parks & rec fic: every time a bell rings (2/2)
pg-13. 6200 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. In this part, Ben meets his very own guardian angel and explores a Pawnee in which he never existed.
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. Here's the second part, just in time for Christmas -- I hope you enjoy, and that your holidays are absolutely wonderful! ♥
(You can read Part One here.)
“You shouldn’t have made me come to the smallest park,” Ben tells Leslie. He growls it, practically. He can barely recognize his voice. His arms are still around her, feeling her body tense up against him. “If I had just stayed out of your life, none of this would’ve happened.”
“What are you saying?” It’s not that she’s never been dumped, that’s happened to her a lot, but is he really going to try and make sure she has the crappiest day in the universe?
“I’m saying —“ he starts, and then he makes the mistake of looking at her and can’t think of what to say next. Her eyes are wide and scared but trusting, like those animals that haven’t learned that people are the enemy and so treat them like friends.
“Look, it’s nearly Christmas and I know you’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of job you want to be doing,” she says, switching almost imperceptibly from distress to the Leslie he usually admires more than anyone, the woman who can take on the world and win, “and I know that’s hard, Ben, and I know my campaigning is really sucking right now, and that’s hard too, but at least we have each other, right? Isn’t that what we’ve been saying?”
“You just lost more than half your campaign budget and you’re trying to tell me everything will be fine? Can you hear yourself? God, maybe it’s good that your campaign’s going to hell. What would you do if half of Pawnee’s budget disappeared, Leslie? Would you just make a speech to everyone and tell them that yeah, they won’t have clean water, but it’s okay, at least we have each other? Is that your big plan?”
He can’t look at her. Imagining her face is bad enough. Instead he lurches off the bed and stalks through the door. He should probably slam it but he just wants to get out of there.
It’s not until he has his shoes halfway on that he remembers that he’s inside his own house, and that if he leaves right now he’ll have nowhere to go. Andy and April are playing video games in the living room, and their advice is the last thing he wants. He’s still thinking where he could go when he hears bed springs and then he throws a scarf around his neck and practically runs out the door.
Last winter Pawnee didn’t get more than the occasional dusting of snow, but this year it comes up nearly to his knees. He crosses his arms for warmth and keeps walking.
Eventually, he’s not exactly sure how, he winds up walking towards Lot 48. The light’s on at Ann’s house. Ben takes care to stay in the shadows. She’s probably on the phone with Leslie and he wouldn’t put it past Ann to come outside waving a knife or something equally cartoonish.
Lot 48 is covered in snow. Without forming a plan, Ben flops on his back. Instantly he can feel the cold seeping in through his coat and pants but above him is the night sky with the hints of the brightest stars. They seem a little bit brighter tonight. Usually the night sky is this dark blank with all the Sweetums pollution. Maybe they’ve taken a few days off for Christmas. Maybe the stars are a Christmas present to Pawnee, care of Sweetums. That seems like it would be kind of nice, actually. It would be good press, something like We give Pawnee the stars. He’s starting to daydream like Leslie. He doesn’t want to think about Leslie. Of course that means he’s picturing her crying, imagining her face down to the most precise angle of her frown. He should run back to his house. That’s the reasonable thing to do. He should apologize and say he didn’t mean any of what he said — and yeah, okay, he did mean some of it, but it’s not like Tom would be handling Pawnee’s money if Leslie got to City Council — and stop by JJ’s so he’d be armed with fresh waffles.
He can’t move, though. Because when he imagines the way Leslie’s face looked, everything in him feels the way it did before he lost it with her. Because he’s the reason Leslie needed new campaign advisors, the reason there’s hardly an if at all about her winning.
He doesn’t even have a clue what to do with his own life. Instead he just keeps ruining hers.
It occurs to Ben, vaguely, that if he just stayed here and fell asleep, he wouldn’t be Leslie’s problem anymore. It actually sounds okay. He closes his eyes and wills his body to relax itself into the snow.
He’s just started to get cozy when there are footsteps.
Ben flings himself upward. This would probably be painful at any time (although it’s not like he’s old, yet) but now it’s like his whole body is throbbing while simultaneously being poked with about a million pins. Anyway, he’s pretty sure it’s a cold-induced hallucination when he sees the figure walking toward him in the snow.
He’s never seen Ron Swanson wear a fedora in his life.
Still, as the man approaches, Ben can’t deny the fact that, on the eve of Christmas Eve, a fedora-clad Ron Swanson is walking toward him in the middle of Lot 48. Ben Wyatt’s never felt colder in his entire life, but cold won’t make a person’s eyes stop working.
“My friends call me the Duke,” the man says, in this velvety voice that sounds like it belong’s to Ron’s distant smooth jazz playing cousin. Apparently this guy, carrying a saxophone case in one hand, is that cousin. Or something. “And you seem to need drying off, son.”
“Why are you here?” A clump of snow is dripping off Ben’s hair and down his collar and it’s so hard to keep from squirming. He probably deserves it.
“You needed rescuing.” The Duke says it matter-of-factly, like obviously he walks into random fields every night, just on the off chance someone needs his assistance. “Come on Ben, let’s get some coffee in you.”
“Wait, so you’re seriously not Ron Swanson?”
The guy actually chuckles, like something straight out of a black and white feel-good movie.
“The name’s Duke Silver,” he says, “and the coffee’s on me.”
It’s at this point that Ben Wyatt realizes the night has gotten stranger than he ever could’ve expected, even in Pawnee. Still, he follows the Duke out of Lot 48 and through the streets of Pawnee. The snow’s started coming down again. It makes the lights twinkle against the falling white flakes. He actually stops a few times to look at the more decorated houses, which means he ends up running after the Duke. Whoever this man is — and Ben’s still not entirely convinced this isn’t Ron being crazier than usual — he can definitely book it.
Eventually they wind up inside JJ’s. The diner is mostly empty, which is unsurprising given the time of night. Ben checks for Leslie anyway, but she isn’t lurking in any booths, and neither is anyone else from the Parks department. The Duke heads straight for a booth in the back and orders two coffees the second a waitress materializes.
“So, son,” the Duke says, “what made you want to end your life this fine evening?” He says this calmly, stirring sugar into his coffee, and this is the moment Ben realizes that there’s no way he’s sitting across the table from the staunches Libertarian he’s ever met.
“What makes you think I was trying to end my life?” The mug is almost too hot between his hands but Ben feels the warmth spreading up through his arms to the rest of his body, and the burning on his palms is okay.
“I know these things. I was sent to rescue you.”
“By taking me out for coffee?” It seems like a strategy for fourteen year old girls to use on their emo boyfriends.
“They sent me from upstairs,” the other man says, waving vaguely in the direction of the ceiling. “They know you get like this sometimes, where you feel like you just need to get out. So what was it this time?”
One of the people sitting at this table is crazy and at this point it’s probably Ben because he only hesitates for a minute before shrugging his shoulders.
“I’m dating this incredible woman. And of course I’m not supposed to date her, but you can’t really keep Leslie from getting what she wants. She’s running for office so we broke up but we started dating again, out in the open, but then her whole campaign went directly to shit. She’s trying to make the best of it, like she does with everything, but her staff has never run a campaign before and they just lost a huge check and there’s no way she can run without it.”
“There’s more than that.”
“Really? You’re going to just drink your coffee and make me tell you my life story?” Ben hasn’t had a sip of coffee yet but he’s wide awake. Maybe caffeine can work by osmosis and he’s experiencing that process now.
“I already know your life story. But it’s not just Leslie’s problems that made you want to die, is it?”
“I didn’t tell you her name.”
“You’re missing the point.”
They sit there in silence for a few minutes after that. Ben drains half of his coffee. Their waitress stops by and the Duke orders a plate full of bacon, as if this night isn’t surreal enough.
“Do you ever get the feeling like you should be doing more by now?” The words sort of lurch out of Ben, almost like he has no control over them. “Like, you had all these plans when you were younger and everything seemed so possible and now you’re just spinning your wheels while you complete a series of meaningless tasks? I don’t think it gets better. No matter what job, it’s like there’s just this ghost of the past and a blank wall up ahead.”
“Which is why you couldn’t take it anymore?”
“Okay, let’s just take Leslie as an example. If I’d never been born, she’d be way ahead on her campaign. Hell, she’d probably be the mayor of Pawnee right now, and instead she’s working twenty hours a day to hold her life together. And when you realize things like that, it’s not like you can just sit there smiling and watch everything turn directly to shit.”
There’s a pause while Duke Silver chews on his bacon, his mustache undulating with the motion of his mouth. It’s hypnotizing. Despite the coffee and the cold and the too-bright JJ’s lights, Ben starts to feel relaxed. He hasn’t felt this way, especially without Leslie nearby, in months.
“So you think everyone’s problems were solved if you’d never existed?”
“I mean, that’s a pretty harsh way of putting it but yeah, I think everyone would be better off.”
The Duke glances upward, then back at Ben and nods.
“Well, Ben Wyatt, it looks like you’re going to get your wish.”
The Duke throws some money on the table and strides out the door, his saxophone bumping loudly against his leg.
Against all logic, Ben Wyatt follows him into the Pawnee night.
The snow has stopped falling. In fact, it’s mostly melted, leaving grimy puddles of slush against the curbs. And something must have gone wrong with the power, because a lot of the lights on Main Street have been turned off. When Ben looks closer, he starts to realize that it’s not a lack of electricity, but instead that these stores are empty. Sue’s Salads, where he sometimes sneaks a salad when Leslie’s too busy for lunch, has closed for business, and the snowglobe museum has packed up too. Even the lit up shops are different. He’s not sure why Pawnee needs two adult video stores all of a sudden, but the Duke is making his way down the street and Ben’s yet again forced to jog after him.
“Did I miss the fact that all these stores changed in the last day?” If Leslie can’t turn Lot 48 into a park, it’s not like he really trusts Pawnee to transform that fast.
“Nope.” Duke Silver’s expression doesn’t even change. The next time Ben sees Ron, he’s going to have to take a really good look. “Main Street has been like this for years.”
“Wait, really?” He must be dreaming.
“Pawnee went bankrupt five years ago. The financial crisis in 2008 only made things worse. The government’s had to shut down four separate times.”
“I looked at all the numbers when I first came into town and none of that is right.”
“You never looked at the numbers, son. You never were in Pawnee before this.”
“Then what happened to Partridge?” He ignores the fact that there’s no way Duke Silver could know this. If he says it goes bankrupt, he’s just remembering Ben’s own tenure as mayor. Anyway if this really is a world without him, Partridge must be doing really great.
“Partridge’s schools got taken over by the state in 2005. It’s not a ghost town yet but it’s on its way there. Your mom was still living in Indianapolis, though.”
“She was?” He talked to his mom earlier this week, no past tense required.
“Look, do you want to see what Pawnee’s like if you never existed?” For someone so in control, the Duke’s squirming but if he knows what’s going on with his mom, dammit, Ben’s going to pull it out of him.
“Tell me what happened.”
“Your parents never had kids. It didn’t matter, they were still miserable together. Your mom got depressed. Do you want me to keep going?”
Ben stuffs his hands in his pockets and walks back inside JJ’s. Maybe if he just goes back there he’ll wake up from this hallucination and it will all go away. He can figure out another way to get out of all of this, to make it right.
JJ’s is dim and smoky when he walks inside. Instead of the row of booths he and the Duke were sitting in, the ones Leslie always likes, there’s a grimy looking bar. Everyone drinking looks miserable, which makes sense given the fact that JJ’s has apparently gone to hell in the last ten minutes, but shouldn’t everyone be with their families or friends, celebrating?
“You want anything?” The voice is familiar, soft and sarcastic and usually trying not to ask for his leftovers while she’s asking for his leftovers.
April Ludgate is behind the bar, wearing a crop top and a whole lot of eyeliner. If Ben had a camera on him, he’d take so many pictures right now. As it is he can’t keep back a snort of laughter.
“Look,” April says, “if you don’t want anything I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” She sounds tough, just like the April he knows, but she reaches up to adjust her blouse and he catches sight of a line of welts on the inside of her arm. He doesn’t want to know what put those there, but it’s not like he can just leave April like this. Clearly she needs somebody.
“Give me a Miller Lite,” he says, stepping up to the bar. He can hear the door opening at the Duke walking inside, but Ben stays focused on April as she pries the lid off the bottle and hands it to him. If the Duke is wrong, April would only be too glad to tell him.
“You’ve never been here before.” April hands him the beer and a napkin.
“April, we —“ He’s about to remind her that in fact he’s here all the time and for that matter, the two of them are living in the same house, but her eyes go wide when he calls her by name and she makes a beeline to the other side of the bar.
“How do you know Zuzu?” the man to Ben’s left says. The tone in his voice makes Ben’s skin crawl, like he means know in a way closer context than Ben, in fact, knows April.
Ben turns the other way instead of answering. The Duke is sitting on his right, the saxophone leaning against his bar stool like a very patient dog.
“Zuzu?” Ben asks him, raising an eyebrow.
“She doesn’t go by her real name,” the Duke says. His face looks exhausted, although it’s probably all the shadows in here.
“How is she even here? She went to college, for fuck’s sake.”
“The Parks department was eliminated before April could intern there. She decided not to finish college and started working at JJ’s, where she met Frank and things went downhill.”
“And this is my fault how?” He’s only been in Pawnee for a year and a half. That’s not enough time to cause a cataclysm even in one person’s life, especially on this scale.
“You don’t realize how important one person can be, do you?” The Duke takes a swig of Ben’s beer, makes a face, and climbs off his bar stool. “Come on, we have other places to visit.”
Given a choice between getting to know this April’s life habits better and the unknown, Ben follows Duke Silver into the night. This time their path takes a more familiar turn.
“You’re going to show me Lot 48?”
The Duke doesn’t answer, just keeps walking. The houses are mostly the same as he remembers. There are fewer lights, yeah, but that seems to be a general trend. Trees are still in the windows. It’s not like one person has the power to end the holiday season altogether.
They don’t arrive at Lot 48, though. In its place there’s a giant pit. Dirt and clay are piled up along the edges of the pit, which looks like it’s been a garbage dump for a while.
“There’s no way this is all me. Is this a world where Leslie never existed, either?” Back when he was adjusting the budget, Ben dug up a file folder that documented Lot 48’s progress from pit to lot, all spearheaded by Leslie Knope. At that time she’d been a thorn in his side, but now, when the memory occurs to him, the thought of her taking on an enormous project like that is just so Leslie that he can’t help but smile.
“Just you.” The Duke’s voice barely rises above a grunt. It sounds like Ron when he’s in an incredible amount of physical pain.
The door to Ann’s house opens, and in this moment Ben doesn’t care if Ann is going to tackle him for what he said to Leslie, he just wants to make sure she’s all right in this other world where he doesn’t exist, still being Leslie’s best friend and dispensing the only good advice anyone usually gets in Pawnee.
He hardly recognizes the woman standing on the front porch. She’s in a Colts jersey that can’t do much to disguise her pregnant belly, and her hair is longer than he’s ever seen Ann’s hair. Mostly, she just looks miserable, and yeah, he saw the way Ann sleepwalked for weeks, post-Chris, but he can see the lines etching themselves into her features. She’s been wearing this expression for months, at least.
“Andy? Is that you?” she yells into the darkness. “I really don’t see how you can forget about Christmas when you’ve been watching Christmas movies non-stop for the past month!”
Ben takes a few steps towards her. He doesn’t have a plan, he doesn’t even have anything to say to her. But she’s Leslie’s best friend. He has to try and help her somehow.
Ann catches sight of him and her lips purse.
“Are you Andy’s boss?”
“No, I, I’m Ben,” he says. “We hang out, Ann, remember?” In fact, last week they went on a really terrible double date with Ann and this guy Leslie set her up with. Still, it seems kinder to leave that part out.
“Yeah, if by hang out you mean firing my fiancee a week before Christmas. Do you really think he can afford to be out of a job right now?” She places a hand on her belly and glares. “I’ve been working double shifts at the hospital for months but apparently if he can’t figure out how to giftwrap an iPod after two weeks, that’s not good enough for you.”
“I’m sorry.” Of all the names Andy’s boss could have. Why is Ann with Andy anyway? Leslie mentioned, once, right after Andy and April’s wedding, how they’d dated when Leslie had first met Ann. It had seemed like one of those weird combinations that wouldn’t have lasted, no matter what.
“Yeah, well,” Ann’s face relaxes and for just a second he sees this flash of the Ann he knows, “I don’t know if Andy’s exactly the best fit for the Apple store.”
“Yeah, you said that.” The snow catches in her hair and Ben doesn’t want to move, he just wants to stay until he can make her face light up. He can imagine it now. But with his luck, Andy would come crashing through and there’s no way he could explain this, especially if Ann finds out he’s never worked at an Apple store in his life. Instead he closes the space between them and wraps her in a quick hug.
He doesn’t turn back to look at her.
The Duke is waiting at the edges of the pit, sitting on a dirty old lawn chair.
“How did she get like this? Why didn’t Leslie talk her her into breaking up with Andy when they’re terrible for each other?” It’s not like the absence of Ben Wyatt could keep Leslie Knope from being herself. He doesn’t get how that could be possible.
“Ann never meets Leslie.” The Duke doesn’t turn to face Ben. His words float out into the night, over the expanse of the pit, the sleet, and the garbage.
“Follow me.” The Duke curls his fingers around the handle of his saxophone case, and what flashes in front of Ben’s eyes is a tombstone with Leslie’s name on it. That’s ridiculous. It’s completely absurd. But if that’s where this whole bizarre trip ends up, Ben will go fucking insane.
“Look, if this is going — just tell me if she’s dead.”
“Son, she’s not dead.” The Duke looks at him weirdly, but when he starts striding down the Pawnee streets, Ben follows him.
It becomes clear that they’re heading toward City Hall. This shouldn’t be surprising. Where else would Leslie be? But if there’s no more Parks department, where did she end up? If they got her in sewage, Ben might be responsible for Sewage Joe’s death in a world where he never even existed.
There’s only one office light on at City Hall. He knows that office. He’s sat there for hours, trying to reconstruct the Pawnee budget late into the night. Then, Leslie would usually swing by to make sure there was a Parks department she could return to.
“Is that her?”
“Every night. Leslie came back as a secretary to the city manager’s office after college. She was good at it, she was probably the best damn employee in that building, but it’s weird, Ben, she never wanted anything more than to serve her town in that position. But then the town fell apart and she was the only person to propose a budget that actually worked. When the city manager had a heart attack six months later she got the position. It was unanimous.”
“So she got a promotion.” Without him, even if apparently he has the power to make a whole town go to shit, Leslie still manages to do all right.
“Why don’t you go congratulate her?”
The thought of seeing Leslie is terrifying and amazing. But in this world he’s never lost it with her, they never broke up, he never threatened to drain all revenue from her department. In this world they can start over, maybe, or else, just for a few minutes, everything can be okay.
He starts running.
The janitor’s forgotten to lock the doors and the ceiling drips on him in three separate spots but that doesn’t matter. Leslie’s in this building, Leslie’s saving Pawnee, she’s getting closer and closer the faster he runs. He bursts in through the office door.
Leslie doesn’t look up. Her hair is pulled up and she’s wearing glasses he’s never seen before while she scours a spreadsheet that covers all of her desk. On the floor are old mugs of coffee with the remnants of crusted-over whipped creme still clinging to the edges, along with takeout containers from JJ’s.
“Leslie.” Her name echoes in the room but she still doesn’t look up. She’s wearing earplugs. He’s done it before, going through those monster spreadsheets where even the sound of a clock was too much. Ben crosses the room and puts his hands on the paper, right where she’s reading.
When she looks up at him, her eyes are wide and shocked and relieved, pulling out her earplugs. There are bags under her eyes, the woman who never sleeps has never looked more exhausted.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” she says. “The building’s closed.”
“Leslie.” He sinks to his knees in front of her desk. He can’t look away from her face. “What happened?”
“Listen, I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know how you know my name, but I want you to know that I am not afraid of pepper spraying you.”
“It’s complicated but Leslie, oh god Leslie I am so sorry. I can’t — I love you, Leslie, and you look so tired.”
“This town is dying,” this other Leslie says. Her voice is so small. “I keep trying to make another budget that works but there’s no way. I think we’re going to lose Pawnee this time.” She leans her head over the desk and sobs, her body shaking.
He crosses over to the other side of the desk and crouches down next to her, this Leslie he’s never met before, and puts his arm around her shoulders. After a long awful few minutes she looks up at him. Tears have puddled against the lenses of her glasses and there’s mascara running down her cheeks and hair sticking to the side of her face but it’s Leslie in his arms again, leaning against him like he’s the only person she’s got left.
“It’s going to be okay,” he says, muttering, not knowing what’s true in this world where Ben Wyatt never existed, “you’re going to save this town, Leslie, if anyone can do it, it’s you.”
“I am so tired of this. I just — I just want it all to be okay without me. Maybe if I wasn’t, if I didn’t, maybe everything would be all right if —”
“No. Leslie, I have this friend, just stay here for a minute while I find him, but do you know what a world without you would be like? There would be no Pawnee without you, Leslie, there are a million people who would die sadder people without you. You’re going to save this town today, and you’re not going to stop. I’ll be right back, okay? Just wait for me right here.”
She holds on tight to him, he has to pull her arms from around his waist and he can’t help looking back at her, so small against that huge city manager’s desk, before he sprints back through City Hall. The hallways have gotten longer but he’s going to get Duke Silver and they’re going to make Leslie see that she has to keep going, that if anyone matters, she does.
The Duke isn’t waiting in front of City Hall when Ben bursts outside. Snow has started falling, and there’s a series of footprints that must be his. Ben follows the prints. They go on and on and he hasn’t run like this in years, his lungs are burning with the cold air but he keeps on after them. The sooner he finds the Duke the sooner they can go back and make things okay with Leslie and she can save this Pawnee and be the best city manager and everything will be all right, she’ll make sure it’s all right.
The footprints lead him back to Lot 48. The Duke is standing in the middle of the field. He’s right where Ben first met him.
“Duke! We need to go back to City Hall! We need to talk to Leslie! She needs us!” Ben knows he must look ridiculous, running and waving and shouting like this, but they need to get back to City Hall as soon as they can. He promised Leslie. He’s got to get back there.
“Do you know why she’s sitting in that office?” The Duke’s yell seems to cover the whole field, like thunder against the softly falling snow. “Do you know why she’s making herself miserable, all alone?”
“Because Pawnee needs her. Pawnee’s always needed Leslie.”
“When Leslie was in high school, she got all your campaign literature. Yeah, Leslie’s wanted to be president since she was six, but the first time she really believed was at sixteen when your bumper stickers came in the mail. You brought Partridge together for Ice Town and it failed but Leslie has the pictures of that holiday sing on Main Street taped up in her basement and she makes her department sing those same damn carols every year.”
“This is Leslie Knope. You can’t really think I made all that difference.”
“Do you want her to be as miserable in the woman in that office? What’s losing a campaign when the alternative is losing the ability to dream at all?”
Ben thinks about the Leslie he just left, the most exhausted woman he’s ever seen, and then he can’t take it anymore. He falls to his knees in the snow.
“I want to go back,” he says. He practically growls it. “Let me go back.”
The snow starts falling even harder, and when Ben looks up again, he can’t see the Duke at all.
Ben lays in Lot 48 for a minute, watching the snow. There have been times where he’s hated it, driving through Indiana in the middle of a blizzard to give people bad news or trying to get home from school before the snow plows had cleared out Partridge. But there have been moments where he’s never been happier for snow: the lacy flakes that fell when they announced his plan for Ice Town, or even the nearly solid white snowfall he’d encountered when Leslie had volunteered to give him a tour of the lights on Main Street, last December. Their mittens had brushed against each other, once or twice, and he’d wondered if it was possible, that this woman walking next to him, telling him about the history of every building and how that corresponded with their choice of decorations, if she could possibly know by proximity how he felt about her.
That woman is, he hopes, somewhere in Pawnee. And even if she’s still trapped behind a desk in a world where he’s never existed, he’s going back to her. He stands up in the snow and falls against something big, dark and boxy.
It’s Duke Silver’s saxophone case. Why would he just leave it after lugging it all over Pawnee? Ben grabs it by the handle and runs. The case bumps against his leg but it doesn’t slow him down at all. He’s got to find Leslie.
The Leslie at City Hall might need him more, but if he got his wish, if he gets to go back to her and apologize and hold her, if he gets that he wants to know as soon as possible. He starts running the route towards home.
The half-assed lights that April and Andy put up are still strewn on the bushes. It looks like all the lights are off. Leslie’s probably gone home or maybe she’s just gone to sleep. He runs inside. From the front door he can see people in the backyard. It looks like someone has angel wings, which is completely ridiculous, but after tonight, Ben just keeps running towards those people, leaving the saxophone case somewhere in between the kitchen and the living room.
“And like they say,” April is saying, with an expression like someone’s sticking razor blades under her fingernails, “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”
She rings a bell — which looks like something from Leslie’s office — and Andy prances around in front of her, showing off a pair of cardboard wings. Behind Ben, someone is clapping. The sound is familiar.
He turns around and its Leslie. Her face is bluish in the moonlight, there’s snow in her hat, and her eyes are still puffy from crying. She’s stunning.
“You came back,” she says. She doesn’t smile.
“Leslie, I am so sorry.” He drops to his knees in front of her, letting the saxophone case fall into the snow. “I just — these past few weeks, seeing everything fall apart for you, that’s been awful. You don’t deserve to lose or someone like me. Especially after tonight.”
“Ann found the check. Ron had given her a folder and had put the check inside to keep it from Tom. And you were awful tonight.” She adds this last part as an afterthought, reaching over to smooth the snow off his forehead. Her mittens are slightly scratchy and warm. He didn’t realize he’d gotten so cold.
“I was awful.”
“You were awful,” April says, walking towards them. The bell in her hand rings while she walks, and it’s cheesy, right out of a movie, but he can’t help thinking about angels and miracles.
Leslie’s face still has hope in it. She knows who he is. That has to count for something.
“You were awful,” Leslie says again, cupping his chin with her hands, “but I think part of what you said was right. I don’t think about money. I want to do things and I think everything will be okay and I forget.”
“Everything’s okay when you’re planning it,” Ben tells her, thinking of Freddy Spaghetti and the Harvest Festival and L’il Sebastian’s memorial and meaning it. “You’d be the best city councilwoman Pawnee’s ever seen.”
“Thank you.” Leslie grins. She’s imagining herself in those chambers. “But the point I’m trying to make is, I could use a numbers guy on my campaign staff. The money’s not great and the hours are crazy, but there are certain perks.”
“Strategy sessions at all hours with the candidate,” she murmurs, leaning towards him, “in all kinds of places. And by strategy I mean, well —“
She never explains what she means, exactly, because he pulls her towards him and kisses her. Her lips are cold and a little chapped and definitely hers.
“I’d love to be your numbers guy,” he says, when he finally pulls away. “Especially with perks like that.”
“There’s more, actually.”
He’s sure that list of perks would make him take any job Leslie offered, had April not waved a hand in between the two of them.
“Before this gets really gross, can we do the fireworks?”
It’s got to be bad for her campaign, if she gets caught shooting off fireworks in the middle of a residential backyard with half of her campaign staff. But at this moment, Ben would be willing to hide her in the nearest closet. He reaches over and twines his fingers around Leslie’s. April and Andy are debating the order of the show. They won’t notice anyone else for at least five minutes.
“I’m glad you came back,” Leslie says, running her thumb along the back of his hand. “I wasn’t sure where you were going to go.”
“I didn’t know either.”
He reaches out his hand and brushes the hair off her face. It’s only been a few weeks since they could date out in the open, and usually he tries his best to keep them from being one of those gross couples with their hands always on each other. But after tonight, he wants to memorize this woman’s beautiful face and know that nothing can take this moment away. She smiles right at him and presses her warm mittened hands against his.
“You want a better view of the fireworks?”
“Always,” he says, and then he can’t say much more, because Leslie has knocked him over into the snow. A second later, and she’s snuggled up against him, looking upward. A red firework explodes above them, turning the snow pink.
“You know, I think it’ll all work out,” Leslie says, turning to face him. “Maybe that’s not the smartest thing to say, Ben, but I think it’ll all work out, with the campaign and everything.”
April and Andy are too busy with the fireworks. They won’t notice. He reaches out and pulls her on top of him.
“It’s going to be wonderful,” Ben says, and, kissing Leslie, thinks that wonderful is what his life may, at this moment, already be.