next stop, the world [11/11]
Leslie/Ben, Chris/Ann, Andy/April
pg-13. 4419 words.
She steps out of the ballot box, grinning, and hopefully, as long as he lives, senile or not, he'll always remember how lit up she is at this moment, human sunlight. Leslie decides to run for office, antics ensue.
Note: Here it is -- the last chapter of next stop, the world! It feels pretty crazy to be at the end of this. I am so so grateful to everyone that's been reading, commenting and encouraging me throughout the summer. Thank you so much for everything, and I hope you enjoy! ♥
(You can read previous parts here.)
The TV at the shoeshine stand is blurry, but April doesn't really mind. Andy made them popcorn. Chewing it covers up the sound of the static and the sound of the cameras clicking on the TV.
"Can they just get to the good part?" she whines to no one in particular. Nobody else is in the hallways. This is must-see TV, they're all watching in the Parks department. So it's like their own little date in the middle of this City Hall hallway, in front of Burly's castoff old television set.
"Shhhhh." Andy wraps his arm around her shoulders. Chris has just come on the screen. Finally. This was supposed to start five minutes ago. There's only so long a girl can wait, especially when she has to keep the town of Pawnee away from Ron.
The sound of cameras gets louder. She stuffs some more popcorn into her mouth as Chris settles himself into his chair.
"After a lot of consideration," he says, his voice only a little louder than the cameras and the stupid shuffling reporters, "I have come to realize that my own rule, which prohibits government employees working closely together, from dating, has caused more problems than, I think, it would have avoided. Consequently, as the City Manager of Pawnee, I'd like to take this moment to amend that rule. Employees of City Hall who choose to date must fill out a form available in my office, acknowledging the risks of dating at work, which I still advise against. However, once they have filled out this form, they may feel free to engage in a dating relationship with that person, so long as the relationship does not interfere with their productivity or lead to the misuse of government funding. Additionally, those who wish to engage in a dating relationship within City Hall will acknowledge that the termination of this relationship must not affect the quality of their work. Should these conditions arise, they risk termination. This is all clearly stated on the form available in my office, as drafted by myself and Ben Wyatt. Are there any questions?"
A dozen hands go up in the audience. April isn't that interested. Instead, she turns to Andy.
"Does this mean we need to fill out a form?" she asks, tracing the line of his arm with her finger. "Because if we get divorced, it's definitely going to lead to me going on a shopping spree with government money and painting graffiti all down the hallways."
"I won't let you get fired," he tells her, leaning in for a kiss, "if they come to fire you I'll beat them all up. Nobody fires my wife. Or my ex-wife."
"And then I would marry you again," April says, tangling her fingers in his hair.
"What would you say if I wanted to run for office?" Ben says, twiddling with one of her campaign brochures between his fingers. She can tell he's trying to sound casual, but even though it's after midnight, Leslie's not buying it.
"Well, it would depend on how you said it. Like, if you said it in a funny way I would definitely laugh. Or if you said it like Chris, I would give you a high five." She snuggles against him. He's wearing a sweater today and it's warm against her cheeks. The campaign's over in three days, and then she's going to actually sleep for nine hours, practically forever.
"What if I said it in a serious way?"
"You mean it?" she says, raising her head to look him straight in the eye. He doesn't look like he's lying, and she knows he's definitely not sneaky. Her face is all grin. She can feel it. "You want to run for something?"
"I was messing around on Google the other day," he says, smoothing his hand down her back, "and the state senator for this district is running for Congress. It doesn't seem like anyone's running for that spot yet."
"You would be so good for it! You can say you balanced our budget -- not to mention all those other towns, and you brought back the Harvest Festival and now you're keeping Pawnee running, not to mention that you're definitely easy on the eyes." She trails off, watching his lips quirk into one of those slow, sweet smiles that she loves seeing on his face.
"You should be my campaign manager. Except that I don't think it's possible for you to sleep less."
"You could hire Tom," she tells him, interrupted by a yawn, "except that you'd have to tell him not to play dirty. Especially with your best friend. So maybe don't hire him."
"Mayor Gunderson's people have been smearing you since our relationship went public," he says, gathering her hair up between his fingers. It makes her shiver, a little.
"Yeah, but at least they made me a classy devil woman in that one commercial! I really like that one dress they Photoshopped on me. And you look really sexy in horns, as it turns out."
"You do have a point," he says, lifting up her hair and kissing the back of her neck. A few seconds ago she was close to falling asleep, but now she's totally awake, everything's concentrated on the nerves underlying that particular patch of skin. "We would definitely make a good pair of devils."
"Mmmhmm." She slides a hand under his sweater, against the skin of his back, and hears him groan in the back of his throat, low and pretty manly for her dorky boyfriend. For a second he stops against her neck.
"So would it bother you if I was in Indianapolis for half the year?" He's asked her this before, a lot of different ways, and she's never sure what to say. It's like, only one of them can have exactly what they want at a time.
"Yeah, it would," she says, twisting so she's facing him again, watching his eyes open wide like she might break up with him again, "but I have a car, Benjamin, and even the Mayor of Pawnee must get some time off."
"I hope so," he says. He has this slightly hazy look in his eyes, the way he looks, sometimes, right after he kisses her. "Or else I'm going to have to find a way to impeach you."
"Watch out, Mister Senator," she tells him, leaning towards him for a kiss, "the buck stops with Mayor Knope."
It's still too early to call herself that (at some point she'll have to look up anti-jinxing methods), but it feels so close, sitting in her living room with Ben. Anyway, he's lifting her sweater up over her shoulders and this is the part where it's okay to stop thinking about the campaign until her alarm goes off tomorrow morning.
"So, Miss Mayor," Ben says low, right against her ear so it's like all of her vibrates with the words, "do you think it would be all right if I, as your state's representative in Indianapolis, touched you like this?" His hands have slipped inside her waistband while he's talking, so softly she hardly noticed but now she can't stop thinking about Ben's magic fingers.
"I think --" she says, voice ragged, "I think, Mr. Senator... that if -- don't stop, okay?"
Yeah, the campaign can definitely wait until tomorrow.
Ann looks over her dinner menu at Chris, trying not to laugh at the way his eyes are darting around at all the potential selections. She was the one who suggested this place, a vegan restaurant about an hour west of Pawnee, after doing a little internet research. Everyone says you're supposed to let the guy plan the dates, but it was worth the leg work to hear him say he'd never heard of it before. She wasn't completely sold on the idea raw spaghetti, the dish all the online reviews went on and on about. Still, there's something about eating a salad in the company of someone who won't immediately abandon anything green for the nearest waffle -- especially when she and Leslie are meeting at JJ's too early tomorrow morning.
"There are so many choices!" he says, finally, his voice muffled behind the heavy paper. "I think I could eat three meals. What are you getting?"
"Maybe that raw tomato soup and the fig and walnut salad?" Maybe he'll order the spaghetti and she can figure out if she likes it or not.
"Their assortment of fresh vegetables looks amazing."
"You could make that yourself, though, right?"
"It's true," he sighs, "and I can't fight the feeling that Ron Swanson would burst inside this restaurant in a rage if I ordered their tofu burger."
"If anyone could do that, it would definitely be Ron. God, this place." She takes a sip of her wine. "Apparently the raw pasta's really good."
"I was thinking about it." He sets down his menu and looks across the table, right at Ann. His shoes bump against hers, like he's nervous and she can't help but smile a little bigger. "I'm so glad we're here together."
"Me too," she says. "This is really nice." It feels like the start of something, Chris Traeger and New Ann Perkins out for their first real date.
"I was nervous about what might happen tonight so I did five hundred extra pushups this afternoon," he blurts out, suddenly. It totally ruins the moment but for whatever reason she can't stop laughing and then there are tears running down her cheeks and at least two of the waiters are staring at her.
"I watched The Philadelphia Story again," she tells him, when she can breathe. "I think for the ninety-fifth time?"
"Why would you do that?" His eyes go all wide and for a second she thinks, shit, after all this they're going to break up or whatever over her favorite old movie.
"I was going to ask you the same thing," she says. "I think watching Jimmy Stewart drunkenly hit on Katharine Hepburn is way better than risking tendonitis. Again."
There's a pause, then, and it occurs to her in that empty space of time, that anything could happen. Maybe this will be their last date, and a little voice in her head, the voice of New Ann Perkins, says, okay. But then Chris smiles.
"I've never seen that movie. Do you think we could watch it after dinner? Or is one time enough for one day?" He's still smiling and she thinks, it's possible that she'll remember this moment forever because somehow it's turned out just right.
"As it happens, I could definitely stand to see it again," she says, "especially if it's with you."
This is the part where the waiter comes to take their orders and Chris takes five more minutes to figure out exactly what he wants to eat, but everything is sort of surrounded by this glow in Ann's mind. At some point, a few minutes later, Chris runs his foot against the back of her leg and the world snaps back into reality. She likes it.
"So I have one more appearance on Ya Heard! With Perd and then it's just face-to-face campaigning," Leslie says, scooping up whipped cream off her waffles with her spoon. Mmmm, classic JJs.
Ann pours a little more syrup on the waffles she ordered, which, go Ann, welcome to the breakfast of champions.
"Do you want me to do your hair and makeup again?" she says, licking a syrup drip off her thumb. "You know, give Perd what he wants."
"I don't know. On the one hand, Tom totally tried to work the sex angle after everyone found out about Ben and me, but on the other hand, I'm not sure I trust Tom with my campaign right now. And if you do your thing I'm totally going to be sexy." She takes a bite of waffle and lets it sort of roll around her tongue, spreading its glorious waffley sweetness around her whole mouth.
"Leslie," Ann starts, squinching her eyebrows together in a way that says she's about to say something completely reasonable that she knows her best friend really doesn't want to hear, "Tom's been doing everything he possibly can to help you win. I don't know how Entertainment 720 hasn't completely gone under, I don't think he has time for any other clients. What he did with that video of Chris and me totally sucked, but remember how he did your signs and all those commercials with all of us?"
"I thought the commercials were your idea." She probably should've hired Ann as her campaign manager, come to think of it, but if a woman can be that beautiful and that good at healing people, is it really realistic to assume she can also be that good at campaigning?
"Well, yeah, they were," Ann says, poking at her waffles with the tines of her fork, "but Tom has all those schmoozy connections and the cameras and the whole freaking Dreamatorium. And I don't know how he gets Jean-Ralphio to send all those boring emails."
"Yeah, what's that guy's deal?"
"I know, right? At the Mouse Rat concert at the Harvest Festival he kept trying to mosh with me, in the back of the crowd." She steals some of Leslie's whipped cream. If it were anyone else, this is the part where Leslie would tell them to order their own whipped cream, but with her best friend, on a few very rare occasions, it's okay. Anyway Ann has a dollop lingering on her lip. It's like the whipped cream is taking revenge on behalf of its rightful owner.
"But you're saying I should forgive Tom." For the past few months, Ben's been teaching her the art of staying on topic. She hasn't been really good at practicing the things he tells her, but she's pretty sure Ann wouldn't mind if she used their breakfast date to catch up.
"I think you should," Ann says, smiling and empathetic and a little sleepy-looking.
"Okay." She takes this moment to savor some more whipped cream, especially since Ann might snatch more away from her at any moment. "So how was your date with Chris?" Leslie's not sure she wants all the gory details (what has Chris done, exactly, to deserve someone as beautiful and talented as Ann?) but seeing her best friend's face light up with a smile when she asks makes it worthwhile.
"I found this great vegan restaurant with that new search engine you showed me, and they actually have this incredible raw spaghetti. I sort of made Chris order it." Ann twirls her fork and her eyes get this dreamy expression that Leslie remembers feeling a lot on her own face lately, especially when Ben's around. "Then we went back to my place and watched The Philadelphia Story. I fell asleep but he woke me up for the big drunk scenes in the middle, which was sweet."
"That sounds perfect," Leslie says, and, really, she means it.
The latest campaign innovation: heart shaped green stickers reading "Gunderson? Knope!" Ron Swanson may or may not have paid for them, even the extra for rush creation and overnight delivery.
"Do you think we should do Christmas decorations?" Andy says, after Leslie's campaign commercial finishes.
"Babe, it's only the beginning of November," April says, turning towards him and making that duh face that is super cute. "But yeah, if you want to do them it could be fun. And we could have Mouse Rat do a cover of some Christmas song and make it a Youtube video or something. Maybe it could be one of those dumb viral hits." His wife is not the most enthusiastic of women -- which is totally fine with him, it's just one of those things -- but there's something excited in her voice that kinda makes him want to rip her clothes off, even though Ben could probably walk by at any moment.
"That would be awesome!" He raises his hand up for a high five, and she smacks her palm against his. Then she sinks back against the couch, and her smile sort of fades. At first he thinks it's just one of those April moments, the smiles that are glorious because they're like rare jewels. But she keeps frowning. He can actually see something twitching near her mouth.
"I got offered a managing gig with a band in Chicago," she blurts out, almost like she's throwing up the words. "It's this folk-pop band, they do the whole unshaven and plaid flannel thing and it pays way more than either of us makes."
"Oh." He's been to Chicago, a few times. Once it was with his junior high science class, they went to the aquarium and the planetarium. He still remembers having dreams, afterwards, about beluga whales swimming in an ocean made up of all the constellations whose names he'd immediately forgotten. "Are you going to take it?"
"We could have our own apartment."
"But we get Burly's house for so cheap! And now that Leslie's over so much we even get free waffles." Mouse Rat could probably move to Chicago, they could find some tiny apartment and jam, and there are probably millions of shoes that need shining. But things are going so well here, in Pawnee, and if April was managing a different band, how would she make time for her husband's band, even if it were the most awesome rock band of all time?
"They're better than all the toast we've burned." Her voice is a little softer than usual, but she doesn't say anything after that and he's not really sure what he should say so they just sit there for a while, listening to the TV.
"Do you want to move to Chicago?" The credits are rolling on whatever show they were watching and some announcer is telling them in a really cheesy voice, what they have to look forward to next week.
"I don't know," she says, finally, wrapping her arms around one of the pillows that sometimes end up on the couch. "I mean, I really like being a manager and I guess I'm good at it and if I really want to, I don't know, do this, like for real, I guess this might be a really great gig. But, I don't know, since the Harvest Festival, Mouserat's been getting some gigs, and --" She stops and takes in this huge, shuddering kind of breath and you know what, Andy thinks, his wife is about to cry. He wants to wrap his arms around her, hold her tight against him, but there's something about the way she's huddled that keeps him from doing that.
"And, what?" he asks her, so soft it could almost blend in with the noise of the television.
"And I want to be with you," she says, reaching for him, and Andy kisses her, again and again but she's still crying and he thinks, no matter what, no matter who, women will always confuse him, even if it's the wife he loves forever and a fish.
"I want to be with you, too," he tells her. He feels her smile against his face and thinks, even if it doesn't make sense right now, it's going to be all right, eventually, it'll be fine.
Leslie's hair is especially pretty today, Ben thinks, watching her duck into the ballot box. She probably spent a few extra minutes curling it. He's not sure, he was out grabbing them coffee and breakfast while she was in the shower and he hit all the red lights. He's starting to wonder if Pawnee has way too many stoplights per citizen, but it's one of those things that would be way more work than necessary to fix.
He can just barely hear the sound of Leslie exhaling, some huge deep breath escaping her body. Eighteen years ago, when he was in the ballot box, voting for himself, the way you do, it was relief and nerves and oh shit, I might actually have to run this town except that for Leslie, that last part probably goes more like yay! He loves that, about her.
She steps out of the ballot box, grinning, and hopefully, as long as he lives, senile or not, he'll always remember how lit up she is at this moment, human sunlight.
JJ's, in all the years she's been here, has never been like this: full of quiet people, not eating, staring at the TV. Leslie ordered waffles (campaigning is work, even if it's almost over), but so far she's only managed to eat about half of the whipped cream. The polls closed a half-hour ago and all she can see are the backs of the people looking over the ballots. They invited her to be present but Ben and Ron had teamed up and talked her out of it. If this is freaking her out, she can't imagine how much worse it would be with the cameras all pointed directly at her. Apparently there were some outside, waiting, but Ann said she scared them away. God. It feels like the whole world has condensed to the tip of a pin, the next five seconds or hour and she'll know. Ben's arm is warm against her back. She would snuggle against him but that wouldn't look too professional, and win or lose, she needs to look like the kind of person Pawnee wouldn't be crazy to vote for as mayor. She needs to look proud, awesome, maybe even a little sexy. She needs to look like Diaphena. She should've braided her hair but it already took forever to curl, the bathroom was too steamy this morning and Ben was coming back with breakfast.
She's not going to win this campaign on her hairstyle, but at this particular moment it feels like a distinct possibility.
The TV screen flashes to a bright blue screen. CAMPAIGN RESULTS DECIDED it says, and Leslie's heart starts beating so fast that she's probably going to die before she finds out if she's mayor or not.
"The story of this story is that it's a close one," Perd Hapley says, and really, what experience does he have to announce campaign results? but he's moving on, she needs to focus, "and by that I mean that Pawnee voters turned out in record numbers to vote for the next mayor, and the margin was very small. In fact, it was only eighty eight votes that separated the winner from the loser."
Somebody -- it sounds like April -- yells "announce who it is already!" but whoever it is, it's like they're very far away. The whole world is this stupid TV screen and stupid Perd holding out on her because it's secretly his secret talent or something.
"The town of Pawnee has voted, and it looks like we will, by a very small margin, be swearing in our current Mayor Gunderson for another term in January. Thank you for voting, and stay tuned for the rest of the results after these messages from our sponsors."
This is the part where everything's supposed to start exploding in Leslie's head or at the very least she should be hearing very loud carnival music, but instead everything is clear and quiet. The world expands to its normal size. She turns to Ben.
"What do I do now?" she whispers to him, although she's not sure he would know, the whole point is that he won, back in the day.
But this is Ben, smiling his sweet small smile, exactly what she wants to see, rubbing his hand in a slow circle against her back and now nobody cares if she looks like she'd be a good mayor, she snuggles against him just a little. It feels warm and cozy, and maybe it's just that she doesn't want to think about being disappointed but right now all she feels is how nice it is, to sit with Ben like this.
"Now," he says, the words right against her ear, "now's the part where you get to do whatever you want."
She looks up at him, his amazing face, but just for a second. Then she looks around at the rest of the room, looking at her. They're all quiet, still, but they're looking at her like they just lost the election, too, that was how much they wanted the win for her, and in that moment Leslie knows exactly what she wants to do, next.
She scoots away from Ben, just a little, and stands up to face the crowd, the Parks Department, all these amazing people she gets to call her friends.
"I know I didn't win," she tells them, "but you know, we fought hard, here. We made a campaign about friendship and kindness and making parks for people who don't have them. We didn't play dirty. We stayed up late and came up with good ideas and we listened. In the past few months, you all have worked so hard for me, even when I couldn't do anything back for you, and for that I am so grateful." She looks over at Ann, who's sneakily holding hands with Chris under a table a little ways away, smiling ear to ear. Then she shoots a glance at Tom, and at Ron, and both of them are smiling (okay, Ron's just smiling with his eyes), and she realizes, all in this one instant, why this feels so familiar and good: it's like she's back talking to the Parks Department and telling them that yes, they can be amazing, and then she can't stop smiling because she gets to go to work tomorrow and do that again. "I know technically we didn't win but you know, it was only eighty eight measly votes. And if you stop just because people don't like you, then where are you? Let's keep going, because what we've done together is pretty awesome and I don't think we should stop because of tonight. Thank you so much for everything. You all are my favorite people in Pawnee and I am so so lucky to know you."
The room breaks into applause, all these people clapping and then standing up and they're still clapping for her, and cheering. Leslie looks around at them all, and if she didn't know better, she'd say that this is exactly what winning feels like.