Beautiful Mess

Author's Note: This was written for Hiatus Fest over at the leslie_ben livejournal community. For the six word "Shorts" prompt. Except it's not particularly short, and I'm very late, and while I used all the prompts I wound up taking them in some very non-literal and somewhat tenuously related directions. I hope everyone enjoys it all the same.


Dark

It's night when Ben finally gets back to Indianapolis. He'd spun the final hours out too fine, lingered too long, waiting for something, anything . . . doesn't know what exactly.

But he knows it didn't come.

And he stands in the dark, in the middle of his apartment, trying to figure out what he's doing, how he got here.

Tries to figure out why he ever thought he'd wind up somewhere else.

Because really this was never going to play out any other way. He's not that type of guy. He looks before he leaps. He makes lists; he crosses things off. He trusts facts and numbers and risk-benefit ratios.

And the calculations were never in his favor.

What was he supposed to do? Pull up stakes and move to Southern Indiana on a prayer, a possibility, a hope with no foundation?

Ben's got dreams of his own. Things he wants to do that are never going to happen in Pawnee. Small towns don't elect outsiders, and no one votes for the guy who fired everyone you know (just the guy who fired the people you don't). Moving to Pawnee would be career suicide.

And for what?

He's never even kissed her. She never said stay.

He goes to bed without turning on the light.

Tries to ignore the fact that none of his dreams that night have anything to do with winning an election.

))

It doesn't hit her until Monday when she walks by his office, and it's not his office anymore.

It's odd not to see him there. Ben's a morning person, in before everyone, even her. Leslie's grown used to finding him, shirtsleeves rolled up, bagel half-eaten, already deep into expense reports and budget projections. To bringing him coffee because he joked once that if she was going to run fifteen new ideas by him before eight, he needed more caffeine. She's come to look forward to that half-hour before the world intrudes when it was just the two of them.

But the office is dark and his desk is clear and there's nothing, only the space where Ben used to be.

And she's got a latte in her hand and no one to give it to.

She leaves it on April's desk.

Two hours later, April shows up in her doorway.

"This latte's cold."

Leslie smiles. It's the closest the girl's ever come to saying 'thank you.' Andy really does bring out her best side. "You're welcome, sweetie."

"So are you giving me Ben's latte now? Cause, if so, could you buy it later? I don't get in before ten."

Tom looks over, "What the hell? Why does she get Ben's latte?"

"No. Nobody is getting Ben's- Wait, what makes you think it was his latte in the first place?"

Tom looks at her like she's crazy.

April just rolls her eyes and leaves.

Leslie feels like she's missing some piece of the puzzle, but can't yet see the outline.

She texts Ben that afternoon, and tells herself it's not weird.

Bought your latte this morning. April drank it.

Five minutes later her phone buzzes.

Forgot to get coffee. Nearly fell asleep in meeting.

The next morning, she picks up her phone before she goes to get into the shower and types.

Buy coffee.

When she gets out, there's a message waiting.

No latte.

For some reason the words make her want to cry.


Autumn

The leaves change in Pawnee two weeks after Ben goes back to Indianapolis, turning the town into a patchwork of warm golds and deep reds everywhere you look. They've started a Farmer's Market on the Festival Grounds (They leave up the Wamapoke atrocities exhibit), and she loves to come here on a Saturday morning. Loves to watch the community come together to eat Sweetum's new Farm Dazes carmel corn and marvel at the vegetables like they're new and exotic offerings from some foreign land.

It's beautiful, and she wishes Ben could have seen it this way. Could have gotten a chance to experience what he helped to save.

Idly she snaps a picture and emails it over to him.

Look what we did.

She's walking back to her car when her phone rings. The sight of his picture on her screen makes something inside her ache even as she grins at that ridiculous green and orange plaid shirt he was wearing the day she took it.

"So vegetables in Pawnee. This is new."

And just like that it's as if nothing's changed.

"Yeah, we're, um, we're trying something different. I give it a month before everyone switches over to fried oreos."

"Well, really who can blame them? I mean salad. It's barely a food."

"It is. It's almost as bad as a calzone. And we all know how pointless that is."

"Completely pointless."

Leslie laughs, pockets her car keys, and wanders back into the melee of people, because she wants to experience this with him, even if it's vicarious.

"Where are you?"

"The, um, the office actually. I know, I know 'numbers robot,' but there's a report-"

"Go outside."

"Sorry?"

"Just for fifteen minutes. Come on Ben just unchain yourself from your desk for fifteen minutes, and enjoy the day with me."

"I don't know they keep us locked up pretty tight. I'd have to slip past the guard." But there's a rustle of a jacket and the change in his breathing that says he's walking and then she can hear traffic in the background.

"Successful jailbreak?"

"And I didn't even have to strangle anyone with my handcuffs."

"Well, I'm sure you were very stealthy. Okay so what do you want to see first?"

"Umm-"

"Oh look, they're selling hot cider."

Ben laughs, "Well, we should definitely do that then."

Leslie wanders from stall to stall listing the produce for him, listening to him get excited about roasted butternut squash and fresh apples in a way that almost makes her wish she had tried his soup despite never being a fan of chicken noodle.

She holds up the phone for him to hear Andy's band playing for tips, and he laughs when she describes the sight of April glaring people into giving more money. He tries to convince her to buy a box of wild Chanterelle mushrooms because "they're amazing with eggs."

"That's awful."

"No it's good. Look I'll make it for you sometime-"

He breaks off.

Leslie closes her eyes.

And just like that the illusion's broken.

The silence stretches for what feels like an eternity. Then Ben exhales softly. "So I should, um, I should really get back."

"Yeah, yeah, of course. I've kept you way too long. It's been like-" she glances down at her watch, "Oh gosh, it's been over an hour. I'm so sorry."

"No, no it's okay. I'm glad you called. It got me out. I went for a walk along the canal. Got a hot cider at the coffee shop. Best part of my day."

"Really?"

"Really."

And this is the point where one of them should say goodbye. But they're not saying anything.

Finally Leslie comes up with something. "Hey, I never asked you. When do you head out to Snerling?"

"I don't actually. They sent another team."

"Oh. So where do you go next?"

"Nowhere. I mean I'll be here in Indy for the foreseeable future."

"They benched you?" she can't believe what she's hearing. After everything he did for Pawnee.

"No, they- they transferred me. Well kind of, I'm on loan to the Attorney General's office as a consultant for a fraud prosecution. It's actually sort of a promotion."

"A promotion. That's great. That's so, so great." And she's happy for him, she really is. Because he deserves only good things, deserves to have a great, successful life, and who cares if it's happening for him ninety miles away. So she makes herself smile a little broader, stand a little straighter, and gives the air a fist bump she knows he can't see, "Hey, take that curse."

"Yeah." Ben whispers, "Take that."

))

After the Farmer's Market, Leslie starts emailing him pictures of Pawnee's fall foliage like it's a compulsion. Like she's afraid that living in Indy he might have forgotten what a tree looks like.

Ben doesn't tell her there's park across from his office building and two trees just outside his apartment window.

He likes it too much. Likes waking up to the sight of Ramsett Park at dawn, being pulled away from an asset analysis for a picture of children playing in freshly raked leaves. Likes the thought that she's thinking of him.

He prints them out and puts them up in his living room. Photo after photo until his wall is a riot of joyous color. The celebratory shrine of someone who may have lost his mind just a little bit. But the sight makes him smile, and you don't spend time in Pawnee without learning crazy isn't necessarily bad.

Halloween comes and the email he gets that evening isn't Leslie's but Tom's. The Parks Department running a pumpkin patch and carving contest. Everyone (and somehow this always means Ann and Andy too) posed in matching t-shirts and smiles. Andy wearing a pumpkin on his head. April blocking the camera lens with her hand. Ron with a row of carving tools laid out like surgeon's instruments and a scowl that makes Ben shudder from ninety miles away. Tom with his Snakehole Lounge t-shirt and 'Tommy Fresh' jack-o-lantern. Leslie . . .

His breath catches.

Leslie kneeling down in the patch with a little girl searching for the perfect pumpkin.

The photographer's caught her in profile, and she's looking not at the camera but the girl, smiling at her in that bright beaming way, and god that little girl, delicate features and light brown hair and utter adoration for the woman helping her . . . she could be his daughter.

Could be their daughter.

He almost deletes the file.

That's a normal response. An appropriate response. The response that says 'I'm moving on. I'm living my life.' The one that doesn't lead to insanity and restraining orders.

He adds them to the wall.

All except one.

He keeps Leslie on his phone, in his pocket, at his fingertips. Changes it to her profile picture so it's the first thing he sees every time she calls.

He doesn't know whether that's more healthy or less.


Touch

Human contact is a funny thing.

Before Pawnee (and that's how Ben subdivides his life now. Before Pawnee and after, before corn mazes and curses. Before controversial time capsules and secret handshakes and kind-of-small celebrity ponies. Before he met Leslie, before he fell- Well just before all that.) In that before, he didn't touch people. If he thinks about it, he estimates he could go months without contact that extended beyond a handshake. And the funny thing was, he never noticed the absence, never missed it.

He notices it all the time now.

Now in the echo, the fading memory, he realizes just how often he touched her, tiny, innocent, meaningless touches that seem to mean everything now—a hand on her back, the brush of shoulders at the bar, her fingers on his forehead, the full body-press of her hug.

They talk almost everyday. Text messages and photographs and phone calls. She calls during a break in a town-hall meeting to ask his advice on a playground proposal like he has some kind of expertise. He finds a Farmer's Market on the west side of Indy and drives out on Saturdays to walk it with her. She texts him on a Sunday that there's a Star Wars marathon on and even though he has the DVD box set, they spend the day watching it together commercials and all. (That's the day he calls his cell phone plan to up it to unlimited).

He goes out for waffles to an all night diner at midnight and talks Leslie through the Parks budget for the coming fiscal year like they're right across the table at J.J's.

But they're not. And a cell phone is a terribly poor substitute for the flesh and blood reality of Leslie Knope.

He feels the loss of her like an amputee. Making do with a prosthetic and knowing it will never be as good.

Ben takes a bite of his waffles and wonders if that's what Leslie tastes like. Wonders if he missed his chance to find out.

))

Ann takes her out to the Snakehole Lounge on Thursday night for girl time, which somehow translates into an incredible amount of tequila. But Chris has come back as the temporary city manager and judging from the pink streak that's joined the fading red one in Ann's hair, she's not exactly taking it well. So tequila it is.

Half way through the evening, Ann flops down on one of the couches and motions her over with a conspiratorial smile that's a disturbing combination of six-year old girl and super villain.

"Look what I got!" she giggles, holding up a coaster like it's a winning lottery ticket.

Leslie blinks dumbly down at the phone number for some guy named Joshua and tries to figure out exactly why this is cause for celebration. She can't remember the last time Ann came here and didn't walk out with at least three phone numbers, wanted or unwanted. Though lately it seems that they're more wanted than usual. Still, Leslie hasn't quite decided whether she wants to say anything about it.

And then apparently the three tequila shots she's had have decided for her, because she's saying it anyway. "What happened to less man time, more Ann time?"

"Wha-?" Ann shakes her head, "No. No, for you." She presses the coaster into Leslie's hand, "He's from Eagleton. Works in their- in- No wait hold on . . ." She shakes her head, "Doesn't matter. But he's totally cute and the Harvest Festival was all he could talk about. So I told him I knew you. I think he's got a cruuuush."

Ann sing songs the last part, and Leslie swears she's half a minute away from 'Leslie and Joshua sittin' in a tree.'

"I don't know." She looks down at the number, "I've got a lot of things going on."

"Yes many important phone-calls and emails."

"Exactly."

"And all those Saturdays at the Farmer's Market."

Well, Leslie's not exactly sure how the Farmer's Market fits in, that's just Ben. Doesn't have anything to do with work at all. But Ann's pretty drunk and she doesn't want to confuse her so she nods. "Yeah, precisely."

Ann stares at her, then sighs.

"Okay that's it. I'm calling him over." She stands up on the couch and starts windmilling her arms like a crazy person. "JOSHUA!"

"What are you doing?"

"Getting you back out there. Remember how you wanted me to fix you up with Justin after Dave left because you were worried about repeating your Mark phase all over again? Trust me you need this."

"I broke up with Justin months ago."

There's that stare again.

And she doesn't get a chance to ask Ann what it means, because sure enough a tall, lanky blonde with horn-rimmed glasses, and she has to admit a pretty amazing dimples, is making his way over. And okay he's maybe the hottest guy who has ever smiled at her like that but really she highly doubts the Snakehole lounge is the place to establish the existence of common interests and good lord, does Ann expect her to stand on a step stool to kiss him?

"Hey."

"Heeeey." Ann pulls him down onto the couch beside her, and there's an awkward moment where she has to climb over him to make sure he's sitting next to Leslie. "So this is Leslie. Joshua say hi to Leslie. And this is Joshua. Leslie say hi to Joshua. Awww you to are so cute together. Okay, I'm gonna go."

"Hey." Joshua says again. Conversational skills do not appear to be his forte.

"Will you just- Just excuse me one second." Leslie doesn't give him a chance to respond before she's up off the couch.

She catches up with Ann by the bar. "What are you doing?"

"What are you doing? There is a really cute guy over there who already thinks you're some kind of superhero. So unless you're dating someone I don't know about . . ." She lets the question hang in the air like she actually thinks that might be a possibility.

"Pffft. Like I could keep a secret from you."

There's that stare again.

"Okay that's it. Give me your phone."

"Why?"

"Just give it to me." Ann uses her nurse voice. Leslie's never been able to disobey the nurse voice, even when she's sober. "Okay. I am keeping this. You are going to go over and flirt with Joshua and dance with him and assuming he's not a nut job, let him kiss you at least once."

"But I need my phone."

"And you'll get it back once you've done your homework. Now go."

"But-"

"Go."

"Yes, ma'am."

So Joshua turns out to be a pretty nice guy, if you know a little boring. But she supposes it's not his fault that he doesn't understand why calzones are funny. They dance and they laugh (though really that part's the tequila) and he does kiss her in the parking lot of the club.

It's a little awkward. (Because ridiculous height differential plus alcohol affected balance does not lead to movie-screen first kisses). But it's still nice. Being kissed by someone. And she feels strangely like she's been waiting to be kissed for awhile, like she's been standing on some kind of expectant precipice for weeks, which is crazy because until tonight she hasn't even thought about dating anyone since the town went bankrupt.

Maybe Ann's right. Maybe she does need to get back out there, connect with someone. And Joshua really is a nice guy, and gosh his eyes are blue, and he doesn't seem like the sort to break up via skywriting or scan her brain on a first date or put people through hell for the sake of a story.

"So can I call you, sometime?"

"I, um," she looks up at him, and he smiles and his dimples are still amazing.

"I don't think so."

When she comes back into the club alone, Ann rolls her eyes in exasperation and hands her phone back over with a muttered, "I give up."

Ben called twice, and she's a little angry with Ann for making her miss it.

))

Maybe it's the wanting, the reaching for something that isn't there and coming up short. Maybe he just misses being connected to another flesh and blood human being. Ben doesn't know what it is. But for some reason he picks up on Angela's signals faster than typical.

The first time she leans over him to run a well-manicured nail down the column of numbers he's showing her, the invasion of his personal space is startling and not entirely unpleasant.

Angela's the junior attorney on the team. An attractive brunette in her early thirties, who would never be called pretty, but twenty years from now will still be striking. She's quick-witted and down-to-earth and obviously going places, and quite frankly he's more than a little flattered.

So when she shows up in his office doorway with Chinese takeout and a stack of financial disclosure statements that they don't actually need to review tonight, he's tempted, he really is.

Because he's lonely. Because he thinks it might be nice to actually hold someone. Because Angela is exactly the kind of woman he's always been attracted to, and he's not unaffected now.

But she'll never bet her career on a corn maze or have a secret handshake and he's wearing an "I met Lil' Sebastian" t-shirt under his oxford, and he can't. He just can't.

She ducks her head in embarrassment, and he feels terrible. "Oh, um, gosh, I'm- I'm sorry. Wow you must think I'm just-"

"No. No, I don't- Believe me, I don't. You're amazing, and I like you. It's just-" And suddenly he doesn't know how to complete that sentence. Doesn't know what he's doing, why he's saying no.

"You're taken." She doesn't phrase it as a question.

Ben looks down at his cell-phone set out on the corner of his desk in easy reach and sighs.

"I don't know what I am."


Lie

"Everyone misses seeing you."

Ben laughs. "Somehow I doubt that."

"Well, everyone who matters."

"So just the important people."

"Exactly."

"And this VIP list. Is it exclusive?"

"Very."

"Really? Who's on it? Give me some names."

"Well there's Tom of course. He hasn't gotten to call anyone nerd in like three weeks. And that time was to Jean-Ralphio, so it doesn't count."

"Ouch."

"Yeah, we were all a little embarrassed for him. Ron, of course, still wants to take you camping. But not, you know, gay-ly."

"You know that's not actually a word the way you're using it."

"Grammar police." He laughs again and she thinks it might be her favorite sound in the world. "Oh, and I almost forgot, Lil' Sebastian keeps asking about you."

"Wow. I didn't even think he liked me."

"He hides it well. But his feelings run deep. Really he's practically inconsolable. We're all very worried."

"I have to admit. I have never had a miniature horse pine for me. Could go to guy's head." There's a pause then. "So is that everyone on the list?"

"Well, Jerry, Donna, and Andy go without saying. And April would give me the silent treatment if I did say it. So yeah that's pretty much everyone."

"So you don't miss me, at all?" Ben teases.

"Me?" She bites her lip and looks over at his staff badge still hanging on the back of her office door where he left it. "No. Not really."

"Yeah," he whispers, "I don't miss you either."

))

A week later, Leslie sends him an email invite to have Thanksgiving at her house. And he's half-way through his response complete with questions about the menu and whether she needs him to be there early to help with the turkey, and would she prefer it if he brings apple or pumpkin pie or both . . . when it hits him.

It's a group email to the office. He's one of eight addresses in the "To:" line, and he's not even the first.

And he's treating it like it's theirs. Like he has special rights to it.

Ben closes his eyes and drops his head in his hands.

This thing he has isn't going away.

If anything, it's getting worse.

He's turning down engaging, intelligent women (well, one woman) and measuring his life by phone calls and text messages and treating office gatherings like family holidays.

And it has to stop.

He has to quit.

Because she's never going to leave Pawnee.

Because things are finally happening for him here.

Because if there was anything more at work than Leslie's wonderfully generous spirit, she would have called, would have singled him out.

He can't keep cultivating this hope, can't keep nurturing it. It's grown too big, too powerful and it's strangling everything else.

Ben deletes the entire email. Types:

Wish I could make it, but things are getting to be a little crazy here. Have some extra turkey for me.

Hits send before he can talk himself out of the lie.


Light

They're finishing up lunch in her office on Wednesday, when Ann asks, "So hey I managed to trade shifts with someone and got the whole afternoon off. Do you need me to pick up anything for you?"

Leslie looks over at her in puzzlement. "Like what?"

Ann shrugs. "Flour, sugar, wine, extra cranberries . . ." she trails off and a look of horror comes over her face. "Oh. My. God. You forgot! Leslie how did you forget you're hosting Thanksgiving?"

"You forgot!" Tom looks over from his desk. "Dammit, I turned down Dennis Feinstein for this."

"No you didn't." Ann retorts.

"Well, I could have."

"No. You couldn't."

Leslie's about to leave them to their bickering and make an emergency call to J.J.'s to do some serious begging when Ann turns back to her. "Leslie, honey, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just you know, got really busy. It'll be fine. I'll just swing by the store tonight and-"

"And defrost your turkey in the microwave?" Tom shakes his head, "Trust me. Not gonna work."

"Sweetie have you ever actually cooked a turkey, before?"

She hasn't actually. In fact she can count on one hand the number of things she's cooked in the last six months.

Ann reaches across the table and touches her hand, "Awww, why didn't you ask me for help?"

"I didn't think I was going to need it. Ben-"

Tom and Ann groan simultaneously.

"Should have known." "Tell me you didn't."

"What?"

And there's those looks again. And frankly she's getting a little tired of it. "Okay, seriously what's wrong with Ben?"

"Nothing."

"Hey I love the guy. I mean he's a nerd, but-"

"Then what?"

Ann and Tom exchange a look. Then Ann says tentatively, "Leslie, did you maybe decide to host Thanksgiving just to have an excuse to invite Ben down?"

She didn't.

She totally didn't.

Except now that she thinks about it . . .

"I just thought he'd like to see everyone. He mentioned awhile ago that Minnesota was too far of a drive for the long weekend and . . ." She trails off as her friends shake their heads sadly. "What's wrong with that? I thought it was nice."

"It's Mark all over again!" "You're leading the boy on!"

"See even Tom agrees-" Ann breaks off and whips her head around to stare at Tom. "Wait, what?"

Tom looks at both of them like they're idiots. "Damn, really? Am I the only one paying attention around here? That boy is crazy about Leslie. And by crazy, I mean one bad eighties movie from standing outside her window with a boom-box."

"Then why did he leave?" Ann retorts.

"I assume it's because when he offered your girl his heart she crushed it into a million tiny pieces."

"No. No way. He's the one who broke up with her to go back to his big exciting city life, and then lead her on with the texts and the phone calls at all hours. While she pines away for him."

"That's ridiculous. Did you watch him at all?"

"Well, Leslie would never-"

"Hey!"

Ann and Tom turn to look at her in surprise, like they'd forgotten she was there. Unbelievable. "If you are both done superimposing your issues on my personal life . . ." They drop their heads in contrition. "Okay. Let's get a few things straight. Ben and I are friends. Just friends. He is not one bad eighties movie from . . . whatever. And I am not pining. And inviting someone to your Thanksgiving because they have nowhere else to go is just what people do. So the two of you can stop making a big deal of this. Everyone clear?"

Ann and Tom exchange another look.

"Should I?"

Tom nods. "Someone's got to."

Ann holds out her hand. "Give me your phone."

"Wha-?"

"Give it to me."

"This seems awfully-"

But Tom's already walked over and reached into her bag. He tosses it over to Ann with a flourish.

"Hey!"

They both ignore her and Ann starts scrolling through it. "Eleven thirty: text message. Nine a.m.: text message. Eight am, six am. Really? Six?" She doesn't wait for an answer. "Shall we go to the call log?"

"Absolutely."

Leslie glares at Tom. It has no effect.

"Ben. Ben. Ben. Three unanswered calls made in rapid succession, only to be returned by Ben four minutes later. Oh look you called the office. And then you called Ben. Two missed calls from Joshua un-returned. One missed call from Ben returned in half an hour. Should we look at the photos?"

"I think we need to."

Leslie grabs her phone back. "So we like talking to each other. I told you we were friends."

"Leslie," Ann whispers gently, "you're dating him. Seriously dating him."

"That's ridicul-"

Oh.

Shit.

))

He's still at work when Tom calls that evening. His phone has been unusually quiet today, and he's trying to focus on the increased productivity and not the growing pit in his stomach that says he's made a horrible mistake.

Still he can't stop the little thrill that goes through him when his phone starts to vibrate, and he hits the answer key without looking at the screen.

"No. You can't serve your guests waffles."

"You never told her, you nerd?"

It takes him a moment to shift gears. "Tom?"

"No, it's someone else with impeccable style and my phone. Don't avoid the question."

Oh god, this can't be happening. He rubs his forehead, trying to stave off the impending migraine. "I don't suppose you'd believe I have no idea what you're talking about?"

Tom's silence is scathing.

"Yeah I thought not."

"You didn't tell her?"

"Not, um, not in so many words."

"Did you use any words?"

"I kind of thought it was obvious."

"Nerd!"

"Could you not-"

"Nerd. Nerd. Nerd!"

He gives up. "Yeah, okay sure." Then something occurs to him and he lifts his head. "Wait, if it wasn't obvious, how did you know?"

"Because I am highly skilled in the arts of romance and seduction."

"Uh huh."

"All right it was obvious." Ben drops his head to his desk. Tom continues. "I can't believe you didn't tell her."

"You just said it was obvious."

"If you're not Leslie! The girl thinks Turkey Chili is a seductive food. Her radar's off."

"Look it doesn't matter. Sometimes things just aren't meant-"

"Dumb and a Nerd."

"Yeah that's not actually helping."

"Fine. You want helpful. I was married my ex-wife for a year so she could get a green card, and then realized I was in love with her the day of my divorce. And then she rejected me."

"Geez, I'm sorry."

"Thank you."

"Though I'm a little unclear on the relevance."

"Because you have an actual chance to be happy and you're blowing it by being an idiot. Pay attention!"

Oh, sure the point's obvious now. He sighs. "Tom, Leslie's never going to leave Pawnee, and I have a life up here. And besides, she's never exactly shown a whole lot of interest-"

"Turkey chili!"

It's like talking to a brick wall. A crazy brick wall. "Okay I'm-, I'm not having this conversation, anymore."

"Yeah you are. I'm facing the possibility of turkey loaf tomorrow because of you. You owe me."

There was no part of that sentence that made sense. "What does turkey loaf have to do with this?"

"Leslie doesn't cook."

"Yeah. I know."

"Well apparently you don't. So let me repeat myself. Leslie Knope, who invited the entire office and you over for Thanksgiving dinner. Does. Not. Cook."

"Yeah. I. Know."

And then it hits him.

"Wait-"

"Finally." He can practically hear Tom rolling his eyes.

"So she-"

"Dude, do I have to do this with you, too? Look at your phone, and then tell me your life is Indy."

Tom hangs up before Ben can respond.

Two hours later he stands in the middle of his living room staring at the photographs on his wall, at the color and the joy and the love. And Leslie's not in a single one, and it doesn't matter because she's in all of them. He's painted his world with her brush.

It's midnight.

And Ben feels like he's watching the sun rise.


Journey

Leslie arrives in Indy at six in the morning, and realizes she may not have planned this very well.

But that of course implies there was any kind of plan at all. Which there wasn't.

She didn't even know she was going to do this until three-thirty this morning. Because while Ann and Tom may have acted like this was the most normal, expected bombshell in the world. Like it was just something they could slip in between items on her to do list—pick up dry cleaning, finish city council presentation, realize you're dating Ben, get milk at the grocery store. It's not. It's not at all.

It's like the city being shut down and Lil' Sebastian getting lost and the Harvest Festival going dark all in one.

It's like Ben leaving all over again.

She goes through the rest of the day in a daze. Trying to adjust, to make sense. To figure out why she didn't see it before and why it terrifies her now.

She's not scared of dating someone. And Ben is certainly not the most sexually intimidating guy. (Except for the fact that now she's thought of him that way, she can't actually stop thinking of him that way. About how he'd kiss her, cause he'd be sober and they have a proportionate height differential and she bets he'd take his time and . . .)

And she's now sexually intimidated. Great.

But it's more than that. It's everything. It's morning text-messages and pictures of the state house at sunset. It's how a phone-call about a floor debate on CSPAN makes her feel. It's about the fact that she's reevaluating how her entire life works with Ben in the picture, and the first person she wants to call to talk it over with is him.

It's about the fact she's trying to remember life before he came and the picture's fuzzy.

She's not this type of person. She likes guys. She dates guys. She gets dumped, gets drunk, and moves on from guys.

She does not, under any circumstances, contemplate rearranging her world for a guy.

And it's not that she's willing to move to Indy. It's that the thought even crossed her mind. That she's somehow gone from phone calls and goodbye hugs to trying to figure out where they're going to live and if he can get a satisfying job in Pawnee and she hasn't even talked to him and it all just feels too fast.

Only now she's standing on the landing outside Ben's apartment at six a.m., and it feels like it's been an eternity since she's seen him.

Like it's taken her forever to get here.

She raises her hand to ring the doorbell and then drops it. It's still dark out and yes he's a morning person, but this is a holiday. What if he sleeps in on holidays? And how does she not know this?

This is crazy. This is hands down the craziest thing she's ever done. And what if Ann and Tom were wrong? There is no dignified way to explain showing up on his doorstep on before sunrise on Thanksgiving day.

On the other hand she's really cold.

God, she hopes she has his apartment number right.

She's half a second away from knocking, when her phone rings, and its Ben's ringtone.

Leslie ducks down out of sight of the peephole. Hits the answer button.

"Hey," she whispers, trying to keep her voice down so he can't hear her through the door.

"Hey," Ben whispers back, and he sounds very awake, so that concern is crossed off the list. "Ummm, where are you?"

Leslie's eyes dart around searching frantically for security cameras. "Nowhere. Why?"

"Cause this is going to sound crazy, but I'm kind of outside your house."

She drops the phone.

))

"Hello? Leslie?" This isn't going exactly the way he'd hoped.

After a second, she's back. "I'm sorry. For a second there, I thought you said you were outside my house."

"Yeah." He rocks back on his heels and looks up at the two-story arts and crafts home. "That's because I am."

"You can't be!"

"Leslie, can you please just open the door? It's not exactly warm out here."

"I can't."

"Oh." God, he feels like an idiot. "Oh, yeah. I'm sorry. I thought- "

"No, I can't because I'm not home." And then so softly he almost misses it. "I'm Indy."

That can't be right.

"Where are you?"

"I'minIndy." She mumbles it fast, but he catches it this time loud and clear.

"Why are you in Indy?"

"Why are you in Pawnee?"

"I thought the fact I was outside your house kind of made that obvious." And then it hits him. "Wait- Are you-? Are you seriously outside my apartment right now?"

"Maybe."

He can't help it. He laughs. Hysterically. Uncontrollably laughs.

"Ben it's not funny-"

But it is. And she's laughing, too, and it's the most wonderful sound he's ever heard.

"So much for my grand romantic gesture."

She groans. "Please tell me you don't have a boom box."

He winces at the image. Sits down on the steps. "Nope. Just a turkey."

"You didn't- How did you find a turkey?"

"Mugged an old lady. If the police call you don't know anything."

"Ben-"

He can hear the note of panic in her voice. Good lord, maybe that actually happens in Pawnee. "Calm down. I called a butcher I go to and paid him an astronomical amount of money to open his shop at three in the morning."

"You did that for me?"

"I did." Then after a beat he adds. "Well, you and Tom. It seems there was some panic last night about turkey loaf. Only now I'm sitting outside your house with a carload of groceries and no way to get in."

"There's a key in the bird house in the back yard."

He starts walking around to the back of the house. "So why exactly are you in Indy again?"

He teasing her. He knows he is, but he can't help it. The thought is just too adorable. And maybe there's a tiny, tiny part of him that still needs to hear her say the words.

"I, um," she sighs, "I wanted to talk you."

Ben bites down hard on the inside of his lip, leans back against the side of her house and prays. "About?"

"Us. I mean about whether there is- Or there might- Ann and Tom had this stupid idea that you and I- And then I couldn't get it out of my head- And I just, I guess I needed to know if-"

"Yes."

Apparently he didn't need to hear the words after all.

She pauses. Then, "You don't know what the question is."

"I'm pretty sure I do." It's his question. The same one that's been hanging between them for months now. The one that's always had an answer, but he's just now been brave enough to say.

"You can't just go around saying yes to unasked questions. I could have been asking something really awful like do you want to see other people or get a library card?"

And it's only the fact that she equates it as being on par with the horrors of library patronship that keeps his heart from skidding to a full stop at the mere suggestion.

"Were you asking if I wanted to see other people?"

"No."

"Does the question relate in any way to the library?"

"No."

"Are you about to ask me to approve funding for a winter sports complex?"

"You don't approve our funding anymore, so no."

"Then my answer is yes. To all of it. Any of it. Yes I'm crazy about you. Yes there's an us. Yes I want to date you long distance. And yes I want to move to Pawnee tomorrow. Yes I want to argue with you about parks funding, and run your mayoral campaign and help you take over the world. And yes I want to do it all for the rest of our lives. Just, . . . Yes. Okay?"

"Okay." And he can hear she's crying and laughing into the phone simultaneously, and god she's probably freezing out there.

"Leslie?"

"Wait! I have one more question." A deep breath. A pause and then, "Ben Wyatt do you want to cook Thanksgiving dinner for me and the rest of the Parks Department?"

"Yes."

"And waffles tomorrow morning?"

He smiles. "Yes."

"And eggs with those stupid mushrooms even though I'm not going to eat them?"

"Chanterelles won't be back in season until summer."

"I know."

His breath catches and it feels like his heart is going to burst. "Yes."

"Okay, then."

"Leslie?"

"Hmmm?"

"Will you come home now, please?"

"Yes."

It turns out there are ten bird houses in Leslie's yard and another four on her back porch.

Ben winds up having to call Ann for a key.

He calls later for a roasting pan.

And then again for an oven (Leslie's surrenders halfway through).

Thanksgiving dinner is a little late this year.

No one cares.