Ben couldn’t stand this. He couldn’t stand being without Leslie, he couldn’t stand working with her, he couldn’t stand snapping at her and watching her ever-present effervescence dim in response, and he couldn’t stand watching the best relationship he’d ever had crumble because he’d been foolish enough to fall for another government employee in the first place. Though, he thought, she’d fallen just as hard for him, and if the last few days had shown him anything, there was almost no avoiding the force of nature that was Leslie Knope.
As he walked away from the tiny park, leaving Leslie with a pile of ribbon and discarded protest signs that she had clearly made herself, Ben felt closer than ever to losing it. And going back to City Hall with Chris, remarkably chipper for just having witnessed the death of the “dream team,” was not helping. As soon as they returned, Ben mumbled something about contacting the park’s landscaper and closed himself in his office.
Ben sat down at his desk and put his head in his hands, trying to reason with himself.
Rules exist for a reason, you idiot, he thought. If you’re irresponsible, you ruin things – towns, careers, friendships. If you have to spend too much time with Leslie, you will end up breaking the rules. Therefore, you cannot spend more time with her. It should be that simple. You had no problem being the hardass when it was just you and Chris solving fiscal crises, so you shouldn’t have a problem sticking to your guns right now.
Except that Pawnee had changed him. Leslie had changed him. She loved rules just as much as him, but in a different way. She didn’t see rules as the only thing keeping her and her town from catastrophe, the way he did – she had too much faith in people for that. She saw rules as the path to doing your best, guidelines to the most success, and if they were only causing hurt, they weren’t working. Her influence had gotten Ben wondering why he was so committed to following a rule that was making him miserable. And despite his long acquaintance with Chris and his current status as Andy and April’s roommate, the only person he wanted to talk to about why the logical and respectable course of action in regard to Leslie seemed so wrong was… Leslie. Who he couldn’t talk to if he didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs or ruin her campaign. Ben groaned and leaned all the way over to plant his forehead on the desk.
Five fruitless minutes later, he begged off the rest of the workday, claiming a migraine, and stopped to pick up a chicken parm before heading home to Blade Runner, a hot shower, and a restless sleep.
The next day was not fated to be much more productive. Ben should’ve been glad that Leslie was listening to him and not trying to call him or visit his office or cause more tiny park problems, but it was just so odd for her to totally disengage that he couldn’t stop thinking about it. When he heard footsteps coming towards his office, he grabbed a pen and pretended to be poring over the papers he’d spent the last few minutes rereading without absorbing a thing.
Half expecting it to be Leslie, Ben was surprised when Ann walked in.
“Hey. Okay, is this health department business or Leslie business?” he asked.
“You need to go talk to her,” Ann said.
And however much ability Ben had to hold his ground, which, if he was honest with himself, was not very much beyond his immediate defensiveness, he couldn’t help smiling at the endless text chain on Ann’s phone. So, thinking about cheesecakes and excited chatter and the feeling somewhere behind his ribs that he didn’t want to put a name to just yet, he told Ann he was willing to talk to Leslie.
She grinned and sped out of his office, promising she’d tell Leslie to get in touch. Telling himself firmly that he wouldn’t get anywhere by shirking even more obligations, Ben forced himself back to work.
Leslie had left her singular voicemail before the workday was out, unsurprisingly, but she’d requested that they meet at the tiny park at 8:00 that night, so Ben had a few extra hours to vacillate between interest in what she planned to say and determination to stay resolute in his decision. But unlike the interminable morning, those hours slipped by quickly. Having a plan to see Leslie was still making him excited, which is exactly why he had to stop seeing her. Why couldn’t he just get that through his head?
When Ben pulled up to the park and saw Leslie sitting on the wrought-iron bench, ever the brightest part of their surroundings in her red coat despite the new grass and flowers, he realized he’d need some pretty strong willpower to get through this conversation unscathed.
Put on your auditor face, he thought, trying to ignore the part of his brain that reminded him how few people had liked him during his time as an auditor except for the woman waiting here to greet him. Make the tough call. Every necessary decision has collateral damage.
But the damage felt a little too extensive as he watched Leslie working so hard to be considerate, all for him, and saw the flicker of hope in her eyes fade away as he reaffirmed their need to stay apart. Turning and walking away from her felt worse than callous, but he knew he couldn’t comfort her when he was not only the source of her sadness but feeling the exact same way himself.
Still, Leslie’s interruption brought him up short, giving him a reason to stay just a bit longer. At first, Ben couldn’t process what she meant, preoccupied by the catch in her voice and convinced that if she started crying he would too, and when he realized she wanted to chuck the rulebook out the window and own up to whatever this was, he started to shake his head unconsciously.
He tried to protest, to throw the rulebook right back at her, but she met every one of his objections with breathless agreement.
I want to be with you. I want to be with you.
And when Leslie ended her speech, stepped back and asked for Ben’s opinion and waited, as vulnerable as he’d ever seen her, that feeling hiding in his chest burst out into the open. He followed it forward, towards her, and kissed her for the first time in months.
Screw the rules. He wanted to be reckless.