It starts with stupid, dumbass Jean-Ralphio, Tom's stupid dumbass former business partner and if Ben's interior monologue is starting to channel Leslie, then that's just fine, because his own inner voice is trying to say that fucking asshole and Jean-Ralphio is an asshole, but not because he's gotten a margarita at the Snakehole Lounge and is carefully, meticulously licking the salt off the rim. Ben is a trained auditor and a former public servant and usually scrupulously fair in all things, but why'd he get it with salt anyway if he was just going to do that, lick it all off with his tongue flicking in and out of his mouth and his lips slick and shining and maybe it's for the best that Ben has just walked unseeing and sharp-edge-on into a table.
"Ah." He stifles something that started out wanting to be a shriek and turns into a short, desperately unmanly gasp. Leslie hasn't noticed – where is Leslie, anyway? – but Andy, rummaging under the table for his dropped wallet, has. "Fuck it."
Andy's eyes flick over to him. "You okay?"
"Fine, oww, goddammit." Jean-Ralphio has moved away from the bar and Ben can't see him any more. "Thanks," he adds, belatedly. He stands there for a minute shivering with pain and something else, and makes a decision.
"Leslie," he says, after the minute it takes him to find her, in a shadowy corner in mid-conversation with Donna about something that involves a lot of hand gestures. "I'm gonna… I'm gonna head home, okay?" Before she can say anything, he adds, "I'm fine, really, I just…"
He waves a hand to indicate the club, the people, the general everythingness of it all, and she nods, understanding. "You want me to come with you?"
"No," he says, without hesitating, "no, you're having a good time, tell Tom I'm sorry, I'll see you at home."
Outside he takes a minute to breathe in the chilled air and realises with a flash of annoyance that he forgot his coat inside. Somehow he can't bear to go back for it – Leslie will grab it, probably – and he sets off anyway, blowing on his hands, wondering what the hell is wrong with him. He does mean to go home, maybe put on an episode of something he's seen a million times before and numb his brain a little before sleep, but it's seriously cold out and there are easier, and closer, ways to numb his brain. He drops into an anonymous-looking bar that seems pretty quiet for a Friday night – a sports bar, he realises, where the cable has gone out – and orders a beer without really thinking. He had a couple of those margaritas himself, earlier, and he thinks Tom bought him something transparent and experimental at some point and he kept taking absent-minded sips from the sequence of drinks Leslie gave him to hold, and he's not sure how drunk he is right now, but his inner voice that sounds like Leslie is pretty insistent. He's not planning to drive, or operate heavy machinery. Fuck it. Beer.
The bartender is polishing glasses and looking up at the blank TV screen. Ben says, still without really thinking, "You know what I will never understand?"
From the look on his face, halfway between sympathy and resignation, the bartender thinks he's going to say, women; or – Ben perks up for a minute, looks around the telltale signs in the space, the shapes of the shadows on distant tables, little rainbow stickers and thumbtack holes where a banner might have hung, and why is he picking up all those details, exactly, and who does understand women, or anyone, or anything, since he came to this stupid dumbass town in the middle of stupid, flat, allegedly mostly-heterosexual, Indiana.
The bartender looks at him. "Yeah?"
Ben says, "The City of Pawnee Department of Parks and Recreation" – and the bartender says, "I'm cutting you off."
And a few minutes later, "Hey, don't go out with no jacket, you'll get sick."
"I'll be fine," Ben mutters to himself, pushing the swing door open and ringing some unseen bell. He thinks the cold might snap him out of it, whatever it is.
But after that Ben does get sick, blurry and awful with his hands fisted in the sheets and an overwhelming feeling like the world is tipping under his head. "It's food poisoning!" Leslie declares, before he manages to tell her that he didn't have any of the stupid bratwurst – who, Ben wants to know, serves bratwurst at a designer clothing business launch party which is supposed to be sexy. Bratwurst isn't sexy, especially when everyone throws up after. He tells Leslie that with some degree of urgency and Leslie looks at him levelly and says, "I think your brain is inflamed."
It really isn't food poisoning or encephalitis lethargica or whatever it is he can make out open in Leslie's tabs. It's been a while now and it's not like Minnesota isn't cold, cold like having all your bones break consecutively between your front door and your car, but he hasn't gotten used to the way the weather in Indiana kind of builds up to stuff, crossing all that flat Midwestern space just so it can get you in the solar plexus with the sudden flash-freeze gut punch. That's it: it's just, it's the flu or something. He isn't used to it.
It's just, it's a moment of drunken attraction in a bar; it's just, it's forty-six small towns in eleven years and a process of becoming unrooted from the past. "It's something from the past," he says, and Leslie places something smooth in his hand.
"Drink this, sweetie," she says, and the water is cold and sweet in Ben's mouth.
"It used to happen all the time," he tells her, "before you, before I met you" – and his fingers are getting cold and through the glass he can see everything, the light from the window expanding into fractal clarity.
"Try to drink a little more," Leslie's saying, "then I'll get you some soup."
"I don't want it," he says, his eyes screwed shut, and she takes the glass from him.
"No," Ben says, "the complication" – and he falls asleep mid-thought after that, still feeling sliced open by the water working its way through his chest, chilled and revelatory.
He wakes up feeling a little better and Leslie has fallen asleep on the couch next to him, her breathing gentle in his ear. He assesses whether he can stand up, decides he can and puts her laptop safely away, then curls up next to her, avoiding knocking the bruise from where he hit the table. The TV is on but low, murmuring sweet nothings into the dimness. Ben watches it and notices the way Jon Stewart talks with his hands, and strokes Leslie's hair.
It would be easy to forget all about it, but he doesn't.
"Hey," she says, and she has a little whipped cream on her nose, and he loves her. "Are you going to become a trapeze artist?"
Ben blinks his mind's eye free of sequins. "No," he says. "No scope for government work. Leslie, I think… I think I'm into guys. Like that."
Leslie stares at him. "But you still love me, right? Or…" she trails off. "Or, something less self-centred."
Ben is thinking that that's not that self-centred, actually; that if it were Leslie making this declaration, that might have been the first thing he would have said, without the addendum.
(On second thoughts, he would have asked about Ann. Beautiful, beautiful Ann.)
"I love you," he says. "But…" He pauses, thinks about it. "I think... I've always. I just haven't…"
He waves a hand, not sure what he was going to say, and Leslie says: "Okay." She's leaning against her side of the booth. She's put down her fork. "Okay."
"Leslie?" Ben says, and they're staring at each other across some great Midwestern distance.
She says, thoughtfully: "Maybe you could try… you could blow some guys. Or I could... get a strap-on, and something to hold it on with, and kind of lay you out flat, but…"
"Leslie," Ben says, aware that they're in public surrounded by other diners, buoyed up on a flood of impossible affection, "you already do that."
"Oh, yeah." She looks at him. "I thought you liked that."
"I do," Ben assures her. "I, ah – I really do."
"I mean…" She pauses. "I thought it was because you liked it, and not because you're gay or whatever."
"Not gay," Ben says, irritably. "What, is it, like, 1983 or something? Bi. And – I do like it. And I'm… well. You know. At the same time."
"Okay," she says. "Okay."
"Leslie," Ben says, "are you going to sign me up for stuff? Mailing lists and… committees, and things?"
"No," Leslie says, entirely unconvincingly. Ben kisses her, then leans back. He has his elbows on the top edge of the seat, balanced. Leslie still hasn't picked up her fork, her eyes steady on him. Ben shifts, uncomfortable under that scrutiny.
When Ben was eighteen – no, seventeen; before all that mess, before he started dreaming of toppling ice palaces all the time – there was a guy behind the rec centre and Ben's hands curling into fists in his hair, up against the bricks with their boots crunching in the snow. It gets cold as fuck in Partridge in December, so every outside surface is rough and smooth at the same time, old bricks hoar-frosted, and the warmth of that kid's mouth was dizzying like wine while their feet and their hands and their balls froze off. They closed the rec centre, afterwards. Ben went to college and never spoke to anyone before sophomore year.
"Is there some… reason you're telling me this?" Ron glares at him and Ben glares back. It's not like he's, like other people he could mention, most of whom work at City Hall, a chronic oversharer. There is a reason for this. And there's a sacrifice involved – he got past April by basically letting her in behind him to listen. She's leaning against the wall and looking at him with – interest? Surely not.
"You're the Parks Director," Ben tells him.
"I am the Parks Director," Ron says, uncertain, as though not adding, but not God. "I mean, I don't care. Is there some reason you think…"
"Ron" – Ben is resisting the urge to take him by the shoulders and shake him, not least because of the difficulty in getting traction – "I get that you don't care, libertarianism is a fine and all-American ideology, but just. Leslie. Me. Stuff. You are the Parks Director."
"So you're gay!" Ron complains. "Okay. Leslie will… I'm sure she'll get used to the idea."
April says, "Have you tried porn?"
"Have I tried porn for what." Ben glares at her, then at Ron again. "Leslie. Leslie, Ron."
"April, close the door," Ron says, and April rolls her eyes and does it. "No," Ron says, "close it with you on the other side" – and the little latch clicks shut and April's got her lips pressed to the glass so she's leaving condensation kissy faces. It could be a gesture of support. Ben doesn't know.
"Leslie will be fine, Ben." Ron sits down on the edge of his desk. "Will you?"
"Urgh," Ben says. It might be getting a little cold in here.
"Bi," Ben tells him, again irritably, "not gay, bi"- and then pauses in surprise, because that feels right all of a sudden, the word slipping on like a glove. He leans against the wall and sighs.
"Yeah, April always thought so." Andy pauses, laying down his brush. Because the Sweetums job is part-time, he's making extra money by shoe shining on the side. It comes to about ten extra dollars a week, but Ben admires it. "Hey, dude, you remember that time, with the dinosaurs…"
"Yeah." Ben remembers. He had just started living with April and Andy at the time, and they'd been watching something – Jurassic Park III, provides the part of his brain that remembers things like that – and drinking beers from a cooler without getting up so none of them really realised how much they'd gotten through. The credits were rolling and they were draped over the couch and the floor in various attitudes of wasted when April said, "Hey, you know what'd be cool? If you guys made out."
And Ben was drunk and pretty depressed, which he generally remembers as a feeling of disconnect, a whole-body blur, but thinking about it now he has a visceral memory of that moment, of opening his mouth obligingly as Andy placed his hands on Ben's shoulders.
"You're kind of a sweet drunk, actually," Andy says, reflective, and Ben believes him. One of Ben's redeeming features – and when, aged eighteen, you come out the wrong side of an impeachment hearing and no one in the little town you've lived in your whole life, your parents included, is talking to you in polysyllables, making lists of your redeeming features is something you do not in your head but on paper, in slightly too large handwriting so, goddammit, you are going to hit the end of the page – is that alcohol gentles him. Andy gets hysterical, Leslie gets grabby, Ron steals items of other people's clothing, but Ben just leans on furniture, and when there's no furniture available, on people, with his head tipped back and his lips slightly parted, waiting for – oh, God – people to come along and kiss him.
"Yeah," he says, and closes his eyes, still leaning against the wall. "Yeah."
"Hey, no offence," Andy says, "but how come you're just figuring this out now?"
Ben shakes his head. "I have absolutely no idea."
"Do you think it's 'cause you've been socialised in a heteronormative society?"
Ben's eyes snap open. "Uh, yeah," he says. "That might be it. Andy, can I have a shoeshine? Like, except… you don't actually shine my shoes."
"You can sit down if you want, you don't have to ask," Andy says, his second bright flash of intelligence this minute, and Ben obeys gratefully.
"What happened?" he asks, after a moment. "After we… you know." He wants to say that it's been so long that he doesn't remember, but even the morning after he didn't like to ask.
"Oh," Andy says. "We made out for a while. Then April kissed you. Then we took you to bed with us and did you into the mattress."
"What?" Ben gets halfway to standing in a second and Andy puts a hand on his mouth.
"Shit, you believed me. Sorry, dude, that was kind of a dick move."
While his heart rate slows, Ben waits. Nearly everyone else of his acquaintance would follow that up with no pun intended, but Andy's intellectual bolt is clearly shot for the day. "Sorry," he says again. "No, we made out for a while, and April did kiss you, and then you kinda slumped and you were sort of crying over Leslie in your sleep, so we put you to bed. Your own bed," he adds, quickly.
"Great." Ben sits back down and puts his head in his hands.
"What did Leslie say?" Andy asks. "She'll be cool. She's Leslie, you know?"
"I know," Ben says. "Believe me, I know."
Andy nods, slowly. "If you hadn't passed out, I think you would have wanted it," he says, reflective again, and Ben doesn't have to ask what it is.
It's only after he's turned away that he realises Leslie is there, behind a pane of glass, her eyes on him; he starts towards her, hand outstretched, but she's gone.
At length, she says, "Has she signed you up for stuff yet?"
Ben shakes his head, and she gives him something that might almost, in certain lights, be a smile. Later, she rearranges Spock and Captain Kirk on his desk, and when he untangles them resignedly – whatever his personal opinions on the matter, this is a politically-neutral charitable foundation – he finds two packets of Twizzlers underneath, and a pornographic doodle.
That's not in the deal they have. "What? Ah – no." He squirms ineffectively to get a direct sightline, and then her hands press on his hips and he makes the most embarrassing noise, something that falls definitely, and obscenely, short of pain. "No, I, ah, walked into a table. Really, Leslie," he adds, when she still looks horrified, "see, it's yellow and green."
"Yellow and green," Leslie repeats doubtfully. She still sounds worried. "Will you make that noise again if I do this?"
He does. It's very embarrassing. Leslie laughs, low and loving, and Ben grins up at her. One of Ben's favourite things about Leslie Knope is how careful she is about everything, even and especially this. She adjusted the knots a dozen times, pressing two fingers to his inside wrist each time, and that took maybe twenty minutes by the clock, and if he pulled back right now and said, "Leslie, I don't…" – she would pause less than a second before she snatched up the scissors she keeps on the dresser specially for this and slashed her own handiwork to shreds.
He doesn’t say it. He tests the bonds and they don't give. Leslie gets up on the bed beside him, passing a proprietorial hand between his legs, her fingers resting on the smooth curve between his hip and the base of his cock. She puts her other arm around his neck, under the ropes, leans upwards to kiss him and he moves in response as much as he can. She laughs, suddenly; she places a hand on his wrist, pinning him down for a second, and then draws back completely, taking her hands away. He pushes towards her, hits empty air and whistles through his teeth. "Leslie…"
"What?" – so loving, so teasing.
"You're making me crazy," Ben gets out through gritted teeth, and she takes pity on him, kisses him and then runs her hand down from his shoulder along the side of his body, back down to his hip and he breathes out, tense because her hands are cold, but getting warmer. "Okay?" Leslie whispers in his ear, her hair passing soft against his cheek, and he nods, helplessly, and she puts her arms around him again, lifts him slightly up so the tension seems to drain out of his body into the ropes. She kisses him again and he's dimly aware of something, of something in the graze of her teeth against his lips and the edges of her fingernails against his skin, of something achingly and indefinably different. After that he can't think. When he comes it's with her name in his mouth, not quite vocalised, so she remains part of him.
"Leslie, are you okay?" he asks, afterwards, with his voice still high and shaky and yeah, kind of embarrassing, but he doesn't really mind that. He's still tied, but loosely. He could probably get himself out if he worked at it, but he's relaxed and buzzed and happy just to lie here. Leslie's eyes are on him and again he has an impression of something strangely changed.
"Have you?" she asks, very calmly. "Have you… actually? With a guy?"
"Yes," says Ben, who has been re-evaluating his entire sexual history in light of the norms and mores of a heterosexist society, and God, it's a weird week when the emotional insight and sociological nous of Andy Dwyer aren't the weirdest things in it. "Not… recently, but yeah."
"Wow," Leslie says, "okay" – and she doesn't look disgusted, or upset, she looks…
Well. That's a data point.
"Did you mean what you said, before?" he asks, curiously. "About me… blowing guys."
"You could," Leslie says, composedly. She rolls over and takes the sheets with her; he hisses with cold and she clucks and throws the comforter over him. "You could, if you didn't, you know, fall desperately in love with one of them and run off and get married and have babies. By surrogacy. Ethical surrogacy."
Ben laughs. "Yeah, I don't think that's going to happen."
"If it did" – and again, she's very calm right now, which is, post-coitally, weird – "I don't think I could." She stops. "I couldn't stop you." Ben tries to say something, but she waves him quiet, like she wants to get through this all at once. "I couldn't stop you. I love you."
"Oh, God," he says, "that's what you…"
"I wouldn't want to," she says and Ben jerks forwards, gets pulled short, hisses again and says, "Leslie, please…"
She unties him quickly and efficiently, working through the knots without hurting him and he says, all the time she's doing it, "Leslie, I don't, I love you, I love you" in rhythm with the small movements of her fingers, and when she's done he kisses her, like they're sealing something, and then he holds up his hands for her, shows her his wrists, marked by the bonds she tied.
Spring comes early, lush and green, so the air drifting through the open windows of the Parks Department smells of wet earth and promise. And then, because this is Indiana, a blizzard crosses the open cornfields and smashes into Pawnee for a couple of days of serious weather. When Ben and Leslie emerge on a weekend morning after the storm has passed, they're holding hands like teenagers but it's that sort of feeling, like being the first people out after the flood. Ben reaches down and shows Leslie a handful of torn leaves and frosted twigs. "Guess we go back to sweaters," he says, ruefully, and then, awkward, "I've got this picnic…"
She grins, kisses him and skips off towards her car. "Have fun. I'm meeting Ann for pancakes."
Ben wonders briefly why it's Leslie who's having pancakes in a nice warm diner and him who's spending his morning in a Pawnee public park, but after a while he stuffs his hands in his pockets and realises he's enjoying himself. It's cold, but brilliant and bright, the sun scattering through the layers of leftover ice, and when he gets to Ramsett Park there are people warming their hands over the braziers and putting out food under a banner that reads "Pawnee LGBT Caucus Monthly Picnic Brunch". He never came to any of the events after Leslie signed him up, until the frantic listserv email about the upcoming 501(c) non-profit tax return; he had to stay up all night after that, but they fed him a grateful breakfast and now it's okay. He comes along to social events sometimes, now, and minutes the formal meetings, and he's been photographed under their banner, and although he still wants to run for public office someday, that's okay.
He still hasn't brought Leslie, though. He's not sure if he will.
"Hey, dude," someone says, and Ben looks down at the person under the woolly hat, leaning against a tree.
"Hey," Andy says, calmly. "You want a drink?" He motions to the soda cans beside him, and Ben considers. His gloves are fingerless.
"Wait here," he says, and nods at a couple of people he knows slightly while grabbing two cups of coffee off one of the picnic tables.
Andy takes his and shivers appreciatively. "Thanks. It's kind of cold, huh?"
"Yeah." The coffee's not bad. Ben holds it next to his face and breathes in, deeply. "Hey, Andy?"
"Yeah, dude." Andy inclines his head.
"What are you doing here?"
Andy seems to think for a while about that. "There's food. And on weekends April doesn't like getting up before… April doesn't like getting up."
Ben smiles involuntarily. "I meant… here." He motions vaguely to the people milling around the tables, the banner. The one that, if Leslie were here, she would be agitating to replace haste-post-haste with one in more colours and less Comic Sans.
"Oh, yeah." Andy rests his coffee on the ground beside him. "I sort of figured you had to get… stuff like this" – he echoes Ben's gesture – "straight. Uh. Not straight. Making sense or whatever, you know, when you're, like, a teenager. But then, you…" He pauses. "You're a pretty smart guy, but you're still…" He waves a hand. "So I thought I'd come."
Ben grins and blows on his hands; he thinks that somewhere in there, there's a real compliment. "Right."
"Also," Andy waves a hand again, "you, and the thing, the dinosaurs… I thought. You know."
"Oh." Ben thinks about that, taking his hand away from his mouth. "That."
"Yeah," Andy says. A little uncomfortably, he adds, "If you want to, sometime…"
Ben thinks about it for a minute more, about Andy, and Leslie, and the ice, and the storm, and the great flat distance between here and Partridge, Minnesota, and this rising feeling he has occasionally now, that something he doesn't understand yet but would like to understand is occupying the space of his body, and the coffee, and the marks on his wrists, and the City of Pawnee Department of Parks and Recreation. "Yeah, okay," he says, slipping down the tree to sit down beside Andy. "Sometime."
"I mean, April and Leslie," Andy says, warming to his topic, "they're cool, right?"
"They are" – and Ben's laughing now – "they really, really are."
Andy grins at him. Ben reaches out, tentatively; Andy takes his fingers and warms them against his own coffee cup. Ben laughs again and leans against the tree, happy in the frost.