Snapshots Left on the Negative
Author's Note: This was started for Hiatus Fest, where sweetiegrrl2346 asked for Ben and Leslie in formal wear so that Ben could admire Leslie in her beautiful gown. I wound up writing it entirely from Leslie's pov and turned it into . . . well this. This is a lengthier story (18,000 plus words). The first two parts have been posted on my livejournal for awhile and I was going to hold off posting here until the final part was up on livejournal but the opening section involves a spec scene on 'Fancy Party' which will not come true, so I thought I'd start posting before the episode airs.
Summary: Simple version? Five conversations Leslie and Ben have in formal wear. (But of course life is always more complicated than that).
April and Andy's Dinner Party
April and Andy insist everyone come to their party in evening wear because they want it to be "classy and awesome." They serve pizza and Buffalo wings on paper plates, and champagne in crystal flutes April steals from her parents china cabinet when they realize it's either that or straight from the bottle because Andy forgot to get paper cups.
This should pretty much tell you everything you need to know about the evening.
Oh, one more thing.
Ben kisses her in the upstairs bathroom.
She's not entirely sure how that happens.
Really, she's not. She remembers the champagne. Remembers the fairly epic game of charades. Remembers the buffalo wings . . .
Oh wait, no, that's how.
For the record, her and buffalo wings and five glasses of champagne and charades . . . maybe not the best combination.
She finds him in the upstairs bathroom after almost walking in on Jerry in the downstairs one (don't ask, she doesn't want to relive it). Ben's already shed his suit jacket and tie and even in the candlelight April's using to hide the fact she didn't really do pre-party cleaning, Leslie can still see the bright red smears where she flipped the entire plate of wings onto him.
"Hey, I found seltzer." She offers feebly, because honestly it feels pretty paltry in the face of such absolute destruction.
If you asked her later she wouldn't be able to tell you why she doesn't just leave it with him. Why she proceeds to flick on the bathroom lights, grab a clean towel from the rack, and start carefully blotting the front of his shirt with the seltzer water. Maybe it's the champagne or maybe it's him or maybe it's just that Leslie's never been one to leave other people to clean up her messes.
Ben doesn't seem to mind. Relinquishes control without protest and just stands there watching her with that funny smile he gets sometimes, like he's not quite sure what to think of her, like he's half-convinced she might just be crazy and he can't decide if that's a bad thing.
"I am so sorry."
"Hey, no I get it. Yellowstone National Park. Old Faithful was really your only charade option."
"It was." She nods emphatically, and then because that makes the room spin just a little bit, drops her forehead to his shoulder to steady herself. "It is also possible I am too drunk to be safely playing national landmark charades."
"Oh, so you're blaming the champagne now?"
She lulls her head to the side, slanting her gaze up to him to ask with all seriousness, "Think I could get away with it?"
"I don't know. I really liked this shirt."
Absently she curls her fingers against the fabric, and nods in agreement. "Me too." And she's not lying even a little bit. There's something about it, about the off-white on white check, that feels like him—seemingly buttoned up and boring, but look a little closer and there's that little piece irrepressible spirit peaking through. "I'll make it up to you. Promise."
For a moment Ben just looks down at her, strangely intent and wow maybe this was his favorite shirt too. Maybe it's custom or a gift from some long lost love. Maybe he's been spending too much time with Tom and it's designer and super-expensive. Maybe . . .
Without looking away, Ben reaches out and flicks the bathroom light back off, leaving them standing there in candlelight.
"What are you doing?"
"Blaming the champagne."
And then he tilts her chin and dips his head and even though it kind of feels inevitable, like a script that was written months ago, it's still a surprise, still somehow entirely unexpected.
His mouth butterflies against hers like a question, like an experiment, and Leslie sighs in a way that might be a 'yes.'
The thing is she's not one-hundred percent sure exactly what's happening right now. Oh she's got the mechanics down, understands the grand outline of being kissed at a party with too much alcohol and too little food, in a house that's not yours, in clothes that make you feel like someone else. It's one of those moments where it's half about setting and half about timing and only a little bit about what's real.
Still there's something about the gentleness of his fingers on her neck, about the way they fit, that makes her think she's a little fuzzy on some of the more important details, feels like she missed a memo or a meeting.
Before she has the chance to ask for a more complete briefing, there's the sound of foot-steps in the hall and they're both pulling away like they've been burned.
By the time she gets home that night Leslie's half-convinced herself she made it up
And even if she didn't. There was an awful lot of champagne.
Pawnee Memorial Hospital Christmas Fundraiser
It's the first event of what promises to be a long and exhausting and absolutely wonderful Holiday season. For the next few weeks Leslie has a list of obligations that makes her day planner feel a little bit like the White House social calendar. Sometimes she just stares at it, at all the invitations pinned up on her bulletin board, at the steadily growing collection of business cards in her rolodex, and it's everything she can do not to pinch herself. (Tom keeps telling her to start using her Smartphone like a "member of the Twenty First Century" but she likes the paper. Likes the tangible proof that yes this is really happening.)
Her mother calls an hour before the event to run down the guest list with interesting tidbits and important pieces of personal information. ("His son just made dean's list at Notre Dame." "Don't bring up animals, Mike was attacked by a raccoon last week and can't sit down." "They're getting a divorce. She'll get everything, and she wants to be a force in her own right, mention Camp Athena"). And even though she won't use half the information she's been given because it's just not her style, Leslie can't help the little swell of joy as she realizes this Machiavellian pep-talk is her mother's version of an 'I'm so proud of you' speech.
Still she keeps the pencil scratched notes in her purse, touching them every so often like a talisman as she makes her way around the room, mentally ticking off the key names in her head. According to Marlene Griggs-Knope philanthropic dinners are networking gold-mines, the chance to connect with all the important players in local politics in a quasi-non-political setting.
And that's exactly what she's doing. She's circulating and laughing and telling pre-prepared charming stories that remind people of her accomplishments just enough to make herself register, but not so much as to be obnoxious.
And she is absolutely not thinking about the fact Ben is standing over in the corner, in a tux, watching her do that.
Absolutely. Not. Thinking. About. It.
Damn. That's not working.
Things have been awkward between them in the few weeks since Andy and April's party, since he may or may not have kissed her in a candlelit bathroom, and then never said another word about it. And she maybe resents him a little bit for that. Because what kind of guy does that? What kind of guy kisses you after you ruined his favorite shirt and takes a job in your hometown and then proceeds to turn down casual dinner invitations, but still brings you waffles when you're working late and doesn't actually say anything?
But the thing that really gets her? The thing that makes her just want to strangle him?
Leslie hasn't said anything either.
She promised herself, promised herself this wasn't going to happen again. After Mark. After so stupidly and uselessly holding on to a moment, a mistake like it was something precious. After realizing she'd built a memory into something it had never been, she told herself she'd never do it again. Vowed that she wouldn't let something like this just fester, that she'd be mature and reasonable and forthright.
Whatever she and Ben are doing right now, it is absolutely none of those things.
And frankly it's kind of pissing her off.
Which probably explains why even though she should be going over to make nice with the VP of Kernston's, she is instead dragging Ben out the side-exit of the ballroom and into one of the hotel stairwells.
"What are you doing here?" she hisses as soon as the door closes behind her.
"Proving I still haven't figured out how to say no to Chris."
"All you do is say no to Chris."
"I say no to other people for Chris. It's a subtle but important distinction."
"Arrggh!" She would choke him with his bowtie right now if she could.
"I'm sorry is there something about me representing the City Manager's office at this event that's pissing you off?"
She dodges the question. "I thought Chris loved these things. Connecting with everyone."
"He does. He loves them so much he accepts invitations to more events than its possible for him to be at without breaking the laws of physics. Which is why he's in Indy this evening representing Pawnee, and I am here representing Chris." He spreads his hands in a little half-hearted 'ta-da' that somehow sums up the full extent of his lack of enthusiasm for the assignment. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work."
He tries to reach for the door handle but Leslie doesn't move from her spot in front of it because she's finally got up the courage to do this. Because if she lets him go now, she knows she's never going to be here again. Because she's wearing an honest-to-god evening-gown and the clock's striking midnight and if Cinderella had just stood her damn ground she probably could have saved herself a lot of heartache.
"Leslie-" Ben pleads.
"You kissed me."
It sounds strange to say it out loud. Because she's held on to it like a secret for weeks now, something special and hers and only half-remembered, and as long as it stayed like that, exactly like that, it could mean anything she wanted it to.
But now it hangs there between them, given substance and contours and shape, and for a moment she's half-afraid he's going to deny it. Plead drunkenness or ignorance or temporary loss of sanity. But he doesn't. Instead he sucks in a sharp, shocked breath and nods.
"And it wasn't just the champagne."
"No. It wasn't." His voice is thick and raw, and when she meets his eyes the air suddenly feels charged, electric and for a surreal moment she swears he's about to do it again.
She jerks her head away. "You can't do that. You can't just randomly kiss someone with no explanation. It's rude."
Ben drops his forehead against the door, and she can feel a tremor go through him, and then another and another. And suddenly it hits her.
Hysterically, silently laughing.
But it's not with happiness or joy or anything she recognizes. This is manic, corrupt. Like his body's hijacked it to take the place of a scream or a sob, used it to give physicality to some emotion too new to have an expression all its own.
Without thinking she reaches out and puts her hands on either side of his ribcage, like she'll somehow hold him together, keep the pieces from shaking apart.
Ben moves to step away but she doesn't let go because this isn't done, and then his hands are on her bare shoulders to push her off and she's fisting a hand in his shirt to hold on . . . and then he's pulling her forward, his mouth slamming down onto hers.
And what the hell?
It's the polar opposite of last time. In fact it's pretty much the polar opposite of every kiss in her entire life. Needy and reckless and frantic. It's storms coming and dams breaking. He's got her pinned against the stairwell door, and his fingers are tangled in her hair, destroying her chignon, and there is absolutely no way she'll be able to step a foot back out there without everyone knowing what just happened.
And then it's over just as abruptly as it begins. She doesn't know whether he breaks off or she pushes him away or some combination of the two, but suddenly he's a foot away and she's holding onto the door handle like a life line and they're both staring at each other in disbelief.
This is hands down the most irresponsible thing she's ever done.
And she's so angry with him for putting her in this position she could spit.
And she'll tell him that just as soon as she remembers how to breathe.
Ben finds his voice first. "I'm sorry. Leslie- I shouldn't have- I'm so sorry."
She gives him a second and then another. Because there's an explanation here. Because he's not this kind of guy. Because he hires children's singers away from libraries and wears horrible plaid shirts and pretends to be excited about miniature horses. And guys like that just don't do things like this.
But he's not saying anything else and maybe they do.
"Okay," she nods once, "Okay. You know what. I'm not doing this. I don't know exactly what just happened. But I know it can't happen again."
"No it can't," Ben whispers, but he doesn't sound happy about it.
That makes her turn back around. "No. See this is where I get confused. Because you kissed me. I remember that part. And if you didn't like it, if it was weird or a mistake. I get that. In fact I get that a lot. Usually with a funny story I can use to cheer up my friends. But you! You keep showing up. You come to my office, and you bring me waffles, and you smile at me like . . . I don't know. But I know that if you thought it was a mistake you shouldn't be smiling at me like that. And now you're here and in formal wear and watching me and kissing me in stairwells. And why? Why couldn't we have just come together like normal people? What is your problem?"
"My problem?" He practically chokes on the words.
"Why did you tell me to take the job when Chris offered it to me?"
"Because I didn't want you to leave!"
Ben just stares at her in disbelief. Like she's psychotic, like she's sucker-punched him, and it doesn't make any sense until he whispers, "Leslie, I'm in your direct-reporting line."
And suddenly with a horrid clarity she understands.
"You report to Ron," Ben continues. "All directors of all non-essential city government departments-"
"Report to the deputy city manager," she finishes for him feeling incredibly stupid. She knew this, of course she knew this. Even though they haven't had a deputy manager for over a year, she's had every organizational chart memorized since the day she first joined the parks department. But she never put it together, never stopped thinking of Ben as hers, and even now she has to make herself say the words one more time to really believe it, to force it to sink in. "All non-essential departments including, Parks and Recreation, report to you."
He gives her a tight strained smile. "Even if it wasn't against policy, Chris frowns on relationships within reporting lines. I approve your budget. I set your department's performance benchmarks. I review your evaluations, your disciplinary actions. Hell, I sit on the promotions review board." He drops his head back against the wall and stares up at the landing above them. "This crosses every line of professionalism I can think of."
"Then why did you take it?"
"Because you told me to. Because I wanted to stay. Because I didn't actually think-" he breaks off with a sigh.
"Didn't think what?"
"I didn't think it would feel like this."
He looks at her as he says it, and it's like something's squeezing her heart, pressing down on it so hard it's stopped beating and until it starts again, she can't do anything other than stand here and ache.
"I never thought-" Ben starts, break offs, start again, "I thought six months. I figured I'd give it the six months Chris was assigned for, give us a chance to get to know each other better, and then maybe, if I got really lucky, you'd be interested and we'd figure something out. I'd, I don't know, change offices, find something else, hope a regional position came open. I was buying time."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"You told me to take the job the day after I kissed you." He shoves his hands in his pockets and shakes his head. "Leslie, you know the Pawnee municipal code and city policy manuals by heart. What was I supposed to think? Honestly, I almost turned it down because of that."
"But you didn't."
"It's executive administrative experience. And-" he shrugs, "you asked me to stay."
He says that last part so simply, like it's actually a reason, like it explains everything, and she can't decide whether she wants to hit him or kiss him. But then the realization that it's inappropriate for her to do either washes over her and she thinks she might scream.
"You know the worst part?" Ben whispers.
Leslie shakes her head, because honestly, how could it actually get any worse?
"I really like the work."
And that's it, that's the thing that finally makes her lose it. Because she understands, god how she understands. Her job is everything. It's her whole world, her defining characteristic. Take that away and what do you have? She doesn't really know, but she's thinks she would be somehow less, something diminished.
Public service is the only thing she's ever wanted in her whole life.
And the man standing across from her could take that all away.
They both know that. Know it would go badly for both of them, but worse for her. Because she's theoretically subordinate, because she has a less transferable skill set, because she's a woman. It's unfair and it sucks and is such double standard she can't stand it. But it is what it is, and if Ben's taught her anything, it's that ignoring the reality of a situation doesn't solve the problem.
So he stands in the stairwell less than two feet away, white-knuckling his hands on the banister and watching her cry. And he might as well be in Indy for all the good that does her.
"Leslie- Leslie, just tell me what you want."
Quit. It's there just on the tip of her tongue before she's actually processed the thought, and then she does and the audacity of it startles her, makes her bite down hard on her bottom lip to keep it from coming tumbling out unbidden, squeeze her eyes shut.
He makes it sound so impossibly simple, when really they both know it's simply impossible. She can't ask him to quit, even if he wanted to. Not when he's less than a few weeks in. That's a career-destroying move. He certainly wouldn't find another job in Pawnee. And things are finally happening for her, the kind of things she's always dreamed of, that she's worked her whole life for.
So there's really only one solution, isn't there?
And it might be the first time in her life she's ever just accepted that something she truly wants is actually out of reach, and she'd only just gotten Ben to stop accepting it so easily and the whole thing feels like some horribly, unfunny practical joke.
Leslie shakes her head. "We can't."
"No. We can't," he agrees.
"If anyone found out . . ."
"Even if they didn't," Ben sighs and it hurts how perfectly she understands him. For all their superficial opposition at their core they're the same, flip-sides of a coin. They believe in things like service and standards and never, never thinking you're too special for the rules you uphold.
She says it for him. "The rules are there for a reason. I've always believed that."
"We can't just ignore them," and there's the tiniest part of her that wants him to argue, to persuade her that they can, of course they can.
But all he does is tighten his grip on the hand rail and shake his head. "No. I mean it would taint everything, wouldn't it? That's not- That's not how I want to start something with you."
And someday, looking back, Leslie Knope will know this is the moment she fell inextricably, irrevocably in love with Ben Wyatt.
But right now it just hurts.
"Okay," she breathes, because what else can she do? "Okay. So six months, right? We give it until Chris's time is over and Paul comes back. I mean that was your plan all along. So we do that. We can do that. We can stay friendly and professional and pretend this didn't happen . . ."
She trails off at the look in Ben's eyes, the one that says he desperately wants to kiss her, and she knows they're both lying to themselves.
He blinks and runs a tired hand over his face and up into his hair, barking a sharp laugh. "Right. This didn't happen."
"So six months?"
"It's not that long."
He gives her a half-hearted smile. "Over before we know it."
But the thing they're not saying, the thing still hanging between them, is in six months nothing will be magically solved, and in six months everything might change.
And she swears to god if she lets herself think about that a split second longer, she's not going to leave this stairwell.
"So I um. I have to go find a mirror, and possibly a stylist," she turns to go.
"You look beautiful."
Her hand stalls out on door handle. "You can't say things like that."
"You absolutely cannot say things like that. Not when my hair's a mess and my mascara's running and I'm pretty sure my face is red. You're not allowed to think I'm beautiful right now."
"I know." He repeats, and then she can feel him come up behind her, not close, not really, but near enough that she could reach back and touch him. She clenches her free hand tight. He sighs. "I just- I've never said it. I've thought it a hundred times when you've looked a hundred different ways. And you don't even know."
The last words are soft, an exhale of breath that she swears she feels more than hears. "Ben-"
He takes a step back, but he doesn't stop. "You say it to Ann all the time, like its fact, like its gospel that of the two of you she's the beautiful one. And it's not. It's not my gospel. I think you're breathtaking. You walk into a room, and I can't even tell you if Ann is there. And I'm sorry but six months is too long for you to go without knowing that."
She swallows hard, but doesn't turn around. "Thank you."
And it feels hollow and meaningless and not at all an accurate representation of how his confession makes her feel, but what else is she supposed to say? Honestly how could she possibly respond without unraveling every resolution they've just made?
"I've got at least ten more of these events. I can't remember them all right now, but I need- I need you to figure out how to tell Chris no. Okay?"
A pause, a beat, an infinitesimal moment of possibility, then:
"Send me your schedule."
Leslie slips out without looking back.
She doesn't return to the fundraiser.
Later when she's washed her face and tamed her hair, when she's collected her coat and made her way out to the hotel parking lot, she looks up to find Ben walking down the next row over, coat in hand. They don't say anything, just keep walking along their respective rows, separated by two car lengths and silence. But maybe he slows down and maybe she speeds up and maybe it's a little bit like a moonlit stroll.
Then suddenly she's at her car and the beep of her alarm sounds like a gunshot and they both just stop. Just stand there.
Absently her thumb skitters over the button for the passenger side lock. Pauses. Hesitates.
Ben doesn't speak, doesn't move, doesn't do anything other than look at her, but somehow it feels like he knows.
Somewhere in the distance there's the beep of a car horn.
Ben turns his head.
Leslie reaches for her car door.
She makes a point not to look in her rearview mirror as she drives away—half afraid he'll still be standing there, half afraid he won't be.
The Rotary Club's Community Awards dinner is two days later.
Chris shows up.