped. "That sounds..." she cleared her throat. "That does sound good. But I think what I would really want is for our bodies to be pressed together, with you deep inside, and we're kissing. so that it's my emotions that are making it impossible for me not to come."

I groaned.

"And you won't even make out with me," she sighed. "Such a waste."

Alysson leaned forward and turned the notebook in her direction. She grinned slightly as she read the screen, then looked up at me. "Would I want you to tie me up?"

"Hmm," I said. "I don't think so. You're very assertive. I think you like to be in control. And if your confidence is masking shyness, I think you'd feel uncomfortable at being at someone else's mercy."

"I'm not sure," Alysson said, thoughtfully. "It isn't something I've done, but I think I might like you to." She frowned at me. "I think you wouldn't want me to tie you up," she said.

"I guess I might be willing to try," I said, "but I think you're probably right. Why do you think you would want that if you've never found it appealing before?"

"I'm not really sure," Alysson replied. "Maybe I haven't thought about it much. I think... I would really have to trust someone. I think I could trust you."

"That may be the sexiest thing I've heard today," I said. "If it wasn't for this mask you'd see I was smiling."

"I can tell," she said.

"Last question?" I suggested. "If we don't stop soon I'll need to take a cold shower before starting on dinner."

Alison laughed. "Yeah, I guess."

I pushed the notebook around one last time and pressed the button. "Would I prefer to make love to you on a tropical beach, or snowbound in a cabin?"

"Cabin, I think," Alysson said. "You're a romantic. You'd want to snuggle under layers of blankets and keep me warm."

"I can see both," I said. "The beach would be exciting, but the cabin would last much longer, since we're snowed in. So yes, cabin. I think you would prefer the beach, because you would see it as a victory over shyness."

"Mmm, I think so," she said. "Picture being naked on a private tropical beach, plenty of oil for our bodies, blankets and a light meal..."

"With champagne," I suggested.

"Yes!" Alysson agreed. "Champagne and an afternoon to make love."

"My bottom would burn so badly," I said.

"Or maybe mine would," Alysson said, "because I think I'd spend more time on top."

"Urrgh," I offered.

Alysson's eyes crinkled. "You said you can see both," she said. "You mean you can really fantasize both situations? With me?"

"I am so not going to sleep tonight," I groaned. Then I stood. "I'm going to chop bacon."

"Is that a euphemism?" Alysson asked, with a chuckle. "I don't think I've heard that one."

"It's spaghetti carbonara," I said. "You can help make it, if you like."

"Sure," she said.


I emailed the virtual bar for two bottles of a California Grigio, then waited for them to arrive before we started cooking, pouring us each a glass to work on while preparing the food.

I had Alysson break eggs into a bowl for the sauce while I was cutting the bacon into small squares. Some of the egg landed on the counter, and she had to extract eggshell from the bowl with a fork, but she was proud of the fact that she mostly succeeded. Then I had her measure the grated parmesan into the eggs and whip it up with a fork, while I started the bacon frying.

When the pan of water started boiling I had her feed the spaghetti into it. "Don't get impatient," I said. "Just push gently. As it softens it will bend."

"That's what she said," Alysson said, as she curled the spaghetti into the pan.

"Take the wooden spoon and stir it up now, and add some salt."

"How much?" she asked.

"Pour a little into your hand and let me see," I said. "Add a pinch to the egg mixture first, and dump the rest into the water. That's about right."

She added pepper and a half teaspoon of garlic powder to the egg mixture and whipped it up again.

When the bacon was nicely crisped I turned the heat down. Then I set up the colander and a measuring cup in the sink. When the spaghetti was ready, I poured a little of the water into the measuring cup, then drained the pasta in the colander.

"When do I add this?" Alysson asked, holding the bowl.

I tipped the spaghetti back into the pan. "Add the bacon first, then you can add the eggs. Stir really well."

As she did, I poured a little of the water back into the pan from the measuring cup.

"That looks about right. Ready to eat?"

"The game made me hungry," Alysson said.

"I'm thinking of a different h-word," I said, as I set the plates on the table.

"That's why I'm hungry," Alysson agreed.


"This tastes better because I made it," Alysson said, after a few forkfuls of pasta. "Well, helped. You need to let me help more."

"Sure," I said. "This is about the easiest meal I know, so it's good to get started with. It's better with fresh garlic, and freshly grated cheese, and some chopped fresh parsley, but it's basically the same. You can whip this up in a dorm room and persuade your friends that you can cook. Let's make some scrambled eggs in the morning and you can practise breaking them."

"Okay," she said. "Let's do that."


Neatly-folded laundry was waiting outside the room, with a standing plastic frame holding shirts on hangers. I took my few clothes into my room. Alysson took her larger load, then vanished into her room for a bath. I took a shower while she was doing that. I hadn't had to take a cold shower earlier, but I felt like I needed a warm one, at least. I towelled my hair dry, found the first tee shirt and shorts in the new laundry - no sense in putting the clothes away if they'd serve now - and headed back to the living room.

I killed time trying to advance in The Witcher 3. As luck would have it, Alysson came through to the living room during a nude scene. "Oh, this is why you play games?" she asked, as she sat down beside me on the couch. "You like to watch women in baths? If you'd asked politely, I might have let you see the real thing ten minutes ago."

She sat beside me in her PJs. It was hard to concentrate on the game. "Let me finish this cutscene and I'll save. No, nudity isn't why I play the game, but it does add color."

"It's well done," she said, "but maybe a little creepy."

The cutscene was drawing to a close. "I don't see it as creepy, but I know what you mean. There are sex scenes, too. Some of them are cookie cutter copies, and some are quite imaginative, but when you watch them they feel... soulless, I guess. Not exactly cold, but without any real emotion. I guess I think that fade to black feels cheap, but if you're watching video game characters for your porn your life is kinda sad."

Alysson had arranged the pillows and lain down, lifting her feet into my lap. She held the sheet, waiting for me to finish my game. I saved and shut down the PS4. "What should we watch tonight?" I asked, turning to let her legs bridge my lap.

She took my left hand and moved it to the thin baby blue silk pajamas over her belly. Her fingers gently pried mine apart and laced between them. "Can we just talk?" she said.

"Sure," I replied, setting the TV control down. The glass of wine I'd poured before preparing the meal had lasted until we'd finished eating, and were sitting on the table with the bottle, so I poured us each a second glass. "What's on your mind?"

"No particular topic," Alysson said, "but I'm nervous about tomorrow."

"Why's that?" I asked.

"It's the day we find out if we caught the bug, right?"

"Yeah," I said. "If we're still negative tomorrow there's very little chance that we did. But even if we did, or one of us did, we'll still be okay. We're young. Or do you have any medical conditions that would affect you?"

"Not that I know," she said, "but if one of us is positive we'll probably isolate in our rooms and not see one another."

"Okay, yeah, that would be disappointing," I admitted.

"And if we're negative, things will still change," she said.

"How so?"

"I think you've let me get closer because you know you're safe, since we're wearing masks and mostly keeping our distance," she said. "If that's over, you might feel uncomfortable."

"Hmm," I said, noncommittally.

"I feel like we've become close... friends, at least," Alysson said. "I'll be disappointed if we don't stay close."

"I don't think that will be a problem," I said. "I like your teasing games. I like talking to you. I like to see you, and that will be better without the mask. I like being close to you. I like that you seem to be interested in me, though I don't understand it."

"What don't you understand?" Alysson said. "I told you, I think you're hot. And you haven't talked down to me, or tried to take advantage of me, you haven't dissed my career, you even seem to have some insights into what I'm doing. I like your mind, and I like your body. What's not to be interested in?"

"Just that you're a hot, popular actress," I said, "who..."

"Who hasn't been in a relationship in years," Alysson interrupted.

"Right," I said, "and I understand that. But who certainly could be. And when you get more popular, as you're going to as soon as this show hits the internet, you're not going to have time for a boring business grad."

Alysson frowned at me. "That might be the closest that you have come to dissing my career," she said. "I hope I'm more than the latest paparazzi infatuation, if I get to that point. I hope you see me as more than that."

"Yeah, I do." I countered, "but your career is going to own you, to a point. You can't get away from what your fans and your agent and the Hollywood press make of you, not completely. I mean, I'm talking about months or years from now, but it makes a temporary attraction to a friend seem like something you'll outgrow, while I'll always regret that you were out of reach."

Alysson stared at me for a long time. The mask kept her feelings completely hidden. Finally, she said, "That sounds very defeatist, and unlike you. I don't want you to see me as out of reach, and I feel... disheartened, I guess, that you would. When we were playing the question game you didn't seem to think of me as anything special," she added.

"I do, though," I said. "You are special. Which is why I can't completely persuade myself that you're not stringing me along. You know you could convince me of anything. You are that good."

Alysson's eyes looked hurt. "Well," she said. She lifted my hand with hers, moving it back towards me, then disentangling her fingers. "I think I need to go to bed. Maybe I'll feel better after the results are in tomorrow."

She swung her legs down from my lap, and sat for a moment. I thought she was going to say something, but she stood, then said "Goodnight, Nate."

"Goodnight, Ali," I replied, as she walked away, leaving half of her glass of wine, her stride not showing the animation it usually did.


I didn't sleep well that night, and it had nothing to do with picturing Alysson on a beach. I'd upset her. Yet I had to be honest with her, and while I thought she was being honest with me, I didn't see how I could know that.