“I almost kissed him.”
Ann shrieked on the other end of the telephone. “You almost what?!”
“I was downstairs crying about the whole Dave thing, and he was hugging me and telling me that the man I fall in love with will be the luckiest guy ever, and when I pulled away-- I don’t know, Ann! He was looking at me and I just couldn’t stop staring at his lips. If Abby hadn’t started crying, I might have done something I’d regret forever.”
“Wow,” Ann sighed. “Well, first of all, I doubt you’d regret it at all. I’m pretty sure Ben wouldn’t, either. I know I’ve told you a million times, but you both need to get over yourselves and just get together already. You two are definitely not “just friends”. Especially not now.”
Leslie hugged the pillow that was on her lap. “You don’t know that. I mean, just because I feel that way doesn’t mean that Ben does. He didn’t try to talk me out of my date with Dave or anything like he was jealous.”
“Maybe because he loves you and just wants you to be happy? Maybe he thinks he doesn’t have a chance and gave up on trying? There could be a million reasons besides ‘he doesn’t like you’ why he’s acting that way.”
“And what if he does, Ann?” Leslie asked with a huff. “What if he does feel the same way about me? Then what? Just because we’re best friends doesn’t mean we’d be compatible. If things end badly, I could lose him forever. We’d have this terrible, strained relationship that Abby would get caught in the middle of. I don’t know if it’s worth that risk. But it’s all a moot point anyway. I can’t just ask him how he feels. Not with all that’s at stake.”
“So, you’re both just going to be miserable dancing around each other and pretending that you’re perfectly fine with how things are?”
“If I have to in order to not ruin what we have, then yeah.”
Ann sighed again. “Okay. I can’t tell you what to do. I just want you to be happy, Leslie. That’s all. I know he makes you happy and that you love him.”
“Sometimes that’s not enough. And I’d rather have him as we are now than not at all.”
“Well, I just hope something happens to change all that and you all live happily ever after because you’re my best friend and you deserve it. Now, I gotta go start my shift at the hospital. You okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Thank you for listening.”
“Anytime. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Leslie ended the call and placed her cell on the nightable, curling into the sheets and trying her best to fall asleep before Abby woke up for her next meal.
Except her brain wouldn’t stop. All she could think about was what Ann had said, about her not doing anything but things still falling apart.
She didn’t think she could survive without him--especially not now. When she saw her future, it always had him in it. She couldn’t imagine that with Dave--with anybody.
It killed her.
Oh, God, why did it feel like an elephant was sitting on her chest? Like breathing was just too much work?
She turned on her side and tried to cocoon herself under the layers of blankets like they’d save her from the crushing hopelessness.
Ben’s footsteps echoed down the hall as he got ready for bed, but just when they should have walked past her door, they stopped.
Oh, no. No no no no. He was coming in to check on her. She kept her back turned and tried to keep her breathing even. She just couldn’t talk to him right now, especially since she knew she was only seconds away from crying all over again.
She didn’t respond when he whispered her name, or when the bed dipped as he sat down.
Her cover was almost blown when he slowly stroked her hair away from her face and kissed her temple. It was so soft, like she imagined it felt when he kissed Abby goodnight.
“I’m so sorry for everything,” he whispered so quietly, she almost didn’t hear it. “I wish things turned out differently for you. For us, even, I guess. I wish--” He sighed, and it was the most defeated sound in the world. “I don’t know what I wish for anymore. I just know I wouldn’t trade you or Abby for anything in the world. I guess I just wish that I could be enough to make you happy.”
The second kiss on her forehead lingered longer than the first, and it took every ounce of self control to keep her eyes closed until the door shut behind him.
Tears she didn’t know she had come again, but stronger this time.
Because now Leslie knew how Ben felt, and she still had no fucking idea what to do about it.
The days stretched to weeks, and instead of things between her and Ben getting better like they should have, they just got worse.
Was it all her fault? Yes.
Was Ben doing everything he could to be the perfect friend and father while Leslie kept avoiding him or making situations weird and awkward? Hell yes.
But she just couldn’t help it. It was one thing to have feelings for your best friend but not act on them because you knew the other person didn’t feel the same way. But now? Now that she knew Ben probably wanted to be with her as much as she did?
It was hell. It shouldn’t be. If Ann knew, she’d tell Leslie to get her head out of her ass and be grateful she had the confirmation she needed to actually pursue this thing.
Instead, it made everything so much worse because she just couldn’t do it.
God, what was wrong with her? Anyone would kill for this. It wasn’t like she was interested in anyone but Ben, and Leslie’s pretty sure she’d want to gouge out the eyes of anyone that Ben dated. So, what was the problem?
She was. She was the problem, as usual. She could take risks and giant leaps of faith in almost every aspect of her life, but not this.
Leslie picked at the edges of the binder sitting at her desk. Questions about the job. As if she needed another wrench thrown into her life, here came Grant Larson with the literal opportunity of a lifetime.
The job was hers. All she had to do was tell him yes, and she’d be on her way to Chicago to run a branch of the National Parks Service.
But that would mean leaving behind everything she knew. Her jobs, her friends, her family.
Could she do that to him? Leave him and take Abby with her?
It could be the answer she’d been looking for. A fresh start away from Ben to get over whatever feelings she had for him. A way for Ben to let her go, too.
Good Lord, what a fucking mess.
There was a soft knock on the door that startled her out of her pity party. Ben stood there with her lunch bag in his hands looking like he was trying not to spook a wild animal.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. You ran out of the house so quickly today that you forgot your lunch. Just wanted to drop it off.”
“Oh. Thanks. Sorry about that. You didn’t have to bring it to me. I could have gotten something.”
He just shrugged. “It’s not a problem. Besides, I know that if you didn’t have this, you’d either work straight through lunch or get something ridiculously unhealthy. This way I know you’re forced to eat a little better.”
Damn him. Damn him and his thoughtfulness and cute smiling face and tight butt.
She stayed silent, staring at the bag without blinking.
“Uhm, yeah, okay,” Ben said after clearing his throat. “I’ll just leave this here and get back to work.”
He walked over to her desk to drop down the lunch bag, his eye catching the binder in front of her.
“ Questions about the job . What’s that for?”
“Nothing,” Leslie practically shrieked as she threw herself over the binder. “It’s nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing.”
“Right, cuz you you’d totally be that protective and secretive about something that was nothing. Does it have anything to do with why you’ve been so… different lately? Preoccupied and distant?”
Leslie clutched the binder to her chest. “No, I haven’t.”
“Leslie, I’m not stupid. You’ve been acting differently around me for weeks. I mean, we practically live together and hardly ever talk anymore. So, either something at work has you worried or I’ve done something. And either way, I’d really like for us to talk about it before things get worse.”
Leslie huffed. “I thought you Minnesotans never talked about your feelings and just bottled them up inside. What happened to that ?”
“I moved here and became best friends with someone that always told me it’s better to be open and honest about your feelings than keep it all inside. I watched how not communicating about things tore my parents’ marriage apart, and would really rather that not happen to us.”
“We’re not married,” Leslie said back, and God, why was she so stupid? She wasn’t wrong, but the look on Ben’s face for just a millisecond made her want to crawl into a hole and die.
But then that composed face came back. That look that said whatever he was feeling was being locked away so he could focus on the problem.
“Right. You’re right. We’re not married, and we’re not in a relationship. We’re just two friends raising a baby together and basically living together that have barely spoken in weeks. I mean, why should I care that my best friend hardly talks to me anymore, right? We used to talk about everything, Leslie. I know something’s upset you, and it’s either something at work, or it’s me. I’d like to know what it is so we can work it out and go back to how things were.”
“And what if we can’t go back to how things were? What if everything’s changing forever and things won’t ever be the same?”
Ben took another step closer to her desk. “Then we figure it out. Leslie, we’ve gone through some huge things together and survived. We have a baby together, for crying out loud. That changed everything, but only made things better, right?”
Leslie didn’t have an answer. A few months ago, she would have agreed without hesitation, but not today.
“Right?” There was no hiding the desperation in his voice this time around. “You don’t regret--”
“No, not I don’t. Not at all. It’s just. Things are more--complicated now, that’s all.” She sighed and put the binder back down on her desk. “You’re right. I haven’t been honest with you. A few weeks ago, Grant Larson came to tell me that we won’t be getting National Park status, which sucked, but then he told me he read my Pawnee River proposal and offered me a job.”
“Yeah. He wants me to run the Midwestern Branch of the National Parks Service.”
Ben’s eyes went wide. “Oh my God, Leslie, that’s amazing.”
“I mean, it’s very flattering, but that would mean giving up my job here. Leaving City Hall and the Parks Department. And Pawnee. I’d have to move to Chicago.”
It took a while for it to all catch up in Ben’s head, but once it did, he slowly lowered himself into a chair next to Leslie.
“Oh, wow. Chicago.”
“Yeah. Not exactly around the corner.”
“No, not really. But this job, do you want it?”
Leslie bit her lip. “I think so? I don’t know, there’s so many things to consider about leaving and--”
“No, Leslie, just think about the job. Forget everything else. If this job were here, would you take it?”
“In a heartbeat. It’s--it’s my dream job.”
Ben nodded slowly, like he knew the answer all along. “Then--then I think you should seriously consider it. It’s an amazing opportunity to do something you love. As for everything else, we’ll figure it out.”
“It can’t be that easy,” Leslie said. “There are so many things to consider. I mean, it’s Chicago! I’d be moving with Abby to Chicago and away from you.”
“I’m sure Chicago could use another accountant, right? Shouldn’t be too hard to find something out there.”
“You’d be willing to move?”
“Sure. I could find a job there and still be able to be close to Abby. Help you out during the job transition stuff.”
Damn him. Damn him to hell.
“I-I can’t ask you to do that.”
He sat back against the chair and gave her a confused look. “What do you mean? You’re not asking. I’m offering. I want to.”
Leslie quickly stood and started pacing around her office. “But, you can’t. No, that’s too much. You can’t leave Pawnee, your friends, your job, everything that you love for me. I don’t even know if I am willing to move for this job. But I’d be crazy not to take it, right? It’s my dream job. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted. But no, you--you can’t move.”
It was Ben’s turn to stand. “So, you can move away with Abby and leave everything behind, but I can’t? That doesn’t seem very fair.”
“Ben, you don’t understand--”
“No, I really, really don’t. Please, I’ve been wanting an explanation for your behavior for weeks now.”
Leslie did her best to calm herself with a deep breath. “Look, it’s just that, uhm, I’ve been thinking that we’ve been needing some space recently and--”
“Okay, but space is me spending more time at my place, not you moving two hundred miles away.”
“But don’t you get it? I can’t be the reason that you move to Chicago and leave everything you know and love behind. We can definitely work things out when it comes to Abby, but you’ll eventually resent me for making you move and--”
“Leslie, what makes you think that I would resent you for any of that? I want to live near my daughter and I want be near you.”
Leslie slumps her hip against her desk and tries to make her voice sound a lot stronger than it is.
“You say that now, but what if you change your mind? You love Pawnee and the life you’ve built here. That’s why you stayed.”
Ben put his hands in his hair and pulled. “Dammit, Leslie. Yes, I do love it here and thought I could build a life here, but that was all because of you! ”
“No, I need to say this. It’s been killing me for so long, and I don’t have anything left to lose. Not now. I want to move to Chicago with you because I want you to be happy. I want you to have the job you deserve. Because I love my daughter and can’t imagine not seeing her every day. Because I can’t imagine not seeing you everyday. I love you, Leslie, and I can’t let you think that I would ever resent you or stop loving you if you take this job in Chicago.”
Leslie hung her head, blinking back tears. God, this is so much harder than she thought it could ever be.
“I know,” she whispered. “I know...how you feel about me. I’ve known since the night that everything happened with Dave.”
“Oh.” It took a while, but Leslie saw the moment it all clicked in his mind. “Ohhh. You-you heard all that?”
“And that’s why you’ve been acting weird. Even before all of this new job stuff.”
Ben let out a long, heavy sigh. “Right, okay that explains a lot. Look, Leslie, I never meant to make you feel uncomfortable or anything. Just because you don’t feel the same way doesn’t mean that have to stop being friends or that I don’t still care about you. I--”
“I didn’t say that I don’t feel the same way.” She looked up slowly and saw that faintest glimmer of hope in his eyes--like he was trying to hold back and not get too happy too soon. “It’s just, what happens next? So, we love each other, then what? What if we do this thing for real and then we end up screwing it all up? We would lose what we have and then Abby will have two parents that can’t stand each other. I can’t lose you, Ben.”
“You--you love me?”
Oh, God, more tears.
“Yeah, I think I have for a while, but I’m so scared that it isn’t enough. I thought that maybe me moving to Chicago and getting some distance would put things into perspective. Give us both a chance to move on.”
“I don’t want to move on from you.”
“But aren’t you scared? Scared about everything being ruined forever?”
Ben took a few steps closer and reached down to grab her hand. “Of course I am. I’m terrified. You aren’t the only one that has these fears and doubts, but didn’t we feel this way before Abby got here, too? And look how amazing that turned out. What if this is finally our chance?”
Leslie refused to look him in the eye, and after a few minutes, he dropped her hand with a sigh.
“Take some time to think about it. I know you have a lot on your plate right now. Just please--really think about giving us a chance. The way I see it, you can move to Chicago and we try to move on from one another, but aren’t we going to lose each other that way, anyway? I know things won’t be the same after that. At least if we give us a try, there’s a chance it could work and we get to live our happily ever after.”
He was right. Things wouldn’t be the same no matter what, anymore. Things could fail miserably for a thousand different reasons, but if it worked…
“I do need some time to think about everything, okay? It’s so much happening at once. But I will seriously think about it all, I promise.”
Ben nodded, his smile tight but not angry. Just...resigned.
“Okay. In the meantime, I’ll give you some space. I can pick up Abby from your Mom’s tonight and take her to my place, if that’s okay.”
“Uh, yeah. T-that's fine.” Ben turned to leave, but she grabbed his sleeve. “For what it’s worth, I do love you Ben. So much. I think that’s why I’m having such a hard time with this. I just don’t want you to think that I don’t.”
He gave her one last sad smile before walking out of the door.