"They became intimate and friendly by imperceptable degrees, and then by leaps."
- Kate Chopin, The Awakening
A trip to the fourth floor of Pawnee City Hall is not an expedition to undergo lightly, at least, that's what Ann gets from the wide-eyed look of horror Leslie shoots her when she casually mentions heading up there. It's only her second week on the job but Ann is starting to get the feeling that her co-worker really hates her. He keeps sending her on these ridiculous errands. Like this one. Records from the fifties, that have somehow become essential to the current Health program.
"You can't go up there, Ann. That place is horrible."
The italics shoot between them, making the venture seem all that more absurd. Ann files the fourth floor somewhere in her mental space next to the library in terms of subjects to tread lightly upon or risk making Leslie flip. Topics to take seriously, on pain of death.
Still, Ann allows herself a small smile, imagining just whispering the word; library, and buckling herself in. If Leslie is nothing else, she's great entertainment. (Of course, if anyone else said that about her best friend, Ann would have to kick some ass. No one fucks with Leslie Knope.)
"Leslie," Ann tries to explain, knowing that this will get her nowhere, that arguing with Leslie is about as effective as carrying on a conversation with one of Pawnee's wild raccoons (not recommended), but still at the same time needing to do it anyway. "This is part of my job." She pauses, waits for the emphasis to sink in. "The job that you got me, remember?"
In the face of irrefutable facts, Leslie's face scrunches up, her lower lip exposed. "Ugh."
"I have to go up there, okay?" Ann continues, talking through the tantrum that is sure to erupt in full force at any moment. "There are records I need in the Department of Senior Health Services, and those records happen to be on the fourth floor."
Leslie punches the wall next to her (an extremely gory section of the mural) and frowns harder. "Stop saying it like that."
"What? Records? Senior Health?"
"No!" Leslie grabs Ann's hands in her own, tugging insistently. "The fourth floor," she whispers, nosing her face closer to Ann's to further stress the (surely) wretched implications of simply saying the words.
"Relax, Leslie. This isn't Voldemort." Once the words are out of her mouth, Ann regrets them. Harry Potter, among things like pits and lots and protecting her friends from unspoken evil, is one thing that Leslie takes very seriously. She winces with her whole body, cowering just slightly, just for a moment, against the wall.
"Jeez, Ann! Warn me next time. He-who-shall-not-be-named and the-place-that-shall-not-be-named? You're... well," Leslie shakes her head violently, hair swinging. "I'm afraid you're asking for it."
Ann's mouth splits into a smile. She is almost (almost) afraid to ask. "Asking for what, Leslie?"
The only answer she's going to get is a botched attempt at a foreboding glare; Leslie focusing all of her energy into arching an eyebrow mysteriously, succeeding in looking mostly like she needs to fart.
Seeing Ann's vague amusement rather than impending terror, Leslie switches tactics. She's nothing if not resilient. "Ann," she whines, dragging out the syllable into several, "you can't go up there. I care about you too much to let you do that to yourself. The -- fourth floor -- will stay in your mind forever, Ann, like that time your mom accidentally slammed the door on your autographed picture of the First Lady and creased it."
Ann thinks for a moment. "I'm pretty sure that happened to you, Leslie."
"And that changes nothing about how traumatic the experience was!" Leslie crosses her arms, stomps. It's possible this may soon devolve into kicking feet and wailing. "I'm serious, Ann." And suddenly, with a quiet shake of Leslie's head, Ann realizes that to Leslie, this really is serious.
"I'll be careful, okay? Is that what you want?" Ann cautiously reaches out, places her hand on Leslie's, rubs a slow circle with her thumb.
"If you insist on going up there, filling out your foolish errand, then, Ann, I think I will have to accompany you." Leslie sets her jaw, the very picture of determination. "I... have been to the fourth floor. I am aware of some of the dangers that lurk there, and I think... well, I think maybe I could help you."
It's sweet, actually. But Ann can't shake the idea that Leslie is overreacting, that indulging in this is only going to make the situation worse. She steps for the elevator, blocked suddenly and very physically by Leslie's body in front of hers. She isn't moving.
"You're just going to waltz up there with no preparation, no protection?" Leslie asks, her face very near to Ann's, staring her down.
Of course, Ann isn't moving either, though she knows that if Leslie doesn't back down soon, she will. "Pretty much."
"No, Ann." Leslie settles her hands on Ann's shoulders, holding her back. "No. I won't let you. Even though you don't believe me and that makes me feel disappointed and upset. I would be even more disappointed and upset with myself if I let this happen." She's deadly serious, and Ann -- even if this is giving in to childish behavior -- Ann can't turn Leslie away.
"So, escort me, then." Ann smiles, not really seeing the difference one way or the other, and if it makes Leslie happy -- or rather, in this case, a little less distressed -- then what could be the harm? At it does seem to work, Leslie's shoulders lowering minutely, her face relaxing a little.
"For the record," she says, turning away from Ann to block her from the elevator as if pushing the buttons herself will unleash the demons of hell, "you have goaded me into this, Ann Perkins. And anything that happens up there is your fault. Completely."
Ann, taking advantage of the fact that Leslie isn't looking at her, throws a mock salute. "I understand this, and I take full responsibility." She keeps her tone serious, and the sincerity seems to calm Leslie one step further. She only hesitates a little when getting on the elevator, a brief moment where her foot hangs in the air (and it would be hilarious if it was anyone else, and, okay, it's a little bit hilarious now). Leslie turns around, ignorant of the near-ridiculousness of the situation and holds the door for Ann.
"I could just go for you," she suggests, her voice a little trembly.
"Leslie, I'm a grown woman. If you can brave the fourth floor, then so can I."
The doors slide shut and the muzak starts up.
Another step towards the perking up of Ms. Knope. Leslie straightens her back and leans with bravado against the back wall of the slowly humming elevator. "Yeah! You know what? You're right. We're grown ass women. We are brave, grown, ass women."
Ann would say something about being an "ass woman" but the elevator starts to click and shake, lagging just past the ding of the third floor. Leslie grabs her wrist tightly, and despite her first instinct (laughter), Ann can't help that sense of foreboding as the elevator shifts dramatically onto the fourth floor with a groan and a slight sigh, the doors shuddering open like something out a low-budget sci-fi film.
"I'll lead," Leslie whispers, not letting go of Ann's arm, and therefore kind of ruining the concept of leading.
Ann doesn't mind the contact. Whether from Leslie's foreboding tone or the way the light up here isn't right somehow -- sick with a yellowish twinge, one of the overheads flickering every few seconds -- Ann is really starting to get the heebies. She doesn't know what brings it on, just focuses on Leslie's hand on her arm and how she knows, Ann as the nose on plain's face, that she'll be safe. Because Leslie is here, and whatever the fourth floor holds in store, Leslie is probably the fiercest woman she knows. No, cross out the probably.
No one gives them a second glance, and they could hardly call the attention they do get a first glance. Leslie pulls the two of them down the hallway, staying close to the wall. She peers around corners before proceeding, her muscles tense. Ann would touch her, tell her to relax, but she has the feeling that the slightest move would send Leslie shooting through the ceiling, and who knows what's up there.
In near the same breath, Ann wonders to herself why she hasn't been up here before. Wonders, briefly, until a dangerous-looking old man veers towards her, Leslie shrieks, and Ann is officially freaked out. She looks back down the hallway against her better judgment and eyes the tableau of barely moving inhabitants of the fourth floor. They've -- if it's possible -- been here forever. Ann is positive that she's never seen anyone look like this outside, in the real world. It's like (and maybe Ann's been reading too much Harry Potter lately after all) they magically arrived up here, doomed to lurk the halls, at this hub of all the most depressing offices in Pioneer Hall.
Leslie takes Ann's hand, and the stricken look of fear on her face is real. Ann feels a wash of feeling, compassion. She squeezes. She's not quite to fear herself, but all of this is making her exceptionally anxious, and not much rattles Ann.
She doesn't like to see Leslie so upset (that's what she tells herself).
"There," Ann points in relief. "Senior Health." The door is hanging open, the top of the doorway mottled with cobwebs. If Ann weren't here, witnessing this, she would think it was some kind of joke. It doesn't seem to be funny, however, when an ancient man shuffles to the door to meet them.
His voice comes out grumbly and tired. "Ah, that," he takes a breath, "Parks Department lesbian and her wife. We've been expecting you."
Expecting them? How could they be expecting them when Leslie only insisted on escorting Ann up here minutes ago? Is there some kind of communication network in City Hall that Ann isn't yet privy to?
"I'm not-- we're not--"
Leslie tugs on Ann's elbow. "It's best to just go along with it," she hisses, then louder in reply to the gatekeeper: "Yes! Ann here -- my wife -- needs some documents from your fine department!" She nudges Ann as she speaks, her grin carrying a hint of insanity. It's quite possible that this place is getting to Leslie, that she's gone past fear into something else entirely. It's possible, too, that this place is getting to Ann.
She slips her arm around Leslie's shoulders and pulls her close, smiling herself. "Leslie's right. We're happily wed. You know. Lesbians."
Their unnamed file-keeper narrows his eyes. "Awful pretty for lesbians." He ducks behind a series of file cabinets that look like something Willy Wonka would declare too confusing for use.
Ann's not sure why, but she takes offense. Lesbians can totally be pretty.
"We have proof!" Leslie exclaims, loud and directly in Ann's ear. "We can absolutely prove that we are really pretty lesbians. The lesbians you are expecting."
"We have proof?" Ann stage-whispers, eying the place in the cabinet forest where the man disappeared, where strange clinking and snapping noises are now coming from. And just as his grizzled face appears, Leslie grabs her forcefully by the shoulders, looks her in the eye for a solid twenty-seconds and mid-exhale presses her lips to Ann's.
Ann, whose breath leaves her in a whoosh suddenly has no idea what they're here for. She's sure they have some task they're supposed to accomplish, but it all seems to fade in the bright light of Leslie's fingers at her neck, moving just slightly, teasing the hair there. And if that didn't push the errand out of her mind, there's the warm, very female body pressing against hers. Awful pretty for lesbians, Ann hears in her head. Leslie Knope and wife Ann.
She should care that she's not hating this.
Instead, she lets her own fingers relax and then tighten at Leslie's waist.
Leslie smiles into the kiss and then pulls back, breaking out into a grin. "There," she says triumphantly. "We're just who we say we are. Or. Who you say we are." And for a moment, Ann's heart does a sad little flip back into place. We have proof, she hears in her head. We have proof, but then that disappears too with the simple action of Leslie replacing her hand in Ann's.
"Can't really argue with that, Ms. Knope." The file-bearer grumbles, seemingly unaffected by the display of affection he just witnessed. He hands over the files, his face impassive and Ann doesn't believe it for a minute -- that they actually did this, that Leslie actually kissed her on the mouth, that she didn't hate it, that she didn't hate it at all -- but doesn't hesitate to take the stack of manila and run, grabbing Leslie's hand anew and tugging her back out into the hall. In a flash, they're back at the elevator, jabbing at the call button and dancing on anxious feet while it takes it's sweet time responding.
"We could just take the stairs, couldn't we?" Ann suggests, innocent.
"That is a horrible, horrible idea, Ann." Leslie stares her down, dropping her hand. "The only place worse than Pioneer Hall's fourth floor is the library." The power of the fourth floor seems to have faded. "And the only place worse than the library is the back stairwell, Ann. And please don't ask how I know this. Or what I experienced there."
"Okay," Ann smiles in response, drawing out the word with a smile.
The elevator comes and once they're inside Leslie visibly relaxes. Not only are they on their way away from the dreaded fourth floor, but she's escaped a run-in with the stairs. "We did it, Ann," Leslie says brightly. "We braved the fourth floor together and we got out unscathed." Ann thinks she might be imagining the gentle stress, but can't control the tiny squeeze her heart gives in response. "This is cause for celebration!"
Ann really does need to go through these files, but she's running on adrenaline now, and maybe running on Leslie who was such a champ about all of this despite being a little pushy. And maybe, maybe, that's what she likes about Leslie.
"He was right, you know." It comes out of nowhere, Leslie changing topics as the elevator closes. Her hand is on Ann's cheek, her smile tender. "You are really pretty, you know? Pretty for a lesbian or for a hetero-person, and pretty all out of breath like this. You're pretty all the time, like, so pretty. And." She lets her hand drop, resting now on Ann's shoulder. "I just wanted to tell you."
It comes from somewhere just past nowhere, the urge Ann gets not to brush off the compliment, but to step closer, to pull Leslie close in what starts as a hug -- a Leslie and file hug -- but turns into something like smelling her hair in a very gay, very wifely way. "Thank you," she murmurs, remembering that there is context here.
"Oh, I'll tell you how pretty you are any time, Ann. You don't have to thank me."
"No," Ann breathes. "For helping me. You're... you can be damn stubborn, Leslie Knope, but you know how to get the job done."
She's still talking against Leslie's neck, like something is keeping her there. She might be shaking, just a little.
Ann doesn't have anything to prove, any more files to get, and she doesn't know what she's doing, to be honest, but it involves her mouth on Leslie's, even if it's just once more. They're kissing again, and the fourth floor is far behind them, looming somewhere over their heads as the elevator shifts and hums. There isn't any thread or anyone to convince.
A thank you kiss, Ann thinks, ignores that she's never thanked anyone this way before, that she hasn't felt this tied up in knots over whatever small sound it is that Leslie is making deep in her throat, that her gasp matches Leslie's when they part.
Leslie looks dumbstruck, if only for a moment. Then she smiles. "You're welcome, Ann," she says softly, like it means something else.
The realization of what she's saying, of what Ann's feeling, is a lot less scary than the fourth floor. In fact, the fourth floor wasn't all that scary in the first place.