“Where’s your friend?”
Ugh. As if this night hasn’t been bad enough. Leslie doesn’t bother to look at him, hoping that if she ignores him, he’ll go away. Instead, he slides into the stool next to hers and taps his fingers against the bar. “Off to shake down a kindergartener for his lunch money? That seems about your speed.”
“Shouldn’t you be off consoling Chris?” she snaps, only feeling a little guilty about her role in all of this. It’s mostly Ben’s fault anyway. “After all, he just had his first bad date ever.”
Ben snorts, a barking chuckle that Leslie can’t tell is bitter or amused or annoyed or something else entirely, and she finally looks at him, surprised to find him staring at her. He’s always so direct, all staid and straightforward like nothing ever fazes him; it’s beyond infuriating. “It is kind of annoying, isn’t it?” he asks, and for a second, Leslie forgets he’s not talking about himself. “No one should have a track record that good.”
“Well when you’re that beautiful—”
“When you’re that blindly positive,” Ben corrects, shaking his head. “I mean the fact that he wasn’t even slightly suspicious, even once you showed up…”
“So he wants to see the good in people? Is that so wrong?”
“Why don’t we ask the guy who just went to ‘run out’ his feelings? Or how about Ann, who I’m sure thought you had only the best intentions.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re patronizing? It’s not your most attractive quality.” Ben smirks—as if that doesn’t entirely prove her point—and she scowls. “You only showed up tonight to keep me from succeeding. Don’t pretend it had anything to do with protecting Chris. You’re no better than me.”
“Yeah. In fact, you’re worse. At least my intentions were honorable.”
“Are you listening to yourself right now? Seriously, Leslie? You pimped out your best friend for money.”
“And you,” says Leslie, poking his chest; his eyes drift down for a second like she’s surprised him; big shock—he probably hasn’t had human contact in years, “didn’t even bother to tell Chris your suspicions because you wanted to see me fall on my face. So don’t act so high and mighty. If it came down to it, my ethics would beat yours any day.”
Ben takes her hand, wrapping his fingers around her index finger and gently removing it from his chest. He holds it a beat longer than necessary, staring at her all intently until Leslie wriggles her finger from his grasp, her hand falling limply to her lap. “Well fortunately, no one’s ethics are on trial tonight,” says Ben flatly. “So we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
Agree to disagree? What kind of nonsense is that? Especially coming from Ben, who hasn’t passed up the chance to argue with her once in the whole time she’s known him. This sudden bout of high-handed superiority makes her want to scream. He’s no better than she is—or she’s no worse than he is; after tonight she’s not quite sure which phrasing is right. Whatever. The point is, he has no right acting like some judgmental god looking down from on high, all smug and pretentious and—
“Whatever,” he sighs, taking her indignant silence as dismissal. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Leslie.”
“No, wait.” He throws a suspicious glance her way, and Leslie tries to look innocent. She can feel her anger beating in her pulse, though, fueled by everything that’s happened and the alcohol and him. Mostly him. His disengagement from their debate makes her feel about two inches tall, and she just wants to prove they’re the same—just doesn’t want him to leave thinking poorly of her.
(Not that she cares what he thinks of her. Absolutely not. But her reputation is on the line, here, and one well-intentioned mistake isn’t going to change everything, and damn it, she’ll show him who’s more ethical!)
Ben’s still staring, waiting for her to say something, but it’s no longer words that itch to leap off of her tongue. It’s action—proof—that she needs now. And maybe it’s the failure of her earlier plan or maybe it’s Ben’s utter disdain for her actions, but she can only think of one way to get the result she wants; one way in which to tempt him.
“Stay,” she says. The thought of temptation swirls in her mind, but the reality and implications of what she’s planning merely coalesces in the form of one perfect image: that I told you so! moment she’ll get when he succumbs. It’s powerful enough to overcome any smidgen of doubt she might have about playing another seduction game tonight. After all, it’s not like anyone’s feelings are involved this time, and she’s not after the money anymore.
She just wants them back on the same level.
Smiling, more coyly than devilishly, she hopes, she adds, “Have a drink. I promise, no more fighting.”
Ben hesitates, but seems to decide she’s telling the truth (which, of course, she is). Slowly, he settles back into his seat and orders a beer, a cautious silence settling over them. He glances at her, that same assessing look he’s been giving her all night, and it sends a chill down her spine. There’s something obnoxious about how intimately he thinks he knows her, and she’d like to squelch that before the end of the night as well. To remind herself—to remind him—that he’s an outsider here, and he doesn’t know her—or her town—as well as he thinks he does.
Even though she knows he doubts her, Leslie only manages to wait fifteen seconds before she slips out of her blazer and settles it over the back of her chair. It’s a casual move. Super casual. She makes sure she doesn’t even look at Ben as she does it, just sitting up as straight as she can and innocently adjusting the neckline of her blouse.
The bartender brings her another drink with Ben’s beer and she smiles a gratefully, taking a sip and surreptitiously glancing over at Ben. But he’s just drinking, not paying even a little bit of attention to her now, and what the hell? Subtly, she moves her hand back to her shirt and undoes the top button.
She’d like to see him ignore that.
“It’s hot in here, isn’t it?” she says, twirling her straw in her drink and shooting him an overly innocent look. Her eyes widen, though, because he’s taken off his own jacket and is rolling up his shirtsleeves, exposing his forearms, and what the hell is that? It’s not actually hot in here, right? Maybe a little warm…She feels a little warm.
“Yeah,” Ben agrees. He gives her a pointed look, and Leslie’s brow furrows in confusion. There’s no way he knows what she’s doing, right? No. There’s not. Because she’s being totally sneaky—even sneakier than earlier—and whatever he may think, he doesn’t know her, and so there’s no way he can possibly have worked out that she’s trying to prove that he’s no better than she is.
“Good thing you’re able to strip down to such a lightweight blouse, huh?”
Oh god. He knows. He totally knows. He totally knows and he actually thinks he’s going to call her bluff. She gapes at him, frankly a little admiring of his sudden ability to be such a sneaky fox and also incredibly annoyed, and he makes that stupid smug face of his, eyebrow raised and lips curled in the facsimile of a smile.
Well fine. So he knows her plan. Who cares? This is perfect, actually. Now they both know what’s going on and they’ll see who cracks first.
Spoiler alert: It won’t be her.
“Well these places are always too warm, aren’t they?” She turns in her seat so her knees practically brush his leg, and smiles, reaching out for the knot of his tie. He freezes, and she feels a surge of power in finally throwing him off his game. “You should loosen up.”
“Yeah?” His Adam’s apple bobs, betraying the calm tone he’s going for, and Leslie presses her lips together to keep from laughing. Still, her fingers are a little shakier than she’d like as she loosens the knot of his tie and then lets her hands drift down to undo the first couple of buttons on his shirt. The whole time, he doesn’t move, barely even breathes.
“There,” she says. “Isn’t that better?”
“Much.” He turns, and yeah, now their knees are definitely touching, and his eyes are dark and hard to read—she can’t tell if he’s pissed or what—and it’s oddly unnerving. Ben is usually an open book; he has no right to suddenly become inscrutable.
“You wanna dance?”
Cute nemesis says what? “Huh?”
“Do you want to dance?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, sliding off of his seat and holding out a hand. With a sudden reluctance she can’t explain, Leslie accepts, letting him help her off of her seat and lead her out to the dance floor. It’s distracting, his warm hand wrapped around hers coupled with this unexpected turn of events, and Leslie fumbles to regain her bearings. Whatever mysterious aura he suddenly has going on, it’s not going to distract her from her goal.
The dance floor isn’t crowded—this late on a Wednesday night isn’t exactly the peak hour for The Bulge—but as Leslie drops Ben’s hand and begins to move to the beat of the music, she doesn’t give him much breadth. Ben can’t dance. His moves are stilted and awkward, and though it’s weirdly endearing, it also brings back her self-assurance with a vengeance. He’s staring down at her, a bit of embarrassment cutting the intensity in his eyes like he didn’t quite think through this suggestion, and she knows she has the upper a hand here. After all, she’s a great dancer.
“Here,” she says, stepping closer. She grabs his hands and settles them on her hips, steadying them before she lifts hers to his neck. “Just follow my lead.
The awkwardness of coming together overwhelms everything for about thirty seconds. Ben’s moves somehow become even less assured, and she’s distracted by trying to get him to follow her rhythm; in that moment, their relationship blurs into neutrality, the nuances and games and tension melting away as they attempt to accomplish something as simple as dancing together. It’s thirty seconds where he could be any guy and she could be any girl.
Then she looks up and meets his eyes, and the flash of anonymity disappears.
The awareness comes all at once. The keen sense of Ben’s hands on her hips; how she can feel the warmth of his fingers through her shirt and the slightest pressure of his thumbs where they press against her hipbones. He’s leaning into her, slightly. Close enough that she can smell the enticing combination of soap and sweat on his skin; close enough that she can see the stubble on his cheeks. The sensations make her hyper-aware of her own body, but it’s the sudden cognizance that Ben is the one holding her like this, Ben is the one whose body is moving against hers, Ben is the one whose eyes are impossibly dark and focused only on her, that is dizzying. It’s been months since she’s been this close to a man she feels any strong emotion toward, she realizes, and she’s reminded that anger and frustration can be as potent a combination for lust as affection is.
Which is the whole point, she reassures herself. Except that it’s not quite as one-sided as she’d hoped.
Her fingers inch up into his hair, partly because she’s always been fascinated by it and partly because she’s still determined to win; it’s as thick and soft as it looks, and she allows herself a moment to imagine really running her fingers through it. To think of tugging at it to redirect his kisses and of scratching her nails along the back of his neck to spur him on. Part of her wants to try it now, but she settles for a fraction of what she wants, lightly running her fingers though his hair and back down his neck. She’s pleased when his hands tighten on her hips in response, squeezing just past the point of comfort. His eyes drop to her lips and she presses her fingers into his neck encouragingly. When he leans in, her eyes close, anticipation and triumph surging through her veins, but his lips never meet hers.
“I’ll admit this much, Leslie.” Her eyes snap open at the sound of his voice in her ear; his lips are close enough to brush her earlobe if he wanted. Infuriatingly, they’re not. “You’re making this much more difficult than I expected.”
She does tug on his hair now, not in the way she wanted and definitely more harshly than she might have in different circumstances, forcing him to pull back and look down at her. He’s not smirking, but somehow not meeting her expectations only annoys her more. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Come on, Leslie.” His hands drop from her hips, moving to unclasp hers where they still lay against his neck, but she’s surprised when he doesn’t release them from his grasp. “We both know what’s going on, and I thought I’d play along to give you a taste of your own medicine, but I’m not going to do this. Not like this.”
Leslie fumbles, useless denials and confusion warring in her mind, but Ben seems to take her silence as admission. With a sigh, he drops her hands and walks away, and it’s the sight of him retreating that spurs her to follow. “Ben!” She lengthens her stride, almost jogging to catch him, and continues to call after him as he heads outside. “Ben!”
“God,” he groans, spinning to face her so abruptly that she almost runs into him. “Can’t you ever just let anything go?”
Ben’s eyes widen in surprise for the first time that night, and despite the circumstances, she feels a small surge of satisfaction. Unfortunately, gloating will have to wait. “Look,” she says, “I just—”
“I know, Leslie. I know you were trying to prove a point or get your money or maybe both. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to do this.”
“It certainly didn’t seem that way when we were dancing!” she shouts. Immediately, she fights the urge to wince. That wasn’t the part of his claim that she should have tried to refute.
“That’s not—” He sighs, running his hands through his hair. It’s the most discomposed she’s ever seen him. “I’m not going to kiss you just so you can hold it over my head.”
A multitude of responses run through Leslie’s head. Outright lies—That is not what I was going to do—justifications—Well maybe if you had just admitted you’re wrong—and accusations—How is this my fault? You’re the one who asked me to dance. Any of them would be a better choice than what she actually says, words that come out without thought or intention.
“Why would you kiss me?”
Ben gapes at her, apparently as flabbergasted by the question as Leslie is by asking it. And maybe he’s waiting for her to take it back or trying to work out a plausible denial, but neither would matter. The implication—that circumstances exist where he would kiss her, willingly—already exists, hanging heavily in the air between them.
Ben seems to realize this too, visibly deflating. He shakes his head and shrugs, a broad gesture that admits defeat, but it’s not the concession she wants. “Look, you win. Okay, Leslie? Whatever it is you’re trying to prove, you win. So let’s just quit while we’re ahead and tomorrow we can pretend none of this ever happened.”
He’s already turning away when Leslie closes the space between them, one hand reaching for his loosened tie and pulling him back toward her. Then her eyes close, her other hand finding the back of his neck and guiding him down. His nose bumps hers, but she tilts her head and then his lips are on hers in a hard, inelegant kiss.
It’s not the best first kiss she’s had, too brief and surprising for both of them, but the moment she pulls back, she finds herself wanting to kiss him again. It’s inexplicable; she only kissed him to contradict him, to put an end to his insufferable need to make proclamations and expect her to follow them blindly.
“You don’t know everything,” she says. She’s still gripping his tie, holding him close enough that she can feel his breath on her cheek. “Not about what’s best for my department or for Pawnee, and definitely not about me.”
“You’re right.” He leans into her, forehead pressed against hers, and she shuts her eyes. “Is that what you want to hear, Leslie? You’re right and I’m wrong?”
It’s not. Not really. She wants him to respect her. She wants him to believe in her. She wants him to listen to her.
And nothing she’s done tonight is going to make that happen.
Ben sighs and takes a slow step away from her, just far enough that he can look at her. Then he nods, as though her silence has given him precisely the answer he expected. "That's what I thought."
"No, Leslie. Let's just forget it, okay?"
There's a pause. A long moment where her agreement hangs inevitably between them, just waiting to be spoken. The right decision after a night of following every terrible impulse she's had.
"Is that what you want?"
He swallows, eyes darting from her eyes to her lips and back, and Leslie leans toward him. They're still playing a game, she thinks. Something more dangerous; something she doesn't entirely understand. But she's doesn't surrender easily.
And apparently, neither does he.
"Does it matter what I want?"
He answers the question for her, his hands finding her hips and pulling her close, and Leslie feels her breath catch in her throat. What has she gotten herself into?
He kisses her before she can figure it out.