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Beauty for Ashes

Chapter Text

 

He had almost forgotten how cold Minnesota was. Bitter and howling wind blew outside of the window of his mother’s house as Ben watched the leaves dancing across the grass. He felt a strong shiver run through him as he was poured another cup of tea—a shiver not caused by the frigid temperatures, but by something even he couldn’t explain.

His mother’s voice pulled him away from his staring outside.

“So, how’s Leslie? How’s married life?”

An involuntary smile crossed his lips, the standard, automatic response at the mention of his new wife. 

“She’s doing great. Everything’s great. Sorry, again, about the whole wedding thing. It just happened so quickly and-”

“Benji, please, it’s okay. I understand. I’m just happy that you’re happy.”

He wrapped his hands around the warm mug. “I am happy, Mom. For the first time in a really long time, I’m genuinely happy.”

“I’m glad. Leslie is a lovely young woman.”

“She’s amazing. And she does send her love. She wanted to come but had too much work to get away. Oh, excuse me.”

He pulled out the vibrating phone from his pocket, expecting Leslie’s name flash across the screen, but instead saw her best friend’s

“Ann? Hey, what’s up?” A crease started to form on his brow. She almost never called him, and he couldn’t help the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. 

“Ben, you need to come home.”

~~~~~

They were the longest hours of his life. He was in no condition to drive, but there weren’t anymore direct flights leaving for Indiana that day. He’d be damned if he would wait any longer than necessary.

He made the eleven hour trip in a little over nine and a half, each second filled with panic. Ann called him periodically to update him, but it was all the same.

Car accident. Head trauma. Swelling of the brain.

Coma.

His wife was in a coma and he wasn’t there.

~~~~~

He ran up to the intensive care unit and ignored the looks and protests of the staff. He hadn’t slept in well over twenty four hours, his body running on nothing more than adrenaline and caffeine. He found Ann waiting for him at the nurse’s station. 

“Where is she? I have to see her.”

“I’ll take you to her room, but I want to prepare you first.”

“Oh, God,” he groaned.

“She was in an accident and suffered a really bad head injury. She also has a few broken ribs, but those should heal well in time.”

“You said-” his voice broke. “You said she was in a coma. Is she still?”

Ann sighed. “Yeah, but it’s a medically induced one. There was a lot of swelling in the brain as a result of the accident. They were able to go in and relieve some of the pressure, but the doctors felt this was the best way to ensure that the swelling went down.”

“Has it?”

“Not by much.” Despite her best efforts, tears were starting to form in Ann’s own eyes. “She was also having trouble breathing on her own, so don’t be startled when you see the breathing tube.”

He leaned forward and rested his hands on his knees, trying to regain control. 

“Please, Ann, I need to be with her. I’ve already missed too much.”

She led him to the room and Ben felt sick. Leslie looked so small and frail on the bed, her skin so pale it was almost gray. She had a thick bandage wrapped around her head, and a tube down her throat controlling the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest. 

He walked over to her and grabbed her hand. 

“She’s so cold,” he choked. 

“Part of the induced coma is lowering her body temperature. It helps the brain to focus on healing itself.”

He continued to stare down at Leslie, eventually sitting down at the chair by her bedside. Never once did he let go of her hand. 

“I’m gonna give you some time with her,” Ann whispered. “The doctor should be around within the next few hours to check and on her and speak with you.”

Ben turned to look at her for the first time since he walked into the room. “Ann?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you for being here for her when I couldn’t.”

Tears finally managed to break free from her eyes. “I’ll always be there for her.”

He turned back to Leslie and brought her hand up to his face, gently kissing each one of her fingers. He didn’t know why, but it was one of her favorite things. She had once told him that he even made her fingers feel loved, and she would run them against his lips at every opportunity. 

He laid his head on her bedside and cried.

~~~~~

“Mr. Wyatt? I’m Dr. Richards. I’ve been treating Leslie since she was brought in.” He shook Ben’s hand.

“What can you tell me about her condition?”

“Well, as you know, she suffered a severe head injury and we induced coma to allow her body to heal itself. At this point, we’re waiting for the swelling to go down.”

“Do you know how long that will take?”

The doctor put his clipboard under his arm. “Unfortunately, everyone heals at different rates, so it’s hard to give an estimated time. However, we haven’t noticed a marked improvement in the swelling just yet.”

Ben swallowed. “Is that bad?”

“Not necessarily. It’s not been long since the accident, and these things can take time. The swelling hasn’t gotten worse, which on its own is a good sign.”

“If-when she wakes up, will there be any long term effects?”

"It’s also difficult to say,” Richards frowned. “Because of the swelling, we can’t really tell if any areas of her brain were actually damaged. Injuries of this nature can have no side effects at all, or can range from frequent headaches or nosebleeds, all the way up to permanent speech and mobility issues. We honestly won’t know until she wakes up." 

Ben looked back over at Leslie. 

"I don’t know why, but I’ve just been talking to her. I don’t even know what I’m saying half the time, but I just want her to know that I’m here. That’s silly, right? She probably can’t even hear me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Richards replied. “I’ve known of several patients who swear they could hear and feel their loved ones talking to them while they were in a coma. If it makes you feel better, you talk to her as much as you want.”

The corner of his mouth raised up just a fraction. “Thank you, doctor.”

“If there’s anything else, feel free to have me paged. I’ll be back later.”

Ben took his customary seat at her bedside, grasping her hand. 

“So, babe, did I ever tell you about the time I was Abraham Lincoln in my fourth grade play?”

~~~~~

When Leslie was moved out of the ICU and into her own room, Ann had to threaten Ben with physical harm to make him go home and get a decent night’s rest. He objected at first, but the entire Parks Department joined her side. They assured him that Leslie would never be without someone who loved her.

~~~~~

Three weeks later, Ben had become a permanent fixture at Saint Joseph Hospital. Leslie’s room was filled with flowers and balloons, people from all over Pawnee sending their love and support. 

Two weeks ago, the decision was made to bring Leslie out of the coma. Her ribs were healing nicely, the ventilator was no longer necessary, and the swelling in her brain had gone down. Ben was so overjoyed by the news, he failed to take their warning seriously—just because they were taking her out of the coma didn’t mean she’d wake up.

“All we’re doing is stopping the drugs that ensure that she stays in the coma,” Ann tried to explain. “We hope that within 24-48 hours she’ll wake up on her own, but there is no guarantee. There’s nothing we can do if her body isn’t ready yet.”

Two days had passed with nothing. Ben looked for anything, a jerk of her fingers, a twitching of her eye, but there was no change. Two days turned into three, then a week, and now, two weeks later, she was still motionless.

Family and friends rotated in and out of the room in shifts, but Ben felt some of those visits were more to check on him than Leslie. The past weeks had been emotionally and physically draining for him, evident by the dark bags under his eyes and his even lankier frame. Things like sleeping, eating, or shaving seemed trivial to him now.

It just wasn’t fair. She wasn’t supposed to be in this hospital bed. She should be home with him still basking in their post-wedding euphoria. He knew he should have just postponed his trip for a time when they could go together, no matter how much Leslie insisted he go see his mother without her. His gut had told him to not go, to just wait one more week, but he didn’t listen. 

And now, all he could do was wait.

 

Chapter Text

After three weeks, Ben had memorized the routine. In the mornings, a nurse would come in-- usually Ann if she was on shift-- take down Leslie's vitals and check her IV bags and feeding tube. A few hours later, the doctor would stroll in, take a look at her chart and mutter the two words Ben had come to loathe more than any others: no change.

In the afternoons, he would shoo away the attending nurse and give Leslie her sponge bath himself, now an expert at avoiding the countless wires and tubes protruding from her. He'd gently brush the knots out of her hair, now dull and lifeless instead of its usual bright, golden sheen.

Every so often they'd wheel her out of the room to have an MRI or CT scan or whatever the hell else they did to check on the swelling in her brain, but it was always the same: the swelling had gone down and now it was up to her to wake up.

Throughout the day, he'd be on his laptop, grateful that Jessica was understanding enough to let him do some work from the hospital. He could just as easily find charities to throw Newport money at from here, anyway.

In the evenings, someone, or several someones, from the Parks Department would stop by, bringing most likely the only meal he'd eat that day. He grew more sullen and irritable as the days passed, sometimes barely sparing more than a few short words for the visitors, his voice dry and raspy from disuse.

And every day that came with no change was another day he felt a part of him slip away. He tried to be strong, tried to be strong for her when she woke up, but there was only so much he had left in him. Without Leslie, he had nothing.

After Andy or April or Donna or Marlene left, after the night nurse tsked at him for not taking better care of himself, he would kiss Leslie's cheek goodbye and drive home on autopilot.

He'd take a long, hot shower, strip away the smell of antiseptic and the feel of death and despair that seeped into his pores.

And every night, he collapsed into bed and drifted into a fitful, dreamless sleep.

~~~~~

Ben sat at Leslie’s beside, tapping away at the keys of his laptop when Ann walked in, her stethoscope hung around her next and hair pulled away from her face. Ben almost forgot what she looked like in anything other than scrubs.

She walked past him, laying a hand on his shoulder and smiling briefly. “How are you doing?” she asked, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze.

He shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”

“Really? ‘Cuz you look like shit.”

Ben looked down at himself, took in his rumpled appearance, the pants and shirt that hung even looser on his already slight frame. “As well as could be expected.”

Ann nodded and walked over to Leslie, bringing the stethoscope to her chest. “I don’t know, Leslie,” she said as she worked, “your husband over here hasn’t been taking good care of himself. You need to wake up soon and talk some sense into him.”

She was talking about him as though he was the only one having a hard time dealing with Leslie’s accident. Ben noticed the bags under Ann’s eyes, noticed that her own scrubs were getting a little loose and her cheeks a little less colorful.

Throughout her routine of checking on Leslie, Ann kept talking to her. She was just telling her the most mundane things about her day, about a difficult patient she had a few doors down, about some show that they had been watching together before the accident, something about some celebrity’s haircut.

And the more she talked, the more Ben grew inexplicably angry.

“Why do you even bother?” he finally said, startling her. “It’s not like she can hear you. She can’t.”

Ann’s eyes grew wide and she put down Leslie’s chart. “You don’t know that.” She walked over and sat down in the spare chair next to him. “You used to talk to her all of the time. Why’d you stop?”

Ben refused to met her eyes, focusing on a small tear in the fabric of his jeans. “Because it hurts too much. Because it doesn’t feel like I’m talking to her, you know? Sometimes I think ‘this isn’t Leslie’, and it scares the shit out of me. I think that if she could hear me, why hasn’t she…”

“Why hasn’t she woken up?” Ann finished for him, and he nodded. “You know it’s not her fault, right?”

“Of course I do,” he snapped. “I know how stupid I sound, how selfish I must look to you, but I can’t help it. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t deal very well with stress. I don’t have a good handle on my emotions. So yeah, I’m angry and bitter and distraught and can barely function knowing that my wife, the one person I know for a fact I can’t live without, might never wake up. So excuse me if I can’t talk to her as though nothing is wrong, as though she’ll wake up any second now. I did that for almost three weeks, and it didn’t do a damn thing.”

“You’re being selfish.”

“I’m being selfish?”

“Yes, you are.” She stood up and crossed her arms. “I know how you must be feeling. Trust me. Leslie is my best friend and it’s killing me seeing her like this, but I know that I have to still be there for her.”

“I’m here fucking 18 hours a day. What more do you want from me?”

“Sitting there like lump feeling sorry for yourself at her bedside doesn’t mean a damn thing. You think I haven’t noticed that you can barely stand to touch her anymore unless it’s when you’re bathing her or taking care of her? You have to be strong for her, to be there for her and talk to her and hold her hand and tell her everything’s gonna be okay. Just love her, Ben. That’s what she needs from you. Not some sullen man sitting in the corner cursing the world for how unfair it is and starving himself to death while treating her like some burden you have to take care of.”

She stomped off without another word, Ben too stunned to move or call out after her.

He sat there for several minutes, staring at Leslie’s body, the only movements being the steady rise and fall of her chest.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

~~~~~

Ben had his chin resting on tense, folded hands when a nurse he’d never seen before came into the room.

"Hello, Mr. Wyatt," she said as she checked Leslie's vitals. "How are you today?"

"Where's Ann?" he asked without preamble. He was well beyond the point of pleasantries.

If she was offended by his rudeness, she didn't show it. "Oh, she's dealing with a patient down the hall. She said that she'd stop by once she was finished." The nurse, Kelly her name tag read, glanced over the chart and added the most recent information. "Well, everything looks good, and hopefully soon we can take her in for that ultrasound."

Ben looked up and his forehead creased in confusion. "Ultrasound? What for? I thought they already ruled out internal organ damage."

“Oh, no this would be to check on the fetus. We’ve been monitoring your wife's hCG levels and they still look good, but obviously we want to verify if there was any damage done during the accident, and hopefully she’ll be far enough along that we can see. Don't worry, Mr Wyatt, we're keeping a close eye on the baby.”

Ben didn't know if the nurse kept talking after this point because there was a high pitched ringing in his ears. He dropped his hands and stood up slowly. "Baby? What baby?"

Kelly's huge smile dropped and every bit of color drained from her face. Her mouth opened and shut several times before she could manage to speak. "I'm sorry, I just-- it's right here in her file. I assumed Ann would have told you--"

"Wait, are you telling me Ann knew about this?"

"She must have. It's all right here. We've been trying-”

But Ben stopped listening by that point. The ringing was back in his ears and all he felt was a piercing rage consume him from the inside out. He brushed past Kelly and went in search of Ann.

He found her at the nurses station at the center of the floor, reviewing a patient’s chart and chatting with another woman behind the desk.

“What the hell, Ann!” he yelled, making her jump and drop her pen.

“Ben, what’s going-”

“I’m so sorry, Ann,” Kelly came running up behind them. “I didn’t know you hadn’t told him.”

Ben swung around to Kelly. “No, you don’t apologize to her for lying to me, and you,” he looked to Ann, “what the fuck?! Leslie’s pregnant and you didn’t tell me!”

“Ben, please keep your voice down,” Ann tried to sooth him, but he shrugged off the hand on his arm.

“No, I will not keep my voice down. Leslie, my wife, is lying there in a coma pregnant with my child and no one saw it fit to tell me?”

Ann bit her lip. “Look, I was just trying to protect you, okay? It’s still very early on in the pregnancy, and until she’s far enough along to see anything in the ultrasound, there’s no guarantee that she didn’t already miscarry. You’re dealing with a lot right now and I didn’t want to add onto that until we were sure one way or another.”

Ben stood there, his nostrils flaring as he tried to control his breathing. He didn’t think that he has ever been this angry in his entire life. His entire body was rigid, his nerves twitching and on fire. He wanted to scream and cry and curse out every single person who knew but didn’t tell him. He wanted to throw every damn thing he could get his hands on across the room and punch holes in the walls until he didn’t have an ounce of energy left in him.

He wanted the last three weeks to have never happened.

He leaned in dangerously close, towering over Ann with his face inches away from hers. “How dare you,” he said, his voice now low and raspy and laced with venom. “How dare you keep something like this from me. I don’t care who you are, you had no right to not tell me.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw orderlies walking towards them, responding to his earlier outburst and ready to drag him out of the hospital if necessary. With one more look, he stepped away, his hands up showing that he was backing down. “I will never be able to forgive you for this,” he said before turning and going back to the room.

Before the hour was up, he had officially requested that Ann no longer be Leslie’s attending nurse, never once caring about the tears he saw in her eyes as he walked away.

~~~~~

His eyes were wide and unblinking as he sat next to Leslie’s hospital bed, his leg bouncing rhythmically as his foot tapped the linoleum floor. He stared at Leslie’s stomach, covered in the pale blue hospital gown, and could hardly stand to think about what might be hidden there. His child was growing inside of there--or at least it had been at one point. It might not be anymore.

He was numb right now. After the initial rage wore off, he felt nothing. He expected sadness to take over, despair, tears--anything, but he was just...empty.

The ultrasound was scheduled for the day after tomorrow, and after that he’d know for sure, know for sure if he was needing to mourn for not one, but two people, but until then, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

He’d done his research, started frantically searching Google the second he got back to the room. He knew the chances of the baby being carried to full term while Leslie was in a coma weren’t very high. Maybe that was the reason behind his frightening lack of emotion. Believing even for just one second that something he could love more than anything in the world was already gone was too much to bear.

Ben slowly blinked and looked up when the doctor walked into the room.

“I heard you were making quite a scene earlier today.”

“Everyone failed to tell me that my wife was not only pregnant, but that she might have miscarried. How the hell did you expect me to react?”

“Yes, that is unfortunate. I apologize for the mix-up.”

Ben scoffed. “Yeah, mix-up.”

“Well, whatever you would like to call it has been straightened out now. You now know and I assume you have some questions?”

“Will the pregnancy affect her waking up?”

“It shouldn’t. There have been very few cases of pregnant women in comas, but there doesn’t appear to be any correlation. The only concern is the development of complications later on. But no, the pregnancy should have no influence over when or if she regains consciousness.”

Ben clenches his jaw and nods slowly. “But we don’t even know if she’s still pregnant, do we?”

“Unfortunately, no,” the doctor sighed. “Her hCG levels are where we would expect them to be for someone in the early stages of pregnancy. Thankfully, your wife is very organized and we were able to trace back to her last menstrual cycle. She’s just approaching five weeks which is where we should be able to visually confirm pregnancy via ultrasound.”

“But if her hormone levels are where they should be, isn’t that enough?”

“Not exactly. It can take several days or weeks for the hormones to go back to normal after a miscarriage. I’m going to be very direct with you, Mr. Wyatt. Your wife suffered a severe trauma. There is a very good possibility that the fetus did not survive.”

Ben swallowed and nodded once more before sitting back down, resuming his post at Leslie’s side as the doctor finished his exam and reviewed her chart.

He stopped in front of Ben on his way out. “We’ll know for sure in a few days, son. Just stay strong. Have me paged if you have anymore questions.”

The doctor didn’t wait for an answer, probably knowing that Ben wasn’t going to give him one anyway, and left the room, leaving a crushing, oppressive silence. The air felt thick somehow, heavy and choking.

He just kept staring at her, so small and helpless, machinery helping to keep her alive, and with her, possibly his unborn child. Almost out of nowhere, he felt it all bubbling to the surface, every possible emotion that had been kept locked up now permeating every inch of him from the inside out.

His strangled cry echoed throughout the room, joining the constant beeps coming from the heart monitor next to the bed. He cried more than he had in days, rivaling the first night he spent at Leslie’s side in the ICU.

He cried until his stomach hurt, his lungs burned, his eyes itched. Cried for everything he was scared of losing. For his own selfishness.

That was the worst part. He hated who he was becoming, hated how he put his own hurts and needs before Leslie.

“I’m sorry,” he croaked, burying his face in his hands. “I’m so sorry.”

They were the first words said aloud to her in almost 5 days, and that pained him even more.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were supposed to have the perfect life and grow old together. We’d work and you’d do amazing and wonderful things and make the world a better place. All of our dreams were gonna come true.

“And one day, after you’ve been sick for a few days, I’d come home and find you sitting there on the couch, your face all scrunched in worry but also because you’re doing your best to not let on how happy you are. I’d be confused that you’re home before me, but I’d know--somehow I’d just know that whatever it is you wanted to tell me would change my life.

“You’d pull me down next to you on the couch and just blurt it out because you couldn't hide it anymore. I’d just sit there, staring at your smile because I couldn’t believe it. Once I come to my senses, I’d pull you into the tightest hug and breath you in because you’re the most amazing woman on the face of this earth.”

He stopped, taking in a deep, gasping breath. “And once I could bare to pull away from you, I’d put my hand on your belly, and you’d roll your eyes at me as I talked to the baby, when I tell it how I already love it more than I ever thought possible, and that I’m nowhere near perfect, but I’ll do everything I can to be the best dad in the whole world. I’d tell it that it already has the greatest mother it could possibly ask for, so everything’s gonna be okay.

“I’d rub your feet and go out and get weird food in the middle of the night because a craving suddenly hit you, and I’d hold back your hair as you vomit from the morning sickness and-” He puts his face in his hands and groans. “God I didn’t know how much I wanted all of that until it was taken away from us.”

He wiped angrily at his tears. “But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because you’re gonna wake up. You’re gonna wake up and we’ll still get to have everything we dreamed of. You’re gonna wake up and-” He swallows and clears his throat. “And everything will be okay.”

He reached out and gently threaded his fingers with hers. He had forgotten how cold they were, and he choked back another sob. “You were always the strong one. I don’t know if I can be as strong as you, but I promise that I’m gonna try. And if--if the baby makes it, I hope that it’s half as amazing as you are.

“I don’t know why, but all I can see is a beautiful little girl that looks just like you, with blonde hair and the brightest blue eyes. She’ll be the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen, and the nights will be long because she’ll probably inherit your sleep schedule, but we won’t regret a single second.

“I’ll hold her and rock her when she cries and fall asleep with her on my chest and we’ll just spend hours watching her, tucked in between us in bed and wonder how on earth we could have made something so perfect.

“She’ll always be asking us questions or getting into some sort of trouble because she’s too smart for her own good sometimes, but she can’t help it. She’ll grow up way too fast and I’d try to act like the overprotective Dad when she wants to start dating but you’ll call me out on my shit and know I’m just a softie deep down.

“I’ll never be able to deny her anything and I’ll love her until the day that I die, just like with her mother.”

He brought Leslie’s hand to his dry, chapped lips. “Don’t you see, babe? This is what we have to look forward to. This is what you need to wake up for. There’s still so much left for us to do together, for us to experience.” He shifted in his seat and bit his lip. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can, please come back to me. Come back to us. There’s so much more we still have to do. Together. The three of us.”

For the first time, he placed his hand on her belly and allowed himself to believe.

Chapter Text

“Sorry tonight didn’t go exactly as planned.”

She was spooned up against his chest in bed, their bed in their new house, the pair of them tired, sweaty, and completely sated. His hand was splayed on her hip and her fingers brushed over his knuckles. He could feel the cool metal of her engagement ring and a thrill ran through him.

He could only snort a laugh. “Why are you apologizing to me? You planned the perfect engagement party. Everything was amazing. If anything, I should be apologizing to you because it’s my family that ruined everything.”

“Yeah, they are definitely an...interesting bunch.”

“My brother and sister are a lot more normal, believe it or not. I don’t know how we turned out as normal as we did given our home life, but we did. At least, I think we did.”

“I think you turned out just fine,” Leslie giggled. “But, uhm, how are you feeling about the whole...you know, new sibling situation?”

He shrugged. “Okay, I think? I don’t know, I’m having a tough time wrapping my brain around it all. I mean, my dad is having another kid. I’m a man in my thirties who is about to have an infant sister. Poor Henry has to explain to my niece that her aunt is gonna be younger than her.”

“Yeah, that’s definitely different. But as much as I don’t want to think about your dad’s sperm count, that does give me some hope that your little swimmers will be up to the challenge when we decide to have kids.”

Ben froze and Leslie must have noticed because she twisted her neck to look back at him. “Oh, did I say something wrong? I mean, I know we haven’t really talked about it, but we’re engaged now and I just thought that--”

“Uhm, no, no you’re fine. It’s okay.”

“Are you sure? I know I want kids someday, but we probably should have talked about it before I just assumed, and after this whole thing with your dad, I’m sure it’s weird and-”

“Hey, babe, you’re nervous babbling.”

“Sorry.”

He smiled to himself and gently brushed some hair off of her forehead. “Don’t apologize. I said it’s fine and I meant it. It just shocked me, that’s all. I haven’t really thought about it too much recently, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to have kids someday. Especially with you.”

She turned around in the bed to face him. “Yeah?”

“Of course.” He leaned forward and kissed her nose. “Maybe not right away, though. Wait until after the wedding craziness and you’re better settled in your new job, and I actually have a job. You know, important stuff like that.”

“Yeah, those are kind of important,” she laughed again before settling in more comfortably against him. “But you know any kid of ours is gonna be a genius, right?”

“And probably have your dreadful sleeping schedule and endless energy.”

“But they’ll be super focused, like you. And adorable.”

He toyed with the ends of her hair. “I’m thinking a blond with your eyes, maybe.”

“Hmm, or maybe your eyes and hair.”

“I think we’re literally just imagining mini versions of each other,” he laughed. “Although, I’m not complaining. The world could use a few more mini Leslie Knopes running around.”

“I could say the same for a few little Ben Wyatts, but they’ll know better than to bankrupt a town building a winter sports complex.”

“Thank God for that.”

She sighed. “Wow, this is weird. Good weird, but still weird. I keep having to pinch myself because it just doesn’t seem real. We’re talking about having kids, in our bed in our new house because we’re engaged and gonna get married.”

He knew that feeling. He woke up everyday almost scared to open his eyes and realize it had all been some terrible dream. But then he’d hear Leslie downstairs, puttering around as she made breakfast, or she’d tiptoe into the room and wake him up with warm kisses, and he could breath again.

He pinched her ass and smirked as she yelped. “Nope, I think this is real.”

“Good. Because I don’t think I could handle if this was all a dream.”

“Me neither. I don’t even want to imagine what my life would be like if you weren’t in it.”

She smiled up and him, her eyes drooping as the day finally caught up to her. “Don’t worry. You’ll never have to.”

~~~~~

Ben sat at Leslie’s bedside, his head in his hands as he tried to stop the memories from coming. He had lost track of the number of times that particular one flashed through his mind, the number of mornings he would wake up expecting to find Leslie at his side like he had the day after this conversation.

Their life had changed so much since that night. They got married in the most perfect way, she was settling into her job nicely and doing such great work, and while his job wasn’t one he could see himself doing forever, it was still something he enjoyed.

And they were so close to having that one last thing, that missing piece of the puzzle that would have made their lives even more perfect.

In the two days since finding out about the pregnancy, Ben couldn’t sleep because of these memories. He couldn’t close his eyes without the nightmares coming, without the images flashing through his brain of a dying Leslie, a dead baby he never got to know.

But today was the day he’d know for sure, and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. No matter how stoic his facade or how much he desperately tried not to feel anything, the fear was still there, just beneath the surface.

Because it almost felt like no matter what the results were, there’d be no happy ending. He knew that if they had lost the baby and Leslie woke up, she’d be devastated. She’d blame herself, no matter how drunk they guy was that hit her, no matter what he would say to convince her it wasn’t her fault.

And if the baby had made it and Leslie didn’t wake up...well, he knew the chances of Leslie carrying it to term in her condition were slim to none.

But even if the baby was born prematurely and survived, how could he raise a child on his own? He knew he’d have help, from both of their mothers and their friends, but how could he look at the face of their child every day and not have his heart break that Leslie couldn’t be there? How could he look into their eyes and not see her, not hear her in their laugh?

They’d grow up seeing their mother only on hospital visits, never knowing first hand how much she’d love them, never having her cuddle up with them in her arms and try to sneak extra desserts behind Ben’s back.

Ben wanted to believe. More than anything, he wanted to have faith that everything would work out, but it just wasn’t in him. He was a numbers guy. He spoke the language of facts and figures and statistics, and right now, the numbers didn’t look good.

That optimism and hope was what he loved in Leslie. She had it in such a great abundance it almost made up for how much of it he lacked. She was his opposite in the best possible ways.

He didn’t want to do this alone. He wasn’t even sure if he could.

He sighed and pressed a kiss to her fingertips just as Ann stopped abruptly at the door.

“Oh,” she stuttered, “I didn’t think you’d be here. You’re not usually here this early.”

“What are you doing here?” he asked, narrowing his eyes and dropping Leslie’s hand. “I specifically requested that you can no longer act as Leslie’s nurse.”

Ann clenched her jaw and crossed her arms. “I’m not here as her nurse. I’m stopping in as a friend to see her before I start my shift. I’m still listed as her second emergency contact, so I have every right to be here.”

He leaned back and sniffed. “Yeah, well, I’ll look into that.”

“Seriously, Ben!” Ann shouted. “Why are you being such an asshole? I wanted to know for sure before I said anything and made matters worse, I honestly felt like I did the right thing. I get that you’re mad at me, but are you really going to hold this grudge against me and try to prevent me from being here for Leslie? It’s bad enough I can’t do my damn job and take care of her, but now you want to stop me from seeing her altogether? Is that really what Leslie would want?”

“She’s not really around to ask, is she?” he snapped.

“God, would you just knock it off already and stop acting like a jerk? You know this isn’t what she’d want from you. She certainly wouldn’t want to the two of us fighting. I don’t want to fight you on this Ben. I really don’t, but if you try to stop me, I’ll fight right back, and I know my rights. You don’t have a leg to stand on. I love Leslie and I’m going to be there for her no matter what.”

He hated it, but deep down her knew she was right. But he just couldn’t let it go. He felt so betrayed by her, and there was so much anger and rage brewing inside of him, he needed someone to let it out on. Unfortunately for Ann, she was the prime target.

But just because she was right didn’t mean he was going to admit it.

He took deep, even breaths in a vain attempt to calm himself down, but it barely worked. He glanced down at his watch. “Fine. Your shift starts at 8, right? You have ten minutes. I’ll be back then, and I’d like you to not be here when I do.”

He brushed past her with a huff and no particular destination in mind.

~~~~~

He wandered around the hospital for nearly thirty minutes before coming back to the room. Ann was long gone, and aside from the few nurses that floated in and out of the room, he didn’t speak to another soul for two more hours.

At around 10:30, April walked in, today’s morning delegate from the “Make Sure Ben is Taking Care of Himself” Committee. He’d never say it out loud, but he always preferred it when April came. She didn’t try to drag him into small talk, didn’t want to get him to open up about his feelings. She just brought him some food, sat with Leslie for a little while, then left.

So to say he was startled when April started speaking ten minutes into her visit would be an understatement.

“What?” he blinked, not sure if he even heard her correctly.

She rolled her eyes. “I said why hasn’t the nurse been around lately?”

“What are you talking about? Someone just came in like 20 minutes ago to check on her.”

“That’s not what I meant. You know, the nurse. Ann.”

Ben just sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s really none of your business, okay? Besides, I thought you didn’t like her anyway.”

“I don’t,” she huffed and crossed her arms. “But this isn’t about me. This is about Leslie. And even if Ann is the most terrible person that I’ve ever met, Leslie loves her and she loves Leslie. I don't think it's good for her if she's not around.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, April.”

“So maybe I don’t know what stupid argument you got into or whatever, but who cares? She would never do anything to hurt Leslie, so just get over yourself. You’ve been sitting here acting all angry and moody and being a jerk to everyone, and I actually kinda like it, but it’s not you. Leslie wouldn’t want this. I mean, I hate Ann but tolerate her because of Leslie.” She stood up from her chair and stormed out of the room. “Just pull your head out of your ass and apologize before you ruin everything.”

~~~~~

“Mr. Wyatt?”

Ben jerked his head up from his laptop at the young woman that entered the room. “Yes.”

She extended her hand and Ben loosely shook it. “Hi, I’m Dr. Sanders. I’m the OB on staff here. I’ll be performing your wife’s ultrasound today.”

“Oh, I didn’t think doctors actually did the ultrasounds.”

She smiled softly. “Yes, well, that’s usually the case, but in circumstances like your wife’s, we prefer to look at it ourselves and make a diagnosis.”

“Right.”

“Did you have any questions about the procedure or what we’re going to be doing? I’m sure the other doctors have told you that there’s no guarantee of what we’re going to find-”

“Yeah, I know. The baby might not have…” He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Yes. That’s what I’m here for. We’ll perform the ultrasound and determine whether or not the embryo survived, and then we’ll go from there.”

Ben nodded slowly. “And if she is pregnant, are you sure it wouldn’t put Leslie at a higher risk?”

“At this stage, it shouldn’t. She recovered nicely so far, and there’s still plenty of signs of brain activity. Honestly, the bigger concern is whether or not your wife would be able to carry the pregnancy to term. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many cases like this one, so we’re flying a little blind right now. We’ll just have to see as we go.”

Ben ran a hand down his face and leaned back in his chair.

“I understand that this is a lot to process,” Dr. Sanders continued. “But we’re going to do everything that we can should the need arise. If you have any more questions--”

Ben shook his head.

“Alright, then. In a few minutes we’ll be wheeling her down to the exam room.”

“W-would it be possible for me to sit in?”

The doctor’s eyes widened in surprise, but she nodded. “Yes, of course. As the father and next of kin, you’re welcome in the exam room.” She swallowed. “But, I should warn you, we don’t know the outcome yet. You might not like what we find.”

“No, it’s okay. I know that, but-” He looked over at Leslie and grabbed her limp hand. “I want to be there with her--for her. I need to know.”

Ten minutes later, Leslie was wheeled down to the exam room, Ben right behind them.

As the doctor prepped Leslie for her exam, Ben grabbed onto her hand as though it was the only thing giving him life, and in a way, it was.

“Alright, Mr, Wyatt, let’s see what we have here.”

Dr. Sanders turned on the monitor and a distorted mass of gray, white, and black fill the screen.

Ben held his breath as the doctor stared at the screen, her brow furrowed. With every second that passed, he grew more anxious. He could hear his blood pounding in his ear, his hands shaking and sweaty. There was a sickening feeling of anticipation and dread settling firmly in the pit of his stomach.

After what felt like hours, the doctor’s pensive expression softened, and a smile formed on her lips.

“Well, My. Wyatt, I’ve got some good news for you.”

Chapter Text

“Well, My. Wyatt, I’ve got some good news for you.”

Every bit of air was expelled from his lungs at the doctor’s words, and he could barely swallow past the lump in his throat.

“Really?”

The doctor's smile only grew as Ben stared at the screen. It didn't look any different than what was there thirty seconds ago, but now he knew his child-- his and Leslie's child, was there somewhere amongst the grainy splotches.

“Yup. I know it doesn't look like much, but see this right here?” she pointed to a black blob, “that's the gestational sac, and this little white dot right here is the yolk sac that’s providing your baby with nutrients. It’s kinda hard for you to see, but this area right next to the yolk sac is your baby.”

If his hands weren't clutching onto Leslie's so tightly, he'd have reached out and touched the screen because he almost couldn't believe it.

Instead he brought Leslie's hands to his lips and kissed them as he blinked back tears. “That's our baby.”

But as beautiful as that image on the screen was to him, the moment was nothing but bittersweet. His awe-filled words fell on deaf ears, and there was no reassuring squeeze back from his wife as she looked at the first pictures of their child with just as much excitement. It was a memory only he would have, one that he might never be able to share.

All he could think for the millionth time was that it wasn’t fair.

He kept Leslie’s hand pressed against his cheek as he watched the doctor make a few measurements and write things down he didn’t understand. She at least didn’t look worried, so that was a good sign, he figured.

“Okay,” Dr. Sanders said looking up from Leslie’s chart, “I’ve done some measurements and so far everything looks really good. Your baby is growing normally given the timeline that we have. It doesn’t look like the accident caused any permanent damage.”

He released a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “What about...what are Leslie’s chances of carrying the baby to term? Of the baby,” he cleared his throat, “of the baby making it?”

She gave him that sympathetic smile that he was starting to hate. “It’s hard to tell at this point. Your wife’s case is rare, very rare. There have been so few documented cases of pregnant women in comas. Some wake up and are able to carry the baby to term, some don’t. I won’t lie to you. There is a very good chance that if your wife is unable to wake up, her body might not be able to carry the baby to full term. That isn’t to say that your baby won’t make it. Premature babies are born and survive to live healthy lives every day. Don’t worry. We’ll be watching your wife and the baby very closely. I promise you.”

Ben nodded his head in thanks, but his throat was too constricted to speak. It was all just a waiting game now, but he just kept fearing that time was running out.

~~~~~

Ben turned over and nuzzled the warm body next to him. She smelled like sunshine and the sea with a hint of sunscreen.

Oh, and sex. Definitely sex. Honeymoon sex, to be more specific, which so far, was his favorite kind of sex.

“Hello, wife,” he murmured as his lips nipped at her neck.

“Hello, husband. Did you have a nice nap?”

“Mmmm, I did. You tired me out.”

She smirked and put her book down on her lap. “Well, I can’t take all of the credit. We had a pretty busy day before our little afternoon rendezvous.”

“Very true.” He turned sat up and stretched, feeling his tired bones crack. “So what’s the plan for tonight?”

She beamed as she reached over to pull out their binder for the day. “Okay, so we have dinner reservations at the resort restaurant at six, then later on is the night boat tour. Until then is unscheduled free time.” She looked over his chest and shoulders. “It doesn’t look like you burned any today. You wanna go back out on the beach for a little while?”

“Any excuse to see you in a bikini works for me.”

“Ben, I’m literally naked right now,” she giggled, and he couldn’t stop himself from leaning over and kissing the end of her adorable nose.

“It’s not the same. I can’t explain it, either. There’s just something about a guy seeing his wife in a bikini.”

“Wow, I’m your wife now. And you're my husband."

He reached over with his left hand and played with the silver band on her ring finger. "Yeah, I almost can't believe it. Babe, we're married."

"I know. I was there, remember?"

"It's just so crazy, you know?"

It was her turn to toy with his ring. "I do know. I feel the same way. I mean, we're both the poster children for planning ahead and then we just get married like this. It's not us at all but it felt like the most right thing in the world."

He pulled her into his side and kissed her cheek. “Being with you has always felt like the most right thing in the world. Even when it was technically wrong. I just, I don’t know, I knew  wanted to be with you. Always.”

“Well, you’re mine forever, now,” she said, turning her face into his chest. “And you’d have to be as crazy as your butt is cute if you think I’m letting you go.”

“Don’t worry. The thought never even crossed my mind.”

She hummed. “Oh, so seriously, you don’t think your family is going to be too upset about our pseudo-elopement, do you? I know it’s kind of better that we didn’t have to deal with all of their crazy, but I hope it doesn’t make things worse for you.”

“Nah,” he shrugged. “Henry and Steph really want to meet you, so I think they’re a little upset, but not mad. They definitely understand how crazy our family is. If anything, I bet they're just jealous I got away with not having anyone there. Ulani is like super pregnant, so who knows how that would have worked out anyway. And my mom will understand, I think. As well as your mom, I guess.” He tightened his arm around her waist. “But it doesn’t matter. You’re my family, now.”

“Is it terrible that every time you say stuff like that I get super happy and want to cry?”

“Not at all,” he chuckled. “It’s a bit mind blowing.”

“Totally.” Her fingers started playing with the sparse hairs on Ben’s chest. “So, speaking of which,” she started off slowly. “The wedding craziness is over now, and I’m kicking major ass in my job. You start your job when we get back…”

She trailed off and looked up at him with expectant eyes, but he knitted his eyebrows.

“What?”

“Do you remember that conversation we had when we first got engaged?”

It took a while, but his eyes widened when he flashed back to the memory. “Oh, yeah. Wait, now?”

She giggled again and shook her head. “No, I don’t want to try for a baby now . It’s still too soon. Although, the trying is the fun part, no. Just wanted to see if you changed your mind or anything. If that was still on the table.”

“It definitely is. Maybe not today or next week, but sometime for sure.”

He couldn't help but smile and slide his hand unconsciously over her stomach. He knew there wasn’t anything growing there. Leslie was far too strict with her birth control for anything like that, but still, the idea that someday he’d feel his baby kick his palm at that very same spot warmed his heart.

She returned his smile, looking up at him while her hand covered his on her belly. “You’re gonna be such a great dad someday.”

“Only because you’re gonna be an even more amazing mom.” She started to roll her eyes but he shook his head firmly. “No, I mean it. Look, I love my parents, but they were a terrible example. They let their hatred of each other get in the way of raising us and it hurt. It hurt a lot and left a bad taste in my mouth when it came to marriage and kids and all of that. But you--you changed that for me. I know that our kid, or kids, are going to be the luckiest, most loved people on this planet and won’t ever have to go through what I had to.”

“See? I was right. Amazing dad.” She raised herself up high enough to kiss him, soft and sweet and filled with love. “As much as I love and miss Pawnee and can’t wait to go back, this has been nice. We need to bring our kids back here someday.”

He sighed again, feeling the ocean breeze waft in from the open window. “We will. I promise.”

~~~~~

Ben came back to the hospital the following morning having hardly slept a wink the night before. As joyous as the news was, it didn’t mean Leslie or the baby was out of the woods. If anything, it only made the next few months even more critical.

Walking into the room, he stopped when he saw a tearful Ann quickly wiping at her eyes and standing up from the chair.

“Sorry,” she said in a low, raspy voice. “I, uh, I was going to be gone before you got here, but, I just...I needed to see her and talk to her.”

In that moment, all of the anger and bitterness he had towards Ann was just...gone, replaced by guilt and shame.

“No, I...I’m sorry. You have every right to be here. I was just angry and hurt and took it out on you because there was no one else. I may not have liked it, but I know why you didn’t want to tell me right away. It was wrong of me to try to keep you away from her. I’ll talk to the doctors about getting you back on her rotation. I just hope you can forgive me. We’re all we’ve got right now, and you were right. Leslie wouldn’t want us at odds over this.”

Ann nodded and brought her hand to her lips as her eyes flooded with more tears. “Thank you. Sorry, I’m just...a lot has happened in the last few days and I just miss her so much.”

“I take it you know?”

“Yeah.” She reached out and grabbed his hand. “I know it’s hard right now, but I’m still so happy for you. She’s gonna get through this. She has to.”

There was something else. Ben sensed it, something more troubling Ann that if Leslie were here, she’d fix right away. But she wasn’t, and Ann needed someone. That someone might as well be him.

“Is there something else?” he asked softly, squeezing her hand. “Are you doing okay? I know I’ve been really selfish lately and not even considering how you must be handling this.”

“It’s hard, but I don’t have to tell you that.” She looked up at the ceiling and took a deep breath. “It’s just, I really needed Leslie today, and what was supposed to be the greatest news of my life now feels a little empty. Chris and I,” she stopped again and choked back another sob, “we were trying and trying and I found out the other day that I’m pregnant and I’m so happy but I also feel like the worst person because my best friend is lying in a coma and I don’t know if she’s ever gonna experience this. I want to be happy but then I immediately feel guilty and I hate it. I just want my best friend back so we can go through morning sickness together and trade baby books and complain to each other about how much our feet are swollen and I don’t know if that will happen. It’s not fair that I get to have this and she doesn’t.”

She started crying again, and all Ben could do was step forward and hug her. He was shocked, to say the least, and there was definitely that more than subtle pang of jealousy. But he also knew what Leslie would want, and it wasn’t this.

“Hey,” he soothed, “it’s okay. I know it’s hard, but don’t you feel guilty for one second. This is amazing news, the best news, and no one would be happier for you than Leslie. She wouldn’t want your feeling guilty over something that’s beyond your control to take away from the happiness you should be feeling. She knows how important this is to you, and she’d be happy, no matter what. And you’re right, it’s not fair, but that’s no one’s fault but the person that hit her.”

She pulled away after a few minutes and wiped at her eyes. “I know you’re right, it’s just really hard dealing with all of this. Thank you, though. I really appreciate it.”

“Thank you for being there for her when I was too caught up in my own shit. You’re a good friend.”

She smiled softly and touched his shoulder again. “And you’re a good man, a good husband, and you’re going to be a great father. We all deal with grief differently, but just try and stay positive. It’s hard, and days like today I don’t think it’s possible, but we both have a really good teacher in Leslie.”

He looked over at Leslie, and despite everything, he smiled. “Yeah, we do.”

“Look, I’ve said it before, but I think you’re in a better place to receive it now. Seriously, if you need anything, Chris and I will be there for you.” She ran a hand over her still flat stomach. “You’re this little guy or girl’s godfather, and yours is my godchild. We’re family, and family is there for each other, you got it?”

Ben didn’t know what to say. On some level he knew how much his friends cared for him and Leslie, but to hear it now, to see the sincerity in Ann’s eyes, made it seem real for the first time.

“Thanks. I--I’m still not used to this kind of stuff, relying on other people and letting my emotions out like this, but really, thank you. Sometimes it’s easy to fall back on old habits and feel like I have to handle all of this on my own. I just feel so lost without her, you know?”

“I know.” Ann sniffed again and wiped at her eyes before looking down at her watch. “Oh, I have to start my shift, but I’ll be checking up on her and you throughout the day, okay?”

He nodded as she walked out of the door, taking the chair at Leslie’s bedside.

“Hey, honey,” he said softly, grasping her hand and kissing her fingertips. “Wow, so Ann’s pregnant. Crazy, right? I’m almost tempted to ask if you planned this, cuz I wouldn’t put it past you to time it just right so our kids would grow up literally side-by-side. “Sorry I didn’t talk to you much yesterday. It was a rough day, but we’re going to have a baby, Leslie. I just...I know I’ve been waiting to hear for sure for days, and now that I know, I just don’t know what to feel.”

He moved one hand to lay it gently over her belly. “I mean I’m so happy. Our baby is in here, but at the same time, it’s so hard doing this without you. It’s just not right that I’ll have these experiences and you won’t. That’s why you have to wake up, sweetheart. Not just for me and our friends, but our baby. It’s real and healthy and is gonna need its mommy.”

He tucked his feet up under him on the chair, his hand still clutching Leslie’s as he made himself comfortable at her side. “The ultrasound was so amazing. I wish you could have seen it. It honestly didn’t look like anything but a bunch of blurry dots, but I swear, Les, when the doctor pointed to that one little dot and said it was our baby...I cried. I really did. That weird blur was suddenly the most beautiful thing in the entire universe. You know, the baby is about the size of a grain of rice right now. It’s amazing how you can love something that tiny. But I do, and I know you do too.”

He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to how cold and clammy her skin felt now. “You just focus on getting yourself better and keeping our little one safe, okay? That’s all that matters right now. You and the baby.”

And it was the truth. In this room was Ben’s entire world, and there was nothing more important to him than making sure they both came out of this okay. They had promised each other forever, and he was going to do everything in his power to make sure they made good on that promise.

Their lives together were only just beginning, the child growing inside of Leslie was proof of that, of their love for one another. He was still afraid. That wouldn’t go away until both of them were safe and healthy in his arms, but he wasn’t ready to give up hope that they could still have everything they ever dreamed of.

Because if there was one thing that Leslie taught him, it was to never give up.

Chapter Text

Weeks passed, and spring turned into summer. Ben was hoping that it might be some kind of sign, Leslie making a miraculous recovery as the remaining flowers bloomed and opened themselves to the sun, but that was too much to ask for.

Some days were better than others, but how good could it possibly be given the circumstances?

He spent more time with Chris and Ann, and not to say he was ungrateful for their love and support, but it was hard sometimes. He saw the way that Chris looked at Ann, the glowing pride of a father-to-be, the way he’d unconsciously brush his hand over Ann’s belly, and Ben felt that pang in his heart.

They were in love. They were expecting a baby. They were a family.

They were everything that Ben didn’t have.

He knew they did their best to include him, to try and tone down their behavior out of respect, but there are some things you can’t hide no matter how hard you try.

And Ben was happy for them. He really was, but when they went to bed, it was curled in each other’s arms. It was with sweet, loving words to their baby.

His bed never seemed to be warm enough.

And every day the prognosis was the same: no change.

“She’s perfectly healthy,” they said. “We just don’t know why she hasn’t woken up.”

And every day after work, he came to the hospital and held Leslie’s hand until they kicked him out.

At least the baby was doing well. That was his only consolation. Given this completely shitty situation, his child was okay. For now.

He hated it, but his mind always added that last bit. For now . Because it could change just like that, in the blink of an eye. That’s how long it took for Leslie to get hit, how long it took for her to slip into a coma. How long it could take for everything to fall apart.

But just like every other day, all he could do was wait.

~~~~~

Ben was at Leslie’s bedside when Marlene walked in, another frequent visitor to room 5331. He prepared himself for the usual well-intentioned lecture on how sleep deprived he looked or how he needed to eat more, but it didn’t come.

Today was a bad day for her, too.

Her eyes had their own rings around them, her clothes a little looser than before. She just kissed Leslie’s forehead and took a seat next to him with a weary smile and didn’t say a word for nearly twenty minutes.

“It’s Robert’s birthday today.”

Ben didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t anything to say. He had been wallowing in his own grief that he had forgotten that Marlene had dealt with so much worse. Being a young, single mother literally overnight.

She knew what it was like to lose a spouse far too early. She knew the grief that came with it, and now she might lose her daughter and grandchild, too.

“Marlene, I--”

“It’s harder today. Usually Leslie comes over and we look through old photo albums and laugh and cry together. I tried doing that on my own, and I just couldn’t. It’s too hard.”

Her voice cracked, and Ben nearly lost it. The only time he ever saw her cry was right after the accident. When they didn’t know if Leslie would make it. Not once since then.

“When Robert died, after that initial shock, I didn’t think I could do it. I almost didn’t want to without him. But I had Leslie and together, we did. She was my rock in a lot of ways, which was an unfair burden for a ten year old, but she was. She’s always been so strong, and she never gave herself enough credit. In a way, I was able to be strong because I had her.”

Ben was only a little bit shocked when she reached out and gripped his hand. He squeezed back.

“I’ve already lost my husband. I can’t lose my little girl, too.”

“She’s strong. You said so yourself. She’s strong enough to pull through this. For you, for me, for the baby. For herself. She knows how much we still need her.”

Marlene sniffed and nodded, still staring at her unmoving daughter. Ben saw her bag on the ground with a worn photo album peeking out.

“I’ll let you have some time with her, okay?”

“Thank you,” she said with a grateful smile as Ben stood up and grabbed his jacket. “Oh, and Ben?”

He stopped at the door and turned around. “Yeah?”

“You look like shit. You’re coming back to the house with me and I’ll make sure you eat some dinner.”

Despite everything, he smiled

~~~~~

It felt weird being back in Leslie’s childhood home without her. It was the first time he came here since the accident, and he felt more than a little guilty about that.

He didn’t like thinking about how selfish he had been, but that didn’t make it any less true. Marlene was his family now, and he needed to act like it instead of wallowing in his own self-pity.

He folded his hands at the kitchen table while Marlene worked at the stove.

“Are you sure there’s nothing I can help you with? I’m pretty handy around the kitchen.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, I know you are. You wouldn’t believe the phone call I got from my daughter the first time you cooked for her. Actually, you probably could. But no thank you. You look like a strong wind might knock you down if you stand up.”

He smiled when he remembered the night Marlene was talking about. He hadn’t thought anything of it. Leslie had a hard day and so he snuck into her house and surprised her with dinner. Leslie was so happy she actually cried.

Ben just hoped she didn’t tell her mother exactly how she thanked him…

“Uh, yeah, it’s been hard, but I don’t have to tell you that.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I just…I wanted to apologize for my behavior since this all happened. I haven’t been in a good place, but that’s no excuse for how I’ve been treating the people around me.”

She left something simmering on the stove and sat next to him at the table.

“You’re a good man. I knew that almost from the beginning. And you love my daughter in a way every mother hopes their child experiences. I understand how you feel. I wasn’t the best person to be around after Robert died. I wanted to mourn with my daughter in peace, but after a while, I realized that I didn’t have to go through it alone. You don’t either.” She stood up and went back to the stove. “And you don’t need to starve yourself. You don’t want me to check up on you and make sure you’re eating and sleeping properly, but I will if I have to. Leslie would never forgive me if I let you hurt yourself like this.”

Ben smiled. “Ann said the same thing.”

“Ann’s right.” She stopped stirring the sauce. “You’ll be a good father. I just want you to know that. And if for some reason Leslie,” she paused, “Leslie doesn’t wake up, I’ll do everything that I can for you and the baby.”

He blinked back tears. “I know. Thank you.”

She sighed. “Well, the sauce is ready. I’m gonna carb you up, and there better not be anything left on that plate, you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

~~~~~

He heard the door close from the kitchen and wiped his hands on his (Leslie’s) apron.

“Ben? Are you here?”

“Yeah, in the kitchen, babe.”

She was smiling that cute, confused smile when she came in and set her bags down on the table.

“What are you doing here?”

“I knew you were having a bad day,” he said with a shrug, “and I wanted to surprise you and make dinner. Calzones!” Her face fell and he laughed. “I’m just kidding. I wouldn’t do that to you. It’s just normal pasta. And I’ve noticed that this apron I’m wearing clearly states “Kiss the Cook” and I have not received so much as a peck since you got home.”

Her eyes started to well up as she walked over to him. “This is so sweet of you.” Her kisses tasted like salty tears, but they were happy tears, so it was all good.

“It’s okay. I just wanted to do something nice. It’s not anything fancy.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. “Doesn’t matter. You saw that I was having a bad day and you broke into my house and made me dinner.”

“Well, you told me where your spare key was, so it’s technically not breaking in, but everything else is accurate.” He pulled her over to the stove so he could lower the flame on the saucepan.

“I have the greatest, most wonderful and thoughtful boyfriend in the entire world. And sexy. Super sexy. Looks great in an apron, too.”

“Why thank you. You’re pretty sexy yourself.”

“You’ll make someone a wonderful house husband someday.”

She cackled and he kissed the end of her nose.

“Well, you’re home earlier than I expected and the sauce still needs to simmer some more, so there’s definitely time if you wanted to go take a nice, relaxing bath or something.”

“But what if I want company?”

“As much as I’d love that, I shouldn’t go too far from the kitchen in case the sauce starts to boil over.”

He gripped the end of the counter when she dropped to her knees and unbuckled his belt.

“Good thing we don’t need to leave the kitchen for this then.”

Turned out it was a very good thing.

~~~~~

He didn’t remember smiling this much, or at all really, since that phone call all of those weeks ago.

But here he was, on Marlene’s couch with a family album opened on his lap, a photo of a smiling, semi-toothless Leslie on her father’s lap.

“Oh, she was so happy when she lost her teeth. She didn’t care that it was mid-August. She just kept singing “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”. Drove her father and me crazy.” Marlene laughed softly and ran her fingers over the picture with a wistful smile.

“She still sings Christmas songs in mid-August, that one included. Thankfully it seems that she’s expanded her repertoire, though.”

Marlene turned the page to a picture of Leslie dressed up as the original Batman, Robert next to her as Robin.

“Oh, she loves this picture,” Ben said.

“Yeah, it was the last Halloween before Robert died. We did matching costumes every year. I was Catwoman, of course.”

He chuckled, turning to the last page. Ben knew this picture, too. It was one that she pulled out from her memory box and looked at every year.

It was her tenth birthday, and she’s smiling widely in front of her cake, Robert kissing her cheek.

He coughed and wiped at his eyes. “Thank you. For dinner and sharing these pictures with me and everything.”

She rubbed his shoulder. “Of course. You’re family now, and I think Leslie would be glad that we both weren’t alone today.”

“Yeah.”

Marlene took his hand and squeezed. “She’s going to make it. You can’t stop believing that. She’s coming back to us.”

He nodded. With every passing day it was getting harder to believe, but he did anyway.