It's All Your State of Mind
Author's Note: I should be working on Dexter/Lumen fic (and I am, I promise; though I challenge you to understand how these two couples occupy the same space in my mind), but Ben and Leslie are kind of taking over my world and this idea took over and wouldn't let go. These are obviously completely new characters for me and I'm not usually a comedy fandom writer, so all feedback would be appreciated.
Thanks to Leslie, Ben manages to laugh at himself for the first time in seventeen years. Not the half-hearted, awkward laugh of the outsider trying to play along, to fit in (and failing, always failing) but really and truly laugh.
It feels fantastic. Feels like the first day of spring; like carnival lights and kettle corn; like alcohol without the hangover. Feels like jumping off a cliff and discovering you can fly.
For forty-eight hours.
For exactly forty-eight hours Ben Wyatt, professional misanthrope, believes magic is possible.
And then the inevitable happens and he crashes to the ground.
Someone's uploaded the video of his on-air breakdown to YouTube™ and because that's just how his life works . . . it goes viral.
Ladies and gentlemen, Ben Wyatt. National Joke.
Chris is understandably upset. And he starts talking about Ben taking time for himself, needing to recharge his batteries, which is Chris-speak for 'I might have to suspend you for a time.' For all his cartoonish optimism and legendary softness, if there's one thing Chris Traeger understands it's image. (It's part of the reason they work so well together. Chris is serious about putting their best foot forward, and Ben respects him for it. Because loathe as Ben is to admit it, it's a necessary and useful talent he just doesn't have. See above re: National Joke).
For the first time in three years, Ben leaves work early.
He hates this town. Hates this crazy, messed up, Alta-Vista using hell-hole that tricked him into thinking his life had finally turned a corner, into reading the real-estate section first, and believing something like a corn-maze actually mattered. And really, who wants to live in a town that needs seven time-capsules, a fat coaster, and where the most popular radio show is called "Crazy Ira and the Douche"?
The answer comes in the form of Leslie's picture smiling up at him from the Metro section article on the Chamber of Commerce meeting that he's left open on the kitchen counter for two weeks straight. (It's not creepy and stalkerish if he just hasn't gotten around to throwing it away, right?)
He wants to live here.
He desperately, desperately wants to.
God, he needs a drink.
He's on his fourth beer and just finishing sitting through what might be the worst phone call with his parents ever (he almost asks whether they're going to ground him again . . . except yes, they probably would) when there's a knock on the door of his motel room.
And somehow he just knows who it's going to be.
Even her knock sounds cheery.
For a split second he contemplates ignoring her, just sitting here in the dark, drinking his beer in a completely non-pathetic . . .
Oh, who is he kidding?
He hasn't been able to ignore Leslie Knope since she informed him the Pawnee Municipal building has feelings.
"Hey!" She practically shouts the greeting, all sugar-high and fake enthusiasm. "So I was just in the neighborhood-"
He cuts her off. "There's nothing around here except a Denny's and gas station. Spend a lot of time at the gas station, do you?"
It's meant to be teasing, maybe even a bit flirtatious, because truly he's ridiculously touched that she drove the few miles out of town to the exit where his extended-stay motel is located. (It is exactly as depressing as it sounds). But instead it comes out all wrong, derisive and ungrateful and more than a little mean.
Leslie flinches slightly, but soldiers on. "Okay, so I wasn't in the neighborhood exactly. Though, fyi, that gas station has great coffee."
"Okay," he rubs his fingers to his temples as that fourth beer starts to kick in and he can feel the beginning of a headache, "so, why are you here?"
"Oh, um, I brought waffles," she smiles and holds the Styrofoam container out like an offering, like the answer to all of his problems lies just inside.
"I think this is a little beyond waffles, don't you?"
"Well, I also brought some index cards and notebooks so we can start planning."
"Our response. Now I figured we could start with calls to the local stations in Indy and then up in Wisconsin. Or should we call the national shows first, because they get the widest audience? Do you have any contacts? No you're not really the media type are you? What about Chris? I bet Chris has great contacts. We should call him. Or Anne can call him. She'd call him for us. Now we only have a few hours before-"
"Okay stop!" Ben snaps, instantly regrets it, but everything's unraveling and Leslie is the one who made him pull the thread. "Leslie just stop. There's nothing you can do."
"Well that's just silly talk."
"No. It's realistic. Fighting this just turns it into a bigger story."
"Only if we lose."
"Of course we're going to lose. We've already lost. This isn't about what I did on some podunk town talk show that nobody cares about anymore. This is national. This is millions of people waking up tomorrow morning to watch me make a complete ass of myself and for what? A corn maze and a fat-coaster?"
"Why are you being a jerk about this? This isn't my fault."
"Of course it is!"
It's out of his mouth before he knows what he's doing and Leslie looks like he just slapped her. He wants to add the explanation, to tack on the because. It's your fault because I'm absolutely stupid for you. Because you make me want to tilt at windmills and fight imaginary giants. Because I would do it all over again tomorrow if you asked me. But the words stick in his throat, and instead he doesn't say anything, and he can feel it all start to harden and cement between them like a wall he may never be able to breach.
He takes a tentative step forward, "Leslie-"
"No. No, it's okay. You're right. We're not you're problem."
I want you to be. I want you and Pawnee to be my problem for the rest of our lives.
But he doesn't say it, and Leslie walks away, leaving him standing there holding the waffles like an idiot.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ben Wyatt. Complete asshat.
The memory Leslie's face makes the waffles taste like cardboard in his mouth, but he manages to stomach enough of them to absorb some of the beer and starts to sober up a little.
Unfortunately that only means he can more clearly understand just how badly he's fucked everything up.
Ben spends fifteen minutes fumbling with his phone, selecting and unselecting Leslie's number, but he doesn't know what he'd say and he's afraid it wouldn't be any better.
It feels like he's attending his own wake, and he just drove away the only other person who might care that any hope he ever had for his career will be dead come morning.
Only it's not.
In the kind of miracle that could only happen in Pawnee (and Frank Capra movies, if Frank Capra had a really weird sense of humor) come morning he's become a kind of rallying cry, a folk hero of south central Indiana.
Because only in Pawnee could 'National Joke' be just one step away from 'Town Mascot.'
Well, only in Pawnee with Leslie Knope on your side (but we'll get to that in a minute).
It starts when he makes a late night run to the grocery store with the intention of finding out if he still remembers how to get completely trashed and winds up in the produce section instead. (It actually starts earlier, with Leslie organizing a hundred and fifty phone-calls to media outlets across the country, but again more on that later).
He's always liked cooking, likes the process of watching a meal come together. He has a few dozen simple recipes in his repertoire, and he travels with a set of spices and a good chef's knife. His defense mechanism for a life that would otherwise be made up of fast-food and bad coffee.
Tonight he just wants to prove to himself that he can still do one thing right.
Which is how he comes to be there contemplating the merits of Corn Soup versus Corn Fritters, when someone comes up behind him. "Ben? Ben Wyatt?"
He turns to find Shauna Malwae-Tweep standing behind him, a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile on her face.
"Oh God." He closes his eyes in pain. Really he probably deserves this. "Look, I'm not giving interviews. I just came for some, um, corn."
She laughs, and he can feel his palms start to sweat and his throat dry up. Just when he thought things couldn't get worse. He wonders what the penalty is for losing it in a Food-Mart. Will the police book him as 'Calzone Boy?'
"Leslie's right, you are pretty cute."
"Wha-?" He half get's the word out of his mouth when he pulls the wrong ear of corn and the whole pile starts to tumble down off the table, leaving him scrambling for it to no avail. Finally when he's officially decimated the pyramid, he looks up and asks, "She um, she said that?"
"More or less." She smiles again and gives him a considering look, then puts her tape recorder back in her bag, "You know I was going to ask what possessed you to go on Perd Hapley after what happened on Crazy Ira, but I think I've figured it out."
For a second he can't move and then the implications of what she meant sink in and he goes tearing after her, hops a closed checkout lane and stops her at the exit. "You can't write that. You can't put in the paper that I did this for Leslie. It would undermine her credibility. She doesn't deserve that. You and I both know she doesn't deserve that."
"Okay?" He wasn't actually expecting to win that one.
"Okay, you don't want me to write that story, give me a quote for a better one."
And maybe it's the alcohol or maybe it's the desperation or maybe it's just the knowledge that he doesn't have anything left to lose, but he starts to talk and for once he doesn't overthink, doesn't worry about how it sounds, or what the quote will be tomorrow.
"Look, say I did it because I believe in Pawnee. Because I've been to dozens of towns and so many of them have given up, have accepted that people don't want anything more from their communities than a short commute and decent roads. But this town, okay maybe it's a little unconventional . . . but this town fights, it stands up and it demands more and it cares about making the kind of community that you want to raise kids and grow old in. And if that isn't worth the risk of making a fool of yourself on TV? Well, I don't know what is."
Shauna gives him that appraising, too knowing smile and stops her tape-recorder with a click. "Well, if you feel that strongly about Pawnee, who am I to argue?"
She says Pawnee in a way that means she's knows he's not really talking about Pawnee at all and then slides out the exit, leaving him standing in the middle of the Food-Mart staring back at two stunned checkout girls and a furious produce manager.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ben Wyatt, hopeless romantic.
Of course, he doesn't realize anything's changed until he's driving into the work the next morning with 'Crazy Ira and the Douche' on his radio (He'd change the station, but Tom and Leslie weren't lying when they said 'Tubby-Tony and the Papaya' was terrible).
He's only half listening, until suddenly he hears his name.
"So Ben Wyatt . . . you all remember him, right? I mean how can you forget a guy who basically self-destructs on air? Twice. We can't because it was so awesome."
There's a bridge coming up. If he floors it he's pretty sure he could go through the barrier.
"But seriously people, in an article in today's Journal, Ben Wyatt says that he did it because he believes in Pawnee. Now we don't know what it says about the guy's sanity, but we just want to say . . . You got style Ice Town and we believe in Pawnee, too. Harvest Fest everyone. Only another week to get your tickets. Be there or face the spank-chair."
He can hardly believe what he's hearing.
Chris is waiting for him in the office, twenty copies of the Pawnee Journal sitting on his desk. "Ben Wyatt! Lit-terally the most amazing piece of PR work I have ever seen. Or should I call you Ice Town? I'm going to start calling you Ice Town."
Chris, of course, ignores him. "You should see the kind of press we're getting on TV, Ice Town. State auditors risking personal embarrassment to help raise a town up out of its problems. This is the kind of heart-warming stories that makes our jobs great. Don't you think so? I think so."
Ben thinks his job has pretty much sucked up until Pawnee, but he's past trying to argue with Chris. He's just flipping channels on the TV until he finally lands on the feed from Indy . . .
And there she is, standing outside the lot where the Harvest Festival is going up, smiling her Leslie Knope smile and making him sound like some kind of hero.
"Ben Wyatt is a dedicated public servant who came to Pawnee because of problems he didn't create and went above and beyond to help us recover . . ."
She fought for him.
She fought for him and won.
He finds out later from Tom that Leslie called in everyone (including Anne) to come in at ten p.m. and make calls to every news outlet, website, and talk-show she could think of.
"And where were you, dude?"
Destroying corn pyramids, baring his soul to a complete stranger and making soup.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ben Wyatt, utterly useless idiot.
It's not until five o'clock when she's wrapped up interviews for all the night-time news shows as well, that he's finally able to track her down.
She barely looks up from her paperwork. "Hey."
"So, I-" he stumbles a little. Trying to find the right words and not succeeding. "I owe you an apology and possibly my first born."
That gets him the tiniest flicker of a smile, but there's still this wall between them, this horribly awkward space that wasn't there before he fucked everything up. He wants to tear it down with his bare hands, wants reach out and touch her, just get close to her again.
"Look Ben, it wasn't a big deal. We needed to keep the focus on the Harvest Festival, so I did what I had to. On the plus side, we've gotten state-wide exposure. If things keep going the way they are we'll exceed all projected ticket sales."
"Oh. Um good. That's good. So do you need me to do anything, or-?"
"Nah, I think we've got it covered."
"Okay." He taps the frame of the door awkwardly. It feels like something's ending here, and he doesn't know how to stop it. "Okay."
Ben starts to go, then turns back around.
"Just so you know. Everything I said in the paper. I meant it. All of it. I think Pawnee's fantastic. I think it's crazy and madcap and utterly wonderful and I would do anything for it."
There it is. Cards on the table. Chips all in.
Only Leslie hasn't broken the code, doesn't make the substitution and for some reason he can't bring himself to decipher it for her. Still he holds his breath and waits.
Finally, Leslie puts down her pen and looks up. "Pawnee is pretty awesome, huh?"
It's not the same. The repair is imperfect, the structure unsound. Her smile is a little less bright, her eyes guarded in a way that looks all wrong on her. But he's willing to take what he can get.
"Yeah. It really is."
"Ice Town!" Tom calls after him in the hallways two days later. "Wait up, Ice Town!"
"Yeah, you know I hate that nickname, right?"
"Why do you think I'm using it?"
One of these days. One of these days he's going to learn.
"Okay, fine, what do you need?"
"I need you to volunteer."
Oh, he already knows he's not going to like this, but he asks all the same, "Volunteer for what?"
"This!" He holds up a flyer in Ben's face with a flourish, "Boom!"
It takes him a moment to focus on the words and when he does he thinks he's hallucinating. Reads them three times just to make sure.
"Dunk a State Auditor?" he croaks incredulously. "You want me to volunteer for this?"
"Chris thought it was a fantastic idea."
Of course he did.
"And what makes you think I'm going to say yes?"
Tom points down at the bottom of the flyer where it says all proceeds are going to support the girl's softball league Leslie has been begging him to reinstitute for the past five weeks. "Because I know what a man trying to impress a woman looks like. Trust me, I have a radar for these things, even if you have been doing it all wrong. You my friend are a lost cause, and I am here to take advantage of that."
Ben can't even form words.
"So should I sign you up for five shifts or six?"
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ben Wyatt, future drowned rat.
After that he doesn't have time to think about how much he misses making Leslie smile, or his impending status as a target for charity, or even about how much he hates the name Ice Town that only seems to be spreading. Harvest Festival has exploded and it's bearing down on them like a freight train. It's all he can do to keep up with ticket sales and outgoing expenditures and concessions licenses as more and more businesses sign on at the last minute.
He and Leslie work late into the night, high on caffeine and sugar and blind hope, and there are moments, just moments when she'll look over at him giddy and excited and it's everything he can do not to kiss her.
But he's leaving, and she hasn't entirely forgiven him, and he's never been the type of guy to simply sweep a girl off her feet (or even cause her to lose her balance, really).
Instead he gets up and, against his better judgment, brews more coffee.
This proves to be a mistake.
By Three a.m. she's added five new games, rearranged the parking shuttles, and realized they only have one concession stand selling pork tenderloin sandwiches ("It's an Indiana tradition. It's like not standing for the State-Anthem or something").
By Three a.m. Ben's realized he doesn't know the Indiana State-Anthem and has started fantasizing about taking her on a honeymoon to Washington D.C.
God, Tom is right, he's a lost cause.
The Harvest Festival is a monumental success. Which should come as no surprise. (Leslie Knope was involved, or haven't you been paying attention?)
More surprising however . . . the dunking booth? Not, the disaster he was expecting.
Oh he gets wet. He gets soaked in fact. But there's no malice to it, no anger or vitriol. The first time he goes under he comes up to the sound of people chanting – "Ice Town! Ice Town! Ice Town!" and he doesn't even half hate it.
He hates the sight of Chris going under from Anne's mean fast-ball even less.
"Are you angry with me, Anne Perkins?" Chris asks as he resurfaces for the third time in a row, and Ben almost feels sorry for the guy.
Anne steals the baseballs from the guy behind her with a scream and starts hurling them. "Of Course. I'm. Angry. You're. Leaving!"
Ben winces as Chris hits the water, and catches sight of Leslie standing out behind the crowd and for a second their eyes lock.
Suddenly it doesn't feel funny at all.
It takes him too long to push his way through the crowd, and by the time he's free she's halfway cross the midway.
She doesn't turn, and he doesn't know whether she's ignoring him or can't hear him over the noise. Either way it doesn't matter. This is the last day of the Harvest Festival, and he's chasing after her in swim trunks and a damp t-shirt, and it's now or never.
She heads into the Corn Maze, and he stumbles in after her, taking three wrong turns and winding up face to face with a more graphic visual image of Councilman Dexhart than he ever wanted. "Oh! Oh God!" He squeezes his eyes shut. Hard. "Sorry. Um, have either of you seen Leslie Knope wander by?"
"She went that way."
He turns, unsure if he's going the direction they mean, but he's not about to open his eyes to check which way they're pointing. "Okay um, thanks."
He does a one-eighty, raises his hand in acknowledgement. "Thanks."
Eventually he finds her standing in a dead end, in what he thinks might be the upper right quadrant, but he's really turned around and this maze was designed by a cross between M.C. Escher and a four year old, so who knows.
She whirls like a startled rabbit, and gives him a too sunny smile that doesn't change the fact she has mascara smudges underneath her eyes. "Hey. Hey you! Ben Wyatt what brings you to this part of the maze."
He laughs because he can't help it. Because this is utterly ridiculous and totally Leslie and of course this would happen in a corn maze.
"So I was just in the neighborhood . . ."
It takes her a second, but then she gets it, gives him a half-hearted smile. "Did you come bearing waffles?"
He takes a hesitant step forward, "Do you need waffles?"
She lets out a shaky breath. "Waffles are good any time."
"Ah." He takes another step forward. "Well unfortunately, I'm waffle free at the moment."
"That- that is unfortunate. How about funnel cake?"
"Nope." Another step.
"Fried oreo? Cotton Candy? Frozen custard?"
"No. No. And No." He close to her now, closer than he's ever been and it's intoxicating and reckless and right. "Just me."
It's as if someone else has taken over his body, some bolder, more audacious Ben who's actually daring to reach out and swipe at her mascara stains with his thumb. "Is that okay?"
Leslie laughs, strung out and nervous, "Of course, it's okay. Why wouldn't it be okay? I mean we're colleagues. Good, good colleagues. Hey colleague!"
She punches him in the shoulder.
It hurts. Really hurts, and he drops his hand from her face to rub at what he's pretty sure is going to be a nasty bruise.
"I'm sorry. Oh, I'm sorry. Do you need ice? I'll go get ice."
"Leslie stop!" He reaches out to grab hold of her wrist, but over estimates, winds up pulling her back into him and suddenly they're both stumbling backwards into the corn, a tangle of arms and legs and utter incompetence.
They are both so very bad at this.
And then he's laughing and she's laughing, curled up against him, small and tiny and completely perfect and he just wants to stay here, bruises and all.
"You know," he sighs, admitting defeat, "I'm actually pretty good at my job. I do a budget presentation in front of the state senate three times a year. I even occasionally date. All together I am a relatively normal, competent guy. So how is it, whenever I'm around you, I turn into a walking disaster?"
She ducks her head his shoulder. "I'm sorry about that. Really, I never wanted you to endanger your career."
"That's not what-" He shakes his head and despite his previously expressed desire, sits up. This is too important to do without looking at her. "You didn't deserve what I said that night. Any of it. It was the unfortunate return of Mean Ben brought about by self-loathing and too much alcohol. Can you forgive him?"
"Only if he acknowledges what happened wasn't my fault."
"That's gonna be a little harder."
"Look I don't know what it is you think I did or didn't do to you, but what happened was because-"
She doesn't get a chance to finish because without thinking, without any plan or strategy he's kissing her.
It's the absolute stupidest moment to do it. She's pretty worked up and there's a split second where she's still trying to make her argument even as her hands are coming up to tangle in his hair, but then something gives and she just melts against him, and oh . . .
And suddenly his whole life makes sense, every mistake and misstep, every seeming disaster and utter catastrophe. It's all been leading up to this. Winning the election and getting impeached. Never being able to keep a girlfriend. Becoming a state auditor. Spending three years getting death threats and four years on the road with Chris. It's all so he could be right here, right now, kissing Leslie Knope in a corn maze on the last night of Harvest Fest in Pawnee, Indiana ('First in Friendship. Fourth in Obesity').
"Wha-?" Leslie pulls away from breathless and obviously confused, "okay what just happened?"
Ben reaches out to pluck a piece of straw out of her hair with a smile, "I kissed you, and I'm pretty sure you kissed me back and I'm kind of planning on doing it again."
"Whoa, hold on there, cowboy." Leslie puts a hand out on his chest to stop him, "You're still saying it was my fault. I don't get how you're blaming me for your meltdown."
"I'm not blaming-" he trails off as he looks at her, all serious intent, and righteous indignation, and suddenly it dawns on him. "You still really don't know, do you?"
"What you do to me."
"What do I do?"
The most amazing thing? She's actually, genuinely asking. There's nothing remotely coy or flirtatious about it. How is she even possible? How is this beautiful, competent, totally oblivious woman real? And if she's not, if she's some delusion he's created to help him cope, can he just stay crazy please?
"You completely unravel me. You make want to jump off cliffs and tilt at windmills."
"Really? Noooo. That's just Pawnee, it gets under your skin. It's kind of like a cult that way, no wait, that's a bad analogy because of that time-"
Ben cuts her off with a kiss again. Somehow, he has a feeling he's going to be doing this a lot.
He's very okay with that.
When he finally pulls away, it's to whisper, "You're Pawnee. Leslie, everything I said in that article, everything I told you . . ." He reaches out to tuck a renegade curl behind her ear, "You're my Pawnee."
She blinks, and he can see her mind working, "But you said-"
"Yeah I did."
"And that you-"
"Oh." Suddenly, her whole face changes and he knows all the implications have sunk in, "Oh!"
All at once he feels ridiculously shy and awkward, "Yeah. But you shouldn't feel any pressure or think that you have to say-"
It's her turn to cut him off.
Then just as quickly as it's begun, it's over and she's looking at him with something akin to horror. "You're leaving."
"I don't-" But he trails off. He's two seconds away from telling her he doesn't have to go, that he doesn't want to go, but that's tantamount to saying he's staying for her and you don't do that minutes after kissing a woman for the very first time.
Except apparently in Pawnee, maybe you do.
Leslie is talking, a desperate ramble, that she's "-been trying to come up with reasons for you to stay for weeks, but you're really, really good at your job and there just aren't any and now you've gone and kissed me and why did you have to do that the day before you were leaving?"
And the next thing he knows he's saying it anyway.
"Ask me to stay." She just stares at him, and even though he knows he shouldn't, he says it again, quiet and pleading, "Leslie, ask me to stay."
"I- I want you to stay." It comes out on the barest exhale of breath, tentative and terrified and wonderful. Then with more conviction, "Please stay."
"Okay." He kisses her again, smiling against her mouth like an idiot. "Okay."
"Leslie Knope. Don't tell me you're not ready to talk solutions?"
Before she can respond to that Crazy Ira comes over the speaker system to announce the shift change at the dunking booth along with how much money he needs to catch Chris (somehow this has become a contest to see which of them can raise the most and amazingly he's winning).
"All right it's the last day. So this is your final chance, everyone. Drowning Ben Wyatt, you gotta try it, so your ticket, go and buy it."
Leslie winces. "Still want to stay?"
"Even more than I want to strangle the Editor of the Patridge Record for his obsession with rhymes."
"Okay so we need to get you back." She stands and starts to make her way out of the corn-maze with business-like efficiency, "After all there's a girls soft ball league on the line and you know how I feel about that."
"Yeah, I do."
That makes her pull up short and he almost runs into her. "Wait. Are you saying . . . for me?"
"Let's just say when it comes to guys being willing to make an idiot of themselves to impress a woman . . . Tom Haverford is pretty much the expert. And shameless, totally shameless. Really it's criminal what that man will stoop to."
He's not exactly sure how they make it out the corn maze, because Leslie is kissing him and then they're almost running in her excitement to get him to the dunking booth, and then he's kissing her and they're stumbling forward, and it's all pretty much a blur until suddenly they're in the Midway and Tom's announcing him with a hollered, "Ice Town in the house!"
Ben makes his way through the crowd, hands raised above his head like a boxer, which he realizes a split second too late is totally dorky. But everyone's screaming and yelling high on cotton candy and carnival lights and nobody cares.
He settles on the plank and looks out across the snaking line to see Leslie smiling up at him like he's given her the sun and the moon and the stars in a Tiffany setting.
He holds up his hands again, and there's another roar of approval.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ben Wyatt. Heavy Weight Champion of the World.
And then someone hits the bullseye, and he plummets into the tank.
He's never been happier in his entire life.