"We should talk."
Alison put down the scanner she'd been holding, but she didn't turn around immediately. She'd been afraid of this, worrying about this moment ever since they'd escaped the virtual world. Finally, she turned and tried to smile at the man standing in front of her, who was looking serious. Damn, but he was cute.
"We probably should, yeah."
"So…" he started and then paused.
"So?" She arched an eyebrow at him.
He ran a hand through his spiky hair, looking uncomfortable. "I didn't really think out what I was going to say. I sort of expected you to say that we should forget about it."
"We should forget about it," Alison agreed promptly and with a smile.
"It was a virtual world, after all." He shrugged, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
"Exactly." Alison's relief was real, but there was a tiny twinge of some other emotion poking at the back of her mind.
"It wasn't reality. Not for them, not for us."
"True," Alison agreed again. "And it's not as if we would ever have – you know – if we didn't think that they were together. It was just a reaction."
"Right." It was his turn to agree. "Plus, it was probably a one-time thing. Even in the virtual world, I mean. It's not like –"
"Exactly," Alison interrupted him. "Exactly," she repeated, nodding.
"It was awfully fun, though." He grinned at her, his white teeth flashing against his stubble, and almost against her will, she smiled back at him, as a little rush of desire flushed her cheeks.
"Yes, it was." She looked away, looking at anything but him, feeling the burn as the little rush turned into a more serious tingle. It had been an impulse. Carter and Jo had been having a family dinner – and even knowing it hadn't been real, the memory still felt like a bitter bruise on her soul – and she'd had a couple of glasses of wine and Zane had shown up and…it was comfort, that was all.
But the man could kiss. And he took his time and he loved to touch and he knew his way around the female body and exactly what he was doing. It might not have been real, but it was definitely in her top ten sexual experiences. Okay, top five. Maybe top three. She firmly suppressed the guilt at the thought. It hadn't been real, she reminded herself. A virtual experience didn't belong anywhere in any list.
"So we're agreed?" he continued.
"We just forget all about it?"
"Agreed. Definitely." Her response was fervent.
"And we don't mention it to anyone?" he added.
She nodded, although a little more slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, that's a good idea." She loved Jack, she did. And things between them had been great since she'd gotten back. If she still had a lingering sense of betrayal about his virtual relationship with Jo, then that was her problem. She didn't need to make it worse by sharing details about this little incident with Zane.
He took a step closer and dropped his voice, "It was great, though."
"I'll agree with that, too." Alison smiled wryly and took a firm step back, ignoring her body's traitorous response to him. "And now we'll forget about it."
He grinned at her. "Done."
He left with a jaunty wave and Alison turned back to her scanner. Whew. It was good to have that conversation over with. But the emotion that had been poking at the back of her mind was still there and finally she identified it: just a slight touch of disappointment.
Keeping secrets from the man you loved felt dishonest. How could you be authentic in a relationship if you knew that there were subjects you could never discuss, never share? Alison couldn't do it. She loved Jack. She loved being with him. And when she told him, it wasn't to hurt him or because she thought he'd be angry or because she needed his forgiveness, but because she thought he'd feel the same way she did about it – that it was virtual, not real, and nothing to feel guilty about. Just a thing that had happened.
He did. Sort of.
And when he told Jo, it wasn't because he thought she'd be hurt, but because he needed someone to share his feelings with. Henry had just shrugged and pointed out the reality: Alison had believed he was involved and in love with Jo, the fake Eureka must have been very difficult for her, a rebound relationship was normal under the circumstances, and it wasn't like it had carried over to the real world. But that wasn't what Carter needed to hear. He needed to hear that it was nothing. Not important. He needed to hear that Jo didn't care and so he shouldn't either.
"You slept with Alison!"
Zane looked up from the computer console at which he was standing. "Uh, what?"
"You had sex with Alison Blake!"
He grinned at her. The asshole grinned. Didn't he know how close he was to getting shot? "Only virtually," he said with the kind of calm reasonableness that made her want to hit him. "And in a virtual world where you were sleeping with Carter."
"I wasn't there!" Jo stormed at him.
"Well, maybe not the real you, but there was a fake you there that was 'in love' with Carter." He put finger quotes around the phrase and added a mocking drawl to the word 'love.'
"Which wasn't me! Or the real Carter! The real you slept with the real Alison!"
"Yeah, and now I'm wondering how you found about it." The console beeped. Zane looked down at it and typed a few quick commands into the keyboard.
"How I found out about it? That's all you care about? I found out from Carter, who found out from Alison. Why didn't I find out from you?"
"Why would I tell you?" he asked, looking up again.
"Why would you – because –" Jo spread her hands wide, then clenched her fingers into fists. Why would he tell her? She knew he should have. She knew she was right to be furious with him. But why?
"We're not together, remember? Just casual? Not waiting for me? It's not like I was cheating on you, Jojo – we're not in a relationship." Zane looked down at the screen, then turned and walked across his lab to a display. He stared at it and Jo stared at his back.
His voice as he said those words had been steady, even nonchalant. But there was hurt under the surface. Hurt that she should have seen earlier.
Maybe she had seen it. But she'd been so confused herself. Confused about what she wanted and what she needed and who she could trust.
"If we had been together, would you have told me?"
"Of course," he answered, jotting some notes from the display into his tablet. "I was surprised Alison agreed not to tell Carter. I'm not surprised she didn't last."
He returned to his console and began entering more data. Jo watched him without speaking. Finally he looked up. "Something else you want?"
"You slept with Alison," Jo said again, but without any anger in her voice. "I'm really mad at you."
His grin was wry. "Babe, me sleeping with other people is definitely part of the parameters of us not being a couple. You want that to change, just say the word." He typed a few more numbers, looking from the tablet to the computer.
Jo took two steps closer, then a third, until she was standing directly in front of him on the other side of the console. "What's the word?" Her heart was pounding.
He looked up at her, his ready smile starting as he opened his mouth – probably to make some smart-ass comment, Jo thought – and then fading as he seemed to take in her expression. He placed his tablet on the console and stepped out from behind the console, Jo turning as he moved until they were facing each other.
"Yes is always nice," he suggested, as serious as she was.
"Yes?" It was a question, not an answer. Yes could be a yes to anything. "That seems a little vague."
His blue eyes were intent on hers. "Not specific enough?"
"Not really, no." Jo licked her lips, loving the way he watched her, loving the feel of the heat rising between them, loving the sense of certainty that filled her.
"What did you have in mind?" he asked, as his hands came to rest on her hips, tugging her closer to him.
"Mmm," she murmured, sliding her hands up his chest and around his neck, standing on tiptoes to press her lips against his. His mouth opened and together they kissed, lips and tongues exploring each other until, breathless, she pulled back. "Mine."
"Mine?" He laughed, sounding surprised.
"Mine," she repeated, firmer, and with a hint of a snap in her voice.
"I was thinking, you know, something like girlfriend," he suggested, eyes gleaming with humor. "Maybe even couple?"
Jo shook her head. "No, I think I've gotten the word right."
"Mine," he mused, then began to nod slowly. "It's growing on me."
"Good," Jo said, leaning into him and tugging his head down to hers. "Because you're stuck with it now. You're mine."
"Right back atcha, babe," he whispered, as his lips took hers.