parks & rec fic: every time a bell rings
pg-13. 5100 words
At this moment, something is very wrong with Ben Wyatt. He is suffering from one of the most alarming human ills — he is discouraged.
Note: This is for cypanache for the Leslie/Ben Holiday Fest. Her request was: Wonderful Life AU, set during the time Ben is going through a rough patch or post 'Trial of Leslie Knope' with Ben trying to figure out what he wants to do. Given my own love for Jimmy Stewart, it was only a matter of time... I hope you enjoy ♥
It starts because Leslie has this bad habit of bringing her laptop to bed. Ben’s mostly used to it by now. Usually it doesn’t bother him, it’s one of those things that Leslie does, but tonight, on the eve of Christmas Eve, her face keeps pulling into a frown at the arrival of every single email.
He gets it. It was sweet of the Parks department to step up and offer to run her campaign, but Leslie’s always been the driving force at the office, the one who usually ends up doing their jobs for them. It was only a matter of time before she ended up wading through their problems, setting aside her already limited supply of free time to mount her own campaign. He gets it, but it still makes him grit his teeth. It’s the sight of her nested in his blankets and her Indiana sweatshirt and the string of lights she insisted on stringing along the length of his headboards, tired and frustrated.
If there had been some way to keep her away from him… He shakes his head. He’d tried that, so many times, and when Leslie had appeared, again and again, he’d be pulled to her like a moth. But if he could’ve stayed away, even for a few more weeks, until her numbers had gone up in the polls, or if they’d thought of a way to spin this, before they told Chris, or if he hadn’t been the one to talk her into coming clean in the first place. Leslie’s always been the one to see the best in people. He should’ve known how this would be, when they told Chris, he should’ve been the one to make a strategy, to dig deep into that horrible year where he was the mayor of Partridge, Minnesota and conjure up all the campaign strategies that had gotten them there. Instead he’d been dazed by the feeling of having his arms around her again and the way her perfume and a vague waffle smell would linger on the pillows for hours after she’d snuck back over to her own house. He’d been too caught up in imagining how it could be if there was no sneaking, and even though, yeah, it was Leslie who had brought it up in that smallest park of theirs, he could’ve talked her out of the whole idea in five minutes flat.
It’s possible that he could’ve gone on like this for hours, sitting at his desk while Leslie raced through her emails. But this isn’t what happens.
There’s a click of a button and then Leslie’s saying, “oh my god oh my god oh my god” and when Ben looks up at her, all scrunched up in his blankets, her face is all covered up by her hands.
“Leslie. What’s going on?” He’s got his arms around her and she’s started crying, now, which he’s only see her do at the sad parts of movies and the other night when she told him how the Parks department was going to help her run, but never like this. Pressed against her like this he can feel the sobs work through her whole body.
It’s an email from Tom on the screen and Ben tries not to move too much while he tries to read it and rub Leslie’s back at the same time.
Hey Les, I didn’t want to tell you this but the campaign’s missing $8000. I was supposed to cash this check from the Nipple King and I can’t find it anywhere. I’ve literally emptied every single one of your desk drawers at the office and it’s not in any of the file folders.
Ben’s struggling to remember who the Nipple King is, but in a town like Pawnee it’s got to be impossible to ask anyone to write them another check that big. It’d be a bad move for any campaign, and Leslie’s working on a microscopic budget as it is.
After a while she stops sobbing and looks up at him. This should be better than listening to his girlfriend cry, but it’s not. There are still tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes in a steady stream. Leslie crying for any real reason is bad enough, let alone seeing her unable to stop them.
“Tell me it’ll be okay,” she says. The words are slurred with her tears and her eyes are going red and his shirt is soaked through where she’s been resting her face.
All Ben wants to say is, It’ll be okay, Leslie, you’ll work this out, we’ll track down the Nipple King and tell him that Tom is a huge jackass and the campaign will go off without a hitch and you’ll definitely make it to City Council, no sweat. It’ll be great.
But he can’t get himself to say those words. He just stares at her, the way his lamps make a halo out of her hair and all he can think is that he’d give pretty much anything to change this, right now.
This, Ben will think later, is where it begins. The thing is, Ben Wyatt is wrong.
In any particular event in a given person’s life, there are certain recognizable circumstances which contribute directly to the moment. Any person will attest to this. But because we are forced to live moment by present moment, the whole slew of conditions that result in the landscape of the daily life are usually missed by almost everyone. Ben Wyatt was no exception to this rule. At the moment he stared at Leslie’s silent tears, he found himself wishing ardently that he had never met this woman, or entered into her life at all. He wished this so forcefully that, somewhere in the back of his mind, he was wishing away his own existence, which went something as follows:
When he is eleven years old, Ben Wyatt, his younger brother Ted, and their mother move to Partridge from Indianapolis. The sun is shining and heat shimmers off the highway. As they make their way through the suburban streets to their new home, Ben is seized with the feeling that this sprawling suburban town will always be his home. The house is a little run down and the lawn is full of dandelions but in all of this he sees a new project. That summer he spends pulling up weeds, heaving around their ancient lawnmower, and setting up sprinklers in the evenings while his mom put in extra hours at the library. On Ben’s first day of school, he stands in front of his house before the bus arrives. Their lawn looks green and soft like one of those velvet chairs hidden in the corners of his mother’s library and he thinks, no matter how great this new school is, part of him is going to wish he was still here. Even at eleven he knows he really shouldn’t feel like this. He doesn’t tell anyone.
(Far away in Pawnee, Indiana, a little blonde girl braids her curls into pigtails and bosses her friends into neat lines as they take a historical tour through the town. The other little girls fidget and roll their eyes in the summer sun. They’ve seen this tour before, at least a dozen times, but for Leslie, every walk around the town is a chance to show them why this is her favorite place in the whole wide world.)
By the time he’s fourteen, Ben starts dreaming of winning elections. Sometime in junior high, in between the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, he caught the politics bug. He’s made a few friends running cross country and track but while they’re trying to get more inches on their jump or seconds off their mile time, he’s thinking up campaign strategies. In a year he goes from being the second fastest runner on the PJHS team to the fifth fastest. The coach tells him over and over to get his head in the game. It’s all Ben can do to tell him that the game he’s thinking of is way more important and by the way, what grown up still wears gym shorts and knee high socks all day? Sometimes this confrontation makes its way to his dreams, too, except he’s a lot more muscular and there are all these pretty girls around who tell him how great he is, afterwards.
Right as eighth grade is ending, Ben gets an invitation to be a page at the senate for six weeks in St. Paul. It’s a little expensive and he has to buy a suit but all he can think about is meeting all those state senators and maybe even the governor and how this is just the first step on the ladder of making it, of winning like in all those dreams he has. He’s saved up enough from mowing lawns and two summers’ worth of paper routes to buy a cheap suit and pay a third of the program. His mom will probably be okay with paying for the rest. He’ll pay her back, eventually, and in a few years, she can have the best room at the governor’s mansion. It takes him a week to figure out how to ask. Finally he gets all the right words in place, just the right proportions of reasonable and pleading and haven’t I been a great son? That night, before his mom gets home, he slips on his favorite plaid shirt and practices the words, one more time, in his head.
Ted greets her at the door first, running and still grass-stained from soccer practice.
“I got picked for the traveling team!” he yells. The words fill up the house and their mom wraps her arms around Ted and Ben gives his brother a high five and thinks shit. The traveling team is expensive, probably way more than being a page, but Ted’s been practicing for this all year.
Later that night, after Ben’s finished his homework, he sits down next to his mother. She’s sipping a cup of tea, chamomile and peppermint, her favorite. It’s now or never.
“Hey mom, you know how Mr. Grey told you at parent teacher conferences, there was that summer program in St. Paul where you get to take classes and be a page for the senators and stuff at the state capital? Well, he nominated me for the program and I got in and I was wondering, can I do it? It’s kind of expensive but I can pay for part of it and it’s really hard to get in and I’d really like to do it, Mom, if it’s okay with you.”
He won’t forget the look in his mom’s eyes when he finishes talking: there are tears in her eyes and she looks so old. Even now, on the few occasions he heads home, she will look, to him, younger than she did at this moment.
“Benji,” she says, reaching out a hand to stroke his hair, “Benji, I so want to give this to you.” She doesn’t need to say that it’s either this or Ted’s soccer team, he doesn’t want her to say it, not when her face looks like this and he spent so long practicing those damn words but they’re not enough.
Later that week, she puts in a rare call to Ben’s dad in Indianapolis. He’s been working as a lobbyist at the Indiana state capital and he gets Ben a spot being a page for the whole month of June. He doesn’t get to take any classes, but he does get tips and often, when he’s waiting for his dad to get out of a meeting, he’ll stick his hands in his pockets to hear them jingle. Mostly the senators are debating the budget for the next year, which is due at the end of the month. At first he thinks it’s boring — he’d been hoping they’d discuss really important things with long impassioned speeches — but he gets into the whole process after a few days, the way the numbers have to fit just right against each other, like puzzle pieces. Sometimes when he dreams, he’s winning an election and he’s a senator. It’s always in Minnesota or D.C., though. He doesn’t really like Indianapolis, or his dad’s girlfriend. She won’t ever look Ben in the eye.
(The little blonde girl is twelve now, and as a reward for being so good about Dad moving to Florida and getting straight As in sixth grade, she takes a trip to see the capital in Indianapolis. The senate is still in session, they’ve had to go overtime discussing the state budget, so Leslie and her mom sit in the gallery. Every few minutes Marlene checks her watch but her daughter is rapt. In the break between speeches, a boy around her age scurries over to one of the senators, holding a bag full of buttery popcorn. Leslie has to admit he’s pretty cute. In a minute the senators start discussing important government matters once again, and mostly she forgets him, aside from the occasional dream where she’s Senator Leslie Knope and the boy brings her popcorn in his cute khaki suit and she tells him she likes his face and does he want to share some popcorn with her? He always says yes.)
Ted’s the one who dares Ben to run for mayor. Ben’s sixteen, nearly seventeen, and the two of them are eating dinner while their mom’s out on a date. Those nights are always awkward. Neither of them really knows what to say. Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to be dating? Ben’s gotten into the habit of complaining about the local government of Partridge. He’s doing an internship at the mayor’s office, after school and on weekends, and it drives him crazy the way Mayor Martzen just smiles and nods while taxes go up and the schools keep having to cut programs so Partridge can have new parking lots.
“And the thing is, a town this size, where you could probably get to know most of the town, should have a place where people can gather and, I don’t know, enjoy the fact that they live in Partridge? It’s not the greatest town, but that doesn’t mean we just have to accept that.” He takes a bite of his pizza.
“You know,” Ted says, fiddling with the tab on his can of Coke, “if you have all these great ideas, why don’t you run for mayor?”
“Yeah, and run this town into the ground.” Ted’s a soccer star, already, as a freshman. He doesn’t need to think about anything else. But when Ben looks up at his kid brother, Ted isn’t giving him a hard time. He’s serious.
“If you ran, I’d get the soccer team to help you out. We could do a carwash or something.”
“Do you know what it takes to win an election?”
“It’s Partridge, not the whole country. Maybe Mr. Gray will help you out. And isn’t the social studies department crazy about you? They’d probably run your campaign if you wanted. You’d have lots of time, the election’s more than a year away.”
“Do you know anything about campaigns? That’s barely any time.” In his dreams, winning only takes a night, but this is reality. Running for office is hard enough, and he’s got history homework and trigonometry and The Great Gatsby and Cindy Ecker to impress. Maybe he can do this, though. And if — or when — he wins, who knows what will come next?
(Leslie Knope, the youngest ever intern the City Council of Pawnee has ever had, spends the summer between her sophomore and junior years of college following the campaign of Benji Wyatt, the eighteen year old hopeful for mayor of Partridge, Minnesota. There’s a small article in the Pawnee Sun, complete with a picture that looks like it was from the school yearbook. When she writes to his campaign manager, Joshua Gray sends her a whole folder of glossy brochures and pamphlets and even a button. She pins it to her purse. Ben Wyatt wins the election the next April and Leslie’s never met him but she can’t stop smiling anyway. If he can do it, why can’t she?)
The thing about Ice Town was that it was about being proud of Partridge. Ben thought of it when the snow started falling in November, six months after he got elected and he had to remind himself that if he was mayor of this town, now, he couldn’t get pissed about winter being so early in Minnesota. There are more important things to do, though. Part of him already regrets the fact that he’s putting off college for this town. Later, he’ll wonder if that’s the reason this all goes to shit.
Instead he throws himself into being mayor. Mayor Martzen never showed up anywhere unless one of his buddies was buying the drinks, but Ben can’t even buy a beer legally enough. He spends December organizing a holiday festival. He gets lucky because Hanukkah starts late that year, so close to Christmas he can throw it all together, and it seems like all of Partridge is on Main Street, looking at the lights and celebrating. And Ben thinks, wouldn’t it be nice, if they could love this town and this cold and snow, all winter long?
When he gets back to work, on the second day of January, he’s the only one who isn’t hungover and exhausted. On the second of January, Mayor Ben Wyatt proposes Ice Town. Maybe he should’ve waited a day, maybe a day later someone would have had the good sense to talk him out of it.
Everyone in the room smiles at that meeting. He remembers that. He says just the right words and he can tell, looking at their faces, that they get it, that they want to live in a Partridge with an Ice Town. Who wouldn’t?
(Her mom tells her she could probably go anywhere for college, but for Leslie it’s simple: she’s an Indiana girl, and when she wins the presidency, she wants to be able to say it’s been Indiana that has supported her the whole way. Besides, red looks nice against her hair. Not that that’s a real reason. It’s not that at all.
There’s adventure, at Indiana, but there’s also home. A few other kids from Pawnee always end up there, and even though Leslie’s planning on making lots of new friends, the way everyone’s supposed to, in college, there’s something about the idea of home that Leslie’s always been more than a little in love with.
It doesn’t matter, but she also gets the biggest scholarship of anyone in Pawnee. Whatever, it’s not like she’s going to brag about it, even if the fact of the matter is that she is pretty awesome.)
He starts at Northwestern, two years late and with his hair too long. He’s going for the incognito look, although only a few of the professors have recognized him, so far. It’s in the political science and American history classes where he gets into trouble, and he figures, he’s here on enough scholarships — why not try a new thing? So he takes a few econ classes and it turns out he’s pretty good at that, seeing the way cash flows and money systems fit together, like pieces in a puzzle. It’s ironic, yeah, but he’s good at it, so whatever. Maybe he should’ve seen this coming in the senate at Indianapolis. Ben calls his dad to tell him about it, maybe bond with him over the whole fiasco, but his dad always has to go after a few minutes. He’s not sure if it was the teen mayor thing or maybe a new girlfriend.
On weekends he goes to parties, sometimes. At first he’d try to dance, like everyone else does, but it felt awkward and no girls would talk to him after they saw his moves, so after a few weeks he mostly sticks to the fringes. Usually someone will press a beer in his hands. After the second party he stops reminding them that he’s too young, that it’s illegal. It’s not like he’ll be running for office again any time soon. It’s fine.
(She comes back from Indiana to a job in the Parks and Recreation Department. She didn’t think she’d get the position. Ron Swanson didn’t seem too interested, all the way through the interview, which is weird because she practiced it about a thousand times with her roommate, Missy, until it was absolutely perfect. Well, by then Missy had fallen asleep. Anyway it must have been perfect because Leslie gets the job, full time and benefits and even sick days that she plans to never use. This is just the first step.)
Ben’s not a huge fan of Indianapolis, but he gets a call from the Indiana State Auditing Department a few months before he’s set to graduate Northwestern. The guy on the other line, Chris Traeger, can’t stop telling Ben how great he is, how incredible he would be at this job, how much Chris would like to work with him. He says okay, he’ll come in over spring break for an interview. It wasn’t like he was planning some crazy beach trip, and it’s only five minutes in that Chris offers him the job.
“And you’ll get to travel all around Indiana!” The other man practically sings it.
It’s possible, Ben thinks on the drive back to Evanston, that Chris just thinks everything is great and this job is actually shit. But it’ll look good on his resume and a job so responsible, especially when combined with a double major in Economics and Accounting from Northwestern, will definitely go a long way in countering the whole teen mayor fiasco.
Whenever he goes back to Partridge, he drives past the pit that would’ve been Ice Town. Maybe that’s morbid but it’s a shame they reallocated the funds to finish it. Now it’s just a public hazard.
(It only takes Leslie a few weeks to get into the rhythm of the Parks Department. Ron doesn’t work for political reasons, his deputy director George usually naps all afternoon, and Jerry is useless. She schedules a few historic tours of Pawnee, and even if only a few people show up at each of them, they’re really interested and they even look freaked out when she tells them about all the atrocities that have occurred on the Pawnee soil they’re walking on even at this very moment. She ends up the de facto head of the town hall meetings, too, which she always thinks will be way more amazing than they actually are. It turns out that lots of people in Pawnee have visions for it, like her, except that their versions of her favorite town are absolutely bonkers.
When she’s been at the department for a year, Ron decides he has enough money in the budget to hire another employee. Lindsay Carlisle Shay walks into the office and Leslie knows they’ll be friends. Maybe scrunchies went out of style a few years ago, but Lindsay’s reminds her of high school sleepovers and having all your best friends to walk to school with you. That night they have a midnight snack at JJ’s and maybe it’s too early to call, but Leslie has a sneaking suspicion that Lindsay is best friend material for sure.)
There are women, sometimes, in the small towns strewn around Indiana. It’s not a fact Ben’s incredibly proud of, these women he wouldn’t bring home. He tells himself they’re temporary, like this job. Instead they become habitual, the first few months stretching out into years. After five years of state auditing, he meets Margot on a six-month stint back in Indianapolis. She’s tall, dark and sarcastic — the perfect complement to days filled with Chris’s overwhelming positivity. He thinks she could be a habit all herself, waking up next to her, mornings. She works as a lobbyist, but not the way his dad did. She lobbies for a group of non-profits looking to help the environment of Indiana. There’s a secret idealism right at Margot’s center that’s so familiar, but Ben never mentions that.
Margot stops returning his calls after he’s been on the road for a year. His cell phone reception is never great in a lot of the smaller towns that he and Chris end up in, and long distance dating is only okay up to a certain point. He gets it but that doesn’t stop him from wallowing in his feelings for the next two months. He gets a drink named after him at the local bar, one with a lot of gin that reminds him of mouthwash, and once or twice he tells Chris to fuck off. Chris takes it with surprising good cheer, which maybe shouldn’t be surprising after all these years in proximity with each other. In the next town, Chris sets him up with a yoga instructor and Ben figures, why not move on? It’s one of the things you’re expected to do, when you grow up.
(Leslie gets the deputy director spot in the Parks department, then turns down a similar position in Eagleton two years later. Lindsay moves to the most awful town in America. That’s okay, though, it does diminish the possibility that, were JJ’s to experience a waffle famine, Leslie would have to go without her favorite food. Lindsay ordered her waffles just like Leslie. Maybe two people can’t be so similar and best friends. She’s not sure.
It’s not that Leslie’s unhappy, but sometimes, watching a political thriller right before bed, it seems to her that Pawnee is just so small. Where’s the part where she takes the next step towards being President? She loves the Parks department, she loves this crazy town, and she’s even getting to like Jerry a little, but wasn’t she supposed to have found more places to love, by this point?)
Ben can tell from his first look at Pawnee’s City Hall that auditing this town is going to be terrible. Worse, he knows already from the generic architecture of the building, that auditing Pawnee will be just like every other Indiana town whose budget he’s balanced. There’s nothing worse than getting harassed when you already know what everyone’s going to say.
Then, of course, there’s the one loudmouthed bureaucrat who refuses to admit that cuts need to be made. Except there’s something about Leslie Knope’s insistence on the value of her department, the way her fierceness is only the slightest veneer on an incredible belief in the people around her. And, even hungover, she looks kind of great, drinking her mid-morning beer.
A few months pass and he asks her if he should stay in Pawnee. She doesn’t know what to say, but he thinks of the way she looked that morning, her hair the same color as the corn in the Harvest Festival corn maze, and he decides without her. He stays.
(Here’s the thing about dreams — the thing that Leslie Knope pretends not to know, but actually realizes — is that they hardly ever come true. The things that happen in the subconscious, sleeping mind are crafted from a psuedo-reality that hardly ever corresponds to the constraints and variables of the waking life. But the intersection of her dreams and her waking life occurs right after Li’l Sebastian’s memorial service, and for a few minutes, Leslie can’t stop smiling. There’s usually a catch in real life, when your dreams come true, but she’s going to ignore it as long as she possibly can.)
The months without Leslie are the worst. It’s not that Pawnee’s suddenly become crappier but seeing it without her is like taking the sun away or something, it’s just this random Indiana town with a disproportionate number of historic Womapoke atrocities. Every landmark is colored with her recommendation. He can’t even get a salad without thinking how much Leslie would disapprove. Every crunch of bell pepper and cucumber feels like his own personal revolt.
The morning after the supposed end of the world, after Leslie leaves his doorstep, he dials Shauna Malwae-Tweep’s number at least five times. It’s just one more button to push, to call her but he can’t do it. She looks like a woman he would’ve slept with, years and years and towns and towns ago, but in the end he puts down the phone and makes pancakes. There might be symbolism in it, there probably is, but he focuses on the fact that he uses up two boxes of mix before he and April and Andy are full.
He’s got to move on sometime. He’ll probably figure out how to do that, eventually.
(When Ben kisses her in that smallest park, Leslie is flooded with this sudden frightening knowledge that she’s never missed any lips more. And isn’t that weird, to miss someone’s lips? Ben kisses her again and she’s not thinking about it any more. She just wants him closer.)
Ben arrives, in this way, at his present moment, in which he tells himself that it is his fault that Leslie is crying in his bed. He knows all the good boyfriend things to do in this moment, the low tones and the angles which would allow Leslie to rest her sad face against the comforting fabric of his favorite plaid shirt. He knows these things but he does not do them. Instead he reaches over and slams Leslie’s laptop shut with a thwack. Leslie jerks her head up, staring at him. She’s bouncing slightly against the bed and he can tell, looking into her eyes, that she thinks something is wrong with him.
The fact is this: Leslie is right. At this moment, something is very wrong with Ben Wyatt. He is suffering from one of the most alarming human ills — he is discouraged.
Luckily, although neither of them knows it, help is on the way.