Disclaimer: This is a story about characters who don't belong to me. Written after Episode 3x09.
It happened gradually. So gradually that Leslie wasn't even really aware of it, though Ben certainly was. In the 17 years since his mayoral debacle, Ben had learned two main things: to always proceed with caution, and that happiness doesn't come easy. The latter was the primary reason he was so off-kilter around Ms. Leslie Knope: she made him happy with such seeming ease, and he just didn't know what to do with that. So he opted with the tried and true: caution.
He knew he sometimes went moony around her; he couldn't seem to help it. He knew that some of the people in their social circle had probably noticed. But she hadn't seemed to have clued in yet, and that was what was important. So he stuck with the status quo.
If he felt like stopping to grab coffee from a shop rather than drink the stuff at the office, he'd pick her up a white chocolate mocha with extra chocolate and extra whipped cream. If she stopped for coffee, she would bring him a latte with a shot of espresso. A few days a week, they would eat lunch in the courtyard or, in the colder months, at J.J.'s. If she needed to do a walk-through of one of the parks, she would usually invite him along, "to get you out in the sun!" At the office, she would often drop in to bounce ideas off of him or chew through a problem, and he soon found himself doing the same thing. They're areas of expertise were pretty different, which they both found brought great perspective.
From the outside, none of their workday encounters seemed planned, and on Leslie's side they most certainly weren't. She was, as ever, spontaneous. If she thought of him, she would talk to him. It was the way her mind worked. And if Ben sometimes came back to the office bearing waffles when he knew she'd be working late (Tom liked to drop in and bounce his—considerably more ridiculous—ideas off Ben, too, and he usually ended up inadvertently giving Ben the information on Leslie he actually wanted), well then, that's what friends did.
The way his heart beat whenever she bustled into a room and the thoughts that seemed to occupy his mind from the end of one workday to the beginning of the next, they were his and no one else's. And for now, at least, that's how he wanted them. He liked they way their relationship worked, and the fear that filled him at the idea of changing it was all his, too.
Leslie was a pretty damn smart lady. It wasn't that she wasn't aware of the way Ben's cautious smiles made her chest constrict or the warmth that filled her when she looked up from her computer to find him standing casually in her office doorway. She knew they were there, just as she knew that Ben was one of the best, most reliable friends and colleagues she'd had the pleasure to know and work with. And because she did know all of that, and because Ben was a great friend and colleague, she took all of her extra heartbeats and daydreams and stowed them in a mental box to be dealt with later.
And if the idea that that later might never come made her feel a bit like crying, well, then that was her problem.
And so it continued. Harvest Fest came to a triumphant conclusion, Ben took the job Chris offered to stay in Pawnee, and life—and Ben and Leslie's completely platonic friendship—went on.
As weeks became months, things gradually changed. One evening Leslie called Ben after hours to work through a problem that had cropped up with their nascent observatory, and after she realized that he'd been awake and helpful after midnight, she did it again. Soon they were talking just about every evening.
One Monday morning, they both had the same idea about stopping to get coffee. Leslie walked in to discover Ben manually adding chocolate to her drink, so she walked to the counter and ordered his latte and they sat and drank together. It became a Monday morning tradition, meeting at the coffee shop at the insanely early hour they both seemed to favor, with whoever arrived first ordering the other's drink.
During one lunch at J.J.'s, when Ben finally caved and agreed to try the waffles, he commented that while they were good, that his grandmother's waffle batter recipe was really much better.
Leslie seemed ready to launch into an automatic defense of J.J., but the possibility of additional waffles froze her. "Do you…do you know how to make them?"
Ben shrugged. "Sure. I actually like to cook. I'll have to make them for you sometime."
"Let's do it now."
"What? I'm not making you waffles on a Wednesday afternoon immediately after we have both just eaten waffles. Besides, I don't have a waffle iron."
"I do! Ann gave me one for Christmas last year so I wouldn't eat out so much."
"Has it worked?"
Leslie gave a little grin. "It's still in the box."
Ben laughed, and tried to ignore the twinge around his heart that little grin of hers always seemed to cause. "Okay. How about Friday? There are absolutely no meetings that night that you might possibly have to attend. You provide the waffle iron, I'll bring the ingredients."
Leslie's sigh spoke volumes about her desire to try those waffles RIGHT NOW, but she smiled and agreed. "Friday. How does 6:30 sound?"
Ben smiled. "Sounds like waffle o'clock to me." Which was ridiculous enough of a statement to keep them both laughing long after they'd settled the bill.
Back at the office, Leslie opened her red planner to write "6:30—BEN'S WAFFLES!" and then chuckled to herself.
Across the room, Tom was reclining in his chair, crumpling up sheets up paper and trying to juggle them. "What's so funny?"
Leslie glanced up. "Oh, nothing. Ben's going to make me waffles on Friday." She snorted. "At waffle o'clock."
Tom let all of the crumpled balls fall and sat up abruptly. "FINALLY."
Leslie cast him a baffled look. "What?"
"You are FINALLY giving that boy what he wants—"
"To…make me waffles?" she interjected, but Tom kept going.
"—and having an ACTUAL DATE."
"What? It's not a date." Her stomach quivered. It wasn't a date.
But Tom was caught up in the sound of his own voice. "IT IS ABOUT DAMN TIME."
"Don't be stupid, Tom." April spoke up from the doorway, where she stood with one uncaring shoulder hitched in a perpetual half-shrug.
Leslie smiled at her, pleased. "Thank you, April. It's just—"
But April wasn't looking at her. "They've been dating for months." She turned her gaze on Leslie and gestured her chin towards the front entrance. "That guy is here."
It was her 2 o'clock appointment, which Leslie would later realize she couldn't remember a word of.
Waffle o'clock on Friday arrived, and if Ben noticed anything different in Leslie's behavior, he didn't let on. Leslie had unpacked the waffle iron; Ben laid out his ingredients and got to work. What started out as nervous babbling on Leslie's part soon fell into the patterns of their normal conversation in the face of Ben's unfailing calm. And the waffles, as it turned out, were fantastic.
As she devoured the last, whipped cream-soaked bite, Leslie sighed. "Well, now you've done it."
Ben had been eyeing her incredible collection of newspapers where they stood stacked precariously in a corner of the living room. He glanced back at her. "Pardon?"
"You're ruined waffles for me forever! I'll never be able to be satisfied by J.J.'s now." She gestured at him with her fork. "You'll just have to…to move in and make me waffles for the rest of my life."
All of a sudden, they both seemed to realize exactly what they'd said. An awkward silence descended.
Ben cleared his throat. "I mean, it's the least I can do, right? Since I ruined waffles for you." There was another beat of that awful silence. "Although I would argue that what I really did was introduce you to the true potential of waffles."
That little grin made it's way onto Leslie's face. "They were really good waffles, Ben."
He nodded regally, pleased as the world seemed to right itself around him. "Thank you."
Leslie stood and reached out her hand. "Here, hand me your plate. I'll wash up."
After that first, weekly dinners became another tradition, one they both referred to as "waffle o'clock" regardless of what Ben was actually cooking.
A few weeks later, Ann dropped into Ben's office. He glanced up, surprised to see her. She and Chris had a friendly relationship, occasionally working out together, but that was the extent it. It had been a while since she last popped into the office. Ben sat back from his computer. "Hey Ann. Chris is out on his lunchtime run. Aren't you having lunch with Leslie today?"
Ann raised an eyebrow at the last bit, but refrained from commenting on Ben's apparent familiarity with Leslie's schedule. "We just finished. And I'm not here to talk to Chris."
"Oh. Okay. Well then, what can I do for you?"
"I know what you're doing."
Panic skittered up Ben's spine although he hadn't yet figured out (a) what Ann was talking about, and (b) whether she was actually angry. "What…what am I doing?"
"You've tricked her into dating you!"
Ann moved out of the doorway to pace the room as she spoke. "It's actually a very clever idea. As competent as Leslie is, she's like an infant when she's in a new relationship, and what you're doing has skirted that issue neatly. You're spending time together, more time than I've ever seen her spend with the guys she was actually dating, all under the guise of friendship."
He still couldn't tell if she was angry or not, but it seemed like she was working her way up to it. "But we—"
She stopped pacing and pinned him with a glare. "You're what?"
"We are just friends!"
She started to laugh, but something made her stop. Probably the desperation he could clearly hear in his own voice, he thought wryly. "You're serious."
Ben nodded. Ann studied him for a moment, and then started to laugh again. Unlike her previous outburst, which had had a derisive edge to it, this laughter sounded almost hysterical. She dropped into a chair and let her head fall into her hands as her shoulders shook in helpless laughter. He cautiously stood and circled his desk to approach her. "Are you okay?"
She lifted her head and wiped a tear from her eye, still chuckling. "I can't believe the two of you. Are you honestly telling me that you have been dating for months without either of you being aware of it?"
He didn't really know how to answer that. "…No?"
Her laughter died, and she went back to studying him. "No. You knew. Or if you didn't realize at first, you do now. Am I right?"
His face defaulted to baffled, though he knew for a fact that it was indeed panic running along his spine. She wasn't angry, which was somehow even more terrifying. "Leslie and I are just friends."
"Look me in the eye and tell me that you're not crazy about her."
His gaze shot to her face and then ricocheted off to an empty corner of the room. "Well, of course I like her, she's a hell of a lady."
He forced his eyes back to hers, but said nothing.
She had apparently decided not to press him anymore, because she bent to grab her purse from where it had fallen beside the chair and walked towards the door. "You probably don't deserve this, but…you know, whatever it is you don't feel about Leslie, I'm pretty sure she doesn't feel the same way."
The word shot from his mouth before he'd had a chance to martial his tongue. "Really?"
Ann glanced back at him and nodded, as if confirming something to herself. "That's what I thought."
And then she was gone, and Ben was sure that it was only a matter of days before it all came tumbling down around his head. But then, for whatever reason, it didn't. Ann had evidently decided to keep her peace. And the relief that Ben kept expecting to feel never came.
A/N: "Waffle o'clock" is my new favourite phrase. And meal.