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Old Dreams

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Leslie gets no warning before the front door to the house flies open, and she doesn’t even have the time to put down the book she’s been reading before her husband is already mid-rant.

 

         “So, both of our City Planners quit today. Both of them. As in we had two and now, we have none,” Ben continues his rant as he drops his bag by the door and starts pacing in front of the couch where Leslie was enjoying her finite free time. “Leslie, we need a City Planner, I can’t pick up the slack. I mean the Unity Concert alone, plus the triplets thing and of course both of those things are amazing, and you’re incredible but you need a calm environment, and I’m sort of freaking out, and I’m being pulled in 800 different directions, and I can’t focus-“

 

         “Ben.”

 

         “I mean the City Planners of all the people; we’re in the middle of merging two towns, Leslie. We need a City Planner. How do I even start? I mean, I don’t even have time to start. I shouldn’t even be here right now, and I should be starting-”

 

         “Ben.”

 

         “Leslie, I don’t know what to do, this is the last thing I needed right now. You know what? I just need to make time. You do it all the time. How do you do it all the time? You know what I just-“

 

         “Benjamin Wyatt.” He finally stops where he is and faces her. She points to the other end of the sofa. “Sit.”

 

         “But-“ She sharply cuts him off.

 

         “No. Sit. You’re going to sit your cute little butt down, and you’re going to listen to me.” He makes his way through the mess of Unity Concert binders and sits down next to her, still stiff as a board. She takes his hand and watches a tiny amount of tension leave his shoulders as she begins to trace patterns into his palm. “Ben Wyatt, you are the love of my life, and you know that I believe you can do anything, but first, I need you to take a breath.” She waits for him to take an incredibly forced deep breath before continuing, “You have a very capable Assistant City Manager for a reason. Plus, well, I picked her myself, so you know she’s good. So, listen to me, you are going to have Natalie make you a shortlist of people qualified for the job. She can narrow it down to three or four, and you’ll interview them. It should only take you 45 minutes top, and I’m fairly sure we can keep everything from collapsing without you for 45 minutes.”

 

         “You’re right, of course, you’re right.”

 

         “Don’t take any longer than that, though, because, after 45 minutes, I think we may burn the place down.” He lets out a small laugh at that and squeezes her hands.

 

         “Alright, alright, I get it. I may have overreacted a bit. I’m emailing Natalie,” he teases back as he pulls out his phone with his free hand and starts typing. It’s slow going as he refuses to let go of her hand, but after a moment, he passes off the phone to her for approval. She scans it before handing it back with a nod, and he hits send.

 

         “Feeling better?” He gives an affirmative hum before pulling her into his chest.

 

         “You were right, as always. I’ve just been really overwhelmed, you know? Trying to handle this merger is starting to wear me down. I’m taking, like, thirty meetings a day just about complaints and problems between peoples’ Eagletonian or Pawneean counterparts.” Leslie nuzzles into his chest a little further.

 

         “I’m sorry, this is all a mess,” she sighs, “I just really want this to work out.” Nearly all the tension in Ben’s body has disappeared as he runs his fingers through her hair, and he lets out a content hum.

 

         “It’s not your fault Les. What you’re doing here is amazing, and I’m so proud of you. You’ve saved half the region from a debt crisis and not to mention hundreds of jobs.” She starts tracing spirals on his chest. “And yeah, it’s a lot of work, but we knew it would be. So, we’ll take everything one step at a time, together.” He begins to untangle himself from her and get up from the couch. Leslie lets out a grumpy moan and grabs on to him, trying to keep him on the couch. He lets out a huff of laughter. “Come on, let’s get you to sleep.”

 

         “Noooo, Ben, sleep is boring. I can never remember anything I do in my sleep, so it’s practically useless, so when I wake up, I just have to do it all again. It’s just not efficient.” He grabs on her arms, and she is pulled into his chest.

 

         “Leslie, you’re pregnant. You have to be getting a normal amount of sleep, at least.” She groans at the very thought of staying still for that long. “I know, I know you hate it, but if you don’t sleep, I will call Ann, and she will drive here and strap you down.”

 

         “That may be worth it to have Beautiful Ann here.”

 

         “Leslie,” Ben’s voice is a mix of warning and amusement.

         “I know, I know. Fine, fine, I’ll go to bed. But you have to come with me.” Leslie watches as Ben opens his mouth, clearly about to argue his way out of his own sleep, and she cuts him off. “Nope. If I’m going down, I’m dragging you with me, Wyatt. Get over it.” She nearly melts as Ben looks down and gives her that small smile that makes her feel like the only person in the world.

 

         “Alright, alright. You’re lucky that I love you so much.”

Chapter Text

“Good morning Natalie,” Ben says as he walks into the office, placing a cup of coffee on her desk before quickly ducking into his office and putting his briefcase and coffee on his desk before coming back out.

 

         “Hello, Mr. Wyatt, how has your morning been?” She says when he returns, looking up from the binders scattered on her desk.

 

         “Good, but Natalie, we talked about this, please just call me Ben.”

 

         “Sorry, Mr. Wy- Ben,” she answers as she always did, and it’s clear from her tone she’s just saying it to make him feel better, and it will be back to Mr. Wyatt as soon as he leaves the room. She continues to bury herself in the paperwork in front of her. Her dedicated work ethic was bordering on Leslie levels of concerning, and often, he had to force her to take her breaks.

 

         “Any progress on the City Planner replacement?”

 

         “Yeah, that’s what I’m looking over now. I’ve got it down to three people like you asked; I need to know when you’re free to interview them,” she answers, not looking up while she hands him three resumes.  

 

         “I want to get them in as soon as possible. Get this all over with so we can get back on track with everything else.”

 

         “Great, I’ll get in contact with the three of them and get them in here as soon as I can.” He flips through the resumes before looking back up at Natalie.

 

         “You’re a savior, Natalie, seriously. Tell them the interviews should only take about ten minutes each. I just need to find anyone vaguely competent that I can work with and keep the city from sinking.”

 

         “Got it, Boss.” There’s amusement evident in her voice. “I’ll make the calls and let you know when they’re here.”

 

         It’s about ten minutes later when Natalie pokes her head into his office and tells him the three prospective City Planners would be coming in after lunch. He thanks her and focuses back on the work in front of him. Ben has no idea how much time has passed, but eventually, his attention is pulled from his work once again by someone clearing their throat. He looks up to see his wife leaning against his office doorway.

 

         “So, I guess we’re off for lunch then?” She teases with an amused smile on her face. Ben’s eyes flick to the clock on the wall before putting his head in his hands and groaning. It was far past when he told Leslie he would pick her up from the Parks Department for lunch.

 

         “Shit. I’m so sorry, Les. I got lost in paperwork and forgot to set an alarm. I’ll be ready to go in five minutes if you still have time.” He offers her a hopefully sufficiently apologetic smile.

 

         “As long as you’re paying Mr. City Manager.” The teasing tone of Leslie’s voice gives him hope that she genuinely isn’t mad at him. He returns his focus to the paper in front of him, probably not being as thorough as he should be, as she sits in the chair opposite his desk. “Where’s Natalie?” Ben peers out to is Assistant’s desk, and sure enough, it’s empty.

 

         “She must have left for lunch already. At least she remembered this time. It seems like one of us is always drowning in way too much paperwork for lunch. Sorry again, Les, I feel awful. I hope you didn’t wait for me too long.”

 

         “Ben, seriously, it’s fine. I didn’t wait long. I had gotten a bit overwhelmed too and didn’t remember until April pulled me out of it.” He looks up at that and gives her a quick smile before turning to his computer. She’s silent for a surprising amount of the time, given the fact that it’s Leslie. She’ll do this every once in a while when she thinks he wants her to be quiet as if he didn’t love listening to her talk about whatever was on her mind at any given moment. Luckily, he doesn’t often have to wait very long for her to break. “How long until you’re finished?”

 

         “Just one more email, I promise.” He rereads the email one last time before hitting send and looking back up to Leslie, who has started to distract herself with something on her phone. Whatever was on the screen had brought a frown on to her face that she gets when she’s concentrating. Ben finds himself in this situation more and more often as time goes on. Watching his wife as she works, never fails to bring a smile to his face. Her eyebrows furrow as she frustratingly types out something on her phone. It still amazes him sometimes that he got to marry this passionate woman; there are times where he feels like he’s waiting to wake up from the most fantastic dream. God, how did he get so lucky? “Leslie?”

 

         “Huh? What?” Ben knows there’s a dopey smile on his face, but he can’t help it. “What, what are you smiling like that for?”

 

         “Nothing.” The smile on his face stays though, and now she’s beaming back at him.

 

         “Don’t give me that.”

 

         “I was just thinking about how lucky I am that you married me.” She looks down, and he can’t help but feel proud of the blush that’s now covering her face.

 

         “Shut up.” He laughs at that. “Come on; someone promised me JJ’s.”

 

         “Alright, alright, that’s fair. Come on.” Ben gets up and grabs his jacket before holding the door open and following Leslie out. They walk through City Hall, hands clasped together, and Leslie is leaning into his side as she talks about whatever went wrong in the Parks Department that morning. She’s far too absorbed in her storytelling, but Ben nods in acknowledgment when they pass colleagues in the hallway.

 

         Three servings of waffles, five servings of whipped cream, and a large amount of hand-holding and flirting later (seriously though Ben should start watching Leslie’s sugar intake) Ben makes his way back into his office. Natalie sits at her desk, already back at work.

 

         “Oh, so you did make it out to lunch today, Boss? I’m surprised.”

 

         “Leslie dragged me out.”

 

         “Arguably more surprising, Mrs. Knope is even worse at remembering to eat during work than you are.”

 

         “Ah, well, I promised JJ’s Diner… plus April forced her out.” A fond smile grows on Natalie’s face as she rolls her eyes.

 

         “Yeah, okay, that makes more sense. Well, either way, I was about to call you. You’ve got about ten minutes until your meeting with the first City Planner position. His name is Anthony Moore He’s not a local guy. He moved to Eagleton about four years ago. Married, no kids, but he was a city councilor in his old city for seven years, and from what I see in his letters of recommendation, he was pretty good. He has some accounting background too, which certainly doesn’t hurt during this merger.”

 

         “Well that sounds great, I’m sensing a ‘but’ though.”

 

         “I don’t know. It’s just a gut feeling.”

 

         “Well, I trust your gut feelings.”

 

         “He seems a little stuck up like hard-to-talk-to stuck up. I mean, you know I don’t hold any of those Eagletonian stereotypes to be true, but he truly does fit every one of them.”

 

         “Great,” Ben says, sarcasm evident in his voice. “Well, when he gets here, please send him in.”

 

         “Sure thing, Boss.”

        

         Ben only has to wait about five minutes before Natalie ushers Mr. Moore into his office and closes the door behind him. What follows is possibly the most painful ten minutes of his life. Sure, Anthony was qualified, and Ben’s sure the man is plenty competent, but he is somehow both painfully dull and infuriating at the same time. By the end of the meeting, Ben's convinced his wife may have something going for her ‘All Eagletonian’s are the worst’ theory. He hopes to God they can find someone just as qualified, so he doesn’t have to hire this guy. Ben shows him out to Natalie with no more than a, “We’ll be in touch.”

 

         “So,” Natalie starts as she closes the door to his office after showing Anthony out. “How did it go.”

 

         “Well, I’ve got a headache now, so that’s great.” He rubs his temples as Natalie ducks out to her desk before returning with a bottle of Advil that she hands off to him. “Thank you.” He grabs his water bottle and swallows down two pills. “I hope the others are just as qualified because I need some justification not to hire him.”

 

         “That bad?”

 

         “He was somehow both so mind-numbingly boring and so hair pullingly frustrating. Plus, I got the impression that at any moment he was going to ask me to go muck out his horse’s stall or some other demeaning chore.”

 

         “Yikes. Well, hopefully, this next one is more bearable. She’s a Pawnee local, lived here her whole life. Jennifer King. She’s young, though, still in college, only 20 years old. She has been the Assistant to the City Planner for a year and a half and has been pretty reliable. Doesn’t have the accounting experience or any experience besides the year and a half in the Pawnee government system.”

 

         “Is she out there?” He asks, walking back to sit behind his desk and skim Ms. King’s resume one last time.

 

         “Yes, would you like me to send her in?”

 

         “Yes, please. Thank you, Natalie.”

 

         Jennifer’s interview could not be more different than the last one. She is an incredibly kind and bright-eyed girl whose level of enthusiasm could only be rivaled by his wife’s. She reminds him of Leslie a little in the love she holds for the job. Unfortunately, she needs more government experience. There’s no doubt in his mind that if she manages to keep her enthusiasm, she’ll go far, and he tells her as such. He doesn’t lie to her. He explains to her she isn’t experienced enough yet for the promotion but that she has the makings of a fantastic government employee. They end up talking an extra couple of minutes, discussing her future in the Pawnee government. As she leaves, he makes a note that he and Leslie should keep an eye on her.

 

         “Natalie,” He calls, just as she walks through his door. “Is the next guy here yet?”

 

         “Yeah, been here for a while, actually. That meeting was long, do you think she’s it?”

 

         “Oh, no. She’s way under experience, but she was, well, she has a lot of potential. I wanted to make sure that not getting the promotion doesn’t push her off the path she’s on. We should keep an eye on her as she comes through the ranks.” 

 

         “I’ll make a note of it. Well, hopefully, that means I’ve saved the best for last. The last guy was born as a Pawnee citizen, but he started working for a private company that took him out of the city for the past six years. He held the position of city planner for about ten years here before he went private, during the budget crisis he took the out that a lot of people did. Luckily, he’s willing to and wants to come back. He’s got the skills, he’s got the experience, and he seems bearable,” Natalie says, giving him a teasing smile.

 

         Ben looks down at the last resume in front of him. Mark Brendanawicz.

Chapter Text

“You said he was around during the budget crisis?” Ben asks, scanning the resume in front of him.

 

         “Yeah, the auditors at the time offered him an out, and he took it.”

 

         “God, we talked to so many people back then. I can’t remember anything about him at all. I mean, I remember replacing the City Planner after the shutdown.” Ben is mostly talking to himself at this point, so it takes him a second to pull himself back to the present when Natalie speaks.

 

         “What do you mean?”

 

         “Oh, right, that’s how I came to Pawnee. Chris, the last City Manager, and I were both sent to Pawnee as auditors to fix the debt crisis the town was in. Honestly, Chris probably remembers him, but I just don’t have the recall ability he does.”

 

         “Is that going to be an issue? The fact that you put him out of a job I mean.” Ben spends a second to think before answering.

 

         “No, I don’t think so. We didn’t get any real hostel pushback at the time.” Natalie nods, but Ben then restarts to amend himself, “Well, we had one person who was… persistent.”

 

         “Who? Do they still work here?” Ben smiles.

 

         “Yes, she still works here.” He lets Natalie think over the possible members of staff I could be before continuing when she seemed stumped, “It was Leslie.” Natalie lets out an understanding hum as she nods her head. “She hated me for a good while. Half of the emails in my inbox through the shutdown were angry emails from her.”

 

         “Really? I can’t ever imagine her hating you.” Ben nods. “Well, luckily, it seems you’ve grown on her since then.”

 

         “Yeah, a bit,” Ben laughs. “Alright, send Brendanawicz in, please.” Natalie gives him a lazy salute before leaving, calling in Mark as she opens the door.

 

         Before the ten minutes are up, Ben knows he’s going to hire Mark. There’s no way he can’t. He’s easily the most qualified for the job. He held the position for ten years, and Ben can’t see a reason not to give it back to him now. The only source of hesitancy Ben has is coming from the fact that he has a tough time getting a read on Mark as a person. Mark isn’t a particularly engaging person, he reminds Ben a little of Ron in that sense. All of the answers Mark gives to Ben’s questions have been perfect, though, and he doesn’t exactly have the time or resources to be picky, so Mark basically just has to be more likable right now than Anthony Moore had been. God, the bar was low on that one.

 

         “Mr. Brendanawicz, I’m going, to be honest with you. We need to fill this position as soon as possible, so I’m telling you now, you’ve got the job.”

 

         “Thank you, Mr. Wyatt. When would you need me to start? Soon, I’m guessing?”

 

         “Yes, well, this merger alone is a city planning nightmare, but, on top of that, we’re going to need you to be heavily involved in the planning of the Unity Concert. We’re a bit behind schedule because we lost our City Planners, and for my own sanity, I would like to amend that as soon as possible.”

 

         “I’m prepared to start today if you need me to.”

 

         “That would be incredibly helpful, Mr. Brendanawicz. I know it’s all a bit quick-moving, but I appreciate it.”

 

         “It’s not a problem, I assume my office is where I left it?”

 

         “Yes, it’s the same office. Have Natalie give you the stuff we need to be done as soon as possible, and if you have any questions, she is equipped to answer them. Most of the pressing matters are Unity Concert approvals and some high priority issues with what used to be Eagleton. You’ll probably hear a lot from the Parks Department today.” Ben opens his office door and addresses the next part to Natalie, “Hey, can you get Mark set up with everything he needs? I would love it if we solved all the issues we’ve been having with the main stage today.”

 

         “Of course, no problem.” Natalie grabs a folder from her desk as she walks around it, gesturing at the door. “Right this way, Mr. Brendanawicz. Today we get to see if you sink or swim.” Ben smiles at his Assistant. Her humor sometimes borders on insubordinate, but Ben loves it. Over the past few weeks, especially, his and Natalie’s relationship has become much less boss and subordinate and more reminiscent of an older and younger sibling.

 

         It’s less than 20 minutes later when someone else knocks on his door frame, and he looks up to see April standing there with folders in hand. April, too, has become like a sister to him over the past few years. The most strange and unusual sister but one he cares deeply for none the less. Ben’s not quite sure when the Parks and Recreation Department became his family, but it is most definitely Leslie’s fault. He loves it.

 

         “Hi, Nerd,” April starts, not making eye contact and her constant wall of indifference entirely in place. “Leslie wanted me to drop these here. They’re plans for one of the stages or whatever. I don’t care, but Leslie said it was important, so maybe you care.”

 

         “Thank you, April. Natalie’s actually busy right now, would you mind taking those to the new City Planner in his office?”

 

         “Why don’t you do it?” Okay, she may be like a sister to him now, but sometimes she was an incredibly annoying younger sister who only was adding to his massive migraine.

 

         “April, I’m incredibly busy. Can you please do this for me?”

 

         “Fine, whatever.” And with that, April turns and leaves the office. Ben tries to focus back on his computer, but the glare of the screen is beginning to turn the dull ache in his head into acute pain. He closes his eyes and rubs his temples, hoping to relieve any of the pressure that’s been building up. When he’s not thinking about the merger or the Unity Concert, he’s thinking about the financial logistics of raising three triplets. He has had practically no time to relax in days, and it’s starting to get to him. Just as he moves to turn off his computer, planning to take a walk outside to get some air, April storms back into the office.

 

         “Tell me this is just one of your bad, stupid pranks.” The demand from the younger girl is coated in ice and sharp as a knife. It throws him off, and he can admit, only to himself, that it scares him a little. He’s never seen April mad like this.

 

         “What? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” The noise that comes out of April’s mouth in response is something between a scoff and a growl.

 

         “The new City Planner, Icetown. Please tell me you didn’t actually hire Mark Brendanawicz.” Ben was thoroughly confused at this point.

 

         “I didn’t know it was a big deal, April. He’s qualified for the job, and we need someone to do the job. Plus, he worked here for years. Is this one of those weird things where you don’t like him because he looked at you wrong one time?”

 

         “This isn’t a joke, Wyatt!” Ben can’t hide his flinch as April raises his voice. “He shouldn’t be here. I swear you really are stupid. I just don’t want-“ April cuts herself off the same way Ben’s seen her do when she’s about to let it slip that she actually does care about someone. “Whatever. I don’t care. Just keep an eye on him.” And with that April is gone quicker than she came, leaving Ben alone in his office once again. And he’s left to speak to an empty room.

 

         “What the hell was that?”

Chapter Text

Tom picks up Ben’s call on the first ring, though it doesn’t stop Ben’s pacing in front of his desk.

 

“Hey Tom, it’s Ben… No… no, that’s not why I’m calling. Why would that be what I- never mind. Look, I just had a weird interaction with April and wondered if you could decode it… No, no, this was different. She genuinely seemed furious with me, and then when I pushed for more, she clammed up and acted the weird way she does when she gets real feelings… Nothing! She stormed back into my office after I sent her to the new City Planner… No, he’s just some guy, he used to hold the job forever ago… His name is Mark Brendanawicz or-… Whoa! What?! Tom, can you please just slow down and explain to me what’s going on?... Wait, Leslie. What does Leslie have to do with anything?... She’s not- you know what, forget it. You may have a point. I need to see Leslie.” With that, Ben hangs up the call, cutting Tom of mid angry rant. He definitely needs to see his wife.

 

Setting his phone down on his desk, he takes a deep breath. He knows Leslie is probably deep into her work now, and the last thing he wants to do is set her back. So, he looks back to the paperwork on his desk, trying his hardest to focus on the task in front of him, promising himself that he’d talk to Leslie when they go home tonight. He makes it about ten minutes before he finds himself just staring at his computer clock, waiting out the rest of his workday. Okay, this is entirely pointless. He grabs what he hopes is all the papers he needs to finish his work at home. It’s only an hour from when he would leave anyway. He grabs his jacket and his briefcase and heads out towards Parks and Rec with a quick stop at Natalie’s desk to update her on his plans.

When he gets there, he finds the Parks and Rec department in its normal state of end of day chaos. April and Andy are at her desk doing what seems like minimum damage to both the department and Jerry’s mental and physical health. Ron has locked himself in his office, and Ben would bet he’s drinking during work hours, not that he was going to stop the man. Tom and Donna are in the conference room with Craig and Madison, working on last-minute concert planning. As Ben walks to Leslie’s office, April glares at him, not breaking from her conversation with Andy, and Ben can’t help from swallowing back the twinge of fear. He tries his hardest to ignore her as he walks into his wife’s office.

 

“Leslie?” God, he’s not looking forward to this at all. If Tom and April’s reactions were anything to go by, this wasn’t going to be easy. Plus, getting his wife to leave work early was a hurdle in and of itself.

 

“Ben! Hi, what are you doing here?! I didn’t think we had a meeting.” She smiles up at him, and his focus slips away for a short moment before he shakes his head to get back on track.

 

“Oh! Um, hey,” his hand flew up to the back of his neck like it did when he was uncomfortable. He sees Leslie’s mood switch in an instant, from cheerful to concerned. “I was wondering if we could, maybe, leave a little early today.”

 

“Are you not feeling well? Are you ok? You can head home now without me. I can get a ride home with Tom or Donna.” She was now up and walking towards him with obvious concern. “Do you think you need to go to the hospital? Should I call Ann?”

 

“No, no, really, I’m fine, Leslie.” Her concern morphs into confusion. “I just can’t focus, and I thought we could go home, and um… well…”

 

“What, Ben?” He looks up at her and finds her face flicking through so many different emotions that he can’t seem to pin one down.

 

“I think we need to talk, Leslie.” Oh, well there’s a clear emotion. Fear. And all he knows at that moment is that he needs to get that look off her face. “No, don’t panic, please. If you panic, I’ll panic, you know that. I just, I think I did something wrong, but I don’t know what.”

 

“Ben, what are you talking about?”

 

“Look, I’m not sure, but I just know I need to go home with you because I just want to lay in our bed and talk and forget this day ever happened.” Leslie is quiet for a moment as he gives her a pleading look. She takes a deep breath and starts gathering binders into her bag.

 

“Alright,” she says, packing the last of her work up and walking around the desk. “Let’s go, Babe.”

 

Ben barely let’s go of Leslie’s hand on the trip back to their house. It’s not long before they’re both curled in their bed in silence. As many silences with Leslie, it doesn’t last long.

 

“So, what’s going on, Ben?” He sighs before starting.

 

“I hired a new City Planner today.” She turns in his arms and beams up at him, which makes him feel worse.

 

“Oh, that’s great, Honey!”

“Right, well, that’s what I thought at first, too.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“April met him and then was angry enough to storm back into my office.” The confusion is now evident on Leslie’s face. “The guy I picked, she was really upset about it. And at that point I was confused, so I called Tom, right? I explained to him what happened and when I told him who I hired, he got mad too. That’s when he said I needed to talk to you.”

 

“Ben, who is it?” He looks down at his wife, and the look on her face scares him. Her face is blank, not an ounce of emotion. No anger, frustration, fear, just nothing. That, more than anything else today, scares the shit out of him.

 

“His name is Mike Brandana…” He trails off as, before he can process what’s happening, Leslie is out of his arms and headed towards the bedroom door. And just like that, she was gone without a word. Damn it; he really fucked up this time. Shit.

Chapter Text

Leslie is usually very vocal about what she needs from him at any time. Sometimes her hints can be a little passive-aggressive, but he has gotten fairly good at reading his wife over the years. Never before, in the entire course of their relationship, has she ever just shut down and left. He’s practically operating on instinct and gut feelings as he walks out of their bedroom after her. By the time he makes it to the living room, he can hear Leslie on the phone. From where he stands, he can see the top of her head over the back of the sofa, and he can hear her half of the phone call.

 

“Ann, you don’t have to-… I’m probably just being dramatic, right? … I can’t believe you, you beautiful starfish, Ann… Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He hears Leslie let out a sigh. He speaks up after a minute of silence.

 

“Leslie?” He can hear the nerves in his voice, and as soon as she hears him, she whips around.

 

“Hi.” She gives him a weak smile as he walks around the couch. She pats the sofa next to her, and he takes the invitation to sit. “Ann’s coming. She just left. I told her she could crash on our couch. Is that okay?”

 

“Of course.” He begins to reach out for her, but halfway there, he realizes it may not be welcome and freezes. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to share his concerns and practically climbs on to his lap to snuggle into his chest.

 

“I’m sorry I just walked out. I really needed Ann.”

 

“You don’t need to apologize. I get it.”

 

“It’s not that I don’t love you but-“ He can sense her getting frantic as she tries to dig herself out of whatever hole she thinks she’s gotten herself into.

 

“Hey. I get it. Sometimes you need Ann. I promise I don’t take it personally.”

 

“And that’s why I love you.” He hides his smile in her hair, and they sit in silence for a moment as he traces patterns up and down her arm. “So…”

 

“Leslie, you don’t have to tell me what’s wrong if you seriously don’t want to, but I promise I’m in your corner no matter what. I’m scared by how much this is shaking you and by what everyone else in Parks is saying, but if you want me to stay out of it, I will. I love you so much, and I want you to be happy and feel safe.”

“I love you too. And I am happy, and I do feel safe with you. So, I want to tell you, but I need to say this all at once, so save your questions. If that’s okay?” He nods in response. She sits to face him, but she immediately loses her nerve and snuggles back into his chest before starting.

 

“So, as you probably know, Mark worked as Pawnee’s City Planner for a long time, years back. We worked together for nearly my entire time in the Parks Department. About six years before you and Chris got to Pawnee, Mark and I slept together.” Leslie pauses and takes a few deep breaths. Here, with Ben is the first time she’s spoken the whole story out loud, and she didn’t anticipate it being this difficult. She was over Mark for fuck's sake. Leslie is married and pregnant with her amazing husband’s children. None of this should be this hard. Thankfully, Ben stays silent during her pause and continues to trace patterns over her skin.

 

“I had feelings for him at the time and the… incident only enforced those feelings. I pined after him for years, it was sort of pathetic, looking back on it.” Ben’s arms tighten around her, and she can tell he wants to interrupt, but she keeps going. “He slept around a lot, but I always held on to hope that that night meant something to him. A year before you came to Pawnee, he agreed to help me with the park in Lot 48, but Mark was a pessimistic person, and he didn’t have faith in the project. He warned me he thought there was a good chance I would fail; that we’d never get the park up. It hurt, I felt like Mark had no faith in me, we had worked together for years, and he still had no faith in me. Anyway, at one-point, Shauna Malwae-Tweep came to interview Ann, Andy, and I about the pit. During the interview, Andy told her he had been drunk when he fell in. He completely threw Ann and me. It was the first we had heard that from him, and that kind of thing could have undermined the whole project. I went to Mark for help dealing with the fallout. I looked up to him and had him on a pedestal and trusted his experience more than my own. He said he would talk to her, and the next day, he dropped her off at the pit for our interview in the same clothes she was wearing the day before. I was irritable and botched the interview, and when I confronted Mark about how unprofessional it was, he dismissed me. I pressed the issue, and he resigned from the committee.” She takes a pause to readjust her body and press closer to her husband.

 

“Then I set up another interview with Shauna to do some damage control, and she started quoting Mark from the night before. He said there was no chance of the park ever being built, that unicorns were more likely than a park being built on Lot 48.” She can feel Ben tense up, but she keeps going, fighting the old feelings of hurt that are starting to bubble to the surface. “We ended up doing even more damage control, and when he asked to be back on the committee, I welcomed him back with open arms because I’m completely pathetic, and he had me wrapped around his finger.” She can hear her voice rising as she becomes angry with herself, so she takes a deep breath and gets back on track, trying her hardest to keep the story to the facts of what happened. “And then he made a pass at Ann at a party, who was still dating Andy by the way, and she rejected him. Then he got super drunk, and we were the last people there, so we took a walk to the pit, and he tried to kiss me. I rejected him, I had no interest in moving forward while he was drunk, and as he left, he fell into the pit. Ann broke it off with Andy earlier that night, and throughout Mark’s recovery, the two of them grew closer. Ann asked me if it was okay with me if they went out, and I said yes. Obviously, I wasn’t completely okay with it, but I just wanted Ann to be happy. Then a couple days before you arrived, Mark told me he was going to propose to Ann, long story short, I may have suggested he do it on live tv to get money for a telethon, but then Ann told me she was planning on breaking up with him. So, I went to some… drastic measures to stop him from proposing, and Ann broke up with him. Then you and Chris showed up, and he took the out you gave him, and I never heard from him again. Nearly ten years working together, and he never answered a single text, or email, or sent a Christmas card, nothing. Not even work-related stuff. But then you were there, and I hated you, but then I started to fall in love with you, and well, that’s it, I guess.” Ben is quiet, and Leslie feels the growing need to fill the silence. “Plus, the night we actually slept together wasn’t great looking back on it. He only did it because every other girl in the bar rejected him. He left before I even fell asleep and then completely forgot it ever happened, so that felt great. I was completely stupid and-” Leslie can feel herself spiraling, so she’s glad when Ben cuts her off.

 

         “Leslie.” He pauses, but she can’t make herself look up at him. Meanwhile, Ben is trying to sort through the feelings he’s experiencing all at once. It’s mostly anger. Anger at the way Leslie had been treated, of course, but also anger at himself for hiring the asshole. There was also a fierce sense of protectiveness he can feel building inside him, the thought of Mark anywhere near his wife was just fuel to his anger. But there was also so much pride. Pride at the way his wife came out the other side of everything stronger, still so full of hope and passion. “First of all, Leslie, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry you had to go through that, and I’m sorry for the part I played in dredging it all up now.”

 

         “Well, it’s certainly up there on the list of ‘shitty guys I’ve been with.’” Her tone is self-deprecating and bitter, never a tone Ben enjoys coming from her. He pulls back from her enough to place a hand on the side of her face and turn it towards him, making sure she was looking him in the eye when he speaks.

 

         “Leslie, I know what you’re thinking, and it doesn’t say anything about you.”

 

         “But doesn’t it?” The crack in her voice and the look on her face very nearly breaks him. She looks hopeless in a way that hurt him to his core. Ben can’t even begin to understand how anyone could toss Leslie aside like so many men in her life have (except Dave, who was a decent guy. Even if he did handcuff him to a urinal). He can’t imagine his life without her, even just thinking about it makes it suddenly hard to breathe. She’s everything to him, and he would do anything for her. She’s carrying his children, a fact that took his breath away in a completely different way. He hates that she feels inadequate and worthless right now.

 

         “It doesn’t. I know right now you may not believe me, but it really doesn’t. You’re amazing in ways I don’t have words for.” She gives him a weak smile, and he wipes tears from her face. He’s not sure she knows she’s even crying. “You know I love you, right?”

 

         “Well, you did marry me,” She jokes weakly, but her smile grows a little wider.

 

         “Yeah, yeah, I did.” He knows he’s giving her a dopey smile in return, but right now, he doesn’t care. He pulls her back into his chest, and they sit there for a while before he changes the subject. “So, we’re hosting Ann?”

 

         “Yeah. If you don’t mind?” Her voice was still quiet, so he starts carding his fingers through her hair to relax her.

 

         “Of course not. Just Ann?”

 

         “Yeah, Chris is staying with the baby. I just… it will just help to have Ann at work tomorrow. She got on the road about 15 minutes ago.”

 

         “Wow. Though I don’t know why I’m surprised, this is you and Ann we’re talking about.”

 

“What time is it? 8:00? She should be here at 1:28 in the morning if there’s normal traffic, and she takes the quickest route and doesn’t stop to go to the bathroom or eat.”

 

         “Leslie, she’s going to have to make stops. She’s not superhuman,” He laughs out.

 

“Ben, don’t be ridiculous, of course, she is.” He pokes her side, and she giggles, which makes him smile, that’s more like it. “But I get the point. Alright, a five-and-a-half-hour trip should at the most need two or three stops. Without Chris, who needs the bathroom every 15 minutes, in the car, it should work. An average of… 6.6 minutes per stop is about 20 minutes added to the trip, so 1:48 in the morning.” 

 

“Ah, of course, and is Ann aware of this plan?” Leslie pulls back from his chest and looks at him like he’s dumb.

 

“Of course, she does, Ben. Have a little faith.”

 

“Ok, ok. Well, in the meantime, you are going to get some sleep.” She begins to protest, and he puts a finger over her lips. “No buts. When Ann gets here, you don’t have to go back to sleep if you don’t want to, but for now, you need rest.” Ben takes her by the hand and drags her to their bed, making sure she gets under the covers before going to the kitchen and bringing her back a mug that is basically 40% hot chocolate and 60% whipped cream. He has no idea how his wife can sleep after consuming that much sugar, but it always seems to do the trick.

 

“I love you, Ben.”

 

“I love you, Leslie. Now finish that up and get some sleep.”

Chapter Text

It’s 1:50 in the morning when Leslie’s phone goes off, and she jumps up and is out of bed, darting out of the room. She doesn’t even bother grabbing her phone. She is already long gone when Ben wakes up enough to process what’s happening. Right, Ann is coming, or if the speed Leslie left at is any indication, Ann is here. He rolls over to look at his phone’s clock. Leslie was only two minutes off. He can’t help but be impressed. Ben rolls back over, trying to drift back to sleep. With Leslie gone, the chance of getting any more rest is low, but he has nothing better to do.

Meanwhile, Leslie is completely awake and alert, despite being dead asleep only ten seconds before. She opens the door and grabs Ann’s arm, pulling her inside and into a hug as she kicks the door closed behind them.

 

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ann. You beautiful manta ray,” Leslie speaks the words into her friend’s shoulder, not letting up on the hug at all. Ann isn’t going to complain, though. She’s missed her best friend too. There’s no Leslie Knope in Ann Arbor, there’s no Leslie Knope anywhere but Pawnee. Ann is not particularly looking forward to seeing Mark, but when Leslie called in a panic, there was no question about whether or not to rush to Pawnee. Leslie would drop everything for her, and she’ll be damned if she isn’t willing to do the same for Leslie.

 

“Anything you need, Leslie. What do you want to do?” Ann pulls out of the hug and watches as the cogs in Leslie’s head spin for a moment.

 

“Do you need to sleep?” The words come out in a way that makes it clear it’s the last thing Leslie wants to ask, and she admires her friend’s self-control.

 

“No, I’m good. I assumed there wouldn’t be any sleep tonight, so I’ve had like three five-hour energies.” Leslie smiles at her and pulls Ann over to the sofa.

 

“Can we just watch a shitty rom-com or something then?” Ann nods, and Leslie starts to scroll through Netflix before putting on a movie Ann had never seen before. They watch for a while before Ann turns to her friend.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Leslie is quiet for a moment before turns to face her.

 

“I feel stupid for feeling so nervous about all of this. Am I being stupid?” There are very few moments Ann sees Leslie this unsure of herself, and it hurts her heart every time. Leslie is an amazing and confident person, self-doubt doesn’t look right on her.

“Do you still have feelings for Mark?” She asks hesitantly. She’s reasonably sure of the answer, but it’s good to get all the cards on the table. Leslie’s eyes go wide at the question.

 

“No!” The indignation in her voice is apparent. “Of course not. I just… well… it was embarrassing, Ann. I was obsessed with him for years, and I followed him around like a lost puppy.” Leslie turns towards the TV and looks down at her hands, letting her hair hide her face. “He made me feel like nothing. He didn’t look at me twice unless he needed me for something. Plus, it didn’t help that I felt like I needed him to do anything. I had no confidence back then, and I believed he could give it to me, I guess. And I’ve grown a lot since that, I know my worth, most of the time, and I know what I’m good at. But I’m so afraid I’ll see him, and it will undo all of that work. I’m not in love with him, and I never will be again, but he could still tear me down.” Ann sits in shock for a moment.

 

“Leslie, why didn’t you tell me any of this before? Like when I started dating him or even before that?”

 

“Because you liked him.” Leslie looks up and gives her a small smile before shrugging. “Plus, I wasn’t in a place to talk about it even if I could have put any of the feelings into words.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” Ann says, grabbing Leslie’s hand to make sure she keeps eye contact.

 

“Ann, it’s not your fault. You had no way of knowing,” Leslie looks back to the TV while speaking.

 

“What changed? Was it just that he left? That there was some distance between you two?” If that’s the case, Leslie may have a point. If distance was the only thing that built Leslie back up, seeing Mark would be less than ideal. Her fears are quickly dashed as Leslie turns back to her, more confident now, with the smallest smile on her face.

 

“No, no, it was more than that.”

 

“What was it then?” Ann is sure of the answer, but she has a feeling it will help Leslie to say it out loud.

 

 

“Ben.” Yup, there it is. “It’s all because of Ben.”

 

“Give yourself a little credit Les, I’m sure you could have gotten there without him.” Leslie just looks at her with a smile that says, ‘Oh beautiful Ann, you have no idea what you’re talking about.’

“I appreciate that you believe that, and I’m sure I would have recovered and grown, but Ben’s changed me in a way I can’t quite explain. I need him.” Ann opens her mouth to argue, but Leslie stops her. “No, really, I do. The things that man has done for me go above and beyond what I deserve. He has believed in me and supported me at every turn. First, with the Harvest Festival, then through my campaign. Not to mention resigning from his job to save mine. Then with my recall, and now the merger. It feels like I’ve known him my whole life, and I don’t know how I survived without him by my side. I know I can make it through any of the shit this town throws at me as long as he’s beside me. And we’re having triplets, triplets Ann. And he’s freaking out, and it’s adorable, but not once has he stopped focusing on me. I have no idea what I did to deserve that man, but I must have been a saint in a past life.” Tears are starting to fall down Leslie’s face, and she wipes them away with the back of her hand. She mutters, “Stupid hormones,” under her breath before continuing. “I feel like I need him to breathe Ann, and I’m so scared Mark being around is somehow going to make Ben see whatever Mark saw when he looked at me. Someone who’s not good for anything but a favor, someone who doesn’t deserve anyone.”

 

Ann’s in shock, but she doesn’t even get the chance to form an answer before there’s a loud crash near the door behind them. They both whip around and Ben is standing there, clearly having just tripped over a stool, knocking it to the ground. His eyes are squeezed shut, and he is frozen in place as if him being blind and still will somehow make him invisible.

 

“Hi Ben,” Ann teases, a smug grin on her face now. He opens one eye before shifting his stance completely. He leans casually against the wall, arms crossed in front of him.

 

“Um, hey, Ann. How’s it been?”

 

She snorts at his poor recovery attempt as she gets up. She pats him on the shoulder as she passes him as she leaves the room towards the kitchen. “It’s been good. Though I think you have some explaining to do. I’m starving, so I’ll be in the kitchen.”

 

“Yeah, that’s fair,” he concedes as Ann leaves the room, and he takes her place next to Leslie. “So…”

 

“How long were you there, Wyatt?” His wife is still smiling, so he guesses he’s not in too much trouble.

 

“I… uh… I came down when I heard the movie starting up…” He says quietly, his hand nervously rubbing at the back of his neck.

 

“Ben.” She’s obviously exasperated with him.

“I’m sorry babe I know I shouldn’t have I’m just worried and I heard you talking about Mark, and then I just kept standing there and- ”

 

“Ben,” She cuts him off out of fear of him running out of air since he doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop to breath. “Honey, it’s fine. I still love you, even if you are a terrible eavesdropper.” Ben laughs a little at that.

 

“Leslie?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I’m with you through anything. I know you know that, obviously, but it’s worth repeating. Anything you need from me, I’m here, just say the word. And Leslie, I need you too, more than anything. I love you more than I ever thought possible.”

 

Leslie cuddles into his chest instead of answering, and he kisses the top of her head. Before he knows it, she is asleep in his arms. He doesn’t know how long it is before Ann walks out of the kitchen. Ben turns his head to talk to her in a whisper, careful not to wake Leslie, “The guest room is set up.”

 

“Goodnight, Ben.”

 

“Goodnight, Ann, and thank you for being here for her.”

 

“You know the deal, whenever she needs us, we’ll be there. She has us wrapped around her finger.”

 

Ben looked back down at his wife and smiles. “Yeah, she does.”

Chapter Text

When Leslie wakes up the next morning, she is somehow back in her own bed. She doesn’t remember getting here on her own, so she assumes Ben is responsible, though he’s not in bed next to her. Leslie takes her time getting dressed, there's still some time before she has to head into the Parks Department. She usually goes in early, but she doesn’t quite have it in her today. When she’s ready for the day, she walks out towards her kitchen to find Ann making pancakes. “Hey Ann,” she leans against the counter as she speaks. “Where’s Ben?” Ann jumps slightly at the interruption but turns around and smiles at the blonde.

 

“He had to head to work early today. He said Natalie called him and needed him to come in for something. He told me to tell you that he’s sorry he couldn’t come in with us, he loves you, and he’ll try to drop into the parks department as often as possible today.” Leslie hums and smiles as she moves a stack of pancakes on to her plate. They’re not waffles, but they’ll have to do. “I was thinking we go into city hall right after breakfast, I want to catch up with everyone.”

Leslie just nods as she stuffs pancakes drenched in syrup into her mouth. There’s silence as Leslie finished her breakfast, and Ann joins her. They clean up breakfast in comfortable silence and coordinate wordlessly in a way that only comes with years of friendship. As Leslie finishes drying the last dish, she takes a deep breath.

 

“Well, let’s go then. I may really not want to talk to Mark, but I’m not going to let that make me late to work,” Leslie pointedly tells Ann as she grabs her purse from the couch and checking she has everything she’ll need for the day. Leslie barely stops talking for the entire drive to City Hall. Ann manages to add her thoughts while Leslie stops to breathe. Ann doesn’t mind though, she misses Leslie’s long-winded rants and info dumps. It’s not long before they’re pulling in to a parking space. Ann grabs Leslie’s hand and gives a reassuring squeeze as Leslie takes a deep breath. Leslie looks at Ann and offers a small nod, and with that, they get out of the car and head for City Hall.

By the time they reach the doors of City Hall, Leslie has a friendly smile on her face. Ann can tell how fake it is, and it makes her skin crawl a little at the reminder of how worried Leslie really is. Leslie continues their conversation from the car (Something about cows and how, contrary to popular belief, they only have one stomach, it just has four compartments), but now it’s much more forced. Leslie keeps closer to Ann than she usually does, but Ann says nothing, only silently lends her friend all the support she can. They make a beeline for the Parks Department, not stopping to talk to people in the hall like Leslie is ordinarily prone to doing.

As soon as they walk in, Tom and Donna greet her and try to pull her into a conversation. She’s hesitant, trying to follow Leslie until the other woman just gives her a smile and nod before slipping into her office. With that, Ann turns her full attention to Tom and Donna, who fire off a bunch of questions about the baby, Ann Arbor, and Chris. She tries her best to keep up, but there are a couple of exacerbated sighs when she asks them to repeat themselves. Both of them are very insistent that if she posted on social media more often, this wouldn’t happen every time she visits.

 


 

It’s shortly after lunch when Mark decides to visit the Parks Department for the first time. As he steps through the threshold, he’s greeted quite loudly by Tom, who has perched himself on the table in the middle of the room.

 

“Brendanawicz! What brings you to the Parks Department?” The volume of the greeting makes him think Tom means it less as a hello and more as an alert to the other Parks members that he’s here. Mark decides to leave it alone for now, though.

 

“I just came down to catch up with all of you. I started up the old job yesterday and wanted to see what’s changed.” As he looks around the room, it seems that nothing much has changed. Ann is seated at the table with Tom, though instead of at work where he assumed, she would be. There’s a new guy who gives him a once over then proceeds to ignore him. Things have been added to the walls, and he can’t help the unusual amount of question mark stickers stuck to various surfaces. The only other addition seems to be the corkboard that’s being used to schedule for what he assumes is the Unity Concert.

 

“Oh boy, you’ve missed a lot. First off, have a look in Ron’s office.” Mark peers through the window into the man’s office. There’s nobody in there, and Mark turns back to Tom in confusion. Tom just gives him a pointed look and tells him to look again. Mark can’t help but balk at what he sees, and he sits in the empty chair in the middle of the room.

 

“Tom, why is there a baby in Ron’s office? Did he lose a bet?” Donna snorts from where she sits at her desk, no longer working, just watching the interaction unfold.

 

“No man, that’s Ron’s kid, Jon. He’s married, happily this time. He’s got two step-daughters too.” Mark sits in shock, trying to wrap his head around the idea of Ron interacting with children, let alone parenting them.

 

“Any other kids running around?” Tom doesn’t answer but looks towards Ann. No way, it’s only been four years, there’s no way. The shock must show on his face because Ann looks slightly uncomfortable as she shrugs at him. He attempts to school his features.

 

“Not here,” Ann clarifies. “We live in Ann Arbor now, but I’ve got a little boy now, his name is Oliver.” She’s smiling just at the mention of the kid, and Mark has to reign in the jealousy that’s beginning to creep in. “He’s back in Ann Arbor with his father.”

 

“So, you’re married now?” He thinks he does an excellent job of keeping the bitterness out of his voice. Can you blame him, though? Ann’s a stunning woman, and he was ready to marry her four years ago.

 

“Well, no. Not yet, but we may as well be.” He watches Tom and Donna roll their eyes good-naturedly.

 

“Do I know him?” Ann narrows her eyes at him for a moment, but before he can question it, she’s back to normal.

            “Maybe? He was one of the state auditors that came through four years ago. He was the overly energetic one?” He nods, vaguely remembering the two guys that came through. He remembers being thrown by the enthusiasm one of them had.

 

            “That must have happened fast. How long was Pawnee in a financial crisis?”

 

            “Oh, only for a few months. They stayed though and got jobs in the Pawnee government. Chris and I only left a few months ago, but he had moved to Pawnee and lived here for a while.” Mark tries once again to keep his surprise from showing on his face. Chris, he can see staying here, but if he remembers correctly, the other guy seemed like a get the job done and leave kind of guy. Ann said they both stayed, though, so he must have found some reason to keep him in Pawnee.

 

            He must have been silent for too long because Tom turns to Ann and starts up a different conversation. Mark takes the time to sit back and watch his friends for a while, and the more he takes everything in, the more he starts to see how they’ve all changed far more than he anticipated. For instance, Tom stops a personal conversation for a work call that the younger man seems almost enthusiastic to take. Mark really wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t witnessed it himself. In a similar vein, April appears to have work on her desk and is even working on it occasionally. Andy sits there with her, and the two seem far closer than last he saw them. They’re clearly a couple now, and it’s good to see things worked out for them.

            And then there was Leslie. She’s probably changed the most in his eyes. Every once in a while, she ducks out of her office to talk to Tom or April. The first time it happens, he listens as she gives them a project and leaves with no further instructions. Four years ago, a project handoff like that would be accompanied by hours of debriefing and a binder or two. Now though, she just hands them a folder, asks if they have any questions, and returns to her office. She also comes to everyone once in a while to get their input. Even more shocking is she seems to listen to and take in to account their answers. It almost makes him think her steamrolling days are completely behind her.

            Not only are her more annoying habits gone, but she looks different too. Not drastically, but sometime in the past four years, the tiny, dorky girl he knew had turned into a stunning, confident woman. His eyes keep shifting back to her in her office, unable to completely separate his focus from her. He knows she had a thing for him, and he may have taken advantage of that at times, but now he can’t help but hope that she’s held on to those feelings.

            Eventually, she comes out to join them around the table, tense but seemed content to just listen to her friends’ banter. He can’t blame her for being anxious, he would be too with all of this Unity Concert crap happening. He turns to her, and she jumps as his voice breaks her out of Tom and Ann’s conversation.

 

            “Hey, Leslie, how is everything?”

 

            “Good. Things are good. We are swamped, though. Oh, Ann,” with that Leslie turns away from him and towards her friend. “Could you act as extra hands for April while I’m gone?” Ann nods, and he takes the chance to jump back into the conversation.

 

            “Where are you headed? Do you want some company?”

 

            “Oh, no, I’m just going to… JJ’s Diner,” she doesn’t quite make eye contact as she answers.

 

            “Why don’t I join you?” Leslie gets up from her chair and starts putting on her jacket while she backs towards the door.

 

            “Um, no, actually I’m meeting someone there already. Bye.” And with a wave, she disappears into the hallway.

Chapter Text

Doesn’t Mark have a job to do or something? He’s just sitting in the Parks and Rec common space doing nothing. She needed to get out of here or get him out here. Every time she looks up and sees him out there, she can feel herself going on the defensive. She feels small and weak, and she hates it. When he had walked in, there was a definite shift in the mood of the office. April and Tom are asking for her input far more often than necessary. She appreciates the effort to keep her more involved today, even if they don’t need her.

            When she looks up from her work, she sees it’s very nearly 1:30, the time she told Ben she would meet him in his office. She knows leaving right now without engaging with Mark at all will raise more questions in his head than she would prefer. Most notably: ‘Why are you avoiding me?’. So, she takes a deep breath and leaves her office to sit next to Ann at the central table. As soon as Mark turns to her and asks her how it’s going as if they were just old friends catching up, she decides she can’t do this. At least not now. So, Leslie makes up some excuse about JJ’s Diner that hopefully seems somewhat believable. She doesn’t look back as she practically sprints to her husband’s office.

            By the time she reaches Ben’s office, he’s already getting ready to leave. When he sees her walk in, he gives her a smile that melts her stress away. When he pulls her into a hug, he holds on longer than usual, sensing she needs it. Leslie stands there for who knows how long, ear against her amazing husband’s chest, listening to his heartbeat.

 

            “Sorry I’m late,” she mutters into his chest.

 

            “Don’t worry about it, Les. I was heading out to get you.”

 

            “Well,” She takes a deep breath before continuing, “I’m ready now.” Ben pulls back and gives her a quick kiss.

 

            “Let’s go check on those triple cherries.”

 


 

            “Who’s Les meeting at JJ’s?” Mark asks after watching the blonde dart out of the department.

 

            “I don’t know. She didn’t tell me,” Ann says, looking down at her phone before typing something out. He doesn’t buy that for a second. He knows Leslie and Ann tell each other everything.

 

            “I thought she would be excited to catch up. She seems distracted,” He replies, leaving the issue for now.

 

            “Yeah, well, I guess not.” Mark is immediately shocked and looks towards Tom, hoping for some idea as to why Ann was suddenly snapping at him. However, the younger man is avoiding eye contact with him and has visibly tensed up.

 

            “What do you mean by that?” Ann lets out an exhausted sigh at his question.

 

            “Look, Mark, Leslie has a lot on her plate right now, and she just doesn’t have time to play catch up with you.” What the hell is going on?

 

            “Do you have a problem with me, Ann?” He watches her take a deep breath to collect herself before giving him a tight smile.

 

            “Of course not, Mark.” And just like that, she’s gone as quickly as Leslie was.

 


 

It’s an hour and a half later when Leslie finally gets back to her office. The appointment to check in on her triplets had gone well, and everything was going smoothly, but she is suddenly exhausted none-the-less. The doctor had once again suggested that she take it easy, and she once again reminded him that she doesn’t “take it easy.” With the Unity concert around the corner, that isn’t an option. Ben then promised the doctor he would try his best to make sure Leslie was resting, and Leslie leveled him with a glare that clearly said that was not going to happen. All in all, it was a pretty typical appointment for them.

She is hoping that by the time she gets back, someone will have given Mark something to do. Unfortunately, it seems that the fates are not on her side today because he’s still sitting there, now talking to Tom and Donna. Jesus, doesn’t he have anything to do, they’re merging two towns for fuck’s sake. She walks past him and prays to anyone who may be listening that he doesn’t try to talk with her. When she sits down and sees him come in the door behind her, she finally swears that she no longer believes that anyone is watching over her. This should be good.

Chapter Text

 

            Mark waits a few moments after he sees Leslie come back in before ducking into her office and closing the door behind him. She looks up at him, giving him a small smile before looking back down at her work. He settles in the bench to the side of her desk, not saying anything for a moment. He half expects Leslie to start the conversation herself, it was usually near impossible to stop her talking. Leslie stays quiet though, not even acknowledging his presence there. After a while, he decides to break the silence. 

 

 "So, how are you? Catch me up on everything with you." Leslie takes a deep breath before looking up at him, smile in place, but looking exhausted. 

 

            "Don't you have work you should be doing, Mark?" He's taken aback for a second. The response is much colder than he's come to expect from the blonde woman. 

 

            "It's more of a... orientation day today. Not much work, just refamiliarizing myself with City Hall," his tone is teasing, hoping it gets her to relax. She mumbles something he doesn't quite catch under her breath before her smile brightens.

 

            "Well, right after you left, they shut down the government."

 

            "The two auditors, right? Chris and that other guy." She raises an eyebrow at him in a way that makes him feel like he's missing something.

 

 "By 'that other guy' do you mean Ben? As in the current City Manager and the man who interviewed you yesterday?" Damn, he knew the guy looked familiar. Ann did say he stayed in Pawnee. 

 

 "Oh, he stayed around then?"

 

            "Yup." The silence is tense for a moment, so he tries to get her back on track.

 

            "So, the government shut down?"

 

 "Oh, right. Well, when we were called back, all of our programs were cut, except two basketball teams. Other than that, we just had existing park management. I decided I wasn't about to sit back and watch Pawnee die, so I proposed we brought back the Harvest Festival and told them if it tanked, they could cut the Parks Department." Shock grew on Mark's face, the more Leslie talked.

 

            "That was risky, Leslie. You could have done some real damage." He's surprised she made a brash move like that. She leans back in her seat, a frown now on her face.

 

 "Well, we pulled it off, and it saved Pawnee from a huge budget crisis." She was clearly getting defensive, so Mark decides to back off for now. "Anyway, after that Ben and Chris had already asked for an extension and then Chris was offered the City Manager job, and he brought Ben on as Assistant City Manager. They've been here since and are practically honorary members of the Parks team. Like Ann." Leslie can't help the smile on her face that always appears when she talks about her beautiful and beloved best friend, Ann. "What else? Oh, I ran for City Council and won." 

 

            "Wow, Leslie, that's great." Mark is genuinely impressed, and he can't quite believe he missed all this.

 

 "And then I was recalled."

 

            "Oh, Les, I'm sorry." Leslie flinches at the nickname, it was far too familiar for her right now. 

 

            "And then there's the merger, and we got Craig who's the new Parks member from Eagleton."

 

 "You must hate this merger. I remember you had quite a grudge against Eagleton." 

 

            "Well, actually, the merger was my idea."

 

 "Really. I would never have seen that one coming." Leslie knows that she should mention that she's married now, but she's terrified. She wants to keep Mark as far away from her relationship with Ben as she can. God, Leslie needs out of this right now. Luckily for her, someone must be listening to her prayers because before she comes up with a response, Tom saunters in. 

 

            "Heyo, Leslie! Mark! What's up?" When Tom passes by Mark, he makes eye contact with Leslie and slips a note over her desk. She quickly glances over the note reading: Sorry, didn't mean to leave you alone with him. Leslie gives Tom a smile. She has fantastic friends. She completely tunes the two men out and returns to work. About half of her focus is spent on purposely trying to ignore them, but she still manages to get some work done. After a while, she is finally immersed in her work again. Leslie doesn't even notice when Donna waves Tom out of the room, leaving just Mark again. 

 

            "Hey, Leslie?" Her head whips up, and she quickly scans the room, hoping beyond all doubt that Tom was somewhere in the room still.

 

 "Yeah?"

 

            "I was wondering if we could get dinner tonight and catch up some more." Leslie's mouth is hanging open, but she quickly composes herself. Yeah, she won't lie to herself, this is not ideal.

 

            "Oh, I don't think that's such a good idea." Mark isn't dissuaded at all.

 

            "Come on, Les, I really want to catch up. I mean, it's just dinner. What's the big deal?" Maybe he's right, perhaps she's making this into a bigger deal than it is. Plus, it's not like she has any good reason to say no.

 

            "Um, okay, then. Can we do JJ's?" Mark rolls his eyes at her, and she immediately second-guesses herself, and her chest begins to tighten.

 

            "Yeah, sure, JJ's. I'll meet you there at seven." And with that, Mark walks out of her office, stopping at Donna's desk to chat. Leslie immediately takes out her phone and calls Ann. 

 

            "Ann, it's Leslie Knope from the Parks Department. Meet at Ben's office in five minutes." She doesn't even wait for a response before she hangs up. 

 She closes her eyes and starts trying to regulate her breathing, which at some point became rapid and panicked. When she finally reaches a somewhat regular breathing pattern, she gets up, grabs an unimportant and completely random folder, and calmly walks past Mark and out of the Department. To her surprise, she runs into Ben in the hallway. He smiles at her, reaching out to grab her arm and pull her towards him before letting her go in the name of keeping it professional in the workplace. 

 

            "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't been down to the Department all day; I've been swamped. I was just headed to see you now, though." Leslie looks up at him with a resigned smile and sighs, which earns her one of his confused head tilts that make him look like a puppy. 

 

            "I need to talk to you and Ann about something. I made a mistake." Confusion is quickly replaced by concern on his face. She doesn't let him say anything. Instead, she grabs his arm and starts dragging him back towards his office.

 


 

Mark decides when Donna starts making comments about how much work he's not doing, that he's officially overstayed his welcome in the Parks Department for the day. When he walks into the hallway and heads back towards his office, something catches his eye. Further down the hall is Leslie and the City Manager, Ben. That's not what stops him in his track, Leslie's always holding up superiors in the hallway, badgering them about one thing or another. No, what stops him at first is how close the two are standing. There's barely any space between them. What keeps him staring, though, is the look on Ben's face. Maybe it's just the smile that he has now, but he looks more relaxed than he was yesterday, and certainly more than Mark remembers him being all those years ago. Mark watches as Leslie says something he's too far away to hear, and Ben's face shifts to confusion then to a look of concern. Leslie then seems to have had enough and grabs Ben's arm, dragging him down the hall and around the corner. 

            Well, that's just one more strange behavior to file away for later.

 


 

Ben wants more than anything to be able to go into work with his wife this morning. Unfortunately, fate was not on his side, and he was called in to solve some merger issues.  Honestly, he stopped listening after Natalie told him he needed to come in an hour early. Usually, Leslie would be up and ready, excited to get into the office first, but today she was out cold. She was up relatively late last night, and he knows she didn't sleep through the whole night. He remembers feeling her get up at least twice. So, he gets ready quietly, careful not to wake Leslie, and heads out to the kitchen to see Ann already up and cooking in the kitchen. She looks as exhausted as he feels, and just gives him a tired smile and a weak gesture towards a plate of pancakes.

 

            "I have to head in early today but tell Les I'll try to stop by Parks as soon as I'm able." Ann gives him a lazy thumbs up. He snatches a pancake off the top of the pile and starts eating, smirking at Ann as she lets out a long-suffering sigh as he heads out the door.

 

            Ben doesn't get a break until lunch when he quickly wolfs down a salad that Natalie had brought him. By the time he finishes up and checks the time, Leslie should already be there. His wife has a lot on her mind, and it's likely she just forgot, so he grabs his jacket. He's just about to leave when Leslie slips into his office apologizing, and after giving her a quick kiss, they're on their way.

            Their doctor's trip is uneventful, despite Ben's worries that Leslie is overworking herself, the doctor assures them that she's very healthy. On the ride back to City Hall, Leslie mentions Mark was in the Parks Department when she left, and he promises he'll try to make it down there again. He leaves Leslie with a kiss at the Parks Department and makes his way into his office. He's about to get to work when he's interrupted by a knock at his door. Looking up, he sees Ann standing in his doorway.

 

            "Hey, what can I do for you, Ms. Perkins?" His friendly, slightly teasing smile, offsets any formality.

 

            "Hey, I came to check in on you. See how you're doing." Ben tilts his head, confused.

 

            "Um, I'm doing well, I guess. Did Leslie send you?" Ann huffs out a laugh and sits in the chair opposite his desk.

 

            "No. Though that's totally something, Les would do. No, I came because I know you're prone to ShamWow-ing  Leslie's stress and not coping with yours. I know this is hard for Leslie, but you're her husband, and I know how you can get, so I came to offer an ear if you need it." Ben takes a couple of shaky breaths.

            He and Ann will never be as close as Leslie and Ann. In fact, the only bond they really share is their love of the insane, amazing blonde woman. It's a tremendous bond to be sure, but still. The fact that Ann is sitting here with him, offering her support, means the world to him. Leslie has some incredible friends, and he's lucky that she shares them so openly with him. Usually, he wouldn't take up Ann's offer, especially right away, but as Ann speaks, the small nagging anxiety in his head gets louder and louder.

 

            "Come on, Ben, I can see there's clearly something on your mind. Maybe I can help." He gives a resigned sigh and slumps back in his chair.

           

            "I'm scared. When Leslie was telling me about what Mark did to her, I couldn't help but draw up parallels between that and some of the things I put her through." When he looks to Ann for her reaction, she's looking at him with a very impatient glare.

 

            "Ben, you know I think you're smart. I know you are a very logical person, and I know how thoughtful you can be. So, with all that in mind and love in my heart, I'm going to tell you that that is the stupidest thing I've heard in my life." He opens his mouth to protest, and she holds up a finger to shut him down. "I say this knowing that Leslie would tell you the same thing."

 

            "Ann, I've done things that have really hurt her, I-"

 

            "Yes, you have. I'm not saying you haven't. And there have been times where I've wanted to hurt you."

 

            "This is making me feel so much better."

 

            "But," she continues on as if he hadn't spoken, "the difference is, you never once stopped loving Leslie. Both of you hurt each other during your break up, but you both still loved each other, and you are always her biggest supporter. Nothing you did was unforgivable, and it means a lot that you're this broken up about it."

 

            "I'm terrified Leslie won't see it that way. That she'll see it how I do; that I'm no better than Mark." Ann sighs, he knows she's frustrated with him, but he can't help it.

 

            "Ben, you need to talk to her. Tell her all of this. I promise it will help." Whatever look is on his face must look disbelieving because Ann continues, "I know you're scared, but I think you need to have a little more faith in Leslie." She's right, of course, he should have more faith in his wife, she's always seen the best in him, even when he can't. There's no reason she would stop now. He gives Ann a weak smile, and that seems to be enough for her. "Great. Well, I'll see you tonight then." And just like that, she's gone.

           

            Deciding that he needs to see Leslie now, he grabs his phone from his desk and heads down the hall towards Parks and Rec. To his surprise, he runs into his wife in the hallway, or more, she runs into him. He pulls her slightly closer than could be considered professional, but she doesn't seem to notice as she speaks so quickly he would have missed it if he weren't so adept at following Leslie's rants.

 

            "IneedtotalktoyouandAnnaboutsomethingImadeamistake." He's not even able to respond before she's dragging him back towards his office.

 

            When they get there, Ann is already back sitting in front of his desk, looking as concerned as he feels. Neither of them gets a breath in before Leslie is already off.

 

            "Ireallydon'tknowhowithappenedbutallthesuddenhewasjustaskingand-" Okay, this needs to stop, he's not even sure Leslie is taking in air at this point. He walks to her, grabbing her shoulder with one hand and the side of her face with the other.

 

            "Les, sweetheart, I love you, but Ann and I are going to need you to slow down. Take a breath, okay?" She nods wordlessly. He brings her around his desk and pulls her onto his lap after sitting down. She takes a deep breath and starts again.

 

            "Mark came into my office, and when Tom left us alone, he asked if I would go to dinner with him and catch up. I tried to say no, but he kept pushing, so finally, I agreed, but I really don't want to go." She seems so small as she says this, and Ben draws her closer. "I haven't told him about us. I know I should, but I just don't want him anywhere near our relationship. It's stupid, but..." She trails off, and Ann is the one to prompt her.

 

            "But what, Leslie?" Leslie focuses on Ann then. It's easier to say the next part if she tricks herself into believing only Ann is listening.

 

            "But I'm scared that if Mark knows, he'll somehow get Ben to see all the flaws in me that he sees." She hears Ben suck in a breath beside her, but her eyes stay on Ann. Ann shoots Ben a knowing look that confuses her, but Ben must understand because he starts speaking.

 

            "Leslie, I like to think I know far more about you than Mark Brendanawicz. Nothing he says to me will change my opinion towards you negatively. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the more I talk to him, the more I'll think you're a saint for putting up with him." She gives a weak laugh at that. "Do you want him to know about us? I don't mind, either way, I trust you." When Leslie looks up at him, tears are threatening to spill out of her eyes, but she has a genuine loving smile on her face.

 

            "Yes, of course, I want him to know. You make me so happy, and I'm married to you, and we're going to have kids. I want everyone to know." He beams down at her, and her smile grows as he pecks her on the lips.

 

            "Well then, catch-up-dinner seems like the perfect time to tell him." She frowns, but he pushes on trying to convince her. "You'll be in public, and if you need to leave, call me, and I'll be there faster than is legally possible. Alright?" She nods, and he gets up, steadying her as he does. "Let's go home early. I'll drive you, and Ann will take your car."

 

            "Yeah, okay," Leslie says, smiling at him once again. God, she's adorable. Ann is already digging through Leslie's bag for her keys and slips out before them without a word.

           

            Ben grabs his wife's hand as they walk to the Parks Department. Their hands remain intertwined as they grab her things, say their goodbyes, and drive home.

Chapter Text

Leslie drives herself to JJ's Diner in spite of Ben's offer to drive her there and drop her off. It's probably the final time she'll be able to keep the two away from each other. Even though she knows it's stupid, Leslie's been holding on to that. She's ridiculously early, and so she tries to collect her nerves before going in.

            About a half-hour later, Leslie is in the Diner, practically vibrating in her booth seat with nerves. In the past ten minutes, she has opened and closed her menu twenty times, and now she just keeps checking the time on her phone. She sits there for thirty minutes before Mark comes in and sits down across from her. There's a tense silence as they wait to order. Leslie, despite knowing exactly what she wants, is fixated on the menu in front of her. That buffer is quickly gone, though after a waitress comes to take their orders. Mark is the first to speak up.

 

 "So, Leslie, how has the Parks Department been since I've left?" Well, at least he's started on a safe topic. 

 

            "Oh! Well, I told you about the Harvest Festival, so that was big for all of us. Then the campaign and election were big."

 

 "Right! How did that happen?" 

 

            "I was approached by two campaign managers after Lil' Sebastian's funeral, and they thought I should run, and then everything moved so much faster than I was expecting. Next thing I knew it, I was running for city council."

 

 "Wow, Leslie, that's great."

 

 "And of course, Ann and I have been working on Lot 48." Mark lets out a deep sigh, and Leslie immediately regrets mentioning it.

 

 "You're still stuck on that?"

 

 "Of course! I promised Ann, and we've put a lot of work into it!"

 

 "Leslie, you know I think you are a fantastic public servant but be realistic. I mean, I thought after all this time you would be a little less naive. Nobody will take you seriously if you're stuck on some little pipe dream. That lot is going to sit empty or be sold to the highest bidder, and that's okay. Nobody would blame you. I mean, just look at the City Council seat. There's a reason you must have been recalled, I mean you're too ambitious, you have to grow up." Leslie can feel tears burning behind her eyes, and she refuses to let them fall. After a few seconds of silence through her anger boils up. How dare he! She's gotten so far since he left, and he doesn't know her. 

 

            "You're wrong." Leslie takes pleasure in the shock that passes over Mark's face. She's too fired up to stop now, though. "I was recalled because this town has always fought me when I try to make it better, but I don't care. I love this town, and I know what I'm doing makes a difference. The Harvest Festival saved this town, and this merger saved another. My ambition makes me good at what I do. If I were always afraid of failure, I wouldn't be where I am today. And for your information, people do respect me. I've been offered a job running a branch of the National Parks Department. I do good work, and I don't give up on projects that I believe in. Also, I'm plenty 'grown up.' I know I can seem a little bubbly, but the people that matter know what I'm capable of. I'm sorry you've become so jaded and bitter towards the world, and I'm sorry I was never able to help you change that." Mark is stunned into silence for a moment before he gets a frustrated look on his face and lets out a huff. 

 

            "You must be the City Manager's worst nightmare." Leslie tenses up, this time out of anger. She usually would have let that comment go, but she's too high-strung right now.

 

            "Actually, Ben likes me, and he thinks I'm awesome." She knows she's raising her voice now, but she can't help it.

 

            "Ha! I'm sure he does," Mark snarks back in a tone that's far too condescending. 

 

            "Yeah, he does actually. That's why he married me." She shoves her wedding ring towards him, and she can see the moment the situation registers in Mark's head. He's shocked back into silence for the second time tonight, and she gets up without letting him get another word in. "I'm going home to my husband now because this was a mistake, and I only came because he and Ann thought it would be a good idea. You can pay." And with that, she exits the Diner leaving Mark alone and more stunned than he could have imagined he would be tonight.

 


 

Ben in scrolling through his phone on the couch when the front door swings open, and he gets up to meet his wife as she comes in. As soon as she makes eye contact with him, he sees tears start forming in her eyes, and his heart sinks. 

 

            "Oh shit. Les, come here." He immediately wraps her up in his arms and holds her there. He can feel the tears beginning to soak through his t-shirt, and he pulls her impossibly closer.

 

            "I'm sorry. I tried. I'm sorry," Leslie sniffles into his chest. 

 

            "Hey, don't apologize, sweetheart. Let's sit down, and then we can talk, okay?" She just nods wordlessly as he leads her to the couch. He sits, pulling her on to his lap, and she buries her head in the crook of his neck. He rubs her back as she continues to cry, and he can't help the guilt that creeps into the back of his mind. "I'm sorry for pushing you to go." 

 

 "No, no, don't be. It was good that I went, it was just a lot, and I'm pregnant and emotional. I'm sorry." She pulls back and gives him a weak smile. 

 

 "I told you, you have nothing to apologize for. You're allowed to be emotional, you know," Ben's practically whispering at this point as he cups the side of her face, smiling as she leans into his hand. "Do you want to tell me what happened? You're back really soon, so I assume it went south quick." She gives a weak laugh and nods. 

 

            "Yeah, I guess it did. As soon as I mentioned the Lot 48 project, he started on his tirade about how I'm naive and stupid for thinking I can get a park built there. How I need to grow up if anyone will ever take me seriously." Ben takes a moment to push down his own anger and focus back on his wife. 

 

            "You know none of that is true, right? It's all bullshit." She's beaming at him now, which lifts his heart back up for the first time since she came through the door. 

 

            "Yeah, I do know. I believed all of that for a long time. Then this really nerdy state auditor with a great butt came into my life, and he helped me learn to trust myself."

 

 "Well, I guess Chris' butt isn't bad, but I wouldn't call him nerdy," he teases, a smile growing when she shoves his shoulder a little. 

 

            "I'm serious, Ben. Thank you." Instead of responding, he leans in to kiss her. When he pulls back, she continues, "So, anyway, I may or may not have read Mark the riot act, loudly, in the middle of JJ's Diner."

 

 "God, you're amazing." 

 

            "It felt terrific. I don't know if I'll regret it later, but right now I feel good. I told Mark that he was wrong and that people do take me seriously. I told him about the National Parks offer and all the other things I've done trying to make Pawnee better, and that it has made Pawnee better." She pauses, and he sees a mischievous glint form in her eyes. "Then he said I must be the City Manager's nightmare and so I told him that actually you quite like me. Mark then brushed it off like he didn't believe me, so I said to him that you definitely like me or you wouldn't have married me. Then I told him he was paying, and I left." 

 

            Ben is quiet for a moment as he looks at her in shock. Then he just says, "God, I love you," before pulling her into a bruising kiss that leaves her breathless. She smiles before leaning back into his chest, happy to enjoy the quiet for a moment.

 This amazing and brilliant woman is far too good for him. His conversation with Ann still nags in his mind. As they sit there in silence, his mind wanders, redrawing the connecting lines between Mark and himself that Ann had started to erase. His distress must show because soon, Leslie is leaning back and speaking again, 

 

 "Hey, what's wrong, babe?" His focus is thrust back into the real world as he looks at her.

 

 "Oh, nothing. I'm fine." She looks at him disbelievingly. "No, really, I'm okay. I don't want you worrying about me." 

 

 "We're married, it's my job to worry about you." He avoids her eyes, and she huffs out, "Ben, come on, I know something is bothering you. Please talk to me, babe. Don't shut me out, not now." Leslie holds the side of his face with one hand and rubs the palm of her hand with her other thumb. He looks into her eyes, sees her love so clearly on display, and caves. It's now, or never he guesses.

 

        "I can't help but hate myself." He sees a myriad of emotions flicker over his wife's face, but she lands on concerned and confused.

 

        "What? Why?"

 

        "You mean besides the fact that I brought Mark back into your life, and it's hurting you?" Her hand drops from his face so she can grab both his hands in hers. He suppresses a whine at the loss of contact.

 

        "Ben, that wasn't your fault. How the hell would you have known?"

 

        "I know, I know. I mean, I know that logically, but I still feel like shit about it." She looks like she's about to interrupt, but now that he's started talking, he can't stop. "And I know that I shouldn't be making this about me. You're hurting, and I should just get over it and be there for you, but I can't help but worry that one of these days, soon, that you're going to turn around and see the similarities in me and Mark that I see in myself; in the things, I've done to you."

 

        "What the hell are you talking about? You've never done the things Marks did to me." His eyes flick down to her face and sees only confusion in her eyes.

 

        "Didn't I, though? I mean, he led you on, kept you on retainer basically. What do you call what I was doing leading up to that road trip? Flirting with you, getting jealous over the idea of you with other guys, knowing full well that Chris' rule meant I could never have you. Or at least that's what I believed at the time. And then there's the whole 'not-having-faith-in-you' thing. I mean before your Harvest Festival idea you said it to me yourself, I didn't have the faith in you that you deserved. I shot you down at every turn, dismissed your ideas, dismissed you. And what about that fucking campaign ad? I didn't have faith in you then either, and we were together then! What kind of boyfriend was I? And then there's his whole thing with Shauna Malwae-Tweep. He slept with her, and shit talked you and your project with her after you expressly trusted him to smooth things over with her. And who was the first person I tried flirting with after we broke things off? Shauna Malwae-Tweep. And, at one point, the more it made you angry, the more I wanted to do it. How awful is that, Leslie? No wonder you didn't want me near her, I can't imagine what that may have brought up for you. I mean I was not exactly kind to your face, I can only imagine what you thought I would tell her if you came up. And then, as if that wasn't enough, I tried to cut contact with you. You wanted to carry on as friends, and I dismissed you again. I know how much you care, Les, and I spit that back in your face and basically told you I wanted nothing to do with you. How could I not hate myself for all that?"

 

        "Oh, Ben." Leslie reaches up and wipes tears from his face that he didn't even realize were there. There's a soft, sad smile on her face as she lightly kisses him. She continues to search his face, and he can't help but close his eyes as she reaches up and begins to card through his hair. God, he doesn't deserve this woman. He opens his eyes, taking in all the small details on her face as she moves so that she's practically on his lap, yet still able to look up at him. "You're the smartest man I know, and I adore you, but that's the dumbest thing you've ever said."

        He tries to match the smile she gives him, but it comes off more like a grimace, and he ducks his head to break eye contact, so she continues, "Okay, fine, I'll address one thing at a time then. First off, you did not 'lead me on.' That implies you didn't have feelings for me, and I'm pretty confident in saying that ya kinda did. We were being kept apart, you weren't leading me on. If you were than I was leading you on, so we'd be even anyways. As for not having faith in me, we had just met Ben, you didn't even know me. Was I mad? Yes, but not more than I would be about a stranger shooting me down. And yet a few hours later, you trusted me enough to greenlight the Harvest Festival. Mark and I knew each other for six years, and he never had faith in me when it counted. Since the Harvest Festival, you have stood by me and trusted me even when I've made some risky calls. Not many campaign managers would have let their candidate give their opponent a win like I did with the animal shelter. And regarding the ad, let's be honest, Ben, it was pretty bad, and what you came up with at the end was much better."

 

He chances a look up at her to give her a quick, bashful smile before looking down at their intertwined hands.

 

"Third, Shauna. Yes, seeing you with her may have brought up some old feelings, and it may have felt like she was taking something from me again. But not once did the thought even cross my mind that you would smear me while talking with her. You're not a cruel man Ben Wyatt, a bit of a jerk at times? Maybe, but never cruel. I knew that no matter what we said to each other in the heat of the moment, you would never hurt me like that. I never stopped trusting you."

 

She pauses for a moment, shifting, so her head rests against his shoulder. He turns and kisses her temple before wrapping an arm around her and pulling her close.

 

"Lastly, I understand why you tried to cut contact with me. You made a huge sacrifice so that I could run for city council, and I took your feelings for granted. I steamrolled you with no account for how hard it was for you to be around me. I was only thinking about what I wanted, and that wasn't fair to you. I'm sorry.

So, you may be mad with yourself for all of this, but know that I never will be. Every time you ask for forgiveness, I will freely give it, but I will remind you that it is not needed. I love you, and I know you love me. It shines through in every moment I spend with you and everything you've ever done for me. You're not Mark Brendanawicz, and you never could be, you're not that kind of guy. Got it, Benji?"

 

He knows he's crying again, but he doesn't care as he buries his face in her shoulder. 

 

 "I love you, Leslie." The words are mumbled into her shoulder, but she hears them clearly. 

 

 "I love you too, Ben."