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next year at the same time

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“I think science fiction is finally getting to me,” Claudia says.

She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, resting against Pilot’s console. Her hair is wild and she’s looking straight at you.

“What?” you ask. She’s in a funny mood. Working with the muppets always does that to her but you don’t want to think she really means it. It’s been what, a couple of months since you’ve known her but you don’t think you want her to ever, ever go away. And that is a very scary thought.

“I had a dream last night,” she tells you. Her face is very serious but her eyes are not, and you don’t know what to make of this conversation because you should not be freaking out this much over it.

She tilts her head to the side, very Aeryn-like, and says: “I was a nurse in a hospital for gnomes. We had these little balls of glitter that we threw at the gnome patients.”

You open your mouth to say something, but really, what can you say?

And then she smiles.

And then she laughs.

And then you tell her: “Are you screwing with me?”

She stands up and walks past you and it occurs to you that tomorrow she’s got a scene in the shower, and you’re very glad you don’t have to be there because it’s not right, the way she makes you feel and it’s not right, how much you actually want to be there.

You’re not even supposed to be here right now but she had some time between takes and you’re done for the day but it’s early, and you don’t want to go home, and she was all alone here and looked like she could use some company. Or maybe you just wanted to hang out with her.

---

She’s adorable in her pj’s and pigtails.

It’s not fair.

She refuses to stay in costume for longer than she needs to, always changing into those little pj shorts and soft tees. The pigtails are new though, and they’re doing some really terrible things to your insides.

Why were you knocking on her trailer anyway? Oh yeah, you need to run lines for tomorrow’s scene.

“Hey Claud,” you tell her, showing her your script.

“Alright,” she says, turning around and walking towards her couch.

You’ve been inside her trailer countless times. Mostly because it’s nicer than yours.

You plop face down on the bed, taking over so much space that Claud lays down with her head on the back of your knees.

“Which scene?” she asks.

---

It’s raining.

She’s sitting on a picnic table by the parking lot outside the set.

You call her name and she turns around and smiles at you.

She’s beautiful.

---

She’s sitting on the floor against the couch in the middle of the set that is supposed to be Jack Crichton’s living room. You haven’t begun filming yet, but you both got here insanely early due to some weird scheduling miscommunication. You would have loved a little more sleep this morning but you love hanging with Claudia a lot more.

You sit beside her and rest your head on her shoulder.

“So, what’s new?” you ask.

She yawns in response.

“Jesus Claud, you wound me. Am I that uninteresting?”

She makes a “meh” sound.

“Come on! I need something to keep me awake. Help me out here.”

You poke her in the ribs and she grunts. She looks sideways at you and sighs.

“Lay down,” she says, patting her thigh.

“Score!” you say, dropping down and laying your head on her thighs.

“I’m thinking about cutting my hair,” she tells you. “Maybe a little shorter?”

“Nah. John likes Aeryn’s hair long.”

“Honey, you just want something shiny to play with when you’re bored.”

“That too. But seriously, don’t cut it.”

She runs her hand through your hair, softly, and you start to drift off to sleep.

“Don’t cut it, Claud,” you tell her before closing your eyes and falling asleep.

She wakes you up when the crew starts filtering in.

---

You need a new job. You need to figure out this whole moving thing and see about getting a place in Los Angeles.

You need to stop thinking about how much you’re going to miss Claudia, how you always want her near, how you feel you can’t breathe when you think that this is over and you won’t be able to knock on her door every time you feel like talking.

You loved your job, and you loved your crew and your cast mates, but it’s Claudia’s face you looked for first when you stepped into the set, and it’s her voice you can’t live without.

It scares the shit out of you.

---

The saddest conversation either one of you will ever have goes something like this:

“Claud-”

“Don’t. Please.”

“I need to-”

“Ben, don’t. Please, don’t.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“I know. I – I’ll miss you too.”

You hug, briefly. Hands around each other, faces pressed together.

It would be so easy to kiss.

But you don’t do that. John and Aeryn kiss. Ben and Claudia do not. Not really. Not like you want to.

You hug and you touch and you flirt and you have been known to occasionally cuddle, but you don’t kiss because you both know it wouldn’t be enough. It would never be enough.

---

It hurts, missing Ben. You didn’t think it would hurt this much.

You told yourself that you had to move on, that codependency was fine and well while you could see each other every day but that needing him, now that you can’t have him, is not healthy and it’s not right.

He has a family. He has a wife. He belongs with them.

And you have Jamie, who’s a hell of a nice guy and loves you more than you think you’re able to ever love him back, and deserves much better than you.

You’re far more excited over Ben’s random texts than you are seeing him face to face, and that’s not fair to any of you.

So you stop reading his messages, and you stop answering your phone when he calls and you stop reading his emails and eventually it gets easier. Eventually you stop turning around and looking for his smile.

---

He is still your favorite person in the world. You’re pretty sure he shouldn’t be.

It’s been a year since the show ended and that hasn’t changed.

You still miss him. It comes and goes, really, but you miss him the most right after seeing him.

The miniseries almost kills you. Having to say goodbye to Aeryn and John is excruciating. Having to say goodbye to Ben again? It’s far worse.

---

He wants you. You know he wants you as much as you want him, so when he asks you out for drinks you know you should say no. You’ve gone this long without giving in, right? Wrong. You’re not as strong as you’d like to be.

“Come on, Claud, for old times’ sake?” he asks you, grinning in that little boy way of his and extending a hand in front of you.

“I’m gonna regret this,” you tell him, taking his hand and letting him pull you away.

You sit at the bar and have a beer. It’s not enough to make you even a little bit tipsy, but you’re high on the panel’s energy and you keep touching each other. He has a thing for your hair, always has, and he seems to be a little bit in love with the light streaks on it.

You keep laughing and sharing stories and it’s almost like it was 2, 3, 4 years ago, when you knew it was safe to flirt and touch and be slightly inappropriate because he was married and fuzzy as your boundaries were, you were never going to go there.

Except it’s not like before.

“I’m going upstairs,” you tell him. “I need sleep.”

“I’ll walk you to your room,” he says, ever the gentleman.

You go towards the elevators together, his hand on the small of your back and you’re leaning against him. A passer-by looks at you knowingly and you don’t know if he recognizes you and thinks something illicit is going on or if he thinks you’re just two people who are obviously attracted to each other on their way to your hotel room. You wish it was that simple.

He hums in the elevator. He hums and he taps his feet against the floor and you almost smile, but that would only encourage him and he might just burst into song. Cons do this to him.

At your door, you hug. You linger for a little longer than you should, hold on a little tighter than usual. Ben, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want to let go.

“Honey?” you ask, still pressed against him.

“I’ll let you go,” he says. “I’ll let you go and walk away and god only knows when I’ll see you again.”

“I know,” you tell him, raising a hand and setting it on his chest, right on top of his heart.

“We met five years ago.”

“We did.”

“Fran and I separated. Last month.”

“Oh.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

You can tell each other that. It’s safe. Everyone knows you love each other. Everyone knows you’re friends. It’s ok to love a friend, isn’t it? Even if he just separated from his wife. Even if you’re in love with him.

“I don’t want to say goodbye, Claud.”

You feel tears prickling your eyes, but unlike the characters you play, you can’t control the urge to cry.

“Don’t,” you beg him. “Ben, don’t.” He knows you well enough to get what you’re not saying: Please don’t do this to me, baby, it’s hard enough as it is.

“I don’t want to spend the next five years saying goodbye to you.”

He holds on tight, and you hold on tighter. You don’t know what this is but you know that it will change everything. You love him so much, too much, you have no idea when, or how, your love for him grew to the extent that you’re contemplating ruining your life because the thought of letting go right now might possibly kill you.

“I don’t want to cheat on my husband,” you tell him. He starts to let go. He respects you and your decisions and even if he put himself out there today, even if it would hurt him, he’s willing to walk away. He’s stronger than you, apparently, cause as soon as he lets go of you you’re taking his hand and pulling him inside your room.

You guide him to the bed and you both sit down, hands still firmly entwined.

“I can’t do that to him,” you tell him, “but I think letting you go would kill me.”

He exhales, loudly, and you see him visibly relax. He was afraid.

You married for all the wrongs reasons, but you won’t hurt Jamie, not if you can help it, not like this.

“I know you don’t want to hurt her either.”

He nods. He takes raises your hand to his lips and brushes a gentle, barely there kiss against your knuckles.

“Alright,” he says. “Alright.”

“I need to go home.”

“OK. Yeah. Me too. I need to, I need to talk to the kids and then...”

“And then we’ll talk?”

He nods. “We’ll talk,” he says, smiling for the first time since you came inside your room.

You smile back. Okay. You can do this.

He stands up. Walks to the door with your hand still in his.

You open the door and he steps out, and you know this is goodbye, but it doesn’t hurt anymore.

“Ben?”

“Yeah?”

“We’ll make this work, right?”

He kisses you, softly, like he has a million times before. It feels like a promise.